Part One - Impulse and Momentum
"I guess I'll see you around?"
Grace looked up through misty eyes from her packing, the quiet words bringing her out of some silent debate. It had not yet occurred to her that leaving would mean leaving her new friend. She stopped and looked up at the tall, beautiful, mahogany-haired woman filling her doorway.
"Are you heading out to sea?"
"Probably, after I check out those two companies with Rachel."
Grace nodded, the urge to cry pressing against her chest. What a terrible ending to the best week of her life, she thought. Dana's thoughts were traversing the same lines.
"When will you be back?"
Dana shrugged. "I haven't thought that far ahead."
"Oh." She turned her attention to the zipper on her suitcase.
"Here, let me help with that," Dana said, walking over and grabbing the handle. She waited by the front door while Grace made a survey of the house. She checked the windows, and the stove, even though it had not been used in a week--anything that could go wrong. She felt as if she were forgetting something and then, looking at the woman holding her suitcase, she realized what it was, and wanted to cry even more.
The jet-black bird dog was sitting on the front stoop when they came out, and followed them to Grace's Jeep. "You're welcome to stay here if you need to."
"No, thanks, we'll be fine."
"Can I give you two a lift?" Dr. Wilson asked, fidgeting with her keys, hesitant to leave.
"Grace, you need to get going. We're not in a hurry." Dana looked at her watch. Goodbyes were foreign to her, and she could tell they were not something she was going to like much. "Have a safe trip. And I hope everything works out for your dad." Dana opened the car door for her and bit her lip while she waited for the young woman to climb in.
Grace nodded and climbed up into the Jeep. Dana hoped that she had said all the right things. She felt horrible about having kept Grace away from her family all week, and an ache began to form in her heart.
Grace told herself it was way too early in the relationship to expect Dana to want to come with her, especially under such awful circumstances. Still, she longed for her company, her companionship. And now, knowing that the time she had with her friend was ending and that she might not see her again, she needed her even more. Bravely, she put the keys in the ignition and slipped her driving glasses out of the visor and onto her face. Dana slammed the door closed as Grace started the engine.
"You should fill up your tank with ethanol--you're low." Dana pointed to the gauge.
The fact that the tall con was looking out for her only made the angst grow stronger. Dana leaned forward and placed a gentle, lingering kiss on Grace's lips. They stared at each other for a moment.
"Goodbye, Grace," Dana said and pulled back.
Grace backed her car out onto the dirt road. She held up a hand to wave, a lump forming in her throat. My God, she thought, I think I'm going to die.
She would have, too--run off the road into a ditch--as tears filled her eyes, if Rip had not started running after the Jeep, barking ferociously. Dana ran after the dog, watching her nip at the tires. Grace slammed on her brakes, coming to a skidding halt, a dusty cloud flying into the air.
Rip was sitting by the car door, panting up at the bewildered doctor, when Dana reached the vehicle. Grace opened the door to get out, but before she could, the dog had jumped up across her lap and settled herself into the back seat next to the suitcase.
"Looks like I lost both of my sailing mates."
Grace slid out of her seat and stood in front of her tall, dogless friend. "I would hate to split you two up."
"A better offer was bound to surface sooner or later."
"Will you miss her?"
"Of course. I don't sail with just anyone. They have to be pretty special, and, well, that bitch surely is special."
Grace was sure Dana was not speaking entirely about the dog by the way her eyes darted around, especially when Grace took the weathered hands into her own.
"Is that what I am, a better offer?" She caught Dana's pale blue eyes with her Crayola greens and held her gaze like a serpent its prey.
Dana had no idea how to explain her feelings at that moment, had anyone asked. The dread and the impending double loss were draining her soul, and she would drop to her knees in the next few seconds if Grace did not drive away soon.
"Have you ever been to Kentucky, Dana?"
She shook her head. "No."
A quirky smile. "Do you want to join us?"
I would go anywhere with you, she thought. Her "yes" was returned by a brilliant smile.
After picking up some things for Dana from the boat--her computer, decent music, and clothes--they headed West. They drove through the dwindling Appalachians, across Jersey, Pennsylvania, the tip of West Virginia, and Ohio, through the Bluegrass and horse farms of Eastern Kentucky, across half of the state to a small town southeast of Louisville called Cox's Creek.
They had taken turns driving through the night, despite the fact that Dana did not have a license. Being in the DMV database was like giving away your firstborn, Dana had explained. Dana picked the music, even allowing a few Madonna tracks into the lineup once in a while. Other than the moments she sensed Grace slipping into deep worry, Dana enjoyed the trip, as well as the company.
Nineteen hours later they pulled into the small town. The deciduous trees lining the road had given up their leaves, which speckled the yards with reds, oranges, and yellows. When they pulled into the driveway of the doctor's childhood home, it appeared that the Wilson home was a daycare center.
"Good, Joy's here!" Grace exclaimed. A blue extended van filled the driveway, and four boys of various ages--all blond, blue-eyed, and impish--scampered across the front yard, whipping what appeared to be acorns at each other. One acorn thrown high pelted the windshield, startling Grace.
"Little shit," Grace said. She had barely turned off the ignition before flying out of the car. Swiping a handful of seeds from the grass, she began pelting the oldest of the boys.
"Yippee! Aunt Grace is here!" one of the boys screamed. "Get her!" another yelled, and all of the boys converged on her at once, whipping her with the little demon seeds in the back and ass. Joy trounced out the front door to find out what all of the commotion was about. When she saw it was her sister, she stooped to the ground and picked up a handful of acorns and began whipping her as well. Rip was soon in the middle of the pack, barking at the boys, but they ignored her persistent yapping. Dana whistled, pulling the dog back to her by the car.
Soon the boys were out of ammo and resorted to wrestling. Grace was on the ground, with all four little squirts giving her noogies and pinches, giggling all the while.
"Okay, boys, that's enough. You know Aunt Grace will pee her pants if she laughs too hard."
That merely gave the boys incentive, and they started to tickle her. Grace squirmed until she felt the uncomfortable pressure and began to panic. "Get them off, Joy--quick!"
Joy pulled the boys off like ticks, one by one, until Grace lay drained, breathing heavily.
"Never do that to a woman who hasn't had a pit stop in four hours." She took Joy's extended arm and pulled herself to her feet. "That was so close."
Joy laughed and then hugged her sister, pulling her into her plump body and kissing her on the cheek. They whispered inaudibly so that Dana, who was beginning to remove their bags from the Jeep, could not hear.
"I want you to meet someone," Grace said, leading her sister by the hand to the car. "Dana, this is my sister, Joy," she said when they reached the tall outsider.
Dana turned, wiping her damp palm on her pants leg before offering it. Instead of taking her hand, Joy pulled her into a welcoming hug.
"Anyone that Chipmunk actually brings home has got to be special...ah, shee-it, Matthew, put Grandma's flowers back in that pot right now," she scolded the youngest of the blonde elves.
"Chipmunk," Dana mouthed at her friend. She received a swat in return.
"Mom should be here any minute. Then we're going to the hospital. You can ride along with us--there's plenty of room."
"Okay." Grace was tired of driving. "Where is Daddy?"
"But he prefers Jewish."
"I know, but his doctor prefers Humana."
"What do you think about his doctor?"
"Grace, I wish you had called. Dad's not as bad as Mom lets on. He's coming home tomorrow."
"But Mom said--"
"--Gracie, come on. Mom wants you home."
"I was so worried. Shit." She was about to cry. "I hate when she does this." Tears of relief and anger were collecting in her eyes. Joy put her arm around her sister's shoulder and squeezed.
"Where's Mom now?"
"Having her hair done."
"Ah, shit," Grace said, laughing and crying at the same time, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her hand. "I can't believe I fell for it again."
Dana examined the sisters in detail. They were very similar physically, yet different. Joy was at least fifty pounds heavier than Grace but with the same blonde hair, green eyes, dimples, and laugh. Joy smiled more and had an easy confidence that came, perhaps, with her elder status, or simply from accepting herself. Grace was confident, but it stemmed more from accomplishment and competition. She had a scrappy confidence, Dana decided.
She followed the women into the house and realized they had the same walk, except that Joy wobbled a little. Both talked with their hands and touched when they spoke to a person. Dana found herself liking Joy immediately and sat with her, talking, while Grace made a much-needed trip to the bathroom.
"I take it you're the reason Grace finally took a vacation," Joy said, placing a tall glass of iced tea in front of Dana.
Dana nodded, and then, uncontrollably, pulled a face when she tasted the bitter liquid.
Joy laughed. "Mom likes it strong. I think she brews it in one of Daddy's old Army boots."
Grace came into the kitchen behind Dana, who was sitting at the kitchen table, and rested her hands on the wide shoulders.
"You didn't warn her," Joy said pointedly to her sister.
Grace saw the tall glass of brown liquid. "Sorry, forgot about that stuff." She rubbed the shoulders under her hands, then went to the sink and filled a glass with tap water and handed it to Dana. "Go ahead. You can drink the water here, and it's always good and cold."
Dana took a sip. She was surprised that it tasted as good as any bottled water she had had. Grace filled a glass for herself and sat down between the two women. Joy was watching both her sister and Dana closely, smiling all the while, yet staring mischievously.
Then she chuckled. "This is going to be such an interesting visit, Chipmunk."
"Somethin' caught your eye, dear?" Faith Wilson asked the bewildered Greek woman who had been staring out the front passenger-side window.
"I've never seen so much road kill in my life."
"That ain't road kill in these parts, Dana--that there's dinner," Joy explained as she drove. The four children in the back seat giggled.
"Keep your eyes on the road, Crashly," Grace chastised, clearly embarrassed by the joke. Dana had noticed that since her mother had arrived, Grace had barely spoken more than one- or two-word sentences, if you could call them that. Dana wrote it off as one of those family-dynamic things. Still, she looked back at her friend and noticed a crease burrowing between her eyes, serious contemplation occurring in that brilliant mind. Losing a family member, especially someone Grace regarded so highly, would be devastating. Dana knew this.
"Hey, Ma, that one's a possum."
"Yum-yum. Remember where it is, Mark, so we can stop on the way home," Joy teased.
"Knock it off," Grace said crossly as the boys giggled. "We don't really eat road kill," she explained to Dana.
"Don't mind Grace," Joy said. "I got the sense of humor, she got the brains, and, well, Dick got all the testosterone. Most of it, anyway," she added with a giggle.
Faith gave her older daughter a warning look, the one where her left eye drooped and her upper lip curled up. Quite frightening, by Joy's sudden sullenness.
"What do you do for a living?" Faith asked Dana. "You aren't a peace officer as well, are you?"
"No, ma'am, I am most definitely not a peace officer."
"That's a relief." Faith looked at Grace before turning back to Dana. "What do you do?"
Dana could see that Faith had found her focus, and she was going to have to answer her sooner or later.
"She's a seafaring ocean bum," Grace offered, to tick her mother off, which was most unhelpful to Dana.
Dana shot her a look. "Lately, I've been designing software applications that simulate how certain compounds react with the human body in order to replace animal testing in drug research."
"Oh, I like her," Joy said with an appreciative smile.
"You're a computer programmer." Faith sighed.
"Sometimes. It's not my specialty."
"You should see the program, Joy. It's fabulous." Grace had decided to help.
"I would like to."
"Me too," Mark said, and then the other three boys repeated their big brother's response.
A few minutes later, the van pulled into the crowded parking lot of Audubon Hospital. Joy made three trips through the aisles until she found a spot close enough to satisfy her mother. When she finally stopped, the kids grabbed their coloring books and crayons and clamored out of the car.
"Look, Gracie--Richard's truck." Faith pointed to a large, white, dual-tired Dodge pickup truck with red pinstripes, a few spaces over from the van. "Richard's here!" she said with a wide smile.
"Whee," Joy muttered, as her feet dropped to the pavement.
"Richard is your brother?" Dana asked quietly.
"Yeah, and a word of warning: I love my brother, but he has about as much charm as a skunk's ass."
Dana volunteered to wait in the lobby with the four boys, who behaved remarkably well--for four boys. Matthew, the three-year-old and the one with the shortest attention span, was, understandably, the hardest to keep entertained. Luke and Jonah, the six-year-old twins, played Tic-Tac-Toe several hundred times, while the oldest read a Hardy Boys mystery. Dana kept Matthew busy by drawing cartoon figures and then letting him color them in. Bugs Bunny was completely lime-green, and Sylvester was pink and purple. When she ran out of pictures, she showed him how to make paper airplanes, which wound up all over the lobby. The other boys joined in after the first few flights. When Joy returned, an hour later, Matthew was babbling about wanting to be a fighter pilot when he grew up. Most of the adults waiting in the lobby simply wanted him to grow up somewhere else.
"Thanks for entertaining the kids," Joy said, not having expected to be able to spend time with her father. The fact that none of the boys had a single injury impressed her immensely. "Grace wants to stay and talk to the doctors, so Dick is going to drive her and Mom home." She entwined Dana's arm within her own and began walking them toward the hospital exit. "Come on, boys, we have to go find that possum."
"Can I pop it this time, Mommy?" Luke asked.
Oh, my God, Dana thought, as the automatic doors whooshed open.
Faith Wilson bluntly told Dana to stay out of the kitchen. Only she herself, Joy, and Grace were allowed in during dinner preparation. That made Dana suspicious as to what exactly the meat at dinner was going to be and where that opossum had ended up. The isolation also left Dana with Dick and Noah, Joy's husband. Noah was as tall as Dana. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had freckles peppering his fair skin, and he wore tortoise-shelled glasses.
"So, how are tricks?" Dick, a male version of Grace and Joy, asked his brother-in-law.
Noah sipped at a green bottle of Rolling Rock beer and reclined on the couch. "Same as always."
"What do you do?" Dana asked the tall man the question of the day.
"I teach chemistry at County High School."
"What are your chances this year?" Dick interrupted.
"I coach the boys' varsity basketball team," Noah explained in his soft-spoken way. He turned to his brother-in-law. "I won't know until after tryouts next week."
"That Chapman kid's a senior this year."
"Yes, but he's ineligible."
"He can't pass math."
"So what! I couldn't pass math either, but I played." Dick stood up and shook his head with disgust as he walked into the kitchen for a beer.
"I can't believe you won't let him play," he said when he returned.
"Don't you think being able to add is more important than basketball?" Dana inquired.
"Nooooh. He can hire an accountant for that. This is basketball country," he explained to Dana, "not algebra land."
"I like your truck," Noah said, changing the subject. "Who did the paint job?"
"I did it, two weekends ago." He turned to the tall woman, who wanted desperately to be somewhere else. "What do you think about it?"
"It's big. Do you use it for towing horses or a boat?"
"Nooooh. Geez, where'd Grace find her?" he asked the schoolteacher.
"What are those extra wheels for, then? Are they training wheels?"
Noah spit out his beer and began to choke while Dick's face turned red.
"Nooooh," he said irritatingly slowly. "It's a dooly."
"A dooly?" she repeated as slowly. "And you have it for what, killing two opossums with one pass?"
Noah choked again. "Excuse me," he squeaked out before escaping into the kitchen.
A second later, Grace came out of the kitchen, drying her hands with a dishtowel. She looked at Dana and smiled. "Dana, I need you to go Krogering with me."
"Okay," Dana said, jumping to her feet with enthusiasm, even though she had no idea what the hell Grace was talking about. She hoped it did not have anything to do with road kill or monster trucks.
The patriarchless family sat around the dining room table eating what Faith Wilson claimed was Southern fried chicken and corn bread. Dana was trying to decide when exactly would be the best time to feign illness when Mark, the oldest boy, who was sitting next to her, spoke.
"Why do you have numbers on your hand?"
Dana looked down at the tattoo, as did everyone else at the table. She was about to answer him when Grace answered for her.
"They're her phone number, Mark, so she doesn't forget it."
Dana looked at her friend, stunned.
"What if she moves?" Luke asked.
Dana looked at Grace for the answer to that one. Didn't think this through, did you, Doctor? she thought to herself.
"Then she has this one crossed out and another one put on."
Dana rubbed her forehead, hoping that this would not go on much longer.
"What, is she stupid or somethin'?" Mark said and began to work a bone with his mouth.
Again, Dana looked to Grace.
"No, Mark, Dana is not stupid," Joy said, giving her sister a wary look. "But she does pick stupid friends sometimes."
Dana cleared her throat. "It's an identification number for a place where I lived with lots of other people. It's how they kept track of me."
"Like at Wal-Mart," Mark chirped, as he snapped the cartilage of the chicken leg with his teeth.
"Wal-Mart?" his father asked.
"Yeah, Billy Huffy's mom works at Wal-Mart, and she says that everything has its own number and that's how they know which shelf to put it on."
Dana smiled at the boy. "Yeah, Mark, it's just like at Wal-Mart."
Noah patted his eldest on the head. "Dana, Joy tells me you're a computer programmer."
A nod as she ate her salad.
"What language do you write in?"
"IDNO, mostly, but it depends on the project and the graphics."
"Do you free-lance? Or are you corporate?"
"I teach TBD to some kids after school."
"Maybe after dinner, dear, you can show Noah some of your work," Faith offered, looking at Dana.
Dana did not like the way Faith had said "dear." It gave her the eerie sensation that Faith might be meaning "deer" and fantasizing herself behind the wheel of Dick's Dodge dooly with Dana caught in her headlights.
After dinner Dana placed her laptop on the dining room table with the adults gathered around the screen while Noah tried out the Imma program. "Wow, what a network you must have created," he said.
Dana reached over and opened up a parallel window showing the program workings past the user interface. The visible code scrolled on its own while the program ran.
"I took the normal chemical reactions necessary to sustain a healthy body and fused them based on statistical characterizations and probabilitical reasoning to create the basic algorithms for the program. Then I introduced the abnormal chemistry of illness and labeled the evidence as active or passive inside this statistical framework of the algorithms I had created. Then the active and passive data are combined in the Bayesian network. A probabilistic reasoning program interprets the data over a time frame and makes decisions as to what reactions the body may have."
"So it's crucial that you have the proper belief propagation?"
"Absolutely. But microbiologists have chronicled most illnesses, at least the ones I have incorporated into the program, so that's not a real problem."
"Ha, it's only as good as modern medical science," Dick said.
"Maybe not even that good, because I have to interpret the chemistry and then write the variable and algorithm properly to describe the reaction as a function for the computer to understand."
"Where do you get your information?" Joy asked.
"The Net and books, primarily. The Merck Company has several online databases for microbiologists and organic chemists."
"Let me try," Joy said, nudging her husband slightly. He moved off the chair, and Joy slipped into it. Dana showed her the animal programs, and she spent the rest of the evening exploring them, cooing at the accuracy of the veterinary programs. When Dana left the room to snatch a beer, Joy leaned toward her sister and told her bluntly, "I don't know where you found her, but with that body and those breasts...brains, you'd be a fool to let her get away."
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