This Janice and Mel story is part of a series and follows "Die Pflicht." While not absolutely necessary, the reader is encouraged to read the preceding stories first, in order to understand the attempted development of the characters.
The lead characters are borrowed from the TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess©.
This story contains or references, but is not limited to:
Accidents, amazing coincidences, angst, archaeologists, balls, Birkenau, blankets, blood, boys, bright flashes of light, brown paper bags, bulls, cars, children, china, concentration camps, cursing, death, dives, doctors, driving, family, fighting, fire, friends (old and new), Gabrielle, Germans, glasses, God, grandparents, Greeks, guns, Gypsies, happiness, horns, hospitals, immortals, joy, lesbians, linguists, love, men, Moby Dick, monsters, motherhood, professors, questions, scrolls, sensible shoes, sex, Southerners, speeding, survivors, stones, tea, tears, temples, truth, whips, women, Xena.
Please skip this story if the above content is deemed offensive.
- Enginerd (April 2001)
Melinda Pappas tied the sash of her robe around her waist as she entered her bedroom, finally relaxed after the exhausting day at the University. Indulging in a decadently long soak in the bathtub did wonders to soothe the kinks and aches from the long day, not to mention significantly improve her disposition. She stretched slowly, hoping she was strong enough to survive the next few years of her doctoral work. Who would have thought academic work could be so physically draining?
Sitting down on the edge of her bed, the relaxed Southerner slowly untangled her wet mane as she hummed contentedly. She had finally finished her latest paper and felt an incredible load lifted off her shoulders . . . at least for now. But what really put her in a good mood was the anticipation of her first date in what seemed like an eternity with her unusually patient archaeologist, who had given her a much-needed wide berth while the focused graduate student caught up with undergraduate credits and immersed herself in grueling doctoral research.
Mel grinned as she brushed her hair, determined they would fully take advantage of her small reprieve from deadlines, tests, and early morning classes. With a happy sigh, Mel thought of her lover. Along with her teaching at the university, the tireless Dr. Janice Covington kept herself busy with numerous projects around their house and for friends while Mel plugged away at the academic drudgery. She had to laugh when the Pappas' family driver, Robert, said they would all miss Janice's handy work when Mel finally got her degree.
She could sympathize with him up to a point. There were certainly benefits from Janice's inordinate attention to their barn-turned-home...and her car, which had never run better. And she was pretty sure they would never run out of firewood. However, Melinda had to selfishly admit she was looking forward to the day when she graduated. Not just because of the fulfillment of a life-long dream, but because she could more frequently enjoy Janice's more personal handy work.
Her brush slowed to a stop as she thought of a few, very explicit examples. Suddenly feeling flush, the Southern lady cleared her throat and tried to focus on her hair. However, more, most unladylike thoughts continued to distract her.
A soft, amused chuckle welled up as she rolled her eyes at how the good doctor had woken her formerly hibernating passion and released a famished beast. But now with her insanely busy schedule, this increasingly neglected beast was becoming more than a bit restless.
Her smile slowly faded as she thought of how Janice never complained about just going to sleep or cuddling when the Southerner was too tired. And frequently, Janice even suggested it when Mel wasn't exhausted. As she thought about how unusually patient and understanding Janice had been, an insidious self-doubt, which had grown deep roots after years of cultivation by her family, bloomed in her fertile imagination.
Mel knew Janice had previous lovers. Lovers who were far more experienced. Lovers that wouldn't break good vases or large kitchen appliances in a moment of untamed passion. Lovers that wouldn't turn her away because of exhaustion or the need to study, Melinda thought uneasily.
What if Janice really didn't mind these constraints in their love life? What if Janice didn't feel like she did? What if Janice was becoming tired of her?!?
The preoccupied Southerner jumped when Janice stormed into their bedroom. With unmistakable intent, the archaeologist quickly crossed the room and stood before her, radiating impatience and pure desire.
Mel smiled with delight as all her doubts were quickly and thoroughly put to bed. Her smile slowly faded as Janice's wanton gaze soaked up every inch of her robe-covered body, provoking a wave of warmth over her now goose-bumped flesh, as if Janice had gently caressed her. The Southerner exhaled with a soft moan, wondering if it was possible to climax from a hungry look.
The incredibly focused archaeologist grabbed for the robe's sash, but abruptly stopped and searched the Southerner's eyes. Seeing only anticipation and desire mirroring her own, Janice proceeded to untie the sash, slowly. Her intense gaze never left Mel's.
Considering Janice's impatience in so many things, she always amazed Mel with her ability to restrain her desire. A skill she had not yet managed to develop, Mel acknowledged as her hand darted out, grabbed the back of Janice's neck and pulled her in for a searing kiss. Her brush toppled to the floor, forgotten, as her other hand claimed the smaller woman's hip.
Janice slipped her hand beneath Mel's robe and kneaded pliant flesh as the consuming kiss continued. When their lips parted, Mel intended to complain about the archaeologist's excessive clothing. Instead, she gasped as Janice firmly pushed aside the terry cloth and possessed a sensitive nipple with her hungry mouth and pushed Mel back on the bed.
When her lover's displaced hand found a new home, Mel was ready. More than ready. "Oh," she moaned as the intimate attention brought her a surprisingly quick release and her hands clung to the archaeologist as her body violently quaked.
As Mel caught her breath, a contented smile grew as she continued to receive the archaeologist's less driven but still delicious attention. Her body shuddered with pleasure again as kisses slowly progressed up her body. Mel sighed happily, concluding it was a very good thing they could sleep in tomorrow.
Having kissed her way up to an ear, Janice whispered with weary amusement, "I think, Miss Pappas, this doctorate of yours just might kill me." Janice grinned and pulled back to gaze upon Mel's beautiful face, which immediately filled with concern.
"Janice, if you'd rather I not spend so much time . . . " Mel quickly blurted but was immediately stopped by a kiss.
"But," Mel tried again when their lips parted, but another kiss silenced her.
Reluctantly ending the wonderful, yet distracting, contact, Mel tried again. "Jan..."
Janice cradled her love's face, strategically placing a thumb on the Southerner's lips as she peppered her cheek with gentle kisses.
"Sshhh!" Janice finally responded, definitely getting Mel's attention. Janice couldn't help but grin when Mel's eyebrows furrowed. Miss Pappas did not like being told to shush.'
"Sweetheart, it's your dream," Janice offered warmly as she caressed the Southerner's face, causing the furrowed brows to relax. "And I'll be damned if I ever stand in the way of your dream. Besides, grad school's not forever," Janice said firmly. "And this," she softly added, pausing for a tender kiss, "is."
Mel had dreamt of what love might be like. But reality was so much better, she concluded as a broad smile brightened her beautiful face, immensely pleasing the archaeologist.
Janice hoped to always give Mel a reason to smile.
Aware the evening had only just begun, Melinda's smile slowly faded as powerfully primal urges welled up and could no longer be ignored. The beast's monstrous appetite was going to be satisfied.
Hang on,' Janice thought with anticipation, seeing the Southerner's demeanor dramatically transform. Within a blink of an eye, Janice was on her back and straddled by the breathtaking presence. Janice gazed up at the thrilling woman, whose robe fell off her shoulders, but still prevented full appreciation of her beautiful flesh. Determined to rectify that problem, she reached out for the robe.
The Southerner captured the archaeologist's helpful hands and firmly pinned them on the bed over her head.
Not that bad a view, Janice considered, glancing over her lover with amusement. But the robe had to go, Janice concluded.
Melinda's predatory gaze melted into uneasy curiosity as she released Janice's arms and sat up.
"Forever?" Melinda asked.
Janice's eyebrows furrowed. They had never really discussed it, but it was obvious, wasn't it? They refurbished the barn into their home didn't they? She even got a respectable job at the University, didn't she?
Of course it was obvious, she concluded with certainty, then noticed the concern grow on Melinda's face as her silence continued. The only thing obvious is that you're an oblivious idiot, Covington, Janice considered.
"Well, at least as long as you'll put up with me," Janice said with an uneasy attempt at levity. From Mel's furrowed brows, she knew she needed to say more. Janice cleared her throat and plowed ahead.
"I love you, Mel. And to me, the only difference between us and a married couple is a formal ceremony," Janice declared, taking the Southerner's hand. "I've never felt that way about anyone," she added softly, kissing it. "You're the only one, Mel" she said firmly.
A smile bloomed on the Southerner's face.
"Then we feel the same," Mel admitted softly, tenderly tracing her fingers over her lover's cheek, touched by the words and the conviction with which they were delivered.
"No, we don't," Janice responded, startling the Southerner. "You're much, much softer," she informed her with a chuckle. "But I need to take that robe off you to show you," Janice quickly added as she reached out for the robe again.
Deflecting the persistent hands, Mel rolled her eyes.
"Do you realize how dangerously close you came to being romantic, Dr. Covington?"
"I have to say in my defense, Miss Pappas, you are a bad influence," Janice said with a grin, undeterred in her mission and reached out again for the robe, only to be gently swatted away.
"I am, am I?" Melinda deeply purred and grabbed the archaeologist's shirt with both hands. She chuckled seeing Janice's eyes widen and drop to her favorite shirt, which Melinda had already re-sewn the buttons on, twice.
Forgoing the annoyingly slow task of unbuttoning it, Melinda ripped the shirt apart. Her hand collided into her china teacup, shattering her dream.
"Huh? Wha...?" Mel sputtered groggily as she lifted her head from the stack of papers on her desk. "Janice?" Mel called sleepily as the disoriented Southerner quickly sat up. The morning sun filled her study, making her squint.
Blinking a few times, she adjusted her crooked glasses and searched the empty room as her uneasiness grew. Her search abruptly stopped at the wall, where pictures of her son, Jacob Jeremy, and her large diploma hung proudly. Poignant reminders of how much time had passed since that wonderful night with Janice.
A pained breath escaped as bitter-cold reality slapped her.
It wasn't the first time she was willingly swept into the dreamscape's warm illusion, where, for a short but wonderful time, she was loving her soulmate. Where, for a short but wonderful time, she could immerse herself in the dream of their forever.
But awake, she was left to face the harsh truth that their forever had been cruelly cut short.
Her eyes sought out the plain, silver-framed picture which sat on her desk. Picking it up, she gazed upon the rare, slightly blurry photograph of the two of them as her long fingers absently caressed the edge.
Janice never liked her picture taken. Mel had to practically beg her for this one. Thankfully, she didn't accept Janice's first three no's' and had Robert take it. It turned out to be the last ever taken of Janice.
Eight years had passed since Janice died in that ill-fated mission to England. "To find ambrosia before the Nazis," she clearly recalled the Army Major's patriotic speech.
But the Nazis found her first.
Tears welled up as she thought about how the trip had gone so horribly wrong. Forever haunting her would be the image of Janice being shot and collapsing to the Cathedral floor, along with the deep guilt for contributing to that outcome. An outcome she had dreamt would happen. An outcome borne from her own deep-rooted insecurities.
She had been jealous of the surprisingly young and beautiful Mother Superior, who had enlisted her former student, Janice, for numerous errands.' How ironic, she thought, that one of the errands was to move the fabled ambrosia to someplace safer than the bombed Cathedral. The very ambrosia they had traveled to England to find.
She knew she should have trusted her soulmate. Janice would not just abandon her, or the war effort, unless there was a good reason. But she didn't use her head. No, instead, her insecurities drove her to go find the absent archaeologist, unknowingly leading the Nazis straight to her.
Mel took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting the pain that would well up every time she relived the worst day in her life. A day when it seemed it couldn't possibly get worse, it did. It didn't stop after the loss of her soulmate in her arms. No, after regaining consciousness from a blow to the head, she followed a gut-wrenching stench inside the still-smoldering Cathedral and saw her lover's body, burnt beyond recognition, except for the blackened Saint Christopher's medallion around her neck.
They never did find out what happened to Mother Superior. It was generally assumed the nun had successfully bargained for the Southerner's life, promising information about the fabled ambrosia, and was killed when she was no longer useful to the Nazis. Considering Germany had lost the war, the Southerner also guessed the enemy had never unlocked that Pandora's box - if it ever existed.
But she didn't care.
Melinda bitterly recalled how she wasn't allowed to talk to Janice's sister, Sister Mary Francis, or contact home for days.
She was left alone.
Alone to face the guilt, the horror, and the unimaginable pain. Alone, except for the various British and American officials, who had no idea what she had just lost, or if they did, just didn't care.
Day after day, they kept interrogating her about things she had no answers for. The only thing she knew was that her lover's charred remains were all that were left to show for that grand mission they recruited her for. And they didn't even have the decency to let her take Janice home for a proper burial.
Mel unsuccessfully fought the tears that fell as she knelt on the floor to pick up the pieces. The saucer was now in three large pieces and the handle was cleanly broken from the cup. She should be able to glue them together, she thought, attempting to focus on something, anything else. As she carefully got up and placed the broken pieces on the desk, she heard the only sound ever able to lift her heart from the depths of her loss.
"Mama!" JJ called out with excitement.
Mel quickly wiped her eyes and smiled warmly as the pajama-clad, joy of her life ran into the study with his light blue blanket. Unfortunately, he was more concerned about greeting his mother than watching his footing. His feet tangled in the blanket causing him to fall down on the carpet with a thud.
"JJ!" Mel blurted with concern. "Honey, are you ok?" she said, quickly kneeling down and carefully looking him over.
He looked up at her and silently nodded, rubbing his head with a grimace.
She exhaled wearily as she lovingly caressed his thankfully hard head. Of the many things she passed on to him, her blue eyes, her raven hair, the lack of coordination she endured in her youth was sadly, something he inherited . . . in abundance.
"You know, honey, you might want to think about keeping your blanket in your bedroom. You won't trip as often," Mel offered to the six-year-old, gently touching the security blanket that traveled everywhere with him, including school.
He shook his head no, clenching his blanking tighter, not liking that idea at all.
She smiled, knowing he also inherited her stubborn streak. She considered she should be happy the only problem she had with her little boy was his affinity for that blanket. That and, at times, his frustratingly insatiable curiosity.
He brightened and lunged towards her for his morning hug. "Good morning, Mama!"
"Good morning, JJ," she hugged him and kissed his forehead.
"Were you working all night?" He asked with concern, looking at her paper-filled desk.
"Not all night," she said softly.
"Most of the ni...?" He asked.
"JJ, honey," she interrupted. "Let's get some breakfast," she announced and stood up. "What would you like?" She asked unnecessarily.
"PANCAKES!" He said with a big smile and darted out of the room with enthusiasm.
"JJ, don't...!" Melinda called out, then heard a thud, a crash, and a soft ugh oh.'
"...run," she exhaled flatly.
Chapter 1 - Small Surprises
A beam of light sliced through the dark warehouse, searching.
Outside, the wind howled as the rain steadily pinged against the building's metal walls. Lighting cracked, causing an eerie glow at the windows, which rumbled from the angry thunder that quickly followed.
The nervous security guard flipped on the overhead light. Nothing. He cursed the storm, which left him in the darkness with only a small flashlight to find the source of the disturbing thunks.
With a shaky hand, he drew his pistol.
Carefully, the guard looked over various shipping crates, including one large museum box that likely contained musty dead things, he imagined with a shudder. Noting that nothing was amiss and the windows were still shut and locked, he relaxed a bit.
After a long, uneventful moment, except for the storm's continued flashes and rumblings, he returned his weapon to its holster and scratched the back of his head with a heavy sigh. Perhaps his mind was just playing tricks on him, he considered, hating the mid-watch, thunderstorms, and musty dead things.
He shook his head and left the dark room.
Minutes passed before the lid of a large crate moved again, still pinned by a few tenacious nails. With a few more, softer thunks, the lid was finally freed. A pair of gloved hands carefully guided the lid into the box. Moments slowly passed before the patient hands ventured out again, this time grabbing the top edge of the tall wooden crate.
A figure clad in black, clenching a crowbar in her teeth, swiftly hoisted herself up and out of the box.
Carefully landing on the floor, the intruder removed the crowbar from her mouth as she scanned the dark room to see if her actions attracted attention. Concluding no, she pulled out a small flashlight and sought out her prize. She quickly spotted it. A box, boldly marked Danger' in several languages, stood out from the rest of the crates.
Janice Covington shook her head at the ploy. Having seen plenty of danger in her life, she was not impressed by the word.
She pried open the crate's lid with her crow bar, occasionally pausing to listen for the guard. Finally removing the wooden lid, she found the box full of sawdust. Digging through it, she uncovered a burlap-wrapped object. Carefully, she loosened the tie and pealed back the cloth, revealing the gold statue of the goddess Aphrodite.
Beautiful, she thought with a pleased smile, pausing a moment to appreciate her sapphire eyes. She always did like blue eyes, she considered. Her smile faded.
Reaching in to take the prize, she heard something shift in the box. Her eyes darted towards the noise and widened, realizing the box's "Danger" markings were not just a bluff after all.
The cobra swiftly lunged, sinking its fangs into her hand, easily piercing through the glove and skin.
"Shit," she blurted, retracting her throbbing hand back, dropping the crowbar which clattered loudly onto the floor.
"God damn it," she muttered angrily and quickly lashed out and grabbed the snake. Shaking her head with annoyance, she swiftly placed the flashlight in her mouth and grabbed the gold statue.
"Just fucking great," she mumbled around the flashlight, hearing the guard's footfalls getting louder.
When the uneasy guard entered, he scanned the room with his flashlight. He immediately spotted a crowbar and sawdust on the floor. The noise wasn't just his imagination!
His heart raced as he drew his pistol. He was just as nervous about catching the intruder as he was about not catching the intruder.
Approaching the crowbar, he noticed the closest crate marked "Danger." The lid appeared to be resting on top, unattached. He looked around nervously.
Pushing the lid off, he jumped back when it crashed to the floor. He cautiously peered inside, finding a piece of burlap. His heart sank as he reached in and pulled the flimsy cloth from the crate for inspection. He shook his head, not liking what he was finding.
Placing the cloth down, he nervously reached in the box and felt around, hoping the thief might have dropped the object and run.
"Please, please, please . . . ," he muttered wishfully.
Suddenly, he recoiled with a gasp when a gust of wind howled and the nearby window slammed violently against its frame.
The guard sighed heavily, staring at the now unlocked window.
Mel pushed her glasses up with a heavy sigh as she reviewed another exceedingly mediocre paper by one of her students. It was as if they weren't paying attention to her one iota during the lectures, she considered, shaking her head in frustration.
But she knew that couldn't be the case. She never once found anyone sleeping or doing other things. In fact, the students always seemed quite attentive in class. She frowned, placing another paper in the growing pile that would require her to expand her office hours, yet again. She hoped that spending even more time with each student to discuss their work would help them improve, for she didn't know what else to do.
Hearing a faint knocking on her office door and a throat being cleared, she looked up to find Dr. Dan Dyer. From his smile, the South Carolina professor was obviously pleased about something.
"Dr. Pappas, do you have a moment?" He asked, entering before she could say yes.
"Of course, Dr. Dyer. To what do I owe this pleasure?" She asked, smiling warmly at her friend as she politely got up.
He became a good friend years ago when he overlooked Dr. Covington's rather shady past and offered her a teaching job. She remembered how the offer surprised even Janice. Mel's smiled faded slightly as she sat down and focused on the man across her desk.
He blushed slightly and sat down, looking like he was going to burst. "I have just talked with the board and they agree you can go!" He announced happily.
She blinked and looked at him curiously as she sat down in her chair. "That's wonderful," she said. "Unless you mean, you've just fired me."
"What!?! Of course not! Why would you think that?" he gushed with concern.
Mel sighed, reminding herself once again to be careful around him. He was a really sweet man but horribly absent-minded and didn't have the first clue when it came to her sarcasm.
"So, Dr. Dyer, where am I supposed to go?" Mel asked with a patient smile.
"Greece, of course!" He announced triumphantly.
"Of course," she said flatly. "And why would I want to go to Greece?" Mel asked, discreetly glancing at her watch, wondering how long it was going to take before she figured out what he was talking about this time.
"For your sabbatical, to translate the new scrolls. You know, you don't sound as enthusiastic as I thought you would be," he said with disappointment.
"I'm sorry, but what sabbatical?" She asked with frustration. They both spoke English, but apparently that just wasn't enough.
"The one you said you wanted to take," he responded testily, wondering why Dr. Pappas was being a bit slow.
"When did I say I wanted to go on a sabbatical?" Mel said with confusion.
"Don't you remember? When we were in the middle of that grueling budget review where we had to fight the athletic department for our fair..." he blurted, then paused as his eyes widened. "Oh dear," he said uneasily and bit his lip. How was he supposed to know? She was always so serious.
Mel laughed with amazement.
"Dan, I really appreciate your effort on my behalf, but I'm just not able to pick up and traipse all over the globe anymore. I have a son," she said softly but firmly.
"Take him with you!" Dr. Dyer suggested, surprising her. "It will be summer soon and it shouldn't interrupt too much of his schooling. It would be a great ex...."
"No, Dan," she said firmly. "I'm sure the board will understand this . . . misunderstanding," she countered. "I could talk to them if you'd like."
"Melinda, please, think about it. I realize I made a mistake but please, I really bent over backwards arguing for you," he said uneasily.
My hero. Mel sighed heavily.
"Think about it. There are new Gabrielle scrolls at the University of Athens. Surely you're curious about them?"
She raised an eyebrow.
"And you are just the person to translate them. And it wouldn't hurt for you to start publishing a bit," he quickly added with a shrug, making her eyes roll.
"You didn't tell me about new scrolls," she said with irritation.
"Well, uh, I was so caught up in arranging your sabbatical," he said, cringing at her narrowed eyes. "uh...are you interested?" he asked hopefully.
"In translating? Yes. I would be more than happy to translate them. But why can't they just send them here?"
"I've asked. But until the Greek government figures out why a number of valuable artifacts have been disappearing on them and their neighboring countries, the University is not going to risk sending them here. Frankly, I don't blame them. After the war, the black market has exp . . . ," he said.
"Dan, I just can't," Mel interrupted.
"Please, Melinda, just take some time to think about it? Please?" He begged.
While she had absolutely no intention of saying yes,' she knew it wouldn't kill her to put off her no' until tomorrow. And it would at least stop his begging, for now.
"I'll think about it," Mel allowed, making the man smile triumphantly. "I said I'll think about it," she cautioned him firmly.
Janice was cold, wet, and sweating profusely as her body fought the venom.
The driver of the getaway truck, Lee Grossman, looked over at his passengers with concern.
"You going to hang in there, Muló?" He asked as he drove the old truck through the stormy night to their camp on a bumpy dirt road. "I'd hate to have you pass out and let that snake you stole slither around the truck while I'm driving," he said, cringing when another bump in the road jostled his two passengers.
"I didn't steal the goddamn snake," she snarled, holding on to the reptile in one hand and the gold statue in the other.
Struggling to remain conscious, she focused on the windshield wipers which hypnotically swayed and thunked. Jesus Christ, she thought, rolling her eyes as she broke her gaze away and focused on the snake.
"Are you going to name him?"
"Name your pet."
"For Christ's sake, he's not my goddamn pet," Janice barked and coughed. Her mouth was annoyingly dry and cottony.
"Ok," Lee said, then continued helpfully. "You know, Stan' might be good. Stan the snake. Or Spot. He's got two. You usually would name a dog that, but why not a snake?" Lee asked with a shrug.
Janice stared at him blankly a moment. In the four years she had known him since the march from Birkenau, he never failed to prove he was one mighty odd guy. The fact he stuck around so long, instead of settling down, like his twin brother did, was one big indicator.
"For the love of . . . Would you just please hurry up or you'll be the one dealing with Spot' here," Janice growled, holding up the snake for emphasis.
Lee noted she seemed to have more trouble breathing and keeping her eyes open. He nodded quickly and stepped on the gas.
When they arrived at their camp, Lee jumped out of the truck and quickly shut the door behind him.
The former concentration camp doctor, Dr. Snider, emerged from her tent to see how the unpopular robbery had gone. She noticed Lee standing in the light rain looking at the truck as he scratched his head.
She rushed to the truck and found the archaeologist unconscious in the passenger's side with the gold idol in her lap. Greta looked at Lee with irritation for just standing there and instinctively reached for the door handle.
"NO!" Lee said abruptly, grabbing her arm.
"Why not?" She said, looking at the still archaeologist and noticed something moving around inside. "Is that a snake!?!" She gasped.
"Spot," Lee said helpfully.
She looked at him with confusion but didn't care to find out what he was talking about. Instead, she exploded.
"Uggh!!" She growled. Lee cringed. "Those jobs,' her stealing, that obsession with that myth, and now we have to endure her bringing home poisonous snakes!?!" Greta growled.
Lee just shrugged, having learned from experience, not to interrupt Dr. Snider during her outbursts, which were coming more frequently these days.
She did not like seeing Janice break the law, no matter how noble the motivation. But Janice had no reservations about stealing, especially when it was to help someone searching for missing relatives. And there were so many who were searching, he thought gravely, including Janice.
So far, the driven woman had managed to help reunite over two dozen survivors with their relatives. To Lee and the others in their small family of concentration camp survivors, that was an amazing and proud accomplishment over the past four years. Especially considering the state of Europe after the Nazi exterminations. But for Janice, her frustration grew as she was able to help strangers, but not the two young boys traveling with her . . . or herself.
"When is it going to stop?" Greta asked.
He shrugged, looking at the unconscious archaeologist and Spot. When she finishes or dies?' he thought, knowing that wasn't likely to be anytime soon, if ever. But as time went on, trails grew colder. Janice knew this as well, but was not about to give up on helping Paul and Daniel find an uncle or aunt. And she was not going to give up her own search.
That was all she had now, she had once told him.
"I bet she'll try to convince us that we should be happy we didn't have to pick her up in a morgue this time!" Greta said, angrily wiping the rain drops from her face as she paced.
He nodded with a grimace, recalling the few times they had to go to a morgue. But that didn't bother him nearly as much as when he had watched her die in Spain.
About three years ago, they had gone to make some money to help a survivor, Sophia, who had only an expensive boat ticket standing between her and her brother.
He had nervously asked Janice if she knew anything about bull fighting. "What's there to know?" she said and shrugged, just before jumping into the ring with only an old coat in her hands. She failed to tell him this illegal operation paid a lot more if the amateur bull fighters' were gored.
Knowing Janice was immortal did not help prepare him for what he saw. It was a very long five minutes.
He cringed at how coldly the bull owner had handed him a huge wad of bills and said "sorry" about the loss of his friend. But Sophia got her boat ticket, they had lots of extra cash, and his ears rang for a few days after he was yelled at by Dr. Snider.
"How could you let her do this?" Greta kept shouting, as if he could really stop Janice from doing something she had her mind set on. And it wasn't like he knew what she was thinking. They rarely did. Janice didn't really share her thoughts much. That also really bothered the woman pacing before him, who was now poking her finger in his chest.
"But if she thinks she is going to start expanding the kinds of strays she is going to take care of to poisonous snakes, I'm going to have to put my foot down! She's, she's...UGGGGGH!" Greta started pacing again as both of them continued to get rained upon.
Lee just nodded. He knew she really cared about Janice, as they all did. And it was frustrating to see Janice hurt herself or run afoul of the law. But she was driven at times like her life depended on it. He sighed at the irony.
The only thing they could really do was stick by her, even with her latest scheme to find answers. They all owed her that much, he thought. She had always been there for them through the years. Some of them, like he and his brother Peter and the two boys, owed her their lives, having been saved by her during that horrible march from Birkenau. Others, like Ivan, were loyal friends simply because she was a loyal friend.
And Dr. Snider, he thought, shaking his head. A much more complex relationship there, he considered. The former Nazi doctor had been Janice's enemy. But during the long years in the camp, they grew to be friends. Greta saved Janice's child from the butchers at Birkenau. And, Greta privately admitted to him once, Janice's faith saved her soul.
"She had better not ask me about what to do with the SNAKE when she wakes up!!" Greta warned and marched back to her tent.
The twin boys jogged up to the truck, as a very tall man trailed patiently behind them. Lee rolled his eyes. He knew they had waited until Greta had expended her angry steam and left. Cowards.
"A snake? Where?" Daniel asked with interest, peering into the truck with his brother, spotting the dangerous creature near the archaeologist.
"Wow. Can we keep it?" Paul asked hopefully.
"Uh," Lee blurted uneasily, looking at the tent then the truck. "You should talk to Janice about it in the morning."
"How did it go?" Ivan asked, looking at the unconscious archaeologist with concern.
"She has the statue she wanted," Lee shrugged, looking up to the seven-foot man. "Do you think she'll really find this Temple?"
"I hope so," Ivan said softly.
Paul and Daniel looked at each other uneasily.
Chapter 2 - Subtle Observations
"GO!" Christine blurted enthusiastically.
Melinda's eyebrows furrowed at her lunch companion and longtime friend.
"You haven't been listening to one word I have been telling you, have you?" Mel asked with annoyance, looking around the café and noting a few people staring because of Christine's unnecessarily loud outburst.
"Oh, I've been listening. And listening and listening to all your wonderful excuses for not going, Melinda. And I'm going to tell this to you as your oldest and dearest friend. You've got to go," she said. "No, you need to go!" She added with conviction.
Mel looked at her silently, slowly lifted her teacup to her lips, took a sip, and gently placed her cup down on the saucer.
"I need to go?"
"Yes! You need to get out and live a little. You've been so busy with your studies, raising JJ, then not even taking a break after graduation before teaching at the University . . when have you actually taken time out to do what you wanted to do?"
"I am doing what I want to do. I love my son and my job, Christine," she said testily.
"There's more to life than that and you know it. What about adventure?"
"You apparently forgot about our little trip with JJ to the china shop...."
"What about dating?" Christine interjected, ignoring her stubborn friend, who rolled her eyes. "What about sex!?!" Christine added bluntly, causing a very annoyed and embarrassed look from the Southern lady, whose eyes darted uneasily around the café.
"We were talking about a Sabbatical not my sex life, Christine," she whispered with great annoyance as she busily brushed some crumbs off the table.
"Honey, you don't have a sex life," Christine countered.
"Whether I do, or not, is none of your business. And if you must insist on this topic, I wish you would stop trying to set me up on dates!" she whispered angrily.
"I don't see how that is on this topic' because you haven't had sex with any one of them!" She countered, getting a look of stunned amazement from her friend. "They were all perfectly good candidates, Mel. Wendy, Doug, Marta, Herb, Gwen...Gwen was especially cute..."
"For heaven's . . . Christine!" She growled, uneasily glancing around the café. "For your information, I actually have to love someone before I jump in their bed, unlike some people I know." Mel glared at her friend.
"Michael," Christine said simply with a polite smile. Seeing the look on Mel's face made her immediately regret bringing his name up.
"Thank you so very much for the lovely lunch, Miss Whitherspoon," she said crisply, struggling with her temper as she grabbed her purse and started to get up.
A panicked hand grabbed Mel's forearm and wouldn't let go, even under the piercing blue gaze.
"Sweetie, I'm sorry. Please, sit down. Please. I just want what's best for you," Christine pleaded. "Honest."
Melinda looked at her sharply then closed her eyes a moment to gain control of her temper. When she opened them, she sat down to the great relief of her friend.
They sat in awkward silence a long moment, until Melinda spoke.
"I just can't . . . replace her," she said softly, staring at the table.
"Eight years, Mel," Christine responded.
"Even after eight years."
"I'm not saying to replace her, Mel. But there are good people out there. People you can share things with. People you can love and who will love you. That's a whole side of you that has been starving the past eight years, honey," Christine said as Mel just stared at the table, unwilling to respond.
Christine sighed and switched to a lighter topic. "Well, in any event, I still think you need to get out of Columbia a while and find a bit of adventure. Greece is perfect. You loved Greece..."
"I loved Greece when she was there," Mel corrected her quietly. "Now, it's just a country."
"A country with great Baklava," Christine persisted, provoking a small smile.
"Yes, with great Baklava. But Baklava is usually not enough of a reason to travel across the globe, Christine," Mel replied with a smirk, visibly more relaxed.
"And beautiful scenery. Now people travel for that, don't they?" She said with a satisfied smile.
"And with new Gabrielle scrolls I know you want to read. Admit it!"
Mel answered with a weary nod.
"So what's stopping you?"
Mel looked at her friend. "I've told you, I just can't go off and leave my son."
"Take him with you! He's practically seven now and he . . . " Christine argued but was interrupted.
"Have you been talking with Dr. Dyer?"
"Just trust me and go, Mel. You'll see, travel will be exactly what you need."
Mel shook her head, considering the many reasons it was not a good idea.
"Christine, I already ask too much of Ruby. I can't ask her to leave Robert and go to Greece to babysit for heaven's sake. And I'm sure Grandmother would not appreciate me stealing her housekeeper away for ..."
"You don't have to ask Ruby!" Christine interrupted with exasperation.
"Do you honestly expect JJ to sit still for hours and hours while his mama translates? You know that boy can't even sit still through dinner," Mel said and shook her head, chuckling.
"Mel!" Christine blurted wearily, wondering if she should jump up and down and wave her hands too. "I'll look after him."
"Stop looking at me like I have two heads."
"You are offering to go to Greece with me . . . and look after JJ?" Mel asked carefully.
"Yes! And I've always wanted to go," Christine said with excitement. "So you have absolutely no excuse, other than you don't want to review those fascinating NEW scrolls," Christine said with a triumphant smile.
"I just don't know," Mel exhaled apprehensively, shaking her head.
"Just think about it. Please?" Christine said. "Pretty please, with sug...?"
"I'll think about it," Mel interrupted wearily, evoking a big smile from her friend. "I just said I'll think about it," she sternly informed her.
Janice moaned as she woke with a very dry mouth. "God damn," she groaned as she stiffly moved her neck. Her eyes blinked open as she squinted in the morning light, trying to figure out where she was.
From the raindrops on the windshield in front of her, she concluded she wasn't in a morgue this time. Greta and Lee should be happy about that, she thought with relief.
As she sat up, running her fingers through her short hair, she remembered her reptilian friend and carefully looked around until she felt something move at her waist, beneath her jacket. It had coiled around her. Janice sighed, not wanting to get bitten again. It was painful. And despite what Greta thought, she did not enjoy pain.
She slowly sat up and opened the front of her jacket to expose the snake, hopefully encouraging it to move. It did and tried to find a home through the gap between the archaeologist's shirt buttons. "Oh no you don't," Janice blurted.
Successfully apprehending it, she looked at the reptile. "Nothing personal, but we hardly know each other."
A loud tapping startled her. She turned to find Ivan's face peering in the passenger's window.
"Are you ok?" A deep voice asked through the glass.
"Yeah," she said, wondering why her friends still bothered to ask her. She always recovered. That was her curse. "Could you open the door?" Janice asked holding onto the snake.
As Janice and Spot got out of the truck, the tall man stepped back carefully.
"I've got him. Could you get the statue?" Janice asked.
Ivan eyed the snake and Janice, nodded, then quickly retrieved the golden object from the truck. He looked it over, the object dwarfed by his large hand. "It is beautiful."
"Yeah. I'm going to put him back in the truck until I figure out what to do with him, get ready to close the door," she said.
"Greta is not very happy about the snake," Ivan warned her.
"That makes two of us."
After putting the snake back in the truck, Janice and Ivan walked towards her tent. Relieved Greta was gone, Janice went straight to the beat-up trunk in the corner and knelt down. The tall man quietly sat on a chair, watching as she opened it and placed the small gold statue among miscellaneous personal effects, including, a bull whip, socks, and a pistol.
She looked over her shoulder at the tall man. "You think I'm crazy, don't you."
"I wouldn't say that," Ivan offered with a shrug.
"But you think it," she countered with a small smile, sitting on the floor by the open trunk. "My father was considered crazy," she said thoughtfully, surprising the tall man. In the years he had known her, she rarely spoke to anyone of herself or her family.
"He looked for the fabled' Xena scrolls for years. Even when his family crumbled around him, he kept searching. I really don't know why he was so driven. I wanted to find them and show the world they were real, but not like him," Janice said and shook her head at the memories.
"He put the scrolls before his family," she said as she pulled out an envelope full of bitter sweet memories. "I could never do that," she said simply as she pulled out a small picture. Though singed at the sides, it was by far the most valuable treasure in the trunk.
"She'll be six in July," Janice softly said with amazement, looking at the only thing she had to show for all her efforts to find her daughter. A baby picture.
Ivan nodded, remembering when they had gone to Germany to find the man who had handled Faith's adoption.' It was four years ago, only a couple months after they gained their freedom from Birkenau. Janice found Greta, who knew what Helmut Reinhold looked like. However, he had quickly left the country and his adoption' agency behind at the end of the war. Most likely with a new name and career, as was the practice of many wanted Germans. But they did find his office, or rather, what was left of it. The office, including filing cabinets of adoption' files, had been torched.
Ivan sadly recalled how the driven archaeologist kept digging for hours, non-stop, through charred cabinets and mounds of ash, unwilling to give up.
When they were too tired to dig anymore, she continued, determined to find something, anything. Then, she stopped. Miraculously, she found it. A picture.
Just a picture.
The mixed emotions on her face as she gazed at the image of her child made the tall man weep. Life was not fair to his friend, he had concluded long ago.
Janice carefully returned the treasure to a safe place in the trunk as the boys rushed into her tent, quickly showering her with questions.
"Are we keeping Spot, Muló?" Paul asked eagerly.
"Lee said to ask you in the morning," Daniel added.
"It's morning," Paul announced.
"Can we keep him?" Daniel asked.
"Jesus Christ! We are not keeping a Goddamn Cobra," Janice barked. With a sudden, furrowed brow, she looked up to them with concern, "You know cursing is bad, right?"
The boys looked at each other wearily. "Yes, Muló."
Ivan smiled, looking at the ground.
Chapter 3 - Happily Ever After
"...and they lived happily ever after. The end," Mel said, closing the book with a smile and placing it on the night stand.
"What happened then, mama?" JJ asked as his mother tucked him, and his blue blanket, in bed.
"What do you mean what happened then? They lived happily ever after," Melinda said, pushing her glasses up as she sat on the edge of the bed with a small grin.
He had an interesting way of looking at things, she thought proudly. And she loved their discussions at night, though sometimes she knew he just asked his million questions to put off going to bed.
"I mean, they got married and lived in the castle right?"
"Then what, what? They lived happily ever after," Melinda said and reached for the book.
"NOOooo. They got up the next morning, right? They had to do something, right?"
"JJ, see, the story ends after the prince and the princess get together," Melinda said, pointing to the picture on the last page as proof. She struggled not to laugh when he rolled his eyes in frustration.
"Mama, they had breakfast the next morning, right?" JJ argued.
"Most people do have breakfast in the morning," she allowed, strongly suspecting he would be a detective or a lawyer when he grew up.
"What did they have?"
She smiled at his curious gaze. "Well, I can only guess, because as you can see," she said pointing to the last page of the book, making JJ grin. "...the author did not tell us. But, my guess would be pancakes, of course."
He smiled, pleased with her answer. "I think so too," he said firmly and settled back in bed.
Mel shook her head with amusement.
"Goodni..." Mel said, but was interrupted.
"JJ, go to sleep."
"Mama?" he asked softly.
"Yes, JJ?" She said wearily and gently brushed the hair off his forehead.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm fine, honey. Why do you ask?" Mel asked with surprise.
"You look kinda tired again," he said. "Is it work?" he asked, his eyebrows furrowing.
Mel smiled at her son's protectiveness. "No, honey," she said then looked at him a moment. "But speaking of work, I do have a decision to make."
"What kind of decision?" he asked with great curiosity. Mel knew as soon as the words left her mouth, it was a mistake. It was going to be even harder to get him to go to sleep now.
"Well, whether or not to take some time off to go to Greece and translate some new Gabrielle scrolls."
"Greece!?! Really? Wow," he said with excitement.
"Honey, we can talk about it in the morning. It's time for sleep now," she said, kissing him on the head.
"But Mama? Why do you have to decide? Why wouldn't we go? I love to travel!" he blurted with excitement.
Well, she now knew his opinion, she thought with a sigh.
"JJ, Greece is a little bit further than Aunt Edith's in Charleston. And I'm not so sure if I want to drag my young son all the way to Europe," she said honestly and stood up.
"I'll be good. I promise!" he quickly blurted with concern.
"I know, JJ. But it's not that simple . . . " Mel said.
"Good night, JJ," she said firmly, finished with the subject.
"JJ," she repeated with warning, pausing at the bedroom door.
JJ sighed heavily. "Good night, mama."
"Mama?" He called out, testing his mother's patience further.
"I love you."
"I love you too. Now get to sleep!" Melinda gently scolded him and turned out the light.
"You are going to be in big trouble, young man, if you don't stop stalling and get to sleep," Mel said sternly.
She heard him sigh heavily and shift on his bed. "Night," he muttered.
"Good night," she said firmly and closed the bedroom door.
Janice stared at the man sitting across the table from her in the dark corner of the smoky barroom. His clothes were dirty and wrinkled and his face sported a few days growth with what looked like crumbs around his chin. She guessed his breath probably reeked of whisky and tobacco too. But there was really no way to tell. His natural essence assaulting her was just too overwhelming.
He was foul. And that was being kind.
Wishing she could turn a fire hose on him and introduce him to the novel concept of a bath, she sighed and looked up at Ivan, who stood menacingly nearby, but strategically out of range of the man's odor.
Ivan crossed his large arms, and looked around the smoky room at the man's three associates, who also glanced around attempting to look threatening. He wondered why he was there, considering the archaeologist did not really need his help if things went bad. Despite his intimidating size, he didn't fight very well and would probably just get in the way. He hoped he wouldn't have to prove that fact this evening.
Janice sipped her whiskey, not exactly thrilled with having to deal with this man. In fact, she despised it. She was a legitimate archaeologist, damn it. Well, maybe at one time, she thought sadly. Now she was just desperate and the man across from her had a piece of the puzzle. But she'd be damned if he was going to see how desperate she was, she considered, calmly pouring herself another whiskey.
"So, should I call you Dr. Muló' now?" the foul man smiled, making Janice wish hadn't as she noticed the few teeth that remained were dingy and crooked.
"I don't care. Call me Ishmael' or Jane Doe' if you want, Spiro . . . or is it Filo, now?" Janice asked, drinking the whiskey, wishing it could deaden her senses, especially her smell. Unfortunately, her condition' prevented her from enjoying the normal numbness large quantities of alcohol brought mortals. Another raw deal this life handed her, she thought with a heavy sigh.
Filo chuckled. "I have to admit, Janice, I was surprised to hear you wanted to do business with me," he said, his voice gravelly and grating. "You were never interested like your father. I even heard you went legitimate when you..."
"I'm not here to chat about the past," she interjected with irritation. "I'm here for the stone. But if you don't have it, I'll be on my way," she added calmly, starting to get up.
Her nonchalance surprised Ivan, who knew she was excited for days at the prospect of getting the last of the stones from Filo.
"Hold on, hold on. I have it," he said with a chuckle and smiled as he placed a hemp bag on the table with a thud. Janice's eyes briefly glanced at the bag, then the foul man as she sat back down.
"You?" He asked with anticipation.
Janice glanced at Ivan, who took a deep breath and approached with a canvass bag. He placed it on the table, glanced at the foul man, cringed, then quickly put some distance between them.
Janice glanced over at the tall man with a smirk when she heard him exhale.
"Let me see the golden beauty," Filo said eagerly and unwrapped the idol as she opened the hemp bag.
"Oh, yes," he said with a pleased chuckle. His men gazed at the gold statue, mesmerized by its beauty and obvious value. "This will definitely bring an excellent price from my buyer," he said happily. "How did you get it? The last person to try died," he said with interest, looking up curiously.
"Really?" Janice said absently, as she inspected her small palm-size stone with markings that she would hopefully figure out. The only indication of her excitement, was a raised eyebrow and small smile.
"It makes me wonder why you would go through the risk and then trade it for a simple carved rock," he said, eyeing her. "Doesn't seem like a wise trade...for you, that is," he added, knowing Janice was well aware of the value of artifacts.
She sighed as she returned the stone to the bag and placed it in her coat pocket.
"If you want to show your appreciation with cash, Filo, I won't argue," Janice said, pulling out a cigar from her leather jacket and lighting it.
He chuckled. "I wasn't offering. I was just curious about your interest in a rock."
Ivan looked nervously between the two. He didn't like Filo's probing.
"Curiosity can be a dangerous thing," she said and puffed on her cigar. "Especially in this business," Janice added, leaning back in her chair.
She's relaxed. Ivan blinked with amazement as his unease grew with each minute.
"It can be. But I can't help but wonder if I shouldn't just hang onto the stone . . . along with the statue of course," he said, eager to see her response. "If you hadn't noticed, you are outnumbered," he added helpfully with a smile, motioning to his men, who pulled out their weapons.
Ivan looked over at Janice with concern, hoping she had a plan.
Janice now chuckled and puffed her cigar.
"You know, Filo," she said as a small pistol emerged from her coat sleeve and smoothly slipped into her hand resting on her lap. "I did notice. But, you know, it only takes one tiny bullet to change a rooster to a hen, if you get my drift," she said, blowing smoke in his direction and smiling as she cocked her weapon.
The sound was obviously heard by Filo, whose eyes widened. To Ivan's surprise, an amused smile appeared on his face.
"Perhaps I'll just appreciate my good fortune," the smuggler said motioning to his men, who returned their weapons to their holsters.
"You know, it's really a shame I didn't know you were interested in doing business with me a few weeks ago. I had other items you would have probably wanted."
"I had some of those Xena scrolls your father was always talking about."
"Scrolls?" Janice asked with surprise. He nodded sadly. "What did you do with them?"
"Unloaded them on the University of Athens. None of my buyers were interested," he said, causing the archaeologist's brow to furrow. "Ha! I knew I would have gotten a better deal with you. But I guess I shouldn't be too upset," he said with resignation, stroking the gold idol in his hand.
After a thoughtful moment, Janice motioned to Ivan with her head to leave. He thought that was an excellent idea. "I wish I could say it's been a pleasure," Janice said, put her fedora on, and slowly got up.
Noticing his men blocking the back door, she glared at Filo. Filo smiled and waved his hand, causing the men to move away from the exit.
"I hope we can do business again, Janice," he called out jovially as the archaeologist nodded politely and silently left with the giant of a man.
As they emerged from the bar, Janice took a deep breath and Ivan released a sigh of relief.
"That was unpleasant," Ivan said.
"Yeah. But I got the stone," she said with a grin.
He was glad to see her spirits buoyed by her success. It was a rare sight. "You sounded interested in the scrolls he sold to the University," Ivan offered, curious about her now uncomfortable reaction.
"The Xena scrolls were my life at one time. But not anymore," she said softly. "Besides, they would just distract me from my search for the temple," she said firmly. "And I'm close now. So close, I can feel it," she said with enthusiastic conviction.
Ivan smiled as they walked into a dark alley. With amusement he offered, "You know, Muló, if we had the truck, it wouldn't take as long to get back to camp."
"Don't start," she warned the tall man, who deeply chuckled.
A faint noise caused Janice to slow down.
"What's wrong?" Ivan asked, glancing around the dark alley with concern. He saw nothing.
"Keep going," Janice whispered, waving him on.
She ducked behind a trash bin before he could protest about splitting up. With an unhappy sigh, the tall man continued to walk down the dark alley.
She heard two sets of footsteps and tensed up, waiting for the stalkers to approach. When they walked unsuspectingly past the trash bin, she jumped out and roughly grabbed one of them.
"Muló, it's me! It's ME," Paul squeaked, startling the archaeologist, who immediately let go.
"What the HELL were you two doing here!?! Didn't I tell you, you couldn't come here!"
"But we wanted to . . . " Daniel blurted uneasily.
"I don't care what you wanted. This is NO place for fourteen-year-old boys!" She barked causing them to cringe.
"We just . . . " Paul said.
"Jesus Christ! It's dangerous here!" She snapped angrily. "Why the hell did you disobey me? You guys are smarter than this!" Janice said and looked at the ground, furious. "Ah Fuck," she growled.
"We're sorry, Muló. We just wanted to help," Daniel said, his voice quivering, never having provoked so much anger from the archaeologist before.
Ivan heard the commotion and rejoined them, noticing Janice's glare at the boys.
"Let's get back to camp," Ivan suggested softly, seeing the young boys look at him with concern.
"But Muló . . . " Paul nervously tried to explain.
"Come on boys, talk later. Muló's right, this is no place for boys or even adults," the tall man said, watching the two teenagers' heads droop as they headed down the alley.
An uncomfortable silence hung between Ivan and Janice as they followed behind. After a few moments, Janice finally growled "Stalking in alleys. Christ! They need more than this. They need a good home."
"They don't want to go into an orphanage," he offered carefully.
"I know and I don't blame them. They still have family out there. Somewhere. And I swear, I will find them," she said with determination. "Hopefully soon," she added, patting the rock in her pocket.
Hearing the adults behind them, the two boys looked at each other with concern.
Chapter 4 - Eye-openers
Victoria Irene Pappas sat in her granddaughter's living room, holding her tea cup at her lips, stunned. Melinda had just asked her advice.
The Pappas matriarch wasn't really sure what to say. Certainly, she had her opinion. But in the past, her opinion was never well received and just caused the painful gap between them to grow, Victoria recalled with unease.
But was that just because she was never asked for her opinion before?
Victoria's eyebrows furrowed with concern, not wanting to damage the good relationship they had finally achieved.
"Well, dear, what do you want to do?" The cautious grandmother finally asked and sipped her tea.
Mel rolled her eyes. "Never mind," she said with a heavy sigh.
Oh dear, Victoria thought, worried she had failed before she got a chance to start. As she took a quick breath to respond, Melinda interrupted.
"It's crazy," Mel blurted with exasperation. "I don't know why I am even entertaining the thought of going," she said wearily, absently picking a piece of lint from her skirt.
Victoria looked at her granddaughter, who shrugged and shook her head, looking very much like JJ at that moment. The matriarch smiled warmly. Taking a breath to respond and explain why,' Mel interrupted, staring into her tea cup.
"It's not like I have to prove anything," Mel said firmly, as almost a challenge. She looked up her surprised grandmother, who quickly shook her head no.
Mel sighed and sipped her tea. Victoria took a breath to voice her wholehearted agreement, but Mel continued.
"I've gone on digs. I've translated scrolls. I got my doctorate. I'm respected in my field," Mel rattled off her accomplishments then sighed as she poured herself another cup of tea. "I'm sorry, would you like more?" Melinda suddenly asked, holding up the pot.
The older woman declined with a gentle shake of the head and took a breath to respond, but Mel continued.
"And now I have JJ to consider. He a bit young to be traveling so far," she said and looked questioningly at her grandmother, who silently blinked at her.
As the silence continued, Mel's eyebrows furrowed. "Well, don't you agree?" Mel asked with a bit of annoyance.
"Oh . . . uh," Victoria blurted uneasily. Just stay neutral, she reminded herself. "Well, Christine did say she would help look after him," she offered with a pleased smile.
"So you don't think he's too young?" Mel asked, greatly surprised by her grandmother, who almost seemed supportive of the idea. The same woman, who, all those years ago was the most vocal against her granddaughter, a young lady of high standing in Southern society, traveling to Europe, alone, on some "misguided fantasy" instead of settling down.
Victoria's smile faded.
"Grandmother?" Mel asked firmly, expecting an answer.
"Yes, dear?" Victoria said casually, looking at her tea as she stirred it.
"Is there some reason you are avoiding answering my question?"
Victoria looked up a moment then dropped her eyes back to her tea.
"Yes, dear," she answered as she picked up her cup and took a sip. Noticing the unamused look on Melinda's face, Victoria reluctantly continued.
"Melinda, no one can tell you what to do."
"Are you feeling all right, Grandmother?"
"Yes, dear. But if you must know my opinion . . . ," Victoria paused with a polite smile, causing Mel to roll her eyes and brace herself.
"You have to decide if you feel comfortable with this or not. And I don't think it's just about JJ's age. I think you have mixed feelings when it comes to those scrolls and traveling to Europe. You've had both wonderful and horrible experiences. But, Melinda, you have to decide if those experiences are going to keep you hiding behind your responsibilities with JJ and the University and prevent you from getting out and living your life to the fullest," Victoria declared.
"So, what do you really think?" Mel asked flatly.
"Take the bull by the horns, dear," Victoria said and sipped her tea.
Mel looked down with an odd smile.
"What?" Victoria asked softly.
"You just reminded me of what Janice once told me," Mel admitted. "She said I should take life by the balls and squeeze the hell out of them," Mel said, shaking her head with amusement.
Victoria's eyebrows rose. "Well, Melinda, I'd have to say I agree," she offered firmly. "But if you actually do any squeezing, dear, please keep it to yourself," Victoria added with a polite smile then sipped her tea, causing Mel to chuckle.
As usual, Janice was up before the rest of the camp and started the fire.
With the blaze sufficiently large, she sat down on a bench and unscrewed the cap to her canteen. Taking a swig of water, she leisurely glanced around the peaceful sight. It was no worse than what she had growing up. There was a large tent for working in, three smaller tents to sleep in, and a stream full of fish nearby. And it was certainly a lot better than their accommodations at Birkenau.
But it wasn't the kind of home she wanted the boys to have. They deserved better. They deserved so much more than life had handed them so far, she thought with an ache in her heart as she stared at the camp fire. They deserved a home with a permanent roof and running water. A home with a big kitchen where wonderful things were cooked. A home where their family would sit around the dinner table and talk, about school or the day's events, and not argue....
Janice looked up from the fire as the twins hesitantly approached her.
"Hungry?" She asked, provoking uneasy shrugs.
"Well, I'm starving. I don't know about you, but sneaking around all night works up my appetite," she said, noting their cringes.
"We're sorry, Muló," the boys said in unison.
"I know," Janice said with a sigh, getting up from her seat.
Boy they are growing up, she observed. They were a little taller than she was now. Well, it had to happen eventually, she mused.
"Did you guys finish your reading yet?" She asked and got silent nods. "Good. Why don't you tell me about ol' Moby while we go find some breakfast," Janice said, heading into the woods.
"I thought Moby Dick was stupid," Daniel announced, as the boys followed Janice.
"But you're the one who chose it!" Paul said with amazement.
"You know the rules, Daniel," Janice called back with a grin.
"I always have to go first," Daniel complained.
"Well, you're the idiot who always think the books we read are stupid."
"You think they're stupid too, but you're not man enough to admit it!" Daniel challenged.
"I am too man enough!" Paul responded hotly as he tackled his brother into the dirt. "I just like reading," he added as Daniel pushed his face into the dirt.
"Brown nose." Daniel smirked.
Janice sighed heavily and crossed her arms as she watched the boys roll around in a frenzy of flailing limbs, each awkwardly attempting to gain control.
She was reminded of her many fights with Denny, her older brother. She also recalled occasionally fighting with her younger sister, Bert, who was even more vicious than Denny. She had nails.
Figuring that sibling fighting was just a part of growing up, Janice never tried to stop the boys. But everyone else in camp did, so she rarely got to actually see them come to blows. Well, they weren't actually coming to blows now. They were....
Janice scratched her head, not quite sure what the hell they were doing.
Janice grimaced as she observed the clumsy struggle. At their age, Bert would have easily cleaned their clocks, Janice mused with a smirk. Hell, Denny could have too.
Janice's eyebrows furrowed. "Oh for GOD's sake," she spat with annoyance and marched over to them.
"Ow ow ow," the boys yelped, immediately stopping their fighting as they were lifted up by their ears.
"What the hell did I tell you about foul language?" Janice snapped, releasing their ears.
The winded boys cringed.
"And I have news for you, you two are going to learn how to fight, because frankly, that was painful to watch," Janice said with irritation, shaking her head with a heavy sigh as she turned and walked off.
Paul and Daniel looked at each other with surprise before excited grins emerged.
"And don't think killing yourselves will get you out of discussing that damn book!" Janice called back to them as she continued to march towards the stream.
The two excited grins faded.
The ringing was faint but persistent.
Hoping it was just a nightmare, Christine moaned and rolled over in her comfortable bed. As the annoying sound continued, she groaned and pulled a pillow over her roller-covered head. But that didn't make it go away. The phone continued ringing, disturbing the otherwise peaceful night.
As she sat up with groggy frustration, a roller fell down, dangling defiantly in her face. "Uhhhggghhh!" She growled, yanking it off and unfortunately the strand of hair that was still attached to it. "Ow!"
The phone continued to ring.
Stumbling out of bed, she rubbed her sore scalp, mumbling things a Southern lady would never be caught clearly articulating. After donning her robe and fuzzy slippers, she stomped down the stairs as she tightened the sash, determined to put an end to the evil sound.
Coming face-to-face with the vile contraption, she was torn between ripping it from the wall and telling the obviously insane person on the other end that she was pretty sure they would be going to hell for this. But years of debutante training and finishing school prevented her from indulging in such temptations.
The Southern lady picked up the receiver. "Whitherspoon residence," she exhaled politely as she rested her forehead against the wall with a thunk.
"Did I wake you?"
"What do you think, Mel!" Christine snapped, squinting at the hallway clock in the darkness. "It's two A.M.!"
"Sorry, I'll call back later..."
"Oh no you don't. I won't be able to get to sleep wondering what possessed you to call me at this ungodly hour. So do me a favor, just spill it!"
A moment passed before Melinda responded.
"Are you really sure you want to watch JJ?"
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