The sharp emotion of her response implied that they were at the hard point on which the lever of their relationship was balanced, the point on which it had turned from light to dark, from hope to hopelessness.
Designing software, running a business, you learned to recognize lever-point moments, to bear down on them and by bearing down to lift the whole enterprise over an impediment and swing it toward success.
“Please tell me,” Ryan pressed. “Tell me what I’ve done.”
Her hand tightened on his so fiercely that her grip hurt him and her fingernails gouged almost to the point of drawing blood.
“Love you and yet talk about it? Face to face? Impossible.”
“But if you love me, you want to get past this as much as I do.”
“There is no getting past it.”
“We will get past it,” he insisted.
“I don’t want to destroy everything.”
“Destroy what? What’s left if we don’t try?”
“The year we had together when so much was right.”
“That can’t be destroyed, Sam.”
“Oh, yes, it can. By talking about this.”
“But if we just-“
“And nothing to be gained now. Nothing to be set right by words. Nothing to be prevented.”
He opened his mouth to speak.
She stopped him before his inhalation escaped him as another breath of pleading words. “No. Let me keep loving you. And let me remember the time when I was in love with you, let me have that forever.”
Because Ryan was so abashed at the purity of her passion, at the realization that she had loved him more entirely than he perhaps had the capacity to understand, and because still he did not know what need he had failed to fill, what mistake he had made, he could reply with only two words.
Once more, she stopped him before he could speak. “Don’t say you’re lost. Don’t say it again.” Her eyes were lustrous with grief and her voice tremulous. “It’s true. I accept it’s true, and that’s why I can’t bear to hear it again. I just can’t, Winky.”
She pulled her hand from his, not angrily but with a quiet desperation, got to her feet, hesitated as if she might change her mind and sit again, but then turned and walked away.
For fear of chasing after her, Ryan remained on the bench, in the glassy sunshine, the red ivy geraniums as colorful as a Tiffany lampshade, the shop windows a blur of glare, the arcs of water in a fountain shimmering like Steuben and splashing into the receiving pool with a bright, brittle, shattering sound.
Eventually he noticed the young Asian woman standing twenty feet away, in front of the bookstore. She appeared to be watching him, and must have seen him with Samantha.
She held in both hands perhaps half a dozen stems of pale-pink lilies rising from a cone of florist-shop cellophane tied with a blue ribbon.
Concerned that she might be an admirer of Samantha’s book and, intrigued by his tête-à-tête with the author, might approach him to discuss the novel, Ryan rose from the bench. He could only tell this woman that he was lost, and she, too, would be unable to help him.
The winters of the past half decade had been among the chilliest on record for California, though temperatures that made a local reach for a sweater might seem like picnic weather to anyone in Maine or Michigan. With two hours of unseasonably balmy daylight remaining, Saturday crowds strolled the sprawling open-air mall, more to bask in the sun and to people-watch than to shop.
At one time, these multitudes would have energized Ryan, and he would have found the scene engaging. Now they made him edgy.
Recuperation from transplant surgery had required a period of calm and quiet. Thereafter, he avoided crowds, out of concern his immunosuppressant drugs would make him vulnerable to colds and flu that might be hard to shake. Eventually he spent more time at home not because of medical necessity but because he had come for the time being to prefer solitary pursuits.
This throng did not push or jostle, but wandered the mall maze at a relaxed pace. Yet these people seemed like crushing legions, a buzzing swarm, an alien species that would sweep him along to some inescapable hive. As he made his way toward the parking lot, he resisted a plein-air claustrophobia that, had he surrendered to it, would have sent him running pell-mell for open space.
Crammed with vehicles, the enormous parking lot was largely still and quiet. By this tail-end of the afternoon, most people who intended to come to the mall had already arrived; and with two hours of window-shopping weather remaining, few were ready to go home.
As he found the row in which he had parked, as he walked toward the farther end where he had left his deuce coupe, Ryan dwelt on the look in Samantha’s eyes. He thought she pitied him, but now in his misery, he suspected it had been something even worse than pity.
Pity is pain felt at seeing the distress of others, joined with a desire to help. But Samantha could not help him; she made it clear that she could not. What he had seen in her eyes seemed more like commiseration, which might be as tender as pity, but was a compassion for the hopeless, for those who could not be reached or relieved.
The sun oppressed him, the glare of windshields, the heat rising from parked cars, the scent of tar wafting up from the hot blacktop, and he wanted to be home in the cool of the solarium.
“Hello,” said a voice behind him. “Hello, hello.”
He turned to discover the Asian woman with the bouquet of pale-pink lilies. She was in her twenties, petite, strikingly pretty, with long glossy black hair, not fully Asian but Eurasian, with celadon eyes.
“You know her, you know the author,” she said, her English without accent.
If he was too short with her, his rudeness would reflect on Sam, so he said, “Yes. I know her. Used to know her.”
“She is a very good writer, so talented.”
“Yes, she certainly is. I wish I had her talent.”
“So compassionate,” the woman said, stepping closer and with her glance indicating the book he carried.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said, “but I’m afraid I have to be somewhere, I’m late.”
“A remarkable book, full of such insights.”
“Yes, it is, but I’m late.”
Holding the lilies with both hands, she thrust them toward him. “Here. I can see the sorrow between you and her, you need these more than I do.”
Startled, he said, “Oh, no, I can’t take them.”
“Please do, you must,” she said, pushing them against his chest with such insistence that one heavy bloom broke off its stem and fell to the blacktop.
With pungent pollen from the stamens abrasive in his nostrils, nonplussed, Ryan said, “No, see, I’m not going anywhere that I’ll be able to put them in water.”
“Here, here, you must,” she said, and if he had not taken the crackling cellophane cone in his free hand, she would have let the flowers fall to the ground.
Although he had accepted the lilies, he tried to pass them back to her.
He felt suddenly that he had been scorched, a line of fire searing along his left side. An instant later a sharper pain followed the hot shock of laceration-and only then he saw the switchblade knife.
As the lilies and the book dropped from Ryan’s hands, the woman said, “I can kill you any time I want.”
Stunned, clutching at his wound, Ryan collapsed back against a Ford Explorer.
She turned and walked away at a brisk pace toward the parallel row of cars, but she did not run.
The blade had been so sharp, it slit his shirt without pulling the threads, as cleanly as a straight razor slashing through one sheet of newspaper.
Reaching cross-body, right hand slick with blood, he frantically traced the wound. It was not ragged enough to be a laceration, more like an incision, about four inches long, too shallow to require stitches, not mortal, just a warning cut, but deep enough to have discernible lips.
He looked up and saw that, as petite as she was, she would swiftly disappear through the crowded rows of cars, perhaps in one of which she would escape.
Shock had silenced him. Now that he thought to shout for help, he could summon only a wheeze.
Looking for someone to call to his aid, Ryan surveyed the surrounding lot. In the distance, two cars moved away along the trunk road from which the rows of parking spaces branched. He saw three people on foot, but none nearby.
The woman with the knife vanished among the vehicles, as if she liquefied into the glass glare, into the heat rising off blacktop.
Ryan possessed his full voice now, but only cursed quietly, having had time for second thoughts about making a public spectacle of himself. Anyway, she was gone, beyond finding.
He crushed a few lilies underfoot, without intention, as he made his way to the dropped book, which he plucked off the pavement with his clean hand.
At his ‘32 Ford coupe, perspiration dripped off his brow onto the trunk lid as he fumbled in a pants pocket for his keys. He had broken out in a sweat that had nothing to do with the warm day.
In the trunk he kept a tool kit for road repairs. With it were a moving blanket, a few clean chamois cloths, a roll of paper towels, and bottled water, among other items.
He stuffed a chamois through the tear in his shirt and pressed it to the wound, clutching his arm to his side to hold the cloth in place.
After he washed his bloody hand with bottled water, he half opened the folded moving blanket and draped it over the driver’s seat.
A Chevy Tahoe cruised along the parking lane, but Ryan didn’t hail the driver. He wanted only to get out of there and home.
He heard her voice in memory: I can kill you any time I want.
Having been excited by the drawing of his blood, maybe she would decide she needed to come back and kill him now.
The Ford single overhead cam 427, built solely for racing, had enough torque to rock the car as it idled. Behind the engine was a Ford C-6 transmission with 2,500-rpm stall converter.
Leaving the parking lot, Ryan was tempted to take the streets as if they were the race lanes of a Grand Prix, but he stayed at the posted speed limits, loath to be pulled over by the police.
The car was not a classic but a hot rod, totally customized, and Ryan had hands-free phone technology aboard. His cell rang, and even in his current state of mind, he automatically accepted the call. “Hello.”
The woman who had slashed him said, “How is the pain?”
“What do you want?”
“Do you never listen?”
“What do you want?”
“How could I make it any clearer?”
“Who are you?”
“I am the voice of the lilies.”
Angrily, he said, “Make sense.”
“They toil not, neither do they spin.”
“I said sense, not nonsense. Is Lee there? Is Kay?”
“The Tings?” She laughed softly. “Do you think this is about them?”
“You know them, huh? Yeah, you know them.”
“I know everything about you, who you fire and who you use.”
“I gave them two years’ severance. I treated them well.”
“You think this has to do with the Tings because my eyes are slanted like theirs? It has nothing to do with them.”
“Then tell me what this is about.”
“You know what it’s about. You know.”
“If I knew, you wouldn’t have gotten close enough to cut me.”
A red traffic light forced him to stop. The car rocked, and under the blood-soaked chamois, the stinging incision pulsed in time with the idling engine.
“Are you really so stupid?” she asked.
“I have a right to know.”
“You have a right to die,” she said.
He thought at once of Spencer Barghest in Las Vegas and the collection of preserved cadavers. But he had never found a connection between Dr. Death and anything that happened sixteen months previous.
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “I know you want something. Everyone wants something. I have money, a lot of it. I can give you anything you want.”
“If not stupid,” she said, “then grotesquely ignorant. At best, grotesquely ignorant.”
“Tell me what you want,” he insisted.
“Your heart belongs to me. I want it back.”
The irrationality of her demand left Ryan unable to respond.
“Your heart. Your heart belongs to me,” the woman repeated, and she began to cry.
As he listened to her weeping, Ryan suspected that reason would not save him from her, that she was insane and driven by an obsession that he could never understand.
“Your heart belongs to me.”
“All right,” he replied softly, wanting to calm her.
“To me, to me. It is my heart, my precious heart, and I want it back.”
She hung up.
A horn sounded behind him. The traffic light had changed from red to green.
Instead of pressing on, Ryan pulled to the side of the road and put the car in park.
Using the *69 function, he tried to ring back the weeping woman. Eventually the attempted call brought only a recorded phone-company message requesting that he either hang up or key in a number.
When he had a break in traffic, Ryan drove back into the street.
The sky was high and clear, an inverted empty bowl, but the forecast called for rain late Sunday morning, continuing until at least Monday afternoon. When the bowl was full and spilling, she would come. In the dark and rain, hooded, she would come, and like a ghost, she would not be kept out by locks.
Ryan parked the deuce coupe and got out, relieved to find the garage deserted. Standing at the open car door, he withdrew the blood-soaked chamois from inside his shirt, dropped it on the quilted blanket that protected the driver’s seat, and pressed a clean cloth over the wound.
Quickly, he folded the bloody chamois into the blanket, held the blanket under his left arm, against his side, and went into the house. He rode the elevator to the top floor and reached the refuge of the master suite without encountering anyone.
He put the blanket aside, intending to bag it later and throw it in the trash.
In the bathroom, he washed the wound with alcohol. Subsequently he applied iodine.
He almost relished the stinging. The pain cleared his head.
Because the cut was shallow, a thick styptic cream stopped the bleeding. After a while, he gently wiped the excess cream away and spread on Neosporin.
The rote task of dressing the wound both focused him on his peril and freed his mind to think through what must happen next.
To the Neosporin, he stuck thin gauze pads. Once he had applied adhesive tape at right angles to the incision, to help keep the lips of it together, he ran longer strips parallel to the wound, to secure the shorter lengths of tape.