RETRIBUTION - Part 3
Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
The next several weeks saw our lives settle into a comfortable routine, which was very welcome, given the adventures wed had since we met. Ice had been called into the shop several times by Pop and, true to his word, been paid quite handsomely for her work. Her reputation as an excellent mechanic was beginning to spread, and I could imagine, given the look she sometimes wore, that she wondered why this gift hadnt befallen her several years back, when she had tried to make a go of the very same career, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Which, of course, led her straight into the arms of the Mob and the events which led to our meeting in the Bog.
Jealously, I was glad that events turned out the way they had, if only because if she hadnt come into prison when she did, we would never have met. Thats a horrible way to feel, to actually be glad of someones murdering past, but Ive never been anything but honest with myself, and those feelings were there, even if Id rather have had my toenails pulled out than to mention them to her, even in passing.
Over Rubys staunch objections, Ice began to use some of her earnings to buy food and sundries for our hostess, brushing each complaint off as if she hadnt heard the woman practically screaming in her ear. She showed remarkable patience with Ruby who could, Ill freely admit, be a bit trying at times. I dont know what happened to cause them to come to a sort of mutual understanding, but whatever it was, I was grateful for it.
Wed spend many evenings in front of the fire, where yet another of Ices multitude of talents was revealed: drawing. She would tell me to close my eyes and describe the house Id known and, with a pencil and sketchpad that shed bought at the general store, she put brought to life the visions that were inside my head. The detail was so exact that I couldnt help but be astounded, as well as a little non-plused. Perhaps the woman could read minds, after all.
The only real drawback to this idyllic time was the fact that we still slept in separate rooms. Not by Rubys doing, either. No, she had even gone so far as to offer us the use of her own room, the only one large enough to fit more than a single bed into. Rather, it was my stubbornnesspure cussedness my mother called it when I was getting on her last nervethat kept us apart. We hadnt made love since that time in the hunters shack, and my hormones were complaining daily, to the point where I seriously considered booking a weekend at The Silver Pine just to have her in my arms again. But still, I refused.
That my actions were paralleling Ices in refusing an offered gift crossed my mind not at all. At least not then.
And so when the evening was over and we went to our single beds, closing the doors behind us, I was, in a sense, returning to my prison cell all over again. Only this time, it was a prison of my own making.
And then the nightmares started.
During the light of day, Ices fugitive status, and therefore my own, stayed deep down inside of me, aided, no doubt, by my continuing bliss in my freedom. But in the silence of the night, when the past comes out of its gloomy shadows, my dreams made me see what I refused to awake.
Id often wake in a cold sweat, clutching a damp sheet to my chest and breathing as if Id run a marathon. Every creak in the old house became an ominous sign. Id lay awake, my heart rabbiting in my chest, waiting for the sound of sirens, or the pounding on the door announcing the arrival of the police. I tried to force the thoughts away, but they wouldnt go. Theyd stay and taunt me with their vividness, their plausibility, their ultimate truth.
But many times, on nights that were the worst, when the scream I so badly needed to utter stayed locked behind my lips in a prison of its own, Id hear my door softly open and then shed be there, coming to me and taking me into her arms, stroking my hair and soothing my demons. It was only on those nights when I could slip away into a dreamless sleep, comforted by the solid, living reality of her in my arms.
We never spoke about those nights, and havent to this day. Somehow she knew, and continues to know, exactly when I need to be comforted the most, and offers herself completely and without reservation.
I suspect she knows exactly what demons haunt my sweat-drenched nights. I suspect they haunt hers, too. And perhaps, if we confront them, unspoken but together, they will remain specters in the night and never leave their cave to stand in the daylight.
On a particular Saturday morning in late spring, I awoke with a knot of happy anticipation curling in my stomach. After several intense discussions, a heated argument or two, and a final pooling of our less than vast monetary resources, this would be the day we would finally break ground on the cabin.
After a thorough inspection of the foundation already laid, Ice declared it unfit for a new home, the snow and water damage having crumbled and weakened it in some parts. She had spent the past several days, when not working, using a pickaxe to break up the pieces of concrete and move them out of the way so that the ground would be fresh for the new foundation to be laid on the ashes of the old.
A smile on my lips, I jumped from my bed and quickly showered and completed my morning routine, throwing on an old pair of shorts Id somehow managed to save and my grungiest T-shirt. As I stepped from the bathroom, I wasnt all that surprised to see Ice standing in the hallway, a slight smile curving her lips.
She looked fantastic in a pair of cut-off shorts and a tight black tank top that displayed her body to its best advantage. Many days of hard labor had further defined her already chiseled body and my eyes devoured what they were seeing like a starving man might when presented with the banquet of his delirious dreams.
Closing the distance between us, she took me into her arms and lowered her head, capturing my lips effortlessly in a kiss of slowly burning passion. I grabbed her waist and pulled her closer, my entire being reacting to the feelings she was sparking within.
God, it felt so good to have her love me.
After several moments, she pulled away, holding me at arms length and smiling down on me, her eyes gone silver in the dim lighting of the hallway. "Ready?"
My head spun. "Oh yeah."
Grabbing her hand, I tried to tug her into my own bedroom, not caring at that moment if the Pope himself was sleeping in the next room, such was my need for her. My forward progress was quickly halted by a swift tug on my hand, and I spun back to face her, my disappointment, I was sure, showing clearly on my face.
Her silvered eyes glinted in fond amusement. "I was referring to the cabin."
"Oh. That." I sighed, then stepped closer, noticing a thick vein which trailed over her bicep; a vein which practically begged me to run my tongue over it just so I could feel her pulse bounding. "Right now?"
"Right now," she confirmed, ducking her head down to kiss me senseless once more.
"The faster we get this cabin built, the faster we get to finish what weve started here, my Angel."
Sexual bribery provided me the impetus to set a new record in the down the hall, through the house and out the door dash.
A record which, I believe, stands to this day.
My fingers drummed a riff on the hood of the bastardized truck Ice had brought with her from work one day. "It followed me home," she said, that half cocky grin lighting her eyes.
A mongrel it was, too, and an ugly one at that, with parts scavenged from half a dozen other cars and trucks which sat on the grounds around Pops station collecting rust. Hed let her tinker with the engine, and when it was up and running, she bartered it for a couple days free labor. No fool, Pop, he snatched that offer before it had time to fully leave her lungs.
At least thats how Ice tells it. I never quite got up the nerve to ask the deal maker himself.
"Cmon, Ice. Christmasll be here before you know it." I didnt have to raise my voice. I knew shed hear me easily.
A moment later and she sauntered out of the house, twirling the keys on her finger and sporting a definite cat-ate-the-canary grin. At any other time, I might have called her on it, but I was much too anxious to get this particular show on the road. Id waited too long and too hard for this day to let the smugness of my partner ruin it for me.
I settled for throwing her my best scowl as she purposely brushed against me while reaching around to open the passengers side door. As I was about to sound off with a particularly, I believed, witty retort, she froze in place, head cocked. I could almost see her ears twitch to hone in on whatever sound shed caught.
I knew that look, having seen it more times than Id care to count. "What?"
She brushed by me again, only this time walking toward the small hill that separated Rubys property from our own. More than a little curious, I followed behind.
I almost ran into her back as she stopped at the crest of the small rise and, looking around her long body, I stopped too, my jaw dropping open. "I . . .think Im seeing things." I rubbed my eyes, hard, then blinked.
The scene before me didnt change. Not one iota.
"If you are, then so am I," Ice replied, her voice flat.
The sound of our voices attracted some attention, and a man turned around, a broad grin on his face. It was Pop, dressed in a pair of heavy duty overalls and a thick sweatshirt. "Mornin, eh? Bout time you two got up. Thought we was gonna have to start without ya."
As I groped dumbly around for something to say, his grin broadened. "Cat got your tongue?"
"Whats . . .going on here?"
"Never seen a barn raising before?" he asked.
"Is he speaking English?" I asked Ice out of the corner of my mouth.
I started a bit at that, then realized she wasnt replying to me.
Shaking his head, Pop pulled off his ball-cap and trotted up the small hill, coming to a stop before the both of us. "Sorry about springing it on you like this. I tried to tell em to wait and ask you first, but . . . ." He shrugged. "Thats not the way things work around here, mostly. They get a bee in their bonnet and its full speed ahead, damn the consequences, if youll pardon my French."
I pinched myself. It hurt. Dreaming was out, then. Alien abduction, however, was still in the running.
I looked from Pop to Ice the way a neophyte might who is trying to divine the truth of the meaning of life from an important yogi. When nothing was forthcoming, I cleared my throat and watched as two pairs of eyes lit upon mine. "Would either of you mind terribly filling me in here?"
After a moment, Pop nodded and flung out his hand, gesturing to the mob who stood below us, all trying to pretend they werent doing their level best to eavesdrop, and failing miserably. I looked from the group back to Pop, eyebrows raised. "Folks around here aint much on thank-yous," he explained. "Not with words, anyway. So, this is their way of sayin it without really sayin it. Understand?"
Unfortunately, the answer to that one was still a resounding no. My expression told him as much.
He sighed, then tried again. "They wanna help break ground on your cabin. As a way to pay ya back for savin the boys life."
"We dont need any thanks," Ice said, her tone still expressionless. She looked angry, and for once, I could understand why, even if the townspeople hadnt meant to hurt us with their gesture, which Im sure they didnt. I knew how much shed been looking forward to building that cabin, pitting herself against wood and steel and bending them to her will, forming something out of nothing with her own hands.
To tell the truth, I had been looking forward to it, too.
"I tried to tell em that. Tried to tell em itd be best if they asked first." He shook his head. "Theyre good people, though, if stubborner than a pack of mules sometimes." He gestured to the crowd again. "That Clayton Dodd, hes a right fair carpenter; been buildin here for years, him and his dad both. And Mary Lynch is the best electrician in these parts, bar none. The Drew boys own their own plumbing company and service most of the towns around here." He looked back at Ice, his gaze beseeching. "They wont take nothin away from ya. Follow your orders to the letter, they will. Work like dogs when you want em to, stop when ya dont. Just got to give the word, either way, and well follow it." He put his cap back on, straightening the brim with a brief tug. "I understand what its like ta want ta build something with your own sweat. Did my own house that way. But . . .sometimes a little help is a good thing too. And it aint charity, so dont go thinkin it is. Its just a thank-you said in the only way these folks know how, thats all."
After a long, silent moment, Ice abruptly spun on her heel and strode back toward Rubys house, never once looking behind her.
Pop sighed, removed his cap again, and twisted it in his hands. "Knew I shoulda made em ask first."
"Ice . . .isnt very comfortable accepting surprise gifts," I replied, stating the obvious just for something to say. "Shes a pretty private person."
"I know." He shrugged. "It was worth a shot, anyway. Thanks for at least listenin, Tyler. Ill get the folks and leave you two alone. Sorry for the intrusion. Wont happen again."
"Wait," I said, looking toward the house and seeing a shadow pass against the open door. Ice reappeared, something in her hand. When she got even with us, she shoved it at me, then breezed by us both.
"Lets get on with it, shall we?"
Stunned, I looked down. Her sketchpad, filled with all the drawings of our future home sat in my hands. I looked at Pop. He looked back. Then we both turned and watched as she was swallowed up by the grinning crowd of eager helpers.
"Well, whadda ya know," Pop half-whispered.
It was the first week in July before the lake was warm enough to swim in. For me, anyway. Our neighbors had been sampling the refreshing water since May, but that didnt surprise me, since I was convinced a common Canadian ancestor had once mated with a Polar Bear somewhere along the line anyway.
As for Ice, shed taken to washing off her sweat in the lake since early June, which in and of itself posed somewhat of a problem, since she regularly shucked down to her civvies in full view of the working crew before diving in. Doc Brown, the towns dentist, had to take a week off after bashing his thumb a good one with his hammer, and one of the Drew boys almost met an unfortunate end when his brother let go of the ladder he was holding in order to take in the splendor that was my lover.
I nearly burst my spleen trying to hold back my laughter over that one, and finally, for the health of the men and women, as well as our cabin, had to inform my partner exactly what havoc her mid-day swims were causing in the crew, asking her nicely to please wait until work was done for the day before showing off what the good lord, and years of hard work, had given her.
She accepted, somewhat graciously I thought, though our helpers threatened to stage a revolt over the sudden halt to their daily entertainment.
The cabins building was going better than I expected, though the work had started to ease off some, given that the tourist season was beginning and most of our helpers were up to their eyebrows in paying tasks that had priority over this, as it should be.
Though the Fourth of July was, obviously, an American holiday, it marked the beginning of the tourist season in this part of the land, and the town was soon filled to overcrowding with a great many Americans anxious to spend their hard-earned dollars on a bit of rest and relaxation.
That sounded good to me as well. At least, the R & R part did. So when Ice suggested a days break from our building labors, in celebration of the holiday, I jumped at the chance with all the grace of a wounded gazelle trying to escape the jaws of a hungry lion.
Enthusiastically, to say the least.
I grinned evilly to myself as I slipped on the bottom half of my secretly purchased bikini. Of course, half wasnt the best word for what I was now wearing. Pitifully thin strip of clingy material barely covering ones more delicate parts would have been a more apt, if a bit long-winded, description.
Still, as I wasnt planning on a vigorous game of water-polo, the positive effects of wearing little more than dental floss and a smile far outweighed the negatives, in my opinion. The biggest positive, of course, being the look that was sure to appear on Ices face when she saw me in it. The second biggest being what she might want to do to, for and with me after seeing me in it for several hours.
Ah, yes, this particular Angel had fallen. Hard.
Grabbing a towel, I ran out of the house, blithely ignoring the scandalized looks thrown my by the members of Rubys bridge party as I passed through. I got partway down the long hill that separated the house from the private beach before realizing my error in neglecting to don footwear for the trek. Dried pine needles pricked at my feet in retaliation for thoughtlessly crushing them. I hopped around trying to brush them off, but the sticky resin coating the needles made the effort a lost cause.
Hearing laughter and splashing from the direction of the water, I resolved to grin and bear it, and resumed my quick trot down to the beach where my lover waited.
She sat on our dock, one leg tucked under her, the other playing idly through the water as she watched the colorful parade of sailboats glide around the lake. The sun was continuing to bestow its blessings upon her, tanning her skin to a rich mahogany brown which blended nicely with the black racing suit she was wearing. Her hair was wet from a no-doubt recent swim and brushed back from her face in a shining mass of inky black, bringing her features, even in profile, into sharp relief.
So intent on watching her, I impaled my big toe on a rather large pinecone lying in wait for my tender foot. Cursing a blue streak, I hopped around on one foot while disentangling myself from my spiny intruder. Task completed, I looked up to see Ice watching me, amusement sparkling in her eyes.
Not quite the entrance Id imagined.
Gathering up the last tattered shreds of my dignity, I pulled myself together and settled for my most sultry walk instead, hoping to make up lost ground.
Sultry isnt easy to do when youre limping.
I was about to chuck the whole thing and settle for some good old fashioned groveling when the look in her eyes stopped me dead in my tracks, my sore toe completely, utterly forgotten.
It was a look that could have incinerated an iceberg, had any been laying handily about. My entire body pulsed with the intensity of it and my knees hit the oatmeal stage. The temperature, already pleasantly warm, shot up another twenty degrees in a split second.
Then she stood, and the sight of her long, lean body, all oiled skin and rippling muscles, dried up every single bit of moisture my body had ever thought to produce.
The upper half, anyway.
"Very nice," she purred, still raking my body with her searing gaze. "Very nice indeed, little Angel.
Oh, for the gift of words. Id have given a kingdom, had one been mine to give. Lacking that, I settled for trying to remain standing as she stalked over to me, the most sensual smile Id ever seen curving her full lips. When the tiniest sliver of her tongue darted out to wet them, I was sure that the sand and I were destined to become one.
From somewhere, I heard a whimper, and from the darkening of her eyes, I realized it had come from me.
Then her hands were hot on my shoulders, scorching through me and branding my soul. She slowlyGod so slowlylowered her lips to mine and merged us together by the passion of our kiss.
I didnt care that we were doing this in full view of everyone on the lake. Didnt care that there might well be repercussions later. I wanted her, needed her in a way that surprised even me.
To be truthful, kissing Ice this way in public was a bit of a turn-on for me, as if it were even possible for me to be more turned-on than I already was. The irony of my feelings didnt escape me, either. With very few, and therefore all the more precious, exceptions, making love in prison meant doing it in full view of whomever happened to wander by. And during those times, when it was possible for me to think at all, I wished for privacy. Now, with the possibility of a private rendezvous just a closed and locked door away (when we actually obtained doors and their attendant locks, that is) I found myself reveling in a more public display.
Then she deepened the kiss, melding our bodies together, and I stopped thinking of anything at all.
When she finally broke away, the only thing keeping me upright were her firm grip on my shoulders. Shaking my head to clear ita lost causeI cleared my throat instead, tasted my lips, and opened my eyes to see her smiling down at me. "You know youre killing me, right?"
Her only answer was a smirk.
"Im about one second away from chucking this whole day off thing and getting back to building the cabin. Theres only so much of this extended foreplay I can stand here, and Im just about at my limit."
When will I ever get it through this thick head of mine that statements like that only served to incite the woman who lived for a challenge? She closed in and kissed me again, so deeply that the only sound I could hear was the rapid and thundering beat of my heart in my ears.
This time, it was my turn to pull away, which I did, but not without great reluctance, and, shrugging out of her grip, made an abrupt right turn and threw myself into the lake. The chilly water did nothing to dampen my ardor, but it did wonders for my spinning head. I came up after a long moment and wiped the hair back from my eyes, treading water and looking toward shore. Ice was standing there, hands on hips, shaking her head at me.
"Not really, no."
She grinned, obviously quite pleased with herself.
"Care to join me?" I asked, wondering if it was possible to get the jump on her in the water and give her the dunking of her life for putting me through such wonderful torture. Barring that, I was more than willing to see just how long I could hold my breath underwater by returning her torture a thousand-fold. A flock of goosebumps broke over my wet skin at the image flashing behind my eyes.
"I have a better idea, if youre interested." She cocked her head to the left and, looking in that direction, I noticed for the first time the colorful sails of a small boat floating complacently in the small cove next to the dock. I recognized it immediately as being a 16 Hobie Cat, a sailboat that Id always loved as a child.
"Where in the world did you get that?" I asked. Hobie Cats werent cheap. My father told me as much every time I would beg him to trade in our old Sunfish for one. And certainly not on our shoestring budget.
"I was informed by a certain irritating old woman that you loved to sail and if I had the sense god gave a rooster, Id go into the garage, dig this old fossil out, and take you out on it."
"You know how to sail?"
"Why doesnt that surprise me?"
One broad shoulder lifted in a careless shrug. "Dunno."
I grinned. "Thats one of the things I love most about you, Ice. Your utter verbosity."
She shot me a mock scowl. "You wanna go sailing or not?"
"Aye, aye, Capn!" I tipped off a jaunty salute just for the irritation factor.
Oh. I was so dead.
Painfully inadequate as far as descriptions of joy went, but about the only word I could come up with as the waters spray needled into my grinning face. Balanced precariously on one of the pontoons and leaning back to avoid toppling head first into the glistening water below, I watched the lake race by beneath the boat, my eyes wide as silver dollars and the grin threatening to permanently etch itself into the lines of my face.
To my left, Ices long body lay almost full out in the racing sling, keeping the boat balanced on one pontoon while using the rigging to keep us going in the right direction, all at an incredible and mind-numbing (for me, at least) speeds.
I felt the true power of nature there, as if the rushing wind, beaming sun and spraying water were all conspiring to give me a high that was near to being untouchable in my experience. The only thing close would be making love, but this was a great, if somewhat distant, second.
Ice followed the gentle curve of the lakes central island, a tiny, tree covered affair, and bled the boats speed until it was resting on both pontoons once again.
"Why are we stopping?" I asked, not a little disappointed.
"My . . . . But I dont know how to sail."
She turned her head slowly to pin me with her gaze, one eyebrow raised high on her forehead.
I looked back, feeling a little defensive. "Well, I dont! I begged my father to teach me, but he said that sailing was for men. Women just had to learn how to look pretty while sitting in the boat."
My partner snorted. "What a crock of shit."
I shrugged. "Yeah, but he was my father. There wasnt anyone around who wanted to cross him, on that point anyway, so I just got used to sitting in the boat and looking pretty." I looked down at my feet, unaccountably embarrassed over the revelation.
A warm hand under my chin urged my head back up. I looked into eyes the color of the summer sky and swallowed hard. "There are few things in my life I have to be grateful for, Angel, but right now Id have to say that not having the dubious pleasure of meeting your father ranks near the top of that short list." She dropped her hand and her smile became bittersweet. "I sometimes wonder how you came to be the person you are with the upbringing you had. And at the same time, I cant help but think that my own parents are rolling in their graves over what Ive become." She turned her head and looked toward the sun, her face once again a stone mask.
Moved beyond words over the precious glimpse into her heart, I could only reach out my hand and gently lay it on her arm in a woefully inadequate gesture of support and thanks.
A moment later, she turned back toward me, the pain in her eyes pushed back into whatever place she kept it. She shot that endearing half-grin at me. "Cmon. Lets teach you how to sail."
I sat on the sofa, legs curled beneath me, reading the same passage for the seventh time (or was it the tenth?) and trying desperately not to look at the clock that was ticking impudently at me from its place on the mantle. Shell be back. Weve fought before. She just needs some time to cool off. Shell be back.
Maybe if I thought it hard enough, I could even make myself believe it.
After all, it wasnt as if we hadnt ever had words before. There were times in the Bog, more often than Id like to admit, when we seemed to be avoiding one another more often than we sought one another out. As partnerships went, we had more than our share of bones of contention hanging in skeleton filled closets. A fight wasnt anything new, nor particularly unexpected. Even now.
So why was I so worried? Why were my guts a tangled knot somewhere in the vicinity of my larynx? Why was that damn clock moving so damn slow?
I had awoken that morning with a vague feeling of unease which had begun to plague me during the preceding week. A nebulous feeling of anxiety, perhaps mixed with a touch of depression, it left me feeling out-of-sorts. It wasnt something I could articulate, even to Ice, whod noticed my mood quickly and had asked what was going on with me.
With Ruby off visiting friends and Ice again working at the garage, I was left alone with my thoughts, there being little else to do on a rainy July day but think.
And then it hit me.
I wasnt anxious or depressed. At least, not primarily.
What I was feeling was useless.
Leaning my head back against the rough fabric of the couch, I mulled the revelation over, not liking the bitter taste it left on my tongue, but forced to admit the truth of it nonetheless.
It stirred within me feelings, emotions Id thought long buried beneath the weight of time and experience.
As a teen, Id railed against my fathers indictment that a woman didnt need a job to find happiness. Happiness was a pregnant belly, a hearth and home, and a husband to care for. Peter carried on that corollary, and except for the pregnant part, fulfilled my fathers dreams for me to absolute perfection.
The irony of finding freedom in a prison never escaped me. It was there that I was nurtured and given the freedom to grow into the woman I believe I was meant to be.
And now, I was forced to face the fact that once outside those confining, and yes, comforting walls, Id fallen back into old habits, and perhaps an old view of myself, much too quickly.
And this time, I had no one to blame but myself.
Leaving the matter of blame behind for a moment, I tried to think of ways to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, however, all the alleys I went down led to dead ends. After all, I wasnt in Canada legally. I wasnt a national. I wasnt even a landed immigrant. I had snuck over the boarder like a draft dodger, aiding and abetting the escape of a fugitive from justice, no less. Not something likely employers were apt to turn a blind eye towards.
Ice was lucky, in that Pop didnt give a horses behind who or what she was, as long as she was good at what she did, which she undeniably was, and still is. Problem was, however, that there most likely wasnt more than one Pop in a town this size. Without immigrant papers, without even so much as a passport, I was dead in the water, so to speak.
My mood went from bad to worse, and when the rain stopped, I went outside and took my frustrations out on the cabin, pounding nails until my hands were blistered and raw.
And when Ice came over the breast of the hill, a jaunty step to her walk and a wad of cash in her hand for a night on the town, Im afraid I did a butchers job of ripping her head off.
Figuratively, of course.
And in that nanosecond of eternity between the words "oh" and "shit" when I realized just what I had done and who I had done it to, my anger was gone, replaced with a recrimination so deep, I could have drowned in it, if it would have let me.
If Ice had decided to return the favor, I most likely wouldnt be writing this today.
Instead, with a patience rarely shown to anyone but me, she offered a strong shoulder and a listening ear, if I would just reach out and take them.
And I repaid her kindness with words that shame me to this day, proving that my anger hadnt left entirely, coward that it was. Only waited for another chance to ambush her in a fit of jealousy so green the world seemed bathed in it, a bloody wound for which there is no salvation.
Her face set in stony lines, she turned away from me, dropping the money shed hoped to spend on a nice evening for both of us at my feet, then walked away without saying another word.
And so it was that I found myself sitting alone on a couch in Rubys house, staring at words in a book I had no desire to read, listening to soft orchestral music from the kitchen that I had no desire to hear, and watching a clock giving up minutes as sparingly as a miser extends loans.
So deep within the well of my thoughts was I that I didnt hear the knocking on the door, and nearly jumped from my perch on the couch when Rubys graying head poked itself from the door to the kitchen, a slight smile creasing her lips. "Theres someone here to see you, Tyler."
I was half-way across the room, my apology ready to birth itself from my throat before I was stopped by the vision, not of Ice, but of a young woman walking into the room, a clutch of books clasped awkwardly to her chest.
Stopping in my tracks, I gaped at her, my mind changing gears with the swiftness of a semi lumbering uphill. From somewhere unknown, my manners managed to reassert themselves, and a smile which was most likely totally false bloomed on my face. " . . .hello . . ."
The young woman returned my smile, though hers was notably more genuine. "Hello, Ms. Moore," she said with a shyness known only to pretty young woman of her age.
"Do I . . .know you from somewhere?" Oh yes, the old eighteen wheeler was still chugging uphill alright. In first gear.
The girl blushed. "Um, yes, Maam. We met in the café a few months ago. Im afraid I wasnt very polite to you."
Then it clicked. The young woman looking at me through half-lowered eyelids was the same waitress Id taken for twice her age when we first came into town. Amazing how slathering makeup on with a trowel ages a person, my still-laboring mind supplied cheerily. Someone should tell her that this looks much better than the rode hard, put away wet one she seems to favor.
Silence made its presence felt in the suddenly-too-hot room.
Oh. Shes waiting for some kind of response. "Um . . .nice to see you again." Ok, that didnt come out very well. Shall we try again? "Is . . .there something I can help you with?"
The woman blushed again. "I . . .um . . .heard you were a teacher?"
From who? Then I remembered telling Ruby a severely edited tale of the teaching Id done prior to making the move up to Canada. She didnt need to know that my students were hardened criminals, after all. Our gracious, if nosy, host probably passed that information on during one of her weekly gossip exchange sessions that masqueraded as bridge tournaments. "Ive done some teaching," I allowed, curious as to where this particular conversation was going, since I didnt have the faintest clue.
The girls face lit up. "Cool!"
The silence stretched out once again.
"Was there something you needed?" I asked, finally, imagining I could feel moss start to grow on the north side of my body.
"Oh! Yeah. Um . . .I need some help. I . . .kinda . . .dropped out of school last year. I got bored with it, I guess." She shrugged. "Wasnt learning that much anyway. Figured Id be better off taking the waitress job full time and having some money in my pocket."
I nodded. "And now you think you made a mistake."
She snorted. "A big one. I dont wanna be a waitress all my life, but without a diploma, no one will look twice at me, so Im kinda stuck."
"Why dont you just go back to school, then?"
"Its not that easy. See, I raised kind of a big stink about leaving. Id be to embarrassed to go back now."
I nodded again, then waited for her to state whatever case she was interested in bringing to the bar.
She took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "So . . .when I heard that you were a teacher, I wondered if maybe you could help me out. See, theres a way I can get my diploma without having to go back to school. Theres a test I can take, and if I pass it, I get my diploma. And I really only need help with two classes. English and World History." She showed me the text-books she still held close to her body. "I borrowed these from my brother. He was smart and stayed in school." She took in another breath. "So, if youre interested or anything, I was hoping you might be able to help me out. You know, like tutor me? Id pay for your help. My parents even offered to put up some money," she hastened to add, her face as earnest as her plea to me. "Ill come every day after work, if you want. Stay as long as you need me to. Anything."
I thought about it for a long moment, staring into her eyes and watching as she fought hard not to fidget beneath the weight of my gaze. I realized that the answers to some of my problems was standing before me and refused to look a gift equine in the cuspids. "Sure. Why not? We can start tomorrow, if you want." Another thought struck me. "Ruby?"
The graying head popped out, too quickly, from the kitchen beyond. "My house is yours, Tyler. You know that. Youre welcome to use the study."
I resisted shooting my most menacing glare at my snooping hostess. Instead, I tried my most gracious smile on for size. It was almost a perfect fit. "Thanks!" I turned back to the girl. "Looks like we have a deal then . . .um . . .I dont know your name."
"Oh! Im sorry. Its Kelly." She stuck out her hand, and promptly dropped her books.
We knocked heads reaching down to pick them up.
Then burst out laughing.
If only making things up to Ice could be so simple.
After Kelly had left, thanking me profusely and apologizing yet again about the rapidly swelling knot on my head, I poked my head into the kitchen and smiled down at Ruby who was studiously working on a crossword puzzle and drinking coffee. "Thanks."
She looked up, her eyes magnified behind the reading glasses she wore for close work. "For letting you use the study? Youre welcome, but you really didnt need to ask."
"Well, for that too. But really, thanks for spreading the word that I was a teacher. I was worried about not having a job, and you helped me get one."
"Wish I could take the credit for that one, Tyler, but I really havent told anybody anything about you or Morgan. Its up to you to share whatever you want with them. Its none of their business, otherwise."
"But if you didnt . . . ."
But even as I asked, I knew. Knew it with every fiber of my being. Knew there was only one person who would go to such lengths to assure my happiness.
If my lover ever made it home that fateful evening, I dont know. Weve never spoken of it, even to this day when so much water has gone over, under and around the bridge that spans our life together.
All I know for sure is that she hadnt returned when at last my eyes rebelled against my edict to stay open or else, leading me down into a fitful sleep filled with night terrors. If she came to my bed to soothe my dreams, I never woke to feel it, and when I awoke the next morning, she was gone from the house as if shed never been. Even Ruby didnt know; or if she did, she wasnt talking.
The only thing that stilled my fears, if only by the tiniest of measures, was that her room was exactly as shed left it, all her possessions stored away with the almost military precision so characteristic of her. How I resisted the almost overwhelming impulse to bury my face in the lone T-shirt that lay at the bottom of her hamper, Ill never know, but with a firm resolution I thought near lost, I turned from the room, determined to track her down and settle the lingering business between us.
I should have known that trying to hunt down a woman who was, in her former life, a Mafia assassin was a fruitless task at best, but with a stubbornness that would have done my father proud, I searched almost every square inch of the town in the hopes of finding my deliberately missing lover.
And came back empty-handed and heavy-hearted to the place where it all started; the half-built cabin by the lake.
She sat near the cornerstone, her back pressed flat against the foundation, one leg cocked, the other resting flat against the ground. A pine needle twirled and whirled between long fingers as she looked down over the path which led to a lake which was whipping up whitecaps in response to the winds intermittent gusts.
Thunderheads stacked, a childs block castle, one atop the other far across the water, but I sensed that the tempest brewing beneath the gathering clouds could well give the encroaching storm quite a run for its money.
I stared at her for long moments, running opening gambits through my mind as I tried to ignore the fact that she was ignoring my presence. The coward in me wanted to run and hide, but the woman my lover had helped develop stood her ground, wanting nothing more than to breach the walls my own words had erected around her heart.
An apology, no matter how heartfelt and brimming with tearful promises, seemed much too shallow a thing to give.
Finally, the wind whipping the forest around us into a frenzy, I stepped forward, breaking the palpable distance between us. "Thanks," I said simply, too soft to be heard over the winds howling cry, yet knowing she would hear it anyway.
She turned to me then, and the look in her eyes, one of absolute resignation, tore at my heart more than any angry recrimination ever could. "For what?"
Swallowing against the feelings her expression was engendering in me, I took a step closer, then stopped once again. "For sending Kelly my way. That was an incredibly wonderful thing to do, especially for someone who treated you the way I did."
Lifting her shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, she nimbly leapt to her feet and pushed off of the foundation. "Glad it helped."
She closed the distance between us and moved to brush by me. In a sudden fit of what I can only describe as insanity, I reached out and grabbed her forearm to keep her from passing. She stopped, then turned, then looked down at my hand on her arm. Then looked into my eyes, her own flashing a message that even the most slow-witted among us could easily divine.
Snatching my hand quickly away, I opened my mouth to say something, anything, when the strangest sensation came over me. The wind, which up until then had been changing directions as if trying to make up its mind which way it wanted to blow, stopped suddenly. Every hair on my body then lifted and a curious, and not very pleasant, tingle erupted along my nerve endings.
The next thing I knew, I was being borne to the ground, covered by a living blanket of protection as something fast and bright and loud and stinking of burned wiring exploded all around me, deafening me to anything else.
Then something, I didnt know what, collapsed down on top of us, driving the breath from my lungs, and when my head impacted with the cement foundation behind me, everything went black and silent once again.
When I awoke, it was to the sound of a heavy rain rattling off of the plastic tarp which covered the partially finished roof of the cabin.
At least, thats where I thought I was. With a head that felt like day six of a five day bender, and a chest that wondered if it had been used as a Chicago Bears tackling dummy some time in the recent past, I could have been trapped within a plastic bag and not known the difference. Or cared much, really.
After a moment, it occurred to me that opening my eyes might be a good idea, and so I did. Then closed them quickly when four of everything stared back at me through a blurry mist.
Something brushed against my head and I jumped, then immediately regretted it as the world around me spun threateningly out of control for a long moment. My stomach instantly rebelled, but thankfully, there wasnt anything in it, and so after a moment, it grudgingly settled back down.
When I was quite sure that everything that was in my body was going to stay thereand for a moment there, it looked like my brains were lobbying hard for an exit through my earsI chanced opening my eyes again. When the blurriness cleared, I saw Ice looking down at me, concern etched clearly in every line of her face. I smiled weakly. "Hey."
"You alright?" she asked, the look in her eyes belying the gruffness of her voice.
"As soon as you give me the license plate number of the truck that hit me, yeah." When she didnt rise to the bait-- and poor as it was, I didnt blame her--I sighed, shifting a little. "Im fine. Really."
The touch to my head came again, and this time I recognized it for what it was, Ices hand stroking through my hair. I then realized that the hard surface my head was pillowed upon was, in fact, her thigh. I resisted the urge to snuggle, not knowing how things were between us, even given the relative intimacy of my current position. "What happened?"
"Lightning strike. It hit the big pine next to the house and one of the limbs came down on us." She shifted a little, and I caught a carefully controlled, and almost hidden, look of pain cross her face for the briefest of moments.
"But . . . ." I struggled to sit up, a truly hopeless task as her free hand rested itself on my chest, anchoring my body to the floor.
If the tone of her voice hadnt gotten through, the look in her eyes certainly finished the job, and so I obediently settled back down on her thigh. After a moment, her hand began to stroke my hair again, softly, doing more for my pounding headache than an entire mountain of painkillers. Chancing things, I reached up and covered the large hand which rested on my chest, giving it the briefest of squeezes. "Thank you for saving my life. Again."
That got the reaction I was looking for, a small, wry smile that even reached the blue of her eyes. "Comes with the job."
I could feel my eyebrows raise behind the fringe of my hair. "Job?"
Her smile deepened minutely. "Someones gotta look after you. Might as well be me."
I returned her smile with a rueful one of my own. "Hard job, sometimes. The working conditions arent always the best. And the salary sucks." I swallowed hard against the tears closing my throat as the conversation suddenly took on a deeper meaning.
Her hand left my hair, and I felt her knuckles as they gently grazed against the skin of my cheek. "Maybe. But the experience its given me is something I wouldnt trade for all the money in the world."
The tears came then, rolling hot and heavy down my cheeks and dampening the hand which continued to gently stroke my skin. "Im so sorry, Morgan. I . . .I dont know what came over me yesterday. I didnt mean those words I said. Not one of them. God . . .Im . . .Im sorry." When had words suddenly become so inadequate? How could they cut to the bone one minute, and become anemic the next?
Giving in to my misery, I shifted to my side, curling up in a fetal ball and pressing my heated face up against her lower abdomen, sobbing my heart out like a small child.
She said nothing, just continued to stroke my hair, letting me get out everything trapped inside, her very presence telling me more about her love for me than any words spoken ever could.
Finally emptied of the poison inside, I rolled back onto my back and looked up at her through tear-swollen eyes. "Can you ever forgive me?"
Reaching down, she brushed her finger tenderly against my lips. "Yes," she whispered.
The relief that ran through me was nothing short of dizzying. "Thank you."
She smiled at me, then gathered me close, and we waited out the storm in comfortable silence.
Summer was rapidly drawing to a close, and with it, our time under Rubys generous, if sometimes intrusive, hospitality. The cabin was almost complete, needing only a few finishing touches to make it into the home I had dreamed of for so long.
On a certain summers morning, I made my way into town on an errand for Ice, to retrieve a particular tool she had left back at Pops garage. Walking down the main street, my curiosity was caught, as it often was, by the open door of The Silver Pine. Ruby had filled my head with stories of the new owners many eccentricities, and so I decided that a quick detour to assuage my curiosity would be just the ticket for my somewhat mischievous mood.
Arriving at the front door, I was just about to poke my head in for a quick look around when a large chartreuse mountain collided with me, sending me back into the courtyard, my arms flailing to keep my balance.
"Are you alright, dear?" the mountain asked in a thick Bronx accent. "I wasnt expecting any visitors this time of the day. Do I know you from somewhere? You seem terribly familiar to me. The Hamptons, perhaps?"
Completely taken aback, I could only stare dumbly at the woman as she peppered me with her rapid-fire inquisition. Not even in prison had I ever seen a woman quite so large. She easily topped even Ices six foot-plus frame and was perhaps three or four times as wide. All done up, from head to toe, in blinding pink made her a true sight to behold, and behold it I did, my jaw slack with amazement.
Her body was literally dripping with jewelsfaux or real I couldnt telland gaudy ones at that. Rings adorned every finger and hideous broaches attached themselves, like leeches, to her massive chest. A heavy cloud of perfume wafted from her, trapping me in its none-too-fragrant net. I rubbed my nose against the urge to sneeze.
Underneath one massive arm peeped the head of a tiny dog of indeterminate ancestry, though I guessed, by its white fluffiness, that poodle was buried somewhere deep within the mix. Just how deep, I couldnt tell. Its brown beady eyes bulged at me and I was treated to the sight of needle-sharp teeth and a curled tongue, leading me to believe, in my fuzzy-headed way, that perhaps a rat was also among this creatures less-than-noble forbearers.
Returning my stare look for look, the woman tilted her head, her eyes wide with a compassion that is only seen in the truly snobbish. "Oh, Im so sorry, dear. Are you deaf as well?" she asked at a decibel level which could have broken window glass several miles away. "Forgive me for my mistake. You just look so normal."
Resisting the urge to toss out a snappish retort, I instead gave her a gracious smile. "I can hear. I was just . . .startled."
She brought her free hand up to her chest, her many bracelets tinkling discordantly with her exaggerated movements. "Oh, isnt that a relief! And here I thought wed have absolutely no way of communicating."
I just smiled. And nodded. A lot.
"Where are my manners?" she asked after another uncomfortable pause. Sticking out a hand, she engulfed one of my own, pumping vigorously. It was like shaking hands with cold, wet bread dough. And that would be insulting to the dough. "My name is Millicent Harding Post. Hard on the T, dear, as in tittilating." She chirped a bird-like laughter through ruby red lips.
Disengaging my hand, I resisted the urge to wipe it off on my shorts. "Its a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Post," I replied, making sure to stress the T.
"Oh please, dearie. Were all friends here, arent we? Millicent will do just fine. And you are?"
Her eyes, magnified behind half-glasses, widened comically. "Oh you poor, poor dear. What were your parents thinking?"
Probably the same thing your parents were when they decided to name you "Millicent" you pompous old windbag. Not that I said that aloud, of course. Though, to be perfectly honest, there was a moment there where I was sorely tempted. I smiled in wry acknowledgement of her false pity, and steered the conversation into another, and hopefully safer, direction. "Are you the new owner of The Silver Pine?"
Millicent turned to look over one meaty shoulder at the building in question, then turned back to me. "Unfortunately, yes. Its been my cross to bear since Mother Carmody passed on."
"Im sorry for your loss."
She flapped a hand at me. "Dont be, dear. Why, I didnt even know I had an aunt until some lawyer in a monkey suit and California tan darkened my doorstep one morning and told me the old bat had kicked off, leaving me saddled with this useless pile of wood." She shook her head, a true martyr to the cause, then fondly patted her dogs head, engulfing the poor thing entirely with the size of her hand. I briefly wondered if she was giving it a concussion. "I was sorely tempted to just sell the thing and be done with it, but Puddles here told me that shed like a chance to see how the other half lives, and so off we came. Isnt that right, Puddles? Of course it is. Youre mamas little sweetums, arent you."
Just when it appeared that "mamas little sweetums" was going to add some additional breathing holes to mamas little nose in retaliation for squeezing its innards out of its ears, Millicent pulled away and grinned at me, her capped white teeth bloody with smeared lipstick. "Isnt she just the sweetest little thing youve ever seen in your life?"
I took in the bulging eyes, the pointy teeth, the curled tongue, and the muzzle now smeared red by Millicents kisses. "Oh yes. Very sweet." I surreptitiously checked my own nose just to see if it had grown.
She tilted her head once again. "Are you sure we havent met before? I never forget a face, and yours is very familiar to me."
"Well, I come into town quite often . . . ?"
Flapping her hand at me again, she shook her head. "No, not here, dearie. Unless theyre paying customers, I never notice anyone here. Youre one of us, yes?"
"One of us, dear. An American. Not one of those . . . Canadians. I thought I detected a bit of a Midwestern drawl to your speech."
The way she looked at me, I knew Id just been called a hick, though in the most polite of ways. "I was born in the United States," I allowed.
She nodded triumphantly. "She was right then."
I looked hard at her, trying to process the non-sequitor. "Who was right?"
"Why, Puddles, of course. She told me Id meet a charming young American today, and what do you know? I have!"
I spared a brief moment wondering if perhaps her perfume contained some mind-altering chemical, because the conversation was taking on a decidedly strange bent.
"So . . .would you like to see what Ive done with the place? You simply wouldnt believe what I had to work with."
"Um, actually, I would," I replied. "I used to come here every summer with my family. I loved the Silver Pine."
Turning back to me, Millicent eyed me the way I would imagine one would stare at a particularly revolting display of rat droppings arranged on ones kitchen table. "Of course you did, dear."
Then, after another moment, she smiled. "But you were child then. Im sure, as an adult, your tastes have changed drastically, no? Just come in for a quick look. I promise, you wont be disappointed."
"Well, there is something I really have to . . . ."
"Nonsense, dear. There cant possibly be anything so important that you cant spare just a moment to ease a fellow Americans mind."
"Actually, there . . . ."
She flung an arm heavy as a lead weight over my shoulders, the cloying scent of her perfume causing my eyes to tear and my head to spin. "Its settled then. You simply wont believe what a little time, effort, and taste will do to a facility. Even one such as this, in the middle of absolutely nowhere."
Now most probably, I could have gotten away from her had I tried hard enough, but to tell the truth, she could have taken me to the Dantes Seventh Circle and I would have gone, such was the state of my mind at the time.
She led me into the lobby, then slipped away, no doubt to give me the necessary room to stand and stare in wide-eyes wonder at the changes she had wrought.
Being the accommodating sort, I did just that, though a decidedly queasy sensation quickly replaced the wonder I was expected to feel upon viewing the work of her interior designer, a person whom I was quite sure read Harlequin Romances for inspiration.
Gone were the comfortable weathered wood and nautical trappings which had so delighted me as a child. In their place were heavy red velvet and gold brocade tapestries, antique furniture, and intricate rugs more common to a French house of ill-repute than a simple lakeside Bed and Breakfast. So perfect was the illusion that I half-expected to see scantily dressed whores waiting perched upon the heavily embroidered couches for the next customer to saunter by. In one corner, Puddles was living up to her name, christening a Persian rug. I wondered if it was expensive.
I couldnt help grinning at that, but hid it quickly.
Millicent smiled at her pet fondly before turning to me, her huge arms outspread to encompass the entire lobby. "Well, what do you think?"
"Its . . .its . . . ." Ok, Angel, think. Shes a whole foot taller and about three hundred pounds heavier than you, so whatever you come up with, it better be good. "Well, its . . .different."
She smiled as if I had just told her I was the lead photographer for House Beautiful. "I just knew youd love it, dear. I could tell you were a woman of exquisite taste the moment I laid eyes on you."
Smiling and nodding, I scratched the back of my neck as further words failed me.
Taking a step closer, she made as if to engulf me once again. "Come, let me give you the grand tour. Each guest room has a different theme. Youll love them, Im sure."
Deftly stepping out of the way of her oncoming arm, I held up my hands in a warding-off gesture I hoped shed read. "Much as Id love to do just that, I promised a friend Id do something for her, and I really need to do it. Shes counting on me." I gave her my most winning smile, one that had worked on women you wouldnt want to meet in a dark alley. "Another time perhaps?"
The pout she gave me made her eyes disappear into the vast folds of her cheeks, but when she saw it wasnt working on me, she relaxed the expression into a smile instead. "Of course, dear. I wouldnt want to keep you away from anything important. Come, let me walk you back outside. After all, its the least I can do in return for your aid."
Repressing a small shudder, I allowed her to place her arm around my shoulders once again as she guided me back the way wed come. I felt a decided sense of relief when the fresh air of the outside world claimed me once again, clearing my mind as well as my sinuses.
Squinting my eyes against the brightness of the day, I noticed a very familiar form casually sauntering down the street toward Pops garage. Shit. She probably thinks I forgot about her.
Which I hadnt, of course. Not even for a second.
I felt Millicent stiffen beside me, and, looking up, I saw her following Ices easy movements with her eyes, an expression reminiscent of one biting into the most sour of lemons stamped on her florid features for all to see.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, wondering if she was seeing something I wasnt.
"Typical. Just typical."
A large, bejeweled hand flung out in the direction of my partner. "Her, dear. So common. So . . .manly."
My eyebrows raised. "Manly?" I took a closer look, something I enjoyed in the extreme, my eyes running over her lean form with great pleasure. "I think shes beautiful." Which was, of course, the truth, though Im sure my tone of voice did little to hide my true feelings.
She turned to me, that sour-lemon look still on her face. "If you like that type, I suppose. Genetic beauty is fine for commoners. True beauty takes style, poise, breeding. Its quite obvious she has none of those things." She clucked her tongue. "Why, Ill wager that that woman wouldnt know a Chippendale if she tripped over one."
Somehow, and I dont know how, I resisted the urge to tell the overblown windbag that not only did Ice have more style, poise and breeding in the smallest of her fingers than she had in her entire abundant body, but also that she could, and did, read Kafka and Solzhenitzyn in the language of their birth, and could sing Elena's aria from La donna del lago so beautifully that statues would weep with the joy of hearing it.
I didnt say any of those things, though. What would have been the point? Closed minds took time to pry open. Time I didnt wish to spare with the likes of her.
I dredged up a smile from somewhere and turned it on her. "Well, if youll excuse me, I really do need to get going. Thanks for the tour and the conversation. It was nice to have met you."
"Same to you, dear. Come back around anytime. Just make sure to stay away from women like her. Believe me, theyre nothing but trouble."
More than you know, lady. More than you know.
My eyes adjusting to the darkness of the garage, I walked over to where Ice was rummaging through one of the tall tool chests scattered throughout the large, open structure. "Sorry about that. I got snared in by the proprietress of the Silver Pine. She wouldnt take no for an answer."
Looking up, Ice favored me with a half-grin. "Figured as much. No big deal. I needed another tool anyway."
I moved closer to give her a kiss when a cleared throat interrupted my action. Turning, I spied Pop standing just inside the garage, his hat off as he ran a hand through his hair. "Afternoon, Tyler, Morgan."
"Hi, Pop!" Blinking, I took another look at the man. Something didnt seem right with him, somehow. Curious, I walked over to him, noticing as he ducked his head shyly away from me. "What happened to you?" I asked, taking in the starburst of brilliant color over his swollen right eye as well as the jagged cut down one grizzled cheek. "Who did this?"
"Aint no big deal," he replied, taking a step away from me.
"What happened." Ices commanding voice floated to us from the depths of the shadowed garage.
"Buncha young toughs from the bar up the road got their peckers up, pardon the language. Shoulda known better than ta go up there, my age bein what it is, but I had a taste for a cold one and I never could turn that down." He shrugged his narrow shoulders. "Do my drinkin at home from now on. Like I said, aint no big deal."
"Its a big deal to me," I countered. "No one has the right to beat up someone else. Its stupid and just plain rude."
He grinned at me. "They aint known for their brains or their manners, Tyler. Dont get all upset about em anyway. Aint worth it. I learned my lesson."
Though I couldnt see Ice in the dark, I thought I caught a short nod directed at me, which made me feel much better about the whole situation. Enough to let it drop, with Pop at least. "Well, you make sure you put some ice on that eye to keep it from swelling any more than it already has."
"Got me a pound of raw hamburger waitin to do just that, Tyler." He shrugged again. "s what my wife used to use on me, anyway. Figure itll do the same now as it did back then."
He turned his head toward Ice. "Speakin of which, my wifes sister took ill up-country. Aint seen her in years, but I promised my Maggie that Id look after her kin after shed passed on, so I reckon thats what Ill do. Was wonderin, Morgan, if you wouldnt mind lookin after the place for me. Ill close er up good and tight when I leave, but I like my things to stay where I left em, and you never can be too sure these days, even in a town like this one. If itll set ya back, say so. Ill find someone else."
"No need to shut it down," Ice replied. "I dont mind filling in for a few days."
"Couldnt ask that of ya . . . ."
"Then dont. Just consider it done."
Now, Pop might have been old, but he was also smart. He knew when hed been beaten, and had no bones about saying so. Nodding, he put his cap back on his head and straightened the oil-stained brim. "Ill give you my thanks and leave ya to er then. Im leavin first thing tomorrow, so whenever ya get here is when youll be open."
"Alright then. Got a trip to get ready for. Be seein ya." And with that, he turned and left the cool garage, heading back toward the station proper and his tidy little house beyond.
Ice, too, left the shadows, coming to stand beside me, her arms laden with tools. Grabbing one, I turned to her, and smiled. "That was really sweet of you."
She snorted. "I dont do sweet."
"Suuuuuure ya dont." I know she doesnt like being teased, but sometimes I just cant help myself. She just makes it so darned easy.
She scowled, but kept her peace, fiddling with the oversized wrench in her hand. "Cmon. I got a cabin to finish."
As I broke into a jog to keep some sort of pace with my lovers long strides, the corner of my eye caught a bright flash of pink from the direction of the Silver Pine. Turning my head, I saw Millicent eyeing me, that pinched look still on her face; only now, it was directed at me as well as my partner.
Unable to resist that little voice in my head, I trotted forward a couple steps and snared my arm around Ices lean waist, hugging her close so that our hips bumped as we walked.
"What was that for?"
"Oh," I smirked, glancing over my shoulder at Millicents frowning reaction, "nothing."
Heh. Heh. Heh.
After puttering around the cabin with Ice for a few hours, I left to shower and freshen up for my afternoon job. Like Ices before me, my own reputation had spread beyond Rubys study. Before I knew it, offers for tutoring jobs came in more quickly than I could handle them, from young and old alike.
However, since I had to help build my home, there just werent enough hours in the day to help all who asked, so I learned to be selective, something that didnt come easily to me, especially when it came down to deciding who to teach and who to regretfully decline. After all, an education is one of the most important things in the world, and something everyone deserves a chance to receive.
The student that I was helping that particular late summers day was a wonderful, mentally challenged seven-year-old boy named Nikki who had left school the year before because of the teasing hed received from his classmates. Id shunned monetary offers from his parents, but when they pointed out that I was treating their son as a special case by doing so, and that was something they most definitely did not want to have happen, I gave in to their undeniable logic and accepted both money and son into my care. Something Ive never regretted.
My lessons finished for the day, I found myself at Rubys kitchen table, regaling her with my rendition of my first meeting with the incomparable Millicent Harding Post. Tears were rolling down my face as she told a few tales of her own about the woman and her many strange habits, treating Puddles as if the dog were human the very least among them.
Ice had come in shortly before, grimy from her labors, and had run upstairs to shower and change before going back into town with me in search of some dinner.
Night was quickly drawing down when the phone rang. Getting up from her place at the table, Ruby answered it, then cradled it to her chest as she yelled up the stairs. "Morgan, its for you."
After a muffled "Got it" floated down from upstairs, the room fell silent save for the ticking of the clock above the stove.
Time passed in its slow, quiet way as the conversation between Ruby and I ground down to dust. I heard the door to Ices room open, then quietly close, followed again by stillness. Ruby and I looked at one another. She smiled. "You might as well go on up. I know its killing you, not knowing."
I blushed a little, but stood anyway, knowing I was well and truly caught. "Im sure its nothing. Probably some last minute instructions from Pop about not lighting a match around the gas pumps or something." Still, I couldnt quite push away the feeling of dread that seemed to come from nowhere as the moments ticked away.
Shaking my head at my foolishness, I smiled my thanks to Ruby, then pushed away from the table and strode to the stairs, taking them two at a time until I was practically running. I stopped in front of Ices door, knocked, then entered her room without waiting for a response. A rude thing for me to do, Ill agree, but manners were the last thing on my mind at that moment. I couldnt explain why my body was giving me the messages it was, only that it was. And after living in prison for so many years, that was enough for me.
She was standing by the window, with its view that faced the forest beyond, her profile bathed in moonlight. One hand gripped the narrow sill, and even in the darkness in which I was standing, I could see the tendons in that hand stand out in bold relief against the moon-bleached pallor of her skin.
Closing the door behind me, I crossed the room without even being aware that I had done so. "Is something wrong?" I whispered my question, too afraid to make it real by voicing it too loudly.
She didnt answer. Just kept staring out at the gently swaying pines that laid a canopy over the road meandering behind the house.
I laid a hand on her forearm, feeling the iron tension in the muscles slumbering there. "Please talk to me, Ice. My guts are churning here. Whatever it is, I need to know. Maybe I can help."
She turned, at last, from the window, a sad smile on her face. "You cant help with this one, Angel." Above her smile, her eyes were clear, colorless pools from which her pain radiated.
Trailing my hand down her strong arm, I grasped her hand and gently pulled it loose from its hold on the window sill, placing it against my rapidly beating heart. "Please, Ice. Talk to me. Anything, even the worst news, is better than this not knowing."
I could easily see the thoughts whirling behind those strangely colorless eyes, and held my breath when they announced their final decision.
Whatever news I had expected in my panic, it surely wasnt this. "What?"
"Hes out. His lawyer got the judge to throw out the conviction on appeal."
I looked at her, struck dumb with confusion. "But . . . ," I got out finally, "I thought he was dead. The news reports . . . ."
"Lied, apparently. Or else they werent given the truth by those higher up. Cavallo was gunned down by Salvatores men. He just wasnt killed."
"Then why . . . ."
"Cover-up of the century for them, Id imagine. Figured they could make a deal with him after pulling his ass out of the fire. He must have reneged at some point, though, because they wound up trying and convicting him."
"Then what happened?" I asked, still trying to wrap my mind around her bombshell. Of all the things Id considered in the deepest part of the night, when Ices fugitive status came right up and sat on my chest, this possibility wasnt one of them. Not only the police, but the Mob too? Jesus Christ.
"The papers I planted in his car. Apparently, they were the major block on which the prosecution built its case. On appeal, they got thrown out in an illegal search and seizure ruling. Without that evidence, the case pretty much fell apart. And since Im the one who planted them there in the first place . . . ." She shrugged. "Shitty deal, all the way around."
"God damn it! How did you find this out?"
"Andre. Hes been keeping an ear out for me. Called me as soon as he heard."
As I gazed up at her, I had the distinct sense that the story wasnt over. "Theres more, isnt there."
After a long moment, she finally nodded, her tongue darting out to moisten dry lips. "Cavallo put the word out. He wants his pound of flesh. From me. And nothings gonna stop him until he gets it. Andre also told me that Cavallos sniffing around up this way. Somehow, he managed to blunder onto at least part of my trail, though I dont think hes quite got the brains to think I went over the border. Yet." Pulling her hand from mine, she turned away from me again, her clenched fist rattling the window as it came down hard on the sill. "I knew I shoulda killed that bastard when I had the chance." Reaching up, she dragged her hand through her thick hair, snorting in self-derision. "I must be crazy."
"Youre not crazy, Ice. You did the right thing."
She spun back toward me, her eyes narrowed and filled with fire. "For who? Who, Angel? You? Me?"
"Us!" I shouted, then quickly lowered my voice, very much conscious of the fact that we werent, really, alone. "Your dreams. Remember?"
"Those dreams are dead.. I should have never listened to them in the first place."
I gasped, then stepped away, stung beyond belief by her thoughtless words. "Do you really mean that?"
Her eyes softened, as did her voice. "Angel, Im a killer. Thats who I am. What I am. Its how Ive managed to stay alive all these years; by being worse than the worst they could throw at me. And the one time I go against who I am, this is what happens." She smiled again, that sad smile that broke my heart into tiny fragments. "I was never meant to live this life, Angel. Peace isnt something I deserve. Love isnt something I deserve." She paused, as if weighing the weight of her words. "It was foolish of me to ever believe that I could be the person you see when you look at me. Foolish and dangerous."
She looked away again, out through the window and into the night beyond. "And now Ive dragged you down with me. Ive done the one thing I promised myself Id never do." Her even breaths gently fogged the window, turning the view beyond white with a surreal mist. Her jaw set in granite determination, an expression I knew only too well. My stomach did a slow, lazy flip deep inside.
Her voice, when it came, was soft as death. "He wants to play games? Fine. Well play."
"What . . .are you going to do?"
Ice snorted softly. "Find him before he finds me."
In slow motion, her dark head turned in my direction, her eyes alight with a glee I imagined a crocodile might have when a fat young deer waded a touch too far into his favorite watering hole.
"Im gonna kill him."
"Ice . . .no . . . ."
"Yes, Angel. This isnt some game Cavallos playing for kicks. This is real. And Im not about to let that bastard get me a second time. Not while Im alive enough to do something about it."
"But . . . ."
"Look. We both knew something like this was gonna happen sooner or later. It just happens to be sooner. I dont like it, but the choice has been taken out of my hands." She looked at me intently, bathing me in the blue of her eyes. "Angel, you know how much I love you. Nothing can ever take that away from me. But this . . .this is something I gotta do."
She sighed, then looked down at her hands, which were clenched into tight fists. "Youll be safe here, Angel. Ill make sure of it. You have friends here, people who love you. Theyll help you finish the cabin so you can finally have your dream."
I laughed; a cold, disgusted sound that surprised even me. "My dream? My dream?! That cabin out there isnt my dream, Ice. It hasnt been for five years now. If I had to, Id take a match and turn it into the biggest bonfire this towns seen since the last time it burned down."
She eyed me strangely, her head cocked at a slight angle.
"You just dont get it, do you?"
She shook her head slowly.
"This place, that cabin, those people, theyre not my dream. Id give them all up without a seconds pause or regret. And do you know why?"
Again, a shake of negation.
"Because you, Morgan Steele, are my dream. None of the rest of this means a goddamn thing unless youre here to share it with me."
"Your home . . . ."
"Its not my home! Youre my home! Why cant you ever believe that? Why do you insist on continuing to see me as some naïve little child who has no clue about what she wants or needs?" I wasnt, obviously, giving her any time to answer my questions, but I didnt care at that moment. This blow-up had been a long time in coming, and I wasnt going to stop until I purged myself of the poison inside. "Why do you insist on treating me like some fragile, priceless object that you have to store away in some display case somewhere so no dust gets on it?"
"You are priceless, Angel," she managed to interject.
"But Im not an object, Ice! Im a person! A grown woman, quite capable of deciding how to live my life and who to live it with." My voice softened as I stared at her with as much emotion as I could force into my eyes. "Why is it so hard for you to believe that the person I choose to live it with is you?"
For a moment, just a moment, I knew what it was like to look into the eyes of a Morgan who had just lost her parents; a young girl heartsick with the pain of loss and too innocent to know how to cover that up with layers of concrete so thick no human could ever get inside those walls again.
But that moment passed in an instant, and I was shown just how vast a gulf the agony of years had created between that Morgan and this. The pain in her eyes vanished as if it had never been, to be replaced with the Morgan Steele the outside world knew; tough, unfeeling, uncaring. A robot incapable of experiencing even the most banal of emotions.
"I cant afford to let myself believe that, Angel."
"Because if I do, I lose a very important part of myself. A part I need to stay one step away from everyone who wants a shot at me; the cops, the Mob, god knows who else. If I let my guard down even for an instant, things happen. People die, Angel. You could die. And if Id thought about that when I had my gun to Cavallos head, I would have done the right thing for me, and thered be one less thing to worry about right now." Her eyes warmed just slightly; a drop of rain on upon a frozen wasteland. "Instead, I thought about a dream I could never really have and let the lure of it prod me into a decision that I never should have made."
"And after you kill him, assuming he doesnt get you first, what then?" I really couldnt believe I was actually talking about this in a rational manner, but there I was, speaking as if we were discussing the weather over afternoon tea.
She shrugged. "Come back over the border. Go up further north, winter in one of Bulls cabins, I suppose."
I nodded. "Alright then. Ill be sure to pack some warm clothes."
"Angel . . . ."
"Dont Angel me, Ice. If youre so bound and determined to go through with this, then youd better get used to the fact that Im gonna be there right along with you."
Her eyes narrowed.
"You think you can stop me, Ice? How? Tie me up? Ill get loose." I looked deliberately down at her still-clenched fists. "Beat me up? Break my legs? Ill heal. And then Ill search for you. And Ill keep searching until I find you." I could hear my voice rising, but I didnt care. "If you insist on martyring yourself for me, Morgan, then by damn, Ill be your cross. Ill be an albatross around your neck. And one day, maybe, youll finally get it through your thick head that where you go, I go. Period."
Then I gave her my own dangerous grin, one Id learned well at the feet of the Master. "Because unlike you, Ice, I dont give up that easy."
The look she returned me would have turned the bowels of even the most hearty of men to water. I forced myself to remain, outwardly at least, unaffected. "What are you talking about."
I flung my hands out. "Isnt it obvious? It is to me. You let an idiot like Cavallo scare you away from a dream I know you have." Barking a laugh, I shook my head. "You forget who youre dealing with here, Ice. I know you. Better than you think I do. I see that look on your face when you think no ones looking. Like some kid on Christmas morning waiting for someone to tell her that Santa Claus really doesnt exist and that all the presents she thought were hers actually belong to the kids down the street."
I took a step closer to her, pleased when she didnt try to back away. "Youve been waiting for this excuse all along, havent you. Youve been waiting for the perfect reason to bolt. Because the longer you stay here, the longer you live among people who respect the person you are instead of the dangerous murderer you think you are, the more youre forced to believe that theres actually a person inside you worthy of such respect. And adoration. And love."
Reaching out, I laid a hand on her arm. She flinched, but didnt pull away, so I applied pressure to her wrist, holding it in a firm clasp. "We both knew what we were getting into when we started this journey, Ice. But my fears, my concerns are, I think, easier for me to deal with that yours are for you. Because mine are easily seen. I know that all this stands a very good chance at coming to an end, and perhaps a violent one, someday. I know that, and continue the journey anyway, because to me, to me, Ice, being with you is much more important than being without you."
I took that final step, brushing my body against hers. I thought I could feel her tremble faintly, but it was probably my imagination. "And I know you share those fears. But theyre easy ones for you, because youve had the same things to deal with most of your life. Life and death decisions are easy for you to make. But feeling . . .thats hard. Believing is hard. And allowing yourself to love and be loved is probably the hardest thing of all."
"Everything I love dies," she whispered, her voice raspy with tears she wouldnt, couldnt, shed.
I wrapped her in an embrace so tight I dont think a mote of dust could pass between us, and wished with all my strength that I was taller so I could rest her head against my chest as she had done for me so many times as to be uncountable. "I know," I whispered, my own tears rolling down my cheeks, tears I shed for the both of us. "I know."
Those deaths passed between us then, in some sort of metaphysical osmosis that filled the room like a pall. Her mother. Her father. Her best friend. Josephine. Other friends. Perhaps other lovers, ones we hadnt spoken of. Her innocence. Her belief in the power of love.
After a moment, she pulled away from me, angrily swiping at a tear which had managed to escape the imprisonment of her eyes. She turned toward the window again, and I could feel the distance between us begin to grow. Oddly, though, it didnt seem to be a distance of hurt, but rather of healing. A distance that told me she had heard my words and needed a minute alone to process them and their implications for her life.
Smiling slightly, I stepped back away from her. "Ill support you in whatever decision you make, Morgan. Just, please, dont let him win, ok?"
Her nod was the last thing I saw before I turned and left the room.
Continued - Part 4
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