“Babe? I’m home…” Will those three little words ever fail to stop my heart and fill me with joy? I certainly hope not. I manage to refrain from running to her, but only by a small margin. She’s setting her things down and her back is to me. I sneak up to her and slip my arms around her slender waist, burying my face in her neck and breathing deeply of the very thing that gives me life: her.
“You’re home early…” I lean back and reach up, brushing the wavy golden locks aside. “…it’s only six thirty.” I lean down and place a tender kiss to the newly exposed skin.
I can hear the smile in her voice as she says, “Well, I have normal hours now that Helena’s not holding me prisoner at your request.”
I smile against the delicate flesh and let my lips caress her as I respond. “I’m sorry sweetheart. I just wanted to keep you preoccupied while I remodeled your new home.” She turns in my arms and I sigh as her face is just inches from mine now. I lean in and give in to my desire to taste her lips. It’s sweet, and chaste, and only lasts a few moments, but it vitalizes my soul and curls my toes.
She pulls back and strokes my cheek as she says, “I got a call from my bank today. Do you have any idea why?”
I smirk as I try to keep the smile from my face but I can’t find the innocence I need to play it off. Besides, it would be dishonest. So I decide to dance around the issue instead. “What did they say?”
“Oh, that a distant, unknown relative of mine died and I inherited a large sum of money that has now been deposited into my account. I never met her or knew her. Do you know anything about this?”
Her voice is more serious now instead of playful, but she still doesn’t know if it really was me or not. She still doesn’t know that I have given her every red cent I have to my name, and truly, I’m destitute. Would she still love me if I were poor? I think so… “T, would you still love me if I were poor?”
This question catches her off guard. “Um, yes…why?”
I smile brilliantly. “No reason, but it’s sweet of you to say it.” I kiss her quickly on the nose and release her to go to the kitchen and continue dinner. “So, was your nonexistent aunt a wealthy woman?”
She walks to the bar and takes a seat to watch me as I pour her a glass of wine, handing it to her with a smile. Her face is incredulous and her eyebrow is raised. I love her face so much when she does that; it’s almost overwhelming just how much. “Bette…you didn’t…”
I start chopping vegetables and look up at her. “Didn’t what? Kill your aunt for the insurance money?” She laughs and I close my eyes to absorb the incredible sound into my soul before joining her in her laughter.
I continue to chop and she finally calms down. Long moments pass with her eyeing me specutively. Good, she’s still not sure. She opens her mouth to speak and I’m tired of dancing so I interrupt her. “I hope you’re hungry. I’m making baked chicken, wild rice, and vegetables.”
She stops and switches gears, “Uh…I’m famished…”
I wink at her and say, “Good. You’ll just love dessert.” She opens her mouth again to finish her first thought, so I interrupt again. “Oh! I forgot to tell you. I’m meeting Alice later tonight. We have a few more things to go over for her Dana project. I might be late, but I wanted you to know.”
She nods her head and takes a sip of her wine as leans back on the stool. Her expression is still speculative. She’s not dropping it. She opens her mouth again to speak and I sigh patiently. It’s going to be a long night.
“There she is…” I look out the tinted window of the black rented suburban to see Carmen come stumbling down the steps of the Hit Club laughing, one arm curled around Sam’s waist and the other holding Sam’s arm over her shoulder. They’re both slumped over and sloppy, and appear to be having a great time as Carmen animatedly laughs and makes conversation, but I can tell Sam is hardly walking. It’s Friday and the place is packed, but Carmen steers Sam across the street towards the alley where we’re waiting, still laughing jovially.
Alice and I turn to the others in the backseat and we all nod to each other before slipping on our black ski masks. We all crouch low in our seats as Ricky crawls over into the back cargo area to wait by the door. There’s a loud thud and Ricky says, “I’m okay.”
Alice starts to giggle and I shush her. She turns to me in the cramped space, and even with the mask, I can see her glaring. Carmen’s laughter grows louder as it passes by my door and I hear, “Oh Sam, you’re so funny,” followed by two gentle raps to the back windshield. Ricky opens the doors and grabs Sam roughly, putting his hand over her mouth and dragging her inside. Carmen shuts the doors and looks around to see if anyone noticed before climbing in to the backseat. She says, “No one saw us…and fuck she’s heavier than she looks…”
I hear Ricky from the back cargo area, “It’s okay. She’s out cold. That roofie did the trick.”
The rest of us sit up and remove our masks with a relieved sigh. Good, I didn’t want to have to forcibly knock her out. Well, in all honestly I did, but I’m not a fan of assault charges. Shane leans in close to Carmen, putting her arm around her. “Nicely done…” Carmen beams and snuggles into her. I smile brightly and start the car while Alice fidgets with the radio, and we all settle in for an hour long ride to the docks.
I pull up to the storage container. Carmen and I stay inside as Alice, Shane, Dana, and Ricky exit the vehicle. They all look around to be sure we weren’t seen. I chose this location last week because there was only one camera, two large dogs, and it’s situated far enough back from the street to have privacy. Alice, Dana, and I showed up a couple hours ago and spray painted the camera from underneath, fed the night Dobermans some steaks laced with a heavy sedative, and dropped off all the gear.
Once they all decide it’s clear, Ricky and Shane pull Sam from the back and drag her by her arms into the storage container. Alice follows them as Dana shuts the back doors and waves to me in the side mirror. I nod to her and pull away, parking the suburban between the side of the container and the building next to it. It’s a tight fit, but this small alley hides it well. Just as Carmen and I exit the car, Shane and Ricky walk up. “We all forgot our ski masks. Alice and Dana had theirs, so they’re waiting with Sam.”
“Oh, right.” I lean back inside and grab my mask and the others do the same. We walk back to the storage unit and I shut the door behind us. Alice jumps a bit at the loud clanking sound and Dana puts her hands in her pockets as she rocks on her heels. They both seem nervous. Hell, I think we all are.
A battery operated lantern is already lit in the corner and Sam has been propped up haphazardly in the chair, her head leaning over the back. I walk up to her and lean in to pull the necklace out of her shirt, only to find nothing. There’s nothing, no ring, no pendant, nothing. It’s just a grungy strand of small metal beads. I look up to everyone in confusion and stand, nudging Sam’s leg and shouting, “Fuck!” She starts to stir and we all look to each other before jumping into action. We all hastily put on our ski masks, making sure our hair is tucked and hidden. Ricky and Shane both grab a roll of duct tape and hastily wrap it around Sam’s arms, legs, and chest.
Sam groans and her head flops forward to her chest as she starts to rouse. I look to Ricky and he nods his head as we all file out and shut the doors, leaving them slightly ajar. We gather around the opening and listen intently.
“Well, well, well, sleepin’ beauty is awake.” I look to Dana incredulously. Ricky’s voice is so low and ghetto that I want to start laughing. We have to cover our mouths to stay quiet.
“Where…where…am I? Who…are you…” Sam sounds groggy but more aware and Ricky interrupts her ramblings with a deep, booming voice.
“I’ll axe the questions honky!” Alice snorts and mouths, ‘honky,’ and Dana clamps her hand over her mouth while she giggles. That can’t be Ricky in there…he sounds like a thug!
“HELP! HELP ME!”
Ricky’s laugh is deep, throaty, and would be scary if I didn’t know him. “Ain’t no one gonna’ hear ya cracka’! I’ve been doing this shit a long time; ain’t been caught yet. Now, shut up and maybe I’ll let ya live.” We hear a pathetic cry and banging on the floor. She must be struggling.
She gives up and cries piteously. “Please…anything you want…just…don’t hurt me…what do you want…anything…I’ll give you anything…”
Ricky chuckles again and it’s everything I can do not break down myself. Even Shane is biting her knuckles. “Now what makes you think you got anything I want?”
“Please…please…there has to be something. I’ll give you anything, anything at all…”
I peer through the crack to see Ricky tapping his chin as he paces in front of the chair. Sam is staring at him intently as he walks back and forth. He suddenly stops and walks up to her, using the arms of her chair to brace himself as he leans into her. His voice becomes low and serious as he stares her in the eyes. “I want…to know…why I should let you live. Do you deserve that mercy?”
Her eyes are wide and terrified as he continues. “Do you steal from people? Do you lie to people? Do you try to hurt people? Hell…” He reaches to her neck and pulls out the empty strand of beads. “Maybe you stole this…would you lie to me now if you did?”
Sam looks down at the necklace and her eyes go wide. “It’s gone…the ring…I…”
Ricky plays it innocent and cool. I owe him big for this. “So you stole a ring?” He titters as he stands up. “It’s not looking good for ya sista, not good at all…”
Sam’s voice is terrified and haggard. “NO! WAIT! Yes, I stole Tina’s ring but I…I…I’ll find it! I’ll find it and give it back to her! I swear! I’m a good person! You don’t have to kill me. PLEASE! I’ll make it right, I swear…”
Ricky shakes his head and pulls a sack from his back pocket, opening it and putting it over her head.
Sam is screaming, “NO! PLEASE! NO, DON’T KILL ME! PLEASE! PLEASE! HELP! SOMEONE! HELP ME!”
“Shut up cracka’! I’m not gonna’ kill ya!”
Ricky walks to the door and I lean back pushing everyone out of the way. He opens the doors and points to the Suburban. He waits a minute but no one moves. He finally jerks his head and I start pulling everyone quietly to the vehicle. I point to it and they all start moving. I grab Shane, give her the keys, and whisper in her ear. “Start the car and be ready.” She nods her head and quietly trots up to the others. They all get in the car and it roars to life. I turn back to Ricky as he pulls a knife from his pocket and opens it.
“Here’s what I am gonna’ do. I’m gonna’ cut you free and you’re gonna’ count to a thousand before you even consider moving a muscle.” She nods her head stiffly and sniffs before going rigid as the cold blade of the knife trails up her arm. “I’m givin’ you a chance to earn your life girl. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I WON’T! I PROMISE! I’ll be good! I won’t say anything to anyone! I won’t move for a long time! Thank you…thank you…thank you…
He cuts the tape around her chest and then her arms. Once she’s free, he looks to me. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then we both start running for the suburban as if the KKK grand dragon himself is chasing us.
Dana is holding the back doors open and we both jump inside. “GO, GO, GO!” The doors aren’t even closed before Shane roars away. We fumble a bit as the vehicle bounces, but we finally get them shut and I remove my mask, breathing out a relieved sigh. I look to Dana and Ricky as they remove theirs as well and there’s a moment of utter silence before we all start laughing hysterically.
Long minutes pass and we all have to grab at our sides and wipe our tears. Eventually I turn to Ricky and push his shoulder incredulously. “Fuck Ricky…you were like…Denzel Washington in Training Day.”
He laughs hardily and fans his face flamboyantly. “Whew…Girl, I wish. That boy is fine.” He says the word like it has six syllables and we all chuckle again.
“Seriously though, thanks for your help…”
He meets my eyes with his own warm brown ones and waves his hand at me dismissively. “Anything for you ladies. I’m just sorry it didn’t do any good. That ring could be anywhere…”
I nod my head sadly and accept the fact that the ring is gone. I was going to have it re-styled by a jeweler to make it new anyway, but I really wanted to use the originals, just another part of our past that could have been polished to a brilliant shine. I sigh. Oh well. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Tina probably isn’t ready for that kind of commitment yet. We’ll move in to the house and get settled. Maybe after she’s had some time to get more comfortable, she’ll want to actually take the leap.
Ricky’s question breaks into my thoughts. “What did it look like anyway?”
I smile at him and look over the back seat to call to Alice. “Hey Al, will you pass my purse back here?” She reaches down to the floorboard in the passenger seat and passes my bag to Carmen, who passes it back to me. “Thanks.”
I open the purse and pull out the small velvet box in the inside pocket. I hand it to him and he opens it. His brows furrow and he looks up to me before turning the box so I can see inside it. I look down and the box is empty. “What the fuck?!” I snatch it back from him. It’s fucking gone. I grab the purse and start riffling through the contents before frustration overcomes me and I just overturn it, shaking it and dumping everything between my legs. I start sorting through the items one by one. It’s not here. It’s not fucking here…
I pick up the purse again and go through each pocket, once, twice, a third time before leaning back against the seat with a defeated sigh. I close my eyes against the tears that threaten to spill. “It’s gone…” I pick up the ring box. “It was right here…” The tears start to fall and I can’t stop them. Is this an omen? Ricky and Dana start rubbing my back to soothe me. “Is this an omen?”
“Oh, no girl! Don’t think like that! People lose their rings all the time!” I look up to Ricky who takes the small pack of Kleenex from the pile of discarded items and pulls one out for me. I smile sadly at him and clean my face.
I close my eyes and just try to let it go before picking up item after item and refilling the purse dejectedly. Once everything is replaced, I look at around me. Where’s the India photo? “Did you guys see a photo of me and Tina?”
We all start looking around in the cargo area and come up empty handed. I sigh and the tears start again. This fucking sucks…
I open the door to the Planet and reluctantly let go of Tina’s hand with a squeeze as she steps ahead of me. We step inside and wave at Kit who smiles and points to the large table in the back. I smile back at her and feel Tina’s hand resettle itself in mine, linking our fingers as we walk towards our friends, our family. I smile and let the warmth of her precious hand travel up my arm and settle in my heart.
Everyone’s here, even our two new additions. There are three different scenes playing out as we approach and I can’t help the sense of foreboding I feel. Shane and Carmen are cozy and comfortable, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Shane this attached to someone. It warms me to my bones, but it can’t quiet the turmoil that is Alice and Dana.
They seem…distant…even though they’re sitting right next to each other. Their body language is indifferent and they’re slightly turned away from each other. They look to all the world like they aren’t even friends, let alone lovers. I shake my head. All the signs are there and I can’t help but feel that heartache is eminent.
I chuckle under my breath when I see Dylan happily sitting very close to a very uncomfortable Helena who’s chugging a giant vodka tonic. Tina chuckles as well, and I take a moment to let the sound calm my nervous heart. Not everything is working out as I had planned but I still have every reason to be grateful. In fact, the reason is short, blond, beautiful, and standing right next to me. I can’t control what’s happening, but that was never my goal. My goal was to lay out all the tools necessary to improve life as a whole for my family. Only they can choose to make use of them.
I pull out a chair for Tina and she settles into it. She’s getting used to my new approach at our relationship and she still hasn’t vocally expressed any concerns. I can’t help but wonder if that’s because she’s afraid to or because she’s just started to let them go. Either way, she’ll discover me; in fact, Core is only a little over two weeks away.
I take my seat next to her and hard-weld my hand to hers. The uneasiness of the day has made me feel very needy. I almost asked her to take the day off and stay with me, but there are things we both need to take care of.
“It’s about fucking time you two showed up! Have either of you been down Sunset in the last two days?”
I look to Alice curiously. “I haven’t…”
Tina pipes up. “Me neither…”
Alice sighs and picks up her smartphone, pulls up a picture, and reaches it out to us across the table. I help Kit with our pastries and coffee and Tina accepts the phone. I place the items on the table and notice that everyone has become very quiet as they wait for Tina’s reaction. I furrow my brows and lean over Tina’s shoulder, but before I can see anything, she nearly slams the phone onto the table and stands saying, “Excuse me a moment. I need to use the ladies room.” She beats a hasty retreat and I watch her incredulously. Her shoulders are hunched and her stride hurried, and she seems to be swiping at her eyes.
I stand and call out to her. “T?” She doesn’t stop or say anything. “Tina?” She disappears through the door and I finally turn and grab the phone. There’s a picture of me asleep and…Candace…her head is next to mine on the neighboring pillow…she’s smiling.
I nearly collapse into my chair and my hands start shaking as I read the words at the top of the photo. “Who’s the love of your life again Bette?” At the bottom it reads. “My name isn’t Tina.” I stare at it and try to comprehend that this event even happened, let alone that it’s blown up on a billboard on Sunset. That’s just not me, it can’t be. I set the phone on the table and I have no idea what to do.
Long moments pass and my brain still can’t find my nerve endings. “Bette, we already covered and defaced the billboard…”
Tina…fuck. I stand quickly, run to the bathroom, and nearly plow into a man on my way through the door. I mumble, “Sorry…,” and quickly look around the room. No one’s here. I stand still and hear muffled sobs coming from the far stall. I close my eyes and find the will to face her. She knew what I did, but knowing something and seeing something are entirely different scenarios.
I stumble as I make my way to the sounds and push gently on the stall door. It doesn’t budge. “T?” The sounds stop and I hear the toilet paper rack clank roughly as it’s nearly torn from the wall in the her quest to get some tissue. “Tina…please…let me in…”
She sniffs and I hear the paper rumple. “I can’t Bette…not right now…I need some…time…”
Her voice is so broken that my heart breaks with it. All the work I’ve done has been blown apart by one old photo of an event that was a lie and one hurtful sentence that was, is, entirely true. I rest my forehead to the stall door and close my eyes as the tears come. My voice is tight and pleading around the lump in my throat. “T…that’s not me…it was…but it’s not now…I’m so sorry T…you’ll never know just how much, but that’s not who I am now. Please, I need to hold you…don’t shut me out…not now…not after everything…”
Long moments pass. A woman enters and eyes me like I’m crazy before going into the closest stall to the door and doing her business. Tina still hasn’t said a word by the time the woman has finished washing her hands and the door is nearly closed. I push back off the door. “Okay, I’ll leave. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I…I love you T…no matter what…”
I get two stalls down when I hear the lock on her stall click and the door crack open. I turn to see her come out and stand rigidly as she stares at me like she’s trying to see through me. My eyes feel red and puffy and my face must be soaked. She looks the same; the only difference is that she’s gloriously, wondrously beautiful, outside and in. I’m not sure what to do as she gazes at me. Her open, unassuming face is so anguished that I can feel the pain of it explode in icy tendrils around my heart.
I take a hesitant step toward her and stop when I meet her eyes. I can’t tell what she’s doing. I feel like I’m trapped naked in a glass room being studied by a gaze that pierces the very soul of me. I have two options, run or try to cover myself. I choose neither. I try to relax and just let her find what she’s looking for. There’s nothing I am or have that’s not hers anyway.
She approaches me slowly, her eyes never leaving mine, and her voice is small and detached as she says, “I…I think I need some time…alone…”
The ache in my gut grows infinitely. Is she… “Are you breaking up with me?”
Fresh tears fall from her eyes and I reach up to wipe them away. Oh how I wish I could just wipe all of this away. She doesn’t stop me or flinch when I touch her but her voice is haggard and tight as she says, “No…it’s, just some space. I just need to…” She drops her eyes and shakes her head to clear it but sobs wrack her body instead. I slowly, hesitantly take her in my arms as the sobs overcome me as well. God, after all this, I may lose her…
She buries her face in my chest and I bury my face in the hair at her neck, but there is no comfort in her familiar lavender smell as I commit it to memory for what I’m sure is the last time. We cry for long moments and I hear her shuddering voice. “I…I don’t want to…but I can’t…I need to…I don’t know if I trust you…I just…don’t know…” She cries harder and I wish for the earth to open at my feet and swallow me whole.
She pulls back and it’s hard for me to let her. “Don’t do this T…we don’t need space…we need to cling to each other…don’t do this…”
She trembles and I see a stony determination settle on her face. “I have to Bette…I’m sorry, but…until I can trust you…it won’t work…it just won’t…”
She walks around me and I hold her hand until the last second. That second comes but I can’t get my fingers to loosen and I pull her to a stop. She sobs for a moment but pulls again, and this time I let her go. She walks out the door, out of my life. I lean against the wall and slide down to the floor. The door opens and I look up, hoping against hope she’s changed her mind. The man sees me and stops. He eyes me for a moment and frowns but then turns and leaves.
More long moments pass and I don’t look up this time when the door opens. Shane crouches next to me and takes my hand as Kit steps in and says, “Carmen’s waiting for you out back in the jeep. Let’s get her home.”
I lift my head to her lethargically and say, “I have no home…” They pull me to my feet and help me out the back. It’s all I can do to move my legs as I keep repeating it, my new mantra, “I have no home…”
We pull up to Shane’s house and I see that mine is completely finished. A new sense of dread enters me as I realize that I was supposed to meet Wheezy today. “Shane, where’s my purse?” She puts the jeep in park and turns around in her seat as Carmen grabs my purse from the floorboard at her feet and reaches it back to me. I take it gratefully and say, “Thanks.”
I get out of the backseat and start walking towards Tina’s house but Shane jogs up behind me and pulls me to a stop by my arm. “Bette, come on. Don’t sit in there and torture yourself. Come with me.”
I smile at her. It’s entirely fake, but that’s how life will be unless Tina can trust me, really accept my conversion. “I just need a moment. I was supposed to meet Wheezy today. It’s finished and I have to pay her.”
She lets go of my arm and says, “We’ll wait for you here. Don’t be long okay?”
“I won’t.” I turn back towards the house and sleepwalk through the door.
“Well it’s about time sugar tits! I thought you had stood me up…” I sigh. I really don’t need to deal with her shit right now.
“Sorry I’m late. I had an emergency this morning. I don’t have much time.” I reach into my purse and pull the pre-specified check out of my wallet. She’s already approached me and I hand it out to her. She takes it, looks at the amount, and smiles at the tip I gave her. She’s insane, but she does good work, and I am officially broke.
“Don’t worry about a thing!” She takes a sip from her travel mug and gestures towards the completed house. “What’ya think? Pretty great huh?”
I walk further into the open room with stark white walls, left plain and bare so that Tina can paint and fill them with the light that radiates from her very soul. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her, and while I may not be able to share in it with her, it’s what I wanted to give her. “It looks wonderful Wheezy. Thank you.” I muster the best smile I can. “I have to go. Can you lock up on your way out?” I can’t stand here for another moment, so I hastily retreat back through the door and wait for her on the steps.
She comes out and reaches up to slap me on the arm but I catch her hand and let the warning flash in my eyes. I’m not in the mood to be patient today. “Sure thing sugar…Bette.” She clears her throat and I release her hefty wrist as she steps back. “Well, uh, it’s been a pleasure. If you need any other work or something’s not up to par, you have my number.”
Ah, so she can calm the fuck down and act normal when it’s necessary for survival. I’ll keep that in mind. “Thanks again Wheezy. You did a good job. I’ll call if I need you…” I lean in close with a threatening posture. “…but if you ever call me sugar tits again, I’ll saw your sugar tits off with one of your own tools and nail them to my wall as a trophy.” I pause for a moment and her eyes go wide. “Take care.”
I turn and walk down the steps and make my way to a waiting Shane and Carmen. Shane smiles at me and says, “About fucking time,” as we make our way to her door.
“What am I going to do Shane…?”
Carmen mumbles absently. “Yo digo que asesinamos a esa perra loca…” Shane and I both stop and turn to her and she laughs. “I say we murder that crazy bitch…” Shane laughs with me but I seriously consider this thought for a moment. They both realize I’m not laughing and look to me.
“Bette…you can’t actually kill Candace…”
I feel the anger well in my veins. “Why not? She’s destroyed my life. It’s only fair that I destroy hers.”
Shane eyes me seriously and I sigh. “Okay, I can’t actually kill her, but I have to stop her some way.
Carmen’s thoughtful face perks up as she asks, “What’s her full name?”
I can feel the venom as I have to force my tongue to say such an atrocity. “Candace Jewel…”
She smiles brightly and says, “Okay, great. I’ll give her name to my cousins. She won’t bother you anymore. To them, you’re familia. We take care of our own.” She winks at me and she’s a little scary as she says, “Familia más amigos, porque los verdaderos amigos son la familia,” and walks ahead of us into Shane’s house. All we can do is stare.