Nicola finished reading the letter as she hurried down the corridor. "It'll be just like when we were roomies in college. See you shortly for the adventure of a lifetime! Love ya, Alex." She shook her head. Just like Alex to exaggerate, but then again, Nicola knew nothing about what she was getting herself into by taking this trip. She only knew she had no choice. She had to go. By the time she got back, she would have the test results she needed and could resume her life. And who knew, perhaps it would be the adventure of a lifetime after all.
She tucked the letter into her leather portfolio and the sound of crinkling paper echoed down the silent hallway. Schools, she thought, particularly elementary ones, weren't meant to be quiet.
Footsteps trod behind her. The sound was ice water to the face, sending shock waves all the way to her toes. Her spine snapped straight as her limbs went rigid. Her eyes whipped to the doors at the end of the hall. Run, run, run, screamed her mind.
"Oh, Melvina!" Nicola rocked back on her feet, and turned to see the stocky woman with her wide smiling face.
Melvina's smile fell. "My goodness! You look like you've seen a ghost...oh! I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. It's still the...well...mugging, isn't it?"
Nicola nodded as she willed her body to calm down. Deep breaths did not seem to be slowing her panicked heart.
Melvina lowered her voice, "Hon, it's been five months. You can't let it bother you forever."
"I told you after it happened to get some professional help."
"I can't." Nicola shuddered at the thought of someone discovering the truth. "It was my fault, so there's no point in talking to anyone else about it. Besides, look how long it took me to tell you and I've known you for years. You expect me to open myself up to a total stranger?"
"If I remember right, you didn't tell me until I yanked you out of class and forced it out of you."
"It never affected my performance on the job." Nicola didn't mean to sound so defensive.
Melvina smiled. "I know. You're the best, but we principals, we have a nose for trouble. How else do you think we keep ahead of hundreds of incredibly bright children?" Melvina's dark eyes swept the empty hallway and a sigh heaved her large bosom. "Summer just arrived and already I'm bored. Most people look forward to the break, but me, I look forward to the first day of school. Speaking of that, I hope you'll give some thought to what I said. I hate to see a teacher as dedicated as you give it up."
Nicola forced a cheeriness she didn't feel. "This chapter of my life was great, but it's over. I'm getting married and I have to think of what James wants, too."
"If James only...no, never mind." Melvina held up her hand, her palm pressing the air in a stop gesture. "There I go. I promised myself I wouldn't interfere." Her hand dropped. "Tell me about this crazy trip of yours."
Nicola chuckled. "It might be crazy, but I'm grateful to Alex for including me. We're going to Marseille, France with her brother to pick up a boat and sail it back to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands."
"Sail...across the Atlantic? Aren't you worried about getting seasick, or worse? I'd be scared of pirates."
"I'm more excited than scared. Alex told me that her brother has been doing this for years, so it must be safe, and I don't get seasick. I just can't wait to see Alex again. We've kept in touch, but I haven't seen her since college...seven, no, eight years. That's why I'm visiting St. Thomas first. She's going to be busy when I first get there, but I figure a little time by a pool in the tropics won't hurt me a bit."
They took the last few steps to the twin set of double red doors. Melvina pushed them open and Nicola breathed in the crisp scent of freshly cut grass. Her eyes lit on the black 911 Porsche waiting for her at the bottom of the wide cement steps. "There's my mom. She's driving me over to JFK to catch my plane." Nicola bent to give Melvina a hug. "Thanks for everything."
"Well, you take care of yourself, and if you have a change of heart, call me."
"Thanks." Nicola turned, finding her descent down the stairs a flight of anticipation. Each step removed her from the strain of daily life, and placed her on the path to escape. She opened the front door and slid onto the leather seat. "Hello, Mother. Did you remember my luggage?"
Nicola shut her door and turned to find her mother's appearance had been altered again. She's done it this time, Nicola thought of the sheared ashen hair, it's so short she can't change it for months now. Her eyes moved to her mother's salmon silk suit. "New hairstyle and new clothes...new boyfriend?"
Her mother scowled. "Ready to go?"
Nicola nodded, suppressing a smile. Of course her mother had a new boyfriend. Caroline Burke was too difficult for men to stay around long even with her brand new convertible to attract them. She had to look away as her mother positioned her hands on the steering wheel. Even though she refrained from commenting, irritation still swept through her because her mother never gripped the wheel like she was supposed to for fear of damaging one of her ridiculously long fake fingernails. Her newly-manicured nails pointed out like dainty spokes, while only a thumb hooked under the wheel to control the car. Nicola was sure her mother's vanity would cause an accident one day, but no amount of arguing could convince her mother of that. It was, Nicola thought, a measure of her desperation that she had even asked her mother for a ride. Turning, Nicola waved goodbye to Melvina as the car left the school parking lot.
She felt her mother's blue eyes scan her and knew the disapproval without looking. Nicola kept her eyes on the view passing her window until she knew her mother was about to burst. She initiated the argument with, "What?"
"You know perfectly well what! I can't believe you've made me party to this scheme, or even that I agreed to help you without your fiance's knowledge. This just isn't like you, Nicola. Lying to James and telling him that you're going up to your Uncle Roger's cabin in the Catskills when you're actually running off on a boat. You're getting more like your father every day."
The rest of the tirade was lost on Nicola, as memories of her father flooded her. She could only hope to be like Nicholas Burke. Her father had been gentle and kind and understanding. She was proud to be his namesake and had lost more than her father when cancer had claimed him. She had lost her best friend. Nicola was yanked from her memories when she realized that there was silence and her mother was waiting for her reply. She sighed. "You make it sound like I'm running off with a man. I'm only going sailing with Alex. James even suggested I get away for a while."
"I think he meant a week, not a month, and I'm sure he didn't expect you to postpone the wedding again. Really, Nicola, you're costing me a fortune. And it's beyond me, how a simple mugging months ago could still be causing this much trouble. For heaven's sake, James told me that every couple of nights you have some ridiculous nightmare and keep him awake. Is that true?"
Nicola didn't answer as she spotted her image in the side mirror. She could only make out half of her face, but the one brown eye she could see had dark rings under it from lack of sleep. Yes, the nightmares were keeping James awake, but only long enough for him to tell her to go sleep on the couch. She was the one who lay awake for hours and despite her best efforts with makeup, she couldn't hide the exhaustion she felt. Fatigue showed in her eyes, on her face and even with her hair. Against James's wishes, she had cut it off. A short bob, not unlike her mother's, but only because she no longer had the strength to battle the thick blond strands daily.
Nicola shut her eyes to her image. She was tired all right. Tired of wishing she could go back to the night of the mugging, so she could tell the truth. She hadn't meant to lie. She had just been too devastated to admit that the mugging had been rape. She had been too humiliated to disclose anything more than the theft of her purse. She had been too ashamed to tell James while each passing day made it more impossible to go back and confess.
If only she had told James what had happened he would understand why she suffered nightmares. Why she avoided his touch, even after she was pressured into moving into the house they bought together and would have been living in as man and wife, if she had not postponed the wedding. Why she had postponed the wedding not once, but twice. It had as much to do with her horrifying memories as it did with waiting for the results of all the tests. She hadn't gone for medical attention soon enough afterwards. She had been too dazed to even think about it, and now, she had to worry about sexually transmitted diseases. It had taken every grain of determination she possessed to have the tests done. The embarrassment nearly killed her, because she couldn't bring herself to go to anyone but her old family doctor, Dr. Meyer. She was relieved when he didn't question her motives and even more relieved with each of his bland declarations of negative test results. There was only one more to go and this trip would be her salvation. She could avoid James without hurting his pride any more than she already had. She could distance herself from the memory of the attack. She could keep busy while she awaited the results of the final test.
Her mother's impatient voice broke through her thoughts, "Well, Nicola, is it true? Are you having nightmares?"
"Since you've obviously discussed it in some length with James, why ask me?"
"Well, if you'd confide in me, I wouldn't need to ask James, would I? And right now, I'd like you to explain why you're so determined to take this trip."
"I've already explained. It'll be fun. It'll get me away. I'm sick of feeling like a victim, so I'm taking a vacation from everything."
"Including your fiance?"
Especially my fiance. "Yes."
"And these people you're going with have refused to let you take your cell phone?"
"I doubt it would work anyway, but yes, that's true. Alex's brother doesn't believe in technology." Nicola found the lie slipped from her tongue easily. In truth, Alex had said that Mark did things the old fashioned way aboard the boat, something about no fancy GPS, sonars or radars, but nothing about cell phones. Nicola just chose to leave hers behind, because this was an escape... from everything.
"And you agreed? This whole thing is just crazy. Honestly, Nicola, I've never seen anyone react so badly to a simple mugging."
Nicola didn't hide her sarcasm, "Mother, once you've had a gun stuck in your face, been slapped around and robbed, then we can discuss how badly I'm reacting to this simple mugging."
"But that kind of thing goes on every day."
"Exactly," Nicola muttered, "and it's a damn shame that frequency breeds apathy." Her eyes wandered past her grim image to focus on the crowded buildings of Manhattan in the distance. Buildings crammed together for civilization's sake. Civilization, hah! Civilized people did not brutalize one another.
"Now Nicola, you know James and I are far from apathetic. I happen to believe you should get away... which is the only reason I am helping you... but not for so long and definitely not with that Alex Webster. That girl was always getting you into trouble with her crazy schemes and I had hoped you'd lost touch with her by now."
Nicola found a smile on her face. She would never lose touch with Alex. Fun-loving Alex who thrived on getting into trouble. Wild Alex from a broken home. Carefree Alex who was the complete opposite of her. It was a wonder they had grown so close during college. But during those years, Alex had been Nicola's escape from reality and respectability while Nicola had been Alex's introduction to the two R's. Now at a time when Nicola needed an escape, Alex had unwittingly provided one. She looked over at her mother's scowl. "I'll be sure and tell Alex that you send your regards."
"You won't say anything of the kind and you're lucky I'm not telling James--"
"You promised!" Nicola's entire body tensed at the thought.
"Yes, but that was before I knew you were going off with that slut--"
"James's word, not mine, and that was one of the nice things he had to say about her. After all, he said he knew her well when you all went to college together, and that she was a regular mattress--"
"Enough," Nicola barked.
"Well, just be warned that she is trouble." She fell silent a moment and then asked, "Do you know what my strongest recollection of her is?"
Nicola didn't bother to respond because she knew the answer was forthcoming whether she wanted to hear it or not.
"I remember she never wore a bra. She's much too large to do that. Now you could get away with it, but not her. And make-up. She never wore make-up. What kind of woman doesn't wear make-up? All of us need at least an hour before the mirror every morning or we're just not presentable."
"Or so you taught me," Nicola said.
"Well, judging your appearance lately, my dear, it seems you need a refresher course."
Only the sight of the airport terminal kept Nicola from responding. She snagged her bottom lip with her teeth to keep her mouth shut.
"Do you want me to wait with you?"
"No," Nicola answered, "but I do need one last favor. Will you drop my portfolio off at the house, since it's on your way home anyway?"
"At least I can do that with a clear conscience," her mother said, stopping the car in front of the terminal. She looked over at Nicola with narrowed eyes. "I don't know what to make of you lately. You've always done what is right. You were the most obedient child. You weren't even a problem teenager, but this... it's almost as if you're trying to make up for lost time."
"I know, Mom, but take my word for it, I know what I'm doing. Everything will be just fine." Now, Nicola thought, if I just believed that.