by Joe Zabel
Kathy Swanson's neighborhood contrasted starkly with the posh vicinity of the VISR building. It was a cluster of crumbling brownstones leaning out over pothole-ridden streets. An all-night liquor store on the corner cast more light on the street than the single forlorn street lamp. Downtown Wausau stood as a backdrop to the weary apartment buildings, emanating an all-night concert of police sirens, ambulances, and the grinding gears of passing tractor-trailers.
A red light flashed in front of the garage door. The door rolled up, and Kathy walked out, her arms filled with grocery bags. She walked slowly and carefully, taking heed of the icy pavement.
Her apartment was on the fifth floor, and she climbed the fire-escape stairs to it, laboring under the burden of the grocery bags, and wary of any icy patches that may have formed on the metal steps.
She forced the key to turn in the lock, and kicked at the base of the kitchen door to pop it open. Then she struggled through, maneuvering with practiced precision to avoid getting scissored by the shutting screen door.
She dumped the bags on the kitchen counter, and was about to collapse in a chair, when she heard a 'Thump! Thump!' sound. 'Shit!' she said, and hurried out to the living room, finding the front window popped open by the wind. She shut it and retied the shoelaces she used to hold the clasp shut.
Kathy was frying onions on the gas stove when the the buzzer from the downstairs doorbell went off--
She looked at the clock-- it was almost 9. 'Who'd be dropping by at this hour?' she thought.
She pressed the button on the intercom to the lobby. 'Yes?'
The intercom squawked, 'Kathy, please let me in! It's Jen!'
Kathy was startled. 'You have the wrong address. I don't know any Jen.'
'It's Jen Marriot, Kathy. Please let me in!'
Kathy stared at the intercom box.
Then she pushed the call button again. 'I don't know who you are, but your little prank is in awful taste! Jen Marriott is dead! Now leave me alone!'
The voice on the intercom pleaded. 'No, Kathy, please let me in! Please!'
Kathy backed away from the intercom box, unnerved by the urgency in the speaker's voice. The buzzer sounded again-- 'RRROOOOOOO!!! RRROOOOOOOO!! RRRRROOOOOOOOOOOO!!!' Then it was silent.
Kathy's front window looked down on the front walkway. She turned off the living room lamp and went over to the drapes to peek out.
Presently she saw a young woman come down the steps. From her vantage point, the resemblance was startling-- it could have been Jen herself.
The young woman looked up at the apartment windows. Then she turned and staggered off.
But she only got a few steps before she collapsed in the snow.
Kathy watched, but the young woman didn't move. She was just lying there in the pool of the lap light, surrounded by slush and snow.
Kathy backed away from the window. She turned to go back to the kitchen. But she stopped. She went back to the window and looked out. The girl was still lying in a heap on the ground. She hadn't moved.
The freezing cold stung Kathy's face as soon as she stepped out the front door. She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering, and hurried over to the fallen girl.
She turned her over and tried to lift her from the sidewalk. She saw the young woman's face, eyes closed, flecks of snow sticking to her cheeks. 'My God, she looks so much like Jen!' thought Kathy.
She shook the girl and finally roused her. Then she helped her to her feet, and guided her back to the apartment building.
The girl was sprawled out over Kathy's living room couch. Her coat was spread out over the remainder of the couch to dry.
Kathy brought out a bowl of steaming soup. 'Come on, dear, try some of this,' she said, and fed a spoon of it to the barely-conscious girl. Kathy brought the spoon down to dip it in the soup again, but the girl reached for it, and Kathy gave it to her.
The girl quietly ate the soup, and Kathy watched.
'Are you feeling better?'
'Yes,' the girl whispered. She glanced at Kathy, and spooned up some more soup. 'Thank you,' she said.
'Why did you come here, dear?' asked Kathy.
The girl looked at Kathy seriously. 'I didn't know where else to go,' she said. 'And then I figured, Kathy will know what to do! So I came here.'
'But I don't really know you!' said Kathy.
The girl looked at Kathy, on the verge of tears. 'Of course you do! I'm your executive assistant! How could you forget me?'
'That was Jen Marriott,' said Kathy patiently, '--and as I told you, Jen Marriott is dead.'
'She ISN'T!' said the girl, angrily.
Kathy went to her purse, and pulled the obituary clipping from it. 'I can prove it to you-- see?'
The girl read the clipping, then put it down. Her face clenched up in tearful anxiety, and she held her head with her hands. 'It's not TRUE! I'm Jen Marriott!! How can I make you BELIEVE me?!?'
'Just stay calm, dear. Have some more soup.'
The girl finished the soup and put the bowl down.
Kathy said, 'Can you remember what took place before you came here? What were you doing earlier today?'
'My day has been a NIGHTMARE!' the girl exclaimed. 'They changed the locks, and I couldn't get into my apartment. The landlady refused to talk to me! My checking account has been closed, so I don't have any money! I don't know what to do!'
'It sounds like we should call the police,' said Kathy. 'I'm sure they could find out what happened.'
'I don't want to get ARRESTED on top of everything else!' The girl leaned forward. 'If you want me to, I'll leave, Kathy. But please don't call the police!'
Kathy looked at the young stranger. 'Alright, have it your way. Would you like to help me cook supper?'
'Umm...ok,' said the young woman.
In the kitchen, she asked Kathy, 'What do you want me to do?'
Kathy looked at the pan where the onions had been frying. 'Well, the onions burned because I wasn't watching them. Could you cut up some so we can try it again?'
The girl smiled. 'Sure!'
Kathy began preparing a casserole. Behind her, she heard the steady thumping of the girl cutting the onions. 'You certainly are the picture of prudence!' Kathy thought to herself. 'Bringing a deranged person into your house, inviting them to dinner, giving them a knife and then turning your back on them!' But in spite of all logic, Kathy felt absolutely safe and relaxed with this troubled young woman. Being chronically nervous around strangers, she couldn't understand why she felt differently about her young guest; but there it was.
After a few minutes, Kathy looked over her shoulder in surprise. The girl had cut up seven or eight onions, creating a large pile of choppings.
'What are all those?'
The girl answered, 'But you said...'
'I didn't mean you should cut up enough to feed a whole battalion!'
The girl fretted. 'I didn't... I was trying to do what you said!'
'Calm down, honey,' said Kathy. 'It was just a misunderstanding. But you chopped them neatly and fine-- that's very commendable.'
The girl calmed somewhat, but was still anxious and guilt-ridden. Kathy said, 'How about you put the majority of those in a plastic bag we can stick in the fridge. then you fry up about a fistful of them for our recipe-- ok?' The girl nodded her head.
A few minutes later, Kathy was adding the fried onions to the casserole. the girl looked on, seemingly amazed at the concoction Kathy was making. 'There we are, ready for the oven,' said kathy.
'So now, we just wait?' asked the girl nervously.
'We've got vegetables to boil, the table to set, drinks to pour...' said Kathy.
'I'll do that!' said the girl.
'Why don't we do it TOGETHER?' suggested Kathy, smiling.
The girl seemed taken aback by all the food in front of her on the dining room table. She seemed not to know what to do. She looked at Kathy and saw her taking a helping of casserole.
Then the girl very quickly and naturally made a series of gestures. She folded her hands in front of her. Then she held then with her left palm covering her right; then shifted so the right palm covered the left. Then she quickly reached up and cupped her hands over her ears.
Kathy pretended not to notice this.
The girl began taking servings of the dishes. She put only a tiny portion of each on her dish.
'Take as much as you like,' said Kathy. 'There's plenty!'
The girl smiled, and added more casserole to her plate.
Both of them ate for a few minutes. Kathy was glancing up surreptitiously at the girl, studying her looks. Now that the young woman's hair had dried and she'd had a chance to comb it, Kathy could see that it was the same style, parted at the side and combed back, that Jen Marriott had worn. It made her look like the dead woman, even though her features weren't really much like Jen's.
Kathy paused from her eating to ask, 'What do you think about the name Sally Smith?'
'What do you mean?' asked the girl.
'Well,' said Kathy, 'until we get this all sorted out, it's going to confuse people if I have two friends who are both named Jen Marriott. Would you really mind if I called you Sally?'
'I guess not,' said the girl. 'Where did you get 'Sally Smith' from?'
Kathy thought back to her childhood, and the Raggedy Ann doll she used to have. 'I don't know,' she said, 'I always thought Sally was a pretty name.'
'Ok, I'm Sally,' said the girl.
They continued eating.
'Sally, do you remember what happened to you BEFORE today? Were you out of town or something?'
'I might have been,' said Sally.
She frowned and looked at Kathy. 'I don't remember anything very clearly before today. I knew I had a job with you, and lived in my apartment. I guess I have some kind of amnesia.'
'Do you remember what happened to your car?'
'No-- all I know is that it was gone, too!'
'Of course she wouldn't remember the flat tire,' thought Kathy. 'She wasn't there in the first place!'
'I've still got the keys, though,' said Sally.
Kathy's head lifted in interest as Sally dug the keys out of her pocket and held them up. 'May I see those?' asked Kathy. Sally gave them to her.
'This is the office key,' said Kathy. 'And these must be the car keys and your apartment key! Where did you GET these, Sally?!?'
'I HAD them!' insisted Sally.
Kathy cupped the keys in her hand. 'Can I hold on to these for a while?' she asked. 'They may be really important.'
'Sure,' said Sally. 'I won't be needing them for a while, I guess.'
'There's one other thing I wanted to ask you, Sally,' said Kathy. 'Three weeks ago I saw a girl in the Bradley Food Court. I stopped and stared at her because she looked so much like Jen Marriott. Was that you?'
Sally looked confused and distressed. 'If I was there... I'd have been sitting at the table with you and Margo. Other than that, I don't know what you're talking about.'
'We've got a white Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow, but if you're planning a trip to Grandma's house tomorrow, better think again-- traveler's advisory throughout the state, with six inches of snow expected overnight.'
Kathy watched the weatherman, then turned her attention back to Sally, who was absorbed in the slow and careful consumption of a bowl of chocolate ice cream. She seemed to cherish it like a treasure.
Kathy carried her own dishes back in the kitchen and rinsed them in the sink. She opened the refrigerator. It was alive with the aroma of chopped onions.
'What I should do,' thought Kathy, 'while she's distracted by a TV show, is pick up the phone and quietly call the police. It's breaking a promise, but it's the responsible thing to do... or IS it?'
She looked at Sally in the other room. 'If they don't have something to charge her with, they can't hold her. She's obviously deluded, but might not be crazy enough to institutionalize. They'd have no choice but to let her go! And what would happen to her, wandering around the city in this weather?'
Kathy frowned thoughtfully. 'Face it, girl-- you want to know how this all connects up. What were those protesters doing at the Institute that day? What made Jen so horribly upset? And how did this poor, confused girl manage to get hold of Jen's KEYS?'
She returned to the living room.
'What do you think of that couch?' Kathy asked Sally. 'Do you think that if we made it up, you could sleep on it?'
Sally's face brightened.
A battered white van was parked on the street, the snow piling up on its rooftop.
Inside the van, a man was observing Kathy's window through binoculars. She was standing before the window, shrugging her shoulders. Then Sally could be seen standing up, and taking Kathy's hand.
The observer lifted an earphone to his ear and listened to Sally's voice. 'That's so kind of you! I don't want to impose!' Kathy's voice replied, 'Think nothing of it-- I can't let you go out in this weather!'
The man jotted a note on the notepad in front of him. '10:30 PM-- offer of lodging by K.S. accepted by J.M.'
Then he resumed surveillance.