Midnight has arrived, the witching hour. I stand in a clean hallway and stare through the glass at the newborn babies in their incubators. There are six-- they all look so innocent, especially Paula's. A pediatric nurse busies herself with the infants, checking their temperatures and heartbeats, drawing blood. She sees me peering through the glass, and I must look like a sight because she comes to the door and asks if I'm all right. I shuffle over to her.
"Yeah, I was just wanting to hold my friend's baby again. Before I leave the hospital." I add, "I'm not sure when I'll be able to come back."
The nurse is sweet. "I saw you earlier with the mother. Put on a gown and mask and you can hold him. I'll get you the stuff. Which one is he?"
"He doesn't have a name?"
Soon I am dressed appropriately and I am led into the newborns. I watch as the nurse draws blood from Paula's baby and places the vial in a plastic rack, with the other vials. Ramirez is all she writes on the white label. The nurse hands me number seven to hold.
"He's so beautiful," she says.
"Yeah. He takes after his mother."
It is good to hold the baby after the shock I have been through. Somehow the nearness of the child soothes me. I stare into his lovely blue eyes and laugh when he seems to smile at me. He is full of life; he kicks the whole time, tries to reach up and touch me with his tiny hands. It is almost as if I am his mother, I treasure him so.
"Why couldn't this have been my child?" I whisper.
Of course I had prayed for a daughter.
Ten minutes later, when the nurse is prepared to leave, she says I can take the baby to Paula's room if I want. The nurse has her back to me as she speaks.
"I'll do that," I say.
"I'll come check the child again in an hour," she says, working with the last baby on her rotation. I turn toward the door.
"I'll tell Paula," I say.
Then I stop and stare at the vials of blood. Warm red blood--it has been the center of my life for five thousand years. Perhaps that is why I halt. I want to be near it, to smell it, to enjoy its dark color. Yet a part of me has doubts. There is something about this blood in particular--number seven's--that draws me. It is almost as if the red liquid hypnotizes me. Hardly thinking, I remove the vial from its plastic rack and slip it into my pocket. The nurse doesn't look over.
I take the baby to Paula.
She is sitting up and praying when I enter, a rosary in her hands. Standing silently at the door, I watch her for a full minute. There is something about how she focuses as she prays. She projects an intensity and at the same time an ease that baffles me. She hardly speaks above a whisper but it is as if her words fill the room. "Our Father, who art in heaven ..."
"Hello," I say finally. "I brought you a present."
Paula is pleased. But she only smiles as I hand her the child. The boy is wise--he immediately searches for and finds her right nipple. I sit by Paula's bed in the dim room. The window is open, we are high up. The city lights spread out beneath us like a haze of jewels and dust. Seymour never leaves my thoughts, nor does Eric. I have twenty-two hours left to do the impossible.
"How do you feel?" I ask.
"Wonderful I'm hardly sore at all. Isn't he ador?able?"
"If he was any more adorable we would do nothing else but stand around and admire him."
"Thank you for staying with me."
"Are you still mad that I brought you here?"
Paula is puzzled. "I like this hospital, but why did you bring me here?"
I lean forward. "I'd like to answer that question honestly because I lied to you before, and I think you know it. I'll tell you in a few minutes. But before I do, may I ask about this child's father?"
Paula appears troubled. "Why do you ask?"
"Because of your precise reaction right now. The day I met you, you reacted in the same way when I asked about the father." I pause. "I really would like to hear how you got pregnant."
Paula tries to brush me off. "Oh, I think it was in the usual way."
Paula studies me. Even though she is feeding her baby, her gaze is shrewd. It is ironic that she pays me precisely the same compliment.
"You're perceptive, Alisa," she says. "I noticed that the day we met. You miss nothing. Have you always been this way?"
"For a long time."
Paula sighs and looks out the window at the city lights. "This is called the City of Angels. It would take an angel to believe what I have to say next. The priest at St. Andrews didn't believe me. I told him my whole story one day, in confession. He ordered me to do ten Hail Marys." She adds, "That's a huge pen?ance."
"It must be a great story."
Paula shakes her head. "It's a confusing story. I hardly know where to begin."
"At the beginning. That's always easiest."
Paula continues to stare out the window, while her child suckles her breast "I grew up in an orphanage--I told you that--and was alone most of my life, even when I was surrounded by people. I purposely lived in my own world because my whole environment seemed harsh to me. But I wasn't what you would call unhappy. I often experienced moments of unusual joy and happiness. I could see a flower or a butterfly, or even just a tree, and become joyful. Sometimes the joy would become so strong I would swoon. A few times I lost track of where I was, what I was doing. When that happened I was taken to the doctor by the woman who ran my orphanage. They did all kinds of tests and I was given a grim diagnosis."
"Epilepsy," I say.
Paula is surprised. "How did you know?"
I shrug. "Saint Paul and Joan of Arc have since been diagnosed as epileptic because they had visions and heard voices. It's the current fad diagnosis for mystics--past and present. I'm sorry, please con?tinue."
"I didn't know that. I just knew that at the moments I was most alive, I had trouble maintaining normal consciousness. But when I swooned it wasn't like I passed out. The opposite--I felt as if I was transported to a vast realm of beauty and light. Only it was all inside me. I couldn't share it with anyone. These experiences went on throughout my childhood and teens. They invoked in me a sense of... This is hard to explain."
"When you swooned you felt close to God," I say.
"Yes, exactly. I felt a sacred presence. And I found, as I got older, that if I prayed for long periods the trances would come over me. But I didn't pray for them to happen. I prayed because I wanted to pray. I wanted to think of God, nothing else. It was the only thing that completely satisfied me." She paused. "Does that sound silly?"
"No. I often think of God. Go on."
"It gets bizarre now. You have to forgive me ahead of time." She pauses. "I love the desert. I love to drive deep into it all by myself. Especially Joshua National Park--I love those tall trees. They stand out there in the middle of nowhere like guards, their arms up, so patient. I feel like they're protecting the rest of us somehow. Anyway I was out there nine months ago, by myself, near sunset. I was sitting on a bluff watching the sun go down and it was incredibly beautiful-- the colors, the clouds shot through with red and orange and purple. It looked like a rainbow made out of sand and sun. The air was so silent I thought I could hear an ant walking. I had been there all day and as soon as it was dark I was going to head back to town. But as the sun vanished beneath the horizon I lost track of time, as I had done often before."
"But this time was different?" I ask.
"Yes. It was as if I just blinked and then it became pitch-black. The sky was filled with a million stars. They were so bright! I could have been in outer space, I can't exaggerate this--they were so bright they weren't normal. It was almost as if I had been transported to another world, inside a huge star cluster, and was looking up at its nighttime sky."
"You were completely awake all this time?"
"Yes. I was happy but I hadn't lost awareness of my surroundings. I could still see the Joshua trees."
"But you had lost awareness of a big chunk of time?"
"It was more like the time lost me. Anyway, something else started to happen. While I marveled over the stars, the blue one directly above me began to glow extremely bright. It was as if it were moving closer to the earth, toward me, and I felt afraid. It got so bright I was blinded. I had to close my eyes. But I could still feel it coming. I could feel its heat. It was roasting me alive!"
"Were you in pain?"
Paula struggled for words. "I was overwhelmed is a better way to put it. A high-pitched sound started to vibrate the area. Remember, I had my eyes closed but I could still see the light and knew that it was growing more intense. The rays of the star pierced my eyelids. The sound pierced my ears. I wanted to scream-- maybe I was screaming. But I don't think I was in actual physical pain. It was more as if I were being transformed."
"Transformed? Into what?"
"I don't know. That's just the impression I had at the time. That somehow this light and heat and sound were changing me."
"What happened next?"
"I blacked out."
"There's more. The next thing I knew it was morning and I was lying on the bluff with the sun shining in my eyes. My whole body ached and I was incredibly thirsty. Also, my exposed skin was slightly red, as if I had been burned." She stopped.
"What is it?"
"You won't believe this."
"I'll believe anything if I believe what you just told me. Tell me"
Paula glanced at me. "Do you believe me?"
"Yes. But tell me what you wanted to say."
"The Joshua trees around me--they were all taller."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure. Some were twice the size they had been the evening before."
"Interesting. Could you take me to this spot someday?"
"Sure. But I haven't been back to it since."
"Why not?" I ask, although I know why.
Paula takes a deep breath and looks down at her son. "Because six weeks after this happened I learned I was pregnant." She chuckled to herself. "Pretty weird, huh?"
"Only if you weren't having sex with someone at the time."
"Are you a virgin?" I ask.
"No. But I didn't have a boyfriend at that time. Not even around that time. You must think I'm mad."
"I don't know," I say. "A few times in my life aliens have swooped down and tried to get me to go to bed with them."
"I didn't see a flying saucer," Paula says quickly.
"I was joking. I know you didn't." I am thoughtful.
"Did you have any other unusual symptoms after this incident? Besides being pregnant?"
Paula considers. "I've had colorful dreams for the past few months. They're strong--they wake me up."
"What are they about?"
"I can never remember them clearly. But there are always stars in them. Beautiful blue stars, like the ones I saw out in the desert."
I think of the dreams I've had of Krishna.
"What do you think this all means?" I ask.
She is shy. "I haven't the faintest idea."
"You must have a theory?" I ask.
"Do you think you were raped while you lay unconscious in the desert?"
Paula considers. "That would be the logical expla?nation. But even though I was sore when I woke up, I wasn't sore down there."
"But is it possible you were raped?"
"Yes. I was out cold. Anything could have happened to me during that time."
"Were your clothes disturbed in any way?"
"They were-- They felt different on me."
"What do you mean?"
Paula hesitates. "My belt felt tighter."
"Like it had been removed, and then put back on, only a notch tighter?"
Paula lowers her head. "Yes. But I honestly don't think I was raped."
"Do you think you had an epileptic attack?"
"No. I don't think I have epilepsy. I don't believe that diagnosis anymore."
"But you believe Joshua trees stand guard over us? Like angels?"
She smiles. "Yeah. I am a born believer."
Her smile is so kind, so gentle. It reminds me of Radha's, Krishna's friend. I make my decision right then. Leaning forward and speaking seriously, I make Paula jump by the change in my tone.
"I have some bad news for you, Paula. I want you to brace yourself and I want you to listen to me with as open a mind as I have listened to you. Can you do this?"
"Sure. What's wrong?"
"There are two people I know who--for reasons I do not fully understand yet--want your baby."
Paula is stunned. "What do they want it for?"
"I don't know. But I do know that one of these people--the young woman--is a killer." My eyes burn and I have trouble keeping my voice steady. "She killed a friend of mine two hours ago."
"Alisa! This can't be true. Who is this woman?"
I shake my head. "She is someone so powerful, so brilliant, so cruel--that there is no point in going to the police and explaining what happened."
"But you have to go to the police. If a murder has been committed, they must be told."
"The police cannot stop her. I cannot stop her. She wants your baby. She is looking for him now and when she comes here for him you won't be able to stop her." I pause. "You are my friend, Paula. We haven't known each other long but I believe friend?ship is not based on time. I think you know I'm your friend and that I would do anything for you."
Paula nods, "I know that."
"Then you must do something for me now. You must leave this hospital tonight, with your son. I have money, lots of money I can give you. You must go to a place far from here, and not even tell me where it is."
I am talking too fast for Paula. "Is this the reason you took me to this hospital?"
"Yes. They thought you were going to the local one. But they know you've given birth to a baby some?where in this city. They're clever--they'll check all the hospitals in the city to see where you're registered. Eventually they'll locate you."
"You spoke of a young woman. Who is the other person?"
I am stricken with grief. "My boyfriend."
"Yes. But he's not the Ray I once knew." I lower my head. "I can't talk about him now. It is the girl who's the danger--she's only twenty. Her name is Kalika. Please believe me when I tell you there is literally no one who can stop her when she sets her mind on something."
"But how can she be so powerful?" Paula protests.
I stare at her. "She was just born that way. You see, she wasn't born under normal circumstances. Like your son, there's a mystery surrounding her birth, her conception even."
"Tell me about it."
"I can't. You wouldn't believe me if I did."
"But I would. You believed me."
"Only because I have gone through strange times in my life. But Kalika transcends anything I've ever encountered. Her psyche burns through all obstacles. She could be on her way here now. I swear to you, if she gets here before you get away, your child will die."
Paula doesn't protest. She is strangely silent. "I was warned," she says.
It is my turn to be stunned. "Who warned you?"
"It came in a dream."
"But you said you didn't remember any of your dreams."
"I remember this one. I was standing on a wide field and this old man with white hair and a crooked grin walked up to me and said something that didn't make sense. Until right now."
"What was it?" I ask.
"He said, 'Herod was an evil king who didn't get what he wanted. But he knew where the danger lay.' Then the old man paused and asked me, 'Do you know where the danger lies, Paula?'" She stops and looks once more at her child, we both look at him. "It was an odd dream."
"Yes." My heart is heavy with anxiety. "Will you leave?"
Paula nods. "Yes. I trust you. But why can't I tell you where I'm going?"
"This girl, this Kalika--I fear she could rip the information from my mind."
Paula cringes. "But I must have a way to get hold of you."
"I will give you a special number. You call it a month from now and leave your name and number. But don't tell me where you are. Wait until you talk to me--until you are certain it is me--to tell me that. That is very important."
Paula is worried for me. "Are you in danger?"
I lean back and momentarily dose my eyes. My greatest task is still before me and I am exhausted. If only I had my old powers, If--the most annoying word in the English language.
But what if I was powerful again?
Powerful as a vampire?
Seymour would not have to die, nor would I.
But my daughter would die. Perhaps.
"Don't worry, I have a protector," I tell Paula. "This wonderful man I once met--he promised to protect me if I did what he said. And he was someone capable of keeping his promises."
Of course I don't tell her that I have disobeyed Krishna many times.
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