Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Last Station, Shard Villa, Middlebury, Vermont

The radio died and the motor conked out when Ted and Jan came around the corner on the Vermont country road. The SUV drifted to a stop beside the long driveway that led to a gray, stone, tower-topped manor. Jan felt goose bumps as she stared at the imposing structure, which appeared to have eyes, a nose, and a gaping mouth; a smaller fifth eye was in the widow’s watch.
           They got out never having seen such an odd structure in the rolling farm country of Western Vermont. Ted looked at his phone and cursed as there was no service. Jan held her phone and shook her head. Ted tried the engine again, but the battery was dead.
           The couple went up the drive and saw a man come out of the front doors and wait for them on the doorstep. The man was tall, dressed in white with silver hair slicked back, a narrow pink face and, as they approached, they noticed his sky blue eyes.
           Ted explained they had car trouble and needed to call for service.“I’ll have Max call the garage at Salisbury. They’re nearby.” The man said in a deep voice.
           He invited them in, offering ice tea while they waited. As they entered the dim foyer a woman appeared who could have been the man’s twin. He turned his back and spoke to her, Ted and Jan not catching his words.
           The man ushered them into the sitting room with the large windows facing the extended lawn. Jan paused as their host led the way with Ted following. She looked to her left down the hall and was startled to see an older woman in black clutching a clown doll wearing a green beret festooned with silver stars. She was mouthing, “help me”. Jan started to speak, but the woman shook her head and put her finger to her lips.
            Jan shakily joined Ted on the couch as he introduced them and the man nodded, saying he was Dr. Burns. The woman in white returned and set out ice tea for the three of them, replete with slices of lemon. Jan took the glass smiling, while being overcome with uneasiness, a queasy feeling. Her antenna was going up. Who was that old woman and why had she signaled to Jan?
            She tuned back in as Ted rambled on about their cottage on Lake Hortonia and how they had been exploring the back roads when the car died.
            Dr. Burns explained that the Shard Villa was a care facility for the sunset years and it was managed by his company on behalf of the U.S. Government. Jan’s ears perked up as she was a Washington, D.C. reporter covering Health and Human Services and she recalled hushed discussions about the new 3,000 page Health Care Bill. There were rumors of a Sunset Provision that was radical, an experiment to deal with the ever mounting costs of the terminally ill elderly, 85% of health care expenses. Some cynics whispered “Final Care”. In other words, the last station.
             “…exciting, still experimental, very new.” Dr. Burns explained. “If we are successful, this will save the President’s health care system and care will be viable if our approach is applied on a country-wide basis.”
             “You’re a contractor? Where are you from?” Ted asked.
              Dr. Burns laughed. “We are from far away.”
              Ted cocked his head. “You mean Europe?”
             “Far, far away.” The doctor added, then changed the subject and asked about the sailing at Lake Hortonia.
              Jan felt the hair on her neck stand up as her mind raced. She recalled other rumors, absurd stories, wild bar talk about secret contact, discovering a marvelous technology, a painless ray that vaporized matter. Jan always shrugged these stories offf…the second bottle of wine talking.  Still, the President had been touting his new cost-effective approach to deal with the elderly. To be unveiled at a later date, of course.
             “You’re quiet.” Dr. Burns said, looking intensely at Jan with his blue eyes, his eyebrows raised questioningly, as if he could read her mind. Jan blushed and lamely said she was thinking about her new assignment on the health-care beat.
            Ted was settling back, but Jan stood and said they ought to call the garage again. Dr. Burns  agreed, but urged them to try the car another time. Maybe just an unexplained quirk. Jan smiled and led Ted out of the Villa while Ted thanked the doctor and shrugged, indicating that his wife was eccentric at times.
            They headed down the drive and Jan looked at her phone, 5 bars. Ted looked at his and scratched his head. They reached the car, got in and Ted turned the key, surprised when the engine started. Jan tensed as a leafy fragment floated onto the windshield. She reached out of the window and grabbed it, feeling that it was a small piece of green cloth and seeing the point of a silver star. Ted was saying they should drive by the villa and signal they were fine. Jan shook her head and insisted they leave. She chewed on her fingers. Something wasn’t right about Dr. Burns and his Shard Villa.
            The next day Jan convinced Penny, her local friend, who was a deputy sheriff to return with them to Shard Villa. Penny protested as the location was out of her jurisdiction, but reluctantly agreed to go in mufti as it was her day off.
            Ted described the previous day in glowing terms, the charming Dr. Burns and the fascinating stone villa. Ted was convinced that important research was being done and Vermont was lucky to host such a project.
            Penny started to protest but Jan shushed her as they turned onto Swamp Road and headed along the winding two-lane blacktop.
           “You’ll see for yourself.” Jan said.
           They rounded the familiar curve and Ted stopped at the foot of the great lawn, an open space.
           Penny was puzzled and shook her head. Ted and Jan gaped.
           The Shard Villa was gone.