THE MELODY of the summer rain danced a steady beat on the Robert Hutchings Goddard Library roof, damp fingers tapping a mournful accompaniment on the plate glass windows. The building smelled of old books and cleaning supplies. Tables wore puddles of lamplight, and opened reference materials decorated the workspaces. Moisture clouded the inside of the windows, making the library and all its books seem cut off from the outside world that was prestigious Clark University.
Once, two years ago, Professor Jessica Johansen would have considered that a very good thing, the pattering on the roof overhead reminding her of how much her husband loved her. But then, she’d loved the rain then. She didn’t love the rain any longer.
All around her, Professor Johansen’s students murmured with the industrious nature of their assignments, giving her a moment of peace in a day that had gone on far too long to be tolerable anymore. She walked among them, glancing at their progress, pointing out an errant word or phrase here and there. A bright smile offered, and when the work was good, a word of praise as garnish. Each time she stepped away, however, she couldn’t remember the student’s work.
The rain pulled her to the windows, and her heart churned with sadness.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it, Dr. Johansen?”
“Wonderful?” Jessica turned, and she forced a smile on her face.
“This old building. My grandfather went to Clark, you know. Are you related to the library’s builder, John Johansen?” The girl, pretty with short hair and a flowered top over jeans, prattled on for a moment, then remembered she had come to Jessica with a question about a source she needed to reference. It was something simple to resolve, and the girl was once again at one of the library tables, immersed in her work.
The girl never gave Jessica a chance to disclaim any relation to John Johansen, for there was none, but at one time, Jessica had indeed considered this building to be the jewel of the university, the most intriguing structure on campus. In her first semester, she’d walked through the century-old grounds, and she had fallen in love with the library’s windows. There were many repositories of academic knowledge on this hallowed campus, but to her, this one put all the rest to shame.
Today, however, nothing seemed wonderful to her. In her gray world, how could it? She rubbed her arms, the chill that she could never drive away raising goose bumps on her skin. The summer rain might bring humidity that would swell to unbearable levels when the sun slipped from behind the clouds, but Jessica hadn’t felt really warm even once since the day of the accident.
She sighed, giving in to the glass’s pleading, and she reached across the low bookshelf just under the massive window, leaning forward to place her hand against the glass. She had done this very thing then, too, reached and touched the glass of her living room window those two years ago. She’d pressed her skin there, felt the cold, and Jeffrey had been on the other side. The condensation on the window drew to her skin as if in empathy. The moisture remembered. It had wrapped her hand when Jeffrey was alive, and it had known her pain once he was gone.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and stood as still as she could. She wished the dampness could wash her clean, but her sadness ran too deep to be so easily rinsed away. As her hand rested on that expansive library window, the previous two years were as if they had never been. Jeffrey was at her side telling her that the rain had prevented the regular sportscaster from arriving at the studio, and the station wanted him to fill in if he thought he could make it. He leaned over to kiss her as she lay in bed, trying to pull herself from the warmth of the night.
“The big time,” he said. “It’s the Early Morning Wake-up Show. Everyone will be watching. This might be my chance for getting my foot in the door.” He sat on the edge of the bed, his suit already on, and a smile on his face.
“It’s Saturday. It’s our day, Jeffrey. You already give the studio so much of our lives.” Her eyes burned with grogginess, and she didn’t know why he had to give the station their weekend. It was her birthday tomorrow, and she’d thought they would spend the day in front of a fire. She’d been awakened several times during the night by the rain rippling on the skylights, and she’d seen the forecasts for the day. They came on right after Jeffrey at four minutes before noon.
“Nobody watches at lunch, Jessica. They’re all at work. This is Saturday. The Wake-Up Show. The Wake-Up Show! I’ve got to go.” He looked hopefully at her, pleading for her approval.
He would stay home if she insisted, but he wouldn’t be the charming companion she hoped for. She loved him, but she knew him, too. He would give a stranger the shirt off his back, but he had big dreams in that head of his. He didn’t turn loose of his dreams easily, either, not even for a rainy day in front of a cozy fire.
Finally, she smiled and waved him away. Especially not for a rainy day in front of a cozy fire, even with his wife. He would give in to that only if he knew all his other duties were sliced, diced, and in the oven. If she let him go, he would be happier. Besides, her birthday wasn’t until tomorrow. She could give up this one Saturday for him.
She closed her eyes and worked her head back into the pillow as she felt him stand, the bed shifting with the release of his body. Then she smiled as she smelled his cologne growing stronger. He was going to kiss her, and probably on the side of her face just where her jaw turned up to meet her ear. She turned her head without looking, as if she were already asleep and just casually shifting her position. She inhaled deeply as she felt the softness of his lips gently brush her skin.
“I love you, Jessica.” His breath ghosted her face, flooding her senses with the memory of the times he’d said those words to her during the middle of the previous night. Then, other things had been going on, and her birthday had been far from her mind.
“Hmm.” She smiled and slowly opened her eyes. How-ever, he was gone. She laughed and threw back the covers. She was fully awake now, and she wanted to repeat his words to him. Running to the front room, she looked for his keys and umbrella by the door and saw they were gone.
Pulling the curtains back, she searched through the glass. The window was fogged with moisture, and Jeffrey was running down the walk in the early morning dimness, his umbrella in hand. She smiled as he paused to push the remote on his key fob while holding the umbrella to keep the rain at bay. She’d have been soaked, but Jeffrey was managing it just fine.
Tenderness toward this man she loved welled up in her. She reached and pressed her hand to the glass separating her from the weather and from the man she adored as part of herself. As the moisture seemed to gather to her skin, she whispered, “I love you, Jeffrey. I tell you, but never enough. Know that I love you on this day. Always, always, I love you.” She stood watching the rain long after he’d driven away, as if her hand on the glass was sending her love to him, as if he needed her today more than she needed him.
As she turned from the window, she pulled her hand away and noticed her handprint. Just where her hand had been, the glass was perfectly clear, but all around it, the images coming through the condensation were fogged, as if the world around her had suddenly become something she could no longer see clearly.
The glass hadn’t been especially cold, yet a chill had run down her spine just the same. She let the curtain fall, hoping the sensation would go away. She lit the fire even though Jeffrey was gone for the morning, and she pulled a chair close. It took a very long time for her to get warm, and she couldn’t seem to feel Jeffrey near her at all.
A voice gently interrupted Jessica’s reverie. Somewhere in her thoughts, buried under her sudden upwelling of memories, she had known her class was still gathered behind her, finishing up the assignment she’d brought them to the library to do. She had known she would be approached by her students at some point, but in her sudden, overwhelming self-pity, she had let herself become immersed in memories that were better left at home.
She turned, letting her hand drop from the window. It was a young girl of maybe nineteen. The girl’s words continued, “The rain does that to me, too. I love to watch it, and sometimes I reach to touch the glass, just like you were doing.”
Jessica smiled at the student, and then she let the forced cheer fade from her face. It was an excruciating struggle shifting back to the real world after thinking of Jeffrey.
“The rain matches my thoughts on days like this,” Jessica admitted. “It takes me back.”
The girl reached to where her teacher’s hand had been, and in the moisture next to it, she drew a heart. “Rain makes me think of love and snuggling with someone I care about. What about you, Dr. Johansen?”
Jessica took a deep breath and sighed. She placed her hand back on the glass, and after a moment, wiped it all away. “That and other things, dear. That and many other things.” She knew other things, however, weren’t the same as pleasant things. Not by a far cry.
THE KNOCK on the door was jarringly loud, and Jessica jerked awake. She looked out the sliders at the pool, and a light rain still rippled on the water’s surface. The knocking came again.
“Coming!” She stumbled to her feet, throwing her blanket back onto the chair. She did notice the fire hadn’t burned down. Not much time could have passed. Perhaps Jeffrey had returned, and he’d forgotten his key. The day would be theirs, after all. Despite her anticipation, she rubbed her arms to fight the chill. She was suddenly cold again now that she was standing. The warmth of her blanket was left bundled up in the chair.
Before opening the door, she pulled the curtain back to see who it might be. At first glance, she noticed the handprint from earlier. Through it she could see the day had brightened, and her eyes caught the bumper of her car parked in the drive. There were other things there, too, blurred in the moisture still covering the rest of the glass. Other cars, she thought, and perhaps flashing lights. They had nothing to do with her, though, and she dropped the curtain.
“Yes?” Unable to see clearly through the leaded glass of the door, she called out her question before turning the knob. “Who’s there?” With the answer to those words, she knew her world had changed forever.
“Worcester police, ma’am. May we come in?”
Her heart began to pound. She’d seen the news reports before, and she knew why policemen came unbidden to someone’s door. She caught the reports sometimes when watching Jeffrey’s station to view his Sports Shorts. “Car spins out of control. Driver injured in bad-weather incident.” Her stomach began to churn as she grabbed the doorknob. The flashing lights were just outside, and they were for her. For Jeffrey. The chill from earlier. That had been Jeffrey. She knew, now.
She opened the door to see two officers in their rain gear. Water poured from ponchos pulled over their uniforms, forming puddles on the walk underneath where they stood. Jessica could see two cruisers at the street, and their lights pulsed rhythmically in a silent parody of a police chase up and down her quiet suburban lane. As the nearer officer reached a hand to tip the hat he wore underneath the hood of his poncho, Jessica felt her vision narrow and her breath grow shallow. She didn’t want to hear his words, and she knew they were coming anyway. The world outside her door turned gray with despair.
“Ma’am, your husband is Jeffrey Johansen?”
Jessica managed to nod her head, and she replied with barely a whisper, “Is there a problem, officer?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He reached to adjust his hat, and he ducked his head. Then he looked directly into her eyes. “I regret to inform you there’s been an accident . . .”
At those words, she felt her head start to spin. As the officer at her door reached out to assist her, her world went dark. It had remained dark ever since.
“JESSICA, YOU cannot remain a lonely old stick-in-the-mud forever, you know, even if you did just refuse to celebrate another birthday.” Mags Brier-Sheldon, Jessica’s closest friend, licked her ice cream cone, content to let the midday heat torture those students who insisted on roaming the campus in direct sun. She was nice and cool on her bench underneath the tree. She continued, “You know, sweetie, Worcester has the highest percentage of males to females in all Massachusetts, and Clark University has even more.” She paused as if considering something she just remembered. “Unless you count Assumption, and they have one percent more men than we do.” She licked her frozen confection and looked at Jessica out of the corner of her eye. She smiled and pricked her again, “Men, Jessica. You know those two-legged things that grow that third leg . . .”
Jessica quickly stood up and turned her back to her friend. “My birthdays are not a topic of discussion.” She crossed her arms and shook her head in disdain.
Mags grinned. At least her friend hadn’t stomped off. She had to push Jessica, always had, even back in grade school. That time when they’d wanted to be cheerleaders, Jessica and she had practiced for weeks. “Go, Cats, Go! We’re the best there is! They can’t do no mo’! Let’s show ’em our biz!” She had to laugh now, but it had been impor-tant to them as fifth graders. She could see now that the cheer they’d made up had been as corny as the day was long, but they’d been so proud of it.
Then, the day of the competition, Jessica had called in sick. Mags had known better, and she’d rushed home at lunch. Grabbing a sandwich, she’d run next door to Jessica’s, and there she was, puking her guts out in the bathroom.
“It’s just your nerves, you wimp!” Mags had made her go, practically dragged her to the competition after school. They’d won, too, corny cheer and all. They’d been cheerleaders for the next seven years. Jessica had been that good. Mags had ridden her coattails, and she wasn’t sorry one tiny bit, either.
Now, Jessica needed to come out of her shell, and Mags intended to push her until she did. She didn’t want to break her, though. After all, that awful death Jeffrey had died. Her friend had been a near basket case for a long time. She’d spent almost two months at Mags’ little apartment, and her place barely had room for one. She’d been there since college, though, and it was rent controlled. Nearly sixteen years, and her rent had hardly gone up at all.
However, that was beside the point. The point was that Mags now knew things about Jessica that she’d never intended to know, and there were a few things she wished she’d never learned at all. She knew just how many tissues her friend used to blow her nose, and how often she polished her dress shoes. Never, was the answer to that question. She never polished them. “I can always buy new ones. Why bother?” Depression from Jeffrey’s death? Maybe.
However, who wants to know what her best friend’s underwear looks like when it’s drying over her head in the shower? Or that she always wears her pantyhose twice? Or that she could sit and look at a picture of her deceased husband in his wedding tuxedo for four hours a night for nine days in a row? Mags knew. She’d watched the clock to see if there would be even one night when the grief-drenched picture-holding would set a new record. Nope. Jessica was so organized, she even timed her grief.
It was real grief. Mags knew that. In an apartment as tiny as hers, she also knew Jessica cried three times each night. The first would be seven to nine minutes until she fell asleep, and the second would happen around midnight. That one would last about twenty minutes. The final time would be at six.
“Why six?” she’d asked her friend one morning.
“On our honeymoon, Jeffrey always woke me at six to make love in the early dawn light.”
Jessica hadn’t even cried when she’d told Mags that. She had looked at the picture in the tuxedo twice that day, though.
Mags watched several new teachers walk the far part of the quadrangle. A couple of them were certainly male, and one was walking all by himself. Good-looking, too. She tapped Jessica on the arm and pointed.
Suddenly, Mags’ ice cream was snatched from her hand. She looked up to see her friend with the confection already to her mouth. Her jaw dropped when she saw her friend bite into it and then hand it back to her with a mouth-sized chunk missing.
“Why, Dr. Johansen! How dare you!” Mags’ outrage was a stage-worthy act. She stood and held out her injured sweet treat as if the bite that had been taken was personally offensive to her. “Now I shall surely burn to a crisp in this torrid Worcester hell that this summer day has become.” Then she sat and laughed, looking at Jessica. Licking the treat one more time, she raised her eyebrows and winked. “Was I good, there? I’m taking a class with the good Mr. Pearson, and he says I act very well.”
Jessica crossed her arms and looked down at her friend, tapping one finger against her sleeve. “He’s not a full professor, yet? Mags, he’s been here almost as long as I have. Find you someone with potential.”
Mags hooted and stood, flipping the rest of her treat into the waste bin. She reached and put her arm through Jessica’s, and she pulled her into the sun, as they headed toward Jessica’s office across the quadrangle. “He does have potential, my dear. Have you ever felt his arm when he’s helping with an especially difficult acting position? Hmm. If that isn’t potential, I don’t know what is.”
Jessica pulled away and turned to look at her friend, an expression of disgust on her face. “Mags! Surely you aren’t taking that class just to be touched by Mr. Pearson?”
Mags moved to grab her friend’s arm once again. “Is there a better reason, dear Jessica? That’s why I worked so hard back in junior high to learn those splits. What better way to show off in those cheerleading outfits?” She giggled. “You did the same, except it was all for Jeffrey, wasn’t it? He wasn’t a sportscaster then, but I remember you telling me how good he was in speech class. ‘He gives the best speeches ever. I could watch him all day. He has so much potential.’ Remember that?”
Mags gave Jessica a syrupy smile, tugging her friend faster across the quadrangle.
“I NEVER did say that, you scamp.” Jessica laughed a little too brightly at Mags and her remembered version of those past events. She’d been irritated earlier by her friend’s too-graphic description of the male anatomy, and she hadn’t enjoyed being reminded of crying all through her last birthday. To get back, she prodded her, “Did you really learn those splits just to show off the underside of your wardrobe?”
She also hoped to get her friend onto a safer topic and off Jeffrey, because she wouldn’t admit remembering it, but she did recall saying that very thing about him. Hearing her friend’s words made her miss him, and she couldn’t afford to cry on campus. When she got home, she could shed her tears in peace.
Without warning, she felt Mags fall against her. The unexpected weight knocked Jessica off balance, and she threw out her arms to try to maintain her dignity as well as her posture. It was hopeless, and as she fell, she realized she had fallen directly onto someone else.
PETER CASSEL remembered none of it, but he had the newspaper clippings. There was even a story in Medical Monthly. “New, Untried Procedure Performs Miracles.” The doctors had saved him a copy. When he went in for his six-month checkup, he walked into the outpatient clinic, and there they had been, with a cake filled with candles. Thirty-two of them, in fact. Candles, that was. There were only six doctors, along with several nurses.
“Hey, Doc. Is someone celebrating?”
It looked like a birthday party, and it wasn’t his. He was just here for his checkup, and he wasn’t even sure he needed it. He was in better shape than he’d been in for five years.
Doctor Rossi walked up and put her arm around his waist, and she gave him a hug before pulling him to join the group. “It certainly is someone’s birthday. Around here, we count them in six-month increments. That’s all some of our patients get after traumatic heart surgery, although we expect you to live a very long time.” She laughed, tiptoed, and gave him a peck on the cheek.
She’d told him the story of her grandson, and how his hair had been the exact same tawny color as Peter’s, as tears had come to her eyes. Had been, because he’d died from heart disease at twenty-four, all because no one had been there to give him a compatible replacement. His death had motivated her to pioneer her new technique for substituting the ubiquitous but life-threatening endomyocardial biopsy with a more patient-friendly process. Her battery-powered device was implanted directly into the donor heart, and it performed a continual biopsy for possible rejection, even supplying doses of medications directly to the affected tissue. Her process allowed hearts that would otherwise be incompatible to be matched with a wider range of recipients’ bodies. Peter had been her first, and he’d been a runaway success.
During the party, the doctors sang to him, and they even had him blow out the candles. They laughed when he could get only twenty-nine blown out before he ran out of breath. He heard one of the nurses murmur a surprising phrase when he paused to prepare for the final three.
“Twenty-nine. How appropriate.”
He glanced at her, but she was already cheering for him to huff and puff and blow out the rest. He did, and he laughed with everyone else. Later, though, he found Doctor Rossi, and he held her hand in his. She looked at him with a twinkle in her eyes as she waited for him to speak.
“You gave my life back, you know. You saved me, Doc.” He sniffled, and then he tried unsuccessfully to blink back the moisture.
“No,” the doctor replied. “I just used the opportunity. All our available donor hearts were either located too far away for viable transport, or they weren’t similar enough to match your body type. You know that. You knew it then, too. Someone else saved you that morning.” She looked at him as her eyes misted. She glanced around the room at the party-making doctors and shifted topics. “Over the past six months, the media has grabbed onto this new medical process as the greatest miracle of the new century. How do you like being a miracle?”
Peter took a deep breath as he took in the room and the people enjoying his cake. “Better than before the surgery. My wife left me, and all because of my illness.” He looked at her, hoping she got his meaning.
“I know, Peter. That must have been difficult.”
“Yeah. Was the donor twenty-nine?” He looked hard at her this time, knowing she would have this information. For months after the surgery, he’d been trapped in that hospital room, and he’d kept up with nothing outside of just staying alive. When he began to improve, he hadn’t wanted to know. He just wanted to get home. Then there was the television movie—on hold until he proved he survived—to chronicle his amazing story of illness and miraculous recovery. He’d suggested it wouldn’t do for him to be proclaimed a miracle, have a movie made, and then die before it could hit the cable channels. They’d seen his point and reluctantly agreed.
When he finally began to sort through the stories, the newspaper clippings he had were about him, and they told little about his donor, other than that he had been in the local media. Even the eyewitness reports about the events directly surrounding the accident hadn’t mentioned names, just the horrifying details of the crash, giving the event a very human scale.
When he reentered the world, and his favorite sports-caster, Jeffrey Jay, was off the air, for one wild moment, he suspected he knew the donor. He was horrified and excited all at the same time. After he’d gotten a better grip on reality, he knew better. Now, though, he felt he was about ready, and he wanted to find out just what had hap-pened.
Doctor Rossi stood very still and looked into his eyes. “Green with gold flecks, beautiful, but I’ve told you that. Just like my grandson’s. You know the donor information is confidential. I thought you might have gotten the story from the papers and put two and two together. You’ll have to do that on your own. I won’t lie to you, but I cannot tell you more.”
“Just this, right or wrong. Was he twenty-nine?” Peter hated to beg, but he would if she forced him.
“Good guess, my miracle patient. Don’t ask me more, though.”
She hugged him, and for a moment, Peter felt as if she were hugging her grandson. He smiled even though he knew she couldn’t see it, and he returned her hug, as a good grandson should.
“You do my heart good,” she whispered to him.
He laughed as he released her. “No, Doc. You do my heart good. I mean that, too.” She stepped back and laughed, but Peter reached and gave her another hug. He’d seen the tears in her eyes, and he knew they weren’t for him. They were for the grandson she could never hug again.
JESSICA WAS appalled. She looked up at the sky and the trees in the quadrangle; and she placed her hand down in an attempt to get up. When she shifted her weight, she realized her hand was directly on the person she’d fallen on. It was obvious he was a man, too. Yanking her hand away, she covered her face in embarrassment. She heard laughter from next to her, and she opened her eyes to see Mags also trying to stand. However, it seemed her friend’s difficulty in standing was for another reason entirely.
“Jessica!” Mags was laughing so hard her eyes were flooded with tears, and she was holding her side, unable to control her mirth. “You were such a hoot when you went down!” She waved her hands wildly in the air, imitating her friend.
“A little help, Mags?” Jessica wanted up, but she wasn’t sure just how to climb out of this mess. Her hand couldn’t be allowed to return to the last place she’d put it, and what was Mags finding so funny? This was certainly not amusing at all to her.
She watched her friend stand and wipe the tears of laughter from her eyes as she reached her hand in Jessica’s direction. Just as she was about to reach to take it, another hand, a masculine one, reached from underneath her toward Mags’ proffered help.
“I apologize.” The words softly rumbled into Jessica’s ear. “I guess I wasn’t watching where I was going.” A second hand wrapped her waist and gently adjusted her position. Then, with Mags’ hand for assistance, the mystery man managed to quickly get them both up and on their feet.
Jessica attempted to stand on her own, and her foot slipped on a broken heel. She cried out as her foot twisted sideways underneath her. The man tightened his arm once again around her waist, and in her surprise, she inhaled a sharp breath, drawing in the scent of his cologne. It was a warm and musky smell, one that reminded her of Jeffrey. Her heart caught at the memory. Then, there was the feel of the man’s arm around her waist, and the sound of his deep voice as he apologized once again. His words tum-bled softly over her shoulder, and it sounded as if they were being whispered into her ear.
“I’ve got you. You won’t fall again. Is your foot bothering you?”
As she stabilized her body, she felt him kneel to reach for her ankle. He grasped it gently in his hand as he checked it for damage. He looked at her until her eyes finally dropped to rest on his.
“No injury that I can see. Can I walk you to the first aid station? You can’t tell, sometimes. I do think you broke the heel on your shoe, though.”
Mags interrupted at just that time, and she grabbed the man’s arm. With a smile she blurted, “This is my friend, Jessica. She’s lucky you still had your arm around her. She might have fallen a second time if you hadn’t. She can be a bit clumsy at times. She’s not married, either.”
Jessica shot her a look of venom. She hissed under her breath, “Mags!”
“Are you new on campus?” Her friend grinned.
The man jerked, startled into action, and looked at his watch. “Ex-wives, heart doctors, and now beautiful women! Everything slows me down! I’m about to miss my appointment!” He gathered his things from the ground. “Please excuse me. I’ve got to go. You be sure to have that foot checked. I’m sorry I was so careless.” In a quick motion, he was running away.
Mags couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “Tawny hair and those gold-flecked eyes. Could they come any more handsome?”
Jessica took several deep breaths. She’d just been walking, and then this whirlwind of a disaster had hit. He reminded her of Jeffrey, too. His smell, anyway, and that was very disorienting. At least he had apologized.
Then she remembered. He hadn’t bumped her first. Mags had! She grabbed her friend’s arm, and she yanked her into the building as she limped on her one good shoe.
“You! You did that on purpose! Why?”
Mags raised her eyebrows. “Well, sweetie. I did point him out to you. You just wouldn’t look, and you simply cannot let all the really good-looking ones get away. Well, maybe you can, but I can’t.”
Jessica snorted. “You can have him, then. He’s all yours.”
Mags flipped her hair with her hand, as she looked at her friend. “No, dear. I have the wonderful Mr. Pearson. This one’s all yours,” and she gave Jessica an impish grin that seemed to travel from ear-to-ear.
PETER’S STORY had made it into print. Real Life Dramas had run a special loosely based on him. “Sportscaster Gives Life Twice to Same Man.” All the names had been changed, but the magazine had gotten all the medical details correct. He was being transported by ambulance to the best facility in the city, although they hadn’t mentioned it was Worcester. The story also told of the doctors’ hopes that he could be kept alive until a suitable donor heart could be located. A freak accident on rain-slicked roads had sent his ambulance careening into oncoming traffic, killing both the driver and the attending paramedic. The wreck crumpled the front of the vehicle, twisting its frame, and buckling the rear doors. Peter, hooked up to IVs and groggy from pain medication, was hardly aware of what had happened.
Then, the engine of the ambulance burst into flames. It was the heroic actions of his donor that had rescued Peter from the back of that ambulance. The man had seen him inside, and in a valiant and even senseless act of bravery, he stopped his car on the side of the road to run and give assistance.
As dozens of bystanders watched, Peter’s rescuer had leaped inside, unstrapped him from the gurney, and lifted him out of the truck. Halfway across the road to safety, a searing ball of heat had blasted them, knocking the two men to the ground as the ambulance exploded.
That alone would have made a riveting note the local media could have added to enhance the nightly news, even used to promote their upcoming golden boy sportscaster. However, the angry road gods weren’t finished. It was the next series of events that truly made the story newsworthy. A tractor-trailer rig was barreling down the highway, and for whatever reason, the driver didn’t see the accident. Hitting his brakes too late on the rain-slicked road caused his rig to jackknife.
Witnesses told how Peter’s rescuer literally threw him to waiting arms on the side of the road. Two more feet, and Peter’s angel of mercy would have made it to safety, too. The bumper of the rig caught him, and there was nothing anyone could do.
Both men were transported to UMass Memorial, the hospital Peter had been headed to before the accident. The injured man’s wallet showed him to be an organ donor, and the rest was history. Peter’s physician, Doctor Rossi, was on duty that morning, waiting for him. While the local hospital wasn’t set up for a heart transplant procedure, luckily—for Peter, anyway—it did have the facilities to do the same procedure for livers and kidneys. Preeminent Dr. Rossi stepped in, and soon Peter had a new heart beating in his body, one from a man who had rescued him from a burning ambulance in the morning, and who, that after-noon, gave him his heart. Peter thanked God for Doctor Rossi and her confidence in both her skills and her new cutting edge heart procedure.
Peter always said he didn’t remember any of what had happened, but there were flashes from time to time. The intensity of the heat from the exploding ambulance. He remembered that. At least he thought he did. It was a burning sensation, rather like when his old heart would flare up, and he would suddenly have a hot flash so intense he knew he must be about to die.
Then there were images that sometimes flashed into his mind, none coherent, of course. One, though, a clean-cut man’s face. Was the man his rescuer? He didn’t know. Perhaps it was the paramedic who had ridden in the ambulance with him, or one of the bystanders who had helped pull him to safety when he’d been thrown free of the accident.
“Superman,” he told the nurses. “You’ve saved Superman’s life, you know.” When they’d looked at him with puzzled expressions, he’d laughed. “I flew from that man’s arms all the way to the side of the road. Luckily for me, someone was there to catch me. I was Superman for a moment, though. When you saved me, you saved Superman.”
He usually got a laugh, and one or two of them had taken to calling him Superman after that. He didn’t know more about the man who had given him back his life twice in one day, but he was grateful. One day he’d write his version of the story, and it would include all the details. He’d go to the paper, pull up all the articles. He was certain research would reveal the man who’d died to save him. He’d also tell of Doctor Rossi and her innovative procedure, and he’d describe his exhausting recovery. Doctor Rossi would have a prominent place in the story.
He knew he needed help, however. He was a writer, but mystery stories do not documentaries make. Besides, he hadn’t sold even one of his novels to a major publisher. The story he needed to write had to be as good as any ever written, and he knew he needed professional advice.
Peter was going back to college.
JESSICA FLIPPED on her monitor. Her campus office used to be spotless, and every student paper that came inside was immediately looked at and sorted to its proper place. She sighed as she listened to her computer run through its start-up process. At least it was coming alive, unlike her and the dull, gray world that continued to swirl around her each day.
She was aware that her friend thought she needed to get over her grief, but Jessica wasn’t sure that was possible. Grief was either there, or it wasn’t. Hadn’t she learned that in her college psychology classes over a decade ago? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Well, she certainly didn’t see where she’d worked her way through that mess, and she didn’t know she had the energy to do so.
Her office was part of the problem right then, and that was something she freely admitted. It was dusty, and she had papers crowded where there was no room to have them. Most days when she walked in, she felt overwhelmed and wanted to cry. Then, after she dealt with her immediate emotional trauma, she would flick some of the most obnoxious dust around, and she would find she just didn’t care enough anymore. She would think of Jeffrey, and the mess around her would seem unimportant. The only item she could get her mind around was the next thing that had to happen, and for months, that hadn’t been cleaning her office.
She reached down and rubbed her ankle. It hurt. Also, she’d have to get new shoes for sure. She’d ruined hers when the heel came off. Or, maybe she’d just wear black shoes instead of these blue ones. The two weren’t that far off in color, and she wasn’t sure she could develop an interest in shopping any more.
Then she took a deep breath. Wearing black when only blue would do? During high school and college, she’d been in too many beauty pageants to not care. She’d get new shoes before she wore anything tan or blue again. She just wouldn’t shop for the best price. She’d pay whatever it cost and let the expense be like water off a duck’s back. Her leg at least felt fine enough to walk on, and she thought perhaps she’d get by with just a day of stiff muscles.
However, she did need to check her class rosters. She had let this go until it was the next thing that needed to happen. The new session started in less than a week, and she did have classes to teach. It was one thing to live her life in a haze, and it was another to let it deteriorate until it became unbearable. She was too practical for that.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flickering shift of information on her monitor that told her the computer was ready. When the school logo scrolled across her screen, she reached up to tap the enter key. It flashed a warning at her: Logging on to a secured network. Do you wish to proceed? Of course, she did. Why did these machines always ask? If she didn’t want to log on, she wouldn’t have started up the computer.
She reached to input her password. It was the one motion of her day that she looked forward to. She had kept her password the same for two years, even though the system wanted her to make a change every three months. When Jeffrey was first gone, she sought to be reminded of him all the time. She changed all her passwords to the letters in his name. Then, when the university’s system popped up its first warning message telling her she had to change her password, her heart had dropped from her chest, as if Jeffrey were being taken from her all over again. Her hands had shaken, and her vision had narrowed. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything except the injustice of the school taking those seven letters from her. Doing so seemed to contain an unprecedented level of malevolence that was intended to steal her Jeffrey from her once more.
Mags had come to her rescue that time, and her treasured password had been her comfort ever since. Jessica’s fingers reached to her keyboard, and in a rapid fire of movement, she entered the correct letters: Jeffrey8. Then she ran her hands lovingly over the keyboard as she watched the display begin its chattering entrance into the world of the school’s infrastructure. It was almost as if she could feel Jeffrey in the surging pulse of the electronics, as if he were somehow with her again. She knew it wasn’t so, but that didn’t stop her from feeling his presence.
Now, however, she had information to pull up, and it wouldn’t get done if she just sat and watched the screensaver come on, would it?
“YES, MR. CASSEL. I have your paperwork right here. You faxed these, let me see, on the twenty-sixth. You say you only want to audit a class?” The counselor pulled his glasses from his coat pocket and slipped them on the end of his nose to read the forms better. After a moment, he raised his eyes to look at Peter while still holding the papers in his hands. “No credit, this means. It isn’t any cheaper, you know. Whether for credit or just to audit, we still must pay the teacher and run the utilities. It’s to your benefit to take the credits.”
Peter cleared his throat, putting together an answer. After all, he’d sent his payment to the school’s offices, and his forms did say he wanted to audit. He didn’t need the credits. He needed the help, the experience that he could get from a teacher who did this for a living, someone who was better at it than he was.
Besides, he couldn’t get his mind off that woman he’d run into on the way to this meeting. He’d dropped his dog off at the groomer’s that morning, and he thought he had plenty of time. Then, when he’d gotten there, a woman with three Shih Tzu triplets had gotten out of her car and walked in the door just ahead of him. He had his eighty-pound retriever with him, and he’d been forced to wait for twenty minutes while she explained each and every peculiarity of each of her three pets to the groomer.
Then, he hit the three lights on Main, and they all turned red just as he was approaching. That was nine minutes right there. He still thought he had the timing covered, though. He’d driven a shortcut down an alley, and he only sort of ran that last red light just outside the college. After that, he’d checked his watch. He could barely do it, he’d thought, but he could still be there on time.
He didn’t know what had happened out there in the quadrangle. He didn’t remember bumping into that woman. It had been more like she’d sailed into him, and in a tangle of arms and legs, they’d both been on the ground.
He found himself under her, very aware of her presence; and her perfume was very feminine. He hadn’t forgotten women since he’d gotten divorced. Quite the opposite. Then, just as he felt the beginnings of a physical response to her sudden closeness, she had placed her hand on him, and God forbid, she’d tried to stand.
Now, his thoughts kept returning to how he’d wrapped his arm around her and held her as he helped her to her feet. He could kick himself because he hadn’t gotten her last name or told her his. He would have, but he’d remembered this appointment, and, in desperation, knowing he was surely late, he’d vaulted from the scene of the crime.
Lateness hadn’t been his only excuse, though. He’d also been embarrassed. His clumsiness. Knowing he’d felt aroused, and she must have been able to tell. Now this man wanted to know why he wished to audit the class. Peter didn’t see the question as relevant at all. He turned his head to look at the books lining the dark, wood shelves surrounding the room, and shaking his head to clear his mind, his answer seemed obvious when he finally said it.
“I already have a degree.” He turned to rivet the man with his eyes, and he drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “A double master’s, actually. However, engineering doesn’t write documentaries. I need a professional to provide oversight. I thought I might find that here. Your school does have a reputation of the highest of literary standards.”
The counselor cleared his throat, and by his expression, he was flattered by Peter’s remark. “Thank you. I counsel the students who help keep those standards high, and I consider their success akin to my own. As a school, we certainly strive for the best. A double master’s, you say. In engineering? A double?” He was clearly impressed by this new information.
Peter chuckled. He’d misled the man in his phrasing. He spread his hands wide and flexed his fingers as he explained his degree. “I was to be a divinity major, you see, at Harvard, and then I realized I’d have to be celibate.” He felt his neck warm at the admission. “I already had the hours when I switched to a more practical vocation. Engineering; physics; computer science; Robert Goddard and all. I could make money and get married, too.
“Since Goddard was once on staff here, well, that decided me. My engineering portion was completed at the Thayer School, Dartmouth. I now have a physics degree from Clark, an engineering masters from Dartmouth, and with only a few more hours, I was able to go ahead and get my masters in divinity from Harvard. That gives me divinity-engineering double masters. You can check the school’s records, if you wish. I’m in there.”
He’d given up the Faith for a wife and a real income. It hadn’t worked out. He’d married, gotten ill, and the engineering jobs had evaporated. At that point, he hadn’t wanted to return to the Faith, and he wasn’t sure he could have, not after having his beliefs shaken by impending death. He’d needed something he could do with his heart problems, and he’d tried his hand at writing. Apparently, publishers hadn’t thought any more of his writing than the engineering firms had of his double masters’ degrees. He had sent off and won a few contests, even had several short stories published, but nothing that paid any real money.
“I want to learn. What do you think? Can you find me a spot? Here at Clark? I know I’m down to the deadline, but surely, just to audit a class?”
The counselor cleared his throat. “To the deadline? Past it is more like it. I could certainly get you into one of the other schools in the Consortium, but our classes here at Clark fill pretty quickly.” However, he smiled and mentioned how favorably it would reflect on the school to have a double masters returning to join in the academic pursuits of the school’s English department. It would inspire the other students who were just starting out in their academic endeavors. How noble!
Peter smiled as the man turned to his computer and begun inputting his information. After a few moments, he turned back to Peter and announced, “We are just able to squeeze you in, Mr. Cassel. It seems our summer session is very full. However, just for an audit, I’ve been able to find you a spot. It’s the only one available. A Dr. Johansen. She’s one of our very best, if I do say so myself.” He slipped a blank sheet of paper and a pencil Peter’s way. “You might write this down: Dr. Johansen.”
The counselor turned back to his computer, and he pressed a few keys, his finger coming off the final one with a flourish. When he shifted his attention back to Peter, he smiled as if he had done him a very good turn, indeed.
Peter grinned. He knew how good his book was going to be, and all he needed was a little help. This Dr. Johansen would be just the person. She was probably very experienced, wise, and somewhat like his much-loved Doctor Rossi. She might even be the type of grandmother to him that Doctor Rossi had become. Peter looked forward to meeting the venerable Dr. Johansen very much.
JESSICA TACKLED one more layer of her university’s information infrastructure. Even after logging into the main system, she still had to enter her password yet again to get access to her rosters for her summer school classes. As she did, the phone rang. She ignored it for a moment.
Then, the sun dappling through the narrow window high on one wall caught her attention. The building’s architect had designed tall, asymmetrical ceilings throughout the facility, even in the individual faculty offices, and hers peaked on one side far overhead. She looked up, wondering as she had so many times in the past why the window had no blinds. It ran all the way across the room. She couldn’t open it, and she really had no idea why it was there except to remind her when the sun was out.
She narrowed her eyes into a squint. Yes, she noted. The window was dirty, too, just like the rest of her office. The good thing about that was there was no way she could be expected to clean up there. The bad thing about it was that she couldn’t clean that window even if she wanted to. She couldn’t reach it.
She looked at the phone as it settled into its customary silence, and just as she was about to go back to her computer, it startled her as it began to ring again. Her heart thumped in an old, vain hope. She was empty without Jeffrey, and she was desperate to have him back. She knew he was gone, but she somehow hoped that each time she picked up a ringing phone, it might be him. It never was, though.
With her mouth pressed into a tight line, she reached for the offending instrument. Pulling it from under a sheaf of papers, she held her hand on it for a moment as it jangled a few more times. Then she lifted it and put it to her ear. When it got tangled in her hair, she pulled it away, shook her hair back, and pressed the receiver to listen once again.
“Dr. Johansen speaking. How may I help you?” She pressed her shoulder to hold the phone and reached back to the keyboard with her hands.
“Did you find out, yet?” The words were barked loudly into her ear.
She dropped the receiver as it clumsily slipped from her shoulder. Quickly rescuing the fumbled phone, Jessica held it back to her head, shaking her hair out of the way.
“Mags, is that you?” Her heart pounded with the sudden, overbearing intrusion into her morning, and her words were harsher than she intended. However, it should have been Jeffrey on the phone, not Mags, and her irritation felt justified.
“Sweetie, does anyone else ever call you? I’m just outside. You can see me waving if you’ll climb on your desk and look out those windows. You won’t though, so I’ll just come on in.”
About that time, the door to her office clicked open, and Jessica looked up to see it swing wide. In walked Mags, and she reached out with a triumphant tap on her phone, turning it off and dropping it into her satchel of a purse. She grasped a pile of papers on a chair, picked them up, and dropped them wholesale onto the floor. Then, she let herself fall into the empty seat.
“Jess, we have to get you some help.” Mags reached to run her fingers through her hair, letting it fall into a beautiful cascade of cinnamon curls.
“Mags,” Jessica began. “I’m very busy. What do you need?”
Jessica’s friend sat up very straight, and she put a look of mock despair on her face. “Why, you were my very first and best friend, Jessica Moritz Johansen. Now you shun me just because you’re busy. You have torn my heart from me, and I shall never be the same.” Then she collapsed into a bundle of giggles, slapping her leg. “That was right from our new play. I had to say that line, without your name of course, and I got to practice with Mr. Pearson. Now, I want to know about your man.”
“Why are you here, Mags? If you’re talking about that man you pushed me into out on the quadrangle, surely you cannot expect me to actually have the time to chase him down. That’s more your style. You go find him. I’ve got work to do.” She reached back to the keyboard.
Mags leaned forward and grabbed her arm. “Sweetie, I know that you turn your underwear inside out to let them dry. That’s why I told you I was waving at you, by the way.” She let go of Jessica’s arm and dropped back into the chair, pulling one foot up under her. Her eyes glistened with laughter, and a smirk hovered on her lips.
Jessica took a deep breath. “So, this is about my underwear? You waved at me because of my underwear?”
“No, silly. I waved because I know you, and if I’d given you any real warning, you would have been conveniently too busy to see me. You’ve got to get past all this grief. You’re my best friend, and I can’t let you just old maid and die. Besides . . .” Mags looked up at the ceiling and started whistling a haunting tune in a minor key. She didn’t finish her thought, and she didn’t look like she intended to.
Jessica’s eyes had begun to burn at her friend’s mention of her grief, but she wasn’t crying. Sometimes Mags made her so angry that she wanted to kick her. Now, Jessica was frustrated that the woman wouldn’t leave her in peace. She did have work to do, even if Mags could play all day. Jessica didn’t have a trust fund to fall back on if she had short hours at work. She had to live on her paycheck, unlike some other people.
She also knew she didn’t really have to live on her paycheck. The trucking company’s insurance had paid out handsomely. She could quit work and still live quite nicely for the rest of her life. However, she was forever the practical one. She’d put the money away, refusing to touch it. She made herself work. It was her therapy. Her days might be laced with lingering grief, or even devastated by overpowering sorrow, but to be at home alone would be worse. Even on her most self-pitying days, she could see that.
“Besides what, Mags? I’m listening.” If Jessica knew one thing, there was a purpose to this charade of her friend’s. She was her best girlfriend, and she’d been there for her in the days after Jeffrey’s death. Jessica had been able to wail at her, and her friend had taken everything Jessica had been able to throw at her. She had loved her back. Jessica might not like the convoluted game she was playing, and she might appreciate it even less, but there was a point to it. She would be better to let her friend play it out.
Mags looked at her and stopped whistling for a moment. She pursed her lips to fight back a grin. “Are you, Jess? Really? This is especially good news, you know.”
Jessica looked at her friend, and she let one hand slip to the keyboard. She began to tap its plastic case in hopes Mags would take the hint. Finally, she said, “The news. What is it?”
Mags held her hand up in front of her and bent her fingers over to look at her nails. She studied them for a moment before answering. With feigned focus, she con-tinued to watch her fingertips as if uninterested in the words she was speaking. “He’s not married.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “I could have told you that, Mags. It’s on his school web page. Mr. Pearson has never been married.”
Mags jumped up and grabbed a handful of her curly hair in each hand. She twirled around as she let out a screech of frustration. Finally, she stopped, giving Jessica a how-can-you-not-see-this glare. “You are so dense, Jess. I know Mr. Pearson’s not married. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be hanging all over him. I’m not a wanton woman, whatever you think. I’m talking about your new man.”
This time Jessica laughed. Mags had that effect on her. Spend enough time in her presence, and the heaviness that had surrounded her the past two years would fade away. It would later return. Jessica knew that. However, it was nice just for a moment to feel what real life was like again.
“Mags, I don’t have a man. Jeffrey hasn’t been replaced, if you haven’t noticed. I sleep alone.”
Mags paused before answering, and then tapping a finger on her lips, she murmured cryptically, “We’ll see about that.” In a quick movement, brighter, she reached and touched Jessica on the nose with a fingertip. “The one you tripped over today. That’s the man I mean.” She pulled one leg up under her and plopped back onto the chair.
Jessica was no longer amused by her friend. She snorted and turned away from her. “The man you pushed me into. Besides, how do you know he’s not married?” She reached to jiggle her mouse, and the screensaver blinked off.
“No ring, sweetie. I looked.” Mags giggled.
Jessica sighed. “Like that means anything. Mags, I really have work to do. May I?” She glanced at her friend, ready for a little peace. She knew she loved Mags, but sometimes she needed a break from her, too.
Mags stood and picked up her purse. As she turned to the door, she looked back and said very casually, “Just thought you should know. Bye, sweetie.” She blew her a kiss and was gone.
Jessica sighed and murmured her thoughts as she brought up her class rosters. “Who cares, Mags? I’ll never meet him again. Besides, I want Jeffrey, and it’s too late for that.”
As the lists popped up, she noted that all her classes were completely filled. That gave her a certain amount of satisfaction. She prided herself on being a good teacher, and she judged how successful she was by the number of students who signed up for her courses.
Just then, her computer beeped at her. Jessica frowned as a message popped up in the middle of her screen. A more current version of this page is now available. Would you like to access it at this time? Jessica liked her classes full. Surely there were no dropouts this early in the semester. The first class hadn’t even convened.
When she clicked yes, she looked at the page and at first couldn’t see the difference. Then, there at the bottom, she saw it, and it didn’t make her feel appreciative at all. Just below the list of her regular students was one more in a category of its own. Audit only. She didn’t care for auditing students. They were usually older retirees who had nothing better to do. They didn’t receive grades, so they usually didn’t apply themselves, and auditing students quite often dropped the class when they tired of it. That hurt her professional pride, and the records reflected the drop as a drop, audit or not.
She looked at the name. Peter. Peter Cassel. He might be any age; she couldn’t be sure. This roster didn’t list specifics about her students. On the first day of class, she would just look for a very old person, one with white hair, probably, and maybe even a cane or a wheelchair. That would be Peter. She could take that to the bank.
She reached up and flipped the computer off without even waiting for it to go through its shutdown procedures. She should have listened to Mags. She did work too hard, and now she was unhappy with one of her classes. That was her fault, she knew, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.
She stood and grabbed her wallet and keys. Now she wished Mags had hung around. They could have gone out to eat or something. She didn’t really want to go home. It would remind her too much of Jeffrey, and she was down enough already.
Stepping out of her office, a voice accosted her.
“Jess! It’s about time. I thought I’d have to wait forever. I’m hungry. Let’s go.” Mags grabbed a purse sitting nearby, and her hand snatched up a set of keys and a pair of sunglasses.
Jessica just closed her eyes and smiled. Yes, she was very glad Mags was her friend. She was the best she had ever had.