The Door Ajar
by Jeffrey Greene
Later, after Valerie came to, her boiled thoughts coalescing on the large, self-adoring face of Dr. Vance looming over her, it troubled her that she had been thinking about Michael Riordan, the desk clerk who’d signed her in to the neurology clinic that morning, just as she had felt the first strange breeze of the aura. It had troubled her so much that she had tried mightily, with even a pushing motion of her hands, to expel his face from her mind before the seizure took her, because she had smelled Marta’s perfume again, its cloying, crushed flower fragrance so intense she almost gagged, and somehow, in a way she couldn’t explain, she feared for him. It was so odd, she thought later, when she could think again, that she should feel that way, protective of a stranger. But from whom or what did he need protecting?
She lay on her side on the examining room table, still too dazed and scattered to speak, feeling the first twinges of strained muscles in her stomach and lower back, and soon fell into a light sleep. They let her sleep, and when she woke an hour later, Dr. Martin Vance, the head of the neurology department, a tall man with a carefully trimmed mustache and a rocking gait, rocked back into the room trailing clouds of interns, patted her on the shoulder with his big hairy hand and told her he was increasing her dosage of anti-convulsants to three hundred milligrams a day. They’d lick this thing together, they would, they would, and knowing he was playing to the gallery as much as to her, she wanly agreed. The blows to her pride she’d endured since the big blow to her head that was the cause of all this leering medical attention and canned reassurances, were so numerous and varied that she was no longer mortified by the thought of her body writhing like a half-crushed insect on a dirty hospital floor. What better place to have a seizure than in a clinic lousy with neurologists? In what was certainly one of life’s little mercies, she never saw herself having the full-blown, grand mal event; that was for others to remember and shudder at, not her. She recalled only the aura, the ground tremors, as it were, of the actual eruption, which obliterated all traces of itself in her memory.
They observed her for most of the day, and finally, late in the afternoon, sent her home. She wasn’t supposed to drive a car until the phenytoin reached the prescribed blood serum level, worked its black magic and tamed her epilepsy, giving with one claw while taking with the other, so she had called for a cab and was waiting at the front circle when it happened again. First there was jamais vu, the familiar abruptly gone strange, and the strangeness itself evoking déjà vu, as people around her seemed to recede into a grey, watery distance. She smelled burning rubber and tasted gold—it was the only way she could describe the metallic yellowness of it—and then brute panic seized her, and anger, too, at her own treasonous brain. She begged a security guard standing nearby to get her in a wheel chair and back to the clinic before all hell broke loose. Peevish about leaving his post but plainly rattled, the young man complied, and pushing against and through what seemed in her altered state like a raging current of afflicted humanity, during which she felt herself being compressed to the size of a Raggedy Ann doll, they reached the clinic desk. With hardly a word he left her there, in the care of the young clerk, Michael Riordan, for whom that very morning she had conceived a desire to meet on terms altogether different from this one. He was alone behind the desk at that moment, as if he’d been waiting for her.
“I’m having a seizure,” she said, trying to quell the panic in her voice, and feeling another stage beginning to set in, when she might stop speaking in mid-sentence, locked in a zombie rictus while the bomb in her head prepared to detonate. “Please call Dr. Vance right now. It could happen any second.”
Clearly alarmed for her, he spoke to the nurse, then picked up the phone and began dialing.
“Dr. Vance has left the clinic for the day,” he said, watching her warily. “But I’m calling the neurology department. We’ll find him, don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? Don’t worry?” She beat back an almost hysterical sarcasm, tried to breathe. “I don’t want it to happen here.”
“I don’t, either,” he said. And the way he stayed behind the desk, as if she were something volatile, unstable, she believed him. He got through to Dr. Vance’s secretary, who said she’d page him, and to hang on. “A nurse’s aide will be down in a minute,” he said.
“I hate being medically interesting,” she said, gripping the arms of the wheel chair.
He smiled at that, and she seemed to feel his kindness settle over her like a soft green net that passed through her skin and held her fear in a gentle grip. His handsome, angular face was calm, like a sheltered cove that drew her gaze, until she realized she was staring, and looked away. She thought he might be twenty-seven or eight: Marta’s age. Her age now, she corrected herself. What had he seen this morning? Everything, his dark eyes said.
At that moment the nurse’s aide arrived and wheeled her to the elevator. Just before the elevator doors closed she looked back at Michael, and felt as if a cold hand had gripped her by the throat. Standing a few feet from him and facing him, her feet planted in the middle of the wide hallway as she if were bracing herself against a stiff wind, was her sister. It wasn’t by her face but her withered left arm that Valerie recognized her, that and her thick, straight black hair. Her face was darkened or shadowed by something that was neither blood nor shadow, but instead resembled, at least from this distance, a blowing veil of dust that seemed to extend somehow from the heavy bangs that covered her forehead. In the instant before the doors closed, she realized with a shock that Marta was visible only to herself. But she knew, even though she could see no eyes in that oval of dust, that Marta was seeing him. No, not just seeing him—staring at him. And he apparently saw and felt nothing. It’s the aura, she told herself over and over, as the elevator climbed with terrible slowness toward Neurology, just another symptom of epilepsy, like the smell of Marta’s perfume. She had learned to expect visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations during the seconds or minutes leading up to a seizure, and sometimes indescribable combinations of all three, and her sister was never far from her thoughts. But if that were true, why was this spiking discharge in her brain staring so hard at Michael Riordan? Should she tell Dr. Vance about it? No, she thought. Don’t be an idiot.
Thankfully, the expected seizure turned out to be a CPS, complex partial seizure, which was far less traumatic, sparing her Dr. Vance’s grim little joke about her being “the number one tonic-clonic drama queen” in his practice, and by early evening she was eating home-delivered Chinese food in her modest cinderblock rental house on the northwest side.
Her mother had called from Boston, as she did every night at seven p.m., demanding from Valerie the news she simply couldn’t give her: that she was getting better by the day, her brain rebuilding itself after the Event That Must Not Be Named. She repeated what the doctor had told her, and then her mother raised the inevitable question: when would she be leaving the poisoned ground of Taylor Creek, Florida and coming home? As always, her mother made it seem as if her refusal to acede to her wishes was simply further evidence of her, Valerie’s, cruel punishment of her and her father, the only two people left in the world who truly cared about her, and who even now were “standing by,” like her own private nursing staff, to render aid and comfort to a daughter far too ill to be living alone. Valerie spoke little during these tirades. How could she possibly explain, without sounding psychotic, why she couldn’t leave? When her father finally took the phone, they exchanged their usual awkward pleasantries, and as always after she hung up the phone, she felt the need for an antacid. She missed alcohol terribly, and never more than after these nightly calls. Why did she feel so much lonelier after hearing their voices?
The punishing silence of the house, the always closed door of Marta’s room across from hers at the end of the hall, the slight tremor in her hands that was the phenytoin’s newest side effect, the swelling shame at what had happened today at the clinic: it was all settling on her chest with intolerable pressure, like those wooden pallets they used to place on top of witches, piling stones on them until their victims were crushed. The still, humid air in the house had become unbreathable, and tossing her unfinished carton of lo mein into the nearly-empty refrigerator, she fled through the kitchen door into the back yard.
The scruffy, half-acre lot was dominated by slash pines, bamboo, and untended azaleas, the grass unmowed for weeks, and a florid, almost-full moon lolled at a drunken angle on the treetops of the eastern horizon. The air was better out here, at least until the mosquitoes found her, which wouldn’t be long. She lighted a cigarette to discourage them and stretched out on the patio’s one threadbare recliner chair. If she were to have a seizure right now, she thought, no one would hear her if she hit her head on the concrete and bled out. But seizures only came unbidden, like nightmares, never at her beck and call, the way the hovering, hungry boys used to, and never at such an ideal moment, when she was laid out and ready in her long, black, thrift-store dress and multiple rings and bracelets that would serve very well for cerements. She didn’t want to die, she wanted her old life back. It wasn’t to be had, though, none of it, ever again. Valerie Penzoldt had survived the crash; the heedless, beautiful kid sister of tough, practical, put-upon Marta, whom the boys would cruelly ask out just to get closer to her: that Valerie had died in the car with her sister.
She felt a mosquito on her neck, and slapped at it, but resisted going back inside just yet. The moon was a friend, as it had been that night, and at that she angrily snapped the ash off her cigarette and drew deeply on it, rejecting the memory, or trying to. Somebody had to drive, she told herself for the millionth time. And I was only two sheets to the wind. It didn’t matter, of course. If she didn’t dream about the crash, it came back during the aura, like this afternoon, when the stench of burning tire rubber had filled her nose, ten times stronger than it had in the second or two before the cars collided. Her brain was as full of the accident as the sea with shells, and if the aura was capricious and surprising in its palate of tastes, sounds, smells, and visions, sometimes combining exquisite, forgotten moments from earliest childhood, or colors more saturated than any seen with her uninjured brain, it could also take her by the scruff of the neck and grind her face in unbearable distillations of windshield glass, blood, gasoline, viscera and shit, and force her to relive those moments in tasteless and bizarre combinations, as if they were all of equal value, like the keys of a piano. The accident, the brief coma that followed, and then, nine months later, the first seizure of what had proven to be a difficult case of post-traumatic epilepsy: one or all of these insults had jimmied open a window in her brain that, for her own good, nature had kept nailed shut, and now there was no escaping herself, not even in sleep. But at least the thought of Michael Riordan made her feel like getting out of bed, and there was so little that did these days. She wished she had his home phone number, but she would call him at work tomorrow, and then, if she could get up the nerve, do what she’d never needed to do before: ask a man out.
She took her medication and watched some TV, the uncompromising inanity of which seemed just the thing right now, then turned on the wall-unit air conditioner in her bedroom, climbed into bed and tried to read. Seizures in her sleep were rare, ironically precipitated by sleep deprivation or drugs like Valium or too much liquor, which she’d all but sworn off of, but she always feared them, especially the somehow terrifying idea of a seizure occurring in the middle of a dream. All she wanted was a good, dreamless night’s sleep.
She tore herself out of a short, claustrophobic nightmare in which the ceiling had lowered—or the bed had risen—to within inches of her face, like a coffin lid, and for a panicky moment she had no idea where she was. She must have been asleep a long time, because the moon had almost set, making the room much darker. For several moments she lay there, listening in the dark, as helpless with fear as she had been in the dream, before switching on the bedside lamp. There was no one else in the room. She got out of bed, her legs so weak they could barely hold her weight. She washed her face and brushed her wildly disheveled hair, then turned out the light and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Still shaky, she sat down at the table.
It was just past four a.m. Her mother was right: she was a fool to think she could live alone, without help. She had a feeling that something bad would happen soon, no matter what she did, and she was waiting for it, almost eager to get it over with. Either kill me or leave me the hell alone, she thought, then jeered at herself for personalizing a medical condition. This had happened to her because her head had hit the driver’s side window very hard in a certain spot, causing a subdural hematoma, which in turn had led to a build-up of fluid pressure requiring surgery to relieve it. The trauma to her brain had resulted in a type of epilepsy not unusual in such cases, which, depending on how she responded to the increased dosage of Dilantin, would soon be under better control, shaky control, or no control at all, and Dr. Vance, despite his Marcus Welby routine, clearly had no idea which it would be.
But it was undeniable that odd things had been happening to her lately, not at all in the usual range of symptoms, and far too subjective and strange to mention to Dr. Vance. She felt… how could she put it to her parents, even to herself? That she was haunted? That she dreaded the aura not for its intrinsic mystery and portent, but for some indefinable sense that it was being used against her, as a kind of opening, or door? No, she couldn’t say a word about this to Dr. Vance. He’d smile around his ridiculous pipe, offer a condescending pat on her shoulder, then refer her to Psychiatry.
The next day, after putting it off all morning, she called the outpatient clinic and asked for Michael Riordan. When he answered, his pleasant voice briskly professional, she nervously rushed out the words she’d rehearsed.
“Michael? Hi, it’s Valerie Penzoldt. Do you remember me? I complicated your life yesterday.”
There was the briefest hesitation before he replied, a note of puzzled caution in his voice: “Actually, you made it more interesting. How are you feeling today?”
“I’m fine, fine,” she said, aware that she was overdoing the cheeriness, and toned it down. “It sort of didn’t happen, my little crisis. What they call a complex partial seizure. Kind of like smelling the rain and hearing the thunder from a storm that never comes.”
“Well, you had me worried,” he said.
“Thought I was gonna go all funky on the floor, didn’t you?”
“Something like that,” he said.
“The reason I’m calling is to thank you, Michael. May I call you Michael?”
“Please do,” he said. “And you’re welcome, Ms. Penzoldt.”
“Please, it’s Valerie.”
“All right, Valerie.”
“I also wanted to apologize if I spoke sharply.”
“I certainly did, and I’m sorry. It isn’t every day one gets such kind treatment in a hospital.”
“It must be hard, the situation you’re in.”
“I’m dealing with it.”
“Better than I would,” he said. There was a silence, then he said: “I appreciate the call.”
She waited for him to say something else, then took a breath and plunged ahead. “Look, Michael, I know this is sudden, and probably a little weird, coming from a patient, but I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my house tonight. If you’re not doing anything. We could have a drink, continue the conversation.”
“Well… yes. I think that’s, uh, a good idea, Valerie.”
“Your enthusiasm overwhelms me,” she said, wincing at her almost involuntary sarcasm. “It’s all right if you don’t feel like it,” she added.
“No, I’d love to. My Fridays tend to be pretty barren. Thanks for asking.”
“I can’t legally drive, is why I’m suggesting my house.”
“I have a car. Where do you live?”
“Is eight all right?” she asked, after giving him directions.
“Great. I’ll see you then.”
“Bring something to drink, okay? My cupboard’s bare.”
“I will. Goodbye.”
She couldn’t blame him, she thought, as she hung up, for hemming and hawing a bit. She had half-bullied, half-shamed him into accepting her invitation. Would she want to go out with him if their positions were reversed? What would the old Valerie have done? Turned him down, probably, and not very gently, either, though afterward, in the version that would become the official one, she would have told herself how considerate she’d been, and how gracefully he had taken his rejection.
She took a long nap in the afternoon, hoarding her strength for the evening, then spent close to two hours getting ready. Her blue-veined paleness was a problem, but at least her dark brown hair was as thick and shiny as ever, mostly hiding the jagged scar in her scalp, and her knack for dressing to flatter her almost too-thin figure had not deserted her. She reminded herself that he would be nervous, too. One glass of alcohol was all she dared drink, and she considered it bad luck even to wish for a night free of seizures. A calm and neutral state of mind, free of hope and fear, would serve her best.
He was on time, bearing a bottle of Chianti and a charming, uncertain smile, dressed casually in a blue polo shirt and jeans. Behind him, a storm was threatening in the southwestern sky, its massive front of clouds already drawing a ragged curtain across the setting sun. She led the way into the kitchen, rummaging in a drawer for a corkscrew. They carried their glasses into the living room and sat down together on the couch. He offered a toast to her health, and she smiled ruefully and sipped her wine.
“You look nice,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look like you’re expecting a medical emergency.”
“I’ll try to stop doing that,” he said, smiling. “Do you live here alone?”
She nodded. “I know, it’s risky. Like smoking; like this,” she said, holding up her glass and taking a healthy sip. “My doctor forbids all fun.”
“How often do the seizures occur?” he asked.
“Three or four times a month, usually. For a while there it was three or four a day. And though the side effects of anticonvulsants can be pretty awful, I have to keep taking them. Have I scared you off yet, Michael?”
“Not quite yet,” he said, with a laugh. The thunder had been growing louder while they talked, and the last rumble, following hard on the heels of a lightning stroke, rattled the windows. The cool, rain-smelling wind billowed the curtains, and any second now the first heavy drops would begin to splat against the dusty jalousie windows.
“Do you know what an aura is?” she asked, pouring them both some more wine. She knew she was taking a risk by drinking more, but it had been so long since she’d had someone to talk to besides doctors and nurses, and having him this close made her nervous.
“I’ve read about it,” he replied. “The feeling of—what would you call it, unreality?—that precedes the seizure?”
She nodded. “Smells, tastes, terrible, wonderful, impossible-to-describe feelings, like being lost in space, or forgetting who you are, shouting voices in my head: whatever happens forces itself on my thoughts, takes them over for a while. Yesterday at the clinic, right before the first seizure, I smelled the perfume my sister, Marta, used to use, like a whole bottle of it broken under my nose. I hated that perfume—so flowery and sweet and overwhelming, like the stuff my maiden aunt used to wear in church. She had it on that night.”
“What night?” he asked, leaning forward in the fading light.
“Oh.” Why had she brought it up now, of all times? “The night she died, and I didn’t.”
“I heard about the accident,” he said. “I’m very sorry.”
“Thanks, Michael, but please don’t think I asked you over to give me sympathy.”
“Okay, no sympathy,” he said. “Good riddance to all epileptics.”
“Let’s toast that sentiment,” she said, laughing, and they touched glasses and drank.
“You’re not really in the medical profession, are you?” she asked. “No ambitions in that area? Because I’m really sick of doctors, nurses and hospital administrators. No offense.”
“None taken,” he replied. “I was an English major in college, but didn’t want to teach, go into law, insurance, or any other sensible profession. So now, after a blur of bad, blue-collar jobs in Polk County, I’m back in Taylor Creek, clerking at the Health Center for dirt-floor wages. As for ambition, I seem to have a deficit in that area. I’d like to keep breathing; that’s about all the ambition I can muster right now.”
“I like a man who knows what he doesn’t want,” she said. “Go on. You interest me.”
“Well, how about this? I’m so shy, I have to wait for women to ask me out, a rare occurrence, so I’m usually alone or hanging out with my misfit friends. I’m twenty-eight and back in a college town, but don’t want to go back to school. I’m attracted to beautiful, damaged women, and have about two hundred dollars to my name.”
She laughed. “So you accepted my invitation because I’m damaged?”
“Don’t forget beautiful.”
“Thanks,” she said, blushing. “I’ll take any compliment at this point, back-hand or forehand.”
It was pouring rain now, the lightning and thunder simultaneous, competing with her softly spoken words, so that he had to lean closer to her, watching her fine, dark eyes as she spoke.
“You know, before all this happened,” she went on. “I was pretty full of myself, pretty wild. Marta, who saw herself as the responsible older sister with the thankless job of cleaning up my messes, never missed an opportunity to remind me of it, either. Truth is, I wasn’t very nice to her. The doctor who delivered her broke her arm getting her out, and it never grew right. She had to acquire a thick skin, the way the other kids treated her. It made her tough, independent, responsible—everything I wasn’t. She learned not to wait to be asked out on a date. If she liked a boy, she did the asking. And everything about me was salt in the wound for Marta, because from the time I was twelve, the boys came after me, not her. I know how vain that sounds, but it’s true. I even stole her boyfriend once, a guy she really loved, just because I could. I don’t think she ever forgave me for that. And why should she?”
“Little sister getting all the action,” he said. “I’ll bet she was jealous.”
“Poisonously,” she replied. “Since we were kids. Anyway, when I smell her perfume during the aura, I feel—it’s hard to express—a kind of living presence of my sister. That sounds insane, I know. But I still feel her, very close to me, as if she’s occupying the same space as my body, and I feel her judging me, too, with the same concentrated intensity that I smell her perfume—much more than I ever felt it when she was alive. It’s as if all that’s left of her is her damning judgment of my life.”
“Do you think you killed her?” he asked abruptly. She looked sharply at him. “You mean do I feel responsible? Of course I do. A drunk driver crossed the center line and hit us. But we’d been drinking, too, and if I’d been sober, I might have swerved in time. Then again, maybe not. I’ve gone over it a million times. I’ll never know.”
“Do you ever feel her presence apart from the aura?”
“No, never. Which makes me dread seizures that much more. When I come out of it, the feeling of her is gone. It’s probably just a symptom of epilepsy, a kind of reverberating impression of her, personified into a sort of hallucination.”
“Hallucination? Do you mean you actually see her?”
She hesitated, then nodded. “I did yesterday. It was after the nurse’s aide wheeled me to the elevator. I looked back and saw her standing in the hallway right in front of you, wearing her nurse’s uniform. Her face was kind of hard to see. But I’m sure she was looking at you.”
“At me?” he said. “That’s a little unsettling.”
“I’m not saying she’s a ghost. Or maybe she is: a ghost from my banged-up brain.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s a medical or a supernatural phenomenon,” he said. “The result is the same. You’ve found yourself guilty, Valerie, and Marta is the sword of justice. But it’s all you.”
“I hear what you’re saying, Michael. But you’ve never had a seizure. The aura is something like a dream: it happens inside the brain, and yet while it’s happening, it feels as real as this conversation. When I’m in that place, I know she’s dead and so does she. I also know that she hates me.”
He leaned forward. “Hates you? Really?”
“Hates me for being alive, I mean, with the potential for happiness. If she has to be dead, it’s only just that I should be alone and miserable.”
“Forgive me, Valerie, but the dead can’t hate. They can’t care about the living. What you’re going through is not about Marta. It’s about you coming to terms with what happened.”
“I wonder if that’s possible,” she said.
“Have some more wine,” he said.
“I shouldn’t,” she said. “But I want to. I’m so sick of being sick.”
There was a tremendous crash as lightning struck something nearby, so loud it made them both jump. They laughed, and Michael got up and looked out the window.
“Look, there’s a pine tree on fire across the street,” he said. She got up and stood beside him, their shoulders touching, watching the flaming branches that were quickly put out by the intense downpour. She impulsively took his hand, her heart pounding. He turned and smiled at her. “Have you had dinner yet?” he asked.
“No. Have you?”
“I was waiting to see if you had. Let’s go out and get something.”
“I’d like to,” she said, tightening her grip on his hand. “After the storm.”
He turned into her open arms and embraced her. As he kissed her, she knew that he knew they were rushing it, that she was grabbing wildly for something because she was lonely and had lost confidence in her beauty. They lurched in the direction of the couch and half-sat, half-lay on it. At first his responses seemed dutiful, even half-hearted. But then, maybe it was the storm, the way the lightning revealed in photo flashes their faces and bodies to each other, the crashes of thunder, or the clamorous downpour on the roof and the yard, bending every branch, flower and blade of grass to its will—whatever lucky timing had driven her to start something in the middle of a thunderstorm, it no longer felt awkward and forced, it felt right. They ended up in her bedroom, and by the time they thought of food again it was to late for anything but take-out pizza or an all-night breakfast house.
She said she might have an old frozen pizza, and got up to look, feeling her way down the dark hallway. She was a little dizzy, a reminder that she’d drunk more tonight than in many months. When she opened the refrigerator door, the sound was strangely muffled and distant, as if she were hearing it through a downspout, and then, as she surveyed the desolate, mysterious landscape of the empty shelves, she realized what was happening to her.
“What’s the verdict?” he called from the bedroom.
She heard Michael’s voice as tinny, avid, somehow insectiverous, like a tiny mammal burrowing into her ear to feed on the termites boring steadily toward her brain, and she wasn’t sure if she had just thought it or actually managed to speak the word “seizure” before the nauseatingly sweet smell of Marta’s perfume assailed her with such intensity that she went down on her hands and knees and vomited on the kitchen floor. Had Michael heard, was he coming? The flavor of gold ineffably clung to the taste of vomit as she tried to stand on the surging floor, the walls of the house shaking as if in titanic laughter at her delusions of romance with the first guy to walk in the door since the accident. Wasn’t he coming to help her? She couldn’t endure this anymore, not by herself.
Or was it Marta who was coming, impatiently waiting for Valerie to seize and disappear into the undreaming place where the convulsions hurled her, so that she could step daintily through the gaping hole left by her sister’s abrupt departure? She would have the run of the place until Valerie came back, whereupon the hole, rent, door, whatever it was, closed again.
She pushed herself off the floor and wiped her mouth, and was turning unsteadily toward the hallway, when a voice that seemed to originate both from inside her and all around her shouted: “Two good arms and no sister!” They were Marta’s words in Marta’s drunken voice, at the height of their shouting match that night in the car coming home from the bar, as the other car’s headlights sliced sharply across the lane right at them. Her last words. Then, as the refrigerator door began to close behind her, she saw in the vanishing edge of light a flitting impression of whiteness, too fast to make out, but clearly heading down the hall toward the bedroom. She tried to call out, but it was as if she were encased in thick glass that was quickly going dark.
She was in her own bed, alone. Grey morning light seeped through the blinds. Her face was throbbing, and her fingers found a bandage over her left eyebrow. She sat up, feeling stiff and sore, hobbled into the bathroom and turned on the light. She’d seen it before, but it was still a shock: her left eye black and blue, swollen almost shut, a large bump under the bandage that Michael must have applied. She turned on the bathwater and climbed in. She lay there for a long time, incapable of thought or even remorse, her tissues swelling like a corpse, only rousing herself when the chill of tepid water began creeping into her bones. She dressed, then made the last of the coffee, doing everything in an empty-headed daze. She noticed that he had mopped the kitchen floor. She went over to the phone, looked at it, then shook her head and sat down on the couch. It was up to him to call, if he was going to. She’d expected him to stay the night, felt confident that for the first time in ages, something good had happened to her, and to him, too. He’d told her so, she remembered that much. But there was a gap in her recollections of the evening, that started shortly after she’d heard Marta’s voice shouting the words she’d found impossible to forget. And Michael was gone, without leaving a note.
She read distractedly as the morning air slowly grew sultry, trying to suppress the hurt and anger rising in her, and then she heard his car in the driveway. He’d gone out for groceries. She stood up, watching him as he walked to the door, then opened it and let him in. He walked past her into the kitchen and set the bag on the counter, turning as she came toward him.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, smiling a little tentatively at her.
“Starved,” she said, keeping the unbruised side of her face turned towards him. “Did you get coffee?”
“Along with bacon, eggs, juice, and bagels. Can you cook?”
“You make the coffee, I’ll make breakfast,” she said.
“That I can do. Are you all right?” he asked.
She lightly touched the bandage on her forehead. “Better than I look. Thanks for the first aid. Are you all right?”
“I was worried last night. You were a mess.”
“Seizures don’t hurt, Michael. Only the cuts and bruises. You’re sure you’re all right?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“No reason,” she said. “Excuse me; I’ll be right back.” She went into the bathroom, shook out two pills from the Dilantin bottle, then drew a glass of water and washed them down. As she turned to leave the room, vertiginous swirls of colored sound, feeding on her slightest movement, eddied around and through her. No, not again, she thought. Please. Say please, mocked the voices hissing under pressure like the coffee machine. I can’t be this way in front of him again. Not this soon. The hallway was a narrowing underground cavern through which she forced her way as if against a strong current of cold water, toward the lights, sounds and smells of the kitchen. Michael’s back was turned as she entered, her hands outspread before her as if to ward off the infernal presence of Marta, who stood planted between her and her lover, her white uniform now drenched with a monstrous grime of blood, motor oil and road dirt, her unveiled face in tatters, forehead studded with windshield glass and asphalt, blood oozing from her shattered mouth. Valerie could feel the words forcing themselves up from her bowels like a spasm, words she couldn’t have voluntarily spoken to save her life, but only in the paroxysm of seizure:
“It wasn’t my fault.”
He turned at the sound of her voice, which, instead of the banshee screech she had feared, was as flat and impersonal as a dial tone. She saw his welcoming smile fade, his eyes widen with concern, his arms extending as he came forward and, impossibly, clear through the gore-drenched figure of Marta, who, still motionless, was now behind and concealed by him. He took Valerie’s outstretched hands and led her into the living room, then helped her sit on the couch.
“Shall I call the hospital?” he asked.
But the impending seizure, having forced her to say the words that she’d previously spoken only in dreams, had now sealed her lips. She looked over his shoulder, and saw to her infinite relief that Marta was gone. Michael had been wrong about one thing, she thought. She had confessed her guilt, day and night since the accident, and the ghost was not appeased. Marta, she knew, would come back, always, until the anticonvulsants controlled the seizures and the door was closed. Michael looked searchingly into her eyes, then stood up and reached for the phone, but Valerie’s hands were still her own, and she held his arm, and after a moment he sat back down and waited with her for the storm.