EMILY LAZAR FOUND IT CONVENIENT THAT SHE WAS MISOPHOBIC.
“Honestly, Emily, you’d think everyone carried the plague.” Becca Satterfield stretched one bare arm out of the dressing room and accepted a gaggle of dresses on hangers from the sales clerk. “Are you going to help me pick a dress for tonight, or not?”
Emily aimed a smile at her friend. Better to let Becca think her a wuss about germs, than to admit that she had avoided accepting the clothes from the clerk because the girl’s ratty face had morphed into a blob of color and shape, swirling like a cartoon time machine. Emily grabbed for a mint in her purse.
Since third grade, Emily had experienced odd premonitions, vague pictures that formed at the edge of her sight. Touching the person involved accentuated the pictures, brought them into sharper focus, while scent and taste distracted her, causing the images to gradually fade. So she avoided touching anyone or their possessions. When avoidance wasn’t possible, she imagined a door slamming shut, or reached for a breath mint to savor until the pictures in her mind subsided.
“Mints are in the right front pocket of my purse.“ Becca was accustomed to Emily’s addiction, though she had no idea of their purpose. “Now, which dress says, ‘propose to me, you old fool, before I change my mind?’”
“The purple one. It’s queenly, and Bob’s looking for a queen.” Emily tossed her own handbag on the bench in the corner, then reached carefully into Becca’s logoed bag, which hung on a hook behind the door. A whirl of color and shapes accelerated. Emily pawed through tissues and lipsticks, finding the mints, prepared to surrender to their powerful tang. But the vision enveloped her before she could pop one into her mouth.
The bag’s straps had conveyed a story she now watched unfold: Becca marrying Bob with exuberance and lots of champagne, followed by a glorious trip to Tuscany. Bob on a balcony overlooking the Duomo, coughing, breathless, while Becca slept, oblivious, beneath the grand, carved canopy.
Emily eyed the flesh-and-blood Becca, preening in an elegant, eggplant-hued dress––left, right, center view––and longed to warn her. But she never had the gumption to make a fool of herself, to become a joke among friends.
While still a kid she had shared her experiences with her mother and been scoffed at for a dreamer.
"Why couldn't you have foreseen that?" Her mother's voice scolded her every time she was late or forgot a simple item. Such scorn taught Emily to keep silent about her gift. Or was it a gift? Emily didn’t know. Rarely did the bits and pieces add up to a complete picture. She struggled to keep from concentrating hard enough to let that happen. It was so much easier to let others make decisions and take chances, while she faded into the background.
If she’d wanted to stand out, she would have dyed her bark-colored hair, or put glitter on her eyelids, like Becca, who, Emily knew, threw tarot cards and consulted palm readers in private, but publicly scoffed at “magic tricksters.” She remembered Becca in pink tights, pumping up and down on the Stairmaster beside her, arguing with the talk show program on the screen that dangled above them at the gym. Becca dismissed with a broad gesture the guest claiming to be visited by lost souls.
"Random flashes, happenstance, could be from anywhere, not even in this century," she had said. "Just so much excess electricity flying around the galaxy, you know?"
No, Emily would not share the dim images with Becca.
Within a few minutes, Becca chose the purple frock and paid for it. She juggled shoeboxes while Emily carried the dress bag through the mall, sucking on a mint, avoiding every shoulder rub possible, and slamming the door on those she inadvertently jostled in the crowd.
That afternoon, Emily tackled a series of domestic tasks. She enjoyed being alone in the house, safe for a while from the touch of strangers. Joel was meeting clients for his contracting business. Their seven-year-old twins, Judy and Jacob, would not be home from school until 3:30.
Warm dishwater soothed Emily’s raw knuckles as she considered twenty-five jars of dill relish cooling on the counter, presents for cousins and aunts this Thanksgiving. Lots of trouble, but she hated to go visiting empty-handed, like a pauper. Payments from Joel’s plumbing contracts came erratically, and their budget would not allow her to purchase many large tins of holiday nuts and cookies. Soon, Joel promised, their cash flow would improve, and she could scale back on the garden, grow just enough for their own consumption.
She had been saving odd bits of ribbon to decorate the plain glass jars. Or maybe she could splurge on new ribbon? Blue, like a November sky, maybe a deep cerulean. . . . She blinked, and opened her eyes in a pool, behind a house with cool white tiles and queen palms ornamenting a clipped green lawn. Around her bare shoulders, water wrote a wavy script. In the deep end, children splashed. Her children. Emily lifted her body up a ladder, walked past a child's lime green sandal. She felt the sun-toasted concrete patio against her soles as she opened the door. . . . The vision passed.
Emily grasped the stainless rim of the sink. She was shaken, dismayed, aghast at this new development: a color had triggered this vision, so suddenly that she had no time to react.
Usually, her own life was hidden from her, for which she’d been grateful. Among the things she most didn’t want to know was what happened to her, Joel, the twins. It would be like living an endless TV rerun. What if the visions lengthened, ran parallel, eventually eclipsed this life with her family? Wasn't that what crazy was, cut off from reality, inside a dream? Or a nightmare?
As Emily dropped the scrub pad into its frog-shaped holder, her fingers brushed the blue tile backsplash, and the white-walled house came shimmering back, children squealing from their watery paradise. Slowly, the sink resolved from that distant place, like the fade away from one scene to another in a movie. She glanced at her stinging palms: faint, reddened indentations from her fingernails, where she had willed herself back from the vision.
Good, she thought. Only pieces of a puzzle, and she didn’t have to put the puzzle together.
She squared her shoulders and tightened the strings of her green-stained apron. Focusing on making meatloaf for her family, squeezing raw meat between her fingers, smelling the tang of onions, she felt grounded. Until the sight of an empty mustard jar punctured her calm. Mustard with horseradish was her secret ingredient. She’d have to go out to the store.
Emily grabbed her car keys and steeled herself for more incomplete puzzles.
While waiting for a mother with several toddlers to vacate the condiments aisle, Emily decided that, if she could isolate all the clues, she'd find her visions were nothing more than a canny deduction she had made without pausing, rather like skipping steps and landing on your feet. She paid for her groceries and left the store, breathing freely, having acquired no sudden insights about strangers she passed. Swinging a plastic bag with mustard and a few other items from her wrist, she jerked around to glance at a man who brushed her shoulder in passing. His hands were crammed into corduroy pants so tattered the pockets hung loose at several corners.
Why was she suddenly seeing a workshop with many tools, the blades of saws ready and gleaming? Why was she worried about what was in the large box in the corner?
The man's gaze was aimed not at Emily, but at the young woman with red hair, wearing a tank top and walking about six steps ahead. Emily moved aside to let him pass, wanting, at the same time, to reach out and block him with her body. Bile rose in her throat as she wobbled on the concrete. What would her life be like if she suddenly took to body-tackling perfect strangers in grocery stores?
Automatic doors hissed as she lurched against the bubble gum machine inside the entrance alcove. An elderly gentleman wearing a tan beret reached out to steady her, and asked if she needed further help. Oh, yes, she almost blurted. But she tightened her grip on the plastic bag and shook her head at the kindly stranger.
The man in the corduroy pants paused on the curb ahead of her. Emily tried not to glance directly at him as she walked to her car, ignoring the quivering in her guts. A sidelong glance revealed a sweat sheen on his neck, despite the coolness of the day.
When she settled into her car seat, the vision of steel blades returned, now whirring an inch in front of the dashboard. Emily raised her eyes to search the lot. The redhead was not hard to spot, bouncing into an intensely yellow coupe with racing stripes. The man, one row away, got into a dirty pickup truck, which looked as if an amateur had recently painted it sky blue, the paint thick over the wheel wells, dingy white showing through the blue on the rear gate.
Emily muttered to herself about random images as she started the engine, released the brake, and backed out of the tight spot. Just so much excess electricity flying around the galaxy, she muttered to herself.
In the rearview mirror, she saw the yellow coupe pulling toward the exit lane, the pickup right behind, and watched as both cars turned right out of the lot. Blades whirred at the tip of her nose. Did stray electrical impulses translate into scissoring steel?
As if a spring released inside her head, Emily did what she’d feared doing: She acted on her vision. Ignoring the sensation of her stomach contents performing a flip, she shook away a mental image of Becca wagging her head ruefully, and substituted one of her cheering, “Atta girl!” She told herself she could take just a few minutes to satisfy her curiosity, pulled behind the pickup before it reached the first light, read the license plate, committed it to memory in case she lost him, and checked her watch to see if she had time before the twins came home from school. Frowning at the possibility of being home in an hour, she stayed behind both coupe and pickup as they cruised down Lincoln Boulevard.
The man in the pickup kept glancing in his side mirror. Emily feared he’d seen her following, so she dropped back to let another car pull ahead of hers. At the second light, she craned her neck. The coupe was three cars ahead, the pickup behind it. When the redhead peeled left at the next light and the pickup stayed straight, Emily let her breath whoosh toward the windshield. She'd been wrong all along. Unless he'd just missed the turn because he'd been glancing back? The radio had been making a buzz since she had turned on the engine. She reached to flick the knob, watched as saw blades sliced through her arm.
Maybe she'd follow a few more blocks, make sure he didn't turn back.
The pickup cruised on through the light, aimed straight ahead down the main route to the freeway. Emily planned to follow him onto the ramp before passing him, like she'd meant to go to Orlando all along. She could always get off at the next exit and circle back. This wild goose chase would only take her a few miles out of her way.
She glanced around at the swarming cars, searching for a hole in the traffic into which she could slip her van. What was that whipping from the corner of her eye? Long blonde hair? She turned her head, brushing her own dull hair out of range. Nothing but a baldheaded trucker biting on a cigar. Where had the blonde hair come from?
Emily let her breath flow with the traffic. A minute later, honey-colored hair whipped again across her eyes. Now she could see that it was matted with . . . blood? A block of ice formed in Emily's throat. She focused on driving. Two blocks to go to make sure he really got on the expressway.
Maybe she should call Joel, say she’d been delayed, see if he would be home in time to meet the kids. She reached into her purse for her cell phone, then realized she’d left it at home on the kitchen counter.
Should she find a pay phone, place an anonymous call to the police, be done with it? Would they laugh her off?
She squeezed her eyes shut for a second. Of course they would laugh her off. What did she know, besides this man had appeared to follow some young woman in a coupe before breaking away? And now he was going to Orlando. How incriminating. Emily imagined the voice on the other end of the line, sarcastic, seething, or just bored. You couldn't arrest someone because blonde hair appeared from nowhere on the freeway.
Her mother had those "floaters"––black threads, actually bits of eye matter that overlay her vision. Did floaters come in golden fibers, she wondered?
The green signs overhead proclaimed a choice of routes. One block to go to the on-ramp. Good. Maybe she'd laugh with Becca at Jazzercise about her funny "vibes," chalk it up to female wariness of strangers, promise to get her eyes checked. Emily glanced in the mirror, inching her car over into the entrance ramp lane. Safe to go? A new Beetle was gaining steadily on her right. She hesitated. The Beetle sped up, so that Emily had to turn the wheel back swiftly to avoid hitting it. As she did so, brakes screeched ahead. She looked up just in time to see the pickup swerve across the median and head in the other direction, back toward the grocery store.
Surely he'd seen her now. She should pull over at the corner, get out, make the call. If they didn't believe her––well, she'd tried. Her spine itched, every nerve ending activated. Blonde hair waved outside her car window. She groped for mints in her purse before she remembered them lying on the kitchen counter, next to her forgotten cell phone.
She would have pulled over, made the call, suffered the rude police dispatcher, and gone home. Except that something sliced through her head that minute. Something cold and sharp and altogether unavoidable. A pain that detached her hair from her head, sent one eye––Emily wanted to rub her eyes, to lie on the horn, to be home watching her twins spill cocoa on the floor and argue over which cartoon to watch.
And she wanted to follow that pickup, see where it went, and do it in a way that would bring no consequences for her.
Stomach somersaulting, she nevertheless turned the wheel with a firm hand at the next crossover and headed back toward the pickup. There was no yellow coupe in sight and only a few cars between her van and the stranger. Not enough to hide the truck's gravel-scrunching turn onto a side street.
Emily bounced down the pockmarked road after him. An informal dump––or someone's littered front yard––flew by on the right, a satellite dish the only clue that the ramshackle house was occupied. The road turned soon to smooth dirt. Who knew there was such a rural place so close to her own pink-stuccoed ranch?
So close! Oh, Dear God! How could she put herself, her family in such danger? I will never follow a vision again. Just let me find a way out and make sure no one's in trouble, she prayed. She pleaded with herself to turn around.
The pickup driver had definitely spotted her now, his head turning back and forth from the road to his rearview mirror. Would he stop and demand to know why she was following him? Instead, he accelerated sharply. She stepped on the gas to keep up with his truck, now speeding ahead around a green rim of mangrove swamp.
Emily turned the corner just in time to watch the heron step into the truck's path. To see the slow turn of its head as it gazed calmly at its imminent death. To see the bird sail onto the truck's windshield. As the bird bounced onto the pavement, the pickup flew, tires squealing, straight into the swamp.
Slamming the van into park, Emily stepped out and paused on the running board, keeping the van between her and the monster, who might be able, after all, to rise from the waters. But nothing disturbed the shallow bay except a bubble or two rising over the blue roof of the submerged truck. Monster or not, she should call for help. She could not maneuver the van around the heron, which lay shuddering in the middle of the narrow road, without risking skidding on gravel into the swamp, after the pickup. She would have to back up to the house near the turn off the highway.
Emily was about to re-enter the van when the bird gave an anguished cry. It was still alive, struggling to rise.
Wary of the hands that might plunge from the swamp to grasp at her ankles, Emily ran to kneel by the bird's mangled body. She avoided touching the scalp hanging by a thread of pinkish flesh to long, buff-colored plumes, one eye almost buried in a crimson puddle. The bird relaxed its long neck into the muddy rut. The other eye, staring up at Emily as if asking a question, grew opaque as a cloudy night sky.
Remembering long blonde hair whipping past in the wind, Emily sighed with relief. She hadn't prevented the bird's death, but at least she hadn't uncovered a serial murderer, either. The man in the pickup! She jumped to her feet, scanning around for help.
Until then, she had not seen the roof ahead, just visible through the tops of mangroves. She could get there quicker on foot than she could reach the other house by van. Emily stumbled across the loose gravel, rehearsing all the way, explaining away her presence in this isolated area. A drive-by crash, she offered. No, no damage on the van. A wrong turn off the expressway, seeking a turnaround? She remembered two gas stations with ample turnaround space between here and the off-ramp.
What would be the nearest to the truth she could get and still avoid mentioning the vision? I followed him to save a bird?
Her irritation with her own gullibility returned as Emily jogged past a battered mailbox. No cars sat in the rutted driveway, but she spotted a dusty green sedan with no license plate pulled haphazardly across the back yard. She leapt up the creaking steps, grasped the cold metal handle of the teetering screen door. Pounded on the doorframe. No answer. She stepped around to the side door, and found another screen hanging loose from rusty hinges. In reaching for the metal edge, her fingers brushed a hank of long blonde hair dangling from the inside catch. Hair tipped with scarlet. Emily inhaled until her ribs spread, and slowly released the doorframe so as not to disturb the hair. Turning her head to the left, she spotted under the porch steps a paint can, sky blue dripped around its rim.
Backing off the porch, Emily turned, desperate now to find a phone. Remembering the house with all the junk in the front yard, she rushed back to her van.
A shadow passed overhead. Emily heard a sharp cry and looked up. An object fell from another heron's beak. She stretched out her hand and it floated into her palm. Gently she ran her thumb over the smooth, sea-colored glass. Lettering like that on soda pop bottles curved around the rim. I-A-M-I space F-L. She watched the heron's mate disappear over the mangroves, felt its pulse throbbing in her own temples.
Blue-green reflections on white walls played across her memory.
At that moment, Emily crossed over from a sea of questions into an ocean of answers. She closed her empty fist.
When she pulled her van into the pockmarked driveway, she noted again the satellite dish gleaming pristinely on the roof of the house. A face appeared, faint through the cheap lace curtains.
Briefly, before reaching the sagging steps, Emily wondered what Joel would say. How she would pretend to be surprised when he told her about the upcoming move to Miami. How long she would pretend to resist his enticement of a house with the pool she had always wanted. And how Becca would look when Emily told her she’d need to find someone else to carry her shopping bags. But she didn't wonder how she would explain all this.
Hesitation slipped from her shoulders like the molting feathers of a bird on its way to a new world.
Emily’s hand did not shake as she rang the bell. The door opened slowly.
"I came because I had a vision," she began.
Glenda Bailey-Mershon grew up in the Appalachian South. Curiosity led her to Chicago, where she founded a tutoring center, counseled immigrant students, taught anthropology and women’s studies, and published nonfiction on community history and politics. Stints as a bookstore co-owner and editor underpin her workshops for writers. A love of science and multicultural viewpoint is tangible in her poetry and fiction. (“Being Emily" began with a question: what if a clairvoyant did not believe in her own gift?) She has published two chapbooks, sa-co-ni-ge: poems from the Southern Appalachians; and Bird Talk: Poems, as well as The History of the American Women's Movement: A Study Guide. Her first novel, entitled Eve's Garden, is complete, and she is co-editing Bridges and Borders, the fourth Jane's Stories anthology, encompassing work by women in conflict from around the world. She now lives near a marsh in Florida.
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