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by Lester Thees

Breathe. In . . . out . . . in . . . out . . . breathe. Just breathe. How long? Ten minutes? Twenty? Relax. Just be. Breathe in . . . out. Calm. Slipping. Drifting. Floating.

"What's he doing?" Kim asked.

"Meditating," Janice said, her tone making it clear that her friend was easily the stupidest girl in the seventh grade.

"What for?" Kim wanted to know.

"It's suppose' to relax him."

"Your father's the weirdest guy," Kim said, shaking her head. She seemed to suddenly hear her own words, and whispered, "Can he hear us?"

Janice shrugged.

Breathe. In . . . out. Floating in space. No body. Nothing. Gray space. Empty, empty. Wait! A light? A pinpoint of light. Never experienced that before. A new level, deeper than ever. How long? An hour? Two? The light. Closer, growing, closer, larger, growing, the light. Breathe! In, out, in, out, relax, breathe. What? Where? How long? In, out, in, out. The light! The light!  The light!

The two girls turned when the front door closed. Janice smiled at her mother.

High heels, briefcase, suit jacket, scattered in a tired trail behind Barbara as she crossed the living room, stopping to give her daughter a peck on the forehead. "How long's he been like that?" Barbara asked, pointing her chin at her husband sitting, eyes closed, cross-legged, on the carpet.

"I dunno," Janice said, "we found him this way."

"Well, leave him alone. He's probably had a hard day too." Barbara picked up the stack of mail someone had left on the coffee table and began shuffling through the envelopes. "Did you start the chicken?" she asked, absently.

"Yeah, it's in the oven," Janice said. "I'll run the vacuum after Dad comes in for a landing on this lowly material plane." She looked over at her father and asked, "Can he hear us?"

Barbara shrugged.

The light. Everywhere. Bright, bright light. No body. Nothing. Just the light. Calm now. Breathe. In . . . out . . . in . . . out. Breathe in the light. Warm, clean, comforting light. Bright light. In . . . out . . . in . . . out.

"David? Hon?" Barbara placed a hand on her husband's shoulder. "Hey, David, c'mon. Dinner's ready, snap out of it." She leaned over, peering into her husband's face: eyes closed, features calm, totally still except for the even in and out of his breathing.

Barbara dropped to her knees, mouth tight, eyes sharp with concern. "David!" She grabbed his shoulders, shaking him, her voice edging into panic. "David, wake up!" Janice was already on the phone with Emergency Services.

The light. Soft, warm, comforting, all encompassing. One with the light. Dark spot. Dark spot in the light. Marring, disfiguring, spoiling the pure, perfect light.

Barbara sprang to her feet as Dr. Mercer entered the ER waiting room. "How is he, Doctor, is David going to be all right?"

"He's basically the same as when the ambulance brought him in," Mercer said.

"Well, what's wrong with him? Is it serious?"

A dozen bored faces stared at the anxious woman clinging to the intern's white sleeve. They watched as he gently removed her hand and settled her into a chair next to the serious faced girl she'd come in with.

"Right now his vital signs are stable," Mercer explained, "but he's non-responsive."

"What does that mean, what's happening to my husband?"

"Let the man talk, Mom," Janice said.

The doctor shook his head. "Actually, we're not sure yet. I've ordered some tests, CAT scan, blood work. We'll have a better idea when we get the results. Now tell me again what happened, how you found him. Had he been complaining of--"

A nurse walked quickly into the waiting area. "Doctor, we need you in Three. Right now."

"Is it David?" Barbara's face went white. She raced after Mercer's flapping hospital coat, Janice two steps behind. Barbara called out, "Is that my husband?" But the doctor was already around the corner.

Closer, growing, closer, larger, growing, the dark. Figure, dark figure. Closer, larger, the dark figure, dark man. Closer, the Dark Man coming.

Barbara and her daughter caught up with Mercer inside Room Three. The cubicle was full of people scurrying to and from counters, passing objects, speaking in tight-lipped code. A pair of policemen leaned against the far wall, looking completely unimpressed by all the activity. Mercer shouldered his way to the table in the center, barking orders, pointing directions. Barbara stood on her toes, trying to see over the starched white backs. She caught a glimpse of red when a nurse moved her arm, a naked male torso, then her view was blocked. She heard Mercer's voice say, "It's over, we lost him." And Room Three fell suddenly still.

In-out in-out in-out, dark, dark figure. Dark man outlined in the light. Sucking, feeding, devouring the beautiful light. Dark, the darkness, the dark man, pulling, pushing, bad, evil, evil, the Dark Man! In-out inoutinoutinout ouuutt!

People began moving away from the middle of the room, putting away supplies, snapping off gloves. Dr. Mercer's mouth dropped open in surprise when he turned and saw Barbara and Janice. He moved forward quickly, shielding them with his arm, spinning the woman and her daughter toward the door. But not before they both got a good look at the blood-soaked sheet, the chalky skin, the blank-eyed stare of a face they'd never seen before.

When Dr. Mercer finally had them settled back in the waiting area, he spoke softly, glancing guiltily around the room, as if checking for superiors or wandering lawyers who might overhear. "I'm sorry you had to see that. It must have been terrible for you."

"I thought it was..." Barbara said, nervously raking shaking fingers through her hair. Janice sat silently, eyes rolled up at the ceiling, trying to distance herself from her mother and avoid the hysterical woman classification by association.

"Yes, yes I know," Mercer soothed. "Your husband is resting comfortably, and we'll begin the tests shortly. That other man was brought in with a gunshot wound. He was some sort of itinerant mystic who tried to convert someone who, evidently, wasn't interested in enlightenment."

Floating, drifting, gray emptiness. Lost, lost. No body, no light, no darkness, no Dark Man. Nothing.

A tremendous crash sounded from the direction of the examining cubes, all heads in the waiting room turning at the noise. A scream, a string of curses, clanging, clattering, the pounding of fast footsteps, and the door to the treatment area burst open. A thin man stumbled through the doorway, hospital gown fluttering, bare feet slapping the tile floor. The two policemen were in hot pursuit, catching up halfway across the room, bringing the patient down with a flying tackle.

Barbara was on her feet, yelling, "Stop it, stop it! What're you doing to my husband?"

One cop used his weight to pin his captive to the floor while the other fastened handcuffs to the man's wrists. Mercer danced between Barbara and the police, trying to get her to sit back down, but succeeded only in drawing her anger.

"What the hell's wrong with you people?" she screamed. "Are you all crazy? Make them leave David alone!"

The cops scrambled to their feet, pulling the patient up by the handcuff chain.

Barbara dodged around the doctor and threw her arms around her husband. "Oh David, what's going on, what's happening?" She pulled back to look into his face and passed out cold onto the floor.

Janice cautiously approached the manacled man. Her father's features were twisted in unreasoning rage, his eyes were all pupil, gleaming with animal malice, and his breathing came in ragged, rasping gasps. She didn't blame her mother one bit for fainting, but somebody had to keep their head and figure out what to do.

Floating, drifting, lost, lost, lost.

Janice stood by her mother who was lying on an examining table in one of the treatment rooms. Dr. Mercer hovered over Barbara, his face as pale as hers. "There was absolutely no indication that this might happen," Mercer said forcefully. One minute your husband was in a near comatose state, the next he was throwing everything he could get his hands on at the staff. It's a good thing those two policemen were in the next cube or he would've run right out of the hospital. As it is, one of our nurses got a nasty contusion trying to calm him down."

"I don't understand," Barbara said, weakly. "Where is he now? He isn't hurt, is he?"

"No, no, he's fine," Mercer answered. "He's back in the examining room. Of course we had to sedate him."

"Can I see him?" Janice asked.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea right now," the doctor said, shaking his head slowly. Janice put on the expression she used whenever she wanted an adult to think she was the embodiment of young, female naiveté. "I'm scared you let those big policemen hurt my daddy," she whined. "He did hit your floor so hard. Can't I just see him for a minute, just to make sure he's okay?"

Mercer got that lawsuit look in his eyes again, and said, "Well, I suppose it wouldn't do any harm if you peeked in. Just to see that he's getting the best possible care. He's right next door. C'mon, I'll show you he's all right."

Janice flashed a big smile at the doctor as they headed out the door.

Her father was on the table -- at least his body was -- eyes closed, chest rising and falling in shallow breaths. Black nylon straps were wrapped tightly around his wrists and ankles, binding him to the hard little bed. One of the policemen was lounging against the counter, picking at a speck of dirt lodged beneath a fingernail. He looked up as they entered, raising an eyebrow at the doctor.

"She's here for a little visit with her father," Mercer explained.

Janice moved next to the table and ran the back of her hand along the unconscious man's cheek. She jerked her head toward the cop, saying, "Does he have to be in here?"

"Well, I think..." Mercer began.

"Isn't it bad enough he beat up a sick man?" Janice cried. "My father came here for help and you treat him like a criminal! He can't do anything the way you've got him tied up. I just wanna be alone with my dad," she sobbed.

"Okay, okay," the doctor said desperately. "Take it easy, don't cry. I guess a couple of minutes won't hurt. We'll be right outside if you need anything." Mercer motioned for the cop to follow as he left the room.

Janice watched the men disappear around the corner, figuring there would be a lot of anxious phone calls to attorneys by the end of the night. She approached the table and stood staring down at the still form. She had to be sure. The same face, familiar lines, like a hundred other times she'd seen him asleep on the couch, or in his bed on Sunday mornings. But she remembered those eyes in the waiting room, the eyes she'd peered into all the way to the soul, that alien presence that was nothing like the father she'd always known, would know anywhere and in any circumstances. Yes, she was sure and she knew what had to be done.

Glancing around the room, Janice spotted a pile of towels on the counter. She picked up three, hefting their weight, then took a deep breath. Climbing onto the table, she quickly covered her father's face with the white bundle, using her whole body, pressing down as hard as she could. There was very little movement, barely a struggle, as the body automatically sucked for air. Janice counted slowly, whispering, "Get outta there you bastard," after every ten numbers.

She'd reached four hundred when a voice from the doorway hollered, "Hey, what the hell're you doing?" and the cop sprinted across the room to grab her. Pinning her arms behind her back, he yelled, "Help, doctor, somebody! I need a doctor in here right away!"

The cubicle was suddenly full of people, a nurse ripping the towels from the patient's face, Dr. Mercer slapping his stethoscope against the still chest, another intern feeling frantically for a pulse. Janice kept saying, "It's all right, he can get back in now, it's all right," but no one paid any attention to the girl in the policeman's grasp.

A recurrence of the scene that took place earlier played itself out, right down to Mercer saying, "It's over, we lost him." He stepped back, turning to look at Janice, total bewilderment in his voice as he asked, "Why? Why would you do such a thing? Your own father."

"That wasn't my dad," she said. "It was that other man. Wait. Just wait and you'll see. That other guy is out and now my father can come back. Don't you get it? What're you all stupid?" she screamed.

"Nurse," Mercer said calmly, "get me ten cc's of diazepam."

Janice struggled in the cop's arms, but the doctor was able to give her the injection. All the while she kept insisting that they wait, just give her father a chance to get back into his own body. As the sedative began taking effect a thought crossed her mind. She tried to speak before the drug completely claimed her, the words drifting out in a soft slur, "Maybe he went somewhere else. Check the other body. Please . . . please, check the body in the morgue."

Breathe. In. Out. David opened his eyes. The darkness was so complete that he blinked three or four times to be sure that his eyelids were actually working. He tried sitting up and bumped his head, a hollow metallic sound ringing in his ears. The acrid scent of disinfectant stung his nostrils, and the air he breathed tasted stale. Most of his body was numb, arms and legs all pins and needles. When he shook his hands to bring back feeling, they banged into the sides of some sort of enclosure. A tight, metal enclosure. David took deep breaths to ward off the panic that would surely come if he didn't keep his head. The feeling in his body began to return and, with it, an ache in his chest. He slid a hand across his naked body, the flesh somehow foreign to his touch. A finger found the deep, circular wound in the chest, and David screamed as the pain shot through him like a bolt of lightening.

Buddy Lister was hiding out in the morgue, taking an unscheduled cigarette break from his regular maintenance duties, when he heard muffled shouting coming from inside one of the steel drawers. His first thought was of the flat bottle in his back pocket; that was Buddy's first thought in any situation, which was why the hospital's insurance company had made it clear that they wouldn't be footing the bill for any more rehabilitation vacations. He slipped the half pint out and took a long pull, courtesy of his old pal Mr. Smirnoff. His hands shook as he screwed the cap back on, and the bottle slid through his fingers, crashing onto the green tiled floor. Buddy looked at the vodka puddle, the drawer, then pictured himself explaining how he was having a smoke and a snort when one of the cadavers started causing a ruckus. That was assuming he could persuade anyone to come down here in the first place, which wasn't likely considering his reputation. There was certainly no way in this world he was opening that drawer while he was alone.

The sound seemed to be getting fainter, and by the time Buddy was halfway to the elevator, he'd convinced himself that the voice was nothing a couple of stiff drinks wouldn't take care of. The same as the little men who climbed his curtains on sleepless nights, and the bugs that crawled down his back on particularly bad mornings.

The End

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"Transcendence" ©Lester Thees. Used by permission of the author.
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.