If you haven’t started this story from the beginning, this one won’t make too much sense. I suggest you start here before continuing.
“Didn’t go well, I take it?” Victor asked as soon as Jack rejoined him in the truck outside the bar. The young man was alone, and gushing blood from his nose.
Jack leaned his head back against the headrest, nose aloft and sniffing deeply. “Not as well as I’d hoped.” Evidently.
Victor found a napkin and placed it in Jack’s hand so he could stem the crimson flow. “What happened?”
“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” Jack reiterated slowly, words muffled slightly by the napkin.
“Did she do that?” Victor tried again.
Jack shook his head without lowering it. “Her driver.”
Victor had to stop himself from laughing. Not at the injury, but at Jack’s complete ignorance that Sarah’s “driver” was in fact her date.
Jack suddenly pounded his empty palm against the steering wheel, swearing in frustration. “Theater geeks! Renaud’s man is going to walk, my mentor’s going to be tortured or killed, Julia will have died for nothing, and all because of some ignorant theater geeks!”
Victor watched, patiently in his opinion, as the young man ranted. Jack had clearly taken an aggressive approach to talking to Sarah. She had initially been drawn to them out of a seemingly sincere desire to help. Unless they reawakened that in her now, they’d lose her, probably for good this time.
Victor was uncomfortably aware that he may have been wrong about her. She hadn’t tried to take his memories from him, nor hand over Jack like she’s offered Tekina. She’d just left, exactly like Victor had ordered. He had to confess, at least to himself, that Jack may have been right. Victor would apologize to her for his harshness in sending her away if the topic came up. But first they needed an open dialogue.
“I’ll talk to her.” Victor’s words tasted like failure in his mouth. This whole thing was his fault. Again. Now he had to make it right.
Jack just scoffed from his awkward upfacing position.
“Because your attempt worked so well?”
“Go for it.”
Victor knew that he didn’t need Jack’s permission to talk to Sarah. “Stay here. I’ll be back soon.”
Victor hadn’t been in a bar in years. The karaoke was loud and stage brightly lit, clashing with the scent of stale beer. He spotted Sarah immediately, gripping the attention of everyone in the room as another young woman dragged her on stage, shoving a mic in her hand as the music started. She looked truly happy – in her element – as she nodded.
Then she transformed. Her physical features stayed the same, of course, but every mannerism, her posture, even the way she breathed perfectly mimicked that of a young girl. Then she started to sing, gracefully matching the character she’d adopted.
“There is a castle on a cloud. I like to go there in my sleep….”
It was a lovely song, but not one Victor knew. His mentor, Gene, had been in Hollywood during the height of musicals on the silver screen, so he was familiar with his fair share. This one, however, must be recent.
“There is a lady all in white, holds me and sings a lullaby….” Even as the raw, untamed sound of a child’s singing edged her words, Sarah’s pitch was precise and pure. She was quite talented.
“Can I get you something?” the bartender interrupted Victor’s reverie.
He needed to blend in. To not make the same mistake Jack must have. “Guinness, when you get the chance.”
“Coming right up.”
“I know a place where –” Sarah’s melody faltered inexplicably, then regained promptly.
Surprised, Victor glanced back at the stage.
Her eyes were on him.
She knew him. Well, she knew everyone in the room. But the latest newcomer, the older gentleman staying at the bar – Sarah knew him from somewhere. Had they shared a stage at some point? She should remember, but it escaped her in that moment.
Sarah finished her song to the usual widespread applause, so she clutched the fringes of her skirt and dipped into a curtsy as a child might. Her responsibility with the mic didn’t end there, however. It was an unspoken rule with this group that whoever sang last chose the next one. She knew exactly who to ask.
“You, back there,” she gestured to the familiar older man. “Come on up.”
Even with the lights in her eyes, surprise was obvious in his features, stalling his answer. “Me?”
“Yeah. Come on.”
“Sarah, I don’t want to sing tonight.” So he remembered her, at least. Perhaps sharing a stage might trigger her memory. Sarah hopped off the stage, walking through her crowd of friends. “Don’t you guys want to hear him sing?”
They immediately answered her with raucous and excited cheers.
The gentleman was shaking his head by the time she reached him.
“It’ll be fun!” she insisted. Closer now, she could already see him considering it, despite the outward protests. “What if I sing with you?” she offered.
There was a lull in the noise as the group awaited his response.
The man hung his head a moment before slowly nodding. “Okay.” His tone was begrudging, but she could see the man’s smile growing.
“Alright!” Sarah put her arm around him, turning to the crowd and their renewed applause. “What do you want to sing?” she asked as she walked him to the stage, hoping that letting him choose would make him more comfortable, and perhaps offer a clue.
A slight hesitation slowed him as he stepped on stage. “Edelweiss?” he asked her, accepting the second mic as Paul offered it.
Easy one. “Sure.” Sarah nodded to the DK, who started the tune a couple seconds later.
Back in high school, Sarah had played Gretl in The Sound of Music but the man who had played her father, Gary, was sitting right there in the second row. No clue to the stranger’s identity there, then.
This version started with him singing first, then her. Knowing the words quite well, she only needed to glance at the screen to know where she came in, and instead watched her companion on stage. Though he came in precisely when he should have and carried the tune well, he was clearly nervous. Not a stage actor then. Perhaps crew?
Sarah joined in on her mic, still watching her fellow singer instead of the screen. “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow.”
He took her hand as his part continued, lifting her arm aloft. He was becoming more comfortable. “Bloom and grow forever.”
“Forever.” She joined him on the last word.
This was all so familiar, it was driving her insane! Not the song, not performing with him, but something. What? She couldn’t put her finger on it.
The tune was brief – possibly intentionally chosen for that purpose – and over too soon. Sarah joined the applause for him, slapping her forearm as to not pop the mic.
The gentlemen’s curt nod and dry smile to the audience awakened a new memory – coffee? – before he handed his mic to the nearest person and stepped off the stage again.
That left her to pick the next singer again. “Paul, get up here.” She turned to the DJ, picking Paul’s song just to tease her date. “Into the Woods, Little Girl.”
Paul must have either heard her or recognized the tune as it started to play. He bared his teeth – the character singing that song was the “Big Bad Wolf” – at her as she passed him, back to her seat.
This was a problem. Sarah actually didn’t remember him. First when she touched his shoulder, then again when he held her hand on that stage: he hadn’t felt their connection. Even the phenomenal actress that she was, Victor was sure she couldn’t fake never having linked with him.
She’d been wiped.
Sarah was simply sitting over there, alone, laughing as she watched her date perform. Happy. Finishing her drink, she headed over to the bar with the empty glass. Right toward him.
“Another choco-tini, miss?” the bartender asked. Yuck.
“Amaretto this time? With ice?”
“Coming right up.”
Victor turned his eyes forward again, not really seeing the stage. What should he do? She had a good half-dozen years before the side effects of the wiping technology would become irreversible. Long enough for Symon to develop something to fix it properly. This scene – life without him – it was all she had wanted from the beginning. Interrupting that now would ruin it.
But it was all an illusion.
Her nails tapped on the polished wooden bar before she spoke. “I’m sorry. This is embarrassing. But I can’t remember where I know you from.”
She shouldn’t recognize him at all. Though, to be honest, Victor had never tested the technology himself. “It’s been a while,” Victor lied. “You were in middle school when I taught you,” he made up wildly.
He glanced Sarah’s way to see her peering back at him. “No.” She was studying him, and it was unnerving to say the least. “I didn’t drink coffee until college.”
He should walk away. Let her live her life. He and Jack could figure something else out. “Good to know.” His beer was mostly untouched, so he took a long drink before setting it down, along with more than enough cash to cover the tab. “It was a pleasure singing with you, Sarah.” He stood.
“No you don’t.” She was less sweet, more insistent this time.
“Look, It’s best that you don’t remember.” That critical look reminded Victor of Julia. At least this time, with Sarah, he got to say goodbye. “You have a fresh start. Enjoy it.”
“And spend my life wondering? A minute, that’s all I ask. I won’t follow you. I just want an answer.”
One minute to explain this? “Impossible.” The only way would be to re-forge their link, which would be painful for her this time after being wiped, not to mention knock him out for a good few minutes.
“Why are you here then?” Sarah stepped into his path, blocking his exit.
Because, if she had her memory, they needed her help. Because, if he hadn’t sent her away, she wouldn’t have gone to the enemy to be wiped. Because he couldn’t help arguing with Jack, except when she was around to placate them both. Because, brief as their friendship had been, he missed her.
Nothing she wanted to hear.
So Victor sidestepped her without answering. She let him this time, at least.
“That’s it?” Her voice finally fell on him when his hand reached for the door. “I didn’t ask for this.” Her broken words were quiet, barely reaching him.
Victor hung his head. Maybe it would be easier if he told her at least that much? He turned to see Sarah’s face painted as the image of desperation. “You did.” With that, he pushed his way out the door, to the fresh air again.
She had been so engrossed in her attempt to get answers from Victor that she didn’t notice Paul walk up behind her. She turned to see he had her amaretto in his hand. “Thanks.” She accepted it without drinking.
“What’s wrong?” Paul dipped his head into her line of sight. “I can take you home if you’re not having fun.”
“No, I am,” she assured him. She glanced back at the still entryway of the bar. “It’s just…” The old man had said she’d asked for this? The gap in her memories? She couldn’t imagine herself ever choosing ignorance, not when there was a chance to learn about someone new. Fresh insights, fresh points of view – it all made her better at her craft, and a better person.
Paul put his arm around her shoulder. “Come on.”
Sarah only got two steps closer to their seats before she couldn’t take it any longer. She had to know, had to ask before it was too late, and she may not be able to find him again. Spinning out from under Paul’s arm, she headed to follow the old man out the door.
She handed him her drink again. “Just – give me a minute?”
His answering stare was blank as she backpedaled toward the door. “Sure.”
The glass and metal door hadn’t finished falling back into place before the sight outside stopped her feet. The older man was there, outside a silver truck, arguing with the man who had grabbed her earlier.
“You.” It was all she could say. Seeing the pair of them together – it felt like a betrayal.
“Sarah,” the older man pleaded. “Forget us. Go back inside and live your life. You could have at least a good six years left.” Six? What did he mean by that? She was supposed to have sixty!
“With her constitution, closer to ten,” the stranger argued.
Time to stop feeling like she wasn’t in control. “Tell me everything you know,” she ordered. “Why am I like this?”
“You won’t have any more holes in your past, if that’s any consolation,” the older man ordered her. No, it really wasn’t a comfort.
“Wait – how do you know about that? What about the pain?” In brushing her off, they were only handing her more questions.
The pair both looked surprised. “Headaches?” the younger asked.
“No. Burning, in my lungs,” she corrected. “Like I’m holding my breath too –”
Hinges squeaked behind her, Paul’s voice cutting into the scene. “Sarah, I got to thinking –” his words stopped suddenly, interrupting himself as those normally chipper eyes lowered to a glare the man she was trying to explain herself to – “he might still be out here.”
Jack watched Victor step between Sarah’s driver and himself. As if he needed the old man’s protection. Did he have no faith in Luanne’s training of him? “Go back inside, both of you,” Victor ordered. “Sarah, forget us. Please.”
Her words itched at Jack’s thoughts. Burning? In her lungs? The inexplicable pain in her reminded him of when she had collapsed in the library.
“I don’t want to lose you. I want answers. I know you have them.” Sarah didn’t seem to lose any of her confidence with her protector’s arrival.
The swim to and from the library had been hard on Victor, and he often arrived back on solid ground gasping. Was she experiencing his life in real time? Impossible, especially considering the new information that their link had been severed.
“You don’t want answers,” Victor was pleading too now.
What if Sarah was still tethered to him? In a way Symon’s technology didn’t know or couldn’t erase? He’d never heard of such a thing happening. Memories had always been downloaded to him, like a backup hard drive. New information didn’t get written simultaneously.
Jack saw one way to test the theory. Victor’s back was to him, and the base of his skull exposed. Knocking him out that way would be as easy as it was harmless. In the long term, anyway.
The only problem was Sarah’s driver. He was watching Jack aggressively, understandably protective over Sarah. If his theory proved true, she wouldn’t be able to call him off. It’d just be him and Jack and two unconscious people. Whether he’d run or attack, Jack readied himself to stop him.
Jack dropped his knuckles onto the base of Victor’s skull, allowing himself a guilty satisfaction at knocking the infuriating man unconscious.
Sarah dropped too.
Jack couldn’t help the swear word that escaped him. They were still linked, despite her having no memory of it.
Her driver. Jack glanced at the motionless man, whose eyes were flicking between the two grounded people in disbelief.
“She’s going to want some water when she comes to,” Jack informed the only other conscious person in the parking lot. He’d been in her state often enough to know what he said was true, and sending him away would buy Jack time to grab Victor and book it back to the library. A minute, maybe before they would both be awake again.
“What did you do to her?”
Nothing! “Tested a theory.” he had seen everything that happened. Jack opened the back door of the truck before kneeling by Victor. The man had crumpled straight down before ending face-first into the asphalt.
“You did this,” the driver accused. Jack couldn’t help but think he was a little slow on the uptake. Thirty seconds was far too long a time to react.
Feet slapping the pavement caused Jack to look up again before he could get a good grip on Victor’s body. The newcomer was charging him. Dropping Victor unceremoniously, Jack sidestepped, waving off the incoming fist this time. “Look, I don’t want to fight you.”
The assailant barreled past him, right in to the side of the truck bed. Clearly livid, he thudded, then spun to face Jack once more. “Why? Afraid I’ll win again?” He hadn’t won. Jack had made a tactical retreat. There was a difference.
“That you’ll lose,” Jack corrected. “Look, you’re clearly important to her –”
In answer, another fist came from his left this time. Jack slid toward and past it, right forearm pushing the threat away. Getting an idea, Jack slid his hand down the man’s arm until he caught the guy’s wrist. Knowing all his weight was forward from the thrown punch, Jack stepped back again, dropping the weight in his arm and yanking Sarah’s driver face-first into the asphalt next to Victor.
Reflexively, Jack’s own feet landed in a battle stance, which he broke as quickly as he recognized he was doing it. He didn’t want to appear aggressive once his opponent rolled himself back over.
“Look, I appreciate you protecting her, I really do.” Jack reached into his pocket, finding his wallet and business card as he spoke. “You keep doing that for me, okay? If you get in over your head –” which wasn’t difficult, Jack imagined, despite the man’s height – “then call me.” he dropped the sturdy paper onto the young man’s dumbfounded expression. “We both want her to be safe, don’t we?”
The man nodded slowly, still evidently confused.
Jack slipped his wallet away with one hand and offered the other to Dancer Boy. “Good. Come on.”
Grabbing the card, the man took the offered hand. Jack pulled him to a standing position, clapping him on the shoulder “How about that water?” Though intentionally outwardly casual, Jack knew that the situation could swing back just as easily, and kept an eye on the man as he nodded.
Sarah got their attention first, moaning slightly.
“Sarah!” The man abandoned Jack’s grip to run to her, ending his sprint in dramatic fashion by sliding the last few feet on his knees.
“Jack?” came Victor’s question a moment later. “What happened.”
Rather less sympathetic, Jack just looked down at Victor. “Knocking you out dropped her too,” he gestured, pointing to Sarah. “Did you know about that?” Jack wouldn’t be surprised if the old man had kept it a secret.
Victor just blinked slowly. “No. That… that shouldn’t happen. Our link…” was severed, Jack knew he was unable to finish. Well, apparently not fully. “Even if – that shouldn’t…”
Otherwise Jack would be in an induced coma, same as his mentor. Instead, here he was, trying to figure out what was so special about this Sarah.
“We can’t leave her like this.”
Jack glanced over at Sarah and her driver. He had helped her to a kneeling position, hands on each other’s shoulders, whispering quietly. “He’ll get her water soon enough. She’ll be fine.”
“I mean in ignorance. Not if she’s still…”
Not this again. “No. She’s off the council’s radar now,” Jack insisted as he watched Victor stand and brush himself off. “Why can’t you just let her live her life in peace?”
“Look at her, Jack! That’s not peace!”
Sarah was nodding slowly, leaning on her friend to stand again.
“It’s better than this life!”
Victor’s breathing cut short, and Jack could see that he had hurt him.
“Look, I didn’t mean –” Jack wouldn’t trade this gift Luanne had given him for the world.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” Victor’s words were quiet. Sober.
Jack had said too much. “Victor –”
“Stay by the truck.” The words were a rare but firm order. He stepped past Jack, clearly headed to Sarah as her companion went inside.
Even though everything in Jack wanted to slam the open back door to the truck, instead he forced his hand slowly to the man’s shoulder. “Victor.”
Sarah watched the door fall back into place as Paul went inside the bar. Good. Whatever had happened to her, she’d never forgive herself if it happened to him, too.
“Do you want to remember?” the gentleman’s voice startled her. “I can’t make what just happened stop, but I can at least explain it.”
Desperation choked her, slowing her response. “Yes. I need to know.”
“It won’t be easy.”
She didn’t care. Nothing was worse than this. “Please.” If nothing else, she needed to know she was sane, that there was a reason for this weirdness to be assaulting her life.
He breathed deeply, and for a moment, she thought going to go into a long-winded monologue that fitted his teacher-like appearance. To her surprise, he lifted his empty hands by her head and paused again. “This may sting a little.”
“Go ahead,” she encouraged. Whatever it was, she could take it.
“Open your mind.” Whatever that meant.
Still, his palms hovered by her temples a moment longer before finally making contact.
Pain replaced air in her body, coursing through her veins and leaving memories in their wake. She was barely aware that she wasn’t the only one crumpling to her knees outside the bar’s parking lot.
An overwhelming and imposing presence swelled in her then, calming every molecule as it overtook her, even guiding her fall. Knowledge comforted her, edging her own thoughts out to make room for itself, voicing only three words to her.
“Welcome back, Sarah.”