Chapter 1 Rescue
Not many would come so early on a weekday morning to walk the Carquinez bridge, just to see the view, smell the air, and feel the brisk breeze. I had been to San Francisco on business, and was told it was a must-see. They were right.
The suspension wires above me streaked down in an impressive and dizzying array. On my right, I-80 commuter traffic roared south from Vallejo, and on my left, the blue San Pablo Bay shimmered.
Between me and the water stood a five-foot fence of vertical green rods. Curved seaward at the top, they provided a convenient place to rest my arms as I watched ships trailing white wakes toward the Golden Gate. The wind entering my suit jacket chilled me, so I continued north along the concrete path.
Some distance ahead, an attractive woman stood at mid-span in a light blouse and skimpy orange shorts. As I watched, she tried to climb the fence. Oh, my God. We were a hundred and sixty feet above the strait and I hoped this wasn't what it seemed. I leaned into a pounding sprint while she continued. Her feet kept slipping because the bars offered no footholds. I prayed she wouldn't find a way over before I got there.
No such luck. I was still a hundred feet away when she had pulled herself atop the curved metal, turned, and lowered herself onto the two foot wide concrete ledge. As I arrived, she sat with legs dangling, hands on the edge, staring downward.
"Hey," I said through panting breaths. "Don't jump."
She didn't respond, so I shouted, "Please don't jump. Come back. I can help you." I didn't know how, or even if I could, but the thought of seeing her slip off the edge made me ill.
She turned, the gusting wind blowing her strawberry-blond hair around her anguished face. A young face, maybe in her early twenties. Old tear streaks lined her dirty cheeks. With her dark eyes, a prominent nose, and full lips she looked Italian.
"You poor kid," I said, offering my hand through the bars. "Can I help you?"
"I do not know what to do."
"Take my hand." Come on, baby, come on.
"No one helps me, not you or anybody."
"That's not so. There's always a better way than killing yourself."
She looked down into the water. "No."
I scanned the path. Not a soul in either direction. "Come on, take my hand."
"It is too late. I cannot go back."
"Yes, you can. Tell me what the problem is."
She shook her head.
"I'm a good listener. Why are you here? What happened?"
She began to shiver and said something into the wind.
"What did you say?"
She looked at me so pitifully. "I am hungry!"
I wanted to laugh. "I can fix that. I'll feed you. Take my hand."
She turned away again, shaking and sobbing.
"There's a deli in Crockett," I said. "They've got eggs and toast, lovely smells, and yummy food. It's not very far. Do you want me to bring you some?"
She shook her head.
"Well then, come on. My hand is waiting."
Her body trembled so hard, I thought she'd fall off, but she swiveled and reached toward me. The cold touch of her hand flooded me with relief. "Thank you. I think fate has brought me here to rescue you."
I helped her up as she stood on the ledge, crying and shivering. She was thin, and lifting her under her arms was easy. I felt a great sense of accomplishment as I put her on her feet on the pathway. "Now we're getting somewhere. How long has it been since you ate?"
"Too long." Her teeth chattered.
I positioned myself between her and the fence, and draped my suit jacket over her shoulders as we proceeded south.
She pulled its lapels together. "I cannot stop shivering."
"Of course, but you're safe now."
I was dying to find out who she was and why she had wanted to jump, but she was in no shape to chat.
Chapter 2 Verona
By the time we descended the ramp from the bridge, she had stopped shivering and was looking better. I extended my hand. "I'm Sam Katz."
Her handshake was cold and limp. "I am Verona Venezia del Gado Sumarlin Mohammad Yamamoto Boston Pazorski." She sounded vaguely Latina.
I smiled. "That's quite a name. Where're you from, Verona?"
She didn't reply, but closed her eyes and looked so sad. I could imagine scenarios like an abusive father or a dead mother. Interesting stories are my living, and this one begged to be explored.
We crossed eastward under the freeway onto the main street of Crockett, a small, old-fashioned town. Stores fronted onto the sidewalk, and many lay empty and unused. The vacant one on our left had a weathered wooden sign hanging over the sidewalk from a wrought-iron bracket. Cobbler. How quaint.
"I'd like to hear your story," I said. "How're you doing?"
She glanced up at me. "Afraid to hope."
"I'm sure," I said.
"Have you ever reached the point of ending everything?"
"Me? No, I lead a good life."
"You are fortunate. It is so strange. No one would help me until I gave up. I never imagined life could be so cruel."
The breeze was gentler here and the sun warmed us. "What happened?"
"I stupidly ran from the most wonderful family anyone could ever have, only to discover I was totally unprepared for a society where everyone takes care of himself."
"Oh?" A poor little rich girl?
"It is hard to talk. I still tremble inside." She took a breath. "On my second arrival here, I discovered the pitilessness of the common man to the down-and-out. Everyone shunned me, and either thought I was insane or a prostitute. Never before had I known such physical danger and hunger. It was dreadful. I found a soup kitchen in Vallejo, but they could not meet my every need, so I begged ..." her face reddened, " ... and tricked people. Though it went against every quark in my body, I stole just to eat."
"You have no idea how humbling it is to be so helpless, so utterly without familiar resources. To starve among plenty." Her face reflected her pain, and she sighed. "The first time I came here, I met a handsome primitive named Pedro who took me in kindly, but when I refused to make love to his friend, he beat me. Violent procurers were unknown to me then, and I was lucky to escape. A friendly prostitute took me to a shelter, but I was unable to meet their expectations, and too frightened of the mentally ill residents."
I wondered about her unusual speech. "That's rough. Where was this family you ran from?"
"Over there." She pointed east. "In the Carquinez Regional Shoreline."
"The what? The wilderness park?" Was she delusional?
"Sí, that is what it is now, but in the future there will be one enormous building covering the entire Carquinez-Contra Costa headland. I shall explain. The home I ran from exists in your year 2130." As we approached the deli, she slipped out from under my jacket and gave it to me.
The future? I put on my jacket while my belief system grabbed for traction. When it took hold, I saw that it didn't matter. Even a delusional story can be interesting.
"I can see you do not believe me," she said. "No one does. I will not hold you to your offer."
"What are you talking about? Did I say the deal was off, just because you're unbelievable?"
She blinked. "No, you did not, but I am a proud woman, and do not take charity easily."
"Was that why you gave me such a hard time at the bridge?"
She was about to answer when her eyeballs rotated and she started shaking.
Oh, crap. Now I've done it. "I'm sorry, Verona. I didn't mean "
She spoke in a rush. "I should have jumped. I was wrong to try to slave my problems to yours, to think that you would be my retro through the atmospheres of my misfortunes."
She covered her face and keened a high, spooky wail.
When I touched her shoulder to explain, she threw her arms around me. "Lo siento, I am sorry. Why did they have to come now?" She let go and stepped back, wiping her eyes. "It was the sucking time birds. I do not know if I can take one more thing."
"Whoa, time birds?"
She sniffed. "Sí."
The woods were getting stranger and stranger. "Come on, Verona, let's get us some breakfast, and you can tell me about these sucking time birds."
"Grates, Sam. Thank you."
I opened the door and she went in. The aromas were as good as I had told her. Salivating, we took a table and placed our orders.
"Okay, so what's with the time birds?" I asked.
She sighed. "They are interdimensional spirits that follow time travelers and drink of emotional stress. In consequence, their human prey spits out the words of his or her immediate truth."
I smiled. "Very creative. Tell me more."
"I'm sure you believe it."
She shook her head and stood. "Thank you for all you have done. I am very hungry, but I will not be patronized."
"Will you sit down? I apologize for patronizing you, but you're asking me to believe something I don't even think is possible. Would you prefer I lie to you until you've had breakfast?"
"No, I do not wish you to lie." She sat back down. "I will go after breakfast. As the time birds said, I should not have expected you to help me."
"Look, Verona, I'm sorry. I want to hear your story, whether I believe it or not."
"No, that is not necessary. You do not like to think that there can be a truth outside of your own."
I tried to stay calm. "I can believe a lot of things, but not in time travel. Our best theoreticians deny its possibility, ever."
She smiled. "You are entertaining in your arrogance, Sam Katz. I appreciate your making me smile."
The bitch. I felt a building irritation and heard a distant flapping of wings. Suddenly, I felt shaky, my eyesight went screwy, and I had to set her straight. "Okay, Verona, I've tolerated your delusion long enough. The future, my ass. You're a Berkeley drop-out, a drugged-up tramp who can't do anything right, so you play like a spider and wait for a sucker to keep you from jumping. Except you're too crazy to make it work. You're the ultimate loser, the ..."
I ran out of words. Why had my mouth gone off like that? I looked her, expecting her to hit me or leave, but instead she showed me a sunlight smile.
"Poor Sam. Now the time birds have attacked you, too, and made you speak your truth."
I was floored. "Really?"
"Yes. You quivered and your eyes swirled. You heard the flapping of their wings, did you not?"
"Yes, that's right. Am I infected by your craziness?"
"It is not craziness, Sam, it is real. You are fine now, no?"
Was I? "I'm not sure anymore. I did suspect you of being a hanger-on, but how could I catch the time birds too? Are you a sorceress?"
She put her hand on mine and laughed. "No, I am not a sorceress. I am a woman from the future, which must be harder to take."
This was totally bizarre, not just because I had actually felt the time birds, but also because the touch of her hand had stirred me. I held my head. "Oy."
She chuckled. "At least you are not turning away from me like everyone else."
"Thank goodness for little blessings." My curiosity overcame my pride, and I asked, "What's this world of yours like?"
"It is wonderful. All but those in the poorest countries are offered physical immortality, and there is no illness. Machines provide for all of our needs, and everyone is connected and guided by mental implants."
Could it be? Once I accepted that she might be from the future, all the rest was plausible. "Go on."
"At home, my family was everything. In your world, most families are couples, but in my home, families are four to fourteen adults in an intimate bond, and only one family in thirty is allowed a child."
"Is it not obvious? Where resources and space are limited, we cannot tolerate expansion. I was adored by ten parents and given a life of complete indulgence. As an adult, I have spent life as an enhanced lover."
"A lover whose body is enhanced to enjoy love."
What did that mean? I was afraid to ask. "Why did you leave?"
"El Visconde de San Francisco request for me to join his family in a union of political and economic convenience. I hardly knew the man. Moreover, I am a confirmed bachelor, only forty-five years old, and it was scandalous that he should seek one so young. Yet when I declined, my family pressed me, arguing it would give us much power and position. I said I was not raised to be sacrificed, and refused. They gave me an ultimatum, so, being impulsive, I jumped to this present."
"You're forty five? Come on, no way can you be forty-five."
"My body age is twenty-one."
Possibly. No forty-five year old looked like that.
The waitress brought our breakfasts. I told Verona to go easy, but she insisted on gobbling down every bit of eggs, bacon, and toast with butter and jam. Afterward she sat back slightly green. "Oh. I ate too fast."
I crossed my arms. "Still impulsive, I see."
She frowned and got up to walk away.
"Where are you going?"
"I will return." She made her way to the restroom.
Yes, I wanted her to return. The time birds experience had shaken me, I was attracted to her, and wanted find out what enhanced meant. I also wanted her whole story to write about.
She came back with the dirt gone from her face and arms, and her red-gold hair hanging down, damp and wavy. She smiled. "Thank you for bringing me here. It is good to feel full and clean."
"My pleasure. You still want to go it alone?"
"No. You are interesting in your adjustment, and I want to see where it goes."
Chuckling, I stood and tossed a twenty on the table. Outside as we strolled toward the bridge, she asked me how old I was.
"It is a good age for you. You are handsome and distinguished." She touched my temple. "You have gray wings."
"I'll bet you say that to all the men."
"Not since I left, and I will never see them again."
She made a sigh of regret. "After running from Pedro, I went home to beg forgiveness. In hours, they discovered I was pregnant."
"Pregnant? By Pedro?" This girl was electric one shock after another.
"Yes. I had no idea that my body would not be protected. I am carrying a fetus with uncertified genetics, like some poor Mongol or African. My crime brought dishonor to my family and I was forced to leave."
"I'm sorry to hear that. They couldn't let you keep your child anyway?"
She eyed me in disbelief. "A natural baby? How crude. In the civilized world, babies are created to the family's specifications and gestated in a bio-womb. My family insisted that we remove my disgrace immediately."
"Oh, I see."
"I do not think you do. I would not let them take it."
I blinked. "What on earth for?"
"I chose este tiempo to live the life of a natural woman in a primitive society. I had not planned to conceive, but I saw it as both noble and sad that I did. Refusing my family ripped my heart."
"I'm sure. So, what happened then?"
"Knowing the energy cost of my jumping would be a burden to my family, I came here anyway in great turmoil, hurting with guilt from toe to head and gut to skin. My pride had crashed to dust, and I was sick with self-loathing." She took a trembling breath. "I am probably not making a very good impression."
The poor kid. I still couldn't think of her as forty-five. "On the contrary. You're the most interesting person I've met in a long time, and I support your decision."
"Yes, which is funny, because I'm not a right-to-lifer, but if a woman really wants a baby, then I support her choice. I would like to believe your story."
"I do not expect you to."
"Regardless, there's a looming problem. I'm due to fly back to L.A. in a couple of hours, and what am I going to do with you?"
"I cannot decide for you. I am so tired of running to nowhere and growing ever weaker." She looked up at the bridge. "That was why I went to jump."
I was about to reply when I saw a neon sign hanging over the sidewalk from a wrought-iron bracket. It read, "Time Birds Gallery." I looked around. "Wasn't this the empty cobbler's shop?"
"Sí. Time Birds? How is it possible?"
"I don't know." I looked in the window and saw a clean, well-lit store. Paintings lined the walls and display boards. "Come on. Let's check it out."
We entered onto a polished hardwood floor that showed signs of wear. A man in dark slacks and a white shirt stood before the rear counter with his hands behind his back.
The pictures on the left wall were of the Carquinez bridge as seen from several hundred feet above the bay. Behind the bridge, they showed mountainous buildings with column-like fingers reaching for the sky.
Verona gasped. "My home!"
The man appeared behind us. "May I help you?" He looked about my age with a pleasant face and short dark hair like mine.
"¿Dónde obtuvo estas?" she asked him.
"Un artista local," he said with her accent.
A local artist? I followed as Verona looked at the pictures.
"Why was this store empty less than an hour ago?" I asked the man.
"An empty store?" He looked puzzled. "I'm sorry, sir, but you must have some other place in mind. We've been here for sixteen years. We're on the 'net and in the Crocket yellow pages."
I started to doubt myself, but, no, my memory was clear. "Where does your store's name come from?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "I believe it's from a children's book."
The liar. "My lady friend says these paintings are of the future. Are they?"
"That is interesting. The artist claims this is how the area will look in the next century, though I cannot comment. Would you like the artist's card?"
The man left for the counter while Verona examined a picture. "Mi casa, mi casa," she said softly.
The gold-framed painting before us showed the building covering the entire headland on the south side of the bridge, just as she had told me. "Why is it textured green? I don't see any windows."
"It is covered in living plants that provide oxygen. Three times a year, they bloom with huge flowers of many colors. You can see them on the left. We need no windows, as air is provided, and the walls of each room display whatever scenes we choose, alive and in full dimensional depth."
Incredible. There was too much evidence to dismiss her story, yet not enough to explain it.
"Sam? Can you buy this picture for me?"
The price tag read $600. "Not today, Verona."
She pouted and sighed. "I know it is an unreasonable request, but it has touched my heart."
"Not today. Finish looking and let's go."
The man returned with a card. It read, "Paintings by Albrecht Dürer" and gave a phone number. I had heard the name before, but couldn't place it. I pocketed the card and thanked him.
Out on the sidewalk again, we continued toward the bridge. "The whole thing doesn't make sense," I said.
"I think I know. The man is a traveler from my time who broke into the store and set up projectors."
"Sí, they project images that feel solid, but are not. The man and the pictures can be real, as can be the card he gave you."
It was still in my breast pocket. It made sense. "Who would do such a thing, and why?"
"Mi padre primero, Tony Venezia. By tradition, he must banish me and let me live or die on my own, but I know he still loves me and would want to give me hope. That he has done this fills me with love and shame." She looked past me in surprise.
I turned and saw that the store was now the empty cobbler's shop again. I don't like having eerie tricks played on me. As we approached, we saw something leaning against the building a picture in a gold frame.
"Oh ..." Verona ran ahead. "Look, Sam, it is my picture!" She picked it up and held it to her. "My father's gift. Oh, I am so happy."
I was happy, too, even though my reality had slipped somewhere. Saving $600 helped.
She held my hand while I carried the picture. "Where are we going?" she asked.
Until that moment, I had not thought about it. "To my car?"
"Is that a question?" she asked with glowing innocence.
"I'm not sure. Tell me how you ended up at the bridge this morning."
Her smile faded. "When all my efforts to find a home were unsuccessful. I became weak with hunger, and then caught a cold that hit me heavily. I had never been sick before, and grew to realize I could not survive long enough to bear this child. I wished to end it bravely and quickly, so I came back last night to the ground where I was born."
"The Carquinez Wilderness Area?"
"Sí. I lay under a tree, cold, tired and beaten by life. I remembered the home and family I would never see again, and cried the night long. This morning, I went to the bridge where you saw me." She wiped her eyes as we came to my rented Lexus. "When you spoke to me of fate I ..." She looked away.
"Yes, I see. Okay, you win."
She blinked with an uncertain smile. "What do I win?"
"Will you come home to Hollywood with me? I still don't know what to do with you, but we can figure it out on the way."
"On the airplane?"
"No ..." I smiled, "You're an undocumented alien." I took out my cell phone. "I'll cancel my flight and make arrangements to return the car when we get home."
Her look of happiness was beautiful. She threw her arms around me and gave me an impulsive kiss. It took my breath away.
"Thank you from my heart," she said.
I opened the car. "My heart welcomes you."
Chapter 3 Going Home
The scenery on I-5 between the San Francisco and the Los Angeles megalopolises was a long series of dusty gray-brown farms and dairies. So I told her about myself, how I married Joni, my college sweetheart after graduation from UCLA, and began proving myself as a screen writer.
"In my world," she said, "all entertainments are created freshly by computers, each according to the viewers' interests."
I shook my head. "I wouldn't like that."
"You would not be allowed there in any case. Immigrants from the past compete with the child allowance. What happened to your wife?"
"What happened? Do you know about borderline personalities? Can you imagine one on cocaine?"
"I do not know what you're talking about."
"Good for you. First, I was blinded by love, and then blindsided by reality. Such a torment I wouldn't wish on a terrorist. One year later, her parents sued me for failing to support her. It was the worst time of my life. When it was all resolved, I became a confirmed bachelor."
She looked startled. "Confirmed? It is not possible."
"Not here, but in my world, people like me who choose to never be part of the pool of available parents, are legally confirmed as bachelors. That I became pregnant was disgrace and dishonor."
"Grates," she said. "Tell me, do you have a girlfriend?"
"Not currently. Claire and I aren't lovers anymore, but we're still good friends. I hope."
"Same old. She wanted marriage and kids before menopause." I smiled. "You wouldn't know about that."
"Not personally, no."
"Anyway, I declined. She's a doctor and a great gal, but I'm not the marrying type."
"You did not want children?" she asked.
"I wouldn't mind, but for me, kids don't go with bachelorhood."
"I will have a child, but I can see no purpose in marriage."
I maneuvered thought the traffic. "Why not? You could use a husband's help."
"It is a problem. Are there people who will receive children here? In my civilized world, there are no unwanted babies."
"Unwanted? How can you not want your child?"
"I did not say that."
"Sure you did. You asked if you could give it away. That's inhuman. I mean, there are
mothers whose situations don't allow them to keep their babies. I can understand that. But when a woman wants to reject her own helpless infant, she isn't a mother, she's a perversion. I've never been able to understand how any woman could do that.
She sat back and looked out the window.
If she weren't going to answer, I wanted no part of her. A minute passed and I couldn't stand it. "I think you better make your position clear, Verona."
"You don't know my position."
"You can say that again. Didn't you say you were looking for someone to take your baby?"
"Were you not listening when I told you how I risked all to keep it?"
"Sure. You said you had this romantic fantasy, like you were pretending."
She didn't answer, and I fumed.
A minute later, she turned in her seat. "I did it to release you from obligation."
"You ? For my sake? That's crazy. You wanted to take the pressure off me?"
"Yes. I very much want this baby. I very much do not want to embarrass you into caring for me."
"Would you really give the baby away?"
"Only under the severest of circumstances, like that I came to last night."
Oh. Had I ever been wrong! "I'm sorry, Verona. I misjudged you."
"Grates. I do not think I misjudged you."
"You fear above all being taken advantage of. I do not want to be that person."
Unable to answer, I felt the blood rise to my face.
"I am sorry, Sam. I didn't not want to embarrass you."
I sighed. "It's okay, Verona. You're right."
She smiled. "Thank you. You are a noble man."
For the next hour or so while we made small talk, I thought about what to do with her. I could set her up in an apartment, or take her to a shelter where they would teach her what she needed to know, or let her stay with me.
What a bizarre a choice that last one would be. I'd known her for all of, what, eight hours? Taking her in would be almost as strange as believing she was from the future, and completely out of character for me. But, damn, what an attractive idea. She was exciting. She had been physically affectionate several times, and what was this "love enhancement" thing, anyway? If she became famous as the woman from the future, it might help my career. And what if she actually were forty-five? What a combination, a woman with age and perspective in the body a twenty-year-old. While I was at it, what about getting a kid without obligation? I was talking myself into it.
I told her the options I had considered and emphasized her living with me.
She shrugged. "They would all be better than dying on the streets. I don't know, Sam. Give me some time to think."
"Sure." What a surprise. I had expected her to jump for it.
I have a small house in West Hollywood on a winding street above Sunset. While looking it over, she compared it unfavorably to her home in every respect. The time birds came and she told me my house was dirty, dull and confining. The tiny windows' scenes never changed, and the temperature control was completely inadequate.
The ungrateful wretch. I thought the time birds might get me, too, but she was feeding them too well. Finally, we stood on the back deck with its great view of Santa Monica Bay.
"Get rid of those time birds, Verona, and tell me something nice about the house I love."
She leaned against the railing. "I am sorry, Sam. Please excuse my rudeness. You have a lovely house and I should have not yielded to my anxiety."
"You're anxious? Of course you are." I took her hand. "I understand totally."
She looked in my eyes and caressed my cheek. "You are sweet and thoughtful. Grates for your understanding."
Did that mean she was staying? After her touch, all I could think of was taking her in my arms. Easy boy. Keep your pants zipped.
We hung her painting in the living room and went to an early dinner at Off Vine in Hollywood. From there, we went to the Hollywood and Highland mall to buy her some clothes. I liked that she listened to my choices, and she was thrilled with her new wardrobe.
Back at home, we watched TV and chatted. At bedtime, she hugged me and looked into my eyes. "I want to be with you in your bed tonight."
Well, so much for subtlety. "Sounds good to me."
We kissed and undressed in the bedroom. She had perfect proportions, as one would expect for a spec body. When we fell in bed, she stretched and exposed her neck in a way that called me to kiss it. When I did, she writhed and moaned, and then pushed me away. "Too fast. I must catch my breath."
Why the big response? It had just been a little nibble.
We kept it up, and each time, she reacted like that. Did her excitability come from her enhancement? Whatever it was, she turned me on like sparks in fireworks factory. And then, too hot to stop, she leaped on me and brought me to an embarrassingly quick completion. I was about to apologize when she kissed me and kept going. I drifted between sleep and excitement while she achieved one satisfaction after another. Finally, we joined in a terminating delight.
So that was enhanced loving? What an incredible experience.
She slept with her arm across my chest, and I mentally reviewed our day. I had gone from rescuer to concern about her mental state, through fascination with her story, to misunderstandings, to taking her in, and finally to becoming her lover. We had both risked and won. Could it get any better?
The next morning, I did an Internet search for Albrecht Dürer, and found that he was indeed a famous artist, a German who died in 1528. In searching his works, I found a painting called Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman that freaked me out. It was exactly Verona in every detail.
She studied the picture on my computer screen. "It is amazing. Tony must have left that clue for you in the time birds store. If I ever see him again, I will kiss him and tell him how much his thought means to me."
The next month passed quickly as I taught her everything I could about living in this world, and she tried every way she could to get me to do everything for her. What else should I expect from a woman who was adored by ten parents and given a life of complete indulgence?
In spite of all that, she learned quickly, and proved herself to be an able hostess for our parties. Neither of us mentioned that we were becoming a couple. I'm sure the idea of our mutual dependency frightened her as much as it did me, but we couldn't help ourselves. We were just too good together.
Chapter 4 Claire
After Claire and I had separated, she went on a month-long European vacation. When she got back, she called to ask how I was doing.
"I met a woman," I said.
"Well, of course you did. That's who you are, you old fox. Tell me about her."
"Um, okay, but it's a bit complicated. You see, she's from the future."
Naturally, she thought I was joking. When she saw I wasn't, she asked to meet her, so we agreed to have dinner Saturday evening at Dolci on Melrose.
On the appointed evening, Verona and I were already seated when Claire walked in. I waved and she headed our way.
Verona eyed her. "She must have been pretty."
"Shame on you, Verona."
After smiling introductions, Claire said, "You're really quite beautiful. I'm glad Sam found you."
Verona blinked and then laughed. "Why, thank you. I am glad Sam found me, too. Tell me, how did you meet him?"
I sat back with my wine glass, smiling as these two classy women got to know each other. After a while, Claire asked Verona about her family.
"It is a wonderful family. Tony and Elana Venezia lead the clan. We have Dina del Gado, Pupungpurnawarman Sumarlin he's an Indonesian Abdul and Chester Mohammad, Yoshiko Yamamoto, Terrie and Elaine Boston, and Franciszek Pazorski. Tony, Dina, and Pup are softies who approved of most of the things I did before I disgraced myself. Elana was the expert on charm. Abdul and Chester taught me to dance and create art. Yoshiko was jealous of me. We did not get along well. Terrie, Elaine, and Frank directed my education by means of my implant. I have much to thank them for. You cannot meet them, but I wish you could."
"You must miss them," Claire said.
"I do, terribly. Not having access to them is one of the hardest parts of being here. Wherever I went in my world, whomever I was with, my implant kept me in intimate contact with my family. It is hard to be separated now. I even miss Yoshiko."
Claire nodded in understanding. "I grew up in a middle-class home with a brother and a sister. I've always been independent, so I would probably find that kind of contact cloying."
"In this world, being raised to independence is good," Verona said. "I will always be a misfit here."
That bothered me. "I hope that goes away and you'll stick around."
Verona patted my hand. "Do not worry, I will be here at least until the baby is weaned."
For the first time in weeks, I heard the flapping of time bird wings and my mouth embarrassed me. "Does that mean you'll go back then? I would die if you left."
"Oh, poor Sam," Verona said. "Now we are reversed in roles, are we not? I cannot promise, but I will keep you informed."
There was an awkward silence until Claire asked, "Will you let me be your doctor? I love babies."
"That would be very kind of you. I will take all the help I can get."
Four months into her pregnancy, Verona began to swell. She liked buying new clothes, but hated the tiredness that pregnancy brought.
I had never been with a pregnant woman, or anyone like Verona. I was falling in love with her, and it scared the hell out of me.
When the medical tests showed that Verona was carrying a healthy boy, I was thrilled.
"I want to name him after you," Verona said as I drove her home from the hospital.
"I'm sorry, Verona, but that's not allowed in the Jewish culture. Never after a living person. You should choose the name of an admired dead relative."
"I do not have any dead relatives. You are Jewish?"
"With a name like Katz? Of course."
So, we should name him Avram, for Abraham."
I loved it.
Chapter 5 Love
On a weekend night near the end of her eighth month, we sat together on the couch watching TV. I had my arm around her while she leaned against me and held her belly.
"Sam? Do you resent that my baby is Pedro's and not yours?"
"Not really. I think of it as yours, with my helping."
"Oh. That is a relief. I often think but never tell you how happy I am with you."
I was taken aback. "You are?"
"Sí." She smiled. "I tried not to give in, but I could not help myself. You are the first man I have ever loved." She looked at me with wide, soft eyes. "All my loves before were games. You have been so patient and taught me so much."
"Me? Patient?" I had wanted so much for her to love me, and now I was afraid to believe it.
"Sí. It is strange. I did not think twice when machines took care of me kindly, but when you do, it is special because you do not have to."
I kissed her. "That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I'm sure you know how much I love you."
She looked into my eyes. "Sí. Sometimes I worry about you. For a proud bachelor like you, it must not be easy."
I held her tight so she wouldn't see my tears.
She rubbed my back. "When I tell you how much I miss my family, I can see the pain in your eyes."
"I'm sorry." I pulled back to look at her. "Then marry me."
"I will, someday."
"Later, after Avram is born healthy, im yirtseh hashem, God willing."
Her Hebrew phrase startled me. "Who taught you that?"
"The Internet." She wiggled her fingers. "I am getting pretty good at typing, in case you didn't notice."
"I didn't notice, but I should have. Thank you, Verona. You are everything to me."
Verona went into hard labor on the morning of January fourteenth, and Claire had us meet her at Cedars Sinai near Beverly Hills.
I stayed with her through ten hours of labor, holding her hand and urging her to breathe. Then we went into the birthing room where our eight-and-a-half pound son arrived. It was the most beautiful experience of my life. My hands shook when they had me cut the cord. I watched the nurses clean him, take mucus from his nose and mouth, and wipe his body. He fretted and they paid no attention. Wasn't there a way to do this without making him unhappy?
When they were done, Claire put Avram at Verona's breast. He was so little, and the way his chin rested there, he was able to look around at his strange new world, big dark eyes moving left and right. And then, he smiled. Newborns aren't supposed to smile, but what was that little mouth movement if not a smile? I saw Verona's happy tears and cried with her. Claire kissed Verona's forehead and gave me a big hug. We thanked her for being our doctor.
I took Verona and Avram home three days later and put him in the crib next to our bed. He was such a helpless and vulnerable little thing. Yet, when he got hungry, he let us know.
It took Verona a while to learn to nurse him, but he was a good eater. I loved how peaceful she looked with him at her breast.
Since he ate every few hours through the night, we didn't get much sleep, and went around like zombies. I hired a Swedish woman to help us, just so we could nap during the day. Because of breast feeding, Verona got less sleep than I.
The situation was made worse when the baby got colic at night, and we spent hours walking the floors, trying to stop his crying. Verona's nipples hurt, and she was sore from the stitches. Being a natural woman wasn't as romantic as she had imagined.
At the end of February, we were glad when we could make love again. We also resumed our social activities, and things got better. I thought of us as really like husband and wife, a team working together to raise our boy and make a life.
One night in our bed, I asked if she were ready to marry me now.
"To tell the world we're a couple. To make it permanent."
She touched my cheek. "Everyone already knows, and if I wanted to leave, being married would not stop me. Your kind of marriage is still strange to me. Let us keep it as it is."
That stung. "It's so frustrating. I fought marriage for so long, and now when I want to, you won't."
She nodded. "Life is that way."
We did all right through March and April, but in May, Verona became depressed. She had no energy, cried for nothing, and couldn't sleep, or slept too much. At first, we thought it would pass, but it got worse. She began telling me that her coming here had been a mistake, and why couldn't she go back home and get cured? I reminded her that she was still a pariah there, but her mood clouded rational thought.
Claire explained it was post-partum depression, nature's way of connecting the mother to the baby for comfort, thereby forming their lifelong bond. Since Verona's case was more serious than most, she prescribed antidepressants and suggested we see a psychiatrist.
We didn't mind her using pills, but we took pride in solving our own problems. The combined effect of her depression and the antidepressants killed our sex life. When she didn't get better, we swallowed our conceit and took her to a counseling psychiatrist.
Verona saw him four times in two weeks, but it wasn't helping. The psychiatrist said it would take time. I had never been so worried. After she came home from the psychiatrist's, I asked if she were planning on going home.
She only shrugged.
"Please don't leave," I said. "Avram and I need you. I want us to lead a beautiful life."
"I know," she whispered.
The next afternoon, I came home to find her clothed and asleep on the bed while Avram napped in his crib. On the night stand was a partially empty bottle of sleeping pills. I couldn't wake her, so I called 9-1-1. While the ambulance took her, I fixed a bag for Avram and drove with him to the ER.
When she woke, she cried and apologized.
"Why did you do it?" I asked.
"I do not know. I saw the bottle and just took a handful. I do not think I was trying to kill myself. I only wanted to escape the bad feelings."
"You didn't think of me or Avram?"
She looked so embarrassed. "No. I just could not stand it a minute longer. I am so sorry."
"I know you are, but it must not happen again, Verona, for your sake, mine and Avram's."
"I know. I promise."
I watched her carefully for the next week, and to my surprise, she began gaining strength. She smiled at Avram, slept better, and took an interest in the rose garden. I was afraid to hope.
On Sunday, I was at my computer when Verona asked me to listen for the baby while she went to prune the roses. An hour later, Avram cried to be fed, so I prepared a bottle and fed him while carrying him outside to find Verona. She wasn't in the rose garden, so I walked around the house, outside and in, calling for her. When I couldn't find her anywhere, I began to panic. Juggling Avram, I went to the kitchen phone to call her cell.
The voicemail light was flashing, and I connected to listen.
My dearest Sam. I think my family will accept me now, so I am going home. I am so sorry. There is nothing I can say to soften the blow. I could not tell you to your face because your sorrow would have held me there against my will. When I got sick, I yearned constantly for my family. I knew that if I stayed, I would have killed myself. Now I am strong enough to leave. Please take care of our boy. I will always love you and I am so terribly sorry. My heart to yours. Verona Venezia del Gado Sumarlin Mohammad Yamamoto Boston Pazorski.
As Avram fell asleep in my arms, I sat at the table and listened again, this time having trouble breathing. I had wanted so much to keep her, but couldn't. My tears came as I listened again and again until I could no longer do so.
After putting Avram in his crib to nap, I sat in a stupor, just wanting to die. Had it not been for him, I'm not sure what I would have done.
Chapter 6 Avram
Even though Inga worked weekdays with occasional help from my mother, the next three months were the hardest of my life, harder than my legal battles around Joni. At night, I found myself reaching for Verona and crying. I even missed the time birds.
The movie script I had written about her was creating a stir, and I spent my days promoting it. I ate antidepressants like M&M's and started drinking. Sympathetic women popped into my life like mushrooms on a lawn, but I turned them away. Claire called and asked what was going on. I said I was fine. I was just having a little trouble adjusting, and not to worry.
"I'm going to worry," she said, "and if you insist on your self-destructive path, I'll intervene."
"What? Are you my mother? I said I'm doing fine, so just leave it. Okay?"
"No, not okay." She hung up.
I jabbed the phone's off button. "Bitch." I hated feeling sorry for myself.
I was writing and taking care of business, but I couldn't stop thinking of Verona. Gin eased my pain. At night, I drank alone, and in the morning, I'd have a drink to get rid of the headache. But I still took good care of Avram, feeding him, changing him and talking to him as he lay watching me. He was a good listener.
Over the weeks, I found more comfort in drink than in answering my phone or email, and I missed a couple of deadlines. Problem was, I just didn't care.
One August night after putting Avram to bed, I was watching the coverage of the fires in the San Bernardino Mountains when the doorbell rang. I hated people's dropping over without calling, and stomped to the door.
Claire stood there with an overnight bag in her hand and a determined look on her face.
"What are you doing here?"
"You smell of alcohol," she said, pushing past me. "What did you have for dinner?"
I pointed to my glass of gin on the coffee table. "My new lover."
She shook her head. "I'm here to make us dinner. Have you got food?"
I shrugged. "I have no idea, but help yourself." Actually, I was a little hungry, but not enough to do anything about it. I was also embarrassed at being caught in such a disreputable condition. "What's the bag for?"
"I'm moving in."
I giggled. "That's a tiny bag for all your stuff."
She gave me a dirty look and went into the second bedroom.
Half an hour later, she called me to the kitchen where she had made scrambled eggs, chili and toast. Not bad.
While I ate, she said, "You're a mess, Sam."
"I know. Why are you doing this? I don't deserve it."
"No, you don't. Thankfully, I'm attached to the baby and I still care enough to stop you from killing yourself. Just as you stopped Verona from jumping off the bridge."
"Thanks. I feel shitty."
She patted my hand. "Life will turn around. I promise you."
My anger flared. "How do you know?"
"I know that you love your boy and you have a lot to live for. I've known you for a long time, and I know your inner strength. Trust me."
I lay my head on the table and cried.
She petted my hair. "You'll be fine."
I do believe that her coming to live with me saved me, inner strength or not. We shared caring for Avram, and it was a pleasure to see her enjoyment as his surrogate mother. Though we grew close, she always slept in the other room.
One night, after Avram fell asleep, I sat on the couch reading a movie script, and paused to observe Claire in the easy chair as she read a book. She still had a pretty face, white skin outlined by thick black hair. Slightly plump with wide hips. Not perfect like Verona, but very few are. It had been a long time since I'd seen Claire naked.
She looked up and smiled. "You're watching me."
"Yes, I am. I've been wondering why we haven't slept together."
She put down her book. "It's a matter of honor."
"When you left me, I was sad, but it was a clean sort of sadness. It felt honorable, better than pounding myself to pieces on the rocks of your disdain."
"Ouch," I said. "You're right. Thank you."
"Staying proud and separate is honorable, as is caring for the man who needs me now."
"What about lovemaking? Is that honorable?"
"It depends on you. I won't say that I'll only do it if you love me, but I will say that you'll have to show me respect and appreciation."
"That makes sense. Verona taught me that love was wonderful. I miss the closeness."
She smiled. "I'll bet. Not yet, Sam. Show me that your heart is in an honorable
"You don't like how I do errands for you presently?"
"I do. Being useful isn't the same as being trustworthy."
"Got it," I said, not really getting it.
A couple of weeks later, we sat together on the couch watching TV and eating peanut brittle. By accident, I bit my lip. "Ow!" It really hurt.
Claire laughed. "Let me look. Oh, my, it's bleeding."
"What should I do, Doctor?"
"It'll heal by itself in a couple days, but, here, I'll make it better."
I laughed as she pulled my lip and kissed it. Then our lips slid together, and neither of us laughed. My mouth hurt, but that kiss made me realize how much I wanted her. We undressed franticly and made love on the couch. I never did figure out what that had to do with honor, but was oh-so-glad we did it.
That night, she moved into my bedroom. When we got in bed, I couldn't help but remember Verona and the pain of her desertion. My sweet Claire held me as I cried.
My feelings for her were of appreciation and comfort. No fireworks between us, but reliable mutual support. She seemed happy, and I wondered if this were what she had always wanted. I don't think I would have been enough for her had we been alone, but the baby made the difference.
She was a good substitute mother. I appreciated her teaching me about a child's developmental stages, and how to care for him when he got sick. We took him for walks in the stroller and referred to her Aunt Claire. He depended on her, and it was good for all of us.
One night at dinner, she put her fork down and looked at me. "What will you do if Verona comes back?"
"She's not coming back, Claire."
"Then pretend. What will you do?"
I had hoped to avoid the question, as no matter which way it went, someone would get hurt. I sighed. "I'd probably go with her if she asked."
She looked down at her plate. "And if she wanted Avram, too?"
"It's her baby."
"I know, but I can't imagine living without him. He's the baby I never had."
"I understand. Not being Solomon, I can't offer to cut him in half. How about if the three of us remained in contact? Could you accept that?"
"In what capacity?"
"You'd be Avram's loving aunt. It wouldn't be honorable for us to be lovers."
She frowned. "I see your point. That's not my best solution."
I squeezed her hand. "I'm sorry."
Chapter 7 Verona
On Avram's first birthday, the evening of January fourteen, I dressed him in his little blue coveralls, and carried him to the living room where Claire had a small chocolate cake with a single lit candle.
"Cay?" he said, reaching for the cake.
At that moment, all the lights went out save for the candle. Someone reached to touch the child, and as the lights came on, Verona stood next to me in a shining silver pantsuit.
Gently, she lifted Avram and held him like Mary with Jesus. "My baby, you've grown so big."
Her beauty brought back the memory of my love and suffering of her departure.
Verona smiled at me. "Sam, you look wonderful. How are you?"
"Totally shocked. Why have you come?"
"I apologize. I have come to take you and Avram back, to join my family as immortals."
I winced. "Um, we have to talk."
Stepping back, she glanced at Claire. "Is there a problem?"
"In a way. Claire has been living here for the last six months as Avram's surrogate mother. They love each other now."
"What are you saying? That you love her?"
"No, though I care for her and owe her a debt of gratitude. When you left, I was nearly destroyed with grief, and spiraled downward. Claire came to help me as I once helped you. Because of her, I'm okay now."
"Are you saying you will not relinquish my baby?"
"Not at all. I'm saying that Avram and Claire are deeply bonded. I can't let them be separated."
Avram, not knowing this woman holding him, leaned toward Claire. "Clay-ah!
Claire put the cake on the coffee table and took him to sit on the couch.
Verona started. "He speaks? Without an implant?"
"Yes. He's a normal child. I'm saying that if we're together, then Claire must have access to him."
"That would not be possible. During the last nine months, my family and I have been petitioning the government for your immigration. You do not realize the honor my world is giving you. The visas to bring you with me were authorized at the highest level. Bringing you and Avram into my family is like allowing my family three children, which is unheard of. To bring a fourth would be inconceivable."
"Then, will you live here?" Claire asked. "I would welcome you."
Verona stood thinking. "Are you suggesting a polyamorous relationship like my family's? I would consider it."
"No," Claire said.
"I did not think so. Just as well, since my whole effort has been to unite Sam and Avram with my family. Come with me, Sam. Life there would be so much better, and Avram would be an adored child with all the richness of our advanced society."
"But would he be any happier there than here?"
"I cannot say. The people we love mean more than where we live. I am sure he would love my family."
"Possibly, but he loves Claire now, and losing her would be traumatic, just as your being away from your family was so difficult for you."
"You are right." Her face showed her inner struggle. "I still need my baby." The corners of her mouth twitched downward. "Do you not want me?"
"If I could trust you, I'd be willing to try again. In any case, I cannot allow Claire to be separated from Avram. How about if you stayed as my wife? Claire could be his live-in aunt and you could go back to visit your family whenever you wanted."
Verona shook her head. "The energy cost would be prohibitive. They expect this to be my last trip this year."
"Well, isn't this a fine mess? Claire can't go to your land, you won't live here, and we all want the boy." I felt like a fox in a trap.
Verona spoke with eyes glistening. "The decision is yours, Sam. Choose between us."
Before I could answer, Claire stood, mouth quivering. "I love Sam and Avram, but Avram's happiness means most." She handed the baby to me. "You two can take him to a new life."
"Why?" I asked.
"Honor, Sam. A sacrifice for Avram's long-term good." She turned and walked quickly out the sliding door to the deck.
Verona took my hand. "I am so sorry for hurting her. Will you need to bring anything? We can leave as soon as you have said goodbye."
I couldn't do that to Claire. Come on, Sam, you're a clever fox. Think of something. But the only thought that came was a growing need to plant my feet. I passed Avram into Verona's arms. "Take him. I'm not going."
She paled. "You're not ...? But, why?"
"In your world, I'd be a man without a career and a useless anachronism. Polyamorous relationships don't appeal to me. I won't leave Claire in the cold, and I could not survive your leaving me again. You're Avram's real mother and have first claim."
"Would it be a boon or a curse? A lot can happen between now and forever, and we might separate. It's a terrible thing to say, but I'm not as afraid of death as I am of the uncertainties of a future with you."
She gasped and choked on her tears, and Avram in her arms started crying. She handed him to me.
Looking back in fear, he locked his arms around my neck.
"Your are his real father, Sam. Love him for me."
I stood stunned. "I'm more than sorry, Verona."
"I know you are. I felt the same when I left you." She took a steadying breath. "Will you invite me to celebrate his birthdays as his ever-youthful godmother?"
"Yes, of course." Shaking inside, I held Avram and kissed her.
When the kiss ended, she stepped back with a look of deep despair. Then her eyes rotated and she shrieked like a wounded deer.
Avram cried in terror at the sound, and the lights went out. When they came back on, she was gone.
Claire came back in, and we all held each other and cried.
Having chewed his leg off, the once-trapped fox was free.
Published March 2006