The A to Z Challenge – 2023 — X is for Xenolith

Every year we bowed to the absurdity that Edward John Berkely bestowed upon us for that one week we all agreed to, somewhere back in the mists of time, for reasons now, no one could remember.

It took the form of Edward’s version of the Amazing Race, with 25 clues that took us to places we’d generally never been to before, each of us starting from our home city, and ending up in the same destination, the Empire State Building.

It was always that week beginning the first Saturday in December, and ran for a week, each day ending up in a particular hotel where the numbered clues for the next day would be delivered.  The first day’s clues were delivered by email and told us when to start.

We also had a burner phone, delivered before the start, used to track each team, mostly so that we did not cheat.  No one ever had, but perhaps that was due to having the phone.  It was the only means of communication with Edward, along the way, in case of problems.

Elaborate, yes.  Exciting, yes, in the beginning.

Last year, I had suffered a series of misfortunes and failed to finish, the first time, and I had told Edward I was no longer interested.  So soon after the death of my wife, I didn’t want to go, but he cajoled me into it.

This year, when he sent the email to ask if I was participating, I told him I wasn’t.  Without Jane, who loved the challenge of it more than I did, it seemed pointless, and when I didn’t hear back, I assumed my name had been struck off the list, and gave it no more thought.

As time passed life began to assume a form of normality.  It might have taken less time if we had children, but that was not possible, and we accepted it.  By myself in a big empty house, it took a while to realise all it did was shackle me to the past, and I had to move on.

There was nothing to keep where I was, our friends were great when there were the two of us, but not so much after she had passed.  They came, gave their condolences, and then slowly stopped coming.  They were mostly Jane’s friends, and I learned later, didn’t like her choice of husband, but tolerated me for the sake of her happiness.

On the other side of the country, I knew I could lose myself in a city as large as New York, and never run into anyone I’d known.  I was happy to be by myself.  At conferences, the six I attended around the country each year, they were people I knew and liked Jane, but she was not one of us.  When she passed, that first conference was difficult.

Now, I was the one without a plus one, and had settled back into a bachelor’s existence, and, no, I was not interested in finding a replacement for Jane.

Of course, what we tell ourselves and what happens, in reality, are two entirely different things, particularly when a random chance meeting with an old friend I’d not seen for 20 years came out of that proverbial left field.

Mary-Anne Dawkins.  Or at least that was the last name I knew her by.

The girl next door, the girl I grew up with, the girl I went through grade school, elementary school, and later, for a time, college.  We never dated, it never got to that, but we were inseparable, always had each other’s back, and it had been a sad day when her parents decided to return home and took her and her brother with them.

That day broke my heart, for reasons, then I could not explain.  Much later I realised she had been the love of my life, and the one that got away.  And with the passing of time, I had almost forgotten her.

I saw her standing at the reception desk of the hotel I was staying for the latest conference when I returned to change for the dinner being held on the last day. 

At least I thought it was her. When I stood beside her, and she turned to look in my direction, she simply smiled and ignored me.  It was her smile, the one that reminded me of the cat who ate the canary.  There were three attributes, the smile, the wavy hair, and the infectious giggle.  All three were present in that girl beside me, an older version. But exactly how I would have expected her to age.

“Mary Anne Dawkins,” I said when she turned to go to her room.

She stopped.  “Yes, once.  It’s now Mary Anne Thomas.  Do I know you?”

Interesting that she would not remember me.  “My name is Gary Johnson.  We used to be friends back in Saratoga.”

“Exactly when?”

I explained the relationship we had for over a dozen years, and that still didn’t register.

When she saw my puzzled expression she said, “Oh, sorry.  I was in an accident about a year back, a bad one as it happens, and lost most of my memories before it happened.  Basically, I was lying in the hospital with absolutely no idea who I was, where I came from, or what I did.  You have no idea how scary that can be.  Anyway, one of my friends recognised the photo in the paper and came to rescue me.  If you were who you say you are, then if I had those memories, I would remember you, but, I’m sorry, I do not.”

And her point was, this would probably look like I was trying to hook up.

I shrugged.  “Then I’m sorry to hear about what happened and will leave you in peace.  It was nice to see you again, anyway, Mary Anne.”

Over the next hour or so I pondered the plight of people who lost their memories and what it must be like, waking up one morning and not knowing who you were.

Some people might be thankful given their circumstances.  It only highlighted the fact my memories were intact, and sometimes I wished they weren’t because of how painful some were.  My life had too many moments that inspired grief rather than rejoicing and seeing Mary Anne again had dragged a lot back to the surface.

Enough to make it impossible to go to the post-conference dinner.  Feeling as miserable as I did then, I would not make good company.

Instead, I went down to the hotel restaurant and asked for a table in a corner and was going to have dinner on my own.

I was on my third drink when a familiar face appeared at the restaurant doorway, scanning the tables.  Mary Anne.  Was she looking for someone?

Our eyes met and moved on, but in a single moment, I felt a spark of regret.

A few minutes later a waiter came and asked me if she could join me for dinner, the restaurant was full, and she had not made a booking.

I shrugged.  Why not?  It would be like dining with a total stranger, which could be interesting, or just plain sad.

“Thank you for this.  I was supposed to be dining with someone else, but they had to cancel.  I didn’t fancy going elsewhere, and thought, well, you might tell me a little about myself.”

“Are you sure you’d want to do that?  I would think it might be better to leave the old you behind and embrace the new you.”

She settled in the chair and ordered a drink.  Those few minutes gave me time to glance at the older version of Mary Anne, and my mental vision of her didn’t match the physical version sitting opposite.  She looked, to me, very sad.

“Someone else told me that, and I remember at the time, it might have had something to so with my past, something very bad.  I wake up some mornings very frightened and have these bad dreams from time to time.  The doctor said it might be just a result of the accident, but some of them are quite real.”

Perhaps that was what was driving the sadness.  “I only knew you when you were a child, from grade school to the start of college.  Without that friendship, I don’t think I might have achieved what I have over time.”

“Were we more than just friends, weren’t we?  I feel that it might have been more.  Another result of the accident is that I can sense things from people.  The tenor of your voice conveys a depth of feeling.  It also tells me you recently suffered a terrible loss.  A wife?”

Or she could just see right through me.  I’d never really recovered from losing Jane, and yes, being with her now, those feelings had resurfaced.

“My wife died about a year ago, and with you, I always suspected my feelings were one-sided.  I never expressed them, and by the time I realised what they were, you were gone.  A regret, yes, but we all learn to live with regrets and mistakes.”

It was a convenient moment for the waiter to arrive and take our order.  I needed the time to reshelve those memories and change the subject.

“It has to be a monumental coincidence our being here at the same time.  I’m at a law enforcement conference.  You?”

It seemed odd saying it, law enforcement because it was not exactly true.  I was not in a police or sheriff’s department, but something else.  I just used the anonymous cover of working for the NYPD as a cover.  I had once, earlier on, and people usually accepted it.

“I’m looking for a Xenolith”

She saw the curious expression on my face, and added, “A rock, a large rock.”

Inevitably I had to ask, “Why?  Are you a geologist?”

“No.  A travel guide of sorts.  I work for a company that finds unusual things for travellers to do, or at the moment, elements of a tour that is like the Amazing Race.  We have a client who does it once a year for his friends.”

“Edward Berkeley”

Her turn to be surprised.  “You know him?”

“An old friend from school days.”  And then it occurred to me, she would have known him had she had her memories, because we all used to hang out together, and another memory resurfaced, the fact he fancied her, and then a pang of jealousy, she fancied him.

This was too much of a coincidence.  “Have you met him?”

“No.  I was out of the office a few months back when he brought the list of places for us to look for.  Oh, I see, would he have recognised me?”

“He did have a thing for you.  I’ll be honest I was a little jealous, but his parents were very rich and I couldn’t compete.”

“One thing I remember is when they told me had come to the office just to see me, I got a very bad vibe.  Conversely, here with you, it does seem familiar, and don’t get me wrong or write anything into it, I feel, for the first time, safe.  It’s a very odd feeling to have, but perhaps it comes from our time together.  I don’t know.”

Food was served, it was time to leave that and change the subject.  I could see a change in her, one of confusion.  I didn’t want to be the one that might bring back memories that had been taken from her for a reason.

It was something I’d read about once when dealing with head trauma, and bad things that happened to people.  The mind, given an opportunity, just simply shut them out to protect.

Waiting for the next course, a bottle of wine was ordered and served, and the conversation moved on.

“What do you do in law enforcement?”

“Research.  You know, you watch the TV shows and there’s this guy or girl behind a computer reeling off stuff relevant to the case.  It doesn’t quite work like that, it’s sometimes a lot more difficult, but it’s more or less the job.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

“I was asked to come and lead a session on the more obscure sources of information.  Sometimes I think when I retire, I will be able to do family trees with my eyes closed.  I researched mine, going all the way back to the people who came over from England.”


The main course arrived, and it seemed to have an effect on her because she closed her eyes, put her hands on her forehead, and said, “Oh, no.  Oh, God no, no, no…”

And then passed out.

It was three days before she woke.

I had tried to find if there was any significant person in her life that should know what happened but found nothing on her, nor in her room.  Other than her name on the booking form, the fact she had paid herself, she had paid cash and had no credit cards or driver’s licence, or any documentation to verify who she was.

I knew her as Mary Anne Dawkins and tried to trace her that way, but her identity disappeared after she left my hometown.  No Mary Ann Dawkins from there could be traced, nor her parents.

It was like she had appeared out of thin air.

With no one else available, and with the permission of the local police force, I stayed with her, and would until she woke when we could get answers to the mystery.

It was a relief when she opened her eyes.  Those first few seconds when there would be disorientation, showed through the surprise, then fear in her expression.  Then she saw me, and I wanted to believe it was a smile, but it might have been something else.  I was holding her hand at the time.

“Gary, Gary Johnson, of Saratoga, yes?  I know you, don’t I.”

“The same.”  OK, what just happened?  The girl I’d seen before didn’t have a clue who I was.  Could that have been an act?  If it was it was very convincing.

“What are you doing here?  Where am I. by the way?  A hospital, yes.  I had an accident though I don’t remember anything of it.  T-boned in a taxi on the way to the airport?  Hey, I was coming to see you…”

“Whoa.”  This was getting freakish.  Had she just come out of the fog left behind by the accident, and time had stood still for, what, a year?  I asked her, “What day is it?”

“October 7th, 2021.”

“Actually, it’s March 23rd 2023.”

“Oh my God.  What the hell?  Have I been in a coma all this time?  How is it possible to lose that much time?”

At that point, the doctor and nursing staff came in and took command of her, and I was relegated to the passage, on the outside looking in.  I watched her go through a dozen different states of mind and the gamut of emotions until finally, she had settled, and I was allowed back.

I just sat down when she reached out and grabbed my hand and held it tightly.

“You have to do something for me.  It might sound very weird, but believe me, it’s very important because if you don’t, he might succeed in finishing what he started out, killing me.”


“James Fordsburg.  You would remember the Fordsburg case; the family were funnelling finds into a private army with the intention of staging a coup and taking over the country.  They had property in remote places that were discovered to be training camps, munition dumps, an airport with fighter planes.”

I remembered it.  The closest we ever came to civil war again.

“The reason why we left in a hurry.  My father worked for the Fordsburgs.  He found out what was going on and became a whistleblower.  The case never made it to court, the Fordsburgs killed themselves, along with the top military people.  What you and everyone else didn’t know was the was a junior Fordsburg, but he did use that name, he used his maternal family name, Berkeley, and his name, Edward Berkeley.

“He never stopped searching.  He killed my father, mother and brother, even if the police still say it was an accident, and he’s never stopped looking for me.  I then got the idea if I found you, you would know what to do and tracked you down.  I spoke to Jane.  When I explained who I was, she said she would tell you.  Anyway, a year ago, he found me, and I just managed to get away, get a car, and come to see you.  I was on my way to the airport, and here I am 18 months later, the message finally delivered.”

It was an amazing tale.  If it was true, then Fordsburg the younger would be on the wanted list.  That Edward was this Fordsburg, that was a little harder to come to terms with.

“OK.  You know I have to check the facts, and that means leaving you here, but I will arrange for protection.”

I heard the door to the room close behind me, and a voice say, “That won’t be necessary, Gary.  I can take it from here.”

I heard Mary Anne gasp.  I turned around and saw Edward in a county Sherriff’s uniform.

“I don’t know what tales she’s been telling you, Gary, but all of it is in her imagination.”

“So you’re not a Fordsburg?”

“Me?  No.  You know who I am, Garry.  The middle of the road, invisible guy, with rich parents that made my life miserable.”

“I’m not made,” Mary Anne said.  “He’s dangerous, and we will not leave this room alive.”

I was inclined to agree with her.  He was behaving oddly, like he was strung out, and trying to keep a lid on it.  That made him highly unpredictable.

I stood and turned to face him.

“Be careful Garry.  No sudden moves.  I hope you’re not buying into this tissue of lies.” 

No, but I was playing for time.  The fact he was in the room meant he had got rid of the guard at the door.  It was possible the doctor might come back, and equally possible he might be momentarily distracted.

As I was thinking that he had drawn his weapon, I had to assume the safety was off.

“No need for guns, Ed.  I’m not a threat.  Nor is Mary Anne.  Not if what you say is true.”

The next thing that happened was a loud clanging sound which was the distraction I needed, but it didn’t quite turn out the way I expected.  Yes, I got to him, yes, I partially neutralised the gun, and yes, in the scuffle that followed the weapon discharged.


And that was all I remember.

© Charles Heath  2023

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