Notes: First, I'd like to thank two special women who not only spent precious time IM-ing me about z words, but also read this in it's very early forms. Second, I'd like to thank my crack team of beta-readers who gave this the once-over twice. And finally, I'd like to thank that precious phantom who was willing to take a little time out of her life to talk to me about this even more.
Zoetrope – from the Greek. Zoe (life) + Tropos (to turn or to change)
"I wanna go on the zebra, Daddy."
Red and yellow, blue and green. She stood mesmerized, watching the carousel animals rise and fall in time with the music.
"Hold on tight, Panda. Here we go."
Strong arms lifted her onto the zebra’s back, and the ride began to turn.
Oompahpah, oompahpah, the calliope music seemed to take on an almost physical form, filling the air and surrounding her until she could concentrate on nothing else.
Faster, faster, she kept spinning, and the building grew darker -- the shadows lengthening. Soon, the shadows were joined by light, and her focus shifted to the walls, where images swirled past her.
Her father hugging her good-bye on her first day at college; her husband-to-be waiting at the altar as she walked down the aisle on her wedding day; a man at a train station -- grabbing at her; that same man on an operating table, tape holding a tube in his mouth as monitors intone a flat steady beep; a flag draped coffin -- the man's funeral.
She knew him.
Who was he?
The ride sped up, and she tried to scream. Opening her mouth, however, she found nothing came out.
Over and over, the images flashed in front of her -- the man at the station, the man on the table, the man in the coffin.
She knew him.
Who was he?
The carousel continued to send her through tortured revolutions, and the Wurlitzer, too, sped up. What once was a playful melody became a freakish cacophony, until all the notes blended together into one persistent tone. She saw only one image now, to match the tone -- the man on the table, flat-lining.
She knew him.
Who was he?
With a growing sense of urgency, she realized something about the tone was wrong, but the man still lay lifeless on the table. The ride began to slow until it seemed almost to be straining to move. So, too, were the doctors’ motions – halting, stilted, like puppets.
She knew him.
There was something wrong with the tone.
Who was he?
Lee! The realization struck her at the same time she sat up and ceased the persistent buzzing of her alarm clock.
She shook her head and wiped the residual perspiration from her brow. She had to get dressed and get to Lee’s apartment. She would worry about the nightmares later.
"Homemade vegetable soup. Amanda, I've died and gone to heaven." Lee smiled warmly as he put his spoon down and pushed back from the table.
"I'm glad you liked it." She returned his smile, appreciating the sparkle that had returned to his eyes. "More?"
"No, thank you," he answered with a smile.
"I'll just clean up then." She reached for his bowl and crossed the kitchen to his sink.
After rinsing the bowls and putting them in the dishwasher, she then transferred the contents of the tureen into a large plastic storage container. "There's plenty left over, so you can have it later. All you have to do is put it in the microwave for about two minutes." She continued talking, finding a sense of comfort in merely working her mouth around the syllables.
If she kept talking, she wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t have to deal with the reality that he had, once again, come too close to death, and, like all men she had been close to, might soon be gone.
His kitchen had become familiar territory over the past few months, and she was now both comfortable and uncomfortable as she breezed through it like a zephyr, putting the clean dishes away and loading the dirty ones into the machine. She could feel his eyes on her and see a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. As had become par for the evening’s course, she was awash with dizzying and conflicting emotions. She both longed to draw him closer and at the same time needed to keep him safely at arm’s length.
She kept talking, trying, through words, to make sense of the situation. "So, I thought tomorrow I would go grocery shopping for you, so that --"
"Amanda . . ." With her name, he cut her off.
"Hmm?" She spun around, startled.
"You don't have to do this; I'm okay. Really." She felt trapped in his gaze, as his eyes searched hers. Intellectually, she knew he was right. He was okay. What she didn’t know though, was whether they were okay, whether she was okay. Nor did she know how to tell him.
So she kept talking. "Oh, I know. I just thought I would help - you know, until you're feeling better. The doctor did tell you to take it easy." Afraid to look him in the eye, she turned her back to him, rinsed the cloth and wrung it dry.
She heard him stand and make his way to her and then felt him place his hands lightly on her shoulders. Turning her gently to face him, he repeated, "Amanda, I'm okay . . . hell, I'm great. I think Billy would forgive you if you took this assignment a little less seriously. So, why don't we both go to the other room and watch a movie, huh?"
Fighting the urge to run and take the easy way out, she reached up and squeezed his hand. "Okay."
* * * * *
She tried to concentrate on the movie – a predictable comedy she vaguely remembered watching in the theatre with Dean a few years ago. Soon her mind began drifting, the images on the screen fading to those in her memory – Lee passing her a package at the train station; Lee on the table only days ago, flat lining; Lee’s flag draped coffin in the cemetery. It no longer mattered that the memories were out of order; in her mind, they fit.
She didn’t even realize that Lee had turned the television off until the sound of his voice permeated her mind. With a touch of self-consciousness, she wondered how long she had been daydreaming. "Are you tired?" she asked quickly, standing to smooth non-existent wrinkles from her jeans. "I’ll just show myself out."
"No!" She turned to look down at him, surprised by the abruptness in his tone. He smiled softly and added, "I'm not that sleepy; let's just . . . talk for a while."
"Okay." She sat, biting the inside of her lip in nervous apprehension of what would come next.
She heard him clear his throat, and turned to see him watching her with an intensity that left her both excited and terrified.
"How are your boys?"
"Oh, they're fine. Jamie has a dentist appointment next week; they think he might need braces." She found herself relaxing in the comfort of the familiar topic.
"And your mother?" His low voice caused her soul to vibrate with the same precision as a bow over a finely tuned violin string, and she wondered how such an innocuous question could, on his lips, become so dangerous.
She answered slowly, letting him know she was on to his game. "She's fine; it's been a real help now that she finally has her driver’s license."
He didn’t say anything, so she continued. "Why the sudden interest in my family, Lee? What's this all about?"
He glanced away and brushed at the hair on his temple, and she wondered why she’d thought the path they were taking would be any easier for him than for her. Is he as dizzy as me? The question struck her and only seemed to increase her sense of imbalance.
"You've been a little . . . edgy lately," he finally answered her question. "I thought maybe I'd start with things you were comfortable with and work my way up to other topics."
"Oh?" Her sweater had suddenly grown too small, and she tugged at the cuffs as she tried to force the fog from her brain and her mushy thoughts to congeal into something tangible. "Like what?" she finally asked.
"Well, for starters . . ." He picked up her hand and began slowly running his thumb over her knuckles. "Just what it is that’s got you so unsettled."
"What’s got me so unsettled . . ." she repeated his question, still unable to think clearly.
"Yes . . ." His thumb had moved from her knuckles and was now tracing circles on the back of her hand. "You’ve been like a stranger tonight – going through the motions, but your mind’s somewhere else. What’s wrong, Amanda? I thought maybe we were . . . I thought we could talk to one another."
"How can I explain this to you?" she asked, more of herself than him.
He provided her with the opportunity she needed. "Just . . . trust me, huh?"
"Trust you." She smiled in spite of herself as memories of the many times he’d said that began revolving through her mind. "Do you know that since I started trusting you - since we met - I've been kidnapped, locked in a freezer, sent to jail, almost blown up, shot at --"
"Amanda," he interrupted her shifting his weight awkwardly on the couch. "I get the point."
She paused weighing her words before she slowly said, "No, Lee, I don’t think you do." She expelled a breath from her lower lip, ruffling her bangs. "Do you know, out of everything we’ve been through, what the hardest for me has been?"
Rather than giving him a chance to answer, she continued. "It was watching you on that table - seeing you declared dead. It didn't really sink in until later, but it was just too much for me."
He looked up at her confusion etched on his face. "Amanda, you knew that wasn't real."
"Don't you think I don't remind myself that every minute?" She stood and walked across the room. Pulling the drapes aside, she stared absently at the evening street scene.
It had been raining and the reflections of headlights and taillights in the puddles created ribbons of light and color. She watched them twinkle, fade, and reappear with every passing vehicle as she tried to make sense of her own thoughts so that she could share them with him.
With another sigh, she turned around to face him. Leaning back against the wall, she asked, "Do you remember the exhibit we went to last week? The one at the Smithsonian on the history of movies?"
"Do you remember the zoetrope?"
"Yeah . . ." he answered slowly.
Absently, she continued talking, walking aimlessly around the room, picking up objects at random and replacing them. "That's the way it's been for me lately. All these images twisting through my mind, blurring together into some weird movie. I keep seeing you . . . at the hospital room, flat-lining -- and I remember how it was at your funerall two years ago, when I was there and I saw you, or what I thought was you, being put into the ground -- and now I know none of it was real, but II can't help but wonder what about next time? How many times can you cheat death?"
Having completed her circuit of the room, she came to rest at her post by the window and turned to face him, her hands on her hips. Whatever reaction she'd been expecting, it wasn't the one she received. "Amanda, that's pretty unfair, you know that?"
"I know," she answered softly, her gaze turned toward her feet. "I’m sorry. This is your job, and it's all a part of it. I'm sorry," she repeated the last part.
"Don’t be." She noticed an edge to his voice and looked up at him. He was poised on the edge of the couch, his hands on either side of his hips, as though frozen in the moment just before he would stand. As her eyes met his, he settled back into the cushions. "I wouldn’t want you to ever be afraid of being honest with me." Patting the seat next to him, he added. "Come; sit down."
With a smile that was both relieved and embarrassed, she complied.
"We're quite a team, aren't we?" he asked after a few moments of silence.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . ." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders to draw her closer. "This goes both ways."
It was his cologne, now, that was making her dizzy. The warm earthy scent sent her heart racing even when he wasn't there. Now, she found herself nearly overcome. She willed her mind to go back to the present, back to his words.
". . . you have a rather bad habit of placing yourself in dangerous situations, and I . . . I worry about you too. You're . . . well, you're one in a million, Amanda, and I don't think I could ever replace you."
"No more early morning recruiting sessions at the train station?" Her heart was threatening to beat out of her chest and she was certain he could hear it.
"Not in a million years," he responded, tightening his arm around her. She could feel his breath on the nape of her neck and she shivered.
When her she found her voice, it was so husky that she almost didn’t recognize it. "Good, because I plan on stickin’ around for a while."
He was silent for quite some time, his breathing deep and steady. He ran his fingers slowly up and down her upper arm and she doubted he was conscious of the movement.
"So do I," he finally answered softly, expelling another deep breath.
His breathing continued to slow, and she realized he'd fallen asleep on the couch. She slipped out of his arms carefully, trying not to wake him. In the shadows, she studied his face, relaxed and halcyon, clearly under Somnus' control.
She brushed his hair from his forehead and gently pressed her lips next to the purple bruise. "Goodnight, Lee."
As she slipped out of his apartment into the night, she realized the spinning had stopped. She still felt unbalanced, like a sailor struggling to regain his land legs after months at sea, but her world was once again at rest. It felt good.
Zoetrope - an optical toy in which figures made to revolve
on the inside of a cylinder, and viewed through slits in its circumference,
appear like a single figure passing through a series of natural motions
as if animated or mechanically moved.