Page 5


Without looking up, Susan said, “No. The nun.”


“Poison?”


Still focused on the paperback, Susan said, “Two with an ax. One with a hammer. One with a wire garrote. One with an acetylene torch. And two with a nail gun.”


“Wow, a nun who’s a serial killer.”


“You can hide a lot of weapons under a habit.”


“Mystery novels have changed since we read them in junior high.”


“Not always for the better,” Susan said, closing the book.


They had been best friends since they were ten: eighteen years of sharing more than mystery novels—hopes, fears, happiness, sorrow, laughter, tears, gossip, adolescent enthusiasms, hard-won insights. During the past sixteen months, since the inexplicable onset of Susan’s agoraphobia, they had shared more pain than pleasure.


“I should have called you,” Susan said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t go to the session today.”


This was ritual, and Martie played her part: “Of course, you can, Susan. And you will.”


Putting the paperback aside, shaking her head, Susan said, “No, I’ll call Dr. Ahriman and tell him I’m just too ill. I’m coming down with a cold, maybe the flu.”


“You don’t sound congested.”


Susan grimaced. “It’s more a stomach flu.”


“Where’s your thermometer? We’d better take your temperature.”


“Oh, Martie, just look at me. I look like hell. Pasty-faced and red-eyed and my hair like straw. I can’t go out like this.”


“Get real, Sooz. You look like you always look.”


“I’m a mess.”


“Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz—they’d all kill to look as good as you, even when you’re sick as a dog and projectile vomiting, which you aren’t.”


“I’m a freak.”


“Oh, yeah, right, you’re the Elephant Woman. We’ll have to put a sack over your head and warn away small children.”


If beauty had been a burden, Susan would have been crushed flat. Ash-blond, green-eyed, petite, with exquisitely sculptured features, with skin as flawless as that of a peach on a tree in Eden, she had turned more heads than a coven of chiropractors.


“I’m bursting out of this skirt. I’m gross.”


“A virtual blimp,” Martie said sarcastically. “A dirigible. A giant balloon of a woman.”


Although Susan’s self-imprisonment allowed her no exercise except housecleaning and long walks on a treadmill in the bedroom, she remained svelte.


“I’ve gained more than a pound,” Susan insisted.


“My God, it’s a liposuction emergency,” Martie said, bolting up from the sofa. “I’ll get your raincoat. We can call the plastic surgeon from the car, tell him to get an industrial-size sump pump to suck out all the fat.”


In the short hall that led to the bedroom, the coat closet featured a pair of sliding, mirrored doors. As Martie approached it, she tensed and hesitated, concerned that she would be overcome by the same irrational fear that had seized her earlier.


She had to keep a grip on herself. Susan needed her. If she leaped into looniness again, her anxiety would feed Susan’s fear, and perhaps vice versa.


When she confronted the full-length mirror, nothing in it made her heart race. She forced a smile, but it looked strained. She met her eyes in the reflection, and then quickly looked away, sliding one of the doors aside.


As she slipped ±e raincoat off the hanger, Martie considered, for the first time, that her recent peculiar bouts of fear might be related to the time that she’d spent with Susan during the past year. Maybe you should expect to absorb a little overspill of anxiety if you hung out a lot with a woman suffering from an extreme phobia.


A faint heat of shame flushed Martie’s face. Even to consider such a possibility seemed superstitious, uncharitable, and unfair to poor Susan. Phobic disorders and panic attacks weren’t contagious.


Turning away from the closet door and then reaching back to slide it shut, she wondered what term psychologists used to describe a fear of one’s shadow. A disabling fear of open spaces, which afflicted Susan, was called agoraphobia. But shadows? Mirrors?


Martie stepped out of the hail and into the living room before she realized that she had reached behind her back to pull shut the sliding door in order to avoid glancing in the mirror again. Startled that she had acted with such unconscious aversion, she considered returning to the closet and confronting the mirror.


From the armchair, Susan was watching her.


The mirror could wait.


Holding the raincoat open, Martie approached her friend. “Get up, get in this, and get moving.”


Susan gripped the arms of the chair, miserable at the prospect of leaving her sanctuary. “I can’t.”


“If you don’t cancel a session forty-eight hours ahead, you have to pay for it.”


“I can afford to.”


“No, you can’t. You don’t have any income.”


The only psychological malady that could have destroyed Susan’s career as a real-estate agent more effectively than agoraphobia was uncontrollable pyromania. She had felt reasonably safe inside any property while showing it to a client, but such paralyzing terror had overcome her while she was traveling between houses that she hadn’t been able to drive.


“I have the rent,” Susan said, referring to the monthly check from the parakeet-infatuated retirees downstairs.


“Which doesn’t quite cover the mortgage, taxes, utilities, and maintenance on the property.”


“I have a lot of equity in the house.”


Which might eventually be the only thing between you and total destitution, if you don’t beat this damn phobia, Martie thought, but she could not bring herself to speak those words, even if that dire prospect might motivate Susan to get out of the armchair.


Raising her delicate chin in an unconvincing expression of brave defiance, Susan said, “Besides, Eric sends me a check.”


“Not much. Hardly more than pocket change. And if the swine divorces you, maybe there won’t be anything more at all from him, considering you came into this marriage with more assets than he did, and there aren’t any kids.”


“Eric’s not a swine.”


“Pardon me for not being blunt enough. He’s a pig.”


“Be nice, Martie.”


“I gotta be me. He’s a skunk.”


Susan was determined to avoid self-pity and tears, which was highly admirable, but she was equally determined not to admit to her anger, which was less so. “He just was so upset seeing me. . . this way. He couldn’t take it anymore.”


“Oh, the poor sensitive darling,” Martie said. “And I guess he was just too distressed to remember the part of the marriage vows that goes ‘in sickness and in health.’”


Martie’s anger at Eric was genuine, although she made an effort to stoke it like a fire and keep it ever alive. He had always been quiet, self-effacing, and sweet—and in spite of his abandonment of his wife, he remained hard to hate. Martie loved Susan too much not to despise Eric, however, and she believed that Susan needed anger to motivate her in her struggle against agoraphobia.


“Eric would be here if I had cancer or something,” Susan said. “I’m not just sick, Martie. I’m crazy, is what I am.”


“You aren’t crazy,” Martie insisted. “Phobias and anxiety attacks aren’t the same as madness.”


“I feel mad. I feel stark raving.”


“He didn’t last four months after this started. He’s a swine, a skunk, a weasel, and worse.”


This grim part of each visit—which Martie thought of as the extraction phase—was stressful for Susan, but it was downright grueling for Martie. To get her resistant friend out of the house, she had to be firm and relentless; and although this was a firmness informed by much love and compassion, she felt as though she were hectoring Susan. It wasn’t within Martie’s character to be a bully, even in a good cause, and by the end of this brutal four- or five-hour ordeal, she would return home to Corona Del Mar in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion.


“Sooz, you’re beautiful, kind, special, and smart enough to whip this thing.” Martie shook the raincoat. “Now get your ass out of that chair.”


“Why can’t Dr. Ahriman come to me for these sessions?”


“Leaving this house twice a week is part of the therapy. You know the theory—immersion in the very thing you’re frightened of. A sort of inoculation.”


“It isn’t working.”


“Come on.”


“I’m getting worse.”


“Up, up.”


“It’s so cruel,” Susan protested. Letting go of the arms of the chair, she fisted her hands on her thighs. “So damn cruel.”


“Whiner.”


She glared at Martie. “Sometimes you can be such a mean bitch.”


“Yeah, that’s me. If Joan Crawford were alive, I’d challenge her to a wire coat-hanger fight, and I’d lacerate her.”


Laughing, then shaking her head, Susan rose from the armchair. “I can’t believe I said that. I’m sorry, Martie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”


Holding the raincoat as Susan slipped her arms into it, Martie said, “You be good, girlfriend, and on the way back from the doctor, we’ll get some great Chinese takeout. We’ll open a couple bottles of Tsingtao, and we’ll play some killer two-hand pinochle over lunch, fifty cents a point.”


“You already owe me over six hundred thousand bucks.”


“So break my legs. Gambling debts aren’t legally collectible.”


After Susan switched off all but one of the lamps, she retrieved her purse from the coffee table and led Martie through the apartment.


As she was crossing the kitchen behind Susan, Martie found her attention drawn to a wicked-looking item that lay on a cutting board near the sink. It was a mezzaluna knife, a classic Italian kitchen tool: The curved stainless-steel blade was shaped like a half-moon, with a handle at each end, so it could be rocked rapidly back and forth to dice and slice.


Like an electric current, scintillant light seemed to sizzle along the cutting edge.


Martie could not look away from it. She didn’t realize how completely the mezzaluna had mesmerized her—until she heard Susan ask, “What’s wrong?”


Her throat was tight, and her tongue felt swollen. With audible thickness, she asked a question to which she already knew the answer:


“What’s that?”


“Haven’t you ever used one? It’s great. You can dice an onion in a flash.”


The sight of the knife didn’t fill Martie with terror, as had her shadow and the bathroom mirror. It did, however, make her uneasy, although she couldn’t explain her queer reaction to it.


“Martie? Are you okay?”


“Yeah, sure, let’s go.”


Susan twisted the knob but hesitated to open the kitchen door. Martie put her hand over her friend’s, and together they pulled the door inward, admitting cold gray light and a sharp-toothed wind. Susan’s face drained of color at the prospect of entering the roofless world beyond her threshold.


“We’ve done this a hundred times before,” Martie assured her.


Susan clutched the doorjamb. “I can’t go out there.”


“You will,” Martie insisted.


Susan attempted to return to the kitchen, but Martie blocked her. “Let me in, this is too hard, it’s agony.”


“it’s agony for me, too,” Martie said.


“Bullshit.” Desperation clawed some of the beauty out of Susan’s face, and a feral terror darkened the green of her jungle eyes. “You’re getting off on this, you love it, you’re crazy.”


“No, I’m mean.” Martie gripped the doorjamb with both hands, holding her ground. “I’m the mean bitch. You’re the crazy bitch.”


Suddenly Susan stopped pushing at Martie and clutched at her instead, seeking support. “Damn, I want that Chinese takeout.”


Martie envied Dusty, whose biggest worry of the morning would be whether the rain would hold off long enough for his crew to get some work done.


Fat drops of rain—at first in fitful bursts but soon more insistently—began to rattle on the roof that covered the landing.


Finally, they stepped across the threshold, outside. Martie pulled the door shut and locked it.


The extraction phase was behind them. Worse lay ahead, however, and Martie was unable to see most of it coming.


6


Skeet ran exuberantly down the steeply pitched roof, toward the brink, angling for a point of departure that would ensure he landed on skull-cracking pavement rather than on mattresses, bounding along the convex orange-brown tiles as though he were a kid racing across a cobbled street to an ice-cream vendor, and Dusty ran grimly after him.


To those watching from below, it must have appeared that the two men were equally deranged, fulfilling a suicide pact.


More than halfway down the slope, Dusty caught up with Skeet, grabbed him, wrenched him off his intended trajectory, and stumbled diagonally across the incline with him. Some clay tiles cracked underfoot, dislodging small chunks of roofer’s mortar, which rattled toward the rain gutter. Remaining upright on this rolling debris was no less difficult than walking on marbles, with the added challenges of the rain and the slimy lichen and Skeet’s energetic and gleeful resistance, which he waged with flailing arms and spiking elbows and disturbing childlike giggles. Skeet’s invisible dance partner, Death, seemed to give him supernatural grace and balance, but then Dusty fell and took Skeet down with him, and entwined they rolled the last ten feet, perhaps toward the mattresses or perhaps not—Dusty had lost his bearings—and across the copper gutter, which twanged like a plucked bass string.


Airborne, plummeting, letting go of Skeet, Dusty thought of


Martie: the clean smell of her silky black hair, the mischievous curve of her smile, the honesty of her eyes.


Thirty-two feet wasn’t far, merely three stories, but far enough to split open the most stubborn head, far enough to crack a spine as easily as one might snap a pretzel stick, so when Dusty fell flat on his back on the piled mattresses, he thanked God as he bounced. Then he realized that in free fall, when each lightning-quick thought could have been his last, his mind had been filled with Martie, and that God had occurred to him after the fact.


The Sorensons had purchased first-rate mattresses. The impact didn’t even knock the wind out of Dusty.

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