Chapter One: To Separate
Alchemy: The scientific and spiritual art of transmuting metals and plants into valuable elixirs, from the Greek words to separate and to bring together.
~ March 15, 1975 ~
The gravity of the situation lightened considerably once he turned the corner and witnessed her dip a green olive into a bowl of vanilla ice cream. As Christina popped the creamy olive into her mouth, her eyes fluttered shut in a look of pure bliss while Aldo cringed with disgust.
“That is the grossest combination you have tried yet,” he smirked, shaking his head.
Her eyes flew open, surprised by her husband’s stealthy entry into the kitchen. A slow smile spreading across her face, she retorted, “You want to try one? I’ve been craving a combination of sweet and savory, and this is to die for.”
“Um yeah, no thanks,” Aldo replied, his dark brown eyes alight with mirth. “I’ll leave the revolting food experiments to the pregnant woman.”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “Hey, you are not allowed to criticize. You’re the one who knocked me up!”
Their easy banter brought a catch to his throat, remembering the difficult conversation that lay ahead. He observed her engagement ring noticeably missing from her ring finger. With a sudden sober tone, Aldo inquired, “Is Linc asleep?”
“Yeah, he went down an hour ago.” Christina frowned. “He wouldn’t let me read him a bedtime story tonight. He told me that you promised you’d be home in time to read to him?”
Aldo gulped guiltily and he looked down. “I did promise.” Wasting no more time, he crossed the room and grabbed a notepad from the kitchen counter, beginning to scrawl a message. Christina curiously studied his tall, muscular physique for a moment before taking another spoonful of ice cream, glancing down with dismay at her expanding midsection. She looked much bigger at six months pregnant with this son than she had with Lincoln.
Thrusting the written message towards her, Aldo drew his index finger up to his mouth in a shushing gesture. Tilting her head with puzzlement, she took the piece of paper from his grasp and read:
Don’t say anything; the house is probably bugged.
We are in danger.
I need to speak to you outside.
Her head snapped up towards him and her eyes widened with alarm. He reached out and placed a steadying hand on her shoulder, stating loudly while shaking his head, his words failing to match his nonverbal cues, “I’m gonna go check on Linc. Maybe he’ll let me read his bedtime story tomorrow.”
Instead of heading towards his son’s room, Aldo extended his arm and grasped onto his wife’s delicate hand, pulling her up to a standing position and motioning for her to follow him to the sliding glass door leading to their backyard.
With forced cheerfulness, she called out to no one in particular, “Okay, make sure he’s covered up. You know how he likes to kick off his blanket.”
Once they were in their backyard, they quickly covered some distance over the dewy grass in their suburban Chicago neighborhood. Aldo held Christina’s hand as he pulled her along, and her heart pounded both from exertion and from his cryptic sense of urgency. Approaching a line of bushes at the back of their property, he finally paused and brought her near him.
All Christina could hear was her panting breath and the low howl of the wind in the black evening. Aldo cupped her hands in his, feeling her shiver in the cool night air. He didn’t know where to begin. “It’s, it’s awful, Christina!”
She felt a trembling electricity flow from his hands, conducting itself into her own skin. “What’s awful? What’s going on?” she cried with alarm.
“Ed Phillips…” he began, hit by a sickening feeling in his gut, “He’s dead.”
Christina’s mouth dropped open upon hearing of the demise of her husband’s coworker. “What? How?” Thinking of Ed’s wife, she asked, “Is Janice okay?”
Aldo steeled himself to share what he had learned with spouse, realizing that his family was about to be torn apart. Their lives were about to change forever. With a heavy sigh, he admitted, “I think Janice is dead as well. They’re both gone, Chris.”
A look of horror continued to spread across her face. Janice Phillips was one of her best friends, and this could not be happening. Were their deaths related to her husband’s employment? Christina knew that Aldo’s work for the governmental contractor was top secret; something to do about using his doctorate in chemistry to search for cures for diseases. He called himself an “alchemist”; whatever the hell that meant. But obviously something had gone horribly awry. “Tell me everything!” she pleaded, feeling a sob arise in her throat.
Nodding, Aldo launched into the difficult story. “Ed and I were researching the effects of environmental toxins on the human body, to study how to protect the body from disease. We were attempting to discover how to bolster the immune response through the use of plant products like opiates, tannins, and phenols. The company wanted us to start with the most toxic of all substances: sarin gas, since it is well known that acetylcholine build-up from sarin is an extreme version of cellular processes in the end stages of cancer.”
Christina had trouble following the scientific jargon but she nodded and waited expectantly for her husband to continue.
He swallowed hard. “Well, this morning Ed stumbled onto some information that horrified us both.” Aldo ran his hand through his thick, jet-black hair and sighed disgustedly. “This whole time we’ve been thinking that we were working on a cure for cancer; for noble causes. No, it turns out that we’re really working on creating antidotes for chemical weapons, and our research will be used to help the military kill people. It turns out that the whole damn company is corrupt.”
Knowing how many years her husband had ardently trained for his career, Christina reached out for him and stroked his forearm sympathetically. She had personally witnessed his passionate work-ethic when he was her teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, where they met. “Go on,” she encouraged.
Appearing distraught, he continued, “Ed told me what he found. He was all freaked out, and he said that if anything happened to him then I had to get Janice and Jane to safety.”
Christina drew her hand to her mouth, suddenly concerned for Janice’s eight year-old daughter, Jane. Was she dead too?
Overwhelmed by guilt, Aldo lamented, “I thought Ed was being totally paranoid. I mean, Major Smith is a very reasonable man, and all we had to do was ask to resign and hopefully we could find new work. Ed told me that I was crazy; that the company wouldn’t just let us leave after we had seen their inner network and their most clandestine military projects. We were still trying to figure out what to do when the Major mysteriously showed up and demanded that I leave the lab since he wanted to speak to Ed alone.”
“Did Major Krantz finally speak to you?” Christina asked.
Aldo shook his head disgustedly. “No, of course that wacko wrote down the order for me to leave instead of saying it out loud; I don’t know why that man doesn’t ever speak.”
Aldo looked off in the distance and numbly continued relating the events from that afternoon. “About an hour later Major Krantz found me in my office, and he handed me a file with a note on top, telling me that Ed had been sent to Indonesia to harvest some precious plants for our research. I was supposed to take over for Ed in his absence. When I protested that Ed and I were a team, the Major just stared at me with those cold blue eyes until I finally took the file from him, and then he left.”
Exhaling loudly, he gazed intensely at his wife. “That’s when I saw it,” he assured her with a macabre expression.
“I opened the file and written on the top page was Ed’s shaky scrawl, Schrader Crane.”
“Schrader Crane? What does that mean?”
“Gerhard Schrader was one of the German scientists who invented sarin gas; the S in sarin comes from his last name. The Nazis tried to co-opt his invention of sarin gas to kill Jews, and Ed and I were disgusted by corrupt governments using scientists’ work for their own evil purposes. And Crane; well one day in the lab we were bored, waiting for cultures to process, and I told Ed how I got you to marry me.” Aldo smiled wistfully. “I told him about writing the proposal on that origami crane I gave you when I handed you back your graded test.”
Christina fondly remembered how Aldo had continued his father’s tradition of giving his wife folded origami birds as a sign of love. She had trembled with excitement as a twenty-one year-old to lift the crane’s wing and read Aldo’s neat handwritten message, Will you marry me? Now she was trembling with a different feeling: a feeling of fear.
Aldo continued, “Ed was fascinated by the symbolism of familial obligation and I taught him how to fold the cranes as well.”
Staring at his wife’s confused expression, Aldo explained, “Don’t you see, Christina? Schrader Crane was Ed’s message to me that something happened to him! He was trying to warn me, and to ask me to look out for his family. I returned to the lab and did a brief environmental assessment of the isolation chamber, and I detected faint levels of sarin gas in the chamber.” Aldo choked out, “They used it on Ed! They killed him, and he was able to scribble a message of warning to me before he died.”
Christina’s eyes widened in terror, and she slowly asked, “How do you know that Janice is dead too?”
“I got out of there as quickly as I could, and I retrieved their daughter Jane from her after-school program, making up some excuse that Janice had asked me to pick her up. I distracted Jane with some cookies and we drove past the Phillips’ house. When I saw a military Jeep in their driveway, I knew it was not good.”
“But Janice might be alive!” Christina protested. “We have to go find her!”
“No, Christina. We go to their house and we’re as good as dead too.”
“What did you do with Jane?”
Aldo gazed into his wife’s beautiful blue eyes. He attempted to etch into memory the flecks of green and gold in those intense irises; he tried to encode the kaleidoscope of turquoise hues that communicated her utter devotion to him. His son Lincoln’s deep blue eyes seemed the perfect combination between her blue and his brown, and Aldo wondered what color of eyes his second son would have. He gulped, realizing that he probably would never have the chance to see his precious baby boy.
Walking towards the bushes nearby, Aldo whispered loudly, “Jane!” Christina’s forehead creased with worry as his whisper was met by silence, and he called out a little more loudly, “Jane, come out. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Burrows; it’s okay!”
Christina gasped as a tow-headed eight year-old girl emerged from the row of shrubbery, her knobby knees visible between white knee-high socks and the hem of her plaid school uniform skirt. She appeared frightened, and was quivering with tear-stained cheeks. “Jane, honey,” Christina murmured, motioning for the girl to approach her. With a sob escaping her lips, Jane stumbled forward into her arms and burst into tears.
Embracing the girl as best she could despite her pregnant belly, Christina glanced up at her husband and mouthed, “What does she know?”
Aldo answered, “She knows that her parents are in trouble.”
Christina nodded somberly, and soothingly stroked Jane’s long blond hair, which was cascading over her navy wool coat neatly buttoned up over her white oxford shirt.
Grabbing his wife’s arm, he spoke urgently. “Chris, we’re not safe here. I don’t believe the company is aware that I know about Ed, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“Then let’s leave!” she insisted.
“Yes,” he nodded grimly. “You need to leave.” The corners of his piercing brown eyes turned down sorrowfully. “You and Lincoln and Jane need to leave; go somewhere safe, somewhere far from the company. Without me.”
A look of horror flashed across her face. “What?” she demanded. “We can’t leave without you!” Jane began whimpering and Christina realized that she was unintentionally squeezing the girl’s skinny frame.
Trying to keep it together despite the disturbing words coming out of her husband’s mouth, Christina loosened her grip and knelt down eye-level with the girl. “Jane, sweetie, I want you to walk over to the bushes and stay there while I talk to Mr. Burrows. Make sure we can see you.” Searching her mind for a way to distract the obviously distraught little girl, she advised, “I want you to think about your favorite Brady Bunch episode, okay?”
Aldo watched the exchange and poignantly acknowledged that his wife would make an adept substitute mother for Ed’s daughter. Jane nodded dutifully and walked away from the adults. When she got out of earshot, Christina turned towards her husband. “What in the hell are you suggesting? Are you leaving me?”
“I have failed you,” he proclaimed. “In my zeal to get the best job and the best career, I have led us into danger. I’ve known it for some time, Chris; I felt it in my gut that something was not right with the company. But the money was so good that I ignored my intuition. And this afternoon two things have become painfully clear to me. One is that I cannot stay with this company. And the second is that if I leave, they will hunt me down until they find me and kill me. Until they kill all of us.”
Christina’s lips had parted and she listened to him with a stunned expression, momentarily brought out of her trance by a swift kick from the baby inside her womb. She glanced down at her swollen belly and rubbed her hand over her right side.
“Did the baby just kick?” Aldo asked. She nodded her head absentmindedly and he brought his large, strong hand to her abdomen to try to feel the movement within her. His gentle touch and the sickening realization that this might be the last time she ever felt his hands on her made her begin to weep.
“Don’t leave us,” she pleaded, dissolving into tears as he enveloped her in a hug. He had promised himself not to cry so that he could be strong for his family, but holding her while her body racked with sobs was seriously testing his resolve. She choked out, “I can’t make it without you!”
He took a deep breath and willed his strong facial features into a stony stoicism. “You can do this. You’re strong, Christina. It’s one reason I fell in love with you. I’ve got a place all set up for you and the kids in Springfield, and we’re going there tonight.”
“No,” she moaned into his shoulder, clinging on to him tightly.
“The company will be looking for a married couple with two boys,” he grimaced, adding, “God damn my big mouth announcing to the whole office that we’re having another boy. When you go into hiding, if it’s as a single mother with three kids, maybe that will throw them off the scent.”
Jane watched the adults hug each other and her stomach tightened with fear observing Mrs. Burrows crying non-stop. She didn’t know what was happening but she just wanted her mom to hug her. She missed her mom and dad something awful, and did not understand why Mr. Burrows was not taking her to see them.
Aldo insisted, “You have to do this. For the boys, and…for Jane. It’s the only way.” He let go of her and stepped out of the embrace, extracting a black velvet box from his pocket. “I got your ring back from the jeweler; the new setting is all finished.” Watching her husband gingerly remove the diamond engagement ring, the same ring he had placed upon her trembling finger seven years ago, made Christina cry even harder.
He gazed into her eyes and wiped away a few tears from her cheeks. “I want you to wear this, Christina. Wear it everyday and think of me.” He slid the ring onto her finger and it fit snugly next to her wedding band.
He held her again, and both could feel the baby kicking up a storm, almost as if he were aware that something was going terribly wrong in his family. The baby’s family was about to separate in order to protect themselves from the father’s nefarious employer. Aldo sighed with deep regret. As an alchemist he had been trained to separate and then to bring together. He was currently executing the first part just fine, but he did not think he would ever be able to complete the second part of the task. The family would never be together again.