Good Morning, Stranger

     Pain. Fear. Numbness in his fingers. A jolt of fire across his chest.

     Damn it, not again!

     But he wasn't giving in. He could handle this. He could survive for as long as he had to.

     He could breathe slower, maybe, more shallowly...

     Yeah, that helped. Already the pain was receding, and with it the darkness of his dream. There was light around him, he felt almost certain, so either he'd made it through another night or else he'd died.

     He opened his eyes and saw a cherub gazing at him.

     What the—

     Blond curls. A sweet, angelic smile. Almost as if she saw right through to his soul and was blessing him, anyway.

     God, if only that were true...

     He closed his eyes for a moment, reeling under the impact of the vision. That couldn't be an angel, not really. He was a survivor, for one thing. And there sure wouldn't be angels waiting for him in any case.

     But he couldn't resist taking another look.

     She was smiling at him, and he was startled by the intensity of his reaction. By how much he wanted that reassurance. He still wasn't giving up the struggle for survival, but he had the feeling that something deep inside him had just been touched, acknowledged, confirmed.

     You're okay. You're all right.

     This couldn't be happening, he reminded himself dizzily. Things like this didn't happen to regular people. He knew that with the rational part of his brain, but the more ancient part knew with heartfelt certainty that this vision would never leave him. That, no matter what happened today or tonight or tomorrow, he could still see that smiling face whenever he closed his eyes.

     An angel. Blessing him.

     He was losing it, that's all. Going under. He needed to move.

     Now.

     The sharp, stabbing pain ripped through him, making him gasp, and he heard an answering gasp from beside the bed.

     "Did you hurt yourself?" a child's voice asked.

     A child. Sure. That made more sense than a cherub, although it still didn't answer the question of what she was doing here.

     "Yeah," he answered, squinting at the little girl—okay, there was a vague resemblance to an angel, but she wasn't dressed for the part. She was a regular kid, maybe four or five years old, wearing a white sweatsuit and holding a tray with what looked like an orange, some kind of a book and a stuffed pink elephant. "Who are you?"

     "Emily," she answered, then nodded at the elephant. "This is Pinket. Who are you?"

     He knew there was an answer; it nagged at the edge of his awareness and suddenly registered in a startling burst of clarity. "Mick," he said through a surge of relief that at least there was something he felt sure about. "My name's Mick."

     The revelation didn't seem to strike Emily as much of a triumph. "You were sleeping for a long, long time," she observed, setting her tray on the table beside his bed. "Mama said I could bring you this while she makes coffee, but it took forever before you said 'come in'."

     Had he responded to a knock without knowing it? That would explain why this kid had walked in on him, Mick decided, realizing belatedly that it was a good thing he'd slept in his underwear. But it still didn't explain where he was, why something vital seemed missing from his mind or why he felt so certain that children didn't normally show up in his bedroom.

     "Emily," he asked slowly, wondering if he could possibly have spent the night with her mother, "do you live here?"

     "I do now," she answered, looking a little perplexed at the question. "When Mama finally heard you moving around, she said *I* could bring the orange juice. Because she promised last night."

     The mention of orange juice triggered an immediate awareness, a sharp hunger enhanced by the tantalizing aroma of coffee and something both spicy and sweet. At least he could identify the smell of breakfast, Mick realized, in spite of the feeling that something essential had escaped his attention. Something almost horrifying seemed to have vanished while he slept, and he wasn't sure whether he felt relieved or alarmed about that.

     Relieved, he decided. No matter what had disappeared from his memory during the night, at least he was in one piece this morning. And once he gulped down enough coffee, things would make sense again.

     "Thanks," he told the child, who was carefully sliding a pen into a loop on the side of her cloth-bound book. "Uh, who's your mom?"

     She gave him another of those bewildered looks. "You mean now? Her name's Annelise Brennan."

     "Ah!"

     His response to the name was even more visceral than his reaction to the orange juice. Annelise Brennan. The woman he'd met last night, who had taken his hand and drawn him into her home with all the warmth and grace and smoothness of a fantasy come to life. The woman with eyes like brandy and a voice like hot chocolate, who had—

     The woman who had put him in the honeymoon suite.

     He would have sworn he wasn't married, Mick thought dizzily, but why couldn't he say that for sure? There seemed to be something missing from his mind, some hold on the basics that had somehow slipped from his grasp.

     "And we're both named Brennan," the little girl continued, "because we're in the same family. I mean, even though my uncle died, she's still my aunt."

     Brennan. People dying. For some reason, nothing was fitting into a comprehensible pattern this morning except the fact that somehow he'd gotten directions to this place.

     "And now she's gonna be my mother forever and ever," Emily concluded, opening the book to a blank page. "Not my born-mom, but my adopt-mom."

     "Right," Mick interrupted, trying to latch onto some coherent thought. This kid's collection of relatives sounded as disconnected as he felt, but surely once he talked to his hostess he'd be able to make sense of this. "Emily, does your mom have a list of people who get directions here?"

     "She gives everybody directions," the child answered matter-of-factly, tucking the elephant under her arm and handing him the cloth-covered book. "And you're supposed to sign the guest book."

     Mick balanced it in his hands, aware of an ominous sensation as he reached for the pen. He had the feeling another black hole was about to collapse around him, and the little girl's curious expression wasn't helping matters any.

     "Mama was going to fill it in for you," she announced as he stared, pen in hand, at the blank signature line. "Because she does that when people come late. Except she said she doesn't know who you are."

     He felt his heart slam against his ribs, setting off another wave of dizziness. Emptiness. A staggering disbelief that he couldn't even answer the most basic question in the world.

     "Neither do I, Emily," Mick told her. "Neither do I."