Episode 12: Judgment
By Lauren Derrick
Editor's Note: This story is part of the Marvelous Mind of Marilyn Hansen series hosted on the Pensieve.
Finley and Robert Byrd walked through a subway station, followed closely by Brigham, who had most of the bags. Finley carried the dog, a wilted Ladybug. They turned a corner and went down some stairs, trudging towards a door that was marked as a supply closet, which Byrd unlocked with a code pressed hastily into the keypad. He waved Finley and Brigham inside, watching vigilantly as they entered, then followed. He locked the door behind them.
They passed through a dank, narrow hallway. Red bricks surrounded them. Finally, they reached a large metal door with no handle or visible markings. Byrd set down the bag he was carrying. They waited in silence for a couple of minutes.
Byrd checked his watch. “Three...two...one...”
There was a whirring noise as the metal door slowly raised itself. The three travelers hurried in, carefully scooting all the luggage in with them before the door began lowering itself back into its original position.
Recessed lights blinked on above them, revealing a couch set before a flat screen television mounted on the wall. Around a corner was a kitchenette, chrome appliances gleaming in the white light.
Byrd turned to Brigham. “I asked them to load up the fridge and pantry. The agency will send you the password for all the streaming services and video games for the television. They moved a bit of Astroturf into one of the bedrooms for Ladybug. I had them bring wet food since she doesn't have much of an appetite right now.”
Brigham nodded, face stoic.
Byrd leaned in. “I don't think there's a chance of Maddie getting in here, but we can't be sure. There's a full weapons cabinet here.”
Byrd tapped on what looked like a fuse box next to the door. “You are cleared for lethal force should you come under attack.”
Brigham nodded once again.
Byrd sighed, shoulders twitching. “I know you can handle this. Hell, you're probably the best guy I could put on this job. But this kid...”
He glanced over Brigham's shoulder to where Finley had sat on the couch, cuddling the despondent pug.
“She's important on a few levels.” Byrd finally whispered. “I know you get that. It’s just hard. She's a good kid. She didn't ask for any of this. Just take care of her, ‘kay?”
Brigham's face softened, and he put his hand on Byrd's shoulder. He gave one final nod. “Wh-wh-where a-are y-you g-go-go-going?”
Byrd grinned ruefully, showing a mouth full of white teeth. “To stir things up. Don't wait up—I'm not sure how long I'll be. Got any of those little cameras charged up that I can borrow?”
Madelyn walked her twin sister through the hotel hallway. They stopped in front of a door marked 204.
“I'm just two doors down.” Madelyn said, pointing to the left. “I thought you might prefer your own space—but I have an extra bed in my room if you want some company.”
Marilyn's expression did not waver from its wilted setting. She clung to the old red tackle box. “Thanks, Maddie.”
Marilyn went into her room and closed the door. Madelyn lifted a hand up to the door that stood between herself and her sister, but she dropped it again and turned away.
Inside the room, Marilyn slowly creaked onto her bed, setting the red tackle box beside her. She ran her fingers over the top, and then touched the locking mechanism.
“You know now. Just open it.” A voice spoke beside her.
Marilyn glanced up to see an only slightly younger version of herself sitting on the other side of the tackle box. This version had hair that was not yet as white as Marilyn’s now was, but it was thoroughly gray and the skin on her face was a little more full, a little less sagging and wrinkled.
“What is there to lose at this point?” The woman asked wryly. “Just because I had to live a double life doesn't mean that you can't face the truth now.”
“But all that work—all that effort.” Marilyn hugged herself. “All for nothing. If I had just broken my rule about not invading the privacy of my friends and family… if I had just broken it that one time...”
“Oh pooh.” The slightly younger Marilyn scowled. “Broke the rule when? Before you married Frank? Before you told him your secret? When exactly would breaking that rule have led to a better outcome? You think you would have married him at all if you'd known? What about Jill? What about your grandkids? Would you take all that back just to avoid the pain?”
“It's not about that!” The older Marilyn snapped. “I wish I had exercised better judgment. If I had only been thinking more clearly, or if I had only understood Frank better, or if I had only given Robert a chance to be more than a friend…”
“If wishes were fishes we'd all have a fry.” The interruption cut through the string of hypotheticals like a knife. “You don’t learn good judgment without making mistakes along the way. You know that.”
“But… But is it too late?” Marilyn asked. “Is it too late to have all those things that I gave up?”
She looked to the woman that had been beside her, but she was gone. Marilyn remained alone. A soft rap came at her door.
“I’m going down to the pool in a bit,” came Madelyn’s voice through the door. “You’re welcome to join me if you feel up for it.”
Marilyn remained silent.
Brigham and Finley sat on the couch, rigid and focused with their controllers.
“No, noooo. No!” Finley finally said, flopping back. “Again. Geez, are there any of these games you aren’t good at?”
Brigham smirked and shrugged.
Finley used a remote to scroll through a long list of games on the TV. “This one—let’s play this one. At least in a co-op I’m benefiting from you.”
It was a first person shooter, set on some alien planet. Finley and Brigham picked the enemies off bit by bit until the campaign ended. At the end, Finley sat back, frowning.
“How… how do you deal with being able to hurt other people?”
Brigham set down the controller and turned his full attention on Finley.
She squirmed under his stare. “I know I was defending myself yesterday. And I—I know things could have gone a lot worse and I shouldn’t be feeling guilty for what happened to that guy. But, geez, I almost killed him without really even meaning to. If it had been a busier road, he’d probably be dead.”
Brigham leaned in slightly, as if waiting for her to make her point.
“Well, you have a power kind of like that. Your karate, or whatever that was. How do you deal with being that strong? I’m not used to it.” Finley grimaced, turning away from Brigham to face her own lap. “If I use it wrong just once, I could kill someone. And I might not even mean to.”
Brigham tapped her arm and Finley faced him. “C-c-can… can y-you…”
He pointed to his eyes. Finley flushed. “Sure.”
She looked Brigham in the eye, and he let out a sigh.
“It’s… it’s not a b-bad thing to be p-powerful.” Brigham said softly.
Finley smiled ruefully and looked down again. “I guess not, and I’m kind of confused about that too. I mean, I can do a lot of good things with this. I can help you with your stutter. I helped that kid on the plane. I’m sure there are a whole ton of things I can do, good things that I haven’t even thought of. And I feel like I should help people, but at the same time, I’m really scared that I’ll screw up and hurt someone instead. You ever have that problem?”
Brigham nodded. “I accidentally broke a guy’s arm during training once. I-I had been m-making gains really quickly and wasn’t used to my own s-strength. I used too much force without knowing. I f-felt pretty bad.”
Finley hugged her arms.
“B-but I’m glad it happened, in a way.” Brigham said. “I learned to be more c-careful. I decided to practice more, not less. A-and I got better. Y-you will t-too.”
Finley gave a soft chuckle. “It’s funny. When you’re anxious, you stutter. When I’m anxious, I just keep talking and talking. I word vomit. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. I-I-I don’t m-mind.”
Marilyn felt under her bra strap for the pink slip of paper she had removed from behind the doorbell fixture earlier.
Don’t forget your mammogram!
The hastily scrawled letters were hardly legible, but Marilyn pulled out her phone and hastily scrolled through the list of appointments in her calendar. She found her mammogram appointment, scheduled for 2:45 pm in November. Her eyes flew around the walls of the room, finally landing on an alarm clock by the bed. It was 2:34. Marilyn sighed, folded the paper, tucking it right back under her bra strap.
“He’s got my phone tapped.” She muttered under her breath. “Well, that’s good. Smart. What with me leaving them all without a word…”
Marilyn’s face fell, and she bit her lip, talking to herself under her breath. “I was so stupid. Poor Lady. Poor Finley! Robert’s going to have it out with me.”
She took the pink slip of paper back out and fidgeted with it, rolling it into a tiny scroll. “I deserve a good chewing out, don’t I?”
The paper had no response for her.
“At least if he’s coming he hasn’t given up on me yet.” Marilyn rested her hand on the tackle box. “Is it too late?”
She stared hard at the tackle box for a few minutes. A knock on the door made Marilyn jump a little in her seat. A woman in her mid-sixties with dyed red curly hair peeked in, a cleaning cart visible behind her. She was hunched over, but still fairly tall.
“Oh! Your housekeeping sign was up.” The woman said in a low, gravelly voice that stretched for a higher pitch. She held up a door hanger sign indicating that housekeeping was wanted.
Marilyn smirked. Her eyes flew to the pink ribbon pin on the cleaning lady’s bosom. “My mistake. I only just arrived–nothing to clean yet. Thank you for coming, though. I…I really appreciate the thought.”
“That’s my job, sweetie, just doing my job! I love this job. And they don’t pay me to say that.” The ‘lady’ said. She met Marilyn’s eyes and winked. “We just do what we gotta do, you know. Here. Take some chocolates.”
‘She’ plopped a fist full of chocolates on the table next to the door and turned away.
“Ah—wait. While you’re here, I have a pillow here that’s rather uncomfortable. Might I trade it out?” Marilyn asked, hastily peeling the pillow off of the bed and shoving her tackle box into the pillowcase.
“Of course! Just put it in the cart.” The cart slid into the door, and Marilyn gently set the tackle box inside a forest green bag meant for dirty sheets and towels. The door closed, and tears welled up in Marilyn’s eyes.
Madelyn came back from the pool through the lobby, swimsuit completely dry. A tall, well-endowed lady with a pink ribbon pin on her bosom stood at the front desk, handing a clipboard to what looked to be a manager behind the receptionist.
“That’s really great work today…er…” the man glanced across at the lanyard around the lady’s neck, “Pam. When did you start up again?”
“Oh, I just finished training last week.” The red-headed woman spoke softly, with the gravelly low voice one might expect to hear from a chain smoker. She fluttered her eyelashes. “The other manager—what’s his name again?”
“Oh yes! He was just the best. So understanding about my schedule.”
Madelyn ignored the conversation as she gripped her phone tightly in one hand and texted rapidly with the other.
“Weird schedule, huh?”
“I watch my grandkids a couple of times a week.” The woman said, eyes turning downward. “My daughter is still trying to get a job that will pay the bills. But you all have been so understanding and helpful.”
The man scratched at his thinning hair. “Grandkids, huh? You married?”
“Divorced.” The woman sighed.
The manager shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Oh—well, you’re welcome to bring them to swim sometime. You just let us know...”
Madelyn finally approached, interrupting. “Excuse me, but is there just one pool here?”
The receptionist was busy with another customer, so the manager started, clearing his throat. “Yes—there are normally two but our second pool is currently undergoing renovations.”
Madelyn frowned, standing right next to the red-haired woman. “That’s unfortunate. The pool is full of small children at the moment, and they’re quite loud.”
“Oh, they aren’t rough-housing, are they?” The redhead asked sweetly. She patted Madelyn’s back, jostling the lower curls of white hair slightly as she lifted her hand. “I’ll go check and make sure everyone’s being safe. That ought to quiet them down a little.”
The manager smiled thankfully, and the woman winked at him.
Madelyn rolled her eyes. “It’s fine. I think I’m done for the day.”
She marched to the elevator. When she reached her floor, Madelyn took the card key she wore on a lanyard and pressed it to the fixture beside her door. She pressed it open and came inside, immediately sitting on the bed.
She began texting.
I’m going to try to get Marilyn out for ice cream and a walk. Get someone in to look into the tackle box.
A thumbs-up icon appeared below her text, and Madelyn sighed.
She dressed and came knocking on Marilyn’s door a few minutes later. Marilyn opened the door a crack, looking timidly at her sister.
“I thought maybe some ice cream would do you some good.” Madelyn said quietly. “And perhaps some fresh air. What do you think?”
Marilyn nodded, opening the door all the way to let Madelyn in. Marilyn walked over to the bathroom mirror to check her hair. Madelyn stepped into the room and started glancing around. The tackle box was nowhere to be seen.
Marilyn reappeared. “Alright, I suppose this is as ready as I’m going to get.”
“You look fine.” Madelyn soothed, smiling. She opened the door.
Marilyn scooted the pile of chocolates off the table and into a small purse, and they left.
A young man in a leather jacket pressed a room key card against the reader for door 204. The light on top flashed green, and he opened the door.
He scanned the room, then took several photos with his phone. He withdrew a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and put them on, beginning his search. Bit by bit, he tore the room apart and put it back together exactly as he’d found it. He worked quickly and thoroughly, but in the end, he found nothing. Scowling, he pulled out his phone.
A couple of gorgeous ice cream sundaes sat on the table, newly scooped and in their prime. Chocolate and caramel drizzles, a scalloped dollop of whipped cream, and a bright red cherry adorned each one.
Madelyn pulled the cherry off the top of hers and popped it into her mouth. She started in at the whipped cream next, taking a large spoonful of mixed ice cream and whipped cream.
Marilyn stared at hers a moment, watching a small blob of chocolate drizzle slowly slide down the dessert. She took her spoon and neatly scraped the piece of the outer layer of ice cream where the chocolate had dripped. She put the spoon into her mouth, savoring the flavor.
“Good, yes?” Madelyn said once she had finished her first bite.
“Very.” Marilyn said, smiling weakly. “I see why you wanted to come here.”
They enjoyed the treats in silence for a few moments before Marilyn said, “It must feel pretty good to be free.”
Madelyn stabbed her spoon into the top of her ice cream again. “I’m actually looking forward to getting back to that nice comfortable bed you bought me. As for being free, I’ve been sneaking out for years. Nothing to it, really. It’s a grand retirement.”
Madelyn’s phone buzzed, but she hit the side button, tucking it away. Her full attention centered on her sister.
Marilyn raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Then why all this, Maddie?”
“New York, Mar! I’ve missed it. I wanted one last hoorah. Can you blame me?”
“No.” Marilyn said, carefully scraping the edge of her sundae again. “I suppose I can’t. And I suppose you wanted to let me know about Frank. I suppose I ought to thank you for that.”
“Oh, don’t. I know you’re still mad at me.” Madelyn flipped her spoon to point at Marilyn. “But it’s for the best in the long run.”
Finley and Brigham sat at the table in the safehouse, staring down a bowl of spaghetti noodles that sprawled out as if to lift itself up out of the bowl. A splattered skillet full of meaty sauce steamed next to it. Ladybug sat beneath the table, having perked up considerably with the scent of steaming food wafting through the room.
“Moment of truth.” Finley announced. “Let’s see how this turned out.”
They piled noodles high on their plates, topped them off, and began eating. A few bites in, the metal door suddenly rose without warning. A red noodle was still hanging from Brigham’s lips as he leapt to his feet, crouched, fighting stance at the ready. Robert Byrd stood in the doorway. Finley snorted.
“You got a little somethin’.” She gestured to her cheek.
Brigham wiped the noodle and sauce into his mouth with his finger. He relaxed and straightened. “I-I th-thought you w-w-were going… t-to be l-l-late.”
Byrd held a red tackle box in his arms. An indelible grin clung to his face. “Well, things went a heck of a lot more smoothly than I thought.”
The elderly twins stepped out of the ice cream parlor onto a busy sidewalk. Madelyn hung back a little to check her phone.
It’s not here.
She stared dumbfoundedly at the text for a moment before grimacing. She pecked at her phone with a long, glossy fingernail.
We’re compromised. Let Jonathan know what has happened and have him check the hotel security cameras to find out when the tackle box left the room. Send me three assistants.
“Hmmm.” Madelyn’s eyes wandered left and right through the crowd. “Perhaps the park next?”
“I’m guessing you have good news?” Finley asked, her words struggling to stay paced. Even Ladybug was looking up at Byrd, her curly tail twitching.
Byrd’s self-satisfied smile greeted an empty chair at the table. He grabbed a plate and loaded it up with spaghetti. “Might just be the best day of my life.”
Brigham leaned in, widening his eyes and waiting for some joyous news.
Byrd didn’t make him wait long. He chewed through a large bite of spaghetti. “Found Mar. Got a psychic link we’re maintaining. Mar is with Maddie right now.”
“Wow, that’s great!” Finley stammered, licking some red sauce off her lips. “How is she?”
“She’s tired.” Byrd said. “She found the answers she was looking for. Sent me back with this nice box full of her late husband’s letters and photos. She didn’t want to give Maddie the chance to alter anything in there.”
He gestured over to the counter, where he had set the red tackle box. “She hasn’t read the letters yet, but she knows what happened to him now. She feels pretty bad about leaving. Finley, she says she wants you to have the tackle box. She says that you can read everything in there because she still has to keep her promise to you. About being more open. She wants you to know how sorry she is.”
“Can you tell her something for me?” Finley checked.
Byrd nodded. “In real time.”
Finley sighed, staring at a mess of noodles all mixed up with the sauce. “Tell her I’m still just a little mad. I know she has been going through a lot. I just wish I had known what she was going through sooner. I wish we had talked. But she found Aunt Madelyn, so I guess it all paid off.”
“Yeah—paid off big. Couldn’t have planned it better.” Byrd agreed.
After taking a few moments to eat, Byrd continued. “We’re assuming Madelyn found a way to get that woman at the airport there to find us. Maddie knew we’d spot her. She knew where Marilyn would end up. So glad Brigham here thought to track her phone. I found a camera trained on the house where she was yesterday.”
Brigham’s mouth parted slightly and he lifted his chin, as if some puzzle piece had suddenly fallen into place.
“Anyway,” Byrd continued, scooting his plate aside a little and leaning his forearms on the table, “Maddie showed up not long after I did. She got Marilyn to jump into a car with her. I didn’t want to worry you guys until I had more intel.”
He said the last sentence in response to a very direct scowl from Brigham.
“But if Grandma is with Aunt Madelyn, how did you get in to see her?”
This appeared to be just the question Byrd wanted to hear. His grin widened even further to show all his teeth. He leaned in even closer and lowered his voice for effect, almost quivering with delight. “I pulled a fast one on old Maddie. Oh, it was beautiful. My best work. She never saw it coming.”
Brigham readjusted his position in his chair to face Byrd more fully. He rolled his hand at Byrd as if to cycle the words out more quickly.
“I was standing right next to her, and she didn’t even see me.”
“So you snuck in to see Grandma—in disguise?” Finley asked, voice descending from Byrd’s high.
“Not just any disguise!” The old man actually giggled. “I was a cleaning lady! At the hotel! She walked right up to me and I tagged her with one of Brigham’s cameras and everything. Oh, it was glorious. She’s going to drop when she finds out.”
When Brigham and Finley failed to react with anything but stares, Byrd cleared his throat. Ladybug had caught his mood though, and put her paws up on his leg, wagging her tail.
“At least someone appreciates my first-class spy work.” Byrd muttered, scratching Lady behind the ear. He pulled his phone out and scrolled through some photos, then held it up for Finley and Brigham to see.
“That’s the photo I took for my name badge. That’s me.” Byrd said, pointing to a picture.
Finley glanced at the photo and back to Byrd. “That… is not you. No amount of makeup can do that.”
Byrd beamed. “Oh, but it is.”
Brigham stared carefully at the photo, looking at the eyes. He pointed to them.
“Colored contacts,” Byrd said proudly. “The really beautiful thing is the impetus behind it all. See, Maddie always hated me. She thought I was full of myself. She has no idea how much I’ve changed over the past forty years though. And the last thing she’d ever expect me to do is cross-dress. So that’s exactly what I did.”
Byrd leaned back, basking in his own self-adulation and brilliance.
“You’re that good at makeup?” Finley asked flatly.
“Hey, I know how to channel my inner diva,” Byrd said, feigning offense. “The hotel manager was totally into me.”
“So, I didn’t expect you to bring Finley along on this trip,” Madelyn said, perhaps a little too casually. They sat on a park bench, watching joggers and a yoga group several yards away. “How is she coming along?”
Digging to assess Finley’s threat level. Byrd’s voice sounded in Marilyn’s mind. Play it casual.
I appreciate your input, Robert, but you’re only a breath away from backseat driving. Marilyn patiently informed him.
Marilyn shrugged. “I’ve hardly had time to talk to her, let alone help her practice.”
“She seemed like she had quite a way to go. Do you think her abilities will fully develop?” Madelyn’s posture was relaxed, but her eyes were keenly trained on her sister.
Marilyn licked her lips. “I’m not sure she’ll ever be able to form illusions or even create a full link. But we’ll see.”
Madelyn’s eyes turned to follow a man running with his dog. She scowled.
Oh, she definitely had something to do with the attack on Finley and Brigham. Byrd’s voice sounded in Marilyn’s mind. She’s fishing to see if she can find out how they fought them off.
They were ATTACKED?! You didn’t tell me? I’ll kill her! Marilyn practically screamed back.
Don’t react! Byrd reminded her. We’re going to get her. Just breathe. Remember we still need that flash drive.
Oh, Robert, I want to strangle her! Marilyn thought back, but she forcibly relaxed her posture and smiled gently at her sister.
I don’t think she intended for anyone to get hurt. Byrd soothed. The thugs she sent wouldn’t talk, but they had materials for a short detainment. I suspect she just wanted Finley out of the way to manipulate you better.
I don’t care what she INTENDED. Maddie’s really crossed a line this time—is Finley okay?!
Finley’s just fine. She pushed all her fear into an assailant and he ran out into traffic. Brigham took on three guys by himself. You know, I kind of wonder if he’s glad about getting the chance to show off—
“Oh…hmm?” What was that?” Marilyn said absently, turning towards her sister.
“I asked why you decided to bring that oaf, Byrd.” Madelyn folded her arms. “Did you really think you’d need him?”
Marilyn shrugged. “Well, he is awfully good with…”
NO, don’t say make-up! Byrd warned in her mind. She’ll figure it out!
“…some things.” Marilyn finished lamely.
You mean like…everything, right?
Hush. If I’m too spacey she’ll know I’m keeping up a separate conversation. Marilyn grumbled.
“Byrd is good at organizing and coming up with a solid plan. I wasn’t thinking straight. I needed him to keep me on track.”
Madelyn rolled her eyes. “Oh, is that what it’s called now? Like how he used to keep you ‘on track’ by asking you to run his dry cleaning?”
Geez, that was ONE time. Byrd thought. And it was just because I was hoping you’d come by my place to drop it off so we could have drinks.
“That was a long time ago,” Marilyn said calmly.
She is going to pay for attacking my little Finley. Marilyn thought bitterly. I’m going to have Monica change out all the staff. Then I’ll stop paying for her internet and her streaming services. She can kiss her phone privileges goodbye…
“Leopards don’t change their spots. I’m just surprised you are still working with him after all these years. You know you don’t need him, right?” Madelyn said with a long-suffering tone that a mother might use on a daughter choosing to date some unsavory rogue.
Marilyn opened her mouth as if to answer but shut it again, pondering. She gave her twin an eerie sort of smile. “Truth is, Maddie, Robert and I are really good friends. We have been for years. Jill knows him and used to call him up to help with car trouble. He’s probably the closest thing she’s ever had to a father. I just never brought it up because I knew you had a bad impression of him.”
Madelyn’s mouth screwed up tightly, face darkening.
Mar, I know you’re mad, but intentionally pissing her off isn’t going to…
“You only knew him forty years ago, and people can change quite a bit in that span of time.” Marilyn lectured, ignoring Byrd. “But he was talented, even forty years ago. There was a reason he was assigned to work with us.”
“Nepotism.” Madelyn muttered.
“No,” Marilyn said serenely, “Talent. He had a high success rate before you ever met him and years of experience and education. Is it so surprising that I chose to take advantage of his expertise?”
Madelyn licked her lips and searched her sister’s face. For a moment, she looked as though she might blow her top. Finally, however, she sighed. “Fine. Sure.”
Marilyn raised an eyebrow. She’s going to drop it. Interesting.
Shit, she knows! Did you get…
Of course I did. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.
Marilyn turned to her sister. “So. You want to let me know what this is really about before you have your goons back there take me away?”
Behind them was the jogger Madelyn had seen earlier, playing fetch with his German shepherd. A second man stood leaning against a tree, absorbed by his phone.
Madelyn frowned. “You know, this isn’t how I’d hoped things would go.”
Marilyn took a chocolate from her bag and began unwrapping it. “Yes, I had assumed as much.” She plopped the chocolate into her mouth, rolling the wrapper between her thumb and forefinger.
“We’ll talk later.” Madelyn grumbled. She signaled to the two men behind them.
The men jogged over, helping Marilyn to her feet. She allowed herself to be led to a white van parked alongside the road.