Christmas Bells

Holiday Havoc



Chapter 1 (Sarah)

'Twas the Week Before Christmas

It was a dark and sucky night, to coin a phrase. The long-range forecast hadn't had a clue, but a Nor'Easter had blown up the coast overnight, and it was raining like the bejaysus out there. The puddles were almost ready to swallow my truck, and the rain was changing over to sleet or freezing rain, when I drove out to pick up Sue for our second date. Timing is everything, and I'd managed to meet a wonderful girl in time to ask her out in the middle of a typhoon.

All cracks about U-hauls aside, I was really nervous. I'd just met her once in the bar, and we'd really hit it off-we'd almost talked the night through and I went to work the next day in a golden haze compounded equally of hope, lust, and exhaustion. We'd finally kissed, warmly, awkwardly, and parted reluctantly with promises of seeing each other the next weekend. It was all very romantic and wonderful, but I wasn't sure she would like me as well when she really got to know me.

Tonight I'd made an effort to clean up-not something that comes easy for me-because I was planning on taking her out to a nice restaurant, casual but with great food, and a place we could both actually talk and see each other. The storm was annoying, but I was determined to see her and damn the weather. I'd even vacuumed out all the dog hairs and fabreezed the seats in my truck the day before. I didn't know if she was allergic or not, but I wasn't taking any chances, and if she was, then Ephiny (so I named my cocker spaniel after a character in a TV show. So what... You want to make something of it?) and I were going to have to have a serious talk about the shedding. Or at least start investing in a little hairspray-Hey, would that work? Anyway, I'd been daydreaming about Sue being in my truck all week, and hoping she liked dogs.

Sue's a gorgeous woman, blonde hair, blue eyes, soft curves with just the right amount of muscle, and she fit so well against me when we were dancing last week-well, you get the picture. She was perfect, way too perfect for me. I knew that even if I managed not to mess things up there had to be a flaw; I just hoped I wasn't going to find it any time soon. She was smart and funny, and... And from what I could see, that one night anyway, she was also a pretty sharp dresser. So I was very surprised when Sue answered the door in a bathrobe, and a pretty ratty one at that. Even worse, she had clearly been crying, and she sniffled as she held the door open for me to come in out of the icy blast. And whatever else might have been on her mind, it was clear she'd forgotten our date, because although she did her best to hide it there was that faint moment of shocked surprise hidden under the welcoming smile.

I tried to joke my way out of it: "Hey, I didn't think I looked that bad."

"Sarah, you look perfect, I just-oh, my god."

The hand that had been clutching the bathrobe went to her mouth and it was all I could do to keep my focus on her face.

"It's okay. I understand," I said. "I can come back another time, or-"

But she had me by the hand and had dragged me into the living room, where she practically pushed me down on the couch. The lights were all on, and piles of clothes strewn haphazardly around a suitcase, while the dangling phone bleeped plaintively that it was off the hook, and if I'd like to make a call, I should hang up and try again, or if I needed help, dial the operator. I put it back on the cradle and asked what was wrong.

"Oh, Sarah. I'm sorry. I know I agreed to go out to dinner with you, it's just I've had some bad news, and-"

"Hey, it's alright. Just tell me what's wrong. Maybe I can help."

"Oh, sweetie, I don't think so. It's my grandmother. She's had a heart condition for years, but my sister looked in on her once a day, took her shopping-all that. She lives closer-And I'd try to go up there at least a couple of times a month."

I made an encouraging noise. 'Sweetie, eh? I like the sound of that.'

"But lately she's started to need more help, and she just can't manage on her own. My sister's been taking care of her, but we just found out Shirley's kids-she's got two boys-have the measles so they're in quarantine. She doesn't dare go near Gram. And Gram picked today to fall in the bathroom, so she can't be alone. One of the neighbors is there now, but she can't stay. I have to drive up there immediately. I'm so sorry. I was really looking forward to our date."

"Well, me too, Susan-but please, won't you let me drive you? It's nasty out, and there's so much flooding that little Honda of yours will drown before you get half a block."

"Oh, It's not really that bad. Is it?"

"It's pretty bad. They're predicting a couple more inches maybe turning to snow later-"

"But it's so far out of your way-I-"

"Not at all." What am I, nuts? I hate driving, particularly at night in an ice storm. But even more I hate the thought of her driving alone in an ice storm while she's upset. "And besides, I have a higher wheelbase. And 4-wheel drive. "


"Believe me it's no trouble at all. Er, where is it?"

At least she laughed. "It's on the north shore and if you want to beg off that's fine, I really didn't want our date to be a family emergency."

"No, really, I insist on driving you. I'm serious about your car not being up to this downpour, and mine is. Have you eaten anything?"

"Well, no, but,"

"You get dressed and pack up, and I'll go get something." At that moment a very large orange cat strolled out of the bedroom, looked me over, and jumped into my lap. She landed her 15 pounds unerringly with the force of 30 on a sensitive area, and began kneading my thigh. 'Oh, god, she's a cat person and I'm a dog person. But at least we both like animals. Maybe we can work things out.' "If I can ever move again, that is."

"Oh, Hippo, get down!" Sue reached over to remove her cat, and just in time too, as the claws began to rip into my best jeans. "I'm sorry, I hope you don't mind animals."

"I love them. You, uh, named your cat 'Hippo'?"

"Actually it's short for Hyppolyta. You know, the queen of the Amazons? And my other cat is Melosa. She's around somewhere. I guess she must still be on the bed or something. Just give me a moment to get dressed, okay?"

"Sure, I'll wait." 'Another Xena fan. Yes!'

I looked around at her place while she was getting dressed. It was small, but the temporary clutter of packing aside, very neat: a row of windows set high in one wall; bookshelves below, not too many nick-knacks, just a few photos and a couple of candle holders. The furniture consisted of the sofa I was sitting on, a coffeetable, a reading lamp, a small TV and an armchair, with an area rug in the center. It was warm and light and uncomplicated, just like Sue. Yeah, that's what I thought at the time. But by the time we got to the complications it really didn't matter anymore. I wondered what she'd think of my place, assuming we ever got that far.

She was back in a few moments, dressed in jeans and a sweater, brushing out her still-damp blonde hair. She started to laugh, and looking over at the suitcase I saw the other cat, a calico monster, pretending to be asleep in the half-packed suitcase. She really did look like Melosa.

Sue gave a little higher pitch to her voice, and said, as if she were the cat, "Pack me." And then in her normal tone she said, "That's one of her favorite stupid pet tricks. She blends in w/ the dark bag, and all you can see are her eyes."

She was pretty cute (for a cat) I had to admit.

Sue was having second thoughts again. "Sarah, are you sure you want to do this? Drive all that way, I mean."

"Of course. Is your grandmother going to be alright? Did they take her to the hospital or anything?"

"Well, yes, she went to be checked in case she'd broken anything, and they did say she was fine. But she hates hospitals and insisted on coming home again as soon as the x-rays came back."

"I can understand that. My mother was the same way, I swore I'd never put her in a nursing home, and I never did."

"Is your mom living now?"

"No, I buried her last-well, about two years ago now."

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay... I mean, I still miss her, but I'm okay. I think the worst of the grief is past now. But every once in a while something will remind me, and it hits me all over again. How about some food?"

"Oh, you know, I'm not really hungry. I think I just want to get up there. Are you famished?"

"No, not at all" 'I'm starving. I could eat a horse. Oh, god. Oh well.'

"I'm sorry. How about if I bring some apples and cheese for a snack, we can eat while we drive."

"Sure" 'Eat while I try to drive in this? There's a really bad idea. And an apple is fine for a snack, but no substitute for a meal. If I don't get something pretty substantial soon I'll be reduced to nothing more than a skeleton behind the wheel...'

She went into the kitchen to fix the cats' food while I lugged her now packed suitcase out to the truck. It's a good thing I have the extra cab; it's not big enough for the average 10 year old and even Eph hates it back there, but it's still a dry place to stow luggage, and on a night like tonight I really appreciated that.

I went back in just as she was coming out of the kitchen with a bag. I held her coat for her. She seemed surprised for some reason, but didn't say anything. I knew she'd broken up with someone fairly recently, but no details; whoever it was, I decided they were a jerk. I opened her door, handed her the grocery bag with the apples and went around to the driver's side. In just that short time I was already half soaked and she handed me a couple of paper napkins from the bag to dry off with. I started up the engine, turned up the heat, and we set off.

You know, for the drive from hell, it wasn't half as bad or as long as I thought it was going to be. I mean, there was only one accident ahead of us, and it only took them an hour to clear the wreckage off the icy roads, but all that time we talked and she kept feeding me snacks. Besides the apples she'd brought some smoked salmon, a couple of different cheeses, some jam, and a thermos of hot coffee. Black coffee, just the way I liked it-French Roast in fact, my favorite. And protein, which I need with my metabolism. You can't do heavy labor on carbs, to my way of thinking. Not that sitting in traffic was heavy labor.

So we were sitting there in the dark, with the crinkley sound of the sleet and the rhythm of the wipers under our conversation, and she took the opportunity to ask about my parents. I told her all about how my dad had disappeared, and my mom raised me, until she died from cancer. Sue was really good, she got me talking about the last months of mom's illness and I even shed a few tears, and she wiped them tenderly from my cheeks. I was almost surprised when traffic began to move again. And for once I didn't feel like someone had stomped on my feelings with cleats on when the story was done; usually I vow there's a reason I shut down when anyone even mentions family history. Maybe it helped that in addition to the salmon she'd brought along what she called "a few little treats"-half a dozen truffles for dessert. I have to admit, even better than protein, I like chocolate. The sweet dark chocolate and the strong bitter coffee-perfect, right? Yeah, she was perfect and I was anything but. I just wanted to hold on to my illusions a little longer. But then at last traffic began to move again, and we drove on. And on. I was almost beginning to wonder if we were headed for Canada before we got off the highway, but it wasn't that far, really.

So finally, after she's given me a whole slew of confusing directions, we arrive at a long dirt road, and I'm more glad than ever that she wasn't trying to get here in that little heap of hers. But as we drove on and on through the puddles and bumps, with spooky looking trees and brush closing overhead, I suddenly got a little nervous. How well did I know this woman anyway? Where the hell were we going? And what was that? "Was that a-" I didn't even realize I'd spoken aloud until Sue answered my question.

"A graveyard. Yes. A lot of the old farms around here have their own private cemeteries. There are seven generations of my ancestors buried here, actually, although not all of them have stones."

"Why was that?"

"Some of them were strict Quakers; they didn't believe in ostentation."

"Not even just a simple stone?"

"Nope. Too flashy."

At last we pulled up between an old colonial and the barn in back. The house... well, it seemed to go on and on, and tilted in every direction, and not a single light was burning in the entire place, that I could see. The headlights picked out a few details: shingles were loose, the paint was peeling, and part of one of the gutters dangled into space like the downspout of Damocles. It had an air like it might collapse at any moment. Sue put a hand on my arm and I nearly jumped through the roof.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to give you a scare."

"You didn't tell me your Gram lived in a haunted house," I said.

"Just wait and see," she said. "You'll love it. Really."

I just looked at the rotten pumpkin sitting slumped on the broad stoop where someone had obviously forgotten about it for about two months and nodded.

There was an ancient blue Volvo parked in the area nearest the house. Sue used my headlights to find her way to the door, and fumbled her way inside. It wasn't long before the rest of the lights came on, illuminating the parking area. Suddenly it was just a normal yard. I grabbed her bag and went on in.

I'm not sure what I expected, but I could never have imagined the interior of Susan's grandmother's kitchen. For one thing, it was so cluttered, it was the exact opposite of what I'd seen of Sue's personality. For another, it was like stepping back in time. First of all, there was a gigantic cast-iron range that looked like it belonged in the X-files, or something. I found out later, in all too intimate detail, that it was a wood stove, which could also burn either coal or peat. But at the moment all I could think of was some kind of medieval torture device, it had so many doors and shelves and knobs and handles sticking out in every direction. The sink was a single iron trough about 4 feet long, with an actual pump, the kind you push up and down, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that it worked, too. (I found out later. It did.) The kitchen table and chairs were normal enough, though, and there was a perfectly ordinary refrigerator.

There were plants everywhere, there were shelves of dishes, and stacks of magazines, and dishes of cat food, and... well, I was kind of overwhelmed by it all, because at the same time I was meeting Marge, the neighbor who was now leaving in her Volvo. She'd ferried Mrs. Saunders to the hospital and done her shopping, and now she was saying hello and goodbye simultaneously, thanking Sue for managing to get up there on such a nasty night.

And then Sue brought me into the living room to meet her gram, Mrs. Ethel Saunders, "Don't call me Ethel, call me Dodo, that was Sue's name for me when she was a little girl, much better than Ethel, sounds like a paint additive, doesn't it?"

Dodo was a small woman, even compared to Sue, but even in her wheel chair, tired out from a day at the hospital, you could see she had spirit. Her arms flailing under the orange afghan that was draped over her shoulders, she directed us all around her living room, showing off knick-knacks and telling stories that led to other stories and still more stories until they had completely lost their way.

I was beginning to hit the wall-the tired beyond belief wall-and worrying about Eph, who was home alone and wondering what was up with her usual nighttime circumnavigation of the block, I was sure. It wasn't like I had dates so often she was used to me getting home late, and if I broke the rules I knew I would find the garbage tipped out on the kitchen floor when I got home. I hadn't figured on it taking so long to drive up here, and I knew it was going to be even longer going home. Sue must have realized I was getting anxious about something, because she interrupted her Gram's flow and asked if I was hungry, or if I needed something. I asked for the phone so I could call Jane, one of my co-workers who also has a dog, and traded care with me when we needed to.

"You have a dog?" I could see the concern on Sue's face, but it was hard to tell what kind it was-was it the 'oh my god, we will never be able to cohabitate because of our pets' concern, or the 'oh my god, you left you pet home alone' kind of concern? I couldn't decide. Technically speaking she had left her pets alone too, but they had a special food and water dispenser. And they had each other. Ephiny was home by herself, pining for the rest of her pack: me.

So I called Jane-it turned out the phone was a perfectly regular cordless variety, not something I had to crank. I asked her if she could just go visit Eph and walk her and I'd be home later that night.

"You aren't planning on driving home in this!" I got it loud in stereo, Jane in my left ear, Sue in my right. Jane went on to explain that the rain was turning to ice and they were declaring a state of emergency, calling for everyone to stay home while they tried to salt and clear the roads. She reassured me that she would go get Eph and keep her at her own house with her dog, Artemis, until I got back.

"Don't worry, Hon, Artie and Eph will have will have a ball. You just have a fine old time with your new little girlfriend."

I had already started to blush uncontrollably when I said "But we're-I'm not-" but all she did was laugh, so I gave it up, thanked her, and hung up.

"Will your friend have to go far to pick up your dog?" Sue asked, tactfully ignoring my embarrassment.

"Nah. Jane lives in the same complex. Even if it's a blizzard all she has to do is cross a driveway. I guess it's worse out there than I realized."

"Sarah, you can't drive back this late in this weather, you must stay the night," Sue was insisting. "There's plenty of room here-lots of rooms. Lots and lots of them. You can pick whichever one you want. I know it's inconvenient-I'm so sorry to bring you all the way up here. I don't know what I was thinking."

"You were thinking about your Gram. Nothing wrong with that. But don't worry, I have a truck, I'll be fine."

"Please don't-will you let me feed you at least?" Sue had a way of side- stepping an argument, as I was beginning to discover.

"You didn't feed me before?"

"No-well, not really. I'm sure there's something more substantial in the fridge-can I make you a sandwich, at least?"

In no time flat I was back in the living room, sitting opposite Dodo in an armchair next to the wood stove, with a plate of roast beef sandwiches, pickles, chips, a large glass of milk and an extra-giant size brownie for dessert. Between the heat, the food, and the lateness of the hour I could have fallen asleep right there. I guess I must have dozed off because I didn't remember saying goodnight to Gram, when I realized there was an adorable blonde in my lap, stroking my face.

"Are you asleep?" she asked.


"Are you awake?"


"You'll be much more comfortable in a bed, you know."


The hands moved around to scratch my scalp and then slid down my arms, rubbing my shoulders and then ending with her hand in mine, pulling me to my feet. I really was very tired, and Sue didn't press me for anything, she led me up a flight of stairs, around a turn, down two steps, through a bathroom, along a corridor, and into a bedroom with a huge Victorian carved mahogany bed. It was rather chilly in the room, but the bed was covered with an eiderdown quilt and a large flannel nightshirt was laid out on the pillow. There was also a large marble-topped dresser, and candles burning on the mantle. I almost looked around for Vincent Price, but I was so tired by then that it was all I could do to take my boots off before I tumbled into bed. I didn't even remember Sue covering me up with the quilt, although I think there was a goodnight kiss in there somewhere.

When I woke up, it was still pitch black. I usually wake up real early for work, but the late hours of the night before left me groggy. Sue was there with a flashlight, one icy hand shaking my shoulder, while her teeth chattered in the background.

"What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost," I said.

"My room's right under the attic. I think there's r-I think there's something up there."

"Probably just a squirrel," I mumbled, having crawled up a lot of roofs to fix the damage they did. I wasn't really awake yet. "Can it wait for morning?"

"I just don't want them-it-in my room."

"Oh. Want to snuggle?"

For answer I got a thoroughly chilled woman wiggling under my covers, and wrapping herself around me. Cold and all she felt good, and fit just right. I could feel her start to warm up and we went back to sleep.

When I woke again, it was still early but much lighter, with that kind of strange reflected light that comes from snow. Sue was still sound asleep, drooling on my shoulder, and I couldn't feel my arm. I pulled myself free gradually and ventured out into the cold. And I do mean cold. If the room had been a bit chilly before it was freezing now; I could see my breath. Taking my clothes with me I staggered out into the maze, and eventually found the bathroom; it was just as old-fashioned as the rest of the house. There was a claw-footed tub and a big old cast iron steam radiator, which didn't seem to be giving out much heat. By the time I'd washed up in icy water and gotten dressed I was wide-awake and ready for breakfast, so I wandered downstairs.

I only got lost twice looking for the kitchen, finding Dodo's room by accident on the way. She was awake and glad of a helping hand to get up and to the bathroom. She only used the wheel chair when she was tired, but she tired easily. I asked if they'd taken blood tests the day before, and she said yes, she'd fed the confounded vampires at the lab, thank you very much, and to skedaddle. I went to make us some coffee and toast, which I brought back on a tray. She did need a little help getting back into bed, but she was so light I could lift her up easily. It reminded me of Mom, but Dodo didn't give me a chance to feel sorry for myself, before I knew what was happening we were playing a cutthroat game of Chinese checkers while we finished our second cups of coffee.

In the midst of which a very groggy Sue appeared in the doorway. "You two having a party without me?" she asked.

"Yes indeed," Dodo replied. "Sue dear. I think the power is out again. You'll need to build fires in the kitchen and the parlor stove to keep the pipes from freezing."

"Oh, great," Sue grumbled. I could tell she was not a morning person. I offered to help. In short order I was out in the barn splitting kindling while she got some coffee. Then she made the fires and started breakfast. Sue was actually pretty good at cooking on a woodstove, and after I'd been fortified with bacon and eggs and homemade cornbread I felt more like taking on the world myself. It was still snowing. We shoveled, we hauled wood, we pumped water. We made a snowman. I asked about the rotten pumpkin, now frozen into place like a pathetic doorstop, and found out it was left there so the birds could have a chance at the seeds. It looked to me like something else had been gnawing on it, but I didn't want to say anything, so I kept quiet.

Lunch was soup and more of those sandwiches, and it somehow had been tacitly arranged that I was spending the weekend. I'm not sure how she did it, but Sue could just get in under my guard. So I just relaxed and gave in gracefully. After lunch Dodo had a little rest, and Sue and I were lounging around the living room. She was giving me some background on the furnishings, some of which Gramps had brought back from trips all over the world-there was a beautiful Moroccan rug, for example, which was still in pretty good shape if it weren't for the gray lumps of embedded gum from her nephews.

"What a shame," Sue was saying. "Do you suppose rug shampoo would loosen them?"

I had a brief flashback to one of my less pleasant jobs, and said, "dry ice"


"Dry ice. You put it on the gum and when it freezes, it cracks, and you can vacuum it up."

"How do you know this?"

"One of my jobs used to be for a cleaner. In fact that's how I got into doing carpentry-we were doing some post-construction work and I thought what the other guys were doing looked a lot more interesting."

"Sarah, you seem to be good at everything."

Uhoh. "Er-not really. Just restless, I guess. Can't stick to anything very long." It was true, but she was looking at me like she was wondering if I was warning her off from getting too attached, and I realized what I said. Damn. I didn't mean her. But this always happens, I never seem to say what I do mean. Rats.

"... So what I was wondering was, how are you with rats?"

I realized I'd missed something. "What?"

"Rats. I'm... well, I'm really afraid of them, and I thought I heard something scurrying around in the attic last night. Do you think you could go and see?"

I'm not good with rats. I hate them, in fact. "Uh, sure. No problem." What are you doing, you idiot? "Just show me where it is." Oh, Brother. Here we go.

So after arming myself with a broomstick and a flashlight, we set out for the attic.

I was glad Sue stayed with me, because I really needed a native guide to find the place-there was just an impossibly narrow door in the middle of one wall on an upper floor. If I hadn't been shown the latch I think I'd have just assumed it was a fault in the paneling. Opened, it revealed an equally narrow and proportionately steep set of steps. I could hardly fit my foot on a tread even sideways. So I edged up the stairs, crablike, with Sue agitating below me.

"What is it?" she asked. "Is it rats? Is it bats? What's up there?"

She got worried when I didn't say anything, but I couldn't find my voice at first. "Er-I-Um-There's a few, uh, it looks like-hanged colonists?" I squeaked, waving my broomstick at a mass of clothing topped by a tricorn hat that jutted out at a 45 degree in a dark corner to my left.

"WHAT? Don't be silly, let me look."

She barged right past me and started to laugh. "Oh, silly, those are just Gran's

costumes from the Plimouth Plantation events. She used to volunteer. They're a little musty, but nothing to worry about." Disappearing around what looked like a brick wall, Sue vanished, but I could hear her mumbling about something neat. So I climbed up the rest of the way and edged around the chimney, where being the tallest, I got a face-full of cobwebs.



"Uh. Nothing. Good thing I'm not afraid of spiders."

"Oh. Sorry. I can't believe I was so scared, and now there's nothing up here but old clothes and a gray piñata.

"A what?"

"This thing. Look."

"That's no piñata, that's a hornet's nest-don't-"

It was a good thing the attic was freezing, that's all I can say. The stinging insects had gone to sleep for the winter. Oh, and open eves have their problems. I managed to dispose of the nest without injury, I found the hole where the squirrels (yep, it was squirrels, not bats) had been getting in and tinned it over with a flattened number ten can, formerly full of peeled tomatoes.

By then it was almost time for dinner, I was filthy, and there was, of course, no hot water. Sue made me a big cup of the best hot chocolate I'd ever drunk, and promised me that I could wash as soon as the spaghetti sauce was started, since I'd insisted I needed the can from the tomatoes.

I didn't realize it was going to be in a galvanized tub-the kind I associate with ice and beer at a barbecue-and right in the middle of the kitchen. It was the warmest place, though, and I guess if I was going to be stuck in a place without power it might as well be one that remembered when electricity was just a spectator sport for kite-flying locksmiths.

The rest of the weekend was a lot less eventful. We played in the snow, played board games with Dodo, and ate enormous meals. I had a great time, and I'd gotten to prove my handiness to Sue and her Gram, at least. I hated to go home, but by the time the roads and weather cleared it was already Monday and I needed to get in a few more hours at the job.

Sue was quiet when she handed me some sandwiches 'for the road' although I really hoped I'd be back before lunchtime. I wasn't sure what was up. She didn't seem to want to say goodbye, which I figured was a good thing, at least she wasn't fed up with me.

At last she blurted out, "So what are you doing for Christmas?"

"Um. Well, we usually exchange a few gifts at work on Christmas Eve, and then I take the day off and do laundry, stuff like that."

"I know we haven't known each other very long, and Christmas gets to be kinda, well, charged up with heavy family stuff, but if you'd like to spend that holiday here with us, Gram and I would love to have you. We're not going to make a big thing out of it, since Shirl and the kids will still be in quarantine, just a few greens on the mantle and probably too much food-but I'd love to see you. And I promise not to make you work so hard."

No, no, no, I'm strictly a 'bah humbug' kinda gal. No festivities! "That's okay. I like fixing things. Uh, sure. I guess the laundry could wait. What should I do about presents, though?"

"Honey, you've already done enough hard work for a big gift certificate. How about you just get Gram a card? We mostly just give each other little stocking gifts, and I buy whatever the latest toys are for her to give the kids."

"Stocking gifts?"

"Oh, you know, paper clips, candy bars-just little things."

I mulled over the family that gave itself paperclips for Christmas. Maybe it was some kind of strange Yankee thing. But I agreed to return at the end of the week.

All the comments about stocking gifts aside, I wanted to make something special for Sue, at least. I'd noticed she liked candles when I was at her apartment, so I decided to turn a couple of wooden candleholders out of some old apple wood I'd been saving-the grain had a lovely pattern to it. I set up the jig so I could turn two from the same log. When I liked the shape and the grain I cut them in the center, sanded and finished them. I got some metal caps to hold the candles themselves, and set them in the holes I'd drilled out. I spent a few hours agonizing about what to get Dodo, but as I was browsing through the thrift shop looking for a new old sweatshirt to cut up for work, I noticed a scrabble game. I figured it would be a change from Chinese Checkers. Plus, I might have a better chance of winning. The old girl had beaten my butt, every time.

So suitably armed with what I hoped were the right gifts, I set out for the Saunders family home on Christmas Eve after the party at work. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it-only Jane knew, since she was taking my dog again.

The weather had warmed up and the snow had vanished, so it was looking to be a gray Christmas, at least as far as weather was concerned. But for holiday cheer it sure beat out any year since I'd been a child. It was late when I arrived, so Sue just showed me to my room and told me to sleep as long as I wanted. We had a very civilized breakfast and then exchanged gifts. I was very happy with my gift choices, and really surprised to receive a new toolbelt from Sue, and an antique plane from her Gram. I was glad I hadn't taken her strictly at her word, and they seemed to really like my gifts to them.

We made eggnog and for dinner Sue roasted a goose, and Dodo told stories about her father hunting and fishing for their dinners back in the 30's. I'm not sure I'd want to live on sea ducks after all the jokes about recipes calling for bricks and all, but I'm sure Sue could have figured out a way to make them tasty. In spite of her protestations, she was a great cook. True to her word on the decorations, however, there were minimal green things. A wreath outside, one string of lights over the window, some pine boughs on the mantle-and with all the clutter there wasn't much room for those things, let alone a tree. But after we'd done the dishes and Dodo had gone to bed Sue asked if I'd mind hanging up one more piece of decoration.

"Sure," I said, a little puzzled, "but what-?"

She pulled a sprig of mistletoe out from behind her back and grinned. Then she held it up over our heads, and said: "Um. Trick or treat?"

I just said "yeah," and kissed her.

Chapter 2 (Sue)

Visiting Hamlet

I hate Valentines Day. Even in Kindergarten, I never was much on making those little crayon hearts and after that last Valentines Day with Paula I never wanted the calendar to say 'Feb 14' ever again. Not a realistic expectation, but I really hoped Sarah wasn't going to want to do anything romantic. I met her just before Christmas, and despite all the chaos the week before we'd had a fine holiday with my Gram. Although we hadn't taken our relationship beyond kissing, we were really hitting it off well when just before New Years Gram caught pneumonia, and all plans had to be put on hold. She got better eventually and came home, but that meant I took a longer leave from work, and was miles away from Sarah. We'd been trying to see each other for almost six weeks, but between my nursing Gram and some crisis at her work-which was practically at the other end of the state it seemed-we hadn't managed to see each other again. I hoped we weren't going to just fizzle out, but if she did "a Paula" and showed up at my door with flowers and excuses I might just have to pop her one. I know. I know Sarah's different, and I shouldn't borrow trouble that hasn't happened yet, just count my blessings. But I sure can pick 'em, so I have to wonder.

Still, holiday aside, I was hoping to speak to Sarah at some point, and I was getting tired of playing machine tag with the phone. So by the second week of February I made a concerted effort to reach her. Finally she answered the phone. I wasn't sure it was her at first, because she sounded so awful I could hardly recognize her voice.

"Hello? Sarah?" I said.


"Sarah? Is that you? What's wrong?"

"Got the flu. Went to my lungs."

At least I think that's what she said. She was coughing badly, too. I asked if she needed anything, offered to help, but she kept saying she was fine. I knew she wasn't fine, but if she never asked for help, well... and I didn't want to intrude, but still.

I called the next day, and the day after that, but all I got was the machine. Finally Valentines Day dawned, cool weather, but bright, without snow. Sarah hadn't called me back, and I still got the machine. It wasn't that I was expecting a big profession of love or anything, but I was beginning to get a little worried. I was still on leave from work, even though Shirley had returned to looking after Gram now that the boys were better. So I decided to just go over there. I'd never been to Sarah's apartment, though she'd told me about it in general terms. I knew vaguely where it was, so with the help of the phone book I got an address, and before I could think about it too hard I was driving over there. I knew she was probably fine and back at work, but I just needed to see.

When I got there her truck was still in the driveway, looking like it hadn't moved in a long time. There was still an icy patch underneath from the last snow, and the bed was empty except for a deflated football in a bed of leaves. I looked around for a door, but I wasn't sure where to go-there was a big garage door with a smaller door next to it, both covered in grime. Finally I settled for banging on the smaller door. Although I was pretty sure she'd said she lived above the garage, I couldn't see any steps or other way up to it.

There wasn't any answer, and I was thinking about calling the whole thing off when I found my hand on the knob. The door opened easily. And there I was in Sarah's domain. The whole downstairs part of a two-car garage was filled with tools. There was a workbench with a half-finished project on it-a picture of a

Cornucopia filled with colored leaves sat propped up at the back of the bench, and a half-carved block of wood was obviously in the process of becoming the Cornucopia. There was no sign that Sarah was actually working, though, despite the chisel resting on the bench. I could see a set of steps over to my left, though, and they seemed to lead to the living quarters upstairs. I felt like a trespasser, but the door was unlocked and no dog came barking to warn me off. I figured she was just at work, maybe getting rides with someone, when I heard this quavery voice call out "who's there?" So I made my way around some kind of saw and hollered up from the foot of the steps.

There was a door above my head, level with the floor above, and it slowly opened to reveal a very pale Sarah standing at the top. She was wearing black jeans and a black tee shirt, looking like a melancholy refugee from a modern version of Hamlet.

"What are you doing here?" she coughed out.

"I got concerned. Just wanted to make sure you were okay, see if you needed something-you know, any shopping or anything. Are you alright?"

"No." she said, and sat down on the top step still coughing and looking like a doll with the half the stuffing knocked out of her. I went up and put my hand on her forehead, which was burning up.

"Sweetie, you are very sick. Have you been to the doctor?"

"No, I hate doctors. All they do is tell you to take 2 aspirin and drink plenty of fluids, and I can do that by myself, without paying them 75 bucks." She took up coughing again.

"Come on, you need to be back in bed." I pulled her up by her belt buckle and had to practically haul her into the apartment.

I looked around for a bed, but all I saw was an old brown couch with a pillow and a blanket over it. I let her fall back on it, wrapped her up and went to look for some juice or tea or something to soothe her throat. Just about the only thing in the tiny fridge was a nearly empty jug of cider; I gave it one sniff before pitching the whole thing. I looked around some more, but with the exception of dog food, dog biscuits, and dog treats, her cupboards were pretty bare. I could tell by the fancy coffee maker and the pathetic hot plate that she didn't do much real cooking. Not that I'd come planning to make a feast or anything. But she'd clearly been alone and sick for too long. I put some water on to boil and took out the nearly desiccated lemon I'd found in the veggie bin, while I set an ancient jar with a little residue of crystallized honey in another pan of hot water to soften.

While I was waiting for the electric coils to do their work I went back to Sarah.

I looked around at the dog-hair-coated room, noting how spare it was. Almost the only decoration on one wall was the plane Gram had given her for Christmas.

"Sweetie, I know your Mom is gone, but do you have any other family?" Although I'd told my self I wasn't going to, I started picking up the spent Kleenexes.

"No, why?"

"Just looking for reinforcements. I think I need some help talking you into going to a doctor. You're really sick, you turkey. Don't you know that?"

"Well, yeah. But I decided not to go in to work. And Eph's visiting Artie, so I don't have to go out in the cold to walk her."


"Ephiny, my cocker spaniel. She likes to play with Artemis, Jane's Wiemareiner."

She started to cough again and I decided to stop making her talk and concentrated on the Kleenex harvest. At some point she'd stopped or run out and just shifted over to paper towels.

When the water boiled I made a cup of hot lemon water with honey and brought it over to her.

She woke up enough to ask, "Will this stop the parade of hammers going in my skull?"

"No, honey, but it might shift over to something a little softer, like a hay ride.

"Heh. Hay rides in my head. Well, it would be an improvement over what's there now. Thanks for taking care of me. I'm sorry I'm so out of it."

"That's okay. I'm going out to get you a few groceries, okay?"

"You don't need to do that."

I could hardly believe how different this Valentines Day was from the last one. From Paula's demands for perfection and practically beating me up over the alignment of the napkins; I had gone to the other extreme: a woman I could hardly persuade to let me do the most basic, drastically needed things. I put my hand on her damp forehead and stroked her greasy hair.

"I want to, all right? And you need them, so don't argue with me."

She sighed and went to sleep.

When I got back she was coughing again. Deep, racking, lung tearing coughs. I put the groceries away quickly, and stood over her.

"Get up."


"Get up. Now. I'm taking you to the emergency room."


"Don't argue with me. You're going."

Well, she went. Folding her into my little car was amusing. And we had a long wait at the emergency room, but she seemed relieved, actually, that we'd gone there. We sat in the waiting room and talked about Christmas.

"I can't believe I thought your grandmother had Pilgrims hanging in her attic. And what a place! Has your family been living there since colonial times?"

"Not quite. We are descended from the Mayflower though."

"Really? I guess that figures, though."

"How so?"

"I'm descended from the Indians. I'm one eighth Wamponoag."

"No kidding."


Just then they finally called for Sarah, and I waited another hour before she reappeared, looking a lot more like herself.

"So how'd you do?"

"I have bronchitis, and I was dehydrated. They gave me some intravenous fluids and I have to go get this prescription filled. Otherwise, peachy."

We went to the pharmacy on the way home, and I helped her up the steps. She took a pill and went back to sleep while I made her some chicken soup. She woke up long enough to have a little before I went back home myself. She apologized again for being sick.

"No, it's okay, really. Though it does make two years in a row."

"For what?"

"Being at the emergency room on Valentines Day. Last year-" I told her about Paula's hissy fit and getting my foot cut on the broken glass, going in to have stitches. She was suitably outraged. And slightly appalled she hadn't realized what day it was, although she was in no shape to do much of anything at all. It wasn't the perfect romantic moment, but I was glad she'd let me take care of her a little, and it did answer one question: even under adverse circumstances I was still definitely attracted to her.

Chapter 3 (Sarah)

Everything is Relative

Once I was back on my feet I had the sense to be really embarrassed at my lack of response to Sue's many calls when I was sick. I was also really grateful that she'd barged in and taken me to the emergency room, because I felt so much better once the antibiotics kicked in. She was right, I was acting like a turkey. She didn't seem to hold it against me however, and we were talking on the phone often, and seeing each other every weekend that we could. The trouble was, she'd gone back to work, and had papers to grade, while I was working at a job site so far away I didn't even come home during the week. Not exactly the best conditions to paint the town red. Eph and I were living in the mostly-finished cottage, while the addition on the main house was still getting framed in, long behind schedule because of the bad weather.

At last we caught a break and Charlotte, my boss, hired in a few extra workers, so we went at it, 24/7, like a bunch of god-damned Elves, hoping to get the job done before the owners got back from Switzerland. The good thing about that was it helped me catch up on some bills; the bad thing was I didn't really have time for a relationship. I was hoping Sue would forgive me if I really did spend some time with her when the job was over. So we made plans to get together during school vacation. Of course the job still wasn't done, but I'd asked for time off so much in advance, and put in to much overtime Char couldn't really say no.

I'd debated getting reservations and going to some B&B somewhere, but I wasn't sure we were ready to be that intimate-sure, every time we got together we had a good time, but the times were so far between it felt like I had to get to know her all over again each time. So I just figured we'd start back at dinner, meet at her place and go from there. I hadn't even really had time to get nervous yet, when the phone rang. It was Sue, apologizing because she had to go up to her Gram's again. It seemed that her grandmother was needing more help than Shirley could give, and the two kids with their loud boisterous energy were too much for Dodo. Plus Shirley had a new job, and couldn't get as much time off.

I looked around at my apartment that hadn't seen me more than six nights in as many weeks, and the thought of spending the next week by myself with nothing to do but chase dust bunnies was more than I could stand. I could go back to work I guess, but I needed a break too. I asked Sue if she'd like company. She was a bit surprised. She said yes, but she wanted to drive up by herself and get the lay of the land and to just give her a call tomorrow to see how things were.

As it turned out I didn't have to wait that long. Around 11 the phone rang, and it was a tearful Sue needing to vent real bad. Dodo wasn't doing well at all, and Sue didn't have much confidence in her family Doctor. Apparently he wasn't one of the ornaments of his profession. I talked Sue down, and asked if she wanted me to postpone. There was a pause.

"I'd really like you here," she said. "But I understand if you can't do any more of this."

"It's different for me, hon. Dodo's not my mother figure the way she is yours. And maybe I can help around the house."

"Oh, it's not fair of us to ask you to do that. But even a few games of Chinese Checkers will help take Gram's mind off all the things she's not strong enough to do any more."

"All right, kiddo, I'll be there with bells on. Can I bring you anything? Coffee? Chocolate? Lump of coal for the stove?"

"Well, chocolate is always welcome, but we really don't need anything."

The next morning I swung by the pharmacy and looked over the selection of get-well cards. I bought half a dozen of the silliest ones-you know the ones I mean, almost verging on pornographic, but mostly just suggestive. I planned to give them to Dodo at intervals to cheer her up. I looked at the chocolate bunny supply and realized that Easter was the commercial holiday du jour. Well, chocolate in bunny form couldn't hurt, so I got a bag-full, and then I added a few purple peeps for good measure. I wandered around the kids' section thinking maybe I should bring something for Sue's nephews, but decided against trying to buy toys for kids I'd never met. I did pick out a couple of mildly scented candles, though. The house had a mustiness about it, and sickness has an odor too. Anything to cut through that was bound to be help. I figured to be there by lunch time, but it took a while to get Eph settled down at Jane's, so I ended up eating a sandwich at home before I finally hit the road.

Of course I got lost. Even though I'd made my way up there twice before, once in the dark with Sue and the following week by myself, everything looked so different in the different season I couldn't find the turnoff. Eventually I parked at a gas station and Sue had to come rescue me. It was completely mortifying, since I wanted to be the one to rescue her, but when she actually arrived I was just so happy to see her it didn't seem to matter.

Anyway, the first thing I did when I got there was to go in to say hello to Dodo. She had shrunk, in the months since I'd seen her last. I could see her vitality slipping away, and it reminded me so much of my mother's last illness I turned on my heel and marched right back into the kitchen, where I burst into tears. That set Sue off, and the 2 of us had a quiet but very deep cry on each other. I've learned that you never really run out of tears, but eventually there is a daily limit to how much salt water a body can produce. When I started hiccuping, Sue let go and got me a glass of water, pushing me down into a chair at the kitchen table.

Before either of us was quite ourselves again there was a knock at the door, and a visiting nurse arrived to check on Gram. Sue had been busy fighting the medical red tape and gotten results. The nurse was really good-cheered Gram up, calmed Sue down, and gave us a list of things we needed to get to make her more comfortable. I took in some tea while Sue got dinner, and we all ate in front of the fireplace, although it was a bit warm for the stove to be going. Then I helped Dodo to her room, pulled off her stockings and got her into bed.

When I came back Sue was washing dishes.

"How are you holding up?" I asked.

"I'm-I'm exhausted," she admitted, changing what she'd been about to say for the truth. "It's... she wakes up in the middle of the night and gets restless. I don't dare sleep through-I have to set the alarm to check on her at least twice, and it's wearing me down. And I'm so groggy I can't function the rest of the time."

"Why don't I stay up with her for the nights I'm here? That way you can sleep and I'll go back to bed when you're up."

"I can't ask you to do that."

"Hey, I'm offering. I said I was going to sleep in this week; it doesn't really matter to me which end of the night I do it. Why don't I just sleep out on the couch tonight, so I'll hear her if she needs me, and then we can work out shifts."

"I shouldn't accept, but-I'm going to. Thank you so much. I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise."

So I became nocturnal while Sue lived a regular daytime life. It wouldn't have been bearable, except that Dodo, even in terminal illness, was still a lot of fun. I know it sounds crazy, but she was. She had an amazing spirit, and a sense of humor that transcended wheelchairs and bedpans. We talked about, oh, everything. And we'd play these cutthroat games of Chinese checkers at three am. One night we even had a tournament, complete with a gold star and a mock-laurel wreath for the winner. I made it out of the leftover fake holly from Christmas. Sue came into the living room early, about six, and caught us, all the lights blazing, the wreath sitting askew on top of the bows in Dodo's hair, me covered with crumbs from my snack, foil wrapping paper all over the floor.

She looked us over for a long moment, trying to decide which of us to chastise. Finally she picked me. "I can't believe you actually ate Fruit Cake," she said, correctly identifying the source of both the paper and the crumbs. "That was left over from Christmas. Are you sure you're feeling alright?"

I had an idea. I let myself fall back on the couch and started at her. "You are beautiful," I said. It only took her a second.

"And you are dr-drunk on fruitcake."


"Nutcase is more like it."

"Hardcore. And that's nutball to you."

By this time we were laughing very hard. Dodo was laughing right along with us, although I don't think she was in on our Xena fixation.

The next day I met Shirley and her sons. The sounds of their voices woke me a little before my usual four p.m. rising time. Shirley was recognizably a Saunders, but quite a bit older than Sue, with dyed hair and chipped polish on her nails. It quickly became apparent that my job was to keep the nephews occupied while Sue and Shirley did some quality time w/ their Gram and each other. Connor was six and Brad was ten; they had different fathers, neither of whom was currently in residence.

I could have just left them to their game-boys I guess, but for some reason I suggested we explore the barn. It was a wonderful old building, all post and beam construction, and not in bad shape, considering. It was full of junk, of course, and we had a blast. There was a workshop full of old tools there, and we collected some of the rusty ones from the dirt floor where they'd dropped and after I explained how valuable they were, both boys got interested in cleaning them up and protecting them with oil. I didn't keep them at any one thing too long; I was afraid of them getting bored.

We climbed into the hayloft, we made make-believe journeys in the old panel truck that was disintegrating in one corner, and Brad asked if it would ever run again. I had to tell him I didn't think it was likely, but I didn't know. Connor went even further into the dark corners and found an old sleigh. When we joined him he was dashing through imaginary snow, tossing handfuls of straw over himself instead, and warbling what he thought were Christmas carols. The lyrics were a little strange, something about Santa's sponge, but he was about as cute a kid as I've ever seen.

We were having such a great time for so long that Shirley came to check on us. She was a good sport about the dirt, I have to say. The three of us were completely filthy. We all went back to the house to clean up and have hot chocolate, and I gave the kids some of the chocolate bunnies I'd brought for Dodo's Easter basket.

They were tired enough to sit quietly with their Great Gram for a while, but I said goodbye before I went to take a shower. I knew it was going to be a major effort to get the grime off and the straw out of my hair. When I got back they were gone, and Sue was cooking dinner. Not that Dodo was eating much these days; she sipped continually at a can of Ensure, but she had more or less stopped eating real food. When I came into the kitchen Sue put her arms around me and just held on. I knew Dodo was getting close to leaving, and there wasn't anything I, or anyone else, could do about it.

That night Dodo drifted in and out of sleep, we didn't talk much, or play any games. She was in pain, and after I gave her some painkillers I just sat and stroked her head. She looked up at me in the dim light and asked, "Sue?"

"No, Dodo. It's Sarah. Sue's friend, remember?"

"Oh. Is Sue here?"

"Yeah, you want me to go get her?"

"No. Let her sleep. She's always been the good one, the one who fixed everyone else. But she needs something for herself, someone who cares for her. "

"I care about her."

"You're in love with my granddaughter, aren't you?"

"I think I might be."

"Will you take care of her for me?"

"Yes," I said, "I will." For some reason it didn't even faze me.

"I'd just like to see one more summer," Dodo said. And somehow I knew she would.

I went back to rubbing her head and she went right to sleep.

The next morning Sue came in and woke us both up; Dodo looked a little brighter, and said she'd like an egg for breakfast. She started eating again, and began to take more of an interest in things. In fact soon she was complaining again, a good sign. There was an evergreen that partially blocked her view of the bird feeder-I guess the winter snow had pushed some branches lower than usual-and darned if she didn't get me out there with a shovel, moving the tree while she directed from the window.

It was a major mudfest, getting it moved-we really needed a tree spade, one of those big machines that just bites the whole thing out of the ground-but with the aid of a hose and several yards of burlap I think I managed to preserve most of the root ball. By then I was really getting crabby, since I'd only had a short nap and missed my usual morning's sleep. Sue tactfully asked for help in the kitchen and then told me to go get a shower and some sleep.

When I woke up late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, Sue was looking like the creature from the Black lagoon herself, coated in mud. She'd dug the new hole for the tree, though, and managed to shift the transplant all of two feet in the right direction. The look she gave me when I went out to help-part frustration, part commiseration, and some sheer conspiracy-well, it warmed me right down to my workboots. Finally between the two of us we got the tree planted in the new location, but by then it was too late to make Easter baskets, too late to cook supper; too late to do anything but dump our clothes and try to get clean before we used up all the hot water. Everything was closed, even the take-out Chinese place, so we dined on frozen pizza with kielbasa on top instead of pepperoni. For dessert we blew up some peeps in the microwave. It may sound strange, but it was one of the best holidays I ever spent.

Chapter 4 (Sue)

Fizzles, Fireworks, and Family Outings

I thought my grandmother was going to pass on in April, but she didn't. She came really close at Easter, but then for some reason she rallied again. She was almost as mobile as she'd been back in the winter. And just when I thought she was going to be around forever, she died.

It was near the end of June, and I'd brought in some early nasturtiums-she'd always loved the spicy scent of them- and she'd said, "Wonderful darling, my favorite flowers." I went to get a vase for them. I wasn't gone more than a couple of minutes. But when I came back into the room she was gone. I knew it instantly. I called the hospice nurse, and Shirley. I made arrangements. I didn't shed so much as tear, until I called Sarah, to give her the news. Somehow the sound of her voice, even just saying "hello?" set me off. I think I cried for at least an hour-I'm surprised I didn't short the phone out. And she was great, she took time off from work again to come and be with me. I don't know how I could have gotten through the funeral and all that without her.

It's strange, in a way I felt closer to her than to any of my sexual partners in the past, and all she did was hold me while we slept. I honestly have to say I wasn't ready for more though. Maybe if the past year hadn't been so stressful I'd have jumped in as fast as I did with some of my other relationships, I don't know. Perhaps the difference between Sarah and everybody else is that she seems to just focus on me, asking me what I want, and knowing what I need sometimes without my even saying a word. And after Paula, not having to be sexual on demand was more than a relief; it was a downright pleasure.

But the best part-the best part-was when she came for our Fourth of July barbecue and just stayed on. But before I get to that, there are a few things I need to explain. I hadn't known much about Gram's will, or anything about her estate, really. I don't know why; I guess I just assumed Shirley, being older, would have taken care of it.

The week after the funeral, our family lawyer, a tall spare woman I'd seen on a few occasions visiting over the years, called me and asked us to come to a meeting. Shirley and I went over there together, and I found she was as much in the dark as I was. Soon I was flabbergasted to find that Gram had left me her house and the considerable amount of land that went with it. Shirley got the duplex she'd been living in; apparently she'd been getting some support from Gram for years, while I'd been working. So instead of dividing the trust fund, Shirley got what was left of her half, a small amount of cash, and I got the remainder, which sounded like a large sum of money... and it was, but it happened to be just about what the taxes on the estate turned out to be.

So I was suddenly the owner of a large rambling house, a barn, the family graveyard, and several acres of mostly swamp. None of it was in good repair and there wasn't much money to fix anything, but fortunately I did have savings and hadn't used them entirely up, even though I'd hardly worked at all last year. I was kind of numb and grateful at the same time. But it still wasn't enough to really give me much breathing room. I didn't know what to do, and my brain was still a fog of grief. I really didn't want to sell the place my family had owned for so many generations, but I wasn't sure I could handle it, either. And it needed a lot of repairs; I couldn't just, say, rent it out.

Sarah very tactfully didn't remind me that I knew a carpenter, when we spoke on the phone later. She didn't say, 'please let me fix up your Gram's place' or 'I'm pretty good with a nail gun, you know'. I think she didn't want to put any pressure on me at all. My fuse had been short for weeks; although I'd never actually yelled at her, I'd given a well-meaning but clueless minister an earful in her presence. I was a powder keg set to go off, and she knew it. She also knew that I had to make up my own mind in my own way, I think. I wasn't sure if I wanted her to be my girlfriend, let alone my employee, and the best thing about her right then was that she wasn't making me choose, she was just there, supporting me, letting me lean my angst on her without demanding anything in return. I was grieving and I was pretty confused, but I guess having gone through the same thing with her mom, she understood. She knew I couldn't really know what I wanted yet.

But there was no question about inviting her to our traditional Fourth of July party. For as long as I can remember the whole family had gathered at Gram's on the fourth. Some folks do it at Thanksgiving, but some time back our family had decided the weather was better in the summer, and that was the time the cousins from California and the rest of the relatives descended. The kids could camp in the back yard, the adults could pass out in the sun, and the bulk of the cooking could happen outside, where the heat wouldn't bake everyone in the kitchen too.

With Gram dying so close to the annual gathering we'd decided to have a private service at the funeral home, two days after she died, immediate family and her closest friends only, and then a memorial service for all the distant relatives on the fifth, when we'd bury her ashes in the family plot. It made the 4th of July kind of like a wake in reverse, but it seemed like the best way to work things out with everyone who had a long way to travel.

Sarah arrived early in the morning, toting a vat of potato salad and a six-pack of alcohol-free beer, and proceeded to help set up the tables in the back yard. Shirley got there right after, and immediately set Connor and Brad to work with Sarah outside, while she helped me finish the beds for the relatives who were staying over with us.

I had planned on putting Sarah in my room, since we'd slept in the same bed together the whole week after Gram died. She was so comforting. I felt very close to her, even though we still hadn't been intimate. I wasn't exactly out to my family, so I guess I thought they wouldn't really notice, or think about it one way or the other. I don't really know what I was thinking, to tell the truth. But the main thing was, I wasn't. Shirley knew, of course, but I'd never really come out to anyone else. Gram was the only one I really cared about, but Paula had no use for old people, and didn't want to meet the other 'fossils' so she'd never come to any family events with me, even though I wanted her to. So I had let things just ride. But today I was really too busy to think about what anyone else would think about it.

Everything went fine until dinnertime. The kids were having a blast playing with their super-soakers, and the adults were mostly unpacked and settled. The grill duties were divided up amicably, and it looked like the food was going to be done in time to catch up with the alcohol consumption, for once. We were about to get into Uncle Frank's special-recipe vodka-marinated ribs when the last thing I'd ever have expected happened.

Paula, unbeknownst and uninvited, drove in. It had never occurred to me that my new status as a property owner had suddenly increased my attraction for her; we'd been apart since the previous October, when she'd walked out on me. And I hadn't realized that she'd gotten her real estate license in the interim. I don't know how she passed; maybe she slept with everyone on the licensing board. I didn't even know she was there, at first; I'd gone into the kitchen to bring out some more salad, and Sarah was with me. So we missed her big entrance. But not her squeals of introduction.

She must have spent a little time boning up on my family connections, because she was cooing "And you must be Uncle Fred," from Uncle Frank's lap.

"I don't believe this." I said when I looked out the window.

"What?" Sarah asked.

"Well, you asked what my ex was like-it appears you are about to meet her in person."

She was in full ingratiate mode, glad-handing everyone, telling them she was a good friend of mine, how sorry she was about Ethel, and laying it on so thick that if half the adults hadn't already been shit-faced drunk even they would have thought she was over the top. Then I heard the words 'mortgage points' and began to see red.

"How do you want to play this one?" Sarah asked me.

"God, I don't know."

"So you don't want me to just be the heavy and move her along?"

"I wish-But give me a few minutes to find out what she wants, okay?"

"Sure. Just give me the sign if you want me to do something, though."

I barely heard her. I think I was already in a bit of a fog. I went out and walked up to Paula, and yanked her off Frank's lap.

"What the hell do you want, Paula?"

"Oooh," she cooed. "Sue, my old friend. I remember last year you invited me to Fourth of July and I couldn't make it. But I was just in the neighborhood so I thought I'd drop in this year."

"Riiight. Well, this is a family gathering." I said as I tried to drag her toward the grassy lot where everyone parked.

"But I'm family, as you should know very well-or would you like for me to tell all your relatives just how we're related?"

"Are you threatening to out me to my folks?"

"I'm sure it will come as no surprise. Why don't you go get me a beer and we'll just get caught up?"

"There's nothing to catch up on."

"Oh, but there is. I'm a full-fledged realtor now. I could really help you with your problems here. Come on, baby, you know you've missed me."

"Not-for-one-single-minute!" I could feel myself beginning to lose it. I just wasn't sure how far it was going to go. She started putting on her little-girl act, and batting her make-up clotted eyelashes at me.

"Well, I missed you. I just had to see how you were doing and-"

"I don't believe you."

"-offer my services. I have a very wealthy client who's looking for a summer place and I thought-"

"WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER!" I went from whisper to bellow in 30 seconds flat, and I could see Sarah motioning to Brad and some of his cousins. They went into a huddle at the edge of my peripheral vision.

My voice woke up the rest of the relatives-the ones who had still been snoozing-and suddenly everyone was looking at me. I could see Paula about to pounce, and I hated her still having that one tiny bit of power. It wasn't exactly the way I would have chosen, given time to do things in my own way, but I wasn't going to let Paula control me for a second longer. I pushed a bunch of dishes aside and stood up on the nearest table.

"Hey, everybody! Guess what! I'M GAY! Now don't tell me you hadn't been wondering!"

I looked over the crowd of shocked faces, and had a second to think that everyones' response was utterly typical of them. Frank was smirking, Shirley looked worried, Marge was nodding, cousin Mo-I think she was the one who said, "WHAT!?!"-was gasping as if she hadn't actually known homosexuality existed, Eunice and Teddy shrugged it off and went back to arguing, while their kids never stopped fighting. Erin, the teenager, was muttering "boring" and trying to disappear under her load of makeup, and... Bob was about to say something, probably something judgmental, knowing him, but I saw Sarah bend over by his chair and whisper something in his ear. He turned white and shut up like a clam that just got hit with a rake. The rest of them were just a blur.

I still had their attention, though, so I figured I might as well take advantage of it.

"And I am NOT selling my grandmother's HOUSE! And even if I were, I wouldn't list it with my EX GIRLFRIEND who is just LEAVING. And NO picking over Gram's furniture and stuff. I'll give out mementos when I'm damn good and ready! EVERYBODY CLEAR on that?"

Paula was just staring at me, wondering where I got the balls to yell at my whole family, I guess. So she never noticed Sarah motioning to Brad and his friends. When I saw what she had in mind I gave her the thumbs-up and Sarah yelled, "Fire at will!" So the super-soaker barrage was a complete and total surprise. Paula yelped, and suddenly her party-crashing ensemble-that perfect little straw hat and summer dress-was looking like something the cat dragged out. She tried to rally, but it was all over. Now that she'd been made fair game she couldn't even sidle up to the rest of the family looking for allies without a small boy squirting her in an embarrassing place. She did the only thing she could do; she jumped into her cute little sports car and drove away. I wished she ruined her transmission on the bumps in the driveway, but that seemed like too much to hope for.

Sarah had found the perfect way to support me without rescuing me, and after I was sure Paula had left and things had settled down I took her into the kitchen and kissed her. "I can't thank you enough, Sarah. I hope you don't mind being introduced as my girlfriend now, instead of just my friend."

"Nope. That was a pretty brave thing you did, Sue. Maybe now Bob will feel comfortable enough to bring his lover to family events."

"BOB? My cousin Bob is GAY?"

"Shhh! Uhuh. So far in the closet he thinks he's paneling, but yup."

"How did you know?"

"Your Gram told me."

"How did she know?"

"I don't know, how did she know anything? She lived a good long time and put up with a lot of crap."

"Did she-"

"Yeah, she knew. She asked me if back in April if I was in love with you."

"And what did you say?"

"I said I thought I was."

"How about now?"

"I still think so." She got this funny little grin on her face.

"I think I might think so too." We kissed again, until I could hear Frank calling us back to the barbecue. For some reason he seemed to think ' SooowwEEE' was an appropriate way to call everybody to eat pork.

"You Yankees are a strange bunch."

"I know we are. Salad dressing?"


The rest of the picnic was pretty uneventful, in comparison. The sun set and we got ready to watch the fireworks, which we could see quite well from Gram's front yard. I sat on Sarah's lap and she put her arms around me. It's a good thing Adirondack chairs are well made.

So we sat there watching the sparklers rain down.

"Hey Sarah?"


"What did you tell Brad to get him to shoot Paula with his water gun?"

"Oh, I just said she'd come here to be mean to his favorite aunt."

"That's all?"

"Yeah... oh, I suggested it might be fun to use the ice water from the coolers to load up with too."

"That was ice water?" I started to laugh.

"Well, I think one of them had some grape soda in it too. Just for variety."

"Oh you are good."

"You know it. Wanna... test it out?"

"Yeah. Not here. Not with everybody breathing in the next room. But yeah."

"How about we go for a little trip, then? You could use some time away."

"It's a date. As soon as we get Gram planted."

So after the memorial, we took a little trip to the mountains. I figured the beach would be too crowded, and I wanted to camp out, someplace quiet, where I wouldn't be able to tell if I was seeing stars because they were in the sky, or because Sarah was making me see them. It took me a little while to get comfortable, physically. It had been a long time and I had some bad memories to erase. But Sarah was just as patient as I knew she would be, and I'm happy to report that we did finally map some new constellations, ones that no one else will ever see.

The end-for now.


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