~ Illumination ~

Part 1

by Jules Mills

Part One - Illumination (n): 1) the luminous flux per unit area on an intercepting surface at any given point; 2) spiritual or intellectual enlightenment


For Grace Wilson there was always something very special about when winter turns into spring in New England, always slowly and late, kind of like that meandering George Winston album.  Winter was kind this year, neither too cold or too snowy.  "Oh, yeah, that's the spot" had been moaned and gasped nearly 250 times, give or take a few, as the two women braced against the wind that pounded their small beach house on Black Point Lane in Milford, Connecticut.

This was the first day of spring and Grace was spending the morning going through boxes of old books and clothes that had been stacked up in her spare room for well over six years.  They needed more room.  "They," she thought to herself.  That word used to scare her, but now she embraced it, and it seemed to embrace her back while it grew to maturity like those beautiful gorilla babies that were once raised in homes and then slowly and carefully released into the Bronx Zoo gorilla habitat.  She had considered buying a larger, more expensive place--she could afford it now--but shorefront property was expensive again, even out of her high-income range, and hard to find.  Plus, less space meant less to clean, and that was a big incentive to stay put.

She was going through a box of old Calvin and Hobbes books and ancient, dusty beanie babies that had been transported from home to dorm to apartment to beach house over the years, when she heard the loud rumble of a combustion engine and the sound of tires on gravel.  Dana had been Missing In Action since nine, having crawled out of bed while an exhausted and naked Grace was snoozing soundly in the fetal position.  Grace had no idea where the tall one had gone but figured it was not far, considering that the Wrangler was still parked in the driveway.

It was now ten of one, and the East Coast, with its high income-per-capita, was pretty much wide-awake and over its martini and whiskey hangovers on this day in April.  She grabbed a handful of stale Cheetos from the coffee table and looked out the bay window.  To her astonishment, a large, 1980's Chevy Suburban engulfed her driveway.  From inside the brown, rust-mottled monstrosity bounced her temporarily-lost girlfriend.

Grace slipped into her sneakers and slowly approached the metal beast.  She thought carefully and then finally said, "What the hell is that?"

Dana turned and smiled a full, toothy smile of pride.  "She's my new ride.  Like her?"

Grace stood with her arms folded, visually assessing the vehicle as if it were a sick patient in the ER.  No, she thought.  "Uh, it's big," she said.  Black diesel smoke billowed from the tailpipe.

"Yeah," Dana replied, as if this were its essence and beauty.

"It's a boat."

"Boats don't have wheels," Dana corrected.  "You don't like her?"

"I don't have to, do I?"

"No.  I guess not."  Dana pouted out her disappointment for a beat and then decided to lash out a little.  "You know, we don't all want to drive the Barbie Jeep our daddy bought us when we were five for the rest of our lives."  She slammed the steel door and walked around to the front to open the hood.

"I was sixteen," Grace corrected and started a slow circle of the truck.

"Probably bought it at Wal-Mart! " Dana yelled into the rumbling engine.  "Anyway, if you don't like my car, you don't have to ride in it."

Grace had completed her rounds and touched Dana briefly in an effort to alleviate the deflation rate of Dana's ego.  "Thank you!" she yelled.

"It's okay, baby, I still love you, " the taller woman said--to her car, not the blonde--and slammed the hood closed.

"What are you going to name it?  The 'Helios,' maybe the 'Argo'?"

"'Her,'  cars are 'hers.'  And I was thinking of calling her 'Puff.'"

"Puff?"

"Yeah, Puff the Tragic Wagon."

Grace laughed.  "Now that's befitting."

"I wrote a song about her on the way home.  Want to hear it?"

"Not really."

"And I was offering to sing for you."

"Oh, for God's sake.  Okay, let's hear it."

"No, that's okay."

Grace rolled her eyes and went into reparation mode.  "Please?"

"Well, okay."  She paused and gathered herself.  "Puff the Tragic Wagon lived by the sea, along with little blondie blonde and a big bad chick named D.  Blondie blonde with her breasts all laden--"

"--Stop!  Enough!"

"Enough?  There's more."

"I'll bet."

"Rip likes it, right, girl?" she said to the black, waggling dog that sniffed Dana's feet and then sniffed the ground from there to the rear of the truck.  Grace followed the hound.  She noticed the bumper sticker Dana had spontaneously bought on Venice Street of Jersey City a week earlier.  It read "My girlfriend keeps complaining I never listen to her...or something like that."  That impetuous purchase no longer seemed impetuous.

"Want to go for the maiden voyage?"

"Honey, this baby is no maiden.  Plus, you said I wouldn't have to ride in her."

Dana chuckled.  "Come on. I'll grab a sleeping bag and we'll pick up some food at the market and be in the hills in no time."

Grace thought about the boxes she needed to finish going through and then quickly agreed.
 


"How did you get this thing registered?" Grace asked.  They were driving down the Boston Post Road toward the Stop-n-Shop to buy the essentials--beer and grinders.  "I didn't think Connecticut would allow you to register a diesel."

"Who says she's registered?"

"Dana."

"I have to work on her a little bit before I do.  For one, I need to convert her.  But I'll do it eventually."

"Good."  A few moments passed.  "Under your own name though, right?"

"I haven't decided yet."

They pulled into the parking lot, which was crammed with practically every non-petrol vehicle derivative that existed.  "I'm going to park Puff over there where there aren't any other cars.  I don't want her to get scratched." She then proceeded to park as far away from the store as possible. "Crack your window a little for Rip, would you?"

Grace looked at the door.  "Where's the button?"

Dana leaned over and began to crank the window open.

"Ahhh.  Not only is she not a maiden, but I think she's old enough to have gone through menopause, Dana."

"You're spoiled."

"No, I'm technologically evolved."

"'Challenged' is the correct term." Dana pulled the door-lock button up for her as well, and Grace forced the heavy steel door to open and jumped down to the pavement.

"Sure does ride high, doesn't she?" Dana teased.

"You're just full of wit today," Grace snapped as they began the long, asphalt trek to the store.

"Whoa, look! Girl Scout cookies!" Dana exclaimed excitedly as they reached the entrance to the market.  "I'll buy them this time while you go and grab the rations."

"You sure you can handle it?" Grace asked.

"Oh, yeah.  I'm ready this time."

Grace patted her back for encouragement and then went directly to the deli, where she ordered two grinders--one tuna and one turkey-and-cheddar.  She grabbed four bananas and two apples that looked edible.  A trip to the mini-cheese-shop lasted three minutes before she found the perfect hunk of smoked cheddar and some stone-oven-baked crackers.  Finally she traveled the beer aisle before zipping through the express lane with her debit tag.  She bagged her items and with her satchel in hand and a twelve-pack of Corona under her arm, she paused next to the animatronic ride 'em toys and gumball machines and bought herself a massive blue gumball.   She began the chore of breaking through the thick, hard sugar coating while scanning the vicinity of the cookie table for Dana.  There she was, towering over a 7-year-old, bartering for Thin Mints and--by the defensive stance of the little blue-eyed girl in the brown, patch-covered vest--Dana was losing to a pro.

A blast of humid air that felt like the breeze from a sneeze blew through the small crowd on the sidewalk.  Grace looked over towards the hard plastic dog that a black-haired three-year-old rode while his grandfather watched.  He was wiping his eyes and nose with one small hand and holding tightly with the other.  His grandfather had a white handkerchief in hand and was leaning towards the boy to wipe a runny nose.  Grace rubbed her own eyes and nose with the back of her hand.  Her sinuses burned, and she wondered whether it was too early for hay fever.  A moment passed and the burning was gone.

"Hey!"  Grace turned towards Dana's voice and blinked away residual tears.  "This kid says she'll sell me ten boxes of Thin Mints if I buy three boxes of DoSiDos and five of the Samoas for twenty-five bucks."

"We need that many Thin Mints?" Grace asked.

"They're your favorite."

"No, they aren't." She gently grabbed Dana's arm and pulled her closer. "Here's what you do: Tell her to up the DoSiDos to seven boxes and drop the Thin Mints to five and but only offer her twenty."

Dana blinked as she tried to follow the math and logic but quickly gave up and decided to trust Grace.  She approached the table again ready for the next battle.  After a brief exchange with the pint-sized yet formidable warrior and the transfer of goods for currency, she returned with a white garbage bag full of cookie boxes.

"How'd you know?"

"I keep telling you, Dana, you have to have been a Brownie to know how their minds work.  Now let's go, because I'm getting a headache."
   

Part 2 Refraction

Where Grace had found her bearing and course by putting her energy into nesting, Dana was still tacking and trying to find her heading.  For months she had been adrift, anchorless in post-program success.  She did not use the term "empty" with her therapist to describe how she felt inside because it was not quite that.  Nor would she say she was "lost," because Grace was always there, the light on the horizon, blinking and showing her where she wanted to be.  She had redeemed herself and come to terms with her past and now she had her whole lifetime ahead of her.  Based on new life expectancy rates sans doomsday, three-fifths of it remained.  But she had no idea what to do with that time.  Maybe it was the newness of having love, success, and domestic comfort at the same time that made her unsettled, but whatever the cause, it was driving her insane.

"What are you thinking so hard about?" Grace asked as she sat down on the log that Dana was resting against.  They relaxed together with full bellies, themselves small creatures in the shadows of the towering pines of the cool Northern New England forest.

Dana shrugged.  The forest isolated them from the world and, in doing so, pleasantly comforted her.  "Stuff."

"I see."  Grace popped a generic clone of Motrin into her mouth and washed it down with a Cranberry juice Snapple.  She had been secretly fighting a migraine, determined not to let it ruin the day by constantly reminding herself it could be worse because she could have diarrhea.

"You okay?" Dana gently stroked her lover's slightly pale cheek.

"Yeah. Just my allergies kicking off."

"Can I do anything for you?" the darker woman asked with concern.

"You can tell me what's going on with you."

Dana retracted her hand from Grace's face.  "Nothing's going on with me."

Dr. Wilson leaned back over the log and picked up a stick which she tried to use to move a large burning log that had escaped from the flames.  The stick was too small for the task and snapped.  There was something about non-surgical tools, even chimpanzee-grade ones, that Grace just didn't get.  The torque would never be her friend.

Dana knew she had to open up or they would get no sleep tonight.  She knew if Grace had asked, then Grace sensed something, and if she sensed something there would be no peace until she was proven right.  Dana took a deep breath and asked, "Are you satisfied?"

Grace brushed bark and splinters from her hands.  "You mean in an 'I just ate' kind of way, a sex way, or a 'does my life have meaning?' sort of way?"

The tall brunette's long legs were stretched out in front of her while her hands picked through the dirt for stones or sticks to fiddle with.  Red-and-gold firelight danced around them, casting playful shadows across her face.  "I mean with your life, accomplishments, things like that."

Grace gave her broken stick up to the flames, stood up, and kicked the offending log with her boot so that it landed in the center of the pit.  Orange-hot ash jumped into the air and then settled back down into the flames.  "There," she said with real satisfaction, wiped her hands on her jeans and sat on the ground next to her friend.  She leaned very close to her lover and spoke quietly as if she knew that the surrounding woodland contained paparazzi dying for a scandal.  "In the sack, the answer would have to be a large-font 'yes.'  As for my life, well, I'm only thirty and I would hate to think I've hit my peak and there's nothing more for me to achieve.  But I certainly don't feel like a failure in any way.  In fact, I have never felt luckier."

"You don't feel some sort of letdown after last year?"

"No.  Not really, because that was mostly you.  I was along for the ride, and it was a really great ride to be on."

Dana thought about that a moment.  "That's not true about it being only me.  Nothing would have come together without you."

"This from the woman who said, and I quote, 'any bean counter' could have done my job."

"I never said that."

"Yes, you did."

"Well, if I did I was most likely wrong."

"Likely?"

"Okay, I was wrong."

Grace smiled and they shared one of those long moments where they gazed into each other's eyes and were deeply in love.  "Why did you ask me if I'm satisfied?"

"Because I'm not," Dana answered bluntly.

"Oh."

Dana suddenly realized Grace had not expected to hear that right then and was bound to take it personally.

"You mean with us?"

"No," Dana quickly reassured her.  "With my career."

"Oh.  Do you want to do something else?  Something not related to nanophysics, like fish or something?"

Dana shrugged.  "I don't know.  I don't know what I want to do.  But I feel like I've peaked, and it just seems like anything that I do now for Yale will be boring or sophomorish."

"You're the nano-queen, for heaven's sake.  You can't touch a molecule without there being excitement.  And you are way too young to have peaked, Dana."

"I know.  That 's exactly what I mean."

Grace poked the fire, and a tongue of flames licked around the wood and then darted back.  "Do you know who Rene Jules Dubos was?"

"A monk."

Grace smiled and prodded a log hard.  She was getting that glow she got when she was either taking care of patients in the ER, taking Dana to bed, or about to tell a story.  "No, he discovered the enzyme which was used to cure pneumococci.  His work--"

"--Wait!  Is this going to be another enzyme story?  Because honestly, I don't get those."

"No.  Now shut up.  Like I was saying, his work laid the groundwork for the development of antibiotics…."

Dana shifted in the dry dirt of the forest floor.  The heat of the fire and Grace's voice formed the perfect combination to make her lazy.  "Hmm."

"Gramicidin was his first and most notable discovery, because it was the first antibiotic used commercially and clinically.  He also discovered ribonuclease, which was the enzyme used later in the discovery of DNA.  Anyway, his work with antibiotics and his methods spurred the chain of antibiotics in the penicillin and streptomycin families.  His biggest gift, though, was an ability to start experiments or theories and then to pass them unselfishly to someone else to finish or disprove. "

"Sounds more like he couldn't finish anything."

"No, he could, but he found it more exciting to foster the imaginations of others and move on to bigger things.  What was most remarkable, however, was how he followed an ecological approach to science, and that provided him incredible foresight.  Even before other antibiotics became available, he predicted bacteria would adapt themselves to the drugs and produce more resistant strains.  He claimed that the cowboy attitude of drugs would not solve the condition which had caused the illness in the first place, and he was right.  Our environment, he said, is constantly in flux and we cannot eradicate disease, no matter what we create. "

"Yeah.  But what did he do after finding Gramacity?"

"As he grew older he kept his focus on the big picture and kept those around him thinking that way too.  He taught them that a microbe was necessary but not sufficient to cause disease.  By teaching this, he reformed the theory of what causes disease by implicating the total environment in any illness.   As he grew even older and more influential, he focused on teaching that people themselves were like microbes and that, with given conditions, they would have several potentials.  As he grew even older yet, he…."

"Okay, given that's really what he was doing, do you think he ever felt satisfied?"

"Yes.  See, as he grew older he kept his focus global and affected the world.  He went from being the first person to create an anti-biotic to being one of the most influential proponents of defining humanity's active duty in creating and maintaining a healthy environment, not just within medicine but as an environmentalist too."

"That was totally an enzyme story, Grace, and I didn't get it."

"Hon, I think that a good life is made up of realizing who we are through these moments of triumph.  The rest of the time is deciding what our triumphs will be and trying to reach them.  Our first achievement may be what we are most remembered for, but it doesn't have to limit what is ahead of us.  I think you need to define your next goal."

Dana ruminated for a long time about what Grace had said.  "So you are saying I should find the unified theory of physics or something?"

 


Grace stared at Dana, dumbfounded.  Dana had been acting squirrelly lately, she had to admit that.  That was why Grace had asked her what was going on in the first place.  Buying the truck, taking up knitting, and recently collecting recipes from newspapers and magazines, ten or eleven a day, were all telltale signs that something was amiss behind those blue eyes. But Grace had not known the depth of the situation until just this minute.  True, the cancer project was no longer clinical nor required them to do much. It was becoming a success within the medical world, but Dana kept busy by running around the Northeast, helping collegiate nano centers establish themselves, and sharing her knowledge with any non-governmentally affiliated agency that asked.  She thought Dana was enjoying that.  However, it was now obvious that she was not happy.  Perhaps she was too used to struggling to enjoy her success, too used to fighting, so that if she wasn't in the midst of action or on some nano-front breaking new ground and expanding her knowledge, she was not going to be happy.

But Grace was pretty sure she had not said, let alone thought, that Dana should seek a unified theory of physics.  Sometimes Dana extrapolated a lot more from what Grace was saying than what she meant, but heck if this one didn't sound good.  Dana was now asking her if she should travel the same path as Einstein had for the last half of his life, unsuccessful in his work, trying to tie quarks and relativity and find common ground for two seemingly and fundamentally opposing theories.  It would certainly keep Dana busy for a while

"Yeah, Dana, that's exactly what I was saying."

Dana's foot slid down flat against the ground and closer to the circle of rocks around the fire where, if the smell of burning rubber was a sign, it was a little too hot.  She looked as if she were brooding, but Grace knew this as the look of deep thought.  She appeared childish, yet Grace knew the thoughts were anything but. It endeared her even more, and Grace knew what she felt was true, that she was very lucky.  So she thought about their future, the two of them in their small house on the water and maybe even someday, if she could get Dana to agree, children--brilliant, beautiful ones, just like Dana.  It was then that Grace officially noted that the biological tug of her uterus had become more of a hard yank.

"What are you thinking about?"

Grace was startled from her domestic pipedream.  "Hunh?"  Embarrassment with a hint of guilt consumed her.  Kids had never been a subject up for debate between them, but she was beginning to think about them more and how they might fit into their lives.  "Um...seeds."

"Seeds?"

"Yes, seeds, planting, stuff like that."  She began to get up.  "Want an apple?"

Grace knew that Dana knew she was no gardener, especially after she had killed the artificial Christmas tree in the office the previous year.  So she knew Dana was suspicious.  "No, thank you.  And make sure you don't eat the seeds."

"I don't usually."

"I don't want you getting sick or something."

Grace walked over to the grocery bag and pulled out a round, red apple.  Out of her back pocket she pulled out a pocket knife and then she sat back down beside Dana.  Dana was watching the fire, wrapped around herself, warm and content, and cognitively excited.  With surgical precision Grace began to peel one long, twisted strand of waxy, red skin.  She was just about done when the slow-moving wave of pain in her head finally broke into one tumultuous riptide, taking with it her thoughts and consciousness.  Within a nanosecond the knife slipped from her hand and her body collapsed.  The fleshy apple too slipped from her hand and rolled, wasted, into the fire.

 


A moment of shock passed before Dana caught Grace, just before she landed unconscious and face-down in the fire. Grace's body had become lifeless and lithe in her hands.  "Grace!" she screamed, and slapped the face as the blood drained from it.  When she could not wake her with shaking or shouts, she put her ear to Grace's lips to hear or feel if she was breathing.  She seemed to be, she thought, she hoped.  She felt for a pulse and found a faint one.  Hefting Grace onto her shoulder with the strength that only people panicking had, she ran to the truck and placed Grace across the backseat and then climbed in.  Rip repeatedly barked her own alarm until Dana opened the passenger door for her.  Seconds later they were bounding recklessly down the mountain on old shocks and over-inflated tires.

"Come on, Grace," she repeated over and over.  She reached one hand back, desperate to touch Grace, while grasping the wheel with the other.  She knew that if she let go she would lose Grace.

After many long minutes on winding dark roads she pulled into the parking lot of the nearest town's firestation.  There the volunteers, two young men in their late teens and early twenties with nothing productive to do, like party and drink beer, loaded Grace into their ambulance, climbed on I-91, and sped her to the emergency room of Farmington Medical Center within 15 minutes.  It was by far the longest 15 minutes of Dana's life, and the worst.

Part 3: Reflection

The chair was of Danish design, with smooth, black leather, and it reclined just enough to induce comfort. It could have been comfortable, if Dana had let it.  But the woman sitting across from Dana on the couch could tell that her patient was uneasier than a pig when the farmer's wife was away.  And her patient was watching her right back with an intensity that made mere mortals uneasy.  The patient was most likely noting her wildly curly red hair, as Grace had termed it when they had dated years earlier.  She and Grace had been the best of friends before and after their short-lived romance.  They had never been about sex, they both claimed, which was why Cassandra felt she could take Dana as a patient. She did not know it yet, but only days earlier Dana had tried to kill Karl Reichert in San Francisco.

"You summing me up?" the therapist asked her newest patient.  Dana had been referred to her by Grace.  Despite the initial protest about whether or not it would be ethical to treat an old lover's new lover, she had decided they would try because Grace had told her she was the only person she trusted.  Grace could be persuasive.

"Yep."

"Do you think that's fair?  I mean, if I diagnosed you before you even opened your mouth, wouldn't that be unfair to you?"

"Yep, but I bet you're doing it anyway."

"I am not.  Why would I do that?"

"So you know how to play me."

"Play you?"

"To get me."

Adversarial with strangers, she thought.  "Get you how?  Hurt you?"

Dana shrugged.

"Do you think I want something from you?"

Another shrug.

"I want to assure you that I do not."

Dana shrugged again.

"Have you seen psychologists before, Dana?"

"Yep."

"Did they want something from you?  Did they hurt you?"

"They wanted to control me so they said I was sick and gave me lots of pills."

"When was this?"

"A long time ago, in York Prison."

"York Prison?"

"Yep."  She held up her hand so that Cassandra could see her bar-code tattoo.

The therapist held the branded hand in hers and carefully looked it over.  "What were you in prison for?"

"Don't you have a file on me?"

"No, I do not have a file on you.  You are coming here on your own accord.  If the State or another doctor had sent you, then I would, but that's not what this is about.  This is about your seeking me, your choice.  Am I correct?"

"Yeah. But didn't Grace tell you anything?"

"No. Just that you really wanted someone to talk to but that you did not trust my profession in general and that I was the only person you would agree to see."

"Oh."

"So why are you here, Dana?"

Slowly and carefully Dana responded, "Because I don't want to lose Grace."

 


It was two years earlier that Dana had started seeing Cassandra.  And now two years later Dana was staring through the emergency room door at the UCONN Medical Center and watching as masked men and women stripped Grace of her clothes and dignity and forced a tube down her throat, far away from that safe office.  As the doctors and nurses moved, circling her body time and time again, they spoke in loud excited voices to each other--'doctor-speak' was what Grace called it--and Dana understood nothing they said.  They hooked up machine after machine to her small body, lying helpless on the gurney before them.  And as Dana watched, she wondered sadly if those two years of therapy mattered at all if she was going to lose Grace anyway.

They pumped Grace's stomach and sent the contents, what was left in her normally hyperactive belly, to the lab for immediate testing.  They scanned her body and scanned her brain; they yelled at Grace and pinched her.  No response.  It seemed like hours of this and then, suddenly, the movement ceased.  The doctors stood in a circle around Grace's cloth-draped form and watched as her chest rose and fell with the rhythm of the machine attached to her.  Up and down, in and out, the machine was breathing for her, feeding her, and--the doctors tried desperately to convince Dana--living for her.  But Dana refused to hear them.  She was furious with them for stopping and cursed them for not knowing what was wrong with Grace.



Meanwhile, fifty miles south by way of Interstate I-91 at the Yale research facility, Rachel Jones was on a hunt.  She had been tracking for over twenty minutes, the thrill of superpredator invoking an unconscious memory of her basal and ancient calling, the huntress.

Armed with only her wits and Size 9 Adidas runners,  she cornered her prey between the cinderblock wall and the garbage can.  She moved in for the kill.  It would be swift and just…if only her latest assistant had not walked into the computer room.

"Stop!" screamed the co-ed with mousy brown hair.  "That's a silverfish, not a roach."  She positioned her body between the huntress and the prey.  The creature lay frozen.  "And, by the size, an old one.  Don't kill it."

Rachel regarded her assistant as her breathing slowed and the heat and fury of the chase slowly left her.  Tasha was an environmental science major who happened to be a hell of a computer geek.  Her thesis involved trying to use supercomputers to predict the ocean currents and warming trends and how to reverse them mechanically.  But right now Rachel just wished she could make a better pot of coffee; however, she knew better than to ever say that aloud.  "You gonna take it home and feed it?"

"No.  But it's not hurting anything, and it has just as much right to be here as you do.  You can't kill it."

"Bullshit.  This is my niche and I can kill it if I want to.  Now step aside."

"I cannot."

Rachel's teeth gnashed.  This young and idealistic insectophile would not deny her on her day off.  "You should appreciate this then. This is the great circle of life in action.  Now MOVE!"

Sensing her own life suddenly in danger, the young woman stepped away.  SPLAT!  The deed was done, the bug no longer recognizable.

Tasha raged silently against her boss with a look of defiance and speechlessly stomped away down the hallway, forgetting why she had gone to the computer room in the first place.

"You'd think it was a panda or something!" Rachel yelled after her.  She was determined not to let bug-rites people diminish her glory.  Tasha was brilliant but it was hard to take her seriously when she was dressed like a druid all the time. The fire of the kill raged through her body. If Rachel had a bonfire she would have stripped herself naked and gyrated around it.

But this was a space with built-in fire extinguishing equipment, so she settled for a Snickers.  She had eaten off the chocolate coating and was beginning to nibble away the peanutty nougat from the caramel and peanuts when the phone churped.  She could tell instantly from the ID that it was Barbara Buchler.   She very seriously thought of ignoring it, but then she wondered why Barbara was in on a Saturday, and her curiosity beat out her better judgment.

"Jones."  What she really wanted to say was, "Rachel the Great Amazon Warrior."

"Ms. Jones," Dr. Buchler said swiftly and to the point, "I need to find Dana Papadopolis immediately."

"She's not here."  Rachel scraped the bottom of her sneaker on the edge of the garbage can and put it back on her foot.

"Do you know where she is? "

Rachel sensed a hint of alarm in the normally authoritative voice.

"This is an emergency."  She was breathless now.

On most days Rachel would have lied even if she did know, but she sensed from the quick fade of Barbara's cool fašade that something was wrong.

"I have no idea where she is."  And she could not believe what she said next. "But maybe I can help.  What's going on?"

 


Oddly enough, Dana was much more uncomfortable going into her second session with Cassandra than her first.  Perhaps it was because Cassandra was no longer "one of them."  Yet, she still wasn't "one of hers," so Dana's structure was failing her.  With that, Dana did not know what to expect or what was expected of her.

Cassandra was wearing a bulky, light-blue knit men's cardigan that contrasted to the brown silk dress she wore.  She also had taken her shoes off and had tucked her feet under her and was sitting Indian-style in her chair.  "I would apologize for my impropriety; however, I am too cold to mean it," she told Dana, who was now watching her rub her hands together for warmth.  She finally settled into a motionless state and directed her attention away from her digits to her client.  "You ever feel like that, Dana?"

"What--cold?"

"No.  Like people expect you to tell them something but you don't because it just wouldn't be true."

Dana thought about that.  "I don't talk to people."

"Well, how about to your companions?  Do you ever feel tempted to tell a white lie?"

Dana paused.  She knew enough about these folks to know that their questions were meant to uncover.  This was not chit-chat.  And she wanted to figure out what exactly Cassandra's questions were meant to determine.  "I never lie to Grace."

"Never?"

"Maybe a couple of times."

"About what?"

"About her weight.  I tell her she looks healthy and she asks, 'What's that mean?' and of course I say, 'I would prefer not to talk about this.'  But by then it's impossible not to because she makes this demanding eye -contact thing and corners me.  So sometimes I lie and tell her she looks like she lost a little weight.  She looks great, but she has gained a little around the middle over the past few years and she has an issue with that, and so that's that."

"What if you told her the truth?"

A short laugh was Dana's answer.

"Do you feel bad about it?"

"No.  I never even thought twice about it until you brought it up."  Dana shifted and crossed her arms, meaning that the subject should be closed.

"I'm going to change the subject."

Dana nodded.

"Do you ever feel overwhelmingly anxious or frightened?"

"Not frightened.  Not anymore.  Uneasy sometimes when something's up."

"By uneasy you mean anxious?"

"No. I mean uneasy."

"Just to clarify, what do you mean by 'when something's up'?"

A long pause.  "Sometimes I find myself in trouble."

"With the law?"

"And other people," Dana answered cryptically.  Cassandra did not react, and Dana wondered how often she heard that.

"Does this anxious--"

"--'Uneasy.'"  Dana insisted.

"Does this uneasy feeling go away, or linger?"

"Lingers."

"Will you explain that for me?"

Dana rubbed her clammy hands on her jeans.  "If I know something is going to happen but do not know when it will happen, I cannot make the feeling go away.  But when I do something about it, it goes away."

"So if you act, you don't feel the anxiety?"

"Right."

"What if you cannot do something about it?  Describe what that's like to me."

"Well, it's kind of like this huge wave is moving towards me and I cannot get out of the way or break through it and I sure as hell cannot stop it.  It keeps building and building and then kind of breaks on my head, sucks me under and grinds me down then drags me out to sea."

"How often do you feel like this?"

"A lot."

"Every day?"

"Yes."

"For how many years?"

Dana shifted, suddenly feeling vulnerable.  "Years."

Cassandra gave her a thoughtful look.  "Since you were a teenager?"

"Yeah."

"Is it constant?"

"No. "

"Do you feel this way at home?"

"No."

"Do you feel like it when you are alone?"

"No."  Dana needed to shift the emphasis of the conversation, because it was going in a direction she didn't want to go and making her uneasy and angry.  "And not in a house, and not with a mouse, and not in a box, and not with a fox.. That should answer your next four questions."

Cassandra took her time to form her next question.  "What about on a boat with a goat?" Cassandra challenged.

Dana stared at her, defiant.  "I don't want to talk about my childhood."

"Then we won't."

"Good."

"Do crowds and public places make you uncomfortable?"

"Yes."

"Does this affect your ability to relate to people?" the psychologist asked.

"You could say that."

"Would it be true?"

"Yes."  Dana knew Cassandra would be a challenge.

"What about your work?  Does it affect your ability to get your work done?"

"No.  That's a safe place."

"Your workplace is safe because it's physically protected?"

It was obvious that Cassandra did not understand the nanoverse.  "My work is up here," Dana explained and pointed to her head.

"I see." Cassandra thought about that before moving to her next question.  "Do you think the people around you are feeling the same way you are in the same situations?"

"They don't understand what's happening most of the time."

"But you do?"

"Yes.  They think they're safe but they really aren't."

"I see."

She doesn't see, Dana thought to herself.  She only thinks she does.

"I'm curious about what these uneasy feelings feel like physically.  Will you describe what your body is going through during an episode?"

" Sometimes I get sick."

"You vomit?"

"Yes."

"And then you feel better?"

"No, it's still there when I barf. "

"What makes you feel better?"

"I told you.  Eliminating the threat."

"Then why don't you eliminate the threat?"

"Because that's not socially acceptable."

Cassandra was quiet for a moment.  "You are talking about killing someone?"

"Sometimes.  I have to rein myself in pretty tightly most of the time."

"Have you ever lost control?"

"Yes."

"When this happens, what are you reacting to?"

"The threat."

"Threat of what?  Embarrassment, pain?"

"Losing my freedom or losing someone I care about."

"Who threatens you?" Cassandra asked.

"How are you recording this?"

"I record our sessions digitally.  Why?"

"Where do you store the recordings?"

"On a protected hard drive that I remove when I am not here."

"What do you do with the hard drive?"

"I lock it in a safe. It's also password-protected. Are you concerned that something you tell me could get out?"

"Yes."

"What would happen if it did?"

"Let me put it this way, Cassandra.  Do you have a will?"

 


Cassandra asked Dana question after question at session after session.  The nanotech knew she was trying to diagnose her through a series of questions meant to dissect her feelings and her actions to get to the base cause of her behaviors--her problems. She also knew it was her choice to either mislead her or tell the truth.  Cautiously, she began to disclose her past and her feelings.  She told the therapist about her choice to work for Reichert in exchange for her freedom from York prison.  She acknowledged the guilt over what she had created for Reichert and what had happened in LA.  They spoke of the way crowds made Dana feel uneasy, about how she always felt like an outsider, and about how that isolation made her feel different but safe.  They touched on what Dana thought people thought of her and what she thought of herself.  And then they delved into the violence as well as the cycle of her angry and violent behavior that had begun with her first assault on her foster father and had become her way of solving her problems and seemingly the only way to push away the anxiety and calm down.  Physical activity had become the only way to sublimate her feelings to a point at which she could function on a personal level.  The same problem-solving method was also the very cause of her problems.  By the end of the fourth session, Cassandra had waded as best she could through the wild stories and the cryptic answers to give Dana a diagnosis.

Dana's diagnosis had seemed so overwhelming at the time, so indicative of the insurmountable odds she always seemed to be up against, but it was nothing compared to what lay before her now.

 


While Grace was being moved to ICU  Dana found the public phones, with the morbid objective of notifying Grace's Kentucky-based kinfolk back in Cox's Creek.  Dick, Grace's asinine brother, was at his parents' home, which was no surprise to Dana, because he was a louse and a mooch.  He answered the phone and yelled, "Hey, Maaaah, it's the Neo-Pagan death-machine!" before handing the phone off to Faith Wilson.

"Dana, what's wrong?"  Faith sounded too much like a prison guard for Dana to ever feel comfortable around her.  Grace's mother knew that Dana would never call her unless something had gone wrong and Grace was not available to do it herself.

"It's Grace.  She's in the hospital."

"Richard!" Mrs. Wilson commanded her husband.  "How is she!?" she demanded of Dana.

Dana found herself unable to sound much different or more hopeful than the doctors whom she had railed against moments earlier.  "They don't know what's wrong yet.  But she's not breathing or awake anymore."

Dana could hear the voice of Faith Wilson fading from the phone and beginning to pray.

"What's going on, Dana?"  Richard Wilson's worried but firm voice spoke to her.

"Grace is in the hospital.  It's some sort of cerebral incident.  They think it's poisoning but can't confirm a toxin, so they have no treatment for her yet."  Dana did not want to go over everything the doctors had told her.  She felt weak, as if she needed to burst out in tears, and that made her want to hit something.  So she reined in her soul as tightly as she could.

"Is she conscious?"

"No!  She's on fucking machines and they say they can't do anything!"  Dana was going to be sick.

"Okay, okay, Dana.  Calm down," he said with the smooth drawl of a Southern gentleman.  "You have to be calm so you can be there for her.  She needs you right now."

"I can't do anything."

"Yes, you can.  Sit with her.  Hold her hand.  Speak to her.  And we'll be there as soon as we can, but until then you're all she has, and you have to be there."

Silence.  She didn't want to sit by and wait.

"Dana?"

"Yes."  Her voice revealed the strain of control.

"Have the physician give me a call."

"Okay."

"Remember, sit with her and talk to her."

"Okay."

"Don't leave her alone."

"I never will," Dana replied, and hung up the phone.


To Be Continued...

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