Part 9

by Kim Pritekel

For complete disclaimers see part 1.

If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am, or that I royally suck, feel free at:

For Alexa. Always and forever.

Part 9

I held the phone in my hand, stunned, frozen in place when it hit me. Shit! I quickly hung it up, popped up from my chair and began to clean like I'd never cleaned in my entire life. Clothes were scattered around the bedroom, the spare bedroom's bed needed the sheets changed badly. So much to do, so little time.

Storm watched me, confused. I had to laugh as it looked like he was watching a tennis match, me running back and forth, one time carrying a bag of trash to the door to dump, then running back for more, running around the living room like my head was cut off, dusting, picking up copies of Popular Photography and Nature Photography magazine.

"Hot damn." I stared at the mag in my hand. "There's the newest issue of Advocate. I wondered where that had gone." With a shrug, I threw them all into the magazine rack on the side of the recliner. "Okay, you big weenie. You're not going to like this." I informed my dog. He looked at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. I rubbed his head between the ears, and headed toward the cleaning closet. I opened the door, and with a whimper, Storm ran to the bedroom, tail between his legs.

Vacuum in hand, I went to work.

* * *

I stood against the wall, the baggage claim for Delta flight 1943 before me. People rushed by, trying to get home, or on to their meeting, or whatever else they had to do. I had butterflies in my stomach, swallowing several times, my palms sweating.

Never in a million years would I have thought that within a week and a half of returning from Boston I'd be picking Caden up from the airport. I had never picked anyone up at an airport, either. I swallowed again. I hoped she liked my place, though I was set to look at the house in a week. How long was she planning to stay? Would she want to go with me to look at it?

Other than the apartment we shared in college, Caden had never seen where I lived. I wasn't sure why that made me nervous. Perhaps I just worried that after what she was used to her entire life, the glitz and glamour, she'd find my life plain and unexciting.

I sighed.

I loaded the last of my bags into the car, ready to head out. More than ready. Summer break was only a month in, but I was going back to Pennsylvania. I needed to be alone, away from my family. My father had decided to start in on me again over the weekend, and I was tired of it.

Ever since the night I had come out to them, Joshua Wayne Gleason had refused to leave me alone. My father was the biggest bigot, hypocrite I had ever known, or cared to know. He was bitter and sad from a hard life; a drunk for a father who left a needy boy alone at a very young age with a woman who hated her son because of the resemblance to his father. His temper and disdain for others had cost him an education and countless jobs. Now, in his fifties, he hated himself, his family, and his life. I truly did not believe he had a single shred of love left for anything.

I wiped a tear from my eye as I looked around my old room. I knew that would be the last time I ever saw it again. I would not be returning.

"Honey, please don't leave." My mother had begged, crying.

"I have to. That bastard has hit me for the last time, mom." I pointed to the other room where he was being roughed up by my brother. I could hear something break. "Would you please make them stop?" I covered my ears with my hands, tired of the sounds and images of this family. "When are they going to get here?"

It had all started when Caden had called. My father had answered, and he had automatically assumed she was my girlfriend, Erin, and had lost it. He had slammed the phone down, not saying a word to her, and coming for me.

"You bitch! You fucking dyke bitch! How dare you give my phone number out to your freakish friends. It's bad enough that you have it!" SLAP! Down to the floor I went, missing the edge of the coffee table with my head by mere centimeters. I started to get up when another blow came down to put me back on the floor. "Stay down there, you little bitch! That's where you belong!"

"Stop, you piece of shit!" my father cried out as he was thrown off me. I hurried to my feet, my hand to my bleeding mouth. Phillip had the old man by the shirt, pushed up against the wall. I ran to the kitchen, phone in hand.

"No, please honey, no." my mother begged, her hand on mine. "Don't. He's not worth it." I glared at her.

"No, he's not." I knocked my hand free from hers, took the receiver off the hook and dialed those three sacred numbers. I would just tell them not to take Phillip. He was only trying to protect me.

I was surprised to feel a sting in my left eye. I quickly brought my hand up, wiping away the moisture that was trying to gather. He still wasn't worth it.

Taking a deep breath, I continued to wait and watch. Soon. Caden would be here soon.

"Arrivals: Delta flight 1943, Continental,..."

My ears stopped listening after I heard Caden's flight announced. Here it was. Now I just had to wait for her to get to the baggage claim. I looked around, standing on my tiptoes to try and see over people's heads. I knew Caden would certainly stand out. She'd be fairly easy to spot with her height.

I didn't have to wait long. A smile spread across my face as I watched people's reactions to the beauty that walked through their midst with confidence and absolute assurance of who she was, and where she was going.

Caden looked beautiful wearing a red button up shirt and jeans, the red of her shirt bringing the electric color of her eyes out. Magnificent. She was right; her hair was growing back in quickly. It was now long enough to be styled or gelled. I wondered if I could run my fingers through it,..

Shaking myself out of my stupor, I put a smile on my face as I waited.

"Hello, Laurel." Caden smiled when she saw me, and hurried over, adjusting the shoulder strap on her shoulder, the attached bag stuffed full. I wondered if that was all she had brought.

"Hey." She wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me in tight.

"It's so good to see you." She whispered. I closed my eyes as I reveled in the hug, the contact. Her body against mine was so warm, so solid.

"You, too." We parted and I looked at her. "You look so good." My eyes traveled up to her eyes. They were twinkling, healthy. "You look like you feel so much better than when I was there." She smiled with a sigh.

"I feel wonderful. Like a new woman." She put her arm around my shoulder and turned me toward the exit. "Come on. I am so excited to see your place, the little details of your life that I just don't get to see or hear about."

I pulled my Xterra into the drive for my building's parking lot. The entire trip home from the airport Caden had been mostly quiet, watching my city pass by, looking up at the trees, watching other drivers and their sporty little cars.

"Why do you drive an SUV?" she asked, watching a little Miata zoom past.

"I think they're more practical for what I do." I smiled at her.

"Makes sense."

"So this is it, huh?" I lifted the bag out of the back after I parked. Caden, still looking around, nodded.

"Well, I didn't really want to impose." She looked at me with a sheepish grin. "I forgot to ask how long you wanted me to stay."

"After I bugged you for a month? How you can possibly say that is beyond me." I motioned toward the building with my head, lead the way.

The elevator rode slowly up to the third floor, shaking and creaking the entire way. Caden looked absolutely terrified, one hand on the handle of her bag, knuckles white, the other holding on the wall of the car.

"It's not going to fall, I assure you." I grinned. She looked at me, her eyes wide but said nothing.

My key slid easily into the lock, the metal clicking loudly as it was turned. On the other side of the door I could hear Storm sniffing, then a howl, telling me to hurry. Caden took a step back, looking at the door as if she could see through it. She looked at me.

"You have a dog?"

"Yup. Storm." Slowly, an unsure smile spread across her face. "Oh. I didn't know."

"Is that a problem?" I asked, suddenly worried.

"No! Not at all. To be honest, I'm somewhat excited."

No sooner did I have the door open when my husky flew out at me, tail wagging like mad. He barked, bowing so his butt was in the air before he flew back up, licking, barking, yelping.

"Hello, my boy. Hello." I bent down, taking wild husky into my arms. Caden stood back watching. When Storm calmed a bit, he realized someone else was with me that he did not know. I wasn't sure what he would do, not being a real big fan of anyone other than me or Lu. He didn't even like Carol.

The husky walked slowly up to her, sniffing her shoes, up her pant leg, hands that were still at Caden's side, then finally looked up into her face. He cocked his head slightly, backing away slightly, tail slowly wagging back and forth, his mixed emotions obvious.

"Hello, pretty doggy." Caden said, her voice soft and melodic. "How are you?" Storm's ears perked up, the speed of the wag increasing a bit, taking a small step forward. "Can I pet you?" Caden knelt down, holding our her hand to him. He stretched his neck until he nearly touched the tip of her fingers with the wet tip of his black nose. "That's it, boy." She whispered. Suddenly Storm's tail began to go nuts, and he began to lick her fingers, moving up to her face. "Ugh!"

"Storm!" I yelled through my laughter. My dog had completely knocked my friend off balance, causing her to sit hard on her butt trying to ward off doggy kisses.

Everyone calm and cool, we headed into the apartment. Caden pulled her bag a bit higher onto her shoulder, looked around. She walked to the wall of windows that had made me take it in the first place. She crossed her arms as she looked down at the city.

"What an incredible view," she muttered. I watched, curious. Turning away, she continued on, looking up at the high ceiling, into the living room, then turned to me. "I like it" she smiled. "It's so big, deceivingly so."

"I've enjoyed being here." I leaned against the breakfast bar, arms crossed over my chest. "However, I must admit I am more looking forward to owning a house."

"I'd forgotten about that." She smiled. "How wonderful." We were both quiet, both looking around for something to say, Storm heading toward his corner, watching us as he chewed on a rope.

I wasn't sure what to think. Why were we so uncomfortable? Had this been a mistake? My stomach was still trying to take flight.

"Well, would you like the full tour?"


I was so glad to see the apartment, all the lights off in the house. Our downstairs neighbors had all gone home for the summer, too. It was me, myself and I.

I flipped on the light just inside the door, headed straight for my room. I wished so bad that Caden were here. Despite my anger at her mother, and partially at her, I needed her. Especially now.

I had not seen Caden since I'd left the Lodge house two weeks ago. She had called several times. I had talked to her sometimes, and not others. I couldn't quite get a handle on what I was more angry at; what her mom had said and that no one had done anything about it, or the fact that Caden had kissed me again. Why couldn't she just leave it alone?

I plopped down on my bed, hands behind my head stared up at the ceiling. It was getting late, and I was tired but knew I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing too much, thinking of too many things. I saw my father's face again as the policemen drug him to the squad car. He looked back at me, hands handcuffed behind his back, dark eyes glaring up at me as I stood on the porch, watching. He hadn't said a word, just glared. I had known in that moment that that would be the last time I would ever see him. He would be out of jail within a day or two, but he and I would not cross paths again. My mother knew it, too. She said nothing. After the police left, she walked back into the house, started to wash the dinner dishes.

"I can't believe you did that." Phil had said, shaking his head.

"I think it's great." Denny smiled at me.

I wasn't sure anymore. All I knew was that I wanted school to end so I could head out, start over.

"Do we have everything?"

"I think so." Caden looked around, glancing inside the backpack we had packed to take with us.

"Okay. Let's go. See you later, Storm." The dog continued to chew on his bone, looking up for a brief moment.

"I'm thinking he's not caring too much at this moment." Caden grinned. I gave her a dirty look.

"Of course he cares. Don't you, my baby." I walked over to him and he growled slightly. Startled, I looked back at my friend who attempting to stifle a laugh. "Fine. So he doesn't love me." Dejected, I headed toward the door where Caden met me, putting her hand on my shoulder.

"He loves you just fine. Don't you, boy?"

"Woof!" the husky stood, barking again with a wag of his tail


The late October day was beautiful, a nice 65 degrees, clear skies. Couldn't ask for better. We hurried to the Xterra, loaded her up with the bag, and climbed inside.

"So are you excited?" I asked as I turned the car on. Caden smiled wildly at me.

"I have never been to Sea World. I am ecstatic! I've heard so many wonderful things about this park."

"Well, good." I smiled, it was returned.

Caden had been in San Diego for four days now, and everything had completely turned around in my life. I realized just how empty and lonely it had been before. Caden had brought such life with her, such curiosity for life and what it had to offer. I hated to see her go. She hadn't really talked about a date that she wanted to head back, but I wasn't sure. Part of me wished she could be here for Thanksgiving. Usually every year I just treated myself to a movie and dinner at Lu's. I wanted the traditional setting this year; turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, the whole nine yards.

I pushed the thought out of my head. I didn't want to count on anything. I had learned over time that that was very dangerous. Take each day and event as it happens.

The park was crowded already as we waited in line to get tickets. Caden insisted on paying, so after arguing about it for nearly the entire drive to it, I gave in. She gave the girl her money, and with a smile we were given a park map and a "Have a nice day."

With a wide smile and even wider eyes, Caden entered Sea World. She looked around at everything like a child, taking in the people, the smells and sights. I was absolutely charmed and enchanted.

"As a child this sort of thing was just not done." She smiled down at me as we walked. "My mother would have died had she come to a place like this."

"That's a shame. We just didn't come her because we couldn't afford it."

"Ironic, isn't it?"

Watching Caden experiencing the simpler things in life was such a gift, and brought back the wonder to my own eyes. How is it that someone so intelligent, so imaginative, so able had missed so much? We bought cotton candy, pop corn, tons of soda, balloons and even a Shamoo puppet that squeaked when you closed its mouth. She insisted on sitting in the first row during the whale's show where we got drenched! I stood from the bench after it was over, and wrung my shirttail out.

"I hope you're happy, Caden." I turned to her to see she was just as wet as I was, but the huge smile on her face told me she didn't care.

"Hell, yeah!" I looked at her. Where was the normally stuffy Caden that I knew? Who was this child-like woman before me? I shook my head in wonder.

Later at a seal show, Caden volunteered to be the trainer's assistant in a trick. She jumped up and down, her arm waving wildly through the air. The man looked in our direction, grinning as he pointed at her, beckoning her to the stage. Happily she hurried up, listening as he explained what he needed her to do, then laughing with the rest of the audience as the seal nearly pushed her into the water. She laughed heartily and was thanked for being a good sport, the seal shaking her hand by offering her a fin.

"Let's hear it for Caden!" the trainer said, holding out a hand toward her. Everyone clapped, including me. My hands hurt by time I was finished. I was proud, happy, content. I had seen a new side of my old friend slowly emerge over the last days, a side that looked good on her.

We had two weeks to go until school started again. Caden would be back soon. She usually came home at least a week early. This had been one of the worst and best summers of my life. I hadn't heard from her much. She didn't know I had come back. I had asked my mother not to tell her. I knew I would want her here, but didn't need it, and didn't have enough self-control to not ask her to come back if she called. So, finally when my mother had given her every excuse in the book she had thought to call here. Smart girl.

She had initially been upset with me for not telling her, and had offered to come back to Lancaster that day. I had told her no; I needed to be alone and didn't feel like telling her what had finally pushed me over the edge. The last thing I needed was pity.

I plopped down onto the couch daily, eating chips and watching TV. It was a sad life, but all that I could manage. I had stopped calling Erin, my depression not allowing me to give her what she needed. I was just too chicken to end it.

I flipped through Opera, Montell Williams, Maury Povich. Nothing seemed interesting, not even Maury's Are They Men or Women? show. Just didn't care.

The good of my self-imposed isolation was it gave me time to think and finally let go of a family that I just didn't need anymore. My entire life it had been one thing or the other: not good enough, too slow, too fast, too smart, too ambitious. My father and brother held it against me that I actually wanted to make something of myself. I had doubted myself all along, doubted what I wanted to do and who I was destined to become. I had the feeling that I was meant for great things in life that I could make happen. It was just that in my family, I was the only one who had this view, or supported this dream. Caden, on the other hand, made me feel that I could do it, I could do anything. She believed in me.

I clicked the TV off and stared out the window. I fought the urge to call her, beg her to come back early. I needed a friendly face, her friendly face. Caden made me feel safe, somehow. I didn't understand it.

It was time to write Caden's story for the book. Everyone else's was finished. We sat on the living room floor, empty Dairy Queen Blizzard containers between us, TV on mute, and laughed.

"Oh, the things children will do." I chuckled, thinking of Caden's childhood stories. Stories of finding her parents in compromising positions, fights she'd had with Michael. "How is Gooper doing? I didn't get to say goodbye to him before I left Boston."

"Oh, he's been around. He asked for your address here." My brows drew.

"Why?" she shrugged.

"I have no idea." But I could tell by the half smile on her face that she knew exactly why. I stared at her, glaring.

"Spit it out" she shrugged again.

"Well, he had just mentioned to me that he wanted to send a little something along as a token of his appreciation. In fact, I'm surprised it hasn't arrived yet." She said, looking around.

"Nope. Nothing. He didn't have to do that, anyway, Caden. Tell him not to."

"Sure. But it won't do any good." She leaned back on her hands, stretching her legs out in front of her. "You know how stubborn he can be." I nodded with a sigh..

"Well, listen, I'm going to throw a load of laundry in." I stood, stretching my arms above my head. "Sitting on a rug covering a hard wood floor just does not do these old bones any good."

"I wouldn't complain. I'm older than you."

"By three months."

"Yeah, yeah." I walked to my bedroom where the hamper was and began to separate into piles. I had been putting this off the entire week, not wanting to take any time away from Caden. Then a thought hit me. I stared down at the garments for a moment. "Caden, do you have any laundry that needs to be done?" I asked, my voice somewhat shy. She looked at me from the floor for a moment, then slowly nodded. "Okay. Um, I'm going to start with whites, so,..."

Caden helped me sort, emptying a week's worth of dirty clothes from her bag. We talked and laughed as we started on laundry.

"God, this feels like old times, doesn't it?" she smiled as she poured a cup of Tide into the washer. I grinned and nodded. "And, I see you're still doing it the way I taught you." Caden quirked a brow.

"Yeah, so." I glared playfully.

"Yeah, so," she pushed me slightly. I looked at her for a moment, trying to figure out what she was up to. Then without thought, I grabbed the spray bottle used when I ironed, and sprayed the crap out of her. Caden screamed, covering her face with her arms, ran to the kitchen. She grabbed the sprayer on the sink, pulled it up, the water on. I, not realizing what she was up to, had followed, spraying her all the way, only to get a rude wake up call. It was my turn to scream as I got plastered.

Running, nearly slipping on the slick floor, I ran into my bedroom. All was quiet as I hunched down on the other side of the bed. I listened, hearing mostly the blood pound through my head as my heart beat double time. Nothing. I held my breath. I could hear footsteps, but were they Storm's or Caden's? I couldn't tell. Then silence. I slowly crawled out from behind the side of the bed to see what was what, still nothing. My room was empty, just me and my spray bottle.

"Caden?" I stupidly called out. Of course she didn't answer. I felt like I was in some B-horror movie. I slowly, carefully, made my way to the door, peeked out. Was that ever a mistake. I squealed as my head suddenly became absolutely drenched! Caden screamed in laughter as she dumped the pot of cold water on me.

"Gotcha!" I took a step away from her, trying to get my breath back from the shock of the cold. I wiped my bangs out of my eyes and glared up at her. Caden stared down at me, a satisfied smile plastered on her face, my clothes and hair plastered to me. She was trying to bring her smile down a few hundred pegs, but it just wasn't working.

"You are so dead," I said, calm, in no hurry whatsoever to carry out my threat.

I sat on the couch, looking at my class list for the semester, trying to figure out what I would need as far as supplies went, and mentally making a tally of what I had left over from last year.

The sun was shining outside, the day hot, and I had already been out for a run, my black mesh shorts still slightly sweaty. I was avoiding a shower as our hot water heater was acting up again. It may be hot outside, but a cold shower I was not a fan of.

I had somehow managed to get myself out of my funk over the last few weeks, being my own best friend and champion. I knew I was better than Joshua Gleason would ever be, but sometimes it just took a bit of cheerleading to realize it.

As I read on, the lock on the front door clicked, and the door swung open. I glanced up, not sure how to act around the person about to enter. I had not seen Caden in two months, and felt a little uneasy, almost unsure of what to expect. Part of me was really glad she was finally home, but another part me was trepidatious.

Caden lugged in a few bags, dropping them at the front door then heading down the stairs to get another load, I assumed. Within minutes she was back, closing the door behind her. Without a word, she grabbed them all up and headed into her room. The door was left open so I didn't take it as she was angry at me, or hurt with me, or any other possible scenario. I just wasn't sure if I wanted to go in there.

Turning my attention back to my schedule, I tried to not think about it.

As the Sunday before school started wore on, Caden had yet to come out of her room. I figured she was done unpacking by now, mostly indicative of that was the pile of dirty laundry that sat outside her door. Sunday was usually our laundry day, and we would head out to Suds Express a few blocks away, sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chairs as we waited, nibbling on unhealthy junk food from the vending machines. I wasn't sure if that was going to happen tonight or not.


I looked up from the crossword I was working on. "Yeah?"

"Did you still need to do your laundry?" she had read my mind.

"Um, yeah. I was just thinking about that, actually. I mean, it's getting late and I wanted to get a good start on it, so,..."

"Okay. Mind if I come, too?" my brows drew.

"Why would I mind?"

"I don't know. I guess I just don't want to intrude on your time."

"Intrude on my time," I tasted the absurdity of the words on my tongue and didn't like the bitter taste. "There is no intrusion, Caden. I've had more time to myself in the last few months than any one person could ever want. Of course I'd want you to go." I stood from the couch, noting the way her eyes avoided mine. "Are you ready?" she nodded. "Okay. Let's go."

The Laundromat was fairly empty, just a single woman in the corner reading a magazine while she waited for her load to dry. We went to our regular washer by the Coke machine and set up camp. Caden was quiet as she started two of the washers with loads of dark and red clothes.

"So, how was your summer?" I closed the lid and turned the dial to the setting I wanted, got her rolling, then moved on to the next one. I glanced at her profile.

"It was okay, I suppose." Still she wouldn't look at me. "And yourself? Why did you come back so early?"

I shrugged, starting the second machine. "Just ready to, I guess." If she wanted to be vague with me, I could do it, too. I had the feeling she was hiding something, holding something back.

"Do you think our friendship will extend beyond college?"

I looked at her, surprised by the major change in conversation, and the question itself. I thought for a moment, realizing it was a good question. My first instinct was to say, hell yeah. Why wouldn't it? But I was more realistic than that.

"Who knows. We can hope." I looked at her. "You know?" she nodded.

"Would you care for a soda?" she pointed at the vending machine with her hand. I nodded.

"Sure." Forcing a smile. I watched Caden walk over to it, insert the coins, and push the button for Dr Pepper, then a Coke for herself.

I stepped out of the elevator whistling happily, the packet of pictures tucked under my arm. The door to my apartment was locked, so I hurriedly stuck the key in the lock, opened it up, excited to show Caden what I had.

I had just returned from Tammy's office where she had showed me an early proof of the book. It was going to be wonderful! I couldn't wait for it to be done to show Caden. For now all I could show her was the pictures that Tammy had returned to me.

I looked around, not seeing my friend anywhere, or my dog for that matter. The TV was on, the anchorman telling me about an accident at the San Diego Zoo the day before. I looked at the kitchen, the heavenly aroma of spaghetti sauce filling my nose. My attention turned to the back hall where the two bedrooms were.

"Hello? Anyone home?" I draped my coat over the back of the couch, walked further into the place.

"In here." Caden called out. I headed toward the spare bedroom where I was met by Storm, tail wagging madly, barking for my attention. I bent down to hug my dog.

"Hello, big guy. Oh, yes. I know you're excited." Storm lead me to the room where Caden was busy folding laundry. "Hey." I leaned against the doorframe, watching her.

"Hi." She smiled at me, half folded tee shirt in hand. "I hope you don't mind, but I decided to fold yours, too." I raised my brows, surprised, shook my head.

"You really don't have to, but no, I don't mind."

"Well, after all you've done for me, letting me visit, feeding me, it was the least I could do. I know it's not much,..." Caden gently placed the folded tee on the pile of and grabbed another.

"Well, as much as I hate folding clothes, you have no idea how much that means." She smiled, big and bright.

"Good. Are you hungry?"

"God, yes. Especially when I smelled what you've got going out there." I smiled, my mouth already watering.

"I know your penchant for pasta, so I figured it to be the best thing to make." Caden put the last tee on the pile, and scooped it up, handing me my neatly folded clothes. I took them, tucking the packet under my arm.

"Thank you."

"Not a problem. Dinner should be ready in about ten minutes."

"Great. I have something to show you, too." I headed toward my bedroom, quickly putting my clothes away. I stopped for a moment as something hit me. I looked over my shoulder to still see the spare bedroom light on, knowing Caden was in there, finishing her own clothes. Such a feeling of satisfaction passed over me, a feeling of completeness. I felt so content for the first time in my life. It hit me that it would end. Caden would go home, back to Boston across the country, and I'd be alone again.

I sat on the edge of the bed, the realization hitting me like a ton of bricks. I ran a hand through my hair, trying to get myself under control again; I wanted to cry. Caden had been here for just over a week now, and it seemed so good, felt so right, like she should be here, belonged here. I glanced toward her room again. Did she feel it, too?

Shaking my melancholy off, I stood and headed toward the kitchen.

"So are you excited about tomorrow?" Caden walked in, a stack of kitchen towels on her arm. She put them away, and looked at me. "You're still going, right? To look at the house?" she elaborated at my confused look.

"Yes. Yeah, I am. Are you going to go with me?" I leaned against the counter, arms crossed over my chest. "Can I do anything to help?" I looked at all the pots she had going, noodles in one, sauce and meatballs in another veggies in yet another. I was impressed. My stove had never seen so much activity.

"Can I?" she looked so excited.

"Of course." I grabbed an orange Gatorade from the fridge. "I was hoping you'd want to."

"Where are the plates?" she looked at me over her shoulder. I pointed to the cabinet above the microwave. Grabbing two, Caden began to dish up some spaghetti. "I'd love to. Here."

I took the plate, headed toward the bar, then went back to help grab butter, the plate of garlic bread she'd taken from the oven, and the bowl of veggies. Caden followed with her own plate and silverware.

"So what is it you have to show me?" she got herself settled and began to eat.

"Pictures. Tammy, my agent, gave me back the proofs today. I can give you an idea of what the book will look like."

"Show me." Caden's eyes got huge as her excitement built.

"Now?" I indicated our plates of steaming food. She nodded vigorously. "Okay." I grinned as I got the packet from my bedroom, nearly running into her as I turned around to head back out. "Okay," I sank to the floor, pulling her with my by the arm. Caden happily followed, sitting across from me Indian-style, waiting. I showed her the shots one picture at a time, explaining what the lay-out would be for that particular woman, and where, about, she'd be in the book.

"Oh, these are wonderful." She whispered, handling each photograph as if it were the most fragile piece of glass in the world. I smiled, amused and charmed at the same time. "I must admit, I am absolutely, completely in awe of your talent, Laurel. I always knew you had the heart and soul of an artist. I saw it in all of your paintings and sketches from college, but these,"

I knew she was getting close to the pictures of herself. I held my breath, nervous to see her reaction. She stopped, staring into her own eyes, gently setting the other portraits down onto the floor. I watched her expression carefully. After studying each picture for about thirty seconds, she'd move on to the next, studying it, too.

"I,..." she gently set the pile aside, looked at me. To my horror I saw unshed tears in her eyes.

"What is it?" I leaned forward, my hand on her arm. "Did I do something wrong? Is it, are you okay?"

"How did you, you made me look... pretty." She looked down at the pictures on the floor again before raising tortured eyes up to look at me again. "How did you do it?" Confused, I just looked at her.

"What do you mean, how did I do it? Caden, what's in those photographs is what was truly there. It's you." I placed a hand on either side of her face, stared into her eyes. "Caden, you. You got that? I worked no magic, weaved no spell. What you see is what you are, beautiful." She shook her head.

"No. I'm not. I've been ugly for so long." She turned away from me, moving her face out of my hands. "It's a lie."

"What is?"

"Those." She pointed to the shots. "That's not me. That's not what I see." She let out a sob. "That's not what I'm told, either." She whispered, barely audible.

"Oh, honey." I grabbed her, pulling her into me, cradling her head against my chest. "Who tells you differently, Caden?" I caressed her hair back away from her face, gently rocking her.

"My husband."

"Ah, jeez," I held her a little tighter.

"That's why he cheats on me, Laurel." She cried into my shirt. "Why wouldn't he?"

I pushed her away, holding her by her shoulders, looked deep into red-rimmed blue eyes.

"You listen to me, Caden. Troy tells you that bullshit to ease his own guilt. You, my god. I looked at every inch of her face, down her neck, her shaking body. "You are so incredible, in every way." I sighed. "You would be my fantasy, if I were lucky enough to have someone like you." She stared at me, incredulous. "You are so beautiful, inside and out. You have the voice of an angel. Tory is a fool, Caden. He is such a damn fool to let you go."

Caden grabbed me tighter, burying her face into the side of my neck as she continued to cry. I said nothing, just let her go, stroking her hair, her back, arms, whatever I touched.

Finally she began to calm down, the sobs slowing to mild sniffles until they were gone all together, and she just lay against me, breathing into my skin.

"I'm sorry, Laurel." She said softly.

"For what? Everyone cries."

"No. Not for that." She held on yet tighter, almost painfully so. "I'm sorry for what I did to you, at F&M. It wasn't fair, wasn't right." I thought she kissed the side of my neck, but wasn't sure. I closed my eyes for a moment as she disentangled herself from me, wiping her eyes as she sat across from me once again. "Do you remember that summer? The summer before our senior year?"

"Yeah. Vividly." I gave her a weak smile. She smiled back.

"Me, too." She sighed. "After you went back to Lancaster, well before that, actually, back to my parent's house. It was awful, Laurel." She looked at me with pain-filled eyes. "As I'm sure you figured out, that was when I got pregnant." I nodded, my eyes downcast. The memory was painful. "I had to tell them, my parents. At the time I only suspected. I really thought I'd lose the baby, if I were indeed pregnant, just from worrying about what they'd say." She smiled ruefully. "Annie was determined to stay."

"What did they do to you, Caden? You were such a different person when you came back to school."

"I know. I knew what was coming."

The first two weeks of the new semester were rough. I knew this would be a busy year, and my home life wasn't helping things. Caden's behavior was strange, erratic. I didn't know what to do with her, or how to act around her. One moment she'd be cheery and playful, yet carefully distant, the next she'd be in my arms on the couch, her head laying against my shoulder as we watched TV. I was confused.

She refused to do some of the things we used to, go running, roughhouse, nothing.

"What the hell is going on?" I asked one morning, fed up. Caden was reading the paper, sitting in her robe at nearly noon on a Saturday. I had already run, eaten breakfast, plus written a paper.

"What do you mean?" she asked, looking up from it's pages.

"What has gotten into you?" I plopped down next to her, nearly in tears from frustration. "I am so confused, Caden." I could feel my eyes watering. "Why are you pulling away from me so damn bad? What the hell did I do?" I threw my hands up in exasperation. "What did I do?" I angrily swiped at a tear, brushing it away.

"I'm sorry, Laurel." She whispered, taking my hand. "I'm really sorry."

"For what?" I asked, defeated.

"I'm just sorry. I want you to promise me something," she looked directly into my eyes, demanding my attention.

"Okay. What?"

"I want you to graduate from here as fast as you can. Do great things with your talent, Laurel. Please? For me?"

"Okay. I promise."

I leaned against the end of my bed, Caden's head in my lap. I ran my fingers through her short hair, over and over. So silky.

"I was so worried about you." I said, staring up at the wall. "I didn't understand."

"I know." Caden stroked my leg as I stroked her hair. "I couldn't tell you."

"I have one question,"


"Why did you tell me that, to finish up school as quickly as I could. You told me that the week before you left F&M, remember?" I looked down at her, seeing her profile.

"Yes. I do." She sighed. "I want you to understand that my father is not a bad person. He is an opportunist, and knows how to get his way." She looked up at me, her eyes almost pleading. "Please understand that."

"Okay, but I don't understand, though."

"I know. That summer when I told my parents my suspicions of my pregnancy, they hit the roof, obviously. My father insisted that I take a pregnancy test. I drug my feet until finally the summer was over. My father is not a stupid man. He said nothing until the day I left for Lancaster." Caden took a deep breath, turned her attention back to studying the material of my jeans. "He stopped me at the door, his face stern as I'd ever seen it. He said, I'm going to tell you something, Caden. You have disappointed your mother and I beyond description. You will do something for me; as soon as you get to school you get a pregnancy test preformed, and tell me the results. I said okay."

"Okay," I said, waiting for more.

"The weekend before I left I went to the store, bought a home test, and took it. We all know how that turned out." She chuckled softly. "I called my father, told him the results. He told me I had to leave."

"Why did you listen, Caden? You could have finished out your senior year?" I looked at her, desperation in my voice. "You could have just started over on your own,-"

"He threatened your scholarship if I didn't leave." She looked up at me, seeing my stunned expression. "My father gave money to that school, and had a lot of very powerful friends, Laurel. He could have pulled you out of there," she snapped her fingers. "Just like that. I had no choice."

I was speechless, my blood seemingly stopped in my veins. I didn't know how to respond, or if I even should.

"I'm sorry."

"Why didn't you tell me?" I whispered. Caden sat up, her hands taking mine.

"I couldn't. I didn't want you to know. What I had done to myself was bad enough, let alone what my father was trying to do to you."

"Why would he do that?" I could feel my eyes stinging. "Why would he do that to his own daughter, put that sort of burden on your head?"

"Because the name Lodge meant more to him than the happiness of one girl. He had an ace in the hole, and he knew it." She looked at me, her eyes so intense. "You. He knew I would do anything to not rob you of your future. He knew your background, Laurel. My father knew just where to hit, and he did."

"I'm so sorry," I collapsed against her, my turn to cry that night. I felt her arms wrap around me, pulling me in tight. "So sorry he did that. God, that's not fair. Your dream," I sobbed.

"Yours, too, Laurel." She was crying now, too. "It mattered more to me. Still does." I grabbed her tighter, really letting go. I had never allowed myself to release the pain of losing Caden so many years ago. Now I not only allowed myself the release, but to rejoice in getting her back.

Part 10

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