“Bette, Tina, it’s good to see you.” Doctor Wilson steps into the room followed by a nurse. “So, other than being here, how have you been?”
I feel Tina’s small, warm hand settle in my own as she and the nurse take turns washing their hands. “I’m fine, just very ready to get these staples out. They itch to the point where Tina’s considered tying my hands behind my back.”
She grins at me as they both snap gloves on and settle in around me. The nurse covers my lower half with a sheet before lifting the gown to expose the incision, and the doctor responds. “I’ve never had a Caesarean section, but I did have staples once. I had a particularly nasty wound from a horse riding accident. Healing can be a very annoying process. But…” She looks at the incision and smiles. “…this looks fantastic. The wound is completely closed and the skin is a healthy pink. You must have followed your aftercare instructions to the letter. Well, that and I do good work.”
I chuckle at her. “Actually, Ming’s been taking care of it for me for the most part.”
She nods knowingly as the nurse hands her a fancy looking set of thin pliers and holds a small metal bowl out next to her. I brace myself as the first is removed, and aside from a little pressure, I don’t feel a thing.
The first one slides out easily and clangs as it’s dropped into the bowl. She continues to work as she makes conversation, each sentence punctuated by the removal of another staple. “Having medical personnel in the family is definitely a plus, or so I’m told.” Clang. “Ming’s a fantastic nurse.” Clang. “She scored very highly on her MCAT’s, but she said that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a doctor.” Clang. “Such a waste, she’s a born pediatrician.”
The last staple clangs into the bowl and she starts to gently clean the area. It’s strange; the puncture holes from the staples and the incision scar make the area look like a small zipper. The cold antiseptic she’s cleaning it with stings a little bit, but really it feels good as it soothes the itch and helps it to finally fade. “Well, you’ve healed beautifully. Not as well as it would have if the initial stitches had remained intact, but this will fade and you’ll hardly notice it. You don’t need dressings anymore and your internal sutures should have dissolved by now. There’s absolutely no sign of infection or swelling.” She gently prods around the area. “Do you feel anything?”
I shake my head. “No, it feels good to have those out though.”
She grins. “I bet. Well, you’re good as new.”
She lowers my gown and I sit up hesitantly. It feels incredible. The staples would pull uncomfortably when I would move, but now that they’re gone, I don’t feel a thing. I grin at the doctor. “Does this mean I can lift and move like normal?”
She smiles back as she removes her gloves and stands, walking over to the sink to again wash her hands. “Yes. It would be good for you to do more than walk now. You need to rebuild muscle strength. The wound is fully closed; you won’t accidently tear it open. I wouldn’t suggest that you start body building, but normal activities and exercise, those would just further perpetuate healing at this point.”
Tina strokes my back and I turn to gaze into her eyes. This is such a relief. I feel… whole, more like myself, like I again have control of my body, like I’m less helpless. Doctor Wilson dries her hands and says, “You can get dressed now. You’ll be billed as usual, so you’re all done here.”
She shakes my hand and then Tina’s, her expression is knowing as she says, “It really was good to see you both. You know where to find me if you want to have more children.”
I smile at her in gratitude. “Thanks, Doctor Wilson, but I think we’ll probably adopt if we want more. For now, three’s enough.” She grins and pats my knee. “Well, don’t lose my number. You never know…” She winks as she and the nurse exit.
I look over at Tina and decide to try out my new mobility. I turn and push up off the table and, although my muscles feel a little tight, it feels good to move uninhibited. Tina shakes her head at me as she sets my clothes on the bed for me to dress. I grin mischievously as she steps around the table, taking my gown from me and starting to fold it. I twirl her around and wrap my arms around her waist. Her shocked eyes meet mine as I dip my head to kiss her full, sweet mouth.
She sighs as she lifts her arms to lock them around my shoulders, tangling her fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I lift her up off the ground, pulling her closer and relishing the physical power I have again, tasting her, letting the scent of her lavender hair fill my lungs, feeling the solid but soft weight of her in my arms. She fills my senses with a lingering sense of life, and she inspires me to hope, hope that I will defeat these dreams, hope that I will defeat this trial, hope that I will defeat my past. I’m being tested, and the very reason I want to fight is in my arms right now, but more than that, the very reason I will win is in my arms right now. There is no greater hope for me than that of one Tina Porter-Kennard.
I open the door to answer it, holding Angie up on my hip as Tina comes up behind me with Chance in her arms. Tasha is standing on the porch, agitatedly playing with her keys, a sense of urgency in her dark eyes. “Tasha…? Hi…”
I open the door a little further to let her in and she smiles sadly, calming down a little. “Hey, guys. I’m sorry to just show up here like this and I can’t stay, but I was wondering if Alice is here? I’ve been trying her phone for the last couple of days and she’s not responding. I… we, um, well, I just need to speak with her.”
I furrow my brows and shake my head at her. “I’m sorry. She’s not here. You haven’t spoken to her for two days?”
She sighs and shakes her head. “I just needed to speak with her. If she’s not here, then I’ll be going. Again, I’m sorry for intruding.”
I set Angie down and Tina takes her hand, leading her away as she meets my eyes. I nod and step outside, shutting the door behind me and jogging to catch up to Tasha. “Tasha, wait a minute.” I get to her just as she picks up the helmet off of her motorcycle seat and smile at her. “You’re not intruding. We’re friends. You’re welcome here anytime.”
The corner of her mouth quirks into a slight smile and she lowers her head as she says, “Thanks.”
She doesn’t say anything more and while she’s always a very emotionally controlled person, I can tell that there is something very painful brewing beneath the surface. I put my hand on her shoulder. “I don’t mean to interfere, but is everything okay?”
She blows out a breath and looks up to me, her extreme control firmly in place. “I wouldn’t feel right talking about it, Bette.” She gestures to the house. “You understand…”
I nod my head. I do, but if Alice isn’t answering her, there’s cause for concern. “I do understand. I’ll try to get ahold of her and let her know you’re looking for her, okay?”
She nods and settles her helmet on her head. “Thanks, Bette. I appreciate it. You’re a good friend.”
I gaze into her eyes and I instantly realize that kind of pain. She’s lost to Dana. She knows it and I know it, despite whether Alice has actually realized it yet. “Tasha, no matter what happens, I’ll say it again: you’re always welcome here.”
She drops her hand from the keys she’s just placed in the ignition and sighs. “So you already know.”
It’s a statement of fact, not a question. “I don’t know anything, not really. I just know that sometimes connections are hard to break, impossible even, and it can be confusing when you’ve formed new ones. I honestly have no idea what’s actually happening though.”
She snorts out an incredulous laugh. “That makes two of us.”
I squeeze her shoulder. “Tasha, are you in love with Alice?”
She stares down at her hands as she says, “I am, but things have always been… difficult… between us. We’re just so different.” She gazes up into my eyes and I can see the strength of her conviction as she says, “I do know that I’m not ready to let her go.”
My heart aches for her. She’s such a good person, a strong and loyal person who values commitment and honesty. How can I give her hope that this can work when I just don’t see it myself? “One way or another, I think things will work out. I have hope.”
She smiles a sad smile up at me and says, “We’ll see if hope endures.” I can see the tears threatening to fall and I can also see the firm hold on her emotions fight with them to win. “Well, thanks again, Bette. I should be going.” I nod my head and step back as she turns the key. The bike roars to life and she takes off down the street, leaving a heavy feeling in my gut for what she’s about to go through. Alice is Dana’s soul mate. She just doesn’t stand a chance. The only bright spot in that knowledge is that hers is still out there somewhere, waiting for her.
“Hey, Al.” I open the door and she steps in, her demeanor extremely subdued. I shut the door and immediately put Chance in her arms. The babies always cheer me up and he’s wide awake, so he’s extra fun. She smiles down at him and leans in to kiss his forehead, sighing. I grin knowingly. The power babies wield is so compelling for something so small and innocent.
Alice seems to melt into a little puddle as she holds Chance, literally. Tears start streaming down her face and I usher her through the kitchen, giving Tina a look. She nods her head and reaches for the corkscrew and Angie abandons her Mama T, rushing over to Alice to hug her legs. Alice starts to cry harder and I pick Angie up, looking into her worried face as I say, “Auntie Alice is having a bad day, babycakes. Why don’t you help Mama T with the drinks and then come say hi, okay?”
She hugs me and whispers in a loud, pathetic voice, “Is she mad at me?”
Alice comes up and ruffles her curly coif, sniffing as she says, “No, sweetie. I’m just sad. You’re still my best girl.”
Angie leans forward and hugs Alice saying, “I’ll make you happy again.”
Alice chuckles through her tears. “I don’t doubt it.”
I set her down. “Help Mama T, okay? Then you can come see Auntie Alice.” She nods and toddles over to Tina who’s waiting for me to take Rory so she can pour some wine. I take my baby girl from her arms and kiss Rory sweetly, feeling a sharp swat to my ass as I turn and walk away. A crooked grin quirks my face, and I shake my head as I lead Alice to one of the chaise lounges by the pool. She settles down with Chance and I take the neighboring chaise with Rory.
I lean back, playing with the baby as I wait for Alice to speak. It’s several long minutes before she exhales heavily, her voice is low as she asks, “What exactly did Tasha say?”
Tina comes out carrying two glasses of wine, Angie in tow with her sippy cup. She sets the glasses down next to each of us and Angie crawls up next to Alice as Tina walks back into the kitchen to grab me a glass of Perrier. “You know Tasha. She didn’t say much.” She nods her head. “Al, what’s going on?”
Tina comes out, setting my glass next to her own as she settles in behind me and Rory. I lean back against her and she picks up her wine, taking a sip. She offers me one as well and I smile as she holds the cup to my lips, letting my only indulgence roll around on my tongue before swallowing. Man, that’s good. It will be nice when I can have one again, but these babies are most definitely worth it.
I look over to Alice. She hasn’t said a word. So Tina wraps her arms around me and Rory as we wait. It’s several long moments but when it happens, it’s like a flood of emotions. “I’m still in love with Dana, but I love Tasha too! I don’t want to hurt anyone so I’ve been avoiding them both, but then you called and I spoke with Tasha and she said that I have to make a choice! A fucking choice! I don’t know what to do and I’m freaking the fuck out! No matter what I do, someone gets hurt! I mean, fuck!”
I look to Angie to see if she made out the fucks in that statement. The confused look on her face as she stares at Alice who’s drowning herself in wine, tells me that she missed most of the running diatribe of obscenities. Alice finishes her wine, meets my eyes, and says, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to calm down.” Tina gets up from behind me and takes Chance from Alice’s arms, giving her a reproachful look as she snatches Alice’s cup and heads back inside to refill it.
Alice voice is pathetic as she calls out, “Sorry, TK,” and starts crying again.
Angie reaches up and pats Alice on the shoulder, sighing solemnly as she says, “Fuck…,” in her sweet little voice.
Tina stops mid-stride, and my eyes pop out of my head. Alice looks mortified as she gapes at Angie and then looks to both of us horror stricken. I have no idea what to do. I can’t reprimand my daughter for repeating her thoughtless earth mother. Alice stammers as she gazes into Angie’s wide eyes but finally manages to choke out, “No, Ang, that was fu-dge.” She says the word as if it has three syllables. “I just need some fudge…”
Angie frowns. “But you said fu-”
Alice clamps her hand down over Angie’s mouth, releasing her hesitantly after a long moment of tense silence. Angie looks at all of us. “What’s it mean?”
Fuck… I sigh as I hold a hand out to Angie. “Come here for a minute, babycakes.” She comes over to me, settling at the end of the chaise and I meet her eyes, keeping my voice light as I explain, “That word is something that adults sometimes use when they’re upset. It’s like a very bad way of saying, ‘Oh no,’ but that is not a word you may use. Okay, babycakes?” She crosses her arms over chest as if she’s about to disagree and I gaze at her seriously. “Angie, you’re not allowed to use that word, are we clear?” She rolls her eyes, giving up the fight as she nods her head. I’m in for hell with this one. She’s just like me.
I meet Tina’s intense eyes and she grins ferally at me. She almost seems… aroused? She tears her eyes from mine and I fight the urge to fan my face as she finishes her trek into the kitchen. I look to Alice. She’s ready for her scolding and decides on a pre-emptive strike. “Bette, I’m so sorry… I just wasn’t thinking…” I glare at her but can’t help my smile. She releases a relieved breath and collapses back into the chaise, throwing an arm over her eyes. “This day is going to be the death of me…”
Chance starts to fuss and I check his diaper as I say, “Al, it’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to, just try to be careful, okay?” She nods contritely and I smile as I discover Chance is clean. I lift my tank and he latches on right away. I kiss his unruly hair and continue. “Listen, Al, I understand that there’s really no good option in this. Yes, someone is going to get hurt. So, that’s why it’s important to follow your heart. Do you love one of them more than the other?”
She sits back up as Tina approaches and hands her a newly filled glass. She takes another big swig as Tina comes and resettles herself with me and Angie. She smiles at Chance and takes my hand. Alice blows out a heavy breath. “I love them both, but I didn’t think I could have Dana, you know?”
I nod my head. “But you obviously can.”
Alice falls silent as she thinks things over and Tina cuts in. “Al, don’t forget that you don’t have to choose either of them. If you aren’t head over heels in love with one of them, then maybe you should just date for a while, figure yourself out.”
She takes another sip of wine and Tina joins her. I eye my Perrier and sigh, picking it up to take a large sip, and Angie takes a sip of her own from her sippy cup. I stroke her back adoringly and try again. “Alice, sometimes you just do the best you can with the information available to you. They put themselves in this situation too. You just make the choice you can live with the best.”
And just like that, I have another hallelujah moment. I haven’t lived up to that advice myself. I’ve always realized that I was just in a bad place with Candace, that I made the only choice I could. I protected my wife and kids to Candace’s detriment. She just didn’t leave me an out. I grab ahold of that realization and hold it inside to let it stick. Tina squeezes my hand and I meet her eyes. She knows, but she doesn’t say I told you so. I lift her knuckles and kiss them before taking another sip.
Alice sits up and sighs. “Well, I think I know what I have to do.”
Tina and I both look to her impatiently as we wait for her to continue. When she doesn’t, I speak up. “Okay, so what’s the decision?”
She smiles sadly and leans back in the lounge, taking a sip of her wine. “I choose…”
I walk into Dan’s office, utterly exhausted. Joyce was particularly vicious today, and while I was ready for her, it was draining keeping my cool while she threw every nasty, passive-aggressive jab she could at me. But I did it. I held my head high and she didn’t bait me, not even once. I just want to go home and see my family, but here I am, settling into the loveseat in front of Dan Foxworthy to hash out my latest battles. “You seem tired, Bette. Can I have Lisa get you something?”
I settle further back into the soft cushion and shake my head, smiling wearily. “No, thank you. I just want to get home.”
He smiles. “Okay then. Do you want to look at the dream you thought was most relevant again, or do you want to analyze a more recent one?”
I furrow my brows as I pull the dream journal from my purse, turning to the most recent page. ‘I feel ready to let Candace die and feel frustrated because I can’t seem to do it.’ “Let’s work on the relevant one we’ve been talking about. The new ones are all the same. I’m ready to let Candace go, but just can’t figure out how.”
He nods his head. “Okay, you say you’re ready but still can’t seem to do it. What did she say?”
I think back on the strangely civilized conversation that I had with a figment of my imagination and that realization makes it all the more bizarre. “She told me that she won’t let me go, even after I apologized and agreed that what I did to her was wrong. She was… just so angry, and so desperate, Dan. And no matter how many times I’ve tried, I can’t stop Tina from killing herself, only from being murdered.”
“So what do you think is holding you back?”
I close my eyes and consider this for a moment. “I, I guess I’m just getting so desensitized to the disturbing images. I just don’t feel as guilty anymore. It’s like… it’s like I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I can’t stop her so I’ve been trying to reason with her, even though I know she’s not reasonable. It’s like what she’s doing isn’t enough anymore and I’m trying to talk her out of continuing.”
“And that’s not working, obviously.”
I sigh. “Obviously.”
“Okay, so you’ve tried killing her; you’ve tried talking her out of it; you’ve tried apologizing; what haven’t you tried?”
I frown. This is the same hang-up I always run into. I have no idea what’s left. “What more do you do with someone who’s torturing you? You try to escape, and when that doesn’t work, you try to reason with them.”
He smiles knowingly and I hate him because he’s probably figured it out and left me in the dust. “And if those don’t work, what do you do?”
I throw my hands up in exasperation, stammering as I try to force thoughts into words, but neither are forthcoming. “I… ugh… I guess… I guess you beg and plead for mercy…”
I exhale and drop my hands. “Or… you just go along for the ride… I guess.”
His smile becomes a grin. “If you can’t beat em’…”
I cock my head to the side. “Join em’…”
He nods slowly as he sits forward. “Do you exercise daily, run, walk, anything that helps you clear your head?”
I gaze at him curiously. “I was considering starting to run again. I just got my staples out at the beginning of week and I can now.”
“Good, good. Okay, I want you to let Candace show you what she wants you to see. Let go of the reins and just let her get her point across. Keep up on your diary, and when you read your entry in the mornings, go for a run while you think about it. Just focus on what you’ve seen, what you know, and what you need. See what you come up with.”
I nod and smile a weary smile. “It can’t hurt. I’ll give it a try.” He sits back and I sigh. I’ll give anything a shot at this point. I have two weeks before the trial and I want to be clear-headed and well-rested, done with the battle before I start the war. After all, how can I convince a jury that I’m innocent if I can’t convince myself first?