"Are we firing Mark Caligiuri or not?" Lorena asked.
"Yes. Show him his record if he wants. Wait until the end of the day, though. I don't want him leaving with anything sensitive. He can keep his rolodex, but not a single client file," Emily replied thoughtfully. "Did we get an answer from that woman, Paula whatshername?"
"Paulette," Lorena corrected. "Hobson. And yes, she countered our offer. She's asked for an additional seven thousand, commensurate bonus, and another week's vacation."
"Give her six," Emily said. "That's within the executive committee's parameters for third quarter new hires. Anything else?"
"I'm going to be here a while, Lorena," Emily told her. "Well, shuttling between here and home. I'm going to pick up my cell phone when I go home to shower, and then I'll be good to go."
"I won't call unless it's . . ."
"Call," Emily said quickly. "If you have questions, if you need me, if you're not sure about something, call. If there are papers I have to sign, messenger them over, or let me know and I'll pick them up when I have a chance. I'm not going to stop being responsible in the rest of my life, Lorena. But I need to be here."
"Of course you do," Lorena replied. "I just meant that . . ."
"I know. Thank you. I'll be going home shortly. You can reach me there for the next few hours, but I should be back here by two o'clock. Three at the latest."
They said their good-byes and Emily hung up, grateful to have someone as kind and competent as Lorena to rely on. She reminded herself to actually tell the woman that the next time they spoke. Somehow, though, she suspected that she would forget.
Behind her, the door clicked open.
"Sorry," Thomas said.
Emily pursed her lips, readying a stern reproach for his tardiness. Then she saw his apologetic expression, and she faltered. There was more to his appearance than merely apology, however. As he strode across the room and dropped into the recliner, his eyes seemed to dart around distractedly. He wouldn't meet her gaze, almost as if he were guilty of something. But it wasn't exactly that. Emily knew it wasn't, because she'd seen Thomas's guilty face before. He looked upset.
"I stopped at the park for a few minutes, just to think for a bit," he said hurriedly. "Just lost track of the time, I guess."
Still, he seemed unsettled. And Emily did not fail to notice that she understood his reference to the park without Thomas having to elaborate any more than that. There were dozens of parks in this area. But when you'd known someone so intimately for so long, there were so many things that no longer required explanation. She wondered if that were actually a good thing, or if it served to weaken a relationship. There was a part of her that yearned for that kind of simple explanation for the failure of her marriage to Thomas: we just couldn't communicate. It would be so convenient to be able to sum it up like that.
"What is it, Thomas?" she asked, studying his furrowed brow, the distinguished graying at his temples. He was two years younger than she, but Emily knew that Thomas would only be more handsome as he aged, and found a bit of envy in her heart at the thought. "What's bothering you?"
In the surprised glance, followed by a frown, followed by a sheepish and halfhearted grin and a shake of his head, Emily found that her communication with Thomas was actually better than she would have thought. She knew him. And because she knew him, she was worried.
He stood up again, unable to keep still, and walked over to stare down at Nathan. Their son lay on the rough white bedclothes, as plain and sterile as the rest of the room. Thomas touched the backs of his fingers to the boy's forehead, as if checking for fever. Then he did the oddest thing: he sniffed the air. At last, he turned his gaze to Emily, still distracted but a bit more focused.
"Do you smell anything odd?" he asked.
"Only your behavior," she said firmly. "What's got you spooked, Tommy?"
He wrinkled his nose at the nickname, but didn't correct her, which was how Emily's suspicion that something was very wrong became an absolute certainty.
"Really," he said, and gazed at her sincerely.
With a tiny shrug, Emily sighed, and sniffed the air in the room. There was an odd smell, sweet and familiar. At first she couldn't quite put a name to it, and then it hit her: peanut butter. Without flinching, her voice steady, she looked at Thomas and lied to him.
"I don't smell anything," she said.
Whatever was bothering him, it was obviously something bizarre. No matter what was going on in his head, she wasn't about to go along with it. This way, she hoped that he would at least tell her what was haunting him.
Instead, he muttered a curse under his breath, looked her straight in the eye, and said, "I think maybe I need to see someone."
Emily wasn't the type of person who played the fool, not even for the sake of a loved one. She knew precisely what Thomas meant and wasn't about to dissemble.
"Maybe we all do, sometimes," she said. "We're dealing with a lot, here, Thomas. It couldn't hurt to talk to someone."
"This isn't about Nathan," he said, but his words sounded hollow, unsure. "This is just . . . I think I saw a flying manta today. In the Hudson."
She stared at him, frowning.
"There's no . . ."
". . . such thing, I know," he agreed, and that was all.
It was obvious to Emily that Thomas was holding something back. There was more to all of this. But the key issue was out in the open. He'd started to hallucinate.
"It's probably all stress related, Thomas," she assured him. "Everybody freaks out. Creative people are likely to freak out in creative ways. Or in ways related to their work or art, or whatever."
She stood up and went to him, reached out for his hands, and held them in hers. Emily gazed into her ex-husband's brown eyes with sincerity, but nothing more. There was a line drawn between them, and she didn't want him to misinterpret the gesture as crossing that line.
"See someone, Thomas, and right away," she said. "Nathan needs you in one piece. He needs your strength. And so do I."
Briefly, they embraced. Then Emily reached for her purse.
"Give me a couple of hours," she said. "I'll go as fast as I can. Do you need anything?"
"Only my head examined," Thomas said, a self-deprecating smile on his face. "And our son back."
On the drive back to her house in Tarrytown, Emily received a ticket for driving forty-seven miles per hour in a thirty zone. The cop didn't care that her son was in the hospital. The law was the law, according to him.
As much as she had resolved to remain a part of the world, to keep pace with her work and the people in her life, Emily felt horribly detached from it all. The speeding ticket was merely one in a long stream of occurrences that proved to her the world didn't care. The world sped on and on, with little or no interest in what had happened to Nathan, nor any interest in how it had affected Emily. The world didn't need her.
But Emily needed the world, very badly, to keep her grounded. Already, the surreal quality of it all, the terrible mystery of Nathan's illness — if it could even be labeled an illness — had managed to sweep her away into some kind of strange twilight borderland, a limbo from which she could watch the lives of other people continue on without interruption.
As she drove south on Broadway, Emily felt as though her Honda Accord were a bubble carrying her along through the real world. It was a horrible feeling, and she felt bile rise in her throat. She passed through Philipse Manor and the turnoff that would take her to the park that Thomas loved so much. In Sleepy Hollow, she passed several churches, the high school, and the little restaurant, Horsefeathers, where she had met Joe for the first time.
That was real life. A memory that didn't have anything to do with Nathan or Thomas. Emily latched onto it with a desperation she had never felt before. Somehow, it began to settle her down. She slowed the Honda to a stop at a traffic signal, where she blinked several times, took a deep breath, and let it out. Emily tested her grip on the wheel, felt the solidity of it beneath her palms and fingers, and nodded to herself.
I'm freaking out, she thought, and immediately, her mind flashed to one of the cartoons Nathan enjoyed so much. Freakazoid, she thought it was called. An image formed in her mind of her son's face, the sandy blond hair a tussle and the cheeks dimpled with a wide grin.
Emily took another breath, sat up straight, and set her jaw defiantly. She paid little attention to the tears that began to stream down her cheeks. The tears were real. She had every reason in the world to cry. Weeping, she drove several blocks to the center of Tarrytown, where Main Street led west, down to the train station and the Hudson beyond. There, she took a left, going east, up the hill toward Marymount College and home.
A few minutes later, Emily turned into the driveway of the home she shared with Nathan. For several moments after she turned off the ignition, listening to the engine tick and cool, she couldn't even look up. The house would be dead to her now, empty as a ghost town. She dreaded going inside and promised herself that she wouldn't go into Nathan's room.
Then she looked up and saw the bicycle propped on its kickstand near the garage. A twelve speed lightweight racing bike the color of grape soda. It was Joe's.
They had been dating little more than a month. Measured in weeks, even, it seemed such a brief time. Emily would never have predicted the rush of relief and gratitude that filled her at the sight of that bicycle. She knew that her emotions were running wild. No doubt. But as much as she needed Thomas to be in her life right now, particularly at the hospital, with Nathan, Emily realized in that moment that Joe was what she needed to anchor her to the rest of the world.
For precisely the same reasons that she wanted him gone from the hospital the day before, she needed to see him now.
She climbed out of the Honda, and when she slammed the door, Joe stood up from the bench on her front porch. His face was etched with concern and self doubt, but he said nothing as he waited for her to approach.
Emily strode quickly toward the steps.
"I'm sorry, Em," Joe said hurriedly. "But when I called the office, Lorena said you were coming home to wash up, and I just had to . . ."
Nearly launching herself up the steps, Emily wrapped her arms around Joe as tightly as she could. That was it. No kiss. It didn't even occur to her. Just the weight of him was enough to give her what she had to have at that moment, the reassurance of her own self. Emily Randall had never been a woman who defined herself by the presence of a man, but in this case, having anyone who cared so passionately about her and just her was an absolute necessity.
"I'm glad you're here," she said weakly.
Together, they went inside.
"I don't have any more classes today," Joe told her. "I thought I'd go for a ride, and then I called the office and . . . here I am. I was afraid you'd be angry."
Though she was dying for a shower, Emily sat Joe down and tried her best to explain her feelings, the maelstrom of emotion she'd gone through in the past forty-eight hours.
"What it comes down to," she said in the end, "is that I need you. I really do, Joe. But right now, selfish as it sounds, I need you on my terms. Is that awful?"
This last she asked hopefully, her hazel eyes turned up to him.
"Not at all," he replied gently, and then he kissed her, softly, deeply, for a long time.
Finally, Emily stood, tossed back her unwashed hair, and said, "I feel so gross, I've got to take a shower. Alone."
They both smiled.
"If you have the time, please stay. It's easier for me to be here when I'm not by myself. I shouldn't be long," Emily said.
"I’m not going anywhere," Joe promised.
He was as good as his word. When she emerged from her room, hair damp from the shower, and began to put on her makeup, Joe was sitting in the living room watching The Gossip Show on the E! Channel. When she had gotten everything she needed together, and her hair was dry, Emily went back out the door with Joe, kissed him good-bye, and watched him ride away on his bike, powerful legs rippling with muscle.
Sliding into the Honda, she left the ghost house behind. All the while she was in the house, she hadn't so much as glanced at the door to Nathan's room.
* * * * *
Strange smells filled the air. His eyes felt sticky. Sticky and tight. There were voices. Or maybe just the wind in the trees.
Cradled against the gummy chest of the Peanut Butter General, Nathan slept fitfully as they made their way along the Winding Way. He briefly woke, not quite aware, his eyes fluttering, then blinking, then opening wide for just a moment before he drifted off again. He'd seen, in that moment, the clearing in front of Grumbler's darkened cottage and the lake beyond, orange starlight glimmering on the water's surface.
He knew that meant they were passing the Scratchy Path on the other side. But it didn't occur to Nathan to wonder what might happen if he turned up the Scratchy Path, traipsed carefully through the brambles to where The Boy's house was supposed to stand. Before he could even begin to consider where The Boy himself might be, Nathan had fallen back to sleep.
It was twenty minutes or more of sticky jostling and the distant howl of the Orange Pealers before a low, viscous voice whispered in his ear.
"Wake now, boy," the voice said. "For I may need to fight and then won't be able to carry you."
As he was being lowered to the ground, Nathan rubbed sleep from his eyes. It was weird to him to have to wake up when it was still dark out, and he was unsteady on his feet for a minute as he got his bearings. Strangely, there was no peanut butter on him anywhere, neither on his clothes nor on his skin, except where the General had soothed the ragged wounds left on Nathan's back by Bob Longtooth. It was as if he could control it, and why not? It was part of him, after all.
Nathan looked up at the Peanut Butter General and wondered if there was anyone inside, or if he was made up all of peanut butter.