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STRATAGEM Chapter 16

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham

PREVIOUS CHAPTER

SIXTEEN

HOWARD COUNTY, MARYLAND

THE AFTERNOON SUN cast a golden veil over the trees framing the home of Derek’s childhood. The pines and maples had grown so much taller and denser since he left for college. He pulled up into the driveway and shut the engine. Paige and Hulk had fallen asleep. Good. They all could use a few extra minutes of rest.

Derek leaned back in his seat and for the first time today closed his eyes and let the breath seep out of his lungs. His mind could not find the words to describe what had happened since he woke up until now.

A crow perched atop the roof of the house cawed three times. Standing right above the window of Derek’s old room, it cocked its head and stared down at him. The old brick façade and white shutters evoked memories of days he’d sit in his room typing stories to share on MySpace on his Windows 7 computer with that little fifteen-inch monitor that took up half his desk, while Sabine hung out with her “popular-crowd” friends after school. He had always been the nerd. Ironically, she had become the closest thing to a rocket scientist the Storm family had ever produced.

“Who’s the Nerd now?” Sabine would say each Thanksgiving until last year—the last one which Dad had celebrated with them. That thought pierced Derek’s heart with the acuity of a razor. Sabine and Derek had been arguing at the dinner table that Thanksgiving over what in hindsight seemed trivial. But trivial things have a way of tugging on that singular thread which unravels latent wounds and civility. Derek complained of Sabine’s snobby elitism, while she questioned when  Derek planned on getting a real job. Utter folly. But Dad, the eternal peacemaker, insisted that his children reconcile and forgive. “Never let the sun set on your anger,” he would always say, and did one last time before the ensuing heart attack sent him to the hospital.

Though he insisted it was neither Sabine nor Derek’s fault, Derek could not honestly say that he and Sabine had ever truly accepted it. Dad’s last words to them before going into the surgery from which he would not return were: “Be good to each other.”

A tear rolled down Derek’s eye. I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry…

“Why’re you cryin’?” Paige asked, then yawned.

He quickly wiped his eyes, then smiled. “What? I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

“No I’m not,” she said, pouting.

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

Hulk let out a long groan and stretched his forelegs.

“Are we there yet?” Paige said.

Derek laughed. “Lucky for you, we are. You ready?”

“I have to pee.”

As did Hulk, no doubt.

“All right then. Let’s hope she’s home,” Derek said and got out of the car. He went around to open Paige’s door and Hulk bolted out into the yard barking wildly. In an instant, he stood up on his stubby Corgi legs against the old maple tree barking and baying up into the branches.

“What’s he doin’?” Paige asked.

“Oh, he’s just talking to a squirrel.”

“What’s he saying?”

“Sounds like, Roh-roh. Roh-roh-roh. Rohhh!”

“You silly!”

Derek reached in, lifted Paige out of the chair, and instinctually carried her on his arm as he shut the door. In the window, his reflection looked just like the old photos of Dad holding Sabine as a little girl. Except he’d never be half the man Dad had been.

A cool autumn gust brought the earthy essence of home—the fresh pine, fallen leaves…simpler days.

“Derek?”

He looked up.

Standing there with a hat and gardening gloves, Mom removed her sunglasses. “I didn’t know you were coming!” She came over and kissed him on the cheek. Then she regarded Paige.

“And who have we here?”

“Mom,” Derek said. “This is Paige.”

She smiled at her and said, “Well, hello Paige. So nice to meet you.”

Paige grinned and looked down with a bashful expression. “Can we have some chocolate chip cookies?”

Surprised, Mom said, “Well, of course! Come on in.”

Derek shouted at Hulk. “Hey, Dog! Get inside!”

“Hulkie-wulkie!” Mom said in a high-pitched voice reserved for babies and toddlers. She waved her fingers in the air toward him. “Come on!”

With a gleeful bark, Hulk ran straight at her, tongue flapping in the wind. He ran around her legs as she walked back into the house.

Concerned the little beast would trip Mom, Derek said, “Hulk, no!”

“It’s all right.” Without missing a step, Mom made her way around him. “He’s just excited is all.”

When they got inside, Derek showed Paige to the bathroom. “You don’t need any help do you?”

She smirked and gave him a look. “Seriously? I’m five years old.”

“Just checking.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“And make sure you wash you—”

She turned around and shut the door.

“…hands.”

Derek turned around and met Mom’s eyes.

“So…” she nodded over his shoulder toward the door that Paige just shut. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

He looked back, then returned to Mom. “What? No, no, no. She’s not mine, I just…”

“Hmmm?”

“Actually, I am in trouble, but not that way.”

“Well, if she’s not your kid—thank God—then whose is she?”

“I’m babysitting…sorta.” His stomach let out an unceremonious howl. “Mom, do you have anything to eat? I haven’t had anything all day, and I don’t think Paige has either.”

“Oh my…it’s almost five and you haven’t eaten?” She removed her gloves and put her things down on a console in the hallway and waved him over to the kitchen. “We can talk while I get something for you both.”

“Great.” Just next to the kitchen entrance sat Dad’s chair in the living room. Beside it stood the walnut end table with a reading lamp. His worn leather-covered Bible which had been there in perpetuity remained, as it had every day, as though he’d just read it this morning.

“I’m going to sit down for a bit and catch up on the news,” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll bring a snack to tide you and Paige over.”

“Thanks, Mom.” He went over to Dad’s chair, put his hand on its tall back. Hard to believe four months had already passed since he left. Derek had kept himself busy and active, but not for such noble reasons as “Dad would’ve wanted it that way,” but because if he didn’t, he’d have to face the looming avalanche of emotion. He knew himself well enough to avoid that at all costs. Especially now.

He started to sit but for some reason felt wrong about occupying Dad’s chair. No one ever did, despite him welcoming the kids to do so all their lives. It just never felt right.

Derek turned to the sofa and sat there instead—on the left side, where he’d always sat when the family got together to watch TV.

Let your sister choose tonight, Son.

Dad’s voice resounded in his memories. Friday movie nights when he was in middle school and Sabine in elementary, a pile of DVDs from Blockbuster Video for the entire weekend, and Sabine always got to choose because she was the baby of the family, had an earlier bedtime yada yada…But it was something that finally stuck with Derek. And though he hadn’t been mature enough to appreciate it, he always listened to Dad. Turns out it had been one of those things Sabine recently recalled as something Derek had inherited from Dad: His generous spirit.

While a deep sense of gratitude filled him, tiny stones from the mountain trickled down, portending the avalanche.

Change your focus. Watch the news Derek exhorted himself. He reached over to the end table and grabbed the remote control. A thick layer of dust covered the buttons. “Wow.”

He blew on the dust and the flew up in a cloud all about his face. Without realizing it, he took in a mouthful and started coughing. He could no longer hold back, a tissue clamped over his nose and mouth just as he sneezed.

“Blow.” Mom said with a light pinch on his nose.

Derek did so automatically and Mom wiped his nose.

“How do you always manage to catch me right in time?”

“I’m drawing the line at diapers,” she said and returned to the kitchen where she tossed the tissue in the trash and washed her hands. “You’ll repay that when I’m too old to change my own.”

Paige came over and sat down next to him. “Hi.”

“Did you wash your hands?”

“Yup!” she held up her hands. “Wanna smell?”

“Uh, no thanks. I believe you.”

“Watchoo doin?”

“Going to watch some TV while Mrs. Storm gets us something to eat.”

“Cookies?”

Mom stuck her head back into the living room. “After dinner, I’ll have a fresh batch for you.”

“Yummy!”

Derek clicked the remote.

The TV’s power indicator lit up. But there was no picture. He changed the input source, but there was only one device connected, the cable box. He went over to press the cable box power button. It lit up.

Once again, no picture.

Only a message in white text over a dark blue background that read: NO SIGNAL

“Mom, what’s wrong with your TV?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t watched TV for months.”

How was he supposed to see what was going on in the world now? He traced the coaxial cable to a socket in the wall. Great, no hardware there. “So how do you know what’s going on these days?”

“I still have my subscription to the Times. Read it every morning.”

He felt fairly confident there were no headlines about the insanity of New York in this morning’s edition. “Have you been paying your internet and cable bill?”

“Dad always took care of that. It’s still on autopay.” She came out with a tray of cheese and crackers, and apple juice and set it down on the coffee table. “Here you go, Paige.”

“Thank you!” Paige grabbed a piece of cheese and looked around. She spotted Hulk and brought the cheese over and offered it to him. The Corgi glad ate it and licked her fingers, which made her giggle. She had a game to keep her busy now.

“I need to watch the news,” Derek said to Mom. “Do you know where the modem is?”

“Probably in Dad’s office.” She looked over to Paige. “Careful, Paige. He’s going to get fat if he eats all that cheese.”

“I know,” Paige said, grabbing another piece. “He’s gonna be a cute, fat doggy!”

“Be right back.” Derek went to Dad’s office. There would be too many reminders, too many temptations to sit and reminisce. Just go in a try power-cycling the modem.

If I can find it.

He opened the door, looked around the desk avoiding anything that could trigger memories.  Atop the half-height bookshelf sat the cable modem, its lights steady and red. “There you are.” Derek stepped over behind the desk and reached over to its power cord.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed a small baseball that looked to be quite old. He picked it up and noticed some faded writing on it.

Derek’s first game 6-13-2001

Dad kept that?

Hadn’t Sabine been his pride and joy all these years? Derek sat down in the leather executive chair and examined the baseball. Flashbacks of Dad shouting from the bleachers, “Go Derek, go!” and “You see that? That’s my boy!” came back right away as if they had just happened yesterday. And all those years of encouragement and support returned, breaking through the selective memory of his youth, obscured by the angst of his teenage years. Dad had always been proud of him. And he had been equally proud of Sabine. Derek had just been too immature to realize that Dad was telling the truth all along. He could have a favorite daughter and a favorite son, which were not mutually exclusive of each other.

Derek sighed, sank into the soft upholstery that enveloped him in a warm embrace. If only he’d been mature enough to realize that Dad’s praise for his wunderkind sister never detracted from the affirmation and love he’d shown Derek. It would’ve spared him so much unnecessary conflict and insecurity growing up.

Nevertheless, Dad’s wisdom lived on even now—his deep voice, his quiet strength, being the final word with kindness and principle. Without him, the family had lost its anchor.

Watch the hills…

Willing himself back, Derek got up and pulled the power cord out of the modem, waited a few seconds, then plugged it back in. The lights flashed yellow, then white.

He returned to the living room where Mom sat on the floor at the coffee table with Paige working on a jigsaw puzzle. The TV was on, but the volume off. He took a seat on the sofa and turned it to CNN and watched quietly with the subtitles.

“So, how’d you fix the TV?” Mom said, still engaged with Paige and the puzzle.

“I just had to reboot the modem.” No wonder she’d always told him and Sabine to just call. All she’d had was a flip-phone, no email, no texting, no facebook, no internet at all.

“How about this one?” Paige said, holding a puzzle piece.

“Let’s give it a try.” Mom looked up at Derek and smiled. “Just like you, at that age.”

“I’d think she’d remind you of Sabine.”

“Sabine wouldn’t let anyone help her.”

Derek nodded. “Oh, right. I remember her throwing a fit, then the whole box of pieces at me when I tried.”

“Oh come now. She was just four when that happened.” She held her smile for a bit longer than expected. They both shared a laugh, not breaking eye contact. And then the smiles faded into a mutual knowing look.

“How are you doing, Mom?”

“You know, I haven’t heard from Sabine since she went on her last mission. Have you?”

Derek nodded. “Only once since she returned. Her entire crew was under some kind of temporary quarantine. She should be coming back any day now, though. So, are you doing all right?”

She looked toward the kitchen. “Oh, by the way. Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes, and Paige? There’ll be chocolate chip cookies for dessert.”

Paige clapped her hands. “Yay!”

“Come on, Mom.”

She shrugged. “It’s been difficult, you know. Dad was only fifty-eight. We looked forward to a lifetime together after you and Sabine grew up. Now? I’m on my own.”

“I’m sorry, I miss him too.”

She rubbed his shoulder. “I know. Whenever I asked you, you seemed to be handling it so well, I just thought I was being weak.”

“Weak? You?” Derek scoffed. “You’re the strongest woman I know.”

“What about Sabine?”

“That’s called strong-willed.”

“Derek Storm, you be nice to your sister.”

“But seriously, Mom. You’re not weak. You’re the one who taught us not to sit there crying, to just get up, brush ourselves off and keep playing, remember?”

“And I’m glad you learned that. The truth is, it hurts. But all things considered, I’m managing well. Dad always had everything taken care of just in case. He left a decent pension, and you know what?”

“What?” Derek said, noticing the smile forming on her face.

“I started teaching piano again. I’ve already got six students. It’s more than I can deal with right now, but it’s fun and pretty good money.”

“Well, you have a doctorate from Juilliard. It’s great you’re finally getting to use it again.”

Her demeanor became animated as she spoke about her most talented students and what they were working on. Over her shoulder, however, the television showed footage of the plane crash in Central Park and other wreckage sites in New York.

Mom’s words faded into the background while Derek tried to read the captions of the news report. The scrolling marquis read: Terrorist Attack in New York…

Paige pointed to the television. “It’s the park!”

Mom turned around and watched the report. “Turn the volume up, Derek.”

He did.

The announcer stood with a microphone at the precinct where he’d been detained. Behind him, paramedics loaded people into multiple ambulances.

“The authorities have confirmed these incidents as linked and the result of a terrorist attack. So far, they’ve released the name of one potential suspect.”

At that moment, Derek’s driver’s license photo filled the screen. His name appeared in the caption below with the words “Suspected in Terror Attacks on New York.”

Mom turned to him, her mouth open and wordless.

“That’s you, Derek!” Paige said. “What’s a terrorist?”

 

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Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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