When I got home that night, I noticed the smiling jack-o-lantern in my front yard was crushed. As I stared, some sort of segmented insect scurried under one of the broken pieces. I instantly recognized the author of this latest destruction: Cassandra. I could almost hear her self-satisfied giggle. After months of torturing each other, I thought we had reached an uneasy détente — that she might even have left. But clearly the malevolent bitch was still around and had timed her assault to evade detection. “Breathe,” I told myself, as a familiar crescendo of disappointment and anxiety threatened to escalate to full-blown panic.
“Why do you think she did that?” Will’s voice startled me. We were together so much I’d almost forgotten he was there. Sometimes I wished he’d shut up and leave, too. “I dunno,” I mumbled. But I did.
It had been the perfect storm. I hadn’t slept much for days. A program I’d been struggling to fix still wouldn’t run, my boss was getting annoyed, and I was on the verge of giving up. All I wanted after fighting my way home in late traffic was a drink, or better yet a coma. With nothing in the house, the only option was the local dive, where every beer came with equal parts disillusionment and despair.
Instead, I’d carved the pumpkin. I’d worked for several hours with the kind of single-minded intensity that always enraged Cassandra. It was a masterpiece. Then I’d treated Will and myself to that beer after all — and this was my reward. As I unlocked the door, another bug darted out from under the mat and was gone.
My hands shook as punched in the phone number. Even after hours, I knew I’d get through on the first ring. “It’s James,” I hesitated, hating what came next. Even though it wasn’t completely my fault, I felt like a failure. I’d been taking the meds — most of the time — and things had been going well. “Dr. Stone,” I resigned myself, “we need your help. It’s Cassandra…and Will…and the bugs. They’re back.”