Reagan Decker's hands shook as she picked up the telephone and dialed.
The number was so familiar once, back in a time that seemed forever ago, before her world tilted hard off its axis and stayed that way.
She waited, her heart pounding in her throat.
What will I say? How will they take the news?
"Mrs. Baxter?" Reagan froze.
"Yes?" A slight pause. "Can I help you?"
"Uh..." She doesn't recognize my voice. I must be crazy to call after so long. "This is Reagan. Reagan Decker."
"Reagan...my goodness. It's...been a long time, dear."
Luke's mother sounded strange, as though the mention of Reagan's name had cast a shadow over the moment. Reagan considered saying a quick few words and then getting off. But that would never do. This was a call she'd had to make for one reason alone.
She couldn't hide from Luke Baxter forever.
"Mrs. Baxter, I need to talk to Luke, please." Reagan squeezed her eyes shut. A year earlier she'd been quick-witted and outgoing, but not anymore. The spark was gone from her voice. Luke's mother had to notice. She drew a determined breath. "I have something to tell him."
His past had sprouted legs and was chasing him.
That had to be it. Luke had no other way to describe the breathless anxiety marking so much of his time. Sometimes he could almost hear footsteps pounding the ground behind him, and on days like that he would even turn around. As though he might see a person or a being, whatever was after him. But no one was ever there.
The feeling was always accompanied by memories, so Luke finally convinced himself the thing chasing him was nothing more ominous than his past.
A past that colored today and tomorrow and kept him inches ahead of a suffocating fog, a fog in which his new freethinking life was all but impossible.
At first the feeling had hit him every few days, but now it was almost constant. This morning it was worse than ever. Throughout Economics and Political Science and now in Modern History, it made Luke so restless he couldn't concentrate.
The professor was diagramming something on the board, but all Luke could see were images of himself and his family the last time they'd been together before September 11. Little Maddie holding her hands up to him. "Swing me, Uncle Luke, swing me." His parents arm in arm in the background. "How's school, Luke? Have you heard from Reagan?"
With broad strokes, the professor ran his eraser over the board, and the images in Luke's head disappeared. The man turned to the class and started talking, but Luke heard Reagan's voice instead, the way he'd heard it that awful night when everything changed forever.
"It's okay, Luke; I'll call him back tomorrow...it's okay..."
But she never had the chance.
Luke squeezed his eyes shut. He was ready to move on, right? Wasn't that what he'd been telling himself? Then why were these memories dogging him so? With all the free thinking he'd been doing, all the clubs and organizations Lori had introduced him to, he should be consumed with life as it was. Not as it had been.
The professor changed his tone. He was saying something about foreign arms deals, but Luke wasn't paying attention. A conversation kept playing in his head, the one he'd had with his mother a few weeks ago.
"You think you have it all figured out, Luke, but the Hound of Heaven isn't going to let you go this easily."
"The Hound of Heaven?" Luke hadn't even tried to hide his frustration. His mother knew how he felt about God, so why couldn't she let it go?
"The Spirit of God, Luke." Her voice held no apologies. "When someone strays from the Lord, it's usually the Spirit, the Hound of Heaven, that hunts him down and brings him back."
The Hound of Heaven, indeed.
As if God--if there was a God--would care enough about Luke Baxter to chase him. Luke tapped the eraser of his pencil on his notepad. No, that wasn't why he felt this way. He narrowed his eyes and focused on the professor. What was the man babbling about? And why was everyone else taking notes?
A tingling worked its way down his spine, and he shifted in his desk.
Maybe it was culture shock. After a lifetime of holding to one set of beliefs, he'd done an about-face, and some kind of fallout was bound to come. That explained the pounding in his chest, the breathlessness that sometimes hit him square in the middle of a college lecture, and the constant stream of memories. Memories that had a vise grip on his mind and soul.
Sure, it was a setback. But no need to tell Lori. She'd only blame it on the mind control his family had held over him for so many years. And he didn't care to discuss mind control with her. He didn't like the way it sounded. For all their shortcomings, all their narrow-minded ways of thinking, his family had not performed mind control on him.
He'd been a willing participant, and though their beliefs were off base, his family loved him back then. They loved him still. That much he was sure of. But he was just as sure that he wanted to move on, to explore a world without absolutes and--what was it Lori called it?--an antiquated morality system? Yes, he was ready to move away from that.
"Mr. Baxter, I expect you to answer me the first time I call on you."
Luke jumped in his seat. Two students sitting near him stifled their snorts of laughter. "Excuse me, sir?"
"I said--" the professor's voice dripped sarcasm--"perhaps you could explain the significance of specific arms deals made in the late seventies?"
"Yes, sir. " Luke did a desperate search of his mind and came up blank. His fingers trembled and he coughed to buy time. "Sire, I don't have that information at this time."
Another bout of muffled laughter.
"Very well, Mr. Baxter; then may I make a suggestion?" The professor lowered his glasses and peered hard at Luke.
"Yes, sir?" Luke's throat was dry. It was all he could do to keep from running out of the room.
"Either get more sleep or get out of my Modern History class." The man raised his voice. "Is that understood?"
"Fire filled Luke's cheeks. "Yes, sir."
When class was over ten minutes later, Luke was one of the first to leave the room. Not only because he didn't want any further discussion with the professor, but because he still needed to run, to keep moving away from whatever was chasing him. His past maybe, or his prior convictions. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with all he'd surrounded himself with.
But definitely no the Hound of Heaven.