resa

by

Journs

 

All warnings, disclaimer, thanks, and so forth can be found in the first couple installments. No need for redundant redundancy. Should anyone get a hankerin’ to communicate on this here story (eeep!) for any reason, feel free to contact me at: travelingpastry@yahoo.com

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

It was the quiet that eventually awoke her. Somewhere in the far recesses of her awareness she became conscious that the incessant pittering of rain had ceased to hit the windowpane and the sunlight of late afternoon was streaming in through the half-closed slats of the shutters.

Resa stirred...and became aware of something else. Or, more specifically, of someone else. She kept her eyes shut even as her senses tingled to full scale alert and her exact sleeping position made itself known to her.

The dozing body beneath her was solid and warm and their limbs were in a definite tangle. She could feel the strong, steady heartbeat against her ear and the soft cotton fabric of Jennifer’s shirt as it gently rubbed against her cheek with each breath she took. Her mind reeled. How did I manage to fall asleep like this? she wondered in surprise. How did I manage to fall asleep at all? It was, for the former gang leader, an extraordinary position for her to be in but it didn’t disturb her or make her uneasy. Quite the opposite, really. She found she could stay like that for much longer if she allowed and the temptation to do so was great...

But a higher wisdom prevailed.

Resa gradually drew her left hand out from where it was pinned between Jennifer’s lower back and the bed and squeezed it into a fist to try to coax the blood back into her prickling fingertips. She ignored the light throb in her wounded shoulder from the awkward position in which she had slept and slowly pushed herself up to an arm’s distance in order to gaze down at the younger woman.

She looked beautiful. Long blonde hair was splayed out over the pillow in casual disarray and her blood red lips were slightly parted, giving her face a remarkably youthful aura. Even for her...and for a moment Resa’s chest hurt at the sight. Jennifer Logan was such a rarity in her world. A girl who projected normality and inspired wonderment, a caring person who was genuinely concerned about Resa’s well-being...

A friend.

To leave her would be one of the most difficult things she had ever done and yet what choice did she have? Her presence practically invited trouble and that was something she desperately did not want for the girl.

But oh, how she wished there was an alternative...

Resa disentangled her legs from Jennifer’s, then leaned further back on one elbow and gently nudged her companion a couple times to rouse her from her slumbers. She tilted her dark head to one side and watched as the younger woman blinked repeatedly, her grogginess clear, and swiveled her attention around until it locked onto her.

"Hey," Jennifer mumbled in a thick voice and rubbed the base of her palm against a single heavy-lidded eye.

"Rain’s stopped," Resa pointed out as she moved to a sitting position.

"Hmmmmm," was the garbled reply as she stretched her body, legs straight and toes pointed with the bottom of her shirt riding up just enough to reveal that sit-ups were obviously an important part of her daily exercise routine. Resa’s eyebrow arched and she idly wondered if it would be possible to bounce a quarter off those abs...

"You hungry?" Jennifer asked, interrupting the course of Resa’s thoughts.

"What? Oh. Yeah, a little."

The younger woman sat up and the shirt fell back to its natural position. "Good, because I’m an excellent cook and I am so freakin’ starving right now that I’m this close to eating the next thing that crosses my path."

"Remind me to stay out of your way then," Resa murmured dryly to which Jennifer wiggled her eyebrows in mock suggestion and hopped off the bed. She reached back a hand to help Resa and the former gang leader took it, though she really needed no assistance. "You’re strong," she commented as she felt the firm grip and the power pulling her to her feet.

"It’s the Irish in me. We’re a tough old breed," Jennifer replied as she bent down to pick up Resa’s damp clothes off the floor.

The former gang leader was slightly chagrined about her natural sloppiness but it was a habit of hers since childhood that was incredibly difficult to break.

"Sorry," she murmured as she reached for them but Jennifer shook her head and held them away.

"Don’t worry about it. I pay someone to come clean my place and that’s the only reason it looks as tidy as it does. Though," she continued with a teasing smirk as she headed out of the bedroom, Resa’s clothes still in hand. "I have a feeling you’d beat me on the messy meter."

"Why’s that?" She followed Jennifer down the hall and through one of the doorways she’d earlier noticed. It was a laundry room complete with washer, dryer and folding area, which were rare accommodations to find in a LA apartment.

"You give off a decidedly ‘messy’ vibe," she answered over her shoulder.

Dark brows knitted in a playfully indignant frown. "How so?"

"I can’t explain it. Cleaning just seems beneath you somehow. Like you get too focused on something to worry about anything as mundane as picking up after yourself." Jennifer tossed the wet clothes into the dryer and fiddled with the settings.

"Such as?"

Jennifer’s grin turned impish. "Such as fighting bad guys and rescuing damsels like me from distress." She turned on the dryer and the deep rumble immediately filled the confined space.

"I don’t do that very often." Resa leaned against the side of the washing machine and crossed her arms. "Just for special damsels."

"Well I’m sure glad I qualified," she said cheerfully.

"So am I."

Jennifer opened her mouth to say something further but then stopped and smiled brightly instead, her light green eyes vibrant and alive. She looked like a kid given an unexpected present as her gaze roved over Resa’s face.

"Really?" The top of her nose crinkled as a soft blush crept into her cheeks.

"Yeeees," she drawled and watched as Jennifer’s blush blossomed into a deep pink.

"Thanks." She sounded downright bashful and Resa found it unbelievably charming.

"You’re welcome."

What followed was one of those long pauses where both women just looked at each other, smiling their individual and distinct smiles as uncounted seconds ticked away. By all rights it should have been very awkward but both were too caught up in the moment to do more than indulge themselves in this flourishing and mutual fascination. It was like receiving an unexpected present, Resa decided. And she’d had too few of those in her life not to respect the ones she was given.

The ring of the phone penetrated the loud hum of the dryer and like that, the spell was broken. Jennifer blinked a couple times, then pulled a comical face and hurried past Resa out into the living room to grab the phone before whoever was on the other end rang off.

A rather warm Resa stayed right where she was for a little longer, then shook her head and grinned to herself. Interesting. Verrry interesting.

She exited the laundry area and entered the living room to find Jennifer gabbing in mid-conversation.

"...So you’re back in town?" She heard the younger woman say into her black, portable phone before turning to glance at her briefly. "She’s right here...No, she wouldn’t go to the hospital but Dr. Marcus sewed her up and I’ve been taking care of her...It’s my pleasure...Sure, here, hold on a sec." She covered the receiver and proffered the phone to Resa. "It’s Father Hector. He’s back from Tijuana." Resa accepted the phone but Jennifer stopped her before she put it to her ear. "Real quick, I’m going to make some pasta and salad. That work for you?"

"Yes. Thanks."

Jennifer’s chipper and off-hand grin was dazzling. "Welcome." Then she patted the taller woman on the upper arm with casual affection before heading into the kitchen. Resa watched after her until she ducked out of sight then turned her attention back to the phone call.

"Don’t lecture me," she said into the phone, bypassing the typical greeting phase.

Father Hector’s deep chuckle warmed her. "And hello to you, too."

She grinned. "Hello, Padre," she said with as much contrition as she was capable, which wasn’t much.

"I hear you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone."

"You could say that."

"Are you all right?" He sounded genuinely concerned and she had no doubt he was. It was his nature.

"I’m fine, Padre," she assured him. "Sewed up and on the mend." Then added, more for herself, "Jennifer’s been very helpful about changing the bandages for me."

"That doesn’t surprise me. She struck me right off as a quality person."

"Yeah," she murmured and her eyes strayed to the kitchen where the sounds of cooking already echoed. She couldn’t agree more.

"Are you two getting along?" he asked, a slight hesitation in his tone and she had to fight to keep down the laugh that threatened.

"Um, yeah."

He picked up on the verbal hiccup in her voice and misinterpreted. "I know she’s different from you but I really think you should keep an open mind about my suggestion. Ian says she’s the best student in his class and that he thinks she has genuine talent."

She felt a little tickle of pride at the praise for Jennifer, however "She’s a bright kid," was all she said.

"Yes, she is. So before you dismiss the idea out of hand, give yourself some time to get to know her better and see if you feel comfortable enough to at least consider having her help you write about your experiences. I know it may sound frivolous to you but you have a great deal to offer, Resa, in terms of your unique perspective on what amounts to a plague within our inner cities. It may be just the sort of thing to give hope to some other young person in a bad situation."

"So you say."

"It’s true. You’ve managed to do something extraordinary. You’ve been to the heart of evil and returned to tell about it."

Resa cocked a brow. "I think you’re being a little over dramatic, Padre," she said.

Father Hector laughed self-depreciatingly. "Okay, maybe. But that’s how I see it."

"Then it’s a good thing Jennifer’s doing the writing."

There was a slight pause on the other end. "Doing the writing?" And she could practically see his blue eyes widen in surprise.

"That’s what I said." She did so like to tease the Big Guy.

"Are you saying--you’ve agreed to let her..."

"Yes," she said.

Another silence then the rather astonished, "Huh," brought a smile.

"Do I take that as a ‘huh’ of approval?" she asked.

"Absolutely. I’m merely amazed is all. Before I left you were so adamantly opposed to the idea. What changed your mind?"
Again Resa’s gaze drifted to the kitchen. "Kinda hard to explain in a nutshell, Padre. Let’s just say the last three days have been...interesting."

"You’re being mysterious. I hate that."

"Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you next."

"And when will that be? I’m worried about you, both of you."

"Don’t be," she assured him. "Everything’s under control."

"I’m sure, but I do feel a certain accountability for all that’s happened and I would like to make sure you’re doing well."

That was understandable. She could well imagine the amount of responsibility Father Hector must have felt when he heard about the events of the past few days and she instinctively wanted to alleviate any guilt he may be experiencing.

"How about tomorrow?" she suggested.

"Perfect. The morning is best. I have the fewest appointments then. You’ll bring Jennifer, too?"

"Oh, she’ll be there," she assured him with a smile.

"Good. Tomorrow."

"We’ll see you then," she said and felt a little surge of pleasure at how easily the term ‘we’ tripped off her tongue.

They rang off. Resa replaced the receiver in the phone stand and then thought of how much she was going to miss him.

When he had told her of his future she hadn’t wanted to believe she was going to lose him and felt a bitter frustration at the Church for its blind regulations. How could they take from her her mentor and friend? And all because of some senseless, outdated policy. It was arbitrary and unjust. The Padre had assured her that the ways of God are often unknown but inevitably for the best. She didn’t want to argue with him but neither could she readily agree. Not with the life she’d lead. Still, she put up a good front when she was with him, not letting on how the impending loss already weighed heavily upon her heart. He had been there for her for so long, been the first person to place trust in her, even when no justification existed for his doing so. And he had given her so much. Dignity. Hope. Faith in herself, the possibility of faith in others...and, most recently, he had given her Jennifer. How could she ever hope to repay that?

She wandered into the kitchen to find the college senior in the middle of what looked to Resa to be a grand production. A big, stainless steel covered pot was heating up on the range as were a couple other saucepans. To one side she noticed a can of clams, a box of angel haired pasta and a clove of garlic.

The blonde chef was standing before an open refrigerator, searching for something. From her angle in the doorway Resa got a good look at the fridge’s contents and nearly choked. The thing was packed! Every shelf teaming with a bounty of produce and other perishables, which to one whom lived a meal at a time, was remarkable.

"Planning to feed a small army?" she asked, mildly incredulous.

Jennifer glanced over her shoulder and grinned. "Told you I like to cook."

"Yeah, but that’s a whole lot of food for one person."

Jennifer reached into the fridge to pull out a couple bags of different types of lettuce. "When I cook I usually invite over some friends. Makes it easier than having to store all the leftovers." Next she retrieved a couple ripe tomatoes.

"You cook a lot?"

"At least once, sometimes twice a week. It relaxes me." She grabbed a cucumber, a block of real Parmesan cheese and a variety of other things before shutting the door with her hip.

"Your friends are lucky," Resa commented.

"Stick around," she tossed out and Resa felt a pang deep in her gut as she thought how she would like to do nothing more... "What did Father Hector have to say?" Jennifer continued.

"He wants to see us tomorrow, make sure we’re all right."

"That’s nice of him." She removed the lid from the bigger pot and poured in the whole box of thin pasta, then added a couple shakes of salt.

"Uh-huh...I also think he wants to be sure he didn’t make a mistake putting us together."

She noted the slight quirk at the corner of Jennifer’s mouth. "That we’re not killing each other," the younger woman clarified knowingly, unable to contain her merriment at the thought.

"Something like that."

"And what did you tell him?" She began to slice up a tomato.

"The truth. That I was doing my best to be patient with you," Resa teased.

"Oh!" Jennifer scoffed in mock indignation and immediately threw a piece of tomato at Resa who, in turn, caught it before it could slap into her sweatshirt and plopped it into her mouth with a satisfied smirk.

Jennifer chuckled then began to tear up the lettuce as she casually asked, "So, what’s the story with Father Hector anyhow?"

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine most Catholic priests look quite so Greek god gorgeous." Resa had to grin. "So, what’s the deal? Is he just an anomaly or what?"

Resa hesitated, stroking her jaw in contemplation then decided that to tell would not be a breach of discretion, that Father Hector had always been very open about his past and the tragedy that brought him to his eventual calling.

"I suppose there are as many different reasons for a man to enter the priesthood as there are priests," she said. "But I think Father Hector’s story is probably pretty unique." She came a little further into the room. "For one thing, he used to be married." Jennifer’s dark blonde brows rose in surprise at this revelation but she did not comment and Resa continued. "He had three young kids and…everything else that goes with it I suppose. He also used to play professional football up north, where he grew up. For the Vikings, I think. And the way he tells it, life was pretty good." She unconsciously lowered her eyes a fraction. "But then one night, while driving his family home from a long weekend vacation, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed their car into a tree." She glanced back up. "He was the only survivor."

Jennifer gasped and put her hand to her chest. "Oh, my God. How awful!"

"His body was too injured for him to play football again but he told me he wouldn’t have even if he could. His heart wasn’t in it anymore."

Green eyes shimmered with sorrow and dread. "So, what did he do?"

"According to him, he wandered around for a while. Lost. Bitter and angry. Hating the world. Until everything came to a head one night. He told me he went on a drinking binge that was probably a half-hearted attempt at suicide. Ended up falling into a lake, drunk outta his mind, and he drowned."

Jennifer blinked. "Drowned?" Resa nodded. "As in dead?" Resa nodded again. "Whoa…"

"Yeah. He was clinically dead by the time he was found but got taken to a hospital right away. Somehow they brought him back to life. Everyone said it was a miracle."

"And what did Father Hector say?"

"According to him, the miracle came before he was revived. He claims that during the time he was dead, he had an out of body experience that completely changed him. He swears he crossed over into the afterlife and met his wife and she was pissed as hell at the way he was behaving. Told him he was wasting precious time and that he needed to shape up, to make something of himself or else. Which, after he woke up, is exactly what he did."

"By becoming a priest?"

Resa shrugged. "He told me the priesthood was the best way for him, that it was something that had been in the back of his mind for as long as he could remember and that once he gave it serious thought, he knew it was the only answer. For him, at least."

Jennifer was quiet a moment, then gave a sad, little shake of her head. "What a tragic story."

"Yeah, but good came out of it eventually. The Padre is one of the most giving people I’ve ever met. He’s helped hundreds, maybe even thousands since becoming a priest." She felt a pang in her heart and let out a little sigh, which Jennifer did not fail to notice.

"You’re going to miss him, huh?" she prompted gently.

She nodded, not trusting her voice, and tried not to think about how everyone who ever mattered to her left eventually, in one way or another. It seemed to be her lot in life, to be alone. She glanced up at Jennifer and felt the sharp resonance of longing as she realized that this relationship, too, would come to an end. Soon. It was something she did not want to consider, at least night yet. Instead she straightened and deliberately glanced around the kitchen in a conscious quest to change the subject.

She noted that the room was as tastefully decorated as the rest of the apartment. It was a good sized area, if slightly narrow and long, with a full-length window in the back half, in front of which was a small breakfast table. She vaguely recalled such a thing being referred to as a ‘nook’ by people who did not live in the barrio.

"You have a nice place," Resa said.

Jennifer cocked an eyebrow, aware of the none-too-subtle switch in subject matter to something less personal but perhaps unwilling to press the issue.

"Thanks," she said. "I’m happy with it. I mean, eventually I’ll want to buy a house but I don’t want to deal with the hassle until after I graduate." She turned back to her cooking.

Dark brows rose in surprise. "A house?"

"Yep. Heard of ‘em before?" she asked with a twinkle. She flipped the knife and used the flat end to scrape the diced tomatoes into a bowl then began to cut up a couple cloves of garlic.

"Yeah, I’ve heard of them," Resa murmured quietly, mentally calculating how much it took to buy a home in LA. A place in a decent neighborhood was no less than a mid-six figure investment and that was a lot of money for a kid like her to have. Hell, that was a lot of money for anyone to have.

Jennifer glanced up from her preparations and frowned a little.

"You know, if you want to ask me any questions, you can. I won’t mind."

Resa leaned against the edge of the counter. "What makes you think I’m not asking you something?"

"Just a feeling I get." She tipped her head to one side, examining her. "Am I wrong?"

Resa was quiet a moment, then shook her head. "No, you’re not wrong...But, what if the question is...personal?"

"Resa, you’ve just told me some of the most incredibly personal parts of your life that my meager existence couldn’t possibly hold a candle to. Feel free to ask me anything. I insist."

"Anything?"

"Anything."

"Okay. Are you rich?"

"Yes." Then she paused to consider. "Well, more like comfortably off for a long time."

"How long?"

"If I plan everything right and don’t live in Las Vegas, thirty or forty years." Resa stiffened a little and Jennifer picked up on her reaction. "That doesn’t bother you, does it?"

A single dark brow arched. "No." But even to her ears there was the slightest catch in her tone that Jennifer didn’t fail to hear.

"It does bother you," she commented, her brows knitting in confusion. "Why?"

Resa pressed her lips together and looked down. It did bother her, Jennifer was right but it was difficult to explain. Essentially her concern was rooted in the potential differences such contrasting backgrounds would have on their friendship but she wasn’t going to say that. That made her look insecure and she refused to allow such a thing, prideful though it was. She had always been conscious of the glaring disparity that lay between them yet in her mind that had been culturally based. It was one thing to be aware Jennifer was raised in the Mid-West to her own more urban upbringing, it was another thing entirely to find out she’d been raised in privilege. The distinction between the two was subtle yet important. At least to her.

She rubbed her jaw and tried to explain. "There’s a difference between being raised with money and being raised without. Perspectives and attitudes. Level of expectation. It’s just fundamental."

Jennifer was still perplexed. "I totally agree," she said. "But what does that have to do with anything?"

"I may have known a little of what it’s like to have money but I wasn’t raised rich. Not by a long shot."

"Okay but neither was I," she replied and Resa’s brows rose in surprise. "My Dad was a dentist until he retired and my Mom was a homemaker the whole time my brothers and I were growing up. She’s only recently gone back to school to become a therapist but we definitely didn’t have a whole lot of money when I was a kid."

"But, you just said--"

"I have money now, but I just came into it." She turned back to her food preparations as she spoke, careful to keep primary attention on Resa. "My Nona, Mom’s Mom, was a notorious tightwad who kept a keen eye on the stock market and was, I might add, apparently a helluva savvy investor. She got into Microsoft and some other major stocks early on and cleaned up and when she passed away a little over two years ago, the shares were divvied up between her kids and grandkids. Voila! Rich. Actually, that partly contributed to my transferring to St. Mary’s. I could finally afford it. But before that it was Kansas Public Schools ‘R’ Us and working after school at the local Bennigan’s singing that god-awful ‘Happy, Happy Birthday’ song." She shuddered at the memory.

Resa felt a surge of relief and it apparently showed. Jennifer’s lips twisted in a wry grin.

"Why, Ms. Gustavez, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were an anti-Úlitist." Resa didn’t bother to deny it and Jennifer looked at her curiously. "Would it have bothered you if I had been raised with a lot of money?"

"A little," she admitted.

"Why? I would still be the same person, the one you know now. I’d still be your friend." She fastened a meaningful look on Resa. "And, for the record, we are friends. Not friendly acquaintances, not acquaintances of a non-hostile nature. Friends."

Resa’s eyes widened, a little taken aback by the frankness of the statement. "Oh?"

"Yes." Her voice was firm as her green eyes danced with merriment and Resa couldn’t help but smile in return. "You’re not going to disagree with me, are you?"

The dark-haired woman held up her hands in mock surrender. "I wouldn’t dare."

"Good. I like that," she said with a sassy grin.

Resa crossed her arms and leaned back a bit, eyeing her closely. "You’re a bossy little thing, aren’t you?" she said, but there was an underlying affection to her tone.

Jennifer laughed, her cheeks flushed more from embarrassment than the steam billowing out of the boiling pot of pasta. "Oh my God, that’s so weird."

"What?"

"My brothers used to call me BLT when I was growing up ‘cause I was such a ‘Bossy Little Thing.’’’

"It suits you."

"Thanks," she shot back sardonically.

"No problem." She glanced around. "Can I help with anything?" she asked.

"Don’t tell me you can cook, too?" Jennifer asked, her eyes narrowed skeptically.

A shrug. "Technically."

"Technically?" She pulled a face. "Uh-huh. How are you at setting the table?"

Resa grinned. "Best in my class."

Jennifer pointed to the pantry. "Third shelf has the placemats and the top drawer over there has the silverware. Glasses and plates," she said while opening a cupboard. "Are up here."

Resa followed instructions and soon had two spots set at the dining table, having decided the breakfast ‘nook’ by the floor to ceiling window was too exposed to the inner courtyard for them to sit there. She still had to keep Jennifer’s safety in the forefront of her awareness and make certain every precaution was taken to protect her, especially when the atmosphere around them was so affable and at ease. The desire had less to do with the feeling of guilt at having gotten the younger woman into this situation in the first place than it did with the newfound appreciation for who the kid was as a person...and what she had come to mean to Resa.

She sensed Jennifer behind her and turned just in time for the younger woman to hold a long, wooden spoon up to her mouth.

"Here. Try this," the blonde said, fingertips lightly brushing Resa’s chin as she cupped her hand beneath the spoon so nothing would spill.

Resa’s eyes locked onto the smaller woman as she sampled the garlic smelling concoction then paused as her taste buds thrilled. It was a white wine based clam sauce with a variety of seasonings, including a healthy dose of garlic, which she simply loved.

"Well?" Jennifer prompted a bit anxiously.

"It’s good," she said, then saw the ever so slight furrow of Jennifer’s brow and remembered from the omelet experience that the kid wasn’t satisfied with a simple ‘good’ as praise thus she expounded with, "I wouldn’t change a thing."

Ahhh, that was better, she decided as she saw the manner in which Jennifer’s eyes sparkled at the approval.

"You don’t think there’s too much pepper?"

"No."

Jennifer nodded with a satisfied smile and headed back into the kitchen as Resa returned to her task and tried to ignore how the imprint of fingertips lingered against her skin...

A few minutes later the food was on the table and both women were seated, Resa unconsciously taking the head with Jennifer to her direct right. Resa examined the spread of food and was a bit taken aback by its abundance. A large, pistachio green ceramic bowl held a generous portion of thin pasta with the delicious clam sauce already blended in. Jennifer had also prepared a mixed salad with several different types of lettuce along with a variety of other healthy produce and whatnot and somehow found time to toast some garlic bread. To Resa, it was amazing.

"If this is what you do when you throw something together, I can’t imagine what a carefully planned meal is like," she said as she served herself a generous portion.

"Oh, then I go all out. Seven courses. Appetizers. Wines. Candles. The whole shebang." Jennifer paused slightly, then dropped her eyes to her plate as she said, "I’ll show you when everything settles down, cook you a real feast."

Resa’s hand twirling the pasta slowed down a fraction as yet another stab of longing went through her at the prospect. "I would like that," she said sincerely and enjoyed the happy expression that crossed the younger woman’s face.

For a long moment they ate in silence during which Resa indulged in the brief yet beguiling fantasy that this was her normal life and all was as it should be, as it could be. As she desperately wished it was. But Resa was too long a cynic to allow such wishful thinking to go unchecked and a jaded voice whispered in her ear that this glimpse of normality was just a phantom temptation, seemingly within her grasp but as elusive as a mirage. In a matter of days this will all be a memory... .nothing more...and you will go back to your own life...you know that, don’t you...don’t you...?

She swallowed hard and searched for a distraction, any distraction, from her persistent inner demons when her eyes alighted upon a framed photograph of a slightly younger Jennifer and a handsome young man, both smiling into the camera and decked out in bright hiking clothes. Behind them lingered a stunning mountain panorama of pine trees and jagged cliffs that seemed so perfect as to be out of some postcard. But her attention was drawn more to Jennifer’s companion than the view. He was tall and far too dark to likely be a member of Jennifer’s fair family and she noted a subtle familiarity in the way they stood pressed against each other that denoted an intimacy in their relationship that was went beyond mere friendship.

Jennifer looked up and noted where Resa’s eyes were drawn.

"That’s Curtis," she said a shade too evenly.

"Boyfriend?" Resa guessed, trying to make her question appear insouciant. She watched as a distance entered the pair of green eyes before her, the younger woman seeming to be momentarily taken over by her memories. "It’s none of my business," she said tightly and tried to repress the tidal wave of emotion that threatened to crest over her and crush her beneath its mass.

Jennifer’s expression was deliberately low-key. "Actually, he’s my ex-fiancÚ."

In retrospect Resa thought she did a commendable job of keeping her degree of surprise as well contained as she did because she was, in fact, thoroughly startled. Somehow she felt as if she should have already known a fact this significant about the younger woman which was, of course, utterly irrational. After all, they hadn’t known each other but a few days...

She cleared her throat. "What happened?"

Jennifer poked at her salad with her fork, her lower lip caught between her teeth and Resa immediately regretted her question, feeling as if she was intruding.

"Never mind."

At this Jennifer looked up quickly and reached out to lay her hand on Resa’s wrist as if to prevent the other woman’s retreat.

"No, no. It’s--I..." She frowned a little. "I’m just trying to figure out how to start is all." Her eyes dropped to the table for a beat then rose again to meet Resa’s. "I’ve known Curtis my whole life. Our parents were, or I should say ‘are’ best friends and as far back as I can remember it was sort of assumed that we’d date once we got old enough. Which we did. We ended up dating for over two years while we were both at the university and everything sort of moved forward with this...mechanical precision. Like our whole relationship was on a schedule and we were ticking off milestones as we reached them until the next thing we knew, we were twenty-one and engaged. Curtis was great. He did everything right. He was good to me and faithful and sweet and brought me my favorite coffee when I was studying late for mid-terms or finals and remembered all our anniversaries much better than I ever did and he loved me unconditionally..." Her voice trailed off and a brief, reflective silence followed before she continued, soft and melancholy. "And I never felt so trapped in my entire life. It was like this...enormous pressure was on my chest, slowly pressing down on me bit by bit by bit until I couldn’t breathe anymore. . .At some point I totally detached. He or my parents or his parents would be talking about our future and I could barely pay attention. It was like being a passenger in my own life... " She shook her head, blond tresses shimmering in the fading sunlight. "Everything began to suffer. My grades, my relationships with my friends and my parents...and Curtis most of all. I was just a total bitch to him in the end. I look back now at my behavior then and I am so embarrassed. He was so nice and I was so dismissive and downright rude most of the time. I mean now I know it’s because I wasn’t in love with him and in a total panic but that’s really no excuse for my behavior at the time."

It was difficult for Resa to picture Jennifer behaving in such a manner but repression had a funny effect on even the best of people and the memory of Martin and her own abominable treatment of him flickered briefly across her mind. She was torn between wanting to know more and her inclination not to pry, a byproduct of her natural avoidance of any sort of emotional intimacy which, she realized in the case of Jennifer Logan, was already a lost cause.

"How did it..." she began carefully.

"End?" Jennifer completed and Resa nodded. "With a whimper, not a bang. Which," she added with a rueful grin. "Could pretty much sum up our relationship. No bangs. We just...were. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so depressed and unpleasant to be around that even I didn’t like me. And I asked myself why...It was the most obvious question yet I couldn’t ask it until I’d made myself so fucking miserable there was no other choice. And the moment I asked it boom! I immediately had the answer. It was there the whole time, of course, but I’d been too afraid to acknowledge it because of the ramifications. The truth was I didn’t love Curtis and I desperately, desperately did not want to get married." Her grip on Resa’s wrist unconsciously tightened.

"So you broke it off."

"Yeah. Telling Curtis was easy." She grinned wryly. "I think he was almost as relieved as I was and we’ve since become great friends. But telling my parents was a different story."

"They were disappointed."

Jennifer chuckled. "Disappointed to their reaction is like a firecracker to a nuclear explosion." Resa cringed. "Yeah, exactly. Nona’s money came in reeeeal handy, let me tell you."

"Is that why you came out here? Because of your breakup?"

"It’s part of it. Actually, it’s all sort of intertwined. Once I asked myself what my problem was and why I was being such a witch, I started asking myself all sorts of other questions too and I remembered that what I had always really wanted to do with my life was to move to Los Angeles to become a journalist. I wanted to see other parts of the world and expand my horizons beyond Lawrence. So, I stopped being a passenger, took over the controls of my life and here I am."

Resa reached over to cover Jennifer’s hand. "Must have been hard."

"I think it’s invariably hard to realize you’re on the wrong path in the middle of a journey and even harder to switch directions. But you have to do it, otherwise you’re just going to end up hopelessly lost." She squeezed Resa’s wrist. "That’s what you did. You switched directions and your life was ten times more complicated than mine."

Resa shook her head and when she spoke it was from the heart. "My outward complications just made the difference between right and wrong obvious. Your life may have been simpler on the outside but I bet that just made your decision to change all the more difficult. Here you had everyone around you telling you that you were doing the right thing, that everything was going ahead like it was supposed to and inside you were the only one who didn’t agree. That must have been frustrating and scary." Resa smiled a bit, drinking up the wide-eyed face in front of her. "You know, yesterday you said I was braver than you because I didn’t have any family support when I left the Vartans...but I don’t agree. I think it must have been much harder to go against the expectations of your loved ones and carve out your own life in the face of their objections. That’s something I’ve never had to worry about since I’ve never risked losing love. But you have and you went ahead anyway because it was the right thing for you to do, no matter what anyone else said or thought. To me that takes real courage, much more than anything I’ve ever done," she said sincerely and was caught off guard when she saw the beginnings of tears glisten like quicksilver in Jennifer’s eyes. "What?" she asked, her heartbeat thumping with concern as she came around the edge of the table to kneel before the younger woman, holding the smaller hand between the palms of both her own. "Tell me."

Jennifer sniffled, then her face dissolved as if she could no longer prevent herself from crying. Resa immediately pulled Jennifer to her and held her tight as the quiet sobs wracked the girl’s body and the former gang leader thought for a second that her own heart would break. She closed her eyes and attempted to absorb the unknown sorrow from her companion, and friend, into her own body, willing to somehow bear the burden instead, were it remotely possible.

"Shhh," she whispered and gently pressed the younger woman’s head against her shoulder. "Honey, it’s all right. It’s all right..."

After a few minutes Jennifer’s emotions calmed and her breathing steadied but her hold around Resa took longer to abate. When at last she pulled slightly back it was to rub her wet cheeks and eyes upon each of her T-shirt covered shoulders, then glance tentatively at Resa. The dark-haired woman was silent, asking no questions and only allowing herself to be there for the girl. The act of giving comfort was still new to her but she had always proven to be a fast learner and now was no exception. She reached up to run her hand along Jennifer’s cheek, damp and flushed, and pushed the wayward strands of hair off her face, drawing away unspoken pain and simultaneously providing support. Jennifer just stared, then slowly closed her eyes and sighed.

"I’m sorry," she mumbled. "I don’t know where that came from."

"Don’t apologize," Resa said, letting her hand linger a fraction of a second on the girl’s face before dropping down to cup her shoulder. "Not to me."

Jennifer opened her eyes and looked upon her with such an unbelievably trusting expression that for an instant it pained Resa to breathe.

"It’s just," Jennifer began softly, demurely. "I’ve never had anyone understand before. Not like this. Not so completely." She shook her head and lowered her gaze. "I don’t know how else to explain it."

Resa placed her fingers along her face to guide Jennifer’s eyes back to meet her own.

"You don’t have to," she told her. "I know."

Swollen green eyes traveled over her face in a quiet wonder. "Yes...Yes, you do." She then ducked her head a fraction, watching her fingers play with the end of her sleeves a moment before continuing. "Well," she said with a sniff. "I finally found something we have in common other than astronomy." Resa raised a questioning brow. "We both changed our lives, against the odds," Jennifer explained with a tiny, hopeful look.

Resa was silent for a moment, then nodded with a warm smile. "Yes," she agreed softly as she reached up to wipe aside a spot of moisture from Jennifer’s lower cheek. "So we did."

And in that instant the thought of never seeing her again became utterly abhorrent to Resa. Even as common sense dictated that it was the only means to guarantee the other woman’s safety, her heart vowed to find another way. There had to be another way...

* * * *

Resa had decided they should leave the apartment under the cover of early evening lest any of the Vartans had returned and though Jennifer thought it unlikely, she wasn’t about to argue the point. Better safe than sorry. But a part of her didn’t want to return to the confines of the Sacred Heart. Not just yet. The brief bit of rain had compelled them inside when Jennifer had been hoping to explore a little more of the natural side of LA, something as a student she sometimes went weeks without experiencing and it had annoyed her. Finally here she was, forced to take some time off from her studies through no fault of her own and Mother Nature decided to make it rain. Totally unfair.

After dinner, Resa had insisted on doing the dishes and Jennifer was not one to protest. Point of order, the college senior positively hated dishwashing so this wasn’t exactly much of a sacrifice on her part. Instead she took the opportunity to retrieve Resa’s clothes from the dryer and to change into something more appropriate for their return to the Sacred Heart.

And, frankly, to put a little distance between herself and the charismatic Ms. Gustavez, at least until she got her wits about her again.

In the bathroom, Jennifer slipped into an old pair of blue jeans, a clean, white, short sleeved T-shirt, and a pair of brown Nike hiking shoes that she tended to wear whenever she wanted to be prepared for practically anything. And near as she could tell that was exactly what the next couple days had in store: practically anything. She had already stuffed a few essentials for both of them into a duffel bag and felt reasonably confident that she had covered most of the bases for what would likely be a few more days of displacement.

She caught sight of her reflection in the bathroom mirror and grimaced. True, the bruise from this morning was greatly diminished and mostly hidden beneath her bangs but the puffiness from her earlier emotional eruption remained beneath her eyes. Damn crying. Made her look like she’d just gone fifteen rounds with Evander Holyfield. She grabbed a wash cloth, soaked it in cold water, tipped her head back and laid it horizontally over her face, hoping to reduce the outer signs of her turmoil.

Inside, however, was a different matter. She felt as if she’d been shot with a dose of adrenaline and then given the impossible task of standing still. Inhaling deeply, she held her breath an extensive beat before releasing it via a long, drawn out sigh in a desperate attempt to get control of herself. It was somewhat successful and for the moment that was going to have to suffice. A part of her still didn’t quite understand the reason for her outburst, only that it had come over her in an uncontrollable surge that she had been powerless to prevent. And Resa had been there for her in a way she could never have anticipated even as it seemed, at the same time, so totally natural. The unconditional acceptance and understanding she saw in the depths of those blue eyes left Jennifer shaken to her core; it was something she had never before experienced, never thought a possibility. At least for her.

But what did it ultimately mean?

Alas, to that she had no answer. Not yet, at least.

She sighed and dropped the washcloth into the sink before moving back into her bedroom to stuff some final items in the duffel bag. A few minutes later Resa shuffled in, making use of her sock clad feet upon the wooden floor in a display of youthfulness that made Jennifer smile. Would this woman ever stop surprising her?

"All done," Resa said, holding up her ‘dishpan hands’ as proof.

"Here," she said, holding out the newly dried and folded black jeans and denim shirt. Resa took them from her and paused a moment, her eyes flickering around the room until Jennifer realized she was looking for a place to change. She pointed to the bathroom door. Resa smiled and winked and disappeared through the open doorway, leaving Jennifer to ponder their ability to hold an entire conversation with so few words spoken between them. It was almost like telepathy at this point. That and the fact Resa had the most amazingly expressive eyes. Whole paragraphs of meaning could be conveyed in a mere glimpse, the faintest lowering or lilt.

When Resa emerged from the bathroom she came out holding the sweatshirt and cutoffs in a tidy, folded pile with a pleased grin, as if this was something of an accomplishment.

Jennifer took the clothes and placed them inside the duffel bag.

"What’s the plan, Stan?" she asked, her eyes unconsciously traveling up and down her lean body and inwardly noting how the taller woman had tied the long, lower ends of the denim shirt together in a little knot at the waist. Somehow she managed to look sexy in whatever outfit she was wearing.

Resa glanced out the window where the remnants of twilight trickled in. "Does this place have a back entrance?"

"Yes. There’s a little alley you can drive down between this apartment and the one next door."

"Perfect. I’ll go get the car—"

"Wait. Why don’t I go with you?"

"Because it’s safer if I go alone. If they’re out there, they’ll be looking for the two of us and I have a better chance of making it out of here unnoticed if I go alone." Jennifer frowned and Resa apparently read her concern like an open book. "I’m not planning to ditch you if that’s what you’re thinking."

Jennifer struggled to contain her grin because that was exactly what she’d been thinking. But she could tell the eyes into which she stared were being completely honest with her.

"Okay."

"Now, once I get the car unlocked, I’ll drive it around back where you’ll get in."

Jennifer grinned wryly. "You know, last time we tried that strategy we both almost got killed and you got shot." Blue eyes glared at her. "Just a thought," she said with a casual wave of her hand.

"Uh-huh. Now, I need that wire hanger."

Jennifer went to her walk-in closet, retrieved the very item that had brought them to the apartment in the first place and as she gave it to her she joked, "Good thing Joan Crawford wasn’t my mom, huh?" Resa stared blankly and Jennifer nodded. "Okay, gonna have to work on your movie references. I can see that."

Resa cocked an eyebrow. "You’re an odd person at times..." With that she lightly swatted Jennifer on the butt with the hanger, grinned at the younger girl’s ‘yip’ and walked out of the room.

Jennifer rubbed the spot on her backside and had to laugh. Maybe she did get the reference after all.

She moved into the living room as Resa was unlocking the front door and suddenly was gripped by an almost panicky feeling in her chest.

"Wait," she called and Resa paused to glance back. Jennifer hesitated. Even though she was sure none of the Vartans were lying in wait (or whatever men like they were did), she still recognized the potential danger involved in having Resa go outside alone and it unnerved her. "Er, I just...wanted to say, um..." She began, then bit her lip and shrugged awkwardly before muttering, "Be safe."

Resa had no reply for a couple heartbeats then reached out a hand around Jennifer’s shoulders and drew her into a tight hug that was as intense as it was unexpected. Jennifer instantly returned the embrace, burying her face into the crook of her neck and whispering almost to herself, "Oh, please be safe." She felt Resa draw slightly back then felt a quick spot of warm pressure against her temple before the taller woman stepped completely away.

"Wait ten minutes," Resa commanded. "Then go down to the back entrance. Don’t come out until you hear me call for you, okay?"

Jennifer nodded then Resa winked at her and headed out the door.

She felt her absence at once and the anxiety began to build as every possible scenario played across her imagination. It was the longest ten minutes Jennifer could remember as apprehension turned each second into a tiny eternity during which she did major damage to at least two fingernails.

She had absolutely no doubt Resa would be all right. If anyone could slip out of the apartment and through the neighborhood unseen it was she. But knowing that, having the intellectual capacity to reason away the endless possibilities had no effect on lessening the knot in her stomach or the sweat that streaked her palms.

Tick, tick, tick...She chewed her thumbnail and placed a calming hand over her abdomen. Good grief. She was starting to feel like she was waiting for a loved one to return from war.

And what would you do if something happened to Resa? The instant the thought entered her mind she felt a painful piercing to her heart that brought her up short. No, she could not conceive of such a prospect. It was just an exercise in brutal nonsense…and truly unbearable to imagine. Resa would be all right because she had to be all right; it was as simple as that.

She retrieved the duffel bag with the clothes and other essentials and was counting the last thirty seconds off when she was seized by a goofy little impulse. Oh, what the hell! They had to do something over the next couple days until whatever plan Resa had in store for them came to fruition, didn’t they? Why not something they both enjoyed? Jennifer dashed back down the hallway into the second bedroom which she used as an office area and quickly grabbed a long, black plastic case from the corner before turning to dash back to the front and out the door.

Fate, or more likely The Wheel of Fortune, was on her side as Mrs. Goldman was nowhere to be seen and Jennifer made it through the complex to the back entrance that lead directly to the alley unimpeded. The door itself was an intricate lace-like pattern of painted wrought iron and although it was most secure, it was possible to peer through the latticework design to see the alley.

There was no sign of the car.

Jennifer set the duffel and the case at her feet and chewed her lower lip. She’d said ten minutes and it was now twelve. No biggie, right? A difference of two…no, three minutes now. It meant nothing. Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Nothing.

She began to pace in the small space between the shrubs and door and tried to swallow but her throat was too dry.

Then thirteen minutes turned to fifteen which turned to twenty and Jennifer stopped trying to mollify her fears and instead went into full panic mode that would have made her mother proud. Should she go out in search of Resa? And if she did, then what? If she found her and the former gang leader was in trouble, what could she, Jennifer Logan, possibly bring to the table? She wasn’t a fighter...although she didn’t do too bad in the brawl with Manny and the other Vartans. But that was a fluke...

Oh, she was being silly. No, absurd. Nothing had happened. She was allowing her imagination to run wild. Just calm down. Calllllm dow--

Suddenly she stopped and paused to listen. Yes! Yes, there it was again. The faint rumble of a car as it turned into the alleyway. Please, oh, please, oh, please, she thought and breathed an enormous sigh of relief when her eyes made out the image of the gold Oldsmobile as it pulled to an abrupt stop.

Jennifer grabbed the duffel and black case, opened the door without waiting for the go-ahead and smiled at the pair of fierce blue eyes.

"I was getting worried," she started but Resa interrupted her.

"Get in. Quick!"

Jennifer’s smile vanished and she did as she was told, hurrying around to the passenger side and desperately trying to control the alarm coursing through her body. She’d barely closed the car door before she felt Resa’s hand on her shoulders, forcing her to lie upon the vinyl seat, out of sight.

"Stay down until I say so," she ordered, her voice harsh with agitation.

Again Jennifer did as instructed and tried in vain to control the rapid beating of her own thoroughly panicked heart. Resa’s hand remained upon her, holding her in place as Jennifer felt the car hurriedly pull out of the alley into the nearly pitch-dark evening.

She chanced a peek up at the former gang leader and saw Resa’s attention was attuned to everything around them. Jennifer felt a degree of relief when she detected no outward sign of injury to her friend but there was no mistaking the tenseness to her sharp features or the light gleam of perspiration around her hairline.

Something had happened.

It felt like another eternity before Resa looked one last time over her shoulder and finally glanced down at her.

"Okay," she said and eased her hand off the younger woman’s shoulder. "We’re clear."

Jennifer sat up and subconsciously noticed they were on the freeway, heading east. But that wasn’t what captured her attention.

"What happened?" she asked, her focus solely on the woman before her.

Resa’s face was set hard. "What I was afraid of. Tres and another Vartan I didn’t’ recognize were out there. Waiting."

"Are you all right?" she asked, immediately concerned.

Resa nodded. "Yeah." Then a little grin managed to escape her stern visage. "Don’t think they can say the same, though. They were waiting in the car across the street, in plain view. Idiots." She shook her head in disbelief. "That would have never happened when I was in control."

Jennifer scratched her chin and tried to think of the most tactful way to phrase what was on her mind. "Um, are they...you know, um...still...breathing?"

Resa shot her a sidelong glance. "Yeeees, they are." A pleased grin. "Though in considerable pain." Jennifer let out a sigh of relief and Resa cast her a more thoughtful look. "You know, Jennifer, I made myself a vow that I won’t kill unless I’m left no alternative," she told her in total frankness. "And I mean to do just that."

Jennifer took up Resa’s right hand between both of her own and felt the barest traces of swelling along the knuckles.

"I know you will," she said quietly, then raised the hand to press it against her cheek and looked up. "I just wish you weren’t in this whole mess to begin with."

Resa kept her eyes off the uncrowded road long enough to bring a blush to Jennifer’s cheeks with the depth of her regard.

"Me, too," she said in a thick voice and squeezed the hand a little. "More than anything."

She let her gaze remain a beat longer, then necessity dictated she look back at the road but neither woman made a move to release the other. And so they drove on for a while as they were, hand in hand into a quiet evening broken only by the faintest tunes drifting in from the radio.

After a while Resa spoke up.

"What’s in the black case?" She inclined her head in the direction of the backseat.

"Hmmm? Oh, that. It’s my telescope. I thought we might get a little stargazing in while we’re hanging out at ye ole convent." She glanced out the window. "The sky’s always clearest after a good rain."

Resa’s face lit up, apparently pleased by the prospect. "Sounds good. And I know just the place we can go."

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Griffith Park was a treasure nestled in the heart of Los Angeles. Renowned for its observatory, which itself was immortalized in Rebel Without A Cause, the park was one of the largest natural spaces to be located in an urban area in all of America. With its zoo, golf courses, equestrian center and countless hiking trails, it was always a draw for Angelenos hungry to escape the grind of the city without dropping half a paycheck to do so.

It had also been one of Resa Gustavez’s favorite places to escape to as a child. She could well remember scrimping and scavenging and scrambling to find enough money for bus fare to get her to the park but knowing it was worth the effort for the overwhelming feeling of tranquillity it brought to her otherwise desolate childhood. For her it had always been an oasis.

Even now the winding drive up through the Hollywood Hills brought a sense of liberation as the smell of pine trees, wild grasses, and the woody remnants of someone’s barbecue awakened in her memories of some of the few happy times from her youth.

It seemed fitting that she was sharing this with Jennifer.

She tossed a look over at her companion to find her with her head resting lazily on the back of the seat and her attention focused out the passenger window. The shadows of night eliminated the possibility of seeing much but Resa guessed Jennifer was just as content to absorb the natural milieu and the wonderful sense of calm it brought over all who visited. She seemed like an outdoorsy kind of girl, one who understood the essence of nature and appreciated what it had to offer. At heart, so, too, was Resa, but her upbringing and the various deviations in her young life had prevented her from partaking in the non-urban environmental settings, as she would have liked.

She squinted at the road ahead, illuminated only by the twin beams of the Oldsmobile’s headlights, and tried to figure out if she was nearing her destination. After all, it had been a while and at that thought she had to inwardly chuckle. Yeah, that was an understatement. Years had passed and a lifetime of change had transpired since last she’d found herself up this way but she was confident every turn of the route was imprinted in her memory.

Sure enough, a few minutes later she caught sight of a picnic table tucked away in one of the bends in the road beneath the rugged, hilly terrain and she pulled the car off onto the sizable shoulder to park. Jennifer sat up and gave her a curious glance.

"We’re almost there," she informed the college senior.

"And ‘there’ would be...?"

Resa grinned and opened the car door. "Can’t tell ya; it’d spoil the surprise."

Jennifer popped out the other side and leaned her forearms across the roof of the car. "Would it do any good to tell you I don’t much care for surprises?"

"Nope."

"I thought not."

Resa reached into the backseat and grabbed the black case containing the telescope and started up towards the hiking trail that only she could discern from the variations of dark and darker. A few seconds later and Jennifer was trudging from behind to catch up. Resa considered slowing her much longer stride for the college senior’s benefit then impishly dismissed the idea. This was much more fun. There was just something about Jennifer Logan that brought out the long dormant mischievous side of her nature and it was a welcome change of pace. The feeling was more than a mere reminder of Luis and their relationship. No, it wasn’t that at all because the humor and fun Jennifer affected in her was of an entirely different and decidedly more visceral nature. And there was nothing remotely sibling oriented about it.

"Hey," Jennifer called to her as she caught up, a trace winded. "Here." Resa felt Jennifer smack something into her midsection and reached down to grab a cottony soft item. The sweatshirt from earlier. "It’s going to get chilly soon," the younger woman explained and Resa noticed she was wearing a dark brown jacket over her T-shirt.

"Thanks," she said and felt a tiny thrill that someone would take the time to remember such a detail as this for her. It was, of course, the sort of little consideration that people who cared for one another did and that only made it all the more special to Resa.

She tucked the item under her arm and then deliberately slowed her pace so Jennifer could keep up as they tramped through the branches and undergrowth. Frankly the path would have been difficult to maneuver during the day but at night it became downright ridiculous. When Jennifer stumbled for the third time in less than two minutes, Resa reached back to take her hand and guide her the rest of the way to the top of the hill. It was a simple act that had swiftly gone from awkward to commonplace over the past few days and such a transformation was welcome as far as Resa was concerned. She liked the contact, liked the feel of Jennifer’s warm, strong fingers wrapped around her own and for that reason alone didn’t release her hold right away when they reached the top. Jennifer didn’t seem to mind.

Resa glanced around and smiled. The clearing was, much to her amazement, exactly as she remembered it. Totally isolated with a stunning view of the metropolis but still far enough removed to afford them as clear a show of the night sky that was possible without going outside the city.

She heard Jennifer’s little gasp and saw her tip her blonde head all the way back in order to drink up the celestial panorama.

"Oh, Resa," she breathed then turned a radiant smile on Resa. "It’s beautiful."

As are you, she thought as a jolt seared through her body. The way you open yourself up like this, the manner in which you embrace every new venture and experience. God, how I wish I could do that again. Be that young and unafraid.

With an effort of almost superhuman proportions Resa Gustavez turned her attention onto the telescope case and away from her friend.

"How does this work?" she asked and hoped her voice sounded close to normal.

Jennifer didn’t seem to notice anything amiss as she took the case from her. "Here. Observe."

And observe Resa did but though Jennifer took great pains to point out the intricate details of the instrument’s assembly, the former gang leader couldn’t recall the first thing about it once it was accomplished. Her attention was elsewhere throughout.

The tripod on which the telescope stood could raise the scope to as much as four and a half feet off the ground or bring it down to as little as a foot. For their comfort, Jennifer brought it to about two feet. It was enough that they wouldn’t have to perform any great contortionist movements to get a good view while they sat cross-legged on the earth, a large rock at their back for support. Jennifer looked at her expectantly once it was ready.

"Planets are always the most interesting. Any preferences?" she asked. "Jupiter? Saturn? Venus?"

"Saturn," Resa said decisively.

"Really? Why Saturn?"

Resa gave a little shrug. "I like the rings."

Jennifer nodded. "Saturn it is, then." She glanced around the night sky, scrutinizing the various star formations until she found what she was looking for. She then swung the lens in a particular direction with a practiced hand and peered into the viewfinder to begin bringing the planet into focus. After a moment she looked up.

"Okay, put your eye right here." She pointed to the proper spot and Resa closed one eye before leaning over to get her view.

It took a second for her sight to adjust but then the image of the planet came into focus and she nearly laughed in childish elation. There it was in all its ringed glory and what always amazed her was that it looked exactly like its pictures, which was a little silly, but true. Saturn was such an unique looking planet that to see it for herself seemed on the verge of surreal, as if nothing in nature could really look that extraordinary. But, then again, nature always had a way of coming up with surprises.

She glanced back to find Jennifer watching her and it was then that Resa realized she was leaning over the younger woman’s lap to get her view. But she didn’t pull away. After all, if Jennifer had objected to their situation, she would have moved yet she hadn’t and for that Resa was glad. She liked the sense of intimacy their proximity conveyed, the way she could see the moon’s pale light play across Jennifer’s features and how the gentle breeze carried with it the suede scent of her jacket.

"What do you like to look at most in the night sky?" she asked the girl, not moving from her position.

Jennifer mulled over the question a moment then said, "Jupiter."

"Why Jupiter?"

"Because I’ve always thought it looked so much more colorful and grand than the other planets and," she added, slightly sheepish. "It’s my ruling planet in the zodiac."

"When’s your birthday?"

"December 20th." She cocked her head. "When’s yours?"

"October 31st."

"Ooooo. A Halloween baby. That must make for a lifetime of orange and black birthday cakes."

"You’re presuming I had birthday cakes."

Jennifer’s green eyes were made silver in the moon’s glow and fairly bugged out at the revelation. "You didn’t have birthday cakes?" Resa shook her head. "Ever?"

"My mother wasn’t exactly into cooking."

"You have got to be kidding!"

"Not at all. Remember, we had very different upbringings."

"I know, I know, but it’s birthday cakes we’re talking about. They’re an institution!" She threw up her hands in disgust. "That’s it. I’m making you the biggest, sugariest birthday cake known to man for your next birthday and you just try to stop me!"

"Like I could."

"Exactly!"

Resa chuckled and shook her head in amazement at the fierce determination she saw written across Jennifer Logan’s features. And what truly amazed her was that this impassioned resolution, even about something as banal as a birthday cake, was for her. When and how did she get so fortunate?

"Show me Jupiter," she said at last.

Jennifer glanced around the sky, then leaned forward and swung the direction of the telescope to a particular spot and again began the process of focusing the lens. Her actions brought her even closer to Resa who only moved slightly to the side and whose attention was not quite on the stars above. Instead it was on the energy she could feel passing between them, binding them. It took every bit of self control not to...

"There," Jennifer said shifting to allow Resa access. "Jupiter and his many moons."

But this time when Resa leaned in she was acutely conscious of how the younger woman sat back only a bit and how she was again forced to lean over her crossed legs to get her view. For a long moment she paid more attention to the jean-clad knee pressed against her abdomen than to the magnificence of the planet before her but then she willed herself to focus and, remarkably enough, it worked.

"I can see the colors," she said, delighted. "How they wrap around." She made a little twirling motion to illustrate what she meant, not wanting to break her concentration on the image.

Then a gust of wind blew several strands of hair across her eyes, blocking her sight but before she had time to react, she felt Jennifer’s fingers reach in to gather her long, dark mane away from her face. Her breath caught in her throat at the touch and a tiny shiver went through her.

"Are you cold?" Jennifer asked, apparently having felt the tremor.

No. "A little," she said.

The college senior reached over to retrieve the sweatshirt and handed it to Resa who was in the middle of slipping it on when Jennifer suddenly asked,

"Why do you like astronomy?"

Resa drew her hair out from the collar and used the time she should be considering the question to get better control of her emotions. "I don’t know really," she said after a moment. "It’s always drawn me in, made me wonder, sparked my imagination." She looked at her friend. "Why do you like it?"

Jennifer leaned back at the waist, both hands behind her to brace her position as she regarded her.

"Because I’m trying to understand God," she said matter-of-factly. "I read once where Walt Whitman said that he believed a blade of grass to be no less than the journeywork of the stars and he was absolutely right. Everything on this planet, from molecule to mountains, from the air to the seas to the cars we drive to our very skin and bones is made up of elements derived from exploding stars and they in turn come from the Big Bang that started the universe. And do you know what that means? It means that you and I and everyone we know are parts of the universe and we have evolved over the course of billions of years to be able to ponder our very existence. We are The Universe contemplating itself. And somewhere in all that, to me, is ‘God.’ I don’t understand it very well and I’m still learning by leaps and bounds but it makes much more sense to me than how various man-made religions use their idea of a Divine Being to promote their own agendas." Her grin was wry. "But don’t tell the Mother Superior."

Resa smiled in return. "I won’t."

"Thanks. I don’t think she’d quite understand. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate religions; I think they can be very useful tools, but to say one religion has all the answers above all others is, to me, just wishful thinking." She paused abruptly and Resa could practically see the stain of embarrassment on her cheeks despite the dim light. "Am I boring you to death?"

"No," she replied truthfully. Nothing could be further from the case.

"Okay...But you’d tell me if I was, wouldn’t you?"

"I would. You’re not."

"Thanks," she said, pleased and a bit shy. "I don’t normally talk about this stuff. It’s too hard to explain. Heck, I don’t even understand it, how’s anyone else supposed to?"

"I doubt anyone truly understands ‘It,’" she said. "Even the so-called experts."

"You may be right." Jennifer gave a shrug. "I guess that’s where ‘faith’ comes in."

"Ah, faith," Resa said with a sigh and shifted her position to lay down on her side, her head propped up by her hand. "What a tricky word."

Jennifer’s eyes flickered over her then she tipped her head to one side in curiosity. "Why? Don’t you have faith in anything?"

Resa could feel the hard ground press against her ribs and hips, and the coolness seep through her jeans. "I didn’t used to," she said. "Not after what I’d seen, the life I’d lead. It was always a fantasy for other people."

"And now?"
"Now..." she repeated and absently poked at tufts of grass. "I’ve learned a person can’t truly have faith until they’ve first been given it from someone else...and getting someone else to have faith in you when you don’t have it in yourself is…almost impossible." She plucked a single blade and idly placed it in her mouth, the taste strangely sweet against her tongue. She looked up at Jennifer. "And yet, that’s what happened to me. Someone believed in me and helped me have enough faith in myself to leave the Vartans."

"Father Hector," Jennifer guessed and Resa nodded. "Was it very long after..."

"I had the baby? Yeah, longer than it should have been. Almost a year passed between then and Alfons’ release from prison and I’d convinced myself that nothing had changed, that I wasn’t different because of what had happened with Martin and everything else. But that wasn’t exactly true. Inside I was even more pissed off at anything and everyone. It was this blind rage with no direction...until Alfons got out of prison and tried to resume his control of the Vartans as if nothing was different since he’d been away. And then I had a direction. A very clear one. I’d grown to hate him for what he did to Martin but most of all I hated him for the control he tried to exert over me. I wouldn’t allow it, not after all I’d been through."

"What happened?" she asked with as much concern as curiosity.

"War," Resa’s voice was flat as a legion of faces long since dead paraded themselves across her memory. It had been years and yet they were as clear to her now as when they were under her authority, the burden of their deaths upon her hands. "The Vartans split in half, some on his side and some on mine and we went at it like the Yankees and Confederates." A shudder went up her spine. "It got pretty bloody."

The wind played through the trees above their heads, branches dipping and bowing like gentlemen before ladies at royal court. She could well picture what horrors the college senior was conjuring up in her vivid imagination and, truth be told, no matter how monstrous, they probably weren’t far off the mark.

"How did it all end?" Jennifer asked at length.

Resa reached out to languidly trace the waffle design on the bottom of one of the younger woman’s boots and thought, This is it. This was the moment she had been dreading but knew was inevitable. She would tell the girl everything, hold nothing back and let the consequences be what they may. It would not be pretty...but it would be the truth. She owed her no less.

Resa rolled onto her back and stared up at the firmament above long enough to lose herself to the darkness of her past. "It ended," she said thoughtfully. "With betrayal...and death."

They are in Echo Park, it is mid-afternoon and they await the arrival of Alfons’ Mercedes at a picnic table beneath the shade of a large elm tree. Some distance away a group of young children play, disregarded as so much landscape by the four gang members.

Word has come down that Alfons wants to talk peace and this location has been agreed upon due to its open space and neutral territory. That does not, however, mean she feels at ease. Not by a long shot. Her fingers rest lightly against the cool steel of the Glock handle protruding from the shoulder holster she wears beneath her soft leather jacket. It is, for her, an act of comfort.

She does not fidget nor does she bother to glance around for she knows where everyone is positioned through a sixth sense she has cultivated over the years. Eduardo and Rico stand by the car twenty feet behind her, armed and ever watchful. And by her left is the young man who has over the past months become one of the few upon whom she can almost depend.

"What time is it?" she asks.

"Nearly four," comes the reply and she glances over, noting how her companion’s chocolate brown eyes betray his heightened energy. She smiles inwardly. He is still quite young but there is much hunger in him and from that much potential can be mined. As it was once mined from her.

"Don’t be too eager," she tells him. "It gives away your edge. You gotta make a stone of your heart. Let nothing in."

Vincent Gilberto nods mutely but his body continues to vibrate as adrenaline surges through his lean frame.

She turns away, her focus again on the street as she waits. What she is doing is, perhaps, a risk. Exposing herself like this. But she is curious what Alfons has to say and there is no reward without a risk of some nature. She knows her last attack on Alfons’ men has left him severely weakened and she cannot help but exult in the strength of her position. She is close to beating him and the glory of the thought sings through her veins. It has come full circle, she decides smugly. And she is quite right, it soon will... just not in the manner she thinks…

Then she spies the approaching black Mercedes with its tinted windows and subtle purr and she smiles. She would recognize it anywhere and pride swells within her.

Vincent stands with anticipation but Resa remains seated. Cool. Controlled. And when Vincent sees this he again sits to wait along side her, though nowhere near as composed.

The car comes to a stop. There is a pause. Then the back door opens and a young man she finds vaguely familiar steps out. He is wiry thin, with a shaved head and some sort of mark on his cheek, though she cannot discern what exactly. She frowns, glad her sunglasses conceal her bewilderment. Where before has she seen this young man, this uber boy? It confounds her, leaves her oddly disquieted. But then he moves aside to allow someone else to step out from the back and his existence plummets from the edge of her awareness.

Alfons. Tall, handsome, proud, as ever. And as keen on her as she is on him. It has been months since she has seen him and she is surprised at the effect he still manages to have on her. Her mind may hate him but her body tingles yet.

He smiles, his face creasing in an all-consuming charm, then bows a little and advances in her direction.

It begins.

She stands, Vincent beside her and together they start their approach. Before them stretches approximately twenty yards of grass, broken only by an illegitimate bike path carved into the ground by years of vagabond wheels. Through her peripheral vision she notes Eduardo and Rico are aware of the scene and are on guard, as instructed. Good, she thinks, and feels in control of the situation.

But then something not particularly remarkable happens that nevertheless sends a chill through her system. She remembers the boy behind Alfons. In an instant she knows where she has seen him before and what the implication means to he. He is Manuel Gilberto and he is the younger brother of the man at her side.

As this realization dawns, she feels Vincent fall back a couple paces and her internal warning goes off. Call it instinct, self-preservation, heightened perceptions, it does not matter. In the end, she just knows. She is being ambushed.

Abruptly she changes direction, pushing back so her sudden shift in momentum catches Vincent off-guard as he continues forward and ends up nearly by her side. She captures his arm in a punishing grip as it is in mid-swing toward her and she violently jerks it at an awkward angle until the gun in his hand is no longer pointed at her, but instead back at himself.

She pulls the trigger, sending the bullet deep into Vincent’s gut, and the first of many shots is fired.

Her superior strength and agility allows her to pivot and use a stunned Vincent as a human shield, his body catching a volley of bullets meant for her by the men with whom he has conspired. He jerks at the impact, at the moment more dazed than in pain. But that will soon change. From a distance the anguished voice of Manuel Gilberto calls out for his brother but there will be no response. Vincent is going to die.

Several cracks coming from Eduardo and Rico’s direction fill the air and she recognizes that they are not firing at her but at Manny and Alfons. Which means they are not in collusion with the others. This, at least, is a point in her favor.

She wrests Vincent’s gun from his dying hand, allowing his body to collapse to the ground as she draws her Glock from its holster and begins firing both guns, her rage giving her focus. Her eyes lock on Alfons and she sees that he is hit several times in the chest but she also knows he will inevitably be wearing a protective vest. It is not yet enough. Bullets swim by her and she can feel the vibrato of their passing as well as hear their zing. But, fortunately for her chaos and fear do not make for great accuracy.

Two more men emerge from the Mercedes, wildly discharging their weapons at her, Rico and Eduardo in a disorganized effort to give cover to the retreating Manny and Alfons, the latter of whom is clearly injured.

Gun smoke fills her senses. Someone somewhere is screaming. The situation is already dire for all involved but what happens next is something no one will have anticipated.

From the corner of her eye she catches the blurred image of motion as something approaches from her right and she swings to shoot yet somehow, somehow manages to pull up just short.

She will find out only later how the boy, no more than ten, could have ridden his bike into the middle of the conflict without hesitation or regard for the deadly events but at the moment there is not time to question. There is no time to cry out. There is not time to protect. She can only bear shocked witness.

Two bullets strike the innocent boy and for a moment everything stops. It is as if a higher power has hit the pause button on some grand VCR and a mere second is transformed into an endless moment of perfect, crystalline horror.

Her eyes lock with his, wide and brown and so terribly, terribly afraid. Then he tumbles off his bicycle to the grass and her entire body goes cold…though not numb. If anything it is years of numbness that finally wear off and she is hit for the first time in longer than she can possibly recall by a wave of utter repugnance at her actions.

And shame.

This is all because of her, because of her hatred and her greed and her desire for power above all else. Because of a war she has instigated and a senseless confrontation she has created. There is no one else to blame. There is nowhere else to look but at herself. It is devastating.

Slowly she becomes aware of voices calling to her. She shakes her head, trying to bring about a sense of clarity, of coherence and glances over her shoulder to see Rico and Eduardo calling to from the car. She frowns. Their mouths seem to form her name but she can hear no words come out. She can hear nothing above the beating of her own heart as it drowns out the surrounding world. They wave to her. ‘Come on! Hurry!’ they seem to say.

But she does neither. Instead she swivels back to see Manny haul Alfons into the back seat of the Mercedes. The younger Gilberto looks up and the eyes that fall upon her are filled with enough hatred for ten men. As the car pulls away from the curb she sees Manny’s hand raise and realizes in an instant the gleam in the sunlight is that of a gun pointed in her direction. She does not move. He gets off three rounds before the car’s forward motion throws him back but she does not move. Even when one of the bullets grazes her temple and opens an immediate stream of blood down her face, she still does not move.

Until her eyes drop and she sees the body of the young boy on the ground. He lies in a crumpled heap, his life ebbing away. And then she moves. With the speed of lightning, not pausing to consider the repercussions of her actions; there is not enough time. It is a split second decision but it will forever change her life.

She races forward and scoops up the boy’s limp body into her arms, then turns to head back to her car. But a freaked out Eduardo and Rico get one look at her and they, in their weak will, panic. They do not know what she intends but they are already amped on fear and see this as being in no way good for them. It is safer right now to leave her so Eduardo hits the gas and takes off. She stops, her eyes watching after them in cold loathing. They are cowards...

. . and she is on her own.

She acts quickly. Her eyes scan and locate a parked Honda nearby and she hastens to it. She does not bother to check if it is locked but instead uses her gun to shoot two rounds through the back window, then reaches in and automatically unlocks all the doors. As gently as she can she places the boy in the passenger seat and reclines it and it is then that she notices for the first time the plastic hearing devices in each of his ears.

The boy is hearing impaired…perhaps even deaf…No wonder he just…without a second thought…Oh, God…

She shakes her head, fighting back the bile rising in her throat and turns her attention to the steering wheel column. In less than twenty seconds she has the car hot-wired and moving. Her destination is the nearest hospital.

*

On a Saturday in urban Los Angeles, an emergency room is chaos beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension. A steady stream of victims is brought in with each bed accounted for and additional patients stacked up and waiting like planes at O’Hare airport at Christmas. It is this environment in which Resa arrives, the boy’s unconscious body cradled in her arms. There is much blood loss; she can feel it, warm and sticky, against her clothes and skin.

Her eyes travel around at the various hospital personnel, not sure what she should do beyond this point. This place is as foreign to her as Namibia and she feels helpless in the face of rules she does not begin to understand.

But she does understand how to get attention.

"You!" she bellows at a tall man in aquamarine scrubs. He whips around to her and she holds out the boy’s body. "He’s been shot."

The tall man reacts instantly. He races forward to take the boy from her, the young body looking tiny and delicate as he is carried away. She follows after them until a female nurse with a mass of curly, orange hair prevents her from going any further. She wants to stay with the boy, to see what becomes of him. It is important to her. She is his protector. She should not leave him alone…

But this is not her world and, against her better judgment, she reluctantly allows herself to be guided to an examination area.

As the nurse tends to the wound on her temple she begins to ask her a series of questions. ‘What is your name? What is the boy’s name? What happened?’ But Resa is too distracted to answer. Please let the boy be all right, she prays. Please...please...please…

Then the white cloth partition is suddenly pulled aside and a man in a bloody white lab coat pops his head in, his face sweaty and his manner frenetic.

"This life or death?" he asks, nodding toward Resa. The nurse with the curly orange hair indicates that it is not and the man parts the curtain further. "Then follow me. We got a bus accident coming in as we speak. Two dead, fifteen injured, couple of ‘em critical. Clear the bed and let’s go!"

The nurse turns to Resa. "Can you go wait in the waiting area? We have a lot of questions for you."

Resa nods and then both nurse and doctor are gone. She hops off the medical bed and steps through the curtains out into the main area. It is a sea of people and no one appears to be swimming in the same direction. Noises. People shouting. Loud beeping. Paramedics and doctors, fire personnel and victims. Everyone rushing about. And in the middle of this, she who is not a part of this particular emergency is all but invisible.

She makes a decision. She decides to go in search of the boy whose name she does not know but whose life hangs in the balance. Because of her. He is not easy to find and it takes some time but eventually she spies the tall man in the medical scrubs to whom she had given her charge. She approaches him, noting that while he may be relatively young, his face is already deeply lined with exhaustion. When she asks where the little boy is, he, in his distraction, points her in the direction of several partitioned areas. Second one from the end, he says then returns his attention to his more pressing task.

With a gnawing sense of dread she approaches the curtain, dodging hustling medical personnel along the way. But just as she is within a few steps, a woman who is deeply upset jostles her from behind. Resa stops to watch this woman confront the doctor emerging from behind the curtain.

"Where’s Malik?" she asks, tears running down her face. "Where is he? Oh, Jesus..."

The doctor, a woman in her mid-forties, is vaguely startled by this woman’s presence but quickly recovers with the poise of one who has seen everything before, in triplicate.

"Are you Malik Powell’s mother?" the doctor asks.

"Yes, yes. I’m Nina Powell and you all just called me. You said you got the information from his medical bracelet. I got here right away. Now where is he? Is he all right? Is he in there?" She points to the curtain and starts to advance.

But the doctor keeps herself between the mother and the curtain, gently taking the distraught woman by the arm to guide her away.

"Ms. Powell, why don’t you come with me," the doctor says with infinite compassion written across her face.

At this Nina Powell freezes, her whole body going visibly stiff, then slack in a matter of seconds. "Oh, no," she whispers, her voice shaky. "Please...please, no..."

But the doctor says nothing more and continues to lead the dazed woman from the location.

Resa watches them depart. In her ears is the wild pounding of her own heart and a voice from within cries out for her to turn and run. Just get the hell out of there as fast as she can. But she does not. Instead she resolves to complete her onus and she takes the last few steps up to the curtain. She has come this far; she cannot now fall short. No matter how much she would prefer to turn away, to pretend none of this ever happened.

She pauses, her hand quivering and her breath coming in shallow gulps. Her eyes close as she sends up one last prayer that the person she is about to see is not the boy she brought in. That she is somehow at the wrong partition or she has misinterpreted the underlying meaning of the doctor’s words. Anything else.

Then she opens the curtain and peers inside...and feels as if she has been stabbed in the stomach. For it is indeed the same boy and he is sadly, tragically, undeniably dead.

A nurse looks up and frowns angrily at her. "Hey!" he says but she does not hear. She steps back, her hand to her mouth and seized by a sudden, violent need to vomit. She cannot get to the bathroom fast enough and does not think twice when the first one she finds is designated ‘Men.’ She slams inside and into the nearest stall and pukes her guts up into the toilet bowl. She retches and retches until there is nothing else inside her, until she is empty. Then she leans her head down over her forearms and struggles not to pass out.

She does not immediately know how long she remains thus. It feels like hours but it could be less than a minute. She does not care. About anything.

Eventually she flushes the toilet and when the clear water returns and settles, she is caught by the reflection that shimmers back at her. In her own eyes she see the hideous truth that she can no longer deny.

She has become Pedro Cajigas.

It is a realization that hurts her heart and brings tears of guilt and shame to her eyes. What would Luis think of her now...?

Her ears detect the soft sound of footsteps and she senses the presence of someone standing behind where she kneels in the doorless stall. At first she has no interest in turning to see who is there; she is too weary and depleted to be bothered. But when the person does not move she feels a pang of curiosity and slowly raises her head to glance over her shoulder.

For a second she does not recognize him. It has as much to do with her addled state as the length of time since last they met but his identity does not immediately register. A part of her instinctively understands she knows him somehow...but… Then her eyes dip to his collar and the shock of surprise descends.

It is the priest from when she gave birth, the man Tony calls Padre.

She blinks a couple times, his presence catching her completely off guard. She is not sure what he is doing here at this moment…then she remembers that she is in the men’s bathroom of a major hospital and this man is a priest. Priests spend a great deal of time in hospitals, right? She is unsure, the concept being as alien to her as this entire situation.

She glances up again to meet his pale blue eyes and she is slightly bewildered when she sees no reproach directed at her. Only compassion. As if he understands her unspoken dilemma though, of course, he cannot. For the moment only she knows.

Then he reaches down his hand to her, palm up, and holds it there, all the while saying nothing. Both know he does not need to.

The symbolism in the helpful gesture is not lost on her and it is for several heartbeats that she stares at the outstretched hand. She knows by taking it now she will do much more than be literally helped to her feet; it will be indicative of a new way of life, one that will be radically different and far from easy. For a moment she entertains the thought of running. There is still time. No one knows anything, she is still in the clear…

But, deep down, she would know. And she is certain the guilt would destroy her.

She swallows hard then cautiously raises her hand to place it in his own. Strong fingers curl around hers and she is carefully drawn to a standing position. Her exhaustion leaves her momentarily weak and she automatically reaches out for balance only to have Father Hector take hold of her other hand as well and for a moment they just stare at one another. Then the Padre smiles and leads her to the nearest bathroom washbasin, heedless of the curious looks they receive from a couple of the interns also present.

She leans a hip against a porcelain sink and watches through sore eyes as he wets a paper towel and begins to gently wipe her face and mouth. The warm water is a balm against her clammy skin. Undoubtedly between the upheaval, both literal and emotional, she looks like hell…but that is of least importance right now. She only wants the ache to stop, to shed herself of the weight of this ugly guilt that threatens to rend her in two.

When he is done, he just waits with patient expectation. The decision to talk is her own and he will not force the issue. It must come from within. The two other men in the bathroom at last leave and when they are alone she whispers,

"There was a gang fight." Her voice is raw. "Little boy got caught in the middle…and…he’s dead." He absorbs this calmly, though she can see he is not devoid of empathy. He reaches out to gently touch a large spot of blood on her shirt, his eyes questioning. "It’s his. I brought him here...I..." She breaks off, not trusting herself to continue.

"Did you shoot him?" the Padre asks.

"No!" She shakes her head emphatically, then her shoulders slump. "But I might as well have. I started the fight. I created the rift in the Vartans in the first place. It’s my fault...I…don’t know what to do." Her eyes look pleadingly up into his own. "Tell me."

But he shakes his head. "I can’t do that," he says. "That’s up to you."

She frowns. "But..."

"This is your situation, Resa. You have to decide what you’re going to do next, not I."

She looks him over incredulously. "But what if I decide to just walk outta here?"

"Then that’s the choice you’ve made."

"You wouldn’t try to stop me? Tell the cops or the hospital?"

"No."

She stares hard and him then shakes her head. "I don’t believe you."

"That’s because you don’t believe in anything. Not even yourself. But you can change that. Here. Now." Father Hector reaches out to cup her upper shoulder and the eyes that meet hers are completely sincere. "In your heart you know what the right thing to do is...and I have full faith that you have the courage to do it."

*

Nina Powell is a tiny woman, slight of bone and short of stature. Her less than shoulder length hair is drawn into a clip at the base of her neck but several strands have already escaped to give a somewhat frenzied air to her otherwise librarian persona. In a crowded room she is neither the first nor the last person to catch your attention, her presence ranking somewhere in-between…but, through no fault of her own, she may very well be the most formidable individual Resa Gustavez has ever faced.

Nina Powell sits on a plastic chair in the specified waiting area, surrounded by several members of her family and a couple friends whom she has called because she did not know what else to do. The only thing she is certain of is that she does not yet want to leave the hospital. She cannot.

Resa sees one of the other people glance up as she approaches and tap Nina Powell on her shoulder. The grief stricken woman follows her friend’s direction to see Resa’s advance and frowns. Resa Gustavez knows she is the sort of person to draw attention even if her clothes are not stained with blood and her manner of one about to face a firing squad but behind the grieving mother’s eyes she sees a curious glimmer of recognition. Though Nina Powell cannot possibly know who she is and what she is about to say...she somehow instinctively does.

"Ms. Powell," she begins.

"Yes?" The voice sounds strained but it also holds a distinguishable level of strength.

"Ms. Powell, my name is Theresa Gustavez," she says. "I am the leader of the Vartan Bloods...which is the gang that was fighting when...your son…" Her voice breaks and she drops her eyes but after a moment regains her composure and continues. "When your son rode his bike into the middle of everything. He was shot by accident by members of my gang." She raises her eyes to meet Nina Powell straight on. "I felt you should know who was responsible."

There are several gasps from the family and friends but Nina Powell remains silent. At least a full minute passes as the woman stares at Resa, her dark eyes seeming to scan every inch of her face. But Resa does not shrink. Indeed she stands with her hands behind her back, her posture erect. She is prepared to accept her punishment for it is what she deserves and this woman has every right to do whatever she wishes. Resa will not protest. She of all people understands the hell this woman is just starting to go through, the rage, the hatred…all the emotions she, too, has experienced and knows far too well.

But the reaction that comes is not one she could have anticipated.

"You’re the one who brought Malik here, right?" Nina asks.

"Yes."

Nina Powell stands and takes a step closer to a braced Resa, her dark eyes narrow but contain no hostility. "Why?" she asks with disarming simplicity.

Resa, startled by the question and the distinct lack of hostility, drops her defenses a fraction. "What?"

Intense dark brown eyes do not deviate from her own. "Why did you bring my son to the hospital? I’m guessin’ the others in your gang didn’t come here." Resa indicates this is so. "And you gotta know you’re gonna get in a helluva lot of trouble for this." Resa again indicates this is also so. "Then why did you bring Malik here when you could’ve left him where he was and been safe like the others?"

Resa does not reply for several moments. It is an answer that does not come easy for her but after struggling within herself she whispers almost helplessly, "Because it was the right thing to do."

Nina Powell tips her head to one side, a little challenge in her attitude. "You always do the right thing?"

She shakes her head. "No."

Nina Powell is again silent, then she nods and says, "Thank you."

Resa stiffens in shock. She cannot have heard this correctly. "W-what?"

"I said thank you," Nina Powell repeats and then her voice lowers an octave with barely controlled emotion. "For trying."

With that Nina Powell turns and walks away, her family and friends each rising to follow.

A stunned Resa Gustavez does not understand. She begins to shake, her whole body becoming a mass of trembling and her eyes fill with tears. She looks after the mother in painful confusion. To her way of thinking, she should be hated, reviled, attacked…something…but not thanked. Anything but thanked. It is incomprehensible. How can this be her reaction? How can she...forgive…? It is impossible...impossible...

Knees buckle and she sinks to the cold, linoleum floor. Her hands cover her face as grief overwhelms and the emotional dam she has maintained since she was fourteen years old at long last crumbles.

* * * *

They drove in silence. By her side, Resa was (Jennifer suspected) pretending to doze as an excuse not to talk with her while they made their way back to the Sacred Heart.

Resa had said little after telling Jennifer of the events. Indeed, compared to the other times when the former gang leader had recounted her past, she had become moody and withdrawn. Jennifer didn’t want to push her. Lord only knew what dredging up those horrific memories must do to a person...So they’d descended the hill in silence, with Resa in her own world and Jennifer quietly if distantly attentive. It was by unspoken agreement that Jennifer would drive.

There was more to the story, of course; things hadn’t ended there in the hospital for the younger Resa Gustavez. Not by a long shot. The former gang leader had been given four to ten years in prison for her involvement in the Malik Powell death as well as the numerous other crimes to which she had freely confessed. She had given the police a full account of all the Vartan illegal activities and driven Alfons Vega into a state of deep hiding that lasted to this day. That had been the sweetest and most satisfactory part of the entire circumstances. Her cooperation with the authorities shaved several years off what could have been an weighty sentence and she got out early six months ago on good behavior after serving three and a half years in a federal penitentiary. Father Hector had arranged for her to help him out with several Catholic charities, thus meeting her employment obligation in the eyes of the State and she was ordered to never again come within a hundred yards of any gang members, Vartan or otherwise. To do so would bring swift punishment and it was for that reason Resa had avoided speaking with the police after the attack in her apartment.

None of this surprised Jennifer. It had been a likelihood that she had accepted not long after overhearing the gossipy nurses in Dr. Marcus’ clinic and having it confirmed altered nothing as far as she was concerned. It didn’t change who Resa was now and that was what she truly cared about. She would be lying if she said the fate of Malik Powell didn’t disturb her. It did. Greatly. As Resa described the events, the college senior could not help but cry. She could imagine nothing worse than that, than the loss of a child and to know you’re in part responsible...incomprehensible. But when she’d gone to comfort her friend, Resa had turned away. It had stung but Jennifer chose not to confront her on the point and had instead held her peace. It was not an easy thing for her to do, in general due to her personality but especially now, after the affinity that had developed between them. She considered that to be precious but like all things precious it was in constant danger of being lost.

That was not something she would allow to happen.

She turned onto Gennusa Avenue, the street where the Sacred Heart was located, and used the remote to open the garage door. A minute later the car was parked inside the confines, the light extinguishing around them as the entrance automatically closed. Jennifer shut off the engine and for a moment the only sound in the car was that of their breathing. She looked at Resa, barely visible in the low light of the moon streaming in from an overhead window, and waited.

The raven-haired woman stirred and slowly sat up. She took in her surroundings and flicked an expressionless glance over at Jennifer before reaching back to grab the telescope and then exit the vehicle. Jennifer didn’t move from where she was seated, instead remaining still as Resa stepped out the side door of the garage without a backward glance.

That hurt. She could practically see the walls going back up again between them and a pang of dread hit her. She hadn’t realized how high those emotional barriers had been until they were removed and Jennifer was at last allowed to peek into the other woman’s very soul. Only then did she realize the full extent of how vulnerable Resa could be. And how giving. She felt incredibly privileged and blessed to have been allowed inside those walls and though she did not know what she’d done to deserve such a gift, she damn well knew she wasn’t going to lose it. Not without a fight.

She reached back to retrieve the duffel bag, exited and locked the car (her hand on the keys to be 100% sure there were no repeat mistakes), then hustled out the side door after her friend.

Resa was already a hundred yards ahead of her, her long strides carrying her to just even with the back, marble courtyard that lead to the beginning of the convent gardens. There was enough lighting from the central building to brighten the pathway and it was here that Jennifer at last caught up with her.

"Hey," she called, hurrying forward though Resa’s pace did not falter. "Hey!" She tried again, reaching up to grab hold of the taller woman’s solid upper arm in an effort to stop her physically and this tactic worked. But Resa continued to stare blankly ahead rather than face her. Jennifer set down her duffel bag and took the black telescope case from the former gang leader’s hands, placing it on the ground beside their feet. Then she moved around to stand in front of Resa, willing her to acknowledge her presence, not allowing herself to be ignored a moment longer. And whatever Resa was feeling was no match for such determination. Slowly pale eyes turned to meet her own and in their depths Jennifer saw resignation.

It annoyed the hell out of her.

"Don’t you dare shut me out," she insisted, focused on the chiseled features of the face before her. Resa’s jaw shifted to one side, whether in irritation or embarrassment, Jennifer did not know. All she was certain of was her resolution to get to the bottom of this but fast. It was too vital to ignore. "You said you trusted me," she continued doggedly, not releasing her hold on Resa’s arm. "Was that a lie?"

"No," was the immediate answer but her voice was low and her gaze down-turned.

"Then look at me." It took several seconds before Resa warily raised her eyes and Jennifer thought her heart might break. She stepped closer and said softly, "I’m not going to run away, because of what you just told me, or for any other reason. I have no doubt your past is filled with horrors that I will never fully comprehend...but each time you tell me about them only makes me want to know more about you, not less." She reached up to place her hand along the side of Resa’s face, the words coming from her heart. "I care about you, Resa. Very much. You have to know that by now."

The reaction was instantaneous. Resa closed her eyes, almost as if in pain, and her trembling lips parted. Then she reached up to press her hand to Jennifer’s against her cheek as if there was nothing more important in the world than this simple touch and the abundance of meaning it conveyed. When she looked down at the smaller woman, there were tears glistening in her eyes and her defenses had once again dropped until her very soul was laid bare for none but this one person to see.

Jennifer didn’t really know if Resa pulled her into an embrace or if she was the one to close the gap between them but in less than a second both were holding each other as if their very lives depended on it. She felt one of Resa’s hands on the back of her head and the pressure of the other upon her upper back, her own arms around the taller woman’s waist. And for several moments neither moved. To do so was unthinkable. All Jennifer knew was this was where she wanted to be, with this person, here and now. Holding her and comforting her and gathering from her an equal amount of strength in return.

Resa drew back only far enough to let her gaze pour over every aspect of her face and Jennifer never felt more cherished in her entire life. It was incredible. They were close enough for their breaths to mingle, for Jennifer to actually see the rapid pulse beat in the other woman’s throat as well as feel it beneath the palms of her hands. Then Resa reached out to lightly trace her fingertips from Jennifer’s temple down until she cupped her cheek and gently ran her thumb along her lower lip. And Jennifer forgot to breathe. She forgot most everything except the intimacy that had sprung up between them at that very moment. It enveloped both women in a blissful cocoon from which she never wanted to emerge. Her mouth parted and her lids lowered. The only clear thought to penetrate her clouded mind was, Yes...This is as it should be. And with that she leaned forward until their faces brushed, softly like a caress, and she tilted her head up as Resa bent down toward her...

"Well, well, well," came the deep, mocking voice from close by. Resa immediately stiffened and whipped her head in the direction of the speaker. Jennifer followed her gaze and was shocked by who and what she saw.

At the top of the marble steps that lead from the courtyard to the gardens stood a tall, powerfully built man dressed solely in black watching them with wicked glee. That he was physically attractive was undeniable but there was a distinct coldness beneath his grin and a soulless quality to his twinkling black eyes that cancelled out the strength of his allure. Add to the picture that he stood poised with an automatic pistol in one hand and his other arm around a desperately frightened Sister Clodagh and Jennifer somehow didn’t need to be told that this was Alfons Vega.

He nodded in their direction, a broad, confident smile creased into his handsome face. "Please. Don’t let me stop you," he continued smoothly. "After all, Resa, you know how much I love girl on girl action..."

 

 

Continued...Part 7


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