Today’s tidbit is a short story about Tim McConaway.  Brigid’s already told everyone that he was abducted by aliens, and while Wes may or may not have believed her, she was actually telling the truth.  When he escaped his captors and returned to Earth in December 2009, right before Christmas, he found himself in need of a friendly ear—or a friend at all.  What he ended up finding, well...that was unexpected.

“The Darkest Night of the Year” immediately precedes the first book in the UNSETIC Files series, Bering Songs and Silence, which is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

Hope you enjoy!

- Erin Klitzke

In the silence of a rainy solstice night, Tim McConaway walked the streets of Alexandria, shoulders slumped and head bent. The rain ran down through the gap at the back of his neck, trickling down beneath the collar of his coat to run down his spine in icy rivulets.

He didn’t care.

The last few weeks had been nothing if not surreal. Waking up on a dingy bathroom floor in St. Petersburg, still dressed in the unmarked black bodysuit he wore beneath his armor with no identifying information other than the dog tags hanging around his neck. Stumbling out into the street only to bump into a very, very large man, spilling his borscht all over the both of them.

Laying that man out flat on the sidewalk, head ringing, eyes stinging, jaw hurting as he shouted at them in a language they didn’t understand—that no one on this world would understand.

They’d thought he was crazy and he couldn’t blame the Russian authorities for locking him up for those couple of days until the US Embassy got involved. If he hadn’t been missing for two years, they probably would have let him rot.

He’d been thrown on a plane to California after those couple of days, shipped back to the States quietly, as if he was a secret. Then again, he probably was. He wasn’t sure what it had looked like when he’d been magicked out of his cockpit, but he was willing to lay odds that the Air Force either thought he was dead or had somehow managed to go AWOL—equal odds on both. It must have been how he’d looked or something he’d said that had gotten him shipped to a medical center instead of straight to the brig. He was still trying to figure out if that was a lucky break or not.

He hadn’t expected anyone to believe him. He’d contemplated keeping the whole story to himself—keeping the truth to himself. After all, it was much too fantastic to believe—that he and his best friend since childhood had been abducted by beings from another world, held prisoner by those beings for years, a slave forced to serve as one of their foot soldiers, as an enforcer—and worse still, being groomed to become one of them. His friend had been ripped away from him, sold away to another master after another failed attempt at escape. Mat O’Brien had bent, never broken. Tim had shattered into a thousand jagged shards, like plate glass on pavement.

He’d lost everything. Sometimes, he thought that might have included his very sanity.

Weeks of questions had culminated in a suit showing up in Tim’s room at David Grant, where they’d kept him stowed until they figured out what to do with him. Some of the brass had thought he was crazy; he’d heard some of the shrinks throw around the term “delusional.” After he’d heard that, he’d shown the psychologists the scars on his back, ones that couldn’t have been self-inflicted. Someone had muttered about the Taliban and he’d just shut up and decided they could think whatever they wanted to think. There wasn’t any use. They weren’t going to believe him.

Then the suit showed up and started talking.

He hadn’t given a name or a rank, just sat down and started talking. There was a place for people like him that wasn’t a medical center or a psych ward, people with gifts, people who’d seen things, who knew things. Work to be done, work only people like him could do. All he’d have to do was sign his life over to them. Join up, and they’d take care of him. Keep quiet about what had happened to him—oh yes, they believed what he said was true, but didn’t he understand how dangerous talking about it was? Of course he did. He’d have to keep quiet, stay hidden until the time was right. Contacting his family would be out of the question, but they’d be safe—he’d been promised that. Every possible step would be taken to keep his sister and his uncles safe.

Keep your mouth shut, do what we tell you, and everything will be fine. We’ll tell you what you want to know about each assignment—more than your partner will get. No, you won’t be working alone. We won’t risk that, but you’ll be fine. Another military officer if we can find one. There might be one coming available soon enough...

There hadn’t been any other choice. He’d signed the papers and sold his soul—what was left of it—to the United Nations bureau of spooks and crazies.

He’d been released from David Grant the next day and presented with orders to report to Arlington. A cab, a plane, and a car sent to meet him later, he’d been sitting in a room in the bowels of the Pentagon, quietly presented with his back pay, updated identification, new insignia, and new uniforms. The uniforms had fit like a glove, which was mildly frightening, but everything had been happening so fast, it was hard to keep up. He’d gotten an apartment in nearby Alexandria thanks to someone pulling some strings and the next few days were spent going through the motions of furnishing the place, buying new off-duty clothes, buying a car. Anything to keep him from having to think.

It had been okay during the day, when he’d been awake and trying to keep busy. It was when the sun went down that the problems began. That’s when the nightmares came, the ones from which he woke up screaming or in a cold sweat, ready to kill or wanting to die.

He’d given up on ever having a good night’s sleep again.

The distractions of trying to start over had kept him from thinking about the season more than anything. December. Christmas. He’d tried not to think about what his sister and his uncles were probably doing, tried not to think of all the Christmases he’d spent in Chicago with them, with AJ and Mat and Chris and Peter. He tried not to think about the one and only Christmas he’d spent with a certain RAF officer who still had a grip on his soul in spite of everything.

He didn’t want to remember being happy. It made being miserable that much worse.

But that afternoon, he’d found himself watching A Muppet Christmas Carol on TV and found his throat growing tight. Tears were on his face by the end and he couldn’t stand it a second longer. The walls of his apartment, bare, impersonal, stark white and unadorned, were closing in on him.

He’d thrown on his coat and walked out without knowing where he was going and not caring where he ended up. The sun vanished and the rain began. He’d read somewhere—or maybe Kate had told him—that walking in the rain was supposed to be cleansing for the soul.

For the moment, it just felt cold and very, very wet.

The streets were dead silent this far from any mall or shopping center. It was perhaps nine o’clock in the evening already. He’d been walking for hours, since before the sun had gone down on this, the shortest day and longest night of the year.

Tim closed his eyes, exhaling a breath in a cloud of steam that drifted in the rain-soaked night for a moment before being stolen away by a breeze. There would be snow by morning, he thought. Maybe it would turn before he made it home.

It probably will, he thought, then sighed, shoving his hands deeper into the pockets of his coat and finally looking at his surroundings.

Just another quiet street in an older section of Alexandria. Houses. A church.

A Catholic church.

His throat grew tight and he crossed the street, heading toward the familiar scent of incense. The lights were still on inside, but dimly. It was late. Masses would be over.

He stopped in front of the doors, pressing his bare, calloused and scarred hands against the wood, breathing abruptly ragged, heart beating like a trapped bird trying to win free of the cage that was his ribs.

You can. You can. It’s okay.

Tim swallowed his fear and self-revulsion and opened the door, stepping into the shockingly warm vestibule. A fount full of holy water stood between two sets of double doors leading deeper into the church. One set was propped open, revealing teasing glimpses of the dimly lit chapel beyond and the crucifix hanging at the front of the nave.

Lips pressed tightly together, Tim tentatively dipped his fingers into the fount, half expecting the holy water to burn when he touched it.

It didn’t. Some of the tightness in his chest eased. He crossed himself and slipped into the chapel.

The candles were still lit around the altar and the whole place smelled like incense and pine—smells that hurt and comforted all at once. Moving in silence, eyes stinging, Tim made his way to a pew near the front of the church and sank down into it, exhaling quietly. He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.

Forgive me. God, forgive me. Forgive me my sins and my trespasses, despite knowing that I will surely sin and trespass once more. I am neither good nor evil, I simply am. I am an imperfect soul, a man who has done some awful things, but I beg forgiveness for the unforgivable. I know I am not worthy, but I will try to be better than I have been. Stronger than I have been. But I can’t do it alone. Help me, God, please.

“Please,” he whispered in a broken voice. “Please, God, I need...I need help. I feel so alone.”

A footstep echoed and he shot upright, hand reaching for a sword that wasn’t there anymore, a blade he’d carried for so long that its absence made him feel incomplete. His throat grew tight, sudden panic nearly enough to strangle him. A man stood near the altar, staring at him with an expression of mild concern on his face.

“Can I help you, son?” he asked softly.

With a jolt, Tim realized it was the parish priest. He slowly sat back down, aware that he probably looked like some soaking wet, homeless, rootless soul off the street.

It’s what you are, aren’t you?

He closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he murmured softly. “I don’t know that anyone can.”

“Except for God?” He could hear the smile in the man’s voice, closer now. The pew creaked as the priest sat down next to him. “I’m Father Mason,” the priest said quietly. “Abel Mason.”

“Tim,” he whispered. “Tim McConaway. It’s—it’s nice to meet you, Father.”

The priest radiated warmth and comfort. The knot in Tim’s throat loosened even as his hands curled into fists against his knees. He was abruptly aware of how wet and miserable he was, soaked to the bone, the cuffs of his jeans already leaving small pools of water around his feet.

I’m a mess, aren’t I?

“I just found myself here,” he said, staring at the hymnals that sat in the rack attached to the back of the pew in front of them. “I don’t know why I’m here of all places.”

I should have kept walking.

“God works in mysterious ways,” the priest murmured, leaning back. “Clearly, you’re here because you need to be. I can tell you’re troubled.”

He choked on a laugh. “Troubled doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

“Call a master of understatement.” Father Mason smiled wryly, though the expression faded quickly as he spoke again. “Your threads are fraying and glue that’s holding you together grows weaker by the moment. You fear that you won’t be able to keep the demons in your soul at bay for much longer.”

A shiver shot through him and he stared at the priest, throat growing tight again. “How do you know that?” Tim breathed. “How could you know that?”

Father Mason shrugged. “One could say that I’ve seen it before, but that would be a lie. I have no answer for you, Lieutenant McConaway, except that I just know.”

“I didn’t tell you—”

The priest smiled and Tim broke off, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Can you read me?” he asked in a choked whisper, his eyes stinging.

“Like a book,” the priest said softly. His hand covered Tim’s. The pilot nearly flinched away, then forced himself to settle down, to stay still. Tim sucked in a ragged breath and looked up at the crucifix at the front of the church.

“I don’t know what to do, Father. I don’t even know what I am anymore.”

“Ahh,” Father Mason said softly. “That I can help you with.”

“Can you?” Tim asked, his voice a bare, shaking whisper. “Because I could sure use that help. I feel like—” He stopped, shoulders slumping. “I don’t even know what I feel like anymore. Broken, I guess. Shattered. Dead inside but still walking.”

“You need purpose,” the priest said.

Tim nodded.

“You need a family.”

His jaw tightened. “That’s the one thing I can’t have, Father. It’s too dangerous.”

“Let them make that decision,” Father Mason said quietly. “They’ll know if it’s too dangerous.”

No. No, they won’t. They won’t understand—they can’t. For them to understand, they’d need—

--they’d need to know everything. I’m not ready to tell anyone everything. No. I can’t.

I won’t.

He swallowed hard. “What else? What can I do, Father? I feel like—I feel like there are so many sins I committed. How do I make up for all of that? How can I find peace?”

The priest took his hand gently and turned it so his palm faced up. Tim stared at him, then looked down as he heard the rasp of a chain against itself, felt something cold against his palm.

A Celtic cross lay there, gleaming in the candlelight. A small red stone was nestled at the heart of it, gleaming like a drop of blood. Tim’s heart skipped a beat.

How can something feel so right when everything is so damned wrong? He took a shaking breath, lips thinning. Father Mason folded his fingers around the cross.

“Have faith,” Father Mason said softly. “Have faith, Merlin, and strength of will and a little help from God and luck will get you through. You made it home for a reason and that reason is protect people—to safeguard those you care about and people you’ve never met. Do your job, do it well. It’s more than it seems on the surface. You’ll learn that soon enough.”

The weight of prescience in the priest’s voice sent ice skittering along Tim’s nerves, but he managed to nod. There was something about the man’s words that made sense—too much sense, more sense than anything else had made since he’d come home.

“Things will happen when the time is right,” Father Mason continued. “Not when you think they’re right, but when God decides that they’re right, when Fate says it’s time.”

“I don’t understand,” Tim said. “How could you know all this?”

“God works in mysterious ways,” the priest said, then stood. He squeezed Tim’s shoulder. “Go home, Timothy Michael McConaway. You walk on the side of the angels. Go home, sleep. There won’t be dreams tonight, but you won’t remember this conversation in the morning.”

Father Mason smiled.

“But I will see you at midnight Mass on Thursday and for confession on Sunday. A week from then is when you’ll meet her.”

“Meet who?” Tim asked, feeling dazed, like a blanket of warm, wet wool had dropped over him, over his body, over his thoughts. “Who will I meet, Father?”

“Your angel of mercy. The gift you need this Christmas more than any other.”

He left, then, walked back down the aisle toward the altar. Tim watched him go, feeling more settled and grounded than he had in years—since before he’d been taken, maybe even since before he’d joined the Air Force.

Standing slowly, he crossed himself one more time, murmured a thank-you to God, and went home.

Tim pressed a hand against the Celtic cross he’d taken to wearing, the one he’d found on his bedside table the Tuesday before Christmas. He couldn’t remember where he’d gotten it, but all things considered, it didn’t matter. He knew he’d gone walking the night before. Maybe he’d picked it up then. Maybe he’d gone drinking and that was why he couldn’t remember. It wouldn’t be the first time an evening had been obliterated by alcohol or worse. He’d come to accept that there were a lot of things he couldn’t remember, at least not clearly, and a lot of them he didn’t really want to remember, either. At least that night, he knew that there hadn’t been any or worse.

For the moment, he was beyond their grasp—he had to believe that, because if it wasn’t true, there wasn’t anywhere that was safe anymore.

As he pressed the cross against the flesh of his breastbone, a sense of peace washed through him, helping him calm his racing heart.

He was late and that wasn’t something he’d exactly wanted to be—but he hadn’t exactly wanted to be on time, either.

His meeting with Father Mason, his confessor down at the Catholic parish in Old Town, had taken longer than they’d both thought it would and now he was late for his meeting with Paul Ballard, his apparent superior inside UNSETIC.

UNSETIC. It had an oddly right ring to it the more he thought about it.

For all that he’d been forced into this, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

He hit the bottom of the stairs at something a little slower than a run, checked his breathing, and straightened up. There hadn’t been time to stop home and change into uniform. Civvies would have to do.

From beyond the door, he heard a man’s voice say, “We’re waiting on another.”

Then, a woman’s voice. “Oh.”

He pushed the door open. The red-haired woman seated in front of the desk turned, her hazel eyes meeting his.

He tore his gaze away and sat slowly in the chair next to hers, heart beating fast, too fast.

The words angel of mercy echoed in his head, in his heart.

Merry Christmas, Lieutenant. Even if it’s a few days late.

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- L.P. Loudon