Authors: Brenda Chapman
everything okay, Dalal?” Miss Cummings’s voice penetrated through her worries and Dalal saw her English teacher’s concerned eyes staring at her from the front of the class. Dalal took a quick look around and saw her classmates watching her too. Joe met her eyes from two rows over and smiled encouragingly. She looked back at Miss Cummings.
“I didn’t hear the question. Could you please repeat it?”
Miss Cummings watched her a moment more before picking Sally Jones to tell how Iago duped Othello into killing Desdemona.
Dalal looked down at her desk, even more miserable than before. She tried to concentrate the rest of the afternoon, but Miss Cummings didn’t ask her any more questions. Finally, the three-forty bell rang and Dalal put away her books and pencils. She stood to file out with the rest of the class. Miss Cummings stopped her at the door.
“Dalal, could you please stay behind for a few minutes?”
“Yes, Miss Cummings.”
She stood waiting for Miss Cummings near her desk until the last of the students had gone. Joe had lingered just outside the door and tried to signal her with his eyes, but she’d pretended not to see him. Finally Miss Cummings walked across the room and put her hand on Dalal’s shoulder. She smelled of peppermint, pencil shavings, and the faintest trace of cigarette smoke. “Let’s sit for a moment, Dalal.”
They took the comfy reading chairs near the window. Dalal felt Miss Cummings studying her but she dared not lift her head. She knew that her teacher’s eyes were the colour of warm toffee with darker flecks of green. Dalal wished her eyes could be the same colour. She often wondered what it would be like to have Miss Cummings as her mother. A few times she even dared to dream that it was true.
“You’ve been having trouble concentrating in class this week, Dalal. It is so unlike you that I wonder if something is on your mind. Perhaps it’s something that I could help you with. I’m a good listener and I find that it always helps to share a problem.”
It was tempting to give Miss Cummings what she wanted: the truth.
My family is going to marry my twelve-year-old sister to a man old enough to be her grandfather, but I’m not supposed to know. I cannot defy my parents or they will beat me and lock me in my room. Then they’ll take Meeza away and I will never see her again. My family does not forgive if we are disrespectful or do not do their bidding. Meeza will probably disappear one day anyhow, no matter what I do or don’t do. I thought it was me they would marry off first, not Meeza. We are as trapped as songbirds in a cage. Unless …
“Look at me, Dalal, and tell me what you are thinking about.” Miss Cummings’s voice was more forceful this time, as if she was willing Dalal to give up her secrets.
Dalal met her probing eyes and tried not to show anything of herself. “Everything is fine, Miss Cummings. I’ve had a bit of the flu this week. It’s been keeping me from sleeping and I’m tired all day. I’ll rest more on the weekend and will be better on Monday.”
Miss Cummings’s eyes felt like lasers into her soul. Dalal knew that her teacher didn’t believe her, but smiled as if she’d just told the truth.
“Can I go now? My mother needs me at home today.”
Miss Cummings tried one last time. “Is everything going well at home?”
“Yes, Miss Cummings.”
Those eyes searching her own and then the sigh and raised hand. “You can go then, Dalal. I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
“Thank you, Miss.” She left the classroom and started down the hall. Joe was waiting for her just around the corner near the water fountain.
“So what did she want?” he asked. “Was she mad you were daydreaming in class?”
Dalal shook her head. “She just wanted to know if everything was okay at home.”
“Maybe you should tell her how strict your parents are. She could talk to them and get them to loosen up.”
Dalal looked at Joe and back down at the ground. He really didn’t get it. Nobody did.
Joe held the door open for her and they stepped outside into the bright sunshine. From the top of the steps, she checked the street and parking lot. No sign of Ghazi. Her shoulders relaxed.
“So have you asked about coming for supper tomorrow? We can play a little one-on-one basketball afterwards or just hang out if you want.”
“I don’t think so. I’d have to lie to get out of the house.”
“Why don’t you? My mom will back you up.”
Dalal took a step down. “She’d go along with whatever story I come up with?”
“Yeah. I told her your family has you in this stranglehold. My mom’s cool. She thinks you should be able to socialize like other kids.”
“What if my family comes to check up on me? They will, you know.”
“You can say that you are doing a project with Meghan. She’ll cover too. We’ve already discussed it.”
His sister was in grade ten, a year ahead of her, but her parents wouldn’t know that. It might just work. She almost gave in until reason and the fear returned. “It’s too risky.” She jumped down the last of the steps. She spotted Ghazi ahead of her getting out of his car. “My brother,” she shouted without looking back. “Don’t come near me.”
She started running but Joe’s voice followed her flight. “Meghan is going to call you tonight, so be ready to play along.”
If Ghazi hadn’t looked at her at just that moment, Dalal would have turned and told Joe not to let his sister do anything so foolish. Instead, she kept running toward her brother and didn’t look back. She reached him out of breath.
“Your hijab isn’t covering all your hair,” Ghazi said.
“It slipped when I was running.” Dalal tugged it back into place.
“You’re late. I’ll drive you home so you can get your homework done before you make supper.” Ghazi looked back toward the school. He squinted into the sun. “Do you know that boy on the steps?”
She turned. “Not really. He’s in one of my classes, that’s all.”
Ghazi shielded his eyes with one hand and stared at Joe a moment longer. Dalal looked at the ground and stopped breathing. At last Ghazi dropped his arm and pointed toward his black car across the street. “Let’s go then. I have another errand to run after I drop you off.”
a meal of scrambled eggs and toast, Kala called for Taiku and they set out for a walk up the road. The night was calm and the air cooler than it had been the past few evenings. She wasn’t a fan of heat and welcomed the lower temperature. She felt the stress of the day slipping away as she walked past untamed stretches of trees and bush. Taiku stayed close for the first few minutes, but there was a rustling in the long grass and he raced ahead of her, tail and ears on alert until he was out of sight. She ran after him, calling his name, worried that he’d corner a skunk or porcupine. She had no energy to deal with either tonight.
She rounded the bend in the road and stopped mid-yell. Taiku was standing in the road growling at Gundersund and his Border Collie. She called for Taiku to stop and by the time she reached the dogs, Taiku was sniffing the Collie, whose tail was wagging back and forth. Kala wasn’t sorry that Taiku’s first instinct was to be protective, but she was happy that he’d never attacked another dog or human. She had no doubt he would if she was truly threatened. Her eyes lifted to Gundersund standing a short distance behind the dogs. A grin spread across his face as he caught sight of her. He stepped forward and patted both dogs on their heads before walking over to meet her. “Looks like Minny and Taiku are hitting it off. Nice evening.”
“Does your dog actually like being called Minny?” She was winded and felt at a disadvantage coming upon him so unexpectedly.
Gundersund laughed. “She’s never complained. Fiona named her after a favourite aunt. Where did the name Taiku come from?”
“Not from a favourite aunt.”
“You’ve neatly sidestepped my question.” He smiled.
She smiled back at him. “I’ve made a religion of avoiding answering questions.”
Kala inhaled the smell of sweet grass and rich earth and looked into the deepening shadows cast by the pine trees. The houses on Old Front Road were widely spaced with a tangle of woods between that gave the sense of being in the wilderness. The sun was sinking over the trees, and already stars were glittering through the darkening sky visible above the ribbon of road.
“The heat wave is over. It feels like fall’s in the air.” She looked back at him. “I think we should pay a visit to Professor Tadesco’s office in the morning. Leah was in his class and he is often around the help line. He might be the other man in her life.”
“Good idea. I can pick you up. It’s on the way to the station.”
“No, I’ll meet you. I like to have my own vehicle.”
“Suit yourself. Not everyone gets to ride in my Camero though.”
“I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities.”
They started walking side by side down the side of the road toward the dogs. The silence stretched between them. She wanted to ask him about his wife, Fiona, but she’d made a pact with herself not to get involved. He hadn’t struck her as married, though. It was odd that he’d never mentioned his wife.
“How old is your dog?” she asked instead.
“Minny’s four. Taiku?”
The dogs had stood still for a moment, watching them getting closer before chasing each other down the road in the direction of Gundersund’s house.
“We’d better corral them,” Gundersund said. “It’s a quiet night but traffic does travel this road.” He whistled and Minny broke away from Taiku. Kala called Taiku to come. The dogs loped up next to them and Kala reached down to rub the fur behind Taiku’s ears.
“Would you like to come in for a tea?” Gundersund asked. He’d crouched down next to Minny and looked up at her as he waited for her to respond.
Kala’s instinct was to refuse. Nothing good could come of socializing with a partner. On the other hand, agreeing to a cup of tea might be a conciliatory gesture since it looked like they were going to be working together for the next while. “If you’re sure it’s okay.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
Except your wife might not appreciate me spending time alone with you after work hours since I heard the rumour that she’s trying to get back with you.
She’d seen the way Fiona Gundersund had checked her out. Her look had been a challenging one when she’d introduced herself as Gundersund’s wife.
Kala had to admit that she wouldn’t have placed the blond beauty Fiona with Gundersund. It would have made more sense for him to be the insecure one.
They walked another ten minutes up the road. His house was set back closer to the lake. Grey shingles. Cape Cod two-storey. They walked around the back to enter. The grass needed a mow and the garden was a mass of weeds with a few hardy perennials breaking through. A solitary lawn chair faced the water. The dogs raced around the yard and disappeared into the underbrush.
Gundersund watched her trying to decide whether to go after them. “They’ll be fine,” he said. “Minny never goes off the property. Coming?”
He started back toward the house, not waiting for her to follow. She took a last look in the direction of the lake and figured the dogs would be okay. There was another hour before complete darkness would descend.
Gundersund stood holding the door for her.
“I don’t know why anybody would want to live in the city,” she said as she reached him, “with all this beauty on our doorstep.”
“Yeah, I’m really glad I moved out here.”
Kala turned toward the side of the house. A few steps and she heard an engine getting closer. She stopped. “I think you have company,” she said. “Isn’t that a car pulling into your driveway?”
“I’m not expecting anyone.” Gundersund shut the door and came back toward her.
Tires crunched on the gravel. They looked at each other and Gundersund shrugged. A car door slammed.
“Paul, I brought that wine. I thought we could …” Fiona strode around the corner and stopped. She looked at Kala and the smile slipped from her face, but only for a moment. “I see we have company.”
Kala felt Gundersund move away from her. She looked at him but he was facing another direction, watching his wife walk toward them. Kala expected him to greet Fiona but he didn’t say anything, even after Fiona reached them and stood in front of Gundersund waiting. Her eyes moved from Kala to Gundersund, where they remained. The silence stretched uncomfortably. Kala jumped into the empty space.
“I’m just on my way. I stopped by to confirm where we’ll be meeting up in the morning.”
Fiona’s eyebrows arched in a puzzled line and she half-turned, one hand raised toward the corner of the house. “I didn’t see your car in the driveway.”
“I’m staying at a friend’s just down the road. My dog and I were out for a walk and I spotted Gund … your husband’s car.” Kala felt like she’d been caught doing something wrong. It was time to get out of here and let whatever was going on between the Gundersunds play out in private. She turned toward Gundersund. “I’ll see you around eight tomorrow then.”
He nodded. “I’ll meet you outside his building at eight.”
Kala called for Taiku and gave thanks when he bounded toward her. “Nice to see you,” she said to Fiona, bending to grab Taiku’s collar.
“Come by again,” Fiona smiled, “when you have more time to visit.”
Kala reached the corner of the house and looked back. Fiona had looped her arm through Gundersund’s and was looking up into his face. He lifted his eyes to look over Fiona’s head toward Kala. She had no idea what he was thinking, but doubted it was regret that she was leaving him to do whatever married couples did on a warm evening. She’d actually been looking forward to that cup of tea he’d promised, so all the regret was on her side.
She kept walking. When she made it home, she’d make herself a pot of Darjeeling and sit on the back deck with Taiku to watch the sun set over the lake. She’d hold firm to her vow not to get involved with her co-workers in the future.
“Show’s over, Fiona. You can let go of my arm.” Gundersund shook her off and started back toward the house. He could hear her following close behind.
“She’s a girl of few words,” Fiona said. “Pretty, though, if you like that type.”
Gundersund stopped and looked at her. “She’s my partner, Fiona. Nothing more. Why are you here anyhow?”
“I wanted to put it right between us. I know I acted crazy last year but I’ve realized what’s important.” Her blue eyes were magnets drawing him in. He knew that she was aware of her effect on men, on him. Gundersund didn’t want to go back there with her.
“I’m not up for doing this tonight. It’s been a long day.”
“I know something to take the stress away and help you relax.”
He ignored the suggestion in her voice. “All I want is some sleep. Why don’t I see you tomorrow?”
“I was hoping to have a tour of your new house.”
He admitted to himself that it was tempting. Invite his wife inside and take up where they’d left off. Pretend the past year had never happened. There was a time not so long ago that he would have done anything to have her back. It hadn’t even mattered that she’d left him for another man. He hadn’t known how he was going to spend the rest of his life without her in it. She seemed to read his mind.
Her fingers traced along his forearm. The heat flickered like a pilot light in his belly. He looked down at her. Her blue eyes were wide-open, shining beacons.
She let her hand rest on his forearm. “Would it help if I told you I know I screwed up? I know you have every right to be angry with me, but I’ve changed. Being away from you made me realize how good we were together, what I’d thrown away by being so stupid. I was scared at the thought of a family, but now I’m ready to have a baby, Paul. I’d like to settle down and make a family. I’m done with all the rest.”
He wanted to believe her. He’d been the one who’d wanted a child but she’d refused so many times, he’d given up on the idea. Now she was offering the only thing that could get him back into the marriage. Was this what he wanted? Could he trust her again?
“Let me sleep on it,” he said finally. “I need some time, Fiona.”
She reached up her hand and touched his cheek with the tips of her fingers. “I owe you that, I guess. When you’re finished thinking it through, I’ll be waiting with the wine chilled. This time I won’t be going anywhere. It’s time I came home.”
Three calls later, Gail stood up from her desk and stretched her arms toward the ceiling. The last caller was a first-year biology major whose girlfriend left him on the weekend. He’d drunk himself into a depression and was thinking about dropping out of school. She’d convinced him to seek a counsellor, or at least he’d said he would call the number she gave him. She’d done all she could.
Pleasure spread through her veins like warm treacle. Damn, she was good at this job. There was something about the anonymity of the calls that kept her from feeling judged and let her say things she never would say face to face. The pain at the other end of the line was something she’d lived. She said the comforting things to them that she would have liked someone to have said to her on those days she’d thought about killing herself in high school.
She looked across at the clock on the wall and saw it was going on eight-thirty. Where had the evening gone? Her eyes swung back to the empty desk across from her. And where the hell was Wolf? He’d become unreliable after he broke up with Leah, mooning around as if they were still a couple. Now he was all but lost in action.
Something cracked like a gunshot against the front door. Gail jumped at the noise, banging her knee against the desk. Her eyes swung toward the door and her mind started scrambling as she remembered that she hadn’t checked the lock.
She took a step toward the door, then moved back to her desk and searched around in the drawer until her hand wrapped around a pair of scissors. She pulled them out and started back toward the door, walking as silently as she could across the floor. The detached, rational part of her thought about how ridiculous she was being, but the scared part of her was running the show.
She reached the door and held up her hand to test the handle. Slowly, slowly, she levered it down until it wouldn’t move any farther. Relief made her weak. She let out her breath and slumped backwards against the wall. Nate had remembered after all. She was locked safely inside and whatever had hit the door was likely thrown by a passing student. She laughed at her fear of a moment before and pushed herself forward from the wall.
A sharp knock on the door behind her stopped Gail mid-stride. Her heart jumped like a frightened rabbit and she shrieked. She swung her fist up to her mouth and stifled a second scream. Once she got her emotions under control, she tiptoed back to the door and leaned her ear against the wood. The solid feel against her skin gave her strength.
“Is that you, Wolf?” she asked. No answer. “Wolf?” she yelled.
A man’s voice penetrated the door. “Yes,” he said and she let her breath out in one long sigh. Wolf had shown up after all. Damn the man for scaring her … and for being so late.
She grabbed the key from its hook on the wall and inserted it to unlock the deadbolt. Mark had set this system up against the wishes of the group. It took a key to lock the door from the outside and a key to open from the inside. Mark swore it was fail-safe, even after they raised concerns about fire. “The key will always be right here next to the door,” he’d said. “You can put it into the lock at the ready if it makes you feel more secure.”
Her hand hesitated for a moment as it crossed her mind that she hadn’t exactly recognized Wolf’s voice through the door. It might even have been a woman talking in a low voice if she was being honest. She could ask Wolf to identify himself again, but he’d think she was crazy. After all, who else could it possibly be? She pulled down on the handle.
“You’re late, Wolf man,” she said swinging the door open. She expected to see his hairy face and was momentarily startled that nobody was standing on the top step. “Where are you?” she called, getting royally pissed off at the infantile hide and seek game, as she took a step outside. She craned her neck to look down the street. It was eerily empty, dark shadows between the buildings. She hesitated. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She began to tremble in the cool evening air.