Sunday, June 19, 2016

Return to Forsythia, Part Two

Bell met us on the 10th floor of the hospital. His eyes looked raw. He probably hadn’t slept. “Hi.”
            “This is Rachel. I filled her in.” The elevator closed behind us. “Norman Bell. My client. Rachel’s an expert.”
             She rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure about expert. I’m just kind of psychic.”
            A young orderly pushing an elderly patient in a wheelchair up the hallway checked Rachel out, up and down and back up again. So did Bell. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and today she was wearing jeans, black boots, and a leather jacket that made her look like a motorcycle cop.
            Rachel is my upstairs neighbor. And she’s also sort of my girlfriend. It’s complicated. But she helps with a lot of my cases the veer into supernatural territory.
            “Okay.” Bell nodded and led us down the hallway.
            “Greg’s dehydrated and malnourished. Low blood sugar. Some infection they can’t identify, but the antibiotics are working and his fever’s down. He’s unconscious most of the time, but he comes out of it for a few minutes here and there. Mostly he talks about . . . someone named Shiola.” Bell pushed a door.
            Greg was dozing restlessly in a standard hospital bed: high rails, elevated head, thin white blankets and sheets. All the standard IVs were jabbed into his arms, and a few electrodes were taped to his chest inside his gown. A big screen next to the bed displayed his blood pressure, pulse, and other medical data only a doctor or nurse could interpret.
            Greg’s eyes flickered when his father leaned over the bed. “H-hi.” His voice sounded dry and weak. “Water?”
            Bell reached for a cup. Greg slurped at the straw. “Th-thanks, dad.”
            Looking at him more closely in normal light, I could see the father-son resemblance even more strongly: the same blunt chin and bushy eyebrows, along with an impatient scowl etched all over his face even though he was only half awake.
            But Greg looked gaunt, almost skeletal. His face was flushed and sweaty. His eyes roamed back and forth over the ceiling room.
            Bell patted his son’s arm. “Greg? This is Tom Jurgen. He helped me take you home last night.”
            Greg peered up at me. “H—hi, Tom.”
            “Hi, Greg.” I reached down to shake his hand. His fingers twitched around mine. “How do you feel?”
            “Better. I just . . . I want to . . .” He closed his eyes.
            Bell crossed his arms. “He’s been like that all morning. In and out. They say he’s improving. He had a fever, but it’s going down. What I’m worried about is—”
            “Shiola!” Greg shot up on the bed. “Where is—Shiola? Dariken? I . . . I have to . . .”
            Bell reached over the guardrail and rubbed his son’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Greg. You’re home.”
            “Home,” he murmured. “Home.” Greg rolled over and drifted off again.
            Bell sighed. “I just don’t know what to do.”
            Rachel stepped next to the bed. “Can I . . .?”
            Bell nodded. She stepped next to the bed and slipped her hand under Greg’s gown, rubbing his chest like a massage therapist.
            After about ten seconds, she smoothed out Greg’s gown and patted his cheek. “Well, he’s not possessed or anything. So that’s a plus, right? The only vibe I get feels like a shifting spell. That’s moving things from one place to another, not shapeshifting.” She glanced at me. I’d had a whole lot of experience dealing with shapeshifters. “That’s a whole different feeling.”
            I thought about the tree opening, and the glimpse I’d gotten of another world inside. Other dimensions.
            “Goddamn it!” Bell slammed his hand against the rail. “Greg! Come on, Greg, tell me what’s going on! Please?”
            Rachel took his hand. “Norman? There are going to be nurses are doctors running in here if you keep shouting.”
            “Sorry.” Bell closed his eyes. “It’s just so frustrating. Losing him, and now getting him back, and not knowing . . .” He looked ready to collapse on the bed next to his son.
            “Let’s let Greg rest.” I had some questions for Bell.

“How long was Greg missing?”
            We were in the hospital cafeteria. Bell had a large coffee in front of him that he hadn’t touched.
            “Two years.” He frowned. “Close to. It seemed like forever. He was working at a restaurant, and one day he just didn’t show up for work. He lives with me, so they called, and I didn’t know what to say. I called the police, and they couldn’t do anything. His mother’s dead. I called his friends, everyone I could think of. Nothing.” He rubbed his face. “And I haven’t seen him since. Until last night.”
            “And then you got a phone call. Who is Cynara?”
            He stared at the floor. “She just told me I could get Greg back. That’s all I cared about.”
            “Why did you send me to meet her? Why didn’t you go yourself?”
            “I wanted . . .” He scratched his scalp, trying to think. “A witness, I guess. I got this call, and she told me she had instructions for bringing my son back. I wanted somebody else to see her. And I was just desperate to get my son back.”
            I could believe the last part, at least. “So, you mentioned alternate dimensions when you called me this morning.”
            He looked down at his coffee again, broad shoulders tense. “She said something—about him being in another place, or plane. It didn’t sound like she meant out of state.”
            “Did she tell you about the cemetery? And the tree opening up?”
            “Goddamnit!” Bell pounded a fist on the table, his face red. “It was all in the letter you got for me. Do you want to see it?” He reached for his back pocket. “She said it would only work for . . .”
            Then his arm froze.
            Oh, no. “What is it?”
            Bell lurched up, shoving the table. His cup toppled over, spilling coffee across the table and down onto the floor. “I’d better go check on him.”
            Rachel pulled her chair back. “Uh, what’s that all about?”
            I stood up. “The spell he used at the tree. Bell doesn’t have it.”

The door was open. Greg’s bed was empty.
            The IV tubes dangled from their racks. Greg’s hospital gown lay across a chair. The medical monitors blinked with zeros. The sheets and blankets were a tangle on the mattress. The closet door hung open, empty inside. His clothes were gone.
            Bell clutched the bedrail with one hand, pressing the call button for the nurse over and over again. “Come on, come on, where are they? Where is he?”
            We’d barely been gone fifteen minutes. Greg couldn’t be too far. But his woodman’s clothes were gone. They’d get noticed, but . . . “Does he have any money?”
            Bell shook his head. “I went through his pockets. He only had . . .” He looked at the open closet. “Some stones, and a ring. And his pocketknife on a keychain. It has a Star Wars thing. I always teased him about it—”
            Keychain. “Does he have car keys?”
            Bell groaned. “Oh, hell.”
            “Is it the same car?” Rachel asked.
            He nodded. “I bought it right before he—he left.” He sank into a chair, his broad shoulders shaking. “This can’t happen again. It can’t!” He leaned over, face in his hands.
            A nurse marched into the room. She was Hispanic, large, and fast. “Okay, what’s the trouble? Where’s . . .” Then she saw the empty bed. “Oh, shit. What happened?”
            Bell couldn’t force himself to look up. So I told her. “You’ve got a missing patient. Have them check the garage for a man in strange clothes wandering around. I’m going out to look for him. I might know where he’s going.”
            “You all stay right here.” The nurse grabbed the phone. “Yeah, we’ve got a patient missing up here. Name . . .” She tapped the touchscreen on one of the monitors. “Gregory Bell.”
            I bent down so the nurse couldn’t hear me. “Greg has the spell, right?”
            He looked up. “I don’t know how. I had it right in my pocket, I—”
            “It’s not your fault.” I straightened up. “Let’s go.”
            “You need to stay right here,” the nurse insisted, still talking on the phone.
            “I’ll stay.” Bell leaned back in the chair with a deep breath. “I can’t go there again. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
            The nurse pointed at Rachel and me. “Yeah, but you two—”
            Rachel followed me to the elevator as the nurse shouted after us. “God, she’s loud. So where are we going?”
            “The cemetery. If Greg gets to his father’s car, that’s where he’ll go.” Back to Shiola. Whatever or whoever that was.
            The elevator opened. An old woman, African-American, stepped out. She wiped her eyes with a damp tissue, and then she asked Rachel, “Are you a doctor?”           
            “Private detective.” Rachel pointed. “That’s the nurse’s station there.”
            “Thank you. It’s my son . . .” She started crying again.
            “Oh, no.” Rachel squeezed the woman’s arm. “They’ll take care of you.”
            “Thanks, honey.” She sniffed. “You can’t always do everything, you know? But you got to take care of your kids. Right?” She wandered away
            “Yeah.” Rachel looked at me as we waited for the elevator again. “I guess you do.”

Rachel complained about my driving all the way to Evanston. Too slow, then too fast, then, “Watch out for that car!” and “Don’t worry about that Stop sign.” Finally I saw the cemetery up ahead. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the gate was wide open. A light drizzle from the gray sky was clouding my windshield.
            The graveyard looked different in the daytime, and I had to work my memory to find the spot where we’d parked last night. Then I spotted Bell’s car parked by the side of the gravel road.
            “This is the place,” I said as I pulled up behind. The ground was wet under my shoes as we ran up the hill. I led the way, trying to read all the headstones, until I spotted “Forsythe” again. “It’s over here.” My foot slipped on the grass. “That’s the tree. Greg!”
            I could see the tree shaking, the same as last night. A spear of light cut through the trunk, then flickered as if a cloud was passing through it. “Greg!” I shouted again.
            The light dimmed. A few wet leaves dropped from the tree’s swaying branches, and then it was still again. Like one of the tombstones around us.
            Rachel ran faster then me in her boots. She reached the tree first and pressed her hands against the wet bark, rubbing up and down. I waited from behind, wondering what she felt. Her psychic powers were a complete mystery to me most of the time.
            Rachel stepped back and turned around, shaking her head. “It’s closed.”
            Damn it.
            I took a deep breath and looked around the graveyard, my heart pounding from the run. The rain was falling harder. Rachel stayed in front of the tree as if hoping it would speak to her. She looked back at me. “Now what?”
            I stepped forward, not sure what I could do. Or what I’d tell my client. My foot slid on the grass. I looked down and saw an envelope under my shoe.
            The spell. It was damp from the rain, but still legible.
            I looked at the words on the page. They seemed fainter than last night. Then I looked at the tree. It stood thick and high, stretching toward the iron-gray sky. I pictured its roots creeping into the coffins below the earth, feeding it over the centuries. Keeping it strong.
            Nuts. I’m not a brave guy. I don’t laugh at danger, it laughs at me and makes fun of my hair. One time I hit a street sign running from a yapping poodle.
            But I’d promised Bell I’d try to bring his son back.
            So I handed Rachel the envelope. “Start reading.”
            She punched my arm. Hard. “No way! You can barely get around Chicago with two maps and a GPS! You think I’m letting you go wandering around in some alternate dimension? What if there are dragons? Or no wifi? Who’s going to water my plants when I’m out of town if you’re dead?”
            I rubbed my arm. “I told my client I’d do something. I can’t just go back and say I let his son disappear.”
            She crossed her arms. “How are you going to get back?”
            I hadn’t thought of that. “Give me the spell before I go through. Maybe it’ll work both ways.”
            “What if it doesn’t? I’ll be stuck out here in the rain.” She lifted her fist to punch me again.
            I dug my keys out. “Here. You can wait in the car.”
            She caught the keys and dangled them in her fingers. “What if I get hungry?”
            I sighed. “Do whatever you have to. Don’t starve.”
            “Idiot.” She kissed me. “Don’t be too long.”
            “Quick as the wind.” I turned, questioning my career choices one more time. Along with my sanity. “Okay, go ahead.”
            Rachel cleared her throat and started to read.
            The tree started to shake again. I listened to Rachel’s voice reciting the chant. It had a more musical quality when she read it, more like a poem in an unknown language that a string of nonsense syllables. I shoved my hands in my pockets and watched the tree, ready to make my jump.
            Two minutes later, as Rachel neared the end of the spell, the bark began peeling back. I crouched, waiting for my first sight of the white sky. The tree’s roots clutched the ground, and its branches trembled wildly over my head.
            Then I saw it—white sky, blue sun, yellow fields. I glanced back at Rachel and held out my hand.
            She thrust the paper at me, and I stuffed it into my jacket. Then, with a wave and a deep breath, I turned and stepped forward into the tree. 

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