The doorbell rang. Jennifer Mallory got up from the sofa; she threw the magazine that was lying on her stomach on the coffee table. Fatigue had bested her and she had dozed off, into that terrible realm where her nightmares ruled.
Actually, it was only one nightmare: the car accident she had been in, seven months, one week and three days ago. March 15, that was the bitch; 6 PM, that was her hour.
Jenny reached the door, just as the person on the other side rang again. 'Hold your horses,' she mumbled under her breath, not wanting to be impolite, but feeling on edge none the less. She unlocked and opened. With a gasp, she took two steps back. 'Who-who-' The words got stuck in her throat.
The person standing in the doorway looked so much like her, that she could have been her daughter. Except that she didn't have a daughter; only a son - Chad, thirteen years old. And with her in the Saturn when she wrapped it around the tree... 'Who are you?' Words came back. 'Can I help you?' She took a step forward to block the entrance to her apartment. She didn't want this girl to enter; undoubtedly it would mean trouble.
'Mom! It's me, Tilly.'
Mom? She had just called her mom. What the devil?
The woman was so totally taken aback, that the girl simply brushed passed her. 'Mom, are you okay?' she asked. 'You look so pale. Excuse me, I've got to take a leak.' And after this statement, she took a left turn into the short corridor that led to the bathroom.
Jennifer could only stare at the girl's back. The click that accompanied the closing of the door, got Mallory's thinking process going again. The girl knew her way around her apartment. So she had been here before. But she couldn't be her daughter. Of that she was 100 percent sure. Nobody forgot the existence of a child. Without being locked away in a loony bin anyway.
The toilet was flushed. Time to act. To ask the hard questions. Who she was and what the fuck she was hoping to gain from trying to convince her that she was her daughter? Which was obviously so doomed to fail, that trying it was utterly ridiculous to begin with... So why had she? Jennifer couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer to her own question. Except with the most obvious one: the girl was crazy.
Then she thought of the expression on the girl's face when she saw that she wasn't being recognized. She had been genuinely shocked. Unless she was some kind of undiscovered Nicole Kidman.
And she looks so much like me...
She was a few inches taller than her five feet five and a few pounds lighter. But she had the same half long blond hair; the same light brown eyes; the same fine lips.
The door opened and the teenager stepped back into the corridor. 'Whew, that was a close one!'
Two steps from the bathroom, to the left, was the door leading to the kitchen. Jenny saw her disappearing into it. The woman started to follow her, but after a few steps, she felt like she had walked into a brick wall. Her eye had fallen on a picture hanging in the hallway, right next to the entrance of the little corridor.
They were in it, smiling and embracing. The backdrop was a pool in a fancy garden. She recognized the pool. Of course she did. She had swum in it countless times in the ten years she had lived in the house it belonged to. The house of Gerard Banaste, her soon to be ex-husband. But the girl shouldn't be in the picture. Chad, her beloved son, yes, of course, but not she. Because she couldn't be who she said she was. Couldn't. The woman took the photo off the wall and held it close to her face, as if she was hoping she could see it was photoshopped with her bare eyes.
The girl came back out of the kitchen, with a can of Dr. Pepper in her right hand. She stopped next to Jennifer and looked at the picture. She sighed. 'A witness of much happier times.' Her voice dripped with sarcasm. 'Why don't you throw it away?' Then she went into the living room. 'Can I check my e-mails? My computer is still on the fritz. Damn viruses.' Without waiting for an answer, she went to the corner of the living room Jennifer had dubbed "her office"; ironically, because at home - correction: Gerard's place - her office, for which she had had no practical use whatsoever, had been the size of the apartment she now occupied.
'Go-go ahead.' Jennifer couldn't think of any other reaction. She needed a moment to compose herself. She watched the teenager log in with her name: Tilly Banaste. How could this be? Her head started to hurt again. She had taken quite a severe blow to the head in the accident, in spite of her car being equipped with an air bag that had functioned flawlessly. She had been in a coma for eleven days. Did the answer lie therein?
The girl turned back to her. Jennifer could see in her face how bad she must have looked. Death warmed over no doubt looked better. 'Mom, are you alright?'
'No,' Jennifer answered truthfully, 'I'm not.' How can anybody responsible for killing her own son ever be alright again? 'I have a splitting headache.' And a hole in my memory, she didn't add. Or a delusional teenager in my living room.
'Okay, I'll get out of your hair,' the girl said. 'I was on my way home anyway. Just needed a place to tinkle.' She kissed her on the cheek on her way to the door.
Mallory's eye fell on a letter next to her computer. 'Wait!' she called after the girl. 'Could you give this to your father?' Two days ago an envelope had arrived. "Roebuck, Banaste and Julliard, attorneys at law" had been printed in the left hand corner, followed by a fancy address on Lexinghouse Avenue. It had contained two documents pertaining to the division of property, bringing her divorce one step closer to completion. Signing them had not been as bad as she would have thought seven months, one week and four days ago... When she slipped it back into the envelope, she had nothing anymore. But that's what you got for marrying one of the partners of one of the biggest law firms in one of the biggest cities on the East Coast. Nothing, when the damn thing went south. Well, that was not exactly true. Gerard let her keep what she brought into the marriage. A little more than nothing.
He couldn't forgive her for what happened. She had killed their son; it was that simple in his mind. He conveniently ignored the reason why she had been on the road: his fooling around. That was why she was at her brother's place; she had needed somebody to talk to when she found out that her husband was having an affair. Chad had accompanied her because he was furious with his father for making his momma cry.
On the way back, the tyre of the truck in front of them blew out. She braked; she swerved to avoid a collision.
The tree came rushing towards her, big, dark, unavoidable.
She hit it at forty miles an hour. A ridiculously slow speed when driving, but lethal when slamming into something that wouldn't budge.
The next thing Jennifer Mallory knew, was waking up in the hospital. Gerard had been at her side. He told her that she had been in a coma for eleven days. And that Chad was gone. They had tried to reanimate him, but to no avail.
The girl seemed to hesitate. Jennifer asked: 'Is there a problem?' - you little fraud? Already busted, eh? You have no idea where your 'father' lives, right?
She shook her head. 'No, no problem. I'll get it to him.' She took the envelope from Jennifer's extended hand. Without speaking another word, she turned around and left the apartment. Jennifer heard the door click shut. She went to the bathroom - she needed something that would ease the throbbing behind her eyelids. Of course the girl would in all likelihood just throw the envelope away. She had flinched. She clearly had no idea where she was supposed to take it. Jennifer had put the documents in a plain white envelope, with no address on it, since she had been planning on delivering it herself. No biggie. Plenty of copies left where they had come from, she was sure. She made a mental note to call Gerard the next day to see if they had arrived.
In the bathroom, she shook a couple of painkillers into her hand and washed them down with a glass of water. She hoped the drugs would kick it fast, because she had to start looking for proof that blondie was full of it.
She started with the most obvious place: her cell phone. It was where she remembered leaving it: next to her computer. She opened the phone book of the Samsung and scrolled downward until she hit the t's. There it was. Between "Tanya" - a friend since college days - and "Trishia" - one of the members of her bridge club.
Okay. There was a person in her life called Tilly. Too bad it didn't say "Tilly daughter"... Her thumb came to rest on the little green telephone. One way to make sure this Tilly was the blonde that left her apartment a minute ago. The thing that held her back momentarily was coming up with something plausible to ask her. She didn't want to lose face too much. Of course, that was it. She pressed down on the button.
Tilly picked up on the third ring and said: 'Yeah mom?'
It was the same voice, no doubt.
'Would you like to come back later? And have dinner with your mom? How does Chinese sound?'
'Chinese will be fine. As long as there are noodles.'
'Noodles there will be. See you around eight?'
'See you then.'
Jennifer hung up and put her cell phone back on the desk next to her computer.
Time for the next test. Mallory went to the cabinet in which she kept her photo albums. One picture could be falsified - the one in the hallway. But if this girl was her daughter, there had to be dozens of snapshots of the two of them - or of her and Chad or Gerard. No, scratch the last option. She distinctly recalled cutting up all the photos in which that bastard figured.
She took out the first album. With trembling fingers she opened it at a random page. The top half was empty - she could clearly see that a picture had been removed from the minute trace of glue that had been left behind. The bottom half hit her like a runaway freight train. She was in the middle of it; cradled in her left arm was her son, Chad. Clinging to her right arm was the blond girl. Written under it, as if she had foreseen that one day she'd start doubting her own sanity and would need reassurance: Chad, me and Tilly at Revere Beach.
Jennifer remembered being in Boston, five years ago, with her then-beloved husband and children.
No, that wasn't right.
She remembered being there with Gerard and Chad, staying in an adorable little beach house they had rented through a friend of a friend of a partner of his law firm. But she had absolutely no recollection whatsoever of Tilly being there...
She flipped through the rest of the album. In this one alone, there were about twenty pictures of the girl. Jenny sighed. She looked attentively at the photos. It was as if she wanted to hypnotize herself into remembering. She wanted a big light to go off inside her head, so that she could say: of course, that's my girl. How could I have forgotten her?
Nothing came though. Not in her head, nor in her heart.
The photograph on the last page was almost identical to the one on the first, except for the fact that the protagonists had aged a couple of years between the two covers. She was holding Chad in her left arm; Tilly was standing on her right side. She was looking with nothing less than absolute adoration at her son, who was holding a big trophy. She didn't have to read what she'd written under the picture. Chad won a spelling contest when he was eleven years old - two years ago. He had been so proud of the trophy. It had held a prominent place in his bedroom.
Tilly leaned slightly forward, so that she could look around her mother. She too had a look of pure adoration on her face.
Jennifer Mallory burst into tears. But she didn't know who she cried for most - the child that was no more, or the child that was not remembered.
She cried for half an hour; when she stopped, her throat hurt, her eyes burnt and her chest felt as if she'd run a marathon. Okay, that was that, she decided. Time to take another course in the pursuit of answers. She took her cell phone and scrolled through her contacts until she found "Burns", her analyst. The man that was helping her to cope with the death of Chad and her divorce. God knows she couldn't really afford his help...
She pressed the green button and waited for him to pick up.
'Hello, this is Douglas Burns.'
'Hello, dr. Burns, it's me, Jennifer Mallory.'
'What can I do for you, Jenny?'
'Can you see me, doctor? Like right now?'
It was quiet for a moment. Of course he can't see you right now, silly bitch, Jennifer scolded herself. You know how busy he is.
To her surprise, she heard him say: 'I have an opening at four. Somebody cancelled.'
Bless him! Or her... Jennifer looked at her watch. A quarter past three. No problem. 'I'll be there. Thank you, doctor.'
'You're welcome.' Dr. Burns hung up.
Tilly was sitting in the subway, trembling, her cell phone in her left hand. She knew what the doctors had told them. That mom had taken a severe blow to the head and that she might have trouble remembering everything that had happened before the accident. But could she really have forgotten what had happened to her? What her fa-
Even in her head she couldn't finish the word. What Gerard had done to her. She looked through the window; she tried to look past her own reflection at the walls of the tunnel rushing by. She wished she could build a concrete wall like that around her memories.
She didn't ever want to see him standing there again, in her bedroom door.
She didn't ever want to see him approaching her again.
She didn't ever want to feel his hands on her again.
She didn't ever want to feel his- his- inside her-
She closed her eyes and let the tears flow.
One of the reasons why her mom was getting divorced, was what the bastard had done to her. That and the fact that he had a mistress. Mother and daughter weren't enough for him, apparently. Of course they hadn't stood a chance against him and his cronies. There had been no witnesses - of course - and it was a cinch for them to convince the court that the accusation of him violating his own daughter was a scorned woman's way of lashing out at him for having an affair.
She had seen him only a couple of times since that terrible night. She had moved out almost immediately after what had happened. Thank God for friends like Gracie Smith! She hoped she could restrain herself when she saw him in his big, fancy office. If mom hadn't looked like shit, she sure as hell wouldn't be on this subway. But she hadn't wanted to upset her mother any further. She was tormented enough as it was. She'd probably fall all over herself apologizing when she saw her again this evening for dinner.
Her cell phone let out a mournful little beep and died. Battery empty again. The blasted thing had been acting up for a couple of weeks now. She had to have it replaced, but had been postponing it for no good reason. Oh well, what did it matter, all things considered?
Forty five minutes later, Jennifer was sitting across from her analyst. Burns was a small man, with a surprisingly deep, rich voice. His thinning grey hair was a mess, as per usual. And his blue tie with little red dots was tied crookedly. Mallory figured that she wouldn't feel at ease if he was combed and his tie knotted properly.
'What can I do for you, Jennifer?' he asked after having waited for a minute or so. He preferred his patients starting to tell him what was wrong spontaneously, but sometimes they needed a nudge. That meant things were serious. He lived for the day there wouldn't be anything serious anymore.
Jennifer sighed. 'I have no idea how to start,' she said, wringing her hands together.
Burns smiled. 'Take a deep breath and plunge right in. You know what I said the first time you were here: there's nothing out there-'
'-that you haven't heard,' the woman finished his sentence. 'I know. But this one's going to blow you away anyhow.'
'Okay. Here goes. I can't remember my daughter.'
She had been right, Douglas Burns had to admit. This was a new one. He even doubted he had heard correctly. 'Excuse me?' he said.
In spite of her problems, Jenny had to smile. 'I can't remember my daughter. As of three PM, I have no recollection of her.'
Mallory hadn't used the girl's name on purpose. Burns using it was just more proof that she was in trouble. 'Yes. She showed up on my doorstep this afternoon. And I didn't recognize her. But her name is in my cell phone and she's in a so many pictures...' She fell quiet. Burns was looking at her as if she was completely insane. 'Doctor, what's wrong with me?'
Douglas Burns ran his left hand through his hair. Plenty, he didn't say, because it didn't sound very professional. But it summed up very nicely what was going through his mind at that moment.
'Are you sure it was Tilly?' he asked.
Jennifer lost her temper. 'Of course not. I mean, I just told you that I don't remember having a daughter. So how can I be sure? To me, she's a name in my cell phone and a face in a bunch of pictures.'
Burns looked at her earnestly. She didn't like the look. And if her words had blown him away, his words knocked her straight into orbit. 'Jennifer, your daughter Tilly was in the car with you. She's dead.'
'What...,' It were just her lips that formed the word. No sound crossed the room. But Burns didn't need to be a lip reader to understand. 'Tilly died, together with Chad. You were the only one to get out.' He looked at the woman on the other side of his desk. She was alarmingly pale. Her eyes shone with confusion. He got up and went to the corner of the room where his liquor cabinet was. He hesitated between a glass of Evian, or something stronger. A whole lot stronger. He opted for the latter. He poured two fingers of Chivas Regal in a glass. 'Here you go,' he said, as he put it in front of her.
Jennifer Mallory took it and knocked half of it back. The scorching fluid burnt a hole in her stomach, but cleared her head.
'That can't be,' was the obvious statement to start with. 'She was in my apartment, an hour ago.'
'Yes. No. I don't know who she was! She said she was my daughter. She is in my picture books. But whoever she is, she was in my place this afternoon, just before I called you, and she was alive and well.' She drank the rest of the whisky. 'Besides, I can prove it.' She took out her Samsung and instructed the device to call "Tilly". Immediately, the voice mail answered. "Tilly" - the girl's voice, followed by a computer - "can't answer your call presently. But if you leave your name and number after the signal, she'll call you back as soon as possible. Thank you." Beep.
'It's her voice mail. She must have switched it off.'
She was grasping. The chances of a teenager switching her cell phone off were slim at best, she knew. Meaning that it was an extra brick in the case Burns was building.
Doctor Douglas Burns looked her in the eyes. He didn't get the feeling she was lying. Which didn't make it any better, in his opinion... 'What I want to do, is to schedule an appointment at the hospital for you. You suffered a terrible blow to the head. You were in a coma for eleven days. We don't know as much about comas as we'd like to. I want a new brain scan. Maybe that can tell us something more.'
Mallory nodded. It was what she had expected Burns would say. At least, when she had thought that the extent of her problem was having forgotten a child. But now that said child turned out to be dead, she had hoped for a little more - especially since she was expecting a visit from her...
Should she tell him? In the hope that he would offer to be there when the girl came for dinner?
She decided against it. The analyst had clearly squeezed her in between two appointments. He was a hardworking man, she knew. On other occasions, she had been here as late as eight PM. So after her, there had to be other patients.
Meanwhile, Burns had called the Mount Sinai Hospital, Queens. 'A friend of mine works there,' he explained while being on hold. Then: 'Ah, Bob! It's me, Doug Burns. How are you?'
Fifteen minutes later, Jennifer walked out of his office with an 11 Am appointment for the next day.
She opened the door of her apartment at a half past five. First of all, she mustn't forget to order the food. One of the advantages of having moved to a neighborhood populated by the plebs: there's a Chinese restaurant around every corner. She ordered "one 54" and "one 67", both with noodles, for 6.15 PM delivery.
On the way home, the easiest, surest way to verify the doctor's claim had come to her: the memorial card. Or cards.
Obviously, she could bring to mind the one that had been made for Chad. On the outside, there was a simple grey cross on a blue background; on the left half of the inner side, Chad looked at her; under the picture as a poem consisting of five lines - she knew them by heart; on the right side was the list of people thanking the mourners for their support.
She kept it in one of the two drawers of the same sideboard in which she kept her picture albums.
Jennifer opened the drawer on the left and gasped. There were two cards... She took them out with trembling hands. The one she recognized was Chad's, of course. So she laid it down. The other one seemed to weigh a ton. It had the same simple cross on it, but on a purple background. She had to summon all her willpower just to open it.
It was as she had feared. Tilly looked at her from the inner left side. Date of birth: June 15, 1992. Deceased on March 15, 2009. On the right side was the same list of people thanking the mourners. It started with Gerard's and her name; then those of the remaining grandparents - his father had died three years ago; aunts and uncles; nieces, nephews and cousins.
And none of this jolted her memory.
Mallory did battle on two fronts. On one hand, she had to refrain herself from calling her mother to ask her if it was true that she had had a daughter, that had died in the same accident as Chad. On the other hand, she had to fight against the urge to bolt out of the apartment and just keep running. She knew that that wasn't an option. If she did, she might never find out just how mad she was.
She looked at her watch. A quarter to six. She didn't know what would be worse: Tilly showing up - which made the girl something of a ghost - or not - which made her stark raving bonkers...
Proof! That is what she needed. Finding an excuse to take a picture with her cell phone wouldn't be hard to come up with. It also had an app that allowed for recording voice messages. She put it to the test. 'Test one-two-three, test one-two-three.' She played it back and her voice filled the room.
A glance at her watch told her that it was two minutes to six. She found herself wishing she'd remember whether Tilly was punctual by nature or not.
Her question answered itself - her doorbell rang. On wobbly legs, Jennifer went to the door and opened it. Tilly was standing in front of her.
'Hi mom,' the girl said.
She looked terrible. Haggard. As if - as if she had been told something she had a really hard time believing. Jennifer stepped aside to let her pass.
The teenager went straight into the living room and turned to her. 'Mom, what's happening?'
'What-what do you mean?' Mallory had a gnawing suspicion that she knew what the girl meant.
'I went home. And the maid told me I was...' A look of disgust replaced the confusion on her face. '... dead...'
Bull's eye. 'Dead, huh?'
'Yes! So I went to dad's office - to drop off the papers you signed. He threatened to sick security on me! Can you believe that? He yelled, "Who are you? You are dead! You can't be Tilly. You died!" And than he took his telephone and told me he was going to call security. So I got out of there.' She looked into the eyes of the woman next to her. 'Mom, how can this be? Why do they think I'm dead?'
'I don't know. But after you left, I went to doctor Burns.'
'Yep, him. He told me the same thing. That you were dead. That you died in the car crash, together with Chad...'
'But that can't be right!' Tilly yelled.
'No, because you are standing here in front of me. Very much alive, unless I forgot how to tell the difference between a member of the undead society and one of us,' Jenny grinned in an attempt to alleviate the girl's distress. It didn't help. So she continued: 'But it also doesn't make any sense for me not to recognize you when you say that you are my daughter.'
Jennifer sighed. 'I think it's time we sat down.'
Tilly sat down on the couch. 'What did you just say? You don't recognize me?'
The woman nodded; she didn't sit down straight away, but went to the bar first. 'I need a drink,' she declared. 'You?' She saw the shocked look on Tilly's face. 'We'll keep it our secret!'
'O-okay,' the girl said. 'Do you have vodka?'
'Wow - the hard stuff, huh? Well, I've always liked it too.' So she poured a - tall - measure into the appropriate glasses and took one to the girl. 'Cheers.'
They clinked and knocked the translucent fluid back.
'So, what did you just say, mom? I mean, I heard the words, but I don't understand.'
'It's hard to explain,' "mom" interrupted her. 'Well, easy to explain, but hard to grasp, you know. I have absolutely no recollection of you whatsoever. That's why I went to Burns to begin with. To talk about this. It's like I see you for the first time in my life. And yet - you look so much like me...' Again it struck her. The girl was the spitting image of her younger self.
'You don't remember me?'
'No. But than there is all this evidence around me. Pictures. Burns knowing you. Off you, at least, because I don't know if he's ever met you. But like I said, he's the one who told me that you were dead.' She finished her drink. Tilly's glass was empty too. 'Another one?'
'Sure. I mean, I'm dead, right? How can it hurt me to have another one?'
Jennifer poured the drinks and sat next to the girl again. 'You are not dead, okay? And I don't remember you because you weren't in my life before.'
'So - we are normal and the others are losing it?'
'Something like that. If we don't believe that, we'll go nuts for sure. And that's a definite no-no.' Sip of vodka. 'We just have to figure this out, that's all.'
'That's all, huh? Well, let me tell you this: whether you remember me or not, you sure as heck are as confident as always.' She reconsidered. 'As you were before the accident.'
Oh girl, Jennifer thought, if only you knew how scared I am.
But she couldn't tell her this. She had to be strong. She was the mother after all, even if she didn't remember ever having a daughter.
'If we are going to get to the bottom of this, I think we have to determine at what point our world changed.'
'Well, this morning, at school, nobody accused me of being dead. This nightmare started this afternoon.' She thought for a moment. 'Come to think of it, I fell asleep this afternoon, on the metro. I slept badly last night and I drifted off for a couple of minutes on my way home from school.'
Jennifer considered this. 'This morning, everything was all right in my world too. Well, hardly all right, but normal, let's say. And in the early afternoon, I was feeling tired, so I took a nap. It was you ringing my doorbell that woke me up. And that's when things changed for me too.'
'Hm. That could be coincidence, of course, but at the moment, it's all we've got to work with. What are we going to do with it?'
'A good question, if ever there was one.' Mallory thought hard about it; no answer came. 'Maybe we should go see dr. Burns together? At least he could see you. See that you are really... real. Not a figment of my imagination...' That got the woman thinking again of what she had been planning to begin with. 'You are real, aren't you?'
'Before you got here, I had been planning on verifying that you were real. I mean, I was about fifty percent sure that I was losing it. So I wanted to take a picture of you and record your voice. So that I could show it to Burns, to prove that you were alive. But now, we could go see him together.'
The doorbell rang.
'Ah, the food has arrived. Maybe we'll get an absolutely brilliant idea with some chop choy in our stomachs.'
The brilliant idea didn't come. But Tilly seemed to relax with every bite she took. She really dug into the noodles, Jennifer noticed. And the way she handled the chopsticks. Like a real pro. The woman couldn't help but smile, in spite of all the bad things that were happening in her life. She really liked this girl, she had to admit. God, she prayed, don't let her be fraud, hired by Gerard to drive me crazy.
Than again, what would he gain by that? She didn't have anything Gerard could want. And he made damn sure she didn't walk out this marriage better off than she was getting in. So what could be his motive?
But if - if - that was his strategy, how could the pictures and the contact in the address book of her telephone be explained? Easily, she had to admit. No door remained unlocked for a rich dude like Gerard. The pictures could all have been faked. For the right price, a Photoshop wiz-kid could do it. And last night, while she slept, somebody could have entered her place. Replaced the picture on the wall; replaced the photo albums. Her Samsung usually laid in the living room, next to her computer.
'So, you like Chinese food, huh?' She had decided to start some small talk; maybe the girl would slip up and give herself away as a fraud.
'Of course! Don't you remember?' Her next load of noodles got halted half way between her plate and mouth. 'Well, you wouldn't, since you don't remember me, right?' And in it went.
'Right. Tell me about us. About us as a family.'
Tilly shrugged. 'What is there to tell? We lived together for fifteen years. Then dad got caught with his pants down, so to speak.'
Jennifer saw her look into her bowl of noodles. As if there was something else that made her feel uncomfortable...
'You drove off, got into a car accident. Chad was killed...' A hardness crept into the girl's voice and slid over her face.
Jennifer sighed. 'I'm so sorry, Tilly. So very sorry...'
The girl slammed her fork down next to her plate. '"Sorry" doesn't change a thing, does it? You drank - drank! - at uncle Bob's place, got in your car, shit faced and slammed into a tree! How the hell am I supposed to forgive you for this? Tell me!'
'I can't and I don't expect you to forgive me. No more than I can forgive myself.' Mallory's voice was no more than a whisper. 'I can only apologize again and again. And hope that it's true what they say, that time heals...' She finished her glass of vodka. 'How often have we had this conversation?'
Tilly shrugged. 'A couple of dozen times. And each time, I'm torn between kicking you and holding you and telling you it wasn't entirely your fault. That uncle Bob should have known better than to let you leave. That dad is to blame for a lot of it, because of what he did. But in the end, it was you behind the wheel. It was you that got Chad killed...'
Both women were silent after that for a couple of minutes and picked at their food.
Again Jennifer thought that the girl was either a very good actress, or she believed every word she just said.
Tilly found her appetite back and finished her plate. Jenny got up and used her fork to scrape what was left on hers into the trashcan.
'I guess you live at your father's place?' She saw the girl cringe. 'No?'
'No. Not after what happened.'
'To Chad? Or because of his cheating?'
'No, mom,' she said with a sigh. 'Because of what he did to me.'
'To you? What did he do to you?' One look into the sad eyes of the teenager told her enough. 'I'm so sorry, Tilly,' she said and took her hands in hers. 'Did I know about this?' She sat down again heavily. She feared the answer. Yes, you knew, but didn't do anything about it.
Tilly nodded. 'I told you a couple of days after it happened. It was this more than the fact that he was fooling around that caused you to do what you did... That's why I can't totally hate you, you know.' Tears broke through her closed eyes.
Jennifer could only do one thing: embrace her. She rocked the crying girl like a baby. Like her baby. God, she thought, let this be my child...
After ten minutes or so, they went back to the living room. 'Where do you live?'
'I moved into a friend's place. She lives in Little Italy. We attend the same school. Larabee's School for Performing Arts.'
'Oh, going to be an actress, eh?' the woman asked once they were seated - she in an easy chair, the teenager on the couch.
And so they talked for a couple of hours. A few times, a look that said as much as "I can't believe you don't remember this" slid over Tilly's face. But she kept talking, answering questions, filling in the blanks for Jenny.
Filling in one gigantic blank, actually. No matter what the girl told her, it didn't do anything to make the woman remember. God, she hoped dr. Burns could help them.
'Mind if I switch on the TV?' Tilly asked suddenly. A girl could only talk so much, apparently.
'Of course not.'
Tilly took the remote and pressed the button that lit up the screen. After some channel surfing, she settled on Fox news.
Jenny got up and went into the bathroom. She wanted to change into her jammies. She felt as if her head was about to burst. On the left side of her forehead, there was a big, nasty looking scar - a souvenir from the accident. It started under her hairline and ran in an angle down passed her eyebrow and stopped on her cheekbone. She didn't mind it. It was like public penance for what she had done to her son...
But when she got stressed out, the scar started throbbing and burning.
Like now. So she opened the medicine cabinet. A bottle of Excedrin was waiting for her. She swallowed a couple of them and put it back.
'That can't be right!' she heard from the living room. 'What's that?' she called back.
'They are talking about a National September 11 Memorial and Museum. But that can't be right. The twin towers didn't get destroyed. The planes of the terrorists were shot down by air force planes.'
'Is that how you remember it, Tilly?'
'Of course! How do you remember it?'
'The towers were destroyed by the planes... Like the man on the news just said.' She went back to the living room.
The haunted look was back on the girl's face. 'What's happening, mom?'
'I don't know. I just don't know.' Something as big as that, you didn't misremember. 'I sure hope dr. Burns can point us in the right direction to get to the bottom of this...'
She looked at Tilly. She was trembling, with big fearful eyes. 'I know you loathe me for what I did, but I think it would be best if you staid here.'
'But what about Lillian?'
'The girl I live with.'
Jennifer thought about it for a moment. 'She's got your cell phone number?' Tilly nodded. 'If she's worried, she'll call you.'
'One problem though: my battery is on the fritz since this afternoon. Right after you called to invite me over, it died on me.'
That's why I got her mailbox when I called her from Burn's place. 'I guess you could call her from here, but if other people think you are dead, you might just scare her to death.'
'I suppose you're right.' A sigh.
'Can't you use a fixed line to call your voice mail?'
Tilly looked at her and her face broke out in a grin. 'Now I know something is very wrong! Not in a million years would my mom come up with something like this!'
Jennifer couldn't help smiling herself while the teenager punched in the buttons on her telephone. She listened for a moment and put the receiver back down. 'Nothing. Except a call from you.'
'Yeah - I called from dr. Burn's office. To convince him you were real. Not picking up didn't exactly help my case, young lady.' She smiled a little crookedly. 'Let's get some sleep.' It was a quarter to eleven and she was feeling exhausted.
'Okay with me.'
'You can go to bathroom first. I'll make up the futon in the meantime.'
Twenty minutes later, they were ready to turn in.
'Well, goodnight than,' Jenny said. The teenager was sitting on the edge of the futon; the woman had given her one of the large T-shirts she always slept in.
Jennifer went to her bedroom and slid into bed. She had barely turned out the light when there was a soft knock on the door. 'Yes,' she said.
The door was opened, timidly. Tilly stuck her head around the corner. 'Can I sleep with you?' she asked with a little voice.
'Of course,' the woman said and lifted the covers, so that the girl could slide in.
Tilly immediately sought the comfort of the arms of the woman that she considered her mom. Strangely enough, Jennifer felt very at ease holding this younger version of her self. It was as if her arms and body acknowledged her as her offspring, even though she did not remember this person.
'How long ago did it happen?'
'The accident? Seven months ago.' She understood where the girl was going with this. 'And for you?'
'A little over a year ago…'
The next morning they woke up feeling a bit better. During breakfast, Jennifer Mallory explained about the 11 o'clock appointment at the hospital.
'That's okay,' Tilly said, 'than I can use the computer to see what else I remember differently.'
While waiting at the bus stop, Jenny called dr. Burns. First of all, she assured him that she hadn't forgotten about the scans. 'As a matter of fact, I'm on my way to the hospital,' she said. 'But that's not why I'm calling you, doctor. I have to see you today. It's very, very important.'
She heard the analyst sigh. I must be driving him mad, she thought with a sudden pang of guilt. But what the hell, she paid him enough, didn't she?
'Can't it wait?' the man tried.
'Doctor, believe me when I say that the sanity of two persons is riding on seeing you.'
'Two persons? You're not coming alone to see me?' Douglas Burns was clearly intrigued by her statement.
'Yes. There's me, and a young woman that's somehow connected to what's happening to me.'
'Okay, you got me hooked,' Burns surrendered. 'But only if 8 PM is not too late for you.'
'Eight sounds perfect. See you then.'
At eight on the dot, Douglas Burns' doorbell rang. At five seconds passed eight, he was gasping 'This can't be...'
He had opened the door, and Jennifer Mallory had entered, closely followed by a young woman that his mind had refused to recognize straight away: Tilly Banaste, her daughter. Who had been killed in the car crash, together with her little brother.
'Doctor, meet my daughter, Tilly,' Jennifer Mallory said.
Burns took a couple of steps back. 'That can't be,' he repeated. 'Your daughter was killed.' He turned around sharply and took refuge behind his big, professional desk. Here he was safe from all the lunacy the big city could throw at him. While sitting down, the solution came to him. It was so simple that he hated himself for being so easily fooled, even for a moment.
'This is a look-alike, right?' It had to be. And the fact that he'd never met the real-life Tilly - but he had seen plenty of pictures of her - went a long way in explaining his being fooled.
'Doc, believe me, I'm no-one's look-alike. I'm the real thing.' Tilly sat down and looked at him defiantly.
'But... But...' The doctor cleared his throat. He had wanted to add "this can't be" - but he had already made that statement, hadn't he?
The girl seemed to believe what she said. Her none verbal communication didn't convey that she was lying or hiding the truth from him somehow. And he had only met one or two people who had been able to mislead him.
'And you don't remember her?' This directed at Mallory.
Jenny shook her head.
'But you remember your mother?' He looked at Tilly.
'Of course,' she replied vehemently. 'How can a daughter forget her mother?' At once, her cheeks turned red. Indirectly, she had asked "what mother forgets her own flesh and blood?"
Jennifer let it slide. She said: 'As far as we can tell, it's got something to do with us taking a nap.'
'Yes. The last time things were normal for us, was right before we nodded off for a couple of minutes. In her case, anyway.' Jenny indicated the girl with her head. 'I may have slept for an hour or so.'
'And when we woke up, things were different for us,' Tilly took over. 'She doesn't know who I am and the rest thinks I'm dead. You, dad, his housekeeper. And that's not all. I remember other stuff differently from what I dug up on the internet this morning.'
'The World Trade Centre. It was never hit by planes. They got shot down before they hit the towers. And Bush getting re-elected? Gore won by five or six percent. Boy, major bummer, discovering that that asshole is still president!'
Burns' lips turned up in a little smile. Maybe this young lady was mad as a hatter, but anybody who saw Bush for what he was, couldn't be beyond saving.
'Doctor, what's happening to us?'
Mother and daughter looked at him with desperation on their face. He was the man of science. He was going to provide the answer.
'I don't know,' Burns admitted. 'The only thing that comes to mind is The Twilight Zone...'
Mallory immediately knew what he was talking about. She had watched both the original show and the eighties revival series.
'You know what The Twilight Zone is?' Burns asked Tilly.
She nodded. 'Strange things screwing up people's minds,' she recapped most of the stories in a nutshell. 'Is that your professional opinion?' she wanted to know.
The doctor chuckled. 'Hardly,' he said, 'but it's the only thing I can think of right now. Tests and examinations might bring forth another explanation.'
'Talking of which,' Jennifer interjected, 'I was at the hospital this morning, for the brain scans.' She opened her purse and dug up the envelope doctor Robert "Bob" Waymacher had given her.
Douglas Burns tore it open and went over the results and Bob's letter. Nothing out of the ordinary, the conclusion read. No abnormal brain activity, no new scar tissue. That would be considered good, under normal circumstances. Right now though, it spelled trouble.
'Okay, there's nothing wrong here. No abnormal activity, no new regions that have been traumatized.'
The woman sighed. 'Why does this not reassure me? Why do I see myself in a straight jacket?'
'Not so fast, Jenny,' Burns said. 'As long as you don't go about hurting other people or hurting yourself, the last thing I want is to institutionalize you. Tests could be performed.'
'What kind of tests?'
'DNA. To ascertain that your DNA matches with what we have on record.'
'You think that if I'm from some other dimension, there'd be differences?' It was more a statement than a question.
Smart woman, this Jennifer Mallory. 'Possibly. I've never met someone from dimension X, you know,' Douglas Burns attempted to lighten up the situation.
Tilly spoke. 'Maybe there's an easier way?'
The adults looked at her.
'I'm guessing that if we are from different dimensions, we wouldn't be exactly the same. I mean, if I fell and got scarred, my counterpart from another dimension wouldn't necessarily have the same scar, would she?'
Doctor Burns thought that this girl was smart as a whip in her own rights. Whatever she was. The real thing, a look-alike, an inhabitant of another dimension. A zombie? Nah, she smelled too nice for that, the doc formed his expert opinion.
'And since you don't remember me, mom, I guess you're the one that's gonna have to take it all off...'
Jennifer looked shocked. Stripping in front of her and the doctor?
'If it would make things easier for you, I can leave for a moment?' Burns proposed.
'I don't think it has to come to that. I assume that you have seen me... your mother naked on more than one occasion?' Jenny asked Tilly.
'Well, in the bathroom, sure.'
'Can you think of scars on parts of her body that wouldn't fall under the category "indecent exposure"?'
The teenager searched her memory. 'She had her appendix taken out four or five years ago. That left a scar on her stomach.'
Jennifer Mallory shook her head. 'Not good enough. I've had it taken out and have the scar. See?' She lifted her blouse.
Tilly looked at it a moment. 'Yours might be a bit bigger... But I'm not really sure...' Some thinking. Then: 'Left upper arm. You fell from a ladder once, while cleaning a chandelier. You fell on a glass coffee table and cut yourself badly. It left a scar of about four inches on your left upper arm, just below the shoulder.'
Jenny opened her blouse a few buttons and bared her left shoulder and upper arm - the fact that this showed the other two a bit of bra and a lot of cleavage, didn't bother her too much.
So unless the girl made it up on the spot, for whatever obscure reason, Burns thought, this was turning in to a very strange tale...
Tilly just kept staring at Jenny's unscathed arm. Great. Just one more proof that she was some kind of inter dimensional freak... Or was her mother the one out of place? Why not both of them, come to think of it.
Mallory struggled with the same questions. She voiced them to her analyst. 'So we don't belong here, in this... reality? Either of us?'
Burns shrugged. 'It looks like that, yes. In my reality - always assuming I'm not the one who's "misplaced" - you had a daughter, which got killed in the car accident, together with her kid brother. In yours' - he addressed Jennifer - 'you didn't have a daughter. And in yours' - this to Tilly - 'you weren't in the crash and didn't die.'
'But if that's the case, where's the Jennifer Mallory that does belong here?'
'And is there no Tilly in my dimension anymore?' Tilly wondered aloud.
'Who knows?' Burns said. 'Who knows how many dimensions there are? Three that we are more or less sure of. But maybe there are an infinite number of them. And maybe all the Tilly Banastes and Jennifers Mallorys got switched. And maybe other people too. It would be kind of presumptuous to assume that this is all about the two of you. But luckily, both of you' - he looked at Jennifer - 'picked the same analyst...'
The women fell silent.
'What are we going to do about this?' Jennifer finally asked.
After some thinking, Burns said: 'Keep quiet about it for the moment. You either end up on some scientist's table, in a loony bin or, worst case scenario, on the front page of the tabloids... Where's the gain? Granted, it would be interesting to examine you, and see if there are any differences between you and the people who belong in this dimension. But you would have no freedom left any more.'
'Keep quiet about it? That may not be too difficult for you' - Tilly addressed Jenny - 'because a Jennifer belongs here. But I don't belong. I died here. I stick out like a sore thumb!'
'I know,' the doctor said. 'And I have a temporary solution. I own a cabin up state, by Lake Sohegon - about 100 miles from here. I doubt anybody there would know who you are. You can stay there for a couple of weeks, until we know more.'
'Sounds good,' Jennifer said. To Tilly: 'Doesn't it?'
The girl shrugged. 'I guess so. Does it have internet?'
Burns laughed. 'And running water and an indoor outhouse.'
He opened the drawer of his desk and took out an impressive key ring. He slid one from it and handed it to Jennifer. Than he took a notepad and a pen. 'Here's the address.'
Mallory took the paper when he handed it to her and put it in her purse.
'One thing though. A buddy of mine is a scientist. What I'd like to do is get some DNA from the both of you, so that he can examine it. See if there's anything abnormal about your building stones, that sets them apart from the ones we use.' He saw the look on the women's face. 'Don't worry. I won't tell him where I got it. I'm not going to put your heads on the sacrificial blocks of the altar of science.'
Tilly and Jennifer looked at each other.
'Okay, I guess,' the girl said first. 'What do you want?'
They settled for a couple of hairs, follicle and all, nail clippings and some blood. Burns had a couple of syringes in his medicine cabinet. Sometimes he needed to administer a sedative to a patient, when he or she was completely overwrought.
When they got home again, Mallory saw that the red light on her answering machine was blinking. She pushed the playback button. Gerard's voice filled the room. 'Jennifer, you have to be careful. There's an impostor running around, pretending to be our daughter. She's been here, but ran away when I asked her who she was and what she wanted.'
'Asked?' Tilly snorted. 'He nearly bit my head off...'
'If she contacts you, try to keep her there and give me a call. We have to notify the cops.'
'What? No "goodbye" or "take care"?' Bitterness tainted Jenny's voice. She sighed. She didn't like it. 'Let's get packing, kid.'
'Excuse me? Pack? Me? What?' Tilly wanted to know.
'Okay. Help me pack. I suppose we can stop on the way at a mall or something and pick up some stuff for you.'
At one pm the next day, Jennifer Mallory switched off the engine of her Ford Focus. Finding the cabin had been easy. And it looked great, she had to admit. Mostly wood. Two floors. Nice flower garden to the right of the driveway. And right in front of them, the lake was visible just over the low bushes.
The women got out of the car. A nice breeze ruffled their hair, as if to welcome them.
Jenny went to the door, key in hand, while Tilly opened the trunk.
The inside of the cabin was on equal footing with the outside. Wooden furniture, lush carpets, on the walls paintings of the lake and animals living in and around it.
'Wow,' the girl said when she entered, her mother's red suitcase in her left hand and a shopping bag in her right. 'Doc's got money.'
'Yeah, he sure does. And good taste.'
'Well, that's up for debate.'
'What? You don't like it?'
'Hmmm, a bit too country for me.'
'Okay, city girl, let's get settled in.'
A couple of hours later, they were done. They each had chosen a room and unpacked. While the mother decided to test the shower, the daughter switched on the computer.
Tilly surfed to CNN. She wanted to read up on what was going on in this world. What was different from the one she knew.
A couple of minutes later Jennifer walked into the living room, dressed in a big, pink bathrobe. 'And? Does it work?'
'Yes. Like a charm.'
And then came the big question: what were they going to do? Except wait until they heard from doctor Burns. The only thing they could do, basically. Talk. Talk. And then talk some more. Tilly did most of the talking. She told Jennifer about her life with her version of Chad and Gerard.
After the girl had been talking for a while, Jennifer started feeling as if she was talking about her Chad, and her Gerard. The things they had said and done; the way they had reacted in certain situations. It all sounded like what her ex-husband and son would have said and done.
Of course she liked to think that, in spite of everything, her Gerard wouldn't have ravaged his own daughter…
They took long walks along the shore of the lake. Both agreed that it was beautiful. The way the sun reflected off its surface. Fish jumping playfully out of the water. Mother duck gliding over the water with six ducklings trailing her. Loons crying their heart out. And an eagle, ever watchful. On two occasions, the women saw it jump from the branch it was sitting on, sweep down over the water and catch a fish between its talons, thus most effectively ending the playful days of its prey.
At the end of the second day, Jennifer and Tilly were sitting in front of the fireplace. They had finished watching a movie - a tearjerke