Smooth Talking Stranger - Page 8

"Now you want to sleep," I muttered. I sat beside him, staring at the remarkably fine skin, the delicate lashes, the tiny drowsing features. His eyebrows were so sparse and silky, they were almost invisible. He looked like Tara. I could make out the resemblance in the shape of the nose and mouth—although the hair was inky-dark. Like Jack Travis's, I thought, fingering the soft strands.

Leaving the bed, I went to detach my cell phone from its plug-in charger. I dialed my cousin Liza.

She picked up immediately. "Hello?"

"It's Ella."

"How's the baby?"

"He's fine. Have you made any progress on finding Tara? Because if not—"

"I found her," Liza said triumphantly.

My eyes widened. "What? Where is she? Did you talk to her?"

"Not directly. But there's this guy she goes to sometimes when she's having a tough time . . ."

"Goes to?" I repeated warily. "You mean, like dating?"

"Not dating, exactly. He's married. Anyway, I thought Tara might have gone to him. So I found his number and left a message for him, and he finally called me back. He says she's okay, and she's been with him the past couple of days."

"Who is this guy?"

"I can't tell you. He wants his name kept out of this."

"I'll bet he does. Liza, I want to know exactly what is happening to my sister, and where she is, and—"

"She's at a clinic in New Mexico."

My heartbeat accelerated to a pace that made me light-headed. "What kind of clinic? Rehab? Is she doing drugs?"

"No, no, it's not drugs. I think she had a breakdown or something."

The word "breakdown" scared me, making my voice ragged as I asked, "What's the name of the place?"

"MountainValley Wellness."

"Did this guy you mentioned check her in? Did she check herself in? What kind of shape is she in? "

"I don't know. You'll have to ask her yourself."

My eyes screwed shut as I forced myself to ask, "Liza . . . she . . . didn't try to hurt herself, did she?"

"Oh, nothing like that. From what I can tell, having the baby was too much for her to handle. Maybe she needs a vacation."

That drew a mirthless smile from me as I reflected that Tara needed a lot more than a vacation.

"Anyway," my cousin said, "here's the number of the place. And I think you can reach her by cell now."

I took down the information, ended the call, and headed straight for my laptop.

A Google search of the clinic revealed that it was a short-term residential treatment center located in a small town near Santa Fe. The pictures on the Web site made it look more like a spa or a vacation resort than a mental health clinic. In fact, a few holistic therapies and nutritional classes were mentioned. But the place also appeared to have a certified and licensed professional staff and intensive psychiatric services. The "treatments" page described an emphasis on mind and body wellness, with the goal of using minimal or no medication.

Mountain Valley Wellness looked kind of light-weight for a person who might have had a breakdown. Did they have the resources to help her? Did they dispense psychological advice along with facials and pedicures?

Although I badly wanted to call the admissions office, I knew there was no way they would violate the confidentiality of one of their patients.

Sitting at the desk in the corner of the room, I clasped my head in my hands. I wondered how messed up my sister was. Fear, pity, anguish, anger, all tangled inside me as I reflected that it would be nearly impossible for most people to function well, having been brought up the way we had.

I thought of my mother's histrionic fits, the bizarre twists of logic, the wild impulses that had confused and frightened us. All those men coming and going, all part of Mom's desperate search to make herself happy. But no one and nothing ever had. Our lives had not been normal, and our efforts to pretend otherwise had imposed a bitter isolation on Tara and me. We had grown up knowing we were different from everyone else.

Neither of us seemed able to be close to anyone. Not even each other. Closeness meant the one you loved the most would cause you the most damage. How did you unlearn that? It was woven deep between every fiber and vessel. You couldn't cut it out.

Slowly I picked up the phone and dialed Tara's cell number. This time, unlike all my previous efforts, she picked up. "Hello?"

"Tara, it's me."


"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." My sister's voice was high and wavering. The voice of a young child. The sound brought back a thousand memories. I remembered the child she had been. I remembered reading to her those days and nights when we had been left alone for far too long, when there wasn't enough to eat and we had no idea where our mom was. I had read books about magical creatures, intrepid children, adventurous rabbits. And Tara had listened and listened, gathered tightly against my side, and I hadn't complained even though we were both hot and sweaty because there was no air-conditioning.

"Hey," I said softly. "What's going on with you?"

"Oh . . . not much."

We both snickered. I was relieved that even if my sister had possibly lost her mind, she still had a sense of humor.

"Tara Sue . . ." I wandered to the bed to glance at Luke. "You're the only person I know who hates surprises as much as I do. Is a little advance warning too much to ask? You could have called me. E-mailed. Sent me a 'what I did over summer vacation' essay. Instead, I get a call from Mom the night before last."

A long silence passed. "Is she mad at me?"

"She's always mad," I said reasonably. "If you want to know how she reacted to Luke . . . well, I think if it had ever occurred to her that either of us would have ever committed the unpardonable sin of making her a grandmother, she would have had us both sterilized before puberty. Luckily for Luke, Mom's not much of a long-term thinker."

Now Tara sounded tearful. "Is he all right?"

"He's great," I said at once. "Healthy and eating well."

"I guess . . . I guess you're wondering why I dropped him off with Mom."

"Yes. But before you tell me about that, where are you? At that clinic Liza told me about?"

"Yes, I got here last night. It's a nice place, Ella. I have a private room. I can come and go any time I want. They're saying I should probably stay at least three months."

I was struck silent. Why three months? How did they know that was the necessary amount of time to deal with Tara's problems? Had they taken stock and concluded she was only three months' worth of crazy? Surely if she were suicidal or psychotic, they'd want to keep her longer. Or was it possible they didn't want to reveal the truth to Tara, that she had been enrolled in their extended residency program? There were about a dozen questions I wanted to ask at once, all of them so urgent that they bottlenecked and I couldn't get out a sound. I cleared my throat, trying to relieve it of clotted words that tasted like salt.

As if she sensed my helplessness, Tara said, "My friend Mark bought me a plane ticket and made the arrangements."

Mark. The married man.

"Do you want to be there?" I asked gently.

A whisper. "I don't want to be anywhere, Ella."

"Have you talked to anyone yet?"

"Yes, a woman. Dr. Jaslow."

"Do you like her?"

"She seems nice."

"Do you feel like she can help you?"

"I think so. I don't know."

"What did you talk about?"

"I told her how I'd dropped Luke off with Mom. I didn't mean to do it, just leaving the baby there like that."

"Can you tell me why you did it, sweetie? Did something happen?"

"After I left the hospital with Luke, I went home to the apartment with Liza for a couple of days. But everything was weird. The baby didn't seem like mine. I didn't know how to act like a parent."

"Of course not. Our parents didn't act like parents. You had no example to go by."

"It was like I couldn't stand one more second of being in my own skin. Every time I looked at Luke, I didn't know if I was feeling what I was supposed to feel. And then it was like I was floating outside my body and I was fading away. Even after I came back into myself, I was in a fog. I think I'm still in it. I hate it." A long silence, and then Tara asked tentatively, "Am I going crazy, Ella? "

"No," I said immediately. "I had the same problem a few times. The therapist I saw in Austin told me that spacing-out like that is sort of an escape route we work out for ourselves. A way to get past trauma."

"Do you still get it sometimes?"

"That detached out-of-body feeling? . . . Not for a long time. A therapist can help you get to where you stop doing it."

"You know what's making me crazy, Ella?"

Yes. I knew. But I asked, "What?"

"I try to think about what it was like for us, living with Mom and all her conniptions, and all those men she brought in the house . . . and the only parts I can remember clearly are the times I was with you . . . when you made me dinner in the toaster oven, and when you read stories to me. Stuff like that. But the rest of it is a big blank. And when I try to remember things, I start to feel scared and dizzy."

My voice, when I could reply, came out thick and halting, like heavy frosting I was trying to spread on a fragile cake. "Did you tell Dr. Jaslow any of the things I told you about Roger? "

"I told her some of it," she said.

"Good. Maybe she can help you remember more."

I heard a shaky sigh. "It's hard."

"I know, Tara."

There was a long silence. "When I was little, I felt like a dog living with electric fencing. Except that Mom kept moving the fencing around. I was never sure where to go to keep from being zapped. She was crazy, Ella."

"Was " I asked dryly.

"But no one ever wanted to hear about it. People didn't want to believe a mother could be like that."

"I believe it. I was there."

"But you haven't been around for me to talk to. You went to Austin. You left me."

Until that moment I had never felt guilt so intensely that all my nerves screamed simultaneously with the hurt of it. I had been so desperate to escape that smothering life, with all its soul-destroying patterns, that I had left my sister behind to fend for herself. "I'm sorry," I managed to say. "I—"

There was a knock at the door.

It was nine-fifteen. I was supposed to have been in the lobby with Luke, waiting for Jack Travis.

"Shit," I muttered. "Wait a second, Tara—it's housekeeping. Don't hangup."


I went to the door, opened it, and gestured for Jack Travis to come in with a sharp motion of my hand. I was in a flurry, feeling as if I were about to fly apart.

Jack entered the room. Something about his presence quieted the hard-thumping clamor in my ears. His eyes were black and fathomless. He gave me an alert glance, taking full measure of the situation. With a short nod that conveyed Everything's cool, he went to the bed and looked down at the sleeping baby.

He was dressed in slightly baggy jeans and a green polo shirt with slits on the sides, the kind of outfit a man could only wear if he had a perfect physique and didn't give a damn about appearing taller, more muscular, leaner, because he already was all those things.

My senses stung with primal warning as I saw the powerfully built male standing over the baby, who was too helpless even to roll over on his own. For a split second I was amazed by my own protective instincts over a child who wasn't even mine. I was a tigress, ready to pounce. But I relaxed as I saw Jack rearrange the baby blanket over Luke's tiny chest.

I sat on an ottoman, positioned by an overstuffed chair. "Tara," I said carefully, "I'm a little confused about your friend Mark's involvement in this. Is he paying for your stay at the clinic?"


"I want to pay for it. I don't want you to owe him anything."

"Mark would never ask me to pay it back."

"I meant owing him something in an emotional sense. It's hard to say no to someone after they've dropped this kind of money on you. I'm your sister. I'll take care of it."

"It's okay, Ella." Her voice was bruised with annoyance and exhaustion. "Forget about it. That's not what I need from you."

I was prying as gingerly as I could. It was like trying to remove petals from the heart of a flower without making the whole thing fall apart. "Is he the baby's father?"

"The baby doesn't have a father. He's just mine. Please don't ask about it. With all the shit I'm dealing with right now—"

"Okay," I said hastily. "Okay. It's just. . . if you don't establish paternity for Luke, he won't be legally entitled to any support from the father. And if you ever want to apply to the state for any kind of financial assistance, they're going to insist on knowing who the other parent is."

"I won't need to do that. Luke's daddy is going to help out when I need it. But he doesn't want any custody or visitation or anything like that."

"You know that for sure? He said so?" "Yes."

"Tara . . . Liza said you told her it was Jack Travis."

I saw Jack's back tense, rows of sturdy muscle flexing beneath the fine green mesh of his shirt.

"It's not," she said flatly. "I only told her that because she kept on asking about it, and I knew that would shut her up."

"Are you sure? Because I was ready to make him take a paternity test.

"Oh, God. Ella, do not bother Jack Travis with this. He's not the father. I never even slept with him."

"Why did you tell Liza you did?"

"I don't know. I guess it made me embarrassed, him not wanting me, and I didn't want to admit it to Liza."

"I don't think there was any reason for you to feel embarrassed," I said softly. "I think he was being a gentleman." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack sit on the edge of the bed. I felt his gaze on me.

"Whatever." My sister sounded exhausted and aggrieved. "I have to go."

"No. Wait. Just a couple of things. Tara, would you mind if I talk with Dr. Jaslow?"

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