I heard footsteps behind us and when I looked back, I spotted the same maintenance man who had been looking at me strangely in the cafeteria. I stopped and so did Eden, looking curiously up at me. "What is it?" she asked.
Without answering her, I called out to the man, "Excuse me, sir?" I pulled Eden with me as I walked toward him. His eyes got wider and he looked like he was considering whether to turn around, but evidently decided not to, as he stood still waiting for us to approach him.
When we got closer, I saw he was a little older than I had originally thought with leathery and wrinkled skin, and hair that was far more white than the blond I had thought it was. He was thin and wiry and stood hunched over slightly in what I guessed was his natural stance. One of his eyes was cloudy.
"Hi," I said when we'd gotten close to him. "My name is Calder Raynes. We were hoping you might be able to answer a couple questions about someone who used to work here."
He nodded at me and glanced over at Eden quickly and then back to me. "Morris Reed," he said, his voice deep and raspy with a slight rattle behind it that told me he was probably a heavy smoker. He didn't offer us his name.
We both took a few steps closer and I could indeed smell tobacco smoke wafting off of him. "Um," Eden said, glancing at me. "No. Did you work here when a man named Thomas Greer taught Greek History?"
The man stared at her, looking slightly confused, and then turned his head and coughed, a rattling, mucous-y sound. I almost flinched, but held my expression steady until he'd turned back to us. "Yeah, I knew Tom," he said. "Or at least, knew of him, knew him in passing. We didn't associate much."
"Oh," Eden said. "Well, do you know why he left?"
He studied Eden for a minute and I instinctively grabbed her hand. The man glanced down quickly at our joined hands and then back up to her face. "Wife and daughter was murdered," he said, a note of sadness in his voice. He shook his head. "Been a long time, but . . . sure was a sad case."
"Yes," Eden said softly. "So that's why he left then?"
The man coughed again and then said, "Nah, they fired him - years later, though. They kept it hush-hush. Let him resign. But the real truth is that he got fired. He took a turn after that crime. Always spoutin' off in his classes, scaring the students, saying weird stuff about gods talking to him. He was always taking leaves of absence and each time he came back, he was crazier than ever. Went out of his head from the tragedy is my guess. He left and I never heard anything about him again."
We both stood staring at him. I nodded. "Right," I said quietly. "Well, thank you for your time. It's been very helpful."
He nodded and we started to turn away. "You look just like him, you know?" he said.
I turned back around. He was staring at me. I frowned and shook my head very slightly. "I'm sorry? Like who?"
"Your father. Worked here in maintenance with me. Up and quit a couple years before Thomas resigned."
My heart slammed to a stop and then resumed beating rapidly. "My . . . what?"
"You're darker in coloring, but you've definitely got his face. Never had any trouble getting ladies, that one." He chuckled a choking, loose sound, but recovered quickly and looked at me with something that looked like regret on his face. "He told me your mama came and took you with her somewhere. That true?"
"What's his name?" I interrupted. "Do you know where we can find him?"
"Oh yeah, I do, but you better be quick about it. My sister works at the hospital. Hospice was called out to his place a while back. Don't figure he has much time left. He's been sick for years. His name is Morris Reed. Thought you were here looking for him, not Thomas." He furrowed his brow and tilted his head as if he'd just delivered bad news.
My heart was still racing in my chest and my thoughts were all jumbled. I was trying to catch up. Morris Reed. Morris Reed. My father was Morris Reed.
The man continued. "He's about a mile from here out on Abaddon Road." He spelled it and then rattled off a street number and then he started to turn and walk away.
"Wait," I said. "Do you know if this man you think is my father—did he know Thomas?"
He shrugged. "Not as far as I knew, but Morris and I didn't associate outside of work much." He looked down, seeming as if he was considering his next words. He looked up at me, that rheumy eye unblinking. "I figure you shouldn't talk ill of the dead, but your father isn't dead quite yet so I'll tell you this—as far as I was concerned, it was best to stay far away from him. Face of some kind of god, but the devil was in his eyes."
I gaped at him. It felt like something cold and thick was dripping down my spine. Suddenly Eden's hand was pulling me and I stumbled behind her, looking back at the man, as we practically ran for the door and out into the bright sunshine of the outside world.
I pulled Calder out of the building behind me as quickly as my feet could carry me and as fast as I could move while towing his weight. It felt like he was barely being pulled along behind me—he certainly wasn't helping much.
I stopped when we'd gotten outside, the cool fall air welcoming us. My heart was pounding and my throat felt dry. I turned Calder toward me and gazed up into his blank face. "What are you thinking?" I asked. "Are you okay?"
He shook his head slowly, his eyes above my head, gazing absently at something or nothing behind me. "I don't know what to think." His eyes finally moved slowly to my face and he blinked at me as if I looked different to him somehow. "Maybe it's not even true."
"Do you want to find out?" I asked, lowering the volume of my voice almost to a whisper. "This is up to you."
Calder took in a deep breath of air and blew it out slowly, rubbing his eyelid. "Something tells me it's not a good idea."
I bit my lip for a minute. "It could be your only chance. The guy inside said there's not much time." I paused. "Maybe he can tell you your name."
"My name. Yeah," he finally said, glancing down at my belly.
"I'm with you," I said, taking his hand in mine. "I'm here. And someone very wise once told me that you never know when a little bit of knowledge is going to come in handy and maybe even change your life." I smiled.
Calder's eyes warmed a little and he squeezed my hand and started walking toward the car.
Twenty minutes later, after making several wrong turns that Calder muttered were probably signs, we pulled onto a dirt road and saw the number the maintenance guy had given us painted on the tilted mailbox out front.
I scanned the property as we pulled the car slowly into the dirt driveway. It was a hoarder's dream: three broken down vehicles stripped of most of the external parts were sitting on large blocks, a dilapidated, brown couch sat next to the front steps of the small house, and there was unrecognizable junk and garbage everywhere.
My eyes moved to the house itself—the roof was sagging, the paint was peeling and one shutter was hanging sideways on the front window. I looked over at Calder, his expression one of shocked disgust.
He turned off the ignition and just sat there for a minute, unmoving. "I don't think either one of us is going to like where I came from, Eden."
Worry moved through my body. "He's been sick for a long time," I said quietly. "He probably doesn't have a lot of money. That doesn't mean he's not a decent person. And even if he isn't, he deserves to know who took his son from him at the very least, don't you think?"
Calder ran a hand through his hair and nodded. He put his hand on the door handle and I got out on my side and we met in front of the car, joining hands and maneuvering silently through the waste strewn everywhere. I wanted to wrinkle up my nose at the smell lingering in the air, something like garbage mixed with sulfur, but I forced myself not to. The last thing Calder needed was for me to make this worse by acting repelled by where he came from.
We got to the front door and I had a brief flash of picking up that huge, brass lion's head knocker. This was that moment for Calder. I squeezed his hand tightly and gave him a small smile, nodding my head at him. "You can do this," I said.
He reached his hand up and hesitated briefly, but then knocked, three loud raps. We both stood there, completely still, listening to movement beyond the door. Someone was coming toward us on the other side. High overhead an eagle cried out, the sound piercing. I squinted up into the bright but overcast sky to see it circling above us.
I startled slightly when the door swung open and a young woman in jeans and a green turtleneck sweater stood there, looking expectantly at us.
"Uh, hi," Calder said. The woman stared at him and tilted her head, some sort of understanding seeming to come into her face.
"Hi, are you a relative?" she asked.
"Yes," Calder said, spacing the letters out. "My name is Calder Raynes and this is my girlfriend, Eden Everson."
The woman smiled. "Please, come in. I'm Addy Dover." Her face took on a sympathetic expression. "You did know—"
"Yes," Calder said. "And you're from Hospice?"
Addy shook her head. "Oh no, no." She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Hospice employees won't come here. I'm from Our Lady of Mercy Church. I was a home health nurse though." Her lips flattened into a thin line for a second before she said, "No one should have to die completely alone." But something in her expression looked unconvinced. I wasn't sure what it meant.
My eyes widened and Calder frowned. We started to take a step inside, but before we could, Addy looked backward and then turned toward us again. "So you've met him before, right?" she asked.
Calder shook his head. Addy nodded.
"Oh, okay, well . . . he's . . . well, he's not the nicest person." She worried her brow. "I don't say that to be disrespectful of your family, but, well . . . since you haven't met him before, I think it's good that you're prepared. It's very nice of you to come visit him for this last time. No one else has."
We both nodded and started to step inside once again, but again, Addy stopped. "Oh," she said turning around and grabbing something off a narrow table on the wall next to the door. She handed us a small plastic container and pointed to under her nose. It was then I saw that there was a very light bluish tint on the skin right under her nostrils. "The smell," she explained simply. "You'll want this."
I frowned and I looked over at Calder whose face had drained of color. He glanced at me looking embarrassed as if he wanted to run. I unscrewed the cap on the container and smeared some of the blue stuff under my nose and handed it to Calder who haltingly did the same. We stepped inside.
Despite the strong, camphor-smelling gel under my nostrils, the smell of the house hit me like a ton of bricks and I almost stumbled back. I looked at Addy. I must have had a shocked look on my face because she nodded knowingly and said, "I know. You'll need to change clothes when you leave here, too." I swallowed down the bile that wanted to come up my throat and tried not to breathe. When I looked over at Calder, he was scanning the inside of the house, his eyes wide with what looked like shock mixed with equal amounts of disgust.
There were boxes, papers, stuff, piled high everywhere, flies buzzed lazily through the air, and the few areas of wall you could see, looked wet and coated in some kind of oil. Did a person actually live here?
Addy started walking through the small pathway in the middle of the junk. Surely this was dangerous and unhealthy? As if to answer my question, Addy said, her voice low, "The state has ordered him to clean this up, but obviously he's in no condition to do that. They'll come in and remove him if he doesn't . . . well, he can't live here for very much longer. I like to say everyone deserves to die at home, but in this case," she looked around, not turning back to us, "I don't know."
We followed her down a small dingy hallway and through a door. Addy stood back as we entered the room tentatively. I looked at her as I passed and she gave me a small, concerned smile. "I'll be in the front room if you need me," she said, then nodded as if to encourage us. I nodded at her but didn't say a word.
The bedroom we entered was dim and unlike the rest of the house, this room was virtually empty except for a hospital bed all the way on the far wall. I squinted my eyes trying to adjust to the even dimmer lighting back here. I could see a human shape in the bed, but couldn't make out the details of the man. He was utterly still and I assumed he was sleeping.
Calder came up short, holding me back as I moved forward. "This can't be good for you," he whispered out of the side of his mouth. I wasn't sure if he was referring to the smell, the possible stress of the situation, or what, but I merely turned to him and said, "I'm fine."
His eyes looked slightly panicked as they darted around the room. I watched him as they landed on a window that was raised a few inches. His shoulders seemed to relax slightly as he took in that window. Was he considering it some kind of emergency exit? This house was disgusting, there was no getting around that fact, and the man in the bed in front of us may very well be extremely unpleasant. But I didn't imagine we'd have to make a run for it.
"Always wondered if you'd ever find me," came a deep, smooth voice from the bed. Calder and I both startled. We glanced at each other and moved forward.
"Dad?" Calder said haltingly, his voice cracking. "Do you know who I am?" My heart squeezed.