Susanne shivered. Rain had settled into a steady drizzle, and dark clouds hid any vestiges of the evening sun. One of the very last pink and golden leaves of the season fluttered in a gentle breeze and then, without warning, careened from the heights to land on her head. She tried not to take offense as she plucked off the ragged symbol of autumn beauty and held it before her eyes. She glanced up. “Trying to tell me something?”
Her car, tilted at an odd angle sat before her like a shopping cart that had lost a wheel. Without premeditated thought, she kicked the flat tire and immediately regretted her actions. “Oh, holy cow, that wasn’t so smart!”
“I’d say not. It might decide to kick back, and then where’d you be?”
Susanne glanced across the road and met a strange woman’s gaze. Embarrassment and a tinge of fury ran laps around her insides. She knew perfectly well that she looked pathetic. She certainly felt pathetic. But heck, no one need make snide comments. Widening her stance like a prizefighter preparing to enter the ring, she ignored her toes yelping for immediate attention and faced the stranger. A scene from the OK Corral flashed through her mind.
Apparently, the strange woman had never seen the movie, didn’t comprehend body lingo, or she simply didn’t care how terrible Susanne’s day had been since she breezed across the street as if it were mid-summer and the sun was shining.
Susanne peered at the outstretched hand. Like now was a perfect time to say howdy and make friends!
“I’m Georgia. Visiting my niece this week from Michigan. I saw the flat and hoped the owner might be some muscled guy who worked for an auto station.” Her eyes roved over Susan’s petite form and shrugged. “Guess not.” Her eyes continued their stroll and landed on the elementary school. “You’re a teacher?”
Mental fibers started to snap, but with a mighty yank, Susanne gripped her emotions and demanded that they stay in line. “Office secretary. Terrific job. Just, I can’t get home with a flat tire.”
Georgia pointed to the trunk. “You got a spare in there?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually changed one myself, but I watched my sons do it three or four times. How hard can it be?”
Bundled in a winter coat over a thick sweater, it was hard to tell Georgia’s body build, but Susanne guessed it to be somewhere between a heavyweight wrestler and Highland Dwarf. “Well, we can try, I guess. I hate to call the service station. So bloody expensive just to take it a few miles.”
In the style of a Commander and Chief taking charge of his army, Georgia flipped open the trunk, swept back the cover, lugged out the spare, dropped it handily on the ground, snapped open the enclosed tool kit, and plopped down on the wet ground, fitting the crank under the car. “I think it goes here.”
The word “think” sent another shiver down Susanne’s spine. But since Georgia seemed to be on a roll, she had no desire to interrupt. When it came time to unscrew the bolts, Susanne regained a modicum of self-respect by remembering “lefty-loosey” and thus saved her rescuer heaps of time.
The sudden downpour didn’t seem to affect Georgia like Susanne thought it would. In fact, it appeared to have no effect on her at all. The gray-headed woman unbolted the flat, switched out the tire, and then bolted on the spare with the same calm composure one would expect from a surgeon doing his fiftieth appendectomy. The painful tangle in Susanne’s middle began to loosen. Just a bit.
Once everything was put away and Georgia slapped her hands free of street grit and broken leaves, Susanne felt her newly assembled composure disintegrate. “Can I pay you for your—I would’ve—”
Georgia waved the suggestion away. “You would’ve called a tow truck and paid a bundle. How far you live from here?”
“Oh, just a few miles. It’ll be fine. I really…” As Susanne pictured her empty apartment, loneliness galloped over confusion and ran it into the ground.
“Well, before you go, I want you to come in and have a hot cup of tea. My niece is off on one of her trips. God knows where this time. That’s why I’m here. I saw her for a few hours and off she ran. I stay and watch the house for a week. She’s got an old Tomcat that can’t find his way from the yard to the food bowl without help. So I got the job.” She shrugged. “At least it’s something to do…” She grinned at the replaced wheel. “In my declining years.”
Embracing a hot cup of tea like a rescue buoy and ensconced on a very comfortable chair, Susanne wondered why this stranger felt like the best friend she never had.
Georgia plunked down, set her cup on a side table and leaned forward, clasping her hands over one knee. “Seems to me that you’d already had a bad day before you even saw your flat tire.”
Susanne’s sudden tears surprised her. But it was her own wracking sob that unhinged her.
Georgia sat comfortably in her chair, waiting, not cajoling or trying to hurry the process. She simply let the strange woman before her cry her eyes out.
Susanne could not have been more grateful. After she wiped her eyes with a tissue that seemed to spring out of thin air, she sat back, took a long sip of her lukewarm tea, and sighed. She lifted her gaze.
Georgia munched a fig newton. Completely at ease. No agenda. No tapping foot or imploring expression. Just calm acceptance, as if to say, “So this is how today is going. Huh.”
Susanne exhaled, pulled her feet onto the couch, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I lied today. Have you ever lied?”
Georgia grunted. “Oh, yeah. Of course. We all do. Sometimes on purpose with lots of planning. Sometimes on the spur of the moment without thinking. We usually have a fairly good reason. Or at least, we think we do.”
“Well, I lied for one simple reason. To get back at someone who hurt me. I wanted her to feel bad. The details don’t really matter. Maybe she deserved it for the way she treated me. But the lie was all mine. I knew it was wrong. But I did it anyway. And what’s worse, I did it over and over again so that this woman’s reputation will now be forever shattered. Or at least, questionable.” The tears started again. “I wanted to punish her, but I punished myself far worse.”
“And then you got a flat tire.” Georgia snorted. “Bet you thought Someone was trying to tell you something, eh?”
Nausea rose and started an open rebellion in Susanne’s stomach. She couldn’t look up.
“Listen. You did an awful thing. No matter why, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. So deal with it. You admitted it to me. So tomorrow, go tell the people involved that you lied. Apologize to your enemy, regain your self-respect, and stop hating yourself.”
Susanne blinked, her eyes stinging with the effort. “It’s not that simple. I’m the nice person. Everyone looks up to me. They trust me. She’s the witch everyone hates. If I do that, they’ll think I’m some kind of blithering idiot trying to be a hero.”
“Well—in a way—you are.”
A cat appeared on Susanne’s right. It crouched, sprang, and landed on her lap. She yelped in surprise. And then, as the truth of Georgia’s words hit home, she laughed.
Georgia grinned “You like cats?”
“Not usually. But this one—” She peered into the orange-eyed calico as he kneaded his paws into her lap and started his engines full throttle. “He’s fine.”
“Good. I’ll leave him in your care while I go warm up the kettle. I think one more cup is in order before I send out into the rainy night.”
Susanne leaned back against the chair and felt the cat curl up in a contented ball. Her shoulders relaxed and warmth spread throughout her whole body.
Clare flopped down on her bed with her arms spread wide and her legs dangling over the edge. A black cat jumped forward and curled up on the pillow, nearly blanketing Clare’s face. With a nudge, Clare pushed the shorthaired feline aside. “Hey, you, pillow-stealer!”
The cat blinked, yawned expansively, and then laid its head back on the pillow.
After slapping the light panel off, Clare nudged the cat to the side and wiggled contentedly under a thick blanket. “Ah, nothing like a well-deserved rest after a long, hard day’s work.” She closed her eyes, murmuring, “Nothing you’d know anything about.”
Only a faint moonlight shone through the window, illuminating the sharp edges of her dresser and a couple wall pictures. With the pleasant sensation of drifting into dreamland, Clare’s lips curled into a contented smile.
Clare sat bolt upright. She knew she had heard a sound, her name, but who— She blinked and swallowed, her mouth half-open. Peering over the sleeping cat, she braced herself. Nothing. She frowned. Her eyes scoured the darkened room as she tensed for the slightest noise. Silence. With a shake, she gripped the blanket and pulled it tight around her shoulders and lay back down.
It took a little time to release the tension in her body, but soon her muscles relaxed, and she felt comforting drowsiness claiming her.
“Clare, I must speak with you.”
Shooting like a star across the room, Clare was in her robe and slippers before the cat could slip out the door. She swiped her Dustbuster off the dresser and held it firmly with both hands, aiming at the door. “Who are you?”
A long, weary sigh floated like a ghostly scent through the room.
Clare twirled like a ballet dancer, nearly falling off balance. “What the hell?”
“You’ve forgotten me? I’m affronted. Saddened, actually. I thought seeing me in person would forever sear me into your memory.”
Clare lowered the weapon as her formerly pink face blanched of all color. She slapped at the light panel, illuminating the room. “Damn you!”
“I certainly hope not. Unkind, Clare, very unkind!”
Omega appeared in the center of the room. He stood, dressed like an ordinary Newearth human in loose-fitting, black pants, a light blue sweater, and brown loafers. He lifted his arms and twirled like a model on a showcase runway. “Like it? The very epitome of ordinary. I’m trying to blend in, you see.”
Clare raised the Dustbuster again. “Why are you here?”
Omega snapped his fingers and the Dustbuster instantly rematerialized as a stuffed animal—a pink and purple giraffe. “Please, stop playing ridiculous games. I have very little time, and I have a score to settle with you.”
Clare stared at the stuffed animal, her eyes widening. She threw it against the wall and glared at Omega. “A score with me? I should be the one—”
“Yes, of course! You made it quite clear in the courtroom, before my nearest and dearest, what you thought of me. A devil you called me. You have no idea, Clare, really, no idea at all.”
Pressing her hands together, as if to hold them back from spontaneous combustion, Clare shook her head. “You play with us like toys.” She glanced at the stuffed animal that now lay forlornly in the corner.
Omega huffed. “Because you don’t understand, you lie about me. How human! I simply won’t stand for it any longer. Why do you hate me? Or rather, why do you think you hate me?”
Clare’s breathing rose and fell in shuddering gasps. “You—killed—my—parents! And then you wanted to analyze my suffering—”
“Lies, lies, and more lies. I did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I saved your life. Your parents died of poisoned stew, true, but to be quite honest, I don’t know who poisoned them. But I did realize that someone intended to wipe out your whole family, so I went out of my way to make certain that you were safe. I watched over you like a devoted father hen.” Omega paused, one eyebrow rising.”I’m not sure that works.” He shrugged. “Anyway, when I asked you questions, it was to get to the bottom of the mystery—to protect you.”
Clare stood rooted to the floor. A flush spread over her cheeks. “It can’t be. You never cared.”
“I always cared.”
Omega stamped his foot. “I don’t have time for this! I have to leave soon, and I have a request to make.”
Clare stared stone still and silent.
Omega stepped closer, his gaze boring into Clare’s. “Watch over Justine and the child. That silly idiot named her Aurora. How cliché. Like some Disney film. Oh well, I didn’t endow Max with the creative talent I offered Justine—poor fellow. In any case, I’ll soon be—how shall I say—indisposed for a time.”
Clare stepped forward. “But there’s trouble coming, something called Cosmos is on the loose—”
“Yes, I’ve heard. Unpleasant, but then biological life is always perilous. Ask the Bhuaci, they know.”
“But I can’t protect Justine or anyone, not against Cosmos.”
Omega laughed. “By the Divide! I never expected that. I want you to protect them from each other.”
Omega looked up as if listening to an unseen alarm. “Time’s up. I must be going. Remember what I said. I saved you once, now save my family. After all, it’s only fair.”
In a blink of blinding light, Omega disappeared.
Clare found herself standing in the middle of a silent room. The cat meandered back onto the pillow and settled in for a contented slumber. Clare stumbled over to the edge of the bed. Her gaze slid to the multicolored giraffe in the corner. She snatched it off the floor. Tossing it on the bed, it landed peacefully next to the cat. Clare shrugged. “Go ahead; you two sleep. I surely never will.”