After dinner, Laura and her father went to the church to play basketball. Two or three times a month, a handful of fathers and daughters in the ward got together on Friday night to play four-on-four. In Rachel’s opinion, it was the best idea he’d had as bishop. And it was such an endearing sight, the two of them in matching purple and gold Jazz T-shirts, Laura’s hair tied back in a bobbing ponytail. It strengthened Rachel’s resolve. Jennifer too should have the privilege when Laura started finding better uses for her Friday nights.
Rachel finished clearing the table and started the dishwasher. She didn’t think Milada would be home until after eight, if then. She turned on the television and blankly watched whatever was playing on PBS.
At the conclusion of Washington Week, Rachel turned off the television. She went to the kitchen and ran a glass of water. What if she was wrong? But she was sure she wasn’t. This memory and this recollection she trusted. She glanced at the clock, not wanting to leave too early. Yet she didn’t want to be here when David and Laura got home and have to explain where she was going. Better to be early.
She left the house, walked down the sidewalk, and crossed the street onto Larkspur Lane. She tried not to hurry. Someone in the ward would see her. Someone would wonder where she was going. And when it became clear where she was going, they would wonder why. All the necessary antecedents had been established—that disastrous family home evening barbecue two weeks ago—but it was an odd thing for the bishop’s wife to be doing, odder on a Friday evening, odder still at this time of night. And by now everybody had heard a version of the date with Troy.
She repeated to herself Christ’s rejoinder to Peter in John, chapter 21: What is that to you?
Rachel rang the doorbell. Nobody was home. She sat in the wicker chair on the porch. She watched the darkening street and rehearsed to herself what to say, the reasoning to employ, the arguments or denials Milada would raise and she would decisively counter. She could be positively erudite when she was alone with her own thoughts, a brilliance that rarely measured up when she had to open her mouth and say the words.
The limo pulled up to the curb. Milada emerged from the car. The flash of her silver-white hair made her appearance unmistakable. The dusk was growing heavy, and Rachel was sitting far back under the porch awning, but Milada saw her at once. She tilted her head to the side as if to say, What? You again?
The car drove off. Milada strode up to the porch. She said politely, “Good evening, Rachel.”
“I need to talk to you.”
Milada didn’t reply. She retrieved her keys and unlocked the door. Rachel said, “It’s important.” She bit her lip. She was already pushing, betraying her anxiety, blurting instead of speaking calmly and rationally.
Milada considered Rachel for a moment. “Then come in and talk.”
Entering the dark house was like walking into an empty cave. Milada switched on the swamp cooler. A refreshing draft wafted through the rooms.
“What did you need to talk to me about?” She placed the attaché on the kitchen table, folded her arms, and faced her.
Rachel took a breath. “I remember.”
“I remember what happened, what happened last Monday—I mean, the Monday before last—when Andy got stung, by the bees, the yellow jackets . . . ”
Milada did not react as Rachel expected. No, she reacted exactly as Rachel should have expected. Her expression betrayed no worry, no concern: the dispassionate, half-amused look a cat gives the small animal it has trapped with outstretched claws.
Shall I kill it? Let it go? Play with it a while longer?
Milada crossed the kitchen to the refrigerator and retrieved the bottle of Sparkling Catawba. “It is nonalcoholic,” she said. “Though I fear that at the rate I am consuming it, it won’t be so for long.”
Rachel said, “No, thank you,” and immediately regretted it. But it was too difficult for her to be polite and keep focused at the same time.
Milada shrugged. She poured a half-glass, sat on the barstool at the counter island. She sipped at the Catawba. “So tell me, Rachel. Tell me what you remember.”
“You bit him.” It sounded absurd when she said it. But she said it anyway. “You bit him on the wrist.” She raised her right arm to illustrate.
“And why would I do that?”
“To make him better—” It came out like a timid question. Her confidence failed her. Her practiced rhetoric abandoned her mouth.
Milada’s face grew stiller. She stood up and approached Rachel, reaching out to her as if with compassion, reaching out to a friend. “Rachel, would it not be better if you went home and thought it over?”
Rachel recoiled, jerking her arm away. Milada’s fingers barely brushed her skin. Go home. An outward-directed gravity pulled at every muscle in her body, toward the door, to the sidewalk, up the street. Home. The intensity of the desire was almost painful. She retreated to the foyer, to the edge of the carpet, but not yet onto the flagstones. She stopped and planted her feet and clenched her fists, digging her fingernails into the skin of her palms.
She closed her eyes. “No,” she stated, a command to herself. “No.”
A step behind her, Milada said, “The boy, did he not recover?”
“Then why trouble me further in this matter?”
“You cured him!”
“That was not my intention.”
“How was it not your intention? His allergies are gone! Charlene told me herself. You did cure him!”
Milada paced back to the kitchen. Rachel followed on her heels. “You felt sorry for him. You wanted to help. You did. Somehow you did. What is so wrong with that?”
Milada response was emotionless. “Yes, I felt sorry for the child. Pity overcame judgment. Clearly it was a mistake to try.”
“How could it be a mistake?”
Milada’s voice lowered practically to a hiss. “Do not look in me for what is not there, Rachel. You will not find it.”
“I know what I saw. What did you do? It wasn’t normal, what you did!” Rachel realized too late that she was shouting. She couldn’t stop herself. “What did you do? What are you?”
Rachel bit her tongue, but she could not call the question back.
Milada stared at her, eyes widening, until Rachel averted her gaze out of shame.
“What do you think I am?”
Rachel felt the word forming on her lips but couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud.
Milada smiled. “Kammy hates that word too.” She added with a shrug, “As for myself, I get called far worse on a regular basis.”
Hearing her darkest suspicions so blithely confirmed left Rachel too stunned to reply.
Milada continued with blank disinterest. “There is a substance in my venom that under certain conditions mimics the properties of epinephrine. What any doctor would have given the boy in his condition.”
“But his allergies—”
As Kammy would tell you, evolution is not sentimental. It speaks to the self-interest of the parasite to keep the host alive.”
“The doctor. Understand that I am only repeating what she has told me. Unfortunately you met the wrong sister.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Rachel, I cannot help you. I can’t cure cancer. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”
Rachel closed her eyes and nodded.
“Call me a hopeful monster if you wish, but I am no miracle worker.”
“Why didn’t you—why didn’t you infect him as well?”
“It doesn’t work that way. There is no virus in the venom. Kammy says it is bound to the hemoglobin. I don’t understand it well enough to explain the reasons why, except that blood must touch blood.”
A sudden insight illuminated Rachel’s thoughts. “It’s not the cancer. It’s the transplant. My bone marrow. It’s like an allergic reaction, only different in degree. Her immune system—”
“As I said, the effect is unpredictable.”
“What would make it less unpredictable? What would your sister say?”
“What, indeed? She would say it was unproven and inadvisable, a breach of family law. More than that, she would call it a violation of established medical protocols. She is traditional that way.”
“And after that, what would she say?”
For a long minute, Milada refused to respond. “The venom affects certain antigens in the host. Apparently there is a benefit to keeping small the circle of our prey, something we do not always take advantage of.”
Rachel’s brow furrowed in thought. “So the immunologic properties of your—venom—should react according to a specific blood type.”
“I suppose so. But necessary only to condition the blood for our consumption.”
“And you can introduce—inject—the venom more directly—more deliberately—as you did with Andy—”
Again, hesitation. Then, “Yes.”
Rachel straightened. She took a deep breath and looked straight into Milada’s almost-transparent eyes. “It was my marrow they used for Jennifer’s transplant. I was the closest HLA match. If your venom follows upon blood type, taking my blood should condition it to suppress the antigens triggering Jennifer’s GVHD. Just as you did with Andy—”
Milada’s soft laughter interrupted her mid-sentence. “Do you know who you remind me of? Sister Gertrude. Mother Superior of the orphanage in Szeged. My God, how we used to argue. Like a pair of Greek philosophers. And she thrashed me every time through sheer force of wits. I guess that’s why you surprise me, Rachel. I would have thought you too level-headed to allow your own logic to lead you to such fanciful conclusions.”
“Now you’re being cruel.”
“I meant it as a compliment. You are familiar with what Chesterton had to say about God and belief? But that would be cruel.” Milada took a longer draught of the Catawba and set down the glass. She leaned back in the chair and recited in a sonorous, singsong voice, as if to mock some long-dead preacher: “And when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by prophets.”
The words twisted like knives into the softest parts of Rachel’s soul. She shut her eyes tightly and finally brought her hands to her face to cover her ears.
“Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.”
A long moment of silence followed. When Milada spoke again, she quoted from the Book of Luke, answering her own soliloquy: “So must I avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me?”
“Hear what the unjust judge says,” Rachel echoed, dropping her hands and opening her eyes. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
Before Rachel could react, Milada strode across the room to her side, standing so close that their cheeks almost touched. Rachel reflexively shrank away until she was wedged into the corner of the kitchen dining nook. Milada planted her left hand against the wall like a bar across her breasts. Her lips touched the back of Rachel’s neck, sending a shiver down her spine. She tried raising her hands to ward her off, but Milada pressed her into the corner, rendering her immobile.
Low and husky, Milada’s voice resounded in her ear, “I sleep with my prey first.”
Rachel hunched her shoulders and twisted her head defensively, her heart pounding inside her chest with a force she knew Milada could feel.
“Sex tempers the blood and heightens the response. A kind of catalyst. I believe that is what Kammy would say. And she is a doctor, after all.” Milada’s voice took on a playful, impish tone.
Rachel did not respond at once. A sudden weight of guilt descended on her mind—that she would even contemplate the possibility. But she did. Her only question was: What do you mean by sex? The desire for clarification only served to damn her conscience. And yet—if this was the sum of the cost—
Milada’s right arm circled her waist. She pressed her forehead against Rachel’s left temple, tipping her head back, her lips closing gently on her earlobe—
“No—no—please—” Rachel drew a deep breath that shuddered through her body. She pressed her face against the wall, hiding her own hopelessness and shame. Tears stung the corners of her eyes.
Milada took her left hand off the wall and, with a gentle caress, brushed the tear from Rachel’s cheek. “Don’t worry, Rachel. I would not do to you what was done to me.”
She stepped back and let her go.
Rachel opened her eyes and turned apprehensively to face her. Milada watched her with that same feline expression, an impassive mask of faint amusements and small curiosities. She again leaned deeply into Rachel’s personal space. Rachel inhaled the musk of her natural perfume, the hint of raw vanilla, the scent of her hair and skin. It left her flushed and light-headed. She gained a small measure of admiration for Troy in that moment—that he’d been able to resist her.
This time their cheeks did touch. “You have made me hungry, Rachel. Make love to your husband, and I will take your blood—tonight, before I change my mind, whilst I am still curious to taste you.”
Rachel nodded her head. “Thank you,” she said, in a gesture of purely involuntary politeness.
Milada replied severely, “Do not thank me, woman. I have promised you nothing.”
But these were terms Rachel could live with. Because this once in her life, she had no choice.