Clarice moved slowly towards the plank walk as if invisible hands were moving her feet. She didn't believe she could actually go out on the bridge, but she couldn't just stand still and let him shoot her. She stepped up on the walk.
"There's no place left to run." His voice carried easily across the frosty air. "I don't want to harm you. I apologize for my lack of control back at the house, but I realize now that you're as necessary to me as your child. If I had harmed you, the child would not have survived."
Backing slowly down the plank walk, Clarice stared back at him incredulously. Was this supposed to be some form of pep talk to convince her to come with him? Let him experiment on her and her baby? He may have regained his composure but he was still clearly out of his fucking mind.
"You're not taking my child." Clarice spoke with determination but she couldn't keep the tremor out of her voice. The tears flowed freely, but she had no control over them. "You're not gonna fuck him up the way you did Alec."
"Alec was a special case." Orlando slowly approached the plank walk, the gun held non-threateningly in his hand. But the threat remained nonetheless. "He was damaged goods right from the start because of his connection to you. I tried several different ways to sever that link but..." He shrugged. "It didn't work. I even thought that maybe if you were dead it might finally free his mind. Make him more useful to me." He chuckled as if telling a joke. "That didn't quite work out the way I had planned...thanks to Johnny."
What the hell was he saying? Clarice frowned as she continued to take one slow step backwards at a time.
"Did you think you and your family were just random victims of a violent crime?" Orlando asked. He stepped up on the end of the walk. "That those two young men - Jorge and Sean - had chosen your home by random chance?"
Clarice was shaking. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I hired them." Orlando admitted. "I hired them to kill you and your family, and make it look like a random home invasion. And I put Alec in an observation room and watched him to see if there would be any change in him the moment your life slipped away." He shook his head. "It was going to be my ultimate test." He took a step towards her. "Until Johnny interfered." He raised the gun, but he was motioning rather than pointing. "Do you know he traveled through time to save you? How is that for devotion? I didn't even realize what exactly had happened that saved you and your family, I didn't know Johnny was even capable of such feats...until you told me."
Clarice swallowed tightly. "What...what do you mean I told you?" She breathed.
Orlando smiled and paused for the moment, standing where he was. He seemed to be enjoying telling her this story. "Twenty years ago, I sat on a sofa next to a frightened and confused ten year old little girl who no one believed when she told them her rescuer had vanished into thin air." His smile widened. "But I believed her. Especially when she described to me what her rescuer looked like."
It came together suddenly. Orlando was the officer who had taken their statements after the attack. She remembered feeling like he was the only one who didn't think she was crazy. When he'd left, he had leaned down and whispered to her that he believed her. It had made her feel good, that an adult believed her. And a cop at that. But he hadn't really been a cop at all.
Orlando swam in her vision. "You bastard." She whispered.
"I know. I'm sorry, Clarice." He said without any remorse. "But look at it this way...you opened my eyes to the potential of Johnny's species. There was so much more to tap into than I had ever realized. And even though Alec remained rather useless to me in the respect of the Hybrid project, he proved to be a very valuable...well, test dummy, I guess you'd call it."
Clarice stared at the man, horrified. She suddenly wished that she, too, was from a different planet, of a separate species as the monster in front of her.
"Sadly, Alec had to endure much pain and torture. But it wasn't all for naught. In fact, he helped me plenty. In fact, that little device I used on Johnny? I had to test it extensively on Alec first. He was never much of a talker, but he could surely scream. Especially as a child. He learned to stifle his screams as he got older, but as a child - wow, he had a set of lungs on him."
"Shut up." Clarice choked out. "You sick sadistic motherfucker!" She was crying openly. "How could you do something like that to him? How..." Her sobs overwhelmed her. He was enjoying this. It was like he was getting off on describing the torture and torment he'd inflicted.
"You know." He spoke low, thoughtful. "He even screamed your name once. It was the only time he ever spoke an actual whole word. He was actually crying out for you to help him. I found that rather fascinating."
"Shut up you sick fuck!" Clarice screamed and sank down to the plank walk as she came to the end of it. She leaned against the wooden rail and hugged herself tightly, shaking badly. Images of Aaron's face on Alec stabbed through her mind, images of the child being tortured, his mind ripped apart piece by piece, and all the time crying out for the only person in the world he felt any real connection to.
Orlando sighed and stared at her. "Don't you see, Clarice. Your family has always belonged to me. I've been the driving force behind it since your mother came to my college. I may have been young then, but I was still the brains behind it all." He stepped closer. "Now it's time to continue the legacy. Your child won't go through what Alec went through. Your child is special, one of a kind. And I have high hopes for him. He will be greatly cared for. I give you my word."
"Your word?" Clarice looked up at him slowly. "Your word? Are you serious? Are you so far out of your fucking mind that you really think your word means shit to me?" She pulled herself to her feet and looked over her shoulder down into the gorge, then returned her attention to Orlando. "I would take my child's life before I put it into your hands."
"You would never kill your baby." Orlando said with confidence. "Even though it's father is...well, an alien...you still love him. And that child means everything to you. Am I wrong?"
"No." She whispered. "He does mean everything to me...which is why I would never let you anywhere near him. Even if it means taking him out of this world."
"You would do that to Johnny?" He wondered. "Kill his child?"
His words cut at her sharp and fierce. This baby meant the world to her. It was physical evidence of her and Jonathon's love for one another. The thought of harming their child was more than she could take...but how could she allow his innocent life to fall into this man's hands?
Orlando held out his hand to her. "Come away from the edge, Clarice. I promise, you will be with your child and with Jonathon. You will all be together. Doesn't that seem a more logical choice than murdering your child?"
He was trying to manipulate her, fill her with guilt for even thinking of harming her baby. And it was working. Yet she couldn't reach out to him. Feeling guilty or not, she couldn't make herself go to him. She closed her eyes. Please, God, help me. Please just make this nightmare end. Please!
"It's over, Clarice." Orlando said softly. "It's time to come home."
That's when she felt it. Felt him. She opened her eyes to see Alec right behind Orlando. Where had he come from? She didn't know, but Orlando's focus on her left him oblivious to the sudden threat. Clarice didn't know if Alec had any capability to read her mind as she was sure Jonathon could, but she put all her force into one thought directed at him.
Please help me, Alec. I'm so sorry I couldn't help you when you needed me but please don't let him hurt my baby the way he hurt you.
"Clarice." Orlando stretched his hand out closer, motioning for her to come to him.
Clarice looked past Orlando's head and into Alec's eyes. For a split second she saw the brother he could've been; her, Aaron and Alec, three happy kids, running, playing, laughing, bonded by love and their unique connection. Tears spilled over. "Please...Alec."
A frown creased Orlando's brow as he cocked his head a fraction. "What did you..." He turned suddenly, realizing the presence behind him. "No." He tried to move but it was too late for him. A sudden, startled cry wrenched free of Orlando's throat as Alec's left hand sank into his hair, his fingertips gouging into his scalp. Blood began to trickle down Orlando's forehead. A strange gurgling rose in his throat as his knees buckled and he sank to the wooden planks. Alec's face was expressionless, emotionless, his ice blue eyes holding Clarice's stare as he slowly crushed Orlando's skull in his palm.
Clarice waited for the revulsion to hit her but it never came as she watched Alec take Orlando's life right before her eyes. She felt nothing, and she wondered if that should worry her. But it didn't matter, because Alec's state of mind wouldn't allow him to let her live. Whether she'd pleaded with him in her mind or not, he would've still killed Orlando. She had no way of knowing if he had heard her or if somewhere inside he knew how sorry she was that she hadn't been able to help him when he needed her the most.
When he stepped up on the walk, she sank back down and hugged her stomach tightly, crying softly. She would never hold their baby in her arms, never see the pride and joy in Jonathon's eyes as he gazed at the evidence of their unconditional, undying love. She would never feel Jonathon's arms around her again as they made love and made more babies together. She wondered how she could lose so much in such a short period of time. Maybe when she got to the other side, God would explain to her what right now felt like a grave injustice on His part.
The soles of Alec's boots scraped across the wood planks as he came closer. Why are you just sitting there waiting to die? The thought hit her hard and she looked up. At the end of the walk, behind Alec, the golden 9mm lay still beside Orlando's lifeless body. She'd told herself she would fight to the death for Jonathon, for their child, and yet here she was just waiting for Alec to take her life and that of her child.
A sudden burst of courage propelled her out of her crouched position and sideways towards the railing. She slipped through the open area beneath the rail and stumbled out onto the grass, loosing her footing, hitting the ground. She quickly crawled back to her feet and looked back. Alec still stood on the plank walk, watching her. She gasped and ran for the end of the walk. Alec turned slowly, following her movement. She raced up to the walk as Alec was coming back towards her. She fell across Orlando's corpse and grabbed the gold handgun then stumbled back, holding the weapon out in front of her, her hands shaking badly.
Alec moved back down to the end of the walk and stood next to Orlando's body. He looked down at the dead man as if studying him. He raised his eyes slowly to Clarice. The gun rattled in her hands as her whole body trembled. Orlando's story of Alec's torment rang through her head, his screams of pain and torture, crying out for her in his moment of greatest anguish.
She could barely see him through her watery eyes. Her legs felt weak. "I'm so sorry, Alec." She cried. She expected him to come off the walk, perhaps lunge off there after her, but he just stood there, watching her. She had to do it, she had to shoot him but her hands wouldn't stop shaking and her finger wouldn't pull the trigger. She could've shot Orlando without thinking, but Alec was an innocent victim. He didn't deserve this. She cried harder. Dammit! He didn't fucking deserve this!
Someone was behind her. She looked quickly. The sniper stood a few feet away, holding a handgun at his side. A pity she wouldn't have thought he was capable of reflected in his eyes. "I can do it." He said gently, bring up the gun. "You don't have to do this."
Clarice looked back at Alec. He still stood on the end of the walk. Why wasn't he moving? He could escape...or kill them. But he just looked at her, lowered his eyes to Orlando then looked up at her again. His tormentor was dead, she realized. Somehow...it had brought him some level of peace. She closed her eyes for a moment and reached for him with her mind. What she felt brought more tears, but not bad tears. He wasn't in pain anymore...he just wanted to go and be with his family.
She watched him sink slowly to his knees, like a weary traveler who's finally come to his journey's end. And she knew it had to be her. He wanted it to be her. "I have to do it." She whispered to the sniper, her voice thick. "He wants me to do it."
The man lowered his gun. She could feel him looking at her uncertainly as she moved a little closer to Alec. He followed, his weapon ready in case Alec suddenly sprang into action. But he wouldn't. He was done. He just wanted to go home.
She stopped a few feet away from Alec. He stared at her. His eyes didn't seem so empty anymore. He looked like Aaron. Just like him. Clarice cried as she slowly raised the gun and aimed it at his forehead. Her hands were still shaking badly. She looked at the sniper and pleaded through her tears, "Please...help me...I can't hold it steady."
The man stuffed his own weapon in the back of his jeans and moved up close behind her, covering her hands with his. His mouth was close to her ear as he whispered, "He's going to a better place."
Clarice cried and trembled inside the man's arms as his hands steadied the gun and his finger curled around hers. Alec looked at her one last time and slowly closed his eyes. "Close your eyes too." The man said quietly. She did. His finger tightened around hers and she felt the recoil of the gun before she heard the shot. Just one shot. She kept her eyes closed.
I'm sorry. The words floated through her mind. Were they her words to Alec...or his words to her? She couldn't tell.
"We should get you back down to the cabin." The man spoke softly as he took the gun from her hands and stepped back.
Clarice turned slowly and looked at him. "Why did you come up here?" She whispered thickly.
He gazed at her for a long moment, then asked quietly, sincerely, "Do you believe a man can be redeemed from his sins?" There a note of fear in his voice that she believed was very unaccustomed for him.
"Yes." She said softly. "I do believe that."
He nodded slowly. "So do I."
When they finally returned to the cabin and climbed the back porch steps, he stopped her at the back door and looked at her sincerely, "Orlando - and Orlando alone - was the only one in all this...who lacked humanity." He stared deep into her eyes and spoke low, soft. "I hope you understand that."
Warm tears filled her eyes. "I do."
26...Only Skin Deep...
Jonathon stood at the bathroom sink and stared at his reflection. His hands were unsteady as he slowly folded the thin wispy piece of skin back over his face and watched it meld back into place, giving him the appearance of a human once more. He fixed the skin on his neck then just stood there, staring at himself. His mind and body felt numb, but not from the effects of Orlando's device. The sniper had been gone a long time. Had he gotten there in time to save Clarice? Jonathon was afraid to reach out with his mind, afraid he wouldn't feel her there, that there would just be a hollow emptiness. His mind was still weak, it might not work anyway, but he was afraid to try.
He left the bathroom and went into the bedroom and stood at the same window through which the sniper had lined up his shot with Clarice as she and Jonathon had been making love. What if he had shot her and she had died right there in his arms? He would have died with her. He stared out the window. It was dark out there. And cold. Bitterly cold. But not nearly as cold as the chunk of ice forming in the pit of his heart. She had seen what he was. Really seen it. Even if she had survived, how could she...
He gripped the edge of the window frame and hung his head, closing his eyes. Orlando should have killed him. Death would be better than this-
Arms slid around his waist from behind and held him tight. He shuddered at the feel of her touch, wondering if he was imagining it. He turned slowly, still suffering the worst fear he'd ever felt. She was real, and standing right there, unharmed. He wanted to look in her eyes, but he couldn't. He closed his eyes and whispered, "Clarice..."
"Don't." She spoke low and soft. Her hands touched his face, caressed his skin. "Open your eyes, Jonathon. Look at me."
His eyes opened slowly and met her warm gaze. "I'm so sorry." He whispered thickly.
"For what?" She asked softly, sincerely. "For loving me like I've never been loved before? For saving my life over and over again? For giving me a reason to go on, a reason to embrace life? Tell me, baby...just what is it you're sorry for?"
Her beautiful face swam before him.
"I love you, Jonathon." She whispered. "And nothing - nothing - will ever make me stop loving you." She traced her fingertip over his face where the skin had been peeled away. "It's just skin, baby." She smiled. "None of us would look too pretty without it."
He kissed her, pulling her tight into his arms. Was the nightmare over? Really over? It seemed he'd lived his whole life inside that nightmare...had he finally awakened to a bright and beautiful morning? He hugged Clarice tighter, wondering if it would be possible to ever let go of her again.
"So what now?" Jonathon Lancaster looked at Hunter across the top of the counter. Hunter read the questions loud and clear; was Hunter going to reveal his identity to an unsuspecting world?
Hunter reached over and held out his hand as Lancaster shook it cautiously. "We're good." Hunter said and squeezed Lancaster's hand firmly. The other man nodded and smiled. Hunter turned towards the front door. "Good luck and God speed. It's been...unusual."
Lancaster chuckled. "To say the least." He stepped around the end of the counter. "We don't even know your name."
A slow, thoughtful smile spread across Hunter's lips. "Bob."
"Thank you, Bob." Lancaster said. "For everything." Clarice slipped her arm through Lancaster's and smiled affectionately at Hunter, nodding softly.
Hunter looked at the two. Did they have any idea that they had helped him more than he had helped them? He didn't think so. The amazing love and devotion they shared had revealed a side of humanity he'd never really witnessed before. Ironic that it took a being from another world to prove to him there was humanity in this one. Hunter smiled. "Thank you." He shook his head then and tapped his temple. "By the way, that was one hell of a mind trick out there." He lightly rubbed his finger beneath his nose. "I was zeroed in on Orlando and ready to pull the trigger. Would've done it too." He cast them one last nod and wave and walked out before Jonathon could respond.
"Did you..." Clarice started.
Shaking his head slowly, Jonathon murmured, "It wasn't me."
"Then who?" Her brows pinched. "Could it have been...Alec?"
"Or someone else." Jonathon said as he slipped his arms around her and rubbed his hands down over her stomach.
"The baby?" She whispered. "How is that even possible?"
He laughed softly. "After all that you've been through, all you've seen and learned in the last few days...you can still ask how that is possible?"
She smiled and leaned back against him. "My bad."
27...Hope For Tomorrow...
It wasn't an easy thing to watch Jonathon insert the long needle into the base of Alec's skull and inject the solution that would extinguish Alec's life once and for all. But as the fluid in the syringe disappeared, she felt a peace come over her. Not relief. She no longer feared Alec. But peace of mind that Alec was finally free. That he would finally be with his family and feel their love, and understand at last that the lies Orlando had tormented him with were just that - lies.
She watched Jonathon lay him down in the grave and fold his arms across his chest. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed. He looked peaceful. Tears filled her eyes. He looked exactly like Aaron, and yet he had something all his own as well. Had they all grown up together, she knew she would have been able to tell them apart with ease.
Jonathon came to her and slid his arm around her shoulders as they looked down at Alec's peaceful form. There were tears in Jonathon's eyes also. "He spoke to me." He whispered thickly. He looked at Clarice with his beautiful, unique eyes. "Just before I...injected the solution." A tear broke free and slid down his face. "He said...You did it, Johnny, you saved her."
Clarice leaned against Jonathon and cried softly. "How did he still know I ever needed to be saved?" She looked up at him. "After you made the jump...weren't you the only one who remembered what had happened the first time? How did he know?"
Jonathon shrugged. "I don't know." He said quietly. "Maybe...where I come from...our minds function differently. I don't know. I never knew my home." His strange eyes grew distant. "I don't even know how I got here, or where my home is. My life, as far as I knew, began in Victor's lab." He lowered his gaze to Clarice. "But it doesn't matter anymore, because my life is with you now."
"Everyone should know where they came from."
Jonathon and Clarice turned quickly at the new voice. Leland stood a few feet away. "Uncle Lee." Jonathon breathed then went to him and hugged him. Leland hugged him back fiercely.
"It's good to see you in such good health, Johnny." Leland smiled.
"Victor said that you were..."
Leland shrugged. "Never underestimate the value of a good old fashioned bullet proof vest." He rubbed his chest and winced. "But even so, those bullets pack one hell of a punch."
"Well it's good to know you're still in one piece." Jonathon grinned. He turned to Clarice and held out his hand. She came to him and he slipped his arm around her shoulder. "Clarice...meet Uncle Lee."
Leland took Clarice's hand and smiled warmly. "The lady of the hour." He kissed her hand lightly. "It's a pleasure and an honor."
"And for me." She smiled and stepped up, hugging him. "Thank you." She whispered in his ear. "For everything you tried to do for Alec. And all you've done for Jonathon, and me." She kissed his cheek and stepped back. "You are forever a part of our family."
"Family?" Leland raised one eyebrow.
Jonathon slid his arms around Clarice's waist and flattened his hands on her stomach. "Family." He nodded.
"Yeah?" Leland smiled big, then he laughed and stepped forward, hugging both of them at once.
That evening, after dinner, as the three of them sat in the living room before a warm fire, Clarice looked up from her cup of hot cider. "What did you mean?" She asked Leland softly. "When you said everyone should know where they came from?"
The older man smiled and looked at Jonathon. "Victor led you to believe that he had created you from an alternate source of your same genetic material. That your life literally began with him." Leland shook his head slowly. "But that was a lie. The original source was your mother."
Jonathon frowned, his body tensing. "My mother?" He whispered. "I had...a mother?"
"I don't know where she came from." Leland admitted. "Or how they got her in their possession...but when they brought her in, she was dying." A sadness filled his eyes. "I only saw her once while she was still alive. She was..." He smiled with tears in his eyes as he looked at Jonathon. "Beautiful. I held her hand as she slipped away." The tears swelled and slipped free. "In my mind I heard her voice whisper to me...please take care of my son...he's all alone now."
Clarice's throat tightened as her tears flowed freely. "She was pregnant?" She whispered unsteadily. "With...Jonathon?" She looked at Jonathon. He gazed distantly at the fire, his face wet with tears.
Leland nodded slowly. "In the last moments of her life." He told Jonathon softly. "Her only concern was that you would be cared for. And I promised her...that I would take care of you." he wiped his eyes. "And I tried my best."
Jonathon looked at him the way a son looks at the father he adores. "You made good your promise." He whispered thickly. "You were my lifeline. If it hadn't been for you...who knows what Victor would have turned me into."
"He could've never turned you into something bad." Leland said. "You come from too good of stock."
Clarice gazed at the older man. "You loved her."
The older man smiled. "I did." He admitted softly. "Like I've never loved another woman."
She smiled and wrapped her arms around Jonathon. "It's amazing." She whispered. "How far love with travel...just to find a home."
Leland smiled and leaned back in his chair as Jonathon kissed Clarice on the lips. "Indeed." He murmured and sipped at his cider.
Laying in one another's arms that first night after the nightmare was finally over, a new kind of peace settled over Jonathon and Clarice. The future no longer seemed so uncertain and frightening. But as Clarice lay close to Jonathon's warm body, still damp from their love making, she asked him quietly, "Are there others still out there?"
"Like my mom." She whispered. "Women who were inseminated. Are there more out there like Alec?"
A silence hung over them for a long moment before Jonathon said softly, "I don't know. I suppose there must be."
"Do you think it's really over?" She asked. "Or will others eventually come after us?"
He pulled her closer and hugged her tight. "It's over." He assured. "Victor was the driving force behind the project. The higher powers were already systematically shutting it all down. Victor was the only one trying to keep it going."
"What do you think will happen to the other ones out there?" She wondered. "What kind of abilities will they have?" Her voice lowered as she huddled closer. "How will they use them?"
Jonathon stared a the dark ceiling. "I think it will be a case by case situation. Like everyone else, there will be the good...and the bad."
A low sigh escaped her and she pressed her face against his chest, listened to his heart beating. It didn't sound any different than her own. But she supposed all hearts sounded the same when they beat with love.
"What do you think became of Bob?" She asked suddenly, quietly. "Do you think a hired killer can really turn over a new leaf?"
"Well, he changed his name to Bob." Jonathon smiled and looked down at her. "That was a start."
She met his eyes. The gold flecks glowed in the dark of the bedroom. "Changed his name?"
"Seriously, baby." He stroked his fingers through her hair. "Did he really look like a Bob to you?"