Kate Iverson stared out the window of the hurtling taxi and wondered where she was. New York was not her town. She knew certain sections, and if it were daytime she might have had some idea as to her location, but here in the dark and fog she could have been anywhere.
She’d started the trip thirty minutes and who-knew-how-many miles ago in the West Twenties with a follow-that-cab scenario—I still can’t believe I really said that—that moved across town and up the FDR Drive. The East River had served as a comforting landmark for a while, but as twilight had faded to night, the river fell behind, replaced by dark shapes and fuzzy lights looming in the fog beyond the roadway.
“What road is this?” she asked the driver.
Through the Plexiglas barrier came the accented reply, double-rolling the r’s: “Bruckner Expressway.” The driver’s ID tag showed a dark mustached face with glowering black eyes and indicated he was Mustafah Salaam.
She’d often heard “the Bruckner” mentioned in the incessant traffic reports on New York City radio but had no idea where it was.
“This is Bronx,” the driver added, anticipating her next question.
Kate felt a quick stab of fear. The Bronx? Visions of burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn lots swirled through her brain.
Oh, Jeanette, she thought, staring ahead at the cab they were following, where are you going? Where are you taking me?
Kate had stashed her two teenagers with her ex and taken a short leave from her pediatric group practice in Trenton to stay with Jeanette during her recovery from brain tumor therapy. The experimental treatment had been a resounding success. No ill effects…at least none that would be apparent to Jeanette’s treating physician.
But since completion of the treatment, Kate had noticed a definite personality change. The Jeanette Vega she’d come to know and deeply love over these past two years was a warm, giving person, full of enthusiasm for life, with an opinion about everything. A delightfully edgy chatterbox. But slowly she had changed. The new Jeanette was cold and distant, rarely speaking unless spoken to, leaving her apartment without a word about where she was going, disappearing for hours at a time.
At first Kate had chalked it up to an acute reactive depression. Why not? What medical diagnosis can rock the foundations of your world more deeply than an inoperable malignant brain tumor? But depression didn’t quite explain her behavior. When Jeanette should have been depressed—when she’d been told she had a literal death sentence growing in her brain—she’d remained her upbeat self. Now, after a miraculous cure, after regaining her whole future, she’d become another person.
Maybe it was a stress reaction.
Or a side effect of the treatment. As a physician Kate prided herself on keeping current with medical progress, so she was familiar with medicine’s cutting edge; but the experimental protocol that had saved Jeanette seemed damn near science fiction.
Yet it had worked. The tumor was dead, and Jeanette would live on.
But would she live on without Kate?
That, Kate admitted, was what was really disturbing her. Nearing middle age—in darn good shape for forty-four, she knew, but still six years older than Jeanette—she couldn’t help worrying that Jeanette had found someone else. Someone younger.
That would be so unlike the old Jeanette. But this new Jeanette…who could say?
Jeanette had been put on notice that her remaining time on earth was numbered in months instead of decades; she’d believed she’d seen her last Christmas tree, tasted her last Thanksgiving dinner. And then it was all given back to her. How could anyone’s psyche survive that sort of trauma unscathed?
Perhaps the ordeal had caused Jeanette tos reassess her life. Maybe she’d looked around and asked, Is this what I want? And perhaps, in some new back-from-the-brink perspective, she’d decided she wanted something else. More. Different.
At least she could tell me, Kate thought. She owes me that much.
Jeanette hadn’t asked her to leave—she had the right since it was her apartment—but she had moved out of the bedroom they’d always shared on Kate’s visits and into the study where she slept on the couch. No amount of questioning from Kate had elicited a reason why.
The not knowing gnawed at her. So tonight, when Jeanette had walked out the door without a word, Kate had followed.
Never in a million years would she have imagined herself trailing the woman she loved through the night. But things change. It hadn’t been all that long ago that she never would have imagined herself loving another woman.
Up ahead, Jeanette’s cab turned off the Bruckner and Kate’s followed it onto a road the signs identified as the Bronx River Parkway. And after a few miles the city suddenly disappeared and they were in the woods—in the Bronx?
“Stay closer,” she told the driver. “You’re letting them get too far ahead.”
She didn’t want to come all this way just to lose her.
Then Kate saw signs for the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Gardens. More turns, each new road smaller than the last until they were traveling a tree-lined residential street.
“Are we still in the Bronx?” she asked, marveling at all the well-kept homes trailing by on either side.
“Still Bronx, yes,” the driver told her.
How come it never looks like this on TV? she wondered.
“Keep going,” Kate said when she saw Jeanette’s cab pull into the curb before a neat brick colonial.
Her anxiety soared as a thousand questions cascaded through her mind. Who lived there? Another woman?
She had the driver stop half a block beyond. She watched Jeanette’s cab leave her on the sidewalk and pull away. As Jeanette started up the walk toward the house, Kate opened her own cab’s door.
“Wait here,” she said.
“No-no,” the driver said. “You must pay.”
Nice neighborhood or not, this was still the Bronx, and a long way from Jeanette’s apartment. Kate did not want to be stranded here. She glanced at the meter and fished the exact amount out of her wallet.
“Here,” she said, keeping her voice low as she handed him the money. “You’ll get your tip when we get back to the city.”
He seemed to accept that, nodding without comment as he took the money.
She pulled her raincoat tightly around her. A chilly night for June. The fog was thinning and the wet street glistened in the glow from the streetlights; every sound seemed amplified. Kate was glad she’d worn sneakers as she padded along the street, keeping the parked cars between her and Jeanette.
When she’d approached as close as she dared, she stopped behind a tree trunk and watched Jeanette walk up the front steps of the house. Kate’s heart ached at the sight of her: a yellow rain slicker and loose jeans hid her feminine curves; a Yankees cap hid much of her straight, jet black hair, but Kate knew those curves, remembered the strawberry scent of the shampoo Jeanette used to wash that hair.
Suddenly Kate wished she hadn’t come. Who was going to open that door? Forty minutes ago she’d been dying to know, now she was terrified. But she couldn’t turn away. Especially not now, because the door was opening and a man stood there, a heavyset fiftyish man with a round face and small eyes and a balding melon head. He smiled and opened his arms and Jeanette embraced him.
Kate’s stomach lurched.
A man? Not Jeanette! Anyone but Jeanette! It simply wasn’t in her!
Stunned, she watched Jeanette follow him inside. No, this couldn’t be. Kate moved out from behind her tree and approached the house. Her sneaker slipped on a wet tree root and she nearly fell, but kept going, stumbling on until she reached the foot of the front stoop. She saw the name Holdstock on the mailbox and fought a mad urge to hammer on the door.
Then she noticed silhouettes moving back and forth within the front windows. More than two. What was going on in there?
Kate started toward the nearer of the two windows but changed her mind. Too much light out here. Wouldn’t do to have a neighbor pass by and catch her peeking in. She backed away and moved around to the shadowed side of the house. There she crouched between a pair of azalea bushes and peered through the screen into the Holdstock living room.
Six…seven—no, eight people in the room. Three men, five women, of varying ages, shapes, and sizes, all taking turns embracing Jeanette as if she were a long-lost relative. And Jeanette was smiling—oh, God, how Kate missed that smile, Days since she’d seen it, days that felt like a lifetime.
An odd group. And even odder that no one seemed to be speaking. Not a word. Apparently they’d been waiting for Jeanette, for immediately after greeting her they all seated themselves in the circle of chairs set up around the room. And still no one spoke. Everyone seemed to know what to do: they joined hands, closed their eyes, let their heads fall back…and smiled. Jeanette and all the rest wore beatific smiles, so full of peace and contentment that Kate, for an instant, envied them. They looked as if they were viewing God herself.
And then they began to hum. Not a transcendental “oum,” this was a single note, and it went on and on, without a trace of harmony. Everyone humming the same note.
What are you into, Jeanette? A prayer group? Is that what’s happened? Your old pantheism couldn’t handle a malignant glioma so now you’ve joined some rapturous fundamentalist sect?
Kate heard a sob and realized it had come from her. She sagged against the bricks, weak with relief.
This I can handle this I can deal with. As long as you don’t reject me…us…what we’ve built over the years, I know we can come through this.
She backed away from the window, turning when she reached the front lawn. She gasped as she found a woman standing not two feet away.
“You have had fears, and now they are eased, yes?” A deep voice with a Russian accent.
She looked middle-aged and wore a white hooded cape that fell below her knees. Dark hair framed her face. Kate stepped back when she saw the big white dog standing at her side. It looked like some sort of husky. Its eyes reflected light from the street as it stared at her, but she sensed no hostility.
“You startled me,” Kate stammered, not sure how to explain her presence here. “I…I was just—”
“You think is perhaps religious group? At worst a cult, yes?” Her dark eyes flashed, her lipsticked gash of a mouth tightened into a thin line as she raised a crooked index finger; she used it to emphasize her words by jabbing it at Kate. “Not cult. Worse than cult. Much worse. If you wish to save the loves of your life you must stop them.”
“What?” Kate said, baffled. What was she talking about? “I can’t—”
“Of course not. You will need help. Here is number to call.” Her other hand wormed from under the cape and held out a card.
Kate hesitated, not knowing what to make of this woman. She seemed composed but her patter was paranoid. And yet…she seemed to know about her…and Jeanette.
“Take it,” the woman said, thrusting the card at her. “And do not waste time. Time is short. Call him tonight. No one else…only him.”
Kate squinted at the card in the dim light. Getting so hard to read lately—the price to pay for passing forty—and her glasses were tucked away in her bag. She pushed the card to arm’s length and angled it for a better view. A phone number and a name, handwritten in an old-fashioned cursive style. She couldn’t make out the number but the name was written larger: Jack.
That was it—no last name, no address, just…Jack.
She looked up and found herself alone. She hurried out to the sidewalk but the woman and her dog were nowhere to be seen, vanished as if they’d never been.
Am I going crazy? she wondered. But the card in her hand was real.
The woman’s words echoed back to her: If you wish to save the loves of your life…
She’d said loves, hadn’t she? Yes, Kate was sure of it…the woman had used the plural. Kate could think of only three loves in her life: Jeanette, of course, but even before her came Kevin and Elizabeth.
Something twisted in Kate’s chest at the thought of her children being in some sort of danger…needing to be saved.
But how could that be possible? Kevin and Lizzie were safe in Trenton with their father. And what possible danger could the hand-holding, regular middle-class folks in the Holdstock living room pose to her children?
Still the mere hint from someone, even an addled stranger, that they might be in danger jangled Kate’s nerves. Danger from what? Attack? They were both teenagers now, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be molested.
She glanced back at the house and thought she saw a curtain move in one of the front windows. Had one of the worshipers or whatever they were been watching her?
This was too creepy. As she turned and hurried back toward her waiting cab, more of the old woman’s words pursued her.
And do not waste time. Time is short. Call him tonight.
Kate looked at the card. Jack. Who was he? Where was he?
Copyright © 2001 by F. Paul Wilson