"Johnathan? Johnathan she's back." Catherine slid two fingers between the heavy drapes and pulled them just far enough apart to peek through. "No, she's not...she's not doing anything, but she's there again!" Just as she had been there the three previous times, a tall, dusty skinned blond woman, her hair pulled tight into a braid behind her, and her old-fashion looking clothing seeming out of place hidden between the neighbor's rhododendrons.
Catherine let the drapes fall back closed, forcing herself to turn away and focus on her husband's voice on the other end of the line. "No...no, Johnathan...I can't live like this! I've already lost a daughter, I will not be made a prisoner in my own home a second time!" She sighed and dropped her head, fingers rubbing the deep, new worry lines on her brow. "I know you're busy, Johnathan, and I know you work hard." She took a deep breath. "But either you come home and help me deal with this, or I am calling the police!"
Catherine felt a fleeting urge to smile, but dashed it away as she realized she hadn't truly won anything. "No, I'm sure the Hendersons don't know she's in their bushes or they would have called the police themselves. They're still visiting their children down in California, remember? Johnathan, I mean it. Either come home, or I will call the cops and have them deal with this!" She sighed as she listened, but she could hear the frustration in his voice, as well as the undercurrent of disbelief. Angry now, Catherine set her jaw in a way she hadn't felt the desire to in nearly two years. "Johnathan, if I have to call the police to take this crazy woman away, I will, and I promise you, Johnathan, if that happens, I will be leaving with them. So if you don't want to come home to an empty house, and a scandal with the neighbors, I suggest you get home now!"
She didn't slam the phone down, though she deeply wanted the satisfaction of doing so; these new cordless phones Johnathan was so excited about were too delicate, and if she broke it, no matter how accidentally, she knew she'd never hear the end of it. But, oh, how she wanted to. Though if the one thing her husband took away from that conversation was a phone slamming, and not the fact that his wife's life may be in danger, or that she might leave him, then there wasn't a lot left to be said about the current state of their marriage.
Turning back around, she once again parted the dark green curtains and peered outside. She wasn't sure if she was happy the woman hadn't moved, or scared by it. At least Catherine could keep an eye on her, but she was still afraid of why the woman was there. Letting her eyes drift closed, she wrapped one long, pail arm around her side and held onto herself as no one else would. She'd given up on wishing for her husband to hold her when she was scared, she was scared too often for that, now.
It was just over a year and a half since her daughter had disappeared, and Catherine no longer felt safe in her own home. If her fourteen year old child could go missing on a calm, peaceful school night, while there were dozens of families at home and children playing in their yards to watch her, then how safe was she inside a closed off and darkened home while everyone was away at work or school?
When she opened her eyes again, her arm tightened around her, and she stifled a gasp of panic. The woman was gone again, and Catherine hadn't seen her move. She had no idea where the woman had gone to, or what she wanted of them.
For three days the woman had appeared, always in the rhododendrons, always watching, and never once had she or her husband seen her move in the slightest. Not even to push a branch out of her way, or a hair out of her face. And never once had they seen her leave. She would simply be there one moment, staring, and then gone the next, with no signs or proof that she had ever truly been there. The second time she had sent Johnathan across the street, to look for clues, but all he'd found were two oddly shaped footprints without any sort of tread left impressed into the soil, nothing else.
Catherine forced herself away from the window and instead walked though the house, checking every lock on every door and every window, the same as she did every day. For awhile after she was fired, she did it every hour, sometimes many times an hour. They were always locked. Only once had she found a window that had not been securely latched, and she had spent the next week yelling at her husband for being so careless. It had not been a pleasant time in their lives, but she was still too scared to care. The fear had wholly taken over Catherine's life, and now she couldn't even go to work without seeing a turn of a head, or a flash of hair that she didn't think was her daughter. She'd go running through the streets, chasing down perfect strangers to find her. She had called Detective Shannon many times to tell him of strange people who were watching her too closely, as if they knew she was still looking for her daughter. Her boss at the hospital had finally given up on her; too quickly she had run out of sick days, and then vacation days, and then, finally, she stopped going into work at all. And then, for a time, she wouldn't even leave her house.
She thought of herself as better now, still trapped in fear and desperation, but at least able to leave the house to shop, or run errands, or see her doctors. And each week now, for the last six months, she made one trip to the police station; if they wanted to tell her they had no new information on Sheila's case, if they wanted to tell her that they had no cause to arrest the one man Catherine was sure had a hand in her daughter's abduction, then they would have to say it to her face, and they would have to look her in the eyes if they wanted to tell her that her daughter was never coming home again. And for a time, it had worked. Catherine was speaking to the neighbors again, instead of glaring at them suspiciously; she was going out to buy the milk, instead of making sure Sheila's face was still on the carton. She was even starting to weed the side garden again.
But not anymore. Not since that woman had appeared across the street. Not since she had started watching.
The sound of a key turning in its lock made Catherine nearly jump out of her skin. She had been so focused on testing the locks that she hadn't even heard the sound of her husband's car pulling up the driveway. With one last tug on the bedroom window she headed downstairs, stopping briefly to lay a hand on the door to Sheila's untouched bedroom as she passed, just as she always did.
"Are you happy now, Catherine? Now that I've had to go into my boss's office yet again to tell him I have to take off early to deal with my wife's baseless panic attacks?"
"Johnathan, I don't care. I know you think I'm nuts, I know you think I should be over this by now, but I can't simply move on with my life after my daughter has been stolen from me! Especially when there is someone now watching our house!"
Johnathan slammed his briefcase down beneath the mahogany catch-all table by the door and began to yank off his tie. "There is no woman there now, Cathie, and since there is no woman there, there is no reason for you to call me home like this!"
"Damn it, Johnathan! She was there!"
The sheer disbelief and anger in his voice was enough to stop Catherine in her mental tracks. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know you don't care anymore, John, but I do."
Johnathan's eyes narrowed, his silk tie still clenched in one hand. "What do you mean, I don't care anymore? I came when you called, didn't I?"
"Only when I threatened to leave you!" She caught herself, and took another deep breath before she let the anger loose again. "I know I haven't been able to let go of the thought of having Sheila back again as quickly as you have." She ignored his blatant roll of his eyes and pressed on. "I know I've been slower to move back into our old lives, but that is no reason for you to dismiss my concerns over our safety. There has been a strange woman standing across the street from us for three days, who has been...who has been casing our home!"
"Oh, please, Catherine, you make her sound like she plans to murder and rob us in our sleep." Johnathan pushed past her and headed into the kitchen.
"And how do you know she isn't? You won't call the police to investigate her, or even to report the incident!" Catherine couldn't help but to follow him, trailing behind like a heartsick puppy.
"I won't call them, because there is no reason to involve the cops in our lives yet again. It's bad enough that the entire neighborhood thinks we sold our daughter away to be-"
"Don't you dare finish that sentence! Don't you dare! That's not what they think, and even if they did, it's only because you've worked so hard to act like nothing has happened! If they ever had any cause to believe that you didn't care what happened to your missing daughter, it's only because that's the exact front you've repeatedly shown them."
Johnathan didn't answer, he just went about taking down a clean tumbler, and the bottle of scotch that was kept over the stove, same as he did every night these days. Two ice cubes and three fingers of scotch-whiskey. Always the same thing, always the same pattern and rhythm.
She took another deep breath, ignoring how she always felt as if she was gasping now, and pressed on yet again. "I don't feel safe." She closed her eyes tightly and wrapped her arms about herself. "Even with you here, I...I don't feel safe, anymore, John. Not here, not with you." She didn't wait to hear him slam his glass down, didn't give him the chance to yell and call her an emotional wreck, she just turned and walked back into the living room, falling bonelessly into the corner of the overstuffed, god-awful floral couch.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" She didn't bother looking at him, she knew he wouldn't need a response to continue. "If you don't want me here, then why the hell did you call me home? Damn it, Cathie-"
"We both know why I called you," Catherine's voice was calmer than she expected, and she felt detached as she listened to herself speak. "And thank you for actually coming home. But we both know this pattern of ours, this...this...my panicking, and you berating, and then you drinking and me crying...this isn't fixing anything. We're not even rearranging the deck chairs anymore, we're just willfully watching the ship sink and wondering why no one is trying to stop it." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Johnathan, but I'm just too tired to do this anymore." She finally raised her eyes to look at him. "I want a divorce."
She saw her husband's hands tighten on his glass, and his eyes narrow, but the movement of him opening his mouth to yell was ignored as Catherine saw a flash of movement coming from the hallway leading to the back of the house.
"Johnathan!" she hissed. "Johnathan, I think-"
"Please don't be scared. I don't...I'm really not here to hurt you."
The room was still dark with the blinds drawn tightly across the windows, but even with the afternoon sunlight blocked, Catherine would recognize the blond hair and muscular build of the woman who had been watching them from across the street anywhere. She was now standing before them both, Catherine on the couch and her husband standing in front of it, his unfinished glass of whiskey still clutched in one hand as he staring uncomprehendingly at the woman before them.
Now able to see her more closely, the same detached part of Catherine that let her ask for a divorce, let her examine this woman in detail. Allowed her to see that what she had once mistaken for a husky build was in fact the body of a woman who was used to hard work and who's leg and shoulder muscles were very well defined. Her clothing was homespun, but soft, and clearly made of fine materials, its tunic cut and leggings seeming almost natural on her. The woman's hair was actually more golden than blond, and somewhat dry, as if she had spent most of her life out in the sun and the wind. She didn't know why that seemed important to her, but it did. It seemed it needed to be noticed. But most of all, Catherine could now see her eyes. Deep and green and expressive, the flecks of gold sewn though with sadness and trepidation. Eyes so much like the ones she saw staring back at her from her mirror each evening. So much like Catherine's own.
"Who are you?" Catherine looked up at her husband, as if she had forgotten he had a voice that could come out as anything less than a shout. "Who are you and what do you want with us?"
The woman took a deep breath, but kept her hands open and out to her sides, projecting harmlessness with all her might. "I know I must be scaring you, and I'm sorry. But I...I needed to see you both. I...I know you won't believe me, I know you can't believe me, but..." The woman stopped and took a deep breath, her eyes closing for the barest of moments. "My name is Sheila McCarthy, and I am your daughter."
Johnathan dropped down onto the couch, his face pale. "This is not amusing." Catherine knew he was trying to sound stern, but his voice was raspy and full of fear. "This is a cruel joke to play on someone you don't even know."
"Look, I know that you guys think I've only been gone for less than two years, I checked the date when I first got here, but to me...oh, Mom, Dad, to me it's been nine long years!" The woman finally dropped her hands, and instead clenched them about her middle, much as Catherine had been doing all afternoon. "I know it sounds crazy, and I know you must think I'M crazy, but-"
"But nothing, it IS crazy!" Catherine almost smiled; that was the voice she was now used to hearing from her husband. She could almost now feel as if she were back on firmer ground, although she was still mildly alarmed by how unconcerned and unafraid she felt.
"Our daughter is dead!"
That was enough to shock Catherine out of her detachment, and she stared at her husband in horror. In all the weeks of counseling, in all the months of desperate searching and anger-filled arguments, he had never once actually voiced that fear. It was enough to finally make Catherine see him again.
"Don't you dare say that again in my presence!" she hissed.
Johnathan and the woman both seemed shocked to hear her speak up, and stared at her, eyes wide.
"Johnathan Edward McCarthy, don't you ever say such a spiteful thing in front of me again. She may be gone, she may be lost to us, but she is. Not. Dead!"
The woman gasped, her eyes filling with a gloss of tears. "Oh Mom! I'm not! I'm not dead!"
"And you!" The woman stepped back, once again surprised at the fury coming out of Catherine's voice. "How DARE you come into this house and claim to be my daughter! How dare you try to toy with us like this!?"
"I'm not-! I'm not trying-! I don't, I-I didn't..." The girl seemed lost all of a sudden, as if this whole escapade was no longer going according to some internal plan.
"Johnathan...call the police." Catherine's voice was quieter now, but still furious.
"No! Please, just-" The woman took a step forward, just one, with her hands outstretched. "Please, just...just give me five minutes. If you still don't believe me, I'll go. I'll go and I'll never come back, I promise!" The tears spilled over her cheeks now, and a part of Catherine felt bad for making the girl cry, but she shoved it aside.
"Why should we? Why should we give you any more of our attention? You barge into our house, hold us prisoner-"
"I didn't! And you're not! I swear! And I didn't break in!" She reached into a pouch hanging from her wide leather belt and withdrew a key, golden in the dim light and worn, "See? I used my key. I still had it. I've kept it, all this time. I always knew...I always hoped I'd come back some day...even if it was just for a little while."
She shook her head. "And you're not prisoners. If you really want to call the cops, okay, I won't stop you. But please, all I'm asking for is five minutes out of the rest of your lives. Please!"
Catherine looked hard at the woman, memorizing her high cheekbones and her long lashes. Committing every detail, every thread of clothing to memory. "Prove it."
Catherine didn't spare a glance at her dumbfounded husband. "You don't have five minutes, you only have enough time to say what you have to, to try to prove to us that you are who you say you are, and then you leave. And never come back into this house again."
"Okay." She nodded quickly. "Okay, my note, before I left, I wrote you both a note. I said I'd be back by 9pm after I went to the movies with Cookie."
Catherine shook her head. "That's in the criminal report, and anyone could find that out if they tried hard enough."
The woman closed her eyes. "Okay, when...when I was ten, I fell off the aboveground pool Cookie's family had in their back yard. I hit a tree branch on the ground and cut my lip. Look, I still have the scar!" She opened her eyes again and started to take a step foreword to show them, but Johnathan held up a hand.
"Don't! Don't come any closer," he said, his voice still shaky, but at least back in his normal range.
The girl looked about ready to cry again, but pressed on. "When I was five, mom, your sister called and told you she was pregnant. I didn't know what that meant, and when you told me it meant she was going to have a baby just like me, I was convinced for months that she was going to give birth to someone exactly like me. I spent weeks trying to mail my old clothing and toys to her."
Something slid into place inside Catherine, but she ignored it, pushed the feeling aside and didn't examine it. There was nothing this woman could say that would convince her that she was Sheila, she just kept staring blankly at this strange woman in her house.
"On my last report card, I got three A's, two B's and a D, because I kept arguing with my HomeEc teacher about my sewing skills, remember? But for the first time ever, I aced all my P.E. requirements."
"Public record," Catherine said, eyes still boring into the woman, still examining every detail of her.
The woman's voice started to waver. "When Cookie and I were ten we decided we wanted to be acrobats and join the circus, and we spent days jumping around on everything. We finally had to stop when she broke her leg, but we were so scared about getting in trouble for jumping on stuff, we tried to hide it."
Johnathan started to crumble under her pleading gaze, and he let the whiskey glass drop from his hand onto the carpet. The woman saw this and pressed on, now talking directly to him. "Remember how you kept trying to get her to say why she kept crying? And we both refused, so I started to cry to so you'd be confused as to who was actually hurt?" She looked back to Catherine. "But you finally figured it out when you went to give us both a hug, and you saw muddy footprints on the bed, and that Cookie's leg was starting to get swollen? Do you remember, Mom?"
"Don't call me that!" she hissed.
The woman stepped back again. "I...I'm sorry, I just..."
"Don't you call me mother. I have a daughter and you are not her!"
The woman closed her eyes tightly, the tears now falling freely down her cheeks, cutting glossy lines across her tanned skin. She took several shuddering breaths before pulling herself upright again and dropping her hands to her sides, her fists clenching and then finally relaxing limply.
"All right. I don't know what else to do to convince you. I could show you my scars, or my backpack, I still have it, but you clearly don't want to believe me." She opened her eyes again and looked straight into Catherine. "You say your daughter isn't dead, but when you are faced with the possibility of getting her back, you reject anything that might prove her existence." She looked sad, still, but finally more resigned. "Or at least as long as that proof doesn't look exactly like I did nine years ago."
She looked at them both deeply, and then cast her eyes to the side, to all the photographs which lined the room, and finally to the fireplace which viewed though the eyes of a stranger must look like a shrine to a dead daughter. She walked slowly across to the stone mantel and trailed her hands across one picture frame to another, finally stopping on Catherine's favorite picture, one taken the summer before Sheila disappeared. It showed the three of them, all full of life and in love with being a family, enjoying a picnic by the lake. Catherine remembered that day so clearly, remembered the smell of the summer grass, remembered Sheila complaining about how greasy the sun block felt on her skin, remembered the sounds of Johnathan encouraging them both to play Frisbee with him for endless hours in the sun.
The woman, this woman who was now so silent, and who looked and sounded so sad, reached up and took the frame off the mantel and held it close, examining every inch of their smiling, photo-still faces.
"I know you don't believe me, so I-I wont come back." She spoke to the photo now, and Catherine saw her husband's hand reaching slowly across the arm of the couch towards the cordless phone. "It takes a lot of energy for me to come here, and if you don't want me here, I won't do it again." Her voice caught, but she didn't turn to look at them. "But if you go to Dr. Reit, if you ask him about the Molecular Acceleration Transport Device, he can confirm who I am. He maybe can even convince you that I'm not lying. If you just ask him-"
"That wretched man won't be saying anything to anyone. Ever."
The woman spun to face Catherine, eyes wide. Johnathan froze, his hand resting inches above the cordless, but the neither woman paid him any attention. "What...why do you-"
"That man should have been arrested years ago, and as soon as I have any proof of what he's done, there is not a judge in this world who will hesitate to throw him in jail for the rest of his sad and miserable life!" For the first time in months Catherine was empowered by a cold fury, something which under most circumstances might frighten her, but which now had her so coddled, so embraced within its power, she could only let it escape though her.
"That's why you came here, isn't it? That's what this is all really about? He sent you, didn't he? He sent you here to try to convince us to stop investigating him. To lend some sort of nonsensical credibility to his insane story of sending our daughter though the dimensions. Of accidentally transporting our Sheila into a world ruled by damned unicorns!"
The girl was shaking now, her eyes filling with tears again, but now also fear. "You think he did something to me? You think he could hurt anyone? Could hurt me?"
"He is a wretched, perverted, insane little man who preyed on our daughter's trusting nature and thirst for knowledge."
"He's my friend!" she gasped out. "He could never, would never hurt anyone! He's harmless!"
"He is a predator, and we've made sure everyone knows it."
"Oh, God. Oh, God, that's why I couldn't find him! That's why his house was empty!" The girl was shaking hard now, clutching the photo tightly to her chest and staring wide-eyed at Catherine in disbelief and horror.
"He stole our daughter away from us, and your coming here, your lying to us and scaring us will do nothing to prove his innocence!" Catherine was screaming now, and she didn't know how to stop. All the anger, all the betrayed trust she had placed into that man all that time ago was now coming out, and she wasn't sure that she wanted to stop it. A part of her was ecstatic to finally be free, to finally have a focus for her empty, aimless anger, but another, deeper part of her was horrified. Catherine felt something inside of her rebelling against this, not wanting this, but the anger refused to be denied. It leapt out of her, lashing out at this girl, this poor girl who looked so scared, so terrified...
This girl who was so terrified of her. She stared at the girl who couldn't help but stare back at her, now looking scared beyond all words. Catherine finally felt the anger slide away, draining out of her and let her body follow it, sliding back down back onto the couch.
But neither of them looked away. Neither of them could look away. They both just kept staring into each others eyes...
"I-" Both women jumped, as if they had forgotten Johnathan was still in the room. "I think you should leave now. I think I'm going to call the police."
The girl nodded. Her tears had stopped, but she still...something about her still... Catherine didn't know what it was, but looking at this poor, scared, shaking girl...she felt something inside her break and she began to cry.
"I'll go now. I won't come back. But I swear to you, Dr. Reit is my friend. He never hurt me. He-" She took several more deep and shuddering breaths. "He would never hurt your daughter."
She closed her eyes as she heard Johnathan dial, only opening them when the sound of the 911 Operator could be heard throughout the now silent room.
"I-I love you both. I know you don't believe me, but I love you both. And I always will," she said tightly, still clasping the photograph to her chest, but now looking more empty and lost than Catherine ever thought anyone but herself could look.
And then Catherine nearly collapsed; it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her lungs and gravity had gone insane, pulling her down and then pushing her back up again inside her own mind as all the lights in the house began to flicker on and off wildly. She threw a hand out to grasp onto her husband, trying to catch her balance and her breath, but neither of them could do anything but stare as the woman who had claimed to be their daughter, the woman who had claimed to have spent the last decade in another world, began to blur around the edges, and finally fade from the outside in.
Once she had faded completely from sight, the room immediately felt empty; a deep and aching emptiness that could not be explained by the absence of only one person, but instead an emptiness that seemed to reach deep inside Catherine's very soul.
There was a soft popping sound, and suddenly all the sounds that Catherine hadn't been aware she was missing came rushing back into her head, pounding into her ears as if she had been deaf for a century.
"Hello? The police are on their way, can anybody hear me?"
Catherine and Johnathan both looked uncomprehendingly at the phone still held in Johnathan's hand as the tinny-voice of the operator called pleadingly out to them. "The police are on their way. If anyone can hear me, please respond."
Johnathan slowly lifted the phone up to his mouth, but didn't press it close. Instead he held it out several inches from his ear and stared blankly at the empty space now occupying the room by the fireplace. "We're fine. She's gone." Johnathan let the phone drop then, simply letting it slide out of his hands. Catherine could hear a crack as it hit the floor, the carpet not thick enough to save it.
"We'll...we'll have to tell the police something," he said. "When they get here."
Catherine could only look at him, not understanding.
He blinked slowly and finally let his eyes drift from the emptiness to his wife. "We'll have to tell them why we called. That someone broke into our house and tried to tell us she was...that someone tried...that..."
Catherine finally shook her head. "No. No, we won't."
She knew there was nothing he could say to that. There was no argument to it. They would not tell the police about anything that had happened. Catherine would be amazed if they ever spoke of the incident again at all.
Something inside of her still felt broken, but that detached feeling that had been present all day was still there also, and she was still helpless before the pain inside of her. "I still want a divorce," she whispered.