Content Warning: detailed depiction of physical abuse/assault.
Caroline Martin stared up at the ceiling tiles, small and square with tiny black holes that evoked an image of pepper jack cheese. Some were stained from leaky pipes that created ghostly formations of gray outlined in black above her head. The room was cold, and she began to shiver. One of the OR nurses noticed and covered her with another preheated hospital blanket, tucking it in under her chin and over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” Caroline said through clenched teeth. She couldn’t move because they had already strapped her down to the operating table at her arms and just below her breasts. They left her legs free, covered with socks and leg warmers, as they would soon be placing her calves in stirrups. At least they had the decency to wait until she was completely under first. But after that, she was certain there would be no concern for her modesty.
The pill they had given her fifteen minutes earlier began to take effect. Background noises blended together in a smothered cacophony, and only when someone got up close in her face was she able to focus. Even so, it was still a bit of an effort. She looked around the large square room: heads bobbed and swayed as the doctors and nurses went about their business, clanging metal instruments and talking among themselves about where they would spend their summer vacation or where they should take their spouses for an anniversary dinner. It was just another
day for all of them, she knew, but somehow she still felt slightly insulted, taken for granted. As if he sensed her feelings, her gynecologist called to her from the end of the table as the nurses helped him on with his sterile gloves, his hands held high out to his sides.
“What kind of music do you like, Caroline?” Dr. Goodwin asked in a cheery voice, as if he were about to invite her to dance. “Oldies okay with you? We all like oldies here.”
“I love the oldies,” she replied. Her tongue felt like a fat, hairy caterpillar, and for a moment she became aware she was drifting, but she kind of liked it. She hoped they wouldn’t ask her any personal questions so she wouldn’t talk too much and say something she would later regret. Through hidden speakers, she heard the voices of the Temptations singing “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” on KRTH 101, the local Los Angeles oldies station. Some of the nurses sang along. The anesthesiologist approached for the second time and fiddled with her IV. He had introduced himself to her earlier, before they wheeled her into surgery, and had given her the little pill. “This will help you relax,” he had said. She guessed it was a Valium or perhaps a Demerol: just a tiny little thing, but potent. Now he smiled down at her, telling her to count backward slowly from twenty. She only got as far as eighteen.
If there was one thing Vito Gamboa couldn’t stand, it was an ungrateful woman. He tightened the fingers of his right hand and made a fist. The young woman glanced down at it and took a step back.
“No, Vito, please . . .”
“Mary Anne, you’ve pissed me off for the last time.” He took a step toward her. “If I have to teach you a lesson a million times till you get it–if that’s what it takes–then a million times it is. It’s your choice, woman.” The whites of his black-brown eyes were flecked with red, the pupils constricted as tight and small as the head of a pin.
She looked at the tattoo on his right bicep–a serpent whose belly seemed to rise and fall as Vito flexed. She cried now, her tears leaving light trails down the front of her face where they cut through her foundation, which was one shade darker than her natural skin tone and orange in tint. The creases under her eyes were deep for someone her age, and they filled up now with melted black mascara.
“I’m so tired of this, Vito. Can’t we please just stop?”
Vito let out an involuntary hiss of air through his nostrils and curled the right side of his mouth upward in a crooked half smile. “It’s your choice, woman, like I said.”
“Then I choose to end it–now!”
“It’s too late this time. I owe you a lesson. Maybe you’ll think twice the next time, though, before it’s too late.”
He proceeded to beat her about the face and chest with his clenched fists. When he finished, he straddled her wilted body with his legs and squatted down, hovering just above her heaving chest. She wore a white maternity top with lace around the collar and pearl buttons down the front. Her long blonde hair lay flat and matted against damp, flushed cheeks. The thought he may have gone too far this time crossed his mind, but he quickly dismissed it. He reached out and cupped her face in both hands. She moaned and opened swollen eyes.
“Look at me,” he said.
Her eyes rolled up and back, leaving her pupils hidden behind her lids. He shook her hard. “Look at me!” he shouted.
“Please,” she whispered.
He squeezed her face between his hands and then slowly loosened his grip, wiping her tears away with his thumbs.
“Don’t you ever, ever try to leave me again,” he said.
Ragna Sweeney looked out her kitchen window at the apartment building across the alleyway.
“They’re going at it again,” she said.
“Call the cops,” her husband, Harold, answered, not bothering to look up from his newspaper. He had settled for the evening in his favorite recliner in front of the television set.
“Well, it’s over now; there’s no need to. Besides, I don’t like poking my nose in other people’s business.”
Harold turned his face toward his wife. His forehead crinkled as he looked over his bifocals at her, and his throat released a muffled chortle. “Oh really?” he said. “Then sit down and watch Wheel of Fortune with me. It’s starting right after this commercial.”
Ragna hesitated a moment, then let the curtain panel fall back into place against the window. This time her neighbors had their blinds drawn, so they could only be heard and not seen.
The last time, she had actually witnessed the guy socking the young woman about her head, and she had called the police. By the time they arrived, the man had already forcibly taken his very pregnant wife–or girlfriend, Ragna wasn’t sure which– thrown her into his dark-gray Dodge Challenger, and raced his engine in the direction of Winnetka Avenue. Afterward, when the police knocked on Ragna’s door, she gave them a description of the man. “He’s a handsome guy, looks Hispanic, in his late twenties or early thirties, about five feet, ten inches tall, one hundred sixty pounds, defined muscles. He’s got a pronounced tattoo of a snake coiling the entire length of his right arm. I heard he’s an actor or stuntman or something of the sort.” Then they asked about the woman.
“She’s just a girl, really,” Ragna had told them. “Can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen. I doubt she’s even out of high school yet. Pretty thing, too–I mean, if she cleaned herself up.
The really sad thing is she’s pregnant. Looks like somewhere in her third trimester.”
“Honey, can you bring me a beer since you’re up, please?”
Harold looked up at his wife and kissed the air in her direction. Ragna smiled back and turned toward the refrigerator, reaching into the back where she had placed the six-pack. She twisted the metal cap off the bottle of Bud Light and drained it into a tall glass tilted sideways to keep the froth from forming too thick at the top.
“Wheel! Of! Fortune!” she heard the audience yell in unison from the television set. She turned to walk toward the living room, reaching to switch off the light as she headed out of the kitchen.
And that’s when she heard it.
She would later tell the police the precise time because it occurred at the beginning of her favorite show. “Seven thirty p.m.” she would say. “At first I thought it was a loud backfire–
as if the car was in the alleyway directly beneath my kitchen window–it was so loud.” Ragna startled, dropping the glass of beer on the solid linoleum floor. She watched it shatter and disperse into a myriad of tiny wet shards around her feet. Then she heard the scream that followed, and she knew it wasn’t a backfire. It was a haunting scream–one that would cause her to have nightmares for many nights to come. She looked out the window and saw nothing. She reached for the telephone hanging from the wall in the kitchen and dialed 9-1-1 with trembling hands. Harold stood now, his newspaper having dropped to the floor beside him. His eyes bulged, brows raised.
“Was that what I think it was?” He and his wife exchanged glances.
“Oh my God, I think so,” she said. She shook her head from side to side and felt her face heat up. Tears began to fill her eyes as her body spontaneously reacted with emotion to the sounds, causing her to picture, against her will, what must have just happened in the apartment across the alley from her own.
“He’s shot her,” she said. “That bastard just shot her.”
© Janet Rebhan, She Writes Press, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
In present-day Los Angeles, Caroline Martin has everything but the thing her soul craves most: a daughter. When she undergoes what is supposed to be a routine hysterectomy, she unwittingly aborts the little girl she’s always longed for, leaving the unborn baby’s soul in limbo.
Sharing a hospital room with Caroline is a pregnant woman who’s just been shot by her boyfriend. Her unborn child is barely hanging on–and the soul of Caroline’s hovering baby cannot resist the overwhelming urge to rebirth via this unclaimed fetus.
In the aftermath of these events, two engaging heavenly guides, working together through sensitive humans, struggle to find an alternate way to help Caroline and her would-be daughter forge the link that was always meant to be between them–before the child’s brutal father makes good on his vow to steal the girl and disappear with her forever.
By turns comic and tragic, Rachael’s Return explores the concept of soulmates, the afterlife, reincarnation, and relationships that never die, even as it offers readers a glimpse of the mysteries that exist within the ordinary and challenges assumptions about the true nature of reality.
About Janet Rebhan
Janet Rebhan is the author of the novels Finding Tranquility Base (2012) and Rachael’s Return (2020). Born in West Texas, she was sixteen when she moved to Los Angeles where she graduated from Chatsworth High School before pursuing an acting and modeling career. She went on to study creative writing at UCLA and publish short stories and personal essays. Rebhan has two grown daughters and lives in Los Angeles with her husband.