Again By Kim Pritekel

Again
By Kim Pritekel

 

 

Part 1

 

The rain had stopped hours ago, but I continued to stare out the window anyway. Nothing better to do. I had yet to go see her, but was not able to get my mind off of it, and what inevitably will happen; Michael and Margaret Lodge, staring at me, glaring at me. Wondering to themselves how they ever could have allowed someone like me into their house, or into their very world. Well, as Margaret had told me long ago, my kind was devious.

I shook my head, crossing my arms tighter around myself. After nearly ten years they probably had yet to get over their childish prejudices. No matter. It wasn’t them that I was here for. Caden. She was what mattered. Why I had come back to Boston. I said I would never return, there was nothing for me there. Never was. But, now I had to concentrate on why I was back. What had brought me here. There really was only one person I could think of that was important enough for the trek. Hell, I hadn’t even bothered for my own father’s funeral three years ago.

“Hey, Laurel. How are you? Gooper here.”

“Gooper?” I thought for a moment, confused, then my eyes opened wide in recognition and surprise. “Mike? Mike Lodge the third?” I had been shocked to hear his voice on the other end of the line.

“Sure is. Been awhile, eh?”

“You could say that.” I smiled, leaning back against the floor-length windows of my studio. I motioned for the model to cover herself. “So to what do I owe this surprise? And how did you find me? San Diego is a far cry from Boston.” Michael chuckled.

“That it is. But, it’s not too hard to find Laurel Gleason. Hell, all I had to do was look on the back of one of your photographs hanging on my wall.” I laughed along with him. “Also, it helps to know a few folks who happen to know the great artiste.”

I shook my head again in wonder. “Yes, I suppose it does, and if you’ll give me their names, I’ll have them fired. So,” my voice trailed off, the question obvious.

“Ah, well, I wish I was making a social call, but unfortunately I’m not.” He sighed, and I began to worry. “Caden is asking for you.”

“What?” I stood straight up, my model looking at me in concern. I turned my back on her and began to pace. “What do you mean, asking for me? Why? What’s wrong?” Immediately my danger sense went off.

“Well, three months ago she was diagnosed with an Astrocytoma. In other words, brain cancer, right at the brain stem.”

“No.” I breathed. ” Is she okay? How serious is it?” my pulse began to race.

“Well, she’s going into surgery in three days. I don’t think it’s life-threatening, but, there’s always that chance. She wanted to see you before she goes in. So, here we are.”

I let out the breath I’d been holding, and closed my eyes, my hand on my forehead.

“Why did she ask for me, Mike?”

“I don’t know, Laurel. Perhaps she was worried about not making it. Tying up loose ends. Anyone’s guess. Will you come?” he asked after a slight pause of uncertainty. I stared out into the busy street below, my mind whirling. Coming to a decision, I nodded.

“I’ll be there tomorrow.”

****

I shivered and turned away from the cold glass, looked around the hotel room. They all began to look alike after awhile; bed, bathroom, kitchenette, a sitting room if you were lucky. Same smells, same empty feel. I was so glad that I didn’t travel much anymore. Getting a clientele near home was the best thing to happen to my career, and my sanity.

I sighed. I was having a hard time placing the Caden I had known with the woman that she was today. We were so different now. Me, single, career. Her, married, mother. Straight. I thought about the Caden I had known at Franklin & Marshall, beautiful and healthy. Tall with dark hair that fell just to her shoulders, hair that she used to love me running my hands through. Her eyes, a brilliant blue, vibrant, almost electric.

Was all this worth it? All that was over. We had been young, and trying to discover who we were. But still…

I walked over to the bed, laid back, hands behind my head, thought of the last day Caden and I had lived together as roommates…

****

“Why are you doing this?” I asked, my voice quiet, eyes swollen and red from hours of fighting and crying.

“I have to. You don’t understand.” Caden had said, her back to me as she continued to pack, carefully folding every article of clothing, neatly fitting all she owned into her suitcases.

“You’re right. I don’t understand.” I sighed, and stood from the bed, walking to the door. “And I guess our friendship doesn’t mean enough to you to tell me? All I want to do is help.” Caden stopped for a moment, looked at me over her shoulder, her blue eyes sad and hopeless.

“You can’t help me, Laurel. No one can.” Then she gave me her back again. I felt another tear begin to slide down my cheek but didn’t bother to swipe at it, letting it fall. I decided to try a different tactic.

“What about being a doctor, Caden? That is what you’ve wanted to do your entire life. Why are you throwing it all away? What is worth tossing your dreams?” she didn’t’ answer. I tried to stare a hole through her, make her see with just the power of my eyes. Nothing. “Okay.” I whispered, and left the room.

The small apartment I shared with Caden was a couple blocks away from our college, so I headed for the F&M campus, usually my place to go to think or be alone. Fall was on its way as late September crept in. I hadn’t changed out of my sweat shorts, which had been a mistake, so I found a bench, and sat down, curling my legs up to my chest. The night sky was filled with stars, barely perceptible above the lights of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Not even countable, but comforting to know that they were still there, still to be counted on, stability. I needed stability in my life, and Caden had been mine. Until that night. My family had been rocky, and I had been on my own for too many years. Caden had been the one thing that I could look at and know it would still look the same. Like a reflection of a friend, always there for you.

Not anymore.

I buried my face in my knees, the cold skin making me shiver. What was she not telling me?

“Hey.”

I looked up, startled. Caden was looking down at me, her hands buried in the pockets of her jacket. I didn’t say anything, just looked up at her. She sat next to me, taking the windbreaker off, putting it around my shoulders, then straddled the bench so she could face me.

“You looked cold.” She said. I snorted.

“Probably cause I am.”

“Guess so.” She looked down at her thigh, fingering the material of her jeans nervously. She began to speak, but stopped herself, instead taking a deep breath, then the words spilled out, “I’m pregnant.”

My head shot up, and I looked over at her, mouth agape. “What?” her head fell even lower as she nodded.

“I found out two weeks ago. I couldn’t tell you, Laurel. I was too ashamed.” I was speechless as I looked at her profile, trying to read something in it, to no avail.

“I don’t understand. Who? When? How could this happen?” My heart dropped into my stomach. Caden was not just my best friend, but I was also completely in love with her. I felt betrayed, which was absolutely absurd. I had no claim on her, no rights at all. We had said things, but still. She was not mine.

“Troy.” She whispered. “Over the summer.”

“Oh.” I said, my voice filled with defeat. Finally she looked at me, tears in her eyes, which took me aback for a moment. I don’t think I had ever seen her cry. “I didn’t realize, I guess.”

“There was nothing to realize, Laurel. We weren’t serious. It just happened.”

“What are you going to do? Why are you leaving school? You’re almost done. We have a semester and a half to go!” I turned on the bench to face her, feeling the pain come off her in waves. “And you’ve already been accepted at Stanford for med school.” I felt sick.

“I know, but I have to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I have to tell him still.” She covered her face with her hands, her sob muffled before it was cut off. She looked up, past me, her eyes red and angry. “God forbid something happen to the Lodge name.” She spat, then buried her face in her hands again as she began to really sob. “God, why me?” I felt my stomach lurch as I saw my friend fall apart. Scooting closer to her, I gathered her into my arms, rocking her gently back and forth, her fingers digging into the skin of my arms painfully. I didn’t care. She was my best friend, and I’d be there for her no matter what.

****

If only she’d let me.

I laid in the dark on that hard mattress, staring up into the dark ceiling, thinking. I had been so shocked to hear the news of the impending baby. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that. Not Caden. I had not heard her talk about Troy for over a month, and figured that it was over. Well, had hoped, was more the word. I smiled into the darkness. How hopeless I had been then…

****

I was excited as the first day of college loomed just up ahead. My family was not a wealthy one, but I was still determined to go to a good school, and not some community college in Southie. I wanted a four-year degree, to be the only one in the Gleason family to get one. My dream was to be an artist, and only the very best would get me there. In school I had fought to get the best grades, and the effort paid off as I graduated with nearly perfect grades, and was granted a full scholarship to Franklin & Marshall college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The excitement had raced through me like adrenalin the day I got my acceptance letter.

“Laurel, get your mail from the table.” My mother had yelled from the utility room where she had been folding laundry. I dropped my backpack onto a kitchen chair, then looked through the pile of paper, and old newspapers stacked on the table. There it was.

To Laurel M. Gleason from Franklin & Marshall Office of Admission.

Without a second of hesitation, I ripped the envelope open, and poured over the words, my brows raising higher with every word.

“Yes!” Jumping into the air, my boots coming down on the old, stained kitchen tile with a thud. “I got it! I got in!”

“What the hell is all the ruckus about!” my father stormed as he flew down the stairs. He wore his usual, stained undershirt and wrinkled work pants. Doesn’t the guy ever shower? I turned to him, waving the letter madly in front of his face. The guy was a bastard, but I didn’t care. At that point I would have showed the devil himself.

“I got in!”

“Got in where?!”

I could see he was getting irritated with the mystery, so I handed him the letter.

“They’re going to pay for me, too!” my father took the paper, looked at it, his perpetual scowl in place. He raised a hand and scratched at the stubble on his chin before green eyes looked at me. He nodded with a small smile.

“Good for you, kid.” He said, and walked away, tossing the paper onto the table and grabbing a beer out of the fridge before plopping his weight into a squeaky chair. Okay. Score one. I grabbed my letter, and headed to the utility room, thrusted it in front of my mother. She looked at me, startled and annoyed.

“Read.” I said, grinning from ear to ear. She took the glasses from on top of her head, and placed them on her nose, squinting through the lenses, the prescription never right in them. She looked up at me, a smile on her face.

“Oh, Laurel.” She carefully folded the paper, and set it on top of the dryer, turning to me, gathering me into a warm embrace. I found myself wanting to lose myself in that show of support. I had needed it my whole life, and my mother had done her best under the ever watchful eye of my father. “I’m so proud of you, honey.” She pushed me away slightly, and looked into my eyes, her hands on my shoulders. I looked into her tired face. “You go out there, and blow them all away. Make me proud as you always have. Do what I never did, and what your father and brother won’t do,” she looked toward the kitchen to make sure Derek Gleason wasn’t paying attention. ” Don’t you let yourself get sucked into this kind of life, honey. It’s not worth it.” I stared at her, dumbstruck. My father was a hard man, and one I certainly didn’t understand, but I had no idea that my mother had such strong regrets about her life. I suddenly felt so sad. I also felt the need to get out of the house, and away from my family, stronger than ever before.

Up in my room, I laid on the floor, my radio on low next to my head. The smile wouldn’t leave my lips as the music disappeared, and my future came into focus. I pictured myself living in the south of France, my paints next to me as I studied my model, pallet in hand, blank canvas before me, just waiting for me to weave my magic.

I sighed in contentment. Someday.

****

I wrote down my calls as I checked my voice mail, then looked into the mirror again with a sigh. I looked good, wearing comfortable cords, a cream-colored Henley, and hiking boots. With one last swipe of my hand through short, blonde hair, I was ready to go.

It was the day before Caden’s surgery, and she had asked for her and I to have a day together. I must admit I was somewhat surprised by this request. What did we have to talk about? I knew nothing about the life she led now, nor did I really want to venture into her life again. Some lessons are best learned once…

****

“Hey, Laurel, here’s your mail.” Stacey dropped the letters onto my desk before leaving the apartment to go on to work. Stacey Keller had taken Caden’s place as my roommate. I muttered a thanks, and pushed the mail aside as I finished my sketch, my final painting coming to life before my eyes in black and white.

Hours later I stood, stretching my tortured back, arms above my head. I glanced down, looking critically at my self-portrait. Squinting, I canted my head to the side, grinning at how well I had captured the color of my eyes, and the expression on my face. Nodding approvingly, I saw the forgotten mail, and one letter in particular that made me stop, mid-reach.

It was from Caden.

I sat on the edge of the desk, staring at the plain white envelope for a moment before I slowly tore it open. Inside was a simple card, hand written message on the inside.

Hello, Laurel. I hope you are doing well. I heard that Stacey moved in. I’m glad. It helps with the rent, I suppose.

Well, I guess I’ll get to the point. I’m sure you’re busy during finals, and everything. I’m getting married. Troy asked, and I accepted. I am excited about it. We figure a child should have its mother and its father, so all around, everyone will be happier. I hope you will come.

I miss you, and hope you are doing good. Congratulations on graduating soon. I wish I were there with you. Do you still intend on taking the trip across the country that we planned?

Isn’t life funny.

Love,

Caden

I read the card again. Happier for everyone? Caden’s mother most of all to be sure. I turned the card over, noting the time, place and day. It was only two weeks away.

I crumpled the card in my hand and stared at my reflection in the glass, trying to decide what to do. The girl staring back at me looked confused and unsure. After what we had admitted to each other, she wanted me to see her marry a man, vowing to spend the rest of her life with him? And how could she bring up our trip? We both had spent hours upon hours talking about it, discussing it, planning for it. I think it had even been her idea.

I tossed the card, a satisfying thud as it landed in the bottom of my trash can.

****

The drive to Beacon Hill was pleasant, the area always amazing me, my artist’s eye in ecstasy as I looked at the tree-lined streets, the large, spacious brownstones looming up ahead, incredible in their age-defying beauty. I hadn’t seen the magnificence of the prestigious neighborhood since early college. It hadn’t changed at all, but was still stunning.

I drove my rented Ford Explorer slowly down Mt. Vernon Street, looking at the huge houses on the hill before I reached the estate belonging to Michael and Margaret Lodge. I would have loved to photograph some of them. Maybe I would make some time during my stay in Boston.

The Lodge house was beautiful, all brick, nearly two hundred years old. The six chimneys reaching proudly into the heavens, the tall windows gazing out like huge eyes forbidding anyone to enter uninvited. Caden had once told me that the estate had cost her great grandfather close to two million dollars nearly a century ago. I could only imagine what the cost would be today.

I whistled through my teeth as I pulled up to the wrought-iron privacy gate, the security box next to my open window.

“Can I help you?” asked a deep voice from the black speaker.

“Laurel Gleason.”

“One moment, please.” I tapped the steering wheel as I waited, watching as a couple birds took flight out of a near-bye tree. “Come in.”

Within seconds the large gate opened, and I pulled forward, marveling at the ornately carved L at the center. The driveway was long and winding, tall trees on either side of the road surrounded by acres of grass. Horses could be seen in the distance, running or grazing. Out buildings could also be seen; one or two were guest houses, others were pool houses or sheds.

Just above the tree-line, the chimneys came into view, the first thing you saw of the magnificent house. Incredible. I thought of the first time Caden had ever taken me home. It had been our sophomore year. My eyes had been the size of saucers, never being so close to anything so splendid.

I pulled up into the circular drive, noting the Ferrari Testarossa that was parked just in front of my Explorer, its candy-apple red paint flawless. Wanting to run my hand down the fine lines of the car, but not daring enough to set off a million alarms, and the attack dogs, I walked to the front door instead. The double doors with beveled glass stood before me. Seeing the door bell, I pushed it, and waited. Didn’t have to wait long, however. The right door opened, and Mildred, the maid of twenty years, answered, her gentle, yet greatly aged, face looking up at me.

“Laurel. How lovely to see you again.” She smiled, miles of wrinkles lining her face, yet youthful blue eyes sparkled.

“Hello, Mildred. How are you?” I returned the smile, and walked over the threshold as the older woman stepped back and aside.

“Well, can’t complain too much, I suppose. I’m sorry mistress Caden has been so ill.”

“Yes. It’s been very difficult, I’m sure. Where is she?” I looked around the large foyer, the marble floor polished to perfection.

“The library.”

“Thank you.” I smiled again, and headed down the main hall. Butterflies began beating around my ribcage as I got closer, able to hear pages in a book being turned. With a deep breath, I entered into the large, dark paneled room. A fire was popping softly in the fireplace giving the room a warm glow as the overcast weather outside darkened the day.

Everything was as it had been before. Same furniture, dark, impressive in its ornate carvings, same art work on the walls, and mostly the same books. The collection had grown, though. I looked to the Victorian chair near the fire, its ivory upholstery as elegant as ever.

“Hello, Caden.” Blue eyes looked up at me, wide with surprise, then narrowing slightly with nervous caution as pale, thin hands grasped the arms of the chair.

“Hello, Laurel.” A slow, unsure smile spread across her thin face. “Thank you for coming.” I looked at her, surprised at what I saw. She was much thinner than I remembered, and her hair was much shorter, nearly as short as mine. Just as Michael warned me, her facial muscles had been affected by the pressure from the tumor. The right side drooped a bit, making her normally crooked smile that much more so, also causing her right eye to look heavily lidded.

My heart clenched in my chest, and I leaned against the doorframe. It had been such a long time, and feelings and emotions from the past grabbed me suddenly. All I wanted to do was find some way to leave, to leave that behind me. But, here my past sat, right before me.

Caden’s soft voice brought me out of my panic.

“I know I look different.” She reached up a hand, and ran her fingers through the short, dark strands on her head. “Got a hair cut.” The crooked smile again. I smiled in return. “How are you?”

I shrugged, taking a step into the room, sitting on the hearth, not far from her, my hands folded in my lap. “I’m good. To be honest, it was actually kind of nice to leave the city for a bit, head out here. See you, though I must say, I was pretty surprised when Mike called.”

Caden nodded, looking down at the restless fingers in her lap, tapping the cover of the closed book. “I’m sure. I hope I didn’t interrupt anything too important?” she looked at me briefly, blue eyes hopeful, before quickly looking away. I shook my head with a smile, reaching out to put my hand on her knee.

“Not at all.” To my surprise she laid her hand on top of mine, squeezing my fingers almost painfully.

“Thank you, Laurel.” She said, her voice almost urgent. I looked at her, stunned by the intensity.

“Sure.” The fingers began to gently stroke my own.

“You look good.” She said, looking at my clothing, and up to my eyes, taking in everything. “I hear you’ve done very well for yourself in California. My brother owns quite a bit of your work.”

“Yes. He told me.” I looked down at our fingers, surprised that I felt a surge of warmth. I had missed her friendship.

“I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“Me, too.”

****

First day of college! I unloaded my Volks, loaded all my stuff into Marshall-Buchanan dorm, carrying as much of my crap in one trip as I could, up to the third floor, room number 303.

Panting, I dropped my two duffel bags, and one backpack, onto the floor, and dug my key out of my pocket. Just about to insert it into the lock, the door opened, and standing before me was my roommate. I looked her up and down, noting how tall she was. I glanced down to see her light khaki cotton skirt, long, tanned legs coming out the bottom with sandals on her feet. My eyes trailed up to her sleeveless, blue knit top, and necklace with a single diamond hanging down in the hollow of her throat.

She stopped short, surprised to see me.

“I apologize. Didn’t know anyone was there.” She breathed, her hand on her chest. I shrugged.

“Eh, s’okay. Happens a lot.” I smiled, and got a weak smile in return.

“Are you the O.A.?”

“Who?”

“The O.A. Orientation Advisor? Aren’t you bringing this girl’s luggage to the room?” she pointed at my bags, looking at me curiously. I snorted.

“Hell no! No one offered me bell boy service. This luggage belongs to this girl.” I pointed at my chest with a smile. “I’m Laurel Gleason.” I extended my hand out to her. She looked at it for a moment, then back to my face.

“Caden Lodge.” She took my hand in a dainty shake that belied her height. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Oh yeah, this would definitely be an interesting semester.

“Wait, wait, wait! What are you doing? You do not wash reds with darks. Have you never washed clothes before?” I stared at her, incredulous at my roommate of three months’ outburst. I had never heard her so much as raise her voice let alone get huffy. I grinned. Wrong thing to do. “What is so funny, Laurel? I’m quite serious.”

“Oh.” Chuckle. “Sorry. Um, yeah, I’ve done laundry before. Never separated it into a thousands piles, though.” I stared down at the floor, my two piles, whites and darks, that Caden was quickly breaking down further into smaller ones.

“Your clothes will last much longer if you do it this way.” She said with a satisfied nod.

“Yeah, but my detergent won’t.” I glared up at her, she shrugged.

“I’ll buy next time.”

****

Café Rolland was in the heart of Boston, the old city all around us. We sat near the window, watching people walk by, most looking right back in at us.

“So, what do you do?” I asked, looking at Caden who picked at her salad. She glanced up at me for a moment, then looked back down as she forked a crouton.

“Not much. It’s pretty much a full-time job just to be a mom.”

“A mom?” I looked at her, my brows drawn. I knew she had a child, but had never let myself really think about it. “What do you have?” I couldn’t help but realize just how sad it was that I had no clue if Caden had had a boy or a girl, nor their name or even age.

“My daughter, Annie, will be ten this year.” I stared, stunned.

“Ten?” I blurted. Caden nodded with a small smile.

“It’s gone so fast, I know.” She sipped from her tea glass, softly setting it back down. I watched the movement, graceful hands with neatly manicured nails. Just as they always were. “She is really a great kid.”

“Is she back at your parent’s house?” I asked, pushing my near empty plate away. Caden looked down at the few pieces of food I had left, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

“What happened to your ravenous appetite, Laurel?” I smiled with a shrug.

“On the backside of twenty. Can’t eat like a pig forever.” We both smiled knowingly.

“Anyway, Annie is with her father this week.”

“With her father? What, I don’t understand. Aren’t you and Troy still married?” The words tumbled from my mouth sounding bitter. I felt childish as I glanced down at my plate. Caden sat back in her chair, trying to get comfortable, seemingly not affected by the brash tone of my voice. I was grateful.

“Troy and I have separated.” I was surprised at the tone, matter-of-fact, almost cold.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. When?”

“Ten months ago. I want a divorce, but he won’t grant me one.” I looked at her, my head canted to the side.

“Why?” troubled blue eyes looked at me. She bit her lip before she answered.

“My guess is he doesn’t think three affairs with three different women, nor the years of mental abuse I’ve taken from the bastard qualifies for a divorce.” We stared at each other for a moment, she almost challenging me to say anything different. I could see the pain in her eyes.

The moment held, and I wondered what to do to break it. I was uncomfortable, the soul-seeking intensity in Caden’s eyes was almost too much for me to take. I felt as if she was trying to read every thought in my head.

I cleared my throat, looking out at the street. Gathering my thoughts and myself together, I turned back to my old friend with a smile.

“It was really nice to be back here to the café. I was glad you chose it.” Caden returned my smile.

“Yes. I thought it would be a very appropriate place to go, considering.”

I smiled with a small nod, looking down at the tablecloth that my fingers had began to caress. I didn’t know what to say to her. So much time, and so much water had passed under that bridge, and I didn’t know how to get it back.

“Well, do you have a picture of Annie?” I was suddenly very curious to see what the child that Caden and Troy had produced. As it was, I couldn’t quite reconcile with the idea that she had a child at all.

“Of course.” I watched as she grabbed her purse from the floor under her chair, and began to dig through it, suddenly a renewed spirit filling her.

Caden had changed since we had been in college, but in so many ways she was just the same. Physically, anyway. I didn’t know her anymore. I had wondered if I ever really did. She never truly showed me her true self; only what she wanted me to see. That fact had haunted me for years. I had given her my all, and she had given what was appropriate.

I sighed quietly. Maybe at the time that was all she could give.

“Here you are.”

I looked at the hand that was extended across the table, a snapshot in her fingers. With a nervous smile, I took the picture, looking down at it. I stared, transfixed. I was looking into the eyes of a much younger Caden. The blue eyes shone with the same brilliant light, the same vigor and life. The girl was much shorter than I imagined her mother was at nine, but the hair, the eyes, the bone structure, were all the same.

I glanced up into expectant eyes. I smiled. “She’s absolutely beautiful, Caden. Looks just like her mother.” The softest smile spread across her face as she looked into my eyes.

“Thank you, Laurel. I’m anxious for you to meet her.” I could see the love for that little girl radiated from her in waves. “She’s heard a lot about you.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised. “What she’s heard, is that recent, or has she ever heard my name before now?” Caden stared at me, her face, as usual, unreadable. Part of me regretted asking, but another part of me wondered. Had I just come back into the picture, and Caden’s mind because of her illness? Had she ever given me any thought in the decade past? I’d probably never know.

Caden looked down, taking the picture I handed back to her, quietly putting it back into her purse.

“I wanted you to be her god mother. Troy would hear nothing of it.” She said softly, her eyes still on her bag. I stared, stunned, then I felt like an ass.

“I’m sorry. I guess coming back here has sort of brought the bitterness of the past back, too.” Blue eyes looked at me, understanding evident. She nodded.

“I can see why. I’m sure there’s not a whole lot I can say to erase the pain you felt all those years ago back at F&M, so all I can say is that I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you, or keep you out of my life, Laurel.”

“Then why did you?”

“I didn’t feel I had a choice at the time. I was young, inexperienced, and weak. I know that now. I’m sorry.”

I nodded, smiling slightly. I did truly accept her apology, but there were still so many questions I wanted to ask, so many things I wanted to know. Mainly, how could she let go of her dream? Back in those days being a doctor had been what her core had been made of. All she ever wanted to do. I wondered if that driving need was still in there somewhere.

“It’s okay. Now with some retrospect, and maturity, I can see how things happen.” I began to play with my napkin, fingers twisting it into a rope. Caden followed my movements with her eyes.

“I think you’re about to kill it.” She grinned. I glanced down at my strangled napkin, and smiled, releasing it, tossing it back to the table. “Thank you.” Our eyes met as we shared a smile, and then the moment was gone.

“For what?” Caden shrugged, dark bangs falling down into her eyes. She pushed them aside, and took a deep breath.

“For being who you are. For being here when I had no right to expect you to be. I guess just thank you for so many reasons. For trying to be there so many years ago, even if I wouldn’t listen. I did hear you, Laurel. I just couldn’t turn away from my responsibilities.” She tapped the her purse that still sat in her lap. “Annie means the world to me. I’d be lost without her.” She looked at me with beseeching eyes. “Please understand I did what I had to do.” I stared at her, moved by her honesty, and quiet pleading for understanding. Finally I nodded.

“I forgave you years ago, Caden.” My voice was quiet, my heart in my words. A smile spread across her face, white and perfect, slightly crooked from the affects of the tumor. She said nothing, but instead picked up the ticket on the edge of our table, and stood.

“This one’s on me.”

****

Caden had asked me to stay at the house and join her and her family for coffee, but I refused. I couldn’t bare to spend any more time with Margaret Lodge than was absolutely necessary. So, I headed back to my hotel room, awaiting the morning when I’d have to head to the hospital in Boston.

Restless, I wondered around town for a bit, walking to release some of my pent-up energy, but to no avail. Back at the hotel I took my sketch pad from the Explorer, and began to draw, my pencil held gingerly in my fingers, the tip barely brushing over the surface of the paper. My eyes were on the lines, but my mind was in the past.

****

“Okay. I want you to brace yourself. My house is kind of big, and my parents are mostly snobs. So don’t be offended.”

“Wonderful. Can’t wait to meet them.” I mumbled as I looked out the window of Caden’s midnight black Porsche 911 Turbo. I always felt so strange riding in such a car. The type of thing I could only wish to see on television, certainly never dreaming of my best friend owning one! Especially at eighteen.

The top was down, the wind rushing through our hair as Caden expertly steered the small car through traffic on our way to the Lodge estate.

“The tops of those chimneys over there? That’s my house.”

The closer we got to the mansion, the bigger my eyes got. I was absolutely shocked, and intimidated by the shear size and wealth of it.

“You grew up here?” I asked, my voice low, almost as if in a respectful whisper. Caden chuckled, glancing over at me as she punched in some numbers into the code box below the speaker. The gate opened a moment later, and we were driving again.

“Born and raised. This is the family home. My grandfather bought the place a long time ago. He was a senator, and made a lot of money.”

I nodded dumbly, looking in awe at the land, the stables, then the house. Caden pulled the Porsche into the driveway, and I sat, frozen to my seat, looking up at the magnificent house. Caden, who had opened her car door, looked over at me.

“You coming?” I looked at her, and she smiled. “It’s okay. Come on.” With a deep breath, I opened my door, and grabbed my overnight bag, followed her inside. The double doors we passed through arched, dark wood with elegant etched glass. Once inside I couldn’t help but look around, my mouth hanging open. The floor of the foyer was made of marble, the mid-day sun streaming in from the stained glass windows above the front doors shone on it, blue, red and green. Beautifully carved, expensive furniture lined the wall, a large wall mirror above the small table that held a crystal vase of roses.

“Those are from my mother’s prized gardens.” Caden explained. I reached out, lightly touching the soft, delicate petal of one. They were beautiful, full, and bright. Some of the most incredible roses I’d ever seen.

Off to the right was a door, stained a dark wood like the front doors, and beyond looked to be a room with some expensive-looking couches and a baby grand piano, and one of the fireplaces. Caden must have seen my confusion.

“That’s a sitting room.” I looked at her as if she’d grown another head. What the hell was a sitting room? “When my parents have guests, that’s where they go.”

“Ah.”

To the left of the front door was an archway, and beyond what looked to be a den or living room, much like the sitting room, but looked less formal. Just ahead was a beautiful staircase that seemed to wrap around the entire room. I looked on in awe, the dark, carved wood banister and hand rail that led to the second floor, then continued on to the third.

“Wow.” I breathed.

An older woman had opened the door for us, and to my surprise, hugged Caden.

“Hello, miss. So good to see you.” She said, her smile wide and warm. She looked to me, extending a similar smile.

“Mildred, this is my friend from school, Laurel Gleason. Laurel, Mildred. She’s been here longer than I have.” Caden laughed as she was lightly tapped on the arm by the woman.

“Oh, that is not true. But nearly so.” The older woman said, gently patting her graying hair that was pulled back into a net bun. She wore a pressed uniform dress that was dark blue, the white collar starched and neatly buttoned.

“Nice to meet you.” I said, wondering if these people actually had servants. Never in my life had I seen anything like it except in the movies.

“Are mother and father home?” Caden asked, handing Mildred her purse and coat, and nodding for me to give the maid my coat also.

“Well, your father is out, but I believe your mother is in the kitchen with Antonio.”

“Great. Thank you.” Mildred nodded and smiled at me as we headed toward the hall straight ahead. As we walked, I looked around at the intricate molding near the unbelievably tall ceilings, and the rich wood work around the doorframes and baseboards. The art work on the walls was obviously originals, and I wanted to stop so badly and examine each one, but kept up with Caden’s long strides around the main floor, behind the massive staircase, and into a kitchen that I think my house in Southie would easily fit inside of.

Standing near the large, stainless steel refrigerator was a woman with medium length, medium brown hair, slim figure, not as tall as Caden, but taller than me, talking to a good-looking man with dark hair, and black eyes.

“Well, I’d say you’re doing just fine, Antonio. After all, you do use your knife well.” The woman said, her voice low and teasing. I watched the two interact, finding it interesting. The body language was close and flirtatious, but I didn’t want to make any assumptions. Maybe that’s how Caden’s mother acted with everyone. Yeah, right.

“Mother.” I could hear the irritation in my friend’s voice. Margaret Lodge quickly turned, wiping the smile off her face quickly. The cook turned back to his cutting board and his vegetables.

“Darling!’ Margaret walked over to her daughter, her silky clothing blowing out around her body, making her seem to float with her graceful movements. “How are you, love?” she took her daughter’s face between heavily ringed fingers, bringing her in for a kiss upon both cheeks. Caden looked miserable and slightly embarrassed. Mrs. Lodge stepped back from her, taking a hand in both of hers, lifting Caden’s long arms out to either side of her body, and looked her over. Caden looked good in a pair of pressed chinos, a blue satin blouse, and black leather boots. “You look marvelous, my love.” She looked her over again, carefully shaped brows drew. “However, you are thin, love. You really must eat better. Your clothes are hanging off of you. They’re not cheap, you know. We bought them to fit you, Caden.”

“Thank you, mother. You look beautiful, too.” Caden looked down at herself. “I know. I’ve just been so busy, and have no time. I’ll try and eat better. Mother, this is my friend and roommate I told you about, Laurel Gleason. Laurel, my mother, Margaret Lodge.”

I smiled shyly, extending my hand to her. The woman looked me over, paying special attention to my clothing. I wondered if the sweater Caden had loaned me would pass the test. But then, I figured my cheap jeans would spoil the image that I had any idea or clue about dress. Finally she took my hand, hers cold and impersonal.

“Nice to meet you, Laurel. Where are you from, dear?”

“South Boston.”

“Oh? Which part?”

“So, mom. What’s for dinner? We’re starving.”

I looked to Caden who looked right back at me. Relieved, I smiled slightly at her, then turned my attention to Antonio who Margaret seemed to be completely fine giving her attention to.

“Well, this is our new chef, Antonio. He’s wonderful.”

“I’m sure he is.” Caden muttered. I swallowed a chuckle.

“Antonio, say hello to my daughter Caden and her little friend, Laurel.”

The young chef turned around to face us, wiping his large hands on the apron her wore. He smiled at us, dimples winking from either side of his full-lipped mouth.

“A pleasure.” He said, his voice deep, accent thick. His dark eyes were sexy, and managed to wonder to Margaret, and often. “It’s been a wondrous experience to work for your mother. She is a woman of impeccable taste.” He smiled broadly at her, then at us. Personally I wanted to puke, but Caden seemed a bit miffed.

“Nice to meet you, Antonio.” She said, then turned away from him, back to her mother. “Where is father, mother?” I could see Caden’s jaw muscle working as she tried to keep her emotions under control.

“Oh, he had a business trip in Vancouver. He should be back in the morning.” Margaret sighed, and began walking toward the hall. “Oh, dinner is set for seven-thirty. I’m having a few friends over, so you two can entertain yourselves, I’m sure.”

“Mother, you knew I was coming home this weekend with Laurel.” Her mother turned in the doorway.

“Yes,”

“Well, why would you plan something?”

“Darling, my friends always come over the first Friday of the month for dinner. You know that. Perhaps you should have planned your trip for a Saturday instead.” With the kiss that Margaret had blown to her daughter still hanging in the air, and a whoosh of silk, Margaret Lodge was gone.

****

The sun was just beginning to rise above the tree-line, it’s intense, early morning rays shining through the thin strip between the closed curtains of my hotel room window. I squinted, raising a hand to cover my eyes. With a groan I barely opened one, just to close it again.

“God, it’s too early for this.” I jumped then as the bedside alarms blared to life, the nerve rattling buzz bouncing around in my head. With the slam of my palm, the clock went silent. Five-fifteen in the morning. No way. Caden’s surgery was set for seven, and she asked me to be there when she went in. So, I forced myself to sit up and face the day.

The spray from the shower was warm as I leaned against the cool tile wall, a groan falling from my lips. My internal clock was completely confused. San Diego time, it was just after three in the morning. Definitely for the birds. But, alas; Caden was worth it. I knew she was scared, and I wanted to be there for her. I was also looking forward to seeing the Gooper again.

****

I watched Caden, her shoulders drooped, her demeanor changed. She sat on her bed, the antique four-poster with the beautiful ivory-colored silk canopy. Her room was enormous, her own bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub in the corner separate from the full-size shower. Huge windows lined one wall filling the room with light and warmth from the late afternoon sun. I stood at the center of the room, not sure what to do, or where to go.

After leaving the kitchen, we had headed straight up the stairs to the third floor, bypassing the rest of the tour. I wasn’t sure what exactly she was bothered by the most. It wasn’t long before I found out.

Caden sighed quietly, then stood, walking over to the massive armoire, looking into the mirrored doors, turning this way and that. Finally she looked back at me.

“Do I look too thin to you, Laurel?” I looked at her body, tall and well proportioned. I’d never really given it much thought, but as I looked at her I realized just how beautiful she really was. Next thing I know, I’m staring. “Laurel?” I blinked rapidly, looking like I’d just been hit.

“Oh, um, no. I don’t really, um, think you’re too thin.” I turned away, feeling completely stupid. “Actually, um, I think you look really good. Really, um, pretty.” I looked down at the white carpet, my fingers twisting around each other until one of the joints cracked, making me wince.

Caden looked at me, her face softening. “Really?” she asked, her voice almost full of wonder. What, didn’t people tell her that on a regular basis?

“Well, yeah.”

“That is so sweet.” I felt myself blushing from the roots of my hair down to the soles of my Reeboks.

“Um, sure.” I rocked slightly on my heels, looking away.

“Do you think my mother is fucking the chef?”

My head shot up, my eyes wide. I couldn’t stop the smile of surprise from spreading across my face. “What?”

“I think she is. It wouldn’t be the first time.” Caden turned back to the armoire, opening it up to reveal an entire stock of clothing. Probably more in that piece of furniture than I owned at all.

“Well, to be honest, Caden, I’m not real sure on that one. I guess it’s possible.” That had been my first thought, but I just didn’t feel the need to stomp all over the poor girl’s mother. Personally just on my first impression of the woman, I did not like her one bit. An impression that unfortunately would not go away.

As the night wore on, Caden and I sat cross-legged on her massive king-sized bed, and talked. We talked about everything and nothing; parents, brothers, and school. But, mostly we talked about our dreams.

Caden laid back on the bad, stretching her long legs out, crossing them at the ankles, and stared up at the underside of her canopy.

“I’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since I can remember, Laurel. It’s all I want to do.” She turned to look at me. I could see the love in her eyes, the hope and ambition. “My father wants me to follow in his footsteps, telling me that I have a mind like his, and would do wonderful in the business world. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t give a damn about all this.” She raised her hand, indicating the room, and all the obvious money behind it.

“Well, going into medicine can be pretty lucrative.” I said, running my hand over the soft down comforter.

“Yeah,” Caden shrugged. “But that’s not the point. I mean, hell, I’d be willing to go practice in some tiny little town somewhere, just a blurb on a very detailed map.”

“My friend, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

“Exactly!” I saw the spark light in those blue eyes, and my spirits began to soar. I loved nothing more than for the often emotionless Caden to be filled with fire about something. Everything just seemed to not matter to her, or she refused to show that it did. That bothered me. “Don’t you see, Laurel? Being a doctor is as much about passion, devotion, and understanding than anything else. It makes me so sad that most don’t see it that way, or those that do in the beginning, lose it. The all mighty dollar.”

As my friend began to really get into the groove, I watched her, her face flushed, her hands moving wildly as she explained all the intricate little details of medicine, and where she wanted to study it, and under whom. I couldn’t help but smile. What a wonderful sight to see. I would love for someone so dedicated to their dream to be my doctor.

“You’ll make an incredible doctor someday, Caden.” She stopped mid-lecture and looked at me, her eyes still open wide, hands wrapped around the handle on her armoire. A slow smile spread, like a sunrise, lightening up her face.

“Thank you, Laurel. That means a lot.” I smiled with a nod. I believed it, and wanted her to believe it.

****

I drove around the hospital parking lot, unbelievably busy even at the ridiculous hour in the morning that I had to be there. Finally spotting a Mercedes that was pulling out, I pushed on the gas, trying to get three rows over before anyone else grabbed it.

I pulled the brake, and sat for a moment, staring out the windshield of the Explorer, the massive building just at the end of the lot. Caden was already there, her family by her side, I imagined. I grabbed the book I’d brought to read, and headed out into the fresh morning air the was promising a beautiful day. I hoped that was a good omen for Caden.

****

Caden and I held eye contact across her massive room, the soft smile still planted firmly on her face when a knock sounded on the door.

“Come in.” she called out, turning back to the armoire, pulling out a pair of flannel pants. She turned to me, “Want a pair to lounge around in? They’re really comfortable.”

I looked at what she held in her hand, never seeing flannel pants before. “Um, sure.”

The bedroom door opened, and a tall, well-built guy walked in.

“Michael!” Caden exclaimed, running into awaiting arms. “My god! Mother didn’t tell me you were coming home this weekend.”

“Not a surprise now, is it?” the hug was large and strong. Finally Caden pulled away and turned to me, her hand still on his shoulder.

“Laurel, this is my brother, Michael Cooper Lodge.”

My brows drew, not hearing her completely. “Gooper?” Michael chuckled, Caden looked at my like I’d lost my mind.

“No. Cooper.” She said again, emphasizing the c sound. Feeling like a complete idiot, I blushed furiously, which made me feel even more stupid.

“Oh. Sorry. Hello, Michael Cooper Lodge. I’m Laurel Michelle Gleason.” I stepped forward, my hand stretched toward him. He was a good-looking guy, tall like his sister, but his frame was thin like their mother. His hair was dark like Caden’s, but his eyes were a strange green/gray mixture. He wore pressed khakis, and a sweater. He was clean cut, and looked like that all-American college student.

“Nice to meet you, Laurel. I’m Michael, or Gooper. Whichever you prefer.” His smile was warm and inviting. Caden watched us, her eyes darting back and forth from one to the other. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the wheels were turning in there. Oh, goodie. “Well, I’ll leave you ladies for now. Caden, I’d like to have dinner with you and Laurel tonight, if you don’t mind?” he looked from one to the other, smiling and winking at me before he turned his full attention to his sister.

“Oh, yes. Definitely. We can meet you in the non-formal in a bit if you want?”

“See you there.”

****

My hiking boots made a loud thud on the highly polished floor as I made my way to the third floor. I carried a bouquet of fresh flowers in one hand, my novel in the other. Finally I found where I needed to be, and walked inside. The room was pretty stark of any color or adornments, save for a couple of plants and vases of flowers that had obviously been sent in for Caden. The narrow hospital bed was to the right, and a couple of uncomfortable-looking chairs next to the bed. I looked around to see who had already shown.

From the back she looked basically as she had so many years ago. Her brown hair was the exact same color, yet cut a bit shorter. She was about the same size. I figured in my head how old Margaret Lodge would be now, and figured in her mid-fifties somewhere. She stood next to the bed, arms crossed over her chest, which if I wasn’t mistaken, seemed to have gotten larger.

Chuckling to myself, I noticed Michael Lodge Sr. was nowhere to be seen. It looked like it would just be Margaret and myself.

Caden laid in the bed, tubes already hooked into her, and to my shock, her entire head was shaved. I stared, unable to stop. Something I never thought I’d see. She wore a hospital gown, and looked very tired. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, which were half-hooded.

Not sure what to do, I walked into the room further, clearing my throat. Caden looked beyond her mother, and smiled when she saw me.

“Laurel.” She said, her voice weak. She reached out an I.V. laden hand to me, which I nervously took as I reached the bed. Margaret stepped away from me, looking over at me, her face hard, expressionless.

“Good morning, Caden.” I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. I was nervous for her surgery, yet knew it was the best thing. I was nervous to be there, and nervous as hell to be in the same room with that horrible woman who continued to look me and up and down, as if she were sizing me up for something. Gathering my courage, and swallowing the sour lump in my throat, I turned to Mrs. Lodge. “Hello. How are you? It’s been a long time.”

“Indeed. I’m doing well. And yourself? I understand you’ve quite the picture-taking business.”

I stared at Margaret, not sure if what she said was meant to be a biting remark, or if it was just simply conversation. You never could tell with her, so I decided to play along.

“Yes. I’m up in San Diego, now. It’s gone quite well. I enjoy it.”

“That’s good. One should do what one enjoys.”

“Yes one should.”

Nope. Still didn’t like her.

“Laurel!” I turned in time to be engulfed in a monster hug, my eyes feeling like they were going to pop out of their sockets. Once finally put back down on the ground, I looked up into the handsome face of Michael Jr. A wide smile spread across my face.

“Hey, Gooper!” I lightly punched him in the arm, and got smacked in return. Rubbing my sore shoulder, I grinned up at him. “Good to see you.”

“You too, squirt. You look great.” He eyed me up and down, finally settling on my eyes.

“I hear you got married. Finally.” We both chuckled. “That’s wonderful. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, thank you. Felicia is great. It took her five long years to convince me I needed to marry her, but I’m glad she did. We’re expecting our first in November.” A warm feeling coursed through me, followed by slight jealousy. Why is it that so many people in the world could find love and happiness, and so many others of us just aren’t that lucky. Then I looked over at Caden, and felt like an ass for even thinking that. After all she’d been through with Troy, and now the brain tumor, at least I had my health. What good is love without it?

“How is the teaching going, Michael?” Caden asked weakly from behind us. Mike turned around, and walked to the bed.

“Hey, you. How are you, sweetie.” He asked, kissing her lightly on the forehead. Caden smiled.

“I’m alright. Just glad this will be over with soon. Where is Felicia?”

“She’s in class. She said she’s sorry she couldn’t be here this morning, but plans to be here when you wake up.” Caden smiled, gently patting the side of her brother’s face.

“Thanks, Mikey.”

Caden turned back to me, beckoning me with her finger. I walked over to her, sitting in the chair next to her. I heard Margaret quickly moving out of the way with an irritated sigh.

“Hey, kid.” I said, taking her hand in mine, covering it with my own. “How are you? When do you go in?”

“They should be here for me any minute. They gave me something to relax me, and I’m getting ever so tired.” She yawned, shutting her eyes tight, then opened them, revealing those incredible blues to me once more. “Thank you so much for coming all this way for me. For this. You have no idea how much it means to me, Laurel.”

“You inviting me here means a lot, too. I’m glad to be here for you. And just think,” I ran my hand over the top of her newly shaved head. “The Sinéad O’Connor look is in, and you’ll keep much cooler this summer.”

“Ha, ha. You are quite the comic, aren’t you?” I smiled, surprising myself by leaning down and giving her a small kiss on her forehead. As I stood back up, Caden’s eyes were on mine, hers filled with unshed tears.

“I’m scared, Laurel.” She whispered. I looked into the watery pools of blue, and brought a hand up, gently stroking the side of her face. I was amazed as, yet again, her usual calm and cool demeanor opened up to reveal the vulnerable soul beneath. So beautiful in its purity. Just like a child.

“Everything will be fine. You’ll get through this, and be so much more stronger for it. We’ll all be here when you get out.”

“Will you stay?” she asked, her voice shaky as she tried to keep her emotions under control. I nodded.

“Of course.” Caden smiled, reaching up to take my hand from her face, squeezing my fingers. Just as quickly as it had come, the openness was gone. She sniffled once, and her eyes began to clear.

“Mother?” I stood up, and stepped back, expecting her to call Margaret over to her bedside for her time with Caden. Mrs. Lodge, who had seated herself in the other chair, reading a magazine looked up over the pages, reading glasses perched on her nose. “Where is Annie? Isn’t Troy bringing her by this morning before I go in?”

“Well, he told me it was all dependant on if the nanny gets there on time. He had a meeting early today.”

“Why don’t you go get her?” Michael said, brows drawn in a deep furrow. Margaret glared at her son.

“I’m not leaving here.” She stated, slamming the magazine shut, tossing it to the floor. I watched on in surprise, looking from one to the other. “Besides, gas prices are so high right now,-”

“Mother!” Michael took a step toward his mother, but stopped when Caden put her hand out, touching his arm. I could see the muscles in his jaw working.

“Michael, it’s okay. I can see her later.” She said weakly.

“I can go get her, if you tell me where to go.” I said, looking all around. Caden should see her daughter, and Annie certainly had a right to see her mother just in case, well, in case anything went wrong.

“You?” Margaret nearly spat.

“Well, I figure family should be here. I mean, I can run and get her, and try and be back before Caden goes in,” my voice trailed off as I met three pairs of eyes staring at me.

“I can go.” Michael volunteered. “Annie knows me.” He stared hard at his mother, then turned toward me. “Why not come with me? The company would be nice.”

I looked to my friend, it was her surgery, and I would do whatever she wanted. She nodded, smiling.

“Just please hurry.” She said. I walked over to the bed, kissed her on the forehead again, and held her hand.

“Good luck, Caden. Everything will be fine.”
Part 2
Michael’s BMW drove quietly and smoothly down the streets of Boston. It looked the same. Not much changed in the city. The first twenty minutes of the drive went by in silence, Mike concentrating on the mid-morning traffic, me watching the world go by. I thought about Caden, and her daughter Annie. Part of me was terrified to meet this child. Just yesterday her mother and I were just barely older than children ourselves. Or so it seemed.

I wondered if I should go see my mother and brother. Dad had died nearly four years ago. I hadn’t gone to the funeral. He hadn’t bothered coming to my college graduation, nor had he given a damn about anything but the bottle. He had let his bitterness and the all mighty drink kill him. Good riddance.

“So, seeing anyone?” I turned toward Gooper, thinking back to a time when he’d asked me the same exact question.

“Are you seeing anyone in particular, Laurel? You could be.” Michael’s gray eyes had been dancing with mischief.

I followed Caden to the “informal” dining room, which was still bigger than half the size of my house back in Southie. I looked around, marveling at the rich wood paneling on the walls, the large, expensive-looking Oriental rug under the beautiful dark wood table set for three, but able to seat as many as ten. The chandelier above the table sparkled with crystal prisms dangling down, catching any light in the room, and making it glow.

“Wow.” I breathed. Caden smiled at me, and sat, motioning for me to join her. I couldn’t help but stare. “You know, when you guys said the informal dining room, I figured it would be like a breakfast bar, or something.” She chuckled.

“Nope. That’s for the servants.”

“Oh.”

“Good evening, ladies.” Michael walked through the archway, and sat across from me, a smile for both of us. I said nothing, just smiled. Back in those days being around any guy my age made me nervous and antsy. Michael Cooper Lodge III was no exception. “You guys hungry? How long have you been here?”

Caden clasped her hands on the edge of the table, sitting back in the high-back, comfy chairs.

“We got here this afternoon. How long are you staying?”

“Oh, I’m guessing until Sunday night. You?” he looked at us both. I kept my eyes pretty much on the setting before me, willing the cook, or maid, Jeeves the butler, or whoever it was that was supposed to serve us, to do just that. I was starving. Caden and Michael continued to talk, my mind was somewhere else.

When we had been upstairs in Caden’s bedroom, she had decided to change her clothes. I had been sitting on the bed, looking around at her huge doll collection, all sitting in a locked case. Next to the massive case was a dollhouse, the house constructed to look just like the Lodge estate. I stood and walked over to it, also behind glass, and realized that it was made out of many of the same materials as the real thing.

“Wow.” I breathed, looking into the side where it was open a bit.

“Would you like to see it?” asked a voice behind me. I turned, just in time to turn away. Caden stood there behind me in just her underwear an bra, her clothes in her hands. I didn’t know what to do. Living in a college dorm, I had seen many girl in many different states of undress. But never Caden. We had been roomies for a full semester, but she was always very modest, and headed straight for the bathroom down the hall. I was red all over, and I knew it. I just hoped she hadn’t noticed.

“You okay?”

No such luck.

I slowly turned around, Caden standing there with a sweatshirt halfway to her head, her flannel pants fitted loosely around her hips. She was trim, flat stomach, her ribs showing just a bit. I nodded.

“Yeah. You just surprised me. You’re always so modest back at school.”

“Oh. Well,” she quickly put the shirt on, fixing her hair after she poked her head through the neck hole. “It’s just you here. I don’t have to worry about anyone walking in on us or anything.”

I sat at the dinner table, staring down at the china place setting in front of me, not even realizing that I was being stared at as if I had lost my mind.

“Laurel? Hello? Anybody home?”

My head snapped up, and I turned to see Caden staring at me, her brows drawn, the slightest bit of a smile on her face.

“Huh?” Caden nodded to my left where a woman stood, holding a tray, trying not to smile. I smiled up at her, feeling like a total idiot, and sat back away from the table, letting her place a dinner roll onto my plate.

“One or two, miss?” she asked.

“Two. Thank you.” She looked at me strangely, then walked behind me, asking Caden the same thing.

“One. Anyway, Mike, the way I see it is, mom should not be playing with the staff.” I looked at her, shocked at her manners, or lack there of. The young woman hurried around to Michael, and then scurried off for more food. Caden noticed me staring at her. “What?”

“You guys don’t say thank you?”

“Why would we?” Michael asked, “She’s just doing what my father pays her to do.”

“Yeah, but. Well, I guess I’ll just shut up now.” Feeling incredibly stupid, I tore my roll in half, reached for the butter dish that sat in the middle of the table.

“No, no. Tell me why you say this.” I looked up Michael’s curious face, leaning forward in his seat to show his interest.

“Well, I mean I know she’s being paid to serve you, but, okay. When you go to a restaurant do you thank the waiter or waitress?” both brother and sister looked at each other, then at me.

“No.” Caden said. “Again, they are being paid for what they do. Why thank them for it?”

Stunned by what I was hearing, I concentrated on my friend, brows drawn. Can you be so rich that you forget about what people do for you? So spoiled that their hard work means nothing? Instead, I said,

“Think of it this way. Even though that waitress is getting paid for serving you, and she’s not being paid squat to do it, she is still going out of her way to do a good job. Right?” both nodded. “So, why not thank her for effort and not just for the service?”

The swinging door that led to the kitchen opened, and the girl emerged, carrying a large tray of platters of food.

“Laurel?” I turned to see Michael staring at me, the BMW stopped at a red traffic light.

“Yeah?” he grinned.

“Where do you go when you disappear like that?” I grinned back with a shrug.

“Wherever my mind takes me.”

“Must be nice.” He turned back to traffic. “Nice mental vacation. Well, we’re almost there. Are you excited to meet Annie?” Mike got the car moving again, trying to pass a truck that insisted on driving twenty miles an hour.

“Yes and no, to be honest. I’m nervous.” I turned to him, meeting his gaze.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess Caden’s pregnancy with Annie changed so many things for me then. Things I wasn’t ready to change. Pretty selfish, huh?” I turned to him, looking for understanding of any kind. He chewed on his lip for a moment, just like his sister always used to do, thinking his response over.

“I guess I can understand that.” He chuckled quietly. “You know, part of me really wanted you to go to Caden and Troy’s wedding. I wanted to see you one last time. I knew chances of seeing you otherwise after that night, were slim to none.”

“Yeah.” I could still hear it in my head,

“Get out, you lying little bitch! How dare you lead my son on like that. You sinner!”

I shivered. A small ringing brought me out of my reverie. Michael reached into the breast pocket of his leather jacket, pulled out a tiny cell phone, pulling the antennae out with practiced ease using his teeth.

“Lodge here,” he paused. “okay, yeah. Thanks. We’ll take our time. Bye.” The phone was put back into the pocket, and he turned to me. “That was my mother. They just took Caden into surgery.”

My stomach lurched suddenly, and I was beginning to get worried. “Is anyone else there?” he shook his head.

“I don’t think so. I’d be shocked if my father managed to make it on time.” He turned the corner, and we entered onto a beautiful tree-lined street with expensive brownstones on either side, tiny immaculate gardens in front. “You never did answer my question.” He grinned over at me. “Are you seeing anyone?”

I smiled, looking away from him for a moment, some kids playing ball near the street.

“Well, let’s just say it’s not very serious, but yes. There is a woman in my life.”

“Really?” he pulled the Beemer to the curb, parallel parked in front of a large, three story. “How does that work with you girls, anyway?” he pulled the break, and turned off the engine, glancing at me.

“You mean dating?” he nodded. “Well, just imagine way back when, when you and Felicia were dating. Can you remember that?” he nodded again. “Good. Now take away the penis.” Michael busted out laughed, throwing his head back.

“Okay.” He chuckled, “You got me. Come on.”

Troy’s house was impressive, as I figured it would be. Nothing but the best for him. Troy Shepherd had to have the best. I stood in the foyer, not wanting to venture any further in; I could see enough from there. I felt nauseous as it was just being inside the house.

“See that painting over there?” Michael whispered, nodding toward a huge canvas with a bunch of odd colored pears on it. I nodded. “Troy paid a quarter of a million dollars for it.”

“Why?” I whispered back, staring at the art work. “It’s a painting of fruit.” He shrugged, just in time to hear little feet plowing down the stairs. I looked up the narrow staircase to see a little version of Caden running at us, full force.

“Uncle Mike!” she exclaimed, running impossibly faster. I was so worried she would roll the rest of the way.

“Hey, munchkin!” Michael bent down, arms wide for her to throw herself into. I watched, stunned by the resemblance to my old friend. Annie eyed me over her uncle’s shoulder, looking me up and down. Finally the little girl pulled away, and Michael stood up. She looked up at me, her dark hair brushed smooth down her back, shiny and healthy. She cocked her head to the side a bit, squinting up at me ever so slightly.

“You’re my mommy’s friend, Laurel, aren’t you?”

“Um, well, yes I am.” I stuttered. Intimidated by a nine year old? Get a grip, kid.

“I’m Annabel Margaret Shepherd. Nice to meet you, Laurel.” She extended her small hand out, and I took it in my much larger one. Her skin was warm and soft. She pumped our hands up and down a couple of times, then dropped the shake.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Annabel.”

“You can call me Annie. Most people do.”

I smiled, charmed by the girl. She wore jeans that were rolled up at the ends, hiking boots poking out from the bottom. Her sweater was red with white and blue stripes. She was ready to go.

“Amy?” she yelled, looking up the stairs.

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Within moments, a young woman, no older than her early twenties, hurried down the stairs, a small suitcase in her hand. She wore a tight maid’s uniform, complete with ruffled hat. I watched as her breasts bounced their way down the stairs, and nearly out of the bodice of the blouse. “Here you go, Annie. You be a good girl, okay?” she said, tapping the young girl’s cheek lovingly. I glanced over to Michael to see what he thought of this woman. He was looking at me, the same look on his face that I felt. We turned back to the two.

“Okay. Tell daddy bye for me, and that I love him.” Annie said, hugging the maid, and taking her suitcase in her small hand. The maid nodded.

“Of course, sweetie.” She turned to Michael and I. “I hope she’s okay.” She said curtly, then headed back up the stairs. I watched her as she went, and it was Amy revealed. She was a good looking woman, but come on. There was a nine year old child there. I could tell Michael was annoyed, but he still managed to get an eyeful, however. Annie saw where we were both looking, and snickered.

“That’s pretty common for her. Today she’s dressed a little more.” We both looked down at her, but she was already on her way to the front door. She stopped, her hand on the knob. “You guys coming?”

The dinner had been incredible. Never in my entire life had I eaten a steak so juicy and so tender. I felt like our dog back home, licking my chops. Throughout dinner the three of us had had some great conversation, talking about anything from politics to the coincidence that Michael was going to school at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He was only an hour or so away from us at F&M. When he heard this, his eyes lit right up. After we finished eating, he turned to me.

“So, Laurel, care for a walk around the house? I can show you around,” he was too cute. His face held so much hope. I couldn’t help but say yes. So we walked. Caden came up with some lame excuse about having to talk to Mildred about ironing her shirts while she was home. “Shall we?” Michael held his arm out to me, and I took it. For the time being. Didn’t want to be totally rude.

We walked around Margaret Lodge’s prize-winning gardens. Roses were everywhere, their scent filling the night air, making it sweet mixed with all the other varieties of flowers and trees.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I nodded, impressed beyond words. “My mother may have some serious flaws and faults, but she can definitely work some magic in a garden. We don’t even have a gardener. She insists on doing it all herself. My father used to fight with her all the time about it.” He grabbed a leaf from a tree we passed, began playing with it as we walked and he talked. “Personally I think my father is right. She shouldn’t be out here digging around in the dirt.”

“Why not? If she likes it,”

“My mother is a woman in society. We hire people to do this sort of thing.” He indicated the beauty around us. “Do you know what all goes into a garden? It takes crawling around in the dirt like some animal, ruining clothing, and getting dirt and muck under her nails.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I should have been used to such an attitude by then with what I had seen back at school, but it still surprised me. My mother would have done anything to have so much room to have the garden of her dreams. Instead she had a tiny plot of land outside the back door where she planted some flowers each year next to her few potted plants.

“You know, you may not like me too much after tonight, but I gotta tell you, Michael, I think you are so wrong.” He looked down at me, his face showing his confusion.

“Why?”

“Well, I mean, what century do you think we’re in, here? If it keeps her happy and busy, then where’s the harm in it?” Michael shrugged, tossing the leaf to the ground, his hands sliding into the pockets of his slacks.

“I suppose. I just don’t get it. So tell me about you. What do you want to do when you grow up?” he grinned at me. I shrugged.

“Be an artist, I guess. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

“Are you any good?”

“Yeah. Very good.”

“Laurel?” my head snapped around to see Michael staring at me expectantly. When he saw he had my attention, he smiled. “What do you want?” I looked past him to see the menu board of a Burger King. “I always take Annie her for lunch. She loves this place.”

“Caden is going to kill you.” I smiled, remembering the health nut she used to be back in school. I wondered is she still was. Mike seemed to read my mind.

“She’s still into all the greens and all that, but as an uncle, it is my civic duty to spoil my only niece rotten.” He grinned at Annie over his shoulder.

“I never tell mommy. She never takes me to a place like this.” The girl chimed in from the backseat. “Uncle Mike takes me here as often as twice a week!” I glanced back at Annie, seeing her toothy grin, however some of those teeth were very much gone. Her front two to be exact. She looked at me, realizing where my eyes were looking. “If you call me toothless wonder, I won’t be responsible for what I do.” My eyes shot up to her eyes, she was completely serious. It was probably not the right thing to do, but I couldn’t stop the laughter that was bubbling up inside me. She stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. Quickly turning away from her, I faced the front again, trying to get the chuckling under control, but having a hard time. Finally straight again, I turned back to her. She glared at me, her arms crossed over her tiny chest.

“Do people call you that?” I asked. She nodded.

“Daddy calls me that all the time. I hate it.”

“I’m sorry I laughed.” I wanted to make peace with her now. She shrugged.

“That’s okay. We all make mistakes.” I just stared at her. What was this kid, nine going on thirty?

All the way to the hospital Annie talked on and on and on about her school, her best friend, Catherine, and her new nanny.

“Did you know, uncle Mike, that daddy and my nanny, Amy sleep in the same room?”

Michael nearly choked on his milk shake. He pulled the straw away from his mouth, coughing as I pounded on his back. Luckily the traffic light up ahead turned red, and he was able to get himself under control. He looked at his niece through the rearview.

“What?”

“Oh, yeah. She moved in there right after he hired her.”

I looked over at Michael, wondering if Caden knew about it. What would she think, knowing that her daughter was a little too smart for her own good?

* * *

We finally reached the hospital, and I was glad. I wanted to know how the surgery was progressing. Caden had been under for nearly two hours. The room Caden had been in was empty, the magazine Margaret had been reading sitting on the chair by the bed, the sheets pulled back, the wrinkled bedding the only indication anyone had been in there at all.

“Where is my mother?” Michael looked around the room, opening the bathroom door, then stepping out into the hall, looking both ways. Walking back into the room, he immediately took his cell phone from his jacket.

“Uh oh.” Annie said, sitting herself down on the unmade bed.

“What’s going on?” I asked, sitting next to the girl. She shrugged, staring at a flower arrangement on the night table.

“Grandma’s in trouble, again.”

Oh, boy.

Michael leaned against the doorframe of the room as he dialed, his face set in concentration. He put the tiny phone up to his ear, and waited. After a few seconds, he spoke.

“Mildred, is my mother there? Thank you.” I could see his jaw clenching as he waited. “It’s your son. Am I interrupting something? Good. Where the hell are you?”

I stared in shock as Mike laid into his mother. I wasn’t sure what to do; stay and listen, leave the room, talk to Annie. Deciding I didn’t belong there, the problems between Michael and his mother was absolutely none of my business, I stood from the bed.

“This happens a lot. Come on.” Reading my mind, Annie hopped down from the hospital bed, walked toward the door. I followed. We walked down the hall in silence. I felt out of place, like I shouldn’t be there at all. Annie walked on as if she owned the place, looking around, smiling at the nurse that passed us. I felt as if I should say something to her, get to know her a bit. She reminded me so much of her father.

“So, Annie. What grade are you in?” seemed a safe enough place to start.

“I’m a sixth grader at Washington Private School for girls.”

“Sixth grader? Aren’t you a little young for sixth grade?”

“Education is very important to mommy, so she taught me to read and write when I was young. I found school quite boring when I was still going to Brewster, so they advanced me a couple grades, and put me in Washington where it’s a bit more challenging for me.”

I looked down at Annie as we walked, saddened that Caden would try and get her daughter to all that she didn’t. Was she pushing her child too far too fast? I thought it was great that Annie was obviously so intelligent, but I just had to wonder if she was being allowed to be a little girl, and not just a little person.

“What do you like to do for fun, Annie?”

“Fun?” she looked up at me as if I’d just spewed all over the waxed floor.

“Yeah. You know, do you go out to the mall with your friends, or go see movies,
or-”

“I read.”

We were making our way to a lobby area, and I saw a Coke machine. I headed off in that direction, Annie following.

“You read,” I said, a statement more than a question. “That’s great, but what else do you do for fun? Don’t you have any friends at school?”

Annie shrugged. “No. Not really. I don’t care to hang out with any of them. They’re all snobby brats.”

“Oh.” I dug in my pant’s pocket until I found some loose change. “What do you want?”

“A Sprite would be nice.”

“Okay. Sprite it is.” The coins slid into the slot as I pushed the big button for her soda.

“Mommy doesn’t allow me to have soda.” Annie said, standing back from the machine, arms crossed over her narrow chest. Even as she said it, I could see the longing in her blue eyes as she stared at the green can in my hand.

“How about this. It’ll be my special treat to you today. Okay?” with a childish grin, she nodded, taking the offered soda from me.

“Thank you, Ms. Gleason.”

“No, no. None of that “ms” crap.” I slid another set of coins into the machine, pushing the DrPepper button. “You call me Laurel. Got it?” another grin and nod.

“Got it.”

We found some chairs, and sat, sipping from our sodas. I could see that Annie had something on her mind, but decided to let her talk about it when she was ready.

“Where do you live?” she asked, eyeing me from the corner of her eye.

“I live in California.”

“Where at in California?”

“San Diego.”

“Oh.” Annie took another sip of her Sprite, that look of concentration back on her young face. “Are you married, Laurel?”

Here I thought the girl would tell me she was worried about her mother, or would ask if her mom was going to be okay. Oh no. The marriage question. I looked at her for a moment, long enough to make her look away, staring at the fascinating can she held in her hand. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation; should I just give her a basic no? Or did this warrant an explanation? I had no idea what Caden and Troy had told or taught Annie about me, or gays in general.

“Well, no, Annie I’m not.”

“My daddy told me you don’t like men. Is that true?”

Gulp.

“Well, yes. That is true.” The girl turned away from me for a moment, staring at the man mopping the floor near the coffee maker, then sighed.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” I looked at her again. I had no clue what to do, or where to take the conversation. Part of me wanted to beat the living shit out of Troy, but part of me was glad it was out.

“I think boys are kind of dorky, too.” I looked down to see Annie grinning up at me. Cool kid. I liked her.

“There you two are. Come on. The doctor is looking for us.” I looked up to see Michael nearly out of breath, standing in the doorway. He turned, and walked back out into the hall. I stood, followed by Annie, and hurried after him.

The drive back to the school was lively as Caden and I talked about our weekend at the Lodge House. I could not get over how massive and beautiful the place had been.

“I think my brother really was taken by you.” Caden said, her eyes fixed on the dark road ahead of us, her little sports car maneuvering in and out of traffic.

“He’s a nice guy.” I said. I didn’t want to add anything to her already made up mind of her brother and I as a happy couple. In truth, I liked Michael, and thought he was nice, and cute, but liked him as a friend. He was fun to talk to, and we had a lot in common.

“Yes, he is. He wants to come down and visit us next weekend.” Caden looked at me from the side of her eye. I glanced over at her, not sure if she was serious or not. “That okay with you?” she fully looked at me, a half grin on her face.

“Sure. If Michael wants to come to F&M I have no problem with that.”

“I think he’s actually wanting to come down to see you more than me.”

I smiled, but then looked out the side window. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about such an honor. I had dated before, in high school, and had even had a somewhat steady boyfriend, but just wasn’t interested anymore. Should Michael be forced to deal with my uncertainty? I just didn’t know if that was fair.

We all sat silent, Michael sitting in a chair with Annie on his lap, me standing in the doorway, Margaret not far away against the wall. The doctor looked at each of us in turn, his aged features stone.

“Well, that’s all I have for now. I’ll be back shortly to tell you if she’s snapped out of it, or if we’re in it for the long haul. Unfortunately cerebral hemorrhage happens.” With those words reverberating in my head, he left. We were all stunned into silence, not sure if it was wise to even breathe. Finally Margaret spoke.

“I’ll call your father.” She walked from the room, her hand over her mouth. I searched the room with my eyes, looking for anything to hold on to. Catching two tortured and worried gray eyes, I looked at Mike.

“You okay?” he nodded numbly. Annie wrapped her thin arms around his neck, and he pulled her to him for a tight hug.

“Mommy’s not dead, is she?” she asked into his neck. Michael gently pulled her away so he could look into watery blue eyes.

“Oh no, sweetie. Mommy’s not dead. She made it through the surgery okay, but then something bad happened, and she slipped into a coma. Do you know what that is, Annie?”

“It’s where the person sleeps for a really long time, maybe never waking up.” The girl said, her voice quiet and child-like. Michael nodded.

“Well, yes, and no. Your mommy is sleeping right now, but it won’t be for a really long time.” He looked up at me, his eyes filled with hope and unshed tears. I smiled, trying to give him any reassurance I could. He pulled his niece to him again, buried his face in her hair.

I walked the quiet halls of the hospital, my hands in my pockets as I looked straight ahead, my mind on Caden, not my surroundings. I didn’t care where I was. Just as long as she woke up. It had been two days, and nothing. She was still in Intensive Care, but the doctors were hopeful that she’d be moved back to her room within a few days. Michael and I had been here most of the day, taking turns going to get something to eat, and taking Annie to her father’s and back to the hospital. She held together well, only letting me see her cry once. Just like her mom.

I smiled as I walked, thinking again back to my time with Caden when we were younger.

Gooper began to come around more and more, the three of us going out and having tons of fun. He and I especially loved to play Frisbee at Long’s Park . Caden hated to play, and would sit cross-legged on the grass watching us, a text book on her lap. Michael became one of my best friends, next to Caden, that is. She and I were inseparable. I taught her how to have fun, and she helped me with my homework. It was a great trade off.

“Come on, Caden!” I called from the sidewalk, look up at our dorm window. “We don’t have all friggin’ night!”

“I’m afraid.” Was yelled back to me.

“You have got to be kidding me.” I muttered, my hands on my hips, looking around at the students walking past me, staring at me as if I’d lost my mind, and the guys just staring. I glared at them before looking back up at the window. “You promised.” I reminded. Finally Caden stuck her head out the window.

“I know. But I changed my mind.”

“Come on!” I could see the barest bit of skin as the tops of her shoulders emerged. “Come on, wimp.” Caden gave me one last glare, then disappeared from the window.

I grabbed the ends of the towel, wrapping it tighter around my hips when I saw Caden walk up to the doors of our building. I grinned, watching her look around to see who was possibly staring at her, which was just about everyone who passed.

“Come on,” I beckoned with my hand to her, grinning like an idiot. Slowly, like a timid kitten to a new toy, Caden made her way out of the building, and over to me.

“I cannot believe you talked me into this.” She said through clenched teeth.

“Ah, come on. It’s not as bad as you’re thinking. Jeez.” I tucked the larger of my half-dozen sketch pads under my arm, and turned to head toward my car. I glanced back over my shoulder to see Caden standing right where I’d left her. Walking back to her, beginning to get a little worried. “Are you okay? Look, if you’re really against this, we won’t do it, okay?” I put my hand on her shoulder to try and calm her, and let her know I wouldn’t be angry if she changed her mind. She stared at the ground for a moment, then with a deep breath looked me in the eye.

“Let’s go.” To my surprise, she led the way across the parking lot, standing next to my Bug waiting for me to unlock the door for her. With a shrug I followed, and we loaded into the small car.

I had never been to Cascade Park, but I’d heard of it, and was curious to see what kind of drawings I could get there. Supposedly it was not used often, most preferring Long’s Park instead. Cascade was out of the way, and toward the edge of town.

“So, where are we going again?” Caden asked as she sipped her Pepsi we’d picked up with our lunch at Burger King.

“Cascade Park.”

“Oh. I’ve never heard of it.” Caden looked out the open window, the late spring breeze blowing through, blowing her hair everywhere. She had such beautiful hair. I smiled at the back of her head before I turned back to the road, turning left, then straight ahead for a couple miles then, voila! Cascade Park right before us. The park wasn’t large, but it was nice with lots of trees that would offer good shade from the heat, and good opportunities for different types of shadowing.

I pulled my Bug into the small make-shift dirt parking lot and began to unload my art supplies. Caden helped, looking around, tugging at the bottom of her bikini top.

“I feel so uncomfortable in this thing. I still can’t believe you managed to get me in one of these things.” I grinned up at her.

“Eh, you look really good in it, so don’t complain.” She looked at me doubtfully, but said nothing else until we found a place under a tall tree, the grass beneath it soft and green.

“So, why me?” Caden spread out the blanket that we’d brought, and plopped down on her stomach, unwrapping her burger. I sat across from her, crossing my legs under me as I munched on a fry. I shrugged.

“I don’t know. You have really great featured, and the planes of your face are an artist’s dream.” Caden blushed slightly, looking away. “Oh, that is so cute.” I was completely charmed by her shyness.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m so glad you’re amused.”

I grinned, and unwrapped my sandwich.

“How did you do on that test?” she asked around a bite of whopper. I nodded, trying to swallow to answer.

“Ood.” I managed.

“See? I told you you could do it.”

“Yeah. Thanks, cheerleader.”

“Anytime.” Caden gave me a great big grin, then tore another piece off her lunch with a huge smile in my direction. Shaking my head at her antics, I continued to eat.

In the year and a half that Caden and I had been roommates, she had begun to blossom as a person. I mean, she was still the quiet, respectable, proper girl she always had been, but she was also beginning to realize that not all of life had to be so serious. You could be determined, and alive all at the same time. Getting her out of the dorm in a pair of soccer shorts and a swimsuit top was the pentacle of my achievement to that point.

“Okay. Um, turn that way so you’re looking into the sun. Don’t look at me that way. It’s only for a sec.” Caden did as I said, and looked toward the setting sun. It was incredible the way the intense rays of the dying sun shone through her eyes, making them glow even more than usual. “Good. Okay now hold it.”

I began to sketch, my hand working like mad to get the position from her before she moved. I studied her as I sketched, not just from an artist’s point of view, but that of a woman. She was so naturally beautiful, and she had no idea. The bone structure of her face was so perfect to draw, as if she had been made for it; the sharpness of her cheekbones, the aquiline nose, squared off jaw, and of course the eyes. Brilliant in their own right.

Caden reached up to swipe her hair behind her ear, and my eyes began to travel further down to her neck, long and smooth. My eyes traveled even further to see the hollow of her throat, rising and falling with every breath she took, the straps of her top flattering against the paleness of her skin, her strong shoulders well shaped.

I stopped myself, and my eyes from going any further. This was my best friend and roommate. It wasn’t right for me to look at her that way. Women, and the female body had always fascinated me, but not Caden’s. Just couldn’t be.

“What are you thinking?”

My head jerked up as I looked at my friend, her voice scaring the hell out of me, making me feel guilty for something I hadn’t done.

“Oh, uh, nothing. Just thinking about the angle I want to use next.” Yeah, right.

“Is it going well?”

“Yup. Getting there.” My body heat had risen about a gazillion degrees. I made myself refocus on Caden’s face again, and not allow my eyes to go any lower than the gold chain around her neck.

I sat in Caden’s room, the machines softly beeping all around me, telling of her stability level, and how much she was hanging on to life. Dr. Gustov had been in earlier in the day saying that Caden was actually doing very well, considering. I had to wonder what his basis for comparison was. Still, I sat faithfully day in and day out, reading, sketching, whatever. Yesterday I had come in to find Margaret and Michael talking to the doctor.

“We must start radiation therapy now. Even in Caden’s state, it is most important.” I had watched as Margaret Lodge had signed the forms of consent. I hated standing idly by, not able to do a damn thing for her. So, I talked to her, instead.

‘You know, when I decided to come out here, I planned on being here maybe a few days, a week at most.” I chuckled, crossing my ankle over my knee as I stared out the window in Caden’s private room. It looked like such a nice day outside. I hadn’t been out since early that morning; I glanced at my watch, nearly three in the afternoon. With a sigh, I looked back at my friend, her head bandaged completely from her hairline to where her shoulders met her neck. Her eyes were closed, dark circles around them, her mouth open a bit, just the very bottom of her upper teeth could be seen. Tubes and machines were hooked up to her body in various places. Poor thing. That couldn’t be comfortable.

I slapped my hands on my bouncing leg.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about different times in college, and different things we did together.” I chuckled quietly. “Remember our days at Cascade Park? All those sketching sessions,” my mind began to drift, and once again I saw our little scalded area behind Cascade Hill.

Summer was approaching, as was the end of the semester, but I decided against going home. My mother had called, asking, but I told her no. Caden had invited me to go home with her, and I jumped at the opportunity. But, before then, I continued to make sketches of my roommate. Every weekend we headed to the park, paper, pencil, and lunch basket in hand.

“Oh, it is so beautiful out here today.” Caden exclaimed, raising her face and arms to the heavens, turning in a circle, the sarong around her hips blowing out around her like a party dress. She wore the bikini bathing suit beneath it, the sometimes stifling summer heat that was building, warranted as little clothing as possible. They were predicting an unusually hot one that year, with high humidity.

I wondered over to a good spot under a tree, and watched. On a whim, that day I had brought my camera with me. I grabbed it from around my neck, and opened the shutter, studying my unknowing subject until I had what looked to be a great shot, and clicked away. Hearing the camera go off, Caden stopped, and looked at me.

“What are you doing?”

“No, no. Keep moving.”

“What do you want me to do?” she asked warily.

“Do whatever you want. Dance, walk, twirl, just keep moving. Try and forget that I’m even here.”

“Yeah, that’ll happen.” Grumbling aside, Caden began to do as I asked, and actually made an exceptional object to photograph. She had such natural grace and agility, and was extremely photogenic.

I took Caden’s hand, holding it within my own, stoking her fingers as I could still hear in my mind her laughter and my camera from that day. It had opened up my mind, and my life to the wonderful world of taking pictures.

“God, you were so beautiful, Caden.” I nearly whispered as I saw it over again. “I could have drawn you, or snapped you all day, everyday. Still like to.” I glanced down at her nearly colorless face and sighed. “So sad.”

Soon what had started out as a nuisance to Caden became our ritual. Often times she would read or work on homework while I drew her. It was an amazing time.

During a particular session, Caden was chatting with me about what she had planned for us over the summer as I sketched, sitting on the grass, legs crossed Indian style, leaning back against the bark of a huge tree behind me. As I drew, my eyes began to wonder again. They wondered down to her shoulders. She had such beautiful skin, and by early June it had a healthy bronze coloring to it.

“Caden?” I sat up, gathering my hair into one hand, and putting it into a pony tail as I could feel the sweat on the back of my neck.

“Yeah?”

“I have got this huge urge to draw you from the shoulders up. Your bone structure is just so perfect.” Caden looked down at herself, then back at me.

“Well, can’t you draw me from the shoulders up like this?” her brow was furrowed.

“Well, yeah, but,” I was trying to think of a way to say it so I didn’t sound like some horrible pervert. I had to draw the bare skin without the annoying straps from her suit top. “Would you be willing to let me draw you with the straps down? That’s really what I’m after.” She looked at me doubtfully for just a moment, then to my surprise, reached behind her, untied the straps, and let them fall just to above her breasts where she held her top in place. I stared, completely shocked, my hand laying limp in my lap on top of the page I was working on.

“Are you going to draw?” Caden’s voice was quiet, nervous.

“Yeah.” I quickly pulled myself together, and began to sketch. My eyes roamed over what had been revealed to me, the sharp contrast of the soft skin and the well defined collar bone, the shoulders rounded and strong, yet delicate at the same time.

“I think I fell in love that day.” I sighed deeply, squeezing the limp hand in mine. “So beautiful.” I glanced out the window again, and noticed that the sun was beginning to lower. “Well, I’ll be back, Caden. The next shift is due in here any time, then I’ll be back after dinner, okay?” I stood, leaning over the bed, and gently kissed her on the forehead, just below her bandage. “Sleep well, my friend.” I smiled weakly at my poor joke, and stepped out of the room just as Margaret was walking in, nearly plowing her over.

“Oh.” She looked at me, the surprise quickly covered by apathy. “You’re still here?” a statement more than a question.

“Yes. I don’t plan to leave until I know she’s going to be okay.” Margaret stared at me for a moment, as if she were digesting what I had said. Finally with a nod, she moved aside, allowing me to pass. I walked out of the room, but stopped at the sound of her voice. “Will you be back tonight, then?”

“Yes. I’ll be back in about an hour. My cell phone number is on the side table if anything should,”

“I’ll call.”

I fond a near-bye café, and got myself a table by the window. I slowly sipped my coffee, relieved to be away from the hospital for a moment. I hated hospitals, and what they represented. I thought back to when my older brother, Phillip, had nearly had his skull crushed in when he had fallen off the back of a truck that he and his drunk friends were riding in, the driver, just as drunk, attempting to do doughnuts in the parking lot of a closed market. The Gleason household had received a phone call at three-thirty in the morning from St. Mary’s hospital. I could still recall the horrifying sight of my brother lying there, his clothes covered in blood, hand arms scraped and bruised, the bandage on his head already nearly soaked through with blood.

Shivering, I turned back to the half eaten meal in front of me. Suddenly my pancakes didn’t seem so appetizing anymore. I pushed the plate away, and grabbed my check off the edge of the table.

The Lodge Estate never failed to leave me in awe. As Caden once again drove her Porsche through the wrought iron gates, I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time all over again. So beautiful and picturesque.

“My mother is on her annual spa trip with her girlfriends, and my father will be gone for all of June, and I think he’s supposed to return mid-July.” She turned to me then, giving me a sly grin. “Michael is supposed to join us, too.”

I snickered at that. “Gooper can’t keep up with us.”

“I’m sure he’ll try.”

I couldn’t understand why she was so determined to get me and Michael together. He had visited the F&M campus off an on during the last year, and we had had fun, but I just wasn’t sure. I liked him, but just didn’t know if I could like him in the way that both Michael and Caden wanted me to. I would give it my best shot, try and see him in a different way over the summer.

Mildred met us at the door just as she had the time before, giving me a full hug along with Caden.

“Hello, Miss. Laurel. So nice to see you again.” She gave me a warm smile with a light squeeze to my arm.

“Thanks. It’s real nice to see you, too, Mildred.” She patted my back, taking my bags from me.

“In the guest room in your wing, Miss Caden?”

“Yes. Thank you, Mildred.”

I looked at Caden, a surprised smile on my face.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just glad to hear a thank you exit from your lips.” She stuck her tongue out at me.

I drove back to the hospital, memories from that summer playing through my head. Spotting a parking space that wasn’t quite as far off in Africa as the place before I left, I hurried to the row, and pulled in, shutting the engine off, and once again staring at the huge building before me.

The front lobby was busy as I made my way to the elevators, and the third floor, back to Caden’s room. Margaret sat, talking to a formidable-looking man who stood in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest. He wore an expensive suit that was well-fitted, and completely out of place.

As I walked through the door to the room, they both looked at me, conversation at an end.

“Hello, Mr. Lodge.” I said, trying to smile through my discomfort.

“Laurel.” Michael Sr. turned to his wife. “I should be back by Sunday.” He kissed her quickly on the cheek, nodded at me, then brushed by me, the scent of his cologne following him. I watched him go, then turned to Margaret with a partial grin.

“Mr. Lodge hasn’t aged a day.”

“He’d kiss you if he heard you say that.” She said dryly, gathering her knitting, and putting it back into its carrying bag. “No change. The doctor said Caden’s signs are good and strong.” She stood, looking me in the eye. Could it be? Was she actually being cordial?

“Okay. That’s good to know. I’m sorry I took so long,”

“Not a problem. I managed just fine all by my lonesome.” She headed toward the door. “I should be back later.” And was gone.
Part 3
Caden’s hospital room was getting dark as night began to fall in the city. I closed the drapes, and turned on a bedside lamp. There had been no change in her condition, but doctors were still optimistic. Wasn’t sure how or why, but I guess they knew their stuff better than I did.

I sat again, taking Caden’s hand, mindful of the I.V. in it.

“Well, earlier today I went shopping. Remember Rhalston’s? We used to go there every time we came back to your parent’s house?” I chuckled at the memories of the clothing store. Spending hours upon hours trying dozens of outfits on, but buying nothing. Well, me buying nothing. Caden usually whipped out a credit card, and it was off to the races. But what most stuck in my mind was the summer between our sophomore and junior years. The summer we spent at the Lodge estate.

****

Antonio made us a quick lunch that we took outside to eat in the gazebo out near the stables, watched the horses run as we ate.

“So what do you want to do this summer? Do you plan to go home at all?” Caden eyed me around her meatball sandwich. I shrugged as I chewed.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The truth of it was I knew that Caden would want to go, and I didn’t want her to see my family, or the house where I’d grown up. I knew she was mature enough to handle it, and not be disgusted or belittling about it, but all the same, it was just a place I didn’t want her to know.

As we sat in the gazebo it began to rain, hard and steady. I watched as the world outside our little sanctuary became blurry and gray as the downpour formed a curtain of water.

“Have you ever wanted to just jump in your car and drive?” I asked, nearly having to shout over the storm.

“Drive where?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Anywhere. Just away.”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.” Caden looked at me, and just for a moment I saw a bit of regret flash through her eyes, but then it was gone. “My family would never have that.”

“What does your family have to do with anything?” I was surprised by that statement. “It’s your life.”

“It is my life, in a way, and my family has everything to do with it.” The pleasure from relaxing had left her eyes, and she looked me dead in mine. “Having all this comes with a price, Laurel. You may not have had much growing up, but you did have one of the most precious gifts, freedom.”

****

I never forgot that, even as I sat next to Caden’s bed, I could still hear her voice, dead, sad, and resigned. Almost hopeless.

“I’d do anything to see you happy, Caden. And free.” I stood, walked to the window, one hand up on the wall, the other on my hip. The world was dark as early evening fell to night, headlights in the parking lot of people coming and going, the flashing red and blues of a far-off ambulance. Or was that a police car? Didn’t matter. I hated seeing any sort of emergency vehicle; meant someone was in trouble of some kind.

“You know that entire summer at your house I was so jealous of everything you had had growing up. You had the massive house with the built-in pool, servants, horses. All of it. Anything you could have possibly wanted or needed was yours.” I turned to face the bed. “But, now I see what you meant that day in the gazebo. You weren’t free, were you? Even now, granted, you were pretty sick when I saw you, but you still look as you did back then. You look like everything you do is for someone else, and not you.” I walked over to the bed, sat. “When are you going to live for you, Caden? For your little girl? If I had half a mind, I’d take you back with me.” I chuckled at the thought. The Caden that I had known would never agree to such a preposterous idea.

****

Michael had arrived the next day, his good friend Troy in tow. Troy Shepherd was a strikingly good-looking guy from Upstate New York, and was in business school with Gooper. His easy smile and dark good looks could win their way into anyone’s heart. Perhaps even Caden’s.

“So, I understand you’re pre-med.” He said, sitting next to her at dinner that night. She nodded, shyly keeping her eyes to the table.

“Yes. You?”

“What year?”

“Well, second year. Are you going into business as well?”

“I once wanted to be a doctor. In fact, my father is a doctor.” He smiled charmingly at Caden. I glared. What an ass. I looked to my friend to see if she was actually going to put up with that shit. She did not look at me, nor did she say anything. I looked to Mike to see that he was also looking at Troy, a strange look on his face, but he said nothing, looking to me instead.

“Laurel, Troy and I are planning to attend a party at a friend’s house tomorrow night. Would you two lovely ladies care to join us?” he looked from me to Caden then back to me.

“Oh. Well,” I looked at Caden to see if she had any input whatsoever, but she continued to look down at the smooth, shiny surface of the cherry wood. “Caden?” her head shot up, eyes darting to me.

“Yes. That’s fine, Michael. We’ll go.”

“Great. I was hoping to get a date out of this trip.” Troy said, followed by a long roll of laughter. The swinging door opened, and the young maid walked in, carrying a large tray of dished loaded with food. “Alright. I’m starving.” He looked the young girl over appreciatively, and smiled at me. I continued to glare.

****

“What were you thinking?” I muttered, caressing Caden’s hand. “Did you know that I fell in love with you that summer?” I snickered, feeling foolish, not for the first time, talking to this woman who was comatose, and basically dead to the world. “Some say that people in comas can hear everything, and other say they can’t hear anything. I’m hoping on the last, so you can’t get mad at me for anything I say, you got it?” I nodded as if I’d heard the response I’d wanted from her. “Okay. I’ll keep talking then.” I sat back in my chair, patting Caden’s hand as I released it, my hands going behind my head, staring up into the dark ceiling of the room, only a small half-circle of light in the corner emanating from the reading light I had turned on. “You know I sit here and think about that first night that you met Troy, and I could kick myself all over again for not trying to keep you away from that bastard. God, how blind was I.” I stretched my legs out, crossing them at the ankles with a sigh. “Such an egotistical, misogynistic ass. Not much has changed, eh Caden?” I smiled at my own small joke. “You know, I think I was still in love with you even after school? You were the first person who ever just saw me for me, and not my background in Southie.” I glanced at my friend. “I never did thank you for that, did I? Well, thank you. It always meant so much to me.”

****

His laugh made me cringe. “I’m sorry. Did you say you’re from South Boston? You do mean Southie, don’t you?” I glared up into that pompous assholes eyes, daring him to say one more thing about my neighborhood. Michael took a step toward us, but Caden reached me first.

“Leave her alone, Troy. She has no reason to be ashamed of where she’s from.” I was stunned. The first time Caden had dared to say a word against the wonderful, handsome Troy. I wanted to cheer. Troy Shepherd stared down at her for a moment, the disdain not even hidden.

“Well, no wonder I’ve never seen you around.” He smiled at me, then walked away, out of the Lodge house, toward the awaiting limousine Michael had called to take us to the party.

I was so pissed I could have jumped the bastard right there at the front of the house. Sensing this, Caden put a hand on my arm, shaking her head.

“He’s not worth it.” She said quietly. I took several deep breaths, getting myself under control.

I was not looking forward to the party at all, sure it would be filled with other Troy’s. Who needed it? Caden walked out of the house, and I followed, Michael hurrying to my side.

“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.” He smiled. I looked at him as though he’d grown a third head.

“From what?”

“Well, you look like you’re scared to death.”

“Well, I don’t think that I’d use the word scared, but death fits in nicely.” Gooper lightly punched my in the arm, and I grinned. “Just keep him away from me, and Troy and I will get along fine.”

I watched Caden step into the limo. She was beautiful in a powder blue spaghetti strap dress that reached the ground. It was elegant, but casual enough for the party at the same time. The small heels she wore helped to shape her normally beautiful legs, even more.

****

“I couldn’t stop staring at you that night.” I smiled at the memory. “You were the most beautiful woman at that party. Your brother covered me with compliments, but no. You were definitely the belle of that ball.” I yawned, rubbing my eyes like a five year old. “Well, my friend, I better go.” I stood from my chair, walked over to the side of the bed, bent down, kissed her forehead. “I’ll be back first thing in the morning, okay?” no movement. I sighed. “Good night, Caden.”

The drive back to the hotel was a thought-filled one. Sitting with Caden the last couple of days had brought back so many memories that had been so deeply buried, never intending to think about them, or bring them up again. It was beginning to get me to think. I didn’t like to think, about the past, anyway. No use in it. Only pain.

As I turned into the parking lot, my cell phone began to ring. Grabbing it from the passenger seat, I clicked it on.

“Hello?” with one hand I maneuvered the Explorer into a space in front of the door to my room.

“Hey. It’s Mike.”

“Hi there. Missed you today.” I cut the engine, and sat behind the wheel to talk.

“Yeah. I felt horrible. I just got so busy today at the office. There was just no way to leave. How is she?”

“Well, no real change, but the doctors say she’s doing well. Whatever that means.” Michael chuckled on the other end of the line.

“They work in mysterious ways. Would you care to get a bite to eat? I’m just leaving now to head home, but am absolutely famished.”

“Sure.” I looked longingly at the door ahead of me, just wanting to go in and straight to bed, but he sounded a bit down. “Where do you want to go?”

I sat across from Michael, a coffee cup in my hand, an empty plate in front of me. Both of us had wolfed down our dinners in record time, neither saying a word during. Now, full and content, it was time to talk. Michael sat back in the booth, wiping his mouth with the napkin before tossing it into his own empty plate.

“My mother is quite impressed with you, you know.” He said, his half-hooded eyes studying me.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” I tried to hide my surprise behind my cup. He shrugged, stretching his arm along the length of the top of the booth behind him.

“The way you’ve stuck this out.”

“I’m sure I’m still the unseemly type to her.”

“My mother is old money, and that sort of life just doesn’t take into consideration different life-styles. It’s just not a possibility. In her eyes she raised good, proper kids. Everything and everyone else is just tolerated. And, sometimes not even that.”

“No need to apologize or explain her, Michael. I understand more than you think. My father may have been dirt poor in his life, he sure knew how to be pretentious and judgmental. Your mother doesn’t bother me anymore.”

“That’s good. She bothers the hell out of me.” Michael took a long swallow of his coffee, grimacing as the hot liquid hit his stomach.

“So I’ve noticed. I must say, I’m a bit surprised by it. You two were fairly close once upon a time, weren’t you?” I poured myself some more coffee from the carafe that waitress had left on the table, stirring in sugar, eyeing him all the while. He sighed, glanced out the window into the dark parking lot, a street light the only illumination at the end of it. After glancing down at his cup, he looked up at me.

“I caught her, Laurel.” Confused, I shook my head.

“Caught her?”

“She was in bed with the neighbor’s son. A childhood friend of mine.” I stared, mouth agape before I closed it to clear my throat.

“I’m so sorry, Michael. When did this happen?”

“My second year of grad school. Came home for the holidays, dad was off on another of his trips, and Caden and Troy hadn’t arrived at the house yet. Mother and Damon were right there.” I watched as Michael was transported back in time, his eyes staring past me, his jaw clenching and unclenching. “That bastard had always been the thorn in the Middleton family’s side.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Goop.”

He shrugged again, the trance broken. He smiled at me, though I knew it held no real emotion behind it.

“What can you do?”

“Does your father know?”

“Nope.” He said after sipping from his cup. “I’d never tell him. He’s gone. A lot. Always has been, but it’s to support his family. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. Now I just try and be there for my family now. To hell with the rest. Caden, my wife, and my child coming is all that really matters to me anymore.” He smiled in earnest then. “It’s always really amazed me just how much your priorities change in life. Out with the old, and in with the new. I just don’t want to be a carbon copy of my parents.”

I listened, not sure what to say, or if anything was even necessary. I felt that he just needed to talk, vent. If anyone could understand that, it was me.

Four hours later I fell into bed, falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

****

The grass was so green and beautiful, I felt guilty as we made our way up the hill, our footsteps easy to follow in the plush thickness.

“You sure it’s okay for us to be here?”

“Yes. It’s fine, for the third time.” Caden said, her sandals lightly bumping into each other as she carried them. “God, it’s such a beautiful day!” she looked around, shading her eyes with her other hand, then turned to me. “Over there? There are some trees.” I nodded, headed in toward the small clump. Caden carried the basket the Antonio had prepared for us, I carried the thermos, and my sketch pad, my pencil behind my ear. We found a good place to set out our blanket, and began eating.

“Antonio is the best chef.” Caden moaned as she bit into a piece of fried chicken.

“Yup.” I agreed as I licked my fingers. “I’m kinda surprised your dad hasn’t fired him yet, actually.”

“Why would he do that?” Caden grabbed an ear of corn, and began to butter it generously.

“Well, um,” I looked down at the grass, sneaking a shy look at my friend. “Your mom’s obvious interest in him.”

“Oh. I doubt seriously if my father has even seen it. He’s not here very much.”

“I guess not. You know in all the times I’ve been here, I’ve only seen a glimpse of him.” Caden stopped buttering, and set her corn down on the paper plate.

“Yes, I guess that’s true.” She stood, walked toward the edge of the hill that overlooked her family’s estate. I watched her, the way her long hair blew slightly in the summer breeze, her bare arms crossed over her chest, the spaghetti strap tank she wore hugging her back. She closed her eyes a bit, raising her head against the breeze, almost like a breath from nature.

“Caden?” I walked up behind her, not touching her. “Are you okay?” She said nothing, only nodded. “Should I have said that?”

“Why wouldn’t you? It is true.” She opened her eyes, looking out on the property, the rolling hills, horses’ whinnies carried up to us on the breeze. “Do you think I’ll make it as a doctor, Laurel?” finally she turned to me, her face swept free of emotion or feeling. I could not read her. I looked up into her eyes, and nodded with a small smile.

“Definitely.”

“Hmm. I hope so.” She sounded so far off, as if she were on a different planet, or as if it were the two faces of Caden. I was puzzled. “Well,” she clapped her hands together and turned to me. “Let’s begin.”

I watched her as she walked back to our blanket, gathered up her half-eaten lunch, and stuffed it all back into the basket.

“You’re done, right?” she looked at me expectantly. I wasn’t finished, but it seemed important to her for some reason that I be, so I nodded. She cleared my lunch up, too, tossing it into the basket with hers. “Where do you want me to go? I mean, where’s the best light?”

I looked at the area, trying to figure out where to position her, where the light and shadow could mix the best. Then I saw it, the perfect spot on a dark green patch of grass. The blades were high and straight, the perfect natural, wild balance with Caden’s smooth features, and natural grace. I pointed.

“Right there.”

“But it’s not near a tree.” She looked at me with drawn brows.

“No. I don’t want one. That’s that spot.”

“Okay.” She walked toward the small patch, sat, crossing her legs. I walked around her, looking at her from all angles, trying to decide which would be the best way for her to face. Sun in her face, or to the side, then I walked around to face her, the setting sun at her back, creating a halo effect around her.

“Perfect.” I nearly whispered, hurrying to a good spot to begin. I brought my hands up to frame her, my eyes trailing down her body. “Lay down.” She complied, lying on her back. “No, on your side, facing me. That arm, yeah, that one, on your hip, the other one holding your head up.” I looked at her some more, studying the pose, but something was wrong, missing. Apparently Caden could see it on my face. She sat up, looking nervously at me.

“Um, what if I just push one of these straps down a bit? Get a different contrast,” her voice trailed off, but her eyes held steady to mine. My eyes trailed to her shoulders, trying to picture in my mind what that would look like. Beautiful. I smiled.

“Okay. If you’re sure, that is.”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t.” her slight laugh was a bit shaky. She reached her hand up to her left shoulder, and gently pushed the strap down to the middle of her arm. I noticed the difference in the skin color from the tan line of a long forgotten bathing suit. She laid back down, the bare shoulder beautiful against the golden rays of the sun. I walked over to her, kneeling down, moving the loose strap to where it looked better, the skin of Caden’s shoulder warm against my fingers. I arranged her hands and arms, and took a step back. Still something was missing. “What would you like me to do?” I rubbed my chin, biting my lip, looking at her critically.

“I’m not sure. Something just doesn’t look right. I can’t quite place it,”

“Maybe the other one?” she leaned up on her forearm, sliding the other strap down, looking at me for guidance. With both sides down I could see the top of her cleavage, and something inside me wanted to sketch more than that, capture that beauty on paper. But, for now the two straps leaving just that little bit to the imagination to entice would do.

“Okay, now lay exactly how I put you before. Oh, yeah. Beautiful.” I looked at her, in awe of what could be created with living flesh, then grabbed my pad, began to draw, my fingers racing against the speed of my eye. I had to try and portray her in the most honest way I could.

****

I walked through the familiar electric doors, making my way into the hospital, the morning nurse smiling at me as she typed on a computer. I smiled back, intent on heading to the elevators when I saw the hospital gift shop to my left. On a whim I made a detour, and walked inside.

Flowers, balloons, teddy bears, and gifts of every type lined the shelves and cabinets. I looked at them all, fingering a fuzzy brown bear, a purple bow tied around his neck. Smiling at his huge, brown eyes, I strolled on, looking at the case of porcelain figurines, ballerinas, animals, a fisherman, and a football hero, number 56. Glancing toward the flowers and plants, I considered it, but they were so common. I wanted something special for Caden. I waited for something to jump out at me. My mind began to race, thinking of little things from our early days. As I turned around, headed toward the stuffed animals again, I stopped, dead in my tracks. There it was.

****

“I see you have horses. Do you have any other animals? Cats, dogs, fish?”

“No. My mother won’t allow it. I’d love to have a dog more than anything. I often threaten her with having a hundred of them in my own house just to drive her crazy.” I smiled at the blue eyes filled with mischief.

“Hey, works for me.”

“I’ve always wanted a collie. My very own Lassie to save me.”

****

The plastic brown eyes had a strange depth to them, making them almost appear to be real. The long hair with its brown and white pattern was fluffy and full, just begging to be stroked. I walked over to the collie, running my fingers over the ears, one perked as if listening for the whistle of its owner. The stuffed dog was expensive, as hospital gifts tend to be, but I didn’t care. Instinctively I knew Caden would love it.

Doctors and nurses were in the room this morning. I stood just outside the closed door, watching through the window when finally nurse Kelly came out.

“Good morning, Laurel. How are you? Oh, what a cute dog.” She smiled at the animal under my arm, then smiled at me.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Oh, we had to start up the radiation therapy. Mrs. Lodge signed the papers yesterday to get it going.”

“I see.” My brows knitted.

“She’ll be fine.” She patted my shoulder, and walked to the nurses station. I continued to watch through the small window, my heart reaching out to my friend. Why won’t you just wake up?

****

After I finished my drawing, Caden put the straps of her tank back up, and crawled over to me.

“Can I see?”

“Sure.”

I had still been surprised that she had agreed to do that, and I felt a bit strange about it. It had affected me in ways I didn’t really want to admit to myself. Caden was beautiful, that much anyone could see, but I had felt a closeness to her that had shown me a deeper level to Caden Lodge. A level I hadn’t seen before, and I wasn’t sure she showed anyone else.

I handed her the pad, closely gauging her reaction. She took the pad, bringing it in close, looking at every detail, her face masking any expression. I hated when she did that.

Finally she handed the pad back to me.

“It’s very good.” She said quietly. I smiled. “We should get back now.”

As the summer went on we continued to spend more and more time with Michael and Troy. Personally I would have preferred to spend time just Caden and I, but I didn’t say anything. I figured, her house, her plans.

“Personally I thought it was a wonderful production. The costuming was a bit off, however. But, overall I’d see it again.”

“What are you talking about? The costuming made that show.” I looked over at Troy who walked along side Caden, a protective, or was that possessive, arm around her shoulders.

“You haven’t a clue as to what you’re talking about, Laurel, so perhaps you should stop now while you’re ahead.”

“What did you say to me, you-”

“Okay. Well now that we all know the play was a success, what do you all say to some dinner?” Part of me was glad Michael had intervened, but part of me still wanted to clobber that pompous ass that Troy was.

“Sounds good.” Caden looked over at me, her eyes pleading with me. I glared at her. Why didn’t she tell her date to shut his trap. I didn’t understand it. So I shut my mouth, and just avoided the creep. At least it was Caden who had to deal with him. I sure as hell wasn’t about to.

****

The medical team left Caden’s room, leaving us alone. I set the dog on the bedside table, looking at my friend, my eyes stinging as I took in the tubes sticking out of her chest, coming up out of the blanket, running along over the bed, and plugged into a strange looking machine that whirred and clicked. Caden looked like a monster, hoses and tubes connected to her in so many places on her body.

“Oh, Caden.” I breathed, sitting next to her, taking her hand. “I can’t believe this is happening to you. Please wake up. I would do anything to see those beautiful blue eyes of yours again.” She was far too young for this. I wanted to gather her up in my arms, and take off, running down the hall, out the front door, and take her back home to have her wake up in her own bed. Quite the dream.

I gently rubbed her hand, listening as the machine did its job.

“So how is she?” I turned to see Margaret walking into the doorway, looking beautiful as ever, impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place.

“Fine, I guess. They were hooking her up to radiation therapy when I got here.”

“Yes, I signed the release forms yesterday.” She sat in the chair on the opposite side of the bed, crossing her legs, making sure the slacks she wore were not wrinkled, running her thumb and index finger along the crease. “I won’t be staying for long,” she ran her heavily ringed fingers over her hair, patting it in places. “I have lunch plans today.”

“Well, should be fun.” I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice. How dare she make lunch plans when her daughter laid in a coma in the hospital! I figured it was for the best; any amount of time spent with that woman would likely bring a murder charge against me.

“I made the arrangements so long ago, I just hate to break a date.” She readjusted the handbag on her lap nervously. “Laurel?” I glanced at her. She looked at the floor, then at her hands, then finally at me. “Thank you. I’m sure it means a great deal to Caden that you’re here.” I stared, stunned.

“You’re welcome.”

“Well,” with that, she stood and headed for the door. “I should be back in tomorrow. You know where to call should there be any change.” Without another glance at me, she was gone.

“She’s one strange lady, Caden.”

****

I paced back and forth in Caden’s bedroom, my hands fisted at my sides, my tempter just under explode mode. Caden sat on her bed, watching me, back and forth, back and forth. It was almost comical, as if she were watching a tennis match. But I was in no mood to laugh.

“Laurel, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.” Her voice was small, timid. I clenched my jaw, stopping only long enough to look at her before I continued my path of rage.

“Not a big deal? That guy has no respect for women, Caden! And he sure as hell has no respect for you!” I walked over to her, kneeling in front of her, taking her hands in my own. “Caden, listen, that guy almost crossed a line tonight that you just don’t cross.” I looked at her with pleading eyes.

“He stopped.” She said weakly.

“Yeah, but after how much pleading from you? Why did you leave me and Michael?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I trusted him. I really didn’t think he’d try anything.” She lowered her head, her chin nearly touching her chest.

“Why don’t you just get rid of the bastard?”

“My parents like him.”

“You-”

“Caden! Are you okay?” Michael burst into the room, hurrying over to the bed, taking his sister into his arms. “Did he hurt you? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

Watching brother console sister, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knew Troy was staying in the guest house, not wanting to drive home after all he’d drank, I ran from the room, my mind narrow, only thinking of one thing.

The night air was warm and sticky as I ran across the expansive yard, the lights of the small bungalow coming into view. Breathing hard, I finally reached the place, bringing my fist up to bang on the hard door, not caring about the pain that shot up my hand.

“Open up, you son of a bitch!” the door swung open, and Troy stood there, blocking most of the light with his large frame. He stood in just the pants he’d been wearing, his chest and feet bare.

“Yes?” he looked down at me, irritation marking his voice.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you bustard! I’m going to tell you something, you piece of shit. Your family name, your money, your lineage means shit to me, and so do you. You got that? So I have nothing to lose, here.” I took a step closer, my face nearly kissing his neck. I looked up into his hard eyes, so filled with contempt for me. “You ever touch Caden like that again without her consent, I’ll cut your fucking dick off. You got it?” he grinned, his handsome face contorting into a picture of disgust.

“Who are you to tell me anything, you white trash little bitch. The only reason Caden has a thing to do with you is because she feels sorry for you, and her brother just wants a good piece of ass.” His smirk widened with my intake of breath. “Your kind is usually pretty easy.”

“You are such a low creature, Troy. You’re not even worth my spit.” I looked him over, everything I felt about him showing clearly on my face and in my eyes. “You’re noting but a worthless, spoiled little rich boy.” I turned away then, not wanting to waste another breath on him.

As I walked back to the house, I thought about what he had said. Lying piece of shit. He mattered not to me.

“Are you okay?” Michael asked as I entered the house.

“You keep that bastard away from me.” I growled as I headed up the stairs.

****

“Why did you marry him.” I shook my head to clear it. Bad memory. The next day Troy had been asked to leave by Michael. I had often wondered how Caden and Troy had gotten back together the following summer, when she had gotten pregnant. Had he forced himself yet again, or had she finally relented? All questions that part of me wanted to ask, but didn’t want to know the answers to. Almost like imagining your parents having sex. As far as I’m concerned, mine only did it twice, once for Phillip, and once for me.

“You look so serious. What’s on your mind?” I turned to see Michael and Annie standing in the doorway.

“Hi there. Hey, Annie. How are you?”

“Quite well. And yourself?” I grinned.

“I’m fine.”

“Would you like to sit down?” the girl walked further into the room, perching herself on the end of Caden’s bed. She wore jeans with little flowers on the back pockets, and a long sleeve blouse.

“It’s getting chilly out there.” Michael said, removing his suit jacket, folding it neatly over the top of the chair. “Winter is definitely on the way. Oh,” he grabbed the jacket, and took a white envelope out of the inside breast pocket. “Troy gave this to me for Caden.” He set it on the bedside table next to the collie I’d bought.

“That was nice of him.” I forced a smile, the recent memories gave me such a bitter taste in my mouth that I knew Annie shouldn’t hear, and Michael wouldn’t understand.

“What’s all this?” he looked at his sister, and all the tubes coming from her, pointed to the two in her chest.

“Radiation therapy.” I said quietly.

“Good lord. Hadn’t she gone though enough.” He sighed unhappily. “Well, so how are you?” he smiled. “When exactly do you get here?”

“As soon as I’m allowed.” I smiled back. “Your mother came in a bit earlier.”

“How long did she stay?” his voice was low, cold.

“A few minutes. She had a previous lunch to go to.”

“Yes. I’m sure she did.” He stared out the window across from him for a moment, fingering his chin, looking to be in deep thought. “Troy and I had a long conversation this morning.” His eyes found mine. “He wants to file.” He suddenly stood, digging in the front pocket of his pants. “Annie, honey, why don’t you go and get us all a cold soda? I saw a machine near the elevators as we came in.”

“Okay. I figured my cue to leave was coming.” I grinned, watching the girl take the money, and walking out the door.

“She’s one smart girl.” Michael said, also watching her.

“Just like her mother.”

“Just like her mother.” He agreed. “Anyway, I really think it’s for the best. Troy hasn’t been a husband for some time. Caden hasn’t been happy for many years.”

“Why did she marry him, Michael? From what I remember of him, he was quite the bastard.”

“Still is. Money, Laurel. Makes the world go round, don’t you know.” He smiled ruefully. “Gets the best of us.”

“Did it get Caden?”

“Nope. My father. You have to understand, he wanted what was best for her, and at the time Troy seemed to be it. He had money, was going somewhere, and of course, Annie.”

“She had such a future, Michael. Would have made a wonderful doctor.” He nodded.

“I know. She still talks about it off and on. I think she’d love nothing more than to be a doctor still.”

“Okay, I wasn’t sure what everyone wanted, so I guess.” Annie handed me a can of Pepsi with a smile, and Michael his can of Pepsi, popping open her own can of Sprite.

“Thank you, hon.” Michael slapped his hands on his knees. “Well, I promised Annie I’d bring her by, but I have to get going.” He stood. “Come on, Annie.” The girl looked at her mom sadly, then started walking toward the door.

“Wait, Michael, if you want, you can leave her here. Let her spend some time with Caden.” Why was I putting myself through this on purpose? I had never been one for babysitting, or for kids, for that matter. Annie’s face lit up immediately.

“Please, Uncle Mike? I want to stay.” She walked over to him, taking his large hand, needing both of hers to wrap around it. He looked down at her, then at Caden, finally at me, and sighed.

“Are you sure, Laurel?”

“Sure.” I tried to give him a reassuring smile, which of course he saw right through. With a small smile, he nodded.

“Okay. I’ll pick you up on my lunch break, you got that?”

“Thank you!” Annie wrapped thin arms around Michaels waist, and grinned up at him. “I love you, Uncle Mike.”

“I love you, too. Behave.”

“Of course. What else would I do?” Gooper grinned at the bewildered look on his nieces face, and with a wave to me, walked out the door. Well. Now what to do to entertain a nine year old.

Annie made herself comfortable in the chair that her uncle had just deserted. She tapped her heels against the wooden legs, and stared at all the tubes protruding from her mother’s body.

“Does that hurt her?” she asked, scrunching her nose.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“I hope not. Do you like baseball, Laurel?” I looked at her, slightly surprised by the abrupt change of topic.

“Well, I guess.”

“Did you know that the first ever baseball game was played in Hoboken, New Jersey?”

“Nope.” I smiled, finding her delighted grin absolutely charming.

“Did you know that the Stature of Liberty is really in New Jersey?”

“No, hon, it’s in New York.”

“Nope.” She said, shaking her head vigorously. “Ellis Island is part of Jersey. I’m just full of useless information, aren’t I?” she grinned.

“Well, at least you’re interesting.” She looked at me, cocking her head to the side.

“Did you and my mom know each other when you were my age?”

“Nope. We met in college.” I smiled again at the memory. “We were roommates.”

“I want to go to college. I want to be a doctor.” I smiled warmly at that. Caden would absolutely love that.

“And I’m sure you will make an absolutely wonderful doctor, Annie.”

“Tell me a story about my mom when she was younger.”

I looked at this young girl before me, so much like her mother in her curiosity, and looks, yet with the spunk and strength that her mother never possessed.

“Well, let me think for a moment.” I sat forward in my chair, my legs spread, can of soda held in my hands dangling between as I stared into the past.

****

I had never ridden a horse in my entire life, nor had I ever had any real need to do so, yet there I sat, a two ton wild beast between my legs. Caden had given me a bit of instruction before we’d left the stables, but not enough to do any real good. I was still scared to death.

“Come on, Laurel. Keep up!” she yelled back to me, her horse trotting along at a leisurely pace, mine about to keel over dead, I thought.

“How do I do that?” I yelled back, holding on for dear life as the horse lurched forward a bit, then nearly stopped, bowing its head. I squeezed my legs a bit tighter, trying not to slide off. Caden turned her horse, Wild Fire back, and walked over to me and Heffer. The name should have told me everything. She clicked her tongue, making the horse raise it’s head.

“Come on, Heffer. Let’s go, girl.” She looked at me, I could see the amusement in her eyes. “You’ve got to kick her, Laurel, or she’ll never do what you want.”

“Why on earth did you put me on a horst that is as old as God?” I asked as I kicked the stupid horse, to no avail.

“Because she’s gentle.” She clicked her own horse into action. “Come on! I’ll raise you to the stream!”

“You’ve got it.” I grumbled, kicking my horse for all that I was worth until I started to worry I’d hurt the damn thing. “Yah!” I yelled in desperation. Hey, it worked in all the movies. “Shit!” Heffer took off at breakneck speed, leaving me to do everything I could to not break mine.

****

Annie held her stomach as she giggled, me watching.

“Are you about done?” I asked with a grin. The girl tried to sober up, wiping her eyes.

“I can’t believe that when you were as old as nearly twenty you had never ridden a horse before.”

“Are you kidding me? By time I was nearly twenty, I had never even seen a horse in real life. Where I came from, kid, there weren’t any horses.”

“That is too funny. What did mommy do?”

“She kicked my behind, is what she did. Heffer and I never even made it to the stream. He headed off in an entirely different direction. Your mom had to come and save me.” This, of course, sent Annie into another fit of giggles. As I watched her, I tried to imagine a younger Caden holding Annie as a baby. What did she think? How did she react when she gave birth, and saw her little girl for the first time? Was she happy? Worried? I smiled, this life that had come from Caden’s body, from a simple act between two people. I saw kids everyday on the streets, or other friends of mine back in San Diego, but it had never really hit me until I went back to Boston. Never hit me that the child was truly an extension of their parents, a human being created by another.

“You have your mother’s laugh.” I said, my voice quiet. Annie became a bit more serious, looking at me, then a slow smile spread across her face.

“Really? I do?” I nodded, folding my arms across my chest.

“Yup.”

“Good. I love my mother’s laugh.” Annie stood from her chair, and walked the few steps to the bed, looking down at Caden. “I wish she’d wake up. I miss her so much.” She leaned over, and gently kissed her mother on the forehead.

“I do, too.”

Not long after, the nurse came in to unhook Caden from the machine. I watched as she pulled the tubes from her chest, and felt sick to my stomach. One tube was nearly a foot long, the other six inches. All that had been inside her body. My god.

“She did well.” The nurse said as she wheeled the machine out of the room. “I’ll be back in the morning to start another session.”

“How often will she have to have this done?” I asked, glancing back into the room.

“For five days, once a month.” The nurse smiled, and was gone. Annie and I made our way back in, walking to the bed, both of us drawn. Caden’s breathing seemed to be a bit different, a little faster. I drew my brows, concerned.

“Is she okay?” Annie whispered, looking up at me with huge blue eyes.

“I think so.” I looked a bit closer, taking Caden’s pale hand in my own. I looked down in shock when I felt a bit of a squeeze around my fingers. Was that from her? I looked at her face, looking for any sign of movement or life. I was not disappointed. Her eyes beneath their lids moved slightly from side to side, the stilled. My heart was pounding in my chest, holding my breath. Then her eyes opened, just the tiniest bit. Annie and I looked at each other.

“Is she waking up?”

“I don’t know.” We both watched in breathless silence. Caden’s lids fluttered shut, then opened a little wider until she was looking up at the ceiling. She groaned almost inaudibly, and began to look around.

“Mommy?” Caden looked in the direction of the voice, and a weak smile turned the corner of her mouth.

“Hey, baby.” She whispered, her voice horse, lips chapped. I hurried out of the room, ran to the nurses station, spouting that Caden had woken up, and ran back to the room. Caden’s eyes left her daughter, and turned to me. She smiled again. “Hey.”

“Hey, you. How are you?”

“Tired.”

“I don’t see why. You’ve only been sleeping for the last three days.” She smiled again, closing her eyes.
Part 4
Annie and I stared, stunned, excited, worried, happy, curious, and just utterly elated. Caden looked a bit disoriented, but overall, she looked fine.

“I’m going to call uncle Michael and grandma.” Annie picked up the bedside phone, and began to call. I sat beside my friend, my heart pounding with my relief.

“I cannot tell you how nice it is to see those beautiful blue eyes again.” I smiled down at her, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice. She smiled weakly up at me.

“Thank you for staying.”

“You got it.” We shared a silent smile before she turned her attention to her daughter.

“Annie. Sweetie, come here.” The girl handed me the receiver of the phone, and happily went to her mother’s side, wallowing in the large embrace she found there.

“Hello?” I had no idea who she’d handed me to.

“Annie?”

“Uh, no Mrs. Lodge. You were handed over to me. This is Laurel.”

“Oh. Well, what’s this I hear about Caden waking up?” I could hear the hope in Margaret’s voice, though she was trying to maintain her usual distant demeanor.

“It’s true. She opened her eyes a few minutes ago,” Caden’s doctor entered the room, looking like a proud father. “Dr. Gustov is here. I better get going. If you could let-”

“Of course I’ll call Michael. I’ll be there soon.” And the line went dead with a click.

“That was interesting.” I cradled the receiver, and leaned back against the wall as I watched the doctor examine Caden, looking into her eyes with a small light, asking her questions, Annie sitting on the bed holding her mother’s hand, never leaving her side. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I was glad I had come back.

****

Caden had been quiet for the last few days, since Troy had left the grounds. I had been disappointed in Michael. He had only asked him to leave, and had not even laid a single hand on him.

“You have to understand, Laurel, it’s just not done that way here.”

I didn’t understand that, but whatever. If it had been my sister, I would have kicked his ass from here to Timbuktu. They wouldn’t let me near him, I didn’t get it.

Caden had refused to talk about it, or even tell me exactly what had happened. The only thing she’d say was that he had not raped her. So what did he do? Apparently something that was a no-no. I thought back to that night we had all gone out, trying to figure out how he’d gotten her away from us. We had driven to the restaurant, and then, that’s right. Troy had stopped at the front door, complaining that it didn’t have valet parking, and told Michael and I to get us all a table, and he and Caden would park. I hadn’t liked it then, but had never thought he’d try anything.

Michael and I had sat waiting for nearly twenty minutes when they finally showed. Caden’s face had been ashen, her eyes large and scared. My defenses immediately went up, and I stood, placing a hand on her arm, asking her if she was okay. She said she was, and sat down. Troy refused to look any of us in the eye. It was then that I knew, at least to a small degree, what had happened.

“Let’s just move on, Laurel. It’s not important.”

We climbed our hill, side by side. I carried my sketch pad as usual, Caden carrying our lunch. I wasn’t much in the mood for food, though. Hadn’t been since that son of a bitch had tried to take advantage of my best friend. Why did men have to be such pigs sometimes?

“I think we should do something a little different.” I turned toward the sound of Caden’s voice, ripping me from my reverie.

“What’s that?”

“Well, the last few times we’ve done the drawing with my straps down.” Caden stopped at our tree, and sat, spreading the blanket out. I sat across from her, opening the basket, curious to see what Antonio had sent this time.

“Mm. Meatball sandwiches.” Maybe I was a bit more hungry than originally thought. I laid one in front of her, and one in front of myself, anxious to dig in. That was one of my most favorite meals in the world. “Oh, pie for dessert. I gotta say, I kind of like the guy.” I grinned.

“Well, sure, if you like those young, foreign, good-looking types.”

“Yeah, right.” I snickered at the idea.

“Well, apparently one female in this family goes after that type.” She studied the sandwich wrapped neatly in wax paper before her then shrugging with a smile at me. She suddenly got shy, real shy, and I remembered she’d never finished her sentence.

“So what did you want to do that was so different today?” I began to unwrap my lunch, my mouth beginning to water at the prospect of a meatball sandwich. The smell that met my nose was heavenly. She shrugged.

“Nothing. Never mind.” She also unwrapped her lunch. With a shrug of my own, I bit into the soft bread, still warm. Pure ecstasy. I closed my eyes as I savored the taste on my tongue. When I opened them again, I was met with an intense blue gaze. “Ut?” I asked around my sandwich. She smiled and shook her head.

“Nothing.”

That would be our last session at the Lodge estate. Caden, Michael and I were headed back to school the following Monday. Caden and I to begin our junior year, Michael was finishing out his undergrad, then was to head off to get his MBA. He and I had gotten close over the summer, and I would miss him. He had asked me to take a walk with him one afternoon, and I had agreed. We had walked in silence, taking in the beauty of the grounds, Margaret’s luscious gardens, soon to be gone for another year.

“I’ve really grown to like you, Laurel.” Michael had finally said. I smiled.

“I like you, too, Goop. You’re a really great guy.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He smiled, the cutest, shyest smile. He could be so adorable sometimes. Like his sister.

“I was thinking maybe you and I could get together over the year. You know, go out, maybe?” he looked down at me, hope shining in his eyes. I thought about his request for a moment, trying to decipher if there was anything to decipher.

“Well, I guess, sure. Go out and catch a movie, or something. Sounds fun.” I hoped he meant just as friends, certainly he didn’t mean as a couple?

He stopped, stopping me, turning me to face him, and lightly kissing me.

Or not.

I stared up at him in surprise, not moving away, which I should have done, as he took it as an invitation. He put his fingers under my chin, lifting it slightly, and kissed me again, a bit deeper, longer. I gently pulled away before he could get carried away. He smiled at me, satisfied.

“Come on. Let’s continue walking.” I followed along side, not sure what to do.

I had decided not to tell Caden about the garden incident. I knew she was totally for the match, and didn’t need her rooting Michael on anymore than he already was. I wasn’t sure where I stood with him, but didn’t think it was a real good idea considering his sister was my best friend and roommate, and if it didn’t work out between us, I didn’t want to chance losing her. I always felt that losing friends over a man was one of the worst things. Isn’t hindsight great?

“Have you ever drawn someone nude?”

I nearly choked on my last thought as my eyes jerked up to Caden, seeing the curiosity shining in her eyes.

“What?”

“A nude. Have you ever drawn a nude before?”

“Yeah. I took an entire semester of drawing the human form. Great class, by the way. Why? You want to be a nude model?” I chuckled, sipping from my can of Coke. She shrugged, looking shyly down at the ground, picking at a few strands of grass that were peaking over the edge of the blanket. “Caden?” she shrugged again.

“I don’t know. I thought it might be the ultimate end of summer session for us. I mean, I know we both have terribly busy schedules this year, so our sessions will probably be stopped, and you’ll be working more, so,” she cut herself off and looked up at me, her eyes an incredible, vibrant blue against the intense green of the surrounding grass and trees. So beautiful.

“If you want to, Caden, I’d be more than willing. I’m sure it would be a striking portrait.” She looked at me, hard and deep. I wondered if she could read my thoughts, my very soul.

“Okay.” She nearly whispered. “Let’s finish lunch, and we’ll do it.”

****

The doctors gave Caden a clean bill of health, and said she’d be able to go home the following day, provided she came back for her radiation therapy. She had another four days that week, then was finished for the month. Thrilled at the prospect, Caden was glowing.

Michael had shown up soon after Margaret had called him, flushed with excitement and relief. Their mother was yet a no show. She had told him that she had some business to take care of, then she’d be by. That woman made me want to scream.

Caden’s room was a buzz with excited voices, laughter and kisses. I felt that it was not my place to be in such a family setting, so I quietly slipped out, needing some air, so I took a walk around the hospital. I wanted to think.

****

We both took our time eating lunch that day, I think both too nervous to rush into anything, wanting to wait as long as possible. I didn’t know exactly how Caden felt at that time, but I was alive inside, ready, yet scared to death! Part of me realized that I may have been just a little too excited. But, I was an artist and any new sort of challenge was welcome and exciting. Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Laurel. Caden had captured my imagination from hello, and now I had the opportunity to put an actual, physical picture with that conjured image. To every good there was an equal bad, however.

We re-loaded our lunch basket with our trash, and stared at each other, stupid smiles plastered on our faces.

“This is stupid. Come on. Let’s get started.”

“Good idea.” I smiled with a confidence I didn’t feel. We had been roommates for two years, and, as expected, had seen each other in any manner of undress, but this felt different somehow. Caden was actually taking her clothes off for me, not just in front of me.

With a deep breath, I gathered my art supplies, and headed over to our spot. As I set up, she began to slowly disrobe. Her tank was the first to go, leaving her standing there in her shorts, sandals, and bra. Her skin was tan and smooth, and my fingers itched to touch it. As she shed the rest of the garments, I tried not to stare, but it was a difficult task to say the least. Her body was long and supple, and any human with eyes would look and be captivated.

“I’ve never done anything like this before. I feel strange.” I finally raised my head from my sketch pad and smiled to try and calm her nervousness, my eyes trailing often down the hill toward the house, making sure no one was headed in our direction. All was clear.

“It’s really not that bad. One time, when I was still in high school, I needed a few bucks, so I modeled for a local college class for the entire week of spring break.” I smiled at the memories. I knew exactly what she was going through. Though I did have the advantage of not knowing a single soul in the room at the time, too.

“Really? How did you do?” Caden sat down, her knees drawn to her chest, arms crossed over her shins.

“Horribly. Well, that’s not true. It took a day or two, then I did just fine. I realized that no one in the class was looking at me personally, just my body. It turned out okay.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good, I suppose. Did you enjoy it?”

“No.” we both chuckled. “Just think of it this way. Your body will become a piece of art, something to be observed. I’m looking at it with the eye of an artist, not that of a person, if that makes sense.”

“Yes. I guess it does.” Caden took a deep breath. “Okay,” she released it, slowly unfolding herself, like a flower in bloom. “Here goes the rest.” She removed her sandals, placing them next to her neatly folded tank, then added her shorts, underwear and bra to the pile. With a deep breath, and not daring to look at me, she laid on her side on the grass, trying to find a position where the blades weren’t tickling or scratching her bare skin. Finally settled, she held her head up on her hand, looked at me expectantly. I looked at her, trying to decide where to begin, but my mind not working with me as the human eye was taking over.

I took in the long legs, knees slightly bent, then up the sleek, supple thighs, strong from her daily jogs, and years of swimming, a dark thatch of hair. Her arms, also strong and toned, one laid out along her side, matching the perfect curve of her side and hip, the other under her, her head resting upon the palm. Her breasts were what caught my eye the most, so soft looking, full, perfect fit for a hand. I wanted to touch them, wanted them to fill my hands.

I shook myself out of my thoughts. I didn’t need to be thinking of my best friend that way. But then I noticed the way her dark hair fell over her shoulder, partially covering one breast, the hollow of her throat, her shoulders, so beautiful and strong, her long neck, that incredible face.

Stop!

Those lips, so full, the pink tongue snaking out to moisten them,

Stop!

“Okay. Here we go.” With a very deep breath I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, and began to sketch.

****

The night air was getting brisk, but I strolled around the streets of the hospital anyway. Probably not the safest place to walk, but I didn’t care. I needed some air. I wondered if I should stay on now that Caden was awake, and we had spoken, she had made it through surgery okay. Did she still want me to stay? I could stay, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Being back was bringing back things that I really didn’t want to think about. Memories I had buried, had no reason to bring back. Can’t cry over spilled milk.

I ran a hand through my hair, short now, with a sigh. I needed to call Carol. I had been in Boston for a week, and hadn’t even thought about it. Wasn’t too sure what that said about the status of our relationship. Hell, what relationship? We had sex and saw a movie once a week or so. Not much depth to it. All the same, I pulled my cell from my pocket, and dialed her number.

“Hello?”

“Hey. How are you?” I found a bench near the ER entrance, sat down.

“Surprised. And yourself?”

“I’m okay, I suppose. I’m sorry I haven’t called. Been one hell of a week.”

“I’m sure. How’s your friend?”

“She’s fine. Just popped out of her three day coma this afternoon. I’ve been on awake watch this week.” Carol chuckled lightly. I could picture her in her townhouse, curled up on the leather couch, her long brown hair back over one shoulder, her sweats pushed up to just below her knees before she’d pull them down again; cold, hot, cold, hot. I couldn’t keep up with her internal thermostat. Never knew whether to bring her coffee or ice cream.

“Well, sounds like you’ve been a good friend.” My brows narrowed as I heard the slight sarcastic edge to her words.

“Are you bothered by my being here?”

“Well, I think bothered is a bit of a strong word, but I guess I don’t really understand what the point is. You guys are old college buddies, not life-long friends, right?” I shrugged, forgetting that she couldn’t see me. “You haven’t even seen her in some time. Hell, before this tragedy, I’d never heard her name.”

“She needed me.”

“Then like I said, you’ve been a good friend. Good for you.” I hated that calm in her voice, the tone that was unreadable, casual with a kick.

I sighed, I did not need this.

“Look, I’m going to go. I just wanted to call and let you know what’s been going on.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about that tonight, actually. I don’t know. I’m not real sure what to do.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

I was silent for a moment, suddenly very sad. “Why can’t you just be a friend and listen to me, Carol? I need someone to talk to.”

“Okay. Talk.” Closing my eyes, I rubbed my forehead. I knew I’d be wasting my time and breath.

“That’s alright. Look, I’d better get going. We have a three hour time difference here, and I’m getting tired. I’ll give you a call in a couple days.”

“Okay. Have a good night, Laurel.”

“You, too. Night.” I pressed the end button on my phone, and pushed the antennae down, looked up into the night sky, noting the way the orange lights that surrounded the grounds reflected onto the clouds overhead, giving the night an orange glow. It almost looked as if it could snow. With another sigh, I headed back into the hospital.

****

It was amazing, the sketch seemed to create itself, I was no longer involved with its production. The lines were clean and honest, Caden emerging from the page with startling realism. Every once in a while I created something that was beyond my imagination, beyond my talent, and that sketch was one of those.

Caden seemed to relax, her earlier hesitation behind her. She stared at me as she laid there, sometimes a slight smile curving her lips, other times she looked serious and thoughtful. I wondered what was passing through her mind, what was she thinking? Sometimes when I’d draw her we’d chat, talking about the picture, poses, or about the weather. Not that day. Silence, save for the birds above us in the trees. The world around us seemed to have stopped, leaving us be; just Caden, me, and my sketch pad. It was magical.

My eyes scanned over her, focusing in on the texture of her skin, trying to get it just right, the shading, the tone, the absolute flawlessness of it. It was almost like making love to her image with my hand and eye.

The spell was broken when finally she spoke.

“My mother wants me to get married.” I glanced up, my hand stilled for the first time since I had started the portrait.

“What? Why?”

“That’s what I’m supposed to do. She’s never liked the idea of my going on to be a doctor. I feel like I’m stuck in some movie where the daughter of rich parents is sent off to finishing school. Perhaps instead of taking physics next semester I should take a class on balance, walk around with a book on my head.”

“Just exactly what century is your mom in, anyway?” I resumed my sketching, trying to get the shading of her hair just right. Caden chuckled ruefully.

“I’m not sure.”

“So who’s the lucky guy she’s got picked out for you? Isn’t that usually the way it works? Some arranged marriage or something.”

“I don’t know.” She looked down, began to pluck blades of grass. She looked so solemn. I wished there was something I could do. I knew her family put tremendous pressure on her and Michael. There was just nothing to be done or said. I continued to draw.

****

The elevator reached the third floor and the stainless steel doors opened with a whoosh. The floor was quiet, a single nurse typing on a computer at the nurse’s station, her glasses perched precariously on her nose. I had the urge to run over to her and push them further up. Instead, I walked past her, and toward Caden’s room. Visiting hours were long over, but the staff had been wonderful, letting us stay with Caden, or check in on her around the clock.

The Lodge family had gone, leaving Caden alone in her dark room, dozing. I stood in the door, watching her. Her breathing was even and strong, and she had much more color in her face then she had for too many days. She looked peaceful, and I didn’t want to bother her. I needed sleep myself. It had been a long week.

“Good night, Caden. And good bye.”

****

I sat on the bed in my hotel room, my packed bag at my feet, my airline ticket next to me. I stared at it, my finger tracing the United Airlines logo, trying to decide what to do. Caden had plenty of people here for her. What could I provide for her that they couldn’t? I sighed, tossing the keys to the rental car up in the air, catching them in my hand again. Making a decision, I stood, grabbing my bag, and heading toward the door.

The streets were busy as I made my way toward Logan International Airport. The place was already pretty busy for the morning hour. I pulled up to the Hertz parking lot, and cut the engine, staring out through the windshield toward the office window of the rental place, not seeing it, my mind on Caden. Would she notice I was gone?

Over the week I’d been in Boston I’d become reacquainted with the Caden I used to know, but still had no idea what the Caden of the present was like. Did I want to know? Was it my turn to also make amends? I believed that was why she had called me to her in the first place. But nothing had happened to her, well, since she had finally woke from the coma, she was fine. Would be fine. Out of danger.

As I had traveled through our past together, I had come to realize just what she had meant to me all those years ago. But, the past was the past, and the past was long over. But, by calling she had inadvertently told me that it had been important to her, I had been.

I opened the car door, headed toward the office.

****

Caden quickly dressed as I made the last few touches on the drawing, then stared at it in awe. Part of me hoped she wouldn’t want to keep it. I wanted it.

“How did it come out?” she crawled over to me, looking over my shoulder. We both stared in silence. I could feel her breath on my neck, making me shiver. “Wow. I can’t believe that’s me.” She nearly whispered, disturbing the tiniest hairs on the back of my neck, making me shiver again.

“It is.” I could feel her breasts against my back, pushing through the thin material of her tank.

“Is that how you see me, Laurel?”

“That’s how you look, Caden. Beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

A heat coursed down my spine, landing squarely between my legs. She created a constant heat around me that I could do nothing about. I ignored it.

“We’d better get back. Mother is having a dinner for us tonight.” Caden moved away from me, her sudden absence creating an instant coldness on my back.

“Oh. I didn’t know that. Is it formal?”

“I’m afraid so.” Caden began to pack us up, making sure all of her clothing was in place. She smiled shyly at me. “I can’t believe I just did a nude.” I smiled back.

“Neither can I.”

We got back to the house to find the servants running around, cleaning, decorating, preparing. Caden walked through the house as if she saw nothing unusual at all. I looked around in awe, the house looking more like a movie set than my best friend’s childhood home.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to her as we made our way up the stairs.

“Preparation.” She said matter-of-factly.

“Oh.” I thought about that for a moment before my brows drew again. ” Preparation for what?”

“Us. The dinner party I told you about. My mother feels the need to show me off to all of her friends, and their sons. It’s ridiculous, actually, but what can you do?” I stopped, stared at her back like she had two heads. What the hell planet was I on, anyway? Sometimes I really missed the old neighborhood.

****

Parked outside the hospital once more. I took my cell from the passenger seat of the Explorer to tell Carol what was the newest plan. As I waited, listening to the ring of her phone, I studied my unused plane ticket, hoping I had done the right thing. I didn’t know. I had gone through the sliding doors of the airport, headed toward the ticket counter, watching hundreds upon hundreds of people walk past me, in groups or those alone, heading to their destination with the stern look of determination that seemed to be saved for the airport. I stared down at my ticket, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave Caden without seeing her one last time, saying goodbye in person. She deserved more than that.

As I expected, I got Carol’s voicemail. I waited for the beep, then left her my message, telling her I planned to stay for a day or two longer, then I’d be home. After ending the call, I sighed again, sipping from my cup of coffee, the Styrofoam was thin, the cup nearly burning my hand.

“Damn, that’s hot.” Placing it back into the holder on the dash, I sat back in the seat, thinking. Today Caden was supposed to go home. I glanced at my watch; nearly eleven. Was she still up there in her room? I looked up through the windshield, up to the third floor of windows, dark to me. Just the glare of the early afternoon sun.

****

I started as Caden opened her bedroom door, a half dozen people already there. Caden walked in as if it was everyday you find an entourage waiting for you.

“Carlo! How are you?” she walked up to an older, extremely well-dressed man, his graying hair slicked back setting off his tanned skin and dark eyes.

“Hello, darling. How are you?” he kissed her soundly on the cheek, and turned to me, clapping manicured hands together, the gold pinky ring on his right hand gleaming in the sun coming through her windows. “And you, my love, must be the friend.” He smiled, dark eyes twinkling.

“I guess so. Who are you?”

“I am Carlo. I have dressed the lovely Miss Caden since she was a child.” He pushed up the sleeves of his gray suit jacket, walking around me in a circle. I followed him with glaring eyes.

“You want to tell me what the hell you’re doing?”

“Laurel, don’t. He’s measuring you.” I turned to Caden who was smiling at me.

“For what?”

“For the incredible creation I am going to make for you.” Carlo answered, coming to stand in front of me again. “Very nice. You hove lovely lines, my dear. You’ll look absolutely stunning in what I have for you.” He turned to my friend. “Your mother was right, my love. She has wonderful eyes and the kind of body that I dream of dressing. I looked to Caden again for help. To my total chagrin she was standing back with Carlo, both tapping a finger on their chin, looking me over from top to bottom.

“I agree completely, Carlo. I can’t wait to see what you make for her.”

“Hello! I’m standing right here. You guys want to let me in on the joke here?” I was really getting angry then.

“Oh, sorry, my love.” Carlo took a step toward me, placing a warm hand on my shoulder. “Come. Let’s begin.”

“Caden? Help?” she smiled, waving at me as Carlo led me toward the massive bathroom in her room so we could “begin”.

****

I grinned to myself as I walked down the halls of the hospital. I had been so furious with her for putting me through that. But, even though I’d never, ever admit it to Caden, I had enjoyed Carlo immensely. He had been fun, and had put me at ease right away. Not to mention the dress he had created for me to wear within hours. Amazing. I hated dresses, but that night I had felt like royalty.

I reached Caden’s room, found her up and around, dressed and looking great. She was alone, packing all of her belongings into the overnight bag she had originally brought with her. I noticed her entire head was still heavily bandaged.

“Hey.” She turned, looked at me, an instant smile spreading across her lips.

“Hey.” She walked over to me, taking me into her arms for a tight hug. “I’m glad you’re here, though I must say I’m a bit confused.” She pulled back from me, holding on to my shoulders. “Your hotel said you had already left. I thought you were gone.”

I looked down, feeling guilty.

“Were you going to leave?” she took a step back from me, her hands going to the back pockets of her jeans. I nodded. “Why?” I looked up at her.

“Well, you have so many people here who love you and I just figured you didn’t need me anymore.” She stepped back to me, taking my hand in hers.

“Laurel, yes, I have my family, but I called for you for a reason. I wanted you specifically here.” She hugged me again. “But I am glad you came back.” She released me, walking back to the bed, picking something up, turning back to me. She held the collie, holding it close to her chest, stroking it’s head. “You?” I nodded with a smile. “You remembered.” Again I nodded.

“I saw him downstairs, and just had to buy him.”

“Thank you. He’s beautiful.”

So are you, Caden.

“How are you feeling now? I take it you’re leaving?”

“Yes. Finally. I’m so grateful, too. I yearn to get home, and be able to rest in my own bed, surrounded by my own things. Especially eat food prepared by my own cook.” She smiled with a sigh. “Well, would you help me carry this stuff down? My cab should be here any minute.”

“Cab? Why on earth would you take a cab?” what the hell was wrong with this family?

“Sure. Mother is off somewhere, and Michael had to head to the city for business this morning.” She looked at me. “It’s okay, Laurel, really. Not a big deal at all.”

“You are not taking a cab home from the hospital after just having major surgery. Come on. My car’s outside.” I took her bag, and as many of the gifts people had dropped off as possible. “Let’s go.”

“Caden. Ready?” a nurse stood at the door with a wheelchair.

“All set.” Caden happily walked over, and sat, smiling up at me. I smiled back, still my heart was heavy.

The nurse pushed the chair down the hall, me walking along side, Caden chatting about this and that. I listened, but didn’t have much to say. I was just so happy to hear her voice, hear that she was okay, awake, and well. Plus I was still steaming over her family’s lack of giving a damn.

****

The satin dress Carlo had fitted me into was formfitting, the color nearly perfectly matching my eyes. The hem reached to the floor, hiding my matching heeled sandals. My back was bare, the neckline a bit too plunging for my taste, but Caden said it was sexy, so I agreed. The strap wrapped around my neck, tying in the back, leaving my shoulders also bare. I was truly stunned as I looked into the full-length mirror in the bathroom. I had been transformed from tomboy into raving femininity in mere moments. My hair was swept up off my neck, piled on top of my head in some complicated style that would take me weeks to get undone. A woman had come in and applied a little make up. I looked like an entirely different person.

I walked out of the bathroom, the clothing police gone. Caden was the only one waiting for me. She stood near the armoire, applying lipstick. She saw my reflection through the mirror, and slowly turned, her mouth open, eyes trailing over my every inch.

“Wow.” She breathed. “You look absolutely stunning.” She walked toward me as I stood nervously, my fingers fidgeting with each other. She walked around me in a slow circle before coming to rest before me. She smiled with a slight nod. “Beautiful, Laurel. I’m speechless.”

“I can relate.” I said, looking her over. Her red velvet dress was strapless, her incredible shoulders allowed to be shown unobstructed, her hair also pulled up on her head. The dress fitted her incredible body perfectly, reaching her ankles to show her silver sandals, her toenails painted to match her dress and lipstick. I trailed my gaze up to her face, finally her eyes. The blue nearly glowed against the fiery color. We shared a smile and a deep breath.

“Our dates are waiting downstairs.” She said, her voice quiet, almost hushed. I hadn’t yet caught my breath, so I merely nodded. She turned and headed toward the door, opening it, giving me one more once over, then walked out into the hall. After a moment, I followed.

****

Caden looked out the side window, a smile on her face as she took in everything we passed, as if she’d never seen the city streets before. I glanced at her often.

“What are you thinking?” I finally asked. She didn’t look at me, but instead took a contented breath, letting it out with closed eyes.

“Life. I’m happy to be here.” She turned to me. “Did you ever think you’d be back here, Laurel? With me?”

“To be honest, no. I never figured I’d see you again.” I looked at her, my honesty hanging in the air, heavy, but not painful. She nodded.

“Me, too. That always saddened me.”

“Really? Why?” I stopped at a red traffic light, turning to her.

“I didn’t want our friendship to end. I was weak. I know that now. I’m sorry, Laurel.” I looked at her, not sure what to say. Did it really matter anymore? Could old wounds, long scabbed, mostly healed, be disinfected and bandaged? I wasn’t sure.

“Thank you.” The light turned green, and I drove on.

****

Music could be heard as we made our way down the stairs. I looked over at Caden questioningly.

“Mother brought in a twenty piece orchestra.”

“Oh.” Oh, god.

Caden led us to the ballroom, which I hadn’t even realized existed. She explained that it was usually closed up, only opened for special occasions. The room was toward the back of the house, and was huge. The highly polished marble floors reflected perfectly the massive crystal and gold chandelier that hung ten feet above everyone’s heads. The orchestra was placed at the back of the room, their boxed platform raised slightly. They played a light number, the white grand piano in the center of the players the main instrument heard.

I turned in a small circle, taking in everything. Gold and silver decorations were up everywhere, as well as Caden’s name carved into an ice sculpture at the food table at the far end of the room. Several dozen tables had been set up around the room, the middle left open in front of the orchestra box for dancing. A hundred or so people were talking, laughing, mingling already.

“Oh, boy.” I moved a bit closer to Caden, feeling so completely out of my element I felt a bit sick.

“You’ll do fine. Just be yourself.” She whispered to me, patting my arm reassuringly.

“Who are these people?”

“Friends of my parents, clients of my father’s. Societies best.”

“Oh, boy. You leave my side tonight, Caden, and I will hunt you down.” She laughed quietly.

“Deal.”

“Holy shit!” I hissed. “Is that Warren Beatty?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. Come on. There’s Michael.”

****

“Would you like to come in? I doubt somehow that you have a hotel room anymore.” She smiled. I looked up at the Lodge house. “Please?” I looked at her. “I don’t want to be alone right now.” I looked deep into her troubled eyes, and nodded.

“Okay.”

I helped her bring her things in, and we headed up to her old bedroom. Caden pushed the door open, stepping aside for me to enter. I looked around, amazed that not a single thing had changed.

“This house just does not age, does it?” I turned back to Caden. She smiled and headed for her bed, plopping down against all the pillows.

“Nope. I’m afraid not. It’s a little creepy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I walked around after setting everything down on the floor, looked into the bathroom, the massive bathtub with the Jacuzzi jets on the sides and bottom. The large separate shower and toilet stalls, their own little enclosed closets. “My god. I feel like I’ve stepped back ten years.” She smiled at me as I sat on the edge of the bed. “You look tired.”

“I am. That was a lot of excitement for me.”

“I imagine it was.”

“Am I keeping you from something back in San Diego, Laurel?” her relieved, happy expression suddenly turned serious, worried. She took my hand. “If you need to go back, I do understand. I just wanted to see you one more time. You know, just to apologize.”

“For what?”

“For everything.” She looked into my eyes, that intense stare that I remembered so well. I gently rubbed the hand that held mine.

“It’s okay. The past is the past.” She continued to stare for a moment before she nodded. “And, no. You’re not keeping me from anything. That’s the great thing about being your own boss.” She smiled.

“Do you still draw?” surprised by the turn of conversation, I released Caden’s hand, sat back a little.

“I haven’t really drawn in years.” She looked so sad it broke my heart.

“Oh. That’s too bad. You’re so wonderful at it.”

“Thank you.”

“Why? Why don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I guess my attention went to the camera instead. I do some painting now and then, though. That’s about as close to sketching as I get nowadays.”

“I used to love it when you used me as your subject. Remember?”

“Yes. I do.”

****

Michael walked toward us, looking incredibly handsome in a black tuxedo with white vest and tie. He looked so proud as he looked both of us over appreciatively.

“Ladies.” He took a hand from both of us into his. “You both look absolutely stunning.”

“Thank you, Michael. You look so handsome in that.” Caden took her hand from his, and straightened his bow tie just a tad, patting his shoulder.

“Stop.” He batted at her hands, grinning at me. “Laurel, I must say, I am completely bashful around you tonight. You are breathtaking.” My face must have turned the color of Caden’s dress. Never had I received such compliments.

“Um, thank you. You look really nice, too.” He smiled, taking my other hand.

“I’m proud to be your date tonight.” Now there’s a surprise. I smiled.

“Me, too. What about Caden?”

“That would be my job.” Caden and I turned, I nearly hissing. Troy walked up to us in a tux similar to the one Michael wore, one hand casually placed in his front pocket, the other holding a glass of champagne. “Hello, ladies. You both look lovely.” He smiled charmingly at Caden, then at me. It took all I had to stay put, and not shove the heel of my shoe through his eye.

Caden looked at her brother questioningly. He shrugged. “Father insisted.” He nearly whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Caden, Laurel, I must apologize. My behavior was less than satisfactory last time we met. It wasn’t necessary.” That same damn charming smile forced into my face. “So, I suggest we all put it behind us, and have a pleasant evening.” Caden nodded politely, I said nothing, simply looked away.

“Well, shall we get a table?” Michael said. He was in the hot seat, and he knew it. He led us all to a table near the dance floor, both men holding our chairs for us. I felt ridiculous, but said nothing. I knew Caden wanted me to play along. I sat prim and proper, sure to cross my legs and all that. The table was round, and I was flanked by Caden on my left, and Michael on my right, stuck looking at Troy’s mug right across from me.

The music stopped as someone tried to call attention to a long table near the front that I realized belonged to Caden’s parents. Michael Lodge Sr. stood, tapping a fork to his wine glass. He was very handsome, his hair just beginning to gray on the sides added sophistication and maturity, his face relatively unlined and youthful.

“Hello, everyone, and welcome. I’m so glad you all could make it to our little get together.” The crowd chuckled at his understatement. “As you all know, we’re here to honor my little girl, and introduce her to you all. My little princess is heading into her third year of college in Pennsylvania, she’s planning on medicine. I wanted her to follow me and her brother into business, or her grandfather into politics, but no, no. My daughter has her sights set on becoming the first doctor in the Lodge family. We’re so proud of her. Straight-A student, top of her class. Let’s hear it for my little girl, Caden!” he raised his glass, a round of here, here’s echoing throughout the hall.

I turned to my friend, a smile a mile wide on my face, also so proud of her. To my surprise she was looking down at the table, her eyes squeezed shut, before she raised her head, avoiding my eyes, smiling at all the guests surrounding us, smiling, yelling out to her. She waved politely to the room, standing as she did so, then sat back down.

“That’s wonderful, Caden.” I exclaimed, leaning in close so she could hear me above the cheering. “I had no idea your father supported you so much.” She turned sad eyes to me, more moist than usual.

“He doesn’t. It’s an act, Laurel. He abhors the idea.” I pulled away, stunned, turning to Michael who looked down at his hands that rested on the table. Troy happily drank his champagne.

****

Caden was dozing peacefully upstairs in her bedroom, so I sat in the library next to the fireplace with a pad of paper Mildred had found for me, a pencil held in my hand. I stared into the flames, then looked down at the blank pad. Nothing. Couldn’t think of a single thing to draw. The days when I used to carry around a sketch pad like most people do a wallet seemed so distant. Now I carried my camera around like that. I had brought it on the trip with me to Boston.

I set the pad down, and hurried out to my car, digging around until I found my camera case with my .35 mm Nokia. Plenty of film, I began to walk around the grounds of the beautiful estate. Endless photo ops.

I walked to the stables, leaning on the top rail of the fence, watching them run and play. There were only three horses, there used to be half a dozen or more. I wondered what had happened to them all. Their whinnies filled the brisk air, their breath and snorts coming out in little white puffs. I brought the camera up and began to snap, adjusting the lens to get some great close-ups, one bucking up on his hind legs, front legs beating the air. Incredible. I moved around, trying to get different angles.

Finally lowering the camera, nearly half a roll spent, I watched for a bit longer before moving on. As I continued to walk I saw our hill. With a smile, I headed in that direction. It would be nice to see it again.

I had obviously been in better shape at nineteen than I was at thirty. I chuckled as I reached the top, and was a bit winded. I am not getting older, I am not getting older. I didn’t think my daily mantra was working so well anymore.

It looked the same, though the grass was yellowed from the coming of winter, and the trees were losing their leaves. I spotted our tree, and walked over to it, running back in my head to all the time we had spent there that summer. All the drawings I had done there, the bonding. I missed it. I hadn’t really been close with someone like I had been with Caden since. It saddened me as I realized that. It seemed closeness like that was strictly reserved for the young; at that age people can still open themselves up for lack of life experience. You don’t know of the hurt that it can bring. The end of innocence.

****

“How could you let this happen, Michael?” we twirled again, around and round the dance floor. I could feel the heat of his hand on my bare back, one of mine on his shoulder, our other clutched together.

“I didn’t have a choice, Laurel. I swear. I tried to fight against my father brining in Troy, but he was insistent. What my father wants, my father gets.”

“Even at the risk of your sister’s safety?” he dipped me slightly, unexpectedly, I grabbed his shoulder for all I was worth, nearly digging my fingers right through the material of his coat.

“Don’t do that without warning again or you’ll find yourself singing soprano.” I hissed once he brought me up again. He grinned and nodded, continuing to guide us around other couples. I looked over to our left, saw Caden dancing with Troy. She looked miserable as they were apparently chatting. Well, more like he was chatting, and she was nodding.

“Do you have any idea how good you look tonight?” I turned back to my dance partner with a grimace.

“I feel like an idiot.”

“Well, you shouldn’t. You clean up real nice.” He smiled charmingly.

“Don’t even try it, Michael. Give it up, man.” With a boom of laughter, he dipped me again, me squealing like a little girl, beating at his shoulder.

Finally my prayers were answered, and the song came to an end. I hurried off the floor, to the door, needing some air. It had been cramped and hot on the dance floor, and it just felt good to get away from people.

The French doors in the hall were open, leading to a small patio with some chairs and a small table. It looked like the perfect place to go. I liked Gooper, but was inherently grateful that he did not follow.

I walked over to the waist high stucco wall that closed in the patio, resting my hands on top of it, raising my face up to the warm night air, the cool breeze a blessing.

“It’s nice out here, isn’t it?” I glanced over my shoulder to see Caden standing in the door, her hands clasped in front of her.

“It is. Care to join me?”

“Please? I wasn’t sure if I should disturb you or not.”

“That obvious, huh?” I turned to face her, leaning back against the wall. She stepped outside with a grin and a nod. “Well, I think my dance with Michael did me in.”

“I understand that one.” She rested against the wall next to me with a sigh.

“So are you having a good time?” we both turned to look out into the darkness past the property light. She snorted quietly.

“I would love nothing more than to leave the entire thing. It’s a joke, anyway.”

“Does your family have this sort of thing often?”

“Not involving Michael or I. My parents have parties like this all the time for one reason or another, but the purpose of this tonight is to get me out of school, and married. Quite the effort for an heir, don’t you think?” I looked at her, stunned.

“Guess so.”

“I must say, though, Laurel, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re here tonight. I think I’d likely lose my mind otherwise.” She smiled at me, gently bumping my shoulder with her own. I bumped her back.

“Me, too.”
Part 5
The hammer came down, missing Caden’s head by mere inches, but was raised again, brought down with equally deadly force as the first time, but again she managed to get out of the way, her scream silenced by the black hole behind her, I reached for her, trying to grab her hand, but she was gone, out of sight, fallen over the edge…

I awoke with a scream, shooting up in the bed, my hair plastered to my head, beads of sweat rolling into my eyes, stinging. Taking a deep breath I looked around, trying to figure out where I was, what was going on. The unfamiliar room was dark, quiet. I was alone.

“My god.” Running my hands through my hair I shook the last remnants of the dream out of my head. Fully awake, I pulled the covers back, threw my legs over the side of the large bed, my feet touching the plush carpet beneath them.

Caden had talked me into staying at the house over night, finding a hotel room later. Reluctantly I had agreed.

“It’ll be fun. Like the old days.” Her smile had won me over finally.

I glanced at the alarm clock on the side table, it was only three in the morning. Wide awake, but had no clue what to do about it. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to just roam around the Lodge house, finding something to keep me entertained.

I turned on the overhead light, looked around the second floor guest room Caden had taken me to. It was beautiful, and was at least as big as my first apartment, maybe even larger. I made my way into the bathroom, looking at the massive, deep tub, so inviting. Without another moment’s thought, I began to run a hot bath, stripping out of my tee and shorts. The steam began to fill the room, I closed my eyes, breathing it in, feeling the warm stickiness against my naked skin. Bliss.

As I laid back in the water, my eyes closed, my head tilted back, letting the heat seep into every part of me, soothing, like a balm, my mind began to wonder. I thought of everything in my life, Carol, my studio and home, my work, the show I had in the Dayfield Gallery in San Francisco in two months. Everything. Was I doing the right things with my life? Being the right kind of person, friend, lover? I had concentrated so hard on making my work and my name what it was that I had failed to concentrate on myself. It almost felt as if the last ten years had been one giant blur, nothing sticking in my brain. I had made no real, strong friendships, no lasting bonds with anyone. Was that how I wanted it? What I wanted for my life? Why was I questioning these things at some ridiculous hour in the morning in a strange house, in a long forgotten city?

I sighed, shut my brain off.

****

The party lasted for hours, and finally in the early hours of the morning Caden and I headed up to her room. I was exhausted, and I knew she was, too. It had been long and draining. I never wanted to do anything like that again in my life.

Caden was quiet as she helped me out of the confines of the dress, and to get my hair down. She was very withdrawn.

“Are you okay?” I asked as I turned to her standing in my underwear and bra. She looked at me, then looked down, nodding. “Are you sure?” I put my hand on her shoulder, gently rubbing the warm skin with my thumb. Again she nodded.

“Yes. I’m fine. Just very tired.” She stepped away from me, giving me her back so I could unzip her dress. The velvet material gracefully slid away from her body, almost as if it was melting off. I looked at the smooth expanse of her back, longing to run my hands over it, trace her spine with my fingertips. I wanted to play, her flesh like clay for me to mold and shape. Instead I took a step back, walking to my bag to grab something to sleep in. Caden headed to the bathroom, quietly closing the door behind her. Moments later I heard the shower.

I made myself comfortable in the chair against the wall, flipping open my sketch pad. I chewed on the tip of my pencil for a moment, trying to decide what to draw, then it hit me. I sucked in my lower lip as I sketched, the small wrinkle of concentration forming between my eyes. Moments later I put the pencil behind my ear, and ran my finger over the gray and black lines, the V of Caden’s open dress running down to a point just above her rear, perfectly shaded. My eyes trailed up to the neck, her head bent just forward enough to show the long length fully. I could imagine my lips on that expanse of skin, could feel the heat of it, the tiny hairs tickling.

I scrambled to close the pad when the water was suddenly turned off, and the shower door opened. I didn’t want Caden to see my latest sketch of her. She wouldn’t understand. I barely did.

****

I stared up at the ornately molded ceiling, watching the steam rise, almost completely clouding it from sight. The feelings I had had that night after the party had been intense, such an intense attraction. It had really begun to build by that time. She invaded my thoughts constantly then, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. I never knew if she had noticed that summer or not.

With a yawn, I decided I was tired enough to go back to bed, and try to sleep. The tub drained as I dried myself off, running the soft towel over my skin, slightly pink from the hot water, and dressed in my shirt and shorts once more.

Pulling the sheet and blanket up to my chin, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

****

The morning sunlight blared through the large window across from the bed, shining directly into my eyes. With a groan, I opened them slowly, and looked around. Everything as it had been the night before, except for now the house was bustling with activity. Voices and footsteps throughout. It sounded as if Margaret Lodge was ordering the servants around, her voice getting closer and closer until it was directly in front of my closed door, then I heard a knock.

“Come in.” I sat up, running my hands through my hair, attempting to look somewhat decent. When you have short hair, going to bed with it wet is never the smartest thing to do. The door opened, and Caden’s mother gracefully walked in, followed by her ever-present trail of perfume. Silk Capri pants billowing around her as she walked, giving her an almost angelic air.

“Good morning, Laurel.” Her voice was matter-of-fact, almost business. “I apologize for barging in on you at such a ridiculous hour, lord knows I am not known for mornings myself, but I do need to discuss something with you, and ask you for a small favor.”

My brows drew, and I stared at her, moving away slightly as she perched on the side of my bed. “Okay. Shoot.”

“Well, today is a very busy day, as I’m sure you can understand, and undoubtedly hear,” she began to play with several of the diamond rings that adorned her fingers, turning them this way and that. “Today I leave for my annual trip to London to go to the spa. I’ve gone every year for the last thirty, and won’t miss it.” She finally looked at me, her eyes searching mine for what, I wasn’t sure. “I’m so grateful Caden is finally out of that coma nonsense. She had me worried.” She smiled briefly, turning on the charm. “I need you to stay on here, Laurel. You seem to make my daughter feel better.” I could only stare as she continued. “I can give you money for your expenses, I realize you have your own life out west, and by staying here you are, I assume, missing out on a great deal of work time. As we all know, time is money.” She looked me in the eye. “So there you are. I leave in just under an hour and don’t want to have to worry about this in London. I plan to enjoy myself and,” she stopped herself. “Well, anyway.”

I looked up into Margaret’s expectant eyes. “Alright. I’ll stay. But I don’t want your money.” She looked at me and nodded, almost as if she’d expected no other answer, nor would have taken one. I felt a surge of anger for a moment, but then I realized that it was for Caden ultimately, not for Margaret Lodge.

“Good.” She patted my hand briskly, then turned back to her rings. “You know she has never been happy with that man.” Her voice was so low I barely heard her. She stood, my stunned self watching, and smiled stiffly. “You have my deepest gratitude, Laurel.” With that, she headed for the door, turning to me once more. “I would like for you to stay here at the house. Do what you please, as long as you take care of Caden.” And was gone.

I stared in stunned silence at the door. How had this turned from me visiting a sick friend to becoming the live-in nanny?

****

I didn’t know what to tell Caden as I wasn’t sure what Margaret had told her, if anything. I didn’t want Caden to feel like a charity case. I knew her so well, and knew she’d feel guilty. I didn’t want that. It wasn’t necessary. Caden was one of the most proud people I had ever met.

As I made my way downstairs, everything was eerily quiet. Margaret had left already, and the harried servants of before were nowhere to be seen. I felt like I was stuck in some sort of bizarre dream. Like when you went to sleep with music on, but when you woke, the album had played through, and left the room in startling silence.

I headed toward the library, and to my surprise Caden was already there. She sat in the high back by the fireplace, book in hand. She glanced up as I entered, a large smile on her face.

“Good morning, Laurel. Mother told me the good news before she left.” I looked at her, she looked at me, obviously expecting me to say something.

“Um, yes.” I smiled, having no idea what this great news was. I was sure it had something to do with my staying, though.

“I’m so glad you decided to stay a bit longer.” She closed her book, setting it on her lap. “You know, it’s funny. When I was a kid and mother would go to the spa I was always so happy and excited. I’d have the house to myself, do whatever I pleased. But this time I dreaded the news that I knew was coming. She goes every year.”

“So she told me.” I sat next to her on the hearth, the warmth from the fire behind me spreading across my back, and into my body. “What are you reading?” She looked down at her book, then smiled, holding it up for me.

“You should recognize it.” I looked, an instant smile coming to my lips.

“My book.”

“That’s right. There are some amazing pictures in here.”

“Well, when my publicist started talking to me about a coffee table book, I thought she was nuts. As it turns out, one of the best things I ever did. May I?”

“Of course.” Caden handed me the heavy book, and I began to look through the pages, remembering when I had taken the shots. “Michael gave this to me for Christmas last year. I was so excited to see it was yours.” She smiled at me, and returned it. “When did you take that one?” Caden leaned over me, turning to a page near the front. The black and white was of a woman. She had a shaved head, a small tattoo at the base of her neck, her naked body partially covered by shadows. Her back was to the camera, her head turned slightly, just enough to get a slight profile shot.

“That woman was actually an old neighbor of mine.” She had also been a lover, but I didn’t think Caden needed to know that. “I had gotten the idea one day to shoot her; she had the most beautiful skin.” I smiled fondly at the picture of Corey. I hadn’t seen her in years, and often thought about her. Wondered where she had gone once she’d left San Diego.

“What is her name?” Caden took the book back from me, studying the portrait more.

“Corey Mason.”

“She’s lovely.”

“Yes. She was.” Caden looked at me, handing the book back. She cocked her head to the side a bit, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“You were friends with her?”

“Yes.”

“And more?” I looked into her eyes, filled with curiosity and question. I nodded.

“For a while. It didn’t last long, though.”

“Why not?” I shrugged.

“Just one of those things, I guess.”

“Oh. Well,” Caden slapped her hands on her thighs and stood. “I have to go to the hospital this afternoon, but I thought before then perhaps we could go for a walk or a picnic. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay out and up, but for a bit, at least. Perhaps we could bring the book? You could explain your genius?”

I stared up at my friend, looking at her smile, her hopeful eyes, and saw how her hands and fingers fidgeted with each other. Was she nervous with me?

I noticed that the slight crooked smile and look was gone after the surgery. Her stance and balance seemed to be better intact, also. She looked just like the old Caden now, just a bit older and with a white bandage covering her head. It occurred to me just how close I had come to losing her. I may have never seen Caden again. How would that have affected me? Would it have bothered me?

Yes.

I stood, walked over to my friend, and wrapped my arms around her neck, holding her close to me.

“Well.” She muttered, slowly placing her arms around my waist. “What’s this for?” after a healthy squeeze, I backed away, and smiled up at her with a shrug.

“No real reason, I suppose. I’m just glad you’re okay. That’s all.” She smiled, pushing some wild strands of blonde off my forehead.

“Me, too.”

****

The busy hustle and bustle of school was a welcome change from the quiet, richness of my summer. I had enjoyed myself with Caden at her family’s home, given the ability to do many things I normally would never have been able to, but I was ready to get back to the more relaxed, poorer side of life.

Caden and I had finally been able to get an apartment off campus that year, our junior, in a row house off Chestnut not far from F&M. The house had been split into two different apartments, the bottom having four bedrooms, ours on top room for just two. It was wonderful, and I loved living on my own, out of the dorms. I was growing up, and I loved every minute of it.

“My god this is going to be a bitch of a class.” I plopped down on the used couch I had nabbed from an ad out of the Intelligencer Journal for thirty-five bucks. It was avocado green, ugly, but comfortable as hell. Our place was scarcely furnished, but we did what we could. Caden’s father had offered to buy us all new furniture, and to repaint the place, but I had refused. Anything worth having is worth getting on your own. Caden looked at me like I was nuts, but went along with it anyway.

Caden was sprawled out in the middle of the living room in front of the television, CNN talking about the latest news and events around the world. Having cable for the TV was our greatest luxury. Her books were placed strategically in a circle, her knowing exactly where the one she needed was, and the page to flip to to find whatever it was she needed. She astounded me.

“Do you just read those things for fun? I mean, is,” I picked up the closest text to me, reading the front, “Modern Organic Chemistry entertaining to you?”

“Yes.” She reached up, snatching it out of my hands, carefully placing it in it’s place. “I love chemistry. You should try it sometime.”

“There you go.” I leaned back against the cushions, my hands behind my head, eyes barely open as I watched her, yet again amazed by her love and zest for learning.

“Dr. Alvin told me about an internship in the city, today. It would be studying under Dr. Alison Mathews.” Excited blue eyes looked up at me.

“Who is Alison Mathews?” I leaned forward, pulling a half melted chocolate chip granola bar from my backpack that sat next to me. I’d brought it to classes with me earlier that morning, and had completely forgotten to eat it.

“She is only one of the most brilliant neurosurgeons on the east coast. She’s brilliant, and exciting, and so damn smart! I am just in awe of her mind.”

“I’m getting that impression. So you’re looking into neurosurgery now?” I bit a chunk of the bar off, chewing slowly as I listened. Caden nodded.

“I think so. I’m definitely being pulled in that direction. The mind is so fascinating to me. Wouldn’t it just be incredible to study it? See how it really works and what makes it tick?”

“Well, I must admit I’ve never really thought about it, but yes I guess it would be.”

Caden leaned back on the floor, her hands behind her holding her up as she smiled up at the ceiling before looking at me again. “Do you think I could do it, Laurel? I mean, really, really do it?”

“God yes! There’s no question about that, my friend. You also have a brilliant mind, like this Mathews person, and you have the heart and the drive.” I leaned forward further, nearly falling off the couch all together to emphasize my next point. “Caden, you can do anything you set your mind to. You will be a success someday.”

****

I helped Caden up our hill, my hand on her back the entire time, just in case. I have to give her credit; she put up with my overprotective nature with grace and humor.

“It’s been so long since I’ve been up here.” She said, looking around as she caught her breath, setting our lunch basket down.

“Me, too.” I also looked around, seeing all the familiar trees, the thick, luscious grass that I had been used to, yellow and crunchy from the oncoming winter.

“It’s such a nice day, too. Considering.” Caden walked over to our tree, and sat down with a soft groan, putting her hands out to steady herself for a moment before looking at me with a smile. “Sit.” She said, patting the ground next to her; I did as asked. “I’d like to get Annie today. I miss her so much.” She looked down at her hands, her shoulders slumping slightly. “I think I’ll file this week, or perhaps next week when I’m feeling a bit more myself.” She looked at me, almost searching for my approval. “Do you think I’m foolish, Laurel?”

“What?” I looked at her, my surprise evident in my eyes. “What do you mean, foolish?”

“For marrying Troy. Getting myself stuck in a bad situation. Never finishing what I started.” Once again she turned away. I pulled my knees up against my chest, wrapping my arms around them with a sigh.

“You know, Caden, we all have to make decisions everyday, every minute. That’s a bunch to make, you know?” I turned to her, my eyes meeting hers. “Sometimes we make good ones, sometimes not so good. But whatever we decide, we have to try and make the best of it. I’m sure you’ve done that. But just think, now, while you’re still so young, you can move on, your daughter at your side, and do what maybe you couldn’t do as a twenty year old.”

Caden studied me for a moment, absorbing all that I said. I could almost see the wheels in her head turning, clicking along.

“Perhaps so.”

****

My first independent show, and I was nauseous.

“You’ve got to calm yourself down, Laurel. It’ll be okay. Everyone is going to love your work.” Caden stood in front of me in the bathroom of the gallery. The small cubicle seemed to close in on me as I sat on the closed lid of the toilet, my head in my hands. “Come on.” Caden stood from where she’d been kneeling, pulling the skirt of her dress down as she did. I looked up at her.

“It will be okay?” I asked, my voice that of a child. She nodded with a smile.

“Definitely. You’re going to blow away all those people out there with your talent, especially your new collection of photographs. You’ll do fine.”

On shaky legs I stood, grabbing my suit jacket off the back of the stall door, pulling it on over the silk blouse I wore. Caden took the ends of the jacket, buttoning it, and running her hands over the shoulders and down the arms of it.

“You look wonderful.” Caden had the pantsuit made by Carlo, and even I had to admit, it made me look like quite the knockout. I glanced into the mirror above the sinks, and ran my hands through my hair nervously.

“Okay. Here we go.”

Art fans and critics alike wandered around the small space, my work the premiere show draw, two other local artists also had their work on display. My art professor at F&M had managed to get this together for me, she thinking that it was time to start spreading my wings and see what I could do. At the time I had thought it a great idea, but by the night of the show, I wasn’t so sure. What if everyone hated my work? What if I never worked again?

“I need to sit.” I found a bench near my photographs display, and sat, my heart racing at a ridiculous pace.

“Are you okay?” Caden sat next to me, her hand on my back. “Do you want some water?”

“No. I think it would come back. Why don’t I go home, and you can fill me in on all the gory details tomorrow?” I looked at my friend with hopeful eyes only to see her glare.

“Absolutely not. You’ll do fine, and I think once the night is over, you’ll be glad it happened, and that you stuck around to see it. This is your first show, Laurel!” she hissed. “Look at all these people. They are all here for you, to see your work. Give them the consideration to mingle, and talk with them. You’ll catch more flies with catch more flies with honey than by not being here at all.”

“That’s vinegar.” She glared at me again. “Okay, okay. I’ll stay.”

“There’s the artist.” I looked up to see Michael standing in front of me, looking handsome in his suit and tie. “What a wonderful event, Laurel. Congratulations.” He smiled, reached a hand down to me.

“Thanks, Goop.” I took the hand, allowed my own to be kissed.

“Well, I’m going to look around for a bit, but if you’d like, I’d like to take you out for a congratulatory dinner afterwards.”

“Um, okay.” I stood and gave Michael a hug. “Thanks for coming.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” With that, Michael gave his sister a hug, walked away.

“Did you invite him?” Caden asked, watching him disappear through the throng of people. I looked at her, surprised by the tone of her voice. She almost seemed irritated.

“Yes, I did. Why?”

“Just wondering.” She shook her head as if to clear it, then smiled at me. “Shall we mingle?”

****

We ate in silence, Caden picking her sandwich apart, only nibbling for the most part. I worried about her. I knew she wasn’t feeling very well, and I was sure some of that stemmed from worry in her life. She had talked a little more about Troy, but not much.

“I know of a great lawyer in the city. If you want, I can give her a call and set up an appointment for you.” Caden had looked at me for a moment, then looked away.

“You know, my father has his attorney on retainer, and I thought about using him. I’ve known Allan since I was a child. But somehow I don’t really want him in my business. A divorce is something so very personal. Well, at least to me.” She smiled then. “Do it. Make an appointment with this lawyer friend of yours, and we’ll go see him. I want this over with quickly and as painless for Annie as possible.”

Now I looked at her, cocking my head to the side as she sipped from the thermos of coffee that had been sent with us.

“I’d love to photograph you.” Caden turned to me, startled.

“What? Oh, no.” she laughed nervously, running her hand over the bandage on her head. “I couldn’t possibly. I look terrible.”

“Not at all.” I smiled. “You’re beautiful, Caden. Haven’t changed all that much.”

“You’re too kind.”

“At least think about it?” she looked at me again, her smile fading from her lips, eyes boring into mine, then she nodded.

“I’ll think about it.”

****

The show had been a huge success, and ran late into the night. Caden had to head home to sleep, wanting to be awake and alert for the 8 a.m. test she had the next morning.

“I’m so proud of you, Laurel.” She said, hugging me close, rubbing my back. “You’re such a wonderful artist.”

I watched her leave, sorry she had to go, but I understood. I had my own classes the following morning, but a captain can’t abandon his ship. I wandered around the place, looking at all the different faces I met, filing away features in my mind for future use. I answered questions, quoted prices, and made deals for commissions. I felt like I was flying high that night.

“Excuse me, are you the artist?” I turned to find a beautiful woman standing behind me, her long blonde hair flowing down her back in a glorious wave of spun sunlight, an incredible contrast to her black gown, the satin making her body seem to shimmer.

“Yes. Hello, Laurel Gleason.”

“Nice to meet you, Laurel. I am Chantal.”

“Hello.” She extended her hand out to me, her deep blue eyes never leaving mine. “I’m so glad you could come.”

“As am I. These are wonderful.” She extended her arm out to encompass nearly the entire show. “I’ve bought three pieces already.”

“Really?” I looked at her, stunned, happy to have a fan.

“Yes. I come out from New York to visit all the shows of promising young artists, like yourself. These will look fabulous on my walls. You should see the collection I have at home.” Her eyes sparkled, and I became lost in them.

“I’d love to.” I found myself saying before I could stop myself.

“You are very young, and have quite a career ahead of you, Miss Gleason. Please, don’t stop working.”

“Well, if only all my feedback was as positive as yours, I’d work forever.” Chantal chuckled softly.

“Good. I’ll look forward to seeing you and your art around for some time, then.”

“Can I get you some champagne?”

“Please.”

I led Chantal to the refreshment table near the back of the gallery, handed her a glass, taking one for myself.”

“Are you old enough to drink that?” she asked with a smile.

“I’m the artist. I can do whatever I like tonight.” She smiled again with a small nod.

“Indeed.”

Chantal told me stories of her buying adventures, explaining that she was an art dealer in Manhattan, and tried to get the best new artists on the scene, and she intended to do just that for me. I was thrilled, but wary. It would be nice, but seemed to good to be true. She could buy all the art she wanted from me, however. That I would not complain or worry about.

“So do you live alone, Laurel?” she asked after our third glass of champagne.

“Well, I have a roommate.” I looked at her.

“How long is the show to last?”

“I’m not sure.” I glanced down at my watch to see it was nearly one in the morning already. “But I hope it ends soon. I have an early class.” She smiled.

“Yes, I read you’re a student at Franklin & Marshall college. Good for you. It’s a very good school.” She stood with a sigh. “However, I must go now. It is late, and I’m tired.” She looked down at me, extending her hand to me to help me up. “Walk me out?”

Happily, I followed Chantal out the front door, and across the parking lot to a black Mercedes. She turned to me, her back against the car.

“It was certainly a pleasure meeting you, Laurel. I look forward to other shows. There will be more, right?” she took my hand, running her thumb over the soft skin of the back of my hand, over and over again.

“I believe so, yes.” I almost couldn’t think straight. I had never been so turned on in my life, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I almost couldn’t breath.

“Good. When you are in the city, do look me up.” She reached down into her cleavage and withdrew a small business card, handed it to me. I took it, chills running up and down my spine as I thought about where the card had just been, where, to my utter surprise, my face wanted to be.

“Thank you.” I pocketed it, and gave me attention back to her. She reached up and cupped my cheek, her fingers soft and warm against my ers soft and warm against my skin as she moved in, her breath against my face. Next thing I knew, her body was against mine, her lips on mine, and me responding eagerly. I wrapped my arms around her waist, my fingers running over the softness of her dress, the warmth of her body against me intoxicating. I shivered a bit as Chantal’s tongue pressed against my lips, inching its way inside. A soft moan escaped me as our tongues touched, just for a moment, before she pulled away, the cool night air a poors in time to see her turn and step into the car.

“Until next time, Laurel.” She blew me a kiss, and closed the door, the car starting up with a soft purr, and she drove away.

Dinner with Michael was a joke. I felt bad as my mind was not on a single thing he said. I brought my fingers up to my mouth, the tips touching my lips, the feel of Chantal’s kiss like a phantom against me.

“Hello? Earth to Laurel?” I jerked back into reality, turning my eyes to him.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Where are you? Where did you go?” he sat back in his chair, wiping his face with the material napkin before tossing it onto his empty plate.

“Oh, my mind’s just on the show, you know? A lot of excitement tonight.”

“Yes, so I gather. You did well tonight, Laurel. I’m so proud of you.” He smiled, pleasure dancing through his gray eyes.

“Thank you, Michael. And, thank you for coming tonight. That meant a lot. You know, just nice to see friendly faces.”

“I can imagine. How much did you sell?”

“Almost the whole lot. I must admit, I’m stunned by how well the show was received. Professor Kane warned me that it usually doesn’t happen that way. Buyers are often reluctant to buy from a no-name, especially collectors. If I disappear tomorrow, the work will mean nothing, or some such nonsense.”

I sat back in my chair, sipped my coffee. I had no idea why I was drinking it; I needed to get to bed, and Doc Hollidays’ strong brew wasn’t going to help out that cause.

“Look, Mike, I’m sorry. I really need to get home. I’m beat.”

“Not a problem.” I could see the disappointment in his eyes, but could do nothing about it. I just didn’t want what he did. Besides, I needed to think about what had happened that night with Chantal, and how it had made me feel. I was so lost, confused, and still aroused. “Ready?” I looked up, again jerked to the present to see Michael about ready to stand, a wad of money on the table on top of the check.

“Yeah.”

I walked like a zombie up the steep stairs that led to Caden and my front door. She had left it unlocked, so I walked in, shutting it behind me with a soft click. The apartment was quiet, but a lamp burned in the living room. I headed in the direction, seeing Caden on the couch, fast asleep, her books around her, some on the floor. I smiled, looking down at my friend, her breathing even and quiet. Reaching down, I brushed aside a few strands of nearly black hair, breathing deep. I could smell her perfume, and just the smell of her warm body in slumber. Like a baby, that certain smell. I loved it, breathed it in.

I needed to talk to her. I needed to talk.
Part 6
The waiting room was nice, spacious. I walked around, my hands casually behind my back as I studied the artwork that lined the walls, most of the artists I had never heard of, but they were talented, nonetheless.

Caden had been in with Dr. Gustov for the better part of an hour already. What was he doing? The surgery all over again? So, I waited, sitting in a chair finally, grabbing an issue of People magazine, and reading about The 50 Most Beautiful People.

We had already been to radiation therapy at the hospital, and I was tired of medical facilities, already. I just wanted to get Caden home, and maybe get out to take some more pictures around Boston. I was beginning to feel antsy and caged in, and needed to get out to stretch my legs.

The inner door to the office opened, and Caden stepped out. Her bandage had been changed, and was a bit smaller, mainly covering the back of her head instead of the entire thing. I couldn’t help but stare at her shaved head, week-old stubble poking through, littering her scalp with five o’clock shadow. I smiled at her worried expression.

“Interesting new fashion trend, isn’t it?” she said, walking toward me, running her hand over her head.

“Hey, you look beautiful even bald. You and Demi Moore.” She smiled wider.

“Thank you. The doctor said everything is going very well, and that I’m fine. My MRI’s have come back clear and he expects a full recovery.”

“That’s wonderful!” I was thrilled.

She pulled her jacket on. “Did you get a hold of your attorney friend?”

“Yup, sure did. Great news, actually. Emily’s in Boston this week to meet up with a client, so we can stop by her hotel room. How does that sound?”

“Wonderful!” Caden smiled and led us to the door. “I just want this over with.”

****

My sleep was restless and filled with dreams after my show. I could not get Chantal out of my mind, and certainly not that kiss. I had never in my life kissed anther woman, and definitely not like that. What did it all mean? I could easily just go on with my life and store it as just one of those things, but in the same token, I had enjoyed it, and I had been completely attracted to her, and had wanted her to kiss me.

I stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom when my thought drifted to Caden. I felt a need to talk to her about what had happened with Chantal for some reason. I needed to talk to her about me, too. What exactly did it all mean, I wondered for not the first time that morning.

“Shit.” I sighed. Caden had left for class already, and I had to get up and around soon to make my own class on time. I wanted to just ditch the whole day, grab Caden out of school, and go somewhere to talk. But, at the same time, I needed time to think about it, figure out exactly what to say to Caden, what to say to myself.

“Shit, shit, shit.” I climbed out of my bed, took a quick shower and ran off to class.

I walked around in a daze, Chantal’s business card in my pocket, the sharp edges digging into my leg at one point, never letting me forget it was there. I had known for some time that I was attracted to Caden, and had had crushes on different girls my entire life, but had never, ever acted on it, had never really thought about acting on it. On my own, I wouldn’t have kissed Chantal, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to stop her. What if some girl from a class had done that? Maybe Marty from my Life Drawing class had. She was gorgeous, and she and I talked often during class, sometimes walking to our next class together. Would I let her kiss me? Would I kiss her back? What about Michael? Would I allow him to?

Nope.

I just wasn’t interested in him that way. I mean, he was Gooper, for crying out loud! He was also Caden’s brother, and should something go wrong, it would likely hurt Caden and my friendship. Michael was just too risky.

Did I want to turn my face to the possibility of guys all together, though? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think so, but just wasn’t sure. I was raised that you met some guy, got married, and had kids. True, with my ambition for my art that probably wouldn’t happen anyway, but even so, would I allow it to?

I didn’t know, and was giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out in one afternoon. Maybe my talk with Caden should wait until I had a few more answers myself.

****

I waited patiently as the phone rang, figuring if she didn’t answer by the third ring, I’d hang up and try again. To my luck, she answered just after the second.

“Emily Thomas,”

“Emily, hey. It’s Laurel.”

“Hey, you.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “Did you talk with your friend?”

“I did. She wants to meet with you tonight if that’s possible?”

“Absolutely. I should be back in my room by seven, tops.”

“Great. I look forward to it. I hear we need to do some catching up, a new little addition to your family?”

“We certainly do.” The pride and happiness in my old friend’s voice put an automatic smile on my face. “That little one is a handful and a half!”

“Well, most one year olds are from what I hear.” I grinned, leaning back into the seat of the Explorer, Caden sitting next to me.

“I’ll show you pictures when you get here. I carry a virtual studio around in my wallet. I’ve had to get a bigger purse to accommodate the thing.”

“Lord, you are a mother, aren’t you? You and Caden could swap stories, I’m sure.” I laughed. “Okay. We’ll see you soon, then. Give my love to Rebecca.”

“Certainly. Can’t wait to see you.”

I put my phone away and turned to my friend. “Okay, it’s all set.” Caden smiled at me.

“Thank you, Laurel.” She took my hand, gently squeezing. “You’ve been a wonderful friend. So supportive.”

“Hey, that’s my job.” To my surprise she leaned into me, wrapping her arm around my neck, pulling me to her for an awkward, not much space in the car, hug.

“Really. Thank you.” I studied her, looking deeply into her eyes, smiled.

“You’re welcome.”

****

A week went by after my show, and life went on as usual, filled with school, tests, and more tests. I wanted to talk to Caden, but the time just never seemed to be there. Finally, two weeks later, we both had a free Friday night.

We had decided to go see a movie and have some dinner, so as I dressed in a air of jeans and tee I thought about what exactly to say to her. How do I bring it up? I had been thinking about things from my own point of view, and was maybe a bit closer to an answer; I definitely was into girls, but primarily? I didn’t know.

“I hear this movie is supposed to be really good.” Caden said, standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I turned to see her leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest, a grin on her face. “Aren’t you ready yet?”

“Hey, now. I took a shower, you didn’t, so bite me.”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on. It feels so good to finally have a night free, I just want to go. I’m so tired of being stuck here.” She looked around my room, taking in the drawings and pictures I had pinned up all over my room; some of it my work, others that of friends.

Tying my flannel around my waist, I walked toward her, and we headed toward the front door. My stomach was in knots from the anticipation of talking with her, and frankly I felt sick.

****

I thought about those early days as I drove us back to the Lodge estate, smiling to myself at those first awkward times, not sure which was up and which was down. Then my thoughts were scattered as Caden spoke.

“You know, I never should have given up school.” I turned to her, seeing the back of her head as she stared out the side window. I said nothing, figuring she just needed to talk. “It was the wrong decision, and ultimately a mistake. Millions of women have finished out school with a child in tow, why not me?” she finally turned to me. “Do you think I was wrong, Laurel?”

I looked at her, not sure what to say. I knew what my head and heart said, but I wasn’t sure if it was actually conformation she sought, or just wanted to feel better about what happened. With a deep breath I made my choice.

“You know, we all make decisions in life, Caden. Some work for us, others don’t. You did what you felt you had to do then, it worked for you. Perhaps some of it was your age at the time, young, dependant on your family financially, emotionally, and just maybe you wanted their approval more than your own.” I took a deep breath, studied her to see if I’d taken it too far. She looked down at her hands, but said nothing. I decided to continue. “After spending ten years to make others happy, Caden, you’re still a young woman, and you can do anything. I always thought that about you. You have the determination and spirit, and intelligence to do it all. Do it, Caden. Not for your parents, or for Troy, or even for Annie. Do it for Caden.” She looked at me finally, her eyes boring into mine, making me feel almost uncomfortable. I held the gaze.

“You’re right.” She whispered after a moment. “You’re absolutely right. I want to live for me.”

****

Friendly’s was busy, as it always was on a Friday night. We found a table near the back, and sat in the large, red booths. Caden smiled at me.

“My mouth is watering for those chicken fajitas. The way I’m feeling right now, I could eat a horse!”

“Please don’t.” I muttered from behind the menu. I was tying to get my timing just right. Part of me was thinking it was better to talk to Caden while in a public place, then she couldn’t throw anything at me. Yet, the other part of me was thinking that it needed privacy.

“What’s up?” I lowered the menu to see Caden leaning forward on the table, her fingers interlaced.

“What do you mean?” Maybe I could play dumb.

“Well, all day you’ve been really distant, almost as if you’re worried, or just terribly distracted. Are you okay? Anything I can do?”

Might as well.

“Well, actually, Caden, um, there is something that I need to talk to you about. Um, something that I’m not real sure on, or whatever.”

“Alright. I’m listening.” Caden waved our waitress off, telling her we needed a few minutes, then looked at me again. “Come on, woman. Spit it out.” She smiled, patting my arm. I sat back in the seat, taking a deep breath.

“Okay. Well, you remember my show a couple weeks ago, right?” she nodded. “Well, a woman came to it, and she bought three pieces, you know she’s an art dealer out of New York? She gave me her card, and buys art work from new artists,”

“Laurel?”

“Oh. Sorry. Anyway, so she and I hit it off really well, and we talked for quite a while. I mean, you had to go home to study, and I was alone, and needed a friend, so, well, she was it.” Caden looked at me with confused eyes, obviously not getting my message through its vagueness. “She kissed me, Caden. And, I let her. She was beautiful, and I was completely attracted to her.” She looked at me, sitting back against the booth, her eyes locked to mine.

“Okay,” her voice was quiet, flat. My nervousness grew, not sure if I should continue. I looked at her for help, some sort of indication of what I should do. “Go on.” With a deep swallow, I did just that.

“Caden, I don’t know. I just don’t. I’ve been having strange things going on in my head for so long, I don’t know what to do with them, all these feelings and thoughts, and curiosities. I don’t know if it’s just that, or if it’s something that will stick with me, or,” I sighed.

“You’re wondering all this from just one kiss from a strange woman?”

“Well, yes and no. I mean, the thoughts were there long before Chantal, but she definitely helped to cement some things, you know?”

“So what are you telling me?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe I’m kind of into girls. Maybe bisexual.”

Caden looked down for a moment, her hands dropping to her lap.

“Caden? Are you okay?” she smiled at me with an obviously forced nod.

“Yes, I’m fine. Listen,” she scooted out of the booth, grabbing her purse, “I just remembered something I have to do for lab. Um, I’ll catch you back at the apartment, okay?” without another look, she hurried through the restaurant, disappeared into the night.

“Fuck.”

I stayed where I was, not sure what to do. I had driven, so I knew Caden was out walking. I wanted to run out, get in my car, and pick her up on the side of the road, but didn’t think she really wanted to be bothered. I didn’t know how to feel. I hadn’t expected her to react like that. Why? What was behind it?

I felt my eyes sting as tears began to build behind my lids. No, not here, not now.

I closed my car door after me, sat in the driver’s seat, staring out the windshield at the restaurant in front of me, the red neon lights of the sign filling the night. I had no idea what to do, what to say. I felt lost.

I drove around Lancaster aimlessly for about an hour, any thoughts of dinner long forgotten. My appetite had left with Caden. I wondered where she’d gone. Why had she run out of Friendly’s like that, anyway? I didn’t understand. I really had thought that she’d be more understanding than that. We had friends that were gay, and she was fine with them. So why not me?

I drove down Chestnut street until I got to our apartment, and parked at the curb, under the tree as usual. As I grabbed my jacket from the passenger seat, I glanced out the window, saw Caden sitting on the top step of our building. Her knees were drawn up, her arms wrapped around her shins. She was staring down at the step, then glanced up at me when she heard me walking toward her.

“Hey.” She nearly whispered.

“Hey.”

“Sit?” I looked at the step where she patted, then looked at her, not sure what to do, if I should trust her.

“Okay.” I sat. She stared into the street for a moment, then looked over at me.

“I’m really sorry I acted that way. It wasn’t what you needed just then. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive my foolishness?” her eyes begged me, her face looking almost as if she were ready to cry. I sighed.

“It didn’t kill me.” I gave her a weak smile, the best I could do.

“I certainly hope not. I could never forgive myself if something happened to you because of me, Laurel. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Thank you. I needed that.” She nodded, looking out into the street again.

“Hey, what are friends for, right? Yeah, right.”

“Don’t beat yourself up too much, Caden. I mean, that just kind of came out of left field; I understand that.”

“Thanks.” Her voice was small, as I assumed she felt.

“But I do want to know why.”

“Yes, I suppose I do owe you an explanation. Well, I guess I was just so shocked, as you said, it did come out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting that. At all.” She looked at me again. I had the distinct feeling that there was more to it, like she wanted to say more, but was holding back. I let it go. “Do you plan to see that woman again? You know, visit the home of your artwork, make sure she’s treating it well.” She grinned, and I returned it.

“No.” I shook my head. “It was a one time thing. You know what they say, everything happens for a reason. I’m thinking that she was just kind of there to,” I spread my hands out, my voice dramatic, ” show me the way.” Caden smiled.

“Perhaps. What are you going to do now?” I shrugged.

“That, my friend, is the million dollar question. I’ve been asking myself that for the last two weeks. What can I do? I mean, it’s not a like a career change where you start typing up your résumé, you know?”

“Yes, I suppose not.” She sighed deeply, put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m still hungry, by the way.” She looked at me shyly. I smiled.

“God, you’re adorable. Let’s go.”

****

Emily’s hotel was beautiful, expensive, and hard to find. Finally pulling into the parking lot, I parked, and we got out, headed toward room number 306. I was glad to see Emily. We had met years ago at an art exhibition in New Jersey, and had hit if off instantly. I needed to keep in better touch with my old friends.

As we walked down the hall, the thick carpeting beneath our feet muffling our steps, Caden took several deep breaths.

“Are you okay?” we stopped in front of the door to Emily’s room.

“Yes. I just can’t believe it’s come to this. I really thought Troy would be the first.” She looked at me.

“You know, when you were in the hospital Michael told me that he was thinking about it. Troy was going to, Caden. At least now you can get it over with sooner.”

“He was going to file?” her voce was low, incredulous. I nodded. “Bastard.” She raised her fist and knocked soundly. A few moments later the door opened, and Emily Thomas, attorney at law smiled at us.

“Laurel!” she reached out and grabbed me, pulling me to her. “It’s been so long.” She pulled away and looked me over. “You look good, though you’re a bit too thin.” She looked at me accusingly. All I could do was shrug. “This must be Caden?”

“Hello, Emily. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, and during your downtime.”

“Not a problem.” They shook hands, and we were invited in . Emily looked good, her blonde hair was a bit longer than when I’d seen her last, but her green eyes were still full of life. She was dressed simply in an oversized tee and jeans. Her feet bare.

“How’s Rebecca? Still teaching?” I asked as I made myself comfortable on a chair, crossing my legs at the knee. Emily nodded, headed toward the bar.

“She sure is. Just started the new year about a month ago. Can I get either of you anything? We’re fully stocked here.” I didn’t want anything, but Emily brought Caden’s water and lime to her before sitting on the bed, patting it next to her for Caden to join her. “You need to tell me everything, Caden. I want to know what we’re going up against, here.”

****

The day after my revelations to Caden she acted as if nothing was different or new. I wasn’t sure how to take it or what to do with it. I was just glad that she wasn’t angry or shocked anymore. The night before we had gone back to Friendly’s and eaten dinner, talking and laughing, out until a ridiculous hour, both of us dragging our asses when we got home.

“What about Michael?” she had asked as she prepared her third chicken fajita.

“What about him? I bit into my cheeseburger, looking at her quizzically.

“Well, as I’m sure you know, Laurel, he’s interested in you. What will you tell him?”

“Caden, I never promised Goop anything. He and I were never an item. I don’t owe him any sort of explanation at all. She looked at me, surprised.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Why/” I was suspicious now.

“Well, nothing.”

“Spit it out, woman.” I put the burger down on the plate, leaning forward to let her know I meant business.

“Well, I think he was planning to actually ask you out, you know, like, well, to risk sounding like high school, I guess to be girlfriend and boyfriend. To date.”

“When did this happen?” I was confused. I had figured Michael had liked me, but had no idea it was to that yet.

“Well, I actually think he fell for you the first night he met you.” She smiled. “Not that I blame him. I mean, who wouldn’t fall for the small, perky blonde?” I smacked her on the arm.

“Yeah, and bite me.”

“No, but really. You should tell him.”

I needed to think about that one. Telling Caden, my best friend and roomy of three years, and telling her brother who was more like a buddy to me than anything else, I just didn’t know.

****

“So you haven’t worked during the duration of your marriage?”

“No. Never.”

“Okay. Are any of your combined asset s in your name?”

Caden thought for a moment, her hand on her forehead, then she shook her head.

“No. The cars, house, all of it is in Troy’s name.”

“Well, then we may have some problems.”

I turned to the window, looking out over Boston as Caden and Emily continued talking the case over. I hoped Troy Shepherd got everything that was coming to him, without Annie or Caden getting caught in the crossfire.

“However, there was a prenup.”

“Oh, this is too good.”

I smiled, and continued to stare out the window.

****

Michael, nor my sexuality, was brought up again during that year. We went on with our lives, trying to get through school. I had three more shows that year, each doing better than the one before it. All the money from each piece went directly into the bank; it’s what I intended to start up my studio with once I graduated.

Caden was knee-deep into her studies, and had met a new guy. I didn’t know who he was, though. She was very secretive about him, and I had yet to meet him. I hated the idea, but what could I do? I knew I had no chance in hell with Caden, as much as I hated that fact, but I wasn’t about to sit around and think about all the what could be’s in life. I lived life to the fullest.

The house was rocking, bodies hot and sweaty as they jammed to the heavy beat of the music. My cheeks were red from exertion, and I needed a break before I collapsed. My date led me to the front door to get some air.

“You okay?” she asked, pushing sweaty bangs off my forehead.

“I think so.” I turned to her with a grin. Erin Stevens and I had seen each other a couple times, going to dinner or a movie or partying. She was cute as hell with her medium length red hair and fiery blue eyes, dimples that just wouldn’t quit. Absolutely adorable.

“Quite the party, huh?” she wrapped her arms around bent legs, and laid the side of her head on her knees, looking at me with a smile.

“No doubt.” I looked at her, suddenly feeling very drawn to her. I leaned in, toward her, gently brushed my lips against hers, slowly pulling away. Her eyes were still closed as I looked at her, a small smile forming.

“I’ve been wondering when you were going to do that.” She whispered. I smiled.

“Me, too.”

I leaned in again.

The thing is, I liked Erin. I liked her a lot, but whenever I kissed a woman, or had sex with one, I always had this tiny voice in the back of my mind that made me feel guilty, as though I were doing something against Caden, almost cheating. I didn’t understand it. But, as I usually did, I pushed it back where it belonged, and enjoyed my time with Erin.

****

I walked around the grounds of the house, looking at the distant horizon, wondering when I should go home. I knew that Margaret was scheduled to come back in a week. Do I stay until then? Probably should.

I thought about the night before, after we left Emily’s hotel. We drove back to the house in silence. I could tell Caden was in deep thought and in need of a bit of quiet and peace to think.

From what I had heard of their conversation, it sounded as if everything would be fine, and Caden could out relatively painlessly, especially since it seemed as if Troy was no longer against a divorce. He’d probably cooperate.

“Thank you, Laurel.” Pulled from my thoughts, I turned to my friend. “Thank you for introducing me to your friend. She is wonderful, and I feel very confident in her abilities to get this over with as quickly as possible.” She was quiet again, turning her attention back to the night.

The large gates slowly closed behind us, the headlights of the Explorer showing the trees that were beginning to lose their leaves, leaving them scattered across the lawn, until we finally reached the house.

Caden walked with me to the door of my room where she stopped, her hand reaching for mine.

“I think this is the best decision I’ve ever made.” She looked into my eyes, making sure she had my full attention. “I truly believe I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”

I looked at her, baffled. “How is that? I’ve only been here a week. I haven’t done anything to deserve such a compliment, Caden.” She nodded.

“Yes you have. You’ve reminded of who and what I am, who and what I can be. I’ve let myself be beaten down, Laurel. My entire life. My fault. I didn’t fight it, until now. Thank you.” She leaned in, placing her lips on my cheek, a soft, lingering kiss, then I was left alone in the hall to wonder.

****

I woke up with the worst kink in my neck, which was giving me a headache. With a soft groan I sat up, Erin still asleep next to me. The small room was in complete disarray, clothes strewn everywhere, the mini blinds half raised, the plastic strips bent out of shape in places.

My god. What kind of bomb had gone off in here? I didn’t remember a terribly large amount of the night before, just knew that I had drank a bunch, and was feeling every drop now.

“Ugh.” I held my head in my hands and took deep breaths. I wondered where the bathroom was; water was usually the best thing to drink on a major hangover. Pulling the sheet off my naked body, I stood on shaky legs, looking around in the mess for my tee and jeans. Spotting my bra in the corner, I hurried over to it, slipping it on, still searching.

“Quite the mess, isn’t it?” my head snapped up to see her looking at me, holding herself up on her elbows, the sheet barely covering her breasts. She smiled at me, those dimples peeking at me.

“That would be my observation.” I smiled back, pulling the gray tee over my head. Erin sat up fully, holding the covers to her.

“I’d hoped it would happen, but not like that, I guess.” She looked around the room again.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, both of us loaded.” She suddenly looked shy.

“Yeah.” I walked over to the bed, sat on the edge, pushing some of her wild hair behind her ear. “But I don’t regret it.” She looked at me, hopeful.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I’m glad. Me either.” I kissed her lightly.

“I do need to go, though. My roommate is going to kill me.” I grinned. She nodded in understanding.

“I’ve got three myself. When can I see you again?”

“Well,” I stood from the bed, finding my jeans and slipping them on. I had yet to find my underwear. “I have to study today and do a portrait, so how about tonight? Or tomorrow?”

“Okay. Give me a call.” I walked over to her again, kissed her deeply, and stood.

“See you later.”

As I drove home I thought about Caden. What would she say? I hadn’t told her anything. She knew I was going out, and I had even invited her, but she hated parties, so I’d gone with Erin. Even so, I didn’t even call her to let her know what was up. That was our rule; call so no one had to worry.

I parked in front of the apartment, and lugged my hung over self inside, up the narrow stairs, and stuck my key in the door to find it was indeed locked. This meant one of two things; either Caden was still asleep, which meant I could possibly slip into bed without her being any the wiser, or she was awake, which was more likely, and had left if locked after getting her morning paper, in which case my ass was grass.

The apartment was dark, which I was grateful for. None of the heavy curtains had been opened to let in the early morning light. The kitchen was empty, Caden’s bedroom door was closed, so I wondered into the living room, empty. Confused, I headed to my room with the strange thought that perhaps she was in there. It had happened before, she’d waited up for me in my room after a show, and had fallen asleep. I opened the door, nothing.

Confused and a bit worried, I headed toward the kitchen to look for a note on the dry-erase. Nothing. Just my note from earlier in the week reminding her to buy milk. Where the hell was she? My confusion was quickly turning to worry.

I grabbed the phone, punching in the number of our neighbors downstairs. Maybe she had seen or talked with one of them. After four rings a groggy voice answered.

“What?”

“Derrick? It’s Laurel upstairs. Did you see Caden last night?”

“Huh?”

“Did you or anyone there see Caden? She’s not here.”

“The nun isn’t there?”

“No. Did you see her or not?” I was beginning to get irritated on top of my worry. Not a good combination.

“No. Hang on. I’ll see if anyone else did.” The phone was put down on something hard, the loud clang not helping my head any. I put my hand to my forehead and closed my eyes. I could hear talking in the background, and tried to ignore it, focusing on my head, and picturing a nice big bottle of Aspirin in my mind.

“Hello?”

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“Noah says he saw her leave late, like midnight or later with some guy.”

“Does he know who?”

“Nah. He didn’t ask, neither.”

“Okay. Thanks, Derrick.” After a grumbled uh huh the phone was hung up with another loud clang. I clicked off the cordless, and set it on the counter, trying to decide what to do. This was so unlike her. Who was this guy? Was it the mystery guy she was dating? I figured it was, but why was she out all night? She would never even so much as consider such a thing. Was she okay? Had this guy forced her to stay with him? Was she hurt? Laying somewhere bleeding or, or worse?

“Oh, god.” I put my hand to my mouth as horrifying images began to flash through my mind. Please, please let her be okay. What could I do? I could call Michael, I guess. Maybe he’d know who the guy was. Maybe,

I started as the front door was opened, then gently closed. Footsteps leading toward the bathroom, the door closing and the turn of the lock.

“Caden?” I hurried down the three stairs to the hall where the bathroom and Caden’s room was. “Caden?”

“Yeah?” came a muffled voice from inside.

“Are you okay?” I placed my hand onto the hard wood, wishing so bad I could be in there. I felt it in my gut, something was wrong.

“Yeah.” I heard a sniffle. “I’m fine.”

“Please unlock the door, Caden. I want to come in.” I knocked lightly.

“No, no. There’s no need. I’m fine, really.”

I sighed, staring at the painted wood, wondering what to do. Nothing I could do, really. If she wanted to be alone, what could I do?

“Well, um, okay. If you need me, I’m here, okay?” no answer. I sighed again, walked away.

****

The next morning was beautiful. October had taken a backseat, and it was unseasonably warm. Caden was in extremely good spirits when I found her in the kitchen talking with the cook, munching on a bagel.

“Good morning, Laurel.” She said when she spotted me, walking over to me, holding out a bagel to me. “You must try one of these. Freshly baked this morning by Calvin.” I took it.

“Thank you.”

“Did you sleep well?” she hopped up on a stool next to the busy cook, indicating one near her where I was to sit. I did, happily taking huge bites from the delicious treat.

“Pretty much. Yourself?”

“Oh, yes! I haven’t slept so well in years.” She smiled, her entire face lighting up. I was completely charmed by her mood, her smile, everything. “I had the most incredible idea, well I think it’s incredible, come to me this morning as I was getting dressed. I really want to discuss it with you, Laurel.”

“Sure. Shoot.”

“Well,” she hopped down from the stool, taking my arm to pull me with her. We walked out the side door, out into the morning sun. She kept her hand on my arm as she looked around, almost like she had never been outside before in her life. “I feel so fresh today.” She closed her eyes as she took a deep breath, a smile forming. She turned to me. “I love the smell of autumn. Especially when all the fireplaces are going here at the house. The smell is beyond wonderful. I love the smell of burning wood.” She released my arm, and literally skipped away from me. Part of me wondered if she’d lost her mind!

“Caden? Are you okay?”

“I have never been better!” she began to run, giggling, her voice echoing through the small valley of the estate. “God, I just feel as if I’ve been given a second chance at life, Laurel. My health is good, my marriage is over. I am free!” I watched, entranced by her energy. I finished my bagel, popping the last bite into my mouth, and followed her, running to catch up.

Finally she stopped near a stand of trees, bending over, her hands on her knees, breathing hard. I reached her and put my hand on her back.

“Are you okay?” I asked, panting from the exorcise.

“Oh, yes. I guess I just never realized just how out of shape I am these days.” She smiled and stood. “You know, before I got sick I used to swim everyday? I swam, biked, and jogged. I always wanted to keep tight control on my body, and what I was doing with it.” She raised her long arms to the sky, stretching her fingers toward the heavens. “It nearly drove me crazy when I couldn’t do anything anymore. My doctors advised me not to when things began to get worse, and my balance was so God awful. I could fall over if someone looked at me crooked.” She smiled at me, I returned it.

“So what’s this incredible idea of yours?” I asked, leaning against a tree, truly curious. Knowing Caden, it was brilliant.

“Well,” she leaned against the tree opposite of mine, and looked me dead in the eye. “You remember you said you wanted to photograph me the other day?” I nodded, wondering where this was going. “Well, what if I let you. But here’s the thing. Laurel how about making another book? You said your first one was so popular, and lucrative, and successful. Why not do another?”

“But, what would be the theme? The purpose?” I was baffled. Caden pushed away from the tree, walked to me.

“Well, while you’re here with me you’re missing out on opportunities to work, and make money. I’m not worth you losing your livelihood over. Plus,” Her voice softened. “Laurel, you have reminded me what a woman can do if she puts her mind to it, al the power that women possess that I’ve allowed myself to miss out on for half my life, hell, most my life. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to show other women out there, no matter what their station in life, or career, or whatever they may be doing, that women have power over themselves, and their own lives.” I stared, wanting to hear more. “You ask about a theme? How about strong women.”

I cocked my head to the side as I studied her, her blue eyes opened wide, filled with excitement and hope.

“You really want to do this, don’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

I tucked in my bottom lip, chewing on it as my mind turned.

“When you were going through therapy, and all your doctor visits, were there other women there with you? Others that suffered the same thing you did?”

“Oh, yes. Too many, I’m afraid.” I smiled.

“Wonderful.” Caden’s face fell from excitement to confusion.

“Wonderful? I don’t follow.”

“You’re right, a book on strong women would be great, but how about not just strong women, but on survivors?” blue eyes filled once again with excitement and possibility.

“Really?” she whispered, almost as if she were afraid to dream. I nodded.

“I need to talk with my agent, and see what she says, but something tells me she’ll go nuts over the idea.”

****

I laid on my bed, attempting to get some sleep, but couldn’t do it, tossing and turning. It was useless. Caden was on my mind, and I couldn’t stop worrying.

I pushed the covers off, my feet hitting the floor, jolting my entire body, making it feel as it my brain was rattling around in my skull. I pulled on a pair of shorts with my tank, and padded out to the living room. Caden was curled up on the couch wrapped in a blanket sipping what looked to be hot tea.

“Hey.” She said glancing up at me.

“Hey.” I sat on the couch next to her, tucking my feet up under me, the chill in the apartment making me wish I’d grabbed some sweats and socks.

“Here.” She lifted the blanket, and I wasted no time scooting under it with her, our body heat combining to make a sort of warm cocoon to envelop us both.

“Thanks.” Shoulder to shoulder, I stared down at the patterns of the old 70’s style orange and yellow design. I wasn’t sure what to say. “Do you want to talk about it?” Caden was quiet for a moment until I heard her take a shallow breath, letting it out slowly.

“I slept with him.” Her voice was so quiet. I said nothing, not sure if she was finished. “I’m so ashamed.”

“Why?” I turned more toward her, my hand rubbing her arm. She looked at me, her eyes swimming.

“I didn’t want to.” Said, her voice getting thick from the emotion she was trying to hold back.

“He didn’t…” I couldn’t finish the question.

“Oh, no! No, I did it myself. It was my own stupidity.” She closed her eyes, a single tear managing to seep out. I caught it on my fingertip before it could get very far.

“Caden, it’s perfectly natural for a woman your age, it’s not so unusual or anything,…”

“I’ve always told myself that I’d wait, Laurel. I’d wait for someone that I love, really care about.” She looked at me with pleading eyes. “I know it’s an outdated idea, and may seem stupid to you, but I always wanted that, and always figured I’d stick to it.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Caden pulled away from me, looking away toward the window above the TV. She sighed, wiping at her eyes, getting herself under control.

I really don’t want to answer that right now if it’s okay.” She turned to me again, begging for my understanding. “Please?” I opened my mouth to say something, but quickly snapped it shut.

“Okay. I don’t get it, but alright. If that’s what you need.” I began to stand when to my surprise she grabbed me, and buried her face in my shoulder, sobbing. I could feel the wetness through the material of my shirt. I wrapped my arms around her heaving body, murmuring word of comfort to her, rocking her.

“I was so stupid, Laurel.” She cried. “So stupid.”

“Shh. It happens. Shh. It’ll be okay.”

****

I snapped my phone shut with a satisfying click, and beamed. I couldn’t wait to find Caden and tell her the good news. Tammy, my agent, had absolutely fallen in love with the idea before I fully had it out of my mouth.

“Yes! Do it, Laurel. It will sell like gangbusters! I’ll call the publishing house today and see what Fran can tell me.”

I ran down the stairs, looking in every room as I passed until I found Caden sitting by the fire, reading.

“Hey, you.” I said as I burst into the room, nearly scaring her out of her skin. I kneeled in front of her and took her hands. “It’s a go. My agent loved it!”

“Really?” her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she squeezed my fingers. “I’m so happy. I can’t wait to get started.” She stopped suddenly, letting our hands fall.

“What is it?” with furrowed brow I stood, looking down at the top of Caden’s bandaged head.

“Well, I would think, from what I’ve seen of your work, your photographs, all the women you shoot are beautiful.” She looked at me, rubbing the top of her head. “I’m not anymore, Laurel. I’ve become hideous since I’ve gotten sick.” I kneeled down again, studying her eyes. “Perhaps you could just shoot the other women, those who are still beautiful.”

“Caden, what are you talking about? You are as beautiful today as you were the first day we met.”

She looked at me, disbelieving. “No. I have no hair, and this awful bandage on my head, I’ve grown so thin, pale,”

“Caden, if you’re not in this book, then it does not get made. Do you understand me? You are so beautiful and you don’t even see it.” I put my fingers under her chin, lifted her face up to me, turning it to the left then to the right, studying her features, the chiseled cheekbones, incredible eyes, aquiline nose, delicate, yet strong eyebrows, dark as midnight. I smiled in appreciation. “You are gorgeous.”

She looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “Thank you.”

I nodded. “Anytime.” I stood again, clapping my hands together. “Now, how to get started.” I walked away, beginning to pace as I thought about the upcoming project, trying to decide the best angle to take. “Do you still know these women from your treatments?”

“Yes. We became very good friends, especially during my stay in the hospital all those times. Some have gone home and fully recovered, but others, well, some are still going through the worst of it.”

“Well, perhaps then we can try and make them feel better.” I raised a brow at her. She thought for a moment, then smiled, the kind I loved that spread over her entire face.

“Perhaps.”
Part 7
I sat on the edge of the chair, my notepad in my lap as I listened intently to the woman across from me, sitting rigidly on the couch. Meredith Watts was her name, and she had been a Naval officer for nearly forty years.

“I started out as a nurse back in Vietnam, worked my way up.” She said pointedly, glancing down at my pad to see if I was writing anything.

“Why did you join the military, Meredith?”

“Well, back then you had two choices.” She counted them off on her fingers. “You could either get married and have children, or be a teacher. I choose the former. Got married at sixteen, hated it, so divorced him within a year and a half, ran off and joined the Navy.” She smiled proudly, running her hand over creased pants, her clothing perfect, her short, mostly gray hair cut to perfection, not a piece out of place.

“Did you have any children?” I was so intrigued by this woman. So much courage for someone of her generation.

“I did. Had a son. He now lives in Minnesota with his wife and my granddaughter. She’s going to be just like her grandma when she grows up.” Meredith smiled wide, her blue eyes twinkling. I laughed.

“Why’s that?” my pen stilled as I waited for her to explain.

“Well, she has my fire, my love of life.” She leaned forward in her seat, eyes boring into mine. “She has my weirdness.” And winked. I laughed again.

“Hey, works for me. So you retired because of the stomach cancer?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m almost sixty years old. It was time.” She nodded for emphasis. “I had seen Korea, the Vietnam hubalu, the Gulf War, and what other nonsense this country has gotten herself into. I retired as a Commander in the United States Navy. Not many women my age can say that. I served my country for thirty-eight of my fifty-six years.”

“That’s wonderful.” I smiled with awe. “You certainly have my utmost respect and admiration.” She smiled at me, surprised me by reaching over to pat my hand.

“Thank you. I must say, I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing, this book. There’s so many women out there who deserve recognition in life.”

“Thank you. I agree. It was Caden’s idea actually.”

“She’s such a lovely woman.” She said fondly. “I remember when we met, me laying there in that hospital bed, feeling sorry for myself. In comes the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, the brightest smile. She lit up the whole room.” She looked at me. “You know what I mean?”

“Yes, ma’am, I most certainly do.” Boy did I.

“She started coming in every single day, even if she had no reason to. She’s sit on the edge of my bed, talk with me, sometimes bring in her daughter, Annie. Bright girl, that one.”

“Like her mom.” Meredith looked at me and smiled.

“Like her mom. It just about broke my heart when I found out that Caden was sick. Of all the people in the world I couldn’t understand why her. So young, with so much life to live. And a mother needs to be there for her little girl. I wasn’t there much for my boy, Donny. Should have been.” She stared out the window, lost in thought before she took a deep breath and turned back to me, slapping her hands on her thighs. “Well. Is that it?”

“Yes, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?”

“Nope. I’ve said my piece.” She stood, followed by me. “Laurel, it was a real pleasure.” She extended her hand, and I happily shook it.

“It has been. Thank you so much for doing this.”

“No. Thank you.”

I watched as Commander Watts walked out the room, her back straight, her body exuding confidence and command.

“Amazing.”

“Isn’t she?” I turned to see Caden walking in through the French doors that led to a small patio outside. I plopped down on the couch, slapping my notepad on my lap. Caden sat next to me, dropping the magazine she’d been reading on the table in front of us. She patted my knee. “How did it go?”

“That woman has got some serious brass balls.” She grinned at me.

“Why do you say that?”

“I’ve spent the last two hours interviewing her, listening to some of the things she’s done with her life, places she’s been. Incredible.”

“I remember when I used to see her in the hospital. We would talk for hours and hours.” She smiled at the memory.

“So she said.”

“I miss those days. Being in the hospital, around all those patience, talking with them.”

“I’m sure you had some bedside manner.” She looked at me and smiled.

“Yeah. Something like that.” Caden looked down for a moment and sighed. “Hmm. Well anyway, where are we? How are we doing with interviews and time?”

“Good, actually. We’re right on time. We’ve gotten four in the can, and I have interviews scheduled all week. I want to start shooting Friday if I can.”

“Really?” Caden smiled, bright and happy. “How wonderful! I love to watch you work.”

“Well, good. Cause you are part of that work.” Suddenly Caden looked like a child.

“Oh, um, actually I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Laurel. Listen, we have a lot of people already, and, well, why not just keep me on as an assistant, or something? Kind of like your liaison between the women and,…”

“You’re going to be in this thing if it kills me. No Caden, no book.” I looked at her, my eyes defiant as I dared her to say something else. She sighed, beaten.

“Okay. If I must.”

****

I drove along the highway, two packed bags in the back seat, a stack of books and sketch pads sitting next to me in the passenger seat. Summer was here, and I was headed home.

I hadn’t been back to Southie in three years. My mother called on Christmas and my birthday, but other than that, I had found no reason to return. The only reason I was now was Caden was going to Beacon Hill, and I had not been invited.

I thought about the last couple of weeks since that morning when she had come home upset after sleeping with her mystery guy. She had become so aloof after that, acting strange and distant. No mater what I did or said I couldn’t get out of her what was wrong, or what I could do to help. I hadn’t given up on her, just on asking.

I missed her. I wished so bad that she was with me, commenting on the scenery as we passed, talking about all the things we’d do that summer, all the things we’d see, the drawings I’d do. She had stopped those, too. As I thought more about it, I realized she had stopped around the time that had happened. What the hell? What had happened that she wasn’t telling me? Why was she pulling away from me so bad? I knew I hadn’t done anything, said anything wrong.

“Shit.” I didn’t know. Tired of thinking about it, I put a cassette in, pushed everything else aside. I wanted to be as relaxed as possible when I got home. I needed to be as relaxed as possible when I got home. Otherwise, I must might have to start killing people.

The city streets looked the same as they always did. Seemed nothing changed in Southie. The same people roamed the streets; punk kids smoking dope on the corners, shoppers, couples fighting on the sidewalk.

The house where I grew up looked the same, too. The old Monte Carlo sat, big and ugly, in front of the place, the tire on the front right was flat. I figured it had probably been that way for well over a year. There was a motorcycle that I’d never seen parked along the curb. The front porch needed to be painted, too.

With a sigh I opened my door.

As I walked up the walk I could hear raised voices and something crashing inside. I stopped, listening, trying to figure out who the voices belonged to. I didn’t think it was my mother; she usually didn’t fight back with him. It sounded like Phillip. No way. Why was my brother there?

“Mother you promised.” I muttered as started walking again. But who was the woman? It couldn’t possibly be Denny. She and Phil had dated off an on, mostly off, for over five years. I had heard their fights enough to know her voice. This just keeps getting better and better.

I slowly made my way up the stairs, the wood creaking under my weight. I took both of my bags into one hand so I could open the screen door, but instead the broken down door swung open, smacking my hand. I cried out, bringing my hand to my mouth. My brother looked at me, surprised.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, quickly coming out of his shock.

“I was wondering the same about you.”

“Yippee. The whole family is here now.” Phillip slammed past me, hurrying down the steps toward the motorcycle, roaring off as I went inside. Denny sat on the couch watching Montel Williams, a pillow clutched to her chest. A lamp laid on its side on the floor, papers scattered around a broken flower pot, the dark soil in a pile on the worn rug.

“You okay?” I stopped in front of her, staring down at her. She nodded, not even bothering to look up. Her face had tear stains, her dark hair mussed. Shaking my head, I walked on to the stairs. My old room was the first at the top to the right, the door was slightly ajar. I pushed it open and stopped with a sigh. All my old furniture was still there, the old brass bed, scuffed dresser and mirror with the strange black spots that nothing would remove. Now there was an addition, however. To put it simply, it looked as if a washing machine had thrown up.

Clothing was thrown all around, on the bed, the floor, even the dresser top. Bits of paper was also scattered along with other trash.

“Fuck.”

I dropped my bags at the door and hurried downstairs, in search of my mother.

****

I was to meet a woman by the name of Sonja Trujillo near the Galen Street Bridge at the Charles River, so I stood on the bank, looking into the water, thinking. I had met Sonja last week at this very place. Caden and I had come down to talk, and the older woman had been sitting on my bench, and we had begun to chat.

She told me of her son, Juan, who had worked in Tower One, and had died in September 11. As sad as that had been, I was amazed at the strength of this woman. Her daughter had runaway with a man at fifteen, never to bee seen or heard from again, some thirty years later. Her husband had been killed in a bank robbery gone bad a decade ago. Juan had been all she had. He had helped her through a stroke and then a heart attack. When Juan had graduated college and moved to New York for work, she had been devastated, but so proud of her boy, the first in the Trujillo family to go to college. Juan had married and had a son four years before, but then tragedy had struck yet again. Juan’s wife, Maryann and their son, Taylor, had been killed in a car accident eighteen months ago.

I had been determined to get Sonja to tell her story in the book, so we had arranged the meeting today. I put my hands in my coat pockets to try and block out the cold day, the chill winds whipping around the city. I planned to take Sonja out for coffee once she arrived.

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” I turned to see Mrs. Trujillo hurrying toward me, her long hair, mostly gray, whipping around her face, her ears and nose red.

“Hello, Sonja. Not a problem. I was thinking with our unpleasant change in weather we could go inside.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you say that.” She smiled, one of her front teeth chipped. I wondered what had caused that.

“Charles River Grille?”

****

The house was quiet save for Montel. I wandered through the kitchen, seeing my mother outside in the back. I headed out, leaning against the door jam. She was watering the tiny patch of grass that she was determined to keep green and beautiful, with the hose. It was one of the few things in her life that she had control over.

“Looks good.” She turned, looking over her shoulder. When realization hit, she dropped the hose and ran to me, throwing her arms around my neck, nearly knocking me back into the house.

“Laurel!”

“Hello.” I rubbed my hand over her back, her body small and thin, much more so than when I left for school. She pulled back from me, looking me over.

“You look wonderful, honey. You’ve taken good care of yourself.”

“Thank you. Someone had to.” I smiled, she smiled back.

“I’m glad. My little go-getter.” Then to my horror she grabbed me around the waist and began to tickle me furiously, fingers digging into my ribs, my sides. “Come on, come on, Laurel. Say it,”

“No.” I bared my teeth, squirming to get out of her grasp, but couldn’t stop giggling. God I hated this.

“Say it, little one,” my twisting and squirming took us to the ground, both laughing.

“Okay, okay! You are the best mom in all the world.” I shouted, a couple of birds flying out of a near-by tree.

“Now was that so hard?” my mother looked at me with a huge grin on her face. I smiled.

“Yes. It was horrible.” She laughed and hugged me close. Okay. Maybe not everything at home was awful. I helped her to her feet, and she hugged me again. “Okay, mom. What’s with the love fest?”

“Can I help it if I love my little girl? I’ve missed you so much, Laurel. Seems you’re one of the only sane ones around here.” She nodded toward the house. “I miss having another woman around this place. All these men are going to make me lose my mind.” She walked back to the grass and picked up her hose.

“Um, I have a question. What happened to my old room?”

“What do you mean what happened to it? It’s in the same place it always was.”

“Yes, I realize this. I mean, who decided it would be a giant closet?” she stared at me for a moment, then dropped her hose yet again, headed toward the house.

“Phillip!”

****

Sonja Trujillo was set to be out of town, going to visit her mother in Houston in two days, so we decided to do the shoot that day. I had told her ahead of time what to wear, what colors to avoid. We went back to the river, deciding to set up on the bank. I brought out my camera, getting the focus right.

“I don’t know about this, Laurel. I look like an old witch.” I stood from the tripod, studying the woman before me.

“Hardly. You look beautiful, Sonja. The furthest thing from an old witch.” I bent down again, looking at my subject through the lens. “Okay, Sonja, I want you to act as natural as possible. Do what you would normally do while sitting here at the river.”

“I’ll try.” At first she was nervous as anything. I could literally almost see her shaking. Then as I began to click away, she became accustomed to it, and began to just let go and be herself.

“Oh, that’s wonderful, Sonja. Just like that.” I took my camera off the tripod and began to move around. With each person getting about three photos into the book, I wanted as many good ones as possible. Suddenly the thing that every good photographer waits for happened- the magic picture. Sonja turned slightly away from me, but her eyes stayed glued to the lens. Her mouth opened just a bit, and spread into the most beautiful smile. The lines around her dark eyes bunched up to give her that motherly look, and her face relaxed. She looked peaceful. I snapped three pictures off, and lowered the camera, smiling wildly. “That was it, Sonja. You did it.”

“Really? That’s it?” she straightened on the bench then stood. “That was not bad at all.”

“Nope. It’s really not. You did great.” To my surprise, she walked over to me and grabbed me in a tight hug.

“Thank you, honey. This is a good thing you do. My Juan would be so proud.”

“I’m sure he would.”

****

I laid in my bed that night, arms over my head as I stared up at the ceiling. Years ago I had put tiny glow in the dark stars on it in various patterns, trying to copy the constellations in the sky. Over by the closet was the Big Dipper. That was all I could recognize now. My thoughts turned to Caden. What was she doing? Where was she? Was she going to go on some wonderful, exotic trip over the summer? Some sort of congratulatory gift for going into her senior year?

I wasn’t sure. Part of me wanted to call her so bad. I missed her voice. I glanced to the night table, saw the phone sitting there, just waiting to be used. Should I? I sighed. If she had wanted to hear from me or talk to me she would have called. No she wouldn’t. I didn’t give her my parent’s phone number.

I sat up, running my hands through my hair, gathering it together in the back before releasing it. I reached for it, feeling the hard plastic in my hands. Was she awake? I glanced over at the clock to see it was just past two am. I wouldn’t wake the household because she did have her own line. But what if I made her mad?

“Fuck it.” I picked up the receiver, the satisfying dial tone filling the quiet night. I dialed quickly, bringing the earpiece to my ear, waited. One ring, two, three, four,

“Hello?” a very tired Caden said. For a moment I questioned my decision. But that didn’t last.

“Hey.”

“Laurel?” her voice brightened almost immediately.

“Yup. How are you?”

“I’m good. Much better now.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “This may sound stupid, but I miss you.” A mile wide smile spread across my face.

“Really?” I laid down, holding the phone closer to my ear, pulling a pillow in against me. “Well, I mean, that’s why I called. I miss you, too. Why would that sound stupid?”

“Well, we only left for our respective homes two days ago. It’s just a little ridiculous, don’t you think?”

“No. I mean, we live together, see each other every single day. You’re my best friend, Caden. Of course I’m going to miss you.”

“Oh. True.” She breathed softly, almost as if in relief.

“So you don’t mind that I’m calling at this piss poor hour, then?”

“No! I mean, well, to be honest, I wanted to call you all day.”

I smiled again, looking up into the stars. I wished Caden could see my creation. I just wanted to see Caden period.

“So how is it going? Is anyone even home?”

“Yes. Everyone.” Her voice lowered when she said this, and she took in a breath as if she were going to say something else, but didn’t. “And how about you? How is your family? Are they all still alive?” I chuckled.

“Yes. Unfortunately. My brother lost his job again, so he’s back here. His ex, Denny, just got evicted, and she’s back here again, too. My poor mother. I don’t understand why the hell she allows it. If it were my kid I would have put him out on his ear a long time ago.”

“Well, being a parent isn’t an easy thing to do, Laurel.” She snapped. “Having kids is a scary prospect.”

“What? Um, alright. I agree, but he’s still a loser.” My brows drew. “What’s with the attitude, anyway?”

“Noting. I’m sorry. Just a little stressed. You know, coming home and everything.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to take it out on you, Laurel.”

“It’s okay. I think I understand more than you think I do.”

“I wish.”

****

I sat on the grass on our hill, my legs bent, hands dangling over my knees. I thought about that phone conversation that night during summer break. We had talked for about a half an hour longer before we both had grown too tired, needed to sleep. At the time I had no idea what Caden had been going through, or would be going through in the near future. If only she had felt safe enough to tell me about Annie. Had it been my fault? Had she felt she couldn’t tell me? Like I’d come down on her too hard or something?

I didn’t know. Speculation wasn’t good, nor was it worth it. That time was long gone, and those feelings long over with.

“Howdy, stranger. Where were you all day?” I turned to see Caden climbing the hill, smiling at me.

“Hey. I had an interview and photo shoot with Sonja Trujillo.” I patted the grass next to me, and Caden quickly made her way over.

“How wonderful. How did it go?” she stretched her long legs out, her arms behind her holding her up.

“It went very well. She’s a natural.” I smiled at her, part of me still feeling strange from the memory of that night. How could a situation from over a decade earlier still affect someone? It was over. My life had gone on, my past was my past. I shook my head to try and clear it.

“Are you alright?” Caden was looking at me as if I’d just shaken my mind out my ear. I smiled.

“Yup. Just thinking.”

“Oh.” She sat up, reaching down to pull a few blades of yellow grass, twisting them between her fingers. “What is your home like in San Diego?” she looked at me, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. I thought for a moment then sighed.

“Well, right now I’m in a studio, but I’m looking at a house. I’ve actually been saving for it for about five years.” I smiled shyly.

“How wonderful, Laurel.” Caden patted my shoulder. “Tell me about it. When do you move in?”

“Well, I need to buy it first.” I smiled. “I have an appointment to look at a place for the second time, in three weeks.”

“Am I holding you up? I am, aren’t I?” Caden looked at me, then looked away. “I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to help making things difficult for you.”

“Hey, stop that. Don’t worry about it. I need to be here for the book right now, anyway. I’m not worried, and neither should you be.” I bumped her shoulder with my own. “You should see this place. It has an ocean front view, three bedrooms, and an extra room to use as my studio. I guess the guy who owned it before me used it as a recreation room. I can use the family room for that. Besides, that room is completely windows, floor to ceiling. Oh, Caden, it’s beautiful.” I couldn’t keep the wistfulness out of my voice. I wanted the house, and I wanted to start a new life there, out of the city.

“I’d love to see it.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just have to invite you over sometime.” I smiled over at Caden, she smiled back.

“Maybe.”

“Now come on. I want to get started with these shots.”

****

I had been home exactly four days, and I wanted to kill my entire family already. I’m not sure just what that says for American domesticity.

My brother was still around, still being the biggest asshole he could be. He and Denny fought on an hourly basis. One day she and I happened to be down for breakfast at the same time. Phillip was still asleep, my mother outside, and my father long gone for work.

“Denny, can I ask you something?” I asked as I poured milk into my Lucky Charms.

“Sure.” She sipped from her coffee, reading the morning paper, her half-eaten omelet sitting next to her. The stale smell of egg filling the kitchen.

“Why the hell do you put up with that jackass?” I leaned against the counter, glass of orange juice in hand. She looked up from the classifieds, looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head, then shrugged.

“Why not?”

“Are you serious?” I grabbed my cereal and sat across from her at the old table. “The guy is an abusive slug. He always has been, Denny. I mean, come on.” I took a large bite.

Denny rested her chin on her hand, looked out the window. The early morning light caught the green of her eyes, as well as the slight yellowish tint from her fading bruise on her cheek.

“I’ve known Phillip since I was sixteen years old, Laurel.” She looked at me, deeply into my eyes. “My family doesn’t give one rats ass about me. Yours do.”

“You stick around for my parents?” she shrugged.

“Well, your mom, anyway. And you, I guess. When we were kids we had some fun, eh?” she pushed me playfully. I grinned and nodded, looking down into my cereal. If only Phillip had known; Denny had been the first girl I’d ever kissed. Granted I had only been eleven, but hey. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how the moon sits in the sky, Phillip comes with the package.”

I felt so sad for her in that moment. Then I realized that she and my mom got along so well because they were so much alike. Weak, dependant women.

“Oh.”

****

The family was in the same room, yet everyone was still alive with no broken bones or teeth. Life was good. I sat on the floor, my back against the coffee table, a crossword puzzle in my lap as I watched Seinfeld. My parents sat on the couch behind me, Phillip and Denny on the loveseat to our right. The television was the only source of noise except for Phillips stupid comments now and then. We were trying to be a family. The attempt didn’t last long.

“So, you gonna be bringing me anymore kids I gotta raise?” I felt my father flick me on the back of the head.

“Robert.” My mother hissed.

“What? I gotta right to know. So?” I turned to glare at him.

“No would be my guess.” I muttered.

“Good. I gotta enough mouths to feed as it is.” My father glanced over at my brother.

“Hey, fuck you old man.”

“What you sayin’ to me, boy?” my father stood, as did Phillip so they were face to face, my father’s gut bumping against his son. “Don’t you be talkin’ to me like that, I’ll kick your teeth in.”

“Yeah, I’d love to see you try.”

“Boys!” both became silent as my mother’s yell still seemed to ring in everyone’s ears. “Stop it. We’re trying to have a nice evening here.” I looked at her, shocked into silence, as I’m sure everyone else was, too. My father sat on the couch, followed by a glaring Phillip.

“Are you dating anyone, honey?”

Oh, boy. The dating question. I thought for a moment of how to answer that. With a deep sigh I decided to suck it up and answer truthfully.

“Well, yes. A chick named Erin and I have been seeing each other off and on.”

“How nice, what?!” my mother’s eyes popped open, and my father’s face suddenly became very red.

“Did you say you was seeing a female, girl?” he leaned forward on the couch, his face only a couple feet from mine. Gulp.

“Yeah. I did say a female. Mom asked, so I answered.”

“Oh, honey.” I heard my mother whisper, her hands covering her mouth.

“Oh, this is rich! The little dyke. Oh, man, god is good.”

“Shut up you asshole.”

“Why don’t you, you little lezbo.”

“You and me are gonna talk.” My father stood, lunging toward me. Beginning to get frightened, I shot up, out of his grasp.

“You people are pathetic! You ask a question then don’t like the answer.” I looked at my mother, disappointed mostly in her. Everything else was expected. I turned and hurried out of the room, taking my car keys from my pocket as I did so. The night air was warm, but chilled my cheeks as it dried the tears there.

I sat behind the wheel, staring at my house through the windshield, wanting to belong to another family, or better yet, not bothering at all. I didn’t need them. Didn’t need anyone. The front door swung open, and my father appeared. That was my cue. I started up the engine, roared down the street.

****

The doctor had removed the first half of Caden’s staples within two weeks of the surgery, and the second half had been removed two days ago. Her head was now completely free, no bandage, no staples. Just what God had created in his infinite wisdom. Her hair was growing back quickly, thick and dark.

I focused my camera, zooming in on those eyes, bluer than should be allowed. She was looking right into the lens, right into my soul. Caden had always had that ability. She looked deeper inside me than I knew how to.

I looked at her, taking the camera away from my eye for a moment, trying to decide what would be the best way to capture her. She sat on a blanket on our hill, the trees behind her with all their unbelievable colors awesome, the gold and red and brown, all making her stand out even more. Caden wore a simple sweater, blue, almost the color of her eyes, and khakis. Her legs were together as she turned to the side a bit, her legs curled up in front of her. It pained me that I would use black and white for this shoot. She deserved color to really showcase her beauty.

I watched as she began to pick at some random blades of grass, waiting patiently for me to do my thing. I knew she had no idea that the hold up was her, and not me. I had been looking at Caden Lodge as just an old friend these past few weeks, and not as a woman. I really couldn’t afford to do this, but I couldn’t help it. As an artist, my eye has been trained to recognize true beauty for what it is, and I was definitely seeing it in its full glory now.

****

I drove around town, trying to decide where I wanted to go. I don’t know why I had run, and not just stuck around to face the heat. I guess I didn’t feel I should have to get any heat. My family had never given a shit before what I did with my life, so where did they get off caring now?

I turned the radio up louder, not wanting to even hear my own thoughts anymore. I saw a group of teenagers talking on a street corner, turning to look at me as I passed, one guy sticking his tongue out obnoxiously. I flipped him off and drove on as the traffic light turned green. I wasn’t too hot on males at that moment, sure as hell didn’t need their shit.

I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store and went in. I wasn’t sure what I was after, but it sounded like a good thing to do at the time. I wandered around the aisles, looking for something to munch on, but decided on a bottle of Dr Pepper instead. Paying at the counter, I noticed a girl talking on the pa phone next to the restrooms. There was a phone free next to it, hell why not.

Digging in my shorts pocket I found some change, and decided to make a call. I dialed quickly, sipping from my soda all the while, then listened to the drone of the phone ringing again and again and again.

“Damn it, Caden. Pick up.” No such luck. Her voice messaging did instead. Irritated, I disconnected without bothering with a message. I leaned against the wall and stared out into the night. It wasn’t very late, and the sun wasn’t completely down yet. Love those long summer nights. I decided to head out again when I was startled by the ring of the payphone. I stared at it as if that would tell me who was on the other end. Curious, I picked up the receiver.

“Your local neighborhood convenience store. Laurel speaking.”

“Laurel! Thank God you’re still there. I thought I’d miss you.”

“Caden? Hey!” my face was split in two from my smile, only to falter. “Um, how did you call me here? Do I have like a homing beacon on me that I don’t know about?”

“Caller I.D. I’m so glad you called.” I heard her take a breath, and a very shaky one. As I thought about it I realized that her voice had seemed thicker, almost as if she’d been crying.

“Caden? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Why do you ask? And where are you calling me from?”

“I don’t know. You just sound different, like you’re upset. And I’m at a payphone.”

“Oh. Well, I had some problems with my family earlier. Why are you on a payphone?”

“Long story. What’s going on with your family?”

“Also a long story. Want to do something?” I brightened immediately at the invitation.

“You read my mind. Want me to pick you up?”

“No. I’ll meet you. Cut our driving time down.”

“Okay.”

We decided on a place, and I hung up, feeling so much better knowing I was going to see Caden soon.

****

I had used nearly a full roll of film on Caden, getting her in this pose and that. I knew it would be a wonderful spread, and I looked forward to developing the shots.

I sat on the grass, taking my camera apart, putting lenses away when I glanced up, noticing Caden had laid down. She laid on her back, her face lifted to the blue sky, neck arched, arms raised above her head, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, the slightest bit of white visible. My eyes scanned down the rest of her body to see her stretched out sensually, one leg out flat against the blanket, the other bent, booted foot flat.

I raised my camera again, snapped, capturing Caden’s beauty and grace for all time.

She raised her head, looked at me.

“Why did you take a picture?” she sat up, folding her body into itself. I shrugged.

“It was just a good one.”

“Oh. Okay.” She smiled. I smiled back.

****

I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel in time with the beat of the music I was listening to, a smile on my face as I passed the traffic that was getting thicker as it got later. I was excited to see and spend time with Caden. I had no idea what we were going to do, but it didn’t matter. I had no idea I would miss her so much. It was ridiculous.

I saw the gas station just up ahead, and pulled in, parking in front, waited. I turned around in my seat as I looked for that little red car of hers. As I sat rain began to sporadically splatter my windshield. I opened my side window, looked up into the night sky that was now black. Rain drops fell onto my face, a few landing in my eyes, making me blink and pull my head back in.

“Hey, you. Do you often stick your head out of a car window and into rain?” I looked up, still blinking furiously to see Caden looking down at me grinning. I smiled back. “Um, yes?”

“Goof. Come on.” She walked away, toward her Porsche which was parked a few cars down. I quickly followed, locking my little Volks up.

We drove on in silence for the longest time, Caden driving randomly, the rain falling harder and harder, coming at the windshield with amazing force. It was incredible, getting louder and louder, lightening at our heels as the storm followed us.

“Where are we going?”

“To a place where we can watch the storm.”

“Oh. Cool.”

We drove on for what seemed like forever but in reality was only about ten minutes. Finally she pulled off the road and onto a dirt road, and we began to climb a steep out of the way road that led to a hill. She parked at the bottom, and we climbed, rocks and dirt getting into my shoes, tall grass and weeds making my bare legs itch.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked, almost breathless from the exertion.

“I’m not sure. I saw a sign for it back there and decided to take a chance.”

“Oh.”

We reached the top of the hill finally and both sat. Sure enough, the entire city could be seen, the lights from the street lights, buildings and houses, and cars, seemed to glow in the darkness. The lightning that was only a couple miles away lit up the heavens, turning night to day for just a second before all was quiet and dark again.

“Wow.” I whispered, the beauty of it intoxicating. “You took a great chance.” I grinned. She nodded.

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.” Caden closed herself up, pulling her legs to her chest and hugging them, resting her chin on her knees, then she turned her eyes to me. “So what happened at home?”

“Oh, jeez.” I laid back, holding myself up on my elbows. “I told them about Erin.” She looked back at me over her shoulder.

“You did what? You came out to your family?” the slightest hint of a smile curved her lips. I nodded.

“Yeah. And just how stupid was that, you ask? Very.” I shook my head in annoyance.

“They didn’t take it well, I’m assuming, then.”

“Nope. Sure didn’t. I think my father wanted to beat me senseless. My brother, however, had a field day with it. Asshole.”

“Your mom?”

“Eh, she’ll get over it. I think she just mainly wants me to be happy. She was shocked, of course. But I’m not too worried about it.”

“So that’s why you left?” she laid back, also resting on her elbows.

“Yup.”

“Oh.”

“What about you? What happened?”

“They just don’t understand me. Hell, I barely understand myself.” She smiled ruefully. “Do you like me, Laurel?” I looked at her, confused.

“Of course. You’re my best friend. What kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know. I’m just being a bit stupid, need some reassurance that I’m not a horrible, awful person.”

“Hardly. You are the furthest thing from that.”

Caden turned onto her side, facing me. She played with a weed, watching as she turned it this way and that in her fingers. “Laurel, I really hope I never make you mad at me, or you disappointed in me.” She looked up, meeting my gaze. I was baffled. What had happened?

“I don’t really see that happening, Caden.” I turned to face her. “What’s up? What’s all this about? Why,…”

I was shocked to find Caden’s lips on mine. At some point she had bridged the gap between our bodies and was against me. Her hand rested on my cheek, her lips moving slowly. I took a breath through my nose and lifted a hand, not sure what to do with it, but desperately wanting to touch her, so I found a place for it on her side. With that, she moved a bit closer, moving her hand from my face to the back of my neck, pulling me in closer.

My mind was racing. What was happening? Why was she doing this? God, I wanted this.

My mouth slowly opened, and she took the hint, pushing her tongue between my lips, seeking mine. It didn’t take long. Our mouths moved together as I felt her hand stroke the back of my neck, moving into my hair. Her body was trembling beneath my fingers, our bodies flush.

Slowly, slowly she moved away, her mouth taking its warmth from mine. Her eyes were closed as she scooted away, but barely. Finally they opened, and looked into my very being. She said nothing. I took a deep breath, my body still being jilted back into reality, the warm, heavy summer air against my skin instead of Caden. I cleared my throat.

“I don’t know why you did that, but I’ve wanted you to for some time.” She smiled a bit, softly.

“Me, too. But never again, Laurel. I wanted to give that to you, and I hope you don’t see it as taking it from you. I love you, Laurel. I have for a long time.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she put her fingers to my lips. “I did this while I still could, but it can never happen. It just, I can’t. Especially now.”

“Why especially now?” my voice was so quiet the night almost absorbed it. I was surprised she heard me.

“I just can’t..”

****

“What are you thinking about?” startled, I looked over at my walking companion. Caden had stopped as I hadn’t realized I had. She was watching me, hands buried deep in her pockets, baseball cap pulled low to keep her head warm.

“Oh, uh nothing.” I smiled, hoping it was convincing. “Just some memory from the past.”

“I do that, too.” She turned and we began to walk again, the Charles River to our left. I swallowed hard as I tried to get that night out of my head. It had no place there.

“You know, I think back to that last semester at school often.” I looked at her, surprised at just how closely her musings were to my own thoughts.

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. It was a difficult time.” She looked at me, I nodded. “I miss it, those days, school. All of it. I loved being your roomy.” She laughed, looking up into the sky. “Looks like we could get some snow later.”

“Yeah. Sure does.” My mind was wrapping itself around what she was saying, telling me about those days. I never really knew how she felt about that time in our lives.

“I really loved our friendship, how comfortable we had gotten, the crazy, nutty things we used to do.” She smiled at me. “Remember?”

“Oh, yes. I sure do.” She sighed.

“And school. I loved it, too. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

“Leaving school, or,…” she looked down, then at me.

“Yes.”
Part 8
I sat next to the window, the rumble of the engines beneath my seat, the vibration passing right through my pants. The airport workers scurried around on the tarmac checking this or checking that. I felt bad for them, all bundled up, their breath a white cloud.

I closed the shade, laid my head back against the seat, making sure my seatbelt was tight. I was not a fan of flying, but that’s the way it goes. Part of me was excited to get back home, get these photographs developed. I was so glad I had decided to put the money into getting a dark room set up in the apartment. It saved me so much money in the long run.

I thought about Caden. I really didn’t want to leave her yet, though. I was just beginning to rediscover her, find out friendship again. But real life did call, and I grudgingly had to answer. She had taken me out for dinner last night at some high class, fancy restaurant, saying she wanted to thank me for staying with her, taking care of her. It hadn’t been necessary, and I had told her as much.

“Of curse it is, Laurel. You’ve done more for me in the last month than most have my entire life.” She sipped her wine, leaning forward a bit after setting it back on the table. The flame from the candle in the middle of the table caught her face, putting the angles in strange shadow, sharpening her chiseled featured even more. “I can never repay you for what you’ve done for me.” She reached across the table, squeezed my hand then let it go. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I just wanted to be a friend to you.” I was taken aback by her sincerity, her obvious gratitude. I didn’t really think I’d done anything so special, but if it hit her that way, then so be it. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

“This time has been really good for me.” She smiled, leaning back in her chair, running a hand down the front of her satin blouse. “I’ve needed this, this sort of introduction into real life, 101.” I smiled. “And, I can’t think of a better teacher than yourself, Laurel.” She looked down at the table, her fingers playing with the stem of the rose in a vase. “I almost wish there was some way I could get you to stay a little longer.” She looked up at me shyly. “I realize this isn’t possible. For one, you have a life of your own, and I can’t imagine you’d want to hang around.”

“Well, don’t assume. I do have things I need to get back to, but this hasn’t just been good for you, you know.” I smiled, she returned it.

I caught myself smiling as I sat in seat 19F. I missed her already.

****

I laid in my bed, Phillip and Denny fighting down the hall. I drowned out the sound by thinking of Caden, the time we’d spent together just a few hours ago. What on earth had prompted her to kiss me like that? I was so confused. Apparently she was, too. I wondered what would happen once we got back to school. How would things be? Would they continue on as they had for the last three years? Part of me hoped so, but there was that part of me that I had to admit didn’t.

I reached down under the sheet and laid my hand on my thigh. I could feel the heat that radiated off me just a few inches to the left. No one had ever affected me like that. I mean, sure, I had fun with Erin, and she really got me going, but never like I felt now. I was literally burning up. She had said never, that it could never happen.

I sighed. Get over it, kid. You got to kiss Caden, and that’s it. I’d have to just turn that real kiss into my nightly dreams, make them even more realistic than they already were.

With a vicious growl I sat up. Why had she done that? It just made it worse! I got up from the bed and began to pace, stopping once in awhile to look out the window. The street was amazingly quiet for an early summer night. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths as I tried to calm my aching body, my forehead against the cool glass. I took several deep breaths, turned to face my old room again. I saw my Discman on the bedside table, and decided to relax with some music.

****

I took my headphones off as the plane began its descent. Stuffing my CD player into my bag, I opened the shade, looked out at my home city, our plan headed toward San Diego International Airport.

I walked through the airport, headed toward the parking lot, watching people greet each other, families so happy to see each other, lover’s making up for lost time with excited hugs and kisses. I smiled at them as I passed, but part of me wasn’t in that smile. I had never been met at the airport in all the times I’d flown for my work. It had never occurred to me until that moment.

I climbed the three floors of stairs to my place, the elevator out again. I lived in an old warehouse that had been transformed into apartments ten years ago. The floors were squeaky, and the door to my apartment large, heavy and metal, but it was home for now.

I unlocked the three locks, including two deadbolts, and pushed the door open with a grunt. The place was dark, the large windows along one wall reflecting the blackness beyond.

I dropped my bags, threw my keys on the table just inside the door, and flicked on the light. Everything was as I’d left it, which was good. I walked further into the place, turning on lights as I went, thinking how nice it would be to come home to someone. I could almost see it in my mind’s eye; I walk in, smells of food filling the air as dinner was cooking, the television on showing the weather for the next day. I smiled as I made my way into the kitchen area, the breakfast bar circled around to separate it a bit from the living room. I opened the fridge and grabbed an orange Gatorade.

I could imagine my lover in the back of the apartment, maybe in the bedroom, doing something, waiting for me, or perhaps playing with my dog.

I had lived alone since I had graduated from college, never wanting anyone I dated to move in, and having absolutely no inclination to move in with them. I liked my space, enjoyed my privacy, only having to be in the relationship when I wanted to. I chuckled ruefully as I took a drink. Maybe that’s why I was still alone.

Screw it. I didn’t need anyone else in my life. I had seen what people can do to you. It was just me and Storm, just how I liked it.

I headed toward the door, happy to go collect my husky from the neighbor downstairs. Luna Eftychiou had been my good friend for nearly five years. We had met when I had decided to take a weekend sculpturing class. She had been a wonderful teacher, getting everyone’s attention with the musical sound of her dozen or so bangle bracelets chiming together. She had moved into the building at my suggestion two years ago, and was the official babysitter, step-mom to Storm. I knocked on the door, waiting for her to answer. I knew I had at least three minutes to contemplate life before she realized someone was there. I smiled as I heard Storm sniffing under the door, his whine muffled.

“Yo, Lu!” I called out, knocking again, harder. Within a moment I heard all the locks on her door being undone, all seven of them. Seven was her lucky number; she felt the universe was more comfortable with it.

“Hello!” Luna thrust herself into my arms, nearly knocking me over. “I’m so glad you’re back.” Storm was not far behind, his tail about to wag off as he jumped up, his large paws on my back, yelping for attention. I broke away from Lu, bent down only to be covered in kisses, my eyes shut tight, mouth puckered to avoid a pooch French kiss.

After the excitement died down, Lu invited me inside to talk and eat dinner. I was utterly grateful; I was famished from my long trip.

Luna’s apartment was set up much like mine, save for the crystals she had hung everywhere. I looked up at the ceiling, twenty feet above my head, and all the planets she had hung, Saturn turning slowly in the slight breeze that always seemed to blow through these places.

“It smells so good in here.” I followed Lu to the bar around the kitchen, the counter top covered in some sort of beaded fabric. She had once explained to me that while she did her sculpting, the covering helped to secure the spirit of the clay, held in the spirit of what she was trying to create. It had taken me awhile to realize that she’s not crazy, but just a bit eccentric.

“So how did it go?” Lu asked as she stirred something in a pot. She looked over her shoulder at me, her long, dangling earrings whacking the side of her face and shoulder as she moved.

“It went well.” I sat at the bar, lacing my fingers together, Storm laying his head down on my feet.

“Was it what you thought it’d be?” she turned the stove off, holding the pan over a plate as she scooped a deliciously smelling lump of something onto it.

“Well kind of, what the hell is that?” I leaned forward on my elbows, trying to get a better look at it. It was brown and green and yellow and lumpy. It looked like, well you probably get the picture. “What is it, some sort of mystical, magical dinner that’s meant to get my soul in line or something?” I grinned. She looked at me like I was nuts.

“No, it’s goulash.”

“Oh.”

“So why just kind of?” she grabbed another plate from her homemade plate tree, suspended from the ceiling with three strong pieces of wire and a clay dish that was the size of a pizza platter. “How hungry are you?”

“Very.”

“Ah,” she smiled, “That’s what I want to hear.” She smiled widely, her dark skin flawless, the tiniest bit of a dimple in her chin. She wore her dark hair up, the slightest bit of gray running down the center. Her silk kimono flowed as she walked, seemingly to be a constant breeze around her. “So tell me.” Lu sat across from me, her own plate before her, setting down a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“Well,” I managed around a delicious bite, “at first I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. I had no reason whatsoever to be back in Boston, but I’m glad I did.” I smiled. Lu studied me for a moment, sizing me up. Putting her fork aside, she leaned forward.

“Talk to me.”

“About what? There’s nothing to say, really.”

“Don’t give me that, Laurel. I’ve known you for far too long, and far too well. Tell me.” Her nearly black eyes seemed to intensify as she stared into mine.

“I feel like you’re looking into my soul, here.” I said, breaking the eye contact.

“That’s probably because I am. Now spill it. I can see it inside you, my friend. Yo care for this woman?”

“God, I hate it when you do that,” I mumbled. “And of course I do, Lu. Why do you think I went in the first place?” I sighed, looking down at my dog for answers, to no avail. “I just think that so many memories have gone through my head over the last month, stuff that I had completely forgotten about.” I looked at my friend again. “I didn’t want to remember them. They had been buried, didn’t matter. We were young, crazy, confused,”

Lu shrugged, began to eat again.

“Only time will tell.”

****

I woke with a start, pulled out of blackness only to hear Phillip and Denny going at it. I drew my brow, listening, were they fighting? Was it, ewww!

“God, that’s gross.” I jumped out of bed, threw some clothes on, and headed downstairs. A quick glance at the hall clock told me that it was nearly ten. What the hell were they still doing in bed, anyway? Guess I couldn’t say much, though.

The house was quiet, my father was obviously already gone. The small radio in the kitchen was on to some talk radio station that my mother tends to be fond of. I noticed a small pile of broken stoneware on the table, a couple of pieces had been glued, left to dry. Not good. I knew that usually wasn’t good, anyway. I began to look around to see if it had just been an accident, or if my father had struck again. The floor in the corner was littered with crumbs of what looked to be toast and egg mixed with more small pieces of the plate. My gaze traveled up the wall to about the height I figured the plate would have hit. Sure enough; a freshly washed spot.

“Son of a bitch.” I headed outside, figuring that’s probably where my mother had retreated after he’d left. She sat on the slab of cement that edged the grass, her legs together, hands in her lap, eyes closed as she raised her face to the morning air, not quite hot yet. “Mom?”

“Hmm?” she didn’t move. I sat next to her, flinching when I saw the trail of bruises that littered the side of her neck, and the light shiner around her right eye. She opened her eyes, looked at me. “Good morning, honey. I wasn’t sure when you were going to wake up.” She smiled.

“Yeah. Well, dip shit and friends woke me up.” I motioned into the house with my head.

“Fighting again?”

“Well, not exactly.” My mother shook her head sadly. “So, what happened? The old man get a little mad about something?” I glanced at her. I figured I knew what the problem had been, but wanted to make sure. She nodded.

“You know your father.” She smiled weakly.

“Yeah, I do. That piece of shit needs to take this crap out on someone his own size. I’m sick and tired of you getting pummeled every time something doesn’t go his way.”

“Please don’t talk that way about him, Laurel. He means well,”

“No he doesn’t. He’s just mean, mom. I just know one of these days he’s going to try and kill you.” She chuckled softly, hugging herself.

“I’m sorry about the way I reacted last night, Laurel. That was wrong.” I looked at her profile, surprised she was bringing it up. My family was just too good at denial, the whole sweeping issues under the rug trick.

“It’s okay. I hadn’t exactly thought out my approach well, I guess.” I smiled. “I really didn’t even think it’d come up, and if it did, who would care?” she nudged my shoulder with her own.

“I would. The nuts and bolts of it is I want you to be happy. I’ve known unhappiness my entire life with men, honey. I have to admit, I don’t understand the whole woman with another woman thing, but if it’s better than this…” I looked at her for a moment, trying to see if she was sweeping again. She seemed very sincere.

“Thank you.”

****

Storm followed close at my heels as I walked down the hall to my apartment. It was really late, and I was really tired. I just wanted to get in and go to bed.

My dog ran into the place as soon as the door was opened, barking and jumping around excitedly, finding one of his bones and carrying it into his corner to chew. It felt good to be home. I grabbed my bags from where I’d dropped them, headed into the bedroom. Flicking the light on, I noticed the light on the answering machine was blinking, several times. I stood over it, trying to decide if I wanted to bother now or not. With a sigh, I hit Play.

“Hi. Just wondered if you were back yet. You hadn’t returned any of my calls. I don’t know what’s happening here, but I don’t like it.” click

“Yes, Carol, I’m fine. My plane didn’t crash, didn’t get killed somewhere in Boston, but thank you for asking.” I pushed the delete button, turning to the bed to start unpacking as the messages continued.

“Hello, Laurel.” I stopped, looking at the machine over my shoulder. “You just left the house a few moments ago, but I knew you didn’t have your phone on. I wanted this to be a message. I’m not quite certain what I’m wanting to say here,” Caden took a breath. I could imagine her sitting in the chair by the fireplace, phone in hand, eyes closed as she got her thoughts together. “Over these past weeks that you’ve been here I’ve grown to understand just what exactly it is that I had ten years ago. I’ve grown to understand and appreciate what I lost, allowed myself to lose. I’m sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. I think way back then at F&M you knew what our friendship meant, you understood. I may have been somewhat book smart, but never had any common sense.” She paused, sounding so sad. “Anyway, I hope you have a pleasant flight, and hope to hear from you real soon. Goodbye, Laurel.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the click of her phone, feeling a pang in my chest as I realized that it symbolized the end of any sort of connection. I knew that it had just been a recorded message, recorded hours earlier, but it still hurt for some reason. I felt so alone.

“Storm? Here, boy.” I heard the ticking of his nails on the hardwood, followed by a whimper at the door of the bedroom. Storm looked up at me, his eyes, one blue one brown, filled with love. I needed that right now. “Come here, my boy.” I patted the bed next to me, and happily, tongue hanging out of his mouth, the husky jumped up next to me, curling up, his head in my lap. As I ran my fingers through his thick fur, my mind reeled to the message again. I really missed her. I missed Caden’s often quiet presence. Sometimes letting me know she was there with just a smile, those eyes making me feel like I was the only person in the world who had her attention. She had this special way of making me feel special, important. She listened to what I had to say, often offering her well thought out advice or opinion.

I sighed. I missed her.

****

I carefully hung each picture, wet from the fluids used in developing. Stepping back, I leaned against one of the counters, the air stuffy in the darkroom. The black and whites were nearly done, but all the color shots I had taken of Caden were still in the processor, and wouldn’t be done for a little while, yet. I checked my watch, closing my eyes as I waited, the hum of the machine almost like a lullaby.

I was curious to see how the pictures turned out, but I was especially curious for the color. Caden had been on my mind nonstop for the week that I’d been home. I had looked at the phone daily, wanting to call, but stopping myself for some reason. Why? Why didn’t I just do it, at least see how she was doing, how the radiation therapy was going, how Annie was, the divorce. Something.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when the cordless next to me rang to life. Clicking it on, I caught my breath.

“Hello?” My shoulders and hopes fell when I heard the voice on the other end. “No, no, I’m fine. I’m just developing the pictures. Well, I’m not sure, yet. So far so good, I think.” I walked over to the line and looked at the drying photos, warm memories coming back to me as the faces of the women stared back at me. “I can get these to you, oh, I’d say by tomorrow or the day after. Sure, Tammy. Not a problem. Bye.” I clicked the phone off, and set the phone down. My agent had not been who I had hoped would be calling.

I leaned back in the chair, my legs up on the desk, ankles crossed. Tammy looked at me over her glasses.

“Comfy?”

“Very much so, thank you.” She glared before looking at the pictures in her hands again.

“Laurel, these are fantastic, some of the best work you’ve ever done.” She looked through them again, placing them on her desk as she did until she had a decent sized pile. “This woman here just cracks me up.” She showed me and I smiled.

“Yes. Abby Gilbert, quite the character.”

“Which one was she?” my agent turned the picture she held in her hand sideways to see the woman upright.

“The one who has Down syndrome. She was wonderful, said she felt like a movie star.” Tammy smiled.

“She’s very photogenic.”

“I know. We had a great time.” She continued to flip through the pictures, then stopped.

“Who is this?” she turned it to show me, and I smiled.

“That’s Caden.”

“The, can we do a coffee table book on strong women, Caden?”

“That would be the one.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes she is.”

“Well, I’m guessing you think so since you took,” she licked her thumb to page through the pics. “Twenty-two of her alone.” She glanced at me over her glasses again. “Care to explain?” I shrugged.

“No. Not really. I think the shots speak for themselves.”

“That they do.”

Tammy patted the pictures down into a single pile again, looking through them for the fourth time. “I like it, Laurel. I really, really like it. When can you get me the stories behind each of these?”

“When do you need it.”

“Today.” She peeked around the picture she was looking at.

“Yeah, keep dreaming, too. I can get them to you within a week.” She studied me for a moment, chewing on the inside of her cheek, her blue eyes magnified behind her glasses, her graying red hair in its typical loose bun, strands falling out all over the place. Despite her usual harried appearance, a better, more on the ball agent I had never met.

“You got it, kiddo. You showed me the goods, so I’ll kiss your ass for a bit. You got till the end of the month.”

“Oh thank you, great one.” I stood, putting my hands together as I bowed.

“Yeah, you better bow. Now get the hell out of here.” She shooed me out of her office without even taking her eyes off the pictures.

****

I sat in the front seat of my car, trying to decide what to do. I wiped another tear away, my skin tight from those I had already shed. I sniffled, and reached out to close the car door, but it was suddenly stopped. I looked up to see a breathless Caden looking down at me.

“I’m so sorry, Laurel. I, I can’t. I’m sorry.” I could see the tears glistening in her own eyes. “She had no right, none.”

“How could she say that to me, Caden?” I cried. “How dare she judge me like that!” I slammed my hand against the steering wheel.

“I shouldn’t have done that.” Caden walked around to the passenger side, and sat down, cradling her head in her hands. “I’m sorry, Laurel. I brought all this on you.”

“Why did you do that?” I turned angry eyes on her. “How can you play with me like that?”

“I’m sorry.” She dug the heel of her hand into her eyes, angrily trying to dry up the tears before they fell. “I don’t know what to say. I know what I told you on the hill that night, Laurel, and I meant it.”

“Then why?” I raged. “Why did you kiss me, Caden? I’m not a goddamn play thing that you can turn off and on! You stated your case, fine. Leave it at that, then. I will not be your doll.” She looked away, nodding.

“You’re right.”

“And the humiliation of your mother catching us!” I buried my face in my hands. “God, I wanted to die.”

“I still can’t believe she said all those horrible things about you. I can’t. She had no right.” Caden swiped at her eyes again.

“Why not? Think about it; you’re having a dinner party, your daughter brings her friend who she’s caught making out with in the kitchen. What was she supposed to do, Caden?”

“Act like an adult, act like a mother.”

“You’re not her daughter, Caden. You and Michael are her trophies.” I regretted it the moment the words were out of my mouth. Especially when I saw the look on her face. “I’m sorry, Caden. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“Yes you did.” She sniffled, avoiding my eyes. “Because it’s true.” She wiped her eyes and opened the door. “I better go. I’ll see you later, Laurel. Please drive safely.” She looked at me once, sorry, regret, I didn’t know what was in those eyes. She walked away.

****

I chewed on the arm of my reading glasses, staring at the computer screen before me. I was half-way through one of the stories before I got stuck. I had all the facts, but to make them come together and stick. I didn’t know how many times I had thanked God that my minor in college had been English. Who knew I would have actually used it. I smiled to myself then began to type when the phone rang. Not taking my eyes off the screen, I reached over for the receiver putting it to my ear.

“Yes, speak to me,” I really wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I hoped whoever would make this short, sweet and to the point so I could finish.

“Oh, hi, Laurel. Um, I wasn’t sure if I should call or not,” I shot up in my seat, an automatic smile coming to my face.

“Caden.” I took the glasses off, and leaned back in my office chair, putting my feet up on my desk. “How are you?”

“I’m doing well. I was just wondering what you were up to.”

“Well, right now I’m typing up the women’s stories. My agent loved the pictures. I gave them to her yesterday.”

“Wonderful! Well you did such a fine job on them, so I’m really not all that surprised.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“I’m glad you called.” I admitted, sobering a bit. She paused for a moment.

“As am I.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine. My therapy is over now, and I heard from Emily. We have ninety days to wait, then the divorce will be final. We heard back from Troy’s attorney; he’s not going to contest it, and he wants to give me full custody.”

“Oh, Caden.” I smiled, caressing the cord of the phone, feeling the smooth plastic beneath my fingers. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thank you. He just wants visitation rights, and right now he’s taken his new girlfriend and Annie on a month-long cruise before she starts school again.”

“Wow. Well, I guess that kind of leaves you alone, doesn’t it?”

“Well, that’s not always so bad. I’ve returned to my running, finally, and you should see how much my hair has grown.” I could hear the excitement in her voice.

“I’d love to see it.” I surprised myself by saying that out loud because I really meant it. I closed my eyes, feeling really stupid.

“I can be there in six hours.”

I opened my eyes slowly, not quite believing what I had just heard.
Part 9
I held the phone in my hand, stunned, frozen in place when it hit me. Shit! I quickly hung it up, popped up from my chair and began to clean like I’d never cleaned in my entire life. Clothes were scattered around the bedroom, the spare bedroom’s bed needed the sheets changed badly. So much to do, so little time.

Storm watched me, confused. I had to laugh as it looked like he was watching a tennis match, me running back and forth, one time carrying a bag of trash to the door to dump, then running back for more, running around the living room like my head was cut off, dusting, picking up copies of Popular Photography and Nature Photography magazine.

“Hot damn.” I stared at the mag in my hand. “There’s the newest issue of Advocate. I wondered where that had gone.” With a shrug, I threw them all into the magazine rack on the side of the recliner. “Okay, you big weenie. You’re not going to like this.” I informed my dog. He looked at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. I rubbed his head between the ears, and headed toward the cleaning closet. I opened the door, and with a whimper, Storm ran to the bedroom, tail between his legs.

Vacuum in hand, I went to work.

****

I stood against the wall, the baggage claim for Delta flight 1943 before me. People rushed by, trying to get home, or on to their meeting, or whatever else they had to do. I had butterflies in my stomach, swallowing several times, my palms sweating.

Never in a million years would I have thought that within a week and a half of returning from Boston I’d be picking Caden up from the airport. I had never picked anyone up at an airport, either. I swallowed again. I hoped she liked my place, though I was set to look at the house in a week. How long was she planning to stay? Would she want to go with me to look at it?

Other than the apartment we shared in college, Caden had never seen where I lived. I wasn’t sure why that made me nervous. Perhaps I just worried that after what she was used to her entire life, the glitz and glamour, she’d find my life plain and unexciting.

I sighed.

****

I loaded the last of my bags into the car, ready to head out. More than ready. Summer break was only a month in, but I was going back to Pennsylvania. I needed to be alone, away from my family. My father had decided to start in on me again over the weekend, and I was tired of it.

Ever since the night I had come out to them, Joshua Wayne Gleason had refused to leave me alone. My father was the biggest bigot, hypocrite I had ever known, or cared to know. He was bitter and sad from a hard life; a drunk for a father who left a needy boy alone at a very young age with a woman who hated her son because of the resemblance to his father. His temper and disdain for others had cost him an education and countless jobs. Now, in his fifties, he hated himself, his family, and his life. I truly did not believe he had a single shred of love left for anything.

I wiped a tear from my eye as I looked around my old room. I knew that would be the last time I ever saw it again. I would not be returning.

“Honey, please don’t leave.” My mother had begged, crying.

“I have to. That bastard has hit me for the last time, mom.” I pointed to the other room where he was being roughed up by my brother. I could hear something break. “Would you please make them stop?” I covered my ears with my hands, tired of the sounds and images of this family. “When are they going to get here?”

It had all started when Caden had called. My father had answered, and he had automatically assumed she was my girlfriend, Erin, and had lost it. He had slammed the phone down, not saying a word to her, and coming for me.

“You bitch! You fucking dyke bitch! How dare you give my phone number out to your freakish friends. It’s bad enough that you have it!” SLAP! Down to the floor I went, missing the edge of the coffee table with my head by mere centimeters. I started to get up when another blow came down to put me back on the floor. “Stay down there, you little bitch! That’s where you belong!”

“Stop, you piece of shit!” my father cried out as he was thrown off me. I hurried to my feet, my hand to my bleeding mouth. Phillip had the old man by the shirt, pushed up against the wall. I ran to the kitchen, phone in hand.

“No, please honey, no.” my mother begged, her hand on mine. “Don’t. He’s not worth it.” I glared at her.

“No, he’s not.” I knocked my hand free from hers, took the receiver off the hook and dialed those three sacred numbers. I would just tell them not to take Phillip. He was only trying to protect me.

****

I was surprised to feel a sting in my left eye. I quickly brought my hand up, wiping away the moisture that was trying to gather. He still wasn’t worth it.

Taking a deep breath, I continued to wait and watch. Soon. Caden would be here soon.

“Arrivals: Delta flight 1943, Continental,…”

My ears stopped listening after I heard Caden’s flight announced. Here it was. Now I just had to wait for her to get to the baggage claim. I looked around, standing on my tiptoes to try and see over people’s heads. I knew Caden would certainly stand out. She’d be fairly easy to spot with her height.

I didn’t have to wait long. A smile spread across my face as I watched people’s reactions to the beauty that walked through their midst with confidence and absolute assurance of who she was, and where she was going.

Caden looked beautiful wearing a red button up shirt and jeans, the red of her shirt bringing the electric color of her eyes out. Magnificent. She was right; her hair was growing back in quickly. It was now long enough to be styled or gelled. I wondered if I could run my fingers through it,..

Shaking myself out of my stupor, I put a smile on my face as I waited.

“Hello, Laurel.” Caden smiled when she saw me, and hurried over, adjusting the shoulder strap on her shoulder, the attached bag stuffed full. I wondered if that was all she had brought.

“Hey.” She wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me in tight.

“It’s so good to see you.” She whispered. I closed my eyes as I reveled in the hug, the contact. Her body against mine was so warm, so solid.

“You, too.” We parted and I looked at her. “You look so good.” My eyes traveled up to her eyes. They were twinkling, healthy. “You look like you feel so much better than when I was there.” She smiled with a sigh.

“I feel wonderful. Like a new woman.” She put her arm around my shoulder and turned me toward the exit. “Come on. I am so excited to see your place, the little details of your life that I just don’t get to see or hear about.”

I pulled my Xterra into the drive for my building’s parking lot. The entire trip home from the airport Caden had been mostly quiet, watching my city pass by, looking up at the trees, watching other drivers and their sporty little cars.

“Why do you drive an SUV?” she asked, watching a little Miata zoom past.

“I think they’re more practical for what I do.” I smiled at her.

“Makes sense.”

“So this is it, huh?” I lifted the bag out of the back after I parked. Caden, still looking around, nodded.

“Well, I didn’t really want to impose.” She looked at me with a sheepish grin. “I forgot to ask how long you wanted me to stay.”

“After I bugged you for a month? How you can possibly say that is beyond me.” I motioned toward the building with my head, lead the way.

The elevator rode slowly up to the third floor, shaking and creaking the entire way. Caden looked absolutely terrified, one hand on the handle of her bag, knuckles white, the other holding on the wall of the car.

“It’s not going to fall, I assure you.” I grinned. She looked at me, her eyes wide but said nothing.

My key slid easily into the lock, the metal clicking loudly as it was turned. On the other side of the door I could hear Storm sniffing, then a howl, telling me to hurry. Caden took a step back, looking at the door as if she could see through it. She looked at me.

“You have a dog?”

“Yup. Storm.” Slowly, an unsure smile spread across her face. “Oh. I didn’t know.”

“Is that a problem?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“No! Not at all. To be honest, I’m somewhat excited.”

No sooner did I have the door open when my husky flew out at me, tail wagging like mad. He barked, bowing so his butt was in the air before he flew back up, licking, barking, yelping.

“Hello, my boy. Hello.” I bent down, taking wild husky into my arms. Caden stood back watching. When Storm calmed a bit, he realized someone else was with me that he did not know. I wasn’t sure what he would do, not being a real big fan of anyone other than me or Lu. He didn’t even like Carol.

The husky walked slowly up to her, sniffing her shoes, up her pant leg, hands that were still at Caden’s side, then finally looked up into her face. He cocked his head slightly, backing away slightly, tail slowly wagging back and forth, his mixed emotions obvious.

“Hello, pretty doggy.” Caden said, her voice soft and melodic. “How are you?” Storm’s ears perked up, the speed of the wag increasing a bit, taking a small step forward. “Can I pet you?” Caden knelt down, holding our her hand to him. He stretched his neck until he nearly touched the tip of her fingers with the wet tip of his black nose. “That’s it, boy.” She whispered. Suddenly Storm’s tail began to go nuts, and he began to lick her fingers, moving up to her face. “Ugh!”

“Storm!” I yelled through my laughter. My dog had completely knocked my friend off balance, causing her to sit hard on her butt trying to ward off doggy kisses.

Everyone calm and cool, we headed into the apartment. Caden pulled her bag a bit higher onto her shoulder, looked around. She walked to the wall of windows that had made me take it in the first place. She crossed her arms as she looked down at the city.

“What an incredible view,” she muttered. I watched, curious. Turning away, she continued on, looking up at the high ceiling, into the living room, then turned to me. “I like it” she smiled. “It’s so big, deceivingly so.”

“I’ve enjoyed being here.” I leaned against the breakfast bar, arms crossed over my chest. “However, I must admit I am more looking forward to owning a house.”

“I’d forgotten about that.” She smiled. “How wonderful.” We were both quiet, both looking around for something to say, Storm heading toward his corner, watching us as he chewed on a rope.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Why were we so uncomfortable? Had this been a mistake? My stomach was still trying to take flight.

“Well, would you like the full tour?”

“Please.”

****

I was so glad to see the apartment, all the lights off in the house. Our downstairs neighbors had all gone home for the summer, too. It was me, myself and I.

I flipped on the light just inside the door, headed straight for my room. I wished so bad that Caden were here. Despite my anger at her mother, and partially at her, I needed her. Especially now.

I had not seen Caden since I’d left the Lodge house two weeks ago. She had called several times. I had talked to her sometimes, and not others. I couldn’t quite get a handle on what I was more angry at; what her mom had said and that no one had done anything about it, or the fact that Caden had kissed me again. Why couldn’t she just leave it alone?

I plopped down on my bed, hands behind my head stared up at the ceiling. It was getting late, and I was tired but knew I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing too much, thinking of too many things. I saw my father’s face again as the policemen drug him to the squad car. He looked back at me, hands handcuffed behind his back, dark eyes glaring up at me as I stood on the porch, watching. He hadn’t said a word, just glared. I had known in that moment that that would be the last time I would ever see him. He would be out of jail within a day or two, but he and I would not cross paths again. My mother knew it, too. She said nothing. After the police left, she walked back into the house, started to wash the dinner dishes.

“I can’t believe you did that.” Phil had said, shaking his head.

“I think it’s great.” Denny smiled at me.

I wasn’t sure anymore. All I knew was that I wanted school to end so I could head out, start over.

****

“Do we have everything?”

“I think so.” Caden looked around, glancing inside the backpack we had packed to take with us.

“Okay. Let’s go. See you later, Storm.” The dog continued to chew on his bone, looking up for a brief moment.

“I’m thinking he’s not caring too much at this moment.” Caden grinned. I gave her a dirty look.

“Of course he cares. Don’t you, my baby.” I walked over to him and he growled slightly. Startled, I looked back at my friend who attempting to stifle a laugh. “Fine. So he doesn’t love me.” Dejected, I headed toward the door where Caden met me, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“He loves you just fine. Don’t you, boy?”

“Woof!” the husky stood, barking again with a wag of his tail

“Traitor!”

The late October day was beautiful, a nice 65 degrees, clear skies. Couldn’t ask for better. We hurried to the Xterra, loaded her up with the bag, and climbed inside.

“So are you excited?” I asked as I turned the car on. Caden smiled wildly at me.

“I have never been to Sea World. I am ecstatic! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about this park.”

“Well, good.” I smiled, it was returned.

Caden had been in San Diego for four days now, and everything had completely turned around in my life. I realized just how empty and lonely it had been before. Caden had brought such life with her, such curiosity for life and what it had to offer. I hated to see her go. She hadn’t really talked about a date that she wanted to head back, but I wasn’t sure. Part of me wished she could be here for Thanksgiving. Usually every year I just treated myself to a movie and dinner at Lu’s. I wanted the traditional setting this year; turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, the whole nine yards.

I pushed the thought out of my head. I didn’t want to count on anything. I had learned over time that that was very dangerous. Take each day and event as it happens.

The park was crowded already as we waited in line to get tickets. Caden insisted on paying, so after arguing about it for nearly the entire drive to it, I gave in. She gave the girl her money, and with a smile we were given a park map and a “Have a nice day.”

With a wide smile and even wider eyes, Caden entered Sea World. She looked around at everything like a child, taking in the people, the smells and sights. I was absolutely charmed and enchanted.

“As a child this sort of thing was just not done.” She smiled down at me as we walked. “My mother would have died had she come to a place like this.”

“That’s a shame. We just didn’t come her because we couldn’t afford it.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?”

Watching Caden experiencing the simpler things in life was such a gift, and brought back the wonder to my own eyes. How is it that someone so intelligent, so imaginative, so able had missed so much? We bought cotton candy, pop corn, tons of soda, balloons and even a Shamoo puppet that squeaked when you closed its mouth. She insisted on sitting in the first row during the whale’s show where we got drenched! I stood from the bench after it was over, and wrung my shirttail out.

“I hope you’re happy, Caden.” I turned to her to see she was just as wet as I was, but the huge smile on her face told me she didn’t care.

“Hell, yeah!” I looked at her. Where was the normally stuffy Caden that I knew? Who was this child-like woman before me? I shook my head in wonder.

Later at a seal show, Caden volunteered to be the trainer’s assistant in a trick. She jumped up and down, her arm waving wildly through the air. The man looked in our direction, grinning as he pointed at her, beckoning her to the stage. Happily she hurried up, listening as he explained what he needed her to do, then laughing with the rest of the audience as the seal nearly pushed her into the water. She laughed heartily and was thanked for being a good sport, the seal shaking her hand by offering her a fin.

“Let’s hear it for Caden!” the trainer said, holding out a hand toward her. Everyone clapped, including me. My hands hurt by time I was finished. I was proud, happy, content. I had seen a new side of my old friend slowly emerge over the last days, a side that looked good on her.

****

We had two weeks to go until school started again. Caden would be back soon. She usually came home at least a week early. This had been one of the worst and best summers of my life. I hadn’t heard from her much. She didn’t know I had come back. I had asked my mother not to tell her. I knew I would want her here, but didn’t need it, and didn’t have enough self-control to not ask her to come back if she called. So, finally when my mother had given her every excuse in the book she had thought to call here. Smart girl.

She had initially been upset with me for not telling her, and had offered to come back to Lancaster that day. I had told her no; I needed to be alone and didn’t feel like telling her what had finally pushed me over the edge. The last thing I needed was pity.

I plopped down onto the couch daily, eating chips and watching TV. It was a sad life, but all that I could manage. I had stopped calling Erin, my depression not allowing me to give her what she needed. I was just too chicken to end it.

I flipped through Opera, Montell Williams, Maury Povich. Nothing seemed interesting, not even Maury’s Are They Men or Women? show. Just didn’t care.

The good of my self-imposed isolation was it gave me time to think and finally let go of a family that I just didn’t need anymore. My entire life it had been one thing or the other: not good enough, too slow, too fast, too smart, too ambitious. My father and brother held it against me that I actually wanted to make something of myself. I had doubted myself all along, doubted what I wanted to do and who I was destined to become. I had the feeling that I was meant for great things in life that I could make happen. It was just that in my family, I was the only one who had this view, or supported this dream. Caden, on the other hand, made me feel that I could do it, I could do anything. She believed in me.

I clicked the TV off and stared out the window. I fought the urge to call her, beg her to come back early. I needed a friendly face, her friendly face. Caden made me feel safe, somehow. I didn’t understand it.

****

It was time to write Caden’s story for the book. Everyone else’s was finished. We sat on the living room floor, empty Dairy Queen Blizzard containers between us, TV on mute, and laughed.

“Oh, the things children will do.” I chuckled, thinking of Caden’s childhood stories. Stories of finding her parents in compromising positions, fights she’d had with Michael. “How is Gooper doing? I didn’t get to say goodbye to him before I left Boston.”

“Oh, he’s been around. He asked for your address here.” My brows drew.

“Why?” she shrugged.

“I have no idea.” But I could tell by the half smile on her face that she knew exactly why. I stared at her, glaring.

“Spit it out” she shrugged again.

“Well, he had just mentioned to me that he wanted to send a little something along as a token of his appreciation. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t arrived yet.” She said, looking around.

“Nope. Nothing. He didn’t have to do that, anyway, Caden. Tell him not to.”

“Sure. But it won’t do any good.” She leaned back on her hands, stretching her legs out in front of her. “You know how stubborn he can be.” I nodded with a sigh..

“Well, listen, I’m going to throw a load of laundry in.” I stood, stretching my arms above my head. “Sitting on a rug covering a hard wood floor just does not do these old bones any good.”

“I wouldn’t complain. I’m older than you.”

“By three months.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I walked to my bedroom where the hamper was and began to separate into piles. I had been putting this off the entire week, not wanting to take any time away from Caden. Then a thought hit me. I stared down at the garments for a moment. “Caden, do you have any laundry that needs to be done?” I asked, my voice somewhat shy. She looked at me from the floor for a moment, then slowly nodded. “Okay. Um, I’m going to start with whites, so,…”

Caden helped me sort, emptying a week’s worth of dirty clothes from her bag. We talked and laughed as we started on laundry.

“God, this feels like old times, doesn’t it?” she smiled as she poured a cup of Tide into the washer. I grinned and nodded. “And, I see you’re still doing it the way I taught you.” Caden quirked a brow.

“Yeah, so.” I glared playfully.

“Yeah, so,” she pushed me slightly. I looked at her for a moment, trying to figure out what she was up to. Then without thought, I grabbed the spray bottle used when I ironed, and sprayed the crap out of her. Caden screamed, covering her face with her arms, ran to the kitchen. She grabbed the sprayer on the sink, pulled it up, the water on. I, not realizing what she was up to, had followed, spraying her all the way, only to get a rude wake up call. It was my turn to scream as I got plastered.

Running, nearly slipping on the slick floor, I ran into my bedroom. All was quiet as I hunched down on the other side of the bed. I listened, hearing mostly the blood pound through my head as my heart beat double time. Nothing. I held my breath. I could hear footsteps, but were they Storm’s or Caden’s? I couldn’t tell. Then silence. I slowly crawled out from behind the side of the bed to see what was what, still nothing. My room was empty, just me and my spray bottle.

“Caden?” I stupidly called out. Of course she didn’t answer. I felt like I was in some B-horror movie. I slowly, carefully, made my way to the door, peeked out. Was that ever a mistake. I squealed as my head suddenly became absolutely drenched! Caden screamed in laughter as she dumped the pot of cold water on me.

“Gotcha!” I took a step away from her, trying to get my breath back from the shock of the cold. I wiped my bangs out of my eyes and glared up at her. Caden stared down at me, a satisfied smile plastered on her face, my clothes and hair plastered to me. She was trying to bring her smile down a few hundred pegs, but it just wasn’t working.

“You are so dead,” I said, calm, in no hurry whatsoever to carry out my threat.

****

I sat on the couch, looking at my class list for the semester, trying to figure out what I would need as far as supplies went, and mentally making a tally of what I had left over from last year.

The sun was shining outside, the day hot, and I had already been out for a run, my black mesh shorts still slightly sweaty. I was avoiding a shower as our hot water heater was acting up again. It may be hot outside, but a cold shower I was not a fan of.

I had somehow managed to get myself out of my funk over the last few weeks, being my own best friend and champion. I knew I was better than Joshua Gleason would ever be, but sometimes it just took a bit of cheerleading to realize it.

As I read on, the lock on the front door clicked, and the door swung open. I glanced up, not sure how to act around the person about to enter. I had not seen Caden in two months, and felt a little uneasy, almost unsure of what to expect. Part of me was really glad she was finally home, but another part me was trepidatious.

Caden lugged in a few bags, dropping them at the front door then heading down the stairs to get another load, I assumed. Within minutes she was back, closing the door behind her. Without a word, she grabbed them all up and headed into her room. The door was left open so I didn’t take it as she was angry at me, or hurt with me, or any other possible scenario. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in there.

Turning my attention back to my schedule, I tried to not think about it.

As the Sunday before school started wore on, Caden had yet to come out of her room. I figured she was done unpacking by now, mostly indicative of that was the pile of dirty laundry that sat outside her door. Sunday was usually our laundry day, and we would head out to Suds Express a few blocks away, sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chairs as we waited, nibbling on unhealthy junk food from the vending machines. I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen tonight or not.

“Laurel?”

I looked up from the crossword I was working on. “Yeah?”

“Did you still need to do your laundry?” she had read my mind.

“Um, yeah. I was just thinking about that, actually. I mean, it’s getting late and I wanted to get a good start on it, so,…”

“Okay. Mind if I come, too?” my brows drew.

“Why would I mind?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just don’t want to intrude on your time.”

“Intrude on my time,” I tasted the absurdity of the words on my tongue and didn’t like the bitter taste. “There is no intrusion, Caden. I’ve had more time to myself in the last few months than any one person could ever want. Of course I’d want you to go.” I stood from the couch, noting the way her eyes avoided mine. “Are you ready?” she nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

The Laundromat was fairly empty, just a single woman in the corner reading a magazine while she waited for her load to dry. We went to our regular washer by the Coke machine and set up camp. Caden was quiet as she started two of the washers with loads of dark and red clothes.

“So, how was your summer?” I closed the lid and turned the dial to the setting I wanted, got her rolling, then moved on to the next one. I glanced at her profile.

“It was okay, I suppose.” Still she wouldn’t look at me. “And yourself? Why did you come back so early?”

I shrugged, starting the second machine. “Just ready to, I guess.” If she wanted to be vague with me, I could do it, too. I had the feeling she was hiding something, holding something back.

“Do you think our friendship will extend beyond college?”

I looked at her, surprised by the major change in conversation, and the question itself. I thought for a moment, realizing it was a good question. My first instinct was to say, hell yeah. Why wouldn’t it? But I was more realistic than that.

“Who knows. We can hope.” I looked at her. “You know?” she nodded.

“Would you care for a soda?” she pointed at the vending machine with her hand. I nodded.

“Sure.” Forcing a smile. I watched Caden walk over to it, insert the coins, and push the button for Dr Pepper, then a Coke for herself.

****

I stepped out of the elevator whistling happily, the packet of pictures tucked under my arm. The door to my apartment was locked, so I hurriedly stuck the key in the lock, opened it up, excited to show Caden what I had.

I had just returned from Tammy’s office where she had showed me an early proof of the book. It was going to be wonderful! I couldn’t wait for it to be done to show Caden. For now all I could show her was the pictures that Tammy had returned to me.

I looked around, not seeing my friend anywhere, or my dog for that matter. The TV was on, the anchorman telling me about an accident at the San Diego Zoo the day before. I looked at the kitchen, the heavenly aroma of spaghetti sauce filling my nose. My attention turned to the back hall where the two bedrooms were.

“Hello? Anyone home?” I draped my coat over the back of the couch, walked further into the place.

“In here.” Caden called out. I headed toward the spare bedroom where I was met by Storm, tail wagging madly, barking for my attention. I bent down to hug my dog.

“Hello, big guy. Oh, yes. I know you’re excited.” Storm lead me to the room where Caden was busy folding laundry. “Hey.” I leaned against the doorframe, watching her.

“Hi.” She smiled at me, half folded tee shirt in hand. “I hope you don’t mind, but I decided to fold yours, too.” I raised my brows, surprised, shook my head.

“You really don’t have to, but no, I don’t mind.”

“Well, after all you’ve done for me, letting me visit, feeding me, it was the least I could do. I know it’s not much,…” Caden gently placed the folded tee on the pile of and grabbed another.

“Well, as much as I hate folding clothes, you have no idea how much that means.” She smiled, big and bright.

“Good. Are you hungry?”

“God, yes. Especially when I smelled what you’ve got going out there.” I smiled, my mouth already watering.

“I know your penchant for pasta, so I figured it to be the best thing to make.” Caden put the last tee on the pile, and scooped it up, handing me my neatly folded clothes. I took them, tucking the packet under my arm.

“Thank you.”

“Not a problem. Dinner should be ready in about ten minutes.”

“Great. I have something to show you, too.” I headed toward my bedroom, quickly putting my clothes away. I stopped for a moment as something hit me. I looked over my shoulder to still see the spare bedroom light on, knowing Caden was in there, finishing her own clothes. Such a feeling of satisfaction passed over me, a feeling of completeness. I felt so content for the first time in my life. It hit me that it would end. Caden would go home, back to Boston across the country, and I’d be alone again.

I sat on the edge of the bed, the realization hitting me like a ton of bricks. I ran a hand through my hair, trying to get myself under control again; I wanted to cry. Caden had been here for just over a week now, and it seemed so good, felt so right, like she should be here, belonged here. I glanced toward her room again. Did she feel it, too?

Shaking my melancholy off, I stood and headed toward the kitchen.

“So are you excited about tomorrow?” Caden walked in, a stack of kitchen towels on her arm. She put them away, and looked at me. “You’re still going, right? To look at the house?” she elaborated at my confused look.

“Yes. Yeah, I am. Are you going to go with me?” I leaned against the counter, arms crossed over my chest. “Can I do anything to help?” I looked at all the pots she had going, noodles in one, sauce and meatballs in another veggies in yet another. I was impressed. My stove had never seen so much activity.

“Can I?” she looked so excited.

“Of course.” I grabbed an orange Gatorade from the fridge. “I was hoping you’d want to.”

“Where are the plates?” she looked at me over her shoulder. I pointed to the cabinet above the microwave. Grabbing two, Caden began to dish up some spaghetti. “I’d love to. Here.”

I took the plate, headed toward the bar, then went back to help grab butter, the plate of garlic bread she’d taken from the oven, and the bowl of veggies. Caden followed with her own plate and silverware.

“So what is it you have to show me?” she got herself settled and began to eat.

“Pictures. Tammy, my agent, gave me back the proofs today. I can give you an idea of what the book will look like.”

“Show me.” Caden’s eyes got huge as her excitement built.

“Now?” I indicated our plates of steaming food. She nodded vigorously. “Okay.” I grinned as I got the packet from my bedroom, nearly running into her as I turned around to head back out. “Okay,” I sank to the floor, pulling her with my by the arm. Caden happily followed, sitting across from me Indian-style, waiting. I showed her the shots one picture at a time, explaining what the lay-out would be for that particular woman, and where, about, she’d be in the book.

“Oh, these are wonderful.” She whispered, handling each photograph as if it were the most fragile piece of glass in the world. I smiled, amused and charmed at the same time. “I must admit, I am absolutely, completely in awe of your talent, Laurel. I always knew you had the heart and soul of an artist. I saw it in all of your paintings and sketches from college, but these,”

I knew she was getting close to the pictures of herself. I held my breath, nervous to see her reaction. She stopped, staring into her own eyes, gently setting the other portraits down onto the floor. I watched her expression carefully. After studying each picture for about thirty seconds, she’d move on to the next, studying it, too.

“I,…” she gently set the pile aside, looked at me. To my horror I saw unshed tears in her eyes.

“What is it?” I leaned forward, my hand on her arm. “Did I do something wrong? Is it, are you okay?”

“How did you, you made me look… pretty.” She looked down at the pictures on the floor again before raising tortured eyes up to look at me again. “How did you do it?” Confused, I just looked at her.

“What do you mean, how did I do it? Caden, what’s in those photographs is what was truly there. It’s you.” I placed a hand on either side of her face, stared into her eyes. “Caden, you. You got that? I worked no magic, weaved no spell. What you see is what you are, beautiful.” She shook her head.

“No. I’m not. I’ve been ugly for so long.” She turned away from me, moving her face out of my hands. “It’s a lie.”

“What is?”

“Those.” She pointed to the shots. “That’s not me. That’s not what I see.” She let out a sob. “That’s not what I’m told, either.” She whispered, barely audible.

“Oh, honey.” I grabbed her, pulling her into me, cradling her head against my chest. “Who tells you differently, Caden?” I caressed her hair back away from her face, gently rocking her.

“My husband.”

“Ah, jeez,” I held her a little tighter.

“That’s why he cheats on me, Laurel.” She cried into my shirt. “Why wouldn’t he?”

I pushed her away, holding her by her shoulders, looked deep into red-rimmed blue eyes.

“You listen to me, Caden. Troy tells you that bullshit to ease his own guilt. You, my god. I looked at every inch of her face, down her neck, her shaking body. “You are so incredible, in every way.” I sighed. “You would be my fantasy, if I were lucky enough to have someone like you.” She stared at me, incredulous. “You are so beautiful, inside and out. You have the voice of an angel. Tory is a fool, Caden. He is such a damn fool to let you go.”

Caden grabbed me tighter, burying her face into the side of my neck as she continued to cry. I said nothing, just let her go, stroking her hair, her back, arms, whatever I touched.

Finally she began to calm down, the sobs slowing to mild sniffles until they were gone all together, and she just lay against me, breathing into my skin.

“I’m sorry, Laurel.” She said softly.

“For what? Everyone cries.”

“No. Not for that.” She held on yet tighter, almost painfully so. “I’m sorry for what I did to you, at F&M. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t right.” I thought she kissed the side of my neck, but wasn’t sure. I closed my eyes for a moment as she disentangled herself from me, wiping her eyes as she sat across from me once again. “Do you remember that summer? The summer before our senior year?”

“Yeah. Vividly.” I gave her a weak smile. She smiled back.

“Me, too.” She sighed. “After you went back to Lancaster, well before that, actually, back to my parent’s house. It was awful, Laurel.” She looked at me with pain-filled eyes. “As I’m sure you figured out, that was when I got pregnant.” I nodded, my eyes downcast. The memory was painful. “I had to tell them, my parents. At the time I only suspected. I really thought I’d lose the baby, if I were indeed pregnant, just from worrying about what they’d say.” She smiled ruefully. “Annie was determined to stay.”

“What did they do to you, Caden? You were such a different person when you came back to school.”

“I know. I knew what was coming.”

****

The first two weeks of the new semester were rough. I knew this would be a busy year, and my home life wasn’t helping things. Caden’s behavior was strange, erratic. I didn’t know what to do with her, or how to act around her. One moment she’d be cheery and playful, yet carefully distant, the next she’d be in my arms on the couch, her head laying against my shoulder as we watched TV. I was confused.

She refused to do some of the things we used to, go running, roughhouse, nothing.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked one morning, fed up. Caden was reading the paper, sitting in her robe at nearly noon on a Saturday. I had already run, eaten breakfast, plus written a paper.

“What do you mean?” she asked, looking up from it’s pages.

“What has gotten into you?” I plopped down next to her, nearly in tears from frustration. “I am so confused, Caden.” I could feel my eyes watering. “Why are you pulling away from me so damn bad? What the hell did I do?” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “What did I do?” I angrily swiped at a tear, brushing it away.

“I’m sorry, Laurel.” She whispered, taking my hand. “I’m really sorry.”

“For what?” I asked, defeated.

“I’m just sorry. I want you to promise me something,” she looked directly into my eyes, demanding my attention.

“Okay. What?”

“I want you to graduate from here as fast as you can. Do great things with your talent, Laurel. Please? For me?”

“Okay. I promise.”

***8

I leaned against the end of my bed, Caden’s head in my lap. I ran my fingers through her short hair, over and over. So silky.

“I was so worried about you.” I said, staring up at the wall. “I didn’t understand.”

“I know.” Caden stroked my leg as I stroked her hair. “I couldn’t tell you.”

“I have one question,”

“Alright.”

“Why did you tell me that, to finish up school as quickly as I could. You told me that the week before you left F&M, remember?” I looked down at her, seeing her profile.

“Yes. I do.” She sighed. “I want you to understand that my father is not a bad person. He is an opportunist, and knows how to get his way.” She looked up at me, her eyes almost pleading. “Please understand that.”

“Okay, but I don’t understand, though.”

“I know. That summer when I told my parents my suspicions of my pregnancy, they hit the roof, obviously. My father insisted that I take a pregnancy test. I drug my feet until finally the summer was over. My father is not a stupid man. He said nothing until the day I left for Lancaster.” Caden took a deep breath, turned her attention back to studying the material of my jeans. “He stopped me at the door, his face stern as I’d ever seen it. He said, I’m going to tell you something, Caden. You have disappointed your mother and I beyond description. You will do something for me; as soon as you get to school you get a pregnancy test preformed, and tell me the results. I said okay.”

“Okay,” I said, waiting for more.

“The weekend before I left I went to the store, bought a home test, and took it. We all know how that turned out.” She chuckled softly. “I called my father, told him the results. He told me I had to leave.”

“Why did you listen, Caden? You could have finished out your senior year?” I looked at her, desperation in my voice. “You could have just started over on your own,-”

“He threatened your scholarship if I didn’t leave.” She looked up at me, seeing my stunned expression. “My father gave money to that school, and had a lot of very powerful friends, Laurel. He could have pulled you out of there,” she snapped her fingers. “Just like that. I had no choice.”

I was speechless, my blood seemingly stopped in my veins. I didn’t know how to respond, or if I even should.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered. Caden sat up, her hands taking mine.

“I couldn’t. I didn’t want you to know. What I had done to myself was bad enough, let alone what my father was trying to do to you.”

“Why would he do that?” I could feel my eyes stinging. “Why would he do that to his own daughter, put that sort of burden on your head?”

“Because the name Lodge meant more to him than the happiness of one girl. He had an ace in the hole, and he knew it.” She looked at me, her eyes so intense. “You. He knew I would do anything to not rob you of your future. He knew your background, Laurel. My father knew just where to hit, and he did.”

“I’m so sorry,” I collapsed against her, my turn to cry that night. I felt her arms wrap around me, pulling me in tight. “So sorry he did that. God, that’s not fair. Your dream,” I sobbed.

“Yours, too, Laurel.” She was crying now, too. “It mattered more to me. Still does.” I grabbed her tighter, really letting go. I had never allowed myself to release the pain of losing Caden so many years ago. Now I not only allowed myself the release, but to rejoice in getting her back.
Part 10
I looked around, my hiking boots making thudding sounds against the hardwood floors. The windows in the room were huge, letting in plenty of light. I liked this. I walked over to one of them, seeing what the view would be. Beautiful. The house butted up to a park, filled with trees, green grass and a large duck pond. The park was private, so only residents of the neighborhood used it.

“Oh, that’s nice.” I turned to see Caden standing next to me, smiling as she looked out at the scenery. She rubbed my shoulder to show her support.

“Isn’t it? I just love that.” I sighed, a bird landing on a near-bye tree.

“Well?” Caden turned to me, a question in her eyes. The real estate agent stood by the door, watching, rolling a pen between his thumb and index finger.

“God, I just love it.” I turned to my friend, my eyes filled with excitement. “I’ve never done this before.” I looked around the large room again, it would be my studio, if I bought the place. “It has everything I need and want. I can afford it,” I turned to the realtor. “Bob, would you kill me if I went through it one more time?”

“Take your time.” He smiled. He had been so patient, waiting for the last two hours for me to make up my mind.

“Come on.” I reached for Caden’s arm to tug her along.

Caden followed me back into the spacious living room filled with more large windows.

“I just love the fact that it has a fireplace. I’ve always wanted one. They’re so romantic.” I bent down, looking into the dark hollow of the place, smelling just the slightest bit of burnt wood. “They didn’t use it much.” I stood, running my hands over the carved mantel, looking at the room again. “Do you like it?”

“I think it’s beautiful, Laurel. It’s a really good price, too.” I sighed, swallowing hard as I came to a decision.

“Okay. Bob?” within a second my realtor was smiling at me. “I’m going to take it.”

“Wonderful! Congratulations.” He hurried over to me and took my hands, wrapping them in his larger ones. “It’s a lovely home, Laurel. We’ll get dates set to sign contracts and for closing.”

“Thank you, Bob. You’ve been wonderful.” We shook hands and he lead us outside. It was a sunny day, a good day.

****

I looked around the old apartment, a big part of me not wanting to move. I had so many memories in this place, but it was time. The bigger part of me knew this and embraced the notion.

I planned to rent a U-Haul, but still needed to pack everything. Caden had offered to stay and help, and I was more than willing to accept. We stopped at a grocery store on the way home to pick up some boxes; I had a lot of crap.

Caden was wonderful. I had so much to do concerning the book, editing, meetings with Tammy and the publisher, plus getting ready for my show that was quickly coming up. Needless to say I was a very busy girl. Caden completely took over. I helped pack up the place, but she organized the movers, labeled boxes, ran around trying to find more. It was wonderful.

“You do realize you’re going to need some new furniture?” Caden stood in the middle of the living room, hands on her hips. I looked up from my computer screen where I’d been editing my little blurbs about each woman.

“Huh? Why?”

“Well, the house is much bigger than this.” I looked around my sparsely furnished apartment, never really thinking about it.

“Shit, you’re right.” I took my glasses off and stood, stretching. “So how do you feel about shopping?”

****

I sat on the edge of Caden’s bed, stunned and shell-shocked. She was so matter-of-fact about it.

“Leaving?” I looked up at her, making sure I had heard it right. Caden said nothing, just nodded. She pulled her suitcases out of the closet, plopped them on the bed with a bounce. “Why?”

“It’s just better this way, Laurel.”

“For who?” I stood, my hands on my hips. I was so confused. Earlier this morning Caden had called home, and it hadn’t been a good conversation. I had been sitting on the couch, reading a magazine when I had heard her begin to cry. Surprised and worried, I hurried to her bedroom to see what was wrong. She, who had been sitting on the floor against the end of her bed, had held her hand up, warding me off. Even more confused and a little hurt, I had headed back to the living room. If she wanted to tell me she could come to me. A half hour later I had heard the banging of drawers being open and closed. Curious, I had come back. So now here we were, much later and still nowhere.

“Why won’t you talk to me, Caden? I know something is going on,” I looked at her with accusing eyes. She wouldn’t look at me at all. Walking over to her I put a hand on her arm to try and still her packing. She looked at me briefly. “Why are you doing this?” I asked, my voice quiet, eyes swollen and red from hours of fighting and crying.

“I have to. You don’t understand.” Caden said, her back to me as she continued to pack, carefully folding every article of clothing, neatly fitting all she owned into her suitcases.

“You’re right. I don’t understand.” I sighed, and stood from the bed, walking to the door. “And I guess our friendship doesn’t mean enough to you to tell me? All I want to do is help.” Caden stopped for a moment, looked at me over her shoulder, her blue eyes sad and hopeless.

“You can’t help me, Laurel. No one can.” Then she gave me her back again. I felt another tear begin to slide down my cheek but didn’t bother to swipe at it, letting it fall. I decided to try a different tactic.

“What about being a doctor, Caden? That is what you’ve wanted to do your entire life. Why are you throwing it all away? What is worth tossing your dreams?” she didn’t answer. I tried to stare a hole through her, make her see with just the power of my eyes. Nothing. “Okay.” I whispered, and left the room.

****

The vividness of that horrible memory made me stop packing, the box standing open, waiting for more CD’s to fill it. I walked over to the window, leaned against the wall to look out. It hurt still, the lump in my throat surprising me.

“Hey, are you okay?” I felt a hand on my back, heat against my arm. I turned to see Caden standing next to me, concern on her face. “You look like you’re about to cry.” She rubbed my back in slow circular motions, filling me with warmth.

“Yeah. I’m okay.” I tried to smile, but she saw right through it.

“What is it, Laurel? Tell me? Please?”

“It’s stupid.” I tried to make it seem smaller, lessen the impact on me from so long ago.

“Try me.”

“I was just thinking back to those days back in school.” I smiled at her, turning to face her. “You know, that day you left.” The concern fell from her face, being replaced by regret and guilt.

“I know. That was a horrible day. I can’t apologize for it enough.”

“Oh, no, Caden. That’s not necessary. It was a long time ago now, and I think we’ve made our peace.”

“Have we?” Caden looked at me, her blue eyes intense, boring into mine. “Do you really forgive me?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” She reached out to me and pulled me to her, her arms wrapped tightly around my neck. I quickly brought mine up to her waist, holding her. I buried my face into the side of her neck, inhaling her scent, warm and musky. The feel of her body against mine was incredible. She was so soft, warm, wonderful.

I had begun to feel such a pull toward her, just like before. This time was different, somehow, though. I was an adult and could handle my feelings, I figured. I could keep it under wraps and not worry about it.

I sighed deeply, tightening my embrace. I felt her hand on the back of my head, gently stroking my hair, her other hand rubbing my neck, fingers entwining with the short hairs at the nape of my neck, giving me shivers. She chuckled.

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“How is it I feel so at peace?” she whispered into my ear. “Safe, warm.” I closed my eyes tight, burying my face deeper, feeling hers against my neck as well. A chill passed down my spine when I felt soft lips caress the smooth skin, hot breath giving me goose bumps. “Like there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” I breathed, unable to do much else.

Slowly Caden pulled away from me, her eyes glued to mine. I couldn’t look away, caught in the lure and trance of their electricity. We both stared, lost in a growing feeling, a growing awareness.

“Laurel?” she asked, her eyes trailing down my face to my mouth.

“Yes?”

“What is happening to me?” her eyes tore away from my lips, headed back to mine. “What is this?” she brought a hand up, her thumb caressing my cheek, then grabbed my hand, bringing it slowly to her chest. “Do you feel that?” I nodded, feeling the heartbeat, much faster than it should be. “What is it, Laurel? Can you tell me what causes this?” her face was a mixture of confusion, love and a touch of fear.

“I don’t know. I’m afraid to say.” She smiled, nodding her understanding. “I think we should keep packing. Don’t you?” I stared at her, begging silently for her to break the spell, knowing full well I wouldn’t have the strength.

“Yes.” Slowly she pulled away completely, taking a step back. “The kitchen is finished.”

“Okay.” Caden looked at me one more time, then turned and walked out of the room. I fell back against the wall, trying to catch my breath.

****

The woman had no face, I could only see her body as she closed in on me, her skin looked so soft, smooth. I took her in with my eyes, hungry and desperate. Her breasts were full, legs and arms long and toned, closing around me. With a silent moan, I pulled her to me, the length of her body against mine. It felt so new, yet there was a safe familiarity to it that drove me on. I knew this woman who had begun to make love to me, worshiping every inch of my body with her own. My very soul felt like it was being made love to.

“Caden,” I whispered, “don’t stop. Please,”

My eyes popped open, drops of sweat falling into them, stinging. I ran a hand over my eyes and through my hair. My god. I sat up in the bed, the sheets nearly on the floor, leaving me cold in the early November night air. I looked around, my nearly empty bedroom as it was three hours ago when I’d gone to bed. The only thing left in it was my bed, which was coming down tomorrow.

The dream came back to me. What am I doing? I could still feel my phantom lover’s body and skin. So real, so very real. I looked over toward the door, knowing that just beyond it, in the room down the short hall, she was there. My phantom lover was there.

What was happening? What was going to happen? Why am I even thinking in that way, about Caden like that? If wasn’t fair to either one of us. She had made it clear years ago what she wanted, and stated just as clear that it would, could not happen.

“Don’t do this, Laurel.” That part of me that still had a brain whispered. I can’t do it again.

The store was fairly empty, not too many shoppers to ruin my spree. I looked around the showroom, not real sure what exactly I was after. The new house had hardwood floors, stained a medium brown, the walls white. So, it was pretty open with what I could go for. I felt like a child, used to peanut butter and jelly, suddenly being asked to pick the ingredients for a gourmet meal.

“There is so much to pick from and,” I glanced at the price tag on a nearby couch, “It’s so expensive.”

“Yes, it certainly is. Buying furniture has always been a favorite pastime.” Caden grinned sheepishly.

“Well, if I made half the money that Troy or your father does, I’d probably much better versed in it.” She smiled.

“Well, the thing is, you want to get something that is going to last, something you won’t have to replace in a few years, that is, unless you want to.”

“I seriously doubt that. As far as I’m concerned, what I get today I can die with.”

We continued to look as the dream continued to plague me. I had a hard time looking Caden in the eye when she woke up, afraid she’d see the entire replay in my eyes.

“I want to go back to school.” My head shot up, any thoughts of the dream or this morning shot clear out of the sky.

“What?”

“It’s one of my biggest regrets. I’m far too young to have so many. I’d like to remedy as many as possible.” She smiled.

“Oh, Caden. I’m so happy for you!” I looked at her, a goofy grin spread across my face.

“Thank you.” She reached out and gently cupped my cheek. “I knew you’d be supportive.”

“God, yes. So where are you going to go? Back to F&M, Boston U?” I ran my hand over the arm of a beautiful black leather couch, testing the softness under my palm before sitting.

“No, actually I’m thinking about attending a college out here.” I looked up at her, stunned. “Getting a small apartment somewhere.”

“Really?” I couldn’t keep the hope out of my voice.

“Yes, really.” She sat down next to me, running her hand back and forth over the cushion next to her. “This is nice.” I turned to look at her, my arm running along the back.

“You don’t have far to go, you know. You were almost done.”

“I know.” She smiled. “I just need to finish the last year’s worth of credits.” She looked down then at me. “I want to go all the way with it, Laurel. Do what I didn’t do.” I cocked my head to the side, not understanding.

“What do you mean?”

“I want to work with people, help them.” My eyes widened with the realization.

“You’re going on, aren’t you? Dr. Lodge?” she smiled, that twinkle in her eyes as she nodded. “Oh, Caden,” I grabbed her, hugging her to me. “That’s wonderful.”

“It’s not going to be easy, but I can’t wait to begin.” We pulled apart, and I stared into her eyes, trying to give her as much support and show as much pride as I could.

“You can do it. I have every faith in you.”

****

The house was filled with boxes, nearly to the ceiling in places. I stood in the middle of the living room, hands on my hips and looked around. We had one hell of a couple of days in front of us; I was determined to get completely unpacked over the weekend.

I readjusted the hat the sat backwards on my head, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand, looked at Caden who had collapsed against a wall.

“This is a lot of work.” She looked up at me. “I’ve never moved anyone before. I had no idea it was so much work.”

“Welcome.” I grinned. Walking over to her, I slid down the wall, plopping down next to her. Caden leaned over and laid her head on my shoulder as I patted her thigh. “Tired?”

“Yes. Amazingly so.”

“How about a good dinner? My treat?” she raised her head and smiled.

“You’re on.”

The Bali Ha’i was crowded, which didn’t surprise me that much. We got a good seat next to the window, the round restaurant really not having a bad seat. Caden sat, automatically placing her cloth napkin on her lap, looked out at the ocean.

“This is so beautiful.” She smiled at me.

“I don’t come here often, only when there’s a special occasion.”

“Really? What’s the occasion?”

“You are.” Caden looked at me, her head cocking to the side.

“I must admit, I don’t really follow.” I leaned slightly forward to emphasize my point.

“The occasion is you being here, starting your life over, going back to school, all of it.” A slow smile spread across her face, making her eyes light up.

“Well, then,” she grabbed her water glass, raised it, nodding toward mine that I should do the same. “Then here’s to us.”

Our glasses clinked together with a satisfying, melodic sound. I sipped from my glass, watching her over the rim.

Dinner was wonderful, and it was still relatively light, so we decided to take a walk along the beach. Waves were crashing into shore, seagulls squawking and swooping down for their dinner of fish, flying high above our heads to disappear into the darkening sky.

Caden was silent, looking at the people we passed, a couple sitting on a blanket in the sand kissing. She sighed wistfully. I watched her, wondering what she was thinking. I turned to watch the lovers.

“I miss that.” I said quietly, almost more to myself than to her.

“I wouldn’t know. Troy had about as much romance in him as a snake.” She chuckled ruefully. “How fitting.”

“So sad you had to miss out on that part. It’s wonderful.” I smiled at her.

“I’m sure it is.” We walked on for a bit, lost in our thoughts. “Have you ever kissed a man, Laurel?” she looked at me, curiosity in her eyes.

“Yes.”

“Did you like it?” I shrugged.

“I can’t say it was the most horrible experience in my life.” I looked at her. “It just wasn’t what did it for me.”

“Women?”

“Yes. Women.”

“Hmm.” I felt Caden take my hand, gently squeezing it before letting it go.

We continued to walk, wordlessly agreeing to stay out until the sun fell into the ocean. We stopped at a small fence that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I leaned against it, my elbows resting on the top rail. Caden came up behind me, wrapping her arms loosely around my waist. It seemed the most natural thing to lean back into her, so I did. The arms tightened, and I sighed.

“I’ve been all over the world, seen countless countries and villages. But through all that, there is not a single place in the world I’d rather be right now,” she whispered into my ear. I closed my eyes, letting the words sink into my brain.

“Me, too,” I finally managed.

“There it goes, going, going…, gone.” The passing of the day was complete, the stars coming out to take over for a short time.

A song popped into my head, and I began to hum.

“What is that?”

“‘At Last’. Etta James. Remember?”

“Oh, yes.” I could hear the smile in Caden’s voice. “The party my parent’s had for me that summer.” I nodded. “Can I tell you something, Laurel?”

“Sure.” I leaned in a little closer, getting cold as night came down upon us.

“You’ll laugh.”

“Try me.” I smiled at Caden’s own words.

“I wanted to dance with you that night, to that song.” I pulled away a bit, turned in her arms to look up into her face.

“Really?” I cocked my head to the side. She nodded. “That’s funny. I wanted to, too.” We stared at each other, our embrace close and warm. God, I just want to kiss you, Caden. Please, just one. “We should get going. It’s getting late.”

“Yeah,” barely a whisper. Did she feel it, too?

I knelt down to turn the knob on the stereo, looking for something good to listen to as we got the house together and unpacked. Caden had already started on the kitchen. I watched her through the wide arched doorway as she put away dishes, set up the table just right. She was so cute, a little Martha Stuart. I smiled and shook my head.

Finding a good oldies station, I stood and looked around the living room, trying to decide what to do with everything. A sea of boxes and furniture and stuff. The delivery guys were due later in the afternoon to deliver the furniture I had bought for the living room and extra bedroom. I had enough bedroom sets for two, but had no idea what to use the third bedroom for. There already was a den, so that idea was out. I almost felt lost in all this space, and was so grateful to Caden for helping to fill it. When she left, everything would seem so empty and big.

“I’m not sure how this vase got into the kitchen ware, but where would you like this?” I looked over my shoulder at the vase Caden held in her hand. She looked at me, tapping her toe on the floor.

“Hey, I didn’t put it there,”

“Then who did?” she smiled, I stuck my tongue out. “How about here?” she stuck it on the sofa table, and I nodded.

“Works for me.” Caden headed back to the kitchen, and me back to a nearby box. May as well get started. I hummed along with the music until I stopped in my tracks, listening. I slowly stood, reached out and turned the volume up, the entire house being filled with the smooth voice of Etta James. I turned, seeing Caden standing in the doorway of the kitchen, looking at me. I smiled. “Care to dance?” she smiled in return.

“I’d love to.”

Caden walked over to me as I nudged the box aside with the toe of my shoe to make room. Caden reached me, putting her hand on the back of my neck, her other hand in mine as my arm went around her waist. Our bodies moved steadily closer until they were flush. I looked into her eyes, thinking how I wished the song were true, that my lonely days were indeed over. She reached up and gently picked a bit of paper out of my hair, newspaper that had been wrapped around some glassware I had unpacked earlier. We smiled and kept moving, Caden continuing to run her fingers through my hair, bodies gently swaying to the music, the slow, sensuous beat.

“You smiled, you smiled, ohhhh and then the spell was cast.” I sung along, Caden smiling that wicked little grin of hers. “And here we are, in Heaven.” I wish. Oh, how I wish. Instead I swung her around again, reaching up to spin her under my arm as the song came to an end.

We stopped dancing but stayed where we were, looking at each other, deeply inside. I felt Caden’s breath against my face, warm, close. I stared into her eyes, trying to figure out what she was thinking. I could feel a palpable heat between us, electricity that was dangerous.

I pulled away, walked to the window, catching my breath yet again. Caden followed, standing next to me.

“Are you okay?” her voice was soft, concerned.

“I can’t do this, Caden. I told you ten years ago that I was not a toy for you to play with, figure things out on. I can’t do it, not again.”

Caden leaned in close, her hands on my hips, forehead against mine. “This isn’t again, Laurel.” I looked up into her eyes.

“Why now?” I whispered, my eyes trailing down to her lips, slightly open.

“Because I prefer now to later.” She smiled. “Having you back in Boston, you coming after all this time and after our history, you showed me something. Coming out here to San Diego showed me something else.” She brought a hand up, caressed the side of my face. “I never loved Troy, Laurel. He was an accident, as much as I love my daughter, like Annie. I made my mistake ten years ago, Laurel. I want to fix it now, take it slow.”

I felt my resolve crumbling around my feet, my mind being swept free of any sort of rationale.

I felt my chin being lifted, my eyes closed, I went with it. Caden’s breath on my lips, tickling the tiniest little hairs on my upper lip, closer still until I felt the contact. Her lips, barely touching mine, tentative, almost asking me to take over. I brought my hand up to cup the back of Caden’s neck, pulling her in a bit closer. Our lips pressed together, soft and pliant before I opened my mouth ever so slightly, testing the waters. Caden caught on quickly, and opened for me. I felt the tip of her tongue slide out just a bit, just enough for mine to brush against it, sending chills up and down my spine, followed by Caden’s hand. She ran her fingers across my back, smoothing the tee as she went, running her nails back the other way. I sighed, deepening the kiss, bringing our bodies closer together. I pulled back slightly, the kiss slowing until finally my lips slid off hers, and I turned my face into her neck, pulling her close for a tight hug. Caden put her hand on the back of my head, holding me, kissing my neck.

“Oh, Laurel,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

I smiled, pulling away, looking into her eyes, tracing my fingers down her cheek and nodded.

“Right back at ya.” She smiled. “What do you say we finish?” I indicated the room with my head. She nodded, pulling away completely. I watched her as she made her way back to the kitchen.

I looked around, happy with what I saw. The entire living room was finished, and the two beds had been put together for my room and the room Caden was using. The furniture had been delivered just over three hours ago, and the house was beginning to take shape. I liked it.

Caden and I had worked hard all day, trying to get everything together and put away. Caden deserved most of the credit, seemingly tireless. We had decided to order a pizza and had eaten nearly the entire thing within minutes of its arrival, downing cans of soda all the while.

It was time to chill and watch some TLC. Storm had not forgiven me yet for moving him and his bones. However, I do think reconciliation was in the works when he saw the big yard out back that had his name written all over it. With tail wagging 50 miles an hour, he was out and running, letting the neighbors know he was here.

Now the husky stomped on his blanket in the corner of the room near the wet bar, trying to get his comfy spot and bury his bone. Finally with a sigh, he plopped down and rested his chin on his paws, watching me sit, and Caden come out of the kitchen with two glasses of wine. He lifted his head in curiosity, his nose sniffing the air. Satisfied, he laid back down, eyes half closed.

“What a day.” She sat, handing me a glass, curling her legs up behind her after kicking her shoes off. “Comfy.” She looked down at the brown leather of the couch, patting it.

“It is, and it was. Thanks for the wine.”

“Sure.” She leaned her shoulder against mine, half of our bodies pressed together. It felt so good. I smiled at her, wishing she could hear my thoughts. She returned it, passing messages with her eyes, I answered.

“I was thinking.” I said, after taking a sip of my wine. She looked at me, giving me her full attention. “Why don’t you stay here while you go to school?” she just stared for a moment, making me wonder if I’d said the wrong thing. “If you want to, that is.”

“Oh, Laurel,” she smiled. “I’d love to. I don’t want to intrude, you just got into your new house…”

“Stop that. I have more room in this place than I know what to do with.”

“Just like old times,” she whispered. I nodded.

“Just like old times.” Caden leaned in and kissed me lightly. I smiled, content for the first time in my life.

“Is this how it’s supposed to go?” I looked at her, pulled from my thoughts, to see blue eyes looking expectantly at me. She looked so young and vulnerable, I smiled and pulled her to me in a hug, kissing the top of her head.

“It’s a start.” I said, closing my eyes at the pleasure of feeling her against me. How was such a creature made, and how on earth did she want me?

“A good start, I think.” She pulled away a bit, just enough to look into my eyes. I smiled and nodded. “I want this to work, Laurel. I hope I’m not frightening you with this sort of talk?” she pulled away completely, but held my hand. I shook my head.

“No. You’re not scaring me. Do you know how long I wanted to hear those words from you when we were at F&M?”

“And now? Do you want to hear them now?” I reached out, ran my hand down the side of her face. Caden closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.

“Yes. There was one day when I was in Boston that it hit me, I never really fell out of love with you, Caden. Back then I was just beginning to figure out what the hell I was all about, what I wanted and liked.” I looked into her eyes. “You became my standard. I’ve never been truly satisfied since.”

“I did that?”

“Yep. You ruined me.” I smiled, she leaned forward.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I leaned forward, our faces mere inches apart. She studied my face, my mouth, my eyes, everything.

“I’ll tell you a little secret,” she said against my mouth.

“What’s that?”

“You were mine, too. I’ve been waiting for you, Laurel. I didn’t know it or realize it until it was almost too late. I loved you back then and I love you now.” I was stunned, completely taken aback.

“I love you, too, Caden. Always have.” I bridged the distance between us, pulling her closer to me, our mouths saying all that we had ever wanted to, caressing each other, desperate for what had been missing for too long.

Caden gently touched my face as we kissed, slow and unhurried. It was a time for exploration, the wait was over. My hand ran up and down her back, sliding lower and lower each time, itching to go underneath her shirt, but didn’t dare. Caden would set this pace.

She ran her hand down my shoulder and arm and back up again, losing her fingers in my hair, pulling me in yet further, our kiss becoming deeper, bigger. My heart was about to beat out of my chest, leaving me nearly breathless. I felt almost as if I’d never done this before, a virgin to love.

Caden’s hand slid back down my arm and around my back to the hem of my shirt, slipping underneath.

“So soft,” she said into my mouth, “warm.” She slid her hand up further, fingers tracing the planes of my shoulder blades, my bra strap, down my spine. I moaned into the kiss. My hands traveled all over her body now, over her shoulder, back, arm, side of her neck. “Please touch me.” She begged, taking my hand and placing it just under her shirt at her side. I didn’t need anymore invitation than that. I slid my hand up, around to her back; my skin was on fire.

Caden began to lean back, pulling me with her. I laid on top of her, slipping one leg between hers as I brought my hand around, gently tracing the underside of her bra, feeling the smooth satin beneath my fingers. She broke the kiss and arched her head back when my hand continued up, rolling across her breast, just barely missing the nipple. I took advantage of the position and ran my tongue and lips up her neck, to her throat, inhaling her smell.

Restless hands slid further up under my shirt until the tee was up around my neck in the back. I sat up, pulling it off, looking down at her. Caden looked up at me, drinking in what she saw, bringing her hands up to touch me. Her hands were tentative, unsure, so I grabbed her wrist and placed her hand on my left breast. Her mouth opened into a silent ‘o’ as she explored the new territory. My body responded immediately, my nipples becoming hard as excitement raced through my veins at her touch. I ran my hand down her arm to her own shirt, tugging at it to give her the idea. She leaned up a bit, just enough for me to pull it over her head and free. I stared down at the beauty before me. Caden’s breasts had fallen into magnificent cleavage when she laid down. My mouth ached to be there. I leaned down, closing my eyes at the first taste of her skin, warm and salty to my tongue.

“Oh, god.” She moaned, her hands coming to my head, pushing me further into her. I reached under her, unhooking the bra, freeing her breasts. The bra tossed aside, I cupped the flesh, tasting it again and again, moving steadily to the erect nipples. The closer I got, the heavier Caden’s breathing became. Finally I took one of them into my mouth, sucking on the rigid skin, running my teeth over it before sucking again. The hands in my hair became more aggressive, nearly suffocating me as I was pushed further into her breasts. I switched to the other one, giving it the same treatment, becoming high on Caden’s moans. God, I wanted this woman so bad.

I left her breasts with reluctance, but there was so much more to be explored. I kissed and nibbled around her breasts, lapping a the skin of her stomach, leaving a wet trail from the top of her waistband to the hollow of her throat, sucking on her neck, leaving a red spot. I grinned, knowing what that would be tomorrow.

I pulled away from Caden’s breasts and stood, unbuttoning my jeans, sliding them down my legs, pulling them and my shoes off, followed by my socks. Caden watched with hungry eyes, taking everything I gave her. She sat up, reaching for my hips, bringing me into her. I stood before her in my underwear and bra. She leaned the side of her face against my stomach as she hugged me tightly. I wrapped my arms around her head, gently caressing her hair.

“I have waited so long.” She looked up at me, her eyes blue fire. She tried to pull me down, but I stopped, first taking off her clothes. She was undressed within seconds, my remaining clothes long gone. I laid back down, bare skin on bare skin. Caden closed her eyes as my entire length was laid against hers.

I laid between her legs, feeling the wetness against my skin, driving me on even more. I reached down to open us both up, slick and wet we began to move, slow. I wanted to show her how much I loved her and wanted her, with my body. I wanted to make love to Caden in a way that no one else had ever done.

Caden wrapped her arms around my waist, her hands on my back, my butt, roaming up to my neck, raising her legs higher as I rubbed against her, deeper. I leaned my head down, taking her mouth with mine, our kiss slow and sensual, keeping to the rhythm I was keeping with our bodies. She reached down, pulling me impossibly closer, making me want to go faster, but somehow managing to keep the pace slow. This wasn’t about climax, it was about love. Even so, it was one of the most erotic moments of my life.

Caden’s breathing and moaning began to get faster and higher pitched along with my own. We were both close, but I wanted to stretch this out, not rush it. I began to grind a little harder and deeper into her as we got closer and closer, bringing us both to a slow finish, drawing out every bit we had in us. Caden cried out, digging her fingers into my back, thrusting her hips up into me as she closed her eyes tight, her head arched back. I buried my head in her neck, panting hot against her skin.

Caden wrapped her arms and legs around me, holding me close as we attempted to regain our sense of reality.

We had made up a little bed on the floor in front of the fireplace, the gas flame on low, just enough to spread a bit of warmth and light into the dark room. Caden laid back against me as I leaned against a stack of pillows, our naked bodies glowing in the firelight. I hugged her a little tighter as I stared into the flames. We had spent hours making love, making up for lost time and wasted years. Poor Storm had whimpered out of the room a long time ago, hadn’t been seen since.

“I’m so excited to see what San Diego has to offer.” Caden said, her fingers tracing lazy patterns on my arm as she also stared into the fire. “I feel like a child, almost as if I just graduated from high school all over again. My life and future ahead of me, for me to chose what to do with it.”

“It is. It’s right there in front of you, Caden. You’ve got the world by the tail.” I smiled, holding her tighter. “I’ll be with you the entire way if you so desire.”

“Please?” she turned to face me. “Stay with me?”

“Always. As long as you want me here, I’ll be here.” She cupped my cheek, kissed me softly then pulled away.

“I’m not letting you go again, Laurel. We have a lot to talk about, but I’m not going again.” I kissed the side of her head as she settled back against me again.

“Good.”

****

I closed the door to the Xterra with my butt, a wrapped box under one arm, and a large one in both hands. I could not wait to see the look on Caden’s face. I made my way up the drive, setting the large box down on the porch as I unlocked the door, pushing it open so I could get through with my packages.

“Babe?”

“In here,” I followed the distracted reply to my studio where I wasn’t surprised at all to find Caden sitting on the floor, books laid out in a perfect circle around her. She was sitting Indian-style writing on a notebook that was balanced on her thigh. I set the larger box down outside the room, Storm immediately running to it, sniffing it after he’d gotten through attacking me. He jumped back from the box with a whimper, looking up at me.

“You’ll like it eventually, buddy. I promise.” With another whimper, he sat down, staring at it. I turned my attention back to Caden, now reading through a text with her pen in her mouth. “You know that’s gross, right?” she looked up at me, pen still firmly in place and smiled around the Bic, then spit it out.

“Hey, plenty of things have been in this mouth that some would say was gross.”

“Yeah, your mother perhaps?”

“Stop. Leave her alone. You know she’ll never get over it. But maybe someday she’ll actually talk to you again and not just refer to you as the heartbreaker.” I grinned.

“Maybe. I don’t plan to hold my breath.”

She stood and walked over to me to give me a giant hug. “I missed you today, baby.”

“So did I.” To show her how much, I leaned in and kissed her, long and deep. When we parted she smiled.

“Wow. What was that for?” I shrugged.

“I’ve got something for you.” Her brows drew.

“What?” I brought the wrapped box out from under my arm.

“Number one.” Caden looked at the gift, then at me with almost childish glee. She took the box and ripped into the paper, throwing shreds everywhere.

“Oh, babe,” she breathed, holding the book in her hands. She ran her fingers over the black cover, the black and white picture in the center her own face. “I don’t know what to say. It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you.” I said, my voice quiet with sudden shyness.

“I’m so proud of you, Laurel.” She threw her arms around my shoulders. “Thank you so much.”

“I’m not done, yet.” I put my finger up, and walked to the hall, grabbed the box. “This is number two.” I set the box down, opened the flaps, and reached in. Caden watched, nearly standing on her tip toes so she could see what was inside. She put her hand to her mouth when she saw what I had.

“Oh, Laurel, he’s beautiful.” The nine week old collie whimpered as he looked around. I passed the little puffball to her. She took him, holding him to her chest, kissed the top of his head. “Thank you.” She leaned toward me, it was my turn. “I love you, and thank you.” She whispered again against my mouth.

“I love you, too, and any time.” She kissed me.

****

The auditorium was beginning to fill up, the noise growing louder and louder. I sat, excited and nervous all at the same time. Annie sat next to me, her long, dark hair, so much like her mother’s gleaming under the bright lights.

“Will you calm down, Laurel? My lord. You are going to bounce us both into oblivion if you keep tapping your leg.” She put a hand on me knee to still it.

“Sorry.” She smiled at me as she shook her head, turning back to the program to read more of the names. I looked at Caden’s daughter, just turned sixteen. She would be starting college in the fall, walking in her mother’s footsteps, determined to go into medicine. She reached a hand up, brushing some hair behind her ear. She was a beautiful girl, her mother’s hair and eyes, father’s business sense. Some have said she got my sense of humor, but I don’t see it. We had a few rough years in the beginning, but finally managed to iron out most of our differences. Once Annie realized I was not trying to take the place of her father, she seemed to calm.

I looked around, filled with so much pride and love for my partner of six years. I glanced at my watch again, anxious for the ceremony to begin. I looked around, wondering where Margaret and Michael Lodge would be sitting. I probably wouldn’t see them, but hopefully they’d make the effort to find Caden. This was her day, after all.

“Welcome to graduation day at U Cal San Diego.” A large round of applause for the speaker.

As I listened to the announcer, the guest speaker and the rest of the ceremony, my mind kept playing back to my time with Caden. After her divorce from Troy was finalized, she turned into an entirely different person, a better person. She gained a strength that I’m still not sure where it came from, and the ambition to do what she most wanted her entire life. I loved her more than I ever could have imagined or dreamed. She was my life. She and Annie. I knew that someday we’d be here with her, too. My little Annigan, as I was known to call her. A slow smile spread across my face, crossing my arms over my chest, sitting back proud. I reached out a hand, rubbing Annie’s upper back and neck. She looked at me, the same pride shining in her eyes. We both nodded, our silent conversation finished, looked back to the front.

“And now I will announce the graduates of 2008.” I clapped for all I was worth as names were being called. I watched, nearly vibrating in my seat as I waited. It seemed an eternity, but finally she was called. “Caden Margaret Lodge, summa cum laude.”

I jumped out of my seat, my hands in the air, whistling and yelling right along side Annie. I watched as Caden walked onto the stage, the biggest grin I’d ever seen on her face, took her diploma, raising it high for us all to see.

Reluctantly I sat down, but only at Annie’s insistent urging, my chest puffed with pride, feeling like it would burst. After all the years of school, all the time apart so Caden could study, all the dedication, she had finally done it.

I listened to the culmination of all the voices, chanting in unison the sacred words and promises. I searched the graduates until I saw her, watched her mouth move as she also spoke the words.

“… While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the Art, respected by all men, in all times. But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.”

“You are now doctors!”

The End

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