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Instinctive Fear

by RD Larson

part 1 of 2

You know the feeling, that crying in your mind; it wakens you and there is no apparent reason.

With sleep no longer possible, I got up to stand at the window as my old coffee pot made its final, near-death, gurgling sounds. The bright moon was starting to set in the west. As I watched it, some kind of fibrous, stringy cloud streamed across the face of the moon. A chill shot down my spine. What woke me? And what was in that cloud? My mind, always restless when it came to cloud formations, probed as I poured my first cup.

My days as a weather reporter were numbered; I was advancing my career. I was going to do “on the scene” interviews. Still, that was one weird cloud. As I took the wrinkled but dry clothes out of the dryer, I tried to think what it had been — floating across the moon that way. There had been no clouds in my weather report last night, so what was it? I shook out Jennie’s denim jumper; it was crumpled. I shook it harder so it was a little smoother.

Throwing it over the nearest chair, I grinned. Being the single Dad of a thirteen-year old had its moments. Last week when she had jammed her shoulder at basketball, I had run onto the court like any overprotective mother. She was intensely annoyed with me. More like, I think, a son would be. The old gender rules had changed a lot since Kate had died.

Jennie herself wandered out just as I was backing up my computer disk with yesterday’s work; she was so funny. She could sleep fifteen hours and wake up still acting like she was bombed. I kidded her about it almost every morning. This morning my throat tightened with love just seeing her blank face. As she wandered to the fridge to stand for five minutes with door wide open, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her to close it. She suddenly seemed so vulnerable, so at risk that I felt a deep alarm.

I laughed at my fears and got down from the top shelf the newest box of Whiffle-Nuffle-Whumps, the latest cereal craze of the seventh-grade girls. She mumbled something. I didn’t understand a word. Finally, I remembered just as I understood her words — that she had ballet class tonight at Ana Ruth’s after school.

“Okay, you can walk if you walk with Sophie, and don’t walk near the street. And don’t walk too close to the doorways, either,” I said, voice cracking.

“Dad, you are such a jerk; it’s only two blocks. What, would you have me live in a cigar box under the stairs the rest of my life?” The voice, now angry and awake, was loud. I laughed; she was so funny — the way she put things. “Don’t laugh at me either!”

The hair flew back, another kind of cloud, a sunshine cloud, and the face again appeared, teasing. I shrugged and turned to the coffee pot, my hand a bit unsteady as I poured the last cup.

“I know Mom was killed by that guy stealing her car. But Dad, you got to let go, just a little.” Her voice was pleading, the voice of a child who had spent many hours in therapy trying to end her grief. I went to her and hugged her as I leaned over her in her chair; she was still a baby to me.

“You’re right. I’ll come by for you at four. How does that work for you? Is that doable for you?” I said.

“It is the time you always come, you goof.” She laughed, hugging me. “Busted, Dad, trying to be cool.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. I made my village idiot face, tongue out and eyes rolled back. She laughed again as she headed to her room.

Leaving the house was always a rush. Jennie was really like her mother because she didn’t lay out everything the night before like I did. My wife used to say that I was an anal, list-making only child and she was right. But I enjoyed the excitement that first her mother, and now, Jennie brought to even such a simple event as a departure for school.

The day went well. I like people and they like me. I interviewed a high school teacher about the kids of impaired-hearing parents. I thought she was cute, with short, crisp hair and a big happy smile. After Kate died, I never thought I would be happy again. Now, here I am, flirting with a young woman and I have a job I enjoy. Wow. I shook my head.

Sometime I will, sometime soon, I thought, not encouraging her attentions, I will date again. Then, I went back to the studio, voiced-over and edited the piece for later in the week. I thought some about how to tie the story to similar learning institutions and briefed the new weatherman on some key points. So that’s where my day went. Then at ten to four, I laid out my pencils and note book, turned off my PC, and left the rest of the inattentive station staff.

As I turned down Mission Street, a flying figure startled me. I jerked in terror. It was Jennie! Running, running straight at me. I pulled to the side and stalled out the 4X4: Jennie ran right at me. Her mouth open, screaming, she careened into me the moment I got out of the car. Her sudden weight threw me against the edge of the metal door frame. I barely caught her.

“Dad, Dad, she’s dead! She’s dead,” she said, words ripped from her mouth.

I knew she meant the dance teacher; who else? Or Sophie? I gingerly felt my skull where it had hit the door. My fingers came away with a tiny smear of blood on them.

“What’s wrong, honey? Where’s Sophie?” I said, pulling her toward the sidewalk. I took those suggested deep calming breaths, but they were more like panting.

“She’s dead! Ana Ruth is dead!” whimpered Jennie, collapsing against me. “Sophie wasn’t at school. Hurry, it’s Ana Ruth.” It just scared me to death to have her so distraught.

“C’mon, let’s go see! She is probably all right. Maybe she fainted or something!” I tried to comfort her as she slid across the seat. I climbed in and backed up the red Bronco.

Ana Ruth’s was less than a block away so we were pulling to a stop in a matter of seconds. I jumped out of the car; so did Jennie. I yelled at her to stay there and stay down; what if it were a crime?

Once you’re a victim, the chance of crime never leaves your mind. Before Kate was murdered, I didn’t even think life was hazardous. Since Kate was killed, I’ve felt an instinctive fear about almost everything.

I pushed hard, throwing the door open. There was no sign of entry, no sign of attack. Just an inert figure on the bare floor. Jennie brushed past me, yelling as she burst into the studio. Ana Ruth wasn’t dead, but she was close.

She lay on her side, a trickle of blood, now congealing, trailing from her left nostril. On her neck was a red mark about the size of a quarter with two little bloody holes in the center. And I was on the phone to 911 in another five seconds. Stunned, I held Jennie, as I looked around the dance room with its little kitchenette. It was spotlessly clean, except for a few cobwebs here and there.

We stayed until the ambulance came and the paramedics got Ana Ruth on IV’s and were ready to transport her to the hospital.

One young guy looked at me as they wheeled her limp body away. “You ought to call her family,” he said.

“I don’t really know her; my daughter takes classes from her. That’s all.” I bent and picked up Jennie’s gray sweatshirt where she had dropped it just inside the door. Knocking off a strand of cobweb, I tucked the cotton shirt neatly under my arm. Oddly, the material caused the hair on my arm to raise.

“She doesn’t look good, does she?” asked Jennie.

“Well, she’ll be getting the best care at St. Joseph’s!” I said, the only way to ease my daughter’s worry.

The emergency tech shook his head no. Jennie looked up at me, the blue eyes darker with sorrow and compassion. The hair hung on her bony shoulders.

“Hey, I got stuff for tacos! Sound good?” I said as we got into the car.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

I was glad to get home. It was a spacious two-bedroom apartment. Someday, I would buy a house, I thought, unlocking the door.

Jennie brushed past me, tossing her backpack on the couch. She looked so brash, young and helpless. I folded and laid her sweatshirt on her backpack. She disappeared as I turned on my PC to check my e-mail. As there was every day since Kate died, there was a message from Travis Jordan.

I clicked up his message and was filled with dismay when I saw that he was freaking out about the cloud that I had seen that morning. He thought it was invaders from space: alien insects. Too much Art Bell, again. I was skeptical. But, then, he was a pretty well-known entomologist at the University of California at Davis.

But he was also obsessed about visitors from space. Once he had dragged Kate and me to a Sierra airport on a hilltop at three o’clock in the morning for the arrival of our brethren from another galaxy. Unfortunately, all we got was freezing-cold butts. I shrugged: space aliens were not something I worried about; maybe everything else, but not aliens. I’d reply after dinner.

Jennie came out of her room. She looked irrational. I tried to hug her but she pushed me away and lay down on the couch, pillowing her head on her sweatshirt.

“What do you think happened to Ana Ruth, Dad?” she said. Jennie hadn’t called me Dad for about three months, she usually called me Abe, like everyone else. Oh, oh, I thought.

“Insulin shock, maybe. Exhaustion? It could be anything.” I answered.

“Well, I hate it when people I love get sick. It scares me.”

“It scares me, too. I think about your mother.” I was as honest as I could be.

“Yeah, me, too. Sometimes I get scared that I won’t remember everything about her, you know? Because I was so little? I didn’t tell you, but I started a memory journal. So that I can remember all the good stuff. I can still remember seeing her in the ICU,” said Jennie. She rested a forearm on her brow.

“She wanted to see you. She knew how badly hurt she was.” I could feel tears choking my throat; I gritted my teeth. “Even as sad as it was for us all, I’m glad we had those few hours as a family.”

“Me, too.” She flopped over, throwing her hair around. Then, she grinned. “So, Hey, Cookie, where’s my taco? I can’t cook; I’m too lazy!”

I laughed and wandered away to the kitchen. I heard the television come on, my station as Mike began the early news stories. I started to fry the hamburger, adding the onion and the garlic, being careful not to put too much of either into the skillet.

I was starting to assemble the tomatoes and cheese and salsa when I heard Jennie cry out.

“What?” I shouted over the TV and the hiss of the meat cooking.

“Nothing. Some dumb bug bit me,” she shouted back She was one of those rare people who weren’t afraid of bugs; she liked them in fact. When she was little, she thought that ladybugs were cute. And then there was Travis Jordan. He just loves bugs. Like I said, I don’t know why she found them so attractive. I wandered in to see her bite.

“Look, Dad, two holes! I don’t see how such a teeny, weenie spider could make such big holes with that size mandibles! It sure stings.” She pointed to the spot on her wrist. It was the same kind of mark that I had seen on Ana Ruth’s throat. Panic hit me. Same spiders?

The hair shifted across the back of my neck and at the base of my spine. It was probably nothing, right? There were lots of bugs out this time of year. I asked her if she thought she should put some disinfectant on it and, unlike her, she said yes. I went back to finish dinner and lay out our two plates. Meals always made me miss Kate, you know, not putting a plate for her; I could almost understand those people who set out meals for the dead.

Jennie came to the table when I called to tell her that the tacos were ready. When she slumped into her chair, I looked at her. She looked all wrong; sweaty and dazed.

“Are you okay? You look sick.” I stared at her, my heart thudding into my throat.

“No. I feel awful.” She stumbled up out of the chair, then crashed to the floor on her knees. Head hanging, supported by her arms, she suffered the pangs of dry heaves.

I rushed to the kid, felt her head. It was burning up! Doctor, ER time, yes! I glanced at the stove to make sure I had turned off the burner. Then I grabbed my keys, and bent over to help my daughter up. Her head lolled in my arms. I was scared; I hurt for her.

Straight to St. Joseph’s Hospital ER! Fast as time and vehicle permitted. Very unpleasant place. Grim. Too bright; too white. White bodies clustered around Jennie as they checked her and rechecked her. I told them I thought it was a spider bite. I was told to wait. I shook, inwardly and outwardly.

The waiting room was that sort of legislated kind of place. You know, where they say “Let’s try to perk up these folks!” and so there are calm watercolors on the wall and comfort furniture, and a non-threatening television show. For crying out loud, even the soda dispenser is geared to let you sink in to a mood of non-apprehension, with its Mountain Dew, Sprite, and Cherry Cola. At least the coffee had simmered for four hours.

I was restless, picking my cuticles until they bled; then, sucking the blood off. Some older woman watched me, trying to recognize me, no doubt, and train me out of my sick habits of sucking my own bloody fingers. I gave her the most disinterested look I could manage; in reality I was screaming silently for help. Praying, too.

The young doctor came out and called my name.

I could see it wasn’t good. I reluctantly went to him. He put his hand on my shoulder, a sign of sympathy I could not accept. I stood tight, my knees locked.

“Jennie is resting as comfortably as she can right now. She has been transferred to ICU because of the lack of physical response; unfortunately, she lapsed into a coma. We feel it is only temporary, at this point. She’s getting fluids intravenously and being monitored. We need to figure out what went wrong,” he said to me.

I stepped back even further, turning to gaze at the flamboyant soda dispensing box. I heard the roar of a distant plane or was it my heart’s blood running in my veins?

“She is a kid, she’s never tired, she eats right,” I said, mind racing.

He held his hand up to stop my momentum. He had questions.

“You think it’s an insect bite?” he asked me. I nodded.

“Does she use drugs? Had an allergic reaction? Recently?”

“Oh, the holes. Did you see the two little holes from the spider bite?” I nearly broke down.

“Well, that could explain the coma and the lack of response. Some kinds of spiders carry a paralyzing venom that cause their food source to, well, become inert. Of course, spiders are so small and humans are so large that...” He stopped expecting me to fill in the proper positive words.

I did not. Instead, I told him again about Ana Ruth. But I did not tell him about the string cloud of spider eggs misting across the moon mentioned in the email message from Travis Jordan.

“Can I see her? Please?” I asked.

“Sure, she is out of reach, you understand, can’t hear you, can’t respond, but...”

“Look,” I said. “I’m upset, but I can manage. I need to see my daughter. Please, let’s go to the ICU?”

He took me there; then, left. He said he would give me an update in the morning.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by RD Larson

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