I look around the tiny concrete box that is my cell and I’m thankful that it’s at least private. I’ve been in here for what feels like an eternity, but in reality, it’s only been over three hours, a long three hours. The babies have to be getting hungry and my heart aches at the thought of them. It’s excruciating to be separated from them, especially so early on. They’re only days old. And if Merle has her way, I’ll never see them again, except through a glass window or a razor wire wound fence. I’ll have to watch them grow from an extreme distance, each short meeting revealing the passage of time I’ll never get back, until one day, they’re fully grown and gazing sadly at my old and withered face through a piece of Plexiglas as they tell me that they won’t be coming anymore.
I feel the tears gathering in my eyes fall down the sides of my face. Well, they need me now, and I’m trapped behind steel bars, thick concrete, and armed officers. I’m apparently a menace to society. There’s just nothing I can do to get to them. I hear the clank of keys in the distance and the heavy fall of boots against linoleum as they come down the hall. It happens once an hour, and that’s how I’ve been counting the time as it passes. This would now be my fourth.
The deepest parts of me can’t help but feel that I deserve to be here. Despite the circumstances, a woman is dead because of me. I’d have never been in this situation with her if I’d have just kept my promise to Tina, if I had just thought of someone other than myself, if I had just handled Candace differently, if… if, if, if… I made my choices, I took my chances, and now I’m grasping for something to hang on to. I guess I forgot that point in my ideology. Sometimes there’s nothing to hold on to when you’re paying for those choices and misspent chances.
Well, I’m paying for them now, and what kills me is that four other innocent people have to pay with me. The cruelty of who I was is torturing who I am and my family takes the fall with me. I guess changing, learning and becoming better doesn’t really fix anything in the karmic cycle. It may improve who you are in the future, but there is no walking away from the past. It will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce at the most inopportune times, reminding you that you still owe a debt as it exacts a pound of flesh.
The footsteps stop outside my cell and I slowly, carefully get to my feet as the door opens. Duffy steps in and smiles tightly. “Bette, Tina and your attorney have been here waiting for you. I’m sorry for the delay but we had to process your paperwork before we could allow visitors.” She pulls handcuffs from the pouch at her waist and gives me a sad expression as she steps up in front of me.
I hold my hands out to her and feel the cold metal snap into place around my wrists. She shakes the bindings a little bit as she asks, “Is that loose enough?” For a moment I wonder why she would care but then she clarifies. “I know we have to go through this song and dance, but that’s all it is, just procedure. I want to help you, to make this as painless as possible for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for something, okay?”
I nod my head. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
She takes my arm gently and leads me down the hall, through two locked doors, down another shorter hall, and escorts me into a room. My eyes instantly meet Tina’s and I feel myself start to shake with heavy sobs as I immediately amble towards her. She meets me halfway and lifts my arms, carefully ducking under the bound v they create, and holding on to me tightly. I bury my face in her lavender-scented hair and just try to soak up any warmth I can from her.
We stay this way for long moments before the sounds of my fussing children pull me towards them. I look over at the twin stroller and lift my hands to release Tina. She stays with me and Duffy follows, pulling me to a stop and grinning as she releases me from the cuffs. “I would have done that sooner but you didn’t really give me a chance.” Tina helps me sit and I open the buttons on my jumpsuit top as she collects Rory. “I’ve spoken with the police chief. He’s agreed to let you have this room for two hours today so you can feed them and use a breast pump. But unless you are granted bail at your arraignment tomorrow, you’ll be moved to the Metropolitan Detention Center. From there, it’s out of my hands.”
Tina places Rory in my arms and she attaches to my breast with a hungry vengeance. I lean down and kiss her cheek, breathing in her calming scent as I close my eyes. “I’m so sorry, baby girl.” This was supposed to be our bonding period, for all of us as a family. And I am limited to two hours a day until I’m moved to a real prison. What the fuck happened to my life? How did it become like this? The door opens and Tina covers us with a blanket as Duffy is called from the room.
Once the door shuts, Tina crouches down in front of me and strokes my face. “How are you feeling?” Her expression becomes knowingly pained. “I mean… physically, at least…”
I sigh and take the hand stroking my face, turning to kiss the palm. “I’m miserable, and I hate being away from all of you, but I’m getting plenty of rest.” I snort bitterly. “There’s nothing to do but lie on that cot and wonder how the hell I’m going to get out of this, get home to you…”
I hear Joyce clear her throat and turn to see her sit on the edge of the metal table in the middle of the room. “I know you’re going through the wringer right now, Bette, but we have limited time and I think it’s best if we get all of the nasty parts out of the way so you can spend most of it with Tina and the twins.” I brace myself and Tina pulls another chair close to me, settling herself with Chance who’s fussily awaiting his turn. “I spoke with the DA after Tina called this morning and she’s chomping at the bit to get a piece of you.”
My voice is incredulous as I ask, “Why? On what grounds?”
Joyce sighs. “She states that she has evidence proving you manipulated and exploited Ms. Jewel, pushing her into an act of desperation which turned into an opportunity to get rid of the nuisance she was becoming.”
Tina and I gaze at Joyce with profound disbelief before I nearly explode. “That’s not true! She was waving a gun at us, screaming at us! What the fuck was I supposed to do?! Let her shoot my wife?!”
Joyce puts up her hand to stop me and says, “I believe you, Bette. It’s the judge and jury we’ll have to convince. I’ll be honest with you both; I’m out of my depth here. I specialize in civil and family matters. Of course, I’ll still act as your attorney, but I think we need to bring a criminal defense guru on board, a hell of a good one. Ms. Rothman has an impeccable reputation. She rarely loses a case.”
I feel a desperate sense of impossible foreboding settle over me, so I focus on my children and switch Rory for Chance. Tina starts to burp Rory as Chance’s fussy mouth latches on to my other breast roughly. Tears well in my eyes and I close them against the hopelessness of what we’re about to face. All of this is because I turned Merle down? That’s just… insane. Joyce doesn’t give me long in my distraction before her voice cuts through again. “I’m sorry, guys, but it gets worse.”
I turn my attention back to Joyce with barely contained irritation. “How can it possibly get worse?”
She leans forward, resting her arm on her knee as she says, “California law doesn’t distinguish between murder charges; crimes of passion, accidental death, and premeditated murder are treated the same. This means that the sentencing is the same, and the precedent for a murder conviction is life imprisonment, rarely a chance at parole. I’m going to fight tooth and nail to get the charges dismissed, Bette, but I want you to be prepared for what you’re about to face.”
Any hope I have left in me vanishes, leaving me a cold and empty shell. I look down at my son, envisioning that handsome, grown man that will be visiting me one last time to tell me that he’s not coming back. What was I supposed to do, let Candace hurt him or his sister, or his Mama T? I know I hurt Candace; I know I was cruel when I was so very lost, but this can’t be right, can it? Is this really what I deserve?
I feel a small, warm hand slip into mine and look up to gaze into my wife’s eyes. I can tell that’s she’s been watching the emotions play out across my face by the knowing expression I see in the glassy, hazel depths. Her voice is strong with conviction as she squeezes my hand and says, “None of that matters, do you understand me?” I swallow hard, unable to speak. “You weren’t trying to hurt anyone then, any more than you were trying to kill Candace. You’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but this is not your punishment for that. Do not… for one moment… think you deserve this.”
I nod as more tears come, but I’m still unable to speak. The hope that drained out of me leaves one drop, one single drop behind, caught by my wife’s love and returned to me by her words. At the very least, I’m not alone in this. Joyce stands and grabs her briefcase, sighing at us as she reaches for the doorknob. “Bette, I’ll have some paperwork to go over with you tomorrow before they take you down to the courthouse. I’m going to go do some research to find us a criminal defense attorney. Until then, just keep your head up. We can beat this, and we’re going to get an attorney that will leave Rothman’s head spinning. I’ll leave you two alone so you can talk, and see you in the morning, Bette.”
I nod in a dazed state not really hearing her as she exits. Tina squeezes my hand one last time before motioning to switch out the babies again. At least they’re calmer now. I get Rory resettled and stare at her wonderfully round face, hoping to just push all of this out of my mind long enough to enjoy this limited time with two of my children. I’ll have the whole night alone to worry, wonder, and feel hopeless. Right now I’m holding a miracle, my daughter. I feel intensely sad as I think of Angie and look up with tears in my eyes to ask the question, but Tina’s already ahead of me. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want her to see you like this. Malcolm will bring her if you want me to call him.”
I shake my head. I miss her intensely, but not yet. Hopefully, I’ll be granted bail tomorrow and she won’t have to witness me, know me as a criminal. Hopefully… that word feels foreign right now. “No, let’s see what happens tomorrow first. If she doesn’t have to see me this way, I’d prefer that she didn’t.”
Tina links her fingers with mine and says, “I thought so. She asked about you. I-I told her that you had some business to take care of, but that she could see you tomorrow. I wouldn’t lie to her, Bette. We will get bail tomorrow.”
I gaze down at my baby girl who’s starting to fall asleep and lean down for another kiss before I again trade with Tina. Chance latches on to the other breast and I sigh. This, these babies, my family, that’s my only hope just now, and I’ll take all of it I can get. “Bette…?” I look up to see that Tina’s eyes are glassy with unshed tears as she smiles sadly. “This may sound strange, out of place, but… I wanted to thank you.”
I furrow my brows at her. “Thank me… for what?”
She blows out a breath. “You protected us… saved our lives.” She chuckles a little nervously. “It’s… a very harlequin notion, but you’re my champion, my heroine. You saved my life; you protected our family with no thought for yourself, and I couldn’t love you more than I do now. I just wanted you to know that… I hope you know that.”
Hope… there’s that word again. If nothing else in this twisting, turning life ever goes well, at least I know I have this, that I got this right. Tears well in my eyes as I reach my hand out to her, taking hers and bringing it to my mouth to kiss her knuckles reverently. “I didn’t realize it, but I needed to hear that, T.” We hold onto each other’s hands and gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes, letting the strength of our connection mend terrible wounds.
She smiles genuinely as a thought occurs to her. “Why don’t you call Angie? I have my cellphone. You can talk to her while you pump?”
The first real grin since this whole ordeal happened splits my face as tears again fall from my eyes. Tina reaches up and wipes at them, and my voice is rough as I say, “I’d love that.” She nods her head and settles back in her chair to wait out Chance. I kiss my son’s face and breathe in his comforting scent. I will fight with everything in me, hopeless or not, because I have something worth fighting for.
I snap my head up as the door opens and reach up to wipe the sweat from forehead with my bound hands. They pull tight on the chain high up around my chest and I sigh as I’m forced to instead use my shoulder before I cautiously get to my feet. There’s a twinge of pain in my abdomen and I wince. It’s difficult to get up and down when I can’t use my hands at all, and I’m not supposed to be using only my stomach. Somehow though, I don’t think these jailers care.
A tall, burly bald man with a greying handlebar mustache and a paunch that hangs over the belt of his trousers, steps in and fills up the doorway. His voice is slow and deep as he says, “Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?” I nod my head and feel my anxiety double as he steps up to me and wraps a humungous, gnarled hand around my bicep. “Come with me.”
He pulls me from the room and we start a shuffling trek down a short hallway. He’s breathing through his mouth and the clinking metal of my restraints is bouncing off the concrete walls. It’s all so humiliating. There’s no Duffy here to spare me the worst of the indignation of being treated like a common criminal. I didn’t realize just how much she was sparing me until they bound my wrists to my chest, put me in ankle cuffs, and then thought it necessary to suspend a chain between them so I can barely walk. So much is riding on today and how this plays out. If they deny me bail… I shake my head. I can’t even think it. I won’t…
We round a corner and I see Joyce lean up off the wall and approach us. She falls into stride next to me and says, “It’s a very good morning, Bette.” She grins widely and I start to doubt her sanity. After yesterday and the information she went over with me this morning, how can she possibly think this is a good morning? Does she even have clue what it feels like to be on this side of the legal proceedings or doesn’t she care? “Ah, come on, Bette, trust me; it really is a good morning.” She leans in close to my ear and drops her voice. “We’ve got the most liberal, feminist judge in the state presiding over your arraignment. Bail is as good as set.”
She pulls back and smiles again as she fishes a pack of Tic Tacs out of her blazer pocket. She drops a couple into her hand and chucks them into her mouth, and I can’t help but feel a small measure of relief at her words. It’s not enough relief though. Until this is over, I’ve been found innocent, and I’m safely home with my family, I won’t feel any real measure of relief. She holds the container out to me. “Tic Tac?”
I swallow hard against the nervous acid trying to climb up and out of my stomach and shake my head. “No, thank you.”
She shakes it enticingly and says, “Are you sure? They’re freshmint…”
I gaze at her with barely contained frustration and she shrugs her shoulders as she says, “Suit yourself.” The bailiff stops us at a door that I assume is the courtroom, and Joyce straightens her tie. “Just keep your cool, Bette. We’ll get through this.” She may be slightly inappropriate, but she’s confident, and that’s a part of me I desperately need to employ at this time.
It’s difficult to retain that attribute when your life has been like one giant shit storm for several years, but just knowing I need it helps me find that place that I used to tap into without a thought. I square my shoulders and hold my head high as the bailiff opens the door. Joyce winks at me and says, “Good girl…,” as we follow the overlarge man into the courtroom together.
The room is empty aside from Merle Rothman who’s grinning from ear to ear as she sits at the prosecution table in the small, bland, wood-paneled room. I adopt the most feral expression in my arsenal and look her over for a moment before turning my nose up at her. I see her smugness falter out of the corner of my eye as we step up to the chairs behind the desk across from her, and I can’t help the small half-smile that quirks the corner of my lips. She may have me at a disadvantage here, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let her know that or break my spirit.
The side door behind the large bench at the front center of the room opens, and Merle gets to her feet. The bailiff’s voice booms out, “All rise! Los Angeles County court thirty is now in session, Judge Marilyn Quinn presiding!” I guess being a monosyllabic mouth breather is fine if you’re a bailiff, so long as you can shout in a clear voice and use a taser when needed.
An older black woman with short greying hair walks through the door and says, “Thank you. Please be seated.” I brace myself for a twinge of pain as I cautiously lower into my seat, everyone else having already settled comfortably by the time my ass finally makes contact with the worn fabric. The judge spreads out the file in front of her on her desk and puts a small set of reading glasses on her nose. “This is Los Angeles County file number 007187, the state of California against Elizabeth Peyton Porter-Kennard. The matter scheduled for today is arraignment. The state of California is represented by the district attorney, Merle Rothman. The defendant is present with her attorney, Joyce Wischnia.” She flips the page. “Trial information has been filed for this matter. The accused is charged with murder, a class A felony of penal code 189.5, a.” She lifts her head and addresses Joyce. ”Ms. Wischnia, does the trial information reflect your client’s true and correct name and identification?”
Joyce stands and confidently says, “Yes, your honor.”
The judge shuffles the papers. “And has she received a copy of the trial information?”
“Yes, your honor, she has.”
“Does she waive the formal reading of the trial information?
Joyce adjusts her blazer. “Yes, your honor. We acknowledge receipt and waive the formal reading.”
“And how does your client plead?”
“At this time, your honor, we enter a plea of ‘not guilty,’ and make a motion to dismiss the charge.”
The judge falls silent for several long moments as she reads the information in front of her. She looks over the top rim of her glasses and seems very annoyed as demands, “Would counsel please step up to the bench?” I watch on in restless anticipation as both Merle and Joyce approach the judge and start to have what seems like a quick paced and somehow calmly heated argument. This goes on long minutes and I’m ready to pull my fucking hair out before the judge looks to Merle and sighs exasperatedly as she leans back. Fuck… that can’t be good. Merle saunters casually back to her seat and I stare at Joyce ready to explode in anxiety as she settles in next to me. She doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t have to. Her look says it all. We lost that motion.
The judge closes the file and says, “Ms. Wischnia, the motion is denied.” My heart sinks into my toes but Joyce doesn’t flinch. “At this time, the date to settle this matter is April 23rd, at 9 am.”
Joyce pulls out her smart phone and pulls up her calendar. Merle does the same, and I watch in silent overwhelming sadness. I may as well not even be here. I’m little more than furniture and certainly not a human being in the face of bureaucratic legalese. I’m just human currency making it possible for opportunistic bottom feeders to get rich off of suffering. I could understand this if I were actually a murderer, but I’m not, am I? No, as atrocious as what I had to do was, it was supposedly protected by law.
Out of all the indignation I’ve had to suffer, being booked, dressed like a traffic pylon, being bound in chains, torn away from my children and my wife, and being treated like a criminal, what hurts the most is the sudden, exacting knowledge that no matter how hard I fight, I’m not going to win this. It doesn’t change the fact that I will fight for all I’m worth, it just means that I will go down swinging, but I will go down. The law doesn’t matter. The reasons don’t matter.
The judge’s voice interrupts my thoughts as she addresses Merle. “Anything else from the people?”
Merle’s scratchy voice calls out, “No, your honor.”
The judge turns to us. “The defense?”
Joyce stands again. “In light of the fact that deceased’s death was ruled accidental by the police, as well as the fact that my client has two five-day old infants that are breastfeeding and is still recovering from a cesarean section – having suffered complications during an altercation with her attacker – we’d like to request bail, your honor.”
The judge picks up her pen and starts to write. “Motion granted. Bail set at ten thousand dollars.”
Merle jumps to her feet. “With all due respect, your honor, the defendant has access to considerable amounts of money, as well as foreign connections and other useful resources.”
The judge glares at Merle, her voice bored as she says, “Ms. Rothman, she’s recovering from surgery and has two five-day old infants. Surely she’s not that much of a flight risk.”
Merle’s humble demeanor makes me want to heave my guts all over her cheap suit skirt, her voice grating on my nerves as she says, “Then the people suggest that bail be set to 1.3 million dollars, as befitting her financial status and the severity of the crime.”
The judge huffs out a breath. “Bail is set at 1.3 million.”
Fuck, that’s too much. It would clean us out. I turn to Joyce with panic filled eyes but she’s a step ahead of me. “Your honor, that amount is everything my client has. It would require that she put a lien against her house and all her assets…”
The double doors at the back of the room open and, to my everlasting surprise, Peggy Peabody enters the room followed by Helena and a tall, thin man in a grey suit. Peggy smiles and winks at me as the three of them file through the short swinging door of the courtroom divider. The judge’s voice booms out from the bench, “Identify yourselves.”
Peggy stands aside and Helena comes up next to me, placing her hand on my shoulder as the man walks up next to Joyce. His voice is refined and decidedly English as he says, “Your honor, my name is Whit Strobel. I’m acting co-counsel for Mrs. Porter-Kennard. Please forgive my tardiness. If it pleases the court, a bond has already been secured regardless of the amount. We have no further objections.”
I look to Helena with a shocked and incredulous face and tears gather in my eyes as she grins widely at me. If I could lift my arms to hug her, I would. She strokes down my arm and we both focus back to Joyce as she backs up Whit with a cocky grin. “We have no further objections, your honor.”
The judge finishes writing and says, “Okay, thank you. We’re adjourned.”
The bailiff approaches me, and Helena looks me in the eye. “Don’t worry. The bondsman is waiting for our call. The bond will probably get to the jail before you do.”
The bailiff grabs my arm and starts to lead me away and I look over my shoulder. “Helena, Peggy…” They both meet my watery gaze. “…Thank you…” They both smile at me and I hold my head high as I face forward to be escorted back to the small room and await transit, secure in the knowledge that I’m getting the fuck out of here and going home to my family.
Duffy smiles as she hands me my wallet and says, “You’re free to go.”
I don’t wait a moment to snatch it and make my way to exit, barely taking the time to call out over my shoulder, “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
I hear a quiet chuckle as the door shuts behind me and I see Tina pacing next to the Lexus that’s pulled up against the curb in front of the station. The whole gang, minus Kit, is in various stages of conversation around Tina as they all wait together for me to emerge. Everyone looks up and notices me before becoming silent. Tina stops her pacing and lifts her head to gaze at me. Our eyes meet and a radiant smile lights her face as she stumbles to a brisk jog. Tears well in my eyes and I walk as fast as I can without hurting myself, only making it ten steps compared to her thirty before she’s in my arms.
I bury my face in her neck, breathing in her lavender smell and feeling a wave of comfort, warmth, and security wash over me as we cling to each other desperately. This moment isn’t entirely complete with the sword of the trial hanging over our heads, but if this is the last two months I’ll have as a free woman with my family, I’m determined to make lasting memories, to absorb them into my soul and just hold onto them.
Tina shifts to the side, refusing to fully release me as we walk to the small crowd at the car. I instantly pull Helena to me, hugging her with immense gratitude. She hugs me back and I whisper, “Thank you, Helena… thank you…”
She sighs as she pulls back, and I can see all of the kindness and warmth that make her such an extraordinary woman shining in her vibrant green orbs. For a moment I see what Dylan is so inexplicably drawn to, what she’s so desperate to claim and keep for a lifetime. Helena and I are so alike, and Dylan is her Tina. Any less than a life together would be tragic, and I hope that she can find it within herself to trust and be happy.
I’m pulled in fifty different directions as I greet my other overexcited friends and family. Everyone is hugging me, kissing me, and asking questions in fast succession, and I start to feel very overwhelmed. A loud whistle echoes and we all turn to Tina. Even my eyes are wide as I stare at her. I had no idea she could do that. “Listen, why don’t you guys just meet us at the house later this evening? Give Bette a chance to get settled, see Angie, and get some rest.”
I smile at my wife and settle my arm around her shoulders as I address our group. “I appreciate you guys being here. I’ve missed you, but Tina’s right. I’m exhausted and I need to see Angie. Come by the house around six tonight, okay? I could use a real meal, maybe Mandarette?”
Everyone chuckles and graciously agrees as they step forward to hug us. They each make their way to their cars, knowing they’ll get their answers later. Alice is extremely reluctant as she departs, turning and biting her lip multiple times before losing the war and making a few more steps in the direction of her Mini Cooper. Tasha just chuckles at her as she pulls her towards the car and I can’t help but smile. I know it’s hard for her, but she definitely seems to be respecting our boundaries, despite the extremely opposite pull of her nature.
Tina helps me get settled in the passenger seat and I gently turn to see Chance and Rory sound asleep in their car seats. I can’t see their wonderful faces, but I can just make out the edge of Rory’s round cheek as her chest rises and falls evenly. I want to reach out and touch them so badly. Sigh. I force myself to face forward knowing I’ll have them soon, and start to strap myself in. Tina gets into the driver’s seat, buckles up, and starts the car. She reaches over and takes my hand, kissing my knuckles reverently before linking our fingers and settling them both in my lap so I don’t have to stretch. There are happy tears in her eyes as she puts the car in drive, swipes at them, and pulls away from the curb to make the trip home.
We pull into the driveway and step out of the car. I stand in the doorway and stare at our home for a moment. It seems… different, changed. I close my eyes. Those walls have seen so much pain and suffering when all I wanted was to fill this home with love, laughter, and family. I can’t help but wonder if our haven is ruined or will ever feel the same.
I feel the small, warm hand of my wife stroke my back and gaze down into her glassy, hazel eyes. “I thought it would be ruined too, but it’s not. You’ll see.” She smiles. “Malcolm and Tom made sure of it.”
She opens the back door of the Lexus and frees a sleeping Rory from her car seat, placing her in my arms and kissing her before shutting the door and going to the other side to retrieve Chance. I follow her and watch as she picks up our son who’s wide awake and kicking his feet. She lifts him and kisses his face as he blows little bubbles, and I feel the sharp pang of tears sting the backs of my eyes. She cradles him in her arms and shuts the door with her foot as she tries to smooth his unruly dark blond curls back down. I laugh through my tears and she meets my eyes with a warm grin. “It’s absolutely unruly, Bette. Have you noticed this cowlick?”
She turns him and shows me the kink of curled hair behind his left ear and I realize that I hadn’t noticed; there really hasn’t been a lot of time to notice. I touch the fine strands and smile as his almond eyes meet my own. I hear the smile in Tina’s voice as she says, “He has your eyes…”
She leans down and kisses our son before taking my hand and pulling us toward the house. I feel a pang of nervousness as we approach the door and she unlocks it. We step over the threshold and I hear an incessant beeping sound. I watch in fascination as Tina walks to a touchpad on the wall by the door and hits some buttons. The beeping stops and I shut the door behind me. “The guys put in a security system?”
She smiles at me as she walks back up to me. “Yep; state of the art, as Malcolm says. I’ll give you the code and we’ll have to save your fingerprint. It’s really neat, and I feel a lot safer, especially when you’re…” She chokes on her sentence and sadness flashes over her face for a moment before she shakes it off. “…when it’s just me and the kids.”
I hate that it was necessary, but it makes me feel safer as well, especially when I can’t be here. God, what if I hadn’t been here that day…? I shudder at that thought and realize I’m standing in the very room where all of those terrible things happened. I look around and there’s not a trace of the blood that had covered the door, the floor, even parts of the ceiling. It’s all gone, and I’m so thankful. I look to Tina. “How…?”
“Hold on, baby girl!” We both turn to see Angie come bounding into the room dripping wet in her little bikini and arm waders.
She stops when she sees me and smiles before rushing forward and throwing her arms around my legs. “Mama B! You’re home!”
Kit comes up to me with a patiently exasperated expression and takes Rory out of my arms. “I’m gonna trade you, because baby girl is on a hell of a roll today in her quest to give me grey hairs.” I smile and squeeze Kit’s shoulder before I bend to pick Angie up, only to realize I can’t.
Tina notices and says, “Why don’t you two get comfortable in the media room and spend some time together? We’ll go ahead and feed these two with the last of the pumped milk from yesterday.” I thank my wife with my eyes as Angie says, “Yeah, Mama B. Come with me,” as she grabs my hand and starts yanking us toward the hall. I manage to take the towel and clothes from Kit’s hands as we pass and I hear Kit and Tina chuckle as Angie and I disappear around the corner.
I sit down on the sofa and help her climb up. She throws her wet arms around my neck, the clunky waders banging against my head and making me smile as I hug her back fiercely. “I missed you, babycakes.”
She leans back and smiles as she says, “I missed you, too.” I remove her waders smiling through watery eyes. Once she’s free she crosses her arms over her chest, her expression cross as she asks, “Where are my presents?”
I chuckle and stare at her with wide eyes. Where does she get this stuff? I feel like an ass as I stutter, “Well… why would I have presents?”
She rolls her eyes. “When you go away and come back, you’re supposed to bring presents. Didn’t you know that?”
I stare at her incredulously. “No… I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. Who says?”
She sits back on her haunches and explains everything to me matter-of-factly. “Kenzie said that when her daddy goes away, he brings her a present when he comes home.”
I laugh softly. “Who’s Kenzie?”
My daughter rolls her eyes and huffs in exasperation. “My friend in school, Mama B. She’s four years old, almost five!” She holds up four fingers, her expression serious and awestruck. “She gets to go to kidney garden soon. She knows lots of stuff…”
I can’t help but laugh and tickle her tummy. “My goodness, Angie! She’s nearly a grown woman!”
She giggles before grabbing my hands and breathlessly saying, “Stop, stop, Mama B. I need to potty.”
We both calm down and I realize just how big she’s getting, and just how quickly it goes. This is my baby, that tiny little girl that was five pounds when she was born, so small I could easily hold her in both hands. Tears gather in my eyes. I can’t be away from them and miss their lives. I just can’t. I just won’t. I feel a wellspring of determination rise up in me. I won’t miss another moment with my children. I will be present for everything. Merle Rothman has no idea who she’s dealing with. You never come between a mother and her children… ever.
I hug Angie again and release a breath, and with it all of my doubts and insecurities. I still feel them and I know I will until this is over, but they don’t matter. This matters, and this is all that matters. “Come on, babycakes. Let’s use the potty and get you dressed.” She pulls back and climbs off the sofa. I stroke her face and look into the wide eyes that are a perfect mix of me and Tina and smile genuinely. “And next time I go away, I’ll bring you a present.”
She nods her head. “Good.”
I chuckle softly as I get gently to my feet, accepting her outstretched hand and following her to the bathroom.
“Babe…” Tina’s voice echoes through my sleep-soaked mind and a bright flash of light pierces through my eyelids. I furrow my brows and flutter my eyes open just in time to see Tina lower the camera and sit down next to me with a smile. I swear she must keep that camera in her bra or something because she can pull it out at a moment’s notice from seemingly nowhere.
I smile as she leans in and kisses me with her soft, full lips, such incredible lips. She tastes of warm mint and honey, and something markedly unique to her essence. The kiss lasts long moments before she pulls back and braces her arm on the chaise across me. She strokes my face with her other hand and her eyes are open and honest as she speaks from her heart. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
I sigh. There are not words for how thankful I am to be here with her and our children. If none of this works out like it should, at least I know that my family is alive, healthy, and well; all these things that might not be true if I hadn’t done what I needed to. And just like that, in a random moment of clarity, I realize that I don’t feel guilty for having protected my family; I feel guilty for that tiny moment where I wanted to kill her. I did, for just an instant; I wanted to end her life, to wipe her away like steam on a mirror. I just wanted it to finally be over, to have peace, and I wanted it at any cost, including her life.
Tina leans down and kisses me again to pull me out of my thoughts. She rests her forehead against mine and says, “Bette… what can I do to help you? Do you want to talk about it?” I lift my hand from the tiny back of the sleeping baby resting against my chest and stroke her hair. She meets my gaze and I can see the worry, love, and desperate concern shining in her open eyes. “I don’t know what you’re going through feels like, but I want to. If I could switch places with you and take this away from you, I would… in an instant.”
Tears sting my eyes and I pull her down for another kiss. I would go through all of the terrible things that have happened in my life a hundred times if it meant I could know these moments with her just once. She leans down and kisses Rory’s face and again meets my eyes. How can I even begin to describe any of this to her? There’s just so much, too much. Well, no, there’s actually just one thing, one huge thing. “When Candace pointed the gun at you and I… I…”
“When you saved my life…” Her expression is serious and steadfast and I love her for it.
I smile sadly at her and stroke her face, stopping to run my thumb across her cheek. “When I stopped her, I wasn’t just saving your life, T…” I can tell she’s confused but she doesn’t say a word. She just patiently waits and listens. “Part of me wanted her dead at that moment. I wanted to kill her, not just stop her, and whether it’s in jail or not, I’m going to have to learn to live with that. I’ll pay for it one way or another.”
She closes her eyes for a moment before deeply searching my own. “Bette, I’ll be honest with you, and it may sound cruel, but it’s the truth.” This worries me but I nod my head. I have to know now. “I wanted her dead.” I’m shocked. Tina… my Tina… wanted someone dead… “I was resigned to the fact that she wouldn’t be reasoned with and that we would most likely be facing an eternity of dealing with her immature pranks and pointless interference, but I could live with that. I felt compassion for her, pity even. She had been hurt and needed help. While I had you and our family, she had no one. But… that’s exactly why it changed.”
I stare at her confused and she blows out a breath as she continues. “When she was attacking you…” I look in to her face and see the first flicker of real, unadulterated anger spark to life in her eyes. “…hitting you…” The flicker starts to burn hot and bright with memory and I can almost feel the heat of it radiate out from her, contrasting so starkly with her usually forgiving and kind nature that I almost can’t recognize her. The last time I saw her look this lost to her rage was the night we parted.
I reach up and touch her face. I don’t like this. The touch registers and she slowly comes back to me. I release an anxious sigh. “At that moment, it stopped being okay. I was unable to live with her lurking in the shadows and peering over our shoulders, holding a knife to our throats. And to be honest, I don’t feel guilty at all for feeling that way. She went too far. She crossed lines that she couldn’t come back from… and she paid for it with her life. I cannot feel sorry for her. She would have killed one or both of us, and I’m glad she’ll never get that opportunity. I know it’s a cold perspective, but it’s the truth, and it’s how I feel.”
Well, I don’t like this, but at least I’m not alone in these feelings. “So I understand why you’d want her dead, Bette. And I honestly don’t think it’s wrong to have those feelings. I don’t know what you’re going through because I didn’t have to do what you did. But that’s just it, one of us had to. She didn’t leave any alternatives. I’m sorry it was you because while it would be hard to live with, protecting you and our family would be worth any life to me. I could sleep at night, and I could live with it. I’m sure of it. Can you?”
I consider her words for a moment. I don’t have a choice but to live with it, and I know she’s right. Even the law would be behind me if not for one district attorney with some irrational grudge. It’s not wrong to protect at any cost, but is it okay to want to kill? I just don’t know. She’s been watching my face this whole time and she releases a sigh as she leans down and kisses me sweetly, resting her forehead to mine as she pulls back. “I know you’ll find your way through this. You’re strong, Bette, so strong. I believe in you. Just promise me that you’ll let me help you if at all possible.”
I close my eyes and whisper, “I promise, T. Thank you…”
She kisses me one last time. “Thank you for protecting us. I love you.”
I commit those words to memory. She loves me; she’s thankful for what I’ve done. I need to realize that when I start to doubt myself. “I love you too, T.”
She sits up fully and smiles as she rubs Rory’s back. “It looks like you’ve got a little drool.”
She points to the area beneath Rory’s mouth and we both chuckle. “Well, it was worth it to be able to nap with her like this.”
She grins at me adoringly. “Maybe next time the rest of us can join you.”
I return her grin and reach up to touch the upturned corner of her mouth. “I’d love that.”
She turns her head and kisses the digit. “Me too.” She looks down at her watch and sighs. “Well, I actually woke you up so you could feed them both before everyone else gets here. So far Kit, Malcolm, Tom, and Ming are here. The others will be here with dinner in half an hour.”
She takes Rory from my chest and gently wakes her as I gently scoot to a more sitting position. I pull up my tank top and pull down the clip on my nursing bra. Tina helps me get Rory situated and smiles at us both, lifting the camera to me in tandem with her eyebrow. I chuckle softly and nod. She holds the camera up to her face and I look down on my daughter as the camera and my soul capture this moment for all eternity.
It was a quiet but comfortable dinner. I think everyone was waiting for an appropriate time to fully discuss everything. Eating just wasn’t that time. I look around me as everyone relaxes by the pool as the last dying rays of sunlight turn into twilight, and realize it’s time. My voice sounds oddly loud in the subdued atmosphere as I break the silence. “So, I know you’re all concerned about what’s going on. I guess I’ll start by telling you what happened.” I swallow hard. “Candace was here when we brought the twins home from the hospital. She attacked me and she was about to shoot Tina. I turned the gun on her and she wound up shooting herself.”
Everyone is gazing at me in utter silence as Tina shifts in the chaise behind me and wraps her arms around my shoulders to offer infinite support, support that I soak up greedily as I continue. “I ripped my stitches during the tussle and that’s why I was in the hospital. It was self-defense, and the police had ruled it an accidental death, but the DA, Merle Rothman, has opted to charge me with murder. I’ve been released on bail thanks to Helena, and the trial is in two months.”
Several long minutes of quiet pass as everyone absorbs this information. Alice’s jaw drops open as she recalls something and stares at me incredulously. “Merle Rothman… that old toad? You’re joking…”
I watch Alice speculatively and shake my head. “I wish I were. Why? You know her?”
Alice sighs. “Know her… no. I… sort of met her though. She hit on me at Hit…” She grins at her bad pun and I smile as I roll my eyes. “Anyway, I was at a place in my life where I was trying new things and…”
]I close my eyes against the horrible imagines assaulting my mind. “Ugh… Alice, you didn’t…”
She shrugs her shoulders. “I was drunk and hadn’t ever been with an older woman so I decided to give it a try. It was one hell of a walk of shame the next morning though.” She shudders overdramatically and everyone chuckles. “I nearly screamed when I rolled over and saw that thing in my bed. She looked like… like… Grendel.”
Everyone laughs except for Dana who looks at Alice confused. “Grendel?”
Alice stares at Dana incredulously. “Beowulf?” Dana shakes head. “Did you pay attention at all in high school English?”
Dana smiles toothily and shrugs her shoulders. “I was a jock and it was a private school.”
Alice rolls her eyes. “So that would be a big, fat no.” Alice googles Grendel on her smartphone and leans forward to hand it to Dana. Dana looks at the image and shudders before handing the phone back to Alice as if it’s about to burst into flames and we all laugh.
Alice puts her phone down and picks up her wine glass before settling back against Tasha. “Anyway…” Dana sees this and sighs dejectedly as she picks at imaginary lint on her jeans. “…after that, I did a little research. She’s huge on reputation and power. She’s probably slept with half the lesbian community in WeHo, and yet her OurChart only lists high profile connections. She actually told me to keep my mouth shut about it before she left. She said she’d sue me for slander and defamation of her character.” Alice snorts. “She has a very high opinion of herself. I sure as fuck didn’t want anyone knowing. That was the most terrible sex I’ve ever had, and I learned my lesson with bestiality.”
Alice takes a sip of her wine grinning coyly and everyone laughs again. Once everyone settles down, Malcolm turns to me with a serious expression. “Sis, it was self-defense. I don’t understand why you’re being charged at all.”
I sigh. “It all comes back to Merle Rothman. She’s pursuing the case, even though it’s cut and dried. Unfortunately, the law gives her that right.”
Shane’s piercing eyes are angry as she says, “It’s fucking bullshit.”
There’s a murmur of agreement from the group and Helena lifts her wine glass saying, “Here, here!”
I smile at them. “Well, I don’t really have a choice, you guys. We have two of the best attorneys in the state and we’re going to fight. That’s all we can do.” I look to Helena with pointed gratitude and she tips her wineglass at me before taking a sip.
Alice pipes in again. “Well, if she’s out for your blood, there has to be something in it for her.” She leans forward. “There has to be a reason…” Her eyes light with knowing mischief. “…and I’m going to find it.”
I smile as I wave my arm in a general manner. “Knock yourself out, Al. I’ll take all the help I can get at this point.”
Tom sits forward as well. “Well, why don’t we all pitch in? I’ll talk to Jamie at the center. We have a street team and the LGBT newsletter. We can bring some media attention to your case, make her life harder.”
Alice grins widely at Tom. “That’s a great idea.”
Malcolm pats Tom on the back before leaning forward with a smile on his face. “I could make some posters and we could picket the courthouse during the trial. Put on a massive show of public outrage.”
Shane and Carmen lean in and chorus. “We’re in…”
Tina’s arms squeeze tightly around me and I feel tears sting my eyes as she puts her mouth to my ear and whispers in a sing song voice, “We’re going to win…” I reach up and stroke the comforting arms around me and feel her chin rest on my shoulder. We watch our friends plan and laugh and I can’t help but laugh with them. My life is overflowing with love and support, the two very things that I need most if I’m going to get through this.