A Thousand Kisses by Girl Bard

A Thousand Kisses
by Girl Bard

Part 4 in the Jaden and Grace Series

 

 

 

 

August 15, 2000

“On the road again, just can’t wait to get back on the road again..” Jaden sings as I regard her warily. It’s way too early for her to be this awake.

Yawning, I rub the sleep from my eyes and regard the dingy motel room as my insane girlfriend efficiently packs our suitcases and straightens the dresser.

“You almost ready?” She questions and I roll my eyes as I climb out of bed. Why are we awake at 9:00 am? I’m not sure. I thought we had agreed to sleep in this morning.

I shuffle off into the shower, grabbing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on the way. Wrinkling my nose at the small bathroom I sigh and step into the lukewarm shower.

At least I was able to postpone our Ohio adventure by a day. We got a late start yesterday on account of the destructive dog duo and didn’t leave until lunchtime. We drove until 7:00 last night, only stopping for a bathroom break or two. I decided I didn’t want to keep driving straight through and get to Ohio in the middle of the night so we stayed at this small Pennsylvania motel, the only close one we could find that didn’t mind housing the two dogs.

I was hoping we’d sleep in and not get to Ohio until just before dinner today, but Jaden decided that we should get an early start, I guess. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t get a start at all.

Not that I don’t want to see my sister and my uncle, I do. But it’s my mother that I’m nervous about. I know I need to come clean and tell her about my relationship with Jaden, the fact that I’m not coming back to Ohio or marrying Scott and various other things, but it’s just so much easier to not bring it up.

I guess I’m just a big chicken. At least that’s what it feels like.

Sighing again I finish rinsing the motel’s bar soap from my body. I shut the water off and dry myself with a threadbare towel, shivering slightly in the cool air.

I can do this. I know it’s going to be difficult, but I have strength now that I never thought I had.

Dressing quickly, I hang my towel over the shower stall and join Jaden outside. She’s just finished packing our few suitcases and dog items and has both Bella and Bean all set in the Explorer.

“I’m ready.” I tell her quietly as I get in the driver’s seat. It only takes a second for me to move the seat up enough for my legs to reach. Jaden nods and climbs in the passenger side.

“Got this for you.” She mentions as she hands me a bottle of Coke. I smile gratefully at her and open it, feeling the acid liquid turn my throat to fire. Yum. “You sure you don’t want me to drive?” She continues and I shake my head.

“Nope, I’m fine. Are we ready?” I ask and she nods.

The Explorer purrs as it starts and I turn on the headlights to head back to the highway. We’re probably only five or six hours away, depending on traffic.

“What’s our game plan once we get there?” Jaden asks and I contemplate the answer. We haven’t really talked about what I think is going to happen once we reach Ohio.

“My uncle is expecting us sometime today, so we’ll go over there first. It will be nice to see a friendly face. I asked him to let my mother know I was coming for a visit.” I answer and Jaden agrees. “From there, I guess we’ll call my mother and see if she’s speaking to me yet.” I continue.

“Can we go to Cedar Point?” Jaden asks and I giggle, remembering how much fun she had there. “I really want to ride that new ride.”

“Millennium Force?” I question and she nods, her eyes bright with excitement. “I’d love too. But we’d have to ask my uncle to watch the dogs. Who knows what they will tear up.”

Jaden laughs. “Bella’s a bad influence. Bean was never a destructive dog until they met. But I don’t blame Bella, she must have had a really hard life.”

I think for a second as I merge onto I-80. “What about crate training her? I’ve heard that really works.”

“What do you mean? Keep her in a cage?” Jaden responds, her voice incredulous.

“It’s not like that.” I soothe her. “Basically you train the dog that their crate is their den and it’s a place where they can feel secure and safe while we are gone. The only time they stay in there is when we’re not home and as soon as she learns to feel safe when no one is home, she won’t need to stay in it anymore.”

“Oh.” Jaden answers. “It might work. We should ask Sam about it when we get back and maybe pick up a few books on it.”

“Sure.” I tell her, smiling. She sure has taken to Bella quickly. Not that I haven’t, but there is definitely a bond between the two.

A warm hand finds its place on my thigh and I feel a surge of protectiveness around me. No matter what happens on this trip, I have Jaden. And I have myself.

That’s all that matters.

**************

Something green. That isn’t very difficult I guess. Glancing around the interior of the Explorer I see very few green things.

“The speedometer?” I ask and Gracie shakes her head no. Hmmm.

“The stripe on your sneakers?” I try and again get rebuffed.

“Gracie,” I whine, “There isn’t anything else green in here!”

“Yes there is.” She argues, taking her eyes off the road to smile at me.

Aha! That has to be it. “Your eyes?” I ask, knowing I have to be right.

“Good job!” She praises me. “Now it’s your turn.”

“You cheated.” I tell her and she looks at me with her pale eyebrows quirked. “You can’t spy your own eyes. So you cheated.”

She giggles and takes one hand off the wheel to adjust the rearview mirror. “Actually, I can spy my own eyes, so there.” She returns the mirror to its original position and smiles cockily.

I sigh, relenting. She is right after all. “Fine. I spy something golden and arched in the distance. I’m starving, let’s stop for lunch.” I tell her, pointing at the McDonald’s at the rest area.

She agrees and pulls off of the highway. “We aren’t that far, we’ll reach the Ohio border in a few miles.”

“I know, but I’d rather eat now. While we’re still out of their clutches.” I remark, smiling to let her know I’m just kidding.

Grace grins and pulls through the drive thru as we place our order. Bean and Bella wake up in the back seat and immediately come to attention as they smell the scent of McDonald’s. Bella whines slightly and I turn to look at their focused expressions.

“Get a six-piece chicken nuggets for the dogs!” I whisper and Grace groans. I turn to the girls in the middle seat and wink at them.

I must be going crazy if I’m actually having conversations with dogs and making facial expressions at them. But I swear they know exactly how to work me.

Grace pays and takes the bag of food from the kid at the window. She pulls into a vacant parking space and turns off the engine.

“You know,” she says thoughtfully as I divide up our lunch, “I actually like driving your big car. It makes me feel all powerful because I’m up so high compared to my little car.”

I nod in agreement. “I like it. I hate driving an SUV because of the low gas mileage, but I’m so tall that most cars are uncomfortable for me. And it’s nice to be intimidating too.” I add and she smiles as she munches on a French fry.

We eat in silence, both of us consumed by our thoughts. I know that Gracie is incredibly nervous about seeing her bitch of a mother, but I’m more upset about possibly running into Scott again. This entire trip isn’t going to be fun, but I know Grace is desperate to see Lydia and Rick. I’m looking forward to seeing them also, I haven’t really gotten to spend much time with Grace’s sister, but from what Grace has told me she’s great. And Rick and I get along.

It’s going to be strange to see the bar though. It’s where everything started and although it wasn’t that long ago that Grace and I met by chance, it feels as if I’ve known her forever.

The most difficult time I’ll have is trying to bite my tongue in front of Debbie. What she’s done to Grace makes me want to rip her throat out, but I know that Grace is an adult and can take care of herself.

I have to try and be on my best behavior. Too bad we didn’t get a huge guard dog that could stand between Grace and her mother. I picture Debbie being attacked by a huge German Shepard and try to contain my smile.

“What?” Grace asks and I shake my head.

“You don’t want to know, trust me.” I answer and she rolls her eyes. She knows me well enough by now to believe me when I tell her that. As she runs her hands through her mussed hair my grandmother’s ring sparkles in the sun. “What are you going to say about that?” I ask, pointing to the ring. “Or are you just going to take it off?”

“No way. I’m never taking it off.” She answers definitively. “I know that I have to tell my mother about us. It’s not going to be easy and hopefully she will understand. I’m not counting on it though.” She finishes sadly.

“I know it’s going to be hard and I’ll do whatever I can do.” I offer, feeling helpless to ease her pain. Grace nods and starts the car and soon we are on our way once again.

The road is long and winding ahead, and the rolling hills of the green Pennsylvania countryside surround us on all sides. It will be a difficult journey, but we are together.

******************

I drum my thumbs nervously on the steering wheel as I pull into the parking lot for both the bar and my uncle’s apartment. I’m not nervous to see him, in fact, I’m thrilled, but just the fact that I’m back in my hometown is enough to make me jittery.

Jaden hops out once I kill the Explorer’s engine and goes about unfastening Bella from her seat belt. I free Bean and put her leash on and we let the two dogs stretch their legs.

“You go say hello to your uncle and let him know we’re here. I’ll take the girls.” Jaden offers and I hand her Bean’s leash. “Come on ladies, let’s go potty!” Jaden calls to them in a singsong voice and I can’t help but laugh as she walks them away.

She’s such a nerd sometimes.

I climb the wooden stairs to my uncle’s apartment and knock softly at the door. It opens immediately and he greets me with a warm smile.

“Hey! You made it!” He welcomes and pulls me into a hug. “It’s so good to see you.” My uncle tells me and releases me when Herc starts jumping at my legs.

“It’s great to see you too.” I answer, smiling at him. He looks great. I reach down to pat Herc who continues to jump.

“He’s excited, I’ve been telling him all morning that his Bean is coming for a visit.” My uncle explains for his hyper dog.

“Actually, we have a new friend for him to meet. Jaden and I got a dog for my birthday.” I tell him and he raises his eyebrows.

“Wow, that’s some development.” He mentions as he joins me out on the stairwell, followed by Herc.

“There’s a lot to fill you in on.” I tell him, holding up my left hand for him to see the ring. His jaw drops and he looks back and forth from my face to my ring.

“I’d say.” He mutters, his portly frame grunting as he walks down the stairs. “Let’s meet this new dog of yours and then you and Jaden can give me the update.”

I smile as I follow him down the stairs. Herc has spotted Jaden and is practically dragging my uncle in his haste to see them. Bean spies them and yips in excitement while Bella looks cautiously on, unsure as to what to do.

Herc and Bean finally reach each other and are a wiggling mess of legs and sniffing noses. My uncle hugs Jaden and bends slowly down to pat Bella, who despite her overwhelmed expression is interested in what is going on.

“She’s pretty.” He remarks, scratching Bella behind her ears. “Well, let’s go inside. Seems we have a lot of catching up to do.”

It doesn’t take us long to get settled inside, we put our suitcases in the spare room my uncle has generously loaned us while we are here. We sit in the living room, Bella hopping on the couch next to Jaden as the two Russells wrestle and play.

“Spill it.” My uncle orders and I smile. I really did miss him.

“Jaden surprised me on my birthday not only with Bella but with this beautiful ring and undying promises of forever.” I state and Jaden beautifully blushes.

“So, when are you getting married?” He questions. I shrug uncomfortably, not really sure how to answer. We haven’t talked about this yet. Looking to Jaden for help she says nothing and just raises her eyebrows at me.

“I’m not sure.” I answer finally.

“In a few months?” She blurts at the same time. My uncle roars with laughter while Jaden and I just look at each other helplessly.

**************

Grace knocks at the door, her small hand shaking with fright. I smile at her, both with reassurance and sympathy as we hear footsteps come closer to the door.

It opens to reveal a red-faced Debbie who looks both shocked and pissed-off.

“Hi.” Gracie greets her quietly. Debbie says nothing, looking between the two of us icily, and only smiling when she looks down and spies Bean.

“Come in.” She says finally, holding the door open for us. Grace enters and I follow with Bella, who is on her leash.

The tension is so thick that it is practically visible. Grace looks like she’s going to puke. I want to touch her, to pull her into my arms and reassure her that everything is going to be okay, but I can’t. And it’s killing me.

Grace sits on the couch, folding her legs up underneath herself. She motions for me to sit and I do, Bella immediately lying at my feet. I’m trying really hard to be civil to Debbie when all I want to do is rip her heart out of her chest and stomp on it.

What she has done to Grace is inexcusable. Besides treating her like shit for her entire life she’s actually blamed Grace for Scott’s attack and hasn’t even called to see if she was recovering after being shot. She is not a mother, certainly not in my eyes.

“How have you been?” Grace asks softly as Debbie sits in a chair across from us. “How is Lydia?”

“We’re fine, Lydia included. She at least respects her parents enough to obey them.” Debbie snipes as Grace swallows uncomfortably. I clench my hands, knowing how easy and rewarding it would be to strangle Debbie.

“How is dad?” Grace questions, trying again to make small talk with her mother.

“He’s fine. Listen, why are you here? I’ve made it clear that if you were not going to abide by my rules then you were not welcome here. You made your choice.” Debbie states harshly and I look at her with complete disdain. How could this she-devil have birthed Grace from her loins?

“I came to see you because you’re my family.” Grace responds, her voice shaking. I can tell she’s on the verge of tears and it’s driving me insane. I just want to help her. If it involves punching Debbie, so be it.

“Jaden, if you’ll excuse us, I need to speak with Grace in private.” Debbie remarks and disappears down the hall.

Grace stands weakly to follow her.

No way. This is not happening. There is no way in hell that I am letting that psycho hose beast alone with my Gracie. I bolt upright and begin to follow Grace. She turns, smiling softly at me.

“You can’t fight my battles for me Jaden.” She speaks, squeezing my hand reassuringly. She heads after her mother and I stand in place, knowing it’s what Grace wants.

I remain frozen for a few seconds. Realistically I understand that I should back off and stay out of their business. Miranda would tell me that Grace needs to find her inner strength to deal with her mother and I shouldn’t put myself in the way. But my heart knows that Grace is MY business and I can’t just sit back and let her be thrown to the wolves.

My decision made, I head to the door where they disappeared and stand outside listening. At least now, if Grace needs me, I’ll be here in case things get too sticky. Bella has trotted after me and sits at my feet, studying me with her unusual eyes. Reaching my hand down I scratch her soft ears, wishing we were all far away from here.

***************

“Hi Dad!” I greet him with surprise. I had no idea he was here. He stands from his desk and hugs me tentatively, looking as nervous as I feel.

“Sit.” My mother orders and I do, wondering what she’s up too. “Isn’t this nice?” She quips to my father. “Little Grace has paid us a visit.”

As usual, my father says nothing. He sits at his desk and looks at my mother, his light eyes not betraying his emotions.

I don’t know what to say. My mother is looking at me expectantly as if I’m supposed to begin to speak. I return her gaze dumbfounded, having no idea what this is about.

She finally sighs, exasperated, and stands in front of me with her hands on her hips. “Well?” My mother demands, glaring at me.

“What?” I answer, completely dumbfounded as to what she’s trying to say.

She laughs and a chill goes up my back at the sound. This is her evil ‘I know something you don’t’ attitude she loves to flaunt.

Not to my surprise, she points her well-manicured finger in my face.

“I know what you’re up to missy. No more playing dumb.” She states. “I will not have you in my house with that woman.”

“Jaden?” I ask again, feeling utterly clueless.

“Stop acting stupid. You know exactly who I mean.” My mother snarls. “When Rick told us you were coming to visit we had Scott over so you two would patch things up. Scott told us about her. Even showed us that picture of the two of you.”

“What?” I ask again, shocked by this news.

“Listen to me, little girl,” My mother continues, her voice becoming loud and shrill, “You are not to see her again. I don’t know how she’s warped your mind but we didn’t raise you to become one of those repulsive people.”

I can’t find my voice. I know I should be sticking up for Jaden and myself but I’m unable to speak. Looking at my father, I try to find any chance for help, but he says nothing.

“You are a disappointment. Your father and I had the perfect life planned out for you and instead you lower yourself to this. You are an abomination in the eyes of God and this entire family! And to think you had the gall to call me from that place of sin and tell me that I was a horrible mother! You are the horrible, sick, revolting, pervert!” My mother rants, and I can tell she’s just getting worked up.

“You little bitch, I never want to see you again. You and that woman are not welcome here and if I ever see her again I swear to God I will kill her for what she’s turned you into. As far as I’m concerned, Lydia is our only daughter. You are nothing. I wish that bullet would have killed you!” She screams, her long red fingernail shaking in front of my face.

The anger bubbles up inside me and I raise my head to look directly into my mother’s dark brown eyes. And then I find my voice and say the two words I’ve wanted to say to her all along.

“Fuck you.” I tell her, and her mouth opens in shock. I barely see her raise her hand back and don’t have time to dodge the blow. The slap resonates around the room and my face stings from where she hit me.

The door flies open and Jaden enters, her eyes filled with fire. “Don’t you dare touch her!” Jaden shouts and my mother regards her, hate evident on both of their faces.

“She’s my daughter and I can do whatever I want!” My mother screeches, raising her hand back again to slap me.

Bella lunges at my mother, barking viciously as she puts herself in between my mother and myself. Instantly my mother backs away from me as Bella continues to bark aggressively toward her.

“Get out of my house.” She spits to us. Jaden extends her hand and I take it as I pull myself out of my seat.

“Rot in hell, Debbie.” Jaden remarks, her tone ice cold. “You have no idea what an incredible person your daughter is and you will regret pushing her out of your life. She is not a fat pig and even if she were I would still worship every inch of her, something you’ve never even tried to do.” She turns to regard my father. “And you, you make me sick. No man I know could just stand quietly in the background and let his wife ruin the lives of everyone around her.” Jaden turns to me, her eyes the color of thunder. “Come on, let’s get out of here. They don’t deserve your time.”

I nod numbly to her, unbelieving as to what has just happened. Jaden turns and leads the still-upset Bella through the door as I follow them.

“Good riddance, you fat pig.” My mother’s malevolent voice snipes to my back.

That does it. I’ve always considered myself to be a very tolerant and forgiving person, but I can only take so much. I whirl around, my anger coming un-checked.

“How dare you! You fucking bitch! For twenty-three years of my life I have done everything possible to make you proud of me. I tried so hard to win your love and attention and this is how you see me? No matter what I’ve done or how perfect I have been it’s still not good enough. You have never loved me and certainly never been a mother to me. All I’ve gotten from you is violence and pain, criticism and intolerance.”

My mother says nothing, but I can tell she is seething with anger as I continue. “All I wanted was for you to love me. My entire life. Every straight-A report card, every blue ribbon and trophy, they were all for you. I dreamed of a mother who would cherish me and love me and I have never gotten that dream. All you had to do was tell me that you were proud of me and that you loved me. You can’t even do that. You are pathetic.”

The words fly from my mouth now. “Debbie, you are no mother. You’re a selfish and materialistic bitch who has never been happy in your own life so you have tried to destroy mine. You didn’t want me to marry Scott for my own happiness; you wanted it because it would look good to all your friends. All you care about are appearances.”

She starts to interrupt and I raise my hands in front of myself as I continue to speak. “I used to really think that it was my fault. You made me believe my entire life that there was something wrong with me, that I was defective. I thought that if I tried harder to be good and perfect that I would win your love. But nothing is good enough for you. So as far as I’m concerned, you got what you deserve. You won’t have me in your life. I’ll be nothing more that your dirty little secret, your sickening lesbian daughter. But this is where I win, Mother. It won’t be your dirty little secret. Everyone in this town will know and they will all turn and point fingers at you. And I guess that’s your worst nightmare, isn’t it?” I smile now, knowing I look like a raving lunatic but not caring.

“Perfect little Debbie in her designer house with her working husband and 2.5 children. Not anymore. The town gossipers will talk behind your back about your disturbed daughter. People won’t look at you in the grocery store. Pretty soon all your friends will stop calling you. It will be your hell. I just wish I would be here to see it.”

My mother looks devastated now, her smirk has faded and her eyes look lifeless compared to the insane rage they were filled with a few minutes ago. “But I can’t be here. I have a new and exciting life to live. And that’s probably what kills you the most. I’ve gotten out, I’ve moved away from the town where I was born and bred. I actually have a partner who loves me and isn’t obsessed with work. I will have children who are brought up knowing they are loved unconditionally. I will help people and try to help them better their lives. You’ll just continue to be a former socialite with no more admirers while I am enjoying my life. You are nothing.” I finish, completely out of breath and exhausted.

I turn my back on my mother one last time and walk out of the door. She is quiet as we leave the house. Jaden settles Bean and Bella in the back seat and I quietly sit in the passenger side.

“You okay?” She asks as she starts the car.

“No.” I tell her, willing myself not to cry until we’re long gone.

“I’m so proud of you.” She responds and I nod numbly. “Where should we go?”

“Anywhere.” I answer. “Anywhere but here.”
Part 2

October 2, 2000
Rainbows of leaves crunch under my feet as I walk in the cool morning air. It’s going to be another beautiful fall day and as I get closer to my goal I pick up the pace.

Almost home.

Our breath is visible in the chilled air and I can’t help but smile at the sight of Bella and Bean eagerly trotting toward home in front of me. The only way our morning stroll could be better is if Jaden were with me.

She’ll be back in a few days, two to be exact. But the two weeks we’ve been separated have seemed like a lifetime.

We haven’t been apart since I was shot at the cabin. So when word came from her work that she was needed in St. Louis for some hands-on work in its’ mounted program, needless to say, we were both crushed.

I think she’s having a more difficult time than I am. Not that I don’t miss her like crazy, but it’s easier for me because I am home. She’s in a strange city with no one familiar. I at least have things here and the dogs.

“Come on, ladies. Let’s get a drink.” I tell the two panting ones as I let us in to the apartment. They both go to their water bowl and slurp up the cold liquid. As I’m taking my shoes off, the phone rings and I grab it.

“Morning gorgeous.” I answer automatically, knowing it’s Jaden.

“See, you’re getting better. I told you that you could learn to be a runner.” Her rich voice answers and I smile.

“Nah. I just got up earlier so I could walk the entire time.” I reply, giggling.

“You fink.” Jaden chuckles. “So how is the love of my life?”

“Missing you.” I respond seriously. “Two days, right?”

“Nothing could stop me. Can you still pick me up?” She asks.

“You bet. I can’t wait.”

“Me either. Listen, I have to run. Call me on my cell when you get home tonight, okay?” Jaden states, her tone annoyed. “I wish I could talk longer, but they’re breathing down my fucking neck here.”

“Easy there Spots. It’s only a few more days. I’ll call you later and I love you.” I reassure her calmly.

“Love you more.” She responds, hanging up. I put down the phone and sigh melodramatically. I really do miss her and these next two days can’t go by fast enough.

Shrugging out of my funk I strip and head for the shower.

Securing the dainty earrings in my ear I slip my dress shoes on and head for the kitchen. “Bella, crate!” I call to the large dog and she obediently strolls over to her crate in the corner of the living room.

I shut the door to her crate, making sure she has a few toys and a fresh nylabone. “Bye sweetheart. See you at lunchtime.” I coo to her and she circles a few times before lying down on the quilted blanket lining her crate. “Bye Miss Bean. Be good.” I cross over to the couch where she is laying and gently pat my little dog’s head. Rushing to the door I grab my purse and keys, late as usual.

The beautiful fall day hasn’t warmed yet at this early hour and I am grateful that I decided to dress warmly today. The drive to work is surprisingly traffic-free and I am actually on time.

This job has been a lifesaver for me. After our disastrous meeting with my mother, Jaden and I hid at my uncle’s place for a few days. I was able to meet with Lydia for about five minutes when she called saying both my parents had gone out, but I was too nervous to stay there long. Lyd understood and assured me that she wasn’t mad at me. I really do miss her though. I send her email all the time and am glad we are keeping in touch. No one else in my family would see me. My mother must have called everyone because my grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone just suddenly stopped being home for the few days we stayed in the state. It almost drove me to the edge; I couldn’t and still can’t believe that my mother turned my entire family against me.

My only satisfaction was writing a particularly nasty letter to my town’s local newspaper regarding the lack of support gay youth have in our town. I don’t know if they printed it yet, but I hope they do. It will drive my mother insane.

After we came back from Ohio I was surprised to have a message on the machine from Kim, one of the girls Jaden and I met at the bar in Boston. She mentioned that her stepfather, who is a psychiatrist, had an opening in his office for a receptionist. Kim thought that I might be interested. I scheduled an interview and got the job immediately. And I love it.

“Morning.” The gentle voice interrupts me from my musings. I look up to see Kim’s stepfather, Dr. Dodes, smiling down at me.

“Morning doctor. Did you have a nice weekend?” I return his smile.

“Sure did, thanks. Kim would like you to call her.” He continues and I nod, picking up the phone. “However, I’d wait a while. She isn’t exactly an early bird.” He adds and I chuckle.

“Neither am I. Thanks for the message.” I respond and he politely nods before excusing himself.

He is a quiet person, and so far I am thrilled with my job. The pay is great and the hours, while a little early for my taste, are in-synch with Jaden’s, giving us each a little alone time yet still the entire evening to spend together. By the time I get up in the morning Jaden is gone for the day, and she gets home two hours before I do in the afternoon.

Except since she’s been away on assignment. Now, because the dogs are used to their morning run with her, I have to get up at an insanely early hour to exercise them. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m actually starting to enjoy the quiet morning walks. They are so relaxing. Not as relaxing as sleeping in, but relaxing nonetheless.

I go about the few tasks that Dr. Dodes requires. Overall, this job is very simple. I am responsible for taking all messages as well as making appointments and pulling charts. Most of the time the office is silent and I busy myself filing or making reminder calls to the doctor’s clients. He has a small practice and seems to enjoy what he does.

That reminds me, I have a meeting with Cheryl this afternoon. Closing my eyes I let out a deep breath. I’ve put off seeing her since Ohio, I haven’t really been able to deal with it and this new job has taken a lot of my free time. But I really don’t want to cancel for tonight and keep postponing the inevitable.

And it will make the time fly by faster until Jaden is home. I have Bella and Bean’s obedience class tomorrow night with Sam and I took Wednesday off of work to pick Jaden up from the airport. I also have her birthday to plan; it’s only three weeks away.

The doctor’s first appointment for the morning comes in the office and I smile brightly at her. “Good morning, Mrs. Whit. Would you like some coffee or tea?”

Returning my smile she greets me and agrees on a cup of tea. I am trying to familiarize myself with each of Dr. Dodes’ patients. I know they feel more welcome that way and I like to make the office an enjoyable place.

After Mrs. Whit the rest of the appointments filter in regularly. I am so caught up in scheduling and keeping things running that I realize I’ve forgotten to call Kim. As soon as there is a break I dial her number.

“Talk.” Kim answers, her voice thick.

“Hey, it’s Grace. Don’t tell me you’re still sleeping!” I joke with her.

“Okay, I won’t tell you. How are you?” Kim responds, and I can tell she’s smiling.

“Good. My boss told me to call you. What’s up?”

“Stacey and I are bored. Can we come over tonight?” She asks, yawning in the process.

“You’re bored? Don’t you have things like classes and homework?” I respond, her yawn contagious as I fight with myself to not yawn.

“Not today or tomorrow. Some internship thing or whatever.”

“Oh. Yeah, come over, I haven’t seen you guys since last weekend. I’ll be home around 7:00 or so.” I tell her, excited at the thought of seeing her and Stacey. They are so much fun.

“Yay! We’ll bring dinner. See you then.” She answers, yawning again before she hangs up.

I feel 100% better as I hang up the phone. After returning from Ohio I’ve gotten together with them several times, always having a great time. Even Jaden likes to hang out with them, a fact that was hard to get her to admit. She always claims that people don’t like her, but that’s not the case.

The phone rings, causing me to jump before I answer it.

“Grace, turn on your fax machine.” My uncle’s gruff voice greets me.

“Uncle Rick?” I answer, surprised that he’s calling me here.

“Hi sweetheart. Trust me and just turn it on. I’m faxing something over and you’re not going to believe it.”

Doing what he says I press the fax to receive his message. “Okay, ready.”

The machine immediately rings and begins receiving. “Are you going to tell me what this is?” I ask.

“Just read it.” He pleads and I urge the machine to finish the transmission.

Grabbing the freshly ejected paper I see it’s a page from our town’s local newspaper. I read the headline of the editorial page and my mouth drops open with shock. “Goddess.”

“You can say that again.” He agrees. “They printed your letter and your mother is freaking out.”

“I bet she is.” I answer numbly, my eyes scanning over the letter quickly. “Thanks for the information. I can’t seem to process this right now.”

“Yeah, I bet. Give me a call sometime and I’ll fill you in on the updates here. When’s the wife coming back?” He continues, bringing me out of my shock.

“Jaden? Wednesday morning and I can’t wait. And she’s not my wife.” I argue meekly.

“Not yet.” My uncle adds before hanging up.

My hands shaking, I set the paper down on my desk. How is it that I had so much courage to write this letter and mail it, not caring how my mother reacted, but now I’m completely terrified? I know she can’t do anything to me, but I guess some part of me is still scared of her.

Thank Goddess it’s lunchtime. I need to get out and clear my head for a little while. As soon as the last appointment for the morning enters the doctor’s office I excuse myself for my lunch hour and head home.

Bella and Bean are eager to have a bathroom break and I let them run around in the back fenced-in yard. I’m amazed at what a wonderful dog Bella has become. I mean, from the minute we saw her at the shelter we knew we had to have her. But after she taught Bean how to destroy the house I knew that we needed help for her to be a better dog. We’ve continued her classes with Sam and also have been crate training her. So far it’s working great. She does indeed act like her crate is her safe place and doesn’t mind being kept in it during the day. I always come home at lunch and let them run and then it’s only a few hours until Jaden gets home and takes them on another walk.

The two dogs are enjoying each other perfectly. We’ve been so lucky that they’ve never fought and both are very mild mannered. Except around my mother. I still can’t believe Bella was so vicious.

Jaden says that she knew my mother wanted to hurt me and was protecting me. Regardless if that’s the reason, I sure do feel much safer having her around.

I whistle to them and interrupt their game of chase. They both bound over to me and I reward them with pats and praise as I take them back upstairs.

After eating my lunch I leave them again and head back to work, the article my uncle faxed folded in my purse. I think I’ll show it to Cheryl and see what she thinks. Despite my earlier feelings, I am now feeling pretty proud of myself, knowing that I did indeed do to my mother what she will fear the most. Proudly reveal my sexuality to Ohio.

“Grace! So nice to see you, come on in!” Cheryl’s warm brown eyes welcome me to her office. Nothing has changed since I was in here last and I am instantly grateful that I did not postpone my appointment for today.

“How are you?” I ask her and she smiles.

“I’m a Godmother!” She proudly exclaims, going to her desk to retrieve a picture. “This is baby Jack, Miranda’s son.”

“Oh, he’s beautiful. I didn’t know she delivered! How are they doing?” I ask, gushing over the picture of the baby. He really is a cutie.

“He’s one week old today and both mother and son are well.” Cheryl responds, sitting in the chair across from me.

“Give them regards from both Jaden and myself. I know she will be thrilled to hear the news!” I add, knowing how much Jaden likes Miranda. She came in for an appointment about three weeks ago and mentioned how Miranda looked like she was going to pop. I guess she did.

“Will do. So how have things been for you?” She asks, her eyes studying mine intensely.

“Okay.” I tell her. “Well, honestly, some things have been okay, some great, and some terrible.”

“That’s life for you. Start wherever you’re the most comfortable.” Cheryl responds and I smile in appreciation. She always makes me feel so safe to say whatever I need to say. Thinking quickly, I decide to start with what happened on my birthday.

Cheryl listens intently, smiling genuinely at the happy parts and frowning in support of me when hearing about my mother’s tirade. I finish by telling her what happened today, and the letter I wrote to the paper.

“Nothing is ever easy for you, is it?” She asks, her dark brows raised in question.

“I never thought of it that way I guess. I see it as nothing ever happened to me until I met Jaden. Or at least that’s what it feels like.”

“So how are you feeling about this letter?” Cheryl questions and I pause, trying to put my feelings into words.

“A lot of things, I guess. Part of me is thrilled that they printed it, and another part of me is terrified because I know my mother is going crazy.” I tell her and she nods.

“I can see why you would feel that way. Do you want to share the letter with me?” She questions and I nod eagerly, taking it out of my purse and handing it to her. She glances at the headline and begins to read it aloud.

“As we flourish in the new millennium I am constantly amazed at the rate in which our society has developed. Technology now takes us to the furthest depths of our solar system when the civil rights movement of 1964 is still a recent memory.

However, not all aspects of our society have improved. Many members of our great nation are still denied the equal rights to which they are owed. Women still average less pay per hour than men, racial profiling is rampant in law enforcement, and every form of prejudice is still prevalent in our society.

The injustice I would like to address is the prejudice and intolerance for gay and lesbian members of our community. I have grown up in this town and lived here my entire life. I have never seen any kind of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender support group or community outreach offered. Instead, homosexual members of our community are mocked and made to feel unwelcome.

I find this unacceptable, being both a member of our small community and a lesbian. I have looked to my community for some kind of support and instead have seen nothing but negative images of homosexuals. This opinion that homosexuality shouldn’t exist while condemning those who are homosexual is not going to suddenly change my sexuality. Instead, it pushed me so far back into the closet that I had to move halfway across the country to actually become the person I could only be inside.

My parents and family have played the worst role. When discovering my sexual preference I was not met with any kind of acceptance. I was thrown out of my family and shut off from those who raised me.

As a young lesbian, where am I now to turn? My community clearly does not accept me. My family has abandoned me. You all think this will just make me disappear into the sunset, taking my perverse pleasures with me.

This is not the case. I am not the only homosexual to grow up here. There are more of us than you think, 2 out of every 10 people in fact. And while some may find it easier to stay closeted in order to keep their family and small-town roots, many others won’t.

I don’t think our community is ready to lose many of our members because of simply who they choose to love. Yet by the constant bigoted small-mindedness and lack of support offered, I feel that is the end result.

Parents: please love your children. Being a homosexual isn’t wrong. We are not perverts. Our love for someone of the same sex is just as strong as yours for the opposite. Please give your children the love and support they seek in this difficult time in their lives. They will embrace you fully and be eternally grateful.

Our community: Please try to be more gay-friendly. How about starting a chapter of PFLAG? I guarantee that you will not regret it.

I do not wish the hurt or heartbreak that I have suffered at the hands of my family on anyone. We have done so much in our time on this planet to ensure equal rights for all. The only direction to move in is forward.

Grace McKenzie”

Cheryl lowers my letter and smiles. I return her smile, half proud of myself and half dumbfounded that they actually printed it and everyone in town is reading it.

“Wow.” She remarks and I smile wider. “What do you think will happen as a result?”

I shake my head. “I have no idea. I hope that it can help at least a few people to know that they aren’t the only ones. I know my uncle is proud of me and Jaden will be thrilled. But it’s my mother that I’m worried about. She’s crazy.”

Cheryl nods in agreement. “She sounds like she has a few loose screws. And you should take my word for it, after all I am a head doctor.” Her brown eyes sparkle and I laugh in response. I’m so glad that I shared the letter with Cheryl. I just hope my mother isn’t going to do anything but simply fade away.

If it were only that easy.

**********

Sighing with aggravation I plop down on the motel room’s crippled bed. It groans under my weight as I squirm around trying to get comfortable.

Today royally sucked. I can’t wait to be out of here. St. Louis is a pretty town and I know I would have more fun walking around exploring if Grace were here.

On cue, my cell phone rings. Checking the caller id I am relieved to see it’s Grace.

“Jaden’s escort service, Rhonda speaking.” I answer huskily.

“Ooh, help me Rhonda, get her out of my heart.” Grace’s voice responds, and I try to bite back a giggle at her attempt to lower her voice to my register.

“Get who out of your heart, you little sex kitten?” I continue.

“My tall, dark-haired, impossibly un-fucking-believably hot girlfriend.” She answers, her voice rich.

“Impossibly un-fucking-believably hot? Is that a real word?” I ask, smiling.

“It is when used to describe you.” She tells me and my ego swells. “I miss you Spots.” She answers a bit sadly.

“I miss you too. It won’t be long.” I reassure her. “I’ll get off the plane and run into your arms.”

“Yeah.” She sighs.

“You okay?” I ask, knowing she’s upset about something.

“I just miss you. I had an appointment with Cheryl and it was fine, but I’m really worried about something.” She tells me, her voice nervous.

“What’s the matter?” I ask, already scared, my stomach in knots.

“Remember that letter I wrote?” She questions and I nod.

“Yep? They print it or something?”

“Yeah. They did. And my uncle said my mother is freaking out. What if she tries to do something?” Grace asks, her voice sounding small.

“Gracie? Where is this coming from? Are you just nervous because you’re feeling guilty about the letter or did she give you some reason to be nervous?” I ask, my gut telling me that Grace is holding something back.

She doesn’t answer for a second and I try to count to ten and remain patient.

“Yeah, she left me a weird message on the machine. I just got it.” Grace answers.

I rub my eyes tiredly. I really don’t want to have to kill Grace’s mother, but it looks like it’s my only choice. “What did she say?”

Grace’s voice cracks and I know she is on the verge of tears. “She said that I would be sorry for what I did and that the joke is on me because I’m not even her real daughter.”

“What?” I ask, knowing that my thoughts are confirmed. Grace’s mother really is insane.

“I don’t know. What does that mean?” Grace questions sadly.

“I’m not sure, sweetheart. But first thing when I get back, I want us to go and get a restraining order against her. I don’t trust her. Meanwhile, don’t answer the phone and don’t erase any of her messages. Want me to call Steele and have him come over?” I ask, knowing that Harry wouldn’t mind.

“No, it’s okay. Stacey and Kim are going to be over in a little bit. I’ll be fine. It just freaked me out, you know? And I don’t know what she means.” Grace tells me, but I’m still not reassured.

“That’s her goal sweetheart, she wants to upset you.” I tell her, trying to calm her jangled nerves.

“I know.” She responds softly. “It just sucks.”

“Yes it does. You don’t deserve this.” I soothe her.

“I love you.”

“I love you too Gracie. And I can’t wait until I can hold you.”

“Me too. Call me in the morning?”

“Count on it. I’ll be in for the rest of the night if you want to call me.” I tell her before hanging up.

Poor thing, I can’t believe her luck. I feel like she’s been unlucky from birth to have Debbie as a mother. I’m glad that the girls are coming over; they should be able to cheer Grace up. Kim is a riot and Stacey is so kind, they get along perfectly with Grace.

I check my watch and see it’s a little after 6:00. Climbing off the bed I decide to order in rather than go get anything for dinner. Today was a long and hectic day and a nice quiet time in front of the television with a hot meal sounds perfect.

After a long shower, of course. I rode a gazillion horses today and have certainly smelled way better than I do right now. Placing an order with room service I head for the shower, Grace never leaving my thoughts. I hope she’s okay.

The annoying electronic-keyboard-sounding ring of my cell phone wakes me from my restless slumber. I pop straight up out of bed and answer it, frowning with worry when my sleepy eyes see that it’s Grace.

“Gracie? You okay?” I answer, checking the bedside clock and seeing that it’s 2:12am here, meaning it’s an hour later at home.

“Is Rhonda there?” Her bubbly voice answers, followed by a loud giggle and a crash.

“What’s going on?” I ask again, only to have her giggle harder in my ear. What the hell?

“Rhonda, I’m looking for a good time. Can you help me?” Grace replies and promptly cracks up again.

“Grace McKenzie! Are you drunk?” I ask as I finally realize what has gotten into her. A lot of alcohol.

She laughs so hard that she snorts, causing her to laugh even harder. “Yeah. I’m smashed.” Grace manages to tell me.

“Gee, I couldn’t tell.” I answer dryly, feeling wide-awake despite the late hour. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Stacey and Kim got me drunk. They are sleeping in the spare room. I’m calling you.” She replies, finally getting herself under control.

“Oh.” I respond as a yawn escapes. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“I miss you. I want you here.” She tells me. I know she’s pouting.

“I know. I wish I were there.” I tell her as I snuggle down back under the covers.

“Do you know what I’d do to you if you were here?” Grace questions, as her voice turns seductive.

I swallow audibly, knowing how she gets when she’s been drinking. “What would you do?”

She chuckles, suddenly sounding very sober. “I’d make you come so hard the entire neighborhood would hear it.”

Closing my eyes, I groan. It’s been a long two weeks and my body is aching for Grace’s touch. “And how would you do that?” I ask, hoping the conversation will lead where I think it’s going too.

“I would lay you down on the bed naked. I’d take your hands in mine and put them on the headboard. You’re not allowed to move them from that spot.”

“Jesus Christ.” I tell her, imagining the scene.

“Then I would straddle your hips and grind myself into you as I kiss you, my tongue deep in your mouth.” She continues and I feel myself already throbbing.

“Yeah?” I ask, not being able to stand this sweet torment.

“My breasts rub against yours, my hands are running up and down your sides, but you still can’t move your hands and no matter how much you beg I won’t let you touch me.” Grace’s voice is low and sultry. “I just keep grinding myself into you, I’m so wet and you can feel it.”

“Oh God, I want to feel you!” I exclaim, feeling myself become more and more turned on.

“I continue to torment you until you can’t stand it. Your hands come off the headboard and you pull me onto you before rolling me underneath you. You begin to touch me but I stop you because you broke the rule. Now you have to be punished.”

I moan in response and Grace continues on with her sordid tale. “You’re not allowed to touch me, but I tell you that you can touch yourself.” She pauses, her breathing growing heavy. “Are you?” She whispers and I feel it all the way to my toes.

Reaching my hand down I find myself soaked. I run my hand through my swollen center, gasping when my fingers brush against my clit. “Yes.” I answer, my breath shaky.

“Good girl.” She responds. “Tell me what you’re doing.”

“I’m running my fingers through my wetness. I’m so wet for you Grace, Jesus Christ I want you. I’m brushing them against my clit.”

“Put your fingers inside yourself.” She orders, her voice heavy with desire. I obey her command and let out a loud groan. “Oh Goddess!” She exclaims, and I know she must be touching herself. The thought of that makes me even more wet, if possible.

“I want you to come Jaden, please come for me.” Grace begs and I speed up the movements of my fingers. She murmurs words in my ear, things she wants to do to me and things she wants me to do for her and as I hear her breathing quicken my body shudders with my orgasm. I moan and cry into the phone as I climax and Grace’s gentle voice brings me down.

“Oh my God.” I manage to exclaim into the phone. Grace chuckles.

“How was that?” She asks and I try to regain my breathing.

“Well, I’m officially now a fan of drunken phone sex.” I answer and she begins to giggle again.

“Me too. That was fun.” She replies. “But I still wish you were here. I’m lonely and I can’t fall asleep.”

My heart aches with her simple admission. I haven’t slept well since we’ve been apart either. “Gracie?”

“Yeah?” She answers softly.

“Close your eyes and take nice calming breaths. I’ll sing you a lullaby.”

“Really?” She asks incredulously.

“Really.” I respond, smiling as I hear her get comfortable. I’m completely in love. What a great feeling.
Part 3

October 3, 2000
Shit. My first coherent thought as I open my eyes and snap them shut immediately. I really shouldn’t have gotten drunk last night, especially when I have to get up for work this morning.

Sighing in frustration I sit up slowly, holding either side of my throbbing head. Wincing in pain I stand up and stretch my sore body, knowing I’d better get moving or I’ll be really late.

I throw on my pajamas, discarded after my racy phone call to Jaden last night. Smiling from the memory, I try to remember all that I said but most of it is foggy. Oh well, I’m sure she’ll love telling me every detail.

I feel too nauseous to take the dogs for their walk this morning so I instead leave them in the fenced-in backyard while I get ready for work. It’s a quiet neighborhood and I know that they will be safe. Still, I check on them from the bedroom window every few minutes. They are cute, chasing each other and playing with the few toys we leave alongside the fence.

After I shower and begin to feel remotely human again I knock softly at the door to the spare bedroom.

“Yeah?” Kim’s voice, thick with sleep, answers and I open the door slowly. She is curled around her lover and both appear to be soundly asleep.

“Hey, I have to go. Stay as long as you guys want, just make sure to put Bella in her crate and lock the door when you leave.” I tell them, wanting them to at least be able to sleep in.

Kim’s head of messy blonde curls lifts from the pillow as she regards me warily. From across the room I can see the twinkle in her hazel eyes as she smiles knowingly. “Did you have fun on the phone last night?”

Predictably, I blush and stammer out a response. “You heard?” I ask meekly.

She nods, her smile turning into a full-out leer. “Stace and I heard everything. You were quite the inspiration.”

“Yeah, thanks Grace.” Stace’s soft voice adds and the two of them begin to giggle uncontrollably.

“Jerks.” I mutter embarrassedly as I roll my eyes and shut the door. As I bring the dogs in and leave I’m surprised that Jaden didn’t call this morning like she usually does. She probably had an early start so she could make sure her work was all finished to come home tomorrow.

Tomorrow can’t get here fast enough.

****

Work goes by fast, with few interruptions besides a few prank phone calls from Kim and Stacey asking how much I charged for phone sex. I have to give them credit; the first time I didn’t know it was them and thought that they had the wrong number. But by the fourth call I caught on. I tried threatening Kim by ratting her out to her stepfather but she just kept calling.

They’re never going to let me live this down. The good news is that they hung around the apartment all day and kept the dogs company and want to take me to dinner tonight after Bella’s obedience class.

It should make the evening go by quickly and then Jaden will be here tomorrow! I pack up my bag from work and bid farewell to Dr. Dodes for the rest of the week. I’m taking it off to spend time with Jaden.

Two weeks is a long time to be apart from the person you love. I plan on making up that time immediately.

Pulling into the driveway I spot the girls in the backyard with the dogs. I join them, greeting the two excited dogs and then my friends. Stacey grins sheepishly at me and ducks her head, clearly embarrassed by the phone calls they made to me today. Kim, however, just looks at me and smiles a proud smile.

“How was work? Any interesting calls?” Kim asks, her hazel eyes dancing. She tries to keep a straight face but it doesn’t last long and begins laughing. Pretty soon the three of us are cracking up like idiots in the back yard.

“What did you guys do today? Besides harass me at work?” I ask as we head upstairs.

“Not much, we took the dogs to the beach and let them run around. Then we walked down with them to Skip’s and each had a burger.” Stace mentions and I thank them for hanging around.

“It means a lot to spend time with you guys, I’m glad you stayed.” I tell them honestly. “Though,” I add thoughtfully, “I’m not sure what Jaden’s going to think of your harassing phone calls today.” I smile to let them know I’m kidding.

“She called and I gave her hell already.” Kim mentions, her blonde curls bouncing excitedly.

I roll my eyes and sigh. “What did she say?”

Kim grins slyly. “She said that she just wished she thought to call and harass you at work.”

“Figures.” I respond, able to picture Jaden saying that.

“She also said that we should take you out for a night on the town and she’ll call you tomorrow morning.” Kim adds and I smile.

“And that she loves you madly.” Stace adds and I smile wider.

“Mush.” Kim comments and Stacey smacks her on the arm.

“Hey! You weren’t saying that last night when you were whispering sweet nothings in my ear!” She adds to Kim who glares at her. Stacey and I laugh and Kim shoots me an equally evil glare.

“Come on, you big romantic, let’s get out of here and go have some fun.” I tell Kim who mutters under her breath.

*****************

Boundaries. Every relationship has to have boundaries. I seem to have a little problem of overstepping mine time and time again. But I can’t help it; I love Grace and want to do what’s best for her.

I’m stuck here. I want to go to Ohio and rip Grace’s mother’s head off for making Grace her personal whipping boy, well, girl rather. I want to make Debbie feel as much pain as she’s made Grace feel.

But Grace wouldn’t want that. I don’t know how she ended up being such a good person with such an evil mother, but she has. And no matter how much her mother hurts her, she still desperately wants her mother’s acceptance and love.

I understand that, believe me, I do. But it doesn’t make me want to kick the crap out of Debbie any less.

I’m not really sure what started me on this kick, but I can’t seem to get my conversation with Grace yesterday afternoon out of my head. There is something about the message that Debbie left on our machine that doesn’t feel right.

Why would she say that the joke is on Grace? That she isn’t even her real mother? That doesn’t make any sense. Was Grace adopted or something? I don’t think so; she clearly looks like her father and her father’s side of the family from the pictures I’ve seen.

What if Debbie is for real? What if she isn’t Grace’s real mother? I don’t know how that would work and why Grace wouldn’t know, but Debbie seems crazy enough to pull such a stunt.

I push away the rest of my uneaten lunch and pull out my cell phone.

“Steele.” Harry’s deep voice greets me.

“Hey buddy, how’s it hanging?” I respond cheerily.

“Jaden! When are you coming back?” He asks and I smile.

“Aww, you miss me? You big softie. I’ll be in tomorrow morning, and back at work on Monday.”

“Great. What’s up?” He asks, and I actually have to admit to myself that I miss hanging around him. He’s a nice person and I feel I can trust him. We were both thrilled to find that he was offered a position on the force.

“Something strange. You know my trip to Ohio with Gracie?” I ask, having told him the entire horrible exchange between Grace and her mother.

“Yeah? How’s she doing?” He asks of Grace and I smile sadly.

“As best as she can. Anyway, her mother’s making trouble here, leaving weird messages and shit. I was wondering if you could look into something for me.”

“Sure.” He offers immediately. He’s a great friend.

“Debbie said on her last message that, and I quote here, ‘the joke is on Grace because she isn’t even her real daughter.’ How fucked up is that?” I add.

“Very. I’ll look into it and get back to you.” Harry responds.

“Thanks. Let’s get together this weekend.”

“Sure thing, Jaden.” He answers before hanging up.

I put down the phone and stroll out of the lunchroom. For Grace’s sake, I hope all that Harry finds is what we already know, her mother is crazy. I don’t know what else Grace can be expected to deal with right now. And I hope that Grace won’t be mad at me for overstepping into her personal life.

Sighing, I run my hands through my hair and get back to work. The sooner I’m done here, the faster I’m in Grace’s arms.
October 4, 2000
My leg impatiently moves back and forth as I wait for the plane’s doors to open. Finally they do and everyone on the plane stands up and prepares to mob toward the opening.

I’m practically growling in frustration as I push my way through, wishing this was one of the times I put my status as an officer to good use. I could just flash my badge and make everyone get out of my way.

But I’m polite, or as polite as I can be, and wait my turn. It’s not long before I am on the ramp leading into the airport, my long legs eating up the distance between Grace and myself.

There she is. We spot each other immediately and practically run to each other. She looks beautiful and I wrap my arms around her and lift her up, twirling her around. She’s giggling and squirming in my embrace as I reluctantly set her down. She hands me a bouquet of scented roses and I touch their soft petals as I smile at her like a love struck teenager.

She smells like rain and lavender. Her bright blonde hair is messy in its short cut and her eyes the color of spring grass. She’s wearing a pair of black pants and a sweater the color of her eyes.

“You’re incredible.” I tell her as I caress her cheek with the back of my hand. She closes her teary eyes and wraps herself around me in a ferocious hug.

“I missed you.” She whispers in my embrace and I kiss the top of her head.

“Me too. Let’s get out of here, okay?” I ask and she nods as she releases me and wipes her eyes. She takes my hand in hers and I sling my satchel over my shoulder as we head toward the baggage claim.

I feel like it’s been years since I’ve last seen her. I can’t let her out of my sight and am clinging to her hand like it’s my lifeline. We keep looking at each other and smiling and every time I love her more.

“Sorry for the cramped accommodations.” She mentions as we climb into her small car. I glance at her warily as I fold my long legs into the passenger seat. “I know, I should have brought your big car, but I didn’t know if you trusted me to drive it this far.”

“Of course I trust you. But this is fine, I just love riding in your shrimpmobile.” I retort and she sticks her tongue out at me. “Tease.” I tell her and she grins at me before pulling out into the crowded airport traffic. She recklessly maneuvers around the line of cars to form her own lane. It works and soon we’re out of traffic and flying down the highway.

“Jesus Christ, who taught you how to drive?” I ask her, now thankful that she didn’t bring my car. She never would have been able to squeeze through those cars in the Explorer.

She shrugs. “I taught myself long before taking driver’s ed.”

“Gee, couldn’t tell.” I tease her.

“Hey! It only took me two times to pass my temps, and then I passed the driver’s test the third time.” She states proudly. “How many times did it take you?”

“Once.” I answer.

She grumbles under her breath as she suddenly pulls into the exit lane. “You hungry? I’m starved and here’s IHOP.” She asks hopefully.

“Sounds good to me.” I tell her. “Hey, maybe we can see if they’ll let us take some syrup home with us.”

“Why would we do that?” She asks quizzically.

A devilish smile crosses my face. “Oh no reason.” I state innocently. “I just thought you’d like to pour it across my body and lick it off. Isn’t that what you propositioned me with the other night?”

“Huh?” Gracie asks, apparently confused. Heh, heh.

“The other night, when you called and were clearly intoxicated, you mentioned that you’d like to make me one big pancake.”

“I did not.” She tells me, horrified as she puts one hand over her mouth.

“You sure did. I forgot to ask you if you preferred a particular flavored syrup, blueberry maybe? Or does plain suit your fancy?” I tease her mercilessly. “We might want to rent a hotel room for that, it would get our bedroom awful sticky.”

“Jaden!” She exclaims as she pulls into the parking lot.

“Yes?” I ask angelically, smiling at her.

“Shut up!” Gracie orders, an embarrassed smile on her face.

“Anything for you.” I obey her request and follow her into the restaurant.

Oh, believe me, I can shut up but it doesn’t mean I have to let her off that easily. I think I’ll order a nice big stack of pancakes with lots of syrup, making sure I make incredibly sensual moans while eating. She’ll like that.

**************

Sighing with contentment, I snuggle further down into Jaden’s warm body. After her little stunt over breakfast I couldn’t get her home fast enough before I needed her. I’m actually pretty proud of myself; I think I made up for two weeks of no sex pretty quickly. And I’m not even tired yet.

Jaden’s another story however. She’s sleeping soundly and has been for the past few minutes. It’s nice to lay here with her and feel her body against mine. It’s been too damn long.

Startled, I jump when the chirp of her cell phone interrupts my snuggle-fest. I’m not sure if I should answer it or not. Jaden’s never told me not too and I don’t want it to wake her.

I climb out of bed and go over to the floor where I ripped her clothes off earlier. I find it clipped to her belt and I answer tentatively.

“Hello?”

“Jaden, it’s me. You’re not going to believe what I found out. This is more fucked up than we thought. Is Grace around? Can you talk?” I recognize Steele’s voice, though it’s more excited than I’ve ever heard it.

“Harold?” I ask, wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

“Who’s this? Is this Grace?” He responds, sounding confused.

“Yes, it’s Grace. What’s going on?”

“Um, nothing. How are you? I bet you’re thrilled to have Jaden home, right?” He asks, trying to change the subject.

“Uh huh. Come on, spill it.” I order him.

“Hey, have Jaden call me when she gets the chance. Sorry to bother you.” He exclaims quickly before hanging up.

I put down the phone and glance back at the bed. As expected, a pair of dazzling blue eyes look at me guiltily from under the covers.

“Hi.” She murmurs softly. I cross back over to the bed and climb in, settling myself against her body.

“I’m sorry for answering your phone. I had no right to do that, I just wanted to see you get some sleep.” I apologize, feeling as if I’ve invaded her privacy.

“You don’t have to be sorry for anything.” She says tiredly. “I just should have filled you in before making a decision without you. I’m the one that is sorry.”

“What are you talking about? What was Steele talking about?” I ask, confused by the situation.

“I don’t know what Steele was talking about. But I called him yesterday and asked him to check out your mother, to figure out what she meant by her message she left you.” Jaden answers, lowering her eyes. “I know I had no right to do that and I’m sorry, but I just wanted to see what Debbie was hiding before she used it to hurt you.”

I lovingly tilt her chin upward and will her eyes to meet mine. “It’s okay.” I tell her before placing a ghost of a kiss on her full lips. “I’m not angry, just give me a heads up next time, okay?”

“Okay.” She answers, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “You’re not mad at me?”

“No.” I respond as I playfully nuzzle her regal nose. “I’m not mad.”

“Yay!” Jaden cheers and I laugh as I pepper little kisses over her neck and shoulders.

Gone is the insecure and scared woman from a few seconds before and my Jaden returns, all fire and energy. She rolls me underneath her and supports herself above me with her strong forearms. Her blue eyes darken to a violet as she studies me from above. The inky black tresses of her silken hair tickle my shoulders and the comforting softness of her body caresses mine.

“Even if I gave you a thousand kisses it still wouldn’t be enough.” She utters in a low voice.

“So let’s start with one.” I respond, raising myself up to meet her waiting lips. She is sweet and soft and strong and our bodies mold together as we become one.
Part 4

October 4, 2000
“Call Steele back.”

Jaden vehemently shakes her head at me. “Don’t wanna.”

“Come on!” I argue, smacking her thigh lightly with the back of my hand. “It’s been driving me nuts since he called. You can’t dangle some hidden information about my mother in front of me and then not tell me!”

She stares at me calmly, her eyes warm with emotion. “Grace, are you prepared for what you’re about to hear? What if it’s really awful? I don’t want to see you hurt.”

I think about what she said, slowly running all the possibilities through my mind. What did Steele find out? What information could my mother be possibly hiding for the past 23 years?

Biting my bottom lip I raise my gaze to meet Jaden’s once again. “I’m ready.” I respond firmly. “Whatever it is, I’d rather hear it from you and Steele than from my mother.”

Jaden doesn’t look convinced. She looks toward the phone uncertainly and sighs softly.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, scooting closer to her and taking her hand in mine. “You seem more bothered by this than I do.”

“I guess I am. It just feels as if since you’ve met me your life has been one giant roller coaster. You’ve moved halfway across the country, gotten shot by my ex-boyfriend slash drug dealer, quit your college, broken up with your fiancé, and become involved in a long-term lesbian relationship. I just want some peace and quiet for you.” Jaden finishes, her face darkened with self-loathing.

“Do you know what I like best about roller coasters?” I question and she looks at me curiously.

“What?”

“That they seem like the scariest things in the world, you know? It’s not natural to be hurtling down hundreds of feet at ridiculously fast speeds. But regardless of how scary they seem, you know that you are safe in your seat belt. You’re not going to fall out.”

Jaden furrows her brow and continues to look at me with a strange expression on her face.

I try to explain myself better. “What I’m saying is that no matter how sudden or long the drop, I know I will be okay. I have my safety belt and I believe there is no way you will let me fall. It doesn’t matter how scary it seems, we’ll ride it out together.” As I finish I see the light of understanding come into her brain. “Does that make sense?” She nods her head and I pull her into a warm hug.

“Listen to me Spots, I don’t regret a single moment of time we have shared. The best thing that ever happened to me was when you came into my uncle’s bar. Please don’t ever think otherwise.”

“Okay.” Jaden responds, her voice muffled by my shoulder.

“Now,” I tell her as I pat her back. “Go and call Steele.”

Jaden sighs and slowly grabs the phone, dialing his number from memory. My stomach churns with anticipation and it feels as if my entire body is tingling.

“Hey, it’s Jaden.” I hear her say and I raise my eyebrows, both relieved and upset that he’s actually home.

Am I ready to hear what he has to say? I know I can’t stand not knowing it, but the timing is pretty lousy. Jaden explained that she called him yesterday and had him check it out, not expecting him to be able to do it so fast. I was hoping for a nice and relaxing weekend with her, not having to deal with my mother’s latest assault.

Jaden clears her throat, causing me to snap out of my thoughts and focus my attention back to her. She takes the phone away from her ear and looks at me intently.

“Do you want to hear it from him or do you want me to tell you?” She asks, her face dark and unreadable.

I try to answer but no sound comes out. My throat is clenched with fear and I numbly raise my hand and point it at her.

“Alright, thanks buddy. I’ll see you on Monday, okay? Good work.” She efficiently ends the conversation and sits down on the couch, pulling me with her.

“C’mere.” Jaden murmurs and gathers me into her arms. Now I am really panicked, I know from her reaction that it must be really bad.

“Goddess, just tell me!” I exclaim as I look at her face. She looks miserable and I can’t decide if it’s better to know or not to know. Jaden looks at if she doesn’t know where to begin and I plead with her.

“Tell me.” I whisper beseechingly, unable to stand this torment any longer.

“Okay.” Jaden softly answers. “Steele found out something that isn’t what we expected. It’s going to be shocking and unbelievable, but I guarantee he checked it out and knows that it is the truth.”

“Just tell me.” I demand and she takes my hands in hers.

“Debbie is not your real mother.” Jaden offers and I stare at her blankly.

“What does that mean?”

“You were adopted.” Jaden continues. “Kind-of.”

“Huh? How can I be kind-of adopted?” I respond uncertainly.

“Your father is your real father. But your mother is someone else, not Debbie. Your real mother is listed on your original birth certificate. As soon as you were born Debbie legally adopted you.” She finishes and I notice how sad her luminous blue eyes appear.

Shaking my head, I try to grasp the information. “Are you serious?” I ask, knowing that Jaden or Steele wouldn’t tell me unless they were sure. “I can’t believe this. What about my birth mother? Who is she? Where is she?”

“We’re not sure. We know her name is listed on your original birth certificate as Laura Greene and she’s from your hometown. I have Steele trying to find out where she currently is.”

“How did this happen?” Questions are the only thoughts in my mind. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so insistent.” I tell Jaden and she frowns slightly.

“You’re not being insistent sweetheart. You’ve just found out something that has changed your entire life. You’re taking it better than I would.” She reassures me.

This must be a dream. How could everyone have lied to me for 23 years? Now that I think back I remember little things, like the fact that my baby book was filled with only pictures of me and none of my pregnant mother. I just assumed that Debbie didn’t want anyone seeing her fat and pregnant.

I rub my face and hold my head in my hands. “This is insane.” I comment and Jaden kisses the top of my head. “What in the hell? I can’t even begin to process this. I always thought my family was way too quiet, but this, this is fucked up.”

“I know.” She says, her hands working their way down to rub my back comfortingly.

“And my father!” I exclaim, looking up into Jaden’s eyes. “He hasn’t said more than ten words to me my entire life. No wonder. I always thought both of my parents hated me and now I know why.”

“They don’t hate you.” Jaden responds and I smile sadly at her.

“Yes they do. I’m an embarrassment, a bastard child that should have never been born. I ruined three lives just by being conceived.”

“Oh, Grace.” She says, tears falling freely from her eyes now. “Please don’t ever think that, it wasn’t your fault you got unlucky in the parent department. You didn’t ruin anyone’s lives, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if you hadn’t been born.”

I am grateful for her admission, but it still doesn’t fill the void in my heart. “I always felt as if I was unwanted and just in the way. Now I know why.”

Jaden’s strong hands wipe my own eyes and I feel my damp tears on my cheeks. I didn’t even know I was crying.

“You’re not unwanted and you never were. I love you and I want you.” She replies softly.

It is wonderful for her to say, but it can’t begin to make up for the years my parents treated me like hell. I know it should probably make me feel better knowing there was a valid reason for being treated like that, but it doesn’t. It just makes me angry that I was lied to my entire life by people that I trusted and loved.

“I better call Jerry Springer, huh? He’d probably kill for all of us to be on his show.” I remark, chuckling at the thought of me throwing a chair at Debbie.

“No way, you’re family isn’t nearly fucked up enough to be on Springer. Now maybe if this Laura Greene person is your father’s sister, but otherwise you’re just too normal.” Jaden replies, her smile dazzling despite her teary eyes.

I wrinkle my nose at the thought. “Ew. That’s one piece of information I hope Steele doesn’t uncover.” I shake my head at the thought. “Speaking of siblings, my uncle has to have known about this. I really thought I could trust him and confide in him. Why wouldn’t he have told me?” I ask sadly. This thought almost hurts as much as finding out my own parents lied to me.

“I don’t know.” Jaden answers honestly. “I can’t imagine him not telling you if he knew.”

“I can.” I respond. “He hasn’t told anyone he’s gay besides me and he’s fifty-two. He obviously has no problem keeping a secret.”

“We don’t know if he even knew.” Jaden states, always the voice of reason.

“You’re right.” I tell her. “Give me the phone and I’ll find out.”

Jaden hands me the phone and gives me a reassuring smile as I dial his memorized number. The phone rings a few times and when I hear his familiar gruff voice answer I suddenly become speechless. I can’t ask him. I’m too afraid of what his answer will be.
Journal entry:

October 21, 2000
It’s incredible how one’s life can change in the blink of an eye. A few seconds and KERPLOW! Everything you ever knew or thought or believed is suddenly gone.

And you can never ever get it back.

I’ve been graced with quite a few life-altering moments recently. In just a few months I’ve managed to kill someone, be shot myself, be responsible for Ian’s death, and discover my entire life has been a farce.

And that’s just in the past few months. It’s been two weeks now since I discovered that my mother isn’t my mother and my father is a cheating scumbag who cheated on Debbie while they were married with this Laura Greene woman who I now know is my birth mother.

Two weeks for me to process this and I still don’t feel like I can even begin to do so. Jaden has been so wonderful, listening to me cry and rant and get angry. I’ve spoken with Cheryl a few times and she is helping me address all the feelings. Kim and Stacey and Joe and Diana have been a godsend, taking Jaden and I out and cheering us up.

But I still feel sad. I know I probably will for a long time, if not forever. This isn’t something you can just “deal” with and move on.

And I want to move on so badly. Jaden’s birthday is in ten days and I want to give her a wonderful celebration. I’m throwing her a surprise party and I think she’ll be actually surprised. At least I hope she will.

My first autumn in New England is almost over and I feel like we’ve lost an entire month. First Jaden was away on assignment for two weeks and then we’ve been dealing with two weeks of this.

It’s pretty crappy. Is it too much to ask for some freaking peace and quiet? For nothing bad to happen? I guess it is.

At least we’re in this together. It’s my only thought of comfort. These past two weeks Jaden has been nothing but incredible and I look forward to our future together.

But first I need to address my past. Steele and Jaden found out that Laura Greene is indeed alive and well and lives in Chicago. She’s married with five children. They have also been able to find out that my mother’s family paid her a huge amount of money to leave town, or at least that’s what it looks like. A few days after I was born, Laura Greene deposited a check from my grandparents for more than $10,000 into her bank account and then immediately left for Chicago. It’s really amazing what Steele was able to find out. I’m not sure how he did it and when I asked Jaden she just smirked and commented he can do more than people think. I didn’t ask any more questions, not really sure if I wanted to know what her cryptic statement meant.

So my grandparents were in on the entire thing. My Uncle Rick never knew. He was away at college that year and stayed there to work through the summer. When he came home for a visit, suddenly Debbie and my father had a baby. He and Debbie were never that close so it didn’t seem that unusual that she hadn’t mentioned her pregnancy. It was kept as much of a secret from him as it was from me.

He was just as outraged to hear the news as I was. I had to beg and plead with him to convince him not to go over and scream at my mother, father, and grandparents.

But I don’t want anyone else to fight my battles for me. I can be my own warrior. And as much as this information hurts me, knowing that Debbie doesn’t know that I know makes me feel a little bit of satisfaction. She hasn’t called since leaving that nasty message, but when she does I can bring it up before she does. And that will piss her off.

I can’t decide if I want to try and contact Laura. Part of me does, because I want to know what happened and why she gave me away so willingly to my father and Debbie. But another part of me is scared, not wanting to face the possibility of rejection by yet another mother. Jaden says I don’t have to decide right away, and when I do I don’t have to do it as drastically as showing up on her doorstep. I can always write a letter and see if she responds.

I don’t know if she will. If I were in her position I guess I would think it would be easier to just continue living her life with her husband and five children and not think twice about the child I gave away. But maybe she does think about me and regrets her decision. Or maybe, to her at least, it was the right decision to make. I guess I can’t judge what she did; I don’t know what really happened or what has going on in her life. Maybe it was best that she did let my father and Debbie raise me.

I wonder what Laura looks like and what her family is like. I hope she’s happy and that her children are all well. Steele said they were all a few years younger than me, the oldest just having turned 21 and the youngest Lydia’s age of 14. I can’t imagine having five siblings and I’m sure Laura and her husband are really busy. Maybe one day I’ll meet them and get to visit Chicago with Jaden. I’ve always wanted to go there.

It’s beautiful outside. I’m sitting in the back yard with the dogs who are scampering through the leaves. They are having so much fun and I’m having as much fun watching them. Almost all the trees are bare now, and I sense the chill of winter in the air.

It is harvest time, and I concentrate on harvesting the things precious and dear to me to keep my soul warm through the winter. I have so many people to be thankful for; Jaden, my sister and uncle, our friends, and the dogs. The time of year is inspiring me to write more and I’m content to sit here and enjoy the beautiful Autumn day and write poetry.

Harvest

I gather my crops

The fading sun casts dancing shadows

On the barren land.

The green fields of summer are gone

Replaced by the icy breath

Of the sighing wind.

I gather my crops

My hands cracked by the sharp stalks

Dusty fingers wipe a weathered brow.

The trees commit suicide

Their blood red leaves fall from the dying forests

And stain the ground before blowing away.

I gather my crops, alone

They have all gone to chase the sun

Like silly grasshoppers.
But here I stay, determined little ant

Facing you, the dark wind with my arms outstretched

Welcoming you in.

****

I’ll have to read that poem to Jaden. I don’t normally write poetry like that, but the weather and my current state of mind is inspiring. She’ll be home from work soon and then we are going to work on Bella’s Halloween costume.

Then we have to go pick up Diana and Joe so we can rent our costumes. I’m unable to stifle my giggle at the thought of Jaden dressing up as the Cowardly Lion for Halloween. She’s still grumbling over that but we all convinced her that it was the only logical choice. She wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the West, but Diana put her foot down and stated she wouldn’t dress up unless she could be the witch. And there was no way any of us were going to be the ones to tell Kasey that we weren’t going to go along with her party.

Let me clarify. Joe and Diana are having a backyard Halloween party and Kasey pleaded to go dressed up as Dorothy. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that Jaden and I were over and the five of us were watching the Wizard of Oz at the time. So Joe and Diana told Kasey that was a great idea, and no sooner did the little schemer decide the four of us should dress up at Dorothy’s friends. Kasey then added that she wanted to use Bean as Toto and Bella as the Tin Man.

Again, we agreed and thought it would be fun. Then Diana called dibs on the part as the Witch, I called dibs on Glinda the Good Witch and Joe and Jaden were left to fight over the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. It’s just plain obvious to everyone that Joe is the perfect Scarecrow, he falls down all the time and besides, it’s going to be hilarious to see Jaden in her costume. I can’t wait.

It will be a riot. I just have to figure out how in the hell to dress Bella up as the Tin Man without dying her beautiful fur. I think I’ll just get some silver fabric and make her a doggie shirt or something. And we have to get Bean used to being carried around in a basket by a hyper kindergartener. That ought to be tricky.

It should be an interesting night. We’ve found the costumes at a small shop in Salem and hopefully everything should fit just right.

I know it’s going to be really fun and Jaden will eventually get used to being laughed at. She’s up to something though, I can definitely tell. Every time I ask her what she’s giggling about she just gives me that little smile and makes that annoying little zippering motion with her hand on her lips. She drives me totally insane.

But I love every second of it.
Part 5

October 28, 2000
Gracie stands before me, looking way too adorable in her bright pink puffy dress and tiara.

“Oh sweetheart.” She exclaims mournfully before closing her eyes and giving in to her laughter.

“Hardy har. Get it out of your system.” I tell her, my voice mockingly stern. I know I look downright stupid in this damn lion costume. This wasn’t my idea and I think I’ll get lots of satisfaction killing Diana and Joe for letting their kid talk us into this.

“I’m not laughing at you,” Grace snorts between fits of hysterical giggles, “I’m laughing with you.”

“I’m not laughing.” I respond as I head into the bedroom to grab my satchel, causing her to giggle harder. I guess this is my own fault, when we went to try on the costumes last week I wouldn’t let any of them see me in it. It fit, and I knew they would have enough fun at my expense during the party. Maybe if I would have showed them it wouldn’t be funny by now.

Somehow I don’t believe that.

But I’ll have the last laugh. I have a surprise that even Grace doesn’t know about and I can’t wait to see her face when she finds out. Then I guarantee I won’t be the only one made fun of. I put my surprise purchase in my satchel and head back out into the kitchen, only to be met by a still-laughing Grace. I grin cheekily at her and follow her out the door with the two dogs.

Poor Harry. He has no idea.

****

“You really do look beautiful.” I mention to Grace as we make the short drive over to Diana and Joe’s. “I’ve never seen you wear pink before.”

“Get used to it, after being in this for an entire night I’ll never wear pink again!” Grace exclaims, waving her magic wand around. “It is a fun costume though, and Kasey is going to have the time of her life having us all dressed like this.” She adds, smiling. She really does like the kid and Kasey loves her ‘Auntie Pixie Head’ just as much. They are cute together.

“You think the dogs are going to cope?” I ask, wriggling my nose at her. This makeup is really irritating, as is the ruff of fake fur around my neck. The worst is this stupid wired tail that keeps getting in the way.

“Bella was really sweet about wearing her funnel on her head, and Bean likes Kasey so she should be okay about being in the basket. But you know it’s only going to last a few minutes and when all the other dogs get here they’ll be tearing around like maniacs.” Grace adds and I nod in agreement.

We pull up to the house and Grace struggles to get her and the dress out of the Explorer. I put Bean in her basket and carry her to the front door as Grace fastens Bella’s silver-painted funnel to the top of her head. We all do look great, stupid, but great.

The door opens and a miniature Dorothy squeals in delight, snatching the basket holding Bean out of my arms.

“Why look, Cowardly Lion! It’s Dorothy!” Grace imitates Glinda perfectly and I try not to roll my eyes at the sheer absurdity of this entire situation.

“Glinda! How do I get back home?” Kasey questions, her brown eyes wide. Damn, this kid’s good.

“Click your heels three times and you are home.” Grace answers and Kasey clicks her little ruby slippers together and looks around in surprise.

“I am home! Thank you Glinda!” She answers; giggling and I yank on one of her braided pigtails.

“All right Munchkin, let’s go see your mother.” I tell her and she grabs my furry hand and leads me to the back yard.

“Jaden, you look really silly.” Kasey tells me before running off to show Bean to all of her friends.

I sigh, at least appreciating her honesty, and brace myself for the howls of laughter that do not disappoint me once I set foot into the party.

Diana and Joe look perfect, decked out in their costumes, and while they can’t stop themselves from pointing and laughing at me, I at least get the satisfaction that Joe looks like a total idiot. Most of the other partygoers are people from work and members of their family. Everyone’s laughing, including Grace, and I finally just start laughing myself as I join them.

Hey, you only live once. You have to enjoy the times you look stupid as much as the times you don’t. And I know this means a lot to Grace, and that’s what matters. It’s good for her to be able to let her hair down and enjoy herself and not worry about anything.

Besides, she makes a really cute Glinda. Her curly blonde wig and bubble-gum pink outfit make her look so carefree and I know she’s going to have a fun night.

I’ll have just as much fun, as soon as Harry gets here.

*******

This is so much fun, the little kids here look so cute and somehow Joe and Diana managed to get all of the adults in costume. They really throw a great party and once again Jaden and I are having a wonderful time.

It’s a cool and crisp night and I’m grateful for the countless ruffles in my costume. I’m sure Jaden’s cozy and warm in her Lion’s outfit, and she looks so adorable that every chance I get I’m snapping pictures of her to keep. I know I’ll never get her to dress up like this again.

Stacey and Kim showed up, both dressed as Raggedy Ann instead of Raggedy Ann and Andy. We all thought this was hysterical and the only way you can tell them apart is by Stacey’s tall frame. They look great and I was really happy to see them come. We’ve gone out with them and Joe and Diana and had a great time. Kim and Diana instantly became great friends, probably because they are so much alike. They’re really funny together.

I asked Jaden if Steele was coming and she got that funny look on her face again before nodding affirmatively. It’s killing me that I can’t figure out what she’s up to. I can read her like a book and I’m sure I’ll find out as soon as Harold gets here.

Speak of the devil; I see his car pull up in the driveway. Jaden sees it too because she runs over to her satchel that she dropped unceremoniously in the grass and removes a plastic bag from it. What is she doing? I watch as she then gathers up Kasey, Joe and Diana. She looks frantically around for me so I trot over to her, receiving a grateful smile in return. She calls Bella to her side and re-fastens her Tin Man hat and tells us all to stand here and wait for Steele.

We all stand there and I shoot her a curious look, confused when she grins brightly in return. Oh Goddess, what has she done to poor Harold?

I get my answer soon enough, when a huge hulking man dressed as a monkey walks into the back yard. He looks at the group of us in surprise, his gaze further muddled when he sees me in my Glinda costume.

Jaden can’t contain herself and begins to crack up as she removes a pair of dainty fairy wings from the plastic bag and attaches them to Steele’s back.

I think that’s when the joke dawns on all of us and it’s impossible to tell who is laughing harder, us or Jaden. Even Kasey gets it, her high-pitched giggles heard above the din of our laughter.

The rest of the party catches on and we all just stand there snickering at poor Harold, who looks completely humiliated in his monkey outfit completed by fairy wings.

“I hate you.” I hear him say to Jaden, which causes us to all laugh at him harder, and the next thing I see is a very pissed off flying-monkey and a guffawing Cowardly Lion wrestling in the grass.

Jaden collapses on the ground in laughter and Harold stands up, brushing grass and leaves off his furry costume. He finally begins to chuckle, his deep voice filled with good-spirits. He’s too nice to really be pissed off, and it was a really funny joke.

Extending a hand to Jaden, he pulls her up and hugs her. She’s still giggling and I know she must be really proud of herself.

I join them, hugging Harold and winking at Jaden. He points accusingly at me.

“This is your fault! Jaden told me that you wanted me to go as King Kong and you’d be the girl I save!” He tells me and I elbow Jaden in the ribs.

“Isn’t she a fink? She set you up.” I answer and he groans.

“I should have known. But you got me good.” He praises Jaden who just shrugs.

“We needed you. Everyone knows the Wizard of Oz isn’t complete without at least one flying monkey.” She responds proudly. “I just can’t believe you fell for it.”

Steele puffs up his chest, trying to look as dignified as a huge man can when wearing a monkey suit and fairy wings. “I was doing it for you and Grace.”

“Well, thanks Harold.” I tell him, squeezing his hand. “It was a nice thought.”

“Yeah,” He answers sarcastically, “no problem.”

****

The rest of the party goes by uneventfully, we did the normal Halloween things such as bob for apples and carve pumpkins. Bean won the apple bobbing contest, no surprise to me because she’ll do anything for an apple. What can I say? She’s a weird dog.

Bella made friends with Diana and Joe’s dogs and seems to be really coming out of her shell. We have Sam to thank for that, she’s been working wonders with us in our obedience class. That reminds me, I have to let Jaden know that we’re invited over to Sam and her girlfriend’s house for dinner next weekend. They are both coming to Jaden’s surprise party I’m having for her on Tuesday and I’m looking forward to meeting Sam’s main squeeze.

I need to speak with Harold about using him as a decoy to lure Jaden away from her party. I scan the party, looking for him. It’s not difficult to spot him; I just look for the 6’5″ man dressed in a monkey suit with fairy wings attached.

I excuse myself from Raggedy Ann and Ann for a minute and tear him away from his conversation with Joe’s cousins. He looks at me gratefully before following me.

“Thanks, I mean, they are nice guys but all they want to know is if I kill people and what it’s like to be on a stakeout.” Harold tells me and I giggle. Joe’s family is really, well, not to be mean, but they’re dumb.

“Well, I have a way for you to get Jaden back.” I begin and he immediately looks at me with interest.

“I’m all ears.” He responds and I smile. He’s the perfect guise and I know he’ll love this as much as I do.

As I tell him the details of my plan he grins evilly and nods enthusiastically. I tell him I’ll call him on Tuesday and he assures me he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Jaden has no idea what she’s in store for. She thinks she’s clever for pulling one over on Harry? Well, she’s never going to figure out what I have planned for her.
October 31st, 2000
I finish dressing and pull my long hair back into a tight bun. Tucking a few loose strands behind my ear I move over to the bed to kiss Grace goodbye.

“I wish you didn’t have to work today.” She grumbles and I smile as I lightly caress her lips with mine.

“Sorry, just because it’s my birthday doesn’t mean I get the entire day off.” I respond as I kiss her one last time.

“Happy birthday, Spots. I love you and you’ll get your present when you get home.” She answers back, trying to be seductive despite the fact she’s half asleep.

“You already gave me my present last night, remember?” I retort and she blushes before hiding her head under the covers. “Bye, I love you.” I bid her farewell and head off to work.

The day goes incredibly fast, probably due to the fact that we got our first snowfall of the season and everyone scurried home to get out of the weather.

I love days like this, where the world is so perfect and winter is almost upon us. I like all seasons, but winter holds some kind of magical appeal for me.

Maybe I’m just excited about spending my first Christmas with Grace. I think that’s probably it.

****

Driving home in the freshly fallen snow is trying, simply because of the annoying people who are acting like they’ve never seen a snowflake in their life.

I feel sorry for the kids; this snow is going to put a damper on Trick-or-Treating. Grace has bought so much candy it’s just ridiculous, seeing that we don’t get many kids in our neighborhood. She merely smiled at me and shrugged, but I know she’s just excited about having leftover candy.

I can’t wait to get home to her. I want to build a fire in the fireplace and snuggle up. I don’t know if she has anything planned for my birthday, she didn’t act like it, but knowing her I’m sure she does. Maybe even a present or two.

My cell phone rings and I answer it carefully, keeping my eyes on the road at all times. “Hello?”

“Jaden!” Harry’s panicked voice greets me.

“Steele? What’s up, are you okay?” I ask, immediately troubled by his unusual upset tone. He’s about the calmest guy you’d ever meet and I’ve never heard him upset.

“You have to get here and help me, I think I’m in serious trouble.” He answers and before I can even interrupt he gives me an address, telling me he’s at a hotel in Danvers.

“Be right there.” I tell him and he pleads with me to hurry again before hanging up. Holy mother of hell, I hope he’s okay.

I call the station and ask for Diana, and the other dispatcher tells me she just left. Groaning in frustration, I tell Sandy to radio Steele for backup for whatever assignment he’s on. She assures me she’ll be right on it and I tell her to keep it discreet in case it might make things worse for Steele.

I speed toward my destination, knowing it’s going to take me at least 30 minutes to get there. I better call Grace and let her know what’s going on, I know she’ll worry but at least she won’t be waiting for me at home.

“Gracie?” I greet her in my sweetest voice.

“Hey birthday girl! You almost home?” She answers hopefully and I wince before telling her the awful news.

“Actually, I just got a weird call from Steele. He sounds like he’s in some kind of trouble and needs me to bail him out. I have to go to Danvers and I’ll be home as soon as I can.” I tell her quickly, hoping she won’t be disappointed.

“Oh.” She responds, her voice crestfallen. Feeling like an asshole I try to cheer her up.

“I’m sorry sweetheart, I will get home as soon as I can.” I tell her before adding, “I love you more than anything.”

“I know. I hope Steele’s okay and I love you too.” She responds. “Be careful, okay? Get here in one piece.”

I smile at her concern. “Of course. I’ll see you soon.”

“Kay.” She ends the conversation and I hang up my phone.

“Harry, you owe me big time.” I mutter as I step on the ignition.

**************

I set the phone down with a satisfying click. Smiling at Stacey and Kim I grab my purse and bid the dogs farewell.

“I take it she bought it?” Kim asks, her dancing hazel eyes matching her wide grin.

“Oh yeah. Hook, line and sinker.” I respond, chuckling as the three of us head to Kim’s car.

The drive to the hotel is short and Kim parks her car around back so Jaden won’t see it. I told everyone else to park there as well and I am thrilled to see that Diana and Joe have already made it here, as well as Harold.

“Who else is coming?” Stacey asks and I rattle off the list.

“Practically everyone she knows. Diana was a godsend, helping me with this. Everyone she likes from the force is here, the people who own the barn where she keeps Studley, a few people from her extended family, and us.” I tell them as we crunch through the snow in the parking lot.

“She’s going to be surprised, I can’t wait.” Kim mentions, holding up her camera. “With her Cowardly Lion fiasco last weekend and now her shocked expression I’m going to have enough ammo to blackmail her forever.” She grins evilly and Stacey and I roll our eyes in unison.

“You’re sick.” Stacey comments, affectionately ruffling her girlfriend’s mass of blonde curls.

Kim snorts in response. “Please, you’ve never complained about my warped mind, so don’t start now.” She retorts to Stacey as she straightens her mop of hair.

We enter the function room and are greeted by everyone. Kim, Stacey, and I came over this afternoon to decorate and the place looks great. We hung crepe paper everywhere and got helium birthday balloons that are tied to chairs. The caterers have arrived and the buffet is laid out perfectly. The cake looks enormous, with a big number “28” candle on top and the music is already blaring.

“She’s gonna pee herself.” Kim comments before scooting off to visit with Diana. Stacey and I laugh as we make our way over to Steele, who is looking way too proud of himself.

“I should call her again, she should be here any second.” He tells us as he dials the phone.

I yell for the dj to cut the music and ask everyone for silence as Steele calls Jaden.

“Jaden! Where are you?” He asks in total panic and Stacey and I are forced to muffle our grins.

“I’m inside the hotel, get in here and I’ll tell you what’s going on.” He replies before hanging up.

He turns his attention to us; his handsome face lighting up in a huge grin. “She should be pulling into the parking lot now. I’ll go meet her and bring her in.”

I cheer and tell everyone to gather around the door. As Steele jogs out of the room we dim the lights and wait with anticipation.

My stomach is nervous, hoping we’ll be able to pull this off. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jaden has figured it out; she’s really smart and always seems to be one step ahead of the game.

I make my way over to Diana and Joe who are trying to quiet a babbling Kasey. As soon as she sees me she smiles and I pick her up in my arms.

“Hey munchkin, we have to be quiet so we can surprise Jaden.” I tell her and she puts her hand over her mouth.

“Atta girl.” I praise her and kiss her forehead. “You stay here with me to surprise her, okay? That way she’ll see you first!” I tell the little girl as I settle her on my hip. She nods excitedly and tightens her arm around my neck.

Everyone is dead silent as the door to the hall slowly opens. Someone flips the lights on and we all yell “SURPRISE!”

The door swings open wider to reveal a bewildered Jaden holding her gun in front of her defensively with a hysterical Steele behind her. Jaden’s eyes are wide with surprise and she sheathes her gun as she surveys the entire crowd.

“Happy birthday!” I greet her, making my way to her with Kasey still on my side. Jaden looks stunned and as the music starts and everyone begins to talk the din of the room is almost too much.

“You little…” She begins and I shush her.

“Not in front of the child.” I mention as Kasey throws herself into Jaden’s arms.

“Fooled you.” Kasey tells her before giggling and squirming her way out of Jaden’s embrace.

“Yeah, we fooled you.” I joke as I take my turn and throw myself into her embrace. “You okay?”

She relaxes as she melts into my hug. “I love you so much.”

I nuzzle her neck and give her a squeeze. “I love you.”

“Thank you for this, it really means a lot to me. No one’s ever cared enough about me to do this before.” She utters with such honesty that it makes my heart ache.

“Well, I do.” I answer her and pull her down for a searing kiss, which she eagerly returns.

“Come on, lovebirds.” Kim interrupts. “Let’s get funky, I love this song.” She dances away from us and Jaden and I can’t help but laugh at her.

“Yeah, come on birthday girl, let’s get funky.” I pull Jaden toward the dance floor already filled with the guests.

Everyone is laughing and having a great time and as Jaden and I begin to dance I anxiously look forward to the future.

Together.
Part 6

November 4, 2000
“Spots, we’re going to be late!” I call as I slip on my shoes and grab my purse. She comes out of the bedroom looking gorgeous as usual in her black pants and crisp white shirt.

“I’m ready. Be good dogs!” She tells Bella and Bean firmly before smiling and patting their heads.

We close the door and proceed down the hall. “Do you think they’ll be okay?” I ask nervously. We haven’t left Bella out of her crate in the house yet and I really don’t feel like coming home to a trashed house.

“They will be fine. Sam has worked miracles and if she thinks Bella is ready, then I trust her.” Jaden answers, smiling condescendingly at me. “Don’t worry so much, mom.” She teases.

“Ha ha. Remind me of that when we’re cleaning the house at 2:00am like last time.” I retort as we get into Jaden’s Explorer. “I’m glad we’re seeing Sam and Eva. I wished we could have had more time with them at your party.”

“Yeah, they both are really nice.” Jaden muses as she navigates carefully through the snowy streets. “Winter sure hit early this year.”

“I guess; I can’t believe we have this much show before Thanksgiving.” I add, admiring the gray-blue sky and white-covered trees. “It’s pretty.”

“Cold though. Especially in the middle of downtown Boston sitting on the back of a horse.” Jaden adds and I giggle. She looks at me out of the corner of her eye and smiles.

Sam and Eva live close, only a few miles away and soon we are pulling up in their driveway. They have a small Federal-style house that looks cozy from the outside, especially with the newly fallen snow resting on the roof and windowsills.

Jaden takes my hand as we make our way cautiously up the walk, a bottle of wine in my hand.

Sam immediately opens the door and greets us warmly and as we enter the house a rush of warm air and deliciously smelling food welcomes us.

“Nice to see you again.” I politely tell Eva who is shaking Jaden’s hand.

“Same here, Grace. Thank you for the wine.” She responds in a slight Spanish accent. “Come on in and sit, dinner is almost ready.”

Their house is simple yet beautiful, tasteful furniture placed purposely in the right places and artwork and other interesting wall items creatively add interest to the walls. It is an inviting home and I immediately feel comfortable.

We sit in the living room and Jaden surprises me by striking up the conversation.

“Where did the two of you meet?” She asks and Eva speaks first. Her accented voice is lilting and beautiful to listen to.

“I moved here from Barcelona ten years ago and was lonely, not knowing anyone in a big city by myself. I went to the shelter to get a dog and ended up with a holy terror!”

We all laugh as Eva continues with her story. “So I didn’t know what to do, the beast was shredding everything in sight. Then I saw in the paper a woman who trained dogs. I called her, and Sam showed up.”

“And I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.” Sam interjects, smiling proudly. “Here I was, almost thirty and I still hadn’t met anyone I wanted to be with. I took one look at Eva and fell hard.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t give her the time of day.” Eva continues and we all laugh again. “She was so forward and sure of herself that I enjoyed playing hard to get. But eventually she wore me down.” She finishes.

“That’s a beautiful story.” I tell them, smiling. They make a lovely pair, and I can see why Sam fell so hard for Eva. She reminds me of Jaden; they are almost the same height and Eva has long dark hair like Jaden’s except it’s rather wavy. She has sparkling dark eyes and a beautiful dark complexion.

“And what about you? Sam tells me you have a wedding to plan?” Eva asks and I blush, looking frantically to Jaden who is just sitting there with her eyes widened in surprise.

“Um, yeah, I guess.” I stammer and Eva looks at us, confused. I rush to explain, not wanting her to feel bad for saying something. “We haven’t really made any plans yet, we don’t want to rush into anything.”

“I understand, it is a huge decision.” Eva responds, smiling warmly. “Dinner should be about ready, shall we?” She stands and we follow her to the dining room, Jaden trailing behind me with a glazed look in her eyes.

***********

I’m an asshole. For Grace’s birthday, that was what, almost three months ago now, I propose to her; open my heart and spill my guts and tell her I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

And then I promptly shut my mouth and never say anything about it again. That’s really shitty of me.

I didn’t do it on purpose, it’s not like I don’t want to marry Grace. I do. I mean, I will. I mean I do, now, just not right now. Maybe after Christmas. Or even in the spring. Isn’t that when everyone always gets married? In the spring?

But Grace will be starting her first semester at Pressman then. So maybe we should wait until the summer. Besides, people never get married right away after getting engaged. And we’re not even technically engaged, I mean, she has my ring and all but I never asked her to ‘marry me’. So there’s no harm in waiting.

‘Yeah, right. Keep telling yourself that Jaden. You big jerk.’ The little voice in my head tells me. I try to tell it to shut up so I can focus on the conversation around me but it won’t stop.

I really feel bad. I want to marry Grace, even though we can’t get ‘married’ for real, I want to have a commitment ceremony with her and declare her to be my one and only for the rest of our days. I do. But the thought of it is really freaking me out for some reason.

Maybe because I think I’ll be rushing her into it. Not even a year ago she was still living in Ohio engaged to Scott and speaking to her parents. Now she’s moved here and gone through so much shit, not even including the crap with her mother not being her mother, and I’m bringing up marriage?

We have to talk about this, I don’t want her thinking that I don’t want to get married and I don’t want her to feel like I regret all those things I said to her on her birthday. We’ll just go home tonight and talk about it and everything will be fine.

Now I can focus on dinner. I feel better. Who would have thought I would be able to resolve things and talk about my feelings? Not me. Miranda has helped me help myself so much.

“I’m not really sure what I eventually will do with my degree, but I want to help people. I know that for sure.” Grace is saying to Sam and Eva who are listening avidly.

“Would you consider social work?” Eva questions. “I’m a doctor and you wouldn’t believe the amount of cases that social services are called in on. They are constantly understaffed because it’s such a stressful job, but you certainly seem to have the heart for it.”

My Gracie a social worker? I could see her doing that, she’s such a gentle soul but I think it would kill her. She cares too much about people and I would hate to see her get hurt and depressed by the system; it even upsets me.

I tiredly rub my eyes. I don’t want to go to work in the morning. I can’t even begin to explain how little I’ve actually said that. I love my job, hell; I’ve always loved my job. But for some reason it doesn’t seem to be as thrilling as it used to be. Sure, I’ve always hated the paperwork aspect of it, but there’s nothing better than being on horseback patrolling the city.

Or so I thought. Maybe I’m getting burnt out. It happens to the best of officers and I’m sure in no time I’ll get over it. But it’s strange, because I never thought I’d be in a phase where I am happier being at home than at work.

“We should get going.” I hear Grace say apologetically. “Both Jaden and I have to work early tomorrow and I know that you’re on call Eva.” Grace stands and I again pull myself away from my thoughts and follow her lead, shaking both Eva and Sam’s hands.

“Thank you for dinner, it was wonderful.” I tell them and they both smile as they nod their thanks.

“Yes, thank you. Sam, we will see you on Wednesday evening for Bella’s class and we would love to have the two of you over to our place for dinner the next time you’re both free.” Grace adds as she and Eva make plans to contact each other.

Before I know it we are back in the car and driving home. I rub my eyes again as I try to focus on the snowy road. Grace places a warm hand on my thigh and squeezes it.

“Hey, you okay?” She asks, concern evident in her moss green eyes when I turn to regard her.

“Yeah, sorry I spaced out after dinner. I was just thinking.” I answer, feeling like a jerk.

“It’s okay. What’s on your mind?” Gracie questions, her voice soothing.

I shrug. “A lot, really.”

She waits for a minute before urging me on. “Care to elaborate?”

“I just want to get home and make a fire and sit with you. Then we can talk.” I answer as I take one hand off the steering wheel and clasp hers.

We ride the rest of the way in silence, our breath making little puffs of white in the cold night. Gracie offers to take the dogs, who thankfully didn’t destroy the house, outside while I start the fire.

It immediately warms the chilled apartment and I put a pot of water on the stove to boil as I wait for Grace.

She returns quickly, stomping snow off of her boots as I help her towel off the dogs’ wet legs and bellies. They eagerly scamper to the fire and lay down in front of it, each vying for the warmest spot.

“Hot chocolate?” I ask and Grace nods eagerly, a smile on her full lips. She goes to change into her pajamas as I sit on the rug next to the dogs with our cups of steaming cocoa in hand.

Returning, she sits next to me and I wrap my arm around her shoulders and lean back against the couch.

“I love you so much.” I tell her softly and she smiles.

“I love you too.” “Please understand that even though I haven’t been making plans for our wedding, I still want it to happen. I don’t want to rush you and although I can’t lie and say the thought doesn’t scare me, I still want to marry you.” I tell her in a rush and she gazes at me with such intensity that I feel my heart constrict.

“I know.” She answers simply and I look at her confused.

“You do?”

“Of course. Jaden, I want to marry you more than anything. But the timing has to be right and I don’t feel it’s our time yet. I know we’ll always be together, why do we need to clarify it any more than that?” She responds, her eyes a deep green.

“We don’t.” I answer sensibly. “You’re right.”

“So stop worrying. Besides, I’m not giving this back.” She adds jokingly, holding up the ring on her finger.

I smile proudly, loving the way it looks on her. “I’d never want you to.”

She rests her head on my shoulder and I sigh in contentment. We sit, wrapped around each other, until the fire burns cold.

****************

A knock at the door pulls me from our guests in the living room and I open it without checking who it is. No one is in the hallway.

Weird.

“Who was it?” Jaden asks and I shrug, wondering if maybe someone got the wrong apartment. We turn our attention back to our small party and immediately become involved in the conversations once again.

Suddenly a loud crash from the bedroom causes me to jump with fright.

“What in the hell was that?” I ask, surveying the crowd and discovering that everyone one was there, including Kasey and the two dogs.

“Stay here, I’ll go and see.” Jaden answers as she stalks toward the bedroom; pausing to retrieve her gun from the kitchen.

“Kasey, come here sweetheart.” Diana calls to the child seated on Kim’s lap. She obediently goes to her mother who puts her arms around her in a protective hug. Joe defensively gets between them and the bedroom and the rest of us all huddle together.

I don’t hear anything from Jaden and it immediately worries me. I glance to the small group with me, my heart in my throat, and leave them to follow Jaden.

“Grace, no.” Stacey warns me but I ignore her as I head for the bedroom.

The door is slightly ajar and memories of finding Ian’s body fill my head. Closing my eyes to get up my nerve I push my way through the door to find nothing.

Our bedside lamp is broken on the floor; the window open and the curtains are blowing violently in the winter wind.

Jaden must have gone out through the window. I peer out, unable to see anything through the inky darkness. “Jaden?” I call, hoping she is safe and didn’t do anything to hurt herself.

“Jaden?” A mocking voice answers from behind me and I turn to see an older man standing in the bedroom.

“Who are you?” I ask, holding my hands up in front of me. He looks crazed, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Who are you, Grace?” He replies in the same mocking tone. “Do you know who you are?” He asks again and I don’t reply. “You’re a murderer. And you’re going to show everyone here that you are a cold-blooded killer.” He smiles, his narrow eyes crazed.

“What do you want?” I ask him, my voice loud in hopes that someone in the living room will hear me and call the police.

“What do you want?” He taunts me again, stepping toward me as he takes out a knife. “Can you kill with a knife? Lord knows you do fine work with a gun.”

I don’t back away from him, and instead look for a route of escape. When he steps wildly to the right and lunges at me I counter his attack and dodge to his left, running with all my might into the hallway.

“Get out! Everyone get out and call the police!” I yell to them, knowing the intruder is chasing me. They are all still frozen in the living room, the horror on their faces evident.

“Not so fast Grace. Here’s your choice: you kill me or I kill them.” The intruder says maniacally. “And don’t think I won’t. So do it, kill me.”

“No.” I tell him, my voice hoarse. He shrugs and approaches Kim, grabbing her arm and pulling her to him. He raises his knife to her throat and presses it against her, drawing a narrow bead of blood.

Kasey begins crying and the noise deafens my ears. “Stop!” I tell him and he smirks as he releases Kim.

My hands find a sledgehammer on the floor and I raise it and smash it into his skull. He laughs and howls as I continue to hit him over and over until his blood spatters over the entire apartment.

“You’re a killer!” He shouts it over and over and it mingles with the screams of the guests and Kasey’s cries. My arms and shoulders hurt from the strain of hitting him and as I bring the sledgehammer back behind my back for one final blow Kim stands in front of me.

“Let me.” She tells me, taking the intruder’s knife and plunging it into his eye socket. He falls limply to the floor and Kim and I stand there, side by side, with our weapons in our hands in case he gets up.

The next few weeks are a blur. Before I know it I’m standing in a courtroom in front of a judge. Then I’m being called to the stand and swearing to tell the truth.

“Grace McKenzie, did you kill him?” The attorney asks me and I open my mouth to speak.

“I KILLED HIM.” I scream as I sit up in bed, tears streaming down my face.

“Gracie? Grace!” Jaden shouts as she wakes up, her normally calm face filled with panic. “Are you okay? What happened?” She asks as I try and get my breathing under control.

“I killed him, I’m a killer. I killed him, Jaden.” I mumble incoherently and Jaden pulls me close to her.

“Shhh, sweetheart, go back to sleep. It was just a dream.” She tells me sleepily but I pull away angrily from her.

“No it’s not. I’m a killer, I killed him.” I argue. “And I didn’t even get a chance to defend myself.”

“You didn’t have to. You did nothing wrong.” Jaden answers, her voice now clearly awake.

“I did. I’m a killer. That’s wrong.” I sob and Jaden takes me in her arms.

“You did what you had to do to survive. I know it was a difficult choice but you did it for your own safety, that’s all.” She tells me, rubbing my back as I cry uncontrollably into her shoulder.

“That’s not true. I did it because I knew if I didn’t he’d kill you.” I manage to tell her between sobs.

“You were put in a position you never should have been put in. You did what you had to do at the time. But Gracie, sweetheart, you didn’t do anything wrong. I know it feels that way and it’s scary and you feel guilty, but you did you had to do.” Jaden tries to reassure me but nothing will.

“I didn’t want him to hurt you.” I tell her and she holds me close to her. I can feel her long body racking with sobs and we hold each other and cry.

“I’m sorry.” She whispers in my ear and I kiss her neck in reply. “I never meant to let him get to you.” She tells me and I push myself up, taking her face in my hands.

“This is not your fault.” I say fiercely, her dark violet eyes surprised at my intensity. “You did everything you could to keep him away from me. I have never blamed you for this and you can’t blame yourself. I would kill a thousand people to protect you and if that makes me a killer, so be it. Nothing is more important to me than you are and I would die fighting for you.”

Jaden says nothing as tears stream freely down her pale cheeks.

We stare at each other, not knowing what to say.

“Let me hold you.” She whispers to me and I gladly fall back into her arms. Jaden curls her body around me, cradling me close to her as she pulls the covers up around us. “My sweet, sweet girl…how I love you.” She whispers in my ear.

I feel her body relax into sleep a few minutes later, but sleep does not claim me. I stare out into the darkness throughout the night, finding monsters in all the shadows.
Part 7

Thanksgiving Day, 2000
Humming Christmas carols cheerily I open the oven door to check on the turkey. It seems to be simmering nicely and it’s getting brown, I guess.

I’ve never cooked a turkey, so I’m not really sure how this Thanksgiving feast will turn out. Harold is coming over, and Kim and Stacey are stopping by later.

Jaden has to work, but promised that she would be home in time for dinner. I wish she could have had today off, but I guess that’s part of being a policewoman, crappy hours.

So it will just be a small gathering. I hope no one will be disappointed with the food. I’m a decent cook, but I’m not making any promises!

Tonight should be fun though; Lydia and I have had a tradition of going shopping after dinner on Thanksgiving since I was able to drive. We always go to Wal-Mart and look at all the Christmas stuff that is being put out. Then we drive around and sing Christmas carols and talk about what we want for Christmas. When I told Jaden of the tradition with my sister she immediately agreed to go with me this year. She’s wonderful.

I miss my little sister though. Sure, we exchange e-mails from time to time, but it’s not the same. When I call her my mother hangs up on me. I don’t want to put my sister in the middle of our family feud, but I don’t know what else I can do. I send things to my uncle’s place and have him give them to her, but it doesn’t make up for not seeing her.

Pushing aside the sad thoughts I busy myself in the kitchen. There’s still a little to be done before Jaden and Harold get here, and I delicately place the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes and prepare them for cooking.

When I’ve done as much as I can I pull on my boots and wrap a scarf around my neck. I want to take the dogs outside and let them run around in the snow for a while before everyone gets here.

I secure them in the back yard and trudge around to the front of the building to get the mail. We keep forgetting to bring it in daily and now have quite an accumulation. As I head back to the yard I sort through the piles of junk mail I come across a letter addressed to me in neat handwriting.

Hmm. A return address from my hometown, but I don’t know anyone named J. Durnt. Shrugging, I open it up and begin to read.

Dear Grace,

You don’t know me, and I certainly don’t know you. But I have wanted to write you this letter for a few months now and let you know how you’ve changed my life.

I want to thank you for the letter of yours that was printed in the local newspaper. I really thought that I was alone in town until I read that. Your words gave me the courage to talk to my own parents about my feelings about my sexual preference. They were not happy, but didn’t react with anger and though things are uneasy, we are able to talk about it.

My dad knows your uncle and got me your address. So that’s how I found how to write you. I’m a junior at the high school and I spoke with the yearbook advisor, Mrs. Switz, about starting a student gay/straight alliance. (By the way, she says hello and to tell you that she’s proud of your letter. Oh, and that she misses having you as editor.)We are going to work on getting that started and if you were ever back here it would be great if you could come in and speak at a meeting or something.

Well, I won’t take up more of your time. I just wanted to tell you thank you and let you know that you gave me the courage to change my life.

Happy Holidays.

John

I fold the letter up and place it reverently back in its envelope. I’m not really sure how to react. I’m shocked and surprised and thrilled all at once.

I do know that regardless of the negative consequences that surrounded the printing of my letter in the paper, if it helped one person it was worth it.

And I guess it was worth it.

As I’m taking the cooked turkey out of the oven the phone rings. I set it down hastily and pull off my oven mitts to answer.

“Hello?”

“Hey, what are you doing? Working out?” Kim’s cheerful voice greets me.

I smile in response. “Lifting the turkey. I got a 20 pounder since Harold is coming over.”

“Holy hell, that’s a lot of turkey. Good thing Stacey and I will be joining you along with my older sister.” She replies.

“Huh?” I ask confused. “I thought you were eating with your mom and Dr. Dodes?”

“Well, he got called away on some emergency patient consult or something so my mom decided to go to a friends house. Anyway, my sister flew in as a surprise and I’ve been hyping you guys up so much she’s dying to meet you.” Kim answers.

“Sure, the more the merrier!” I tell her. “You guys are always welcome. We’re going to eat in about an hour, and we have more than enough food.”

“Great. See you then.” She finalizes before hanging up. I smile as I put the phone down. I’m really excited to have them for dinner and to meet Kim’s sister.

Glancing at the clock I anxiously await the arrival of Jaden. I can’t wait to show her the letter and to hug her. This past week she’s been working like crazy because of everyone else taking time off for the holiday. We haven’t gotten to spend much time together and it’s wearing on the both of our nerves.

I start to baste the turkey and the phone rings again. Thinking it’s probably Kim who has forgotten to tell me something, I answer feigning annoyance.

“Now what? Just come over!”

“Grace?” My sister’s voice asks nervously. “I’m sorry, I have the wrong number.” She continues.

“No! Lyd, it’s me.” I respond quickly. “Sorry, I thought you were a friend.”

“That’s how you talk to your friends?” She answers jokingly.

“Ha ha. How are you? I am so glad you called. I was just thinking of you and how much I miss you. Are things okay?”

“Yeah, I just had a minute before mom got home so I wanted to say hi. I miss you too. No after-dinner Christmas shopping this year, right?” She responds; her normally jovial voice tinged with sadness.

“I’m sorry.” I tell her. “Lydia, I miss you more than you know. I regret so much leaving you and I want you to know it’s not about you.”

“I know.” She says, always wise beyond her years. “Mom’s a bitch. Speak of the devil, she’s about to walk in. I should go.”
“Happy Thanksgiving. I love you.” I tell her.

“Love you too.” She responds, and the next thing I hear is the annoying psychotic screeching of my mother’s voice in my ear.

“You little bitch, you are never to call her again and if you do I will make you wish you hadn’t.” She hisses.

“Go to hell.” I tell her, anger seeping from my voice as I slam down the phone.

It immediately rings again. I pick it up, unable to control my fury.

“What part of go to hell don’t you understand, you complete asshole? Go fuck yourself and if you ever call HERE again I will have my angry policewoman girlfriend hunt you down like the animal that you are!” I continue to scream obscenities into the phone until I recognize Diana’s laughter from the other end.

“Diana?” I ask.

“Hey, what’s with the potty mouth? Remind me to never let Kasey call you guys.” She responds.

I sigh wearily. “Crap, I thought you were my mother. I’m really sorry.”

“Hmm, does that mean that you’re not going to have Jaden hunt me down like the animal that I am?” She jokes and I laugh at the sheer absurdity of my situation.

“Only if you piss me off. What’s up? Happy Thanksgiving by the way.” I tell her.

She groans. “Happy, my ass. We’re were supposed to go over to Joe’s family, and I just get a call from his mother. She’s sick with the flu and canceling Thanksgiving.”

“What?” I ask, “That stinks, well there’s room over here. Come on over.”
“Really?” She brightens. “I was calling to see if you wanted to go out to dinner, but we’d love to come over. Do you need anything? I made a few pies.”

“Great, we should be set. Harold is coming, as well as Stacey and Kim and her sister. Eva and Sam might be here too.” I add as I remember them not giving us an answer to our invitation yet. I glance around the small kitchen of the apartment and the cozy living room. Where is everyone going to sit? I didn’t even think of that.

“Hey, Di?” I question, “Do you have any folding chairs or a table?”

“Yeah, a bunch in the basement.” She responds.

“You better bring those. And a set of dishes.” I add and she laughs.

*************

I’m finally home. I turn off the Explorer and practically bolt up the stairs to our apartment. I can’t wait to spend Thanksgiving with Grace; it’s our first “real” holiday together.

From outside in the hall I can hear loud voices and laughing. I furrow my brows, knowing that only Harold is coming over, possibly Kim and Stacey later. That’s a lot of noise for just Harold and Grace.

I open the door, feeling like it’s another surprise party as I see everyone I practically know crowded around our kitchen drinking wine and eating appetizers.

“Hey sweetheart! You’re finally here!” Grace wraps her arms around me and I return the hug as I kiss the top of her soft hair.

I say hello to everyone, happy to see them but surprised. Even Sam and Eva are here, as well as a lovely woman that I’ve never met before.

“Hey Jaden,” Kim says as she smiles at me. “This is my sister Val.” I shake Val’s hand, noticing her resemblance to Kim. They have the same blonde ringlets but Val is tall, almost my height.

“Nice to meet you. Welcome to our family.” I tell her smiling. She returns my smile and an idea pops into my head as I glance at Steele. Val seems pretty, and she must have a sense of humor if she’s Kim’s sister. She just might be the one to set Harry up with.

Internally, I roll my eyes at my pathetic thoughts on matchmaking and say hello to him instead. Besides, Grace and Diana have probably already set the wedding date for them so I won’t add anything more to the situation.

“Hey buddy, glad you could make it.” I tell him and he grins. I finish greeting everyone, and as usual, end up with Kasey in my arms.

“Know what?” She asks and I try to prepare myself for what she’s going to say. She’s a smart kid, and you never know with her.

“What?” I respond, playing along with her game.

“Mama’s going to have a baby. And she said if it’s a girl we could name her Pixie-head.” Kasey tells me seriously.

I practically drop the kid as I hug Diana. “Congratulations!”

She smiles, a blush gracing her round face. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag. You were right honey, Kasey really can keep a secret.” She says to Joe, who grins and accepts a hearty slap on the back from Steele.

Men. I roll my eyes at them and pick Kasey up and twirl her around. “You’re going to be a big sister, Munchkin!”

Between giggles she demands to be put down so I comply.

“When are you due?” Grace asks after she pecks Diana on the cheek and hugs Joe.

They are both beaming with happiness as Diana answers. “June 14th, we just found out last week that we were positive!”

Everyone is cheering and congratulating Diana and Joe and I smile at our groups of friends, remembering just how I spent last Thanksgiving.

Alone.

It seems like forever ago, but I will always remember just how lonely I was before I met Grace.

Our eyes meet over the crowd of celebrating people and she smiles at me, her eyes a deep green and her small nose wrinkling adorably. I cross over to her and kiss her, my actions conveying my undying love.

I’ll never be alone again and neither will she. I love her with every ounce of my soul and I will never leave her side as we experience the rest of out life together.

And if that isn’t the meaning of life, I don’t know what is.

**************

“Ohh!” I squeal excitedly as I point to the rows of colorful ornaments. “Let’s get some! Can we get a real tree? Do you have decorations already?”

Jaden struggles to focus on me, despite the overwhelming situation. We are in Wal-Mart at 1:00am, surrounded by crowds of “early-bird” shoppers hoping to get the proverbial worm.

And it’s Jaden who looks like she’s gotten the worm. Her lips are pursed and her eyes red and tired. She must be exhausted, but is determined to stay out and have fun rather than go home to get some sleep.

“Sure.” She answers, distracted by a large woman wearing fluorescent pink sweat pants who is shoving boxes and boxes of ornaments into her shopping cart that is already overflowing with several blow-up snowmen. Jaden’s eyes grow large as the woman then proceeds to grab several large Styrofoam candy canes and hurl them onto her shoulder as she proceeds down the aisle.

“What is she doing?” Jaden whispers loudly. “Pink sweat pants? Styrofoam candy canes? Are people insane or am I seeing things?”

Her astonished expression is enough to send me into fits of giggles. I pat her hand comfortingly and lead her away from candy cane sweat pant lady.

“Come on, Spots, let’s get out of here. I’m tired and can’t wait to sleep in tomorrow morning.”

She nods and puts her arm around my shoulders. “Me too. I don’t have to work tomorrow either. Let’s stay in bed all day.”

I smile my approval. “Sounds perfect.”

We leave Wal-Mart and head into the bustling parking lot, the tiny snowflakes making Jaden’s hair glisten in the pale moonlight.
Part 8

December 10th, 2000
The multitude of brightly colored birds compete for their place on our window feeder. We just put it up a few weeks ago and already have a loyal following of songbirds.

I love watching them, as does Jaden. But surprisingly, their most devoted subject is Bella. She is content to lie on the couch and gaze intelligently at them all day, almost like a cat.

She has completely adapted into our household, and both Jaden and I can’t even remember what it was like to not have her with us. It’s funny how quickly we can adapt to things in our life.

When I’m here, with Jaden, sometimes I can’t even remember what it was like to live in Ohio with my parents. I don’t really think about who I was back then.

“Hey Trouble, you ready?” Jaden asks, interrupting me from my musings. I sigh and roll my eyes dramatically, letting her know that my nickname isn’t appreciated.

Even though it’s fitting.

Jeez. So I slipped outside in the snow and accidentally elbowed Jaden in the nose. I didn’t mean to, and I really didn’t know that an elbow could break a nose, resulting in her having to wear this ugly white plastic protective thing for two weeks.

“I’m really really sorry.” I tell her as I slip on my coat. She smiles at me the best she can with her huge nose protector as she ushers me out the door.

I do feel really horrible. Besides the fact I elbowed her and made her fall down into a huge snow bank, I almost blew my cookies when I saw her holding her hands to her nose, her face covered in blood. I was so sick and horrified that I couldn’t even help her up and she flailed around in the snow bank like a dead fish while I screamed my fool head off. Well, not like a dead fish because a fish that was dead technically couldn’t flail. But you know what I mean.

So poor Mr. Santos, our downstairs neighbor who was out shoveling the walk had to come and help her up and back into the car so I could drive her to the hospital. He was even kind enough to bury the blood-covered snow bank.

I thanked him by making cookies for him and his wife. I thought it was fitting.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” I ask, wondering if she really is.

“Yeth.” She answers, her voice nasally. “I thaid we would get a tree so we will.” She pauses. “It will be fun.”

I try in vain not to grin, the corners of my mouth disobeying me. It’s not funny, it really isn’t. I know her speech is impaired because of the pressure on her nose. But I can’t help but giggle.

“Go ahead. I know you want to.” She allows and I get it out of my system. When my giggles finally subside I look at her apologetically.

“I am so sorry. I really didn’t mean for this to happen.” I tell her honestly.

“Grath, I know. Thopt it already, you’ve already done enougth, waiting on me hand and foot. Bethidh, ith nith not to go to work.” She finishes and I look at her confused.

“Huh?” I ask, wondering what in the hell she just said.

“Nevermind.” She answers, starting the car. “Leth get a tree.”

***************

I’m just not going to speak. For the next two weeks I’m going to be completely mute. It sure beats saying everything with a lisp and having people look at me funny or try not to laugh.

It reminds me of Stinky Fergueson in the 4th grade. I think his real name was John or something, but everyone called him Stinky. You know that kid in school who always smells like urine and dirty socks?
That was Stinky. And I felt bad for him, because not only did he have an odor problem, but he also had a lisp. Which led him to be called “Spitting Stinky.” That was really mean of us, especially since I’m the one who gave him that nickname.

Kids are really mean, including myself. I was a grade-A asshole in school. Now, when I look at kids I can always pick out the ones who have a really crappy home-life. They’re always the ones making fun of the other kids and being jerks. I guess when you’re a kid and you get shit from your parents and nothing is going right for you it’s easy to take it out on less fortunate kids.

That’s what I did. But back to poor Stinky. We made his life hell because of the way he smelled and spoke, and boy do I regret it now.

Karma. It’ll bite you in the ass every time.

“This tree?” Grace’s sweet voice calls my attention back to her. She’s pointing at a tall bristly tree with huge branches. I shake my head and lead her away from it.

“Too tharp.” I tell her, knowing she won’t understand. As expected, she cocks her head and regards me, her eyes confused.

I place her hand on the bristles, poking them gently into her skin. “Tharp. Ow.” I tell her again and she understands, gracing me with a beaming smile.

Smiling at her in return, I ignore the pain of my stupid nose brace as it digs into my skull. The only thing good that has come out of this “injury” is that I haven’t been allowed to patrol. Seems the good citizens of Boston wouldn’t really respect a cop with a white nose brace on her face and would choose rather to laugh and point at me while I’m doing my best to protect and serve them.

So I’ve been able to stay at home and spend more time with Grace. It’s been lovely, and I never realized how much I didn’t like my job sometimes until I didn’t have to go.

It’s actually really concerning me. I’ve always been so dedicated to my work and put my entire heart and soul into what I’ve done. I guess now I’m realizing there are more important things in life than a career and I have little desire to be a workaholic anymore.

Maybe I’m getting burnt out. It happens to a lot of cops. I just never thought it would happen to me. But the entire series of events that led to Grace getting shot and killing Aron really freaked me out. I don’t like thinking her life is in jeopardy because of me and being a cop in a crime-filled city is sure to result in a lot of people with grudges. And that scares the crap out of me.

“This one!” Grace shouts and I follow her voice to the perfect tree. It’s tall and full, like all good trees, with the longest and softest needles possible.

I nod eagerly at her and she grabs my hands in delight. “Stay here, I’ll find the tree guy.” She tells me as she trots off in her search.

Watching her cute butt scamper away, I admire her lovely legs clad in a pair of dark comfortable jeans and boots. Her coat is unbuttoned, her scarf is awry, and her golden hair practically glows in the early moonlight.

It’s cold out, and her pale face is flushed from the thin air. She looks stunning and all I want to do is take her in my arms and kiss her senseless.

But the huge nose brace kind of puts a damper on that. I can’t really do anything with my face for the next week or so without risking the healing of my nose. If I fuck it up worse I might have to have surgery and that’s not good. So it ruins the mood, to say the least.

And I’m not thrilled about that at all. At least I’ll have it off by Christmas.

Waiting for Grace to come back I look up at the crisp night sky filled with a thousand stars. I never thought I’d be here, picking out a tree with my girlfriend. It’s pretty cool.

But I feel guilty for the good that I have in my life. I gave so many people so much crap, and still do. I’ve only been to see my grandmother who raised me a few times since the onslaught of her Alzheimer’s. I go and visit my old horse more than I see her. It’s so difficult though; she doesn’t know me anymore and usually gets agitated whenever I’m around. All she does is ask where her grandson is and I sit there, knowing that because of me she’ll never see him again.

My mother is who knows where, my father long gone. My brother is dead and I’ve made no attempt to visit any of my extended family either here or back in Australia. Completely isolating yourself from the past has both its advantages and disadvantages, while I don’t have to deal with seeing with family, I still carry around the internal pain and guilt.

I guess I can’t decide which is worse.

Grace bounds back to me, followed by a gawky looking teenager. She is grinning as she tells the kid what tree to cut and load up and without any further discussion he effectively begins to saw it down.

Shaking my head sadly I take Grace’s hand. She looks at me inquisitively; her round eyes a deep green in the moonlight.

“What’s the matter?” She questions, her voice soft and gentle like a lover’s caress.

“Ith awful, cutting a tree just for Chrithmas.”

She pats my hand. “I know sweetheart, but it’s what they are grown for and besides, we’ll take it out to the woods after so it can be a home for bunnies, okay?”

I smile as best as I can with my stylish nose protector. Yeah, bunnies. That’s at least better than leaving it out for the trash.

The tree guy looks at us quizzically with our freshly cut tree in his hand. I give him an intimidating glare and he hastily heads toward our car, Grace leading the way.
December 19th, 2000
“Spots?” Grace’s voice whispers to me, coaxing me from my deep sleep. I groan and sluggishly open my eyes.

“Yeth?” I am immediately more alert when she doesn’t respond right away. “Whath wrong?” I ask as I bolt upright, ignoring the sharp pain to my head and nose.

“Nothing, I was just thinking. I didn’t mean to scare you.” She admits and I lie back down, relieved as I take her in my arms.

“Whath were you thinking about?” I ask as my heart slowly returns to its normal rhythm. She is quiet and still in my embrace but I do not rush her. She’ll tell me in time.

She sighs, a sound that makes me want to protect her from everyone and everything that could possibly hurt her. I tighten my hold on her and feel her relax more completely into my embrace.

“My family.” She finally mumbles and I realize it’s a response to my question.

“Your crazy mother?” I probe and she shakes her head against my chest.

“My real mother. Laura Greene.”

Oh. I don’t really know what to say to that, so I sympathetically squeeze my arms around her in an impromptu hug and wait for her to continue.

“Do you think she thinks of me? Does she wonder where I am or what I’m doing? Does she even care at all about me?” Grace rambles, her voice sleepy. I know from the time she woke me up that she’s half asleep. She’s quite proficient in the middle of the night, sometimes waking me to theorize about politics or the state of society.

In the morning she has no memory of the conversation.

But I sense that this is a different matter. Grace is so guarded about this during daylight hours that by speaking of it now it is less real or less scary. Look at me, sounding like a psychologist after a few months of therapy. I roll my eyes at myself and wait for her to continue.

“I think I’d like to meet her and her family. Just to see them, you know?” She says and I raise my eyebrows in surprise.

“Would you go with me? To Chicago?” She asks, her voice tentative and unsure.

“Of courth.” I tell her. “Leth go Thurthday and Friday.” I finally get this fucking nose brace off tomorrow, well, rather today, at my doctor’s appointment and get re-x-rayed to see if I need surgery. Regardless, the doctor’s orders have been to not go back to work until after Christmas. Grace and I can hop on a plane and fly to Chicago for a few days, check her real mother out and be back here in plenty of time for Christmas.

“Thank you.” She mutters softly and I feel her body relax back into mine.

She has fallen asleep. I continue to hold her close, relishing in the very essence of her like a child holding its most precious gift.

Her breathing is deep and slow as I gaze up at the ceiling. Sleep will not come for me again tonight, it is already almost 4:00 am and I can feel the restlessness of my muscles. I haven’t been running in the mornings as usual because the pounding is really painful for my nose, but I think I’ll start again today.

It’s still dark outside, the sea barely visible except for the occasional white cap rushing to the shore. They look like horses, almost, and suddenly I am transported back to when I was a young child, sitting on my grandmother’s lap as she read “The Last Unicorn” book to me. I cried, hearing of the unicorns stuck in the great sea because of their fear. Looking out at the rolling ocean, I can almost see the white creatures rushing gallantly for the shore, only to be pulled back again.

Her voice, lilting and soft despite the heavy accent washes over me like a warm rain shower. She was such a good grandmother, knowing how my love of horses and completely accepting it. She did so much for Jonah and I, never raised a hand to us in anger and worked herself ragged trying to provide for us the best she could.

I was so ungrateful. I was a little girl who wanted her mother and I saw my grandmother as a babysitter. I wish I were more understanding, but I was a child. Children don’t know how to understand. They just know what they need.

Even as an adult, I never regained the closeness I shared with my grandmother as a child. Jonah’s death scarred her as much as it did me and after we became almost strangers, despite living in the same house. When I left for college, we would call or write, and after I graduated and was accepted on the force we barely spoke.

She was smart and wise with her money. She bought this house as an investment and converted it into apartments before selling off each unit individually. I’ll never know why, but she gave me this unit.

Before I could thank her she was off, back to Australia to see her family. We wrote each other more, even spoke on the phone despite the outrageous bills. She urged me to come and visit her, but work was more important to me at the time and all I thought about was working as much as I could to advance my career.

Then she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My great-aunt traveled back here with her and she stayed with me for a year. We enjoyed each other’s company and I liked having her here when I came home from work. She loved hearing about my day and the horses until her memory started failing and she became fearful of being alone.

I tried everything, in-home nursing and care, but nothing helped. It finally reached the point where I had no choice but to find a full-time Alzheimer’s care facility. It broke my heart to have her there, and I visited as much as I could, but I thought it was more difficult for the both of us. It seemed to be a nice place, all the patients were clean and well fed and they had a pleasant staff and lots of activities.

She forgot who I was. Sometimes, when I’d go and visit she would look at me, her blue eyes so startlingly like mine, and I’d swear she knew exactly who I was. But then she’d scream and yell for me to get out, she only wanted her grandson.

It was too painful, I wasn’t able to deal with my feelings of Jonah’s death, especially to try and explain it to her over and over. So I gradually stopped visiting.

I miss her. I think she and Grace would have gotten along really well. My grandmother didn’t know I was gay, but I know she would have accepted Grace into her heart like another granddaughter.

Tears well up and spill out of my eyes unchecked. I don’t bother to wipe them away; these thoughts have been too long bottled up and finally deserve to be out in the open.

As if she senses my sadness, Grace frowns in her sleep and drapes her lithe body further over mine, as if to protect or comfort me. She doesn’t need to try; the mere presence of her in my arms is the comfort I need.

I so admire her goodness. The simple fact she would take time out of her Christmas vacation to go halfway across the country and seek out the mother she never knew just to give her a chance makes my heart ache for her. She is so trusting and hopeful, such a bright ray of sun compared to myself. I smile through my tears, remembering little things about Grace that made me fall in love with her; the way she nervously tried to flirt with me upon our first meeting, the overzealous letters and phone calls she made, her inquisitive and intelligent ever-changing eyes, and the softness of her lips as they curve into a smile.

Maybe I’ll go and visit my grandmother tomorrow. If Grace has enough courage to seek out Laura Greene, I can visit my Nana.

But I’ll still see if Grace wants to come. I know she will.

************

“I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair, I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair, I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair and send him on his way!” I sing loudly over the spraying shower. Suddenly the shower curtain swings open and I yelp as the cool air hits me.

“Whath man?” Jaden’s voice asks as the shower stall suddenly becomes more cramped due to the addition of her tall frame.

Not that I’m complaining. I wrap my arms around her and turn our bodies so she can have her share of the hot water. She moans in appreciation and I plant soft kisses over her chest and arms.

“How was your run?” I ask, admiring her toned and now wet body. “Any pain from your nose?”

She shakes her head as she ducks her face under the water to loosen the tape holding the brace on. Then she gingerly peels it off and reveals her entire face to me.

Goddess, how I’ve missed looking at her without that ugly white thing covering half of her face. Her nose looks perfectly normal, all the bruising and swelling has faded and it looks fine.

“Well?” She asks, raising one eyebrow to show off her sculpted cheekbones.

“You’re beautiful.” I whisper reverently before smiling.

She wriggles her face slowly, making all sorts of funny expressions before settling into a smile. “It feels pretty good, not too much pain. But it will feel even better to be able to speak without a lisp.”

I grin in agreement. Jaden has long complained about how the pressure of the nose protector causes her speech to be impaired.

“Poor Stinky.” Jaden mutters before ducking her head once again under the water to rinse her hair.

Stinky? Is she saying that I stink? I ignore the thought as her breasts sway gently in front of me due to her arms being over her head as she washes her long hair.

Whoever said that being short was a disadvantage never dated Jaden. My height puts her breasts at the perfect level and I use this opportunity to gently take her nipple in my mouth, my hand going immediately to caress the other breast.

“Oh God.” She mutters as I continue my loving ministration of kisses and touches. I look up at her and smile, enjoying the sight of her eyes darkened to a deep blue with desire.

I move my mouth to her other breast now and gently trail my left hand down her defined stomach muscles to the gentle swelling of her hip. I tease her with my hand, moving it down between her spread thighs and around her lower stomach. Her hands tangle in my hair as she encourages my mouth to continue its attention to her full breasts.

The phone rings, startling both of us. “Ignore it.” Jaden commands and I never stop my soft touching.

My hand has found its home now, nestled between her legs I gasp when I feel how wet and ready she is for me. We both groan when I push my fingers inside of her and as I lower myself to my knees, unable to keep my anticipation to taste her at bay, the answering machine picks up.

“Jaden? Grace? God, please pick up! It’s Diana, I need you! Please! Are you there?” Diana’s seriously freaked-out voice is loud enough to be heard over the shower.

I regretfully remove my hand from Jaden and stand up.

“I better get it, it sounds serious.” I tell her and she nods understandingly. I step out of the shower, carefully but quickly and wrap Jaden’s robe around my wet body.

I run over to the phone and pick it up. “Di? It’s Grace, are you okay?”

“Thank God you’re home. Listen, I’m sorry to spring this on you but I need you guys to watch Kasey. They just called me from Beverly hospital, Joe is there and he’s about to go into surgery!”

“What? Is he okay? What happened?” I ask her, alarmed at the thought of Joe being hurt.

“I don’t know, he went snowmobiling with his cousins today and had an accident. They said he broke his legs, I don’t know I have to get down there. I’m sorry to call you, but you live the closest. I don’t want to take Kasey, she’ll just be upset and if something bad happens and he’s not okay I don’t want her seeing that…” Diana rambles, her normally strong voice sounding very scared and small.

“Don’t worry about it, we’re glad to help. I’ll be there in ten minutes, okay?” I tell her calmly, trying to soothe her nerves.

“I’ll drop her off, you’re on my way to the hospital.” Diana says and I hear her pick up her keys.

“I will be waiting downstairs.” I tell her as I hang up the phone. Poor Diana, I bet she’s really freaked out. A light bulb goes off in my head and I pick up the phone and dial information, getting the number for the hospital.

“Jaden, we need to get Kasey!” I call to her and hear the shower turn off. A few seconds later Jaden scampers into the bedroom to get dressed.

When I’m connected to the hospital operator, I request to speak with Dr. Eva Tejada and am immediately transferred. I don’t have to wait long before Eva picks up the line, her smooth voice sounding professional.

“Hey Eva, it’s Grace. How are you?” I ask, trying to keep the nervousness out of my voice.

“I’m well Grace, nice to hear from you, although a bit unusual. Is everything okay?” She questions with understanding. I’ve never called her at work before, and I am just grateful that she is working her shift now.

“Well, I’m not sure. Diana’s husband, Joe was brought in because of a snowmobile accident. She is on her way, but no one will tell her anything. Can you help me ease her and Kasey’s mind?” I ask, crossing my fingers with hope that she can find the information.

“Sure thing, hang on please.” She tells me and puts me on hold. I anxiously hop up and down due to the cold and my nervousness.

Jaden emerges from the bedroom clad in jeans and a sweater. “I’ll be downstairs.” She says, and I realize she must have overheard my conversation with Diana.

“Thank you sweetheart.” I call to her as Eva picks up the line again.

“It is nothing Grace, you don’t have to call me sweetheart.” She kids and I giggle nervously. “Really, he will be fine. He broke both of his legs and needs surgery to repair a torn ligament in his ankle. Nothing life-threatening and he is strong and should heal fine.”

Relief floods over me as I thank her profusely. “I’m sorry to have to call and bother you, I know it’s unprofessional to ask you to do this.”

She chuckles. “Think nothing of it, I like you and I’m glad to give you good news. Tell Diana to look me up when she gets here and I’ll be able to give her more information, okay?”
“Thank you Eva, thank you so much.” I tell her, grateful for such a good friend.

“You’re welcome. See you soon, okay? Sam sends her love.” She replies.

I tighten Jaden’s robe around my body and throw on a pair of tall boots. Clomping down the stairs I find Diana jumping out of her car while Jaden removes a scared Kasey from the back seat.

“Mama will be back soon, okay? You stay with Jaden and Grace.” Diana tries to calm her, but Kasey is having none of it, clinging to Jaden like her life depends on it. Diana hands me a bag. “Here are her things, I’ll call when I know anything. Thank you for watching her, I’ll try to send someone to pick her up later.”

“Wait, Di, I just spoke with Eva at the hospital. Joe is fine; he broke both his legs and needs surgery to repair his ankle. He will be okay. Eva said to find her at the hospital and she’ll talk with you.”

Diana closes her eyes briefly. “Thank God.” She says, looking instantly relieved. “Thank you for calling, I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. Tell Joe we said hello. And don’t worry about Kasey, we’ll keep her overnight.” I tell her as she thanks us once more before getting back in the car and speeding out of the driveway.

“MAMA!” Kasey screams as Diana drives away. Jaden awkwardly tries to comfort her but she just continues to scream, giant tears rolling down her fair cheeks.

“Let’s go inside and have some hot chocolate, okay Kasey-girl?” I tell her smiling and she looks at me perplexed.

“Pixie-head, why do you have a robe on outside?” She asks, hiccupping as she continues to cry.

I laugh as I take her from Jaden’s arms. She wraps herself around my neck and cries into my shoulder.

“I have a robe on because I was so excited to see you that I didn’t even have time to get dressed! You should be thankful I didn’t run out here naked!” I tell her and she rewards me with a small giggle. A small, temporary, giggle.

“Daddy.” She wails mournfully.

“He’s okay, I talked with Dr. Eva, you remember her from Thanksgiving? She looks like Jaden but with darker skin?” Kasey nods into my shoulder.

“Well, I just called her and she said your daddy will be fine. I promise you, okay?” She nods again. “Well, let’s go inside and get warm, I’ll put some real clothes on and we’ll sit with Bean and Bella and drink hot chocolate.”

“Yay.” She says softly and I look at Jaden and smile as she holds the door open for me. I climb up the stairs, careful not to trip with the scared little girl in my arms.
Part 9

December 19th, 2000
Grace gently buckles Kasey into her seatbelt before climbing into the passenger seat of my Explorer. “Who’s ready to see the doctor and get rid of Spots’ nose brace?”

“ME!” Kasey and I shout in unison. “Leth go!” I add and Kasey giggles. I sigh, knowing what she’s going to say. She’s only been here a few hours and already told me eight times.

“Jaden, you talk funny.” She succinctly reminds me.

“I know, kid. I know.” I respond.

“Okay you two, let’s talk about what we’re going to do after we see the doctor.” Gracie says, changing the subject.

“See daddy?” Kasey asks hopefully and Grace looks at me, her face sad.

“No munchkin, not yet. Remember what your mommy said when she called?” Grace continues, “She said that your daddy was finished with his surgery and was just fine, but he was sleeping because he was so tired.”

“Yeah, I member.” Kasey says. “But I’ll be quiet so I don’t wake him up.”

“I know you will, Kasey-girl, but you get to spend the whole day with me and Jaden, and even get to sleep-over! We’re going to have so much fun and tomorrow morning you can go and see your daddy.” Grace says, and her patience with the child amazes me.

“And I hath thomeone I want you to meet.” I add, and turn to see Grace looking at me with a puzzled expression on her face.

“What did she say Pixie-head? She talks funny.” Kasey asks and Grace smiles.

“Who?” Grace asks me softly.

I give her a little grin. “My grandmother.”

She makes a surprised little “o” with her lips but doesn’t say anything. It appears as if she’s thinking about the situation and she finally rewards me with a beaming smile.

“Jaden said that she wants to take you to meet her grandmother.” Grace informs Kasey.

The little girl’s inquisitive brown eyes widen. “Does she bake cookies like mine?” She asks, her voice excited. “And does she have a pool with a slide?”

“Um, no.” I answer. “Besithes, ith winther! You can’t twhim!”

“Huh? Jaden, you talk funny!” Kasey responds, erupting in giggles again.

“I know kid, I know.” I respond for the tenth time. Gracie just laughs.

****************

It doesn’t take long before Jaden is being called into the doctor’s office. I offer to accompany her, but she decided to go by herself. So Kasey and I settled ourselves into one of the comfortable chairs and read Highlights magazine.

I used to read those as a child and loved them. I remember my grandmother telling me about Goofus and Gander, or whatever his name was and how I should always strive to be as little like Goofus as possible. I wonder what she would think of me now. I’m certainly not living out the life of morality like Gander, or at least according to her.

That’s okay. I bet Goofus is much happier than Gander. Was his name Gander? Or Gallant? I think it was Gallant.

Regardless, I hope Jaden’s appointment is okay and she doesn’t need surgery. I still feel so guilty and wish the entire accident had never happened.

“Auntie Pixie-head, what does this say?” Kasey asks, her tiny hands pointing at a word.

“Sound it out, what does it sound like?” I prompt her, and her small forehead furrows in thought.

“Ma-ma-ma-th.” She beams, revealing two missing white teeth. “Math. That’s when you add numbers.”

“Very good.” I reward her. “So what does this entire sentence say?”

She reads easily. “I like to do math. Two plus two is four.”

“Wow!” I compliment her, very impressed. “Kasey, how old are you?” I can’t believe she can read so well. I know that Diana and Joe work with her a lot and she’s naturally intelligent, but I started reading easily at five and Kasey is a lot younger than that.

“Four and a quarter.” She tells me, looking very proud of herself.

“You’re the smartest girl I know.” I tell her and lean down to whisper in her ear. “But don’t tell Jaden, she thinks she’s the smartest girl I know.”

She giggles. “I won’t.” She looks serious for a minute. “Is Jaden’s grandmother nice?”

“I don’t know.” I tell her honestly. “I’ve never met her either.” I think for a second, and then decide to be completely honest with the child. “I do know that she’s very sad though.”

“Why?” Kasey asks, her large brown eyes full of anguish for someone she’s never even met.

“Because she has an illness that has made her lose her memory. She doesn’t remember everything anymore, even Jaden.” I answer. “And it hurts Jaden very much to not be remembered.”

“Oh.” The little girl responds, looking down at her hands. “Why can’t she remember?”

I shrug my shoulders. “No one knows, Kasey-girl. It’s like the sun and the moon. No one knows how they got there, they just did. The doctors know how to fix things like your daddy’s broken legs. But sometimes they can’t fix everything.”

“Like when my hamster died, no one could fix him.” She says and I am once again shocked at her intelligence.

“Yes. It’s very sad, but things like that make you thankful for what you have. I’m sad for your hamster and Jaden’s grandmother, but I’m thankful for you and for Jaden.” I tell her and she climbs onto my lap, resting her head against my shoulder.

“I’m thankful for you too.” She says, her eyes closing. I smile against her soft hair and hum softly to her. Diana mentioned she would probably need a nap, and she might as well take it here while Jaden’s being looked at.

Sure enough, she falls into a light sleep and I am content to hold her protectively in my arms. She’s a wonderful little girl and very much like the kind of child I would expect Jaden and myself to have; intelligent, inquisitive, and outspoken. Diana and Joe have done a wonderful job raising her.

It’s funny, I always thought of settling down and having children as something that would make me tremendously unhappy. Now I realize, that it wasn’t the thought of settling down, it was the thought of whom I was expected to settle down with.

I wrinkle my nose at the thought of Scott. What a pathetic little asshole.

My frown is immediately replaced by a smile at the thought of Jaden. I know I will spend the rest of my life with her, and if we are lucky enough to be blessed with children, I think it would be an added bonus. I’m not sure how she feels, but I know that she loves Kasey as much as I do. And she’s already scoping out the baby section when we go shopping in preparation for Kasey’s sibling on the way.

The door to the patient room opens and I look expectantly to see Jaden. An elderly woman comes out instead and I sigh inwardly and glance at the clock. I wonder why it’s taking so long and I want to ask the receptionist if everything is okay with Jaden but don’t want to wake Kasey. Besides, I know that if something were wrong Jaden would insist that they come and get me.
But I’m still nervous.

Sitting down across from me, the woman smiles at the sight of the sleeping bundle in my arms. “Lovely child.” She says, her voice friendly.

I smile. “Thank you.”

“How old is she?” She inquires.

“Four.” I answer. “But she acts more like ten.” I add, grinning.

“I remember that age well, I have five children myself.” She responds, her weathered eyes twinkling.

“Five? Wow, that is quite a brood. You must be very proud.”

“Yes, they were quite a handful.” She studies Kasey before continuing, “She must look like her father, but she has your nose.” I bite back a smile.

“Oh, she’s not mine.” I tell her, blushing. “I’m just watching her for a friend today.”

“Well, that’s nice of you dear.” The woman adds. “Do you have children of your own?”

“No.” I tell her, tightening my arms around Kasey when she starts to stir in her sleep.

“You will.” She tells me wisely. “You have the look of love about you.”

I smile, a bit puzzled by her strange remark and before I can respond she smiles at me one last time before turning her attention to a magazine.

Instead of bothering her, I focus my attention on my surroundings. The office is small and tidy and I begin tapping my foot impatiently. When is Jaden going to be finished?

Kasey squirms a bit in her sleep and I still my motions. I don’t want to awaken her. I try to amuse myself by studying the people in the room and trying to figure out why they are here. The elderly woman I was speaking with is obviously with someone and was sent out here to wait like I am.

The nurse sitting behind the desk snaps her gum irately as she sorts through stacks of files. The clock tells me it’s lunchtime. She probably is trying to finish the piles before going on her break.

When the door opens again I sit up slightly, careful not to wake Kasey as I hope to see Jaden. Sure enough, I am blessed to see her tall form striding confidently toward me, her beautiful face free from the cursed nose protector.

“Hey.” She greets me quietly, looking affectionately at Kasey curled in my arms.

“Hey yourself, gorgeous. How did everything go?” I ask, knowing from the smile on her face that it’s fine.

“Pretty good. No surgery or anything, I just have to be careful and stay away from trouble. I told the doctor that would be hard living with you.” She responds, her gentle smile telling me that she’s teasing.

“I’ll try really hard not to knock you over again.” I answer honestly, reaching my hand out to caress the side of her face. “I love you.” I tell her softly.

“I love you more.” She says, her voice as quiet. We exchange a few moments of loving looks before Jaden clears her throat and stands. “Let’s get out of here.” She gingerly takes Kasey from my arms and holds her against her chest. “I’ll try not to wake her.”

“Good idea, she’s pretty tired.” I mention as I follow Jaden out of the door. The elderly woman I was speaking with gives me a knowing smile as I pass her.

I smile back.

****************

Gracie and Kasey are chatting as I walk nervously down the hall to my grandmother’s room. I was surprised the man at the front desk even remembered me when I told him who I was here to see. He explained that my grandmother rarely spoke anymore, and was in her own little world. She hadn’t had a violent outburst in a few weeks and kept to herself in her room rather than interact with other patients and staff.

She never was a solitary person until after my grandfather’s death. I guess I would be the same way if I lost Grace.

“You okay, Spots?” Grace asks, always in tune with my emotions. I try to smile brightly at her.

“Not really.” I tell her honestly.

“Do you want to go in first by yourself?” She asks, concern evident in her tranquil eyes.

“No.” I reply quickly.

“Okay.” She says amicably, pausing at the door to allow me to go in first.

My hands shakily push the door open to reveal my grandmother.

She looks the same as I remember; tall and elegant like my mother. Her hair is long and silver streaked with gray and is tied in a loose knot at the nape of her neck.

Her blue eyes, a mirror image of my own, regard us questioningly, and she makes no move to stand from her seat by the window.

“Hello Katrina.” Gracie says, her voice so gentle it is like a breath of air. “My name is Grace, and this is my friend Kasey. Your granddaughter Jaden is here.”

I want to scoop Grace up in my arms and plant a thousand kisses over her entire body. Her intuition amazes me, the way she always knows exactly what I need. She rescues me time and time again.

“Hi.” Kasey says brightly, undaunted by my quiet grandmother.

“Jaden!” My grandmother exclaims, and her voice makes my heart ache with guilt. She holds her long arms out to Kasey.

“Come give Nana a hug.”

Grace gasps, but quickly recovers. Her aquamarine eyes meet mine and I confirm what she is thinking with a slight nod of my head. My grandmother thinks that Kasey is me as a little girl.

Kasey boldly goes up to my grandmother and wraps her short arms around her waist. My grandmother smiles before letting her go.

Returning to Grace’s side, Kasey tugs on her shirt. “She doesn’t seem sad Pixie-head. I bet she does bake cookies.” Grace smiles fondly down at the little girl and places her hand on her shoulder.

I don’t know what to do. If I try and explain things to my grandmother, I think it will make her confused and upset. Of course it hurts me that she doesn’t remember me, but I know it is because of the disease, not anything personal. I should be comforted by the fact that she looks healthy and well taken care of and that she remembers me at all.

“How are you?” Grace asks my grandmother who looks at her accusingly in return.

“Who are you and what are you doing with my granddaughter?” She asks Grace, her accented voice on the verge of anger.

“My name is Grace.” She explains calmly. “I am someone who loves your granddaughter very much.” Gracie looks at me and smiles the sweetest smile.

“How are you, Wren?” My grandmother addresses me for the first time.

I look at her, confused. Wren is the pet name she always called my mother by. One by one, the pieces sink in. Not only does my grandmother think Kasey is myself, she thinks I am my mother. I understand her confusion; everyday I look in the mirror and feel I look more and more like my mother. No wonder my grandmother is mistaken.

“I’m fine.” I tell her, feeling confident enough to tentatively approach and give her a gentle hug. “How are you?”

“Good.” She responds. “Where is Jonah?”

I swallow audibly, my body tense. Grace looks frantic, like she cannot decide what to do. I don’t want to lie to my grandmother, but I don’t want to upset her.

I have no idea what is best for her. For a few seconds we all stand, silent, as I contemplate what to say. Instead of answering, I decide to change the subject.

“Do you remember the book, The Last Unicorn?” I ask her and she smiles in recollection.

“Of course, that was Jaden’s favorite story. We used to read it and then she would terrorize all the light colored horses on the farm by looking for their horns.” My Nana chuckles as she remembers and it makes me want to cry.

“Thank you for reading that book.” I say, my throat suddenly dry.

“I love my grandchildren.” She says, her blue eyes vibrant.

“I know you do.” I respond.

“We’ll be outside, okay?” Grace tells me gently. I nod at her and she squeezes my hand. “Kasey-girl, say goodbye to Jaden’s Nana.”

“Bye Nana.” She says sweetly, waving her little hand before following Grace out of the room.

My grandmother watches them go interestedly, looking so much like I remember her as a child I expect her to be herself again.

But she’s not. She looks at me questioningly and I search for what to say next. I’m glad that she’s even speaking; I guess it’s unusual for her to do so.

Suddenly I want to be a child again, to find solace in her strong embrace and know that no matter what happens that she will be there. She was the only mother I ever really knew and I wish I hadn’t been so angry that I shut her out.

“I’m sorry for the way I treated you.” I tell her honestly, tears forming in my eyes. I feel as if I’m going to fall over, my knees are shaking so badly.

She doesn’t respond, and doesn’t even give me a sign that she’s heard me. Her blue eyes seem to look right through me and I wonder if she’s simply just faded away to her internal thoughts.

I wait for a few more seconds, and when she doesn’t reply or move I turn and head for the door.

“Come here.” Her voice calls me and I turn to see her standing with her arms outstretched. I gladly fall into them, sobbing like a child as her delicate hands stroke my back and hair.

“I love you.” I tell her softly.

“And I you.” She answers. I know she thinks I’m someone else, and she’s probably just replying by rote but it still means something to me. It always will.

December 21, 2000

“I’m going to die.” Grace informs me succinctly as her knuckles turn white from gripping my hand so hard.

“No you’re not. However, you are going cut off the blood flow to my hand, which will then turn gangrenous and wither away, leaving me with a stump.” I answer, my ears popping from the sudden increase in altitude.

“Ew.” She says, her pert nose wrinkling. I love it when she does that; she looks like a bunny rabbit. “But then,” she continues, musing, “I could call you Stumpy Spots.”

“Har, har.” I tell her, relieved when she releases her death grip on my hand. I rummage in my carry-on and emerge with two pieces of gum. I offer her one.

“Thanks.” She says. “Is this crazy?”

“What, flying halfway across the country to look up your biological mother you never met or found about until a few weeks ago?” I shrug. “Nah, it’s your normal run-of-the-mill adventure for two lesbians living together after having a long-distance relationship.”

She looks at me with an astonished expression. “What’s with you today? You’re in a mood.”

I shrug again. “I’m not really sure. I’m feeling pretty good, maybe because I don’t have to go through nose surgery, I don’t have to work until December 26th, and I’m on a mini-vacation with the woman I love.” I smile brightly at her. “Life is grand.”

Gracie smiles now, that tiny smile she can’t help but make when she’s trying to pretend she’s exasperated with me. “You’re nuts.”

“Yep.” I respond, tickling her side. “Seriously though, how are you? Are you okay? Nervous? Excited? Having second thoughts?”

“All of the above.” She answers, looking almost ill. “I’m the most scared about being on this stupid plane. And then I’m excited by the prospect of meeting Laura Greene, but terrified to actually knock on her door. I mean, what if she doesn’t want to know me? What if she hasn’t told her family about me? What if I’m just an interruption to her day and I ruin her Christmas with her family?” Grace is babbling now, her words rushing out of her like a river.

“Hey, it’s okay.” I tell her, grasping her hands in mine. “We have her phone number and her address. We don’t just have to show up at her doorstep unannounced, okay? We can get to the hotel and give her a call.” I try to soothe her, knowing her heightened nervousness about flying is increasing her anxiety now.

“But..” She begins.

“And, if for some reason she’s insane and doesn’t want you in her life, then we get back on the plane and go home. It’s her loss Gracie, that’s for sure. Anyone who doesn’t want to know you doesn’t know what they are missing. I know it will be hard for you, but we’ll get through this. I promise you.” I tell her firmly and am rewarded by watching her incredible eyes slowly lose some of their fear.

“Thank you.” She says and I kiss her hands clasped in mine.

“Anytime.”

***************

I think I might puke. No doubt about it, I’m either going to pass out from the fear and shock of what I am about to do or I’m going to be sick to my stomach.

I’d bet on the latter.

Jaden sits next to me on the bed, rubbing my back comfortingly. It would be so easy to use these two days in Chicago as a vacation with Jaden, see the sights and relax. Instead I’m insanely going to call someone I’ve never met or spoken to.

Someone who gave me away the day I was born.

It’s fucking ridiculous.

My hands can’t stop from shaking and I swear my teeth are chattering. I’m holding the phone in my hands and have already memorized Laura Greene’s number. I need to just dial and see what happens next. She probably isn’t home anyway.

With a sudden burst of confidence I dial the number. It rings a few times and just as I’m about to hang up a girl who sounds to be Lydia’s age answers.

“Hello?”

“Hi, um, is your mother, er, Laura there?” I stammer, my heart racing as it finds its way to my throat.

“Yeah.” The girl replies. “MOM!” She shouts in the distance and I close my eyes with sudden dread. What in the fuck am I doing?

“Hello?” Laura’s voice greets me and I almost die. This is the voice of my real mother. It is soft and gentle and wonderful. “Hello? Is anyone there?” She continues and I realize I have to say something or hang up. This is my chance, the only one I will get.

“Um, hi.” I say, my voice shaking like never before.

“Who’s this?” Laura questions and I don’t know how to reply. Your daughter? Grace? The child you gave up for adoption?
Who am I to Laura Greene? A memory that should have stayed buried?

“My name is Grace McKenzie.” I tell her in a rush of words. That’s all I say, and I wait to see how she will respond.
Part 10
For a minute, all I can hear is my heart pounding and Jaden’s shallow breathing next to me.

Just when I think my heart will burst and I go to slam the phone down I hear Laura’s soft voice.

“Grace?” She says so quietly it sounds like a whisper.

“Yes.” I tell her, my hand clenching the phone so tightly that it hurts.

“How are you?” Laura asks me and I’m not really sure how to answer.

“Scared.” I admit. “I’m wondering if this was a mistake.”

“No.” She answers forcefully. “Not a mistake, just a surprise.”

“Oh.” I respond, immediately soothed by Jaden’s comforting presence as she continues to rub my back. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t either.” Laura confesses. “I’ve always thought of what I would like to say to you if I ever met you, but right now all I can think of is how hard this must be for you.”

“It is.” I tell her. My eyes meet Jaden’s for the first time since I made the phone call. She smiles encouragingly and I am anchored by her mere existence. “Listen, I don’t know if you would like to meet me, but I’m in Chicago until tomorrow.” I feel my voice stammering and I try not to cry.

“I would love to.” Laura replies immediately. “Whenever is convenient for you.”

I look at Jaden who nods. “Um, anytime is fine. We’re staying at the Mariott, room 127.”

“How about we meet at the Italian restaurant on the corner by your hotel in an hour. Is that okay? And then, if you would like, you can join me at my house after. I would ask you here now, but it’s a madhouse with Christmas and all. Everyone will be so excited to meet you that I’m afraid it will be a bit overwhelming at first.” Laura says.

“Okay. I guess I’ll see you in an hour.” I tell her. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

“Grace, I wouldn’t want anything more.” She replies. “Oh, what do you look like so I can be sure to find you?”

“I’m 5’2″ with short blonde hair.” I answer and she laughs, a full and happy laugh like Jaden’s. “And I’ll be with my partner, you can’t miss her. She’s tall with black hair.”

“I’ll see you then.” Laura says, and I say goodbye.

I hang up the phone and look at Jaden anxiously.

“Am I crazy?” I ask, the tears that threatened earlier now fall freely down my cheeks.

“Sweetheart, you’re not crazy at all.” She answers as she wipes them away with her thumbs. “I’m so happy for you, and I hope this works out for the best. Now, come on, let’s get ready to meet your mother.” Jaden hops up and sorts through our combined clothes in the suitcase.

“Thank you for being so supportive.” I tell her and receive a beaming smile in return. “I know I’ve been through a lot since I met you and regardless of what’s happened, you’ve been beside me.”

Jaden crosses over to me and pulls me into her arms. “Wasn’t it not too long ago that you were giving me a speech about roller coasters? Gracie, there’s no place I would rather be than at your side. Please remember that always.”

I look into her wonderfully blue eyes that are the color of the deepest sea. “I’ll remember.”

She smiles and rests her chin on the top of my head, her body melding into mine.

*****************

Jesus Christ, I’m nervous. We’re not even meeting the mother I never knew today, and I’m still nervous. I can’t imagine what poor Gracie is feeling.

I’m trying to be supportive and calm because I know that’s what she needs. But my heart is fluttering and I’m hoping that meeting Laura will not harm Grace in any way.

Please just let it be good for her, she needs something wonderful in her life, especially with the first Christmas away from her family approaching so very soon.

“We ready?” Grace asks, looking very stylish in her tailored gray pants and soft sweater.

“Yeah, how are you doing?” I ask. She’s been really quiet for the past hour and I know she’s just trying to get a handle on all the emotions running through her head.

“Okay. Boy am I going to have a lot to tell Cheryl when we get back.” She says and I chuckle. She pulls on her dainty shoes. “Let’s go before I change my mind.”

As we walk out of the hotel lobby, I take Grace’s hand. “I was thinking,” I begin.

“Oh uh, bad idea Spots.” Grace kids. I squeeze her hand in response.

“Seriously though, if it’s too difficult for you to tell your mother about us, I can just be a friend.” I mention. I don’t want to make things any harder for her.

“No way.” She says vehemently. “If Laura and her family are going to meet me, they are going to meet the real me. And that includes you, and always will.”

“Okay.” I answer simply. Of course secretly, I am pleased by her answer, but didn’t want to pressure her.

Grace pauses at the door to the restaurant. I reach down and hug her briefly, pausing to kiss her cheek and whisper in her ear. “It will be okay, I promise.”

Reassured, she opens the door and we walk in. A woman is standing in the waiting area and I immediately know that it is Laura Greene. She looks just like my Gracie.

“Grace?” The woman questions and Grace nods. I stand there, smiling brightly, but feeling out of place. Maybe I shouldn’t have come; I don’t want to intrude on their first meeting.

“Hi.” Grace says, looking completely shell-shocked. Laura opens her arms and hugs Grace warmly. Gracie returns the hug but I can tell that she’s still nervous.

“This is my partner, Jaden Phillips.” Grace says to Laura who turns her attention to me.

“It’s lovely to meet you.” She says before hugging me. Feeling apprehensive, I hug her back tentatively.

Laura smiles at the both of us and I notice the subtle differences between she and Grace. They have the same face shape, but Grace’s features are more delicate and less rounded. Laura’s eyes are a hazel color and not the strong aqua of Grace’s.

Grace takes my hand as the hostess seats us in a spacious booth. We both sit across from Laura who can’t stop smiling.

“This is so difficult.” She says, and Grace and I nod our heads in agreement. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself and your life now.” Laura says encouragingly.

I sit back against the booth and feel myself relaxing. Grace never has a problem talking, so she should be okay.

“I met Jaden in May of last year when I was working at my Uncle Rick’s bar. We had a long-distance friendship turned relationship for a year until I moved out to where she lives in Massachusetts.” Grace states, finally looking like she can relax.

Laura smiles at me. “I’m glad you have someone so wonderful in your life, Grace. All I ever wanted was for you to have a good life.”

“I didn’t have a good life until I met Jaden.” Grace states simply and Laura raises her eyebrows in surprise. “I was always fed and taken care of, but my mother hates me and my father hasn’t spoken more than ten words to me in my entire life.” Grace adds.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that’s how it would be.” Laura says, her face completely crestfallen.

“I know.” Grace adds. “And I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty. Laura, I’ve made some choices in my life that were so difficult I thought I would die. But one thing I realized is that we have to stand by the choices we make, regardless of their outcome.”

“I understand.” Laura says softly. “Giving you up was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I felt at the time that it was my only choice. I thought I was giving you a better life and I can’t describe to you how it makes me feel to hear that wasn’t the case.”

“It’s okay.” Grace answers, reaching her hand across the table to take Laura’s. “I don’t blame you for my life, you did what you thought was the best thing. And who knows, maybe it was.”

Once again I am struck dumb by what an incredible person Grace is. I could never dream of having the empathy and giving nature that comes so naturally to her.

“Thank you.” Laura says.

“For what? I haven’t done anything except give you quite a surprise before Christmas.” Grace says, smiling.

“And what a pleasant surprise.” Laura finishes.

The waiter, who has been hovering around for the past few minutes but must have sensed the seriousness of the subject and decided not to interrupt, finally gets up his nerve and approaches the table.

We order quickly and Grace asks Laura how her life is now.

“Busy, but I love it.” She says, the smile on her face so like that of my Gracie. “I married the first man I met when I moved to Chicago and we have five children.”

Neither Grace nor I are surprised by this, having gotten the information from Harry.

“I’m very happy for you.” Grace says genuinely.

“I would love for you to meet everyone, if you have time.”

“We’d love to.” Grace answers.

“I have my car, I can drive us all over.” Laura responds, her voice excited.

“That would be great.” I tell her and Grace nods.

“Well, that settled, I would love to hear more about the woman who has captured Grace’s heart!” Laura says and I blush.

“I’m a mounted police officer in Boston and I love your daughter with all that I am.” I respond to Laura. “I guess that’s all there is to know about me.”

Laura laughs and Grace gently elbows me in the ribs. “Jaden is wonderful. She is brilliant and funny and kind. Sometimes I will look at her and can’t believe that she is in my life.” Grace says and I blush further.

“I am thrilled.” Laura says quietly. “My oldest son, Jason, is bisexual and he just told us a few months ago. My husband was a little upset; it was the last thing he expected to hear from his first-born son, but my husband has never stopped loving him. He doesn’t even think of him differently now, it just was the initial shock I guess.” Laura smiles gently. “I always knew, I think. Jason was always such a jock like his other brothers, but there was something different about him.”

“Tell me about your other children.” Grace probes and Laura has no problem continuing.

“Well, Jason is the oldest, besides you of course, followed by Jack and Ryan, the twins. Then comes Michelle and the baby, Jillian.” Laura digs around in her purse and lays a stack of photographs on the table. “I brought these so you could put their names to their faces.”

“Thank you.” Grace says quietly. I place my arm around her shoulder and she leans back into my touch.

“Wow, what a brood.” I say, looking at the expansive family portrait. Laura smiles sadly.

“This is my husband’s family, I haven’t spoken to mine in years.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I respond.

“Well, this is my husband Jackson.” Laura says fondly, showing us a picture of herself and a plain looking man. “He can’t wait to meet the both of you.”

“And here are the children.” She says, spreading out all of their pictures. They are all nice-looking, and the youngest girl; Jillian bears a striking resemblance to Grace.

I point to her picture. “She looks like the both of you.”

“Yes, she does.” Laura finishes. “I never lied to my children about you Grace. They know they have an older sister I had to give up. I have your baby picture, the only one I have of you, on the wall with all of theirs. From the minute Jillian was born she looked like you.”

“I wish I had known about you.” Grace says softly, her voice filled with tremors. “My entire life I thought my mother hated me because of something I had done. Now that I know the truth I can go back and realize it must have been difficult for her, raising a child that wasn’t her own, especially when that child grew up to look so much like you.”

“I didn’t know what kind of a person she was, or I never would have let her take you. I didn’t really know her at all.” Laura finishes.

“What happened?” Grace questions, and for the first time since we’ve met, Laura looks nervous.

She takes a few deep breaths before opening her mouth, her words rushing out. “Your father was quite a catch back then, he was rich and athletic and handsome. I was a poor girl from the wrong part of town who had to drop out of high school to take care of my younger brothers and sisters. I got a part-time job cleaning houses for extra money for my family and I worked in your father’s home for a few months.” Laura explains. “I didn’t know he had a fiancé until after I fell madly in love with him.” She continues, “And he promised me that it was me he wanted to marry and it was me he loved. I thought he was my knight in shining armor who would take me away from my miserable life.” Laura shakes her head sadly. “I was a fool and I believed him. When I found out I was pregnant, I was so excited. I thought the baby would bring us together. But instead, his parents found out and weren’t happy, to say the least.”

“I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Grace begins, “I had no idea.”

“Neither did I.” Laura continues. “Your father told me it was over. I was devastated, I had no money and we couldn’t feed my brothers and sisters at home, let alone another child. I told my parents and they threw me out. I had nowhere to go and no money. Your father told me his parents would pay me to leave the state if I gave you up.” Laura’s hazel eyes fill with tears and she struggles to continue her story.

“I didn’t want to Grace, believe that. He promised me you would have a wonderful life and would never want for anything. If I’d have kept you, I couldn’t have even afforded to feed you. I thought I was doing the right thing.” Laura finishes, tears spilling from her eyes.

“I think you did do the right thing.” Grace states. “And if I were in your position, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.”

“I wish things could have been different.” Laura says as she wipes her eyes dry.

“I know.” Grace responds, “But they weren’t.” She smiles at her mother. “That doesn’t mean things can’t be better in the future.”

Laura beams. “I hope they will be.”

****************

I’m in a little bit of sensory overload. I was feeling pretty confident after meeting Laura that going over to her house and visiting with her husband and children could be okay. But then on the way over, my stomach started doing the Electric Slide and when we pulled up to her quaint little townhouse on the outskirts of the city and made our way up the snowy walk and the door opened and people came running out and talking and hugging me I think I fried a few circuits of my brain.

But now we’re inside, Jaden and I sitting side by side on the sofa, with all of my siblings? scattered around us. I feel like an exhibit at the zoo, and I make a mental note never to stare at the animals quite so much again. It must really freak them out.

I was worried Jaden would get really upset and tense and distant like she does when she’s nervous, but so far she’s been okay. Very warm and genuine and acting like this entire thing is no big deal. I’m grateful, and I’m trying to learn something from her and follow her example.

Laura’s husband, Jackson, is very nice. He is funny and warm and like Laura said, he seemed thrilled to meet us. All of her kids are great, Jason is just a year and a half younger than myself and I liked him immediately. He has a great smile and wears a pair of black wire-rimmed glasses that Jillian told me were just to make him look “cool”. He’s a senior in college this year and is studying to be an architect.

The twins, Ryan and Jack are sophomores in college this year, and are pretty loud and obnoxious like most guys their age. Regardless, they have been really kind and are both fascinated with Jaden. They just keep staring at her like little lost puppy dogs. It’s actually pretty funny.

Michelle is the only one that seems distant. She is dark in coloring like her father and the twins, and seems like she has a lot of energy and intensity. She reminds me of Jaden in that way, always seeming as if she’s on the edge of something and poised to jump off. She hasn’t been rude to me, but hasn’t been kind either. I don’t really blame her; I’m sure the last thing anyone in Laura’s family expected was to have me appear just before Christmas.

And Jillian, well, she is wonderful. She is truly the baby in the family, four years younger than Michelle’s 18. I’m not really sure why I feel so drawn to her, maybe because she really does look like my sister, or because she’s Lydia’s age. She’s a great kid, very silly and sweet, and it’s strange for me to say that when Jaden and I leave tomorrow, I’ll miss her most of all.

I really like Laura. I know that I’m distancing myself to her because it’s easier that way for me to leave. I could get used to this family and this mother, but I have to accept that I need to realize that just because we’ve all met, it’s not going to be one big happy family.

But I’m thoroughly enjoying the time I have here with all of them. They have been so gracious and welcoming to both Jaden and myself, far more than I expected. I really thought that Laura Greene would just simply hang up the phone and pretend I still don’t exist.

“Grace, you want to go to Michigan Ave. tomorrow and go shopping? They have the best stores ever.” Jillian excitedly offers.

“Sure, I could always shop!” I agree and she claps her hands in delight.

“Can I mom?” She asks and Laura nods. “Mich, you coming?” Jillian asks her big sister.

“No, I have plans tomorrow.” Michelle says quickly. “Sorry.”

A wave of disappointment crosses over Laura’s face. “I know you are skiing with your friends Michelle, I wouldn’t ask you to miss that.” She tells her daughter.

“I’ll go.” Jason says quietly. “Unless this is a girls-only thing.” He adds hastily.

“No, the more the merrier.” Laura offers. “Ryan, Jack? You guys in?”

The twins look at each other and shake their heads. “No way Mom, we’re not spending a day of vacation shopping.”

Jaden smiles at them. “I don’t blame you.”

“Well, you could hang with us if you wanted.” Jack offers to Jaden, a look of adoration on his face. I grin as Jillian rolls her eyes.

“You guys are lame. Jaden and Grace are together and like engaged. Duh!” Jillian reminds them.

“I’d love to go shopping.” Jaden says, her smile forced. I pat her on the arm and snuggle in closer to her.

“Don’t worry Spots, I’ll make sure it’s worth your while.” I assure her.

“Why do you call her Spots?” Jillian asks and Jaden’s face turns red.

“Do you really want to know?” I respond and she shakes her blonde head eagerly. Everyone else seems interested in the story and I smile in sympathy for Jaden.

“I’ll tell you a story of a grown police officer and her battle with a case of the chickenpox.” I begin and everyone chuckles with anticipation.
Part 11

December 21, 2000
Jaden’s warm hand tenderly grasps mine. “How are you holding up?” She questions gently.

I sniffle loudly in response and wipe my eyes with my free hand. “Crappy.” I respond, sighing.

“I know. But think of how excited everyone back home will be to see you and hear about your new family.” Jaden responds. “And Christmas is soon, just right around the corner.”

“Yeah.” I say, perking up. I take my head off her shoulder and peer out the window into the clouds below. “Where do you think we are now?”

Looking thoughtful for a second, Jaden checks her watch. “Probably over New York. We should be landing soon.”

“Good. I can’t wait to be on the ground again. And to be home.” I add. “I bet the dogs are going to be nuts.”

“Probably.” Jaden smiles, her love for our two children evident. “You know how Steele loves to baby-sit them.”

I giggle, remembering how the tall man eagerly offered to housesit the dogs. He’ll be getting one of his own soon, I’m sure.”

“Maybe.” She responds, the corners of her full mouth curling into a grin. “Hey, is Val coming home for Christmas?”

“Yep. Why?” I ask, biting the corner of my cheek so I don’t smile. Kim told me how Jaden sought Val out during Thanksgiving to tell her all about Harold’s wonderful self.

Jaden shrugs. “No reason, she just seemed really nice.” She says, attempting to be nonchalant.

“Nice, huh? Should I be jealous?” I kid her and her face turns red.

“No!” She says forcefully and I finally ease her torment and laugh.

“Relax, Spots. Kim told me about your matchmaking attempt. And she also told me that Val was interested and would call Harold when she arrived in town.”

“Good.” Jaden responds. “He’s my friend, I just want to see him happy.” She says, almost defensively.

I rest my head on her shoulder, secure in her comforting presence.

A few seconds later, Jaden’s warm breath tickles my ear.

“It’s okay to miss them even though you just met. I think that’s what happens when you really love someone. I missed you after the first night I met you until I saw you again.”

I smile, my eyes closed to prevent my tears from beginning again. Instead of saying anything, I wrap my arms around my beloved, eternally grateful for whatever brought us together.
December 24, 2000
Kim and I stamp the snow off our shoes as we carefully enter the crowded mall. Pushing our way through masses of stressed people we make our way to the food court.

“Let’s grab something and discuss our battle plans.” She says, the snow on her curly ringlets glistening.

“Sounds good.” I respond as I take off my scarf and gloves. We decide on pizza because of the short line and place our orders relatively quickly.

After sitting, we dig into our lunch hungrily. We’ve been on a marathon-shopping spree all morning and haven’t stopped yet.

“I think we’re pretty much all set, right?” She says, thinking quickly. “I have no idea what to get Stace still, but I’m sure we can find something.”

Biting my lip, I frown with displeasure. “And I still can’t find that perfect gift for Jaden.”

Kim pats my hand comfortingly. “I know, but you will. We can help each other!”

Her confidence is contagious and I smile as I bite into my pizza. “So,” I ask, between chewing, “What does Stacey want?”

She rolls her eyes. “Nothing.” Smiling with affection for her girlfriend she continues. “That’s her standard answer whenever I ask her. You know how she is, all quiet and shy. She says she doesn’t need anything because she doesn’t want to be a bother. It’s so frustrating!” Kim pauses, thinking. “I have some nice things for her already that she needs, a few sweaters and little gifts, but I want something that lets her know how much I care about her.”

“Ditto.” I say. “I have no idea what Jaden is getting me. She’s already given me so much, I can’t think of anything more she could do.”

Kim’s hazel eyes twinkle. “Me either.” She says coyly.

My mouth drops open with outrage. “You know!”

She shrugs. “Maybe.”

“No way, if you know you better tell me!” I say and she just smiles in return.

“Nope.”

“Kim!” I exclaim in frustration when I realize she’s not going to give in. I decide to try another tactic.

Tilting my head to the side, I sweeten my tone. “You’re my best friend. I thought best friends were supposed to tell each other everything.”

She laughs, her golden curls bouncing. “No way, don’t pull that crap out on me. How come I’ve never heard any of this ‘best friend’ business before now?”

“I didn’t know how to tell you my feelings.” I respond jokingly.

“You only have until tomorrow morning to wait.” Kim tells me exasperatedly.

“I know. But I still consider you my best friend.” I say.

“Can it, Grace. It’s not going to work.” She tells me as we stand up to dump our garbage. “Now, let’s get this show on the road.”

“Lead the way.” I command her and she strides purposely out of the food court.

“Let’s try the leather store.” Kim decides. “Stace always complains about not having a good school bag. Maybe they will have a really nice leather one. I think she’d like that.”

“Good idea.” I agree as the potent smell of the store fills my senses. It reminds me of a tack room, I muse with melancholy. I really miss my horse, Christmas time more than anything. It was just before New Years that Debbie had her taken away and I never saw her again.

“Grace?” Kim questions, holding up a beautiful brown bag. “You like?”

“Wow, it’s great.” I tell her, snapping out of my depressing thoughts. I touch the soft leather, admiring the intricate tooling along the strap. “You should get this.” I tell her.

“Yeah?” She asks doubtfully.

“Yes.” I tell her. Kim smiles a relieved smile and heads up to the counter to pay. I mill around the store, impressed with the high quality of its goods. I wonder if Jaden would like something from here. I bet she would look really sexy in a pair of tight leather pants.

I search through the racks and find a black pair in her size. I hold them up, trying to envision her in them.

“God yes, get them.” Kim’s voice orders.

“Really? Aren’t they too short?” I question, indicating the length. “She’s got pretty long legs.”

“I know, and even if she wears them as capri’s she’ll look sexy. Seriously, get them.”

Looking over the pants one more time, I decide Kim is right. I quickly pay for them and we leave the store.

“That was productive.” Kim says, clinging onto her bag happily. “Where should we go next?”

“I don’t know.” I tell her honestly, my mind trying to decide what I should get Jaden.

“How about the bookstore? There are a few books Stacey wants that I can pick up.” Kim suggests and I nod.

As we pass by the brightly lit stores something silver catches my eyes. “Hey, wait.” I tell Kim, tugging on her shirtsleeve as I turn around and head back to the store. Peering through the window I see a beautiful camera outfit, complete with tripod and case. “It’s perfect.” I breathe through the window.

“A camera?” Kim asks skeptically. “Jaden doesn’t seem the picture type.”

“I know, but she is.” I tell Kim. “When I was still in Ohio, Jaden sent me some of the most beautiful pictures I’d ever seen. I found out she took them with a simple automatic disposal camera. If she’s that good of a photographer on her own, with no lessons and a piece of crap camera imagine what she can do with a really good camera!” I tell her excitedly, getting more and more into this idea.

“Let’s go take a look.” Kim says as she pulls me into the store. “Do you have any idea what you’re looking for?”

“No.” I admit. “I have no idea what kind to get.”

Kim pulls out her cell phone. “Let me call Stace, she has lots of photography experience.”

“Good idea.” I agree as Kim dials. Stacey is a graphic design major who has spent numerous hours in the darkroom for her photography class. I check out the different cameras in the store until Kim hangs up the phone.

“No wonder I love her.” She gushes and I smile fondly at her. “Anyway, she thinks it’s a great idea and suggests a manual camera. She said a Pentax K1000 because it’s good quality and user-friendly. She also had the great idea to get it with all the bells and whistles, zoom, flash, tripod, and the like.”

“Okay.” I say, my eyes lighting up with excitement. “Let’s find one.” Kim and I easily find the camera and it’s priced lower than I expected. “This is great.” I tell her as I get all the accessories.

“Crap, can you afford this?” Kim asks, totaling up all the items in her head. “It’s going to be about $500.00.” She adds.

“I know. She’s worth it, besides, I think she’ll be really surprised.” I tell her as we make our way to the counter.

“Oh, Stace also said it would be a good idea to maybe enroll her in a class or something, you know, to teach her how to use it.” Kim says, smirking.

I look at her warily, trying to imagine Jaden sitting through a photography class. “Do you really think that would happen?”

“No.” Kim replies honestly. “That’s why Stace offered to teach her how. She used the very same camera for her thesis project last year. She did an incredible job.”

“Wow.” I state, impressed by Stacey’s generosity. “That’s really thoughtful of her.” I tell Kim genuinely.

“Yeah, she’s great.” Kim says as the clerk begins to ring my purchases up. “Now that we’re done here, let’s go home. I have the sudden urge to hug her.”

“Me too.” I tell Kim smiling.

****

When I arrive home I find a note from Jaden stating she went over to Diana & Joe’s to keep him company while Di and Kasey are gone. Poor guy, he’s managing better than expected with his broken legs, but it must really be awful to be so injured for the holidays.

Using the free time, I wrap Jaden’s presents and place them under our tree. It’s pretty full and I can’t wait to open presents tomorrow. I think she’s going to be thrilled with what I got her.

After I finish, I put on Christmas music and sit in front of the fireplace with a mug of steaming cocoa. It’s so peaceful this afternoon, the sun has just gone down and the bright snow on the ground gleams through the inky darkness.

I light a few candles and dim the lights, sitting back down on the floor with my back against the couch. Bella and Bean curl next to me and I idly alternate pats from Bella’s soft fur to the coarse hair on Bean’s small body.

Christmas Eve. I can’t believe how time has passed; sometimes it feels as if I just moved here yesterday.

I smile as I play with Bella’s floppy ears. I know Jaden will be home soon, but right now I miss her terribly.

I’m excited by the thought of spending Christmas Eve with my true love. Even though I’m not particularly religious, there’s always something magical about this night. Usually, we gather at my mother’s family for dinner and then my grandmother and I attend midnight services at her church. It’s a candlelight service and the choir sings carols. It’s so beautiful, and it feels strange not to be there with everyone.

I wonder if I’ll ever be welcome there again, especially since I’m not even related to them anymore.

My jaw clenches as waves of sadness roll through me. So much has happened and regardless of how much therapy I commit myself to, it still seems like too much.

Footsteps in the hall alert both dogs to go eagerly scampering to the door. Jaden’s home. I close my eyes briefly; relieved to have her here and I hear her open the door and talk happily to the dogs. She loves them as much as they love her.

“Hey.” I greet her softly, not moving from my place on the floor.

“Hi.” She answers as she comes to sit next to me, her arm automatically going around my shoulders. She smells like cinnamon and I lay my head on her shoulder, sighing with pleasure.

Kissing the top of my head, her long hair brushes my face. “How are you?”

“Better.” I answer, wanting to curl up inside her and never leave.

“Me too.” She responds gently. We sit in comfortable silence, the flickering light of the candles making shadows dance over her skin.

“How’s Joe?” I question and I feel Jaden smile.

“Driving everyone nuts. He’s so fidgety, and it’s killing him to sit still. But he feels okay.” Jaden comments. “Kasey won’t leave his side. She just worships him. Di went for her check-up yesterday and found out the baby is healthy and doing fine.”

“Yay.” I answer. “I can’t wait until she starts showing and the baby starts to move around. She’s going to be even more gorgeous pregnant.”

“She was with Kasey. You should have seen her, boy did she glow.” Jaden responds softly. “It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”

I smile, picturing Kasey as a tiny baby. I’m sure her little sibling will be equally wonderful and I look foreword to meeting him or her.

“Do they want to find out if it’s a boy or girl?” I ask and Jaden shakes her head.

“No. They didn’t with Kasey, either. They said they wanted it to be a surprise.”

“I couldn’t do that, I’m way too impatient.” I tell her. “I couldn’t stand not knowing.”

“Really?” Jaden questions. “I thought you would want to keep it a surprise.”

“Oh, I would.” I respond, smiling. “But I know myself, and I would be dying to know.”

“Me too.” Jaden admits. I look up into her grinning face and gently pull her head down to meet mine.

I softly kiss her lips. “I love you so much.” I whisper, looking into her luminous eyes. “Thank you for everything you have done.”

She smiles and strokes my face with her thumb. “I love you more everyday. This is our first Christmas in a line of many.” She responds softly. Her lips are soft and sweet on mine.

We shift, so she is lying on the floor and I am cradled on top of her. I rest my head on her chest, reveling in the sound of her beating heart. It’s this that is my lifeline, her touch, her essence, everything that she is. It’s as if her heart beats for the both of us.

“Do you want children?” She questions, surprising me.

“Very much.” I answer honestly. “I never thought I did until I met you. Now the very thought of raising a child with you makes me happy.”

“I’d probably be a lousy parent.” She says softly. I lift my head from her chest and look into her eyes. They are sad and filled with unspoken anguish.

“No you wouldn’t.” I tell her fiercely. “I’ve seen you with Kasey and you are wonderful. How can you say that?” I question her gently.

“I haven’t had very good examples, I guess. My grandparents were wonderful, but my parents both split. I’m afraid I would do the same thing because it’s all that I know of parenting.” Jaden responds solemnly.

“Think of what I know of parenting.” I tell her wryly. “Listen, Spots, we both have shitty examples of what parents are supposed to be like. And, unfortunately, what seems to happen in our society is some people who have bad parents end up being the same way with their own kids, you know?”
Jaden nods, but I can tell she has no idea what I’m trying to say.

“What I’m trying to say is that I honestly believe that the majority of people push away painful aspects of their childhood instead of facing it and dealing with it. Then, when it is time for them to raise their own children, they end up repeating the patterns of their parents because they don’t know any other way. I don’t think there are any bad children, but that bad parenting breeds bad children.” I pause briefly. “Does that make sense?”

I can almost see the wheels turning in her head. “I guess so.” She answers finally.

“I can’t really seem to explain what I mean. But my point is, you and I are not like that; we’ve done too much work on ourselves to use our same patterns with our children. I know we will love and nurture our children.”

“Okay.” She tells me, looking unconvinced.

“I promise you.” I assure her once more and she smiles.

“You will be a wonderful mother.” Jaden tells me as I lay my head back down over her heart.

“So will you.” I quietly respond.
December 25, 2000
I return from taking the dogs outside and dust the snow off my boots and coat. It’s a perfect Christmas morning, the snow just started falling after I awoke and it is so picturesque.

Grace isn’t up yet; I can hear her gentle snores from the bedroom. She actually had the nerve to tell me the other day that she doesn’t snore. I just laughed. Someday I’ll get a tape recorder and prove it to her.

Our tree looks beautiful with presents stacked neatly below. I can’t wait to open them; this is the first Christmas since I’ve been a child where I’m actually not going to ignore the day.

Last year I pined here alone. My life was so empty back then.

Smiling, I look at the clock. It’s only 6am, and if I woke Grace up now I think she’d kill me. But I can’t help it, I’m too excited. I have to get her up. Besides, her big presents will be here in a few hours.

I bound into the bedroom, the dogs scampering with excitement at my feet. Catapulting on to the bed I bounce eagerly up and down.

“What the hell?” Grace’s groggy voice questions as her sleepy eyes slightly open.

“It’s Christmas!” I tell her excitedly.

She tries to roll her eyes as she sighs loudly. “Do I want to know what time it is?”

“Nope.” I answer. “Come on! Santa came!” I continue to bounce.

“Okay, okay.” She tells me, her tone bordering on irritation. I grin and get off the bed. She manages to sit upright, pulling her tank top down and into place. “Give me a sec to wake up.” Gracie mumbles as she stands and stretches. She puts my old robe on over her pajama pants and makes her way out into the living room.

I hand her a glass of eggnog as she sits down. “Merry Christmas.” I tell her, kissing the top of her head.

“Merry Christmas.” She responds, smiling at me for the first time since awakening. “Sorry I was a grinch.”

“It’s okay, I know you hate to get up early.” I tell her as I look anxiously at the presents. “I’ll put them in two piles!”

Grace just grins at me as I separate the presents.

**************

“Hold still.” I order her and she complies, rolling her blue-green eyes.

“Jaden, this is silly, I must look awful.”
“Shh. You’re gorgeous. Now hold still.” I command as I snap the picture. I’ve been playing with my new camera all morning and I know it must be getting on Grace’s nerves because she’s the object of my attention.

I can’t help that the camera loves her. Or that I love her more. Besides, I’m bored at photographing the dogs and need a more rewarding subject.

“I’m warning you, Spots, you get one more picture and that’s it.” Grace says, smiling all the while.

“Okay, okay.” I mutter as I take the final picture. She is standing next to the window, the light of morning washing over her sweet face. She is radiant.

A knock on the door startles us and I look at the clock smiling. Right on time.

Grace furrows her brow. “Who could that be, on Christmas morning?”

I shrug innocently. “I don’t know.”

She goes to open the door as I prime my camera to catch her expression.

“OH MY GOD!” She shrieks as she whips open the door to reveal Rick and Lydia. I take pictures quickly, hoping they are in focus, as the trio happily greet each other.

“Jaden, get over here!” Grace demands and I greet our two guests. Gracie and Lydia are crying, happily reunited after months of separation.

I put an arm around Gracie’s shoulder and kiss her head lightly as Rick and Lydia remove their heavy winter jackets. “You did this, didn’t you?” She asks, already knowing the answer.

“Merry Christmas.” I tell her, smiling down at her flushed face.

“Thank you.” She responds, cupping my cheek in her palm. She kisses me reverently. “Thank you for everything.”
Part 12

Journal Entry:
New Year’s Eve, 2000

The year 2001 is upon us, and so much has changed. I can’t believe it has been one half of one year since I moved to Massachusetts. I love my life now and I’m madly in love. Life is good and I am thankful for every day.

I will miss my sister and uncle. I am eternally grateful for Jaden arranging their surprise visit. I was shocked to hear she called Debbie herself and pleaded for her to allow Lydia to visit.

Why my mother agreed, I will never know. Part of me would like to believe that it is the first bridge erected to improve our relationship. But I’m sure it was just skillful negotiation on the part of Jaden and my uncle.

Stranger things have happened, I guess. Regardless, it was the most wonderful Christmas I’ve ever experienced. And I feel the same about the oncoming New Year. Jaden and I are going to a gay club with Kim and Stacey, always a fun time. We’re all going to meet up for dinner with Val and Steele, who have been dating since Val has been in town for the holidays.

And then, in just a few short weeks, I will be starting at Pressman. I’ve gotten all of my loans approved and sorted out, and I registered for classes already. I’m in a few with Kim and they accepted the majority of my transfer credits, allowing me to graduate in three semesters along with Kim and Stacey. I’m going to have to work and study my butt off, but it will be worth it.

Funny how a life can be changed in a moment. From the minute I saw Jaden, nothing has been the same.

I have to go and get changed. There is some serious partying to be done tonight.

I’m giggling like an idiot, my hand still on the doorknob to the broom closet. Shutting my eyes briefly in order to stop the room from spinning, I clutch the door in order to remain standing upright. I never should have told them I was okay to come in here by myself, I can’t even find the door back out to the club.

This makes me laugh harder, and it takes every last sober strand in my system to not fall onto the floor in hysterics.

“Grace?” Kim’s voice calls and I whip my head around gratefully. “What in the hell are you doing?” She questions as she takes my arm gently and leads me out the door.

“I couldn’t find my way out.” I tell her, focusing on her pretty face. “Where’s Jaden?”

“Talking to some hot girl at the bar.” Kim responds. My mouth drops open and I start to run back to where I left her. Laughing behind me, Kim pulls me to a stop.

“Calm down, she’s with Stacey waiting for you.”

I glare at her, or at least try too, a difficult feat when I am seeing double. “Not funny.”

“I’m sorry.” She amends as she grabs my hand and leads me back to our table. Setting me down unceremoniously on my chair she remarks to Stacey and Jaden. “Look who I found staring at the bathroom closet. She couldn’t find her way out.”

I shrug, kind of embarrassed.

Jaden smiles at me, the effects of her many drinks showing as she has difficulty looking in my eyes. “Are you okay? I wanted to come and find you.”

Wow, I think she’s drunker than I am. “I’m okay.” I respond, patting her hand. Kim rolls her eyes.

“Normally I’d say something rude about Grace being able to go to the bathroom by herself, but after what I saw, I don’t think that’s the case.” She says wickedly, her eyes twinkling.

I try to stick my tongue out at her but can’t remember how. I give her the finger instead and our table howls with laughter.

“Hey, let’s dance, it’s the last song before midnight.” Kim orders and we clear our table and head for the dance floor.

The song is fast and sexual and my completely uninhibited state allows me to freely bump and grind with Jaden. I’m glad we decided to come to the club; it feels good to cut loose.

My senses are on overload with the feel of Jaden’s body touching mine and the loud, throbbing music of the club. I feel Jaden’s warm breath on my neck and her mouth nip lightly at my skin.

I groan, feeling as if she could ravish me right here in front of everyone and I wouldn’t even care. Just then the countdown begins and we clasp hands, grinning at each other brightly.

The crowd chants and practically screams out the last three seconds.

“3!”

“2!”

“1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!”

Everyone is kissing, myself and Jaden included. Her tongue brushes gently across mine and I entwine my hands in her long hair. We kiss for what seems like an eternity, and break apart breathless.

The DJ has put on Pink’s “Get the Party Started” and the entire club is going crazy. Jaden and I just stare at each other, our faces flushed from the effects of our kiss and the alcohol.

“Marry me!” Jaden shouts and I narrow my eyes.

“What?” I ask, thinking I didn’t hear her correctly.

“I said, marry me!” She repeats and I stare at her in shock. “Come on, I know I’ve already kind of proposed, but let’s do it. I love you, Gracie! I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Marry me now, on Valentine’s Day!” Her bright blue eyes are so hopeful and when I look at her I can think of no other answer.

“Okay!” I tell her and she pulls me into her arms.

New Year’s Day, 2001

Stretching slowly, I open my eyes to see Grace curled up around me, her fair head resting on my shoulder. She is soundly asleep, her lips pursed as if in thought.

I smile in reflex, my arms automatically circling her warm body. She doesn’t stir in my embrace and continues to take deep and even breaths.

Happy New Year indeed. My mind wraps itself around the events of last night. We were all so wasted, and had the foresight to take the train to the club so no one had to drive. After Grace and I announced our wedding date to Kim and Stacey, Kim told the DJ who made a big deal out of it. It was pretty funny, even though I don’t like that much attention being drawn to myself at any given time. But Grace was ecstatic, and that is all that matters.

We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest times of year for a wedding, so we need to start planning like crazy. I’m hoping for a small and intimate affair with just our closest family and friends. Maybe we could plan to have it at the beach, but it would probably be too cold.

We can figure it out. Grace is going to be so beautiful. I wonder what she’ll want to wear. Hell, I wonder what she’ll want me to wear. I’ll have to ask Diana for wedding tips, their wedding was really beautiful. Diana and I just became really good friends before the wedding and I was fortunate enough to get invited. It was so pretty and they did everything with good taste.

I rub my aching temples. I never get hangovers, but both Grace and myself were really drunk last night. No wonder I have a headache, and I know as soon as I get up and get moving I will be okay.

I carefully extract myself from Grace’s arms, smiling when she pouts in her sleep and rolls over. Throwing on a pair of sweats and a warm hooded sweatshirt I head out into the kitchen, yawning all the way.

Only a few minutes pass before I am out, trotting down the street with the two dogs pulling anxiously in front of me. I found this really great wooded trail close to our apartment where I can let them off leash. They have a great time chasing birds and squirrels while I get my own run in. It’s more challenging than jogging on the street because of the hilly terrain and a lot more fun.

During my exercise, I start mulling over possible wedding locations. I don’t want to have it anywhere like a hotel or anything. I want it to be somewhere special for the both of us.

I think it would be really grand to have it in Grace’s uncle’s bar, where we first met. But I really want our friends to be there and I can’t ask everyone to fly to Ohio. So I guess that is out.

We could always have it at our apartment. I mean, it’s kind of small, but we don’t exactly need that many people to come. It’s not like we have a huge plethora of friends and family, I imagine the list wouldn’t top out above fifty. But still, that would make it really crowded.

I don’t know how comfortable Grace would be having it in a church; I know that I haven’t gone since I was a kid. I really don’t have any set religious belief, and I don’t even know if we want a priest or minister to do the ceremony.

These are things I have to figure out with Grace. My most important obstacle is making sure I don’t have to work, and finding somewhere where we can take a quick honeymoon. Grace will be in her first semester at Pressman and won’t be able to take a long time off. But we’ll make do.

Smiling, I whistle to the dogs who are busy digging a large hole and pick up my pace. The thought of being home when Grace wakes up drives me like a blur through the woods.

**************

“Gross.” I mutter to myself as my eyes crank open. My mouth tastes disgusting and I feel like I have a thick film over my teeth. Not to mention the fact that I smell like smoke from the club and my stomach is doing the can-can.

I hate being hung over. I really really hate it.

I don’t even have to glance around for Jaden, the apartment is quiet, meaning she took the dogs out for their morning run. I don’t know how she does it, she drank way more than I did last night and she won’t feel a thing.

Good thing I love her to pieces, or I’d be really jealous.

Sighing, I force myself out of bed. My bladder lets me know just how much I drank last night and the urge to relieve myself overtakes my aching body’s desire just to go back to sleep.

And I really want to shower so I don’t feel like a piece of trash anymore.

I adjust the water to a warm temperature and step in. It’s really amazing how refreshing a hot shower can be, especially when you feel disgusting.

Languidly, I wash my hair and feel the effects of the alcohol slowly dissipate. I stand under the water for what seems like an eternity, a smile forming on my lips as I remember how sexy Jaden was dancing last night.

My eyes suddenly pop open and I wince as the shampoo stings them. Cursing, I rinse them off, my mind wrapping around the thought that just slapped me upside the head.

She wants to get married on Valentine’s Day. That’s like a month and a half away. My stomach clenches in panic and I struggle to take a breath.

Did she know what she was doing? Jaden was really drunk last night, how do I know it wasn’t just an effect from the alcohol? What if she just got caught up in the excitement and blurted it out and the reason she wasn’t here this morning is because she doesn’t know how to face me now?

I try to think rationally, I really do. Jaden never says something she doesn’t mean, that just isn’t her style. And regardless of how drunk she was, she was more sober than the rest of us. She didn’t get stuck in the bathroom staring at a broom closet for Christ’s sake. So I think I’m just jumping to conclusions.

And Jaden’s hardly ever here when I wake up, she’s an early riser and is usually gone with the dogs. So I highly doubt she’s trying to avoid me.

Despite my rational reasonings, I’m still unconvinced. Maybe I just won’t say anything to her about it and wait for her to bring it up first.

I know that’s unhealthy. Cheryl would tell me that I’m letting my fear and past hurts take over to allow me to avoid the situation rather than face it.

“Want some company?” Jaden’s silken voice startles me as she opens the door to the bathroom and slips in the shower.

“Always.” I answer, relieved to have her here despite my mixed emotions. I turn to face her, wrapping my arms securely around her slender waist.

“Morning.” She says, kissing my wet skin. “How do you feel?”

I gaze up into her clear blue eyes. They are bright and filled with little flecks of happiness, revealing no regrets about the previous night. Of course, maybe she doesn’t even remember it.

“Okay.” I answer, ducking my head into her shoulder. “Better now that you’re here.”

She responds by hugging me tight against her, humming with approval as my hands caress her bare skin.

****************

Grace and I work as a team, cooking breakfast in silence. She’s gotten pretty adept at teaching me how to prepare some meals, and I have to admit I enjoy cooking.

Usually.

But there seems to be tension between us this morning, Grace has been kind of aloof since her shower. I’m not really sure what the problem is, but I have a sinking feeling it’s because of last night.

What if I’m rushing her into things? I know she wants to have a ceremony with me, that I would never dispute. But it’s possible that she could suddenly realize she has too much on her plate at the moment and cannot commit to having a wedding.

I want to forget the entire thing. I mean, I don’t, but I will if she wants to. The intelligent thing to do would be to talk about it and come to an agreement. But I’m a pathetic baby who can’t think about bringing it up.

“Why don’t you sit down, Spots. I’ll finish this up and bring it to you.” Grace tells me, her voice subdued.

I pour myself a glass of juice and sit at our small table. While I’m waiting for her to join me I pull on my boots and tie my long hair back with an elastic. It blows goats that I have to work a long shift today, but at least I got last night off.

They gave me a break at the station because I’ve worked every New Year’s Eve since I joined. I never really had anything better to do, but being in the Common on horseback in the freezing night air isn’t that much fun. Especially when it is filled to the gills with drunken people looking at the ice sculptures.

Today should be okay, mostly just overseeing clean up and making sure the people passed out around the city get home okay.

Grace puts the finishing touches on breakfast and sets it down, taking her seat next to mine.

“Thanks, this looks wonderful. I’m famished after last night.” I tell her as I pick up a large piece of egg and scoop it onto my toast.

“You helped.” Grace remarks, smiling. “I didn’t do it all myself.” She begins tentatively eating and I know there is something wrong. I haven’t seen her eat like this since having dinner with her psycho-host beast psuedo-mother Debbie.

“Do you feel okay? I can stay home with you if you want, someone could probably cover for me.” I ask as I take her hand in mine. She feels cold to the touch and she’s shaking.

“I’m fine, just tired I guess.” She responds quietly, avoiding my eyes.

Okay, there is definitely something wrong here. It could be a few things, but at the top of the list lays the wedding.

She doesn’t want to do it and she doesn’t know how to tell me.

Grace has changed her mind.

Feeling nauseous, I push away the remains of my breakfast. I need to get out of here. I stand up quickly, my chair scraping the tile floor.

“Call me if you need me. I’m going to be patrolling all day today, but someone at the station will page me.” I remark to Grace as I grab my coat and race out the door.

Starting my Explorer, I peel out of the driveway and race to work. Funny, since Grace moved in I’ve been racing home from work, desperate to be with her as much as possible.

Now, the only thing that will clear my mind is the winter wind against my face. I can’t wait to get to the station and just escape from this entire morning.

Through the drive, I berate myself. Why in the hell did I have to fuck everything up? Things were going to perfectly between Grace and myself and I just had to blow it by opening my big mouth and pressuring her.

She has so much to deal with right now; I just should have waited for her to bring it up. She’ll probably leave me. I’ll come home tonight to an empty apartment.

And I should.

It’s what I deserve.

****************

Curling up in a ball, I pull the covers around my head. Maybe if I stay here long enough, I’ll fall asleep and realize this morning was just a dream.

Oh to be so lucky.

I think I did some serious damage here. I took the one thing Jaden is really sensitive about and used it to hurt her. I know I didn’t do it on purpose, but I’m appalled at how I let my own fears in turn destroy her.

What do I do? I can’t call her at work today; she made it clear that she wasn’t going to be at the station all day. And I can’t picture her wanting to have a heart-to-heart over dispatch.

Oh Goddess, what if she doesn’t come home tonight? What if she thinks that I’m rejecting her and she just vanishes for a while? She’s going to run from me and I don’t know how to stop this.

Forcing my eyes shut, I lay in self-pity for a few moments. I try to wrap my brain around what just happened rationally but all I can see is the self-torturing look in Jaden’s eyes as she bolted for the door.

She really thinks I don’t love or want her. Good Goddess, how could I do that to her?

Self-hatred boils inside of me and I grit me teeth in anger. I don’t deserve her. She is too wonderful of a person and I continually hurt her with my nagging self-doubts and fears. I don’t know how to convince her otherwise.

Reaching for the phone, I dial Diana’s number by memory. I need help here, and Di is her closest friend.

“Hi Jaden or Pixie-head.” Kasey answers the phone and I smile.

“How did you know it was me, Kasey-girl?” I question and she giggles.

“Caller id. Here’s mama.” She responds and I can’t help but laugh.

“Hey Jaden.” Diana greets me.

“Wrong Jaden.” I correct her, smiling.

“Grace! Happy New Year.” Her bubbly voice is infectious.

“Thanks, you too. How are you? How’s Joe?”

“Driving me nuts. What’s up?” She answers.

“I need some help. I really messed-up big time with Jaden today.” I confess, feeling guilty.

“I need to get out of the house for awhile. I’ll stop over in a few.” She says and I thank her gratefully.

“So you did fuck up, huh?” Diana muses after I spill the story. I shake my head glumly.

“What do I do? You know Jaden as well as I do. How can I fix this?” I ask desolately.

She laughs. “Grace, I don’t know Jaden half as much as you do. We’ve been friends for years, and sometimes I feel as if she’s a stranger. You’re the only one who can fix this. What do you think she needs?”

I shrug. “To know that she has my undying love and commitment forever.”

“Exactly.” Diana says, tipping her bottle of water toward me. “And how do you give that to her?”

Clueless, I look at her. “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do.” She says confidently. “Come on, Grace! Jaden has done nothing but commit to you since you moved here. She was the one who asked you to spend the rest of your life with her, hell; she even had you get a dog together! She is serious about your relationship and scared as hell that you’re not. You have to show her you are.”

“How?” I ask, throwing my hands up in the air. “This is all new to me, the only relationship I’ve ever been in is with a guy my parents betrothed me too! I have no experience on how to do this on my own.”

“I know.” Diana says, her voice sympathetic. “Jaden needs to know that you want her as much as she wants you. So when she comes home tonight, you need to be on your knees in front of her professing your undying love.”

“But what if she’s gotten freaked and bolted. What if she doesn’t come home?” I question, insanely worried about her.

“She will. That, I can do for you, okay? Listen, I’ll call the station and talk to her, let her know that you’re upset and want to talk to her. She’s probably told dispatch to ignore your calls unless they are an emergency. She’s upset, probably worried sick, and is trying to shut you out.”

“Do you think you can get through to her?”

Diana smiles confidently. “Absolutely.”

***************

I rub my nose with the back of my glove for the hundredth time. It’s really freezing out here, and the smell of wet horsehair doesn’t improve my mood any.

Regardless, I pat my trusted mount, Robbie. He’s a nice horse, a mixture of some draft and a lighter breed. He’s been my mounted partner since Studley retired, and he’s a good and solid horse.

But he still stinks in this weather.

Clucking to him, I gently squeeze my calves and am rewarded when he starts a slow pace down the street. We amble our way back to the station and I am grateful to at least be doing something, anything, which allows me to take my mind off Grace.

Not that it’s working.

My radio suddenly becomes alive, the voice of Kara at dispatch calling me.

“Phillips.” I answer, patting Robbie again when he keeps meandering purposefully down the street even though I’m not directing him. He’s a nice boy.

“Diana on the line for you.”

I sigh, wondering if she’s spoken with Grace. She must have or she wouldn’t be calling me.

“Okay.” I tell Kara and I hear her switch my radio over.

“Hey Di.” I greet her neutrally.

“Hi, you guys want to do dinner tomorrow night? I thought we’d do Chinese and Kasey’s been dying to show you her lost tooth.”

“Um, I’ll be there. Let me check with Grace though.” I answer.

“She already said okay. I was over your place all morning.” Di answers, and I know I’m in trouble.

“Oh?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Yeah, seems you ran out of the house like your tail was on fire this morning.” Diana says and I feel suddenly angry at her intrusion.

“Leave it alone.” I growl. “This is not the time or the place for this, and besides, I know what I need to know.”

“So stubborn.” Di chastises me. “Besides, you don’t know anything. Go home Jaden, turn your brain off for once and listen to the girl.”

I sigh again.

“I have to go, Kasey is trying to put make-up on Joe, who is still on crutches. I could kill his mother for getting her that beauty set for Christmas.” Diana groans as she hangs up the phone.

I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of poor Joe helpless against Kasey’s attacks.

My thoughts are quickly sobered by Diana’s words. She wouldn’t lie to me, and if she was with Grace this morning, maybe things aren’t as they seem. Or, maybe Di is just trying to have us work things out because she and Grace really like each other.

Regardless, I still have an hour of my patrol. But suddenly, instead of dreading the end of my shift, I am looking forward to it.

“Come on, Rob, let’s get moving.” I call to him and his large, heavy feet pick up into a careful trot on the wet concrete.

I post with his rhythm, my heart racing with the anticipation of seeing Grace again.

The apartment looks quiet, the flickering of candlelight visible through the windows. Sighing, I turn off the Explorer and walk my weary body up the stairs to our door.

After spending eight hours on horseback in freezing rain, I feel like crap. I want a nice warm shower and a cup of hot chocolate and to lie in front of the fire with my Gracie.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, she is probably going to tell me that she’s tired of me and doesn’t want to be with me, the wedding proposal was stupid, and she’s leaving.

I know I’m being negative. Sometimes seeing things in the worst possible light makes whatever happens instead seem okay. According to Miranda, it’s a defense mechanism I’ve been using since I was a child. It’s easier for me to anticipate the worst so no matter what really happens; it’s not as bad as I expected. Pretty fucked up, I know.

My hands fumble and shake in the lock as I open the door. No dogs greet me, and there is no sign of Grace.

She’s gone? My heart almost bursts with agony until I hear a noise from the bedroom.

Instinctually, I know it is Grace. I pause to remove my boots and coat and as I make my way to the bedroom I self-consciously undo my hair from its ponytail and run a hand through it, trying to put it in some semblance of order.

The bedroom is filled with candlelight, and I spy Bean and Bella obediently lying in their beds, next to ours.

My eyes find their way to Grace, who is sitting cross-legged on our bed, wearing a creamy nightgown and holding her guitar. She has the sweetest smile on her face, and before I can do anything, she begins to softly play and sing.

“At last, my love has come along
my lonely days over
and life is like a song.
At last, the skies above are blue
well my heart was wrapped up in clover
the night I looked at you.

I found a dream
that I could speak to
a dream that I could call my own
I found a thrill
to press my cheek to
a thrill that I have never known

You smile
oh and then the spell was cast
and here we are in heaven
for you are mine at last.”

I am stunned speechless, and I stand in front of her with my mouth hanging open.

Grace looks at me shyly, putting down her guitar and crossing over to where I stand. She reaches her hand up to brush my rain-dampened hair back from my face.

“I love you.” She tells me earnestly. “Please always believe that.” Gracie gently tilts my head down to meet hers and brushes my lips with the faintest of kisses. “Nothing would please me more than to marry you on Valentine’s Day.”

My eyes close with joy as I bring her into my arms. Holding her close to me my senses are overwhelmed with everything that she is, the feel of her, her scent, her entire soul.

We must stand like this for hours, because when we finally break apart, my body is stiff and sore. Grace’s eyes are the color of the warmest Irish spring and sparkling tears overflow onto her cheeks.

“I didn’t know you could sing.” I tell her, finally finding my voice.

She shrugs self-depreciatingly. “I’ve never done it for anyone before.”

“Thank you. It was beautiful.” I tell her honestly. “Etta James, huh?”

Gracie smiles not only with her mouth, but her eyes as well. “It was the only song that really fit how I feel.” She purses her lips in thought. “I think that should be our song at the wedding, you know, the one we dance to.”

I smile so wide it makes my face hurt. “Yeah.”

We look at each other, and something so profound and deep passes through us that it makes me shiver. All my doubts, all my insecurities, suddenly vanish and all I can see is my everything standing in front of me.

“Come on, Spots. I need to get you into bed.” Grace tells me softly, taking my hand and leading me to the soft mattress. “And then we have a wedding to plan.”
I am home.
At last.

 

 

 

The End!

Continued in At Last 

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