Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Melanie Tem: The Better Half

Kelly opened the door before I'd even come close to her house. The opening and closing of the red door in the white house startled me, like a mouth baring teeth. I stopped where I was, halfway down the block. Kelly was wearing a yellow dress and something white around her shoulders. She stepped farther out onto the porch and shaded her eyes against the high July sun.

For some reason, I didn't want her to see me just yet. I stepped behind a thick lilac bush dotted with the hard purplish nubs of spent flowers. A small brown dog in the yard across the street yapped twice at me, then gave it up and went back to its spot in the shade.

I hadn't seen Kelly in fifteen years. I'd thought I'd forgotten her, but I'd have known her anywhere. In college we'd been very close for awhile. Now that I was older and more careful, I'd have expected not to understand the ardor I'd felt for her then; it distressed me that I understood it perfectly, even felt a pulse of it again, like hot blood. Watching her from a distance and through the purple and green filtering of the lilac bush, I found myself a little afraid of her.

Later I learned that it was not Kelly I had reason to fear. But my father had died in the spring, and I was afraid of everything. Afraid of loving. Afraid of not loving. Afraid of coming home or rounding a corner and discovering something terrible that I, by my presence, could have stopped. I cowered behind the lilac bush and wished I could make myself invisible. I wondered why she'd called. I wondered savagely why I'd come. I thought about retreating along the hot bright sidewalk away from her house. I could hardly keep myself from rushing headlong to her.

Slowly I approached her. It was obvious that she still hadn't seen me; she was looking the other way. Looking for me. I was, purposely, a few minutes late. Then she turned, and I knew with a chill that something was terribly wrong.

It wasn't just that she looked alien, although she was elegantly dressed on a Saturday morning in a neighborhood where a business suit on a weekday was an oddity. It wasn't just that I felt invaded, although her house was around the corner from the diner where Daddy and I had often had breakfast, the park where we'd walked sometimes, the apartment where we'd lived. It was more than that. There was something wrong with her. I stopped again and stared.

It was mid-July and high noon. Hot green light through the porch awning flooded her face, the same heavy brows, high cheekbones, slightly aquiline nose. She looked sick. The spots of color high on her cheeks could have been paint or fever. She was breathing hard. Even from here I could see that she was shivering violently. And around her shoulders, in the noonday summer heat, was a white fur jacket.

I have told myself that at that point I nearly left, but I don't think that's true. I stood there looking at her across the neat green of the Kentucky bluegrass in her north Denver lawn. Sprinklers were on, making rainbows. I was drawn to her as I'd always been. Something was wrong, and I was about to be drenched in it, too.

She saw me and smiled, a weak and heart-wrenching grimace.

I wished desperately that I'd never come but the impulse toward self-preservation, like others throughout my life, came too late.

"Brenda! Hello!"

I opened the waist-high, filigreed, wrought-iron gate, turned to latch it carefully behind me, turned again to walk between even rows of pinwheel petunias. "Kelly," I said, with an effort holding out my hand. "It's good to see you."

Her hand was icy cold. I still vividly recall the shock of touching it, the momentary disorientation of having to remind myself that the temperature was nearly a hundred degrees. She leaned toward me over the porch railing, and a tiny hot breeze stirred the half-dozen windchimes that hung from the eave, making a sweet cacophony. Healthy plants hung thick around her, almost obscuring her face. I could smell both her honeysuckle perfume and the faint sickly odor of her breath. She was smiling cordially; her lips were pale pink, almost colorless, against the yellow-white of her teeth. There were dark circles under her eyes. For a moment I had the terrifying fantasy that she would tumble off the porch into my arms, and that when she hit she would weigh no more than the truncated melodies from the sway of the chimes.

Her voice was much as I remembered it: husky, controlled, well-modulated. But I thought I'd heard it break, as though the two words she'd spoken had been almost too much for her. She took a deep breath, encircled my wrist with the thin icy fingers of her other hand, and said, "Come in."

I had last seen Kelly at her wedding. I'd watched the ceremony from a gauzy distance, wondering how she could bring herself to do such a thing and whether I'd ever get the chance; my father had already been sick and my mother, of course, long gone. Then I had passed through a long reception line to have her press my hand and kiss my cheek as though she'd never seen me before. Or never would again.

Ron, her new husband, had bent to kiss me, too, and I'd made a point to cough at the silly musk of his aftershave. He was tall and very fair, with baby-soft stubble on his cheeks and upper lip. His big pawlike hands cupped my shoulders as he gazed earnestly down at me. "I love her, Brenda." He could have been reciting the Boy Scout pledge. "Already she's my better half."

Later I repeated that comment to my friends; we all laughed and rolled our eyes. Ron was always terribly sincere. He could be making an offhand remark about the weather or the cafeteria food, and from his tone and delivery you'd think he was issuing a proclamation to limit worldwide nuclear arms proliferation.

Ron was simple. Often you could tell he'd missed the punchline of a joke, especially if it was off-color; he'd chuckle good-naturedly anyway. He had a hard time keeping up with our rapid Eastern chatter, but he'd look from one speaker to the next like an alert puppy, as if he were following right along. He was such an easy target that few of us resisted the temptation to make fun of him.

Kelly, who was brilliant, got him through school. At first she literally wrote his papers for him; he was a poli sci major and she took languages, so it meant double studying for her, but she didn't seem to pull any more all-nighters than the rest of us. Gradually he learned to write first drafts, which she then edited meticulously; you'd see them huddled at a table in the library, Kelly looking grim, Ron looking earnest and genial and bewildered.

She taught him everything. How to write a simple sentence. How to study for an exam. How to read a paragraph from beginning to end and catch the drift. How to eat without grossing everybody out. How to behave during fraternity rush. At a time when the entire Greek system was the object of much derision on our liberal little campus, Ron became a proud and busy Delt; senior year he was elected president, and Kelly, demure in gold chiffon, clung to his arm.

We gossiped that she taught him everything he knew about sex, too. That first year, before the mores and the rules loosened to allow men and women in each other's rooms, everybody made out in the courtyard of the freshman women's dorm. Because Kelly said they had too much work to do, they weren't there as often as some of the rest of us; for a while that winter and spring, I spent most of my waking hours, and a few asleep, in the courtyard with a handsome and knowledgeable young man from New Jersey named Jan.

But Ron and Kelly were there often enough for us to observe them and comment on their form. His back would be hard against the wall and his arms stiffly down around her waist. She'd be stretched up to nuzzle in his neck—or, we speculated unkindly, to whisper instructions. At first, if you said hello on your way past—and we would, just to be perverse—Ron's innate politeness would have him nodding and passing the time of day. Kelly didn't acknowledge anything but Ron; she was totally absorbed in him. Before long, he had also learned to ignore us, or to seem to.

Kelly was moody, intense, determined. Absolutely focused. I knew her before she met Ron; they assigned us as roommates freshman year. There was something about her—besides our age, the sense that we were standing on a frontier—that made me tell her things I hadn't told anybody, hadn't even thought of before. And made me listen to her self-revelations with bated breath, as though I were witness to the birth of fine music or ferreting out the inkling of a mystery.

In those days Kelly was already fascinated by women who had died for something they believed in, like Joan of Arc about whom she read in lyrical French, or for something they were and couldn't help, like Anne Frank whose diary she read in deceptively robust German. I didn't understand the words—I was a sociology major—but I knew the stories, and I loved the way Kelly looked and sounded when she read. When she stopped, there would be a rapturous silence, and then one or both of us would breathe, "Oh, that was beautifull"

After she met Ron, things between Kelly and me changed. At first all she talked about was him, and I understood that; I talked about Jan a lot, too. But gradually she quit talking to me at all, and when she listened it was politely, her pen poised over the essay whose editing I had interrupted.

Ron seemed as open and expansive and featureless as the prairies of his native Nebraska. I was convinced she was wasting her life. He wasn't good enough for her. I could not imagine what she saw in him.

Unless it was the unlimited opportunity to play puppeteer, sculptor, inventor. I said that to her one night when we were both lying awake, trying not to be disturbed by the party down the hall. She was my best friend, and I thought I owed it to her to tell her what I thought.

"What is it between you and Ron anyway?" I demanded, somewhat abruptly. We'd been complaining desultorily to each other about the noise and making derogatory comments about some people's study habits, and in my own ears I sounded suddenly angry and hurt, which was not what I'd intended. But I went on anyway. "What is this, a role-reversed Pygmalion, or what?"

She was silent for such a long time that I thought either she'd fallen asleep or she was completely ignoring me this time. I was just about to pose my challenge again, maybe even get out of bed and cross the room and shake her by the shoulders until she paid attention to me, when she answered calmly. "There are worse things."

"Kelly, you're beautiful and brilliant. You could have any man on this campus. Ron is just so ordinary."

"Ron is good for me, Brenda. I don't expect you to understand." But then she assuaged my hurt feelings by trying to explain. "He takes me out of myself."

That was the last time Kelly and I talked about anything important. It was practically the last time we talked at all. For the rest of freshman year I might have had a single room, except for intimate, hurtful evidence of her—stockings hung like empty skin on the closet doorknob to dry, bottles of perfume and makeup like a string of amulets across her nightstand—all of it carefully on her side of the room. The next year she roomed with a sorority sister, somebody whom I didn't know and whom I didn't think Kelly knew very well, either.

I was surprised and a little offended to get a wedding invitation. I told myself I had no obligation to go. I went anyway, and cried, and pressed her hand. To this day I'm not sure she knew who I was when I went through the reception line. I spent most of the reception making conversation with Kelly's parents, a gaunt pale woman who looked very much like Kelly and a tall fair robust man. They were proud of their daughter; Ron was a fine young man who would go far in this world. Her father was jocular and verbose; he danced with all the young women, several times with me. Her mother barely said a word, seldom got out of her chair; her smile was like the winter sun.

At the time I didn't know that I'd noticed all that about Kelly's parents. I hadn't thought about them in years, probably had never thought about them directly. But the impressions were all there, ready for the taking. If I'd just paid attention, I might have been warned.

And then I don't know what I would have done.

Since college, Kelly and I had barely kept in touch. For a while I had kept approximate track of her through mutual friends and the alumni newsletter. I moved out West because the dry climate might be better for Daddy's health, got a graduate degree in planning and a job with the Aurora city government. Left Daddy alone too much, then hired a stranger to nurse him so I could live my own life. As if there was such a thing.

From sporadic Christmas cards, I knew that Kelly and her family had lived in various parts of Europe; Ron was an attorney specializing in international law and a high-ranking officer in the military, and his job had something to do with intelligence, maybe the CIA. I knew that they had two sons. In every communication, no matter how brief, Kelly mentioned that she had never worked a day outside the home, that when Ron was away she sometimes went for days without talking to an adult, that her languages were getting rusty except for the language of the country she happened to be living in at the time. It seemed to me that even her English was awkward, childlike, although it was hard to tell from the few sentences she wrote.

Last year I'd received a copy of a form Christmas letter, run off on pale green paper with wreaths along the margin, ostensibly composed by Ron. It was so eloquent and interesting and grammatically sophisticated that at first I was a little shocked. Then I decided—with distaste, but also with a measure of relief that should have been a clue if I'd been paying attention—that Kelly must still be ghost-writing.

For some reason, I'd kept that letter, though as far as I could remember I hadn't answered it. After Kelly's call, I'd pulled it out and re-read it. The letter described the family's travels in the Alps; though it read like a travel brochure, the prose was competent and there were vivid images. It outlined the boys' many activities and commented, "Without Kelly, of course, none of this would be possible." It mentioned that Kelly had been ill lately, tired: "The gray wet winters of northern Europe really don't agree with her. We're hoping that some of her sparkle will return when we move back home."

I'd thought there was nothing significant in that slick, chatty, green-edged letter. I'd been wrong.

Kelly's house was very orderly and close and clean. She led me down a short hallway lined with murky photographs of people I didn't think I knew, into a living room where a fire crackled in a plain brick fireplace and not a speck of ash marred the dappled marble surface of the hearth. Heavy maroon drapes were pulled shut floor to ceiling, and all the lights were on; the room was stifling.

Startled and confused, I paused in the arched doorway while Kelly went on ahead of me. I saw her pull the white fur jacket closer around her, as if she were cold.

"We haven't lived here very long," she said over her shoulder. She was apologizing, but I didn't know what for.

"It's nice," I said, and followed her into the nightlike, winterlike room.

She gestured toward a rocker-recliner. "Make yourself at home."

I sat down. Though the chair was across the room, the part of my body which faced the fire grew hot in a matter of seconds, and I had started to sweat. Kelly pulled an ottoman nearly onto the hearth and huddled onto it hugging her knees.

I was quickly discomfited by the silence between us, through which I could hear her labored breathing and the spitting of the fire. "How long have you lived here?" I asked, to have something to say.

"Just a few months. Since the first of April." So she knew it was summer.

"How long will you be here?" I knew it was sounding like an interrogation, but I desperately needed to ground myself in time and space. That was not a new impulse, though I hadn't been so acutely aware of it before. I was shaking, and the heat was making my head swim. It seemed to me that I had been floating for a long time.

I understand now, of course, how misguided it was to look to Kelly for ballast. She had almost no weight herself by that time, no substance of her own, so she couldn't have held anybody down.

Abruptly, as often happened to me when I was invaded by even a hint of strong emotion—fear, pleasure, grief—I could feel the slight weight of my father's body in my arms, the web of his baby-fine hair across my lips. I closed my eyes against the pain and curled my arms into my chest as though to keep from dropping him.

Almost tonelessly Kelly asked, "What's wrong, Brenda?" and I realized I'd covered my face with my empty hands.

"You remind me of somebody," I said. That surprised me. I wasn't even sure what it meant. Self-stimulating like an autistic child, I was rocking furiously in the cumbersome chair. I forced myself to press my palms flat against its nubby arms, stopping the motion. "Somebody else who left me," I added.

She didn't ask me what I meant. She didn't defend against my interpretation of what had happened between us. She just cocked her head in a quizzical gesture so familiar to me that I caught my breath, although I wouldn't have guessed that I remembered anything significant about her.

Absently she picked two bits of lint off the brown carpet, which had looked spotless to me, and deposited them into her other palm, closing her fingers protectively. I noticed her silver-pink nails. I noticed that her mauve stockings were opaque, thicker than standard nylons, and that the stylish high-heeled boots she wore were fur-lined. I wanted to go sit beside her, have her hug me to warm us both. I was sweating profusely.

I think I was on the verge of telling her about my father. I think I might have said things to her that I hadn't yet said to myself. I'm still haunted by the suspicion that, if I'd spoken up at that moment, subsequent events might have turned out very differently. The thought makes my blood run cold.

But I didn't say anything, for at that moment Kelly's sons came home. I flinched as I heard a screen door slam, heard children's voices laughing and squabbling. It was as if their liveliness tore at something.

Daddy died while I was out. He hadn't wanted me to go, though he would never have said so. He hadn't liked the man, any man, I was with. When I came home—earlier than I'd intended though not early enough, determined not to see that man again—I'd found my father dead on the floor. If I'd been there I could have saved him, or at least held him while he died. I owed him. He gave me life.

Struggling to stay in focus when the boys burst in, I kept my eyes on Kelly. The transformation was remarkable. Many times after that I saw it happen to her, and I was always astounded, but that first time was like witnessing a miracle, or* the results of a spectacular compact with the devil.

She filled out like an inflatable doll. Color flooded into her cheeks. Her shoulders squared and she sat up straight. By the time her boys found us and rushed into the living room, bringing with them like sirens their light and fresh air and energy, she was holding out her arms to them and beaming and the white fur jacket had slipped from her shoulders onto the hearth behind her, where I thought it might burn.

I stayed at Kelly's house for a long time that first day, though I hadn't intended to. When Kelly introduced me as an old friend from college, Joshua, the younger child, stared at me solemn-eyed and demanded, "Do you know my daddy, too?" I admitted that I did, or used to. He nodded. He was very serious.

We had a picnic lunch outside on the patio. I watched the children splash in the sprinkler and bounce on the backyard trampoline, watched Kelly bask like a chameleon in the sunshine. She was a nervous hostess. She fluttered and fussed to make sure the boys and I were served, persistently inquired whether the lemonade was sweet enough and whether the sandwiches had too much mayonnaise, was visibly worried whenever any of us stopped eating. She herself didn't eat at all, as if she wasn't entitled to. She didn't swat at flies or fan herself or complain about the heat. She hardly talked to me; her interactions with the children were impatient. She watched us eat and play, and the look on her face was near-panic, as if she couldn't be sure she was getting it right.

I was restless. I wasn't used to sitting still for so long without something to occupy me—television, a newspaper, knitting. At one point I got up and went over to join the boys. I tossed the new yellow frisbee, spotted Clay on the tramp, squirted Joshua with the sprinkler. I was clumsy and they didn't like it; my intrusion altered the rhythms of their play. "Quit it!" Josh shrieked when the water hit him, and Clay simply slid off the end of the trampoline and stalked away when he discovered I'd taken up position at the side.

Somewhat aimlessly, I strolled around the yard. Red and salmon late roses climbed the privacy fence; I touched their petals and thorns, bent to sniff their fragrance. "Ron likes roses," Kelly said from behind me, and I jumped; I hadn't realized how close she was. "That's why we planted all those bushes. They're hard to take care of, though. I'm still learning. Ron buys me books."

"They're beautiful," I said.

"They're a lot of care. He's never here to do any of it. It's part of my job."

Clay appeared at my elbow. He was carrying a framed and glass-covered family portrait big enough that he had to hold it with both hands.

"Clay!" his mother remonstrated, much more sharply than I'd have expected from her. "Don't drop that!"

"I'll put it back," he said lightly, dismissing her. "See," he said earnestly to me. "That's my dad."

I didn't know what I was supposed to say, what acknowledgement would be satisfactory. I looked at him, at his brother across the yard, at the portrait. It had been taken several years ago; the boys looked much younger. Kelly was pale and lovely, clinging to her husband's arm even though the photographer had no doubt posed her standing up straight. The uniformed man at the hub of the family grouping was taller, ruddier, and possessed of much more presence than I remembered. "You look like him." I finally said to Clay. "You both do." He grinned and nodded and took the heavy picture back into the house.

I sat on the kids' swing and watched a gray bird sitting in the apple tree. It was the wrong time of the season, between blossom and fruit, to tell whether there would be a good crop; I wondered idly whether Kelly made applesauce, whether Ron and the boys liked apple pie. "My dad put up those swings for us!" Joshua shouted from the wading pool, sounding angry. I took the lemonade pitcher inside for more ice, although no one who lived there had suggested it.

Being alone in Kelly's kitchen gave me a sense of just-missed intimacy. I guessed that she spent a good deal of time here, cooking and cleaning, but there seemed to be nothing personal about her in the room. I looked around.

The pictures on the wall above the microwave were standard, square, factory-painted representations of vegetables, a tomato and a carrot and an ear of corn, pleasant enough. On the single-shelf spice rack above the dishwasher were two red-and-white cans and two undistinguished glass bottles: cinnamon, onion powder, salt, and pepper. Nothing idiosyncratic or identifying. No dishes soaked in the sink; no meat was thawing on the counter for dinner.

I remember thinking that, if I looked through the cupboards and drawers and into the back shelves of the refrigerator, I'd surely find something about Kelly, but I couldn't quite bring myself to make such a deliberate search. Now, of course, I know that there wouldn't have been anything anyway. No favorite snacks of hers secreted away. No dishes that meant anything special to her. No special recipes. In the freezer I'd probably have found fudgsicles for Clay and Eskimo Pies for Josh, and no doubt there was a six-pack of Coors Lite on the top shelf of the refrigerator for Ron. But, no matter how deeply I looked or how broadly I interpreted, I wouldn't have found anything personal about Kelly, except in what she'd made sure was there for the others.

I set the pitcher on the counter and moved so that I was standing in the middle of the floor with my hands at my sides and my eyes closed. I held my breath. It was like being trapped in a flotation tank. I could hear the boys squealing and shouting outside, the hum of a lawnmower farther away and the ticking of a clock nearby, but the sounds were outside of me, not touching. I could smell whiffs and layers of homey kitchen odors—coffee, cinnamon, onions—but I had never been fed in this room.

I opened my eyes and was dizzy. Without knowing it, I had turned, so that now I was facing a little alcove that opened off the main kitchen. A breakfast nook, maybe, or a pantry. I rounded the multicolored plexiglas partition and caught my breath.

The place was a shrine. On all three walls, from the waist-high wainscoting nearly to the ceiling, were photographs of Ron and Clay and Joshua. Black-and-white photos on a plain white background, unlike the busy kitchen wallpaper in the rest of the room. Pictures of them singly and in various combinations: Ron in uniform, looking stoic and sensible; Clay doing a flip on the trampoline; Joshua in his Cub Scout uniform; the three of them in a formal pose, each boy with his hand on his father's shoulder; the boys by a Christmas tree. I counted; there were forty-three photographs.

I couldn't bring myself to go into the alcove. I think I was afraid I'd hear voices. And there was not a single likeness of Kelly anywhere on the open white walls.

Later, a grim and wonderful thought occurred to me: it would have been virtually impossible for a detective to find out anything useful about Kelly. Or for a voodoo practitioner to fashion an efficacious doll. There was little essence of her left. There were few details. By the end, it would have been easy to say that she had no soul.

For the rest of that summer and into the fall, I spent a great deal of time at Kelly's house. It started with lunch on Saturdays, always a picnic lunch with the boys on the patio, sandwiches and lemonade and chips. She never let me bring anything; she seemed to take offense when I tried to insist.

"Why don't you and I go somewhere for lunch, Kelly? Get a sitter for the boys or take them to the pool or something."

"The pool isn't safe. I don't like the kind of kids who go there."

Kelly and I never seemed to be alone together. Her sons were always there, in the same room or within earshot or about to rush in and demand something of her. I chafed. I didn't much like the boys anyway; I found them mouthy and rude, to me but especially to their mother, and altogether too high-spirited for my taste.

"It's nice to see a mother spend as much time with her kids as you do," I said once, lying, trying to understand, trying to get her to talk to me about something.

"We've always been—close," she said, a little hesitantly. "They both nursed until they were almost two. Sometimes Josh will still try to nip my breast. In play, you know."

A little taken aback, I said, "You seem to enjoy their company." I didn't know whether that was true or not.

She shrugged and laughed a little. "I think I've inherited my father's attitudes toward children. They'd be fine if you could teach them and train them and mold them into what you want. Otherwise, they're mostly irritating." She laughed again and shivered, hugged herself, passed a hand over her eyes. "But I don't have to like my kids in order to be a good mother, do I?"

For a long time, I didn't see Ron. He was always at work when I was there, and, no matter how late I stayed, he worked later.

"Come with me to see this movie. I've been wanting to see it for a long time, and it's about to leave town, and I don't want to go alone."

"There's a movie that the boys want to see. One of those Kung fu things. I promised I'd take them this weekend." _

Kelly's roses faded, and the marigolds and petunias and then chrysanthemums came into their own. The apple tree bore nicely, tiny fruit clustered all on the south side of the tree because, Kelly speculated, the blossoms on the north side had been frozen early in the spring. That distressed her enormously; her eyes shone with tears when she talked about it. The boys went back to school.

"Now you have lots of free time. Let's go to the art museum one morning next week. I can take a few hours off."

"Oh, Brenda, the work around here is endless. Really. I have fall housecleaning to do. I'm redecorating Clay's room. There must be a dozen layers of wallpaper on those walls. My first responsibility is to Ron and the children. You're welcome to come here, though. I could fix you lunch."

One crisp Wednesday in late September I had a meeting over on her side of town, and I didn't have to be back at the office until my two o'clock staff meeting. Impulsively, I turned off onto a side street toward her house.

I had never been to Kelly's house on a weekday before. I had never dropped in on her unexpectedly. I had seldom dropped in on anybody unexpectedly; I liked to have time to prepare, and was keenly aware of the differences between people in private and people when they met the world, even the small and confusd part of the world represented by me. My heart was skittering uneasily, and I felt a little feverish, chilled, though the sun was warm, and the sky brilliant. The houses and trees and fence rows along these old blocks had taken on that sharp-edged qualilty that autumn sometimes imparts to a city; every brick seemed outlined, every flower and leaf a jewel.

I parked by the side of her house, across the street. I opened and shut the gate as quietly as I could. I stood for a while on her porch, listening to the windchimes, catching stray rainbows from the lopsided paper leaf Josh had made in school and hung in the front window. She had moved the plants inside for the winter, and the porch seemed bare. Finally I pushed the button for the doorbell and waited. A few cars went by behind me. I touched the doorbell button again, listened for any sound inside the house, could hear none.

When I tried the door, it opened easily. I went in quickly and shut the door behind me, thinking to keep out the light and dust. I was nearly through the front hall and to the kitchen before I called her name.

"In here, Brenda," she answered, as though she'd been expecting me. I stopped for a moment, bewildered; maybe I'd somehow forgotten that I had called ahead, or maybe we'd had plans for today that I hadn't written in my appointment book.


"In here."

I found her, finally, in the master bedroom. She was in bed, under the covers; she wore a scarf and a stocking cap on her head, mittens on the hands that pulled the covers up to her chin.

Around her neck I could see the collar of the white fur jacket. Her teeth were chattering, and her skin was so pale that it was almost green. I stood in the doorway and stared. The shaft of light through the blinded window looked wintry. "Kelly, what's wrong? Are you sick?" It was a question I could have asked months before; now it seemed impossible to avoid.

"I'm cold," she said weakly. "I—don't seem to have any energy."

"Should I call somebody?"

"No, it's all right. Usually if I stay in bed all day I'm all right by the time the boys get home from school."

"How often does this happen?"

"Oh, I don't know. Every other day or so now, I guess."

I had advanced into the room, stood by the side of the bed. I was reluctant to touch her. I now know that the contagion had nothing to do with physical contact with Kelly, that I was safer alone in that house with her than I've been at any time since. But that morning all I knew was cold fear, and alarm for my friend, and an intense, exhilarating curiosity. "Where's Ron?" I demanded. "Is he still out of town? Does he know about this?"

"He came home late last night," she told me, and I had no way of appreciating the significance of what she'd said.

"What shall I do? Should I call him at work? Or call a doctor?"

"No." With a great sigh and much tremulous effort, she lifted her feet over the side of the bed and sat up. I could feel her dizziness; I put my hand flat against the wall and lowered my head to let it clear. Kelly stood up. "Take me out somewhere," she said. "I'm hungry. Let's go to lunch."

Without my help, she made it out of the house, down the walk, and into the car. The sun had been shining in the passenger window, so it would be warm for her there. There was definitely a fall chill in the air, I decided, as I found myself shivering a little. "Where do you want to go?" I asked her.

"Someplace fast."

In Denver I have always been delighted, personally and professionally, by contrasts, one of which is the proximity of quiet residential neighborhoods like Kelly's to bustling commercial strips. We were five minutes from half a dozen fast-food places. Kelly said she didn't care which one, so I drove somewhat randomly and found the one with the least-crowded parking lot. She wanted to go inside.

The place was bright, warm, cacophonous. I saw Kelly wrap herself more tightly in the fur jacket, saw people glance at her and then glance away. She went to find a seat, as far away from the windows and the doors as she could, and I ordered for both of us, not knowing what she wanted, taking a chance. There was a very long line. When I finally got to her, she was staring with a stricken look on her face at the middle-aged woman in the ridiculous uniform who was clearing the tables and sweeping the floor. "I talked to her," Kelly whispered as I set the laden tray down. "She has a master's degree."

"In what?" I asked, making conversation. It seemed important to keep her engaged, though I didn't khow what she was talking about. "Here's your shake. I hope chocolate's all right. They were out of strawberry."

When she didn't answer right away I looked at her more closely. The expression of horror on her face made my stomach turn. Her eyes were bloodshot and bulging. She was breathing heavily through her mouth. Her gloved hands on the tabletop were clawed, as if trying to find in the formica something to cling to. "That could be me a few years from now," she said hoarsely. "Working in a fast-food place, for a little extra money and something to do. Alone. That could be me."

"Don't be silly," I snapped. "You have a lot more going for you than that woman does."

Suddenly she was shrieking at me. "How do you know that? How can you know? I've let everybody down! Everybody! All my teachers and professors who said I had so much potential! My father! Everybody! You don't know what you're talking about!" Then, to my own horror, she struggled to her feet and hobbled out the door. For a moment, I really thought she'd disappeared, vanished somehow into the air that wasn't much thinner than she was. I told myself that was crazy and followed her.

The lunchtime crowd had filled in behind Kelly and was all of a piece again. I pushed through it and through the door, which framed the busy street scene as though it were a poor photograph, flat and without meaning to me until I entered it. I looked around. Kelly had collapsed on the hot sidewalk against the building. Her knees were drawn up, her head was down so that the stringy dark hair fell over her face, the collar of the jacket stood up around her ears. Two women in shorts and halter tops crouched beside her. I hurried, as though to save her from them, although, of course, by then Kelly wasn't the one who needed protecting.

* * *

I met Ron at the hospital. From the ambulance stretcher, in a flat high voice that almost seemed part of the siren, Kelly had told me how to reach him. I hadn't wanted to; I hadn't wanted him with us. By the time I made it through all the layers and synapses of the bureaucracy he worked in and heard his official voice on the other end of the line, I was furious. But I hadn't missed anything; Kelly was still waiting in the emergency room, slumped in a chair. Ron did not sound especially alarmed; I told myself it was his training. He said he'd be there in fifteen minutes, and he was.

They had just taken Kelly to be examined when he got there. I was standing at the counter looking after her, feeling bereft; they wouldn't let me go back behind the curtain with her, and she was too weak to ask for me. When the tall blond uniformed man strode by me, I didn't try to speak to him, and no one else did either. I doubt that Kelly asked for him, or gave permission, or even recognized him when he came. None of that was necessary. He was her husband. She was part of him. He had the right.

My father and I had been bound like that, too. If I'd asserted the right to be part of him, welcomed and treasured it, I could have been. Instead, I'd thought it was necessary for me to grow up, to separate. And so I'd lost him. Lost us both, I thought then, for without him I had no idea who I was.

I felt Ron's presence approaching me before I opened my eyes and saw him. "She's unconscious," he said. "They don't know yet what's wrong. You don't look very good yourself. Come and sit down."

I didn't let him touch me then, but I preceded him to a pair of orange plastic bucket chairs attached to a metal bar against the wall. We were then sitting squarely side-by-side, and the chairs didn't move; I didn't make the effort to face him. He was friendly and solemn, as befitted the occasion. He took my hand in both of his, swallowing it. "Brenda," he said; he made my name sound far more significant than I'd ever thought it was, and—despite myself, despite the circumstances, despite what I'd have mistakenly called my better judgment—something inside me stirred gratefully. "It's nice to see you again after all these years. I'm sorry our reunion turned out to be like this. Kelly has talked a great deal about you over the past few months."

I nodded. I didn't know what to say.

"What happened?" Ron asked. He let go of my hand and it was cold. I put both hands in my pockets.

"She—collapsed," I told him. The more I told him, the angrier I became, and the closer to the kind of emptying, wracking sobs I'd been so afraid of. Now I know there's nothing to fear in being emptied; Kelly simply hadn't taken it far enough. To the end, some part of her fought it. I don't fight at all anymore.

"What do you mean? Tell me what happened. The details." He was moving in, assuming command. It crossed my mind to resist him, but from the instant he'd walked into the room I'd felt exhausted.

"I dropped by to see her. I was in the neighbourhood. When I got there she was sick. She asked me to take her out to lunch. So we—"

"Out?" His blond eyebrows rose and then furrowed disapprovingly. "Out of the house? With you?"

I mustered a little indignation. "What's wrong with that?"

"It's—unusual, that's all. Go on."

I told him the rest of what I knew. It seemed to take an enormous amount of time to say it all, though I wouldn't have thought I had that much to say. I stumbled over words. There were long silences. Ron listened attentively. At one point he rested his hand on my shoulder in a comradely way, and I was too tired and disoriented to pull free. When I finished, he nodded, and then someone came for him from behind the curtains and lights, and I was left alone again, knowing I hadn't said enough.

Kelly never came home from the hospital. She died without regaining consciousness. Many times since then I've wondered what she would have said to me if she'd awakened, what advice she would have given, what warning, how she would have passed the torch.

I wasn't there when she died. Ron was. He called me early the next morning to tell me. He sounded drained; his voice was flat and thin. "Oh, Ron," I said, foolishly, and then waited for him to tell me what to do.

"I'd like you to come over," he said. "The boys are having a hard time."

I haven't left since. I haven't been back to my apartment even to pick up my things; none of my former possessions seems worth retrieval. I had no animals to feed, no plants to water, no books or clothes or furniture or photographs that mean anything to me now.

Kelly kept her house orderly. From the first day, I could find things. The boys' schedules were predictable, although very busy; names and phone numbers of their friends' parents, Scout leaders, piano teachers were on a laminated list on the kitchen bulletin board. In her half of the master bedroom closet, I found clothes of various sizes, and the larger ones, from before she lost so much weight, fit fine.

The first week I took personal leave from work. Since then I've been calling in sick, when I think of it; most recently I haven't called in at all and, of course, they don't know where I am.

Ron is away a good deal. The work he does is important and mysterious; I don't know exactly what it is, but I'm proud to be able to help him do it.

But he was home that first week, and we got used to each other. "You're very different from the man I knew in college," I told him. We were sitting in the darkened living room. We'd been talking about Kelly. We'd both been crying.

He was sitting beside me on the couch. I saw him nod and slightly smile. "Kelly used to say I'd developed my potential beyond her wildest dreams," he admitted, "and she'd lost hers."

I felt a flash of anger against her. She was dead. "She had a choice," I pointed out. "Nobody forced her to do anything. She could have done other things with her life."

"Don't be too sure of that," he said, sharply. His tone surprised and hurt me. I glanced at him through the shadows, saw him lean forward to set his drink on the coffee table. He took my empty glass from my hands and put it down, too, then swiftly lowered his face to my neck.

There was a small pain and, afterwards, a small stinging wound. When he was finished he stood up, wiped his mouth with his breast pocket handkerchief, and went upstairs to bed. I sat up for a long time, amazed, touched, frightened. No longer lonely. No longer having decisions to be made or protection to construct. That first night, that first time, I did not feel tired or cold; the sickness has since begun, but the exhilaration has heightened, too.

Ron says he loves me. He says he and the boys need me, couldn't get along without me. I like to hear that. I know what he means.

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