I was minding my own business on that warm Wednesday in July. Honestly. It was almost noon, and I was sweating and designing gag gifts for music teachers when the phone rang.
"Kate, this is your mother," the voice on the telephone told me.
Her announcement didn't help my perspiration problem, especially once my heart began to race.
"Are you all right, Mom?" I asked, wiping my sodden face with the back of my hand.
"I'd be better if you had a real wedding," she answered and paused. My brain began to play tag with my heart. "So I'm sending out your Aunt Dorothy. She's a certified wedding coordinator--"
"She'll be arriving on the four o'clock, afternoon flight into San Francisco tomorrow. I told her you'd pick her up--"
"You wouldn't just leave her at the airport, would you, Kate? She's in her eighties now."
"Of course I wouldn't leave her at the airport, Mom," I said, thinking that maybe air-conditioning might help. Or an antiperspirant. "But--"
"She's made reservations at the Best Western nearest to you."
"I know you don't really have room for her in your house." Her voice lowered. "Your brother, Kevin, told me about the state of your house."
I decided to kill my little brother later. And what was wrong with my house, anyway? I looked across the entryway that separated my home office from the living room, seeing all the loveliness of overflowing bookshelves, clutter, towering houseplants, pinball machines, and swinging chairs suspended from the ceiling. And the handmade wood-and-denim couch. Who could ask for anything more? My mother, a sane voice in my head answered.
And it wasn't just my house that was bugging my mother. In her opinion, a gag-gift business was no business for a woman in her forties, especially for a woman who was her daughter. And then there was my marital status. Mom had almost forgiven me for divorcing my first husband, Craig. Almost. Until she'd learned that I was living with Wayne Caruso. Then she'd thrown a ladylike and thoroughly guilt-inducing hissy fit. And finally, the marriage march had begun in her head. Wayne and Kate, thump, Wayne and Kate, thump, Wayne and ... And if that wasn't bad enough, Wayne wanted to get married, too. So Wayne and I had compromised, agreeing on a brief civil ceremony that was supposed to have remained secret until the perfect time to let our loved ones know. But, of course, it hadn't. Once the shock had worn off, my mother threw another fit, this one less ladylike but just as guilt-inducing.
A brief civil ceremony wasn't enough for my mother. My mother wanted formality. Wedding dresses, bridesmaids, color coordination, guests, invitations, music, and food floated through her mind and into mine, via her mouth. Now came Aunt Dorothy. Mom couldn't have strategized her attack any more effectively. She should have been a general. She probably had been in a past life. I liked my Aunt Dorothy. How could I tell her I wasn't a willing party to my mother's plans?
Twenty minutes of phone hell later, I put the key in the ignition of my elderly Toyota, reflecting on my inability to utter the word "no" when my mother was involved. Even my keys felt strange in my hand. They felt lighter, for one thing, and they seemed to jingle differently. I attributed the difference to the effect of talking to my mother. Everything always felt weird after talking to Mom. I turned the key, applied my hands to the oven-hot steering wheel, and backed out of my driveway, popping gravel as I went. I was going to be late for my twelve o'clock lunch date with Wayne. How had it happened that I had not managed to make clear to my mother that I didn't want a formal wedding? That I'd hate a formal wedding?
I tore my brain away from Mom and forced myself to think about something else. Wayne's Heartlink Men's Group was always good for extended speculation, I decided as I urged my Toyota onto the highway entrance. My car was of an age at which it needed a reassuring--"you can make it"--every once in a while, not to mention the reassurance I needed.
Wayne and Steve Summers had started the Heartlink Men's Sensitivity Group some years back, along with a couple of other guys who'd eventually dropped out. Over the years, sensitivity had given way to support, but the group still lived on, and Wayne still attended the group meetings, from ten to twelve, two Wednesdays a month. And I met him for an after-meeting lunch whenever I could.
Excepting Wayne, of course, the members of Heartlink were as weird as ... well, as my home county of Marin, in my opinion. Steve was too quiet for a journalist, Garrett too sad for a psychiatrist, Ted too flighty for a financial advisor, Isaac too childish for an elder statesman of education, Mike Russo too emotional for an accountant, and Van Eisner was too irresponsible for anything, much less his own successful business. These were my own observations, however. Wayne had certainly never expressed those opinions.
Wayne was a man who took the concept of "confidentiality" seriously. He never told me what was said at the meetings. And it drove me crazy, as much as I admired his scrupulous nature. But I had eyes, not to mention ears. And every second month, the Heartlink Group allowed its members and significant others to mingle at a potluck at one lucky member's house. Garrett had hosted the most recent one a week before. I'd heard the jokes, complaints, and significant silences of the members. They were weird, all right, no matter what Wayne did or didn't say.
Despite my feelings about the members of the group, I had to admit they had staying power. The seven met faithfully, no member missing a group without good reason. And they did seem to be a support for Wayne. He certainly didn't need any more sensitivity--any more sensitivity and he'd be out saving the whales with his own outstretched arms.
Two exits down, and I was on my way into Cortadura. I could feel the temperature cool as I headed down Main Street. Ah, heaven. Cortadura was on the beach. At least the tourist part was.
Cortadura was a town with a split personality. The beachfront was lined with T-shirt shops, poster shops, over-priced restaurants, and every kind of novelty outlet that you could think of, from crystals to puppets to Native American artifacts. But Main Street led to the old downtown section. This part of Cortadura was inland by ten or so blocks, still solidly small-town, with brick buildings, civic pride, and less-traveled streets.
The library in Cortadura was big enough to offer a meeting place for the Heartlink group. Theirs was one library that hadn't downsized in space or availability. The taxes generated by the tourist trade probably helped. And nothing much ever changed in downtown Cortadura, unlike the tourist section, which sported a new shop or restaurant every week. Still, the ocean's coolness filtered all through the town, indiscriminate of nouveau tourism or downtown traditions.
I was enjoying the rush of air coming through my open front window when two of the dreaded tourist species jaywalked in front of my car. I could tell they were tourists by their shorts, cameras, and the merry smiles they flashed my way as I screeched around them, missing them by a good yard.
"Go that way!" I yelled, pointing my finger out the window, back toward the beach.
They smiled again and kept walking in the wrong direction.
I took a deep breath and told my car to calm down. And I reminded myself that I was also a tourist when not in my home county. But even so, I didn't dart in front of old cars. Cool air or not, I was sweating again. That encounter had been too close for me.
Now I had two things not to think about: my mother and the possibility of accidentally hitting someone with my car.
I let my mind drift back to Heartlink, wondering for the hundredth time why each of the members of the Heartlink group did stay.
I thought about Garrett Peterson. He was a psychiatrist and a genuinely nice man. His dance card had to be filled with friends. And his lover, Jerry Urban, was a laugh-a-minute kind of guy despite his recent diagnosis of diabetes. What did Garrett need with the group? It didn't seem to make him any happier.
Mind you, I'd asked Wayne these questions, but of course he hadn't answered.
And what did Isaac Herrick need with the group? I used to think he'd been using them as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he'd never stopped drinking, not even after his wife, Helen, had left him because of the alcohol. She was currently filing for divorce, though they claimed they were still friends. And I believed that they really were still friends; they had come to the last potluck together. Neither of them could have been younger than eighty. Somehow, I didn't think they'd just go their separate ways completely after the years they must have spent together.
And then there were Ted Kimmochi and his wife, Janet McKinnon-Kimmochi. Ted had two little girls, Niki and Zora, as well as a successful financial consulting firm. But the way he slunk around, sighing melodramatically, you'd think his life was tragic. Maybe it was. How would I know? Wayne wasn't about to tell me.
Still, I could almost see why Steve Summers came to the group. His wife, Laura, was a member of the state assembly. The group was probably the one place he could be himself, out of the glare of the spotlight. But as a journalist, he'd certainly done his share of shining the spotlight. There was irony there somewhere.
Come to think of it, Carl Russo needed the group, too, being a single father of a teenager, and a goofy teenager at that. And Van Eisner needed all the help he could get, with his string of women, and, I suspected, drugs. Not that Wayne would confirm my suspicion of drugs, of course. I felt a little growl start in the back of my throat, surprising me. Was I mad at my own sweetie? I couldn't be, could I?
Wayne's continued attendance at Heartlink was really what I didn't understand. What was it that he got out of the group? Something that he didn't get from me? That little growl burbled up again and, for a moment, I glimpsed the jealousy that fueled my hostility toward the Heartlink Group. Even my car seemed to feel it, delicately coughing as it continued forward. I shook my head. Other women had to worry about other women, and I was jealous about Wayne's support group. I chuckled, glad again that I was married to my loyal, if occasionally frustrating, sweetheart.
Still, I knew something had gone wrong with the last Heartlink group meeting. I knew it from the way Wayne had shut down when he'd come home afterward. I knew it from the faint distance members had put between themselves at the last potluck. Even the wives and children and lovers had seemed different at the potluck. Of course, their significant others had probably told them what had happened, unlike my own confidence-honoring Wayne. I shook my head again, hard this time. My obsession with his group was definitely getting unhealthy. I was going to overheat before my Toyota did.
Was it jealousy that had made me feel such an urgent need to have lunch with Wayne after today's group? Because I had felt an urgent need. My pulse quickened again, just thinking about the feelings I'd experienced when Wayne had left for the group this morning. Dread, anxiety ... foreboding? I told myself I'd been friends with a psychic too long.
I just wanted to see Wayne for lunch. That was all. Just in case. But just in case of what?
I shook off the shiver that settled on my shoulders just as I spotted a parking space in front of the Cortadura Library. I slid my Toyota into the space carefully, turning off the engine and saying a "thank you" to my car for getting me there.
And then I saw Wayne, walking out of the library with Steve Summers. I smiled upon seeing him, his battered face serious under his low brows. My Wayne, always so serious. But Steve's slender, lined face looked serious, too. He squinted through his wire-rimmed glasses and said something to Wayne. I stopped smiling. I wondered what they were talking about. Wayne nodded and touched Steve's shoulder, the male equivalent of a hug.
The two men parted company at the sidewalk and Steve made his way across the road in the crosswalk, turning to wave at Wayne once more. No jay-walking for him--Steve Summers was a straight arrow.
I opened my car door, already imagining myself hugging Wayne hello. But I never got that far.
A car came screaming down the road, a car that looked familiar.
When the car hit Steve, he was flung into the air as if in slow motion, but he landed with a definite crunch--a crunch that would make me sick later, but that was too surreal now. And then the car backed up and ran over him.
My body was immobilized. Then I figured it out.
It had to be a dream.
Because the car that had hit Steve Summers and was now speeding away was Wayne's own Jaguar.