When I walked out to the courtyard of the hospital one autumn morning, there he sat with his hand outstretched, subtly curling and uncurling his fingers as if caressing the wind.
"Good morning." I didn't expect an answer. Just short of a week ago he was checked in as a John Doe. A young police officer brought him, thinking Gracewood was affiliated with the county, but it's a private psychiatric hospital.
He was somewhere in his early twenties with no name, no history, and he spoke to no one. Apparently a lady reported a madman in her yard drinking from her garden hose. The officer said he found him curled up in the woman's shed, gently rocking and humming a monotonous tune.
I asked Dr. Mann to keep him here. I'd take care of his expenses. Besides, the doctor owed me a favor. I couldn't bear to see the poor thing moved to the county facility where it's so cold and detached.
He dropped his arm and surveyed the yard with his angel-blue eyes, the same shade a child might color the sky.
The maple trees still held a few crimson and gold leaves and the asters were blooming, but those eyes found nothing worth taking in.
"Same as yesterday," he said.
"Yesterday was nice."
"You had a son."
My heart caught in my throat. I could only nod.
I expected a pleasant nothingness before group therapy and wasn't prepared to face my grief outside, without the four solid walls and squashed-pillow sofa of the therapy room. Not that I talked about my grief even there. I find it easier to cluck sympathetically about other people's pain.
He slumped down like a scolded boy. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"It's fine. It's just hard to talk about Owen... and my husband." There, I said it and the sky didn't fall.
He motioned with his eyes. "Sit."
I tried to keep space between us, but he was centered on the bench. The edge of his white robe touched my sweater. He arrived at the hospital in dirty jeans, a tattered Hawaiian print shirt and an expression of desolation. After that day, he'd worn nothing but pajamas and a robe.
I looked at the side of his face. He reminded me of my son, just a little bit. He too had a hint of freckles on the bridge of his nose and such expressive eyes.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Can I tell you a story?"
"What sort of story?"
"A true one."
He'd been silent until now. How could I refuse? Besides, I was curious.
"All right," I said.
"Once upon a time there was a girl named Bea and a boy named Finn. That's how to begin a story, isn't it?"
"If you like."
He nodded and began again.
* * *~ ~* * *
Once upon a time there was a girl named Bea and a boy named Finn. They were both on a commuter rail-train in San Francisco, but the train wasn't moving and they were each alone.
An antiseptic female voice announced over the intercom that the train would not proceed until all passengers were clear of the doors. Bea sighed and slumped down in her seat on the train. She shoved her sunglasses on and watched the grungy guy leaning out the doorway to look toward the rear end of the platform. She figured he must be the cause of the delay.
He wore camouflage pants, a denim jacket looking like it was once used as a throw rug in a rhinoceros pen, and a black T-shirt with no band names, logos, or sayings that would tell her what, if anything, he stood for. He didn't appear to stand for anything. He was just standing.
He pulled his head in and the door slid shut. The train lurched back into its journey through San Francisco.
He wasn't bad looking, if you liked that type. Bea certainly did not. His scruffy excuse of a beard told the world he hadn't shaved in several days and his brown tousled hair looked surprised its owner had actually gotten out of bed that day. No, not her type at all, broad shoulders and warm brown eyes aside, no, definitely not.
Oh crud, he was staring right at her. She flumped her big purple messenger bag onto the seat beside her in an attempt to say, no room for you here.
He smirked and slowly shook his head.
Self-important jackass. I'm not even looking at you. She turned and pretended not to be watching him through her sunglasses.
He glanced backwards at the windowed door to the rear of the car. This was one of the connector doors leading to another train car. Good, maybe he'll leave.
The next thing Bea knew, the man was standing over her. She blinked, thinking she must have dozed off. It had been a late night.
"Get up." His voice was low and guttural. He was staring back at that end door.
Bea didn't move.
He looked down into her upturned face. "Get up."
He jerked her up by the arm. She gasped. He handed her bag to her and shoved her toward the connector door opposite the one he had been so interested in.
She tried catching the attention of the other passengers with her eyes, but nobody ever looks at anybody on the train. People not on their laptop or reading, always wear a glazed commuter expression.
He reached around her to slide open the door with one hand and pushed her through. Even on the best of days, Bea felt panicky in the little rubber enclosed annexes between the cars. They were confining and thunderously loud, and the doors were hard to open.
She struggled with the second door.
The guy reached around her and opened it, saying, "I got it," like he was doing her a favor instead of kidnapping her.
The train lurched to a stop. Bea stumbled as she stepped out of the annex. Using it to her advantage, she threw herself into a cluster of people, wove her way around a man with a bicycle, and out the door of the train. She practically flew from the platform and up the stairs to street level and slipped into a sandwich shop.
She slumped into a booth seat by the window and peeked over the flyers papering the lower half of the window. She didn't see the guy from the train. Her heart slowed to a mere gallop as she blew her black bangs out of her eyes with a sigh. Lucky escape, but what a story to tell her friends.
Bea pulled out her cell phone. Drat, two missed calls. She dialed her voice mail. A message from her boss said that since Bea obviously found it too stressful to come in on time, he thought it only compassionate to relieve her of the burden of coming in at all... ever. A second call was from her worried uncle saying Bea's boss called the house to ask why she wasn't at work today.
She gritted her teeth and seethed at herself for losing yet another job, seethed at her uncle for calling all in a tizzy, and then seethed at herself again for seething at her uncle because he was just showing concern. She began to call home.
That's when a certain somebody thrust himself into the booth beside her making her knock her sunglasses askew with her phone. She turned and saw the guy from the train. Her mouth dropped open as she flipped her phone shut.
He set down a tray with two sandwiches and two drinks. Bea wondered how he came in and ordered food without her noticing. Her eyes darted around for a weapon. She slowly set down her phone and picked up the stainless steel napkin dispenser.
He didn't even look at her. "Eat," he said, ripping the waxy paper from his hot pastrami. He glanced over his shoulder before taking a bite.
Bea felt silly holding a napkin dispenser while the guy just sat devouring his lunch. She decided to be annoyed instead of afraid. She slammed it on the table and pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head, narrowing her eyes at him.
"I got you hummus," he said with his mouth full.
Bea's glare waned as she looked down. On the paper wrapping of her sandwich were the words "Hummus w/o Tomatoes." Her lips parted and her brow furrowed. How did he know what she liked? This was getting creepier by the minute.
He garbaged down his sandwich and took a slurp of soda. He shook the ice while scanning the restaurant and slurped again. Wiping his mouth with the back of his knuckles, he let out a satisfied sigh. Bea hadn't touched her own food.
Turning to her, he moistened his lips as though preparing to say something, but Bea spoke first.
Then she groaned when her phone rang.
She reached for it, but in a blur the guy had it in his hand. Her eyes must still be sleepy.
He looked at it, gave a half grin, and put the phone into Bea's impatient hand.
"Thanks," she snapped, flipping it open. She shot a glare at him before looking down. "Hi Uncle... I know... I'm sorry... No, I'm fine, really. I was just at Lizzy's... We'll talk later. I'll be home soon. I'm sorry... Don't worry... goodbye."
She shut the phone and gripped it tightly.
Her eyes flew open. "How do you know my name?"
His smile widened and he scratched the back of his head.
"Never mind," she said. "I don't even want to know. You come barreling into my morning-"
"Afternoon," he corrected.
"-in a melodramatic whirlwind like some bad action movie, then sit down to a leisurely meal, thank you by the way, and have the impudence to know my name! Get out of my way."
But she didn't wait for him to let her out of the booth. She stood up on the seat, leaped over the back, and stormed out of the restaurant. Then stormed back in, grabbed her sandwich, and stormed out again.
* * *~ ~* * *
A breeze stirred up the leaves in the hospital courtyard, breaking the spell of his story. The young man turned to me.
"That was Finn and Bea's first meeting."
"Finn was the man from the train?" I asked.
"Are you Finn?"
The corner of his lips twitched. "You think I'm Finn?"
I gave a tentative shrug.
"Miriam, how could I be Finn?" His tone was suddenly cold. "How could I be Finn, Miriam? I'm not in love with Bea."
Maybe it was just the breeze, but I trembled.
"I should go inside," I said.
His eyes dropped to his lap. "Don't go."
Something about his manner unsettled me, but he seemed so lost. I felt compelled to stay.
His gaze rose to my face. "You remind me of my mother."
"No, not really."
I smiled, not sure if he was joking. "I'd like to hear more of your story."
He tipped his face up and squinted at the blue morning sky. "Does it ever seem like somebody else said the things you said and did the things you did?"
I nodded. "Yes. I know that feeling."
"Then you're just crouching in shadows too."
Finn waited a beat before getting up to follow Bea. He kept several people between them so she wouldn't notice him, just as he had when he tailed her from the train to the restaurant. She went down the stairs into the station.
He was entranced with her coal black hair, lips like rose petals, and her funny walk. She was twenty with the body of a grown woman, but she carried herself like a girl. She walked with a sort of bouncy strut. He watched the way her polka dot sun-dress hugged her figure. He'd seen her on the computer, but in the flesh...
Finn was oblivious to everything but Bea until a hand grabbed his shoulder. He turned with a start.
The twenty-three-year-old in a pin-striped shirt and suspenders lifted his fedora to run a hand through his blond hair. He looked like he fell out of an old-time gangster movie.
"Calm down, Finn. Hey, I saw you with her on the train. Did you lose her? It sure looked like you were trying to lose me." The two were supposed to be partners in the kidnapping.
"No, I didn't know where you were. She ran out of the train. I followed her, but lost her in the crowd." Finn looked at the toe of his black leather boot. Lying to Tom wasn't easy. He'd known the guy his whole life. "I looked for her."
Tom stuck his nose right in Finn's face. "How come you smell like pastrami?"
Finn pulled away. "I don't."
"Hmm." Tom simpered at him with half-mast eyes. Finn recognized the look as the one Tom practiced in front of the mirror trying to appear sinister. "I called you."
"I guess my ringer was off." Finn pulled his phone out of his back pocket. "Yeah, see, it's off," he said quietly. Finn had a habit of muttering that made him sound like he was talking to himself. "Look at that. Missed a call."
Tom's hard expression cracked as he laughed loudly. "Yeah, you did. Mine." He gave Finn a punch on the arm. "No problem, buddy. It's your first gig. It's nothing compared to that caper Martin and I pulled off in Arizona."
Tom and another agent had hijacked a truck with a load of copper which had already been hijacked by another criminal gang. The driver nearly blew off Martin's face with an Uzi. Tom returned from that heist bragging how he snapped the guy's neck like a pretzel. Finn had never killed anyone.
"We'll get her next time," said Tom. "Don't sweat it."
"Sorry. Guess my dad was wrong. I'm not ready for this."
"Naw. You're ready. Just bad luck this time. We wouldn't even have a lead on her if it wasn't for you and your fancy detective work." Tom rocked on his heels. "Come on, let's get out of here."
They walked away from the trains, away from her.
Tom leaped backwards up the stairs ahead of Finn, skipping steps as he went. "The Fir Na Gealaí never fail, right?"
"Come on, buddy, this gig doesn't even involve killing anybody. Probably! Ha-ha."
Finn turned away, scratching the side of his face. "Settle down, would ya? You stand out like an iguana in a dog show."
"So, you wouldn't want me to do this." Tom whooped loudly and jumped with catlike grace over the last five steps. Then he did a singlehanded cartwheel. The other hand held his hat on his head. Style: remarkable. Execution: less than precise, for one of the Fir.
* * *~ ~* * *
"Fear?" I asked.
My young narrator turned to me. "Fir Na Gealaí, Miriam," he said. "Feer nah Gyah-lee," he repeated, pronouncing each syllable slowly. His eyes scanned the yard before leaning closer. He spoke in a hoarse whisper. "The F.N.G. is the most effective criminal organization in the world. Think Mafia with extra testosterone. But it's a secret," he hissed.
"Miriam, you understand? They wanted Bea. Finn didn't want them to have her, but he couldn't... wouldn't tell anybody, not his dad, not Tom, nobody."
He took a deep breath, sighed, and sat back. I thought he would speak no more, when he suddenly sputtered back to life.
* * *~ ~* * *
Tom and Finn walked down the sidewalk. The air smelled smoggy and briney from the traffic and the wind off the ocean.
"Come on," Tom said, "you can't spend your whole life computer hacking and messing with gadgets. There's a world out there beyond computers, my friend. A world you can really sink your teeth into." He grinned wide like a cartoon cat.
Finn forced a smile.
"Besides, your dad got us this job and put you in charge. He's counting on us, buddy." Tom's eyes widened and a little too much of the white showed when he repeated, "He-is-counting-on-us!" He put a hand on Finn's shoulder, which Finn shrugged off. "Yes?"
"Yeah," Finn grunted.
Tom gestured wildly like a carny declaring you can't win if you don't play. Three throws for a buck. "The enclave is counting on us to bring in that girl. Finn, you know what this means? We could be back in favor with Europe. We could be back in Europe. Maybe Italy!"
None of the Fir in the U.S. were there by choice. Tagged as pariahs for being incompetent or uncooperative, the F.N.G. in America formed small enclaves throughout the country.
Finn stopped walking and rounded on him with a scowl.
"What the fuck do you care about Europe? That's my dad's dream, to go back. You and I haven't lived in Europe since we were babies. I don't remember Europe. I don't care about Europe. What the fuck do you care about it? What do you fucking care about Italy?" Finn turned and stalked away, his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets.
Tom jogged to catch up. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned Italy, your mom and all. It's just... damn. It's almost like you -"
"What?" Finn glanced at him, but turned away quickly.
He felt like he had a rock in his gut.
"Nothing," Tom said.
* * *~ ~* * *
Wind fluttered dry leaves through the hospital courtyard.
His eyes stared ahead, taking in the expanse like a child in a desert. I brushed a wisp of hair behind his ear.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"What's a name to a life with no meaning?"
I didn't know how to respond. All I could think was, Oh, this poor child. Then he threw back his head and gave a short mirthless laugh that dispelled his vulnerable aura.
"I'm no philosopher, Miriam. Don't look at me with that intense leer." He shrugged and brushed off his shoulder like he was brushing off my gaze."
* * *~ ~* * *
As soon as Bea opened the front door to her house, the warm toasty smell of cookies wafted over her. She breathed deeply.
"Bea, is that you?" called her uncle from the kitchen.
"Yeah. I'm home and still alive."
She pulled out a large book and dropped her bag to the floor. She walked into the sunlit kitchen. Bea's Uncle Lucas, tall, lean, gray-haired, and good looking despite the scar across one cheek, was removing a batch of cookies from the oven. Bea smiled casually, trying not to look like a girl who'd nearly been kidnapped.
"Hi, Uncle. I'm sorry my boss called and freaked you out. I was just at Lizzy's apartment. My ringer was off."
"It did give me a fright, not knowing where you were." Her uncle's English accent made all of Bea's friends swoon. He kissed her head as he walked by.
Bea grabbed a cookie from a cooling rack and took a bite. "Oh!" she exclaimed, sucking in air to cool her mouth.
"Careful, they're hot."
She laughed. "Yeah, I noticed." She wrinkled her nose. "Raisins? I thought they were chocolate chips."
"They're not for us. The church potluck is tonight."
"No, I'm so sleepy. I only slept for like three hours. Plus I got fired," she added quietly.
"Hmm." He slid more cookies onto the cooling rack. "It's unfortunate you're tired, but you agreed to attend the potluck. Perhaps going to a midnight book release in the city wasn't a good idea after all." He smiled in that annoyingly smug way of his.
"Oh my gawd, but it was totally worth it!"
"I'm not God."
"Oh my gosh. Lizzy and I stayed up all night reading. I can't believe it's the final book of the series!" She hugged the thick book to her chest. "It's over," she declared in melodramatic breathlessness.
"Good. Perhaps we won't have to hear about it anymore."
She opened the fridge. "Wishful thinking."
"Wait a moment." He turned slowly toward her and cocked his head. "Did you say you were fired?" He gasped in mock incredulity. "Now I wonder why that could be?"
Bea gritted her teeth and looked at the ceiling. It was the third job she'd lost this year and it was only August. She shut the fridge without taking anything out. "There was a weird guy on the train."
"No kidding?" Lucas chuckled and slid a cookie sheet into the oven. Saying there was a weird guy on the commuter train was like saying there were dust bunnies under the bed. It's to be expected and endured.
Bea flipped through a stack of mail and dared herself to reveal more. "I think he was homeless or something, but he was sorta cute." She smiled at her uncle who was wide eyed at the comment. "I'm kidding. You take everything so seriously."
"And you, Beatrice, take nothing seriously." He always called her Beatrice when he was in a lecturing mood. He scrutinized her with narrowed blue eyes. "Did you speak to this man?"
"You know what? I should make my next vlog." Bea was obsessed with making video logs for her YouTube channel. Before her uncle could protest, she skedaddled to her room.
*Thank you for reading. To find out what happens to Finn, Bea, and the rest, hop on over to one of these super sites: