BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - HORROR

ANDRYSMOR

Episode 6: R&R
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Simon goes on vacation only to find more trouble than he left behind.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1590    RATING:     SERIES: FIREFLY

Prologue

Krista sinks to her knees, in tears. Tears of joy.

"Lord, how can we ever thank you?"

Her new husband, Michael, just looks at her.

His first wife died years ago during the terraforming expedition. He never thought he'd find someone else, certainly not after losing his coal-mining job to a band of gypsies that offered to work for half what anyone could afford. Times were hard. Are still hard.

But he has a wife now. A family. Michael pulls Krista into his arms. The music swells. He kisses her.

Their kids, two families, now one, smile at the parents they never thought they would have again. Things are going to be okay.

******

I leaned against the wall behind our bed and closed my eyes to the movie. I thought having Serenity back and our bed to sleep in would feel comfortable. A relief to return to something normal. But the whole thing felt wrong. It wasn't a return to something normal. Any hint of normal had been left behind when I left home.

Thanks to the modifications made by the Alliance mechanic Kaylee had stolen Serenity back from, we had a couple of refinements none of the crew had ever thought to include, like a screen that could download and play back movies. It was hard for the rest of them to think of luxuries this far outside the Core planets. But for me, these days it was all I could think about.

"Gosh," Kaylee said. "Sorry, Simon." She wiped her eyes, pulled a rag out of her pocket. Oil stained most of it, but she didn't mind. "Been so long since I seen a movie, let alone a classic by the great Lucas."

My jaw dropped. "Oh, come on," I said. "You can't think that was good?"

"Better'n good." She sighed. "Just makes me realize things might seem tough, but that don't mean we won't make it."

"They're penniless! They've got four kids to feed, no jobs, they shot his leg off in the first half, and let me tell you, surgery wouldn't magically reconnect what a shotgun blew to pieces, they can't work... I hate to say it, but political figures should never make movies. Lucas getting assassinated was the best thing that could have happened just so we wouldn't get any more of his movies."

"You know," Kaylee said. "You been all irritated since I got back."

"I'm fine," I said.

"Hell you are."

"Kaylee," I said. "I'm fine. Leave it alone."

"It's just..." She hesitated, and I knew that this woman who never hesitated to say anything, in fact most of the time couldn't stop herself if she wanted to, was about to say something big.

Something I just couldn't handle right now.

I stood up and shut the screen off.

"I'd better go check on River."

"Don't you think that movie kind of reminded you of us?"

"No. I mean, I still have both of my legs. How could it?"

Kaylee laughed. "No, Simon. I mean... They're a couple making it on nothing and still raising a family. Just seems like us, in a way."

"It's not us, Kaylee."

"Maybe one day could be." She let that hang in the air, half a statement, half a question.

She was right. She had prepared a semi-delicious, protein-based dinner for just the two of us. She had worn that light, red, thin-but-not-too-thin dress that just hinted at what was beneath. She had scoured local feeds for a movie download, and whether or not the movie was any good, she had been happy to just watch it with me.

I should have felt happy, too.

But that question cut into me with the precision of a surgeon.

"I can't handle this right now," I said.

I started to walk out.

Kaylee jumped up and after me. She put her hand on my arm. I stopped.

"What's wrong? Movie wasn't that bad," she said.

"That's not going to be us, Kaylee. I could never take care of kids. Look at me."

"I don't understand. You're a doctor."

"Was a doctor," I reminded her.

"You're our damn doctor," she said, now a little irritated. "You hold people's lives in your hands all the time. Held Jayne's just last week! Think you buckled under the pressure? Nah, you just removed that bullet from his pi-gu like it was nothin'." She paused. "Don't you think you could take care of your own kid?"

I wanted to reach out and shake sense into her. Instead I just grabbed empty air and shook my hands. "You think I can take care of kids? I can't even convince my own sister not to go on a date with that... that..."

"Simon Tam, that sister, River, is doing better than ever. 'Cause of you. But what she does from now on ain't up to you."

I closed my eyes and looked away. "There just doesn't seem to be much reason for me to be here, Kaylee."

"Hey," she said. "Whatever you got goin' on, least you can do is admit she's better off with you around."

"Well, maybe I don't want to be around."

She swallowed. "What're you sayin'?"

Now I swallowed. "I need a break."

"Break from what?"

"From everything."

"From... From us?"

I didn't know what to say. I settled on, "Maybe."

Then I left the room, no way to make her happy, just the overwhelming need to escape.

Chapter 1

I dropped my bag onto the floor of the shuttle.

"You sure about this?"

I nodded at Mal. He'd agreed to let me take the shuttle while they finished a job in the area.

"I'll be fine."

"You only had a few weeks of flying lessons," Mal said.

From behind him, I heard Kaylee's soft voice murmuring something, then the laughter of my sister running ahead of her.

"Kaylee's been a good teacher. Besides. I had a class in school on driving ambulances. Kaylee showed me the two are similar enough to transfer the experience."

I heard River, Kaylee running after her, and could tell from the rising sound of laughter they were getting closer.

"I had better go. Thanks for letting me take the shuttle."

"Just make sure you're at the rendezvous."

"Don't worry. I wouldn't want to be left behind."

"Doc, you ain't at the rendezvous, we'll come looking for you. When's the last time we did a job Jayne didn't get some bullet shot in his ass that needed your handlin'?"

Already thinking this trip couldn't be long enough, I said, "I'll make sure I'm--"

"River," Kaylee said. "River, wait!"

River jumped into the room, pushed past me, and sat in the pilot's seat.

"Where are we going, Simon?"

I glanced at Kaylee. Could she find some way to explain for me? She met my eyes for a brief moment, then looked away with a disgusted shrug. I was on my own, and for the first time in a long time, I realized I was better for it. They valued my skills as a doctor, but when the time came, they didn't need me in any way but that one.

They had made that clear when they both disregarded my advice and both times almost ended up injured or worse for it.

I looked back to my sister sitting in the seat, hands folded, staring at me. "We aren't going anywhere."

"Sure we are. You've got your bag."

"River... Just me."

Since rescuing her from the Alliance, I hadn't left her side once. I insisted on being there, hoping I could make some difference.

"You're staying here, River," I said.

Kaylee took River's hand. "Come on, sweetie."

"But what if..." River said. "What if--What if they come?"

"They won't come."

"What if they come back?"

"River, then it won't matter if I'm here or not! You do whatever you want to. I'm not going to babysit you anymore."

She looked genuinely confused. "But I'm not a baby."

"Kaylee, could you--"

Kaylee took River's hand. "Let's go, sweetie." She led her away, but not before giving me a harsh glance to let me know the harm I had inflicted on them both. "He don't know what he's saying. Just a stupid boy."

They left.

From the side, Mal clapped his hands. "Well done." He turned around to leave, but then turned back to me. "Almost forgot," he said. He smiled. "Have a nice vacation."

Chapter 2

I set my bags down at the counter of the Heavenly Hope Bed and Breakfast. The owners, an older couple, smiled. Her name was Betty. His was Joe. The Millers. The husband offered me the guest book to sign in my name.

As I did so, I examined these two that, according to the information about their establishment, had lived here for over two generations. Their teeth were a little yellow, the man missing a couple of molars. His skin had tanned much darker than hers, I would guess from hours working outside, perhaps making minor repairs on the bed and breakfast. I noticed an odd discoloration across his skin, funny blotches of light skin on dark. Probably a genetic condition.

All in all, they were a little malnourished, but they seemed none the worse for wear.

"Don't get too many visitors these days," Joe said. "What brings ya out to these parts?"

I scratched the last letter of my invented name, Marlon Kittredge, after the name of the God-awful actor from that God-awful movie Kaylee and I had watched.

"Just needed a little peace and quiet," I said.

"Oh," Betty said. "A vacation, is it? Well, if it's peace and quiet you want, it's peace and quiet you'll get. We don't bother nobody. Ain't that right, Joe?"

As I closed the guest book and handed it back to Betty, the door to the hotel opened.

Joe shook his head and said to the person coming inside, "Now, did it happen like I said it would, Jane?"

"Jayne?" I'd come on a vacation, but the thought of the big, unpredictable guy showing up made me smile. "What's he doing--"

I shut up.

It wasn't Jayne.

In came a young woman, long, red hair, thin eyelashes, carefully applied makeup, and a walk that betrayed no hint of self-doubt. A light blue blouse and long skirt clung to her thin frame. A pin held her hair in a bunched pile on her head. She reminded me of an old teacher I'd had a crush on. One so beautiful and refined I was in love with her to this day.

"Ok, Joe," Jane said. "I have to admit. I didn't find anything. But I know what I heard--" She stopped as she took notice of me. "Thought you didn't get many visitors in these parts."

"Sure'n we don't, Miss Jane," Joe said. Did he sound a bit defensive? "This'un got here just now, day after you."

"Well, good thing I stopped back by before I went into town."

She held out her hand. It took me a moment, but I realized she meant for me to take it. She waited, hand out, a little amused but not at all annoyed by my ineptness. When I took her hand, she smiled, revealing polished, white teeth.

I gulped.

"What... What is it you were looking for?"

"Oh, pay no mind to her," Betty said, starting to step between us, but Jane took a step forward, unwilling yet to relinquish her hold on me.

"Have to say," Jane said, turning back to me. I smelled mint on her breath. "I do feel a bit like a fool. I guess I took Betty's ghost story too seriously."

"And right you should," Betty said. "But I warned you he don't come out 'cept for those that make him mad." She gave her a look that startled me. "And you don't want to do that, dearie. That I promise you."

An awkward tension hung between us. Then Betty laughed, Jane joined in, and I gave an uncomfortable chuckle.

"Miss Jane here is a doctor," Betty said. "Keep telling her though, there ain't no medical mystery to a ghost."

I cocked my head. "A doctor? Really? Alliance-based?"

"Often enough, but I'm an independent," she said.

"Hard to believe they would let you," I said.

"I didn't leave them a lot of choice. Besides, I work in their hospitals in their Core often enough. If I take a little work on the outer rim from time to time, they haven't lost anything."

Joe coughed. "If you're ready, Mr. Kittredge," Joe said. "I'll show you to your room."

Jane cocked her head. "Kittredge? Like the actor?"

Joe slapped his knee. "Is that where I know that name from? Been plaguing me ever since you came in. Don't get too many movies out in these parts. But I remember that one. God, a classic."

He shared a glance with Betty, no doubt remembering the kind of golden moment Kaylee had hoped she and I would have.

I let out a long breath, realizing how tired I was. I wanted nothing more than to draw a hot bath and fall asleep.

"I'll see my room," I said.

"Oh, sure, sure," Joe said.

Jane touched my arm. "I was just about to change and go into town. There's a small festival tonight. Lasts all weekend."

"I appreciate the invitation, but--"

"There's a dance," she said. "But they won't let me dance alone. It'll take me a few minutes to change. Why don't you think about it, I'll come by your room in a bit?"

She left up the stairs and to her room without giving me another chance to respond. That soft hint of mint stayed behind, intoxicating my senses.

Joe took my bag from my hand, bringing me back to reality.

I followed him up the stairs.

"Don't you worry none, Mr. Kittredge," Joe said. "That ghost won't bother you none, long as you don't bother him." I started to laugh, but he turned to me and said, quite seriously, "Ain't no joke, son. Ever since our first-born, Henry, died in an attack years back, he's haunted this place."

"An attack?"

He put his finger over his mouth. "Shh. Ain't polite to say too much about the dead." He smiled. "Wouldn't want to rouse him, eh?"

Joe showed me to my room and left.

Compared to my quarters on Serenity, the room was a mansion. It had a full-length bed, a dresser, mirror, and a real porcelain bathtub in the corner. I thought about calling back down to Betty to order some hot water, but the soft bed looked too inviting. Even if I took the bath, I doubted I would last long enough to enjoy it, indeed would probably have woken shivering in cold water and regretting it.

I set my bag down and looked out the window at the landscape, now almost completely dark. About a mile off, I saw the still-lit town called Hope, named so because it was one of the few cities to ever survive a Reaver attack.

With a shock, I realized the attack had come just a few years ago. If that had been when the couple's oldest son, Henry, had died, it was no wonder Joe and Betty didn't want to talk about it. It was no wonder they clung to his memory, inventing the story of his ghost so they would never have to let go of him.

I opened my suitcase and laid my clothes out across the bed. They didn't want to discuss the matter, and that suited me. I came here to get away. To escape. In some small way, to return to the life my heart ached to return to. I didn't regret my decision to save River. But sometimes, looking at a woman like Jane, so close to the kind of woman I would have ended up with, I couldn't help but wonder what life would have been like if my sister hadn't gone to the Academy.

I picked up a white silk shirt, the kind that would be perfect for a dance. If I had any intention of--

I dropped the shirt as a long, low moan came from above me. I paused, listening for a second sound. Nothing.

Then it came again, an almost painful groan.

"This is crazy," I said. "There isn't a ghost. It's just an old building."

But I closed my suitcase and opened the door anyway--

Jayne stood there, her hand up, about to knock. She had pulled the pin out, releasing waist-length hair, and put on a long, rich green dress. That overpowering scent of mint came at me.

"I-- I was just--" Stop acting like your in grade school again, I told myself. "I heard the same thing--"

She smirked and rested a long, slim hand on her hip. "Little eager, aren't you?"

Chapter 3

Outside the town bar, a band played a fast tune and the crowd danced to it even faster. Even the old and infirm stayed as close as possible, clapping their hands to the rhythm of the music, tapping their feet to the memory of their own dance.

"I can't believe I came here," I muttered.

She tipped back her mug of local beer. When I didn't do the same, she put her hand under my mug, urging me to do the same.

I tilted it back and took a big swallow. The first mug had tasted almost as bad as Mudder's Milk. But by now we were on our third, and considering my low tolerance, I was well on my way to not caring how anything tasted.

"That's it. You got to let go a little," Jane said. "It wouldn't be much of a vacation if you stayed in your room, now would it?"

I sighed. "Actually, that's exactly what I was hoping for."

Jane laughed. She leaned in close to me and trailed her finger over the chest of my shirt. "Well..." She looked up, into my eyes. "You never know. You might end up there, soon enough."

"You need to know there's someone--"

She took my hand. "Mr. Kittredge, a vacation is supposed to be a break from your regular life. Nothing will happen to you. I promise." She gave me a sexy smile. "If you promise to enjoy yourself."

She squeezed my hand, then let it go and walked ahead of me to the edge of the platform. She barely moved, but I saw her hips sway. She could dance, wanted to, but had made it clear she wouldn't without a partner.

I joined her at the platform. Sensing my approach, she took my hand and led me into the crowd before I could think to say no. Once there, my heart jumped.

But the music wouldn't be denied.

Jane took my left hand in hers, then put my right on her hip to lead her. "Just move your feet," she said. "The music will take care of the rest."

I took a step forward, lifted my hand so it barely touched her hip, and let the music move me.

"Mr. Kittredge," she whispered. "I thought you couldn't dance."

I let the lessons from my childhood come back to me. The memories were far off, but I didn't have to remember. The music knew what to do. All I had to do was listen.

We danced from one corner of the platform, moving through the crowd without a thought for any other two people but us. We could have gone on like that, the steady buzz in my head, my hands a little numb.

But I noticed an older man stared daggers at the dancing crowd. As we moved to a different corner of the stage, I realized he wasn't staring at the crowd. He was staring at us.

"Who is that?"

I nodded towards the man.

Jane laughed. "That's just the sheriff."

I dropped my gaze a bit and indeed saw the glint of a badge on his belt.

A silly smile crept onto my face, brought on by the same kind of drunken stupor I hadn't felt since Kaylee and I had passed out in each others arms. I smiled a little at the memory of those awkward times before we had admitted what was obvious to anyone else.

"He's been staring at us since we started dancing," Jane said.

"Is he jealous or something?"

Jane shrugged. "Does he have anything to be jealous about?"

I stopped mid-dance. I had to get off the stage before I gave her the wrong answer to that question. Because her hair smelled like mint, and her red lips invited me closer--

"I need some air," I told her. I almost ran off the platform. I stepped off the edge but had lost more of my balance than I realized. My feet twisted out from under me. I fell--

Into two old hands with skin as tough as leather and speckled white spots. For a minute, I felt a moment of relief that Joe Miller had joined us here, but then I looked up.

The sheriff.

"I see you decided to share your trouble," he told Jane.

The sheriff pulled me to my feet. I looked again at the odd discoloration on his hands, the same as what I had seen on Joe Miller. Either the two were related, or my hypothesis was way off and the blemishes were somehow a product of the environment unique to this planet.

"Just appreciating the festival, sheriff. Maybe you'd like a dance?"

He shook his head. "Just here to keep an eye out, Miss. Joke as you might, I mean to keep trouble out of our town, one way or another."

The sheriff patted a small hatchet attached to his belt in place of a gun.

A cold chill went through me at the thought of a man that preferred a knife to a bullet. I had cut up enough patients in my time to know the damage a blade could do.

"I'm sorry, I think I feel sick," I told them.

I stumbled off to be alone, but Jane wouldn't let me. She ran to catch up and, to her credit, caught me as I almost fell again.

"Let go of me," I whispered, but I let her lead me over to a bench set in front of a bar several of the dancers had begun to wander into.

"You got a weird way of showing your feelings," Jane said. "'Thank you' might sound a lot better."

She ran her hand through my hair, but I'd had enough. My hands felt numb, my stomach felt raw, and though I didn't know what I wanted or where I wanted to be, my memory of Kaylee felt alive. "Please, Jane. Just leave me alone."

"It's ok," she said. "I think you drank too much." She traced her hand down my forehead to my cheek. "Let me get you some water."

I slapped away her hand. "You don't understand. I can't do this."

Jane looked shocked. She stood up. "I can take a no," she said. "But that about does it. You, sir, have one hell of a way of leading a girl on."

She turned around and walked off without another word.

I just sat there, my head in my hands, for at least a full minute, a part of me regretting pushing her away the same way I always seemed to push away the people I cared about.

Except Kaylee.

Maybe it was wrong of her to keep coming back, but I suddenly missed the girl that had seen through my stupidity enough to keep giving me a chance to finally get it right.

I suddenly became aware of my heavy bladder and asked the bartender where the nearest lavatory was.

"Just go out back, son," the bartender told me.

"I was hoping for something a little more... standard."

"Best in town," he insisted. He pointed with his thumb. "Out back."

I made it a couple of steps before a different urge came over me. My stomach heaved and I ran outside, hoping to make it before I threw up.

I stumbled out the back door and leaned against the wall, waiting for the convulsions to subside or for my dinner to make its exit. I considered inducing rather than prolonging the inevitable, but--

At my feet, a river of red dribbled along the ground. I followed its trail up to an unmoving mound in the shadows. I gulped, my stomach suddenly calm, and took a step towards it.

"Oh, no," I murmured.

It was a body, still warm but turned into a mutilated mess. A deep, jagged cut had defaced her, but I recognized the hair, the mouth, a thousand things about the anatomy I was trained to notice.

Jane.

Chapter 4

Jane lay cold and dead on the ground. A small crowd circled around me, the bartender, and the sheriff.

The bartender murmured, "Lord, not another one."

"Jimmy, get these people back," the sheriff told the bartender.

"But shouldn't we move her?"

"No," I said, at the same time the sheriff said, "Yes."

The sheriff looked at me as though he had just noticed I was here. "No?"

"Not until we've had a chance to look at the crime scene."

He snorted. "Crime scene? You a detective or something?"

"No, a doctor," I said. "Well, I used to be-- or almost was--"

"Just can't believe it," the bartender said. "Not again."

The sheriff grabbed the bartender and shoved him into the crowd. "Jimmy, I said get these people out'a here!" He glanced at me. "We got a crime scene, after all."

The bartender waved his hands and shuffled the crowd back into the bar.

I knelt next to Jane. The edges of her wounds were ragged, suggesting the weapon she was attacked with was not very sharp. Maybe not even a weapon?

The sheriff coughed a little behind me, a reminder that though he had let me have a look at the body, it wasn't my place to be here.

"Why would somebody hurt her?"

The sheriff, in a moment of sympathy, put his hand on my shoulder.

"Sometimes, there ain't no rhyme or reason," he said. "Sometimes, people just die, and there ain't nothing we can do to stop it."

"This wasn't just some accident." I pointed at the cut through her face, at the clean slice through her torso, almost separating her arm from her body. "Someone killed her."

"And rightly we won't never know why. But if I had to take a guess, I'd say she went digging where she wasn't supposed to."

Then I remembered what the bartender had mentioned. "What did he mean by 'not another one'?"

He grunted. "Ain't the first murder we've had in Hope, son. No one wants another one. Not anytime." Then he turned to open the door for me to go back inside.

"Was there any connection between the victims?"

He turned back to me, now a little impatient. "Led the investigation myself. Sorry to say, didn't find any. I'm sorry. Nothing you could have done to stop this." He looked me in the eyes, daring me to ask anything else. "Now, you ain't a lawman, and you ain't a detective. Our town lost enough of its people to the Reavers years back. Last thing I want you to do is stir up some fright because you couldn't keep your mouth shut."

"You're right," I said. "I apologize."

Satisfied, he said, "I can let you stay with her for another minute, but once the coroner gets here, I got to ask you to step aside, Mr. Kittredge."

*********

I remained with Jane as long as I could, but as the sheriff said, when the coroner came, he gave me a pat on the back and insisted I return to the bed and breakfast, where I could get some rest and try to put this night behind me.

Betty heard the front door open and came out to greet me. She must have seen something in my expression, though, because she dropped her smile and asked, "Dance didn't go well?"

"Jane's dead," I said.

"My God," she said. She woke Joe up so they both could listen.

I told her how I had come across the body, leaving out the details about our dance. "I can't believe it happened so fast," I said. "One minute, she was there. The next, I found her..."

Joe shook his head. "I told her to be careful," he said. He gave me a sharp look. "Now, mind me, we've told you both."

A thought occurred to me. "I'm sorry to ask, but the sheriff mentioned several other unsolved murders occurred here in the last few years. You said Henry died just a few years ago. Is it possible they're connected?"

Betty shared a sad look with Joe. "No," she said. "I believe it ain't proper to speak of him. But I can see you're in pain, Mr. Kittredge. We know who killed our Henry." She swallowed. "The Reavers got him."

I remembered suspecting the same thing earlier that night and immediately put the thought to rest. They had attempted to put the memory of their son behind them, making instead the story of his ghost to keep him with them forever. The last thing I wanted to do was dig up a pain they had worked so hard to bury.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Excuse me."

I left them and went up to my room, where I laid my head on my pillow. I wiped away a few tears. I needed to sleep. In a few more hours, we would pass out of night and into the next morning. But my mind refused to stop. Why would someone hurt Jane? And was there any connection between the previous murders and this one? The sheriff hadn't been forthcoming, stating only that he had led the investigations and had found no connections.

"I suppose it could have been the ghost," I murmured.

I went to the window and looked out at the now dark town. No one wanted to continue the festival after the macabre news.

A loud, almost painful groan came from above me, followed by a quick, metallic rattle, like chains clashing together. I heard a loud thump. Silence.

I sat up from the bed, waited a full minute, but nothing came.

Then another, long groan--

I went outside my room. I walked around in the dark for a minute, then decided if nothing else, this new mystery would take my mind off the one I couldn't solve. I retrieved a lamp from my room, lit it, and set off.

At first I thought the ghost (I shook my head for even thinking that way) wouldn't comply, but another THUMP! from above and I took a right, into a hallway that lead to a stairwell.

Whatever the source of the noise was, it came from the attic.

I shuddered as I went up the stairs. Another long, painful groan, almost like hunger, echoed off the walls.

The door at the top was open an inch. I stepped over an unhooked padlock, which should have relieved me. They'd left the attic open for a reason. It was probably Joe Miller digging through supplies for tomorrow, the sounds somehow warped by the old wood and echoes.

"Mr. Miller?"

I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The overwhelming smell of something sickly sweet, like bad almonds, hit my nostrils. I recognized the stench of decaying flesh.

"Oh, God." I held my hand over my mouth and nose and went further in. Moonlight spilled in from a small window at the far end of the attic. They hadn't even left it open. No wonder the place smelled dead. Old pieces of broken furniture, family paintings, and other heirlooms of previous generations cluttered the space.

"Mrs. Miller?"

A groan came from the corner. I wasn't alone.

I gulped. "Henry?"

I stopped at a stack of boxes blocking my view of the corner. I could hear the distinct sound of heavy breathing. Someone was there. And whoever it was, could you hear a ghost breathe?

I forced myself to look--

A Reaver strained against chains at his feet locking it to the floor. Its flesh hung in pieces, some wounds half-healed but torn back open in its frenzy, others fresh as it chewed through its own legs, trying to escape.

Then it saw me.

It yelled, stretched out its arms, and leaped.

Chapter 5

A second Reaver grabbed me from behind, too eager for its own victim to share. It pulled me out of the grasp of the first Reaver and threw me to the ground.

"No!" I screamed.

"Thought you needed some sleep," Joe said.

I looked up at Mr. Miller, not a Reaver. I thought maybe my imagination had played the same trick on me in the corner, but a second glance confirmed it. No. That was a--

"Reaver!"

I screamed as a second voice came beside me, "No. That's our son."

It was Betty Miller.

"Mrs. Miller, that is not your son. That is a Reaver."

"You're wrong. Whatever he's become, he's still in there."

"Whatever he's..." There were only two possibilities. Either he was captured by the Reavers and had lost his mind, or... "Did he come from Miranda?"

She smiled. "Ain't often people remember things so long ago, Mr. Kittredge. Guessin' you saw the recent broadcast, too? We don't get much feed this far out, but I tell you, whoever put out that footage did it powerful."

Henry pulled at his chains. He snarled, eager to rip us apart, or worse. With horror, I noted the lock holding the chain to a bolt in the floor was old and rusted. The bolt seemed firm enough, but I couldn't help thinking about how many rusted pieces I had seen on Serenity hold together through rough rides in space only to fall apart with one swift kick.

That single window on the far side suddenly seemed like too much. I didn't want to think about how easily Henry could break through the window and escape. The fall would probably break his legs, but if I had learned anything about Reavers, their rage didn't just blind them to pain. Sometimes, it made them invite it.

"Could we discuss this outside?" I asked.

"Oh, sure, sure." Joe smiled at the Reaver. "Now, I'll be back soon, Henry, with your dinner. You behave till I get back."

We went out of the attic, down the stairs, and stopped in the hallway.

"You believed the broadcast?"

"Believed it? Hell," Joe said. "We been saying the same damn thing for years. Ever since our Henry came back to us, we knew somethin' had gone wrong."

"What do you mean came back?"

"Few years ago," Joe said. "We had us an attack from Reavers. You know that much. We managed to fend 'em off long enough, till one of them made it into this place. It was Henry. He'd found his way home." Joe tried to stifle his tears. He grunted and choked them off. "We caught him, kept him. Never gave up hope. Now that you're here, we can try to bring our boy back."

My eyes squinted in confusion. "You mean you... You want to cure him?"

"Broadcast said it," Joe said. "Was a toxin that turned my boy into this. Figure if some chemical made him that way, some chemical can unmake him, too."

"That's crazy," I said. "It's too dangerous to keep him there. What if he got out?"

Joe frowned. "Well, what do you want us to do? Put him down like a lame dog? That's our gorram son, young man, and no one is going to break apart our family, by God. Not you, not the gorram Alliance, and certainly not my own gorram self. You got that?"

"I'm sorry, it's just--"

"No," Joe said. "Sorry ain't what this is about. Ain't you never cared enough about someone to make a sacrifice, son?"

And despite my inability to cope with the responsibility I had run after, the responsibility I had always felt for my sister, the responsibility it now seemed I was no longer capable of holding, I had to admit, "Yes. Yes, I have."

"Then you know," Joe said. "Now, you said you came close to bein' a full-fledged doctor. With your help--"

I shook my head. "Even if I could find a way to remove the toxin from his system... You have to understand. He's suffered significant brain trauma. Removing the aggression wouldn't make a difference. Whatever you got back still wouldn't be your son."

"You're wrong," Betty said. "Whatever he is, he's still our son."

I looked at the chains and couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he ever broke free. Would they know he was loose before he hurt someone? And if they caught him, would they tell anyone what had happened? Or would they leave the mess behind, hoping no one would disturb the sanctuary they had built for the son they couldn't let go of?

"I know what you're thinking," Joe said. "You're wondering if our boy Henry could have hurt your friend. But she died in the town, didn't she? And Henry's been here all along."

Despite my concern, he had a point.

"It just doesn't make sense," I said. "If you're right, and it was someone else... Why would anyone want to hurt her?"

"I know you don't want to hear this," Betty said. "But you didn't know her, Mr. Kittredge. You got no idea what business she brought with her, or who she might have upset while she was here." He frowned. "If you mean to do what I think... I won't have anyone outing my son, Mr. Kittredge. We worked too hard to get him this far."

I nodded. "You're right," I said. "That's why I have to make sure it wasn't him."

Chapter 6

As I suspected, they had transported Jane's body to the morgue, but with such a small city staff, they had no intention of investigating the body until the next morning. The staff had gone home. Thanks to my time aboard Serenity, it only took me five minutes, or ten times as long as anyone else from the crew, to pick the lock. Once aside, the thick, piny smell of a sterilized room hit me.

A small warning tingled at the back of my mind. If I was caught, I knew the sheriff would arrest me. He had already warned me to back off of his investigation. But second, in a forensics class I had learned killers returned for one last look at their victims. If I was caught alone by either the sheriff or the killer, I had no doubt I would miss my rendezvous with Serenity tomorrow.

I pulled out the metal slab from the wall and got my first good look at Jane's mutilated body.

I set to work, taking out what few tools were available. I found a pair of forceps, some antiseptic, a scalpel, and a few other instruments. It felt good to have them in my hands, maybe more so because it was to work on someone that didn't need saving.

I lifted a flap of flesh on the victim's arm. As I suspected, the muscle had been cleaved in two where there should have been bite marks. Unless Reavers had taken to using precise cutting tools--

But further down her torso, I saw a jagged slash, just like what a frenzied beast would give.

Further complicating matters was the sorry care they had taken of the body, as though they had already discarded the hope of discovering clues to her murderer. If I hadn't come the same night, decay would have already set in, and several wounds would have bloated to the point of destroying the entire investigation.

Several more slashes, including the coup de grace, a deep gash across her neck, came close to proving what I suspected.

I couldn't be sure, but for now it seemed Betty and Joe's now-Reaver son was off the hook. Reavers took apart their victims with only one thought in mind. Jane's murder, though it appeared improvised and sudden, also displayed the kind of calculated blows no Reaver would have a mind to focus on.

I returned the body into the wall. With any luck, the coroner would assume my slight probing was just further injuries already incurred.

But if it wasn't the Reaver, who would have killed her?

I returned to the only other place in which we had spent any significant time in the hours leading to her death. Not surprising, the only place still open was Jimmy's bar.

Jimmy sat at a table, nursing a cup of some foul-smelling liquor. He looked up at me as I entered.

"Still awake?"

He took a swig. "Just a gorram shame, son."

"I'm sorry it happened in your place," I said.

He shook his head. "Ain't about my bar. This town's seen too much misery as it is." Next to his cup, he had a small Bible. He shut it. "Sometimes, I look there for some answers. But don't seem like anyone knows why this keeps happening to us."

I took a seat next to him. "Maybe I can help," I said. "If you'll just answer a couple of questions."

Jimmy looked away, hesitant. "Wait right here," he said. He retrieved a second glass from behind the bar and put it in front of me, then poured a shot.

I stared at the glass for a second, then realized he expected me to drink it. I forced a smile, tipped the glass back, and swallowed the liquor.

My eyes watered and my throat felt like it was on fire, which brought a real smile to Jimmy's face. He laughed a little, but it sounded hollow.

"What do you want to know?"

"Last night you said, 'Not another one.' This wasn't the first murder here?"

"Oh, no. Been 'bout..." He considered what must have been a long string of days so routine they blurred into each other. "Must have been four in the last year."

I gasped. "And no one ever found the murderer?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Sheriff tried to, but... Well, he said it must have been some off-worlder. We're all a pretty close bunch of people. Small town. It's hard to keep secrets here. Someone would have to go to mighty great lengths if they had any sort of gossip they didn't want spread across town faster'n they could spit. Seems murder would be just the kind we'd eat up."

"Why assume it was an off-worlder?"

Jimmy leaned back in his chair, surprised I hadn't realized. "'Cause all the victims was off-worlders. We just thought they'd all brought some bad business with them."

I looked away from him, my mind racing. It was just a hunch, but if I could find out where they had come from... "What other hotels could they have stayed at?"

"Ain't no other hotel," Jimmy said. "We get about two visitors a year. Plenty for Joe and Betty to take care of."

Chapter 7

I exited the bar to find the sheriff, only to have him come out of nowhere to push me against the wall.

"You're going to jail," he said. "Ain't no two ways about it."

"For what?"

"For obstructing an investigation," he said. "For breaking and entering. For disrupting the peace. Hell, plenty else plus whatever I want to make up just to keep you out of our hair. Or did you think no one would notice your little stunt breaking into the morgue?"

"I know who the murderer is," I said.

The sheriff laughed, but he let go of me. He crossed his arms. "Really? And you came to tell me? I hope you see the irony in that."

I smoothed my shirt down. "I know you see me as a nuisance, sheriff. But if you want to keep anyone else from dying, you'll listen to me."

"How do you know the murderer ain't gone off-world?"

"It's simple," I said. "Because the murderer lives here."

********

The sheriff stopped me at the front door to the bed and breakfast.

"You sure you ain't told nobody else about this?"

"No. I came straight to you. I know you want to keep this quiet. Trust me. I don't want any more trouble than you do. Wait." I reached up to the top of the door and pulled out the wire connected to the bell. "We don't want to let them know we're here too soon."

"Well, all right." The sheriff opened the door. "After you," he said.

I went inside, a little disheartened at the way the whole thing had turned out. I knew the kind of obsession they felt. I knew what it was like to want to save a member of your family at any cost, and to hell with anyone that came in your way.

But I saw now the sacrifices they had made, sacrifices they had no right to make. They had done what they could to bring their son back. But what happened afterwards wasn't their decision. Their son was dead, and trying to control his destiny had just caused more people more pain.

I shook my head and promised I wouldn't do the same. I had saved River from a fate that I didn't doubt would have been similar to a Reaver; dead to her former life, living only as a creature meant to kill. But she still had a life to live, was on her way to becoming a woman, and it was wrong of me to pretend I had any control over her decisions.

"The Reaver is in the attic," I said.

Behind me, the sheriff closed the door. A soft chime rang through the room. He had reconnected the wire.

"What are you--"

I stopped dead as I turned around to him. He had unsheathed a small hatchet from his belt.

I gulped. "I hope we won't need that. They're just an old couple."

"Oh, I'm sure we'll need it. Right awful spot of trouble you've gotten yourself into, son. Just awful." He cupped a hand over his mouth and yelled, "Betty! Joe! Better get out here!"

The couple came out, still in their pajamas.

Joe didn't even have to ask. "Guess he found out," he said.

The sheriff nodded. "Told you we should have taken care of them both."

"Can't blame me for trying," Joe said. "Thought he might help me get Henry back to his old days."

"I still can," I said. "This isn't what it looks like."

The sheriff waved the hatchet back and forth, t'sking me. "Now, it's too late for that kind of thing." He started towards me. "That's my nephew up there. Been four generations on this gorram dirt ball, and I'll be dead before I let someone break apart this family."

I looked between Joe and the sheriff, noticing the similarities I had guessed came from one of two sources. But now I had no doubt. It wasn't the environment. They were brothers.

"You people are crazy," I said.

"Matter of opinion, Mr. Kittredge. Can't take the chance you'll tell others about our special young man upstairs," the sheriff said.

The sheriff reached for me. I turned and ran up the stairs. I stopped on the second floor long enough to see they were following me. I tried a door. Locked. All of them, including my room.

I could have tried to pick one of the locks, but I doubted I could make it through one in time.

I had one chance. It was a long shot, but if anything went wrong, I was dead anyway.

As the three of them stepped closer, I went for the one door I knew they left open.

The attic.

Chapter 8

"Mr. Kittredge," Betty called. "We know you're in here."

Staring a Reaver in the face, even one asleep and held back by chains, my instinct was to abandon my plan and hope those with their minds still more or less intact would listen to me. But I couldn't stop now. I continued digging in the lock, desperate for that single CLICK that would tell me I was finished.

Joe entered first and saw me crouched in the corner. "There you are."

Henry opened his eyes, his glance falling on Joe. For a moment, it seemed he recognized his father.

Betty and the sheriff followed Joe inside. The sheriff, ever a gentleman, nodded to Betty, then closed and locked the door.

No way out. Except one.

I didn't waste the distraction. I turned the pin, felt the lock turn, and backed away as Henry jerked towards me, swiping but missing. He let out a low growl, then looked back at his father. Henry stepped forward, reaching for Joe, until the chains pulled taut.

"I'm sorry," I told Joe.

Betty and the sheriff came around the corner. The sheriff just shook his head, lifted the hatchet, and started towards me.

"Don't be," Joe said. "It's me that--"

I grabbed the lock and pulled it out, releasing the chain.

Henry stood still for a moment as he realized he was free.

"Now, Henry," Joe said. "Remember who brought you all those dinners, fresh."

I stood as still as possible, hoping he would take the bait and give me the distraction I needed.

Henry curled his lips, snarled, and went after his family. With any luck, that would keep them busy long enough for me to escape.

I ran for the window and yanked at the rotten wood.

Joe, Betty, and the sheriff screamed, tried to run, but the area was too tight. Henry leaped and landed on Betty. Joe and the sheriff whirled and came for Henry. They grabbed his arms, told him, "It's your mom! Let her go, Henry! Let her go!"

But they were no match for a creature that had almost no memory of who they were, and what he did remember didn't matter.

With a final heave, I opened the window. I held my legs over the ledge, calculating the fall. At least twelve feet. My heart raced, for a moment not sure which was the greater threat: the Reaver behind me, or the fall ahead. But a roar from Henry convinced me.

I shut my eyes and jumped.

Epilogue

I shoved the shuttle door open so hard I stumbled out and into Serenity. I grunted as my weight fell on my injured ankle. On the lower deck, Kaylee sat with River, playing some game. She glanced at me but just as quickly turned away.

By the main docking door, Mal, Jayne, Zoe, and the Operative checked through the supplies on the Mule.

"Hey," Mal yelled. "What're you doing back so soon?" He squinted. "And for the love of my xiaolaopo, why are you limpin'?"

"Because I broke my ankle," I said as I passed him. "I need to talk to you."

He started to ask about what, but I kept walking, or limping, to the one person I had thought of the whole trip back.

Kaylee didn't want to, but she turned to me as she sensed me getting closer. "Have a nice vacation?" She said it in such a way I doubted she hoped I'd had one. Without telling her she was gorram right, it had been awful, I pulled her to her feet and into my arms.

She pushed against me, but she'd wanted me back this whole time and couldn't find a reason to really get me off her.

"You think you can just come back here and everything'll be fine and kuai le without even saying you're--"

"I'm sorry, Kaylee."

She shook her head, a little shocked. "You are?"

I nodded. "I'm so sorry. Not just for what I said." I held up my hands, all honesty. "I will never interfere in your decisions again. It's your life. I'm just happy I'm still in it."

"Well, there is the matter of if I still want you in it," she said, but she lowered her head to hide her smile.

"I do need you to do me a favor, though," I said.

"Oh. Of course you want something."

"Do not. Ever. Let me go on a vacation alone. Ever. Next time, you're coming with me."

She blushed, again surprised. "Somethin' happen out there, Simon?"

"Just promise me."

She didn't hide her smile this time. "I promise." She leaned in close and whispered, "Someone else might want an apology, too." She patted me on my rear end and went to help the guys load the Mule, leaving me alone with River.

I pulled out a chair to sit with her.

River didn't look up as she said, "Don't have to say anything."

"River, that's sweet, but I want you to know--"

"You're just lucky to be alive, Simon," she said.

"What... How do you know..."

"You've got blood on your shirt," she said.

"Hey, crazy-girl," Jayne yelled. "You comin' or what?"

River pushed her chair out and went to the Mule. I opened my mouth to say something. Every other time she had gone on a job, someone had almost ended up dead, or worse, on a date with Badger. But I'd promised myself if I said anything, it wouldn't be to force her decision.

We lived on this ship now. The crew was our family.

River laughed as Jayne grabbed her and tousled a fistful of her hair.

If she wanted to take part in the family tradition of thieving and smuggling, there wasn't a better group to be with.

Mal smiled and left them to come over to the table. "So, what did you want to talk about?"

"I need you to do me a favor."

"Already not liking it," he said. "What is it?"

"Delay the job. Just for a few hours."

"Got a good reason?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, you see, there's this Reaver...."

To be continued in Episode 7: Heart to Heart

COMMENTS

Friday, August 29, 2008 4:01 AM

MEGG


Pretty dang awesome story.


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