MY DEAREST WISH
This story belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.
This story depicts a romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: December 12th - 17th, 2014 for the 2015 Royal Academy of Bards' Valentine's Day Invitational.
- Thank you for helping me with (some of) the Italian phrases, Xenawp7706. If mistakes are found, it's because I messed up ;)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Wishing upon a star can have a far greater impact than imagined. Tracy Olmstead has just been dumped by her girlfriend and faces spending Valentine's Day alone. Seeing a shooting star, she makes a wish for a happier future and for true, honest love - but she is unprepared for the consequences that are not only romantic in nature, but more than a little magical…
The gentle sound of birdsong stirred Tracy Olmstead awake. Her cozy bedroom was still dark so she pulled the duvet over her fair locks and snuggled down to get a minute or two more.
Less gentle birdsong made the thirty-two-year old blonde sigh out loud and stick a hand outside of the duvet to strangle the bird - or rather her iPhone - before the app would play the third and even louder wake-up call.
The air was chilly so she grabbed the white phone and slipped it under the warm and comfortable duvet. The next round of birdsong had already started, but it was cut off mid-stream when Tracy swiped and pressed the screen to tell the phone she was fully awake and ready to head into a new day.
A mighty yawn was heard from somewhere underneath the warm blanket although it didn't herald further action on Tracy's part. A sound conspicuously akin to snoring was heard before the app's safety feature gave off one, final birdsong signal that once again stirred the slumbering woman.
"Oh, dammit…" Tracy grumbled and pressed the screen again. "Why did I install that stupid app? Nothing but grief and bother," she continued as she swept aside the warm duvet and sat up on the edge of the bed. She pulled down in her over-sized sleeping t-shirt to stop the chill from creeping up her bare thighs.
Her hair was a mess, her hazel eyes were bleary and she had pillow-marks on her left cheek, but other than that, she was in ship-shape. "Great, I love waking up in darkness…" she mumbled, scratching her throat.
She cast a quick glance behind her even if she knew the other half of her double-bed would be empty. Kelli, her girlfriend for the past ten months, always left before dawn to go to work handling baggage at the airport. In the darkness, she didn't notice the white card that had been placed on the other pillow.
Tracy scratched her tummy and reached for her spectacles that she always had on her bedside table next to whichever book she was reading at the time. Once they were perched safely on her nose, she got up and gave herself a long, solid stretch that made her back crack and pop.
Smacking her lips, she tried to put her feet into her favorite slippers but only managed to push one of them under the bed. She groaned and leaned down to find it, but it was long gone. "Oh, this day certainly starts off well," she mumbled as she reached for the switch to turn on the lamp on her bedside table.
Once the lamp cast a pale-orange glow onto the bed and the immediate surroundings, Tracy narrowed her eyes as she zoomed in on the strange, white card on the other pillow. Her slipper forgotten, she hobbled over to the other side of the bed and picked up the card that read,
I'm sorry, but this is as far as we go, you and me. Our talk the other night convinced me that we're no longer on the same path. You want a settled life, fair enough. I'm not there yet. I need to go. I wish you all the best in the future,
PS, just give my jeans, my jacket and my other old clothes to charity. I won't be back for them.'
Tracy's arm fell limply by her side. Her fingers couldn't hold onto the card so it fell onto the plush carpet where it landed with the written side up just to mock her.
Staring into the bedroom without seeing anything at all, Tracy let the past few months glide past her mind's eye. How she and Kelli had met in April at a spring barbecue organized by, of all things, a local church. The romantic courtship that had led to Kelli moving in in late July. Their double birthdays in October that had been celebrated in glorious style at a five-star restaurant and later on in their bedroom. Christmas and the New Year that had both gone well; Kelli had even made a favorable impression on Tracy's notoriously difficult mother.
And finally at the 'talk' about their future they'd had earlier in the week that appeared to have been the last straw for the cute, gorgeous, sexy woman she had shared her heart and her home with for nearly a year.
"Ten days before Valentine's Day," Tracy whispered, shaking her head slowly. "Fabulous timing, Kelli… fabulous timing."
Tracy scrunched up her face into a mask of disgust at a thought that invaded her mind - a cold shiver trickled down her back at the implications. "Was- was that why she wanted to make love last night?" she whispered, clenching her fist around a handful of her sleeping t-shirt. "She wanted a goodbye f-… oh, thank God I wasn't in the mood… that would have made me feel like a… like a… like a prostitute!"
A tear hit her spectacles before it ran down her cheek, but she did nothing to wipe it away. Another tear followed, then another, but Tracy couldn't care less. Sighing, she found the missing slipper and clicked off the lamp on the bedside table so she wouldn't have to look at the white card, the closet where Kelli's clothes were kept, or the photo print-out of Tracy and Kelli mugging for the camera on the wall opposite the bed.
An hour later, the emotional rollercoaster ride inside Tracy barely allowed her to make a mug of strong coffee - she didn't even have enough energy to comb her sleep-tousled hair. She was still dressed in her oversized t-shirt though she had put on a fleece bathrobe and a pair of sweatpants so her legs wouldn't get too cold in the chilly February air.
She tore herself away from the picture calendar on the kitchen wall that showed a one-in-a-billion photo of a shooting star to shuffle into the living room with her coffee. Once there, she sat down in her favorite swivel-base microfiber armchair, kicked off her slippers and folded her legs up underneath her.
Once again, she fell into a deep, dark hole of despair and could only stare at a point on the wall just above the large, black TV. She held the mug with both hands, and the mounting heat on her fingers eventually made her realize that she might as well drink it now that she had gone through all that trouble of making it.
The hands of time raced on relentlessly, and before she knew it, it was past the final deadline for leaving in order to get to work in time. Even the thought of sitting at her desk at O'Dell-Fisher Distribution the entire day taking calls, filling in order sheets and typing up text messages to the delivery drivers sent a shiver through her that made it all the way to her bones.
Sighing, she reached across the coffee table she was sitting at and took the iPhone that she had put there when she had shuffled into the living room like a zombie in a trance. She found the number for the company in the registry and closed her eyes while she waited.
When the call was answered, she sat up straight but kept her eyes closed. "Hi, Jarrod, it's Tracy. I'm afraid I need to take a sick-day… I know it's at very short notice, but- no, I don't have food poisoning," Tracy said and lifted her spectacles to pinch the bridge of her nose. "No, it's… it's the woman-thing. Yeah. Okay? Yeah, I really, really hope it's going to be better tomorrow. Yeah. Okay, bye-bye."
She shook her head at the food poisoning question as she put the iPhone back on the table, but she didn't have enough energy to chuckle. She slipped back into her catatonic state where she simply stared at a point on the wall while all the images of her relationship flashed past her mind's eye.
"That's why Kelli didn't want to give up her apartment," she said out loud after a little while. "Stupid me. Stupid me and my stupid notions of romance and true love and… just stupid. I should have seen it coming… I fell for her 'cos she was everything I'm not. She was brash and bold… sexy. I'm a meek, little kitten. Of course I couldn't keep her satisfied. Stupid me."
She wanted to take a sip of the strong coffee but found she had already had it all. Sighing, she put the empty mug on the table next to the telephone. A few more tears escaped her eyes; rolling down her cheeks, the salty teardrops eventually fell onto her bathrobe and left a little stain.
"Oh, I might as well get on with it," Tracy said and put her feet down on the carpet. "The world doesn't stop turning just because my heart gets broken." She put her hands on the armrests and began to push herself up, but the surge of energy only lasted five seconds - then she bumped back down and let out a sigh that came from the bottom of her soul. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head against the top of the armchair's backrest.
A scant minute later, the doorbell rang.
"Go away… can't you see I'm dying?" Tracy croaked in a tiny voice, but the bell's incessant ringing proved it didn't care about her sorry state. "Ohhhh…" she croaked and got up from the chair.
Sticking her feet into her slippers, she shuffled over to the door and got up on tip-toes to check the peephole. "Mrs. Ferruccio… ohhhh, not today," she said as she pulled aside the safety chain and worked the lock.
She swept the door open and took in the sight of her neighbor, the sixty-nine-year old widow Stefania Ferruccio - originally of Trento, Italy - who was dressed in a stylish skirt suit that made her look like she was a high-society Lady instead of a retired secretary. Her salt-and-pepper hair had been fashionably styled as always, and a touch of dark eyeliner highlighted her warm, brown eyes that matched her bronzed skin perfectly. She wore her age with grace, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to see that she had been stunning earlier in life.
Stefania Ferruccio was also an unstoppable bundle of energy which was the absolute last thing that Tracy needed at that point in time.
"Tracy!" Stefania said and put out both her hands. "Child, I saw you hadn't left for work this morning and I thought I'd better come and check up on you! Are you ill?"
"I know just the thing for illness." Stefania cocked her head and took a long glance at Tracy's unkempt state. "Chicken soup. Mama Ferruccio's legendary chicken soup. Eh?"
"Oh, you know-"
"May I come in? It won't take me but ten minutes to cook up my-"
"Mrs. Ferruccio," Tracy said in a despondent voice. She didn't have enough energy left to deal with the fiery neighbor, but she didn't want to shut the door in her face, either. "Listen, I'm really sorry, but‑"
"Mrs. Ferruccio…" Tracy groaned as she closed the front door. "I'm grateful for your help, but please listen to me…"
"I don't believe it!" Stefania Ferruccio cried, throwing a thoroughly Italian hand gesture. The white card with Kelli's words was slapped onto the table where it danced about for a second or two. "What a crazy broad! How dare she? Quella stronza!"
Tracy didn't know the term, but another, more explicit, hand gesture by Mrs. Ferruccio made it unnecessary to ask for a translation.
They had made strong coffee and were sitting at the table in the living room. Or rather, Tracy was sitting - Stefania Ferruccio's fit of pique meant she was perched halfway between sitting and standing up. Her temper left her as quickly as it had come, and she sat down and crossed her legs in a lady-like fashion. "Oh, what's happened to romance? I'm telling you, child, when my late Enrico courted me, the world still knew romance! He treated me to grand dinners, dancing, moonlight walks… roses! But now… now all you get is, how are you, take off your clothes!"
Tracy chuckled into her mug as she took a sip. "Well, it's not quite that bad yet, Mrs. Ferruccio."
"I watch TV, I know what's going on with you young people," Stefania said and leaned forward on her chair. "The world went off the rails when MTV started showing that hippity-hoppity with all those oiled bikini dolls with their blow-up boobs and their wiggling popos!"
"That's probably true, Mrs. Ferruccio," Tracy said, nodding although she didn't quite think the world had gone off the rails at that point. When Stefania Ferruccio was in such a mood, only nodding and agreeing with her would help.
"Tracy, child," Stefania said and leaned back on her chair, "what you need is a good man of Italian stock. Yes. Strong, beautiful and charming. Good with bambinas and mamas. That's what you need… take it from an expert. If it arouses your interest, I have a nephew who's unmarried… a charming, young man who's working in the banking world."
Tracy bared her teeth in a grimace and cast a sideways glance at her neighbor over the rim of the mug. "Well, I appreciate your efforts, Mrs. Ferruccio, but it's the 'man' aspect that's-"
"Ah, I'm sure I've seen on TV talk shows that some women enjoy male company as well as female."
"Some women, yes… not all women. Not this woman," Tracy said and adjusted her spectacles.
"Ah, bene. We must follow what's in our hearts, yes?" Stefania said and made another Italian hand gesture. Putting down the empty mug, she rose from the chair and smoothed down her skirt. "Thank you for the coffee, it was delightful. I fear I need to go back to my own place now. You see, I'm hosting a small get-together tonight for the closest family. We'll only be a dozen or so. There's plenty of space for you to stop by if you feel like it…?"
Even the mere thought of spending the evening with a dozen loud, joyful Italian-Americans nearly sent Tracy spiraling over the edge into insanity, so she shook her head politely and got up to match her guest. "No thank you, Mrs. Ferruccio. It's kind of you, but I need some time for myself. I need to reflect."
"All right, Tracy. Remember, my door is always open for you if you change your mind," Stefania Ferruccio said and pulled Tracy in for a hug and a pair of kisses on the cheeks. "Oh, one last thing… did the stronza leave behind anything? Perhaps clothes, or-"
"But, Mrs. Ferruccio!"
"Burn it," Stefania said with a steely look on her elegant face. "That's the only way to flush her from your life. And buy one of those air-freshener things so you'll get her smell out. The less that reminds you of her, the faster you'll be able to move on and find someone new."
A quick, nervous smile flashed across Tracy's face at the suggestions. Burning the clothes - or at least tearing them to shreds - had crossed her mind in one of her darker moments earlier on. Ultimately, she had decided to follow Kelli's idea about giving the various clothing items to charity. "I'll definitely think about it. Thank you, Mrs. Ferruccio."
After closing the door behind her neighbor, Tracy leaned against it and let out a long, deep sigh. With tranquility returning to her house, she found that her problems hadn't been swept away by the visit, but had in fact grown larger - on top of everything else, now she had to clean the two mugs. She moved away from the door to get to it, but fell back and let out another sigh. "Later," she said and shuffled into the living room to resume her moping instead.
An hour and a half later, Tracy sat with her legs folded up underneath her in her favorite swivel-base armchair and stared at her white iPhone. She reached out for it, but pulled back before she could reach it. After a few heartbeats, she reached out for it again, but pulled back almost at once. "This is pathetic," she groaned, lifting her spectacles so she could rub her face. "What's the point of trying to call Kelli? She probably won't speak to me. And I have better things to do with my time… and my life."
She fell back against the backrest and let out another sigh. Looking at herself, she realized she really ought to grab a shower and get dressed. "Later," she said, snuggling down into the comfortable chair.
Noon became afternoon, then late afternoon. The only signs of life in Tracy's living room were the blue flashes that came from the TV. She was still sitting in her swivel-base armchair with the remote in her lap, watching a daytime soap with the sound turned off. Now and then, she found yet another cookie crumb that tried to hide in the folds of her sleeping t-shirt - an empty plastic container stood on the coffee table, proving where the crumbs had come from.
At the moment, she was digging a spoon into a large bucket of chunky chocolate ice cream that she proceeded to stuff into her face. She needed the sugar, but she didn't really taste the ice cream.
She was too busy revisiting the countless memories she had made with Kelli, like the time where they'd had an argument in the car coming back from seeing a late movie that had finished too late on a weekday for her liking. It hadn't been a bad argument, but it had been their first. They never really fought, but on the rare occasions where they did, a wall was always built up between them that took an endless amount of work to tear down afterwards - Tracy could see that now.
Kelli was a charming woman when the mood hit her - after all, she had made a positive impression on Tracy's mother - but all too often, she grew into a distant, shielded behavior in private. Even cold on occasion, particularly when a decision went against her. "Maybe it was never her plan to stick around at all," Tracy mumbled around the spoon. "Maybe all I was for her was someone who provided food and lodging… maybe she just thought I was an easy lay. I've been such an idiot… I should have seen it coming."
Sighing, she put the bucket of ice cream on the table and dunked the spoon into it. "How did I ever fall for her? I know why… those eyes, that smile, that charm… it only took a wink and a kiss for me to swoon. She knew what to say. And she was good in bed," Tracy mumbled and shuffled around uncomfortably. "She had me wrapped around her little finger. I would have done everything for her… and I did… but what did she actually bring to our relationship? Tracy Olmstead, what a pathetic fool you've been," she continued in a mumble, pushing up her spectacles so she could bury her face in her hands.
For the umpteenth time that day, tears escaped her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. Instead of wiping them away, she reached for the remote to turn off the TV. When the blue flashes disappeared, the living room fell into an eerie semi-darkness that seemed to creep up on her from all sides at once.
Moving down her spectacles, she wrapped her arms around her as a sudden chill that raced across her body left plenty of goosebumps in its wake. "No, I really need to get dressed," she said and rose from the chair.
Before she could move away from the armchair, the doorbell rang which sounded like the trombones of the apocalypse in the quiet living room. Spooked, she jerked a foot to the side and slammed her legs into the edge of the coffee table. The stinging pain that shot up made her pull her lips back in an ugly grimace, and she reached down to rub the skin that she just knew would bruise.
When the doorbell insisted on being heard again, Tracy limped over to the door and checked the peephole. A delivery man in the familiar gold-and-dark-brown uniform waited outside with a medium-sized package that Tracy recognized as being a collection of books she had ordered from a small publishing house. Sighing, she worked the locks but kept the safety chain in place. "Hello?" she said through the gap in the door.
"Good afternoon, Miss. Are you Miss Tracy Olmstead?" the man said, reading from a hand-held electronic device.
"I have a package for you."
"Listen, can you come by tomorrow or something? Maybe I can pick it up somewhere? I don't… uh, I don't have any money right now." - 'And I'm still wearing a nightshirt at four in the afternoon…' she thought, looking down at her flimsy t-shirt and her bare feet.
"The package has already been paid for, Miss Olmstead. This is merely a delivery."
"Shit," Tracy said and leaned her forehead against the door. Groaning, she reached up to slide off the safety chain, but at the same moment, Mrs. Ferruccio strode up the garden path with a bottle of Amaretto liqueur and a glass jar with what appeared to be large cookies.
Tracy had rarely been happier to see her neighbor, and she let the chain stay on while the impressive lady settled the deal with the delivery man. Soon after, he drove off in his brown truck which left Mrs. Ferruccio holding three things. Something had to give, so she left the new package on the ground while she strode the rest of the way up to Tracy's front door.
"Ciao, bella," she said as she was let inside. The first thing she did was to offer Tracy a quick peck on the cheek. "Oh, you're still not dressed? You need to be dressed when you're visited by men… that delivery guy was pretty handsome."
"Yes, Mrs. Ferruccio," Tracy said with a sigh.
The fiery neighbor put down the bottle and the cookie jar on the coffee table before she strode back out to fetch the square cardboard box that contained the books. "It's heavy. What did you buy?"
"Oh? Romance novels?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Tracy said and closed the door behind her guest.
Stefania Ferruccio smiled at the younger woman as she put down the books and reached for the bottle of Amaretto. The cap was quickly loosened so they could have a drink in case she was offered one - or even if she wasn't. "I love romance novels. Tell me the titles, perhaps I've read them?"
A flash of embarrassment raced across Tracy's fair face, and she scratched her neck to stop the blush that crept upwards towards her ears. "I don't believe you have, Mrs. Ferruccio. They're written for women-"
"I'm old, but I do believe I'm still a woman, child," Stefania said with a saucy wink.
"Ah, indeed… very much so, in fact. Uh, these books are written for women like me. I'll get some glasses for the Amaretto," Tracy said to get away from the potentially embarrassing situation.
Once she came back, Stefania leaned forward to pour two healthy amounts of the golden-brown liqueur into the two glasses. Just when Tracy thought the issue with the books had been forgotten, Stefania leaned back in the chair and pinned the younger woman to the spot with a warm, dark-brown gaze. "Tracy, tell me… these books…"
Tracy took a small sip of the Amaretto before she could even contemplate answering whatever question would come her way. "Yes, Mrs. Ferruccio?"
"Do they talk of a beautiful love? Do they show two people going through all kinds of hell just to be with the other one? Do they have shy glances and holding hands and all the other little romantic things that we women crave?"
"Yes to all of the above," Tracy said and chuckled into her glass before she took another sip of the sweet liqueur.
"Then I'd love to read one."
Tracy licked her lips and put down the glass to give herself plenty of time to compose an answer. "Ah… Mrs. Ferruccio, many of them have erot- I mean, scenes where two, uh, women-"
"Tracy," Stefania said, cutting off her blushing hostess, "sex is the most natural part of living. I'm quite sure I won't get a heart attack reading about two women making love."
"Good… good," Tracy said, looking anywhere but at her older guest. "I'll, uh, come over tomorrow with one of my favorites. I guarantee you'll like it. It's about-"
"No, don't tell me. I wish to discover it myself."
"Okay," Tracy said and took another sip of her Amaretto to get back on track.
Stefania smiled and took the glass jar with the large cookies. "A treat? They're home-made. Genuine Italian almond chip cookies from my home region," she said as she popped the lid and held up the jar so that Tracy could reach into it.
"Thank you very much," Tracy said and took two. "Mrs. Ferruccio, didn't you say you were having some family over for dinner?"
"Oh, I am, but I've never planned ahead with regards to family dinners. We're all Italians or Italian-Americans, and we simply adore the beauty of letting something develop by itself."
"I wish I could live like that," Tracy said as she chewed on the tasty cookie. "I need a bullet point plan to go to work some days… I'm not good with spontaneity." - 'Except for the time where I invited Kelli into my home and bed after two brief dates… and look where that got me!' she thought, momentarily slowing down her chewing. When Stefania kept up the conversation, Tracy swallowed the bitter taste that had built up in her mouth and concentrated on her guest.
It took Tracy until early evening to finally grab a shower and get dressed. She had cried, cried, and cried some more, she had eaten nearly an entire box of ice cream, she'd had multiple mugs of coffee and shots of Amaretto, and she had twice gone on a cookie-binge - first her own, then the almond chip cookies Mrs. Ferruccio had brought.
What she hadn't had all day was a breath of fresh air, and the crying and the lack of oxygen had given her the early hints of a headache. Sitting down on her unmade bed, she tied her shoelaces and traded her spectacles for a pair of contact lenses. Once everything was in place for her trip to the store, she took a pencil and a notepad that she flipped open to the first clear page.
"All right," she said and put the pencil to the paper. "Shopping list, colon. A frozen TV dinner, any kind. I need something fat and salty. Sodas, one six-pack, name brand. Ice cream, not chunky chocolate… maybe strawberry. Hmmm… candy bars."
The list seemed to be complete, but Tracy remembered something Stefania Ferruccio had mentioned. "Air freshener, Alpine Air," she added with a sad chuckle.
From somewhere outside, a car horn honked merrily a couple of times. The honking was followed by the slamming of several car doors and loud, joyful voices. A child squealed, adults greeted each other somewhat loudly and more doors were slammed.
As Tracy rose from the bed and went over to the closet to get her coat, she could clearly hear the overtures of Mrs. Ferruccio's family dinner from next door. A stab of pain brought on by the fact that she no longer had a family of her own to speak of hit her in the heart, and she came to a standstill and simply stared at the closet door.
It didn't help that Kelli's jeans and other clothes were waiting for her just beyond the wooden sliding door. She knew what was coming, and she wasn't looking forward to it. It had to be done in order for her to go anywhere, but she slid open the closet door with her eyes closed in the hope that she could trick fate.
Fate wasn't about to allow itself to be tricked; like she had feared, Kelli's familiar scent greeted her from the old down jacket that hung next to her own coat. Her chin began to tremble, and she needed to move away from the closet to get her bearings. She shook her head and looked sadly at the vacant pillow next to her own. Sighing, she reached into the closet and took her coat without looking at any of the other clothes.
Outside, the chilly February air nearly convinced Tracy to forget all about her trip to the convenience store and go back inside where it was nice and comfortable. The evening of the fourth of February proved to be clear and crisp with no cloud cover and only a hint of a breeze. The lack of clouds meant she had a full view of the deep, dark sky high above even if the lights from the nearby houses polluted some of the view.
All the lights were on in Mrs. Ferruccio's house. Her family provided their own entertainment by talking loudly while they ate; the only times the voices were interrupted came when the cutlery clinked against the plates.
Tracy thought briefly about going over there to invite herself to dinner, but she knew in her heart that it wouldn't be a good idea. Instead, she shuffled down the garden path - past the car that had been parked behind her own in her driveway - and onto the small connecting street.
There had been times where she had cursed the calm, quiet neighborhood with the traditional white picket fences, polished flagpoles and neat gardens, but on this particular night, she was happy that she could go by herself after dark without needing to look over her shoulder every ten steps - earlier, when she had lived closer to downtown in the big city, she had refused to leave her apartment after seven PM, full stop.
Although the air was brisk, the spectacular show across the heavens far above took her mind off the cold on her trip to the store. On the sidewalk she used, one of the street lamps was out, and when she reached the dark shadows between the two posts, she stopped and looked up to exploit the darkness.
Her breath came as a plume of steam that drifted away further down the street, but she kept her gaze fixed on the dark sky high above. She took in the sight of the eternal stars and found comfort in the fact that life on a whole was insignificant and irrelevant when viewed on a grander scale.
Suddenly, a shooting star raced across the heavens exactly in her line of sight. "Oh!" she breathed, staring wide-eyed at the bright streak as it flared up in a blaze of glory. It only lasted for a second or two, but she kept her eyes wide open to take it all in. "Oh… I wish upon a star… I wish I could find love. Honest, lasting, true love… a woman that… that I could confide in, that I could laugh with, tease, pleasure… that I could love! That would be my dearest wish… is that really too much to ask for?"
The shooting star was long gone and offered no reply.
"I guess it is," Tracy said with a deep sigh. She briefly considered going back to her house, but snuggled down in her coat and continued towards the convenience store. Two steps on, she stopped and checked the heavens just to see if her wish had been granted in the meantime. No woman appeared to be floating down towards her on a little, fluffy cloud, so she chuckled and walked on.
The large, well-lit store front windows and garish neon signs of the independent convenience store beckoned at the other side of the four-lane boulevard that marked the edge of the quiet residential neighborhood.
Tracy disliked crossing the wide street on foot at the best of times, but her mental hang-up had turned to near-aversion now - on this otherwise quiet Wednesday evening, it seemed every kid in the city had had the same idea of racing up and down the street in their lowered, loud cars.
At least the boulevard had a raised traffic island in the center so she didn't have to cross all four lanes in one go. With a little effort, she made it to the center and waited for several flashy cars to drive past before she dared to jog the rest of the way to the store.
It was easy to see by the various crates containing items for sale that were lined up outside the store that Valentine's Day was approaching fast. All sorts of kitschy merchandise like plastic roses, fluffy cushions shaped like hearts, gold-colored, low-grade metal finger rings, and fake fur-lined jewelry boxes were offered for prices that ranged from $4.99 to $19.99.
Although she wasn't really in the mood for browsing, Tracy chuckled at the cheapness of the merchandise and shuffled down the line of crates to see if she could find something so awful she simply needed to have it. Nothing called out for her, so she reached into her coat pocket and found her shopping list instead.
The glass sliding doors opened wide, and she stepped into the air-conditioned convenience store. Everything was bright, clean and tidy, and divided into perfectly aligned aisles. She grabbed a shopping basket from just inside the door so she didn't have to carry everything.
A six-pack of name-brand orange sodas was quickly in the basket, as were various candy bars in colorful wrappers. A pack of popcorn for the microwave soon followed, as did a bag of tasty-looking cherry-flavored lollipops. The TV dinners and the ice cream were at the back of the store, so she shuffled down there to check them out.
On her way there, she gave a homeless man carrying a plastic bag with empty beer cans a wide berth although she knew it was impolite. She eventually found the correct refrigerated unit that stored the TV dinners, but the selection on offer only made her crinkle her nose. Nothing seemed particularly inviting, but since she didn't want to spend the entire evening there, she made a fast decision and chose a beef lasagna from the deep freeze.
A man and a woman - clearly a pair, not to mention a good match for each other when it came to having a colorful appearance - walked along the nearest aisle on their way to the refrigerated units. The woman kept up a one-sided conversation that the man nodded at from time to time.
Tracy narrowed her eyes as she took in the sights of the colorful people. The man wore black boots, army pants and a blue down jacket, and he hadn't been anywhere near a razor for several weeks. The woman wore white-and-blue basketball boots with loose laces, pale-blue skinny jeans and a flimsy-looking windbreaker over a white tank top that did a bad job of hiding her medically-enhanced bosom. The best hint the two people were together came from their identical baseball caps, though the woman wore hers back-to-front to hold down her platinum-blond hair.
Every exposed part of the woman's skin save for her head was covered by tattoos, and Tracy could only shudder at the thought of what the concealed skin was hiding.
The woman kept talking about how poor one of the basketball players from the local team was - through language ordinarily heard in a gutter - so Tracy shuffled off to the side to be alone.
"Dontch'agree, huh?" the tattooed woman suddenly said to Tracy.
She clearly expected an answer, so Tracy screwed a smile on her face and shuffled back to them. "I don't know… I know the name, but I don't follow basketball. Sorry."
"What? That ain't right," the woman said, rapidly losing interest in the non-believer. She turned towards the man and resumed trash-talking the player.
Tracy nodded politely and shuffled away from the colorful pair before she would be dragged into another odd argument. The ice cream was the last item on her list, and she picked up a stracciatella just to please Mrs. Ferruccio. The odd basketball fans were still talking at the other refrigerated unit, and Tracy chuckled under her breath at the look and behavior of the woman. 'Oh boy, it takes all kinds…' she thought, putting the frozen container of ice cream into the basket.
With everything ready, she shuffled back up to the check-out. A short line had developed because the store had let a trainee handle the cash register, but it only took a couple of minutes longer than usual.
On her way out, she noticed a reed basket on the counter next to the registers. The basket contained a pile of colorful sample bags from a major chocolate company that was apparently testing the waters for a new line of products. The chocolates looked tasty - and better still, were free - so Tracy snatched two of the small sample bags and stuffed them down her carrier bag as she left the store.
Crossing the four-lane boulevard, she had to run a little faster out to the center traffic island than she cared for when a souped-up car suddenly came at her at speed with hardly any lights, but plenty of honking.
"Turn on your damn headlights!" she said strongly as the dark car whooshed past right behind her. "What a moron," she continued in a mumble, putting down the carrier bag to adjust her winter coat that had been knocked crooked when she had to perform the frantic leap up onto the island.
The traffic going the other way had increased to a endless line of metal boxes while she had been in the store, and it took the good grace of a female driver in a minivan who slowed down and flashed her high beams before Tracy dared to cross the final two lanes.
Safely on the quiet sidewalk on her own side of the boulevard, Tracy put down the carrier bag and snatched one of the sample bags of chocolate as a prize for crossing the road. Grunting, she tore it open and poured the contents out into her hand. The chocolates were multi-colored, round, and just what she needed. She stuffed them all into her mouth at once and began to chew on them. They were revealed to contain peanuts, but that didn't bother her.
Tracy munched merrily on the tasty chocolates as she picked up the carrier bag and resumed her journey home. The harsh, white lights and crude noises of the boulevard were left behind, replaced by orange cones of light from the street lamps and a far more pleasant soundscape on a whole. Looking ahead, she could already see the warm lights that shone from all windows in Mrs. Ferruccio's house.
"Aw!" she mumbled around the crunchy chocolates as she came to a dead stop between one step and the next. "The air freshener! I forgot to buy the damn air freshener… hell… no way I'm going back across the boulevard now… no way." Rolling her eyes, she continued on home.
A hundred yards down the street, the urge to have the other sample bag grew too large to ignore, so she found it and tore it open like the first one. One of the round chocolates went flying over the edge before she could close her fist, but the others were quickly stuffed into her mouth. "Hey," she said around chewing on the soft chocolate and the crunchy peanuts, "this is so great! I hope they start making them… they're addictive!"
The first hint that something was wrong came a mere three hundred yards from home. Her eyes watered up and started to itch so badly she needed to stop to wipe her cheeks that had grown wet in no time. Unlike the many, many other tears she had shed during the day that had all had a natural cause, she couldn't understand where the latest crying came from. "Why are my lenses bothering me now? Maybe they've been contaminated… dammit, that's the last thing I needed," she said and continued on home in a shuffle.
The road back to her safe haven grew longer and longer, and it seemed she was unable to make any progress at all. Each time she blinked away enough tears to see how far she had gone, she was only a few yards further on than the previous time. "Oh, what is this?" she wheezed through a chest that suddenly felt tight.
It wasn't until she noticed that her breathing had turned labored that a spark of panic ignited within her. She stared wide-eyed at the seemingly endless road back to her house and knew in her heart that she wasn't going to make it there. "The peanuts… the damn peanuts," she groaned, resuming her staggering walk. For each step she took, she wheezed harder and harder until she could hardly breathe at all.
The feeling that an unseen pair of hands were strangling her finally made her break out in a panic that sent a cold flash across her body, but the adrenaline that was sent through her system only added to her misery. Wheezing and moaning, she patted down the pockets of her coat to find her iPhone so she could call for help, but she remembered - despite her mind being hazy - that she had left it in the charger on the coffee table.
A strangled sob left her lips, but even that small cry added to the pain. "I'm- I'm not going to die here… I'm not!" she wheezed, putting one foot ahead of the other in an attempt at climbing the impossibly tall mountain that had appeared out of nowhere between her and the help she so desperately needed.
The long-forgotten carrier bag fell from her weak hand and toppled over; the groceries she had bought at the convenience store rolled out onto the street. She didn't have enough energy left to care - her entire focus was on getting back to her own or Mrs. Ferruccio's house to get help.
One staggering step after the other kept her on course for home. Her watering eyes made it difficult for her to see where she was going, and her heart thumped so hard in her chest she was afraid it was about to burst out of its mountings. She held her clenched fists pressed to her coat out of fear of suddenly growing numb, but the acute illness - or allergic reaction - seemed to stabilize at a level that enabled her to press on.
"M- maybe if I t- try to throw up…?" she croaked, needing several breaths to speak the simple sentence. Even the thought of putting two fingers in her throat repulsed her, and she shook her head in disgust. "H- hate throwing up," she croaked, but understood it may be necessary.
She stopped to deal with the unpleasant procedure, but never made it that far. She simply couldn't risk choking on vomit, especially not when her breathing was as labored as it was. "Oh, crap…" she croaked, trying to take a breath deep enough to get oxygen down into her lungs so she could carry on. It took three tries before it worked.
After what seemed an eternity, Tracy finally reached the lamp post where the bulb had burned out. Still wheezing and moaning, she put her hand against the freezing metal post to get her bearings. As she stood there in a cold, shadowy world, she could almost sense the Reaper waiting for her to keel over.
Her skin crawled and her stomach performed an ungraceful flip-flop at the thought of dying alone - or even dying at all - and she forced herself away from the post and further along the sidewalk. On and on she struggled, inching ever closer to her home and the waiting telephone. A surge of additional hope and strength bubbled up inside her that enabled her to move her feet just a little bit faster than before.
Each step she took was a marathon, but she forced herself to only focus on the goal, not the process. She wheezed worse than before and she could hardly see where she was going because of the extremely unpleasant itch that seemed to originate somewhere inside her eyeballs.
Inevitably, she bumped the tip of her shoe against a raised, jagged edge of a cracked flagstone, and she fell forward with a pained yelp. Acting on pure instinct, she put out her hands and managed to break her fall. It hurt her wrists, but rather that than her head.
She leaned back and rested on her thighs in the middle of the sidewalk. The ground was freezing cold, but she didn't have the energy to get up at once. Gasping for air, she looked up at the dark sky with eyes that watered so badly she could hardly see past the top of the lamp posts. "If… if there is anyone or… or anything up there… h- help!" she croaked, rubbing her aching wrists with trembling hands.
A flash of light illuminated her from behind.
"Wh- what? Oh!" she croaked, trying to turn around to see what had caused the flash. A pair of headlights drove onto the quiet residential street, and a car crept towards her going fairly slowly. "Help! Help… help me, please!" she croaked, but her voice was too faint to travel through the dark car's closed windows.
When Tracy realized the driver wouldn't be able to see her as a result of her dark winter coat creating a black hole on the sidewalk, especially as she was just on the edge of the cone of light from the next lamp post, she waved her arms frantically to get the car to stop - but it didn't.
As it drove past her, it accelerated to a regular speed. The driver hadn't spotted her.
Tracy fell back on her thighs and stared silently at the dark shadow as it went out of her limited field of view. The extra work of waving her arms came back to haunt her as a deep pain grew in her chest that made it even harder to breathe properly. Quiet, bitter tears escaped her eyes and ran down her already wet cheeks.
She shook her head in frustration and despair, but she wasn't ready to give up just yet. With the last of her strength, she clambered to her feet. Staring straight ahead without seeing much of anything, she put out her right foot and took a step ahead.
Just as she thought she heard a female voice shouting something that could be 'Tracy', another flash of light illuminated her. This time, it seemed to be stronger and to come from all around her, but she couldn't be bothered to turn around and attempt to flag down the next car.
The step she had started to take finished with her putting her foot down on her garden path. She looked up in a state of thorough confusion that only grew stronger when she realized she no longer had a tight chest - even stranger, her breathing had become clear and unlabored, and her eyes were just fine. "What the hell…?" she croaked hoarsely, staring around the familiar front yard where nothing seemed out of place.
Mrs. Ferruccio's house next door was dark and quiet, but a light was on in Tracy's own living room window, and she could hear soft music coming from somewhere beyond the closed door.
She moved her hands up to cover her face so the frightening nightmare would cease, but the carrier bag she had in her right fist bumped against her stomach and made her look down instead. She didn't have a clear recollection of it, but she was certain she had dropped the bag with the groceries she had bought - so what was the very same bag doing back in her hand?
"Either I've lost my mind…" she whispered into the strange darkness, "… or I've died and gone to heaven… but why should heaven look exactly like my neighborhood?" Worried, she reached in behind her winter coat and put her hand on her chest. The steady heartbeat that greeted her made her let out a long sigh of relief.
Looking around, she couldn't see anything that appeared to be wrong, apart from the fact that a light was on in her window, and she was certain that she hadn't left any lamps on while she had gone to the convenience store. "So I've lost my mind…" she said and tried to pinch the skin on the back of her right hand.
She certainly felt the brief stab of pain. "But is this real or an illusion? Was the scary illness real? Maybe I… maybe I lost my mind earlier today when I read Kelli's note…? Jeez, Tracy, get a grip! You can't have dreamt up the entire day! Much less those weird people at the store!"
Rolling her eyes, Tracy turned around to take a final look at the front yard before she went up to the door. She was about to complain some more about her mental state when the words got stuck in her throat. High above her, the sky was no longer its customary dark hue, but an odd, eerie shade of red.
She slammed her mouth shut and crept backwards to get to safety. Once her heels reached the small step at the door, she dug into her pocket to get her keys, spun around and unlocked the front door in an almighty hurry.
Sweeping the door open, she jumped inside - but came to a screeching halt and stared wide-eyed at the unexpected scene in her living room.
A wonderful aroma of slow cooking food and high-quality wine assaulted her nostrils. The delicious smells obviously came from the kitchen, but Tracy was unable to fathom how it could be possible.
The same could be said for the transformation that had swept over her living room. Her favorite swivel-base armchair was draped in a deep-purple fleece throw, and an elaborate cast iron sculpture stood on the coffee table holding three unlit tealights next to a crystal vase that proudly displayed what had to be at least ten crimson roses with large heads.
Smooth, romantic jazz played from her stereo on the bookshelf next to the TV, and if the whole thing wasn't crazy enough already, a picnic table had been set up in the middle of the living room flanked by two dining chairs.
The picnic table looked like a million dollars with a cream-colored table cloth and matching napkins. Two stylish wine bowls were joined by silver cutlery, crimson rose petals had been distributed evenly on every available surface, and silvery festoons snaked their way around the table on top of the petals.
Tracy experienced a hot flash that came from her utter lack of comprehension. Struck mute from the unexpected events, she took a faltering step forward and tried to poke her index finger into the picnic table to see if it was real or merely an illusion.
Her finger gave it a little push and managed to move it enough for one of the festoons to shift. She stared wide-eyed at the table, then her finger where the table had left a small indentation. 'This is nuts… nuts! I was gone for twenty minutes!' she thought, slowly backing up to the front door. When she reached it, she swept aside the curtains and cast a glance through the window to check what the sky was doing. Unfortunately, it was still the same, eerie red hue it had been before. Mrs. Ferruccio's house was dark and quiet which wasn't right, either.
Scrunching up her face, Tracy unbuttoned her winter coat to get rid of some of the excess heat that had built up inside her. A dark, unwanted thought came to her as she stood there in her living room that looked and felt like someone else's. "Kelli…" she said darkly while her fists slowly balled up to be ready to punch her former girlfriend's lights out. "If you think you can waltz back into my life and bribe me with a damn picnic table after the awful stunt you pulled this morning, you have another-"
Movement at the door to the kitchen made the rest of the angry message get stuck in Tracy's throat. A mere shadow at first, the figure was unmistakably a woman; a woman who stepped into the light with a puzzled expression on her face.
"Hi again, honey! Wow, did you run to the store or what? That's gotta be a new world record," the woman said in a velvety voice. She furrowed her dark eyebrows when it dawned on her that Tracy was alone. "Uh… who were you talking to just now?"
Tracy opened her mouth to reply, but she could barely produce a squeak. All she could do was to stare at the tall woman whose unusually bright, blue eyes formed a stark contrast to her dark hair that had been folded into a tight, neat ponytail that appeared to reach some distance down her back.
The woman's skin was closer to burnt ocher or bronze than pink, and it turned the silvery business-cut pantsuit she wore into a thing of striking beauty.
Tracy's eyes slid down to the bronzed, bare skin above the woman's cleavage and spotted a silver pendant on a thin, leather necklace. She recognized the pendant as one she had inherited from her grandmother. Why the jewelry was now gracing the shapely neck and upper chest of a complete stranger was beyond her.
An electronic ding from the microwave interrupted the silent staring, and the mysterious woman turned around and went back into the kitchen with a look on her face that told a tale of boundless confusion.
Tracy cleared her throat and rubbed her brow. The tour of the woman's physique had been a little more impolite than she wanted it to be. "But who the hell is she?" she whispered as she took off her coat and threw it onto the second of the two chairs at the coffee table.
She rubbed her brow again and decided to take the bull by the horns - or whatever the proper term was when it came to confronting an unknown woman who had invited herself to make dinner in someone else's kitchen.
Before she could shuffle away from the living room, the other woman came back out with a lighter for the tealights. They locked eyes for a brief second, and Tracy felt a shock of warmth and familiarity exploding inside her. She was home - in more ways than one. There was an unexplainable bond between her and the other woman; it was like they had known each other for years.
A genuine smile formed on Tracy's lips and she instinctively held out her hands. "I'm sorry I acted so weird before…" - 'What's her name? God, what's her name? I don't even know her!' she thought before she licked her lips and took a step closer. "I experienced something odd… no, scary on my way back from the store and I needed-"
"Oh, honey," the other woman said and hurriedly wrapped her long arms around Tracy's smaller frame. "What was it? Did someone bother you? Tell me and I'll find them… and give them a solid ass-kickin'!"
Tracy chuckled as the woman's fighting words were backed up by the strength in the arms that were wrapped around her. Standing so close, she couldn't help but inhale the woman's dark, musky natural scent that seemed to hold a faint edge of some kind of chemicals similar to those found in hospitals. They hugged for a few seconds before she pulled back. "No, nothing like that. I thought I'd become really ill… but it vanished just as quickly as it had come. I don't know what it was."
"Oh, just like the other time? Honey, maybe we should call the doc?"
"The other time?" Tracy echoed, furrowing her brow. The entire situation was one long, insane trip, but even so, she couldn't recall the last time she had been ill, at least not to such an extent. "Oh, uh… no. It wasn't that bad… it only lasted for a minute or so. I'm just fine… honey."
'How can I find out your name so I won't be so damned clueless?' Tracy thought, discreetly looking around her home to find something that would provide a pointer as to what on earth was going on.
The other woman smiled at Tracy in a worried fashion before she stepped over to the coffee table and lit the tealights. "The food isn't quite ready yet. I hope you'll enjoy it."
"It smells delicious… I'm sure I will."
"Good," the other woman said and clicked off the lighter.
They gazed at each other for a few seconds before another electronic ding from the kitchen came between them. The tall woman smiled and strode over to the kitchen door.
Tracy let out the breath she had been holding. 'I need to find out what her name is, dammit…' she thought, chewing on her cheek. 'I must be suffering from acute amnesia or something… maybe I really did fall and bump my head? But that can't explain the red sky!'
She shuffled over to the deep-purple throw at her favorite swivel-base armchair and let her fingertips glide over the smooth fleece. 'What the hell is all this? And why did I get that pang of familiarity before? God, it was so strong… I haven't felt anything like it since… huh, ever. I'm so confused… but there must be a perfectly logical explanation to all this… maybe I was drugged at the convenience store…' She shook her head and leaned down to sniff the gorgeous roses.
The large quantity of Amaretto and coffee she had consumed during the day ganged up on her and made her bladder send out an alarm call. The bathroom break would give her an opportunity to look through the other woman's clothes in the bedroom - if there were any. "Uh… honey? I need to go to the little girls' room. Do you need me for anything right now?" Tracy said strongly to be heard over the smooth jazz and the sounds from the kitchen.
"No, I'm on top of everything," the other woman said, standing in the doorway and wiping her hands on a tea towel.
Tracy smiled at her and made a beeline for the bathroom.
While Tracy conducted her business, her eyes roamed around the bathroom that was still ninety-five percent the one she remembered. Her eyes fell on a white lab coat that hung on a nail on the smooth tiles next to the wash basin. It had never been there before, so it had to belong to the mysterious woman with the strong hug and the velvety voice.
As she washed her hands, Tracy craned her neck to look at the lab coat. Although it was standard issue and fairly non-descript, it had a dried coffee stain on it which was probably the reason for it to be in there in the first place. A plastic bottle of stain remover on the wash basin confirmed the theory. Tracy quickly dried her hands on a towel and swept aside the lab coat to search for anything that could help her discover the woman's identity.
A small name tag on the left side said Senior Nurse M. Castellacci.
"Castellacci? I guess she could be Italian-American with her coloring," Tracy mumbled, moving the lab coat around to search for other clues. She couldn't find any, and the pocket didn't yield anything other than a few pieces of fluff. "Senior nurse… that would explain the faint smell of hospital disinfectants. A nurse… how did I come across a nurse? Or maybe she came across me… who knows."
Tracy glanced around the bathroom but found nothing out of the ordinary, save for the strange, but strangely welcome, fact that everything had been doubled; among other things, there were two bath towels - a blue and a green - two toothbrushes and two tubes of toothpaste. Her regular tray of body and hair care products stood where it had always been, but it had been joined by another tray with pricier products.
"Castellacci," said and let out a chuckle as she went through the expensive cremes and gels in the new tray. "Well, Mrs. Ferruccio did say I should look for someone of Italian stock… I wonder what she thinks of it all…? Hmmm," she mumbled, taking one of her own hand cremes and squeezing out a small blob onto her palm.
Rubbing the creme into her hands, she scrunched up her face and cast a final glance at the bathroom before she opened the door and clicked off the light. The mysterious woman was still busy in the kitchen, so Tracy made a detour and shuffled into the bedroom.
She kept standing in the doorway, thinking back to the awful heartache she had suffered when she had found and read Kelli's card the same morning. "Or whenever that was…" she mumbled, sitting down on her side of the bed. The book on the bedside table wasn't one she remembered, but the cover photo and the blurb looked and sounded promising.
"She must have a wallet somewhere," she said quietly, rising from the bed to check out the closet. Like earlier in the day, she closed her eyes when she pulled the sliding door to the side so she wouldn't have to look at Kelli's leftover clothes. She had resigned herself to suffer through the scent, but she was surprised to see - or rather smell - that no traces of her former girlfriend were found inside the closet.
Tracy moved aside some of her own winter coats until she came to a stylish, and no doubt expensive, high-quality winter jacket. Looking over her shoulder at the entrance to the bedroom to make sure she wouldn't get caught snooping, she patted down the stylish jacket to feel if a wallet could be found in one of the pockets. She was in luck: her probing fingers soon brushed against a square object in the inside pocket.
The wallet was quickly snatched and opened. Credit cards, ID card, bank card, a driver's license - all were issued to Marina Castellacci. Tracy did some quick mental arithmetic and worked out that Marina was thirty-seven. "Wow, five years older than me… she looks younger. It's probably the ponytail," she mumbled as she put the wallet back into the inside pocket and closed the sliding door.
The fact that she knew Marina's name was a load off her mind, and she walked back into the living room slightly less worried than she had been before although one huge question remained unanswered: how was any of this possible?
She leaned against the doorjamb to the kitchen and watched Marina check the contents of the oven. Whatever the dish in there was, it sent out the most incredible aroma when the door was opened, and Tracy's stomach replied at once by growling out loud. She grinned and patted her tummy.
"Someone's impatient," Marina said and closed the oven door. "It's almost done. Only ten more minutes and the pulled chicken is ready to go."
"Oh, pulled chicken? I love pulled chicken," Tracy said and moved away from the doorjamb.
Marina looked at her like she had grown a second head. "Well, duh. I guess that's why you bought it, right?"
"Oh yes, ha ha. Just checking… honey," Tracy said and put out her hands to pull Marina into a brief hug.
The mysterious Marina Castellacci smiled at Tracy and took off the oven mitts so she could wrap her long arms properly around the smaller frame. "Mmmm. Which reminds me, did you buy the mineral water for the wine?"
"Mineral water? No, I bought a six-pack of orange sodas. And some lollipops. And stracciatella ice cream," Tracy said and moved back from the hug. "Hey… what happened to that, anyway? I… I lost the carrier bag… out there… on the street… when I fell ill…" she said in a voice that slowly trailed off.
"Honey, are you sure you don't want to lie down before we eat? You had the carrier bag on your arm when you came back from the store!" Marina said, holding the shorter woman tight, but keeping her at arm's length.
Tracy shot the other woman a puzzled look that was transferred to the living room floor. The carrier bag hadn't been moved from where she had put it, which was just inside the front door. "Wait a minute," she said and hurried into the living room. She picked up the bag and put it on the coffee table. Sure enough, she was looking down at a six-pack of mineral water. "How is that possible…?" she whispered, looking back at Marina.
A flash of concern raced across the dark-haired woman's face, and she strode over to the white iPhone that she had put on the kitchen table so she wouldn't have to stray too far from the oven in case the telephone rang while she was busy. "That's it, sweetie, I'm calling the doctor…" she said with her finger already flying across the screen.
"No, no… no, Marina, you don't have to do that… I'm just so confused today."
"Honey, are you dehydrated?"
"No, I've had plenty of coffee…"
"No, you haven't…"
"Yes, I have- I haven't?"
"No. Not since this morning."
"Shit. That must have been some other day," Tracy said and furiously rubbed her brow.
Marina stared down at the iPhone; then up at Tracy. She put the phone away and instead took Tracy by the hand. They shuffled over to the swivel-base chairs where she helped her partner down into her favorite spot. "Honey, you're scaring me. I don't like to see you like this," she said, kneeling down and grabbing hold of Tracy's hands. "Are you sure you're all right? Do you want a headache tablet or something?"
"No, but… oh, Marina, I'm just not myself today," Tracy said and let out a deep sigh. 'How much does she know? Where the hell am I? Did I die after all? No… no afterlife can smell so good. But who the hell is she? Look at her, she's genuinely concerned about me,' Tracy thought, looking at the worry that was plainly evident in the mysterious woman's eyes.
Marina reached up and placed a warm, caring hand on Tracy's cheek. The long fingers caressed the smooth skin for so long that it was obvious they were more than passing acquaintances. "Honey," she whispered, slowing down her gestures, "when I look into your eyes, it's… it's almost like I don't recognize you. Before you left for the store not half an hour ago, you were the Tracy I love, but now… it's almost like you don't even know me. It's almost like you're someone else…"
"I- I can't explain it, Marina…" Tracy said with a sigh. The look of sadness in Marina's expressive eyes was nearly bowling her over, and she wanted nothing more than to smack herself silly for apparently forgetting their entire relationship. "I'm… I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me. B- but I feel that we belong together…"
Marina furrowed her brow and shook her head in confusion. "Well, I would sincerely hope so. I mean… we've been… this is our… oh…"
An electronic ding from the kitchen curtailed the conversation, but Marina just had time to place a quick kiss on Tracy's lips before she got up and left for the oven.
The tingling left behind by the soft lips was strong enough for Tracy to turn the swivel-chair around and stare wide-eyed at the mysterious woman striding into the kitchen. She reached up and brushed her fingertips across her lips like she couldn't believe how nice it felt.
A pang of happiness shot through her, but it receded all too quickly and was replaced by a sense of worry that she was going to mess it up somehow with her crazy, selective amnesia. "All right… so perhaps I have lost my memory… or my marbles… but that still doesn't explain the red sky outside… should I ask her about that? What if she can't see it? I'll end up in a straitjacket! I better keep quiet… I don't want to risk anything," she mumbled, sighing deeply.
'The pulled chicken is ready! I'm taking it out of the oven now!' Marina said from the kitchen. Metallic sounds were heard as the ovenproof dish was extracted from the oven and transferred to the kitchen table. Once it was done, Marina came back to the door to see if Tracy's condition had improved. "It's just got to breathe for a minute or two before I add the seasoning sauce. Are you sure you're even up for eating, honey?"
"Yeah. I'm starving," Tracy said and got up from the swivel-base armchair. She didn't add that binge-eating cookies would only get you that far - it wasn't even a given she had binged on Mrs. Ferruccio's almond chip cookies in this world, wherever or whenever it was.
"Good. Would you mind whipping some air into the salad? And take the dressing from the fridge?"
"Not at all… I'm on it."
Tracy opened the refrigerator and took a garish green plastic bowl that contained the salad. She looked into it and noticed that she loved all the ingredients - lettuce, sweet corn, yellow bell peppers, cucumbers and tiny fragments of crunchy red onion. "Oh… this looks great," she said in the hope of finding a safe topic.
Marina spun around and pinned her to the spot with a deeply concerned blue gaze. "It should. You mixed it not an hour ago," she said in a hoarse voice.
"Oh…" A brief shiver ran down Tracy's back as she thought of the countless number of times she had used the entire kitchen table to mix her favorite salads. She didn't want Marina to notice, so she quickly grabbed a bottle of creamy diet dressing that she proceeded to shake violently.
"Honey… this isn't funny anymore," Marina said in a voice that sounded suspiciously like she was trying to control it so it wouldn't tremble. "What's wrong with you? What happened on that damn trip to the store? Were you attacked after all? Did you get bumped on the head? What? Please tell me, Tracy… please!"
"I fell ill, dammit!" Tracy said and thumped the bottle of dressing down onto the counter. "I fell ill… my eyes itched like hell, my chest tightened up… I couldn't breathe… I d- don't know what the hell happened, all right!?"
"Can we just eat? Please, Marina?" Tracy said and reached out for the taller woman. "I don't wanna think about it. I feel much better now… no, I feel wonderful now that… that I'm here with you. And that's the honest-to-goodness truth. It's like all my pains and fears were swept away when I got back here…"
A few tears escaped Marina's eyes and she scrunched up her face into a mask of worry. Taking Tracy's outstretched hands, she pulled herself into a warm, crushing hug. "First thing in the morning, we're going to see Doctor Scott… something's wrong… something's terribly wrong with you, sweetie…" she mumbled into Tracy's blond locks.
Tracy sighed deeply and allowed herself to be held by the mysterious woman who had managed to capture her heart in a matter of ten minutes. "I'm so sorry I'm scaring you, Marina… it's just… I… hell, I can't explain what's going on."
Instead of replying, Marina began to quietly sway left and right to the smooth jazz that was still playing on the stereo in the living room. Tracy didn't need any persuasion to follow the moves, and soon, the two women were dancing silently in each other's arms in the middle of the busy kitchen.
The gentle, romantic touch created a wonderful warmth that flooded Tracy's heart and soul. She let herself be swept away on the crest of the wave that rolled through her gracefully. She had no recollection of the woman in her arms beyond the ten minutes she had spent in her company, but she didn't really need any. All she needed was to feel the strong arms holding her tenderly, feel the warm body close to hers, and hear the even breathing that tickled her hair.
She already had all those things, and she was happy - or at least, as happy as she could be with so many unanswered questions.
The pulled chicken in the ovenproof dish on the kitchen table sent out the most delicious aroma that made Tracy's stomach growl. She chuckled and moved back from the swaying hug.
Eventually Marina came to a halt. The two women locked eyes and transmitted a telepathic message between them that said that no matter what ailment had struck Tracy, the love they shared would make sure they would see it through together. A kiss was inevitable, and Marina soon leaned down to claim Tracy's lips.
Leaning her head back to ease Marina's access, Tracy closed her eyes to shut out the entire world save for the lips she was waiting for. When the sweet contact came, it was far better than she had expected. The tingling returned with a vengeance and sent little sparks of recognition through her; sparks that tried hard to penetrate the odd fog in her brain.
They were unsuccessful, but a shimmer of intimate familiarity had been formed. When Tracy and Marina broke off the kiss, they rested their foreheads against each other and grinned goofily.
"At least…" Marina whispered, interrupting herself to lick her lips, "at least that hasn't changed. You still kiss like a dream."
"I'm glad it hasn't," Tracy breathed. "Hey… I kiss like a dream? You kiss like a dream!"
They grinned at each other before they separated to continue preparing dinner. While Tracy stirred the salad to air it, she watched Marina split the pulled chicken and add the spicy seasoning sauce. As soon as everything was ready, they carried the slow cooked meat, the salad bowl and the bottle of dressing into the living room.
The pulled chicken, the salad, the dressing, a basket of Grissini Oregano breadsticks and a bottle of chilled white wine were placed carefully on the table. Smiling in expectation of an interesting dinner, Tracy moved over to Marina's chair to help her sit down, but she had to chuckle out loud when Marina had done the exact same thing at the other side of the table - she was now standing at Tracy's chair.
"Perhaps we should just sit down… or else we'll never get anything to eat," Tracy said with a wink.
"Perhaps we should," Marina said and sat down on the chair she had already pulled out for Tracy. She quickly scooped up a large portion of the slow cooked chicken and spread it on her plate. The salad and the dressing quickly followed before she moved her hand towards the basket with the breadsticks. She didn't take one - instead, she glanced up to shoot Tracy a cautious look.
Tracy caught it as she put chicken on her own plate. The dish smelled so good she could hardly wait to eat it, but she could tell by the look she was getting that she was supposed to do something before they could eat. 'But what? Say Grace? Can't be, I've never said Grace in my life… of course, she's of Italian descent so maybe she's a Catholic? Nah… and what are we celebrating, anyway? It's February fourth, for crying out loud… it's not my birthday, and it's not hers either. I checked her driver's license and it said April. There's a week and more to Valentine's Day… although it does kinda look like a Valentine's Day table now that I think about it… the breadsticks? She's waiting for the breadsticks? Maybe I'm supposed to give her the first? Or maybe break it in two? Oh… didn't Mrs. Ferruccio tell me an anecdote about breaking breadsticks once? Something she did with her late husband? God, I can't remember…'
All of this had taken place within the first two seconds of Tracy noticing that she was being watched. To cover her uncertainty of what she was supposed to be doing, she decided to cut to the chase - or rather the breadsticks. She took the one on top, broke it in two and handed the other end to Marina. "Here you go, honey," she said with a smile.
Marina's face cracked open in a broad, relieved smile as she took the halved breadstick and put it on her plate. "Thank you. I love you. Now we can eat."
"I… I love you too," Tracy said, using the tongs to scoop up a large wad of salad. She paused to look at the mysterious woman at the other side of the picnic table who had already started eating. 'Do I love her? I think I certainly could… if I got to know her better. Oh, I dearly wish I could get to know her better…' she thought as she took the bottle with the dressing.
After the main course but before dessert, Marina had taken the empty plates back out to the kitchen where she was rummaging around for something.
Tracy leaned back in the chair and patted her full tummy. The food had been delicious, and she had eaten her fair share of the pulled chicken and the salad - perhaps more than her fair share. A sated smile spread over her lips as she took the final oregano breadstick and began to chew on it absentmindedly.
'Found it!' Marina said from the kitchen.
"Do you need help?"
Marina came out to stand in the doorway with a small bag of something. "Not now. Two minutes ago, yes."
"Ha ha," Tracy said and winked at the other woman.
"Just sit tight… I'll be in with the ice cream, the ciliegia sauce-"
"Cherries," Marina said with a grin, "…and the whipped cream in a minute… but first… a special thing that I found in a novelty store to highlight our special evening," she continued, returning to the kitchen. A moment later, she came back holding a large white-and-princess-pink candle shaped like a three. She had lit it and it was burning with a tall, bright flame.
Tracy stared at the odd candle and grabbed hold of the edge of the picnic table as a sense of acute panic shot through her at the speed of sound. 'Three? Three what? What is this? What are we celebrating?' she thought, staring a hole in the garish candle.
"Don't you think it's cute?" Marina said and carefully put the burning candle on the table. She pushed aside a couple of napkins so they wouldn't be in harms' way. "Yeah, okay, it's pink and white… it's probably meant for a little girl's third birthday… that's why I thought it would be the cutest thing ever to mark our three-year anniversary."
"Our three-year anniversary…" Tracy croaked in a voice that didn't sound like her own at all. 'Oh my flippin' God… three years? Something's not right here… no, something's dead wrong here! Three years?! I can't remember anything about Marina, but I can clearly remember everything I did this morning… Kelli's note… the heartache… the Amaretto… the cookie binge… Mrs. Ferruccio talking about MTV… the books… when did that all happen? No wonder Marina's worried about me acting so weirdly… we… we've… God, three years! That's what I've always wanted… always… and now I can't remember a damn thing about it!'
She took a deep breath and reached over to put a hand on top of Marina's. Smiling nervously, she tried to conceal the storm of emotions that raged within her. "The years have just flown by, haven't they?" she said in a trembling voice, caressing the back of Marina's hand with her thumb.
"They have," Marina said with a smile. "That's what happens when two people love each other."
"Yeah," Tracy said, studying the large candle. Working on their own, Tracy's eyes slid over to behold the tall, mysterious, dark-haired woman at the other side of the table. They shared a connection, that was undeniable. Even the simplest of touches, like holding hands, felt so right that she never wanted to let go.
Almost like Marina had been party to Tracy's thoughts, she got up from the chair and slithered over to her partner's side of the table. There, they shared a sizzling gaze for a heartbeat or two before they closed the distance between them to hardly anything at all. "Happy anniversary, love," she husked before they offered each other a deep, loving kiss.
Upon separation, Marina ran her long fingers down Tracy's brow and cheek. "I do love you, you know… a lot. No, more than a lot. A helluva lot," she said with a chuckle before she leaned down to kiss Tracy again.
The long, tender fingers caressing Tracy's skin sent an entire wave of electric currents through her heart and soul, and she could do nothing but lean into the new kiss and reciprocate it with all her might. "And I love you a helluva lot, too, Marina…" she said and broke out in a snicker. 'It's not even a lie… I do love her… I haven't a clue how that's possible, but I do. It's an honest love… a true love… just like I wished would happen.'
Marina snickered back and took Tracy's hands in her own. As she went over to sit on her own chair, she never released the firm grip. "Isn't it wonderful how something so beautiful can come from something to frightening and ugly?"
"Uh… yeah…?" Tracy said and furrowed her brow.
"If Mrs. Ferruccio's nephew hadn't found you when he did, you wouldn't have made it to the hospital in time. You were having a full-blown allergy-triggered seizure… I've never seen anything like it," Marina said and gave Tracy's hands a little squeeze. "And if Mrs. Ferruccio hadn't insisted that you were given the best possible treatment… which apparently included an Italian-American nurse… we would never have met. Isn't it amazing?"
Tracy's throat tied itself into a rock-hard knot that brought an unwelcome reminder of how she had felt out on the street when the terrifying illness had first struck her. She let out a strangled croak and gave Marina's hands a hard squeeze. "And it's already three years ago…" she croaked, staring teary-eyed at the woman opposite her.
"Mmmm. Almost to the day. You were brought in on February… hmmm…"
"Fourth…" Tracy croaked.
"Fourth, right! I took over on the sixth when you came out of the medically-induced coma. I tended to you until you were released on Valentine's Day. By then, you had me in such a dreamy state I could hardly remember my name! Isn't that funny? That's why I like to call Valentine's Day our anniversary date," Marina said with a little grin. "After you were released from the hospital, I called you day and night under the false pretense of asking how you were doing when all I really wanted was to hear your voice. I was such a love-struck goof… remember?"
"Oh, but you already know all of that… let's not ruin our special evening with old horror stories. Sit tight while I'll get the dessert and the Amaretto. Okay?"
"Okay," Tracy said with an odd jerk of the head that was supposed to be a nod. She tracked Marina moving away from the table. As soon as she was alone, she let out an explosive burst of air and grabbed hold of the table with both hands. She stared wide-eyed at nothing at all while the news filtered through her brain. "A seizure triggered by an allergy… the damned peanuts! I remember that, but I can't remember anything from the following years," she croaked under her breath so Marina wouldn't be alarmed. "It's so unfair to Marina… so damn unfair… I'm not the woman she loves… yet. Perhaps I will be… God, I'm so confus-"
A flash of light raced through the living room, causing Tracy to jump in her chair and look around in a panic. From one second to the next, her chest became tight and her breathing turned impossibly labored. "It's… it's happening again… oh no, it's happening again!" she cried in a voice that turned muddled like she had lost the ability to speak.
At the final moment before she keeled over and fell from the dining chair, she thought she could hear a female voice crying her name in a wild, unrestrained panic. She fell endlessly into a bottomless, pitch black abyss. At one point, she thought she could hear an ambulance siren; at another point, the strong scent of hospital disinfectants trickled through her nostrils. Then everything went quiet.
Beep, beep, beep, beep…
Tracy wrestled with the swirling mist in her mind, but it was tough going. No matter how hard she resisted, the darkness was determined to engulf her completely. She struggled against the inky blackness that somehow sent an image of being stuck inside a sleeping bag into her tired brain.
Beep, beep, beep, beep…
A pinhole of light at the furthest end of the tunnel she had just entered offered her a promise of a possible rescue - if she could only get there. The light wouldn't stay still but traveled around as she tried to reach it; always finding a way to elude her grasp by going left, right, up and down at just the right time.
Beep, beep, beep, beep…
She finally jerked her arm out to grab hold of the light. Her fingers caught an edge of the pinhole and tore it larger and larger. The light increased though it never got particularly bright. Instead of a regular hue, it had a weird orange tone that made it difficult to see anything.
Beep, beep, beep, beep…
Gasping, Tracy suddenly realized the beeping came from medical equipment, maybe a life support machine that she was hooked up to. With a lot of effort, she cracked open both eyelids and glanced around. She was in a hospital bed in a private ward. Monitors and machines were lined up on the left side of the bed. Several cables ran down underneath her warm blanket, and a tall aluminum rack by the bed carried a drip that was fed into her left hand.
The night lights were on, casting a creepy, orange glow over everything in the room. It was impossible for her to see the walls at the other side, but she didn't really care.
Beep, beep, beep, beep…
She tried to move her limbs, but her body felt like lead. A tide of panic swelled inside her at the thought that something was dead wrong. Pressing her lips together, she began to look around for anything that could explain why she was in a hospital bed. She couldn't see enough to work out the details, but she had a devilishly sore throat. 'Allergy-induced seizure!' she suddenly thought, echoing Marina Castellacci's words to her at the Valentine's Day dinner she had just left behind.
Responding to her agitation, the beeping became faster and louder - a sound she grew an instant disliking to. Beeping meant that someone was in trouble. Maybe the seizure had caused her to stop breathing so her brain had been without oxygen for too long.
'Have… have I become a vegetable? Oh, God, please let me have a normal life… please… I need to know… a panic button… where's the panic button? They must have a panic button!?'
She looked down at herself and found a bright orange button attached to a cord that had been placed next to her right hand. It took a lot of effort to move her hand the single inch to the left, but she finally managed to wrap her fingers around the button. She didn't know if she should yank the cord or press the button, so she did both.
The action caused a red light to blink somewhere beyond a door that she could suddenly see the outline of. The rhythmic flashing was reflected on the smooth linoleum floor underneath the door, and it didn't take long for her to hear footsteps rapidly approaching her room.
The door opened and a woman dressed in a white lab coat entered the room. She appeared to have dark hair, but it was impossible for Tracy to see clearly through the odd, orange lighting.
As the woman crossed the smooth floor, the strip lights in the ceiling were activated. Bright, though soft and pleasant, light shone down upon the hospital bed, Tracy, and the nurse who hurried over to her side.
Tracy nearly swallowed her tongue out of shock and surprise when the nurse was revealed to be Marina Castellacci - who seemed a few years younger than the version she had just spoken to. Her tired brain finally gave up trying to wade through the loose threads of time and space, and she just lay there and stared at the dark-haired nurse.
"Miss Olmstead?" Marina said quietly in her familiar, velvety voice. She briefly read the details from a clipboard that she'd had under her arm before she leaned down towards the frail woman in the bed. "Please don't be alarmed. You're in the intensive care ward at the Craig Downing Memorial Hospital. How are you feeling?"
Tracy opened her mouth to reply, but hardly a squeak would come out - not only from the shock of seeing Marina, but from the fiery pain that shot up from her throat when she tried to get it to form a word. "F- fine…" she whispered hoarsely in a voice that sounded like an entire quarry was trying to push its way up her vocal cords. "I'm fine… I'm awake."
"You must be," Marina said and offered Tracy a brief smile. "Miss Olmstead, you have been in a medically induced coma since you were admitted two days ago with-"
"An allergy seizure," Tracy whispered.
Marina narrowed her eyes and looked down at the top piece of paper on the clipboard. She traced the first paragraph with her index finger before she looked back at her patient. "It says here you were unconscious when you were brought in. How do you know we diagnosed you with an allergy-triggered seizure?"
'Because you told me!' Tracy thought, wanting to tell her future partner about everything that had transpired. She decided to keep a lid on what she knew - after all, she'd most likely be seen as a nut job if she told Marina the truth. "Oh… sore throat," she croaked as an all-encompassing answer to the question.
"Yes, you must have," Marina said and put the clipboard at the foot end of the bed. She reached onto her belt and found a cell-phone like radio. "Let me page Doctor Kersey. She'll bring you up to speed."
Tracy tried to smile at the woman she had just had dinner with - though in which reality the dinner had taken place was still unclear to her - but she was so tired it never went beyond a faint creasing of her lips. "Thank you," she whispered.
Later the same day, Tracy awoke from a short slumber that had been brought on by the lengthy session where Doctor Kersey had tested, tapped, poked, probed and prodded her all over. The doctor had apparently thought it a smashing success because she had performed the procedure twice when once had been plenty.
It was less successful on a whole for Tracy who still suffered from a sore throat even after the doctor had left. She yawned and smacked her lips. Once she was fully awake, she tried to shuffle around in the hospital bed, but the drip and the sensors that were attached to her chest to measure her heart rate and the quality of her breathing restricted her ability to move.
Looking down, she noticed a green cord with a button near her left hand that was similar to the panic call at her right hand. She figured it was for issues that were important but not quite emergencies. 'I feel like talking to someone… scratch that, I feel like talking to Marina. I wonder what she'd say if I told her it's been written in the stars that we'll end up in a loving relationship? She'd call the psych ward on the double. Ugh. I better be cautious,' Tracy thought as her fingers crept towards the green button.
After the button had been pressed, it only took a minute or so before Marina Castellacci opened the door and peeked in.
Tracy used her free hand to wave her over. "Do you have a minute for me?" she croaked. "I need to hear a human voice and not that beep-beep-beep thing."
"Of course, Miss Olmstead. Just a moment," Marina said with a chuckle. She briefly stepped back out into the corridor beyond the door, but soon came back holding a chair and carrying the indispensable clipboard under her arm. "Is there anything in particular you'd like to talk about?" she said once she was seated on the stackable chair.
At first, Tracy fell quiet and simply observed the other woman. They had held hands, they had hugged, they had kissed. Perhaps they would do all those things again sometime in the future. She would certainly work for it. The very real possibility of a romantic relationship with the nurse made it all worthwhile - well, she could have done without the allergy seizure. "Tell me," she said in a croaky voice, "what date is it? How long have I been here?"
"It's February sixth, Miss Olmstead. You've-"
"Please, Mar… uh, Miss," - 'Ohhhh, I nearly said her first name that she hasn't told me yet… ugh, pay attention, Tracy!' - "Call me Tracy."
"All right, I will. Hello, Tracy, my name is Marina."
"That's such a pretty name," Tracy said with a smile.
Marina blushed and looked down at the clipboard to have something to do. "Thank you. Anyway, you've been here for nearly two days now. You were brought in late on February fourth with a highly critical seizure triggered by an allergy."
"Peanuts," Tracy croaked.
"Indeed. You suffered an acute allergy reaction to the chocolate-coated peanuts. The torn sample bag was discovered on the sidewalk close to where you were picked up by the ambulance."
"I had two bags… probably what got me."
"Could be. You haven't had problems with peanuts before?"
Tracy shook her head. "No. Who found me?"
"A Mr…" - Marina looked down at the clipboard - "Manchini. A nephew of your neighbor, Mrs. Ferruccio. Who, I might add, has flat out ordered me to take care of you until you're fit and healthy. Apparently, she's considering it a sign from above that I'm Italian-American. She was quite adamant that no one else should tend to you. We have plenty of other patients, so that's not entirely possible."
"That's Mrs. Ferruccio all right," Tracy said and let out what had supposed to be a chuckle. It only came out as a strangled, gravelly croak, and she reached up with her free hand to rub her sore throat.
"Perhaps some lemonade will help you?" Marina said and rose from the bed. "Red lemonade?"
"W- works for me."
"I'll be right back."
"Okay," Tracy croaked, but Marina was already out of the door. It only took a scant minute for the nurse to return with a stack of plastic cups and a pitcher of red lemonade.
Smiling, Marina poured some of the contents into the first cup and held it carefully to Tracy's lips.
After drinking like a woman who hadn't had a drop for years, Tracy lowered her head back down on the pillow and broke out in a wide smile. "Thank you… much better. So… it's February sixth? That's eight days before Valentine's Day."
"Indeed it is," Marina said and put the pitcher of lemonade on an all-purpose trolley that she pulled over from its place against the far wall. "Where were we? Oh yes, Mrs. Ferruccio has been in a couple of times since then to check up on you, but I'm afraid that only close relatives are allowed to enter the intensive care ward."
"My parents and I aren't in touch. They live in another state, so… and my… uh… girlfriend left me on the morning of the same day I collapsed in the evening."
"Oh… I'm so sorry to hear that. Must have been a pretty bad day overall," Marina said and squeezed Tracy's free hand. "I'm… I'm afraid she hasn't been here to visit you."
"I didn't think she would. She's history. Old news," Tracy said and squeezed Marina's hand in return. 'And I'm looking at the future…' she thought, smiling at the nurse who smiled back.
Marina pulled away her hand to flip over a few pages on the clipboard. "Now, the reason for your sore throat is that we had to… and I'm sorry for the graphic description, Tracy… we had to insert emergency air tubes down your throat to assist your breathing. Your windpipe and bronchi were so swollen because of the allergic reaction that you weren't able to breathe on your own."
"Ew… that doesn't sound pleasant… but I guess the alternative is worse," Tracy said and blinked a few times as a shiver briefly trickled across her body. Smiling nervously, she reached over to pat Marina's thigh. "Thank you."
"Oh, you're very welcome. For the time being, I'm afraid you're restricted to liquid nourishment. Tube food."
"Oh… no pulled chicken, then?"
"Mmmm… not unless we have that in a tube," Marina said with a wink. "You know, I don't think we do. Do you want me to check?"
Tracy grinned and shook her head. "Nah. We'll save it for later."
Marina came by to see Tracy several more times that afternoon and evening, bringing liquid dinner, a gossip magazine and a bedpan. The latter was worse than either of the former, but everything was taken care of in good order.
Wiping her hands on a moist towelette that neutralized any germ she could have picked up, Tracy leaned her head back on the pillow and stared at the advanced machinery she was still hooked up to. Marina and Doctor Kersey had told her she would need to be monitored in the intensive care ward for at least one more day before she could be wheeled into a regular ward. There, she would have to share a room with another patient, but Marina had promised she would still come by now and then.
That was the best part for Tracy. Each time the dark-haired woman peeked in through a gap in the door, her heart rate picked up and she couldn't stop smiling. It was slowly getting embarrassing since her heart was under constant surveillance by one of the machines next to the bed. More than once, the little squiggly line and the beats-per-minute readout had gone pitty-patty when Marina was standing close, and Tracy'd had to explain she felt no discomfort whatsoever despite what the apparatus was claiming.
Marina hadn't quite believed her and had already spoken about upping the dose of Tracy's painkillers, but Tracy had managed to talk her out of it. There was no way she was going to spend her days in a dizzy blur when such a gorgeous woman could - and did - visit her on a regular basis.
Tracy snuggled down in the bed and closed her eyes. A smile formed on her face, but it faded when she thought back to the eventful day that had ended with her being admitted to hospital. 'What's amazing is that I can remember all of it… Kelli's note, the despair, the conversations I had with Mrs. Ferruccio, the book delivery that I never got around to verify, the ice cream, the trip to the convenience store… even the moron who zoomed past me with hardly any lights on his car. And the illness… damn, I don't need to remember any part of that, but I do… my itching eyes, the labored breathing, mmmm. And then meeting Marina for the first time at our three year anniversary! Oh, she was so beautiful… will be so beautiful… hell, she just is beautiful, full stop. And the kisses. Oh my word, those kisses.'
Tracy smacked her lips and looked around in case she was about to be visited. When everything was quiet, she snuggled down again and picked up her train of thought.
'In the future, Marina told me she had fallen for me here while she was my nurse. I don't see it yet, but I don't want to force the issue… it has to develop naturally. Can't wait to experience a romance with Marina, oh my God! I'll bet she's the world's kindest and most giving lover… oh, I better not go there while I'm hooked up to the machine. Anyway, there's plenty of time until my release on Valentine's Day. Heh, I better not mention that ahead of time… she'll call the psych ward again. But isn't it amazing that my simple wish sent to that shooting star could come true? Truly amazing…'
A pair of squeaky shoes walked past out in the hallway beyond the door, but Tracy knew it wasn't Marina as her shoes didn't squeak.
'Was that whole dinner scene a dream? A hallucination? A vision? No idea… but I do know those kisses made my knees knock. Hey… wait a minute… what if it was real? What if I really was transported three years into the future? God, I hope not 'cos that would mean the future Marina just witnessed me falling off the chair… no, no, no, that would be too cruel… no, it can't be real. The red sky, remember? Yikes, this is all too much for my poor, little brain,' Tracy said and cracked open an eyelid to see if she was still in the room at the hospital.
To be safe from any potential time travelers that could arrive and snatch her back to the future, she dragged the blanket so far up it nearly covered her chin. "But what'll happen in three years' time?" she mumbled. "Ohhh, whatever we do at that anniversary, I better avoid going to the convenience store… or better yet, avoid peanuts… avoid them like the plague!"
After having been poked and prodded once more at the evening ward round, Tracy yawned so widely her jaw nearly fell off its hinges. She snuggled down in the bed, but before she could get too comfortable, the door was opened and Marina peeked in. Tracy broke out in a wide, genuine smile and hurriedly waved the nurse over.
Marina crossed the smooth linoleum floor with silent steps until she was at Tracy's side. "Hi. It's almost lights-out for tonight. I just wanted to apologize for the many blood samples we had to take… not to mention the repeated prodding by Doctor Kersey. She's our allergy specialist, and I believe the critical condition you were in when you came to us has made a lasting impression on her."
"I've turned into a guinea pig!" Tracy said and let out a chuckle that came far more easily than earlier in the day.
Marina grinned back and moved up to the top end of the bed. "Do you want me to fluff your pillows for you? They're quite messed up."
"Oh… yes, please. Thank you," Tracy said and slowly moved up into a sitting position, helped by Marina's strong hands. For a few seconds, the two women leaned against each other, and even the simple touch sent a wave of warmth flowing through Tracy. Though she was tired, she smiled wistfully when she inhaled Marina's scent that was already the same as it would be three years down the line. The quiet moment was disturbed by the heart rate monitor suddenly picking up speed. "Traitor!" she mumbled, staring at the squiggly line that danced about.
"Pardon?" Marina said, helping Tracy back down onto the freshly fluffed pillows.
"Oh, nothing… you know, I think there's something wrong with that machine… it seems kinda erratic."
"Perhaps it needs to be calibrated," Marina said and sat down on the edge of the bed. She took Tracy's free hand in her own and gave it a little squeeze - a second later, the heart rate monitor picked up speed all over again. "Mmmm, you're right… it does seem to be a bit on the jumpy side."
The subsequent silence was filled by friendly gazes that flew back and forth between the two women. Marina finished the little therapy session by squeezing Tracy's hand again before she stepped off the bed to prepare the medicine for the night. "Oh, by the way," she said as she stood at the trolley, "in case you're wondering what happened to your street clothes, they're all in the closet there. The key is in the left drawer of the trolley next to the bed," she said and pointed at first a white built-in closet with a sturdy lock on it and then at another trolley close to the bed.
"Oh, okay… thank you. Do you know what happened to my contacts?"
"I'm sorry, I don't."
Marina smiled at the profanity while she mixed the medicine. "Mrs… oh, what's her name…"
"Ferruccio, no doubt."
"Ferruccio, that's right," Marina said and rolled the R's like only an Italian-American could. "Well, she helped us undress you."
"Yikes. Okay. But why?"
"She said something about you not wanting to be touched by men…?"
Tracy blushed and moved her free hand up to cover her eyes. "Jeez… oh boy. Ohhh boy. Give her one little snippet and she'll weave a grand blanket…"
"Yes. She also said you were Lebanese, but…"
Tracy simply stared at Marina who seemed to find it all rather funny. "Yes, that's me all right," she said drolly as she plopped her head back down on the fluffed pillows. "Tracy Olmstead of Lebanon. How do you do?"
Marina chuckled and brought a small plastic cup over to the bed. "How do you do, Tracy… I'm Marina Castellacci, also of Lebanon," she said with a little wink as she sat down on the bed. "All right, back to the serious matters. This gray liquid is a painkiller. You need to drink it all. Do you want a sleeping aid as well?"
"No thank you. I've never had trouble sleeping," Tracy said and took the plastic cup. She cast a wary, almost apprehensive glance at the gray, murky liquid, but decided she was a big girl and downed it all in three gulps. Her throat gave her a little grief, but it was nothing she couldn't handle.
"That's good. You're an easy patient," Marina said and took the cup. "Now, if you feel any discomfort whatsoever during the night, just use the green button and the night nurse will pop in. If it's worse than discomfort, use the red panic call."
"Thank you, I will. Do you have the night shift?"
"No, I was here last night. I'm going home in thirty minutes."
"I wish I could do that… maybe in a few days?"
"Definitely," Marina said and gave Tracy's hand another little squeeze. "Please don't give up hope, Tracy. This was simply an acute allergy attack. If you stay away from the thing that triggered the seizure, you won't have any trouble in the future… namely peanuts."
"No peanuts!" Tracy said and shook her head. "Good night, Nurse Castellacci."
"Good night, Miss Olmstead," Marina said and shuffled away from the side of the bed.
"Oh… I have one, final request for the night…"
"Sure. Do you need a bedpan?"
"Ah, no… but would you mind staying in here until I've fallen asleep? I know it sounds really pathetic and childish, but… but it's a little scary being alone in here…"
"No problem, Tracy," Marina said and moved over to the chair she had placed against the opposite wall earlier in the day. Sitting down, she crossed her legs in a lady-like fashion and got comfortable on the hard char. "I'll just sit here until you doze off. Sweet dreams."
"Thank you. You too, when it's your time to hit the sheets," Tracy said and snuggled down in the impersonal hospital bed. She closed her eyes and started to drift off into the land of nod. All kinds of images, good and bad, swirled past her mind's eye, but she focused on the good stuff - like wishing upon the shooting star, and the tangible result of that wish: the kind, beautiful woman sitting across the room that she had just celebrated her three-year anniversary with despite only knowing her for half a day.
The last thing Tracy sensed before she fell into a dreamless sleep aided by the liquid painkillers was a tingling echo of the glorious kisses she and Marina had shared at the Valentine's Day party three years into the future. It wouldn't be the only time they kissed, not if she had any say in the matter. After all, the shooting star had granted her her dearest wish; only a fool would squander such an opportunity, and Tracy Olmstead was no fool.