Before First Sight

 

Michelle Marr

 

 

 


        Wendy walked right into the man.
        All morning, she'd wandered the length of the private beach, troubled by the phone calls and letters that had suddenly stopped coming. She wasn't even aware of the stranger's presence until she slammed into him.
        With a surprised grunt, the man lifted his arms. One of his hands brushed the side of Wendy's bare breast and she froze, taking in the sight of his polo shirt and slacks.
        He wasn't a tourist; he was here for her. She'd known they would send someone, had been preparing for the inevitable confrontation.
        But she wasn't ready. Not now.
        She ran.
        She knew she was kicking up sand, drawing his attention to her. All she had to do to escape was stand still, but she couldn't make herself stop. She had to get away. She couldn't face him here.

***

        Greg drew in a slow breath that did nothing to calm his jangled nerves. It had been her on the beach. There couldn't be another invisible woman strolling along the sand in Hawaii.
        He'd felt warm flesh against his palm, heard the shocked little gasp. Then she'd been gone, leaving him to wonder how badly he'd screwed things up before even meeting her.
        Originally he'd planned to go up to the house and introduce himself after a quick walk on the beach, but she might need time to recover from their brief encounter. He knew he did.
        Greg killed an hour wandering through touristy gift shops while he tried to figure out how to smooth things over with the invisible woman.
        Wendy Simmons. She'd been here for nearly five years, living in a house paid for by Newly Possible Technologies. It was time for her to return to the rest of the world, but she wasn't responding to letters or phone calls. So he'd been sent to convince her.
        Even before accidentally groping her on the beach, Greg had suspected he was in over his head. He had a basic idea how the whole procedure, a series of sessions involving banks of special lights, worked. His job was to persuade Wendy to go back and lie down under them.
        Parked at the end of her driveway, he glanced over the notes he'd been given before leaving NPT. Her brief responses to their letters and the transcriptions of her phone conversations with Doctor Wilson all stated clearly why she refused to go back. She was afraid. She'd had good reason to feel that way, but now it was safe. It was time.
        The walkway to her front door was lined with slender palm trees and dense green foliage. Huge, glossy leaves brushed against his shoulder as he passed.
        Leaves. Not a woman's hand. Greg glanced around and saw nothing. Which meant nothing. Wendy Simmons could be standing inches from him, close enough for her breath to tickle the hairs on the back of his neck.
        He pressed the doorbell and heard it ring inside, the sound muffled by the heavy wooden door.
        See, he told himself as he heard footsteps approaching the other side of the door. She's in there, not out here.
        The door swung in and he took a step back.
        "Yes?" The stout older woman stood with her body behind the door, as if prepared to keep him out.
        "I'm Greg ---"
        "From NPT." She stepped back from the door and swung it wide open. "They called about you this morning. Wendy wasn't here."
        "Is she here now?"
        The woman shook her head. "She doesn't know about the call. She's been expecting it, though. We both have. What are you going to do to her?"
        "Nothing. I'm here to talk, to see if I can persuade her to go back with me."
        "She won't."
        He'd expected that. His job was to change her mind.
        "You're the housekeeper?"
        "Midge." The woman nodded. "I work for the company, same as you. But I clean house and run errands. I won't help you hurt Wendy."
        "I'm only here to talk to her," Greg repeated. "To find out how we can persuade her to come back." Back to the facility, and back into the world.
        "I don't think you can. Not unless you've come up with something a lot more convincing than what was in those letters."
        He had exactly what had been in those letters. The same arguments that hadn't swayed her at all.
        "Is Wendy here?"
        "She's down on the beach."
        Damn. He'd still been trying to convince himself that it had been his imagination.
        "I'd like to wait for her."
        Midge shrugged. "It's their house. But you'll have to entertain yourself. I've got work to do."
        She showed him into a room at the back of the house. It was decorated in cool shades of blue with papasan chairs and a futon style couch. A wide open pair of French doors let in the breeze.
        He wondered what Wendy Simmons would be like. Before NPT recruited her as a human guinea pig, she'd been an office assistant, privy to enough technical stuff that she'd already been through all of the necessary security clearances. He didn't know why she'd decided to become transparent, if it had been the money or the sense of adventure, the chance to do something exotic and daring.
        There'd been a risk involved. She knew that before she even set foot in the lab.
        Something had gone wrong, a nasty bit of sabotage that had taken them months to repair. For a while - a long while - it had been impossible to bring Wendy and the other test subjects back into the visible world. But the situation had been corrected. Everything at NPT was hunky dory and it was time for Wendy's tropical vacation to come to an end.
        She refused.
        Facts and evidence that the procedure, while it was still slow and complicated, had become routine didn't sway her. So they'd pulled him in from the business offices and stuck him on a plane.
        He hadn't expected to be intimidated by her. Everyone in the lab described Wendy as sweet. Friendly. Nice. The photos in her file showed a slender, petite blonde with a bright smile and sparkling eyes. He'd spent a lot of time looking at them, wanting to memorize the details of the face he wouldn't be able to see once they actually met.
        She was beautiful; it was easy to lose himself in the sight of her. Until he got to the last photo in the stack, the one where she stood in a green hospital gown, a frightened look in her eyes, the medical equipment behind her clearly visible through her arms and legs. He wondered if that had been the moment she realized exactly what she'd committed herself to.
        He stepped out onto the patio. Big pots and urns overflowing with tropical flowers surrounded a pair of chaise lounges. Like the interior of the house, the terrace was a hidden oasis, shielded from the rest of the world by a dense green jungle of tropical growth.
        The houses on either side of this one were privately owned vacation property that sat empty for most of the year. The beach was far enough from hotels that Wendy wouldn't have to worry about tourists invading her private sanctuary.
        He could understand why she might be reluctant to leave, but personally he was about as comfortable there as he'd be in the waiting room of the dentist's office.

***

        Midge was waiting for Wendy on the steps that led from the beach up to the house. "There's a man here to see you."
        "From NPT?"
        Midge nodded. "He's been in the living room for an hour or so."
        "We knew it was coming." Wendy sighed as she reached the top step.
        Over the past few months, the letters and phone calls had become more frequent, more insistent. They were going to win. NPT was a huge corporation and she was more or less at their mercy, with few resources of her own. So far, they'd just been asking nicely and she'd been saying no.
        Now, it looked like they were ready to take the next step, whatever that was. She didn't know if that meant legal action, if they'd drag her into court of just haul her back to the facility and strap her down under those awful lights. Suddenly she wanted to get out of the sun, away from the intensity of its heat on her skin.
        "What are you going to do?" Midge asked.
        "I guess I've got to go in and see what he has to say. Maybe it's not as bad as we think." Maybe they just wanted to take away the house and the money. That would be bad, but not as bad as going back to the facility.
        "Are you crying?" Midge demanded, picking up on the slight waver in her voice.
        "Not really." Not yet.
        Wendy went through the kitchen door and stood in the center of the room under she had herself back under control, then went on into the living room.
        He was sitting on the edge of the couch, the same man she'd run into earlier on the beach.
        "Hi."
        At her soft greeting, he jumped, practically flew off the couch. Wendy smiled. Maybe he didn't have all of the power in this situation after all.
        "Wendy?" he asked, looking around him and trying to figure out where she was.
        "I'm the only invisible woman here." She crossed the room and sat on the opposite end of the couch.
        He didn't jump quite as high when the cushion dipped under her weight, but she still had to cover her mouth to keep a giggle from escaping.
        "Why do I make you so nervous?" she asked. "You work for NPT. Haven't you talked to any of their other victims?"
        "Yes, but that was in the lab. This is different." Now that he knew where she was, he was looking at her end of the couch. "Do you think of yourself as a victim?"
        "No. Not any more."
        "They'd like you to come back to the facility, for just long enough to reverse your condition."
        "Has something changed? Something they didn't tell me about in all of those letters and phone calls?"
        "Nothing major. They perfected the procedure several years ago. There haven't been any further accidents."
        "I don't want to go."
        He had underestimated how difficult this would be. It wasn't any easier than talking to her over the phone would have been. Harder, in fact, since she had the benefit of his body language and he could only go by her tone of voice.
        She was nervous, didn't trust him. The thought of going back to NPT frightened her. But he'd expected all of that before he got here.
        "Why won't you let them fix you?"
        "It's not necessary. It's like elective surgery, for something that's just cosmetic. The benefits don't outweigh the risks."
        "I know there were...complications the first time they tried to reverse the procedure."
        "The burns." Her voice went cold and he could tell she didn't appreciate his choice of words.
        "Yes. They made mistakes, but they resolved those difficulties some time ago. The process is no longer dangerous. It's routine. Most of the people who worked on the original project have gone through it at least once."
        "Have you?"
        "No. They offered." The doctor had suggested it would give him a better understanding of Wendy's situation. "I felt it would be a waste of resources to satisfy my own curiosity."
        And he'd kept picturing Wendy standing there half-transparent with the vulnerable, frightened look in her eyes.
        "So it's not the easy no-big-deal thing you want me to think it is."
        "There was no reason for me to do it. You're already halfway done. It's in your best interest to complete the procedure."
        "What if I refuse?"
        "Then I go back to the facility and tell them you said no."
        "That's it?"
        "That's it as far as I'm concerned."
        She sighed. "Why is it suddenly so important that I go back?"
        "They're ready to market the equipment. It doesn't look good that one of the original test subjects is still invisible and unwilling to go near the labs.
        "Do you really plan to spend the rest of your life like this?"
        "As long as they'll let me." He could see the couch cushions shift as she stood up and hear her bare feet pad across the tile floor. "What happens next -- will they take me to court?"
        He shook his head. "That would generate negative publicity. You're the one in control of this situation.
        "I don't get it. They've offered a settlement that's more than generous. They'll let you come back here and live the rest of your life here at their expense if you want to. All you have to do it sit under some lights for a couple of hours and you can live a normal life again. They tell me there isn't even any physical sensation."
        "That's not how I remember it." She paused. "Have you ever had third degree burns?"
        "I didn't realize they were that severe."
        "I don't think they knew for sure. How could they diagnose, let alone properly treat, something they couldn't even see?"
        He heard her walking in the direction of the French doors.
        "Wendy?"
        There was no response. He was alone in the room. At least he thought he was.
        He waited for a few minutes before going out into the kitchen where Midge stood at the sink.
        "Are you planning to eat here?" she asked, barely looking up from the lettuce that she was tearing up into a colander.
        "I had hoped to stay at the house..."
        "It's NPT's house. I'll put sheets in the extra bedroom after I'm done making dinner."
        "Thank you." He pulled out a stool from the counter and sat down. "Is there something I can help with?"
        "No. The chicken's under the broiler and I'm almost done with this. You can eat in the kitchen with me. Wendy eats alone on the terrace. Always. She insists that watching an invisible person eat is disgusting."
        "Is it?"
        "It can be unsettling. But the novelty wears off."
        "How long have you been here?"
        "I was here before Wendy came." She paused to figure it out. "Thirty years, I think. It started out as a housesitting job, free room and board for looking after the place and its occupant when it has one."
        "There've been others here?" He wondered if they'd been from NPT, if they'd been employees or test subjects like Wendy, hidden away from the rest of the world.
        "I won't talk about them. And I won't say anything about Wendy, at least nothing you don't already know and nothing you can use against her."
        He didn't see Wendy again that afternoon, or that evening. Not the sound of her voice, not a footstep.
        Was she always this silent and inconspicuous, he wondered, or had he sent her into hiding? Maybe she was just being smart.
        If she didn't come out, he'd have a hard time convincing her to return to NPT with him.
        At almost midnight, he gave up sitting around the living room, hoping to hear a footstep in the hall or her voice in the kitchen. He'd just started to undress for bed when a scream tore through the house.
        He pulled his shirt back down over his chest and ran out into the hallway. Midge was already there.
        "She's dreaming." Midge brushed past, going in the direction of the tormented sobs. "I'll wake her up and she'll be fine. You leave her alone."

***

        "I'm okay." Wendy gave her puffy eyes a final wipe with the damp washcloth Midge had brought her.
        "You haven't dreamed about it in quite a while, have you?" Midge took the washcloth and carried it in to the bathroom sink where she laid it out to dry. "Maybe I should have sent him to a hotel."
        "Wouldn't have made any difference." Wendy plopped down onto her unmade bed. "I probably woke him up, huh?"
        "I stopped him in the hallway. He was charging to your rescue."
        "Maybe you should've let him."
        "I thought you didn't want anything to do with anyone from NPT."
        "I don't. At least I shouldn't, but --"
        "But?"
        "I ran into him on the beach this afternoon. Literally. I was thinking about all of those letters and not paying any attention at all because there's never anyone on our beach and I slammed right into him."
        "Doesn't sound romantic to me."
        "Not particularly, but he put up his hands and one of them landed right on my breast." She sighed. "Do you realize how long it's been since a man touched me?"
        "Five years since you became invisible."
        "Longer than that." A lot longer. "Now I can't stop thinking about it. He's got my hormones in an absolute uproar."
        "So do something about it."
        "I don't even know if he's unattached," Wendy protested. "Besides, wouldn't it be unethical or something?"
        "You've got a shortage of potential fling material," Midge pointed out. "Exactly one candidate. Unless you want to try the Internet after all."
        "No." Wendy said firmly. "I'm still not interested in cybersex. It sounds just so...pathetic..."
        Midge hurumphed. "Then you're back to candidate number one."
        "Who jumps every time I come into the room."
        "I don't know if you can blame him for that. Until he gets used to you, he's probably going to feel like he's living in a haunted house. Especially with those screams of yours."
        Wendy giggled. "Think my victim is still awake?"
        "Last I saw, he was heading for the terrace."

***

        The squeak of the French door's hinges pulled Greg's attention away from the book he'd bought at the airport. He glanced up from the couch, wondering if it had been moved by the breeze.
        "I'm coming in," Wendy said softly. "Do you mind?"
        "It's your house." He folded down the corner of the page he'd been reading and set the book on the end table.
        "I'm sorry if I woke you earlier."
        "I wasn't asleep yet. I hate to close my eyes and miss out on this place, but I don't know what to do with myself. No television?"
        "We moved the set into Midge's room when I got here. I don't watch it anymore. Too many reminders of things I can't do and places I can't go. Especially the car commercials."
        "You miss driving?"
        "Before I joined the experiment, I got a huge bonus for putting in long hours on another project. I went out and blew it on a little red convertible. Whenever I wasn't working, I was driving. Anyplace at all, just to go..." her voice trailed off. "As far as I know, it's still sitting in one of their garages."
        The wooden frame of the chair next to the end table creaked gently as she lowered herself into it. "How long will you be staying?"
        "I'm not sure," he admitted. "I have NPT's blessing to stay until I convince you to come back with me."
        "You're in for a long vacation, then." She laughed gently and he saw his book shift slightly on the tabletop. "I like this author. This is the first one in the series, isn't it?"
        "I think so. It's the first I've read."
        "If you want to check out the rest of his stuff, I've got all of it in my room. Fantasy novels are my favorites."
        "What else do you do with your time?" he asked. "I don't imagine you get out much."
        "I walk on the beach every day, but that's about it. It would be impractical for me to go out with Midge. Too many things could happen. So I hang around the house and read and loaf on the beach and help her with her tapestries."
        "Tapestries?"
        "She designs these absolutely gorgeous needlepoint wallhangings," Wendy's voice filled with enthusiasm, "but she likes coming up with the designs more than she likes the actual stitching. So I do a lot of that for her."
        She grabbed his hand and he pulled back from the unexpected contact.
        "Oh-" The happiness drained out of her voice. "I'm sorry."
        "No," he shook his head. "It's fine. You just startled me."
        She didn't take his hand again. "I wanted to show you our work, if you're interested."
        "I'd love to see it."
        "Our work room's off of the kitchen." She left him to follow the sound of her footsteps and the sight of an opening door. The overhead light went on and he found himself surrounded by color and patterns. Tapestries hung on every wall and skeins of yarn in every conceivable shade filled the shelves.
        Wendy lifted a rolled section of canvas from the table in the center of the room. "This is the one I just started."
        The tapestry unfurled to reveal a seascape. So far, she'd only stitched portions of the sky and waves, thousands and thousands of little blue stitches in different shades. The painted design on the canvas showed the faint outline of a woman in a long grass skirt dancing on a shell scattered beach.
        "Isn't all of that stitching tedious?"
        "I've got all the time in the world," she told him as she rerolled the canvas. "I can only spend so much of it walking up and down the beach."
        "You could change that," he pointed out.
        "There are no guarantees I could go back to the life I had. Besides, my car got old while I was here lying on the beach."
        For the first time, Greg wondered if she still looked like she had in the pictures, how much she'd changed over the years. Those burns might have left scars she'd have to live with once she became visible again.
        Wendy picked up a basket of blue yarn. "I think I'll take this into the living room and do some sewing," she told him.
        He followed her into the living room where she settled into the round chair with her work. Instead of returning to his book, he watched the needle she held slide back and forth through the weave of the canvas.
        "Why did you do it?" he asked. That was about the only scrap of information that hadn't been in the files they gave him. He knew she'd been promised another healthy bonus for donating her body to science, but NPT had withheld payment until the procedure was complete.
        Wendy hadn't fought them for it. She didn't need the money, though; they paid all of her expenses here, none of which were eextravagant Maybe the whole experience had frightened any greed out of her.
        "I thought it would be fun. That sounds incredibly stupid now, but it was enough of a reason at the time. When I was a girl, I remember seeing movies about invisible people and it looked so neat.
        "If they'd asked me to time travel, I probably would've jumped at that opportunity, too."

***

        Greg didn't drag himself out of bed until early afternoon. After they'd run out of things to talk about, he'd sat watching Wendy sew until he dozed off on the couch just before sunrise. A couple of hours later, he stumbled into the bedroom and worked up just enough energy to strip his clothes off before he climbed under the covers.
        The kitchen and living room were empty, so he helped himself to an apple from the bowl on the table and then checked the garage. Midge's car wasn't there; she was probably out running errands.
        There was no sign - or sound - of Wendy and he knew, despite what had happened the day before, he'd never find her if she was down on the beach.
        Now was as good a time as any to check in. He picked up the kitchen phone and dialed NPT. It was only a minute or two before he had Dr. Wilson himself on the line.
        "I'm staying here at the house, for now at least," Greg told him.
        "Any progress?"
        "Not a bit. Wendy's made it clear that she's happy the way things are."
        "You'll stay for a few more days, though, see if you can change her mind?"
        "Of course. I'll keep you up to date."
        "She's a charming young woman, isn't she? We still miss her around the office."

        Greg ended the conversation and settled down in one of the chairs with his book.
        A half hour later he'd run out of pages, but the story was far from over. It only took him a second to decide to get the next book from Wendy's room. She'd given him permission and he had nothing else to do until she got back.
        The room was dark and cool, dominated by a four poster bed draped by the same gauzy blue cloth that covered the large windows.
        He flipped the light switch next to the door and walked over to the crowded bookcase on the far wall. The books weren't in any order. As titles caught his interest he'd pull them out to check the back cover blurbs before continuing his quest for the one he was after.
        Then he heard the rustle of sheets spilling onto the floor. Wendy hadn't been down on the beach.
        "Greg?"
        "I'm sorry." He shoved the book back into place and turned to the door.
        "That's okay. It's not like there's anything for you to see." Her gentle teasing broke the tension between them.
        "I ran out of book," he explained, "and I thought you were down on the beach."
        "Usually I am at this time of day." One of the bed drapes swayed. "Give me a second to pull myself together and I'll show off my tropical paradise. If you want."
        He waited in the kitchen. In the bright light of day, her unseen presence wasn't quite so unsettling.
        "Ready?" she asked from just behind his shoulder.
        He nodded.
        "The steps over there lead down to the beach," she told him as they crossed the uneven stones of the patio. "Maybe you should go first since I can see you."
        The soft surface of the sand and the sound of the waves muffled her footsteps. "You're still here, aren't you?" he asked, feeling foolish for needing her to confirm it.
        "Right beside you," she replied. "Let's go down to the edge of the water."
        They had only gone a few yards before he accidentally bumped her. Her bare thigh brushed briefly against his before they pulled apart.
        "This isn't working very well," she said softly, then wrapped her hand around his forearm. "Do you mind?"
        "This is fine," he assured her. It was nice. Her hand felt smooth and warm against his skin. Again, he wondered how much she'd changed since they took the pictures in her file.
        "What exactly do you do for NPT?" she asked.
        "I've been working on the invisibility project for about two years now. Before that, I marketed software."
        "Sounds like a huge change."
        "It actually wasn't, not once I got used to the idea that NPT does the stuff they do. The actual work isn't much different."
        "I know. For the first week or so I was amazed and awed. Then it was just the same kind of typing and filing I did at the insurance company I used to work for. But it paid better."
        She paused, and he wondered if she was thinking about how well her job had rewarded her, with a permanent life of leisure. He wondered if she thought it was worth it.
        "How did you get here from the facility?" he asked.
        "After I recovered from the burns, they moved me from my hospital room into one of the apartments at the facility. It made me crazy. The door didn't lock. If someone wanted me, they barged in the same as they had when I was in the hospital room."
        "If I wanted to leave, I had to be covered from head to toe. Tights, gloves, a wig, special contact lenses... I felt like I was suffocating under all of that stuff.
        "I complained a lot, wishing I could go someplace warm where I wouldn't have to wear anything at all. The lab was too chilly to walk around naked and it was all or nothing."
        "I wasn't really serious about it, but one day Doctor Wilson handed me a big package of photos. This place, inside and out. They were nowhere near having the procedure safe and there was no good reason to keep me at the facility, so they put me on a private jet and sent me here."

***

        While Wendy was walking on the beach that afternoon, Greg drove to a travel agency in town. He studied the racks of glossy brochures until realizing she wouldn't be tempted by posh hotel rooms. He needed something different, something that would stir the adventurous spirit she'd buried after her problems with NPT.
        "Is there a bookstore near here?" he asked as he replaced the brochures in their slots.
        An hour later, he returned to the house with an armload of of heavily illustrated travel books.
        "What are those?" Wendy's voice came from near a half-eaten apple on the counter.
        "I wanted to show you something."
        "What?" He heard her cross the room, then felt the warm tickle of her breath on the side of his neck. "Are you planning a trip?"
        "I've been to most of these places already. I wanted to show them to you."
        "I wasn't planning a trip to Yellowstone," she pointed out.
        "I didn't think you were. It gets cold there at night." He shifted that book to the bottom of the stack. "With your sun-worshipping ways, you'd probably be more comfortable in the Grand Canyon. I hiked to the bottom once."
        He plunged into the story, trying to make it sound more appealing than it had actually been when he was exhausted and sweaty and sure he'd never make it back up to his car. When he saw the pages of the book turn, he realized that he had her.
        Wendy had never been to any of the national parks. She seemed to enjoy hearing about them and leafing through the books, but he couldn't tell if he'd worked up anything more than superficial interest.
        "Are these birds?" she asked, turning to a picture where a mass of black flecks spilled up into the darkening sky.
        "Bats, coming out of Carlsbad Cavern. They do it every night; there's a ranger presentation and an ampetheater where you can sit and watch them."
        "Have you been there, too?"
        "No, but a friend went and raved about the cave tours." He'd planned to tell her he'd done it himself. But he didn't want stupid lies that might stand between them if she actually did come back to NPT.

***

        "I'm not doing anything to change your mind, am I?" Greg asked a week later as they climbed the steps from the beach to the terrace. He knew what she'd say, but a man could still hope.
        "No." She sounded a little doubtful, but maybe that was wishful thinking on his part.
        For a while, he'd thought she was wavering. She seemed wistful, less content with her oasis. But not restless enough to leave.
        She was too scared to go back under those lights.
        After hearing her screams when the nightmares woke her up, he didn't blame her.
        "I'm going to have to go back soon."
        "I know." She reached over and took his hand, squeezing it tightly. "When will you leave?"
        "I haven't called about a flight yet, but I'm sure there'll be a seat available in a day or two. I can't stay much longer than that."
        She reached up to stroke his lips. It was the first time she'd touched him intimately. His breath caught in his chest.
        "I want to do something. Will you wait here for me?"
        He nodded, then listened to her receding footsteps and the absence of sound that told him she had gone.
        Wendy didn't come back. He sat there in the chaise lounge listening to waves sweep across the beach below. Waiting for the familiar sound of her footsteps.
        The second time he glanced at his watch, he realized that it had been at least half an hour.
        That was nobody's idea of "right back" so he got up and headed into the house.
        There was no sign of her until he got to her bedroom door, which was slightly ajar.
        "Wendy?" he asked as he pushed it open.
        He heard the mattress creak under her shifting weight.
        "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I wanted to--"
        He had a good idea what she'd intended to do. Clothing was scattered across the floor. Open jars of flesh colored makeup sat on the nightstand.
        "It's been a long time since I used this stuff. I've got too much hair to shove under the wig and the makeup is rancid..." she trailed off again, then spoke again after a long pause.
        "I wanted you to see me. Before you left."
        He followed the sound of her voice and gathered her into his arms.

***

        Greg's first stop when he got back to NPT was Dr. Wilson's office in the lab.
        "What will happen to her now?"
        The older man sighed. "She'll stay where she is, unless she changes her mind."
        "But the --"
        "It doesn't matter. She's healthy, has recovered from her injuries. She signed all of the nondisclosure agreements when she chose to take part in the project."
        "Then why did you even send me there?"
        "For Wendy's sake. Her life has become severely limited and I feel responsible for that. I'd hoped you would be able to coax her out of her seclusion."
        He hadn't. But he'd made her unhappy there.

***

        "Hello?" Even across thousands of miles of phone line, Wendy's voice made his skin sizzle.
        "How are you?"
        "Lonely. Midge took off to an art show on the mainland. I actually broke down this morning and turned on the TV to make some noise."
        "I checked the parking garage a couple of days ago," he told her. "That little red car of yours is still here. I think the tires are rotting, but other than that it looks pretty good."
        "Maybe you could make the arrangements to sell it." She sounded subdued. Depressed.
        Aware that he was only making things worse, Greg brought the conversation to an end, then sat holding the cordless phone and wondering what he'd done.

***

        Wendy logged onto the Internet with trembling fingers. It had been a while since she'd done any online shopping; here at the house she didn't need much.
        By the time she found a site that had what she needed, she was feeling more confident. The colors and styles she found appealed to her. She spent hours considering all of the possibilities, ordering more than she had originally thought she would need.
        She had a future to plan for.
        The first boxes arrived a few days later and she spirited them off to her room. She was sure Midge suspected what she was up to, but she wanted room to back out, just in case she changed her mind.
        She hadn't been completely dressed since her arrival at the beach house. When each new box showed up, she pulled on things one at a time to make sure they fit, that she remembered how to put herself together. But she didn't go through the whole routine until the morning she was due to leave for the airport.
        "Wow," Midge breathed when she walked into the kitchen. "I'd forgotten how gorgeous you are."
        Wendy shrugged off the compliment. "This isn't me, it's a lot of layers of stuff."
        "Did you tell him you're coming?"
        She shook her head. "I'm just going to visit with Doctor Wilson, talk to him about the possibilities. I haven't made up my mind to do anything yet."

***

        The flight wasn't particularly crowded, but Wendy was very aware of the people surrounding her. No matter how hard she'd tried, her heavy makeup looked artificial and she knew that it, along with the clothing she'd chosen to cover as much of her skin as possible, drew attention to her. She closed her eyes and feigned sleep for most of the flight, trying to tune out the low conversations that went on all around her.
        Once she got to Seattle, she had to face the crowded airport.
        It's just for a little longer, she promised herself. She'd be at the lab soon, would be able to take all of this stuff off.
        When she saw that Dr. Wilson had come to pick her up instead of sending a driver, she almost sobbed with relief.
        
"Wendy," he enveloped her in a warm bear hug. "I was starting to fear that you'd never leave that island. Was the trip all right?"
        "Nothing went wrong," she told him. "But I'm exhausted."
        "We'll get you set up at one of the apartments at the facility, give you a chance to rest before you go to the labs."
        "I'm still not sure I want to go through with it," she reminded him.
        But she'd come this far and he wasn't giving her any room to back down. There were tours of the lab and meetings with half a dozen other volunteers who had been through the process successfully and assured her that it would go just as well when she lay down under the lights herself.
        By the time she stripped off her layers of disguise and lay down in the apartment that night, her head was spinning.

***

        "You actually pulled it off. Congratulations!"
        Greg adjusted his grip on the phone receiver. "Did what?" He was involved with so many projects right now that he wasn't sure which one Dr. Wilson was talking about.
        "She's here, at the facility. She hasn't agreed to go under the lights yet, but now that she's off of that island, it's a pretty sure thing."
        Wendy was at NPT. Why hadn't she told him?
        "I've tried for years to get her to come and meet with me, but I don't think anyone but you could've managed it. We haven't worked out the exact details of your bonus yet, but you can expect an extremely healthy one."
        "Thank you." Greg hung up the phone and sat staring at it.
        He'd been sure nothing, absolutely nothing, would get Wendy to come back to NPT. Now she was here.
        What did that mean? And, now that she was secluded in one of their apartments, did she still have a choice? Wendy had checked herself into their building, put herself in a position where she'd have a hard time walking away if they pulled the rug out from under her.
        NPT wanted her to be visible, had wanted to be rid of her badly enough to send him out to persuade her.

        Did they want it badly enough to force the issue if she balked again?

***

        "Do you have any other questions before we head inside?" the lab assistant asked.
        "No," Wendy replied.
        "Let's go, then. They're waiting for you."
        She followed the young woman down the corridor, attracting little attention from the people they passed. Invisibility had become a routine thing here, common enough that no one spared a second glance at a floating hospital gown.
        "Remove your gown and lie down here," the technician instructed her once they had reached the lab.
        Wendy took a deep breath and reached behind her to unfasten the bow that had given her such difficulty earlier. She was going back under the lights. In a moment, the air around her would start to warm.

***

        What drew Greg's attention to the woman sitting in the courtyard was the rolled section of canvas in her lap, the needle and yarn quickly sliding from front to back.
        "Wendy?"
        She looked up and he saw her smile. "Now you've spoiled my surprise." She laid the needlepoint on the bench beside her.
        She stood and wrapped her arms around him in a hug so tight it was hard for him to breathe. Or maybe the problem was that she was there snuggling happily in his arms when he'd been so afraid that he'd spoiled her life.
        "How are you?" he asked.
        She took a deep breath. "Okay. Just...surprised by how hard this all is. The procedures are fine, but the rest of it--"
        She took a step back from him and turned toward the building. "I thought that as soon as it was done I'd go back to my old job. They kept my apartment for me, paid the rent and had someone come in to dust every week..."
        "I didn't realize how difficult it would be with so many people around all day long, knowing they're looking at me and worrying about what they think if I'm up to snuff.
        Suddenly, he knew why she was hiding here in the courtyard.
        "I hate it, but I've got to stick it out. It's either that or go back and sit on the beach until I finally die of old age.
        "They tell me some of the National Parks aren't too crowded this time of year -- even if they are kind of cold. Want to go with me?"

 

 

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Author Bio

Ms. Marr says, "Paranormal romances combine the best elements of my two favorite genres. I love the truly terrifying stuff, but sometimes - when the house is silent and dark - it's better to have a book that won't give you nightmares."

Michelle's newest paranormal, Switch, is now available from DiskUs Publishing.

Visit Michelle's website to read about her paranormals, which aren't really that scary, and her short horror stories, which are.

 

 


 

 

"Before First Sight" Copyright © 2002 Michelle Marr. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 07-18-02.

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