Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt, and we’re happy to share the news that this terrific read at $2.99 for Kindle Nation readers during its TOTW reign!
THE AWAKENING is “a…gem of a thriller with a huge concept that rivals Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code….”
Tara Spencer’s mysterious pregnancy turns her life upside down. Her plans for medical school are sidetracked, her fiancé severs all ties, assuming she must have slept with someone else, and her parents question her mental health when she insists she’s never had sex. Only a stranger, Cyril Woods, accepts her claim that she’s still a virgin. The religious order that Cyril belongs to believes Tara’s child may be a new messiah, fulfilling signs in the Book of Revelation. But when Tara discovers the baby will be a girl, the order sees her as the mother of the anti-Christ who must be destroyed before she triggers the first stage of the Apocalypse. Uncertain whom to trust and afraid of endangering those she loves, Tara fights for her life as she seeks a safe place to give birth and the answer to whether she and her child are meant to save the world or destroy it.
More reviews for THE AWAKENING:
“I couldn’t put this down, and ended up staying late at night to finish it.”
“A well-written, suspenseful and terse thriller that made you want more. The characters were interesting and real and the underlying plot was fascinating.”
“This fast-paced, riveting tale will have you sneaking in moments to read a few more pages … then a few more. The small (very real life) details and dialogue pull you in, and the story presents ancient themes and ideas in our current time frame—leading the reader to intriguing questions. A great book club choice!”
About The Author
Lisa M. Lilly’s poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including PARADE OF PHANTOMS, STRONG COFFEE, and HAIR TRIGGER. She is an attorney in Chicago, where she handles appeals and class actions. After her parents died in 2007 due to injuries caused by an intoxicated driver, Lisa joined the board of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM). AAIM works to prevent DUI-related deaths and injuries in Illinois and aids victims of impaired drivers.
Lisa loves to read thrillers, horror, and suspense, but her favorite book is PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Her favorite movie is THE TERMINATOR. She is a fan of Joss Whedon. Lisa’s first novel, THE AWAKENING, is a thriller with a young woman as the hero. Lisa’s collection of short stories, THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR, is also available on Amazon.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Tara folded and unfolded the pink referral slip. Her fingers made sweat marks on the paper. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t had sex.”
But her first pregnancy test had been positive, too, and now instead of telling Tara it was a mistake, her family doctor had gotten the same result.
Dr. Lei closed Tara’s chart. Vivaldi played softly from the Bose Wave system on the credenza behind her. “You’re still with Jeremy?”
“Still planning to get married?” Dr. Lei said.
“We haven’t set the date, but eventually. After college, before med school.”
Tara had over a year of college left, then med school, then an internship. That’s why she’d insisted on waiting. So she would never have a conversation like this. She understood Dr. Lei needed to ask these questions, but it wouldn’t lead to anything useful.
“And you’re not sexually active?” Dr. Lei asked.
“We haven’t had intercourse.”
“It’s possible to be a virgin and become pregnant,” Dr. Lei said. “It’s rare, but it can happen if there’s contact and sperm travel to an ovum.”
“We’re careful. We’re always careful.”
Dr. Lei’s cinnamon scented potpourri highlighted rather than masked the office’s alcohol-peroxide smell, making Tara slightly nauseated and adding to her unease about what might be happening in her body. But this was better than the University’s medical services unit, where the nurse practitioner talked to Tara while Tara sat wrapped in a paper gown, her bare legs dangling over the exam table’s edge.
“Have you engaged in mutual masturbation?” Dr. Lei asked.
“Has there been any time when, as a result of any activity, Jeremy’s sperm came anywhere near your vulvar area?”
Long ago, Tara had promised herself she’d never repeat her mother’s life. Her parents never complained about having five kids, but they hadn’t planned it, either, and Tara felt sure her mother would feel less angry and frustrated, and be happier all around, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant at nineteen.
“Some young women feel it’s not really intercourse if the man penetrates her but doesn’t ejaculate. Have you and Jeremy ever tried that?”
Tara shook her head.
“Is there anyone else you’ve engaged in any sexual activity with?”
The miniature grandfather clock on the wall ticked. Tara tried not to let her thoughts race ahead of her. You don’t know what’s going on yet. Dr. Lei tapped her fingers on her desk. “None of what you’ve described could lead to pregnancy. Still, it’s unlikely you’d get two false positives in a row.”
“But both labs could have made mistakes, couldn’t they?”
Already knowing the answer, Tara twisted the referral slip into a pink string. It was possible, but unlikely, that both labs erred in the same way for the same patient.
Leaning back in her chair, Dr. Lei folded her hands across her diaphragm and stared at the ceiling. Tara started to speak, then stopped, pressing her hands against the chair arms. Dr. Lei was a thorough physician, she asked a lot of questions before proposing courses of action. Just answer her questions, let her think it through. Unlike Tara, Dr. Lei hadn’t spent the last two weeks turning over all these points in her head.
Dr. Lei looked at Tara again. “I’m sure you’ve considered this, but could something have occurred you’re unaware of? A night you drank too much and someone, not necessarily Jeremy, forced himself on you?”
“No. I drink, but I’ve never passed out or had a blackout.”
Dr. Lei pursed her lips. “I don’t know what to tell you. Let’s schedule an ultrasound and go from there.”
“What do you think you might see?”
“I don’t know,” Dr. Lei said. “But whatever we see or don’t see, that will tell us what to do next.”
“Is it –” Tara’s throat tightened, but she had to talk about what weighed on her most. She took a breath. “Could it be a tumor? I mean, with Megan—”
Dr. Lei reached across her desk to touch Tara’s hand. “Tara. Nothing in the medical literature suggests your sister’s brain tumor is hereditary. You don’t have a predisposition to cancer.”
“But you need to rule it out.”
“I need to rule out all potential causes, even remote ones. But remember, there are many reasons your cycle may be off, including something as simple as stress.” Turning to her laptop, Dr. Lei accessed her schedule, something she normally left to her assistant. “Let’s get you in as soon as possible. Thursday morning at ten?”
Hands shaking, Tara almost dropped her backpack as she fished out her planner to check the date. “I’m still hoping it’s all just a mistake. Two mistakes.”
“It may be,” Dr. Lei said. “But we need to find out.”
* * *
The red-haired man scanned the student lounge from his corner armchair, deliberately slumping despite the tension coursing through him. He fingered the photo in his pocket, then took it out and cupped it in his hand to shield it from anyone else’s view. He’d cut it from a Webster Groves High yearbook, so it was a few years old.
In the photo, Tara Spencer’s blonde hair hung straight past her shoulders. Her blue-green eyes, wide and almond shaped, were the focal point of her face. He saw no mark in the photograph, but it could be anywhere on Tara’s body.
Unlike the other students, Tara looked as if she were having fun, as if she and the photographer had just discovered they both loved the same type of music or played the same sport. The man guessed most other students thought Tara friendly and kind. A good person.
Appearances could deceive.
Three girls walked in. He peered at them, looking for a match, reminding himself Tara’s hair color or cut could be different now. A brunette leaning against a vending machine bragged to her friends about last Friday’s beer bash, and how much she would drink this Friday, and how devastated she felt that this was only Wednesday. Two boys flipped a mini-Frisbee near the back of the lounge while they complained about a professor who refused to let them use notes in their open-book exams.
The man doubted anyone serious about studying came to this place. But he’d been told he’d find her here. And he had to see her in person.
Then he’d decide what to do to her.
* * *
At eight-thirty Wednesday night, Tara pulled into the driveway. She planned to run in, grab her laptop, and head back to school to finish her ancient history paper. She could work at home, but she focused better with noise and activity around her, the effect of growing up with four younger siblings. All morning during Advanced Physics, which she loved, and all afternoon during work, all Tara could think about was what Dr. Lei would see on the ultrasound tomorrow. Tara pressed her fingers into her abdomen, searching for masses. Then she thought of Megan, hooked up to IVs for chemo, vomiting for hours in the middle of the night, thinning to a near skeleton, then ballooning months later from the steroids.
Please don’t let it be cancer, Tara thought, then felt guilty for thinking it. If Megan, who was nine, had to face radiation and chemo without flinching, who was Tara to demand a reprieve? But if it wasn’t cancer, what could it be? A benign cyst maybe. Which still didn’t explain the positive pregnancy tests.
It’s nothing, don’t think about it. It’s all a mistake.
Tara climbed the outside back stairs to the attic, fumbled for her keys in the dark.
Her brother Bailey’s piping voice came before Tara had pushed her door all the way open.
Tara dropped her backpack on the floor and hung her parka on the coat rack. She’d fixed up the attic into a studio apartment with her grandfather’s help, and neither had thought to build a coat closet. “What’s up?”
Bailey sat cross-legged on Tara’s futon, a Batman comic book open on his lap. One of Dad’s Buddy Holly CDs played in the background.
“Hospital. Megan’s white count is low.” Bailey was only eleven but, like the rest of the family, had gained an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine in the last five years.
“Really bad?” Tara said, and thought, what if I’m in the hospital next? What will that do to Bailey?
“It’s just for an IV. She might come home tomorrow. Want to play a game?”
Tara plopped down at her tiny kitchen table and flipped on her laptop to check e-mail before she headed out again. “I’ve got to finish a paper. And don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“A quick one?” He grinned at her, crinkling his nose.
Bailey was blonde, like Tara, with light freckles barely visible across his cheeks, and blue eyes. Already he had a bunch of little girls calling him, but he was true to SueLyn, the trumpet player he’d had a crush on since kindergarten. Tara caught herself wondering whether, if she really were pregnant, the baby would look like Bailey, and how she could keep taking care of Bailey and the other kids if she became a mother herself.
But that’s crazy. I’m not pregnant.
Thoughts about pregnancy kept jumping into Tara’s mind. She couldn’t understand it. Her friend Vicki told Tara she worried if she was only a day late because her birth control pills might have failed. That made sense to Tara, birth control pills did fail. So did condoms and diaphragms and everything else. But not abstinence.
“No one’s been home at all,” Bailey said, giving Tara his sad eyes. “Mom left me a note for when I got back from school, and Kelly’s at rehearsal.”
He was hamming it up, but he really did get lonely when everyone was out. Sometimes even when everyone was around. Bailey was healthy and mostly happy, and Megan needed so much. It was why Bailey came to Tara’s, even if she wasn’t there.
Tara ran her fingers through her hair. She needed to get up early and wash and dry it, and her doctor’s appointment was at ten, which didn’t leave much time for writing. Still, she could barely think about anything except the ultrasound anyway. And she felt superstitious about disappointing Bailey, as if it somehow would be bad luck for Megan. “What d’you want to play?”
“That’s not short, buddy.”
But she closed the laptop. She’d set her alarm two hours early and finish her paper in the morning.
* * *
The piano played in the living room – The Bread of Life for the third time. A door slammed somewhere upstairs and Tara’s mother’s yelled, “I don’t care whose turn it is. You know how the dryer works.”
She’s in a good mood. Tara’s stomach tightened. She hadn’t done anything wrong, yet it felt like she had. Sliding the ultrasound photo back into her anatomy text, Tara looked at the clock on the microwave. She’d told her mother and stepdad at breakfast she needed to talk to them about something important, and it was already almost eleven. Her shift at Dirty Things Laundry started in an hour, and she still needed to change out of her sweats and T-shirt. Probably just into jeans and a T-shirt, but she’d like time to get calm again, too, after the way she expected this conversation to go.
Bailey wandered into the kitchen, trailing a Wiffle Ball bat behind him. He pressed his nose to the sliding glass doors, peered out at the snow and sleet, and sighed.
“Are you just passing through?” Tara said.
He turned around. “Should I be?”
Bailey frowned. “Jeez. Everyone’s crabby today. Some Saturday.”
He left as Tara’s mother, Lynette Spencer, walked into the kitchen. Already wearing her trench coat over corduroys and a blazer, she ran a comb through her short, bobbed hair, a bottle of Clinique’s palest foundation shade in her other hand. Lynette stood nearly a half a foot shorter than Tara, but about twenty-five pounds heavier. Her figure was round and curvy, while Tara’s was angular, and she always looked polished.
“So what’s all the drama?” Lynette said. “I’ve got Weight Watchers in twenty minutes.”
Tara tried to slide her chair back, but the kitchen table was so large, and the room so small, she had nowhere to go. “Sorry. I forgot.”
“Of course you did. It’s not like you need to go.” Lynette peered at herself in the microwave’s glass window, touching up her foundation. “So?”
“Can we wait for Dad?”
Lynette turned toward the doorway to the living room. “Pete!”
The piano cut off. A moment later, Tara’s stepfather came in and sat down next to Tara. He smelled like the dark-roasted coffee he always drank, and he sat perfectly straight, shoulders back, a holdover from being raised by an Army colonel. “What’s going on, honey?” Pete and Lynette had married when Tara was three. He was the only father Tara remembered.
“It’s complicated.” Tara crinkled the corner of a page in her book, then made a conscious effort to stop and look at her dad. He smiled, deepening the faint lines around his eyes she’d noticed only recently. His hair had gone gray years before, he was fifteen years older than Lynette, but somehow he hadn’t seemed to be aging to Tara until recently. “I don’t know how to explain it, but Dr. Lei thinks I’m pregnant.”
“What?” Pete’s smile disappeared.
“That figures.” Lynette dropped the foundation bottle on the counter with a thunk. “Though I really thought Jeremy was more responsible than that.”
“Jeremy? You thought Jeremy was more responsible?”
After all the times Jeremy had tried to persuade Tara to have sex, with or without a condom, she couldn’t believe her mother thought he was the one who was more responsible.
“You must have known this could happen. What do you expect me to say?” Lynette crossed her arms and stared at Tara.
Tara glared back. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
Pete touched Tara’s arm. “Of course we want to know.” To Tara’s relief, though her dad looked a little pale, he didn’t seem angry.
“You and Jeremy were planning to get married anyway, right?” Lynette said.
“So it’ll be a little sooner than you planned. You’re better off than I was.” Lynette fluffed her hair with her fingers. “You can even finish college if that’s what you want.”
Lynette started buttoning her coat, but Pete shook his head at her. She stayed put, but picked up her car keys.
“If that’s what I want?” Her mother’s deliberate blindness to Tara’s ambitions was not the point, but it sidetracked Tara all the same. “Have you not noticed me studying my eyes out for the MCAT?”
“Of course I have. But that’s not for sure, is it?”
“Where I go is not for sure. That I’m going is.”
“Not anymore, apparently.”
Lynette didn’t smile, but her words had a lilting, sing-song quality that made Tara feel her mother was happy, or at least pleased, on some level, at the idea that Tara had stumbled. Sometimes Tara thought it was her resemblance to her biological father, who was olive-skinned and wiry like Tara, that set her mother on edge. Other times Tara figured it was what Jeremy’s mom had told her. It was hard for mothers when their daughters surpassed them professionally, and Tara was on the way. Lynette had never graduated college. Despite a 4.0 GPA, she’d dropped out after her third semester when she met Tara’s biological father, and he persuaded her to chuck everything and travel the country with him and his rock band. Then she’d gotten pregnant with Tara, and that had ended the relationship.
Pete Spencer cleared his throat, glancing between Lynette and Tara. “We’re getting off track. Tara, you’re sure you’re pregnant?”
“That’s what I was about to say when Mom interrupted.” Tara glared at Lynette. “Dr. Lei says I am, but Jeremy and I never had sex.”
“Define sex,” Lynette said. “Because you wouldn’t have to actually have intercourse, as you should remember.”
In her senior year of high school, Tara, who’d been seeing the same boy for three years, had missed a period. Worried because her friend Vicki told her it was possible to get pregnant without intercourse, she’d asked her parents detailed questions. Her mother answered matter-of-factly. Her dad, on the other hand, turned a pasty shade and had never really liked Tara’s high school boyfriend after that.
“I remember. And I’ve been over that with Dr. Lei.”
“Then which is it, Tara? Pregnant or not?” Lynette said.
Tara swallowed hard. “The ultrasound shows I’m pregnant, but I can’t be. Dr. Lei can’t explain how this happened.”
Lynette put her hands on her hips, her keys still folded in one fist. “I think we’re all pretty clear how these things happen.”
Pete shot Lynette a look. “Lyn.”
“What? It’s not some big mystery. You’re acting like I’m the one being irrational.”
“Dr. Lei says there must be something I don’t remember, like at a party, or something I’m repressing, but there’s nothing like that.”
“Or maybe you were a little more intimate with someone than you’re willing to admit, even to yourself,” Lynette said. “That seems more likely.”
“It might be more likely, but I’m telling you it didn’t happen.”
“I don’t know, Tara. I’d come up with a better story for Jeremy, if I were you.”
Tara stood, bumping the kitchen table with her thighs so it screeched forward. “Story? A better story? I’m telling the truth and you want me to come up with a better story?”
Pete put a hand on Tara’s arm. “Tara.”
Tara pulled away. “No. She’s fucking accusing me of lying.”
“Language,” Pete said.
“All I’m suggesting is maybe you’re having a little trouble taking responsibility for your actions,” Lynette said.
“I can’t believe you. I’ve always been up front with you, especially about Jeremy. You’re the one always saying I tell you too much.” Tara put her hands to her ears, mimicking her mother. “‘Too much information, Tara.’ So why do you think I’m lying now?”
“Because what you’re saying is absolutely ridiculous.”
He crept from the elevator. His dark hair and clothing helped him blend into the shadows between the hallway emergency lights. Yesterday, he’d seen Dr. Lei under a false name, claiming a history of migraines. It gave him a chance to see the office layout. And steal a building keycard.
When he reached the door to the office suite, he put on his gloves, struggling when the latex stuck to his sweating hands. When he fished out his lock-picking tools, the pick dropped on the carpet with a thunk. He snatched it, started again. Pushed away thoughts of the years he’d waited, the disappointment that could lie beyond the heavy glass door. He was right about this time, this girl.
At last the lock released. On entering the waiting room, the smell of rubbing alcohol assaulted him. His body stiffened.
Moving away from the frosted glass door, he flicked on his flashlight. Charts from previous days’ visits stood in wire racks on the desk corner, ready for filing. He flipped through any chart with a patient name that might be female, checking age and marital status, then glancing through the notes.
The tenth chart must be it, but he skimmed the others before he read that one more closely. The office notes were practically hieroglyphic, between the doctor’s rushed handwriting and the medical abbreviations. But he’d studied enough to pick out what he needed – twenty-one year old white female…two positive pregnancy tests…denies sexual activity…return for ultrasound. He made his way to the back hall, read more as he waited for the copier to warm up. So much information.
Tara Spencer would be easy to find.
* * *
Field Report 1.2: Tara Spencer
Since initial report and review of medical records, the following has been determined:
Subject’s mother (Lynette Spencer) and stepfather (Peter Spencer) devote their time primarily to subject’s youngest half-sibling, Megan, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago. Subject often attends half-siblings’ school and sporting events, supervises their homework, and collects half-brother Bailey from school. Subject attends classes at St. Louis University (“SLU”) and works evenings and Saturdays at Dirty Things Laundromat one half block from campus.
Boyfriend, Jeremy Turano, 22, manages family-owned restaurant, Trattoria Alleata, in Rock Hill. Subject sees Turano one to two times per week, speaks to him often by phone, and appears unaware of his sexual relationship with Suzanne Freeman, a hostess at Trattoria Aleata. It is unknown whether Turano’s sister, Vicki, who is also subject’s friend, is aware of the Turano–Freeman relationship.
Subject drives to school and work through populated neighborhoods, parks in lighted areas, and carries cell phone. Subject jogs occasionally, but always with friends. Subject is frequently accompanied by other students while on campus. She plays intramural basketball and Frisbee.
At night, subject is isolated, as she sleeps in what appears to be a partially finished attic apartment in her mother and stepfather’s home. Apartment can be accessed through exterior or interior stairway. The latter poses a danger, as family members might be alerted if subject were approached or might be inside apartment without this investigator’s knowledge.
Most promising venue appears to be Dirty Things Laundromat from eleven p.m. to midnight, as few patrons enter establishment during that time period.
Having determined subject’s schedule, this investigator will act as soon as opportunity presents, unless otherwise advised.
Tara’s best friend Vicki reached across the coffee table and tapped Tara’s arm. “Cute guy at eleven o’clock totally checking you out.” Vicki nodded toward the coffee bar in the far left corner of Common Grounds.
A wiry man wearing new-looking blue jeans and a stark white T-shirt averted his eyes when Tara looked. His dark hair stood straight in a long crew cut that sharpened the angles of his face.
“Sure, ‘cause I’m gorgeous today.” Tara ran her hand through her hair, pulling out a few tangles in back. Her olive skin tended toward dark circles under her eyes even when she was sleeping well, and lately she barely slept at all.
“Yeah, you look a little dragged out.” Vicki sipped her latte. “And thinner. You’re not dieting, are you? That would be nuts.”
Tara and Vicki met every Wednesday evening at the Common Grounds coffeehouse/Internet cafe to study and catch up. Flute music played over the speakers and incense scented the air, but tonight neither made Tara feel relaxed.
“No. But I have to tell you something.” Tara shut her laptop. “I didn’t before because I haven’t said anything to Jeremy yet, but I’m talking to him tonight.”
Vicki was Jeremy’s sister, and much as Tara had wanted to spill everything to Vicki, she’d felt it wasn’t right to ask Vicki to keep secrets from her brother.
“You’re breaking up with him, aren’t you?” Vicki said.
“What? Of course not.”
“Because the whole medical school thing, you know I could never see that working.”
Tara frowned. She’d never guessed Vicki felt that way about how Tara’s school plans fit or didn’t fit with Jeremy, and she thought she and Vicki talked about everything. “I’m not breaking up with him.”
“Then what – Oh my God. It’s that pregnancy test, isn’t it?” Vicki leaned forward, almost tipping her latte onto her interior design workbook. “It wasn’t a mistake.”
A girl reading by the windows looked over at them, apparently finding the conversation more intriguing than A Tale of Two Cities. For the first time, Tara wished Common Grounds played hard rock. Loud. She didn’t care what strangers thought, but that didn’t mean she wanted to announce her private life to the world at large. And she was pretty sure she knew the girl from Calculus last year.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Tara said.
“I’m thinking you finally did it with Jeremy and didn’t even tell me. I’m your best friend – how could you not tell me?” Vicki wagged her finger at Tara.
“No, we didn’t. We haven’t.”
“You did it with Roger and didn’t tell me?”
Roger, Tara’s lab partner, had asked Tara out once and she’d said no.
“Of course not. Not with anyone.”
“So, what, you got artificially inseminated and didn’t tell me?”
“No. I can’t be pregnant. There’s some mix-up. I’m seeing a specialist tomorrow.” But Tara’s face flushed and her hands shook. The oncologist she’d seen had confirmed all Dr. Lei’s findings and ruled out a tumor. Which was a relief, yet Tara didn’t feel as relieved as she’d thought she would.
If I am pregnant, Tara thought, how can I take care of a baby and finish college? And forget med school. But this is insane. I’m not pregnant.
Tara had spent every waking moment since she’d seen the oncologist searching her memory for unaccounted-for time, or for some place where she could have been drugged and assaulted, for any way she could have gotten pregnant without knowing what was happening.
There was nothing.
“What’d your parents say?” Vicki asked.
“They made me talk to Father Saur, then insisted I see a shrink. The shrink interviewed me and gave me all these personality tests. He couldn’t find anything suggesting I suffered any sexual abuse or was repressing, so he decided I must be lying.”
“Nice.” Vicki sat straighter and set her drink on the coffee table. “So what are you going to – that guy is really staring. It’s not him, is it? Is he the other guy?”
“There is no other guy.” Tara clenched her fists in her lap. “And I don’t know who that is.”
Tara glanced again at the man with the crew cut, who still sat reading his newspaper. Something about him looked familiar, the rigid, squared way he held his shoulders, maybe. She guessed him in his late twenties, possibly a grad student.
“How’d you find the specialist?” Vicki said.
“He wrote an article on conditions that appear as pregnancy but aren’t. It’s more focused on psychosomatic issues, like hysterical pregnancy, but I figure he’s the best person to see.”
The wind chimes over the front door jangled, but it wasn’t Jeremy, just a couple teenage boys in baggy jeans and backwards baseball caps, snow coating their jackets.
Tara had no idea what to say to Jeremy when he did arrive. Gosh, honey, my doctor thinks I’m pregnant, but I can’t be. You believe me, don’t you?
Because that had worked so well with her parents.
Jeremy got there about 8:30. He stopped at the coffee bar just inside the door to brush the snow from his dark hair and take off his leather jacket. Tara wanted to tell him not to order anything, that she’d rather talk somewhere else, but she felt frozen in place on the couch.
“You’re up.” Vicki stuffed her books into her backpack.
Tara looked at her friend. “Hang out, will you? Not right here, but around?”
Vicki squeezed Tara’s hand. “Sure, I’ll go sit with soldier boy.”
The man at the coffee bar did have something of a military look, though Tara couldn’t put her finger on why. It might be his neatness, or his ramrod posture. Maybe Vicki would talk to him, find out he had nothing to do with Tara, and believe Tara about the pregnancy. Or lack of pregnancy.
Jeremy crossed the room and hugged Tara. His jacket chilled her cheek. She shivered, but leaned into him anyway. He smelled of winter air and white Dial soap. Her eyes burned. What if it’s the last time he ever hugs me?
“Hey. What’s wrong? Is it Megan?”
Tara sat on the sofa. Jeremy sat next to her, keeping his arm around her.
“No, she’s better,” Tara said. “We just brought her home from the hospital.”
“So what did you want to talk about?” Jeremy glanced at the clock over the windows. Outside, the wind whipped snowflakes sideways and in circles. “I promised Mom I’d come back for closing tonight, we’re short-handed.”
“Maybe we should talk another time. Somewhere private.” Even as she suggested it, Tara knew she couldn’t wait to talk to Jeremy. If only the temperature were less arctic, they could have at least taken a walk.
Jeremy shook his head. “I’ve got the trade show this weekend. We won’t see each other ‘til next Saturday.”
Tara picked up a granola bar she’d bought earlier but hadn’t opened yet. She pulled the brown tab at the back. It caught under her fingernail. She didn’t want to talk to Jeremy in the middle of Common Grounds, but she couldn’t wait another week and a half. And she couldn’t do it on the phone.
Tara took a deep breath. She wasn’t pregnant, but something very bad was happening, and if she ever wanted a decent night’s sleep again, she had to tell Jeremy.
It’s not like I did anything wrong.
She shifted a little to face him.
“Okay. I missed a couple periods and figured it was all the stress from the extra classes and my work schedule this semester. But I was kind of concerned, so I went to my doctor.”
“Are you all right?”
Tara ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know. See, Dr. Lei thinks I’m pregnant, which of course I can’t be, but she can’t find anything else wrong.”
She felt Jeremy’s body tense, but he didn’t pull away. “But she knows you’re not pregnant. You had a pregnancy test, right?”
“Well, yeah. But it was positive.” Tara still held the granola bar, and she squeezed it. “Two tests were, actually, and I just don’t know what’s happening and I’m really scared.”
Jeremy pulled away and stood, glaring down at Tara. “Who was it?”
“I knew the second you said you missed your period. Who was it? Roger? I’ll fucking kill him.”
“Not Roger. No one. It’s a mistake.”
“So your doctor’s just wrong.”
“She must be.”
Past Jeremy, Tara saw a guy she knew from SLU join the girl with A Tale of Two Cities. They held hands across the table, smiling.
Tara longed to be that girl, wished she could sit at that table and drink chai tea and talk with Jeremy about her chem class and his day at the restaurant and whether he wanted to pursue an MBA while she went to med school. She ought to be that girl. She had been that girl. And yet instead she was telling Jeremy she’d had a positive pregnancy test when she couldn’t be pregnant.
Someone opened the front door, and icy air swept through the room.
“What about other doctors?” Jeremy said.
“They said the same thing.” Tara slid to the end of the couch and shifted so she sat on its arm, closer to eye-level with Jeremy.
“And they’re all wrong.” Jeremy’s voice grew louder, and the SLU couple peered at him.
“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” Tara set the granola bar on the coffee table and reached for Jeremy’s hand. “Please?”
Jeremy jammed his hands in his jeans pockets. “Talk about what? You tell me sex is too risky and we need to wait, then you fucking do it with someone else. What’s to talk about?”
“I’m telling you I never had sex with anyone.” Tara stood, clenching her fists, her eyes filling with tears. “This is a mistake. Just because no doctor’s figured it out yet doesn’t make it not a mistake. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, or how this could be happening, and I’m scared –”
“Stop it. Stop lying.” Jeremy turned away, then pivoted back. “It was never going to work anyway. You’ll be off to medical school, at least you would have been. You didn’t have any place for me. Now you have to find a place for a baby. Good luck.”
Tara grabbed his arm, even as she thought that Vicki had been right about medical school and Jeremy. “I’m telling you the truth.”
Jeremy jerked away. “Right.” He stalked across the room and out the door, not even glancing at Vicki, who still sat at the counter.
When Tara looked around, most people appeared intent on reading, clicking laptop keys, or listening to their iPods, but she felt sure they’d all been staring a second before.
She kicked the coffee table, making it shake. “Show’s over.” Tara sank down onto the couch and bent forward, elbows on her knees, head on her arms. “It’s over.”
Vicki sat and put her arm around Tara. “That didn’t go well.”
“He didn’t believe me,” Tara said. “He didn’t care how I feel, or how this happened, or anything.”
“That sucks. Look, why don’t we get out of here? I’ve got an early class tomorrow, but I’ve got time for a beer.”
“Yeah, okay.” Tara wiped her eyes. Then it hit her. If she were pregnant, she couldn’t have a beer. It was only one of many things that would change. If she were pregnant. But I’m not.
Vicki zipped her jacket. “What?”
Tara shook her head. “Nothing. I just, it hit me that if I were pregnant, I wouldn’t drink.”
“But you don’t think you are.”
“I can’t be. But Jeremy’s definitely assuming the worst.”
“Try to see it from his point of view.” As they crossed the room, Vicki’s boot heels clunked on the coffee house’s hardwood floor. “It must look like you strung him along, telling him you didn’t want to have sex until you at least finished college, because you might get pregnant, then you go off with someone else.”
“Is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what I think, really. It’s all so weird. I mean, you said you’ve already had confirming tests and seen specialists. What else could it be?”
“Have you ever known me to lie to Jeremy? Or you for that matter?”
Tara paused at the door. “I don’t know what’s going on any more than Jeremy does. Or you do.”
“You can see where it would be hard for him to believe that, though, can’t you?”
The door chimes clanked as they stepped outside. The wind smacked Tara’s face. “Yeah. I can see that.”
* * *
At eleven that night, once she was home, Tara tried Jeremy on his cell phone. He hung up on her. Answered the phone just to hang up, apparently, because he had Caller I.D. The whole night, Tara lay awake, imagining what else she could have said to explain things, and what she might say when they talked again. In the morning, exhausted, she stumbled through a shower and grabbed a granola bar and banana for her drive. She left her knapsack on the kitchen table.
The heavy outside door slammed shut behind her, and Tara started down the stairs. It was only when she remembered the knapsack and turned back that she saw the blood.
It dripped from the doorknob onto the landing’s chipped gray paint. Clutching the railing, Tara scanned the door, the side of the house, the steps, but couldn’t see any source for the blood. No wounded or dead animal. Nothing. Zigzag heel prints behind her on the landing reproached her. She’d stepped in the blood without even realizing. More of it trailed down the stairs and pooled on the second-floor landing. Tara hurried down.
A lump half the size of Tara’s fist lay in the reddish-brown puddle, a reed-like black stick jabbed into it. Tara sank to a sitting position on the stair just above the landing, arms crossed over her stomach. She leaned forward for a closer look, and the twin smells of formaldehyde and latex paint hit her. Tara jerked back.
Not blood. Which she would have realized sooner, if she’d been thinking clearly. Blood would have clotted and smeared, not dripped, unless it was still flowing from a living being.
The lump lay still. Though she knew what it must be, Tara fumbled through her knapsack for a pencil to slough some of the paint away. Her efforts revealed a head twice the size of the body. The skin, under the paint, was grayish and dull. A nub of a hand poked up. Stringy legs curled inward toward the bulging stomach. The knitting needle pierced where the right eye would have grown.
Based on what she’d learned in Anatomy, Tara guessed the age about sixteen weeks in utero. She pressed her palms together and struggled not to vomit.
Who could do this? The only people who knew were Jeremy, Vicki, Tara’s parents, the doctors, and the parish pastor.
Then there was the question of why.
A screeching sound behind her nearly stopped her heart.
It was just her dad opening the window. Tara’s parents’ room looked out onto the lower landing.
“Tara? Oh my God.”
* * *
“Mom, seriously, it’s okay. Go,” Tara said.
Lynette stood fast in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, eyeing the police detective, who sat at the kitchen table, arms crossed over his chest.
“Harold can get someone else to finalize his brief.” Lynette was a legal secretary, and because of Megan’s illness, she was allowed to be on flex-time. The partners she worked for were understanding, but Tara knew her mom worried one day they’d decide they couldn’t deal with her absences and odd hours. And she’d long since used all her paid time off for the year, so every day she missed cost the family money.
“No, really. You were out all last week already. I’ll be fine.”
“Honey, I know I was hard on you about this whole pregnancy thing, but I want to be here for you. I’ll call in.”
“Mom, you go. I’ll let you know what happens. It’s okay.”
Gripping the back of a kitchen chair, Tara watched her mom head down the stairs, then turned toward Detective Mallard. She wished she’d asked one of her parents to stay, she knew either would have. But Tara’s dad’s job was even more demanding, and if he lost it, the family lost its health insurance.
The detective flipped a page on his notebook. He was a big man, and he perched precariously on one of the wooden chairs, his legs jammed under the kitchen table, his neck nearly bursting from his collar.
“You were about to give me your boyfriend’s full name.”
“Jeremy Robert Turano. But I told you, he wouldn’t do something like this. No matter how mad he is.”
The detective hadn’t said so, but Tara felt sure he must know Jeremy. Fewer than four thousand people lived in Rock Hill, and Trattoria Alleata, the Turanos’ restaurant, was the closest, and best, Italian restaurant around.
“And his address?”
“58 Plant Court, Webster Groves.”
Mallard nodded. “Two and a half miles away.”
“But he had no idea I was pregnant before last night around 9 p.m. Where would he even get a fetus between then and this morning? It’s not like they sell them at the grocery store.”
Mallard drummed his pencil on the table while Tara spoke, then said, “His sister lives at the same address?”
“No, she lives with their parents.” Tara gave him Vicki’s address. “But she’d – ”
“I know. Never do anything like this.”
“She wasn’t even mad at me.”
Mallard peered at Tara, his eyes flat ovals. “She didn’t believe it, though. Your story about not knowing how you got pregnant.”
“My story – no, she probably didn’t believe me.”
Tara pressed her lips together. She needed the police to figure out who did this, so the least she could do was be polite, even if Detective Mallard wasn’t showing her the same courtesy. And she couldn’t entirely blame him for being skeptical. If her own mother and friends didn’t take her at her word, she couldn’t expect a stranger, and a police detective at that, would. But, somehow, she did expect it.
From outside came the sound of a garbage truck rumbling to a halt at the driveway, then cans scraping the asphalt.
“Shouldn’t we be looking at motive?” Tara said. “At who would want to scare or threaten me?”
“You see this as a threat?”
“What else?” Tara shivered, picturing the needle through the fetus’ eye space. “I mean, I’m supposedly pregnant, and someone leaves a fetus with a knitting needle and what looks like blood on my porch. What is that but a threat?”
Mallard leaned back and crossed his arms over his sloping belly. “Yet you refuse to tell me about the potential fathers.”
“Because there are none. When I said I can’t be pregnant, I meant it. It’s not that I can’t pick one guy out of all the guys I’ve been with. There are no guys. That’s the whole problem.”
“When did you tell Vicki Turano you were getting a pregnancy test?”
“Weeks ago. So, what, you think she ran out and got a fetus and some paint just in case it turned out I was pregnant, and it wasn’t Jeremy’s?”
Mallard slapped the notebook on the table. “Look, Miss Spencer, I don’t know what you expect. Something like this, the most likely perpetrator is the father, but you won’t tell me who it is. The next most likely are your boyfriend and his sister, and you say it can’t be them. The remaining people who know you’re pregnant – excuse me, supposedly pregnant – I’m sure you’ll tell me didn’t do it. Your mother, your dad, your doctor, your shrink and your pastor.” He ticked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “Am I right?”
“Yes. But maybe someone at my school. I am PreMed. The students would know where to get fetuses.”
Mallard raised his eyebrows. “Anyone at school know you’re pregnant?”
“Only if they overheard last night.”
“Other than random overhearers, did I miss anyone who knows you’re pregnant?”
“No.” Tara clenched and unclenched her jaw. “I know this sounds crazy. I’m not trying to be obstructionist, I just can’t think of anyone who could have done this.”
“I did miss someone.”
Silently, Tara ran through the people she’d told. “I don’t think so.”
Pointing at Tara, Mallard stood. His head nearly touched the light shades on the ceiling fan above him. “You know you’re pregnant. And what do I know about you? You’re pregnant and you don’t know who the father is. You’re trying to sell your parents on a bullcrap story about never having sex. You announced your pregnancy in the middle of a crowded coffeehouse. Your sister’s been ill for years and, as I saw today, everything revolves around her. Your parents probably never have time to spend with you, never make you a priority. Well, welcome to real life.” Mallard snapped his notebook shut. “Here’s some free advice. You want attention, go back to the shrink.”
Tara stood, too. “So you’re not going to do anything.”
Mallard shoved the notebook in his pocket and walked around the table. “I’ll file a report. In triplicate. I’ll interview the ‘suspects.’ I’ll find out if any fetuses were stolen from the medical schools at SLU or Washington University or anywhere else. I’ll fill out a supplemental report. In triplicate. I’ll update you and my supervisors regularly. I’m sure it’ll be a grand use of the taxpayers’ money.”
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