Chapter 1

"Wake up, Larry."

For a brief instant I did, in a jerk. That was Susan's voice. But then the memory came flooding back, Susan wasn't here. She wouldn't ever be here again, or so she'd told me. Not ever. The despair I'd felt for the past two days, ever since she'd left, washed over me once again and my head sank back helplessly on the pillow. I closed my eyes and let the awfulness I felt smother me again, wallowing in my misery. Wearily I began to go back to sleep.

"No, sweetheart, wake up. Please."

This time I sat bolt upright, reaching quickly for the bedside lamp. It wasn't a dream, she was here! She'd come back!

But then I found the switch and the room was lit, and it was empty. As empty as it had been when I finally wore myself out with grieving and lay down. I looked all around. In a bizarre fit I even got up and went over to check the closet and the bathroom to assure myself she wasn't hiding there. As if she would! Despairingly I opened the living room door to check there, the last place to look; her voice hadn't been muffled by the closed door, but still...

And of course there was nothing, no-one there. Not Susan, not anyone. She was gone. She'd said she was leaving, and she'd left; she'd said she wouldn't be back, and she wasn't. It had been nothing but my overwrought imagination manifesting itself in a dream.

How long would I have these dreams, I wondered. I'd tried to bite the bullet, playing that last afternoon in the recording of my mind over and over again, hoping to build up scar tissue in my brain that would mute the impact. But clearly it hadn't worked.

"I can't tell you why," she'd said. "In time you'll know, and you'll thank me. I won't be around to hear it, but you will. And you'll wonder how you ever could have got involved with somebody like me. But for now you'll just have to accept. I need to leave, right now, before it goes any further."

But how much further was there to go, I asked her. I loved her, I wanted to marry her, I was in as deep as it got. I'd thought she loved me, too, I said. Didn't she? Had it all been some kind of game for her? Or was it something I'd said, something I'd done, what was it?

Well, yes, she loved me—"as much as I can love anyone, more than I ever have," she said. It's not that at all, she told me, it's something else. "You don't know me. You don't know who I am, who I've been, where I've been, anything. If you did you'd hate me. The last couple of months have just been a dream for me, the chance to live a fantasy I once had as a little girl for a while. But dreams have to end. Reality has to come back, and it's over now. Good-bye, my sweet fantasy knight in shining armor."

And she'd left, taking all her stuff with her. Well, "stuff"; most of it had fit into the oversize purse she always carried. Her toothbrush, a few—very few—cosmetics, her birth-control pills, a couple of sets of underwear. She'd carried the two dresses from the closet. We hadn't been together long, and she'd brought only a few possessions with her. The rest, I'd supposed idly, was still at her place—a "place," I'd realized, I had no idea where it was. "Think of me as your mystery woman," she'd told me one time playfully. Any time I'd start to ask her about such things she'd somehow change the subject, abruptly deciding, for example, that she needed me to make love to her right then. Or she'd simply become evasive. But information, even peripheral, was never forthcoming.

The few times I'd been able to bring my rational mind to bear on the subject over the two days since she'd left, I'd recognized that she'd been right about my not knowing her. What I knew could be written in large print on the head of a pin. What she'd let me know. Oh, I knew her tastes, in food, in clothing, in entertainment, in a lot of things. Mostly pretty damn good, high-end, so far as it went. And I knew her body, her face, her lips, even her earlobes. And I knew her mind—or at least I'd thought I had.

But of her past I knew next to nothing. Actually it was pretty much nothing at all. For all I knew she'd sprung full-blown like Venus from the halfshell the day before I'd met her. We'd spent hours and hours talking, she'd known my life story down to the names of the kids who'd pushed me around in grade school, the reason they'd finally quit—one year I'd had a summer job at my dad's warehouse schlepping heavy crates and I'd grown enough muscles, and the balls to use them, to fight back—the couple of depressingly short-term girlfriends I'd had in high school and college, and generally my life as a full-blown nerd.

That was what we'd talked about, though, when it came to the past—me. Never her. And from almost the moment we met at that symphony concert and started talking she'd made me a full-time project, it had seemed. Actually that had started the next morning, after she'd simply invited herself over to my apartment that night and we'd spent it making love. I'd been flabbergasted at the attention; girls—well, women—didn't usually find me even worth talking to, much less sexually desirable. I mean, yeah, we'd hit it off at the concert, sharing our views of music, but that was where experience had told me it would end. She'd had other ideas, though, and I'd been thrilled to go along.

The next morning when we woke up she took a quick look at my closet and told me we were going shopping. Clothes shopping, to start; nothing I owned was fit to wear, she'd said. Somewhere in there we also went to a hairdresser—not a barber, an honest-to-God beauty salon that did men, too—and my shoulder-length tangled snarl was transformed into a stylishly neat cut at her direction. She'd taken a dead bead on my nerdiness and was determined to get rid of it lock, stock and barrel, or at least the external manifestations.

By the end of that Saturday I was well on my way to being a new man. The next Monday, when I'd waltzed into work just about dancing with happiness—we'd spent the whole weekend together—I'd pretty much shocked the whole place into silence. "Holy shit," muttered Jim, my best friend there. Most of the others weren't as vocal, but everyone stared. Larry Costain had suddenly become, well, not a fashion plate but certainly a hell of a lot more presentable, who knew he'd clean up that well? At the time I'd just smiled quietly and enjoyed the sudden attention for something other than my program debugging skills. I even had a couple of the younger women semi-hitting on me, not that I'd had the least interest.

Now, though, who cared? The only reason for all this, even for my simply living, had gone. Dejectedly I finished my inspection of the tiny apartment and headed back to bed.

"No, dearest, not there," came her voice again. "You're awake now, and you need to stay awake. We need to talk, right now."

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