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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Paranormal · #1950165
Reviews welcomed. Darkness descends, but light prevails in a peculiar way. Nominee
Thank you Shannon for featuring this story in the Spiritual Newsletter July, 17, 2013

Thank you Legerdemain for featuring my work in your Short Story Newsletter September, 25th, 2013

Thank you Arakun the Twisted Raccoon for featuring this story in your Mystery Newsletter September 8th, 2014

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If you asked my swollen feet and aching back how long I'd been trudging down this dirt path, they'd claim forever. And then it appeared, natural as the redwood trees surrounding it. The animal clinic looked more like a cottage than place of business. A bell suspended from the door chimed when I pushed it aside. A plump, dumpling sort of woman approached, hands extended.

"Come in, come in, sweet girl. You must be Alexandria Hastings."

I struggled to conceal my surprise. The woman who agreed to an interview when I called desperate for a job, looked nothing like her aristocratic, British-sounding name. But then I'm only sixteen and don't know much. "Pleased to meet you." I hesitated and then took her hand. "Mrs. Whittaker?"

The woman attempted to draw me into a hug, but I kept a firm grip and pumped her hand. Baggy clothes hid the pregnancy, but anyone hugging me, well, the rounded belly got in the way. If she noticed my withdrawal, the overwhelming clamor of noisy pets and their owners chased away the weirdness.

"Right." Mrs. Whittaker pointed to a large circular desk commanding the reception room. Ranks of file cabinets marched down the wall. "Your main duties would be answering phones and scheduling appointments. You've done office work before?"

Did helping out in the copy room at high school count as office experience?  "Tons of it."

Her raised eyebrow expressed doubt, but she continued. "And you know how to work a computer?"

I nodded again, hiding a smirk behind my hand. Country folks, plain and simple, non-threatening, safe haven for a Halo baby. I waggled fingers. "I was raised with a computer in my crib." Did I actually say that? I'm such a dork.

The ringing phone saved the day. Mrs. Whittaker looked at me and smiled. "Well, answer it, dear."

"I'm hired?" Baby shifted right and I smiled, allowing Mrs. Whittaker to lead me over to the desk.

"You did say you could answer phones, right?"

The phone kept ringing. "Of course, but what should I say? What's the name of your animal clinic?"

"Halo Haven, of course." She narrowed her eyes. "The name is etched on the glass door you walked through."

"Halo Haven?" I repeated, feeling weak-kneed, but Mrs. Whittaker had already bustled off. I snatched up the phone.

At six P. M. the clinic closed for the day. My feet ached and the trek back to the main road worried me. What if too much walking endangered the baby? Night was falling and the moon was missing. What if I stumbled and fell? The money left over from what my sister gave me jingled in my pocket. Surviving on junk food? Well, even I knew the baby needed proper nutrition. From a peg in the break room, I snatched my backpack and hunted for Mrs. Whittaker. I found her in EXAM ROOM 2, scowling at an x-ray. "Mrs. Whittaker? Anything you want me to do before leaving?"

She turned to answer me, her expression a puzzle. "From the moment I saw you, it was apparent you belonged here."

"What's that mean, 'I belong here?'"

Ignoring my question, she lowered her gaze to my abdomen. "Your baggy clothes reveal—more than conceal—your pregnancy."

Gone was the welcoming woman, who mere hours before accepted me on the spot when I appeared midday. How could she possibly know my predicament? I nodded and focused on my sneakers, still visible, despite my expanded girth. "I—"

"You ran away from home," she stated, not questioned.

My face must have paled, or I looked ready to pass out because she grasped my elbow.

"If you want to stay, you best answer all my questions." She led me to a room where a coffeemaker, hot plate, and refrigerator waited. "You're trembling. Have a seat before you collapse."

I flopped on a folding chair and rested my elbows on the battered wooden table, struggling to still my jiggling knee. Mrs. Whittaker got busy making tea and it seemed she forgot my presence. Without her eyes pinning me, I studied the woman from behind and found hidden in the plumpness, a back ramrod straight, shoulders squared, a regal stance. Her personality dominated the room. Who was the lady of contradictions?

In a matter of moments, two mugs and tea bags appeared on the table. As the water sizzled from the pot and filled the cups, the scent of chamomile wafted calming vapors. Mrs. Whittaker took a seat opposite, and taking a hesitant sip, regarded me over the rim. It felt like an eternity passed before she spoke. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen next month," I said, keeping my gaze lowered to hide the flush chasing from neck to face.

She leaned forward, elbows on the table. "You're lying. You can't be older than sixteen."

My sharp breath confirmed her accusation. The woman had a shrewd mind, or super powers, so rapidly she blew up the story I crafted while riding the bus to the last stop, trying to block my mother's reaction.

The baby's a travesty. An abomination. We're putting it up for adoption.

"And now your dilemma darkens my doorstep." Mrs. Whittaker stalked from the room. No doubt she was calling social services. My new boss, whose mood swings already terrified me, appeared half an hour later. From her grim expression, I imagined the worst.

"I made a few phone calls. It's hardly a surprise no one's heard of you."

Her decision was inscribed in the sharp planes of her face. The authorities would come and, when my baby was born, take her from me. Use her for research. Not since the night of the attack had my world looked so bleak. Questions stormed in the woman's eyes. "How will you care for the baby alone? No family or friends?"

Shaking my head, I knuckled away tears. My older sister, Sophia, wanted me to move in and raise her daughter, Jenny, with mine, but I wanted no part of my mother's influence.

Mrs. Whittaker stood, towering over me, squeezed my shoulder and gave it a slight shake. "Stupid child, you're no mother." With one firm hand around my upper arm, she pulled me up and headed toward the back door. Was she planning on throwing me out of the clinic? I ground my teeth to stop the hysterics brooding inside.

"My car's over there." She cocked her chin. "Get in."

"Please, Mrs. Whittaker, let me go. I'll walk away, evaporate. No one is taking this child from me." Mrs. Whittaker sighed and opened the car door, confident I would obey. I climbed in.

While she drove, I nibbled around the edges of the circumstances that brought me to this point. The oddness of the attack. When I left my friend's house at 10 P.M., the man was on me before I walked ten steps. An eerie thought crossed my mind. Our town was nearly crime-free. Definitely not a place where young women were attacked. It seemed he was waiting for me.

His voice was soft. I'm sorry, but I have no choice. It's the only way.

When I had woke the next morning, feeling vaguely sore and totally disoriented, I wondered if it was only a nightmare. But then my periods stopped. I waited four months before telling my older sister, Sophie, who made an appointment with her obstetrician. I endured the icy jelly squishing under the doctor's instrument while she listened to the heart beat and watched the monitor. After completing the scan, she printed off a copy. Using my elbows, I worked my body into a semi-sitting position. The paper gown fluttered to the floor. Peering over her shoulder, I saw a shadow surrounding the fetus. "What's wrong with my baby?"

Doctor Jennings retrieved the gown that covered my swollen abdomen and tenderly tucked it around me. "Your baby's healthy."

"That's a relief." I attempted a smile, but knowing what questions would be asked, I picked at the chipped, red nail polish on my index finger.

"Do you know the father?" Doctor Jennings asked while she crossed the room and activated her PC. "Or was it an act of violence?"

My fingernail was half-stripped of gloss and I started flaking another. Doubting myself, I murmured, "He apologized."

Sophia jumped to her feet. "He apologized for attacking you?"

"It wasn't an attack. He was gentle."

The doctor held up a hand, insisting my sister calm herself. "I'll hear the entire story before you leave." She turned her PC toward me. The page she retrieved was a mess of complexity, all professional jargon, until the doctor pointed at one entry. The Halo Effect. A few brief entries appeared beneath it. "Fascinating. Never thought I'd witness it."

"Witness it?"

"A child possessing the halo effect—" Doctor Jennings, as if considering my age, closed out the webpage. "It's a shadow on the scan, nothing more."

I brushed off the doctor's dismissal. What I saw was no shadow. Forget scientific jargon, or a need for proof. Because no one would believe me anyway. I started talking to the creation inside me, calling her my halo baby. The baby answered in my mind. "Hello, Mama." Every night, I fell asleep, dreaming of the stranger who fathered this child. What did he mean, It's the only way?

And now, my new employer wanted to take her. My determination empowered me. I lived in a motel for a few weeks, and then moved into a flat, with no help from anyone. I had to stop Mrs. Whittaker, but not while the car was moving. Probably twenty minutes later, gravel crunched beneath the wheels.

Mrs. Whittaker eased her car to a stop. "We're here."

I glanced outside and straightened up. A dead-windowed mansion, canopied by trees, glared at me. I sat stunned, afraid to even imagine what happened here. "This is your house?"

"It's one of the original homes built in the 1800's. Years ago . . . " Mrs. Whittaker dabbed her eyes. "It's just me, now."

Gone was the brusque demeanor, and I hazarded a glance. She met my gaze, steady, calm, and I saw something drowning in her vast, sad, sea-blue eyes. She reached across her seat, put a hand on my knee and squeezed, sending my thoughts twirling. Friend or foe?

My footsteps dogged hers as we climbed the stairs and passed between colonial columns before reaching the gigantic red door. She unlocked it, and together we walked in. Soaring staircases split the foyer. I peered through the gloom, all the way to the back of the house, where a solid glass door overlooked a garden illuminated by hundreds of miniscule lights, like fireflies winking.

"I'll make tea." She left me standing there, open-mouthed, and then as an afterthought, gestured toward a room dimly lit by a reddish glow. She led the way, turning on lights that cast a cozy aura. "You look half-frozen." She dedicated several minutes to stoking the fireplace's ashy remains, tossing in fresh logs that sparked and crackled. I leaned toward the warmth, inhaling the woodsy smell. Mrs. Whittaker, satisfied with the blaze, smacked her hands together and strolled from the room.

When the woman returned, she settled a tea tray on a table and pointed to one of the matching rocking chairs off to either side. Confident I was comfortable, she poured two steaming mugs, and then mixed in two teaspoons of sugar, before adding a splash of milk. "There's no one who drinks this tea without perking up."

"Mrs. Whittaker—"

"My life as Mrs. Whittaker no longer exists. Call me Becky."

"Becky—"

She raised her hand, asking me to listen. Her throat tensed and a spasm captured the words. She choked them out.  "My husband and I—"Becky looked out the window and then back at me. "Halo Haven was . . . my husband and I ran the clinic together."

Into the awkward silence, I asked, "Where's your husband now?" What a horrible question to ask this poor woman. Where was a magic wand to erase my words? I'm sixteen, maybe it was okay if I said dumb stuff. Anyhow, the question was left unanswered, and Becky continued talking in the voice of a dead person. My hands swept up and down my jeans, wiping the moisture from my palms.

"I left early one night and waited at home, but he died in a car wreck, and I lost the baby."

I sucked in a breath and cradled my baby bump.

An aimless stroll took her around the room. She paused by the fire to warm her hands, and then managed to force out, "It's just me, the house, and the clinic. Neat, clean, easy, until you showed up." She returned to her chair and started picking at the loose seams in a blanket, plucking individual threads and rolling them into tiny balls of anguish.

"I . . . I'm sorry for your loss." She resented my presence, and possibilities flitted through my mind. Where else to run?

Mrs. Whittaker straightened and pressed the knotted threads under a seam in the chair, and I imagined an entire city of loose ends. She gazed at me, features unreadable. Friend or foe? When she encircled my wrist and placed her other hand on my baby bump, I flinched.

"Don't be afraid, child. I feel alive again for the first time in ten years. I'm offering to help."

A whoosh of breath rippled the tea I was drinking. A sense of home and place radiated straight from Mrs. Whittaker and seeped into my bones, all the way to the marrow. The stains on the carpet in my flat reappeared no matter how many times I scrubbed them. The furnishings clung to their ratty look, despite taping the slits and holes. "Thanks, I'm okay by myself."

Becky eyes widened. "You're refusing my offer?"

Part of me wanted to launch into Becky's arms. "I'm renting a place on Fletcher Street."

"Fletcher Street? You can't raise a child in that neighborhood."

"Yes, yes I can." Miracle babies need strong mothers. I stood and walked toward the door. "Goodbye, Mrs. Whittaker."

"At least let me drive you home." She consulted the mantle clock. "It's past nine."

I stilled a shiver, remembering that night seven months ago, when I should have called my mom, not walked home alone. Yet, no way was Becky getting a glimpse of my life. "Just to the bus stop."

Her Volvo idled in the station while she rubbed her thumb over the back of my hand.

I forced myself to endure the physical contact Becky kept piling on. Holding, clasping, steering. Petrifying, all of it. But the psychiatrist encouraged me to tolerate others touching me.

One last squeeze and she relinquished my palm. "Promise me you'll think it over. You might change your mind."

"Anything's possible." I smiled and closed the car door firmly behind me. "Come on, little one. We don't need charity or handouts." The baby shifted right and I stroked my lopsided womb, marveling at the life force blossoming inside me. "Who are you, Halo baby?"

The bus wheezed to a stop a few blocks from my place. Ever aware of the past, a creature of fear lurked in my gut. Minding the baby, I half-jogged the two city blocks to reach the unlocked street door. The building had been converted to several flats. Anyone could be waiting in the vestibule. Once safe in my cupboard-size home, anxious to ward off the willies, I called my sister.

"Alex? I've been worried sick about you. How are you? How's the baby? Did you find a job?"

I blinked several times before answering the onslaught of question. "Geez, Sophie, I'm fine."

"Saying 'I'm fine' means nothing. Where're you living?"

"I'd rather not say."

"You're exasperating. Remember Jenny?"

My stomach hollowed. Jenny. I abandoned my niece.

"She asks where Auntie Alex is. Every single Saturday. You're breaking her heart. Please come home."

"When Mom apologizes and accepts the baby."

My sister sighed. "Alex, give me something, anything. At least your cell phone number. Maybe Jenny can call you, and it won't be so hard on her."

I hesitated.

"For you, running was the best idea. But the people left behind are crushed. Not just Jenny. I miss you."

I rattled off my cell phone number. "Tell my niece to call whenever she wants." I rushed to hang up before Sophie heard the tears in my voice. "Gotta go." The phone snapped shut, severing the connection. I buried my face in the moldy-smelling linens and cried until I soaked the pillow.

The morning sun shone through the tattered curtains, pressing on my eyelids, forcing me to wakefulness. Another bus ride, another long trek through trees lining a dirt path, before the graveled driveway appeared where several cars were parked.

Pushing open the door to the clinic, I let the cacophony wash over me. The place was spotless, a musky animal scent as expected and no heavy disinfectant to sting my nostrils. Not such a bad place to work. Baby shifted right and I grinned.

Mrs. Whittaker watched me the entire day. Seeing what? She corralled me into the back room when we closed for a lunch break. "You need some meat on those bones," she said while preparing a roast beef sandwich, crunching up some lettuce for salad, and brewing another cup of tea. My stomach growled, and my gaze locked on a piece of chocolate cake brought in by a customer. "You're proud because everyone, including me, said you couldn't take care of the baby alone. I admire you."

I rubbed burning eyes. "You admire me?" I stared out the window, trampling on my desire for love. One safe world existed, under my command. The exclusive realm of my baby and me. Still, the dead stone inside me shifted that day, and the tight bud of need for others loosened.

When Mrs. Whittaker set the cup of tea next to my sandwich plate. "You're a brave girl, Alexandria, and part of being brave means accepting help. We only have a few more appointments today. Finish up your lunch, and then take the rest of the day off. I'll hear no objections. I'm the boss and am ordering you to go home."

The last thing I wanted was time spent at home. Compared to my place, the clinic is immaculate. With no possible way out, I shouldered by backpack and started the long trek back to the bus station and my place. Drawing all the drapes tight and refastening safety pins to hold the gaps together took all of five minutes. Toast crumbs were clinging to a plate left in the sink.  After washing and drying, and wiping down all the counters, another fifteen minutes passed. I thumbed through some ragged back issues of magazines taken from the reception room, before giving in to my guilty indulgence. Calling my big sister, Sophia.

"Auntie Alex?"

My niece's voice caught me off guard and the cell phone nearly clattered to the floor. "Uh, hi, Jenny. Is your mommy around?"

"When are you coming home, Auntie Alex? Mommy misses you. And me too."

"I miss you too, but my work is really important—"A voice in the background chilled me.

"Who gave you permission to talk on your mother's cell phone? Give that to me."

Hearing my mother's voice, I severed the connection, and the infinitesimal easing of tension from earlier in the day snapped taut. Determined to halt the threatening avalanche of emotions, I started singing. Fortunately, no one but the baby was listening. Half an hour later, my throat ached from the singing and the strain of clenched muscles. I nuked a dinner and ate in silence, trying to remember a time when my mom was kind. I spent a lot of time thinking and promised myself to treat my baby like a treasure. Not a responsibility, or a nuisance. Tomorrow couldn't come fast enough. Not like I was attached to Becky, or anything like that. I enjoyed being with the animals.

Work at the clinic kept me from panicking as the moment of birth drew closer. On a quiet Thursday morning, while Becky was up front rearranging shelves, I stole into her office and Googled 'halo effect." I scrolled through ten pages and finally found the information Doctor Jennings discovered. A couple in Sweden gave birth to a boy, who exhibited the same aura as mine, also captured in a sonogram. The labor was excruciating, but mom and baby survived. The testing began and ended, revealing nothing. The baby's DNA was an anomaly. The family vanished. Then nothing for five years, until the boy popped up on the radar, having saved a human life. The scientific community went into a frenzy, the mother spirited her son away, and neither was ever heard from again. End of story. No amount of key-pounding produced more evidence. How did the Swedish woman qualify excruciating?

As the next few months passed, I picked up a few veterinary skills, maybe intuition on my part. Or, the baby's. More than once, she shifted toward the right when Mrs. Whittaker considered the best treatment for the animals. There wasn't much room left, and when Becky saw the shift she smiled. Was it possible she knew the baby was extraordinary?

We offered a half-rate office visit one day, Saturday, the fourteenth of December. The waiting room was packed. Kitties meowed, dogs yapped or snipped, pet rats scurried, children chased each other. I was holding Dr. Zhivago, little Jennifer Lindon's Tonkinese kitten, while Mrs. Whittaker injected yearly vaccinations below his platinum fur.

"Oh." I grabbed my abdomen.

"Mommy, look. Miss Alex peed on the floor."

"Honey, don't be silly." Mrs. Lindon followed the path laid out by Angela's finger, straight to the puddle between my legs. The two older women shared a smile. My water had broken.

"We'll be closing shop now, Miss Alexandria's ready to have her baby." Mrs. Whittaker shooed the crowd of well-wishers out the door. "Don't worry. Coupon's good the day we reopen. See you soon." She closed and bolted the door.

Becky held my arm while I waddled through the back door and into her Volvo. Upon arrival at Brooke Memorial Hospital, we were taken straight to the Labor and Delivery ward. In between contractions, Becky told a convoluted story about babies born with unique gifts, and while I panted and moaned, Sophie's doctor's words echoed in my mind. The Halo Effect. The aura surrounding the baby. The labor went on forever. My hair was drenched and throat raw. I understood excruciating.

Becky kept wiping my brow and murmuring words of encouragement.

A new day was lighting when Doctor Glassner finally said, "Time to push, Alex." As one contraction released, another began, wracking my body. My knees trembled and exhaustion consumed, but the doctor continued saying, "Push, Alexandria, push."

Becky climbed up on the bed and sat behind me, lifting my shoulders and using her hands to help me bear down. "Come on, Alex, just a few more."

"I . . . can't." But, together, we kept at it. My entire body was trembling, tears and sweat comingled, slicking my face. Finally, finally, Doctor Glassner said, "Stop. The baby's crowning." I collapsed on the bed.

A rosy aura permeated the room when the baby emerged. Everyone stopped talking and moving. My baby drew her first breath. Mrs. Whittaker started whispering. The sun eased upward and painted the sky the same pinkish-glow as the room. A blurred, violet-bluish aura shimmered above her head, but no one, other than me, noticed. The baby's name formed on my lips. Heaven.

Becky kissed my forehead. "You should call home and tell your family. Whatever your reason for running was, it's probably forgiven. I bet they want to see your baby."

I shook my head, too ashamed to tell Becky what my mom thought of me. I forgot her evil-eye stare and shoved the image back behind the barricade in my mind.

The doctor made me stay in the hospital for two days, which was cool, because I was terrified to bring Heaven home. On the day of discharge, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I read all the baby books Becky gave me, but newborns in a book verses the baby sitting next to me? The aura over Heaven's head grew more defined every day, and I waited for Becky to say something. Anything. Couldn't she see it? I wanted to talk to someone.

She interrupted my mounting anxiety. "Alexandria, I understand you want to raise Heaven alone, but the truth is, well, you've become like family to me. And family members help each other. Maybe you and Heaven can live at my house for a few days, so I won't be sad."

"That would be awesome." The tears started all over again.

"And, if you're happy there, well, the offer still stands. I'm not lecturing you, but the baby is your first concern now. Mothers learn to put their feelings aside and make choices based on the baby's best interest."

Humbled by the beauty of Heaven, a child conceived though an act of violence, the truth I'd secreted for so long tumbled out. "I can't raise Heaven on my own." At the next red light, Becky dropped her head onto the steering wheel and her shoulders started heaving. I leaned forward. "You're crying?"

"I . . . I've wanted a baby for so long." More words rushed out. "I won't be taking over. Heaven is yours, but if you need someone . . ." Becky reached for my hand and squeezed. "We'll be like a family."

Heaven slept, and my silent agreement made the moment sacred. A family. Becky helped us from the car and kept her arm around me while we climbed the stairs to the big red door of her mansion. When we all walked in, it seemed the house embraced us.

"Alex, I want to show you something."

Over the passing months, I thought I had sorted out all Becky's moods and quirks, but this expression was new. "You're afraid?" Heaven, swaddled in a blanket one of the clients bought, continued smiling in her sleep.

Of all the strange motions she could have exhibited, she dropped her head on my shoulder. A total role reversal. My body tensed and the moment vanished when she backed off. Normally, she knew better than to touch me. "I've been praying you'd decide to move in. I aired out the nursery." Her words trailed off.

She was offering the room meant for her dead baby. A picture of the rickety crib and changing table purchased at the Salvation Army and stuffed into a corner in my room shot through me. I shuddered, thinking of my new baby laying in it. "Just so you know, I bought stuff for Heaven."

"I'm sure you did, sweetling. You're welcome to bring them here."

The nursery, splendid in yellow rosebud bedding and pale pink walls, beckoned. I stood, shuffling my feet around, switching Heaven from one shoulder to another, watching the haloing mirage brighten. My daughter approved.

"Pride's a fine thing, in the right place at the right time. Alexandria, is this the right time and place? Mothers know best."

"Becky," I whispered, "without you I'd be lost." When she held out her arms, I trundled right over and buried Heaven and I in her embrace. The cold stone inside me turned to warm sand.

A couple of weeks later, Becky asked me to come to the clinic for a few hours. Escorting me through the rear entrance, cradling my elbow, she stopped at the locked door. Her hand trembled, jittering the keys, and it swung open, revealing a fully furnished nursery. "It's yours and Heaven's now. You can work and keep the baby here."

Halo Haven became Heaven's home. As an infant, I carried her in my pack. Becky taught me how to get the baby to latch on, and then how to break the suction. Not by pulling the baby off. Ouch. I learned to cradle her neck, watch for the soft spot on the back of her head. Becky claimed Heaven was a miracle baby, in more ways than one. Although she never said so, I suspected she saw the violet-blue aura surrounding Heaven.

One night, when the baby was four months old, she woke for the two a.m. nursing. She slept in a cradle next to the bed, and half asleep, I fumbled in the dark. Thinking I heard voices, I cracked the bedroom door and listened to a one-sided communication.

"Yes, I bought her a new PC, and installed my Shadow-Net. Every key stroke is documented on my computer."

Becky was documenting Heaven's life. I pressed my ear to the crack, balancing my daughter on one arm while she nursed, but heard only silence while Mrs. Whittaker listened.

"No, she's never mentioned The Halo Effect, but she's researching."

A chill started at the base of my spine and crept all the way to my neck. Becky answered the next unheard question.

"Nothing other than what we uncovered." More silence. "No, no. Let's leave her alone and see what happens."

I held my breath while Becky concentrated on the caller's words. I counted off a fifteen second pause before she responded.

"Nothing concrete.  But, yes, my instincts say the child is an extraordinary being, gifted by the Halo Effect."

Was Becky some sort of research scientist masquerading as a veterinarian?  All this time she'd been keeping tabs on me. Hacked my PC, watching every keystroke. I wanted to puke. Should I run again? Was my trust misplaced? She knew nothing of the odd communication between infant and mother, even though it felt like I was betraying Becky. Or was she betraying me? I asked Heaven if we should run and she answered in my heart. "Not yet."

I gradually tapered off on my 'research,' which was pointless anyhow, and then sent an email to my sister, Sophia. One I knew Becky would see. "You were right about the aura I insisted I saw around the baby in the sonogram. Heaven's just a normal baby. It was a shadow on the image, nothing more."

Once I saved enough money, I bought the same PC Becky gave me, minus her Shadow-net. Every once in a while, I used the PC linked to hers, avoiding suspicion, and kept my own secreted under the bed, where I could document anything inexplicable.

So we stayed, and Heaven's world revolved around people and critters. She napped in the nursery, while Becky and I watched the baby monitor. One Sunday, I told Becky to take the day off. Heaven and I would feed and walk the animals. And so it was, the woman I suspected, blessedly missed the first demonstration of Heaven's abilities.

The animal inmates at Halo Haven lived in comfort, coddled and cuddled, but on Sunday's when no one's about, the opening door sets off a chain reaction of woofs and meows. Nine-month-old baby and mother strolled through animal alley, and as we passed, each animal quieted. More than quieted. Backs straightened, ears perked, and eyes brightly focused, as if royalty was walking through their domain. Holding Heaven at arm's length, her angel glow shimmered. All anxiety drained from my mind, replaced by serenity flowing along my neural pathways. Awed, I asked the same question for the trillionth time. "Who are you, Halo baby? Halo toddler." I corrected myself. She took her first steps at eight months.

Heaven burped.

Sophia still called every Saturday. "Alexandria, enough is enough. Jenny and I want to see the baby. Or are you hiding because she's deformed? The shadow on the sonogram really meant something?"

I covered the mouthpiece to conceal the sharp intake. My sister remembered. "Uh, no. She's fine. Healthy. Sweet."

"Don't get all emotional on me, Alex. All you have is one word descriptions? Did the labor damage your brain?"

I laughed and promised to send pictures soon. Confessing all to Sophia tempted me. I needed a big sister's advice. Not knowing what Becky was thinking tortured me.

Heaven glowed, everyone said. Animals healed faster in her presence, cantankerous kitties calmed, and the overall health of aging animals improved.

"Your daughter's quite the healer," Becky said, while perusing the day's schedule. She left her reading glasses to dangle on a chain and stared at me. Nothing vague in her expression now. "And quite advanced for her age. Walking at eight months is unusual."

My mouth popped open, brain engaged, ready to let it all out, when eleven-month-old Heaven telepathed: "Not yet, Mama."

I played off my startled reaction by pointing to a kid holding a turtle wrapped in an ace bandage. "Devon's here. He brought Thaddeus again."

Becky reacted to my non-reaction, as I intended. Slightly baffled, she said, "Yes, I suppose I should. Who names a turtle Thaddeus?"

Shared laughter erased the disquiet. Becky hustled out to the waiting room and Heaven tugged on my ear. "He named the turtle Thaddeus because that's his daddy's name. But the daddy got shot in Iraq. He's not coming home. Devon's mom wants to keep if from him, but she should tell him. Don't you think so, Mama?"

Which was more startling? The first words from Heaven's brain coming out in full sentences, or her knowing the inner workings of others' minds? Bracing my body against the counter, I slid down, and swooped her into my arms. "Heaven. How do you know those things?"

"Everyone does, Mama."

My Halo child was unaware of her extraordinariness. "No, love, just you. It's our little secret, okay?"

"Can I tell Aunt Becky?"

"Aunt Becky's real busy today."

"Aunt Becky's feet hurt. She needs her other sneakers."

Balancing Heaven on one hip, we walked into the nursery. "This is a big day for Mama. Most babies are at least two years old before they can talk like you. In full sentences."

"Do you want me to pretend I can't talk? Because that's lying. And lying is wrong." Heaven planted a baby smooch on my cheek, as if to reassure me.

The Halo Effect was much more than anyone knew. My toddler not only spoke like an adult, she had morals and scruples built in.

Her amber eyes pinned me. "Why are you wondering about my daddy?"

And, she reads minds.

"Is he dead in Iraq, like Devon's daddy?"

But not deep enough to unearth all thoughts. I struggled to form one sentence. "No, he's not dead in Iraq."

"Where is he, Mama? I want a daddy."

I dreaded this moment. Hours spent searching for the right words to explain Heaven's existence, the identity of her father, and I had nothing. "Can Mama tell you another day?"

When she spoke, her voice was compassion-laden. "You don't know, do you?" Heaven stroked my cheek with stubby fingers, and I swallowed tears. "Don't cry, Mama. I'll wait for another day. Besides, Aunt Becky's coming back," she said, a light second before Becky turned toward us.

"Alex, the phone's ringing off the hook. Why aren't you answering it?" She took Heaven from me and tapped her nose. "And why aren't you down for your nap?"

Later in the evening, sequestered in my room at the mansion, I sat, elbows braced on an antique writing desk arranged beneath a star-view window. Gazing upward, the attacker's words echoed in my ears.

"I'm sorry, but I have no choice. It's the only way."

The only way to what? Impregnate a woman to create a halo baby? Where had he come from? Did he appear odd, like an alien? The ghosted-moment eluded capture, leaving me one memory. He was gentle. My monthly entries on my PC swiftly became weekly and then daily observations of my daughter's abilities.

Heaven was five years old when a young man stumbled into the clinic, a bundle tucked under his arm. The color of the blanket and the man's grief-stricken face told an all too familiar story.

"I know cats should be kept in the house," he sobbed. "But she was so unhappy. She wanted out, and so I did, and then, and then—" He handed me the sodden package. I didn't need years of training to know the animal was either already dead, or irretrievable. Heaven materialized between my legs.

"Let me see, Mommy."

I'd grown accustomed to following Heaven's directions. She'd been influencing my life from the womb. "The kitty, is—" I dropped to my knees, unwilling to pull aside the blanket and reveal the fading energy. Heaven intervened.

"Oh, poor kitty," she sang, while prying open the blanket. "What, what, little one." A few tears splashed on its fur. "Now, now, it's gonna be okay, come on, kitty." A few more tears, sparkling and rain-bowed like nothing I've ever seen, soaked through the bloodied fur. "She'll be okay, mister. Just you wait."

Wait we did, and within five minutes the cat stirred. Her breathing evened out, her bones shifted and then beyond the laws of this universe, her eyes opened and she meowed. Jack Brennen, the owner, stood nearby, his mouth gaping.

"Told 'ya so."

"Heaven, use polite words." What a thing to say in the face of a miracle. For the first time, others were witnesses to the halo effect, and I was scolding my daughter, my mother's echo. "How'd you heal the kitten, baby?"

"Easy-peasy, Mama. I thought him better."

Becky appeared and we exchanged glances before she ushered us all, Jack, his kitten, Mishap, me, and Heaven into the room behind the register.

"Mr. Brennen—"

He pointed a finger at my daughter. "She . . . she—"

Becky began again. "Mr. Brennen. There's no explanation for what happened and you'd be doing me a kindness if you kept this quiet."

"But, I—the child, she—"

"Miracles happen all the time. Nothing to do with our little Heaven. Take Mishap home, and if she wants to play outside, well, that's what she was born to do." She patted his back. "You go on now and forget what happened." She propelled him out the door, and my suspicion of Becky shrank. Later that night, I went over it again in my mind, and realized Becky's pat was more like an affectionate squeeze. She was somehow involved with Mr. Brennen, probably in a romantic way. She obviously trusted him, and as far as I knew, he never told anyone. But nothing stemmed the flow of dying and nearly dead pets brought in by grieving, but hopeful owners. I worried Heaven would somehow deplete her energy, but the more animals she healed, the stronger her abilities, wherever they came from. At night, although not sure who I was praying to, I asked for protection.

Mrs. Whittaker was always watching, and probably documenting my daughter's life, but Heaven was happy, unconcerned, and I relaxed my guard. Word spread and the practice grew. Becky put the increased revenue to good use and expanded the clinic. Each animal now had its own private place, complete with runways to the expansive grounds surrounding the building. And, they had my Heaven.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when Heaven and I were in the back sorting and organizing supplies. Becky, always composed and serene, rushed into the room and closed the door behind her. Her face was red, breathing rapid, and face pale. A sliver of premonition pierced my subconscious.

"What's wrong, Miss Becky?"

Becky put on a happy face for Heaven. "Nothing, baby. I need to talk privately with your mom. Can you sit right here in this chair, where I can watch you?" Without waiting for an answer, she cradled my shoulders and pulled me out of hearing range.

"Alexandria," Becky said in a harsh whisper, "leave immediately. Use the back door." When I opened my mouth to question her, she raised a hand and shook her head. "Take these." She threw the keys she snatched from a peg near the doorway.

"Someone found out about Heaven?"

"Don't know for sure. Sheriff Collier called a few minutes ago, said an SUV, one he'd never seen before, was headed this way."

"Becky? You think Heaven's in danger?"

"Do you want to stay here and find out? Or skedaddle and be certain she's safe?"

"Okay, fine. I'll take her home."

"No, just drive to the drug store down the road a bit. Park the car and call a cab."

"You think someone will recognize your Volvo? Someone's been watching us?"

Becky kept talking without replying or taking a breath. "Go to The Fashion Square Mall and get lost in the crowds for an hour or so."

"Then, come back?"

Becky's head shake was vehement. "No. Drive to Rollins Hotel. Ask for Vivian, my best friend. She'll get you checked in." She paused for emphasis. "Anonymously."

"When can I come back?"

"Keep your cell close."

"Becky, quit the soap opera melodrama. You watch too much television. You really think Heaven and I should disappear?" Heaven tugged on my jeans.

"Mommy, Miss Becky's right. We should go."

The sober finality in Heaven's tone convinced me. I scooped her up and turned to scoot out the back door, just as the chime pinged in the waiting room.

Becky kissed us both. "Go on now, be quick. Stay safe. I'll handle this."

Two weeks spent in anguish passed before Becky sent the 'all clear.' "Just some zealous crackpots, thought they found a miracle, way out here in the boonies."

Becky tried to keep it light, as if nothing threatened Heaven, but the wariness in her eyes spoke otherwise. I assumed the worst. Evil scientists wanted my child. A few weeks later, it occurred to me that Mr. Jack Brennan had vanished. The man whose kitten was saved by Heaven. The man who Becky seemed to favor. Was there a conspiracy between those two? It had been some time since I'd last wondered about Becky: Friend or foe?

Heaven was seven years old, living a semi-normal third-grader's life, when Sophia called, hysterical. Her words came out broken up, in between hiccups and sobs. Words that sounded like daughter, Jenny . . . car accident. Stuck in a coma . . . no hope. She took one huge breath and completed a sentence. "Please come home. Can't you spare a good-bye for your niece?"

Becky wanted to close the clinic and drive me there, but I had to do this alone. We exchanged kisses, hugs and reassuring pats. I gathered Heaven, and as the car swallowed hundreds of miles, I thought of all the animals my daughter saved and asked one favor of the night. Keep my mother away from this child. When we arrived at the hospital, Sophia fell into my arms and collapsed. Over her shoulder, I saw our mom peering from behind a door, shaking her head and glowering at me. I swallowed bitter resentment, and a tinge of fear quivered under my skin. My daughter wandered off.

My mom strode over to me and asked, "What's the child's name?" Her eyes glittered and flashed in anger, watching an innocent child's disappearing back.

"Heaven."

"You named her Heaven, a child born from violence? It's blasphemous." I turned and walked away.

When a timid voice called—"Mommy?"—from my niece's room, I rushed in. Heaven sat holding her cousin's hand, dollops of tears plopping on Jenny's hospital gown. Warmth enveloped me. The aura surrounding Heaven intensified. I heard my family enter the room, but no one freaked, pointing to the strange field surrounding her, confirming my guess. Not just anyone could see her aura. As we watched, Jenny's hand twitched in my child's grasp and her eyes blinked open.

"Mommy?" Jenny half sat up.

Sophia and her husband dropped to their knees and grasped my niece's hands, whispering, "Jenny, Jenny, Jenny."

Everyone looked at my daughter, bewilderment in their tear-struck eyes and turned to me.

I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "It's her gift. Jenny was saved by Heaven's tears."

My mother cast her evil-eye scorn in my direction. "She's a freak. An aberration."

At twenty-three years old, my first instinct was to poke my tongue at my mom. Instead, I shook my head, and she stalked away.

Heaven had a quirky smile on her face, as my family hugged and kissed her, their relief temporarily staying their questions. As the commotion settled, Jenny dozed, and more doctors appeared. Talk was circulating. Inquiries were made. Medical staff pointed at my daughter and spoke with hushed words, eyebrows raised. Everyone wanted a place in my daughter's realm. Her customary placid expression tightened. She spoke in my mind.

"Take me home, Mommy. Please."

I hustled Heaven out of the hospital, snuggled her up with a blanket in the back seat, and hit the road around ten that night. Seven years ago, I was a sixteen-year-old kid on the run from a disapproving mother. Now, I'm mother to a miracle child. My daughter piped up from the back seat.

"Mommy, why'd you tell them I healed Jenny through my tears? I made her better with my mind."

This was Heaven's first time asking questions, a moment I feared. "I know you heal with your mind, Heaven. I'd rather people believe your tears are special, some chemical mixture that heals. Not your mind."

"But, why, Mommy?"

Heaven deserved straight answers. "People will come looking for us. Maybe healing with tears won't be as shocking as healing with your mind, giving us more time to relocate."

"Relocate? I don't want to leave Aunt Becky. I want to cure people."

That, I was not expecting. "We're both tired, baby. Can we talk in the morning?"

"Sure, Mommy."

Heaven fell into a deep slumber, while I pushed the engine to ninety miles an hour, clasping the steering wheel and fretting over doctors pressing for answers. I'll bet my mom had plenty to say. What if the event hit the news? A seven-year-old girl saved a person's life. I wanted to run and hide, Heaven wanted to save. Did I have a responsibility to society?

By two A.M., my mind stalled from questions chasing questions. The night, slipping to dawn, bore witness to my anguish. At seven A.M. I pulled into the driveway, exhausted and wary. Becky rushed out to greet us. Could I trust her? Who had she contacted that night I overheard the phone call? An image of Bruce rose into my mind. He was way too interested. But, Becky must have sent him away. Heaven clambered out of the car and flew into Becky's arms, negating any doubts.

"I saved Jenny's life, Aunt Becky!"

Becky eyed me over Heaven's blonde head, and too exhausted by far, I managed a whisper. "Heaven's a Halo child. And you knew from the day we met." Becky nodded. "What's your interest in The Halo Effect?"

Becky's eyes misted, but she remained silent. I wanted to pepper her with questions and demand explanations, but Heaven's question stalled my words.

"What's a halo child, Mommy?"

Becky pinned me with her calm, level gaze. But this time, in her sea-blue eyes, a warning flashed.

Run.



w/c 7,889

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