Episode 4: “Nightmares”

Created & written by Marrton Dormish

Powers: The Serial is a fictional series based on true stories. With the exception of recognized personalities, locations and institutions from the past and present, all characters and places depicted in this series are fictional.

For three days and three nights, strange dreams skipped across her consciousness like stones on a still pond.

She leaned toward Rico for her first kiss. Her hands smoothed the front of her habit. A shaking hand with a sun tattoo pulled the trigger of a gun. She watched Sister Abigail bury her nose in a bouquet of flowers. She knelt in a stone chapel and recited the rosary.

For three days and three nights, Sister Rosa Avana Paredes drifted in darkness.

She heard screaming. She tasted smoke. She watched death descend into the courtyard behind the chíle stand.

Rosa saw the bullet desecrate Sister Abigail’s flesh, saw Rico claw wild-eyed at the dust, saw the gunmen smirk. She blinked at flashing lights, a white ceiling, a familiar, pleading face.

Her ears rang from a chorus of gunfire and cries, curses and prayers. And then, slowly, it gave way to another sound, a clearer, quieter sound that pierced the veil over her senses.

When she recognized the sound, she felt herself, her real self—body, soul and spirit—shiver. It was the convent’s chapel bell ringing slowly, steadily, calling her back to life.

Rosa opened her eyes to what felt like nighttime. The only light in the room streamed in from a window behind where she lay. Three habit-clad figures spoke near her. In between the peals of the bell, Rosa began to make out their words.

“The sleeping pills aren’t helping —.”

“Yo sé, Hermana,” said Mother Sofia to a nun Rosa didn’t recognize. “I know, Sister. Perhaps we shouldn’t — given them to her last night.”

“But she woke — screaming. What else could —?”

Mother Sofia crossed herself. “God help her, now that — awake, she must begin to face — tragedy.”

“Dejanos, Hermanas,” Mother Sofia said to the other nuns, not unkindly. “Leave us, Sisters.” Their habits swished back and forth quietly as they left what Rosa now recognized as her convent’s second floor infirmary.

Mother Sofia sat on the bed next to Rosa. “Mi hija.” She took Rosa’s hand into her own. “My child.”

“Madre…” Rosa’s eyes filled with tears. “Mother…”

“I know, mi hija…Lord, have mercy.”

“Christ, have mercy,” whispered Rosa urgently.

“Mi hija,” said Mother Sofia, as the bell tolled again. “I want you to see something.”

Rosa roused in horror. “But I don’t want to see! Every time I close my eyes, I see, Madre…I see it all.”

Mother Sofia, who had leaned in closely to hear her, nodded. “I know, mi hija.” She placed a gnarled hand behind Rosa’s neck, and helped her sit up. “But you need to see this.”

There was a cracked vase full of white daisies on the stand beside Rosa’s bed. She looked questioningly at Mother Sofia. “Your Nacho and the children picked those for you,” she said. “But that is not what I want you to see.”

She lifted the blankets covering Rosa, and gently helped her stand beside the bed. Rosa felt dizzy. “Lean on me for —. That’s it. Now, to the window.”

Mother Sofia was a full head shorter than her and many years her senior, but she led her steadily across the cold wooden floor. Rosa watched her bare toes rise and fall, rise and fall, in between the peals of the bell.

“Mira, Rosa,” said Mother Sofia, her voice cracking with emotion. “Look, Rosa. Look outside.”

She didn’t want to look. Instead, her eyes dueled defiantly with Mother Sofia’s. But when she saw her own unspeakable grief reflected in the eyes of the old nun, her own inner howl of pain eased. Rosa remembered Mother Sofia had known Sister Abigail longer than she, longer than any of the other sisters at Sisters of Charity and Mercy.

Rosa looked out the window, and was surprised by light. Just beyond the convent’s gates, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of pinpricks of light shined together into the blackness. So many candle-bearing mourners packed into the street and around the corner past the adjoining orphanage that Rosa could not see the ground beneath their feet.

Goosebumps prickled Rosa’s skin. She felt as if the light of the candles, the sound of the bell and the calloused hands of the people were lifting her out of her solitary suffering, soothing her, and bearing witness.

As the final peal of the chapel bell faded into the night, Mother Sofia reached for her. They held each other and wept.

It took Nathan Patrick three days to make contact with the cartel responsible for what the world press had already been dubbed, “The Juarez Market Massacre.”

The so-called sources provided to him by his newspaper included a police officer who hung up on him three times, a taxi driver whose information led to a dead-end, and a wealthy user who was too stoned on meth to talk intelligibly.

He finally text messaged his editor, “George, it would have been more effective to just announce myself at the airport terminal.”

After Nathan dusted off his rusty Spanish and began making his own inquiries, he kept hearing the same thing. “Eres loco, pero si quieres quedar con El Jefe, primero tienes que quedar con Rico,” whispered people on the street. “You’re crazy, but if you want to meet with El Jefe, you have to meet Rico first.” After making it known he wanted to speak with this Rico, Nathan retreated to his hotel room, took a few power naps, and waited.

When Nathan finally received a call from a man purporting to be the cartel’s infamous lieutenant, he welcomed the familiar heart-pounding adrenaline rush he had been chasing all over the world for 10 years. He sat down on the edge of his hotel bed and popped open his MacBook Air. “6:53 p.m. Call from rico…unident number. Speaks w/ gulf coast accent? Sounds young.”

“Bring no iPhone,” ordered Rico. “No computer. No notebooks. No passport.”

“How can I accurately record our conversation with El Jefe, then?” challenged Nathan.

“Don’t you follow the news, Gringo? Your iPhone tracks where you go.”

“I won’t be able to remember everything without my computer and notebooks.”

“We will take care of that.”

Nathan paused. Gotta get the story. “Okay. But my ID comes. Non-negotiable.”

“Bueno. A taxi is waiting for you downstairs by the hotel lobby. You have two minutes.” The line went dead.

Covering hotspots around the world had taught Nathan to use the often long and boring intervals between high-pressure situations to prepare for the worst, so he had already packed a small, padded backpack with bottled water and Snickers bars. He tossed his oversized wallet with his passport, press ID, $100 dollars and 1,000 pesos into a side pocket. He sent George a text: “Meeting with cartel lt rico right now. Undisclosed location. Will be off grid tonight at least. Will comm asap.”

Nathan took the hotel stairs two a time.

Erika Jones leaned back in her black leather rolling chair and counted the little black dots in the ceiling above her desk.

Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. Should I call his editor? Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six. Two missed appointments in three days. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine. He won’t return any of my calls. Forty, forty-one, forty-two. He’s a good guy, I hate to get him in trouble with his boss. Forty-three, forty-four…Oh God, I’m 44-years-old, and I just missed my last chance to have another baby. I wanted him so badly. Three miscarriages now in five pregnancies. And my Tommy was only four when he…

No! her mind screamed. I will not think about Tommy while I’m at work. I wil not think about my poor, tiny baby boy whom I never got to hold. I will think about work while I’m at work.

Erika flipped open her phone and scrolled to the number for George Lindsey, Nathan’s editor. She went back to counting the dots on the ceiling while her phone dialed.

“Hello, this is Lindsey,” barked a male voice.

“George Lindsey?”

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“This is Erika Jones. I’ve been seeing Nathan Patrick for the last several months. For therapy. In Denver.”


“Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Jones. I meant to call you a few days ago. We had to send Nathan out to cover a breaking story.”

Erika was stunned.

“But…you told me…we agreed he needed…he was so traumatized by what he saw that you assured me you would give him time—”

“Excuse me, Ms. Jones. Excuse me for one second?” George banged down the phone and roared unintelligibly at someone.

He sounds just like Howie, thought Erika.

When George came back on the line he said, “Ms. Jones, one thing we don’t have much of in the newspaper business is time.”

“But Nathan has severe PTSD!”

“Don’t we all! Look, Ms. Jones, I appreciate your concern, but—”

“Where did you send him?”

George paused. “To Mexico.”

“Where in Mexico?”

“Near the border.”

“Where near the border, Mr. Lindsey?”

“You sure you’re not a journalist, Ms. Jones?”

“Just answer the question.”


Erika had seen the news reports.

“Where the nun and the people at the birthday party were murdered?”


“I’ve heard the reports. What did he need to go for?”

“I’m afraid that’s confidential.”

“I want you to know, Mr. Lindsey, that in my professional judgment it is very dangerous to send someone in Nathan’s condition into a situation like that. He has no business being there.”

“Actually, Ms. Jones, it is his business to be there. Look, I understand your concern and I appreciate it, but 10 weeks of paid counseling is a helluva lot more than anyone in this business ever got before.”

“Wasn’t it an unpaid ‘sabbatical,’ except for the counseling?” Erika asked.

“Well, our budget is tight right now.”

She rolled her eyes. “You win, Mr. Lindsey. Will Nathan be able to resume counseling when he gets back?”

“You mean back to Denver?”


“I haven’t thought that far ahead. I cleared him to get back to work.”

“Well I certainly HAVE NOT cleared him, Mr. Lindsey, and if you want to contribute to the burnout of one of your most promising employees, or worse put him in a position where he could do harm to himself, by all means—”

“You mean you read his stuff? Even before you met with him?”


“Huh. Listen, Ms. Jones. I need to go, but be sure to send me your latest bill, and I’ll think about working Nathan back up to full-time reporting. Okay?”

“I suppose it will have to be. Goodbye, Mr. Lindsey.”

Erika hung up. Frustrated, she said aloud, “People who don’t deal with their pain and trauma can lose themselves, give in to unhealthy addictions,  shrivel up and withdraw from the world, or worse, come to the conclusion that there’s no reason left to live, Mr. Lindsey!”

She took a few deep breaths, leaned back in her chair and started counting again, but this time she was careful to skip the forties.

“How is your momma doin’ these days, LJ?” asked Ezekiel Thomas of his young checkers partner. He kept his eyes on the board, though, while he waited for her to answer.

LJ Jones tugged at the collar of her white PHRC button-down. Her favorite part of her job at Park Hill Retirement Community was late night conversations with Zeke over a game board in the facility’s often-deserted “recreation room.” Her favorite subject of late, however, wasn’t her mother.

“Honestly?” LJ asked.

“Yup,” Zeke confirmed, sitting back and jangling the keys he always kept clipped to his pants.

“Not very well, Zeke. She’s back at work and all, which I guess is good, even though it hasn’t been that long since the miscarriage, but all she does when she gets home is go to her room and crawl in bed. She and my dad don’t even go to church with me anymore, and we used to go like three times a week.”

“Uh huh,” grunted Zeke, his eyes on the checkerboard. He jumped his red piece over two of her black ones.

“Hey! How did you do that?” LJ protested.

Zeke chuckled softly until he saw LJ’s forehead crease into a frown. She fingered one of her checkers. “It’s like my mom isn’t even there anymore. She never wants to talk, she never wants to have dinner with me and my Dad. In fact, she doesn’t talk to him at all. When I’m around, anyway.”

LJ finally moved a checker.

“Losing a chil’ is never easy, LJ, even if the chil’ is real’ early. You jus’ need to give your momma some time.”

“I know, but I’m a junior in high school and lately all I can think about is how great it will be when I go away for college. So I don’t have to slink around my parents’ house. I mean it’s not like I’m there that much, anyway.”

“I noticed you spendin’ more time ‘round here.”

“Yeah, I’ve been working more hours. I just can’t take being at my house right now. Although if I didn’t make dinner a few times a week I think my dad would starve. He doesn’t eat if I don’t cook. It’s like, how did you get to be 40-something and not know how to cook? I mean, he knows how to cook. He makes the best French toast in the world and lasagna sometimes. But he says he doesn’t have the energy to cook after work.” LJ lowered her voice. “And my mom barely eats anything. I’m afraid she’s got an eating disorder or something.”

“Your parents, they’re hurtin’ real bad. You keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”

“I know. I will. It’s just I think my dad feels guilty that he didn’t make it to the hospital in time. But he seemed more upset that his stupid SUV got damaged in his accident. The funny thing is he bought it because he liked how it looked, thought it was sporty and four-wheel drive so he could get to his out-of-the-way fishing holes. He said it made him feel independent and everything. But then Toyota comes out with those new commercials that make the Highlander, the SUV my dad bought, seem like a glorified minivan. We were eating dinner the first time my dad saw those commercials and he almost choked on his food.”

“Uh huh,” Zeke muttered, his eyes fixed on the board.

LJ sighed. “I’m just so tired all the time, with school and work and everything.”

“Get used to that feelin’, chil’. ‘Cause that’s what growin’ up is all about.”

He jumped LJ again, “King me.”

“Ughhh!” she plopped down an extra red checker in mock anger. “Zeke?”

“Yes, chil’.”

“Why do you always have that big clump of keys with you?”

“Oh, I dunno. Habit, I guess.”

“What are they all for? Take them off and tell me.”

“You stallin’ for time, ‘cause you know I’m gonna win?”

“Who me?” LJ moved one of her cornered checkers.

“Uh huh. That’s what I thought. Lessee here.” The keys clinked together as he held them up in turn. “This is my room key. Car key. I can still drive y’know. My old apartment key. Key to my barbershop. Rainey is running it now. Safe deposit box—”

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose them.”

“Honey, only way you gonna get these keys is off my dead body. Lessee, where was I? Oh, this is the key to my congregation’s basement. Used to be a deacon, helped take care of the church grounds. This is my mailbox key at the post office. And that’s ‘bout it.”

“Wait, you missed one. What’s that square silver one for?”

“Oh, that’s nothing.”

“Why do you say that? What’s it for?”

“LJ, anyone ever tell you you ask too many questions?”

“All the time. So what’s it for?”

“Tell you what. You win this here game of checkers and I’ll tell you what the key is for.”

“Hey, that’s not fair! I’m already going to lose!”

“What? Oh, I guess tha’s right,” Zeke said, jumping her last three checkers and raising his arms in triumph. “Shoulda paid closer ‘tention, girl!”

“Zeke!” LJ shrieked, throwing one of his victorious red checkers at him.

“Shhhh!” Zeke urged, trying not to laugh too loudly. “You gonna get us in trouble, now. We old folks need our sleep and you’re gonna wake someone up with that screechin’.”

“Ezekiel Thomas, you might have beaten me at checkers, but one way or another I’m going to work it out of you what that key is for.”

Michael Airdrie’s navy suitcoat flapped gently back and forth as he shielded his eyes from the springtime sun.

“There you are.” He spotted her sitting on a bench with her legs crossed. He dodged an approaching shuttle bus, weaved his way past a hot dog stand, declined a newspaper held out by a homeless man in a blue, oversized Denver Broncos sweatshirt, and finally, slid next to his girlfriend of two months.

“Hi,” said Courtney Adams, uncrossing her legs.

“Hey,” he kissed her lightly. “You know you look great even in that old lady pant suit, right? Everything okay?”

“Not really,” she said.

“Well, I got your text and came running.” Michael paused. “So…Why are we sitting on a outdoor bench on the 16th Street Mall?”

“It’s such a nice day I thought we could have an early lunch outside.” She handed him a can of A&W Root Beer and a steaming paper bag. He peeked inside and saw a Philly cheese steak sandwich and a wad of bumpy white napkins. Two shuttle buses whined by on either side of them.

“O-kay,” he said. This is weird.

Courtney spread some napkins over her slacks. She opened the bag with her philly sandwich and clunked her root beer to his. “Cheers,” she said. Then she leaned in as if for another kiss and whispered, “I think I’m being followed.”

He started to laugh, but her eyes told him she wasn’t kidding. He whispered back in disbelief. “You think you’re being followed?”

“Yes.” She leaned back and started unwrapping her sandwich. “There’s some fries in there, too,” she said in a normal voice, pointing to his bag.

“Great,” Michael said. Is she serious? Yes, she’s serious. She thinks she’s being followed. She’s never seemed paranoid before. Am I dating another nut-case?

Courtney smiled at him, but her eyes were pleading at him. Guess I’ll play along.

“This was a good idea.” He unwrapped his philly and took a big bite.


“So…where’d you get the sandwiches?” he probed.

“A little hole-in-the-wall with lots of flies.” (What’s that supposed to mean? She’s being bugged?)

“How come we never had a picnic like this before?”

“Oh, I just heard about the sandwich place last month.” (She figured out she’s being followed last month?)

“That recently, huh? How many times you eaten there?”

“Oh, a few, but this is the first time I’ve eaten outside.” (No idea what that means.)

“Huh.” He took another bite of his philly. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Courtney helped him out, “Yeah, someone from work recommended this place.” (Okay, so it has to do with work. Phew. Not a crazy old boyfriend or wacky neighbor. That’s good.)

“From work, huh? One of your bosses? Or one of your employees?”

“One of my bosses knows the owner of the restaurant.” (That’s bad. Has something to do with the partners of her firm or maybe a client.)

“Nice. They give you a discount?”

“No,” Courtney laughed. “But we do their books.” (Oh, crap. That doesn’t sound good.)

“Too bad they didn’t give you a break, then.”

“Tell me about it.”

“I could take my partner Joe, whom you’ve yet to meet, and we could go up there and flash our badges around. Threaten to close them down.”

“Maybe I should just get a coupon or something first.”

“Aw, that’s no fun.” He forced a smile.

“Besides I don’t think it would help my reputation in the partners’ eyes for you to go banging around causing trouble.”

“Well…I can at least start looking…for some coupons, I mean.”

“That’s not a bad idea, Michael.”

“Okay, then, Court. I’ll do that.” Her bottom lip trembled when she looked at him. What in the world has she gotten herself into, Michael thought. He put his arm around her so she could lay her head on his shoulder, and they ate the rest of their lunch in silence.

Tigist Abebe nervously shuffled some papers on her desk. To save space for the never-ending flood of orphans under her care, she had moved her office into a storage closet. At the moment, there were 123 tiny souls under the care of her five-person staff, but at least 20 of those souls would be shuffled off to other orphanages by the end of the week. It was impossible for her to remember all the names of the kids who had come through her facility since she started running it eight years earlier, but she remembered their faces, and right now, one special face occupied her attention.

Except for a name — Amare — and an “X” over a particularly ominous box, the registration paper in front of her was bare.

The noise from the 5- to 7-year-olds in the adjoining rooms rose to a crescendo, announcing to her that visitors had arrived at the orphanage. The clip of footsteps echoed down the short hallway leading to her office, and then two young men in beige uniforms appeared.

“Woizero Abebe?” the tallest one asked. “Mrs. Abebe?”

“Ay, Selam,” she said. “Yes, hello. You are Officers Mekele and Worku?


“Thank you for coming. I am sorry I have no chairs to offer you.”

The police officers waited for her to continue. They did not like being summoned back to the orphanage, and would not have driven halfway across the city if they had not been ordered to return by their commander.

“I asked you here to discuss Amare, the boy you brought to us three days ago.”

Officer Mekele looked to his stocky, partner with rolled-up sleeves. “The one who bit you on the arm, eh, Worku?”

“He was a handful, that one. He kicked and screamed and even tried to bite me. I can hardly stand that duty even when they don’t fight. When they do it makes it worse for everyone.” Officer Worku shrugged his offended arm.

“Maybe you can take him in, Worku? He kind of looked like you.”

“You are the one who is Tigrinya, Mekele. He looked Tigrinya to me.”

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Tigist interrupted. “I’ve been very concerned about Amare.”

“Why? Did he bite you, too, Woizero Abebe?” the officers smiled.

“No, Officer Mekele. And need I remind you that I am on very good terms with your commander, and that the life and health of a small child and perhaps two small children is in your hands?”

The police officers glanced at each other and stood up straighter. “No, Woizero Abebe,” they chorused.

“Good. I need to ask you some questions about Amare. We weren’t able to properly document his arrival, because my staff tells me you left very quickly after bringing him to us.”

“We were told to return to our station right away.”

“Be that as it may, I need to know more about the situation when you picked him up. Start from the very beginning, and tell me what happened.”

The officers looked at each other again. “There really isn’t much to tell, Woizero Abebe,” began Officer Mekele. “Our station received an anonymous call saying a young mother with two children had died in the squatter’s quarry near the cathedral. So we went there, and typically, they all disappeared before we arrived. We found the body of the woman among the filth, and the boy was with her, crying. We wrapped her body in some blankets and had it taken away. That’s when the boy attacked Worku here.”

“That much I know already,” Tigist said. “Did the boy say anything to you? Anything at all?”

“Well, he was crying for his mother the whole time,” said Officer Worku.

“He was calling for his mother yes, but also for a sibling, I think, a girl named ‘Ayala,’” Officer Mekele said. Tigist wrote the name of the sister on her form.

Officer Worku added, “Yes, that’s right. I remember him saying, “Ayala went for food! ‘yala went for food!”

“Well, we knew we couldn’t leave him there, and we did stay for a while looking for her and waiting, but he didn’t know where she went to get food and we couldn’t wait forever.”

“Why not?”

“Woizero Abebe, we had another other call just like that one in our district the same day and we’ve had two more since. We have had unrest in that area and we can barely keep up with what we are already doing to make the city safe. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how many thousands of children there are in similar situations in the city. What with the famine and—”

“No, Officer Mekele. You do not need to tell me about the situation. Let me tell you about Amare’s last three days. He came to us with the red spots, severely malnourished, severely dehydrated from diahrrea. His mother died and his sister has been lost. She is six and her name is Ayala.” Tigist shook her finger at them. “In three days with us he has not spoken one word. I want you to find his sister!”

Officer Mekele’s jaw clenched. “Woizera Abebe, our commander made us go back to the quarry this morning to look for her before we came here. She was not there.”

“Then look again! I don’t care if you have to look for a month when you are off duty. You must find this girl before it is too late for her! Talk to the people in the quarry. Someone must know something. Her name is Ayala and she is six years old! Her brother needs her, Officers, and she needs her brother.”

Officer Mekele waved his long hand at her in dismissal. “I have better things to do with my time than waste it on lost causes, Woizera Abebe. Come on Worku.” He walked out.

Officer Worku took a step closer to Tigist and said quietly, “I will keep looking for Ayala, Woizero Abebe. Don’t be too hard on Mekele. He lost most of his family to the wasting disease, and his heart has hardened.”

“I understand, Officer Worku. I will pray you are able to find little Ayala before it is too late.”

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