For those of you who love a good tale, I hope this fits the bill! My fictional "nom de plume" is Margaret Daniels. Why? Because my dad's name is Daniel, so I'm Daniel's Margaret! And, it's easier than my real last name, which is Rydzynski. Yes, that makes sense now, doesn't it?
By Margaret Daniels (copyright 2009)
Lunch was going to be late. I looked up and saw a harried woman behind the counter facing a line that snaked halfway to the front door. To her left, a young man kicked open swinging doors with a steaming pizza tray in each hand. He rushed to drop them off before running back to the kitchen. There were usually two people at the counter and even more helping to get pizza from kitchen to customer as quickly as possible. Despite the staff shortage, the place was relatively quiet, or at least quiet enough so that Della and I could actually hear each other. We had a deal going: if I screwed up, she could call the next shot. If she screwed up, I got that privilege. Yesterday afternoon I'd walked her straight into a tall shrub. I was mortified, but all she did was laugh. Then she said, "Stromboli. Lunch. Pepperoni and hamburger. Your treat."
So here we were. I was exhausted and rubbed my eyes to get some life into them. The pizza could wait as far as I was concerned, since I was not anxious to add heartburn to my list of early afternoon ailments. I'd been up and down all night, a typical insomniac's evening, and the alarm had gone off just as I was starting to nod off. I'd downed several cups of coffee – heartburn be damned – before meeting Della here. It hadn't worked.
"So," Della was saying. I raised my head to meet her clear, but unfocused, eyes, "about this sleep study. We need a sighted control subject for the second phase." Della was a regular at her local eye clinic and volunteered for every study for which she was even marginally qualified. The volunteer they'd lined up had just quit on them and Della had been on the phone all morning. I'd been in bed instead of our office, trying desperately for a little REM time. I'd dragged myself to the kitchen in enough time to make and drink a pot of coffee before taking the subway into Boston for our lunch date. "And by the way," she added. "You sound terrible."
"Another fun night," I mumbled.
Della shook her head and "tsk'd" sympathetically. She also understood sleeplessness, although for different reasons. I'd been an insomniac all my life. Della slept like a log, at least until menopause kicked in. She now claimed to have the "hot flashes from hell," bad enough to pull her out of a sound sleep into a sweat-soaked consciousness. "It's a paid study, too," she added. "Sleep and money, Maggie." She stopped and thought as a sly smile spread across her face. "Actually, that sounds like a sleazy book I read once."
"Behave," I admonished. Della was right, though. These days I needed all the money I could get. Even her business was taking a hit. Who was going to hire freelancers when the company was laying off half of its employees? These were hard times. I had stayed home this morning because I could: I hadn't met with a client all week. "How much?" I asked. Subtlety was not my strong suit when I was this tired.
"Enough to make it worth your while," she said firmly. "You'll spend a few days in the clinic. They'll attach electrodes to your head and read brain waves throughout the night. They want to do some comparisons so they can set up benchmarks. What do you think?"
"S'cuse me," a voice interjected from above. A moment later a pizza in a battered aluminum tray clattered onto our table. Half of the pie was covered with dots of pepperoni and hamburger. The other half held a smattering of green peppers, mushrooms, olives and diced artichoke hearts. A thick hand dropped a Diet Coke on Della's side of the table and a tumbler of ice water on mine. "You'se all set?"
Della looked in the direction of the sound, at an exhausted young man in a stained apron. "Thanks, Henry" Della exclaimed. "You're a sweetie!" Henry smiled and tweaked her short, white hair before stomping back to the kitchen. I looked down at the pizza, which had spun a bit on its way down so that my veggie side was now in front of Della. She bent down to take a sniff, then sprung back with a sour look on her face. "Yuck!" she exclaimed, then found the tray with her hands and spun it exactly half way around with her nose bent to the pie. "There!" she said. "Better." Della's pepperoni and hamburger was now in front of her. My veggies were in front of me. I sighed and dug in. Della reached for a slice, picking off pieces of pepperoni and eating them before crunching into the crust. "So," she continued, between bites. "You in?"
I nibbled on cheese that strung across my vegetable-laden portion. "Sure, I'll be glad to help out. When does it start?"
Della grinned and looked excited. "Actually, I'm meeting the study director later today. Want to come along? You can do the physical and sign all the papers. If you pass, we could start tonight."
"Sounds good to me."
"Perfect," she replied. She wiped her hands on a folded paper napkin and then felt around the table. "Hey, Maggie?" she asked.
I looked up, munching. "Yes?"
"Where'd Henry put my Diet Coke?"
Della and I arrived at the eye clinic that evening. We were met by Research Director Ellen Rollins, an enthusiastic and welcoming woman. Her research assistant, Ben, looked young enough to be her kid. I spent some time signing forms and then went on to take the physical. Afterward, I got the grand tour. We walked through a dull white corridor and took a right turn around a corner. We were in another hallway, banked by sets of doors opening onto small sleeping rooms. An office at the end of the hall contained another desk and an examination table. "Here we are!" Ellen exclaimed, somewhat breathlessly. "Your home away from home for the next few nights. Any preference for a room?"
I glanced into a room. The bed did not look comfortable. "Got a room next door to Della?" I asked. "If I can't sleep I'll come in and harass her. It gets boring staying up with nothing else to do."
Della crossed her arms. "Just remember, if you screw up you get heartburn again at Stromboli's."
Ellen wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to a clip board. "Done! You're next door. I have to go now. I'll let Ben finish up with you, Maggie and I'll see you both in the morning." She waved goodbye and left us for the night.
Ben walked to the office, directly across from my room. I checked out the room again. The single bed was fitted with tight sheets and a folded blanket at the end. There was also a plastic chair, a desk and a small, metal box near the head of the bed. It looked as though something plugged into it. I dumped my overnight bag on the bed, muddying its perfect creases and poked my head into Della's room next door. She was unpacking a small bag of clothing and toiletries. "Cool!" she exclaimed when she heard me at the door. "We're roomies!" A small mp3 player tumbled out of her bag. "I have to tell you about this new book on tape," she said, holding up the player. "It's absolutely filthy. I haven't had this much fun since I joined that talking book club. I'm sure this one's out in paperback. You should pick up a copy."
"That's okay," I said. Della was forever trying to get me to loosen up. "I have plenty of stuff to read."
"You'll make your husband a happy man," she continued.
"He already is a happy man."
"Okay, happier?" She really did have my sex life all lined up. All she needed was a willing subject. Maybe she was feeling flush with the victory of getting me here. We'd reached step one in Della's master plan.
Ben called me to the office to get me ready for the night. He probed my head, then reached over for a plastic bottle and dabbed glue onto a series of small electrodes. "Don't worry, it's painless," he explained. "When I'm done you'll look like the Bride of Frankenstein but it'll wash off." He attached the electrodes to my forehead, temple and the back of my head. Then he took a paper cap and strung the wires through it before fitting it over my head. I suspected I'd get no sleep whatsoever for the next few nights, not with that contraption on my head. Ben walked with me back to my room and plugged me in to the little box. "The bathroom is down the hall to the right If you need to use it, just unplug the whole thing at the wall. Be careful, though. Don't let anything get wet. Why don't you just settle in and get comfortable while I hook up Della?" He suggested before leaving.
I laid down and spent the next 12 hours doing exactly what I thought I'd do: not sleep. I looked at the ceiling. I read. I collected my strange sleepwear and brought it with me to the bathroom once or twice. It was quiet, due in part to a heavy door installed to cut down on sleep-interrupting noises. It didn't work for me. I managed to doze for a while but couldn't sleep, not in a strange bed with my head attached to a box. My wrist watch beeped on the hour. At 10:00 pm I heard the air conditioning come on. At 12:00 am I had a dream. At 1:00 am I briefly saw a light underneath my door. I dozed from 1:30 to 4:30. When I woke up at 4:30 the light was back on and I could hear the quiet rumble of the air conditioning again. I tossed and turned.
Ellen came to collect me at 8:00 the next morning. She had a sheet of printouts in her hand: long, wavy lines that traced my unsuccessful attempts at sleep. "Rough night, huh?" she asked. "Looks like a lot of activity. What did you do, write a book?"
I sighed. "Well, I tried to sleep. I guess I'm a great control subject, if you're looking for insomniacs."
Ellen laughed and took a seat near my bed. She handed me a cup of coffee, bless her heart. "I'm having breakfast with Della. Why don't you join us? I'd like to do some in-person comparisons between you two anyway."
Della was sitting at a table near a window in the clinic's cafeteria. She'd gone through at least one bottle of Diet Coke and looked like she'd just seen a ghost, with hair that stuck up in little white spikes from the electrode glue. She made a chuffing sound as we sat down next to her. "I smell coffee," she said. "That you, Maggie? Are you ready to kill me for putting you through this little experiment?" She looked exhausted. "Next outing's on me. I'll even eat carrots if you want."
"We're just about to talk about our night time experiences," I said. "And I'm going to have some yogurt with granola."
Della pouted. "That sounds disgusting. Bar keep, bring me another Diet Coke."
"So, what kept you awake, Della?" Ellen started in before Della could get too carried away in complaints.
"A bird's nest on my head? And who the heck was snoring last night? God almighty, I thought he was going to take out the windows."
"Sorry about that," Ellen said, with a look of contrition.
"I hate snoring," Della retorted.
Ellen turned to me next. "And you, Maggie? What was your night like?"
I slugged coffee. "I just ticked off the hours. Couldn't really get to sleep. Didn't hear anything, but saw when your guys turned on the lights. I don't remember much after that."
Ellen's head snapped up. "You saw lights?"
"Yeah," I said. "Why? I think there was somebody there, too. I thought I saw someone pass by my door."
Ellen looked confused. "No one is supposed to come into that hallway at night," she explained. "That could throw our entire study off. It's one thing to hear something that's supposed to be there, like snoring. But something introduced from the outside is totally different." She looked worried now. "If someone's been coming in this could compromise the whole project, maybe even shut it down."
This didn't sound good. I began to feel very guilty. Had I just wrecked her study?
Della heard the tension in Ellen's voice. She put her hand on Ellen's shoulder and squeezed it. "Ellen, wait," she said. "It doesn't sound like Maggie's sure of this. Let's go back upstairs and see what's going on. Maybe there was some electrical problem that switched on the light automatically last night."
"Sure," I agreed. "Let's find out for sure."
Ellen nodded, slowly "Good idea," she agreed. "Let's check and see.”
We returned to the corridor. We found a light switch on the outside of the further door, locked behind a wire enclosure. We were at the intersection of another hallway leading to labs and offices. Della cocked her ear and listened. "Sounds busier," she remarked. "Somebody's having breakfast up here, too. You could get more coffee, Maggie."
"No thanks, Della." I said. "It doesn't look like anyone could have turned this light on. Certainly not by accident." I walked back into the sleeping quarters and had another look around. The only other light switch was outside of the door to the office. I clicked it on. A fluorescent light flickered to life against the opposite wall. "Here's one," I said. We walked into the room and I took another look around. There was an examination table against the opposite wall. To my left was a table with a computer screen and telephone. A chair was neatly tucked in. The far left wall held a sink and counter, with cabinets above. It looked like every doctor's office I'd ever seen. "Could someone have come in here last night and turned on the light?"
Ellen shook her head. "I don't see why they would. Staff here knows about the study. They've been instructed not to walk through the halls and I assume they know better."
"They don't come until mid-day, after people leave."
I looked at the desk. There were a few folders on top. I didn't see anything else. I took one last look around the room. The sink looked dry. Several bottles of betadyine lotion were stacked up against the splash guard. The cabinets were locked. I looked up and saw a paper towel holder with its door slightly askew. I opened it, saw a half-stack of paper towels and nothing more. "I don't know, Ellen," I said. "I think there was a light, but I was really groggy, too." I felt terribly guilty. "I'm really sorry. What now?"
Ellen looked pained. "Well, if someone was here then I'll have to notify the staff and the principal investigators," she said sadly. "It'll postpone the study, at least."
Della shook her head vehemently. “Wait,” she said. "It would be a shame to cancel the study based on something that Maggie thought she might have seen," Della was determined to get her vision back in enough time to enjoy it. This research delay was not part of the plan. "Maybe we should give it one more night and see for sure."
That seemed logical. "No point in canceling a study if I'm wrong,” I acknowledged.
Ellen's face relaxed a bit as she considered Della's suggestion. “I can run the study with just the blind participants tonight and then continue again with Maggie if this is all a mistake.” She looked at me. “No point hooking you up again, since you'll be up and expecting something. I'll wait until tomorrow before I talk to anyone.”
We nodded our agreement and Ellen gave us both another hug before leaving. I still felt guilty. If nothing else, I had to go through with this or I'd never have peace of mind again. Della said I had an overblown sense of responsibility and was hard at work trying to fix that. That, and my sex life. I made sure she ate well and got to where she needed to go. In return, Della was only too happy to suggest my life's course, at least when she thought she could. I'd have to find something to break this streak, or I'd be in big trouble.
"A stake-out!" Della said after Ellen had left. "How exciting. Hopefully you won't get yourself in trouble or hurt tonight."
Trouble? Hurt? Suddenly, I was filled with dread as well as guilt. "What? Hurt?" I repeated.
Della rolled her eyes. "Well, obviously, if it's not a mistake then some thing else is going on," she explained. "Maybe someone was there.”
I hadn't considered what to do in the case of an actual intruder. At this point I thought I was wrong. I was too tired to play cops and robbers and was feeling more than a little annoyed with Della.. “Why didn't you tell Ellen this?” I asked.
“And scare that poor thing?” Della replied. “Absolutely not!”
“But it's okay to scare me?” I retorted.
Della snorted. “What else is new? I scare you all the time. Tell you what, we'll stay in my room tonight. If something comes up then both of us can decide what to do. Sound good? I'll take the first watch. You can get some sleep that way.”
I had fantasies of tossing Della to the intruder and then making a run for it. Instead I reluctantly agreed to stay in her room that night. After all, I'd made a promise to Ellen and my conscience was still bothering me. At least I'd get a few hours of sleep before our midnight watch.
Actually, Della was fast asleep and snoring by the time I returned that evening. I sat down on the chair next to the bed. "A lot of help you're going to be," I muttered to myself and managed to doze for a while sitting up. When I opened my eyes again, the light was on. I rose from the chair and walked to the door. I stood back to see if a shadow appeared beneath it. I thought I saw something, but wasn't sure. I moved to the bed where Della lay. I put my hand over her mouth and poked her sharply in the shoulder. Della made a muffled mmmmmmfffffff sound, then jerked awake. I kept my hand over her mouth. "Shhhhhhh!" I whispered. "The light's back on."
Della sat up. "Someone's here?" she whispered.
"I don't know" I said. "Can you hear anything?"
Della listened for a moment, then shook her head. "Dang! I can't hear a thing. Must have been me snoring last night."
I felt frustrated. So close! A light, for sure. Someone beyond the door? Neither of us could tell. I knew one thing for sure: I was not about to find out.
Della felt her way to the door. I stood behind her, against the wall, trying to be quiet. She was being pensive again. "Well," she said finally. "There's only one thing we can do now."
"Tell Ellen tomorrow?" I whispered. "Call the cops now?"
Della tsk'd again. "No, silly," she retorted. She made her way back to the bed and felt near its foot for her day bag. She reached inside and pulled out a folded white cane. "I don't know about you," she declared. "But when I wake up, I always have to pee." With that she reached for the knob, flung the door open and snapped the cane together in front of her. I shrank against the wall. Della tapped her cane loudly as she and her head gear made their way to the bathroom. Damn. She was going to give us away. But, the door was now open and pale light from the office spilled into the room. I slowly moved myself nearer and nearer to the door, then peeked around the edge, praying. Something moved across my line of vision. I shrank back. What if they had a gun? Then I heard a distant toilet flush and realized I didn't have much time. I cussed a few times to give myself a little macho, then sidled back to the edge of the door. The object hadn't moved. I looked and saw a shadow-draped figure, standing perfectly still. I couldn't see a face, only a figure with a light shirt and dark slacks. A man? I couldn't tell. One thing was obvious, though: we had an intruder who knew he wasn't supposed to be there.
Della returned to the room. I slid back along the wall as she closed the door. "Della!" I hissed. "What the hell did you do that for?" My heart was pounding.
"I had to pee. And I figured you could get a better look with the door open. What intruder's going to worry about a blind woman going to the bathroom?"
"Why didn't you tell me what you were going to do?"
"There wasn't time. I really had to pee." She looked apologetic. "Happens every time I wake up these days. God, I hate getting old. So, did you get a good look?"
"I saw somebody," I said. I waited until the light went off underneath the door. "I think he's gone," I said finally. "I didn't really get a good look, though. I couldn't see a face."
Della rolled her eyes and looked thoroughly disgusted with me. "All that and you still couldn't see who it was?" She declared. "Good God, you're hopeless. Good thing I was there for backup."
I did a mini-explosion, right there. "Backup?" I retorted, as quietly as I could. "Backup? You can't see in the dark! What kind of backup is that? If he saw me, what then?"
She chuckled. "Oh calm down, Maggie. He didn't see you. You didn't see him either," she reminded me. "But at least now I know what he had for dinner."
"Don't Della me," she scolded, waving a hand. "I'm blind, not helpless. I'm telling you, that dude had a Stromboli pepperoni and double cheese pizza less than six hours ago."
"Okay, okay," I tried to calm down. I waited a few moments longer, then cautiously opened the door. The hallway was empty again. I placed Della's hand on my shoulder and the two of us sneaked into the office. I clicked on the light and had another look around. Everything appeared as it had before, except for a strange glint on the corner of the counter near the sink. A small key glittered in the light. Well, well. "Della," I said. "I think you startled our guest into leaving his calling card." I took the key and tried a few locks. Nothing. Then I noticed the paper towel dispenser was firmly locked, unlike this morning. I twisted the key and opened the metal door. "Della, my dear," I said, looking on with satisfaction. "Remind me never to doubt you again. I think Ellen will be very interested in this. And I do have to thank you for keeping me in one piece."
"Damn straight," Della said. "What are you talking about?"
"Later," I said. "Right now I think we need to bring some sleeplessness into the world." I looked at the phone at the desk. "Does this thing call out of the building?" I asked.
A few calls later and the next night went like clockwork. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Della and I sat together in the dark as my wrist watch beeped the hours. Beep. 2:00 am and all was quiet. Beep. 3:00 am and I could hear the air conditioning rumble to life. Beep. 4:00 am. A light flicked on in the office as the door was cautiously opened. Della and I were both sitting in the office, near the sink. I lifted a plastic bag filled with tablets and capsules and smiled sweetly at the intruder. "Looking for these?" I asked.
Ben, the research assistant, was standing in the flickering light, mouth open. Ellen was also in the office and glared at him as a cop slammed the door behind us. To his left stood Henry, the waiter from Stromboli's. "Hey," Ben said, raising his hands. "I just forgot some paperwork and had to come back for it. That's all."
The cop smiled. "I'll bet you did," he said. Then he turned to Henry. “That the guy?” He asked.
Henry nodded and crossed his thick arms. “Him and Doctor Judd was both at Stromboli last night,” he replied. “They had the pepperoni double-cheese special.”
"Told ya’," Della said, and punched me in the shoulder.
A week later I walked Della into another tall shrub and we were back at Stromboli's. Henry was delighted to see us and gave us our pizza on the house. "Don't underestimate a blind person," Della was saying, between swallows. "We don't have eyes, but we still have brains." Ben and the doctor had been regulars at the pizzeria. Henry recognized them the minute he saw their photographs. They had a sweet deal going: Dr. Judd procured the drugs, hiding them in the paper towel dispenser before Ben picked them up later that evening. It worked like a charm, at least until me and my eyes came along.
I shook my head. "What is this world coming to?" I muttered.
"Nothing good," Della agreed. "Human nature is human nature. That's not going to change. In the meantime, I brought something for you." She fished in her bag and extracted a CD of the book she'd been listening to at the clinic. "For heaven's sake, loosen up. Why don't you start with this? It'll do wonders for your disposition, I guarantee."
I sighed and put the disk into my backpack. She was probably right, much as I hated to admit it. I thought about my husband, equally as prudish as me. Well, I thought: if I could bust a drug ring, I guess I could survive a walk on the wild side. "Okay," I said. "And you?"
Della scowled, then sighed, accepting fate. "I'm ready," she said.
I swung the pizza around and handed her a slice with green peppers and onions. "It won't kill you," I said. "Think of the additional nutritional value."
Della shut her eyes and chomped down. She chewed and swallowed. "Blech," she said, then opened her eyes and grinned.