Chapter 9. Acute Disconnection Syndrome

Mrs. Bates and Constance were in Clare’s lab, discussing her research with Tommy: murder or romance? Meanwhile, Constance rummaged at Clare’s work station. When Clare walked in on them, Cynthia had the decency to look ashamed. Constance tried to justify herself: “I was trying to see what we’d be working on today.”

“From now on, you will discuss nothing with my clients; and about my lab, you will know only what I tell you. Is that clear?” Constance nodded. “How did you get in?”

“Steve gave me his key.”

“Where the hell is Steve anyway? I thought he would train you.”

“He did. He showed me everything.”

“Don’t tell me you two came in here when I wasn’t around.”

“Just – once. Last weekend. He thought it would be alright.”

Clare held her palm out. “The key. From now on you wait for me. Was it Sunday afternoon you were here?” Had they rearranged the notes and stapler on her desk?

“I think so. Yes. I apologize, Dr. Austen, we thought -”

“Where is Steve now? I need to reach him.”

“I don’t know his number but he lives in the Stanley up on Los Robles.”

“Lived in. He moved out.”

Constance looked surprised: that Steve was gone, or that Clare knew? “Then I don’t know where he is,” the girl said evenly, “but he was scared about finding that other body, he needed to get away, that must be why he left.”

“There’s been another murder?” Cynthia Bates was a study in alarm.

“The one Monday night, that weird physics prof.” From Constance.

Mrs. Bates snickered. “It’s sinful to laugh about the dead, but Constance does quite an imitation of the woman’s accent. Small wonder the students found her incomprehensible. Constance, you must do it for – Clare, whatever is the matter?”

“The woman you’re mocking was one of the finest – well. You remember Dr. Rao, don’t you Cynthia? You met her in the courtyard and didn’t want to shake her hand. I’ll borrow some coroner’s pictures and show you how she ended up. I’m sure you’ll find that hilarious too. Constance, put tape in the -”

“Video camera. I already did. And Dr. Austen, I’m very -”

“Get the Kohs blocks out. And pull my notes on Mrs. Bates from the -”

“Files. They’re right here. I’ll get the blocks now. Which series of cards?”

“Seven.” Now why was Steve-the-inept so competent at training?

Through all this, Cynthia Bates sat silently; the woman was terrified of confrontation. It was a first-class irony that her own brains were so often in conflict.

In that regard, she was worse than when last tested. The Kohs blocks made that quickly apparent. The faces of the blocks were painted white, red, or white and red changing at the diagonal. Clare would put a red and white geometric drawing in free vision. Using one hand, Mrs. Bates would align blocks to match the drawing. Both Tommy and Cynthia showed strong left hand preferences in this test – their right hemispheres were far superior in such spatial tasks.

Clare recalled the first time Tommy had done this test: getting his right brain to comprehend the instructions had been a nightmare. Mrs. Bates’s right brain understood nearly all test instructions immediately. However, when it came to applying such knowledge, Tommy fared much better. When he did this test, his right hand fumbled, his left hand would creep up and try to assist, which sometimes caused problems. But the competition between his hemispheres was nothing compared to Cynthia’s.

Today, as usual, her left hand matched ever-more-complicated patterns, swiftly and surely, yielding a 90% accuracy rate. Her right hand was slow and barely achieved 30% accuracy, struggling over easy designs like the red rectangles, the white triangle with red background.

Initially, Clare had Mrs. Bates sit on her not-tested hand, to prevent interference. During this time, whenever her right hand erred with the designs, the left side of Cynthia’s face and body contorted. “I’m doing the best I can, don’t criticize me!” her left brain yelled at Clare and Constance, neither of whom had said a word.

Uncertainly, Constance looked to Clare for guidance. “Get the Series Eight drawings out,” Clare instructed gently.

Next, the untested hand was allowed free movement. Cynthia’s left hand tested first, tapping its completed correct design in a manner Clare could only interpret as smug. “Wrong.” Mrs. Bates muttered and her right hand rearranged blocks, until the left hand knocked it away. The right hand did not try to help with the next design, but the muttering increased. When the left hand gave its smug pat of completion, the right hand viciously swept the blocks off the table.

Constance collected the blocks, keeping away from both Mrs. Bates’s hands.

When it was the left hemisphere’s turn to match the Series Eight drawings, the right hand set to work in its thorough but inept manner. It paused, stymied, and the left hand offered assistance, timidly – then gave bad advice, indicating blocks that were wrong. This was no honest mistake – the right brain had readily completed the same design. However, the drawing was complex enough that the left brain was unaware it was being tricked. Next came an easy drawing. This time, the left hemisphere perceived the trick and once again threw the blocks from the table.

“You see? This is what I must contend with, every day of my miserable life.” Cynthia’s voice rose from mutter to shriek. “You won’t help me, no one even believes me, Stanford laughed, Dr. Madding pats my hand, you goddamned doctors destroying lives. Constance, if you like meddling stay on course, if you want to help you’re going after the wrong profession.” Her face was now so mottled and contorted, she resembled a burn victim.

“Get Mrs. Bates some water,” Clare instructed to get her assistant out of the room. Constance left gladly. Clare waited for Cynthia to calm down, then said as casually as she could, “I do sympathize with you and I am trying to help. By the way, when did you talk to Dr. Colton about this?”

Mrs. Bates went from calm to guarded. “I know what you’re thinking, that my brains were at war and I blamed my doctor and one night I took a knife and -” Her right hand grabbed a sharpened pencil Constance had left on the testing table and plunged it toward her chest.

Clare leaped to grab Mrs. Bates’s wrist, but the momentum had gone out of the plunge; Cynthia hadn’t intended to stab herself. A mechanical beeping sounded under Clare’s fingers. Clare released the wrist, revealing a calculator watch, which beeped ever higher and faster as Mrs. Bates pressed various buttons. She held out her wrist helplessly. Clare pushed buttons. The beeps danced through an electronic melody then ceased. They sighed.

“Clare, I did not – hurt Dr. Colton or anyone else. I need you to believe me.”

“I do believe you. Yet I also sense you’re keeping something – or a lot of somethings – from me. And that disturbs me.”

Cynthia’s hands wrung, united in distress. “There are things I’ve done, I don’t wish anyone to know. But they don’t involve violence of any sort. Do you think Lieutenant Beaudine has reacted as you have?”

“Probably. I suggest you tell him the full story. After all, he even suspects me.”

“Really? When you and Tommy are trying to find out who the killer is?”

“I keep hearing that rumor, I don’t know where it started.”

“Lieutenant Beaudine told me.” Cynthia said this so disarmingly, it sounded true.

Clare looked down to hide her confusion. Would he warn Clare and Tommy to keep quiet, then spread the word himself? Was he playing his suspects against one another? She looked up to find Mrs. Bates watching her too closely.

Constance returned with water and a large cookie, explaining, “There’s a plate of them in the Biology office.” Mrs. Bates accepted both eagerly.

“You went all the way over there for water? I should have told you, there’s a water cooler in the Xerox room.”

“Series Nine next?” Constance seemed nervous, standing so close to Mrs. Bates.

“If you don’t mind,” Cynthia interjected, “That last test took quite a lot out of me. May we stop until next Thursday?”

“Of course.” Even while assuring Mrs. Bates that next week’s tests would go more smoothly, Clare was already making plans for the extra hour she’d gained before Tommy’s arrival.

“What test should I prep for Tommy?” Constance complicated matters by asking.

“There’s no need for you to stay. I’m trying some mix and matching, it will be easier to compile the tests myself than explain what I need.”

“I’ll stay, I don’t mind. I can help a little and I’ll learn a lot.” Constance was submissive yet defiant; Clare would have to order her out to get her to leave.

“Will you give Tommy this?” Embarrassed, Cynthia handed Clare a lavender envelope then hurried away. A request to join the T. Dabrowski fan club? Now it was good that Constance was present: Clare’s desire to read the note was that strong.

Clare dispatched Constance to learn what testing items were stored in which lab cupboards, while Clare sat at her desk to devise the new test she’d envisioned late last night.

Time passed quickly or Tommy arrived early. He flopped on the couch. “Take my wife, please,” he said, Henny Youngman meets Macbeth. “No don’t ask.” He looked as crummy as Tommy could ever manage to look.

Clare tossed him the envelope. “From Mrs. Bates and I’m dying to know.”

“Sure is good to see you,” he sighed, then extracted the lavender paper. “That’s sweet.” He returned it to the envelope, tossed it back to Clare. “I don’t blame you for wanting to protect her.” Clare read the note. Cynthia couldn’t begin to say how their exchange of fear stories had helped her. She couldn’t thank Tommy enough.

“Hi Tommy, how are you?” Constance stood in the lab doorway, her voice and manner making it plain she’d like to join him on the couch.

“Doing alright. Eunice, right?” Tommy wilted her until he smiled.

Clare was denting the lavender paper. She enveloped the note and stood. Tommy followed her example. “See you around,” Tommy told Constance.

“Oh, no, this is my day to be here.” She stepped into the lab territorially.

“But we’re doing behind-the-screen shit today, which gets me real tense. It’s a lot easier if nobody’s around. Steve always left, guess he didn’t tell you that.”

Who could resist that killer grin? Constance gathered her things.

“That reminds me.” At this, Constance looked hopeful, until he added, “When you talk to Steve -”

“I doubt I will.” Talk about fickle. Although there wasn’t much contest: a few smiles from Tommy vs. life with Steve.

“I thought you two were an item,” Tommy said.

“Oh, no, not really, no.” At his lack of response, the girl added, “Well. Bye. See you tomorrow.” She pretended to include Clare.

Clare hung the sign and locked the door. “Quick thinking,” she congratulated Tommy. “I thought I was going to have to drag her out. If the world were all women you’d have it made.” They seated themselves at their lab stations.

“Or them made, you mean. How’s with Robert?”

“Worse than with Bianca. Or no better, anyway.”

“At least you’ve got Jessie.”

“To an extent. Although she’s been avoiding me lately.”

“Can’t rely on anybody.” He was furious.

“I think it’s my rotten moods, she’s not sure if they involve her.”

“That better be it. Otherwise she’d make a nice pair of slippers.”

“If I’m sad, she’s around; or suicidal; or happy. But not when I’m angry.”

“Okay, she can live. I was kidding about the slippers, you knew that.” She nodded and he gave her a sly look. “Maybe a little rug though, with the head attached – but you know what I really love about cats? You look at them and you see, if they were big enough they’d kill us.”

Clare laughed. “Not one of the better ways to die. Jessie’s great for getting rid of flies though. I worry one of them will be toxic, but it’s hard to stop her.”

“Doesn’t it seem like there used to be lots more flies? I’m serious.”

“Doesn’t it seem like we should get to work?” She switched the control unit on.

“Right, I apologize for being the only one digressing.”

“Are you still wanting to avoid our tests in case there’s no result?”

“Naw. It’s just when we finish here I have to go home.”

“You have the option of going elsewhere.”

“Except that takes cash. I’ve worked a lot of shit jobs, had some savings. Joint account, yeah? Found out last night, Bianca moved all the money, put it in her name only. Says she was afraid I’d spend it but that’s jive, she’s just making sure I can’t leave.”

“Aren’t there laws about that?”

“Sure, I’ll take her to court. Small claims court, it’d have to be.”

“I may be able to get your testing stipend increased, a little.”

“I’ll figure something out, I don’t want you to bail me out.”

“You make it sound as though there’d be strings attached.”

“You’ve gotta be making way more money than I do anyway, that’s bad enough.”

“Does that matter?” She thought it shouldn’t but could see how it might.

“How’d the memorial service go this morning?” Tommy replied.

“I got through it. If you want to change the subject, there are kinder methods.”

“I did want to change it. I also meant to ask how the service went. I thought a lot about you being there, I’m surprised you aren’t more torn up.”

“I regret that I don’t meet your grief standards.”

“You know that’s not what I meant, Clare.” But she kept her back to him, putting two pads of paper and two pencils on his table. “Clare.” She nodded; he accepted this reply. “So what diabolical treat’s in store for me now?”

“An art project.” She placed a pencil in each hand, positioned paper on the table for his right hand, held another pad within his left hand’s reach. “Draw a cat. Whenever you look at your work, freeze – you should only be drawing when you’re looking away.”

Both hands set to it, one sketching a cat’s head, the other creating a stick figure full body. It was eerie, as always, seeing his hands perform different tasks simultaneously. She had to stop him several times, to prevent him from drawing while watching – to prevent his left brain from controlling his left hand ipsilaterally. Eventually he got the hang of it.

Tommy’s left hand was hampered by his injury, the sling and the usual lesser motor control of the right hander. Yet its stick drawing was decidedly a cat. The right hand’s cat’s head was also a serviceable rendering, but the proportions were off and this drawing showed none of the other’s stylization.

Clare presented him with fresh paper. “The killer in the hall, the man who knifed you. You touched him. Draw what you touched.”

Tommy looked at her. “Good one,” he said, then started drawing. He kept glancing at his right hand’s pencilings. Clare allowed this; his left brain was obviously distracted from his right brain’s work. His right hand sketched words and body parts, reiterating its claims to have touched the left shoulder, neck, etcetera. When his right hand finished, Clare dared to look at his left hand’s work. Tommy stared at it too.

Two vaguely parallel lines, an inch apart, two inches long. Between the lines were tiny jagged circles or awkward squares. It looked like a road on the moon.

“What the fuck is that?” he demanded. Struggling with the pencil, his left hand drew another rough tiny blip. This did not help. Then, with great difficulty, it covered the drawing with a spastic inverted V, slashed a horizontal line over all and dropped the pencil. “Sure, that’s better. Mmm hmm,” Tommy’s left brain sneered.

Clare mentally reviewed the list of body areas his right brain had touched. She was distracted by an insistent pounding on her office door. “I’ll get rid of them,” Tommy was up and out of the room. Clare continued to stare at the drawing, trying to extract meaning from sheer concentration.

She heard the hinges rasp, Constance’s voice flutter. “Forgot my books,” she repeated meekly to Clare as she retrieved her book bag from a cupboard. Irate at the intrusion, Tommy flopped into his chair. When Constance passed him, the left side of his body lunged. His left hand grasped her wrist. She laughed nervously, stopped when she saw Clare’s face. She tried to pull away, dragging Tommy and his chair.

“Let go,” Tommy said weakly. His right hand pried at his left fingers, as tight as a Gila monster’s jaw. Constance’s hand took on the rosy tinge of her sweater.

Was this a seizure? It was beyond Clare’s experience. She fought her own fear. Then she glanced at the drawing and realized, “I know why this is happening.”

Tommy’s fingers slackened and Constance pulled away. “Sorry,” Tommy said, “but your wrist is irresistible.”

“It’s okay, you couldn’t help it. What happened, Dr. Austen?” The way she tugged at a curl belied the professional detachment in her voice.

“Just some motor control problems. I don’t have time to explain more right now, Constance. Good night.”

Constance’s face clouded but she didn’t protest. Instead, she slammed the door on her way out.

“I hope you have time to explain it to me,” Tommy said. “Fuck. That was scary.”

Clare’s finger traced the drawing’s slashed inverted V. “I think this is an A. for ‘arm.’ We didn’t understand, so your right brain grabbed Constance to cue us.”

“That’s it! I feel a eureka inside my head. Arm, I touched his arm. Something on his arm. But what?”

“Let’s avoid guesswork and find out for sure.” Their excitement made the room hum. Clare rapidly sorted slides from her chimerics tests, filling the tachistoscope with arm, hand, and upper body clothing pictures.

Using previously prepared dichotic questions, she determined that the drawing pertained to the killer’s right wrist. Then, running out of applicable taped questions and not wanting to lose momentum, she decided to risk letting his left brain hear. “More questions. Don’t answer right away; wait until you get a feeling about what the answer is. Did you touch skin?”

“That’s not skin.” Tommy pointed to the drawing.

“You’re not waiting.”

He paused huffily. “No. Not skin.”

“Did you touch clothing?”

“I can’t tell.”

“Did you touch a sleeve?”

“I don’t think so. What goes on a wrist. A watch. One of those digital calculators with little buttons. Yeah, that’s it. That’s it!”

“I don’t know which side of your head is excited about this answer.” Good – he looked chastised. “I need you to rid yourself of your current reaction.”

“Get zen. Okay. Wait.” His eyes closed; his facial lines smoothed. “Ready.”

“Did you touch a wristwatch?”

He waited a long time. Clare clutched a pencil so hard it snapped.

“Yes,” he said softly. “A wristwatch. With little knobs that stuck up.” He opened his eyes. “But who wears a watch on their right arm?”

Mrs. Bates, Clare recalled. “Cynthia,” Tommy said slowly, “Because she can never get her left arm to show her the watch because her right brain doesn’t care what time it is. I go through the same stuff, that’s why I keep my watch in my pocket.”

“Get zen again.” When Tommy indicated he was ready, Clare made her voice neutral. “Is Mrs. Bates the killer in the hallway?”

Tommy’s eyelids snapped open. “No way, it can’t be her.”

“Which side of your brain is answering?”

“Both of them! Fuck. It’s not her.”

“I hope it’s not, too, but we have to consider -” he shook his head stubbornly. This subject was closed – forever, he thought; for now, Clare concurred. “Let’s move on.” She readied the drawing pads. “Answer with another drawing: what else did you touch? Did you touch more?”

His right hand drew a calculator watch. His left hand struggled with lines and curves. Whatever it wanted to express was beyond its (current?) capabilities.

Tommy said, “If we can figure out exactly what kind of watch -”

“I know a way to do that.” She consulted her own watch. Almost six. The stores were open until nine. She could leave Tommy and come back or they could start early tomorrow. She didn’t want him with her while she gathered watches.

Was that the door again? “Can’t you read?” Tommy yelled. The pounding stopped. They grew quiet as a key scraped in the lock.

Robert appeared at the lab threshhold. “Clare, I need to talk to you. It’s always a bad time,” he snipped, seeing the look Clare and Tommy exchanged.

Clare joined Robert in the office, shutting the adjoining door. “Surely we can do this at home.”

“The reason I called Lieutenant Beaudine was to get custody of Niels. He agreed. I locked the cage in the bathroom, Jessie doesn’t have access.”

“It was good of you to get Niels,” Clare admitted, unable to temper her anger. He’d attacked her for hours before this morning’s memorial service. Knowing what would really hurt, he’d used that knowledge fully. She had refused to think about it, since, fearing that if she did, she’d be unable to go home to face him tonight.

“It’s not enough to apologize but that’s where I’ll start. I feel terrible about what I said this morning, perhaps worse than you feel.”

“Don’t count on it.” She wandered her office, maintaining a distance he kept trying to close. “Please stay over there,” she said finally.

“How did we get to this point? I can’t figure it out. But I want to solve this, Clare. You’ve said you do too and I believe you, despite what I’ve said to the contrary. Tell me what we do now.” They were both fighting tears.

When she could speak, she said, “I want to wait. To pretend we’re fine, until the murders are solved. If we could just be normal again – I’d give anything for that. I’m not ‘sweeping life under the rug,’ as you claim. I simply can’t face any more right now.”

He stared at his hands. “These are more avoidance tactics, yet – let me finish! – I accept them. I’m at a loss to do otherwise. But I want it on record that -”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, Robert! Alright, you told me so, this time far in advance. I’m telling you, I can’t take any more of this shit.”

“You even talk like Tommy these days.”

She dared not engage. “Frankly it’s Jessie I’m striving to emulate.”

With an effort visible throughout his body, Robert simulated his old self. He grimaced a smile that, after a time, became genuine – and sad. “I’ve always wanted to get you to purr,” he said, then reflected, “That sounded stranger than I’d intended.”

“I got the drift.” They used to have contests for the dumbest double entendre. She managed a return smile.

“Your mother called,” Robert said. “Wondering about her Thanksgiving invite.” They shared a rueful chuckle. Every year they had to explain anew: Christmas they devoted to family; Thanksgiving they locked themselves at home, devoted to each other. “I assured her we were looking forward to seeing her in December.”

“Thanks. Do you think I have to call her?”

“Afraid so. She heard a news report about professors being murdered. All it said was southern California but that set her off. I’ve got some ideas on what to tell her; my folks called today so I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.”

“Sounds like you had a grim afternoon.”

“The good news is my folks are going to Hawaii, won’t be available for the holidays.” It wasn’t that Robert didn’t love to see his parents; but it was always a strain for Clare. Somehow he managed to side with her without siding against them. She’d always meant to learn that technique from him. They exchanged a wan smile.

“I’ve got to get back in there. We seem to be in the midst of a breakthrough.” Robert understood. They hugged and she felt – nothing, then relief. It was a start.

They opened the hall door to find Bianca hovering. “Glad to hear you’re having a breakthrough, I’m having a breakdown.”

For once, Bianca did not sweep past Clare without invitation. Clare felt compassion – and had to admire this suave admission of eavesdropping.

“Is Tommy around I thought I’d -”

“What are you doing here?” Tommy hailed her from the lab doorway.

“Look at us,” Bianca indicated the four of them. “So fucking jealous it’s shredding us. I came to see if my husband needed a ride but I really came to see what was going on. How about you, looking for dirt?” she asked Robert, who nodded after some hesitation. “I know what you mean about wanting to get normal again,” she told Clare.

“Exactly how long were you listening outside?” Clare turned indignant.

“Yeah I know. Totally private conversation but I’m glad I heard because now I know where you two are. Same place we’ve been fighting to stay in.”

“I don’t need a ride and you’re delaying our work,” Tommy replied.

“The fact is, I need to go out for a while to arrange our next test,” Clare said.

“You’re really having a breakthrough, huh? What’s going on?”

“I’ll explain later,” Tommy said sharply. “At home.”

“You’d be able to work longer if you had some dinner first. More energy.”

“We’re fine,” Tommy disagreed.

“Why don’t you all come over to our place to eat? Come on, we have to try.”

No one really wanted this yet somehow everyone agreed: anyone saying no would be needlessly jealous or harboring designs on another’s spouse. And so, Bianca and Tommy headed home to prepare dinner for four; Robert would stop off to feed cat and parrot, then join them there.

On her own, Clare did a department and jewelry store blitz, collecting sixty-three watches – watches with calculators, phone books, video games; watch bands with blips, jewels, 3-D design work – in two hours. A record the more notable because she had to impress a manager at each stop; and exact a written understanding that these watches were being taken in the interests of science and could be returned for full refund within twenty-four hours.

She might have assembled a few more varieties, but was too disturbed by the last manager, at the Ticq Tocq Boutique, who was following the campus “slayings” closely: hobby of his, he explained expansively. Clare had to feed him a piece of “campus insider info” for each borrowed watch. If she hadn’t needed those watches, she would have advised this ghoul to visit the university at night wearing a lab coat, to get first hand knowledge of the slayings.

Her dinner partners were discussing the day’s research when she arrived at Tommy’s apartment. Her displeasure at this was apparent. “You need a drink,” Tommy whispered near her ear. Which made Robert cringe, Bianca tense, and Clare flinch.

The four trooped into the kitchen, where Bianca opened Clare a beer. “Trader Joe’s – two-dollar brew for half price,” she said proudly. They all agreed Joe’s was a fabulous market. Silence fell.

“What a nice toaster. I’ve never seen one like that before,” Clare said finally.

“Hidden under a bunch of crud at a yard sale in Alhambra,” Bianca patted its bulbous chrome. They discussed the wonders of yard sales. Silence fell.

They returned to the living room. Clare surveyed the decor. “This place is like a cartoon,” she noted and the others laughed. That was exactly what Robert had said.

The small room was crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, bright-colored and mismatched, shapes and textures ranging from curious to bizarre. Bianca told Clare the history of finding each item, as though discussing corporate takeovers.

“You should see the bathroom mirror. And our bedroom set.” Tommy led a tour. The mirror frame was encrusted with beads and tiny found objects, put together by a folk artist who lived out in Mojave. The bedroom furniture was opalescent lucite etched with black swirls. Clare ran her hand over it as Bianca babbled about how she’d sweet-talked a rival buyer into letting her take the set instead.

“How do you like your futon?” Robert knelt to examine the bedding on the floor. They discussed The Futon, Pro and Con.

“Dinner’s going to be a while,” Bianca informed Clare. “I thought the directions said fifteen minutes, but there was a ‘two hours’ part I didn’t notice.”

“Maybe you should get started on your testing,” Robert said.

“At last I get to see you two in action,” Bianca said.

Robert saved Clare from having to reply. “Take it from another scientist,” he waggled a finger at Bianca, “we’ll only be in the way.”

“We can test in here,” Tommy said. “There’s really nowhere else.”

All four helped set up two chairs and a card table between futon and dresser. Then Bianca and Robert retreated to the living room, Bianca half shutting the bedroom door in a show of semi-faith.

“What do you say,” Tommy asked as they sat down, “colossal or stupendous?”

“I assume you’ll explain what you mean.” Alone with him she felt better, despite the glacier of expectations advancing on them from the other room.

“The mistake this dinner was. Is.”

“I expected worse. I guess it would be bad form to go get a beer, though.”

He gave her a conspiratorial look, vanished into a closet, emerged with a wine bottle. “Buck fifty. I winked at a clerk and he dusted it for me.”

“She’s better than that, she’s just nervous, even I could see that.”

“I know. Thanks for reminding me.” Holding the bottle between his knees, he demolished the cork with a pocket knife clutched in his good hand. “Hope you don’t mind drinking from the bottle.”

She didn’t. She took a swig and opened her briefcase. “We’re going to find out exactly what kind of watch you touched. You’ll close your eyes. I’ll put something in your hand. If it’s a watch like this,” she extracted the road-on-the-moon drawing, “hold on to it. If it’s not, drop it.” It was a variation on an old test but to be sure his right brain understood, she first handed him a hair clip, an eraser, a pen. He palpated each briefly then let go.

Watch after watch got dropped, as fast as Clare could put them in his left hand. Some watches, his fingers examined more thoroughly; but ultimately, all got dropped. From the living room, meanwhile, came laughter and clinking glasses.

“I’m going to change the rules slightly. I’ll give you two watches. Keep the watch that feels more like the one you touched. Drop the other watch.”

“Shit. Have we gone through all of them already?” His eyelids twitched but remained closed.

“No,” she lied, “only about half of them.”

She paired immediately-dropped with longer-considered watches. Each time, he held on to the longer-considered. Then she paired and re-paired the longer-considereds, until his left hand held its final choice. She took it from him: the watch with the most and smallest knobs. Returning it to his hand she said, “If this is what you touched, what you drew, keep it in your hand.”

He dropped it immediately. “Pissfuck. Now what?” His eyes opened.

She quickly palmed the watch. “Shut your eyes. We’re not done.” She tried to voice more hope than she felt.

A tap at the door. Bianca stuck her head in. Her eyes took in the wine bottle, the watches, Tommy’s erect back, Clare’s notepad in her lap. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“We’ll be a while,” Tommy replied without opening his eyes. Clare flashed two sets of splayed fingers: ten minutes. Bianca nodded and her head disappeared.

Clare returned the watch to Tommy’s hand. “I’m going to ask questions. Raise your left foot if the answer is yes. Do you understand?” His foot lifted: YES.

“Is this the watch you touched?” NO.

“Is this similar to the watch you touched?” After a long pause, YES.

“Is this very much like the watch you touched?” NO.

“Is this a little bit like the watch you touched?” YES.

“Touch the places that are similar.” He dropped the watch. Nothing was similar, or the question was not understood. She placed his fingers on one part of the watch – “Is this like the watch you touched?” – repeating until they’d traversed every area of watch and band. Only the knobs were relevant, and his right brain didn’t seem sure about those.

She quickly bagged all the watches. “Let’s go eat.”

Tommy opened his eyes, frowning. “What’d we find out?”

“I’d rather not say just yet.”

“In other words, el big zippo.” His right hand smacked the right side of his head. She grabbed his wrist to keep him from doing it again.

Bianca reappeared to find them nose to nose, Clare’s hand guiding Tommy’s to the table. “Dinner’s getting cold. Bring your wine if there’s any more.”

They left the wine to sit opposing their mates at a purple dinette table, to eat once-frozen enchiladas that would have taken less time to make from scratch. Robert was drunk, Bianca tipsy, Tommy seething.

Anywhere else. That’s where Clare wanted to be.

Three times, Bianca requested the salsa from Tommy, who then more or less threw it at her. As she blotted up the red mess, she inquired icily, “What’s your problem, darling?”

“First it says it touched a watch, now it acts like it didn’t!” Tommy yelled.

“I didn’t get the right kind of watch, that’s all,” Clare tried to soothe him.

Bianca snorted. “That’s the big breakthrough? A watch?”

“Clare sees the world in very small terms,” Robert informed his enchilada.

“Try to eat, you’ll feel better.” Bianca touched Robert’s arm. He picked up his fork, turned his still untouched meal clockwise in its red sauce. “How do you identify the murderer from a watch, does it have his name on it or something?”

“‘Alert. I am a murderer.’ Like those inshlin bracelets.” Now Robert was slurring his words. Bianca tittered, at Robert’s joke or Clare’s discomfort. “Yeah what’s so special about this watch?” Robert demanded.

“I’d prefer that we not discuss the experiments. It could -”

“And whatever Clare wants.” Robert turned to Tommy. “Do you know why you’re stalled? ‘Cause Clare hasn’t conducted a test worth doing in years. She prefers to test me.” He reached for his beer bottle, reconsidered, grabbed the shot glass beside it.

“Don’t forget you have to drive home.” Clare’s voice cracked, betraying her attempt to seem unfazed. Bianca tittered again.

Robert winked at Tommy. “Slip us a few more drinks. We’ll pass out and you two lovebirds will have the night to yourshelves.”

“That’s enough.” Tommy told Robert, then Bianca.

“In our own bedroom! That’s what does me in!” On the surface, Bianca was all righteous outrage but underneath, seemed to already be calculating her next display.

“Get off it,” Tommy scoffed. Bianca threw her plate against the wall.

“Of course, if it was cats getting killed, she might be more motivated.” Robert was talking to his shot glass now.

No one had reacted to Bianca’s plate trick. Clare watched the red stain creep across the white paint. The stain moved quickly, engulfing walls, jumping doorways, stalking Clare to the bedroom. Squinting until her vision was narrowed enough to block the red, she gathered her work paraphernalia; reached the front door before anyone seemed aware she was leaving, anyone in that tableau as unreal as the dioramas Clare used to make in grade school. The Pueblo Indians dwelled in caves.

“ … back to the lab?” Tommy caught up with her at the bottom of the stairs outside, saw her face, stopped lobbying for more experiments tonight. “It can wait until tomorrow,” he assured her, his voice regretting every wrong ever done her.

“Don’t let him drive like that.”

“I can’t believe you’re worrying about him.”

“I’m not that Christian. But he’s a menace to anyone else on the road.”

Footsteps thudded. Bianca and Robert bounced past them. “I’m taking him home,” Bianca announced.

“You can’t drive like that,” he replied.

“I had half a beer. Not that you were around to notice.”

“Whatever.” Clare and Tommy watched them drive off. “I was envying you leaving,” Tommy said as he flopped on the stairs. “You can stay here if you want.”

“Oh that would help.” She joined him, but immediately jumped up and pulled a shard of wood from her rear.

“Maybe it’ll get infected,” Tommy said consolingly. “Then you can sue the owner and get some bucks. The American way.”

“I’m not feeling all that patriotic right now. Thanks anyway.” She took a step toward her car.

“You’re right, it wouldn’t be worth it. There’d be complications, you’d have to get a butt transplant.” He stood with a sigh. “Look. When you get home. If you need – anything. I could be there in ten minutes.”

“I should be alright. But thanks.” She stepped away, turned to say good-bye.

Tommy tried to smile, finally used two fingers to force the corners of his mouth up. She set her bags down, dropped her briefcase, took the two small steps required to reach him. He looked surprised, until their eyes met. “Forget something?” he feigned flippancy.

Feigning certainty, she stretched her arms around his neck. His hand touched her back, his face filled her vision, his eyes were so near she had to look from one to the other to take them both in. They displayed more feeling than could possibly be there. After all, this was only –

Her inner doubts were silenced when their lips met. It wasn’t a long kiss or maybe it was. She tasted wine and salsa and a new flavor that was Tommy. She shivered, lost her balance, took a step back to regain equilibrium.

He immediately pulled away, but kept his hand lightly on her waist. “There’s no hurry,” he assured her softly.

She didn’t need reassurance, what she wanted was another kiss. But she’d used up all her nerve.

He brushed his lips against her cheek. “Promise you’ll call if you need me.” She could only nod, and match his tentative wave as he watched her drive away past the cop watching Tommy’s house. When she got home, she parked behind the policeman watching her.

Robert wasn’t home. Jessie had scratched decades of paint from the bathroom door in her obsession with the bird inside. Clare hoped none of those chips were lead based. She insisted on washing the cat’s paws, which did not ease Jessie’s already frenetic behavior. Where the hell was Robert? Did she care, as long as he stayed there? What a coward she was: she was glad he’d behaved so badly.

She’d finished packing and the car was loaded before he staggered in to fall face down on the bed. Clare turned him so he wouldn’t suffocate, then returned to the living room. By the time she’d consumed a pot of coffee, she’d devised her next experiments. Meanwhile, Jessie bounced off walls. Great. Now they’d made her cat neurotic.

The final note was brief: Enough. For Lalitha’s sake, take good care of Niels. For my sake – and probably yours, too – leave me alone for a while. I need breathing room. How much and how long I can’t say. She packed the other drafts – the angry, the tear-stained, the long-winded rationales – for disposal elsewhere; struggled Jessie into her carrier case, almost forgot the catbox, then finally drove away, about an hour after dawn. As she pulled out, the plainclothes car was still parked out front, but there was no sign of its occupant.

A drizzling rain was blurring the letters: FURNISHED 1-BEDROOM FOR RENT. She’d first noticed the sign two weeks ago – so this wasn’t unmeditated.

It was a boxy early sixties building, nondescript save for the sunburst sculpted over the courtyard entryway. A radio call-in show blared from behind the door labeled MANAGER, next to the laundry room and Coke machine. The manager, Mrs. Manning, a widow these ten years, was a short woman who seemed to be shrinking inside her loose clothes. She pulled on storm boots worthy of a midwestern blizzard to show Clare the apartment, which was better than expected; the shag carpet was only lime green in the living room, the furnishings were bland more often than confrontational, and there were just enough windows to register daylight. A dusty rental agreement lay on the kitchen table.

Clearly, Clare’s desire to move in immediately was highly irregular. Mrs. Manning rolled a number of hmms and oh dears inside her cheeks before letting Clare sign the agreement. It then cost an extra eight hundred dollars deposit to bring the pet in from the car. Worse, the manager had to coo and caw at Jessie, who immediately leaped into hiding under the couch. But Mrs. Manning was going to be fine. She only tried to pry once and it only took her seven minutes to sense Clare’s desire to be left alone.

Outside the windows, the drizzle had been supplanted by the raw gray of high clouds and brittle November sun. Clare sat on the floor, unclasped her suitcase, and cried. Jessie meowed briefly but was too afraid to leave her hiding place. Thus, after lining up food, water, and litter box next to the couch, Clare stretched out alongside it, reaching her hand underneath so that Jessie could press against it. They stayed like this as long as Clare could.

She hated leaving Jessie alone in this fearfully unknown place. But – as seemed to be the trend these days – all other options were worse.

Go to next chapter.

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