by Joe Zabel
At lunchtime, clad in their winter coats, Kathy, Jen, and their older friend Margo crossed the front entrance of the Hunt building into the chill afternoon air.
'Are you sure none of them are still hanging around?' asked Jen.
'They did a vanishing act right after we called the police,' said Kathy. 'Their timing was so perfect, it was almost like they'd had our phones tapped!'
'Who knew you were calling the police?' asked Margo.
'Vaughn consulted several department heads,' said Kathy. 'It wasn't a move to be taken lightly. Those protesters actually did us a favor, fading out without putting up a fight. An arrest would've made the papers for sure.'
They crossed Emery Street. The Bradley Shopping Center spread out before them.
'How'd your interview with my boss go?' asked Margo.
Kathy laughed. 'Dr. Yang just about ripped me a new one when I mentioned a best-selling author he didn't like! Whew!'
'Ha! Ha! Alan has zero tolerance for fluff! He takes things seriously, but he's really a peach,' said Margo.
'Yeah, I like him,' agreed Kathy. 'He asked me to be a volunteer!'
While Kathy and Margo conversed about the doctor, Jen Marriott was silent, deep in thought, and fearful.
The BSC Food Court was crowded with diners perched on stools at long tables, or sitting in chairs around oval tables spread across the open space. They all leaned over the brown plastic trays they'd collected at various fast food vendors which lined the periphery. Easily lost among the crowd, Kathy, Jen, and Margo were finishing their lunches at one of the round tables. To Kathy's right was a copper railing, and below it stretched the main concourse of the shopping center.
'Sigh! It'd be nice to have somebody to do Christmas shopping for,' said Kathy. 'Do they have gift exchange at the office?'
'I haven't heard of any,' said Margo. 'You don't have any family to go home to for Christmas?'
'Nope,' replied Kathy. 'Ward of the state until I was eighteen. I don't really mind it, at least not anymore.'
Margo looked at Jen. 'What do you think of that, Jen?'
Jen smiled sadly. 'I guess we have something in common, Kathy-- sisters in orphanhood!' She looked away.
Margo leaned forward. 'Jen, honey, we haven't heard a peep out of you since we left the office. What's the problem, honey?'
Jen shook her head. 'It's nothing... I'd rather not talk about it...'
Kathy made to get up. 'Would you two rather talk alone? I'm practically a stranger, and I wouldn't be offended if...'
'No, Kathy, sit still,' said Jen. 'There's nothing to explain, really. I just feel so WORTHLESS! And I know it's my own fault, but...'
Suddenly Jen's eyes widened and she began staring straight ahead. Her mouth twisted into a grimace of pain and her jaw worked open and closed, gasping. Every muscle in her body tensed, and she reared up in her seat and edged backwards, terrified.
Then she catapulted out of the chair and fled from the Food Court. 'Jen!' cried Margo, hurrying after her.
Kathy sat frozen in her seat, dumbfounded. What had happened to Jen? It was like she suddenly remembered something horrible Or SEEN something-- something that'd scared her out of her wits!
Kathy followed the line of sight from where Jen had sat. It was a view of fifty or more seated diners, and dozens of people entering and exiting from the Food Court. The scene was so cluttered with busy, rushing people that Jen's abrupt, panicked behavior hadn't prompted anyone else's notice. From where she sat, Jen's attention might have been drawn to one of a hundred people who had since moved on. Or perhaps she'd only been imagining things.
Kathy gathered up Jen's and Margo's purses. She turned towards the vista that Jen had, it seemed, been startled by. She began walking, her eyes studying everything and everyone, looking for some hint of what had terrified her friend.
Several diners looked up at her as she passed, responding with curiosity to her eye-contact, but quickly forgetting about her when her roving eyes moved on. Others were completely oblivious to her-- she could scrutinize every pore in their skin, every out-of-place hair on their head, without arousing attention.
Her eyes fell upon a young woman eating alone. Kathy couldn't at first identify why she stood out. But then it came to her-- the woman was wearing the same hairstyle as Jen; both the style and color matched Jen's exactly, giving her a striking resemblance to the secretary. She didn't look up from her meal, and Kathy was able to study her, and conclude that the young woman resembled Jen enough to be mistaken for her.
But it didn't make any sense, Jen would not flee in stark terror merely because somebody had stolen her 'look.'
As Kathy moved on, the young woman raised her head. Her sideways-glancing eyes followed Kathy as she went by.
As the afternoon's work commenced, Kathy kept her eye on Jen, looking for an opening to ask about her abrupt behavior. But the secretary kept busy, and Kathy was occupied with catching up on her workload. She scanned the past six months of the Wausau Guardian, taking copious notes. Dr. Vaughn stopped by in his wheelchair, and the two of them discussed the morning's abbreviated meeting. And she worked on a modest press release, announcing her own hiring at VISR.
Jen concentrated on transcribing the taped interview Kathy had done with the Sleep Apnea Research Team ('How close to suffocation can a patient get before he or she wakes up?')
Alone and unobserved, she paused in her typing, and gazed down into the wastebasket, where a single crumpled ball of typing paper rested.
She reached down and took it from the wastebasket.
She opening and flattening it out on her desk, and stared at the printed words, 'RETURN TO THE FOLD!'
She put the sheet between the pages of a softcover grammar workbook, and tucked it back in the shelf.