Edson, AB – Thursday, June 13, 2013 – 10:55 AM
Sitting on the threadbare carpet in front of the living room fireplace, Marcus Taylor stroked a military issue Browning 9mm pistol against his leg, the thirteen-round magazine in his other hand. For an instant, he contemplated loading the gun―and then using it.
"But then who'd feed you?" he asked his companion.
Arizona, a five-year-old red Irish setter, gave him an inquisitive look, then curled up and went back to sleep on the couch. She was a rescue hound he'd picked up about a year after Ryan and Jane had died. The house had been too damned quiet. Lifeless.
"Great to know you have an opinion."
Setting the gun and magazine down on the floor, Marcus propped a photo album against his legs and took a deep breath. The photo album of death. The album only saw daylight three times a year. The other three hundred and sixty-two days it was hidden in a steel foot locker that doubled as his coffee table.
Today was Paul's forty-sixth birthday. Or it would have been, except Paul was dead.
Taking another measured breath, Marcus felt for the chain that marked a page and opened the album. "Hey, Bro."
In the photo, Corporal Paul Taylor stood on the shoulder of a deserted street on the outskirts of a nondescript town in Afghanistan, a sniper rifle braced across his chest and the Browning in his hand. He'd been killed that same day, his limbs ripped apart by a roadside bomb. The IED had been buried in six inches of dust and dirt when Paul, distracted by a crying kid, had unwittingly stepped on it.
One stupid mistake could end in death, separating son from parents and brother from brother. Resentment could separate siblings too.
"I wish I could tell you how sorry I am," Marcus said, blinking back a tear. "We wasted so much time being pissed at each other."
As a young kid, he'd hidden his older brother's toy soldiers so he could play with them when Paul was at school. In high school, Marcus had hidden how smart he was, always downplaying his intelligence in favor of being the cool, younger brother of senior hockey legend Paul Taylor. Marcus had learned to hide his jealousy too.
Until his brother was killed.
He stared at the warped dog tag at the end of the chain. It was all that was left of his brother. There was nothing to be jealous of now.
He glanced at the gun. Okay, he had that too. He'd inherited the Browning from Paul. One of his brother's war buddies had personally delivered it. "Your brother said you can play with his toys now," the guy had said.
Paul always had a warped sense of humor.
"Happy birthday, Paul."
He knew his parents, who were currently cruising in the Mediterranean, would be raising a toast in Paul's honor, so he did the same. "I miss you, bro."
Then he dropped the tag and flipped to the next set of photos in the album. A brunette with short, choppy hair and luminous green eyes smiled back at him.
He traced her face, recalling the way her mouth tilted upward on the left and how she'd watch a chick flick tearjerker, while tears steamed unnoticed down her face.
Marcus turned to the next set of photos and sucked in a breath. A handsome boy beamed a brilliant smile and waved back at him.
"Hey, little buddy."
He recalled the day the photo had been taken. His son, Ryan, a rookie goalie on his junior high hockey team, had shut out his opponents, giving his team a three-goal lead. Jane had snapped the picture at the exact second when Ryan had found his father in the crowd.
"I love you." Marcus's voice cracked. "And I miss you so much."
He couldn't hide that. Not ever.
There was one other thing he couldn't hide.
He had killed Jane. And Ryan.
For the past six years, whenever Marcus slept, his dead wife and son came to visit, taunting him with their spectral images, teasing him with familiar phrases, twisting his mind and gut into a guilt-infested cesspool. The only way to escape their accusing glares and spiteful smiles was to wake up. Or not go to sleep. Sleep was the enemy. He did his best to avoid it.
Marcus glanced at the antique clock on the mantle. 11:06.
Another twenty-four minutes and he'd have to head to the Yellowhead County Emergency Center, where he worked as a 911 dispatcher. He'd been working there for almost six months. He was halfway through five twelve-hour shifts that ran from noon to midnight. He worked them with his best friend, Leo, who would undoubtedly be in a good mood again. Leo liked sleeping in and starting his day at noon, while Marcus preferred the midnight-to-noon shift, the one everyone else hated. It gave him something to do at night, since sleeping didn't come easily.
He closed the photo album, stood slowly and stretched his cramped muscles. As he placed the album and the gun and magazine back in the foot locker, a small cedar box with a medical insignia embossed on the top caught his eye, though he did his best to ignore it.
Even Arizona knew that box was trouble. She froze at the sight of it, her hackles raised.
"I know," Marcus said. "I can resist temptation."
That box had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. It represented a past he'd give anything to erase. But he couldn't toss it in the trash. It had too firm a grip on him. Even now it called to him.
He slammed the foot locker lid with his fist. The sound reverberated across the room, clanging like a jail cell door, trapping him in his own private prison.
Behind him, Arizona whimpered.
One day he'd get rid of the box with the insignia and be done with it once and for all.
But not yet.
Shaking off a bout of guilt, he took the stairs two at a time to the second floor and entered the master bedroom of the two-bedroom rented duplex. It was devoid of all things feminine, stripped down to the barest essentials. A bed, nightstand and tall dresser. Metal blinds, no flowered curtains like the ones in the house in Edmonton that he'd bought with Jane. The bedspread was a mishmash of brown tones, and it had been hauled up over the single pillow. There were none of the decorative pillows that Jane had loved so much. No silk flowers on the dresser. No citrus Febreeze lingering in the air. No sign of Jane.
He'd hidden her too.
Stepping into the en suite bathroom, Marcus stared into the mirror. He took in the untrimmed moustache and beard that was threatening to engulf his face. Leaning closer, he examined his eyes, which were more gray than blue. He turned his face to catch the light. "I am not tired."
The dark circles under his eyes betrayed him.
Ignoring Arizona's watchful gaze, he opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed the tube of Preparation H, a trick he'd learned from his wife Jane. Before he'd killed her. A little dab under the eyes, no smiling or frowning, and within seconds the crevices in his skin softened. Some of Jane's "White Out"—as she used to call the tube of cosmetic concealer—and the shadows would disappear.
"Camouflage on," he said to his reflection.
A memory of Jane surfaced.
It was the night of the BioWare awards banquet, nineteen years ago. Jane, dressed in a pink housecoat, sat at the bathroom vanity curling her hair, while Marcus struggled with his tie.
He'd let out a curse. "I can never get this right."
"Here, let me." Pushing the chair behind him, Jane climbed up before he could protest. She caught his gaze in the mirror over the sink and reached around his shoulders, her gaze wandering to the twisted lump he'd made of the full Windsor. "You shouldn't be so impatient."
"You shouldn't be climbing up on chairs."
"I'm fine, Marcus."
"You're pregnant, that's what you are."
"You calling me fat, buster?"
Five months pregnant with Ryan, Jane had never looked so beautiful.
"I'd never do that," he replied.
She cocked her head and arched one brow. "Never? How about in four months when I can't walk up the stairs to the bedroom?"
"I'll carry you."
"What about when I can't see my toes and can't paint my toenails?"
"I'll paint them for you."
"What about when―"
He turned his head and kissed her. That shut her up.
With a laugh, she pushed him away, gave the tie a smooth tug and slid the knot expertly into place.
He groaned. "Now why can't I do that?"
"Because you have me. Now quit distracting me. I still have to put on my dress and makeup."
Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Jane always made it worth the wait, and that night she didn't disappoint him. When she emerged from the bathroom, she was a vision of sultry goddess in a designer dress from a shop in West Edmonton Mall. The baby bump in front was barely noticeable.
"How do I look?" she asked, nervously fingering the fresh gold highlights in her hair.
"Sexy as hell."
She spun in a slow circle to show off the sleek black dress with its plunging back. Peering over one glitter-powdered shoulder, she said, "So you like my new dress?"
"I'd like it better," he said in a soft voice, "if it was on the floor."
Minutes later, they were entwined in the sheets, out of breath and laughing like teenagers. Sex with Jane was always like that. Exciting. Youthful. Fun.
After dressing, Jane retreated to the bathroom to fix her hair and makeup. "Camouflage on," she said when she returned. "Now let's get going."
He heard her whispering, "Six plus eight plus two…"
"Are you doing that numerology thing again?" he asked with a grin.
Jane had gone to a psychic fair when she'd found out she was pregnant, and a numerologist had given her a lesson in adding dates. Ever since then, whenever something important came up, she'd work out the numbers to determine if it was going to be a good day or not. She even made Marcus buy lotto tickets on "three days," which she said meant money coming in. They hadn't won a lottery yet, but he played along anyway.
"What is it today?"
She smiled. "A seven."
"Ah, lucky seven." He arched a brow at her. "So I'm going to get lucky?"
"I think you already did, mister."
They'd been late for the awards banquet, which didn't go over too well since Jane was the guest of honor, the recipient of a Best Programmer award for her latest video game creation at BioWare. When Jane had stepped up on the stage to receive her award, Marcus didn't think he could ever be prouder. Until the night Ryan was born.
Ryan…the son I killed.
Marcus gave his head a jerk, forcing the memories back into the shadows―where they belonged. He picked up the can of shaving cream. His eyes rested, unfocused, on the label.
To shave or not to shave. That was the question.
"Nah, not today," he muttered.
He hadn't shaved in weeks. He was also overdue for a haircut. Thankfully, they weren't too strict about appearances at work, though his supervisor would probably harp on it again.
The alarm on his watch beeped.
He had twenty minutes to get to the center. Then he'd get back to hiding behind the anonymity of being a faceless voice on the phone…
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Two strangers submerged in guilt, brought together by fate…
After a tragic car accident claims the lives of his wife, Jane, and son, Ryan, Marcus Taylor is immersed in grief. But his family isn't the only thing he has lost. An addiction to painkillers has taken away his career as a paramedic. Working as a 911 operator is now the closest he gets to redemption—until he gets a call from a woman trapped in a car.
Rebecca Kingston yearns for a quiet weekend getaway, so she can think about her impending divorce from her abusive husband. When a mysterious truck runs her off the road, she is pinned behind the steering wheel, unable to help her two children in the back seat. Her only lifeline is a cell phone with a quickly depleting battery and a stranger's calm voice on the other end telling her everything will be all right.
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