Part 19 – very capable hands

Van relaxes in the resort commons area contemplating recent occurrences while watching another spectacular sunset.

He and Skyler had shared many things during their brief but intense relationship, but never sunsets. Her work schedule, whether it was at the police station, the warehouse, or …her previous occupation, typically required her to work evenings. She was rarely home when the sun set. When she wasn’t working nights, she would almost always be catching up on lost sleep. Van idly watches as the orange sky and blazing clouds soften to lavender tones then darken to the colors of plum and indigo until the night sky appears. It evokes the many fond memories of sitting with Benita observing the same awe-inspiring passage. Many of his most cherished memories with Benita occurred during the moments between day and night. Sadly it seems those memories are all that remains between them.

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Van does not often dwell on uncontrollable circumstances nor does he make a habit of burying the pain of difficult emotions. But he does find the current state of affairs better locked away than overly analyzed. The first days following Skyler’s death were difficult. Benita and her family provided the kind of love and support that only a family can provide. After a few days, Benita sensed the immediate crisis had passed and was quick to resume the absentee friendship; preferring to communicate with him by phone rather than in person. Her job at City Hall requires her presence at fundraisers, campaign rallies, and town hall meetings. She would have very much enjoyed spending more time with Van, but her schedule was just too full.

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After several days of avoiding him, Benita urged Van to stop sitting around waiting for her. She suggested keeping an open mind about dating other women. Her words had the same effect as a punch in the mouth. Van told her as much, then vented his frustrations about her aloofness; which often came across as indifference, if not outright contempt. What had he had done to deserve such cold animosity? She returned from SimCity a different person. The Benita he remembers would never have said something so inappropriate and heartless. They ended the conversation angry at each other and haven’t spoken again, since. This ongoing rift, compounded by Skyler’s death and the tabloid frenzy surrounding it and the Linda du Pont mystery, has given birth to wild rumors about a lurid love triangle. Some of these rumors have already run amok. Van steers clear of the fray and finds hospitality from an unlikely source.

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Enzo du Pont and his unusual daughter, Moira had already overstayed their original itinerary on Isla Paradiso by several weeks. After Skyler’s death, they elected to remain until both felt certain Van had moved past the worst part of his grieving. If not for Enzo and Moira, Van would have languished indefinitely. Moira is both oddly eccentric and uncommonly wise, though most of what she says makes absolutely no sense to him. At times, it is easy to forget that he is talking to a fifteen-year-old girl. Still, after three weeks of almost daily contact with Enzo and Moira, Van experiences a sense of serenity and calm unlike any he is able to recall.

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Van’s train of thought is interrupted by an incoming call from Corinth. Enzo had purchased a large beachfront mansion to better accommodate their extended sabbatical. With young Moira’s newfound love for the island paradise, its future use as a family vacation home is guaranteed. Enzo had asked Corinth to assume the role of resident majordomo and coordinate the property’s day-to-day maintenance and operational staff. Although Enzo had not extended the same legal arrangement given to Van, the mansion has essentially become Corinth’s new home. Since Enzo and Moira’s return to France a few days ago, Corinth has worked to grasp the responsibility of maintaining such a huge property while still working at the science lab.

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Van answers his phone, asking how Corinth is holding up. After a drastic pause, Corinth asks flatly if they can meet somewhere to talk business. Van understands that Corinth is serious and contemplative, but he’s not exactly the stoic type. Corinth’s chilled response is cause for concern and Van immediately worries that he has unknowingly done something to upset his good standing. Van agrees to meet Corinth at the marine institute without probing for any more information.

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Constable Dias and a rather brainy looking military type are waiting with Corinth outside the Oceanographic Institute when Van finally arrives. Corinth extends his thanks to Van, sparing details about the nature of the unusual meeting. The Constable sees Van’s alarm and immediately moves to assure him he’s done nothing wrong. Corinth, who seems confused by her gesture at first, joins her in reassuring Van after realizing he had neglected to give his young friend necessary details regarding the nature of his summons. The brainy-looking young woman wearing military fatigues steps forward and breaks the tension, introducing herself as Captain Jamie Paraski.

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They enter the facility together while Jamie provides a short synopsis of her background. She has been stationed at “Area 15” in Strangetown since her completion of boot camp six years ago. Her strong background in life sciences has proven very helpful to a number of ongoing projects at the base; none of which she is actually able to discuss. She and a team of fellow scientists were assigned to Isla Paradiso as part of an investigation which, again, she is unable to discuss. Van smirks mischievously, then asks whether they can skip to the part she is able to discuss. Jamie’s eyebrows shoot upwards, convicting Van with an amused but scolding glance. His response is a weak but genuine laugh; the first Van has enjoyed in many weeks.

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Salt water tanks and pools of all sizes have been arranged in a roughly grid-like pattern inside the central, research area of the facility. Computer terminals and work benches have been set up at many of the stations. Jamie is forced to speak louder, over the sound of bubbling tanks and water filters humming from nearly every point within the workspace. She explains her choice of utilizing this area to speak given its seclusion, security, and ambient acoustical characteristics. Despite a forced break-in a few weeks ago, and the resulting uncertainty regarding any potential listening devices, the white noise generated by this area will render any potential surveillance of their conversation completely useless. Van looks to Corinth with a confused expression, but his friend seems oblivious. He is fixated, instead, upon the young and attractive scientist.

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Jamie continues explaining that she has been working on artifacts and photos collected from the Linda DuPont site. She breaks mid-sentence to compliment Van on his flawless work under extreme and dangerous conditions, then suggests he consider a career in military undersea operations. She continues her story, disclosing how an intruder had expertly disabled all security and surveillance, then was uncommonly thorough about accessing encrypted data and research. Drawers and lockers were rummaged through, books were moved around on bookshelves, but what Jamie finds most curious is that nothing was actually taken. The problem, she believes, is that the perpetrator was unable to find what they were looking for. She has exhausted all investigative leads and has nothing to show for the effort. Corinth suggested that she turn to Van for help.

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Van interjects just as Jamie begins to recommend a second excursion to the dive site to search for anything possibly overlooked. He is not opposed to a second dive, but there is something he had forgotten to mention after the first excursion. He had found Linda’s underwater notebook among the other artifacts and secured it inside a pocket on his equipment harness. It’s with the rest of his gear in his bedroom back at the house. With everything that has happened, he neglected to even think about it until just now. Jamie stares at Van with an expression of dismay. Van shrugs apologetically, offering up the excuse that he is easily distracted. Brenda laughs under her breath, then attempts to disguise the guffaw as a sudden cough.

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Jamie shakes her head in deflated disbelief. She shrugs her shoulders and sends a glance in Corinth’s direction while informing him, half-jokingly, that they’ve just made new dinner plans for Van’s house tonight.

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Jamie Paraski is a talker. She’s not the kind of incessant, rambling talker that inhabits the place of nightmares. Rather, she is exceptionally intelligent, well-spoken, and most notably, a take-charge conversationalist. There is also a different side to her personality that becomes evident when the conversation drifts away from business and onto more casual topics. That is when Van first sees the spark of attraction between she and Corinth. Van smirks when it happens. Jamie immediately recognizes his discovery and jumps into military mode; puffing out her chest and defensively demanding to know what he’s smirking about.

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Corinth is also uniquely intelligent and seems to always be caught up in his own thoughts. More times than not, he’s slow to pick up on subtleties, which sometimes lends him the appearance of seeming perpetually confused or intellectually challenged. Van is certain Corinth plays this to his advantage at times. There is no mistaking that Corinth is fully aware of what had just transpired and that he had somewhat humorously chosen to play coy. Van’s better judgment is unable to resist his more mischievous nature, so he responds by wondering out loud whether Corinth had ever told her how extraordinarily beautiful she is when she’s angry.

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On cue, Corinth’s eyes light up with both shock and amusement and he laughs spontaneously out loud. Jamie fumes, but Corinth rests a friendly hand on her shoulder and says something calming to her in French. Jamie’s mood lightens somewhat as she shoots Corinth a half-scolding/half-encouraging glance. Corinth chuckles playfully telling Van that speaking to her in French soothes the savage beast, within. Before the trio enjoys a rousing bout of laughter, Van is half-certain he had heard Jamie mumbling under her breath, letting slip a measure of her southern dialect she had otherwise perfectly subdued, “you ain’t seen nothing yet, sugar…”

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Jamie reads Linda’s journal entries out loud after dinner. She sits close to Corinth, comforting him occasionally; especially when Linda mentions him in her writings. She hesitates before reading one entry in particular but continues with a sad and empathetic inflection. Linda had written about how much she loves Corinth, and how perfectly they balance each other. Jamie stops at the point where Linda wrote how she could not imagine life without him. Corinth is in tears at this point, so Van quietly removes himself upstairs to give Corinth time to regain his composure.

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Hearing the journal entry has brought back the nauseating feeling he had experienced watching and listening to Skyler die. He has started playing a radio at night just so he does not have to hear her labored and mutilated, dying breaths in the silence of his empty bedroom. He does not remember much about what happened after receiving her video message; only that he was ecstatic at first, believing he and Skyler were going to be reunited. And then… death. He had somehow found his way to the beach behind his house. Benita learned about the murder and broke her silence to check on him. There is no telling what he might have done in that semi-lucid state.

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Van’s thoughts are interrupted by Jamie walking halfway up the steps. She thanks him for the meal and asks if she can have the journal to send back to the military base for analysis. She believes it is what the intruders were looking for. Something Linda wrote in her journal contained a very specific meaning for Corinth. Van signals his agreement with a nod then regards Jamie with an austere and mindful expression. He shares his belief that Corinth is “one of the good guys”. There has been a lot of tragedy in their little circle, and a hunch tells him that it may not be completely over. He asks Jamie to look after Corinth. Jamie finishes climbing up the steps then regards the photo Van had been holding; a photo of Skyler. She whispers quietly, observing that Skyler had been beautiful. She then soberly expresses her condolences.

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She smiles and tells Van that Corinth thinks the world of him. She touches Van gently on the shoulder, affirming that it is easy for her to see why. He’s a good friend to Corinth and she thanks him for that. She smiles and winks, then turns to walk down the steps. Carrying a musical tone that sounds both playful and protective, she assures Van he has nothing to worry about. Corinth will be in very capable hands.

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Benita’s life seems to always to revolve around work. When she and Van were younger, Benita remembers insisting upon finishing every bit of homework, extra credit and chores before hanging out with Van. His own grades were likely much improved, seeing as how they always did their homework together. He would inevitably also help her with chores to finish them quicker. She may have used the situation to her advantage a time or two, but he never complained. Even back then, her parents adored him. Benita interrupts her own inner dialogue to remind herself that she adores Van as well.

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Van’s childhood and family life were both a mess. The homosexual couple that adopted Van despised the traditional values Benita’s family espoused, and went as far to label them “dangerous” and “subversive”. When Luisa became pregnant with Natalia, Van had asked the men about his own mother. At one point, he even demanded they tell him. They felt “unappreciated” and “insulted” that he would even bring up the topic since they were each both mother and father to him. In Benita’s estimation, the men were simply too self-absorbed and disinterested to answer Van’s question or care that he was troubled by it. She tried to imagine growing up without Luiza and found the concept nearly paralyzing.

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Van became even more restless as a teen. The mutual romantic attraction between he and Benita was becoming very difficult for them both to navigate. Benita thought inviting Van to attend church with her Sundays might help him. Van did not understand how going to church could help with anything. He started attending anyway if only to spend more time with her. Mitch and Wade were both furious. They attempted to stop Van from seeing Benita with very little success. Van had already grown into a physical powerhouse, and he simply pushed his way past them. Van had never been a rude or misbehaved child, but he made sure the men knew he did not recognize their authority on the matter. His relationship with them changed permanently after that confrontation.

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As the years unfolded, Benita began to feel the unquenchable tug of ambition. The thought of continuing to live at the cusp of poverty terrified her. It overshadowed everything, even the unique love shared between her and Van. She often used work as a means of keeping Van at arm’s length and pushed him even farther away after he started talking about marriage. Even now, she continues chipping away at the loving bond they share; working hard to demolish it, as though it were a prison. In terms of her ambition, Van is nothing more than cumbersome refuse to be discarded on the path toward fulfilling its lofty goals. Since taking a job at City Hall, she has once again placed work firmly between her and Van.

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Lately, the recurring nightmare involving Van has begun to affect more than just how Benita interacts with him. It has disguised itself as a loving recreation of her night with Marcus in every perfect detail. At the moment of release, however, Ann has somehow taken Marcus’ place inside the dream. Before Skyler’s murder, the nightmare would end with Benita scattering seagulls away from Van. After Skyler’s murder, the dream became much darker and more frightening. Now the gulls are no longer able to take flight. Benita always wakes up at the same point; she is wearing a custom suit, the color of dark crimson, and she walks away in lockstep with Ann. Van is left standing on the beach alone. She often wakes, feeling physically nauseated. The disturbing imagery sometimes occupies her waking thoughts throughout the day.

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Benita had been walking en route to the grocery store when this distressing thought process took root. It has agitated her to such an extent that she finds herself clenching her teeth and holding her breath. Her doctor calls these episodes “panic attacks”. Whatever they are, they seem to be occurring more often. Benita pauses to sit on a street bench to sort out the discord. Her gut churns with dread over the mess she has made of her beautiful, lifelong friendship with Van. Skyler had not been dead a week before Benita told Van she was keeping her options open and that he should consider dating other women. Dear God, what was she thinking!? The words “self-absorbed” and “disinterested” echo in her mind. Those words had become regular criticisms of hers, describing Mitch and Wade; especially after they abandoned Van. Benita’s gut sinks further as she finds herself resting her head in her hands and coming to terms with the fact that the critical assessment describes her just as well.

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Dusk has fallen before Benita finally resumes her walk to the grocery store. Luiza had texted asking where she was. Benita responds with the words, “sitting. thinking.” Her mother texts a kiss in reply. Benita smiles. Van has always done the little things that make her smile, too. Benita breathes a deep sigh then fires off a text to Van. After a moment, he responds. He’s at the gym, working out. A sad smile crosses her lips. If anything, he’s always been very easy to look at. A small flutter in her belly accompanies the next message she sends, “bistro? 9pm?” The little flutter in her belly expands when she giggles out loud in reaction to his response. It is something she had not seen from him since high school; three consecutive hearts. Even back then, he thought he was being clever. But she knew his game. Benita smiles wistfully and speaks gently to the picture displayed on her phone,

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“… I love you too, meu lindo.”

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