THE WEIGHT OF NIGHT
Book One of The Progeny
a novel by
The halls of the Eighth Ward were stark and clean, in direct contrast to the minds and souls of the patients who resided within its austere walls. The smell of antiseptic and medicine permeated the air as Dr. Marcus Hough made his way to Room 823. Hough, a former child psychologist who was now a professor at New York University, held onto the file and clipboard so tight that the knuckles of his left hand were white. His expression was of controlled anxiety that melded into a forced smile as he approached the security guard sitting outside the room. "How we doing, Leon?" he asked, his voice quiet but friendly. "Oh, I'm just peachy, Doc," the guard replied, and then jerked a thumb toward the door he guarded. "As for that one, I can't make any promises." "Understood," Hough said, nodding. "Give me a few minutes?" Leon grunted as he coaxed his considerable bulk from the chair to retrieve his keys and unlock the door. Before he moved aside to allow Hough entrance, he glanced at the doctor. "You be careful in there. Okay, doc?" "You bet, Leon," Hough replied. The deadbolt on the private hospital room door slid open with a thunk. Peeking around the thick door into the stolid white room, Hough edged inside as the door shut and locked behind him. With wary eyes he scanned the room. The blinds of the windows were open only far enough to allow knowledge of the approximate time of day, with sparse lighting provided by the overhead fluorescents. There was an undisturbed hospital bed and several machines on either side with wires and tubes trailing to and fro. The heart monitor, which stood on the nearest side of the bed, beeped with monotonous regularity. Wires fell from the monitor along the cold tiles of the floor and up to the final machine, a regulator for the intravenous drip. The wires then extended to the young raven-haired girl who sat, head lolling, in the wheelchair situated near the center of the room. Hough dragged a visitor’s chair over to sit facing the girl. He paused, his eyes focused on her with intense curiosity. Removing the cap from his faithful Montblanc, he began to jot notes on the paper, glancing once or twice at the contents of the file. He leaned forward toward the girl, who had just had her fourteenth birthday, and turned his face to hers. "Heather," he said, making his first attempt to gain her attention through the flow of sedation. Her eyes flickered a little at the sound of her name, but she remained far from lucid. "Heather? Can you hear me?" he asked, knowing full well that she could. He kept his voice low, as if hesitant to frighten or even disturb the girl.
The heart monitor beeped a half beat faster and Dr. Hough's eyes widened, staring at the teenager in worried anticipation. He saw her lick her lips and the fingers on her right hand, which rested palm up in her lap, twitched. The doctor sat back in his chair, regaining his composure, scribbling a few more notes on the pad, as the regulator spit out a string of squiggles on a length of computer paper, the fluid in the I.V. increasing one drop per minute. Hough cleared his throat. "Heather," he said, "do you think we could talk for a few minutes? I'd really like that. Would that be okay?" "Why?" Heather's voice cracked on the small word, as if she had not spoken in some time. It was soft but intelligible. "Do you know why you're here?" Hough asked. He had asked the same question twice before on his previous visits. A small nod was her response. "Do you know why you’re sedated?" Another nod. He hesitated before the next question. "Do you remember how your mother died?" The beeping from the monitor sped up and the regulator spit out some more squiggles as Heather raised her head to look at Dr. Hough with crystalline blue eyes that made him sit up straight, a cold chill running the length of his spine. "Yes," she replied. Her voice was stronger now. Hough glanced over at the regulator without thinking and when he looked back at Heather she wore a knowing expression. He scribbled more notes. The beeping on the monitor resumed its normal pace and Hough stared at the girl who, though still heavily sedated, appeared to regard him with clear and lucid eyes. "Are you feeling okay today?" he asked. "Yes." "Do you want to talk about what happened?" "No." "Why not?" he asked, his pen gliding across the notepad. "Won't make any difference." She kept her gaze connected to his. She didn't blink. "Any difference to what, Heather?" "My fate." "You believe you have a fate?" he asked, his curiosity overriding his self-preservation instinct. It was a side-effect to his training as a psychotherapist. In this particular case, he was trying hard to suppress it. "We all do," she replied. "Whether we like it or not."
"Do you know your own fate, then? That seems unusual. No one knows what the future holds, right?" "We make our own fate." "But, that’s contradictory, Heather." "Is it?" "What is your fate then?" Hough's attention was drawn to the heart monitor whose beeping began to increase. "It's okay. Everything is fine." "Nothing is fine," she said, as the regulator began pumping more sedative into her veins. "Nothing is fair. I didn't choose this. I can't handle it all. Father will be so disappointed." Her words began to slur with the influx of sedative. She stared at Hough with saddened eyes. Hough thumbed through the file and found no record of any father. She appeared to be illegitimate. He reached over to pat her leg but hesitated just before contact, thinking better of taking such a risk. "Heather," he asked, careful in his tone, "Who is your father?" He heard the monitor begin to slow to a crawl and her words were barely audible. "The skies and storms." Hough watched as she fell into unconsciousness. The regulator was designed to keep her from becoming too self-aware, both for her own safety and that of those around her. He stood and replaced his chair in the far corner, knocked on the door for Leon. Glancing back towards Heather, Hough realized that he was in over his head with these abominations. He needed a better manner in which to deal with this; something with which he could distance himself. After this one. As the door closed and the lock snapped shut, Heather sat alone, lost in her subconsciousness. Even as her eyelids flickered, the words escaped her lips in a breath: "Skies and storms."
“Shinza ni lei.” The old sensei’s voice was deep and powerful as he commanded the two students to bow to the front of the class. “Sensei ni rei.” The two students faced him and bowed. Each was wearing the Eastern Light Dojo’s logo on their startling white gis, the required uniform for karate students, as well as a brown cotton belt about their waists. The sensei almost failed to hide his smile before he commanded them to begin their kumite, ordering, “Hajime!” As the two combatants moved around the vinyl mat that covered the sparring floor, they each measured the other’s stance and form. The first blow, as usual, came from the lithe blond girl with the brilliant blue eyes. Her hair tied back in a loose ponytail, she stepped in and struck with a series of kata moves which were blocked with deft ability by her opponent, a lanky boy of her own age with a mop of thick brown hair and a lop-sided grin. “Think. Visualize your moves, Alexis-kun,” the sensei directed, using his familiar tone with Alexis. “Jamie-san,” he continued, noting the boy, “Focus. Kumite is not meant to be amusing. It is meant to test your abilities and awareness.” Even as he stated this, Keats took a solid flurry of strikes from Alexis and she landed the last with a firm fist to Keats’ chest. “Focus!” the sensei reiterated. Keats flowed in toward Alexis with a dancing series of steps and strikes, dropping for a leg sweep and catching Alexis off balance. Her reaction, after a quick recovery, was to attack. Keats countered her every move, as did Alexis when he returned the attack. Keats backed off for a moment to reorganize his breathing. “Not really fair using that eidetic memory of yours, Al,” he stated, crouching and circling to her left. “You know me too well.” “So,” she responded with a smirk, “surprise me.” The dojo’s other students, ranging in age from thirteen to thirty-two, watched the two star pupils with wide eyes, gasping at the speed at which each of them could move. Sensei watched not only the combatants but the audience. He had owned this dojo for over thirty years and these two students had outstripped even his exacting standards in training. Alexis’ abilities had even surpassed those of her father, whom the sensei had also trained for years. This sparring match was more for the audience than for the combatants, although it also served to prepare the two of them. Both Alexis and Keats were first ryu, brown belts, and were scheduled for their black belt tests in the next couple of months, during the summer, after their high school graduation. Sensei would miss them once they each headed off to college and the start of their adult lives.
The students gasped at a flying roundhouse from Alexis, who was nimble and light enough to throw herself into the air better than most. Her physical power was just lacking enough that Keats recovered in an instant and fell into a prepared crouch. As Alexis faced him and stalked to his right, Keats could not help but smile as he realized what her next move would be. In response, he did just the opposite of what he should have. He leaped in and performed a lightning fast series of hand strikes and then dropped again for a leg sweep that managed to fell his opponent. Alexis hit the mat on her back hard enough to knock the wind from her. Sensei called a pause in the action and had the opponents face away and adjust their gis. He then ordered them to face him, bow, face each other, bow, and continue. Alexis, none the worse for wear, had taken much more damage in her previous bouts with Keats. Sensei watched with silent pride as his two favorite pupils struck and kicked each other, the sweat and adrenalin permeating the dojo and exciting the observing students. Sensei noted how impulsive Alexis continued to be with her attacks. He had counseled her on such lack of visualization far too many times to count. It was simply her nature to be rash. Keats on the other hand was far better at planning his moves and executing with precision and grace. Were it not for Alexis’ incredible memory of every move Keats had ever thrown, the boy would have bettered the much smaller girl. As it was, they were evenly matched. Sensei was proud of the both of them, thrilled at their strengths and weaknesses both. Keats landed a forceful kick to Alexis’ chest, sending the girl backward, only to have her fall with the impetus and roll over her head to pop back up in a natural karate stance. She winked at him and they each came together in another flurry of blows and kicks. *** The dojo sat in the middle of a city block, bookended by a sandwich shop and a dance studio. The front façade of the Eastern Light Dojo was a huge plate glass window adorned with the painted logo and a telephone number. On occasion, passersby would stop to marvel at the training that occurred inside. Staring through the window with a quiet intensity, his focus pinpointed to the two sparring partners inside, the man stood in a trench coat and fedora. In late June such a fashion statement seemed ridiculous at best in the heat of the piedmont of North Carolina. With his perfect, beautiful face and dark gray eyes it seemed no one noticed or felt inclined to mention the fact that the observer did not seem to sweat. His eyes, shaded by the brim of the hat, watched the movements of the boy and girl as if he were memorizing them for future reference. He did not even seem to breathe as he peered at the two battling each other with skill and determination. *** Alexis side-stepped a kick from Keats and used his own momentum to throw him to the mat, a harsh huff of breath escaping him.
“If you wanted me on my back,” Keats grinned through gasping breaths, “all you had to do was ask.” “Recover,” sensei ordered, and the two of them stood and faced one another. The teacher paused, watching his students’ heavy breathing and the sweat pouring from them. He let them wait, as he strolled around on the outer edge of the mat. He then addressed the observing students. “Comments?” he asked the group. For long moments, no one spoke. The only sounds were the two combatants’ breathing and the sound of a distant car alarm outside the dojo. “For lifelong friends, they sure don’t hold back do they?” The comment was spoken in a quiet tone and the sensei searched for the speaker. He noted two girls who shared a look and a quick smile. “Should they?” he asked. “From a self-defense perspective, do you think anyone hateful enough to attack you would hold back?” He hesitated and then continued. “From a learning perspective, do you think you could improve your own skills by facing an opponent of weaker abilities?” “No, sensei,” the class responded in unison. “We have about five minutes of class remaining and no clear victor in this kumite,” he stated. “Should we let them continue?” A few mumbles and then a unanimous chorus resounded through the dojo. Sensei tuned back to Alexis and Keats. “Sensei ni rei. Hajime.” The two combatants came at each other with hand strikes, sweeps and kicks, each garnering a connecting blow here and there. Alexis dodged to one side, kicking into Keats’ ribs. He deflected the kick and fell into a split, striking out at Alexis’ load-bearing foot. She also fell into a split and the two of them traded hand strikes and blocks from the seated position, the other students oohing and aahing in admiration of their senpai, the title associated with the highest ranked students in the dojo. With a strike, a push and a roll, first Alexis and then Keats came back to a defensive stance. After receiving a vicious punch to the gut, Keats failed to see Alexis’ follow-up roundhouse until it was too late. He hit the mat with a thud and the sensei called an immediate halt to the match. Alexis turned, bowed to her sensei and then fell to the mat by Keats. No one interfered as Keats appeared to be recovering quite fast. He sat up on one elbow, shaking the cobwebs from his brain. “I’m sorry,” Alexis said, ignoring the sensei stiffening in response. “No,” Keats said. “Never apologize for being the better. You earned it. I fell short and you caught me with a good one. No biggie.” Neither of them noticed the sensei relax at Keats’ words.
Alexis helped Keats to his feet and they each took a few steps backward, bowed to each other and then turned and bowed to their sensei. He bowed in return and called for hansei, the end of the class. All of the students stood and took positions on the mat, bowed to the sensei and dropped to their knees for final meditation and breathing exercises. *** “I need an aspirin,” Keats stated, as he and Alexis walked to her car. Noting the pained expression on her face, he smiled. “I’m just kidding, Al.” “I caught you pretty good, huh?” “You could say that. I haven’t been hit that hard since Julia Waterston turned me down for Junior Prom.” “You could have used a better phrase to ask than, ‘wanna get busy on the dance floor?’” Alexis commented with a smirk. “I didn’t want to go with her anyway.” “You’re terrible with the ladies, aren’t you? What was your excuse for not liking Julia?” “Her toes were all crooked. She wore flip-flops and showed them off like a tribute to torture.” Alexis rolled her eyes in response. “You should’ve blocked that kick you know,” she stated. They arrived at her car and it beep-whooped when she pressed the key fob. “Yeah, I know,” he replied, walking around and sliding into the leather passenger seat of the BMW. When Alexis closed her door, he caressed the dashboard and smiled at her. “It still has that new car smell.” “Please don’t give me any crap about Betsy today.” “Speaking of which,” he continued, “why on earth did you name your car after a girl? I mean, I know guys do that, but shouldn’t girls name theirs after men?” “What does it matter?” she asked as she hit the button to start the engine. The car was the only thing she had ever asked for from her parents. Aside from the European rocket, she considered herself rather low-maintenance. Keats would have something snide to say about that, she was certain. “It’s a bit Sapphic, don’t you think?” “You mean poetic?” she replied, thinking of the more conventional definition of the term just to annoy her friend. “No.”
“Geez. You’re such a boy.” “Thanks!” he replied with enthusiasm. “Oh, but to one day put away those childish things. To be a man. That is my goal.” “Good luck with that,” Alexis replied, and the car leaped from the parking lot with a bark of tires. *** Watching the car speed away, the man in the trench coat and fedora stared after it for several long moments before turning and walking down the sidewalk, only to disappear from view as if the heat of the afternoon had swallowed him whole. None of the other pedestrians appeared to notice, going about their day lost in their own concerns. *** “I’m home,” Alexis called out as she and Keats entered the kitchen of her house through the garage. It was Sunday afternoon and both of her parents were sitting at the huge granite center island, coffee cups in hand. Her mother, Elizabeth, read the latest People magazine and there was an Interior Design close by. Her father, Charles, peeked over the newspaper and peered at his daughter with a smile. “Sweetie, we can see that. No need to shout.” “She just likes to make the grand entrance, Mr. Rain,” Keats remarked. “You know?” “Well I do, Jamie. Well I do.” “How was class?” Elizabeth asked. “I nailed him in the head. He hit the mat like a sack of potatoes,” Alexis replied. “It was more graceful than that,” Keats countered. “More like a sack of jello.” His comment sounded so sincere that Charles laughed out loud. “You staying for dinner, Jamie?” Charles asked. Jamie Keats had been more than a close friend to Alexis; he had become a fixture in the Rain household since he was eight years old. His mother Katy was Elizabeth’s best friend, and worked as a nurse at the local hospital. Jamie was more a surrogate brother, and son, within the Rain family. “Sure, Mr. Rain,” Keats replied. “Mom’s got the second shift today. Won’t be home until late. What’s on the menu?” “I’m preparing my mother’s spaghetti and French bread tonight,” Elizabeth said. “Oh, tasty!”
“Like you’d turn down any consumable item,” Alexis remarked, traipsing toward the stairs that led up to her bedroom on the second floor. “Hey. I’m a growing boy,” Keats replied, taking a seat at the counter alongside Charles and rustling through the newspaper for the comics section. “Alexis,” Elizabeth said, halting the girl’s progress upstairs. “I’ve got a late meeting with some clients in Charlotte tonight and a teleconference with the Japanese investors early tomorrow morning. I’ll be staying in a hotel there tonight. I’ll be back in the morning. Have you gotten any word from Admissions?” Alexis paused and turned back to her mom. She shook her head and frowned. “Maybe soon,” she replied. “You should ask Keats what he got in the mail yesterday, though.” As her parents both turned toward the surprised Keats, Alexis bounded up the stairs, leaving her friend to fend for himself. She would deal with the school discussion later.