It was going to be a warm spring this year. Two months before Memorial Day and the mercury was already pushing the lower eighties. The sun was high against a cloudless, March sky. The warm breeze that blew across the Cape Fear River was the only thing keeping the pedestrians on the Riverwalk from roasting. There were a few early vacationers in the crowd, but most were local business men and women who took lunch to enjoy the beautiful day. It was only a few weeks away from the beginning of the busy season after all – better enjoy it now before hectic schedules and crowds ruined the simple pleasure.
Instead of rushing to and fro, the people meandered their way up and down the river. They nodded in greeting and gave the occasional salutation to each other. They looked to see the storefront displays that were almost completed. They watched the flags on the USS North Carolina flapping on the far side of the riverbank. They took in deep breaths of salt air that wafted in from the marshes and enjoyed the glorious spring day, never noticing the storm cloud that strolled in their midst.
He was totally absorbed in his own thoughts. His face looked steadily at the pavement in front of his feet, and if someone had been listening very closely, they might have heard him mumbling under his breath. He used words that were made of such low reverberations that they made some wonder if thunder was rumbling far in the distance. The best description for him was: normal. He was average height and average weight. He was by no means overweight, but upon closer inspection he might have been described as “soft.” There were no distinguishing features in his face or build. His black hair was thinning, but not so much that it made him stand out. It looked as if it had not been washed in 2 days, but he had the type of hair that always looked tousled and a little greasy even after a shower. So no one ever noticed that detail. He was a backdrop piece; a nondescript person who helped to fill the beautiful scenery with nameless humanity; the perfect extra for any of the movies that had been filmed in Wilmington.
While the Riverwalk was crowded for this point in the season, there was no need to jostle through the group. Many of the locals knew each other so handshakes or waves were common this afternoon. Yet even so, he was the only person who touched every single person he passed. For the most part, he would lightly brush someone else’s shoulder. Occasionally, he would swing an arm so that his hand would lightly finger the side of someone’s pants leg. And on the rarest of occasions, he would bump into someone only to mumble an apology followed by his whispered mutterings.
“Is he it?” he would ask in a voice so quiet that even the air between his lips struggled to carry the sound. “Is she the one? No, no not her. Not her. What about him? No, it’s not him. Couldn’t be him. What about them. Are they the ones?” He never looked away from his feet, and even with those he actually bumped into, he was so average and unassuming that he was forgotten within seconds of any encounter.
This pattern went on the entire length of the Riverwalk. He started near Diligence Landing and worked his way towards the restaurants and shops that were down by Governor’s Park. It was in front of Captain Jack’s, a small restaurant whose deck emptied onto the boardwalk, where he brushed past her. She was the restaurant manager. Her back was towards the river. She was shutting the glass case that displayed the night’s menu when he walked past. The sleeve of his shirt contacted the back of hers ever so slightly. It was a glancing of fabrics that most people would never have noticed, but the power that flowed through the touch stopped his voiceless mutterings. It caused him to look at her.
She felt it too. But instead of a touch, she felt as if the sun had suddenly hidden itself behind the clouds. The warm breeze flowing off the river no longer warmed her pale skin, and a shiver ran from the base of her spine to the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes met his dark green gaze and they held each other for just a moment. To her it was the momentary stare of a stranger who would soon fade out of her life. To him the look held the power of life and death.
“Good afternoon,” he said clearly in a perfectly nondescript voice. If she hadn’t been looking directly at him, his voice would have blended into the background conversations. He nodded courteously and then returned to his southward march once again looking at his feet.
She nodded in response, brushed a long, blonde curl out of her face and then returned to her work without another thought about the encounter. She locked the display case, trotted up the deck stairs to the outside bar, and began to take inventory for the night. She never saw him turn around when he was a hundred yards down the boardwalk. She never heard the breathless comment, “She’s the one. Now tell me more.” She only looked skyward and wondered how a pretty day could feel like rain.
* * * * *
The setting sun cast long, blood-red rays into the western sky as the day slowly succumbed to the coming night. The last, gloaming light of day would soon disappear and the wind had already shifted to the west. The cool evening air gave some relief to Eastern North Carolina. Jennifer leaned against the bar on the deck. This was her favorite time of night. The early customers were finishing their dinner and the later crowd would arrive soon. It was a shifting of the restaurant’s tide, and just like the inlet to her west, this was the calm between two watermarks. She always came out on the deck to enjoy the sunset. She brushed one golden curl out of her eyes and checked the clock that hung over the bar. Her husband was at home probably sitting on their dock watching the same sun set.
“I love you too, Sweetie,” she whispered as if she was leaning on his shoulder. She continued to whisper to him across the miles. “We’re both off tomorrow. We can spend the whole day snuggling in bed.” With a sigh she said goodbye to her daydream. It was time to get back to work.
Captain Jack’s boasted a different band each weekend. This weekend was a calypso band. They set up with the occasional ping of a steel drum. Most of the tables on the deck were filled with diners hoping to enjoy the gorgeous evening. The day was slowly dying and the wooden deck offered an unspoiled view of the river and the marsh beyond.
Jennifer scanned the restaurant. The wait staff were tending to their tables. The bartender was serving a few early customers, and tables were being bused as soon as they were emptied. Everything was running smoothly, as it should. Most of the customers were locals, but that would change soon enough.
“Time to make your rounds,” she thought.
Jennifer began by greeting the locals who were permanent fixtures of the restaurant. This was her favorite part of the job: interacting with people as she made sure that everyone’s dinner had been up to par. Yet, this was also the worst part of her job. She hated the complainers. There was at least one during every shift. Occasionally, the person had a justifiable complaint, but for the most part, people were just grumpy and wanted someone, in particular her, to join in their misery. Years of practice had taught her how to deflect someone’s criticism with a smile or a look of empathetic concern. If that didn’t work, then a complimentary dessert usually smoothed the rough waters. Luckily tonight was a perfect night. No one complained as the beautiful blue drained out of the sky leaving a darkening grey.
“How was your dinner,” Jennifer asked an unknown woman with a smile.
“It was wonderful,” answered the woman. She was seated with another woman at a small table by the deck rail. Her accent immediately earmarked her as a tourist. “We couldn’t get the recipe for your deviled crabs, could we?”
Jennifer smiled. Every recipe was proprietary. Not even the diehard regulars got such information. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I can tell you that the secret ingredient is finely chopped onions.”
“I told you I tasted onions,” said the other women pointing a victorious finger in her friend’s direction.
“Are y’all down for the Azalea Festival next week?”
“We are,” said the first lady. “We came down early to get a jump on the shopping.”
Jennifer noticed that the second women had shifted her full attention to Jennifer. She was staring at her with the deepest green eyes she’d ever seen. They reminded her of the green tidal pools that collected south of Fort Fisher. Jennifer met her gaze and smiled. The woman smiled as well, but it wasn’t a reflection of Jennifer’s warm greeting. She smiled more like one who knew a secret that she wasn’t going to share. It was a look that made Jennifer feel exposed, almost naked.
“Well, you ladies have a good time shopping,” Jennifer said hoping to end the conversation and move on. “Thank you for coming for dinner. Feel free to visit us again.” She shook hands with the first women, smiled convivially and then shook hands with the woman with green eyes. But the second woman didn’t let go of Jennifer’s hand.
“What a beautiful ring you have,” the woman said as she turned Jennifer’s hand to look at the blue topaz rimmed in small diamonds.
Jennifer’s apprehension melted before the compliment. “Thank you,” she said self-consciously. “It is a gift from my husband. This weekend is our one year anniversary.” Both women smiled and the tidal pools suddenly grew deep with secret knowledge. “It is good to have someone who cares for you,” she said, “especially when he can provide so well.”
“Thank you,” Jennifer said again this time more quietly as she felt this woman’s eyes scan her soul.
“He is a builder, isn’t he?” even though it was a question, something in the woman’s voice made it sound like a statement.
Jennifer’s eyes widened as her jaw slackened. “How ... how did you know that?” she asked.
The woman’s smile warmed up for the first time. A gentle compassion came into her eyes. “Sometimes I just know things,” she said.
“You don’t know who you’re talking to,” answered the first woman matter-of-factly. “My sister is psychic.”
The woman with green eyes rolled them. “It’s nothing like that. I do hand readings and sometimes I meet people and ... I just know things about them.”
Jennifer didn’t need any convincing. “How did you know about my husband?”
The woman still didn’t let go of her hand. “I can see the strength in his hands when I look at you,” she said. “I see the two of you being a part of a home for something, something new. I hear the voice of a child, but I can only hear it as a whisper – like a whisper of things to come. And I see your husband’s hands ... I see them helping to build a home for that whisper ... a home for a little angel of mercy.”
Jennifer’s heart skipped a beat. How could this woman know that they were trying to have a baby? How could she know that just last night, Jennifer had told God all she wanted was His mercy to have a little angel? “Tell me more,” she said emphatically pulling an empty chair up to the table.
“I’ll be happy to give you a free reading,” she said with a Cheshire grin.
“Just be careful,” said the sister in playful jest. “You never know what lies in the truth she sees.”
The sparkle of green in her eyes didn’t diminish at all as the woman looked at her sister. “I only tell people what I see,” she said. She turned her emerald eyes back onto Jennifer. “Sit down child, and I will tell you about the lines of your future.” She turned Jennifer’s palm up and looked at the lines that ran across it. “You have a prominent life line,” she added. “I see that the mysteries of life will soon become apparent to you.”
The last of the glimmer of day gave way to the black of night as Jennifer took her seat before the fortune teller.
* * * * *
Thousands of cicadas droned in chorus as if in a single voice. Their buzzing rhythm echoed through the inlet. For most people the myriad of insects crying the same tune would be maddening. But he had grown up on the Albemarle Sound and the clamor of all these bugs was simply the background static of another summer in the south. He sat in the dark in his open bass boat slowly puttering along at 3 knots. It was an agonizingly slow speed, but it was all that his silent electric motor could produce. If he had been trying to get out of the inlet and into the ocean, then he would have to crank up the outboard motor. Yet the ocean was not his destination.
Instead he aimed his bow at the old house under the giant oaks. Spanish moss hung from their boughs almost obscuring the roof line against the black sky. The house had been built long before modern building codes and it came almost down to the water line. The gentle swells of high tide lapped against the moorings of its decaying dock. Its clapboard decking and 1930’s windows made it appear a ramshackle in the midnight shadows, but by day anyone could see that its owners were pouring lots of love and money into a refurbishing effort that was long overdue. A half mile down the water way, in either direction, the stick skeletons of million dollar homes were replacing old fishing huts like this one. And across the inlet, the beach homes and resorts of Wrightsville Beach twinkled brighter than the few stars which shone tonight.
Jennifer and her husband had inherited this house from her grandmother, and they knew that renovations would make it last long enough for the land value to skyrocket. So for now, it was the last of a dying breed slowly giving way to the greed of developers and beach lover’s alike. It lay deep in the shadows of ancient oaks on an undiscovered stretch of Intracoastal Waterway.
He didn’t mind the slow speed of the boat. He didn’t mind the screaming of the insects. One gave him time and the other gave him white noise to tune out the world and focus on what he’d been hearing all afternoon: that not-so-still, quiet voice. It was a voice he had heard many times before. It never lied, and it never spoke louder than a whisper. Ever since he was a child, he’d heard its disharmonious murmurings. It would tell him things; things that no one could know and things that only some could understand. He didn’t always hear it, but on days like today he knew that he was supposed to listen for it.
He couldn’t explain it any more than he could explain the tide. Yet, just like the tide, he could feel the power with which the voice drew him. Most days, he simply lived life. But on days like today he would wake up with a feeling ... a knowing really. A knowing that he was going to hear the voice. And after years of discipline, he knew how to listen. He knew how to drown out the world with all of its chaos so as to focus on the whisper. The whisper that screamed with a thousand dissonant voices like the cacophony of the cicadas all around him. At the same time, it was a whisper that shrieked so quietly that few, if any, ever heard it.
The whisper told him everything he needed to know. It told him her name: Jennifer. It told him that she had developed a rare form of lung cancer which had yet to be detected. It told him how the cancer had already begun to spread to her lymph nodes. In an instant, he heard the pain and agony with which she would die. He could almost feel the slow, torturous death that would engulf Jennifer and consume her dignity. He heard her sorrow when the doctors told her that the radiation would make her barren. He heard her cries of shame as she lost locks of her thick, golden hair. Even though it was only as loud as a whisper, the last wheezes of her failing lungs filled his ears. The quiet sobs from her young husband seated beside her death bed echoed in his soul. The voice whispered it all.
And then, as always, it told him what to do. It told him that she would be lying to the left of her husband – how the sultry spring night would have caused them to drift away from each other in the sheets. The whisper told him about the rusted out latch on the back screen door. It warned him about which planks on the deck were rotted and how the floor in front of the refrigerator squeaked loudly. It spoke dark secrets to him in languages that he didn’t understand but craved to comprehend. It lulled his conscience to sleep and stirred a lust for purpose in him. It drove him deeper into its power. So he puttered slowly towards the old house listening for more; anything more that would help him to become the whisper’s perfect angel of mercy.
* * * * *
Jennifer dreamt that she was scuba diving off the coast. Her husband was there. He was somewhere off to her right, but he was out of sight in the murky waters of the Atlantic. They were diving on one of the many wrecks that littered the sea floor along the Outer Banks. They hadn’t been underwater too long, but her tanks were dry. She could feel her lungs gasping for breath only to feel the pressure of 150 feet of water crushing against them. She looked at her diving gauge. The needle was deep in the red zone. Her left side cramped into a stitch as it struggled to catch what little air it could get from her diving gear. She tried to unhook her tanks and check her lines, but already her brain was getting fuzzy from lack of oxygen. Her fingers were tingling and her hands weren’t responding to commands. She could feel the cold waters of the Atlantic seeping through her wet suit.
Jennifer awoke from her dream with a start. She woke up with a sensation that felt more like pressure than pain, but pain was there too. The room was dark and her brain was fuzzy from lack of oxygen – or was it fuzzy from sleep? She couldn’t get her arms to move and both her hands were tingling so badly that they hurt. She tried to take in a deep breath and calm her nerves. But as she did, she once again felt the crushing pressure of fathoms of water and searing pain in her ribs. Her mind struggled to understand why she still felt suffocated from the dream.
Her effort to breathe caused him to move and that is when she realized it wasn’t a dream. Fear stabbed deep into her chest and found his knife was already there. The dark form was kneeling on her body. His knees pinned her arms to the bed and cut off the blood flowing to them. When she tried to breathe again, and he shifted his weight, her right arm slipped out from under his knee. The blood poured back into her wrist and hand with a merciless pounding. Through the terror that was gripping her she could feel that the pain in her ribs was a large bladed knife. It was up to its handle just beneath her left breast. The dark form was leaning on the knife with all his weight and it felt like the crushing pressure of the entire Atlantic bearing down on her.
Her mind was slowed both from the dream and the massive amount of blood that was pumping out of her ruptured aorta. So it took precious seconds for her to muster the strength to reach for her husband. He was in the bed beside her. Surely he could rescue her. If not, then at least he could save himself. Her hand, still throbbing in pain, groped into the darkness and found nothing but warm, wet sheets. She turned her head, or more accurately it fell limply to the side, to look for her husband. The room was dark, but there was enough light to make out his ashen form in the pale moonlight. His eyes were vacant and had the glazed look of fish that had been baking in the sun for a day. His face was frozen in horror. A jagged, open scar that ran across the front of his throat was clearly the cause his demise. As the life blood continued to gush out her side, she no longer had the strength to move her head and see why her hand couldn’t find her husband. He might be dead and cold, but her last desire was to hold his hand as she rushed to meet him in the afterlife. She lowered her eyes only to look at the fistfuls of wet sheets where his hand should be. The cold moonlight made it clear: his forearms ended in bloody stumps.
The only thing that smothered her scream was the life that was quickly draining out of her chest. The light in her eyes was fading. Whereas she had been unable to move her head a moment before, now her eyes seemed unable to fight gravity. Slowly, and with the effort of a marathoner, she turned her gaze back on her assailant. He was still on top of her. He was still leaning into her with all his weight. The knife had sunk deeper now. In the last few seconds of life, she could feel one of his knuckles against the bulge of her breast. It felt so warm and she felt colder by the minute. Her blue eyes were fading to grey as she was met by a pair of sea-foam green eyes. The eyes reminded her of the psychic’s emerald stare. The hopeful words of the psychic rang in her ears: words about her baby and a good life that was yet to come. She had believed the woman! The woman had known things, intimate things about Jennifer’s life. Why hadn’t that same omniscient power warned Jennifer about this nightmare? Instead, the woman had told Jennifer pleasant dreams about how she and her husband would build a home together: a home that would welcome an angel of mercy. How could the palm reader have lied? Or did she ever know the truth?
Looking up at her assailant, she hopelessly sought an answer to her questions. She was soon to be enshrouded in the mystery of death, and she could not bear the weight of another mystery along the way. However, there were no answers in his face; only a pair of eyes as turbulent as the sea. Their eyes held each other for just a moment because that was the remaining length of her life. To her the look held the power of life and death. To him it was the momentary stare of a stranger who would soon fade out of his life.