Dr. Patel’s body relaxed, slooped forward like a sprinter after finishing a race. He then walked over to one of the two empty chairs in the small circle, lowered himself down to sit.
Jane Summers sighed, the collective gaze from five pairs of eyes weighing upon her. She glanced down, then over to the empty chair in their roughly-arranged circle. Her mother followed Jane’s glance — “Where’s Brad?”
“Yeah.” Gary waved at the empty chair. “I thought he was coming.”
Jane Summers knew there was no holding back the truth any longer. “Brad’s not here — ” she hated the hesitation in her voice — “because I didn’t invite him.”
Jane felt her mother’s breath draw in, and saw her look quickly at Dr. Patel. “Didn’t you tell — ”
“No.” Dr. Patel shifted his weight on the stiff chair beneath him. “At our last meeting, I asked Jane’s permission to speak with the people closest to her. She gave me a list of names and numbers — Brad was not on that list.”
Hilda Summers stood up quickly, looked down at her daughter with frustration. “Brad loves — ”
“He proposed to me.” She sensed everyone’s mouth open in surprise, save for Dr. Patel.
Jane reached up, clasped her mother’s shoulder, pulled her back down to the chair. Only one more truth needed to come out. “My — delusion.” She nodded at Dr. Patel. “What we’ve been talking about all evening. My waking up one morning, and everything being different. About me feeling that the world had suddenly turned upside down.” A final sigh for courage. “Brad doesn’t know. About any of it.”
Jane heard a car pass outside, and nearly laughed aloud at realizing her words had silenced the room so thoroughly that incidental sounds from a sleepy suburban street could now penetrate the room. She decided not to wait for questions — “That Friday, after the Monday I woke up and the world had changed. Brad was in St. Louis again that week, on business — there was no way I was going to tell him what had happened over the phone. But when he got back Friday, he had these tickets to a concert, and I wanted us to enjoy the show, so I thought, we’ll go to my place after the show, then I’ll tell him. And I was going to tell him, really I was — had the words on my lips — and then he pulls this little white box out of his pocket, and all of a sudden . . .”
Jane ran her right hand back over her scalp, dirty-blonde hair flying back from her face. “All I could think was, this isn’t the right time. Not for his proposal, not for me to give him an answer — not for me to tell him what happened to me.” She slapped her hands down onto her thighs. “It didn’t seem the right time for anything.”
“I don’t understand.” Hilda’s voice sounded genuinely confused. “Every time we talk, you say how great Brad is. Over the summer, when you came down to visit — I asked when the two of you were going to get engaged, and you gave me this smile. What — what happened?”
“What happened?” Jane sniffed loudly, threw her head back in anger at feeling her eyes swell. “Oh, only everything. I got a car I didn’t know I owned, starting using computers I didn’t know existed, began using Mr. Spock’s phone — couldn’t find any Unirail stations, saw that I paid less taxes but more insurance — “
“But we’re the same!” A cocktail of anger and concern in her mother’s voice. “And so is Brad, you’ve told me so. So I don’t understand — why isn’t Brad here?”
Jane Summers rose from her chair, eyes fixed on the empty chair. She approached, grabbed its back and with a swift turn of her body swung the chair into the center of the circle, then adjusted it so that its empty seat faced everyone. She stood behind the chair, placed a hand on its back. “Brad isn’t here — because every time I think about his proposal, I think about . . . something — sorry, a person, not a thing, somebody who also didn’t change that Monday morning.” She sighed, walked out from behind the chair, wiped the back of her hand across her glistening eyes. “Another person else who isn’t here tonight.” She sniffed, sat. “Because he can’t.”