CHAPTER 7 Late Afternoon Tea
Tea was actually coffee. Done local-style, roasted with sugar and margarine and brewed sludge-thick.
Tea was uncomfortable.
Somewhere between catching Auntie Ellen up on what Cindy and Damon were doing these days and conveying her mothers warm regards, Kris ran out of reasons to keep her eyes fixedly on the black coffee in her cup. Her only consolation was that Janice was equally distrracted. She sat out the conversation, leaning back in the loveseat and paying a lot of attention to her mobile, which was constantly flashing incoming messages. On the sofa, with her body ostensibly turned towards Ellen, Kris could nevertheless feel the hairs on her neck standing whenever there was the slightest movement from the loveseat beside her. The worst thing was that, even when confronted with this conclusive evidence of the total impropriety of her actions (Shes Auntie Ellens lover for Gods sake), she knew her discomfort could only partially be attributed to embarrassment. She squirmed. And regretted it, when her arousal rubbed against her jeans.
There was also something else. A vague unease that wasnt directed at her but flowed between the other two women. Shit. Dont tell me she knows about yesterday but doesnt realise it was me? Do they have an open relationship? Something felt wrong about her assumptions. But she couldnt work it out. It wasnt just the age difference. Almost twenty years, she would guess. There was something in the dynamic between them, close like partners but not intimate. Nothing added up.
"Chocolate cake?" Ellen offered, oblivious to Kriss confused thoughts. She got up, shifting the sofa. The movement rubbed Kriss clit against her jeans again. Kris almost jumped off the seat. The tensing beside her indicated that her reaction had not escaped notice. Kris wanted to curl up somewhere and die.
Tea was very uncomfortable
After half an hour of deadly, stilted conversation, Kris feared that Auntie Ellen must think her unmannered and inarticulate. She certainly would have. They had exhausted the convenient topics of polite conversation much too quickly. She learnt that Ellens little solo legal practice was doing well ("Enough so I could close early for the afternoon!"), and that Ellen and Janice were not planning to visit the U.S. anytime soon. They heard how the entire Bretton family had spent the last Christmas in Hawaii.
Interestingly, neither woman asked about the TV project that had brought her to Singapore. The one time Ellen seemed to be heading in that direction, Kris thought she felt Janice shake her head very slightly. Kris didnt mind. In fact, she was somewhat relieved. She wasnt sure how much she could say about the project without giving away information that might inadvertently identify its subject. And after this mornings discussion, she didnt want to complicate matters further.
So after half an hour, they were stuck in awkward silence, treading water. The only question she really wanted to ask would have gotten her thrown out or worse. Does she make you scream too, when you come?
It was excruciating.
Suddenly, Janice rose from her seat, without any excuse, and made towards the bedroom.
Kris felt a thick, choking surge of anger. She was the one who had knowingly cheated on her partner. She was the one who should have held back last night. She was the one looking for God knows what kind of honey at the Hyatt Hotel in the middle of the afternoon on a workday. Did she even work, for crying out loud!
And here she was now. Looking cool and delectable in a soft silk blouse and drawstring cotton slacks. Sensuous beyond any earthly entitlement. And she obviously intended to leave her, Kris, alone. To face Ellen. And to try to conceal the fact that she was shaking with desire.
Ellen smiled apologetically at Kris. "Im sorry. The hospital has been messaging her non-stop. She just got off 3 straight days without sleep yesterday afternoon but... well, you know ... what with the whole ...situation ... this has been a tough week for virologists. And this one just wont stop pushing herself. Even when shes bone tired." The loving criticism, directed at the departing Janice, was something the woman was obviously familiar with. She stopped at the sofa behind Ellen and laid a hand on her shoulder. Ellen reached up to clasp the hand. A look of complete understanding passed between them.
Kriss red-hot anger erupted into green jealousy. I should be there.
It was time to go. Kris knew her control was close to breaking. It would serve no purpose, except shame and humiliation, for her to stay any longer. She only had one more thing to do, then she could escape. She quickly rummaged in her knapsack for the gift her mother had entrusted to her.
A curious stillness came over Ellen as she accepted the package. Janices grip on her shoulder tightened.
"Please thank Cass for this. Tell her it means a lot to me."
"You havent even opened it."
"I dont need to." Touched by the gift, it would seem, Ellen was uncharacteristically teary. Amazingly, Kris spied tears in Janices eyes too. And even more surprising, they were not tears of gratitude or happiness but of pain and apprehension. The wave of tenderness that washed over Kris in response to that pain scared her more than anything that had come before.
Kirs got up. "I should be going. Leave you two to get on with things... Dont want to get in the way...." She was blabbering, she knew. But it was too late for dignity. Simple survival would suffice.
"Theres no hurry, is there? What times your flight?" asked Ellen, shooting her partner an annoyed glance. "You mustnt mind Janice. Shes a workholic."
"Yes. Dont leave on my account."
It was the longest two sentences she had spoken since the awkward greeting formalities a lifetime ago. Which wasnt saying very much. Kris searched her eyes for sarcasm or guilty shame. There was none. Only sincerity. And a flicker of regret. She really couldnt figure this woman out.
"No. I better be going. Got to pack." She lied. "That sort of thing."
"Well see you out then," Ellen got up, motioning to Janice to join in the farewells.
Janices phone, which had been beeping throughout this time, rang harshly in the awkward silence.
"Hallo. Yes?" Listening intently. "Oh fuck." She turned to Ellen, "Hes gone into a coma. We need to talk." And then directly at Kris, "You have to stay." It wasnt a request. It was an order. And Kris recognised something else in the look. She had seen that agony once before. Only the last time, they had both been naked, and she had been weak with come.
She hadnt been able to refuse her then, either.
CHAPTER 8 Evenings Fall
Kris sat in the living room and tried not to eavesdrop. The other two women had been in the bedroom for a while now. Every now and then she caught a snippet, when they raised their voices. At one point, she thought Ellen asked, "Is there something else youre not telling me?" and almost bolted for the door. But forced herself to remain seated, cursing her imagination. And almost ran again when she heard Janice say "She should never have been here." The remark twisted her insides with rejection, even though she knew the woman could not possibly have known who she was before they saw each other that afternoon. The shock on her face had been genuine. Almost comical, Kris allowed. If I ever care to laugh again.
While she waited, she took the time to look around her. Ellen and Janice lived well. The deceptive simplicity of their home had not been purchased cheaply. And it was clear that every item had been chosen with care. But alongside the expensive pieces were those that equally clearly had been acquired in modest circumstances. It was the same duality she had sensed in Janice. The easy comfort in the plush surroundings of the very up-market Hyatt against the nonchalent indifference to appearances in the club.
Everywhere, there were photographs of the two women together. In contexts formal and social. Vacation shots. Party pix with friends. Some of whom she recognised as having been at the quiet table in the club the previous night. There was also one picture of a teenage Janice standing between two adults whom Kris assumed were her parents. The background suggested zoo. The toothy grin was so unrestrained that Kris wondererd what had transpired to create the woman who had touched her with such cruel intent before holding her with such gentleness.
Plunged back into remembrance, Kris almost missed the one small portrait that occupied pride of place on the upright piano and that turned out, on closer inspection, to be her mother. Much younger, the golden hair cropped short. A very serious expression on her face. Looking straight into the camera. It was not a side of Cass, the laughing, open-hearted mother, she had ever seen.
Things were complicated.
When the women returned to the living room, Janice was carrying a weathered leather laptop bag, head bowed, rapidly tapping out messages on her phone. Kriss heart sank. Are you leaving now? After making me stay. For you?
Even as the thoughts entered her mind, she saw Janice jerk up, as if the woman had heard her recriminations. This psychic connection thing is getting ridiculous.
"Im sorry." She mouthed. The phone beeped again. She made a sound under her breath. Of frustration. Irritation. Is she resenting this parting as much as I? The eyes said yes.
Aloud, she said, "I have to go. Now. Ellen will tell you whats happening." She paused a while. The next few sentences might have been about now. Or not. "I would not have wanted things to turn out this way. I need you to stay and hear us out."
I am one crazy mushball. She says "I need you" and I melt.
Janice smiled at that.
And then was out the door.
The energy left the room with her. For someone who said very little and stayed so still, her presence was tangible, and its absence eviscerating.
Ellen and Kris looked at each other. By unspoken agreement, they walked silently into the cheery kitchen and topped up their coffees. Back in the living room, Kris took the loveseat vacated by Janice and waited.
"Janice was one of the physicians attending the first 3 cases." Ellen began heavily.
At Kriss raised eyebrows, she elaborated, "The women who came back from Hong Kong with SARS."
As the implications of this revelation hit her, Kris sagged against the cushion.
"Im sorry. Maybe we should have told you when you arrived. I know she thinks I should have asked you not to come. But I wanted so much to meet you. And she thought... we both thought.... that the hospital had taken adequate precautions."
Ellen shook her head, trying to take it all in herself. "She is a virologist. They consulted her only after it was clear that the disease was extremely contagious and the hospital had instituted stringent requirements. Her direct contact with the patients was minimal. Most of the time, her work was in a lab. The initial conclusions were that the virus is not air-borne. It only spreads through actual contact with fluid secretions from infected persons. Cough droplets. Maybe sweat. For someone like Janice, the risk was low."
"One of her colleagues who had been involved in the cases earlier started showing symptoms a day ago. They isolated him. We just learnt that he went into a coma. The prognosis is very poor. They now think that the contagion may be more virulent than expected. Or that it stays active in tiny water droplets much longer. Meaning that it might be transported through air-conditioning vents or on contaminated surfaces that have not been thoroughly disinfected. Some pre-schoolers have come down with symptoms. The Mnistry of Education is about to announce that the closure of all schools. Theyll send children home until we get a better handle of the problem. The fear is that it has spread into the general population. Healthcare workers are particularly at risk, of course."
"Jesus. Is she feeling .... alright?"
"Janice?" Ellen smiled slightly. "Strong as an ox. A skinny ox. But strong." The humor cut through the fear a little. Kris wondered if Ellen also felt the strange affinity both of them caring, in her case inexplicably, for this driven woman.
"Its just that this latest news raises so many questions they dont have answers to. And the clock keeps running against them."
Kris wanted to comfort Ellen, sitting there so obviously worried but putting such a brave front on things. But there were other considerations that loomed between them, considerations that might never allow her to reach out to this new friend.
Kris waited. There must be something more.
"Janice thinks ... " Ellen rubbed her eyes tiredly. "She thinks you should postpone your departure."
"They know that the incubation period is ten days. After that, if you dont develope symptoms, chances are youre safe or immune or just plain lucky. The government is already considering forcing a 10-day quarantine on anyone who might directly or indirectly have come into contact with a patient."
"Theres also the worry that we might be exporting the disease. The responsible thing to do is to try to contain it within our borders if we can."
"Thats what she thinks. Or at least a few more days until she can sort out whether this latest case indicates a real defect in their analysis of the virus effect or was due to human error."
Kris forced herself to calm down. The logic was undeniable. It would be foolhardy to leave if she was a possible source of contagion. And some small part of her leapt in excitement at the thought that she would see Janice again. Might be with her. It was such a stupid, unrealistic, selfish response. Kris felt like slapping herself.
"You probably think shes over-reacting," Ellen agreed, mistaking the reason for Kriss grim silence, "after all, we barely spent any time together this afternoon. But, with all the uncertainty.... She just thinks it would be safer....."
The memory of her tongue forcing its way into Janices mouth came to Kris. The sagging defeat in her lovers voice as she had walked away. "Im sorry, too."
"Shes right." Kris acknowledged, hoping the guilt did not show. "Its the correct thing to do. Ill push back my flight a couple of days. I wasnt due to leave till the weekend anyway, initially. ... Shit!" as another thought struck her, "Im all checked out. I better start making arrangements if Im going to stay on."
Ellen halted her. "Theres one more thing."
"Janice would prefer that you stay here."
"We dont know if it would be prudent for you to be at the Hyatt. Its a public place with a high concentration of local and tourist traffic. If you are contagious, which is highly unlikely of course, thats the last kind of place you should be. We have a guest room at the back. It makes sense." Ellen paused uncertainly, not sure how Kris would take this advice.
It was all wrong, wrong, wrong! With everything else that was happening, she shouldnt be hoping to catch a glimpse of Janice. Perhaps in the early morning? Sleep-dazed, soft and wanting.
"I really dont think thats such a good idea. I can be careful at the Hyatt. What if I keep to my room? And ask for one on a less occupied floor?" Even as she threw out the options, she knew she would lose. There were too many imponderables. Already, although Ellen had no way of knowing this, there were other people involved. Shed hugged Jo goodnight in the cab the previous night, moist with sweat and after-sex. What on earth was she going to tell her?
The setting sun cut a swathe of vermillion across the coffee table. For a few minutes, the entire room was bright with urgency. Then the grey of dusk started to seep in. There really wasnt much time. She had to decide.
"Alright." She conceded. "Ill stay."
"Good." Ellen got up, all matter-of-fact action, now that the decision had been made. "I imagine youre going to want to use the phone," indicating the handset near the piano.
"No point incurring costs on that mobile of yours. I know how those telcos charge you an arm and a leg by routing your calls via some server in India just to get back to Singapore! I represent some of them," she twinkled. "Theres also a line in the guest room, if you prefer some privacy. Were not quite five-star luxury but Ill see if we have some dinner mints to put on your pillow with the evening turn-down service."
"Whatever for? Were the ones that got you into this mess. The least we can do is make you comfortable." She gave Kris an undefinable look. It might have been understanding. Or empathy. Then bustled out of the room.
Kris soon heard her humming to herself as she shuttled bed linen, towels and toiletries to what Kris assumed was the guest room. The tune sounded like Love is in the Air. But that would have been weirder than even this nightmare permitted.
CHAPTER 9 Dinnertime
By eight, there were only two more calls to make and Kris wasnt looking forward to either of them.
The Hyatt had been curious but accommodating.
"Certainly, Ms. Bretton. We shall send a car over immediately with your bags. Just buzz the doorbell and leave them on the doorstep?" A pause. Then smoothly. "Certainly. Without delay."
Kris wondered if she was being paranoid. Better safe than sorry. Now that was a motto she should have listened to earlier.
The airline had been just as efficient.
"Your booking this evening has been cancelled. Theres a confirmed seat for next week and a standby this Saturday. You can pick up the tickets at the airport on the day of the flight. Will there be anything else?"
How about redemption?
"No. That will be all for now. Thank you very much."
"Our pleasure, Ms. Bretton."
Kris put the phone down and stared at the last two items on her list. Jo first. Cass when Eastern Standard Time hit nine in the morning. At least Ive got a plan.
Jo took a while answering. "Hallo? That you, Kris? Last lap, mate. Almost finished." She opened without ceremony. Kris heard a slap. "Bloody mozzies! Despatched that one to hell. But at least the stadiums almost desserted at this time of night." Jos breathing slowed as she came to a gradual halt. "So? You done? Mysterious personal errands finished? Dinner? Indian? Shireen might join us later and see you off at the Airport too."
"Yup?" Shouting to someone else, "Join you in a second." Back to Kris, "Sorry about that. Someone I just met here at the track." When Kris was silent, "Dont worry. I shant bring her to dinner. At least not to yours!"
Kris sighed. Here goes nothing.
"Jo. Im not leaving tonight after all."
That stopped her.
"Is something wrong?"
You could say that.
Kris quickly explained the situation. Shed met up with an old friend of her mothers whose partner happened to be involved in the fight against SARS.
"Are you saying what I think youre saying?"
"I cant leave the country for the next few days. In fact, I dont think I can leave this house."
"And exactly where is this house that this couple is imprisoning you? Are you sure this isnt typical Singaporean risk aversion? You know some of them wouldnt say boo to a mouse if it crawled up their crack!" Jo cackled at her own joke.
Kris hurriedly read out the address to forestall further laughter. She was really too frazzled to deal with Jos distinctive brand of humor right then.
There was a sudden meaningful silence at the other end of the phone.
"Ellen and Janice are your old family friends??"
"Ellens the old family friend. Janice is...." Kris stopped. "You know them?"
"Everyone knows everyone here, Kris." There was another pregnant pause. "Did you talk to them about the production?"
What a funny question.
"No. Of course not. I know better than to blow your subjects cover before Shireen gets the go ahead."
"Hmmm." Jo mused. After a while, "what does the doc say about all this?" she asked.
The doc? Oh, she meant Janice.
"You guys are close?"
"You know how it is. We mix in the same circles. Its a very small island. And an even smaller community."
"So? Whats docs take on this? You cant go far wrong listening to that one. Shes about as thoughtful as they come."
"What does thinking have to do with this?"
"Shes the one who insisted I postpone my flight and stay here to minimize any risk of spreading this thing around."
"Then thats that." Jo concluded, the contemplative tone still in her voice. "Look on the bright side. Maybe we can actually close this deal while youre here, if Shireen gets back to me soon. I suppose we could come visit you and sit in the verandah while you talk to us through the sliding glass doors." Jo joked.
"Ah. Well, thats the other problem."
Kris checked the sounds coming from the kitchen where Ellen was busy putting together a quick meal.
Making sure she was out of earshot, Kris continued, in a hushed voice, "Janice was at the club last night." She felt like she was engaged in some illicit activity. Damn it. She was engaged in some illicit activity.
"Yah. I saw her. And we exchanged a couple of SMSs. Dont tell me this thing travels through phone lines."
"I ... erm... spent some time with her. Right before we left."
The pause went from pregnant to labor and delivery.
"Does Ellen know?" Jo asked flatly.
Kris cringed from the disapproval in her friends voice.
"Christ, this is a right mess."
"I know." Kris was so dejected she wanted to cry.
"And because you and I shared a cab back together...."
"Yes. I am so sorry."
"Do we need to worry about the cab driver?"
"Oh God. I hope not. He was in the front. It was a very short ride." Kriss voice broke. She didnt think she had ever botched anything up so badly.
Jo heard the catch. "Hey. Were unlikely to be able to trace him even if we tried. Well just have to hope it all turns out. Okay?"
"OK." Kris sniffed, hating this unravelled stranger she seemed to have become lately.
"And, erm, leave Shireen to me... I mean.... Ill let her know. You just take care of yourself, right?"
"Do you need me to come over? Are both of them there? . ... I imagine its gotta be awkward as an Indian playing cricket for Pakistan. "
"Thats the understatement of the year!" Kris burst out in slightly hysterical laughter. She wiped the tears from her eyes. "Ill be fine. Its just me and Ellen. Janice..." It was such a relief talking about her to someone who knew. "....is back at the hospital."
"Right. Well. Call me if theres anything I can do, huh?"
"Count on it."
Kris could hear the crackle of Jos phone as she walked into some building and the reception grew faint. Jos final words were forlorn, but reassuringly Jo-like. "So much for a little shag in the shower after a sweaty run. Bugger."
Then the phone went dead in Kriss hands.
The call to Cass had to wait till after dinner, a simple salad and omelette that Ellen had whipped up. Half-way through the meal, which was mostly quiet but not uncompanionable, Kriss luggage arrived. Ellen eyes crinkled with laughter when she realized that the couriers had been instructed to flee the scene immediately after depositing their load.
"The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." She recited. Which Kris took to be Ellens way of saying "Silly you."
Despite everything, Kris found herself relaxing and enjoying the company of her mothers friend. Ellen was warm and direct, with a little bone of wry sarcasm that she displayed to good effect at strategic moments. The conversation was peppered with literary allusions. "Mother taught English literature," she offered at one point. "Accounts for the lurid poetry-writing phase during adolescence."
The goat cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious and unthreatening. "Dont tell me. Cass suggested you eat raw chilli peppers while you were here, didnt she?"
And when dinner was done, Kris washed while Ellen dried, falling into a rhythm so natural it reminded Kris of childhood and Cass.
So it shamed Kris when, after having retrieved the luggage on the doorstep, Ellen finally showed her down the narrow corridor to her room and, passing two doors side by side before her destination, she was churlish enough to wonder whether they still slept together. And small enough to wish they didnt.
The guest room was plain but comfortable. The queen-sized bed faced the window. Ellen had switched on the desk lamp by the small writing table earlier and it cast a cosy glow across the room.
"Theres a bathroom just down the corridor. Im sorry its not connected to the room. But Jan and I hardly ever use it so you can claim exclusive rights while youre here. Ill help you set up your laptop in the morning so you can log into the wireless network." When Kris looked surprised at that, Ellen grinned, "She doesnt know an RJ connector from firewire. Im the techno-geek in the family. Dont let the gray hairs fool you."
"How long...?" have you been together? How long has she touched you? How long have you savored what I would give anything to taste just once?
"How long have you and Janice lived here?"
"I got the place soon after I returned from New York. 30 and homeless." Cass never told me about that either. "By then, everyone else in my cohort was a junior partner and had 2 properties, one to live in, one to rent out and wait for the property boom to make them millionaires. I was such a child." She stopped a little. Remembering. "Janice ... moved in a few years later."
Kriss head ached trying to do the math. Theyve been together forever.
"You need anything, call. Were just a door away." We. It hurt.
Kris suddenly felt very alone and too tired to face the task still to come. She did need something. Could she really ask?
Ellen stopped at the door, hearing the unspoken plea. She came back and put her hands on Kriss upper arms, looking deep into her eyes. She gave Kris a quick squeeze.
"Youd like me to talk to her for you?"
Kris let out the breath she didnt realize she had been holding. "Please?"
"You only have to ask. Anytime."
It was as if a huge weight, one of many, had been lifted from her.
"Thank you. Again."
"Whats family for?" Ellen asked, quite seriously, before walking out the door. Kris heard her in the living room making the international call. If anyone could handle Cass, Ellen could. Maybe. Kris decided shed had enough eavesdropping for the day and closed the door. But not before she heard Ellen warmly greet her mother. Blade. That was a funny nickname for Cass.
She plonked on the bed, almost squishing the After Eights mint on the pillow.
It was a sin that torment could feel so right.
CHAPTER 10 Deep Night
Kris couldnt sleep.
The brisk shower had refreshed and relaxed her. After a very long call, Ellen had returned to report that Cass was anxious, but not getting on the first flight to Singapore to rescue her daughter. Ellen seemed re-energized too. Talking to Cass could be a high voltage thing. Theyd chatted a little more while Ellen insisted on getting Kriss laptop set up right then and there. At eleven, Ellen had triumphantly displayed Kris companys familiar VPN log-in screen. "Youre all set," shed said heartily. Adding "Janice messaged to say shell be starting home in half an hour," making Kris wonder if she really ought to read more into Ellens statements.
So now, near midnight, Kris was lying in the slightly squeaky bed, trying without any success to sleep. The hum of the airconditioner, alternating between compression and fan cycles, jolted her whenever it cranked subtly into compression. She could hear bull-frogs in the drains and, she swore, something that sounded like a woodpecker in a near-by tree. Kris acknowledged that shed been living on a noisy city block too long. What sick person prefers the raucous cacophany of traffic to this peace?
It was so quiet she sensed the car even before it got anywhere near the driveway. The turn of the key in the front door was deafening. She could tell that Janice hesitated in the living room, trying to decide whether to turn the lights on. She left them off. The chink of glass from the kitchen. The crick of a lighter. The same waft of tobacco and cloves she had tasted on her lips the previous night. The light footsteps started down the corridor, past the first two rooms. And stopped outside her door. For a long time. Then the door shifted in slightly. Just a fraction. The way it would if someone placed a hand or a forehead against it. The cigarette smoke snaked under the door into the room.
Kris forgot to breathe.
The moment passed. The pressure on the door eased. The steps were about to head away.
Kris lost control.
When she jerked the door open, Janice was still in the corridor, the red glow of the cigarette tip and the slash of moonlight on her face the only light by which Kris could drink the sight of her in.
She wasnt the only one slaking her thirst.
They stood there staring at each other greedily. Parched.
Janice gestured, almost helplessly. "We need to put this out," she whispered, and Kris might have thought she just meant the cigarette except for the way her eyes were fixed on Kriss breasts.
Kris took the two steps between them then. She removed the cigarette from her lovers unresisting hand and miraculously, in the dark, found an ashtray in the living room where she stubbed it out. When she turned back, Janice had not moved at all. She leaned against the wall outside Kriss room, on the brink of entry. But not yet in.
Kris came up behind her and held her shoulders. Trembling. Shes trembling. There was so little fight left in her.
Kris waited. Very much aware that Ellen slept, unsuspecting, nearby.
Finally, Janice seemed to make a decision. She twisted weakly out of Kriss grasp, away from the open doorway. Kris almost groaned in frustration. And then Janice brushed against her nipples in the haste to escape, and there was no way Kris could hold back the groan that started in her cunt and screamed through her body till it felt like every part of her was weeping.
She pulled Janice. Roughly. Into her room. Into her arms.
"Dont make me stay just to want you and never have you." When will it stop being like this? When will I stop begging?
"Oh God," Janice cried, cratering, collapsing.
And now Kris could see that it wasnt just desire that made her lover breathe raggedly and sag into her. It was exhaustion. Deep, numbing, despairing tiredness. Under the sheer silk, Janice was shaking, the thin frame truly brittle for the first time since they had met.
"You need to rest." Kris said, drawing back at tremendous cost. She set Janice gently down on the bed. And then put as much distance between them as she could. Her head spun. Her teeth ached with the strain of denying herself. She looked out the window and tried to hear the woodpecker again. Anything but the throb of her want.
Just when she wondered if Janice had fallen asleep. "We shouldnt do this. Its not safe. Its not right." The voice was firm again. "I shouldnt be this close to you."
Kris didnt turn.
"You know why."
"No. I mean. Why yesterday? Or whenever it was that you took me. I dont even know anymore. Youve taken the meaning from time."
She could hear Janice sigh. Shes debating how to come up with some convenient lie.
"I wont pretend. I used you last night."
How is it possible for me to hurt more than I already do?
"You used me too."
"I didnt know. I thought..."
"You thought I was some inconsequential playmate you could toy with. So? Are we even?"
Janice sighed again.
"She died at noon. The third index case. The hospital didnt announce it till later in the day but she was dead by noon. Nothing we tried worked. It didnt even slow the bastard down. Peter was standing right next to me when we got the news. The next moment he was on the floor and they were wheeling him into the ICU. My only thought was that I might be next. He was gasping like a fish on the floor. And all I could think of was my own skin." Her voice was bitter, inviting my disgust, steeled against it.
"I didnt know."
"They let the rest of us off for the afternoon. I was frightened and angry. I couldnt bear the thought of bringing that stain here. I didnt know where else to go. Where I could be alone. And anonymous. Where I could fuck myself to feel alive. Now are you satisfied?"
Kriss breath caught in her throat.
"And in the night? Was that just getting back at me?"
"Let it go."
"Not till you help me understand."
"You wont. Im begging. And you wont."
"Ah sweetheart, I cant." The endearment so whispered she almost let it float into nothing before she could claim it.
Kris turned then. Janice had already opened the door and stepped beyond her reach.
"Last night, I watched someone else hold you and felt rage. Last night, you came after me and, against every good sense, I had to have you. How can I help you understand something I dont myself?"
Into the empty room, finally, when it could do Kris no good at all, because her want had become unbearable, came the tap, tap, tap of the woodpecker.
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