05 Mar

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

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. This book contains coarse language, mature themes and graphic violence; reader discretion is recommended.

Copyright © 2010 Crawford House
All rights reserved
ISBN: 978-0-9865236-0-1
Edited by C. Bouchard and M. Upchurch
Published by Crawford House
2418 Birch Grove Road
Glace Bay, Nova Scotia
CANADA B1B 1X5

Prologue


She hurt. Her battered foot pleaded helplessly as she stumbled down the abandoned dirt road. A thick, humid mist hung in the still air. On one foot, she wore a white athletic sneaker; her other foot wore only a blood-soaked sock. Exhausted legs carried her wounded feet across sharp rocks, almost dragging them. Every other step broke the deafening silence with a soft, squishing sound as her tender foot met the hard, unforgiving road. The rising sun glared its cruel intentions of another scorching hot day.

Her bleeding foot tarnished the road with each cruel step, leaving a Hansel and Gretel-like trail behind her. Her blank stare resembled something between an unknowing daze and an all-knowing fear. Remnants of the makeup and blush that once highlighted her pretty face were now covered with dirt and dried blood. The tracks of yesterday’s tears streaked her dirty cheek. Her muscular thighs bounced gingerly with every step. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger-like freakishly big muscles, but a sensuous feminine muscle that warned of powerful strength when needed.

She spent the past four years as a cheerleader, which meant she would put herself through daily rigorous training. In her freshman year at high school, she had been picked to be on the Cougars Cheerleading squad as a flyer, often called a top, because of her ability, dedication and willingness to try the most difficult stunts. She placed her trust entirely in the hands of the bases, the girls on the bottom, who put her high in the air and caught her on the way down.

Cheerleading may have looked somewhat girly with scantily clad, teenagers flying in the air to impress the crowds, but it was serious work. If the base screwed up, the flyer could be crippled for life, or worse. Her Daisy Duke style cut-off shorts, which were entirely too short for her father’s liking, did little to protect her from last night’s chilly air or the harsh branches that slapped at her thighs as she fumbled through the dark forest, desperately trying to find the road she now traversed. Her right hand held a death-grip on a giant, bloodstained machete.

She wore a skimpy belly-shirt that not only displayed her thin midriff, but her shiny belly ring, two more things her father did not exactly approve of on his teenage daughter: skimpy shirts and body piercing. If he could only see her now. Her shirt, half torn off her, hung lazily from one shoulder, her other shoulder completely bare except for scratches, dirt and more dried blood. A broken bra strap swayed side-to-side as her half-exposed breasts jiggled to the rhythm of her steps. With her clothes barely on her, the nearly naked teen did not look much like the ‘daddy’s little girl’ who had kissed her father goodbye just a few days ago.

She wasn’t exactly the picture of innocence holding that giant, blood-soaked knife that she clenched so tightly it turned her knuckles white. She may have looked battered and beaten, but whatever had been on the receiving end of that knife was in worse shape. A lot worse. Her toned waist, small stature and model-pretty looks hid the fact that she was a hell of a lot stronger than most people expected. But here, now, on this lonesome dirt road, smack damn in the middle of nowhere, this Cougar cheerleader did not have a whole lot to cheer about, and her strength was fading fast.

She raised an empty bottle to parched lips and drank imaginary water as the sun glistened mockingly off the plastic bottle. Her tired fingers released their grip. The bottle bounced on the road with a hollow thud then rolled quietly to a stop. An eerie silence followed. She stopped her torturous walk and hesitantly turned to look at the road behind her. Fear sent a wash of tingles over her skin. She blinked slowly, as if saying a silent prayer, then raised her frightened eyes to the disquieting mountain road. Rows of spruce and tall pine trees flanked the quiet dirt road. Everything was so perfectly still that it looked more like a photograph than the real thing. There wasn’t even the slightest breeze to move the trees. It was picture-perfect still.

Her small body shivered in the rising heat. She knew what was coming. Her heart pounded in her ears; a form was slowly emerging over the horizon. Its unsteady gait resembled something between a drunk failing a sobriety test and a baby taking its first step. With the rising sun in her eyes, she couldn’t make out any other details. She didn’t have to, she already knew. Another shadowy figure emerged. Then another, until the entire width of the dirt road was an endless sea of staggering figures approaching at a slow but steady pace. Like an ominous shadow, they were always there.

She broke the piercing silence with a sound that was somewhere between a deep breath and a shallow sigh. The mist had surrendered to the rising sun, the last of it trying to hide amongst the pine-scented trees, a losing battle. She did not know if she was walking in the right direction, if she was on the right road, or if she would get off this God-forsaken mountain alive. But she had to keep moving. She was beyond tired; she was completely exhausted. She wanted to rest her aching muscles, her throbbing foot. Her exhausted legs begged her to rest, but she ignored them. She was so tired she felt like she could lie down and die. But she knew; she knew that if she did not keep moving that is exactly what would happen. Willing her body forward, she gritted her teeth through parched lips and continued her agonizing walk.

The tiny freckles on her nose wrinkled as she squinted to focus on something as it glimmered in the blistering sun. It was a van. It was not moving, she wasn’t that lucky; it was as motionless as the surrounding forest. It sat halfway off the road, crunched into a massive tree. The van’s windshield was shattered and bloodied. One of its tires was completely flat, void of air. The scene painted an unmistakable picture. The tire blew, the van hit the tree, and the driver’s head hit the windshield. There was no mistaking that. A single tear ran down her pretty face.

She thought she had run out of tears, but apparently she had one left. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. Her socked foot screamed for mercy as she hastened her pace towards the motionless van. She cautiously approached it, poised to swing her giant knife instantly and without hesitation. She witnessed what happened if you hesitated. To second guess yourself meant certain and violent death. She had no intention of dying that way; she had no intention of hesitating. With her knife at the ready, its sharp edge glimmering in the hot sun, she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the sliding door, took a deep breath then pulled.

A stabbing, metallic creak echoed in the stagnant forest. The smell hit her instantly, rushing into her nostrils and down her throat. Her hand instinctively covered her nose and mouth as if that could stop the rotting odor of death from racing deep into the bowels of her stomach. Flies buzzed around the driver’s head and she barely managed to choke back a scream. She stared at the lifeless driver with remorse and stifled back the lump in her throat. Maggots crawled inside the driver’s mouth, and she gasped in horror. What little contents she had left in her stomach came rushing out. Puke spewed from between her fingers like an erupting volcano. She escaped to the road and continued to empty her stomach.

Through watery eyes, she looked towards the approaching mob. Deciding they were still a safe distance away, she walked back to the stench-filled van. Duffel bags were scattered, tossed about during the head-on collision with the giant tree. She quickly rummaged through the bags, half holding her breath trying not to vomit again. She found a bottle of water. Precious water. She took a long drink. It was disgustingly warm, almost hot, but it quenched her agonizing thirst. She poured some over her head as if trying to wash away the stench and it trickled down her face like tears, but she did not have time to cry. She wanted to, but she just didn’t have time. She took another drink of the warm water then rifled through the duffle bags, finding more of the sun-roasted water, a pair of running shoes, socks, and a t-shirt. She grabbed her cache then stepped outside to escape the stench that burned in her nostrils. Sitting on the ground, she grit her teeth in pain and peeled the blood-soaked sock from her battered foot. She took a deep breath and poured water over her wounds. Without taking the time to let the pain subside, she used a sock as a makeshift bandage to wrap her blistered and beaten foot. Pain raced through her foot and shot up her leg as she tied the shoe tight. With a tired grunt, she lifted herself back to her feet, then stripped out of her torn shirt and unclasped her broken bra.

With the mob barely fifty yards away, she stood before them naked from the waist up. She did not have time for modesty; they were not interested in the view. They wanted her for another reason. She dumped more water over her head and shoulders to cool herself from the scorching sun, then pulled on the clean, white shirt. The shirt clung to her curves like a wet t-shirt contest. She picked up her trusted machete and stared defiantly at the approaching mob. The emblem on the back of her shirt read “Cougars Cheerleading.”

She took one last look at the crumpled van that brought her here just two days ago and turned to face the approaching mob. Her lightly-freckled nose crinkled as she stared at them with pure hatred. Empty, emotionless eyes stared back at her. The corner of her lip curled in disgust as she turned her back to them and started to jog. Pain shot through her foot with a jolt. Her thighs screamed for mercy. She had only taken a few steps before slowing to a fast walk. She knew she just needed to put some distance between her and them, and torturing herself was pointless. She knew they could not move any faster. The problem was they never tired either. The image of the driver’s shattered and maggot infested face forced itself back into her thoughts. More tears raced down her face. She was tired, scared and alone. Alone, except for that goddamned mob. The disfigured, bloody and relentless mob that just kept coming.

They only had one thought on their mind. Not a thought really, more like an instinct, because these people, if you could still call them that, had stopped thinking long ago. Now they only had instinct. One instinct. In the last couple of days, she learned that whoever, or whatever they were, they were already dead. The other thing she knew about them scared her even more. They were dead, but they were hungry. And the dead hunt.

CHAPTER 1 – Friends

The Cougars’ cheerleading squad ran excitedly onto the gymnasium floor for their final routine. The Cougars had already taken home the gold at the regional and provincial competitions, but this last competition was the illustrious Cheer Expo, the big daddy of cheer comps.

Tension and excitement filled the Halifax arena, and when a few hundred high-spirited teenage girls are thrown together into a competitive sport, things have a tendency to get a little nasty. Dirty looks were exchanged between some teams, while others were more vocal in their disapproval of their competitors. The sport may have been called cheerleading, but some of the girls were not exactly cheering each other on. There was plenty of nervous tension to go around as the undefeated Glace Bay Cougars took the floor for the final routine.

The Cougars’ music blared from the massive DJ speakers as the girls performed stunt after stunt practically flawlessly. Double twisting with lots of high-flying aerial tosses to please the roaring crowd.

The gym was alive with excitement and thunderous applause as the Cougars executed a superb routine.

The announcer read the judges’ final decision and dubbed the Cougars the “Triple Threat.” They had won all three major competitions.

Lucy and her two best friends, Lauren and Emma, anxiously packed their duffle bags as they talked about the grueling event and some of the rude comments the losing teams had made.

Lucy’s perfectly proportioned figure and extraordinary beauty often left men yearning in wanton desire and women thoroughly envious. Her silky brown hair framed her strikingly beautiful face perfectly, accentuating her deep green eyes and a breathtaking smile. Her soft, smooth skin tanned with just a hint of sun.

Lauren was a year older and a couple of inches taller than Lucy’s five foot frame. Both Lucy and Lauren were flyers and thoroughly dedicated to the sport of cheerleading. Although Lauren often considered herself rather plain looking, her girl-next-door good looks made her anything but average. A smooth cape of midnight colored hair hung over her shoulders and down her slender waist. Her chocolate brown eyes sang of sweetness and seduction, a song that captivated the wants and desires of many teenage boys.

Emma was quite simply the lovable one. Where Lucy looked like a runway model and Lauren had the whole girl-next-door thing happening, Emma was delightfully adorable in her own perky, innocent and naïve way. She was the same age and height as Lucy but slightly heavier due to her overly large breasts that looked entirely out of place on her petite frame. Her natural, wavy blonde hair and baby blue eyes made her an easy target for typical cliché comments: Blonde hair, blue eyes, big boobs and brainless.

Emma was naïve about a lot of things, but brainless she was not. She managed to keep an A minus average with very little effort.

Typically, cheer teams had the larger girls on the bottom with the smaller, lighter girls on top, but Emma was unusually strong for someone her size, and that landed her a spot on the team as a base instead of a flyer. That and the fact that she did not particularly like being tossed up in the air because it scared her.

The three girls walked to the spot where Lucy’s boyfriend, Paul Connors, said they had parked the van. Lucy was pleasantly surprised that Paul, Wade Adams, and Michael Blackwood had made the six-hour trip to watch the competition.

Paul, the high school football hero, made no qualms about the fact that he did not think the girls were real athletes because he did not consider cheerleading to be a real sport. Whenever Paul made one of his “Cheerleading is not a real sport” comments, Lucy would tell him that athletes lifted weights, but cheerleaders lifted athletes. She enjoyed reminding him that football players could easily hold someone her size over their head with one hand, but so could Emma. The difference was Emma had the strength and the balance to hold them up there a lot longer.

“Cheerleading is about strength, balance and skill,” Lucy often told him. “Football is nothing more than a bunch of smelly boys knocking the crap out of each other and patting their teammates on the butt.”

That aspect of sports always amused Lucy; women were known to hug each other at the drop of a hat, while men always stayed a macho-safe distance away from each other. But, when it came to sports, you never saw girls patting each other on the butt, yet in every male dominated sport the men did exactly that.

Cheer competitions bored Paul and he rarely attended them, so Lucy had been pleasantly surprised to see them there. Of course, the boys had spent more time drooling over the other cheerleaders, but at least they had made the trip. Lucy, Emma and Lauren could have crammed themselves back into the small, smelly school bus with their team mates, but the opportunity to drive back with the boys was a welcome diversion.

Michael, or ‘Mikey’, as Paul often called him, secretly had a crush on Lucy. Everyone did for that matter, but Michael tried to hide his feelings, especially around her extremely jealous boyfriend. Sometimes Michael just could not take his eyes off her. When Lucy climbed into the van wearing a tiny pair of shorts that would make Daisy Duke envious, and a belly shirt that revealed just enough flesh to make you want to see more, this was one of those times when he could not help but steal a look or two.

Michael was a walking cliché of the high school nerd. He was president of the science club, the computer club, the chess club, and every other club where brain was preferable to brawn. His thick, Buddy Holly glasses were forever sliding down his nose, and he was always carrying a heavy stack of books that looked like they weighed more than he did.

Michael’s feelings for Lucy were not what you would call a well kept secret. Even Lucy knew he had a major crush on her since they were twelve. She did not particularly like Michael, and she had to make sure she did not do or saying anything that he might take the wrong way and interpret as flirting, especially around Paul. Michael had enough problems with Paul as it was. For the longest time those two hated each other. Not disapproved or disliked; it had been pure, unbridled hatred. It was Wade Adams, the foreign exchange student from Australia, who eventually brought the three of them together.

Paul was one of the popular kids at school, especially around the hordes of girls who went all gaga over his muscular six foot seven frame. Paul wanted to be on the wrestling team, but there was no one big enough or brave enough to compete against him. The coach suggested he try football and that was where Paul made his mark. Of course, his mark usually came in the form of bruises, dislocated shoulders and the occasional broken bone that he inflicted on the opposing team when he steam-rolled over them. More than once local newspapers labeled him as “240 pounds of pure mean”.

Paul also had a mean streak off the field. It was a cruel side of him Lucy did not like, and there was nothing she could do about it. The mean side of Paul came in the form of being a bully. If some unsuspecting kid rubbed him the wrong way for any reason, Paul made that kid’s life a living hell, humiliating him in front of the entire school body every chance he got. He did not pick on people for the sake of being a bully; in that regard, he was a bit different. “It’s only people who deserve it,” Paul would say, and as far as he was concerned, Michael deserved it.

The bullying rarely got physical because nobody had the balls to stand up to Paul, but it was not all that long ago when that changed.

Paul decided he wanted Michael’s seat in the school cafeteria and told him to move. No one knows if something just snapped in Michael’s brain, if he was high on drugs or if he simply decided life was just not worth living. Michael stood up, as usual, but instead of picking up his food tray and moving to a different table, he looked up at the goliath and said the one word Paul was not accustomed to hearing from five foot seven, one hundred and thirty pound science geeks.

“No,” Michael said defiantly.

“What did you say to me, you little piss ant?” Paul blinked in disbelief..

To his credit, or sheer stupidity, no one really knows for sure, Michael stood his ground.

“You find somewhere else to sit. I was here first,” Michael said, his voice cracking slightly, but his resolve unwavering.

Walk into any high school cafeteria and the several dozen conversations happening at any particular time build to a numbing roar, but on this particular day, the instant silence that filled the cafeteria was far more numbing than the conversations could ever be. Jaws dropped in astonishment; anticipation hung thick as they waited for the beating that was soon to follow.

Not a fight. A fight would imply that the other person had a chance, maybe even a slim chance at best, but a chance just the same. The wide eyed teenagers stared at the massive Paul and then at Michael. No, this would not be a fight. It would be a beating. Paul was going to beat the crap out of Michael, and everyone knew it.

“Get the fuck out of my way!” Paul growled.

“No,” Michael repeated, his determination resolute.

Paul’s hand snapped forward and pushed Michael. To Paul it was only a push, but to Michael it was more like having a wrecking ball slam into your chest. The force of Paul’s push sent Michael flying backwards. He was airborne for five or six feet before crashing hard onto the cafeteria floor, sliding another few feet before skidding to a humiliating stop.

As the students roared in laughter Wade got up to help Michael and quickly noticed that even with the wind thoroughly knocked out of him, Michael was still trying to get up.

“This kid must have a death wish,” Wade thought.

To everyone who was watching, which just happened to be the entire school cafeteria, it looked as if the Australian was helping Michael up, but with the slightest of movements that only Michael could see, Wade shook his head “No”; his hand was restraining Michael.

“You’re outmatched, Mate,” Wade said, barely louder than a whisper.

With a defeated look, Michael blinked knowingly, and Wade effortlessly pulled Michael to his feet. What happened next was even more unexpected than Michael’s infantile attempt at defiance.

Wade faced the laughing football player, his Australian accent grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Oy! I’m impressed. You knocked the little bloke down,” Wade said as he walked towards Paul, fists clenched. Paul’s laughing faded to a smile. “Why don’t you try knocking ME down?” Wade challenged.

Now Wade would not be considered a small guy at five foot eleven and sporting fourteen inch biceps, but even his muscular physique seemed dwarfed next to the bulk of Paul’s massive frame. Paul laughed and snapped a right-hook so fast it caught Wade flush on the jaw, spinning him in a vicious circle.

Wade was no stranger to fighting and expected Paul to swing, but even he was caught off-guard at how fast the big guy was; people that big were rarely that fast. Paul was, however, and the punch left Wade bent at the waist and spitting blood.

What was more surprising to everyone in the cafeteria, Paul included, was that Wade did not go down. Sure, he was bent at the waist and he had to use one hand to steady himself, but the son-of-a-bitch was still on his feet.

Paul stared in disbelief.

Wade shook the cobwebs from his head, straightened up and faced Paul.

“You hit like a Sheila,” Wade smirked, wiping the blood from his lip.

Infuriated, Paul threw another vicious punch, but this time Wade was prepared for Paul’s speed and sashayed away from the punch with the grace of a dancer, and crashed his own fist into the side of Paul’s jaw.

Paul didn’t even blink.

He threw another punch at Wade, a straight left, and Wade ducked that punch equally as impressive. He threw another crushing blow to Paul’s temple. He thought he saw Paul wince but could not be sure because Paul grabbed him in a crushing bear hug, then slammed him hard on the cafeteria floor like a child discarding a broken toy.

It doesn’t matter if it is a high school fight or a bar fight, most people lack the skill of professional boxers and rarely stay on their feet for more than a few minutes; this fight was no different. Both boys rolled around the floor in something that looked more like a wrestling match than a fist fight as the cafeteria chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The chanting brought the school principal, Mr. MacIntyre, and a few male teachers racing into the cafeteria to break up the fight.

“That’s it, Connors,” the principal barked at Paul. “You’ve finally got yourself expelled! And you,” he turned to face Wade, “you just might find yourself on the next flight back to Australia. Who started this?”

“I did,” Michael volunteered.

The principal turned and stared at Michael in disbelief.

“Show’s over!” MacIntyre finally said, ordering the crowd of students back to their seats.

“Office!” MacIntyre ordered. The three boys turned silently and headed towards the principal’s office with MacIntyre following close behind.

The cafeteria broke into a multitude of excited conversations as soon as the three teens and the principal exited the room. They were pretty sure the fight between Paul and Wade would resume after school, and what a fight that was going to be. They remembered the last time Paul was in a fight. Some big guy from the rival high school had decided that Paul was not all that big and had challenged him to a fight. He quickly learned, the hard way, that Paul was freakishly strong and hit like a tank. That fight lasted one punch, leaving the challenger unconscious and missing three teeth. But this Australian guy had not only taken Paul’s punch, he didn’t even go down, not to mention he was fast, and he had gotten in more shots than Paul did!

It was going to be one hell of a fight after school.

“Ok Michael, what happened?” The principal demanded as he closed the office door hard and plopped in the chair behind his desk.

Mr. MacIntyre knew his students, some better than others, but the students also knew him. If the principal used your first name in these types of situations, that meant he was mildly upset or maybe even a little pissed. If he used your last name, he was really irritated, and if he used your full name, then you were pretty much toast.

For some reason he always referred to Paul by his last name. Paul always managed to get under the principal’s skin regardless of the circumstances.

“I punched Paul,” Michael explained in a dead-pan voice as if the answer was obvious. “He only swung back in self-defense. I ducked and he hit Wade by mistake. Wade was only defending himself. It’s not their fault, sir. It’s mine. I started it.”

Both teens looked at Michael with stunned looks on their faces.

“You…punched…Connors?” the principal asked in slow, steady syllables, equally as stunned.

“Yes, sir,” Michael said rubbing his hand. “It was like punching a tree.”

The other two boys chuckled. The principal shot a dirty look their way. Mr. MacIntyre had a weird looking vein on his forehead that was just below his receding hairline, and whenever he got mad, the vein seemed to stick out a little further and grow a little longer. Right now it looked as if the vein was throbbing.

The boys stopped laughing.

The principal looked from Michael to Paul and back again. He said nothing for what seemed like an eternity before turning to Wade.

“What do you have to say, Mr. Adams?” When he used ‘mister’ you could tell he was pissed, just not necessarily pissed at you.

“It’s like my mate said, Mr. MacIntyre, self-defense.”

The principal was not buying it.

“Care to explain why you hit Connors?” he asked Michael.

“I don’t like him.”

Paul and Wade tried to hide a smile. It didn’t work.

“Something funny, gentlemen?”

“No, sir,” they replied in unison.

“Listen, Michael,” the principal took on a more understanding tone, “just tell me what really happened and he is out of here. You do not have to be afraid of Connors.”

Michael looked directly into the principal’s eyes.

“If I was afraid of him, I wouldn’t have hit him.”

Paul hid a laugh behind a cough; Wade turned his head to hide his smile. Michael was making it real hard for the two of them to not burst out laughing. If that vein in MacIntyre’s head throbbed any more it might explode.

Michael could be cocky when he wanted to be, and it was obvious he was not the least bit intimidated by the principal’s cold stare.

MacIntyre leaned back in his chair and stared at the three boys. He did not care how good a football player Connors was, he was a bully and he wanted him out of his school. He finally had his chance to expel him, but Michael was making it difficult. He did not want to expel a top student like Michael because he finally had the courage to stand up to a bully, and there was no way he was going to send Wade back to Australia for defending himself.

The problem was that, if he left those two off the hook, he had no choice but to give up his chance to expel Connors.

“Well, Connors,” he finally announced, “looks like you got a Get Out of Jail Free card.” He paused as he stared hard at Paul. “This time.”

He stood up and walked to the front of his desk, looking at Michael.

“I trust you’ve got that out of your system and are through punching students?”

“Yes, sir,” Michael replied.

“The three of you report to detention, now!” MacIntyre ordered. “And Connors, I trust there will be no retribution on your part.”

“Nope, I’m good.” Paul answered with a smile.

Everyone doubted that answer.

“What about you?” the principal asked, looking at Wade.

“No worries, Mate.”

“Good. If I hear that the three of you decided to resume your little shenanigans, you are all suspended. Do I make myself clear?”

They nodded.

“Don’t think for a minute that you are fooling me with this ridiculous story,” MacIntyre told them, “So all three of you can consider yourselves on probation. That means I don’t care if it’s on school property or not, if I hear you were fighting, you are all expelled. Got it?”

All three nodded again as MacIntyre growled, “Now get out of here.”

They left the office and one of the teachers who helped break up the fight escorted them to detention. When MacIntyre was sure they were out of earshot he let out the laugh he was suppressing.

“Michael punched Connors! I would have paid to see that!”

###

Detention hall was empty and all three boys sat, arms folded, without saying a word. Eventually the teacher grew bored with the silence and stepped out of the room. They always did.

“Why?” Paul asked in a flat, monotone voice.

The other two looked at him.

“I can understand Outback Jack there picking up for you,” Paul explained, “But why did you take the heat?”

“You may not give a shit about getting expelled,” Michael answered, “but there is a whole student body, and a football team, that does care. They want to win the championship this year, and, as much as I hate to admit it, they probably can’t do it without you. I did it for them, not you. And I wasn’t about to let this guy get deported for helping me.”

Paul leaned back and said nothing. A few minutes later he mumbled, “I can respect that.” Another long pause later he added, “Thanks.”

“For what?” Michael asked.

Paul ignored his question and turned his attention to Wade, “You’re one tough, friggin’ Aussie. That punch would have knocked out a lesser man.”

“I saw bloody stars, Mate.” Wade laughed. “That would have been bloody humiliating, to stand up to you and get knocked out with one punch. No worries about deporting me, I would have swum all the way back to Australia in shame.”

They all laughed.

Paul rubbed his jaw, “You gotta mighty mean hook yourself.”

“I didn’t think you even felt it,” Wade said with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, I felt it,” Paul smiled.

“For the record,” Wade told Michael, “hitting him is like punching a tree. What the hell do you have in your head?” he asked Paul.

“Just concrete and stuff,” Paul answered with a grin.

They all laughed again; more awkward silence followed.

“Everyone probably thinks we are going to finish this after school,” Paul finally said, and Wade nodded in agreement.

“I think it’s safe to say,” Paul continued, rubbing his jaw, “if we go at it again, we’ll both probably land in the hospital.”

“Bloody oath, Mate.”

“What?” Paul asked.

“True enough.” Wade explained, “So….we good?”

Paul nodded, “We good.”

And, from that point on, they became good friends. It wasn’t every day that Paul met someone who not only stood up to him, but would have actually given him a run for his money. He wasn’t afraid of Wade, but he knew it would be one a hell of a fight, and win, lose, or draw, he would have been hurting for many days. Wade was tough and stood up for someone, and Paul respected him for that.

He still disliked Michael, but he did respect the fact that even though Michael knew he didn’t have a prayer against him, he still stood his ground. And more importantly, Michael could have easily had him expelled but had been willing to take the blame for the better of the entire school. He had to respect someone who put other people first. Michael still got on his nerves, especially when he caught him staring at his girlfriend, but he respected what Michael did and decided to leave him alone.

Wade and Michael also became good friends. Wade started to attend Paul’s football games and always invited Michael.

Over time Paul learned to tolerate Michael, and though he would never admit it, he occasionally enjoyed having Michael around. They still disliked each other for the most part, one good deed was not about to undo years of torment and hatred, but they could at least be civilized to each other.

Paul still made the occasional dig at him, but it was more in jest than to be mean. Paul learned that Michael was pretty quick with the come-backs and wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion.

Paul jokingly challenged Michael to a game of ‘knuckles’, fully expecting Michael to be wincing like a little girl within a few minutes, and quickly learned that Michael had more than just a quick mind; he also had reflexes like a cat, because it was Paul who was getting the sore hands from the game. Even Wade tried, and Michael beat him at the game too. What Michael lacked in physical size he more than compensated for with quick wit and lightening-fast hands.

Paul and Wade started teaching Michael how to defend himself, not that Michael would ever need protection when he had those two around, but they both insisted he learn how to defend himself and start lifting something other than school books. It took some doing, but they finally managed to get his nose out of the books and into the gym.

“If he ever decides to put those fast hands of his in a pair of boxing gloves,” Wade told Paul, “he’d be bloody dangerous.”

“He already is dangerous,” Paul answered on one of those rare moments he was actually being serious. “The rest of his body just doesn’t know it yet.”

Other than that one, brief interlude of giving Michael a compliment, Paul constantly complained about Michael to Lucy. He told her that if Wade insisted on dragging that geek along, he at least had to try to make him less ‘geeky’; he had his own reputation to protect. Lucy just laughed.

An outsider might have believed those two were actually becoming friends, but Lucy was not an outsider, and she fully expected that little house of cards to come crashing down.

Lucy knew how much Michael irritated Paul, especially when Paul caught Michael staring at her. She didn’t like the way he sometimes looked at her either, but she would be the least of Michael’s worries.

Paul had a nasty jealous streak, and even Wade would not be able to stop him from stomping Michael into the ground if Michael did not learn to keep his eyes to himself.

Paul and Michael’s friendship, for the lack of a better term, was putting extra pressure on her, and she did not like it one bit. She had to be constantly aware that she did not say anything to Michael that Paul might misinterpret.

It was all quite exhausting, and even though she was glad Michael was no longer subject to Paul’s constant bullying, her life was a hell of a lot simpler when he was.

CHAPTER 2 – Road Trip

“Whose van?” Lucy asked as she threw her duffel bags into the blue Chevy.

“My sponsor family said I could borrow it so we could come support our school. Team spirit and all,” Wade smirked.

Lauren spoke up. “Team spirit hell, you came here to see tits and ass.”

“Really? I didn’t even notice,” Wade’s smile broadened. “There were Sheilas there?”

“You didn’t notice?” Emma laughed. “Than why were you tripping over your own tongues? The three of you looked like a pack of dogs in heat.”

They all laughed.

“So, why are you driving?” Lucy asked Paul as he slid behind the wheel.

“He drove up, I’m driving back. Hey, Emma,” Paul snickered, turning his head to the back seats, “what does a blonde say after sex?”

“What?” Emma asked, never knowing what lame blonde joke Paul was going to come up with next.

“You guys all play on the same team?” Paul laughed.

All three girls groaned and rolled their eyes.

“Speaking of playing on the same team,” Lauren announced excitedly, “did you hear the latest about that slut, Kelly Gets?”

“What’s your beef with her anyway?” Emma asked. “And why does everyone call her Kelly Gets? Her name is Kelly Peterson!”

“Oh, my God, Emma, I can’t believe you’re that naive,” Lauren answered.

“What?” Emma asked.

“Gets, as in every boy ‘gets’ whatever he wants,” Lucy explained.

“Really?” Emma’s eyes opened wide in shocked disbelief.

“I heard she took on the whole football team,” Lauren said with more than a hint of disgust in her voice. Lucy shot a dirty look to Paul.

“I never touched her,” Paul said defensively. “I wouldn’t fuck that skank with Mikey’s dick.”

“I wouldn’t let you,” Michael answered. Everyone laughed.

“Well, most of the team. Same diff,” Lauren added.

“Why would she do that?” Emma asked. “It’s not like she’s ugly and couldn’t get a boy to notice her.”

“My dear little Emma,” Lauren laughed, “it has nothing to do with getting boys to notice her. Kelly Gets is just a slut, plain and simple. And apparently, it takes a football team to satisfy her.”

“Wow,” Emma was confused, “if she’s that easy, why would boys even have anything to do with her? Aren’t they worried about STDs?”

Lauren placed a hand on Emma’s shoulder and explained, “Because men are pigs, sweetie. They can only think with one head at a time, and the little one is the one they usually think with. They will stick it in anything that opens their legs for them.”

“Not everyone,” Michael corrected her.

“Bullshit,” Lauren argued. “You’re all alike. You’d screw a hole in a tree stump if you needed to get your rocks off.”

“Wait a second,” Paul interrupted, “how did the conversation turn from Kelly Gets to Male Bashing 101?”

“She didn’t have sex with herself,” Lauren rolled her eyes. “And, as much as I hate that bitch, the team is just as pathetic as she is.”

“It wasn’t the whole team; it was, like, three guys,” Paul corrected her.

“Like that makes a difference,” Lauren laughed sarcastically.

“And you know this how?” Lucy asked Paul.

“I was there,” Paul replied as Lucy stared at him with insinuating eyes. “And I didn’t touch her! Can we please change the subject?”

“Good idea,” Wade agreed as he popped in a CD and cranked the volume.

The sounds of deep hip-hop bass lines rattled the van’s tiny speakers, drowning out any possibility of further conversation.

###

Several hours later they were crossing the Canso Causeway from mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island. The Causeway was 4,500 feet long and the only road on and off the island.

The rest of the trip continued to be rather uneventful as song after song pounded the speakers. Paul tried a few more blonde jokes but couldn’t get any more of a response than the girls rolling their eyes. Wade laughed at a few. Michael barely smiled.

The girls were exhausted from the competition and the long drive. Lauren and Emma couldn’t keep their eyes open despite the loud music. The teens drove through the Whycocomaugh Reservation and then through the village of Baddeck.

“What the hell kinda language is that?” Wade asked, pointing at the huge sign as they approached the turn to St. Anne’s.

“Gaelic,” Emma answered.

“What does is it say?” he asked.

“One hundred thousand welcomes,” she announced

“I can read that,” Wade laughed as he pointed to the English version printed below the Gaelic one. “I meant how do you say it in Gaelic?”

“Caid Mille Failte,” Emma explained without giving it a second thought.

“You’re pretty smart for a dumb blonde,” Wade laughed jokingly.

“Tapadh leat,” she replied.

“Huh?” Wade asked.

“Thank you,” she explained as she batted her pretty blue eyes.

She’s pretty damn cute too”, Wade thought as he stared into her captivating baby blue eyes perhaps longer than he should have. He pulled his eyes away from her as they reached the base of Kelly’s Mountain.

At the foot of the mountain was the turn off for the tiny village of Englishtown, home of Giant MacAskill. The three boys had stopped at the museum on the trip up to the competition to see how big this giant really was. They learned the Cape Breton Giant stood seven foot nine and weighed 425 pounds. His shoulders were measured at forty-four inches wide while his hands were eight inches wide and a foot long.

“This guy even makes you look small,” Michael suggested as he snapped a picture of Paul standing next to the life-sized statue. Paul laughed, but when he saw the picture he knew Michael was right; Giant MacAskill did make him look small. The guys wanted to stop again on the way back to show the girls the museum, but a thick fog was rolling in, so they decided to just keep driving before it got worse. As they approached the top of Kelly’s Mountain it got worse, much worse. Visibility was all but gone and the road seemed to literally disappear in front of their eyes.

Paul slowed the van down to a crawl, desperately trying to keep from driving over the side of the steep mountain. He’d heard rumors that the fog on Kelly’s got as thick as pea soup and he now knew exactly what those people had meant. He didn’t even know he was driving off the road until the van scraped against a guard rail, scaring everyone in the van, including him.

“Drive in the middle of the road,” Michael suggested.

“Why the hell would I do that?” Paul snapped back. “I could get creamed by a truck coming the other way, you idiot!”

“Because you’re gonna drive off the mountain if you don’t, moron!” Michael told him, “You can’t see more than a foot in front of the van, so keep the yellow line between the headlights. That way it’s impossible to go off the road.”

“Great idea,” Paul rolled his eyes. “And what happens if one of those big-ass trucks come?”

“You’ll see their headlights. So pull over before you kill us!”

Paul knew it was a good idea. He just hated to admit somebody had a better idea than him, especially Michael.

Paul eased the van over until the yellow line was between his headlights and slowly crept over Kelly’s Mountain. Much to their surprise, and appreciation, not a single vehicle came the other way. As they reached the bottom of the mountain, they literally drove out of the fog as if they’d driven through a wall, but their relief was short lived. At the base of Kelly’s Mountain red and blue flashing lights from a parked police car and a “Bridge Out” sign welcomed the teens.

Normally a bridge out sign was no big deal, but Cape Breton, although called an island, was actually two islands. The Atlantic Ocean ran through each end until they met in the middle at the Bras D’or Lakes, a fresh water lake famed for its sail boating and spectacular views. The combination of fresh and salt water gave the Bras D’or Lakes a unique ecosystem. The Seal Island Bridge was the largest bridge on the Cape Breton and the only way to cross over on this end.

A thick, burly man got out of the police cruiser and eyed the van cautiously as it rolled to a stop. Paul rolled down the tinted window as the cop approached.

“You kids lost?” the cop asked.

Paul motioned his head to the bridge, “What’s the problem?”

The cop looked at Paul for a few seconds before answering, but it was long enough for Paul to notice the cop looked like he was ready to snarl. The cop nodded towards the bridge out sign.

“If you actually knew how to read, what do you think that big sign over there would say?”

“Jesus, man!” Paul responded. “Who pissed in your corn flakes?”

“Listen, smart ass,” the cop growled, “a car filled with partying teenagers tried passing an eighteen wheeler and slammed head-on with an oncoming car. The tanker jackknifed and exploded and a lot of innocent people were killed here, so I’m really not in the mood for your stupid questions because you’re not smart enough to read the signs.”

“Hard to see the signs when the fog is so thick we could barely see the road!” Paul snapped back.

“You’re wearing my patience thin, boy,” the cop sneered. “So turn this rig around and go back to wherever the hell it was you came from.”

Paul, who had little respect for authority figures and even less respect for cops, wasn’t smart enough to be intimidated or quiet.

“No problem, officer. That’s what I’m trying to do: get back to where we came from. Maybe you heard of it. It’s called Glace Bay, and it’s on that side of the bridge,” Paul sarcastically said, pointing across the bridge.

“That’s it!” The cop barked as he reached for the van’s door handle.

Lucy quickly leaned over Paul towards the open window.

“Excuse me, sir,” she flirted in her best sexy voice.

The cop was instantly pacified as his eyes traced the contours of her tight and revealing shirt before looking her in the eye. She had that effect on men, and she used it whenever it was to her advantage. She leaned out the window, crossing her arms so they squeezed her breasts together, enhancing her cleavage.

The cop’s eyes dropped instantly to take in the view.

“Bat your eyelashes, lick your lips, show a little cleavage, and you can have a man eating out of your hand in seconds,” Lucy thought. It was so easy it was almost embarrassing.

“Is there another way over?” she asked in a sultry voice. “We really don’t want to drive all the way back to the causeway and go through St. Peter’s. I’m really tired and I just wanna go to bed.”

The cop swallowed a lump in his throat and forced his eyes away from her cleavage. She licked her lips and smiled seductively.

“Men are pathetically predictable,” she thought.

The cop, his chest now stuck out like an army drill sergeant, tried to compose himself.

“W-w-well,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “When you get to Little Narrows, turn left. There’s a cable ferry that can take you across the channel. It might still be operating. If not, than you kids have no choice but to try St. Peters or find a motel somewhere.”

He stopped, then looked at the other girls.

“I suggest you girls phone your parents and let them know where you are at,” he looked a Paul, “and who you are with. They might want to rent a helicopter to come get you.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Paul blurted.

“Shut up, Paul,” Lucy hissed as she elbowed him.

“Yeah, Paul,” the cop said matter-of-factly. “That’s good advice. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than throwing your sarcastic ass in jail. But the jail is on that side of the bridge, and I don’t feel like babysitting you all night. So turn this rig around and get going before I change my mind.”

“Thank you, officer,” Lucy winked as she crawled back into the van.

Paul dropped the van in reverse and eased it around. Without warning, he floored the accelerator, throwing everyone in the van forward and spraying dirt at the cop.

“I hate that kid!” the cop grumbled as he brushed off his uniform.

“You’re an asshole!” Lucy yelled as she picked herself up off the van floor and slapped the back of Paul’s head.

“Oh, my god, you are such a flirt!” Lauren laughed at Lucy.

“It got us directions didn’t it?” Lucy replied with a smile. “And it kept big mouth here out of jail. Paul, you really should learn when to shut the hell up.”

“He started it!” Paul snapped.

“He started it!” Lucy repeated mockingly. “You can be such a child sometimes.”

Lucy turned to take her seat and noticed Lauren had moved up and sat next to Emma. Lucy stared at the empty seat next to Michael. Lauren just smiled, but Lucy shot her a dirty look. Lucy took the seat next to Michael. Michael smiled briefly but said nothing.

Whatever you do,” Lucy silently ordered Michael, “don’t stare at me, and please don’t do something stupid like look down the front of my shirt or Paul will freak. I’m going to kill Lauren, she knows better.”

A few seconds later, as if Michael heard her silent plea, he turned his head away and stared out the window.

“Thank you,” Lucy thought as she looked to the front of the van just in time for Paul to look in the rearview mirror. His eyes narrowed accusingly when he saw her sitting next to Michael, but as the van drove back through the wall of fog, his focus went back to the task at hand. They all looked straight ahead as if everyone’s eyes were needed to navigate. With the yellow line between the headlights, the van crawled back up and over Kelly’s Mountain.

“Why don’t we just go to Margaree?” Lucy suggested when the van broke free of the terrifying fog.

“That’s a great idea,” Emma chimed in.

“My parents have a cabin in Margaree Valley.” Lucy continued, “We could go there for the night instead of driving the long way around.”

“A cabin in the woods with three girls. Works for me,” Paul joked.

“And we can call our parents,” Emma added, “in case they want to rent a helicopter.”

The van filled with laughter.

“Hey, Emma,” Paul smiled, “what do you get when a blonde dyes her hair brown?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“Artificial Intelligence!” Paul roared as Emma rolled her eyes.

“When you pass Baddeck,” Lucy told Paul, ignoring his lame joke, “turn right at the Red Barn. You can’t miss it. Then just follow the signs.”

As the trip wore on, one by one the tired teens fell asleep. Lucy had to make sure she leaned far away from Michael. If she accidentally leaned on Michael, or he on her, poor Michael would probably not wake up because Paul would kill him while he slept.

“I don’t know why he gets so jealous.” Lucy thought, “It’s not like I ever gave him a reason to be jealous. It’s Michael for crying out loud.”

Paul turned at the Red Barn Gift Shop and Restaurant and navigated the winding and steep roads of Hunter’s Mountain.

Two hours later, the van jolted to a stop, startling everyone awake.

“Where are we?” Michael asked.

“Beats the hell outta me,” Paul answered.

“Huh?” Lucy mumbled, trying to wipe the sleep out of her eyes.

“There’s the ocean on our left, so we must be getting close,” Paul suggested.

“Ocean?” Lucy repeated, stumbling to the front of the van to get a better look.

“Paul, you idiot!” She slapped the back of his head. “We’re in Cheticamp!”

“Cheti-who?” Paul asked.

“Cheticamp, you moron, you drove past the turn off. Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“You said to turn at the red barn and keep going,” Paul argued.

“I said to follow the signs,” Lucy snapped back. “Think about it dumb-dumb: Margaree Valley. A valley means between mountains, not next to the ocean.”

Lucy looked around and saw a field of stick figures dressed in clothes and Halloween masks.

Lucy pointed to the figures, “Joe’s Scarecrows.”

“Joe’s what?” Lauren asked.

“I remember those,” Emma told them. “I was here with my parents a few years ago. The whole field is a bunch of scarecrows dressed up with cute little nametags and stuff. The restaurant over there has great cheeseburgers.”

“Oh, my god, Emma!” Lauren shook her head. “Do you think about anything other than food?”

“But I’m hungry,” Emma tried to explain.

“You’re always hungry,” Lauren told her. “For how much you eat you should weigh like five hundred pounds.”

“Part of her already does,” Paul laughed.

“Ha, ha,” Emma said dryly. “Like I never heard that one before. That’s about as original as calling someone with glasses four-eyes.” As soon as Emma said it she lowered her gaze to the floor.

“Now that was fuckin’ funny!” Paul roared.

Michael smiled as he pushed his glasses back up on his nose.

“Sorry,” Emma murmured to Michael, embarrassed.

“Actually,” Michael told her, “it was kinda funny.”

They all smiled.

“Well, at least he didn’t keep going,” Lucy informed everyone. “Just up ahead is Cheticamp. As soon as you go through Cheticamp, the road leads into Highland Park. If dumb-dumb here of had kept going we would have went all through the Highlands, up along the coast by Meat Cove, down through Neil’s Harbour and back down to Baddeck. We would have ended up exactly where we started!”

“So, how far is Margaree from here?” Michael asked.

“Ummm, it’s about thirty minutes, I think,” Lucy answered then looked at Paul. “In the other direction. That cop was right, you can’t read signs.”

“I’ll drive for awhile, Mate,” Wade volunteered.

“I can read the signs,” Paul argued defensively.

“No worries,” Wade reassured him, “you look stuffed.”

“I look what?”

Wade laughed. “Tired, Mate. You look tired. I’ll drive for a spell and you rest.”

They switched seats and Wade turned the van around and headed back the way they came.

CHAPTER 3 – Beinn Breagh

“Good morning, Robin,” Professor Patrick Heslin’s voice echoed in his empty laboratory.

“Good morning, father,” a computerized voice responded.

Heslin used his connections and his check book to hire the best engineers and developers to build him the Robin 1 Super Computer. a computer not only capable of helping him with his research, but one that spoke to him. It wasn’t just a set of canned responses like most computers; this one had a brain. Officially, it was called artificial intelligence but the truth was, the Robin 1 Computer was so advanced it appeared to be able to ‘think’ far outside its primary programming.

Using videotapes from his daughter’s twelfth birthday party, the last real birthday his daughter Robin ever had, the engineers and developers not only gave the AI brain Robin’s sweet and innocent voice but her angelic face as well, allowing the computer to simulate various facial expressions as she talked. Robin’s forever twelve year-old face filled the computer monitor as Heslin sipped his morning coffee.

“I checked the weather forecast, father. It is going to be very hot today. Shall I turn on the air conditioner?”

Robin controlled nearly every aspect of Heslin’s lab, from the satellite internet uplink to the electrical and security systems, including the locks on the doors. Cameras placed throughout the entire building allowed Robin to monitor everything. Speakers and microphones allowed Heslin to talk to Robin from any room.

“Robin, you know I prefer fresh air from open windows,” Heslin responded. “What are the probability results of formula 25-41?”

“Did you forget, father?” Robin asked.

“Did I forget what?” Heslin inquired with a hint of a smile breaking across his lips.

“Did you forget what today is?” Robin replied.

Heslin smiled with a wide grin as he looked into Robin’s face on the computer.

“Of course not,” he said lovingly. “How could I ever forget such an important day? Happy Birthday, Robin!”

Robin’s face smiled. Heslin’s mind drifted back to his daughter’s twelfth birthday—it was a beautiful, sunny day and their back yard was filled with balloons, games, pony rides and too many screaming children.

Heslin was known to be habitually late for just about everything. Important meetings, dinner engagements, Heslin was even late for his own wedding. His friends jokingly told him he would be late for his own funeral. But, when it came to Robin, Heslin was never late. He never missed a recital, a school play or a single birthday. For her, Heslin was always on time, always there for her.

Heslin, a man years ahead of his peers in the field of genetic research, now resembled a pitiful man talking to a computerized version of his daughter. To an outsider, it would look as though the award-winning scientist had finally lost his marbles, but to those who knew him well, it was exactly what Heslin needed to keep his sanity. He needed his Robin. Without her, Heslin simply could not go on.

It was only three short years ago that Heslin was working in his lab at the research center when he received an urgent phone call. At first Heslin understood the words, but as the news grabbed hold, the words became fuzzy, unclear. Heslin’s hand released the grip on the phone, and it bounced on the desk with a loud bang. Heslin leaned back in his chair, staring straight ahead. His friend and colleague, Professor Lindsay Paulson, ran to Heslin to see what was the matter as the voice on the telephone handset repeated, “Hello? Hello? Professor Heslin, are you still there?”

“Patrick, are you ok?” Lindsay asked. Heslin did not reply.

“Hello?” The voice on the phone insisted, “Sir, are you still there?”

“Hello?” Lindsay questioned as she put the phone to her ear, “What’s going on?”

“Is Professor Heslin all right?”

“Not exactly,” she retorted. “What did you say to him? Who is this?”

“This is Sgt. O’Brian. Are you a family member of…”

“This is Lindsay Paulson,” she announced, “I work with Patrick. He is a friend of mine. What happened? What did you say to him?”

Tears raced down her face as the sergeant explained that a drunk driver slammed into Mrs. Heslin’s car, killing her and sweet little Robin.

“Oh my god,…. No!” she sobbed. Lindsay looked at Heslin, “Patrick, I am so sorry.”

Heslin did not answer. He just sat there, staring ahead, a blank look on his face.

As the news of the tragedy spread, Heslin’s lab quickly filled with colleagues and lab assistants to help comfort the grieving man. Eventually the lab cleared, leaving Heslin alone with his sorrow. Lindsay stayed behind to further comfort him and made the obligatory offer:

“If there’s anything I can do, Patrick, you just let me know.”

Heslin lifted his eyes to Lindsay and uttered two simple words.

“There is.”

He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Lindsay. Her eyes opened wide in disbelief.

“No, Patrick, do not ask me to do such a thing. You’re not thinking straight right now….”

“Do it!” Heslin’s sharp words cut her off. “I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care what it costs, just do it.”

This time it was Lindsay who stared blankly ahead.

Now, three years later, Heslin paced impatiently in front of his microscope, deep in concentrated thought. A thick, grey stubble on his face showed a tell-tale sign that he hadn’t shaved in days. His wild, Einstein-like hairdo meant he hadn’t showered either. Heslin often worked to the point of exhaustion, slept for three or four hours, and then started another marathon session that lasted for days at a time. Heslin glanced at his stop watch as he hovered over his microscope. Impatiently, he switched between staring into the eye piece and looking at the watch. The seconds slowly ticked by.

Heslin was an old-school scientist and preferred microscopes and test tubes instead of a completely computerized laboratory. Although everything under the microscope was hooked into the Robin 1 mainframe, Heslin still preferred to see it with his own eyes. Beneath the all-seeing eye of his microscope, a culture dish held reddish-gray cells that moved in a jerky motion when Heslin’s genetically modified, translucent green liquid touched the cells. Not really a touch, more like a gentle caress. The reddish-gray cells were human cells, long since dead, but now sparked of new life when Heslin’s translucent green cells caressed them. Life that never broke the two minute window. Heslin dared another look at his watch as Robin’s voice broke the deafening silence.

“Formula 25-41 approaching the two minute mark in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 . . .”

Robin stopped. Heslin’s heart sank as he closed his eyes knowingly and exhaled deeply. He didn’t have to look into the microscope to know the cells had stopped moving. He knew exactly what failure looked like. He had seen it too many times before, more times than he cared to count. He opened his tired eyes as Robin started to announce the results.

“Test complete. Sequence has failed. Formula 25-41 not capable of supporting. . .”

“I know.” Heslin blurted angrily, cutting her off. “I bloody well know. God dammit! Five more seconds! Is that too much to ask?”

Heslin’s question echoed in the empty lab. The last of Heslin’s assistants had quit weeks ago when Heslin could no longer afford to pay them. Working Heslin’s marathon hours was practically suicide, but without the lure of money, his assistants quickly abandoned the maniacal professor.

Living off cold coffee and a few bites of the occasional sandwich, Heslin continued his research, oblivious to the world around him and the hunger pains that often growled in his empty belly. His appetite was for something bigger, something monumental and more important than mere food. He was so close to succeeding that he could practically smell victory. Despite his countless defeats, he never flinched in his pursuit. He was determined to prove his theories right… and his colleagues wrong.

The scientific community laughed at him when he first presented his proposal. He was convinced that dead tissue and dead blood cells could be regenerated back into living organisms. He proposed that the dead brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients could be brought back to life. He even dared to say that loved ones lost in terrible accidents could be brought back to life.

Knowing of his recent loss, his peers thought his intentions were “misplaced”. Others had simply labeled his ideas as Frankenstein-ish, and although none would admit it, many feared that if he did succeed, the end result would not be that much different than the monster in Mary Shelley’s famed novel.

Rage filled Heslin’s already exhausted mind as the sound of mocking from his peers crept back into his memory. He grabbed a beaker of formula 25-41 and fired it across the room, smashing it against the wall, just inches above the opened window. The loud crash of shattering glass snapped him out of his rage. Heslin laughed in spite of himself.

“Well now, Paddy me boy, that was rather dumb now, wasn’t it? Now you have a mess to clean up.”

“Father, is everything all right?” Robin asked.

“Not now, Robin,” Heslin answered abruptly, looking at his watch.

6:10 a.m.

Quietly, Heslin picked up a small garbage pail and began to pick up the broken shards of glass as the thick, translucent green liquid succumbed to gravity and slowly oozed down the wall. His mind lost on his recent failure, Heslin grabbed a piece of broken glass the wrong way, and as he clenched his fingers a sharp pain jolted him back to the task at hand. Blood poured from the deep cut. Instinctively, he put the cut to his mouth. He knew it didn’t really help the pain, He knew that it was just a psychological link to when his mother had the power to heal hurt with a loving kiss, but he sucked the cut anyway.

Overcome with disappointment, yet clinging on to a fragile hope, he peered inside the microscope’s eyepiece once more. Nothing moved. He adjusted the magnification as a small trail of blood trickled down his badly cut hand. A solitary drop of blood hung suspended from his hand, daring to fall. In less than a heartbeat the tiny drop of blood began its descent. It splashed in the culture dish, hardly noticeable to the naked eye, but under the magnification of his powerful microscope, the tiny splash was huge. It looked like a giant wave of red reaching up to grab him. It startled Heslin as if someone had jumped out of a dark corner. He quickly collected his thoughts and looked at his hand. Blood was streaking down his forearm.

“I have to stitch this,” Heslin said to himself as he headed out of the laboratory.

Robin spoke up. “Father….”

“Not now, Robin.”

“Father. . .” she repeated.

“Go to sleep now, Robin,” Heslin commanded, cutting her off.

The computer monitors instantly went black.

The command, “Go to sleep now, Robin” was a built-in fail-safe known only to Heslin and the programmers of the Robin 1 Mainframe. Robin prevented everyone, Heslin included, from accessing her AI brain, so no one could tamper with her programming. The command was created so Robin could be shut down to allow for routine maintenance of the system. At the end of a one hour period, a second fail-safe timer automatically rebooted the main system, turning Robin back on.

Heslin hissed in pain as he fumbled about trying to stitch the deep gash on his finger. The folks down the mountain may have called him “Doc”, but his feeble attempt to stitch his wound proved he knew very little about practical procedures. He was a scientist after all, not a medical doctor.

Heslin thought about the good folks in the Valley, hard working people who welcomed the scientist with open arms and, as he requested, left him alone so as not to disturb his research. Once a month they ran supplies up to him, mostly by 4-wheel drive, but during the harsh winter months, a snowmobile was the only thing that could make the trip up the secluded mountain road.

Perched on the mountainside, he sometimes felt like his idol, the great inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell had settled in the nearby village of Baddeck, not more than an hour away. Heslin proudly hung a picture of Bell above his mantle. Below it, a plaque displayed Bell’s immortal words:

I have traveled the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.”

Sitting on the mantle above a giant fireplace was an old fiddle that had belonged to Heslin’s father. Occasionally, when he needed to clear his thoughts, Heslin would play the old fiddle, but that was a rare occasion as he was usually too busy working in his lab, trying to perfect his formula. The rest of the pictures in the massive lounge area were all of Robin. There was one old wedding photograph with a much younger Heslin and his pretty bride but the other pictures were of his sweet, little Robin.

Heslin hoped to acquire some of Bell’s inspiration by building his lab on his own Beinn Breagh, which was Gaelic for Beautiful Mountain. Gaelic was a dying language on the island, save for a few small communities buried deep in the highlands. Heslin understood some of the Scot Gaelic words and he marveled at the fact that Scottish musicians often traveled here to learn the Cape Breton style of fiddling, which remained practically unchanged by time. Cape Breton fiddling was said to be closer to original Scottish fiddle music than in Scotland itself.

On a quite summer night, Heslin could sometimes hear the faint sounds of a fiddle, carried by the warm summer breeze. Other times, he heard the majestic drone of highland pipes. Both were music to his ears and a welcomed distraction.

Heslin’s lab, controlled by Robin and filled with modern equipment, was a stark contradiction to Bell’s modest laboratory, forever captured in time at the Bell Museum located in the village of Baddeck, a place Heslin occasionally visited for inspiration. Unlike Bell’s modest lab, Heslin’s was a sterile, clinical white, lit by huge florescent lights and flickering computer monitors. He had everything a modern laboratory needed. Well, almost everything.

At first, just like all his junior lab assistants when they first arrived on the mountain, he too had been taken aback by the sheer size and beauty of the old log cabin, standing proud on the mountain with a million dollar view. The spruce and pine trees seemed to hug the giant log building as if the lodge was meant to be there. It was beautiful and breathtaking. And, just like his assistants, he quickly grew to hate the fact that this kind of beauty and seclusion had a very steep price: modern conveniences, or lack thereof.

No cable, no phone, and no running water except for a small electric pump that drew water from an outdoor well, and worst of all, no proper toilet. An outhouse stood ten yards from the back door and proved to have two major flaws: In the summertime it smelled really, really bad. And it was freezing cold in the winter.

When the construction of the lab was completed on the main lodge, Heslin had planned on installing proper facilities, but with the lab ready, every day a new idea or a new experiment took hold, it pushed further renovations aside.

Now, three years later, Heslin still used an old diesel generator as backup power for the lodge. The main power was supplied by massive solar panels. A temporary hot water shower was installed in one of the upstairs rooms by running rows of copper pipe across the roof. In the summer time, the sun baking the pipes on the black shingles provided them with all the hot water anyone could ever need. In the wintertime the pipes had to be drained and everyone settled for sponge baths.

Solar panels supplied enough electricity to keep the lab warm during the winter, but Heslin had to manually pump water from the deep well because the sub zero temperatures of a typical Margaree winter froze the waterline; and every winter he still had to freeze his ass off in the outhouse. Heslin hated that outhouse. He hated it so much that some days he prayed for constipation just so he would not have to go to that disgusting place. But, his steady diet of cold coffee made sure that prayer was never answered.

With his hand freshly wrapped in too much gauze, Heslin headed to the lounge area and poured himself a scotch. He swallowed it in one drink then refilled his glass. Distraught with failure, he flopped in the big Lazy Boy chair and stared at the picture of Bell hanging above the fireplace. He took another drink, stood up, and walked towards the picture.

“Well Alex,” he said to the picture, “now what do I do?”

Heslin stared at the picture as if he was waiting for an answer. The picture said nothing. Heslin gently picked up his father’s old fiddle and tucked it under his whiskered chin. He fumbled with the bow, the gauze on his hand making it difficult to tighten the bow or properly hold it. With a soft, quiet breath, Heslin gently pulled the bow across the strings.

The once quiet room was now filled with sound as Heslin played the old Scottish tune, “Neil Gow’s Lament for the Loss of His Second Wife”.

Playing the tune always seemed to clear Heslin’s cluttered mind and soothe his feelings of failure. As he played, Bell’s picture seemed to take on a new look.

The picture itself never changed, only Heslin’s image of it. In his mind, Bell seemed to smile in appreciation.

Birds and crickets seemed to appreciate it as well, for their singing became louder, drifting in the open windows in harmony to Heslin’s playing. The sound of the little creek that flowed just a few feet from Heslin’s lab before traveling down to the valley also seemed to bubble a little bit louder. A symphony of nature joined the gentle sounds of Heslin’s fiddle.

As he played, Heslin’s mind drifted back to a time three years earlier when he’d sat looking across a large, oak conference table with the twelve men he had invited to hear his proposal. They were all wearing tailored suits and expensive watches, obvious signs of wealth. Each knew of Heslin’s recent loss, but when a Nobel Prize winning scientist requested a meeting, especially one whose last proposal had generated a huge return on investment, only a fool would not attend that meeting.

It was at this meeting they quickly learned his new proposal was far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.


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