I feel swimmy, high, adrenaline on full tilt, though I haven’t consumed a drop of alcohol. “We need to subdue him first,” I hear myself say. “Can’t just slap a hand on his face and hope it knocks him out.”
Marly nods, though she is too encumbered to move quickly, and me—there’s no guarantee of what I can do.
“I have pepper spray,” she fidgets with her purse as though she’s about to withdraw it. “And it’s not like we have to break in, Grace. He’ll let us in, when he sees it’s me. Think I’m coming to talk.”
“Okay, then,” I say, before I lose my nerve. And we get in her car and drive.
We park and walk four residential blocks. The streets are lit by yellow halogen lamps, but there’s also a nearly-full moon. Its bold light makes me feel bolstered, sanctioned. Marly points to his condo, one square box among many in a beige world of homogenous residences.
“This could have been my life,” Marly whispers, her face a portrait of disgust. “I should be in that kitchen right now making dinner, then go spread my legs for him. I can’t believe he thought he could get away with what he did to me.”
The guilt surges through me again. If only I hadn’t healed away the evidence. But we didn’t know. Nobody could have known.
“Let’s do it soon, before I chicken out.” My palms have begun to ache with heat.
“Damn straight,” she agrees, and the toss of her hair is so familiar it’s like we’re fifteen again.
Simultaneously, we take a deep breath.
Marly repeats her lines, “I’ll say we’re here to talk—that I brought you as my friend and witness. That will put him on his best behavior. And you?”
I choke a little on my own saliva, cough, and answer, “I’ll ask for a glass of water, say I got too much sun today. He’ll take one look at me and have a hard time refusing, right?”
Marly pats her purse. “Let’s go.” She’s always one step ahead of me.
This morning my hands are so hot, sweat slides my mug out of my grasp and coffee spills down my right leg, like liquid fire. On the way to the bus in the pre-sunrise dark, a voice from the past drifts to me, as though I am a radio tower. “Grace, you’re mistress of your destiny.” Marly’s voice. “Come on! Tell the flame.” Whether the memory has been summoned by the pain or something else, I go to work cavalier as always, as though my heightened senses are not a portent, as if everything is not about to change.
At the office, Dr. Lieb—Adam to me—is hunched over the fax machine, jiggling it, the paper jammed. The thrum of its electricity beats inside me, like blood in my veins. If he tugs too hard, the fax—thin as laboratory-grown skin—will rip, and he’ll say “shit” and then look around as though he’s killed someone’s pet kitten. I marvel at how capable he is with patients, such steady hands, and how inept he is with the simplest of office equipment (and women).
He hasn’t caught sight of me yet. I’m about to impose myself between him and the machine, to keep him from breaking it, when Helen, party pooper on any moment that resembles intimacy, hurries into the office and flicks on the fluorescents. I cringe against their light.
“Oh, good lord, you two scared me,” she says, but scowls at me, as though her fright is my fault. She steps up so close to Adam that if he were to turn too quickly they might kiss. He frowns and almost hops backwards, which pleases me. When Helen has something to deliver to my desk, she drops it in a hurry, as though I am leprous. You can’t catch this, I want to tell her. But sometimes, I wish I could disfigure people with the slightest look.
“I’m glad you’re here early, Dr. Lieb, I need to consult with you,” she says, and touches a hand coyly to her businesslike bun. Behind her is a poster of the human musculature system, the body looking like a victim of torture, flayed down to tender bits.
He scowls at the fax and looks quickly at me with a plea in his eyes.
“I’ve got it,” I say, a knowing smile twisted on my lips. “Go ahead.”
I expect him to attend to Helen’s insistence—but to my surprise he pushes his dark brown bangs, always an inch too long, out of his eyes and sighs. “Helen, if it can wait? I need to talk to Grace.”
The princess snubbed for the toad. I try not to do a victory dance. Helen buttons it up and strides into the front office like a third place runner-up in a beauty contest.
I put my hands on the fax machine as a cue that I’m going to take over, and he slides his own away, before we can chance a touch. And oh, the kinds of touches we actually make are nothing like what passes through my mind: his callused fingers on the few smooth places left on my body: between my thighs, at the back of my neck as it curves into my spine.
“You’re here early,” he says, jarring me out of my fantasy. This is one of those moments when I’m glad it’s hard to read the expressions on my face. His smile etches a groove into his forehead, fanning out crow’s feet deeper than a thirty-nine-year-old man should have.
“I wanted to say goodbye to Hera before I got here,” I say, thinking of her keen eyes, the way she gazed calmly at me as though we were more alike than not.
He shakes his head in sympathy. Sometimes, a bird, even one as wild as the bald eagle, refuses to go from the Drake’s Bay Wildlife center, and I’m secretly glad even though I know that a life locked in a mesh-covered cage is no life for a wild animal. I see enough of their bloodied carcasses during my weekly volunteer visits. Surrounded as we are by reckless bird and rodent life in our little town, I’m glad I don’t drive.
“I’ll watch out for her,” he says. This makes me nervous; he’s already a distracted driver, the kind prone to missing his exit and running over curbs (though no people, yet) because he’s focused on thoughts of his work.
Before he has to ask, I pop the button, releasing the jammed paper, and his face softens with gratitude, as though I’ve laid a cure for cancer in his lap.
“What did you need to talk to me about?” I ask then, recalling his dismissal of Helen.
He dims whatever he’s viewing on his inner scope and turns his focus on me. “I said yes to a low-cost vaccination clinic next weekend. I was hoping you’d come keep me company, though I know you prefer the beasts to the people,” he says with the hint of a grin.
“You’re lucky you need me.” I shake a fist in mock-anger.
He does too much. It’s why his dark hair is tufted with early gray. My hands itch to smooth the wrinkles gathered at his shoulders, but I don’t dare for many reasons, psychosomatic pain and visions notwithstanding; sometimes I’m afraid of my own impulse control, that it will start as a dusting of lint and the next thing he knows I’ve got his torn open shirt in my hands.
“Oh come on,” I say, “It’s not that you want me there so much as you don’t want to sic Helen’s Imperial Attitude on the undeserving public.”
His smirk is a smile fighting itself, then quickly becomes a chuckle. “I’m awful to laugh,” he says.
What am I, then?
“Well, your taste in employees is a little questionable, I mean look at me.” I wish I could nudge him in the shoulder as casually as any other co-worker.
“Come on now,” he says. “You keep us all in line.”
Is that all? What do I expect him to say: “I can’t live without you”?
“Actually, there’s something else,” he says, and an old man’s worries shine through his young face—like his father handed down decades of anxiety along with his practice. “Do you know Jana Horowitz? She used to run that little consignment store downtown?”
I do know her—she has wild fly-away hair and lipstick that is never confined by her lips, always handing out home remedies and folk cures along with cheap clothing. I nod.
“She’s technically a patient here,” he says.
“What do you mean ‘technically’?”
“Well, she never comes in. But when pain in her abdomen got to be too much, her daughter goaded her into a blood panel and a CT Scan. Turns out she’s got cancer. Bad cancer.”
“As opposed to the kind and gentle version, you mean?”
“Haha.” He sticks his tongue out. “The problem is, she intends to treat it with vinegar and trips to her energy healer.” If Nurse Helen could see him like this, maybe her love of order would protest; maybe she’d stop standing so close to him.
“Oh yeah, those terrible energy healers with their mighty crystals and all-powerful chakra clearing kits,” I say. Yet I suddenly picture hearty Jana Horowitz whittling down like the flayed-open muscle man in the poster, a skeleton with a tumbleweed of hair.
Adam is used to my irreverence and knows when to press on to finish his point. “Her daughter wants me to talk her into treatment. I just… Grace, I’ll never get used to this Northern California attitude, where people think of medicine as a last resort. And I’m not saying it’s all crap, but this is cancer. She needs chemotherapy.”
“So what can I do to help?” I ask.
He smiles. “Talk to her.”
“Me? I’m not even a nurse.”
“But you could do your thing where you crack a little joke, break the ice, and then lay the seriousness on her. Let her know that all the folk remedies in the world won’t cure cancer, and what the consequences look like.”
It’s a painful death. I know this much from patients who pass through our doors, happy to have appointments for things that don’t involve radiation or poisons pumped through their veins. But I’m stunned he’s asking this of me. After the fire, I read all the stories I could find of spontaneous healings among monks and yogis and even civilians in near-death accidents. There were nights when I tried to conjure that same energy, holding my mother’s cats down, determined to heal their fight-born wounds, half serious about trying it on myself next.
The office phone rings then—a horrible seventies jangling sound, because Adam-the-Frugal still refuses to upgrade the phone system his father put into place.
“Don’t answer it yet,” he says, his hand reaching out as though to stop me but then he reels it in, remembering, and I swear I can feel the heat of his hand where it nearly caressed me. “We’re not open for another half hour.”
I nod, liking the way we feel in cahoots.
There’s a mechanical click as the old-fashioned answering machine begins, and we look at each other gleefully, as though we are hiding from someone, like Marly and I used to do after antagonizing a local boy.
“I’m calling to inform your office that my grandmother…” The woman’s voice splinters, and in its husky timber I swear I know her. The air in the office suddenly feels heavy. I remember the way my hands were hot this morning, and now all the patchwork parts of me light up with similar heat.
The woman clears her throat. “I’m sorry. My grandmother, Oona Donovan, has passed away.” Her voice is husky with grief. “Obviously, she won’t be able to make her appointment today. And you can cancel any others. Also, um, if anyone from your office wants to uh, pay regards, the funeral is tomorrow. Anthem Church. 5:00 p.m.”
Oona Donovan. That name, or more specifically the voice speaking it, burrows straight through me, unearthing Marly Kennet, and my last glimpse of her thirteen years ago through a veil of flames.
I am surprised to feel tears at the backs of my eyes, as I lean into the counter for support. For the eight years I’ve worked for Adam, Oona Donovan has come in for run-of-the-mill medications to battle the ailments of aging; sat, fidgeting in the waiting room, casting glances my direction but saying nothing, her face full of unasked questions. On a couple of occasions I came close to asking her if we could have tea, so I could put my hands on hers and see if the truth of where Marly went and why she never contacted me would come rushing through her skin.
“Grace? Did I upset you by asking you to talk to Jana?” Adam inches his hand toward me as though to stroke mine, but of course he can’t offer the kind of comfort I need. No powerful hug, no tender placing of his palm on my shoulder. The doctors say the pain I feel upon contact, and worse, the visions, are all just psychosomatic, PTSD gone unchecked, but it feels damn real to me.
“No, it’s just, I knew that woman,” I say. “The one who left a message about her grandmother. Marly Kennet.”
My former best friend. She’s in town. She must know I work for Adam; her grandmother would have told her. That phone call was meant for me: a coward’s invitation. This knowledge of her presence is an almost chemical feeling—like we are magnetic particles destined to scuttle together. What is it about that girl that she says “leap” and you’re already in the air? Ma’s voice from years ago.
I walk away from Adam and drop into my chair, dragged far away from this moment. I’m no longer twenty-eight but fifteen. Marly, staring down an oncoming car, wild blonde hair in stark silhouette. Me, tugging on her arm, pleading for her to move. In recalling her, I can remember what it felt like when my skin flexed with ease, when the pores on the top half of my body could sweat. When I had hair and both eyebrows.
“Marly. Why does that name sound familiar?” Adam says.
I’ve never spoken to him about her, not even to the people in my burn group. I used to say her name to myself, the ‘M’ a smooth ride, tasting the ‘R’ on my tongue, her name a wave rolling over me just like she did, knocking me down, then righting me again.
“She was the one,” I say to Adam. “With me, the night of the fire.”
The only one who really knows what happened to me.
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Genre – Psychological Suspense
Rating – R
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