My eyes open just as Tina starts to stir. She lays Rory down on her back next to a still-napping Angie, careful not to wake either of them. The knock at the front door sounds again and she meets my gaze, smiling warmly. She strokes my cheek and says, “You stay. I’ll go get it.” I kiss her palm and she runs her hand over Chance’s back before crawling off the bed in the spare room and disappearing out the door. My left arm is trapped under Angie’s head and it’s numb, but I don’t care. Chance is sound asleep on my chest, Angie is curled up next to me, her eyes fluttering with her own dreams, and Rory’s stretched out on her back in the spot that Tina just vacated. It’s blissful.
We haven’t done a single thing today but live, be together as a family, and it’s been remarkable. I turn to look at the bedside clock and smile. It’s three o’clock, time to wake Angie and feed the twins anyway. I stroke the cowlick behind Chance’s ear and sigh contentedly. We’ll get up in a little bit. Tina, Malcolm, and Ming appear in the doorway with bright smiles on their faces. Malcolm’s voice is low as he says, “Hey, sis. We can come back later. We didn’t mean to interrupt a nap.” Tina crawls back up on the bed, but stays upright as she takes Rory back in her arms and kisses her sleeping face.
I smile at Malcolm. “No, they’ll be hungry soon enough and if we don’t wake Angie, she won’t sleep tonight.”
Ming comes forward and strokes Chance’s wild hair, smiling as she says, “Well, as promised, I’m here to check your incision.” I look down at my son and sigh.
Malcolm grins at me and says, “I haven’t had much time with my nephew and I’m quite certain he’s feeling outnumbered in this crowd. May I?” I lift Chance gently and kiss the tip of his nose before Malcolm takes him from my hands and makes his way to the patio doors, stepping just outside of them to give us privacy.
I lift my tank up a little bit and Ming helps me get my loose-fitting pants down low on my hips. She lifts the bandages, pulling at the tape so quickly that I don’t even have time to wince. She smiles at the incision. “They did a good job. The scar will be more pronounced, but not by much. Let me throw these away and wash my hands, and I’ll clean and redress it.”
I release a relieved breath. “Thanks, Ming.”
She stands, saying, “It’s no problem at all. I’ll be right back.” She makes her way to the en suite and I hear the water turn on. I turn to Tina who is doing nothing more than just adoring the baby girl in her arms and I sigh with bittersweet joy. There’s a deep sense of anxiety as the trial looms in the distance. There’s nothing worse than waiting. If not for that one issue, that one huge issue, this would be absolutely perfect.
Tina looks up and meets my gaze, reaching over to take my numb hand and sending pins and needles shooting up the extremity. I wince and she chuckles knowingly. She releases me and puts her hand under Angie’s neck, gently lifting her head so I can pull my aching arm out from underneath. She sets her head back down and scoots closer, crossing her legs and rubbing my arm. I sigh as the blood starts to refill the limb and can’t help the words that tumble from my mouth. “I love you, T.”
She lifts an eyebrow at me and continues to massage. “I love you too, babe.”
Ming comes back into the room with fresh bandages and a towel, and sets to work quickly and efficiently cleaning my incision. It looks terrible, at least to me, but if she says it’s doing well, I’ll trust her professional opinion. Her touch is soothing and she’s done in no time. “Okay, you’re all done. You seem to be getting plenty of rest. Just keep it up.”
I resettle my clothes and pull myself up against the headboard as I look out the patio doors to see that Chance is awake. “You can come in now, Malcolm.”
He steps back into the room and passes Chance back to me before sitting at the foot of the bed. “I think he’s ready to eat.”
Tina passes me a baby blanket from the other edge of the bed and I cover myself as I lift my tank and settle Chance. He starts eating and Angie starts to stir. She smiles at me in that wonderfully sleepy way and looks around groggily. When she finds Malcolm, she doesn’t hesitate to crawl right into his lap, resting her head against his chest as she starts to fully wake up. He wraps his arms around her and smiles. “Hey, niblet.” He meets my eyes and I am overcome with adoration for my brother as he says, “I love it when she’s like this. She’s awake but she’s relaxed and cuddly, instead of busy and talking circles around me.” We laugh softly. That’s no joke. She is far too smart for her own good.
His face becomes a little serious as he says, “Thank you, sis.”
I furrow my brows at him in confusion. He’s holding the very gift he gave us freely and he’s thanking me? “For what?”
He blows out a deep breath and smiles. “You’ve just given me so much: a family, a job, you helped me fulfill my dreams…” He grins at Ming. “…introduced me to that lovely creature.” Ming walks over to him and leans against his side, rubbing his shoulder gently. He turns back to me with watery, soulful eyes and I can see the depth of honesty he’s sharing with me right now, just how much he loves me. “So, you know, nothing too incredible… just a life worth having.”
We all chuckle and tears gather in my own eyes as I say, “I’m just glad you walked into my office that day. You’ve been nothing short of a blessing, Malcolm. But, you’re welcome, if you need to hear it.”
I look to my wife with shining eyes to see her swipe at her own tears. I know how badly she wants this with Tom. He just has a long way to go before he’ll be Malcolm’s caliber. Fortunately, Tom spends a lot of time with Malcolm and Ming. Hopefully Malcolm will rub off on him. I reach over and take my wife’s hand, squeezing it in comfort. She meets my eyes and smiles sadly, but it becomes more genuine as our connection fills in the gaps that Tom has left in her heart. I can almost hear the words her wonderful, hazel eyes are saying: ‘I love you.’ I gaze back at her and pull all of my own love to the front, baring everything to her. She lifts my hand and kisses it and I can tell that the message is received loud and clear. I love her too.
“Whit, Joyce, come in.” Tina shuts the front door and we both escort them to the sectional in the living room. “Thanks for meeting us here. It’s much easier with the children and Bette still healing.”
Joyce waves her arm dismissively. “It’s no problem.”
I sit carefully at the end of the sectional with Tina as they both settle on the other end. Tina gestures to the coffee table where a few glasses of lemonade are sitting. “Help yourselves.”
They both pick up a glass and Joyce takes a sip as Whit starts the meeting. “Thank you. We’ve been in touch with the district attorney and wanted to go over some things with you: what to expect, what to watch out for, and of course clarify just how this is going to work.”
He takes a sip of the lemonade and sets it back down on a coaster as Joyce continues for him. “Okay, so what to expect…” She looks me right in the eyes. “…you are going to be attacked, personally, Bette. All of the forensic and physical evidence is on your side here.” She snorts. “Her case doesn’t stand a chance unless she can prove that you intended to kill Ms. Jewel. To do that, she plans to attack your character; make you out to be a salacious, sexual deviant and pervert, a woman who uses her money, connections, and power to manipulate and exploit innocent people to further her own desires.”
I shake my head and gaze at her incredulously. “Why? That’s not what happened…”
Whit interjects. “I’ve been practicing criminal law for more than twenty years. Sadly, it’s never really about what actually happened; it’s about using the tools at your disposal to achieve the desired outcome. She wants a conviction and we don’t. Knowing her motivations won’t help us hinder her from achieving that goal. Like Joyce said, her only chance at conviction is to prove your motivations were malicious. And that’s what she intends to do.”
I lean against Tina and marvel at the atrocity of our legal system. Tina puts her arm around me and plays with a stray curl, offering her support. Joyce picks up where Whit left off. “Just keep in mind that the evidence is on your side. It’s always harder to prove motive than it is to show facts. We have facts; she has speculation – convincing speculation, but speculation nonetheless.”
I blow out a weary breath, swallowing the hopelessness I feel. I have to focus so I can fight, and I have to fight. I owe nothing less to my family. “Okay, so how is she going to ‘prove’ my motives?”
Whit and Joyce look to one another and Joyce takes the lead. “She has several witnesses from your past, Bette. These are women who claim you picked them up at a bar, used them, and threw them aside.”
My eyes go wide. “You can’t be serious…”
Joyce leans forward, linking her fingers as she rests her elbows on her knees, and gazes at me with a serious expression. “Bette, you have a reputation that still follows you around. Hell, I knew who you were before you hired me. There are some very scorned women out there that want to see you fall. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge you for your past. Everyone has one and frankly, that’s not the job you hired me for. But just because it’s in your past, doesn’t mean it can’t come back to bite you on the ass. Merle knows that, and she has found three different women willing to go on record as character witnesses.”
I can’t even find words. I know she’s right and again a part of me wonders if I deserve this. Tina takes my hand and links our fingers as she asks, “How can she prove that these women aren’t lying?”
Whit speaks up. “One of your friends, an Alice Pieszecki…”
Tina’s countenance becomes cold as she corrects him, “Pieszecki… she’s testifying?”
Whit nods his head. “She’s been subpoenaed. She owns a website…”
I close my eyes. Fuck. They can prove I slept with them because of Alice’s stupid fucking chart. Tina squeezes my hand as she helps him again. “OurChart.”
He nods his head. “Thank you. Yes. You’re familiar with the site and understand its relevance?”
I nod my head, still unable to do anything but seethe in anger. Tina strokes my hand and again fills in for me. “What else?”
Whit continues. “She’ll also be calling Candace’s mother to the stand as a character witness for her daughter. They plan to depict her as an innocent, a victim, someone committed to community service, family, and hard work.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose between my forefinger and thumb. This just keeps getting better and better. My voice is hoarse with emotion as I ask, “Anything else?”
Whit continues. “One more of your friends has been subpoenaed, a Carmen de la Pica Morales.”
Fuck me. I meet Tina’s eyes and she kisses my hand. Joyce continues. “Bette, don’t worry.” I scoff at her words and stare at her. She must be out of her mind. “We have a strong defense. You just need to trust us. We’re going to hit back and we’re going to hit hard.”
Whit’s voice cuts in. “I’ve been doing this a very long time. I know all of the tactics the DA’s planning to employ; I’ve employed some of them myself, and I will again if I need to. You won’t be railroaded.”
I take a deep breath in through my mouth and exhale through my nose, forcing myself to face this from a place of strength. “Okay, so what do I do? Just wait?”
Joyce smiles. “Well, that’s part of it. But while you’re waiting, I’ll be meeting with you once a week to prepare you for what you’ll hear in the courtroom. I want you to be controlled and cool as a cucumber. I also want to know if we can pull you and Tina up on the stand. Neither of you can be forced to testify, but it would be useful, especially Tina.”
Tina doesn’t hesitate. “I’ll do anything if it means Bette comes home.”
Joyce leans back smugly. “I thought you might feel that way.”
I turn to Tina. I don’t like this. “T, you know she’s going to twist your words. Are you sure?”
Joyce interrupts. “I’ll meet with you, Bette, and Whit will meet with Tina. You’ll both be very well-prepared for the stand.”
I hear her but I ignore her, choosing instead to defer to Tina. “Do you want to do this?”
Tina frowns and looks to Joyce and Whit. “Is there any possibility that I could hurt her case by going up? If this goes wrong and I’m responsible for putting her in jail…”
Joyce lifts her hand to stop Tina. “It will only go that way if you can’t keep your cool or fail to choose your words carefully. Whit will prepare you for that. There is no guarantee, but it all really comes down to whether or not you think you can handle it.”
Tina nods her head. “If it will help her, then I have to try.”
Joyce says, “Okay, well, that’s really all of it. Did either of you have any questions?”
I look to Tina and shake my head. She smiles sadly as she plays with my fingers and replies, “No.”
“Alrighty then.” Joyce and Whit stand. “We’ll be in touch to set up a day each week. Call if you think of anything or have any questions.”
Tina stands, putting her hand on my shoulder. “I’ll walk them out. Just rest, okay?”
I nod my head and turn to my lawyers. “Thank you both for your help.”
Whit smiles tightly. “It’s no problem. We’ll be in touch.” I hold onto Tina’s hand until the last minute as she escorts them to the door and sink down on the couch. Every dirty detail of the darkest part of my life is about to be very publically aired. I know Tina has forgiven me, but this could alter our relationship. Even if I’m not convicted, my kids will know someday that mommy killed a woman. Everything is going to change, regardless of the outcome. Fuck me. Just fuck me…
I start to walk forward and even though my movements are fluid and easy, my progress seems slow and halted, as if it’s all happening under water. I breathe in deep, the sickly sweet odor of heavy, decaying flowers in the air filling my lungs and reassuring me I’m above ground. It’s dark, but I can make out the glow of light under the door at the end of the hallway in front of me. I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to go there, to see what’s behind this door. So I maintain my stride as I approach the closed door and watch as my hand slowly creeps out to grab the handle.
Its surface is scalding hot and I jerk my raw hand away, tears stinging my eyes as the stench of burned flesh assaults my nostrils. My hand is a vivid red, angry blisters boiling up instantly on the charred surface as a scream echoes shrilly from behind the door. Tina?
I jerk up and wince, quickly lying back onto the mattress to alleviate the pain in my incision caused by the jarring motion. My chest is heaving and a clammy sweat is beading up on my forehead. I swallow hard and turn to look at Tina. Her back is to me as she rests on her side, her chest rising and falling in an even rhythm, her honey blond hair fanned out on her pillow. I reach out to touch her, to find comfort in her. “T…?” My fingertips touch her back and her breathing stops. Her skin is ice cold and the burnished glow quickly drains away, leaving a greyish hue behind. Angry purple bruises begin to blossom on her back and her skin starts to shrivel against her muscles, leaving it pruned and rough. “Tina?”
There’s no response and I start to panic. I grab her cold shoulder and tug, her body stiff and unyielding as I try to wake her. “Tina?”
I pull her hard and her body rolls towards me until she’s fully on top of me. I scream as I look into her sagging, rotting face, her eyes rolled back into her head, her jaw slack and her tongue hanging from the gaping opening. I struggle and push as I try to throw her off of me, but she’s too heavy. I close my eyes and push harder, tears leaking down the sides of my face. I feel small, warm hands grab my thrashing wrists and pin them above my head as Tina’s gentle voice says, “Bette…”
I open my eyes and a healthy, alive Candace is gazing down on me. Her dark eyes are cold as she says, “If I can’t have you…” She straddles my waist and holds both of my hands with one of her own as she leans up and pulls a gun from somewhere behind her back. The black metal gleams in the muted light coming through the window as she aims it at me. “…nobody will.” She smiles and turns, releasing me as she aims it on Tina who’s standing in the door, gaping at us.
She shuffles closer, her expression crushed as she whispers, “Why, Bette? Why…?” Tears fall from her eyes and Candace laughs. I watch in panicked horror as she starts to pull the trigger and bellow as I push up, shoving her hard. Candace falls backwards on the bed, the gun clattering to the floor as I crawl up on top of her, wrapping my hands around her throat, squeezing and shaking with all of my strength. She claws angry, red tracks into my arms, but the flush of anger and hatred coursing through me is like an anesthetic and I don’t feel it. I stare into her dark eyes as she grows weaker, watching for that moment when the dim light in them will flicker out like a candle in a strong wind. Even when it’s gone, I still hold on just to be sure, crushing her windpipe as her body starts to disintegrate in my hands until she’s nothing but a pile of jagged sand.
I sit back, breathing hard and trying to discern what is happening until the movement at the foot of the bed catches my attention. I look up just in time to see Tina pick up the gun and hold it to her quivering chin, her body shaking with heaving sobs as tears stream from her eyes. There’s a moment of stillness as she asks, “Why…?”
I sit up and wince as the movement pulls at my staples. Tina strokes my face as I pant for breath and her warm voice says, “Shh, babe, it’s okay. It was just a dream. It’s okay. Lie down. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
I look into her face, not trusting her, not trusting this, waiting in rigid anticipation for this seemingly innocent scene to morph into a nightmare. Her eyes are worried as she strokes my face. I flinch at the contact and I can see my reaction hurt her. I reach up and hesitantly take her hand, letting its warmth calm me. “Are you… is this real?”
She furrows her brows. “Babe, it was just a nightmare. Do you want to tell me about it?”
I shake my head and close my eyes. “It was just… I don’t even know. It’s hard to explain.”
She lies down next to me and gathers me in her arms, tucking my head under her chin and stroking my hair. “I understand. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” We lie like this for long moments and I soak up her comfort. “Have you had any other dreams?”
I close my eyes and sigh as I say, “No.” She kisses the crown of my head and squeezes me tightly. I press my face against her chest, nuzzling her and listening to her heartbeat reassure me that it was just a nightmare, nothing more. Just a nightmare…