Toby Fesler Heathcotte
His mother's ghost prevents Luke from dying on Nine Eleven. There must be a reason.
Willing to sacrifice his life on Nine Eleven, Luke instead finds himself required to live. He must protect himself and his family from an ancient vendetta at the hands of a man compelled to murder them all. Although failing before, Kegan has been reborn with paranormal skills that give him the advantage this time. He’ll finally get the revenge he deserves.
In the Alma Chronicles, souls, bound together in a circle of love, passion, betrayal, and murder, reincarnate lifetime after lifetime from the ancient Celtic world through twenty-first century America.
Excerpt from Luke's Covenant, Alma Chronicles IV
by Toby Fesler Heathcotte
2009 release by Mardelbooks.com
The School of Life
More than anything, Karim Hijazi al-Kabul wanted to run away, but if he did Father would catch him and carry him back. He knelt on the dirt floor in the tent and held tightly to the stack of pillows, lumpy against his hands.
His mother’s body shook beneath the brown burkha that covered all except her scared eyes. “Please don’t take my baby away.”
Father picked up his kufi hat from a metal trunk and stretched it over his head. He spoke in Farsi. “In the name of Allah, woman, leave off.”
“He is my life.” Mother sounded sad.
“He is not yours. He belongs to Allah.” Father set his hands on his big hips and looked mean. “The Imam will make a man of him.”
When Mother bent down, Karim reached up to be taken into her arms. She said to Father, “Wait until next year when he turns six, please.”
Father snatched Karim from her. “Let’s go, son.”
“I can’t let you do this,” Mother whispered.
“You what?” Father set Karim down and spoke in that quiet way he always talked when he got very mad. “You can’t let me? You insult me once too many times. I call on the grace of Allah. He requires that I tap you.”
Karim screamed even though he knew it would not help. Other times when Father tapped her, she always fell down and cried.
As Mother backed away, Father yelled, “Karim, go get in the cart.”
This was no time to disobey. Karim scurried through the tent flap. He climbed into the wooden cart and buried his face in his hands. He could not hear anything except his own sobs. He must have been a very bad boy to cause Father to need to tap Mother.
Father came outside, a duffel bag in his hand, and patted Karim’s back. “Quiet, boy.”
Two neighbor men, dressed like Father in tunic, pleated hat, and vest, passed and nodded without speaking. Father took up the shafts and pulled the cart down the paved road. On both sides, eyes peered through slits in tents.
“Karim, Karim,” came the beloved voice. Mother staggered down the road toward them.
Perhaps Father had not heard her because he kept on going. His baggy pants flapped around his sandals in the hot wind.
“Mother is coming. Please, wait for her. Mother is coming.”
“No, she’s not. It’s all right, boy. We’re going to a very good place where she is not allowed to follow.”
Mother lagged farther and farther behind. She sagged down in the dirt beside the road, and Karim watched her until she faded out of sight. The cart bumped along on ruts. Karim’s heart hurt because he wanted Mother to come with them. He missed her and was afraid without her. His tears flowed over his face and down his soiled tunic, but he did not sob anymore.
They went a long, long way, past stone houses and gray hills. An occasional shrub dotted the rocky landscape. Carts, camels, and cars filled with people passed, going the other direction.
The sun rose high and made Karim’s cheeks feel hot. The tears all went away. Karim’s bottom hurt from bouncing, and his stomach ached. Glad to stop, he bowed happily in the dirt beside the road for prayers. All praise be to Allah for His food.
When Father took out two pita breads, Karim noticed that his other tunic and pants lay folded inside the duffel bag. He did not understand why they were taking his clothes. The bread tasted good with buttermilk from a jug.
Late in the afternoon Karim and Father reached a place with many stone buildings. Roadways ran through it. Men in dishadashas sat about, talking, the lengths of their gowns held up to keep them out of the dirt. Some stood in booths with chickens and potatoes for sale.
An airplane flying over made Karim wish he could ride in one. Someday he would. That would make him happy and proud.
At the end of a street, they stopped and entered a low building made of round bricks the same gray as the rocks. Inside, the walls gave off coolness.
An Imam with a beautiful beard met them. He wore a white dishadasha with fancy sewing on it, and his eyes looked as if they sank into his face. “In the name of Allah, welcome to my school.” He spoke Farsi with a scratchy voice. The ends of his headdress fell across his face when he shook Father’s hand.
Father looked down at the marble floor even though he spoke to the Imam. “I wish to place my son in your care. He is an ignorant boy and needs to learn the ways of Allah.”
“We can save him from absolute desolation and the pain of unending need.” The Imam clasped his hands. “Can you pay the tuition?”
Shaking his head, Father shifted his eyes to another part of the floor.
“Praise be to Allah, one of our brothers, a true benefactor who believes in holy jihad, has reserved scholarship funds for such youths as yours. They are our most important resource.”
“Thank you, brother. I would pay if I could.” Father bowed and turned toward the door. He glanced back toward Karim and shook one finger. “You be a good boy, Karim. Mind the Imam and grow up to be worthy.” He scuttled out the door.
“Father, take me, please.” Karim tried to run after his father, but the Imam grabbed Karim’s shoulders and held him back. His head barely came to the Imam’s waist. Why did Father not want him anymore? Karim needed Mother. Tears fell down his face onto his bare feet.
“Tears are for women, Karim.” The Imam guided him toward a doorway. “You will not show your weakness. You will stop crying and turn your heart toward Allah. Beg him for mercy for your unworthy soul. Praise be to Allah for all His mercies.”
Karim choked back a sob.
The Imam thumped the top of Karim’s head and spoke in a voice like Allah’s. “Say it!”
“Praise be to Allah for all His mercies.” Karim wiped away the tears.
They walked into a room where boys of different ages sat in rows. All bent over books and none appeared to notice Karim. The Imam pointed to an empty seat in the back. After Karim sat, the Imam opened the book before him and said, “Someday you will memorize every word. Then you will know worthiness. Praise be to Allah.”
Imitating the other boys, Karim gazed down at the book. It looked like a chicken had walked across the page with mud on its feet. He wanted to cry but did not dare. Allah could never love such a weak boy, one whose father did not want him, one whose mother let him go. She probably did not love him anymore.
Karim vowed to make Allah proud of him. And the Imam. And the benefactor brother who paid money for him. Karim did not know what benefactor meant, but it must be good.
Then Father and Mother would come and bring him back home. Karim mumbled, “All praise be to Allah for His mercies.”
Phoenix, Arizona, 1990
God, how he wished he could pray. Or even believed prayers would help.
Luke Brock tipped back on the dining room chair and cracked his neck, unable to relax muscles that had been tight for months. He rubbed throbbing eyes and left off staring at the screen of the laptop set among stacks of bills and folders. He downed the last swallow of tepid beer.
As darkness crept into the room, the computer monitor gave scant illumination.
Bending down to the playpen beside him, Luke laid his hand on the toddler’s back. Just feeling Aaron’s shallow breaths going in and out relieved Luke’s mind more than prayers or consoling words, no matter how well intentioned.
Baskets and vases of wilted cut flowers and drooping green plants sat around the floor, flooding the whole downstairs with a funereal stink. He should have taken the mortician’s advice and donated them to Good Samaritan Hospital right away, but at the time Luke had the idea that getting rid of the flowers would upset his mother.
How insane a thought was that? Like he had not known for months that the cancer would kill her. Like he had not watched her shrink to a tiny shell of herself. Like she could come back from the dead and haunt him the way she’d teased that she would.
How she had fooled herself with that psychic baloney.
Angie Brock had not ventured back to Earth in spirit form since the day of her death. How long had that been? Hours or weeks? She felt as insubstantial as a moonbeam when she floated into her dining room. She had eaten most of her meals in this room for over twenty years, but it looked oddly milky, blue and indistinct, like an underdeveloped photo proof. Her earthly life in Phoenix, Arizona seemed a distant memory.
There sat Luke scowling at the computer, as he had done so often during her illness. She owed him a great debt of gratitude for his care.
Hello, honey. It’s me. Can you see me? Angie wanted to speak, but her thoughts didn’t quite make it into words.
Moving to him, Angie tried to lay her hand on his cheek. Her hand appeared like a shadow to her, and she failed to feel the warmth of his skin beneath her touch. She felt joyous at being able to see the two of them, the beloved son and grandson, again.
Luke, Aaron, I’m here. I’m alive.
Aaron stirred in the playpen. Perhaps he had heard her. Little ones were often more sensitive. Angie would love to hold him and kiss his chubby cheeks. She floated to the playpen and tried to wrap her arms around the baby, but again she failed, her movements wispy and insubstantial. He settled back into sound breathing.
How brash she had been while still living, actually crossing into the astral plane to meet her lover. She had considered it her right. Now, from the other side, she had much to learn about trafficking between the worlds.
She gazed at her loved ones. How wonderful it would be just to touch them again.
My sweet ones, I will content myself with seeing you, for now.
Luke obviously hadn’t heard her because he typed a few words then leaned back in his chair. “Damn, damn, damn.”
Uncertain about why he seemed so agitated, Angie hovered behind her son and read the words as he typed them.
Pissed at himself all over again, Luke returned his fingers to the computer and scrolled though the letter to his mother, the one that the know-it-all grief counselor had told him to write. So far Luke did not feel one damned bit better, and some vague feeling of disloyalty lurked inside him, into the bargain. Ignoring it, he keyed in words in a furious push to try once again to release his pent-up hostility.
You picked a fine time to die, Mom, just when my wife left me. Who’ll help me raise Aaron? I know I should feel some sadness or heartache because you’re dead, but all I feel is abandoned. My predominant feeling, like ninety-nine percent of me, is angry. Rage is a better word, rage that Melinda is gone, rage that you’re gone.
Until you got sick, I had enthusiasm for life. Not that everything went well, but I could always find moments that rated a headline. No matter how hard I try, no headline comes to me now. Where in hell will I get the motivation to continue?
What is there to show for your life? Or that your death had meaning? My birth was a cosmic accident. Just like my death will be. Just like yours. A hundred years from now, what difference will it make anyway?
Maybe I’m just a cold-hearted asshole—
The doorbell rang. Luke rose and kicked back his chair. He leaned down and squinted at the words on the monitor. “This is stupid.”
Luke deleted the file without saving it and strode down the hall to the front room.
Oh no, honey. Don’t do that. Angie hadn’t even finished reading. She ached for him and wished she could make him feel better.
Somehow she had to get him to realize that she still lived, that he would live again. Then he could go on with his life with more energy. If he knew she was alive, would he be okay? How could she make her thoughts known in her son’s mind?
If anyone had asked her to describe the spirit world before she died, Angie would have guessed it was a quiet place of refuge, rest, and reflection with fountains and music and soothing architecture. A more or less biblical heaven with modern angels playing trumpets and wafting around elegant buildings studded with inlaid gold and jewels.
Well, at least she got the fountains and architecture right.
Angie still had a lot of questions unanswered about the spirit world. On her return other members of her soul group had mentioned The Plan, something that had transpired in the Afterlife during her lifetime on Earth. She didn’t know much about its details, but she did know that Luke and Melinda had volunteered.
More importantly, Luke’s grief was pulling Angie back into his life. Emmons, like a good guide, cautioned her to be careful until she became more adept and not to upset any forces already set in motion. She always tried to follow his instructions, at least those she could understand.
Because of the warmth of the February evening, the plank door stood open to catch the breeze. As Luke went to answer the doorbell, he could discern through the screen that a woman was on the porch.
He flipped the switch and beneath the porch light’s yellow glow stood Melinda resplendent in her workday finery, royal blue satin blouse, gray pin-striped suit, and a Gucci bag hanging from her shoulder. He used to think her glamorous with her long black hair and sultry black eyes. Now he thought her about as vacuous as a circus clown. All glitz and no guts.
Melinda inspected the bare palo verde tree and some bedraggled rose bushes beside the porch. “These could use some water.”
That was so typical of Melinda, to show more nurturance for plants than for her own child, whom she freely abandoned for a fucking job opportunity.
“What are you doing here?” Luke didn’t try to conceal his antagonism.
“I thought I’d take Aaron for a few days.” Her brows arched in that way Melinda had of making her beautiful face look cocky, but her voice betrayed her by faltering. “You know, parental visitation?”
“That’s supposed to be tomorrow.”
They had agreed she would pick up the baby from daycare, so they would not have to see each other. Melinda scheduled everything with great efficiency. No, she had another reason for showing up here tonight.
“May I come in?”
Grudgingly, Luke opened the screen. “You sure you can spare the time?”
Melinda passed by him and rubbed her hand across his unshaven cheek. “You could use a haircut and a pluck.”
Repulsed by her touch, Luke strode toward the playpen. Her heels clicked on the parquet as she followed him.
“Stay there. I’ll bring him.” Luke refused to even give her civility tonight. She did not deserve it. He wished he could keep her from taking Aaron.
Luke picked up the toddler, trying not to awaken him. When he returned to the living room, she had perched on the arm of the sofa with its worn blue floral pattern. Melinda always looked out of place in his mother’s home with its cozy décor. One thing his wife had never been was cozy. He hated releasing Aaron, the one bright spot in this dismal life.
As he held out the baby, Luke said, “It would be a lot less upsetting if you’d pick him up from daycare like we agreed, instead of whisking him away in the night. He has little enough to depend on, as it is.”
With a smile so warm it would almost pass for motherly, Melinda rose and took Aaron. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“So what else is new? You never think about anything except yourself.” Her presence worked a lot better as a catalyst for releasing anger than some damned letter. Luke enjoyed venting on her. No one deserved it more.
“I’m sorry about your mother. I had a lot of respect for Angie, especially at the end.”
“Oh, and so you showed it by avoiding her sickroom completely until the night before she died?” Cowardice, there was nothing else to call her behavior. Melinda should have helped him care for his mother.
Blushing, Melinda gazed down at her feet. “I wish I could have been here for the funeral, but it was just one thing after another with getting the loan and finding the location to set up the office in L. A.”
Maybe she’d slept with the investor to get him to fund her accounting business, but the thought seemed so repugnant that Luke put it out of his mind. Even though he didn’t voice his suspicions, they fueled him and gave him energy enough to cope with her. “What makes you think we need you? We’re just fine without you.”
“I sent flowers. Did you get them?”
With a shrug, Luke gestured toward the dining room. “Check it out and see if yours are there. I brought all the flowers home.”
“That’s not necessary.” Melinda moved Aaron back and forth with a rocking motion. “My parents said the funeral was very nice.”
“Oh, they’re speaking to you?”
“Just barely.” Melinda looked sheepish.
Mother and Father Chacon had acted appalled that Melinda had walked out on her family. The fact that Angie had lain near death made the abandonment far more despicable in their eyes. They had told Luke so and apologized over and over. With those traditional Catholic values of theirs, they could not begin to understand their sophisticated, worldly daughter. Neither could Luke.
Melinda’s brow knit in what for her might be a sincere expression of concern. “Please, let me do something.”
“Be good to the kid.”
“Don’t leave him with the babysitter the entire time he’s with you.”
“Okay.” Melinda shot a surprised glance that showed he’d guessed her intentions. In the awkward silence that followed, she looked at the floor. “Are you going on a business trip?”
Luke didn’t answer. It was none of her business where he went. If she’d thought about it, she’d realize he’d not gone on a business trip for months. The partners at his law firm had acted far more understanding than she about his obligations to his mother. They’d never put any pressure on him, and he took off as much time as he needed near the end.
“What’s that for?” Melinda pointed to his open suitcase on the floor with jeans and a sport shirt folded inside along with that hateful metal urn.
Luke stared at the suitcase, and dread at his errand overcame his hostility. “I promised Mom I’d bury her in Indiana. It would have been a nightmare to get her body there, so I’m taking her ashes back to scatter them over her father’s grave. I hope that will be sufficient.”
“Are you completely clueless? Of course, I’m going alone.” All of a sudden weary of his own anger, Luke trudged through the archway into the small kitchen and took a beer out of the fridge. The trash was heaped with beer cans and pizza boxes.
Melinda adjusted the child on her hip and followed him. “I’ll go with you, if you want. Aaron and I, I mean.”
For a moment, Luke questioned whether he’d heard correctly. Of course, he wanted her with him. The separation had been her idea, not his. No one should have to go through this grief alone. He wished she could just once make things better instead of worse.
“What are you doing, Melinda? You said you wanted a divorce. You said I could have Aaron. You said your business was the only important thing. Well, go do it and leave us alone.”
“I was wrong to say those things, especially at a time like this. I didn’t mean them anyway. I wish you would come with me. You can take the California Bar and handle all the tax-related cases in my firm. Or start your own firm.” Melinda spoke quickly, as if she’d practiced a speech and feared she’d forget it if she did not get it all out fast. Whatever you want to do.” She fell silent with an embarrassed expression.
What in hell was she doing? When Aaron whimpered, Luke patted him. “It’s okay, big guy.” Luke needed comfort, too. This woman, his wife, had just offered it to him, the last thing he’d have predicted she would say. “Did your parents shame you into making this offer?”
“No. I…we…talked it over. It’s the right thing to do.” Frowning, Melinda reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. Her touch was warm, and for a moment the woman he had fallen in love with swam before his gaze. She murmured, “You don’t have to decide right now. Just think about it, please. Do it for Aaron, not for me.”
The familiar pine scent of her hair mingled with the sweet smell of Aaron’s skin. Together they overpowered Luke. This going it alone sucked.
With a shudder, Luke enfolded his family in his arms. He needed to love and feel loved. Melinda’s back stiffened and she let out a little cry. Maybe that meant she needed the same thing.
Aaron awoke and wiggled between them. “Mama.” He laughed. The poor little kid didn’t have any notion that his mother had walked out on him.
One of the last things Angie had said before she died was that Luke would have to forgive Melinda to save his own soul. He chalked up another bull’s eye for his mother’s predictions.
He had an overwhelming feeling that he had to do something, that life had some great significance that eluded him. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what. He sure as hell needed Melinda now. Would that be enough to let him forgive her?