Sean Easton was an easy-going fellow with dark hair and light eyes and one of those strong bold jaw lines that lends itself to the impression of strength. Of course, the 6’2” frame didn’t hurt that image much either. Success had followed everything he’d tried. As a wrestler and a quarterback in high school, his efforts had propelled him through college on a football scholarship. He’d graduated almost by accident with a degree in psychology and no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Certainly there’d been some offers to play pro ball but somehow that hadn’t appealed to him. Being raised to the simple life, money had a remarkably tenuous hold on his mind and fame held even less.

The thing that truly held him back, though, was not his lack of ambition; it was his peculiar talent; empathy. A true empath has the ability to receive the emotions of others. In Sean’s case his special sensitivity to receive other people’s feelings had become so strong that he felt overwhelmed in crowds and in some cases struggled to determine whether feelings he experienced were internally or externally generated. As a result he had begun to seek his own company to escape.

His empathic abilities colored everything he tried to do, and in many ways made him an outcast, as the one football hero who not only didn’t care to date but seemed to avoid the company of others altogether. That, more than anything else, had left him a loner, and that was why he remained on the farm with his father even after he graduated from college.

Days turned into weeks after his father’s death, and on days like today, sitting on a tractor in the field, Sean knew he had to find more to do to keep himself busy. Loneliness had descended upon him like a great dark weight that seemed to expand as the days melted away. The only remedy, he understood intuitively, was to fill up his time.

He’d spent the last few weeks finishing up the corral at what was now his little ranch about twenty-five miles south of Kansas City in Louisburg. It consisted of 120 acres, a small farmhouse built among a little stand of trees on top of a hill, a good size barn, two ponds and its own well. Most of the land was rolling hills and almost half of it was still rich with timber. His grandfather had purchased the place many years ago and it was the only home he’d ever known. To Sean’s surprise, his father had left a will and not only was the farm now paid for, but he had some money in the bank, too.

The heavy work was like a huge poultice over the nothingness Sean was feeling and sore muscles seemed to remind him he was alive. But that time was drawing to a close, and the benefits he’d gotten from that brief respite of manual labor were on the verge of losing their potency. Sean needed something to not only fill his time, but was rapidly approaching the point where he needed something to fill his heart, too.

The strangeness and emptiness from his father’s death lingered. And to make it worse, he’d had a couple of odd episodes in the last few weeks. He’d had some sort of blackout and awakened to find himself elsewhere on the farm with no recollection of how long he’d been out or how he’d gotten there. It scared him and forced him to reconsider the whole idea of living alone with no one to know if something happened to him. Why weren’t there any family relationships in his life? It had been a question that had lurked in his mind for years. He didn’t know where his dad was from or where his parents had met, or anything about any other relatives. These considerations left him feeling even more lonely and isolated, a condition he was all too familiar with as a result of his unusual awareness.

For him the term “empathy” didn’t have much meaning, and when he used his ability, it felt like he was stealing somehow. He’d coined the term ‘snitching’ to refer to his sense of sneaking into other people’s emotions, and it always came with a twinge of guilt.

It had been two months since his dad’s death and the quest for some family, some roots, led him to the Internet. And the Web itself soon became a new passion. It began simply by researching his ancestry, learning about the Easton family, and slowly morphed into an obsession. When he wasn’t working the fields or the horses or doing any of the hundred other responsibilities he had to handle for the ranch, he was back on the ‘Net.

He’d learned that Easton wasn’t as common a name as he thought and he read about the distribution of the name around the country, most of the Easton ancestors either came from Ireland or England and the surname itself was a “place” name derivative. None of this information, though interesting, had proven useful.

Why was there such a lack of records? Surely, he thought, there’d be something with his mother’s maiden name on it. Again nothing. He couldn’t even find photos of his family’s life. It was like his entire family had never existed.

The more he searched, the more the void within him grew. On a whim, Sean scoured the public records for his mom’s death certificate. He found it, but no maiden name was listed. Nor could he find a birth certificate. Next he searched for articles about her death, but small town newspapers didn’t always have records transcribed to computer when they were over thirty years. Maybe he would go the Louisburg courthouse and search through the microfiche records.

He checked the old Kansas City papers which were available on- line, but there was nothing about his mom’s death. Kansas City obituaries apparently didn’t extend this far south to his home town.

In the course of his search, he stumbled on a few articles about a string of deaths around the Louisburg area which had never been solved. For some reason, he found these episodes intriguing. One article summed it up: “…still baffling police. Almost all of the deaths have been women and they have all been strangled but that is where the similarity ends. Of the ten victims reported missing, only six have been found in various locations around the Kansas City/Louisburg area. Oddly, no robbery was involved and the police have confirmed there was no evidence of rape either. The extensive manhunt continued for weeks but no further clues have been found. The entire series of incidents remains a mystery and the lack of suspects and any apparent motive has left the police unable to reasonably assert that the murders were due to a serial killer.”

The police had apparently assumed there was a connection but without any suspects, the file had eventually been closed.

One thing which struck Sean as odd was the fact that the killings stopped around the same time as his mother’s death. There were no more reported incidents of killings or missing persons after she’d died. What a coincidence he thought, as he completed his research for the day.

Sean’s obsession with the Internet and his loneliness inevitably led him to some internet dating sites and his good nature and looks quickly gleaned him substantial interest for dates. After a tremendous amount of trepidation and a few short emails, he finally agreed to meet a girl named Julia at the Houston’s restaurant in the Plaza in Kansas City. The experience, however, only sufficed to confirm his fears.

Sean arrived at 11:15 on Thursday. He had parked in the garage above Houston’s and it was a beautiful day. He was nervous as usual, and had picked out his best pair of jeans and a white Oxford style button down. As he entered the restaurant he turned straight into the bar and selected a seat where he could see both the front windows and the waitress stand where the customers were getting greeted as they walked in.

Houston’s was an upscale Bistro type restaurant. They specialize in steaks, soups and a great wine list. The Bar was a massive dark wood and brass affair, shaped like an elongated “U” and gave a sense of opulence as did the entire restaurant. He ordered a beer from the waitress. She was nice and efficient, cute too, but something was bothering her. She was deeply worried about something. Dang it! Sean thought. Turn it off. Think of something else. It had only occurred to him when he sat down that Julia might not look like her picture and if she didn’t, how would he recognize her. On the other hand if she didn’t look like her picture maybe he wouldn’t want to recognize her. Surely people didn’t do that, he thought. What would be the purpose of putting a picture on a site like that that didn’t look like you? Wouldn’t it make things awkward when you met? The more he thought about it the more he thought someone was bound to do that, put an old photo up or a glamour shot or something, and the whole line of thought was making him even more nervous.

He didn’t have long to wait, however. He saw her the minute she walked in the front door. She had long straight blonde hair, longer than in her photo and when she turned, her clear blue eyes were penetrating. She smiled at Sean and he stood up and began to walk towards her, feeling his mouth go drier with each step.

“Hi there, Farmerboy,” Julia said with a mischievous grin.

“Hi, Julia. Sean reached out his hand to shake hers but she ignored it and gave him a big hug. Sean reciprocated and managed to recover from his shock enough to ask,

“You want to get a table in the dining room or just sit at one of the bar tables? There is a 20 minute wait for the dining room.”

She was still smiling at him as she replied, “A bar table is fine with me.” She moved in again as he turned.

She was close. Close enough to imply intimacy and Sean wasn’t sure how to react. He slipped a hand loosely around her waist as he guided her gently towards a vacant booth near the back and slid her into the seat before taking the opposite one facing the windows. Fortunately, they were far enough from the windows that she wasn’t too badly backlit. “So we both made it,” Sean began, immediately deriding himself

for such a stupid comment. If this was the best he could do, he should give it up right now. Julia’s response, however, gave no hint of his self- perceived stupidity.

“This was a great idea Sean. Welcome to dating in the 21st Century.”

“No kidding. Who would’ve believed it even five years ago?” Sean was sensing something from Julia and before he had really given it any thought he added, “And don’t worry I’m nervous too.” Sean saw her puzzled expression, immediately realized what he had done, and unerringly anticipated her next comment.

“Uh, was I acting nervous? I hate to think I’m that obvious.” Her discomfiture was much greater than her comment would predicate.

Sean had to think fast. “Nah you weren’t obvious at all. I just assumed that anyone in a new situation like this would be nervous.” Julia seemed at least mildly mollified and Sean relaxed a fraction realizing he would have to be more careful.

“Well that’s true enough I suppose. Have you been looking on the internet long?”

At that point the waitress showed up and asked what they would like to drink. Sean ordered a beer and Julia got a glass of chardonnay. The waitress left menus and said she’d be right back with the drinks. As she did, another emotion impinged on Sean’s awareness. That waitress was flat ass pissed about something. The feeling jolted him and he found himself watching her back retreat. Catching himself and realizing his diverted attention would be misconstrued, he turned back and answered Julia’s last comment, hoping the delay wasn’t too obvious.

“Actually I just stumbled on the site a week ago and it was the first dating site I have ever looked at. I can hardly believe I’m actually doing this.”

Julia seemed to jump at the opportunity. “Well I’m certainly glad you did, Sean.”

The comment seemed consistent with her repeated attempts at physical closeness and Sean was already sensing something else from this woman. She definitely found him attractive, he could feel it, and for that matter he thought she was too, but there was something else he couldn’t quite pin yet. Sean’s pause was unnerving Julia so he let go of his musings to answer.

“I’m really glad to be here too Julia. What do you do for a living?” Sean was less interested in what she did for a living than merely keeping the conversation flowing. Also Julia was watching him very intently and between that and his mind still trying to categorize what he was sensing from her, he found himself a little unnerved. Julia seemed a tad embarrassed as she answered.

“I’m doing data entry over at Sprint at the moment but most of my work experience is as a legal assistant. I lost my last job fairly recently, though.”

“What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?” Sean felt like he was prying but if he didn’t ask he was afraid he would seem disinterested. Sheesh! This whole process was extremely taxing.

“Well,” she began hesitantly, “Let’s just say my last boss was interested in more than my legal skills.”

Was she blushing? Sean felt a surge of anger swelling inside him at a boss taking advantage of a situation like that. “Did you tell him you weren’t interested?” Sean heard the heat in his own voice and hoped it wasn’t perceived as criticism of her.

“Yep. Several times. He was married too.”

“That bastard!” Sean blurted out before he really thought, but it was out there now so he continued, “Whatever happened to ethics? Hitting on an employee is bad enough but doing it when you’re married is just atrocious.” Sean was so unused to sharing his ideas, he found himself overly concerned with how his comments were being perceived. Too parochial? Too Boy Scout? Suddenly it occurred to him that although this interaction was taxing, he was finding that sharing was nice. What a pleasant surprise.

Julia chimed in quickly. “I know what you mean, Sean. It’s as if no one cares about morals anymore. And he was blatant and unconcerned about it too.”

Sean kept wondering if it was his imagination or was she taking every possible opportunity to say his name. He was feeling a closeness to her, though, and he found himself thinking it felt good. Oh hell, he thought, it was probably just his empathy. He decided to disclose a little more about himself.

“Well, maybe it’s me. I guess I’m more than just a little naïve sometimes, but I still believe the golden rule works as well today as it did thousands of years ago.”

Now he sensed that his positive impression on this girl was heightening by the moment and he was beginning to have fears of her seeing him like some kind of a Boy Scout. That sensation didn’t last long, though. It was chased away quickly by his sensing her physical desire for him. He could even see the pulse in her wrist elevating. It was more information than he really wanted at this point, and fortunately her nervousness kept her talking, taking his mind away from those concerns. He tuned back in as she asked a question.

“Well I’m thinking about suing but I haven’t found a good attorney yet. I don’t know Sean, what do you think?”

The conversation continued amiably, but another emotion kept impinging on him that didn’t seem to fit. Was it sadness? Desperation? What could a woman this lovely be desperate about? The thought kept gnawing at him as their orders were taken and the waitress returned with the food, but as they began to eat the sensation kept building and between words and bites of food it was making Sean progressively more uncomfortable. In a sort of mild panic he picked another topic hoping to divert those emotions he was sensing.

“So have you been married before?” The moment the words left his mouth Sean realized it was a mistake. There was just the briefest of hesitations on Julia’s part and Sean could feel the sadness swelling inside her like a mutant cancer. It was so powerful that it clenched his own heart and he desperately wished he hadn’t asked the question. He was certain now he didn’t want to hear the answer.

“Well I was married for a couple of years when I was younger but more recently I had been dating a guy. He was pretty special. We had been dating for over a year when he was killed in a car accident. The report said he must have fallen asleep at the wheel and crossed the median. He hit a semi head on.”

Now Sean was on the verge of being overwhelmed. He was completely unused to being around someone while they were expressing something so charged with emotion. It felt, to him, just like someone he loved deeply had recently been killed, only feeling it from someone else was worse. Taking a deep breath he forced himself to pull back. He felt as though he would start crying if he didn’t and it was all he could do to stammer out the next sentence. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he began, “and I’m even more sorry to have brought up such a painful topic.”

Sean watched her face as she continued to relate falling in love with this guy and him dying suddenly. He felt like he was bleeding inside. The pain coming from Julia was so intense that Sean had the sensation that someone was grabbing his heart and squeezing. Sitting rigidly in his chair, he tried desperately not to embarrass himself. He abruptly excused himself to go to the bathroom.

When he got into the restroom he glanced to see if anyone was in the stalls. Picking out the handicapped one, he went in, closed the door, and cried. He’d barely cried when his own father had died, how could he be so upset over a simple recounting of someone else’s tragedy? The whole situation unnerved him but it wasn’t completely new. He didn’t even go to see sad movies for fear of crying in the theatre. When Sean went to a movie, he didn’t see the movie he lived it. For him it was a personal experience, feeling all the emotions that the characters were feeling while they were feeling them. This made his movie selection much more considered. Leaving a movie being depressed was not his idea of how he wanted to spend his money. But now feeling someone else’s tragedy, he realized, was much worse. He lingered a bit longer in the restroom putting cold water on his eyes in an attempt to minimize the swelling. They were still red and Julia was going to know. This was all so embarrassing that Sean actually found himself contemplating alternate exits. It was no use. He was just going to have to face it.

When Sean returned to the table he immediately picked up on her surprise and concern. It was more than he could take. He had no desire whatsoever to share with this woman, whom he barely knew, the truth about his emotional flaws or empathic abilities, but on the other hand he was a damn poor liar. So he grabbed at the first idea that came to him.

“Julia, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to go. I’m suddenly feeling sick.”

Before she had a chance to answer, he put money on the table to pay for the meal, pushed his chair back and was out the door.

He had escaped but the sense of relief was ameliorated by the horror he felt about his exit. Fiercely, he forced himself not to imagine how his exit must have made her feel. He didn’t want to think about it. This whole dating thing was a stupid idea anyway. Stomping all the way to the parking lot, he got into his truck and let the miles slowly dissipate his anger and shame as he unconsciously navigated the route back home.

Damn his gift! Gift, yeah right, he thought, more like a curse. Part of him wanted so much to connect with someone but owing to his snitching, the whole dating process was a tremendous undertaking, fraught with emotional perils he couldn’t begin to anticipate. He kept hoping that he’d find someone someday, but couldn’t imagine how that would ever happen. People imagined him to be shy and reserved when in reality it was their flood of feelings that forced him to retreat.

Still the days passed and he’d busied himself with ranch chores. On a farm there was always plenty to do and the feelings he sensed from the animals were easily understood and handled. As a result of his aborted dating experience he decided to take on horses. He could justify it by rationalizing the use of the extra money which he didn’t really need, but truly, it was the perfect panacea for his loss and disappointment. Even though the horses had only been there a few weeks, he was enjoying them immensely especially his favorites, Lightning and Ebony.

The next morning Sean was up early and out behind the barn rebuilding the dilapidated door that led to the storm shelter. It was just some more busy work but it needed to be done. The warm sun on his face reminded him of being on a sunny beach. He’d only been to the ocean twice: once in South Padre, Texas and once in Daytona Beach, Florida, but listening to the waves and playing in the surf were memories he’d never forgotten. Maybe he’d take a little vacation, he decided suddenly, but before he did he wanted to clean out and rearrange his father’s room. He’d avoided even opening that door for many weeks now, and it was high time he faced it and got it done. Making the decision lifted his spirits. It gave him something to do and finally finishing a task he had so avoided gave him something to look forward to.

By late morning he had returned from riding and had Lightning unsaddled, brushed down, and cooled off. The day was slowly waxing hot. He fed and watered all three horses, then trudged toward the tractor. On his way, he thought he caught a whiff of something rotting, but discarded it as probably a dead possum. There was the west side field to mow, and that would consume most of the rest of his day.

Hours later, he awoke to find himself face down on the steering wheel of the tractor. The field was half mowed and the tractor was off. He didn’t remember a thing. Shit, he thought to himself. This was the third time.

Sean parked the tractor back in the barn and walked wearily back to the house, hot and sweaty, and wondered what might be happening to him. The spells had only started after his dad’s death. Maybe he should go see a doctor. On the other hand, he hated doctors, and was feeling fine otherwise. He was still debating with himself when he got back to the farmhouse. Maybe after eating he’d get back on the Internet for a while and see if he could find himself a beach.

Yawning, he looked up from the computer. He’d been so busy wandering the world on the ‘Net he’d forgotten the time. Bloodshot eyes drifted absently up to the clock. Damn! It was 10:30.

As much as he told himself he didn’t want to, he became caught up looking at profiles on dating sites, particularly TheSingleScene.com where he’d met Julia. It seemed he gravitated back to that site because it was the first he’d signed onto and he could get suggestions of other things going on in town. One section that kept catching his eye was the Oddities and Absurdities section. There were any number of interesting links to view and one called “Canvas of Life” caught his attention.

Clicking on it took him to a different website. The photo that appeared riveted his eyes. A gorgeous girl looked out at him from the front page along with a little advertisement about her business and a phone number. Mixing ashes with paint? Yuck! What an odd idea. It almost seemed to him like grave-robbing. Nevertheless, that photo haunted him long after he shut down the computer and made his way to bed.

The damn rooster woke him up at dawn, again. He actually laughed out loud at the thought. It was worth having that old bird just for the early morning giggle, and the scrawny thing was certainly too old and tough to eat anyway.

Sean’s mind was still fuzzy, the feathery fingers of sleep reluctantly giving up their grasp. Throwing back the covers, he let the chill in the air propel his feet to the shower. There was work to do and a little hot water would ease his already stiff muscles.

Feeling refreshed and awake, Sean dressed, ate breakfast and walked back up the stairs to his father’s room, hesitating only briefly as he opened the door. Part of him still anticipated that awful smell his memory had associated with this room. But though it was musty and reminded him a bit of an old folks’ home, that particular stench was gone. Standing in the doorway, he slowly glanced around: the unmade bed by the window, the bed pan on the bedside table next to a dirty drinking glass, the house shoes set neatly on the floor by the bed, dirty clothes in the hamper by the closet, the urn on the dresser.

When he’d set that urn with his father’s remains on the dresser, it was because he couldn’t think of anywhere else to put it. Frankly, he’d prefer not to actually see the damn thing at all. It occurred to him to put it in the barn or the basement, but those options seemed somehow disrespectful.

The heavily worn antique furniture stared back  at  him;  a long dresser, end tables, and the matching dark wood bed frame. It all reminded him of his dad and the sadness that was the reason he’d waited so long to clean in here. Scratching his head, he brooded over where to start. The linens needed washing. Nope. He was going to chuck ‘em, along with those clothes on the floor and the rest in the closet. He headed for the bed first; that would be easy enough. He got as far as the sheets and decided to go get some trash bags.

Moments later he returned, feeling energized by finally acting on his decision to get this done. Maybe once he was finished, he’d move into this room. It did have a better view. Surprisingly, the thought chilled him. Then again maybe not, he decided. Somehow the idea of sleeping in his dead father’s room seemed a little too scary to contemplate. Maybe later.

He went back to the closet and pulled out a pair of ancient work boots he had to stretch to reach in the back corner. There was still another pair back there, so he threw the ones in his hand toward the trash bag. When they landed, one fell over and from the corner of his eye he saw something and did a double take. Did something fall out of the left boot? Grabbing the last pair of raggedy shoes in the corner, he moved back over to the bag to take a look. Gloves. A pair of gloves lay on the floor beside the boot. Sean picked them up, inspecting them closely. They were old, stiff and real dirty. Why the heck did his dad have dirty gloves in his boots? The leather was very worn and seemed to be crusted with mud and—blood? Was that blood on them? Maybe his dad had cut his hand. Sean looked for holes in the leather, but the gloves were intact. That meant the blood came from somewhere else. His dad didn’t wear gloves when he hunted, did he? Sean sat back on his heels, his knees creaking slightly, wondering how long those things had been back there. They certainly looked old. And why in an old boot?

Without understanding his actions, he dropped the gloves back in the closet and dismissed the incident. The next stop was the drawers in the dresser. There were underwear, socks, t-shirts and undershirts, all destined for the trash bag.

When he pulled out the last shirt from the bottom drawer, a newspaper article floated gently, leaf-like, down to the floor. He put the clothes in the sack with everything else and held the article with both hands. June 3, 1973. It read: “Jennifer Easton Stockton and her two-year- old son, Mike, were the only fatalities in a seven-car pile-up on Interstate 65 yesterday. The freakish ice storm that coated local roads with over an inch of ice is blamed for the sad tragedy. Witnesses said…” Why was this here, Sean wondered? Easton. Could this be his Dad’s sister? Possibly the only relative he’d ever even mentioned. The age would be about right, but why is this the only remembrance of anything? Sean placed the article carefully in his pocket. With an uneasy feeling, he finished clearing everything from the room and went to get his cleaning supplies.

An hour later, he was scanning the room looking for anything he might’ve forgotten. The urn on the dresser and the gloves on the table were all that was left. He had pulled them back out of the closet but couldn’t bring himself to throw them away. It had seemed wrong somehow, and the urn was just sitting there. Maybe he should bury it. At a loss for a decision, he threw the gloves back into the closet and took the urn downstairs until he could figure out what else to do with it.

Next, Sean decided to go do a little work outside and then get back on the computer. Which reminded him of his vacation idea and the fact that he’d need to get a hold of his friend Brian and see if he’d be willing to take care of the horses for a few days. But where the hell was he even going? He still had no idea. Go? Hell! Just taking a vacation at all was a stretch, much less one by himself. After all, he’d never done it before. He was not going to talk himself out of this.

Reaffirming his decision, he walked down to the barn to take care of the horses. They would be restless by now, and maybe he’d start working on those stalls.

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