Vaxen - A Starting Place
[pwaxen@yahoo.com]
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Cheating Time

by

Vaxen
copyright 2002
(pwaxen@yahoo.com)

Chapter 8 - A Strange New World

For some reason she could not explain at the moment, Linda expected to open her eyes and find Dee's familiar face hovering above her. The explanation slowly seeped in though the haze. Her last thought as she drifted into the welcoming warms of stasis was the Dee would change her mind. Instead of the loving face she hoped for, harsh lights greeted her that were neither friendly nor familiar. She tried to point this out to the hands that were sliding her onto a gurney and arranging a cover over her nakedness, but all that came out of her mouth was a soft wheeze.

"Don't try to talk, ma'am. Your mucus membranes will need to by hydrated."

Linda rolled her eyes and wondered why this fool couldn't just say that she needed a drink of water. Sure enough, the first thing the nurse did after Linda settled in her room was to stick a straw under her nose. Linda grasped it with her lips and dutifully drank. Then she drank urgently. Long before her thirst was sated, the cup was empty. Linda indicated her desire for more.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we don't want to over do it our first time out."

More than anything, Linda wanted to tell the nurse that "we" weren't the one who just came out of stasis and that she strongly suspected the nurse wasn't "sorry" at all, but rather enjoyed having control over someone who wouldn't suffer her presence under any other circumstances. Linda tried to tell her to fuck off but could only produce a rasp, which was just as ineffectual as her previous wheeze. If looks could kill, they could have called the coroner.

The nurse smiled. "You must be getting tired. I'll be back to check on you later. Be good now and get some sleep."

Linda stuck her parched tongue out at the closing door and resolved to stay awake. After the full two minutes it took to examine every square inch of her surroundings had passed, she began to wonder.

She wondered just how much longer she would have to endure the institutional monotony of this room. She wondered if Nurse Ratchet had a life or if controlling and torturing helpless patients served as her substitute. She wondered what Dee was doing right now, what she looked like after 30 years, why she wasn't here to greet her on her triumphant return. She wondered if Dee would even speak to her. She wondered why she was thinking about Dee so much. She wondered why wondering was so exhausting. Then she stopped wondering and fell asleep.

When she opened her eyes two strangers were with her. One was wearing a simple white shirt and pants and was occupied with arranging flowers from a box into a vase. She was young, probably in her early twenties.

The other woman was about the same age, but dressed in an expensive, tailored suit. She sat, balancing a small device on her knee, and apparently speaking to no one in a low, authoritative tone. Occasionally she would pause and resume the conversation.

"Is that a cell phone?" Linda was delighted to find her voice was working though somewhat muzzy with sleep.

"Hello, Ms. Cahalo." The sitting woman held up her index finger. "I'll be with you in just a moment."

The woman in white looked up from her roses. There was something about the contrast of red roses and white clothes that made her skin glow. The term "Angel of Mercy" floated through Linda's mind.

"Good Morning, Ms. Cahalo," said the other woman as she stood and extended her hand. "My name is Sally Mead and I work for Manfred Associates and no, this is not a cell phone. I have a telemetric implant," she said, fingering the black disc on her earlobe.

"Where is Maria?'

"Who?" Sally wrinkled her brow.

"Maria Manfred," Linda clarified.

"Oh, our founding mother. She retired many, many years ago."

Linda felt just the slightest hint of betrayal - as if Maria had deserted her. "How's she doing?'

"I'm sorry but I'm not allowed to divulge personal information about Manfred Associate employees, present or past."

Linda stifled a caustic rejoinder.

A familiar face picked that moment to burst into the room. "Time for your enema," it cheerfully chirped.

"Get that bitch out of my sight!" Linda bellowed, looking at Sally while she pointed at the nurse.

Sally addressed the other two women. "I have several matters I need to discuss with my client. I would like to do so now, unless Ms. Cahalo is in some immediate medical danger."

It was obvious that Linda was nowhere near collapse, a fact she punctuated by throwing her legs over the edge of the bed and strolling into the restroom with her intravenous trolley in tow. The flower arranger and nurse left together - one meekly, the other in a huff - and Linda soon returned looking pleased with herself.

"When you leave you can tell Nancy Nurse I just took a dump and she can use that enema on herself, assuming her ass hole will open far enough."

Sally laughed but Linda recognized the practiced response. "I'll see what I can do about her. Meanwhile, I really am somewhat pressed for time, so I'd like to get on with the business at hand, if that's alright with you."

Linda considered objecting just to test the limits of Ms. Mead's patience, but decided the payoff probably wouldn't be worth it. It wasn't like she had a lot of friends around that she could afford to aggravate the ones she had - even if they were paid friends. Linda gestured for her to begin.

"Your finances weathered the Bush Depression in fairly good shape."

"The Bush Depression? President George Bush?"

"Yes."

"But he left office before I went into stasis the first time. What happened?"

"Oh, that was the father. The depression was named after the son. Anyway, I see that Mrs. Manfred handled your account personally and was very skilled with your investments."

Linda could see that Sally was warming to her subject and suspected a detailed litany of Maria's financial technique was about to issue forth.

"If your could just give me the highlights. Bring me up to speed." Linda modulated her tone in an appeal to Ms. Mead's sense of business.

"Of course, the good news is that your assets are very strong."

"And the bad news."

"The mansion in Marin County was destroyed during the 2010 earthquake."

"Was anyone injured?" Linda couldn't bring herself to ask directly about the one person who was foremost on her mind.

"There were only a caretaker and a few servants. I think they escaped without injury."

"Where was Dee?" she blurted.

Sally responded with a puzzled look.

"Dee Banford was living in the house when I went into stasis. Where was she when the earthquake happened? What happened to her?"

Sally flipped open the device she had been balancing on her knee earlier. She turned to Linda with a pained expression. Linda wasn't sure if it was real or manufactured, but underneath she detected a genuine distaste for this particular aspect of her job.

"Your former domestic partner…"

"Former?"

"She dissolved the union about a year after you went into stasis. Prior to that, she vacated the home you inherited and shared. It was a simple settlement." Sally paused and slowly rotated the cover of the device closed. "I'm sorry to tell you that she passed away two years ago."

Grief stabbed at Linda's heart. Until that moment she hoped that Dee actually did change her mind and Ms. Mead was just taking her own plodding time to get around to it. Linda was even willing to accept that the woman she once knew would be 30 years older than the last time she saw her. Finding out that she was dead filled Linda with desolation.

Sally began to shrink back from the emotional display that was about to ensue, so it caught her by surprise when Linda asked, "What about the lakeside cabin in Somona?"

"Cabin. Sonoma." Sally quickly flipped her computer open in obvious relief. "It's still there according to the records, but I don't think you'd want to go there. Things changed while you were gone."

Linda arched her eyebrows, encouraging Sally to continue.

"I'd love to sit for hours and tell you about everything you've missed, but I do have other clients. Besides, isn't discovery half the fun of it." She handed Linda a device very much like her own. "You can use this to access the networks. My assistant has marked some of the event sites you might find more interesting. If you have any questions you can contact me and - if need be - he can forward your inquiries to me. It's been a pleasure meeting you." Sally flipped the device closed and touched the disc on her earlobe. The door slowly closed on her mutterings.

Linda examined the small, flat rectangle in her hand. She thumbed along the edge as she had seen Sally doing until the thing separated, opening like a clamshell. She knew it was morbid, but she wanted to know how Dee died - as if the knowledge of a peaceful death might give her comfort. The tiny display bore a vague resemblance to the one she remembered from the desktop computer she had shared with Dee. It was also similar to the organizer she'd seen Maria use once or twice, but the icons were much smaller. She touched the screen with her fingernail and she had seen Maria do with a stylus, but it only jumped to a different set of icons that were no more help than the first.

"Hi. My name is Angela." It was Linda's angel in white with the red roses, peeking around the edge of the door.

"Angela, how appropriate. Do you know anything about these things?" Linda flashed the display in Angela's direction.

"Some. What is it you want to do?"

"First I'd like to know your supposed to read the damn thing without going blind."

"Well, you could enlarge the display or you could play it through a monitor."

"Let's start with option one," Linda said, handing the tiny computer to Angela. "By the way, my name is Linda."

"Yes, I know," Angela replied.

Linda felt a rush of guilt. She was flirting. Tears suddenly welled up in Linda's eyes. The guilt was an automatic reaction to old prohibitions. Look but don't touch. You're a married woman. It occurred to her that she was no longer married.

"I'm sorry," said Angela. "Was I going too fast. I didn't mean to upset you."

A readable display floating in front of Linda. "No, no," Linda reassured her. "It's alright. I guess I'm just a little emotional today. Can you start over? I promise to pay closer attention and hold my tears until it's all over."

Angela gave her a look of uncertainty.

"I'm joking," said Linda. Angela smiled and waded back into the mysteries of the portable utility device, commonly referred to as a PUD. Soon Linda had mastered the basic principles of the PUD.

"Thanks, you've been a great help. You know, I could use a guide to help me find my way around town again. How'd you like to come back and spring me from this place a little later." Linda's eyes sparkled.

"I have to pick up my daughter."

"I see," Linda replied, the sparkle dimmed.

"I'd never find anyone to watch her on such short notice, but you could come to my house. You could even stay overnight if you have nothing else planned."

A breath of foul wind blew in through the door. Linda's favorite nurse was back. "It seems you're coming along very nicely. If what Miss Mead says is true, you apparently have no more need for this I.V. If we can just have a little privacy…" She gave Angela a pointed look.

"I'll be back for you in four hours," said Angela .

"It's a date," Linda beamed.

The nurse glanced from Linda to Angela and back, making no attempt to hide her disapproval. Angela quietly exited, wiggling her fingers in farewell. Linda waved back, her fingers flailing perilously close to Nurse Nancy's face.

By the time Angela returned, Linda was more than ready to leave. She even considered ditching Angela and striking out on her own, but with the mansion gone, she wasn't sure where to go. Sally's assistant could no doubt arrange something. While she was looking forward to being with Angela, the idea of spending an evening around a child was not appealing.

"This is my daughter, Leonora. Leo, this is Linda Cahalo."

"I'm four. You can call me Leo. Should I call you Linda or Ms. Cahalo?"

Linda was taken aback. She hadn't been expecting the child to speak, much less ask questions. The only things that terrified her more than children were precocious children.

"You can call me Linda and what's your friend's name."

Leo looked at the doll clutched in her arm. "This isn't my friend. It's a doll," she giggled. "Mommy, this lady's funny."

"Leo, she just doesn't know that you collect them."

"I do," Leo explained to Linda. "This one isn't so valuable. See? There's no imprint on the bottom of the foot."

Linda was beginning to have serious doubts about what she had gotten herself into.

"I don't think Linda is very interested in collecting dolls."

"You aren't?" Leo asked.

"Sorry, no."

"That's OK." Leo looked from one woman to the other, waiting for one of them to pick up the unraveled ends of the conversation.

"Are you ready?" asked Angela.

Linda threw on her aviator jacket. It was all she had aside from the black T-shirt and jeans and the worn hightops she'd arrived in a over quarter of the century earlier. "I'm ready. Can we stop somewhere and pick up some smokes. I haven't had a cigarette in ages."

"Our house is a smoke free zone," Leo proclaimed.

"I started smoking when I was a teen to irritate my mother," Angela explained. "I quit when I was pregnant, then started again after. As soon as Leo was old enough, she and Mom joined forces to get me to stop."

"No butts about it," the youngster declared.

"OK, no butts. I guess I'm better off without them." Linda thought how Dee would have been overjoyed.

"Do you need to check out or anything?"

"I don't see why." Linda suspected she should inform someone she was leaving, but suspected that would entail another encounter with Nurse Nancy.

The trio moved to an elevator. It opened on a parking garage. Linda didn't remember a parking garage. In fact, she was sure that the only parking available had been at the main entrance. She thought about the unfamiliar ceiling the greeted her when she came out of stasis.

"This isn't where I was. Where are we?"

"We're in Richmond."

Linda curled her lip. She always hated the East Bay.

"Well, at least they kept me in the bay area." Linda hadn't expected to be moved at all. It felt giddy. She tried to quell her queasy stomach.

"Mommy, I think Linda's going to puke."

"Are you alright?" Angela asked, catching Linda in her arms as the woman teetered.

"I'll be fine in a minute." Linda made no effort to free herself from her rescuer's embrace until Angela relaxed her hold to test Linda's stability.

"I think the best thing is to get you to my house and get some good homemade food in you."

"In that case, I hope you're cooking."

Angela wound her compact vehicle through the parking garage labyrinth until they came to a wall. Linda heard a sound behind them and turned to find a steel door sliding across the lane behind them. In moments, they were trapped on all four sides. Linda began to panic, but Angela and Leo didn't seems at all concerned. The wall in front of them lifted to reveal a well-lit street.

"I've never seen a garage with an exit like that," Linda marveled.

"If you think that was something, you should see the entrance. A lot of things changed after 9-11, some more slowly than others."

"What's 9-11?"

The depth of the sadness in Angela's eyes told her that something terrible had happened during the years that she slept.

"I'll tell you about it later," said Angela, nodding in the direction of Leo. Except for the occasional comment about a recognized landmark, Linda was quiet during the rest of the drive. She was almost grateful for Leo's seemingly ceaseless chatter, which filled the void left by the two women.

They pulled off the street, under a building, and into a stall just large enough to accommodate one car. Once again, a door slid closed behind them. Angela inserted and removed a card in a slot in the wall. A slight vibration trembled through the car.

"Scanners," Angela explained.

"Processing complete," announced a disembodied voice. "No hazardous materials detected. Please proceed." A door slid open and they passed into the garage.

Leo's strength flagged during dinner and by the time it was over, she was ready to go to sleep. Even youth's energy is not boundless.

Alone at last, Angela poured out the events of September 11, 2001 to Linda. She had not yet been born when 19 terrorists changed the consciousness of a nation, but her life and all those who were born after that day were influenced by it. The effect had been passed on in the pained looks and the strained voices of those who had witnessed the endless days of unceasing media coverage accompanied by the dwindling hope that it couldn't really bad as it seems - that people would be discovered still alive amid the rubble. She explained how the hopelessness finally turned to a weak attempt to return to a sense of normalcy that was never achieved. By the end of the story, both women's faces glistened with moisture. This pain on top of the news of Dee's death was almost more than Linda could stand. Angela reached out and took Linda's hand. It wasn't enough. They slid into each other's embrace and held on until that too was insufficient. Hungry mouths and hands were soon exploring in tentative caresses and slowly turned to passionate groping.

Despite the strangeness of being with another woman after all of those years with Dee, there was also something familiar. All cats are black in the dark, she told herself, but there was more - an intensity to Angela's lovemaking that went beyond their brief acquaintance. When the sobs and moan of pleasure receded, Linda fell asleep with Angela nestled against her shoulder.

Linda woke first and slipped quietly out of bed. She borrowed a robe she that was hanging in the bathroom and padded down the hall in her bare feet. She found Leo in the living room, parked in front of the television with a bowl of cereal in her lap and a well-wore crocheted doll tucked under one arm. It appeared that not all of Leo's dolls were for show. Linda was relieved to find that this precocious little person was still a child.

"Whatcha watching?" Linda asked.

"Cartoons. Did they have cartoon when you were a kid?"

"Hey, it isn't that long since I was a kid and yes, I watched cartoons every Saturday morning when I was growing up."

"Today is Saturday. You want some Boulders?" Leo asked, holding the bowl up to her.

"No thanks. All I want is a cup of coffee and a cigarette."

"No butts about it."

Linda smirked. "Did you think that one up yourself?"

"No. Gramma used to say it to Mommy all the time."

"And where's you Gramma."

"She went to heaven," Leo whispered. "Mommy doesn't like to think about it because she says it wasn't that long ago, but it seems like a long time to me."

As they talked, Linda perused the shelves. The packaging was unfamiliar, but with such titles as "Wizard of Oz" and "Star Wars," she assumed it were a type of audio/video media. There were an abundance of the neatly arranged containers and well as a generous supply of bound material. She wondered for a moment how Angela could afford all of this, or for the matter, live in a place like this on the salary of a nurse's aid.

"How long ago did your Gramma die?" Linda asked.

"I don't know for sure."

Linda scanned the room looking for pictures. The walls were hung with various works of art. None of them photographs. She spied a frame propped on a table beside a well-worn chair. She lifted it for a closer look.

"Is this your Gramma?" With shaky hands, Linda showed the picture to Leo.

Leo nodded, "Yep, that's me and Mommy and Gramma."

Linda and Leo both turned their head in the direction of the sound of a strangled gasp. Angela stood in the doorway wearing a long T-shirt and an anguished expression

"You're Dee Banford's daughter?" Linda asked.

"Yes, I'm Angela Banford."

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