Page 18


Emily jumped, spilled coffee onto the emotionless face of Snoopy, drenching her night shirt. She spun, and glared at Joe, who had come around the garage, wheeling his bike beside him.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!" she said halfheartedly.

Joe chose to ignore that. Instead, he just sighed and let his bike lean against his leg.

"Emily, I'm not going to argue with you about this. It isn't my place, and with all that's going on, I'm not sure you can be objective."

She began to protest angrily, but he held up a hand to stop her, and the pained look on his face convinced her to let him go on.

"What little you told me of what Thomas is going through makes it sound like a lot more than just some kind of basic hallucination. I've heard of people under stress imagining things, but never on this level," Joe explained. "You said yourself that you think he needs help."

"I also said he's going to get it," she said coldly. "I'm not sure what this is about, Joe, but Thomas is still a big part of my life. I'm not in love with him, but I love him, and he's Nathan's father. Right now, today, I'm sure he's scrambling to get in to see someone, for Nathan's sake as well as his own. You have no right to . . ."

"I know that," Joe snapped, and now it was his turn to smolder angrily. "That's what I've been saying, if you'd bother to listen!"

They glared at one another. Joe ran his hands through his hair and sighed and shook his head. "Listen," he said, "I have a class to teach, and if Thomas is going to be out of action today, you need to get to the hospital. All I'm saying is, if he's this close to having a complete breakdown, it's no sin for you to start considering Nathan's best interests, and whether Thomas is in any condition to do the same."

Emily bit her lip as the tears began to well in the corners of her eyes.

"Don't you think I've thought of that?" she said, her voice hitching. "I could barely sleep last night because all of this was on my mind. But custody isn't something you can make snap decisions about. Even if he is having problems more serious than a good night's sleep will fix, it isn't like I can just challenge the custody arrangement out of nowhere.

"It would kill him, don't you see?" she pleaded. "If Nathan's being sick is already making him crazy, that would drive him over the edge completely."

Joe couldn't meet her gaze. Apparently, he'd had his say.

"Damn you," Emily hissed. "You were right. It isn't any of your business."

She turned toward the house, but she moved slowly, defeated. Nathan waited for her at the hospital, but all Emily wanted to do was fall back into bed — alone — and sleep.

"Em," Joe said gently. "Will I see you later?"

As she slid the screen across and then latched it, Emily looked at him, trying to find the response in her heart.

"Not today," she said at length.

* * * * *

The sidewalks of New York City were swarming with suits and street people, falafel and hot dog vendors, and cops. The sun had finally broken through, and the sky had turned a bright blue. The moisture that had been lingering in the air was quickly burning off as Francesca Cavallaro hurried along West 47th Street. She glanced at her watch one more time, nearly trampling a young boy playing percussion on an upside down pickle tub.

Frankie swore softly as she turned north on Broadway. The diner was diagonally across the street, and she looked both ways for traffic before jaywalking. It wasn't something her mother had taught her. It was something New York had taught her. Even the city buses would hit you if you happened to be crossing the street against the light.

A cab sped toward her, going south on Broadway, and Francesca picked up her pace. She kept glancing over to the entrance of the diner. It didn't even seem to have a name, at least not on the outside. She thought it was called Cleo's, but she couldn't be certain. What was important at the moment was that she was nearly twenty five minutes late to meet Thomas, and it was getting to be a habit. Granted, she'd been surprised to hear from him this morning, asking that she meet him for a late breakfast at 10:30. He was going to be in the city — he wouldn't say what for — but it was providential, from her perspective. She needed to pin him down, anyway, and hadn't known exactly how to approach him.

He'd saved her the trouble by calling to set up the breakfast meeting.

With a sigh, she reached the propped-open front door of Cleo's. It was only by chance that she happened to look over her shoulder. A pair of dueling taxis honked at one another and tires screeched, voices were raised, and Francesca turned to look.

Thomas stood at the corner of Broadway and 48th, hand up to draw the attention of a taxi not involved in demolition derby.

"Shit!" Francesca turned toward him, picked up her pace. Even as she closed in, a taxi three lanes away jerked across traffic and began to slow.

"Thomas, wait!"

He spun, and Francesca was stunned by his appearance. He looked haggard, unshaven. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he seemed to be chuckling silently as she ran up to him.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said, and then waited. Under normal circumstances, she would have fully expected him to chastise her in his amiable way and then return to the restaurant with her. Instead, he only shrugged.

"Too late, Frankie. Gotta go," he said, the muscles of his face slack. He looked as though he were dead.

The cab slid to the curb, engine idling, and Thomas reached for the handle.

"What? Wait, I've got to talk to you!"

"I have an appointment," said the zombie who had once been one of her biggest clients.

"Listen, the Fox people took you up on your suggestion," she said hurriedly. "When I told them about Nathan, they agreed to come here. They're flying in tomorrow afternoon. They have other business, but they want to meet on Friday morning."

He stared at her for a moment as though he hadn't understood a word she'd said.

"Hey, in or out, pally!" griped the driver.

Francesca leaned over and sneered at the man, an old-time New York hack with a Yankees cap slightly askew on his head.

"Start the meter, you asshole," she barked. "You can bill us for the conversation."

The cabbie balked about her suggestion being against the rules, but he started the meter anyway. Frankie was surprised he hadn't simply gunned the engine and driven away. Thomas looked like he hadn't even noticed.

"It's important, isn't it?" he asked.

Francesca stared at him. "Thomas, are you all right?" she asked. "You know how important this is."

"Friday, noon. Lunch at Keen's," Thomas said mechanically. "You make the reservations. I just can't think about it right now."

"What is it, Thomas?" she asked. "Did you get bad news about . . . about Nathan?"

Thomas got into the cab. "Make the reservation, Frankie. I'm sorry. I have to go." He pulled the door shut and the taxi sped away.

"Oh, boy," Francesca muttered to herself. "What am I gonna do with you?"

* * * * *

After his appointment with Dr. Mizell, Thomas felt considerably better. Not completely sane, but then, he'd been hallucinating for what seemed to be days. Possibly even before the horrible thing that had happened to his son, this bizarre catatonia.

He'd first called Rachel Morrissey, who had been Nathan's therapist when the divorce had first come up. Dr. Morrissey specialized in pediatrics, but she remembered Nathan and his parents quite well. When Thomas had begun to explain the nature of his concerns, Dr. Morrissey had actually made an appointment with Dr. Mizell for him that very day. As a favor to Morrissey, Mizell had skipped lunch.

Thomas had wondered if she would bill him double time.

But Dr. Mizell turned out to be nothing at all like he had expected. She was young, and very pretty, but not in any fashion magazine's definition. Her black hair was chopped very short, and her olive skin was dotted with a small sprinkle of freckles that he found intriguing. She had an easy laugh that soothed him greatly, and Thomas found himself opening up within minutes of settling into a chair opposite Lee Mizell.

"Did anyone but you and Nathan witness any of these oddities previous to his catatonia?" she had asked him.

Thomas knew the next question. "No," he admitted. "And Nathan didn't speak to anyone else about them, as far as I know. But they did happen, Doctor."

Mizell had nodded gently, her brown eyes sparkling with understanding. She wore a burgundy dress that was nothing if not professional, but Thomas could not help but be distracted by her. The writer in him made a mental note that the old saw about how easy it was to fall in love with your doctor or therapist was very, very true.

It was her job to be sympathetic. It was her job to be concerned for his well being.

Thomas found great comfort in that.

After a long pause, she had said, "And yet these other instances, which you insist are hallucinations, were just as real as those things you claim Nathan witnessed as well."

Thomas had been taken aback. "What are you suggesting?" he had asked her, almost angrily. "There's a huge difference between some prankster or even a stalker spreading peanut butter on my lawn and my window, and hearing birds talk to me, or seeing characters from my series come to life."

"Of course there is," Dr. Mizell agreed. "I merely illustrate how difficult it can be to draw the line between reality and fantasy once the line has begun to blur. I had a patient once who was convinced that she was plagued by ghosts. Saw them all the time. Eventually she began to see the ghost of her mother, a sprightly old woman of eighty-three years, who was very much alive. Several weeks later, when the patient's mother died, the poor woman blamed herself, as if her seeing that 'ghost' had somehow brought on her mother's demise."

Thomas had frowned. "What happened to her?"

Dr. Mizell raised her eyebrows and tilted her head slightly as if wishing she could have avoided the question. Finally she said, "The patient took her own life."

Feeling morbid, but unable to help himself, Thomas had laughed at that. "Well," he'd said, "at least I'm not feeling suicidal. I suppose that's a start."

Mizell had smiled and agreed. "Mr. Randall, it isn't terribly uncommon for imaginative individuals to detach themselves from reality during times of great stress and seek to find some solace in worlds they believe are safer. Your situation is a bit different, a bit more hostile, but under the circumstances, there is a pattern. You feel helpless to heal your son, and the products of your imagination keep appearing to dun you with the suggestion that only you can 'save' him. It's very likely a product of your own misplaced guilt. If we can try to address that, and perhaps discuss your attachment to those characters, we may be able to stop these episodes completely."

"That's a lot of 'ifs,'" Thomas pointed out.

"Would you rather I tell you that you were a raving lunatic and pack you off to Bellevue?" Dr. Mizell asked sweetly.

After that, things had gone rather well.

Soon, Thomas would have to call Emily and tell her that he would be there to relieve her that night. It would be, after the day he'd had, almost relaxing to sit up with Nathan. He needed to be with his son, to watch over him. No matter what Dr. Mizell had said, he was still Nathan's father, and the urge to protect the boy was great. Perhaps there was nothing he could do to speed Nathan's recovery, but he could at least be there for him, talk to him a little, just in case he could hear.

He would sing, he thought suddenly. Just as he'd used to sing Nathan to sleep as an infant. James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. He'd known them all, then. He'd find something to sing.

Despite his concern for Nathan, and the pain the boy's state brought him, Thomas's heart was lighter than it had been in days. He bought a kielbasa from a park vendor as he strolled a wide paved path with the sun beating down, making him sweat. It had grown quite warm, but he didn't mind. The sweating felt therapeutic to him. When the kielbasa was done, he bought a lemonade from another vendor and then took a turn down a narrow path he thought would take him back toward Fifth Avenue, where he figured he would have no trouble hailing a taxi.

The path meandered a bit, and there were thick copses of trees and shrubbery where an assailant might have been hidden. Thomas grew a bit anxious. While Central Park was generally safe during the day, this path would have been an invitation to brutality and robbery or worse after dark. Even during the day, there might well be unsavory people hidden just off the path.

He stepped up his pace.

Just off the path, he heard a whisper.

Instead of pausing, Thomas picked up speed. Whoever was out there, he didn't want them to think he was paying attention to whatever they were up to. It could be lovers, or junkies, or just about anything, but one way or another, he didn't want to see.

The whispering seemed to follow him, sounding like nothing more than the wind through the trees. But there was a voice there. He could hear it. Syllables that had nothing to do with the wind. After a few more seconds, he recognized the one word that was repeated over and over again.

His name.

"Thomas," whispered the park.

"Leave me alone!" he shouted, putting his hands over his ears and squeezing his eyes as tight as he could without cutting off his vision entirely.

He fought the urge to run, recalling Dr. Mizell's words almost as a mantra. "Anxiety, guilt, and stress. All of them can cause hallucinations, given the right circumstances. Yours are very powerful, but that could be just the power of your own imagination. And hallucinations are like fainting; once it has happened to you, the chemical processes of your brain have followed a certain path, and it becomes more likely that it will happen again."

Thomas slowed, now, refusing to run. With a great effort, he blocked out the whispering until he could hear it no longer. Not at all.

With a deep sigh, he got his bearings and continued along the path, hoping it would soon lead to one of the main paths, and then out to Fifth.