Nicholas Erickson kept his gaze on the butterflies over Peterson’s desk. The chief of staff had a whole case of them, each stabbed through the thorax and pinned to a board. Nick knew exactly how they felt.
He focused on breathing, trying to slow his stuttering heart, only taking in the gist of what Peterson was saying. Nick forced his hands to loosen, fighting the need to wipe them on his trousers. His eyes felt hot; he blinked to make the blurring stop. The last thing he needed was to have a flashback now. He tried his exercises. I’m here. I’m safe. I’m here. I’m safe. I’m—
“And now I know you got this job because Reverend Bob is friends with that prison chaplain of yours. You got in here on a technicality, a damn loophole. None of us dug too deep for a chaplain’s assistant with no clearance. Goddamn it!” He slapped his hand on the desk. “If I had known, I would never have approved it.”
Peterson’s round face was pink with anger. The pink even showed through the white hair on his scalp. His blue eyes, lighter than Nick’s own, were glittering behind his glasses.
His hands were splayed flat on his desk, covering the folder with Nick’s name on it. It was like Peterson was covering the news articles inside, hiding them from view—as if they were too obscene to look at.
He was silhouetted by wide windows, looking down the green hill to Napier Avenue. Singapore’s heat was just starting to crank, the roiling clouds doing nothing to cut it.
“This is the most important post in Asia this week,” he continued. “We have VIPs coming from everywhere for this ceremony. I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with you now.”
“Sir,” Nick tried. “I really hope—”
“Don’t talk to me, Erickson,” Peterson snapped, his voice cracking with anger. “I don’t want to hear a word out of your damn mouth.”
“Transferring you now would raise too many questions. Not right after Reverend Bob leaving. I don’t want anyone to even know you were here. Right now, I’m the only one who knows about this, thank God.” He glanced down at the folder again. His eyes were full of loathing.
“You are going to lay low, do whatever Morris tells you, and then next week we’ll see how far away I can send you. Now get the hell out of here.”
Nick felt numb, his body cold and far away. He gave a stiff nod and walked out. Nick ducked in to the nearest men’s room, glad to see it was empty.
He splashed water onto his face with shaking hands. He gripped the sides of the sink, noted how haggard he looked, closer to fifty than twenty-eight. His red hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, his usually pale face flushed red from humiliation.
Well what did you think would happen? Did you think you could just leave it all behind you?
He went back to his office and sat at Reverend Bob’s empty desk. The room was small, practically in the basement. There was one narrow window, vertical against a corner. He could just see the flowerbeds beyond, tropical flowers showing their faces to the broiling sun. Working on autopilot, he took his badge off its lanyard and tucked it into the computer’s card reader so he could turn it on. No new emails—of course not. His calendar was equally empty. That had been on purpose at first. But now it seemed like an indictment. Not like Reverend Bob could give you a real job. He could trust you to sort prayer cards from the Tallahassee Christian Mothers’ Union but not any actual duties.
He pushed that thought away. He knew it wasn’t true. Reverend Bob had given him time. Time to heal, time to reinvent himself. And while the new Nick was less prone to panicked outbursts, he also did very little. He kept a low profile out of habit, avoiding meeting people’s eyes until he realized absolutely no one knew who he was. He could relax a little and nod to people who smiled at him in the halls. He and Lena had lunch in the garden sometimes. It felt like slowly waking from a nightmare.
Until today. Until Peterson found out. And like everyone else who knew the truth, Peterson wanted Nick away from him and everything he cared about. Nick had barely made his mark on the room. There wasn’t much. A plant Lena gave him. A sweatshirt for when the A/C went haywire and they all froze. A picture of Reverend Bob and Nick at Leon’s Bar. The mug Morris had lent him. No pictures of family of course.
Suddenly, Nick couldn’t stand sitting there anymore. He grabbed his badge and left the building, barely nodding to the Marine at the gate. Forcing himself to slow down, he walked along the embassy’s drive, following the line of the fence and turning left toward the botanical gardens. That was a good place to think. A quiet place, shady in the blazing heat, and free. Nick walked with nothing but the white noise in his head and the roar of cars coming down the main road. He didn’t want to think yet.