Answer by Girl Bard

Answer
by Girl Bard

part 6 in the Jaden And Grace Series

 

 

 

September 11, 2001

Grabbing my textbooks, I hurriedly throw them in my shoulder bag and blow kisses to the two dejected dogs who lie slumped on the kitchen floor.

They really hate it when we leave.

“Bye Spots!” I call to the bathroom, but I know she can’t hear me over the running of the shower.

We both overslept and are running late, I already missed my first class and will have to run across campus just to make the second one, and Jaden is probably in deep shit down at the station.

A smile graces my face as I run down the stairs and climb into my car. It was definitely worth it; Jaden was insatiable last night and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other.

After we returned home from Chicago, all our problems seemed to disappear. We were happy to get home to our normal life and each other.

Now, I’m not naïve and I’m fully aware that everything that happened in Chicago didn’t simply fade or vanish, but is hidden under the surface just waiting for a reason to come back up.

We really need to talk, but things have been going so swimmingly I haven’t had the heart to bring any of it up.

I speed just enough to get me there and I pull into the student parking lot, a silly smile still on my face. I hadn’t even needed to turn music on for my drive over, the memories of last night filtering through my mind.

Kim would have a field day with this, that’s for sure. She loved to tease me about my giddy smiles and blushing distractions since returning from Chicago.

As I get out of the car I pull my faded denim jacket down to cover my t-shirt. It is a gorgeous fall day, warm and crisp all at the same time.

I’m thankful I wore my favorite running shoes and hefting my heavy bag over my shoulder I take off at a sprint across campus. It’s times like these that I wish I went running with Jaden and the dogs every morning. It would sure help these last-minute dashes across campus.

I bolt into the Community Center, the comfy lounge Kim and I visit between classes for snacks. As usual during normal class hours, it’s deserted, but the televisions are still on.

A smoking building fills the screen and I instantly stop in my tracks.

The World Trade Center.

I can’t help but gasp as one hand flies to my mouth, horrified at what I’m seeing. It can’t be real, it just can’t be.

My free hand involuntarily finds its way to my cell phone and I turn it on. Jaden is probably on her way into Boston right now, but I need to hear her voice.

It beeps loudly, signaling I have messages. Ignoring them, I dial Jaden’s phone.

“Gracie.” She answers as a statement.

“Where are you?” I ask her, sinking down into one of the chairs.

“On 128. I’m going to have to stay at work really late today, Steele says it’s a mess downtown. No one knows who did this or what this is.” She answers, her voice uncharacteristically small. “There was more than one.”

“Oh Goddess.” I breathe, suddenly selfishly worried about her safety. “Please be safe.” I beg her. “I need you.”

“I need you too.” Jaden tells me and she sounds so far away. “I’ll be home when I can.”

“Okay. I love you.” My hands and voice are both shaking.

“Love you.” She hangs up the phone.

I continue to numbly stare at the television, riveted on the events that are unfolding. I once saw the World Trade Center; in high school our advanced choir was asked to sing at Carnegie Hall with other advanced choirs from around the country.

Mozart’s Requiem.

We practiced for weeks, and I’ll never forget the all-night train ride and stepping out of Pennsylvania Station and looking up at the skyline. It was beautiful and untamed, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Even from on top of the Empire State Building the Twin Towers looked impossibly high.

Now, watching the carnage of two of the most beautiful buildings ever erected, Mozart’s haunting score played through my mind.

I’m not sure how long I watch the television, but the next thing I know classes are being let out and students, all blissfully unaware of what had happened, begin to filter into the Center for their morning coffee and bagel fix.

Loud gasps and shouts filled the room as students begin to glance at the television and realize what has happened.

I feel panic well up in my chest as the room fills, calls of the tragic events bringing everyone to huddle around the screen. They show a smoking field in Pennsylvania, and I finally realize what Jaden meant. There was more than one, what seems like four in total.

It was like a movie, everyone crying and shouting at the same time, the voice of the reporters on the television drowned out by the din of the crowd.

People are ghostly pale, and everyone; even the macho frat boys have large and teary eyes.

The room is filled with commotion as several more televisions are wheeled in by faculty. All turned to different news stations; it’s like an emotional and visual overload as the two smoking towers are shown, the field in Pennsylvania, and now the Pentagon. Goddess, what is happening?

“Oh God, Grace!” Kim’s voice alerts me to her presence. Without a word I turned and held her close to me, her sweetly smelling blonde hair and warm arms a source of comfort I so badly needed.

“Is Jaden okay? What’s happening?” She mumbles into my hair and I finally allow the tears building up to fall.

“She’s fine.” I answer.

“I just heard about everything, they are dismissing city workers and clearing all the governmental buildings in Boston.” Kim states as she pulls away from me.

“Why?” I ask, now even more nervous.

“Two of the planes left from Boston, headed for LA.” She shouts over the roar of the crowd.

“What?” My eyes widen in fear. What if this isn’t over? Is our entire country under attack by our own aircrafts?

I recognize one of the women standing next to me as a fellow student in the Psychology program. She’s a mother who returned to school to finish her degree and is in a few classes with Kim and myself. Linda, I think is her name. Kim knows her very well and says she’s a great mom who works really hard at her schoolwork. The older woman is shockingly pale, more so than any of the rest of us.

“Linda?” I ask her, gently grasping her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

She turns to me slowly, a look of complete disbelief on her face. “My husband was flying to LA this morning out of Boston.”

My eyes close involuntarily. I try to reassure her. “It doesn’t mean anything, I’m sure he’s fine.” I keep my voice as optimistic and upbeat as possible.

Kim catches on. “Yeah, the media always speculates about everything.” She glances at me, standing up squarely. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that we can’t jump to any conclusions as of yet, okay?” She flashes Linda a confident smile and casually drapes an arm over the shaking woman’s shoulder.

Her strength and poise is impressive, and Linda seems to relax a little bit.

Turning our attention back to the television, my jaw clenches.

“Everyone, I have an announcement.” Our attention turns to the dean of students, who is standing on one of the low benches.

He clears his throat, his normally jovial face grim. “Due to today’s events, classes are immediately cancelled for the rest of today. Please call the school hotline tomorrow morning before attending classes to ensure they will still be held. Please drive safely and go straight home.”

Stepping down from the bench, he straightenes his tie before quickly leaving the room. Usually, if classes are cancelled for any reason, students cheer and celebrate. Today however, everyone is grim and quiet. Small groups of students leave the center, talking quietly amongst themselves.

“You going home?” Kim asks gently, her arm still protectively around Linda who hadn’t moved or said a word.

“Yeah. I’m supposed to go to work this afternoon.” I stammer. “I don’t know if I can.”

“My stepfather will cancel all his clients.” She answers softly. “He won’t need you.”

Nodding slowly I meet her hazel eyes. “You want to come over? I don’t really want to be alone.”

She returns my gaze. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” She nods toward Linda. “Let me talk to her for a few minutes, okay? I’ll meet you at your place in a while.”

I give her a brief smile and after offering a few words of support to Linda I head to my car. Starting it up, I flip on AM radio to try and find out more details of what has happened.

I get on the highway and it’s a traffic jam. Cars aren’t moving at all, and the radio says that almost every major city is telling people to leave work early and head home to safety. I can tell people have already left; the amount of cars on the road for a Tuesday morning is incredible.

The radio says these are most likely the result of terrorist attacks. They don’t know how many more will occur, and effective immediately all planes are to be grounded besides the ones in flight.

Those poor people. I close my eyes briefly and pray they all had a painless death. I can’t imagine how they must have felt.

It’s freakishly silent on the drive home. Normally horns are blaring when there is traffic, but today everyone is so caught up in their own thoughts they don’t concentrate on being aggressive or annoying drivers.

By the time I make it home, I’m exhausted. I greet the dogs, surprised and elated to have someone home so early and immediately turn on the television. Wanting to keep busy I give Bean and Bella a cookie and put the teakettle on the stove. I hate tea, but today I need something warm and slightly bitter. Kim will want coffee, so I set out two mugs and turn the coffeemaker on.

I listen to the phone messages, expecting the one from my uncle Rick and Lydia, but surprised to hear my father’s voice on the machine; checking to make sure I’m okay. There is a message from Diana and Joe, one from Laura, and one from Kim’s stepfather telling me not to come in today. The last message is from Jaden telling me she’s okay, just busy keeping traffic going and people out of the Common. She said the city is a madhouse, people freaking out everywhere and she doesn’t expect to be home before nightfall.

She’s probably terrified, the poor thing. My heart clenches for my wife and I wish selfishly that she were in a different line of work.

“Grace.” Kim opens the door and lets herself in.

“Hey.” She looks tired. We all probably do. “How’s Linda?”

Kim shakes her head. “I don’t know. I offered to drive her home, but she said she was going to go and pick her kids up from school. She can’t remember offhand the number of her husband’s flight, but she has it written down at home. I hope to God he’s safe.”

“Me too.” I pour her a cup of coffee and she takes it gratefully. After fixing my tea I join her on the sofa in front of the set.

“I can’t believe this.” She says needlessly. I nod numbly, my eyes glued to NECN. It’s the only news station Jaden and I trust besides CNN, but I can’t stand their gazillion scroll bars.

Isn’t it funny what a mind will think about in times of tragedy? Here hundreds of people have lost their lives and I’m annoyed by the scroll bars on a stupid fucking television screen.

“Look.” I breathe unnecessarily, my eyes glued to the screen. The Towers look different, as if they are shaking.

“No.” Kim states, her voice quiet.

Before our eyes one of the great towers simply falls to the ground. Collapsing onto itself it is there one minute and simply gone the next. Dust goes everywhere, completely obliterating the screen for a second.

I gasp, almost dumping my glass. The dogs both jump in my lap, wiggling with worry and trying to give me kisses. “Down.” I order them and they comply, lying in between both of us, Bella’s head in my lap. She looks at me, concern evident in her intelligent brown and blue eyes.

My trembling hand strokes Bella’s silky fur. “All those people.” I mutter and Kim glances at me, tears falling down her cheeks.

“This can’t be happening.” She states and I nod in agreement.

*****

Kim and I stay, shell-shocked in front of the television all day, not even caring to eat. Finally, when it got dark she got up, her curly blonde hair mussed from leaning against the back of the couch all day.

“I should go. My mom will want me home, I’m sure.” I nod in agreement and stand up, stretching briefly before walking her to the door.

“Thanks for staying here today, I really mean it.” I give her a quick hug. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow at class?”

She nods. “Yeah. Take care of yourself.” Her hazel eyes peer intently into mine and I realize how deeply I care for her. She could have easily been the great love of my life if I hadn’t found my soulmate in Jaden. I think all three of us know that.

“I love you Kimmy.” I tell her honestly, holding her close to me again.

I feel her smile against my shoulder. “Love you.” She responds. Pulling away she gently touches my cheek. “You are the best friend I have ever had. Sometimes I can’t even describe how I feel about you.” Her smile doesn’t hide the nervousness on her face. She’s still been wary of me since the whole ‘kissing’ incident and she probably feels as if she’s treading on thin water here.

“I know. I feel the same.” I tell her, reassuring her fears. Her smile grows and without another word she turns and leaves.

I’m lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life.

Turning my attention back to the television, I watch the towers fall for about the hundredth time. I can’t stand it anymore, knowing all those people; including the firefighters and police trying to save them are trapped.

It could so easily have been Jaden. I think to myself, immediately disgusted by my thoughts. But I can’t help it, I’m so grateful that she is safe it makes my heart hurt.

“Girls.” I call to the dogs who are giving me worried looks from the couch. At the sound of my call they bound over to me, tails wagging.

“Walk?” I ask and they wiggle more. Snapping their collars and leashes on I take my keys and put my coat back on. Even though it’s dark I need to walk and focus on something else than the tragic events of this day.

The air is biting and cold, a huge difference from the warm morning. The sky is almost completely dark, just a sliver of lightness over the ocean. The road along the ocean is beautiful, but I prefer not to walk it at night. It isn’t the best lighting, and I still get nervous being out by myself in the dark.

So I head the other way, along the sidewalked and streetlamped road that leads into the more populated area of the neighborhood.

The streetlamps cast a glaring yellow, but the light is welcome in the otherwise dark day. Every house I pass by is completely dark inside except for the television. It’s an eerie feeling, knowing everyone is glued to their television sets. I can’t imagine what parents are telling their children; how are Diana and Joe breaking the news to Kasey?

Bean walks proudly ahead, her small white body practically glowing. Bella, true to her Border collie heritage prefers to stay close to my hip, glancing up to me every few strides. They are both very different dogs, Bean is a true terrier, all gusto and fire while Bella is quiet and intuitive. She isn’t as hyper as most Border collie mixes tend to be and is more content to sit and watch everything that happens, especially with Jaden. She is Jaden’s dog, no doubt.

It’s funny how easily I’m allowing myself to be distracted. A little fresh air and the dogs is enough right now to make me almost forget today’s reality.

By the time we’re finished walking, I’m tired and hungry. The feeling of sadness inside me hasn’t dissipated, but the initial shock has worn off.

Returning to our apartment I let the dogs in and they race each other to their water bowl. Bella waits patiently for my little Jack Russell to finish her drink before lying down and practically sticking her entire head in the bowl. She’s such a goof.

I put some water on to boil and turn my attention to cooking dinner. I’ll make pasta and a salad, something easy for Jaden to heat up later when she gets home. I don’t turn the television on; instead opting for a Sarah McLachlan disc, knowing her soothing voice will help keep me relaxed.

By the time dinner is ready I’ve changed into comfortable pajamas and straightened up the house. All the candles are lit, making the apartment feel cozy and welcoming for Jaden’s homecoming. I know her day was way more difficult than mine and she’ll need some much-deserved pampering.

I manage to eat a few bites, grateful for my moments of quiet solitude with the dogs this evening. I normally would be writing in my journal about this, but I have no desire to do so. The entire event of today makes me sick.

How has humankind managed to survive for so long being as stupid as we are? When will we realize that war and fighting doesn’t solve anything, just creates more pain and fighting in retaliation. I’m not naïve enough to believe that world peace is possible, but it should be at least probable. We are too intelligent, too technologically advanced, and too evolved to still bicker over property and goods. It makes me hate our culture, hate our president, hate humankind in so many ways. Why are there children starving in Ethiopia when our government pays farmers to burn excess crops? Stupidity.

Suddenly the two dogs are at the door, whimpering and whining. Jaden is home.

I set my fork down and push my plate away as I hear her key in the lock.

She opens the door, immediately kneeling down to embrace the two giddy canines. I rise and move over to greet her, taking in her weary body and bloodshot eyes. I know she’s been in the saddle for twelve hours, probably with no break, and her body must feel like it’s about to give out.

Her exhausted eyes meet mine. “Hey beautiful.”

I smile. “Hey yourself. I made dinner.”

She is pale, her normally golden skin unusually light. “Thanks, but I’m not that hungry.”

“Me either.” I answer as she turns her attention away from the dogs and pulls me into a warm hug.

“Can we just sleep for an entire week?” She mumbles and I can feel her exhaustion.

Moving her hair I kiss her cold neck. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”

Taking her hand, I lead Jaden into the bedroom and gently take her jeans and sweater off. I know she must have changed and showered at the station, her long thick hair is still slightly damp and she smells clean and fresh.

She stands there, like a compliant child as I undress her. After she is nude I lovingly kiss her chest, her throbbing heartbeat pulsing against my lips.

I quickly take off my pajamas and after gently taking her hand again, lead her to the bed.

“Get in, I’ll be right there.” She nods and climbs under the covers, a sigh of contentment releasing from her tense body.

Going through the house I turn off all the lights and blow out all the candles. After checking on the dogs I return to the bedroom, expecting to find Jaden sound asleep.

Instead, her twinkling blue eyes greet me from beneath her shock of black bangs.

I grin at her before climbing into bed and stealing the covers like I always do.

I left a few of the safe-burning candles lit in the bedroom, giving the room a nice glow. I turn toward Spots and ruffle her bangs. “You need a haircut.”

She smiles at me. “I know. Maybe I’ll cut it all off like yours.”

I gasp in mock horror. “Don’t you dare! You have beautiful hair.”

She sticks her tongue out. “So did you. And besides, it looks cute now.”

“That’s because I look like a baby dyke.” I answer, grinning. “At least that’s what you always tell me.”

She shrugs. “It’s true.” Her face suddenly turns serious. “Gracie, are you okay?”

Now I shrug. “I’m okay. I mean, I’m scared and upset and nervous about what will happen next and I feel for all the people who are affected by this, but on a personal level I’m okay.” I glance at her. “How about you?”

“I was scared.” She admits. “It all felt so out of control, and I was so helpless.”

“I know.” Opening my arms to her, she sinks into my embrace. Rarely it is that she allows me to hold her and I relish in the feeling of having her pressed against me.

My hands stroke everywhere, down her strong back and back up to caress her hair, the sides of her breasts, her neck.

Her body literally melts into mine and as long as I live I’ll never forget the feel of her against me.

I don’t think either of us will sleep much tonight.

Every time we start to doze off and begin to drift apart from each other one of us wakes up and reaffirms the other is close. It doesn’t bother me, my thoughts are too scattered to really sleep.

Jaden clings to me like she is afraid I will leave her, and I continue to run my hands down her body, convincing her of my love and devotion.

I plan on doing it for the rest of my life.
Part 2

December 31, 2001
I sink down into the warm water wearily. I’m not sure why I thought having a huge New Year’s Eve party would be such a fantastic idea, but I’m kind of regretting it now.

I know once I wash up and rest for an hour or so I’ll be fine. And I did have a pretty nice day, hectic getting everything ready, but at least I had the house to myself to run around like a crazy woman since Jaden was at work all morning.

She’s expected home any minute, having the luxury of being able to leave early tonight. She had to work Thanksgiving and Christmas all day and was rewarded by getting tonight and tomorrow off.

If I say that Jaden is burnt out by her job, it would be putting it lightly. Ever since the tragic events of September 11th I can feel her frustration level increasing.

I’m not sure what it means for us, really.

Jaden’s been going through a lot of hard times, her grandmother is failing and she’s been visiting her at least twice a week. The frustration of seeing one of her last living family members get closer to death and the stress of her job is taking its toll on her. Jaden has spoken before about leaving her job and I told her I would support her fully. But I know it’s difficult for her, she’s incredible at what she does and loves it.

I slap the water lightly with my hand. Everything is so confusing.

She hasn’t been the same since that Tuesday in September, and I can’t blame her. I think it affected society in so many ways we haven’t even begun to see some of them yet.

As for me, I’ve been laying pretty low. School and work has kept me pretty busy, and though I’ve been missing Jaden more with the longer hours she’s been working, I’ve had so much to do it hasn’t been as big of an issue as I feared.

Jason has a cute little apartment in Cambridge that he shares with two other boys. I laugh at myself; they are actually only a year younger than I am. He loves his job here, and I am so proud of him. Although he’s just a low-level architect who hasn’t done any major projects by himself, they pay him pretty well and he seems to love living here.

His roommates are fun; two cute gay boys who keep my little brother well versed in the numerous Boston clubs. He’s dating a little bit, but nothing serious right now.

I’ve seen a lot of Jason, and it’s great having him here.

My senior year has kept me insanely busy though, and the winter break has offered no respite. I’m taking four classes over break in order to graduate in May with Kim. It’s definitely worth the work, but I can’t wait until I’m not tired anymore.

Determined to forget all the day-to-day crap I enjoy the warm bubbles and close my eyes briefly. I have about an hour before people will be here, the food is pretty much ready and the house looks great.

All of our friends are coming over, and Jaden and I set up the spare room with lots of blankets and pillows. We’re not letting anyone leave who is even remotely drunk drive anywhere.

I lounge in the bath for a while longer, until my skin begins to prune. Wrinkling my nose I drain the water.

“Gross.” I’m always slightly fascinated yet horrified at how gross it looks. And, it reminds me of when Jaden and I were stuck in that stupid lifeboat all night.

A shiver runs down my back.

Good memories tonight only.

By the time I’m dried off, Jaden is home. Wearing nothing more than a skimpy towel I head to the door to greet her.

“Guess who’s naked under this towel?” I call to her in a sing-song voice as I appear in the kitchen.

Jaden greets me with wide eyes and a silly smile on her face. It isn’t until I hear a deep chuckle that I realize she’s not alone. My eyes widen as I spy Steele standing next to her, his mouth agape.

“Harold!” I squeak before turning tail and running to the bedroom.

“I guess you’re naked under that towel?” His deep voice answers as I slam the door behind me, my cheeks red with embarrassment. The towel falls to the floor, forgotten.

A gentle knock on the door doesn’t stop me from burying myself under the covers.

“Hey.” Jaden’s voice calls and I hear her creep toward the bed.

“Go away. I hate you.” I mumble and she lets out a few giggles. “Don’t laugh at me, you’re mean.”

“Sweetheart, I’m not mean.” Jaden answers as she flops down on the bed beside me. “I didn’t think to tell you Harry was coming home with me because I didn’t expect your little one-towel greeting party.” Goddess love her, she’s at least trying to contain her laughter for my sake.

“Besides.” She adds, “I thought you looked pretty sexy running down the hallway with your little butt hanging out.”

If possible, my cheeks burn brighter with shame. “It was?”

Jaden’s warm hands travel under the covers to cup the part in question.

“Oh yeah.” Her voice turns smoky. “It was. And it was incredible. I’m going to have to wipe that smirk off Harry’s face for days.”

Scooting under the covers she joins me, the rough material of her uniform rubbing against my bare skin. “You didn’t change your clothes at the station?”

Her arms snake around my waist. “Nah. We wanted to get out of the city to beat traffic.” Kissing my hair I feel her smile. “Besides, I was hoping to shower here with you, but it looks like I was too late.”

I slap her arm lightly before resting my hands over hers. “I’m so embarrassed.” I groan.

“Why? It’s not like Harry hasn’t seen a naked butt before. Besides, I’m sure he’s jealous that he can’t have you.” Jaden’s voice is full of teasing.

“Oh yeah?” I tease back, turning to face her. My hands find their way to her long, thick hair. “I love you.”

“Love you.” She graces me with a brilliant smile. “Now, come on Flasher, get up and dressed.”

Grumbling, I uncover the both of us and start to get up.

Jaden’s strong arms pull me back to her. “Not so fast.”

“You were the one who told me to get up.” I protest half-heartedly.

“I know.” Her breath tickles my neck. “But you’re just so clean and naked that it makes me want to touch every part of you.”

“Oh you will. I plan on ringing in the New Year in style.” I answer. “But right now, we have a guest in the living room and since you left the bedroom door open I would prefer Harold not to see me completely nude.”

Jaden’s head turns to regard the open door. “Good point.” She springs up and shuts it before lying back down on the bed, her arms crossed behind her head. “Now, show me what you’re going to wear tonight.”

“You’re incorrigible.” I mention as I hold out a black mini skirt and a tiny black t-shirt with a silver kitty on the front. It’s a cute outfit, but sexy at the same time. At least I hope so. I wore something like this once this summer and Jaden hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

“Ohhh.” Her eyes light up at the outfit I bought while shopping with Kim last week. “I like.” She drawls, and I can practically see the drool forming at her lips. “Are you wearing the boots?” Her voice is hushed, bright blue eyes gleaming.

“Yes.” I have this pair of black boots that drive her wild. I have no idea why.

Shaking my head at her, I shoo her out of the bedroom so I can change.

She cracks me up sometimes.

****

By the time I emerge from the bedroom, boots in place and makeup done, Jaden and Steele are seated at the table eating chips and dip.

“Hey!” My hands on my hips, I scold them. “You aren’t supposed to be in the food yet.”

Harold’s eyes travel from my boots all the way up to my spiky hair before finally resting on my face.

“Well, Grace, if I didn’t think it was possible for you to look better than in your towel…” He leaves the statement unfinished as Jaden punches his arm.

“Shut up.” She growls before standing up and facing me. “You look gorgeous.” Her long fingers tickle my bare knee. “Really gorgeous.”

I blush. “Thanks.” Clearing my throat I look them up and down. Harold has changed to jeans and a dark green Henley, which compliments his muscular frame. Jaden, however, is still in uniform. I give her a little push to the bedroom. “Go change.”

She gives me a mock salute. “Aye aye Sgt. Flasher.”

As she retreats I chase her, smacking her butt for good measure. “Do not call me that!” I threaten, knowing she just found a nickname for me that I’ll never live down.

Turning around, I point a finger at Harold. “Don’t say anything.”

He holds his hands up in self-defense. “Do you need any help with anything?” His face is innocent, causing me to smile.

“Yeah, you can start getting everything out of the fridge and put it on the counter.” I look at the two dogs who are contentedly chewing bones on the floor. “Did Jaden take them out?”

“No. Do they need to be walked?” He asks hopefully.

“If you’d like.” I say offhandedly, knowing he’ll jump at the chance. He loves them, and they love him right back.

“Sure, I’ll be back in a few.” Within seconds he has them leashed and is out the door. We thought for a while about getting him a puppy, but he does work a lot. Besides, I think he loves being a doting uncle for our two.

I finish getting all the food ready and make sure there are plenty of drinks in the fridge. Jaden and I bought this cool margarita bucket thing that you put in the freezer and it makes perfect margaritas. Joe is bringing over a ton of alcohol and will be the official drink mixer. They should be here any minute.

As if on cue, there is a brief knock on the door and Joe sticks his head in. “Is this party central?”

“Get in here.” I laugh as he and Di come in. “Hey guys!” I hug them both; it’s been an entire week since we last saw them.

“Wow, Grace you look great!” Diana exclaims, looking gorgeous herself. She’s lost most of the baby weight but is curvy as ever and her burgundy shirt looks gorgeous with her dark brown hair.

“You too.” I compliment her as Joe busies himself with the drinks. He loves playing bartender. “How are the kids?”

Di rolls her brown eyes. “Kasey hasn’t stopped using her karaoke machine yet.” She mentions, talking about the present Jaden and I got her for Christmas. “JJ is good, still in his drooly stage.”

I grin, last week the baby turned Jaden’s sweater into a sticky, slimy mess. He’s teething and miserable right now.

“My sister is watching them tonight, and offered to keep both of them if needed.” She adds and Joe grins. “But we probably won’t stay, since I can’t drink anyway.” Because she’s nursing, Di said she’d drive anyone home tonight that needed a ride.

“Hi.” Jaden greets them, emerging from the bedroom.

“Wow.” Di states, smiling slowly. “You look..”

“Hot.” I finish. She looks like I have never seen. I guess someone went shopping for a few of her own surprises. Wearing the black leather pants I bought for her last Christmas, she has on a tiny, incredibly tight light blue shirt that reveals just enough of her midriff. Her hair is down around her shoulders and parted in the middle.

But the real surprise is her makeup; she actually has some on. Not a lot, but enough. She looks stunning.

Another knock on the door shakes me from my reverie. “Come in.” I call, still staring at my partner.

The dogs run in, wet from the snow outside, excitedly prancing around the guests. After they say hello to everyone they return to their chewy bones in the living room. I shake my head bemusedly at them.

“Thanks Harold.” The tall man smiles before slapping Joe on the back and beginning their typical male bonding rituals.

Diana busies herself with the food; making sure everything is perfect and I walk over to where Jaden is standing.

“You look so hot.” I tell her, running my hands over her exposed stomach. “I’ve never seen you wear anything like this.”

“Tonight is special.” She says as she hooks her arms around my waist.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” Jaden smiles slowly, revealing perfect white teeth. I grin back at her, my nose crinkling with the effort.

She gives me a quick nip on the nose with her teeth, causing me to giggle. It’s so nice to have her so playful; the past few months have been so tense for her.

“Excuse us, lovebirds.” Kim’s voice causes both of our heads to turn.

I blush and grasp Jaden’s hand. “Sorry.”

“Guys, this is Emma.” Kim introduces us to the blonde next to her. She’s very pretty, in a natural way; and I can’t help but immediately like her warm smile as she extends her hand to me.

“Emma, my best friend Grace and her partner Jaden.” Kim states as the blonde shyly shakes Jaden’s hand.

“Nice to finally meet you.” I tell her, trying to put her at ease. “Kim has told me so much about you.”

“All good, I hope.” Emma responds, ducking her head slightly.

“Of course.” I reassure her. “Come on, let me introduce you to everyone.” I link my arm in hers and lead her over to Joe and Harold who are throwing various fruits into the blender.

*****

“Wow, she’s pretty.” I tell Kim after Grace and Emma walk away.

“Yeah, she’s great.” Kim responds, her hazel eyes dancing. “I really thought that after Stacey, no one could ever compare, you know? But as soon as I met Emma I felt something between us, stronger than it ever was at the beginning with Stacey.”

“Do you ever talk to her?” I ask about Stacey and Kim shakes her head.

“No. It stinks, because she was a great person. She just had a lot of bad experiences in her past that she couldn’t work through.” Kim meets my eyes, a resolute expression on her face. “But I wouldn’t trade my time with her, she was great. And if I had never met her, I might not have met Emma.” She smiles again.
I elbow her to let her know I’m joking. “What’s it with you and shy girls?”

Kim blushes. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

I chuckle and leave her to say hello to Sam and Eva who just walked in.

A few hours later, the party is swinging in full force and everyone is having a great time. There are tons of people here; most of them I know but a few of the unfamiliar faces are people’s dates.

Jason’s roommate Dan is in charge of the music, Joe is a great bartender, and Grace is definitely the hostess with the mostest. The music is great, lots of cool songs to dance to and we’ve pushed all the furniture back against the walls to give everyone lots of room.

She looks so good and those boots drive me wild. Her legs are bare and that little black skirt is so short and I feel like I have to be on guard to beat up anyone who even looks at her.

It’s nice to be able to catch up with everybody. Things have been so busy with work that I haven’t felt all that sociable.

Warm hands snake around my waist, causing my skin to break out in goosebumps.

“Hey sexy.” Grace’s voice, slightly slurred, greets me. I start to turn around, but her firm hands keep me where I am.

Her breasts press against my back and I can feel her nipples through my thin shirt. When her hips start moving against mine, I know she must be drunk. She’s been drinking pretty steadily since the onset of the party, and she is normally much to shy to dance like this.

Grace’s wandering hands wander up to tease the undersides of my breasts. She hisses loudly in surprise.

“You’re not wearing a bra?!”

“Nope.” I tell her, smirking. She moans before boldly cupping my breasts.

“Grace!” I admonish her and she laughs behind me, her hands remaining. Her hips continue to press in to my butt, causing my stomach to flutter.

She won’t stop her sensual assault, her hands leaving my breasts and moving down my sides. My nipples are hard, easily visible through my shirt. She continues touching me for a few more seconds, but when one wandering hand lowers itself in-between my thighs, our little free show sexscapade is over.

I turn around forcefully, my eyes blazing. She smiles at me, her blue-green eyes dark with arousal. Her face is flushed and her heavy breathing matches mine.

“Bedroom.” I tell her and she nods, grabbing my hand and racing toward our room. Thankfully it’s empty except for the dogs who are curled up in their beds. They had enough of the crowd an hour or so ago and I saw them slink into our room to get some sleep.

I shut the door behind us. Grace stumbles over to the bed, but I have other ideas.

Reaching out, I grab her wrist and pull her toward me. I turn her around, pressing her up against the door roughly.

The fire in her eyes tells me that she’s enjoying this as much as I am.

“What did you think you were doing out there?” I tell her before biting her earlobe. She groans as her hands run up and down my back. “You didn’t care who saw you touching me, did you?” I nibble down her neck, pulling her shirt up with my hands. Her stomach muscles jump under my touch.

“You haven’t answered me.” I tell her before cupping her soft breasts. Her nipples are hard, straining against the delicate silk of her black bra.

“I didn’t care.” She answers defiantly. Her mouth searches for mine, but I kiss the other side of her neck instead. Grace groans is disappointment.

“How would you like everyone to see me touching you like that?” I ask her, releasing her breasts and moving down to the bottom of her skirt. It takes no effort to pull it up around her hips.

She has a silky black pair of panties on that are just begging to be taken off. With a flick of the wrist they are down and she sighs, spreading her legs for me.

I moan, pressing my hips into hers. “You didn’t answer me again.”

“What?” She is distracted by the thrusting of my hips.

“I asked if you would like me to touch you in front of everyone.” I repeat, and her cheeks flush. It’s probably the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.

“No. Only you.” Her voice is low, her hips bucking into mine.

“You want me to touch you?” I ask, my fingers teasing up the inside of her thigh. I can feel her wetness already and I want nothing more than to sink my fingers inside her and fuck her senseless.

“Yes.” She gasps, moving her hips down as she attempts to impale herself on my fingers.

“You would?” I tease her again, smirking.

“Jaden.” Grace demands. “Do. Not. TEASE.” She orders, her eyes flashing like dark emeralds.

I finally kiss her, sliding my fingers up inside her at the same time. She screams into my mouth, her inner walls clenching around my fingers as I start to move them inside her.

It is bliss, feeling her slickness on my fingers and her mouth claiming mine.

Her hips buck against my hand as I increase my speed, our mouths locked together frantically.

“I’m so close.” She murmurs into my mouth and I groan before latching my mouth onto her neck. She tastes so good, I can’t stand it. I just want to taste her everywhere.

“10!” A shout rises from the living room and I know they are all counting down to the New Year.

This causes me to increase my thrusts; my thumb finding its way to her swollen clit. I gently caress it and she lets out a cry of pleasure.

“3!”

“2!”

“1!” I hear our guests call, “Happy New Year!” The same time Grace screams, “JADEN!”

Kissing her on the lips I silence her release as I continue to pump in and out of her. Her muscles clench around my hand and before trapping it in her thighs. My other arm holds her upright as her legs fail her. She moans into my mouth until I have to pull away just to breathe.

Finally, her contractions stop and she looks up at me with dazed eyes. Her face is flushed; her pupils dilated, and her lips are parted. She is beautiful.

“Happy New Year.” I tell her before gently kissing her. Grace returns my kiss, her delicate lips soft against mine.

“I said I wanted to ring it in, huh?” She asks, her eyes twinkling. We gaze into each other’s eyes like the lovesick fools we are for a few more minutes before Grace runs a hand through her mussed hair. “We should get back to the party.”

“Yeah.” I tell her as I step away. I watch bemusedly as she straightens her wrinkled clothing and glances in the mirror before opening the door.

She takes my hand, leading me back into the living room. Where she chooses to ignore everyone’s knowing looks, I put my head up and proudly smirk before going into the bathroom to quickly wash my hands.

Returning, I find Grace chatting with Kim and Emma, her face beet red. I’m sure Kim is giving her some shit, based on the curly-haired blonde’s loud laugh. Grabbing two drinks from Joe, I hand one to Grace. As suspected, Kim immediately shuts her mouth, and gives me a wide smile before taking a sip of her drink.

“Nice work on that hickey.” Emma nods toward Grace’s neck and compliments me, causing both Kim and I to spit out our drinks.

I look at the shy blonde in astonishment and Grace pats her arm; saying, “Emma, I think you’ll fit in just fine here.”

Kim and I share a look before cracking up.
Part 3

April 27, 2002
A sharp, somewhat painful poking slowly wakes me up. I try to ignore it and go back asleep, and just as I feel myself drifting off, the poke happens again, this time right between my eyes.

“Ow.” I mutter, feeling a moving weight on my chest.

Uh huh. Keeping my eyes shut I lift my hands out from under the covers and tickle the small child sitting on top of me.

She immediately begins to giggle, and my eyes fly open to see her head thrown back, her brown curls bouncing all around.

Her squirming wakes Jaden up, who goes from sleeping to alert in seconds and aids in my attack on Kasey.

The two of us are no match for her and soon we have her pinned in between us.

“Stop! Stop! I’m gonna pee!” She shouts and Jaden and I exchange a look and immediately cease our tickle-fest.

She gives us an impish smile. “That always works with my mom and dad too.”

I grin at her before helping her under the covers with us. She rests her head on Jaden’s shoulder and sighs contentedly.

“Why are you up so early, Kasey-girl?” I ask, groaning inwardly when I see it’s only 7:30 am. On the only Sunday in weeks Jaden has had off where we can both sleep in together.

She shrugs her tiny shoulders. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Why not?” Jaden asks as I shut my eyes and snuggle back down into the blankets.

“I was lonely.” She states and I frown slightly. She sounds so sad.

“Are you lonely now?” My wife asks, her voice drowsy.

“Nope.” Kasey responds, and it’s the last thing I hear before falling back asleep.

Nothing in particular wakes me this time; I feel the weight of the dogs on the foot of the bed and bright sunlight is streaming into the room.

Luxuriously I stretch, disturbing the sleeping dogs that pop their heads up and come to give me morning kisses.

Bean sighs and curls up next to my stomach, while Bella stares at me intently with her two different colored eyes before lying down with her head on my chest.

I stroke her silky ears and smile at her contented face.

Glancing at the clock, it see it’s almost noon. I can’t believe I slept that long, I know Jaden and I were up late with Kasey, but not that late.

I can hear them in the kitchen, and I give Bella one last pat before extracting myself from the mountain of dogs and throwing my robe over my pajamas.

After quickly using the bathroom and brushing my teeth I find my lover and Kasey happily coloring at the kitchen counter.

“Morning.” Kasey calls, setting down her red crayon and climbing off of her stool for a hug.

“Hey munchkin.” I ruffle her tousled hair and take in her unusual outfit. “Did Jaden let you pick your clothes?”

She nods proudly.

I smile at her before lifting her up to settle back on the stool. “Well, you did a lovely job. I love how the purple sweatshirt matches the green and orange striped pants.”

“Me too.” She exclaims, now choosing a purple crayon. “Purple is my favorite color.”

“Mine too.” I tell her, coming to stand behind Jaden who is intently coloring her own picture.

I kiss the top of her head. “Thanks for letting me sleep.”

“No problem. You looked so sweet Kasey and I didn’t want to wake you.” She answers and I can’t help but grin as she determinedly colors neatly inside the lines.

It makes me look forward to when Jaden and I have kids; I know she’ll be a great mom. I could really get used to this, waking late to find my wife and child enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning.

“Color.” Kasey orders, handing me a Powderpuff Girls coloring book and sliding her big box of crayons over to me.

“Yes ma’am.” I mock salute her and sit with them, finding an empty page and beginning to fill it in.

My stomach rumbles. “I’m starving, did the two of you eat yet? We probably should get something before seeing Jaden’s grandmother.”

“We ordered pizza!” The little girl exclaims excitedly. Jaden looks up from her picture, somewhat guiltily.

“Good idea.” I smile warmly at the two of them. “Pizza for breakfast sounds perfect.”

“Should be here any second.” My wife finishes, grinning when a knock sounds at the door.

I sit with Kasey, gazing at my beloved as the pizza guy shamelessly flirts with her.
Yep, I could really get used to this.

*****

I look at Grace helplessly as Kasey clings to my leg. “I don’t wanna.” She protests and I give my leg a little shake.

“Come on.” I whine as she tightens her grip. “You have too.”

“No I don’t.” The child whines back.

“Yes you do.” I tell her patiently but firmly, like it says to do in all those parenting books.

“No I don’t. I can stay here with you and Pixie-head.” She whines louder.

“No you can’t.” I tell her with less patience.

“Yes.” She stamps her foot down on my toe.

“Ow!”

“Kasey!” Grace scolds, her hands on her hips. “That wasn’t nice, please say you’re sorry to Jaden.”

“Sorry.” She mumbles, giving me big brown doe eyes.

“No way, munchkin. That won’t work. You’re going home.” I tell her, now with no patience at all.

“No I’m not!” Kasey yells, her little face turning red. I know we’re in full tantrum mode right now, and better tread carefully.

“Kasey, you know Jaden and I love having you here, right?” Grace asks, her voice soft as she kneels down to Kasey’s level.

“Yes.” The child answers, removing herself from my leg. I stand back and let my wife do all the talking, there’s no way in hell I’m going to be the cause of one of Kasey’s tantrums.

“And you know that we love you so much that we would love for you to stay, right?” My wife adds, taking Kasey’s small hands in her own.

“Then let me.” Kasey says.

“Kasey-girl, your parents would miss you terribly if you didn’t come home.” Grace reasons and the child shakes her head violently.

“No, they don’t care about me. All they care about is stupid J.J. standing up and stuff.” She states, her brown eyes welling with tears.

“Kasey, that’s not true.” Grace responds, her voice soothing. “They still love you just as much as J.J. Parents just get excited when babies do something because they are new. Remember when we got Bella, and Jaden and I would get so excited when she learned how to sit and walk nice on a leash and everything?”

Kasey nods, intensely concentrating on what Grace is saying.

“Well, it didn’t mean we loved Bean any less, it was just exciting to see Bella learn new things. Your parents are just as excited about what you’re learning in school as they are about J.J. standing up. I promise.” Grace finishes.

Kasey cocks her head, a doubtful expression on her face.

“Have I ever broken a promise to you?” My wife asks.

The child shrugs her narrow shoulders noncommittally.

“Kasey.”

She sighs. “Fine, I’ll go home.” Kasey rests her hands on her hips. “But I don’t have to like it.”

I can’t hold back the chuckle that escapes me. This kid has got to be a lawyer when she grows up.

“Come on.” Grace states before standing and taking Kasey’s hand. She is trying very hard not to laugh and as she passes me she rolls her eyes.

I don’t know how Joe and Diana do it, especially with two kids. I mean, right now Kasey is going through a difficult time. She was always used to having all the attention she could want and now that her baby brother is getting older and doing things like standing, taking a step here and there, etc, she isn’t thrilled at all.

I don’t blame her; it’s hard to be in her shoes. But she’s just so damn funny it’s hard to take her seriously.

Grace and I chat on the drive over, mostly about seeing my grandmother earlier. She loves to visit with Kasey, but there was something about her demeanor today that left me a little unsettled. She seemed different, when we left she acted like she was never going to see us again. I have to visit her more, I go at least once a week now but maybe I’ll try to go more often by myself.

Usually chatty, today Kasey sits in her seat with her arms folded and a downtrodden expression.

I do feel bad. Grace and I take her every few weekends so she has a weekend just for her, and I know it helps Joe and Di out. But I also don’t want to cause any problems by making them feel bad that she doesn’t want to come home.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Kids are tough.

“Kasey, you want to stop for ice cream before we go home?” I ask, turning around to look at her briefly.

She meets my eyes, a glare still etched on her fine features. “No.”

I shrug and turn back around, paying attention to the road.

“No?” Grace questions before turning around herself to glance at the child. “Why not?”

“I don’t have to tell you.” Kasey states before looking back out the window.

“Okay.” Grace says before continuing our fascinating discussion on what we need from the grocery store. Jesus Christ, we are so domestic sometimes.

I’m surprised that I adjusted so easily to living with someone, not to mention the whole wedding thing. It’s like I don’t even remember what it was like to be alone, and I don’t ever want to know what it’s like again.

We pass the neighborhood ice cream stand, which just opened for the season on Friday. It’s filled with people even though the night is chilly.

“Um, Jaden?” Kasey’s voice asks from the back seat a few seconds later, after Grace and I moved on to talking about when we are going to spring clean the apartment.

“Yes?” I respond, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

“We can go for ice cream, I guess.” She says, the traces of a smile on her face.

“Sure thing.” I smile at Grace briefly before turning the car around and heading back.

“Whipped.” Grace whispers and I shrug once more, a grin now fully plastered on my face as Kasey goes into full babble mode, telling us exactly what flavor she is getting and exactly what she wants on top of it. Immediately she is back to her old self.

Kids may be tough, but I’m tougher.

*****

I tilt Jaden’s head back to rest against my chest. “Relax.” I whisper to her, bringing the wet cloth up to cascade water down her bronze skin.

The water runs down her strong shoulders and firm breasts, causing her nipples to pucker.

“You are so beautiful.” I tell her as I kiss the side of her damp hair, my hands lightly grazing her skin as I thoroughly wash every inch of her.

“Yeah, if a beached whale is beautiful.” She complains as I reverently hold her swollen stomach.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. You are beautiful when you’re not pregnant, even more beautiful when you are.” I state firmly in her ear before continuing my washing.

She sighs, content, and relaxes in my arms. It’s so rare to see her like this, vulnerable yet still a pillar of strength.

My washing of her beautiful body complete, I settle down into the warm water and enjoy the feel of her in my arms as I cradle her stomach.

Our unborn child, most likely a son. A beautiful baby boy to cherish for the rest of our lives.

“What will we name him?” I ask her, my eyes lovingly gaze over her pregnant body. With my palms pressed against her stomach I can feel him inside her; moving, breathing even if I concentrate enough.

She doesn’t answer me, and I assume she’s fallen asleep. With a smile on my face, I join her.

Moments, or is it hours?, later I awaken; the water cold around me. Jaden is still asleep in my arms, and she too is cold. My eyes open to find darkness; it must be the middle of the night.

“Jaden.” I gently shake her, trying to rouse her, but she doesn’t stir.

“Jaden.” I tell her more forcefully, my hands clenched around her shoulders. Still, she will not move. I scramble out of the bathtub, water splashing all around and skidding on the wet tiled floor, turn on the lights.

There is blood everywhere.

I scream, my voice echoing off the harsh angles of the tiled room. Jaden’s head is lolled back, her stomach now flat and she is covered in blood.

It has mixed with the bathwater, causing the entire tub to be filled with the fiery crimson substance.

“Jaden!” I cannot move, and I’m afraid to look down at myself, knowing I am also covered with blood.

Finally, I make my feet obey me and I race to her side, smacking her face and pleading for her to open her eyes.

She does, the beautiful blue orbs bloodshot and tired. “He’s dead.” She tells me blankly, her hands moving to cover her flat stomach. “And I have to go with him.”

“No.” I plead, but it is too late. Her body is limp in my arms and I know, at that precise second, that everything I ever loved in this world has left me.

Suddenly, I am standing on the street, smoke and ash all around me. People are running for their lives but I can’t move, I have to stand there and stare at the destruction all around me.

A fireman, clad in a dirty and torn yellow protective suit places his gloved hands on my shoulders. “Ma’am, you have to leave, it isn’t safe here.”

“No. I’m not leaving her. She’s all I have and she’s in there!” I shout, pointing to the collapsed tower.

“She’s not coming out.” He tells me, his brown eyes sad. “I’m sorry, but you have to save yourself.”

“You don’t know her, she’s a hero, and she’ll survive.” I argue stubbornly, but the longer I stare at the carnage, the less hope I have.

“Please, get yourself to safety. She would want you too.” He argues and I close my eyes. The debris and smoke are making them sting, and my throat feels like it’s closing. I know what hell feels like, it’s right here.

“I know what she would want me to do.” I tell her, breaking free of his grasp and running into the disaster site. People everywhere are pushing to get out, and I’m pushing to get in. I find my way through them and run headfirst into the wrecked tower.

“Jaden! Jaden!!” I cry, blinded by the smoke and fire.

“Grace?” She answers me, her voice weak.

I’m forced to crawl on my hands and knees in order to find her, but finally I do. She is trapped under what appears to be a wall; the normally bright silver buttons on her uniform dirty and smudged. She always keeps them so shiny.

“Don’t leave me.” She pleads, her uniform stained by her dark blood. She is dying.

“You’re dying.” I tell her needlessly.

“Don’t leave me.” Jaden repeats and I clasp her had in mine.

“Never.” I crawl under the wreckage and wrap myself around the tattered remains of her body, the thick smoke choking the life out of me.

“No!” I shout, sitting straight up in bed, the covers tangled around me.

“Gracie?” A tired voice calls to me and I snuggle back down against her safe form.

“I had horrible dreams.” I tell her, wrapping my hand in her curly hair.

“Tell me.” She states, kissing my forehead and pulling me closer to her.

Curly hair?

“You died, twice. Once you were pregnant and our baby died and the next you were dying in one of the Twin Towers on September 11th and I died with you.” I tell her, closing my eyes and trying not to picture the horrors I’d seen in my dreams.

She sits up suddenly, turning the bedside lamp on. “That wasn’t a dream, Grace. Jaden was pregnant and she did die on September 11th, and that was over five years ago. I thought you were over her.”

I sit up, the light invading my eyes and I blink stupidly for a few seconds before they adjust. Kim is sitting next to me in bed, her arms crossed over her bare breasts.

“Kim?” I ask stupidly.

She gets out of bed, obviously angry and pulls on a robe. “Five years, Grace. I’ve spent five years listening to you cry about Jaden’s death. Five years holding your hand and helping you through it. Five years of waiting for you to realize that I loved you more than she did, treated you better than she ever could, gave you more than she would ever be willing to give. Five years! And what do you give me? Nothing.” Kim turns to me, her hazel eyes narrowed in anger.

“We’re finished. Get out. I never want to see you again.”

“Kim, I’m sorry.” I tell her weakly, unsure how to explain.

“Get out!” She screams, picking up a book from her nightstand and throwing it at me.

“NO!” I shout, sitting straight up in bed, the covers tangled around me.

“Gracie?” A tired voice calls to me and I snuggle back down against her safe form.

“I had horrible dreams.” I tell her, wrapping my hand in her hair.

“Tell me.” She states, kissing my forehead and pulling me closer to her.

Remembering the last dream I sit up and immediately turn on the bedside light.

“Ow, Grace!” Jaden complains, diving under the covers like a vampire.

“It’s you.” I close my eyes in gratitude to whatever deities made those horrible images just images and not reality.

“Of course it’s me.” She says, the warmth returning to her voice. She peeks out from the covers, her bangs adorably mussed.

“It’s you.” I state again, unable to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes. “You’re here.”

“Hey, hey, baby, it’s okay.” She seemingly knows something is terribly wrong, and as she pulls me down in her warm embrace, peppering kisses into my hair and stroking my body possessively yet tenderly.

I allow the tears to fall.

Grateful tears, for everything that she is and everything about her that allows her to love me, sad tears for all that she’s endured in her life, guilty tears for having her with me when so many people have lost their loved ones, and selfish tears that are thankful she is a Boston police officer instead of one in New York City.

“What were your dreams about?” She asks, her voice sleepy.

“I’ll tell you some other time.” I respond, enjoying the feel of her so close to me.

“Okay.” She complies, already falling back asleep.

I listen to her breathing, deep and even, and I am thankful for every breath.

I leave the lamp on.

I won’t sleep anymore tonight.
Part 4

May 16, 2002
Hanging up the phone, I walk briskly out of the bedroom. Kim is picking me up in about ten minutes so we can head over to Pressman for our graduation.

Graduation! I can’t believe it.

Jaden is coming to the ceremony with Jason, Emma, Kim’s parents, Diana, and Joe. It is making me so happy knowing my brother and friends are sitting in the audience.

Just as I gather my things, making sure I have my garment bag carrying my burgundy robe, the phone rings.

“Now what?” I ask in half annoyance, smiling anyway knowing it’s probably Kim again freaking out about how her mortarboard is going to look stupid over her full head of hair.

“Hello.”

“Hi, may I please speak to Jaden Phillips?” A kind voice asks. It’s probably a telemarketer.

“She’s not in, may I take a message?” I respond politely. Even though I think telemarketers are annoying, I understand it’s their job and I try to respect them.

“This is Carl, from Avon.” The man begins.

“Hi Carl, this is Grace. I’ve met you a few times.” Carl is the head of administration at Avon; the assisted living community where Jaden’s grandmother lives.

“Yes, we have met.” Carl answers. Pausing for a moment, he clears his throat before continuing. I hear him shuffling through papers. “Ah, Jaden has listed you as her domestic partner, correct?”

“Yes.” I tell him, knowing this can’t be anything good.

“Grace, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

My stomach clenches. Instinctively, I know what is wrong.

I mean, how couldn’t I? There are only a few things it could be.

“Katrina has passed away.” He states and I close my eyes.

“Oh Goddess.” My hands shake with the news and I struggle to keep a strong grip on the phone. “How?”

“She never woke up this morning, and the nurse that is assigned to her room found her about an hour ago. It seems she passed peacefully sometime during the night.” Carl finishes, his voice sad.

I don’t answer, unsure what to do with this news.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.” Carl adds, and I smile cynically. They must train all healthcare people how to break this kind of news, because it always sounds so cliché.

“What do we do?” I ask, wondering how in the hell I’m going to tell Jaden.

“I’ve called the coroner and they are en route. Does Jaden have a funeral home she prefers to use?” He asks and I hear him shuffling papers around. “According to Katrina’s file, there are no pre-planned funeral arrangements.”

“I don’t know.” I tell him honestly.

“Are you planning to cremate or bury the body?” He asks, and I hear him writing.

“I don’t know. I have to talk to Jaden, she’s picking up my brother and friends because I’m graduating from college today and I don’t know how I can reach her because this isn’t something you just tell someone when they’re driving on freaking route 128.” I babble, feeling weak and nauseous.

“I understand.” Carl says. “Please tell Jaden we will have Katrina’s body transported to the city morgue and she can call them directly to make the funeral arrangements.”

“Okay.” I answer.

“And congratulations on your graduation.” He adds and I nod, even though he can’t see me.

“Thanks.” Hanging up the phone I run my hands through my hair and look frantically around the room.

Kim will be here any second. Jaden is on the way to meet Jason at the train station, pick up Diana and Joe, and then go directly to Pressman.

I call Kim’s house, but there is no answer. She’s on her way here.

Pacing, I decide to wait until she gets here. She’ll know exactly what to do, she always does. I stand by the window that overlooks the front entrance and wait for her car.

I don’t have to wait long, and I see her little green Miata pull up in front of the house. She beeps twice and I run downstairs.

“Hey.” She greets me with a big smile on her face. “Where’s your stuff?”

“Can you come in for a sec?” I ask her and with a sigh she turns off her car.

“Fine, but we better not be late.” She grins to show she’s joking and follows me back inside.

The dogs greet her like they haven’t seen her in years even though she and Emma were over for dinner last night.

“What’s up?” She asks between doggie kisses.

“Jaden’s grandmother died.” I answer, the words sounding foreign to my tongue.

“No shit! When?” Kim responds as she stands up straight and ignores the wiggling dogs.

“Just now, a few hours ago. Jaden doesn’t know yet and I don’t know what to do. We have to be there soon or we’ll miss the ceremony.” I wring my hands together, twisting my wedding ring around.

It suddenly hits me that it’s Katrina’s ring, and I feel sick to my stomach.

I know what I have to do.

“You go.” I tell her. “I have to find Jaden and tell her what’s happening.”

“You can’t miss graduation.” Kim tells me firmly, her hands on her hips.

“Kim, I can’t stand up there knowing Jaden has no idea what’s happened. That isn’t fair and she wouldn’t do that to me.” I state, equally as firm.

“But this is your graduation! You’ve been working toward this for years.” She protests.

“It isn’t important. It’s a stupid ceremony and a piece of paper. Jaden is more important to me and I can’t keep this from her, even for a few hours.” I soften my tone and take her hands in mine.

“Kim, if it were Emma you’d feel the same way, I promise.”

She ducks her head. “I know.”

“I’ll catch up with you later, okay?” I hug my best friend. “I love you and I would have loved to graduate with you. But some things just aren’t meant to be.”

“Good luck.” She offers, releasing me.

“See if you can grab my diploma, huh?” I ask with a grin as she heads out the door.

“Sure thing.” She calls from over her shoulder.

I feel a pang of disappointment as I watch her drive away, and part of me thinks this isn’t fair. I should be a carefree college graduate, in the car with my best friend listening to Beastie Boys or whatever crap music Kim is into lately. We should drive too fast to Pressman, get there just as the ceremony is beginning, and giggle the entire time we are changing into our hideous gowns and mortarboards.
During the ceremony, we would pass notes and snicker through the long, boring speeches. We should cheer for all of our friends, and for those who aren’t our friends, because hell; we’re never going to see them again.

We should pose for pictures, makes faces at each other, and have a carefree time knowing our life as undergrad students is finally over.

After the ceremony we should change as fast as we can out of our gowns, throw them in the back seat with our framed diplomas, and head out with our girlfriends to the beach; have a huge party and build a fire when the sun slips beneath the sea.

And I feel a bigger sense of shame and self-loathing. How dare I moan over a stupid, boring ceremony when the woman who raised the woman I love has died?

It is selfish and awful to feel this way. Instead of crying over what I can’t have I should be thankful for what I do have. Jaden is alive. It could be worse; it could have been her that died. Thank Goddess it wasn’t her.

Even that thought process isn’t what I should be thinking about.

I hate feeling selfish.

I grab my keys off of the counter and get into my car. Hopefully I can make it to Diana and Joe’s house before Jaden does.

The drive over is quiet. Normally I have music on loud, but this morning I’m content to just let my mind be numb.
I don’t really remember any of the drive at all. I know it doesn’t take me too long, and before I know it I’m pulling my little blue car into their driveway that is void of Jaden’s Explorer.

It means I’m either early, or too late. I’ll hope for the latter.

I must look ridiculous. I didn’t even change before leaving the house. We were instructed to wear nice clothing under our robes, but I didn’t want to be hot on such a warm day in a fancy skirt so I chose to wear comfortable jogging shorts over my nylons and dress shoes. I have a simple black silk short-sleeved shirt on, and the outfit is pretty stupid looking.

Knocking at the door, their house is surprisingly quiet. Please, let Jaden not be here yet.

Just as I turn to leave, Joe whips the door open, surprise evident on his face.

“Grace?”

“Hey Joe. Can I come in?” I ask and he opens the door. To his credit, he must sense the severity of the situation and doesn’t even make a crack about my clothes.

“Sure, what’s up?” He questions as Diana joins us in their foyer.

I ignore his question for the time being.

“Jaden isn’t here yet?” Stupid question, of course she isn’t or they’d all be gone.

“No, I expect her any time.” Di answers. Her brown eyes are filled with concern and she gently touches my arm. “Jesus Christ, you’re freezing.”

She directs Joe. “Why don’t you get her one of your sweatshirts?”

He nods in agreement and scampers up the stairs.

“Jaden’s grandmother died.” I tell her and her eyes grow wide.

“Oh God.” She hugs me briefly. “It will be okay, Grace.”

“I don’t know how she’s going to take it.” I offer, warm in Di’s strong embrace.

Joe returns with his prized Red Sox sweatshirt and I shrug it on with a little grin.

“I’ll return it in one piece, I promise.” I tell him solemnly and he smiles.

Di quickly fills him in as I glance out the window.

I hear them talking and making plans, but I cease to pay attention my breathing catches as Jaden pulls up in the driveway.

I can see the confusion on her features as she notices my car in the driveway. Her and Jason get out of the Explorer and start their way up to the front door.

“Grace.” Di’s hand is on my shoulder and I look at her. “Joe will drive Jason home in your car and then drop it off at your house later, okay? I’ll pick him up there.”
I nod dumbly in agreement. “You and Jaden stay here as long as you need, the kids are at my mother’s so it will be quiet. We’ll call you later.”

“Thanks, Di.” I tell her as Jaden knocks on the door.

The next few seconds are a whirlwind as Joe and Di leave the house with Jason. Jaden looks around with total confusion on her face as she sees Joe usher Jason into my car and leave, followed by Di in her car.

“What the hell?” She asks, turning to face me. “Nice outfit you have there, Flasher.”

I give her a tired grin.

“Gracie, what’s the matter?”

I try to tell her, but I can’t. Hugging her tightly against my chest I press my head against her chest and reassure myself that she is alive and healthy. The steady rhythm of her heart is all I need.

“Grace, you’re scaring me.” She says, her voice wavering.

I pull away from her, but take both her hands in mine.

“Carl from Avon called.” I start, my voice wavering. Jaden’s blue eyes widen and I hear her breath hitch, but to her credit she keeps her detective face on.

“And?” She asks cautiously.

“And.” I begin, forcing myself to meet her eyes. “Your grandmother passed away sometime in her sleep last night.”

Her face remains blissfully impassive. Not a muscle twitches or one hair moves out of place. She stays silent for a moment, then lets out a breath.

“Oh.”

Oh? That was not the reaction I was expecting.

I feel her body temperature drop, and her hands suddenly grow clammy.

“Sweetheart?” I ask, but the life has disappeared from her eyes and all the color has drained from her face.

“Please sit down with me for a minute.” I pull her numb body over to the closest chair and she weakly complies.

Her face is a perfect mask of resolve, and only because I know her so well do I notice her jaw clenching.

“There’s nothing we can do.” She states solemnly. “But if we hurry you can still make your graduation.” Jaden begins to stand but I tug on her hands and force her to sit back down.

She struggles with me for just a moment, until my hands move to her shoulders and I place myself on her lap.

“Relax.” I order her, caressing her strong shoulders.

Tilting her chin, her eyes finally meet mine. They are a cold, unflinching blue, and the lack of emotion present almost causes me to shudder.

“We have to call the city morgue and make all the arrangements, okay Spots?” She doesn’t respond. “I am with you every step of the way, I’ll already told Kim I can’t make graduation. I want to be with you.”

It doesn’t even seem like she hears me.

Gently, she lifts me off her lap and stands. “We should go then.”

I follow her out and get into her car. Without a word she starts it and heads out of Diana and Joe’s neighborhood.

“Um, Spots?” I ask and she doesn’t look at me.

“Yes?”

“Can you take me home to change?” I question as I look at my bizarre clothing.

“Sure.” She answers.

We don’t talk the rest of the way home, but Jaden grips my hand like she’s holding on for dear life. I don’t know how she manages to drive so well with just her left hand, but she does.

I won’t lie and say I’m not worried about her. I know people deal with grief in many different ways, but this complete shut down is something I’m not accustomed too. I just wish she would get angry or cry and at least act alive.

She is like a porcelain doll, frozen and stoic.

“I’ll wait here.” Jaden tells me as I hop out of the car.

“Okay. Do you need anything from inside?”

She shakes her head slowly, and I hurry upstairs to change. My legs are shaking every step of the way and my knuckles are white from hanging on to the railing.

Entering the apartment, everything seems louder to me.

The keys jingling in the doorknob, the clicking of the dogs’ toenails on the tiled floor, my labored breathing heavy in my chest. All the daily sounds that everyone takes for granted.

Simple things that we never really think we will miss.

And maybe we don’t. Who knows what will be waiting for us after we die.

Shaking the morbid thoughts out of my head, I crouch down and hug both of my dogs close to me. I am so lucky to have what I have; I can’t imagine my life without my Jaden.

It’s almost as if I never lived in Ohio, and I’ve always been here; the four of us a little family surrounded by love and friendship.

I change quickly, knowing Spots is waiting in the car and probably dying from the heat. She and I both hate air conditioning and try to avoid turning it on, so I can picture her sitting there, in a lovely navy suit, her dark hair sticking to the back of her long neck.

She is staring out the window, not really looking at anything, but thinking back to a time when she was child and the only thing safe to her was her grandmother’s lap.

My heart aches for her.

I start to head out of the apartment, making sure to take my keys out of the doorknob. Bella stares at me, her intelligent eyes studying my teary face. I contemplate taking her with me, I know she would be quiet the entire time we were inside and Jaden would love to have her company.

But it’s too hot outside to leave her in the car. Scratching her ears, I give her and Bean each a chewy from their cookie jar. “Be good girls.”

I leave the house and head downstairs. As I expected, Jaden is sitting, her unwavering blue gaze distant. She starts the Explorer as I get in and slowly pulls out of the drive.

“I called the morgue and they are expecting us.” She asks in a low, velvety voice.

“Here.” I offer, handing her a bottle of cold chocolate milk from the fridge. She quirks her lips at me before opening it and taking a long drink.

“Thanks.” Putting the bottle in her cup-holder, she grasps my hand again before turning onto the highway.

It’s like I am her lifeline, the tether keeping her widely bobbing ship safely secured to shore. I keep my grip firm and calm, sending every ounce of emotion I have from my body to hers.

It’s all I can do for her right now.

***

It seems like weeks and days since I last laid down. Slumping down on the bed I invite Bella up and she slinks into my lap. She’s pretty big to be a lap dog, but she doesn’t seem to know that.

I hear Grace cooing to Bean in the kitchen as she cooks something on the stove. I tangle my hands in my dog’s soft ears, working the silky strands between my fingers.

I’m exhausted.

I have so much more to do and I don’t want to do any of it. I don’t want to plan a funeral, bury my grandmother, and go through all of her possessions.

I just don’t want to do it.

Lying back in bed, my eyes drift shut and I am only vaguely aware of Bella curling up against my side.

I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I know I feel the sensation of my clothes being removed.

Groggily, my eyes open and I find Grace gently undressing me.

“Trying to cop a feel while I’m sleeping?” I joke and she gives me the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. It makes her eyes crinkle, the moss color of her eyes so deep and lush I feel like I’m looking into an Irish meadow.

“You were so peaceful, I didn’t want to disturb you.” She tells me softly as she lifts the covers back and helps me scoot under.

“Want some dinner?” Grace asks gently. I glance to the nightstand to see a plate of grilled cheese, complete with grape jelly. My favorite.

“That would be great.” I tell her. I am unable to stop my eyes from tearing up as she serves me, even going as far as to climb in bed and sit with me while I eat.

“It’s okay Spots. Whatever happens, we can get through it.” Grace tells me, and as I look at her I find I see less and less of the innocent girl I fell in love with and more of the strong woman she’s become.

“I know.” I answer, and I mean it.

I finish my late dinner in silence, relishing the feel of her strong hand securely gripping my bicep. Bella rests her head on my knee, her gaze never straying to far from my face. On the floor, Bean chews on a piece of grilled cheese crust Grace slipped her.

They are a constant reminder of the fact that I will never have to be alone again.

 

 

The End

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