Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
“I can’t believe it!” my mother cries.
In the background, I hear Becky yell: “Florida! We’re going to the ocean!”
“What?” I gasp.
The corners of Dr. Shields’s lips
curve into a smile.
“A messenger just delivered the package from the travel agency a few minutes ago! Oh, Jess, your boss is so wonderful to do this! What a surprise!”
I can’t form the words to answer. My mind feels too sluggish to keep up with the events whirling around me.
“I didn’t know about it. What was in the package?” I finally ask.
“Three airplane tickets to Florida and
a brochure for the resort where we’ll be staying,” my mom gushes. “It looks so beautiful!”
Three tickets. Not four.
Dr. Shields reaches out and picks an orange from the bowl on the coffee table between us. She inhales the scent.
I can’t stop staring at her.
“I’m so sorry you won’t be joining us,” my mom says. “Your boss wrote us such a nice note explaining that you need to work,
but that she’ll make sure you won’t be alone on Christmas Day, that you’ll be going to her home to celebrate.”
My throat tightens. It’s difficult to breathe.
“She’s obviously so fond of you,” my mom says over the sound of Becky’s happy laughter. “I’m really proud you’ve found such a great new job.”
“It’s a pity you’ll be needed here over the holidays,” Dr. Shields says softly.
I can barely choke out the words. “I’ve got to run, Mom. But I love you.”
Dr. Shields sets down the orange. She reaches into her pocket.
I lower my phone and stare at her.
“Their flight leaves tomorrow night,” Dr. Shields says. Her voice is so precise; each word is like a musical chime. “I guess you won’t be going home on Friday after all.”
You can’t just leave someone like her,
Thomas had said in the frozen park.
“Jessica?” Dr. Shields pulls her hand out of her pocket. “Your check.”
Without thinking, I take it.
I pull my eyes away from her probing gaze. They land on the bowl of bright fruit.
Then I realize the oranges are the same kind I used to sell every December for our high school’s annual fund-raiser: Navel oranges. From Florida.
Wednesday, December 19
You reminded me of April again tonight.
On that June evening just six months ago, she perched on a stool, swinging the top leg that was crossed over her bottom one, sipping wine. She held a frenetic energy, as usual, but her initial affect was buoyant.
This in itself wasn’t cause for concern.
Her mood often shifted rapidly, like
a sudden rainstorm interrupting a sunny day, like a cold morning swiftly yielding to afternoon heat.
It was as if her internal barometer reflected the month for which she was named.
But on that evening, her precipitous emotional turn was more abrupt than in the past.
Harsh words were spoken; she cried so hard she gulped for air.
Later that night, she took her own life.
lifetime is marked by transformative moments, as unique to each individual as strands of DNA.
Thomas’s materialization in the darkened hallway during the blackout was one of these seismic experiences.
April’s vanishing was another.
Her death, and the words we exchanged just prior to it, set into motion a downward trajectory, a descent into emotional quicksand. There was a second casualty:
My marriage to Thomas.
Every lifetime contains these pivot points—sometimes flukes of destiny, sometimes seemingly preordained—that shape and eventually cement one’s path.
You are the most recent one, Jessica.
You cannot vanish now. You are needed more than ever before.
There are two likely possibilities the facts point to thus far. Either you are lying, and you and Thomas have
met or intend to meet, or you told the truth, which means Thomas is vacillating. His hesitation in replying to your text, and his conflicting responses, all indicate he may be on the brink of temptation.
In either case, more evidence is required. The hypothesis—Thomas is an unrepentant adulterer—has not been adequately tested.
You will be granted one evening to revert back to the compliant,
eager young woman who entered my study as subject 52.
You revealed that you had intended to leave town. This means you have cleared your work schedule.
Your friend Lizzie will be ensconced with her family, a thousand miles away for the holidays.
Your family will be blissfully eating from a seafood buffet and splashing in a warm saltwater pool.
You will be all mine.
Wednesday, December 19
“Your wife really is crazy!” I hiss into the phone.
I’m four blocks away from Dr. Shields’s town house, but this time I’ve made sure she isn’t following me. I’m huddled in the shelter of the entryway to a clothing store that has a going out of business sign plastered across the window. By now the clouds have cleared, but the winter sky
is a shade between purple and black. The few people who hurry past are huddled in their coats, heads down and chins tucked into their collars.
“I know.” Thomas sighs. “What happened?”
I’m trembling, but not from the cold. Dr. Shields is tangling me up; it’s like a Chinese finger trap—the harder I struggle to escape, the more tightly I’m imprisoned.
“I just need to get away from her.
You said you’d help me figure out a way. We need to meet again.”
He hesitates. “I can’t get away tonight.”
“I’ll come to you,” I say. “Where are you?”
“I’m— Actually, I’m on my way to meet her.”
My eyes widen. I feel my back stiffen.
“What? You were just at her place two nights ago. How am I supposed to believe you’re separated when you’re together all the time?”
not like that. We have an appointment with our divorce lawyer,” Thomas says. His voice is soothing now. “How about we talk tomorrow?”
I’m coiled so tight I can’t even continue the conversation. “Fine!” I say before I hang up.
I stand there for a moment.
Then I do the only thing I can think of to regain a bit of control over my splintered life.
I walk out of the store’s entryway
and retrace my steps. When I am thirty yards away from Dr. Shields’s town house, I cross the street and conceal myself in the shadows.
She steps outside fifteen minutes later, just when I’d begun to worry I’d missed her.
I trail her, making sure I stay as far back as possible, as she strides down two blocks, turns a corner, and continues on for another three.
I never worry I’ll lose
her, even as we approach a commercial area and the crowds grow thick. She wears a long, winter-white coat and her red-gold hair hangs loose around her shoulders.
She looks like the porcelain angel atop a Christmas tree.
In the distance, I can see Thomas waiting under an awning.
I’m confident he doesn’t spot me; my hood is up and I duck behind an MTA bus stop.
But he catches sight
of Dr. Shields.
A wide smile breaks across his face. His expression is a mix of anticipation and delight.
He doesn’t look like a man who wants to divorce the woman approaching him; on the contrary, he is eager to see her.
The two of them don’t realize I’m watching. I’m not sure how long I’ll have before they disappear into the building for their meeting with their lawyer. But maybe
I can learn something.
He steps toward her, stretching out his hand.
She takes it.
And in that instant, with him in his black tailored jacket and her in white, it is as though I am spying on them in a different moment, one I’ve only seen in a photograph: their wedding.
Thomas bends his head, cups the back of her neck, and kisses her.
It isn’t the kind of kiss a man gives a
woman he wants to be rid of.
I know this, because Thomas kissed me the same way only five days ago, when we met at the bar.
As I walk home now, I think about all the lies that link the three of us together.
Because I know now that Thomas is trying to deceive me, too.
After I watched him and Dr. Shields end their lingering kiss under the red awning, he wrapped an arm around her
shoulders, pulling her close again. Then he opened the tall wooden door—not to an attorney’s office, but to a romantic-looking Italian restaurant—and stepped aside so that she could enter first.
At least I’ve finally learned something concrete: Neither of them can be trusted.
I have no idea why. But I can’t worry about that now.
The only question I need answered is which one of them
is more dangerous.
Often the person we judge most harshly is ourself. Every day, we criticize our decisions, our actions, even our private thoughts. We worry the tone of an e-mail we sent to a colleague might be misconstrued. We lambaste our lack of self-control as we throw away the empty ice-cream container. We regret rushing a friend off the phone instead of listening patiently to their troubles. We wish
we had told a family member what they meant to us before they died.
We all the weight of secret—the strangers we see the street, our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, even our loved ones. And we are all forced to constantly make moral choices. Some of these decisions are small. Others are life-altering.
These judgments seem easy to form on paper: You check a box and move on. In a
real-life scenario, it’s never as simple.
The options haunt you. Days, weeks, even years later you think about the people affected by your actions. You question your choices.
And you wonder when, not if, the repercussions will come.
Wednesday, December 19
Dr. Shields’s latest gift feels more dangerous to me than flirting with a married man or revealing painful secrets or being trapped in a drug addict’s apartment.
It was bad enough when my own life was tangled up with Dr. Shields and her experiments. But now she’s linking herself to my family. They probably feel like they’ve won the lottery
with this trip. I keep hearing Becky squeal: “We’re going to the ocean!”
As Ricky said when he grabbed my phone and stood over me in his kitchen,
Nothing’s ever free in life.
I’m unable to stop seeing the image of Dr. Shields and Thomas kissing outside the restaurant as I walk home after following her. I imagine them at a romantic table for two while the sommelier uncorks a bottle of red
wine. I picture Thomas nodding his approval as he tastes it. Then perhaps he cups both of her hands in his to warm them. I would give anything to know what they are saying to each other.
Am I the topic of their conversation? I wonder. Do they lie to each other, just as they are lying to me?
When I reach my apartment building, I yank the security door closed so hard behind me that it jars
my shoulder in the socket. I wince and rub it, then continue to the stairs.
I wind my way around to the fourth-floor landing, then step into the hallway. Halfway down, about three doors from my apartment, something small and soft-looking rests on the carpet. For a second I think it’s a mouse. Then I realize it’s a woman’s gray glove.
I think as I freeze. The color, the fabric; I
recognize her style instantly.
I swear I can smell her distinctive perfume. Why is she back at my apartment?
But as I draw closer, I realize I’m wrong. The leather is thick and cheap; it’s the kind of glove someone would buy from a street vendor. It must belong to one of my neighbors. I leave it for them to retrieve.
When I reach my apartment and open the door, I hesitate in the entryway.
I look around. Everything appears exactly as I left it, and Leo runs to greet me as usual. Still, I engage both of my locks instead of waiting until bedtime, like I usually do.
My nightstand lamp is always on for Leo when I know I’ll be home after dark. Now I also flick on the brighter overhead light, then I turn on the one in the bathroom. I hesitate, then jerk back the shower curtain. I’d
just feel better being able to see into every corner of my studio.
As I walk toward the kitchen, I brush by the chair where I drape clothes when I’m feeling too lazy to hang them in the closet.
Dr. Shields’s wrap is there, peeking out from beneath the sweater I wore yesterday. I avert my eyes and continue on to the cabinet, where I grab a glass and fill it with water. I drink it down in
three thirsty gulps, then I dig out a legal pad from the bottom of my junk drawer.
I take it to my bed and sit cross-legged on top of my comforter. The notes written on the page are a series of numbers that I briefly recall as an attempt to figure out a budget. I can’t believe that merely six weeks ago, I was worrying about how to pay Antonia for Becky’s occupational therapy, and hoping my
BeautyBuzz appointments would align so I wouldn’t have to lug my makeup case too far. In hindsight, my life was so quiet; my problems, so ordinary. Then came that impulsive moment when I grabbed Taylor’s phone off her chair and replayed Ben’s message. Those ten seconds changed my life.
I need to be the opposite of impulsive now.
I tear off the top sheet and draw a line straight down the
middle of the new page with Dr. Shields’s name atop one column and Thomas’s name atop the other. Then I sit cross-legged on my bed and write down everything I know about both of them.
Dr. Lydia Shields: 37, West Village town house, NYU adjunct professor. Psychiatrist, with an office in Midtown. Researcher, published author. Designer clothes, expensive tastes. Former assistant named Ben Quick.
Married to Thomas.
I underline that last detail four times.
I add question marks after other possibilities.
Influential father? Client folders? Story behind Subject 5?
I stare at the scant cluster of information on the page. Is that truly everything I know about the woman who holds so many of my secrets?
I move on to Thomas. I grab my laptop and try googling him, but although I get
several hits for Thomas Shields, they are all the wrong men.