Lois Cloarec Hart
With heartfelt thanks to my wonderful betas, Day and California Kathy, who so graciously accept that every October they’ll have to scramble while I try to combine writing with my annual migration south.
If you’d like to comment, I’d enjoy hearing from you. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luce Sheppard towelled her hair dry, averting her eyes from the large bathroom mirror. It was habit, born seven years ago and now so deeply ingrained that she never considered the implications.
This time, however, as she slid the towel over her chest, Luce forced her hand to stop. With a deep breath, she lowered the towel and looked at her reflection. Her eyes fell on the scar, then slid to the right and focused on the barest shadow, the slightest indication that the curve of her breast was not as it should be. Luce wasn’t even sure whether it was just her imagination.
For seven years Luce had been scrupulous about her monthly self-examination. Yet she hadn’t noticed the anomaly until ten days ago when she woke with her fingertips resting against that very spot.
Ten days, and every waking hour since, she had thought of little else. But tonight Luce had finally come to a decision, one that she could live with.
“Or not.” Luce tossed her towel aside and drew a brush through her short, silver hair. When her curls had been temporarily disciplined into a smooth cap, she dropped the brush on the counter and padded into the bedroom.
Luce smiled at the small, white Shih-tzu-bichon mix curled up and snoozing on her side of the bed. The elderly dog didn’t stir as Luce opened the window. She shivered at the rush of cool night air and quickly slipped beneath the covers.
“Ferron, move over, you bed hog.”
The dog grudgingly rearranged herself and settled back down. Luce listened to the pounding rain. She loved the sound. It reminded her of camping, snuggling next to Beth in a sleeping bag, listening to the rain pattering on the tent. But that was long ago. Care free trips were long ago. Beth was long ago.
With a sigh, Luce turned on her side and closed her eyes. Ferron butted up against her back and emitted a yawn. For the first time in ten nights, Luce allowed the comforting warmth of her companion and the sound of the rain to carry her off into a peaceful sleep.
Luce startled awake at an unfamiliar sound. She opened her eyes and glanced at the bedside clock. 4:44. “Aw, crap, don’t tell me they’re partying across the street again.”
Luce hurled mental lightning bolts at her young neighbour who was notorious for his all-night revelry. She had lost count of the number of times his inconsideration had kept her awake or woken her early as his guests stumbled on their way in the wee hours. “Should’ve known I wouldn’t get through Halloween night without those idiots making enough noise to wake the dead.”
Luce made a determined effort to return to sleep. But just as she was drifting off, the sound rose in volume again.
God damn it! Luce thumped her pillow in frustration and then realization set in. It wasn’t, as she’d first thought, some inebriated woman laughing as she departed the neighbour’s house. Someone was crying exhaustedly, as if they had been crying for hours.
Startled, Luce bolted up and dislodged Ferron, much to the dog’s dismay. “Are you all right?” Her call out the open window went unanswered. She cocked her head to listen, unsure of what she should do next. The weeping was more distant, as if the crier had moved further down the sidewalk.
It was definitely a young woman in distress. What if she’s been assaulted? Luce knew that living in a good neighbourhood was no guarantee of safety, so she scrambled out of bed. After Luce threw on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and an ancient cardigan, she hurried to the front door, followed by a confused dog.
“No, Ferron, stay here.”
Luce opened the door. The street seemed empty and quiet, and for a moment she doubted her own senses. Wrapping the sweater tightly around herself, Luce went down the long flight of steps through her yard, grateful that the night’s heavy rain had subsided to mere mist.
Reaching the sidewalk, Luce looked north and south, and then saw her.
A teenager clutching an oversized, floppy top hat in her hand was standing on the sidewalk, three or four houses down. She was staring out into the street, still weeping, but in an exhausted, quiet monotone, as if she had run out of energy for anything else.
“Are you all right?” Luce tried again. “Are you lost?”
“Yes. Are you lost?”
“I’m not lost...exactly. I just don’t know where to go.”
Well, that’s one definition of lost. There was something so despondent in the girl’s body language that Luce made an instant decision.
“Look, why don’t you come inside and get warm? We’ll figure something out.”
As the girl drew nearer, Luce saw that she was drenched, her hair matted and her bedraggled costume soaked. “Good heavens, how long have you been out in this storm?”
“I don’t know. All night, I guess.”
Pushing aside the questions that sprang to mind, Luce led the way back to her house and up the stairs. “Not to worry. We’ll get you dry and warm, and decide out how to get you home.”
Ferron barked sharply as they reached the door and the girl flinched. “Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s completely harmless, all sound and fury as it were. Come on in.” Luce shooed Ferron away and gestured to the couch. “Why don’t you take a seat?”
The girl looked down at herself. “I don’t want to get it wet.”
“Just a moment.” Luce found an old towel in the linen closet and returned to the living room. The girl still stood in the entrance way.
Luce stretched the towel over the back and seat cushion of the couch. “There you go. Make yourself comfortable.”
The girl kicked off her shoes and set her hat on the mat. Luce retreated to her usual chair, which gave her unusual guest lots of space. The girl settled gingerly on the towel and glanced around wearily.
“My name is Luce Sheppard. What’s yours?”
“Keira. Keira Keller.”
Luce quietly regarded her slender, dark-haired visitor. She estimated the girl to be about sixteen or seventeen. Whatever had traumatized Keira had certainly left its imprint on her youthful features. Though there were no visible marks on her person, Keira’s swollen eyes held a bleak expression. Luce briefly wondered if Keira was sober, but there had been no intoxication evident in her speech.
“Well, Keira, you’re obviously in trouble; I’d like to help if I’m able. Can you tell me what happened tonight?”
Keira blinked twice and her eyes began to well with tears. Luce hastily passed a box of tissue and softened her next words.
“Whatever happened, you’re safe now. I’m not going to turn you out on the streets; I really do want to help. Take your time. Maybe you’d like a cup of something warm. Tea? Coffee? Some hot chocolate?”
Ferron sniffed around Keira’s feet, but this time the girl didn’t flinch. She blew her nose loudly, and dropped her hand to pet the dog. Ferron took that as an invitation and jumped up on the couch.
“Ferron, get down.”
Keira shook her head. “No, it’s okay.” She pulled the edge of the large towel over her wet, brown velvet pantaloons and waistcoat, and pushed the remains of a huge, gaudy cravat over her shoulder. Keira gathered Ferron onto her lap.
Luce smiled. It was just like Ferron to worm her way onto a willing lap. “About that something warm?”
“No, thank you, Ms Sheppard.”
“Luce, please. So, how did you come to be wandering my street?”
“I told my mom I was going to stay at my best friend’s house, and Shelley told her parents that we were going to stay at my place.” Keira shot Luce a shame-faced look.
“Let me guess—you were actually planning to go to a party.” Though not across the street, apparently.
Keira ducked her head. “A Halloween party. Eddie’s parents are out of town so most of the school was going to be at his place. Shelley said Tyler was going to be there and he really wanted me to come. She convinced me to dress like the Mad Hatter, because she said Tyler loves Johnny Depp and Alice in Wonderland is his favourite movie. But it was all lies.”
“Tyler doesn’t actually like Alice in Wonderland, or he wasn’t there?”
“Oh, he was there all right; he just couldn’t have cared less that I was there. He and Shelley had planned it so that they could have a whole night together. She needed me to give her an alibi, and since she knew I was interested in Tyler, she used that to convince me to lie to Mom. I never lie to my mom!”
“Did you know they were...um, seeing each other?”
Keira frowned indignantly. “Of course not. I’d never have been such an idiot if Shelley had told me she and Tyler were hooking up. Now I’m not even going to be able to go back to school. It’s too humiliating!”
“I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as you think, Keira.”
“It is, believe me. When I opened the bathroom door and saw them together, I screamed. Everyone came running. I felt like such a fool. Tyler was cursing; Shelley yelled at me to grow up. And you just know someone’s already put it up on Facebook.” Keira heaved a deep sigh. “I am so going to be the butt of all the jokes at school on Monday. It’s probably gone viral by now.”
Luce sent a brief thanks heavenward that she’d grown up when the fastest way to communicate with the most number of people was to write on a bathroom wall. Or tell Jessie. She couldn’t help a smile at the thought of her oldest and dearest friend. “Okay, I see how this all happened, but why didn’t you call your mom for a ride home?”
“I couldn’t do that. If I called Mom, then she’d know we weren’t at Shelley’s place, and she’d tell Mr. and Mrs. Blythe.”
“Uh huh. So even after what Shelley did, you didn’t want to blow the whistle on her deceit?”
Keira regarded Luce as if she had grown a second head. “And get a rep as a rat? Are you crazy? Besides, Shelley’s still my best friend. We never stay mad at each other for long. Anyway, I ran out of the house so fast that I had no time to call. I didn’t have any idea where to go so I’ve just been walking the streets for hours and hours. I don’t even know where I am.”
“You’re on Wood Springs Crescent. But surely you have a cell. It’s been years since I’ve seen anyone your age without one of those electronic leashes.”
“Well, yeah, but I sort of…”
Keira’s voice trailed off to an inaudible murmur, and Luce leaned forward. “I’m sorry; you did what?”
“I was so shocked when Tyler yelled at me that I instinctively threw my phone at him. It hit the shower tiles and broke into a hundred pieces.”
Luce tried to stifle her mirth, but it was impossible. Ferron lifted her head at her mistress’s laughter and Keira stared indignantly. But just as Luce began to regain control and dabbed at her wet eyes, Keira chuckled.
“I guess it was pretty dumb, but you know what was even dumber?”
Luce shook her head. “No idea.”
“Them. All they had to do was lock the bathroom door. How much common sense does that take, for crying out loud?”
That set Luce off again, and this time Keira joined in. When the laughter subsided, Luce felt better than she had in many days.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do: I’ll loan you a set of sweats so you can dry off, and you’re welcome to stay here for what’s left of the night. In the morning I’ll give you a ride home. How does that sound?”
“Not that I don’t appreciate it, but my mom is still going to ground me for a year.”
“Do you want to call and let her know where you are?”
Keira glanced at the phone on the side table next to her. “No, thanks. I don’t want to wake her yet. Hey, Luce?”
“Did you know you’ve got seventeen unanswered messages on your machine?”
“Yes, I know.” Jessie is nothing if not persistent.
“An ex-husband you’re avoiding?”
“No, just my best friend trying to set me up on a date that I’m not interested in. She’s not good at taking no for an answer, so sometimes I find it easier to simply not answer the phone.”
“Huh. Hey, Luce?”
“You mentioned hot chocolate?”
“I did. Would you like some?”
“Please and thank you.”
“All right. There’s a guest room and bath down the hall to the left. There are clean towels hung, and some old sweats in the bureau. Help yourself and come back out when you’re ready. I’ll have the hot chocolate waiting.”
Luce watched with approval as Keira carefully dislodged Ferron from her lap and set the small dog on the floor. The young woman might be a typical teen, riddled with the usual adolescent angst, but she clearly had a gentle, considerate heart.
When Keira returned fifteen minutes later, Luce chuckled at the sight. Though now clean, and mostly dry, Keira looked like a child playing dress-up. She had rolled up the pant legs and sleeves several times over, but when she accepted the proffered hot chocolate, her hand was almost lost in fabric.
Keira put the drink down and folded up the damp towel she’d been sitting on. Setting it aside, she took her seat as Ferron jumped up into her lap.
Luce sipped her hot chocolate as she watched her visitor cautiously raise the steaming cup to her lips. Keira appeared to be much calmer, and was definitely more cheerful.
“Are you feeling better?”
Keira tilted her head as she considered Luce’s question. “I think so. You know what really hurts, though?”
Luce could think of several possibilities, but she shook her head.
“It’s not just that Shelley lied to me when she knows me well enough to know she didn’t need to. It was the way she used me. And she didn’t have to talk me into wearing that stupid Mad Hatter costume. I ended up feeling foolish enough as it was.”
“So why do you think she did it?”
“I think...” Misery crossed Keira’s face. “I think she didn’t want me to be any kind of competition. She went dressed like Galadriel—you know, from Lord of the Rings?”
“Yeah, well, she looked awesome in that white dress, and I looked really stupid in my costume. We’ve been best friends since second grade. How could she do that to me? Over a stupid boy.”
“I don’t think I’m the best person to answer that, Keira. But here’s a thought: If Shelley was so concerned about you being competition for Tyler’s affections, maybe he potentially was interested in you. Maybe she needed to ensure he’d only pay attention to her, so she talked you into looking less than your best while she dressed to kill.”
Keira snorted. “Well, she certainly was flaunting everything she had in that dress, and believe me, she has lots to flaunt. Not like me,” she added glumly, glancing at her less than ample chest cloaked in the shapeless sweatshirt.
Luce felt the girl’s innocent words land like a battering ram. She carefully set her cup aside, unable to enjoy the rich flavour as she fought to regain her hard won equanimity.
“Um, Luce? Did I say something wrong?” Keira regarded Luce with a worried expression. “You’ve got this really weird look on your face.”
“No, no, not at all. It’s probably just a bit of indigestion. I’m no longer at an age when I can eat or drink at all hours and not pay the consequences.”
Aware that Keira’s keen eyes were fixed on her, Luce forced a smile, but judging by her visitor’s expression, her attempt was less than convincing.
Keira nodded at the blinking answering machine. “Why don’t you want to answer those calls?”
Luce was startled at the apparent non sequitur. “I told you. My best friend has been trying to fix me up on a date, and I’m not interested.”
“Why aren’t you interested? Is he, like, a jerk?”
“I have no idea, and you have the pronoun wrong.”
“My friend tells me she knows a really nice woman she’s sure would be perfect for me.” Luce watched for Keira’s reaction.
Keira shrugged. “Okay, so what’s wrong? If your best friend is recommending her, why not say ‘yes’? You don’t know if this person might be ‘the one’. You’ll never know if you don’t at least have the first date.”
“As has been vividly demonstrated for you tonight, sometimes best friends make very bad choices.”
“Shelley was an idiot, but she’s 16. We’re supposed to be idiots at 16. What’s your excuse?”
“Excuse me? I don’t think I need one. I just prefer my current state of singleness.”
“No, you don’t. Some people do, and that’s cool, but you’re not one of them.”
Luce blinked in astonishment. What the...?
“Are you chickening out because of a bad break-up?”
“I, uh, well, there was a woman...”
“After twelve years together, Beth left me for someone else, just when I needed her the most. When I was fighting with all I had to preserve our future together, she just...left. I came home from the hospital to find a house echoing with empty. She was gone, and so were all our belongings. The only thing she left behind were my clothes, books thrown on the floor, and a litre of sour milk in the fridge. She even took the light bulbs out of their sockets, for God’s sake. Not to mention she cleaned out our joint bank accounts. Her timing was perfect. Beth knew damned well I wouldn’t have the energy to fight her, so she got away with lock, stock, and barrel. I had to start again from scratch, when I barely had the energy to make it from my borrowed air mattress to the bathroom. It’s a good thing my best friend was caring for Ferron, or Beth probably would’ve dumped her at the shelter, just like she dumped me.”
Keira didn’t flinch at the bitterness in Luce’s words. “So, Beth was a total bitch. That doesn’t mean Jessie’s friend is, and there’s no way you can know unless you say ‘yes’. So what’s the real reason you don’t want this date?”
“It wouldn’t be fair.”
“To who? You, or Jessie’s friend?”
“Either, I guess.”
“You are just full of questions, aren’t you?”
“My mom says I started asking questions at eighteen months and haven’t stopped yet. But I also know when someone is dodging a question.”
“Hey, don’t you want to get some sleep? You’re going to be exhausted come morning.”
“I’m a teenager; by definition, I’m a night owl. And you’re still avoiding the question.”
“Well, I’m not a teenager, and I’m going to bed.” Luce began to rise from her chair, determined to get what little sleep she could before it was time to deliver this aggravating, impudent child back to her mother.
The word was quiet, but something about the way Keira said it stopped Luce in her tracks. She sank back into her chair.
“Why won’t you let Jessie set you up?”
“Because I’m going to die.”
Later—much later—Luce would remember the curious absence of shock on her visitor’s youthful face.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“Yes, Keira, I do. I’m not going to fight the cancer this time. I fought like the hounds of Hades were after me last time, and I literally went through hell. I’m not going to do it again; I...can’t do it again. Since Beth...well, there’s no compelling reason for me to fight.”
“So you’re just going to give up?”
Luce felt a flash of anger at the girl’s casual assertion. “Give up? I like to think that I’m accepting the inevitable as gracefully as I can. You know how you always see in the Obituaries that so-and-so waged a long and courageous battle against one disease or another? Well, they can write that I’m a coward, if they want, but I’m leaving the ring. To continue the metaphor, I’m not even going to answer the bell this time. And there’s absolutely nothing they can say to change my mind.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
“You said ‘they’. As in ‘they’ can write whatever ‘they’ want, and ‘they’ can’t change your mind. So, who are ‘they’?”
“Well, I guess…Jessie, and my other friends.”
“None of whom would want you to fight?”
Luce stopped to consider Keira’s point. “I love them very much, and I know they love me...”
Luce settled deeper in her chair. It had all seemed so simple when she’d finalized her decision mere hours earlier. “I should be able to go gentle into that good night if I want to, Keira. Why isn’t it okay to accept the inevitable? Why do I have to fight? Why does our culture esteem those who by doing so make their lives living hells, and disdain those who know all life is finite and choose to live whatever time they have left on their own terms? ”
“Because those who fight aren’t just fighting for themselves; they’re fighting for the ones they love; fighting to stay with them a little longer. Isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to wish your loved ones could stay with you for as long as possible? Surely Jessie and your friends would grieve your loss.”
“Of course, but they’ve all got families to comfort and support them. It may take time, but they’ll be fine. The bottom line is that it’s my choice.”
“Agreed, and if you’re making that choice out of conviction, guided solely by a desire for a peaceful and productive conclusion to your life, then cool. But if you’re doing it because you’re unwilling to fight for another chance to share your heart, share your life, then it’s cowardice. That’s all I’m saying.”
Luce stared at Keira in amazement. “What are you—a sixty year old in a sixteen year old body?”
Keira laughed and shook her head. “I guess I’m just channelling my grandmother. She’s about the smartest woman I know.”
“I’m sure she’d be gratified to hear that.”
“I’ve told her. Me and Granddame are tight. Mom’s a single mother; has been since my father walked out two months after I was born, so Granddame helped raise me.”
“They’ve done an excellent job.”
Keira grinned at Luce’s sincere compliment. “Thanks. I’ll have to tell Granddame.”
“But not your mom?”
Keira shook her head doubtfully. “Mom can’t seem to hear me when I talk, and she’s going to be pissed when she learns I lied to her. That’s always been her one absolute rule—no lies between us.”
“I’m sure that knowing you’re safe will be all that matters to your mother, Keira.”
A wistful expression crossed the girl’s face. “Maybe. Me and Granddame love Mom like crazy, but sometimes I think she gets so caught up in her work and all that she forgets that. I’ll get my grandmother to talk to her. Granddame is better than me at handling Mom, though I know she’ll insist I give it a try. She always does.”
Ferron chose that moment to yawn and stretch. Luce chuckled and yawned in response.
“I believe her Ladyship has the right idea. I think we should all retire for a couple of hours. Is your mom expecting you home at a certain time? Should I set the alarm?”
“No, that’s okay. Mom knows Shelley and I usually sleep until noon when we’re together.”
“All right then, we’ll sleep until we’re ready to rise, and then get you home.” Luce rose, undeterred this time. “If you need anything, just holler. I’m a very light sleeper.”
“Okay, thanks. Hey, Luce, I really appreciate this. It’s not everyone who would open their door to a stranger.”
“I wouldn’t open my door to just any stranger, Keira, but you looked like you could use some help. I’m glad I heard you crying.” Luce shuddered as she thought of some of the places Keira could’ve ended up.
“I am too. I wish…”
“It doesn’t matter now. Sleep well, Luce. I enjoyed our talk.”
“Goodnight, Keira.” Luce smiled as Keira walked down the hall to the guest room. I did too. Who knew a kid could debate like that? I’d love to meet her grandmother...or maybe not. Granddame sounds like she could talk a bear out of a honey factory. I’m not so sure I want that right now.
Bemused, Luce opened the door for Ferron and ignored the indignant look she got in response. “Oh, go on. It’s not even raining anymore, for heaven’s sake.”
Grumbling, Ferron went outside, scooting back in moments later. Luce looked around. The street was still quiet. None of her neighbours would have the slightest clue that anything untoward had occurred during the night, but Luce knew it would be a long time before she forgot the unexpectedly thought- provoking questions of her midnight visitor.
“So when I got up, just before nine, Keira was already gone. She left my sweats folded on the bed, which, by the way, didn’t even look like it had been slept in. And she left a note that she’d contacted her grandmother, who was coming to pick her up. So, all’s well that ends well.” Luce sat back in satisfaction at a tale well told as Jessie blinked at her in disbelief.
“All’s well that ends well? Are you out of your pea-picking mind? She could’ve been a psychopath, and you just took her in off the street? She could’ve murdered you in your sleep!”
“Well, she didn’t. Look, Jessie, she was just a good kid who had a lapse in judgment. I couldn’t leave her outside; God knows what could’ve happened. You know bloody well that you wouldn’t have ignored her either.”
Luce shook her head sceptically. She’d seen Jessie’s big heart in action too many times to believe the denial.
The waitress approached, but Jessie waved her off. “No more for me, thanks. Luce?”
“No, I’m good. Just the check, please.”
Jessie returned to the topic that had consumed much of their Sunday brunch. “So, you got her full name, right? Are you going to Google her or check her Facebook page or anything?”
“Why would I?”
“I don’t know—to see if she was telling the truth?”
“Again, why? It’s not like she had anything to gain by being less than completely honest with me, so why wouldn’t I take her at her word? It certainly doesn’t change my life one way or the other.”
Even as Luce spoke the words, she knew they were untrue. It was less than five hours since she’d bade Keira goodnight, and she’d been unable to get the girl’s argument out of her mind.
Luce affectionately regarded her oldest and dearest friend. Jessie had been there for her unstintingly before and after Beth’s betrayal. She had deputized her extended family and they’d all seen Luce through the enervating medical procedures, driven her to appointments, cooked meals, cleaned the house, and cared for Ferron. Jessie then staunchly nursed Luce through the aftermath of a healing body and broken heart. What would Jessie say if she knew that the cancer had returned and Luce had all but decided not to suffer through the extreme measures that might beat it this time?
Luce knew without asking that Jessie would be there again, if needed. Luce also knew she had to make a final decision soon. In the meantime however, there was one small thing she could do to make Jessie’s day, a small repayment for all Jessie had done for her.
“About your friend—the one you keep trying to set me up on a date with…”
“You’ll do it? You’ll give Nicole a chance? I swear you won’t regret it. Plus, Ms Goody Two Shoes, you’ll be doing a good deed, as well.”
“Nicole’s had a really tough year, and despite my best efforts she’s turned into something of a hermit. Truthfully, I’m not even sure I can persuade her into going on a date with you, but I just know you two are perfect for each other.”
“For crying out loud, Jessie. You don’t even know if the woman wants to go out with me and you’ve been badgering me non-stop for three weeks? What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that two women I care very much about needed each other.”
Jessie’s simple answer defused Luce’s pique. “Jesus. All right, if you can set it up, let me know where to be and when. You know my schedule as well as I do.”
Jessie jumped to her feet and darted around the table to hug Luce. “Excellent! You won’t regret this, I swear.”
Luce patted Jessie’s arms and winced at the strength of the hug enveloping her. “All right, already.”
Jessie released Luce and glanced at her watch. “Oops, I’ve got to get going. Roy has old timer’s hockey this afternoon and I promised I’d be home to take over the kids by one.”
“Give Lucy a hug for me, and tell Brian I’ll be by after work tomorrow to give him a hand.”
“You really are the best, Luce. God knows Roy and I are at a loss when it comes to computer meltdowns, so I really appreciate Auntie Luce riding to the rescue.”
“My pleasure. But don’t forget I was promised homemade chocolate chip cookies in payment.”
“Brian’s already bribed his sister to make a batch for you. I’ll give you a call later, after I talk to Nicole.”
Luce wondered what kind of pressure Jessie had exerted on Nicole to convince the reclusive woman to meet so swiftly. It had only been noon when Luce had finally agreed and here she was a few hours later waiting in a restaurant for her blind date. She eyed the woman who had just entered and was talking to the hostess. The stranger was about Luce’s age, with dark hair and a weary look on her face. Her clothes hung loosely, as if she’d recently lost a great deal of weight.
The hostess led the woman to Luce’s table and Luce stood to greet her date. She extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Luce Sheppard.”
The woman took Luce’s hand and shook it firmly. “I’m Nicole Carroll. It’s nice to meet you.”
As Nicole bent to take a seat, a chain dangling from her neck got caught on the clasp of her purse and broke. A large gold locket bounced across the table, popping open as it struck the edge. The woman cried out in dismay as Luce made a hasty grab and saved the locket from falling to the floor.
“No harm done,” Luce assured Nicole. “I’m sure you can have the chain repaired, and the locket…” Luce quickly scanned the exterior, “the locket looks fine.” Then she stared in amazement at the photo. “Hey, I recognize her.”
“I’m sure you do.” Nicole’s voice was cool as she put out her hand for the locket. “The damned news media were most intrusive at the time.”
Without processing her dinner companion’s words, Luce continued, “It’s Keira.” She looked up in delight. “Are you Keira’s mom? Hey, you have the coolest kid. I really enjoyed talking to her last night. I hope you weren’t too hard on her when she got home.”
Nicole’s face went white. “Is this your idea of a joke? What kind of sadist are you? Christ Almighty, do you strangle puppies and drown kittens, too? I hope you enjoyed your little laugh; now rot in hell!” She stood so abruptly that her chair toppled over. She snatched the locket out of Luce’s hand and turned abruptly on her heel.
Stunned into immobility, Luce watched Nicole rush from the restaurant.
A waiter discreetly righted the chair. “Will the lady be rejoining you, madam?”
Dazed, Luce shook her head. “Somehow I doubt it. Uh, look, just bring me the check for the wine, and I’ll call it a wrap.” The waiter hurried off, while Luce went over and over her words. What the hell did I say that upset her so? Crap! Maybe Keira hadn’t talked to her yet. Damn, I hope I didn’t get the kid in trouble.
By the time Luce reached her house, Jessie was inside waiting for her. Without allowing Luce time to speak, Jessie lit into her.
“What the hell were you thinking? What got into you to torture Nicole like that? Do you know that right now she’s crying her eyes out like it just happened yesterday? Jesus Christ, Luce! I’d never have believed you capable of such insensitivity.”
“Now just a goddamned minute, Jess. I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about. All I know is that Keira’s mom wigged out on me for no reason at all. Hell, I was complimenting her daughter and—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa...what do you mean you were complimenting her daughter? Luce, Nicole’s daughter is dead. She died a year ago this weekend, that’s why I thought it would be a good distraction for you two to go out. Get her mind off things for a bit.”
“Dead? What are you talking about, Jess? I told you. I spent an hour talking to Keira last night, right here in my living room. Well, I guess it was more like really early this morning, but you know what I mean. Look, if I got it wrong, I’ll apologize to her, but Nicole’s daughter sure looks a helluva lot like Keira. They could be twins.”
Her face pale, Jessie stared at Luce. Without a word she turned and walked into the den where Luce’s desktop was located. Luce followed in confusion and watched as Jessie Googled a name. Instantly a long list of hits attached to the name of Keira Marie Killian was offered. Jessie clicked on the top one.
When a picture and article popped up, Jessie turned. “Is this the girl you invited off the street Saturday morning?”
Luce peered at the photo and nodded. “Yes, that’s Keira.” She began to read the article and instantly felt faint. She groped behind her for a chair and Jessie pushed one into her hand. “Oh, my God. Jess, is this true? You’re not screwing with me?”
“You know me better than that. Would I ever joke about the death of a child?”
“No, of course not. How did I not know this? Something this sensationalistic had to be all over the media.”
“Here, yes, but you were working in Saudi Arabia last fall.”
Luce nodded slowly, still in shock. “I had no time for anything but fulfilling our contract. No wonder I missed this.”
“They found the killer within hours. Turned out to be a known sex offender who had left a bar and was walking home. They know his path crossed Keira’s; no one’s really sure what happened after that. But because he has a record a mile long and was in the police database as living in the same neighbourhood she disappeared in, they found him before he even had time to dispose of the body. He pled guilty and they moved fast on sentencing. I think it must’ve been over a couple of weeks before you got back. I actually think that’s part of Nicole’s current dilemma. It all happened so quickly that she really had no time to process everything. One day her daughter was alive and sneaking out to a Halloween party with her best friend; the next she was dead.”
“I have to talk to Nicole. I have to convince her I wasn’t trying to...trying to... I just have to tell her I would never do what she thinks I did, Jess.”
Jessie shook her head. “So you’re going to try to convince her that you gave her daughter’s ghost hot chocolate and a pair of your old sweats? There’s no way she’s going to listen to you now. I’ve known you for forty years and I’m having trouble believing this.”
“But you know I wouldn’t make it up, Jess. What possible reason would I have?” Luce stopped her protestation, as a thought struck her. “Hey, what about Keira’s grandmother? The note said that her grandmother was coming to pick her up.”
“I don’t know about Nicole’s own mother, but her mother-in-law—the one who looked after Keira when Nicole worked—died a couple months after Keira was murdered. Everyone said she died of a broken heart because the two of them were so tight. It doubled the blow, because Nicole was very close to her mother-in-law. The three of them shared a home. Nicole went back to her maiden name after the divorce, but she let Keira keep her father’s last name as a tribute to her grandma.”
“Keira called her grandmother, Granddame. I thought it was really sweet.”
“I never met the grandmother; I’ve only known Nicole for a year. I initially met her through my work with Victims Services, and we got to be friends. Luce, you know I’ve had some tough cases, but in all my years with the Services, I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with someone so completely shattered. The grandmother held Nicole together for the first couple of months, then when she died, I thought for sure we were going to lose Nicole too. She’s only just started to live again in the past two or three months. Damn it, I hope this doesn’t set her back. I’m not sure she’d survive going back to square one.”
Luce reached for Jessie’s hand. “You have to talk to Nicole for me, Jess. You have to apologize on my behalf. I would never hurt another person that way; you know that.”
“I do, but I don’t know that Nicole will listen. It took all my considerable powers of persuasion to talk her into meeting you for dinner. I don’t think there’s any possible future for you two, now.”
“I don’t expect there to be, but I feel terrible at having aggravated her grief. I just didn’t know.”
Jessie was quiet, spinning the office chair slowly left and right. “Luce, do you think it really was Keira’s ghost? I mean, that’s pretty freaky, isn’t it?”
“She sure seemed real to me and Ferron.” And she made her points like a Supreme Court Justice.
“I have to get home, Luce. Look, I’ll talk to Nicole, but I make no promises.”
Thoroughly shaken, Luce walked Jessie to the back door and bade her goodbye. Then she knelt and looked under the kitchen table, where Ferron had hidden from the raised voices. “C’mon, you big chicken. Come out of there. Auntie Jess wasn’t yelling at you.”
Ferron emerged and trotted to her bowl, looking up expectantly.
“Hah, not a hope, munchkin. You had supper long before I went out, and don’t try to tell me you didn’t. You cannot be hungry.” Luce rolled her eyes when her words had no effect on the waiting dog. “All right. One treat, and that’s all you get.” One treat turned into three as Luce picked Ferron up and went to her favourite chair.
Luce absently stroked Ferron while she rocked, as she tried to recall every moment of the odd encounter. “What do you think, old girl? Do you think we had a visitation? And if so, why? What’s the message?”
Something flashed in her mind, and Luce stopped rocking. “Hey, I never told her Jessie’s name...did I?” Her memory of Keira’s visit was unusually vivid, and she was certain Keira had been the first to mention Jessie. “And how come I never heard her leave? You know the sound of a leaf falling normally wakes me up. Huh. Normally. But what’s normal about this whole thing, eh, Ferron?”
Luce rocked some more, running her fingers through Ferron’s coat as she reviewed the strange events of the weekend. Lost in her thoughts for almost an hour, Luce was startled when the doorbell rang. It set off a barking spree and Luce shushed Ferron as she set the dog down. She opened the front doors and found Nicole standing out on the stoop, half turned as if ready to dart away.
“Hey, hi. I’m really glad you came by so I can apologize in person.” Luce pushed the door open and stepped aside. “Would you like to come in for coffee?”
After a long moment’s hesitation, Nicole stepped inside. Just as she had with Keira, Luce indicated the couch and gave her unexpected and obviously wary guest a wide berth as she went to the kitchen.
When she returned, Luce found Nicole sitting on the edge of the couch, cautiously petting Ferron who lay next to her feet.
“May I take your coat?”
Nicole shook her head and pulled the loose coat more tightly around her body. Luce nodded agreeably and went to her rocking chair.
“I take it Jessie called you?”
“Yes.” Nicole fixed desperate eyes on Luce. “Is it true? Please, I’m begging you to tell me the truth. Was Keira...here?”
“Let me ask you a question first. Does...did Keira call your mother-in-law ‘Granddame’?”
Nicole gasped. “Yes. How did you know? Did Jessie tell you?”
“No. When I brought it up, Jessie didn’t know. Keira told me. And the answer to your first question is, yes, Keira was here. Let me tell you the whole story.”
Luce related the events of early Sunday morning, careful not to omit anything, even the parts pertinent only to herself. She paused only to get the coffee and some tissues for a weeping Nicole. When she finished the story, her guest sat in silence for a few minutes, then Nicole dried her eyes and looked at Luce hopefully.
“Did you by any chance...” she took a deep, shuddering breath, “keep her note?”
“Mmm, I threw it in the garbage, but it should still be there since I haven’t taken the trash out yet. Just give me a moment.”
Luce gingerly picked through the trashcan, locating the crumpled note under coffee grounds. It was badly stained, but the writing was still legible. She patted it dry and straightened it as best she could before returning to the living room and handing it to Nicole. “Sorry it’s such a mess. If I’d known, I’d have taken better care of it.”
“She was here.” There was no doubt in Nicole’s wondering voice as she stared at the note. “I’d know her handwriting anywhere, and here...” She pointed to a tiny Victorian-looking flourish under Keira’s signature. “She always did this. She said it was to brand her signature and that someday, when she was famous, designers would clamour to use it.” Her whole body shivered. “Who could’ve guessed she would become famous for such a hideous reason.”
“I’m so sorry, Nicole. Just from brief time I spent with her, I know what a treasure you lost. My heart breaks for you, but I’m glad Keira came to me. Now you know she’s not...well, completely gone, I guess.”
“I’ve tried so hard to feel her presence, but all I can feel is the agony of losing her...of waking up each morning to my daughter’s empty room, of never hearing her beautiful voice calling for me. Sometimes I think I’ll go insane with the need to hold her. I even went to a medium who ended up giving me my money back. She said my grief was too strong for Keira to break through, and to come back when my grief had eased. As if it will ever ease.”
“Keira did say that you weren’t hearing her when she talks to you. I thought she meant the usual mother-teenage daughter communication problems. But maybe she meant that she’s been trying to get through to you, but as the medium said, she can’t reach you. So she had to find another way to go about it.”
Nicole looked up from the paper she’d been studying with a puzzled expression. “But why did she choose to come to you? We’ve never met before, have we?”
“No, but I expect Keira became aware of our mutual friend, Jessie, and decided to use that connection to make contact.”
“Dear Jessie. She’s been wonderful this past year. I must admit I was terribly harsh to her when she first began to bring up the possibility of me dating again. I actually haven’t dated all that much since I came out in Keira’s childhood, and I certainly wasn’t interested under the circumstances. But she was unbelievably persistent.”
Luce chuckled and pointed to the still blinking message machine. “Tell me about it. Persistence is Jess’ middle name. Not to mention that I’m sure Keira and your mother-in-law were urging her on.”
“Kate. Keira’s grandmother’s name was Kate. Losing her after losing Keira nearly had me looking for a way out myself.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, but what stopped you?”
“Two things: a survivors group that Jessie steered me to; and Keira’s best friend, Shelley. You see, Shelley and Tyler’s part in Keira’s death was never made public. I only found out because Shelley came to me after Kate had her fatal heart attack. Shelley was feeling so much pain and guilt that it was literally killing her. She was down to about ninety pounds and starving herself to death despite her parents’ frantic efforts to get her help. I spent weeks talking to her, convincing her that it wasn’t her fault and that Keira would never want her to punish herself this way. Focusing on saving Shelley’s life, saved my life. I’m still involved with Jessie’s group, and that too has helped.”
Luce started to speak, but Nicole interrupted her.
“Wait a minute. Keira didn’t just come with a message for me; she had one for you, too.”
“You know she did. You told me all about it. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I really haven’t had time to think.”
“You told me Keira said you don’t know for sure that you’re going to die. Maybe from where she is, she knows something you don’t.”
Luce sighed. She had considered that while mulling over the strange events, but it had taken so much mental and emotional effort to come to her original decision, she wasn’t sure if she was up to revisiting it.
Nicole set down her cup and stood. “I need to go now, Luce. You’ve given me so much to think about. But before I go, I want you to know that Keira fought with everything she had to live. When they found that animal, he was covered with scratches and bruises she’d given him. Believe me, if she came to you with a message, it’s worth listening to.”
Luce followed Nicole to the door as she considered the words. Nicole stopped and regarded Luce. “Well?”
“I don’t know. I can’t make any promises.”
“But you’ll think about it, right? You’ll consider what my daughter said?”
Luce chuckled. “I can see where your daughter got her terrier-style debating technique.”
Nicole smiled, and for the first time Luce saw a clear resemblance to Keira. “Luce, our first date didn’t exactly go well. How would you like to try again next weekend?”
Luce blinked in pleased surprise. “That would be great. Same place?”
Nicole blushed and shook her head. “No. I think I left too much of a lasting impression there. How about I call you by Thursday with the time and restaurant?”
“All right. I’ll look forward to it. Thank you so much for giving me a chance to explain.”
As Luce closed the door behind her guest, she realized she meant it. She wanted to get to know Keira’s mother better. With a bemused smile, Luce went to the answering machine and began to delete all of Jesse’s determined messages, then she paused and pressed “repeat”.
“Ms Sheppard, this is Dr. Morrow’s office calling. It is urgent that we reschedule the follow-up appointment you cancelled. Please call 403-555-7993 at your earliest convenience.”
Luce’s finger hovered over delete. Then she picked up a pen and jotted the number down.
“I’m not making any promises, Keira, but I’ll think about it.”
Ferron barked several times and Luce looked up. “What’s your problem, little missie?”
Ferron was looking past her. As Luce turned, she caught a glimpse of something moving out of the corner of her eye, but it was gone before she could so much as blink.
Luce felt an unexpected sense of peace well up within her. Knowing that she had a long evening ahead and a lot of thinking to do, Luce returned to the kitchen for more coffee, Ferron on her heels. For the first time, she knew that whatever she chose, whatever decision she made, she wasn’t making it alone.