We Do What We Can by Girl Bard

We Do What We Can
by Girl Bard

Part 3 in the Jaden and Grace Series

 

 

July 1, 2000

I hate funerals. Funny, at a time like this that it is the only thing I can think of. A flood of weeping people who are all strangers surround me, and I feel out of place. I’m the stranger here, not the family of the person that died because of me.

I know everyone is blaming me.

I’m blaming myself.

The sermon delivers a tribute of happy memories for the departed, but it’s still somber to my ears. I sit by myself, not feeling comfortable as one of the friends and certainly not part of the family.

I’m not sure why I’m here.

To say goodbye? Or maybe that I’m sorry? To relieve myself from some of my guilt? Maybe.

The minister stops speaking and encourages us to line up to say our last words to the young life that was so quickly taken away.

I stand, anxious to be at the front of the line so I can make a beeline out of here and not have to speak with anyone. I won’t have any idea what so say, I don’t know them but they must know who I am. How do you look someone in the eye, knowing you’re responsible for the death of their child? I can’t do that. I’ve already done that in my life, with my own family and I can never go through that again.

The line moves forward and I glance to the sobbing family, seeing the majority of them seated as to put off seeing the body for as long as possible. I sigh inwardly, torn about offering condolences and scared out of my fucking mind at their response.

I reach the coffin, and after warring with myself, struggle to look down to the youthful face relaxed framed by soft golden hair, relaxed as if asleep.

I’ve seen enough dead bodies in my line of work, but it still doesn’t make it easier when it’s up close and personal.

“Thank you for what you’ve done.” I whisper, as my only offering. “I’m sorry.” I swallow abruptly and leave the side of the coffin, headed directly for the parking lot. I can’t really let myself feel anything. Rationally, I understand that death is a part of life. I keep telling myself that as I head for my car and get in, rubbing my tired eyes before turning on the ignition and pulling out of the funeral home.

I haven’t slept in three days.

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

“Hey Sal.” I offer weakly to the uniformed cop standing in the hallway.

“Jaden.” He returns, smiling as he looks up from his magazine. I tiredly roll my eyes at him as I point to his issue of “People”.

He blushes in response. “My wife has got me hooked.” He offers, and I chuckle at him.

“Just don’t let some creep slip by you while you’re ogling over the ‘50 Most Beautiful People,’ okay?” I scold lightly and he straightens his shoulders in response.

“No one’s getting through.” He assures me and I thank him and enter the room.

The constant beep of monitors and machines can barely be heard over the TV. My Grace is so engrossed in her program that she doesn’t even hear me enter her room.

My heart races every time that I see her, and I pause to absorb her very presence, worshipping every detail and committing it to my memory.

I was so close to losing her, too close. Aron’s shot managed to miss her heart by three inches. We are so lucky.

Aron wasn’t so lucky. Her shot didn’t miss. She killed him with a single shot to the head. A little, tiny, innocent woman who had never even fired a gun managed to do what countless other professionals had been trying to do for years. Stop him from hurting anyone else.

I clear my throat gently, and she turns her head away slowly from the television.

“Hey.” She says, smiling softly. “Why are you staring at me?”

My throat constricts as tears suddenly fill my eyes. I cross over to her, embracing her injured body carefully.

“What’s the matter?” She questions, rubbing my back soothingly.

“I love you.” I tell her fiercely, letting my emotions spill from me like a sieve.

“I love you too.” She answers, her voice thick. “How was it?” Grace asks quietly.

“Sad.” I tell her, extracting myself from her grip and taking her small hand in mine. “I wanted to tell his family how sorry I was, but I just couldn’t.”

“I wish I could have gone.” She responds, her pale eyebrows furrowing together. “I feel fine, they just won’t let me out of here.”

“You need your rest.” I admonish her, smiling at her adorable face. I reach a finger to lightly trace the razor-thin cut across her forehead from where she ran through the thorn bush. It’s healing nicely and shouldn’t scar.

“I know, but he died protecting me.” Grace answers, looking down to the bed linens. “I feel so guilty, you know? Like if I had come in the cabin a few minutes earlier I could have saved him.” She looks up into my eyes, hers a troubled color of green gray.

“You couldn’t have saved him. But you saved yourself. He knew the risks of his job.” I tell her, knowing how much she’s beating herself up over this.

“I know.” She answers softly. “But he was a really good person.”

I nod in agreement. I didn’t know Ian very well, but he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

Her eyes tear and she wipes them away angrily with her good hand. “I don’t want to talk about this now, okay?”

“Sure.” I answer her, trying to think of a way to change the subject. Since the shooting, Grace hasn’t wanted to discuss anything, especially killing Aron. I’m trying not to push her, she’ll tell me in her own time. It was like pulling teeth just to have her give her statement to the police after she got out of surgery.

Was that only two days ago? I’ll never forget sitting in the waiting room, pacing back and forth until I thought I’d go mad.

After Steele and I got the radio call that the Cape Neddick PD had made it to the cabin and found two men dead and one hurt I almost drove my car off of the road until they clarified that two men were dead and one woman was hurt. I made it to the scene at the same time as the ambulance.

Grace was alive. Hurt, but alive. They rushed her to the hospital so fast that I didn’t even have time to see her. The police had broken the window and retrieved Bean, who was unharmed but plenty scared. I grabbed her and chased the ambulance the entire way to the hospital.

I was fucking scared out of my mind the entire time, but relieved that at least she was alive.

I don’t really remember Joe and Diana coming to the hospital, but they did. Joe took Bean home with him and Diana stayed with me half the night until the surgeon came to tell us that Grace would be fine.

Fine. I still can’t believe it. They don’t even think she’ll have any permanent physical damage, though I don’t know how it’s possible. The bullet missed her lung, her heart, and every other vital organ before passing through her shoulder. They weren’t even sure at first that they would do surgery, but wanted to make sure no remains of the bullet would do any further damage to her muscles down the road.

I sat in ICU for hours after the operation until she woke up. She looked into my eyes and mouthed “Ow” and then smiled at me.

The most magical moment of my life. All of my fears and worries about everything and anything went out the door. There is no one else that I could ever want or need in my life. Just Grace. I want to spend the rest of my life just being with her.

“Jaden?” Grace asks, waving her good arm in front of my face. “You awake?”

I shake the fuzziness out of my head and smile at her. “Yeah, Dixie, I’m awake.”

She looks at me skeptically. “Are you okay? You look so out of it, and that’s the second time you’ve called me Dixie, what’s that about? You said that the other day also and I forgot to ask you about it.”

Uncontrollably, I laugh. “You don’t remember?”

“Remember what?” She answers, evidentially confused.

“When you came here for a visit and we went to the gay bar you got so drunk that on the way home you were making up words to ‘Dixieland’.”

“No way.” She argues, her smile turning into a blushing giggle. Uh huh. She remembers now. We laugh together, her melodic voice filling my ears.

“Oh shit, ow.” Grace suddenly exclaims as her face contorts in pain. “Laughing hurts.”

“Sorry.” I offer.

“Hey, that’s nothing.” She answers, smiling as she changes the subject. “Remember when we went with Diana and Joe to ‘The China’ and you were dancing like a monkey and doing the funky chicken?”

“I did not.” I tell her, offended that she would think I could do such a thing.

“Did so. Ask Diana.” Grace giggles slightly. “Oh Jaden, it was awful.”

I snort in my defense. “You two have a conspiracy against me. I don’t believe you.”

“Whatever. You just can’t handle the fact that you made a fool out of yourself.” Grace quips.

I smile at her, running one hand through her short hair. “I do love you.”

She smiles at my sudden admission. “Right back at ya, funky chicken.”

I roll my eyes and stand up. “You hungry?”

Her eyes light up. “Hell yes.”

Wouldn’t you know that even a gunshot couldn’t combat Grace’s appetite? “What would you like?”

“Pizza!” She exclaims. “No, no, um, hang on.” She mutters, her pink tongue appearing as she concentrates on her carnal desire of the moment. “Chinese!”

“Are you sure?” I ask her skeptically.

“Yes!” She agrees, and proceeds to place her order. I quickly grab a pen and write down her request.

“Okay. I’ll go call it in and pick it up. Will you be okay here for awhile?” I ask her, and she smiles gently.

“I think I can manage.” She answers and I kiss her gently before leaving. She turns her attention back to the television, and I see that she’s watching some special on crab fishing.

She’s so strange. I can’t believe how much I adore her.

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

“Knock knock!” Joe’s cheerful voice interrupts as we are finishing our lunch. Joe and Diana enter in a flurry of excitement, trailed by a babbling Kasey holding a trembling Bean.

“Hi!” Grace exclaims, and I’m not sure who she’s more excited to see, the dog or our guests. Bean practically jumps out of Kasey’s arms and I catch the little dog and bring her over to Grace’s side to allow them to say hello.

We all know better than to disturb their greeting. Grace hasn’t seen Bean since the accident, but hasn’t stopped relentlessly probing me for details on the dog.

“Thank you so much for taking care of her!” Grace coos to Diana and Joe as she hugs her squirming puppy.

“Our pleasure. She loves our dogs and Kasey loves her too.” Diana remarks.

Bean licks her mommy’s face eagerly, her short tail wagging uncontrollably. After their greeting, Bean settles down comfortably at Grace’s side and lays her head on her lap. I doubt that dogs are supposed to be in here, but few hospital workers would dare question anything that happens in Grace’s room due to Sal’s constant presence and my intimidating glare.

“Thanks again guys.” Grace tells Joe, Diana, and Kasey. “Come here!” They approach the bed and hug her, Kasey wrapping her short arms around her tightly. Grace’s face contorts in a slight grimace of pain, and Diana moves to remove Kasey’s clinging presence.

“Easy sweetheart, Grace is hurt, remember?” Diana explains to Kasey quietly. Her intelligent eyes ponder over her mother’s words briefly before questioning Grace.

“How are you?” Kasey asks matter-of-factly. Grace smiles gently.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

“Mama said you were shot by a bad man.” Kasey adds. “Did the cops catch him?”

Joe and I laugh at Kasey’s use of slang. She is too smart for her own good.

Grace isn’t sure how to answer and looks to me nervously. I clear my throat and answer for her. “The bad man was punished.” I tell Kasey and she nods.

“Good.” Kasey decides. “You shouldn’t have gotten hurt.” She finishes before turning her attention to pet Bean.

Grace shouldn’t have gotten hurt. My thoughts exactly. A moment of uncomfortable silence settles over the room.

“So, when are they going to spring you?” Diana asks and I smile at her, grateful for the relief of tension.

“A few more days.” Grace says excitedly. “I can’t wait to get out of here! I’m going stir crazy.”

“I had to stay almost a week before Kasey was born in complete bed rest.” Diana says, flopping down into a chair next to Grace’s bed. “It was awful. I just wanted to be at home with my husband and instead I had to be here sharing a room with some idiot.”

We all laugh, Diana’s blunt personality bringing a refreshing air to the hospital room.

“It was worse for me.” Joe adds, despite Diana’s shooting glare directed at him. “She was in such a funk that she didn’t want me to stay but as soon as I’d go home she’d call me and beg me to come back.”

“Gee, big surprise.” I add, knowing Diana’s constantly ‘grass is greener’ mentality. Diana sticks her tongue out at me and I leer at her.

“Promise?” I say to her, smirking. Both she and Grace punch me on opposite arms. “Hey!”

“Not in front of the kid.” Diana growls, her eyes twinkling.

“Jerk. I see how you are. I’m laid up with a gunshot wound and you’re propositioning other women.” Grace pouts.

I hold up my hands in mock protest. “Calm down ladies, there’s enough of me that you don’t need to fight.”

They simultaneously roll their eyes while Joe giggles like a schoolgirl. Kasey, who has been fiddling with the remote for the television, has just found the channel with ‘Blues Clues’ and pulls herself up on the foot of Grace’s bed to watch.

I turn my attention half-heartedly to the television. “Hey Joe, you look just like that guy!” I exclaim, pointing to the man wearing the green striped shirt who is dancing with the animated dog Blue.

“Goddess, he does!” Grace agrees, her soft blue-green eyes lighting up in surprise.

“His name is Steve.” Kasey supplies helpfully. “He’s friends with Blue and Magenta and they play games.”

“Does he look like daddy?” Diana asks her daughter, who answers without hesitation.

“Absolutely.” Kasey agrees before turning her attention back to the show.

Joe’s face turns completely red and we all laugh at him uncontrollably. Grace’s shoulders strain with the effort to not irritate her injury and I notice her eyes watering with pain. I look at her, concerned, but she waves her hand and continues to giggle. She’s such a trooper, I’ve seen men with flesh wounds that put up more of a fuss then she does. I’m amazed by her strength.

“Hey, Joe, sing ‘we just got a letter, we just got a letter, we just got a letter, wonder who it’s from?’” Diana orders, her entire body convulsing with laughter.

“No!” Joe protests, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Do it!” We all order him and he shakes his head vehemently.

“No way!” He argues in vain, but his protest grows weaker and we know that he is about to give in. “Fine.” He states, doing the little dance like the guy from the show and singing the letter song.

Diana falls to the floor with laughter and I collapse in her now-empty chair. Grace buries her face with her pillow and Bean hops around the bed, concerned to what is happening. Kasey looks at us, her irritated glare identical to her mother’s as she turns the volume up on the television.

“Hello?” The deep voice questions and we all turn to the doorway. Steele is standing there holding flowers and a “Get Well Soon” balloon with a smile on his handsome face.

“Hey!” I greet him, unable to move from my chair, my body spent from laughing. Joe is still blushing and Diana gracefully gets up from the floor to greet our guest. Grace removes the pillow from her face and Bean hops down from the floor and smells Steele’s boots and pants. Steele just stares at us in amazement, unsure as to what he just walked into.

“Steele, these are my friends Joe and Diana, and their daughter Kasey. And most importantly, this is Grace.” Steele smiles and shakes Joe and Diana’s hands and waves to Kasey. He presents Grace with the bouquet of flowers and the balloon.

“It’s an honor to meet all of you.” Steele says. “Grace, I’m so glad that you are alright. Jaden has told me so much about you.” He extends his hand and when Grace takes it, he kisses the back of her palm. She blushes slightly and I can’t help but feel a touch of jealously.

“The honor is mine, Steele.” Grace responds, and I can’t help but feel I’m watching a meeting of some world dignitaries, not my Grace and partner. “Thank you for being a good friend to Jaden.” Grace adds.

“Please, call me Harold.” Steele tells Grace and I burst into laughter once again.

“Your name is Harold?” I exclaim all-too-cheerily, excited to find something to make fun of Steele for.

“Why do you think you’ve only known me as detective Steele?” He responds, scowling at me.

“Point taken.” I tell him, looking at our crowd of friends and smiling.

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

Grace yawns and stretches carefully. “Wow, I’m exhausted.” She remarks casually, patting Bean’s head. Her other hand is clasped in mine as I sit by her bed. Our friends left a few minutes ago, after staying for hours. It was a great time and everyone got along, especially Joe and Harold who, after Joe recovered from his embarrassment when Harold walked in, discovered that they were both video game fans and talked up a storm forever.

“Me too.” I tell her, looking at my watch to discover it’s almost 9pm and knowing I’m about to endure my 4th consecutive sleepless night alone.

“You sleeping okay?” Grace asks as if she’s reading my thoughts. I pull my hand from hers gently and twist in the chair, popping my back effectively.

“Nah. But that’s okay, sleeping is overrated.” I tell her, smiling to let her know I’m joking. She shakes her head a little and looks at me, concerned.

“I don’t like this.” She says softly, her eyes a deep green in the dim light.

“Don’t like what?” I ask offhandedly, unsure as to what she’s going to say.

“Everything that’s happened.”

“I know.” I tell her. I have no idea how to fix this or offer comfort or make it up to her. I’m not even sure what she needs right now.

“I just want to be back at your apartment, laying in bed with you, listening to the waves outside. I want Aron to have never existed, my mother to be different, and everything to be okay.”

“I know.” I offer again, repeating myself. When Grace asked me after she got out of surgery where her family was I had to tell her that when I called and spoke to her mother, the bitch actually had the nerve to say that Grace got what she deserved for coming here without their permission. Fucking bitch. I can’t believe someone as good-hearted and kind as Grace was birthed from Debbie’s evil loins. Grace talked to Lydia for a second just to tell her she was okay and I’m not sure who I felt more sorry for, Grace or her scared sister. “I’m sorry about everything.” I say, my voice trembling.

Grace sighs. “You don’t have to be sorry, Jaden. That’s not what I’m looking to hear. I’m just feeling sorry for myself, that’s all.” She picks Bean up gently and hands her to me. “It’s getting late, you should go home. I need my rest. And you do too.” She turns slightly away from me, the bandage on her shoulder visible underneath her t-shirt.

A surge of nausea fills me and I struggle to my feet with Bean in my arms. “Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.” I tell her as I move away from the bed. “I want to stay Grace, I don’t want you to be alone.” My voice is more quiet and pleading than ever before.

“I know you do Jaden. But I need some time alone right now, okay? It’s been a really long day.” Grace responds softly, her voice tinged with sadness. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I love you.” I state, turning my back on her as I walk towards the door. She responds quietly and I turn to give her one last smile as I let myself out. I bid goodnight to Sal as I head for my empty apartment.
Part 2

July 2, 2000
“Thanks.” I tell the nurse softly as she sets my breakfast tray down and smiles at me. The hospital food has been pretty unappetizing since I’ve been here, but I’m managing with all the treats Jaden’s been spoiling me with.

“This was a special request from your girlfriend.” The nurse adds as she magically produces a can of Coke. “She said you couldn’t live without it in the morning.”

I smile at her, touched by Jaden’s thoughtfulness. “Thank you. She’s right.” The nurse laughs and leaves me to my breakfast.

It’s still a strange feeling to have people here be accepting of my lifestyle. While I knew a few people in Ohio who were active in gay and lesbian rights, it seems the majority of people here in Massachusetts don’t think twice about the relationship that Jaden and I have. It’s really refreshing to not feel like we’re going to be stoned for caring about each other.

I poke my runny eggs with my fork. I’m anxious to get out of here. Everyone has been really nice, but I’m going stir crazy and can’t wait to actually be able to wear clothes instead of this stupid hospital gown or a t-shirt.

I feel pretty good, physically, that is. My shoulder is really sore, and it’s completely affecting my left arm. That stinks because I’m left handed and all I’ve been able to do so far is look longingly at my journal that Jaden has helpfully left on the nightstand. Just the thought of writing in it hurts, especially because I am so eager to commit my various thoughts and feelings to paper so I can get them the hell out of my head.

I’m a killer. I am a cold-blooded murderer. That is one thing that I never thought I would be able to say about myself. Of course, I have to rationally think it through; I know that if I hadn’t shot Aron that he would have killed me, Jaden, and anyone else who stood in his way. It was self-defense in a way, and I thank the Goddess herself that at least I won’t have to go on trial for this.

But I’ve already declared myself guilty, and I honestly think that I will never forgive myself for my actions. How can I?

It hurts to be around Jaden. I feel the guilt she feels for my situation emanating from her very being. It’s hypocritical of me to tell her not to feel guilty when I feel guilty myself. When she’s around she looks at me with these incredibly sad and guilt-ridden eyes and when combined with my internal guilt it is too much for me right now.

She is the only person I want right now though, and that is what makes it so hard to push her away. My family has abandoned me; well, my mother has abandoned me but she did that so long ago it shouldn’t still hurt, but it does. I know that Lydia would be here if she could, but she’s still under my mother’s control. My father is the unknown. He is too afraid of my mother to rebel her and come here, and even if he could, I don’t know if he’d want to. I don’t even know if Uncle Rick knows what happened.

Not to sound cliché, but I feel utterly alone. I’m tired of feeling sorry for myself, tired of feeling like I have no where to go, and most of all, I’m tired of wondering where Jaden and I can go from here.

Will she want me around after I get better? Or will she look at me now as a reminder of Aron and just another painful memory?

And what about the things that I want? When I came here I had a vision of going back to college to finish my degree and becoming a writer like I’ve always wanted. Or is that what I’ve wanted? I don’t know if I even know right now. This entire thing has scared me to my very core and I don’t know where to go or who to turn to.

I only have myself.

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

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice calls from the door and I turn my head away from the television.

“Uncle Rick!” I shriek as I struggle to get out of bed to greet my uncle.

“Hey, don’t get up!” He scolds gruffly but smiling at the same time. He crosses to the bed and hugs me fiercely, kissing my cheek before releasing me.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, amazed at his presence. It is so good to see him again.

“Jaden called me when you were surgery. I got here as fast as I could.” He answers, taking my hands in his and holding them tight. “How are you? Are you okay? What the hell happened?” He asks; his deep voice filled with concern.

“I’m fine. The doctors don’t expect any lasting injuries.” I answer, smiling to let him know that I am indeed okay.

“Thank God.” He mutters; his brown eyes holding unshed tears.

“I can’t believe you’re here. Thank you for coming.” I tell him, squeezing his hands.

“No place I’d rather be.” He says before standing up and inspecting my room. “Looks like an okay place, they treating you okay?”

“Yeah, between Jaden, the armed guard outside and the staff, I have everything I could ever want.” I answer.

“Well, I’m going to stay for awhile, until you get back on your feet. That is, if it’s okay with you.” He questions, his deep eyes not making contact with mine.

“Um, okay.” I respond. “Can you leave the bar just like that?”

“Grace, it’s my bar. I can do whatever I want.” He answers, his lined face smiling. “Besides, I’ve never seen the East Coast, and I plan on sticking around until you’re well enough to play tour guide.”

I sigh. “I can’t play tour guide, things have been too crazy since I moved here! I’ve hardly seen anything myself!” I tell him.

He sits down next to my bed once more and grasps my hands again. “Then we’ll see it together.”

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

I look through the window of the door to Grace’s hospital room. I see her and her uncle playing cards; and hear Grace’s gentle laughter as she delightfully beats him at a hand.

“How long has he been in there?” I ask the uniformed cop at the door, a lieutenant on the force named Dave.

He checks his watch. “About two hours.” He remarks. “They tried to get me in there to play poker, but I thought that I better not.” Dave reports, grinning.

“You thought right.” I respond, my voice hard. “I don’t know if Aron still has anyone around who might want her hurt.”

“I know, I know.” Dave answers. “Don’t worry.”

“I wish I didn’t have to.” I tell him as I push my way through the door.

“Hi.” I greet Grace and Rick. He immediately stands and approaches me, engulfing me in a hug.

“Thanks for taking care of her.” He states and I nod at him.

“Thanks for coming.” I respond, knowing how much Grace needs him right now.

“Hello?” Grace questions, annoyed to be left out and I bend down to gently kiss her cheek.

“Hey. How are you?” I ask, noticing that she seems to be less sore than last night.

“Fine.” She responds. “How are you?” Her green eyes are filled with worry and concern and I smile brightly at her.

“I’m okay. I miss having you at home.” I tell her, hoping to convey how much I want her to return after she is released.

“I know.” She groans, throwing her good arm over her forehead. “I don’t think I’ll ever get out of here.”

“Have you talked to a doctor?” Rick asks, and Grace and I both nod.

“He said this morning that I might be able to leave tomorrow, but probably not until Tuesday. Happy freaking 4th of July.” She mutters dejectedly.

“Well, let’s focus on getting you out of here tomorrow, and then we can celebrate and watch fireworks on the 4th.” I tell her. “Joe and Diana are having a cookout and I thought we could go over there. They have a big back yard that is a perfect view of the fireworks that the city lets off.”

“I hope I can.” Grace answers.

“You will.” I tell her confidently.

“Um, Jaden, my uncle is thinking of staying around until I’m better.” Grace tells me, her voice soft. I know she’s trying to assess if I am happy or upset about this news.

“I know. Rick and I spoke about it on the phone a few days ago.” I state, knowing she’s going to be pissed that I didn’t tell her.

She doesn’t disappoint.

“What? Why didn’t you tell me?” She says, her face flushing.

“I asked her not to.” Rick interjects. “I didn’t know if I would be able to find someone to run the bar until late last night and I asked Jaden to keep it quiet until I got here.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Grace murmurs, her blue-green apologetic.

“It’s okay.” I tell her softly. “No harm done.”

“I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” She continues, her eyes welling up with delicate tears. “I’m so edgy lately and I feel as if I can’t control any of my thoughts or feelings. I’m all over the place.”

“I know sweetheart. You’ve been through a terrible trauma. Don’t be angry at yourself, you need some time to sort through all you’ve been through.” I try to comfort her and she nods and wipes her eyes.

She looks at Rick and I and smiles, changing the subject. “Uncle Rick, where are you going to stay? And where is this puppy that I haven’t met yet?” She asks, eager to meet Bean’s brother.

Jaden looks at Rick and clears her throat. “Um, actually Grace, I offered him use of the spare bedroom in our apartment.”

“Really?” She questions and I know she must be excited to be able to spend time with her uncle.

“Yep.” Rick replies, “And I brought the devil dog, you’ll meet him when we spring you from here.”

“Thank you.” Grace tells us gently. “This means so much to me.”

Rick doesn’t say anything and just smiles at Grace.

“After you’re released from here I have a few days of work left to finish up this case.” I tell Grace. “I didn’t want you to be alone, so it worked out perfectly when Rick planned on staying. And then I have an entire month off that we can spend together.” I state eagerly.

Her eyes light up. “Really?”

“Yeah.” I answer, smiling at her excitement.

“That’s perfect.” She remarks quietly.

‘I hope it will be.’ I think to myself.
July 3, 2000
Okay, I have two Aces, a four, a two, and an eight. Eights are wild, so I have three Aces. I glance at Jaden, seeing her brow furrowed in confusion. She hates to lose, which is unfortunate for her because I’m kicking the crap out of both her and my uncle.

“Give me one.” She says, looking at me with a confident smile that tells me at once that she’s bluffing. As much as I love her, she’s a horrible card player.

“Yes ma’am.” My uncle replies, dealing her one card. I throw down my two and my four and take two cards. I’m rewarded with another eight. Four Aces. Heh.

My uncle deals himself three cards and looks at Jaden expectantly as he raises the pot by throwing in three more potato chips.

Ohh, the big bucks now. Jaden glances nervously down to her hand before adding her three chips into the pile.

“I see your three, and raise you ten.” I remark casually as I make my bet. My uncle grins and Jaden all but breaks into tears.

My uncle swiftly matches my bet and our attention turns to Jaden again.

“Dammit!” She says, throwing down her cards. “I fold.” She crosses her arms and pouts. She’s such a baby sometimes.

“Sorry Uncle.” I tell him, revealing my glorious hand. He rolls his eyes and shows me his three kings.

“Good playing, Grace.” He answers as he scoops up the cards and shuffles for another deal. I chuckle as I take the pile of chips, munching on a few.

“Hey, no fair!” Jaden points out. I throw her a few chips and she sticks her bottom lip out.

“I’m charitable.” I tell her. “I always give to the poor.”

She sighs and accepts my offering, adding it to her meager pile. “You’re a jerk.” She remarks and I giggle. My uncle laughs to himself as he deals out the next hand. I scoop up my cards with my good hand, seeing that I’ve been dealt two kings and three fives.

I burst into laughter, knowing that this time Jaden’s going to accuse me of cheating or point the finger at my uncle for stacking the deck. She looks at me curiously before frowning at her cards. We’ve got to teach her to bluff.

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

Our game goes on pretty much to the same extent. Grace beating the pants off of Rick and I. Jesus Christ, I’m glad we’re just playing for measly potato chips otherwise I’d be broke and Grace would be rolling in a pile of money.

When she’s better, the first place we’re going is Vegas.

The door swings open and we all turn our heads. My hand instinctively reaches for my gun strapped against my lower back until I realize it’s Grace’s doctor.

“Hi.” He says efficiently, flipping through Grace’s chart. “How are you?”

“I’m still here.” Grace remarks, grinning at the doctor. He returns her smile before peering intently at the monitors she’s hooked up to. Her IV was removed yesterday and she’s off most of the machines. “Looking good.” He states, noting the reading in her chart. I clear away the remains of our card game and Rick and I move out of his way.

“Can I go home?” Grace finally asks eagerly and the doc looks up from her chart.

“Yeah, I think so.” He tells her, a kindly smile on his face. “Let me just have another look at the wound, okay?”

“Sure!” She tells him, her pretty eyes shining with excitement. He discreetly moves the shoulder of her hospital gown enough to see the bandaged entry wound on her chest. He quickly removes the bandage and surveys her injury.

“Ouch.” He remarks for her as he gently probes it. Grace closes her eyes tightly and I move to her side and take her hand. She grips mine fiercely, and I can’t believe how strong she is for being so little. “It’s healing great.” The doctor quips and Grace opens her eyes. “Any internal pain? Burning or anything?” He asks.

“No.” She answers honestly. “The only thing that hurts is when I touch it or when I move my left arm.”

He nods. “Good. Let me take a look at the back.” She obediently sits up slowly, allowing the doctor to check the bullet’s exit wound. She grips my hand again and I stroke her palm with my thumb. “Great,” The doctor remarks before standing up and making a few other notes in her chart. “I need to see you in a week just to make sure there is no additional damage. Everything looks perfect, the swelling is down, and there are no signs of infection. Be careful and remember that you got shot just a few ago. No running or heavy lifting, try to move your left shoulder and arm as much as it’s comfortable, but no more than that. Next week I’ll start you on physical therapy, so the more movement you do now, the easier it will be. You need lots of couch rest and TLC.” The doctor finishes, looking at Rick and myself before smiling. “I think you’re well taken care of. You’ll be fine.”

Grace beams, her smile lighting up her entire face. “Yay! Thank you Dr. Durant. You’re the best!”

The doctor laughs. “Well, I know you have a cookout to go to, and I’m not one to ruin anyone’s plans. Take care and I’ll see you next week. My secretary will call with your appointment time and I’ll send someone in shortly to get you out of here. Go ahead and get dressed, the nurse will be in a minute to bandage you back up for your trip home.”

“Thank you.” We all tell the doctor as he waves and leaves.

“Let’s get out of here!” Grace states as she throws back the bedcovers.

“Easy there Dixie.” I tell her, putting my hands gently on the top of her shoulders to calm her down. “We can’t have you busting your stitches before you leave here.”

She frowns, her face threatening to sulk. “I want to go home. Now.” She states.

“I know. But we have to see that you’re going to stay healthy.” I remind her and she nods.

“I’ll get all of your things packed, okay Grace? Jaden can help you get dressed.”

“Okay.” She concedes, allowing me to help her out of bed while Rick turns around to give her privacy. She’s a bit unsteady on her feet, but otherwise okay. She’s been out of bed briefly to shower and use the bathroom, but I’m not taking any chances of her falling or anything. I grab the pajamas I brought for her and help her into the bathroom.

We shut the door behind us and she shoos me out so she can use the toilet. I stand on the other side of the closed bathroom door watching her uncle efficiently gather up all of her things before lovingly packing them. He looks at me and we share a smile.

I’m thrilled that he offered to stay here for a while. I know how much Grace is going through and think that the best thing for her to have is her beloved uncle around for a few days until she is feeling better. Besides, it will really help relieve the tension between Grace and I until we’re both ready to talk and deal with what has happened.

“Jaden?” Grace calls, her voice muffled from the thick door. “I need you.”

I open the door and let myself in, my eyes greeted by Grace’s naked body. Her hospital gown is crumpled on the floor and she hands me her pajamas.

“I can’t do this by myself yet.” She tells me, her lower lip quivering.

“Shh, it’s okay.” I tell her, reaching up to gently stroke her face with my hand. She leans foreword into my embrace and I delicately wrap my arms around her and pull her into a hug. It feels so perfect, and I bite my lip to prevent myself from crying. Grace needs me to be strong right now, not sobbing like a baby. But I haven’t held her like this since before she left for the cabin.

I relish the feeling of her embrace before kissing the top of her head and releasing her. Only the angry red wound mars her creamy white skin and as I lower myself to place a chaste kiss above the wound’s surface, I feel a tremor run through her entire body.

“Thank you.” She whispers and I hold a finger up to her lips to silence her.

“You have nothing to thank me for.” I tell her. “I am thankful for you.”

She smiles and pulls me down to kiss her soft and inviting lips. “We both have a lot to be thankful for.” Gracie states, and I know she’s right.
Part 3

July 3, 2000
The drive to Jaden’s apartment isn’t long, but it seems like forever to my aching body. The pain medication that the doctors have been giving me is really helping and my shoulder is more of a dull ache rather than the sharp pain I’ve been enduring.

I’m anxious to get home, to sleep in Jaden’s soft bed, and wake up in a room that smells like her rather than antiseptic and sterile gauze. I can’t wait to get back to my ‘normal’ life, whatever that may be.

I’m actually anxious to have nothing bad happen. I hope that I can enjoy a few quiet days with my uncle and rest up so Jaden and I can have an incredible month while she’s on leave from work.

We pull into the driveway, and I smile at the sight of my beloved car.

“Jody said it ran great.” Jaden quips, as if reading my mind.

“Good.” I tell her; glad my car survived the long road trip even though it was pointless for Jody to drive it. Aron knew where I was the entire time, and I still can’t figure out how he knew. I don’t really want to ask Jaden because it will just open a big can of worms that I’m not in the mood to deal with yet.

Jaden turns off the car and hurries over to my passenger door to help me out. My uncle gets out from the back seat, his portly frame grunting with the effort of climbing out of Jaden’s tall car. I sigh, knowing that with both of them around I have to get used to being babied for awhile, or at least until I have better use of my shoulder and arm.

I try to slide down off of the seat and keep my shoulder still, but it still hurts. A lot. I feel as if I’m never going to be able to do anything on my own again.

I’m so proud of my newly found independence and really pissed off that it’s been taken away so quickly. It was bad enough that I had to be wheeled out in a freaking wheelchair from the hospital, but somehow Jaden lifted me up and into the Explorer like I was a china doll. At least I didn’t have to climb up like I usually do.

My uncle stands back as Jaden thoughtfully surveys the situation.

“I’ll lift her out, and you go ahead of me and open the door.” Jaden tells my uncle, handing him the keys.

“Okay, can you lift her yourself? There are a lot of stairs.” My uncle responds.

“Hello? I can hear you.” I tell them grumpily, annoyed to have them talking about me like I’m not even here.

“Sorry.” Jaden says, smiling as she ducks her head into the Explorer to kiss my cheek. She lifts me effortlessly and I instinctively wrap my good arm around her neck.

“I won’t drop you.” She says as my uncle shuts the car door behind us and trots ahead to open the front door of the building.

She won’t drop me, which I know for sure. Her embrace is so strong and comforting that I feel as if she could carry me forever.

“I’ll go as slow as you want, sweetheart.” Jaden asks as she gently heads up the stairs. “It might hurt.”

“I’m fine, go as fast as you can.” I tell her through gritted teeth. Regardless of how much she’s trying to be careful, the jarring movement of being carried up the steep stairs is really painful. “The question is, can you make it up the stairs?” I ask her.

“Are you kidding? You’re as light as a feather! Although, I’m not sure how, with your appetite.” She remarks and I pinch her side where I know she’s ticklish. Even that simple movement of my injured shoulder sends a wave of pain down to my toes and I’m immediately nauseous. I have to remember not to move.

“Watch it!” She growls, “Or I’ll drop you!”

“You wouldn’t dare.” I joke back, breathing deeply as the pain slowly ebbs from my injury.

“You should’ve seen Grace as a kid.” My uncle comments as he reaches the top of the stairs. “She could eat more than a grown man at each sitting.” He pauses, waiting for Jaden to catch up before heading down the hall. “That is, whenever my bitch sister wasn’t harping about her weight.”

I stiffen, not used to hearing my uncle refer to my mother as a bitch. I glance at Jaden, who is smiling.

“That’s why I like you, Rick. We have the same taste in a lot of things.”

My uncle smiles and heads down the hall. I leave all thoughts of my mother, who wouldn’t even come and visit me in the hospital, behind. I’m finally home!

“You’ll have to fill me in on Grace’s childhood stories.” Jaden remarks casually and I roll my eyes in response.

My uncle nods and laughs wickedly before opening the door and throwing his large body in front of the opening to prevent the two excited Jack Russell Terriers from coming out.

Bean and little Hercules, who actually is much larger than Bean already, are yipping and jumping as we get through the door. They scramble around Jaden’s legs frantically until she loses her patience.

“Dogs! Go lay down!” She commands and Bean instantly obeys, trotting to the couch. Little Herc looks at Jaden and cocks his head before deciding to listen and scrambles over next to Bean.

“He’s so cute!” I tell my uncle and he smiles proudly.

“He’s a royal pest.” Jaden says, a smirk on her face to show she’s joking. “He’s adorable but isn’t out of that frustrating puppy phase yet.”

“He is a royal pest.” My uncle states, crossing over to the living room chair and pulling Herc onto his lap. “But he’s my pest.” He fondly scratches the puppy behind his ears.

“Couch or bed?” Jaden asks.

“Couch, please.” I tell her and she sets me down gently onto the soft cushions. Bean squirms with excitement as I give her kisses and hugs. “It’s okay,” I tell my uncle who has his hands full with a rambunctious Herc. “You can let him come and say hello.”

The puppy comes bounding over to the couch and crashes into my stomach, knocking the air out of me. I grab him with my good arm and hold him against my side, giggling despite the pain as he clamors up to lick my face.

“Goddess, does he do everything with this much excitement?” I ask and both my uncle and Jaden laugh.

“Yes.” My uncle replies, shaking his head slowly. “He’s like a stick of dynamite.”

“It’s so strange.” I remark as Herc lies down on my lap, sharing it with Bean. “I’ve always thought Bean was a freak of a Russell because she’s so quiet and sweet, but Herc is sweet too, just not quiet.”

“True!” My uncle responds. “He’s never been quiet since you got him for me. The breeder described him as the most shy and withdrawn puppy who was in need of love, and once he got to my place without his brothers and sisters, he’s not been shy since!”

“They seem to get along well.” I say as I continue to pat both dogs’ soft fur.

“You should see them at the beach!” My uncle responds and I smile.

“I can’t wait.” I can’t wait, to get back to my life.

Jaden sits down next to me on the couch. “How are you feeling? Sore, tired, feverish?” She asks, putting a hand to my forehead. I wince as the pressure of her hand irritates my cut from the bushes I ran through. “You feel a bit warm.” Her deep blue eyes are concerned and I take her hand off of my forehead and squeeze her hand.

“I’m fine. Just excited to be home.” She doesn’t look reassured, so I change the subject. “What’s the plan for tomorrow?” I ask, excited to go to Joe and Diana’s cookout for the 4th of July.

“They want us there around noon. We can bring both dogs and I need to make potato salad.” Jaden answers, and I can tell she’s as excited as I am.

“Do you know how to make potato salad?” I ask doubtfully, knowing her cooking skills are not her strong point.

“No.” She says glumly, and I can’t help but giggle at her despondent look.

“Potato salad, that’s easy.” My uncle says. “I have my mother’s recipe, and it’s the best. I can help you.”

Jaden smiles and nods her head eagerly. “That would be great.”

My uncle stands from the chair, dusting off his pants. “I’ll run to the store to get what we need. I recall passing a shopping center a ways back and I need to get some things that I forgot to pack anyway.”

“Use the Explorer, the keys are on the counter.” Jaden offers.

“Thanks. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” He says, effectively dismissing himself as he kisses the top of my head on his way out.

“He loves you very much.” Jaden remarks from her protective position on the couch next to me.

“I love him too.” I tell her, smiling. I’m so glad he’s here for a few days.

“Are you okay?” Jaden questions and I can’t help but sigh.

“Yes, I’m just tired of being hurt.” I tell her honestly. “I never want anyone to ask me if I’m okay again.”

“Oh, sorry.” Jaden responds, ducking her head.

“No, that’s not what I meant.” I clarify. “I just feel like I’ve been through so much in the past few months, and I’m eager to be healthy again.” She peers at me, her eyes inquisitive as to what I mean. “First there was the shipwreck, and then Scott,” I shudder involuntarily at the memory. “And now this. I feel like I’ll never be able to take anything for granted again.”

I smile at her. “Stupid, huh?”

She shakes her head. “Not stupid at all.” She squeezes my hand. “I just want you to be okay.”

“I am.” I tell her.

“I’m sorry for bringing you into all of this, and for what happened with Aron.”

“No.” I tell her firmly, putting a finger to her full lips. “This is my first day home. I want to sit with you and smell the breeze from the ocean and enjoy the day. I’m not ready to talk about this yet, okay?”

She nods. “Sure.”

“I promise you that as soon as I’m ready, we’ll talk. Okay?”

“Okay.” She says, her face brightening.

“Let’s just sit and enjoy each other.” I plead and she gets up to open the window, letting the warm breeze inside.

“Come here.” I order her, opening my arms up as best as I can. I shoo the dogs off of my lap and they tumble to the floor and play tug-of-war with one of Bean’s toys.

Jaden cocks her head at me and I motion for her to come into my arms. She complies and lays herself gently into my embrace.

I sigh in happiness as I stroke her soft hair and her arms tighten around my waist.

“I love you.” She whispers, closing her incredibly blue eyes.

“I love you too, sweetheart.” I tell her, smoothing the worried lines from her brow. “Always.” I hum softly and I feel her body relax. “Why don’t you take a nap?” I coax her, knowing she hasn’t been sleeping well.

The loud play growls from the dogs don’t prevent her from falling asleep quickly and her breathing soon grows deep. I run my hand up and down her shoulders and back, feeling the tense muscles relax with sleep. She’s like a walking, talking, stressball. I plan on fixing that as soon as I can.

I relish the feeling of her, imagining as if I were her protector and am holding her very life in my hands. The love I feel for her radiates out of my body onto hers. I never ever want to be apart from her again. The days in the hospital were torture. I never thought that I would find the person that I am meant to be with, but I have. It’s her.

The dogs break me from my romantic musings as they proceed to each chew on an opposite end of Bean’s nylabone. They really are cute together and I’m so glad they get along. I’m glad that Bean finally has a playmate. I’ve always wanted to get another dog, and Herc seems to enjoy her as much as she is enjoying him.

Maybe I’ll get Jaden a dog after my uncle leaves. She loves Bean so much, and even though she claims not to be a dog person, she’s fallen head over heels in love with my little terrier.

I bet she’d like a big dog though, something like a lab or a Shepard. Not a lab, they are too common. Jaden needs a unique dog, it would fit her personality better. I know she loves Diana and Joe’s golden retrievers, but I can’t picture her owning one.

She needs something that will bond with her and enjoy running with her and Bean in the mornings.

A border collie? One of my friends from school had one and it was the best dog, really smart and playful as well as loving. I think that would be perfect, maybe I could even find one that has blue eyes. And a border collie should be good with horses because they aren’t hunters, so Jaden could take it to the barn with her, maybe even to work.

I put that thought on the back burner to think about later.

Closing my eyes, the smell of the sea and Jaden’s warm body lulls me to sleep. It’s so perfect here right now, the only sounds being the gentle motion of the waves, Jaden’s deep breathing, and the indescribable sound of two dogs chewing on a nylabone.

I consciously relax my muscles, feeling the slight tinge in my shoulder but no other real pain.

“Pain meds are grand.” I say as I sink down into the couch.

***********

The first thought that hits me when I open my eyes is, ow.

The second thought is that it’s almost dark.

The third thought is that someone is in the kitchen. Thoughts of Aron fly through my head as I whip around to see my uncle quickly and quietly putting groceries away.

I sigh, both in relief and pain when I realize that it’s him. He meets my eyes and winks, finishing up with the groceries and walking over to the couch.

“How’s my girl?” He asks and I grimace.

“My medication is wearing off, I think. Do you mind getting me two pills?” I ask and he nods, returning quickly with them and a glass of water. I swallow them down and gulp the water, not believing how parched my throat is.

“Thank you.” I tell him, handing him back the glass.

“No problem.” He answers. “You hungry?” He asks and I nod eagerly.

“I’m starving. Want to order something?”

“Nah, I’ll cook. She like chicken?” He asks, pointing at Jaden.

“Yeah.” I tell him, smiling. “Give me a minute to wake her up and then we can help.”

He grunts. “No way. Let me do it. You stay there and let her sleep. She hasn’t slept since she found out about what happened.” He says before turning and going back into the kitchen.

I run my hand through Jaden’s long black hair, hoping that finally she is able to catch up on her sleep without nightmares.

I grab the remote from the table next to the couch and flip on the television.

“Leave that on.” My uncle calls from the kitchen. It’s Animal Planet’s Emergency Vets. That’s a great show, one of Jaden’s and my favorites. I turn the volume up enough so he can hear in the kitchen. Jaden’s so deep in sleep that I doubt the level will bother her.

“Who wants chicken?” My uncle calls from the kitchen in a singsong voice as both dogs bolt towards him. I giggle and make myself comfortable as Jaden’s pillow and watch the show.

I could get used to this.
Part 4

July 4, 2000
Just before dawn
Thunder rumbling calls me from my deep sleep. I raise my head slightly to look outside, ignoring the sharp pain that shoots from my injured shoulder. It’s eerily beautiful outside, the lightning flashes on the ocean outside showing the sky to be a strange shade of greenish-yellow.

“You okay?” Jaden’s sleepy voice vibrates against my chest.

“Yeah.” I tell her, lying my head back down to watch the dark room flash with light from the constant lightning.

“Nasty out, huh?” Jaden remarks, her eyes closed.

“The sky is green. Do you get tornados here?” I ask, my voice nervous.

“Not really, we’ve had a few small ones but nothing serious.” Jaden answers, her breath warming my bare skin.

“We get them in Ohio, sometimes they are really bad. We always learned that the first warning sign was a green sky, like it is now.”

Jaden must sense my apprehension about the storm because she gets up from the bed, rubbing her eyes and yawning as she turns on her alarm clock and tunes the channel to the AM weather station.

“Let’s see what they say, okay?” She tells me quietly before getting back in bed.

“Thank you.” I answer, ashamed to be so scared over a stupid thunderstorm. “I’m sorry I’m such a chicken lately.”

She wraps her long body protectively around mine. “You’re not a chicken, I am, remember? Isn’t that how you said I danced?” She tells me sleepily before nuzzling her head into my skin. She sighs with contentment and falls almost instantly back asleep as I giggle at the memory of her doing the ‘funky chicken’ that night at the karaoke place.

A particularly loud crack of lightning makes me jump but Jaden doesn’t stir. Bean bolts from her sleeping place in Jaden’s dirty clothesbasket onto the bed and frantically roots her way under the covers. I guess I’m not the only one who is a chicken, and it makes me feel a little better.

I used to love storms. As a child I would get so excited to smell rain in the air. From my bedroom at night I would hear the thunder in the distance and play that game where you can tell how far away the storm is away by counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. I would hope and pray that the storm would get closer so I could see the rain pounding outside and jump with that childhood fear at the noise it made.

But right now, at this point in my life, I want sunshine and roses. Not a freaking thunder and lightning storm and tornados. I feel like the past few weeks have been like a whirling tornado, spinning everything out of control. I want a little reprieve from the storm now, at least for a little while.

I shut my eyes and concentrate on Jaden’s even breathing and warm body beside me. The weather station is declaring Beverly to have a severe thunderstorm warning, but it should dissipate before dawn. That’s good, I guess. At least it’s just a simple storm.

Pacified, I snuggle deeper into my love’s embrace and slowly fall asleep.

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

The next time I wake up, it’s more pleasant. I feel Jaden’s long hair tickling my chest and I can’t help but giggle in response. I hear her laugh, her voice coming from somewhere above me.

I open my eyes, closing them quickly when the bright sun almost blinds me. I try again, more prepared this time and manage to crack them open enough to see my bizarre and very-awake girlfriend straddling my hips. Let me clarify. She’s straddling my hips AND she’s nude.

I let my gaze roam over her entire body as I smile in approval, my smile turning into a leer as I focus on her perfect breasts.

“Good morning.” I mutter, my hands instinctively reaching to touch them.

Of course, my lustful desires turn painful when in my breast-induced haze I forget about my shoulder. I shriek in pain as the sudden movement almost makes me pass out.

“Fuck! Gracie, you okay?” Jaden asks, getting off of me immediately and peering at my bandaged injury. “I’m so sorry!”

“Goddess, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I tell her, breathing deeply as the pain slowly ebbs. “I’m a horny idiot who only had your boobs on my mind, and wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Excuse the pun.” Jaden jokes and I laugh in response. “You need your medicine?” She asks as she pulls on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

“Please.” I answer as I extend my hand to her. She takes it and gently helps me into a sitting position. Picking my discarded pajamas off from the floor she carefully puts my pajama top on and hands me the bottoms.

“Be right back.” She says and heads for the door.

“Um, Jaden?” I ask and she turns around, raising an eyebrow inquisitively. “Does it bother you that I have pain medication in the house?” I ask, hoping I’m not opening a can of worms, so to speak.

“Why would it?” She questions and I bite my bottom lip in nervousness.

“Well, when you were hurt in the shipwreck, you wouldn’t let the doctor give you pain medication because of your former addiction.” I spit it out, surprised when I see not anger, but a gentle wash of emotion come across her face.

“Thank you for asking sweetheart. But no, it doesn’t bother me. I want what is best for you and that’s what is important. I know how much pain you’re in and that is what matters.” She says softly before leaving the room.

Okay then. That wasn’t so bad.

Bean appears from under the covers and trots out after Jaden. I hear Jaden cooing to her as she returns with my medicine, a glass of juice, and a granola bar. “Don’t take those on an empty stomach.” She orders as she hands me the medicine.

“Yes mom.” I tell her, rolling my eyes. She sticks her tongue out at me in response, a rare gesture from my normally stoic girlfriend. I chuckle as I tear into my granola bar.

Jaden raps on the door of the spare bedroom before opening it briefly. “Rick, rise and shine. You gotta show me how to make that potato crap.” Jaden leaves the door open wide enough for Little Herc who comes barreling out of my uncle’s bedroom to be taken outside.

Goddess, she’s in a great mood this morning. She’s been so sleep-deprived the past few days that it’s a wonder what a good night’s sleep has done for her.

She’s such a goofball sometimes. I finish my granola bar and take my pills with my juice. Then I face the task of putting my pants on. I pull them on one-handed, and pleased with my success I get up and head out into the hallway.

Jaden is back inside by now and she joins me in the hall, giggling like a child as she opens the spare bedroom door once again. “Watch this.” She tells me as the dogs race into the bedroom and pummel my poor, unsuspecting uncle.

He protests from his bed as they lick and nibble at his face. He tries to pull the covers up over his head but the dogs only growl at him and play tug-of-war with the bed linens. My uncle finally gives up and surrenders to them, allowing them to kiss and slobber all over his face.

He shoots us a wary look as he gets out of bed and we can’t help but laugh at his polka-dotted boxer shorts. He grumbles in response as he stalks past us into the bathroom, shutting the door behind me.

Jaden and I giggle like mischievous children as we make our way into the kitchen, the dogs trailing at our feet.

“Shit, it’s already 11:00?” I ask as Jaden stretches her long arms above her head.

“Yep. We’re supposed to be there soon.” She answers.

“Opps, I guess we were tired.” I tell her, admiring her toned body as I give her a morning hug.

“Yep.” She answers, kissing the top of my head.

“You two ever stop?” My uncle jokes as he emerges from the bathroom. I blush, not used to being affectionate with anyone in front of my family, especially my girlfriend. “Okay, let’s make this.” He says as he begins to take the ingredients out of the refrigerator.

“I’ll leave you chefs, I’m going to take a bath.” I tell them, giving Jaden one last squeeze.

“Need help?” Jaden asks, waggling her eyebrows as my uncle chuckles.

“I think I can manage.” I tell her and they busy themselves with their task.

I enter the bathroom and run the bathwater, making sure it’s nice and hot. I try to remove my clothes, thankful for my button-down pajama top that makes it easy. I test the water with my foot, and finding it to be the perfect temperature, I get in.

I take a clean washcloth and dampen the tape holding the bandages on the front and back of my shoulder so when I rip it off it doesn’t hurt. It practically peels itself off and I remove the bandages.

There, that’s not that gruesome. I look down at my lower shoulder where the bullet pierced through. It’s healing pretty well, not as red and swollen as it was, and the bandage is free from any drainage. That’s a good sign. The skin around the entry point is purple and bruised, and the black stitches stand out against my pale skin.

By craning my neck over my shoulder I can see the back of it where the bullet exited my body. It looks pretty much like the front, but is a little more irritated. I know it’s from laying down on it all night. By being outside and standing or sitting most of the day it should be okay.

I wash it with the washcloth and then sink down into the warm water, careful not to get my shoulder wet. I stretch my legs and close my eyes for a minute, reveling in the fragrant water and peaceful bathroom.

After the shipwreck I never thought I’d enjoy taking a shower or bath again. I’m glad that I am able to do it now, although I’m still not completely over that experience. I don’t think I ever will be.

Experimenting with my range of motion I move my injured shoulder around. It hurts, but the combination of the pain medication with the gentle and repetitive movements is making it less of a nagging pain. I can’t wait to start physical therapy next week. I know it’s going to hurt like a total bitch, but it will be good to feel like I’m being active in my own healing. And the faster I get my shoulder and arm usable, the sooner I can write in my journal.

I reluctantly finish my bath and step out of the still-warm tub. We’re already running late for the cookout and Jaden and my uncle still have to shower. I dry myself off the best I can and wrap my towel around myself.

“Jaden?” I call to her before I close her bedroom door. I still can’t bandage my shoulder yet and she has to do that for me.

“Yep?” She asks, coming into the room and wiping her hands on her shorts. I drop my towel and stand nude before her.

“Bandage me baby.” I tell her, my mouth curved into a smile.

She matches my smile with one of her own. “Ohh, kinky.” She purrs, waggling her eyebrows. I throw my towel at her and she laughs on her way to the bathroom to wash her hands.

She returns quickly, a twinkle in her eye as she surveys my nakedness. “You’re beautiful.” She utters with reverence as she kneels before me and tenderly kisses my belly.

“You’re not bad yourself.” I joke and she tickles under my rips. “Hey, no fair. I’m hurt and can’t fight back!”

“Yeah right.” She answers as she continues her gentle assault. “You’re nowhere near helpless.” Jaden releases me from her tickling and carefully places a clean bandage on my shoulder.

I know she was joking and didn’t mean anything by it, but for some reason her statement really upset me. I’m not helpless. I proved that when I killed Aron. I took someone’s life with my own hands.

I swallow the large lump that has formed in my throat and only vaguely aware of Jaden’s tender hands bandaging my wounded shoulder.

“Earth to Grace?” She says after finishing, waving a hand in front of my face. I shake my head to clear myself from my thoughts.

“Sorry. Thanks.” I tell her.

“What’s the matter?” She says and I force myself to smile. I won’t do this to her today, this is supposed to be a fun day.

“Nothing. Just thinking about what I should wear.” I tell her.

She smiles. “I kind of like what you have on.” Jaden teases, hugging me and running her hands up my bare back.

“Behave.” I tell her as she pinches my butt. She laughs and I relax into her embrace.

“Wear whatever you want. It’s nice out but I know you’ll get cold.”

“Okay.” I tell her as I pick up the towel I threw to her and wrap it around myself. “I’m going to get dressed.” I tell her and head into the spare bedroom to go through my clothes.

“I’m going to get Rick in the shower and clean up the kitchen.” She says and heads down the hall.

I shut the door behind me, seeing that my uncle has kept the spare bedroom extremely neat. His clothes are hung in the closet and his bed is made. I pause at that thought, realizing that Jaden never had a bed in here before. She must have bought it when she realized he would be staying for a while.

Wow. That was so thoughtful of her. She’s so incredibly giving, and I have to remember to thank her more often. I’m so lucky to have her in my life. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I can’t think of it.

Glancing at the clock I realize that if I don’t get moving we’re going to be really late. I choose a simple blue button down shirt that I can leave open over my white tank top and my khaki cargo pants. Putting my bra on really hurts, but I do it myself anyway.

I finish dressing and pull on a pair of white canvas sneakers. I can’t help but laugh in frustration when I realize that I can’t tie my shoelaces. I think about calling Jaden or my uncle, but my pride won’t let myself. It’s bad enough they already have to wait on me hand and foot, and I think that since I’ve been able to tie my shoelaces since kindergarten that I can manage now.

I throw my leg up on the bed and bend at the waist, grasping the laces with my hands. I figure out how to quickly tie them and do a double knot so I won’t have to go through all of this again at the cookout in case they come untied. I repeat the action with the other shoe and open the door, fully dressed.

I hear the shower running and a huge crash followed by curses. I realize from the language that it is my uncle in the shower and Jaden cursing. I giggle and head for the kitchen.

She is standing in what looks like a war zone of condiments. The normally spotless tiled floor is now littered with broken glass from a mayonnaise jar, globs of creamy mayonnaise, eggshells and broken eggs, and pieces of celery. There are a few unused potatoes still rolling around in the mess and Jaden is frantically trying to keep the two curious dogs from sneaking a taste of the concoction on the floor.

I have to seriously bite my lip in order to keep from laughing and I help her out by putting Bean and Herc away in the bedroom. I return to find Jaden gingerly picking pieces of glass out of the mess, her curses never ceasing.

“What happened?” I ask as I bend down to her crouched level. She shoots me an annoyed look.

“I’m cleaning up the kitchen.” She mumbles in between curses, averting my gaze when a giggle escapes.

“Good job.” I tell her, jokingly. She ignores me and puts the pieces of the broken jar in the trash. I grab a handful of paper towels and wipe up the mess. She helps me, taking my soiled towels from me. She finishes picking up the mayonnaise and I deposit the two goo-covered potatoes into the trash.

“I dropped everything.” She remarks, taking out some Lysol and spraying it on the floor.

“I gathered.” I respond dryly, standing up to give her more room to clean. “Care to tell me how?”

“No.” She says, her face turning a bright red.

“Okay.” I agree, leaning against the counter as she wipes up the rest of the mess and the cleaner, bringing the floor to its’ normal shine.

She signs and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. She’s like a little kid who desperately wants to tell me what happened, but embarrassed to do so. I know it’s killing her not to tell me. I’ll just bide my time and wait until she can’t take it any longer. From the look of her internal struggle, it won’t be long.

“I thought I saw something.” She says, struggling to maintain her already lost cool.

“Like what?” I ask, wondering if she’s having trauma over what happened between Aron and I. We really need to discuss this, and soon.

“A spider.” She states, her face flushing even brighter.

“A spider?” I repeat needlessly.

“Yes. I hate them.” She tells me, her tormented blue eyes finally gathering the courage to look into mine. The look she is giving me is priceless; she appears to be so innocent and childlike right now, pleading with me to not make fun of her.

Like I ever could.

“They’re icky. I don’t mind them, but I hate cockroaches.” I tell her, shuddering at the thought of the disgusting insects.

She smiles, her eyes brightening. “Really? Cockroaches aren’t that bad, they don’t bite people like spiders do.”

“Yeah, but they get into food.” I add.

“True. I guess they’ll about equally bad.” She answers.

“Yep.” I tell her, nodding. “So, let me see this wonderful potato salad.” I change the subject, knowing how embarrassing it must have been for her to tell me of her fear.

She proudly opens the fridge to show me the magnificent potato salad saran-wrapped in a ceramic bowl.

“Wow! Great job sweetheart!” I tell her as I wrap my right arm around her waist.

“Thanks. Rick did most of it, but I helped.” I squeeze her middle and pull myself into her embrace.

“Well, you’re on your way to being a first class chef.” I joke and she returns my hug.

“Thanks for not making fun of me. I know, it’s pathetic, a cop being afraid of a stupid bug.” “No more pathetic then a grown woman being scared of a thunderstorm.” I answer, looking up into her incredible eyes.

“We’re pathetic.” She says, her lush mouth curving into a smile.

“We’re allowed to be.” I tell her, pulling her down for a kiss.

“Christ almightily, you two are grossing me out.” My uncle remarks as he walks from the bathroom to the spare bedroom, shutting the door loudly.

Jaden and I break from our embrace and look at each other, our eyes rolling simultaneously.
Part 5

July 4, 2000
I feel like I’m entering a nuthouse. As I turn off the Explorer, I’m surrounded by a multitude of people including Joe, Diana, a shrieking Kasey, two golden retrievers, and my partner formally known as Steele. He’s Harold now.

“You’re late!” Kasey accuses as she throws herself into my arms.

“I’m dreadfully sorry for that munchkin.” I counter, kissing her on her freckled nose before putting her down. She giggles and runs over to the passenger side of the car to see Grace.

Rick lets himself out of the car and the two terriers busy themselves by making acquaintances with the two larger dogs. They sniff and eagerly begin tearing around the front yard.

“Joe,” Diana begins and her smiling spouse obediently nods as he leads all four dogs through the house into the back yard. Diana winks at me as I lift Grace down from the car.

“He’s trained, huh?” Grace smiles as she gingerly hugs Diana. I introduce Rick to Harold and they shake hands.

“Harry.” I greet my partner and he clenches his jaw.

“Funky chicken.” He responds, his handsome face curling into a large grin. Outraged, I turn to Grace.

“You told him? When did you tell him?” I question her, putting my hands on my hips in mock fury.

Grace and Diana giggle like schoolgirls, and I realize that I’ve been ambushed. “You guys suck.” I tell them, turning away to get the potato salad out of the car. Shoving it into Diana’s hands I grumpily stalk towards the house, calling over my shoulder “Here’s your fricking salad.”

I hear them laugh behind me and I continue towards the house. I’m not really angry, but I know it’s giving them a rise so I continue with the joke. That sneaky little Grace, I can’t believe she did that. Harold looked way too happy to be making fun of me, so I’ll just have to find something else to tease him about.

“Hey, wait up!” Grace calls as I reach the front door. Never able to resist her I turn, smiling at her excited face flushed from laughing. She’s walking much better this morning, hardly showing her injury at all. Her uncle and Harold hover protectively around her while Diana trots up to me with the bowl of potato salad.

“I better put this down before I drop it or something.” Diana mutters before smiling cheekily at me as she passes me in the doorway.

“You little!” I tell her as I lunge for her. She already anticipated my movement and dodges past me, giggling as she races for the kitchen.

“What’s the matter?” Grace asks innocently, meeting me in the doorway.

“You better watch it, Loose Lips, or I’m going to start spilling some of your deep dark secrets.” I warn her, wrapping my arm around her side and pulling her to me. She relaxes easily into my embrace and returns my impromptu hug.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re all talk.” She responds and I kiss the top of her blonde head before releasing her. I vaguely hear gagging noises behind me and I turn to see Rick and Harold sprouting identical innocent expressions.

Grace chuckles at my side and I shake my head slowly. Everyone’s a comedian today.

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

Wow, there are a lot of people here. Jaden wasn’t lying when she said that Joe and Diana threw a big shindig. Diana leads me into the fenced-in back yard where I see Bean and Herc racing around with about a gazillion other dogs. Kasey and a billion other small children chase the dogs despite being scolded by the various parents littered around the yard. My uncle is protectively at my back, and I wonder if I’ll get him to leave my side at all today.

Not that I mind, I forgot how much I miss seeing him daily. He’s the only one of my family that I really feel comfortable with, besides Lydia of course. I know too that he hates stuff like this. He’s such a quiet person, almost shy until you get to know him. I hope he can relax and enjoy himself today.

“I’ll grab you guys a table, okay?” Diana offers as she leaves my side. I smile as I watch her effectively shoo the people sitting at the table closest to the food and motion me over. She rolls her eyes at my uncle and I. “Joe’s stupid family.” She remarks, nodding at the displaced persons. “They annoy me like you wouldn’t believe.”

I grab a chair and gingerly pull myself down to sit. “Thanks.” I tell her and she squeezes my uninjured shoulder. “Hey, do you think we could have a minute to talk in private later?” I ask her, my stomach rolling with anxiousness at what I have to say to her. I really don’t want to do this today but can’t put it off any longer. I’m ashamed that it’s gone on this long.

She smiles warmly at me. “Sure. I was hoping you guys would stick around for awhile.” She bids us farewell as she heads to go and play hostess some more.

“You hungry?” My uncle asks and I nod. “I’ll grab some food, you want some of everything?” He smiles at me, his warm brown eyes twinkling. He knows me well.

“Yep. Thanks.” He heads to the grouping of food tables, dishing things out on plates. I notice Jaden’s potato salad on the table and smile as he puts an extra large helping of that on both of our plates. He and Joe have a friendly conversation as Joe expertly flips the burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

Where’s Jaden? I wonder, my brow furrowing in concentration. I’m surprised that she isn’t fighting with my uncle over who gets to play mother hen.

I smile at the various people shooting me curious glares and sigh inwardly. I have the feeling that I’m going to be the talk of the party today. Although I have no idea how anyone knows about anything, but by the way they are all checking me out it seems as if they know. I guess it’s too much to ask for people not to gossip. I just think it’s ridiculous, I’ve never even met any of these people and already I’ve lost out on the chance for a decent first impression.

I guess I don’t care. Besides, if they are judging me based on what happened then the chances are good that I don’t care about what they think, right?

‘Yeah, right.’ I tell myself sarcastically. My uncle comes back with our lunch and I thank him before digging in. I will not let any nagging parts of myself ruin this day.

I won’t.

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

“Jaden, can I talk to you?” Harold asks as I’m walking into the back yard. Curiously, I look at him and retreat my steps, allowing Diana to lead Grace into the crowd of people. She’ll take just as good of care of her as I would, not to mention Rick tagging at their heels.

“How’s it hanging Harry?” I ask, smiling to let him know that like always, I am joking.

“Don’t start, I have ammo now.” He jokes back and I casually lean against the wall.

“Seriously, what’s going on? Why are you all serious?” I pepper him with questions and he frowns slightly before answering.

“Does the name Kimber mean anything to you?” He asks and I rack my brain trying to remember.

It suddenly hits me. “Oh yeah, she was a newbie on a force in Florida that I worked on.” I tell him. “Mounted program.” I add, clarifying what kind of force.

“Well, it seems like the two of you were pretty friendly when you where there, right?” Harold asks and I narrow my eyes at him.

“What do you mean by that?” I growl, unsure as to what he’s insinuating.

He shrugs uneasily. “I’m not meaning anything! Jesus, I’m just trying to tell you something that you need to know.” He protests, putting his huge hands up in front of himself.

I back down, taking pity on him slightly. “Sorry.” I tell him, and clear my throat. “Continue.”

“Anyway, these past few days when Grace was in the hospital I’ve been trying to figure out how Aron found out where you were all of a sudden, and how he found out where Grace was in the cabin.”

“Yeah, me too.” I answer, the anger evident in my voice. “Chief said that I could have my month off after the accident, but I’m coming back tomorrow for about a week so I can try and clear up loose ends.”

He nods somberly, understanding what I mean. “Well, some of the sources I had told me that Aron had been staying in Florida this winter off and on, around the same time you were down there. One of the lowlifes I spoke with mentioned his girlfriend down there had a sister named Kimber and that they partied with Aron a lot. I figure that in small talk somewhere Kimber must have mentioned that she was being trained by a woman named Jaden.”

“Not exactly a common name.” I tell Harold, comprehending where he’s going with this. “Aron must have suspected and had me checked out. Jesus Christ, how in the hell did you find this out?”

“I’m good.” He answers, but missing from his voice is his usual bravado. “Listen, Jaden, I don’t like this. Something’s telling me that this isn’t over.”

I glance at his chiseled features that are taut with worry. “I think you’re right.”

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

My uncle looks back over his shoulder for the fortieth time since we’ve began eating our lunch.

“What are you doing?” I finally ask, not missing the fact that his usually calm face is red with embarrassment.

“Nothing.” He blurts out, acting like a gawky teenaged boy. I shake my head in wonder and try and figure out how to eat my corn on the cob with one hand.

“I miss Ohio corn.” I say wistfully and my uncle nods in agreement. “Isn’t that sad that it’s one of the only things I miss?”

“No.” He states matter-of-factly. “I didn’t realize how nice it was in other places until I came to visit you here.”

“When are you going back?” I ask, saddened by the thought of him leaving.

“I don’t know if I am, Grace.” He answers slowly, his dark eyes boring into mine.

“Really?”

He nods solemnly. “Really.” I smile at him.

“Good.” I tell him and he cracks a smile before turning his attention back over his shoulder. I strain to see over his burly frame to see what in the hell he’s looking at, but he’s too tall. Sighing in frustration, I pick up my fork and finish Jaden’s tasty potato salad, looking longingly at my uneaten corn the entire time.

“So, am I the most divine chef or what?” Jaden’s low voice purrs into my ear, making me jump.

“Or what.” My uncle quips in between bites of his hot dog.

“Shut up.” She counters and the two of them exchange smiles. “Miss me?” She asks, pulling up a chair next to me and seating herself.

“Like crazy. You fall into a black hole or something?” I ask.

“No, just had to talk to Steele.” She responds, and I can see from the strain on her face that it wasn’t a good conversation.

“Everything okay?” I question her nervously and Jaden reassuringly grabs my hand.

“Don’t worry, promise?” She questions, her intense eyes locking with mine. I dumbly shake my head and she smiles. “Good.”

Surveying the crowd like a queen on her throne, Jaden regally stands. “Who are all these people?” She questions before heading up to get herself some lunch. My uncle looks back over his shoulder once again and I have to bite my cheek from screaming in frustration.

“What are you looking at?” I ask him again and he shoots me an evil glare. I sigh and roll my eyes, determined to find out what he’s doing. Jaden returns with her lunch and I immediately pepper her with questions.

“Who or what is sitting behind my uncle’s right shoulder?” I ask her as my uncle gives me a panicked look. Jaden strains and stretches to peer over his shoulder.

“Some guy, nice looking, probably late 40’s with dark hair.” She says directly as she nibbles on her hamburger.

“Why are you looking at some guy?” I question my uncle who blushes once again. Reality comes in a practically has to hit me in the forehead. “Oh! You think he’s cute? Which guy?” I ask as I stand as quickly as possible without hurting myself. My uncle groans and puts his head in his hands as his prone position makes it easier for me to pick out the guy he’s staring at.

I sit back down, pacified. “He’s cute. Want me to go talk to him?” I ask and my uncle lays his head down on the table. “How do you even know he’s gay?” I question, unfamiliar with this lifestyle still.

Jaden squints, looking at the man again. “Yep. He’s gay.” She remarks. “My gaydar never lies.”

“Gaydar?” My uncle and I simultaneously question as he lifts his head from the table. Jaden nods in response.

“Yep. Gracie, when I first saw you mine went off the roof.” She remarks casually.

“What?” I protest. “You’re crazy. I kept it hidden so well, no one ever knew.”

“Oh please.” My uncle butts in, chuckling to himself. “You couldn’t have been more obvious if you had a picture of Melissa Ethridge tattooed on your forehead.”

“Yeah.” Jaden adds.

“You guys are crazy.” I tell them.

“No we’re not.” Jaden argues. “You just have no gaydar.”

I can’t think of anything to say so I just stick my tongue out at her in response. She grins and waggles her eyebrows as my uncle groans and excuses himself from the table.

“I’ll leave you two lovebirds. I’m going to go and mingle.” He says meaningfully before heading across the lawn towards Steele, who is speaking with my uncle’s crush along with a few other guys.

“Awww, isn’t that sweet.” Jaden jokes as she finishes her burger.

“I’m surprised, actually. He’s always so shy around new people.”

“Well, looks like he’s a new man.” She remarks as Steele introduces my uncle to his crush.

“I’d say.” I mutter, smiling slightly. I hope my uncle can make friends here; it would be nice to see him having a good time for once. “Is Steele gay?” I ask, wondering how he knows my uncle’s crush.

Jaden almost chokes on her orange soda. “Wow, you really don’t have any gaydar, do you?” She remarks while laughing and coughing at the same time.

“How can I know if I have it if I don’t know what it is?” I argue and she laughs and chokes harder. I shake my head at her. She’s so weird.

***********

“Hey, scram.” Diana tells me as she nudges me in the ribs. “Your girl and I have got to talk before the fireworks start.” I look to Grace, confusion evident in my face, but listen to Diana anyway.

“About what?” I ask, putting my hands on my hips and giving her my glare. She puts her hands on her own hips and returns my glare with one far more intimidating. I back down quickly, knowing this a battle I cannot win. “Alright.” I tell them, leaning down to give Grace a soft kiss. “You may have won her this time Diana, but I’ll be back.”

“Whatever.” She snorts as I head over to where Joe and some of the guys are playing football. I quickly get put on a team and at once concentrate on dominating everyone else playing.

I can’t help sneaking glances back to Grace and Diana, wondering what in the hell they are talking about. Grace looks upset and I lose concentration on the game as I see Diana scoot closer to her and hug her.

“Ooaf!” I groan as a huge body slams into me and throws me to the ground. I spring up, eager to kick the crap out of whoever just tackled me, when I see Steele get up slowly, his hands around his nose.

“Jaden!” He groans, removing his hands to find them free from blood. “Watch where you’re going! You almost broke my nose!”

I muffle a laugh. “Well, I’ll try harder next time then.” I tell him and the guys all start laughing.

“Them’s fighting words.” Harold responds, dusting off his pants and squaring his shoulders.

“Bring it on.” I counter and the guys all start cheering.

“Okay, no fighting, seriously. This is just for fun.” Joe interjects and we all boo him.

I glance to Grace and Diana, relieved when I see them pointing and laughing at us. Well, at least she’s not upset anymore.

“We’re not fighting, Joe. We’re just making the game more interesting.” I tell him and he throws up his hands in defeat. “Okay, here’s how it goes.” I order, effectively taking over command. “Steele, opps, I mean Harold, will lead one team and I the other. We’ll pick our teams and from here on we’ll play tackle, okay?” The group of players grin in agreement. “Don’t do anything stupid, no taking cheap shots like my friend Harry here.”

Harold glares at me and I smirk. “You get the first pick.” He tells me, his voice hard and set. I almost think about teasing him again, but decide against it. He’s my buddy, and I don’t want him really getting mad at me.

“Thanks pal.” I tell him as I look over the group of players. Most of them are Joe’s cousins, and they all are average in stature. “I’ll take Joe.” I tell him and he gives me a lopsided grin as he trots over next to me.

“Cool!” He tells me, giving me a high five.

“You’re the best.” I tell him confidently, smiling as he proudly puffs up his chest. I lean down closer to his ear. “I picked you cause I don’t know anyone else’s name.” I remark and his shoulders take on an air of defeat. “And cause you’re my best friend’s husband and she’d kill me if I had to tackle you.”

He laughs and nods his head. “Yeah, she would.”

We pick the remainder of the teams quickly, Steele ending up with bigger guys and one athletic girl that is Joe’s track star of a cousin, and I have the smaller and speedier guys.

“Rick, you got the dogs?” I call to Grace’s uncle who is surrounded by the herd of dogs. He nods at me as he divides up the leftover cooked hamburger to each dog. I don’t fail to notice that his crush is helping him. I shoot a knowing smile to Grace who gives me a smile so sweet in return that it takes my breath away.

Jesus H. Christ in a hand basket, I couldn’t love her more.

“Let’s go!” I tell my team and we break into a huddle. I’m going to win this one for my girl.

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

Diana and I share a smile. “Well, here we are again, watching our loved ones make Asses out of themselves.” She comments as Steele slams Joe into the ground.

“And boy, do they do it well.” I add.

“Listen, Grace, I don’t want you to worry about anything, okay?” Diana remarks uneasily. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard her sound uncomfortable.

“I just feel really awful about everything.”

“I know, but it wasn’t your fault.” Diana says, her tone compassionate. “We don’t blame you for anything.”

“But I ruined your cabin.” I manage to tell her, ashamed of the tears forming in my eyes.

“No you didn’t. Some sick asshole who was trying to kill you did.” She tells me sternly.

“Mama, Jordan said that I was mean!” Kasey interrupts as she comes running over. She flings herself onto Diana’s lap.

“Why did he say that?” Diana questions gently. I’m always amazed at how good she is with Kasey. She’s a natural mother, so loving and patient. So different from my own mother who prefers to yell first, and ask questions later.

“I don’t know.” Kasey responds, her face set in a pout.

“Well, I’m sure you can remember.” Diana coaxes.

Kasey thinks for a minute and her set face breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! Because I called him a turdhead.”

Diana and I crack up with laughter. “And why did you do that?” Diana prods.

“He said Grace was weird.” Kasey tells us seriously. She peers at me curiously. “You’re not weird, you’re my friend Pixie-head.” She remarks. Removing herself from her mother’s lap she hugs me tightly.

“Thank you.” I tell her, hugging her small frame close. She breaks away and runs back to the group of children.

Diana and I can’t help but chuckle as we watch her put her hands on her hips and tell the boy I presume to be Jordan exactly what she thinks of him.

“She’s something.” Diana offers awkwardly.

“Gee, can’t tell who she takes after.” I joke and Diana flashes me a relieved smile. She puts her arm gently around my shoulders.

“Grace, I know how hard this is for you. I can’t imagine going through what you’re going through and not having some kind of support system to talk too. If you need anything, I want you to know that I’m here for you and not just as a friend of Jaden, but yours as well.”

“Thanks.” I tell her gratefully.

“And regardless of what stupid people will gossip about, I want you to know that Joe and I think the world of you, along with Kasey. You’re a wonderful person and I’m honored to have you in my life.” Diana says, her chocolate eyes wet with unshed tears.

Her words are so touching that I can’t resist from pulling her into a warm hug. She rubs my back maternally, murmuring, “It’s okay, we all love you,” over and over. From her embrace I hear excited cheers coming from the vicinity where the game is being played.

“Jaden just tackled Steele.” Diana remarks and my sadness instantly turns to laughter as we hold each other and giggle.
Part 6

July 4, 2000
Stifling a yawn, I check my watch. It’s almost 10:00pm, and that’s when fireworks are supposed to start. As much as I hate to admit it, I can’t wait to go home. I’m really tired and out of it from the pain medication, but without it I think my shoulder would have been unbearable. I just want to go home and lay in my girlfriend’s arms.

Screw the fireworks.

I sigh, scratching at my bandaged shoulder irritably. Good thing it wasn’t too hot today or I don’t know if I would have been able to stay for this long. Luckily the day was a perfect New England summer day, in the high 70s with a gentle breeze.

I’ve had a comfortable seat in the shade and enough people making small talk to keep me company. Jaden and my uncle have been hovering lovingly, almost too lovingly, and I won’t lie and say a part of me was relieved when Jaden finally went to play football with the guys.

I’m glad Diana and I were able to talk. As difficult as it was for the both of us, I at least feel better knowing that her and Joe aren’t blaming me for ruining their cabin. I still feel like I did, but that’s beside the point.

I would never want to do anything that would drive a wedge in between Jaden and her closest friends. Hell, I consider them my friends now too, even though I’ve only met them a few times. There is something about them that makes me feel almost as if I’ve known them forever.

It’s the same feeling I had when I first got to know Jaden. Weird.

Who knows? Maybe we all hung out in a previous life or something.

Heh, heh. That absurd thought makes me chuckle to myself and I know how foolish I must look, giggling away all by myself.

“Hi.” A small voice interrupts my thoughts. I turn my head slightly to see Kasey standing in front of me, looking at me seriously.

“Hi.” I answer her, equally as serious.

“Can we talk?” She asks, and I nod my head to her, feeling as if I’m speaking with someone my own age instead of a preschooler.

“What’s up?” I question after she is silent for a minute.

“It’s about your dog.” Kasey begins, her young voice straightforward, just like her mothers’. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing at her stoic demeanor.

“What about her?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“I like her.” Kasey tells me as if it’s obvious. “I want to keep her.”

“Oh.” I tell her seriously, pretending to think about it in detail. “Well, I have a question for you, okay?”

“Shoot.” She responds and I can’t help but giggle. She’s such a riot now that I’m afraid to imagine what she’ll be like as a teenager.

“Well, do you really think that your two other dogs would like having Bean around? She’s awful cute and I think it might make your other dogs upset.”

Kasey squints her eyes and thinks about my question.

“I’d keep her in my room.” Kasey answers quickly.

I shake my head from side to side. “Bean needs a lot of room to run, so she would have to share the yard with your other two dogs. Would you like to share your yard and your toys with two other children?” I ask, hoping she’ll understand.

“No.” She states honestly. “I hate to share.”

“Me too.” I whisper to her, as if it’s a secret. She beams with that knowledge and I smile at her in return. “How about this.” I tell her and she listens intently. “Bean will still live with me, but every time Jaden and I come over, we will bring her for you to play with. And when you come over to our place you can play with her then too.”

She nods at me, again completely serious. “Deal.”

I shake her hand. “Deal.”

She smiles and scampers off to play. I’m amazed at her energy; she’s been going for over 10 hours now.

Jaden and Diana are approaching my seat, deep in conversation. I can hear Jaden’s melodic laughter and I can’t help but smiling. Goddess, I love her with all of my heart.

“Hey guys.” I greet them, standing up slowly and stretching. Jaden immediately puts her arm around me and I lean on her body, feeling completely exhausted.

“How are you feeling?” Diana asks, her dark eyes intently boring into mine. I shrug slightly, torn between wanting to lie and say fine and wanting to tell the truth.

I opt for the truth.

“Like hell.” I tell her and she nods.

“I can believe you’re still going strong. Jaden, why don’t you take her home?” Jaden ducks her head, properly scolded. “Yeah, we’ll go.”

I hold up my hand in protest. “No way! I waited here all day to see these incredible fireworks and now you want me to go home two minutes before they start?” I joke and they both smile knowingly.

“I have a great seat for you Grace, c’mon.” Diana tells me and I walk with her towards the house as Jaden dutifully follows.

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

As soon as Diana made Grace and I comfortable on her padded porch swing, the fireworks started. We oohed and aahed along with the rest of the party as the sky became ablaze with lights and sounds.

A few seconds after the fireworks started, a terrified and shaking Bean came bolting over to Grace and I. I scooped her up and put her in Grace’s arms and the whimpering terrier soon settled down. Grace looked at me and grinned, the lights of the sky reflected in her aqua eyes.

I hugged her close to me and she rested her head on my shoulder.

A few minutes after Grace laid her head on my shoulder, I felt her fall asleep. Her entire body relaxed into mine and I gently moved her so she was laying on her back on the padded swing, her head resting in my lap. I don’t know how she can sleep through all this noise, but she can.

I survey the crowd gathered around us, smiling as I notice Rick and his crush, Jeff, sitting in neighboring lawn chairs. Diana informs me that he’s one of Joe’s uncle’s oldest friends from college, and yes, he is gay. I couldn’t resist rubbing it in to Grace that my gaydar never fails, but she wasn’t impressed. Diana seemed way too excited about the prospect of fixing Rick and Jeff up. Grace seemed nervous at that, but I assume that it’s just because she’s never ever seen her uncle date anyone and it would be kind of weird for her.

Whatever makes him happy is what he should do. I mentioned that and Grace completely agreed. So we’ll see. If Diana has her way, she’ll be planning two weddings soon, both for Grace and her uncle.

I can’t control the shiver that runs through my body. Marriage? Jesus H. Christ himself. Not that I would never want to marry Grace, and it’s not like we’ve even ever spoken about it. Christ, we’ve only been living together little over a month. So why did that nosy Diana have to mention that to me earlier? I need to talk with her, and soon. That’s the last thing that Grace should even have to think about right now.

I can’t believe she’s still putting up with all of my shit and is still here. I can’t even think about her reaction if I mentioned the M word. It would probably give the poor girl a heart attack.

Speaking of, I resist the urge to clutch my right arm when I feel my chest painfully constrict. I can’t stop thinking about the thought of being committed seriously to someone regardless of how much I am in love with Grace. I have to calm down or I’m going to go into cardiac arrest myself.

Alright Jaden, change topics, and step on it.

I survey the crowd once more. Finding my perfect diversion, I chuckle to myself. Harold Steele. What was his mother thinking? A last name like Steele should have a powerful or memorable first name, like Dean or Mick or Clay. Something like that. But Harold? Harry?

So anyway, poor Harry is sitting kind of by himself, near Joe, Diana, and a babbling Kasey. That kid must be hyped up on sugar or something; I can’t believe she hasn’t passed out from playing like all the other kids have.

Maybe I should talk to Diana about fixing good ole Harry up with someone. He’s a great guy, handsome and smart and all that crap, there’s got to be someone that can look past his first name.

What’s that old song from that corny musical? Matchmaker or something? I chuckle to myself again as I hum it under my breath, my mind racing as I try to find Harry’s perfect mate.

As I hum I watch the rest of the fireworks by myself, stealing glances to Grace’s fair skin, lit in the dark night only by the flashes of color from the sky.

She’s beautiful.

And I’m so lucky.

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

I crack open one eye, and see nothing but the inky sky above me. I woke up a few seconds ago, feeling a little discombobulated and uncertain to where the hell I was, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I’m laying with my head in Jaden’s lap on Diana and Joe’s swinging porch bench.

Feeling a little embarrassed to have fallen asleep I try to decide the most effortless and pain-free way to sit up when I hear a strange humming.

A beautiful, dreamy, humming, but strange nonetheless. It’s interrupted by the unpredictable boom of the fireworks and the crowd’s vocal reaction, but the snippets that I can hear are really pretty.

I feel the recognizable touch of Jaden’s strong fingers as they run through my cropped hair. I close my eyes and decide that staying where I am might not be so bad after all.

“You awake?” Jaden asks as the humming stops. She must have felt me wake up.

“Yeah.” I answer. “Sorry I fell asleep.”

“Don’t be. It’s nice to hold you.” She responds, her fingers working magic as they massage and caress my scalp.

“No, this is nice.” I correct her, smiling as her fingers continue their wonderful assault. “Did I miss much?”

“Nah. You know how it is, crash, pop, bang, pretty colors, and more bangs.” She sums the fireworks up efficiently.

I giggle, reaching up to take her hand in mine. “You’re such a poet.” I tell her.

“You’re the poet. You would have made the fireworks sound beautiful.” She says, and the way in which her simple words touch my heart is indescribable.

Suddenly I’m filled with the urge to sit up and look at her. To look into her eyes and tell her things I’ve wanted to tell her forever.

“Help.” I tell her as I lift my head. Her strong arms settle around my lower back and she effortlessly slides me into a sitting position next to her. “Thanks.”

I take her hands in mine again and look up into her eyes. “You know I love you.” I begin, and she smiles, almost bashfully, as she squeezes my hands.

“And I love you.” She responds.

“Every minute I spend with you or even thinking about you is precious to me. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.” I tell her honestly. Her blue eyes are dark in the dim light and I’m reminded of the times we spent at Mill Hollow in the bluebird fields. It was so long ago, but I swear that I can remember the exact color of her eyes then.

They are the same shade as hers now, and I can never forget them.

“I know we’ve been through hell, and it hasn’t been easy. But I’m not blaming you for anything that happened. I made the choices that brought me to you and I’m glad that I chose what I did.”

“But you’ve lost so much.” Jaden responds, her voice muted compared to the loudness of the fireworks.

“No I haven’t.” I tell her, everything seeming so clear to me now. “Don’t you see? I haven’t lost anything. I’ve gained everything Jaden, everything! I’ve finally found myself.”

She looks at me, confusion evident on her beautiful face.

“I know you can’t possibly understand what I mean. But please believe me when I tell you that in Ohio I was nothing. I didn’t know my true self and all I could think of was how much I wanted to get out and live my own life. But until I met you and moved here I didn’t even know how I wanted my own life to be! Now I know what I want for myself, and most importantly, I know who I am.” I feel the tears running down my cheeks and I ignore them, desperate to get my feelings out once and for all.

“I can’t wait to go to college here and do all the things I’ve always wanted to do. I want to travel with you, to know all about your life, to have a career, and become the person I feel like I am inside.” I pause to catch my breath before continuing.

“I’m not a killer, I’m not a murderer. That is something that I had to do to save the most important person in my life. Me. And by killing Aron I was able to save both myself and the other most important person in my life, you. That is something that I never regret. I value my life and yours above his. As much as I hated to have to make that choice, I made it and I will never regret it.”

Jaden says nothing as she reaches up to wipe my tears away. She peers at me intently and I continue.

“I hope you can understand. I’m not blaming you; I’m not wishing I had never moved here. The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting you and regardless of what happens I will always cherish having you in my life.”

I finish, my stream of consciousness coming to an end as I wipe the remaining tears from my eyes. Wow. That felt amazing. To finally get everything out of my system like that was incredible.

Jaden looks shell-shocked, her beautiful face holding an almost impassive expression. She finally opens her mouth to speak and I have to strain to hear her.

“Thank you.” She responds, and although it wasn’t what I expected to hear, I know exactly what she means.

***********

We got home a few moments ago. The three of us were exhausted, but I shooed Rick and Grace off to bed, complaining about how I couldn’t go to bed until I took a shower. I have a lot of football stink to wash off.

Grace wrinkled her nose at that comment and excused herself for the night, while Rick merely winked at me before retreating to his bedroom.

In truth, while I am in desperate need of a shower, I really just need some time to absorb what Grace told me tonight. I rather sit in the living room and stare at the ocean lost in my thoughts than toss and turn in bed and keep her up.

She needs her sleep. After making sure she got into bed all right I came back out into the living room and plopped myself on the couch.

I’m all alone, even the two completely tuckered-out dogs are in bed with their owners. We all had a fun day, even Grace, who coped with being able not to do much besides sit in a chair all day better than I expected.

To say I’m stunned with what she told me would be an understatement. I know that she’s glad she left Ohio and all, but I never expected her to tell me all those things about how she feels here compared to Ohio.

It makes me feel great, knowing that she’s happier here than she was there. And I can’t wait for her to have the kind of life she deserves, going to a college she likes and choosing her own career instead of being pushed into a marriage she doesn’t want.

But where do I fit in? Am I ready to commit to this kind of relationship with her? She has never mentioned if she read my letter that I wrote for her when she was headed to the cabin. Before the shooting. If she read it, surely she must question why I haven’t brought it up since.

I’m scared out of my mind to do so. I don’t know what her reaction will be and it’s easier just to pretend that we are just simple lovers enjoying each other’s company.

“Asshole.” I say out loud, my voice filled with anger towards myself. What kind of stupid idiot am I? How many times do I need to realize that I love Grace and can’t imagine my life without her before I allow myself to believe it?

What more proof do I have to have to show myself that she is the only person who allows me to be myself?

How much closer do I have to come to losing her before I grab onto her tightly and never let her go?

Why am I so afraid of having her in my life? I know I’m terrified that she will leave me, or realize that I’m not good for her, or just get tired of my shit and get fed up with me. It doesn’t take much. I’m a really big jerk when I want to be.

I need to do some work on myself, to get behind the issues that trigger these stupid fears about the only good thing I’ve ever had in my life.

I need to talk to someone, but I have no one to talk too. Diana is too close of a friend; I don’t want to burden her with my problems. Besides, she loves Grace so much and is so desperate to see us stay together that she could never be objective enough to sit and listen to my babble. Rick is too close to Grace to be impartial, and internal issues isn’t exactly what partners discuss with each other at the station. So I guess Harry is out.

That leaves only one other option. I look warily into the kitchen, seeing the bright yellow phone book conveniently on the counter. Rick had it out last night when he was looking for realtors. Seems like he’s kind of thinking of moving here. That would be cool for Grace.

I can’t believe I’m doing this.

I shake my head, muttering to myself as I cross into the kitchen. Grabbing the phone book I open the yellow pages up to the Psychiatrist section. I run my finger down the names, looking for one that strikes me.

No men, I don’t think I’d exactly feel comfortable talking about my worries about committing to a long-term lesbian relationship while sitting there wondering if Doctor Mister Feelgood was getting his jollies off while listening.

Yeah, yeah, I know. They’re supposed to be impartial and all that bull, but I’m not buying it.

My finger rests on a Dr. Miranda Richards. Her office is in Beverly, and I see that she accepts my insurance. Bonus. She’s close and free.

I write down her number on a piece of scrap paper and shove it in the drawer along with the phonebook.

I’ll call her in the morning and try to set something up.

I feel pretty satisfied actually. Embarrassed and nervous about talking to a complete stranger about my problems, but satisfied regardless.

I head off to bed, the urge to cuddle close to Grace overpowering my smell. I’ll just shower in the morning.
Part 7

July 10, 2000
I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. The waiting area around me is pretty vacant; I’m joined by only one guy and the receptionist. They both seem busy and I decide to follow suit instead of nervously looking around the room and back to my watch every few seconds.

The door behind the receptionist’s desk swings open and a visibly pregnant woman emerges, followed by a slim girl. The guy waiting next to me stands up and clears his throat as the girl smiles slightly at him.

“Thank you both. I’ll see you next week.” The pregnant woman states, smiling warmly at the girl. They pause to speak with the receptionist and the woman turns her smile to me.

“You must be my ten o’clock.” She says and I nod. For some reason I’m relieved she didn’t say my name, even though I don’t know any of these people.

“Come on in.” The woman orders and I nod again and follow her through the door. She closes it firmly behind me, then turning and extending her hand. “I’m Miranda Richards, feel free to call me Miranda or Dr. Richards. You must be Ms. Phillips.”

“Yes. Please, call me Jaden. Thank you for fitting me in so quickly.” I state nervously, wondering at the same time why I’m so freaking nervous. Oh yeah, probably because I hate talking about myself and that’s what I have to do for the next hour.

“No problem Jaden. I always make time for my patients.” Miranda says genuinely, and I can’t help but feel less nervous in her calming presence. “Have a seat, wherever you feel comfortable.” She finishes, resting her hands on her belly.

I sit immediately on the guest chair next to her desk. She nods in affirmation and sits at her desk chair, leaning forward and putting her elbows down on the desk’s surface.

“Is this okay?” She questions, holding up a tape recorder. “I always prefer to tape record sessions rather than try and take notes during. It’s less of an interruption.” She clarifies.

“Sure.” I answer.

“Great.” Miranda turns on the tape recorder and places it on the desk’s surface. I glance at it warily before turning my gaze on her open face.

She’s young, probably in her early 30’s. She has dark auburn hair that falls gently in ringlets and clear hazel eyes. She’s pretty, and sure doesn’t look or dress like I pictured a shrink would. She has on a white button-down shirt and a pair of comfortable looking chinos. I pictured her to be at least in her 50’s and have on a dull gray suit and those kind of glasses with the chain that prevents them from falling off or something.

I realize I’m staring when she softly clears her throat. “So, Jaden, can you tell me why you’re here today?” She asks, her voice soothing and low in tone.

I sit back on my chair and fold my hands in my lap. I’m trying to stay calm, when really all I feel like doing is bolting from this room and never coming back.

“Um, I have a lot on my mind right now and needed someone to talk with.” I state, averting her eyes.

“Okay, well I’m sure that you’ll find that I’m easy to talk with. I know this can be a nervous experience, so take a deep breath and relax. Then say the first thing that comes to your mind.” Miranda says, and I realize how someone this young can already have her own practice. She’s damn good and could probably talk her way out of any situation. I wonder if they are any openings on the hostage force?

Turning from her thoughts I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I picture Grace and I riding on horseback over a green open pasture. “Well, I’ve had a lot of major life changes and I’m not sure what to do about them.” I start. Miranda doesn’t answer so I crack my eyes open to find her peering at me intently. I guess she’s waiting for me to continue.

“I don’t know where to start.” I tell her and she smiles warmly.

“Wherever you feel comfortable.”

I nod. “Okay. It all started when I met Grace.”

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

I roll the dice. Heh. Eleven. I move my piece, the one that looks like the Toto dog from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ onto Park Place. “I think I’ll buy it.” I mention offhandedly and count the seconds it will take for my uncle to react.

“Huh? Shit!” He exclaims, looking at my token on the game board and muttering under his breath as he digs through the stack of property cards. Handing it to me he looks at his meager amount of cash and even more meager amount of property he’s accumulated. “How much?” He says, motioning at my Park Place card.

I chuckle, feeling truly giddy from the power. “More than you can afford.” I say, laughing gleefully as he rolls the dice in response. I’ve been kicking his butt at Monopoly all morning.

His roll lands him on Chance. He takes a card and silently says nothing as he moves his token directly to jail. I’m proud of him, he doesn’t even try to pass go or collect $200.00.

He sorts through his stack of possessions, looking for his get-out-of-jail-free card. Trying hard not to gloat any more than I already have been, I hold up the card.

“You traded it to me for Baltic Ave, remember?” I say, unable to hold back my laughter as he nods calmly, his face turning bright red.

“How come you always win at everything?” He mutters from his place in Jail as I take my next turn.

I shrug. “I don’t know. Lucky, I guess.” I pass go and collect my money before setting my piece down on Community Chest. I pick up my card, almost chortling with laughter as I read. “I won a beauty pageant. Fork it over.”

I hold out my hand as he pays me the last of his money. “That’s it, I quit. Play with Jaden when she gets home.” He mutters before stalking out into the kitchen.

“Spoil-sport.” I call to him, teasing. I don’t blame him, this is our third game and he just can’t seem to beat me. I clean up the game board and put it in the box. Standing, I stretch my arms over my head, satisfied when I only feel a tinge of pain from my injury. It’s amazing how fast it’s been healing. I start my physical therapy tomorrow and Jaden’s going to take me while my uncle looks for apartments.

I really think he wants to move here. Wouldn’t that be strange? I would love to have him in the area, and that would really piss off my mother. She finally spoke with me the other day. She called, asked me how I was, and then proceeded to ask when I was coming home. When I told her I wasn’t, she asked to speak with my uncle and they got in a huge fight. I haven’t spoken to her since.

Jaden says she’ll come around, but I don’t think so. I just wish I knew what her problem was. It probably has something to do with me suddenly leaving Ohio and my fiancé-turned-rapist behind and then getting myself shot. I guess I can understand her side of things, I just wish she could understand mine.

Sighing, I banish all thoughts of my mother from my head as I take the game to the bedroom and put in on the bookshelf. Maybe I can convince Jaden to play later. Naked Monopoly. That would be fun.

Of course, I don’t know what kind of mood Jaden will even be in when she gets home.

Maybe she’ll want me to leave.

She’s seeing a psychologist. I actually almost died of shock when she told me. She came home from work on Friday really serious and sat me down in the bedroom, stating that she had to talk to me about something. I thought for sure she had found out bad news about Aron’s buddies coming after us. So, needless to say, I wasn’t expecting her to tell me that she wants to go and see a psychologist to help her work through some of her issues.

I’m glad she told me. I feel that the old Jaden would have tried to protect me from knowing that she was having any issues to begin with and then would have hidden the fact that she was seeing someone from me.

I am really proud of her for being honest with me, and I told her that. It seemed to calm her down some, but I can tell she’s still nervous about the entire thing.

And I really can’t lie and say that I’m not nervous either. I don’t know what issues she’s having, though I’m sure there are many more than I’m even aware of. The unknown of what she’s having issues with and what she wants to do about them are really scary.

What if this psychologist leads Jaden to believe that she’s better off without me? That I’m not good for her?

I can’t think of anything worse.

She should be home soon. Her appointment was at 10:00 and it’s already after 11:00. Dusting off my hands from the Monopoly box I head back out into the living room to reassure my uncle that just because he got beat by a girl three times, it doesn’t mean that he’s lost his manhood.

Men are so insecure sometimes.

***********

Miranda sits back in the chair and regards me with surprised eyes. “I guess all I can say is, wow.”

I smile briefly. “Yeah.”

“So this past year has been insane for you, huh?” She states, unnecessarily.

“You could say that.” I respond, unsure as to where she’s going.

“And it all started when you met Grace? She’s changed your life drastically.” Miranda remarks.

Smiling again, I can’t help but agree. “Yeah.”

“And you love her?”

“So much that it scares me.” I state firmly. Miranda nods.

“And therein lies the problem, right? What part of loving Grace scares you?” She asks.

Shrugging, I’m not sure how to answer. “I don’t know.”

“You do. It just may not be clear to you yet. Jaden, I want to try something, okay?”

I raise my eyebrows in question. “Like what?”

“Have you ever heard of hypnotherapy?” She asks and I laugh in response.

“You’re going to hypnotize me?”

“No, not at all. Hypnotherapy is the process of using trance sessions in order to understand and accept why certain things trigger us in our adult lives. I don’t practice hypnotherapy, but I have found parts of it helpful to certain patients. I am not going to put you in a trance, I am going to give you a series of calming exercises and all you have to do is answer each question honestly.”

“Okay.” I answer doubtfully. Forget my former assessment of Miranda. This lady is a freak with a capital F. She seemed so cool in the beginning, but now she’s almost scaring me.

“Come over here.” Miranda orders, standing up from behind her desk and crossing over to the side of her office that features a low couch. “Lay down on your back and make yourself comfortable.” She sits in an overstuffed armchair a few feet from the couch and rests her hands on her very pregnant belly.

I warily do as she requests and lay on the surprisingly comfortable couch.

“Close your eyes, if you wish.” She murmurs and I immediately do, finding it easier to speak with her when I’m not feeling watched by her hazel, almost feline, eyes.

“Now Jaden, I want you to consciously relax your breathing and concentrate on taking deep breaths. Good. Now, listen to my voice, okay? If you’re ever uncomfortable with this, you simply say stop and we will, okay?”

“Okay.” I tell her, finding this entire thing very funny and bizarre.

“I’m going to count you down now. One, keep breathing deep and even. Try to remove and conscious thought from your mind and just listen to my voice. Two, you are sinking deeper and deeper into…”

Wow, this is strange. Miranda’s voice is lulling me to this relaxed state and I have no idea why or how she’s doing this. All that I know is that I can hear her but I feel like I’m floating somewhere, not really even here.

“Jaden, I want you to answer my questions honestly. Who inside you is afraid of loving Grace?”

My voice isn’t my own as I respond. “Me.”

“And how old are you, me?” Miranda asks gently.

“Ten.”

“And why are you afraid?”

“Because she’ll leave me.”

“She’ll leave you?” Miranda repeats. “What makes you think that?”

“My mama left me.”

“Oh, I understand.” Miranda murmurs. “And because your mama left you and you loved your mama, you think that if you love Grace she’ll leave you too.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I know how scary that feels and I understand why you feel like that. How did you feel when your mama left you, me?” Miranda questions, her voice so soft.

“Sad.”

“I’ll bet. Mama’s aren’t supposed to leave their children, are they?”

I shake my head in response.

“And how would you feel if Grace left you?” Miranda inquires.

“I’d die.”

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

Circling the ad in a red pen I look up from the paper. “This one looks good, a two-bedroom, one bath apartment in Dorchester for only $800 a month.”

My uncle narrows his eyes. “Not bad. Where’s Dorchester?”

I shrug. “I have no idea.” I go back to the paper, feeling way too excited that the simple act of circling ads isn’t hurting my shoulder at all.

“Everything’s so expensive here.” My uncle muses from his spot on the couch. He’s got a different paper and we’ve been calling out ads back and forth for the past few minutes. It’s now after one and Jaden still isn’t home.

I’m trying everything I can to not think of Jaden and her therapy session. What if she’s decided to end our relationship and the reason she’s not home is because she doesn’t know how to tell me?

“Yeah, I know.” I respond, almost forgetting that my uncle was speaking to me.

The door swings open and I look towards the kitchen, relieved to find a smiling Jaden greeting the two dogs hello.

“Hi.” I tell her as I get up from the couch, half in excitement and half in anticipation. “How are you?”

She looks at me, her beautiful eyes glittering with happiness. “I’m great. How are you?”

Before I can answer she swoops down and hugs me tightly. My shoulder tinges with discomfort but I pay it no attention as I return her hug. “I love you so much.” She whispers in my ear.

“Love you too.” I respond.

“And I love both of you.” My uncle calls from the couch. We erupt into giggles as we break our embrace.

“Sorry I’m late. I had to go to the barn after my appointment. I haven’t been in a long time.”

“I can’t wait until I can go again.” I mention and Jaden smiles at me again.

“Me too. Lucy and Studley are getting spoiled not being ridden.”

“How are they?” I ask.

“Great. They’re enjoying the weather and they all look fat and happy. Just like horses should.” Jaden states.

“I didn’t know you rode.” My uncle says as he gets up from the couch and heads for the bathroom. “You should have seen that pretty colored mare Grace had. Just beautiful.” He closes the door behind him.

“Yeah, she was.” I mutter, feeling the familiar twinge of sadness that is associated with Annie resurface. Pushing it away I concentrate on changing the subject.

“How was your appointment?” I ask Jaden, who is looking at me with a strange expression on her face.

“Fine.” She says softly. “I’m working on a lot of childhood issues and stuff. I never knew how much stuff like that affects me now.”

I shake my head in agreement.

“But anyway, at first I was skeptical that Miranda could actually help, but she was really easy to talk with and helped me shed light on a lot of things.”

“I’m glad.” I tell her, suddenly even more insecure on what exactly Jaden ‘shed light’ on. “I was nervous that you would realize you don’t love me.” I blurt out.

“What? Gracie, if anything, talking with Miranda made me realize just how much I love you and how much work I need to do on myself so I don’t screw this up.”

“Oh.” I say, embarrassed and feeling really immature.

“Come here.” She requests and I fall into her embrace.

If Jaden is working hard to make sure she doesn’t screw this up, I guess I have to do the same, right? I have to trust her and allow her to figure herself out without becoming judgmental and jumping to conclusions.

Easier said than done.
Part 8

July 17, 2000
I critically look around the small apartment, unable to focus on anything but the putrid smell of dirt and rotten food.

“There’s no way you’re living here.” I murmur to my uncle under my breath.

“Tell me about it.” He responds, sighing. This is about the fortieth apartment we’ve looked at this week and so far have had no success. They are all either way too expensive or don’t allow pets, and my uncle is adamant about keeping little Herc. The puppy is his baby now, and he couldn’t give Herc up any easier than I could get rid of Bean.

The landlord continues to show us the apartment, oblivious to our distaste. Smiling, I extend my hand to the landlord and thank him for his time.

“You will fill out an application?” He questions and I hastily shake my head.

“Well, we have a lot of other places to look, so we’ll give you a call if you’re interested.” I remark and the landlord smiles at me like I’m an idiot.

“Places are hard to find. You better decide soon.”

Undaunted, I smile tersely at him. “Okay, we’ve decided. This place sucks.” I smile again, this time more polite. “Thanks for your time.” I turn on my heels and walk determinedly to the door, my uncle quickly following.

“Good lord, Grace!” He responds on our way down to the car. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that walking down stairs doesn’t hurt my shoulder nearly as much as it used too. “Jaden must be rubbing off on you. I’ve never seen you so feisty.”

Laughing in response I get into the passenger side of my car. “Yeah, well, it’s amazing how good I’m feeling.”

He starts my car and carefully backs out of the driveway. “I’m glad.” He responds soberly. “I can’t believe how well you’re doing in physical therapy. You’re so tough.”

“I want to get better. I need to put all of this behind me.” I remark, effectively ending the conversation as I pick up the newspaper. “Now, where to? I know Jaden said that that Dorchester place was a bad idea, but do you want to check it out anyway?”

He thinks a minute, and then purses his lips. “No. Jaden seemed pretty certain that it was a neighborhood that I wouldn’t want to live in and I trust her. After all, she’s a cop and would know what she’s talking about.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Well, there’s always the place close to us in Beverly..”

“Too expensive. I can’t afford moving here and paying $1000 a month in rent, Grace. I don’t know how long it will be until I can sell the bar.” He answers dejectedly.

“I know.” I agree.

“I guess I have to make a decision. I need to go home for a while. As much as I love being here and spending time with you, I can’t think about moving here until I sell the bar and find somewhere to stay. I don’t want to be in the way with you and Jaden anymore than I already have, and I know that we’re having a good time and all, but I have to do what’s right.”

Stunned, I don’t reply. I don’t think my uncle has ever said that much in his entire life.

“So I’m going to get a flight home for tomorrow, now that you’re doing well on your way to recovery, and I’ll see what happens from there.”

“I understand.” I finally manage to say. “I’m really going to miss you. I want to thank you for coming out here. It means so much to me that you did and I can never repay you for the constant source of support you’ve been for me. I love you very much.”

“Back at you.” He responds, his voice gruff to hide his emotion. I smile sadly in my seat as we ride home in silence.

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

“Fuck off.” I mutter to the answering machine as I play the messages. There is a particularly nasty one to Grace from her mother. I struggle with myself internally, imagining a little Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder telling me to ‘always let my conscious be my guide.’ I’m sure he meant that kids shouldn’t steal cookies from the jar and crap like that, not decide weather or not you should delete awful messages from your lesbian lover’s ill-tempered parent.

Shrugging my shoulders, I hit delete. No big deal, I’ll tell Grace when the time’s right. It’s not like I haven’t been deleting Debbie’s bitchy messages all along anyway. What Grace doesn’t know, can’t hurt her. Yet. And maybe she’ll be flattered, even touched, that I was thinking of her well being by trying to shield her from her psycho-hose-beast of a mother.

Who am I kidding? Grace won’t be flattered or touched. She’ll give me that look that’s a cross between sadness and disappointment and give me that whole “this is my life and I can make my own decisions” speech again.

I know I sound like I’m making fun of her, and I’m not. I’m just constantly amazed at my complete stupidity when it comes to being in a mature and responsible relationship.

According to Miranda, I’ve got an incredible protective streak for Grace about five miles long. I think that whatever I’m doing is “helping” her, when in reality that isn’t the case.

So I probably shouldn’t do things like delete messages or not tell Grace that her mother called. And I really should probably stop talking to myself, because it’s really starting to freak me out. And I really really should stop using “quotations” all the time because I’m starting to sound like that Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live that Grace loves so dearly.

Footsteps up the hall startle me from my thoughts. Tossing my keys on the counter I turn just in time to see Grace and Rick enter.

“Hi!” She greets me brightly, standing up on her toes to give me a kiss. She’s so cute; I can’t resist putting my arms around her and nuzzling her neck.

“Hi yourself.” I tell her, squeezing her in a warm hug.

“Hi!” Rick greets, imitating Grace’s tone as he kisses my cheek and hugs me. Grace and I dissolve into giggles and he smiles briefly as he walks down the hall, the dogs trailing at his feet.

“What’s with him?” I manage to ask Grace after we finish laughing.

“He’s silly today.” Grace answers, smiling. “But he’s going home tomorrow.” Her smile fades and I pull her close to me for another hug.

“Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. But you’ll see him soon, okay? Maybe we can go visit after your physical therapy is over.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” She tells me, teary eyed. “Thanks.”

I kiss the top of her blonde head. “Anything for you, you know that.”

Pulling back from me, her aqua eyes brim with happiness.

“Yeah.” She says, smiling brightly. “I do know that.”

I return her smile, feeling like a lovesick teenager. I am so in love with this woman I don’t know what to do with myself. She snuggles into my embrace and I try to absorb her entire essence. She smells like lavender and peppermint today and is soft in my arms.

I could easily stay here for the rest of my life, completely enamored and at peace. But stupid Jiminy won’t get off of my shoulder. I sigh internally, knowing I have to do what’s right.

“Um, Grace, your mom called.”

She stiffens in my embrace. “I don’t care.” I start to interrupt her, but she shushes me. “Seriously, let’s have a good last night with my uncle. We’ll discuss the Wicked Witch of Ohio later.”

I can’t help but chuckle. “Your wish is my command.”

She presses against me closer. “That’s what I love to hear.” Laughing evilly, she adds; “I have you in my clutches, you are powerless to my wishes.”

“Oh no! Whatever will you do to me?” I respond in mock horror.

Grace tilts her head to look into my eyes. Smiling a devilish grin, she waggles her eyebrows. “Oh, you’ll see.”

I raise my eyebrows in return. “Promise?”

“Oh yeah. I promise.” She answers, leering at my chest.

Laughing, I lean down to kiss her. “You’re crazy.”

She responds by kissing me passionately. Pulling her closer, all thoughts flee from my head except the softness of Grace’s lips.

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

Logan Airport is pretty crowded for a Tuesday morning. The raised voices of the crowd surrounding us mute poor Herc’s sullen cries from his doggie carrier. It’s pretty neat; my Uncle can take him right on the plane and put him under the seat in front of him.

I don’t know how much Herc enjoys it, but it’s better than flying him in cargo. My uncle says that when they flew out here, Herc whined until they got on the plane and then promptly fell right asleep. I hope they have as easy of a trip back home.

He’s all checked-in and ready to go. I’m really going to miss having him around; he’s been such a pillar of strength since the accident. But I will enjoy having some quiet time alone with Jaden.

She has four entire weeks off from work. I can’t wait to sleep in late with her and go for walks on the beach and sit under the stars. No interruptions, no late nights or early mornings, nothing but a calm and relaxing time.

If Jaden and I can manage to have a calm and relaxing time. We seem to attract trouble like flies on manure.

I wrinkle my nose at the analogy. I gotta work on that one, there’s got to be something not as disgusting.

“My turn.” My uncle remarks as they call him for boarding. He stands and slings his bags over his shoulder. Jaden and I rise and my uncle opens his arms to me. I hug him fiercely, not caring how much the pressure hurts my shoulder.

“I love you. Thank you for everything. Call me when you get home safely.” I tell him, unashamed of the tears forming in my eyes.

“I love you too. I’m so proud of you, and you mean more to me than you’ll ever know.” He mutters, returning my hug with true affection.

We break apart, and Jaden surprises us all by wrapping her long arms around my uncle. “You’ve been great and I can’t thank you enough for coming out here.” She tells him, and my astonished uncle mumbles his thanks in return.

More composed when they break from their hug, my uncle regards us as Jaden wraps her arm around my shoulders. “You two are meant to be together. My Grace couldn’t be in better hands and I’m so happy that you found each other.”

He picks up Herc’s carrier and turns, headed for his gate. Jaden’s arm around me is warm and comforting, and although I’m sorry to see my uncle go, I know that I will see him again soon.

He turns and waves before getting on the plane and I smile brightly. He pretends to be such a grump, but he’s nothing more than a big teddy bear.

I sink into Jaden’s offered embrace, not caring who is watching. She nuzzles my neck and the feel of her powerful body next to mine makes all of my sad thoughts disappear immediately.

I have plans for her, and they are plans that I am completely sure will be carried out as soon as we get home.

I smile in her embrace. “Let’s get out of here.” I tell her, and she releases me, clasping my hand as we walk down the terminal.

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

Returning home, Grace and I have a light lunch of fruit and leftover potato and egg salad. Ever since Rick taught me how to make those, I’ve been practically obsessed with making sure we always have it fresh in the house.

It’s not that I even love potato or egg salad that much, it just feels nice to have it because every time Grace eats it she makes a big fuss over what a wonderful cook I am.

I wonder what Miranda would say about that. Probably that I am starved for affection because my mother left me at a young age and I’m trying to re-create that feeling of unconditional love or something like that.

“Goddess Jaden, this is so good.” Grace says between bites of the salad and I smile. Regardless of why I’m making salad all the time, it sure feels nice to make Grace happy.

“Yeah, I have to learn to cook different things. I’m potato salad-ed out.” I tease and she graces me with a sweet smile. “What do you want to do after lunch?” I ask and she thinks for a moment.

“Would you mind giving me a massage? My back and neck are killing me.” She looks embarrassed to ask but I can’t think of anything I’d like to do more than ease her pain.

“Sure.” I answer, finishing the last of my fruit. I start to clean up the kitchen, dropping pieces of hard-boiled eggs to Bean who is looking at me mournfully. She really misses Herc; they enjoyed each other’s company immensely.

I wonder if Grace would like another dog? I sure would, I never used to like dogs all that much until I realized how much fun it was to have Bean around. It would be cool to get a big dog, one that I felt could offer Grace some protection when I wasn’t here.

Maybe that’s not a good idea. I mean, our relationship right now is incredible and I love her so much, but the idea of getting another dog when we haven’t made any kind of real commitment to each other scares me. It would be like buying a house with her or something without being engaged or married.

Taking Grace’s empty plate from in front of her I lean down to kiss her neck. “Go and lay down in the bedroom, I’ll be right there.”

“Thanks.” She responds softly, turning her head to meet my lips. The kiss she gives me practically makes me jump out of my skin. It’s so hot, her tongue demanding entrance to my mouth while her full lips nibble mine.

I’m dumbstruck as she gets up and heads into the bedroom, her hips swinging invitingly. She’s so gorgeous that I don’t know what to do with myself.

‘Finish cleaning up and get in there, stupid.’ I tell myself, and concentrate on doing just that.

****

It doesn’t take me long before I am making my way into the bedroom. I clear my throat softly to let Grace know I’m in here because she is laying face down on the bed, completely naked.

Her pale body looks like a sculpture of the finest white marble. Feeling rather poetic and proud of myself, I continue to stare at her perfection. Her short blonde hair shows off her swan-like neck. Her shoulders are small, but strong and her back is lovely, dotted with small freckles in interesting patterns. Her waist is slim but womanly and her hips flow into her lovely behind.

I start to chuckle as that Sophie song enters my head. Grace lifts her head from the pillow, looking at me strangely.

“I see how you are. I’m in here naked and you’re laughing at me.” She says, smiling to let me know she’s just kidding.

“No, no, you remember that Sophie B. Hawkins song, ‘Big Beautiful Bottom?’ or whatever?” I ask her and she furrows her brows.

“No, never heard it.” She responds.

“It’s great.” I tell her, moving over to the bed to straddle her hips and tickling her lightly. She giggles and lays her head back down in the pillow. I softly sing to her, stopping to pepper her with kisses in between words. “I love your big beautiful bottom in my face, oh I’m as happy as a pig in outer space, when I have your big beautiful bottom in my face.”

She laughs now, her entire body shaking. I plant two loud kisses on her body part mentioned in the song and she snorts with laughter.

I have to laugh now; I’ve never heard her snort before and it was really cute. “Jeez, it sounds like you’re as happy as a pig in outer space.” I joke, and she struggles underneath me to turn over.

Noticing with much joy how easy it seems for her to maneuver now, I say a quick thank you to whoever allowed Grace to survive Aron. I’d be lost without her, completely lost.

Her entire body is visible to me now, and my eyes hungrily feast at the sight. She’s gorgeous and perfect and everything else I’ve ever wanted. I smile at her, reveling in this moment.

“I love you.” She tells me, and my heart soars. I know that she really does love me.

“I love you too.” I answer her honestly. “Now turn over so I can massage you.” I need to feel her skin against my hands, and I need it now. She complies and I ease my weight off of her until she is comfortable once more.

She hands me the oil she has laid on the bed and I squirt a bit on my hands, rubbing it together to make sure it’s warm. The windows are open and a scented ocean breeze blows the curtains, giving the entire room a relaxing feel.

I make long and hard strokes up and down her back, carefully avoiding her injured shoulder. It’s healed so well, the entire area is closed up and no longer red and irritated, but I don’t want to chance getting any oil on the wound. She moans with delight and I try to ignore her sensual noises.

Obviously, between Grace’s accident and her uncle’s presence, we haven’t made love in quite a while. Not that I am expecting her to suddenly be healed enough to even want too, but her moans under me aren’t making it easy to think about anything else.

I rub the knots out of her lower back and she sounds like she’s having an orgasm. I really think that she is trying to kill me. I’m not sure, but I think that she is.

“Feel good?” I ask huskily, and she groans loudly in return. Putting more oil on my hands I set about working on her neck. Her skin feels so much like satin under my fingers and I don’t know who is enjoying this more, her or I.

“Thank you.” Grace tells me, and I take that as my cue to be finished. She lies still for a second before turning her head towards me. “That was wonderful.”

“My pleasure.” I answer her, standing to go and rinse off my hands. I proceed to the bathroom and when I return Grace is lying on her back now, smiling at me enigmatically. I raise my eyebrows at her. “What?”

“Come here.” She tells me, crooking her finger. I comply and she sits upright with little difficulty on the edge of the bed. She puts her finger in the waistband of my shorts. “Off.” She orders, unbuttoning the denim shorts effortlessly and slipping then down off of my hips.

My eyes widen with surprise as she presses a kiss on my groin through my underwear. “Very nice.” Grace mentions, fingering my soft pink panties. “But these need to go as well.” As she did with my shorts, she pulls my underwear down, practically growling with pleasure as she views my naked form.

She now turns her attention to my top. “Off?” I ask her hopefully and she grins and nods. I remove the t-shirt from my head, and hurriedly remove my bra also.

“Good girl.” She tells me, and I smile. “Now, what was it that I was promising you yesterday in the kitchen?” She asks coyly.

“You didn’t promise me anything. You said I would see what you would do with me.” I tell her immediately.

She smirks in return. “Oh, that’s right.” She pulls my hips closer to her and kisses my stomach. I practically gulp and she laughs as she moves her mouth along my hips and thighs. “Spread your legs.” She tells me, her eyes the color of the darkest forest and I am helpless but to comply.

Using her tongue, she traces the line of where my lips meet my thigh. I shudder in response, not remembering anything that has ever felt this good.

“Jesus Christ!” I practically scream as her tongue finds it’s way to my most sensitive area. She works it in a perfect rhythm, bringing her fingers up and gently easing them inside me.

I know I’m moaning like an idiot and it’s all that I can do to stand upright on my trembling legs and not fall over. This feels so good, so incredibly good, and all I can concentrate on is Grace’s eager tongue. Her fingers pump inside me and as I wrap my hands gently in her soft hair she groans in return.

The noises coming from her humming throat are turning me on almost as much as her perfect tongue. It doesn’t take long until I am on the edge and I plead with her to make me come.

With an effective flick of the tongue I’m lost, feeling like I’m being shot from a cannon and flying through space. My entire body trembles, my hands clench in her hair, and my head feels like it’s too heavy for my body. I vaguely am aware of myself screaming with pleasure, and can only be aware of the entire sated feeling of my body.

When it’s over, I fall to my knees in front of Grace and lay my head in her lap. Struggling to regain my breath she strokes my hair and murmurs to me. I hug her legs and close my eyes, feeling completely loved by this woman.

Sometimes, life really rules.
Part 9

Journal Entry:
August 1, 2000
It’s funny how we take for granted the most simple of all things. For example, the ability to read, the fact that the sun rises each morning, and the gentle sound of waves crashing on a beach are all things that we forget to see and be thankful for daily. And why should we? We will always have them, and it’s easy to forget how important the unimportant things are in our life.

We take for granted that we will see our loved ones again. Do I regret not saying goodbye to my parents when I left Ohio? Sometimes. I wish that I could have told them that regardless of how much they hurt me, I do still love them. Now I’m unsure if I will ever see them again. I’ve called countless times and my mother either screams at me or refuses to speak with me.

Parents take for granted their children, as children do with their parents. Lovers who forget to say, “I love you” assume that their loved one will make it home later safely.

I’ve never had the courage to read the letter that Jaden wrote to me when she sent me to the cabin. I wasn’t strong enough to read it there, and I know I’m not strong enough to read it now. It holds a certain sense of mystery for me. Does it profess her undying love for me? Is it a tirade of her feelings of guilt for Jonah and express her thoughts about why she had to send me away? Knowing Jaden, it’s probably very short and direct, filled with thoughts of love and endearing remarks.

Did she ever think she would see me again? I know she didn’t think that Aron would find me, but does the letter speak of her belief that she would be killed? The curiosity overwhelms me at times, but the fear of what the letter contains keeps me from opening it. I don’t know if I can bear at this time to read of her final words to me. The thought of her dying by Aron’s hand is too much for me to handle now.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

I wonder if Aron had anyone at home waiting for him. I’m sure he had a family or someone who cared for him.

I do feel remorse for what happened. Not only do I feel the guilt of taking a life, I feel guilty for Ian giving his. Who justifies the worth of a human being? I don’t believe in God, at least the conventional Christian or Catholic version of God, but there has to be something or someone who decides if we live or die.

Usually we are not responsible for making that decision ourselves. Yet, I did. I decided Aron’s fate when I pulled the trigger. I don’t regret my decision; I know rationally that he would have killed Jaden and many others. But I still shouldn’t have had to make that decision.

I am sorry for what I’ve done. And as much as I love Jaden and care for Diana, Joe and my uncle, I feel as if they haven’t allowed me to feel bad for what happened. Everyone keeps telling me that it wasn’t my fault, and it wasn’t murder, but it was in a way.

It’s something else that we all just take for granted. Few people know what it is like to be responsible for someone else’s death. It is a feeling that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Jaden knows how I feel, even though I do believe that she wasn’t responsible for her brother’s death. But because she feels responsible even though she didn’t pull the trigger, she still feels the pain that I feel now.

I wish things were different for her, and for myself.

I always thought that I consistently embraced life to its fullest. But I know now, especially after the accident, that I didn’t used too. Like everyone else, I overlooked the everyday things, and only took notice of what I felt was important. I thought by writing in my journal that I was experiencing life and committing the memories down for later.

I was wrong.

Writing was my life. I have carried a journal with me from the time I learned how to write and I still have my earliest journals with me, filled with my uneven grade-school printing. I brought them with me from Ohio, and have looked through them with joy and sadness since the accident.

I was so overjoyed by the small things as a child, and my journals are filled with descriptions of the sun and the grass and the moon at night. I would write epics about a cat I saw in my back yard, everything from the dew it carried on it’s whiskers, to the sound it made when stalking bugs. My work from elementary and intermediate school was always filled with comments from my teachers citing my “over-descriptive” way of writing.

The Young Authors contest was held yearly in my school and I always entered, with stories such as “Kuni: The One-Legged Cherokee Boy” where as a third-grader I tried to deal with Kuni’s pain at losing his leg in a bear trap and his feelings while hobbling down the Trail of Tears. I was an incredibly over-analytical and intense child and would rather bury myself in the Black Stallion books than play outside or watch television.

As I grew older, my writings concentrated on stories of what I considered to be a “perfect” life. They are all about a little girl whose mother is a veterinarian and father trains horses. They are so funny to read now, but I can’t help but be saddened by the lonely child that I was who found comfort in her fantasy life.

My high school journals are filled with the usual, rants about petty fights with friends, the boys I was madly in love with (those entries especially humor me now), and what I wanted to do when I was a “grownup.”

But it is my writings from my later years that trouble me the most. Completely devoid of the important things in my life, they focus only on what I don’t have.

One could say that I have everything I ever wanted right now. My independence is mine since I left Ohio and I’ve found the one person in life that I am meant to be with. And though we haven’t made any huge, life-changing commitment to each other or even talked of the future, I know that my future is indeed with Jaden.

Funny, isn’t it? A woman that I know so little about, but feel as if I know better than anyone else has captured my heart. And I know she feels the same of me.

So why am I still feeling unfulfilled? I know rationally that the only way to feel fulfilled is not by other people loving you, but you loving yourself. And until I deal with my feelings from the accident, I fear that my life will continue down this uneven path.

The accident. I still call it that, like I was in a car crash or something. But I can’t think of a better word for it. The murder? That’s truly what it was. Sure you can throw the words self-defense in there, but regardless, I murdered Aron.

At this, I glance over to my sleeping lover, her long hair mussed around her peaceful visage. We have spent a beautiful summer day at the beach and just returned home when the sun began to set. I am so enjoying our time together; it’s wonderful for Jaden to have time off from work and even better to be able to be with each other night and day.

She is so tan, her normally olive skin a rich bronze from the bright rays of the sun. I, who curses my fair skin each summer, am an unusual shade of pinkish red regardless of how much suntan lotion I slather on myself.

But back to Jaden.

It is so rare that I have a glimpse of her sleeping. Our internal clocks always seem to be running at different times, and her biorhythm urges her out of bed in the early hours when I am just falling into my most deep of sleeps.

Today was no different. I awoke to find her gone along with Bean. By the time I crawled out of bed and showered they were just returning from their daily run. Jaden had her appointment with Miranda shortly after and I used the time alone to look through my old journals, excited at the prospect of finally writing pain-free from my shoulder.

By the time we returned from the beach this evening and made dinner, Jaden was exhausted, falling asleep on the couch shortly after.

She’s beautiful. I know I describe her that way often, and that is the first thing anyone notices about her. She’s striking, and people of all shapes and sizes are dumbstruck when passing her on the street.

To me, she holds a completely different kind of beauty. She possesses everything that a woman should be, strength, intelligence, the ability to love deeply, and a maternal instinct that is so strong that it overpowers anything else.

Jaden is the Great Goddess. And as I study her now, I notice the things that no one else does, like the errant freckle that dots her arm occasionally, the scar on her bicep shaped like a half moon, and how her ring finger is almost as long as her middle one.

She is not perfect, as nor am I. And I guess no matter how flawed we all may be, we still all have the inner strength that I see in Jaden.

We just all don’t know how to use it.

I guess I’ve lost my train of thought again. How does a comment about not enjoying the simple things in life lead me to this?

I smile now, not only laughing at myself, but at my ability to constantly amaze myself with my lack of attention span. I can’t stay on any one subject today.

All my thoughts are a field of dandelions that have just been scattered by the wind.

I need to find a job and finish college. It is something I’ve been putting off since I moved here and I have to get my act together. Now if I could only decide what I wanted to do with my life, it would help drastically.

Writing was my life. I know I already stated that, but it is true. I’ve always aspired to be a great writer because that is how I feel I could express myself. But now, since I’ve moved here, the urge to write has become less and less.

It’s amazing that the ability to express my feelings now out loud make the urge to commit them to paper almost fade.

A career in writing holds no appeal to me now, as does teaching. Those are the only things I’ve ever wanted to do with my life and it’s dreadfully frightening to have my two dreams not really be dreams anymore.

I want a career that I can sink my hands into and feel strongly about. The thought of being in a classroom everyday teaching doesn’t thrill me, as does the thought of sitting long hours in front of a computer typing away at my inner thoughts. I honestly feel that if I try and force myself to write as a career that I will lose the passion I have for it in my spare time.

Or at least lose the passion I used to have for it. I’ve always glamorized the life of a traveling bard, working my way from town to town, earning my living by entertaining the public masses. How wonderful it would be to travel the world with my scrolls and document everything that I see!

But I am becoming less of a bard now, and I find myself still eager to travel the world and document everything I see, but I want to absorb it and really feel it inside.

I would never consider writers to be distant from their environment, the way they describe and the feelings they evoke in their readers have always assured me that writers are incredibly in touch with their internal selves.

I understand now that writing is indeed a distancing technique. By committing it to paper, it ensures that the writer doesn’t have to feel what they are writing, just be able to describe and depict their observations.

Or perhaps this is just my experience. I do know that even as of now, only a few pages into my entry, that I am tired and bored with documenting my feelings. I grow restless of this now, and want to do nothing more than curl up on the couch with my dozing lover.

It’s easier than delving inside and dealing with all the feelings that churn around like angry waves.

We still haven’t really spoken about Aron except during the 4th of July fireworks. Funny, isn’t it? It’s been almost a month and we still haven’t even begun to explore how it has affected our relationship and us as individuals.

Jaden is ready. Her sessions with Miranda are helping her and she’s becoming more aware of her emotions and feelings by leaps and bounds.

And I, always the one who pressed her to talk and experience the feelings she used to hold inside, have now grown silent and stoic.

It’s as if we’ve changed roles. And while she seems to feel comfortable in her new skin, I can’t even begin to understand what has happened to my old one.

Things change, but always remain the same. An oxymoron, I know, but one that I’ve found to be true.

No matter how much Jaden or I change, the strength of the bond we share will always remain. That is something that I have infinite confidence in.

I can’t help but glance at her again, still finding her at peace in her sleep. The warm summer day has turned into a cool starlit and we both shiver at the cool air rushing through the open windows.

I will stop writing and shut them soon.

Stars, like far away fireflies, reflect off the smooth surface of the ocean. The moon pours her pale enchantment down to her reflection in its glass surface. The entire perfect scene reminds me of the Ani Difranco lyric; “The moon was so beautiful that the ocean held up a mirror.”

Tears now fill my eyes. There is something about the sky tonight that calls to me in almost a primal way.

These heavens bring thoughts of eternity.

The summer is almost over. I eagerly am awaiting my first fall in New England. Jaden has promised me the turning leaves here are unlike any other part of the country. We will drive through the White Mountains and pick apples, she said.

At the first sign that autumn is nearing I want to shut all the doors and windows tight and build a fire in the fireplace. There I will lay with Jaden and drink in the blue of her eyes.

I close my eyes, once, releasing the tears blurring my ability to see. I don’t know what to do right now, or in the future.

The urge to feel and deal with what happened with Aron is overwhelming. I just want everything to get better so I can enjoy my time I have with Jaden without the ghost of Aron constantly pulling at me, begging me to give him attention.

Wasn’t I writing earlier about humans overlooking the small things in life and taking things for granted?

Am I not doing the same? Do I not take for granted the thought that Jaden and I will be together long enough for me to constantly put my feelings about Aron on the back burner? I honestly believe that if something happened to either one of us right now that I would not want my last remaining memories to be of this huge white elephant named Aron standing in the room but the both of us being afraid to comment on it.

The time has come for me to put everything on the table and come to terms with what happened to Jaden, Aron, and myself. Because as much as I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’m the only one affected, Jaden has been deeply as well.

I think the way to start is to look at everything from the past. I’m still terrified to read Jaden’s letter. I need to do that, to see and feel her feelings before trying to sort out my own.

The timing is perfect, she is soundly asleep and everything is quiet. I’ve waited too long in the shadows. I’m coming out into the sun to reclaim my life.

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

Gracie,
I know you’re probably really pissed at me right now. I guess I can only hope that you didn’t either shred this or throw it away and that you’re actually reading it.

I don’t blame you for being mad. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if after this entire mess is over you decided that you didn’t want to see me anymore.

I want to start by saying that I’m sorry. I wish that I had disclosed my past with Aron to you before you moved here so you would at least be a little less shell-shocked. But please believe me when I say that I thought he was long gone and would never ever surface. I never expected him to come back into my life and I am sorry that he is now a part of yours.

I want you to be safe. Gracie, you’re the most important thing to me and all I want is for you to be happy. I can’t let him use you to get to me, and any idiot can see that you’re the direct link to my heart. I don’t want you to be a token that he can play with and I’m trying to do what is best for you.

I know you can’t believe me. And trust me, if I could write it any more eloquently, I would. Can you please trust that I’m trying to do what I see is fit?

Try to enjoy yourself up here. I know it will be hard, and I know you’ll do it anyway, but try not to worry about me.

Know that I’ll be thinking of you constantly and want you with me as soon as possible.

I love you.

Jaden
P.S. I’m sorry that I’m not good at writing like you are. I wish that I could tell you how much I love you and how the thought of you being up here alone kills me. Gracie, I’m scared. I know it sounds silly to admit, but I am. For the first time in my life I actually care if I live or die.

I can’t bear to think of not seeing your sweet face, or the deep forest green of your eyes when you first wake up. Did you know that your eyes change color, just like the different depths of the ocean? Sometimes they are a gray blue, other times they are aqua. I can tell your mood by your eye color. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true.

I want to be around to see the color of your eyes in complete happiness. I know things have been rough for you since you moved here, and I eagerly await the brilliant hue your eyes will shine with when you finally get all that you’ve been looking for.

Please know that I will do anything to have you return to me. And I know that right now you’re thinking of that awful David Duchovny-Minnie Driver movie by the same name. Yes, I agree with you, he shouldn’t have tried to be anything else but Fox Mulder. And yes, I also agree with you that Tea Leoni is the Yoko Ono of the X-Files.

But in all seriousness, I love you. And I want to make a life with you. I know it’s a big step and rather stupid to mention it only in a letter, but it’s how I feel.

I want to wake up with you in the morning and fall asleep in your arms. Basically, take the most cliché and sappy words to a country song and that’s how I feel. I’m hopelessly and completely in love with you.

When I see you again I will cherish you with a thousand kisses.

J
Part 10

August 4, 2000
Gritting my teeth against the pain I continue to raise my shoulder slowly up and down, feeling the strain of my fading injury.

“Good.” My physical therapist states approvingly, nodding as I continue my exercises. “Three more times.” He orders and I nod as I concentrate on lifting my arm holding the dumbbell straight into the air and back down again.

Finished, I uncurl my hand from the weight and stretch my arms above my head, eager to be finished with the therapy. I feel hardly any pain now except when using the weights, which doesn’t surprise me because I was never one for weightlifting anyway even before getting shot.

“Great job, Grace. You were very easy to work with and I wish you well.” My physical therapist, a nice young man by the name of Dan says before shaking my hand and leaving the room.

I smile broadly at Jaden as I grab my purse. She grins in return and gets up from her chair. “Let’s celebrate. We have time before our appointments. Where do you want to go for lunch?”

Thinking for a minute, I decide on Friendly’s. “I want ice cream.” I explain and she nods in agreement.

“Anything for you. I’m so proud of you for completing your therapy so well.” She muses as we leave the hospital for the last time.

“Thanks. I’m just grateful that I’m feeling so healthy. And I’m thankful for Uncle Rick making sure that I had health insurance.” I tell her as we head for her Explorer. After I came and visited Jaden, I spoke with my uncle about the hospital bill for my treatment after the whale watching boat sunk. At that time he immediately put me on his health insurance plan for being an employee of the bar, and luckily for me he didn’t cancel it before I was shot. There is no way I would have been able to afford my hospital bill and physical therapy.

“Grace?” Jaden calls and I snap back into present day.

“Sorry.” I tell her, blushing at being caught off-guard.

“No problem.” She answers, her blue eyes twinkling. “I just asked if you planned on getting in the car.”

I giggle at myself and climb into the tall Explorer. “Can we do something fun tonight? I mean, after having physical therapy this morning and then both of us seeing head doctors this afternoon, I would like to kind of cut loose later.” I explain, knowing that Jaden will feel the same.

“Yeah. I was going to see if you wanted to call Diana and Joe and go out.” She agrees, pulling out of the parking lot and heading toward the restaurant.

“Why don’t we just stop by the station and see her? We’re not that far away, right?” I mention, knowing that the hospital where I have therapy is close to Jaden’s station.

“Um, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Jaden says, her voice clipped. “I’d rather just call her.” She removes her cell phone from its holder on the dashboard and dials as I look at her quizzically. What in the hell is she being all mysterious about?

“Hey, Diana? It’s me. Listen, you and Joe want to go out on the town tonight?” She greets her friend, business-like as usual.

“Oh, okay. Maybe next week. Tell the kid that we hope she feels better.” Jaden finishes the conversation and hangs up the phone.

“What’s the matter with Kasey?” I ask, hoping she’s fine.

Jaden looks at me and wrinkles her nose. “She’s got chicken pox. Diana says she’s covered with them and they don’t want to leave her with a baby sitter.”

“Poor thing.” I say in sympathy. “I remember when I got them, I was only four or five. It was just awful.” I murmur.

“I never had them.” Jaden mentions and I raise my eyebrows in surprise.

“Are you serious?” I ask, wondering if she’s just kidding around.

“Yep. Every time it was going around my school everyone got it but me. I’m lucky.” She says, smiling at me, all traces of her former mysteriousness gone.

“You are lucky. We’ll have to take care that you don’t get them as an adult. I’ve heard it’s even worse then.”

“Don’t worry about me.” She says, laughing, “I have a great immune system.”

“Okay.” I tell her in a singsong voice. She just continues to laugh as we drive on.

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

Over lunch, I am content to gaze into her azure eyes as she offers ideas of what we can do tonight. Lost in the bronzed porcelain of her skin and her full lips I ignore my turkey supermelt.

“You going to eat or just stare at me all day?” She says succinctly as she bites into a french fry.

“Stare at you all day.” I tell her. She rolls her eyes in response.

“What do you want to do tonight?” Jaden asks and I answer immediately.

“How about go to that gay bar we went to when I was visiting from Ohio?”

She thinks for a moment, and smiles brightly. “Sounds like a plan. Why didn’t you say so before instead of letting me babble on for ten minutes?”

“I like to watch you talk. The way your mouth forms words is really sexy. It makes me think of other uses for that mouth.” I answer, grinning at her as I now begin eat my lunch.

Unable to come up with a response, Jaden actually blushes. I giggle at her red face, overjoyed at my ability to do that to her. She makes me blush constantly and yet I’ve never really been able to get her to do the same.

“Paybacks, baby.” I think to myself, completely enjoying this moment.

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

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I ask Grace, who looks completely uncomfortable as we sit in Miranda’s waiting room. At least we’re all alone and there is no one else in here. We have the first appointments of the afternoon after the office closes for lunch and I’m thankful that it’s so private.

“Yes, I think this is a good idea.” She answers while self-consciously smoothing out the non-existent wrinkles in her cute plaid pants.

I can’t believe she talked me into this. I’ve been seeing Miranda for a while now, and I really think that my therapy is helping. I’ve become more in touch with my inner self and I can see why I act in certain ways.

Miranda has also really helped me figure out why Grace scares me so much. Well, not that Grace herself scares me, but what she represents to me is scary. By speaking with Miranda and working on my mother issues, I’ve been able to understand that by committing to Grace I’m scared that I will put myself in a position of vulnerability that I don’t believe I can handle. Basically, because my mother left me I have a lot of unresolved fear and hostility that if I love someone again they will leave me too.

I never thought I’d be able to delve that deeply into myself and figure that out. I’m kind of proud and I keep telling Grace how wonderful Miranda is and how much it’s helping me.

Grace surprised me by mentioning that she thinks seeing a therapist would help her also. I spoke with Miranda about it and she mentioned that her office housed another therapist, a very experienced woman named Cheryl.

I told Grace and she immediately agreed to go. I don’t know why the thought makes me so nervous, probably because I’m scared that Grace will realize how bad I am for her. When I said that to Grace, she laughed because that’s how she said she felt about Miranda.

So I guess this can’t hurt, and if Cheryl can help Grace like Miranda has helped me, I guess our relationship will only grow stronger. And that’s pretty cool.

Today is Grace’s first appointment. Miranda just happened to have an opening at this time slot so Grace and I can come together.

The waiting room door opens and a young woman enters. “Hi Pam.” She greets the receptionist, and I assume that she just must be a regular patient here. Smiling at us, the young woman lets herself in through the door behind the receptionist desk that Miranda uses.

Weird.

I glance at Grace who seems to have calmed down some. She looks up at me, her pretty eyes the color of the ocean at sunrise.

“After our appointment, can we stop at the store? I want to make my grandmother’s homemade chicken noodle soup for Kasey and take it over. I remember it making me feel better when I had chicken pox.”

As always, I’m touched at Grace’s giving nature. “Sure.” I tell her, smiling as I take her hand to hold in mine.

The door behind the receptionist opens again and the young woman returns followed by Miranda. Miranda smiles at Grace and I as the young woman leans down on Pam’s desk and retrieves a chart, glancing over it quickly before pinning her eyes on us.

“Grace?” She asks, and my Gracie immediately stands. “Hi Grace, I’m Cheryl.” The woman introduces herself, smiling.

I stand next to Grace. “You’re Cheryl?” I ask, dumbfounded.

“Yes, she’s Cheryl.” Miranda answers and I look at her in confusion.

“You said that she was experienced!” I say to Miranda, who only laughs.

“I am. I swear I’m older than I look.” Cheryl interrupts and Grace flushes with embarrassment at my outburst.

“She is.” Miranda reaffirms. She introduces herself to Grace as I glance at Cheryl doubtfully before grinning.

“Sorry. I’m just a little protective I guess.” I tell Cheryl, offering her my hand. “I’m Jaden.”

“I gathered.” Cheryl responds, a smile on her attractive face. “Grace, shall we begin?” She says, her voice gentle. Grace looks to me nervously before following Cheryl into her office.

“Come on warrior.” Miranda jokes and leads me to her office. I follow properly like a chastised puppy. How was I to know that was Cheryl?

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

She’s really beautiful, her short black hair is cut similarly to mine and her face is delicate, almost fairy-like. She has luminous brown eyes and really looks like Winona Ryder.

Cheryl allows me to stare at her, and self-consciously I look around her small office. I’m relieved to find the place very welcoming, and also pleased to find feminist as well as gay and lesbian rights paraphernalia scattered around the office.

“I’ll start by telling you about myself.” Cheryl begins and I nod, eager to have her start the conversation.

“I’m thirty-two and I have a masters in psychology. I’ve been in private practice for two years and have worked as a psychologist at various universities before opening my own practice. I specialize now in working with gay and lesbian patients, which is why Miranda recommended me to work with you. I hope that you will feel comfortable talking with me and I look forward to being able to listen to your needs.”

“Thank you.” I answer honestly. She seems very genuine and attentive and hopefully she will be able to help me work through some of my issues centered on Aron.

“I guess I’m here to talk about what happened at the end of June.” I begin, knowing that once I start speaking it will be easier to continue. Cheryl nods encouragingly and I begin recounting the entire ordeal.

Sighing in relief, I finish my narration and anxiously await Cheryl’s response.

“Grace, you’ve been through a terrible trauma and it’s evident that while you have had the support of Jaden and your uncle, you still need to have the support of yourself. That is something that will not just suddenly happen, but instead you need to discover how to be able to support yourself.”

I nod in agreement. “I don’t really know how.”

“I understand. Especially in your case, it’s incredibly difficult because you have so many conflicting thoughts. Start by telling me what it felt like to shoot Aron.”

I swallow audibly, closing my eyes to answer. “Scary. Powerful. Mostly scary though.”

“Why scary?” Cheryl questions, her voice gentle.

“Because I knew if I missed that he would kill Jaden.”

“What about you? Did you think what would happen to you?”

I shake my head. “No, all I could think about was protecting Jaden.” I purse my lips and continue. “It was a powerful feeling, knowing that I was holding his life in my hand. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to pull the trigger.”

“But you were.” Cheryl reaffirms. “And you did. What did you feel after you found out what happened?”

“Nothing. I felt numb and scared. I thought that it wasn’t true and that he would come back to get us. And then when I found out that it was true, I felt numb. I couldn’t even feel anything for him and I didn’t feel like I killed him.”

“Why?” Cheryl asks softly.

“Because it was easier to feel nothing than to realize that I was and still am a murderer.” I answer equally as soft.

“I see. So by pushing away your feelings, it’s as if you can lead your regular life and act as if it never happened.” She responds.

“Yes.” I tell her, opening my eyes finally.

She smiles at me sympathetically, her warm brown eyes intelligently surveying my face. “And this is what is holding you back now, right?”

I nod in affirmation. “Exactly. I feel as if I can’t move forward until I deal with these feelings.”

“You’re correct. What we will focus on in our sessions is helping you discuss and be emotionally present with your feelings revolving around Aron. And by feeling what you need to feel, you will then be ready to deal with not only further internal explorations, but be able to feel as if you can move on in your life.” Cheryl finishes, smiling at me again.

“Sounds like a plan.” I tell her, my stomach rolling with nervousness and anticipation. I’m terrified of actually doing this internal work because I know it will be more draining than any physical therapy could ever be. But in the long run I’m sure that it will be so beneficial and I can’t lie and say I’m not excited to finally be able to move forward with my life.

“Do you feel as if I am the right person to help you on this journey?” Cheryl asks and I smile at her in response.

“Absolutely.”

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

Miranda shows me back into the waiting room and I sit back down, not seeing Grace. I’m assuming she’s still in with Cheryl so I look through the various scattered magazines.

I’m about to pick one up when my cell phone vibrates, the faint noise audible to my ears even through my leather satchel. I grab it and from my caller ID I see that it’s someone at the station. Assuming it’s Diana, I flip it open and answer quietly.

“Hello?”

“Jaden, it’s Steele.” His voice greets me much to my surprise. “You got a minute?”

“Hang on.” I tell him, standing up and slinging my bag over my shoulder. I lower the phone and cross to Pam’s desk.

“When my friend comes out, can you tell her I’ll be waiting for her in the hall?” I ask and the receptionist smiles and agrees.

I let myself out of the waiting room and resume the conversation with Steele.

“What’s going on?”

“We’ve gotten some news, about Aron’s buddies.” Steele begins and my heart stops beating.

“Okay, what’s the news.” I ask, scared to hear what he has to say.

“Well, some of it’s good, some is bad.” He begins. “The good news is that it looks like most of Aron’s followers have dispersed and have moved on to other things. The bad news is that there is a small group that have been making it known that they aren’t thrilled with the fact that he’s dead.”

I glance around the hallway, finding it empty before continuing. “Is Grace in danger?”

Steele answers immediately. “I don’t think so. I’ve got a few people on this and we’re checking around, trying to get anything we can to bring this group in. I just wanted to keep you informed.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate it.” I tell him honestly.

“No problem. Just be careful and don’t get too comfortable. I don’t want anything to happen to either you or Grace.” Steele adds genuinely.

“Same goes for you.” I answer. “Keep me informed, I’ll get backup from this end.”

“Sounds good. I have one of my guys watching your place, just to let you know so you don’t go crazy if you happen to see him. When are you coming back here anyway?”

“Next week. I’ll be in touch before then. Thanks for the heads up on your guy. Is he good?”

“He’s the best, he’ll take good care of you.” Steele responds before hanging up.

I sigh and run my hands through my hair. Shit shit shitty shit shit. I stash my phone away and pace around the hall, feeling cooped up and claustrophobic. Is this ever going to end? Can Grace and I ever have any peace?

“Hey tall, dark, and crabby. What’s the matter?” Grace’s voice breaks me from my brooding mood. I look to find her leaning against the wall, her arms crossed in front of her. She looks simply adorable in her pants and white top and I gently kiss her soft lips.

“Nothing. Let’s get out of here.” I tell her, grabbing her hand and practically dragging her down the hall.

“Seriously, Jaden, tell me. You’ve been acting strange since I mentioned dropping by the station and now you’re all upset again. Please don’t keep things from me.” She says, dragging her heels and forcing me to stop halfway down the hall.

I sigh and glance down at her, unable to keep anything from her anymore. “Steele just called to tell me that it looks like a few of Aron’s losers are making waves about his death.”

Her reaction is unreadable. She looks at me thoughtfully before biting her bottom lip. “What should we do?” Grace asks, her blonde eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

“Harry’s got one of his guys keeping an eye on things and he’s checking things out himself. That’s all we can do right now.” I tell her, my tone soft.

“Okay. We’ll just be careful. But I’m not going to live my life creeping around and terrified that we’re being targeted. Life is too short, Jaden.” Grace states and I take her hands in mine.

“I know. So let’s make the best of it.” I respond and she smiles gently as we walk down the hall hand in hand.

“Why can’t I go in?” I plead like a child and Grace practically growls at me.

“I don’t want you to get contaminated! If you get sick you’ll really regret it Jaden!” Grace admonishes me. In response I fold my arms over my chest and stick out my lower lip.

“Please? They are my friends too. I won’t see Kasey, I’ll just say hello to Joe and Diana.” I plead.

“Jaden, no way. Even if you don’t see Kasey, their house still has her chicken pox germs flying all over it. I’m not even going in. I’m going to knock on the door, say a quick hello and drop off the soup. It will take five minutes.” She argues, her cute blonde face scrunched up as she pleads her case.

“I won’t get sick. I just want to say hello.” I argue and she throws up her hands in defense.

“Fine. But if you get chicken pox, don’t come crying to me.” She says before sighing and getting out of the car.

Reveling in my victory, I grin and follow her up to the house. We ring the bell and Grace takes the crock of soup from my arms as the door opens.

“Jaden!” Kasey screeches, throwing herself into my arms. Instinctively I catch her, unable to stop her assault of hugs as I hurry to put her down. Grace puts the soup down on the stoop and takes the child from my arms as I back away down the driveway.

“Kasey!” Diana calls from behind the door, emerging to look at me curiously. She sees a polka-dotted Kasey resting happily in Grace’s arms, a worried Grace, and myself backing slowly away from the two of them, my arms extended and fingers crossed in front of me as if I’m trying to ward off a vampire.

“What is going on? Why are you out of bed young lady? Grace, what are you doing here? Jaden, what in the hell are you doing?” Diana demands, looking completely frazzled.

“Sorry Mama.” Kasey states, wriggling out of Grace’s arms and running back in the house.

“We brought over some soup for you, I thought it would make Kasey feel better.” Grace explains, picking up the crock of soup and handing it to Diana. “Although it seems as if she’s fine.”

Diana shakes her head. “I don’t know where she gets her energy. Most kids would be in bed for days with chicken pox. From the time that I got home she’s been racing around the house like a madwoman.”

Grace nods in sympathy. “I’m sorry we bothered you.”

Laughing in response, Diana takes the soup from Grace and hugs her. “You’re never a bother. I’m just sorry that the kid assaulted the both of you!”

“It doesn’t bother me, but Jaden wouldn’t listen to me and stay in the car. Do you know she’s never had chicken pox?” Grace tattles on me to Diana, who looks at me disapprovingly.

“Jaden! You better not get sick!” Diana scolds and I approach the both of them.

“You are both worrywarts. I’ll be fine.” I tell them.

“Sure.” They answer in unison, looking at each other in disbelief.

“You two really do have a conspiracy against me, don’t you?” I ask, half joking.

“Yes.” They answer again in unison, laughing between themselves.

I look at them warily before waving goodbye and heading for the car. Grace bids farewell to Diana and follows me.

As we pull away Grace puts her hand on my forehead. “You feel kind of warm.” She says and I look at her with surprise.

“Do not.” I argue, feeling completely fine.

“Do so.” She answers back.

“Grace!” I say, my voice whiny. “I do not!”

“You don’t. I was just kidding with you.” She responds, smiling. “So, you ready to go out and paint the town red tonight?” Grace asks eagerly and I grin in return.

“Yeah. This is going to be fun.” I respond, taking her hand in mine.
Part 11

Friday, August 4, 2000
I have such a great plan. Grace and I decided to go to the gay bar in Boston tonight, just to relax and have a good time. I keep telling Grace that we will go into the city and I’ll show her around, but we haven’t done that yet. Tonight is the perfect night to stay over in the city and spend the rest of the weekend just having fun.

I wanted to plan something special for Grace’s birthday, which is the 13th of August. I thought we could take a trip to Vermont and go horseback riding somewhere now that her shoulder is pretty much healed. But I’d rather do that in the fall so she can experience the New England foliage on horseback. It’s indescribable. So maybe I’ll plan a trip to P-town for Grace’s birthday. Yeah. I think she would love that.

So for tonight, why shouldn’t I splurge a little on the woman I love? I think that this weekend will be just wonderful and I can’t wait to spoil her rotten.

First things first. I have to find someone to watch Bean. Normally Joe & Diana would do it in a second, but they already have two dogs and an infected child. So I can’t burden them with anything else, even a dog as well behaved as Bean.

I guess we could board her at a kennel, but I know Grace would be worried and truthfully, so would I. That little dog has me wrapped around her paw. Not that I’d ever admit it to Grace.

What about Steele? I’m sure I could convince the big lug to come over and housesit for the weekend. I know that since he came into town to work on the Aron investigation he hasn’t found an apartment yet and is currently being put up in a motel. I’ll at least try him; I don’t want to be pushy or anything and if he balks at the idea then I guess I’ll either try a kennel or just scrap the idea for the weekend.

“Jaden? I’m getting in the shower.” Grace calls from the spare bedroom. She’s been in there forever, agonizing over what to wear to the bar.

“Okay.” I answer, and am rewarded by her naked form walking down the hall into the bathroom. “Thanks for the peep show!” I add and I hear her giggle as she shuts the bathroom door.

I don’t have much time to make all of my plans so I better jump on it. Having Steele’s cell number memorized I quickly dial and greet him brightly.

“Steele.” His voice answers.

“Hey buddy! It’s Jaden. How are you?” I answer, practically dripping with friendliness.

“Hi partner. Why are you being so nice?” He responds cautiously.

“I’m offended. Can’t a person just be glad to talk to her friend?” I say, my voice offended.

“Yeah right. Seriously, what do you want?” He responds good-naturedly.

“You have plans for the weekend yet?” I ask, knowing he hasn’t really socialized with anyone on the force yet.

“Nothing else other than a baseball game and some beer.” He responds dejectedly. Jesus Christ, we really have to get this guy a life.

“Want to do your favorite partner a favor?”

He pauses for a minute. “Sure. But on one condition.”

“What’s that?” I question him warily.

“You never call me Harry again.” He answers, chuckling under his breath.

I sigh in frustration. Of course Grace’s enjoyment of this weekend is more important than my silly little pet name for him. “Consider it done.” I tell him and have to pull the phone away from my ear when he responds with hoots and hollers. After he calms down I clear my throat. “You wanna know what you have to do?”

“Yep.”

“I want to surprise Grace and take her into Boston for the weekend and Joe & Diana’s kid has chicken pox so they can’t watch the dog. I don’t want to put her in a kennel so I thought maybe you would want to housesit for us until Sunday evening. My next shift isn’t until Monday afternoon, when’s yours?”

“Monday afternoon. Captain said he wants us to clear up these Aron leads immediately and I don’t know what my status is after that.” Steele responds and I note a tinge of sadness in his normally upbeat voice.

“You want to stay on?” I question him.

“Kind of. I like it here.” He answers. “Anyway, I think it’s a great idea. You and Grace deserve a little mini-vacation now that she’s all set with therapy. And when you get back on Monday we can go balls to the wall on this Aron thing.”

I try to ignore his use of slang but can’t help but chuckling anyway. “Great. We’re leaving in a few hours to take the train in. I have to find a hotel room for the weekend and pack Grace a bag before she gets out of the shower. Can you get here tonight in about an hour?”

“Around 6:00? Yeah, that would be great and I can give you guys a ride to the train station. And while you’re gone I can make sure none of Aron’s followers are snooping around here. I’ll see you then.” He responds enthusiastically.

“Thanks. Call me when you pull in the driveway. You’re a pal.” I tell him sincerely as he hangs up.

Perfect. Now to find a hotel room on last minute notice. There are a lot of nice hotels in Boston, but I want to take Grace to somewhere special. The Park Plaza is really nice and close to Boston Common. I think I’ll try there first.

Calling information, I get the number and quickly dial before Grace finishes her shower. She actually seems to enjoy showers again, something that she hasn’t experienced since the shipwreck.

The hotel answers and transfers me to guest services. I quickly inquire about the availability of the rooms and they quote me a ridiculous rate for the weekend. Having no ability to barter, I relent and give them my credit card number. Nothing is too good for my Grace, that’s for sure.

Task number two done. Now all I have to do is pack Grace some clothes and see when the next train is headed into Boston. I think it will be fun for her to ride the train into the city, and that way instead of being burdened with a car and trying to find parking in the city we can just take the T or cabs wherever we want to go.

I want to take her somewhere nice for dinner and to the museums and stuff. So she needs a few nice outfits. I suppose I could just tell her of my plans and everything but that would ruin the fun of surprising her.

Heading to the spare bedroom I am glad to hear the shower water still running. Good thing I already took mine or I’d have nothing but cold water.

The room is clean, with fresh linens on the bed that I had delivered for Rick. That’s great, Steele can sleep in here. Grace’s closet contains her neatly hung clothes and from the time that I was in Ohio and observed her incredibly messy room I know how much of a feat it is for her to be neat here. I appreciate her efforts, but I wouldn’t care if she trashed the place. I’d love her anyway.

I grab a few of her favorite outfits as well as appropriate clothes for any kind of weather. I select the shoes she would wear to match and then try to decide what to bring for a formal outfit. Something slinky but refined so wherever we go she’ll look incredible.

Furrowing my eyebrows, I pull a beautiful black silk shirt out of the closet. I’ve never seen her wear this! The short-sleeved v-neck top is beautiful and I can only imagine how it would look on her. It is hung with a black knee-length skirt that features small white pin dots on it. The entire outfit looks like something right out of the 1940s and I bet it looks gorgeous on her.

I’ll bring this. I also grab a simple black sheath dress from the closet in case Grace hates this other outfit for some reason. Pulling her dress shoes from the closet floor I add a pair of nude pantyhose to my pile of her clothes.

Gathering up the clothes I hurry to our bedroom to pack them. I quickly fold everything neatly in my small suitcase. Running over a list of what I’ve packed I realize that I’ve forgotten Grace’s underwear and any jewelry she might need. I head back to the spare room and rummage through her underwear drawer, wishing I had more time to relish in this task. I pull a few practical bras and matching panties, and add a few that are more risqué. I take Grace’s box of special jewelry as well as a few of her everyday items that I know she will need.

I pack the few remaining items and remind myself to get her cosmetics from the bathroom when she’s done showering. I put all of my clothes I’m taking into another small suitcase and get any other things I know she’ll want, such as cameras and sunscreen and put them in her well-worn book bag. I add that to her suitcase and zip it up, storing it along with mine in the front closet.

I’m halfway through tidying up the spare bedroom to hide the fact that I’ve been in here when the water shuts off. Perfect timing.

Grace emerges from the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel and a smile. “I’m so excited to go tonight!” She remarks and I grin at her in return.

“I am, too. Listen, I know we said we weren’t going to leave until nine or ten, but I thought we could head into the city earlier and have dinner. Sound good to you?” I ask and her eyes light up in happiness.

“That would be great! When do you want to go?” She responds, her soft pink lips framing her delicate smile.

Glancing at the clock in the kitchen, I see that it’s about 5:30. Steele will be here in a half-hour.

“Around 6:00. Can you be ready by then?”

Her eyes widen in surprise when she realizes that it’s such a short time. “I’ll hurry, but yeah. This is going to be so much fun, thank you.” She finishes sincerely and I can’t help but pull her close and wrap my arms around her damp body.

“I love you and would do anything for you.” I tell her. “Now go get ready!”

She patters into the bedroom and I head for the bathroom, getting all of our cosmetics and shower stuff and putting it in a plastic bag so it won’t leak over our clothes.

“I’m taking the dog out.” I call to her from the living room and she thanks me, her voice muffled by the bedroom door. I take the two suitcases from the closet and add the bag to their contents. Then I call Bean, who is enjoying the large sunspot in the living room and head out the front door with both suitcases and the dog.

We head down the stairs and outside to the Explorer. Throwing the suitcases in the back, I then take Bean into the back yard for her potty break. I let her off leash in the fenced-in back yard and she excitedly hops around, sniffing everything in sight.

I allow her a little romping time before calling her in. She obediently trots over to me and I clip her leash back on her collar and head into the building.

“Don’t worry, Harry is coming over and he’s a nice guy who will play with you in the back yard and give you lots of treats. I promise. And your mom and I will be back in a few days. You’re going to have fun.” I tell the little dog as we head up the stairs. Hey, I promised Harry I wouldn’t call him that anymore, but it doesn’t mean I can’t keep it between the dog and I.

Letting myself back in to the apartment I see that Grace is now in the spare bedroom putting on her makeup. I dress quickly and dust on some light eye shadow and mascara, and after brushing my teeth I add a soft burgundy lipstick. Adding a few touches of jewelry I grab my makeup and throw it in my leather satchel. I put on my shoes and glance at my watch. It’s 5:50 and Steele should be here any minute.

“You almost ready?” I ask Grace, calling to her from the kitchen.

“Yeah.” She responds and I see her walk quickly from the spare bedroom to our bedroom once again. I use this as my opportunity to sneak into the spare and grab her makeup, adding it with mine in my bag.

“How do I look?” Grace asks from our bedroom and I head in there to answer her.

As expected, she looks completely hot. She is wearing leather pants. Leather pants!? Who knew that Grace owned leather pants, let alone would wear them? She has on great black boots and a tight red slinky shirt. I’ve never seen her look more sexy. No, that isn’t the right word. Not only does she look hot and sexy, she looks beautiful with her well-applied makeup and stylishly messy hair. She’s incredibly lovely. I think that’s what I’ll tell her. It sounds more poetic than ‘hot’.

“You look incredibly lovely.” I tell her softly, and am rewarded by a gentle smile.

“As do you. Jaden, I’ve never seen you look more beautiful.” She responds and I feel a faint blush cross my face. Come to mention it, I feel like I’ve been constantly blushing for the past hour or so, I’ve been so overheated. Must be because I was rushing around like crazy trying to pull off Grace’s surprise.

“Well, let’s grace everyone with our loveliness, shall we?” I take her hand and pull her toward the kitchen. She gathers her wallet and slinging her small black bag over her shoulder, she bends down to say goodbye to Bean.

The phone rings, and I grab it. “Hello?” I ask, hoping it is Steele.

“Dog-sitter at your service.” He responds and I chuckle. “I’m in the driveway.”

“You’re the best. I owe you big time.” I tell him, hanging up the phone. Grace looks at me curiously.

“What’s going on?” She remarks and I wave my hand in the air, dismissing the phone conversation.

“Just work stuff, no big deal.” I answer. “Let’s get out of here!” I grab my keys off of the counter, knowing that I have Grace’s set to give Steele in my pocket.

We coo our goodbyes to Bean and head down the stairs. As we head outside, Grace notices Steele’s car.

“What’s he doing here?” I ask, beating her to the punch. Steele turns off the engine and gets out, making it seem as if he just pulled in.

“Hey guys! I was driving around and thought I’d come and say hello.” He remarks and Grace gives him a welcoming hug.

“Sorry, we’re just on our way into the city.” I tell him, trying to keep a straight face.

“Oh.” He responds, his face disappointed. “I was hoping you wanted to go out for dinner or something. Maybe next time. Are you driving in or taking the train?” He asks, already knowing my answer.

“The train?” Grace questions and I pretend to think about the idea.

“That’s a great idea, partner. That way we don’t have to park the car.” I look at him, grinning. “You mind dropping us off at the station so I don’t have to leave my car there? I have a schedule upstairs on the fridge for the train.”

“That would be so much fun!” Grace adds. “Do you want me to go and get the schedule?”

I smile fondly at her. “I’d love for you to do that. Thanks.” Gracie smiles and takes my keys to let herself back in the house.

When she’s out of earshot, I turn to Steele and hug him. “I really appreciate this. You’re the best, you know that?”

“Yep, I do.” He says, smiling. “Seriously though, it’s not a problem.” I thank him again and we take the suitcases from my Explorer and transfer them into Steele’s trunk. I hand him Grace’s house keys.

“Bean is a great dog. Give her fresh water everyday and she has dry food in an automatic feeder that should last her through the weekend. She loves people food and expects a part of whatever you eat, but make her do a trick before giving it to her. No chocolate or citrus fruit though, it will make her sick.” I tell Steele, feeling like a parent leaving their child for the first time.

“She is great about going outside to potty, she needs to go every eight hours or so. You can take her into the back yard and let her off leash there if the gate is shut. She loves to play and will probably sleep with you at night.” I add and he nods intently.

“Anything else?” He questions.

“Yeah, you can sleep in the spare bedroom, the bed is all made up for you. The fridge is stocked; help yourself to whatever is there. You can answer the phone if you want or let the machine get it. And be careful, you never know what Aron is going to try, dead or alive.”

“Yes ma’am. I am a cop, you know.” Steele can’t help but resist adding. I smile and punch him lightly on the arm.

“Thanks again.” I tell him. “I don’t have many friends but I’m proud to consider you one.”

“Same here.” He answers, grinning to reveal his white teeth. “Looks like Grace is raring to go.” He continues, nodding toward the door where Grace has just emerged. “You two deserve to be happy. I really like her.” Steele finishes.

“Me too, my friend. Me too.” I tell him softly, my eyes drawn to the way the sun glints off of Grace’s red gold hair. She is beaming as she trots towards us, the bright green of the train schedule visible in her hand.

“There is a 6:30 train, can we make it?” She questions when she reaches us.

“Sure. Let’s go.” Steele answers and we all pile in his car.

We all chatter on the way to the train station. Beverly actually has two stations, and one is fairly close to our apartment. I direct Steele to that one, knowing that we will indeed make the 6:30 train. That’s exactly how I planned it, and we will arrive in Boston a little after 7:00. From there we will take a cab to the hotel and grab something to eat before heading to the bar.

Reaching the station Steele lets us out and pops open the truck. I take the suitcases out and set them on the ground, waving to Steele as he drives away. Grace looks at the suitcases curiously and I know it won’t be long until she is forced to ask me what they are for.

I act like nothing is out of the ordinary and head for the train, carrying both cases. Grace trots after me and I look at her and smile.

“What gives, Jaden?” She finally asks.

I shrug my shoulders and peer at her strangely. “What do you mean?”

She rolls her eyes and laughs. “The suitcases? Why do we need them to go to a bar?”

“Who said we were just going to the bar?” I respond, nodding to the attendant as I step onto the train, Grace following.

“What does that mean? Where else are we going?” She questions.

“You’ll see, my dear. All in good time.” I respond as I select a seat and put our suitcases on the luggage rack above the seat. I allow Grace to scoot in first so she can have a window view. It’s pretty neat taking the train into the city and I know Grace will just love it.

“Jaden, you know I can’t stand surprises. I’m too impatient. Please tell me!” She answers beseechingly, her hands clasped together.

I just cock my head and smile at her, turning to give the attendant our money for the tickets.

Grace sighs and folds her arms over her chest, slumping in her seat and pouting. I slide over closer to her after receiving my change and put my arm around her.

“You really want to know?” I ask, my voice teasing her.

“Yes!” She demands. “Jaden, whatever it is that we’re doing, I know it’s going to be wonderful. I’m so lucky to have you and I hope you know how incredible you are to me. I’m very much in love with you.” She finishes, pulling me down for a sweet kiss.

“We’re staying over in the city for the weekend.” I tell her in between kisses. She shrieks with delight and wriggles in her seat like a puppy. Speaking of, I better tell her about Bean before she starts to worry.

“And don’t worry about it, Steele is going to house and puppy-sit for the weekend. Bean’s in great hands.” I add, gazing into her forest green eyes.

Gracie is silent for a few seconds. “You’re incredible.” She finally says, her lower lip trembling as her eyes fill with unshed tears.

“You make me want to be incredible.” I respond, pulling her close to me. She fiercely wraps her arms around me and buries her nose into my hair.

This is going to be a good weekend.
Part 12

Friday, August 4, 2000
Swirling the bright green of my margarita around in the glass I tip my head back to finish the last few sips. I shudder as the cold alcohol makes it way down my throat and laugh as I set the glass down and take Jaden’s hand to return to the dance floor.

We’re having an incredible time. If I didn’t already consider myself the luckiest person in the world for having someone as amazing as Jaden in my life, I do now. It’s unbelievable to me that she went to all this trouble to surprise me with this weekend.

It’s perfect. The hotel is beautiful; our room is spacious with a great view of the skyline. We walked into the lobby and I felt like I was walking into a movie set, the hotel features a fountain and gorgeous glass chandeliers. I stood there gaping like a codfish until Jaden finished checking in.

She suggested a cool restaurant called the “Brew Moon” for dinner and the food was incredible and the design so interesting. The interior was really well done and gave the restaurant an interesting and industrial-type of feeling. After having a few drinks over dinner we came to the bar and have been having a blast dancing and enjoying a night out.

We haven’t done much of this since I moved here; there hasn’t been enough time. Not that I’m big into the party scene, but it’s nice to be able to kick back and enjoy life. Plus, I was never exposed to gay and lesbian culture in Ohio and it’s awesome to see so many people in one place that I know are friendly.

I know I’m getting more and more drunk and I want to slow down. Jaden is the one who doesn’t get hangovers but I haven’t forgotten my first night here at this bar and how awful I felt the next morning. I plan on taking Jaden up on her offer for a day of sightseeing around the city and I don’t want to be nursing a headache all day.

She’s so beautiful. Jaden is having a wonderful time, I can tell. I feel like we are a million miles away from Aron and all the memories surrounding him. I know we’re only forty minutes from home, but it still feels like we are in another country. She is smiling more than I’ve seen her since the accident and just letting herself go.

I can’t believe how she can dance. I know I still make fun of her and Joe for their horrendous performance at the China while singing karaoke, but here, with this music and with my body pressed against hers she really can dance. I can’t wait to show her how much I love her when we get to back to the hotel. Another reason I have to make sure I don’t get drunk. I want to remember everything about tonight.

The heavy throbbing of the music drives me against her body and we move in perfect synchronicity until we are both breathless. Her long hair tickles my bare arms that are wrapped around her neck. Her arms are wrapped tightly around my lower back and her breasts rub teasingly against my chest. She looks stunning tonight, wearing an iridescent blue top and tight black pants. Jaden’s body is driving me wild and as I remove my arms from around her neck and run my hands up her sides I feel her shudder at my touch and I know I’m having the same affect on her.

The song fades and another techno-sounding one begins. I wipe the sweat forming on my forehead and blow out an overheated sign. Jaden looks winded as well so I take her hand and lead her back over to our table.

Once we sit, we don’t let each other go, content to sit with our hands interlocked. I gaze into Jaden’s impossibly blue eyes. “I love you. Thank you for this.” I tell her and she cocks her head and smiles. I don’t think she can hear me over the dance music. Laughing, I reach to her and pull her shoulders closer to me. I repeat my former sentence while reaching to push a stray lock of hair back behind her ear.

She is burning up. I put my hand against her forehead, knowing that I am also hot from all the dancing, but she feels unusually hot.

“I love you too.” She answers, taking my hand pressed to her forehead to her lips instead. Jaden tenderly kisses my palm before returning it to her own hand.

“You feel okay?” I ask, louder this time. She peers at me strangely and shrugs her shoulders.

“Yeah, I’m great. You want another drink? I think I’ll have one more.” She stands and I nod, deciding that I will have one more also. We’ve been here a few hours now and have been drinking slowly. Squeezing my hand before heading to the bar, Jaden cuts effectively through the thick crowd with little trouble. I don’t know how she does that.

I know she’ll be up there awhile. It’s packed here tonight and only by getting here early were we able to get a table. I survey the crowd, smiling at the amount of people going to town on the dance floor. I never knew that gay men were such amazing dancers. I wonder if my uncle dances? I chuckle out loud thinking of him trying to dance, I can’t imagine him ever doing such a thing.

I miss him. He’s been back in Ohio such a short time but I can’t believe how much I enjoyed having him here. Jaden mentioned maybe going back to visit sometime this summer and I hope we do. I miss him and I miss Lydia. And as much as I hate the thought of it, I need to sit down with my mother and father and tell them once and for all that I am never coming back to marry Scott. I think I’ll even tell them about Jaden and the fact that I’m gay. I don’t want any more secrets in my life.

“Excuse me?” A voice interrupts me from my thoughts. I glance above me to see two women around my age standing at our table.

“Hi?” I offer questioningly, unsure as to what they asked me.

“Are these two seats taken?” The shorter of the two asks politely, motioning at the two seats Jaden and I aren’t using. “There are no other tables and we really hate to bother you, but we’ve been trying to find somewhere to sit all night.” The woman finishes, smiling at me.

“Sure, have a seat. We only had a table because we were here so early.” I respond, sticking out my hand to introduce myself. “I’m Grace McKenzie, nice to meet you.”

“I’m Kim Chase, nice to meet you also.” The shorter woman answers, shaking my hand. I smile brightly at her and turn my gaze to the taller woman.

“Stacey Harris.” The tall woman says shyly. I shake her hand and smile at her as well. They both sit and a few seconds of uncomfortable silence fill the table. I’m not really sure of etiquette, I mean, are we expected to talk because we are sharing a table? Or do they not want to make small talk and just needed a space to sit? Never one to back down from a situation, I get the ball rolling.

“Are you from around here?” I ask, deciding that if it’s obvious that they don’t want to talk, I’ll shut up and wait for Jaden to get back.

Kim speaks first. “Actually I am. We live north of here.” She says, gesturing toward Stacey.

“I moved here from Michigan.” Stacey offers softly. I turn to her, immediately feeling like we have something in common and smile at her. She seems very nice, just shy.

“I moved here from Ohio. It’s a different world here, isn’t it?” I offer and her blue-gray eyes light up. She nervously pushes her curly brown hair behind her ear.

“It really is. I’m still trying to adjust.” She says and Kim pipes in.

“Stace is still a little nervous being out in public, you know? She didn’t feel comfortable back home with her sexual preference, and it’s still hard for her to feel safe here.” Kim finishes.

“You know, I am right here! You don’t have to talk about me like I can’t hear you!” Stacey adds, elbowing Kim in the side jokingly. Kim just shrugs and the three of us laugh.

“Is Michigan not gay-friendly?” I ask curiously. “I mean, my part of Ohio is definitely not, but I know some parts like Cleveland and the bigger Ohio cities have more tolerance for lesbians and gays. But I know how you feel, it’s strange to be able to walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand and not worry about being singled out.” I add.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Michigan isn’t awful, but I’m pretty shy anyway.” Stacey responds.

“Well, now that you’re here you can be as gay as you want until you go home for the holidays.” Kim chimes in. “And I’ll go with you and pretend to be your college roommate again.” She adds playfully.

“Are you both in college?” I ask, feeling comfortable with Stacey and Kim. They seem really nice.

“Yeah, we go to Pressman College, in Salem.” Kim responds. “We will be juniors this year.”

“Do you like it there?” I inquire, knowing that I need to get on the ball and figure out what to do in my life so I can finish school.

“I love it.” Stacey answers. “It’s a nice school, small enough that the classes are small but large enough that it actually feels like a college.”

“That sounds great. We live in Beverly and I’ve been trying to decide where to finish college out here. I hated my school in Ohio and left before graduation so I’m trying to figure out what to do and where to go.” I add, sighing when I realize how much work I have ahead of me.

“It’s nice.” Kim adds thoughtfully. “They have a great transfer program, you really should check it out. Stace transferred here from Michigan State and they accepted almost all of her credits. Plus, because it’s a private school you won’t get charged with a non-resident tax and it has great financial aid. I’m going completely on scholarships.” She finishes.

“Thanks, I will. Do you live on campus?” I ask. “Maybe I can get you to give me a tour or something.”

“Sure!” Stacey exclaims brightly and Kim nods eagerly. “That would be fun. We share a room on campus and are there all the time. Right now we are staying with Kim’s parents until fall semester resumes and they live in Salem so we’re pretty close to where you live.”

“Remind me to give you my number before you leave, okay?” I finish, excited at the thought of having two people going to a school close by. Maybe Pressman will be the place for me to figure out what I want to do.

Stacey and Kim’s eyes both widen in surprise as they glance behind me so I assume that Jaden is there, giving them an intimidating stare. I turn around to see that I’m exactly right. Taking my drink from her hand I tug her down into the seat next to me.

“This is Kim and Stacey.” I tell her, my eyes imploring her to be polite. Not that I think she’d do anything crazy like pick them up and throw them across the room just for talking to me, but there is something murderous in her eyes that I can’t figure out. “Guys, this is my Jaden.” I tell them proudly, all the while pleading with the Gods and Goddesses above for Jaden to behave.

“Hey.” Jaden drawls slowly, her voice low.

“Nice to meet you.” Kim responds undaunted while poor Stacey looks like she wants to crawl under the table. “We were having trouble finding a seat and Grace was kind enough to let us sit here.” Kim finishes, looking Jaden straight in the eye. I have to give Kim credit, she has guts.

Jaden turns to me, smiling. “That was nice.” She says and leans over to kiss my cheek gently, all traces of her fury gone.

“Kim and Stacey go to Pressman in Salem and were filling me in on the college.” I offer and Jaden looks thoughtful.

“That’s a really nice school and only about ten minutes away. I bet you would really like it.” She finishes, smiling at Kim and Stacey genuinely.

I shake my head in amusement, wondering what came over Jaden to make her act as protective as a mother lion one second and then like a kitten the next. Her hand finds mine under the table and I squeeze it, noting how warm it feels.

Remembering to question her later to make sure she’s feeling okay, I turn my attention back to the conversation that Jaden has started with Kim and Stacey. They seem to be chatting easily and I eagerly join in the conversation.
Later That Evening
I stifle a yawn as we get into the cab. Jaden leans her body into mine for support and I gladly take it, my hand clasping hers and I snuggle into her tall frame, her incredibly toned and burning with fever frame.

“You feel like shit, don’t you?” I ask and Jaden doesn’t answer, just squeezing my hand in response. Sighing, I give in to her pride and don’t press her any further.

We ride to the hotel in silence and I struggle to keep my weary eyes open. I didn’t know dancing could take that much out of you.

“They were really nice.” Jaden murmurs in my ear and I give in to my urge to yawn and do so before responding to her. I know she’s talking about Stacey and Kim and once she let her guard down the four of us had a really great time until the bar closed.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to having dinner with them this week. Why were you so ready to pound them when you got back to the table?” I ask, not having a chance to question Jaden about her behavior at the bar.

I feel her shrug against me. “I didn’t know if they were working for Aron. We can’t be too careful, you know? I’ll run a background check on the both of them at work Monday.” She finishes and I sigh in despair.

“Nothing is ever going to be the same, is it? We’re going to have to look over our shoulders forever.” I tell her dejectedly.

She tightens her hold around me. “That’s not true. But for now, I want to be careful.” Jaden responds quietly. “So, what do you think of Boston so far?” She continues, her tone considerably brighter.

“It’s beautiful.” I answer, the bright lights off of the buildings shining through the windows of the cab. “I want to go so many places tomorrow! What do you have planned?” Grateful for the change of subject, I allow myself to think about tomorrow with anticipation.

“Well, I thought we could go to the museums, I think you’ll really like them. And then maybe the aquarium and the IMAX theater. Tomorrow night I thought we could try to get theater tickets and on Sunday I have a surprise for you.” She tells me eagerly.

“More surprises? You spoil me.” I respond, my voice low with affection for her.

“You deserve it.” Jaden states as she leans down to give me the sweetest kiss I’ve ever received.

Smiling, I sit back into the comfort of her arms until we reach the hotel. I insist on paying for the cab ride and we walk drearily up to our hotel room. I just know that Jaden isn’t feeling well, but her stubbornness and pride won’t admit to anything. Goddess, please let it just be a summer cold and not something worse. Like chicken pox. I can’t imagine Jaden as a patient for something as serious. I could barely keep her calm after the shipwreck when she bruised her ribs, I highly doubt that I will be able to keep her from scratching herself to death.

“I’m going to take a shower.” Jaden mentions as we get into our room. “Want to join me?” She adds, her beautiful eyes twinkling.

“You bet.” I answer, kicking off my shoes. Jaden pulls me to her and kisses me fervently as her hands grasp the waistband of my pants. I moan into her mouth and pull her closer to me, lost in the musky scent of her skin.

“I can’t keep my hands off of you.” She growls into my ear before biting my earlobe. “It’s these pants, they do unbelievable things to your ass.”

I’m too lost in my undeniable need for her to be shocked. She’s usually more reserved and gentle in our lovemaking, but to hear her admit that she’s been lusting after me makes me throb with desire.

She backs me into the bathroom as she unbuttons my pants and pulls them down along with my underwear. Her strong arms lift me effortlessly onto the counter and she stands back, surveying her work.

“I can’t wait to make you come.” Jaden utters, her voice low as she stares at me. I am unable to respond, my breath haggard and unsteady. I nod in compliance and take my shirt off hurriedly, throwing it on the floor as I move on to unfastening my bra.

Jaden merely smirks as she turns on the shower and adjusts the temperature. Then she slowly removes all of her clothing, teasing me until I am begging to view her body. The next thing I know we are in the shower together, moaning and touching every available inch of each other’s skin.

The thought that I used to be afraid of showering because of the shipwreck never even enters my mind. It doesn’t have time to. All I can focus on are Jaden’s hands on my breasts and her lips on my neck. I stroke her water-slicked skin and become lost in the smoothness of her body.

“Goddess!” I hiss when her incredible tongue moves to my breast and sweetly caresses my nipple. My hands tangle in her wet hair as I encourage her by pulling her closer. As she gets on her knees in front of me I close my eyes in anticipation, crying out in pleasure when her long fingers enter me and her tongue gently joins in their rhythm.

It’s so much at once, the feelings that are pulsing through me. I know that I’m having trouble standing up because my legs feel so weak, and I know that nothing has ever felt this good and nothing ever could.

The sensations build until I’m practically blinded by the emotions running through my body. I feel Jaden everywhere, surrounding me with such love that it makes my heart hurt. I scream her name, my gasping voice vibrating and echoing off of the shiny tiles of the shower and practically collapse into her arms.

“Shh, it’s okay. I’ve got you.” She whispers in my ears and I cling to her as I try to catch my breath. Her skin is warm against me and I nuzzle into her, noting how her damp hair falls along her shoulders to frame her beautiful neck. I pepper kisses along it, tasting her salty skin.

“I love you.” I tell her, hugging her fiercely.

“I know. I love you too.” She responds. “So much Gracie, that you’ll never know.”

“I do know.” I respond quietly, never leaving her embrace. We continue to hold each other until the water runs cold.
Part 13

August 5, 2000
My chest is itchy. Frowning in my half-asleep state I remove my hand from Grace’s soft breast and scratch the living hell out of my chest and neck. Sated, I return my hand to its former resting place and snuggle back down into the bed. I swallow sleepily and fight a yawn, eager to get a few more hours of sleep before showing Grace around Boston today.

Perfectly content, I begin the gentle journey back into sleep. I’m laying pressed against Grace’s back and the cool sheets of the bed settle over me comfortably. It’s just wonderful.

Except for the itching. Moving away from Grace I reluctantly open my eyes and squint at my chest in the dim light. Wow, some mosquito must have been in here last night and bit me to death. My chest and stomach are covered with big red welts.

Yawning again I climb out of bed, leaving Grace’s softly snoring form behind. I walk to the bathroom and wince at the bright fluorescent light, closing the door behind me as to not wake up Grace. Once my eyes can adjust I open them fully and take a look at myself.

Shit. I really think I have chicken pox. I touch one of the welts, finding it to be hard and irritated. It looks just like what was all over Kasey’s body. I should have listened to Grace and stayed far away.

What do I do now? If I wake up Grace and tell her, she’ll make us go home and baby me for a few days. I don’t want to ruin our weekend together, that’s for sure. I guess I thought I was immune to them or something; I mean, I never got them as a kid so why should I get them now? Grrr. This sucks.

I can call Diana and ask her what she did for Kasey. It’s early for a call on a Saturday morning, but I’m sure that if they aren’t already awake that Kasey will be waking them soon. When Kasey was a baby Diana always kidded that she gave birth to a vampire because Kasey would rather stay up all night than sleep. We all thought she would outgrow it but hasn’t yet.

Flipping off the bathroom light I sneak back into the room, smiling at Grace’s rather pissed-off expression. She is curled on my side of the bed, my pillow firmly pulled against her stomach. She doesn’t like it when I get up before her, but if I stayed in bed as long as she does I’d go insane. I don’t know how she can sleep so much.

I quickly dial Diana’s number on my cell phone and head back into the bathroom so Grace won’t overhear my conversation. I’ll tell her about my chicken pox once we’re back home, and hopefully by then they will be gone. They can’t last that long, can they? A few days, tops, I’m sure.

“Hello?” Joe’s alert voice answers.

“Hey, it’s Jaden.” I greet him. “I’m glad you’re up, I didn’t want to wake you or Di.”

Joe chuckles. “Yeah right. It’s my turn to get up with Kasey. She woke me up at 4:00 am because she wanted to go swimming. I’ve just now been able to convince her to wait until the sun comes up and then I’ll spray her with the hose and turn on the sprinkler.”

“Ouch, sorry pal.” I answer, knowing that he loves his daughter and probably wasn’t thrilled about getting up a few hours ago, he would do anything for her. “How’s she feeling?” I question.

“Fine. It hasn’t slowed her down one bit.” He yawns. “Diana isn’t awake yet, you want me to tell her you called?”

“No, actually, I just need some information and hopefully you can help.” I respond feeling just a little foolish.

“Sure, what’s up?” Joe asks, and I hear banging in the background. “Hey, hang on Jaden.” He adds quickly before I can answer.
“Kasey, now is not the time to be playing with the pots and pans. Mommy is still sleeping. Pick out a book and I’ll read to you, okay?”

The clanging stops and I hear her giggle. “Jesus Christ, do you guys feed her nothing but sugar?” I ask jokingly. Joe knows how much I adore his daughter.

He snorts. “No, I don’t know why she’s so hyper. Sometimes I feel as if we’re raising an entire brood instead of just one child. And can you believe Diana’s hinting that she wants to have another baby?”

“Go for it.” I tell him. “While you’re both still young enough to have two of them running around at dawn. Kasey’s in kindergarten this year anyway, right? That would be great timing.”

“Hell Jaden, I’d love another kid. And I was planning on finding something part time while Kasey was in school anyway. I could work full time so Diana could stay at home with the baby.”

“You should. You’re great parents and you know that Grace and I will always baby-sit.” I add convincingly.

“We’ll see.” Joe finishes, but I know what the outcome will be. What Diana wants, she gets. “Anyway, what do you need?”

“Let’s say, hypothetically of course, that I thought I might have chicken pox. How do I get rid of them?” I ask, feeling like an idiot.

Joe’s laughter comes over my phone so loudly that I have to pull it away from my ear. Sighing, I sit down on the edge of the counter and wait for him to stop, scratching away at my chest mindlessly.

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

Holding Jaden’s hand is always fun. Her palm is the same size as mine, but her fingers are way longer. Usually when I hold her hand I give it little squeezes, delighting in the feel of her muscles curling around my fingers.

But today, holding Jaden’s hand feels weird. It’s usually cool to the touch, but today it’s clammy and feverish. I keep asking her if she feels okay and she keeps responding with this weird look while she assures me that she’s never felt better and she’s having a wonderful time.

She let me sleep in this morning and I awoke around 9:00 to already find her dressed for the day. She explained that she got up early and went to the drugstore in the hotel to get a few things she forgot and was then too awake to come back to bed.

I got ready quickly and we were off for the day. We rode the T over to the museum and it was then, walking in, when Jaden took my hand in hers that I immediately felt the difference.
I keep noticing her pulling at her shirt like it’s irritating her and can’t help but see the flushed color of her normally bronzed skin.

She won’t admit a thing. We’ve been to the Museum of Fine Arts this morning already and it was amazing. So big and filled with so many different kinds of art. My favorite section was the Impressionist section and seeing all the old furniture in the architecture area. Jaden liked the photography floor.

I thought that Jaden maybe was just warm from standing in the museum. It was really hot in there, even I was warm and I’m always cold. But then when we came outside into the beautifully cool day and Jaden still looked uncomfortable I began to get suspicious.

She insisted that we make our way over to the Museum of Science. We immediately made way to the T station and all I could do was shrug and follow her. The Museum was so much fun, they had really cool exhibits and I felt like a child in a candy store. I was fascinated by everything there and I pulled out my camera and snapped a few really cool pictures of Jaden standing next to the big dinosaur skeleton as well as a cute one of her looking through a telescope.

We stopped for lunch at the overpriced Museum café and decided that we would walk to the Aquarium because it’s such a short distance. Again I questioned Jaden about her health and she practically bit my head off when saying she is fine.

I know something is up, I just know it. She seems to be having fun though, so I guess she’ll tell me when she’s good and ready.

“We’re here.” Jaden’s low voice breaks me from my thoughts. I look up, seeing Boston’s wharf in front of me and a cool-looking modern building jutting out from the concrete.

“Are those seals?” I question, pointing at the large gray objects splashing in front of the building.

“Yep.” Jaden responds, smiling. “They have resident harbor seals here. I think they are cute.”

“Wow!” I tell her as I start to speed up. I love marine life and living in Ohio I haven’t gotten to see much of it besides Sea World. Jaden walks faster to keep up with me and in no time we have paid our admission and are now cooing at the seals with the rest of the crowd. It’s pretty busy here, but for a Saturday afternoon I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

The seals pop their expressive faces out of the water, their huge liquid brown eyes fixing on mine. “They look like Bean.” I say, giggling at their white whiskers and big black noses.

Jaden studies their faces before laughing. “They really do. That’s so weird!” We watch them swim and play for a few minutes more before Jaden urges me inside. “I think you’re really going to like it. I came last year with Diana and Kasey and it was fun.”

The inside of the Aquarium is beautiful, the walls curve and ripple like waves and everything is colored in a different shade of blue. We make our way through the lobby and head into the main floor.

I could stay in here all day. I’m first assaulted with the smell, the overbearing saltiness of the water as well as something else I don’t recognize. Jaden sees the expression on my face and laughs. “That’s the penguins, come on, I’ll show you.”

Penguins? I love penguins; they and the sea otters are my favorite part of Sea World.

The Penguin exhibit is actually one of the main parts of the Aquarium. From the first floor you look down on the huge area filled with jutting rocks and water and lots of penguins of all shapes and sizes.

“They are adorable!” I tell her as I try to look at all of them at once. A few wet suited employees are gently feeding them fish by hand and it’s really cool to see the different personalities of the penguins, some are shy and others are demanding the fish.
One small penguin, which Jaden identifies as a Blue Penguin, is undaunted in his attempts to get more food. He climbs onto the feeder’s lap and sticks his head in the fish bucket, and when the feeder gently moves him back onto the rock the penguin immediately climbs back on his lap. Smiling, the young Asian man again removes the penguin, making a note on his waterproof chart.

“What are they doing?” I ask Jaden who is smiling at the encounter.

“They have to keep a record of their appetite. Because the penguins are still wild animals, if their appetite changes it’s one of the ways we can detect if they are ill. So they keep really good records here. They also foster and rehabilitate many sick or injured sea life before re-releasing them into the wild.” She adds.

“Wow, this is a really nice place. I’m glad we came here.” I tell her, turning my eyes back to the hungry penguin.

“Me too.” Jaden responds, placing her hand on top of mine. It’s still flushed and clammy despite the chilly air of the penguin habitat. I start to ask her if she’s feeling all right and instead bite my tongue, knowing that Jaden is a big girl who can take care of herself.

Sometimes.

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

I’m tired. As much as I hate to admit that, I really am. Besides the fact that I’ve been up since six and we’ve walked all over today visiting the museums, I really am starting to feel worse.

Joe assured me that chicken pox was no laughing matter. He said I would be feverish and itchy as all sin for about a week or so. I think he’s crazy; maybe Kasey had it that bad because she’s a kid, but I’m sure I won’t get that horrible of an outbreak. I took his advice and got some nice calamine lotion at the drugstore as well as some anti-inflammatory medicine. It’s about as far as I will go when taking medicine, I don’t really even like to take aspirin, but I want to make sure that Grace and I have fun this weekend.

But I’m still tired. I kind of just want to sit down for a while. Grace and I have gone through the entire Aquarium and are waiting for the Sea Lion show to start. That way I can sit down and rest before we leave to get dinner. Then we have to go back to the hotel and I am going to try to get theater tickets for a show. We’ll shower and change and head back out again. Grace mentioned she might want to stop back at the bar after the show for a nightcap. I would love to do that too, but the entire thought of doing anything but crashing into bed is making me more tired.

I’m pathetic. A grown woman, a policewoman nonetheless, is going to be defeated by a measly little germ? No way. If Kasey can find the energy to wake her father up at 4:00 am to go swimming, I think I can deal with going to a show and out drinking after.

It has been a nice day though, exactly what I wanted for Grace. I knew she’d love the Museums of Fine Arts and Science, but really be excited about the Aquarium. And she was. We must have sat there and watched the penguin feeding for an hour before moving on to the giant tank that goes straight up through the center of the building for several floors. As expected, we watched the interaction of fish including founder and barracuda with the sharks and a few giant turtles. She loved that.

We went to the tide pool exhibit where you can hold real starfish and touch living sea anemones and watched the sea otters outside forever.

My watch tells me its 4:30 and time for the Sea Lion show. “Are you ready?” I ask Grace who drags her attention away from the tank of eels.

“Yeah.” She answers, wrinking her nose in her own adorable way. “These things creep me out.”

“Me too.” I tell her as we make our way outside. I realize my mistake the second I remember where the Sea Lion show is. “Um, I forgot to mention, the show is on a boat. Is that okay?”

Grace bites her bottom lip. “Sure, it should be fine. I mean, we’re not leaving the dock, right?” Her expressive eyes are the color of a troubled ocean, a dark green with swirls of light blue.

“No, we just sit below deck in a kind of auditorium for a little bit.” I respond, trying to reassure her that everything will be fine.

“Okay. Let’s try it.” She responds and I smile at her bravery.

I can tell she’s nervous as we walk up the gangplank and onto the boat. It’s an old vessel that has been completely converted below deck to accommodate a hundred people to watch the Sea Lions. We sit on the aisle way close to the front and try to make ourselves comfortable on the steel benches. There aren’t a whole lot of people here, this is the last show of the day before the Aquarium closes and most everyone is inside. I wrap my arm around Grace’s waist and pull her close to me, hoping she doesn’t feel how hot my skin is.

Hell, who am I trying to kid? Grace isn’t stupid and I know she is on to me. She’s been peppering me with questions about how I’m feeling all afternoon and I can’t lie to her at all.

“You okay?” I ask her and she nods. “It’s pretty stuffy in here.” I admit, surprised that I’m finding the inside so claustrophobic. I haven’t had many flashbacks of the shipwreck and I didn’t think it affected my ability to enjoy being on a boat. But sitting here in the closed-off auditorium with the floor rocking under my heels is making me a little nervous.

Especially when combined with the fact that I’m already burning up and overheated and it’s really heavy and humid in here. I concentrate on breathing deeply and trying not to itch in front of Grace. She’ll never let me live it down when she finds out about my pox. I tap my foot impatiently on the floor as we wait for the show to begin.

“Are you okay?” Grace whispers as to not draw attention to us. “What are you nervous about?” She questions and I don’t really know how to answer.

“It’s just hot in here.” I tell her and she studies my face.

“Yeah, it is. Let’s get out of here.” Gracie responds and I nod eagerly. Feeling foolish I grab her hand and we race off of the boat.

“Huh.” I remark and she looks at me in question. I shrug in response. “That was weird.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t like sitting in there either.” She remarks and I smile at her gratefully.

I guess this is what it’s like to be in love. I never really thought about it, to tell you the truth, because I never expected to let anyone get close enough to me to love me. But from the minute I saw Grace I knew that something had changed. Despite how afraid I was and how terrified it has and continues to make me feel scared that she will leave me, I wouldn’t change anything about it. I like that Gracie knows me almost better than I know myself. And I know that she loves me as much as I love her. It’s pretty cool.

“What do you feel like doing?” I ask her, thinking how wonderful a cool shower followed by a nice nap would feel.

“Well, didn’t you want to go to dinner and maybe a show?” She responds and I nod in agreement. “If you don’t mind, I think I would rather just go back to the hotel and stay in tonight. It’s been a long day and my shoulder is sore.” Grace adds.

“Really? Why didn’t you tell me? I would have carried your bag.” I answer, feeling guilty that she has carried around her own backpack all day.

She shrugs. “It’s good for me to use it normally now. And I haven’t been in pain; I’m just a little tired. Come on, let’s go rest. We have all day tomorrow to wander around.” Grace finishes, and I smile.

Not that she would ever lie to me, but I think she’s feeling fine. Her entire posture changes when she’s hurting from her injury, and despite the fact that we’ve been on our feet for eight hours, she’s still walking tall. She must know I’m not feeling well. Touched by her concern and her ability to put others before herself I pull her back to me and kiss her fondly.

She laughs after we break apart, looking around on the street self-consciously. No one seems to notice or care but she blushes anyway. “What was that for?”

I shrug, brushing back a few stray locks of her red-gold hair. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” She responds, smiling brightly. “Come on, let’s put you to bed.” She adds as we make our way to the T station.

“I like the sound of that.” I tell her and we giggle the rest of the way to the hotel.

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

The cool air of the hotel room greets us as Jaden wearily kicks off her shoes. I yawn and stretch as I set down my bag, feeling the slight pain in my shoulder fade with the simple stretching exercises.

“I’m going to the bathroom.” Jaden tells me and I nod, taking off my own shoes. She shuts the door just when I realize that my lotion is on the counter. My sky feels dry from our walk along the wharf and I desperately want my lotion.

“Jaden, let me in for a second.” I tell her, opening the bathroom door.

I find my girlfriend shirtless, covered in red welts and frantically scratching like there’s no tomorrow.

A gasp of surprise leaves my throat and she looks up at me, her eyes wide in surprise to see me and her face takes on an expression that is a mixture of despair and embarrassment.

“You have chicken pox!” I state unnecessarily.

Jaden solemnly nods.

“I told you not to get near Kasey! Why didn’t you tell me? How long have you had these?” I ask, my hands on my hips as I badger her with questions.

She looks trapped, glancing around the room warily. She opens her mouth to answer as she shrugs her shoulders.

“I’m sorry?” She responds meekly.

I put my head in my hands and groan.
Part 14

August 6, 2000
She sits silently on the ripped vinyl seat of the train, her arms crossed stiffly over her chest as her foot incessantly taps on the shiny but littered floor.

“Stop pouting.” I tell her and she glares at me and deepens her frown. Sighing, I lean back against the seat and close my eyes, determined not to fight with her any longer. I know she must feel miserable and doesn’t need me nagging at her.

But she’s so goddamned stubborn. And frustrating. And she’s got to be the worst person to be around when she’s not feeling well. Nothing pleases her; nothing can bring her out of her funk. She’s inconsolable.

“I love you.” I mention quietly. I know that she’s pissed off at me for demanding that we come home and get her to a doctor for her chicken pox.

“I love you too.” Jaden responds, uncrossing her arms and taking my hand in hers. I open my eyes to see her staring at me miserably, a frown still plastered on her beautiful face.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling so badly. And I’m sorry that you got sick.” I answer, squeezing her hand. “When we get home we’ll get you to the doctor and get some medicine to make you feel better.”

“Gracie, I’m itchy.” She tells me, her bottom lip sticking out further now in all her despair.

“I know.” I answer. I feel as if I’m dealing with a child. Smiling at her I lean over to kiss her cheek. “You’ll feel better soon, okay?”

“Promise?”

I continue to smile at the woman I love. I would do anything for her. “Yeah, I promise.”

“I don’t wanna go to the doctor.” She continues.

“I know. But you have to.” I tell her firmly. She sighs dejectedly and stares out the window.

“Can I go to work on Monday?” Jaden questions and I bite my bottom lip. She isn’t going to like this, I can just tell. Regardless of how much Jaden has enjoyed her time off, I know she’s eager to get back to work.

“I don’t think so.” I tell her reluctantly. “Probably everyone on the force has already had chicken pox but their kids might not have and we don’t want you infecting anyone. The doctor will probably give you antibiotics to stop you from being contagious but you’ll probably have to be out of work for a week.”

She sighs again, mumbling under her breath. I continue on, desperate to make her feel better.

“But you’ll have plenty of bed rest and I’ll take care of you, okay? I’ll spoil you rotten.” I tell her, scooting close to her and putting my arm around her shoulders and pulling her tall frame down closer to mine.

“Okay.” She answers. This seems to cheer her up. “Can we rent movies?”

“Of course. Anything you want.” I tell her quickly, before thinking. Realizing my mistake, I make a quick amendment. “Except anything that has more than fifteen car crashes or explosions.”

“Nope. You said anything I want.” She argues good-naturedly.

“I don’t understand how you can watch that action crap. It’s all the same! I don’t care if you’re the Terminator or not, no one can do those stunts!” I add.

“I can. I’m Jaden: Warrior Cop! With my battling blonde sidekick I will free the world!” Jaden responds, giggling.

Looking at her warily, I put my hand against her forehead. “You must have a fever.”

“Nope.” She tells me, smiling for the first time since I discovered her little scratching party in the bathroom. “I’m just one of a kind.”

“That’s for sure.” I answer, grinning at her. “And thank the Goddess herself, because I don’t think the world could survive with two of you.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” She responds, her face an expression of mock outrage.

I pat her hand. “Nothing sweetheart, it’s a compliment.” She smiles proudly and turns to look out the window at the passing scenery. Chuckling under my breath I join her, enjoying both the train ride and the company I keep.

Journal entry:
August 6, 2000

The spider delicately dances over its transparent web on the windowpane. I know if Jaden were awake she wouldn’t appreciate the sight, but I’ve always been fascinated by spiders. I find them eerily beautiful and anything that eats mosquitoes and flies is a friend of mine.

I’m content to sit here and watch the daughter of Arachne weave her web. As a child, the myth of Athena and Arachne was always my favorite.

Jaden is resting and I was surprised to see her obediently head off to bed after I made her an oatmeal bath and rubbed anti-itch ointment on her pox. They’ve already spread down to her legs and onto her arms and I know she must be miserable. The doctor ordered her to rest and stay hydrated but I know it’s going to be a tough few days until she feels better.

After she fell asleep I came back to the kitchen and visited with Bean. Steele seemed to love staying with her and I think she was equally happy, but still excited to see us nevertheless.

Then I made homemade lasagna, which is now bubbling in the oven and filling the apartment with a wonderful aroma. I know Jaden will be starving when she wakes up and something warm should make her feel better. At least I hope.

Steele left the apartment tidy so I didn’t really have anything else to do. Grabbing my journal I sat down next to the window and decided to write.

But I’ve been distracted by a silly spider. The web is beautiful, its tiny silver strands glistening in the late afternoon sun. It’s strange how something so delicate looking can really be so strong. I guess that’s how I feel about Jaden sometimes. She is so powerful, yet fragile on the inside. I think that’s what I am like too.

I’ve decided to go back to school. I know that I’ve been toying with the idea the entire time that I’ve been here in Massachusetts but now I know I’m certain.

I will take the fall semester off and start in the spring. I want to find a job that I like now and save up more money so I can work less while in school. First thing Monday morning I will call Pressman and see if I can get a meeting with a counselor about transferring. Maybe I’ll give Stacey and Kim a call and see if they want to show me around.

I can’t really decide where I want to job hunt though. I know I could easily get hired at a bar; my experience along with my uncle’s recommendation would help. But I’m not sure if that’s something I want to do anymore. Maybe I’ll try to get a job at a stable or something. It doesn’t pay well but it sure would be nice to be around a barn again.

Poor Jaden, I know she was dying to go and see Studley so we could go riding. I hope, for her sake, that she heals soon. Though it is nice to be taking care of her for once. She sure did everything she could to make sure I was pampered when I was hurt.

But back to school. I am still at a crux in my life. What do I want to do? I was thinking of maybe going into psychology. I really respect Cheryl for being able to listen and help me put things in perspective so caringly.

Could I do that? Listen to people’s lives and try and help them sort things out? I think maybe I could. I want to make a difference in the world; I know that.

We’ll see. I guess I have to decide on a major before I begin college again. I don’t have long before I graduate. But I think that taking an entire semester off will help me gain some perspective on who and what I want to become.

At least I hope it will.

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

“Gracie?” I call, my throat dry. The entire apartment is quiet and Bean’s small body is pressed between my ankles. A wonderfully smelling aroma drifts through the bedroom and my stomach growls in response.

Spaghetti? Must be something like that.

“Hey, how are you feeling?” Grace responds, standing in the doorway of the bedroom. She looks ethereal, the sunlight bathing her skin with golden luster.

“Better now.” I answer as I hold my arms out to her. She silently pads across the floor and settles herself in my embrace, placing her palm on my forehead.

“Your fever is down.” She tells me, her hand cool against my flushed skin. “You need some water?” She asks, placing a soft kiss to my dry lips.

“Yeah, I’m going to get up. What’s cooking?” I ask as I tiredly get out of bed. I feel like a limp dishrag, tired and really achy.

“Lasagna.” She responds, smiling.

“You’re amazing.” I tell her as I stretch and head into the kitchen. “Is it almost done?”

“Yep. I’m toasting the garlic bread now.” She responds, handing me a glass of red wine. “You didn’t take any medicine yet, right?” Grace continues, knowing my aversion to taking anything.

“No. I’ll start it tomorrow.” I respond, clinking my glass against hers before drinking. “Thank you for this.” I say softly, hoping she knows how lucky I am to have her in my life.

“It gets even better.” She answers, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “Look in the fridge.”

I quirk my eyebrows at her and obey her command. I see a half pint of my favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well as a box of Popsicles.

“You’re a Goddess.” I respond, kissing the top of her head.

“Wait, there’s still more!” Grace answers, sounding like a television announcer from the ‘Price Is Right.’

“More?” I tell her, playing along.

“Not only will you enjoy an evening of wining and dining with your girlfriend, but you’ll also be entertained by your very own Sony PlayStation!” Grace tells me, handing me a large Wal-Mart bag.

“What? Are you kidding me?” I set my wine glass down and open the bag to find a PlayStation with a ton of games. “How did you do this?” I ask, as I look at all the games. “This is awesome!”

“You’re welcome.” Grace responds, smiling brightly. “I ran to the store while you were sleeping and I figured this was a great way to keep boredom at bay while you were sick.”

“You shouldn’t have done this, it’s so expensive!” I argue, touched that she would think of me.

“Please. Since I moved here you haven’t let me pay for anything. It’s the least I can do. Besides, I thought it would be fun. I wasn’t sure if you liked stuff like this but it’s better than nothing.” Grace answers, her beautiful eyes glowing with happiness.

“I love it. I love you. You’re the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me.” I tell her, pulling her toward me and crushing her with a hug.

Holding her feels so incredible and I could do it forever. Hell, if I have things my way I will do it forever. I never want to leave her side. I need to do something, anything, to show her how much I feel for her and how much I want this relationship to work.

The shrill oven timer goes off and Grace gently pulls herself from my embrace. “Why don’t you get comfortable on the couch and I’ll bring this over to you, okay?” She tells me and I smile.

“I’ll hook the PlayStation up.” I respond, eager to do something useful.

“Okay.” Grace answers. “You can do it by yourself, right?”

“Sure.” I tell her confidently. “How hard can it be?”

Grace smiles sweetly as she puts on her oven mitts and opens the oven, filling the kitchen with the delicious smell of dinner.

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

“Jaden, sweetheart, come and eat. We’ll do that later.” I tell her, trying to coax her toward dinner. Ignoring her grumbling I stand and take her hand.

“Let me just finish this, I’m almost done.” She argues and I know I won’t win this battle unless I turn to desperate measures.

A guilt trip.

“I made this wonderful dinner for you and now you’re going to let it get cold. Please come and eat.” I add and she looks at me, smiling.

“Okay.” She joins me on the couch, the twisted remains of the PlayStation littering the living room floor. Poor Jaden, this isn’t her day. She was so convinced she would be able to hook it up before dinner, and she’s not even close.

She digs into her dinner happily, making little noises of approval. I smile in response, glad to see that she hasn’t lost her appetite yet.

Actually, she doesn’t seem to be as miserable as I thought she would. I figured she would be scratching herself like crazy but I haven’t seen her do it at all besides catching her in the hotel bathroom last night. She must have amazing self-control, I know if I had chicken pox I’d be unable to stop myself from scratching constantly. When I was a child and got them, my mother made me wear winter gloves because I wouldn’t stop scratching.

It doesn’t surprise me though, Jaden can do anything she sets her mind to.

“This is the best food ever.” She tells me, her dark hair falling in her eyes. I instinctively reach to push it behind her ears.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” I answer.

“You made it for me. Even if it tasted like crap I’d still love it.” She adds and I laugh at her blunt honesty.

“Thanks, I think.” I tell her and she chuckles. She abruptly stops laughing and wriggles her nose. It is then that I notice the small red spot on the end of her regal nose. Oh no.

“What?” She asks, seeing the look on my face.

“Nothing, it’s just that you have a pox on your nose.” I tell her solemnly.

“No, I don’t. It just itches.” She reaches her hand up to scratch and I quickly slap it away. “Hey!” She protests in vain.

“It itches because there is a pox on it!” I tell her and she vehemently protests.

“No there’s not!”

I set my plate down on the coffee table and stand up, careful not to step on an anxious-looking Bean who is sniffing at my plate and licking her chops. I head down the hall and retrieve my compact mirror, holding it up to an astounded Jaden who has just seen her very first face pox.

“Shit.” She mutters.

“Yeah.” I confirm. “Well, there’s one good thing that came out of this I guess.”

“What?” She questions dourly.

“I won’t need a night-light for awhile, huh Rudolph?” I ask seriously before breaking into giggles.

She frowns at me. “Shut up.”

I crack up, unable to contain my laughter. When I finally get control of myself I take our empty plates into the kitchen and scrape the leftovers for Bean. Returning to the living room, I extend my hand in apology.

“I’m sorry.” I tell her, leaning down to kiss her pouting lips. “Come on, let’s get this PlayStation hooked up for you so we can play your reindeer games.”

“Grace!” She whines and I begin laughing all over again.

Journal Entry:

August 10, 2000

Remember what I said about Jaden doing pretty well with her chicken pox? How she wasn’t really scratching or feeling too badly?

Scratch that, excuse the pun. She’s a scratching machine. She was able to control herself for a few days and then it all went downhill from there.

I called Pressman on Monday and spoke with an advisor. I met with a really nice counselor who reviewed my transcript from my old college yesterday and it looks like I wouldn’t lose many credits, and the college has a great psychology program. I also called Stacey and Kim and they said they would show me around this weekend. So I’m excited about that.

But anyway, yesterday morning I went to my appointment with the advisor. Jaden assured me that she would be just fine by herself for a few hours. I left her with a full belly and a working PlayStation and returned to find her unable to control her scratching.

I’ve tried everything; oatmeal baths, ice cubes, and every ointment and cream under the sun. Nothing is helping her and it’s breaking my heart to see her be so miserable.

Hopefully today will be better. I woke up before her, a rare occurrence. She seems to be sleeping peacefully and only woke up a few times scratching in the middle of the night. Her entire face is now covered with spots, as well as her back. Maybe she’ll feel better when she wakes up this morning.

I just wish I could find some way to cheer her up.

My eyes linger on a red pen, left on the coffee table from last night’s game of cards when it was used to keep score as I kicked Jaden’s butt in forty-fives. She was actually convinced that because it was a regional game only played in New England, I wouldn’t be able to beat her.

I almost took pity on her and let her win. Almost. But she’s been beating me so badly at video games that I didn’t feel too badly about winning.

Anyway, back to the red pen. It might be the answer I’m looking for.

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

It only takes a few minutes before I realize how itchy I am. I sigh irritably, a frown already forming on my face. I woke up so peacefully; Gracie left the fan blowing and a glass of water on the nightstand for when I woke up. It was heavenly, for about two minutes. And then my stupid pox reminded me how much I itched, so here I am, scratching away already.

“Hey, Spots.” Grace calls from the hallway and I hear her walk toward the bedroom. She must have heard me wake up.

“Mornin… what the hell?!?” I stutter as I look at my beautiful girlfriend who is standing in the doorway. My beautifully naked but chicken pox-covered girlfriend.

She smiles at me. “What’s the matter?”

I don’t answer her, falling back on the bed and covering my face with a pillow instead. I can’t believe I got her sick too. She’s going to kill me!

Wait a minute; didn’t she already have the chicken pox? And can’t you only get them once? Sensing something is amiss; I remove the pillow from my self-suffocating intent and sit back up, peering at her more closely.

“I thought we should match.” She states seriously, walking over to the bed. I grab her arm and look at it, noting how perfectly spaced her dots are.

“You wrote on yourself?” I ask stupidly, knowing the answer. Laughing, I shake my head from side to side. “I can’t believe you.”

She joins in my laughter, shrieking when I pull her on top of me and roll her over onto the bed, tickling her for all it’s worth.

“Stop it! I’m going to pee my pants!” Grace pleads as I relentlessly continue my assault on her ribs.

“You’re not wearing pants!” I respond and she giggles harder, her slender arms snaking out to retaliate.

I yelp as her hands find their way to my own ribs and suddenly find myself on the defensive, a naked and spotted Grace taking control and straddling my stomach. She pins my arms above my head and smiles at her victory.

I know I could easily pull away but I don’t want to. She knows it too and releases my arms as she kisses me sweetly.

“Sucker!” I tell her as the kiss ends. My hands wrap around her slim waist and I tickle her for all it’s worth until she’s snorting with laughter.

We both collapse on the bed, our spotted chests heaving from the exertion.

“What a pair we are.” Grace tells me, her voice rich.

“A pair of what?” I answer and she elbows me gently in the ribs.

“Don’t make me answer that.” She responds and the sound of our laughter fills the room.
Part 15

Journal Entry:
August 13, 2000
Today is my birthday.

I’m 23 today.

23 years, 8,395 days, 201,480 hours.

An entire lifetime, to some. To others, just a beginning.

A new beginning for me.

My journal entry from exactly one year ago today has me wishing myself a happy birthday and pining over the fact that I was “stuck in a crappy backwoods Ohio town going to a college I hate and being settled and bored like my mother.” I was wishing for excitement, and had only met Jaden once, three months prior.

I had no idea what a major part she would play in my life. And I think that even if I did know, I wouldn’t have believed it.

I’m a new person. Not exactly new, but improved. That isn’t even the correct term. I’ve finally discovered who I really am. Now, at the age of 23, I can do whatever I want with my life. I’m no longer stuck in a crappy backwoods town, I’m here, with Jaden, and everything is just beginning.

I’m going to Pressman in the spring. I am going to major in psychology and try to help people make a difference in their lives.

It feels right. I’m excited by the fact and so is Jaden. She seems thrilled with my choice and supports me fully.

She’s finally feeling better, the poor thing. It took her almost an entire week to beat her chicken pox and still has the lingering red marks that mar her otherwise beautiful skin. But even covered with red dots, she’s still beautiful to me.

Along with Steele, she is finishing up on the Aron case. It seems that there were a few people leftover from Aron’s followers that were hanging around. Steele, and a few of the more trusted officers, have seemingly put the word around that the police are watching them.

Not that I think it’s really going to get rid of them for good, but so far it’s seemed to work and I finally feel that I can breathe again.

So right now, I want to begin life again. Jaden is feeling better and took this next week off of work. I guess she has more vacation time coming to her than she could ever use, so she wants to take advantage of it now while the weather is beautiful. I know she’s anxious to get back to work, but she’s agreed to take a trip to Ohio with me to visit my uncle and Lydia. Hopefully my parents will want to speak with me, but I’m not holding my breath.

So we’re leaving tomorrow morning and driving all day. We talked about flying, but I didn’t want too. The thought of driving halfway across the country with her by my side is irresistible. Of course, she’s making us take her car but that was to be expected. We’ll take our grand old time, stopping overnight if we feel like it.

I can’t wait. Obviously I’m nervous to see my family. I feel like I have to come clean and tell them the truth about Jaden and myself, and while a part of me is scared to do that, I don’t want to keep secrets anymore.

Never again. I mark this day, August 13th, 2000 as the day when I have come full circle in my life. I know what I want to do, and nothing will stop me.

Happy birthday to me. And many happy years to come.

****

I close my journal as I hear the front door open. Bean’s toenails scatter lightly over the floor until she drinks from her water bowl. I muffle a giggle as I hear her greedily slurp up her water, sneeze and bolt into a run as she heads for me in the bedroom.

“Hiya princess!” I greet my dog, finding her panting and excited from her run with Jaden. “Did you have fun?” Bean continues to pant as she covers my face in kisses. “Do you think your mother is a lazy slob for never coming with you?” I ask her, giggling as her small pink tongue tickles my neck.

“Nah. She respects the fact that you like to sleep in.” A sultry voice remarks from the doorway. Jaden is casually leaning against the frame, looking downright sexy in her biker shorts and tank top.

“Hey gorgeous.” I greet her, stretching my arms above my head.

“Hey yourself. Happy birthday.” Jaden answers, her full lips curling into a smile. “Would you like your birthday spanking now, or later?”

“What?” I ask, outraged.

She looks surprised. “You’ve never had a birthday spanking? Well, maybe we should add on all the missed ones from years past. That would be, what, like over 200 spanks, right?” Jaden adds seriously, but I detect a faint smirk on her lips.

“You’re not serious!” I tell her, getting out of bed with Bean trailing my heels.

She crosses her arms in front of her chest, flexing her muscles. “Sure I am. And look how perfect, you’re already dressed for the occasion in your birthday suit!”

Staring at her in disbelief, I try to think of how I can talk my way out of this. I know she’s expecting me to get all flustered and shriek about how it’s not fair, and she’d just chuckle and continue to threaten, eventually giving in and forgetting about it.

Or, I could do something completely out of character and call her bluff. Deciding, I climb back in bed, kneeling on my hands and knees facing her and turn my head over my shoulder.

“Okay, go ahead.” I tell her coyly. “Just don’t make it hurt too much.”

“Huh?” She squawks, her face turning a bright crimson, as she looks at me incredulously. “I didn’t really mean it, Jesus Christ, Grace!” She sputters.

“Put your money where your mouth is, spots.” I add, unable to keep the smile off my face now. She looks around the room nervously as if she’s deciding between bolting and retorting with some remark.

“Calm down, I’m just kidding with you.” I finally say, and the look of relief on her face is priceless.

She rubs her face with her hands and sighs dramatically.

“That’s what you get when you tease me.” I tell her, smiling as I cross to her and wrap my arms around her waist.

“Hmm, we’ll see.” She answers, returning my hug. She smells like damp cotton from her run, but clean. I stick my tongue out experimentally and lick her neck. Yep, just as I thought, it’s salty.

“Hey!” She says in surprise and I giggle as I give her another lick. This is fun.

“You know how horses like their salt blocks?” I ask in between licks.

“Yeah?” She says cautiously. Lick.

“Well, you’re my own personal salt block.” I answer succinctly, continuing to lick and kiss her neck and shoulders.

“Thanks?” Jaden responds uncertainly. “You’re weird.”

“Yep.” I tell her, pulling her toward the bed. “Are you complaining? Because I can either stop licking you or keep doing it.” I add, waggling my eyebrows.

“No! You don’t have to stop.” She interjects quickly and I chuckle. I fall back in bed and pull her on top of me, my lips never leaving her salty skin.

“You wanted to give me a birthday spanking? How about a birthday fuck instead?” I whisper seductively in her ear and I feel her shiver against me as she begins to return my kisses with unrestrained passion.

Happy birthday to both of us.

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

Lying in bed, I revel in both the coolness of the sheets and Grace’s warm body draped across mine. Her breathing is even and deep and I assume she’s fallen asleep, tired from the hours of what she dubbed to be “birthday sex.”

She’s nuts. I wrap my arms around her more tightly and pepper her soft blonde hair with little kisses. I’m thrilled she’s having a wonderful birthday so far, but I’m even more thrilled with the thought that I want to be around for every birthday she has yet to come. I can’t wait to watch her turn 80 years old and sit on the front porch of our home and grow old together.

I want her to know that. I’m just not sure how to tell her. I kind of tried to put it on the table, so to speak, in the letter I wrote her when she was going up to the cabin. But I don’t even know if she read it. I need to tell her again.

Her journal is laying on the nightstand, well within reach from where I am now. Part of me wants to take it and write to her how I feel. But I know I won’t be able to put in words what I want to say to her.

How do I make a huge commitment to her? What do I say? That I want to love and cherish her for the rest of our lives? That I want to feel her sleeping next to me throughout the night and wake up and greet the morning reflected in the aquamarine of her eyes?

It all sounds so cliché and silly. I want to make a big romantic gesture to her, but I know she needs for me to just come clean and admit it.

I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The thought doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I know seeing Miranda and dealing with a lot of my issues has already helped, and the more work I do on myself, the better I’ll be.

I need to do something that makes her realize my commitment to her. Something big, not just a ring and a promise.

The wheels in my mind start turning and I sort out various ideas. I already have flowers being delivered to her, a piece of jewelry I sought out a few days ago hidden in my sock drawer and a wonderfully romantic dinner planned for the beach.

But there needs to be something more, something not so, well, normal.

Something that’s ours. To make her see that I really am planning on being here forever. With her. And that’s where I keep getting stuck. I have no idea what to get.

Sighing in frustration I glance at the clock and discover it’s already late morning. Grace hasn’t stirred and I gently unwrap her strong arms from around me and gingerly remove myself from her entangled body.

She frowns and murmurs something unintelligible before rolling over and hugging my pillow. I smile fondly at her before leaving the room.

I pour myself a glass of juice from the fridge and sit on the couch. Bean has made herself comfortable on a pillow and seeing me, wags her short tail and climbs onto my lap.

Scratching behind her ears I giggle at the little grunting noises she makes. “Whatcha think, girl?” I ask. “What would your mother like for her birthday?”

Bean lays her head down on my leg and looks at me, her brown eyes seemingly contemplating my words.

“You’re no help.” I tell her and she hops down and trots to her toy box, rooting through it to bring me her stuffed monkey that she and Herc so enjoyed tugging. I play halfheartedly with her until she loses interest and hops back up on the couch.

She lies down again on my lap, looking incredibly forlorn. I know she really misses having Herc around. They got along so well.

Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for. I thought about getting Grace another dog, but the timing didn’t seem right. Why not now? Wouldn’t that prove to her that I’m serious about our relationship?

“What do you think? Would you like a brother or sister?” I ask Bean who cocks her head at me. “Maybe a big dog to wrestle with?”

I swear she knows what I’m saying. She wags her tail and looks at me so intently as if she can really understand.

“Yeah.” I tell her, pulling her into my arms and planting a kiss on her doggie head. “I think that’s it.”

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

“Birthday girl, up and at ’em.” The voice orders. I groan and pull the sheet over my head.

Jaden laughs, her voice low. “Come on, get up lazybones. We have to get somewhere in about fifteen minutes.”

This wakes me from my stupor. “Where?” I ask, opening my eyes and grinning at her. “A birthday surprise?”

She rolls her eyes. “Maybe.” Jaden answers and I grumble as I get out of bed.

“I’ll shower and then you can tell me.” I remark as I hurry to get ready. She just smiles enigmatically and heads for the living room.

“Don’t wear anything too nice.” Jaden calls before I turn on the water.

I break all land speed records showering and getting ready. Taking her word for it I throw on some jeans and a favorite t-shirt. I put my beat up running shoes on and run some gel through my damp hair.

“Ready.” I tell her, appearing from the bedroom. She is dressed similarly to me, with olive green cargo pants and a faded shirt. She looks cute, her tanned feet in sandals and her long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Let’s go.” Jaden says as she slings her worn leather satchel over her shoulder and clips Bean’s leash onto her collar.

“We’re taking the dog?” I ask needlessly as we head down the hall.

“Yep.” Jaden answers over her shoulder.

“Where?” I question, descending the stairs.

“Where what?” She responds, her voice confused.

“You promised you’d tell me!” I argue.

“No I didn’t. When you asked if it was a birthday surprise I said that maybe it was. Then you said that you would shower and I would tell you. I never promised.” She counters, her voice teasing.

I sigh. “Fine. But just remember that the last time you had a surprise for me, we ended up on a sinking boat in the ocean.”

“We’re not going anywhere near the water.” She returns. “Patience, my dear.” Jaden adds.

“I don’t do well with patience.” I tell her and she laughs as we get in the car.

Bean hops in the back seat of the Explorer and Jaden buckles her in the doggie seatbelt. I watch amused at their interaction.

We went to get ice cream a few weeks ago with Bean in the back seat and some idiot pulled out in front of Jaden, causing her to slam on her breaks. Bean fell onto the floor and Jaden was so upset that we went to Petco that night and bought a doggie seatbelt for her car. Now Bean has one regardless of what car she’s in. It makes me feel safer, and Jaden too.

I wait until we are out of the neighborhood before peppering Jaden with more questions. “Are we going on a picnic?”

“No.” She answers.

“A hike?” I try.

“Nope.”

“Horseback riding?”

“Three strikes, you’re out. In these clothes?” Jaden adds, motioning to her sandals.

“Oops, no riding is out. So tell me where.” I demand and she smiles.

“Okay.”

“Really?” I ask, surprised she’d give in so easily.

“Really.” She affirms. I sit and wait anxiously, waiting for her to begin. She doesn’t.

“Well?” I finally blurt and she chuckles.

“Well what?”

“Tell me!”

“I will.” She responds and I resist the urge to strangle her.

“WHEN?” I ask, my patience wearing thin.

“Oh, you didn’t ask when before. When we get there.” She says, turning to glance at me.

“You’re infuriating.” I mutter, crossing my arms in front of me.

“Aw, poor baby! I think you can handle it. We are almost there.” She answers.

“Where?” I respond and she just laughs in response. I roll my eyes and sit back in the seat, trying to endure the agony of not knowing the surprise. It’s killing me.

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

Pulling into the parking lot, my stomach does several flip-flops. I’m really nervous, not about anything else but trying to tell Grace what I want to say. She looks around curiously before looking at me.

“The pound?” She states, glancing back at Bean who is happily looking out the window. “What, has she been a bad dog or something?” Grace jokes.

“Nah, but I thought we’d bring her to show her what will happen if she becomes one.” I kid and Grace smiles. I clear my throat nervously.

“Um, listen, we have to talk.” I tell her and her eyes immediately take on a guarded expression. “Nothing bad, I promise. I’m just not really sure how to say this and I’m more than a little nervous.”

“It’s okay.” She tells me, her voice calm. She is my anchor. I look up to her sweet face, her eyes so completely green with trust. Her pink lips are slightly parted and fair cheeks flushed from the summer sun.

I take her hands in mine and turn my body toward hers. “I love you.” I begin.

“I love you.” She answers, and I see the love so evident in her eyes.

“Before I met you I felt as if I was just living by rote. I would wake up, go to work, come home by myself and go to bed. My life didn’t have any meaning in it, no passion, no fun. From the moment I first saw you I knew that you would become someone important to me. Now, having you in my life and my heart, I can’t imagine being without you. I was never so scared when Aron hurt you. I had no idea what I would do if you had killed. I want us to cherish every minute we have together. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want you with me all the time, everyday and forever.”

I stop speaking to gauge her reaction. She looks stunned, but not upset, so I take that as my cue to continue.

“I’ve been trying to think of ways to show you how I really feel. I want to commit to being only with you for the rest of my life. You are my light, my safe harbor from the storm. Not only does being with you make me realize how much I love you, it makes me realize how much I love myself. It’s incredible; I never thought I would trust myself enough to be so completely taken by someone, but I do. You’ve changed everything that I am and will be.”

Her eyes are wide with surprise, and I see the faint beginning of tears gathering in the corners. She is smiling, but still looks speechless so I keep talking before I lose my nerve.

“I cherish every second we’ve spent together. I will cherish every memory to come. Please give me the honor of spending the rest of my life with you.” I squeeze her hands, waiting for a reaction.

Grace swallows audibly, her eyes a swirling mixture of colors. She nods her head weakly. “Where you go, I go.” She answers simply.

I fumble to unbuckle my seat belt and fall into her arms, burying my face into her hair. I’m crying and she’s crying and all I can feel is her in my arms.

When I have no more grateful tears to shed I pull away, wiping at my eyes. I’m smiling brightly like an idiot, but so is she. My crying turns to laughter and the melodic sound of our combined joy fills the car.

We laugh until our stomachs hurt. Grace’s hair is mussed from my embrace and I affectionately run my hands through it, straightening the short locks. I cup her face in my hands and plant the softest kiss on her lips.

“Forever.” I whisper against her mouth.

“Not nearly long enough.” She whispers back and returns my kiss.

There is nothing more I’d like to do than kiss her for hours, but we sort of are on a time crunch. I reluctantly break away and smile at her, wiping the remains of her tears from her eyes.

“You want to know why we are here?” I ask and she nods eagerly. “Well, Bean and I were talking this morning.” I begin, and Gracie giggles. “And we thought that the perfect birthday gift for our favorite girl would be to adopt a dog. It’s not just a new pet, but it is the symbol of my commitment to you. I want to start a family with you Grace, even if it is a couple of dogs. I don’t know if you want kids or have even ever thought of it, hell knows I don’t know anything about them, but anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I see us as a family now and I want to extend our family. Does that make sense? I mean..” I babble on until Grace thankfully stops me.

“Yes.” She answers. “Thank you.” Gracie says sincerely. “I do know what you mean and I see it the same way. I’ve been thinking of getting a dog for you lately too.”

“Really?” I ask, surprised.

“Yep.” She confirms.

“Well, I called and they are expecting us. They told me to bring Bean so we can make sure the dog we choose will get along with her.” I open the car door and prepare to step out when Grace’s sweet voice stops me.

“Jaden.” She begins, and I turn to look at her smiling face. “I know how difficult it must have been for you to say that. Speaking your feelings isn’t the easiest thing for you and I am so in love with you that I can think of nothing else. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to become myself. You’ve showed me how to find the courage I’ve had inside myself all along. I want nothing more than to be with you.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, moved deeply by her words. “Happy birthday.” I tell her weakly, unsure as to how to respond.

“Yeah.” Grace answers, taking my hand in hers and kissing each finger. “It is.”

I smile and gently stroke her face with my palm. “Let’s go get a dog.” She smiles excitedly and we get out of the car, trailed by a prancing Bean, and head for the door of the animal shelter.

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

Bean is going insane, sniffing every available inch of the floor as Jaden and I wait our turn to be helped. It’s busy in here today, Jaden mentioned that they are closing in less than an hour and it seems like everyone is either getting a pet or getting rid of one. I try not to look at the people standing in line with the pets they are leaving here with contempt. I know that sometimes people get an animal on the spur of the moment and then have no way to care for it. But it really burns me up when people treat animals as commodities and act as if they are expendable.

My dog is family to me, and I would no sooner give her up than I would Jaden. I muffle a giggle at the imagined sight of me waltzing in here with Jaden at the end of a leash.

“What’s so funny?” Jaden asks, raising her eyebrows at me. I look at her innocently.

“Nothing, Spots.” I answer and she frowns.

“You know, Gracie darling, I know that me being covered with chicken pox was a humorous sight, but do you really have to keep using that annoying nickname?” She whines and I giggle again.

“Yep.” I respond firmly. “But, according to several relationship therapists, the use of a pet nickname for each other increases the feeling of intimacy.”

Jaden rolls her eyes. “Where did you learn that, Jenny Jones? Or perhaps it was Maury. And please, we need no help with intimacy.” She adds, grinning slyly.

“Actually, it was Montel, if you really need to know.” I admit. Jaden just laughs to herself as we step ahead in line.

“Hi, can I help you?” The woman behind the counter asks, looking only a little frazzled. “Another drop off? Jesus, I can’t believe how many we’ve had today. Here, fill out this form and attach any vet records you have for the animal. Reason for surrender?” She pauses to ask.

“Um, we’re not here to give Bean away.” Jaden says firmly. “I called earlier, we are coming in to adopt a dog. I talked to a woman named Sam.” She adds and the woman shakes her head warily.

“Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m Sam and I spoke with you. Hang on a sec.” Sam orders, disappearing from behind the counter. An older woman takes her place and calls the next people in line.

Sam appears through a door next to the counter and ushers us inside. She hums brightly as she leads us down a well-lit hallway and into a small office. We sit and she takes her place behind the desk.

“Sorry for all the commotion. It’s a nuthouse here today and I forgot you were coming in. I’m Samantha Riley, head of the shelter.” She says, extending her hand.

“I’m Jaden Phillips; and I spoke with you earlier. This is my partner, Grace.” We both shake Samantha’s hand, and I smile over Jaden’s possessive term for me. I can definitely get used to this.

“Yes, I remember now. Happy birthday.” Samantha mentions to me and I blush and murmur my thanks. “And this is?” She adds, motioning to Bean who is sitting at Jaden’s side.

“Our dog, Bean.” Jaden says proudly. “She’s a Jack Russell and is, what, 8 months now?” Jaden questions, looking at me and I nod in agreement. Samantha reaches down to pet Bean, who is very well behaved and calm despite the strange circumstances.

“Well, I don’t need to tell you that adopting a pet is a big step. From the looks of Bean I can tell that you are responsible owners and I am sure you will be able to provide any dog with a loving environment. What kind of dog are you looking for?” She asks.

Jaden looks at me and shrugs her shoulders. I smile and take the initiative to begin. “Well, our first concern is to find a dog that will get along well with Bean. She is a very bossy little dog around other dogs, like most Jack Russells, so something with a more laid back personality.”

“I’d like a bigger dog, one that is playful and intelligent like Bean.” Jaden pipes in. “I run in the mornings and take Bean with me and would like to take the other dog too.” She adds.

“Something very sweet and affectionate.” I continue. “Oh, and one that doesn’t mind to traveling in the car.”

“That about sums it up.” Jaden finishes. “Do you have anything in mind Samantha?”

“Please, call me Sam. Only my partner calls me Samantha and that’s reserved for when she’s mad at me.” She and Jaden laugh at the joke and I join them, after pausing for a moment. What, do they grow lesbians on trees out here? Holy cow, I’ve never met so many lesbians in my life. I look at Sam, finding her to be very pleasant and warm. She is probably in her late 30’s and is pretty, her curvy body and round face reminding me almost of Diana.

“I know that same-sex aggression is common in the Jack Russell breed, so probably a male dog would be better suited for Bean. I have a few that match that description, as well as a lovely little female that has been here quite a while. Let’s have a look at them and you can tell me what you think.” Sam stands and we follow her outside of the office. “I’ll take Bean here to the dog play area and then we can introduce her to any of the dogs you like.” Jaden hands Sam the leash for Bean. I must look nervous about giving her to Sam because she smiles and puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, no one will walk off with her.”

I smile and take Jaden’s hand as Sam walks down the hall trailed by Bean. My dog keeps looking over her shoulder, confused about where she’s being led, but obeys Sam nonetheless.

“Poor thing, she probably thinks we’re leaving her.” Jaden mentions.

“I know. I feel so bad even though I know it’s just for a few minutes.” I respond, looking around the long hallway. “It’s so sad here.” I murmur and Jaden looks at me curiously. I shrug as I try to find the words to explain myself. “These animals have no idea why they are here. Maybe their owners died or gave them away, but they don’t know that, you know?”

“Yeah.” Jaden replies. “I always wanted to open a big no-kill animal shelter after I retired. I thought it would be really rewarding to rescue animals who were minutes away from death’s door and give them another chance at life.”

I look into her blue eyes, constantly amazed at how wonderful she really is. “I think that we should. I would love to rescue all kinds of animals, not just dogs and cats, but horses and farm animals too.” I pause. “I just don’t get it. To me, a pet isn’t just a pet, but a member of the family. It’s forever.”

“Forever.” Jaden agrees, squeezing my hand. “That’s how I feel too. I guess that’s why we’re here.”

I smile at her as Sam comes back, still humming. “You have a wonderful dog already.” Sam remarks and Jaden and I beam like proud parents. “Let’s find you another one.”

Sam leads us into the area where dogs are kept, the cages small but immaculate. The information for each dog is located on the outside of its cage and a part of me wants to stop and read every tag, but I can’t. It’s breaking my heart to look at each dog’s face, knowing we’re not going to be taking him or her home.

I clench Jaden’s hand in mine and she strokes the back of my hand with her thumb in response. I know this must be just as hard for her; she loves animals as much as I do.

“Here is June Bug.” Sam remarks, stopping in front of a cage housing a gorgeous dog. “She is just over a year old and a Border Collie/Irish Setter mix.” Sam stands back to allow us to see the dog. I immediately kneel in front of the cage, and June Bug comes up and sniffs my hand through the bars. She regards me warily but goes right up to Jaden, wagging her tail and licking her fingers through the bars.

“She’s beautiful!” I tell Sam, watching the dog and Jaden interact. June Bug is a tall dog, her nose delicately long and slender like an Irish Setter’s, but her short ears more true to her Border Collie heritage. Her coat is medium in length and multi-colored, black and white with hints of auburn. But her eyes are what make her stand out; one is brown while the other is blue.

“She’s very special. Her owners gave her up because they couldn’t stand her antics. It seems she is very intelligent and can get into cabinets as well as let herself outside. They weren’t willing to put her through obedience and thought it would be easier to give her to us. She’s been here almost two months now and needs to find a home soon. I’ve taught her quite a lot in obedience and she is responding well, but she’s very shy. We all feel that she’s been abused and doesn’t have much trust in people.”

“She doesn’t seem shy.” Jaden remarks as she scratches the dog’s floppy ears through the bars.

“Not with you, that’s for sure.” Sam comments and Jaden looks at me, her eyes hopeful.

“Do you like her?” She asks and I smile fondly at the picture she and the dog make.

“I do.” I tell her, squeezing her shoulder as I stand and face Sam. “Can we see her outside of the cage?”

“Sure. I’ll take you to a private room and you can get to know each other better. Would you like to see any of the other dogs first?” Sam asks.

“No.” Jaden says quickly before looking at me sheepishly. “Do we?” She adds, her eyes hopeful that I’ll decline.

“I think she’s the one.” I tell Sam who nods happily. Opening June Bug’s cage, Sam attaches a leash to her collar and leads her out and into a small room. When we all are in, Sam frees the dog who bounds up to Jaden.

“Hiya sweet girl!” Jaden greets her, bending down to pat her. June Bug’s tail wags happily and she covers Jaden’s face with kisses.

“Hey June Bug.” I greet her quietly after she’s done with her assault on Jaden’s face. June allows me to pat her head and moves in closer to sniff my face. She pulls back and regards me before coming back closer and giving me an experimental lick. Jaden laughs as I wipe the doggie slobber off my face.

“June Bug!” Jaden calls, standing up and walking to the other side of the room. The dog doesn’t turn her attention from my pats and I look at Sam curiously.

“Doesn’t she know her name?” I ask.

“I’m afraid not.” Sam answers. “I don’t know why, but she’s never responded to it. I started calling her Bella because she’s so pretty and she will sometimes listen to that. But if you take her, you can name her whatever you want.”

“Bella’s a pretty name.” I tell Sam, pausing to regard the dog who is now again at Jaden’s side. “It fits her.”

“I thought so.” Sam agrees. “Do you want to introduce her to Bean?”

“Yeah.” I decide, knowing that Jaden is head over heels infatuated with this dog. I have to admit, I am also. If she and Bean are okay together, I can’t think of why we wouldn’t take her. I know she’ll need work and time to adjust, especially if she’s been abused in the past, but I can’t think of anyone better to nurture her than Jaden.

“Come on Bella.” Sam urges the dog who reluctantly leaves Jaden’s side. “The best way to do this is for you to keep Bean on her leash and we’ll let them sniff. If they are well behaved after a few minutes we can let them go inside the play area. Then we just have to make sure there are no acts of aggression or anything.” Sam instructs us as we head to get Bean.

Jaden and I enter the room first and put Bean on her leash. She looks rather relieved to see us and is excited to smell the unfamiliar scent of June Bug on our hands.

“Ready.” I tell Samantha who opens the door and comes in with June Bug, or rather, Bella.

I know Jaden is nervous as the two dogs sniff for the first time. Bella is shy and Bean can sense that, so she makes a pest of herself by sniffing poor Bella in the most intimate of all places. Bella takes her abuse, looking at Jaden and I with her intense brown and blue eyes. After Bean sniffs her completely, Bella takes a nervous turn. They seem to be okay, not hating each other immediately.

“That’s a great start. Let’s see what they do off leash. If they begin to fight, follow my directions, okay?” Sam instructs as we unfasten the dogs. They sniff each other again and Bean begins exploring the rest of the room, Bella shyly at her heels. When Bean begins to run around and Bella gives chase, I know that it’s a done deal.

Jaden looks at me happily as the two dogs frolic, seemingly enjoying each other. Sam smiles at the sight of Bella and Bean playing.

“Shall I go and get the final paperwork?” She asks Jaden and me. We nod eagerly and she excuses herself.

“Are you sure about this?” Jaden asks, putting her arm around my shoulder.

“Yeah. Are you?”

“Absolutely.” She says firmly, kissing my temple. “I love you.”

“I love you more.” I respond teasingly.

“I love you most.” She answers and I giggle.

“I love you infinity.” I tell her.

“I love you infinity squared.” Jaden retorts.

“You can’t square infinity.” I answer, sticking out my tongue at her.

“Can so.” She argues.

“Can not.” I emphasize. “Nothing is bigger than infinity.”

“Except my love for you.” Jaden says sweetly.

I roll my eyes. “You’re one big cheeseball, Spots.”

“Am not.” She counters.

We are still trading remarks when Sam returns.

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

We have a dog. No, scratch that, we have two dogs. But we, meaning Grace and I deciding together, have a dog.

It didn’t take long to finalize the adoption for Bella. Sam seemed happy to see her go to us, and we promised to return after our trip to Ohio for Bella’s obedience classes. I’m going to take her and Gracie will tag along with Bean, putting her through the class also.

She’s a great dog. So is Bean, don’t get me wrong, I love the little mutt, but she’s Grace’s dog. Bean worships the ground that Grace walks on, just like I do. But it’s nice to have a dog adore me too.

After we left the shelter we went to Petco and took both dogs in. That was a riot. We spent a fortune on all sorts of things for them, Bella needs a food bowl and we need a big water bowl for the both of them. We had to get Bella a bed and a collar and leash, dog food and lots of toys. And of course, a dog seatbelt for her, one for my car and one for Grace’s.

Coming home, I was surprised how good Bella was in the car. She sat in her seat belt next to Bean and looked out the window, her interesting eyes observing everything in sight.

We let her and Bean run around the back yard for a while before taking them upstairs. Bella didn’t seem fazed by anything and trotted curiously around the apartment exploring.

She doesn’t like loud noises or sudden movements. We’re trying to be really calm around her, but she is adapting really well. We’ve only had her home for a few hours and she and Bean played with their toys together for a while and now are each munching on a nylabone.

“You almost ready?” I ask Grace who is in the bedroom getting ready. I told her I wanted to take a sunset walk on the beach with her so she went to change. Hefting the picnic basket I have stocked with our dinner I set it outside in the hall.

“Jaden?” She calls, coming from the bedroom. I reappear back inside the kitchen to find her standing here, looking amazing.

“You’re beautiful.” I tell her, admiring her sundress in colors of swirling blue. It hugs her breasts and hips lovingly before flowing gently down to her mid-calf.

“Thank you.” Gracie blushes, ducking her head. I tilt her chin up and her eyes meet mine. I’m lost in the mesmerizing mix of green and aqua as I softly lean in to kiss her lips. She smells like peppermint. Sighing in happiness I take her hand and lead her to the hallway.

“Be good dogs!” I call as I shut the door behind us. Grace looks at me nervously.

“Do you think they’ll be okay?” She asks.

“They will be fine. They’ve peed, played and have treats. What else do they need?” I respond and she laughs, her voice soft and melodic.

Pretending not to notice her curious stare, I pick up the basket containing our dinner and walk hand and hand with her down the hall.

It’s quiet out tonight, the warm summer day slowly fading into a breezy evening. A lone bird chirps in the distance as the grass softly bends beneath our feet. I chose to walk barefoot, as did Grace. The path from the apartment to the beach is rolling and smooth and I enjoy feeling the hard ground as we walk.

Reaching the beach I lead Grace over to a smooth stretch of sand. I set the basket down and open the top, pulling out a large blanket.

Grace smiles at me and shakes her head, helping me spread it evenly across the warm sand.

“You’re just full of one surprise after another.” She mentions as I sit beside her.

I grin, shrugging my shoulders as I start to unpack the dinner. I have everything a picnic should have, fried chicken and fruit salad, bottles of lemonade and my homemade potato salad. We have carrot cake with cream cheese frosting for desert, complete with 23 candles and a box of matches.

“This looks wonderful!” She exclaims as I fix her a plate. “How did you do this?”

“Ask your uncle, this is actually his birthday present to you too. He taught me how to cook this.” I mention offhandedly.

“What? You cooked this?” Gracie asks, holding up a piece of chicken. “How?”

“Lots of early morning phone calls to Ohio.” I answer, grinning like an idiot.

“What can’t you do?” She responds, smiling at me like I’m freaking Mother Theresa.

“Grace, not to sound like that crappy Bryan Adams song, but everything I do, I do it for you.” I answer.

She cocks her head at me, her eyes glowing like the ocean around her. Her face remains frozen in a smile, and I know she doesn’t know what to say. That’s okay; I’m not expecting her to say anything.

“You know what?” She begins. “I think that we all just do what we can. And sometimes, someone makes you feel like you can do so much more, so you do. Other times it feels like you can’t do anything.”

I nod my head at her, understanding completely what she means.

“It feels so incredible to know that you would do anything for me Jaden. And I would do anything for you in return. Being with you makes me feel like I can do anything and I like that feeling.” Gracie finishes, her smile revealing her straight teeth.

I raise my lemonade bottle in a toast and we begin our dinner.

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

We sat at the beach until the sun had long set, just holding each other and enjoying the quiet night. Now, reluctantly, we set about packing up the used dishes and containers leftover from Jaden’s wonderful dinner.

As we shake the sand out from the blanket and fold it back up I am once again startled by the surprising weight of the ring on my left hand.

Jaden’s full of mystery today, first by her admission of undying love in the parking lot of the shelter, bringing home Bella, the flowers she had delivered this afternoon, and the picnic dinner. I thought the day was perfect and complete. And then she brought out the ring. A beautiful array of emeralds and diamonds in a silver band.

She explained it was her grandmother’s engagement ring from her grandfather. Jaden hasn’t spoken much on the subject, but has told me a few times that her grandmother lives in a care facility now, and is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. I know it hurts Jaden terribly to visit because her grandmother acts like she doesn’t know her.

I know this ring must mean a lot to her, and for her to give it to me makes my heart ache.

She wants to spend the rest of our lives together. There is nothing more that I want than to be with her forever.

This night has been magical. The gentle roar of the waves are nothing compared to the waves of love pouring out from my heart into Jaden’s. Our love is as timeless as the ocean. I can’t wait for forever.

We haven’t spoken since she put the ring on my finger. We haven’t needed to, all our emotions and thoughts easily interpreted through our eyes. And even now, as we walk back up the soft beach cushioned with sand, we don’t speak. An occasional glance and small smile is all we need.

Crickets chirp and lightning bugs pulse with color. Our walk is over much too soon, the small lamp in our living room now visible to us below.

Our feet are dusty from our walk, but we don’t care. The smooth wood of the stairs creak their protests as we climb, both of us tired and needing our sleep for the long drive to Ohio tomorrow morning.

Jaden’s keys jingle as she opens the door, pushing it to allow me to enter before her.

And at once, the peaceful perfection of our night is shattered.

“HOLY SHIT!” I scream and Jaden bursts through the door behind me.

“What?” She asks in alarm. I can’t say anything; I am unable to do anything but stare at the destruction that is our apartment.

“What the fuck?” Jaden questions, looking around at the mess. There is stuff everywhere. “Gracie, get in the hall and shut the door.” She says, going into policewoman mode.

“No. I’m not leaving you.” I tell her, my voice a hushed whisper. She glares at me but doesn’t protest, instead silently reaching into the cabinet on top of the refrigerator and taking out her gun. She retrieves the ammunition from another cabinet and effortlessly loads it. I can’t help but shiver at the sight of the gun and Jaden looks at me sympathetically.

“Please go. I want you safe.” She begs, her blue eyes wide.

“What part of ‘where you go I go’ didn’t you understand?” I respond as I tuck myself in behind her. She sighs and begins to stealthily explore the apartment. The living room and kitchen are empty, leaving the bathroom and the two bedrooms. Jaden creeps down the hall and I follow, my stomach queasy. What if someone is in here? What if Jaden gets hurt?

The spare bedroom door is shut, just like we left it. Jaden passes it by, looking at it warily, and heads into our bedroom, the door wide open.

“Fuck me.” She exclaims suddenly, dropping her hands to her side. “What?” I ask, unable to see anything from behind her.

She steps aside and I gasp in horror when I see the bedroom. It is destroyed, just like the living room and kitchen. The bed sheets are torn and ripped, stuff is knocked off the dresser, and the closets have been emptied, their contents strewn around the room haphazardly.

“Have we been robbed?” I ask and Jaden shakes her head.

“Nope. I think we have our criminals right here.” She exclaims, pointing to the pile of bed linens on the floor where several pairs of doggie feet are sticking out from.

I look at her curiously as she gently lifts the sheets up to reveal two sleeping dogs. They are covered in what appears to be baby powder as well as a variety of food products.

“Oh Goddess.” I exclaim before bursting into fits of laughter. Jaden soon joins me and this causes the dogs to wake up suddenly, surprised to see us standing there. Bean ducks her head and trots over to her dog bed, averting our gaze. Bella just sits there and regards us with her intelligent eyes, trying to decide what to do.

I don’t know what to say. I look at Jaden, and see that she’s speechless too.

All we can do is laugh. So we do.

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

It’s 1:42 am. I collapse on the bed, exhausted, and wait for Grace to join me. The apartment is now clean, or as clean as it can be. It took hours to clean the food from the raided refrigerator off the carpets and other flooring. Besides the food, the bathroom cabinets were ravaged and things such as hair gel, baby powder and toothpaste littered the apartment.

Both dogs have had baths and are sleeping peacefully in their beds. They actually didn’t destroy much of anything besides the stuff in the cabinets and the bed sheets. They didn’t tear up the couch or tables or anything.

They just had a blast trashing the place. I guess Grace and I didn’t think that Bella would do that, even though we should have listened to Sam about the dog’s former bad habits.

Oh well. It was funny, and we took lots of pictures. Bella is a smart dog and I’m sure it didn’t take much to convince Bean that tearing up the place was fun. At least they’re getting along.

We have to figure out a way to dog-proof the place after we get back from Ohio though, that and train Bella that this is unacceptable behavior.

“Do you know that they unraveled the entire roll of toilet paper and dragged it through the house?” Grace comments as she turns off the bedroom light and falls into bed tiredly.

“Bet that was fun to clean up.” I mutter as my eyes adjust to the dark.

“Oh yeah, buttloads of fun.” She responds and I laugh.

“Come here.” I tell her and she slides into my arms, her bare skin heated against mine. “Did you have a nice birthday? Other than the destructive duo, that is.”

“It’s perfect.” She whispers, stroking my bare stomach with her hand. I feel the cool band of the ring on her finger and smile widely, delighted that she didn’t take it off.

“You looking forward to going to Ohio?” I question and she shakes her head against my shoulder.

“Don’t want too.” She murmurs, already on her way to falling asleep.

I kiss her head. “I know you don’t, but it will be good. You can say your peace and put it behind you.”

“I know.” Gracie answers slowly. “I’ll do what I can.” She yawns and snuggles into my arms.

“Go to sleep, we have an early start tomorrow.” I tell her, closing my eyes. “Happy birthday.”

She doesn’t respond, her deep breathing gently blowing my hair. I squeeze her close to me and allow sleep to claim me.

 

 

THE END

Continued in A Thousand Kisses

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