The small wooden barn smelled of horses
and hay. Mournful sounds of a Russian Orthodox choir drifted in from
outside. The flickering light of an oil lamp caressed the outlines of
two nude bodies lying on the dirt floor: a young woman and a young man
locked in a fierce embrace. The lovers seemed oblivious to the straw
and gravel that ground into the rope burns and bleeding gashes on the
He spoke in Old Russian. "I am not afraid to die. It's the thought of
leaving you with him that I cannot bear."
The woman clung tighter to him and kissed his cracked lips.
He sighed. "What have we done to deserve this sudbah?"
Slowly, the woman disengaged herself from his arms and sat up. "I will
not be with him. My sudbah is to be your lover. In this life.
And in the next. Forever."
With a trembling hand she picked up the oil lamp.
"May God forgive us for what we have done." She crossed herself,
Russian style. Three fingers pressed together. "May God forgive me for
what I’m about to do."
The tears in her eyes blurred the golden flame. "Proschtyay, moe
solnychko. Farewell, sunshine," she whispered. "Perhaps, beyond
She stood up, and with a piercing cry flung the oil lamp at the
With a deafening roar, a raging fire engulfed everything.
Anne Powell bolted upright and opened her eyes. Sweat ran down her
forehead and into her eyes, blurring her vision. Her heart was racing,
the beats uneven. The odor of burning wood filled her nostrils.
She could hear the crackling of the flames. Or was it the ringing of a
telephone? Dazed, she looked around, struggling to get oriented.
The room was in perfect order. Her computer was in front of her, its
oversized flat screen glowing with columns of numbers. The desk,
covered with neat stacks of medical journals, the bookcase, shelves
sagging slightly under rows of textbooks, the credenza with an empty
crystal bud vase and two small Russian lacquer boxes--everything was
in its proper place. Medical diplomas, two Kandinsky prints, a cluster
of photographs of flowers, a few pictures of her mother, her father,
and herself as a baby, hung on the walls.
The fire in the fireplace had burned out, the logs now black and cold.
Her orange tabby cat, Miles, slept peacefully on the windowsill next
to her. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was on its last few chords.
She heard the crackling sound again. It was the phone. She reached for
"Hello?" she said, forcing herself to concentrate.
"Dr. Powell?" It was the monotone voice of the male operator. "I have
Dr. Ross for you."
As Anne listened, the last traces of her nightmare vanished. She
glanced at the clock. 3:00 A.M.
"I'll be there in fifteen, Misty," she said, hanging up.
She stood up, steadying herself against the desk as prickly pain shot
down her left leg.
Chastising herself for falling asleep at the computer, she leaned over
the keyboard and tapped a few keys, scanning the screen. What if her
head had landed on the Delete button? She breathed a sigh of
relief, confirming that her work was safely stored on the hard drive
of the G-6.
Miles leaped softly onto the desk, arched his back and yawned.
"My feelings precisely, Miles," Anne mumbled, running her fingers
through his long fur.
Her leg still asleep, she limped into the bedroom, bending down on the
way to straighten the edge of the small Bukhara rug.
Shedding her jeans, she pulled on surgical scrubs. Getting into her
uniform, as she called it, would save a few minutes changing clothes
again when she got to the hospital.
She cinched the drawstring around her firm midriff. She liked the
feeling of soft cotton against her skin. She liked hiding the elegant
outlines of her body even more. The loose cotton scrubs understated
the curves of her breasts and waist, partially concealing a body that
often was the object of either lust or envy for her coworkers, and a
magnet for all sorts of characters she would rather avoid.
She stepped briskly into the bathroom and glanced in the mirror. The
green scrubs enhanced her green eyes, large and sparkling even though
barely awake. She forced a brush through her honey-blond hair, letting
the slight curls settle down evenly on her shoulders.
The outlines of the keyboard were still imprinted on her right cheek.
She must have been asleep for hours. Hours lost, hours that could've
been spent analyzing this week's batch of MEG data.
She opened the medicine cabinet, its neat rows of bottles and jars
precisely positioned a finger-breath apart for easy handling. Without
even a glance, she took the skin toner and rubbed her cheek
impatiently. The imprint lingered. Oh well, she thought, hoping her
face would get back to normal by the time she got to the hospital.
With the ultrasonic toothbrush humming in her mouth, Anne swung her
right foot onto the sink, and leaned forward. A painful pull shot from
the heel up through her back, as her cold tendons reminded her that it
was too early for her morning stretch.
Three minutes later, Anne slipped into her well-worn down parka,
shoved a couple of KitKat bars into her pocket, grabbed her car keys
off the hook next to the door, and hurried out.
The chill of the New England winter night instantly, found its way
past her parka and thin scrubs, and sent a shiver through her body.
The security lights came on automatically as she padded cautiously
down the icy stairs leading to the driveway behind her duplex.
She warmed the frozen door lock of her Volvo with a cigarette lighter
that she kept in the pocket of her parka, then grabbed a plastic
scraper and attacked the thick layer of ice covering the windshield.
Her hands started to go numb, but she was used to that. She hated
gloves, or mitts, or anything that constrained her fingers. The only
time she wore gloves was in surgery, and then strictly out of
Clouds of crystals shimmered in the light of the street lamp as she
ripped through the ice with even, methodical strokes. The harsh
scraping sound reminded her of the crackling of the fire in her
nightmare. She smelled the smoke again.
She'd had nightmares about fires in the past, but none recently. She
thought she was over them. And now the haunting dream was back.
Then she remembered the date. February 14. The twentieth anniversary
of her mother's death. Anne was sixteen when her mother died.
Thick smoke clouded the flashing red lights of the fire engines as...
Stop it! Don't think about it, she told herself.
She forced herself to take three slow breaths. All the way in, filling
her chest till it ached, then all the way out. Nice and easy.
The cold air seared her nostrils. Gradually, the stench of smoke
subsided. She stopped scraping and got in the car.
The sheets of ice exploding under the tires, she eased the Volvo out
of the driveway and headed toward Boston. She knew she would regain
her peace of mind as soon as she was back in the confines of her work