Colorado Springs, February 1999
I knew it was a dream.
Somehow I knew it was a dream, but it didn’t help. I was standing in that dark hospital hallway, and I could hear running footsteps. Charlie was alone in the dream, running down the hallway toward me, his little face lit up with joy. And I held out my arms, like I always did, ready to pick him up, hold him close to me, but before he reached me he started to glow.
He stopped, blue sparks shooting out of his hands, wrapping around his body, and I tried to run to him as he fell. I was frozen in place, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t even scream. I could only watch as he writhed on the floor, the blue light surrounding him, getting brighter, and listen to him yelling. “Mommy! Mooommmmyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!”
I woke up, tangled in my sheets, sitting up in the dark and trying to catch my breath. There was no sound but the ticking of my bedside clock, and the steady fall of rain outside.
It was almost two. And I knew from experience I wasn’t going to be falling asleep again any time soon. Lightning lit up the room as I got up, moving over to the window and pushing back the curtains. It was raining harder now, and a clap of thunder startled me, sounding almost like a gunshot.
Still shivering, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe, closing the door behind me and padding down the hall toward the stairs. Hot chocolate, I thought tiredly. That was what I needed now, and a little while to watch the storm before I tried to go to sleep…
At the bottom of the stairs I stopped. Frank was awake, standing by the window with his back to me, perfectly still in the darkness. And I froze, one hand gripping the banister, all the irrational fears I thought I’d banished last night slamming into me again. He wasn’t aware of me, and for a moment I was afraid to move, afraid to breathe for fear he’d turn and see me.
There were no curtains over this window, and the next bolt of lightning lit up the whole room. I could see it, a long crackling rope of fire splitting the sky, and for that instant I couldn’t see his face, only a black silhouette against the white light…
I must have gasped aloud, because he turned around just as the room went dark again. “Sara?” A second before the thunder crashed, louder than before, a sound like boulders cracking apart right over this house. “You okay?”
No, Frank — if that’s who you are — I’m not okay. Do I look like I’m okay? I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself, and flung up one hand as he took a step toward me. “Don’t!”
“Sara, what — ?”
“Don’t come any closer.” He stopped, spreading his hands slowly. My heart was pounding in my ears, and I was this close to running back up the stairs and locking myself in my room.
Get a hold of yourself, Sara. My hands were shaking as I wrapped my arms around myself. Think. What’s something only Frank would know?
“What’s your wife’s name?” My voice sounded funny, a little breathless.
There was a long pause. I couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see anything but the outline of his body in the dark. “What?” He sounded completely baffled. “What on Earth — ?”
“What’s her name?” Stupid question, Sara; Jack — or his evil twin — knew who you were.
“Lisa.” Now he was worried, taking a step toward me. “Lisa O’Reilly. Sara — ”
That one was obvious. Another question… “My son’s name.” Something about the way I said it made him stop, standing perfectly still again. “What was my son’s name?”
“Charlie,” he said quietly. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
I held out my hand again, silently warning him to come no closer, while I tried to breathe normally. There was really no way to tell how much of Frank’s memories any imposter might have. “When — how did you and Jack first meet?”
“Special Ops training, 1977.” Three more steps, and he was standing in front of me. “Sara, please… tell me what’s wrong. What’s this all about?” He reached toward me, making as if to touch my shoulder. “What’s with all the questions?”
“Don’t touch me!” I batted his hand away, half expecting to get an electric shock when I touched him, and surprised when I didn’t. For a tense moment we stared at each other, as thunder growled ominously.
My mind was racing. Something not obvious. Details, Sara, details. “There’s — ” I swallowed hard, struggling to keep my voice steady. “There’s a stuffed bear upstairs. In Charlie’s room.” All of a sudden there were tears in my eyes. “Wearing a blue uniform. How did it get there?”
“Christmas present for Charlie, 1986,” he answered promptly. And I wanted to believe no one but him could know that. I wanted it so badly. “We brought it home with us from — ” He stopped, apparently remembering that wherever they’d been was still classified. “Sara, you’re scaring me. What — ?”
“And what — ” I asked, blinking the tears away, “What was special… about that Christmas?”
I stared at him, feeling almost paralyzed. Would he know what had happened that Christmas, if he wasn’t who he appeared to be? Would he tell me everything, all the little details, how Lisa cried, how Jack sang ‘We Three Kings’ with no sense of pitch whatsoever, how Charlie didn’t care and gurgled happily along with him anyway? Would I believe him, no matter how much he knew?
And what, asked the panicky voice in the back of my mind, would I do if it turned out this wasn’t Frank?
Lightning flashed then, illuminating his face for the first time, throwing weird shadows around the living room. He wasn’t looking at me at all. It was there and gone in the time it took the lightning to disappear, but for that instant I saw the raw emotion in his eyes, caught in the memory of that night, the anguish and the aching loneliness he’d always hidden so well.
He didn’t say anything until we were plunged into darkness once more, and his voice was a rough whisper, but it was all I needed to hear. “What wasn’t special about it?”
Relief flooded through me in a warm wave, sweeping all my strength away with it so I had to grab hold of the banister to steady myself. Frank reached out his hand slowly, and when I didn’t pull away he took my arm, leading me over to the couch.
My legs gave out completely then, as Frank went across the room and switched on the lamp, bathing the room in a soft yellow glow. I was still shaking when he sat down next to me, more than a little embarrassed, but too relieved to be very annoyed with myself just yet.
“Sara.” In the lamplight he looked tired, but any other memories I’d stirred up were now gone, locked away deep inside where he always hid them. “You okay now?” I swallowed, nodding silently. The look he was giving me was intense and very, very worried. “You want to tell me what that was all about?”
“I — ” I stopped. Poor Frank, he probably thought I was really losing it this time. Not that I blamed him. And now I was about to prove him right. “Look, I need you to tell me something. Or find out something, or… ” I looked down, twisting my hands in my lap. “This is going to sound really far out… ”
I looked up just in time to see his hand curl into a fist, the worry and confusion in his face turning to sudden comprehension. And then it hit me.
The words were quiet, but no less angry. “You knew.” He looked away from me, and now he had that shuttered look, like a door had slammed closed. “You knew everything.”
Jumping up from the couch, I crossed the room quickly to stand at the window, watching the rain lashing down. “Everything about what?” he asked.
I rounded on him. “About whatever it is Jack’s doing!” He didn’t flinch at my accusing tone. “About what happened last time he was here! About why I needed to talk to you… Are you in on this, too?” I demanded. “Did you help plan — whatever it was? Are you two working together on this … project … thing?”
“Jack and I haven’t spoken in eight years,” he said stiffly. “You know that.”
“So maybe you’re working on the same project at different bases,” I retorted. “What in the hell is this all about? What are you two doing?”
He looked uncomfortable. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Don’t give me that.” I was furious. “It’s been almost a year now, and I haven’t gotten any kind of explanation, not even some bullshit about a training accident! Not from the Air Force, not from Jack — “
“Sara, calm down — ”
“Don’t you tell me to calm down! I’d like to see you — ” I broke off, glaring at him. “I saw — oh, hell, I don’t know what I saw! Someone who looked like my husband, but he wasn’t. I know he wasn’t because he was glowing, and shooting lightning bolts, and he made lightbulbs explode at the hospital. I was there. I touched him and he nearly fried my hand.” I held out my hand to him, so he could see the white scar on my palm where the electric charge had burned through the skin. “And when he left — ” My voice broke, and I stopped. “When he — it — whatever left the hospital… he looked like… like my son… ”
I spun around to face the window, wiping away new tears, and when I turned back that uncomfortable, guarded look was gone. Frank was staring at me with something very like shock. “That… ” Looking down at his hands, he finished softly, “That wasn’t in the report.”
“I’m not crazy, Frank.” Somehow it didn’t surprise me, that Jack would leave out that last little detail, if he could get away with it. “I saw what I saw.”
“I know,” he said, passing a hand over his eyes and sitting up straighter. “Look… I don’t think either of us is gonna be able to get back to sleep tonight. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
Well, I wasn’t going to be going back to sleep, that was for sure. I wondered briefly what had woken him, whether it was the thunder or some nightmare. Sinking into an armchair across from him, I picked up a pillow and hugged it against my chest, thinking of the complete and utter weirdness of this situation.
It was two o’clock in the morning, and I was sitting downstairs in a bathrobe with a guy — not just any guy, but my ex-husband’s ex-best friend, no less — and getting ready to tell him the kind of story you couldn’t usually find in a tabloid. But even though I was still mad at him, and I wasn’t about to let him off the hook ’til I got a complete explanation, I was grateful all the same.
I’d never told anyone about what happened, that day. One last hug and then a short phone call from Jack, just enough to reassure me it actually had happened, and I wasn’t losing my mind, and then that was it. Dad would’ve thought I’d finally cracked. I didn’t talk about Jack or Charlie with Jill, never had. And Lisa… I don’t know why I hadn’t told Lisa. At first I was waiting for an explanation, waiting until I could have something to tell her that would sound almost plausible. And later on I just wanted to forget the whole thing.
But Frank believed me. He wouldn’t tell me I was crazy. From the way he listened to me, that serious expression, I could almost make believe all this was normal.
So I told him everything. I told him how I was working on Dad’s car one day when, out of the blue, my ex-husband showed up at the end of the driveway. How he’d seemed rather vague and preoccupied at first, and how he’d scared me when he didn’t seem to realize Charlie was dead. And how I’d found him upstairs in Charlie’s room, afterward, looking like he was going to start crying. And Frank just listened, with that quietly attentive way he had, that for some reason always made me want to spill my guts all over him.
I hadn’t meant to, but for some reason I found myself telling him about the conversation in the park. It wasn’t that relevant, I’d thought, except for the fact that he’d collapsed and started throwing off blue sparks a couple minutes later.
“ …and I told him — I said I needed him, and he just said ‘I know.’” My laugh sounded hollow. “I was like, what, you can just say it? And he says something about how he was sorry, it should’ve been said sooner… I should’ve known, then. I mean, seriously. Does that sound like Jack to you?”
Frank just shook his head, looking away. “Then what?”
I shrugged. “He said he had to take Charlie back through the star gate. That was right before… ” I trailed off when he turned to me again, looking startled.
“Through the what?”
“Star gate? Don’t look at me, I don’t know what it is. Something round, made of metal… something about energy.”
He had that intense look again. “What else did he say about it? This is important.”
“Nothing,” I said, curious now. “Not that I remember. He wanted to get back to it, whatever it was. And… he wanted to bring Charlie with him… why, what is it?”
“It’s — a code name for something.” Smooth, Frank, real smooth, I thought. Have to make sure you know how far your pet project’s security has been compromised? “So what happened next?”
What happened next is something I still had nightmares about. I leaned forward, my old frustration returning. “I don’t know, Frank, you tell me. What makes a person give off that kind of electric current — for no reason I could see — and then be perfectly fine afterwards? Any normal person had that amount of charge going through him, he’d be dead, I know that.”
Frank was thinking hard. Trying to come up with some kind of plausible explanation, some convenient lie that I could pretend to believe. “It’s not really that simple,” he started, and I glared at him again. “Look, I don’t understand the whole thing myself, I just read that one report — ”
“Oh, please.” Don’t even start this with me, Frank. “You know what it was. You know what happened, don’t try to tell me you don’t.”
“Sara… I swear to God I didn’t know shit about any of it ’til two days ago.” He met my infuriated disbelief with a look that was calm and a little sad. “And believe me when I tell you this is a matter of highest national security, probably the most secret and most important operation in the history of this country.”
“Sell it to somebody else,” I snapped, striking the pillow in frustration. Underneath it all, though, I was really frightened now. This was starting to sound like a conversation out of a bad X-Files episode. Just what the hell were they hiding? And how did Jack get involved in it? “Like it’s so freaking important to the security of this country for all us poor dumb civilian schmucks to think the only reason we have a military is so you boys can hang out and run training exercises all day. I may not be Air Force but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain!”
“I never said — ”
“Frank, look at me.” Predictably, he’d slipped back behind that military mask again, but he raised one eyebrow, waiting. “This is me you’re talking to. You know me. And I would hope — ” I took a deep breath, clasping my hands together as I prepared to cross a line I’d never dared to cross before. “ — even after everything… I’m still your friend.”
He nodded slowly, like he suspected what I was about to ask. “And you know damn well nothing you tell me will ever leave this room.”
The words hung in the air between us, and in the fragile silence that followed he turned to the window. Thunder rumbled again, starting softly and growing into a growling crash.
I’d never asked him to break regulations for me before.
I’d hated the system of secrecy he and Jack worked under, all the years I was married to a Special Ops officer. And sometimes I’d hated them both for being a part of that system, that kept such a cruel wall of lies between family members. But I’d never asked either of them straight out to violate their orders. It wasn’t like it would have been the end of the world, if I ever knew any of the details of their missions. Believe it or not, I did know how to keep secrets, and I wasn’t interested in bringing media attention to the activities of the US military, however shady I knew some of those activities were. They both knew that.
But all the same I’d never asked. Even if it killed me, to watch Jack leaving and have no idea where or why, and even if we both knew no one would ever find out, it would have been a breach of a sacred oath. And for all his flippant and irreverent attitude, I knew how seriously Jack took his oath to the service.
So I’d accepted the secrets, and the blatant lies, like a good military wife. I knew full well what I was getting into, when I married a Special Ops man.
But nothing in the job description said anything about watching your dead child appear, living, before your eyes.
And maybe Jack could brush off something like that like a good little soldier, but I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t. As his wife, as a grieving mother, I deserved better than that.
“Sara, I — ” Frank had never expected me to question our unspoken agreement, and now that I had he obviously had no idea how to respond. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. And God knows… I wish… ”
“What is it, Frank? Are you that scared you’ll get in trouble?” The words were sharp, bitter. “Or is it so awful you’re ashamed to look me in the eye and tell me what you’re working on?”
“It’s not like that,” he said, sounding awkward. He looked disturbed, and sincerely apologetic, but he didn’t say anything else, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture that only made me more angry.
“Was it an accident? Some kind of experiment gone wrong? Or did he plan it all this way?” The change was so fast I almost missed it, the way his face was suddenly devoid of all expression. “It was what, some kind of super robot? Or is it some kind of new stealth technology? You guys can make somebody look like a totally different person?” This was starting to sound like some kind of wacked-out sci-fi TV show. “Was it some kind of a test? Someone thought it’d be cute to have somebody look like Jack, and then send him out to see if it was good enough to fool me?”
“Sara — ” His voice was tight.
“And then what?” I demanded harshly, overriding him. “Was it Jack’s idea to make it look like Charlie? Was this some kind of a sick joke!?”
Frank stood abruptly, two steps taking him to the window. I couldn’t see his expression, but from the set of his shoulders I knew his face was showing far more than he wanted me to see right now. The silence lengthened, bearing down on us, until the sound of the rain seemed to get louder and louder. He didn’t say anything, standing perfectly still. Except for his hands, curled into fists and trembling just enough for me to notice.
When he spoke, it was in a strange, choked voice, like he was forcing each word. “If you really believe that… ”
He was angry, I realized, staring at him with a sort of shock. Angry didn’t begin to cover it; he was mad as hell, furious, enraged, and all of a dozen words that weren’t even close to strong enough. I was so surprised, I couldn’t think of a word to say.
I’d never seen him lose his temper before.
Oh, I knew he could be the worst kind of hardass to anybody under him. And I knew perfectly well he was capable of killing a man a dozen different ways with his bare hands. But around me, at least, he was always in tight control of whatever he might be feeling. And I’d certainly never seen that force of fury directed at me.
There had been times, I reflected, back when Frank and Jack were friends, when I’d become so used to never seeing one of them without the other that I’d forget why. They’d hidden it so well, behind their bad jokes and their half-friendly, half-insulting banter, and the pranks they had loved to pull.
And then there were times, like right now, when I got smacked upside the head, hard, with the realization of just how much those two once cared about each other.
And how much Frank still cared.
So much that at the mere suggestion that Jack could do such a thing, his anger was like the shock wave from a thermonuclear blast.
Even after Jack hadn’t spoken to him for eight years.
I stood up, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Damn it, Frank… ” He made no response, didn’t even turn around. “What am I supposed to think?” Then, softer, but still insistent, “What would you think, if you were me? What do you expect me to think, if nobody tells me anything?” I saw his shoulders relax a little, and I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling helpless. “For God’s sake, Frank, give me something.”
“He’s doing something good, Sara,” he said finally, to the window.
I waited for something more, but there was nothing but the roll of thunder, sounding close now. “No details? That’s it?” Thumping a fist against the chair’s arm, I asked, “I’m just supposed to trust you?”
His shoulders stiffened again, but as he finally turned I saw the fury in his face give way to self-disgust. “I won’t ask you to trust me,” he said hoarsely, sinking wearily down onto the couch. “God knows you’ve got no reason to.” He covered his face with one hand for a moment, but when he looked up at me his eyes were intent, earnest. “But if you ever did love him, trust Jack.” I raised both eyebrows at him, openly skeptical, but he went on, “If you really believe he would ever do anything deliberately to hurt you… then you never really knew him at all.”
There was a quiet conviction in his tone that both surprised and moved me. Somehow I knew that even if Frank hadn’t read the report on the incident, it still wouldn’t ever occur to him that Jack hadn’t acted completely honorably. But that kind of faith was peculiar to those who’d faced death together repeatedly over the course of almost twelve years. And I didn’t think I’d ever had the kind of absolute trust in anyone, as Jack and Frank once had in each other.
“He might have at least come to talk to me,” I insisted, sitting down again and leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. “I think I deserved … an apology, at least, if he couldn’t tell me what happened. And the chance to… to talk about it with him.”
“Would it make any difference,” he asked quietly, “if I could tell you I know — from a confidential source — that during the month after this incident he was away on a mission the whole time?”
Staring at the floor, I forced myself to think about it, and answer honestly. “No.” He didn’t look surprised, or angry anymore, just sad. “Well, maybe if he’d told me that the first time he called… ” I trailed off, wondering if I would’ve listened if he’d tried to tell me he was on a mission. Probably not. There are some wounds that are just too deep, and some pain no amount of apologies can heal. “I don’t know. I just couldn’t … couldn’t deal with him, then.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said, with a look that said he understood. “But someday when you’re ready to talk to him,” he went on, “maybe you’ll give him a chance to tell his side of the story.”
I looked away, trying to imagine myself calling Jack up, almost a year later, to demand an explanation after I’d already refused his peace overtures so many times. That would only open too many old wounds, for both of us.
Frank seemed to know what I was thinking, and his next words surprised the hell out of me. “He still loves you.”
“I suppose he told you that.” I regretted the sarcasm as soon as I said the words, seeing the way his lips pressed together again, like he was in pain. There it was again, that absolute certainty, his faith that he could still know Jack’s feelings despite eight years of silence. “Why are you defending him, anyway?” I asked, curious and a little exasperated. “After… everything, after all he’s done to you.”
I didn’t expect an answer. A question like that aimed way too close at feelings that were too personal, and painful memories that were too strong. A second later I wondered why I’d even asked, when I knew he’d close down and shut me out again, destroying whatever fragile understanding we’d built.
So I was stunned when he looked me right in the eye, and said, “Maybe ’cause I know how bad it hurts.” He jumped up off the couch like he couldn’t bear to sit still any longer, walking over to the fireplace and stopping just short of slamming his fist into the wall. “To be shut out like that. To not have the chance to… to even try to explain.”
He spun around, pacing restlessly up and down the little room, fists clenched at his sides. I wanted to go to him, to say something, but there was nothing to say. Nothing I could do but watch him, as he struggled for control.
“It’s not just that,” I admitted, as he stopped pacing finally, leaning against the back of the couch. “It’s… ” There were tears filling my eyes again, and I brushed them angrily away with one hand. “It’s everything… ”
“Sometimes people make mistakes, Sara.” He spoke so low I had to strain to hear him. “Sometimes you can fix ’em. Sometimes… sometimes you can’t.”
I shook my head quickly. “That’s not what I meant.” How to explain it? “Yeah, I was angry. It was — it was his gun, it was — ” I swallowed hard. “But I could’ve forgiven him for that. If he would’ve just talked to me, let us try to help each other, let me… ” I sniffed, blinking away more tears, and I saw him reach into his pocket like he was going to offer me a handkerchief, before realizing he didn’t have one. “Why?” I asked him, like I thought he’d know. “Why couldn’t he just… open up for once? I needed him, Frank, I needed him.”
He shook his head. “If I knew the answer to that question… Lisa and I would still be together.”
“I could forgive him for what happened to Charlie,” I said finally, forcing the words out through the tears. “That was an accident. But when he left… ” Frank’s eyes were haunted when I looked up at him, pleading for understanding. “That wasn’t an accident. He left to try to kill himself. After I’d just lost Charlie. I can’t forgive him for that.”
I drew my knees up to my chest, burying my face in the pillow as more tears came, choking back sobs. After a moment there were strong hands on my shoulders, his deep voice murmuring something that sounded reassuring. This simple gesture of comfort was my undoing. Something seemed to snap inside me, and I couldn’t stop crying, hugging the pillow and letting it all out, the fear, the hurt and the anger and grief.