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EAST MEADOW, NEW YORK
What do you say to a man you crippled for life?
Hi, Mister Fife. Remember me? I’m Laura Fanning—the girl who caused you irreparable brain damage twenty years ago.
Laura stood at the Advocate’s reception desk and watched the man in the electric wheelchair roll toward her from far down the hallway. He worked the controller with his right hand while his left—splinted to the forearm—lay useless in his lap. As he neared, she saw how the left corner of his mouth sagged. Persistent left hemiplegia. Just the way she’d left him two decades ago.
James Fife … a fresh stab of guilt knifed through her. She’d hoped to find that he’d regained some function over the years.
His paralysis seemed to be the only thing that hadn’t changed, however. He looked older—obviously—and grayer and heavier than she remembered.
Her gut squeezed at the prospect of facing him again, but she had to do this. She’d somehow forgotten about him, and she couldn’t allow that. Ever.
And maybe … just maybe the damage didn’t have to be permanent. Maybe she could change that.
“So it’s you,” he said with a slight slur as he rolled to a stop before her. “I didn’t see how it could be anyone else, but I still couldn’t believe it.”
“Not be anyone else?” Laura said, startled. “How could—?”
He nodded to the receptionist who’d called the dining room to tell him he had a visitor. “Ceil here. When I asked what you looked like she said ‘dark-skinned and-blue eyed.’ I’ve only met one person who fit that description.”
Yeah, well, Laura herself had never met anyone who looked like her either. Her Caucasian father had been blue-eyed, and her Mayan mother must have had a blue-eye recessive hiding in her genome. The result was a striking combination that turned heads.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I was finished anyway.”
“How … how are you?” She hated how lame she sounded but was unable to come up with anything better. The sight of him had gummed up her brain.
“Still half paralyzed,” he said, but she could detect no malice in his tone. “Have you come to tell me of the death of my nephew?”
So … he knew.
She shook her head. “No, I came to see you. I heard you were on Long Island and—”
“Did Nelson tell you that?”
What to say? During the few remaining minutes of his life Nelson Fife had said that his uncle was “stuck in an East Meadow nursing home.” It had taken a while but she’d managed to track him here to this facility run by the Catholic Church.
“Yes. He said you were ‘suffering every day.’ I’m so sorry.”
James Fife offered half a smile. “Nelson was like a son to me, but he had a tendency toward the dramatic. Let’s go someplace we can talk.”
“Someplace” turned out to be his apartment. She followed him back down the hallway to a studio with a full bath, a tiny kitchen equipped with a microwave and half fridge, an electric bed tucked into the rear section, and a small sitting area at the front. A crucifix and a Sacred Heart of Jesus print adorned the walls.
Leaving the door open, he gestured to one of the two easy chairs flanking an oval throw rug. “Please.”
Since he was already seated, she complied.
“And for the record,” he added, “I’m not suffering. I’ve accepted, I’ve adapted, and I bear you no ill will.”
Laura felt her throat thicken. “I was so irresponsible.”
“You were seventeen.”
Yeah … seventeen and using the rearview mirror to apply mascara as she blew through a Salt Lake City stop sign and hit an unsuspecting pedestrian.
He added, “Even though I wasn’t fully aware during the days that followed in the hospital, I know you came to visit me every day.”
“I felt so helpless. I ruined your life.”
Another lopsided smile. “No, you merely changed my life. You set it on another course.”
But not one of your choosing, she thought.
“Your nephew wasn’t quite so forgiving.”
She didn’t mention that Nelson had meant to kill her.
“I know. We discussed you shortly before his death.”
It shouldn’t have surprised her, but it did, and not in a pleasant way.
“Yes. I know you’re a county coroner, and I’m glad you’ve put your life to good use. I assured Nelson that the accident wasn’t your fault, that you were simply an instrument of God’s will, part of the Divine Plan.”
Uh-oh. Like nephew, like uncle? Nelson had been a total fanatic.
“It doesn’t feel that way,” she said.
“It rarely does. Since there wasn’t enough of Nelson left to bury, I can assume you weren’t with him when he died.”
“No … not with him. But I wasn’t far away.”
“You were on the island?” Fife leaned forward in his wheelchair. “Can you tell me what happened? I was told an explosion of some sort.”
“Yes. A big one. I’d just left the island and was in a boat. I was told…” She had to say it. “I was told that he fell victim to the fate he had planned for me.”
Fife winced and squeezed his eyes shut. When he looked at her again, he said, “Saint Augustine told us to love the sinner but hate the sin. It took this”—he gestured to the inert left side of his body—“and the changes it caused in my life to make me appreciate that. But Nelson couldn’t separate the two. Do you know any more about it?”
“Apparently something didn’t go as planned, but I don’t know the details.”
She did know them, but this man probably wouldn’t believe her if she told him.
He gave her a hard look. “You’re not one of those, are you?”
He leaned back with a frustrated expression. “All right, I’m going to say a word that I hope means nothing to you: panacean.”
Panacean … brewer of the mythical panacea … which had turned out to be not so mythical after all.
“No, not one of them. In fact, I became aware of their existence less than two months ago when I was hired to bring back a dose of the tea they brew.”
“And did you?”
None of his business.
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
He jabbed his right index finger toward her. “Is that why you’re here? Is that why you’ve shown up after all these years? To assuage your guilt by slipping me a dose of that diabolical potion?”
His vehemence startled her. “Not at all. I—”
“I forbid it! Pour it down a drain! What happened to me is God’s will and you shall not undo it! Is that clear?”
She managed a shrug. “It’s a moot point. I don’t have any. I just came by to see if you needed anything, if I could do anything for you.”
That seemed to mollify him, but only a little. His eyes remained narrowed with suspicion.
“I hope that’s true. And if it is, I appreciate it. But I need nothing. I’m comfortable here. I have friends, I pray, I meditate, I feel closer to God than ever. Don’t ruin that.”
Laura couldn’t imagine not wanting to regain the use of half of your body. She almost envied the peace that came with imagining yourself part of a divine plan … a peace she’d never know.
“As I said: I don’t possess the means to do that.” She gave him a long look. “Do I have anything to fear from you, Mister Fife?”
He shook his head. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m confined to a wheelchair.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You mean, am I a member of the Brotherhood?”
“Yes. If I lift your right sleeve will I see a 536 tattoo?”
He raised his chin. “You would. I’ve been their abbot for many a year. But…” He sighed.
“With Nelson’s death I relinquished the title. And that was all it was: a title. I took no part in the Brotherhood’s activities, and now I’m officially retired.”
So … 536 was still out there. Not what she’d wanted to hear.
“How many are you?”
“Not your concern. But I will tell you this: They don’t know about you, and I won’t tell them. If what you say is true and you aren’t brewing the panacea, you have nothing to fear. But if you are…”
Laura had no plans to make any, but if Clotilde held to her promise, she’d be dispensing a dose now and again.
“If I am, they’ll what? Burn me at the stake?”
“They’ll track you down and deal with you, and I won’t be able to help you.”
“You?” That last surprised her. “Why would you want to?”
His look softened. “Because you’re not an evil person. Nor are the panaceans. Just terribly misguided.”
Laura disagreed with that, but saw no point in challenging him.
He yawned. “Sorry. I usually nap after lunch.”
“One more thing, then I’ll be out of your life.” This had been bothering her ever since she’d returned to the States. “Have you ever wondered how the woman your nephew chased all over Europe turned out to be the same person who hit you with her car all those years ago?”
That half smile again. “You’re calling it a coincidence, I suppose.”
“Well, yeah. An amazing coincidence, don’t you think?”
He shook his head. “There are no coincidences, young lady. What you call ‘coincidence’ is the hand of a provident God, writing the story of your life.”
“If you say so.”
“You’re not a believer, I take it.”
She shook her head. “I can’t believe. I’ve never been able to believe.”
She’d been raised a Mormon but had merely gone through the motions as a child. None of it had made any sense to her. No religion did.
“Then you will not be saved,” he told her.
A thought occurred to her. “Some people are born unable to believe. If you believe in a provident God, that means he created them that way. How can God expect them to believe when he made them incapable of belief?”
Fife blinked, then said, “Even Saint Thomas the Doubter came to believe in the Resurrection.”
“But only after sticking his fingers in the wounds.”
“For some, faith takes effort. For me it is like breathing.” He extended his hand. “Go with God.”
Laura shook it, but Fife didn’t let go. He was frowning.
“Redemption,” he said, staring at her. “Redemption in your future.”
What now? A vision?
She broke contact. “Well, that’s good, I guess.”
“Oh, it is. And remember: There are no coincidences.”
She smiled, waved, and headed for the parking lot.
No coincidences … James Fife might find that comforting. Laura found it deeply disturbing.
When she’d made the decision to visit Fife, she’d planned on making him the beneficiary should she ever come into possession of another dose of the panacea. But he’d just made it quite clear that he wouldn’t consider it a benefit.
Fortunately she had another candidate.
Copyright © 2017 by F. Paul Wilson