Chapter 9 – If ‘its’ and ‘buts’ were candied nuts, we’d all have a hell of a Christmas.

I already knew that this month would crawl by just to torture me, but somehow I can still find it within myself to be indignant about it. I guess I just really couldn’t prepare myself for the inevitable, no matter how much I knew that it was coming.

And nothing, not one single thing, about my situation at home has gotten any better. In fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse.

Christine’s crawled further up my ass and Kyla’s taken to riding it like a six flags roller coaster. Ultimately, my ass is getting lots of play, and while I’m not a prude, that’s just not a place that I’m comfortable getting shafted. Not that getting shafted is supposed to be comfortable…

But still, I’m rather sore.

I just can’t seem to shake them at all. They have this system where they play off of each other: Christine nitpicks nonstop, and of course, I wind up saying something, which then has Kyla giving me a tongue lashing.

Well, this pony feels rode hard and put away wet.

And it’s only been a week.

Today though… today is bliss. Or at least it should be bliss because the house is empty. I thought that I would enjoy some alone time to let my ass heal a little, but it’s quiet, nostalgic, and lonely. Well, except for the occasional memory or past hallucination.  But ultimately, it just feels like a tomb.

I can literally hear the tick of the clock on the kitchen wall as I sit on the couch with nothing to do but slowly go insane. I tried to play guitar, but I just can’t seem to focus. Filling the space with the mind numbing sounds of television or radio didn’t do any good either. Honestly, I think that the silence has sapped my ability to concentrate, which then creates this endless loop where I can’t do anything to break said silence because of the silence.

It’s so fucking stupid, really…

So here I sit, alone, in this oppressively soundless house, my mind whirring with recollections great and small, painful and ecstatic. And the longer that I’m here, the more that I have only my thoughts to break these moments, the more that I realize just how much I miss Spencer. And the more that I miss her, the less that I can comprehend how I left her in the first place.

I can’t fathom that day at graduation, or the last four years for that matter. So it almost feels like nothing’s real. Like this is some alternate universe I’ve just magically found myself in.

Where did I get that strength – that will – to remove her from my heart?

No, wait, I didn’t remove her from my heart. That’s not possible. I tore out my heart completely.

Maybe the strength came from my ass, like everything else recently. I just can’t figure out how I did it. But I did, and as a result, I’ve been half a person for all of these years and I’m only just now feeling that loss, feeling just how incomplete I am. And I’m so incomplete that I could run my hand down the right side of my body and find a single, long, jagged edge. I want to put myself back together again, to find the strength to be whole. But I tore those limbs away, ripped them from my flesh and broke them from my bone. And these are things that just don’t grow back.

Christine, Spencer, and even Kyla – they’ve moved on. They don’t need me anymore to be complete. So how can I do that? How do I not need them, or at least go back to being oblivious?

I could always try to find new parts, but that would make me a monster, a Frankenstein, a patchwork of pieces that just don’t fit. I’d be hideously disfigured. Or maybe I already am; it’s all just on the inside, hidden and ugly and malfunctioning in a way that can’t be seen and is only felt.

Why didn’t I just die like I was supposed to?

Do you see why I can’t concentrate? This internal monologue, diatribe, whatever you want to call it, it’s choking me.

Every time I try to find even a moment of peace, my mind goes through it all over and over again while the ticks of that infernal clock ring out in this empty house like gunshots. I get to my feet and head for the stairs, deciding that I’ll again try to take a nap, but I know that I’ll fail. Hiding, running, sleeping my life away, all of the things that used to keep me going, none of them hold any relief for me anymore.

I’d give anything to know how to escape again, to forget the world for just a little while.

Just as I’m about to ascend the first step, I hear a car door shut. I pause involuntarily as a giddy jolt rolls through me.

They’re home early.

I turn back to the front window and peak through the blinds, expecting to see Christine’s Suburban in the driveway, but it’s not there.

They’re still gone.

I let out a disappointed sigh. Why didn’t I go with them today? Oh, right, I’m tired of being a pony. And I hate Christmas shopping. I do it all on the internet.

I watch as Spencer steps out of the car in the Carlins’ driveway and release a frustrated grunt. I just don’t want to be alone here anymore, but I don’t really have a choice. I let go of the blinds dejectedly and make my way back to the stairs, hoping that sleep will make itself possible. But then I stop again as what I just saw finally registers like a lightbulb over my thick head.

Spencer’s here…

It’s not a moment later that I’m flinging the door open and running outside like a maniac. I’m down the front steps and about halfway through the snow covered front yard before I finally stop, realizing that I have no reason to run out here to meet her.

She didn’t even tell me that she was coming.

God, she’ll think that I’m a lunatic…

God, I am a lunatic…

Just as I’m about to quietly retreat back inside, I hear her voice.

“Ash?”

Fuck, she sees me, in my socks, in the snow, standing here like a fucking idiot.

I sidle up next to the snow family that Kyla and I built a couple of days ago and hope to blend in.

“Ash, what are you doing?”

She’s looking at me like I forgot my meds. And maybe I need to start taking some…

“Um… I was just… I just thought…”

I shrug, dusting some snow off of the taller snow lady’s head.

God, I’m such a fucking retard.

Spencer chuckles a little. “Well, the snow people are very nice.”

I tuck my hands in my pockets and feel the skin on my arms tighten. Not only did I forget my shoes in my haste to see her, but I didn’t grab a jacket.

“I’m surprised to see you,” I deflect.

She glances at her childhood home before coming to stand next to my shivering form.

“I’m surprised to be here,” she says solemnly.

“What changed your mind? I mean, when you texted, you said that the talk didn’t go very well,” I chatter out.

Vapors burst from her mouth as she exhales a long breath. “That’s what changed my mind. Things are just too bad to ignore.”

I nod in understanding, but then, I’m like a vibrating bobble head at this point in time, so nodding is sort of a perpetual state of being.

She gives me the once over, her eyes starting at my goose-fleshed arms and working their way down to my feet where she cocks her head.

“Are you wearing shoes?”

I try to shrug, but it’s lost in my convulsing.

“Ash, you’re going to freeze to death.”

I’m glad that she’s worried about me because that means that she’ll be too distracted to notice that I bolted out of the house in next to nothing just to see her. She finally grabs my arm and starts to pull me towards the steps.

“Couldn’t wait to see me, huh,” she asks smugly.

I glare at her. Fuck, it’s just not fair for her to just magically know everything I don’t want her to know.

“I thought you were Kyla and Christine,” I explain. “I was going out of my mind here alone. This place gives me the heebie jeebies.”

She’s not buying it. “But you grew up here…”

We step into the warmth of the house and my feet immediately feel like they’re being stabbed by hundreds of needles.

I reach down and pull off a stiff, sodden sock. “Yeah, well, it’s not the same house.”

I pull off the other sock while she looks around.

“It looks the same to me,” she responds.

“Look closer,” I gesture to the pictures along the staircase wall.

She climbs a couple of steps, looking at the photos, and I follow her.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding.”

I shake my head. “It gets worse.”

She turns to me, leaning against the banister. “What do you mean?”

“Come on,” I say, squeezing awkwardly past her and leading the way up the stairs to the empty box that used to be my room.

“Wow,” she says when we enter and I just nod knowingly.

“You finally cleaned your room…,” she deadpans… with a fucking grin no less.

On impulse I poke her in the ribs. She clutches at her wounded bones and gapes at me unbelievingly. And she should. This is the first time that I’ve ever retaliated.

It feels good.

“Serves you right,” I say to her incredulous face.

“You poked me!”

“Damn right I did.”

“But I’m the poker, and you’re the poke-e.”

I snort a laugh and grab some clean socks out of one of my bags before rummaging around for a hoodie.

“Carmen’s your poke-e now, not me,” I say through a cocky smirk before continuing my still fruitless search in the abyssal depths of my luggage.

“Oh my God,” she breathes.

I glance up at her curiously. I wasn’t trying to be mean…

“Hey, it’s the truth,” I say, but her eyes are staring at the open bag at the end of the bed.

I follow her gaze.

Shit…

I leap over and try to stuff the green cloth deeper inside and bury it amongst its brothers and sisters, but she’s already descended on us both, her hands seemingly everywhere as she tries to pry it from my fingers.

“Hey,” I shout at her. “Get out of my clothes!”

“That’s mine,” she shouts back, giggling and tugging harder, and then, the cloth rips and we both fall on our asses.

I go stalk still and feel tears sting my eyes as I look down at this ridiculous, old, worn piece of faded cloth that means so much to me.

“You killed it…,” I exhale in shock.

Spencer’s still having fun and whoops as she holds up her half. “Finally, the mystery is solved!”

I feel like we’ve just desecrated the corpse of a loved-one.

Spencer seems to notice my glum and finally calms down. “It’s just a hoodie, Ash.”

No, no it’s not. But then she couldn’t know that. She doesn’t know that this hoodie carried me through years of treatments, tears, depression, and countless hours waiting to die. This hoodie was a piece of not just Spencer, but Spencer and I – the us – that I’d killed.

And after, when I lived, well, it meant so much that I couldn’t look at it anymore. So like everything else, I hid it away, shut it up in a forgotten corner of a dusty shelf. But recently, things have changed again. I found it again. I found those pieces of myself again; I found my need to believe that the us wasn’t dead.

And now…

Is this an omen?

“Ash…,” she says again but I don’t respond. I can’t look at her. All I can do is stare at the murky vision of torn, green fabric in my hands and feel entirely pathetic.

“Ash, I’m sorry…,” she tries again, but it’s over.

It’s done.

There’s just nothing left, nothing but a memory of that life, of those people, of that love…

I stand and glance around in this room, this grave, and let myself realize that everything is gone. I keep seeing it and saying it, but it just won’t sink in.

“It’s all just… gone,” I say when I finally look up at Spencer, and this is what it took for that information to finally settle in my skull.

Spencer’s eyes rage at me like the Atlantic in a fall storm, and for a moment, I think that I see something in them. For a moment, I feel like even though there’s only a memory left, maybe I’m not the only survivor who recalls it. A tear falls over her lashes and I feel like a dick. I didn’t mean to make her cry. But then I never do. Yet somehow, I’m consistent in this unwelcome task; it’s like a talent.

I reach up to wipe the evidence of my asinine behavior away.

“It’s okay,” I lie. “It’s just a hoodie.”

I smile and it feels strange, and I know that I’m not convincing either of us, but I can’t let on. I just can’t go there anymore, and I don’t want to hurt her any more than I already have.

I gather both pieces of the hoodie and hand them to her.

“I’m sorry I took it.”

I just barely keep it together long enough to make it to the bathroom.

“Ash, it’s okay,” I hear as I shut and lock the door, slide down to the floor, and hug my knees.

It’s all gone.

It’s done.

It’s over.

Let it go…

Just finally fucking let it all go…

“Ash,” she says from the other side of the door. “I’m sorry…”

I scramble to my feet and back away from her voice. The sound of it burns like acid. I need… space, from her, from what she means, from what she does to me.

“It’s all good, Spence.”

An indeterminate amount of time passes as I just stand here and stare at the door having no idea what to do. I know that she’s still out there waiting for me, and I wish she wouldn’t.

How long would it take for her to just leave?

Forever, it seems.

I finally turn on the tap and scrub some water on my overheated face.

“Ash,” she raps on the door. “Please let me in…?”

I turn off the tap and stare at myself in the mirror, trying to determine what to do. I know that I don’t want to let her in, but I also know that it’s futile to try and keep her out because in all of the ways that matter, she’s already so deeply embedded inside of me that to remove her would mean death.

I’m still just not ready to face it, to face her. “I’ll be out in a sec, okay?”

I can hear the disappointment in her muffled voice. “Okay…”

I take a towel from the cabinet over the toilet and dry my face, forcing myself to swallow all of these things that keep surfacing. I can allow myself to feel it; I can allow myself to cry, mostly because both are beyond my control; but I can’t let her see it; I can’t infect her with it.

And yet, everything about this place and about her is trying to force it all out of me.

They don’t understand just how bad it is. I barely do. I feel like I have all of these things, like I’m a collector of the most deplorable choices, the most painful memories, and I’ve taken them all and stuffed them deep in the attic in my mind. For years, every time that I was handed something that I couldn’t process, I’d just shove it up there and quickly slam the door.

But the more time that I spend alive, the more hurt and despair that keeps coming, the more that I have to brace myself against that door to keep it shut. But there’s just too much for me to handle alone, and I feel weary. But I know that if I let it come, if I step away from the door and accept that rush of darkness that will come tumbling out, I’ll be swept away with it.

Nothing in that attic is soft or gentle or fuzzy.

That stupid hoodie represented just a piece of what’s up there, and look at what just one memory has done to me. I continue to look at myself in the mirror and for the first time, I can see just how broken I really am. I may not survive much more, especially right now while my defenses are so shattered…

I close my eyes and remind myself that I have a year, just a year… and then I won’t have to.

I suck in a deep breath and force myself to stop dealing with things, to stop feeling things, but I still can’t face her.

“Spence, I think I just need to lie down right now.”

“You want me to leave,” she asks, and I can tell that I’ve hurt her yet again.

“No,” I say quickly, even though it’s a lie that’s not a lie. “But I just… don’t… feel well.”

“Are you okay?”

I lift my hand from the sink and watch it tremble.

Fuck no, I’m not okay.

And I blame her.

“Yeah,” I say, keeping up the farce. “I just need to lie down.”

“Ash, you don’t have to hide from me…”

Fuck, yes I really do. She doesn’t understand, and I don’t know how to explain it.

“I’m not hiding, promise. I’m just… tired.”

“Okay,” she says and I can hear the frustration in her voice. I also hear the sound of the front door thudding shut a few moments later. I exhale and feel immediately better, like I have more control of myself.

Spencer’s like my kryptonite. I just don’t stand a chance when those big, blue eyes are trained on me.

I tiredly open the bathroom door and watch nonplussed as Spencer pulls herself off of the wall. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her eyes are unashamed at her betrayal. Another deep breathe chokes up in my lungs as I try to focus myself.

“Are you okay,” she asks again.

God, I can’t answer that, and I can’t even look at her.

So what does she do?

She takes me in her arms.

She’s trying to kill me.

I feel stiff at first, but it doesn’t last long. Like warmed chocolate, I melt into her embrace and find myself fumbling to keep that door up there shut.

“I’m fine,” I choke out into her sweet smelling neck.

“Ash, it’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to be strong with me…”

Yes I do. She doesn’t know what she does to me. She can’t possibly know. I breathe her in, trying not to really hear or think or know anything. I just need to exist in this moment, empty and only slightly aware. But holding me isn’t going to help, so I pull away.

“It’s your fault, you know,” I say teasingly.

“I’m sorry about the sweater,” she replies pathetically.

I reach up and tuck a stray lock of honey-hued hair behind her ear and stop to trace the arch of her cheekbone with my thumb.

I smile at her. “It’s not the sweater, Spence. You make me feel…”

I gaze at her for long moments, trying to find the words, but wind up just shaking my head because there aren’t any.

Her eyes are like maelstroms, and I feel like I’m swirling around the edge of a giant drain, and I intrinsically know that once I finally fall in, the deepest secrets of the universe will be revealed to me. Or maybe it’s faith or blind belief. Whatever it is, I’m about to tumble willingly. I want to let it happen. After everything else that’s taken place, I’m ready to just lay back and let the current have me.

Her expression is so open, so kind, and I feel myself leaning in, wanting to breathe her in, to take her inside and be possessed. And I swear that she’s doing it on purpose, tugging on my heart strings and reeling me in, but it doesn’t matter what I believe. Because the truth is that she’s pulling back, pulling away, and I have no choice but to let her go.

And this is why I have to fight being vulnerable with her, because once I cross that invisible line, I’ll lose her forever. I turn and lean against the wall next to her, giving her the space that she so obviously wants.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, not even really sure what I’m apologizing for.

“Ash, we can’t go there,” she says.

We can’t, but does that mean that she would if she could?

“You love Carmen,” I say, more to remind myself than her.

“I do.”

“I respect that, you know?”

She smiles sadly at me. “I know you do. I’ve never met a more loyal or honorable person.”

“You should get out more,” I say in a laughing way, feeling like a pretentious fool.

I say that I respect her relationship, and she believes me. I even know that I want to respect it because to do anything less would be unbelievably fucked up. Yet here I am continually feeling things that I shouldn’t, things that defy said respect. But I can’t help it any more than my next breath, or next heartbeat, or the fact that I’m gay.

It’s nothing short of the absolute truth. No amount of perspective or subjective theory will ever change it or make it fiction. I love Spencer. I will love her until the end of time, however long or short that may be; however many lovers she chooses over me.

Because it just is.

How do I love her like that and respect her relationship?

Is that even possible?

I don’t know, and if I’m honest, I’m prone to answer in the negative. But I can’t cut her out again. I won’t survive it. But more than that, I don’t want to.

I have to find a way.

And it’s just twelve months…

“Do you know what Christine did with your stuff,” she asks out of nowhere. And I’m thankful for the lack of silence.

I drop my head against the wall behind me with a gentle thud. “I have no idea.”

“You didn’t ask her,” she glances over at me incredulously.

I shrug. “We haven’t had a normal conversation since I got here. She hates me, Spence. She only addresses me to let me know how disappointing I am.”

“Have you told her yet?”

“No,” I say.

“Well no wonder, Ash. She thinks that you just up and left without a care, and for no reason. Of course she’s upset.”

I roll my head over to face her. “Spence, she doesn’t care. She hasn’t shown any interest in what happened to me or why.”

“Because she doesn’t know to care, Ash. All she knows is that you hurt her.”

I sigh. “I’ll find a way to tell her before I leave, but I want to wait until we’re about to go just in case it gets bad.”

She laughs and shakes her head.

“What,” I ask.

“Nothing,” she says in an ironic sort of way. “You just can’t face anything without a safety net. God, it’s frustrating, Ash. You’re frustrating.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” I reply. “Even I’m frustrated with me.”

She chuckles and I smile at her as something funny strikes me. “You know that Tegan and Sara song line that says, ‘I feel like I wouldn’t like me if I met me’?”

“Yeah,” she answers with a furrowed brow. “You feel that way?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Pretty much.”

“Why?”

I glance at her like she’s lost her mind. “You’re serious…?”

“Well, yeah, I don’t get it.”

My demeanor turns dry. “You just got done telling me how frustrating I am, and you don’t get it?”

Her expression gets pensive. “Ash, just because you’re frustrating doesn’t mean that I don’t like you. That’s just… absurd. You’re an amazing person.”

I snort. “Yeah, okay…” I lean forward to pull off of the wall. “And on that note…”

She pulls me back to face her. “You seriously don’t like yourself?”

I stare at her in puzzlement, trying to decipher why she’s giving me that look and using that tone. I don’t like myself. Few people do at this point. So what’s the problem?

I just shrug, at a loss in this strange turn in the conversation.

“Ash, you’re one of the most amazing, kind, loving, and talented people I’ve ever known. Yes, you’re frustrating and stubborn and cynical, but you’re more than likable… you’re lovable.”

She’s really not playing this game fairly. In fact, she’s down-right dirty about it. I just need her to stop cracking the armor, to stop saying things that give me hope and make my heart want to burst open because I can hardly contain all of the emotions. I just need to be easy and light around her, and I really need her to be that way in return. Otherwise, she’s going to have a blubbering mess on her hands, and it’ll just hurt her more.

I can’t be that way with her. I don’t want to be that way with her.

I reach up and touch her forehead, finding comfort in humor. “Are you getting sick?”

She swats my hand away, unable to resist a smile at my antics. “I’m serious, Ashley.”

Yeah, I know. “Believe me, I know how awesome I am.”

She rolls her eyes at my trademark false bravado. “You’re going to have to face it all eventually, Ash.”

I smile, big and genuine, because I know something that she doesn’t: no, I won’t.

Twelve months…

“God,” she says exasperatedly shoving me on the shoulder.

“You love me,” I say playfully.

She releases an almost wistful sigh. “Yeah, I do.”

Fuck, I just can’t win…

I look down at the floor, tucking my fingers in my pockets and rocking on my heels. I can feel the blush heating up my cheeks, and I can feel her eyes watching it happen while she laughs.

“I should probably go see dad,” she says.

I look up at her. I don’t want her to go… like ever, but I understand that she has to.

My head nods while my heart sighs. “Yeah, he’s probably losing his mind waiting to see you.”

We start to walk towards the stairs. “Are you staying through Christmas,” I ask hopefully.

“No, I can’t. I have to make the red-eye in the morning so that I’m not late for work.”

“Oh, okay.” My heart squeezes in my chest.

“Yeah,” she says. “Depending on how things go, I might come back for Christmas though. There are just a lot of variables.”

That’s code for ‘Carmen sucks.’ Spencer’s not the only one that’s terrible at hiding some blatant truths.

Before I know it we’re at the door and she’s opening it.

“Hey,” I put my hand on her shoulder to stop her. “If you have a hard time tonight or you just need anything – to talk, whatever, I’m here.”

She grins and gives me a tight hug.

“Thanks,” she breathes against my collarbones.

I have to gulp. She’s going to kill me before the disease, I just know it. I guess it’s fitting that I’m terminal because I’m totally okay with dying in her arms. Her warmth is gone and I have to stare at her for a moment as I consider how she got to be on the front porch, the wintery cold seeping in from the gaping door.

“I’ll text you and let you know how it goes,” she promises.

I nod. “Good luck.”

About this time I hear a car pull into the driveway and I’m almost thankful to see Christine and Kyla pull up in the Suburban.

They’re terrible company but at least I won’t be alone.

Spencer’s all smiles as she greets them, but then with one last look over her shoulder, she’s gone. And I’m left with Kyla who’s giving me the stink eye.

I glare at her. “Don’t.”

She shrugs, sporting a self-satisfied smile as she pushes past me with her arms full of bags.

“Kyla, it’s not like that.”

“I didn’t say anything,” she whines.

“You don’t have to. It’s written all over your face.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She sets the bags down by the stairs and Christine adds her load to the massive pile before shutting the door.

“Did you guys buy for a third world country,” I ask.

“Don’t worry,” Christine says. “They’re not for you.”

Ouch…

I shrug at her and wish for some serious take backs on that whole ‘happy that they’re here’ thing. Without another word, I make my way up the stairs to try and take a nap, even though I know that it won’t work.

But anything is better than being constantly reminded of what a worthless disappointment I am.


Christmas morning was an awkward affair. I got a few neat trinkets and baubles, but nothing too personal. I actually really tried with my gifts, but they were received with casual indifference. Which, in and of itself isn’t all that unusual. The whole thing just didn’t hold that air of magic that it used to. It was as if all of the fun, the emotion, was sapped out of it. It felt like we were just keeping up appearances and honoring tradition. And as was becoming the new norm, I just kind of sat there and watched them have their family moment far removed from the situation. But that’s okay. I’m learning not to need them any more than they need me. I’m getting better at functioning as half a person.

Or at least, I think I am.

I mean, it’s been another three weeks and while I still really, really want to run and hide, I haven’t. I’m still here. Of course, I’ve tried in small ways to find something of those outlets, but it just doesn’t seem to help anymore. I can’t sleep and leaving makes me feel like I’m waiting for something, or maybe drowning. But somehow I’ve stopped worrying about it. It will come when it comes, whatever it is, and as it does I’ll just roll with the punches. There’s just nothing that I can do to avoid the nastiness that life has to offer.

So why fight it?

It took me a long time to figure that out, but here I am. And it’s strange to find myself with this newfound flexibility because I hurt more than I can ever remember in my life. If there were a time to run or sleep my life away, it’s now. I feel like I’ve been hollowed out and every stretched vein, every frayed nerve, every torn muscle aches unbearably.

I guess I’m pretending that the attic just isn’t a big deal. I think it’s called suffering in silence, and I can’t see the end in sight, at least not as long as I draw breath.

But who knows how long that will be?

I sure as fuck don’t.

Twelve minutes or twelve months, it makes no difference at this point. It’s all going to be oddly relaxed torture.

Got to love a good contradictory mind fuck…

“Ash, grab the pies.”

I tug at the collar of my jacket yet again in nervous anticipation and pick up the pies on the counter. Kyla and Christine start to rummage through the bags leaving me to hurry up and wait. I’ve come to realize that there’s just nothing that I can do with them either. Nothing I say is the right thing. I can’t force Christine to forgive me. I can’t force her to care about me, and I can’t force Kyla to have my back.

I could sooner squeeze blood from a turnip.

Speaking of blood, I can’t shake this feeling that going to the Carlin’s is going to be ground zero for Armageddon.

And that’s precisely where we’re headed as soon as they decide we’re ready.

Finally every item is checked off of the list and we’re ready to file out through the front door, our arms laden with delicious smelling confections. Well, all of it’s delicious except the tofurkey that Kyla’s carrying. If for no other reason, some real fucking turkey would be worth any amount of humiliatingly public, familial sniping. I just hope that we can eat before anyone pulls a gun or throws a steak knife.

We make it safely to the Carlin door just like a million times before, but unlike then, I know deep in my bones that this is where all safety ends. I may be hallucinating again, but I swear that I see a sign above the door that reads, ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter.’

I can hear muffled talking, or maybe shouting, coming from inside, and I find myself looking over my shoulder and wondering how far I could get before Kyla puts me down. But she’s standing there, a shrewd look on her face as she blocks the only escape. And something tells me that no matter how quick I am, she’d chuck that tofurky dish at my head like a Frisbee and drop me like a sack of bricks.

I turn back to the dreaded gate to hell, reminding myself that running doesn’t do any good anymore anyway.

I tug at my jacket collar.

Just go with the flow…

That’s my new motto…

Mrs. C answers the door and I feel the blood drain from my face.  She’s looking at me like I’m typhoid Mary.

“Hello, Paula,” Christine says curtly.

“Christine,” Paula nearly hisses.

If they were cats, their tails would be sticking straight up with the fur fluffed out, their backs overly arched, their eyes bulging, and their claws and teeth bared.

Fuck, we haven’t even entered yet.

I can almost hear an announcer shout, “Round one, FIGHT!”

I glance over at Christine with an ‘I told you so’ expression, but she’s either ignoring me or doesn’t care.

Who am I kidding? It’s both…

Paula reluctantly steps back from the jamb and opens the door wider so that we can all file inside. All of the loud talking, or maybe shouting, stops as those in the living room turn to stare at us. It’s like a Mexican stand-off the way we all look at one another, as if finally facing a mortal enemy. I swear that I even see a tumbleweed roll across the hall. The illusion is only broken by the incessantly irritating Christmas tune that continues along gayly in the background.

Spencer’s face is red and her eyes glassy like she’s been crying. She looks at me, gives me a heartbreaking smile, and then looks away. She only got here last night. How could things be that bad already?

Well, they are, and while the fact that she’s been crying is bad enough, of course there’s more: Carmen’s here. I mean, she’s really here, and while I’m used to her being pissed at me, I don’t think that her anger is all my fault, not this time. I mean, I’m sure I’m part of it, but this is just… more. And she’s obviously not helping Spencer much if the sour look on her face and defensive posture mean anything.

Glen and Madison are quite clearly at odds. Hell, Glen seems at odds with everyone in this room, standing stoic and brooding in the corner where he’s sipping from a large Christmas mug that’s clearly filled with eggnog.

God, I hope it’s spiked. Maybe that’s what I need: a little muscle relaxer. Nothing else has been working, and this is worse than I expected.

And that’s saying something.

“I’m going to go put these in the kitchen,” I lift the pies and deign to break the stand-off so that I can make a hasty retreat. I shoot one last dagger at Carmen, and almost trip over the tumbleweed on my way to the kitchen, where I will hopefully find some booze.

I mean nog…

Mr. C is at the stove stirring a large pot, his eyes fixed on something much further than the brown gravy inside.

I set the pies on the counter and approach him slowly. “Mr. C, you okay?”

He flinches at the sound of my voice, like he’s been shocked, and then fixes his glazed-over eyes on me. “Ashley…”

He taps the spoon on the side of the pot and turns the heat down to low. “I’m glad you guys made it.”

Of course he has to hug me, so I endure it.

“It’s like the Ides of March out there,” I throw my thumb in the general direction of the living room. “What’s going on?”

He shrugs and tries to play innocent. “It’s nothing.”

I just lean against the counter and stare at him, waiting.

Of course, the talking… no, it’s now confirmed arguing, starts up again and I just cross my arms over my chest.

He finally lets out a long-suffering breath and slumps against the counter next to me. “Carmen and Paula have been going at it since they arrived last night, Glen and Madison have done nothing but fight about whether or not to get divorced for the last week, and Spencer, Kenzi, and I are kind of stuck in the middle of it all.”

He picks up the cup behind him and poises it at his lips, glancing at me over the rim. “And I don’t like her either.”

It takes a moment for me to realize who he’s talking about and I can’t help but grin at him in response. I really do appreciate Mr. C. I wish there were a way to keep him safe from all of this bullshit, but just like Spencer, he’d never give up on his family, even the worst of them.

I watch enviously as he drinks deeply from a tankard, and he catches me eyeing the thick, sickly sweet drink.

“Would you like a cup, or do you want some hot chocolate?”

Ooh, that’s a hard one.

Well, maybe not…

“Which one’s spiked,” I ask.

He smirks. “The eggnog, but I have some Bailey’s if you really want the chocolate.”

“Yes, please,” I say quickly and he chuckles as he retrieves a matching Christmas mug and begins to pour from the large thermos on the counter. I watch happily as he pulls a bottle of Bailey’s from the kitchen cupboard, a cupboard that’s a very well stocked bar, and pours a generous portion in the chocolate.

“There you go,” he says, handing me the steaming amazingness.

I take a huge gulp, moving the sweet liquid around in my mouth and closing my eyes to savor it. But then, it’s nearly ripped from my hands.

“You really think that drinking is going to make things better? It’s already hostile out there.”

I watch with panic as Kyla starts to dump my drink down the sink.

“I can’t believe you just left us out there alone,” she continues and I decide that enough is enough.

I grab her hand and tip it back up, saving about half of my drink and giving her a look that could rust metal. We then find ourselves fighting for control of my drink.

I lean in close to her. “I’ve been putting up with a lot from you recently, Kyla.”

She digs one of her nails in my knuckle and I hiss but keep my grip, bending one of her fingers at an odd angle.

You have been putting up with a lot,” she asks incredulously through clenched teeth.

“I’m not finished,” I cut her off.

She looks like she might continue anyway, so I beat her to the punch. “I know that you want to help me, but I’m telling you right now that you need to back off.”

I make my voice very low. “Tonight is definitely not the night to fuck with me.”

She tries to stare me down but it doesn’t work and she has no choice but to release the cup, albeit angrily. She brushes past Christine on her way out of the kitchen, and of course, Christine turns her most scathing expression on me. I take another sip in such a way that it’s almost like I’m spiting her, and I immediately feel less tense, despite everything else.

Mr. C, who’s been quietly sipping from his own mug, decides to greet Christine. “It’s good to see you, Christine.”

“Arthur,” she says.

It gets incredibly quiet, and I dart my eyes from one to the other over the rim of my drink as they avoid speaking. There’s definitely no love lost between these two. Apparently Christine has issues with more than just me. I hate to say it because I like Mr. C, but I’m glad to have someone else to buffer her bad attitude, even if it’s just for a night.

I wonder what he did to her to piss her off though…

I go to take another sip of my cocoa as Christine finishes neatly laying out of our contributions and exits the room without a word. I look over to Mr. C. Both of our goblets are empty now and as if by silent understanding, we pour ourselves another. He’s a little sloppy, but not a drop is spilled.

About this time Clay enters the kitchen and stops abruptly. His eyes meet mine and his smile grows huge before he strides over and takes me in gentle hug.

“Ashley Davies,” he says pulling back. “It’s about time you came home.”

“It’s good to see you too, Clay.”

“NO WAY,” is blurted from the doorway and Clay moves to reveal Chelsea, her mouth hanging open in happy surprise.

Girl,” she drawls the word as if it’s four syllables. “Where you been?!”

And I am being squeezed in yet another awkward hug.

“Here and there,” I say as I tug on my jacket collar. I really don’t want to have this conversation right now.

She pulls back and Mr. C squeezes my shoulder in understanding. The atmosphere seems to grow heavy with the way she’s looking at me, so I deftly change the subject.

“But look at you,” I say, holding her arms out and giving her the once over. “You look exactly the same as the last time I saw you.”

And it’s true. Neither she nor Clay appear to be a day older. Most notably though, they look happy, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see that at least one couple in this group isn’t failing at life.

“Stop,” she blushes and waves a dismissive hand.

She cuddles up to Clay and they kiss sweetly, and I feel… so many things that I don’t want to feel.

Mostly sad…

And lonely…

I chug at my spiked chocolate and determine that I’ll just hide in the kitchen with Mr. C and his booze for the rest of the night. He seems happy to have a drinking companion anyway.

“So,” Chelsea starts. “Are you going to tell me where you’ve been?”

She’s not as smiley as she was just a moment before. It’s a very passive aggressive expression that now dominates her face, and I have to hand it to her; she’s sly. Chelsea doesn’t really get angry, she just kind of quietly, almost kindly, puts you at ease before going in for the kill.

“Chels…,” Clay tries to soothe her.

“No, Clay, I think we deserve an answer.”

“Chelsea, maybe a little later,” Mr. C tries to step in, but I stop him.

“No, Mr. C, it’s okay.”

I feel pretty warm and fuzzy, like nothing really matters. Thank God for cocoa and fermentation. I face Chelsea and say the first thing that comes to my twisted mind: a strange story that went viral on facebook.

“I tried to rob a beauty supply store but the cashier was a black belt and she knocked me out before I could get away. When I woke up, she had me tied up in the back of her shop, and then she used me as a sex slave for four years to teach me a lesson. That’s where I’ve been.”

Well, Chelsea’s indignation has faded. I’ve also successfully killed any chance of a normal conversation. Neither Chelsea nor Clay can seem to find words, so I just finish off my second cup of cocoa and pass my empty mug to Mr. C who tries not to laugh as he obliges with another refill.

I plan to keep this feeling for as long as I can. This night should be smooth sailing if I can manage it. And I can manage it so long as Mr. C keeps ’em comin’. Just as he hands me my refill, a buzzer goes off and he hurries to pull a real turkey from the oven. I want to weep when I see it. It’s all golden and juicy and smells like butterball heaven.

Le sigh…

“Clay, Chels,” Mr. C says. “Go set the table, please.”

Clay has to forcibly pull Chelsea out of the kitchen and it’s about this time that Paula comes walking into the room.

Well, that’s my cue…

I try to move past her, but she stops me, pulling the newly filled mug from my hands and sniffing it.

God, what is with people today just taking my shit?

“Really, Arthur,” she pins her laser-like eyes on him in severe disapproval.

If I didn’t know any better, I swear the slump of his shoulders rounds even further.

“It’s not enough that you can’t go just one day without a drink,” she continues. “But you have to get the kids liquored up too?”

I give her a smile. “I’m twenty-two, Paula. I’m old enough to drink if I want.” I pull the mug back from her hands. “And I want.”

With that, I nearly run from the room. I almost feel bad for leaving Mr. C to deal with her alone, but I didn’t marry that beast.

The living room situation is a little better since Glen’s nowhere in sight, but Madison gives me a look that says how much she wishes she could vaporize me with telepathy, and Spencer and Carmen are still wrapped up their drama. So I decide to step outside and find some air to breathe.

I didn’t realize just how hot and uncomfortable it was in there until the crisp winter air is prickling the skin of my face and filling my lungs. My head starts to clear a little, but then I smell the distinct odor of cigarettes. I’m not sure why I peek around the corner – maybe just to confirm what I already know, but it’s a little late to turn back because Glen sees me.

He gives me a bored expression and I can’t help but chuckle at how ridiculous he looks up close with a goatee and a bad temperament.

“So that’s why you’re here,” he says. “To laugh about the fact that you’ve completely destroyed my family.”

That sobers me up a little bit. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” he says.

I nod. “Yeah, I heard you, but as usual, nothing you say makes any sense.”

He snorts. “You infected my sister with your…,” he fumbles for the right word and comes up with, “Gayness…”

Gayness? Seriously? He was thinking so hard that steam was coming out of his ears and that was the result?

“If it weren’t for you,” he continues. “My family wouldn’t be such a fucking wreck.”

I just shake my head. “You’re ridiculous, and I don’t just mean your goatee.”

He pulls himself up off of the wall and takes one long, last drag from his cigarette before flicking it at my feet.

I step on it to put it out. “Spencer’s gay, Glen.” He grimaces and I soldier on. “She can’t help it, and even if she could, why should it matter? She’s still Spencer.”

He laughs humorlessly, but I don’t see how it’s funny. “It’s been four years and you seriously can’t see that you and your mother are the reason your family is so fucked up?”

I take another sip of my chocolate and wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t, at least not until he’s pushed past me and just about to step back through the front door.

“You know, it was better when you were gone.”

He slams the door behind him and it takes a moment for me to collect my thoughts. Was it better for everyone? I mean, I know that I’ve been the catalyst for a lot of pain…

I take another gulp from my cocoa and feel the alcohol settle sourly in my stomach. This night is turning out to be a strange nightmare. I expected the hostility, but I didn’t expect to be comfortable with it. I certainly didn’t expect to get drunk.

I look down into the mug and wonder if Mr. C’s cocoa is imbued with magical properties. After a shrug, I lift it in the general direction of the Carlin kitchen in mock salute and gulp the rest down. I feel a little woozy afterwards and find myself dropping the cup in the snow so that I can grope the wall of the house.

Madison and Glen decide to make the front porch their sparring grounds and the last thing I want to hear is how he can’t keep it up. I stagger my way towards the backyard, happy when they’re out of earshot and I can see a snow covered Adirondack.

I only get a few feet before I’m forced to lean against the house and lay my head against the cold brick, letting the cooling relief of the wall wash through my system. The backdoors open and shut, and then I hear hushed murmuring. Oh for fuck’s sake. Is there nowhere to get away from these people?

“Dad invited her,” Spencer says.

“Well, he can un-invite her. Things are bad enough without her in the mix, Spencer.”

“I know that this isn’t easy, Carmen…”

“No, Spence, this shouldn’t even be happening. You and I agreed…”

“They’re my family, Carmen…”

I look back towards the front of the house but I can still slightly hear the other argument taking place up there. I’m, quite literally, trapped in hell. And my stomach is already all kinds of sour.

“I understand that, Spence,” they continue. “But they don’t accept you… or me, for that matter. And she is not part of your family.”

“Carmen, I know that you don’t like it, but she is part of my family. I’ve known her since I was ten. We practically lived together for eight years.”

“And she’s your first love…,” Carmen sounds defeated.

“Yes, but-”

I feel frozen to the wall like a barnacle to the hull of a ship at this point, slight vertigo and all.

“I’m really trying to understand here, Spence, but I don’t. Do you even remember what you went through after she left you?”

“Of course I remember,” she responds testily.

“Then why? We’ve been together for two years; we were happy, weren’t we?” There’s no answer, but then Carmen doesn’t really give her a chance to say anything. “But then she shows up out of the blue, and… and it’s like I’m not enough for you anymore.”

“Carmen, it’s not like that.”

“Then how is it, Spence?”

“She could die…”

“I’m sorry, but that’s her problem.”

“Wow, could you be anymore insensitive?”

“I’m not trying to be insensitive, Spence. I’m trying to save you from going through that pain again, and I’m also trying to save our relationship, which you seem hell bent on destroying.”

“Because you keep making me choose between you and the people I love!”

The very air seems to thicken with angst and a precarious calm stews for long moments. I can’t tell if it’s them or the alcohol as I look down at the snow and consider hurling.

“I can’t believe you right now, Spencer,” Carmen sniffs. “I’m not trying to make you choose anyone. If I’m not someone that you love, then you should just tell me.”

Is she crying?

“I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean that I need my family and other people in my life too.”

“They don’t love you; they don’t accept you; I don’t understand it…”

“Look, I’m not like you, Carmen. I can’t just cut out the people that I love if they don’t love me back.”

“Spencer, you keep talking about your family. I get that you needed to come here, even though I don’t understand why it had to be Christmas or why I had to come with you. But that’s not my real problem here and you know it. You know we’re talking about Ashley. You want to go traipsing around with her for a year! I’m sorry, but if the tables were turned, you wouldn’t be okay with it.”

It takes a moment, but like a knife to my heart, Spencer agrees. “You’re right; I wouldn’t be comfortable with it.”

Carmen senses that she’s gaining ground. “So how can you expect me to be comfortable with it? Why do you need her when you have me?”

It takes at least a minute for Spencer to respond. “Carmen, she’s dying, and while I know that it’s her problem, it also got me thinking.”

Spencer clears her throat and I can tell that she’s trying to maintain herself. “Life is short, and it’s precious, and I feel like I’m wasting it.”

“You’re wasting it… with me.”

No… no, please, just try to listen to me.” Spencer pleads. “I feel like I’m wasting my life being angry at my parents, avoiding the people that I care about, and closing myself off. I feel like I’m losing myself, Carmen, and everyone else I care about is falling apart. I want to be there for them, all of them. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and have all these regrets.”

“You’d regret a life with me if you couldn’t have her in it,” she asks, and I roll my eyes.

What part of this isn’t she getting? I’m drunk and hugging the cold wall of a house like a tawdry lover while little chocolate fishes named Bailey try to swim back up stream, but I still get it.

“No, I wouldn’t regret a life with you; I’d regret a life where I let the people I love fall apart because you didn’t understand my need to help them, and then I’d start to resent you for it. We talked about all of this in therapy…”

“Yeah, we did,” Carmen agrees. “And that’s why I’m here with you, trying. Look, I’m sorry. You’re my world, Spence, and I feel like I’m losing you…”

“Carmen, you haven’t lost me yet.”

Carmen blows out an anxious breath. “Yet…”

Spencer releases a similar sigh. “Carmen, you won’t lose me in the future if you can just be here with me now, because the present is really freaking me out.”

“Okay,” Carmen says. “Okay, I guess you can just… do what you want, though I’m not even sure what that is. Who that is…,” she says under her breath.

Spencer sounds exasperated. “What I want is to figure some things out and to help my family. And yes, that includes Ashley.”

“She wants you back, Spence…”

I can hear the smile in Spencer’s voice. “Well, I’m not available.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Very sure.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

I hear the sound of rustling fabric and Spencer’s voice becomes lower, huskier. “You know what else I want?”

“Hm,” Carmen hums around what sounds like a mouth full. If this isn’t over soon I may find my mouth full of Bailey fishes.

“You,” Spencer says and I almost lose it as the unmistakable sounds of kissing smack against my eardrums.

I still can’t move, even though every inch of my skin is crawling. But of course, it’s like my feet have been nailed to the frozen ground, as if some part of me wants to force me to listen, to know, to accept. They obviously love each other, and even though it hurts more than I can say, I can’t begrudge Spencer this happiness.

I can’t begrudge her any happiness…

I need to just let her go…

I hear a sharp knock on the glass of the backdoor and finally the kissing stops.

Thank sweet Jesus…

“Dinner’s ready,” Spencer says.

“She hates me,” Carmen replies.

“Babe, she doesn’t know you. She’s just ignorant.”

I hear Carmen blow out another breath and steal another kiss. “I’m trying, Spence.”

“I know,” Spencer says happily. “Thank you.”

And with that, they’re gone and I’m finally released from my forced vigil. Oddly enough, I don’t feel so sick anymore. I just wish I hadn’t heard any of that, and yet I stood here listening. And what’s worse is that I know that I have to go in there and pretend that I don’t know.

If Spencer found out, she’d kill me, or let Carmen do it.

I need a minute. I’m still a little woozy. I know better than to mix sweet things with my alcohol. It almost makes it absorb faster or something, but it usually also burns out of my system faster. If I give it a little time, I should be okay, but I can still hear Madison and Glen at the front of the house going at it.

The backyard it is. Although, I know that if I wait too long, Kyla will come looking for me with something sharp and pointy, but it can’t be helped; let her stab me.

I shuffle around the corner and head straight for the Adirondack. I don’t care if my ass gets wet; but then I hear the french doors open again and look up just in time to see Spencer come walking out.

Shit…

I nearly dive back around the corner, cursing under my breath as I press myself against the wall yet again and close my eyes against the gentle spins.

Did she see me?

I hear the crunch of her footsteps getting closer and my heart starts to pound in my chest, but then the footsteps pass me, and I finally peek open an eye to watch as she heads towards the shed with two big, silver bowls in her hands.

She disappears inside leaving the doors ajar and I feel my brows furrow. What’s that about?

I decide to go ahead and try to sneak into the house, and sprint drunkenly for the back door. I only barely stop myself from face planting into the glass panes just as I reach for the handle. But then the handle isn’t there anymore. I stare stupidly at where the handle should be but I only find a chasm. And when I track my eyes higher, I find Carmen standing there.

I stumble back a bit, and try to think, but my brain feels murky, like it’s trying to slog through knee high mud.

“Ashley,” Spencer says.

And that’s when I realize that I’m pinned between an angry Carmen and a now aware Spencer who’s paused in the shed door to stare at me. If I close my eyes so that I can’t see them any longer, does that mean that they won’t be able to see me either?

What the hell, I give it a try…

“Ashley, how long have you been out here?”

Fuck, she knows…

She always knows…

Just how…?

And it’s about this time that I hear some excited barking. My eyes snap open and I turn to see Flotsam and Jetsam come charging through the shed doors, nearly knocking Spencer over as they barrel towards me.

“FLOT! JET,” Spencer shouts, but it’s no use.

I brace myself for the excited impact but then it never comes. I watch as they dart right passed me and veer for Carmen who screams and abandons the door to climb up on a nearby armchair. But then, the dogs don’t care about her either. They disappear into the house, and it only takes about ten seconds for shouts, breaking glass, and cursing to thunder from the vicinity of the dining room. Spencer chases after them and I finally get my bearings and chase after her.

We both burst through the doors, sprint through the hall, and find ourselves in the dining room where a glorious mess awaits.

Of course, I just improve on the mess, overestimating my stopping point and sending Spencer into the table who then sends Madison’s wine into her lap. Spencer shoves me back and Madison stands slowly, lifting her hands to gawk at the horrendous splotch of red blooming at her crotch in silent wonder.

The bulk of the mess isn’t my fault though. The tablecloth is already skewed on the table, several dishes of food toppled and spilled onto its once white surface and dribbling over onto the floor. Glen doesn’t move except to turn his head and start to snort eggnog out of his nose with laughter.

Mrs. C is on the floor in the fetal position and holding her arms in front of her face to ward off the ravenous dogs who are just a foot away tearing into what would have been a magnificent turkey.

Christine and Kyla merely lean back in their chairs and sip their wine, as if this is a common, everyday occurrence.

Chelsea and Clay are pressed against the nearby wall, smartly avoiding all of this mess, and Mr. C steps forward to unsuccessfully try to pry his turkey from the jaws of his wild grand-doggers, but he gets growled at.

Spencer’s angry voice makes us all jump. “FLOT! JET!”

She charges up to them and grabs one of them by the collar and Mr. C helps by grabbing the other. They manage to tear them away from the mauled bird carcass and drag them out to the backyard, Spencer admonishing them all the way. My eyes track to Carmen, who’s now standing in the entryway to the dining room, blatant disapproval oozing off of her.

“Do you often get drunk, eavesdrop on personal conversations, and wreck dinner for everyone,” she asks me.

“Only on Thursdays,” I reply off-handedly.

She snorts. “Is nothing serious to you?” She gestures to the mess in the room. “Look at what you’ve done.”

Glen raises his mug. “Here, here.”

“Oh shut up, Glen,” Clay, Chelsea, Christine, and Kyla chorus.

“How is it my fault that the dogs got in the house?”

“You were hiding in the back yard like some voyeuristic stalker. If Spencer hadn’t been distracted they’d have never gotten out of the shed.”

“I’m not the one that screamed and ran away from the door instead of just closing it,” I reply.

Paula is finally uncurling on the floor, venom turning her eyes to slits. “Both of you have a done a wonderful job ruining Christmas.”

“Tell ’em, mom,” Glen slurs and this time Madison slaps him on the back of the head.

“You’re one to talk, Glen. You walk around here drunk off of your ass in front of your own daughter.”

About this time the cry of a child upstairs breaks through the air and Madison starts spluttering at Glen in Spanish. I can’t understand a single word of what she just said at rapid-fire speed, but it didn’t sound very loving.

Well, I understood ‘puta.’

“Like father, like son,” Mrs. C adds as Madison storms out of the room.

“Stop it, all of you,” Spencer shouts sharply as she enters the hallway.

Everyone goes statue still and the room becomes deathly quiet.  Spencer takes the time to look at each person individually, and while most of us are properly chastised, Mrs. C won’t have it.

“Who do you think you’re talking to,” she asks Spencer in a dark tone.

“A self-righteous bigot,” I murmur under my breath and Carmen snorts a laugh before diverting her eyes to floor.

Of course, Spencer trains her eyes on me and I shrink away from her, feeling slightly better when she then pans to Carmen who beat me to the eyes on carpet contrition.

“I think it’s time for you to leave, Ashley,” Mrs. C obviously heard me.

“I think it’s time you shut your mouth, Paula,” Christine pipes up and we both stare at her incredulously.

I mean, since when?

Mrs. C looks like she’s seconds from leaping over the destroyed table to choke Christine who’s still at cool as a cucumber with her wine, but as if by some silent understanding, Spencer and Mr. C start to clean up the mess. Oddly enough, their tactic sort of diffuses the situation. It takes a few long moments, but finally everyone starts to help.

Well, everyone but Glen.

I can tell by the rigid set of Spencer’s shoulders and the quick, jerky movements of her hands as she cleans that she’s unbelievably pissed. And that’s bad enough, but she’s also quietly crying, randomly swiping a hand under her nose.

Carmen’s right. This was my fault.

I realize that I need to talk to Spencer and let her off of the hook so that she can focus on her family. And while I hate to admit it to myself, I need to leave her alone to fix any possible damage I’ve caused to her relationship with Carmen.

It was foolish of me to ask her for a year. She has a life, responsibility, a partner, and a family. They need her. And while I need her more, they actually deserve her.

I turn a chair back over while Chelsea tries to smooth out the tablecloth and everyone else starts to clean up the spilled food and broken glass. We’re able to salvage at least half of the total meal as most of the bowls only tipped on the table, and I know that there will be plenty of pie, but that turkey is toast.

The tofurkey is just fine though… of course.

I reach down to help Spencer bag up the turkey remains but she pulls away from me and sniffles.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

She slows a little bit and exhales heavily. And this time, she lets me help her.

“Were you eavesdropping,” she asks.

It’s my turn to exhale. “I had been outside for a long while before you came out. I had too much to drink…”

She glances up at me, her watery eyes so disappointed that I have to swallow thickly against the guilt. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I sort of got trapped between you and Gladison’s drama”

She chuckles a little at the name to spite herself before swallowing it in favor of righteous indignation.

“But you didn’t leave when you heard us,” she accuses.

I shake my head. “No, I didn’t.”

She throws the last of the turkey in her garbage bag angrily. Before I know it, she’s on her feet and disappearing out the front door. I think about it for a moment and finally decide to follow her. I find her rounding the corner of the house.

“Spencer,” I jog down the steps. “I know I shouldn’t have listened, but maybe it’s a good thing I did.”

That makes her stop and turn to me, fury burning on her flushed cheeks.

“It was selfish of me to ask you to spend the year with me.” I explain as I step a little closer, as if I’m approaching a frightened animal. “I understand that now.”

She makes a disgusted sound and throws the bag in the trash can before brushing past me and heading back towards the front door without a word.

Again, I follow her. “Spencer, you don’t owe me anything, and you should work on your family, your relationships that matter, not some fucked up nightmare from your past.”

She stops at the top of the front porch steps and whirls on me angrily.

“Shut up!”

She turns to go inside but then after two steps she again stops and I watch her seethe out heavy breaths.

It’s only seconds before she comes right back to the top of the steps and looms over me, the blue of her eyes burning as she says, “You don’t get to do that, Ash!”

“Do what,” I ask hesitantly.

“Decide what you’re worth to me or if you matter to me! I decide for myself what I want to do with my time and who’s worth spending it with! GOD,” she throws her hands up in frustration. “I get enough controlling bullshit from Carmen and my mother.”

Ouch…

“Okay,” I say simply.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this angry, and that’s saying something.

“It’s your choice,” I agree. “But you know just as well as I do that I shouldn’t matter. I’ve done nothing but fuck up your life, Spence, both then and now. Your family needs you and you love Carmen.”

You need me,” she replies lowly.

I nod, unable or unwilling to lie about that fact. “I do, but it’s a year, Spence, just a year.” I shrug. “It doesn’t matter.” I gesture to the house. “They matter because there’s a future with them. There isn’t one with me.”

And my own words resound inside of me, giving me new understanding of just what it means to live and die, to love unselfishly. It only helps to strengthen my resolve to leave her happy and healthy, to stop fucking things up for her. I swear she’s so mad that she’s going to slap me, but I can’t seem to move, even as she towers over me like an angel of destruction.

“You listen to me, Ashley Davies; just because you had a sickness doesn’t mean that you don’t have a future. And even if you were currently sick, which you’re not, you’d still matter to me.”

She jabs a finger hard into my chest and leaves a throbbing ache behind that I rub at with a scowl.

“So shut the fuck up about it,” she continues. “I’m doing this with you for a year, and you’re going to survive afterward.”

We both know that it doesn’t work that way though. No amount of intimidation she throws out at the universe can save my life. She turns to walk away and I find myself running up the steps to pull her arm and stop her at the top.

“Does that mean you’re answer is yes?”

“Yes,” she says loudly. “Yes, you’re worth a year! Yes, you matter! Yes, you asked and my answer is YES!”

She’s nearly shaking now, tears rolling thick and hot over her lashes, and I’m not sure how to feel. I mean, I know that I want to jump up and click my heels together while I pump a fist in the air, but what about her job, Carmen, her life?

How did this happen?

I lean in and take her in my arms, this time determined to be the one comforting her. And she doesn’t hesitate to tighten the hug. Why does she always have to feel so good? I close my eyes and wonder at her. She was determined not to come when I offered and then we just what, magically switched places?

No, this isn’t right. Isn’t she listening to me? I lean back just enough to look into her eyes.

“Spencer, didn’t you just hear what I said?”

She scoffs. “Didn’t you?”

Okay, so it’s her choice. But that’s not entirely true. It’s my choice too. But then, I’m delusional to think that I could do anything but what she wants, especially when I’m only inches away from her and gazing deeply into her determined eyes.

“Okay,” I say.

She leans her head back and closes her eyes as if praying for God to strike me with a thunderbolt for my doltishness. I can’t help but chuckle. I watch her brows furrow and follow her gaze to a bushel of mistletoe at the top of the steps.

Oh man, Mr. C is a crack up…

She looks back at me, her ire dissipating as a cavalcade of other emotions appear and fight for dominance inside of her, all of them seemingly painful. And yet again, there’s this moment where I know, where I feel inexplicably drawn to her, and I know that she feels it too.

But unlike those other times, it’s me who breaks it.

“Spence, I just want to stop hurting you,” I say.

She lowers her head and sniffs and I find myself nestling my nose in the top of her hairline. “You always hurt the ones you love, Ash,” she murmurs.

She looks up. “So long as we know each other, we’re going to hurt each other. That’s what it means to care.”

“But you don’t hurt me,” I say gently.

“Don’t I,” she asks disbelievingly.

And as I think about it, I realize that it’s true. I’ve been feeling a decidedly Spencer shaped hole in my chest for about two months now, but that pain doesn’t register in a way that would make me mad at her or hate her or want her gone. It’s not her fault. And if anything, it makes me love her more.

Maybe that’s what it’s like for her. Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought.

I look down at my feet. “Spence, are you sure?”

She places a finger beneath my chin and lifts my eyes to hers. I can see it there, like the door to a thousand churches opening up to me with a single blue-eyed blink. The answer isn’t just yes, but it’s unequivocal, without hesitation.

Yes, I matter to her if to no one else.

“Yes,” she says.

“Okay,” I say lamely for the third time.

What else can I say? English always fails; my tongue always fails when I’m near this girl, this woman, the love of my life.

She lingers close, her breath warming the chilled skin of my face and I close my eyes, just breathing her in. But then, all too soon, she’s gone and I’m staring at the open door left in her wake, never really closed to me but impossible to walk through all the same.

I step inside and shut it behind me, preparing to face these people. And for once, it’s not because I only have twelve months or because I have an ulterior motive. I’m not just here for Spencer. I’m not even here for Kyla or Mr. C.

I’m here for me.

I just need to be honest, with them and myself. Wasn’t that something on my list? I know that it’ll take more than two months in Ohio going insane, but it’s a start, right?

I walk into the dining room to find everyone sitting at the table, avoiding eye contact with each other over the now cold remnants of a meal meant to salvage an utterly destroyed holiday. I sit, and in utter silence that’s only broken by the sounds of clinking dishes, silverware to plates, and Kenzi’s childish squealing, we all eat. The food settles like a lump of coal but I’m thankful to have these fucked up people in my life.

For a moment, I remember what it used to be like at this table on a Saturday morning: how irritatingly playful Glen was, how Mrs. C would lovingly smooth out mine and Spencer’s ponytails on her way past our chairs, how Mr. C found so much joy and fulfillment in feeding his family, how Clay poured over his science books in the midst of chaos without a flinch.

And Christine, for a moment I remember how she would stand up for me, how she’d love me without smothering me, how she gave me the right to be myself without judgment or pretense.

And Kyla… for a moment she’s five years old, her clothes threadbare but clean, and I’m putting a stolen barrette in her mahogany hair.

For a moment, I see them as they were, as I wish they could still be, as they almost still are, as my family, and I feel a deep sadness as another perforation of loss pangs through me.

My family…

These people are my family… and they can’t even look at each other.

“I’m sorry,” I say and they all look at me.

I drop my eyes to my plate where I play with my lump of gelatinous tofurkey.

“I’m sorry. I left, abruptly, and it hurt a lot of you. I just didn’t know what to do. There were things…”

I blow out a breath, completely unable to finish that sentence, even as they all stare at me expectantly.

“I just messed up, and I’m sorry,” I finish.

“It’s okay,” Mr. C says.

“Like hell it is,” Christine adds.

“Mom, there’s stuff you don’t know,” Kyla tries.

“So what’s your excuse for treating each other this way,” I butt back in. “Do any of you even have an excuse? Do you even feel sorry?”

And that did it, that sent them into their own little self-involved bubbles, but I’m not going to let them. I look at Glen first, since he stands up and throws his napkin onto his empty plate.

“How about you, Glen? Do you have a valid reason for hating your sister? Do you really believe that it’s okay to blame her for being gay?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.

“No? You blame her ‘gayness’ for breaking up your family. You told me as much not two hours ago.”

He gets quiet and I look over at Mrs. C. “And you, you hate her just for being gay. There’s no other reason. What’s next?” I gesture to Clay. “How about black people, Paula? Are you going to start hating Clay for something he can’t help any more than Spencer can? It’s only fair…”

Clay, dependable as always, says, “It’s true, mom.”

“It is,” Mr. C adds.

She leans back in her chair. “You have no right to lecture me about family, Ashley. As you said, you left without so much as a backward glance, very nearly wrecking my gay daughter’s life, I might add.”

I swallow my anger and Spencer looks at me from across the table. “Ash, they aren’t ready.”

I look back at her. “You think I am?” She gives me a sad, half-smile in understanding. “There’s never a good time, Spence.”

Paula continues. “How sweet. She may forgive you, Ashley, but I don’t, and I won’t. I know you’re not responsible for everything, but you certainly played a huge part.”

I breathe in deep and nod slowly. “You’re right, I’ve done my share of damage, but I’m here, right now, asking you to forgive me, to let it all go, to let things be right again.”

This time it’s Christine who speaks. “It’s not that simple, and you know it, Ashley.” Her dark, severe eyes pierce through me like a spear. “You just left, without a word, like no one mattered to you at all. And for four years…”

She’s breathing heavily and I can tell that she’s trying to keep it all in, keep it all down, but I don’t want her to.

“The first time you ran away, you left a note,” she continues. “You had enough respect for me to at least tell me what was going on and why. But last time…” She shakes her head.

“I didn’t know what to say to you…” I look around the table. “To any of you.”

“How about a goodbye at least, or maybe a phone call once in a while: ‘Hey, guys, I’m not dead,” Chelsea mocks.

I close my eyes. “I didn’t want to have to explain. I wanted you to just hate me.”

“So what’s the problem, then,” Glen asks as he raises his cup in salute. “Wish granted.”

Kenzi reaches for Glen’s glass but a freshly changed Madison intercepts it and gives him a scathing look.

“Glen,” Mr. C takes the wine from Madison. “You’ve had enough.”

“That’s rich coming from you, Arthur,” Mrs. C says.

“You don’t really hate Ashley or Spencer, Glen. You’re just angry at life and want someone to blame.” Clay says.

“Whatever,” Glen shrugs. “Not everyone can be the golden boy like you, Clay.”

Spencer and I stare at each other over the table and listen as they all continue to bicker back and forth. It lasts for several minutes before it starts to really get out of hand.

What does out of hand entail?

Well, Mrs. C just said, “I think we should get divorced!”

Somehow, everyone keeps arguing over that declaration. Spencer starts to sob, and I want to put my arm around her, to comfort her, but the table between us might as well be The Grand Canyon. Besides, Carmen’s there, stepping in and doing what I’m not allowed to do.

The anger in this room is smothering and I find myself absorbing it for all of the possible reasons: I can’t be in love with or touch Spencer; I can’t go back in time and choose to stay; I can’t force Christine to forgive me; I can’t force acceptance from a religious mother; and I can’t help a brother grow a functioning brain.

Why can’t they all just stop their petty grievances, endless grudges, and pointless bigotry? Why can’t they just forgive and move the fuck on?

I should have known that apologizing and trying to explain would mean nothing. But I had a moment of naiveté. Spencer made me believe that it was possible because all things are possible with her. She’s that amazing. But her family isn’t like her. I opened my mouth and now, this is my fault, again. I started this fight.

Wait a minute, I started this fight. So, I can end it…

“HEY!”

It doesn’t work.

“HEY,” I try again and still no result.

I pull in as much air as I can hold and really bellow it out this time, only I choose my words more pointedly.

“I’M DYING!”

That did it. All but Kyla and Mr. C look over at me in shock, and the baby starts to cry. I get to my feet.

“When I left, I was supposed to die, but I didn’t, and I’m sorry for that. But the bright side is: I still might.”

“Ash,” Spencer says. “You don’t mean that.”

“No, I do, Spence. I’m sorry I lived long enough to see this.” I gesture to them. “It doesn’t matter though. It was stupid to think that things could be better.”

And with that, I leave the room, the house, and find myself in what used to be my room cramming everything into bags. Some might consider it running, but I don’t, or at least it doesn’t feel like running. It feels like I’m just moving on, maybe even moving forward.

Just like the list, there were some things that weren’t going to work out, and I knew it. I had prepared myself for that inevitability. This attempt at family is just one of many failures I’ll endure in this endeavor. Granted, it’s the biggest of all of them, but I’ll survive it, at least for another twelve months.

It doesn’t take long to pack when everything is carelessly stuffed into any available space, and before I know it, there’s nothing left to do except actually leave. I stop to look around me, trying to find that part of me that can’t fathom the thought of leaving, but I just can’t. This isn’t my home anymore. I’ve known it for two months, but I’m only just now able to let it go.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

My heart lurches in surprise and I turn to find Christine standing in the doorway, looking extremely defeated. I slump down on the bed and stare at her.

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I thought it would be better that way.” I can see the anger in her eyes as she trains them on me and I sigh. “Yeah, you don’t have to say it. Spencer and Kyla have both made it very clear just how much of a dumbass I was.”

“I do have to say it, Ashley.”

Um, okay… She steps into the room and I brace myself so that she can let some of it out.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone, to call them daughter, to raise them, to feel just a little bit better about every day because they’re in your life, only to have them disappear without a word?”

I could say yes to all of the things that she’s mentioned but one: Kyla never left without a word. Everything else I get. I raised my sister and she made my life better; she always has. But she never left me like that.

And if she had…

No, I can’t fathom how much that would hurt, how scared I’d be to think that she was out in this terrifyingly violent planet alone.

“Do you have any idea how petrified, how utterly panicked every second of every day has been?”

I want to say something, to at least acknowledge what I’ve done to her, but my tongue feels like cotton and my throat feels completely kinked off. I can only stare at the floor with swimming vision and let her get it out.

But then she’s not talking anymore, and when I look up at her, I see something that I’ve never seen in all of the years that I’d spent with her: she’s crying. It’s so unlike her. And yet, here she stands, laying it all out in the open in a rare moment of vulnerability to the very person who’s proven themselves undeserving of that level of trust.

Just the fact that she’s crying makes tears start to leak down my own cheeks.

“I don’t know what I can say, Christine, other than I’m sorry. I just didn’t know how to handle the situation.”

It’s quiet for long moments before she finally asks, “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

I blow out a breath and rest my face in my hands. “I knew what happened with your family before.” She gazes at me incredulously. “I found the stuff in the attic,” I explain.

She nods and swallows hard. “Christine, I didn’t want you to go through that again. I thought…” I lift my hands in surrender before letting them drop to my thighs with a slap. “I just thought that running away would be easier on you.” I lift another hand to stop her anger. “I know, believe me. But knowing I was wrong now doesn’t change why it happened then.”

Christine comes over to the bed and sits down next to me, her posture stiff but this is the closest she’s been to me since she hugged me two months ago.

“I suppose that there would have been no easy way in that situation. Either would have been excruciating.”

She looks over at me, her eyes softer than I think I’ve ever seen them, even as a child. I can’t help but smile through my tears. It feels so good to have gotten something out of her, to feel just a little less unwanted.

“I missed you, Ashley.”

“I’ve missed you too, Christine.”

She puts an arm around my shoulders hesitantly at first, but then it gets easier and she tucks me into her side, and I find myself in a hug that doesn’t make me feel so self-conscious or awkward. It’s comforting and it feels like maybe one of those holes inside of me is shrinking just a little bit.

She holds me for a long time before she finally says, “Stay.”

I lean back and grimace. “I… I can’t.”

She seems crestfallen, so I take her hand. “Hey, it’s not because I don’t want to. I just have to do some things this year, but I’ll come and visit often. I’ll even fly you up to my place a couple of times.”

She nods, smiling a little, but then it falls. “Is that… how long you…?”

I clear my throat. “Honestly, I don’t know. I go in for a major check-up at the end of next year.” I shrug. “So that’s all I’m counting on.”

She squeezes my hand. “I want to be with you.”

I put my other hand over hers to hold it tighter. “I’d like that.”

It grows quiet again, and I finally ask, “Did you throw it all away?”

She seems confused by that question at first before looking at the room and giving a bitter smirk.

“I wanted to,” she says, “But I just couldn’t. It’s in the attic.”

I close my eyes and shake my head at the silliness of it all. Of course, just like her other family, just like all of the things I don’t want to deal with, it’s all in an attic. Maybe we all have one, whether it’s physical or proverbial. And it will be a long time before I ever visit either of those graveyards, if at all.

“So what now,” I ask.

She grins at me. “I’m thinking we find a twenty-four hour Denny’s or something.”

I chuckle and get to my feet. “Let’s go save Kyla.”

And with that, we leave the room, and I feel a little piece of my regret wither and die, leaving me a tiny bit freer.


Don’t forget to rate and leave feedback on what you did/didn’t like and why before moving on! 


Continued in Chapter 10 – Auld Lang Syne

Chapter 8 – Those poor, delicious birds…

Well, I fought it as long as I could, but I suppose that I always knew that I’d wind up back here in Ohio where it’s mercilessly cold and overwhelmingly memorable. The first time Mr. C brought me here I was in awe. I thought that Wickliffe was the big city, and I fell in love with that busy life right then and there.

But now, now I see Wickliffe for what it really is, and as far as city’s go, it’s pathetic.

Either way, as I travel these slick streets yet again, I’m overcome with nostalgia, with this aching sense of home even as I feel like a complete stranger. It’s like I’m in someone else’s memories, completely detached though somehow privy to every secret.

And because of this, this small city feels immense.

I’m a little overwhelmed.

Okay, a lot overwhelmed, like I maybe know too much about this place. I know that if I were to turn left here, we’d be headed for the mall and even further the lake. And I know that if I take a right there, I’ll find myself at Aiden’s house.

But my path is forward…

Maybe I’m not so out of sorts because of what I know, but because this place knows me too well. It’s sort of mocking me, laughing at me, telling me that it knew that I’d come back eventually because it has everything that I never wanted to need, but always did. And now that Kyla and I are pulling up to a familiar curb, I really feel what it means to be back here.

It’s panic.

“You okay,” Kyla asks.

I release a pent up breath. “I don’t… know.”

She smiles reassuringly at me and pats me on the leg. “It’ll be fine; you’ll see.”

I don’t really believe her, but I’m here. There’s no going back now.

We both step out of the rental car and the extreme cold sends its fingers slithering down my spine. I don’t remember this part, or I’m just not used to it anymore.

It’s fucking freezing…

Kyla, the little shit, is in her element. She goes straight for the animal in the cage in the backseat without even a gasp while I have to fight to keep my teeth from chattering. I take my first hesitant look at the house that hasn’t changed one little bit. It just looks… smaller, somehow.

I see something out of the corner of my eye and find my back slumped against the driver’s side door as the shadowy figure of a young Spencer walks by holding my equally young hand. They’re innocent, and sweet, and so much in love, and somehow immortal, even as they’re already long dead. My young ghost looks at me over her shoulder and smiles as if she knows something that I don’t.

I blink my eyes to be sure that I’m not losing my mind, and just as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone, like the heat rising from my mouth and evaporating on the icy air. My heart is beating like a wrecking ball against my ribs. I know I’m just wigging myself out, getting caught up in it all like a net.

And that’s precisely how I feel: trapped.

I’m not just visiting the graveyard of my youth; I’m digging up ghosts and flirting with their memories, with their pain.

I can’t really help it though. I spent the best years of my life between these two houses, with this one beautiful girl who sort of stole my heart.

Or I gave it willingly; I don’t quite remember.

Either way, this was my world, she was my world, the same world that I’d set fire to in my mind. So why am I here sifting through the Ashes?

That’s all that’s left, right? It’s all just ash…

“Ash, come help me.”

Kyla’s voice startles me and I nearly slip and face plant off of the curb.  I feel like bambi on the frozen lake, all hooves and clumsiness, but I make it to the trunk in relatively one piece. I immediately regret it because Kyla starts to load me up with luggage like a pack mule. I can’t really complain about it though. Most of it’s mine.

I wanted to be prepared for any eventuality…

And man, they’re heavy…

I only narrowly avoid being decapitated as Kyla slings a strap over my head, and I feel like a slug as I start to waddle towards the house.

God, this house…

I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to deal with any of this, but I only have a year to set things right. And then from there, who knows? I can only work with what I can see, and all I can see is twelve months…

It’s not enough.

So, I take one step, and then another, and just focus on left and right, avoiding the call to look out over my childhood and feel anymore haunted than I already do. But I feel it anyway, and before I know it, I’m at the door and I’m not really sure what to do. My muscles almost went for the handle, but then this isn’t my house anymore.

Which is most appropriate: walking in like I always have or ringing the doorbell, which I’ve never done?

Kyla comes to the rescue on this dilemma, sliding her key in the lock and opening the door.

“Mom,” she calls out. “We’re home!”

I feel my stomach swim a little at how… domestic it all seems. It’s as if Kyla and I just stepped out to run to the store for a gallon of milk, not four years without a word, without understanding, without anything, just… without. But then there she is, slightly older, the hair at her temples graying, and the sharpness of her eyes even more severe as she gives me the once over.

I set the bags down by the door and shut it, but I’m not really sure what to do from this point. Something in the way she’s looking at me makes me feel… unwelcome. She steps up to me and gives me a short, jilted, but bruising hug before holding me at arm’s length.

“Ashley,” is all that she says.

And then there’s a tight-lipped smile, one that almost looks like she’s holding something in or maybe keeping something out, but then I just can’t really tell. Christine was always so elusive to me, so complicated in her blatant simplicity.

I watch curiously as she abandons me to hug Kyla. She’s so different with Kyla, so much warmer, her smile reaching those severe eyes and softening them. There’s love in that embrace, in that countenance, and I know that she used to hug me that way. But I also intrinsically know that she’ll never hug me like that again.

Christine just may be worse than Spencer in some ways.

“Come along then. It’s late and I know you’re both probably tired and a little jet lagged. Your rooms are ready for you.”

Christine picks up Kyla’s bags, leaving me over encumbered yet again, and I follow the chatty twosome up the stairs.

Christine escorts Kyla to her room, which looks different, but it’s the same in so many ways. It’s just the older version of what I remember. They chat amiably as Kyla introduces Christine to Sheezus, and I begin to feel like an intruder as I watch them interact. I feel like I shouldn’t be here.

But there’s nothing that I can do about that anymore. I’m here. It’s done. I guess I can just make myself scarce. Besides, I’m as excited as I am sick to see my room.

I leave them to get reacquainted, not that they really noticed me anyway, and make my way to the familiar door, cracking it slowly, apprehensively, only to find that it doesn’t matter. This is just a guest room: plain, stark, and almost clinical in its minimalistic lack of character. It’s been stripped and gutted, and I find myself slumping onto the foot of the utilitarian bed and dumping the luggage at my feet.

This room is like a tombstone or a monument to the fact that I died…

This is no one’s room.

And this is no longer my home.

I want to be offended, but I can’t. I left… of my own freewill, and in so many ways, I did die. But there were so many things that I would have taken with me if I could have,  so many things that had been left in haste due to discriminate space.

Is all of that lost?

I have to remind myself that it shouldn’t matter.

There’s no way that I could bring myself to look at it anyway, to endure it, even if were still here. But it does matter, even when it shouldn’t. I feel it like a pang in my guts, another loss, another hole. I need to know that it’s all still here, somewhere, proving that my memories aren’t fiction, that there was something filling that void at one time.

That I wasn’t always empty like this…

I hear someone approach the doorway. “It’s all gone.” Kyla comes in and sits next to me. “She wouldn’t even open the door in here for about a year, and then one day, she just cleaned it out.”

I want to ask why, but then I already know on some sad, fundamental level.

“Did she get rid of it all?”

Kyla shrugs. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask her. I was pretty mad at you too.”

I snort a mirthless laugh. “Oh well. It was just useless stuff.”

“It was your life,” Kyla disagrees.

I glance over at her. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Whatever, Ashley.” She stands. “You’re not dead. I really wish you’d just get that through your head.”

I nod. “You’re right. I have a year.”

“You don’t know that either,” she says irritably. “You could outlive us all. Why don’t you focus on that?”

“It’s too dangerous, Kyla.”

“Living is too dangerous, because you might die…,” she deadpans. “But then you think you’re going to die anyway, so what have you got to lose?”

“It’s not me who stands to lose anything, Kyla, it’s everyone else. Why can’t you understand that limiting my impact on their lives is the only way to protect them?”

“I do get that, Ash; I just don’t agree with it.”

“How do you not agree with it?”

“Because it sucks either way! I mean, look around you, think about everything, about Spencer. How do you not get that?”

“No, I do; I do get it…”

“Then give up on the other bullshit, please? This circular discussion is exhausting.”

“Kyla, I can’t count on something I may not get. Yes, it’s exhausting, but if I let it go, the minute that I do…”

“It’ll come and bite you in the ass,” she sighs out. “I know.”

“Okay, so we’re agreed. I’m here, and I’m trying. What more do you want from me?”

She smiles at me. “I know you are, and I don’t need anything else.”

I look at her disbelievingly.

“Right now,” she amends. “Thank you, Ash.”

I smirk. “Don’t thank me yet. I mean, did you see Christine’s face? It was like I’m just some random person you brought home for the night.”

“What did you expect: a parade, balloons, and dancing oompa loompas?”

I crinkle my nose. “Oompa loompas would have been pretty cool.”

She chuckles. “It’s late. She probably didn’t want to bombard you.”

I frown. “I don’t see why you wanted this so badly. She’s obviously coped with my absence just fine.”

Kyla shakes her head. “Just give her some time, Ash. Trust me on this. She feels more than she’s letting on.”

I shrug. “You know her better than I do.”

“Yeah, I do.” She gets up with a groan and makes her way back to the door.

I laugh at how old she seems.

“I’m just tired,” she says bitingly. “You know where everything is. I’m gonna turn in.”

I stand abruptly in this barren room and call out to her, though I’m not even sure why.

It startles us both.

She turns with a curious look on her face. “Yeah?”

I glance around me looking for something to say while my fingers fidget uncontrollably. I just feel out of place, and if I’m honest with myself, I’m scared. But I can’t say those things. I’m surprised that I even allow myself to feel them.

But then, I don’t have control over feeling things. If I did, I’d be stumbling through life like a belligerent drunk…

Kyla sighs, and I swear, it’s like she can read my mind. “You can sleep with me tonight, but it’s still a full sized bed and I still don’t like to cuddle.”

I release a weary breath.

“And bring your own blanket. I’m not sharing mine,” she says as she leaves.

“Always a blanket hog,” I call out, grabbing a t-shirt and toiletries from one of my suitcases.

“You’re one to talk,” she rejoins from down the hallway.

I smile as I step across to the bathroom and go through my nightly ritual in a bit of a daze. I feel like I’m sixteen again.

Once scrubbed, groomed, and changed, I drop everything back in the spare room and grab the quilt from the end of the bed before making my way towards Kyla’s room. The door to Christine’s room is closed but there’s a light on inside spilling out from the gap beneath. I find myself stopping and stepping close just to listen, I guess – just to reach out to her, even if she doesn’t know it or care to reciprocate.

There’s not a sound inside, and I consider knocking, though I’m not sure why. I don’t have anything to say, and she obviously has nothing to say to me either. She didn’t even question what happened to me. It’s like she doesn’t really care.

I can’t begrudge her that. In fact, that’s what I wanted when I left, right?

I release a breath and decide to just let it go. If she hates me, then all the better for her when this is over.

I reach Kyla’s room and find her already hanging half-on, half-off of the bed like a limp rag. Sheezus is in Squishy’s old cage, laying equally as limp on the top shelf with her head lolling over the edge. These two are so much alike: lunatics that sleep soundly.

“You asleep,” I ask lowly as I spread the quilt on my side of the bed.

“Not yet,” she responds, her voice muffled and smushed against her pillow.

“What did you tell Christine when you called,” I ask quietly as I click off the lamp and crawl in.

She rolls onto her back and looks over at me. “Why?”

I throw my right arm behind my head and try to get comfortable. Her mattress was always lumpy in my opinion.

“She didn’t have any questions,” I say.

Kyla yawns. “I told you, Ash. She was probably just tired.”

“Just humor me…”

She pulls her covers up to her neck. “All I told her is that I found you and that you wanted to come home and see her.”

“You lied to her,” I say.

She shakes her head sleepily. “No, you did want to come home and see her. You were just scared. You aren’t fooling me, Ashley.”

I exhale heavily and stare at the ceiling.

She reaches over and pats me on the arm. “Just give her some time, Ash. We’ll be here for a month. She’ll come around.”

A month…

I shiver.

A month in that room that feels like a tomb…

In this house that’s haunted…

With loss everywhere I look and in everything that I see…

This is precisely why I didn’t want to do this, but it’s too late.

I have to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas as a stranger in a strange land.

I glance over at Kyla, whose breathing has evened out in sleep, and realize that at least I have one thing to hold onto that might not kill me if I can survive the ride. She’s frustrating, and pushy, and bossy… and God help me, it reminds me of Spencer.

But then, everything seems to in this place.

In any place.

I scrub at my face, knowing that I won’t sleep well this night, but rolling over to make a concentrated effort. I have a month to brave in this Factory of Terror, and I can’t remember why I used to love a good scare. I guess, maybe, I don’t have that rational mind to keep me safe this time. The tableaus are real, the haunted calls and screams all coming from inside, and Azreal has been nipping at my heels since before my high school graduation.

I have no idea how I’m going to wade through it all and find freedom, how I’m going to escape his bony hand and sickle.

And maybe I can’t…

And maybe that’s okay…

I feel something warm tickle against my nose and reach up to swipe at the irritation. My hand comes away wet and I close my eyes.

For fuck’s sake, I hate crying. I don’t understand why this happens so often. I’m not freaking out or anything. It just keeps happening…

But then I guess I really do know why: I don’t want to die.

And even though I have to, I don’t want to do it alone.

I guess those emotions are going to come out of me whether I want them to or not.

As much as I hate them, I understand that they’re necessary. I have no idea how to reconcile what I want with what should happen, and that problem is so overwhelming that I can’t contain it. I mean, it’s selfish to come back here, to crawl back into these lives, just to leave them again.

But I only have a year.

And a list.

Now if I could just catch a break or get some sleep, whatever comes first.


Of course, I didn’t sleep well. I was up before the sun and I’ve been sitting outside on the back porch ever since, letting the cold seep into me or out of me. I can’t really tell which way it goes. It’s foggy and gray outside, and yet I feel it on the inside. It’s like I’m on some kind of precipice, or maybe just the edge of an abyss.

I have no idea what happens when I jump. And that wouldn’t be so bad, but then I’m not sure why I need to jump in the first place.

What’s the goal here?

I can’t piece anything together, so what do I do when I’m confused and can’t run? I clumsily play Al with numb fingers, begging him to help. I’m playing pretty furiously too, almost desperately, despite my inability to really feel the strings. So, I guess that it should come as no surprise that I’ve drawn some attention with all of my noise.

“Ash,” he says in that voice that tells me one glaring thing: neither time nor pain have spoiled him at all, not even with me.

Man, it’s strange to see him standing there, staring at me with those kind eyes, and that genuine smile.

“Get over here,” he orders.

And I do, and he hugs me, the full kind that he gives out like Halloween Candy, and I can’t help but hug him back. It feels so good to find a memory that doesn’t make me feel like I’m committing hara-kiri.

I feel inordinately warm by the time that he pulls back and holds me at arms-length.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

I can’t help but smile at him. “I’ve missed you too, Mr. C.”

“You’re freezing.” He says. “Come on. I have just the thing.”

He wants to talk to me, and I’m not going to fight him, because whether I’ll admit it or not, I’ve missed him fiercely. If anyone asks I’ve just missed his cooking. And I know for a fact that food is what’s in store for me. But then, as we get closer to the back door, I feel myself slowing, amazing foodlike goodies somehow not enough incentive to brave that place.

I don’t want to go in there. I really don’t want to deal with Paula or Glen, if he’s even still here. I now realize that I have no idea what’s happened to these people who used to call me family, but then hated me for loving their daughter and sister.

Mr. C notices my apprehension and reassures me. “No one’s home. It’s just us for now. The others won’t start showing up until later tonight.”

I nod, following him inside, the fact that nothing’s changed hitting me solidly in the face as I look at the kitchen that I practically grew up in. It even smells exactly the same. Mr. C walks up to the stove, and for a moment, I can see the ghosts of my young life again, fighting with spoons while they make a mess on their hideous aprons.

Well, only I got the hideous apron.

And if I could have done it all over again, I definitely would have kissed Spencer like her apron told me to dozens of times.  God, I feel like I can reach out and clean the smudge of chocolate from her youthful cheek, but then she’s gone, faded, over.

It’s all over.

And all that’s left is the ghost of a memory.

Just Ash…

“Have you had breakfast, Ash?”

“Uh, no, but I’m not hungry…”

I knew that he wouldn’t hear that, but I had to uphold pretenses. There is no greater joy for him than feeding the unwilling.

“Nonsense. Sit,” he orders, pointing to a stool at the island. I comply, setting Al against the wall while he starts to drip some left-over batter into a skillet.

“Puppies okay?”

I laugh and shake my head at the absurdity of it all. “Yeah, Mr. C. Puppies are fine.”

‘Puppies’ is a loose interpretation. The man’s a God in the kitchen, but as an artist… his ‘puppies’ look more like misshapen amoebas with eyes.

They’re totally tasty though…

“So,” he says casually. “How have you been?”

I sigh. As far as the whole ‘explaining away four years’ conversation starters go, he’s adept at making it seem less painful. But, I just don’t want to have it at all. I’d rather keep living in this fantasy land where I never left and nothing’s hard.

“I’ve been… fine,” I say. “How’s everyone else?”

Was that a smooth way of deflecting?

Well, he’s moving on…

“Let’s see,” he replies. “Glen and Madison got pregnant right after graduation.” He shakes his head. “Well, little MacKenzie was actually conceived at graduation, but…”

I cover my ears. “I don’t need those kinds of details, Mr. C.”

He smiles at me and flips one of the road-killed puppies onto a plate before starting to pour another.

“Paula insisted that they get married, so they did. They just recently separated though.”

He checks the edges of the new pancake before carefully flipping it. “Clay and Chelsea are getting married next fall. They’ve been waiting to graduate from college.”

He grins at me. “In fact, Chelsea will finally be home from France for good this Christmas. She’ll be thrilled to see you.” His grin melts into a frown. “You’re staying through Christmas, aren’t you?”

I nod, swallowing a little at the can of worms his expectant eyes are opening.

I’ll have to face them all…

He plates a third pancake and starts to ladle some awesome looking fruit sauce on top. “So, that’s pretty much it.”

Odd, he didn’t mention Mrs. C or Spencer…

He sets the plate, a fork, and a can of reddi-whip in front of me, and I feel my stomach rumble as I pop the top and start to slather the whole confection in white, yummy goodness.

He laughs at my mound of topping. “I see little has changed with your culinary habits.”

“Why change something that’s perfect?”

“Indeed,” he agrees as he starts to clean up the skillet.

I dig into my plate with relish. God, his pancakes are to die for…

“So, how about you,” he asks, again, really casually.

The food in my mouth becomes a lump of coal and I swallow it harshly. “I uh, I wound up in LA.”

“Everyone seems to be heading west anymore.” He sighs. “You, Aiden, Madison and Kenzi…” Wow, I had no idea everyone was in Cali. His voice gets very soft. “Spencer…,” he murmurs.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that he’s almost incapable of saying her name. And he’s been wiping that same spot on the counter almost manically for at least three minutes. Something’s really off. And now that I notice that something’s off, small things start to pop out at me.  There are worry lines around those gentle eyes and his hands seem thinner and older, less steady. There’s a droop to his shoulders and it’s like the life and light have been sapped out of him, leaving him… sad.

God, first Spencer and now him?

This is an utter travesty…

“Mr. C…,” I say, and he turns to me. “Does she not call you at all?”

He drops his rag and leans against the counter wearily. “I haven’t spoken with my daughter since Christmas two years ago.”

Oh, God… Spencer really meant it. I thought that she would at least keep him in the loop. He’s the good one here…

“She won’t answer my calls,” he says. “No email, texts, not even letters. Just nothing…”

“Because of Paula,” I sort of ask and say at the same time.

Or is it Carmen?

He sighs and shrugs. “As much as I can tell, she’s the problem. But we’ve been going to therapy. I think she’s starting to come around…”

“What about Glen, did he ever stop being such a douche?”

He pulls out the stool on the other side of the island and plops down. I’ve never seen him so dejected.

I smile as I scoot my plate towards him and he smirks as he picks up another fork.

We start to share my breakfast.

“Glen let the gay thing go.” He finally answers. “But he blames Spencer for splitting up our family.”

I frown. “You guys are…?”

He nods and completes the sentence. “Separated.”

“Wow,” I say, licking some whipped cream off of my fork.

“Yeah,” he says around a mouth full. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore. This is Spencer’s home. She’s my daughter, and I miss her every second of every day. Paula just couldn’t see past this one, small, inconsequential thing…”

“When was this?”

“About a year ago.”

A year, and they’re still separated?

I mean, what’s the wait time for a divorce?

“Is it… better,” I ask, not really sure how all of this works.

He sits back and thinks about that for a moment. “I think so. I mean, I know she misses Spencer as much as I do, but she’s still pretty…”

He bobs his head from side to side as if he can’t find a word that’s in the middle enough.

“Homophobic,” I ask, knowing that there’s no middle to it, not really.

He nods in defeat.

“Did Mrs. C run Spencer off that last Christmas?”

“Yeah, but I’ll be honest, Ash. If that girl she brought home had been a guy, I’d have still wanted her gone.”

I chuckle with him. “Yeah, I know the feeling. You should meet Carmen…”

“Who’s Carmen,” he asks confused before his eyes light up. “New girlfriend?”

I roll my eyes, to which he just laughs. “You don’t like her?”

I give him a rueful glare before taking an inordinately large bite and chewing it lethargically.

I don’t even care about the whipped cream hanging off of my chin. He laughs and nods knowingly as he wipes his mouth on a cloth napkin.

They always use cloth napkins here…

I clean my own face.

“So, you two are in touch, then?”

Again, he’s too casual, almost as if it’s forced. But I can see what’s going on now. He’s trying to ask for information that he’s dying to know without giving too much away. Why doesn’t he just ask? He got me and Kyla adopted and he fathered the love of my life.

I so owe him…

Besides, I could talk about Spencer all day.

“Yeah, we got in touch a little over a month ago.”

“Oh, that’s not long.”

I shake my head. “Kyla found me and sort of set us both up.”

His eyes light up with Kyla’s name. “Your sister’s a sharp one, for sure.”

“She’s a brat,” I say and that makes him laugh all the more.

“She the reason you’re here?”

I think about that for a moment, swirling my fork in my strawberry sauce. “She’s the reason I even considered it, but I’m here because I need to do this before…”

I glance up at him, realizing that I’ve said too much. He doesn’t need to know…

“Before… what,” he asks.

“Nothing, I just need to set some things right.”

He’s not buying my little cover up but I don’t really need to sell it. He just doesn’t need to know. No one else does, especially not Mrs. C.

She’d dance a jig on my grave.

“So…,” he says, failing at finding any further words.

In fact, he’s about as articulate as I am when I’m trying to talk to Spencer.

“So…,” I repeat, wondering why he’s so awkward before remembering that I’d already figured it out.

“You can just ask about her, you know?”

He blows out a breath and I chuckle at him.

“Okay,” he says. “Tell me everything. Please…”

I feel my heart break a little bit at the desperation in his voice.

“Well,” I start. “I don’t know everything about her, but I do know that she’s working as a PA at Universal. She’s been with Carmen,” I say that name with a certain touch of venom. “For two years. They live together in a really modern town house.”

I take a bite as I try to think of more to tell him. “Oh, she has two dogs: Flotsam and Jetsam.”

He starts to laugh. “God, she loved that movie.”

I nod in exasperation. One year I considered running a lighter over the DVD for a little peace, but I just couldn’t do that to her, not even in self-preservation.

“They’re Dobermans too.” I continue. “I mean sleek and intimidating looking, cropped ears and all. But she named them Flotsam and Jetsam.”

I shake my head incredulously. “They’re sweet and goofy, just like her though. It’s kind of perfect.”

We both share a silent, happy moment just reminiscing about simpler things, kinder things. And then he gets to the crux of it all.

“Is she happy,” he asks.

I’m not sure how to answer him. I mean, Spencer claims to be happy, but then I just don’t see it. But I’m also not sure if I would allow myself to see it. There’s one thing on this planet that I’ll always know on a fundamental level though, and that’s Spencer. I know who she is down to her very bones.

And I know that she’s not right, not normal, at least as normal as Spencer gets. If I know nothing else, I’m certain that she misses her family, that she loves her family, and that it hurts her as much as it’s obviously hurting this man in front of me.

“I think in some ways she’s happy, or at least content. But I know she misses you guys. I think it’s taken its toll on everyone.”

He stares out over my shoulder into some void that I can’t see.

“After you left,” he starts. “She became a completely different person. I couldn’t reach her or help her. And Paula and Glen, they just made it worse for her.” His eyes snap back into focus. “I failed her…”

My vision gets blurry and I shake my head. “No, I failed her, Mr. C. Not you…”

His brows furrow. “You loved her, Ashley. You still love her. It’s written all over you. What happened…?”

There’s no judgment in his voice or his body language, just desperation to know and longing to fix it. Maybe he deserves to know, but he’ll never fix this. No one can.

I can’t lie to him though…

“I um, I was dying,” I say.

“Dying,” he asks. “Like, to leave Ohio?”

I shake my head. “No, as in really dying. I was sick, so I left, but then I didn’t die like I was supposed to.”

I shrug, staring down into the red syrup on the plate. His big hands engulf my own over the table and before I know it, I’m being tugged to my feet and bruised in another hug.

“I had no idea,” he says sadly.

God, I feel like such an asshole.

“I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Christine. It’s not your fault, Mr. C.”

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he rumbles out, the sound deep and echoing in his chest, and I find it so calming, so comforting.

So of course, I need to get away from it.

And of course, he lets me pull back without a fight.

He raises a gentle hand and wipes some moisture from my traitorous eyes, and I swipe at my nose.

“I should probably get h-… back,” I say.

He nods but I can tell that he doesn’t want me to go. “Hey, I know it’s short notice, but you guys should come over for Christmas dinner, just like old times.”

My mind gropes at the air to find a way out of that. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Mr. C…”

“Why wouldn’t it be a good idea? We could use some healing in this family, and your return is definitely something to celebrate.”

He smiles and it reaches his eyes, and I just don’t have the heart to take that from him. He’s lost so much already…

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll ask Christine and Kyla.”

“It’s all set then,” he says confidently.

I grab my guitar and stop at the back door.

“Thanks again for the breakfast,” I say.

“Anytime,” he replies, and if nothing else, I feel good about the fact that the idea perked him up.

“Don’t be a stranger, Ash. You still have the card?”

I can’t help but smile at that. “Yeah, I still have it.”

“The number hasn’t changed,” he grins.

“Thanks, Mr. C.”

“Anytime, Ash.”

And with that I finally exit, letting the instantly cold air fill my lungs and wake me up a little. God, I feel so heavy, and all of the emotional distress has only just begun. Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Christmas is a month away.

Another whole month…

Fuck…

I walk in through the back door and hear laughter coming from the living room. The sound of it is so contradictory to all of the emotions that I’m experiencing, that I almost want to be sick.I look through the living room doorway and to the stairs, wondering if I can get up them without being seen.

It’s unlikely though; I’d have to walk right past the couch and in the direction they’re facing.

“Ash, we’re in here,” Kyla shouts, and I roll my eyes.

Oh well, another dream lost.

What’s new?

I approach the couch from behind and peak over their shoulders. There’s a big photo album spread across their touching legs and they’re both laughing and telling stories with each photo. I watch for a long while, listening and trying to remember, but none of these photos are recognizable to me. I can’t even recognize the faces, except for Kyla and the occasional Christine.

I don’t make a single appearance, not me, not Spencer, not anyone that I know. I realize that this must be the four year gap, and it might as well be an eternal chasm. I want to listen, to know everything that I missed. I want to laugh at the inside jokes and understand the innuendo, but I can’t.

I wasn’t here. I can never get that back.

And with each turned page devoid of anything to do with me, I begin to wonder why there isn’t at least one or two pictures of me somewhere in that thick tome. In fact, I look around the room, at the mantle, at the walls, I find that none of the pictures have me in them. They used to. I remember several in this room before I left, but now… now I realize that not only am I outside of this moment, but I’m not part of this family anymore.

Kyla’s my family, I know that.

She’s Christine’s family as well. I know that too.

But Christine and I are not family despite that commonality; we’re not even friends. And she has clearly removed me from everything in this home, even her very heart. I step back and listen to them a little longer as I feel the blood drain from my limbs. They’re so engrossed in their fun that I could indeed walk right up the stairs without so much as a word.

And so I do.

Kyla glances at me once, but Christine quickly pulls her back into the photos, and I find myself letting go of that last thread of hope to make anything okay here. A year or not, I’m learning that some of the things I’m about to set out to do won’t happen.

I need to get used to the disappointment.

This is only the first of them.


It’s been another night without decent sleep. Kyla and Christine are already downstairs. I can hear their indistinct talking and laughing; pots are clanking, and cabinets are thudding as they move around the kitchen.

And me, well, I’m not really sure what to do with myself.

I’m afraid to go down there, so I just stare at the bare ceiling of what used to be my room, but now feels more like a mausoleum. I could try to go back to sleep and laze away the majority of the day like I have been since we got here, or I could get up and face it. I glance over at my phone on the nightstand, its digital readout clearly indicating that it’s roughly nine am.

It’s way early…

I don’t normally get up until like, noon…

I roll over and pull the blankets up over my head to black out the world. At least the mattress feels familiar. I close my eyes and sigh out my frustration, begging sleep to claim me. He must be feeling magnanimous today, because my eyes start to droop and my consciousness starts to fade.

But of course, when one is feeling magnanimous, another is feeling malicious.

“ASHLEY,” Kyla yells up the stairs.

I groan and squeeze my eyelids tighter together. She will not thwart me today, damn it.

“ASHLEY,” she practically screams, and again I don’t answer.

Now, normal people, when they find out that they’re being ignored, they walk away. But Kyla is obviously not normal. She may not even be human. I’m fairly certain that she’s a sub-terrestrial.

So, what does a certifiable Sub-T do when they’re being ignored? Well, they stomp up the stairs in a tizzy, march up to the willfully ignorant subject, and cruelly chuck back the covers.

“I was shouting for you. You had to have heard me…”

Excellent deductive reasoning skills there, Watson.

“Hm? Oh, were you?”

She rolls her eyes. “Get your ass down stairs. You’re not going to hide today.”

I sit up and rub at my eyes. “What do you mean? I haven’t been hiding…”

She just looks at me, and I know with a pathetic sigh, that I’m fooling no one.

“I’m serious,” she says. “Get your ass downstairs.”

“Can I at least shower first,” I ask grumpily.

And then I have to consider when it was that I had to start asking to do what I want.

What the fuck is this shit?

She stops at the door for moment and then nods her head. “Yeah, just make it quick.”

That was a rhetorical question… wasn’t it?

And then she’s gone, and I’m just flailing. I do not, in any way, shape, or form, understand this life anymore. I grab my toiletries bag and head for the bathroom, taking my sweet, precious time just to spite her. It’s a good hour later when I finally mope down the stairs and enter the kitchen clean, dressed, pressed, hair done up, and make-up just so.

I look hot. Maybe Kyla should piss me off more often.

Being the well-mannered individual that I am, I ask, “Can I help with anything?”

Of course, they both just look at me like I have two heads and then start to laugh. I mean, I guess I’d laugh at a two-headed me too, but still…

“Um, no, we want edible food…,” Kyla deadpans. “But in a few hours, you can help set the table.”

Wow. She’s on a fucking roll today…

And I don’t have to take it. I turn to head back up the stairs, but her voice stops me. “Ashley, don’t even think about it.”

How did she know? Her back was turned…

With a huff, I take a seat at the kitchen nook and cross my arms over my chest. This day needs to go faster, damn it. I check my phone several times, but the clock isn’t moving, so I resign myself to lean back and stare out of the panoramic window. If they want to do all of the cooking, fine. If they want to treat me like a child and a pariah, fine.

I just wish they’d let me be elsewhere while they do it.

“You can help with clean up, too,” Christine adds.

I just glare at the back of her head.

She’s still not asking questions, but she’s started talking to me more frequently. By talking, I mean that she randomly throws completely unprovoked verbal barbs. I just don’t have any way of jabbing her back that doesn’t make me feel like a complete asshole.
She apparently has no such scruples.

I know I fucked up when I ran, but why hasn’t she asked why or where? What did I do to make her not care?

And why is Kyla the golden child?

They work efficiently together. It’s obvious that they’ve done this many times, just the two of them. And I feel like I’ve missed something important, like another hole in my psyche has made itself known.

And I still feel like I don’t belong here.

I don’t understand why Kyla was so adamant about this little shindig. Did she want me to feel this way? Is this her way of getting back at me?

Whatever…

I turn back to my vigil out of the window. It’s another gray day, but somehow the gloom is inordinately bright because of the thin layer of snow that fell overnight. I hear a door shut outside and crane my neck to see Glen lean against the sidewall of the Carlin house to light a cigarette. I can’t help but gawp at him. He looks so different, as if he’s prematurely aging. Maybe it’s just the goatee…?

And… “When did Glen start smoking,” I ask no one in particular.

For a moment, I envy him. I don’t smoke, but I could totally use… just something right now to calm my nerves.

Booze, man… I want booze…

“About the same time he and Madison had Kenzi,” Kyla responds.

I shake my head. It’s just crazy to me. I mean, Glen’s a father, a husband, a smoker…

Just then, he glances in my direction and his eyes stop when they meet mine. His gaze is cold and unnerving, and I’d swear that he almost sneers at me. The look he’s giving me is like he’s just stepped in something disgusting that won’t wipe off.

He flicks his cigarette as if he means to hit me with it, and goes inside.

Well, that settles where he stands.

“So much for Christmas dinner,” I mumble to myself.

“What about Christmas dinner,” Kyla asks.

“Oh, nothing. I was just… talking to myself.”

“Okay,” she drawls, somehow making the word three syllables. “You never talk to yourself.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not exactly in my element.”

I give her a pointed, accusing look and she rolls her eyes at me before continuing.

“What about Christmas dinner?”

I sigh. Why can’t she just leave me alone? It was an idle thought.

She’s staring at me expectantly, so I just spit it out. “I saw Mr. C yesterday and he invited us to Christmas dinner.”

Christine stops her chopping, and she and Kyla look at one another.

I frown. “What?”

Christine is the one to actually speak. “Well, it’s just, ever since you left… I don’t, we just don’t talk to them anymore. At all…”

“Not even to Mr. C,” I ask.

She shakes her head.

God, poor Mr. C sort of lost everything…

“They’re separated now,” I say.

Christine thinks about it for a moment. “Well, that explains why Paula’s never home.”

“Well, like I said, he invited us to dinner, but I already knew we wouldn’t go.”

“Why not,” Christine asks.

I gape at her. “Well, you don’t talk to them and haven’t for years, and most of them are openly hostile towards me… to name a few reasons.”

Christine pops a black olive in her mouth from the tray on the counter, and I wonder when the finger foods were put down and how I’d missed them. I stand to go and peruse only to stop when I notice Christine watching me.

What? I can’t eat now?

Fuck, she hates me…

I glance at Kyla at the range for some support, but that was stupid. With Christine in the mix, I’m second hat. Besides, she’s a little preoccupied with that poor, delicious bird. And even if she weren’t, she thinks it’s all in my head with Christine, that I just need to give her time.

But she doesn’t see these moments that so thoroughly unnerve me because it’s always when she’s not looking, just like right now…

The way Christine’s looking at me, it’s like she’s trying to make me explode with her thoughts. I want it to stop, all of the torturous jabs and exclusion. The question is how to make that happen. I can’t just go with my gut and scream at her.

God, I want to. She’s had a couple days now, and I’m fed up with the pissy routine. Does she want me here or not? Or, is this all just Kyla’s naïve fantasy?

Well, nasty glare or not, I’m having some fucking turkey today.

Eat that, Christine…

After several long moments of further unnerving scrutiny, she finally turns back to work at her chopping board as if nothing just occurred. I snatch a piece of cheese from the tray and give her another dirty look.

Ha… I got cheese.

Kyla almost catches me though as she bends to open the oven, and I nearly choke on the little cube. I splutter a little bit and reach for the fridge to grab a bottle of water, and that’s when I finally see the bird that’s now fully visible on the stove top. I step closer, to try and process what I’m seeing.

“What is that,” I ask as I poke one of its strangely colored legs. It wobbles like a gelatin mold.

“That,” Kyla answers. “Is a delicious tofurkey.”

No turkey on Thanksgiving…?

“Kyla,” I groan.

She just scoffs. “They’re delicious and no one had to die.”

No turkey on Thanksgiving…?!

“You’re a heretic…,” I breathe out sadly.

She smacks my hand away and giggles.

“It’s good,” she protests, picking up the pan and stuffing it into the oven.

Who bakes tofu?

Who eats turkey-shaped, baked tofu… on Thanksgiving?

This isn’t a vegetarian holiday, damn it.

Christine’s ready to take a pot shot at me now. I mean, it has been about ten minutes, and after the atrocity that is this fake bird, it’s a good time to kick me while I’m down.

“I think we should go to the Carlins’ for Christmas dinner,” she says.

Kyla smiles at her. “It would be nice, like old times.”

Fuck me…

“What,” I ask.

“We should go to the Carlins’ for Christmas dinner,” she repeats like I’m stupid.

And maybe I am. I certainly feel stupid.

“But I just told you…,” I try to remind her.

“Ashley,” she cuts me off. “Nobody over there is hostile anymore. You’ve been gone four years.”

Yeah, thanks for reminding me yet again.

“I doubt they’re still holding any grudges,” she concludes.

I want to laugh in her face. I mean, she’s still holding one and yet they’re what, impossible? And, I mean, homophobes can hold a pretty damn long grudge. Like, a lifetime. No, like generations of lifetimes.

“I’d rather just do something low key here, if you two don’t mind,” I try my best at cordial and polite, despite how very deep this end of the pool I’m slipping into appears.

“We’re going,” Christine says in that voice that I remember all too well. It means that this discussion is over.

Well, I’m not a child anymore. And I’m tired of both of them treating me like one.

Again, I try calm. I try compromise.

“Okay,” I say. “You two go over there for dinner. I’ll be here when you get back.”

They round on me and I take a step back.

“Why are you here,” Kyla asks pointedly.

“Because you pushed for it,” I say, knowing it’s only a half-truth and hoping to get a pot shot in of my own.

Christine stiffens at my words and I feel worse for it, not better.

Fucking sigh…

“Is that the only reason,” Kyla continues.

“I wanted to set things right before…”

Kyla just rolls her eyes.

“So you think hiding, by yourself, away from us, is going to accomplish that?”

“I’m trying to set things right with you and Christine, not the Carlins’.”

“Then why did you spend the entire day yesterday playing guitar and avoiding us?”

“I didn’t…”

I so did.

And she knows it.

She just refuses to see why.

“Well, since you have our little group under control, the Carlins’ should be no trouble.”

“I don’t want to, Kyla. What’s wrong with just the three of us?”

“Not everything can be how you want it, Ashley,” Christine pitches in oh so helpfully.

I just snort out a laugh at this entire encounter and situation. “Maybe not, but I know you don’t want me here. And maybe things can be how you want them.”

And with that, I grab my jacket and keys, and step out into the freezing cold, shutting out the call of my name from inside of the house. I don’t even wait for the car to warm up before I skid away from the curb and start driving anywhere and nowhere.

I just need to clear my head. This day is going way worse than I’d anticipated.

I drive for a long time, my mind no better, but it’s getting dark and I’m tired. I finally wind up pulling into a hole-in-the-wall diner, the first place for miles that I’ve seen open. It kind of reminds me of a metal twinkie that hasn’t been updated since fifties-kitch was in. It’s completely run down, but it’s warm inside and the lady at the counter smiling at me is a vast improvement from any other human interaction I’ve had all day.

I order a coffee as I tuck myself into a booth at the very back. She’s quick to deliver the steaming, black liquid, and I sip on it as I stare into the swirling surface. I know that I have to go back there, and I know that I can’t run away and just forget it all.

But I really want to.

I decide to pull out my phone and play a game or listen to some music, just something to overpower the crowded thoughts in my head and drown them out.

I turn my phone on and sigh as several missed messages appear. I knew it would be bad, and it’ll be even worse when I actually respond, but I’m not going to just yet. I scroll through them; some of them are threatening bodily harm, especially the one where I missed dinner.

I just can’t bring myself to care. They didn’t want me there. It was obvious. But then another message catches my eye and I find myself smiling involuntarily.

Spencer…

HTD1

God, she’s so fucking cute.

HTD2

I settle back in the booth.

HTD3

Well that’s a glowing endorsement. God, what a pair we make.

HTD4

I can’t help but chuckle.

 

HTD5

I nod solemnly, forgetting that she can’t see me, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her.

HTD6

I frown at the screen, trying to decipher what’s going on in her last message, but it doesn’t make any sense, at least not until my phone rings and her picture shows up on the screen.

I can’t help but smile as I answer the phone. “Hey.”

“I can’t believe you’re in Ohio,” she says immediately.

“Yeah, me neither.”

“So…,” she says a little awkwardly. “How’s… everyone?”

I grin because I already know this game. Mr. C’s already played it, and she’s just as transparent. My grin fades though, because I realize that she’s going to want to know things that I don’t want to tell her.

Her family’s falling the fuck apart…

Fuck, I don’t want to be the one…

“Ash, you there?”

“Yeah, sorry… everyone’s fine.”

I know that isn’t enough but it buys me a few more seconds.

“Could you give a little more than that, please?”

And she sounds frustrated. Just… fuck this day…

Okay, I can work with this. I have my own drama, after all.

“Christine hates me and Kyla’s treating me like a child.”

“Ash, come on. It can’t be that bad.”

“Spence, you have no idea…”

“And there’s no way Christine hates you,” she continues as if I hadn’t said anything.

I laugh humorlessly. “Spence, trust me. It’s no joke. She gutted my room, took all of my photos out of the house, and she’s done nothing but give me grief. She hasn’t even asked why I left because she just doesn’t care.”

The line is quiet for a moment and I exhale loudly. “I’m sorry. None of this is your problem.”

“No, that’s fine. You can vent, I just know she doesn’t hate you, Ash. She was a wreck after you left. She couldn’t even look at me, but then I wasn’t really all that great either.”

God, is everyone against me today?

“Okay, but you at least heard me out and cared enough to ask what happened. She doesn’t and hasn’t. I’m just wasting my time here.”

“How long have you been there?”

I frown. Why does that matter?

“Two days…”

“Well no wonder,” she says. “You put her through a lot. Give her some time.” Who’s fucking side is she on anyways? “Why don’t you just talk to her?”

I find myself lashing out. “The same reason you haven’t talked to your dad, except he doesn’t actually deserve it.” Again, the line is quiet and I feel a headache sparking behind my eyes. “Fuck, Spence, I’m sorry…”

Her voice is so sad. “You saw him?”

“Yeah,” I sigh out.

“H-how is he?”

I rest my forehead to my palm and brace my arm against the table. “Don’t make me answer that, please…”

But we both know that she won’t honor that request.

“Why can’t you answer,” she asks worriedly.

“Spence, you need to talk to him about this stuff.”

“Has something happened?” She’s fully panicking now. “He’s not… dying, is he? I can’t take another one, Ash…”

And with that, I can hear the tears coming from the other end of the phone. I feel like such a dick.

“No, Spence, he’s not dying,” I hasten to reassure her.

“Thank God,” she breathes.

“Your parents have split up though.” Again, a dead line. “Spence… did you hear me?”

She clears her throat. “Uh, yeah… I mean, are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“But I don’t understand. Why? When? What happened?”

I want to laugh at the absurdity of her questions. I mean, she’s met Mrs. C… obviously. It’s not that hard to believe.

I can’t give her the answers though, at least not in a healthy, non-bitter way. “I really think you need to call your dad, Spence.”

She sighs long and loud into the phone. “God, it’s been two years. I don’t know if I can…”

This time I do laugh at her. “You do realize who you’re talking to, right?”

She laughs with me and I’m thankful for the minute brevity. It helps to release some of the tension.

“I guess you’re right,” she says.

I find my jaw hitting the table top. “Can you repeat that, please? Or, no, can I get it in writing instead?”

She laughs and I can’t help but smile at the sound of it. “Yeah, I’m not sure what I was thinking there.”

“Me neither,” I agree.

She chuckles some more. “God, Ash. How did everything get so messed up?”

I slump in my booth a little more. “I’m beginning to believe that it’s all my fault.”

She scoffs. “What?”

I nod. “Yup. Apparently when I left, everyone’s lives fell apart. I had no idea that leaving would be such a big damn deal.”

“That’s cuz you’re an idiot.”

“Thanks,” I say sardonically.

“You do know that the world doesn’t actually revolve around you, right?”

I roll my eyes. “You’re too funny, Spence.” She’s laughing again. “You missed your calling.”

“Well, it’s never too late,” she says. “All I need to do is quit my job, sell my car, get a gimmick – like an overly trained rodent or a puppet – and join the circus.”

“Oooo, you want to be a carny?”

“Yeah,” she exclaims brightly. “You could come too. I can see your act now… the girl whose head is too big for her body.”

“Hey,” I say indignantly. “I’m very well proportioned, thank you very much.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the one who said that everything’s your fault.”

“Well,” I defend. “Literally everyone fell apart right after I left!”

“Some of that stuff would have happened with or without you,” she says. “But I can’t argue that it hurt a lot of people.”

“I want to fix it, Spence…”

“I know,” she says softly.

“But Christine won’t let me…”

“Give it time,” she implores again. “Four years of worrying and hurting isn’t going to disappear in two days.”

I sigh. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her.”

“So tell her that. I know that it made it harder for me to stay mad at you.”

I grin. “You never could stay mad at me.”

“Oh, no, I was always mad at you; I just learned to live with it on a constant basis,” she states matter-of-factly.

“Sure,” I say. “You just can’t resist my charm.”

“Whatever, Davies.”

“You can’t deny it.”

“I can’t deny that you’re full of yourself.”

“I’m full of animal magnetism, baby.”

“You’re full of something, alright…”

There’s a quiet moment that feels normal for the first time in a long time, and I bask in it until my phone vibrates and I see another nastygram from Kyla.

“If you don’t come home, I’ll have every cop in this city looking for you.”

I sigh. “Spence, I hate to cut this short, but Kyla’s having a large litter of kittens.”

“What did you do this time?”

“What makes you think I did anything,” I ask defensively.

“Didn’t you?”

I’m quiet for a moment. “Well, yes, but just this once!”

She’s laughing and I’m ready to start banging my head on the tabletop.

“Let me guess,” Spencer says between laughs. “You fought and took off in the middle of it.”

My head snaps up and I stare at my phone, worried that the microwaves have given her the ability to read minds.

“How did you…?”

“Pfft, please. You never stick around to finish anything, Ash, least of all anything confrontational.”

“Jeez, Spence. I’m so glad you think so highly of me.”

“I’m not judging,” she insists. “I’m just saying that you’re more predictable than my cycle.”

And she’s like clockwork…

“Well, I have to face the music.”

“Wow,” she says. “That soon?”

I frown. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s progress. Normally you just put it off until someone nails you down about whatever caused the problem. Congratulations for facing it head on.”

“You really are too funny, Spence.”

“I’m not being facetious,” she reassures me. “I’m serious. That’s progress.”

And now I just feel uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, I don’t have time to put it off anymore.”

The line goes quiet again and I want to kick myself. Not everyone is as flippant about my life as I am.

“So, are you going to call your dad,” I ask, trying desperately to change the subject.

She blows out a breath. “I don’t think I really have a choice.”

“He misses you, Spence.”

“I miss him too.”

My phone buzzes again and I look at the screen.

HTD7

Shit…

“Listen, Spence, I have to go. Kyla’s about to call the cops.”

I can hear the smile in her voice. “Okay.”

“Text me and tell me how it goes?”

“Yeah, you too,” she says.

“Okay,” I say, not really wanting to hang up, but not having any options.

Why aren’t there ever good options?

“Night, Ash.”

“Night, Spence.”

I hear the line go dead and quickly type a message to Kyla.

HTD8

I sigh as I lay a bill on the table.

Happy fucking Thanksgiving to me…


Don’t forget to leave feedback on what you did/didn’t like and why before moving on! 


Contined in Chapter 9 – If ‘its’ and ‘buts’ were candied nuts, we’d all have a hell of a Christmas.

Turning Page

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from, and I can feel it deep down in these old, weary bones, from here on my deathbed, that this approaching end is only the beginning.

I look over to Tina’s side of the bed, as empty at this moment as it has been for the last three months, and a single tear rolls down my withered cheek. I have never been a spiritual person. I’ve tried, but it’s hard to accept certain things on nothing but blind faith; it’s hard to ignore sensibilities and believe in extreme possibility; it’s hard to accept that things will happen that are beyond our control and defy all reasonable explanation.

There are so many emotions knotted together within me, and while they contradict themselves, they have been revelatory. Why is it hard to believe in something more? Believe in something beyond what we can see or touch? From where I’m lying, gazing at the empty space my wife inhabited for the last forty-six years, I imagine that the mattress and pillows are still indented to fit her shape, still smelling of lavender and something markedly her, still warm from her presence, and I am forced to confront the reality that there has to be more.

Why? Well, it’s all so simple, really, so simple that it takes a lifetime to know it. I loved Tina; I still love her; I will always love her. She was and is my soulmate, my best friend, my lover, my reason… my everything. And not one of these things – emotions, love, souls, friendships – none of these things are something that you can hold in your hand or sink your teeth into. They hold no tangible or corporeal form in this world, but they are as proven as mathematical equations and as solid as gravity; they are as real as the blanket warming me and as visible as any painting adorning the walls of this home. They exist in the abstract, and yet they are more real than any possession or scientific fact, because they give real purpose and real fulfillment. They are so real that you can see them with your eyes, even in the dark.

And it’s because of this, a lifetime of living in the abstract and feeling it guide me through the dark, that I know; I know that in order for Tina to have existed physically, she must exist metaphysically. I know that our connection went beyond mortality, and as soon as I step away from this plane, she’ll be there, wherever there is, to welcome me home. That knowledge fills me with great satisfaction because here or there, or anywhere… I will get to be with Tina for eternity. My connection to her is just as deep and strong as it ever was. Not even death has severed it. I feel her alive; I feel her healthy; I feel her waiting patiently for me.

I release a heavy breath as I stroke a wrinkled hand over her pillow. I long to see her and I’m ready to take that step. I can feel Death lingering in the shadows to collect me, just as he collected her, and while it hurts to know that I will miss out on so much of my children’s and grandchildren’s lives by stepping away into another beginning, I am ready to shed this body and go to my wife. That’s the purpose of marriage, isn’t it… forsaking all others? As much as I love my children, Tina is my home and they’ve made their own.

I glance over at the bedside clock. It’s one thirteen in the morning. I remove my hand from my wife’s pillow and struggle up into a sitting position against the headboard. My body groans with the movement, but I make it, taking a moment to catch my breath before switching on the bedside lamp. Its soft glow stings my eyes for a moment before illuminating the book resting at its base. I smile sadly as I reach a weak hand over to retrieve the album Tina gave me the last time I saw her. The last time she was alive.


 

My eyes snapped open, the beeping sound of the monitor attached to Tina’s lethargic heart having worried me even in my restless sleep. I ignored the sharp pains in my neck and back as I sat forward in the uncomfortable chair to check on her. Her warm hazel eyes were unfocused in the dim light of the room, but I could still see her glorious smile as she gazed over in my direction. “T, is everything okay?”

She exhaled heavily, too heavily, unable to speak before meeting my eyes again. Those deep hazel orbs said everything I needed to know and didn’t want to hear. They shouted of her love for me; they spoke an apology, but they also whispered a goodbye. A sobbed, “No, T…,” tore from my throat and I felt thick tears tumble over my lashes.

It was only a matter of time, and I’d known that for a long while now; hell, I’d known that most of my life. Everyone dies, but I still wasn’t ready to lose her. I was never going to be ready. I unsteadily got to my feet and crossed the small distance to her bed, sitting next to her and taking her hand. Her eyes fluttered and I looked up at the monitor. Her blood pressure had dropped even lower and there was little I could do but sit here and watch her slip away. Yet again, I was helpless. Life is humbling that way.

I couldn’t stop the tears from falling any more than I could stop her from leaving me, but I still just couldn’t let go of her. It was selfish… putting her in this hospital to prolong the inevitable, but she’d have suffered at home. At least here they could make her comfortable. So here we sat. She was too weak to even squeeze my hand as I linked our fingers, but I knew that she would if she could. My Tina was still in there. And that’s when I realized that her beautiful soul was trapped in a body that I knew better than my own, in a body that was holding her hostage within as it failed her. It took everything I had, but I meant it when I said, “It’s okay, T. Don’t fight anymore, baby.” I trembled with heavy sobs. “We’ll be okay. If you need to go…” That was it. I couldn’t even finish the thought, but by the look in her intelligent eyes, I knew that my message had been received loud and clear.

She pulled in great gulps of breath and I leant down to hear her. It was so faint and my own hearing so tenuous that I had to really focus, but I heard her. “There… in my bag… the album…”

I pushed my creaking bones back up and looked at her curiously before looking over to the overnight bag Rory and Sarah had brought in earlier. I stood, and it was slow work, but I finally retrieved the bag and located a photo album at the bottom. I brought it over to her, and with more effort than I can even fathom, she managed to put my hand on it. Her voice was gone with her breath but she mouthed the words, ‘For you.”

I stroked the leather surface and went to open it but she stopped me, her heart fluttering on the monitor, her head shaking minutely, her voice a hoarse whisper, “No… wait…”

I cried harder as I stroked her hand and she gasped to retrieve the breath she’d just expelled to get those words out. “Wait… for what, T?”

Her eyes were compassionate as she looked at me and her heart slowed yet again. She wanted me to wait until she was gone. I kissed her lips gently and buried my face in her neck as sobs racked me to the point where I could feel my ribs rattling in against my breast. They wouldn’t stop, but I needed her to know. “It’s okay, baby. I don’t want you to go… but I understand… yours in life and death… remember?”

I felt a weak kiss to my temple, her haggard breaths ruffling my salt and pepper hair as she pressed out what was left in her. “I… remember… I-I… I love… y–”

The rhythm on the monitor dipped into nothingness and an alarm sounded throughout the room. The pressure dropped and all of the air sucked out of my lungs as time stopped. I swear I felt her soul set free into the very air around me. My sobbing turned to shock as I sat back up and gazed into her hazel eyes, all the warmth and life gone. Someone far away called out to her. “T…?”

She didn’t respond and a nurse appeared at her side. She checked Tina but made no attempt to save her. Tina didn’t want them to, and while I resented that decision, I understood and respected my wife’s wishes. The nurse came over to me, putting her hand on my shoulder as she said, “I’m so sorry Mrs. Porter-Kennard. She’s gone…”

I leaned into to kiss still warm lips, lips that had loved me with their last breath. I gazed into those unseeing eyes for a minute longer before lifting a trembling hand and closing them, knowing that was the last time I’d ever see them. And it hit me, truly hit me. She was gone, and I was left here without her. I collapsed onto her, pressing my face into her breast as my heart poured out of me to go with her wherever she had gone.

 


 

I stroke the album now, just as I had when she gave it to me, and stare at it through blurry eyes. I haven’t been able to let this book out of my sight since Tina gave it to me in her last moments, but I haven’t been able to open it either. I have no idea what its pages hold and I’ve been too afraid to see. I know that I’ll see pieces of her, and I long to see her, but the loss of her is indescribably painful no matter how sure I am that I’ll see her again. The aching in my joints, the pain in my chest, and the difficulty that I have finding my next breath, they all tell me that it’s time to be brave, that it’s now or never.

It’s difficult, but I reach back to the nightstand to retrieve my reading glasses and scrub at my eyes before settling them on my nose. God, even that little movement takes so much out of me. I relax for a moment, collecting my breath and my thoughts. I’m anxious and apprehensive at what I will find as I open the cover to the first page. And what I find is that Tina wrote me a note. I gently stroke my fingers over her delicate script, letting the familiar feelings of the love that she inspires wash over me as I read her last words to me for the first time.

Bette,

I know how much you love that I take pictures of you at the most inopportune times, but you know well that I can’t help myself when it comes to you. I thought that you might like to see why. I’ve loved you my whole life and something in me felt compelled to document that love. You are just as beautiful now as you were more than forty-six years ago, but these photos… they are exceptional.

I wanted to give you a record of how much I’ve loved you, of all the simple ways you’ve inspired me, of all the life you have breathed into me and our children in our time together, and of all the moments when I would see you doing something completely mundane and be struck by my overwhelming love for you. No one in history has loved anyone more than I love you, and while I know that my time here is coming to an end, I wanted to give you this final part of me so that you might be strong until I see you again. Not all of these are mine, but what they captured meant so much to me… you mean so much to me, that I felt that they should be here as well. Thank you for being my wife, for loving me, and for so many years of joy. I love you with all my heart.

Your Wife,

T

I close my eyes, tears falling this time. I’d give anything to hold her and kiss her right now, to tell her that I love her just as much, but I can’t. I breathe in. It’s labored and not as deep as I need it to be, but it allows me to swallow against my tight throat and press forward. I flip the page to see the picture of us in India and chuckle softly through my tears. This picture… seemly innocuous, holds so much of my life and my heart. The last time that I saw it was the day that my life with Tina truly began, a day full of miracles, the day Tina proposed to me in our new home.


My eyes fluttered open, revealing a bright ray of light washing in through the balcony doors and bathing us with the hope of a new day. The room was empty and quiet except for the steady breathing of a soft, warm body curled up against my front as we lay in the makeshift nest of heaped blankets on the floor of our bedroom. The light bounced off the halo of corn silk hair splayed around Tina’s face, her skin glowing with youthful beauty, her bare chest rising and falling with satisfied sleep, and as I propped my head up on my elbow, my heart considered stopping in that moment to preserve it.

I leaned in, pulled by some indistinguishable force, and disturbed the swirls of dust motes dancing in the sunlight as I closed my eyes and kissed the back of Tina’s neck. I relished the taste of her skin, the smell of her hair, and the feel of her hand locking my own between the exposed breasts in front of her.

We had made love in most every room of our new home, interspersing our time with late night takeout from Mandarette and random bouts of stargazing. It was most certainly the least traditional Christmas Eve I’d ever had, but it was also one of the most special.

Tina stirred and I watched, enthralled, as the hazel flecks of her eyes caught the light and sleepily reflected the beauty of her soul. Her body shifted in my arms and her gaze locked onto mine, her voice velvet-soft as she smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the sentiment, smiling back at her, even when all I wanted to do was cry. I had been without her for just three weeks, but it felt like a part of me had died in that time, a part of me that I’d never get back. I had given up on the notion of even seeing her last night, so it was overwhelming when she not only came to me, but proposed to me. It was a dream come true. And then fate decided to add the raw beauty of her in this moment, and well… I couldn’t seem to piece together all of the facets of what I was feeling to come up with a recognizable emotion. It was all a jumbled mess; I was a jumbled mess, but when all was said and done, no matter how jumbled or overwhelmed I was, I could always come back to love, and so that was what I grabbed onto. She was, is, the only person that I’ve ever loved, but in that moment, I felt it stir places in my soul that I had never known.

My lips unerringly found hers, and it felt good to know that I was not only allowed to touch her this way at will, but that my desire was returned without hesitation. The embers cooled by exhaustion sparked to life as I ran my hand through her hair, scraped my nails down her back, smoothed my palm across her, and pushed my fingers through the light curls crowning her center. She lifted her leg with the pageantry of a ballet dancer, hooking it on my hip, and gasped into my mouth as I smoothly entered her.

Her insides greeted me with a shudder and pulled me in further. She was hot and wet and engorged, and I smiled against her full lips as I tracked mine down to her heaving breast. Her increasingly labored breaths tickled my ear and I flushed with gooseflesh when the sensation twitched low between my hips and a riotous buzzing fluttered to life in my stomach.

It was maddening how easily this woman could excite me without even meaning to. I was in a perpetual state of readiness and willingness, and with each deep stroke that I pushed into her, and each wet offering that I pulled out of her, it was almost as if I could feel what she was feeling. Her hands tangled roughly in my hair as I sucked a coral nipple into my mouth and laved it with a sensitive tongue. The rocking of her hips increased, taking even more of me into her with each steady jerk. I pressed my thighs tightly together as my sex swelled and my head spun. Her breaths became short, escalating whimpers, and each one penetrated me in time with the thrusts of my hand.

I felt wild and primal as everything focused in around this one moment in time that I’d never forget, and I followed her over the edge of ecstasy brought on by nothing more than the depths of my love for her. I released her breast and pressed my ear to her frantically thrumming heart, feeling more complete than I ever had, and unable to fathom anything being much better. How wrong I was.

We lay that way for long minutes, letting our hearts calm as we trembled in each other’s embrace and soaked up the yellow sun with our exposed skin. I had received the best gift anyone could have hoped for at any time on a bright Christmas morning, in an empty home, wrapped in blankets on a hardwood floor, in the arms of the most incredible woman I’d ever know. That gift was Tina.


I have to close my eyes. There are so many more pages to walk through in this book, and the first one is already tearing at my heart. While I would be glad to put the last forty-six years on repeat and relive it with her, that’s the problem. I feel her here with me, but I want to see her gorgeous face and stroke her gleaming hair… I want to hear the soft lilt of her voice tell me this story as we relive these moments together. How I miss her…

I pull a listless breath into my weary body and feel a deep peace wash over me as I find the courage to turn the page. I place a trembling hand over my lips as I gaze at the photo of me and my incredible bride, beautiful in my arms, as we dance to our song. I had dipped her back and kissed her with abandon, and I laugh as I locate the memory permanently inked onto my heart, closing my eyes and relishing in it like a favorite black and white movie as it flickers to life behind my eyelids.


I slid my hand further to the middle of Tina’s back and she pressed her body closer into mine without hesitation. Her delicate fingers drew absent-minded patterns on the skin of my neck as we swayed, and I sighed with contentment. I gazed down into her face, adoring her with my eyes as I spoke from my heart. “Thank you for marrying me.”

She smiled beatifically and my heart expanded. Her voice was playful as she responded. “Are you kidding? I’m just thankful that you showed up.”

We both chuckled softly and I shook my head. “It was a close call, wasn’t it?”

She grinned, her beautiful eyes twinkling. “Yes… but you did, and I am so glad because I really didn’t want to have to find you and drag you kicking and screaming to that altar. It would have ruined your hair in the photos.”

I couldn’t help the deep laugh that bubbled up out of my chest and I leaned in on an impulse to kiss her, but she stopped me, placing a hand to my lips and saying, “Uh huh. Didn’t you know that marriage means you’ll never get laid again? It’s in the rulebook.”

I swayed us in a slow circle, contemplating her words. “I always read the rulebooks cover to cover.” She nodded in agreement. “That information was listed in the warning section, but only under the heterosexual subtitle.” She laughed and the sound curled my toes before I continued. “Besides, if I want you…” I gazed into her eyes as I ran my hand from the small of her back, up her side, and settled it next to her breast where I could stroke her teasingly with my thumb. “…and I really do…” The burnished skin along her collarbones flushed pink and she glared at me. I grinned ferally. “…I’m certain that I could persuade you.”

She sighed, meeting my grin with a ferocity of her own. “Is that a challenge, Mrs. Porter-Kennard?”

My grin grew wider as my questing digit grew bolder. “You think you can resist me, Mrs. Porter-Kennard?”

She nodded, a smirk on her face that quickly melted away as I dipped her back and claimed her lips. She was startled at first, but it didn’t last long as her surprised grasp on my shoulders loosened into a loving embrace and she opened her mouth to invite me in. I delighted in the taste of her for a few long moments, completely forgetting where we were, until a stuttering round of applause and wolf-whistles started to erupt around us. I pulled her back up and smiled at her dazed expression. Her voice was low and serious as she said, “Let’s get out of here.”

I laughed and continued our dance, placing my lips to her ear and whispering. “You’re such a pushover.”

I felt her tremble and watched as her blush spread to the delicate lobe at my mouth and she replied, “You’re such a tease.”

I grinned again, nipping at her ear before saying, “And you are in serious trouble when we get back to the hotel.”


She was ravishing that day… quite possibly the most stunning woman I’d ever know, and like a fine wine, she only got better with time. I sigh, my heart aching to look into her eyes and aching with an exhausted age of its own. It’s a strange concept. Our souls get better with age, but our bodies do not. We are, in essence, born dying.

I stroke the photo, following the graceful line of Tina’s silky arm with my fingertip, and tears continue to leak from my eyes. I realize that it was just her time, and I’m thankful that she went peacefully. I just wish she would have been able to be home with me instead of stay in the hospital. She knew that her time was limited, and yet she faced it with a grace that I can only hope to achieve when it’s my turn. I wipe the tears from my face and flip the page to see another beautiful bride, her hand clasped by her husband’s as they run through the shower of bird seed raining down on them. Even now, at nearly eighty-six years old, I still remember that day.


I hesitantly stepped up to the door of Angie’s dressing room, my palms sweating so badly that I could barely grip the door knob. In life, there is a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, but right now, it was time for me to walk my daughter down the aisle.

She might have been twenty-four years old, but for me, in my mind, she was still a toddler schooling her brother and sister in the proper etiquette of playground antics. Where did the time go? Where did my babycakes go?

I steeled myself and stepped into the room to see her standing by the full-length mirror. She turned to me, smiling radiantly, and I realized that my babycakes was still somewhere in this beautiful woman when I heard that child’s voice I’d known for so long call to me with infinite love. “Mama B.”

Tina stepped up to me and took the bouquet that I had gone to retrieve from my hands so I wouldn’t drop it. No, I wasn’t ready for this. Somehow, her husband-to-be had survived my threats and browbeating. She was my baby girl… she would always be my baby girl… and yet she was standing before me, a vision in white gossamer, a gorgeous and undeniably full-grown woman. When I finally met her eyes, I saw the tears glittering on her lashes and stepped up to take her in my arms. “Don’t cry, babycakes.”

She rested her head on my shoulder, just like she’d done a million times in her life when she needed comfort, and it was nearly my undoing. This was my baby, and I wasn’t ready to send her out into the world; I never had been, and I never would be. I sighed, trying to hold it together, but it was futile as she spoke again. “I can’t help it. When I saw your face…”

I squeezed her tighter. “I’m sorry, you’re just…” I pulled back, holding her at arms-length. “…you’re unbelievably beautiful.”

She smiled. “Thanks, mom. You are too.”

Rory took a tissue and helped clean Angie’s face, and Tina helped me with mine, tears in her own eyes. I composed myself, trying not to look at Angie, and reminded myself that Matthew would be a good husband. He’d been nothing but respectful despite my protests and threats of the last five years, and I knew that they really were in love with each other. I wouldn’t have abided this if I hadn’t known that. The honest truth was that I just didn’t want to let her go.

I turned back to them just as they finished and straightened my shoulders. Kit stepped into the room. “What’s takin’ you guys so long? It’s time… let’s get a move on.”

I exhaled a deep breath. “We just need a minute, Kit.”

She noticed my face and grinned crookedly. “Mm-hmm. Okay, make it quick. They have a plane to catch tonight and we don’t wanna to be late to the reception hall.” I sent her a scathing look and Rory kissed me on the cheek, smiling as she took Kit’s arm and ushered her out the door. Kit relented, mumbling and shaking her head as Rory turned, winked, and shut the door behind them. I had a moment of panic that Rory wouldn’t be far behind Angie.

Tina saved me, taking my hand and pulling us up in front of Angie. I couldn’t find my voice so she started. “Angie, we just wanted to tell you that we’re so proud of you.” Tina reached up and stroked Angie’s cheek. “And that we love you… so much.”

Angie hugged Tina and I had to divert my eyes as she said, “I love you too, mom.”

When they pulled away from each other, I cleared my tight throat and chanced looking at them. I managed to keep it somewhat together as Tina pulled out the heirloom hairpins she had worn in her hair at our wedding. She held them up to Angie and said, “Something old.” She delicately tucked them into the back of Angie’s hair as she explained. “I wore these in my hair at my wedding.” She stepped back and the diamonds sparkled in the low light of the room. A tear leaked from Angie’s eyes and Tina scolded her. “No crying.” Angie laughed and wiped gently at the tear before nodding.

I cleared my throat and choked back a sob as I pulled a ribbon-wrapped key from my pocket and held it out to her. “Something new.” She took the key, wide-eyes considering it curiously, and it reminded me so much of when she was a toddler that I had to take a moment before I could explain. “We wanted to surprise you both, so we bought you a starter home.”

Tina hastened to add, “It’s the one you and Matt have been looking at.” Yes, it was the one that wasn’t nearly what I would have wanted for her had it been my choice. But I knew that I made the right decision when those wide, hazel eyes met mine with so much love and gratitude shining in them that I could melt into a puddle. My voice was rough, but I got the rest of my words out. “All of your stuff will be moved in by the time you get back from the honeymoon. We’ll pick you up at the airport and take you there.”

She was so shocked that she couldn’t speak and Tina stepped in to continue, pulling her garter out of her clutch and grinning at me as she suggestively twirled it around her finger. I breathed out a soft chuckle. That look helped break the tension and I winked at my wife. I had a tremendous time removing that article of clothing on our wedding night. She held it out to Angie and I gulped as the insinuation hit me like a brick to the face. I did not, under any circumstance, want to add that issue to my growing pile. I diverted my eyes as Tina said, “Something borrowed.” She bent down to help Angie put it on and I sent my eyes skyward to wish for a bolt of lightning to strike me from the earth. To my dismay, Tina jokingly added, “I expect that back.”

I waited for another round of giggles to end and didn’t realize that it had gotten so quiet. I finally looked back at them to see them staring at me with mischief gleaming in their eyes. They laughed again and I glared. “Yeah, yuck it up… both of you.”

Angie reached out, her eyes sympathetic as she stroked my arm. “I know this is hard for you, Mama B.”

I nodded, swallowed hard, and pulled the last item from my pocket to hold it out to her. “Something blue.”

This item was self-explanatory and a few more tears leaked from Angie’s eyes as she held it to her breast. I continued. “When… if, you start a family… we thought you might want to put that in…” I could barely finish the sentence let alone the thought. “…in the baby’s mobile.” It was a blue bauble from the blown glass mobile that had hung above her crib. All of our children had gazed at those colors and shapes as they wondered and dreamed, and they’d all get a bauble. But just seeing it… well, none of us could maintain our composure.

She hugged us both tightly and I closed my eyes as we all shed quiet tears. Fuck, I needed to get a grip. The hardest part was yet to come. After a long moment she released us and took one of mine and Tina’s hands in hers. She gazed down at them for a moment before meeting our eyes and smiling a watery smile. “I have been so blessed to have you as my parents. You taught me how to be honest, and you taught me how to work hard; you taught me how to pursue my dreams, you believed in me, you taught me how to believe in myself… and you taught me how to love.” She stopped, a few more tears streaming down her face. She shook our hands a little bit to emphasize one final point that was everyone’s undoing. “But the best thing you ever did for me… was love each other.” Fuck, fuck, fuck… I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. “I love you both more than I could ever tell you. Thank you… so much.”

She hugged us tightly and it was a long moment before Kit finally opened the door again. “Angie, your groom is startin’ to think you stood him–” We turned to her with wet faces and she had to clear her throat. She swiped gently at her watery eyes and sighed as she stepped into the room. “Let me take care of baby girl while you two freshen up.”

She started to help Angie while Tina and I again cleaned up our faces. Once we were as composed as we could be, Tina leaned up and kissed me gently. I hugged her tightly and she whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” I nodded and released a heavy breath into her shoulder before refilling my lungs with the comfort of her lavender scent. She pulled back, stroking my cheek gently. “It’s time, Bette.”

The look in her eyes, the tone of her voice… I knew what she really meant. It was time to let Angie start her life. I smiled sadly. “I know.”

She kissed me again and Angie stepped up to us, beautiful and radiant. Tina breathed out the words that have stuck with me to this day. “You look just like your Mama B when I married her.”

I gazed at the impossible smile that split Angie’s face and there was no denying it, she did look just like me. She was just like me, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her, because ultimately, she had surpassed me.

She stepped between us, linking her arm in each of ours, and Kit placed her bouquet in her right hand. We stepped through the double doors to the courtyard beyond and made our trek along the hedge to the covered opening, stopping and gazing down the aisle. Everyone on either side stood and smiled at us, and I glanced over at Angie. Her eyes met mine and she grinned with all the happiness I could have ever wanted for her. It was time, and the three of us took the first step.

It was a slow, awkward, and halting walk down this seemingly too-short aisle, all of the faces greeting us were happy, tearful, and achingly familiar. These were our friends, our family, people who had stuck with us through everything and had been so very important to not just our lives, but the lives of our children.

As we approached the altar, the young man who would be my son-in-law, an orphan toward whom I had held animosity despite my regret at all he had been through, was waiting. I just couldn’t seem to really let him in or trust him. Malcolm was at his side, standing in for a missing Tom, and I realized that I had been too harsh on him. He was good enough for Angie because he was a good person. All he’d ever wanted out of life was a family, and love, and despite all of the loneliness and pain he’d endured, he had managed to stop running and be worthy of my daughter. I had been wrong not to see his value and his worth, but at least I was seeing it now. Tina had always seen it, Angie had always seen it, and I had seen it, even while I fought it, fought him… with all that I had. At that moment I had no choice but to stop fighting it for my daughter’s sake. It was Angie’s day, and his day, and they both deserved to be happy.

I approached him and he held his hand out in a plea of acceptance. What would have been grudging was now a gesture of faith as I took Angie’s hand and placed it in his. He took her from me with a smile of pure joy that was only for her, but he met my eyes when Valentino asked me and Tina that age old question that means so much to a parent: “Who gives this woman in holy matrimony?”

I gazed at Matthew intently, the responsibility of what he was asking of me heavy in my voice and my eyes. He didn’t flinch or waver as Tina and I chorused, “We do.”

He nodded in understanding and in promise, grinning brightly as he looked back to his bride, and together they turned away from us. And as my daughter turned her back to me, I realized that she was gone, leaving us behind as she walked forward with someone else. He would console her now; he would love her now; he would protect her now; Not me… not anymore. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Despite all that we do as parents, despite all that we want for our children, all the sacrifices that we make to get them to this point, we just have to trust that we have prepared them and that they have chosen a spouse worthy of them.

Tears welled in my eyes and I swallowed hard. Tina stroked my arm and led me to our seats, and I turned to look at my own wife, remembering our vows, and realizing that this was why marriage is so sacred: we have each other to pull through, just as Angie would now have Matthew.

 


Angie’s almost fifty years old and she has two beautiful children of her own, Tom and Malcolm. It doesn’t end there; my grandsons have three young children between them: Liza, Mia, and Bella. It is a constant source of joy to know that both Tina and I lived to see that happen, but it’s also a constant reminder of just how old I am. My baby is a grandmother, and it still just boggles my mind. But that doesn’t change anything. She will always be my babycakes, nothing more and nothing less.

I turn to the next page and can’t help the chuckle that causes me to start coughing. My lungs are weak and, in essence, my body is failing me. There’s just nothing the doctors can do. Besides, I want to be in my home, in my bed, a place full of memories and reminders of a happy and fulfilled life… of Tina. I’m not in pain; I’m just so very tired, and the coughing fits make me feel so drained.

I finally get control of my lungs and sip some of the water from the glass on the nightstand. It soothes my raw throat and I take several shallow breaths as I again gaze down on the photo. I smile as I stroke the surface. God, the look on my face is just… there aren’t words to describe it. But then again, I couldn’t explain all the emotions that I had felt if I wanted to, but I can remember it. My body may be failing, but my mind is as sharp as ever.


Angie giggled, showing off the two new teeth that had finally cut through her gums. It broke my heart to see her in pain, and all of the fevers and crying had scared me a little. We had tried everything in the last week: a trip to the hospital, frozen teething rings, and baby Ora-jel. And while Tina wasn’t looking, I’d slipped just a little whiskey into her bottle one night like daddy used to do for me. Of all the attempts, that seemed to work the best, but it was still touch and go. This day was the first that she’d been feeling better, and I gazed into her wide, hazel eyes as I tickled her until she erupted into delighted squeals.

I took her hands and clapped them in front of my face, hovering over her and talking to her about everything and nothing. Tina was curled up on the chaise in the corner of the room reading a book, but I would randomly hear the shutter of her camera as she tried to snap pictures on the sly. So long as these were for our eyes only, I was okay with it. Someone else seeing them would have just been too undignified.

I was in the habit of doing things very out of character to see my daughter happy. Case in point, at that very moment, I was leaning down to blow a delicate raspberry on my daughter’s tummy and I had no idea why I would do that, but I sure as fuck didn’t want Alice to tease me about it for the rest of my life.

Angie screamed with happiness and I laughed at her as she patted my cheeks excitedly, quietly asking for more. Who was I to deny her? I leaned in again and rumpled her ticklish tummy. She laughed and I looked over to see Tina chuckling with her. I grinned sheepishly. “What? She loves it.”

She put up a placating hand. “Please, by all means, continue. I’m enjoying it myself.”

I squinted my eyes at her, glancing at the camera in her hands with foreboding. She laughed again and lifted the camera, forever documenting my most feral expression, and that’s when it happened. Angie had been getting impatient with my lack of attention and wanted to let me know that it was unacceptable. Her small, innocent voice was strong, loud, and clear as she shouted, “Mama!”

I felt my face fall in shock and looked down at my daughter disbelievingly. She had just spoken her first word and she had just said it to me… she spoke to me… she called me mama. I looked back to Tina to see her smiling and tears gathering in her eyes. “T, did she just…?”

Tina nodded and our impatient daughter did it again, this time emphasizing her point with several pats to my cheek. “Mama!”

God, that was the best thing I’d ever heard. I could feel my eyes get wide with incredulous joy, a grin so wide my ears ached, and tears started to sting my eyes. I looked back to Tina to see her quickly depress the shutter before lowering the camera. She set it aside and came over to us, putting her arm around me and resting her head on my shoulder as we both gazed at our daughter, our hearts bursting to overflowing.


It was an incredible moment, and Tina captured it beautifully. I look at my young face, the expression so full of so many things, and can’t understand why I would care if anyone knew that I was capable of being silly. I guess that it’s one of those things you learn as you get older: be who you are, and be unashamed. So long as you’re doing the right things for the right reasons, other opinions don’t matter at all.

I’m at least thankful that I was able to be silly around Tina. If I hadn’t been, I’d have missed out on so many things with our children, and I wouldn’t be gazing down onto this photo right now, remembering one of the most precious moments in our history together. I grin one last time and put the memory back in its place for safe keeping, anxious to see what else my wife wants to tell me.

The next picture, well… it probably means the most to me. Alice took it, and it pulled me through the very depths of hell. This is the picture I kept with me during my trial. This is the picture that changed my mind about myself. This is the picture helped me to become free in so many ways. It’s a monument to joy but it’s also a monument to justice. It changed lives, some for the better, but some… not so much.


The phone rang and Tina reached over me to take it off of the nightstand. Her voice was sleepy and confused as she answered. “Joyce, hey…?” Pause. “Okay…” Tina squinted into the bright light of my smartphone, finally finding the speakerphone button and pressing it. Her head fell back onto my chest and she mumbled. “Okay, Joyce. It’s on speaker. I think Bette’s awake…”

She tilted her head and gazed up at me, and I furrowed my brows as I took over. “Hey Joyce, it’s three in the morning.” I yawned. “Is everything okay?”

I turned my face, closed my eyes, and buried my nose in the hair at the crown of Tina’s forehead as Joyce began. “I thought you both would want to know, Merle Rothman… she’s dead.”

I blinked a few times as the information tried to stick, but it just wouldn’t. Long moments of silence ensued before an extremely tense Tina broke it. “Joyce, are you sure?”

“Yes.”

My mind finally had something to contribute. “How? What happened?”

“Duffy just called and said that a couple of hours ago, the station received an emergency dispatch. Merle was pushed out of her bedroom window. Her apartment is on the fourteenth floor…” Wow. “…it was Kelly.”

Tina sat up, wide awake. “Is Duffy certain?”

“Yes. Duffy was tailing her, as she promised you, and followed her to Merle’s apartment building. Duffy watched Kelly go inside and, not thinking anything of a meeting given their history, decided to just wait. Merle was pushed from her window. A few minutes later, Kelly came walking out and tried to sneak away. Duffy chased her into the street where they had an altercation and Kelly was arrested. A crowd had formed and several bystanders witnessed the event that transpired between Kelly and Duffy, and heard Kelly admit to killing Duffy’s family. There’s no way she’ll get bail, she’s going to prison for the rest of her life.”

Tina trembled a little bit and I stroked her back soothingly as she asked, “But can’t she just find someone on the outside to come after Bette?”

Joyce’s voice was strong. “No. We’re going to push to have her locked in a max security psych ward. She won’t be allowed to have visitors or use the phone. She’ll literally spend her days in a locked, padded room. Now that Merle’s dead, getting a deputy to follow through with prosecution shouldn’t be difficult.”

Tina still wasn’t convinced. “You’re sure that Bette’s safe?”

“I can have Duffy call you if you want, but I’m sure. There’s no way out of it. She was at the scene of a crime just hours after being released and twenty people heard her confess to another murder. There’s just no way out for her unless she can find a way to skip the country, but she’s already in a holding cell. And, her lawyer has already said he wants to cut a deal with the police to avoid the death penalty. It’ll take some time, but it’s truly over.”

I stroked Tina’s arm and she blew out an anxious breath. I knew that she’d have to see it to feel safe, but we had been doing well despite the worry and I wasn’t going to let it rule our lives. I squeezed her hand and answered Joyce. “Thanks for letting us know, Joyce. Tell Duffy that we’ll be coming down to the station tomorrow.”

“No problem. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

I clicked the phone off and Tina snuggled in closer, her voice soft as she said, “Thank God.”

I kissed her hair. “We’ll confirm in the morning and if Joyce is right, no more worry… agreed?”

She kissed my shoulder before settling down again and sighed pensively as she replied, “Agreed.”

 


I shake my head lightly as I remember the bittersweet justice of that moment. So much had happened, and while I’m thankful that there was an end to checking every corner for a shadowy figure, I just wish that it had been a less tragic end.

Kelly died in that padded room roughly ten years ago, and from what I understand, she had gone catatonic: the lights were on but no one was home. And Corky, well, he was hated into early retirement by Tom, Jamie, and the NO H8 protestors. They made such a fuss about him to the press that he didn’t really have a choice. He died only a few years later of a massive coronary. Not a much better end than Merle and Kelly’s, but a natural one nonetheless.

I gaze down into this photo of me and my young family, and the happiness of it is so contrasting to all of the connotations it holds, but all of that mess was worth it, because these people, my family, are worth anything and everything. I have been blessed. There have been so many of these moments in my life. It has been an incredible journey and I wish that I had opened this album sooner. I don’t know why I couldn’t bring myself to do it, except for the fact that it hurts. I miss my wife, but our story is also immensely satisfying.

I smile as I stroke the surface one last time and turn the page. I’m kneeling and squeezing the very life out of my twins from the bottom of their school steps on their first day of kindergarten. I roll my eyes at myself and shake my head, not the least bit surprised. I had no idea that this picture even existed; Tina had taken so many of them during our life together that it would be impossible to catalog them all, but I’m so glad that she did, and she apparently was sneakier than I gave her credit for. I’m so glad that she documented these moments and made this tribute. I was so lucky to have had her for my wife.

Tears well in my eyes as I gaze in on this loaded moment. Being a parent is exhausting for anyone, but for a control freak, it’s exceptionally difficult. It was so hard for me to send the children that I would die for out into the cruel world alone. And even though, I had already been through this with Angie, this was two at once, and therefore, twice as hard. But, as always, I had the love of a patient and understanding wife to help me through it, and the knowledge that they had each other in the same capacity.


The line leading up to the front doors of the Larchmont Charter School was a slow crawl. I was tapping the steering wheel nervously and I kept glancing into the backseat through the rear-view mirror. Chance was bouncing excitedly in his seat and Rory looked how I felt – sick to her stomach. I glanced over at Tina. “You packed one of the organic yogurts for each of them, right?”

She turned and smiled patiently. “Yes, Bette.”

I nodded and blew out a breath, letting off the brakes and moving a few inches forward. “Oh, did you grab the medical records off of the counter?”

“Yes, Mrs. Albertson will be in front of the school to walk Chance and Rory in, just like you requested. I’ll give them to her then.”

I nodded and gripped the steering wheel tightly as we moved a few more inches forward, worry knotted in the pit of my stomach. We’d missed something, had forgotten something, or were unprepared in some innocuous way; I could feel it. My voice was louder than intended as I nearly shouted, “I forgot their nap mats!”

Tina reached a hand over to pry one of my own from the steering wheel and I sighed as she linked our fingers over the arm rest. “It’s okay, babe. They’re in the back. I’ll give those to Mrs. Albertson when we get there as well.”

I let out a frustrated breath and moved forward a little more, the front of the school now looming in sight. I hated this. “We should home school, T.”

She laughed and squeezed my hand. “Bette, this is one of the best private schools in the area. Just like Angie, they’re going to be just fine here.”

“But think about it, T. There’s nothing they can learn here that I couldn’t tutor them in. I could have them doing college level algebra in just a few years, and we could focus on the arts–”

“Bette…” I looked over at her hesitantly. “They need to socialize and interact with other adults and kids their own age. We can’t give them that from home.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I jumped as the car behind us honked. With a deep sigh, I faced forward and travelled the last remaining feet, pulling up to the curb, and putting the car in park. Just as promised, a smiling Mrs. Albertson was standing there waiting for us. The interruption stopped the tears and I took a deep breath as I reluctantly opened my door.

Tina pulled me to a stop and I turned back to her gentle eyes. She stroked the haphazard curls from my forehead, her voice warm as she said, “I know you’re worried, babe… but we’re doing the right thing for them.” I smiled as best I could and Tina squeezed my hand one last time before we stepped out of the car and helped our children onto the curb.

Rory hid behind my leg and Chance tried to run right for the doors, but Mrs. Albertson stopped him. “Hold on a minute, Chance. Let’s talk to your moms first, okay?”

Chance sighed and nodded, moping back up to me as Rory pushed her glasses up on her nose and peered around my leg at the entrance with as much foreboding as I felt. I stroked her wavy chestnut hair and she glanced up at me. Her worried face broke my heart. Tina was right though, especially with Rory. She was such a shy child. She needed to learn how to interact with her peers, and I couldn’t give that to her. I was just so afraid for them. Kids can be so cruel, and I’d do anything to protect these babies. They’re just babies… my babies. And that’s why I needed to be strong for them.

I half-listened to Tina’s conversation with Mrs. Albertson as she provided the records and mats, and crouched down in front of my children, pulling them together in front of me. I swallowed around the lump in my throat as I gazed at them. “This is a big day, huh guys?”

Chance nodded, an eager grin splitting his face, and Rory lowered her head, a pathetic, “Yeah,” escaping her quiet voice.

I sucked up my emotions and smiled brighter than I felt as I smoothed down Chance’s unruly cowlick and gently lifted Rory’s chin until I could see her worried eyes. “You know it’s okay to be scared–”

Chance piped in bravely. “I’m not scared at all, Mama B!”

I grinned and nudged him. “I know, little man. And that’s why I’m counting on you to look out for your sister.”

He looked over at Rory and I watched as realization dawned on his young face. He slung his arm over her shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Roar-ery. I’ll be there, too.”

My heart nearly burst as I watched her smile at her brother, some of the anxiety lifting from her thin shoulders. I pulled them both in for a crushing hug, and sent a prayer out into the ether that someone, something, would protect them while they were away from me.

               


My poor, shy baby girl. Chance made good on his word that day, and has continued to do so unfailingly. I flip the page, anxious to see what more my wife has to tell me, and find that her thoughts seem to mirror my own at this moment. There, on the page, are my three children. Chance is between his sisters, his arm perched proudly around both of their shoulders, much like it was on his first day of kindergarten. No matter how big they get, they’re still just my babies. He and Rory are both dressed in their college graduation gowns, and I realize that not only did Chance fulfil the promise he made to Rory all those years ago, but the three of them would always love and protect each other every step of the way. Even now that Tina’s gone, and even when I’m gone.


I gripped Tina’s hand tightly as we made our way through the mass of black, royal blue, and gold-adorned bodies. From the look of it, we weren’t the only lost parents trying to find our children in this crowd. I pulled Tina with me towards the wall in the reception area, and I used my height advantage to scan the crowd. It took several minutes before I saw another taller-than-normal head peeking over the top, unruly blond hair poking out from beneath a black cap. He was talking animatedly with someone, a boyish grin on his handsome face, and I felt my heart swell with pride. Yes, that was my son, the college graduate.

I tugged at Tina and she pulled in close behind me as I led her back through the sea of people and came up behind Chance. He and Rory were talking to some friends, so we decided to wait unobtrusively until they were done. Rory would have none of that though. The minute she spied us through her glasses, she grinned a grin so much like Tina’s and shouted, “Moms!”

The group turned to us and before I knew it, my arms were full of my beautiful daughter. She clutched me tightly, her wavy chestnut hair smelling of lavender. Both of them were brimming with excitement and I laughed as Chance swooped Tina up in his arms, the toes of her heels barely scuffing the floor. After a few moments they both pulled back and Chance slung his arm around Rory’s shoulders as he said, “We looked everywhere for you. I was beginning to worry that you’d ditched us to get out of doing my laundry.”

We chuckled and Rory cut in. “Or maybe you’d started repurposing my room into…” Tina snapped a picture as if on cue, and Rory gestured to the item sardonically. “…a darkroom.”

Tina lowered the device and glared at our daughter seriously. “I’d never do that.” She paused for a moment. “I was thinking something along the lines of a home gym. I’m getting a little soft around the middle in my old age.”

Chance laughed at Rory’s indignant huff, and I brushed the honey-hued hair from Tina’s shoulder, the florescent lights highlighting silver strands at her temples as I gazed deep into the eyes that turned to lock onto mine. “You’re as beautiful now as you’ve ever been.”

She raised a delicate eyebrow and took my hand, kissing the knuckles. “So are you.”

I heard my children groan, and smiled as Chance broke the moment. “Well, on that note, we’re going to an after party.”

I looked around and asked. “Where’s Angie?”

Rory smiled. “She went to find Matt.” I rolled my eyes and Chance grinned at me. I wasn’t ready for how serious Angie and Matthew were becoming, but I didn’t have much say in the matter. I had been trying to scare him away, but it just wasn’t working. It was hard to push away someone who had been a part of my family for several years, especially when I had made it clear that his penchant for running was unacceptable. I looked to see Tina raising an eyebrow at me and sighed. It was especially hard when I was outnumbered.

Chance’s deep voice broke through my thoughts. “Speak of the devil…”

I turned to see Angie stride up holding Matthew’s hand. She held onto him until the last moment before letting go and hugging her siblings. I gazed hard at him, unwavering in my disapproval. He smiled despite my frosty demeanor, his voice polite as he said, “It’s nice to see you both.”

I watched Tina smile and start to chatter with him, holding my hand in silent communion. She loved him, but then she had a healthy grasp on our children. Mine was more of a desperate clutch. Angie met my eyes, smiling smugly in her conviction that an orphan and community college graduate who fixes cars for a living and has a penchant for running away, was worthy of an undergrad who would someday own and operate the Porter-Kennard gallery, let alone the fact that she was my daughter. I just couldn’t help it. No one, not even a good person, would ever be worthy of her.

She shook her head and came forward to hug me, and of course, I accepted it gratefully. We had gone round and round about him, and it was with exasperated pride that I had to concede. How could I fight her when he was part of our family? How could I fight her when her stance was one that I knew all too well: ‘You love who you love, mom. It shouldn’t matter that he’s an orphan, or that he made a mistake when he was younger, or what he does for a living, or how well-educated he is… any more than it should matter that you and Mama T are both women.’

Yes, the conversation was over at that point. I lost, and rightly so. My elitism was nothing more or less than a diluted form of bigotry. And while I did feel that way, ultimately it was a smoke screen for the real issue. Yes, I wanted the very best for her. I didn’t hate Matthew, he just wasn’t the best. But I was still learning the hard way that the best for her was to get swept away, to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish. And as much as I hated to admit it, I could tell that they were falling head over heels. He loved her like crazy and she loved him the same way. It didn’t make it any less difficult to swallow and I’d never love her any less regardless, but despite how much I wanted that for her… I just didn’t want to lose her and I didn’t want her to get hurt. Matthew was just too volatile, and I was so scared for her.

She pulled back, smiling and I winked to spite myself. She returned to her brother and sister and Tina grouped them together to take one more picture… our babies, all grown up. Chance’s deep voice was loud as he exclaimed, “Well, I think it’s time to go celebrate.”

I adopted the best feral expression in my arsenal and pointed at him in warning. He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, chuckling as he said, “I know, I know! We’ll stick together and be careful.” His voice was genuine and there was conviction in his soulful eyes despite his coy smile. I knew that what he said was true, and the three of them hugged us one last time before they broke away to meet up with their friends who had been waiting patiently. I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and we watched with solemn hearts as our babies disappeared into the crowd… and into the world.

 


It’s incredible. These children, born of mine and Tina’s love, are now successful adults, individuals, but bound together by an immensely heavy thread of commonality: their love for one another. It’s visible and I am so proud of each of them.

Rory went on to marry a very sweet girl, a girl she met when she was just three years old, when her Aunt Alice and Aunt Dana brought their daughter home for the first time, a little girl named Melissa. Rory and Melissa grew up as best friends, so becoming lovers was a gradual progression.

It was beautiful to witness, because while they did experience bigotry from the outside, they didn’t have that awkward coming out or nervousness that comes with falling in love with someone who wouldn’t understand. They are two people who can honestly say they’ve loved each other their whole lives. They were inseparable as children, and now, they’re both still as bonded – partners in life, doting parents, and joint owners of a private pediatric practice that specializes in low-income families.

Melissa was a few years behind Rory, but she became a psychologist; and Rory became a pediatrician.  Together they have devoted their lives to each other, to their two adopted daughters, Leah and Sarah, and to the less fortunate as a whole. All of the elitist notions I was clinging to with Angie died with Rory, and I’m proud of her for pursuing a simple life with a simple goal: to give back.

Chance… Chance had me and Tina scared out of our minds for a long time. After college he joined the marines. How could I support that? Well, neither Tina nor I did support that decision, but he was determined and an adult, and no matter what he was our son. So, we lived with it and supported him in spite of it.

He served under the failed leadership of a failed government, but by some miracle, after many anxious nights, Chance came home. He was injured, and while we were desperately happy to have him, he didn’t actually come home; he was… changed.

He had been shot, and while that wound healed, his mind suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s when I realized that no one politician, Republican or Democrat, was better than the other. My son and all of the men and women that fight for our nation, they are just being used, and what’s worse is that the government doesn’t provide the medical care they need and earn. Fortunately for us, we had two medical doctors in the family.

It took years, but he’s healthy, both in body and spirit. I don’t believe that he’ll ever not be haunted by what he saw or was forced to do, but by some miracle he found love, married a beautiful girl named Julia, and together they had a son, Michael.

He’s never had the heart to express what he was going through to me or Tina at length, but we held him many nights when he’d wake from a night terror. Whatever it was, he found a way through it. And despite my bitterness at the situation, I grew to be very proud of him. It must have taken so much to really come home, but he eventually did.

I flip the page, hoping to move forward and dispel these memories. They’re important, but they’re in the past, and that’s where I want them to be. Tears gather in my eyes as I gaze in on the image of my son dressed in scrubs and cradling his newborn as my younger self wipes the tears from his handsome face. His smile is huge and genuine and my wife captured it perfectly, as is her way. That’s the day he really came home. Our son became a father that night, and I send out a thank you to my wife for reminding me of this perfect moment of healing for Chance, at the most perfect time for me.


Tina nestled her head further into my shoulder. The uncomfortable seats in the hospital waiting room where we had been anxiously waiting for the last three hours, might as well have been concrete slabs. My back was killing me and I knew that Tina’s must have been killing her as well. We were getting too old for this. Angie was curled up against my other side and I glanced over at Julia’s parents… the homophobes.

They hated that Julia had married our son. To them, he was the product of a biracial abomination, just like the rest of our children. It was that mindset, the only thing, that would cause me feel regret for choosing to have my children. Chance didn’t choose the family he was born into, and yet Julia’s parents would take their hatred of us out on him. They refused to allow us all to spend holidays together, and so, Chance and his family alternated them. I never wanted anything to do with them after that, but every Thanksgiving and every Christmas, despite knowing that it would be declined, they’d receive a formal invitation from my wife.

That was one of the many reasons I loved Tina so much: despite what people thought, she would make sure that we rose above it. If they were going to be angry and hateful, all of the responsibility for that negativity would rest on their heads alone. However, I was not as gracious, choosing instead to keep my mouth shut for the sake of my wife and my son… and now, my grandson.

As if on cue, Chance stepped quietly into the room, covered head to toe in surgical sheeting and fabric, his eyes swollen and red-rimmed from the tears of joy still leaking from them, and held a tiny swaddled baby who slept peacefully in his arms. We all stood and I gazed at my son curiously. He seemed… different, better, himself.

He smiled at me, his handsome face shining with more life than I’d seen in his eyes for so long, and I wanted to take him in my arms and cradle him. We all made our way forward as we gathered around him, and he held his son out to us. In much the same manner that I had introduced Angelica, he said, “This is my son…” He met my eyes and then Tina’s. “…your grandson, Michael.”

I heard the shutter of Tina’s camera and couldn’t stop myself from stepping forward and kissing my grandson’s cheek. He smelled of innocence and new life and I gazed up into the eyes of the grown man that I had held this same way, stroking his scruffy cheek as I let him know something that had been weighing heavily on my heart, something that I hadn’t said because I was so scared for him. “Welcome home.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek, and I finished my thought as I gazed into his happy face. “I’m so proud of you.”

He nodded his head with loving understanding as a few more tears ran down his cheeks, and I reached up to stroke them away as I had done so many times in his life. His soulful, dark eyes met my own, the healing of new life shining out from his soul as he said, “Thank you, mom. It feels good.”

Tina snapped another picture before stepping forward to take her own fulfillment. I could tell Julia’s parents were getting frustrated, having been ignored completely, but I couldn’t find the will to care. This little boy was handsome, just like his father, and not accepting his father was the same as not accepting him. Tina, being true to her nature, did care. She kissed Michael and then Chance, her voice warm as she said, “He’s perfect, Chance.” Once she’d had her moment, she invited the other grandparents in.

I was so grateful that she did, because in that moment, for the first time, I saw them view Chance in a new light… and maybe even us. They didn’t flinch at our close proximity, and I saw that they were capable of love as they hugged my son and finally welcomed him, just as they were welcoming their first grandbaby. He let them hold Michael, and while I wanted to begrudge them first dibs, I didn’t want to begrudge my son this healing in his own family.

Tina and I stepped away and watched as Angelica said something quietly to Chance that made him laugh. He kissed her cheek, adoring his big sister just like he had as a child, before he looked to Julia’s parents. Chance’s warm voice spoke softly. “Rory and Lissa are taking care of Julia. They’ll be out soon and then we can all go see her.”

Julia’s parents sniggered at the mention of Rory and Melissa’s names before focusing on the egitimate worry. “Is she okay?”

Chance smiled. “Yes. She’s beautiful. They’re just stitching up the episiotomy. They said she’d be done and moved to recovery in about forty-five minutes.”

Julia’s parents released a relieved breath and Chance retrieved Michael before stepping up to me and Tina. His face was bright with satisfaction as he placed Michael in Tina’s arms for the first time. Chance stepped away and slung his arm around Angie’s shoulders, and I cradled both my wife and my grandson in my own arms as I gazed into the face of perfection… my family, my legacy.

 


I have seen and endured some truly terrible things in my life, but as a result I have witnessed some incredible healing as well. It comes in all forms on both sides of the equation, but just like my son, if you can find the strength to move forward through it, you will find the strength to recover.

I stroke the image of his handsome face one last time and turn the page. The next photo only reaffirms my thoughts and solidifies the strength of my conviction. Tom has his arm around my son-in-law’s shoulders. Matthew was thirteen when Tom had adopted him, and he was eighteen in this photo. In those five short years with Tom, Matthew had learned what it meant to have a family and to be loved, something his young life had been so completely devoid of. And Tom, he learned what it meant to be a part of a family, to be a parent, an uncle, and a brother. They were good for each other, and while exasperating at times, they were good for us. It was just a hard road to get there.


 

I turned away from Tina groggily, the pounding on the front door downstairs getting louder and more forceful. Tina stirred next to me, her sleepy voice asking, “Who is it?”

I rolled my eyes and chuckled at her as I got to my feet, put on my robe, and handed hers to her. My voice was sardonic as I replied, “I’m not sure yet. I have to answer the door first.”

She yawned and slipped her robe on, smiling at me apologetically. “Sorry, I’m not firing on all cylinders yet. It’s early, but I’ll start some coffee. Whoever that is, it sounds like they won’t be leaving for a while.”

The hammering was becoming frantic, interspersed with spasmodic shudders of the doorbell, and we stumbled down the stairs, followed by two disheveled, fourteen year-old twins who had been woken far too early. I watched as Angie peeked out the window and hastened to unlock the door. Her voice was excited as she exclaimed, “Matt!”

We pulled up behind her and I felt myself become exceedingly irritated. Matthew not only kept trying to date my seventeen-year-old daughter, but he wanted to wake up my family at six am on a Saturday by knocking the door down? One of those was never going to happen, and neither of them was acceptable. Just as I was about to make that very clear, the look on his face, the tears in his eyes… they stopped me. Something was very wrong.

Angie pulled him inside and I watched worriedly as he buried his face in her neck and sobbed. I’d known him since he was adopted into our family five years ago. I never hated him or begrudged him anything until he set his sights on Angie. I felt sorry for him. I knew of his past… what he went through as a child was terrible, but not once, despite all his abuse and loneliness, had I seen him cry. No, he just ran away when things were too hard for him.

Tina and Angie got him to the sectional where he collapsed and put his head in his hands, Angie next to him and stroking his back. The sobbing wasn’t stopping and I looked over at Tina. The worry in her eyes broke my heart, because ultimately, there’s only one thing that would explain this. I approached him, sat on his vacant side, and hesitantly put my hand on his back to ask, “Matthew, what’s happened?”

He slumped over to me and gripped me tightly around the waist. I held him awkwardly, feeling like a wretch. It was getting exhausting putting him off. I looked to Tina for help and she rounded up our children, even Angie who protested but lost. Once the room was cleared, Tina got to her knees in front of us and pulled Matthew to her, meeting my eyes over his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Tina… I’m so sorry…” She stroked his hair soothingly, a distant look of pain settling in her eyes as she braced. She knew, we both did, but his next words confirmed it. “It’s… it’s Tom… he’s dead…”

I closed my eyes against the anguish on her face and the pain blooming to life in my own stomach. When I reopened them, the site of my wife breaking down with him was just too much. I put my arms around them both, trying to… I didn’t even know what. I didn’t even believe him yet. I couldn’t. “Matthew, what happened?”

He was trembling, but at least he was starting to calm down. Tina was inconsolable as he related what happened, and all I could do was hold her and listen. “We were supposed to go fishing early this morning. When he didn’t get up… I-I just thought he decided to sleep in, so I started to make us breakfast. When it was ready, he still hadn’t come out, so I went to get him. He-he was cold…” He started to cry piteously again. “I called 9-1-1 and some people came. They don’t know why… but said something about a heart attack.”

I felt sick and Tina gripped me tighter as I put my hand on his shoulder. “Why didn’t you call us?”

He scrubbed at his face. “I didn’t know what to do… I wasn’t… thinking. I just started running and wound up here… I’m so sorry…”

Tina finally calmed down enough to take him in her arms again, and I looked on, tears streaming down my own cheeks as helplessness set in. Tom was almost fifty-five years old, but that was too young… Tina and I weren’t much younger… and I hadn’t realized it then, but I loved Tom. I had forgiven him, and now it was too late to tell him. Tina’s voice was gentle as it broke through my troubled thoughts. “Matt, it’s okay…”

He locked shattered, green eyes on her, searching her face as he asked, “It’s me… isn’t it?”

Tina and I both chorused an incredulous, “What?!”

I shook my head at him. “Matthew, this isn’t your fault.”

He snorted bitterly. “Right. My parents tried to kill me, my adopted parents died in a car wreck, Tom’s dead, and you… you–” His anguish dissipated into something calm, too calm, and he stood abruptly. “I have to go.”

He tried to make his way to the door but I managed to pull away from Tina and stop him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

He wouldn’t meet my eyes as he tugged away. “There’s nothing for me here anymore.”

I eyed him with repulsion. This is what I was afraid of. “So that’s it then. Now that Tom’s dead no one else matters.”

His eyes were cold as he finally looked at me. “You hate me, Bette.”

I sighed. “Matthew, that’s absurd. I don’t hate you; I hate the way you look at my daughter, and this is precisely why.”

He shrugged. “Then what do you care? I leave and you’re happy. I won’t see her anymore.”

Tina came up to my side, radiating anger. Whether it was at me or him, I couldn’t tell. I sighed, relieved, when she addressed him. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“I’m eighteen. You can’t stop me and the police won’t care.”

Tina stepped forward and touched his arm. “I care.”

His eyes softened. “And that’s why I have to go.”

I couldn’t help the ire that flushed through my system. He was so much like Tom – run away and use your past as an excuse to bow out when things get hard. “So you just want to disappear when it gets hard. We all took you in, Matthew, not just Tom. I may not trust you, for precisely this reason, but I’ve never been hateful to you. When are you going to stop running? Fuck, you ran away from Tom too…”

Tina gave me a look so scathing that I was surprised I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt. I swallowed my anger as she addressed him. “You don’t have anywhere to go, Matt.”

“Like I said, I’m eighteen. I still have my job. I can support myself. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Or you can stay with us.”

My eyes opened so wide they nearly fell out of my head, followed by an uncontrollable, “WHAT?” spilling from my lips.

I received another scathing look and pinched the bridge of my nose against the headache pounding to life in my skull. She couldn’t be serious. I didn’t see it, but I heard it, the door slammed shut behind him and I was left with his mess… his and Tom’s. I tried to take Tina in my arms, but she wouldn’t let me. “Bette, we’ll talk about this later. We have damage control to do, and being angry at you in the middle of all of this isn’t helping anything.”

Her eyes were still wet and she was shaking, but I didn’t know how to help her, and I shouldn’t have said that to him, at least not like this, with Tom… dead. I swallowed hard, tears of pain replacing anger. Tina saw my face and her own tears returned as she pulled me to her and tucked her head under my chin. I felt immensely better as she whispered, “I’m sorry. I just wish you hadn’t said that to him right now. I know he’s messed up and that he likes Angie, but he’s had a hard life and he needs our help. Why do you dislike him so much?”

I exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry, T. I just don’t trust him, and that’s why. I mean, he just took off… just like Tom.”

“Tom hasn’t… didn’t… do that again. Matthew’s not beyond learning either, babe.”

I held her tighter as we both cried for several minutes. I released a shuddering breath. “I know, but it took several years for me to trust Tom. I’m sorry, I just don’t want to see Angie get hurt. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, T. And I’m so sorry that you lost Tom…”

I buried my face in her shoulder, shedding more of my own tears. This was so messed up. We stayed that way until we eventually cried ourselves out and she released me. My shattered heart evaporated when I turned to see Angie sitting at the breakfast bar, looking utterly destroyed. She’d heard everything, and I couldn’t fix any of it for her. She lost her uncle and her first love in one fell swoop. At seventeen, it’s always worse. Tina met my gaze and stroked my face, reminding me that we could and would get through any and everything. “You get the twins and bring them in here. I have no idea how to tell them, but I guess we have to. And then…” I kissed her forehead, closing my eyes and breathing her in. She didn’t finish and she didn’t need to. I held onto her hand until the last minute before going to retrieve my children from the back patio. I heard Tina and Angie start sobbing together and decided to take some extra time before returning.

               


We buried Tom near the memorial for our first son, the same place that Tina is resting now, and the same place I will rest soon. We didn’t hear from Matthew again until two years later. He’d obtained his GED and graduated from Los Angeles Pierce College with an Associate Degree in Automotive Technology. Given how young he was and how little he had, it was an impressive feat. I was mostly surprised that he’d finished what he started. He came to manage the shop he worked at, and eventually bought it when the owner retired. He’s been an excellent provider, a superb husband, and fantastic father. It took a long time for me to trust him, and as much as what I said to him that day was inappropriate in its timing, he later thanked me.

Angie had been crushed, of course. Your first is always the hardest. I laugh as I remember her reaction to his reappearance. She had just started college and she put him through hell, dating everyone but him while stringing him along. I wouldn’t normally condone that kind of behavior, but he needed to learn and she was an excellent teacher. However, just like Tom, his change was legitimate; he just wouldn’t go away. His persistence paid off. They’ve been married nearly thirty-four years, and they’ve given me some of the most beautiful grandchildren I could have ever hoped for.

I still miss Tom, especially because of Angie and Matthew. He’d have been so proud of them, and I wish that I’d have realized how important he was to me before it was too late. It’s strange, and I was indeed too late in realizing it, but I really did love him… do love him, but I know that he loved me as well. This is one instance where a second chance just wasn’t available, and I didn’t get it right the first time around. That’s the unfortunate truth of life. There are no mulligans, not really.

I sigh, my eyes feeling weary and my lungs overworked, but I still have a ways to go, and I just don’t think that I could sleep right now. I feel… anxious. Like I’m waiting for something and I have no idea what it is. I rub my eyes, take another sip of water, and turn the page. Wow… I’ve never seen this picture. It’s beautiful, and as I realize what it is, when it was taken, I smile at what was as incredible as it was unexpected. Helena and Duffy’s wedding. That’s right, the stoic police Chief, Marybeth Duffy, and her bride, Helena Peabody, the heiress of the Peabody fortune… married.

My wife, the artist, finding meaning in even the most insignificant moments, if you can consider life and healing insignificant, captured the newlyweds reclined together on a wide Adirondack chair, next to the shores of Lake Tahoma. Tina and I were seated behind them as fireworks went off in the sky over the still waters in front of us, and they, like us, stole kisses in the darkness. This picture… it’s incredible. I’d have hung it in the gallery if I’d have been aware of its existence. The fireworks are brilliantly captured, both above the water and on the shore, the silhouette of two lovers embraced in their fiery glow.

I didn’t think Helena would ever grow to trust someone, at least not until a very exceptional someone came along. As it turns out, Duffy was that someone. She was very wealthy, due to her wife’s life insurance policy. Duffy didn’t want the money, and was prepared to give it to charity, but she changed her mind and devoted it to catching her family’s killer instead. Once she had done that, she still wasn’t free. That kind of pain just doesn’t go away, but that closure gave her a place from which to start over. Who knew that fresh start would be one of my closest and most valued friends?

Helena was pretty destroyed after Dylan broke it off with her, and Dylan didn’t earn any points when we saw that she had been dating Jodi Foster, and a slew of other wealthy women after Helena. She seemed to be drawn to wealth, and that’s perhaps the very reason that Helena didn’t trust her. Duffy, though, Duffy had her own money. It wasn’t as much as Helena’s obviously, but still enough not to need any more. And I think that fact comforted Helena and made her feel like a real person to Duffy, not just an inanimate object that satisfies desires.

Theirs wasn’t a relationship that sparked to life like a wildfire; it was a slow build from trusting friendship to trusting romance. It was, quite honestly, the way it should be. But of course, they had been dancing around it and denying it. I smile as I remember the day at the Planet when they first took the leap, with a little help from a friend… or several.


Tina and I pulled into the Planet parking lot. The kids had already been dropped off at school and we were both craving a latte. I stepped out of the Lexus and waited for her near the hood. She smiled as she approached me, and like magnets, our hands linked as we began our trek across the lot and through the doors. Kit nodded at us and gestured to the table in the back. I smiled at her and we continued through the café, confident that our caffeine fix was coming. I held out a chair for my wife, who smirked at me but took her seat. Yes, I still felt chivalrous, and if Tina scooting her chair closer to me was any indication, she still liked it.

I settled in next to her and noticed that everyone was very quiet, too quiet. I looked from face to face, brows furrowed in curiosity. Duffy was texting, her fingers flying furiously over her smartphone’s screen; Shane was reading her LAWEEKLY and sipping her espresso; Carmen was reading over Shane’s shoulder and sipping from her cup of coffee as she stole surreptitious glances at Duffy and Helena; Alice was working on her laptop, stopping intermittently to glance at Helena and Duffy before shaking her head and continuing; Dana was obliviously focused on downing a smoothie and a plate of fresh fruit as if she’d never eat again; Jamie and Tom were eyeing Helena and Duffy and whispering to each other; Tasha was reading some sort of police manual and eating a burrito, still aware enough to chortle at Jamie and Tom’s whispers; Helena was playing with a straw wrapper and staring at her phone anxiously; Malcolm and Ming were trying to play it coy but kept glancing at Helena and Duffy as they looked after their two daughters. Why is everyone looking at Helena and Duffy?

I watched as Helena grabbed her phone before it even buzzed, and smiled sweetly into the screen before typing a reply. I looked back to Duffy who was nonchalantly scanning the crowd in the room. Her phone vibrated and with controlled precision, she started typing a reply of her own. They’re texting at the table now? For fuck’s sake. I rolled my eyes and it went on this way several more minutes before Kit delivered my and Tina’s coffees. She squeezed my shoulder in greeting and I smiled up at her in thanks just to see her shake her head at Helena and Duffy before walking away.

I glanced over at Tina to see her silently feigning ignorance, just like everyone else, as she leaned back in her seat and sipped. This was getting ridiculous. If they were going to keep their relationship under wraps, fine; but did we all have to be so quiet and awkward?

I shook my head and took a sip from my own cup, nearly dumping it in my lap when a foot banged into my shin from beneath the table. I gave Alice a murderous gaze only to see her having some sort of seizure. She kept it up, her winking and glancing becoming more and more dramatic, and I realized she was trying to tell me something. I watched with furrowed brows as this went on for several more minutes, but I didn’t speak in Tourette tics. I shook my head and shrugged, at a total loss with her. I heard Tina chuckle under her breath and glanced over at her. She was smirking smugly and I folded my arms over my chest, whispering, “If you think you can figure it out…” I gestured to Alice demurely. “…then by all means.”

Tina winked at me and said, “I got this.” She nodded at Alice who collapsed back in her seat breathing heavily.

It happened fast, faster than I could get my coffee cup to my lips, and I watched in shock as, in a seemingly choreographed move, Tina snatched Helena’s phone and Alice did the same with Duffy’s. There was a riot of protest from the two individuals, and everyone was finally forced to liven up. I was concerned for Alice’s health and well-being when Duffy stood with an air of menace surrounding her, dropped her cloth napkin on the table, and held out her hand in quiet demand. Alice ignored her and scanned the messages, keeping a ten foot distance at all times. Tina and Helena were standing as well. Tina had turned her back and was reading quickly as Helena grasped around her from behind as if she was checking a point guard.

Duffy, indignant at her threat being ignored, upped the ante and pulled a set of handcuffs from her hip, dangling them at Alice. Alice eyed the steel and settled all her weight on one foot, glaring at Duffy with a bored expression as she said, “Don’t threaten me with a good time, Chief. I’m too much for you.”

Everyone laughed, Duffy included, at least before she caught herself. She made a desperate grab for her phone and Alice squealed in surprise as she threw the device to me. Duffy pinned me with her blue eyes and I sighed, glancing down at the phone I’d caught on reflex. I saw some of the text on the screen and my mouth dropped open as I pulled it closer and read the most recent reply. Duffy must have been mortified. Apparently, her favorite color was pink, especially pink lingerie. I clicked the sleep mode on the phone and stood, taking the other phone from my wife and ending her struggle.

I returned the phones to their owners, and retook my seat. Everyone was laughing, and once the offenders had resettled, Alice looked me right in the eyes and said, “Traitor.”

I glared at her and then my wife. “What they talk about in private isn’t our business.” Alice rolled her eyes and Tina raised an incredulous eyebrow at me, knowing I’d read the same information. Helena called out a, “Hear, hear!”

I smirked and addressed her and Duffy. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t sympathize with either of you. This is ridiculous. You’re about to implode and it’s going to be messy. Why don’t you just save us all the trouble and date openly?”

I sipped my coffee as they both protested in unison, “We aren’t dating.”

Duffy shook her head, a slight blush creeping up her neck and Helena furthered the point. “We’re just good friends.”

I set my coffee down, propped my elbows on the table, folded my fingers, and rested my chin on them. I stared at them disbelievingly for long moments, but they wouldn’t budge. My gaze didn’t leave Duffy’s as I spoke to Alice. “Al, how long have we been friends?”

Alice crossed her arms over her chest and grinned. “Almost twenty years.”

“We dated for six weeks, right?”

Alice nodded, drawling out, “Yup,” the ‘p’ sound popping off of her lips.

“Did we ever discuss how much I enjoyed the color of your–”

Duffy interrupted, lifting a frantic hand. “Okay, okay.” She turned to Helena. “Helena, are you free this Saturday?”

Helena stammered. “Well, yes…”

Duffy leaned back in her seat. “I’ll pick you up at seven?”

Helena nodded hesitantly. “Alright…”

I leaned back in my own seat, sipping my coffee and sighing. No matter how old we got, we were all apparently still juveniles. Tina put her hand on my thigh, stroking it suggestively as she leaned in to me. “How about you… are you free this Saturday?”

I pretended to consider her proposal for a moment. God, how I loved her. I nodded slowly. “For you… I suppose I could free up my schedule.”

“I’ll pick you up at seven, and…” She leaned in close to my ear, her hot breath sending a jolt down my spine. “…I’ll wear that pink, lacy set you like so much.” She pulled back and I grinned lasciviously at her. Sometimes, it was good to be young.


I can’t help but smile. Our friends and family have come so far. It’s crazy and beautiful in its simplicity.  Duffy and Helena went on to adopt three children in the course of their marriage. Everyone had their own happy ending in their own way, and that’s the point to life, finding your own way.

I turn the page and my heart falls into my toes. God, it’s been so long since I’ve seen Dana. This picture though, it shows her at her most alive, most joyous, her toothy smile and crinkled nose offset by the gleam of happy tears in her eyes as she holds Alice and their newborn baby girl for the first time. I never thought I’d see the two of them get married and start a family of their own, but it happened. They were together for thirty-three years, and they had a wonderful daughter… my own daughter-in-law, Melissa. And just like those unbelievable occurrences, other things that I never thought would happen, happened…


Tina and I stepped out of the elevator and I took a huge breath. I hated hospitals, at least in this capacity. Tina’s hand was warm in mine as we made our way down the sterile, too-bright hallway, the bustling noise of busy staff, the heavy smell of disinfectant, and the eerie tempos of monitored heartbeats ringing around us as we moved passed each room. The atmosphere was heavy and we were bracing ourselves as we drew closer to the corner that would lead us down one more hall to Dana’s room. Tina and I glanced at each other when we heard a strange, high-pitched voice in the distance start to sing, ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ followed by a mournful wail that stopped the very blood in my veins. Our movement halted for a moment as that wail pierced right through us, nailing our feet to the linoleum. I turned to Tina. “That’s Alice…”

Her returning gaze was wrought with worry and we both sped up, rounding the corner only to stop again. There on the floor, against the wall outside of Dana’s room, was her wife and my best friend. She was weeping and writhing with a pain I knew all too well; it was the same pain that I had felt when Tina died in the hospital, and I expressed it in much the same way. The electronic sunflower next to her was singing its grossly happy tune and I felt my heart break as I rushed over to her, got down on my knees, and took her in my arms. She was limp as she cried, “NO!” through her shuddering sobs, but I held tight, unable and unwilling to leave her alone in this moment.

“No…” She finally realized that she wasn’t alone, and clung to me so tightly that I was scared she’d break her fingers as she fell apart. I couldn’t help but grieve for her, with her, knots of pain twisting through my stomach and heart. I didn’t need to look through the window above us as Tina was doing. Alice’s mournful sobs and desperate grip, Tina’s destroyed and disbelieving face… they were all the indicators I needed. My friend, my sister, a woman who taught me so much in this life, who I watched grow and fight with all her heart, was gone – claimed by the reoccurrence of the very disease we’d all thought she’d bested. And not only was I too late in my arrival, my presence wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. She was gone… just gone.

As I held her wife, shock and grief ripping through me, I called out to her from the very depths of my soul to let her know that I’d take care of her family, because they were my family… she was my family. I told her how much I loved her and how I’d miss her. I thanked her for being my sister and for giving me my daughter-in-law. I would miss her forever, and part of me knew that she heard me.

It didn’t make it any easier, especially when Melissa and Rory rounded that same corner behind us, and I watched as my daughter took Melissa in her arms to console her as best she could. Rory’s tear-stained eyes met my own as Tina went to them, and I could see the very same thoughts racing through her mind. How do you possibly console something so inconsolable? There are no words, or tender touches, or vows of peace in the afterlife to mend a broken heart, and each of us, individually and collectively, was utterly destroyed.

               


We spread Dana’s ashes at the tennis camp she used to frequent as a teenager. It was a terrible day of mourning. We missed her then just as much as we miss her now. The only comfort to be found is the fact that her legacy continues. Alice moved in with us a few years ago. She never fell in love again and something in her changed that day. She’s still Alice, bubbly and full of life, but she never got over that pain and her humor became more cynical than it used to be. She was angry for a long time. She knew losing Dana too early was a possibility when she entered into a life with her, but she accepted that love doesn’t care. Love lives forever, despite the mortality we will all face one day.

I swipe at the tears from my weary eyes and weary soul. I can’t help but grieve in this moment for my family and for myself. I miss Tina so much that it’s impossible to even breathe, and I suppose that’s why I’m wheezing so hard right now. My heart is fluttering in my chest and I feel lightheaded. For a moment I want to put this album aside and go to sleep, but something tells me to press forward. I lean back and sip some more of the water with shaking hands, and I finally regain control of my lungs.

I’m old and gray and tired, but I’m determined to see life to its end, no matter how hard it gets. And I’ve come to learn that this is how Alice has been coping all this time. I understand her pain and she understands mine. As a result, we’ve become closer these last few months. Like Dana, she is my sister.

With a heavy but determined heart, I turn the page. Tina, my wife, the mind reader, decided to give me a picture of Kit and Chance. This is the very day that she retired and handed the reins of her own legacy to him, and though it’s been fifteen years since she passed away, an old woman who went to sleep and departed life peacefully, I can still remember this day that filled me with pride – pride because of who my sister had become despite her past, pride because of who my son had become despite what he’d been through, and pride because this was the day I knew just how much my family loved one another.


 

Tina and I stepped in through the back of the Planet and she held onto my hand until the last minute as she went on ahead of me. I wanted to talk to Kit and I knew she’d be in her office making her final preparations before she officially gifted the Planet to Chance. Tina turned as she was about to step through the door at the end of the hallway, a coy smile on her face. She winked before disappearing and I shook my head incredulously at how much I loved her.

I didn’t knock, choosing instead to poke my head through the door and hopefully catch her unaware, just like I’d done many years before when I came out of my self-induced coma. As expected, she was sitting at her desk poring over her invoices. If she was going to leave her life’s work to another, she was going to leave it in impeccable shape.

I pushed the door open and leaned against the frame. She was too absorbed in her work to notice so I decided to go with this feeling of nostalgia. “Hey, the bathroom is out of paper-towels.”

She shook her head, no longer surprised by my visits, and I had to admit that it felt good to know that I wasn’t only wanted, I was expected, connected, the sister I had wanted to be. She sighed refusing to look up from her invoice. “Mm-hmm, well…” She grabbed a box of tissues next to her hand and set them out on the desk for me. “There ya go.”

I laughed and fully entered the room, shutting the door behind me. I took a seat on the sofa and just watched, glorying in the comfortable silence of this moment alone with my sister. Several minutes later, she set the invoice down in the file and shut it with a sense of finality. She leaned back in her chair, fluffing up her newly dyed hair, and releasing a heavy breath. “Well, I think it’s as good as it’s gonna get.”

My words were genuine as I spoke them. “I think you’re as good as they get.”

She smiled brightly at me, still beautiful despite her advancing years. “You know, I was just gonna say the same thing.”

I nodded slowly, my voice playfully disbelieving. “Sure…”

She got heavily to her feet and came around to join me on the couch, putting her arm around my shoulders and pulling me in close to her. I rested my head on the crux of her arm and sighed. She leaned her head against mine. Somehow, she always made me feel young, almost too young, like I was sixteen again. The way she soothed and instilled that familial comfort was so welcome, and it felt so good to allow myself a moment away from adulthood. “You know, baby sis… I could tell you how you will never find a group of people who love one another more… and who look after one another as lovingly as our friends do. You could give me any army… assembly of God… and I would put them up against my posse… because we are so tight and fiercely loyal.”

I leaned back to look at her and she shook her head with conviction. “Mm-hmm…” She looks at me, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I could tell you how proud I am of you… and your children. I could tell you all these things, but what it really comes down to, is I love you somethin’ fierce, and it just don’t get any better than that.”

I gazed into her eyes, blown away by the conviction of the love I found in them. She was absolutely right. “I love you too, Kit. We all do…”

She smiled at me, patted my thigh, and got to her feet. I took her hand and followed her out of the room, considering her words as we reached the door to the main cafe. We peered through the window of the door to see everyone mulling about, all of our friends and family… all but those no longer with us and one.

I smiled and couldn’t help but wonder if this really was enough for her. She’d dated a few times over the years, but none of the men seemed to stick. And as for her son, David, there is no excuse for his absence in her life, not anymore. I knew what she used to be like, but she changed, and she deserved a second chance. I couldn’t help but hurt for her. I put my hand on her shoulder and her eyes met mine questioningly. I hated to say it, but I felt like I needed to. “Kit, for what it’s worth, you deserve more.”

I gestured to my children through the window and she understood what I was trying to convey. She blew out a breath and shrugged her shoulders. “I have invited him to every holiday and major event, including this one, for a lot of years now. I would be overjoyed if he’d give me… just a chance even… but I understand him, and I love him. I just hope he knows that.”

I squeezed her shoulder in comfort and watched as she fought with her emotions. It was just a moment, just a cleansing breath, but that’s all she needed. She squared her shoulders and reminded me why less than perfect was enough. “Come on, baby sis. It’s time to live the life you love, and love the life you live.” She pushed open the door, and I watched her in awe as she joined our friends and family in the room, comforted by the fact that at least she had us, and she knew that we were her unfailing bond.

 


 

David did eventually come to see her. It was just so unfortunate that she wasn’t long for the world at that point. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since Kit died, but it’s just as well. He made it very clear how he felt about our family. It’s sad, but again, life isn’t perfect. Kit had it right, loving life is a choice, and I know with all my heart that she chose correctly, as did I.

I rub at my heavy eyes and sigh as I turn the page to see Carmen and Shane, older but still alive with youthful joy as they raise their champagne glasses alongside Rory, Melissa, Alice, Dana, and the first band they promoted. Even in their forties, they were like two overgrown children. To be honest, they kept all of us young. It most definitely worked for them. Their legacy wasn’t one of flesh and blood but more the impact they made on a struggling community. It was a legacy of its own kind, their kind.


Tina and I approached the doors to Sweet Spot Studios and Shane held it open for us. “Hey, you made it!”

She released the handle to hug us both and I scanned the room. People of all classes and tastes were ambling around and chatting in the stylish but alternative atmosphere that was so indicative of both Shane and Carmen. We spotted Alice, Dana, Rory, and Melissa, but they were too absorbed in their conversation with what appeared to be four gothic prostitutes to notice us. “Wow, Shane… I’m impressed. This place looks great.”

She smiled brightly and looked around. “Yeah, it’s pretty great. If Cherri Bomb’s record does well…”

She tucked her hands in her pockets, raised her shoulders, and sucked in a breath through her teeth, her eyes apprehensive. Tina squeezed her arm. “I’m sure it will be amazing. Bette and I’ve already ordered a few copies for the kids just to show our support.”

“Thanks. Chance is… well, a guy… but I know Rory likes it…” She glanced at me. “Not sure about Angie though… she’s a lot like Bette.”

I smiled and readily agreed. “I can’t help it if she has impeccable taste.”

Both Shane and Tina shook their heads in playful disapproval, and Carmen came bouncing over to us. “Hey!” She hugged us both tightly and pulled away, bursting with over-exuberant joy. “So what do you guys think?”

I glanced at Tina who played remorse perfectly as she said, “It’s…” She frowned and shrugged, putting on a fake smile. “…okay…”

Carmen’s mouth fell open and she nudged Tina on the shoulder. We all chuckled and Carmen wrapped her arm tightly around Shane’s. “Well, I have some great news…”

Shane turned to her, her eyes loaded with question. Carmen was about to explode and Shane finally caught on, her voice disbelieving as her mouth dropped open. “Nuh uh…”

Carmen nodded and Shane pulled her in to squeeze the life out of her, her voice strained with effort as she said, “No way…”

Carmen pulled back and nodded again, her smile wide. Shane’s face was incredulous as she said. “That’s fucking unbelievable.”

A waiter passed us with a tray of champagne and I snatched two of them for me and Tina. She smiled in thanks as she took her glass and we both sipped as we waited for Shane and Carmen to explain. They couldn’t seem to stop staring at each other with shocked and exultant expressions, and I finally broke the moment. “Would either of you care to let us in on what’s so fucking unbelievable?”

Shane finally tore herself away from Carmen and said, “Huh…?” Her dazed eyes cleared and she continued. “Oh, yeah, sorry… um, one of the bigger bands in the area, Lullaby Her, heard the album and they’ve booked us to record. They also booked Cherri Bomb…” Shane pointed to the four prostitutes and at least that much made sense. “… to open for them.” I looked back at her, hating how ignorant I was, but I was out of my league, and that didn’t happen often. Shane grinned and continued. “It means that we’re about to have a ton of exposure and new clients.”

I smiled. “Wow, that was fast.”

Shane shrugged. “The music scene is fast-paced.”

Carmen pulled on Shane’s arm. “Come on, you guys, the band’s about to start.”

Just as she said it, the prostitutes began playing and we watched as Shane and Carmen sped up to the front of the stage to join Alice, Dana, Rory, and Melissa. The noise was loud and abrasive and I glanced over at my wife. Her shocked eyes met my own and we nodded minutely to each other before abandoning the champagne and making our way to the doors. They closed behind us and we both breathed a sigh of relief as the harsh sounds muted. I glanced at Tina as we made our way to the Saab. “How can Alice and Dana listen to that?”

She smiled warmly. “Well, babe, they are a little younger than us.” I sighed, feeling my age and she continued. “But I like an older woman.”

She kissed my knuckles before releasing me and I grinned at her over the roof of the car as I asked, “You think they’ll notice we left?”

She opened her door and chuckled. “I’ll text them and tell them you had a headache.”

She got into her seat and I joined her, gazing at her disbelievingly. “Why me?”

She smiled and patted my leg. “Plausibility. They aren’t sure that I don’t like that kind of music, but you’ve already outed yourself. I get to keep my cool points but you won’t lose any.” I shook my head, as I turned the key in the ignition. Tina’s stroke on my thigh turned decidedly sensual and I met her eyes. Her smile became a feral grin. “Besides… I have just the cure for your headache.”


That was just the beginning for Shane and Carmen. That studio is a huge success even to this day. And even to this day, they still operate it. They never married or had children, but they birthed that studio from a place of love, and some of the biggest names in LA have recorded there. It was so much more than that though; they made a home for the outcasts of society. It became a place where LGBT artists could not only make their music, sometimes for free, but a place that helped to promote the equality that our world enjoys today. They brought hope and a sense of belonging to a community that was tired of fighting so hard. They have been inspirational in their work, as well as just decent people, and I’m honored to call them family.

It takes a moment for me to catch my breath. This bout of struggling is longer than usual. I take a few sips of my water and it’s everything I have to set it back on the nightstand. I relax a few moments until I’m at least operational and gaze down at the album in my lap, debating if I can get through this all in one sitting. I don’t really reach a conclusion as I turn the page.

I’m thankful I did. It’s one of my very favorite photos: Rory, Melissa, and their two children are splashing and playing in the pool in the backyard of this very home. Their faces speak of so much joy that my heart expands to a painful degree in my chest. How I love this family. I close my eyes and fight for another breath. This journey is taking everything out of me and I still have a few pages to go. I can’t stop now, no matter how tired I feel. There is too much love in these pages to be ignored any longer. I can still remember what it was like to meet our newest grandchildren for the first time, two young sisters whose lives had been far too hard, far too soon. Thank God Rory and Melissa found them.


“Moms…?”

I looked up from my latest edition of artltd and smiled at the sound of Rory’s voice. I may as well have been reading the magazine upside down. Tina and I had been anxiously waiting for Rory and Melissa to get back from social services with our grandchildren so we could meet them for the first time. Today they were bringing home two girls: a seven-year-old named Leah and a five-year-old named Sarah. Tina called out, “Coming!” and bolted from her seat. I chuckled as I rose to follow her through the patio doors.

We walked into the living room to see Rory smiling and I was relieved. Obviously everything had gone well. The door was closed and my brows furrowed. “Where’s Lissa and the girls?”

Rory pulled back, her face was serious as she said, “They’re outside. There are some things that I need to tell you about the girls.” She gestured to the sectional and I glanced at Tina as we followed. Both of us were confused and slightly worried but we calmly took seats across from Rory. I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and we waited impatiently for Rory to say whatever it was she needed to say. Her voice was solemn as she began. “Before, when I was just their doctor, I wasn’t allowed to tell you any of this, but now that I can, I’m not really sure where to start.”

Tina stroked my thigh soothingly and I rubbed her shoulder. Tina reassured Rory just as she was reassuring me. “It’s okay, Rory. You can tell us anything.”

She nodded and smiled sadly. “I know. It’s just a difficult situation to understand, let alone explain.” She sighed. “Melissa and I told you that they needed a new home, but I couldn’t really tell you why. The night that they were brought into the clinic, they had been badly beaten and… raped.” I felt my soul die a little bit and Tina squeezed my leg painfully. I didn’t think it could get much worse but then she continued. “…by their own father.” She paused and let this information sink in, but honestly, I didn’t want it to. “He went to jail and he’s never going to get out again.”

My voice was seething with anger. “Good.”

She nodded and soldiered on. “The reason that this has taken so long is because they couldn’t find the mother so that she could either take the girls or turn them over to the state. So, there’s a potential problem. If she comes to claim them in the next six months, we’ll lose them and there’s nothing we can do about it. At this point in time, we are considered foster parents only.”

My heart fell into my toes and Tina vocalized my thoughts. “Rory, would you and Lissa be able to handle that if it happened?”

Rory exhaled heavily. “I’m not really sure. I guess we’d have to. We were already too attached to them. They’ve been at the clinic three times a week for the last six months to meet with Lissa. We love them, mom, so we at least have to try.”

Tears welled in my eyes and I pulled Tina in tighter as Rory continued. “Also, they’re very apprehensive of strangers. So when you meet them, they may be… reluctant, maybe even frightened. It took them two months to even let me touch them without flinching. They’ve been doing really well though, and they trust us. We’re probably the only people that they trust.”

I kissed Tina’s temple. This was a lot to take in. When I was able to meet Rory’s gaze, there was so much love, compassion, and determination in the dark orbs that it overwhelmed me with pride. I took Tina’s hand and said, “Well, we’ll love them as much as we can while we have them. And if someone tries to take them away, we’ll fight. Abandonment is bound to make a mother considered unfit.”

She grinned at me. “It’s a difficult battle to prove even the worst parent unfit, but we’ll fight it anyway.” I nodded at her and she stood. “Okay, so here’s how we set this up. Lissa has them in the backyard as we speak. We thought it would be good for them to get acquainted with their surroundings before introducing you, and they seem to do better in less enclosed spaces. We just have to be patient with them. If they get scared, we may need to leave. I didn’t want either of you to feel that it had anything to do with you.”

Tina and I got to our feet and followed her to the back patio doors. We saw two little girls sitting on either side of Melissa on one of the lounges near the pool, their backs to us. Both girls had dark hair and as Melissa turned to us, I was again reminded a very young Tina, only with straight hair and sky blue eyes. Rory gestured for us to wait at the doors and we watched as she strode over to her family. She leaned down and kissed Melissa lightly before crouching to speak to the girls.

After several long moments, both of them turned and looked at us, the apprehension in their eyes tugging hard at my guts. They were too young to have endured so much. I glanced at Tina to see tears running down her face and put my arm around her. She sighed as she settled into my side and I got an idea. I kissed her temple and whispered, “Come with me.”

She met my eyes in confusion but followed me to the side of the pool. I rolled up the end of my chino capris, and stuck my feet in the water. Tina chuckled and joined me, rolling up her jeans and splashing me playfully. That was the idea. I smiled at my wife in encouragement and splashed her back, looking over her shoulder to Rory. “Rory, why don’t you guys join us? This feels great.” She smiled at me and I looked to the taller child. “You and your sister can come too, if you want.”

I could tell that she wanted to but she was scared, and the look on her face broke my heart. Rory said something to her and I grinned when she nodded her head imperceptibly. Tina leaned into me and we watched as Melissa and Rory helped them out of their socks and shoes, rolled up their pant legs, and each taking a hand, led them over to us.

Melissa and Leah settled next to me and Rory and Sarah settled next to Tina. I watched Leah as she nervously set her feet in the water and I’d swear she was trembling. I splashed Melissa playfully and that seemed to make Leah more comfortable. Melissa laughed and retaliated, and this time, Leah chuckled. It was short, but it was something. Tina started talking to Sarah and I marveled at how quickly she put the little girl at ease. I turned back to Leah and smiled. “Do you know how to swim?”

She didn’t look at me, but shook her head and I leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Lissa I told you, but when she was your age, she couldn’t swim either. She’d just sink like a slug.”

Melissa splashed me again, followed by a playful, “Hey!” Leah still didn’t meet my eyes but she giggled this time and I grinned.

It wasn’t much, but like all things, nothing worthwhile is built in a day. I tried again. “Do you know what Rory did when Lissa would sink?”

And there it was, she looked me in the eye, and while what I saw there would haunt me on so many levels, it felt good to reach this little girl and help her to feel at ease. I smiled at her, wanting her to know that I’d never conceive of hurting her. “She’d try to save Lissa and wind up sinking too. So my wife and I would have to get out our nets to gather the slugs from the bottom of the pool.”

I heard Tina laugh and this time Rory splashed us both from the other side. Tina splashed her back and it was all over. We splashed and threw verbal jabs at each other like we’d done so many times when our kids were young. We were all soaked by the time Tina and I had called uncle, and if I didn’t know any better, both girls had been laughing despite everything. The human spirit is incredibly resilient, and as I saw the look of thanks in Rory’s eyes, I knew that these two little girls could still have a good life, if only given the chance, and I could think of no better parents to give it to them.


Six months came and went and the mother never turned up. They were my grandbabies the minute they put their feet into the pool, and no amount of biological relatives would have kept me from them. One of the most incredible moments of my life was that following Christmas when Leah hugged me. That was the first time she’d ever let me touch her. She’d never had a bike and she’d always wanted one. I was more than happy to get it for her and even happier to watch Rory teach her how to use it… safely, of course.

Leah will graduate college this year. I hadn’t realized it, but I made a fierce friend that day, and so had Tina. Sarah is her baby, through and through. Out of everyone, except for me, she took Tina’s passing the hardest. But both of them have been visiting me every day, and it’s with a happy heart that I know they’ll be okay when I pass. They have been thriving since they joined our family, and they will have all the love and support they could want or need to thrive in the future.

I rub my arms with weak hands, feeling chilled. I glance over at the clock to see that it’s nearly four in the morning. No wonder I feel so tired and so weak. I’m exhausted, but as I turn the page to the next photo, I realize that this compulsion I feel to carry on isn’t going to stop until I’ve completed this journey. I need to see what’s next; like any good book, I just can’t put it down. And what I find next is more than worth it. I pull the blankets up higher, tucking them around me as best I can to trap the heat, and take a heavy, rattling breath as I gaze at the photo of Malcolm with his daughters climbing all over him while Ming holds their newest addition and laughs at him. Christmas morning was a huge affair at our house with six adults and nine kids, five of which were Malcolm and Ming’s alone. I stroke the image of his handsome face, so much like daddy’s, and chuckle. Five children in eight years… it’s little wonder his hair was entirely gray by the time he was fifty…


“Mom, are you awake?” I grumbled and swatted at the annoyance tickling my nose as I heard a low rumbling noise. “Mom… are you awake?” Tina stirred against me and the bed rocked for a long moment as the rumbling sound became more distinguishable. The voice was sing-song as it asked me again. “Mom… are you awake?”

“What…?” I opened my eyes and blinked against the sleep still trying to hold them shut. The bed shook again but it wasn’t Tina. The room was eerily quiet and dark and I heard a chorus of giggles just before the bed erupted into violent convulsions. “Mom! Wake up! Mom! Mom! Mom!”

The laughing was raucous and I started to feel seasick. Tina rolled towards me, laying her arm across me and pinning me to the impromptu trampoline. One particularly rambunctious bounce sent Tina’s head flying up and snapping back down onto my chest with a painful, “Oof…” She groaned and all movement and sound stopped.

I reached over and flipped on the bedside lamp as Tina sat up. The light stung my eyes and I shook my head when I turned to find three hellions starting back at me with contrite expressions. I sighed and checked Tina’s face. “Are you okay, T?”

She rubbed her jaw and said, “Yes. Are you?”

My left breast was sore, and I was certain I’d have a bruise where her chin connected, but I’d be fine. “I’ll be fine.” I glanced at the nightstand clock: five-thirty a.m. I faced my excited children and smiled patiently. “Are your aunts, uncles, and cousins awake yet?”

Angie, the thirteen-year-old leader of this coup, answered for all of them. “Everyone’s taking care of their parents in a similar fashion.”

I shook my head and looked over at Tina. She was still massaging her jaw and I pulled her hand away to look at it. It was already starting to turn red. I looked to Angie and she lowered her head. “Sorry, Mama T. We weren’t trying to hurt anyone.”

Tina reached out and rubbed her arm. “I know you guys are excited. Just be careful next time. One of you could have been hurt.”

Angie smiled and Rory leaned in to kiss the fledgling bruise. Her voice was sweet as she asked, “Better?”

Tina smiled and fixed the skewed glasses properly on her face before looking over at me. I sighed and she smiled, and together we drawled, “Alright… we’re up,” and started to rise. There was a loud cheer and they fled from the room before we even had our robes on. Once we were decent and had freshened up, we headed down the stairs.

As Angie promised, there were several sets of weary eyes seated near the Christmas tree and holding excited bodies at bay. Kit was keeping my three in check and I could smell coffee brewing. I sighed and looked at her. “Bless you.” She laughed and relinquished my children to my watchful eyes and went to go get us all a mug. Malcolm and Ming had it the worst with five kids: Rosa – eight, Elizabeth – six, Katie – four, Mei – two, and one son, Tai, the newborn resting comfortably in Ming’s arms.

Tina grabbed her camera from the kitchen counter and curled up with me on the sectional as Kit returned with a tray loaded with several steaming cups of caffeine. I took mine and sipped it gratefully before looking over at Tom. This was Matthew’s first Christmas with us, and by the way he avoided looking at the presents, I wondered if he had ever been a part of a Christmas at all. Tina noticed this as well, and called a start to the carnage. “Matt, Angie, since you’re both older, why don’t you hand out the gifts together?”

Matthew didn’t look up but there was a harshness to his voice as he said, “No thanks.”

Tom sighed and whispered something to him and Matthew seemed angry as he pulled away from Tom and met Angie by the tree. Angie was too damn smart for her own good and was prepared with one of his gifts. She handed it to him with a bright smile and he looked at it in shock. He checked the name tag at least three times and looked up at her, his voice incredulous. “This is mine?”

She nodded excitedly and found another of his to give to him. “This one is too.” His eyes got round as she said, “And I know there’ll be more. We just have to find them first.” She held her hand out to him and he stared at it for a long moment before glancing at Tom. Tom smiled and nodded at him and he took Angie’s hand. The two of them dove into the huge pile of gifts and started passing them out. Malcolm sighed with relief when he let his daughters loose and collapsed back against the sectional. Tom cuffed him on the shoulder and Malcolm turned to him. “And you give me a hard time for my gray hair.”

Tom laughed and shrugged. “It could be worse.” He pointed to his receding hairline. “You could just lose it.”

Malcolm shook his head and chuckled before looking over at his children. “It could be a lot worse.” His eyes locked on mine, love and warmth and gratitude gleaming in the soulful depths, and I felt tears gather on my lashes. He picked up the coffee that Kit had left on the tray for him and raised it. “To family.”

Everyone raised theirs and finished the toast with a deep pull from the steaming liquid. Happy groans tittered throughout the room at irregular intervals and I looked over at my wife. She lowered her camera and smiled at me. “Merry Christmas, Bette.”

I leaned in and kissed her sweetly. “Merry Christmas, T.”

               


That is only one of many holidays that I can pull up from my memory at a moment’s notice and relive with relish. My life has been full to overflowing with memories that encompass love. Even in the moments when life was terrifying and painful, moments like the one I’m currently facing, there was always love hanging in the balance, the ultimate determining factor in how it would all turn out.

It’s with great difficulty that I turn the page. This is the end of the album and the end of our story. I’m trying to hold on, but I feel so heavy with exhaustion. I feel like I can’t breathe. My head is swimming and my bones seem to be fused together with a deeply embedded chill. I gulp in some empty breaths as I focus in on the picture and force a smile out through my trembling lips.

The last picture my wife wished to show me is one of just the two of us, one that tugs at my soul so forcefully that it could escape my body to go be with her in this very moment. It was our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we spent it at our cabin in Big Bear. Tina had pulled her camera from nowhere, settled back between my legs on the chaise, and leaned her head against mine, forever capturing our radiant faces and exposed souls.

A deep longing, so painful that I feel paralyzed, wells up inside of me, and my body just can’t handle it anymore. I glance over at the bedside clock. It’s 4:28 a.m. I need to lie down and rest, but I can’t abide the thought of being away from her. I pull the photo from its confines with stiff but determined fingers, set my glasses on the album in my lap, and pull the covers up high as I collapse back into the pillows to shiver against the relentless cold. I prop the picture up against Tina’s pillow. I have to crane my neck to stare at it but my eyes are filled with the image of her as my lungs pull frantically at the elusive air. Tears start to leave hot tracks across my nose before they dissolve into my pillowcase and the heavy weight of weariness pushes me further into the mattress. I fight against it, but against my will, I allow everything to go black.


She was close; I could feel it shuddering through her like a ribbon caught on a turbulent wind and my own muscles tensed in preparation as her fingers stroked through the deepest recesses of me. I picked up my pace and she matched me with each thrust. I opened my eyes to see her head thrown back, her chest heaving, the flickering light of the fire dancing against her skin as she bucked wildly in front of me, and that’s when it happened. The tight coil of pleasure burning low between our hips gushed forth and we clutched at each other as we rode out wave after wave of intense euphoria.

Her thighs closed tight around my hips and I buckled, collapsing against the back of the chaise and pulling her against my chest. Our hearts were pumping hard in unison, and hot puffs of her breath tickled against the light sheen of sweat on my neck. I reached up and weakly brushed my fingers through the wet curls on her forehead and pulled one last whimpering mewl of exhaustion from her lips.

We lay this way for long minutes, the fire in the background snapping and popping against the howling wind and rain beating against the side of the cabin. Her eyes were unfocused as she finally pulled back and graced me with a satisfied grin, a grin I thought I’d never wrestle out of her this night. She had been insatiable, and I realized that it wasn’t over just yet as I reached a hand up to stroke her full lips only to have my thumb pulled tightly into the warm cavern of her mouth and laved with a velvet tongue. I groaned and shook my head at her, only inciting a wider grin from her magnificent face. She linked her hands around the nape of my neck and slid her center to my thigh, painting a slow, wet circle against me. Fuck, she was going to kill me, but it was a fate I was more than ready to accept.

I ran my hands up to her breasts, kneading and massaging them with my palms and fingers, and I drank in the sight of her as she began a slow and steady grind against me. It was incredible really. I had been with her twenty-five years, and seven years before that, but even now, especially now, with the silver streaks in her hair, the faint wrinkles around her eyes that told the tale of a life full of laughter, a passion that I thought would have quelled only burned brighter and hotter with the passage of time.

It was almost as if the physical changes had made her seem more exotic as she grew more and more beautiful with each passing day. I ran my hand from her mouth, down her sloping neck, and across her abdomen, the faint marks at the sides giving testament to a family and a legacy, and sending a thrill through my heart. It was the imperfections that made her perfect for me, and I couldn’t resist the pull to lean in and claim her mouth.

She tasted of something hot and forbidden, and I couldn’t seem to get enough of it, of her. I swallowed the groan that spilled forth from her and felt my sex swell, thick and hard and anxious. She slid up the length of my thigh, pressing herself into me and offering a delicious friction as her circles grew frantic. I squeezed the sharp points of her hips and felt a renewed sense of strength and urgency race through me as I aided her movements. I rested in the overwhelming torrent of passion she’d created and waited for her. It wasn’t long before she embraced me and we catapulted into the ether yet again, a place that only a soul could find, a place where we were one, without beginning or end.

We collapsed again and I felt heavy with exhaustion as she turned in my arms and rested her head against the side of mine. “I love you, T.”

She linked our weak fingers and brought them to her mouth, kissing them before clutching them to her breast. “As I love you, Bette.”

My eyes fluttered closed and I released a satisfied breath. I felt her release my hand and stir against me for just a moment. I looked up to see her camera and smirked in spite of myself. The shutter went off and I buried my lips near her ear. “Might not want people to see that one.”

She chuckled softly. “Don’t worry. This one’s personal.” I smiled in a way only the utterly fulfilled can, my eyes closed, and I was asleep in moments.


I open my eyes and breathe deeply. The air enters my lungs and fills them to bursting, and I smile in relief. That was the best sleep I’ve had since… in a long while. I stretch languorously. I’m warm, all of the aches and pains are gone and my muscles feel loose and relaxed. I pull my hands up and wiggle my fingers curiously. They feel strong and as I gaze at them, they look… they look like they did when I was twenty.

I furrow my brows and sit up. The movement is easy and uninhibited by age and pain. Some of my hair falls into my eyes with the motion, and I pull a lock of it forward to see it better. The curls are dark and thick and bounce back when released just like they used to. I glance over at the bedside clock to see that it’s 4:28 a.m. That’s not possible. I push back the covers and set my feet on the floor, looking around the room as if expecting… I don’t know what. This is all so strange.

The soft glow of the lamp illuminates the album that fell to the floor along with my glasses. I bend down to collect them and that’s when I see it: an old, wrinkled hand is hanging over the edge of the bed. I track the length of it to see myself: gray hair crowning a weathered face that seems to be sleeping peacefully as unseeing eyes gaze at a photo on the neighboring pillow. None of the trembling shudders of gasping breaths are present. My chest isn’t moving at all; I am not moving at all. I stand and look down on myself. I’m not sure how I feel in this moment besides strangely fantastic. I should be frightened, but I’m not. I just feel… calm, whole, and peaceful. Am I… dead?

A soft voice that stirs my soul calls out from behind me and I realize that if I’m not dead, I wish to be. “It’s okay, babe.” I close my eyes, savoring it and comparing it to a hundred different memories.

It sounds authentic, my connection to it feels authentic, but my mind can’t grasp the possibility. Who cares? So what if it’s a cruel joke being visited on a failing mind? I just want to hear it again. “T…?”

“I’m here…”

I turn slowly, afraid to know that it’s not true – that this is all just the fanciful imagining conjured up by a lovesick heart. But if it’s a lie, it’s perfect in its believability. My anxious eyes are filled with the sight of her beauty and my soul pours forward with hope. She steps toward me like a gorgeous apparition, and I feel tears gather and fall as my desperate eyes frantically search her for any sign that she’s not real. She’s radiant with health and youth and I nearly fall into her arms, her warm, real arms. They embrace me tightly and I bury my face in her lavender scented neck. It’s just too good to be true. “Please, T… don’t leave again…”

She takes my face in her hands and pushes me back. I drown in the hazel orbs gazing at me with infinite love, warmth, and joy, and know with all that I am that this is her. There is no force on heaven or earth, no fortunate and fevered imagining within any realm of possibility that could replicate the complex sincerity of her soul this perfectly. I laugh through my tears when she raises an incredulous eyebrow at me and a smile quirks up the corners of her full lips.

I lean in slowly, afraid that once I’ve gotten too close to see her she’ll disappear. The first sweet caress of her lips against mine is life altering. The second less tentative stroke is hopeful, but the third kiss, bruising and desperate, washes through me with deep fulfillment. God, how I’ve missed her. Her hands tangle in the hair at the nape of my neck and my arms circle tightly around her waist as I pull her up against me. I could hold her this way, kiss her this way, forever.

I pull back and gaze at her as I disbelievingly whisper, “Will I get to be with you forever?”

She grins and runs a finger over my lips. “One way or another, we’re meant to be together.”

I kiss the pad of her questing digit and feel a deep sense of satisfaction sweeps over me as I consider her words and meet her eyes questioningly. She grins and I can’t find the will to care what she meant so long as we’re together. “We’ll spend some time here and then we’ll be reborn.” I furrow my brows and she grins. “This wasn’t our first life together, Bette, and it won’t be our last. But no matter what life we find ourselves in, we’ll be together. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s meant to be.”

It’s strange. All of my questions have convoluted answers, but it all feels so… good, so hopeful, so loving. I can’t find it in me to worry. It’s as if there is no worry here. There is no time, there is no space, there is nothing but my soulmate, my wife, my forever, and she is joy incarnate. I smile as I lean in to kiss her once more and sigh as I release her lips to rest my forehead against hers. “So when it’s time, what’s next?”

She laughs and I revel in the sound of it as it washes over me. She raises a delicate eyebrow as she says, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

I reach up to stroke the wonderful brow with awe and she closes her eyes, her voice warm as she says, “I missed you.”

I shake my head. “You have no idea.”

She smiles. “I think I do.”

She pulls out of my arms and takes my hand. “Come on. I can’t keep you all to myself. There are some others who need to see you.”

I stare at her with excited tears. “Others? You mean…”

She nods, her grin melting away the last of my questions. I laugh with joy as she pulls me along and all of the old and tired trappings of this life we’ve completed fade away, replaced with the bright light of fulfilment, contentment, and joy. Her love is my turning page, where only the sweetest words remain. The end is only another beginning in a book of realities that revolve around one simple fact, one beautiful concept, one all-encompassing truth… here or there, or anywhere… I will get to be with Tina for eternity.


The End.

Chapter 8 – Love

The world is spinning and I feel like the floor has been dropped out from beneath my feet. Guilty? Did they just say guilty? I pin my unfocused eyes on Corky’s face to see him smugly leaning back in his seat. They couldn’t have… I look over at Merle, her grin indicative of a cat licking its claws after a meal, her dark eyes swimming with cruel triumph. Compton’s voice tears through my psyche. “Bailiff, please remand the defendant into custody.”

What? They can’t be serious… A large, rough hand squeezes each of my biceps  and I feel paralyzed as my hands are pulled behind my back where cold steel is snaps tight around my wrists and bites into my flesh. I’m tugged but my legs refuse to work. No… this isn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tina… oh God… my family… The bailiff pulls harder and I stumble as he starts to lead me through the front of the room. I see two other bailiffs waiting at the threshold of the door about twenty-five feet ahead, and my mind starts to process this unthinkable information.

My stiff muscles shake with adrenaline, my tongue feels dry, my throat is closed, and my stomach is roiling as a rush of anger unlike anything I’ve ever experienced hits my veins, mixing with the adrenaline and making me feel irrational. It only gets worse as I hear Tina’s soft but panicked voice from the back of the utterly silent room. “Bette?!”

I turn to look at her but the bailiff won’t stop, in fact he starts pulling me faster. I struggle and pull myself away from his grasp, trying to slow him down as Tina quickly strides up the aisle towards me. I’m tugged again but I push forward, twisting to get away from him. Tina pushes through the low dividing wall and I feel an abrupt but searing pain explode on the base of my skull. My legs immediately release me and I drop hard to the linoleum floor, my vision blurry, my teeth rattling, and the cloying taste of blood welling up on my tongue.

I hear Tina’s shrill scream and try to find her with my eyes but it’s so hard to focus as I struggle to just remain conscious. I hear her crying out, the scuffling of feet dancing around me, the murmuring of a crowd somewhere far away, loud shouting, and the sharp banging of a hammer; but it’s the clearing vision of my wife, being slammed so hard to the floor in front of me that blood starts pouring from her nose and mouth, her eyes wet and anguished, and her body jerking convulsively as the man digging his knee into her back roughly cuffs her hands, that is my undoing.

”T… no…” Tears are streaming thickly down my cheeks, and I want to reach out to her, but my arms are pinned. Her lids start to flutter as my name bubbles wetly through her lips, “Bette…”

My eyes snap open and I see Tina looking down at me worriedly as she strokes the curls out of my eyes. “Bette… are you okay?” I nod and let my head fall back on the pillow as I blow out a relieved breath. A small, warm hand touches my chin, gently rolling my head until my eyes are again locked on hers. “Was it a nightmare?”

I nod and she exhales heavily. “God, Babe… you don’t think they’re going to start again, do you?”

I push myself up and brace on my elbows as she sits on the edge of the bed and casually leans over me. I smile at her. “No, I don’t think it’s like that. I think the verdict just hasn’t sunk in yet.” She nods and strokes my face before leaning forward and kissing me sweetly.

It’s only been two days since I received the not guilty verdict, and I have no idea what my psyche is trying to process with that dream, but whatever it is, I hope it does it soon. As Tina pulls back, I can tell that she’s still worried. I sit up fully and take her face in my hands, gaze deeply into the wonderful hazel eyes that give me so much comfort, and hasten to reassure her. “That’s the first one I’ve had, and if they continue, I’ll go see Dan.” I see the relief in the hazel pools try to further explain. “Honestly, I think we just need to take a break. Go somewhere for a while, get away…” I grin. “Maybe the cabin.”

She grins back at me and the joy on her face tells me that we’ll probably be heading back up to Big Bear as early as tomorrow morning. She rests her head on my shoulder and I secure my arms around her as I breathe in her lavender scent. Our connection still hasn’t fully snapped back into place, but it’s strengthening. There’s a light knock at the door and I furrow my brows at Tina. She grins as she says, “It’s funny you should say that, because I have a surprise for you tonight.”

She stands and holds her hands out to me as she calls over her shoulder. “Come on in, you guys.”

I take her hands and stand as Kit, Malcolm, Tom, and Ming enter. All but Malcolm are holding one of my children as he quickly fills his hands with the two bags by the bedroom door. I eye him curiously as he exits without a word before looking to Tina for answers. “T, what’s going on?”

Kit answers for her. “Tina, we’ve got this covered.” She looks me in the eyes, her expression serious. “Don’t argue, baby sis. I know it’s hard for you, but you’re going to do as you’re told right now.”

Everyone chuckles and I frown as Tina takes my hand and tugs. I follow her, still slightly confused, but definitely inclined to heed Kit’s warning. Tina kisses each of our children, telling Angie we’ll call her before bed. I follow suit and kiss Kit on the cheek for good measure. They follow me and Tina down the stairs where she points to a pair of my flip-flops waiting by the open door. I slip them on and Malcolm comes up the steps grinning boyishly as he drops the keys into Tina’s outstretched hand.

Tina hands me my purse, hikes her own up onto her shoulder, and grabs my hand. “It’s just for the night. Come on. I want to get there before sunset.”

Malcolm shoves me gently from behind and I again follow Tina, giving him a scathing glance over my shoulder. He’s wholly unaffected, and I can’t help but smile as Tina and I settle into the Saab. I laugh as I see Tom and Kit holding up the babies’ hands and making them wave at us. Angie joins them and Tina and I both wave as we pull away. I watch them until they head back inside and finally face forward in my seat to contemplate what’s going on. The top is down and it’s warm, but the breeze feels amazing. Tina slips her sunglasses on and passes me my own. She certainly had this planned. I chuckle and she raises an eyebrow at me, glancing in my direction.

I lean my head back and smile at her as something occurs to me. “This reminds me of that night I kidnapped you from the Broadbeach house, only in reverse.” She chuckles, pursing her lips and my mouth drops open as I lean my head forward and stare at her incredulously. “You’re taking us to the Broadbeach house, aren’t you?”

She continues to fight the smile that wants to bloom on her face and shrugs unconvincingly. I start to laugh and she slaps me on the thigh, her voice scathing. “God, you’re impossible to surprise, you know that?”

I lean back in the seat and continue to gaze at her. “Yes, but you love me anyway.”

She glances at me, her expression serious. “I do… with all my heart.”

I feel my heart expand and relief floods my chest. Our connection is healing, and I’ve missed this feeling. The wind is whipping the loose, honey-hued tendrils wildly around Tina’s face, the sun outlining her silhouette and highlighting the burnished glow of her skin. I can’t help myself as I reach out to run my finger down the smooth, silky skin of her exposed right arm. Her beauty catches me completely by surprise sometimes, and I think part of it is how unaware of herself she is. I smile in remembrance. This too feels familiar. “Do you have any idea just how gorgeous you are?”

She chuckles and glances at me. “I’m surprised you can remember that day. I’d never seen you so blitzed.”

I run my fingers through the golden mane dancing about her shoulders completely enthralled. “Of course I remember. I made a promise to you that day.”

She nods, checking her blind-spot and the rearview mirror to switch lanes before again glancing at me. “Yes, you did.” She takes my wandering hand and links our fingers, kissing my knuckles before settling them in her lap. Her voice is strong with conviction. “I doubted you then, but I have no doubts now.” I feel the sting of tears in my eyes and she squeezes my hand. Her voice is tremulous as she asks, “Do you still doubt yourself?”

And that’s the heart of the issue isn’t it? That’s the last lingering shadow that’s been darkening our doorstep since Tina came out of the coma: my past. It takes different forms each time: Candace, Kelly, Merle… even Tina. But ultimately, it always comes back to me. It’s like that dream I just had. I was bound against my will, believing a lie, and watching helplessly as my choices ruined everything; but if I really search myself, look deep within and try to find a succinct answer to her succinct question, my problem has always been me. I was the monster because I believed I was the monster, and part of me had been clinging to the deeply engrained understanding that I would somehow manage to destroy the most precious things in my life, however inadvertently.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let it go. I am not a monster, and I can… I will, believe it. Tears fall from my eyes as I reopen them and I look over at Tina. My answer is loaded with all the conviction of a saint as I simply say, “No, not anymore.”

She pulls my hand up to her lips, kissing it reverently, and I hear her low, satisfied voice reply, “Good.” Nothing more is said as the drive continues, and I settle deeper into my seat as the comfortable silence falls over us. I don’t know if it’s the late afternoon sun giving testament to the expansive ocean coming into view, the wind rushing past us, or the fact that while scarred, my heart feels whole; but I don’t just feel free, I know it and I believe it.

I smile as we pull through the Broadbeach house gate just in time to see Sandra heading out to her car. Her face splits into a grin as we step out of the Saab. She doesn’t stop her progress as she opens the door of her vehicle, meeting my eyes over the top as she says, “I won’t be back until Monday. I’m sure you two can take care of yourselves.”

I wink at her and she winks back, her voice playfully stern as she says, “Don’t burn the place down,” gets into her car, and pulls away without a backward glance. Tina smiles and raises an incredulous eyebrow at me, and all I can do is grin at her. She shakes her head and removes her sandals. Her movements are slow and intentional as she kneels before me, gazes up into my eyes, and helps me remove my own. My heart could break with the knowledge of what such a subtle act entails, but it’s too full of joy at this moment. She stands and takes my hand, pulling me around to the side of the estate to access the private beach.

The sun is hovering just above the gentle rocking of the ocean, melting the blue of the sky into streaks of golden pink and deep lavender; and I can’t even notice the grandeur of it because of the beautiful creature leisurely keeping pace with me, her warm fingers loosely linked with mine.

The soft sand is warm and pliant under our bare soles and memories of our life together rush up to break over my heart, just like the surf that’s breaking low over our ankles: smiles that spoke of joy, gentle touches that soothed anguished souls, whispers of devotion that mended broken hearts, the incredible feeling of holding each of our children for the first time, the first day of my real life when, by some incredible miracle, Tina gave me her heart on a beach just like this one, a lifetime of unconditional love in a single labored breath, darkened places banished from healing minds, and the tangible link of one soul to another strengthened by trials.

We move up out of the water and make our way towards a small outcropping of rocks. I smile when I spy the thick comforter spread beneath the rocky canopy. She pulls me to a stop and settles her arms low on my hips as she tucks her head beneath my chin, and we watch as the sun starts to dip into the water. It’s fulfillment unlike anything I’ve ever known, just the simple joy of holding her this way. We linger here, absorbing each other as nature puts on this magnificent show, and it seems as though it’s all just for us.

The colors start to fade and the stars make their first appearance. Tina glances up and I smile as I reach out to her with my eyes, imploring her to see through me. It’s not a struggle anymore. I don’t have to push open the shutters that guard the most intimate parts of me to let her in. I’m no longer afraid of what she’ll see or what she’ll find. She’s already inhabited the darkest parts of me and she loves me anyway. And it’s incredible, but I want her there; I crave her there. I’ve been a fortress for so long. It was so much safer to be alone, despite the love that so fully surrounded me. But I was so, so very wrong. The safest place in the world is basking in the radiant light of her heart.

She doesn’t disappoint; she looks right through me, entering easily and stoking the fires that burn for only her with little more than a heated glance. It happens so fast that I don’t even comprehend the movement, but her warm, soft lips are caressing mine, her silken hair cascading around me like a golden net that catches the last rays of the late evening sun and throws fantastic prisms over our entwined bodies. I feel like all the secrets of the universe have been opened up to me and the limitless choices narrowed down to one obvious answer, one wonderful reason, one single word… Tina.

My soul craves more of her and I reach deeper within myself, deeper within her mouth, wrapping my arms around her and drawing her in with my tongue and hands. It’s incredible, this feeling of being utterly shattered and utterly mended. There is a deep yearning in the pit of my stomach that tugs and clenches at my center until it spasms, arousal spilling out to give testament to my need for her, to how much a part of me she is.

Gentle hands unbutton my shirt and the warm, salt-laden breeze caresses my skin as layer after layer of clothing and emotional armor is removed and discarded. I want to rejoice in the vulnerability of my surrender. There is nothing in me or about me that is not hers, and her eyes give witness to the love we share. All the spaces in-between, wherever they are housed somewhere deep inside… they have been hollowed out, they have been made new, and I can see that she’s with me every step of the way.

As if it’s been choreographed, without any conscious thought, a primal pull brings my hands forward to tug at the hem of her tank and watch as inch after inch of gloriously supple skin is exposed up the length of her beautiful body. The way my hands fit against the slightly sharp dips of her hips, the firm undersides of her heavy breasts, the delicate hollow of her throat as I drink her in, only reaffirms what I know in my very makeup to be true: something, someone, a wielder of life and perfection made her for me, for my hands, for my eyes, for my soul – and with an honorable sense of propriety, I know it was a gift for me and me alone, however undeserved.

Smooth but firm extremities slide up my arms and settle at the crux of my shoulders as even smaller digits tangle in my hair. Shocks of pleasure radiate throughout my scalp, along my spine, and across my hips to bloom out from my center and rock the foundation of every conviction I’ve ever held. I stand here, utterly exposed in those convictions, knowing I am safe because I have been tested by the righteous fires of love and held true to the responsibility entrusted to me. All of the impurities have melted away, leaving me with nothing but resolve and devotion and joy… nothing but Tina.

All of my desires are pure of heart and pure of spirit. I want nothing more than to put joy on her face. I want nothing more than to engrave fulfillment on her heart. I want nothing more than to stand with her while she makes this world and this life lush, and alive… so very alive, just as she has made me. She… she is life, and I drink of her greedily.

Even her tender lips taste of it – life, love and devotion, passion and desire, the highest reaching pinnacles of joy, and a beacon of hope in the lowest depths of despair. No matter where I go, she is like a small flame held in the palm of my hand, warmly guiding the way to healing. And it is healing; and it is complete. As every remaining garment and layer are expertly removed with knowing hands and knowing souls, I am healed by the light of her beauty as all is exposed, inside and out.

Her tongue strokes smoothly against mine and there’s another aftershock in the deepest regions of my being. It’s audible, this groaning and breaking apart, and it’s met with a soft gasp. Whatever plane we have reached, we have reached it together.

Life-giving blood starts pounding through my muscles, sped along by an organ that keeps time with hers. Arteries expand, muscles quiver, and I am turned inside out as everything shifts and unsteady steps rock us back to fall onto a soft cloud of comforting down.

The full-length contact is indescribably delicious as we shift against one another, aided by the call of one soul, one life, and one love. How well her touch knows me inside and out; how unerringly her lips find the most tender places to soothe and excite; the fruits of her labor rich and sweet as she drinks the nectar directly from the source. I am spread out, splayed open to her questing tongue that pushes through me, only to retreat and pull me into her.

The delicious sounds of a sumptuous feast, groans of fulfillment, breathless shudders of overanxious lungs, the gentle shatter of waves on a shore, they are the only sounds that fill this place that we share here together, this place we’ve created here together. This miraculous woman, wonderfully and beautifully made, pulls away from her reward, the glistening trails of sticky, sweet sap dripping off of coral lips only to be smoothly gathered and savored by a soft tongue. The naked eroticism in her enthralling gaze tugs up at my chest until I’m pressed tightly against the sanctuary of her breasts, laving her, suckling her, pulling more of her in.

I run my tongue along the thin membrane of her slender neck, my sensitive buds gathering the salty treks of clean sweat as they arch over the delicate edge of her chin to share in the remnants of musky delight that still lingers on her full lips. Straining legs surround my own and press the hot center of her desire firmly against the already sticky curls at the apex of my sex.

The heady musk of her offering is thick and nearly scalding as it leaks from her into me, sealing us together and aiding the gentle friction of her steadily circling hips.  The over-sensitized nerves that layer my muscles open to receive her touch, a perfect touch that alternates between the pleasure-pain of scraping nails and the soothing heat of open palms. Her movements are steady and fluid, and air is not coming easily, but I refuse to release her luscious mouth. The dips and valleys of starkly straining muscles in my arms work to aid her motion, to grab and tease, to increase her pleasure, and to selfishly try to pull her further into me.

I feel the first tendrils of intense pleasure radiate out from the nerves in my center as they twist and coil steadily tighter. A vortex of passion picks up around us. Her frantic motion increases and my soul almost buckles under the intense emotions that spill forth from each of us. The feel of her, the taste of her, it all swirls together, stirring something supernatural inside of me as I add the vision of her lithe body cleaving to me, her soul bared to me, her heart gently laid open for me to cradle in my arms.

All of it is about to tear through us; but I refuse to combust without her, choosing instead to linger in the center of the storm as the hard, exposed length of her clit glides smoothly around mine like a maelstrom. The walls of this beautiful storm start to close in around us and our nerves swell until finally that one small moment we’ve been waiting for, that perfect instant of bittersweet torture arrives and gathers us up as it rages through our trembling bodies.

The intensity of my gratitude is unfathomable. It is my privilege to cling to her as we fall apart in each other’s arms. I know how it feels to be hers. I know what I’ve been living for all along. The tyrannical ruling of my past, the vast kingdom of my stubborn heart, they bow before her in awe. They fall to their knees to go out in a blinding light of peace and happiness that I would have never thought possible. And even now, as all the intensity subsides, as the love of my life arches an incredulous eyebrow at me, as the last dregs of devotion well in our eyes to snuff out the all-consuming fire for just a moment, I realize that I could leave this life at this very instant a fulfilled and supremely wealthy woman.

I smile at her through my tears as I stroke that beautiful eyebrow. Of course I have no intention of leaving just yet, but if I had to… oh, what a way to go out.


Continued in Turning Page.

Chapter 7 – Linger

I pull the headphones from Angie’s head and smile as she lets out a soft snore. Tucking the covers a little tighter, I pull back and gaze down at my daughter. She’s a beautiful girl and she will be a beautiful woman, quite possibly a heartbreaker, quite possibly like I used to be. She is just like me, in more of the harmful ways than I wish to admit. But, just like me, she has Tina to help her grow with the temperance I am only just learning. Perhaps she will be the me that I should have been… the me that I am now. I can think of no better legacy.

I lean down to kiss her forehead and set the headphones on her nightstand. As I straighten, I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye and look over to see Tina gazing at us from the threshold with a sad smile on her face. It’s been two days since the jury deliberated and while I know they don’t deliberate over the weekend, we received no answer yesterday. And these two days have been like a hospital stay where you’re waiting for someone to die. Our connection is still weak, but it’s still there. Something tells me that not even death could sever it, and if I’m honest, it frightens me. It’s just so damn scary to have your life and happiness so bound up in the people you love, but that’s the price you pay for standing in the passion of love’s radiant warmth. A price that I still believe, with all the conviction I have in me, is more than worth it.

I step over to Tina and she begins to move away, almost as if she’s running from me, but I grab her hand to stop her. She turns, eyeing me questioningly, and I can see the worry and fear bound up in her soul. We’ve reached an understanding regarding the choice that I made. A choice that I’m still unsure about but was far too compelled to deny. I hate what that choice, this trial, my very past, has done, but I don’t feel like it was really a choice. I had to. Something in me needed this; I just wish it hadn’t been at the expense of her feelings. And while she knows this, and has understood this, it has hurt her so deeply that I feel her pulling away from me.

I make sure that I’m open and honest as I step up to her, take her in my arms, and bury my face in her neck. She’s a little stiff at first but she finally wraps her arms around me, holding me close and sighing as she nuzzles her face into my breast. I breathe in her lavender scent and she grips me even tighter. Her voice is muffled and small as she says, “I’m sorry. I know we’ve talked about it and I understand why you felt you had to, but I just can’t… shake it.” There is a long moment of silence as I hold her. I can tell that there is something else she needs to say, something more than facing the possibility of my incarceration that’s troubling her. But that same intuition tells me that she can’t bring herself to really face it… to give it life… to give it substance… to make it real with words.

I furrow my brows, my throat tight as I ask something that’s plaguing me. “Do you… do you still love me, T?”

She shudders with a choked sob and burrows in deeper. “I can’t believe you’d even ask me that, let alone wonder.”

I exhale a heavy breath, somewhat relieved. She’s right. These insecurities are my own. I just feel so… “I’m sorry. I’ve just felt so distanced from you. It’s… it’s scaring me, T.”

And just like that, I realize that it’s not the love or the connection I have to her that scares me, it’s the potential loss of it. It’s not like when she was in the coma. Losing her physically wouldn’t sever us from one another, not completely. Losing her emotionally would. She sighs, leaning back in the circle of my arms to gaze up at me. “I know. I feel it, too.” She closes her eyes for a moment and shakes her head in frustration. “I can’t help it. I’m so scared to be close to you right now and then lose you. I just… I don’t know how to shake it.”

I feel a hot tear track down my cheek, my voice choked as I beg her, “Try? Please… I need you right now… more than ever.”

Her expression is sad and I can see the struggle taking place behind her eyes as she takes my hand and leads me up the stairs. The house is unnaturally quiet as I follow her into the en suite. She releases my hand and I reluctantly allow it as she starts to fill the tub with warm water. Her movements are determined and sure as she removes her clothes and a conciliatory calm settles down around us as I do the same. I step into the deep water and watch as she enters, shuts off the faucet, and positions herself between my legs, turning to her side and pulling my arms tight around her as she snuggles in tight against me.

The warm water, her nakedness, her vulnerability, her embrace… they all envelop me and soothe away some of the pain of the last few months. I feel our connection get stronger and it happens – everything I needed and everything I’ve been putting off. I cry piteously as she slides her hands over mine, holding me tighter, holding me together, in this moment of intense release. It stirs the grief inside of me, reaching down so unfathomably deep within me that I am flayed open and turned inside out as I drown in it. It takes a lot out of my weary soul to face it, to go through it, and it seems to go on forever. But once the worst of it has passed, once my head is above the current, I take in a huge, live-giving breath and feel the first tendrils of relief seep into my soul.

My voice is thick with emotion. “I’m so sorry, T. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

She squeezes me, her voice low and soft as velvet. “I know that, Bette. I know that, and I support you, it’s just that…”

It’s her turn to mourn and I hold tight to her as her own anguish floods out and disappears into the tide surrounding us. I want to know what it is, this thing that’s more than the obvious that she can’t even give a name to. “What, T? It’s just that… what?”

She shakes her head and her words are soft but resonate with dread. “I-I’m not even sure what it is, Bette. I’m sorry. I just feel…”

She can’t say anymore and I nod in understanding, though I have no idea what it is I understand. She starts to weep again I join her unabashedly. I’ve never mourned with someone this intensely, not even Tina, not even about our son, and not like this. And while I feel our connection get stronger and take on new facets for the suffering and passionate vulnerability of this moment, I can’t help but resent it for happening.

It shouldn’t be like this, but I guess that’s the nature of passion. It lies in all of us, sleeping… waiting. And though unwanted, unbidden… it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us, guides us; passion rules us all and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments: the joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace; but we would be hollow… empty rooms – shuttered and dank. Without passion… we’d be truly dead. And through some fortunate misfortune, we are alive with the glory of love, especially in this moment.


The doorbell rings and I furrow my brows as I step up to and peer out of the side window. It would seem that everyone I know is standing in a crowd on my doorstep. The jury has been out for a total of five days now, and while Tina and I have fallen back into our routine, the atmosphere hasn’t lost any of its somberness. Our friends have been stopping by to check on us, especially Alice and Dana, but even they know that nothing can lift this heavy cloud shy of a verdict. It doesn’t even need to be favorable at this point. Tina and I are prepared for a negative outcome. It’s the anxious waiting and not knowing that have sucked the air from the very earth.

And it’s for this very reason, this lack of any means to fix the melancholy surrounding us, that I can’t understand what is happening on my front porch at this moment. The doorbell is rung again, this time like the operator is having a siezure, and I break myself out of my confusion to unlock the door and open it. I barely have time to move out of the way before Alice pushes through and the horde behind her descends like a plague of locusts.

Alice steps up to me, a mischievous grin on her face. “Al, what’s going on?” I watch as people file in: Shane, Carmen, Kit, Malcolm, Ming, Tom, Duffy, Helena, Dylan, Papi, Tasha, Tom with someone woman I’ve never met, and even Ricky. Papi and Tasha are carrying a card table, everyone has alcohol or food of some kind, most of them are dressed for the pool, and all of them scatter throughout the house and onto the patio in various stages of preparation for a party that I don’t remember authorizing. I look back to Alice incredulously as Dana shuts the front door and steps up to us.

Dana is wearing a wide, toothy smile that crinkles her nose and Alice is smug as she grabs my arm and pulls me after the herd. Our progress is fast and I’m too dazed to struggle as I take in the animated chatter and laughing that’s going on around me. We stop abruptly at the threshold of the patio doors and Alice turns to face me. She crosses her arms over her chest, her gaze unyielding and determined as she says, “Enough moping, Porter. I brought the cavalry and you’re going to cut loose tonight.”

I hear Angie squeal and watch over Alice’s shoulder as she jumps into the pool where Malcolm, Tom, and Ming are waiting for her. I open my mouth to speak but I can’t find words as I see Tina, standing at the side of the pool laughing at our daughter’s antics. She turns to me, her burnished face gorgeous and glowing with happiness, and I feel my heart flutter.

I can’t help the grin that blooms across my features, or the tears that well up from my heart, or the quick movement of taking Alice in my arms and thanking her. I look back to Tina to see her delicate eyebrow raised and crowned with a genuine smile that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to see again. It’s a sight for sore eyes and I squeeze my best friend a little tighter.

Alice pulls back and breaks the hug, smiling coyly as she says, “Sheesh, Porter. You’re getting soft in your old age.”  Alice takes Dana’s hand and I watch as everyone sets about the business of livening up this house and this atmosphere, taking some of the heavy, stifling weight from our shoulders and helping us carry it. I feel overcome with love and joy and make my way to Tina by the pool. She’s wet in my arms, but her skin has been warmed by her last hour with Angie in the sun. I kiss the nearest freckle on her shoulder and sigh as she holds me just as tightly. The words tumble from my heart and my mouth and I don’t even try to hinder them. “I love you, T.” I close my eyes and breathe in her sun-kissed skin. “Thank you.”

She sighs, but I can tell that it’s one of release, not despair, and the sound of it is a balm to my soul. “Don’t thank me. I had no idea. But…” She pulls back and strokes my cheek gently as she gazes through my eyes and into my very soul. “…I love you, too Bette. We’ll get through this… won’t we?”

I can see that the uncertainty and anxiety are still there; I can feel it too. The pendulum is still swinging above our heads but I don’t care, and right now, neither does Tina. I grin at her, throwing in a wink for good measure, and knowing what I say is true even if I can’t fully believe it yet. “Yes, we will.”


 

I look back on my sleeping children one more time before shutting the door behind me. They were passed around by doting aunts and uncles all afternoon, and it exhausted them to the point of falling asleep an hour early. Tina and I may pay for it when the sun rises tomorrow, but knowing that the issues that Tina and I are facing didn’t get a chance to touch them today is worth any future sleep deprivation.

Tina takes my hand and we slip down the stairs to find everyone lounging by the pool in various states of enjoyment. Papi, Tasha, Tom’s friend – whom I learned is his boss, Jamie – Alice, and Dana are playing a riveting game of poker around the game table. I was surprised to see Tasha, considering the circumstances, but we spoke earlier; and while she didn’t say much, she assured me that she doesn’t hold anything against me for my outburst or blame me for her breakup with Alice. And while I don’t know her all that well, I know that she’s a good person, and I genuinely hope that she will still come around once in a while. Besides, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Jamie was interested in her. Everywhere Tasha has been this afternoon, Jamie has been right there, laughing and enjoying herself. I didn’t realize it, but apparently Jamie, in addition to Tom, is the one to thank for all of the NO H8 support we’ve been receiving during the trial proceedings. She seems nice, and Tom raves about her, so I’m sure we’ll see more of her as well.

Tom and Ricky seemed to hit it off, but not in a romantic way. They spent most of the afternoon chatting and I swear I heard them make plans to go boy watching at one of the better clubs off of Santa Monica. I know Tom, Malcolm, and Ming are very close friends, but I’m glad that Tom is branching out. Ricky is a truly kind and generous person, despite all of his diva tendencies.

Dana and Alice had me to the brink of frustration earlier. They were being so casual and almost professionally civil to one another, that I was about to slam their heads together and hope they got stuck that way until they figured this mess out. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that they had been being discreet for Tasha’s benefit. That was until I caught them leaving the bathroom together and stealing a kiss in the darkened hallway before parting ways and rejoining the group. When they finally noticed me, there was a long intense moment before I smirked and went about the business of taking Angie to her bedroom. I laughed as Alice passed me and said, “Not a word, Porter.” I’m thankful that I don’t have to superglue them together and hope for the best. They seem to have worked it out for themselves… just as it should be.

Duffy and Helena are bordering on drunk, both of them for obvious reasons. Each day must be a struggle for Duffy after everything she’s been through. And Helena, well Dylan’s left the party, and I’m fairly certain that their relationship is officially over. I like Dylan, and Helena has become one of my closest friends despite our rocky start, but part of me believes that if you don’t want to commit to your partner, that they’re just not the one, the soulmate, the forever, like my Tina is for me. And if you’re settling or you don’t feel it, it’s my firm belief that you’re wasting your time. I also believe everyone has a someone, and will find them in this lifetime if they can wait and hold onto that hope. Either way, they want to drown their sorrows, and at least they can do it together. I know that there is still hope for both of them, no matter how tragic their lives have been.

Malcolm and Ming are curled up in a lounge on the other side of the pool stargazing and talking. I’m overcome with love for this wonderful man and I am privileged to call him my brother. He has been nothing but a blessing since that day he walked into my office, and I have no doubts whatsoever that he will only continue to enrich our lives in the future, whatever it holds. He is indescribably precious to me, just like Kit.

Tina and I take a seat at the bottom of the balcony stairs and I sigh. Kit. She’s in the kitchen cleaning of course. She has been less forgiving than Tina for my recent choice, a choice that I will admit was selfish. But I know that the only reason that she’s so upset with me is because she loves me. I just hope that she can find it in her heart to forgive me, no matter the outcome. No, I know she will. It will just take time, and time’s all I have at this point.

I feel a small, warm hand snake over my thigh to link around my arm as delicate fingers intertwine with my own. I lean in and press my lips to Tina’s temple, closing my eyes for a moment to take her in. I feel stronger and more connected to her today than I have all week, and it feels good to have a source from which to draw some strength, however tenuous that connection is. I know it could pull apart at any minute with one word: guilty. But I won’t think on it just now.

I turn my head and rest it against Tina’s as we take in and enjoy our family in comfortable silence. I’m taking a night off from it all, and I have Alice to thank for that. No matter what happens, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate in this life. As I’ve said before, fortune favors the brave. Let’s just hope that this last grasp at bravery pays off.


Seven days may as well be as long as single moment in the grand scheme of things, but from where I’m sitting in my home, in our nursery, Rory suckling from my breast, seven days feels like an eternity. The jury is still mulling over the facts of my case and I feel like I’ve been suspended in limbo. Tina, Joyce, and I have made all of the necessary arrangements in case I am to be convicted, but there is really no way to truly prepare. Part of me knows that it is unlikely that I will walk away from this, but there is still a shred of doubt, a small ray of hope, that cuts through that knowledge. As hopeless as it seems, it is in humanity’s collective genetic makeup to be hopeful anyway.

I gaze down into Rory’s precious face, and I know that I stand to lose everything, but I also stand to gain everything. Either way, it’s out of my control, and for the first time in a very long time, I don’t care to have full control. I have done the best that I can. I may be helpless to fix it all, but I get the sneaking suspicion that nothing needs to be fixed.

I’m more thankful than I ever have been in my life. I have learned a lot about myself in the last five years. I’ve learned that I prefer being open to being closed off; I’ve learned that I can’t control everything and how to function despite that lack of control; I’ve learned what it means to be a mother; I’ve learned what it means to be a spouse. I’ve learned how to forgive, and I’ve learned what it really means to love someone. Love is, by definition, sacrifice – at least by my estimation. I’ve learned that there is nothing that I wouldn’t sacrifice for my family. Yes, that includes Candace. And yes, that even includes me. I know now that I won’t feel guilty for sacrificing to protect them ever again. It is both a privilege and duty to love.

I glance next to me to see Tina feeding Chance from one of the pumped bottles, and I know that she and this family are more than worth it. In that last five years I have asked myself the questions that can either enslave or liberate, and I have found my answers. More importantly, I’ve chosen to be liberated.

Yes, it is a choice, a terrifying choice. Sometimes the unknown is scarier than the horrible complacence of the known. For me, I had been doing things one way, the wrong way, for so long that once I made the choice to face the unknown, to look for something better, I was paralyzed in my newfound freedom. This freedom left me confused and wondering: where do I go from here? It was then that I realized that in order to change, to find better, I had to start from the bottom. I had to lose everything and completely rebuild. It was a long and arduous process of peeling away all the layers of façade and bravado to get to the core of my being, and when I got there, I found myself wounded and infected.

It’s the first step that’s always the hardest, especially into the unknown. It’s a leap of blind faith, but I took it anyway. That’s the beauty of starting from scratch. There is nothing to lose from that point. So I did it. I opened up those wounds and painstakingly cleaned away the infection so that I could finally heal, knowing all the while that bleeding through it, hurting through it, was the only way to reach the second step.

I shift Rory to my shoulder and smooth my hand over her back. She’s getting so big and I feel like time is fleeting. Everything changes so fast. I knew that change is the only constant, the only reliable variable in this life, but now I realize it and feel it deep down in my bones. How ironic that change is so difficult for humanity to face, when in fact we face it on a moment-by-moment basis. But seeing it, seeing your true self, that is the essence of growth and change.

For the longest time I felt like I was gazing at myself through a glass darkly – my image distorted and indistinguishable. How could I change when I couldn’t even see what needed to change? Again, it took blind faith. But once I started, it’s that change, that clearing away of the infection, that polished the mirror to a high-gleaming shine, revealing the true nature of everything, and revealing not just the change, but the process of growth and the result of endurance, all in a single crystal-sharp image. It showed me exactly what I needed to see, exactly who I really am, and exactly who I want to be.

Who am I? I asked that question just two days ago, and now I can say unequivocally that I truly know. I am a mother and a child, a wife and a paramour, a protector and a refugee, a lover and a fighter, but most of all, I’m human – flesh and blood tightly wrapped around a framework of bones and controlled by synapses that fire randomly through a small organ that cannot comprehend its own existence or operation. I think Walt Whitman was describing human nature when he said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes… mostly earth.’ That is the human condition. And as such, I have accepted that I am just a person, a human, and utterly flawed.

That’s the point to all of this – a lesson; a cruel lesson, but a lesson nonetheless. And here is the answer I have found: everything is flawed but there is hope. For me, that hope is my family, my perfectly flawed family, and that hope is a waking dream. I live it every minute of every day, consciously and unconsciously. All the changing, the lack of control, the pain, the suffering, it’s all the answer and it’s all the question. We are human. And that’s why the best we can do is to make a choice, take a chance, and just hold on.

That’s what it takes, the ability to change but also the ability to endure. I know it and I can prove it because I did it. I changed my heart; I changed my mind, and I changed my life, and then I held on through all of the despair and self-loathing. I found the will to try and, through pain and tears, I was successful. I just had to care; I just had to try, especially when it was most hopeless. Why try? Well, it’s very simple in its complexity – life lingers and hope endures, but only love lasts forever. That is the be all and end all to a life worth having.

And for all of my ramblings and stray thoughts, I finally realize that I have been going about this all wrong. I do not need to shed my past. My past has helped to shape the person I am now, and I love who I am now. It is both relevant and irrelevant: relevant because it shaped me, irrelevant because I am not that person anymore. The person I am, my true self, is getting to her feet, with her wife, to put our children in their cribs, and is no longer running or offering a pound of flesh. There is nothing more I can sacrifice to show my love for myself or this family. The very best thing that I can do is to be thankful for a past that helped me to realize who I am and what I was missing, and gave me the courage to look straight into a bright future, even if it’s fleeting.

Just as we set the babies down, the phone on the dresser vibrates. Tina is closer to the device, so she reaches over and retrieves it, gazing down into the caller ID for a long, silent moment. I step up to her to take it from her loose grasp, and feel my heart drop into my toes as I see Joyce’s name on the screen. I’m running on pure adrenaline, my heart thudding against my ribs as I dazedly answer the call. “Joyce?”

“Bette…” There’s a long pause. “…the verdict’s in. We need to get to the courthouse as soon as possible.”

I swallow hard, my voice hoarse and my tongue dry. “Should I, um… should I bring… anything?”

Joyce sighs. “If it is a guilty verdict they will remand you into custody immediately. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but if you want… just in case… you can bring some socks, underwear, a toothbrush, deodorant, those types of things…”

Tina is gazing at me and, as I finally lift my eyes to meet her worried ones, I can tell that she heard Joyce’s muffled words in the too-quiet room. “Okay. Malcolm’s home, so we’ll get him over here to watch the children and meet you down there.”

Tina goes pale and turns to leave the room, and all I can do is stare after her even when she’s out of sight. “Alright. See you soon. And, Bette…?”

I somehow manage to croak out, “Yes…?”

“Try not to worry. We have options if it’s bad news.”

I chuckle mirthlessly and turn to look at my son, his eyelids fluttering with dreams, and a single tear escapes my eye. I release a deep breath. “I’ll try. Be there soon.”

I end the call and force myself not panic; I force myself not to grab my children and wife and run; I force myself not to break down and sob. Instead, my hands tremble as I run one of them through my hair and make my way to the bedroom. Tina is sitting on the edge of the bed, facing away from me and gazing out through the balcony doors. I approach her hesitantly, afraid that if I touch her or break the silence, she’ll disappear like a mirage.

As I step closer I see her shoulders shuddering with quiet sobs, and my own heart shatters into a trillion pieces that scatter and tear through all of my other organs. “T…?”

She stands abruptly, keeping her back to me to hide her tears as she swipes at them in frustration. She heads quickly for the closet, returning moments later with a leather satchel and placing it on the bed. She’s like a whirlwind moving about the room and depositing items that I’ll need inside. “I um…” She clears her throat. “…I’m not exactly sure what you’ll need.”

“T… it’s okay.” I want to go to her but she’s frantic as she makes her way to the bathroom.

She returns, dumping a few more items in the bag. Her words are quick. “I mean, what will they let you take?”

I step closer to her but she’s gone quickly. “T… it’s okay.” I make another move towards her but she dodges me, avoiding my eyes.

She heads over to the dresser, opening the top drawer and pulling out several pairs of underwear and socks. “This will get you through a few days, if they let you have it.”

“Tina, please… it’s okay.” She ignores me, placing the clothes in the bag before heading back into the closet.

She comes out with some of my plain tee shirts and tank tops, stuffing them in the nearly overflowing bag as well. “I can bring you other things if we forget something.”

She tries to shut the bag, yanking the zipper roughly and I move closer to her, my voice heavy with pleading. “T… it’s going to be okay…”

She pulls harder on the zipper, getting more and more frustrated by the minute. Her voice is stilted and rough as she struggles. “We just… we need to make sure… that you have… what you need.”

She tugs furiously on the stubborn closure, roughly hitting the side of the bag to deflate it as intense anger and frustration leak from her eyes and hands… and her very heart. I put my hands over hers to stop her. “T… I promise, it’s going to be–”

She shoves the bag hard, breaking my grasp and knocking it off the bed where the contents spill out. Her wet, anguished eyes finally meet mine as she shouts. “Stop saying that! It’s not going to be okay, Bette!”

She’s trembling as she gazes up at me and I feel completely dismantled as I reach out to comfort her but she moves away from me. She folds her arms over her chest, hugging herself and I worry that I’ve managed to lose her. We stand here in silent communion for long moments, knowing that there are no words to fix this, no touches to soothe this pain. She calms down and I see how utterly broken she is, how utterly broken I’ve made her.

The guilt of it is staggering as she nearly whimpers, “It’s not going to be okay, Bette. Even if you don’t go to jail, Kelly’s not going to give up. You know that. It’s…” She sobs uncontrollably, falling heavily onto the edge of the bed, and I finally realize the darkness that’s been eating at her this past week. “…it’s one thing to be separated from you, but always worrying and never knowing…” She looks up at me with desperate pleading in her eyes. “I can’t do that, Bette. I can’t know that you’re in danger and not do anything to stop it! I can live with you in prison. I’ll hate it, but it’s doable… but that…” She shakes her head jerkily. “I can’t live with that, Bette. I just can’t…”

I kneel in front of her, sliding into the space between her legs and running my hands up her thighs until they’re resting on her hips and I’m nearly hugging her. She tangles her fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck and rests her forehead down against mine as she cries piteously. I almost envy her in this moment. I close my eyes and release a deep breath. I’m too numb to cry.

“Then we’ll figure something out, T.” She clings to me more tightly. “Listen…” I pull back and gaze at her. “We have to handle this one thing at a time, okay?” She nods haltingly. “Right now, let’s just find out what the verdict is. Once that’s done, and we have a clear understanding of where we stand, we’ll talk to Duffy and figure the rest out. If there’s a way, she’ll know it, T.” She nods again and I wipe the tears from her flushed cheeks. I gaze hard into her eyes, my voice low and serious. “I promise you that we’ll find a way.” She releases a deep breath and smiles sadly, burying her face in my neck and squeezing me so hard that I can barely breathe, which is a good thing right now because it distracts me from the intricate mess of a promise I just made, a promise I have no idea how to keep.


The Lexus pulls up to the curb and I squeeze Tina’s hand a little tighter as the bright lights of the photographer’s cameras flash and sting my eyes. The steps in front of the courthouse look infinitely longer and frighteningly steeper today, and I swallow hard at what I’m about to face. I look to Shane in the driver’s seat and she reassures me. “Carm will go with you guys. I’ll park the Lexus and be right in.”

I nod and Tina’s voice pierces through me, “Come on. We’d better get in there.” I gaze into her eyes for a moment, realizing that this may be my last minute alone with her. Panic wells up in my guts and my heart starts to race. I can’t breathe and I want to run, take Tina and leave the country. Fuck, I must have been insane! What was I thinking? Tina pushes the haphazard curls out of my eyes and strokes my cheeks. The cameras in the windows are still blinking all around us as she leans in and kisses me sweetly. There is comfort and love in that kiss and while I feel infinitesimally better, I don’t know how to make myself move.

Tina’s eyes are warm and I want to fall into them as she says, “You can do this. We’ll get through it, remember?” I can see the swirling emotions she’s holding back and I hate them, but I’m thankful to her in this moment. If she breaks down, I’m most certain to follow. I nod my head mutely and take a deep breath, releasing it slowly before grabbing the handle and pushing the door open.

A cacophony of noise deafens me and I feel slightly claustrophobic as time slows down and the media swarms in around me. I’m frozen in place, the world shrinking in, and I wish for the earth to open up at my feet and swallow me whole. Tina puts her hand in mine and I look down at it dazedly. I almost can’t even feel it. I just feel intensely alone in this moment, even with the media circus raging around me.

My ears are ringing and I watch as Carmen starts cutting a path through the throng of vultures in front of us. Tina pulls me after her and it takes everything I have not to trip as questions are shouted, lights shutter spasmodically, and the enormous staircase seems never-ending.

When we finally reach the top, I see Joyce and Whit holding the doors open for us. We slip inside, Shane running to catch up with us, and the doors thankfully shut out the noise and the crowd. I take a deep breath, but my relief doesn’t last long as Whit steps up in front of me and says, “Bette, they’re waiting for us.”

I still can’t find my voice so I nod and he leads us down the hall. I can’t seem to get a grip on my thoughts or even fully realize what’s happening. All I can feel is the hole punched in my chest at the thought of letting go of Tina. She’s pressed up tightly to my side and I’m grateful that the media allowed in the courtroom didn’t wait in the hallway. This is bad enough without the whole world watching. We pull up in front of the double doors and I realize all my time has run out. As much as I’ve hated the anxious waiting of this last week, I just want to go home and hide… maybe wait forever and hope that it never comes. Tina’s voice is pleading as she addresses Whit. “Is there no way I can be inside with her?”

Whit shakes his head. “I’m sorry… both of you. Normally, since you won’t be testifying again, you would be allowed, but Compton has made it clear that witnesses are not allowed in the courtroom at any time during the proceedings.”

Tina swipes at her eyes and takes my hands in hers as she faces me. It’s every ounce of strength I have to face her, but I manage, just as she is somehow managing right now. My composure doesn’t last long and I find myself clinging to her so tightly that I’m worried I’ll crush her. She doesn’t seem to notice and I don’t think I could loosen my grip if I had a mind to, which I don’t. I’m fairly certain I don’t have a mind at all right now. “I’ll be in the office waiting. I’m not going anywhere.” I nod, my only viable form of communication as of this moment. “No matter what, I will see you again today. I’ll find a way, Bette.” I nod again, unwilling to let her go.

We stay this way for long moments, neither willing nor able to let go; but fate, God, the world at large, whatever you choose to call it, doesn’t seem to sympathize as Whit touches my arm. “Bette, it’s time.”

I force my stiff muscles to loosen so Tina can step back. She does so hesitantly and I kiss her softly, holding onto her hand until the last minute as the double doors are opened and I disappear inside, shutting her out behind me. Shane walks beside me and I’m so thankful for her today. We told everyone what was happening after we received the phone call, but there just wasn’t much time. We were fortunate to find Shane and Carmen at home and of course, being who they are, they dropped what they were doing to be here. The others are on their way.

Shane touches my shoulder, her eyes intense, and I smile sadly at her as she breaks away to take her seat right behind me. I continue to move forward, this short aisle seeming to span on for miles. Camera’s and faces are trained on me and I force myself to look forward. I finally reach my own seat and nearly collapse into it, gripping the desk in front of me as tightly as my tendons will allow, and taking deep, frantic breaths. I can’t pass out. I need to bone the fuck up and face this.

I turn my head and see Merle smirking, her dark eyes flooding my already overwrought system with rage. I should be thankful to her. The anger gives me the ability to focus, gives me the will to straighten my spine, square my shoulders, and push all of the anxiety, fear, and grief into a hard, compressed brick at the bottom of my stomach. More importantly, it gives me the will to face this with a modicum of grace. I stare at her, letting her know that even if I am convicted, there are no winners here today. Just being who she is, she’s already lost.

“All rise! District one criminal court is now in session. The honorable Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” The air is sucked from my lungs as I force myself not just to stand, but to stand tall. I jut out a proud chin, distribute my weight evenly on my locked knees, and control the shaking in my hands by clasping them in front of me.

Judge Compton waddles to his seat and hikes himself up into it like a chubby child into a highchair, and I feel a bead of sweat gather on my brow as the bailiff booms out, “The jury will now enter!”

I turn, facing this jury as they file in. If they are going to judge and condemn me, they had better be prepared to look me in the eyes while they do it. They each take their seats and I grip my own fingers tighter as Compton starts. “We’re back on the record. I understand that the jury has reached a verdict. Is that correct?”

There is a chorus of, “We have, your honor,” from the jury.

“Please fold the verdict form and hand it to the bailiff.” The bailiff retrieves the form and walks it over to the judge. Corky opens the paper and I watch a red flush gather on his cheeks, but I can’t tell if it’s from repulsion or elation. He passes the form to the clerk and turns back to the jury. “Madame foreperson, how does the jury find?”

The woman who passed the jury form to the bailiff focuses her attention on Compton and that bead of sweat in my hairline starts a torturously slow, salty trek towards my eyes. This is it. My future is whimpering at her feet in this moment, and I swallow the bile trying to climb up out of my throat. The foreperson’s voice is harsh and seems to come from a place far away as I detach myself from the situation. “In the case of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard for the charge of murder, we the jury find the defendant…”


Continued in Chapter 8 – Love.

Chapter 6 – Lies

I gaze out over the patio area in the late afternoon sun as my friends and family talk and stew around me. We weren’t supposed to, but we watched the news tonight and it was… damning. They only show the most sensationalized parts, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I feel eyes on me and look over at the adjacent lounge to see Tina’s anguished face. Her eyes are intent with apology and I stand, walk over to her, and settle in beside her. I put my arm around her back as she rests her head under my chin, a faint, “I’m sorry,” reaching my ears alone. I’ve told her it’s okay, but she doesn’t hear me. There’s truly nothing I can do to assuage her guilt, and I fear that nothing will, aside from a favorable verdict, a verdict that has all but vanished from possibility at this point.

As much as I hate Merle, I have to respect her ability. It’s a hard pill to swallow, allowing her to best me and break me, but that’s the way of the world. It’s wrought with poor decisions and even worse consequences. There is no control, not really. The only constant thing in this world is change… change and love. At least I know love and I’m learning to accept change.

I squeeze Tina, closing my eyes for a moment as Alice continues to seethe about the newscast. She’s pacing back and forth by the pool incredulously and it’s starting to make me slightly seasick. She’s a good friend with good, though sometimes misguided, intentions. I hear some clanging from the kitchen and look over to see Kit still cleaning up from dinner, drowning her emotions in harsh chemicals and disinfectants. She used to cope by drinking, but now she cleans, and cleans, and cleans some more. I watch her through the doors as she runs the mop over the same area for the third time, and ultimately I’m glad. She has found a healthier way of handling herself, and I’m proud of her.

Angie squeals and I look over to see Malcolm and Ming are curled around each other in the sun lounge talking to Tom as Malcolm tickles Angie. Ming is holding Rory and Tom has Chance. The way Malcolm and Ming cradle Rory and Angie, the way they touch each other, the way they speak to one another, the way they look like a happy family, I realize that it’s only a matter of time before they commit their lives to one another. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to complement a better brother. The love they’ve been fostering is visible and I’m proud of Malcolm. Though, in all likelihood, I won’t be there to see it, to partake in his joy as he finds fulfillment in his own family, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he will be fine. More than that, he will thrive.

Tom kisses Chance and grins before looking up to me. His eyes, so like my wife’s, are warm as they give me a wealth of information. Everyone else is upset but accepting of my fate, but not Tom. Tom is the only one who refuses to believe I’ll be anything but returned to my family free and cleared of this nightmare. It’s odd. It’s odd to feel his optimism and hope on a tangible level. He’s been steadfast, proactive, and there every day in the trenches of the courthouse steps to keep us safe as we enter and exit.  I have no idea what life holds for him, or if he’ll make it, but I do know that he’ll help take care of Tina and our children while I’m gone. His gaze, just now, as he looks lovingly at his sister still warm in my arms, tells me that nothing less will happen, though he truly believes there is no need. For the first time in a long time, I’m thankful that he’s here.

I hear a splash and a squeal and turn to see Carmen and Shane frolicking in the pool. They’re not as rambunctious as normal, but their love and respect for one another is written all over their faces and evident in their wet, playful slaps, gentle touches, and tender kisses. Shane, as usual, gives herself away with her eyes, and her gaze is only for Carmen. They are safe in whatever future they carve out for themselves from this shell of a world we live in. There is little more that someone can hope for from a single lifetime.

A bright light catches in my peripheral vision and draws my attention to Helena and Dylan sitting at the bottom of the balcony steps. They’re close but not touching as they sip from their wine glasses, Helena’s sips seemingly long and hardy as the sun prisms through the cup with each deep tilt. I sigh. Helena may just be too hardheaded to trust Dylan, and Dylan may just be too hardheaded to just give it time. Out of everyone here, these two are the ones I worry about the most.

Alice stops abruptly to glare at Shane who’s splashed her. “Shane, knock it off! This is serious!” Alice throws her hands up, frustrated tears leaking from her eyes. “All of you have just given up!” Alice lets out an angry, “Ugh,” and heads to the table, grabs her purse, and makes her way towards the back gate with her keys in her hand. Dana strides up to Alice determinedly, stopping her and taking her in her arms. Alice fights it for a moment before she drops her purse and keys and melts into the embrace, quietly sobbing. I close my eyes for a moment. I can’t cry, though I wish I could. I need to be strong right now and I’m fairly certain that if I start, I may not be able to stop, and I just don’t have that luxury.

Dana’s voice is gentle as she says, “We’re not giving up, Al. We’re scared, too. It’s just… what we can do right now…?”

Alice sniffs and leans back in the circle of Dana’s arms, gently stroking Dana’s still thin but much healthier cheek. There’s a long moment as they gaze at each other and I’m certain they’re going to kiss when I spy movement from the patio doors. I look over to see Kit lead Whit, Joyce, and Duffy across the threshold. Alice pulls away from Dana who sighs as the three of them approach us.

Tina releases me and we both start to stand but Joyce holds out her hand, indicating that we stay put. Kit helps get them situated in chairs from the table and joins us. The atmosphere is quiet except for the gentle rustle of wind in the foliage and the occasional passing car in front of the house, and we all curl in around the figurehead of my defense with full attention. Duffy is the first to speak. “Bette, Tina, I’m sorry that I’ve been unreachable and for cutting it so close. By the time I went through the appropriate channels and got the bank trail to lead me to Kelly, I learned that she had pulled some strings and been released a month early for good behavior. It took me most of the last two months to track her down and extradite her for violating her probation, but she’s being detained at Metro as we speak.” Fuck. I hadn’t even been paying attention to Kelly. She could have had us killed in our sleep and we’d have been sitting ducks. “That’s why I haven’t called. I was chasing her all over Britain, Italy, and Greece. If I hadn’t, we’d have probably never found her. I actually had to take a leave of absence because the chief wouldn’t approve it, at least not on the payroll.” She grins. “But I got her.”

I’m gazing at her intent face as she relates all of this, and I start to feel a little bitter. I’m glad that she got her nemesis, but I still don’t see how this helps my case. Her grin falters a little bit as she reads my expression but she smiles as she continues. “I’ve been talking with Whit and Joyce for the better part of the last three hours and we’ve been going over the information I gathered. Kelly has made payments to Merle Rothman, Catherine Rothberg, Candace Jewel, the CCC, and the WBC – those phobic kooks who have been picketing your trial.” So that’s why I didn’t remember Catherine… I’ve never actually met her. “I’m going on the stand tomorrow morning to not only discuss my findings from the crime scene, but expose Kelly’s pay-offs.”

Joyce cuts in. “We’re going to put Kelly up on the stand and see what we can get out of her.”

I smile sadly. “I’m really thankful for all of your help…” I look around to everyone. “…all of you, but I don’t see how this will exonerate me. Kelly can do what she wants with her money and there’s no way to prove that she is been trying to buy me a murder conviction, even with those records.”

Whit cuts in. “It’s far too convenient to be coincidental. And, if nothing else, Merle should have recused herself given your past with her and the funds that she’s received from someone that Lieutenant Duffy will testify has threatened you. I have a feeling that once we call Merle out, she’ll drop the charges to save her job.”

I frown at Whit. “But I don’t want her to do that…”

The entire area is deathly silent as everyone gazes at me like I’ve lost my mind. Tina opens her mouth to speak but Alice beats her. “What?! Why?!”

I gaze at Tina, taking her hands in my own. “T…” She huffs out a breath, pulling her hands away and standing to pace with rigid tension and an accusing gaze.

She finally calms down enough to speak. “Bette, you can’t be serious.” I don’t waver in my resolve and she gestures to our lawyers. “We have a way to stop this, a sure fire way to get you cleared, and you don’t want it?!” Her fury takes a backseat to her fear and pain. “Do you want to leave us?”

I lower my head, close my eyes, and take a deep breath before looking back up to her. “Of course I don’t…”

She sits back down, taking my hands. “Then why…?”

I search her eyes for understanding but find only terror as I stroke the backs of her hands with my thumbs. “T, if she moves to mistrial, she can do this to us again, or maybe worse. In order for that to really work, Whit would have to convince one of her deputies to bring up charges against her, and somehow I doubt she surrounds herself with reputable people.” Tina looks to Whit who nods his head in agreement. She looks back to me and the anguish in her beautiful hazel orbs breaks my heart. “T… I don’t want to go through this again. If I stick it out, I might beat it, and then she can’t touch me again, not about this.”

Tina shakes her head. “Bette, it’s not worth it…”

I implore her with my eyes. “T, I can’t live with my past hanging over my head anymore. I feel like I have to do this, like I have to go through this, so I can finally put it all to rest. I figured that out earlier today.” She’s softened, but she’s not sold. “I have to, T…”

She considers my words and I watch a small spark of anger ignite behind her eyes. “Is that what it will take for you to feel better about your past, a conviction you don’t deserve?” I exhale heavily, opening my mouth to explain but she soldiers on. “Is prison the only thing that’s going to make you feel better? I’m sorry, but no…” She stands, tears trying to fall from her trembling lashes. “I won’t stand here and watch you do this. You made a promise to this family and we need you here. If you do this…” A single tear falls. She can’t even look at me as she says, “I-I don’t… I can’t…”

She shakes her head and makes her way into the house. “T, wait…”

She doesn’t stop and I stand to follow her but Kit stops me. Her gaze is hard and I can tell that I’m going to be the only one on my side in this endeavor as she says, “Mm-hm, well, you stay out here and talk to your lawyers until you can get your head out of your ass. I’ll look after Tina.”

She disappears through the kitchen and I turn to look at the group, some staring at me aghast and some not able to meet my eyes at all. I make my way to the lounge and it feels cold out here now, despite the warm summer temperatures. I settle onto the lounge in a daze, Whit’s voice breaking through my foggy mind. “Bette, I understand what you’re saying, but Merle may not even try to have you prosecuted a second time, and while I will never admit defeat until I hear the conviction, you need to consider this carefully. If you get convicted, it’ll be hard to overturn the ruling.”

I look up at him. “There are a lot of possibilities, Whit, but if we’re granted a mistrial, I’ll be watching my back for the rest of my life and waiting for her to do something. I just want this over with.”

Malcolm comes over to me, placing Rory in my arms and I start to cry as I look down on my baby girl. Angie toddles up to me, putting her hands on my knees, her innocent eyes wide with worry. Malcolm crouches down in front of me. “Bette, please think about this.”

I kiss Rory’s cheek before scrubbing at my eyes and running a handing over Angie’s unruly coif. None of them can understand. None of them have lived with the regrets that I have. They weren’t as foolish as I used to be. This trial, while exhausting, has been good for me. I’m so, so close to being done with my past entirely. I need to finish this and be rid of it. My voice is hard even to my own ears as I say, “I’ve made my decision and it’s the only one I can live with. All of you will either support me, or you won’t. I’m facing this and I’m going to be free of my past once and for all. I will not run from it anymore.” I look to Whit. “I hope you’re ready for this because I’m counting on you to help me end this.”

He nods and I can tell he’s not happy, but I know he’ll give it his best. Determination is as much a part of him as it is a part of me. I look around at the angry and upset faces that surround me. I’m sorry they can’t understand, and I’m sorry that I’ve managed to hurt them with my decision, especially Tina, but I don’t run, I never have, and I don’t plan to start now.


The door to the office opens and the bailiff signals me forward. Joyce and Whit step in front of me and we start towards the door. Tina pulls me to a stop and makes one last plea from red, puffy eyes. “Bette, please… please don’t do this…” She spent most of the night and this morning distraught with worry and clinging to me, those same words repeatedly falling from her lips. She’s scared, so very scared, and I hate myself for doing this to her, but I have to.

I dip my head and kiss her sweetly, leaving a promise lingering on her lips as I say the only thing that comes to mind. “Trust me, T.”

She cries harder and I hold onto her hand until the last minute, my heart falling into my toes as the door shuts behind me, cutting me off from her and leaving her utterly shattered on the other side. Maybe… maybe I’m wrong to do this. I start to panic. My heart is racing as we step into the courtroom and take our seats at the defendant’s desk. The room is quiet despite the gentle murmuring whispers from the gallery behind me.

I pull the picture from my blazer pocket and set it in front of me, gazing down into the happy faces of my family. I could be making a huge mistake, giving my family up for no reason… well, for my own peace of mind. Is it selfish to need this despite their feelings? Is it selfish to need to be free of my past? Have I not given enough to them, for them? More importantly, can I be what they need in the future if I’m still stuck in this past?

The bailiff’s voice booms out and we all stand. No matter how much I doubt myself, it’s too late now. The judge settles in his bench and it all starts over again: the jury files in, we’re told to sit, the judge calls the proceedings to a start, and Whit calls Dr. Leonard Newsome to the stand. The doctor’s glasses, thinning comb-over, and still-boyish looks for someone who must be in his early fifties, remind me of Woody Allen. He is sworn in and escorted to the witness stand where he lays a file out in front of him, adjusting the file just so on the surface and smoothing the pages to make sure there are no creases. Whit steps forward, tall, commanding, and infinitely calm despite how frustrated he must be with my choice.

“Dr. Newsome, thank you for being here today.”

The man looks up from what appears to be a compulsion to neaten things with a bright grin on his face, his voice nasal as he says. “Oh, I love explaining my work, so I’m glad to be here.”

He pushes the thick glasses up on his nose, happily awaiting Whit’s first question. Whit buttons his blazer. “Please state your name and occupation for the record.”

The doctor clasps his hands in his lap, shoulders hunched as he leans into the desk and answers, “Dr. Leonard Newsome. I’m a medical examiner for the Los Angeles county medical examiner’s office.”

“How long have you worked for the medical examiner’s office?”

His grin is wide and genuine. “Nearly twenty years.”

“And what do you do at the medical examiner’s office?”

“I’m a medical examiner in charge of examining deceased individuals and documenting pertinent medical evidence including, but not limited to, the cause and manner of death. It’s all very exciting.”

The doctor is grinning and his eyes are twinkling, and though he seems kindly, he gives me the distinct impression that he needs to spend more time with the living. Whit smiles awkwardly in return and soldiers on. “Did you examine the body of Candace Jewel?”

“Yes.” The doctor smoothes his hands over the pages in front of him. “I have all of the information right here.”

“Excellent. What did you determine the cause of death to be for Candace Jewel?”

The doctor looks down at the information in front of him and reads, mumbling to himself for a long moment before saying, “Ah, yes. This was a fascinating mess.” He looks up at Whit, his smile disconcertingly jolly as he says, “I found a .38 special slug lodged in the left side of the pleural cavity. The point of entry originated from the right side of the chest, at a forty-eight degree angle. The slug tore through the right lung, through the mediastinum where it grazed the aorta, and stopped in the upper section of the left lung. The right lung began to collapse and both suffered severe pneumorrhagia, which resulted in asphyxiation.” He chuckles. “And if that hadn’t been enough, the amount of blood that was regurgitating from the tear in the aorta would have bled her out moments later.” There’s a gleam in his eyes. “Even if she had been shot in a fully prepared and staffed operating room, it’s doubtful that she would have survived. It’s a doozy.” He lets out another short chortle. “It was truly one of the more fascinating cases I have ever worked.”

Whit clears his throat. “So you’re saying she suffocated as a result of a gunshot wound?”

“Well, ultimately, she suffocated because her lungs were rapidly filling with blood. But there was much more to it than that.” The doctor’s eyes shine with delight. “Gunshot wounds can do massive damage, especially shotguns and buckshot, but a single bullet to do this kind of damage…” He titters in awe. “Well, it’s just remarkable.”

Whit walks over to Joyce, asking his next question over his shoulder. “Did you take x-rays prior to performing the autopsy?”

“Yes. It’s necessary in cases where it’s possible that there is an object inside the body that needs to be retrieved. It can also help us to determine the cause of death. In the last ten years, it’s become common practice…”

The doctor keeps droning on delightedly as Whit hands Merle the x-ray for approval. She doesn’t contest it, she doesn’t really have a choice. Moments later, Whit has it blown up on the overhead screen and paces a few times in front of the doctor until he finally finishes. Whit tucks his hands in his pockets and as says, “The defense moves to enter exhibit number 131 into evidence. Doctor Newsome, is this the x-ray you took of Candace Jewel?”

The doctor nods. “Yes. I took that before I began the autopsy.”

Whit points at what looks like a puncture wound and asks. “Is this the point of entry of the bullet?”

Leonard clears his throat, pushing his thick glasses hard against the bridge of his nose as he looks hard at the x-ray. “Yes. If you look at the black trail through the chest from that point of entry to the bullet…” Whit uses a laser to point out the dark trail linking the wound to the small piece of metal and Leonard nods. “…that is the actual path the bullet took once it entered the chest. You can see where it tore through the one lung, nicked the heart, and then lodged in the other lung. Just incredible… ”

“Approximately how many autopsies have you performed in your twenty years as a medical examiner, Doctor?”

Leonard’s brows shoot up on his forehead and he chortles, his voice proud as he relates, “Probably ten thousand.”

Whit paces to the right. “And would you consider these wounds to be normal for a shooting?”

“Oh, no, not at all, that’s why it’s so exciting! You see, most shootings occur with a direct line-of-site.” He holds out his hand, pointing it at Whit like a gun. “This one is the first of its kind I’ve seen. The angle that it entered and the point of origin would be unlikely and difficult to achieve, even with a premeditated murder.”

“How did you reach that conclusion?”

He chuckles, his nasal voice slightly condescending as he says, “Well, it’s common sense. If you want to kill someone with a gun, chances are you’ll take a direct approach and aim for the head or heart. You wouldn’t ask your victim to raise their right arm and get on your knees so you can shoot up into their side from an incredibly odd angle.” He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s just highly unlikely and highly unusual.”

Whit nods as he removes the x-ray and adds it to the submitted evidence. “Did you find anything else during the autopsy?”

Leonard thumbs through his file and clears his throat. “Yes, I ran a toxicology test and found high levels of Fluoxetine, Prozac, in her bloodstream, as well as concentrated levels of phenycyclidine, or PCP.”

“So Candace was using a controlled, illegal substance with side effects known to make individuals more volatile?”

“Yes.”

“And that was in addition to prescribed psychotropic drugs that are also known to make someone more volatile?”

“Well, no, I mean, yes… I mean, yes, she was taking a psychotropic drug that can increase homicidal tendencies as a side effect, but I was unable to locate any hospital or physician records that indicate it was prescribed, so I don’t believe that she was receiving the Prozac under the care of a licensed physician.”

Whit nods. “So you believe all of the substances found in the toxicology report to have been illegally abused?”

“Yes.”

“Did you find anything else of note during your examination?”

“Yes, she had a hairline fracture on her right ulna, or forearm, as well as contusions on the knuckles of her right hand.”

Whit walks over to Joyce who hands him some photos… photos of me. “In your medical opinion, what would have caused those wounds?” Whit takes the photos to Merle who can’t contest them, so she sits back angrily, crossing her arms over her chest and plotting ways to pollute the facts or manufacture doubt.

“The fracture is the result of blunt force trauma. The external bruising at the fracture sight is minimal so it’s unlikely that a weapon was used. It appeared to be caused during the altercation or perhaps while falling. The wounds on the right knuckles…” Whit puts the picture under the projector and I see my bruised eye and stitched forehead blow up on the screen. “…are consistent with a fist fight, indicating that she had been hitting something.”

Whit addresses the courtroom. “The defense would like to enter exhibit number 119 into evidence.” He returns to Newsome, pacing as he asks, “Doctor, the injuries on Candace’s knuckles, is it likely they would have caused injuries like these?”

Whit points at the projector and Leonard squints his eyes, adjusting his glasses as he peers at my photo before nodding his head. He studies my bruised face for a moment and seems to get excited. He hurriedly flips through his file where he pulls out a photo, smiles, and says, “Ah ha, yes.” He holds the image out to Whit who shows it to Merle who again can’t contest it. He replaces my photo under the projector as the doctor eagerly explains. “That image is the deceased’s right hand. See the large ring on the digitus medicinalis, um, the ring finger, of her right hand?” We all gaze at the gaudy, fake gold ring. “That ring could have easily caused the gash on the left side of the defendant’s forehead in the previous photo.”

Whit lifts the photo. “Can we keep this photo, Doctor Newsome?”

Leonard smiles. “Yes, of course. The negatives are always kept in the file should duplicates be needed.”

“The defense would like to add exhibit number…”

Whit turns to Joyce who glances at the evidence list and offers a number not already assigned. “…168.”

Whit finishes. “The defense would like to add exhibit number 168 into evidence.” He moves the photo from the projector to the evidence pile and returns to Leonard, pacing as he asks, “Doctor, was there any other relevant information you discovered during the autopsy?”

Leonard looks through his file for a moment before shaking his head. “No, that’s really all there was to it.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I have no further questions.”

Whit returns to his seat and Merle stands. I have no idea why she’d want to cross-examine him considering his testimony was strictly medical findings, but then again, if anyone could find a way twist even the most factual evidence, it’s Merle fucking Rothman. She walks up to Leonard, her stride and demeanor almost… flirtatious? I swallow the bile rising up in my throat. She can’t be serious. “Doctor Newsome, thank you for being here today.” He nods and she smiles as she continues. “I know you must be a very busy man, so I’ll try not to take up too much of your valuable time.”

Leonard chortles nervously and gulps. “I-It’s no trouble at all, ma’am.”

Merle grins widely and gazes straight into his eyes before finally starting with her fucking questions. “You stated that Candace’s ring is consistent with the gash on the defendant’s forehead, but couldn’t that wound have been caused by any ring?”

“Uh, um, yes, I suppose it could, though that particular ring would fit the wound exceedingly well and a DNA test could easily–”

Merle interrupts. “So ultimately, it could have been any ring. You can’t prove it was Candace’s specifically?”

Merle leans in a little bit and I want to be sick as Leonard’s eyes track to her chest and he gulps. “Um, yes, it could have been any ring or sharp object, but just a quick test–”

Merle smiles again. “Thank you, Doctor. Just one more question. The defendant testified that she was lying on the floor and saw the deceased pointing a gun at her family. If she had fired the gun from that position, would that attribute to the strange angle of the entry wound?”

“Uh, well, yes, I suppose it could help account for it, but I imagine the angle at the time of entry would have been much higher.”

“But it is possible?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Thank you, Doctor. No further questions.”

Leonard is escorted from the room and I have to hand it to Merle, she could twist anything into a mess if she had a mind to; unfortunately for me, she does. Once the doctor is gone Whit stands. “The defense calls Marybeth Duffy to the stand.”

Duffy is escorted forward, sworn in and seated, and I feel like the pressure in the room is dropping. It’s getting close now. Kelly was the only witness left after Duffy and then it’s over… my fate will have been sealed. I feel the pendulum pinch in a little closer and the room starts to vibrate with nervous energy. I just want to be done, and God help me, I hope I haven’t made the biggest mistake of my life.  Whit’s voice is warm as he welcomes and thanks her. “Lieutenant Duffy, thank you for being here today.”

Duffy nods, setting her file on the desk in front of her. “You’re welcome.”

Whit tucks a hand in his pocket. “Lieutenant, how are you currently employed?”

“I work for the city of Los Angeles Police Department, West Hollywood.”

“How long have you been with the city of Los Angeles Police Department?”

“Approximately four years.”

“And are you a P.O.S.T. certified police officer?”

“Yes, I am.”

“What are you current job duties and responsibilities?”

“I work for the LAPD’s homicide division. I’m a Lieutenant II, which means I ensure appropriate and sufficient deployment of officers depending on crime trends, respond to scenes of serious crimes such as homicides, make sure the Captain is apprised of critical information, as well as assume the role of acting Captain in his absence.”

“Do you respond to all of the homicides that are reported?”

“No, not all of them. I only have jurisdiction over my geographical area in West Hollywood. Other stations within Los Angeles will have a lieutenant to cover other homicides in other areas.”

“When you are called to the scene of a homicide, what are your duties?”

“I delegate officers to provide certain functions, such as taping off the crime scene to prevent contamination and assisting in the collection of evidence. I also make sure that the bomb squad, S.W.A.T. team, forensics team, coroner, EMTs, et cetera are on-site as needed. After that, I’ll assign a detective to the case and help him or her to locate and prosecute the perpetrator.”

Whit nods. “Did you respond two months ago to a shooting that had taken place on Harper Avenue at the home of Bette and Tina Porter-Kennard?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do when you arrived on the scene?”

“I arrived roughly ten to fifteen minutes after patrol officers and medical support had responded to the call from dispatch. I ordered the officers to tape off the area and keep civilians off the premises. When I entered the residence, I saw the defendant unconscious, and her wife, in the far corner of the room.” Corky glares at Duffy and I wonder if he is mildly retarded. She’s talking about a murder scene and all he can focus on is the fact that we’re lesbians? “EMTs were assisting Bette, so I focused on identifying the body just behind the front door. I found a wallet in her back pocket, and identified her as Candace Jewel. One of the other EMTs informed me that she was already dead when they had arrived, and the body had been moved from the front door by responding officers.”

“Did you collect any evidence yourself?”

Duffy nods. “I collected the statements from both the defendant and her wife. That is all the evidence I personally collected.”

“What other evidence was collected?”

“The forensic evidence, fingerprints, et cetera, were handled by the LAPD forensics team. Medical evidence, such as the bullet that took Ms. Jewel’s life, the cause of death, and the body itself, were collected by the medical examiner and coroner. The physical evidence, gun, bullet casings, et cetera, was collected and processed by the lead detective, Mario Leavenworth, to whom I assigned to this case.”

“Is there a process of assigning someone or do you hand-pick the lead detective for specific reasons?”

“No, there is a rotation that pulls from a pool of twenty to twenty-five detectives. Each time a detective is assigned to a case, he or she is moved to the bottom of the rotation, giving them about a month to a month and a half before they’ll be assigned a new case. Of course, sometimes it’s less depending on the number of homicides. The gap in cases gives them time to focus on closing their current case before another is added to their workload. Mario was the next detective in line, so he was assigned.”

Whit paces to the right. “Starting with the witness evidence, can you please explain your findings?”

Duffy flips through her information before speaking. “I spoke with Bette and Tina that afternoon in the hospital. Both of them stated that when they arrived home, Ms. Jewel was waiting for them with a gun and held them at gunpoint. They stated that the gun was fired once as a warning shot before Bette and Candace fought for control of the weapon. The gun was fired a second time during this altercation, after which the gun was dropped. Bette stated that she received several blows to the head before Ms. Jewel again obtained the weapon and aimed it at Tina who had called 9-1-1 from the residential phone. Bette moved in front of the weapon, grabbed it, and turned it away from herself where it was fired once more, fatally wounding Ms. Jewel and thus ending the altercation.”

Whit paces to the left. “What forensic evidence was collected?”

“There were fingerprints on the gun from both the defendant and the deceased. Ms. Jewel’s fingerprints were the only prints present on the handle of the weapon. Mrs. Porter-Kennard’s fingerprints were found only on the barrel of the weapon.”

“Did this evidence line up with my client’s statement?”

“Yes. If Bette had fired the weapon, her fingerprints would have been on the handle. Bette stated that she grabbed the gun and turned it as it was being fired. This evidence lines up with that statement.”

Whit paces to the right. “What other forensic evidence did you catalog?”

She reads from the file again for a moment and looks up. “Ms. Jewel’s fingerprints were also found on the back door, on the inside, near the deadbolt, where a window pane in the door had been busted out.”

“And does this fit with my client’s statement?”

“Yes. Both Bette and Tina stated that Candace was in the house when they arrived. We determined this to be the point of unlawful entry.”

Whit nods. “Was there any other forensic evidence?”

“Yes. We also performed gun powder swipes on all three witnesses: Tina, Bette, and Candace. We found residue burns on both of Bette’s hands, and only on Candace’s right hand. Tina had not handled the weapon at all.”

“Does this evidence fit the defendant’s story?”

“Yes. People rarely switch hands while firing a weapon, so Bette’s story that she had been gripping the gun as it was being pointed at her not only seemed plausible, but probable.”

Whit nods. “Based on the evidence gathered, what was the official determination of the Los Angeles Police Department for this case?”

“It was ruled as an accidental death, and even if it hadn’t been, penal code 198.5, the Home Protection Bill of Rights, states that the defendant had the right to defend her home and loved ones against an unlawful intruder if reasonable danger was present. Either way, we would not have arrested her. Given that all of the evidence matched her story, we had no reason to pursue a conviction.”

“Lieutenant, do you see any reason why my client should have been charged?”

“No, I do not.”

“In your professional opinion, why do you think she was prosecuted?”

My heart starts pounding in my throat as I look hard into Duffy’s eyes. They had better not have this trial thrown out against my wishes. I want this over. Duffy smirks at me as she says, “I believe that there is someone with a vendetta against your client that is trying to have her prosecuted.”

Merle stands. “Objection. No evidence presented substantiates this.”

Whit turns to Corky. “The Lieutenant does have hard evidence to support this theory, your honor. That is why I asked the question.”

Corky waves his hand imperiously. “Overruled.”

Merle sits down rigidly and Whit tucks his hands in his pockets as he paces to the left. “Lieutenant, how did you come to this conclusion?”

Duffy holds up the file in her hands. “While investigating Candace’s death, I had a hunch and I followed it. I looked into Ms. Jewel’s financial records. She had been receiving large sums of money for the past year from Kelly Wentworth.” Duffy looks at Merle. “Others involved in this case have received payments from this same individual as well.”

Merle stands in a panic. “Objection! Um, uh… relevance!”

Corky calls the attorneys forward and I watch as Joyce joins them in a heated argument. Merle is angry. Everything from her wild hand gestures to the muted and unintelligible scratching sounds of her quieted voice scream panic. While I have no intention of having her outed during this trial, it is exceedingly pleasing to see her squirm.

Merle’s squirming relaxes into an easy smile and my heart sinks into my toes. She just got the evidence thrown out… and it’s over. Without that evidence, I don’t see how we can win this. Whit and Joyce are still fighting it, but Merle’s no longer worried. There’s a surge of ire through my blood, quickening my breaths and causing my heart to throb in my temples. It lasts only a moment as calm acceptance takes over. She’s won and there’s no sense being angry about it.

I pull the photo from my pocket and stare at the happy faces of my family in a daze. A warm body settles in next to me, leaning in to whisper, “Merle got the financial evidence thrown out but don’t worry. Whit has something else up his sleeve. Duffy was very thorough. This isn’t over yet, Bette.”

I hear Joyce but her words aren’t registering. All I can do is gaze at my family, this beautiful family that I will only see through a Plexiglas window once a week. My heart aches to hold them right now, find any sense of comfort that being with them instills in me. I feel… empty, just empty, and I did this to myself. I traded my family for peace of mind, peace of soul, and now I realize too late that it won’t work. Either way, if it’s only one or the other, I’ll never have peace of mind. Just like with everything in my world, it seems it’s all or nothing.

Corky’s hate-laden voice is smug as he proudly proclaims, “Sustained. The jury will disregard the witness’s last remark.”

I look to see Duffy’s eyes darken in anger as Whit approaches her, still tall, intimidating, and calm, even while extremely frustrated. I can see one of the hands tucked into his pockets fidgeting as he continues. “Lieutenant, is there any other pertinent information or evidence to this case that corroborates my client’s statement?”

Duffy seems to be reading something on his face and leans back in understanding. “All of the physical, medical, and forensic evidence corroborates Bette and Tina’s statements–”

Merle’s rasping voice interrupts again. “Objection, your honor. Not all of the evidence corroborates the defendant’s statement, only some. While the defendant’s statement is a viable option, it has not been proven to be fact, and there are other options to be considered that are just as viable.”

Corky rolls his eyes as he says, “Sustained. The jury will disregard the witness’s last remark.” He turns to Duffy. “Please stick to the facts, Lieutenant.”

Duffy is seconds from reaching over the bench and strangling this man, but the untrained eye would never know it. I’ve glimpsed the darkness that lies behind her aloof, condescending demeanor, and honestly, she’s frightening. Her sky-blue eyes are like ice, her countenance smug and dangerous as she little more than ignores the judge and continues. “There is one more fact to consider.” I furrow my brows and perk my ears to listen. “Approximately four years ago, Bette’s gallery was targeted for embezzlement by Kelly Wentworth. While Kelly was being booked, Bette and Tina were at the station and Kelly threatened them before being escorted to a holding cell. Her business card was found in Candace Jewel’s wallet.” She opens her file and hands the card to Whit who takes it to Merle. Merle sighs, knowing she can’t contest this and Whit adds it into the evidence.

“Lieutenant, are you saying that a woman with a personal vendetta against my client contacted Candace Jewel?”

“Yes.”

“What was Ms. Wentworth’s threat as she was being booked?”

“When Kelly found out that Bette turned her in, she was angry. Bette asked her if she was planning to kill her and Kelly just laughed. She didn’t say it directly, but the intent was visible.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I have no further questions.”

Whit returns to our table and Merle saunters up to Duffy as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. “Lieutenant, I’d like to have another look at the evidence with you. You stated that there were fingerprints from both Candace and Bette on the gun?”

Duffy’s voice is calm. “Yes.”

“Bette’s prints were found on the barrel and Candace’s prints on the grip?”

“Yes.”

“Is it impossible to fire a gun if you’re holding it incorrectly?”

“It’s nearly impossible. It takes a lot of effort to fire it while holding the barrel. The recoil would injure you and there would be little to no precision.”

Merle nods. “So it’s possible?”

“Very difficult, but possible.”

Merle tucks her hands behind her back and starts pacing. “You state the precision would be altered?”

“The precision would be nearly non-existent.”

“Couldn’t that account for the odd angle of the point of entry?”

Duffy smirks at Merle. “At close range, gripping nothing but the barrel, the chances of you shooting yourself are far higher than being able to aim a weapon on anyone else. Also, as I already stated, the recoil would injure you because you wouldn’t be able to brace and absorb it correctly.”

“But… it’s still possible?”

Duffy smirks. “It’s a billion to one possibility. Bette’s statement–”

Merle holds up a hand. “You stated that Candace’s fingerprints were on the backdoor near the padlock where a windowpane was busted out.”

“Yes.”

“Is there any way to disprove that Candace may have attempted to escape through the back door, but was attacked, and that’s when the altercation occurred and moved them to the front room?”

Duffy’s eyes are hard as she considers this. “No.”

“So it’s possible those prints got there by innocent means?”

“It’s unlikely.”

“Is it or is it not within the realm of possibility?”

“Yes.”

Merle smiles and switches gears. “Lieutenant, you stated that when you arrived, you identified Candace via the contents of her wallet. Did you find Kelly Wentworth’s card at that time?”

“No. We didn’t fully search the contents until the evidence had been collected and processed at the station.”

“Had you known Kelly Wentworth prior to her arrest for embezzlement?”

“Yes.”

“How did you know her?”

Duffy’s eyes grow impossibly dark with a past that still haunts her and I realize that that look is precisely why I’m here. I don’t want to have my past hanging over my head anymore like hers does. “I was a sergeant for the New York Police Department before accepting the Lieutenant position here four years ago. While working homicide, I was assigned to investigate the death of Deke Wentworth, Kelly’s husband.”

Merle nods. “And did you ever find who committed that crime?”

“No conviction was made. The case is still open.”

“Did you attempt to prosecute Kelly Wentworth?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“The evidence pointed to her, but her alibi checked out.”

“Did you drop the case after her alibi cleared her?”

“No.”

“Did you harass her?”

“No, I tailed her, as is within my rights while investigating a suspect.”

“How long did you continue to pursue her after she’d been cleared?”

“Nearly three months.”

Merle nods. “And during this time, did you ever have a confrontation with her?”

Duffy clenches her jaw. “Not directly.”

“Who did you have a confrontation with?”

“I found out that she’d been having an extramarital affair with her alibi, John Willis, for more than a year before her husband had died. I also found out that her husband had put in a request with his lawyer for a divorce five days prior to his death. She had signed a prenup when they had married, and she was about to lose everything. He husband died before the divorce was completed. I went to John Willis and tried to get the truth out of him, showing him the information I had discovered. He told me he was too scared to testify against Kelly and advised me to leave her alone. He said that bad things tend to happen to people who interfere in her life. A week later I was staking out the front door of her apartment building. She was inside. I-I fell asleep because I had been working double shifts, and when I woke, there was a manila folder on the windshield. Inside of it were pictures of my wife and daughter at the grocery store, the park…” Duffy swallows hard. “The threat was clear.”

Merle interrupts. “So ultimately, you have no evidence to tie Kelly Wentworth to any of these events?”

Duffy seethes. “No. It’s my word against hers. But I can tell you this, I ignored that warning, and…” Duffy’s emotions seem to shut down, her eyes shudder closed, and her voice becomes detached as she finally reveals her past. “…and a week later my wife and child died in a car accident. The driver was John Willis, who happened to be extremely intoxicated.”

“So you believe that Kelly targeted you and committed these crimes?”

“Yes.”

“But you can’t prove any of it.”

“No. I can’t.”

“So you believe that Kelly killed her husband but you can’t prove it. You say that she threatened you, but you can’t prove it. You believe that she killed your family, but you can’t prove it. You blame her for all of these terrible occurrences, but can’t prove them?”

“I see blame where it is due, Ms. Rothman.”

“So you followed her here to L.A., hoping you could fulfill the hope of catching her, is that correct?”

Duffy stiffly replies, “I saw a promotion and place to start over. She just happened to be here.”

“Do you still hope to catch her?”

“I want her to pay for her crimes.”

“So it’s safe to say that you’d do anything, even illegally link her to this case, as a way to make her pay for her the alleged crimes you can’t substantiate?”

Duffy expression is deadly serious as she looks Merle right in the eyes. “No. If I was willing to do break the law to take her down, I’d have done much more than tie her to this case.” Duffy leans forward, her eyes almost black and power radiating off of her. “She’s a criminal, Ms. Rothman. Given time, she’ll slip up. I will be there to escort her to her jail cell when she does, but it will be by legal means.”

Merle leans in. “So tying her to this case isn’t your way of hurrying the process along?”

“No. I found her card in Candace’s wallet. A dead woman tied her to these proceedings.”

You found that evidence in Candace’s wallet?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t plant that evidence?”

“No. I’m not a criminal.”

“Don’t you find that coincidental?”

“No, just lucky.”

“No further questions, your honor.”

Duffy stands and glares at Merle on her way out, the bailiff in tow. Compton turns to Whit, frustrated. “Does the defense have any further witnesses?”

Whit stands. “Yes, your honor. The defense would like to call Kelly Wentworth to the stand.” I watch Merle as moments later Kelly is brought in through the door towards the front of the room. She and Kelly make eye contact and I wonder how on earth Whit is going to get me out of this mess.

Kelly is dressed like a traffic pylon, her hair shorter and just barely reaching her shoulders. Her restraints clank as she shuffles to the witness stand, a bailiff gripping her bicep tightly. She’s sworn in and seated, her too-wide, disturbingly blank eyes locking onto me. She’s grinning widely at nothing in particular and I can tell that seeing me provokes no reaction in her at all. It’s almost as if she doesn’t recognize me.

She’s changed since the last time I saw her. She looks… hardened. Her face is more creased and prematurely aged, though her conservative makeup is relatively successful at hiding some of it. Her teeth are still white and her smile wide, though she doesn’t have any of her usual predatory flair. All in all, it’s disconcerting to see her and I have no idea what it was that I saw in her in college, or what it was about her that would cause me to toy with her when she re-entered my life. I look at her, and like my past, I see nothing appealing. I’m struck by just how much of my life I wasted before realizing who I really am. And part of me now still wonders, still struggles with that one question: who am I?

Whit steps up to her and a heavy silence falls over the room as he stares at her. I can only see his back so I have no idea what he’s thinking as he studies her, but that same cat-like grin of faltering lucidity is splitting her face as she gazes up at him. The vacancy in her eyes forces me to wonder if they lobotomized her while in prison, or maybe brought back electroshock therapy. Whit finally breaks the silence and I exhale slowly as he treats her very gently. “Thank you for being here today, Mrs. Wentworth.”

Kelly crosses her legs, demurely pushing the hair out of her face. “It’s not like I had a choice.”

Whit tucks his hands in his pockets. “I’ll try to make this as easy as possible for you, Mrs. Wentworth.” Her expression is still vacant as Whit continues. “Four days ago you were found in violation of your probation and hiding in the small village of Manganitis, Greece. You had been listed as time served, though you had one year probation as a condition of your early release. Now, I don’t believe you were, but I have to ask… were you running?”

Kelly doesn’t even flinch, her voice innocent. “Oh no! I have no reason to run. I didn’t know I couldn’t travel and I was going to come back anyway. I wanted to get out and see the world, so on a whim, I did.”

Whit nods. “The release papers you signed stated the terms of your probation clearly. Did you read them before signing?”

She giggles girlishly. “I was so excited to be getting out, that I’m afraid I wasn’t paying very much attention. Besides, my lawyers assured me that everything on the document was fine.”

Whit smiles warmly. “They didn’t tell you that travel plans have to be approved by your probation officer?”

She shyly tucks a lock of short hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry, I’m not really sure. Like I said, I was just so excited. It was all just a misunderstanding. I have ties here. This is my home. I wouldn’t want to run away… I have no reason to run.”

“Mrs. Wentworth, how do you know my client, Bette Porter-Kennard?”

“We were roommates and best friends at Yale.”

“You were best friends?”

Kelly finally reacts, though it seems practiced as her expression turns remorseful, her voice pathetic. “Yes, unfortunately, Bette and I had a misunderstanding that ended our friendship.”

“What was this misunderstanding?”

She sighs, appearing to all the world to be deeply pained. “Like I said, we were best friends and roommates. We spent almost all of our time together. Well…” She swallows hard. “I-I knew that Bette was… a lesbian, and although I’m not like that, she was still my friend, you know? I loved her.” Whit nods and she continues. “Well, I didn’t realize it, but I guess she had… feelings, for me. She tried to kiss me one night, but I was in love with my boyfriend, Deke. I tried to explain that to her but she got… she got so angry. She tried to kiss me again, and I-I had to push her off. I knew she was jealous of Deke, but what could I do? I just didn’t feel that way about her.” She shakes her head sadly. “She got very depressed after that… stopped talking to me, stopped talking to everyone. I was so worried about her, but she wanted nothing to do with me. Two days later, when I came back to the room, she had moved out, and that was it.” She shrugs despondently. “It hurt and I felt terrible, but I couldn’t fix it for her. It was all just a misunderstanding…”

“Were you upset about Bette?”

“Yes, of course… we were so close. It hurt me deeply.”

“Were you angry with her for what had happened?”

“For a long time I was, but I had Deke and my other friends to help me.”

Whit nods. “You married Deke?”

Kelly smiles sadly. “Yes. He was the love of my life. I miss him so much.”

“What happened with Deke, Mrs. Wentworth?”

She exhales a heavy, shuddering breath. “He um, a few years into our marriage, he started to drink all the time and he was having affairs. But I loved him, and I thought we would work it out.” A single, manufactured tear falls from one of her empty eyes. “I tried everything to keep us together, but he wouldn’t stop the affairs…”

“That must have been devastating.”

She sniffs. “Yes. I was heart-broken.”

“Did it anger you that he wouldn’t stop having affairs?”

“Yes… and no. It hurt me deeply.”

Whit’s voice gentles. “Is that why you had an affair with John Willis… because you were angry with Deke… you want him to know how it felt?”

Kelly chokes out a single, emotional reply. “Yes.”

“What happened next, Mrs. Wentworth?” It takes several moments for Kelly to reply and Whit hands her a tissue. “Take your time, Mrs. Wentworth.”

She nods gratefully, letting a few long moments pass as she cleans herself up. “Things started to get worse. One night, we had a huge fight. He-he hit me and I knew that I had to leave him. I went and spent the night with John, and…” She sobs out the rest. “…when I got home, Deke… he-he was dead at the bottom of the stairs!” She weeps for a long moment before continuing. “He-he must have gotten drunk and fallen…”

Whit waits several minutes while she collects herself and continues. “The lead detective on Deke’s case thought that you had pushed your husband.”

She snaps her head up, her tears vanishing. “No! Never!” She looks around, remembering where she is, and clears her throat and fixes her hair, the tears returning. “I loved him.” She takes a deep breath and calms down. “That detective…” She says the word as if it tastes sour. “She was just confused. It was all just a misunderstanding…”

Whit nods. “Was the detective harassing you?”

“Yes, she stalked me and tried to intimidate me for months.”

Whit paces to the left. “That must have made you very angry, to be accused of killing your husband and then have a detective who wouldn’t believe you watching your every move.”

Kelly’s voice is low. “Yes.”

“So you didn’t threaten the detective’s family?”

Kelly is indignant. “What?! Of course not!”

Whit puts up a placating hand. “It’s okay, Mrs. Wentworth. I’m on your side here.” She seems to relax and I can’t help but wonder what Whit is playing at as he continues. “So you didn’t kill your husband, John Willis, or the detective’s family?”

Kelly lifts her chin. “I’d never hurt anyone. As I said, it was all just a misunderstanding.”

Whit nods. “I understand, Mrs. Wentworth. It must have been a devastating time for you.”

Kelly sniffs. “Yes, it was the worst time of my life.”

“Were you hurt and angry?”

She nods, her voice pitiful. “Yes.”

“Is that why you moved to L.A.?”

She nods. “Yes. I needed to get away from New York. It held so many memories and so much pain. I decided to invest in expanding my art collection, and L.A. seemed like the best place besides New York to do that. So I moved.”

“Is that how you came back into contact with Bette Porter-Kennard?”

She smiles. “Yes. It was so good to see her again. I had been working with Leo Herrera, and one day, I happened to run into her. We hit it off almost immediately. It was like old times.”

“Did you become friends again?”

“Yes. We spent weeks and weeks together talking about art, looking at it, just enjoying our time together like we used to…” My stomach turns as I remember fighting her off at every turn, and only gets worse as I remember liking the attention. It was so childish of me. Kelly frowns and sighs dramatically. “But, as time went on, she seemed to… still… have feelings for me… romantic feelings. And again, I’m just not gay. I don’t see women that way. I-I’ve come to learn that it’s unnatural.”

I roll my eyes. She’s delusional. Nothing she’s said so far has been true, and Whit seems to sympathize with her. “But you still loved Bette as a friend?”

“Yes, of course. I missed Bette after she so abruptly cut me out of her life. I really wanted us be friends again, and I think that’s why Leo asked me for help with her gallery.”

“What do you mean Leo asked you to help with Bette’s gallery?”

She smoothes her jumpsuit over her knees, removing the creases, and adopts an air of superiority. “One night Leo confided in me that Bette was going to lose the gallery. He said that she was slipping, and without some substantial sales, the gallery would go under. I didn’t want that to happen to her, and I knew she would be too proud to accept my help directly. So, Leo and I started to funnel my money into the gallery to help it grow. In return, I started an exceptional private collection.”

“So you and Leo weren’t embezzling money from the gallery?”

Her eyes harden. “Absolutely not! Bette was my friend. I had no idea that Leo was using me and my money to do that. It was all just a misunderstanding.”

“What about the video tape that showed you and Leo working in collusion? That piece of evidence was the crux of the deputy DA’s case against you and ultimately the reason you were convicted.”

“Like I said, I was working with Leo to help, I had no idea that he was embezzling from the gallery.”

Whit nods. “It was just a misunderstanding.”

She holds her chin higher. “Yes, it was.”

“And Bette turned you in?”

Her wide, vacant eyes glance at me and just for a moment and I can see the angry hatred behind them. “Yes, after everything I did for her, after everything I’d been through with her and forgiven her for, she betrayed me again.”

“The second betrayal must have made you twice as angry as it did the first time”

“Yes. I finally realized that I couldn’t trust her, even though I wanted to so badly.”

“And to add insult to injury, that betrayal you put in prison?”

“Yes.”

“That must have been extremely upsetting and made you even angrier.”

“Yes.”

“Did anything happen to you while in prison?”

Kelly takes a deep, calming breath. “Prison is a hard and violent place. It was… despicable, and I didn’t deserve to be there. I just don’t understand how my friend could do that to me…”

I want to gag as Whit nods. “You have no privacy in prison, not even when you use the restroom.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Access to the everyday items you take for granted on the outside, things like a toothbrush or soap, are difficult to come by and impossible to hold on to. Am I right?”

Kelly’s eyes flicker with angry recognition but I still can’t help but wonder what Whit is doing. I look over at Merle and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was sweating; I didn’t know lizards could sweat. Kelly’s voice is clipped. “Yes.”

Whit shakes his head in empathy. “And the guards, they’re hard on you?”

“Yes.”

“You have to ask permission to do anything?”

“Yes.”

“And if they don’t want to let you, they don’t have to?”

“No.”

“Did they ever abuse you, or put you in solitary?”

“Yes.”

“What about the other inmates? Did they ever try to hurt you?”

Kelly clenches her jaw tightly. “Yes, they did. They were terrible to me and got me in trouble when I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Whit sighs. “All of that would make anyone very upset, maybe even livid. Did going through all those terrible things make you even angrier at Leo Herrera, at Bette?”

“Yes, it did, for a long–”

“Were you angry with the police for not believing you?”

“Yes.”

“No one believed you at all?”

“No.”

“You were wrongly locked away where no one would listen to you and no one would help you; and all because one of your oldest friends betrayed you. There wasn’t anything you could do from jail was there?”

“No, I had no options at all.”

“Did you tell Bette how badly it hurt when she betrayed you?”

Kelly exhales sharply. “No, I didn’t get the chance to.”

“If you could have, would you have told her?”

“Yes, but as I said, she didn’t care.”

Whit goes rigid, his voice dropping into a low, icy timbre. “Is that why you sought out Candace Jewel?”

“Yes, I…” Kelly snaps her mouth shut and eyes Whit speculatively, her blue eyes darkening with rage she can barely control. Her voice is low. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Whit walks over to Joyce and retrieves a piece of paper. “Mrs. Wentworth, did you know Candace Jewel?”

Kelly gazes at the document in his hands, knowing she’s just been had, but having no idea which answer will implicate herself. I can see her pulse point pounding as her wide eyes narrow and her mind tries to process the best way to answer. She glances at Merle who refuses to meet her eyes. Whit hands the document to Merle. She reads for a moment and glares at Kelly in silent communication. Kelly collects herself as she finds a way to dance. “No, I didn’t know her.”

Whit cocks his head. “She didn’t visit you while you were in jail?”

Kelly dances again. “Um, someone visited me, but… but I never knew her name.”

Whit steps forward. “The defense would like to enter exhibit 169 into evidence.” He places the paper on the projector. “Let the record reflect that for the last year, Candace Jewel visited Mrs. Wentworth every week up until the day before she died.” He adds the evidence to the growing pile and returns to Kelly. “Mrs. Wentworth, if you didn’t know her, why was she visiting you every week?”

Kelly glares at Whit. “A woman came to visit me one day with a bible and we began to talk about God. I thought she was a part of one of those prison outreach programs. She helped me become born again.”

“You spoke with her for a year, every week, and you didn’t get to know her, not even her name?”

“Not really, no. She just helped me to see that I could choose a different path in life and that God loved me and would forgive me. She helped save my life.”

“What did God need to forgive you for?”

Kelly takes a calming breath, speaking through clenched teeth. “I’m not perfect.”

Whit nods and I huff sardonically. “So she didn’t introduce herself during these visits and you spent two hours a week speaking to a perfect stranger about religion?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ever tell her why you were in jail?”

“Yes.”

“So you spoke about Bette?”

“Well… no, why would we?”

“You stated that you were angry at Bette, that she was responsible for your imprisonment since she turned you in to the authorities. If you told Candace why you were in jail, wouldn’t you have mentioned the reason?”

“We didn’t talk about Bette.”

Whit paces to the left. “Surely it came up as she was responsible for your being incarcerated.”

“I-I’m not sure if I said Bette’s name–”

“And she never told you her name?”

“I called her ‘sister’.”

Whit sighs. “You never spoke to her prior to being imprisoned?”

“I don’t see why we would have.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because… she followed different circles.”

“She didn’t have much money?”

“No.”

“How would you know her financial status?”

Kelly clenches her jaw. “It was just… obvious.”

“How was it obvious?”

The throws her hands up in frustration, catches herself, and settles back into her demure pose. “Her clothes, and her lack of education and proper etiquette.”

“Did you ever offer her money in return for all she was doing to help you?”

Kelly glowers at Whit. “I don’t see why that matters.”

“You could tell she was struggling, she had helped you out of the kindness of her heart, and you never offered her money to help her?”

“What I do with my money is my business.”

“Is that the same money you received on your husband’s death; the same money you stood to lose if he followed through with a divorce under a prenuptial agreement?”

The temperature in the room drops several degrees and Kelly’s composure starts to fade. “What are you insinuating?”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor. Mrs. Wentworth was cleared and no charges were brought against her for her husband’s death. She’s not on trial here.”

Whit doesn’t look away from Kelly. “Question withdrawn, your honor.”

Corky instructs the jury to disregard and Whit presses on immediately. “You stated ‘sister’ saved your life. Why didn’t you offer to help her with your money?”

“Because…” Kelly stammers. “I don’t know. I may have given her some, but nothing substantial.”

“And you’re certain that you hadn’t met her prior to being incarcerated?”

“Yes!”

“So you just happened to be visited by a woman who shares your anger for Bette?”

Kelly sneers. “I have no idea.”

“But you mentioned Bette to her?”

“Maybe, I don’t know!”

“You stated you did. She didn’t mention Bette to you?”

“I don’t know!”

“So she was just helping you out of the kindness of her heart, with no prior knowledge that you both had issues with my client, and when you told her Bette was the reason you were in jail, she never mentioned that she knew my client as well?”

“I already told you I’m not sure! She may have mentioned it in passing but that’s all!”

“Did you have some of your business cards with you while you were in jail?”

Kelly furrows her brows and stares at Whit like he’s simple. “No. Why would I need business cards in jail?”

Whit smiles as he comes back to the file and retrieves a small card. He walks towards Merle who waves him away in resignation. Whit puts the card on the projector. “The defense moves to enter exhibit number 170 into evidence.” He looks at Kelly. “Is this one of your business cards, Mrs. Wentworth?”

Kelly stares at the screen, her namely proudly printed on it. “Yes.”

“And you didn’t need or have access to these while in jail?”

“No.”

“Are you certain?”

Kelly snaps, “Yes!”

Whit approaches her. “Mrs. Wentworth, that card was in Ms. Jewel’s wallet the day she died. When did you give it to her?”

Kelly’s empty eyes harden, her words clipped. “I have no idea how she got it.”

“You didn’t give it to her?”

“How could I?! I met her while I was in jail and I didn’t have any of them with me.”

Whit walks to the projector and flips the card over to show a note on the back and reads it out loud. “We need to talk. I think you’ll find that we have a common problem and I need your help to deal with it. I’ll make it worth your while.” He looks hard at Kelly. “Did you write this note?”

Kelly drips with malice. “No.”

Whit sighs and walks over to Joyce, retrieving what looks like a hand-written letter. “The defense moves to enter exhibit number 171 into evidence.” He hands it to Merle who objects and there’s a long moment of tense discussion at the bench while Kelly stares at me, her eyes a blue void that send a chill racing down my spine. I decide to smirk at her and watch happily as a flush of anger colors her overly-pale skin. Just to further incense her, I wink and wonder just how close to the edge she is.

The fight at the bench doesn’t last long and it’s only a few moments before Merle returns angrily to her seat and Whit puts the paper on the overhead projector. “Mrs. Wentworth, this letter was retrieved from the evidence file for your late husband’s homicide case. Is this your hand-writing?”

Kelly is trembling with rage as she says, “Yes.”

Whit puts the card next to the writing to make a comparison, finding the words in the letter and matching them to the note on the card. It’s obviously a match. “Mrs. Wentworth, the hand-writing looks exactly the same. Are you sure you didn’t write this note?”

Kelly seethes out, “Yes, I’m certain I didn’t write it!”

Joyce offers Whit another document that Merle tries and fails to contest. Whit adds it to evidence, quickly putting it up on the screen. “Mrs. Wentworth, this is a sworn affidavit from Shelly Girard, the LAPD forensic hand-writing analyst. She states that the letter and the note were written by the same person.”

Kelly and Merle lock eyes and I literally watch as Merle folds her hands on the table, shakes her head imperceptibly, and diverts her attention, effectively leaving Kelly to her own devices. It takes only a moment once Merle abandons her for Kelly to lose it completely. “Fine! I wrote the note on the card!”

Whit goes in for the jugular. “What problem did you want to talk to Candace about?”

Kelly chuckles mirthlessly. “What does it matter?! I didn’t kill her and you know it!” Kelly points at me. “She killed her!”

Whit’s voice is loud and demanding. “What did you want to talk to Candace about?!” Kelly doesn’t answer but she’s shuddering as she glares at Whit coldly. Whit steps forward, intimidating and unyielding, his voice louder as he reasons, “Come now, Mrs. Wentworth. You had all of these misunderstandings where you were accused of murdering your husband, accused of murdering an innocent woman and a child, where you were imprisoned for embezzlement by your old friend. You were angry and hurt by your own admission and you’ve just been caught perjuring yourself.”

The gallery behind me gasps, a low murmuring filling the room like a low thunder as Whit pushes on. “Candace Jewel, the one other person who was known to have a serious issue with my client, just randomly showed up to visit you in jail, Mrs. Wentworth; she just happened to have your card with your cryptic note on her person when she died, and you honestly expect this court to believe that it was all just another misunderstanding?!”

“YES!”

“Mrs. Wentworth, what did you want to talk to Candace about?!”

Kelly points at me again. “HER!”

The courtroom goes quiet and Whit allows this pause for her admission to sink in. “Why talk about Bette?”

Kelly’s voice matches her hollow eyes as she shuts down. “I plead the fifth.”

“So you refuse to answer any more questions?”

“Yes.”

Whit looks to the judge. “No further questions, your honor.”

Compton sighs and looks to Merle questioningly. Merle shakes her head curtly and gives Kelly a look of utter disdain before writing her off completely. Corky addresses the bailiff reluctantly. “Bailiff, remove the witness.” Kelly’s face splits into that same disconcerting grin reserved only for the clinically ill, and her eyes never leave mine as she’s taken from the room. Compton’s loud voice booms out, “We’ll recess for an hour. The jury is reminded of the admonition and those involved in the trial are to remain on the premises.” He bangs his gavel, making me jump, and everyone stands as the judge and jury exit.

I turn to Whit and Joyce and imagine that their pensive, subdued expressions match my own. Shane and Dana come around the low dividing wall to collect me and pull me from the courtroom in a dazed state.


Would I be a terrible person if I said that I can’t even look at Tina right now? She’s sitting right next to me and I feel like we’re on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. I hate being this distanced from her, especially when I know that the fear and anxiety of the past few days have taken such a toll on her. But I just can’t seem to untwist the relentlessly tightening knot in the pit of my stomach; and I can’t stand looking into her eyes, eyes that used to warm and comfort me, because I know she feels this distance as much as I do. After all we’ve been through, to watch our connection snap apart now would be tragic, but I just don’t know how to hold it together.

So here we sit, staring at each other across a void of my own making, when in reality our eyes are diverted and there’s only a few inches of space between our arms. Our hour of respite is nearly up, and she’s tried to be close to me; she’s tried to make sure I ate something; she’s tried on all counts to make it better, but I just can’t seem to feel it. I think my inability to be close to her has hurt her, just like everything else I can’t seem to refrain from doing. Don’t misunderstand, I love her as much now as I ever have, but I feel like I’m drifting through the night at sea in a dense fog, and can’t see the shore or the bright beacon of her love to lead me safely home. I know it’s there, and I want to find it, but I just don’t know how… and I just have to try.

I reach over and take her hand and she links our fingers. The room is intensely quiet, everyone lost in their own thoughts and worries. Shane and Carmen are curled up together and I wish at that moment that I could hold Tina like that and feel comfort in it. I just feel numb… comatose. I can’t help but think that the cost of my decision to see this through may be the very things I need the most. Again, I think I’ve been foolish, perhaps even selfish. But I can own that. That, in and of itself, is progress… right?

When we returned to the room, we informed everyone of what happened in the courtroom. Alice is the only one that has had the strength to face the emotions that have altered our collective minds. She’s pissed and pacing while she mumbles obscenities about Kelly. The rest of us are just shut down, even Tina. Alice stops abruptly and falls down in the seat next to Dana utterly weary. Dana hesitantly puts her arm around Alice who snuggles into her shoulder and exhales heavily. “Well, at least that bitch gave up the truth. This is a good thing right?”

Tina chuckles acerbically. “Right, it helps Bette’s case.” She throws her free hand up in frustration. “So at least she’ll be at home and not in jail when she’s murdered! This is great news…”

I stroke the feminine fingers that are intertwined tightly with my own, and she starts to calm down. I love her hands. A small smile crooks my lips. They fit perfectly in mine despite the vast differences: light and dark; large and small, separately weak but when linked, infinitely strong. We have managed to hold on this far. We just need to find the strength to hold on a little longer, perhaps even a little tighter. I just hadn’t imagined that I’m on a hit list that won’t end until Kelly is dead.

The door opens, shattering the silent thoughts racing through my neurons, and a bailiff fills the opening with his bulk. This is it. It’s time for closing arguments. The pendulum above me bites into the flesh at my throat and I swallow hard. I meet Tina’s eyes and search for our connection. It’s still there, it’s just weak. She smiles sadly and leans in to leave a chaste kiss on my lips, stroking the side of my face as she gazes at me. I run my hand through her silky hair and take her comforting lavender scent into my lungs. It’s not as potent as usual, but there is a certain amount of muscle memory that it provokes. She stands with me and holds onto my hand until the last minute. I don’t… I can’t… look back. There is only forward, and if I can get through this, she will be on the other side… if I’m lucky.


 

I settle into my chair as the judge instructs, and watch as Merle approaches the jury. Empty minutes tick by, measured by the swinging of the pendulum that has made a wound in me that I fear will never heal.

Merle paces, her arms tucked behind her back and her raspy voice finally finds purchase on the silent room and impatiently waiting ears. “We have heard some compelling evidence from a compelling woman, a woman so smart that she knew just what to do to make sure her story fit the evidence the police collected. But just because it fits, does that mean it’s the truth?” She stops pacing and faces the jury, her voice loud as it echoes throughout the room. “No.” She pauses for a long moment, and dramatic effect, before continuing to pace. “There are many pieces that can fill in the holes of a puzzle, but it’s when you step back and look at the whole picture that you really know what is true and what is false.”

She looks me in the eye as she extends an arm in my direction. “In this case, we have two contesting points of view, sequences of events, but if you step back, you’ll see that there is a surefire way to know who’s telling the truth.” She faces the jury. “And that is to consider your source.” She resumes her trek slowly. “Ask yourselves if you can trust what you’re hearing. I asked myself that question…” She shakes her head. “…and I couldn’t accept Ms. Porter-Kennard’s version of the events. Why? Because Candace Jewel tells a very different story. And not only does she deserve to be heard, but she deserves justice. You remember her name… how could you not? Candace Jewel. Candace. Jewel.”

Merle links her hands in front of her, looking down as she walks. “You have heard eye-witness testimony on the type of person Candace was: a good person, a loving daughter, and a respected and valued member of her community. You saw into her life, into the very heart of her, and you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she didn’t deserve to die.”

She turns and looks at the jury and points at me. “You have also heard compelling eye-witness accounts on the kind of person Bette Porter-Kennard is: a hard, callous, and cruel woman, a woman that will stop at nothing to get what she wants, an alcoholic who can’t even remember the severity of her crimes, and a woman who freely admits that even when she was sober, she was still capable of unconscionable acts. You have heard multiple accounts of attempted rape, sexual maleficence, physical abuse, and emotional torment… and one of these victims was her own partner.” She sighs heavily. “You have heard an outcry from multiple women in your community, a community that is demanding that you stop her before she can harm anyone else. And the reason they cry out is because they want to be able to live in a safe environment, free of the dangers that this woman not only commits, but perpetuates.”

Her voice gets low. “How many of you have children… have families? How would you feel if it was your daughter that had been picked up and sexually violated? How would you feel if it had been your daughter that had been lured into a sexual trap? How would you feel if had been your daughter that had been confused and coerced into trading her body for help or services?” She leans in, resting her hands on the jury box. “How would you feel if it had been your daughter that had been tormented for five years? And how would you feel… if it had been your daughter that had been shot… killed for being inconvenient… left to suffocate in her own blood?”

Merle shakes her head and jerks back into a standing position, her voice loud. “You’d be distraught; you’d be angry; you’d be devastated. Ultimately, you’d feel all the things that Candace’s mother is feeling right now, everything she feels when she comes home to find it empty, everything she feels when she sees a picture, or hears a song, or makes dinner for herself.” There’s a pause and Merle shouts. “You’d want justice for your daughters!”

The room is so quiet I can hear my stomach rolling with her words. “You have seen that the evidence surrounding Candace’s death doesn’t prove anything at all. Both women’s prints were on the weapon. Both women have residue staining their hands. But one…” She holds up a single finger. “…only one lost her life. And that one… is using the evidence to tell you a tale, the tale of a desperate woman who was relentlessly tormented, ridiculed, and persecuted. She wanted it to stop; she wanted peace; she wanted a chance at a happy life. So, she went to confront her tormentor, to ask her to stop, to beg for mercy, and what she got during that confrontation was to be mercilessly attacked and purposefully murdered… all because she was inconvenient. She tried to defend herself, but it wasn’t enough. She tried to run but she only got as far as the back door before she was slammed into it so hard that it broke the window pane and fractured her arm.”

Her voice gets gentle. “And then, she was drug back into an altercation that ended with a bullet, a bullet that viciously tore through her chest, tore open her lungs and her heart, and suffocated her in her own blood…” She points to me. “…blood that is on her hands.”

Her voice is choked as she concludes. “The evidence corroborates this story just as much as it corroborates the defendant’s story. So again I ask you, who do you choose to believe? A woman you have heard and known to be malicious, or a good woman who was just too much in love with the wrong person? The choice is obvious. How could you, in good conscience, choose to believe Ms. Porter-Kennard with the evidence you have seen? How could you, in good conscience, choose not to believe Ms. Jewel with the evidence you have seen? You can’t and you won’t. A woman is dead and it’s your duty to see her murder punished. It is your duty to remember Candace Jewel… remember her story, and make the right decision… the only decision.”

There’s a long moment of stifling silence as she returns to her seat. Whit stands and unbuttons his blazer as he steps up to the jury, tucking a hand into his pocket and lowering his head as he considers Merle’s words carefully. “I agree with Ms. Rothman: you have heard some compelling evidence. But I ask you, what is this trial really about? Is it about stories and possibilities, as the prosecution would lead you to believe, or is it about the truth? I stand on the conviction that we should seek the truth. So what is the truth?”

Whit paces to the right. “Ms. Rothman says that you need to consider the source, so let’s do that. Have you heard compelling testimony that Candace was a good person, an innocent person who gave her heart away to the wrong person?”

Whit stops and shakes his head, his voice loud as he turns to the jury. “No. What you heard was eyewitness testimony that she was unbalanced, that she was chopping up pictures of the defendant and her partner, that she wanted to one day name her first born daughter the same name as my client’s first born, that she went all the way to New York to start a fight and stop a commitment ceremony that she was neither welcomed nor invited to, that my client had to put a restraining order out against her just to break up with her. Do not forget that one of those witnesses was her own mother.”

Whit continues. “You have heard compelling testimony from Nadia Karella that Bette seduced her…” He turns to them again. “…but then you witnessed, with your own eyes, as Nadia perjured herself and said that she had never been in a sexual situation like that… before I showed her and you documented proof, factual evidence, that my client was the fourth…” Whit holds up four fingers. “…person to find herself in that same situation with Nadia. Is Nadia a reliable source?”

Whit shakes his head. “You have heard compelling testimony from Catherine Rothberg who accuses my client of date rape…” He moves slowly in front of the jury, looking each of them in the eye as he continues. “…but you watched camera footage that proves her story was a lie. You saw documented proof that neither of them had checked into the motel. So again, you have to ask yourself, is she a reliable source?”

Whit tucks a hand in his pocket and turns. “You have heard compelling evidence from Katerina Ivanova  – a self-proclaimed prostitute – that says Bette paid her for sex. She then stated that she saw Bette as an easy mark and that no payment arrangements were made prior to their encounter. Is she a reliable source?”

Whit stops and looks hard at the jury. “You then saw Bette’s partner get up on the stand of her own volition and tell you the truth. What was the truth? That something terrible happened between them, that they lost each other, that they hurt each other and struggled with the loss of their son, but then she told you that she loves Bette, that Bette is a good person, and she not only loves her, but trusts her with her life. She had no reason to lie because she didn’t even have to put herself up there. And when she got up there, she said things that could have hurt Bette. Why?” Whit gentles his voice. “Because she’s honest. That is the kind of woman that Bette…” He points to me. “…is partnered with. What kind of source is she? But more importantly, what does that say about Bette?”

He shrugs. “Well, Bette got up on the stand, baring the hurtful information right along with the helpful information.” He points to me his voice loud. “Nothing in her statement can be disproved and she didn’t sugarcoat anything or deny it. She owned it and she took responsibility for it. Why? Because she’s honest. What kind of source is she?”

Whit goes rigid. “And then there’s Kelly Wentworth. She admitted that she sought out Candace to discuss Bette; that she sought out Candace’s help to take care of a mutual problem. And you also know that Kelly told Candace that she would make her help worthwhile.” He gazes hard into each face of the jury. “What does that say about this source? More importantly, what does that say about the type of company Candace was keeping in the last year of her life?”

Whit sighs and tucks both hands in his pockets. “Now, I say we go beyond Candace and Bette and hearsay. I am asking you to delve deeper and go beyond the people who have something to gain by falsifying their stories, and look at the sources that will give us pure, objective truth.”

Whit puts up a hand and starts rattling off the facts. “The prints on the gun prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Bette never touched the trigger of that weapon. They also prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Candace did touch the trigger of that weapon. The gun powder tests prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Candace fired that weapon at least once. The postmortem toxicology report proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Candace was on illegal substances that would make her volatile.” He lifts his other hand and continues ticking. “The prison visitation record proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Candace was speaking to a woman that blames my client for her incarceration. The sworn affidavit from the LAPD proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Kelly Wentworth sought out Candace Jewel to take care of what she described as a ‘mutual problem’.”

Whit holds his hands out at his sides in righteous anger. “Let’s not forget Lieutenant Duffy’s sworn testimony where she states that even if Bette had killed Candace for trespassing, Bette is protected by the California Home Protection Bill of Rights…” He points at the jury. “…the very law you are sworn to uphold when you deliberate. The very law the LAPD deemed relevant enough to file this case as an accidental death. Those, ladies and gentlemen, are your sources.”

Whit clasps his hands in front of him. “Now I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m going to ask that you all close your eyes.” Some of the jury furrow their brows and hesitate, but they all eventually comply. Whit steps forward and gentles his voice. “This is a story about a family; two loving, ecstatic parents bringing their two beautiful, helpless newborns home for the first time. I want you to picture this family… as they step into their home, a place of shelter, comfort, and warmth, only to find a figure waiting with a gun… waiting to shatter that sanctuary. The figure starts shouting and holds the gun on this family, threatening them. And now… now I want you to hear those innocent children screaming.”

There’s a long pause before he continues. “Their mother steps in front of them, answering the preternatural call to protect, as she is fired upon. Fearing for her life, the life of her partner, the lives of her children, she reaches out and does the only thing she can… she fights back. BANG!” The whole room jumps but Whit doesn’t falter. “Another shot goes off but she was lucky. Somehow it missed her and her family. She’s hurt, and tired, and struggling, but the terrified scream of her children pushes her on. She tries with all she has, but she loses the fight. She’s down, she injured, she can barely see because she’s been beaten so badly that she has a concussion, her face is bleeding so badly that it’s running into her eyes. But she has to try. This is her family, her children. She sits up and sees the figure holding the gun on her partner and her children. Their lives are more precious to her than her own and she somehow finds the will to put herself in front of that gun, consciously aware that she may die. That is an outcome she is willing to face. Now imagine she makes one last desperate attempt to grab the weapon, twisting it away just as it’s fired again. She turns to her children and her partner, wanting to tell them how much she loves them, but she can’t… she can’t because wound in her abdomen is bleeding so profusely that she passes out. Now imagine… imagine that this family, is your family.”

There’s a long pause and some of the jurors seem to be angry as they reopen their eyes. Whit strides over to me, holding out his hand and whispering, “Give me your photo.”

I’m a little shocked at first but finally fumble in my pocket, retrieve it, and hand it to him. He strides back up to the jury who are gazing at him intently as he holds up the photo, moving in close and turning slowly to be sure they can all see it clearly. “While you deliberate, while you’re considering all your sources, I’ll ask you to remember two terrified parents protecting two terrified infants. I want you to remember the faces in this photo, because this… ladies and gentlemen… is what Bette Porter-Kennard stood to lose had she chose any differently. This is what you would stand to lose had you been in the same circumstances.”

He stands there, letting the moment and his words sink in, and I feel numb I’m so blown away. Whit has tried with all he has to clear me despite my willingness to sink for a past I’m so far removed from that I can’t even really remember it. I gaze at those twelve strangers as Whit lowers the photo and returns it to me before taking his seat. I look down at the photo, stroking the glossy surface as I realize that this, my future… it’s all in their hands now.

 CVU – ………I’m not even half way through…….. Breaking my damn heart!….:(

CVU – PERFECT! “Whit clasps his hands in front of him. “Now I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m going to ask that you all close your eyes.” Some of the jury furrow their brows and hesitate, but they all eventually comply. Whit steps forward and gentles his voice. “This is a story about a family; two loving, ecstatic parents bringing their two beautiful, helpless newborns home for the first time. I want you to picture this family… as they step into their home, a place of shelter, comfort, and warmth, only to find a figure waiting with a gun… waiting to shatter that sanctuary. The figure starts shouting and holds the gun on this family, threatening them. And now… now I want you to hear those innocent children screaming.”

“Their mother steps in front of them, answering the preternatural call to protect, as she is fired upon. Fearing for her life, the life of her partner, the lives of her children, she reaches out and does the only thing she can… she fights back. BANG!” The whole room jumps but Whit doesn’t falter. “Another shot goes off but she was lucky. Somehow it missed her and her family. She’s hurt, and tired, and struggling, but the terrified scream of her children pushes her on. She tries with all she has, but she loses the fight. She’s down, she injured, she can barely see because she’s been beaten so badly that she has a concussion, her face is bleeding so badly that it’s running into her eyes. But she has to try. This is her family, her children. She sits up and sees the figure holding the gun on her partner and her children. Their lives are more precious to her than her own and she somehow finds the will to put herself in front of that gun, consciously aware that she may die. That is an outcome she is willing to face. Now imagine she makes one last desperate attempt to grab the weapon, twisting it away just as it’s fired again. She turns to her children and her partner, wanting to tell them how much she loves them, but she can’t… she can’t because wound in her abdomen is bleeding so profusely that she passes out. Now imagine… imagine that this family, is your family.”


Continued in Chapter 7 – Linger.

Chapter 5 – Lesson

I, Bette Porter-Kennard, of a somewhat sound mind and body, fierce competitor, powerful business woman, unstoppable force to be reckoned with, do sit here on this lounge by the pool, gazing into the laughing face of my handsome little man and proudly proclaim, “Ah… boo boo boo boo boo,” in the silliest voice I can manage. I feel like a simpleton as the nonsense spews from my mouth; But the happiness radiating from my son’s smile as I accompany the nonsense with tummy tickles, dispels any sense of demureness. The wonderful sound of his tinkling giggles is like soothing music to my soul. I wallow in the satisfaction he brings me in return for his own, nervously scanning the area to be sure I’ve not been seen.

I return my gaze to his handsome face and grin so fully my cheeks ache. We continue this way for long moments, me making an ass of myself and him rewarding me with his happiness. There’s a bright flash of light and I cringe, caught red-handed. I don’t even look up to know what is happening. It is, quite literally, expected. And it is, of course, my sneaky wife documenting a life so steeped in love that it would drown if that submersion weren’t the very stuff that makes life possible. Even without the obnoxious light or any of the olfactory senses at my disposal, I would know her. I would know her anywhere. She’s the best part of me, the home inside.

I hear the warmth and infinite love in her laugh and I can’t help but join her despite my chagrin. Chance’s giggles are infectious. The tender touch on the bare skin of my shoulder sends a warming shudder down my spine as the velvet voice of an angel invigorates my spirit. “God, Bette, no one makes him laugh like you do.”

I smile up at my wife, beckoning her closer with a glance. She does not fail me as her lips touch my own. How I love her lips. They are a wellspring of life for me, for these children. She pulls away, stroking the haphazard curls from my forehead and I soak up the adoration in her gaze for several long moments.

I realize that it’s incredibly quiet, and the movement in my arms has stopped so I gaze down to see that Chance is asleep, his unruly hair charming me to my core. Tina reaches down, kissing his forehead before she whispers, “Do you want to walk him upstairs or can I?”

I grin at her. She’s such a sucker for a sleeping baby. I can’t begrudge her. He is, quite possibly, perfect, especially when sleeping. She grins back, joy written clearly on her face as she gently takes him from my arms. I lean back and sigh as I watch her disappear into the house. The pendulum is still there, swinging steadily, and it’s so close that it’s grazing the skin of my neck, but I refuse to be paralyzed by it. I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s almost over, and I feel that Whit is doing a fantastic job.

I hear movement at the back gate and look over to see Alice peek her head inside. She seems subdued as she asks, “Can I come in?”

I sigh, feeling deep remorse for the words I spoke earlier today. I didn’t mean to accuse her, but the honest truth is that it’s definitely within the scope of reality. But she says she didn’t do it, and I believe her. I smile at her and wave her forward. “Of course. You don’t have to ask.”

She brightens as she steps up and wearily settles into the adjacent lounge. It’s dark out, and the sound of the pool water and the effect of the shimmering lights as they dance off the surface are comforting. Neither of us says a word as we absorb the calming atmosphere and relax. Tina comes back out with three empty wine glasses, a bottle of wine, and a can of Perrier. I’d swear she’s psychic. She just seems to hone in on hurt and instinctively know how to make it better.

Alice shifts as Tina arrives and still not a word is spoken as Tina pours us each a glass. I do miss the indulgence, but I savor the moments I have rocking my children and feeding them while we bond. Tina settles between my legs, and all three of us sip from our glasses. I watch as Alice lazily presses the call button on her phone. It’s so quiet we can all hear the rings followed by the voicemail picking up and informing us that the mailbox is full. She hangs it up and drops it onto her lounge, again sipping her wine.

Alice being so quiet… so pensive, it’s a little disconcerting. Just as I’m about to snap her out of it, she speaks. “I’ve called Duffy, over and over. I’ve left tons of messages. I guess you were right, Bette. We can’t count on her. I mean, the trial could end as early as tomorrow.”

I sigh, tucking my arms around Tina’s waist and squeezing her for comfort as the pendulum drops infinitesimally closer. There’s another long moment of silence before Tina speaks. “Alice… you aren’t here to talk about Duffy or the trial.”

Alice sighs heavily and turns to face us, picking at some imaginary lint on the lounge. Her voice is sad as she says, “Tasha broke up with me.”

She meets my eyes and I again feel responsible. “I’m sorry, Al. I shouldn’t have said those things the other day.”

She waves a dismissive hand at me. “It was going to happen no matter what. She knows that I’m in love with Dana.” She snorts indelicately. “I know it, too.”

I rest my head against Tina’s and ask the obvious. “Then why are you fighting it?”

Alice downs her wine and sets the glass down irritably. “She made me feel terrible.”

I furrow my brows. “What do you mean?”

I release Tina and she stands to refill Alice’s glass. Alice lies back on the lounge, staring up at the unusually bright stars as she rests an arm over her forehead. “She told me that I was kinda crazy… and jealous. It just, she made me feel so bad. I could tell that she wasn’t in love with me, but I was just so in love with her… I couldn’t lose her, you know?”

I nod and Tina returns, nestling into the still warm nest between my legs. “It’s just, I mean… maybe I made myself feel bad, but I was turning into someone I couldn’t stand. I didn’t even know I was turning into someone who was all smothery, and needy, and codependent, but I was. I mean, gross. I can’t think of anything worse…”

She sits up and crosses her legs Indian-style, facing us as she picks up her glass and sips it a little more slowly this time. “I’m glad she said something, but I mean, things got super intense between us super-fast. And I… I had never felt that way! I don’t know… it made me act weird!”

Tina’s voice is gentle as she says, “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Isn’t that a good thing?”

Alice seems defeated. “Not when I got too attached to it.”

Tina sits forward and I run my hands over her shoulders. Her head lolls forward and I smirk, brushing her shiny hair aside and manipulating the pliant muscles in her neck. Her voice is sedate as she continues. “Alice, you can’t fall in love without attachment. That’s just not possible.”

“This was different, TK. I felt like…” She starts to stutter and use her hands to explain herself. “I felt like that guy with the – with the mouse. And, you know, he loves the mouse, and he holds – you know, he…”

She holds up her hands like she’s squeezing something and I stop my motions at Tina’s neck to stare at them intently, trying to decipher what the fuck she’s saying. “What are you talking about?”

She sighs and soldiers on. “Where he’s like, he loves the mouse so much, and he’s like…” She makes this goofily sweet noise as she squeezes the invisible mouse in her hands and it clicks. Lennie from Of Mice and Men. “Ohh, yeah, I remember Lennie.” Alice sighs relieved as she gives up the charades.

Tina leans back into me, sipping her wine. She’s utterly content as she says, “Okay, so you were getting clingy. That still doesn’t explain why you’re running from her if you know you’re in love with her.”

Alice rolls her eyes. “I don’t want to be that way!”

Tina chuckles. “Al, you know it won’t work, right? Running away…”

Alice sips her wine, determination set in her jaw. “Oh, it’ll work. I’m not going to go there again. In time–”

I interrupt her. “In time, she’ll have moved on to be with someone she doesn’t love as much as she loves you because you’re not an option. In that same time, you may or may not do the same.” I shrug. “You both might be able to live with it, but ultimately, you’ll be depriving yourselves of what you want most for no good fucking reason. You’ll regret it, Al.”

Tina smoothes a hand over the arm at her waist in silent communication and I sigh as I kiss the tender skin beneath her ear. Alice throws a hand up and stares hard at me. “What am I supposed to do?! Be with her and hate myself or be without her and hate myself? Both of those fucking suck…”

Tina twines her fingers with mine. “Or… you could be with her and trust her. You won’t hate yourself and you’ll still have her.” Alice downs her wine again and Tina sighs, sitting up. “Al, you’re going to have to change either way. You can choose to grow bitter and resentful at the life you wanted but wouldn’t let yourself have, or you can choose to loosen up and have the life you want. It’s a no-brainer.”

Alice stands abruptly and we watch her as she strides the few feet to the bottle, uncorks it, and takes a deep draft before returning to her lounge. She sits down hard and looks at us. “How can I trust her? I told you that I knew she wanted to break it off before she got sick. What if I choose to be with her and she decides she doesn’t want me again? What if…” She takes a huge gulp of wine, her expression slightly pale. “…what if she gets sick again and…?” Her eyes glaze over in pain and I know how she feels so I tighten my hold on the very alive, warm, soft body in front of me. “I won’t survive that, you guys.”

Tina’s voice is compassionate as she says, “You never know how long anything’s going to last. The only thing any of us knows in this life is that anything can happen. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

Alice swipes at condensation on the bottle, looking down and breaking Tina’s gaze. Her voice is small and resigned. “That’s too hard for me.”

Tina exhales heavily. “So, what are you saying? You wish you’d never met Dana? That because she got sick and that was really hard for you, that you’d rather she just never existed in the first place?” Alice stands abruptly and glowers at Tina. “Alice, I don’t think it’s any less painful to lose someone to a tragic misunderstanding than it is to lose someone to a fucking heart attack.”

Alice’s stare is stony as she slowly shakes her head, tears welling in her eyes as she replies. “That’s not true because I can get over a misunderstanding.”

Tina runs a hand through her hair. “Not always.”

Alice flops back onto the lounge, all the fire gone as she replies succinctly, “Fuck…”

She jumps, nearly dropping the bottle and fumbling to catch it before it shatters on the concrete. Some of it spills but she’s able to save it. She shifts her weight, reaching beneath her ass to grab her phone, gasp at the caller ID, and scramble to answer it. “Duffy! It’s about fucking ti–” Pause. “Okay…” Pause, relieved sigh. “Thank fuck, what–” She pulls the phone away from her ear, staring at it in disbelief before saying, “She fucking hung up on me!”

She grumbles unintelligibly as she drops the phone on the lounger and grins at us. “You owe me something big and awesome, Porter. A Porsche maybe. Yeah, that’s a good start. A Porsche.” She thinks for long moments, a smile on her face. “Yellow maybe, like bright yellow. Ooh, no, maybe metallic red…”

“Alice! What did Duffy say?!” Tina’s outburst makes me smile, and I squeeze her until she relaxes, but I’m just as anxious to hear an answer as well. Alice gapes for a moment. “Sheesh, okay! She said…”


The entire room stands at the bailiff’s booming demand as the judge and jury enter. We take our seats and all the usual information is provided by my own personal escort through hell, the bigot otherwise known as Cornelius T. Compton III. He seems to be in a particularly foul mood today and I sigh as he asks Merle for another witness. Her harsh voice pricks my ears as she responds, “The People call Carmen de la Pica Morales.”

The bailiff radios his comrade and Carmen is escorted to the clerk to be sworn in and seated in the witness stand. She looks around the room, running her fingers through her hair nervously. She meets my eyes and faintly smiles as Merle steps forward. “Carmen, thank you for being here today.”

Carmen’s nose twitches as if she’s smelled something distasteful. She exhales heavily, leaning back in her chair and gazing head on at the enemy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I truly like Carmen. She has a way of being entirely honest that’s so innocent that even when it’s brash it’s endearing. She doesn’t reply to Merle, choosing instead to nod curtly. Merle proceeds. “How do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

Her intent gaze doesn’t falter as she answers. “I met her through mutual friends several years ago and in that time, she and her wife have become like family.”

Corky’s cheeks burn hot with intolerance and I shake my head, almost compassionate for what must be a sad and lonely life. Merle paces a few steps. “She’s like family. What does family mean to you?”

“Family means everything.”

Merle nods. “They mean absolutely everything to you?”

Carmen nods, conviction evident in her strong, but quavering voice. “Yes.”

“And you extend that term to the defendant and her family?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your family?”

Carmen thinks hard on this for a moment. “I’m sure that there are some things that might be too extreme, but no. I would do anything within my power to help my family.”

Merle smirks. “Would you lie to protect your family?”

“I… maybe, but-”

“Are you lying now?”

“No!”

“You’re not lying but you would?

“Yes, but–”

“You stated you’d do anything for family.”

“Yes.”

“So you’d lie, torment someone, threaten them, steal from them, and vandalize their property if it is for the sake of family?”

“In certain circum–”

“Yes or no?”

“It depends…”

Merle gazes at Carmen stiffly, her gravelly voice low. “Yes, or no?”

Carmen’s eyes darken almost black with anger. “Yes.”

“Did Ms. Porter-Kennard come to you for help with Candace Jewel?”

Carmen’s gaze still doesn’t waver. “No.”

Merle tips her head. “Then who did?”

“No one did. I offered.”

“What sort of help did you offer her?”

“Protection.”

“What sort of protection?”

“I am close to Bette and Tina–”

Merle interrupts Carmen. “Ms. de la Pica Morales, I’d like to rephrase my question. Please list the types of activities you partook of by way of protecting to the defendant.”

Carmen sighs. “We threatened her in the same ways she–”

Merle doesn’t let Carmen finish. “How did you threaten Candace specifically?”

Carmen blows out a breath. “We used paintball guns to intimidate her, took photos of her, the types of things she was–”

Merle’s voice is loud as she interrupts again. “Carmen, did the defendant know you were committing crimes on her behalf?” Carmen hesitates. “You’re under oath. Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Did she further encourage this criminal activity?” Carmen’s intense gaze still doesn’t falter, but I can tell she’s afraid to tell the truth. I know she doesn’t want to damn me anymore than she already has, but I won’t have her perjure herself for me. She’s helped me enough. She meets my eyes and I smile at her, doing my best to reassure her that I’m not angry at her. If anything, I’m grateful to her.

She exhales heavily and looks back to Merle. “Yes.”

Merle paces a few steps to the right. “Did you have any interaction with Candace directly?”

“No, not really.”

“Not really?”

“I… saw her once, but never spoke to her or touched her.”

“So for all you know, Bette could have been lying and you were tormenting an innocent woman – committing crimes against her – for no reason?”

“No.”

“How can you know that if you never spoke to Candace?”

“I saw what she was doing-”

“You stated you didn’t speak to Candace or touch her. How did you see what she was doing?”

“Alice showed us the photos and the billboard, and I was at Bette and Tina’s bachelorette party when Candace showed up.”

“So the information on Candace came from a third party, one Alice Pieszecki?”

“Yes.”

“How long did you commit these crimes against Candace at the defendant’s request?”

“She didn’t request anything–”

Merle’s voice is loud as she interrupts. “How long?”

“About three years.”

“Up until the day Candace died?”

“No.”

Merle paces to the left. “When did you stop?”

“We lost track of Candace about a year ago.”

“You lost track of her?”

“Yes, she just… disappeared.”

Merle nods. “Because you tormented her for three years.”

Whit stands. “Objection, your honor. That wasn’t a question.”

Corky sneers but has few options. “Sustained.”

Whit continues. “The defense moves to have the last comment stricken from the record.”

Corky’s voice is mocking as he says, “The jury will disregard the last remark.”

Whit settles back in his seat and I have to wonder how a man like Corky got to be an elected official. I’ll never know, unless of course it was on his knees or bent over a bench much like his own. Merle’s voice saves me from the unwelcomed mental images assaulting me, and for once I’m thankful to her. “Ms. de la Pica Morales, if someone had been doing those things to you for three years, how would you feel?”

“I’d be angry, and I’d confront her.”

“You’d be angry and confront her, but what if she didn’t stop?”

“I guess I’d retaliate.”

Merle nods. “And if it still didn’t stop?”

“I’d go to the police.”

“You wouldn’t kill her?”

Carmen’s jaw drops and her voice is high in agitation. “What?! No…!”

“So you disagree with how Bette, your family, handled the situation?”

“No, I don’t!”

“You stated that you would go to the police?”

“Yes!”

“But you feel that Bette shooting Candace was acceptable?”

“Yes!”

“You agree but you wouldn’t do it yourself?”

“I-I’m not sure if I would!”

“It’s an easy question. Is it right or wrong to kill someone?”

“Wrong… but sometimes–”

Merle raises a hand and interrupts. “You think it’s wrong to kill someone but you think it’s okay for Bette to have killed someone?”

Carmen has tears in her eyes and I can tell she’s shaking with frustration. Her voice is low and hard as she says, “No, but–”

Merle becomes sympathetic as she continues, again cutting Carmen off. “Carmen, is it possible that you were taken advantage of, that your faith and desire to help your family was used to abuse an innocent woman?”

“I don’t believe that.”

Merle shakes her head. “You testified that you never spoke to Candace. You state that you wouldn’t resort to violence, and yet you believe that the defendant had no other choice based on hearsay?”

“I believe that’s Bette’s an honest person and a good person.”

Merle leans in. “Carmen, she cheated on her spouse. She has a far-reaching reputation for being cold, cruel, and using women. Are you positive, without any doubt, that you weren’t used to torment an innocent woman?”

Carmen hesitates and then says, “Yes.”

“Do you really find it excusable to have damaged someone’s property, flattened their tires, threatened bodily harm, and kill in any circumstance?”

“Extreme circumstances, yes.”

“Extreme circumstances that you heard second-hand? Are you absolutely certain that there was an extreme enough circumstance to justify your and Bette’s actions?”

For the first time, Carmen lowers her head and breaks eye contact. “No.”

“Thank you. I have no further questions.”

Carmen relaxes back in her chair and I watch as she looks past me, a more genuine smile reaches her eyes, lighting her sad face. I can only assume that she is pulling strength from Shane and I am overwhelmed with happiness for them both, despite the hell of this situation. And, I wish I had Tina for that same type of support just now.

Whit stands and approaches Carmen and she seems to relax more as she gazes up at him. Whit’s lilting voice is gentle as he says, “Thank you for being here today, Carmen.”

She nods, responding this time. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”

Whit smiles in agreement. “You testified that you would lie for your family?”

“Probably, yes, but it doesn’t really work that way. That’s what I was trying to explain earlier. I’d never need to lie for them. They never would never put me in that position.”

“You consider Bette your family.”

Carmen nods. “Bette, her wife, their kids; they are my family.”

“What makes them family?”

“When I need them, they are there for me.”

“How have they been there for you?”

Carmen smiles. “When I needed support, they’d drop what they were doing to help me. That’s family.”

“And when you saw them struggling and hurting at the hands of someone else, how did that make you feel?”

Carmen’s expression becomes pained. “It broke my heart.”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor. The witness is testifying on events that are based on hearsay.”

Whit is prepared. “Just as Ms. Rothman stated yesterday, hearsay is a valid part of this witnesses motives and therefore, it should be admissible.”

Compton pushes his bifocals up his greasy nose and chokes out the only answer available. “Overruled.”

Whit paces to the left, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Carmen, what did you see Candace do to the defendant?”

“I saw the photos that Candace put on a billboard on Sunset Avenue and OurChart, and I saw Candace start a riot in the bar we were visiting in New York at Bette and Tina’s bachelorette party.”

“Ms. Pieszecki revealed the photos and you were directly present for the barfight?”

“Yes.”

“How did my client react in these three separate encounters?”

“She was angry, but mostly she seemed… apologetic… regretful. It was Tina who took it the hardest.”

“How did Tina react?”

“She was angry too, but really, I think she was just hurt, deeply hurt.

“So, based on your observations, what you saw and heard, you believed that my client was just as surprised as anyone when informed?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe that she or Alice had lied about the information, possibly even fabricated it?”

Carmen scoffs. “Please. Everything was fine for Bette and Tina until Candace butted in. Why would they fabricate problems for themselves?” She shakes her head. “No, it’s obvious that Candace was trying to hurt Bette and Tina. So I have no reason not to believe Bette when she says that she had no choice but to protect her family.”

“You stated that you would do anything to protect your family.”

“Yes.”

“You also stated that you wouldn’t result to killing.”

Carmen sighs. “I wasn’t allowed to finish. I wouldn’t kill someone unless I absolutely had to.”

Whit nods. “So if someone unlawfully broke into your home and waited for you, just to talk, completely unarmed, what would you do?”

“I’d talk to her.”

“And if she started to get angry, maybe even violent, without being life threatening, what would you do?”

“I’d call the police.”

“So you’d only kill when?”

“When someone I love is being threatened with a gun, or a knife… just, any violence that makes me scared that they might die.”

“What about the other things you mentioned: vandalism, photos, etcetera. Where do they fall in the spectrum of acceptable behavior?”

Carmen sighs. “I don’t know if what we did was ‘acceptable behavior,’ but sometimes the only way to get someone to stop is to show them that you won’t be pushed around. What Candace was doing wasn’t technically illegal. The police couldn’t stop her. I didn’t like it, but Bette needed help and I was happy to help her.”

“Would you call what you were doing torment?”

Carmen thinks on this for a moment before shaking her head. “No, I could see it as frustrating, but she knew how to make it stop. She just didn’t want to.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Carmen sighs. “We sent a clear message to Candace, just like the message she was sending to Bette. All she had to do was walk away and we’d have done the same. She wouldn’t let it go, so we kept at her. Maybe she felt tormented by the fact that she couldn’t continue the way she had been, but it was self-inflicted.”

Whit nods. “And that was a year before Candace resurfaced at Bette’s house?”

“Yes. We thought, hoped, that she had finally given up, but apparently not.”

“Did she ever threaten you or your cousins with bodily harm?”

Carmen nods. “Yes, all the time.”

“Did she ever attack one of them?”

“Not that I’m aware of, at least not seriously. There was some retaliation on her part. But if she had managed to really hurt one of us, we’d have had her arrested, and she knew that.”

“How can you be sure?”

Carmen sighs. “The night in New York, when we forced her to stay, she was especially volatile. Every time she’d try to attack one of them, they’d laugh at her and goad her saying, ‘Give us a reason to have you put away for good.’ That shut her down pretty quick.”

“And you witnessed this directly?”

“Yes. That is the only time I ever actually saw her. Again, I never touched her or spoke to her.”

Whit nods. “Carmen, you realize that by answering these questions honestly, you are putting yourself and your cohorts at risk of legal action?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“So why take that risk?”

“Because it’s true and I do not, for one second, believe we did anything wrong by protecting our family. She was crazy and the police had their hands tied. You can’t arrest someone for taking photos, or putting up billboards, or even slashing tires and cornering someone in a bathroom stall… unless, of course, you can prove they did it. And even then, it’s a slap on the wrist. Ultimately, it was our word against hers, and a restraining order just isn’t enough with someone like that. We did the best we could with the options we had.”

“Thank you for being so honest, Carmen. I have no further questions.”

Carmen is excused. The atmosphere in the room is tense with overwhelming quiet before Corky clears his throat and speaks to Merle. “Does the prosecution have any further questions?”

Merle stands. “No, your honor.”

He looks to Whit who stands as well. “The defense may call its first witness.”

Whit straightens his blazer. “The defense would like to call Christina Porter-Kennard to the stand.”

The air escapes my lungs as just a moment later Tina is escorted down the aisle, past the low dividing wall, and up to the clerk. I can’t help the thrill of nervousness that pricks the hair at the back of my neck, or the low burning sensation in my hips that just the sight of her ignites, or the proud smile on my face as she stands straight, holding herself as a woman unshakable. This is Tina at her most alpha, and it is intoxicatingly sexy. She is sworn in and seated next to the judge, who she little more than ignores.

Whit steps up to Tina. “Mrs. Kennard-Porter–”

Compton bangs his gavel and makes everyone jump. He points at Whit with the tiny hammer that’s obviously compensating for his smaller attributes, the vein in his forehead throbbing as he seethes. “That was the last straw, counselor. Do it again and you’ll be detained for contempt.”

Globules of saliva spring out with the plosive, ‘t,’ sounds in contempt, hitting Whit squarely in the face. He sighs as he pulls a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wipes it off with thinly veiled disgust, saying, “Yes, your honor.”

Compton lowers the gavel and puts a hand over his chest. For a moment, I hope he’s having a massive coronary. He hunches over his desk, breathing deeply to relax. No such luck. I again focus on Tina, seeing the love in those hazel eyes reach out to me, solidifying our connection as it pulls tight across the room, linking us together and feeding us each comfort and strength. The room doesn’t feel quite as small or stifling. The harsh fluorescent lights bouncing off the bright faux wood walls almost feel like a warming ray of sun, and it’s all because she’s here. Anywhere she is, I will find satisfaction.

Whit tries again. “Tina, thank you for being here today.”

Tina crosses one leg over the other, relaxing into her seat. Her countenance is calm and composed as she replies. “You’re welcome.”

Whit paces to the left. “You are partnered to the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

Tina smiles at me as she says, “I most certainly am.”

I wink at her, my whole soul feeling light and carefree despite the intrusion of our surroundings. “How long have you known your w–” Whit glances at Corky and sighs. “…your partner?”

“Close to thirteen years.”

“How many of those years have you been partnered?”

Tina sighs. “Well, officially married, four and a half years. However, we were partnered for seven years before that.”

“Did you date for two years before becoming partnered?”

“No, we dated for about six months before we moved in together. We were together for seven years before we separated.”

“Can you explain what happened to cause that separation?”

She nods and I feel the need to strap myself down in preparation of the hideous tale she’s about to relate, one I’m sure I’ll have to relate myself. It all feels like it was a lifetime ago, and in a way, it was. That person died, and a new life began… my life. I pulled that person apart, keeping only the best parts of her, and reassembled her into the person I am today. Losing Tina was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.

“We had problems like most couples. It wasn’t anything major until…” The bright light of the room highlights the tears that want to fall from her eyes, though they never get a chance. She breathes deeply, closing her eyes for just a moment, and then gazing at me. My heart would break if it weren’t already open to her, but it manages to drop into my toes. Her voice and gaze are soft as she says, “…I miscarried.”

I feel a stray tear roll hot and thick down my own cheek and the primal need to go to her is excruciating as I fight against it. Tina’s voice is gentle as she continues. “It got worse after that.”

“How did it get worse?”

Tina exhales heavily. “We were just… growing apart.”

“Was Bette hard to live with?”

“In some ways, yes, but in a lot of ways, no.”

“Did she abuse you or use you in any way?”

Tina’s voice is thick with emotion. “I don’t know if you’d call it abuse, but I felt as if she didn’t really love me, not like I loved her.”

“Why did you feel that way?”

“She was just distant and unavailable to me in a lot of ways. She focused on her work and her things and I felt like I was secondary to those desires.”

“Why did you stay with her?”

“Because I loved her and thought that, given time, she might return those feelings.”

“Did she grow to love you?”

“I know Bette loved me; we just had different ways of showing it. I think loving me frightened her, so she kept me at a distance.”

“Did you leave Bette or did she leave you?”

“I left her.”

“Why did you leave her?”

“She had an affair.”

The air in the room is thick with animosity and I can feel all the eyes in the room looking at me, judging me. Maybe putting her up there wasn’t a very good idea. I have yet to see how this is helping anything.

“With Candace Jewel?”

“Yes.”

“Did you confront Bette before you left her?”

“Yes.”

“What happened during that confrontation?”

“We argued and it became physical.”

Whit’s voice is gentle. “You hit each other?”

“No. I hit her, but she never hit me.”

Whit paces to the right, hands tucked in his pockets. “What did Bette do when you hit her?”

“She restrained me.”

“Did she hold you down?”

“Yes.”

“What did she do after she had you restrained?”

“She touched me… sexually.”

Whit nods. “Was it an unwelcomed touch?”

Tina sighs. “At first, yes, but when I was able to get out from under her, no.”

“Tina, did Bette rape you?”

I look up, realizing as if the for the first time where I am and what is going on around me. That word. That one little word with the power to destroy everything we’ve built. I catch Tina’s eyes and her expression is remarkable. She’s like an angel of destruction, radiant with righteous anger and banishing the shadows of doubt. Her gaze is piercing and steady, as if she’s speaking directly to me as she says, “No, absolutely not.”

Her words, her face,  the incredible children we have waiting at home, all of them are just reminders, but the memory of them stirs up a most potent mix of reassurance. I take several deep breaths, holding on to the fact that all of that is over. I’m not there anymore. I’m not that person anymore. And it’s okay to let it be dead. It’s okay to accept forgiveness, because forgiveness can’t be earned. It’s a gift, a gift given freely with no attachments or strings or expectations other than acceptance. It’s okay to let it all go, and I want to. I really do. I want to be free of all the remnants of poison in my system, to be purged, to be healthy and whole, to be sexy and in love like it’s the first time. I smile at her through my tears and realize I’m close, so very close, but I’m just not there yet. I am nothing if not resilient… and if I’m honest with myself, I’m stubborn.

“What happened after your altercation?”

Tina swallows hard. “I left, in the middle of the night, and I didn’t see her again for a year.”

“And you reconciled?”

Tina smiles. “Yes.”

“Would you say you know Bette?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Would you say you’ve been through a lot together?”

“Yes.”

“How would you describe the majority of your relationship with Bette, functional or dysfunctional?”

“In the past, I’d say it was mostly dysfunctional.”

“And now?”

“It’s very functional.”

“You trust Bette?”

“Yes.”

“If it was so dysfunctional, how can you trust her now?”

“The Bette that I’m with now, is the Bette that I always knew she could be. She’s warm, and caring, and so devoted to me and our family that it’s almost overwhelming at times. The woman sitting there right now is not the woman who had an affair and lost herself, and I trust her implicitly. She’s earned no less.”

“You know of her personal reputation?”

Tina nods. “Yes.”

“You know of her professional reputation?”

Tina nods. “Yes.”

“Has Bette always been driven in her goals?”

“Yes, very.”

“Did you ever feel secondary to those goals?”

Tina’s voice is small as she says, “Yes.”

“Do you feel that way now?”

Tina smiles. “No, not in the least.”

“What changed between then and now?”

“Bette changed. She’s just not like that anymore.”

“And you believe and fully trust in that conversion?”

The conviction in Tina’s voice strikes a chord in me. “She is the one thing in this life that I would swear by.”

“While reconciling, did you trust her again right away?”

Tina grins. “No. I put her through hell. I tried everything to push her away because I didn’t trust her at all. But gradually, over time, I just saw it, little by little.”

“When did Candace come back into the picture?”

Tina sighs, her smile gone. “There was the billboard. When I saw it I panicked. I thought I was making this huge mistake. I thought that at any time, Bette was going to cheat again. For all I knew, she was still with Candace and I had been foolish from the very start of our reconciliation.”

“So what happened?”

Tina blows out a breath. “I told her I needed a break, that I just couldn’t do it. Honestly, I couldn’t even look at her. She had given me everything, her most guarded secrets, her home, her money, and even her gallery. She gave me everything that meant the most to her and left herself destitute to try and prove her devotion to me, but I still couldn’t see it.”

“So, Bette Porter, a notoriously powerful and wealthy woman, went against everything she stood for and gave you everything she had to prove herself to you?”

A smile lights her face and I can’t help but match it as she meets my eyes. “Yes, she did.”

“Did you trust her at that point?”

Tina shakes her head. “No, not fully.”

“So why did you move forward with the reconciliation?”

“Because I loved her.”

“Did Candace do anything else?”

“Yes, she showed up at our bachelorette party in New York and cornered me in a bathroom stall of the club we were at.”

“What happened in the stall?”

Tina exhales heavily. “Candace was yelling at me but I ignored her. So, she pulled out her phone and started playing a recording of two people who were obviously having sex. I recognized Bette’s voice.” Tina’s jaw clenches. “That was the first time that I got really angry at Candace but I still didn’t respond. Even after the recording was done she kept yelling at me, pushing me, trying to provoke me. I was at my wit’s end and I lost it. I hit her in the face. She ran out of the bathroom and into the crowd on the dance floor. I-I tackled her and it started a riot.”

“But you still had a joining ceremony that weekend?”

“Yes, we got married.” Corky flinches at the terms Whit’s been carefully avoiding and I grin imperceptibly.

“Why did you go through with the ceremony?”

“I realized that even if I couldn’t handle Candace and her nonsense, even if I couldn’t fully trust Bette, even if our marriage was doomed to fail, that leaving her just wasn’t an option. If she was lying, she’d have to get rid of me because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave her.”

“So you still didn’t trust her, but you were determined to move forward with her?”

“Yes. It wasn’t until I died giving birth to our oldest daughter, Angelica, that I finally let all of my insecurities go.”

There’s a small gasp from the collective courtroom and Whit smiles. “Your first-born daughter is named Angelica?”

Tina drawls, “Yes,” as if it’s two syllables.

There’s a low rumble of murmuring in the gallery from the name Angelica, the same name that Candace had told her mother she wanted to name our child, and Corky bangs his gavel. “Enough!”

The murmuring stops and despite Tina’s confusion, Whit continues. “Who named your daughter?”

“I did…”

“Where did you get that name?”

“Bette and I hadn’t settled on a name for her by the time she came. She came early, but the delivery was very hard. I knew I was dying and when I heard her crying for the first time, I just automatically thought of her as Angelica.” Tina shrugs. “I have no idea why. I just did. I told Bette, and that was it.”

“You died in childbirth?”

A chill rolls down my spine as Tina answers, “Yes. I died during birth and again a few days later. I was resuscitated both times.”

“And this is when you finally began trust Bette completely?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“Why? What changed?”

Tina smiles. “Me. I was in a coma but I could hear her talking to me, reading to me. She was with me every step of the way and I realized that she’d never leave me. She needed me as much I needed her. I felt safe and loved despite the chaos my mind was going through, and I knew in the deepest parts of me that she was honest and I could trust her.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Nearly four years ago.”

“And since then, have you had any reason to distrust Bette?”

Tina shakes her head. “No, not one.”

Whit paces to the left. “Did you see Candace again?”

Tina swallows hard. “Yes, just once. A couple of months ago Bette gave birth to twins, and when we brought them home from the hospital, Candace was there, in the house… waiting for us… with a gun.”

“How did she get in?”

“The police said that she broke out one of the small window panes in the back patio doors.”

Whit walks up to Joyce and I watch her hand him what appear to be police photos from our patio. He takes them to Merle who objects and then all the attorneys spend some quality time at the bench with Corky. I take the moment to focus on Tina. Her expression is sad and I give her a crooked grin. Her eyes are deep and bright with determination and I find it calming.

No matter what they force her to say up there, or what issues she’s forced to dredge up, I know what she knows: none of it matters. She loves me and I love her, and if no one else can understand why, or how, it’s irrelevant. It is irrelevant to what’s real. And what’s real is the connection spanning the distance between us and our three children waiting at home, blissfully ignorant to the damage that irrational hatred can cause to their lives. I know it’s impossible, but I wish I could protect them from it forever.

Joyce returns to my side and Merle testily takes her seat. I wink at Tina and her smile gives me hope. Whit makes his way to the projector and we watch as photos of our back patio doors are blown up on the screen. The police report does indicate that this is the point of entry and further proves that Candace broke into our home. He removes the photos, entering them into evidence, and returns to Tina. “Tina, you indicated that Candace was in the house when you arrived?”

Tina nods. “Yes.”

“What happened when you saw her?”

“Candace, um…” Tina swallows, fear written on her face. The trembling of her hands gives testament to how disassembled this memory makes her. “She pointed the gun at Bette and started screaming at her. Bette gave me Chance, our son, and stood in front of us, shielding us with her body. I was terrified, and angry. I felt helpless. I had two infants in my arms, Bette was being held at gunpoint, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. It was just too much. Then Candace shot at us. The babies started crying and I thought she’d shot Bette until a piece of the ceiling fell on us. I don’t know how it happened, but Bette and Candace started fighting for the gun and I took the opportunity to put the babies on the sofa and call for help.”

Tina’s voice becomes detached, as if she’s relaying a scene from a movie, not her life. “When I got through to 9-1-1, I looked up to see Candace pointing the gun at me. Bette jumped in front of the gun and it went off just a moment later.” Tears start streaming down Tina’s face and her voice is choked. “Bette turned to me, bleeding from her stomach and I rushed over to her, trying to stop it. There was just so much… I-I thought she was dead.”

My guts twist, sick with the memory of it, and sick with my inability to go to my wife who’s falling apart. It takes long moments but she calms down, Whit handing her a tissue before she continues. “Candace tried to leave, but fell at the door. She, um… I watched her die.”

“Tina, I know you’re upset, and I’ll do this as quickly as possible, but this is very important. Candace pointed the gun at you?”

Tina nods. “Yes.”

“You saw Bette jump in front of the gun?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see anything else before the gun went off?”

“No. I saw Bette jump in front of the gun, and thought she’d been shot. I didn’t realize until after Candace was dead that Bette was just bleeding from her stitches.”

Whit nods. “Thank you for sharing your story with us, Tina. It was very brave of you. I have no further questions.”

My head spins slightly as Merle walks up to Tina. I don’t want her anywhere near Tina, but it’s too late now. “Ms. Porter-Kennard, you testified that the defendant stepped in front of the gun as Candace pointed it at you.”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t see anything else?”

“No.”

“You couldn’t see the gun?”

“No.”

“Why couldn’t you see it?”

“Bette was blocking my view. All I could see was her back at that point.”

“You couldn’t see the gun, but you could see Bette’s back?”

“Yes.”

Merle paces to the left. “Was Bette standing still or was she moving?”

Tina furrows her brows. “I’m not sure what you’re asking. She jumped in front of the gun.”

“Yes, but even from behind, you should be able to tell if she was struggling or moving her arms. Did you see anything that indicated that she was struggling with her hands?”

Tina thinks for a moment. “It happened too fast. I have no idea if she was struggling with Candace.”

“So it’s possible that there was a struggle, but you’re not certain?”

“Yes.”

“Could you see Candace at all?”

“No, all I could see was Bette’s back.”

Merle paces to the right. “So it’s possible that she got the gun from Candace and shot her?”

Tina’s jaw clenches. “I didn’t say that happened.”

Merle stops and stands straight. “No, you didn’t. What I’m asking you is, based on what you did see, is it possible that Bette had retrieved the gun and shot Candace, yes or no?”

Tina seems composed, but I can see the rapid rise and fall of her chest as her breathing increases and she considers how to answer. She finally shakes her head. “I don’t think it is possible. It happened too fast for that to have happened.”

Merle paces again. “So you’re saying that the gun was pointed at you?”

“Yes.”

“Bette jumped in front of the gun?”

“Yes.”

“And then Candace shot herself?”

“I-I have no idea.”

“You were there when the gun went off?”

Tina is getting agitated and I close my eyes, willing her to stay calm. “Yes.”

“But you conveniently can’t remember how Candace got shot?”

“I know she got shot, but I didn’t see what happened until after the gun went off.”

Merle nods. “Okay, so the gun goes off, what was the very next thing that happened?”

“Bette turned to me, bleeding.”

“Was she holding the gun?”

“No.”

“Was Candace holding the gun?”

“No. The gun fell to the floor.”

“The gun fell to the floor… before or after Bette turned to you?”

“Before… I think…”

“And when Bette turned to you, what did she do?”

Tina licks her lips, her voice hoarse. “Bette was looking at her hands.”

“Why was she looking at her hands?”

“She was bleeding and she was trying to stop it.”

“Was there blood on her hands?”

Tina sighs disbelievingly. “Yes, of course.”

Merle nods. “She had touched the blood coming from her wound?”

“Yes!”

“So she’d have had to drop whatever she was holding in order to do that, wouldn’t she?”

“I told you, I don’t know if she had the gun!”

“But it’s possible?”

“Anything’s possible because–”

Merle puts up her hand. “Do you believe that Bette is the kind of person who would use deadly force?”

“Only when necessary.”

“What about in other areas; is she generally forceful?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well, you stated that you had an altercation with her the night you separated and she used force. Is that true?”

Tina exhales loudly. “Yes.”

“Was her force that evening necessary?”

“Yes.”

“What happened during that altercation that required force?”

Tina’s demeanor becomes stony. “It’s hard to explain…”

“Let’s start at the beginning then. Where were you when the altercation started?”

“Our bedroom.”

Merle paces to the left. “Move step-by-step. What exactly happened next?”

“I told her I knew about the affair and she tried to hug me. I pushed her away. She said she was sorry, and I-I slapped her. She told me that she loved me and, and that’s when I lost it. I was screaming at her, trying to hit her, and she restrained me.”

“So she was trying to force herself on you?”

Tina’s voice grows cold. “No.”

“You state that she tried to hug you, you made it very clear that you didn’t want her to touch you, and then she restrained you. How was she holding you down?”

“Sh–” Tina clears her throat. “She was on top of me and holding my hands above my head.”

“And that force was necessary?”

“Yes.”

“How was it necessary?”

“I was attacking her!”

“And after she had subdued you, did she try to force you into anything else?”

“What are you asking?”

Merle paces to the left. “What I’m asking, Tina, is did she hold you down and force herself on you sexually?”

“No.”

“While you were being restrained, did she touch you sexually?”

“Yes.”

“How did she touch you?”

“I was losing it; I hit her–”

“Ms. Porter-Kennard, I asked how she touched you, not why. Please answer the question.”

“She touched my breast.”

“Through your clothes?”

“No.”

Merle tilts her head. “Had you undressed prior to the altercation?”

“No.”

“How did your breasts become uncovered?

“My dress tore.”

Merle smirks. “How did it tear?”

Tina stares daggers at Merle as she answers. “Bette tore it.”

“She held you down and tore your dress so she could touch your breast?”

“She was just–”

Merle holds up a hand. “Were you struggling while this was happening, yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Did you, at any point during this struggle, tell her to stop, yes or no?”

Tina’s voice cracks slightly as she replies, “Yes.”

“You testified that she didn’t rape you?”

“Yes, because she didn’t.”

“Would you agree, based on what you’ve just said, that she attempted to rape you, yes or no?”

Tina sighs. “Your questions don’t warrant a yes or no answer. If you want me to answer honestly, then you’ll let me use more than one word to answer.”

Merle paces to the right, shrugging as she says, “It’s a straightforward question. She either attempted to rape you or she didn’t. What possible explanation is there to justify holding someone down, tearing their clothes, and touching them sexually when they’ve made it clear that it’s unwelcomed?”

“There is no justification, but there are sometimes reasons and circumstances. You make it sound like I was some random person that she picked up and tried to force into having sex. That’s just not the case. We had been lovers for seven years–”

Merle interrupts again. “The law states that giving consent once doesn’t give it indefinitely. So, I ask you again, did she attempt to rape you, yes or no?”

“If that’s how I have to answer, then I’ll have to say no, she didn’t.”

Merle stops and stares at Tina incredulously. “She held you down against your will, ignored your plea for her to stop, tore your clothes, and started touching you, but she did not try to rape you?”

Frustration is evident in Tina’s voice. “No, she wasn’t trying to rape me, or she very easily could have.”

Merle nods. “So she stopped?”

Tina sighs. “Yes.”

“What stopped her?”

“I flipped her over.”

“So you fought back and stopped her?”

“I wasn’t fighting back–”

“You pushed her off of you and her touching stopped?”

“Yes, but–”

“Why were you fighting if it wasn’t an attempt to rape you?”

Tina starts losing her cool as her words come out fast and clipped. “There was an altercation that became very confused. Neither of us was trying to hurt the other, we were just hurting and lost and out of control.” Merle tries to interrupt her but Tina holds her ground, her voice louder and her countenance more determined. “I don’t deny that how we treated each other that night was inexcusable, but we didn’t try to excuse it! We accepted it, forgave each other, and moved on! And honestly, none of this is any of your business. You can do what you like to try and paint Bette as a bloodthirsty rapist, but it’s a lie!”

Corky starts banging his gavel and yelling but Tina shouts louder. “Women want her! She doesn’t have to take anything!”

The judge yells at Tina, but she’s unaffected; fueled by passion and indignant anger, standing and bracing her arms on the witness box as one final yelled claim shuts the room into shocked silence. “Hell, you wanted her at one point if I’m not mistaken!”

The judge turns to Tina. “Ms. Porter-Kennard–“

Tina glares at him, anger radiating off of her in waves. “I am Mrs. Porter-Kennard!” She points at me. “That is my wife. Can you comprehend that, bigot?!”

Corky bangs his gavel harder. He stands angrily, his face red and mustache bristling with his labored breathing as the bailiff grabs Tina’s arm. I push out of my chair to go to my wife and stop the bailiff from manhandling her, but Joyce slams me hard back into my seat. The judge’s jowls waggle as he trembles with barely contained rage and he stutters out, “Ms. Porter-Kennard, I find you in cont–”

Whit stands. “Excuse me, your honor?” Compton turns to Whit, fire blazing in his eyes. “If it pleases the court, I’d like to request a short recess to speak with my witness. I assure you that another outburst of that kind will not happen again. I understand that you will not tolerate that sort of behavior, but I believe my client is suffering from duress. It was disrespectful to you and this court, and I’m respectfully asking for the opportunity to speak with her in lieu of contempt.” Compton is far too angry, despite Whit’s obvious attempts to placate his ego, but one final request seems to do the trick. “You have a reputation for being fair and merciful, your honor. I am asking for mercy…” Whit gestures to the crowd in the gallery behind us. “…in front of all these witnesses.”

Compton straightens his robes, holding his squat stature as high as he can behind the bench, as he looks around the room to gauge how he should answer. His eyes land on the cameras trained on him and he bangs his gavel magnanimously before raising his arms out as his sides and putting on a grand show for the cameras. “I will grant you mercy, but this is your final warning. The court will recess for one hour.” He turns to gaze at Tina’s flushed and furious face. “This is your only chance, Ms. Porter-Kennard. Pull yourself together or you’ll have sixty days at Metro to teach you a valuable lesson.” I watch as Tina wants to explode in anger, only to break down in tears.

Joyce releases me and we stand as the bailiff demands, though Corky has already retreated to his chambers. The other bailiff starts to pull Tina from the room and she shakes him off angrily, nearly running down the aisle. I have no choice but to watch her leave and wait for the fucking jury to get the fuck out so I can go to her.

She disappears through the double doors at the end of the gallery and several moments later, the last juror finally exits the room. I quickly try to walk around the low dividing wall but Joyce stops me again. Just as I’m about to throw her off of me, I see that Merle has approached us. She’s smirking smugly as she says, “I don’t think there will be a need to call her back to the stand. Her outburst did all the work for me. She’s obviously unbalanced.” She glances at me. “It’s probably Stockholm Syndrome.” She turns to Whit. “Thank you for convincing her to go up there, Whit. When this is over and I’ve secured another victory, let me know if you want to move into government. I have a spot for a deputy and I think you’d fill it nicely.”

I do my best to swallow the venom welling on my tongue as the lingering scent of cheap, musky perfume leaves a thick trail in her wake, but I can’t. Her gait is easy and self-assured as she exits the room and I follow behind her, not caring that the media is hot on our heels. “Merle!” She stops and turns to me, her smile stained with clumps of lipstick clinging to her yellowish teeth. I hold myself tall and feel Joyce wrap a tight hand around my bicep and tug at me, but I am unyielding.

I want to scream at her, tear her apart; I want to beat her into a greasy stain on the linoleum, but as I gaze at her empty eyes, I feel… I just feel… “I feel sorry for you, that the only way you can feel good about yourself is to bully innocent people. It must be a sad and lonely life you live, and I wanted you to know that… well, that I feel sorry for you. Even if you do manage to wrongfully convict me, I’ll retain my happiness. At least I know what it means to love and be loved. I wish… I wish you could know how that feels, too. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so bitter and pathetic.”

Everyone, even the chaotic bustle of the media is quiet around us as they document this exchange. And honestly, I’m shocked. I’m shocked at my words, not because I said them, but because I meant them. I shake my head sadly at her stunned face and turn to go to my wife. There is some serious damage control to do and I’ll not waste another breath on Merle Rothman.

The media gives me a wide birth as I quietly escape them, Joyce, Whit, Dana, and Shane are right behind me. We head into the small office on the other side of the hallway and I immediately see Tina crying piteously at the dark, oval table in the middle of the room. Alice and Carmen are trying to soothe her but have no clue what’s happened as I approach my wife, get to my knees in front of her, and tuck a lock of honey-hued hair behind her delicate ear.

Tina buries her head in my neck as she throws her arms around me and continues to cry. “I’m so sorry, Bette! I’m so sorry!”

I gather her tightly and shut my eyes. “Shh, it’s okay, T.”

She cries for long minutes while I coo and comfort her to the best of my ability. Finally her voice is more controlled as she says, “No, it’s not okay. I’ve just ruined everything. I lost it and now I’m going to lose you.” She leans back, gazing right into my eyes and baring just how broken she is in this moment. “Don’t you get it? I’ve ruined it. God, Bette, I’m so sorry! I’m just so sorry…”

I smile sadly at her. “Tina, no matter what happens, it’s not your fault. You were just honest. There’s no fault in that.”

She scoffs at me. “I trained with Whit for hours for this! I may as well have sentenced you to prison myself! I was a fucking fool to go up there, and I don’t even know how you can stand to look at me right now!”

I feel anger well within my guts. “Tina, out of everything you’ve said in the last hour, that is the first thing out of your mouth that’s pissed me off. I love you, and I’m not mad at you.”

She exhales heavily, taking my hands in her own and saying, “I-I’m sorry.”

I smile gently, pulling her forward to rest my forehead against hers. “No matter what happens, we’re in this together.”

She sighs, her voice quiet as she says, “If they convict you, I’ll never forgive myself.”

I kiss her forehead and have no clue what to say to her. If the tables were reversed, I’d feel the same way. I gaze out at nothing over the top of her head and watch as the pendulum swings in a little closer, biting a faint scratch into my skin. I think I have lost this battle, but really, all that means is that I have very limited time, time I don’t intend to waste. I say empty words that I don’t mean. “It’s going to be okay.”

She doesn’t respond and it’s for the best at this point. Whit steps forward. “Well, either way, you’re done on the stand, Tina. And Bette, you’re up next.” I look over at him and nod my head. Alice turns to him and asks, “Has Duffy called you?”

Whit sighs and shakes his head. “No. The last time I spoke to her was months ago. She called and told me to put herself and Kelly Wentworth on the witness list, but that was all. If she’s not here by the time Bette’s and the medical examiner’s testimonies are finished, that’s it. We’ll have closing arguments, and the trial is over.”

Alice pulls out her phone and hits the call button, waiting a long moment before angrily ending the call. She flops down next to Tina and everyone else does the same. I break away and take the seat next to my distraught wife who continues to cling to me, and a heavy, silent despair settles over the room. There really is nothing to do at this point. It all rides on what Duffy found, and she had nothing to say yesterday other than she’d be here today.

I close my eyes and Tina snuggles tighter into me and several long minutes pass this way before the door to the room opens and a bailiff steps in. I furrow my brows, we still have some time, or at least I thought we did. The bailiff steps aside and Duffy steps into the room smiling haughtily. “Sorry I’m late.” Everyone gazes up at her incredulously as she takes a seat at the far end of the table and rests her crossed feet high up on the surface. She throws a thick file on the table, leans back, and grins. “I have some news for you…”

 


The clerk tells me to sit and I lower my right hand, following the bailiff to the witness stand to settle in. It’s a different world up here. I could tell that people were watching me from the comfort of the defense desk, but they were behind me. Here, now… I can see everyone and I can study their faces as they gaze at me. The faces vary from compassion and comfort, to detached curiosity, and angry scorn as I scan the crowd. It’s one thing to know you’re being watched, it’s another to see it. My palms feel sweaty and the low scoop of my blouse threatens to somehow choke me. Whit approaches me and I wipe my hands on my thighs, crossing one knee over the other and adopting the most casual demeanor I can and hoping that it’s believable.

Whit’s eyes tell me to relax and that he’s on my side. I take a deep breath and he begins. “Ms. Porter-Kennard, did you know the deceased, Candace Jewel?”

“Yes.”

“How did you know her?”

“She and I were lovers for a brief time.”

“How brief?”

“We were together two weeks.”

Whit nods. “Who ended the relationship?”

“I did.”

“Why?”

I exhale a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. “I wasn’t in love with her and I was in a committed relationship.”

“You had an affair with Candace Jewel?”

“Yes. I slept with Candace once while I was still with my partner, Tina Kennard. The other times I was with Candace, Tina had left me.”

“Did you have any other affairs while with Tina?”

“No, absolutely not.”

“Why did Tina leave you?”

“I think the affair was the last straw, so to speak.”

Whit nods. “The night she left, what happened?”

“I’m not sure how she found out about the affair, but she did. We fought and it became physical. We went to bed and when I woke the next morning, she was gone.”

“During the fight, did you sexually assault her?”

“I –” I clear my tight throat. “I… God help me, I started to.” Tears gather on my lashes as I gaze up at Whit, his face the only one I have the nerve to look at in this moment. The others out in the crowd have already condemned me, but they’ll never know that their condemnation can never compare to my own. They’ll never hate what happened in those few months more than I do.

“But you stopped?”

I nod, closing my eyes for a moment and choking the pain of it back. “Yes, I finally realized what was happening and stopped. That was a big enough opening for her to flip us over. She had control at that moment.”

“Did you have sex?”

I furrow my brows. “I don’t know what to call it. Sex seems too superficial. It wasn’t sex, it wasn’t making love, and it wasn’t rape. It was… it was somewhere in-between. But we did do sexual things to one another.”

“Was it consensual?”

I nod. “Yes. She took what she wanted and I was willing to give it to her.”

Whit paces to the left. “And she left you that night?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you end the relationship with Candace after your partner had already left you?”

“Because it would be unfair to start something with her that I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t love her, and she deserved to be in a mutually gratifying relationship.”

Whit paces to the right. “How did you end the relationship?”

I steady myself and revisit that day. “I had spent the night with her. She woke me up and told me she loved me, that she was my future now that Tina had left. I considered it and realized that I could never love her, so I told her. She seemed… she wasn’t listening to me. I kept telling her it was over, and she heard me, but she’d just pretend that she hadn’t, or tell me that I was just upset and to give it time. I couldn’t seem to get through to her, so I got dressed and tried to leave. On my way out, she pushed me hard against the door and threatened me. I left and went straight to the police to file a restraining order.”

I watch as Whit walks up to Joyce who holds out a sheet of paper and moves to enter it as evidence. Merle can’t object so it’s successful and he puts it on the overhead projector, explaining its relevance. It is exactly what it says it is, a record of my desire to keep Candace as far away from me as possible. He doesn’t ask anything of me and puts it away, returning to continue our conversation. “Bette, how long was it before you heard from Candace again?”

I sigh. “She emailed me a couple times and called, but I didn’t respond and it stopped. I didn’t actually deal with her again until Tina and I reconciled.”

“So that was what, twelve months?”

“A little more than that, maybe fourteen months.”

“And outside of the emails and calls that you didn’t respond to, had you heard from her in those fourteen months?”

“No, I hadn’t.”

“In those fourteen months, did you have any other relationships?”

I lower my head. “Outside of one-night-stands, no.”

“Nadia Karella, Catherine Rothberg, and Katerina Ivanova are examples of these one-night-stands?”

“Nadia and Katerina are, but I have no recollection of Catherine.”

“Ms. Karella claimed that you promised her a job and to help with her dissertation in exchange for sex. Is that true?”

I breath in deeply. “Nadia Karella showed up after hours at the gallery, wearing little more than a trench coat and lingerie. She mentioned her dissertation, and when I tried to get her to leave, she flashed some skin. I allowed her in, but there was no substantial discussion. I-I had been drinking.”

“Did you promise her anything in return for sex?”

“No. We didn’t really say much to one another that night.”

Whit nods. “And you don’t remember Catherine Rothberg?”

“I’ve never met her in my life. I have no idea who she is or why she was here.”

“Did you know Katerina?”

“Yes. Most of what she said is true. I picked her up at the Starlight while on business in New York. I chose her because she reminded me of Tina. We went back to my hotel room and she spent the night. I woke early. She was still asleep so I decided to take a shower. When I came out, she was gone and so was all the cash in my wallet.”

Whit paces to the left. “At any time, did she proposition you for money?”

“No. We said all of three words to one another.”

“Would you call this pattern of behavior acceptable?”

I shake my head, breathing deeply. “No. I’d call it self-destructive. My life was a mess and I was miserable. There’s no excuse for the way I behaved, but I never hurt anyone. All of the women I was with were willing.” I look past Whit to Merle. “A lot of the time, they’d approach me.”

He nods. “And then you saw Tina again and started to reconcile?”

“Yes.”

“And that’s when Candace re-emerged?”

“Yes.”

“What did Candace do when she started contacting you again?”

“Well, someone took… personal pictures… of me and Tina on our back patio balcony and posted them to the OurChart website. I have no way to prove that it was Candace, unless you count the pictures her mother testified she saw Candace destroying.”

“What happened with the OurChart profile?”

“My friend who owns the site, Alice Pieszecki, locked the profile, informed us, and had one of her site admin try to locate an IP address so we could file a police report. It was determined that a proxy server was used to hide the originating IP, and without that, there was nothing anyone could do, not even the police. So she deleted the profile and we all moved on. I figured with my reputation, it could have been anyone. I had no idea that Candace was trying to come back into my life. It had been more than a year. I thought she had moved on.”

“What’s the first instance of contact that you can prove was Candace?

My guts twist as I remember that detestable photo on the billboard. “My same friend, Alice, showed me photos of a billboard that had been put up on Sunset Boulevard. It was a photo of me and Candace in bed, from that same morning that she woke me up. It was obvious that I was still asleep.”

Whit walks over to Joyce and moves to enter a new piece of evidence. Merle again, can’t contest it, and I watch as the photo is blown up on the projector. “Is this the photo you’re referring to, Bette?”

The sickening feeling in my stomach doubles and I force an answer out. “Yes.”

“Let the record show that the captions read, ‘Who’s the love of your life again, Bette?’ and ‘My name isn’t Tina,’ further substantiating the defendant’s claim that she ended her relationship with Candace Jewel.”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor. This does not substantiate that the relationship had ended, only that the photo does exist and was placed on a billboard.”

Corky grins. “Sustained. The record will only reflect that the photo and billboard are substantiated, not that the relationship was ended. The jury is instructed to disregard the defense counselor’s last remark.”

Whit removes the photo from the projector and I let out a sigh of relief. It’s truly sickening to look at. I watch as Whit adds the photo the large file of court evidence, and it’s subtle, but for the first time he appears genuinely incensed, but it only lasts a moment. He approaches me again, the placid calm of professionalism snapping firmly in place as he continues. “Did that photo break you and Tina up?”

“No, thank God.”

“Did Candace try again?”

“Yes, unfortunately.”

Whit nods. “What was the next attempt?”

I rub my palms across my thighs and resettle myself. The sick feeling isn’t dissipating and I feel a slight sheen of sweat gathering at the nape of my neck. It’s an effort, but I force myself to appear calm. “She showed up at my bachelorette party, but I didn’t actually see her, at least I don’t remember it.”

“What do you remember?”

“We went to dinner and then went out to one of the better clubs in the city. I got very drunk. The next thing I remember is waking up in jail and being informed that a riot broke out while we were at the club. The policewoman who released us, Marybeth Duffy, told us that Candace had been there the night before, and was arrested as well, though she had been released two hours earlier.”

Whit moves to add another piece of uncontested evidence, again putting it up on the projector and explaining that it’s the police report for Candace’s arrest in New York. He adds it to the growing pile and returns to me. “Bette, what happened after you were released?”

I can’t help but grin. That was probably the craziest day of my life, and I’ve had some doozies. “Well, we were released, but Tina wasn’t with us. We spent the entire day trying to find her. She wasn’t at the hotel room and we couldn’t reach her on her cellphone. I was worried that Candace had done something worse than just try to interfere; I was terrified that she’d tried to hurt Tina… physically.”

“Did she hurt Tina physically?”

I frown. “Aside from fighting with her at the club, I don’t believe so. However, we found out that someone had cancelled our wedding venue and tried to cancel on our cake. Candace almost succeeded in cancelling the wedding altogether.”

Merle’s irritating voice sounds from behind Whit. “Objection. There is nothing to substantiate the claim that it was Candace that cancelled any wedding plans.”

Corky glares at me as he says, “Sustained.”

Whit tucks his hands in his pockets and I realize now why he does that so much. It’s a way for him to control his anger. “So someone cancelled your plans. Did you still proceed with the ceremony?”

I can’t help but smile. “Yes, by some miracle, Tina still wanted to get married. So we did.”

“What happened with Candace?”

I gulp. I don’t want to relate this, but I might as well be honest. It’s probable that I hang for her murder anyway at this point. “I had Carmen’s cousins in New York find Candace and bring her to me. We spoke and she wouldn’t hear reason. She was determined to make my and Tina’s life together hell until we separated. She just… she wouldn’t relent. So, I left her with Carmen’s cousins and the last I heard, they would make sure that she stayed in New York. That was the last time I heard from her or about her until the day she showed up at our home.”

The sickening feeling in my stomach spreads out and clenches at my heart. I know what Whit’s going to ask next, and he doesn’t disappoint. “What happened that day in your home?”

I release a shuddering breath and steel myself. “I um, I had just given birth to twins, Chance and Rory. Tina and I brought them home, and when we walked inside, we found Candace waiting for us… with a gun.” I drop my crossed leg and center my feet for balance. I feel dizzy and my heart is beating so fast I can feel it pulsing in my temples, the first signs of a headache thrumming to life as the walls of the harshly bright courtroom start to close in around me.

Whit seems to notice and goes to Joyce, adding the weapon into evidence. I’m thankful for the moment of respite and I’m able to catch my breath. When he returns to me, he hands me a bottle of water and I accept it gratefully. I open it and take careful sips with a shaking hand. “It’s okay, Bette. Take your time and continue when you’re ready.”

I nod, drinking some more of the cold water. It’s harsh against my churning stomach, and shocks my system into a state of focus. “Thank you.” I take a deep breath and start again. “I um… I tried to talk to Candace, but she just… she trained the gun on me and started screaming. I couldn’t really think, so I gave Chance to Tina and put myself in front of her, lifting my hands to try and show Candace that I wasn’t a threat, that she had the power, and I’d be compliant.”

I take another sip of water, clearing my throat before I continue. “I um, I tried to talk to her again but she fired the gun and I resigned myself to the fact that yet again, she wouldn’t be reasoned with. But this time, it was different. I had two screaming children and a wife, and she had a gun. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have our purses. We had left them in the car, so we didn’t have our cellphones. Tina wasn’t able to phone for the police until I distracted Candace and she could get to the house phone.”

“So you were afraid for your life and that of your family’s?”

I nod. “Yes, absolutely. I was terrified in that moment.”

Whit paces to the right. “What happened next?”

My throat is tight, my voice hoarse, and the water isn’t helping so I just croak it out. “I grabbed for the gun, but she was strong, almost unnaturally so. I did manage to get her to drop it but she tackled me to the ground and started hitting me hard in the face. The gun was close and I tried to reach for it, but I was on the verge of blacking out and she had me pinned. She saw what I was reaching for and decided to go for the gun herself. She got the gun and I then things got worse…” Tears well in my eyes. “…it was worse because when I saw her, she was pointing the gun at my wife and children.”

The tears fall freely and I struggle not to fall apart completely. “I jumped in front of the gun, grabbing it and trying as hard as I could to wrench it from her hands and turn it away from me, and it just… it just went off. Candace stumbled back from me… I let go of the gun… and when I looked down… my shirt was soaking through with blood. There was… just, just so much of it.”

The room is quiet and silence rings with the growing pressure in my ears. “I turned to Tina. I-I thought I was dying, and I wanted to tell her that I love her, to tell my children that I love them, to say all these things, small and big things that I had neglected to say because somehow I never found the time or even just forgot because they were so insignificant. All of it mattered in that moment. There was just… so much that I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. She screamed and I-I just collapsed. I-I don’t remember anything after that… not until I woke up and saw that Candace was dead. That’s all I know.”

The tears are still falling, but I’ve reached that place of numbness that allows me to function around them. It’s a hollow feeling, but it’s better than blubbering and prolonging the inevitable. I just want to be done, and Merle hasn’t even had her go at me. I watch from somewhere far away as Whit adds another piece of evidence, the gun powder residue results. Both Candace and I tested positive, so that at least proves that she had handled the weapon when it was fired.

He adds another piece of evidence that shocks me. Both of our fingerprints are on the gun, but mine are nowhere on the handle at all, only Candace’s. Mine are only on the barrel. This is, at least, something in my defense. Like Whit said, all the evidence corroborates my story, but that affords little comfort at this moment. He shuts off the projector, and approaches me. “Bette, do you need a recess?”

I take another sip of water and shake my head. “No, thank you. Let’s just… I’d like to finish. I don’t want to prolong this.”

He nods and continues. “Bette, did you want to kill Candace at any point in the time that you knew her?”

“No… well…” I have no idea if I should say this. It’s the truth; I did want her dead in that moment. I look up to see that everyone is staring at me, waiting expectantly. I steel myself with a heavy sigh. “There was a moment, when I saw she was about to shoot my family. Something in me… snapped, and in that moment, I wanted to hurt her.” I can’t seem to catch my breath and I feel light headed with fury. “I just wanted her to move on and let me do the same. I just didn’t know how to make that happen and she refused to try.” My tears start to fall from some place angry. “I hate what happened. It was so senseless and frustrating. It had been years… why couldn’t she just move on?”

“Did you shoot Candace?”

I raise a hand and let it fall to my thigh in frustration. “I don’t even really know. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I did turn it away from myself and my family.”

Whit looks me in the eye and leans in, his voice serious. “Did you have any other choice in that moment?”

I nod, closing my eyes. “I had other options, but all of them meant someone I loved would get shot. It was a choice between them or her, and I chose her.”

“Thank you, I have no further questions.”

Merle stands, her expression one of the cat who ate the canary as she steps forward. I push all of the emotions down into the most hidden parts of me so that I can straighten my shoulders and face her with dignity. I will not be bullied, not by the likes of her. To give her the pleasure of breaking me personally would be too much. She might take my freedom, but she can’t have my spirit. “Ms. Porter-Kennard, you stated that your altercation with your partner wasn’t sex, or love-making, or rape, but something in-between?”

My voice is sharp as I answer her. “Yes.”

Merle paces to the left. “But you also state that you were holding her down, restraining her. Were you touching her sexually during this time?”

“Yes.”

“And she struggled and told you to stop?”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t?”

“Eventually, yes, but not right away.”

“The definition of rape is the crime of forcing another person to submit to sex acts. Isn’t that what you’re saying happened?”

“No. I’m saying that I touched her in a way that showed sexual intent. No sex acts were carried out during that time.”

“What sort of touching took place?”

She must need some personal details to add to her masturbatory catalog. She’s little more than a glorified voyeur the way she seems to revel in these ‘pertinent details.’ “I touched her breast and I kissed her.”

She nods. “You didn’t touch her anywhere else?”

I gaze hard at her. “I almost did, but that’s what stopped me. I didn’t go all the way.”

“So you attempted to rape her, but stopped?”

“I wasn’t trying to rape her.”

“You were holding her down, kissing and touching her despite her pleas for you to stop. That is the very definition of attempted rape and yet you refuse to call it by that name. Why?”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

Merle nods. “I see. Do you believe that what happened that night is part of the reason your partner left you?”

“Yes.”

“So despite these ‘complications’, this pseudo attempted rape was enough for her to not feel safe and leave?”

“I’m not sure what all of her motivations for leaving were.”

Merle nods. “Would you say there were multiple reasons for her to want to leave?”

My heart constricts. “Yes.”

“How long were you and your partner together prior to your affair?”

“Seven years.”

“Was everything stable prior to your affair?”

“Not entirely. There were a lot of reasons we were having trouble, but the affair was just sort of the last straw, as I said before.

“Why was your relationship in trouble?”

I sigh. “I was under a lot of pressure as the sole breadwinner, we lost a child together, and we were personally attacked by right wing extremists.”

“Did you have a habit of abusing Tina that contributed to the failure of your relationship?”

The sick twisting in my guts burns with seething anger. “Of course not.”

“Not even emotionally?”

“No.”

Merle stops pacing and meets my eyes. “So Tina lied when she said that she felt secondary to your professional pursuits.”

“I neglected certain aspects of our life, but I never abused her.”

Merle smirks. “Did you believe that you were more important than your partner?”

“I didn’t mean to, but that time, my actions showed that I did.”

“So, if you felt that way about your partner of seven years, is it safe to say that you’d feel that way about your other relationships?”

“Yes.”

Merle paces to the left. “Did you feel that way about Candace?”

“Yes.”

“But you suddenly changed?”

“No, not sud–”

Merle’s voice is loud as it interrupts me. “Do you regret becoming involved with Candace?

“Yes.”

“Why do you regret it?”

I sigh. “Because I lost Tina.”

Merle nods. “Did you blame Candace for losing Tina?”

“No, I–”

“Did you resent her interruptions in your reconciliation with Tina?”

“Well, yes, but–”

“Would you have done anything to take the affair back, to have Tina back?”

“Well, yes, but not–”

“Did Candace make you angry?”

“Yes.”

“You stated that she told you she loved you and you rejected her.”

“Yes.”

“How did you reject her?”

“I told her that I wasn’t in love with her and that it was over.”

“Because you loved Tina?”

“Yes.”

“But Tina left you. Didn’t it feel good to know that someone loved you while you were upset over the loss of your partner?”

“Well, yes, but I couldn’t–”

“Didn’t Candace’s feelings mean anything to you?”

“Yes, but–”

“Did you use her to feel better?”

My heart is pounding so hard my vision is fuzzy. The questions are just too fast to consider the answers. “Yes, I mean, no, it wasn’t like–”

“You stated you didn’t even see Tina again for an entire year after she left. If you were turning to other women, why didn’t you turn to Candace?”

“Because she wasn’t stable.”

“Do you remember all of your encounters in that timeframe?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because… I was drinking a lot.”

Merle nods. “Is it possible you had seen Candace, spent time with her, and weren’t even aware of it?”

“What? No.”

“You stated that you can’t remember Ms. Rothberg. How can you be sure?”

“I was usually sober for the beginning of the encounters. I never saw Candace.”

“But it’s still possible?”

“Possibility doesn’t establish–”

Merle holds up her hand. “Do you remember your encounter with Candace at the club in New York?”

“No.”

“So you know that one encounter happened that you’re not aware of?”

I sigh angrily. “Yes.”

Merle paces to the right. “To be sure we understand, you’re stating that you emotionally and sexually abused your longtime partner until she left you, and then you became a self-absorbed alcoholic that had multiple one-night stands that you may not even remember, had at least one encounter with Candace that you don’t remember, resented Candace’s interference in your reconciliation with your partner, and were angry with her, yes or no?”

I glare at Merle. “You’re twisting things and you know it.”

“Answer the question, Ms. Porter-Kennard.”

“That’s not exactly how it was.”

“So you’re retracting your previous statements?”

“No. I’m just saying that there is more to it than that. I wasn’t perfect, but I never set out to hurt anyone.”

“Did you hurt people, Bette?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“So when Candace showed up at your commitment ceremony, you stated that you had her found and brought to you by the same people you had employed to torment her. What did you mean by that?”

“Just what I said, I had them find her and bring her to me.”

“Does that mean they brought her to you against her will?”

My stomach wants to rebel, but I somehow manage to only expel the words, “I assume so.”

“In what condition was she in when you saw her?”

Fuck. I am going to hang. “She was in the back of Carmen’s cousin’s van.”

“Was she restrained?”

“Yes.”

“Did you release her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I wanted to talk to her.”

“Is that why you restrained your partner the night she confronted you about your affair?”

“No!” I didn’t mean to yell at Merle, but I’m on the verge of losing it and just accepting my fate. I don’t want to give up, but how the fuck am I supposed to handle this?

“So, you got what you wanted, despite Candace’s objection, and spoke with her?”

“Yes.”

“And what happened during that conversation?”

“I told her that if she’d leave us alone, we’d leave her alone.”

Merle nods. “Did you threaten her?”

I sigh, resigned. “Yes, I did.”

“Did you threaten to kill her?”

Did I? “I-I don’t know…”

“You remember everything else, can’t you remember that?”

“I remember telling her I’d do anything to protect my family.”

Merle leans forward. “And that’s what you say you did that evening she came to your home, when you shot her, isn’t it?”

“I DIDN’T SHOOT HER!”

There’s a long moment of silence as my voice echoes off the walls before Merle gazes hard at me. Whit stands. “Your honor, I’m requesting a recess for my client to gather herself.”

Corky looks to Whit and smugly says, “Denied.”

Merle continues. “So Candace shot herself?”

“It was an accident!”

“A convenient accident that fulfilled a thinly veiled threat from that night in the van?”

Tears stream from my eyes, the bile in my throat making me gag as I shake. “She threatened my family with a gun! I didn’t know what else to do! Sometimes I wish I’d have just let her shoot me!” Merle tries to interrupt me but I get louder. “I’ve been tormented by her death! If you think I enjoyed what happened, you’re wrong! I didn’t want her to even be there! She just wouldn’t let go! But I wasn’t going to let her hurt my family!”

“So you accidently shot her?”

“No! I stopped her from shooting my family, and I’m done paying for it!”

The courtroom is quiet and a surge of renewed determination hits my bloodstream. For the first time I feel completely free of my past. No matter the conviction, I don’t feel the need to justify myself any longer. I don’t feel the need to pay for it any longer. It’s gone, the guilt of it all is gone because no matter what happened, no one believes the truth anyway. I feel completely purged of it but it’s an empty victory.

I gaze at the twelve strangers of the jury looking at me just intently. I want them to see me open and unguarded. I want them to know that I am telling the truth, even if it falls on deaf ears. I don’t owe them anything anymore. I don’t owe my past anything anymore. I don’t owe Candace, I don’t owe all of the other women I spent a night with, and I sure as fuck don’t owe Rothman or Compton anything. The only person I owe is sitting distraught in a room across the hallway outside of the double doors at the far end of this room, and she only expects me to love her as she loves me. The rest of this charade and the puppets orchestrating it can go to hell. Orange jumpsuits and handcuffs be damned, I’m free.

Merle turns and strides away, her grating voice following her retreat. “No further questions, your honor.”


Continued in Chapter 6 – Lies.

Chapter 4 – Limit

“Babe…?” I feel a hand stroke through my curls and open my eyes just in time to see the beautiful face above me moving in so close that it becomes abstract. Her lips are warm and the kiss far too short, but it leaves a smile on my face as her features again come back into focus. She returns my smile and I reach up to stroke the edge of her full lips. She kisses the pad of my thumb, her voice low and gentle as she says, “Kit brought dinner and everyone’s here.” She strokes me again. “How are you feeling?”

I take her hand and interlock our fingers, gazing at the delightful contrast of her skin against mine. “I’m sorry about earlier today, T. It’s only the first day of the trial and I’m already having panic attacks.”

She strokes my forehead with her free hand. “You’ve been through so much, Bette. Most people wouldn’t get as far as you have already, let alone be able to face what’s ahead. You’re not indestructible; you’re just very good at picking up the pieces. Don’t feel bad for having a moment or two… hundred.” I chuckle and she grins. “You’ve earned them. It doesn’t make you weak, just human.” I bring her hand to my mouth, kissing it reverently before pulling myself up to a sitting position. Tina stands and holds her hands out to me and I take them without thought as I throw my legs over the edge of the bed and settle into a sitting position.

I pull her to me and press my face into her stomach, wrapping my hands around her thighs and just holding on to her for a moment. She cradles me against her, tangling her hands in my hair. “You never did answer my question.”

I press my cheek against her and furrow my brows. “What question?”

“Are you okay?”

I sigh and lift her tank top to place my cheek to the warm, taut surface of her silky skin. “I don’t really have a choice, T.” I kiss her belly button and rest my hands on her hips as I gaze up into her burnished face. “I know that once this is over, I will be. But until then… I’m just…”

The words that describe my mixed emotions won’t come and finally she leans down. I close my eyes as she kisses me. It starts innocently and reassuring but quickly becomes deeper and passionate. She keeps her face impossibly close even as she breaks away, her lips soft against mine as she asks, “What do you need to make you feel better?”

That’s a loaded question, but ultimately there’s an easy answer. “You… just you.”

I feel her grin before I see it. She stands to her full height and steps backward, tugging me up by my hands. “Well, you’ve got me. And I’m going to take care of you until this is all over. My first act as your overprotective wife is dinner.” I sigh, following along after this miraculous creature as my swirling myriad of emotions take a backseat to deep contentment, at least for now. “Then, I’m thinking a long soak together in a hot bubble bath after the kids are asleep. And then…” She stops tugging me and moves closer, running her hands up my arms to link them behind my neck. “…once you’re relaxed, I’ll take advantage of you until you collapse in my arms and hold you as you sleep.”

I smile at her. “That sounds… perfect.” I dip my head and kiss her again. There is no end to the love and adoration I feel for her, but it’s overwhelming in moments like these. They seem to be a perpetual state of being anymore. My thoughts escape my mouth without hindrance. “I love you, T.”

She takes my face in her hands and pulls my head down, resting her forehead against mine. “I love you, too.” She holds me this way for long minutes before linking our fingers and I follow her down the stairs.

Everyone’s on the back patio in various stages of activity, but the dark cloud hanging low over my friends and family is nearly visible. Shane and Carmen are setting the table as Kit sets out the food and Dana pours wine.

Malcolm, Ming, Tom, and Angie are settled on the sun lounge near the pool, chatting in a subdued manner. Helena and Dylan are sitting in a lounge adjacent to Alice and Tasha. Both couples look distanced, the six inches between them may as well be a chasm. They exhibit a dense air of foreboding as Alice and Helena each hold a baby and make small talk. Dana is surreptitiously glancing at Alice as she works, overfilling a wine glass when Tasha catches her eye. Tasha and Dylan’s expressions are of lost longing as they gaze at their partners whom seem determined to ignore the issues weighing them down. Dana cleans up her mess and I realize that my family is falling apart. It’s heartbreaking and so needless.

Is this how they felt when Tina and I split up? It’s like watching a train wreck. You don’t want to see what you’re about to see or know what you’re about to know, but you can’t look away or wash it from your mind. You’re glued to the tableau as tragedy unfolds and it kills a part of your soul. I feel Tina squeeze my hand and I realize that I can’t take everyone’s needs upon myself. There’s nothing I can do to fix things for them. It’s all I can do to keep my own life together, and I haven’t done that well. At the end of the day, only they can make things right, but I can’t help but feel helpless irritation. Have they learned nothing from my life? From Tina’s? Can’t they see that force doesn’t work in matters of the heart? Can’t they see that being unhappy is no way to live?

A part of me is angry with Alice and Helena, and even Tom. Just like me, they have what they want right in front of them, but unlike me, they don’t choose to see it through; unlike me, they have the time and freedom to actually experience it. I have fought so hard to have this family and I could lose it for no reason. I don’t have the time that they do, and they choose to waste it, take it for granted, allow fears and insecurities to give them nothing but an empty and miserable life.

I look at the hand linked with mine and drift my gaze up over the soft muscles of Tina’s forearm, the light freckles on her shoulders, the smooth expanse of slender neck, until I’m gazing into hazel pools of radiant light that make my soul fall willingly to its knees in supplicant surrender. If no one else learns, at least I have. My past is just that, my past. And as much as it clings to me, I don’t live there anymore. I’m not that person anymore. And Tina knows. God help me, she knows me and loves me, and my heart bursts with a joy that is overwhelmingly dampened by the trial and the noticeable struggles of those around me. All I can do to help my family is to live and lead by example. Show them what they’re missing and hope it inspires them to not only find it, but embrace it. I only wish that I felt like I had the time to fully explore this life I have helped to build with my wife, my Tina.

Tina pulls up against me, tucking her head beneath my chin as her arms wrap around my waist. How much humans take for granted. How much we flounder unnecessarily when all we need is right in front of us. No amount of wealth or talent or possessions can fill the void that is inherent in all of us. We are made to love each other. We are made to live and help and complete each other. I close my eyes as I breathe in her comforting lavender scent, and promise myself that I’ll never take her for granted. Fortune favors the brave. I have been brave, and I’m holding my fortune. Who knew it could be so fleeting? I may not get to live my dream, but I am fortunate to have learned and lived and loved so much in such a short amount of time.

Angie finally notices us and immediately climbs down out of Tom’s lap. She runs up to us, wrapping her arms around our legs. I release Tina and pick her up, settling her in our embrace. She leans her head on my shoulder and her voice is small as she says, “Everyone’s sad.” I close my eyes. Children are far too observant for the limitations of their understanding. She leans back, her full lips pouty as she asks, “Why?”

Tina strokes me soothingly as I choke back my tears. “Today’s just been a hard day, babycakes. That’s all.” She sighs and I muss her unruly coif of black curls, allowing the love I have for her to smile out from behind the melancholy of my thoughts. What can I even say to assuage her fears? I don’t know if it’s going to be okay or if it’s going to work out. I just don’t know what helpful platitudes wouldn’t be an intentional lie at this point.

Kit’s voice breaks me from these thoughts as she calls out, “Okay, let’s eat.”

Everyone makes their way to the table, Alice and Helena settling the babies in their seats while we settle Angie in her high chair. We all sit, Tina and I pulling up tightly next to each other. The atmosphere around the table is subdued and heavy, and I start to feel angry… unreasonably angry. There’s little talk as we sit around the table and eat quietly, which is a good thing on my part. I’m certain nothing good could come from my mouth at this moment.

About halfway through this mockery of a family meal, Alice says, “I still can’t get ahold of Duffy. I’ve probably left fifty messages.”

I set my fork down, cleaning my mouth with one of the white cloth napkins, clearing my throat, and looking to Alice. “Al, I think you should just let it go.”

She eyes me like I’ve misplaced my meds. “Bette, this could help you…”

I take a sip of my Perrier, trying to stop myself from having an outburst or episode. “How, Al? How is it going to help? I’ll still have a bigoted judge and a vindictive DA after me. Kelly will still buy and sell people, and for whatever reason, people will always want to take me down.”

“Well, we could move for mistrial, couldn’t we?”

I nod, my anger getting the best of me. “Right. We could move for mistrial; then someone else will put me and my family through this hell again, albeit through the proper channels, prolonging an inevitable outcome. I don’t want that. I just want to be done with this. I want it over with.”

Alice leans back, glowering at me. “You sound like you’re ready to just go to pris–”

I stand, throwing my napkin down and glaring at her. “Not here, and not now, Alice.” I gesture to Angie who’s stopped eating to listen. Kit stands and takes her from the highchair, walking her into the house without a word. Alice’s expression turns contrite but I just can’t let this go. “Alice, is that really what you think? You think I’ve just given up… after everything? You think I want to be separated from my family?” I snort out an incredulous laugh. “Do you know me at all…?”

She throws her hands up in frustration, her voice slightly higher. “Then what is happening, Bette? Everything you do and say is… defeated. This isn’t like you…”

I exhale heavily as I gaze at her. “I’m fighting this as hard as I can. I’ve been fighting this for what feels like an eternity. I’m tired – exhausted really – and I’m fed up and angry with this attitude that everything’s okay. You know it’s not; you just don’t want to face it. And honestly, it’s so fucking frustrating that you have a chance at everything that I want but you take it for granted.” I gaze around at everyone. “All of you. You don’t seem to realize what’s right in front of you. You have time that I don’t, but you don’t want it. Well I do! I want that time… I need it, but mine is about to be stripped away from me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! You could have anything you want! You have the time to make that happen, and you’re wasting it!”

I feel Tina’s hand settle in my own to calm me but it doesn’t work as Alice’s voice further grates on my nerves. “What do you mean by that?!”

Oh, please! She’s fully aware. I stare her down and she shuts her gaping mouth before turning to look at Dana who’s playing with the food on her plate. Tasha sighs and shakes her head. I look to Helena and I don’t have to say anything more to her either. She knows as well. She looks to Dylan who takes her hand and gazes hard into her eyes. I finally lay my eyes on Tom, and decide that this one is going to be vocal. “And you… you had a sister who loved you and welcomed you back with open arms. You had a family that cared about you and you turned away the minute things didn’t go your way. You were depressed? Seriously? You had love and support and the time to see it through, but chose not to! What I wouldn’t give to have it that easy… to have time… just time!”

I gaze at the faces around me, my jaw clenching and unclenching with the force of my anger. “You have everything I want right in front of you and you ignore it. What’s worse is you tell me it’s going to be okay. Well, it’s not. Things won’t be okay unless a fucking miracle happens. Don’t you see that?” None of them are looking at me or listening and tears well up in my eyes, tears for myself, for my family, and for the mess everything, everyone, has become. Long minutes of silence pass this way before I nearly shout, “Look at me!” They finally look up and I hold my hands out at my side. “I’d give anything to have the time you have! Stop ignoring it! Stop wasting it!”

Tina stands and pulls me away. I feel the anger ebb and burn out in my guts, leaving them sour and roiling as the tears start to fall harder. She pulls me up to the master bedroom and sits me on the edge of the bed. Sobs rack my body as her warm arms encircle me. I cling to her, my voice choked as I say, “I’m sorry… fuck. I’m just… I’m so sorry.”

She strokes my hair. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, it’s okay to cry. You can cry with me.” Neither of us says anything more for a long while. I feel my emotions start to settle into a place of numb indifference and it scares me. All of this is just so terrifying. “I’m just so scared, T.”

She kisses my temple. “I know, baby. I know. I’m scared too…”

I lean back and look up into her tear streaked face, my heart dropping into my toes. She’s been so steady, so calm, so available to me… for me. She smiles sadly. “It’s okay to be scared. I think… I think we’ve been trying too hard to swallow these emotions; we need to stop pretending like we’re not hurting. Positive thinking and confidence are vital, but so is letting all of this negative stuff out.” She strokes the curls from my eyes. “Maybe if we do, it won’t be so bad. We’re in this together. That’s worth something, right?”

I lean forward and kiss her full, wet lips, sniffling as I rest my forehead to hers. “It’s everything, T.” We hold each other for long minutes and I realize that I do feel better, but I’m certain I just alienated half of our family in the process. And Angie… fuck. That was irresponsible of Alice to start that in front of her. I could have handled it better. “I shouldn’t have said those things.”

She buries her face in the hair at my neck and exhales heavily, ruffling my curls and tickling me. “They’ll get over it.” She kisses the skin at the crux of my neck, her voice pensive and soft. “I hadn’t considered it, but you’re right. Time is far too short and life far too precious to waste any of it.” She pulls back, taking my hands and placing them in her lap as she gazes into my eyes. “They’ve been here, watching you, they’ve seen everything you’ve been through, everything you’re going through, and somehow that lesson is wasted on them. Maybe they needed to hear that. I know I did.”

I furrow my brows. “What do you mean?”

She plays with my fingers. “I’ve been avoiding thinking these things. It’s like I’ve been trying to convince myself that it can’t happen. But it can, and it might. You might be taken from me.” Tears gather in her eyes and she starts to tremble. “I-I can’t let that happen, Bette. I just can’t.”

I pull her to me as she begins to cry in earnest. I close my eyes against the anguish of knowing how badly I’m hurting those that I love and aside from that, I can’t help but consider that maybe there is no escaping my past. There has to be a way to be done with it. There has to be a way… but… but what if the only way to stop hurting them is to leave them? I love them so much. I need them. The thought of leaving them isn’t even comprehensible.

I feel like a hole has been punched through my chest and there’s no way to stop the sickening grief and fear that are trying to fill it. What the fuck can I do? What’s the right thing? Does that concept even exist? I cling tightly to Tina, and let all of the hurt surface. There’s just nothing I can do to stop it and even if the right thing is to find a way to leave them, how could I ever possibly see that through? I couldn’t. There has to be a way through this. There just has to be…


 

I gaze out at the greying sky from our balcony, absently twirling the rings on my finger as another day begins to dawn. I breathe deeply of the dew laden air; the scent of Tina’s blooming rosemary is thick on the warming breeze and it’s calming. I take in my surroundings, the smells and the quiet of the anxious city that’s not yet fully awake help me to realize how insignificant all of this is. No matter what happens, life will go on. The earth will still rotate on its axis, inexplicably suspended around the yellow sun that is just about to peek up over the Hollywood hills. I have my lasting legacy. It’s soiled with tears and blood and heartache, but it’s nothing compared to the grandeur of eternity, of endurance, of life.

I squint my eyes as the first ray of the ancient globe reaches up above the horizon in the East. There is truly nothing new under the sun. It has seen it all, and despite everything, it endures and fosters life even as it perpetually consumes itself in its own fire. I feel a connection to this life and the knowledge it contains. I know I have stardust in my lungs, that all life begins where another ends. I know that birth is in essence destruction, and that is what I face – destruction – like everything else before me. I can choose to handle it with grace, or I can fall apart and feel as if it’s all for nothing.

I can’t help but chuckle at myself and my silent philosophies, but it’s true. Life is like a Monet. Up close it’s messy, undefined, and impossible to fully understand. But as you step back, look on it with unassuming eyes, view it in its entirety, there is a sense of understanding that inspires peace. I take another breath and allow some of that peace to soak into my soul. For a moment I feel truly free and then I realize that each breath of free air I take is laden with fear and worry. The pendulum of my past is still there, swinging at my neck as it slices through the air, threatening to snuff me out as it lowers every… single… day. Struggling is exhausting and futile. It’s time to just lie still and accept what comes. Face it with grace and endurance. If there’s hope, all I can do is step back and allow myself to see it.

The shrill call of the alarm clock inside startles me and my loosened rings slip from my fingers as I jump, rolling across the wooden slats right up to the edge of the balcony where they teeter. I step forward on reflex to grab them, sending vibrations through the boards and causing them to fall completely. I’ve never been the superstitious sort, but I can’t help but wonder if this is an omen. I lean on the railing and peer over the edge. It’s still too dark, and I don’t see them. Panic starts to well up in my guts.

Fuck… If I had just thought for a moment before trying to grab them, I may not have lost them. And just like that, it hits me in a random moment of clarity. I was scared they’d fall and in my haste to stop them, I pushed them over. I’m afraid, afraid of more than losing my rings, afraid of more than losing my freedom and my family; I’m afraid that I’m destructive. That if I have something good, I feel compelled to destroy it, despite the fact that I’m not trying to.

I close my eyes and force myself to calm down, to think before I act. “I’ll help you find them.” I turn to see Tina approaching, a worried expression on her face as she puts a hand on my hip and brushes the haphazard curls from my face. Her finger strokes beneath my left eye and she sighs. “You didn’t get much sleep.” No, I didn’t. I smile dejectedly and she links our fingers. I follow her down the stairs and we both set to looking for the rings.

“I’m sorry I dropped them, T. It was careless of me.”

Tina opens the back patio doors and retrieves two flashlights from the laundry room. She hands me one and starts checking the potted plants as I look around the deck and under its overhang, nothing but wood and dirt to catch my attention. “It’s okay, babe. They’re just rings.”

I stop and look at her dumbfounded. Just rings? They symbolize our commitment, our future… She grabs something from the pot she’s searching and stands abruptly exulting, “Ah ha! Found them.” She clicks off the flashlight and grins as she walks up to me, taking my left hand in her own and sliding them back onto my finger. She strokes her thumb over them, gazing at my fully adorned finger adoringly. “When I gave these to you, they were a sign of my love, commitment, and fidelity to you, but that’s all they are, Bette. They’re a sign. Signs lead the way, but they’re not the destination or the journey. With or without them, I’m yours.” Tears well in my eyes as she leans down and leaves a sweet, lingering kiss on my finger. Her eyes are glassy and deep as she gazes up at me. “Soul to soul, yours in life and death… remember?”

I reach up and stroke her cheek, realizing just how right she is, remembering our promise, my promise. How could I even consider being away from her? How thoughtless, rash, and irresponsible I can be in my haste to fix things… even to this day; I still have a long way to go. “Of course, I remember.”

I take her in my arms, burying my face in her neck and feeling a sense of renewed determination. It may be selfish, my love, my need for her and our family, but it’s an act of giving just as much as taking. We hold each other for long minutes before she pulls back, her voice soft as she says, “I know you’re scared about today… so am I. It’s okay and it’s understandable. But you need me, and I’m not going anywhere, just like I need you and you aren’t going anywhere.” She holds up her finger with the smaller, matching rings. “You promised me, and I believe you despite my fear.”

I nearly crush her as I pull her to me and kiss her with abandon. It goes on long minutes and I’m only moments from taking her back upstairs when we’re suddenly interrupted by a sleepy Angelica snuggling against our legs. I grin down at my daughter before meeting my wife’s eyes. It’s as true today as it was years ago, and I don’t hesitate to say it. “You honor me today… you exhilarate me and you revitalize me.”

Tears gather on her delicate lashes as an incredulous eyebrow arches and I reach up and touch it with wonder. She kisses the palm of my hand as she exhales heavily. She bends down and picks up our eldest daughter who snuggles right up on her shoulder. She leans in and kisses me again before saying, “I love you.”

Angie’s sleepy voice chimes in. “Love you, too.”

A grin splits both of our faces and I take Angie from Tina’s arms, kissing her round cheek. Tina strokes her unruly coif of curls and says, “I’ll take care of breakfast. You’ve got this one?” I nod and kiss her again before turning to go get Angie dressed. There’s a sharp smack to my backside and I can’t help but chuckle. She is by far the only person on earth who would get away with such a thing.

Angie leans over my shoulder to gaze at my behind before meeting my gaze with a wide-eyed expression. “Did you do something bad, mama B?”

I hear Tina’s warm laugh from the kitchen and shake my head, grinning at my daughter. “No, babycakes. Your Mama T is just a sadist.”

I hear a cabinet shut and a loud, “I heard that.”

I laugh, but it doesn’t last long as Angie asks, “What’s a say this?”

My steps falter a little bit and I stop as I stammer, finally choking out, “It’s, um… that’s just your Mama T’s way of saying goodbye to me. Kind of like a love pat.” I pat her bottom, tickling her a little bit as we continue on our way. She giggles and I’m thankful for her still short attention span. I help her pick out her clothes for the day and get her dressed. The pendulum above my head inches a bit closer, but I refuse to worry over it and focus on my daughter, one of the four loves of my life.


“All rise. District one criminal court is now in session. Judge Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” There’s a rumble of soft movement as everyone stands and I watch as the loathsome man enters the room and climbs up into his seat. The walk into the courthouse through the throngs of protestors and media was much more controlled this morning, but it was still overwhelming. I had very little time to calm myself with Tina before the bailiff came to retrieve me.

“The jury will now enter!” We wait quietly while the other twelve individuals enter and I can’t help but feel impatient. I am ready for this day to be over, all of this to be over. I reach into my jacket pocket and retrieve my photo, glancing down at the happy family and reminding myself to relax, to consider things before I react. I make a conscious decision to square my shoulders and hold my head high, placing the photo in an easily visible place on the monochromatic surface in front of me.

Fortunately, the judge doesn’t make us wait. As the last of the jurors takes his seat, the judge calls out, “You may be seated.” The occupants of the room all lower as one and he continues. “Calling the case of the People of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard. Are both sides ready?”

Whit and Merle stand, Rothman again taking the lead. “Ready for the People, your honor.”

Her voice is like nails on a chalkboard against my ear drums and I sigh. I may need earplugs to get through the rest of this ordeal. Whit’s smooth, melodically English accent helps to quiet my anxiousness as he replies. “Ready for the defense, your honor.”

Corky leans back in his chair, smug but ultimately lazy and listless as he nods his head. “Let the record reflect that the judge, jury, counsel, and the defendant are present. The jury is reminded that they are again under oath. You may call your next witness, Ms. Rothman.”

Merle stands. “The prosecution calls Catherine Rothberg.” The same song and dance from yesterday is repeated as the bailiffs work in conjunction to get the new witness sworn in and seated next to the judge. I haven’t a clue where I met this woman and I have no recollection of sleeping with her. This seems to be a recurring theme. It’s little defense to claim that you’re too drunk to remember all the women you’ve slept with.

This woman is older than Nadia. Her demeanor and attire suggest poise, grace, elegance, and arrogance. I’m not even remotely attracted to her and I lean back in my seat, trying to place her, trying to remember. Even while intoxicated, there has to be attraction, unless, of course, you’re to the point of blacking out. I continue to scrutinize her but nothing is coming to mind. It’s like looking into a mirror. We look very different physically, but everything else is far too close to home, at least to how I used to be. Even at my most self-absorbed, I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck my emotional clone.

Merle approaches her and I wait, hoping for a flicker of recognition in the testimony. “Ms. Rothberg, thank you for joining us today.”

Catherine crosses her leg over her knee, resting her folded hands there and nodding. “I’m glad to be of assistance.” I’ll bet she is.

“Ms. Rothberg, do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

“Yes. I knew her as Bette Porter.”

Merle paces in front of the witness stand, arms linked behind her back. “How do you know her?”

“I met her at a bar several years ago, and we spent an evening together. I’ve seen her randomly since, but we’ve not spoken to or even acknowledged one another.”

Merle stops and looks to Catherine. “What happened the evening you met?”

Catherine sighs. “I was with a friend of mine, Miles Doull. It was after the Roll the Dice premiere and we had gone to one of the local bars to celebrate. Bette approached our table and bought us drinks. She seemed nice, educated, and we were having a good time. Her reputation preceded her, but I figured so long as we kept things light, it couldn’t harm anything. About an hour later, Miles got a text from his girlfriend and left. I wasn’t ready to leave and neither was she, so we decided to stay. I got up to use the restroom and when I came back, she had ordered us new drinks. I didn’t think anything of it and we continued to talk and laugh as we drank. It was actually quite enjoyable. After I finished my drink, I started to feel strange… dizzy and slightly nauseated. The next thing I know, I wake up in some sleazy motel, naked and alone.”

I feel a sharp pang of pain explode in my right hand as it slams onto the desk of its own volition, followed by a dull, loud cracking sound that echoes throughout the room. The items on the desk in front of me rattle and a choked sob of fury escapes my tightening throat through clenched teeth. Joyce starts to pound me on the back and it causes me to cough. She nudges a bottle of water towards me and I pick it up, hoping that the activity of opening the bottle and nearly downing its contents will help release some of the straining tension coiled in my muscles. I nearly crush the empty bottle and Joyce removes it from my hands, leaning to whisper. “Calm down.”

Right. I’ve just been accused of rape and I’m supposed to be calm. I can’t remember her at all and I’m aghast at what she’s saying. She’s accusing me of date rape… date rape… I have never, ever, had to coerce or take advantage of someone to satisfy my baser needs! There were far too many willing women.

I gaze at Catherine, trying to find the source of this blatant lie, but there is no clear indication. Something is terribly wrong here, but I can’t find her in my memory, not even a hint, and I have no way of proving that I’ve never seen her before in my life. I feel sweat bead up on my brow. The sheer, unadulterated ire her accusation inspires makes me physically ill. I grip the arms of my chair so tightly that they groan and Joyce looks over at me. She meets my eyes and the warning is clear.

I close my eyes and sigh as the water settles like sludge in my guts, churning with the distress and rage that is corroding away at my esophagus. I nod to Joyce and consciously force my body to relax into the seat as I pry my fingers free one-by-one.

The room is deathly quiet and I look up to see everyone gazing at me, the judge leaned forward, his fingers folded over his desk. His beady eye twitches and I meet him with a coldness of my own. His voice is seething in hope as he asks, “Was that an outburst, Ms. Porter-Kennard?”

Joyce pats me on the back again and answers for me. “No, your honor. She just choked.” He quirks a slight grin at me before leaning back. “See to it that she doesn’t choke again.”

He finally tears his gaze from mine and Merle’s voice scrapes against my ear canal. “Ms. Rothberg, are you saying that the defendant drugged and raped you?”

Catherine’s expression is implacable as she says, “I can’t prove it. I was passed out, but I’m willing to testify that I believe she did.”

Merle nods and starts to pace again. “Why didn’t you go to the police?”

“I had no way to prove it. Besides, I knew her reputation. Seeking to bring her down might have ended in my death, just like Cand–”

Whit stands. “Objection, your honor.”

Merle grins disconcertingly. “That’s okay, Catherine. You mean to say that you were frightened that she would physically harm you?”

Catherine nods. “Yes.”

“Why were you frightened?”

“Her reputation.”

“What is her reputation?”

Catherine sighs, her demeanor no-nonsense. “She’s cold, abusive, and distant.” She purses her lips in an attempt to hide a smug smile. “I mean, everyone knows why her wife left her.”

My head lolls forward a little bit as the world shrinks in around me. How…? How could anyone know? Tina would never tell. She thought she was to blame. And I wouldn’t tell either. Well, I told Shane, Dana, and… Alice… Oh, fuck. Alice didn’t… I close my eyes, taking deep breaths as I try to force this panic attack aside. Merle’s voice breaks my reverie. “Why did her wife leave her?”

Judge Compton goes on another tirade. “Ms. Rothman, I cannot instruct the witness, but you will refer to this other woman as the defendant’s partner.”

Joyce stands. “Your honor, the State of California recognizes–”

The judge bangs his gavel before pointing it at Joyce. “We’ve been over this, counselor. Wife is defined as being in relation to a husband. I have reign over what is said and how it’s said in this courtroom. One more outburst at my choice of terminology and I’ll find you in contempt and have you removed from these proceedings indefinitely. Do you understand?”

Joyce doesn’t budge for a long moment, as if she’s contemplating whether setting him straight is worth a short sentence. I’d personally stand and put him in his place, but I have a wife and children; I can’t afford the luxury of a righteous outburst at this point, however much my blood is boiling in my veins.

Joyce finally sits and I lean over, a little smug as I repeat her words. “Calm down.”

She grins at me and shakes her head as she leans back in her seat and Rothman continues. “You stated that you were afraid to alert the authorities because of the rumored circumstances surrounding the defendant’s breakup?”

Catherine nods. “Yes.”

Whit stands. “Objection, your honor. A rumor is hearsay.”

Merle turns to the judge. “The whole point of a reputation is based on hearsay, your honor. We understand and freely admit that rumor is not fact. But the witness states that she was scared for her life because of this rumor. Her presumption of what the defendant was capable of is a key factor in establishing the reason she didn’t go to the police.”

Corky’s eyes gleam, his tone genial as he says, “Overruled.” He turns to Catherine with a grin. “You may answer the question, Ms. Rothberg.”

Catherine relates this information so easily and disconnectedly that it appears to be scripted. “Word is that she cheated on her partner and when her partner found out, she physically and sexually abused her to the point of leaving. I didn’t want any part of a situation like that.” A chill runs down my spine as she finishes. It was scripted. I can feel it in my very bones.

Merle grins. “Thank you. I have no further questions.”

Merle walks to her desk and the judge sneers at Whit as he stands. “Does the defense have any questions?”

Whit nods and steps forward. “Yes, your honor.” The judge crosses his arms over his chest, as if he wishes to be threatening, well, as threatening as a hobbit can be. Whit walks up to the witness and a little of my nervousness returns. “Ms. Rothberg, you stated that Bette approached you at the bar.”

Catherine nods. “Yes.”

“What bar?”

She answers smoothly. “The Foxtail.”

Whit stops and cocks his head at her. “Are you sure it was The Foxtail?”

Catherine smirks. “Yes.”

“And where in the bar did you spend the evening?”

Catherine seems bored and irritated. “By the bar, on the first floor.”

“Did you leave that area at any time before officially leaving the bar?”

Catherine’s voice is biting and harsh as she says, “No.”

Whit walks over to Joyce who hands him a disk. He takes it to Merle and says, “Your honor. We move to enter exhibit number 197 into evidence. It’s video surveillance from the bar at The Foxtail for the night in question.”

Merle stands. “The People object, your honor.”

Compton sighs and motions them all towards the bench, and I watch as Joyce joins them. Today has been worse than I had imagined. I lean forward and collect the image of my family from the surface in front of me, and stroke Tina’s face. I’d give anything to have her here with me just now. Although, I’m glad she wasn’t here to witness Catherine’s testimony. Aside from the rape accusation, the fact that she knows the details of that terrible night is disconcerting. I certainly hope that it wasn’t Alice who let this information leak. I… I just don’t think we could recover our friendship from that sort of betrayal.

I look up as Joyce retakes her seat next to me and grins. I decide to keep the image of my family firmly in my hands, a tangible link to my sanity, as I scrutinize Joyce’s self-satisfied face. So this video is okay? I lean towards her and whisper, “Why is this tape okay, but the one of Nadia wasn’t?”

She sighs as she quietly answers, “The tape of Nadia, while on public property, was a private exchange that happened without her knowledge or consent. Since this tape shows absolutely nothing, Merle couldn’t have it thrown out.”

I shake my head. It’s all so… ridiculous. But if this will help my case, of course I’ll take it. I watch as Whit, having loaded the disk, clicks the mouse a few times on the central computer and a video feed pops up on the screens. “As I stated, this is surveillance from the bar, The Foxtail the night of the Roll the Dice premier. Ms. Rothberg, can you please verify that this is the bar in question as well as the date and time in the lower left-hand corner.”

Catherine leans forward, her demeanor slightly nervous, but her expression inscrutable as she says, “Yes, this is the bar and the correct date and time.”

Whit continues. “Is this where you were located in the bar?”

“Yes.”

“Please point out on the screen where you were seated.”

Catherine stares at the screen and stammers a bit before the corner of her mouth quirks up. “This camera doesn’t cover our table. We were there…” She points to the left bottom portion of the area. “…just off the screen.”

Whit paces to the left a few steps his head lowered. “You’re certain you were seated there?”

Catherine leans back, satisfied. “Yes.”

Whit tries again, pointing to the location she’s specified. “You’re certain you were seated here, out of the camera’s reference?”

She sighs and drawls, “Yes,” as if it’s two syllables.

Whit shakes his head. “Ms. Rothberg, that’s not possible. There is nothing beyond the camera’s point of reference but a wall. No seating… no table… nothing. Where were you seated?”

“We were there, in that corner. I’m not sure what they’ve done to the décor since, but there was seating there. You just can’t see it.”

Whit points at the door at the other end of the bar. “Is this the bathroom you used?”

“Yes.”

“What time did you meet the defendant at the bar?”

Catherine’s gaze turns stony as she watches Whit step forward and wait for an answer. “I don’t know, maybe midnight.”

Whit fast-forwards the tape to midnight and we watch. I never enter. “This…” Whit points at the only entrance. “…is the only entrance to the bar. My client couldn’t have entered another way. Where is she?”

“I’m not sure if it was exactly midnight.”

Whit nods and hits fast-forward again, only it goes much slower. Two hours pass, people coming and going, none of them me. “Okay. How long were you at the bar?”

Catherine is glaring daggers at Whit. “I don’t know, maybe two hours.”

He rewinds the tape to eleven o’clock and plays it at the quicker speed. He lets it play until closing and Catherine never enters the bathroom. “Ms. Rothberg, you are not seen entering the bathroom and my client is not seen escorting you from the bar. Can you explain this?”

Catherine is seething at this point. “No.”

“Ms. Rothberg, I remind you that you are under oath and penalty of perjury. Did you or did you not go into this bar, at this time, on this this night, and have an interaction with my client?”

Catherine nearly shouts but controls herself at the last moment. “I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been a liar.”

Whit nods. “What sorts of things have you been accused of?”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor.”

Whit waves his arm dismissively at her. “Withdrawn. Ms. Rothberg, what motel did you wake up in?”

“A place called The Pine Lodge on the outskirts of Sunset.”

“You referred to it as ‘sleazy’ in your testimony. What did you mean by that?”

Catherine’s crossed leg is bouncing in agitation as she calms herself and replies, “It means that it’s cheap and probably offers rooms by the hour. It was detestable.”

Whit walks over to Joyce who offers up a spreadsheet. “The defense would like to enter exhibit number 168 into evidence.”

He hands it to Merle who looks it over and hands it back angrily. “No objection, your honor.”

Whit places it under the projector and I look at a month’s worth of my account history. “This is my client’s credit card statement. The information you’re looking at is an entire month, including the night of the Roll the Dice premier here.” He points at a specific date. “As you can see, there is no charge for The Pines Lodge, however, if you look at the other lines, you can see charges for rooms at high end hotels, mostly the Huntley and the Chateau Marmont.” He looks at Catherine and I can’t help but smile as I watch her divert her eyes. “Ms. Rothberg, how did she pay for that room?”

“I have no idea. Maybe she paid in cash.”

Whit walks back to Joyce and goes through the motions of entering another piece of evidence, another piece that Merle can’t contest and it shows in her reddening features. The document lights up on the screens. “This is the booking log from The Pines Lodge for the night in question. No one by the name of Bette Porter or Catherine Rothberg is checked in that night.” He looks to Catherine. “Management states that everyone is required to show identification in order to book a room. How would my client book a room without showing identification, Ms. Rothberg?”

At this point, Catherine is reaching and she knows it, but she can’t admit she’s perjured herself. She stammers until she finally says, “Maybe she used an alias. I can’t answer these questions for you. All I know is I woke up there, with a headache and naked, and she was the last person I had seen.”

Whit paces. “So, let me just make sure I understand your testimony, Ms. Rothberg. You saw my client at The Foxtail, sat in an area that is nothing but a wall, neither you nor my client were seen entering, using the restroom, or leaving, and you spent the night in a motel room that goes against my client’s normal booking habits without having paid or shown identification. Is that what you’re saying?”

Catherine’s voice is rough with anger and her leg is shaking so fast I wonder if she’ll gyrate herself out of her seat. “I guess it is, because that’s what happened.”

Whit sighs and nods, glancing at Joyce who makes a note on the legal pad in front of her. I lean over to watch her scribble down, ‘Countersue Catherine Rothberg for defamation and punitive damages.’ I want to scream in exultation, but this day is far from over. I’ll celebrate my small victory later. “Ms. Rothberg, what do you do for a living?”

Catherine sneers. “I’m independently wealthy.”

“How did you come by this financial independence?”

Catherine’s reply is petulant. “I like to gamble.”

“What sort of gambling?”

“Primarily horse races.”

Whit nods. “What else?”

Catherine smoothes her skirt over her knees, visibly willing herself to calm down. Her voice is innocent as she says, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Whit walks to Joyce and the process of adding evidence starts over, however this time Merle objects. I watch Joyce meet Whit and Merle at the bench and a long, heated conversation ensues. I sigh, turning to see Tom, Dana, and Shane in the gallery just behind me. Tom is again wearing the ‘NO H8’ shirt and I can’t help but feel glad he’s here. If it weren’t for him, the walk into the building would have been so much worse this morning. The God Hates Gays protestors were here and I get the sinking feeling they will be for the remainder of the trial. He smiles sadly at me, and I look to Dana and Shane’s faces. They mirror his smile and I find comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in here, though I can tell that they’re concerned as to how Catherine, or anyone for that matter, knows about the night after Provocations.

Joyce settles next to me and I turn my attention forward as Whit puts another document under the projector. It blows up on the screen and Whit speaks. “This is your bank statement for the last year. I had your account information blocked out, but you can see your name at the top. Please verify that that is your name.”

Catherine’s leg starts to shake again as she verifies. “That is my name.”

Whit steps back and looks at the large screen at the front right of the room. “There’s a lot of erratic activity but…” He starts flipping the pages and pointing at the balance. “…you never took more than 500,000 from the account, leaving it with no less than two million at all times. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

Whit then turns to the second to last page. The account was wiped. “Can you explain what happened to the entirety of the account, Ms. Rothberg?”

Merle stands. “Objection, relevance.”

Whit turns to the judge whose vein is throbbing in his forehead. “The relevance is that Ms. Rothberg was made destitute up until the day before she agreed to be a witness for the defense.” He flips to the last page where two million was deposited back into the account. “If this information is not questioned, how can I test the legitimacy of her testimony, let alone help my client determine if she wishes to countersue and hopefully convince the deputy DA to file for perjury.”

The judge stops Whit. “You’re out of line, counselor. Objection sustained. The jury will disregard the last statement.”

Whit puts his hands up, collecting the documentation. “No further questions, your honor.”

The judge looks to Catherine. “You may step down, Ms. Rothberg.” Catherine is barely escorted from the room before the judge looks to Merle. “You may call the next witness.”

Merle stands, glaring at me as she says, “The People call Katerina Ivanova.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose between my forefinger and thumb. Who the fuck is it now? I half expect the abominable snowman at this point. The same bailiff that just escorted Catherine out brings in a petite woman. Hell, who am I kidding? She’s a twink. She might be twenty-five, with wavy shoulder-length hair that reminds me slightly of how Tina’s used to look, only her hair is auburn. She has a small build like Tina’s as well and I remember her. I was in New York on business, and it was just after Tina left me. I found her at the Starlight in East Village. She had been eye-fucking me from the back end of the bar all night and I saw her right away. That’s how I remember her. I hadn’t started drinking yet. She reminded me of Tina. After several drinks I accepted my fate and danced with her before taking her back to my room. I just couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t even look her in the eye through most of the night, pretending instead that she was my wife.

Why on earth Merle would want her testimony is beyond me. I woke early, took a shower, and when I got out she was gone, along with all my cash – about three hundred dollars’ worth. She’s just so young… fuck me, please tell me she was at least of age five years ago. I lean back in my seat, determined to calm down as she’s sworn in and seated. It’s all so redundant. Merle steps forward and begins her litany of questions, always starting the same. “Ms. Ivanova, thank you for being here.”

Katerina seems frightened and nervous, and I almost feel bad for her, almost. Her eyes are wide as she clears her throat and says, “Thank you, I guess.”

“Ms. Ivanova, do you know the defendant, Bette Porter?”

The girl meets my eyes for the first time and swallows hard as she nods. “Yes.”

“How do you know her?”

She clears her throat. “Several years ago, I was… at the Starlight in New York. She came in and… we, um…”

“Ms. Ivanova. It’s okay. You aren’t on trial here today. Just tell us what happened.”

She nods rapidly, swallowing again. “I was hooking…” She sits up straighter, her eyes intensely serious as she says, “…which I don’t do anymore.” I feel my eyes widen and my jaw drop as she continues. “We noticed each other right away. She had several drinks at the bar before finally picking me up. We danced, and then went back to her hotel room. She paid for a full night, and I left the next morning.”

I’m certain I would have choked again if Joyce hadn’t anticipated it and put her hand on my forearm, squeezing it painfully as she slid another bottle of water over to me. I tear into this one in much the same manner as before and Merle continues. “So she agreed to have sex with you in exchange for money?”

Katerina nods. “Yes.”

“Did anything else happen while you were there?”

She shakes her head nervously. “No.”

“Did she say anything to you during your encounter?”

“Um, no, she wouldn’t look at me, and she was a little… rough, but other than that, nothing was unusual.”

“Thank you. No further questions, your honor.”

Whit stands and unbuttons his blazer as he walks forward. “Ms. Ivanova, why were you at the Starlight that night five years ago?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “I was looking for a trick.”

“You mean you were looking for a paying customer?”

“Yep.”

“Are you a lesbian?”

She shakes her head. “No, I’m bi.”

Whit exhales heavily at her inability to effectively communicate. “You mean that you’re bisexual, and have no sexual preference in a partner?”

“Yep.”

Compton looks to her annoyed and while it kills me, I have to agree with his next edict. “Please say, ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ Ms. Ivanova.”

She cowers a little and nods. “Sure… I mean, yes. Okay.”

Whit paces to the right. “How long had you been a prostitute by the time you met my client that night?”

“Um… maybe, two years?”

“And in all your time as a prostitute, how often did you have female customers?”

“I don’t know, not much.”

Whit nods. “Just a ballpark figure. Approximately how many women in those two years?”

“I guess I’d say, like five.”

“So, most of your clientele were men?”

“Yep, I mean, yes.”

“And how many men had you slept with in that time?”

She rolls her eyes, laughing a little bit. “A lot.”

Whit sighs. “Approximately how many men?”

“Maybe, like a hundred.”

Ugh, I can’t believe I touched that. I’m fortunate I didn’t get an STD. “So why were you at the Starlight, a lesbian bar, if you were looking for a customer? Wouldn’t it have been more lucrative to go to a straight bar and find a male?”

“Oh, well, I didn’t go to the Starlight looking for a trick. It was a slow night and I needed a break, so I went in there for a while.”

Whit nods. “You said you noticed my client right away?”

She smiles. “Are you kidding me? The whole place noticed her.”

Whit grins disconcertingly. “How do you mean? She stood out?”

Katerina gestures to me. “Well, yeah. Look at her. She’s gorgeous, and obviously loaded. She’s a trick’s dream come true.”

Whit paces to the left. “So, she could have had her pick of anyone there?”

She chuckles again. “Oh, yes.”

“Were the other women at the bar prostitutes?”

She shrugs. “I don’t think so.”

“So, she was in a room full of lesbians; she could have had her pick of anyone there for free, and she chose to pay you?”

Her eyes go wide again and I wonder who bought this testimony just like they bought the last. There’s no way it was Merle. Two million is hardly chump change. Katerina stammers. “Well, yeah… I guess she did.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“Okay, so you danced. And then what happened?”

“She took me back to her room.”

“Did you talk while you danced?”

“No…”

“Did you talk when you got to the room?”

“A little…”

“What was said?”

“Um… I’m not sure. She had a really nice room. I think I said that.”

Whit nods. “Did you say anything else?”

She shakes her head. “Not really. She sorta just, got down to business.”

“Did you discuss rates?”

Katerina stammers a little bit. “Not really. I just–”

“How did she know an amount?”

She points to me again. “She’s rich. I didn’t think it would matter to her.”

Whit nods. “So she made a good mark?”

She stutters a little bit. “W-what do you mean?”

Whit’s voice gets louder as he gestures to me in much the same manner as she did. “Well, you said so yourself, she’s a trick’s dream come true. She’s beautiful and rich. You could tell just by looking at her, right?”

“Yes, I mean–”

“Did she pay before or after?”

Whit changed gears so fast that she has to stop and think for a moment. “After.”

“How much did she agree to?”

“Three hundred.”

“Do you often accept payment after?”

“Well, no…”

“Why her? Why was she special?”

Katerina fidgets in agitation. “She was a sure deal. I wasn’t wor–”

“She was a sure deal. What does that mean?”

“She was good for the money!”

“And she agreed to pay?”

“Yes!”

“But you never talked about payment?”

“No, I mean, yes!”

“When? After?”

“Yes?”

Whit starts pacing again and Katerina leans back in her seat, her breathing heavy. “So, you didn’t discuss money, but somehow left with three hundred dollars after the act?”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor.”

Whit smirks at her. “Withdrawn. No further questions.”

The judge excuses her and I hope for a break, which he grants. “The court will take an hour recess for lunch. The jury is reminded of the admonition and those involved in the trial are to remain on the premises.” He bangs his gavel, drops below the line of his bench, and scurries away before the bailiff can even call out for us to stand. We do anyway and the jury files out as well. I turn immediately to Tom, Dana and Shane and we push our way through the media, across the hall and into the quiet sanctuary of the small office where my wife is waiting with open arms.

I breathe her in and absorb the warmth of her skin and love. It is a most welcome relief to be out of that room and away from all of the nonsense people are spewing. I know I have to tell Tina what’s been revealed, but I almost can’t bring myself to do it, that is until I see Alice. I could very well be jumping the gun here, but I can’t imagine Shane or Dana saying a word. Alice, however… her mouth is notoriously and perpetually flapping in the breeze.

Alice furrows her brows at me and I realize I must be judging her before I’ve heard her out. That is precisely what is happening to me in that courtroom, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I take a deep breath and force the ire in my system down. I’ll hear her out first. I just hope she can be honest. Mostly, I just hope that the truth isn’t as terrible as I’m imagining.

Dana, Tom, and Shane tuck themselves on the side of the room, hands in their pockets, and Tina leans back in the circle of my arms to gaze up at me curiously. I sigh as I look down at her and realize there will be no actual break in this hour. I take Tina’s hand and lead her to the table and we take a seat. Alice and Dana settle across from us and Carmen, confusion written on her face, leads Shane to the table as well. Tom sits hesitantly next to Tina and silence ensues.

I try to gather the words racing through my brain and Carmen finally breaks the dense atmosphere. She stands and walks over to a medium-sized, insulated bag and brings it to the table. “I brought homemade tamales.” She opens the bag and a wonderful smell fills the room as she pulls out small paper plates and forks.

She takes a plate and puts two tamales on it, passing it to Dana who passes it down to Alice who passes it to Shane. This continues for a moment before Alice can’t stand it anymore. She looks me in the eyes and asks, “What the fuck is going on with you guys?”

I sigh and decide the first step is to focus on telling Tina. Carmen passes me two plates and I pass them along, thanking her as she sets one in front of me. I turn to Tina, taking her hands in my own and facing her. “T, one of the witnesses, Catherine Rothberg, she knew about the night after Provocations.”

Tina’s face goes blank for just a moment. It’s like the calm before the storm before fire ignites in her eyes and she nearly shouts, “What?!”

She doesn’t wait for an answer as she turns to Alice. She squeezes my hands, glaring at Alice accusingly, and Alice goes immediately defensive. She tosses her fork down and crosses her arms over her chest, her eyes slits and her voice low. “You automatically assume it was me? Thanks for the fucking vote of confidence…”

I can’t help it, I’m thinking it too, and I still wonder. I gaze at her hard, trying to read her reaction as I ask, “Did you?”

She leans forward, her voice so high it’s nearly a shout. “No! Fuck…!”

She collapses back against her seat, turning her face away from us, angry tears leaking from her eyes. She swipes at them in frustration, sniffing as Dana puts her hand on her shoulder in comfort. I watch her carefully. Is she crying because she’s hurt or because she’s guilty? She finally turns to look me in the eye and I can tell that she’s just injured. I sigh. “I’m sorry, Al–”

She puts her hand up to stop me. “Just… don’t. I get it. But it wasn’t me.”

I look to Dana and Shane. Dana swallows a huge bite of tamale and says, “Don’t look at me.” My eyes move to Shane who lets her head fall to the side, her expression bored. Her eyes are deep and piercing as they say, ‘Seriously?’

Tom had no idea before today, so I leave him to his Tamales and and frown as I sit back with a sigh, throwing my hands up and asking, “Then who was it? The only people who knew are in this room.” I look over at Tina to see her crying quietly. I hate this, so much. It’s intensely painful to watch her suffer so needlessly. I reach over and tuck a lock of corn silk hair behind her ear and stroke her cheek with my thumb. She meets my eyes and I can see the intense tincture of mortification and anger in the hazel depths. “I love you, regardless of what other people think or know.”

She smiles sadly and turns to kiss my palm. I watch as she visibly relaxes into my touch and out of nowhere I’m struck at the soothing effect I have on her. I can’t help the smile that lights my face. She’s shown me nothing but love since she woke from her coma, but this is the first time I have literally seen the positive, calming influence I can provide for her. It’s… utterly thrilling. Her eyes are open and honest, and I watch the fire in them smolder with adoration as she rejoins, “Then it doesn’t matter.”

I lean over to her and she meets me halfway, sealing a vow of soul-rending affection with a warm, chaste kiss. I curl my arm around her shoulders, resting it on the back of her chair as she nestles her head against the crux of my arm and plays with the fingers of my other hand.

I hate what I’m going to say, but it needs to come out. “T, there’s more.” I feel the heavy sigh and continue. “Catherine accused me of drugging and raping her, and the other witness, Katerina… something… I don’t know, Russian, claims we made a… transaction.”

Tina chuckles lightly before saying, “You’re a gorgeous, powerful, successful woman who has to drug and pay women for sex… and I’m the virgin Mary.”

We all laugh softly and I bury my nose in her honey-hued hair, kissing the soft tendrils at the crown. “So you don’t believe them?”

She brings my hand to her lips, kissing my knuckles. “I’d believe anything you told me. You’d never lie to me.”

The startling honesty in her voice sinks into my chest, piercing my heart with joy and the heavy weight of responsibility. I’d never intentionally lie to her ever again or betray her trust, but now I realize why. She has so much faith in me; harming that faith, even inadvertently, would be criminal. She has stirred my soul on a profound level for the second time in only a matter of minutes, and I’m certain she’s not even aware of it.

The part of my soul that has been overflowing with love for her abruptly stops. It stops because the bottom has fallen out; it has fallen out and washed away all of my wrongs and regrets, all the lingering shame and sorrows, and it leaves nothing but her, just her, my wife. I feel a warm, tingling sensation start in my ribs and spread to the soles of my feet, and I realize that I am absorbing the excess, expanding to make room for her. I feel… indestructible, alive, and whole. I can face this. I will face this. She has faith in me, and that faith is a fundamental, maybe even organic, part of me now.


 

Joyce, Whit, and I sit again at the desk in our little corner of hell, but I’m light; I’m free, and I’m ready. My Tina is with me. Not just a glossy photo of the most beautiful family on the face of the earth, but a gentle humming that vibrates in my soul and makes even this drab, uncomfortably warm, and hostile environment feel vibrant and inviting. She has always been my home, but now I carry home with me.

Merle stands and starts again. “The People call Alice Pieszecki”

Alice’s head is high, her posture straight. Her girlish pumps click on the linoleum floor and her fifties-style curls dance about her shoulders as she makes her way through the center of the gallery. The bailiff holds the low door for her and she makes her way to the clerk. She is sworn in and seated, and Merle seems very satisfied as she steps forward to have her chance at someone that actually means something to me. “Ms. Pieszecki, thank you for being here today.” Alice crosses one leg over the other, crosses her arms over chest, and leans back, a defiant and smug expression on her face. She says nothing in return, just waits, and I stifle a chuckle as Merle clears her throat and continues. “Do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

Alice’s expression remains placid as she replies. “Yes.”

“How do you know her?”

“She’s my best friend.”

“How long have you known her?”

“About thirteen years.”

Merle nods and paces to the left. “Did you have any romantic involvement in that time?”

“Yes. We dated for about six weeks.”

“Six weeks?”

Alice rolls her eyes and I can’t help but join her. “Yes, six weeks.”

“Why such a short amount of time?”

“There was no Zhuzh.” Merle stops and cocks her head at Alice who again rolls her eyes as she continues. “You know, zhuzh…?” She gives Merle the once over and sighs. “Well, maybe you don’t. It’s a common term used to identify that spark or chemistry two people share.” She glances at the judge with a smile as she says, “Mrs. Porter-Kennard and I didn’t have it.”

The judge seethes and realizes he’s trapped. He can’t tell a witness what to say and I hope Alice gets in a number of ‘Mrs.,’ before her time on the stand is through, just to spite him. I quirk a grin and settle back in my chair. Even if Merle twists something Alice says, it should be a fun show. Merle soldiers on, her gravelly voice scratching out, “Did she have chemistry with Tina Kennard, her current partner?”

“Yes.”

Merle paces again. “Did they meet while you two were still together?”

“No, shortly after.”

“Did the defendant cheat on you?”

Alice’s expression becomes incredulous. “What? No…”

Merle leans in. “Are you sure she didn’t cheat, Ms. Pieszecki?”

Alice hesitates a little bit and I furrow my brows. No, I didn’t. So why is Alice taking forever to answer? She finally leans with a reply, though it’s not the glowing endorsement I had hoped for. “If she did, I’m not aware of it.”

”Ms. Pieszecki, you’re under oath. Did you suspect her of cheating at all?”

Alice pauses to consider Merle for a long moment, taking her time to frame her answer. “You know what? This whole thing… this whole thing is a crock. It’s a frickin’ witch hunt. I mean, you’re trying to say Bette’s a murderer because she had some issues in her past… with lame, trumped up evidence? I’m sorry but I could just as easily say that you’re an abusive, manipulative liar, Ms. Rothman, with a propensity to cheat because of the first-hand knowledge have with your reputation.”

Corky unleashes his authority at Alice, who leans away from the mild spray of saliva. I can’t help but cringe. “That is enough, Ms. Pieszecki. You will answer the questions respectfully or I’ll hold you in contempt.” Merle’s dark eyes flash with white anger as she looks at Alice, and her nostrils flare so large I imagine smoke shooting from the openings. I could hug Alice right now. She could out Merle right here and now, but it won’t help my case at all. The last thing I want is to have a mistrial and have to go through all of this again with another prosecutor. Merle was arrogant in selecting Alice as a witness given their ‘history.’  Either that, or she has no recollection of their encounter. Given Merle’s furious, scabby visage, I somehow doubt it’s alcohol-induced amnesia.

Merle stands up straight in an attempt at intimidation to counter Alice’s placid smile. “What do you do for a living, Ms. Pieszecki?”

“I own a website called OurChart.”

Whit stands. “The defense is aware of this evidence and has no objection, your honor.”

He sits again as Merle pulls up the site on the main computer, and the Chart is immediately brought up on the screen. “The People move to enter exhibit number 126 into evidence.” There’s a moment of silence as she waits for the website to finish loading. She brings up the chart immediately, bypassing the homepage and pop-up ads. It’s a good thing too. Corky would have indulged in a little lesbian soft-core thrill, I’m sure. “Ms. Pieszecki, please explain what we’re looking at.”

“It’s a chart that shows… encounters, everything from romances and one-night stands to twenty year marriages. Anytime you get a group of gay girls together, you are almost guaranteed that someone’s slept with someone else, who has slept with someone else, who’s slept with someone else in that room. Name any lesbian you know. I could link her to me in like, six moves. Maybe you, Ms. Rothman.”

Merle ignores Alice’s jab and pushes on. I can tell she’s ready to get this done. “So if I type in a name it will bring up all of the sexual encounters for that individual?”

“Yes.”

We watch on the screen as my name is typed in, bringing up what appears to be a small galaxy, with me at the center. Rothman comments, “One hundred and twenty six.” She delightfully pulls up the names of the three witnesses as she says, “Let the record show that Candace Jewel, Nadia Karella, Catherine Rothberg, and Katerina Ivanova are all listed under Bette Porter’s sexual encounter profile.” She closes the website quickly. “I have no further questions, your honor.”

The judge doesn’t even ask as Whit steps up to Alice. “Ms. Pieszecki, how do these links occur? Do the private parties link themselves, or do you substantiate the encounters prior to showing a link on your site?”

Alice grins as she says, “If you bring up my profile, I can show you how it works.”

Merle stands. “Objection, your honor. Ms. Pieszecki’s profile is irrelevant.”

Whit responds quickly. “It’s relevant to the reliability of the information that’s just been added to the record, your honor.”

The judge seems to consider this request, from perverted or pure curiosity, I can’t tell. I assume his dislike of me outweighs his growing uneasiness with Merle. “Objection sustained. Please just explain the process, Ms. Pieszecki.”

Alice smirks. “The information is in no way substantiated. It’s a social networking site at its core, just like Facebook or Twitter. The major difference is that the primary focus is lesbians, and sexual interconnectedness. Any registered user can create a profile and link it to any other registered user’s profile. It’s just not possible to substantiate them all. However, if a registered user does not agree with a link that’s been made to her profile, she can remove it herself.”

Whit tucks his hands in his pockets. “So you’re saying that anyone could create a profile, and connect it to anyone else’s profile, but that does not mean that the sexual encounter actually happened.”

Alice nods. “That’s correct.”

“Thank you, Ms. Pieszecki. No further questions, your honor.”

The judge excuses Alice and she grins at me as the bailiff escorts her from the room. The judge’s voice moves things right along. “The prosecution may call the next witness.”

Merle’s already standing, most likely very relieved at how lucky she was to barely dodge Alice’s bullet. “The People call Juanita Jewel to the stand, your honor.”

I lean my head back and close my eyes. Wonderful… just wonderful. I have to face her mother. A bailiff steps through the back double doors of the gallery, an elderly, grey-haired woman holding tightly to his arm as they slowly but surely make their way to the front. Her cane is old and her clothing is threadbare and I swallow the lump in my throat. What I’m about to hear can’t be all that good. If it had been Angie… I’d hate her killer, regardless of whether it was deserved. And she does hate me; I can see it shining out of her deeply set, dark eyes and weathered face. Her stare is as cold, utterly cold, and it seems so out of place for such a wizened, and what I imagine is a normally inviting, countenance.

She’s sworn in, her English broken but intelligible. Her voice speaks of a hard life, but a proud one nonetheless as she’s helped into the witness box and carefully lowered into the seat. Merle approaches her, her demeanor that of supreme comfort, and sympathy and I have to hold back a gag. Is there not a genuine emotion anywhere in her repertoire? “Mrs. Jewel, thank you for being here.”

The old woman’s face is like a stone mask as she nods. “You are welcome. I want to be here.”

Merle relaxes her voice, and what should be empathy comes out as a stomach-churning wheeze. “Mrs. Jewel, have you ever met the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

“No.”

“Did your daughter, Candace, ever mention her?”

The old woman’s jaw quivers a bit, her eyes shining with unshed tears as she says, “Yes, my daughter talk about her all the time.” Merle reaches into her blazer pocket to retrieve a tissue from a small travel pack in her pocket, handing it to the sniffling woman, a quiet, “Gracias,” received in return.

Merle’s smile is sickly sweet. “You’re welcome. Take your time. Do you need anything else?”

Juanita shakes her head and sniffles again. “No.”

Merle nods. “What had your daughter said about the defendant?”

“She-she say that she in love, that she going to settle down and start a familia… that I would soon una abuela.” She smiles sadly. “She was my only child…” Her hands shake as she wipes at her tears and anger seems to take hold of her. “She talk about this woman, this Bette, all the time, for five years! Bad things kept happening to her property, and at her work, but she was smart, and talented, and so… beautiful.” She sniffs again and sighs. “She moved to New York City for a time, to make some money, so she could be with this woman, her love. She was strong, she was…” Her voice breaks. “…so happy…”

Her tears start to fall and it’s several long moments before she composes herself, Merle providing another tissue. My heart aches for her. Candace had lied to her, just as much as she had lied to herself. And now, over something so senseless, this innocent woman has truly lost what I stand to lose. I don’t wish that on her. It’s infuriating that Candace cared so little for her family that she jeopardized her life, but it’s worse to see Merle taking advantage of her grief. “Mrs. Jewel, what happened to her things, to her job here?”

“Her things were being… destroyed?” Merle nods and Juanita continues. “Things like her car, and her work tools, they would go missing. When she worked somewhere, she would come the next day and see her work ruined. Soon, she couldn’t get any more work. And then…” She cries harder for a moment, her voice broken and choked with sobs as she finishes, “She came home once and someone had hurt her. She had… bruises?”

Merle nods again and she sighs, collecting herself before Merle continues. “Mrs. Jewel, did she ever say why these things were happening?”

The old woman nods. “Yes, she say someone wanted to keep her and her love apart, so they were sending her a message.” Her voice turns desperate. “I try to stop her, to tell her to stay away, but she would not listen.”

“And this all happened before she went to New York?”

“Yes.”

“Did you talk while she was in New York?”

“Yes.”

“What did she say to you during your conversations?”

“She say that she was doing very good, that she had a wonderful boss, and she was making good money.”

“And you believed her?”

“Oh, yes, of course. She never lie to me. And she was sending me money so I could live, so it must be true.”

Merle nods. “Did you see her when she got back from New York?”

Juanita smiles sadly. “Yes, she say it was time to be with her love. She was happy, and so was I… as much as I could be.”

“What do you mean by that?”

She sighs and makes the sign of a cross on her forehead, chest, and shoulders. “I do not want to speak bad of the dead, but she was a… a lesbian. Her love, this Bette, is a woman. I had hoped she would find a nice, young Puerto Rican man to start a familia.” She sighs, her eyes taking on a faraway look as a fantasy that will never come to pass plays across her features. It lasts only a moment and she frowns. “She did not want that. I do not understand it, but I was happy to at least see her happy, even if it was not as it should be before the eyes of God.”

She makes the sign of the cross again and Merle soldiers on. “Mrs. Jewel, I do not wish to speak ill of the dead either, but I have to ask you… did Candace ever, in all the time you knew her, exhibit signs that she was mentally unstable or capable of hurting someone?”

The old woman’s dark eyes go black with anger. “No! Never! She had troubles with the drugs when she was a girl, but she grew into a kind woman. She did things for our neighbors, helped people in need… for free. She never say bad things about anyone and I know…” She points at her chest, her voice hard with resolve. “…I know she would never, ever, hurt anyone.”

Merle smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Jewel. I have no further questions.”

Whit stands and Compton doesn’t even look at him as he steps forward, his voice so fluid and graceful compared to her harsh, thick accent. “Mrs. Jewel, I’m sorry for your loss.” She nods, sniffling and Whit continues. “I don’t wish to speak ill of your daughter, Mrs. Jewel, but I have a duty to present the evidence to this court, and in order to do that, I have to ask some questions that might be upsetting for you.” She stops and stares hard at him for a moment before nodding her head with a resigned sigh. She straightens up in her seat and prepares herself, and I’m glad Whit took this tack with her.

He smiles warmly and begins. “I know that when it comes to children, parents can be very protective of them. It’s understandable, especially under these sad circumstances, but I need you to think back on the conversations you had with Candace about my client.” Whit gestures to me and her dark eyes follow his arm until they lock on my own. I have nothing but sympathy for her, and I do truly regret the circumstances of this trial. I wish that it had happened so differently. I hope that she can see that much, know that much. She seems to soften a little bit before looking down to her lap. “Did she ever say anything about their relationship in a negative light?”

She wrings the Kleenex in her hands and sighs heavily as she thinks back. Several long minutes pass before she finally speaks up. “She say that they in love, that they going to start a familia. I-I don’t remember anything… bad.”

Whit nods. “That’s okay, let’s try this a different way. How did she act while she was speaking about Bette?”

She seems to consider this for a moment and replies. “She was… just… so happy… so very, very happy. I do not know how else you say…”

Whit nods. “I understand. What would she do when she was excited?”

“Oh, she talk for hours about her love while we watch the television. She was… so full of life that she could not hold still.” She smiles, a distant look in her eyes. “She wanted their first child to be a girl. She wanted to name her Angelica…” She pauses for a moment and sighs before meeting Whit’s eyes. “That’s a beautiful name, no?”

Whit smiles in return. “It is. What else would she do?”

“Uh, she was a carpenter, you know?” Whit nods. “Very talented, my daughter. She would draw the pieces she was planning. These wonderful things would come from her mind and she could draw them just as good. She always signed them. She was proud of her work, as she should be. She left them everywhere!” She laughs. “I loved them, though. When she came back from New York, she signed them Candace Porter. She was proud of her love and they are some of her very best. I-I framed them after she was gone.”

She swipes at a lone tear dribbling down her cheek and Whit offers a tissue from his own pocket. At least his offering seems sincere as she accepts it. “Mrs. Jewel, did you see any drawings that were different? Not work-related?”

She thinks for a moment and then starts nodding. “Yes. There were one or two of a beautiful woman. I assumed it was her love. These… I did not like so much. It was still hard for me to accept her… choice.”

She sighs and Whit prods again. “Were there any other types of drawings?”

She shakes her head. “No… most of the time, she took pictures if it wasn’t one of her projects.”

Whit’s voice is gentle. “What kinds of pictures?”

She sighs and meets my eyes again. “There were some of her…” She points to me. “…and another woman, a blonde woman, doing things… to each other, things only a man and a woman should do to each other.”

Whit nods. “Mrs. Jewel, do you still have those pictures?”

She shakes her head. “Oh, no, she cut them up and threw them away. I think, she was upset but she said that she and her love had worked it out, that it would be fine and she was so happy…”

“You said before that she was very happy and excited when talking about Bette. Was she different when she was cutting up those photos?”

“No, not really. She seemed happy. It was… less… but still happy.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Jewel. I have no further questions.”

The bailiff escorts her away and the judge calls out, “That’s all for today. We’ll reconvene at eight a.m. tomorrow morning. The jury is reminded of the admonition.” He bangs his gavel and we all rise as instructed by the bailiff’s booming voice, and I smile over at Whit. He is, quite literally, the very best I could hope for.


Continued in Chapter 5 – Lesson.

Chapter 3 – Lawfully

Tina and I look up as Alice, Dana, Shane, and Carmen enter the small office. I look down at my watch; it’s 8:45 and the time is crawling by. I release a heavy sigh and stand as they come to hug and greet me and Tina. Alice squeezes me hard and pulls back, saying, “I know Tina, Carmen, and I can’t be in there with you since we’re witnesses, but we’re there in spirit, and I wanted to give you something.” She smiles so brightly, and with so much hope and faith that I feel a little lighter. She pulls her purse off her shoulder and retrieves a 4×6 inch photograph, handing it to me. “This… is a little reminder of better times for when things get hard.”

I gaze down on the small photo of Tina and all of our children, smiling as I stroke the glossy surface. “You took this just a few days ago.”

Alice’s smile becomes a grin. “Yep, and I have reprints for the sneaky photo queen over there.” Tina chuckles and gazes down at the photo with me, absently playing with a lock of my hair and helping to ground me.

I look up at Alice. “Thank you. This will help tremendously.”

She grins crookedly. “You know, you guys were great together before, but now… now, well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. And I’ve seen some crazy shit.” We all chuckle and she continues. “Seriously though, I could only hope to know that kind of love, that kind of connection.”

Dana mumbles something unintelligible under her breath and Alice glares at her. Dana pulls on an unconvincingly innocent expression while Tina and I hold a hand over our mouths to hide our smirks. After a long moment, Alice turns back to us. “Anyway, what I was saying is that you can see it…” She gestures to the photograph. “…literally. You just… you belong together.”

I lean forward and hug her again, and she clears her throat as she pulls away. I can tell she’s barely holding it together. Carmen has tears in her eyes as she meets my gaze, “I’m sorry I got the family involved, Bette.”

I squeeze her arm and smile back. “It’s okay, Carmen. You were just trying to help, and it worked for a while. It’s my fault for not handling Candace correctly from the beginning. I should have just told the police.”

She sighs and smiles sadly. “I’m glad we’re okay. I’m still sorry…” She exhales heavily and forces herself to brighten. “In the end it won’t matter. You’re going to kick that overgrown bruja’s ass.”

I chuckle lightly and Dana says, “We should probably get in there and get seats. We want to be right behind you.”

Shane pats my arm, her eyes sincere. “Good luck.”

I nod as they start to make their way to the door and watch as Alice grabs Dana’s hand, pulling her to an abrupt stop. Dana gazes down at the appendage restraining her for no apparent reason; Alice, realizing what she’s just done, lets go quickly, adjusting her dress nervously and avoiding eye contact as she says, “I just… I wanted to… just save seats for Helena and Peggy, okay?”

I sigh. Nice save, Al. There’s an awkward moment of silence before Dana nods with a curious expression on her face, and Shane opens the door. “Okay, we’ll see you in there.”

I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and Shane rolls her eyes at Alice before shutting the door behind her. Alice turns to us and clears her throat. “Any word from Duffy yet?” I shake my head and she sighs. “Okay, I’ll call her now.” She takes out her cellphone and Tina rests her head against me as we look at the picture together. We’re curled up on the sun lounge by our pool, each of us holding up a baby and Angie sitting between us. Our faces are brighter than the afternoon sun filtering through the thin drapes, and my heart swells. I’ve been living this dream for a while now, but I’ve never seen it, looked in on it like an outsider. For some reason… it means so much more now. This is precisely what I’m fighting for, the joy and the family bonds that define a life worth living, at least for me.

My smile reaches my eyes as I pull Tina in and kiss her chastely. I bury my nose in her lavender-scented hair and breathe deeply. The words flood from my soul without thought and I don’t try to stop or filter them. “I love you, T. I want a lifetime with you and I swear to you, that we’ll find a way to have it. I love you so, so much.”

The wonderful arms around my waist tighten and I hear the tremor in her voice as she says, “I love you, babe. And I believe in you. We’ll have it, one way or another.”

I lean back and she kisses me again. The door opens and we turn to see Helena and Peggy enter. Helena’s face is somewhat sour as she comes forward and hugs us both. “I just saw Merle Rothman in the hallway.” She releases me and I furrow my brows at her. She huffs indignantly. “She propositioned me like a common whore while we were queuing for the metal detectors. I feel… dirty.”

She makes an overdramatically disgusted noise as she lifts her shoulders and shudders. Tina chuckles and I wince. I know how that feels and apparently, so does Peggy as she says, “It’s like getting marked by a skunk in 90 degree heat while hiking through the rainforests of Antigua. That smell never quite goes away.” We all look over at her and she grins. “Oh, please. You think that someone who travels extensively has never run into any unfortunate issues with the more distasteful wildlife?”

I smile back at her. “So you ran into Merle in Antigua?”

Everyone chuckles and she pats me on the cheek. “No, it wasn’t exactly Ms. Rothman, but close enough by the smell and general feeling of distaste.”

We all laugh and Helena squeezes my shoulder. “So, are you ready to go in there and shoo her out of your garbage with a broom?”

I grin back at her. “Thanks to the two of you, and Whit and Joyce of course…” I gesture over at my silently waiting attorneys. “…I think I am.”

Peggy titters. “Oh, no, darling. You’ll need to do better than that.” I consider her words for a moment and pull up more confidence than I feel, squaring my shoulders, holding my head high, and adopting the most feral smile in my arsenal. Peggy grins and winks. “Much better.” She claps her hands in finality. “Okay then, we’ll be in the courtroom. Come, darling.” She tugs Helena gently and they make their way to the door, Peggy turning at the threshold to point at Whit. “I want what’s left of that DA after you’re done tearing her apart, Whit.”

Whit smirks and gives a slight bow. “Of course, Peggy.”

They depart and I release a heavy sigh as I start to pace, looking down at my watch. It’s 8:55. I blow out a breath and Tina grabs my hand, pulling me to a stop and settling herself in my arms. “It’s going to be fine. I know you’re nervous, but we’ll be here waiting.”

Joyce pulls up from her leaning position on the wall and says, “It’s almost show time. The bailiff will be here to retrieve us any minute.”

I watch Alice hang up her phone irritably as Carmen sits to wait. I know she feels bad, but none of this is her fault. I just hope that they didn’t do anything illegal. She’s adamant that they didn’t, but I guess we’ll see. Tina leans into my line of sight and gazes deeply into my eyes as she strokes my cheek with her thumb. Her grin is warm and genuine and I smile at the effort it must have taken it to put it there. “I’m with you, all the way.”

I turn and kiss the palm of her hand. “I know. We’re almost done.”

She leans up and kisses me again before pressing the photo over my heart. She pulls her cellphone off the nearby table, dialing 2 and handing me the phone. I smile as I wait for Kit to pick up. “Hey, baby sis. How you holdin’ up?”

I pull Tina into me, holding her close as I answer. “I’m fine. I have a tremendous amount of support.”

I hear her sigh through the phone. “You can never have too much. I wish I could be there with you; Malcolm does too.”

I smile sadly. “I wish you both could too. But, he’s got the gallery and you’ve got the Planet, and both of you are sharing babysitting duty, so you’re more than doing your part.”

There’s a sarcastic, “Mm-hmm…”

I chuckle. “How are the children?”

As if she heard her name, I hear Angie mumble something in the background. The phone is jostled and I hear Kit say something in response before Angie’s voice booms excitedly through the receiver. “Mama B?”

Tears well in my eyes. “Hey, babycakes. Are you having fun with Auntie Kit?”

Her voice is excited and sweetly innocent. “Yeah! We watchin’ cartoons and Chance has the hick-mumps.” She sighs in exasperation, her voice incredulous as she continues, “Boys…” I chuckle. “Good, I’m glad. I love you, babycakes…” Tina tugs on my arm and I smile. “…so does Mama T.”

The phone jostles again and I hear a yelled, “Love you, too,” in the background before Kit’s laugh rumbles through the receiver. “I better go, baby sis. She’s hell on wheels this mornin’. I swear she has the attention span of a golden retriever.” We laugh together and she clears her throat. “You’re gonna do fine. We’ll be here when you get home.”

I close my eyes, releasing a sigh and wiping at my tears. My voice is thick with emotion as I say, “Okay. I’ll see you later.”

“Bette… I love you, and so do these babies. You just remember that today.”

Tina swipes a tear from my cheek as I say, “I love all of you too, very much. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye.”

I hand the phone to Tina and she turns it off, putting it on the table. The door opens and a decidedly less obnoxious bailiff steps in. “Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

My lawyers step up in front of me and I hold onto Tina’s hand until the last minute as we reluctantly file from the room. There’s a chorus of, “Good luck,” as I gaze at my wife once more before shutting the door with finality. I already miss her, and reluctantly pull my hand from the knob, running my free hand through my hair as I gaze down at the photo and reverently stroke the glossy surface. My family… my family with Tina. I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember and I can barely believe that I’m holding proof of its existence. I can’t believe that it could be ripped away from me at any time this week.

I follow my lawyers into the courtroom through a side door, and the bailiff walks us over to a large, wooden desk to the right of the judge’s bench. This courtroom is larger and much more modern than that of the arraignment hearing. Everything but the floor, including the desks, is covered in paneling like before, but this faux-wood is a much lighter, blond color and it looks more like vinyl. The fluorescent lights hit the walls in a harsh way, bouncing the light around and causing me to squint against the brightness. There are flat screen computer monitors on all available surfaces, adding to the heat and glare of the room. It would almost be cheerful if it weren’t so stiflingly enclosed and uncomfortably warm. I sigh. At least the chairs look comfortable.

There are three different manned cameras from local media set up in the gallery to cover this trial, my trial. They’re here to tell my sick and twisted story to the public at large, and I feel nervousness start to frantically beat its wings in my stomach. I almost can’t make my feet respond to the call of my brain to move me forward but I look down at my photo and find the will to move forward.

I see Dana, Shane, Helena, and Peggy right behind what appears to be our desk as we approach, and I straighten up to face this with what dignity I have left in me. Joyce and Whit pull up to the innermost seats, and I sit in the very outside chair, facing forward to the looming judge’s bench, left and center of my location. I glance to my left to see Merle already seated at her desk and going through some papers.

She turns her head to look at me, her black eyes piercing and cruel. For a moment, I want to feel compassion for her and it surprises me. I’m not one for benevolence to those who wrong me, especially this egregiously. I can’t help but smile as I realize that this is something my wife is teaching me, showing me. Merle sees my smile and her harshness falters which only makes me grin wider. It took her off guard, and I can tell that she has no idea why I’d smile at her. The person she is, the way she views the world… I just don’t believe that she can understand compassion, let alone feel it. It’s sad really.

I straighten my black blazer against the uncomfortable heat, and cross one leg over the other as I try to sit straight but relaxed. I know it’s okay to show emotion so long as it’s quiet and non-threatening, or at least I’ve been instructed that it is. But I don’t want to appear nervous, even though I most definitely am. I also don’t want to appear overconfident. It’s a difficult balance. I just want to appear strong in the face of confrontation even if my heart is racing and my palms feel a bit sweaty. I again gaze at the photo, trying to find the peace and comfort that I felt that day. I look long and hard at my face, a face I hardly recognize in this photo, because it’s so warm and honest and open. I have to remind myself that this is me, the new me, the me who shouldn’t be here today.

“All rise. District one criminal court is now in session. Judge Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” I snap my head up, placing the photo face down on the desk and stand as the judge enters through the back chamber door. Corky? The judge is Corky Compton? Wow, his parents must have hated him…

He’s a squat, round man, his paunch visible even beneath his robes. The bright fluorescent lights gleam off of the shiny bald portion at the top of his head, crowned by a thin crop of stark white hair. His thick, bristly mustache is whitish grey and his cheeks and nose are overly pink where his thin, wireframe glasses are perched. The way he curls his hands as he walks reminds me of a mole digging a tunnel.

The bailiff booms out, “The jury will now enter!” It’s quiet as the twelve strangers who hold my future in their hands filter into the room, taking a seat in the box along the wall. We all wait patiently for the judge, who takes a sip from his coffee mug and spills some down his chin.

His beady eyes are cold as he gazes out over the room, his lips pursed in a sour-faced expression as his nasally voice calls out, “You may be seated,” the ‘be’ followed by some spittle. We all take our seats and I watch as Joyce and Whit give each other a loaded gaze.

Merle attracts my attention as she leans back in her seat and smiles smugly. Something bad is happening here. I lean into Joyce’s ear and whisper, “What’s wrong?”

She looks to me and sighs. “Judge Compton. I’ll explain later.”

I sit back in my chair to see Compton staring at us with disdain. An icy chill rolls down my spine as I look into his eyes. This man just seems… utterly hateful. He finally decides to start the proceedings. “Calling the case of the People of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard. Are both sides ready?”

Merle and Whit stand but Merle is the first to speak. “Ready for the People, your honor.”

Whit clears his throat. “Ready for the defense, your honor.”

Compton leans back and says, “Will the Clerk please swear in the jury.”

The Clerk at the front of the room, near the jurors’ box, stands and faces them. “Will each member of the jury please stand and raise their right hand?” All twelve get to their feet and comply. “Do each of you swear that you will fairly try the case before this court, and that you will return a true verdict according to the evidence and the instructions of the court, so help you God?” There is a chorus of “I do,” before the Clerk continues. “You may be seated.”

The judge calls out. “Let the record reflect that the Jury, the Judge, all council, and the defendant are present.” He gestures to Merle who gets to her feet. “The People will go first.”

Merle walks up to the jury pacing back and forth in front of them for long moments. The room starts to feel tense, and I force myself to sit back, prepared and waiting for the first barrage of dishonest insults. She finally turns to face them, her rough voice grating to my ears. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is going to be a difficult case.” She gestures in my direction. “The defendant is a powerful, wealthy, successful woman who’s not only shrewd and cunning, but highly intelligent. She owns her own art gallery, a very successful art gallery, and has a far reaching reputation for her selective and impeccable artistic eye. But, there are aspects of that same reputation that might shock you.”

She starts to pace in front of them again. “She is known throughout her own community for being cold, calculating–”

Whit interrupts her. “Objection, speculation and hearsay.”

The judge pins Whit with his tiny, black eyes. “Overruled.” He looks back to Merle. “Please proceed.”

Merle’s small bow of respectful acknowledgement is dripping with sickeningly sweet gratitude, and it makes me want to leap over this desk and commit the crime she’s trying to put me away for. Then she has to go and intensify that feeling by trying to force her gravelly voice to sound delicate. “Thank you, your honor.” He smirks at her and I can’t help but wonder if this has been rigged from the get go. Did Kelly pay off the judge? I gaze at Compton. Somehow, I don’t think it would take much to convince him. He seems like the sort that enjoys causing pain, especially when it’s unnecessary, like he might boil live puppies for fun.

What about the jury; are they bought and sold like prized whores as well? I look around at their faces, faces of people I’ve never even met holding my life in the palm of their hands. It’s discouraging to say the least. There really just may be no way out of this. I take the photo from the desk in front of me and gaze at my family. I won’t allow myself to cry or show anything but calm repentance, but it’s scary. It’s scary to think that I may lose this when I’ve only just attained the life I’ve been working so hard for, and all because of a person that no longer exists.

Merle points at me, keeping her face turned toward the jury. “She is known to be cold, calculating, and cruel. But of all of that, she’s most known for her licentious use of people to meet her own ends. Now, I understand that this sounds a little far-fetched. I mean, just look at her.” They all turn to look at me critically and it’s everything I can do to face them instead of lowering my eyes. I can’t let her intimidation tactics destroy my self-confidence, even when it seems insurmountable. I take a deep breath and meet their eyes head on, just as Joyce instructed. If I’m not guilty, I shouldn’t act like it. “She doesn’t look like a cold-blooded predator that defiles women, does she? But that’s the problem with appearances, they’re deceiving. Not only has she brought women into her bed under false pretenses, but once she’s done, she throws them away without a thought or a second glance.”

Merle sighs, drops her shoulders, and shakes her head. She’s just so saddened, I’m sure. “I know what you’re thinking. You wonder why these women would allow this to happen to them, how they get to a place where they’re utterly destroyed by Mrs. Porter-Kennard’s blatant disregard for their feelings and needs.”

Judge Compton interrupts. “Ms. Rothman. You will address the defendant by miss not missus.”

Joyce stands. “Your honor, the defendant is married.”

He glares at Joyce and his jowls start to flap as angry words fly from his scrunched, pig-like face. “I am well aware of her marital status, counselor. Missus is a prefix reserved for a man’s wife. I know the state has defiled the definition of ‘marriage,’ but they did not change the definition of ‘missus.’ Your client is not married to man. Therefore, she will be addressed accordingly. Furthermore, keep in mind that this is my courtroom. I will not have anyone, let alone a lawyer, correcting me. Try that again and I’ll hold you in contempt.”

Is he fucking kidding? He pushes his glasses up his greasy nose, his face red with the aftereffects of his tantrum, and it’s everything I can do to keep my seat. That would explain his irrational hatred from the very start. Joyce correcting him isn’t the only contempt he’s harboring. If he’s this bad only twenty minutes in, there’s no way I’m going to get out of this. My hope rides solely on that of the jury. I glance at their blank, inscrutable faces and feel a pang of defeat gnaw at my heart.

Joyce is gripping the end of the table with white knuckles and Whit stands. “If it pleases the court, I’d like to approach the bench, your honor.” The judge eyes Whit with angry distaste, but seems less disdainful with him than he is with Joyce. Maybe he hates women and gays. Fuck. If he hates blacks, I’m three for three. He finally nods his shiny, round head and Merle meets Whit and Joyce at the bench. The judge’s color starts to rise as he berates my counsel and Merle watches on with smug satisfaction. Outside of heated murmurs, I can’t distinguish what’s being said.

I sneak a look behind me to see Dana and Shane sitting rigid in their seats, their demeanor pissed. I know the feeling. Shane meets my eyes and I smile sadly at her. Her smile is tight and I turn, taking my photo and gazing at it again. Tina’s face is even more of a revelation as my own. She is joy incarnate and I just want to bury my head in her neck, breathe her in, and forget this mess. Maybe load her and the kids on a plane for Taha’a and just disappear.

Probably fifteen minutes pass this way before Joyce and Whit come to retake their seats, and I tear my eyes away from the photo of my wife to whisper to Joyce, “What was that all about?”

She’s still angry as she shakes her head and says, “Later.”

Fuck me. Things are worse than I had imagined and it’s only just begun. Merle returns to the jurors and looks to the judge for approval. He waves and she slowly paces a few steps, tucking her hands behind her back. “As I was saying, it’s hard to believe that a person, let alone a competent, kind, and generous person, would allow themselves to be used or pushed to extremes. So the question is why? Why would a sane, productive person allow this to happen to them? Well, I’m going to tell you. Some of these women, these innocent women, they are in the lowest, most desperate rungs of our society, a place where they don’t feel they deserve better; maybe they’ve been abandoned or are seeking asylum from previous abuse. Maybe some of them just have low self-esteem or don’t know how to make a better life for themselves. Maybe some are just so utterly desperate for someone to care about them. The deplorable reasons and possibilities are endless really, but they all have one thing in common: these people, people like Candace Jewel, people that are good, innocent, hardworking citizens are just so trusting that they get taken in and taken advantage of. And sometimes the lies and degradation have been engrained so deep over such a long period, that by the time they realize they need out, that they need help, it’s too late.”

Merle stands straight before the jury, her demeanor one of deep empathy. It’s so disingenuous that I could puke, the nervous flutter in my stomach redoubling its efforts to make this feeling a reality. “Candace… Candace Jewel… remember that name. She was a kind and caring woman, and that was her only mistake. She loved Ms. Porter-Kennard. She’d have done anything for her, given anything for her, and that devotion was callously thrown in her face. The defendant vowed love, offered her body and her heart under false pretenses, but to someone like Candace, it was hope. It was like a dream come true. But when the relationship wasn’t convenient for the defendant anymore, she threw a confused and deeply committed woman away. She consumed Ms. Jewel body and soul, lied to her, gained her trust and love and crushed her without thought or regard. But that just wasn’t enough. She then added insult to injury by using Candace’s affection to torture her for nearly five years.”

She holds up her spread hand, her voice and plea seemingly fueled by righteous anger. “Five years of being strung along; five years of emotional and sexual abuse; five years of having Ms. Porter-Kennard’s hired thugs torment her, destroy her property, threaten her with physical abuse and rape…” She releases an exhausted breath, closing her eyes for effect. Her voice is choked with emotion as she says, “…the defendant even threatened her family. Five years of suffering that kind of indignation would push anyone to extreme lengths, but Candace was strong.” She sniffs. “She went to the source of her torment, to talk it through, to ask Ms. Porter-Kennard to stop, to try and reason with an unreasonably cruel woman… and what did she get?”

She holds her hand up, shaped like a gun. There’s a moment of silence as she aims at each of the jurors and then pretends to pull the trigger. “She was murdered–”

Whit stands. “Objection, your honor. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”

Compton snarls at Whit, but he can’t really argue that point. It’s the fucking law. His face contorts as he physically has to choke out the word, “Sustained.”

Whit clears his throat. “I petition the court to strike the last remark from the record.”

Compton’s lip twitches and it tugs at his mustache. “Granted. The jury will disregard that last remark.”

Whit sits down and Merle smirks as she continues. She knows as too well that once you’ve heard it you can’t un-hear it, no matter how much you’re told to ignore it. This all seems like a giant joke. Merle’s harsh voice breaks the silence that’s settled over the room. “Ms. Jewel was shot in cold blood, by the very woman who pushed her to the ends of her sanity. That is why she’s not here today to tell her story or plead her case for justice. But, thankfully, I am here and so are you. I am her voice in this atrocity. I am her road to justice, but I need your help to give her that satisfaction.”

She lowers her hand and squares her shoulders. I have to hand it to her, she’s a good actress. “In this trial, Ms. Porter-Kennard is going to try to sway you to her version of events. She’s going to underplay her role in this innocent woman’s death. She’s going to say that she was attacked; she’s going to say that she had no choice but to kill; she is going to say that she is the victim here, but you are going to have to remember why Ms. Jewel was there in the first place. Remember that her intentions were noble, just as she was in life. Remember that she is the one who was murdered all too conveniently.”

She puts her hands together in a prayer pose. “I implore you: do not be pulled in by the defendant’s ploys, her lies, her twisting of the truth, her magnetic personality or well-spoken and reasonable demeanor. Do not be bullied by her counsel into refusing the truth. Remember why we’re here. Remember that a woman is dead. Remember her. If you can do that, I’m confident that you will make the right decision. Remember that because of the defendant, an innocent woman will never see a sunrise again, will never see the ocean again, will never have the chance to fall in love with someone worthy of her, and it’s all because she was used, tormented, and murdered. Remember Candace Jewel.”

Rothman pauses and allows the silence to hang heavily in the air for a long moment before returning to her seat. The judge looks to us and Whit pushes a file folder to the edge of the desk before he stands, unbuttoning his blazer as he approaches the jury. He stands at somewhat of a distance, his stance very casual with his right hand tucked into his pocket as he gazes at each of the jurors for a long moment. He turns to the side and paces a few steps, his voice pensive as he says, “I remember Candace Jewel.” He faces them and gestures to Merle. “I didn’t actually know her any better than Ms. Rothman, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know her pretty well over the last two months. There is a stack of police reports and evidence that tell a story, her story. Ms. Rothman has read this story, and yet our recollections of the same woman, the same events, are vastly different.”

Whit walks over to our desk and picks up the folder before striding back up to the jury and holding it up. It’s all quite dramatic and he seems very intimidating. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is that story. This file contains photos, police reports, and sworn affidavits that weave the tale of an individual who struggled with addiction, someone who ran away from home at fifteen and was missing for over a week before being found at a location known for prostitution and drug trafficking and forcibly returned to her distraught mother. It’s the story of a confused and troubled young woman who refused to make good decisions to better herself.”

He lowers the file and sighs. “But let’s be honest here; everyone has something in his or her past that they aren’t proud of; everyone makes mistakes. Each of you have regrets you live with. But you know as well as I do that those regrets, those lessons… they’re opportunities. You either choose to do better, or you choose to do worse. At the end of the day, it’s always a choice. Now, do I plan to stand here and talk about Candace’s past? No. Why?”

He puts his free hand up in exasperation. “Because her past has no bearing on this case. Her past isn’t on trial, any more than my client’s past is on trial. And I’ll be honest, my client’s past isn’t nearly as severe as Candace Jewel’s. So, no, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to rehash events that are long over and forgotten or delve into years-old reputations; I’m here to show you the evidence, the cold, hard facts about an accident, a terrible accident, where a very disturbed woman chose to put herself in a terrible situation that resulted in the loss of her life.”

He starts to pace, shaking his head. “Was it senseless? Of course it was. She could have made better choices, choices that would have given her the chance to see another sunrise, another chance to visit the ocean, a chance to fall in love in a healthy way. But she chose to forfeit those opportunities when she unlawfully broke into my client’s home, pulled out a gun, and threatened not only the lives of two innocent adults, but two infant children. None of this needed to happen, but she made a choice.”

He walks up to the short wall that separates the juror’s box and braces his hands, leaning in with a stern voice. “She had a choice, and so did Mrs. Porter-Kennard.” The judge bangs his gavel sharply in warning making everyone in the room jump – everyone but Whit, who continues in a calm but loud voice. “She could choose to watch her family be slaughtered by an intruder, or she could choose to stop that intruder. She chose to stop her.” He pushes off the short wall. “Who wouldn’t?” He points at one of the women jurors to the left. “You, would you protect your family?” He points to another woman towards the middle. “You?” He points to a male at the left. “How about you?”

None of them move, but he nods decisively. “Anyone would, and the evidence…” He again raises the folder. “…it proves that a hard choice was made, a terrible price was paid, but it was the only choice given the circumstances. So while you remember Candace Jewel, I want you to remember two screaming infants with a gun pointed at them. I want you to remember two desperate mothers putting themselves in front of a gun wielded by a deranged intruder to protect those same children. I want you to remember that you’d do no less to save the lives of your family given the same circumstances.”

Whit turns and tucks the folder under one arm, staring down Merle as he buttons his blazer and finally steps back to his seat. The courtroom is so quiet I can almost hear the bead of sweat dripping down my temple. I swipe it away, running my hand through my hair before I quietly remove my blazer and settle it on the back of my chair.

Judge Compton’s angry voice booms out. “We’ll take an hour recess for lunch. The jury is reminded of the admonition.” He looks pointedly at Whit. “Counsel will meet me in my chambers.” He bangs his gavel and stands, his bald head barely popping up over the bench as his feet hit the floor.

He exits into his chambers and the bailiff’s voice booms out, “Stand for the jury.” A rumble of movement echoes throughout the room as the jury files out. “Court is recessed for one hour. All participants in the proceedings are instructed not to leave the premises.”

Joyce turns to me and says, “We’ll come find you once we’re done with the judge. Just sit tight, okay?”

I nod and watch for a moment as both Whit and Joyce make their way to the chamber door, knocking and entering. I sigh and grab my blazer, walking around the side of the low gallery wall and approaching Dana, Shane, Helena, and Peggy. They’re quiet and pensive. There’s nothing to say, only extreme melancholy to hang in the muggy air of this stifling room as it empties. Helena breaks the silent tension as she says, “We have to go meet Dylan, but we’ll be back in an hour.” She puts her hand on my shoulder, her green eyes wide and alert. “Try not to worry and trust Whit. He’s gotten me out of some very sticky situations.”

I nod and watch as they make their way for the exit and notice that the media camera men haven’t moved an inch unless you count training the cameras on me as I hold tight to my emotions. A surge of anger wells in my veins and I’m forced to swallow it. The last thing I need is a violent outburst all over the six o’clock news. I look to Shane and Dana. “I need out of here.”

They look at the vultures lining up by the door and sigh heavily as they step in front and behind me. Almost on reflex, we drop our heads as we make our way to the door and try to push through; we’re bombarded by a barrage of questions, and I swear I see Shane elbow one of the camera men in the stomach.

We step out into the hallway where it’s quieter and make our way to the small office on the opposite side, the news casters and camera men in tow. I breathe a sigh of relief as the door shuts out the cacophony of their inane questions. I turn and Tina comes up to me, taking my face in her hands and gazing into my eyes. I’m hot and my stomach is swirling. She takes the blazer from my hands and hangs it on the back of one of the chairs before she wraps her arms around my waist. I lean heavily on her and hold on for dear life as I try to keep it together. Shane goes to Carmen and Dana starts to go to Alice only to stop and navigate to the dark, oval table in the middle of the room. I feel stiff, like I’ve been sitting and straining my muscles for ages as opposed to only a couple of hours. Alice’s voice breaks through my thoughts. “Duffy didn’t answer her phone but I left a message for her. I hope she’s okay…”

Tina leans back, stroking my cheek. “Babe, you look pale and you’re clammy. Are you okay?”

No, T. I’m not okay. I don’t know if any of this is going to be okay. I’m… I’m… I don’t even know. She watches my face as I struggle and takes my hand, settling me in a seat. She reaches for the chair next to me but I stop her, pulling her onto my lap and burying my face in her breast. She wraps her arms around my head and shoulders, and I feel a warm kiss to the curls that obscure my eyesight as she starts to absently play with a tendril of my hair. I close my eyes, the comfort of her immense and far more powerful than my fears, and I feel my muscles finally start to relax. Her gentle voice echoes through her chest as she speaks. “Shane, there’s cash in my purse. Can you order us some lunch, something light? Bette needs to eat.”

My stomach rebels at the idea but I know she’s right. I have to snap out of this funk so I can finish this nightmare, my one final recurring nightmare. Shane’s low voice answers, “Yeah, sure.”

I hear Shane dial something on her cellphone and speak quietly into the receiver as I place a gentle kiss to Tina’s neck. “Thank you.”

She squeezes me. “It’s going to be okay, babe.”

I breathe in her wonderful scent and it helps me to feel more grounded. Alice’s voice causes me to leave my warm haven and look over at her. “Have either of you spoken with Duffy since that night we showed her the information?”

Tina shakes her head and I say, “No. Why?”

She leans back, releasing a breath as she plays with her cellphone on the table. “Well, shouldn’t she have called by now? I mean, it’s been nearly two months and she knew we needed it for the trial.”

If I’m honest, I didn’t truly expect it to do much good. I can’t put my faith in much of anything right now outside of my lawyers and that jury, and even then I don’t know if faith is the right word. It’s not the safest place to store all my hopes and dreams, but it’s all I have. I know Alice means well but I just don’t see vigilantism or personal vendettas saving the day. “Al, she probably just hasn’t found anything. She did say the banks would take a lot of time. Maybe it’s just a dead end.”

Alice shakes her head as she continues to play with her phone over the table, her face speculative. “No. That information was important. I know it. You don’t think something happened to her, do you?”

I give her a disbelieving expression. “Alice, we’re talking about Duffy. It would take a small army to take her down. She’s like… what was that show you loved so much? The one with…”

Alice grins at me. “Xena, she’s a lot like Xena.”

I nod. “Yeah, that’s the one. I’m sure she’s fine, Al. Honestly, I don’t think that information is going to help.”

She glares at me. “Okay, Debbie Downer. I get that the whole world is a giant fucking nightmare right now, but you need to suck it up. You’re not going to jail, damnit! And when Duffy Warrior Princess comes storming in with the information that’s going to secure your ticket out of here, you’re going to owe me… I don’t know, something fucking awesome, and… big. Yeah, fucking awesome and big.”

I can’t help but smile at her words, but it’s bittersweet. “Al, I’m not being pessimistic. I’m doing everything I can to fight this, but I’m not going to set myself…” I look at Tina. “…or my family… up for disappointment. This isn’t going to go well, Al.” I blow out a short, incredulous breath. “Hell, things are worse than we anticipated.” Shane pockets her phone and takes her seat next to Carmen. “That judge…” My voice turns mocking. “…Cornelius T. Compton III, he’s out for my blood, just as much as the rest of L.A. apparently.”

Al’s face gapes. “He-he’s a notorious bigot!”

I nod my head and Tina kisses the crown of my head. Alice snatches her phone, hitting the call button before putting it to her ear and waiting. I can hear the muted ringing from across the table before Duffy’s voicemail picks up. Alice angrily ends the call and slams her phone down. She stares at me for a long moment and it starts to feel uncomfortable. Her nostrils flare as she says, “Okay, so shit can’t get much worse…” Her words give her pause for a moment and she knocks on the surface of the table three times. “Look, I know this is bad, but it’s not over yet. I’ll put you, Tina, and the kids on a donkey and send you into the desert before I watch you get hauled away in chains.”

Tina turns to me with a raised eyebrow and after a moment of quiet contemplation we chuckle a little hysterically. Too many conflicting emotions and nerves are racing through us, but I still manage to joke, “What do you say, T? Want to caravan around in the desert with me and some smelly pack animals.”

Her smile fades and her expression becomes serious. “If… if that’s what it takes. I’d go anywhere with you.”

My own nervous smile falters before melting into tears. She’d run with me for the rest of her life, harbor a wanted fugitive? I gaze into her glassy eyes and the answer is written plainly on her face. She really would. “You’re serious…”

She takes my face in her hands and leaves a lingeringly kiss on my lips. Her expression and voice are sincere as she looks deep into my eyes, beyond my soul, and right into my expanding heart. “I’d do anything to be with you.”

The tears fall harder and I furrow my brows as I take her hand in mine. “It’s not just you and me, T.”

She plays with my fingers. “I realize that, but they need you just as much as I do.”

I shake my head. They’re just children. They deserve so much better than that. I won’t do that to them, or her, even as much as I’d like to. “It hasn’t come to that yet and even if it does, it wouldn’t be right. I’ll spend some time in the appellate court. I’ll keep fighting until I get a fair hearing.”

Alice smirks. “Thanks for letting us know ahead of time that we’ll need to sedate you.”

I glower at her incredulously. She doesn’t say a word and Tina turns my face to hers again. Her eyes are pleading as a single tear escapes one of the hazel depths and tears a hole in my chest. I don’t know what I’d do without her either. She leans in again, giving me a small taste of the passion and devotion on her lips. “I love you, to the ends of the earth if necessary.”

I tuck my arms around her and kiss the tender area just beneath her earlobe, my thoughts racing. Could we… could we start over somewhere else? I’ve considered it in passing, but more as the joke of a desperate person. Is it a viable option? I see movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to watch Carmen curl up against Shane, tears in her own eyes. Shane puts her arm around Carmen and kisses her hairline as she runs her fingers through the coffee colored hair against her shoulder. A sigh of unaware satisfaction and quiet contemplation escapes her lips.

She meets my eyes and I’m taken aback by what I see. She’s done it. She’s finally arrived. Her penetrating, blue eyes become serious and I can see the gratitude-laden loyalty in them. I know she’d help me disappear in a moment if I needed her to. I haven’t said this in a while, but thank God for Shane. She is truly one of the most trustworthy people I’ve ever met. But unlike before, she has the trust and love that she so desperately lacked. I squeeze Tina a little tighter, smiling at Shane, and knowing that no matter what, she’d die with my secrets but more than that, she’d have a full life if I was unlucky enough to have to start over elsewhere. She nods and I can’t even believe I’m considering running with my family, but desperate times… Several long minutes pass and I glance over at Alice and Dana.

Alice’s face is lowered, but I can feel the weight of heavy sadness radiate across the table. Alice is my best friend, and I know she’d help us in an instant, but I also know she’d be devastated to lose us. We’re her family. Dana is gazing at her, the sadness I feel from Alice written all over her face as she gazes at the one person she’d do anything to comfort. Unlike Shane, I’d worry about these two. Dana hesitantly reaches over and takes Alice’s hand in her own, bringing it to her lips and kissing it sweetly. Her voice is low and soft as she says, “It’s okay, Al. You’d still have me. You always would.”

Alice lifts her face, her determination breaking as tears fall from her eyes. Her mouth tries to form words that she’s forced herself not to allow as she holds Dana’s gaze. “Dane…” She struggles as she watches Dana link their fingers. After a long, intense moment, her composure breaks and she leans forward imperceptibly, as if she’s going to throw all her conviction out the window. There’s a knock at the door and we all jump, Alice releasing Dana’s hand like it’s on fire as Shane gets up to answer the door. “It’s lunch.”

She hands the delivery man some money and takes the bags from his hands, returning to the table and unloading the Planet’s finest salads. I glance over at Alice and Dana as they open their own containers and sigh. Alice has shut down, increasing the space between her and Dana and avoiding the situation all together. I close my eyes, trying to clear some of the heavy atmosphere lingering around us. Tina strokes my thigh and I smile into her radiant face, determined to try and relax before I have to go back into that courtroom. The worst is yet to come. And… while I know it would be foolish, I can’t help but wonder about escaping the country.


 

The jury files into the courtroom and Corky the piggy bigot, sitting high on his throne in the front, center of the room booms out, “You may be seated. Let the record reflect that the Judge, jury, counsel, and defendant are present. The prosecution may call the first witness.”

I lean in to Joyce and whisper, “Did he keep you in his chamber for the whole hour?”

Her expression is cold as she replies, “Yes. He was just pompously abusing his authority.” She pats my hand almost condescendingly and says, “Just try to relax; we’ll handle him. We only need to convince the jury.”

This is little comfort, and her unwillingness to really explain things is frustrating. But there’s no other option, at least not yet. The cameras are trained on me and I have to maintain my composure. Merle’s hoarse voice breaks my thoughts as she says, “The People call Nadia Karella to the stand.” The bailiff tilts his head, holding his hand to a walkie-talkie on his shoulder. Moments later another bailiff comes through the courtroom doors escorting a young woman.

She’s in her late twenties to early thirties, with long blonde hair that’s been styled into controlled curls. Her blouse is sheer white with black pinstripes that match her straight leg black slacks and vest. She has a round, Midwestern face, straight, white teeth, and all together she is the quintessential American girl-next-door. I have no idea who she is, or why she’s here.

She and the bailiff approach the clerk by the bench who stands and says, “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.” The blonde raises her hand. “You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give in the case now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”

She nods, making the long curls down her back bounce and something niggles at the back of my mind. “I do.”

“Please state your first and last name for the record.”

“Nadia Karella.”

“Can you spell your last name please?”

“K-A-R-E-L-L-A.”

“Thank you. You may now be seated.”

The bailiff escorts her to the witness stand where she takes a seat. He stands off to the side as Merle steps up to the middle of the room. “Good afternoon, Nadia. Thank you for being here.”

There’s a slightly vacant look to her eyes that’s offset by her blonde hair. It’s a little disconcerting when she speaks and her voice implies intelligence, confidence, and linguistic excellence. “Hello, Ms. Rothman. It’s my pleasure to help in any way I can.” She glances at me. It’s just a moment, but that’s all I need to see the acrimony she harbors glowing behind her eyes. I sigh. Somehow, somewhere in my hazy past, I must have visited some petty atrocity on her. Fucking wonderful.

“Ms. Karella, do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”

Merle points to me and Nadia’s eyes pin me to my seat as she says, “Yes.”

Merle nods and paces a few steps toward the jury. “How do you know her?”

Nadia tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and lowers her head, smiling shyly. “We met when I was a grad student at California University’s school of the arts. The topic for my dissertation was twenty-first century modern art and its impact on social behavior. She’s a legend in the modern art community, so I requested an interview with her.”

I lean back in my chair with the force of the disgust wriggling in my guts. I remember her now. She showed up after-hours at the gallery wearing a short, black skirt, stilettos, a push-up bra, and not much else. She wasn’t even wearing underwear… fuck me… literally. She’s the first in the parade of one-night stands Joyce was talking about. I don’t remember much after her showing up. I had been mixing and downing Absolut martinis in my office for more than an hour. “And she granted this interview?”

I force myself to push the panic and nervousness I’ve been feeling all day to the side and let indignant anger reign as I stare at her. She avoids looking at me as she breathes out, “Oh, yes.”

Merle stops and looks at her, cocking her head. “What do you mean… why did you phrase your answer that way?”

Nadia again lowers her head, a small blush blooming on her cheeks as she chuckles embarrassedly. “Well, she… um, she seduced me almost from the very moment I arrived at the gallery.”

This is so absurd that I can’t even fathom it. I wanted to be alone that night, that’s why I was at the gallery. “She seduced you. How do you mean?”

“Well, when I arrived she tried to brush me off, but I wouldn’t let her. I could tell that she’d been dri-I mean, I knew that it would be months before I could get an appointment with her, and the paper was due the following week. So I began to argue my case. The longer we spoke, the way she looked at me… I-I felt like a piece of meat.”

Merle nods. “She made you uncomfortable?”

Nadia nods in return. “Yes.”

Merle paces again. “So why didn’t you leave?”

Nadia gets slightly defensive. “I needed her help and I was desperate. She also… as the discussion progressed, she kept saying that she was looking for a protégée, someone with talent that she could instruct, someone to pass on her knowledge to. I mean, she’s Bette Porter! How could I pass up an opportunity like that?”

Merle tucks her hands behind her back. “So she started to offer you things, make promises, use her power and influence to woo you?”

“Yes.”

“What did she want in return?”

Nadia fidgets, tucking her hair behind her ear as she stares into her lap and plays with her fingers. “She um… she wanted… me, for the night.”

This is completely unbelievable. That’s not what happened at all. “And you did it?”

Nadia’s voice is small and broken. “Yes.”

“So what happened after?”

Nadia clears her throat. “I left with the understanding that I would come back the next day and she would give me the information for my dissertation as well as put together a schedule for me to start working with her.” All of her shamefully shy innocence fades away, bitterness and anger mingling in her expression and voice as she looks up and pins me with her eyes. “When I arrived, she had the gallery security throw me out and banish me from the property.”

Merle nods sympathetically. “So, she offered you a chance at your dreams in a ploy to seduce you, and once you gave her what she wanted, she abandoned you, had you manhandled and shut off access to one of the best art galleries in the state?”

Nadia’s voice is harsh as she spits out, “Yes.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

Her eyes glass over as if in pain. “I felt cheap… like I was a whore and I didn’t matter.”

Merle’s rough voice is sickeningly empathetic. “Why didn’t you report her?”

Nadia sniffs and swipes at her eyes. “Because I was embarrassed. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I just wanted to forget it.”

“Were you able to forget it?”

Nadia shakes her head. “No. I’ll remember what happened and how she made me feel for the rest of my life.”

“Thank you, Nadia.” Merle turns to walk back to her desk. “I have no further questions.”

It’s silent in the room for a long moment before the judge seems to wake up. “Does the defense have any questions?”

Whit stands, adjusting his blazer. “Yes, your honor.”

The judge glares at Whit and leans back. “Proceed.”

Whit walks up to Nadia, his demeanor gracious and understanding. I’m a bit taken aback. He has to know she’s lying… doesn’t he? “You stated that you requested an interview with Bette?”

She nods, playing the victim. “Yes.”

“But you didn’t want to go through the normal channels, like calling her assistant and setting a time during normal business hours?”

“That’s correct.”

“And that was because you needed the information immediately?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“Why didn’t you set the appointment when you started researching your dissertation?”

Nadia scowls at him. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

Whit shrugs. “Well, dissertations are lengthy studies performed at the graduate level. They take months, sometimes years, to complete. Why did you wait until the last minute to seek out my client’s assistance?”

Nadia stammers a bit before lying through her teeth. “I hadn’t realized I would reach out to her until it was nearly complete.”

“So, you didn’t actually need her assistance, if it was nearly complete without it.”

Merle stands. “Objection, leading the witness.”

Whit looks to the judge. “I’m merely trying to determine if the witness was in fact desperate enough to sell her body for her thesis, your honor.”

Judge Compton glares at him. “Rephrase your question, counselor. And step carefully.”

Step carefully? It’s the whole premise of my alleged ‘seduction.’ How is it wrong to question it? “Very well, your honor.” He turns back to Nadia. “Did you honestly feel that your body was worth less than a graduate paper?”

Nadia gets defensive. “No, of course not…”

“But you traded your body for that information?”

I can see Nadia’s getting angry and I can’t help the thrill that charges through me. “It wasn’t just the information…”

Whit nods. “My client offered you information and a job, and those combined were worth more to you than your body?”

Her voice gets higher and slightly whiny. “Working for her is the chance of a lifetime…”

Whit lifts a placating hand. “So, you feel it’s reasonable, professional, and ethical to trade sexual favors for position and power?”

“You’re twisting my wor–”

“Answer the question with a yes or no, please. Do you feel that it’s reasonable to trade sex for the things that you want? Yes or no?”

She knows the answer but she can’t seem to force herself to say it. “Sometimes… there are things–”

“Ms. Karella… yes, or no?”

She huffs. “No, b–”

Whit’s voice is loud as it cuts her off. “You’ve just admitted that it’s not reasonable. So then why did you do it?”

Nadia points at me. “She seduced me!”

Whit nods. “She seduced you. Please explain what you mean when you say ‘seduced.’”

“She knew what I wanted, and used it against me.”

Whit tucks his hands into his pockets. “You said that you didn’t go through the normal channels prior to showing up at the gallery. Is that true?”

She sighs. “Yes.”

“How did she know what you wanted?”

“I told her.”

“And then she brushed you off?”

“Yes!”

“How is that seduction?”

“Because she wouldn’t give me what I wanted until I gave her what she wanted.”

“She knew you wanted something, and brushed you off?”

“Only at first…”

Whit nods. “So what changed? Why did she stop brushing you off?”

Nadia sighs. “I told you. She started to ogle me… it was uncomfortable.”

“So she all of a sudden she noticed your what, your body?”

“Yes.”

“And you were uncomfortable?”

“Yes!”

“But you still needed something from her?”

“Yes!”

“So you believed she wanted you?”

“Yes!”

“So you offered her what she wanted?”

“Yes – I mean, no! She–”

Merle stands again. “Objection, badgering the witness.”

Judge Cornelius sneers at Whit, “Sustained.”

Whit sighs. “Ms. Karella, what time did you show up at the gallery?”

She fumbles a bit at the abrupt change in direction. “I think it was close to nine o’clock at night.”

“That late?”

“Yes…”

“How did you know she was there?”

“I saw her car in the lot.”

“How did you know which car was hers if you hadn’t met her before?”

Nadia’s face goes blank and I realize that no matter the outcome of this mockery of the legal system, I owe Peggy and Helena my eternal thanks for lending me Whit. “I… I just… assumed. It was the only one left.”

“You assumed?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“So out of the more than fifteen people that staff the gallery, you assumed that the only car in the parking lot was my client’s?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“Nadia, did you know that the entire building and parking lot are wired with surveillance?”

Nadia’s expression slowly sinks into panic and Merle saves her. “Objection, this line of questioning is bordering on contempt.”

The judge leans back. “Counselor, if you are indeed headed in the direction I think you are, you realize that you will be in contempt?”

I lean into Joyce. “What is he talking about?”

She sighs. “We submitted video tapes from the gallery that showed your interlude with her. It showed her dressed as little more than a hooker and you stumbling drunk. It was deemed inadmissible.”

I feel a flush of anger as Whit continues. “Question withdrawn, your honor.” Whit paces toward the jury. “Ms. Karella, what were you wearing the evening you went to visit the gallery?”

Merle stands again. “Your honor, this line of questioning bears no significance…”

Whit was ready to address the judge as if the objection was expected. “Your honor, her attire holds deep significance in both her allegation that she was seduced as well as her intent for approaching the defendant that evening.”

The judge thumbs through the file in front of him as if looking for a reason to sustain the objection. There isn’t one. And if he plans to make this dog and pony show at least appear to be fair so that he can keep his job, he has no choice but to allow it. He finally slaps his hands down in defeat and grudgingly says, “Overruled. Please answer the question Ms. Karella.”

Nadia hesitates and Whit cuts in. “Please remember that you are under penalty of perjury, Ms. Karella.”

She glowers at him as she says, “I don’t remember.”

Whit frowns. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, sorry.”

“But you remember everything else. You remember the time, the reasons you were there; you remember her car, a car you testify that you had never seen before. You remember the way she looked at you and how it made you uncomfortable. Why can’t you remember what you were wearing?”

I can tell she’s getting agitated and I can’t help but enjoy it. I’ve been agitated for months because of opportunistic people just like her. “I just don’t remember, okay?”

Whit shakes his head. “Why did she look at you that way?”

“I don’t know! Why don’t you ask her?”

“What area did she look at, specifically, that made you uncomfortable?”

“I don’t know… it was sort of… everywhere…”

“Where?”

Her voice is getting whiny again as the questions and answers start becoming more and more rapid, and I want to strangle myself. “My chest and my legs… just everywhere.”

“Were they exposed?”

“What? No!”

“Were you wearing a bra?”

“Yes! Of course–”

“You remember wearing a bra. What else were you wearing?”

“I told you, I don’t know!”

“How do you know you weren’t exposed if you don’t know what you were wearing?”

She stammers. “I… I just don’t walk around like that.”

Whit cocks his head to one side. “You don’t?”

“No, I don’t.”

Whit walks to the desk and Joyce hands him a piece of paper from one of nearby file folders. He takes it and turns. “The defense would like to enter exhibit number 172 into evidence.”

He takes the paper to Merle who looks it over. “Your honor, the People object to this evidence.”

Compton sighs. “Approach the bench.”

Joyce stands and the three of them walk forward, handing the paper to him. He pushes his glasses up his nose with a pudgy finger, listening to Merle’s complaint as he reads. This goes on for almost an forty-five minutes and I look over to see Nadia staring at me, a smug expression on her face. Part of me wishes I could remember what happened that day, but part of me is glad I can’t. The revulsion of just knowing that I touched her that way is enough. I don’t need the memory of it.

I cross one leg over the other and lean back, adopting my most casual demeanor. Two can play at this game, and she’s far too young to win against me. There’s nothing truly intimidating about her, and if she wants to become a player, she has a long way to go. At this moment, as I look at her, I can’t help but feel sad. Sad for the person she obviously aspires to be. I know first-hand that it leads to nowhere but empty loneliness. I saved myself; I recovered Tina. There’s nothing I can do for her. I just hope she learns a better way to live.

The judge hands the paper back to Whit and Merle strides to her desk, giving me a disdainful glare for good measure. She lost this one. She must have. Defeat is written all over her face. Joyce joins me, leaning back in her chair much in the same demeanor I have, as Whit lays the paper under a backlit projector near the clerk. The image is blown up on a screen in the far right corner of the room and it pops up on all the monitors as well.

I gaze at the text in front of me and it’s everything I can do not to blurt out a laugh. It’s her complaint record from California University. Whit adjusts the focus as he says, “Ms. Karella, can you please verify that your name is listed on this record?”

I look at Nadia again to see her flushed with angry embarrassment. “Yes.”

Whit paces a little to the left. “Can you please tell the court what this is?”

“It’s my record from Cal U.”

He nods. “Just to specify, please read the title.”

I gaze at the screen incredulously. She’s obviously a shameless hussy. I look over at Joyce and she smirks. I shake my head. This is brilliant. “Complaint of Harassment or Discrimination.”

I look over to Merle to see her seething and it’s all I can do not to grin. As hopeless as it is, Whit is making good on his promise. I will not be crucified even if I’m hung. “Who filed these complaints?”

“I did.”

“The record indicated three separate occurrences, all of them with faculty members at California University. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“You testified that my client was the first time you’d been in a situation where sex was exchanged for something that you wanted. But, my client is your fourth claim at harassment.”

Merle stands. “Objection, this–”

Whit raises a hand. “Withdrawn. Ms. Karella, do you often find yourself in unwanted sexual situations?”

Tears gather in Nadia’s eyes. They’re not repentant, they’re angry, and all I can do is hope that this difference is not lost on the jury. “I, um… I hadn’t realized it, but I guess I do.”

Whit leans over the document. “Please read the last sentence on the third complaint against one Gordon Percy.”

She clears her throat, wiping at her eyes to buy herself time. “’He then demanded that I give him’…”

I follow along with my eyes, finishing where she left off. Silence reigns for a long moment before Whit finishes for her. “…’oral sex in return for his assistance with my’… Ms. Karella, what is the last word?”

He looks up at her as we all do. Everyone knows what it says, the projector made sure of that. Her voice is so soft it’s almost inaudible as she spits out, “Dissertation.”

Whit pulls the paper from the projector and looks to the judge. “The defense rests, your honor.” He comes back to the desk, Nadia’s eyes burning holes in his back.

Compton turns to Nadia. “That’s all. You may step down.” She stands and nearly runs from the room, her escort hot on her heels. Compton addresses the room. “We’re out of time. We’ll reconvene tomorrow at 9 a.m. Jury is reminded of the admonition. Court is adjourned.”

He bangs his gavel, scooting out of his high chair to be swallowed up behind his bench. The bailiff’s voice booms out, “All rise!” Compton disappears into his chambers and I wait impatiently for the jury to file out.

Once the last is gone I breathe a sigh of relief, take my photo, and turn to shake Whit and Joyce’s hands. “Thank you both… so much.”

Joyce smiles. “Don’t you worry about a thing. Let’s collect the rest of your entourage and we’ll escort you out.”

My returning smile is bright as I turn to Peggy, Helena, Shane, and Dana. I step around the low dividing wall and hug Helena tightly. “Thank you…” I look to Peggy as I release her. “…both of you.”

Helena squeezes my shoulder. “We have to be going. We won’t be here tomorrow, but I think you’re in good hands.”

I grin. “I know I am.” I let out a tense breath, some of my nervousness draining away. I just want my wife and my babies right now, and they aren’t that far away. The worst of today is over… I hope.

Helena and Peggy start walking for the door and that’s when we notice that the media is again blocking the exit. Shane and Dana fall into what will most likely be a common formation as we approach and the bailiff clears them away. We exit into the hall and through the door to the office, Helena and Peggy pulling away to leave.

I wave at them and step through the door, heading straight for Tina like a heat-seeking missile. She stands and wraps her arms around my waist, tucking her head under my chin as I pull her close to me. I breathe in her calming scent. “Let’s go home,” escaping with my exhale. She squeezes me before she pulls away and I hold onto her hand as she retrieves her purse and my suit jacket.

We all gather by the door, Alice asking, “So it’s over for the day?”

I grin at Alice as I tuck the photo in Tina’s purse. “Yeah. We start again at 9 a.m. tomorrow.” Whit opens the door and we file out of the office, the in-trial media dregs still lingering in the hallway. I glare at them, putting my arm around Tina’s shoulder and holding her close to me as we begin to move past them.

A blonde reporter in a hideous pink skirt-suit with black, floral silhouettes manages to keep up with us, shoving a microphone in my face. “Ms. Porter-Kennard, what happened at the time of the shooting?!”

I turn my face further into Tina only to have another mic rammed under my nose. “Bette! Why did you kill Candace Jewel?!”

That remark causes me to pause for a moment, and I see Tina glare at the woman. The look in her eyes says that death is imminent and despite this situation, my heart swells with love for her. I hold onto her tighter to keep her from bludgeoning the reporter to death with her microphone. Alice manages to ‘bump’ into the reporter, a loud, “Oh, excuse me. My bad,” said over her shoulder as pulls up next to us.

The force of the shove knocks the reporter off balance where she trips onto one of the low benches that line the plaster and wanescoted walls. Joyce gets us moving again and I catch her eyes for a moment. She warned us about this. Not only are we to keep our mouths shut, but we are to keep our calm and placidly ignore them. “Can you tell us more about your relationship with Ms. Jewel?!”

Fuck me. This irritating blond is relentless. Her hair and makeup are slightly disheveled, and she now has a slight limp, but she’s right with us as we finally reach the large wooden doors, gloriously marked as ‘EXIT.’ Dana pushes them open. There’s a roar of noise and Dana stops so abruptly that we nearly slam into the back of her. I hear Alice shout, “What the frickin’ frak?!”

Tina and I both look up to gaze out at the crowd of haphazardly parked media vans surrounded by a small group of fifteen to twenty people at the bottom of the courthouse steps shouting in unison. The bright gleam of sunlight on a glossy surface catches my eye and I feel my jaw clench together harder and harder with each hateful word I read. ‘FAGS DOOM NATIONS,’ ‘2 GAY RIGHTS: AIDS AND HELL,’ ‘REPENT OR PERISH.’ These are bad enough, but I can feel a sick, twisting fury writhe in my guts when I see a small boy wearing a tie dyed tee shirt that says, ‘GOD HATES FAGS,’ pacing near the police barrier, shouting along with the adults.

I’m frozen in shock at this scene and it allows these… fucking insane savages to focus on me. Their shouts of how I’m going to burn in the fires of hell ring in my ears and everything starts to tune out. My heart is pounding in my chest, I can’t catch my breath, and the world around me starts to narrow in my vision. I hear a murky version of Tina’s voice shout, “Shane, get the car!”

I see Shane run down the edge of the steps in my peripheral, the protestors crowding in on her. Carmen chases after her, pushing one of them back and shouting, “Atrás, perra!” Carmen spits at the stumbling woman’s feet as Shane pulls her further away. They disappear across the street at a run as all the hateful and intrusive eyes again focus on me. I’m that much closer to blacking out. I lean on Tina, and as if things couldn’t get worse, I watch in horror as Tom comes up from within the crowd of hate mongers. He meets my eyes and grins, pulling the bull horn in his hands up to his mouth. His voice is piercingly loud as he shouts, “Alright!” What is he playing at?

The bull horn squeals and the whole area goes quiet as everyone looks to him. He lowers the horn and I notice his white shirt says, ‘NO H8.’ Oh, thank all that is fucking holy. I’d hate to serve two consecutive life sentences for murder and then have the added pressure of apologizing to Tina. The singing starts up again, but it’s not the current crowd. We all turn to the sound coming from down the left sidewalk. A large group of NO H8 protestors come into view, stride up to the homophobes, link their arms, and create a wall of singing bodies as they push forward to force the religious zealots back.

I see Tom grin at me again as he links onto the end, the line continuing to sweep away the obnoxious human garbage. With the threat of a riot moving away, the media again focus on me, rushing the steps and barraging us with questions. I hear a honking horn somewhere in the distance and Tina pulls me, pushing her way through the crowd with Alice and Dana’s help.

We pile into the Lexus, Joyce leaning in and saying, “Take it easy and stay indoors for the rest of the day. We’ll work on this mess and call if we need to. Otherwise, we’ll see you in the morning.”

I try to smile at her but I’m not at all sure if it’s successful. Either way, the door shuts and the car screeches away from the curb. I feel Tina’s small, warm hands run through my hair to stroke my face and pull it to rest on her shoulder. I don’t hesitate for a moment, choosing instead to cling to my wife as I cling to fleeting consciousness and heave for breaths. What the fuck is this? The last time I felt this panicked, Tina died. Her soothing voice is a balm for my soul as she says, “It’s okay, babe. It’s probably just a panic attack. We’ll be home soon.” I nod my head, closing my eyes, and allowing my mind a few moments of respite from any form of thought. 


Continued in Chapter 4 – Limit.

Chapter 2 – Lesbian

It’s six a.m. when Tina and I sit down on the back patio stairs and watch the sunrise together. Sleep was a fickle friend last night and I spent the majority of my time holding my wife, gazing at her, releasing my worries into the universe as we clung to each other, cried with each other, and made love to each other throughout the night. Our bond is now stronger than even I would have imagined. My family means the world to me, and I would rather die than leave them.

It was difficult getting ready this morning. She didn’t want to let go of me anymore than I wanted to release her. We didn’t realize how difficult it is to do mundane tasks one-handed, but we managed to stay touching throughout most of our morning ritual. So here I sit, in my most “humble-but-elegant” black Armani pantsuit, as Joyce demanded. I don’t go on the stand today, but first impressions are apparently the most helpful, or the most damning. Kit and Malcolm will be alternating between half days at work and staying with Angie and the twins. Alice, Dana, Helena, Carmen, and Shane will be with us at the courthouse. Dylan and Tasha are going to work and will stop by after. It is a small comfort to know that I will not be alone, but it’s a tremendous comfort to sit here with my wife, enjoying a cup of hot coffee and watching the darkness become grey as the sun peeks up over the edge of the Hollywood hills.

We’re quiet as we sit here together, even L.A. is quiet, as if the city is aware of what we’re about to face today. The silence is broken by the light footsteps coming up the side of the house until we see Shane passing in front of the gate. I call out to her. “Hey!”

She turns and peers through the gate, smiling as she says, “Hey.”

I lift a hand in greeting and Tina chimes in with a smile of her own. “Hey.”

Tina takes a sip of her coffee as Shane comes closer and I smile knowingly as I ask, “What are you doing out so early?”

Shane lifts her hands, grinning as she says, “Going home.”

I smirk and drawl, “From?”

She rocks her head from side to side with a mock laugh, “Ha, ha, ha,” and completely avoids the question. “I can’t believe today is the day. You look great.”

I smile again. “Nice dodge. Uh, not quite my best, but it will do.”

I rest my chin on the hand propped on my knee as I consider her speculatively. Tina strokes my other knee and says, “Yeah, she needed to dress more conservatively today for the trial.” Her hand wanders up to my forearm, stroking me with her knuckles as I take another sip of my coffee. I can’t help the enormous grin on my face as Tina’s warm, delicate touch leaves gooseflesh with each smooth stroke, reminding me of the incredibly fulfilling night we spent together.

This goes on for a long, silent moment before Shane drops her head and squints her eyes. Her voice is low and playful as asks, “What have you guys been doing?”

Tina turns to me with a raised eyebrow and I glare at Shane. Tina lets out a soft chuckle, an overdramatic grin lighting her face as she turns to Shane and quirks her head. Shane smirks, saying, “Ah ha…,” as points at each of us.

I take a sip of my coffee before I go back to the original subject. “So, what? Did you spend the night with Carmen?”

She smiles and shakes her head. “No, we were just with Alice.”

Tina’s voice is curious as she asks, “With Alice?”

Shane tucks her hands into her pants pockets, nodding sadly. “Yeah, yeah, she’s um… what can I say? She’s really upset about that whole thing with Tasha and Dana.”

Tina shakes her head. “Oh God, that is a disaster waiting to happen.”

I nod, taking another sip of coffee. “Alice said she would choose Dana the night we talked about it. I don’t understand what she’s trying to do.”

Shane blows out a breath. “Well, she thinks that she needs to work on this with Tasha. Give it a real chance.”

I roll my eyes. “She can’t be serious. She has to know that no amount of work is going to make her love Tasha more. She admitted that she’s in love Dana and would choose her. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see anyone get hurt, least of all Tasha, but that’s inevitable and this is only going to drag it out longer.”

Tina sighs. “Poor Tasha.”

Shane and I nod in agreement and chorus, “Yeah.” There’s a long moment of silence as we consider just how much Tasha is going to be hurting when Alice figures it all out. In a way, I’m glad it’s Tasha because I know that she’ll not only handle the situation with grace, but she won’t be destroyed. She’s strong and well-adjusted. Dana though, I don’t know how she’s going to handle this.

Shane sighs again. “Well, hey, I’m going to go shower and get dressed. I’ll meet you guys back here as soon as I’m done.”

I take a deep breath. For a moment there, I’d forgotten about the pendulum swinging above my head. Tina links her arm through mine in comfort and says, “Okay, we’ll be here.”

Shane waves and I smile sadly at her as she walks back through the gate. I turn and catch Tina’s eyes. She leans forward and gives me a chaste kiss, the distinguishable taste that is markedly her lingering and reminding me that she’s with me, inside of me, even though I won’t be able to maintain this physical closeness with her when I’ll need it most. I rest my forehead against hers and sigh as she strokes my hair. Today is just the beginning, but I’m going to get through it. No matter what, it’s not my last time with her.


Continued in Chapter 3 – Lawfully.