That night Robyn slipped under Robert's radar and found herself a seat in the front row, directly behind the orchestra 'pit.' Despite it being the third time she had heard the orchestra perform, it was the first time she had the chance to watch the full production.
Perfectly on schedule, Mary led her kids into the packed gym and to their places. Cory, coming near the end of the procession saw Robyn and waved his left hand, his thumb securely bound by a strip of black cloth. Robyn grinned and gave him the thumbs-up sign, dropping her thumb to lie down against her hand, just as his did.
Cory laughed but when he took his seat, he was instantly focused on the music in front of him. Mary waited until all of the kids were seated before turning to step behind her podium. Seeing Robyn so close, she grinned and winked but then she, too, became focused. She reached up to snap her page light on and immediately the lights in the gym began to dim. Before they faded completely, however, Robyn saw Mary glance to the left of the stage and nod, a subtle yet noticeable cue for whoever was waiting for it. The big drum began to rumble and Robyn settled back to watch the show.
It was good. Very good. In fact, by high school standards, the show was excellent and Robyn joined in with the applause wholeheartedly. The actors all took their bows and Kyle came out to join them. Then the spotlight moved down to the orchestra and cheers were added to the clapping. Robyn smiled when she saw Mary grudgingly turning around to the audience. The spotlight found her and immediately the noise from the crowd increased.
Driven by an overwhelming feeling of support for her friend, Robyn stood up. She gave a single nod to meet Mary's humble smile but as the rest of the audience rose to their feet, the humbleness changed to disbelief. In an effort to deflect some of the attention, Mary turned to applaud her kids but it was to be her night. Moving as one all of her musicians rose to their feet, their faces beaming with affection, their applause meant for their teacher alone. A raucous yell exploded and soon the respectful applause turned into a full out cheer, whistles, hoots and calls drowning out all other sound for over a minute.
Mary was stunned, touched so deeply by the actions of her kids that tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. Cory broke first, running to his teacher and enveloping her in a bear hug. One by one all the kids followed and as she left the gym, the last thing Robyn saw was her friend surrounded by gratitude.
Just as she had warned Mary she would, Robyn retreated to her truck to avoid the crowd and to help pass the time, listened to her voicemail. She had five new messages the emotionless electronic voice told her and she was not surprised to learn that most of them were from her agent, Dave. There were four new offers of jobs ranging from commercials to another motion picture score; A Broadway producer wanted her permission to use some of her work in an upcoming farce and in her absence, Dave had given him the go-ahead; Dave wanted to be called; Twice.
The last message was from her mom and dad. They had just docked in Vanuatu and wanted to say thank you, yet again, to their selfless, generous and amazing daughter. Robyn nearly groaned aloud. How would they feel when they learned the real reason for her gift? The two of them had stuck by their only daughter's side through it all and then at the final moment of the nightmare, she sent them away. They would be angry, Robyn knew, but more than that, they would be hurt. They would want to know why and even now, Robyn did not have an answer. Had she been trying to save them from the worry and stress or was there another, deeper reason? She had gone over and over it again and again in her mind but all she managed to find was more confusion.
A flash of doubt appeared in her mind. Had the surgery actually happened? Was it real or was it just a dream? She lifted a tentative hand to her skull and felt along her scalp. There. Behind her right ear, a raised line, bumpy and numb to the touch of her fingers like all the other scars she had. Did that mean it was true? That the tumor had been removed? After a lifetime of worry and doctors' hesitation to operate, had one man finally done it?
It seemed so strange; it had all happened but so suddenly. One minute she was facing insanity again and the next it was gone. All over. Surreal, her vocabulary supplied. It was surreal. Her parents were going to be very upset when she told them the truth; hurt, cheated and angry. Rubbing her hands over her face, Robyn sighed. If only she had a good reason for why she had done it, maybe that would help.
The passenger door of the truck flew open and Mary all but jumped in. She pointedly avoided looking at Robyn as she buckled her seatbelt. "Drive," she said. "Please just drive."
Immediately, Robyn had the truck in gear and they began rolling out of the parking lot. Instinctively, she turned the truck toward to highway that would eventually lead them to another town. The four-lane road was clear of snow and the truck built up speed steadily. Soon there was no sound but the deep rumble of snow tires on tarmac and the whisper of passing air. Eventually Robyn's thoughts returned to her parents while she waited for Mary to be ready to talk.
"Tell me why you did it?" Mary eventually asked, her voice carefully neutral.
The question was so similar to what she had been asking herself that it took a moment for Robyn to realize Mary had spoken. "Why I did what?" she asked, her mind not yet able to separate the thoughts.
"In the gym tonight," Mary replied. "Tell me why you did that?" Her voice, no longer neutral, betrayed a hint of pain.
"I stood up because I felt you deserved a standing ovation," Robyn told her plainly.
Mary shook her head. "No. Not that. Although I'll smack you for that later. I mean the kids. Why did you tell the kids to do that?"
"Oh Komali," Robyn breathed, finally realizing what Mary was asking. "I promise you I had nothing to do with that. I didn't even see the kids before the show." Through quick glances at her passenger, Robyn saw that the tears had started again.
"Don't even think about pulling over," Mary told her flatly. "Forward motion is good."
"Is it really so hard for you to believe that the kids did it themselves?" Robyn asked, flipping down her high beams as a car passed.
"No," Mary admitted quietly. "No, it's not. I don't know. I guess I saw you stand up, then the kids did and," she paused as another wave of tears had her groping in her pockets for more tissue.
"Glove box," Robyn said without looking over.
Gratefully Mary opened the small pack of travel Kleenex and wiped her eyes. "I thought you had told them to do it," she finally admitted.
Robyn shook her head. "No," she told her fiend flatly. "All you can blame me for tonight was standing up. Maybe the kids were just following along. They love you, Komali. They wanted to show you that and to say 'thank you.'"
Mary sat in silence for a few more minutes, blotting her eyes and nose occasionally. "We can turn back now," she eventually said, the words all but whispered. A few moments later Robyn had the truck turned around and they headed back toward Stillville.
"Why do compliments make you so uncomfortable?" Robyn asked as she stared ahead into the snow-filled darkness. Had she not received an answer, Robyn would not have been surprised but the response that did come stunned her.
"Because I don't deserve them." Robyn fought for something to say but Mary spoke again. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Robyn asked and Mary laughed as if it were obvious.
"For freaking out on you. For all," she waved a hand around to include the truck and the highway, "this!"
Robyn shrugged. "I like driving." She felt Mary's eyes on her but she forced her own gaze out the windshield.
"Why?" the teacher asked quietly, watching Robyn's face in the warm blue from the dashboard controls.
"Why do I like driving? I don't know. Maybe because it's real and I can relax."
"No. Why don't you ever get angry?" Mary corrected. "Why are you so damn calm all the time?"
Robyn glanced across at her friend and smiled. "I get angry. And I'm social-phobic. Calm does not happen often." The two women travelled in silence for a while, reaching Stillville and almost all the way to Mary's house before Robyn finished her thought. I feel comfortable around you. I'm relaxed and at ease." The truck slowed as they reached the driveway. "Is that wrong?" she asked easing to a stop before the gate.
"No," Mary told her. Neither woman made a move toward leaving the vehicle, even when the four dogs came bounding out to meet them. "No, it's not wrong. It's just that I get so overwhelmed with emotions so easily and yet you are always so calm."
Robyn chuckled. "Komali, I may look calm but I assure you that sometimes I am the furthest thing from it."
Mary pondered this as they left the truck, greeted the dogs and went inside. "Would you like some hot chocolate or some cocoa?" she asked once her jacket had been hung up and her silk suit replaced by a pair of fuzzy pajamas.
"Sure. Either would be great," Robyn smiled. "Why don't you let me make it?"
"Because you don't know where I keep the brandy," Mary replied flatly.
While the teacher was in the kitchen, Robyn quickly changed her own clothes, choosing a loose t-shirt and pair of yoga pants. She walked into the kitchen to find Mary sitting on the floor with her face buried ion Jonah's fur. The rotti turned his placid expression toward Robyn and blinked. On a whim, wishing she could read the dogs as well as her friend could, Robyn moved forward and petted the dog's head. Silently Jonah stepped back and allowed Robyn to pull Mary to her feet and into her arms. The teacher did not resist and instead leaned her head on her friend's shoulder and wrapped her arms around Robyn's slim waist. The kettle's auto shut-off clicked when the water was boiled but neither woman was ready to let go. It had been so long since Mary had been held by another person that she would have been happy if Robyn had never let go.
It was finally the female Newfoundland's head that separated the woman, Surf forcing her big head between them and using her whole body to push them back from each other. Robyn laughed and dropped to her knee.
"You feeling all left out, Surfy-girl?" she asked. The dog sat and pushed her head into Robyn's chest, effectively covering the woman in slobber and drool. "Oh gross!" Robyn exclaimed when Surf decided she had been scratched enough and walked to the huge water bowl.
Mary laughed, struggling to be sympathetic. "Newfie drool. You've been floogered," she announced, tossing Robyn a towel.
"Flooger?" Robyn repeated. "Ew! That is just too gross! I'm going to change. I'm never hugging you again," she said to Surf, who simply wagged her tail and went out through the dog door.
Chuckling at the woman's reaction, Mary quickly prepared the mugs of hot chocolate and added a splash of brandy to each. She grabbed her emergency bag of vanilla Oreo cookies and walked into the living room. Robyn was changing her shirt and the sight stopped Mary dead in her tracks.
The composer was facing the other direction, her back bare for Mary to see. Broad, strong shoulders tapered down to a lean midsection and down to the top of firm buttocks. Scars criss-crossed over the pale skin. Some long and narrow, others shirt and ragged.
"My god, Robyn," she breathed. "What happened to you?"
Hurriedly Robyn covered herself with another t-shirt and turned to face Mary. "Geez, you scared me!" she smiled but the other woman's expression stole all humor. "I don't even remember getting half of them," she shrugged, trying to ease Mary's shock. "Some happened as I fought the restraints of the chair. Apparently my struggling loosened some screws in the back of it." She stepped forward to take a mug from the teacher.
"It looks like you crashed through a glass freaking window!"
Robyn smiled and half-winced. "Well, it was a shattered tv screen, actually. I fell back onto the glass. I remember that one because of the shard I had in my butt." She pushed her waistband down enough for Mary to see the small scar at the top of her left butt cheek.
Mary shook her head, appalled by what she had just seen. "Shit," she whispered. "And I thought I had problems."
Robyn dropped onto the couch and took a cautious sip of her drink. "Just because someone else may have gone through some shit doesn't mean you haven't," she told Mary. "It's all relative."
"Yeah, I suppose it is."
Robyn waited long enough to know that nothing was going to follow. "Come on, Komali," she urged gently. "Talk to me."
"That's just not something I do," Mary shrugged.
"So change what you do. Tell me why you can't take a compliment."
Mary sat in silence for a long while, her hot chocolate and bag of cookies forgotten. "I'm just not as perfect as everyone seems to think I am. I disappointed my father by not becoming a concert pianist. I disappoint my mother every day that I don't get married. I disappoint myself every time I think of Kasandra. I disappoint my kids every time I lose my patience with them. I disappoint Kyle when I don't take the applause. And I disappoint you whenever I," she paused, as if suddenly unsure about saying the words aloud.
"Every time you what?" Robyn prompted, sipping her drink.
"Every time I wonder what it would be like to kiss you," Mary finally forced out.
Robyn kept her face neutral and ensured her body language was relaxed. "And you think that would disappoint me?" she asked coolly. "Why would it?"
Mary pulled her knees up to her chest and struggled to avoid Robyn's gaze. "Why wouldn't it?" she countered.
"Well," Robyn began, placing her empty cup on the coffee table. "To begin with, having you as a girlfriend would not be disappointing. Being kissed by you wouldn't be a disappointment either. Unless you are a terrible kisser."
Mary failed to hold her smile and glanced at Robyn. "Well then, maybe it's just me that's disappointed."
Robyn faked a hurt expression. "Am I really that bad?" she joked.
Mary exhaled loudly through her nose. "No! Good god, no. I just mean," she paused. "I can't figure it out. Am I gay or am I straight?"
Robyn shrugged. "Why not just be Komali? Gay, bi, straight; they're just labels. How you feel is the important part."
Mary thought. "Confused," she stated simply. "I feel confused."
"Well, shit, honey! Welcome to my life." Robyn watched as her friend's posture gradually began to relax. "You're not being fair to yourself," she said. "Or fair to the people you think you've disappointed. Have any of them ever said you'd let them down?" A flash of hostility dashed across Mary's eyes and Robyn had her answer. "Your parents love you. Your dad wanted something for you that you didn't want for yourself. That doesn't mean he's unhappy with you. And your mom. It's probably a generational thing. She wants you to get married for security reasons. Financial, emotional and societal." She paused and allowed the words to sink in.
"Kasandra is a beautiful girl. You are or were attracted to her. The biggest part of that is the fact you had enough sense of mind and control not to cross the line. You behaved honorably and perhaps more importantly, kindly. The girl has some loose screws, Komali. That doesn't mean you were the screwdriver."
The words and thought appeared simultaneously not allowing Robyn enough time to consider the wisdom of saying them aloud. "You've got something inside of you that wants you to feel bad about yourself and the disappointment crap is just an easy way of doing that, and of redirecting some of the blame onto other people." She met Mary's surprised look with a shrug. "Maybe I've had too much therapy." Mary flashed a sad smile and opened her bag of cookies.
"There's something though, isn't there?" Robyn asked and grudgingly, Mary nodded.
"Do you know what it is?" Robyn gently pushed. Munching on a cookie, Mary simply blinked and tossed a handful of cookies over to the couch.
"Has it been there for a while?" Robyn continued, also crunching a cookie. Mary nodded and closed her eyes for a moment. "You know what happened to cause it though, don't you?"
Staring into space, Mary slowly shook her head. "No," she said lifting her eyes to Robyn at the same moment.
The composer met the intense gaze easily and flashed her crooked smile. "Ya want me to stop prying?"
Mary shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I only know what I know." Abruptly she rose to her feet and moved to the piano bench. With her eyes closed, Mary began to play; a slow mellifluous melody drifting from the well-loved instrument. "My family don't talk about it, especially my mother. It was actually my dad who told me after I started having nightmares." The notes became hollow and haunting, full of the sorrow that coursed through Mary.
"I wasn't my parents' only child. I was the youngest of identical twins. Apparently we were so alike mom and dad had to put bracelets on our wrists and write on our sleepers so they wouldn't mix us up."
"My god! Two of you!" Robyn breathed and Mary smiled.
"Her name was Abhilisha. They called her Abbi."
"Your middle name?" Robyn guessed and Mary nodded her eyes watching her fingers on the keys.
"A sign of respect. It was added to my name after she died." The piano continued to sing while Mary let herself drift away. Robyn sat and waited, watching Mary as she played.
"The story isn't very dramatic or thrilling," she said almost in warning. "She just died. My mother came to get us one morning when we were almost two and Abbi had died in the night." The music came to an abrupt end as Mary dropped her hands to her lap. "She was born with a heart condition no one ever diagnosed."
"Is that why you moved to Canada?" Robyn asked, absently petting Tuck who had jumped up to join her on the sofa.
Mary shrugged. "I'm not sure. I always assumed so but it is disrespectful to speak of the dead in my father's family. I've always accepted that. Especially after he broke his own rules to tell me about her."
Silence, except for the heavy rumble of snoring newfies filled the little house. "So you are haunted by the missing half of you?" Robyn finally asked.
Mary nodded. "Partly, I think. You must have heard about the connections identical twins can have." She placed her hands reverently back on the keyboard and began playing again, this time in a higher key. "But what the shrinks told my parents is that I was scarred by her death. Not only emotionally but also psychologically. My sister and I had shared a bed. I had spent most of the night cuddling my dead sister."
Robyn watched Mary play, struggling to hide the emotions that raced through her. Finally, she surrendered to the storm and bowed her head. She rubbed her hand over her thinly covered scalp several times before realizing the music had stopped. Calmly, she lifted her head. "Suddenly I want to hold you again," she admitted to her friend and they looked into each other's eyes for several moments.
"How about more brandy, some popcorn and a movie instead?" Mary finally asked, but hidden deep within the words, Robyn clearly heard 'thank you.'
"Absolutely," she replied and followed her friend back into the kitchen.