I hear the door open and look up to see Malcolm poke his head in. I meet his sad gaze with my own and he comes into the room, shutting the door behind him. ”I decided to stop by on my way back to the gallery and check on you both. Any progress?”
His soulful eyes are hopeful as I crush them with a minute shake of my head. He sighs and sits down in the chair next to me and we fall into a long moment of silence as we both gaze at Tina’s unmoving form. It doesn’t look good. Something has to change soon. The premature birth caused a hemorrhage inside of her, and the stress of repairing it did a number on her heart. I just can’t envision a life without her. I need her, Angie needs her, we need her…so much.
I hear Malcolm sigh. ”Bette…I feel like this is my fault…”
I turn to him with a reproachful expression. ”That’s absurd Malcolm. If we hadn’t used yours, we would have used someone else’s. This isn’t your fault at all. Tina wouldn’t think that and I don’t think that.”
He releases another sigh and nods his head but something still seems wrong. ”What is it?”
He eyes me for a moment with furrowed brows. ”Shane’s getting worse Bette…”
I turn to gaze at Tina. ”How bad?”
He sits forward in his seat and tickles Tina’s foot. No response. He pulls his hand back lethargically and starts to explain. ”This morning, when I went in to use the loo, I saw some…drugs…in the bathroom. I’m certain it was cocaine.”
I close my eyes against the anger. ”Well, you know as well as I do that she won’t listen to anyone.” He blows out a frustrated breath. Yes, he knows all too well.
”Well, I think it looks great Malcolm.” He beamed at me as he stepped back to look on the completed studio. After a good scrub and carefully placed furniture we just finished setting up, it looked like it would suit his purposes well.
His voice was playful and his smile was bright. ”You just wanted your house back.”
I smiled back at him. ”You’re really not that bad to live with for a man.”
He chuckled at that and furrowed his brows as we both turned to hear the commotion coming from the front of Shane’s house. ”What is that?”
He shrugged his shoulders and we both made our way down the alley between the houses. Just as we passed the back gate, we saw a black van parked haphazardly against the curb with guns hanging out the windows. We both crouched down in panic before we realized that these weren’t normal guns.
After a long moment, Shane came barreling down her front steps half naked, a young woman wrapped in a sheet following behind her as the van screeched away from the curb. Shane put her hands on top of her head and puffed out her cheeks as she blew out a breath, and one last shot was fired, hitting Shane squarely in the forehead, exploding red everywhere.
She staggered back and the unidentified girl screamed before turning and running back into the house. Shane reached up and wiped the paint from her eyes and stared at her car in exasperated fury. The vehicle was a patchwork of exploded paint and small dents. Malcolm and I both covered our mouths and gazed at each other. There was a long moment of silence before we burst out laughing. ”Why would someone paintball Shane’s car?”
I stood and turned to Malcolm as he got to his feet, and released a sigh. It had to be Carmen’s family, probably her cousins. He furrowed his brows at me and I closed my eyes. Shane heard our laughter and turned to look at us. Once her gaze fell on me she turned away with a defeated expression and went straight back for the house. Just as her foot hit the top step, the now nearly dressed woman and another equally panicked girl came running down the stairs, knocked Shane over, ran for their cars, got in, and nearly slammed into each other as they sped away. Shane picked herself up, dusted herself off, and went back inside, slamming her door.
Fuck. I hadn’t meant to laugh at her misfortune. Everything was just so unexpected…and ridiculous. Malcolm grabbed my arm and jerked his head toward the back to his studio. I sighed and we made our way back just as Tina came through the back gate. Her voice was curious as she asked, ”What happened?”
I furrowed my brows and looked to Malcolm. ”I need a moment. I’ll come help you finish up in a minute.”
His gentle eyes were worried but he squeezed my shoulder before making his way back to his studio. ”T, there’s something I should tell you.”
Her face seemed nervous but she grabbed my hand sweetly and we settled ourselves on a chaise by the pool. I took a deep breath. I shouldn’t have kept this from her. ”T, do you remember the party at Shane’s at the end of April?” She smiled and nodded her head as she stroked the back of my hand with her thumb. ”When you found me and Shane in the bathroom, I had just walked in on her and Niki…”
Tina’s expression became incredulous. ”She asked me not to tell anyone, not even you, and I agreed with one proviso: if I felt that you needed to know for any reason, I’d tell you.”
She looked down at my hand and sighed. ”Bette, that’s Shane’s business. I don’t expect to know everything she tells you. But lying about it to help cover for her…why do that?”
I furrowed my brows at her and hastened to explain. ”Well, I didn’t know which direction to go with it, and there was just so much going on with Kelly there, and Carmen there…”
She snapped her head up and gazed at me. ”What was going on with Kelly?”
Fuck me… Okay, might as well lay it all on the line. ”Um…Kelly sort of…propositioned me, blackmailed me. She wanted to sleep with me but I didn’t want to…”
She dropped my hand and ran her fingers through her hair as if she was trying to calm herself. ”That is most definitely my business, but you didn’t tell me that either.” She met my gaze and her voice was utterly sad. ”How can I learn to trust you when you keep things, especially things like that, from me?”
I furrowed my brows and my tongue ran away with my indignity in the situation. ”T…even after everything I’ve done to make things right, every time someone from my past shows up and tries to fuck it all up, you run away from me…and I just couldn’t do it this time. Why would I tell you when you don’t seem to trust me?” I chuckled out a short incredulous laugh. ”Fuck T, Kelly hadn’t been in my office ten minutes when you showed up and you wouldn’t even kiss me goodbye. I feel like I’m on probation, like everything is going to fall apart at a moment’s notice, and I’m tired of trying to hold it together by myself.”
She moved to her knees in front of me and took my hands in her own. ”I don’t mean to distrust you, and I know you’d never hurt me or cheat on me again, but…” She lowered her head and shook it. ”…I don’t know…it just seems like you don’t know how to set boundaries. I mean, you were flirting with her right in front of me.” I closed my eyes with a sigh at the painful look on her face. ”I just doubt that…I’m enough for you. I know you love me, but is that enough Bette, really enough? What about me could possibly compare to some gorgeous millionaire from your past?”
I gazed at her in shocked exasperation. ”T, you told me when we got back from the honeymoon that you are confident, and sure of yourself, that we’re equals. Now you’re telling me that you have a low self-esteem.”
I saw the spark of anger ignite in her eyes. ”I am confident in myself and my ability to make it alone. I’m just not confident in my ability to keep you. That doesn’t mean I have a low self-esteem…”
”No, it means you don’t trust me.”
”No, it means I know who you are and who these women are. And together, you can very easily get in over your head, even if you don’t mean to. You’re overconfident Bette, especially in those types of situations. You feed on the attention and try to control it, but you can’t because you can’t control other people.”
”Do you really know who I am, because I’m not sure you do…”
”Bette there are things about you that are fundamental. You’re desirable and you enjoy it.” I scoffed at that comment and ran my hands through my hair. ”How did Kelly proposition you…blackmail you?”
I closed my eyes to gather myself before meeting her eyes. ”She pursued me for weeks and I turned her down every time. Then she waited until she knew Malcolm was coming and kissed me. He saw, and she threatened to tell you unless I slept with her.”
She stood and paced over to the pool before turning back to me. ”Okay, but why did that go on for weeks? Why didn’t you just send her packing when you knew she was making advances at you?”
Fuck… I met her gaze head on. ”I liked knowing that she wanted me after everything that we went through in college.” I stood angrily and started pacing. ”There it is T. You’re right; I’m wrong. I get it now.”
She sighed and tears welled in her eyes. ”I don’t think you do Bette. If I did that, often; if I allowed women to pursue me because I liked the…what, the power?…of it…how would you feel? Would you trust me?”
”Yes! I would!”
”Even if I had cheated and you were constantly reminded of it?”
I could feel the anger welling in my veins. I was beginning to feel like a pressure cooker, and I didn’t want to blow, not like that. ”T, we’re talking in circles and it’s getting us nowhere but angry. I need…look, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry for what happened with Kelly and for not being honest about Shane.”
”No, what do you need Bette? What do you need to fix all of this? I know I’m not giving you something! I know that I’m failing you somehow, and that’s why I’m so fucking scared that I’m not enough for you! I know I hurt you that day that we had to bring Sam back for Lez Girls, and I can tell there’s something else, something big; I don’t know what it is but I don’t want to hurt you and I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me!”
”Look, we need to talk about this when we’ve calmed down. I’m getting angry, I can tell you’re getting angry, and I don’t want to us to start yelling at each other. You’re not failing me and you are enough for me. Can you please just believe that, and can we please just…move past this?”
She shook her head sadly and turned to stride back into the house but she stopped. She didn’t look back at me as she said, ”I love you Bette, but you keep so much from me. I wish you’d just let me in.” She strode quickly back into the house and I watched her retreating back with a heavy heart before going to Malcolm’s to find some solitude. How in the fuck could I tell her all of that? It would hurt her, and that’s the last thing I would ever want to do.
”That’s not all of it though. Helena said that there are a lot of issues on the lot with their new movie Liquid Heat. Shane keeps missing and Helena’s afraid she’s going to have to sack her.” I sigh disappointedly. Normally she self-destructs and just moves on. This is a whole new level. ”And when Shane is there, it’s very tense on set with the three of them, not to mention all the strange shite that keeps happening…” I can’t help but smirk at that. Strange shite indeed…
”Hey guys.” Malcolm, Tina, and I approached the table and took our usual seats. There was a chorus of, ”Heys,” and bright smiles as we settled in.
”So, are you guys pregnant yet?” Alice’s voice and expression were excited and nosy as usual as she snapped her laptop shut.
Fuck Alice, did everything have to be her business? ”We don’t know yet Alice. It takes time.” She leaned back in her chair and glared at me while sipping from her coffee. ”Where’s Shane?”
Alice’s expression turned worried and she said, ”Um, she’s has a doctor’s appointment this morning…” I met her gaze and furrowed my brows as she opened her laptop and made a few clicks with the touchpad. She turned the screen towards me and Tina and we began to read in complete shock. There, on OurChart, was a letter posted in the comments of Shane’s profile. The letter was from the California Department of Health Services identifying Shane as having passed on oral gonorrhea to multiple partners and come in contact with the HIV virus. They were requiring her to not only contact all her sexual partners, but return a list to the Health Department and follow through with treatment. Furthermore, legal action would be taken should she fail to comply.
Fuck, I met Tina’s shocked gaze and let out a deep breath before turning back to Alice. ”Is she going to be okay?”
Alice shrugged her shoulders in a nervous way and shook her head. Fuck. Shane’s distanced herself from me. Does she trust anyone? She must be out of her mind with anxiety. ”She’s was going to the health department this morning and then stopping at the clinic to get checked out. I haven’t heard anything from her yet.”
Tina furrowed her brows and clicked the touchpad to open the user profile that posted the letter. ”The person who posted this is anonymous. I get why’d they’d do it, but how’d they get a copy of Shane’s letter?”
That was a good question. Alice squinted her eyes. ”Shane didn’t even get a letter…”
I looked to Tina and I could see the knowing gleam in her eye. It was Carmen’s family. Shane may have gotten in over her head with this one. ”What?! What do you know?!”
We turned back to Alice and I reached for Tina’s thigh under the table to give it a squeeze and remind her that she was the only person I could tell. I felt her hand squeeze my own and sighed with relief as she replied, ”Carmen and Shane broke up. It’s possible her family is trying to teach Shane a lesson. We…we think they might have paint-balled her car.”
Alice’s eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open as she collapsed back in her chair. ”But Carmen wouldn’t do that…”
I nodded my head in agreement. ”But her family might…”
Alice released a large incredulous breath, started to gather her things, and stood. ”I’m going to go check on her. If it is Carmen’s family, she could be in big fucking trouble.” She looked to Dana. ”Dane, will you come with me.” Dana grinned toothily and stood to follow Alice. Alice pointed to us saying, ”We’ll talk later,” and Dana waved as they started toward the exit, only Alice had stopped so abruptly that Dana stumbled right into her back.
Alice didn’t budge as Dana grabbed her shoulders to catch herself. ”Alice, what the hell…” Dana’s words trailed off and both of them had appalled expressions on their faces as we all tracked our eyes to what they were staring at. There, coming towards the table, was Shane, with bleached, platinum blond hair. What…the…fuck? ”What the fuck happened to your hair?!”
Kit approached the table to set down our pastries and coffees like nothing was even happening. ”Sorry it took so long, we…are…slammed…” Her eyes finally found Shane. She stuttered and chuckled a bit before turning on heel and marching back to the counter mumbling, ”I don’t even want to know…”
Shane glared at Alice as she took a seat and started chugging her coffee nervously. She was obviously pissed but she didn’t say anything as we stared at her in stunned silence. She checked her phone for a message that wasn’t there, took a huge chug off her coffee, fidgeted, and repeated. Finally the phone buzzed and she nearly dropped it in her haste to answer it. A big sigh and a few clicks later, she seemed to relax a little bit until she finally met our shocked faces.
Alice and Dana retook their seats in a daze and of course, Alice couldn’t keep her fucking mouth shut or her fucking nose out of anyone’s business, so she tried again. ”Shane, what the fuck is going on?”
Shane pierced Alice with an intense gaze and Alice actually shrunk back into Dana as Shane finally spit out. ”Carmen…I think…” Shane had never one to one judge or quick to anger, but no one, NO ONE, had ever messed with her hair before. She wasn’t even this angry when her car was paint-balled…
Alice’s need to know everything took a backseat to her genuine concern as she said, ”Are you at least okay? Did you go to the doctor?”
Shane seemed to soften a little bit as well. ”The Health Department confirmed that they didn’t send me that letter so I think so. But I stopped at the clinic anyway. I should know in a few days…”
We all let out a relieved breath and Alice’s mouth came back. ”What did you do to piss Carmen off so fucking badly?”
Shane’s eyes met my own with piercing intensity but I didn’t back down. I had not betrayed her and I wasn’t going to act like it. Her gazed softened and she addressed Alice. ”Carmen is on her way here to talk. Hopefully, we can straighten this out.”
Alice crossed her arms over her chest. ”You didn’t answer my question but I can probably guess…”
That was it. ”Alice…I love you, but shut up.”
Alice’s face was a mix between incredulity and pique as she gazed at me in open mouthed shock…but it worked, she shut up. I looked to Shane and I could tell she was thanking me despite her sad and distrusting gaze. I was done with this day, and it had only just started. I stood and grabbed my things, Malcolm jumping to his feet ready to escape with me, followed by Helena and Dylan. We few, we happy few, we band of buggard…were smart enough to get the fuck out of the warzone.
I looked to Tina with question in my eyes but she was going to brave this day out. I eyed her one more time to be sure and she nodded her head before I leaned down to leave a lingering kiss on her lips. We haven’t fixed everything yet, but I know it will work out because we’re committed to each other. ”Have a good day.”
I smiled adoringly at her. ”You too…” I turned and waved to the table and Alice ignored me completely. I rolled my eyes and those of us smart enough to get the fuck out of there scattered like flies.
”God, Malcolm, her hair…” We laugh and it feels good to let some of the tension of the last five days out. It’s nowhere near gone, but I needed a good laugh.
He turns to me through his chuckles. ”What about the male escort ad?” We laugh harder but then it turns almost serious. Some of them were funny, but some not so much. God, that was actually pretty crazy…
What the fuck was that? I turned to the clock on the nightstand to see that it was a little after two am. I heard yelling again and felt Tina stir against me. I put my feet on the floor and staggered over to the balcony to open the doors. The yelling became clearer. ”I said I’m not a fucking ’escort!’” The last word was said with so much innuendo that I furrowed my brows and looked back to Tina who was making her way toward me.
”Look twink, I already paid your pimp and I intend to get my money’s worth!” I turned to Tina whose shocked face mirrored my own. That didn’t sound good. I strode over to the bed and slipped on my bed shoes and Tina followed suit. I stopped her, ”Call the police…”
I started again for the balcony and she pulled my forearm to stop me. ”Be careful…” I smiled with more confidence than I felt and made my way down the patio stairs to the gate. The sounds of a scuffle could be heard and I opened the gate just in time to see Malcolm grab a balding, overweight man, in a cheap gray business suit off of Shane and toss him into the line of garbage bins.
The noise rattled through the alley harshly as the man crashed into them and tumbled to the ground. ”What do you think you’re doing git?” Malcolm charged toward the man who scrambled to get away from him. ”Stupid prat…” He lifted the man by this arm and tie, and threw him further out to the street. The man skidded to a halt on his hands and knees and struggled to his feet before running for his car and screeching away.
I walked over to Shane who was sitting on the ground wiping the blood off the small cut on her cheek. Her clothes were rumpled and dirty, but otherwise intact. I knelt next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. ”Shane, are you okay?”
She was breathing heavily and waited a moment before shrugging me off and getting to her feet. ”Thanks for your help Malcolm…” She strode into her house and all the lights went out. I looked to Malcolm and his worried gaze matched my own. Tina came from the gate and hugged me as the sounds of sirens could be heard in the distance. I took a deep breath, and we all waited together to tell them what had happened, though we weren’t even entirely sure.
Malcolm turns to me with a serious expression but smiles as she says, ”I’m just glad it wasn’t actually Carmen. That girl’s aunt must be a nutter…”
We laugh again and I’m grateful he came today. I’m grateful that he found me…and that he’s my brother. ”Yeah, Carmen got her to stop though, so that’s all that matters.”
He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees. ”No, I don’t think that’s all that matters. Those two love each other.”
I nod my head. ”But Shane can’t handle it Malcolm.”
He sighs. ”Bollocks…she just won’t let go of this no strings rubbish and let herself be happy.”
I smile sadly at him. ”That’s what I mean, she can’t handle it when things get serious and there’s not a fucking thing anyone can do about it but Shane. She’s just not ready.” I look back to Tina. ”I just hope she figures it out before it’s too late. Life is too fucking short to live it miserable.”
He nods his head in agreement as he stares at Tina as well. ”Well, at least she can’t get laid anymore. That might give her a boost in the right direction.”
We both laugh again. Yeah, ever since that post on her OurChart profile, women won’t come within five yards of her. I frown. That’s probably why she’s spiraling. She can’t resume her normal activities and she lost Carmen. Getting high must be her only escape anymore…
Malcolm stands and walks up to me, bending to kiss my hair. ”I hate to leave but my boss is raging cow when I slack off…”
We both chuckle and I squeeze his hand. ”Thank you for coming today, for being here. It means a lot.”
He smiles a boyish smile and walks over to Tina, giving her the same kiss before making his way out the door. I gaze back at Tina and sigh. What the fuck was that? I sit forward and stare at her face to make sure I’m not imaging things. Her face contorts into a frown, almost a grimace, and I rush over to her, sitting on the side of the bed and gazing into her face with hope. ”T?” There’s no response but the facial expression fades and tears well in my eyes. ”T…come on baby, what’s wrong…?” The beeping on the monitor stutters and then speeds up a little bit and my own heart jumps. ”T, can you hear me?” Her face and the beeping return to normal and I cry as I take her hand and kiss her knuckles. I may be going crazy and imagining things but I swear I feel her hand tighten in mine. But it’s gone as quickly as it came. ”T, if you can hear me, I love you…”
The nurse enters the room and I move to let her check Tina. She resets the monitor and frowns. ”What…what is it?”
She meets my eyes nervously and my heart stops altogether before she morphs her expression into the practiced detached professionalism her job must require. ”I’m sure it’s nothing, just a hiccup. She’s stable and doing just fine.” Her fake plastic smile makes me sick to my stomach as it knots and gathers in my throat. I swallow hard and resume my post as the nurse leaves. ’Tina, please…please be okay…the baby and I need you…’