Chapter 1

Friday — November 12

 

Elvis gazed at me from the kitchen wall and swiveled his hips as the minute hand crept toward a glitter-encrusted number two. Nine-ten. Meaning I had about twenty minutes before Bixie arrived to sweep me off to my appointment with destiny.

Although I would have vastly preferred Elvis in his red sport coat or even that snug little hand-tailored denim jacket he wore in Love Me Tender, I do like the clock—gold lamé and all. It was a gift from my neighbors David and Paul, who can’t seem to resist an opportunity to add kitsch to the world. Not that they’d ever clutter up their own impeccably decorated McMansion with anything so campy.

With the sigh of a martyr, I turned to my e-mail. This morning’s batch contained an account notice from a bank in Brazil, an urgent message from Robert Redford, a forward from my nephew bearing the headline “Bush’s Brain,” plus a reminder from L.L. Bean to shop early for Christmas. And that was after the University of Michigan’s anti-spamming software had done its work.

Lifting my finger from the delete key, I studied the headers that remained and opened the first few messages. There was a gentle nudge from a new client asking when she could she expect to see copy for a sales brochure. A local non-profit had sent a list of articles for their next newsletter. The marketing director of an engineering firm in Romulus wanted to discuss a series of press releases. I groaned. Press releases are on a par with sewing buttons or scrubbing floors. And if Detroit suburbs were body parts, Romulus would be an armpit—or worse.

I moved the cursor down the grid. Six more messages to go.

To open or not to open?

My hand hovered above the keyboard then slid over to grab the handle of my coffee mug. I sipped, put the mug down, reached over and picked up a tower of overstuffed manila folders that had been defying gravity. Carefully, I divided them into two piles and aligned them precisely with the edge of the kitchen table that was doubling as my desk this morning. Then I arranged my two favorite pens to make them perfectly parallel to the folders.

I was just straightening the phone, making sure it was also parallel to the folders and the edge of the table, when the mass of black fur on the kitchen chair next to mine shifted slightly. Lifting his head with regal grace, Albert the MagnifiCat fixed me with a gold-green stare.

I leaned forward. “Don’t look at me that way.”

Albert uncoiled and stretched his twenty-pound frame.

“I know what you’re thinking. Well, I can’t help it.”

Al blinked slowly and deliberately, like some ancient sage considering the state of the world. Exactly the way he did seven years ago when Terry brought him home, a two-pound orphan, all eyes and paws.

Terry had stopped at the Humane Society after work, on a whim he said. When the volunteer on duty happened to mention that black cats were always the last to be adopted, Terry naturally headed for the cage filled with midnight-colored kittens.

Of all the creatures in that particular litter, it was Albert who had stepped forward, put his head next to the bars and began his famous purr.

Sold.

Terry told me all this when he got home, certificate of adoption in one hand, vaccination schedule in the other. “Wait till you see him, Karin, he’s got an incredible soul.”

Which is something Terry would know, having one himself.

Terry.

Terrence Joseph Hartley.

Six foot two, sandy haired, blue-eyed, a young forty-five with the body of a runner. By training an urban planner, by choice my husband, by happenstance the best and kindest and wisest and funniest and most beautiful man I’d ever met.

Who could have known that, one bright bitterly cold January day, he would collapse at the office. That his lanky frame would be found on the conference room floor. And that three hours later, he would be dead from an aneurism.

Memory dragged me back along a well-worn road.

Terry’s co-workers had tracked me down at a meeting in a distant Detroit suburb. I broke all speed records getting to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital on Ann Arbor’s east side and finally found my way through the labyrinth of corridors to his bedside.

But by that time, Terry was less than an hour away from death. All I could do was hold his hand, send up incoherent prayers to a God who seemed to be out for the day and murmur over and over, “I love you. Please don’t leave me.”

He did leave, though. And I wanted to go with him, wanted to vacate my body right then and there in that pastel, chrome-plated hospital room. But sometime during my vigil I was certain I heard Terry’s voice telling me that if I really loved him, I would find a way to go on without him.

Ignoring all the pulsing, humming, whirring equipment, I carefully pushed aside tubes and wires and tucked myself around him in that narrow hospital bed. For what seemed like a long time I stroked his forehead and whispered over and over, “I’ll find you again. Someday. Somehow. I promise.”

That was ten months ago. Ten months, two days, seventeen hours and twenty-some minutes.

During that time, I somehow managed to hold myself together. I’d even reached a point where a sympathetic hug or kind word no longer sent me off in a tempest of tears. People assumed I was getting over it. Friends spoke about closure.

Closure. As if grief didn’t last a lifetime. As if half my soul hadn’t been ripped out of my body.

It’s true I didn’t look quite so brittle these days. The prison camp bruises under my eyes had retrenched. The glassy look was gone. But the emptiness and grief were always there, a fraction of an inch below the surface.

Dropping to my knees, I buried my face in Albert’s warm, furry side. A few seconds later, I could feel his sandpaper tongue on my scalp.

After a minute, I lifted my face and blinked to clear the last tears.

According to Elvis, it was five minutes to Bixie and counting. I propelled myself into the downstairs powder room and splashed cold water on my face. Then, without thinking, I cleaned the sink, patted the soap dry with a paper towel and ran a damp sponge over the floor tiles.

 

 

I was sitting at my laptop again when Bixie arrived. She rang the doorbell once and walked in. Her contralto echoed through the downstairs. “Hey Karin, it’s me. You ready?”

I never could understand why she bothered with the bell.

“Back here in the kitchen,” I called out. As usual, Bixie was a vision, from her white-blonde hair to her white pseudo ostrich leather boots. At the moment, those politically correct boots were leaking mud-veined water from last night’s rain onto my otherwise spotless oak floor.

With no regard whatever for the baleful look I was giving her, she bent over to plant a kiss on the top of Albert’s head, filled a mug with coffee and sat down in the chair opposite me.

After all these years—twenty and counting since she first walked into the Ann Arbor ad agency where I’d been working as a junior copywriter—Bixie still left me a little breathless. She tended to have that effect on people. Think Rossetti: statuesque women with ivory skin, smoky eyes, cascading hair, and a cool, androgynous energy.

Just for the record, “Bixie” is derived from a foreshortening of Beatrice, pronounced in the Italian manner. I suppose being named after Dante’s beloved isn’t all that bad, really, when you consider that Bixie’s father was a professor of classical and medieval studies who spent as little time as possible in the current century.

He insisted on giving his two children their first names, leaving the middle names to his wife. So, really, Bixie—Beatrice, that is—could just as easily have been a Persephone. Or an Antigone. Or a Heloise. Or an Isolde. It positively staggers the imagination.

Bixie gave the sugar bowl a look of withering contempt. “Don’t you have anything but this refined white junk?” Her blue eyes frosted over with righteous indignation.

I walked over to the cupboard, fished out an ancient jar of honey and placed it in front of her. I stirred my own cup of coffee, cold now, mainly as a diversion and kept my eyes on the table.

“You know,” I hesitated, “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”

Bixie stopped digging out the honey and trained her eyes on me. “Karin Niemi,” she thundered. “What do you mean not a good idea? We’ve talked about this for hours and you agreed that it was time to do something.”

“Well, yeah, I know…”

“I’m feeling stuck, you said. I’m frozen in place. I don’t know how to move ahead. I don’t…”

“Okay, okay, okay.” I lifted my hands in a give-up position. “I’m just not sure about this psychic counseling business. I mean, what if it backfires? What if I end up feeling more confused?” Or more miserable. More lost. More alone.

Bixie took a deep, loud, long-suffering breath and let it out. Then, with what she probably thought passed for patience, she went on. “This is an extraordinarily gifted therapist we’re talking about.” I rolled my eyes. “She has degrees from the U of M and Cornell. And you’ve seen for yourself how intelligent and down-to-earth she is.”

“And spooky,” I added, remembering Bixie’s summer solstice party where I’d met the much-acclaimed therapist. “I mean, what am I supposed to think when a woman I’ve known for all of five minutes hauls me into a corner, leans in close and tells me she knows how deeply wounded I’ve been by my grief but that I’m running away from life and oh, by the way, my obsessive-compulsive housekeeping is just a failed attempt to impose some kind of order, to make myself believe I’m in control?” I could feel my face heating up as I relived the encounter.

Bixie winced ever so slightly. “Well sometimes she gets these flashes about people she’s just met. And when the people seem to be worth the effort, she tells them what she’s seeing. She told me once it’s a kind of debt she owes the universe.”

I took a swallow of cold coffee and wished I hadn’t. “Great. So she blurts out my darkest secrets to a crowd of partygoers and the universe is somehow repaid.”

“Karin, she was very discreet and you know it. She didn’t blurt out anything. I wouldn’t have even known about it if you hadn’t told me.”

Bixie lowered her voice, leaned forward and let her eyes soften. I hate it when she does that, goes all gooey and compassionate and heartfelt. “Besides, you need to start somewhere. This is about healing. It’s time. You know that.”

I looked down at Albert, who had made himself at home on Bixie’s lap. His chin was level with the tabletop and he was giving me The Stare. Then I looked up at Bixie.

Double whammy.

“Oh, alright. I’ll go. But you’re not coming with me.”

Bixie shifted to the low singsong voice she uses with dimwitted children and benighted adults who buy their groceries at Meijers. “I’ve told you. Dana’s been having problems with her computer, so I volunteered to help her out. Just yesterday I downloaded her files and reinstalled the latest versions of all her software.”

Like most graphic designers, Bixie is a whiz with computers. Myself, I’ve never met a piece of software I liked or a download I trusted.

“I only have a few upgrades to go,” Bixie continued, scratching Albert’s big head absentmindedly. “Then I need to reload her files and format the system so she can find her way around.” She sipped her coffee. “It just so happens I’m free this morning. So this is the perfect time for me to finish up. I can be working upstairs while you’re downstairs.”

The challenge hung in the air. I opened my mouth and shut it again without saying a word. Who knows, maybe there was something to this psychic stuff after all. Maybe Dana Lewis could help me. At the very least, it would be a welcome distraction from brochures and ads and web sites.

“Okay, fine.” I pushed myself away from the table. “I’ll drive.”

Score one for the fruitcake contingent.



 

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