The end of the work day had always been hard for me. Between the stresses of protestors and my boss breathing down my neck to smile at every person that walked into the clinic, my head seemed to throb with no forgiveness. I couldn't help but question if that niggle was actually my mother turning in her grave. You didn't grow up a good Catholic girl and end up working in an abortion clinic without feeling at least a smidge of guilt. The only plus was both my parents were gone and didn't have to bear the shame back home of explaining what I did to make a living.
Tired eyes, I fumbled getting my keys out of my purse slightly cursing under my breath. The horrifying sound of metal on metal made me jump as I turned toward the empty lot to see nothing in particular. Normally we walked out in pairs with the current political climate and everyone and their brothers hating us for providing a health service but the argument that coat hanger abortions should not be a standard was never a sufficient argument for the Neanderthals that stood watch over the clinic like some sort of moral knight in shining armor. I couldn't help but find their hatred for me funny given they knew nothing about my actual job - I simply had to be the product of Satan and surely I was going to hell. That might be so, but I had bills to pay and right now the devil was paying them.
As my eyes adjusted to the street lamps I scanned the lot all the way out to the street but saw nothing. Foolishly, laughter trickled from my mouth as I stepped forward to speak to the nothingness around me.
"Hello? Is there anyone there?"
Outside of the echo, there was no other sound. In fact, the lack of any other sound sent a chill right through me as I turned on my heel and headed back to my Taurus with my keys now firmly in hand. Normally there were plenty of night sounds - cars driving, horns honking, sirens blaring - but tonight there seemed to be a shroud covering the lot that was too creepy to ingest. Once in the car, I found myself laughing again.
"Way to go June Bug, you really know how to get yourself worked up."
The steady purr of the engine and the soft lights of the dashboard reassured my tired mind that it was all in my head. Time to go home. The drive always felt like a trek since you have to head out of the city limits and into the desert to get to my little one-bedroom trailer in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't much but it was all mine. I had purchased both the property and the trailer with the money my folks left me when they passed and even though it wasn't anything close to as lavish as what I grew up with I was happy with my surroundings. Friends were hard to come by and really people, in general, were disgraceful so I could count on one hand how many people I actually called a friend and still have five fingers left over. Living in isolation was not really the best choice for a young woman but Palm Springs wasn't a hell-raising kind of town and outside of the current political situation there had never really been issues.
The desert air was satisfying and as I drove toward my lonely property I started to hear the sounds of the night again. Crickets, wild animals, and dogs barking all created a rhythm of familiarity that brought comfort to my soul. No other cars were around which was typical of my drive given how far off the beaten path I lived but it didn't stop me from being a mindful driver and periodically checking my mirrors. Suddenly my heart leaped from my chest as a gasp escaped me; my voice was shrill and nearly piercing.
In the rearview mirror, I could see the shadowy frame of what could only be a man sitting in my car. Instinctually my foot went to the brakes and before the car even came to a complete stop my seat belt was off and my hand was on the handle. I knew my cell phone was in my pocket because I could feel the weight resting against my thigh. The plan was to dart as far away as possible and pray to the God I no longer served there would be a signal to call the police. Before that plan could come to fruition his hand was on my shoulder. It was cold to the touch and as he leaned into the light I dared not look at him but there was a pull to do just that.
His eyes were like two black orbs and even though his features were handsome he was too foreboding to be considered anything but dangerous. When he cleared his throat I tensed even more if that were humanly possible. A smile peeled back his lips and again the thought that he was attractive stabbed my brain - Ted Bundy had been considered attractive as well and he was a fucking serial killer.
"Are you going to hurt me?"
I couldn't force my voice to anything more than a whisper but I could see they only made his smile grow larger.
"Hurt you? Oh no, Juniper dear. I am not going to hurt you at all. In fact, the exact opposite; I am here to elevate you to a whole new level. You are the chosen one."
He knew my name, like my real first name. Heart racing I tried very hard to not show the panic on my face though I knew it was difficult to hide my expressions. Everyone called me June or June Bug but no one ever called me Juniper. Not since my parents died. How did this stranger in the back seat of my car know that and what the hell was I being chosen for?
The words were thick as blackstrap molasses which only made it more frightening because that thought matched the stranger's dark, piercing eyes.
"Indeed. It saddens me that you do not remember me but then again you were very young the last time we spoke. The night you were promised to me. I am just coming back to attain what is mine and I must say I am pleased to find you living the way you are. You saved yourself just as I asked you to all those years ago."
I couldn't think. My mind was racing back to a childhood that I always felt was mundane and uncomplicated. What on earth was this man talking about? What did he mean I was promised to him? As my eyes locked with his, my head turned at an awkward angle to see the man that invaded my space. I finally turned my gaze back out toward the highway. The car had come to a screeching stop, haphazardly turned and crossing over the center lane. If there had been oncoming traffic we surely would have been hit, but no amount of wishful thinking could change the course of future events.
Time almost felt as if it were standing still. Reaching for my seat belt I looked down to see it was already unclasped, my hand still tightly gripping the door handle. The man in the back seat seemed to sense I was going to get out but didn't act overly concerned. Instead, he sat back and faded into a shadowy figure once more. Slowly I exited the vehicle. This had to be a dream. Rubbing my eyes, I looked back at the car and he was still sitting there looking ahead as if I had not left his presence. I couldn't even tell if I was afraid anymore.
Turning once more, putting my back to the car I felt my phone once again. It was a lifeline that I never used - the communication device that God may or may not allow to save me. He'd not moved and I still wasn't sure if I had finally gone mad from too much time alone so I pulled the gadget out, eyes widening as the small screen illuminated my face. I didn't hear the door open, nor had I heard footsteps but before I could dial any number his hand covered the screen making me jump once more.
"You don't really want to do that."
A lump formed in my throat and before I could stop anything my hand went limp and the phone sailed to the ground. I could hear it slide across the asphalt, remorseless, the screen turning into a web of broken glass. It was still glowing, casting a strange green light on to the strangers face.
"W-Who are you?"
"Awe, Juniper. That really isn't that important. What matters is that you saved yourself for me. That is what we agreed upon. I've been watching you all these years and never would have guessed you were going to be so true to your word. It's funny. You had the opportunity while in school to fornicate with other boys and you never did. Had you, hell, I wouldn't even be here right now. But you didn't. You kept your word to me. Just like the good girl your poppa always said you were."
Those words made my stomach lurch. Poppa? That is what I called my father when I was young but how did he know all this? I wanted to run, but now I also wanted answers. His speech was eerie and irritating at the same time, giving insight and yet none at all. Strangely, the man from the shadows reminded me of a politician, full of rhetoric with nothing of substance. Part of my brain knew better than to tempt him again so I nodded as if he'd said something that made sense.
"I made a promise to you?"
Another smile formed on his lips and for the first time I didn't feel creeped out. His body moved closer to mine, out of the shadows and I could finally see all of him. He had dark, cropped hair and thick, luscious eyelashes that would make any woman envious. His shoulders were not terribly broad but he carried himself as a man that was owed complete respect and dressed like he had money. A strange odor permeated off him that reminded me of a wood burning stove in the dead of winter; this was something of a comfort and equally terrifying.
As he stepped closer to me I could feel the heat radiating off him now. The cold I had felt in the car seemed to vanish and even though I wanted to run, my heart racing in my chest, my feet were locked in place as if I'd somehow become one with the road. His hand brushed my cheek, a caress so gentle it was as if he was showing a child they were safe.
"You did. It is okay that you do not remember. We do not really have time to take a stroll down memory lane, Juniper. Time is of the essence. Tonight is the night. This is the hour of our victory. You will be part of my greatest accomplishment; for that I thank you."
The man took my hand into his and gently pressed it to his lips. They felt soft and warm. Nothing he was saying made any sense but I feared he'd kill me if I tried to make a run for it a second time. Taking my arm he led me back to the car and gestured his hand to the open door. I did as he asked and got back in the driver seat. As he shut the door I found myself following the motions, putting my seat belt back on and starting the engine. The sweet, gentle purr from the engine comforting me once more; I could not shake off the intoxicated feeling that now seemed to envelop me. Sliding into the passage seat, the stranger glanced at his watch.
"We do not have much time. Drive, please, to your place."
I did as I was told. Or was I being asked? That would be a debate for a later time. The closer we got to the property the hazier everything became. I remember seeing the headlights shining on the trailer. I remember the stranger taking off his long coat and draping it over my sofa. I remember sleeping better than I ever had in my life. Then sunlight.
My eyes blinked relentlessly against the rays streaming through the blinds. Had it all been a dream? I looked at the time, heart jumping until I remembered that I was off work. There was no one in the trailer with me. No signs of someone else having been there.
Two things made me think perhaps it wasn't all a really fucked up nightmare. One, as I pulled the covers back to get up and use the bathroom I realized I was naked. I never slept naked and unless I was so tired that I neglected to put on pajamas something was amiss. My clothes were neatly folded and draped over the back of the timeworn vanity jammed into the corner so that lead me to believe I had enough thought to take them off, but why not put new ones on? The second thing and this is the one that is still haunting me... I can still smell wood burning. The whole house smelled like late October in the mountains just before the first snow of the season. It was mid-July in the desert outside of Palm Springs - nowhere close to winter, nowhere close to snow and no need to ever have a fire burning.
Long ago I stopped believing the fairy tales the church taught us about angels and demons and otherworldly locations like heaven and hell. As strange as the previous night's events had been I rationalized them to nothing more than stress. The matter became, even more, concrete when I walked into my small kitchen and saw my cell phone resting on the counter in perfect condition. Maybe it was bad Thai food, or work life getting to me. I need to take a vacation.
I was wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong. It has been two and a half months since that crazy night in the desert and I woke up sick as a dog. By noon the queasy feeling had gone away and one of the women I work with jokingly asked if I was pregnant. Normally I would have just laughed it off because before that night I was a virgin. As I processed my thoughts on that evening I heavily relied on facts; things like my phone having shattered and miraculously being on the counter the next morning. I had to have had some form of psychotic break that night to have seen that man and had a full blown conversation with him. The days and weeks passed and I guess I convinced myself that nothing had really happened at all.
No one at work knew I had never been with anyone. It wasn't their business that my sex life was as bleak as the desert I lived in. To be honest, I considered myself on the asexual spectrum having no interest at all in sex but ever since that night I found myself noticing people in a different light. The strange tingle my body got when I looked at someone I was now finding attractive was different for me to say the least but I chalked it up to growing up and left it at that.
Surely I could not be pregnant. I mean, for everything I attributed to dreams I do not remember having sex with the dark stranger. Unless God picked me to bring forth another child for him I am pretty darn sure that sex needs to be had to make babies. I stewed on the idea for another week. Playing with what we called the prediction wheel if I were pregnant and something had happened that night I had exact one week to decide what to do before I hit the end of my first trimester. My breasts felt a little swollen but I read on the internet that you could basically convince your body that you were with child and have all the symptoms without the kid. On the last night of the tenth week, I asked one of the doctors to stick around once we closed up because there was a sensitive topic I needed to discuss with him.
Dr. Polowski was a nice person; with zero judgment he listened to me as I told him I was not sure if I'd had a sexual encounter with someone. I did not think I had been raped but I also did not remember the sex. He nodded as if he were interested and when I finally got to the point that I wanted a pregnancy test done the older man simply smiled and patted my knee before leaving the room to get a cup for a urine sample. I went through all the rounds our patients went through and waited patiently for the results. When he came back in the room, Dr. Polowski sat down with a wry grin and adjusted his narrowly rimmed glasses on to the bridge of his nose.
"Now, June, before I tell you the results of this test we need to talk."
"Oh, God, I am pregnant, aren't I?"
His smirk assured me of the answer.
"We need to talk about what happened to you. It isn't normal for women to not remember their sexual encounters. If you were raped, June, you should report it to the authorities."
My eyes widened. I didn't want to believe that were true. I didn't know who that man was and he said all those things about me being promised to him when I was a child; what would the police think of that? This couldn't be happening. One bad choice and now this?
"No!" I snapped. "I wasn't raped, that I am sure. It just isn't possible. It must have just been very uneventful sex is all."
I am pretty sure the doctor didn't believe that but he knew better than to press the issue.
"You are approximately ten weeks along based on the dates you've given me. You have options. If you want to keep the child, I suggest you start seeing an obstetrician on a regular basis. Likewise, I suggest that if you consider allowing the child to be adopted. Of course, as an employee, you know you also have the right to terminate the pregnancy, though you need to make that decision within the week. It is not a choice you should make lightly. You may want to take a day or two to think about it."
I never say myself in a position of having to decide such things. I was a freak of nature, a loner and now a total basket case because my baby daddy was some random guy who just popped up in the back of my car one night telling me I owed him my virginity for whatever reason. This was not happening!
"I want an abortion," I blurted before I could even wrangle the words back in.
"No thought at all about it?"
Dr. Polowski was concerned for my well-being, I could tell and I knew he was only doing his job. Who regrets something like this, though?
"I don't need to think about it. I could have told you when I started working here that I didn't want kids. Never have. I still don't; not this one or any. Ever."
Relief flooded all my senses when I could see the doctor trusted my choice.
"Alright then, we'll schedule you for a procedure two days from now. You'll need to take some time off work to recover and I am sure you have PTO saved up so you should be fine there. I'll get Melissa to cover your shifts until you are well enough to come back. How does that sound?"
His voice was fatherly and reassuring. I knew what needed to be done. The people who protested our clinic called us murderers and a lot of them supported adoption over abortion. In the church, I was always taught that women were made to make babies which were a hard pill to swallow for someone who's skin crawled and the mere sight of the little rug rats. I wouldn't love the child enough to take care of myself during pregnancy and wanted no part of the guilt I am sure I would have as I handed some little one off to complete strangers after carrying it around almost a year. No, this was for the best.
I should have known from the beginning that nothing was going to work out the way I had planned. Some random guy shows up in the back of your car talking about promises you don't ever remember making... and then you end up pregnant... you should take all your actions into consideration. On the day I was scheduled to have the abortion done, Dr. Polowski came into the room as he normally would have, to explain to me what was going to happen. His face looked discolored, flaccid and pale, but he spoke to me the way he would have any other patient. Even though this procedure was carried out in our clinic we really focused on women's health and Dr. Polowski was actually better known for encouraging women to adopt. His platform had always been the choice should be ours, so as a doctor he was willing to carry out the surgery so there would be a safe place for women to go.
I trusted him. Today was no different but I felt concern starting to ball in my stomach like fire. He just didn't look well.
"Are you okay, Doc?"
"What? Yes, dear, I am fine. Just feeling a bit under the weather this morning but I'll be okay. I would like to get you taken care of. The faster you recover the faster you'll be back to work."
The cheeky wink helped me relax and I laid back on the table as Iris, the nurse, helped prep everything. One of the other nurses had placed butterfly stickers on the ceiling above the bed as a focal point, so my eyes locked on the blues and oranges of their wings. Had I been paying more attention I would have heard Dr. Polowski hit the floor. Instead, the only sound that resonated was the blood-curdling scream from Iris. My mind refocused on the room and I sat up with a jolt of electricity coursing through my body to see Polowski on the floor having what appeared to be a seizure. Iris was kneeling over him, turning him on to his side but all I could do was sit there in shock.
The door swung open and two other staff members entered because of the screaming. Standing in the hall behind them, there he was, the man from the car. No one else was paying attention to the fact he looked so out of place. His sinister attire and heavy lashes that enhanced his already dramatic eyes clashed against the white of the clinic walls. And let's not forget the part where he was wagging a finger at him to come to him. No, everyone was paying attention to the doctor - and rightfully so, but not I. Fixated on the man in the hall I knew I was to blame. All this was happening because I tried to kill his baby and now I was going to suffer the consequences of that action.
Slowly I rose to my feet, gown shifting around my trembling legs, and walked to him. Whatever this was, whatever was happening, there would be no turning back. I walked to him completely entranced. The sounds around me slowly faded. The man placed a single finger under my chin forcing me to look directly in his eyes.
The shiver that ran up my spine shot a chorus of goosebumps over my flesh dancing to an unheard melody.
"I-I don't even know your name."
I had not wanted that to sound like a whimper but the mix of fear, confusion, and regret was making it hard to not sound like a scolded child. His lips formed a near-sympathetic smirk just before reaching his hands and wrapping them around my shoulders. With a jerk, I could feel my body swaying, almost as if intoxicated, just before collapsing to the floor. When I came to, I found myself lying in my own bed at home, back in the desert. Confused, I glanced around to see nothing unusual in the room and no out of the ordinary sounds. I know I had gone in to work, I know I had tried to have a procedure done and I clearly remember my friend and colleague falling to the floor. How did I get home?
Pulling back the covers, I was wearing pajamas and not the robes from the clinic. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and for the first time I could not only feel it but see it. My stomach was poking out in a perfect little baby bump. This morning you could not tell I was even pregnant and now I looked as if I were at least six or seven months. Was I going crazy? Standing, I quickly rushed to the long mirror that hung from the bathroom door to see this time elapse from a different angle. There is was. My hands deliberately ran over my belly and the child inside fluttered at my touch. Was it right to feel in such awe over something that utterly terrified me?
Looking around for him, I walked out the small hallway to the room that collectively made up the rest of the house. There was an area to cook, a small dining area and a little living room with nothing but a sofa, a chair, a bookcase and a table with a fake plant on it. There he sat thumbing through books as if there was nothing better to do. For the first time, I did not fear him. I am not really sure why that sense of panic had vanished but it had.
"Ah, there you are. I was wondering when you were going to wake up."
He rose from his seat, taking me into a tender embrace that included a kiss to the forehead. Chills covered my body and the sensation it gave only made me crave more.
"How did we get here? I don't remember coming back here."
"We must talk, Juniper. Please, take a seat."
I followed the motion of his hand, sitting on the sofa as if I were a guest in my own home. My belly lifted, making it hard to breathe and I had to adjust my seat to feel comfortable. The baby was dancing in my stomach at the sound of his voice like it knew it was in the presence of its father.
"I'm sorry. I can see now I screwed up. Are you going to kill me?"
Laughter erupted from his throat. It sounded like an eerie mix of coyotes screaming and a symphonic orchestra.
"No, Juniper. I would never hurt you. I told you, you are my promised. You shall never know of pain in that sense. But I fear I must set the record straight. I must say, it hurt me tremendously that you were so willing to kill our child but I can see now I should have explained things to you better. I hope you don't mind that I took this opportunity to move things along."
He pointed at my stomach with a smile.
"You still haven't told me your name. I'm carrying your child and you can apparently supernaturally age that child and yet, I don't know your name."
"Lilu, though I never really liked that. Sounds dreadfully childish in my opinion; I think you should pick a new one for me. Something that sounds more elegant."
Anyone watching this would think I was crazy. I probably am. The draw to find out where this was going was far too great to stop now and the truth of the matter was I knew Lilu could just as easily kill me. The mix of fear was certainly there but now was being squashed by my curiosity of what the future held.
"Lilu is awful. Liam. I like Liam. Is that okay? I remember reading somewhere that it meant resolute protection."
"Liam it shall be."
The next few months played out like a storybook. I never went back to the clinic. Liam insisted I needed to stay at home with our child. We were married and he moved us into a posh neighborhood so we could raise our son in a less isolated environment. Nesting began and while Liam worked, I prepared our home for the arrival of our child. We had picked out furniture for the nursery and decorated everything to near perfection.
When Camden was born my life felt perfect. To the outside eye, we were the textbook family. No one in my neighbor knew the mousy girl I once was and no one knew the origins of mine and Liam's relationship. I fell right in line with all the other suburban housewives. My son and my husband were my whole world now and each day I found myself more and more in love with everything Liam had given me. He adored me, fawned over me and treated our son as if he were the most amazing creation on the planet.
Everything was wonderful. I came to realize it was us against them.
Mere weeks before Camden's first birthday I had taken him with me to go shopping. The outing was nothing unusual for us. His babbling was like music to my ears and every time he looked at me with those deer-like eyes my heart swam with joy. Shopping in the mall, Camden and I were looking for a gift to give to Liam for all the hard work he was putting in to support our little family. So much time had passed since working at the clinic it felt like a lifetime ago. That was until an unexpected face appeared before me.
Her voice was so familiar and as recognition dawned on me I simply smiled. I did not know what else to say.
She looked down at Camden, her nose scrunching up in what could only be viewed as dislike. Immediately my hackles went up. No one was going to judge my child - my perfect little son - no one.
"You decided to keep the baby. That is good considering everything that happened that day. You never came back. You just disappeared out of there and honestly, the other girls and I were wondering if you had something to do with what happened to Gregory."
Her tone was dripping with disdain as if she had any right to speak to me like that. Anger rose inside me but at the same time, my curiosity always got the better of me.
"What do you mean, what happened to Gregory? You mean Dr. Polowski? What happened and why would it be my fault?"
Camden looked up at me from his stroller. He could hear I was upset and had a look of concern in those deep, brown eyes that matched his father's.
"You really don't know, do you? Gregory has been institutionalized. Whatever happened that day, the day you tried to off this little one, he never recovered from it. All he does is sit in a room now babbling that he's sorry. What the hell happened? What did you do?"
"Me?" I laughed at the accusation. "I did nothing! The only thing I did was change my mind about the pregnancy; and how dare you speak about my son in such a manner. You don't know me. You don't know anything about me. The fact that Dr. Polowski never recovered from his seizure is not my fault. You can take your assumptions and accusation and shove them up your..."
Just before spewing out the vulgarity I heard Camden squeal with delight. I looked at my son and saw him smiling, focused on something just behind me. I turned to see Liam there, overjoyed to have found us. Looking back at Iris, I was going to introduce her but as I cleared my throat I watched the color in her face dissolve away. Liam smiled and wrapped his arm over my hip giving a light pat on the head of our son.
"Is everything alright here?"
"Yes, Liam, this is a former coworker of mine. Iris. She was just filling me in on what happened to our former boss. Apparently, he never recovered from that episode he had."
Liam looked at Iris and smiled. "What a shame."
His words were like honey, smooth and sweet. While Camden and I sat mesmerized, Iris was turning a shade I do not think I have ever seen before. The sense of power swelled in me.
"Have a good night now, Iris. You don't look so good. Maybe you should get some rest."
Heading home, Liam took over driving. I never questioned how he found us or how he traveled from place to place. In the end, I knew the truth. I knew he was not of this world and I knew the great power he possessed. Had my father been alive I would have thanked him for offering me up all those years ago. I must say, my life has never been the same since I met this man in my car. And I wouldn't have it any other way.