Before he even answered the phone, Eric Anthony knew that Colleen must either be dead or very close to it.
He squinted at the caller ID readout and recognized Colleen's number. He knew she was too weak to reach the phone, and the hospice nurse would only call him in a real emergency.
He looked away from the computer in his home office, where he was parked eight to ten hours every weekday. He'd just been researching the voting record of Oklahoma's senior U.S. senator, as it related to transportation issues. Highway funding, mass transit, gasoline taxes...mind-numbing boredom punctuated by the occasional revelation. The advertising agency and political consulting firm that employed Eric had identified transportation as a key issue to Oklahoma voters, and its client, who was challenging the incumbent, was paying big bucks for the opposition research.
Of course, keeping his mind numb was part of the reason Eric Anthony did this job. He could work at home, only going into the agency's office twice a month or so for meetings. He didn't have to face the stares of the people in the halls, the mutterings, and the occasional bold one who would ask him a question outright. In a firm populated by political junkies, they all knew who he was.
Eric spoke quietly to the hospice nurse for a moment, then bookmarked the Web site he was using for reference, saved the report he was writing, and made a quick call to Laura's office. He couldn't get through to her, of course, but he told her secretary that Laura would need to pick up Patrick today. Laura would complain, because that's what Laura did, but this couldn't wait. Colleen was dying today, this afternoon, right now.
He walked away from the clutter of the office and into the bathroom. He splashed a little cold water on his face and let it drip down his chin. Looking at the face in the mirror, he understood the confusion of some of the others at the firm. They couldn't believe the eternally rumpled Eric Anthony could have done what he did. At nearly forty years old, he was thirty pounds overweight and wore glasses that always seemed to slip down his nose. In those infrequent staff meetings, he would gaze over them when he wanted to make a point, looking faintly ridiculous in the process. His eyes were a vague hazel that no one had ever called piercing, and he never seemed to know what to do with his hands, spending most of his time with them in his pockets, jingling keys and coins.
He stepped outside the house, his face still damp. An hour earlier it was sunny and eighty degrees. Now the temperature had dropped to the sixties and clouds were rolling across the prairie sky. Springtime in Oklahoma, Eric thought. Thunder cracked somewhere far to the west.
It was funny, and somehow just like one of the bad movies Colleen had been in when Eric was a kid, that she was dying on a day like this. She was always as unpredictable as the Oklahoma weather, and now she was slipping out of this life on a day where an unexpected thunderstorm was brewing. Even at the close of her life, she couldn't escape melodrama, like a badly written movie script.
Colleen, he thought. Poor, tragic Colleen. The closest thing to a mother he'd ever had.
The thunder rolled. Halfway to his car, Eric broke into a run.
It only took Eric seven minutes to reach the house in which he'd spent his teenage years, in Oklahoma City's Gatewood neighborhood. Northwest of downtown, the homes dated from the 1920s, old for this young city. Towering oaks and elms lined the streets, sometimes with branches touching from opposite sides of the street.
Colleen Cunningham's house was the one in various states of being painted, with torn storm windows and cracks between the bricks. It had looked the same for as long as Eric could remember. Colleen would say, "We need to paint the house," and would start on it, only to get distracted by something else and leave it partially done -- for years. That was essentially the story of Colleen's life, Eric thought, told in the peeling paint of the old house.
The rain started as he pulled into the driveway. In true Oklahoma springtime fashion, it didn't begin sprinkling and gradually build; instead, the skies opened into a major downpour in seconds.
Eric left his Honda Civic behind Colleen's burgundy '68 Cadillac and let himself in with his key. The inside of the house was the same as outside: cracks in the plaster walls, dust on the mantel, books and newspapers in every corner, dirty plates and glasses on top of the ancient television set.
Eric paused, as he always did, his eyes inevitably drawn to the framed poster over the mantel. Colleen's best film role had been in a 1972 thriller called Angels Cry. She'd played the socialite wife of a wealthy banker who turned out to be a serial killer. It could have been so much B-movie fodder, but Colleen's performance had an understated intensity, especially in the film's final scene, when she confronted and ultimately killed her husband. Eric had been seven the year Angels Cry came out, and Colleen, with no thought as to what was appropriate for a seven-year-old and what wasn't, had taken him to the premiere. He'd had nightmares for nearly a month after seeing his guardian on a huge screen blowing a hole in a man's chest. When he wrote Colleen's obituary, sometime in the next few days, it would mention Angels Cry, even though she had left Hollywood and hadn't acted in more than twenty years.
Eric had always hated the poster with a passion, and he especially disliked the prominent place it had in their home. It was dark and foreboding, with a shattered-glass effect slashing across the images of Colleen and her screen husband. Every time he saw the poster, it reminded him of the nightmares he'd suffered as a child. As a teenager, he'd asked Colleen dozens of times to take it down, or at least put it in her own room, but she'd always shaken him off, insisting it was her best work and deserved to be where anyone could see it. As an adult, after he'd moved out, he'd stopped pestering her about it, but it still bothered him, a grim reminder of his strange boyhood.
Eric thought about his own career, of what he had done in self-defense five years ago, of the whispers in hallways. Funny how things come around, isn't it?
The hospice nurse came in from the kitchen. "Eric, you're here. I thought I heard the door."
Eric looked away from Angels Cry. "How is she?" He waited a second. "That's a stupid thing to say, isn't it? She's dying. That's how she is."
The nurse nodded with an I've-heard-this-all-before sort of wisdom. "She'll be glad you're here. Why don't you go on back?"
Eric nodded back to her, making his way through the messy dining room and the narrow hallway to Colleen's bedroom at the rear of the house.
Over the course of the cancer's advance through her body, he had ceased to be amazed at her appearance. But Colleen Cunningham, once known to moviegoers as Colleen Fox, was only sixty-three years old, and now looked twenty years older. The chemo had taken her once luxurious dark hair. A gray frizz covered her head. Her skin was so loose that it looked as if it needed to be reeled in to take up the slack. She was propped up in bed in her old pink nightgown, looking angry.
"Sit your butt down. Don't just stand there," she said, and her voice had only a fraction of its old power. When he was a kid, her voice could make him cower in a corner of his room. Now it was a papery rustle.
Eric eased into the wooden chair beside her. "How do you feel?"
"Don't. Don't even try that. I'm going to be gone pretty damned soon, a few hours, a day, whatever. I feel like shit, and I'm ready to get this over with."
Despite himself, Eric felt his eyes begin to fill.
Colleen clamped a hand on his wrist. Her fingers felt to him like an assortment of twigs wrapped loosely in plastic. "Don't start that. Time for that's over." She went into a coughing fit and spat a wad of blood-streaked phlegm into the wastebasket by the bed. "Come on, we've got business to talk about."
Eric blinked. "We've already made the funeral arrangements. Everything's set, Colleen."
She shook her head, and he watched her eyes. Throughout the illness he'd always counted on her eyes still being bright, a fierce, smoldering brown. Now they looked dull, as if someone had pulled a filmy sheet over them.
"Not talking about the damn funeral." She let go of his wrist and patted it in an almost motherly way. "I don't know how the hell you turned out as good as you did. God knows I didn't do a very good job with you. I had too many other things to think about. Movies, men, booze, dope, then more booze and dope."
Eric shrugged and looked at the walls. "I don't know how well I turned out, but thanks for trying."
Colleen made a noise in the back of her throat. When she spoke again, her voice was even raspier. "Don't pull that self-deprecating bullshit on me. It might fool those people you work for now, but not old Colleen. You're smart, you're honest, and you give a damn. Not too many like that. Where's the boy?"
"I had Laura pick him up."
"Good. Don't want him to see this. He's a damn good kid, and you're a damn sight better with him than I was with you." She tapped his leg. "You and Laura ought to try again."
"We've had this conversation before. She didn't want to be married anymore, and she didn't want Patrick, either. She's married to her career and that's the way she likes it."
Colleen pursed her lips. "I suppose. Now listen: one piece of advice and then I've got to tell you something important. The advice is: Forget about everything that happened before. It's gone, and it doesn't matter. Not a damn bit of it. Forget your old job -- forget it! You beating yourself up every day over something that you couldn't control won't help you or Patrick or anyone else."
Eric was silent a moment. "It's not like that," he finally said.
"Yes, it is like that, you idiot. Forget it and it doesn't have any damn power over you. Now the important stuff. I was supposed to tell you this after you were an adult, when you asked about your parents." She fixed him with one dull eye. "But, dammit, you never asked."
Eric said nothing.
"See, you're doing it again. You've got it all backwards. You remember stuff best forgotten, and won't even consider the things you should be remembering."
"What's the point?"
Colleen poked his leg again. "The point is, I'm a dead woman, and if I don't tell you this now, you'll never know." She went into another coughing spasm, not quite as violent as the last one. "You see," she rasped as it passed, "now or never. After you were about ten years old, you never once asked me a thing about your parents, about how you wound up with me...nothing. Why?"
"No point, I already said. You were raising me. You were my family. End of story."
She poked him harder, making him flinch. "No, no, and no. Beginning of story. For someone who's smart, you're awfully stupid sometimes."
Eric swallowed back a response, reminding himself again that she was his only family, and she would likely be dead before the sun went down. He turned at the rain on the window. "It's blowing up quite a storm."
The poke turned into a slap on his knee. "Stop that shit! Don't you change the subject on me. Now listen: I don't have time to do this more than once, and I may have forgotten part of it. Dope can do that to you, make you forget things. You never did any dope, did you?"
"No, Colleen," Eric said. "Not even once."
"Not even in college?"
"Not even once," he repeated.
"You were always so damn straitlaced."
Colleen sighed, and her body seemed to shrink into itself. "First things first. Your name isn't Eric Anthony."
She said it so matter-of-factly, for a moment it didn't register with Eric. He looked down at her.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Colleen, I think you -- "
Colleen flapped an angry hand. "Dammit, you listen to me! My body may be worn out, but my mind's fine!"
"But, Colleen -- "
"Will you shut up for a minute and listen? I mean, your name is Eric Anthony, but that's not your full name. I had to drop part of it -- you know, to help keep you safe."
Colleen sighed again. "Doesn't make a damn bit of sense, does it? No, of course it doesn't. It never has. Your full name is Eric Anthony Miles. Got that. Miles, just like miles that you travel."
Eric blinked. He thought he detected the room beginning to spin a bit. He leaned over the bed. "What do you mean, keep me safe? Who's Miles? Why did you -- "
"Use the name if you want, don't if you don't. But that's who you are. What, who, why -- wish you'd asked me these questions a few years ago." She brushed a hand across her face, fingertips brushing against the sallow skin. "I was living in the loft in Venice. First place I had when I went to L.A. I'd been there nearly two years. Remember that apartment?"
Eric nodded. "I remember. I liked the stairs. I used to roll my cars down them, carry them back up, and roll them down again."
"Damn little plastic cars all over the place. Good apartment, though. I'd had a couple of commercials by then, and one line in a bad TV police drama. I was 'Woman in Bar.' My first paying dramatic job, 'Woman in Bar.' It was summer, and I just remember thinking how glad I was to be in California with the breezes off the ocean, and not back here in Oklahoma, with nothing to do but sweat. It was late at night, and for once I was alone. I'd been chasing after this assistant director, but he went home to his wife and I was alone in the loft. And here's this knock on the door at nearly midnight."
Colleen stopped and Eric looked at her. The cloudy film over her eyes had lessened somewhat, and they were far away now.
"So I went downstairs and opened the door and here's this guy I've never seen before. He's about my age, maybe a year or two younger, good-looking in a sort of working-class way. He hasn't shaved in a few days, and his eyes are all red and his clothes are all wrinkled, and he's holding a baby."
"Colleen, I really don't think -- "
"I'm the one who's dying, and if I think, then you're going to sit there and listen until I finish, or until I kick off, whichever comes first. Are we clear?"
Her voice was still papery, but Eric imagined there was a little of the old power in it. He held up his hands. "All right, all right. Go on."
"Well, here's a guy holding a baby, and even I could tell that the baby was really young, like just a few days young. The guy says, 'Hello, Colleen. I'm Terry.' And I say, 'Hello, Terry. I'm Colleen. What the hell are you doing here?' See, I was a smart-ass even then. And he says, 'Colleen, meet my son. This is Eric.' "
Eric stared down at her. When he was very young, he remembered asking Colleen if she was his mother, and when she said she wasn't, she said something about cousins twice removed. Then he'd asked about his mother and father and she said, "Ask me when you're older." But by then he'd washed his hands of his parents and resolved never to think about them again. They weren't a part of his life.
Eric nodded at her to continue. Rain thumped the bedroom window as if asking to be let in. Thunder cracked overhead.
Colleen turned her head toward the window. " 'It was a dark and stormy night,' " she quoted. "Nice stage dressing: Remember to thank the production designer." She shook her head and tapped Eric's leg again, this time more softly. "I didn't let him in. I thought, Here's some nut holding a newborn baby standing on my doorstep, I've got an audition in the morning, and what can I do to get rid of this guy? I asked him if he wanted money and told him I didn't have any, barely able to pay the rent on the loft. He just sort of smiled and told me to reach in the pocket of his shirt and pull out the photos there. The baby was beginning to squirm, and so I did. There were two pictures. The first one had been taken at a family reunion about ten years before, back when I still cared about hanging out with any of the family. I was about thirteen when the picture was taken, and it was of me with this cousin of mine, actually my second cousin. Her name was Maggie. Her mom was my cousin, and Maggie was about my age. She lived in some little town and I only saw her about once every two or three years, but I always liked her. I hadn't seen her or talked to her since a couple of years before I moved to L.A., but here was this picture. Then I looked at the other one, and it was a wedding picture of this guy who's standing in front of me, and he's with Maggie."
Colleen coughed again, still less violently. It seemed to Eric that the closer she came to death, even her coughs were weaker. "Water," she said.
Eric poured her a cup of water from the pitcher by the bed and handed it to her. A few drops dribbled out of her mouth and ran down the front of the cotton nightgown. She dabbed at the front halfheartedly, then leaned back against the pillow in exhaustion.
"Dammit," Colleen whispered.
"What?" Eric said, taking the cup from her.
"Light-headed. Dammit, I can't go yet. I've got to tell you this." She blinked her eyes several times, turning slowly back to him. "This is your damned fault, you know, and thank you so much for making a dying woman work so hard."
"What do you mean, my fault?"
"If you'd asked me when you were eighteen or twenty-five or thirty or something, we could have gone over it then."
"But I didn't -- "
Colleen let out a big breath. Eric caught the sickly smell coming from her. "Save it. We've had that conversation before too. Now, remember when you write the obit, make sure and say that Colleen Cunningham of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was also Colleen Fox, acclaimed star of films such as Angels Cry. They better mention Angels Cry and not some of the shit work I did."
"I'll make sure."
"You better, or I'll come back and kick your ass. You need to lose weight, by the way. Get that gut off. Now where was I? Did I tell about the pictures yet?"
"Okay, so this guy Terry had married my distant cousin Maggie, and now he was on my front porch. I let him come in and he was shifting you around on his shoulder, and I asked him where Maggie was. He got all nervous and fidgety and said something had happened. That's all, just that something had happened. Then he dropped the bomb on me: He asked if I would take you and raise you. Keep you safe, he said."
Eric leaned forward. Suddenly everything else had fallen away. What he'd done five years ago was gone. His ruined marriage was gone. The weary boredom of his job was gone. Almost against his will, he wanted to know. "What did you tell him?"
"I told him he was crazy. I couldn't take a newborn baby! What do you think I told him? And then I asked him...I asked him why me. If they didn't want the kid, there was other family. Maggie's parents were still relatively young and healthy, and there were Maggie's brothers, and all kinds of aunts and uncles who still had contact with the family. Why me? And he looked at me..."
Colleen looked up at Eric, and he was surprised to see tears streaking her bone-dry face. Colleen never cried. He couldn't remember having seen her cry even once when she wasn't acting. In her real life Colleen Cunningham had no tears.
Eric took her hand again, and it hung limply in his. Colleen wiped her tears, and once again, the simple motion seemed to exhaust her. She lay back, her breathing ragged. "He said...I swear I'll never forget this...he said that if you stayed with me, that they wouldn't find you."
A chill ran up Eric's spine, tickling the hairs on the back of his neck. "Who wouldn't find me?" he whispered.
Colleen shook her head. "He wouldn't tell me. He just said you had to be hidden or someone would come after you. That's why they looked me up, because I was so far removed from the family that no one would think they'd leave you with me." Another slow head shake. "He told me to be sure and tell you all this when you were grown, that he knew someday you'd want to know. He told me to give you a different name but that someday you should know your real name: Eric Anthony Miles. Well, that was just too much for me. It was starting to sound real cloak-and-dagger, and I didn't know this guy, just that he was married to Maggie. I went in the kitchen and pulled back a shot of Jack Daniel's to steady my nerves. Maybe it was three or four shots. When I came back, he was gone. You were all wrapped up in the blanket on the couch and he was just gone."
"Just like that?"
Colleen nodded. "I ran outside just in time to see taillights disappearing around the corner. So here I am with a baby. I didn't know what to do with a damn baby. I had better things to do than change diapers." She bowed her head.
"But you kept me."
"So I did. I almost called the child welfare people twenty times in the next week. But I never could do it. It's like this: The family had always been so disappointed in me, my whole life. 'You want to be an actress? Shit, girl, might as well be a whore.' That's what my dad told me. No one ever thought I could do anything, and most of the time they were right. But here, right here, was proof that someone in my family -- even a distant relative -- was trusting me, and trusting me with something important." Colleen shrugged into herself. "So I kept you. When you were older, I had to get you a birth certificate, and I just made sure to give them the date Terry told me. Told the Vital Records people that you were my cousin's baby and had been dropped on my doorstep. They didn't care. I just dropped the last name and made you Eric Anthony."
"Did you ever see him, or my mother, again?"
"No. Not a letter, not a phone call. It was like your parents had dropped off the face of the earth." Another coughing spasm wracked Colleen's body, and she hacked up more phlegm. When it subsided, she couldn't do more than whisper. "I'm feeling light-headed. Eric, are you still here?"
Colleen blinked, looking confused. "I've got to rest. Stay here. You hear me? Stay here...I'm not...done."
She sank back on the pillows. For a moment Eric thought she was gone, but her chest rose and fell very slowly. He stood up and ran a hand through his hair. In the hall he told the nurse she was just asleep, then walked back into the bedroom. Death room, he thought.
Eric sat back down in the chair beside Colleen and watched her slow, halting breaths. The hospice nurse drifted in and out, taking Colleen's pulse, fluffing pillows, emptying the wastebasket. The whole business had a hypnotic effect on Eric and he finally dozed, listening to the rain and thinking of his father -- the very idea that he had a father seemed foreign to him -- saying, "They won't find him."
The power of a name. The most basic way a person defines himself, Eric thought. The single point of reference everyone can understand: a person's name.
Colleen seemed lucid. Weak, but definitely not out of her head.
Then my name is not my name, Eric thought. It sounded like a riddle.
Eric Anthony Miles.
Who were "they"? And why would they want me? he thought as he fell asleep.
It was twilight, the rain still pounding the window, when Eric woke to Colleen's hand on his leg.
"Come on," she whispered.
"I'm here," he said, snapping forward. "I'm awake. What is it?"
She coughed. "I'm dying, that's what it is." Colleen splayed out her fingers, reaching.
Eric folded her hand into his.
"You..." She coughed again. "You still go to that church? Baby in the manger, Jesus on the cross? You really believe all that?"
"Put in a good word for me, boy. I'm probably bound for whatever hell there is."
Eric squeezed her hand. "Don't be so sure. I'll miss you, old woman."
"Not so damned old." She squeezed back. "You were a good boy, and you're a good man." She blinked rapidly several times. "I'm dizzy, Eric. I didn't know that you got dizzy at the end. No bright lights or anything, but...dizzy. Like a...like a staircase. You know, one of those circular staircases, like I'm climbing one. Damn."
Eric let one tear fall.
"Don't," she rasped. "Look...reach in the pocket of my nightgown, this side. Envelope. Read it. Your...Terry left it with you, tucked into the blanket that night he left you with me. Directions."
"Directions for what?" Eric reached under the sheet, found her pocket, and pulled out the yellowed envelope.
"Get me off this damn staircase," Colleen whispered, and Eric felt her hand relax in his.
He waited a moment, watching her chest. No movement this time. Her eyes fluttered closed, and something like a sigh escaped her. He kept holding her hand, looking at her face in the glow of the little lamp beside the bed.
Eric blinked and said a silent, clumsy prayer. "God bless you," he whispered aloud. "You were better than you thought you were, Colleen."
He folded her hand across her chest and looked down at the envelope in his hand. He opened the flap and shook out the single sheet of white paper. Small, masculine printing filled the page. He read over it: It was a set of directions that began at the town of Boise City, in the farthest county of Oklahoma's remote panhandle. He read how the directions led northwest to the far corner of the panhandle, where Oklahoma met New Mexico and Colorado. The directions culminated at the point where all three states touched.
Eric's eyes fell onto the bottom of the page:
From the marker, there's a trail leading into Colorado. Walk up into Colorado a hundred steps or so. Turn and look back toward New Mexico. Look for the twins and stones. I hope you will understand.
"What?" Eric said aloud.
He looked back to the bed and almost spoke again, then realized he couldn't ask Colleen.
She didn't look at peace. She only looked dead, the one person who'd ever tried to be a family to him. All the men and the drugs and the alcohol aside, she had tried. She'd done the best she could -- just as he was trying now, with Patrick.
But it's so hard sometimes, he wanted to tell her.
He could almost hear her voice: Quit your damn whining -- I don't want to hear that shit! Get busy!
Eric looked at the paper in his hand, again coming to the bottom of the page and that firm printing.
Look for the twins and stones.
Words written by a man who'd left his newborn son with a near stranger.
...twins and stones.
Colleen had thought this was important enough to give to him before she died, but what was it all about? What could he possibly find in the remote country of the far Oklahoma Panhandle?
"Colleen, I wish you'd told me about this before," he said.
You never asked, she'd said.
"I guess I'm asking now," he said, then went to find the nurse and tell her that Colleen was dead.
Copyright © 2005 by Kent Anderson