Charlie saw her coming in before she saw him at the desk, and he buried his head behind his security monitors. Her electric wheelchair’s motor echoed throughout the atrium, a smooth hum interrupted a couple of times by higher-pitched whines – playful figure eights, her father laughing gently with her. It was a game he’d seen a hundred times now. “Where’s Charlie?” she chirped. “I don’t see my friend.”

“Perhaps, little flower, you should look behind the pillars.” Charlie could hear the hidden laughter in his voice.

Her voice, more distant now: “No – but Charlie’s too big to hide behind these little things!”

“Is he in the bathroom?”

“Baba, I can’t go in there!”

“Well, then, I guess you’d better look behind the desk.”

Charlie heard her little chair drive close and turned, his mouth a surprised o.

“Charlie!”

“Ahn-lan! I didn’t hear you come in!”

She spread her tiny arms to hug him, leaning forward, and Charlie felt her short, shiny black hair soft against his cheek. “You didn’t shave!” she accused.

He pulled back, holding her hand and smiling. “Your dad usually brings you in on Mondays, sweetheart, not Wednesday.”

She made a face. “I was at the hospital late last night. Baba knows I feel better when I see you, so he made a special trip.”

Charlie glanced up at Mr. Li, who shook his head and motioned, later, later.

“Want to take a little walk through the jungle?” He gently squeezed her hand.

 

Charlie was perfectly aware of the picture they made walking through the tropical plant-decorated atrium sunroom of Medicorp Inc., he tall and broad and dark-skinned in a building guard uniform, her tiny and trapped in an expensive motorized chair. He nodded to those he knew, ignored the pitying or charmed or indulgent glances from the many strangers.

Medicorp, post-Squelch, had grown. They were among the first medical research companies to capture and decipher the alien science, and in the two years since had exploded in size. The enormous room that was now the designated company atrium had once been the wide glassed-in pedway of a mall, and it was still lined with shops on two levels. Ahn-lan led him where she wanted to go, stopping and exclaiming at a pretty dress in a shop window (Charlie would point that out to Mr. Li later), laughing at a funny greeting card in another. She chattered cheerfully, and Charlie smiled.

She reminded him so of his granddaughter, though Meili was older now – a child with the sweet, cheerful nature of his Chinese daughter-in-law. It was the smattering of Mandarin he’d picked up from his son’s family that he and Ahn-lan had bonded over last year, when she was pale and tired easily but was not yet confined to the chair. That first day, he’d been so charmed he released the tiniest bit of life into her, just a sip, and watched her blossom like a morning glory in summer. After that, it had become a habit, and she looked forward to seeing him just as he did her.

Soon enough, her father noticed that her trips to see Charlie always left her energized, and medical trips right after showed real improvement. Mr. Li was desperate – Charlie had figured that much out. He could feel the black disease in Ahn-Lan that first day, had delicately, gently unwrapped a few black tentacles that were sunk into her brain. He didn’t think there was a way to remove it. The beast was well established and strong, and it was determined to take her.

Still, the disease should have killed her in infancy, when she was still an orphan in China. Mr. Li had told him the story: how the sick baby had been plucked from her deathbed, subjected to experimentation using alien tech, gone into remission. Li and his wife had fallen in love with the rosy cheeks and sweet smile, adopting her and bringing her to America when Medtech recruited him. But it took time to integrate alien knowledge with human. The tumor had come back, stronger and faster than before, and they were losing the race for little Ahn-Lan.

He felt her grip strengthen as he poured warm life into her, and he was glad. “Look, what a cute horse!” She pointed into the Hallmark store at a plush animal with a long rainbow mane and tail.

“It’s cute, sweetie.” George smiled. That one he’d get for his little granddaughter, and a second for Ahn-lan. Her father had plenty of gifts to give her. This would be from George, her friend.

 

The night he’d been mugged was when he discovered his gift. Perhaps six months after his wife had died, he was walking home after his first day at Medtech. There were two of them, both branded with smudged homemade tattoos and armed with cheap knives.

Not a problem, if he’d been twenty years younger and armed with his old service ka-bar.

“You got money, man? We need some cash.”

George nodded, moving slowly, exaggerating his age. “Sure, sure.” They could outrun him. He knew that. They might have friends, too. Money wasn’t much; he had plenty of that. “Let me get out my wallet, okay?” The thugs watched, and one glimpsed the jet-black of his credit card before he could conceal it.

“What you got there – maybe fifty bucks? That ain’t enough. We gots to eat too. What that other thing, that card? Yeah – that a pretty nice card there.” He grinned at his friend, fuzzy teeth on display.

George pulled the card out slowly. “You got it. Just leave me my ID.”

“Nah, man, they a bank round the corner. You get us some cash. Keep the card. We ain’t greedy.”

George nodded. No way he was going anywhere with them. That was a sucker’s bet. “Sure. Show me.”

The one speaking motioned north, and in the split-second he was distracted, George grabbed his hand, twisting to force the knife out.

His intent was to run once the knife was gone; it was only a block to a Subway. Instead, a surge of energy rushed out of the thug, running into his palms like lightning. George gasped, teeth buzzing. The thug dropped.

“Hey, whatcho do there?” The other thug backed away.

George looked down. The first kid was face-down in a puddle. He didn’t move.

George ran as if he were leading a marine unit run in his youth.

In the paper the next day, the local B section had a headline below the fold: “Thug Has Seizure, Dies During Robbery.” Mugshots accompanied it, and the reporter had tried to make sense of the survivor’s story – that an old man pulled lightning out of Marcus Brown and killed him.

After that, George had practiced carefully. It must, he thought, have been the malaria treatment. He nearly died in Mumbai, but Dr. Patel had used an experimental alien-inspired treatment, some sort of DNA blood enhancement, and he had recovered quickly. Not that he cared at the time; the same doctor had failed to heal his wife, trapped in her own cancerous body.

Yet, it was a gift. He tried it on flies, touching them and feeling the spark as he drew their animating energy forth, letting them drop lifelessly to the ground. Eventually he figured out how to pull just a bit, just a sip, calming and tiring but not killing. He moved on, carefully, to small creatures – snakes, lizards, a stray dog he adopted. Then the big test: walking through crowds, taking a bit of energy from each person, never enough to harm.

It was very useful when, as a security guard, he caught a guy pulling a B&E on a car in the parking garage. “Hey, buddy,” he said, and then a soft touch to put the guy down, unconscious. George would never accidentally kill again.

 

She came in the next week, dragging and sad. No playfulness this time. Her skin was dry, almost crisp, and her father was pushing the chair. “Hey there, sunshine,” George said, and caressed her cheek.

The monster was growing. The tentacles he had pulled back and trimmed had returned, joined by dozens of others. George glanced at Mr. Li. The man had dark circles under both eyes, and he could only smile sadly at George’s questioning look.

“My baby girl needs more help than her mom and I can give her at home. She’s going into hospice at the end of the week.”

George felt the lump grow in his throat. “Oh.” He swallowed. “She’ll still be visiting, I hope. Oh, yeah.” He reached back and grabbed the rainbow horse for Ahn-lan. “I didn’t forget.”

She smiled at him, weakly hugging the plushie. “You always make me feel better, George. You don’t have to get me stuff.” She shrugged. “I won’t be here much longer anyway, the doctors say.”

Mr. Li looked down, away from George. “The tumor has been giving her nightmares. It’s getting into some – critical parts of her brain.”

George nodded and turned back to Ahn-lan. “Up to a stroll in the jungle today?”

She smiled, but shook her head. “We just came to see you today. Baba took an absence thing from work so he could be with me. He won’t be coming in.”

George pushed as much energy as he dared into Ahn-lan as he looked up at Mr. Li. “Would you mind, ah, leaving me her room number at the hospice? I would like to visit my friend.”

 

George paused as he walked through the doors at the hospice. It was a pleasant enough place, filled with window-filtered sunlight and real plants. His wife had spent the last two weeks of her life in such a place, built for American expatriates and medical tourists in Mumbai. The receptionist saw his hesitation and smiled kindly. She was a pretty young black girl, could have been the daughter he never had.

“Can I help you?”

George gave his name and Ahn-lan’s room number, and an escort was out in perhaps a minute. This one was a white woman, trim and professional and an actual doctor. He couldn’t imagine what this place cost Mr. Li, but then, he could afford it.

“She’s resting comfortably. She hasn’t much time left, but we are doing what we can to ensure that time is as happy as possible.” Dr. Halsey shook her head as she walked George briskly back to the room. “It’s always so hard when the little ones are cut short.”

George nodded. “I’ve lived my life. I surely wish my little friend had more time.”

“She went to Disneyworld last week, did they tell you? She couldn’t do much, but she says she danced with Mickey.”

“She’d like that.” George smiled briefly, imagining her black hair swinging out as she twirled, but of course she had been confined to the chair.

“Here we go. Miss Li, you have a visitor.”

“George!”

He winced. Her voice was weak, though just as filled with joy as any other time he had seen her. “Little sunshine! This time I get to come see you.”

He hugged her gently, pushing energy into her bird-thin body. It was like pouring light into a black hole.

“This is Mickey. Baba got him for me last week. He wanted to get me the giant one, but I told him I wanted a friend I could hug, and the others were too heavy.” She held up a hand-sized classic Mickey Mouse plush. “I got to meet Cinderella and she told me all about the glass slipper and how she felt when she lost it. I know it’s all pretend, but it was still fun.”

 

George let her chatter on, but his heart was dying. He had felt the same way back in Mumbai, the weeks he’d waited for Anne to die.

They’d had a good life, three healthy sons, military enlistment and then government jobs with early retirement, smart investments that let them travel – the Philippines, Moscow, Spain, the Holy Land and the Vatican for Anne’s Catholic faith. One son had moved to Japan, another married a pretty Mandarin woman and took a translation job in Shanghai.

It was when they were visiting their Shanghai grandbabies that Anne had started feeling bad. Back home in America, the results came in: aggressive uterine cancer. They did an emergency hysterectomy, but it was already in her lymph nodes, spreading.

They did all the usual things: aggressive treatment. The trip to Disneyworld, and to Disneyworld in China, with the grandchildren. A little more world travel: a safari, the Holy Land again, Fiji. They stayed in a ludicrously expensive water bungalow in Bali for a while, enjoying a honeymoon they had never had. When Anne was too weak one day to get out of bed, content to watch the water reflection play over the ceiling, George started preparing for her last trip home.

Then he found out about the new treatment: a doctor in Mumbai, series of injections, five-star hotel accommodations for patients. He’d signed up immediately, and doctors in Bali took samples, overnighting them to Dr. Patel.

The plane trip was a nightmare, George holding Anne as she vomited for hours, the medevac to the hospital – it was all a blur. He felt like he was willing her to stay alive. Everything he was, all his strength, he tried to pour into her.

He prayed. It was the last time he’d prayed.

The hell of it was, the treatment was working. In a week, her scans showed the dark masses shrinking, tendrils retreating into the tumor bodies.

Then her kidneys shut down. Her liver. Her lungs. Her heart. George watched, helpless again, as her body shrank in on itself, dying piece by piece. The day she died, he held ice chips to her lips as she prayed – she couldn’t even drink water.

India had excellent cremation services.

And then George collapsed, feverish, next to Dr. Patel, who had come with him to collect Anne’s urn.

 

George walked into his small apartment. The houses had been sold, the proceeds funding Anne’s last trips, her treatment, her every wish. There was still plenty of money in the bank; it was just that George found no pleasure in their family home or the lodge or the beach house in Gulf Breeze. They were all filled with Anne, and while he had no desire to forget her, he also could not function when surrounded by her memories.

Three rooms. It was all he needed, furnished with inexpensive, nondescript Ikea pieces and cheerful curtains with no personality or history. A side table held pictures of his grandchildren, his sons. A picture of Anne rested at the center, turned away most of the time, only facing the room when he could bear the memories. Behind all of it was an enormous print of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It was her favorite piece.

“All those people, George,” she’d said when they saw it in Chicago. “It’s like a memory, made up of a million tiny pieces – perfume, quacking ducks, the scent of fresh bread, love and the weight of a touch. It reminds me of when we went to Paris.”

He had smiled and taken her hand, kissing it next to her wedding ring – a poor brass thing, bought when he’d joined the military, the gold finish only remaining in spots. She refused to let him buy her another. He wore it now next to his old dog tags.

He picked up her photo, turning it toward him, kissing the glass-covered lips. “Hi, baby. Did you miss me? I sure miss you.” He smiled. “You always said that we should do what good in the world we can. I’m old and tired and I love the kids but they are tomorrow. I can’t look at tomorrow anymore. There’s nothing for me in it.”

He put Anne down and reached for his wallet, pulling out a slightly worn picture. “Now, if she shows up, you take care of her, okay? She’s just the sweetest little thing, bright and beautiful as a new penny.” He tucked the photo of Ahn-lan into the corner of Anne’s frame. “You’ll know her right away. She’s the one who will be walking around with a big smile on her face, looking at all the beautiful things.”

 

The hospice smelled like hospitals always did – slightly damp and plastic, the fragrance of fear and sorrow mingled with relief, all under lemon Lysol and emptiness. He found his own way back to the room.

She shocked him this time, only a day later. She was tiny, smaller than she’d been, he thought. The umbilicuses of a dozen machines ran into her, monitors beeping quietly, tubes dripping medication. Her eyes were closed under dark butterfly-thin lids. Mr. Li was sleeping, holding her tiny hand. Mrs. Li, an elegant woman with the delicate features of a Han empress, had been reading aloud. She held a book – one of the Harry Potters – but was looking out the window, her expression blank.

George knew how she felt.

He walked quietly to Mrs. Li, placing the stuffed unicorn on a side table where Ahn-lan would see it, introduced himself, held her when she hugged him, smelling of oriental roses and weariness, clinging as if she could never get enough of life. “I know, I know.”

“Thank you,” her accent was soft and sing-song, “for being so good to her. She talks about you all the time, and you always made – make her feel better.”

George sat with the Lis for a while, agreed to stay with their daughter while they went for a quick dinner, swore he’d call if anything changed. When they were gone, he took the seat next to Ahn-lan and held her hand.

She was a black hole.

The monster had slipped throughout her head, strangling what it could.

George poured what energy he could into her, feeling the monster flinch away, then return as soon as he moved to the next tendril. It was a hydra. He cut off head after head. It grew two more. He felt sweat trickle down his back. It didn’t matter.

“George?”

He opened his eyes. Ahn-lan looked into them, smiling sweetly.

“It’s okay, George. I get to meet your wife now. I bet she’s as nice as you.” Her voice was a whisper.

He smiled. “Nicer. Much, much nicer.”

“You did everything you could.” She smiled weakly at his reaction. “I know what you’re doing. I can feel it every time you hold my hand. You always make me feel better. I’ve known for a long time you are an angel. I guess an angel isn’t God.” She closed her eyes. “But now I know God will be waiting for me, because He sent one of His servants to help me as long as I needed help.”

George shook his head. “You’re not going to die.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No.” He pulled together all of it, all the things that he was and all the things that he wanted to give her. He poured in all his love – his memories of Anne, the weight of newborn grandchildren in his arms, the beauty of a Paris sunset, the liquid warmth and salt taste of the South Pacific. He had lived. He was finished.

And then he felt the snap deep inside him. The energy was gone. Unreachable. He was empty. He opened his eyes, just a slit. Ahn-lan looked at him, her eyes bright and unclouded. “Oh, George, what did you do?” she asked, her sweet young voice strong and even.

He smiled thinly. His breath felt light and fluttery, like it was barely there. “Live. Don’t just live. Live.”

He stood, his legs unsteady. “I’ll see you. I’ll see you.” And he stumbled out the door.

 

The ecumenical chapel, thank God, was right around the corner, and the door was propped open. He stumbled in and sank into a pew. The room was dark and cool, an enormous backlit stained-glass window over the altar – St. Nicholas, hiding little children beneath his red robe. He nodded. It worked.

His breath was slowing, his heart weakening. He had nothing left. All of it, all of what he still had at this age, everything he’d stored up from others, he’d put it into her, beating back the beast, giving her the strength to defeat it. He had taken what he dared all day from others, strangers on the street, the receptionist downstairs, his neighbors. Only a sip, only just enough to add to his stash, not enough to make any difference to them. They might sleep heavily tonight, was all.

He had filled himself up to overflowing. And then he had given all of it to her.

It was enough. It had to be.

 

The priest found him a little while later, a smile on his face, two pictures in his hand. Down the hall, he could hear the Lis, mother weeping, little girl squealing. It was a genuine miracle, that one.

He reached over and gently closed George’s eyes. “The Lord giveth.” He paused, listening to the celebration, changed what he was going to say. “The Lord just giveth.”

 

THE END

 

*****

Photo by ckroberts61