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October 2020

Chapter Six Hundred and Sixteen: Guys guys and Tough Broads

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTEEN

Monday morning — 10:08 a.m. MT

Denver, Colorado

Careful to put on her mask, Tanesha opened the door to Seth O’Malley’s house. Jeraine’s ex-wife was standing on the other side.

“Here,” she said with a sneer.

She pushed Jabari into the house. She sniffed at Tanesha.

“You look like shit,” she said.

“Where’s Jabari’s mask?” Tanesha asked.

“I threw it out,” she said, turning in place and started back down the walk where a limousine waited. “He’s ain’t no weakling. He don’t need it.”

Tanesha swung the heavy door closed. Jeraine’s ex was on a reality television show. The lawyers for the show had sued Jeraine for a chance to use the boy on the show. They’d fought for two years to keep the child off the program. Eventually, Jeraine lost the case. The producers promised that they would guarantee that the boy was well cared for. Clearly, they were mistaken.

She bent down to look at Jabari. The boy looked exhausted and filthy.

“How are you?” Tanesha asked.

“Tired,” Jabari said.

“Dirty,” Tanesha said.

Jabari nodded.

“I’m so sorry,” Tanesha said.

“Me too,” Jabari said with a nod. He looked around the entry way. “Why are we here?”

“I have to help Sandy with some things,” Tanesha said. “Maggie and the other kids are coming over later. I thought you’d want to play in the pool, but you look exhausted.”

Jabari nodded.

“Sandy’s in the pool right now,” Tanesha said. “Doing her PT. We can get you cleaned up in her room.”

Jabari had grown in height but was still slight. Tanesha easily picked him up. He instinctively nestled close to her.

“I want. . .” Jabari looked up at her. “Will you take pictures?”

“Of what?” Tanesha asked.

“Of me,” Jabari said.

Tanesha sucked in a breath.

“Why?” Tanesha asked.

Jabari pushed up his sleeve. His wrist had red chaff marks from being restrained.

Furious, Tanesha put the child down and started ripping off his clothing. Bruises — some deep and purple, others a few days old — were apparent through the child’s dark skin.

“Did you do this to yourself?” Tanesha asked.

“No, Mama,” Jabari said.

He held his arms up for her to hold him again. She picked him up. Not knowing what to do, she jogged through the house to the sliding glass door and went out into the yard. She ran fast, hoping the precious package in her arms wasn’t affected by the cold. She got to the carriage house and opened the door.

Sandy was standing in the shallow part of the pool with Otera, the physical therapist. They were doing slow squats in the water.

“I need help,” Tanesha said.

Sandy and Otera stopped immediately. Otera hopped out of the pool and went to Tanesha’s side. Unable to get out of the pool unassisted, Sandy went to the edge of the pool.

“What is it?” Otera asked, in her thick Belarus accent. “What has happened?”

“Jabari’s hurt,” was all Tanesha could say before starting to cry.

“Child,” Otera took the boy from Tanesha. “You will show me where it hurts.”

Jabari pointed to his behind. Tanesha hadn’t removed his underpants. Otera looked at Tanesha for a moment. Tanesha set down the boy. The three women peered at the boy’s underpants. Tanesha pulled them down and closed her eyes.

Otera and Sandy gasped.

“I must report,” Otera said. “Required by law.”

Without hesitation, she went to the landline phone hanging on the wall of the carriage house and called the police.

“What’s going on?” Dale, the O’Malleys’ handyman asked, as he came out from the tool room carrying a pipe wrench.

“Jabari’s hurt,” Tanesha said, weeping.

Dale took a look at the boy.

“Come on, big man,” Dale said. “Let’s let the grownups do grownup things.”

“Aren’t you a grownup?” Jabari asked.

Otera reported the abuse she’d seen on the boy’s body.

“You’d think so,” Dale said with an affable grin. “I know we have some cool board shorts over here.”

“In my size?” Jabari asked.

Dale pulled open a drawer with labeled “O’Malley.” Otera gave the phone to Tanesha.

“You mean this size?” Dale asked, holding up a pair of Seth O’Malley’s trunks.

“No,” Jabari laughed. “That’s too big for me!”

“How about this one?” Dale asked, holding up one of Ava’s bikini bottoms. “It’s definitely smaller!”

“That won’t work!” Jabari laughed. “That’s for girls!”

Dale continued to charm and entertain the little boy until the phone call was over. They were settling in to wait when Maresol came in. She saw Jabari just as Dale was pulling the board shorts onto him. Maresol started cursing and swearing. Maresol and Jabari’s grandmothers, Yvonne and Dionne, were her lifelong friends.

“Want to help me with my plants?” Dale asked, throwing Maresol a dark look.

Maresol hugged Tanesha, and Otera got back into the pool to help Sandy out of it.

“No funny plants,” Jabari said. “I’m too little for that.”

Dale laughed.

“Mr. Bernie would be pretty pissed if you mess with his weed,” Dale said.

Jabari laughed. Dale took the little boy into the greenhouse next to the pool area. Maresol went into the house to wait for the police.

Sandy dried off while Tanesha told her about their struggles to keep the boy safe. Even though she knew most of the story, she let her friend talk because Tanesha needed to talk. Tanesha was almost there when Hedone, Heather’s Goddess self, appeared. She wore a pure gold knit gown that accentuated her curves. Her hair hung in golden curls that made her brown skin look golden.

“What has happened?” Hedone asked.

“That stupid cow hurt Jabari,” Tanesha said. “His bottom has bleeding sores on it from a switch or a whip, something like that.”

“Heather should be here,” Hedone said. “She’s just brought Nelson home. He’s doing all right so I’ll go get her.”

She started to disappear.

“Wait,” Tanesha said. “I have one question.”

Hedone nodded.

“Can you smite someone?” Tanesha asked.

“I’m not sure,” Hedone said. “Honestly, Jeraine’s ex is bereft of friends and lovers. Her children have limited or no contact with her. She has no one, just a big empty house. Everything she touches fails. She’s not successful in any area of her life. Would smiting be worse than that?”

“How do I protect Jabari?” Tanesha asked with tears running down her face.

“That’s a human thing,” Hedone said. “We have to win in the courts.”

“Can you make that happen?” Tanesha asked.

“I can add luck, but I don’t think there’s a way for any of us to directly affect human affairs,” Hedone said. “And anyway, you don’t need me too. You just need to step through the hoops.”

“Hoops?” Tanesha asked.

“Jabari needs to see a doctor,” Hedone said. “Not his grandfather either. You need to call his grandparents and Jeraine. You need to call your lawyer and social services. There’s no reason to do all of this by yourself.”

“Oh, right,” Tanesha said. “I know this.”

“Yes, you do,” Hedone said. “Heather will call Jabari’s grandparents and your lawyer. She’ll be back with Jeraine.”

“Thanks for coming,” Tanesha said.

“You needed me,” Hedone said. “Sandy? You look a little green.”

“Pain,” Sandy said. “Just finished PT.”

Hedone took Sandy’s hand and the pain drained from Sandy’s body. Hedone nodded and disappeared. They knew that she would return in the human form of their friend from childhood, Heather.

“Do you remember what you need to do?” Sandy asked, kindly.

Tanesha shook her head and blew her nose into a tissue.

“You need to call your social services caseworker,” Sandy said. “The police will be here soon. We’ll need to talk with them and show Jabari to them.”

“Are you up for this?” Tanesha asked. “You just finished PT.”

“Hedone took my pain,” Sandy said. “I’m okay. I just need to get dress. Can you help me?”

“Of course,” Tanesha said.

“Why don’t you call your case worker first?” Sandy asked.

“You don’t mind?” Tanesha asked.

Sandy shook her head. Tanesha called the number she knew by heart. She spoke with their caseworker who said she would come out immediately. When she was done, she helped Sandy into warm clothing.

By the time they were done, the Denver Police had arrived. The caseworker was not far behind. Jeraine was there about fifteen minutes later with Heather. Tanesha’s and Jeraine’s mothers arrived right after that. The caseworker arrived and then. . .

“You need to eat something,” Maresol said. “You haven’t eaten all day.”

Tanesha looked up from her computer to see that it was dark.

“What time is it?” Tanesha asked.

“After eight,” Maresol said. “You’ve been talking to people and writing emails for hours.”

Tanesha looked to where Jabari was sleeping.

“I should go home,” Tanesha said.

“Why don’t you stay tonight?” Maresol asked. “Let me take care of you. Tomorrow, you have the hearing and all of that chaos. You can get some rest and quiet here. Plus, Jabari is asleep.”

Tanesha looked at Maresol for a long minute before nodding.

“Jeraine is coming back,” Maresol said. “He told me to tell you that your lawyers think that you can move forward to a complete termination of her parental rights.”

“That’s already happened!” Tanesha said. “It’s those damned producers that got the courts to hand him over.”

“His lawyers have sent the photos to the producers of the show and the judge who allowed Jabari to go to her,” Maresol said. “Needless to say, they are upset and aware of their responsibility. ‘The lawyers are on a rampage.’ That’s a direct quote from Jeraine.”

“Jabari’s lawyer told Heather that he was abused as a kid,” Tanesha said. “I bet he’s upset.”

“I’m sure Jeraine will tell you everything when he gets here,” Maresol said. “I told him to come for dinner.”

“It’s very kind of you,” Tanesha said.

“We all need help sometimes,” Maresol said. “I know that you have a lot of support at home. But I know that when we’re in crisis, it’s hard to even get there. Stay here for the night. You can go home tomorrow.”

Maresol gave her a curt nod before leaving to start a meal for Jeraine and Tanesha.

Tanesha sighed and went back to her computer where she was documenting everything that happened.

~~~~~~~~

Tuesday morning — 7:08 a.m. MT

Denver, Colorado

“You’re sure about this mask thing,” Honey Lipson-Scully, now a junior site manager, said.

“Yes,” Jacob said. “We wear masks and socially distance. That’s a mandate from the state. But more than that, that’s got to be our rule. We need to try to keep our people safe from this thing. We’ve always been a safety first company, regardless of the cost. We need to continue in that tradition.”

“It’s not going to be popular,” Rodney Smith said.

“I don’t care,” Aden said. “If people don’t want to wear a mask and socially distance then they can get another job.”

“Why are you so firm on this?” Bambi, the six foot tall, assistant to Aden asked.

“What did Delph-I say?” Jerry Siegle asked.

The site managers fell silent. They were talking via video conference.

“First, it’s an insurance thing,” Jacob said. “Right now, these masks are the only thing we have to prevent people from getting sick. The insurance company doesn’t want all of us coming down with this new virus.”

“And second?” one of the longest term site managers asked.

“Delphie says that the virus will run through our company and our families — unchecked — unless we wear our masks,” Jacob said. “We can’t have the N-95s because they are rightly reserved for the doctors and medical personnel. We just have these cloth ones. According to Delphie, they will not only protect other people but us too.”

“Don’t you think they make us look a little. . .” Mark Mc Daniels, a site manager with a thick New York accent asked. He shrugged. “You know, girly. Weak. We’ve got all these tough guys on our teams. Real men. Guys guys.”

“Hey,” Bambi said.

“And women,” Mark said. “Tough broads. You know, what I mean Bambi?”

“Our employees aren’t morons, Mark,” Bambi said. “You can be tough and still be careful. That is the Lipson tradition.”

Everyone started talking at once.

“It seems kind of weak to me to not take precautions,” Rodney said, his deep voice breaking into the general noise. “This disease is killing people all over the world. It’s only a matter of time before it’s here at Lipson, if it’s not here already. We’re smart to take precautions. That’s just smart.”

“I agree with Rodney,” the notorious hothead, Jasper Jacobs, said. “I’d rather look smart than worry about someone else thinking I’m weak. My kid has asthma. According to the docs, he’s at risk of dying if he gets this thing. If I get it and give it to him, it won’t matter how tough I am, he will die.”

“But what will people think?” Mark asked.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone else thinks,” Jasper Jacobs said. “Your wife had cancer, Mark. She’s at risk too. Don’t be an asshole.”

“I am what I am,” Mark said.

Everyone laughed. Jacob nodded to Aden. They were making some progress.

“Sandy’s setting up a list of people who are okay with making masks,” Aden said. “We’re asking for help from anyone who has a sewing machine and some fabric.”

“These will be washable,” Blane said. “They should be comfortable enough.”

“The cloth masks will tide us over until we can buy something for the company,” Jacob said.

“Something manly,” Blane said. “For Mark.”

Everyone laughed uproariously. Mark, who never minded being the butt of jokes, laughed along.

“Okay, review the list,” Tres Sierra said when the laughter died down. “I need your changes tonight. We will post the list tonight. Be back to work tomorrow. Any delay on your part means your team won’t work. Got it.”

When everyone nodded, Aden, Blane, Tres, and Jacob said their good byes.

“That went well,” Sam said.

“Let’s see if they turn in their lists,” Tres said.

“Good point,” Sam said. “Can we go fishing now?”

“Why not?” Jacob asked.

The men gathered their gear, said goodbye to their families, and headed out into the mountains.

~~~~~~~~

Tuesday evening — 6:10 p.m

Nelson’s eyes fluttered open, and he was looking at. . . He wasn’t quite sure.

“Where am I?” Nelson asked out loud to himself.

“You are home,” Blane said.

Nelson’s head jerked to the side to see Blane sitting next to the bed.

“What are you wearing on your face?” Nelson asked.

“It’s a face mask,” Blane said. “They kicked you out of the hospital to keep you from getting the coronavirus, currently killing people around the world. We had to agree to wear face masks around you.”

Nelson touched his face and felt a mask

“Yes, you are wearing one too,” Blane said.

“Why?” Nelson asked.

“Well, you returned with a variety of old world infections,” Blane said. “Some were bacterial. Some were viral. You were locked away in a special room for people with unknown illnesses. Abi told me that she was able to help you out but you are very weak.”

“Why?” Nelson asked.

“You’ve had a number of surgeries,” Blane said. “You had a sword wound in your side. Your feet look like they have gangrene. They were going to take the ends of your toes, but Abi intervened.”

“Feel sick,” Nelson said. “Tired.”

“We were told to keep you pumped full of narcotics so you’d stay quiet,” Blane said.

“They needed my hospital bed,” Nelson said.

“Yes, they did,” Blane said. “We also wanted you home.”

“Where am I?” Nelson asked again.

“This is our new home,” Blane said. “Or what’s completed so far. You’re in the basement where Tanesha and Jeraine will live.”

Nelson looked around the room at the dry wall and noticed the cement floor.

“It’s not even painted,” Nelson said.

“It’s not,” Blane said with a nod. “You needed a place to be where you could heal and not be around people for fourteen days. There’s a full medical team here — nurses and med techs around the clock. Your doc is on call. Plus me.”

“Why so long quarantine?” Nelson asked.

“That’s the length of time they think it takes to get sick,” Blane said.

“Novel virus,” Nelson said.

“Yep,” Blane said.

“Airborne,” Nelson said.

“Yep,” Blane said.

“Nightmare,” Nelson said his energy lagging.

“I’ll let you sleep,” Blane said. “You need sleep. Days and days of sleep. If you don’t feel better, then it’s back to the hospital. I think just being home will help.”

Nelson grunted in agreement.

“How’s my dad?” Nelson asked with what remained of his energy.

“The same,” Blane said. “No change. He’s in your old house. We didn’t want to put you together because you’ve had all of these infections.”

“Makes sense,” Nelson said.

“I’m just glad you’re home,” Blane said. “I know that you have to go out again. But it’s a relief to see you safe and sound.”

Nelson smiled but then realized he had the mask on.

“Missed you,” Nelson said. “The kids. Heather. Even Tres. So glad to be home.”

“We missed you too,” Blane said. “So you have to work hard on healing. We have a big life and you’re a major part of it. So work hard at healing.”

Nelson mumbled something but was unconscious. Blane left the room. He nodded to the nurse and she went back inside the room.

Blane looked around at the construction. Progress had been made. He didn’t know what would happen now that there was this pandemic. Certainly, Sam and Jacob had committed to moving this project along.

So far, so good. Smiling to himself, he left their new home and returned to the Castle.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifteen - You know what you don't deserve

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTEEN

Nelson awoke screaming. The nurse assistant came in and ran out again. The nurse and the nurse assistant returned. Together, they tried to get from Nelson what was wrong.

He couldn’t stop screaming.

Finally, the nurse called the doctor and they agreed to medicate him. Within moments, the narcotic went into Nelson’s IV and ever so slowly, he stopped screaming. When his voice fell to a slow mewing, the medical professionals left the room, and Nelson was alone again.

He felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see Abi holding his hand while her other hand stroked his forearm.

“Are you in pain?” Abi asked.

“Terrified,” Nelson said, his voice a whisper. “I. . . I. . .”

His hand moved to his nose.

“Smell?” Abi asked.

Nelson nodded.

“Yes,” Abi said. “You smell something like that wretched dungeon?”

Nelson nodded.

“You smell me,” Abi said.

Nelson pointed at her. She nodded.

“I was trying to keep you alive,” Abi said. “You were. . .”

Abi shook her head.

“You. . .” Nelson whispered.

“Shh. . .” Abi whispered.

“’fraid wake up there,” Nelson said.

“I brought you home,” Abi said. “I won’t allow you to return.”

“Promise,” Nelson said.

“You can trust me when I say that no being on this planet has the power to defy me,” Abi said. “Not a one. But even I cannot save you when your will is set against it.”

When he looked at Abi, she looked like Bathsheba.

“You,” Nelson whispered somewhere between a question and an acquisition.

“I asked your mother to go to you,” Abi said. “She was busy trying to save your father, so I chose her ancestor. I had an idea that you and she were in the similar places. She was able to enter the prison of your mind, get you to see that you needed to let go.”

“She saved me,” Nelson said. “Lost in that tomb.”

“Lost in your own will,” Abi whispered.

“Yes,” Nelson said as a sigh. “That too.”

Nelson glanced at Abi to see that she was grinning at him. It was only then that he realized that Abi was doing something to him. He turned to actually look at her. Her hands had melded into his flesh.

“What are you doing?” Nelson asked.

“Strengthening you,” Abi said.

“Why?” Nelson asked. “Why help me?”

“Oh dear, child,” Abi said. “You stand at an important crossroad in human history. You may determine the difference of what will happen and what won’t happen. You must be ready for it.”

“I don’t want to save the world,” Nelson said.

Abi grinned.

“Why is that funny?” Nelson asked.

“It’s not up to you to save the world,” Abi said. “Or even the human world.”

“What am I doing?” Nelson asked.

“Dear boy,” Abi said. “You are doing what you were born to do. I am helping you do it.”

“That’s what Jacque de Molay said,” Nelson said. He was feeling stronger, but he didn’t want to admit it. “He nearly killed me.”

“Yes, he did,” Abi said. “What do you think happened?”

Nelson was silent for a long time. He shook his head.

“Yes, you do know,” Abi said.

“Bathsheba said that I had to decide to leave there,” Nelson said. “You’re saying that I set my will to stay there. But. . .but I. . . I mean, I guess that’s how I got home but. . . Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

“Good question,” Abi said. “I will tell you. . .”

Nelson looked over at Abi.

“I hate the Templars too,” Abi said.

He snorted a kind of laugh, and she smiled.

“May I ask you a question?” Nelson asked.

“Of course,” Abi said.

“Why do you take this fairy form?” Nelson asked. “You just told me that you are the most powerful being on this planet and yet you. . .”

He waved his fingers around and giggled like a girl in some kind of imitation of Abi.

“I do not act like that,” Abi said.

“I have seen those little Fairy Corps outfits,” Nelson said. “You look like. . .”

“Okay, okay, fair enough,” Abi said, with a sigh.

“Why bother?” Nelson asked. “You could crush all of these fairies and all of their bullshit and. . .”

“Oh my dear boy, do you truly not know that might is never the solution?” Abi asked.

“I. . .” Nelson scowled. “No. No. Is that true?”

“Of course it is,” Abi said. “You want to make real change then create community, connection, and be kind. That’s what works.”

“But. . .?” Nelson gazed at the ceiling. “Oh my God, I feel so much better. What did you do?”

“I took away that virus,” Abi said. “You’ve had it a long time. You don’t need it, do you?”

“AIDS?” Nelson laughed. “Really?”

“Oh, is that what it’s called?” Abi asked. She shrugged. “Humans and their viruses. Crazy really. Every living being has at least one virus associated with it. You cannot have life without viruses. Yet humans have this idea that they can negotiate around their virus.”

Nelson glanced at her.

“There would be no humans without viruses,” Abi said. She nodded. “And yet. . .”

She put her hand on her forehead in a dramatic gesture.

“. . . I don’t deserve this,” Abi said and then laughed. “You know what you don’t deserve?”

“What?” Nelson said vaguely.

“Life,” Abi said. “You do not deserve to be alive. It’s a gift. Every moment of it. But no living creature ever understands that. They come. They go. They never understand that their very presence is improbable and will end sooner than they ever understand. Can you imagine the shock when the last cell took the last breath of carbon dioxide and killed them all? ‘We don’t deserve this!’ They cried.”

“First mass extinction,” Nelson said. “Single cells took in carbon dioxide and excreted oxygen until they killed themselves.”

“Yes,” Abi said.

“That’s not an answer to why you’re in human form,” Nelson said.

Abi grinned at him and pulled back. He turned on his side to look at her.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Nelson said.

“I wanted to see what it was like,” Abi said. “Have children. Live like a human.”

Abi shrugged.

“Not so complicated,” she said.

“And Fin?” Nelson asked.

“He loves me,” Abi said. “I love him. Is that not enough?”

“No,” Nelson said. “He’s such a pain in the ass. Beautiful. I’ll give you that. He’s probably a pretty great lay — all those muscles and power. But — and that’s a big but — he’s such a prima donna. Who wants to deal with all of his Prince-sized drama?”

Abi laughed, and Nelson grinned.

“He knows how powerful I am and he loves me anyway,” Abi said. “He doesn’t interfere or try to control me. He doesn’t try to take my power for himself. He lets me be me. He has fought for me.”

Abi nodded. She stood from her seated position.

“When you are well, you will speak with him,” Abi said. “He’s one of the few people who know and understand what you’ve been through. He even knows all of the humans you have dealt with. He was old in their time. He will fight with you, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Nelson nodded. Abi leaned over and kissed him.

“Sleep now,” Abi said. “When you awaken, you will be well.”

Nelson fell into a deep sleep.

~~~~~~~~

Monday morning — 9:48 a.m. ET

New York City, NY

“Hi Sandy, how are you feeling?” Dr. Nadia Kerminoff said.

They were speaking via video call. Sandy was in Denver. Nadia was in Ivan’s loft.

“Healing,” Sandy said. “Slowly.”

“At least it’s happening,” Nadia said.

Sandy nodded.

“The last surgery?” Nadia asked.

“They replaced my ankle,” Sandy said. “They say it looks good.”

“And feel?” Nadia asked.

“Okay,” Sandy said. She sighed.

“But?” Nadia asked.

“Oh, I was walking before, and now I’m back in this wheelchair,” Sandy said.

“Fair enough,” Nadia said. “But you’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll see. This will be much better.”

Sandy gave her a doubtful look but moved on.

“How are you?” Sandy asked.

“Tired,” Nadia said. “This coronavirus is. . . bad. So bad. I’ve been working. Dealing with arguing families is. . . a lot easier.”

“You’re amazing,” Sandy said.

“Just doing what I can,” Nadia said. She looked up and nodded. “Ian is here.”

Ian Berkenshire, the CEO of Nadia’s companies, walked into the apartment

“Hi Ian,” Sandy said. “Tanesha and Heather are here. Jill is on her way. So much is up in the air. She’s trying to help her husband’s company get on track.”

“That’s a lot of jobs,” Nadia said.

“They are considered essential,” Sandy said. “But only on some of the jobs so it’s kind of a big mess.”

“We’re in the same position,” Nadia said.

“We’re looking at converting one of our factories to making masks for people and for medical professionals,” Ian said. “We are blocked at almost every turn. Just insane.”

“We have to figure it out,” Nadia said.

Sandy nodded. Jill ran into the den of Seth O’Malley’s house.

“Jill’s here,” Sandy said. “Where are we?”

“The short answer is that we’ve been able to find the owners of about half of the remaining items,” Ian said. He nodded to Nadia.

“Among those that we’ve found, they are. . .” Nadia shook her head. “Angry is probably the best word to describe it. They don’t understand why we have the painting. They don’t believe that we just found their item.”

“We have shown them the videos of finding the salt mine,” Ian said. “And all of the supporting videos. It’s hard for them to believe that we don’t need to be prosecuted as Nazis or collaborators.”

“We’ve had pretty good luck with these families,” Heather said. “Would you like us to take over?”

“Please,” Ian said.

“Have you made any progress on the other half of crap?” Nadia asked.

Everyone laughed.

“Did I say ‘crap’ out loud?” Nadia asked. She blushed. “I mean, precious works of art.”

“Maybe it’s time to pay someone do to do this?” Tanesha asked. “Between all of us, we can afford to hire a company to dispose of the items.”

“Do we trust that they will get it right?” Nadia asked. She yawned. “I’m sorry. I have to get some rest.”

She clicked off the video call.

“Ian, why don’t you send us the list of families?” Sandy asked. “We’ll see what we can do.”

“You sure?” Ian asked, his Australian accent strong.

“Absolutely,” Sandy said.

“Do not over tax yourself, Sandra,” Ian said.

Sandy grinned at him in reproach, and he nodded. He wasn’t responsible for her.

“I will send what we have,” Ian said. “You’ll let me know?”

“I will,” Sandy said.

“Right,” Ian said.

Ian waved to the girlfriends, and they waved back at him. When he was gone, Sandy closed the laptop.

“You’re sure you can do this?” Sandy asked.

“Of course,” Heather said. “Easy.”

Sandy grinned at Heather. She disappeared.

“How’s school?” Sandy asked Jill and Tanesha.

“Mine’s on hold,” Tanesha said. “We can take classes virtually but they haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Same here,” Jill nodded. “I think we’re off until the end of the semester.”

“That sucks,” Tanesha said. “You were almost done with school.”

Jill nodded.

“I’d rather not catch the virus,” Jill said.

“Me, too,” Tanesha said. “The ERs are crazy. They’ve asked for volunteers and. . .”

Tanesha shook her head.

“I want to help,” Tanesha said. “But it terrifies me, you know. I don’t want to get sick.”

Jill and Sandy nodded.

“How’s Jeraine?” Sandy asked.

“Pissed off,” Tanesha said. “He was ready to open the show and now this. They aren’t able to open. I’m sure he and his team will come up with something. But he’s worked so hard to make this show and now there are no shows.”

“Crazy,” Jill said. “It’s all just crazy. And all of the anger and division? I don’t know how we’re going to get through it.”

“At least we have each other,” Tanesha said. When Jill and Sandy seemed lost in their own thoughts, Tanesha added, “We do have each other, right?”

Jill hugged Tanesha and Sandy reached out a hand. Tanesha began to cry.

“I don’t know what I would do without you guys,” Tanesha said. “There’s so much hate coming at me.”

Not sure of what to say, Jill and Sandy just held on to Tanesha. Heather returned.

“How’d it go?” Sandy asked Heather.

Jill let go of Tanesha. They turned to look at Heather.

“They’re suing,” Heather said. “They want to review everything we have so they can determine what we might be hiding from them.”

“Ugh,” Sandy said. She dropped her head.

“Good,” Jill said. They turned to look at her. “Then it’s up to the attorneys. We can go swimming and enjoy our day.”

“Great thinking,” Tanesha said.

“I can’t go swimming,” Sandy said.

“Heather?” Tanesha asked.

Heather snapped her fingers, and Sandy’s ankle was covered in a waterproof silicone.

“Wow, that’s cool,” Sandy said.

“Tanesha’s idea,” Heather said.

“You are such a great friend,” Sandy said.

“Come on,” Jill said.

They went out into the cool spring air to the carriage house. Jill ran ahead to open the door. They went into the warm, moist air. Like they had when they were teens, they hung out in the hot tub and swam in the pool. For the next hour or so, they were able to let their pressures and stress fade away. Soon they would return to the pressures of the pandemic and their young families.

For now, they had each other.

That was enough.

~~~~~~~~

Monday morning — 10:08 a.m. MT

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” Katy said. “You’re finally home!”

Jill turned to see her daughter enter their loft. Charlie and Tink were taking care of the kids today in the Castle living room. Somehow, Katy had slipped out of their grasp. Jill took a breath to respond to what she knew was coming next.

“Can I go see Paddie now?” Katy asked. “It’s not the weekend. Time to see Paddie!”

Katy clasped her hands in front of her heart and then jumped up and down.

“Katy,” Jill said, evenly.

“Can Paddie come over?” Katy asked. “Can we go to Paddie’s house? Or can we have Paddie over?”

Katy spun in place and paced away from Jill. As if she had just had this thought, Katy spun around.

“How about the twins and Paddie’s little brother play, and Paddie and I can play and. . .?” Katy’s bright face looked up to Jill’s.

They had been through this twice already today. From the moment Katy had awakened, she had one a singular thought — play with Paddie. A smart and very articulate girl, Katy had pressed at every point. Jill knelt down and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders.

“We can’t see Paddie for a while,” Jill said. “There’s a terrible virus and everyone has been sent home.”

“But not Paddie!” Katy said.

On her drive to the Castle, Paddie’s mother, Julie, had called Jill to commiserate. Paddie was acting out the same drama at their home. The children were devastated that they couldn’t be together. In just one more day, Katy and Paddie would have been apart longer than they had been since before they’d met.

“Paddie is not sick!” Katy said. “He’s not been sent home! And I have cuddles! I don’t get sick!”

“Katy,” Jill said in warning.

To Jill’s surprise, Katy burst into tears and ran into her room. The little girl slammed her door in anger. Jill sighed. She went to the door and tried to open it. Katy had used her psychokinetic skill to force the door closed. Jill pressed her ear against the door. Katy was crying her eyes out.

Jill had never felt more inadequate. She felt tears well in her eyes.

The door clicked open. Jill went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. She pulled her daughter onto her lap. Jill and Katy cried.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Fourteen - Spouting Languages

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FOURTEEN

Sunday night — 11:31 p.m.

“How did it go?” Sandy asked Aden as he entered their bedroom at Seth O’Malley’s house.

Sandy had started a series of surgeries to correct some of the damage from falling down the stairs. She’d had her ankle replaced just a week ago. Because no one knew what to do about the coronavirus, Aden had stripped down at the front door. He was wearing his boxers and T-shirt.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be asleep,” Aden said.

He leaned over to kiss her. She touched his face. He pointed to the shower, and she nodded. While he showered, she rolled out in her wheelchair to the kitchen to get his dinner. Of course, Maresol was standing in the kitchen already.

“You should be sleeping,” Maresol ordered. “Those bones are not going to heal themselves.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sandy said with a grin. “In the meantime, can I have Aden’s dinner?”

Maresol kissed her cheek and set the tray in her lap. She rolled back to the bedroom. Aden was drying off when she got back to the bedroom. He’d been fit when they moved into her biological father’s house. But their stay here had leaned him out. He was even more gorgeous. She smiled at him and he grinned back. He wrapped the towel around himself and settled down to eat at the table and chair near her bed. He ate without stopping and took a long drink of water.

Only then did he take a breath.

“Let’s see,” he said with a grin. “How did it go. . . Shitty. It was. . . God damn some people are such assholes. More than once, they were all screaming at each other. Every one of them! One of those guys I hired last year was screaming ‘Go back where you belong’ to one of the guys that Celia hired.”

“Ouch,” Sandy said.

Aden scowled and shook his head.

“Big Sam had to step in twice,” Aden said. “I. . . I never thought that we’d be in this place. Never. But the politics, the pandemic — everyone’s on edge and carving out their own territory.”

Sandy waited for him to get to the point.

“In the end, they went with the job share,” Aden said. “But not before Jake said that he was being badgered by two big corporate construction companies to purchase Lipson Construction. The money is great. They say that employees want the money, not the work. He’s said: ‘They believe that you will cash out today and give up on tomorrow because you’re just stupid employees and not genius old white guys.’ That shut them up.”

“What did people say?” Sandy asked.

“No one said anything for a long time,” Aden said. “Jake then said: ‘What do you believe? Do you believe that only people who look like me can run construction companies? Because that’s what you’re doing here tonight. You’re telling anyone who can listen that you’re not up to the task.’ His voice. . . Like his heart had just broken. He’s done so much to. . .”

Looking crushed, Aden simply shook his head.

“Sam finally had to hug him to keep him from crying. And, that was it, basically. Third vote, there was a majority — job share. And those pricks have no idea what a nightmare it’s going to be to set it up. God, the entire thing is going to take a miracle to just make the plans.”

“You’re good at logistical nightmares,” Sandy said.

He smiled at her. Getting up, he pulled on a T-shirt and underwear.  Without saying a word, he swooped Sandy up from her wheelchair. She giggled, and he smiled. They kissed. He flipped off her covers and carefully set her into the bed. He pulled up her covers. He joined her in the bed. She turned off the light and rolled over to hold him.

He was sound asleep.

She kissed his cheek. She stared at the ceiling trying not to itch under the cast. Before she knew it, she was sound asleep.

~~~~~~~~

Monday early-morning — 2:03 a.m.

Looking for Jacob, Jill slid across the hardwood floors in her socks. She went out into the open space in the loft. He wasn’t in the kitchen or near the gas fireplace or in the boys’ room or in Katy’s room or in his office. She went out on the balcony off their bathroom and saw him sitting on the decking off the medical offices. Grabbing the baby monitor, she went down through the Castle kitchen and up to the second floor. She heard Valerie and Mike’s muffled voices from their bathroom as she passed. She went through the medical offices and out on to the deck.

“Are you okay?” Jill asked at the door.

She touched Jacob’s shoulder, and he jerked with surprise.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Jill said.

“I’m okay,” Jacob said. “Lost in thought. Please.”

He gestured to the bench, and she sat down. They looked out over the snow-capped mountains. The setting moon cast everything in a deep purple and the snow on the mountains in a shade of lavender. The night was so still that it was almost as if the entire world had paused for them to enjoy her beauty.

“Spring is coming,” Jacob said.

“When?” Jill asked, pulling her robe around her and crossing her arms.

Grinning, he pulled her close. She rested her head against his shoulder. They sat together in companionable silence.

“Want to take me back inside and ravish me?” Jill asked.

Jacob looked at her.

“Let me ravish you?” Jill asked.

He kissed her.

“I. . .” Jacob said. “It’s a hard offer to turn down.”

“I know, I know,” Jill said. “You’ve got a lot on your mind.”

“I’m just. . . upset,” Jacob said, and kissed her head. “I’m sorry. Your offer is. . . enticing. I just. . .”

“The meeting?” Jill asked.

Jacob gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“You can talk to me,” Jill said.

“Oh, I know,” he said with a sigh. “My thoughts are angry. Dark. I don’t want to vomit it all over you.”

“Vomit away,” Jill said. “I have three children. I have known my fair share of vomit. I also know how to clean up.”

Jacob chuckled.

“Well?” Jill asked with a smile.

“I. . .” Jacob blew out a breath. “I’ve done so much to. . . to. . . Oh, I don’t know. I’m such a big headed jerk. I had this idea that the employees could take of the company and. . . All they needed was a little training and they could own their own company. By owning a successful, profitable, necessary company would pull them out of paycheck-to-paycheck poverty. And they. . .”

Scowling, he stopped talking.

“Sounds like the meeting was awful,” Jill said.

“Worst than awful,” Jacob said. “People were screaming at each other. Pointing fingers. Raging. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. I was halfway between shocked and furious. I sat there dumbfounded and so ashamed. I mean, what would Mom say?”

Jill didn’t respond to give him space to talk.

“I’m so ashamed,” Jacob said. He turned to look at her. “That’s just it. I feel so full of shame and. . . I didn’t do anything. I’m not the one who is angry! I’m not the ridiculous fool that. . . I’m just the fool that thought it could work.”

“You weren’t able to come to an agreement?” Jill asked.

“We did,” Jacob said. “I mean, they did. Finally. After I told them about the offers and how greedy and stupid everyone thinks they are and. . .”

He sighed.

“Are you working tomorrow?” Jill asked.

“No,” Jacob said. “We’re off until Wednesday to figure out the logistics of this. . . bullshit.”

“Ah,” Jill said. “They chose job sharing.”

Jacob nodded.

“I believe you owe me a silver dollar,” Jill said.

Jacob turned to look at her.

“How did you know?” Jacob asked.

“Delphie told me,” Jill said.

For the first time in a long time, Jacob laughed out loud.

“I should have listened,” Jacob said.

“Now that’s something to be ashamed of,” Jill said.

Jacob looked at Jill but didn’t respond. Jill pointed at him.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Jill said. “You believed the best in people, and look — they’ve chosen to do what’s best for them. So truthfully, you were right.”

“Why does it feel so crappy?” Jacob asked.

“The fighting feels crappy,” Jill said. “All of this arguing and fake facts and this horrible virus and. . .” well, everything. It all feels crappy.”

Jacob nodded and went back to looking at the mountains.

“Come on,” Jill said. Standing, she held out her hand, “Come inside.”

“To ravish you?” Jacob asked.

“I have decided to ravish you, instead,” Jill said.

Jacob laughed. Grabbing his hand, Jill dragged him to her. He kissed her hard. Laughing, she ran back inside. He gave one last look at his mother’s ghost, which was hanging over the garden.

“She’s right, you know,” Celia Marlowe said.

He heard her voice for the first time tonight. He felt immediate relief.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Celia Marlowe added.

Jacob nodded.

“Go,” Celia said. “Relish the joy in your life.”

He ran off after Jill. 

~~~~~~~~

Monday early-morning — 2:48 a.m.

Nelson realized that his eyes were open. Closing his eyelids felt like dragging sandpaper over eye balls. The pain was as intense as the relief. He pressed his fingers into his eyes.

And then he realized that he had no idea where he was. He tried to get up. A large hand pressed him back to the bed.

“Úbi sum?” Nelson croaked.

“Hospitium,” a male voice responded with “Hospital” in Latin.

Nelson’s mind jerked awake at the Latin. He looked over to see Tres Sierra.

“Blane?” Nelson asked.

“He doesn’t speak Latin,” Tres said with a smirk. He pressed his hand into his chest. “I happen to be fluent in Latin. You’re welcome.”

“What?” Nelson asked.

“You were raving in Latin when you woke up. Only I could help you. Well, there was that guy from the pharmacy. He was here when I got here.”

“What?” Nelson asked.

Tres just grinned at him.

“It’s good to see you, man,” Tres said. “We’ve been out of our minds with worry.”

“How long have I been gone?” Nelson asked.

“Couple of years, according to Delphie and Heather,” Tres said.

“A couple?” Nelson asked.

“Seven,” Tres said. “But in regular, non-Templar time, it’s only been a little more than a month. You got back just in time for the biggest and brightest pandemic in the last hundred years.”

“I should get to work,” Nelson said, trying to get up. “The ER must be swamped.”

“You need to sleep and rest,” Tres said.

Nelson weaved. He flopped back onto the bed.

“What’s wrong with me?” Nelson asked.

“Besides the fact that, according to the doctors, you’ve had the shit beat out of you for years?” Tres asked. “Your dad?”

“Never,” Nelson said. “War. Wars. Many wars. Jacques. Miserable fucking Templar training.”

His eyes welled with moisture. He shook his head.

“You’ve had surgery,” Tres said. “Three. Your ribs had been badly broken and set wrong.”

“Pushed off a horse,” Nelson said.

“You have been freed of your spleen,” Tres said.

“Infection?” Nelson asked.

“Injury,” Tres said. “The docs said that if you hadn’t gotten here when you did, your spleen would have likely burst. Uh. ‘Like a ripe berry.’ That’s a direct quote.”

Nelson lay back in the bed. After a moment, he turned to look at Tres.

“Why are you speaking French?” Nelson asked.

“Oh, Tres, I can’t believe you’re fluent in French now,” Tres said. “How ever did that happen?”

In a deeper voice, Tres continued, “Well, my dear friend and brother, Nelson, speaks fluent French. I thought that it would be good to learn so that when he shows up spouting languages like a cross between the Exorcist and a Pentecostal Christian, I could translate. Because, really, I have nothing better to do.”

Nelson snorted a laugh. He grabbed his ribs and moaned. Tres grinned.

“But why isn’t Blane here?” Tres said, imitating Nelson. Back to his imitation of his own voice, he said, “He’s asleep, like you should be.”

“No, really,” Nelson said.

“I know that it will surprise you, but we’re in the middle of our own drama,” Tres said.

“Shocking,” Nelson said.

“Blane’s been working like a madman,” Tres said. “He’s sleeping so that he and the others can work like madmen again.”

“Why aren’t you resting?” Nelson asked, and yawned.

“Because I know something he doesn’t,” Tres said.

“Sounds like you know lots of things he doesn’t know,” Nelson said. “What’s the deal with the languages?”

“I’m good at languages,” Tres said, with a shrug. “But mostly, I learned Latin for my high school project. Spanish was my first language, so it wasn’t a huge stretch.”

Tres shrugged.

“You should be in the diplomatic corps,” Nelson said.

“I wouldn’t be here to have this scintillating conversation with you,” Tres said.

Nelson grinned at Tres.

“I missed you,” Nelson said.

Tres opened his mouth to respond, but Nelson was asleep again. Tres got up to get the nurse.

~~~~~~~~

Monday early-morning — 4:48 a.m.

“Heh,” Sam Lipson said, softly.

His soft chuckling brought footsteps from the loft. He turned to a wet-from-shower Jacob running down the stairs. He turned back to the computer in front of him.

“You okay, Dad?” Jacob asked.

“Fine, fine,” Sam Lipson said.

Jacob put his hand on his father’s shoulder and looked over his shoulder.

“What’s that?” Jacob asked.

“Tres sent out this program for us to review and approve,” Sam said.

“Yeah, I saw that,” Jacob said. “Coffee?”

The coffee maker on the counter beeped indicating the coffee was made.

“Delphie set it up last night because she thought it would be an early morning,” Sam said.

Sam poked at the computer and then chuckled again

“Did you get any sleep?” Jacob asked, as he poured the coffee.

“Not really,” Sam said. “You?”

“No,” Jacob said, setting a mug down next to Sam.

Sam looked up at him.

“That meeting was. . .” Sam shook his head.

“Hard to describe,” Jacob said.

Distracted by the computer, Sam didn’t respond. He chuckled again. Jacob drank his coffee and ignored his father. He was waiting to talk to his father about what his father wanted to do with the company.

“Dad?” Jacob asked.

Sam looked up at Jacob.

“What do you want to do?” Jacob asked.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked.

“What do you want to do with the company?” Jacob asked, working to keep his frustration out of his voice.

“Oh, we job share,” Sam said with a nod.

“Last night, you. . .” Jacob said. “What are you looking at?”

Sam smiled at him. He turned the laptop around so Jacob could see the screen. The screen held a spreadsheet.

“What is that?” Jacob asked.

“It’s a. . . well I don’t know what it is,” Sam said. “Tres said it’s a ‘programmed template.’”

Jacob nodded.

“I read the email while I was in bed,” Sam said. “I said to myself: ‘Sam Lipson, you are not any good at this computer stuff. Everyone’s counting on you so you better get up and figure it out before the kids get up.’”

“Okay,” Jacob said, grinning at his father talking about himself in the third person.

“So I got that laptop you bought for me,” Sam said. “It wasn’t charged so I had to find the charger and. . . Anyway, I got on the main frame by myself.”

“Well done,” Jacob said.

“I was impressed myself,” Sam said with a laugh. “I followed the link in Tres’s email.”

“What is it?” Jacob asked.

“It’s the job share,” Sam said. “He says in the email that he started working on this when we lost those state contracts.”

“What does it do?” Jacob asked.

“It does the work,” Sam said.

“How so?” Jacob asked. “Aden’s going to be here in a minute. We planned to work all day on the logistics.”

“Right,” Sam said. “You have to match people up by job position, their job performance, preferred schedule, their particular skill set, and stuff like that.”

Jacob nodded.

“It’s all here,” Sam said, turning the laptop back around. “Here — I put your name in this box and get... me with alternative of Aden and possibly Blane.”

“Give me an employee’s name,” Sam said.

“Okay, Erik Le Monde,” Jacob said. Erik’s daughter Wanda was over last night to hang out with Noelle.

“Plumbing,” Sam said. “Five stars. Skills and rating match with Deter Robinson. Schedule too. Two alternatives.”

Sam grinned at Jacob.

“What about contracting?” Jacob said. “You know how those lawyers complain.”

“I already did contracting,” Sam said. “Oh, and look! You can check this box and do the entire department. It takes a long time for bigger departments but we only have eight in contracting.”

Sam turned the computer around to show Jacob.

“Really?” Jacob asked. Leaning forward to see that what he said was true.

“I did the site managers, because I know them by name,” Sam said. “I would tweak this one for that one, you know how it is, but. . .”

Sam shrugged. Jacob looked at his father in disbelief.

“It’s really slick,” Sam said. “We’ll easily finish this today and go fishing tomorrow.”

Jacob smiled. A bedraggled Aden came into the kitchen.

“Why are you smiling?” Aden asked.

“Tres’s program works,” Jacob said.

“No way,” Aden said. “He’s been talking about that thing for years. It actually works?”

“Looks like it,” Jacob said.

Blane came into the kitchen.

“How’s Nelson?” Jacob asked.

“In surgery again,” Blane said. “But good. Why are you smiling? I thought it would be all-sad-sacks-all-the-time here.”

“Tres’s program works,” Jacob said.

“You sound so surprised!” Tres said, walking into the kitchen from the back.

Sam got up and hugged Tres.

“Thank you,” Sam said. “You’ve saved our bacon.”

The other men looked at Sam and Tres.

“He’s serious?” Aden asked.

Jacob nodded.

“We still have to grind our way through it,” Tres warned. “It will take us all day. But we should be set to notify the employees by this evening.”

“We can have everyone here for a barbecue,” Sam said.

“Dad,” Jacob said, “Virus? Pandemic?”

“Oh right,” Sam said. “We can email them.”

“We’ll email the team leads and site managers,” Aden said. “Get their approval first.”

“Good thinking,” Sam said, with a grin.

Aden started laughing. Sam joined him. Jacob grinned while shaking his head. Blane started making breakfast.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Thirteen - Bathsheba

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and THIRTEEN

Somewhere in time

Possibly Spain

Nelson Semaines had no idea what day it was or even how long he’d been here. He’d even lost track of where “here” might be.

Spain?

Maybe.

Sometimes.

He’d stopped trying to figure it out.

It felt like he’d been away from home for longer than grad school or internship and residency combined or forever. He’d been here forever.

Jacques d’Molay, the last publicly known Grand Master of the Templars, and his weapons’ master, Peddra, Nelson’s grandfather’s great-grandfather or something like that, had taken him to every single battle or skirmish the Templars had fought in. He’d watched the Templars bully and beat “the enemy” into submission.

Nelson had come to loath these men.

They had joyous sex with other men, but killed homosexuals in the name of God. They raped the women of their enemies, all the while believing in the pure love of their wives and, of course, the Virgin Mary. Even though they, like Nelson, had dark hair, dark eyes, and various shades of suntan skin, they loathe anyone whose skin wasn’t white.

They hated Muslim people. They hated Buddhists. They hated people of Jewish faith. They hated all of the people who celebrated earth based religions almost as much as they hated people who believed in the Greek and Roman Gods.

They didn’t hate all people, though.

They only hated anyone who wasn’t like some idealized version of them.

When they weren’t spouting racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or other disgusting rhetoric, they were blabbing on and on about the fact that they were the chosen ones.

Nelson stayed out of the fighting, the fucking, and the most of the fray.

He stayed busy working.

He kept their clothing clean and their swords sharp. After he’d hunted, slayed, cooked dinner and fed them, he was left alone to clean up the meal, bank the fire, set up their tents and beds, he finally had time to himself. He took long cold baths in the stone tub in the lowest level of what he thought was Castle Preferrada. Truth be told, all of these Templar Castles looked basically the same.

He lay in the cold water and longed for Blane. He ached to see Mack and Wyn. He missed Heather and her better half, Hedone, like a broken tooth. Much to his surprise, he even missed Tres Sierra. He worried about his desperately sick father. He missed his work family.

He missed his life and the person he was in that life.

He loved being a doctor. He loved working in forensic science with Ava O’Malley and their team. He loved his house and the promise of what it would become. He loved his modern life and the freedom of hot running water, clean sheets, and modern conveniences like deodorant.

More than anything, he missed himself. He was becoming unrecognizable to himself. Day after long wretched day, everything that he’d been was fading away leaving only emptiness in its place.

He stayed in the bath long after it felt good. He only got out when his fingers were blue and he shook with cold. He wrapped himself in a clean animal fur and crept to his bed roll.

He slept like the dead. No dreams. No visions. Just the black relief of sleep.

He woke up when Peddra shook his shoulder. His work started the moment he awakened.

At this point, it was such a routine that he didn’t notice the passage of time. During the day, he never had time to think about anything other than what he needed to accomplish next.

Some days, he hoped that he would be killed on the battlefield or possible die of overwork.

Somehow, he managed to live on day after long, horrible day.

Lately, he was pretty sure that he was losing his mind.

In the last day or so, he’d started to see a mostly naked woman walking around the lower levels of the Castle. Last night, when he round the corner to the stone bath, he caught a glimpse of her standing in the water. She had tan colored skin, round hips, and small breasts. She seemed to be coming to or coming from the bath. When he spoke, she disappeared.

He was certain that she was some kind of hallucination borne out of his desperate loneliness and this horrible hallow feeling inside.

When he turned the corner tonight, she was standing in the middle of the bath.

“Hello?” Nelson whispered.

~~~~~~~~

Sunday night — 9:59 p.m.

Denver, Colorado

“Okay,” Aden Norsen said as he stepped out in front of the large gathering of employees who owned a part of Lipson Construction. He held the microphone to the cloth mask over his mouth and nose. “I just got off the phone with the governor.”

The talking, whispering, and general conversation stopped. Aden looked out into the audience. Over the last year or so, Celia Marlowe Lipson’s weird and diverse company had become more and more segregated on racial lines. There was a section filled with mostly white people. Most of the black men were standing at the back of the auditorium while black women were intermixed with the people whose ancestors hailed from Latin America — either five years ago or a hundred.

There had been a big fight at the door over wearing facial masks. Delphie, Jill, Heather, Tanesha, and Sandy had franticly sewed a mountain of masks. Through sheer force of will, they got everyone inside the auditorium with a mask on.

“According to the governor, we are designated ‘essential,’” Aden said.

The entire auditorium broke into loud cheers and claps. Aden raised his hands to try to get people’s attention. Tres stuck his fingers under his mask to make a loud whistle. People fell silent again.

“He said that we are only ‘essential’ on the projects we are doing for the state,” Aden said.

People started yelling. Aden looked out to see rage roil over as employees fought against each other for the first time since the company’s creation. The Site Managers stood up to help get people to settle down.

“Listen, it’s late,” Sam Lipson said, stepping forward. His voice was louder than any mask could contain.“Give us a chance to get through everything we know before you start yelling.”

He wielded his status as the founder like a club. It took a while, but eventually everyone was nodding in agreement.

“Good,” Sam said. “Aden?”

“Tres?” Aden nodded to Tres Sierra, their CFO.

Tres took the microphone from Aden.

“We have three sites that are already in progress,” Tres said. “We have two others that are fully funded but the funds not released. We asked the governor and he agreed that he would work to release those funds. We’ve won another three bids but they haven’t been budgeted yet. They were for next year or possibly the following year. The governor said that there was a lot of competition for money not already allocated. With unknown costs of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to start. Unlikely is not impossible, so we’ll see. The state has a lot of expenses in getting the hospitals up and running — PPE and the like, ventilators, you know.”

“Tell them what that means?” Sam asked. “These men and women are afraid for their jobs! You have to tell them what that means.”

“What does that mean?” Tres asked. “Without getting too far into it, it means that tomorrow, we have to close fifteen sites and work three.”

He looked out to see if anyone would respond.

“Jake, Blane, and Sam have agreed to pitch in to get the other two sites up and running when the funds are released,” Tres said. “But, we need to do things the way we usually do. We need to get our people out to the sites to determine what we need, to set up our systems, before we can get started. It won’t be easy or fast.”

He looked out at the crowd. The employee-owners looked angry and more than a little scared.

“We’ve come up with two of solutions,” Tres said. “We need to pick one.”

He looked out at the employees and then glanced at Aden. Aden gave him a nod.

“Okay, the first is to lay off all of the people we no longer need,” Tres said.

The crowd erupted with rage. It took Sam, Aden, Blane, Tres, and Jacob to get the crowd to settle down. Every time people seemed calm, someone would erupt with rage and the entire crowd of men and women were yelling again.

“This is exhausting,” Jacob said to things had settled to a dull roar. “Among us. . .”

He pointed to Aden, Blane, Sam, Tres, and himself.

“We have enough stock to make the decisions necessary for our next step,” Jacob said. “We are dedicated to have you be full owners. Full ownership means that you make the hard decisions. But we didn’t sign up for this bull shit. If you cannot stay calm, we will make a decision without you.”

The employee owners became almost too quiet. Everyone knew that Jacob Marlowe always said exactly what he meant. They were just afraid and lashing out with anger. He knew this too, so he waited a moment to give everyone a chance to breathe before turning to Tres.

“Go ahead,” Jacob said.

“Our other option is a kind of rotating job share,” Tres said. “it’s Jake’s idea, so I figured that he should tell us. Jake?”

Jacob walked to the front.

“Here’s how it would work,” Jacob said. “We can handle all of our current staff by a type of job share. This means that people would work three-twelve hour shifts and then the next group would step in. We checked our current roster and we have nearly equal numbers in every job group. This allows us to have plumbing share with other plumbers. The road crew would share with other road crew. Digging, same thing. This goes for office staff as well. We will all work thirty-six hours over three days and take only three days pay for it.”

“What about health insurance?” a woman yelled from the back.

“My sister, Valerie, has spoken to the insurance company,” Jacob said. He pointed toward the door where his movie star sister was leaning against the wall. “She and her husband, Mike, have put up over a million dollars to secure health insurance for all employees and their families. Everyone. No matter what. So your wife can continue her cancer treatments, Jen, even if we have to lay you off.”

“What about schools?” someone near the front asked. “Most of the schools are closed.”

“As you may know, the Marlowe School is funded out of a trust set up by my mother,” Jacob said. “We don’t get state funds. Every employee pays into the fund at about 1% of their paychecks. We will stop your potion of the payment while we are on this schedule. As long as it’s safe, we’ll keep the school open from the fund every employee has put in.”

“He’s asking if it will stay open,” a Site Manager asked as he stood.

“We’re not sure how we will do it,” Jacob said. “But we’ll do what we can. If we need to move outside, we’ll move outside. If we need masks, we’ll get it done. We’re not the people who stand around negotiating. We get things done. That will apply here as well.”

Jacob nodded to Aden.

“It’s up for a vote,” Aden said. “When you came in, each of you were given a sheet of paper with the number ‘1’ and the number ‘2’ on it. Pick which you want and bring it up to the front.”

“What are they again?” a woman asked near the middle.

“Number one is to lay off about half of the company,” Aden said. “Number two is to job share for as long as it takes until we’re able to finish the construction contracts.”

Blane went through the audience with a large cardboard box. He set it in the middle of the aisle.

“We’ll give you fifteen minutes,” Jacob said. “Don’t you dare take that mask off Jethro!”

“It itches,” a man’s voice said from the back.

“So does my butt,” Jacob said. “You don’t see me taking my pants off, do you?”

Everyone laughed.

“Fifteen minutes,” Aden said. “Then we have to get home to our families.”

~~~~~~~~

Somewhere in time

Possibly Spain

The woman turned to look at him. For a long moment, they locked eyes. As if she were embarrassed, she looked down. She slid into the water.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Nelson asked. “I won’t. . . I mean. . .”

“Please,” she said. “I’ve taken the liberty to turn on the warm water.”

“How?” Nelson asked. “Are you a demon?”

“A demon?” she laughed.

He smiled because of her laugh and because this ghost creature seemed so real, so normal.

“The water is warmed by the hot spring.” She gestured to an area he’d never noticed before. “I removed the block on the drain.”

“Has that always been there?” Nelson asked.

She looked at him and then at where the warm water came in. Her eyebrows went up and down as if to wonder what he was asking.

“I’m sorry, I’ve never seen it,” Nelson said. “I usually take cold baths.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said mildly.

He smiled. He pulled off the thick leather under armor. Unbuckled his sword belt. Sitting down, he took off his sandals. He noticed that she was looking at him when he pulled off his wool tunic.

“What?” he asked.

“You don’t have servants?” she asked.

“I. . .” Nelson started.

“Would you like mine to assist you?” the woman asked.

Two young girls stepped from the shadows. Using his hands, he indicated for them to stop.

“I am all right,” he said. “In my time, people do these things for themselves.”

“Why?” she asked.

He was about to launch into some kind of explanation when he saw that she wasn’t listening. Her back was to him. He slipped into the warm water. To his surprise, the water smelled of lavender and something lovely. The simple luxury of the warm water and scent brought tears to his eyes.

“Why did you stop talking?” she asked.

“You weren’t listening,” he said.

“So?” she said, with mild reproach.

Smiling, he slipped under the fragrant warm water. He felt his grim slid off his scalp. When he came up, he saw that she was still there.

And, she was still watching him.

He smiled.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Anything you’d like it to be,” she said.

He laughed. When she looked offended, he laughed harder. He wasn’t even sure why he was laughing. He just couldn’t stop. Tears felt down his face.

She appeared in front of him. She grabbed his shoulders and shook him.

“Stop,” she whispered.

When he began to sob, she pulled him to her. He wept on her shoulder like a child. His mother had died when his was an infant. He’d always loved men. Outside of Heather or one of his work friend’s hugs, he’d never been held by a woman. Her kindness brought up his most desperate grief. When he thought he’d never stop crying, the feeling disappeared. She kissed his cheek and floated away from him.

“Who are you?” he whispered in a hoarse voice.

“I believe that I am your grandmother and then some,” she said with a soft smile. “I did not believe it until I saw your face. We could be twins.”

He looked into her face and for the first time saw his own. She gave him an ironic smile.

“Please, let me introduce myself,” she said. “I am Bathsheba.”

Shocked, Nelson stopped moving.

“Wife of Uriah,” she said. “Mother of Soloman, among others. Consort to King David. You are my child by my first husband, Uriah, the warrior. He was. . .”

She gave him a soft smile.

“You don’t want to hear about ancient history,” Bathsheba said. “Know that your ancestors love you.”

“Why have you come?” Nelson asked. “How have you come?”

“I was invited here by my daughter, your mother,” Bathsheba said. “She has a mother’s right to be by your side. She could not attend, so she asked me to slip in here. I have tried for. . . a long time.”

Bathsheba looked around.

“This is a wretched place,” she said. “How can you stand it?”

“I can’t,” Nelson said.

“It’s time for you to return home,” Bathsheba said.

“How?” Nelson asked, tears falling down his face.

“Remind me,” Bathsheba said. “Who is the Grandmaster?”

“Jacques d’Molay,” Nelson said.

“Jacques d’Molay is long dead,” Bathsheba said. “Dust. He was loathed in life and left here in death.”

“I am on a quest!” Nelson asked.

Bathsheba rolled her eyes.

“Men,” Bathsheba said. “I said to my husband, ‘I will not do this! You are my husband, my love.’ He said, ‘He is my King, my friend. It’s my honor.’ His King and friend had him murdered leaving me to. . .”

Bathsheba stopped speaking. She gave an angry shake of her head. Nelson blinked.

“Please,” Nelson said. “I am exhausted and desperate. Speak plainly.”

“You are the Grandmaster of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.” Bathsheba raised her eyebrow at him. “You are my descendant. They are dust.”

“How?” Nelson asked.

“Decide that you’re done with this. . .” Bathsheba said.

“My father’s life is in the balance!” Nelson’s voice rose with desperation. “I need to. . .”

“Go home, my son,” Bathsheba said. “Gather your strength. Draw from mine, your mother’s, all of your ancestors. Only then will you get where you need to be. You are dying here.”

She leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

“You are so loved,” she whispered and disappeared.

He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting.

When he opened his eyes, he was lying in the grass in front of the crazy house they called “The Castle.”

“Oh my God,” a young man’s voice said. Feet ran over pavement in his direction. “It’s Nelson. Go! Get Heather! Get Blane!”

The young man dropped next to him.

“Uncle Nelson?” the young man asked.

Nelson was looking into the face of Nash Norsen. He was too shocked to respond.

“Come on,” Nash said. “Slowly. He’s bruised all over. Bleeding. Badly. Noelle — call 911!”

“I did,” Noelle Norsen said. “They said they were coming.”

Realizing he was likely naked, Nelson looked down. He was wearing his mideval Templar costume.

He heard running. He felt strong hands under his armpits lifting him to standing. He felt a wave of pain and passed out. He was carried inside.

Denver Cereal continues next week...