In the early morning hours, exhaustion enabled Rachel to slide into a doze made restless by the constant prickling of the skin on her arm. A few hours later, Joshua came to get her up for breakfast. Rachel opened her eyes blearily and he could see that something was wrong. Her forehead felt hot. Joshua took her temperature and discovered that she was running a slight fever. He caught sight of her inflamed skin and called Harriet in to have a look. They decided to let her sleep in and Joshua later returned with a tray. Rachel opened her watery eyes and struggled to sit up.
“What’s all this?”
“Not much just some coffee, orange juice and a little breakfast. You need to eat something, to keep your strength up. I’ll be back to check on you.”
Joshua deposited the bed tray table and stood over his sister for a few moments, until she picked up the glass of orange juice and took a sip. He smiled encouragingly and stepped out of the room. Rachel was grateful. She was very thirsty, but hadn’t been able to muster up the strength to even walk across the hall to the bathroom for water. The orange juice was cold and sweet. Much sweeter than any orange juice she had ever tasted. She drained the glass and took a few bites of scrambled egg, before starting on her coffee. Joshua returned twenty minutes later and was pleased to see that his sister had finished the orange juice, coffee and eggs. She was asleep, so he quietly took the tray table out and closed her door.
A few moments into peaceful slumber, Nicole invaded her dreams once more. Rachel dreamt she was in a hospital bed and awoke to find the woman standing over her. She heard herself saying, “If you try to hurt me, I’ll call the cops and tell them what you did to mama.” Nicole sneered, “I made a mistake in letting her live. I won’t make the same mistake with you!” A hypodermic with an icepick needle materialized in Nicole’s left hand and stabbed Rachel in the stomach repeatedly.
The pain shocked Rachel awake. She sat bolt upright in bed and immediately bent forward reflexively, as pain tied her stomach in knots. Rachel wanted to call for help, but the pain only managed a grunt as the struggle to breathe made her gasp for air. A second wave of agony twisted through her gut. Rachel opened her mouth to scream and the contents of her stomach came spewing out onto her comforter. She fell back against the pillows, too weak to move.
That evening, Richard sat in a chair at the end of Mattie’s bed and watched Joshua fuss over her. Harriet were seated beside of him. Rachel had perched herself next to Mattie on the bed, wanting to be the center of attention, acting pitiful whenever someone looked her way. She continued to milk everyone’s sympathy, despite the fact that her fever had broken and she was feeling much better. Rachel had eaten lunch, without getting sick to her stomach. She was tired, but felt like her old self again with the exception of the dark red rash in the crook of her left arm, stark against her pale skin, which looked as though it was beginning to spread.
They had brought Mattie home, after the hospital notified them that Reverend Mother rose up out of her sick bed and signed herself out against medical advice. She was getting dressed, when they arrived. Their attempts to reason with her seemed only to strengthen her resolve. She threatened to call a cab if they wouldn’t drive her. Her paranoia about a second visit from Nicole was making her a nervous wreck and robbing her of sleep.
After Thomas admitted that Nicole had used a hypodermic needle on Rachel while she slept, Reverend Mother’s suspicions about having been injected with some sort of virus suddenly seemed entirely plausible. They talked it over and decided that having her at home would give her peace of mind and enable them to watch over her. Once Joshua got her comfortably propped up against a mound of pillows, he took his seat and everyone looked expectantly at Richard.
“I called this family meeting, because we all need to get onto the same page. It was recently brought to my attention that some of you took it upon yourself to play armchair detective and got in over your heads,” began Richard.
Joshua blurted, “I blame Thomas. His ham-handed tactics exposed us. I don’t know why you went to him for help mom. Subtlety has never been his strong suit, especially when a good looking woman is involved. One look into those bedroom eyes and the whole plan probably came tumbling out. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he’s been working with her this whole time. After he stood by and allowed that woman to stick a needle in Rachel, I’m beginning to question how well I even know the man.”
Richard held up a restraining hand, “Don’t go throwing the baby out with the bath water just yet. We don’t know that Thomas is guilty of anything more than being weak-willed where Nicole is concerned. He may still prove useful to us.
“How could he possibly help us? The man couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it!”
“I’m not asking you to share secrets with him. Use your head Josh, he’s dating Nicole. Who else is in a better position to give us inside information about her movements?”
“But we can’t trust him not to run and tell her everything we ask about her,” Joshua argued.
“That’s why you’ll have to be creative.”
“Me? Why do I have to be the one to ask him? I don’t ever want to talk to that fool again.”
“Stop being so dramatic. It’s not going to kill you to play nice for a little while. I don’t need you to do anything just yet anyway. I talked to my friend on the police force last night and she suggested that I do a little surveillance. If I come up with anything useful the police will step in and take it from there.”
Joshua sat up straighter, “So you’ll be following her? I’m coming with you. I always wanted to go on a stake out.”
“You are not coming with me.”
“You know why Josh. You’re too impulsive. The last thing I need is you flying off the handle and getting us caught.”
Reverend Mother silenced him with a glare, “Let it go Joshua. Your brother is right. This isn’t a game. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”
Richard felt a sudden pang. All at once he felt like the lonely, rejected little boy he used to be, feeling slighted by his adoptive mother. He looked down at his hands to hide his injured expression. The old insecurities tried to creep back. Harriet’s soft hand slid over his clenched fist and immediately, the tension in his body eased. Her touch reminded him that he wasn’t alone. Richard looked up into Harriet’s eyes and saw her love shining out at him. Her smile was contagious. He was on the verge of smiling back when Reverend Mother’s voice cut through their tender moment.
“I’m glad that’s settled. Now, what’s this I hear about you being pregnant Rachel?”
“What are you talking about mama? I’m not pregnant.”
“Why else would that woman draw blood from you?”
“I don’t know. Why does she do any of the things she does?”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“If you’re going to start accusing me of things then I’m leaving!”
Richard noisily cleared his throat, “Please let’s not start fighting with each other. Just be grateful that Nicole withdrew blood rather than injecting Rachel with something. Summer said that Nicole may be part of some underground clinic. No telling what kind of viruses she has access to.”
Richard was gratified to see the argument forgotten as his family gaped at him. He had been debating about how much of his conversation from the night before he should share with them. It suddenly seemed necessary to share a bit more than he’d intended, in order to keep Reverend Mother off of Rachel’s back. The last thing he needed was Rachel getting upset and deciding to call Nicole again.
Richard knew that Rachel was a potential weak link that should be left out of the chain. However, he also knew that if he tried to do so, she would just snoop around and ferret out enough information to go behind his back with and ruin everything. Better to sketch things out just enough so that she felt included but omit enough details to keep her from being able to do any serious damage. He would have to get Harriet to keep an eye on their sister. Rachel would steamroll over Harriet but at least Harriet could warn him when Rachel was about to do something stupid. Richard looked at his brother.
“Joshua, how much do you know about Nicole’s daily routine? Does Thomas ever say anything to you about it?”
“Well, I know when he spends the night with her during the week, she wakes him up at five getting ready for work. When her car is in the shop, he picks her up from work at three.”
He turned the meeting over to his mother and listened to her in a distracted way until she dismissed them. Richard stepped into the hallway and felt a hand on his arm. He turned back and was surprised to see that Rachel wanted to speak with him. She gazed up at him earnestly.
“I’m glad you’re taking care of this for me. Right now, I don’t think I could trust myself not to wring her neck and I’m too pretty to go to jail. Nobody makes a fool out of me!”
Richard resisted the urge to make a sarcastic remark. Too easy. It dawned on him that she might be attempting to have an actual conversation with him without her usual undercurrent of thinly veiled contempt. They chatted in a stilted way until they ran out of things to say and then retreated to their rooms, both relieved to be free of the awkward interaction. Richard was about to sit on his bed when he remembered his plan to enlist Harriet’s assistance in keeping an eye on Rachel. He turned around and went back up to the second floor, hoping he wouldn’t bump into Rachel.
Harriet wasn’t in her room. Richard shrugged and was about to head back towards the stairs when nature called. The bathroom door was ajar, so he pushed it open thinking the bathroom was empty. Harriet was leaning over the commode forcing a toothbrush handle to the back of her throat. Richard hurriedly ducked back out into the hallway and closed the door. Shock and dismay kept him riveted in place for a moment. Should I go back in there and confront her? No, I don’t want to humiliate her. Richard quickly crept back down the stairs, thinking that his intrusion had gone undetected.
Harriet hadn’t seen her brother but she heard the soft click of the door closing seconds before her gag reflex caused her breakfast to come back up. Oh no, did someone see what I just did? Lord don’t let it be Rachel! Harriet wiped her mouth as she scurried to the door and peered into the hallway, hoping to see her spy’s retreating back.
The hall was empty but she heard stealthy footsteps on the stairs. It was Richard! Her hand flew up to stifle her horrified gasp. Harriet hurriedly closed the bathroom door and let down the toilet lid, flushing away the evidence of her guilty secret. With trembling hands, she brushed her teeth. She managed to make it back to the safety of her room on shaky legs and close the door before the tears started.
Harriet had felt bad enough when no one knew what she couldn’t seem to stop herself from doing. Now that her secret was out, the shame was crushing. She felt like such a failure. How could she ever look Richard in the eye again? He was the one person in the whole miserable world whose opinion Harriet valued. Her face was still buried in her pillow when she felt his hand stroking her hair. The tender gesture made her cry harder. He kept it up until her tears subsided. All he said was, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why didn’t I tell you what…that I force myself to throw up because I can’t seem to stop cramming food down my gullet? Gee, I don’t know. Maybe I already feel bad enough without subjecting myself to your judgment.”
“I would never judge you Harriet. I just feel bad…”
“I don’t want your pity. That’s even worse than being judged. I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m trying to understand. Talk to me Harriet.”