She’d stood in the middle of the bank’s lobby and in the frozen produce aisle, unable to move, feeling nauseous and dizzy, and wishing with all her heart she could just press a button and be home, in her bed, with the covers pulled up over her while she waited for her wildly pumping heart to slow down.
It had felt like a heart attack and she’d gone to the emergency room twice. It wasn’t a heart attack. It was her craziness, it was her broken heart. No hospital in the world could fix that.
Fix it. How? Nothing short of the miraculous restoration of her family to life could work. She was in a deep hole and it kept getting deeper, blacker. The second time she went to the hospital in an ambulance, she found herself hoping she was about to die. Just put an end to it.
That really scared her. As much as the outside world did.
The outside world terrified her, because she could never be sure she wouldn’t simply pass out.
Think of something else.
It always came back to him, her neighbor, Joe. That made her dizzy, too, only in a good way. No matter that she couldn’t even think about sex, about relationships, no matter that she was alone in the world in a way that nobody could understand. She couldn’t be with anyone. She was too crazy. But... though she knew thinking about him was perfectly useless, her thoughts always circled back to him.
He always moved with grace and economy, even when he’d been barely upright. He watched her carefully with those keen brown eyes of his, the color of a hawk’s eyes, that seemed to see everything so clearly. He seemed to take his cues from her. When she was really down, which was most of the time, they barely spoke. He came in, fixed something for her or carried something for her or set up something for her and then left.
On the days that were just awful and not horrible and she had the energy to talk, they’d carry on a conversation. Nothing personal, oh no. The weather, maybe, though Portland weather wasn’t very interesting. Mostly wet. It was either getting ready to rain, raining, or rain was coming. They discussed the hell out of the weather.
Then, her cooking, which he seemed to find miraculous, which was a laugh. He was a former SEAL. Those guys could send a slingshot around the moon, they could kill with a pinkie, they trained hard to be the best soldiers on earth. All she could do was cook, but he seemed to find that ability fascinating. Since he was helping her so much, she offered to teach him how to cook and he eagerly accepted her offer. It turned out, though, that he was severely cooking-challenged. Everything came out burned and oversalted and disgusting.
But that was okay. She liked cooking for him. It gave her something to do. And since he seemed to have some kind of rota system of buddies stopping by, she cooked for them too.
She had the world’s best TV and sound system, carefully put together by Joe. She could probably receive TV signals from outer space. There wasn’t one creaky door or drawer in the house. He took her bathroom’s leaky faucet as a personal challenge and not a drop had fallen since.
Wow. She stopped and blinked. She was almost at the park and she’d had very few bad thoughts along the way. Thinking of Joe had carried her from her house to the park, though the thoughts were useless. If she wasn’t such a head case, she’d have been thinking of her future, of what to do with her life instead of mooning over her gorgeous, built neighbor who had better things to think about than her.
Okay, Isabel, now focus, she told herself sternly.
Describe your surroundings.Be in the moment. That’s what a psychotherapist told her when she consulted her. She couldn’t sleep and wanted something that wasn’t pills. Pills were awful. They didn’t work but they did render her a numb walking automaton during the day. Anything was better than taking sleeping aids, even insomnia.
Focus on your surroundings. Her surroundings. Well, mostly single family homes. It was a residential neighborhood, which was what she liked about it. The small park, whimsically called Strawberry Fields, was coming up. It was a pretty park even with bare trees and gray evergreen bushes. You could see the flower beds that would blossom in spring. It would be glorious in summer.
Would she still be here in summer? Yes. Probably. Because...where else would she go? Back East was full of memories, no way. There was always California, much nicer climate. But Portland suited her. Everyone was friendly without being obnoxious. Lots of concerts. It was so green. Very little crime.
She sighed. Joe Harris was so something she should not be thinking about. Focus on something else. Focus on...that cute little pup trying desperately to dig in the flowerless flower beds. He was making it his life’s mission. His mistress was pulling so hard on the leash he rose on his two hind legs, the two front legs scrabbling in the air.
Isabel laughed. She nearly looked around to see who’d done that, it felt so weird. She’d done it. The laugh had come from her. You’d have to be dead not to laugh at the pup, tongue lolling out its smiling mouth, scampering to leave its mark on the park.
Its mistress—a young girl with golden hair tucked up in a Peruvian Chullo hat—was bending over, finger raised, doing her best to teach her pup etiquette. The pup barked and licked her finger. There was very little etiquette-learning going on.
Isabel laughed again. The pup rolled its eyes toward her and barked. Their eyes met and the pup barked again, grinning and slobbering, straining now in her direction.
Was that dog flirting with her?
Isabel was not far from the small enclosed doggy section of the park, a square filled with sand where dogs could play and do their business. Owners took them off the leash to enter the small enclosure. The girl walked the puppy over to the doggy section. At the entrance, she bent to unsnap the leash.
Instead of heading into the doggy park, the pup took off like a rocket, making a beeline for Isabel, fur rippling with speed.
The girl straightened, gasped, called out to her dog. “Freddy! Freddy! Come back here right now! Bad dog! Bad dog!”
Freddy paid his mistress no attention at all, leaving the ground several yards from Isabel, leaping straight at her.
Isabel froze. The pup was heavy. It was going to be a big dog. It was big now. Hurtling straight at her, it was going to knock her to the ground and she didn’t have the reflexes to get out of its way.
The dog barked, hit her in the chest, trying to lick her face. Isabel slipped on an icy patch, stumbled back and...
Something big and strong caught her, kept her upright.
She looked up, startled.
Freddy was barking and writhing at her feet. He barked enthusiastically, put his paws up and wriggled, trying frantically to lick her.
“Down, Freddy,” Joe said sternly. “Sit.”
Freddy sat, butt wriggling on the ground.
Joe had barely raised his voice.
The girl came running up, face scrunched in apology. She held her hand out to Isabel. “Oh gosh, I am so sorry! Are you okay?”
Was she? Isabel patted herself down. She’d expected to hit the ground hard, but hadn’t. It had happened in a flash. The dog jumping on her, guaranteed to bowl her over and then whoosh, like magic—Joe was suddenly there.
“Yeah,” she said cautiously. “I’m, um, fine.”
She looked up, way up, at Joe’s grim face. Sober, harsh features, standing there like a rock, big hand holding her arm.
“Thanks,” she said and he nodded.