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© 2010, © 2011 by Kristin Damon

ISBN: 9781617926211

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, some locations, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, organizations and or some locations is entirely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, by any means, or stored in a retrieval system or database without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

The Trait Second Edition: May 2011

 

Published by White Moose Publishing (USA)

www.whitemoosepublishing.com

 

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

 

 

For my very own superhumans

John, Conner, and Alison—

Thank you for believing in me.

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

In nothing but his boxers, in a field of dead grass and patches of grainy snow, Creed Alexander stood in undeniable agony. The sweat covering his pale torso gleamed in the midmorning sun. He held his arms up, inviting the sunlight to penetrate him as his eyes closed against the blinding rays. He slowly tipped his face directly at the sky. For Creed alone, his decision to stand unclothed in the sun could be lethal.

A fugitive from the sun, Creed was often imprisoned and physically tortured when captured, then held in regret-filled custody for months after exposure to sunlight. But for her, for the girl of his dreams who he had met, courted, and fallen in love with only by night, Creed would risk the imprisonment. He’d willingly serve the sentence handed down from his trait—intense and relentless physical pain and emotional hell—for her.

Creed held his position until the pain became intolerable. Stumbling to his knees, he screamed out in anguish as he clutched his abdomen. White foam and the contents of his stomach spewed from his mouth as his side slammed against the ground and he recoiled from the heat into a fetal position.  “Oh, God help me!” he choked. Out of control and hurting like never before, Creed cried as sunlight continued to beat on his body.

CHAPTER 1

 

Her hand trembled as she pulled the wad of money from his grasp. “What is this for?” she asked, her tone laden with confusion.

Chandler didn’t immediately respond. He had to look away from her. The day’s first streams of sunlight hit the car mirror to his left and forced him to squint. Chandler and Brynn, his girlfriend of five years were sitting in the front seat of his truck, parked in the lot behind a women’s clinic in Bangor, Maine. Her wide-eyed stare shifted back from Chandler to the rear entrance of the building.

He cleared his throat. “If you decide to go through with it, you’ll have to pay them in cash. If it’s going to be more than this, I’ve got more,” he quietly added.

“Go through with what?” She sharply turned her focus from the door to Chandler. “You aren’t coming in with me? I thought we were meeting with a counselor to talk about our options,” she panicked, fear evident in her bloodshot eyes.

“No, I better not. It’s a—a woman’s thing. I’ll just wait here.” He looked at her for a moment before returning his attention to the windshield in front of him.

Brynn, whose mouth fell open in shock, took a deep breath to calm herself. She looked at the money in her hand, and, without saying another word, exited the cab of the truck. Each step closer to the clinic felt heavier than the one before. Her bottom lip violently trembled, as did the pace of her heart, the closer she ventured into the unknown.

She opened the heavy glass door before turning to look at Chandler. Standing just inside the building, Brynn waited for him, secretly longing for him to rush to her and stop her. She yearned for him to want her, to help her and take care of her, but her desires were quickly demolished as the glass door closed. Chandler, sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck, hadn’t moved. Hurt and afraid, Brynn turned around and walked to the reception desk alone.

 

Most boys who knew Brynn wanted to date her, but they all feared her older brother Sean. He was one of the largest boys in the school and was exceptionally protective of his younger siblings. The combination of his immaturity and short temper had gotten him expelled from school at least a dozen times for fighting. Brynn had stepped in and stopped two of the fights, one of them so violent that she had avoided Sean for a year afterward. Even after graduation, his presence silently lingered around his younger siblings at school.

Sean played football and basketball, and a few of his close and trusted friends would eventually work up the courage to ask Sean if they could date one of his sisters. Because Sean knew of and approved of the Tyler family, he agreed to Chandler escorting Brynn to their junior prom. From that date on, Chandler and Brynn were a couple.

But after that awful day at the clinic, things changed between Chandler and Brynn. When she took the money from him and walked into the women’s clinic by herself, she knew she’d never feel the same way about him again.

Less than an hour after entering the clinic—alone—Brynn was walked to Chandler’s truck by a nurse in dingy white scrubs. Brynn slouched down on the seat, her head up by Chandler’s thighs and her legs bent by the door.

“She’s in the process of naturally passing the fetus. Take her home and let nature take its course,” the nurse stated before carefully closing the door.

Chandler waited until the nurse had reentered the building before he leaned over Brynn. “How—what’s going—” he stuttered.

“I told them that I saw a little blood in my panties this morning. They did an exam.” She tapped the folded money he had given her against his leg, and he slowly pulled it from her grasp. “Looks like you got what you wanted after all,” she whispered.

 

Brynn thought about the trip to Bangor often. She kicked herself for not telling Chandler the way she really felt—that she wanted him to marry her and share a family with her. She should have told him that he needed to step up to the plate and face the issue like a man. The resentment she felt toward him for putting pressure on her to have sex in the first place had doubled when he offered up such a horrific act as a solution. Even after time passed, she felt weak and confused, certain that her resentment wasn’t half as strong as the resentment Chandler would have felt toward her for trapping him with a family he didn’t want.

Soon, a year had come and gone, along with Brynn’s desire to be with Chandler. “Chandler, I am serious,” Brynn said without looking at him. She used her toe to nudge the porch swing on the balcony of her newly rented apartment back into motion.

Chandler was upset. “Are you seeing someone else?”

“Of course not.”

“Why then? Why after all this time are you so quick to throw this all away?” he asked before loudly, forcefully inhaling.

“You know why,” Brynn coldly returned. Chandler groaned, and Brynn turned to him. “Chandler, I don’t want to hurt you, but I’m not in love with you anymore. It’s not fair to either of us to keep this going any longer,” she said as she patted the top of his hand. His fingers wrapped around hers, and he rubbed her wrist with his free hand.

He didn’t look at Brynn as he asked, “Is there anything we could do to make this work?”

Brynn sighed and took a moment to make it appear that she was thinking before she slowly pulled her hand away. “No, I am sorry. You’re a great guy, Chandler, and you deserve to be happy. I know that there’s another girl—many other girls—that you’ll get to know, and you’ll fall in love with one of them and share a very happy life with her. It’s just not going to be with me.”

Chandler abruptly stood and turned to the patio door. He pulled on the door handle and glanced over his shoulder. “We could’ve made it work, Brynn. You just weren’t able to forgive me for what happened last year.”

Brynn nodded in agreement. “You’re right, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forget it or forgive you . . . or myself.”

“Forgive yourself? You didn’t do anything wrong, Brynn. You weren’t going to go through with an abortion. I knew all a long you’d never willingly do that.”

“But I didn’t want the baby. My head told my body to get rid of it, regardless of what my heart wanted.” Brynn could feel a lump forming in her throat, and she quickly turned away from Chandler. She bit her bottom lip, causing her chin to quiver.

Brynn jumped at the loud clank of the glass door connecting with the frame. Since the weekend in Bangor, Brynn had seen Chandler only once or twice a month, each encounter more awkward and unpleasant than the previous one. She had tried to break it off three times before, but Chandler wouldn’t discuss it. She had finally had enough and demanded that he sit and talk with her.

The breakup had gone much better than she had expected. Brynn watched Chandler as he walked across the parking lot to his truck. Her eyes followed Chandler’s truck onto the street at the same time that she flicked the last splinters of Chandler from her heart.

CHAPTER  2

 

Five years quickly passed after her relationship with Chandler ended and, following that day on the balcony, she had only seen him a handful of times while running errands or at community activities. Gathered from gossip around town, Brynn heard Chandler wasn’t married and that he graduated from Kentucky before being drafted into the NFL.

Brynn was happy for Chandler and sincerely wanted him to be happy and successful. She thought of him often, of what happened between them, of what their lives could have been like had they chosen to embrace the pregnancy. She wondered if a different frame of mind would have made a difference, if being excited and happy would have encouraged her body to keep the life inside her instead of rejecting it.

She grieved the miscarriage, scolding herself for not taking better care of the fetus. Even with the remorse she felt, she didn’t regret breaking it off with Chandler and hoped he had forgotten all about their ordeal, as she had tried to do.

Along with regret and remorse, Brynn had spent the five years without Chandler dealing with new emotions, some of which she hadn’t had to deal with before in her life. She was embarrassed and often felt sad. Her bouncy, friendly spirit had been replaced by hopelessness. She had twisted, unrealistic notions that she would pay the price for what had happened in Bangor, for what her body had done to the baby inside her. She felt differently toward people, toward her family, and toward men. She repeatedly, privately vowed never to give in to a man again. The new Brynn was stronger but in a cold, hardened way.

 

She loudly sighed and closed the bottom drawer of her desk before glancing around the sterile, gray room. She had spent a great deal of time in the large office area—too much time—and all of it bothered her. The stuffiness, her desk, her boss, her life—everything irritated Brynn to the point of physical pain. She roughly massaged her temples, attempting to lighten the pressure she felt between her ears.

“Here’s a list of things you need to get done this evening,” Mrs. Larson, the general manager, said on her way out the door.

“Will do,” Brynn habitually replied. She reached for the gold-colored paper and rolled her eyes as she scanned the written notes. Before she could mentally break down the order in which she planned to tackle the tasks, her mind quickly shifted gears from cooperation to discontent. Brynn loathed her job, and secretly, she loathed her boss. Aside from the one shared with her elderly grandmother, Brynn didn’t have a single significant or meaningful relationship in her life.

Mrs. Larson cleared her throat, and Brynn looked up. Mrs. Larson, standing near the desk with both her closed fists on her hips, was older than any one of her seven-person staff. She had been married to a cantankerous mechanic for decades and was mother to two teenaged children. Both her children, a senior and a sophomore in high school, were rarely mentioned. Aside from her beloved poodle, which she talked of constantly, neither Brynn nor anyone else knew much about Mrs. Larson. In fact, no one knew her first name. Everyone called her Mrs. Larson, including, at times, her husband.

Now that she had Brynn’s attention again, she said, “The computer in the main barracks is down again, which affects the remotes on the gates and our security system. I’ve called someone to come out and fix it.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Larson,” Brynn said. She pretended to examine the list as Mrs. Larson retrieved her purse and exited the small office. Sitting three stories in the air, the military base in Houlton, Maine, was hardly in need of supervision a minute after five o’clock in the evening. Nothing ever happened after hours, which was why Brynn was able to tolerate her job. She performed her assigned tasks, cleaned up a bit, went for a walk on the barren airport grounds, read, and listened to music. Her job at the base, which she applied for and accepted right out of high school, had been a good thing. It paid well and gave her the ability to care for her elderly grandmother during the day while her parents worked.

 

CHAPTER  3

 

Brynn finished the evening of work at the base, and after locking the front doors of the main building, she walked to her car. Frightened by the dark, a fear she had dealt with since childhood, Brynn frantically scanned the parking lot before she rammed her already-prepared key into the lock. Sliding into the driver’s seat as fast as she could, she slammed and locked the door quickly.

Brynn had convinced herself that she’d be attacked if she didn’t stay alert. Brynn was anxious. Her anxiety had become a cycle in her life that she didn’t recognize. The anxiety she felt was brought on by the limitless hours she spent alone, yet Brynn was alone because she experienced anxiety outside of the small daily routine she had created for herself. Inside the base, her car, or her apartment, Brynn was safe. She didn’t have to extend herself, to talk or to make eye contact with others if she was alone. Her isolation, daily schedule, and overall lifestyle had been the topics of many unpleasant discussions between her parents.

“Brynn’s too pretty to be where she’s at in life. We should have insisted that she go to the community college,” June, Brynn’s mother, stated.

“We should’ve made her marry Chandler,” her father, Baker, added.

“No. Brynn and Chandler . . . well, there was something going on with that boy that was making Brynn unhappy. She should have gone away to school.”

“But what about Mother?” Baker asked in reference to his ailing and elderly mother-in-law. His wife and her mother didn’t have the healthiest relationship, and Brynn’s willingness to sit with Grandma Ruth every day had become an important luxury to June, both physically and emotionally.

“Yes, it’s been a good thing, Brynn caring for her,” June said with a loud sigh. “I don’t know what to do with Brynn. She’s just stuck in a rut.”

“Speaking of ruts, I need to find the owner’s manual for my new lawn mower.”

June chuckled at her husband’s statement. Throughout their marriage, June had listened to Baker reference two completely unrelated topics in the same conversation hundreds of times. She had come to know that when Baker said, “Speaking of,” he was the only person who knew what he was talking about.

“All right dear,” she said as she kissed his suntanned cheek. June carried herself quietly and was always in control of her emotions. Being married to Baker, whose quick temper was often tested and exposed, June’s ability to deal with things rationally had helped diffuse frequent and potentially volatile situations within her home.

 

“Brynn dear, hand me that jar of hand cream, would you?”

“Sure,” Brynn said as she stood and crossed the room. Inside the living room of one of the oldest Victorian homes in northern Maine, Ruth Rossum spent ninety percent of her time in a massive overstuffed recliner, either sleeping or watching television. The house was large and stuffy, and Brynn did her best to make the interior stench less ancient than it really was.

The grass-green carpet, which was part of a cosmetic upgrade done to the house in the late seventies, caught Brynn’s eye. Memories from summer afternoons spent lying on the green rug at Grandma Ruth’s house, playing with her dolls or reading a book, consumed her. Grandma Ruth’s house, the constants, such as the green carpeting and the musty aroma, were a safe haven for Brynn and a must in her daily life.

“Here you go, Grandma,” Brynn said as she placed the jar of cream gently in her grandmother’s thin, bony hand. The old woman looked up at her with cloudy blue eyes. Her abnormally poofy white hair, which Brynn placed in rollers twice a week and then ratted and sprayed big, encased Ruth’s small face, making it barely visible. Her skin was spotted and wrinkled, and she looked like a very thin, older version of June. Along with her loss of sight, both of her hips had been repaired and eventually replaced, and she had undergone a mastectomy on both of her breasts. Physically, Ruth Rossum was showing every day of her ninety-four years. Mentally, she was as sharp as a tack.

“Brynn, you go on home now. I’ve had my lunch and you need to get out a bit before another winter hits us,” Ruth said, her voice as deep as the wrinkles on her wilting face.

“I’d like to hang out here for a while and then go straight to work. I don’t think winter’s going to be here for a couple of weeks,” Brynn said as she sat back down on the sofa and glanced across the room at the flickering television screen. She turned from the TV to her frail grandmother, who was licking her lips.

Brynn stood up and went down the hall into the bathroom. She opened the medicine cabinet and reached for her grandmother’s lip balm. She shut the mirrored door and glanced at her own reflection.

Slowly, Brynn’s hand approached her face. She tucked a piece of thick, shiny, light brown hair behind her ear. Brynn shared the same ocean blue eyes of her family. Round and bright, with thick, curly eyelashes, her eyes were her best feature. Her creamy skin, always sun-kissed, was flawless from head to toe. Her face had a youthful look to it, much like that of her older brother Sean, whom she was the closest with out of her four siblings. Highly defined cheekbones and perfectly placed features made Brynn a stunningly pretty girl. Her lips were full and red, her teeth white and straight. Standing at five-feet six inches tall and a healthy 120 pounds, Brynn had a slender and appealing physique. She was simply beautiful.

And she knew she was pretty. The way boys gawked at her and the dirty looks that other girls would give her didn’t go unnoticed. Her friends and siblings protected Brynn as much as they could during her childhood, but most of them had since left town, gotten married, or started lives of their own. Brynn had been undefended and on her own for years, which she reminded herself daily was the way she wanted it.

 

Brynn walked back to the living room of the old, stuffy house. Her grandmother, who was now reclined in the chair with her eyes closed, took shallow, slow breaths. Brynn stopped in the doorway and watched her grandmother for a long time. Her grandmother’s days were numbered, and Brynn wanted to spend more time with her than usual, to make her last days comfortable and contented. She quietly crossed the green carpet and straightened the objects on the metal tray next to her grandmother’s recliner.

Ruth stirred and looked up at Brynn. She slowly licked her lips. “Brynn dear, would you go and get my—” She stopped when she noticed the tube in Brynn’s hand. Ruth smiled as Brynn removed the cap and gently applied lip balm to her grandmother’s wrinkled mouth.

“Is that better, Grandma?”

“Yes, dear. You are a life saver,” Ruth said as she rested her head back onto the oversized chair and closed her eyes once again.

 

Brynn watched her grandmother sleep for an hour before walking into the kitchen and writing her a note, a similar note from one night to the next.

 

Grandma,

Dinner’s in the fridge, top shelf on the left. Remove the tinfoil and warm the food for two minutes. I’ll be here tomorrow, but if you need help before then, call Mom. Please don’t take the emergency buzzer off your neck tonight.

I love you, Brynn.

 

Ruth hated to wear the bulky red button around her neck but was reminded through notes and verbal requests that it made Brynn and the rest of the family more comfortable with her living on her own. Ruth vacating her home and entering a nursing home had been rarely discussed because of Ruth’s willingness to comply with her family’s requests and because of Brynn. Ruth loved her granddaughter more than she had loved anyone else in her lifetime.

Brynn visually scanned the room to make sure her grandmother had most everything she might need and that her surroundings appeared safe and secure. She stepped near the chair her grandmother was sleeping in and moved the metal walker closer to Ruth’s hand. Brynn sighed. She felt good enough about the day and about her grandmother to venture ten miles up the road to her afternoon job at the military base.

She locked the back door to her grandmother’s house and quickly crossed the carport to her car. As she pulled out of her grandmother’s property, Brynn relaxed. She adjusted the vent to blow cool air directly into her face before turning up the volume on her radio. Listening to the song softly filtering from the car speakers, Brynn slowly made her way down the country road she knew well.

 

Brynn came from a typical, average American family. Sitting at the head of his table each night at dinner, Brynn’s father, Baker Moore, was proud of his household. He was a third-generation potato farmer and had spent most every day of his life outdoors. He had worked alongside fellow farmers, friends, and family members since he was ten years old and was preparing to comfortably retire in five short years.

Brynn’s mother June managed a small laundromat in town and depleted hours each day folding laundry, as she had been doing since she was twenty. Baker and June were high school sweethearts and had led surprisingly happy lives in the barren country fields of eastern Maine. Baker was tall and thin, with a kind face and fine, white hair. June was short and stocky, but pretty, nonetheless. She tried hard to work on her weight and was always on a diet. June’s hair was light, as were her eyes, which perfectly matched her upbeat and gentle spirit.

Shortly after Baker and June married, they promptly added five little mouths to feed at the dinner table. Sean, the oldest Moore child, was tall, thick, and strong. He worked every day alongside his dad in the potato fields. He and his wife, Fanny, had four small children under the age of six.

Two daughters followed Sean—Jillian and Willow. June gave her body a two-year break before giving birth to Brynn. Brynn was by far the most beautiful of the Moore children and resembled Sean and Jillian. Following Brynn was the baby, Hunter. For the most part, the five Moore children had lived in relative harmony with their parents in Houlton.

 

Driving down the country road to the military base where she worked, a song sparking strong memories from Brynn’s past filtered from the speakers. After Brynn graduated from high school, she had big dreams like Chandler and most of her friends. Smart, energetic, and outgoing, Brynn wanted to take photography classes and open her own photography studio upon graduation. She wanted to leave northern Maine and see the world. The sky was the limit for Brynn—she was sure of it.

Reluctantly, Brynn had agreed to spend the summer after high school graduation caring for her grandmother. Her parents, both financially strapped to their jobs like a criminal in handcuffs, weren’t able to care for June during the regular business hours of a weekday. Baker and June promised their daughter that it would be a temporary situation, so Brynn agreed to the arrangement. In the search of her own money, Brynn had applied for the afternoon supervisor shift at the small, underutilized military base. She was offered the job and, for the first few weeks, Brynn was enamored with the notion of having her own money. Before she knew it, the summer had come and gone.

Baker and June begged Brynn to postpone her schooling. Each time a new term would start, the same conversation would ensue.

“Brynn, it’s just one more term. I just need a little more time to figure out what to do at work,” June said.

“But, Mom, that’s what you said last term, and the term before that. It’s not that I don’t like being with Grandma Ruth, because I do . . .”

“We know that, dear,” Baker piped up. “You just have no idea how hard it would be on us, on Grandma, if she had to be placed in a home. I don’t think she’d last too long in a place like that.”

At the time, Brynn didn’t see how her parents manipulated her, nor did she care. Secretly, school wasn’t a genuine priority for Brynn. She just wanted to feel like she had a little bit of say in her own life once in a while. As in each of the same conversations in the past, Brynn caved. “Okay, but just one more term.”

Feeling immense pressure, Brynn was young and realized the fact that there would be plenty of time for her to make decisions. She enjoyed caring for her grandmother and slept in the small bedroom down the hall from her grandmother’s bedroom many nights each week. She desperately wanted to move on and to have a real life of her own. But regardless of her personal desires, Brynn reminded herself daily that she’d be able to work on her own life as soon as she helped her family with theirs.

Eventually, Brynn grew comfortable with her daily routine, comfortable in her apartment and with the relationships in her life.

Daily life was so simple, it was complicated. Thoughts of applying to school, finding a new job, and creating a new life became exhausting to Brynn. She was setting herself up for regret, but she also felt stuck. Ruth needed her, and Brynn tried numerous times to figure out other options for her grandmother and her parents. Her problem solving was futile, as there was always something else to think about, or it was time to go to work, or Ruth had a doctor’s appointment.

Brynn had put herself and her dreams on the back burner to care for those around her, but those dreams had long since burned into smoke and ash, leaving Brynn’s only consolation in life caring for her grandmother.

 

CHAPTER  4

 

The buzzer from the call button attached to the entrance of the main building pierced the silence of the office, and Brynn jumped. She looked at the small black-and-white screen and noticed a man standing at the front door.

“Can I help you?” she asked into the prehistoric speaker box.

“I am here to work on your computer. Mrs. Larson called me,” he answered, his voice crackling through the out-of-date speaker.

“Would you mind holding your ID up to the camera, please?”

“Sure,” he said. Brynn looked at the clock on the wall as he fished for his ID. It was just after ten, and she couldn’t wait for her shift to end in just a short hour and a half. Brynn was tired and out of sorts. She didn’t know why, but she wasn’t feeling like herself. I haven’t all day. Brynn glanced back at the monitor and tried to read the ID of the man she was about to admit in to the dark and barren military base.

“Mister . . . ”

“Creed Alexander with CompSolutions,” he said as he put his driver’s license back into his wallet.

“I’ll be right there,” Brynn said as she marked the page in her book. The thick, yellowed library book, which had obviously been read numerous times, was ratty and ripped. Brynn herself had read the photography book on lighting and lenses once before.

As she walked through the darkened halls of the small building, Brynn stretched her back. She felt a tinge of pain just above her waist and rubbed her muscles with both of her hands. She took a deep breath and concluded that she hadn’t been getting enough sleep. Even though she tried to have a regular and ample sleep schedule, she spent many hours of each night staring at the ceiling in her apartment, thinking about her life, as she had done every night before.

As she made her way around a corner toward the main door, Brynn thought jokingly that the main building of the military base had been built in the form a maze. She slid her badge through a card reader, disengaging the lock with a loud click. She pulled on the heavy door, and the man, holding a bag in each hand, stepped into the hallway. Without really looking at him, Brynn pointed in the direction they needed to go.

“Thanks for letting me in,” he said as he followed her down the hall.

“No thanks necessary. I’m just doing my job,” Brynn said as she led him deep into the building.

“Your job is?” he asked before she stopped near her desk.

“Uneventful,” Brynn replied. She looked at the list left by her boss and read the handwritten notes concerning the computer issues.

“I need to take you to the main barracks,” she read out loud as she replaced the paper on her desk and walked to a cabinet on the wall. Brynn retrieved the large set of keys that accessed the main outer building.

She smiled at the young man, who followed her to a large, glass-encased room. They maneuvered through multiple desks, most of which looked like they hadn’t been used in decades. Brynn was chatting with the young man as he followed her.

“What was your name again?”

“Creed . . . Creed Alexander,” he said as he bumped a desk with one of his large bags, knocking a cup of unused pencils to the floor. Brynn quickly bent down to pick up the cup and its contents.

“Your name is?”

Brynn looked at him as she replaced the cup on the desk. “Brynn Moore.” She resumed her course to the outer door. At a door at the other end of the room, Brynn swiped her card before pushing the heavy door open into the night air. It was dark outside, and a cool breeze hit Brynn’s face as she held the door open for the computer repairman. He stepped onto the landing and glanced down a massive set of stairs.

“Down the stairs, then to that metal building,” she softly said as she pushed on the door to ensure that it locked upon closing. The man looked down the staircase and turned back to Brynn.

“That’s the longest staircase I have ever seen,” he declared as he started down the metal stairs.

“Well, we are three stories in the air. There are sixty-four steps here,” Brynn said as she followed the man. From above, she couldn’t help but look at him as she descended the staircase in front of her. His dark brown hair was thick and nicely styled, really short around the sides and back and just a bit longer and casually messy on the top. She noticed a necklace around his neck and wondered how old he was. Creed was the first stranger she had met in a long time; so long, in fact, that she couldn’t remember the last person she had freshly become acquainted with, especially by way of her evening job.

They walked side by side across the asphalt to the large metal building, and Creed noticed the worn letters above a rusted metal door labeled BARRACKS A, HOULTON MILITARY BASE.

Brynn struggled with the corroded lock on the rusted metal door and moaned loudly. The key was inserted into the hole, but it wouldn’t move a millimeter.

“Darn this old lock,” she grunted as she worked the key as vigorously as she dared. Brynn worried that she might break the key off into the old door if she pushed too hard against the lock’s rusted innards.

“Can I give it a try?” Creed asked.

“Sure, I definitely can’t get it unlocked,” she said as she moved out of his way. “This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with this door.”

Creed struggled with the lock before it loudly popped, and Brynn exhaled loudly.

“Thank goodness you were able to get the door unlocked. I would have had to have you wait for a locksmith to come out and fix this thing.”

“Why don’t they just replace the lock?” Creed asked as he followed Brynn into the building.

“The guy who maintains the base thinks that cooking spray will fix anything squeaky, sticky, rusted, or scratched. He even uses it to clean the historic wood banner in the main building. He’s a bit out of touch with the modern world, I think.”

“Sounds like it,” Creed said with a smile as he followed her through a small office and into a large, open hangar. The main area of the hangar held three antiqued World War II planes that the base stored for the army, and Creed took a moment to admire the antique machinery. Brynn led him to the second office. Amidst a rainbow of wires and lights, Brynn pointed at the base’s master server and security system.

“Here’s the computer that has caused problems with the remotes on the gates and the security system. If you need anything, I’ll be in the front office of this building,” she said as she watched him retrieve a piece of paper from the front of one of his bags.

“You don’t need to stay out here in this building with me. I mean if you don’t have to, that is.” He looked up at her and grinned. “I’ll be all right.”

Brynn smiled back and awkwardly chuckled once. “Oh, I—I don’t love the dark, so I’ll just wait until you’re done and walk back with you to the main building,” she explained before she walked to the doorway and exited the stuffy computer room. Creed watched her exit the area before reading his client’s request from the work order. Within a minute, he was twisting a screw from its hole, holding the cover to a large computer.

Brynn walked into the first office and fell into a worn leather sofa. Permanently attached in the corner of the far wall and ceiling, just like those seen in a hospital room, hung a dust-covered television set. She reached for the remote, pointed it at the TV, and began surfing from one channel to the next. She ended up on a show about extreme weather and was quickly consumed with thoughts of what it would be like to be caught in a tornado or a hurricane. Her mild anxiety was only fueled by such thoughts, but she couldn’t help herself. It was like watching a train wreck. She wanted to look away, but she was unknowingly drawn to the turmoil around her.

Forty minutes passed, and Creed walked back into the office where Brynn was sitting. He held out a blackened and charred piece of what looked like computer guts. Protruding from a metal tray, which was covered with black burn marks, were wires and plastic covered tubes. Creed’s hands were covered in the soot, and there was a small smear of the ash on his cheek near his chin.

Brynn smiled and bit the insides of her cheeks to restrain from laughing as Creed began to talk. “The mainframe on the system needs a new motherboard. The cooling mechanism burned out—God knows when—and it caused voltage instabilities inside the computer, ultimately burning up the most important part of the server,” he explained as he held the board in the air.

“That sounds complicated and expensive,” Brynn said as she stood and closely examined the piece of computer in Creed’s hand.

“Complicated, no; expensive, yes, especially on a machine as old as the one in there.”

“So, can we order another part?” Brynn asked as she watched him slip the burnt object into a clear plastic bag before placing it inside his large duffle bag.

“I’ll order one for you. It will take a few days to get it in, and I’ll come in and install it as soon as it arrives.”

Brynn stepped near him and pointed at his cheek. “You have a little bit of black stuff . . . right there,” she said as their eyes met. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a tissue, briskly wiped it across his skin. He tipped his head back toward the ceiling and looked at her down the slope of his nose.

“You got it,” she quietly said.

“Thank you,” he said and smiled. She flipped the light switch, and he followed her to the same door they used to initially enter the hangar.

“I’ll have my boss call Mrs. Larson,” he said as Brynn stuck the key into the rusted lock and once again struggled to turn it. Like before, she stepped aside and allowed Creed to engage the lock. They turned in the direction of the office building and began their trek across the yard.

The wind picked up, causing Brynn to fold her arms in front of her. She stopped abruptly and turned to him. “Wait, is the backup computer hooked up? How will the officials engage the gate locks on the base from their remotes?”

“The backup computer is up and running. I made sure of it. No worries,” he said, and they resumed walking. They reached the massive staircase. Creed slowly glanced up the staircase and smiled. “How many stairs did you say?”

“Sixty-four,” she answered as they made the trek up the narrow, steep staircase.

CHAPTER  5

 

“Mrs. Larson, did the computer parts come in while I was gone?” Brynn asked as she slid her time card into the old time clock and waited for it to stamp the paper with her arrival time. She had taken a day off during the week to drive her grandmother to a doctor’s appointment, which did not go well. The cancer inside her grandmother’s stomach was spreading, and the oncologist didn’t give Ruth but a few months to live. Brynn was saddened by the news. She asked Ruth’s doctor not to disclose the prognosis to Ruth, which he ultimately refused to do. Her grandmother cried all the way home, and it broke Brynn’s heart.

“No, he’ll be back in either this evening or in the morning. I’d rather have him come at night . . . seems to be less time-consuming and more efficient if we don’t have a bunch of employees in the building,” Mrs. Larson stated as she finished writing Brynn a “special” to-do list for the evening.

Brynn bit her tongue. No, you just don’t want to have to deal with him. He’s not going to be a distraction to all five people who work here during the day, she thought to herself as Mrs. Larson handed her the list.

“Here you go . . . things for you to look at.”

Again, Brynn had to bite her tongue. For eight years, Brynn had been handed the same basic list every evening seconds after she punched in. Brynn knew her responsibilities like the back of her hand and could do her job in a coma. She tried to talk to Mrs. Larson about replicating a master list, but Mrs. Larson wanted no part of it. Brynn concluded that Mrs. Larson needed something to do during the last hour of her shift each day, and handwriting a to-do list of everything she had been too lazy to do during regular business hours was the perfect task to fill that time.

“Yes, ma’am,” Brynn flatly replied. She read the list, waiting patiently for Mrs. Larson to collect her jacket and large purse.

“You all right, Brynn?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I ran into your mother at the store last night, and she told me about your grandmother. How did the doctor’s appointment go yesterday?”

Brynn took a deep breath and puffed her cheeks out as she exhaled. “Not well, I’m afraid. The cancer—” Brynn stopped and cleared her throat. “She’s getting worse by the day,” Brynn quietly stated without looking at her boss.

Mrs. Larson worried about Brynn, which was somewhat out of character for her. She worried that once Brynn’s grandmother was gone, Brynn would have no one. The Brynn that she had hired—young, hopeful, talkative, and bright-eyed—was gone. Mrs. Larson wanted the old Brynn back, as she had seemed more eager to complete Mrs. Larson’s to-do list.

“Are you going to be all right tonight?” Mrs. Larson asked as she reached into her pocket for her car keys.

“Yes, thank you,” Brynn softly repeated as she stood and walked with Mrs. Larson to the door. They said good-bye for the evening, and Brynn returned to her desk and slipped her earphones on so she could listen to music while she worked.

She made short work of the items on the list and ventured out for a walk around the grounds before the sunset. She felt better after an hour of fresh air and sat down at her desk to finish her library book.

At ten minutes after ten, the buzzer on the front door rang. Brynn glanced at the monitor and noticed a familiar scene. Creed was already holding his ID up to the camera. Brynn could also see the smirk on his face.

“Mr. Alexander, is that you?” she asked in to the speaker box.

Static filtered into her office as he spoke. “Yes, ma’am. I have the parts to finish the work order on the computer.”

“I’ll be right there,” Brynn said as she stood and made her way to the front door. She let him in and led him back to the main barracks. As they entered the large building, Brynn and Creed laughed at the beads of cooking spray they could see dripping from the rusted lock on the door.

“I have to say, it did help,” Brynn said with a chuckle as she turned the key.

“Yeah, I’ll have to remember to keep a can of it in my toolbox,” Creed added as he maneuvered inside the cramped back office of the barracks.

“So, you think this is it?” Brynn asked as she watched Creed set his bags down and take his jacket off.

“Hope so.”

“Well, let me know if you need anything,” she said as she pointed at the office next door.

“Actually, I could use your help right now, if it’s not too much to ask,” he said and grinned. Brynn nodded, and he handed her a long, thin flashlight. “This will help me a great deal.”

“Okay,” she said. Creed sat cross-legged on the floor, and Brynn sat on a stool next to him. She pointed the light in the direction that he was working and watched him install a new motherboard on the aged machine. Chatting about the weather and the upcoming season of bad storms, Brynn was surprisingly relaxed.

“The last blackout lasted four hours and it made me crazy. You know, you don’t realize how much electricity means to you until you don’t have it for a while.”

“I agree with you there. When I was younger, I had to go three weeks without a shower on a family camping trip. Before the trip, I complained to my mom all the time about how I didn’t want to take a shower. I never complained about showering again,” Creed said as Brynn smiled. Occasionally, he’d glance at her to finish a sentence or to give her his undivided attention when she talked. Brynn was captivated by the way Creed communicated, as it was nothing like the conversations she normally participated in.

Inconspicuously, Brynn examined him closely when he focused on his task inside the computer frame. He had stylish dark hair that looked like it had recently been cut. His skin had a healthy glow, and his face had a fresh, clean-cut look to it. His cheekbones were high and subtle, accenting his strong jaw line. She noticed that his nose, which turned ever so slightly to the right, was perfectly sized for his face, and his full lips were smooth. Brynn found his eyes, which were big and round, to be his most attractive feature. His dark eyelashes curled and complimented perfectly the striking green color of his eyes. A close runner-up was his bright smile that flashed between the dimples on his cheeks when he grinned. He was shorter than her brothers, about five-eleven she guessed, but his body was athletic, as she could see his muscles as he twisted the screwdriver in his hand. Brynn thought he was very handsome.

As she relaxed in his company, her mind played a cruel trick on her, a hoax that happened often when she started to allow herself to enjoy something. She’d think of Chandler and then of the baby, reminding herself of the life she ruined with her selfishness.

“So, are you from here?” Creed asked as Brynn suddenly got quiet, the smile fading from her expression quickly. He waited for her to respond and was stunned with her sudden change in expression. She stared glassy-eyed at the emptiness in front of her, oblivious to him and her surroundings.

“Brynn,” he said loudly, and she visibly snapped back to life.

“Oh, sorry,” she mumbled. “I was thinking of a trip I took a few years ago,” she explained as she refocused the flashlight on the computer.

“Was it fun?” he asked.

“No,” she said with a half smile. A few quiet moments passed as he attached the cover of the computer with a small electric drill. Then he slapped his thighs and stood. Brynn stood too.

“That’s it,” he said, then moaned and stretched his lower back. He was starting to load up his bags as she looked at the time on her cell phone.

“Wow, it’s late,” she said as he reached for the flashlight.

“That took a little longer than I planned, but she’”