LANGUAGE: Yeah, but definitely not every fifth word.
VIOLENCE: Yeah, which is why it's called domestic violence.
PORTRAYAL OF SUBSTANCES: Alcohol.
A Better Path
“That is the stupidest damn idea I've ever heard of!” Kate Kaber bellowed at her father. Her glare settled on him. “I'm no snot-nosed brat who needs to be hauled off for some demented family version of take-your-daughter-to-work day or whatever the hell it is!”
The rising red color in Kate's face told her father, Walter, that her El Diablo temper was flaring again. Kate was a real living conundrum to him. She wasn't exactly pretty -- she divorced her husband because he started laying his hands on her and called her a hippo one time too many -- but Walter thought her education, natural brains, and talent in almost everything she did should've taken her farther than it seemed to by now. The only underlying problem he could think of was her deep passion for playing music and singing. It would've been one thing if she'd been a respectable member of some chamber music quartet, but rock music? He tried to steer her into a more prudent life as a businesswoman, but when he gave her an internship at his company when she was 16, the experiment was a calamity and his well-oiled business machine took a full fiscal quarter to straighten out the damage her mischievous side had caused that summer. He learned, to his everlasting regret, never to push her in directions she didn't want to go. His daughter, as laid back as she usually was, had a darker, fiercer, willful side to her at times, and she was no naïve debutante; her rebellions had always been more like out-and-out revolutions.
Walter sighed and laid his putter against the desk. He picked up the brandy that his assistant had left on his desk, swirled it, and sniffed it. He contemplated its clear jewel-like color and decided it was the best the vine had to offer, and then he turned his attention back to his daughter. “Kate,” her father began in a calm and reasonable tone, “I'm worried about you. You have one failed, ill-considered marriage, only passing acquaintances as friends, and no real direction in your life. You have about as much chance of succeeding in the music business as you have of finding a unicorn. That is why your aunts and uncles generously agreed to let you come to their workplaces to see if there's anything you could make a career of.”
“Dad, you don't know jack about what's going on with me!” Kate protested. “I'm a grown woman and I can do what I feel I have to do for myself. It's not like it's about the money anyway. I have plenty from my inheritance and made some good investments whose interest gives me enough.”
Walter cut her off short. He stared her down like he would his business opponents -- a habit learned from his naval commander days -- and issued this invective: “I trust you will do nothing to embarrass them while they are transacting their business and that you will avoid turning this opportunity into another complete fiasco.”
Her anger threatened to vent again. “Dad! I was just 16!” Feeling utterly in limbo and not wanting to argue anymore because she'd already had a rough day before seeing her dad, the hapless Kate gave in. “Okay, Dad. I'll give it an honest try, but at each place, I go if I can't take it anymore.” How bad could it be? she asked herself, trying to find some consolation. One of her aunts, Aunt Kathy, was an astrophysicist. Kate had always had a small interest in astronomy.
Happy and victorious, Walter picked a Viceroy King cigarette out of a silver case he'd left on the desk and lit it. He went to the bar behind his desk, opened the freezer, pulled out a beer glass so frosty that it was opaque, and poured a beer for Kate. He headed to an antique pie safe and instead of pulling out a crystal bowl of peanuts, he retrieved two small china plates and a plate stacked with a small pyramid of his wife's homemade rhubarb tarts, a special treat. As he enjoyed the midafternoon snack with his daughter at his desk, his mood lightened and his eyes sparkled. He tried to whitewash the situation for his daughter and announced, “I'll call Kathy tonight and set up an appointment with you next week. You'll hear from me tomorrow afternoon.”
* * *
An airplane passed noisily overhead as Kate stamped the snow off her boots from the unusual September snowstorm that blew through the night before, and she entered the university building that housed the astrophysics labs. She found her aunt in a huge computer lab. Lights flashed on various computer panels and there was a constant low humming sound from the computers' fans, creating a fantastical atmosphere reminiscent of Star Trek, with various scientists manning each station.
Kate greeted Kathy with a question that popped into her mind. “Hey, Aunt Kathy, what's a photon?”
Kathy smiled at her niece's voice and then answered the question. “It's a particle of light. Why?”
“What good's a photon torpedo, then?” Kate asked. “Did it just blind the Enterprise's foes?”
Kathy laughed and directed Kate to where a colleague was sitting and listening to something on headphones. “Listen to this.”
The balding man in glasses took off the headphones and offered them to Kate. “Thanks,” she said as she accepted the headphones and listened. She heard what could only be described as pulses. There was more static, less static, more static again, less static again, et cetera. It almost sounded like a staticky version of Morse code, except the pulse pattern was a little more regular. After two minutes, she took the headphones off and gave them back to Kathy's colleague. “What's that?” she asked Kathy. “A UFO trying to communicate with us?”
“Nope. It's funny you should say that, though. Other people have mistaken that sound for a UFO's communication. That, my dear, is actually a quasar. Quasars are star-like objects that are powerful. They give off strong light and/or strong radio waves that can pulsate just like that.” Kathy pointed to the listening station. “Well, kiddo,” she continued, putting an arm around Kate's shoulders, “since you're getting the grand tour today, would you like to see one of my favorite places on campus?”
“It's this way.”
Kathy led Kate back the way Kate had come. When Kate saw the lab she'd passed before, she paused. Passing it the first time, she thought that it was empty because the lights were off, but now a glow that Kate saw out of the corner of her eye shone from the room. Aunt Kathy turned around when she saw Kate wasn't following her. She looked into the room. “Oh, that's just Ronnie, one of the grad students here. Hi, Ronnie!”
“Hi, Dr. Kaber!” the blond young man in a white lab coat replied. He flipped on the lab lights. “Come on in! I was just playing with my neon lights again.”
“Ronnie, I'd like you to meet my niece, Kate. She's visiting me today.”
“Good to meet you.” He shook Kate's hand. He was obviously smart, but his Tennessee twang made him sound like a real hillbilly. “Do you know how neon lights work?”
“No,” Kate replied.
Ronnie held up a neon light tube. “See here and here? There's a cathode at each end of this tube. One is positive and one is negative, just like the ends of a battery. A vacuum is created in the tube and then there's a little inert gas -- you know, the non-flammable stuff -- put in. When you run an electric charge through the gas, it ionizes and gives off a bright glow.” He turned off the lights again and plugged the tube in. It glowed a bright red. “Different gases and manufacturing processes give it different colors. This one here's full of neon gas. Argon and xenon are just some of the other gases used in neon lights. Brightness can vary, too. If you want a really bright sign, you choose a gas that has optimum resistance.” He smiled at the light in front of him. “This stuff sure is eye-catching and optically pleasing, isn't it?”
“Yeah. But if any of the tubes break, are the gases inside harmful, or do they emit noxious fumes?” Kate asked.
“No. The gases are relatively harmless, although mercury is used in some neon lights. Have to be careful how you dispose of those tubes.”
“Thanks for showing me,” Kate said. “I don't want to be a pest any longer, so we'll leave you to it.”
“Thanks, Ronnie,” echoed Aunt Kathy.
Kathy and Kate exited and turned left again, they passed the lobby, and they walked down a hallway. The door at the end of the hallway was a side exit. Kathy pushed through it and led Kate into a clear Plexiglas tunnel that connected the labs with another building. Kate watched as an icicle hanging on a tree outside broke loose and shattered on top of the tunnel. Students were hidden away studying for their last final or getting ready for Christmas break, and the silence combined with the cold hard wind and snow turned the campus into a wintry no-man's-land.
Aunt Kathy opened the door on the other end and held it as Kate went through. When Kate entered a main room after passing four more offices, she was absolutely flabbergasted at what she found. The walls were painted black and there was subtle track lighting like what might be found in a jewelry store. The spacious, warehouse-like room had a wonderful earthy scent, and it was cool, but not cold. If Kate didn't know better, she would've sworn she was in outer space, and she wondered if there was a chunk of an asteroid anywhere nearby. Glass cases held all sorts of rocks in different colors.
“How are you, Jack?” asked Aunt Kathy somewhere near where Kate had come from.
Kate looked back and saw the guard who she hadn't noticed before. Despite the cold weather outside, a short-sleeved uniform displayed the middle-aged guard's beefy arms. There was a tattoo of a dragon on his right arm.
“Fair to middling, Doc.” Jack unconsciously put a hand up to a spot just below and to the right of his navel. “I'm still healing from that killer emergency appendectomy.” He torqued his body to see if it would hurt and it didn't hurt too much.
“Sorry to hear that, Jack. I wish you a speedy recovery!”
When Kathy turned back to Kate, they saw a man in a dark gray suit scuttle to the offices on the other side of the large room. “That's just Jerry, the curator here. Don't mind him. He has a bad case of xenophobia. If he doesn't already know you, he's afraid of you.” Kathy smiled. “Well, this is the geology museum. What do you think?”
“Awesome!” Kate replied in a breathy voice.
“Yes. They certainly did a great job with the atmosphere of the place. There are small samples of space rock here, too. But the most interesting rocks are this way.” Kathy led them to a special area designated for the xenoliths.
Kathy pointed out a rock that had the seeming unity of the particles in cement, but there was an indigo-colored spear of rock jutting out from the cement-like stuff. “This is a xenolith, Kate. It's a rock that has another rock in it.”
“Wow!” As Kate looked closer, she could see a million smooth faces on the indigo-colored rock. Each face had a similar intricate geometry to it.
“If you take jeweler's tools and put a little force just there,” Kathy pointed a place that would create another smooth face in the rock, “it'd cleave easily.”
Kathy led them past a sample of granite block recycled from an old monastery. Then, she led them to something a bit more familiar, lava rocks. “What's the difference between these?” she asked Kate.
Kate looked at one sample. “This looks really sharp and angular.” Kate looked at the other sample. “And this looks softly rounded, like jelly. If it was a softer material, I wonder if it'd shake like jelly.”
“Good! You're right. But the real difference is where these samples came from. The one that's more angular came from inside a volcano. That's a piece of intrusive rock. The smoother one came from surface lava, so that's known as effusive rock. The people at Valley of Fires down in Southeastern New Mexico sent that one to us. And over there,” Kathy pointed to a small room off the main one, “we have our prized display.”
Kathy led them inside the room to a high wooden pedestal. The pedestal was bolted to the floor and had a turntable on top. A manacle-like thing held a large reflective rock on top of the turntable. All the track lighting in the area shone on the rock like a spotlight. “Watch this,” Kathy said. She spun the turntable and the darkened room suddenly burst into sparkles as if a disco ball was harnessed to the roof.
Kate just stared in stunned awe for a moment. “Cool!” she finally managed to say.
They watched the reflective rock once more then Kathy looked around and saw that there was not much else to show Kate, so she said, “I'm just about done here for the day anyway. Do you want to go out for ice cream with me?”
“Aunt Kathy! It's 25 degrees outside! Besides, don't you think I'm a little old for that?” A girlish giggle, however, belied Kate's question.
“Well, how about dinner at that little German sausage house down the street. I've been hungry for some knockwurst.”
Not liking the sound of heavy food, Kate asked, “Do they have some just plain salads?”
Kate checked her watch and grinned widely. “Okay. I think I have enough time. I've gotta go play at The Bodacious Apple later.”
* * *
The neon sign above The Bodacious Apple showed a bodacious surfer boy riding an apple instead of a surfboard. Just as Kate got past the bouncer and wheeled her equipment to the stage area, the surf-rock song “Wipeout” started playing on the jukebox.
Beer bottles suddenly shattered and a table broke. “Ooh. Trouble in paradise,” Kate quipped as an old hippie in a loud Hawaiian shirt -- one of the two owners -- came over.
“Just wait and watch,” said the hippie with a peaceful smile on his face.
A cantankerous black man in an apron -- the other co-owner, whose arms looked like elephant trunks -- pushed through the swinging kitchen doors. “Hey, man! You're gonna have to pay for that!” The men continued fighting. “CORNELIUS!!!!!!!” the man shouted, trying to summon the bouncer as he himself took on one of the fighters. “Damn, Cornelius! I'm gonna hang that fool in effigy one o' these days ‘cause his sorry hide ain't worth the jailtime!”
After exacting restitution from the fighters, Joe, bounced the fighters himself. When Cornelius turned to go back outside, Joe slapped him once on the back of his head as his way of scolding Cornelius. When Kate flashed him a smile and a thumb's up after the bizarre scene, Joe smiled back. He turned toward the kitchen shaking his head and chuckling to himself.
Doubting that it was such a great idea to play in a venue where a fight had just broken out but not wanting to go back on her word, Kate tried to expectorate the memory of the fight from her mind and set up. Pretty soon, she was just about ready to start.
She'd brought a good selection of musical instruments, including her tambourine in case someone wanted to try to jam with her, but she doubt there'd be many takers. Most of the audience was made up of middle-aged country boys with a handful of slutty women, although there was one woman sitting by herself at a table who looked like a bit of a tough customer with jeans, a leather bomber jacket, her red hair pulled back in a single ponytail, and a nearly-healed black eye. Kate decided she was probably the most unique person in the crowd of look-alikes.
Kate's thought broke off suddenly when one of the drunker men shouted at her as he teetered on his barstool perch, “Hey! You're not gonn -- gonna play any of that chick stuff are ya? I don -- don't wanna hear how you lost a ovary!”
Her El Diablo temper started to flare. “No!” she yelled back, careful not to get too overheated and insult the patrons because she wanted a few extra bucks in tips that night, “I'm gonna sing a song that starts with onomatopoeia!”
Playing over the cowboy's slurred, “Onno-o-wha”, Kate launched into a quick version of the old Alka Seltzer jingle. She really got into it because she loved confusing rude drunk people. The redhead was laughing and enjoying it, too.
After the song, the cowboy tried hassling her again, but the redhead called out a bit timidly, “Let her sing in peace!”
“Sh--sure!” The cowboy shot back and laughed loudly, ready to fire another insulting verbal salvo. A big man in a Rastafarian cap who sat next to him, put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed, and whispered a little friendly advice about how it'd be a grievous mistake to harass Kate anymore. The cowboy sobered up a bit.
Ignoring him, Kate played a fast-tempo country song that she'd written when she was angry at her dad. She thought it was funny to put Walter's more high-brow language into a country song and called it, “You've Vacated Your Brain (Taken Leave of Your Senses)”. After that, she played “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for good measure -- to annoy the cowboy -- and noticed afterward that people were ready for a slow dance, so she played a waltz next. The rest of the set went pretty much like that.
Between her first and second sets, Kate ordered an ice water and took it to the table closest to the stage and sat by herself, going through in her mind what she wanted to play in the next set. The redhead took her drink, sauntered up to Kate and asked, “May I sit here?” She indicated the chair next to Kate's.
“Sure! My name's Kate.”
“Jane.” Jane reached to shake Kate's hand. “I've really been enjoying your music. Just too bad there was a dumbass jerk in the audience tonight.”
Kate laughed. “Oh, there's at least one in every crowd who's had ‘liberal' amounts of whiskey or beer. Thanks for defending me!”
Jane smiled, “A lady in waiting's gotta take care of her queen of rock.” They both laughed, but Jane's laugh quickly turned into a twisted mask showing disgust. “You said there was at least one in every crowd. Well, what about two?”
“That guy standing on the other side of the cowboy. He thinks he's a cool swinger, but truth is, you'd better keep away from him. He's just a licentious parasite who'll do anything that moves.”
“Aw, geez! I hate those bastards!” Kate complained.
“Yeah --.” Jane's reply was cut short when a waitress in skimpy clothes passed by. Jane caught her attention.
“What can I do for ya, hon?”
“I'd like some tater tots, please, and another round.” Jane pointed to her Bud bottle and whiskey glass.
“Sure thing!” The waitress then turned her attention to Kate. “And what'll you have?”
Kate had a soda water with lemon and lime since they didn't have mineral water. As for food, she hadn't enjoyed her salad and was still hungry, although the thought of something greasy made her a bit queasy. “Any chance of this place having some fruit or anything?”
“Yeah. Joe loves cantaloupe so we have that stuff here almost year ‘round. Got some ice cold in the back.”
Kate smiled. “Sounds great!”
The waitress said, “Be back in a tick,” and headed off toward the kitchen.
When the snacks and Jane's next round was ready, the waitress didn't bring it right away. They had to wait until she'd served some men -- who'd ordered after they did -- and flirted with them a little. By the time the food came, Kate was already back onstage and the tater tots were cold, but Jane shrugged it off. She took the red squirt bottle out of the condiment caddy on the table and squeezed a generous amount of ketchup beside the tater tots. She dipped one in and happily munched as Kate played another one of the songs she wrote, a funny one that her ex inspired. His temper got way out of control when a wombat in Australia usurped his sleeping bag. In the end, he found out that wombats could be as irascible as he was.
Forty-five minutes later, Jane was only halfway through her tater tots -- being more interested in nursing her second round -- and Kate was packing up, grateful for the help the old hippie offered.
Jane saw Kate wheeling her stuff out to her car. “Hey, Kate, gonna come back?”
“For a bit, maybe.”
“You've been drinking soda water all night. Can I buy you a real drink?”
Kate thought about it and decided it'd be okay. “Yeah. I'll have a real frou-frou drink. Maybe a pina colada with more pineapple juice than rum.”
As Kate stowed her stuff in the car, Jane ordered for her and waited for her. Pretty soon, Kate came back and the drink arrived. Kate stirred the slush and enjoyed the classic country CD the bartender put in.
“So,” Kate began, “what's the happy happenstance that brings you here tonight?”
Jane looked a bit upset for some reason. “My hubby wants me to be seen hanging out like a regular person sometimes. Thinks it garners him votes when the city councillor elections come up.”
Kate contemplated her bowl of cantaloupe. Even though it was getting close to room temperature, it still looked luscious. She took a fork, inspected it, wiped it on a napkin, and speared a piece of the fruit. She found it was good and it was juicy, too. “Just right,” Kate commented about the fruit. She continued, “So you didn't have a good time tonight?”
Jane put a small smile on her face. “Don't get me wrong, girl, I mean, your music was really kick ass! I loved your song about the irascible wombats. That was a doozy!”
“What is it then?”
Jane tried to change the subject and Kate let it go. “Here's a truism for you.” She offered the basket of tater tots to Kate who decided they didn't look too bad and took one, hesitating before biting in. “Tater tots make the world a better place. If everyone in the world had their own basket of tater tots and munched on them, all the wars in the world would stop.”
“It would only be temporary.”
“But still....” Jane held up a tater tot expectantly. “To tater tots!”
“To tater tots!” Kate echoed and lightly bumped her uneaten one to Jane's. Then, they both dipped theirs in ketchup and ate them in one big bite.
After they talked a little more, they felt like they had been best friends forever. Kate asked, “Where did you grow up?”
“A little town out in the middle of nowhere. Really not a lot to do, so we kinda had to make our own fun.” Jane laughed. “And it nearly got me in trouble, too.”
Kate's ears perked up and she suspected there was a good story behind it. “What happened?”
“Oh, geez! Old Man Ross was a cranky bastard! So one day, I got all the pink flamingos I could out of the junkyard, waited till night, and covered his front lawn with the things while he was asleep. Well, he wasn't too thrilled. First off, he didn't give me my ‘gos back, and secondly, he pressed charges of trespassing on me. Well, it was a small town with only two judges who were really good friends. And Old Man Ross' brother was one of the judges.”
“Not good,” Kate replied as she chuckled. “How'd it turn out?”
“Well, the judge thought his older brother was a real tight ass stick in the mud. He had to recuse himself from the case since it was a family thing, but the other judge had the same opinion. In spite of regular jurisprudence, I was let off without so much as a slap on the wrist.”
Kate was really laughing now. “I don't believe it!”
“If we had a Bible here, I'd swear on it that it's true.”
The ladies sat silently a while after the good laugh and Kate quickly finished off a third round. Though she handled liquor better than most women, she started getting drunk.
The man who'd do anything that moves came up to their table and ogled Jane. He was on his way to having three sheets to the wind himself. “Nice knockers you have there, duckie,” he said in a British accent that didn't fool Kate into thinking he was a cultured man. He reached over and fondled Jane and Jane sat there and took it although she cringed and two tears slid down her cheek. Fear momentarily cut through the drunken haze in Jane's eyes before the haze returned and she submitted to the assault. In turn, Kate glared at the man in disgust and bristled angrily as if she was being touched herself.
“You've gone too far, pal.” Kate warned him with almost a deadly calm in her voice. He didn't heed her. Kate got up slowly and approached him.
“What do you propose to do?” he asked quietly with a laugh in his voice.
With one short, quick, powerful kangaroo-like punch to his chest with the heel of her palm, he staggered back and fell into the man behind him, making the buzzed man spill his beer. The buzzed man got up and proved to be a big man, indeed. He took umbrage at being knocked around and spilling his beer, and he hit the lecher who then tripped into another patron. Pretty soon, a real donnybrook started.
Kate took Jane by her upper arm and Jane jerked away as if Kate had leprosy. Ignoring it, Kate ducked this way and that, avoiding the fighters. Surprisingly, Jane was relatively nimble at dodging them in her drunken state.
When they got outside, Jane fumbled in her purse for her keys. She found them in a few minutes, but promptly dropped them and had problems picking them up.
“Whoa. How about I give you a ride home?” Kate asked, picking up the keys. She'd only had one small sip and was still very clear headed.
“No, thanks.” Jane made a grab at her keys, but missed.
“Really, it's not a good idea for you to drive right now.”
“Okay, okay. No need to get snarky about it.”
Kate dismissed the comment because she thought Jane had too much to drink and the fondling probably made her suddenly defensive.
She opened the car door for Jane and as she got Jane settled, Kate asked Jane where she lived. It was in a very nice house a few blocks from Kate's place.
“H -- here we are, Jeeves.” Jane laughed as Kate pulled up to the curb. There were no lights on in the house, so Kate walked Jane to her front door, unlocked it, and handed Jane the keys. She found she felt protective of Jane after the events of the evening and said, “If it's all right with you, I'll check on you tomorrow. We can get your car then.”
“'Sallright.” Jane laughed again. The last thing she said before she disappeared behind the door was, “H -- hey, chick, y -- you kick asszzz like Xena!”
Kate got in her car and started home as soon as she thought that Jane was going to be okay. She was happy when she passed the Montessori school because that meant she was only two blocks from home, and the events of the night had caught up with her. She yawned and yearned for her bed.
* * *
The next morning, Kate woke up, put on a robe and slippers, and picked up the paper on her doorstep. She stretched and as she waited for the coffee to finish brewing, she flipped through the newspaper. When she got to one of the feature articles in Section B, page 1, she no longer needed coffee to wake her up. It was a black and white photo in the byline, but there was no doubt. It was Jane! Jane MacDonald, the byline said. Kate had a deep love of writing and wondered if maybe a job as a reporter or columnist would suit her. She didn't let the thought finish because there was a more practical matter and a promise to keep.
“Well, well, well, Jane MacDonald,” Kate said to herself, “you have had a heavy night of drinking and we still need to get your car.”
Kate had a ridiculously early appointment at 7:30 with Uncle Mike, the clinical psychologist, before his first appointment. Since he couldn't talk about his clients as examples of what he did, all he could do was explain to her what some of the tests were. He only planned to give her a handout he'd typed up to explain things and give her some references to look up if she was interested. His explanation would take 20 minutes, 30 tops, so Kate thought maybe she could drive by Jane's place and get her to her car, if Jane happened to be well enough to go to work. There was always a chance Jane wouldn't be up till noon, though.
* * *
Feeling a bit awkward calling on a woman she'd just met the night before even though she promised to take her to get her car, Kate made her way to Jane's house after she'd met with Uncle Mike. When she got there at 8:20, she went up to the front door and found a heavy knocker, but decided it was probably ornate and thought the doorbell would be better, so she rang instead.
Jane was neither at work nor asleep, Kate quickly found, but Jane called through the door, “Could you wait outside for a few minutes, please?”
Although there was a biting wind, Kate agreed to wait on the steps. She flipped the collar to the cold and huddled down as deeply as she could, grateful for her warm gloves and that she'd taken her scarf. A creepy lawn gnome next to the door stared at Kate. She turned her back on it. When seven minutes had passed, Kate was just about ready to give up, but the door tentatively opened.
Kate gave a sunny smile and hoped Jane remembered her. “Wanna go get your car back? Thought you might need it today.”
Jane peered at Kate's face through blurry eyes and then a spark of recognition lit them. Kate saw a new black eye on Jane's face, although Jane made a hasty attempt at a make up job. It was still obvious, though, which made Kate wonder if Jane was too hung over to do the job properly. She also wondered if Jane was okay enough to get her car.
Jane opened the door further and stepped back in silent invitation. “Come in, please. I just put on a pot of coffee. Want some?”
“I had enough before I left home this morning, but thank you. If you want a cup or two, though, I don't have anything pressing today and can wait. Looks like you could use it.”
“Yeah.” Jane sat at the kitchen table and laid her head down. There was a clean, dry washcloth that Kate thought Jane was going to wet down and put on her forehead. Kate took the initiative and got it wet with warm water even though she didn't normally mother people. She wrung it out a little, and brought it back to the table. “Come on, lean back.”
Jane did as she was told and Kate positioned the washcloth on Jane's forehead. It covered her eyes and the bridge of her nose, too.
“Thanks.” Jane unconsciously moaned from her headache, but felt a little better. “Coffee's nearly done. Would you mind pouring a cup for me?”
“No, I don't mind,” Kate replied, feeling strangely protective again of the other woman. She found a small mug next to the coffeepot and filled it. “You want it black today?”
Kate put the mug on the table and waited quietly for Jane to drink it or at least move. After a lengthy silence, Kate wondered if Jane had fallen asleep under the washcloth. Jane finally moved as Kate finished the thought. She picked up her cup of coffee -- which was getting cold -- and carefully swallowed a few times.
Kate waited a few more minutes and asked, “Are you feeling any better.”
“My stomach's still rockin', but I think I'll be okay.” Jane steadily drained her mug and sighed afterward. “All right. Let's go.” Kate thought she looked better, so they took off.
* * *
Not much was said on the way to the Bodacious Apple. Jane seemed depressed, on the verge of tears all the time, kind of nervous, and kept tugging a little at the light scarf around her neck, continuously trying to adjust it as if it bothered her. Kate tried to ignore it even though she thought the mannerism was rather odd. She pulled up near Jane's car, thought she'd go home, hang out, and watch old movies all afternoon, but before Jane left Kate's car, she said, “Thanks for all your kindness. If you'd like, the least I can do is make us some lunch. Would you like a tuna sandwich or a salad with grilled chicken?”
“Salad sounds good.”
* * *
Jane got the salad out of the refrigerator and cut two slices of whole grain bread. She toasted them. Just as she sat down, she began to cry.
“Heyyyy, what's wrong?”
“It's not nothing if you're crying,” Kate reasoned.
Jane hastily made a decision. She lowered her eyes in shame and slowly shed her business suit jacket. There were bad bruises on her upper arms. Then she unwrapped the scarf. There were more bruises, this time in the shape of fingers and thumbs. The dark, gaping abyss of pain, loneliness, guilt inside her caused Jane to cry harder.
Kate got angry at the abuser when she remembered her own abuse, but she tried to control the tone in her voice so she didn't make Jane feel worse. “Your hangover isn't the only pain bothering you today, huh? Who did this to you?”
“My husband,” Jane whispered. She hung her head and kept her eyes lowered, never looking at Kate.
“Why are you showing me this?” Kate asked with compassion in her voice.
“Somehow, I trust you.”
Kate was flattered but pressed further. “You don't have any friends, anybody else you trust?”
“He won't let me have friends. The only friends we have are his and they tell him everything.”
“But he doesn't know about me yet.”
The implication of Kate's statement made Jane look at her. Kate saw a gleam of hope in Jane's green eyes. What the hell am I getting myself into, Kate asked herself. This is a big mess and none of my stinkin' business anyway. But I like her, care about her even, and she needs my help. It would be just too damn easy to walk away. Oh, well. Gotta love a challenge!
“Look, can you meet me at the Bodacious Apple? I'm gonna be playing there Tuesday and Thursday nights for just a little while.”
Jane seemed doubtful. “He won't let me out very often and I never know when he will.”
“Just do your best.”
Kate reached out and patted Jane's hand reassuringly. “Don't worry. We'll get you some help.”
Jane blinked and looked at Kate curiously. “Why would you want to help me? I mean, I know we clicked, but we're still almost strangers.”
“Because I was almost where you are.”
Shyly, Jane said, “I really don't want to be alone this afternoon. Would you mind coming to my appointment with me? I'm going to speak to a botanist about whatever xenia is and maybe we can grab a quite bite to eat before my husband comes home?”
“Sure. I've always wondered what being a reporter is like.”
Jane made one last tentative request. “Could you follow me? It'd be best if I came home alone tonight, just in case.”
* * *
They met at the Municipal Garden Center and walked into a side greenhouse which was warm and slightly humid, a heavenly contrast to the unseasonable cold outside. They found the botanist and Jane asked if she could use a tape recorder for their conversation and also asked if he would let Kate stay. The botanist was a cheerful man who loved to share his passion for plant life, so he was more than happy to oblige. Kate, for her part, found lots of the process somewhat similar to what she did when she worked for her high school's newspaper. She knew that it could be a tough, demanding job and she would be viewed as nothing more than a shark sometimes -- and have to act like one -- but she could remember little else quite as satisfying as being a newspaper reporter. During the time that the three were together, Kate's old passion for reporting and writing came back to her and she felt something stirring inside her.
After the interview, the ladies invited the botanist to have dinner with them at a little Italian café a few blocks away, but he declined saying his wife had clam chowder and fresh baked bread waiting for him at home. The ladies made their way over and got a table easily because it was still a bit early for the dinner rush.
They were seated at a corner table with the early evening sunshine keeping the warm glow they'd gotten at the Municipal Garden Center. The glasses and tableware sparkled like jewels and Jane's hair had gorgeous red highlights that were almost the color of hot coals. The waiter soon came and took their drink orders -- water for Kate and a glass of red wine for Jane -- and as the ladies waited for their order and dipped fresh bread slices in olive oil and spices, Jane started asking Kate about her experiences with domestic violence.
“It actually started a little before we married. It was nothing at first, you know, a playful punch on the shoulder after a joke, but when we became more involved, he wanted to know what I was doing every second of every day, with whom I was doing it, and if the answers didn't satisfy him, he'd accuse me of cheating on him and hit me. He started calling me names, trying to get into my head and lower my self esteem. Of course, I didn't like it. Of course, I felt shame, thought it was my fault, and couldn't ever talk to anyone about it. I suffered my little hell all by myself. Oh, he'd always bring me flowers or buy me things the next day, say he was sorry and that he'd never do it again, but it kept happening. I was a fool to take him back so easily each time, and I was a bigger fool to think it'd stop and he'd settle once we married. It got worse. It was hair-pulling, more name-calling, I would make excuses to everyone why I wouldn't be able to go out because I didn't want anyone thinking badly of him, and he started driving my friends and family away one by one until I was isolated. And even when I stayed home, he accused me of cheating on him and beat me. I think he accused me so he could justify his need to hit me and I was too scared to speak or do anything because he might take it wrong and hit me again. I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time he was around. And he was devilishly clever about it when he hit me, too! He pulled my hair and hit me in places nobody would ever see because my clothes covered it up. I didn't dare call the police because even if they took him in, he'd get out eventually and beat me harder, and I didn't quite have the guts to leave.”
Tears slid out of the corner of Jane's eyes. She whispered, “How did you get out of it?”
“The one place I was allowed to go was to classes at the university. It was my unbelievably good fortune to have had a Sociology class one semester. We had a unit on domestic violence that gave us the basic anatomy of domestic abuse, how it starts between two people -- men aren't always the abusers, by the way -- and if the abusive situation doesn't end, why it doesn't end. I had no real idea that something was wrong until I took that class, then it became crystal clear. It started with the mind games, lowering my self esteem, isolating me from friends and family who could or would help. There were the false accusations, the beatings whether I did anything wrong or not, the shame and guilt I was made to feel by my abuser, and the ‘honeymoon period' when he would say he was sorry, maybe be nice for a while, and I'd take him back because I was scared. And it'd start all over again. I wanted out, but I just didn't see any way out. I thought I was alone, you know, but guess what? The professor asked our permission to do an experiment just between him and us and handed slips of paper out to the whole class that had ‘Are you now or have you ever been in an abusive relationship?' on it and a box you checked either yes or no. It was a secret ballot sort of thing and it wasn't mandatory participation. Out of the respondents, a surprisingly-high percentage, 30%, checked yes. His office was kind of in a hidden catty corner of the building and he had various folders full of handouts that you could pick up if you'd missed a class or whatever. For those of us who wanted information, help, or contact numbers, he put a folder out that had copies of that stuff, so you could secretly pick up what you needed. I got that stuff and even though a group of abused classmates and I never met off campus for our own safety, we got together on campus, discussed things, got our self esteem, pride, dignity, and our lives back. All it takes is information, self love, and one good friend to get you out.”
By this time, Kate saw that Jane had already drained her glass and was seriously contemplating a refill. Kate knew it'd be a bad idea so she kept talking before Jane could catch the waiter's eye.
“So one day, we'd planned to meet after class for our usual half hour, which was all we dared to allow ourselves since it could easily be justified as getting caught up in traffic on the way home. One of our group didn't show up for class and we just assumed she was running late and would meet us outside the small café downstairs later. She didn't show up. As a matter of fact, we didn't see her for two whole weeks. She showed up the third week scared out of her wits and on crutches. She'd been in the hospital because her husband beat her badly one night. She had gone out to a bar to drink until she was numb, her most-used survival strategy, and when she got home, she was too drunk to think and defend herself. There were some times when she was so thick-headed because of alcohol that she couldn't think and was nearly killed. After that last time, our group gave her a good talking to, told her how it wasn't a good idea to add an alcohol problem to the violence problem and that she needed her wits if she was going to survive. She sobered up in one hell of a hurry!”
Kate saw Jane's eyes go wide as saucers and smiled on the inside that the lesson seemed to have gotten through, though Jane looked so tense and sad that Kate felt bad for her. Kate signaled the waiter without asking Jane and smoothly lied, “It seems the red wine has given my friend a headache. Would it be possible to get our orders to go, please?” The waiter nodded and left. Kate turned to Jane. “Maybe we could relax a bit more and enjoy our dinners at my place since it's on your way home?” Jane silently nodded, grateful to not have to rein in her emotions through dinner.
* * *
The first night Kate saw Jane at the Bodacious Apple again, Jane got very drunk and Kate had to take her home again. The next day when Kate went to pick Jane up to get her car, however, Jane was too hurt from a beating to go get it. Kate wanted to get her to the hospital, but Jane was too afraid to go, and Jane rarely got drunk anymore after that.
Kate continued her round of visiting relatives at their places of work and thought more and more about a career as a reporter. She saw Jane anywhere from once a week two weeks in a row to three weeks without seeing her once. She worried about Jane when she didn't see her, but when Kate saw her, Kate pressed her for information about being a reporter. She also tried to build up Jane's self esteem by telling her honestly that she was a beautiful woman that any guy would love to have, that she was smart, talented, and incredibly strong. Kate carried the packet of information she'd gotten from the Sociology professor and let Jane read through the material every time they saw each other so if she ever got the nerve to do leave her situation, she'd have ideas about what to do.
* * *
A thin string of Christmas lights edged the walls of the Bodacious Apple though the neon beer signs far outshone them. Christmas was only three weeks away. Kate finished the last song of the set and announced she was going to take a ten minute break. As she hopped offstage, a red head popped through the door, caught her attention, and a hand and arm urgently waved her to follow. She had a quick word with Joe and hurried outside. She was just in time to see Jane limp round the side of the building and disappear around the back where there was nothing but a dark alley. Wary of dark alleys that time of night, Kate slowly followed. She peeked around the back and satisfied herself that there was just a garbage can lying on its side, a stray gray cat looking for a meal, and Jane. Jane was leaning against the wall and almost doubled over as if she was in extreme physical or emotional pain.
“Jane? He hit you again, right?”
As she neared Jane, Kate smelled a little whiskey on Jane's breath, but she clearly wasn't intoxicated. Jane whimpered slightly and spoke. There was fear and anguish in her voice. “He came home drunk. He got angry, beat the crap out of me.” Her voice got quieter. “He tried to rape me. Passed out just before -- just before --“ Jane couldn't make herself say it.
Kate was tired of hearing the stories get worse and worse, and her anger compelled her to take a more forceful approach since quiet sympathy wasn't working. Jane needed a wake-up call. Kate stood in front of Jane and lifted her up. She held Jane lightly by the shoulders, spoke in a harsh voice, and let her own anger and urgency rise with each word. “Nobody, no man, woman, child, or animal, deserves what's happening to you, Jane. You deserve your pride, dignity, happiness, and your life, too. Do you hear me? He is going to kill you body and soul. You're letting him make you think it's your fault when it's really his. He's the guilty one, Jane. He's taking everything away from you, committing the worst offenses against you, and he will kill you! It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when.”
Kate lifted Jane's head when Jane slumped again. Her eyes sought and locked onto Jane's. Kate let her voice take on its seductive deadly calm and used it to her advantage. “It's not fair, Jane. You're not going to play the victim anymore. It's time to get angry, Jane.”
Kate's eyes widened and an intense fire burned in them as she gave free vent to her own righteous anger, “Get angry, Jane! C'mon, get angry! GET ANGRY, JANE!!!!!!!!!!”
Jane let out a loud howl of rage. She yelled again and again, letting out all of the pain she'd ever felt and the fury that seethed below the surface. Cornelius came running.
“It's okay, Cornelius,” Kate shouted over Jane's yell. “She's gonna be okay.”
Soon, Jane bent double again, panting for breath and trying to get the breath to cry. Kate held Jane for a few minutes and then took her to the front of the building where there was a bench. She sat Jane down and quietly asked Cornelius to fetch a cup of coffee. When he came back with it, Kate gave it to Jane and sat next to her.
Whimpering softly, Jane wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and tentatively took a sip. It was awful coffee, very acidic, but the warmth going down comforted her a little. Still, her mind was in such terrible turmoil because she wanted to leave but had no idea where she really wanted to go or could go.
Kate saw the inner struggle on her face and correctly guessed what was going on. “Would you like to come home with me? We can write a letter to your husband telling him that if he ever tries to find you or contact you, his political life will be DOA. That might be sufficient motivation for him. Or if he decides he really wants a pissing contest with us, he won't win against my family. He'd never be welcome anywhere in this state again.”
A look of relief and gratitude was the only thing Kate needed to know that she had a new housemate.
“How about you take a few of my dad's armed-to-the-teeth big, bad boys and move your stuff to my place tomorrow?” Jane nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and took another sip of her coffee. “Good. If you can stay here a minute or two by yourself, I'm gonna tell Joe I'm packing it in for tonight. Then you'll follow me home and we'll get a good night's sleep.”
Before she left to pack, Kate assessed Jane thoughtfully. “It won't be easy, you know, especially after all the mind games he played on you. You're going to need to keep your resolve, heavy counseling, and God knows what else. And I can't help you with some of that. You're going to have to go through a long dark tunnel, but I promise you, I'll be at the other side waiting for you.”
* * *
Kate and Jane sat in wingback chairs that flanked the fireplace. They had a little light Christmas music on, a cheery fire going, and were sipping on some hot cocoa. They'd driven around to see some of the lights, but had mostly spent a quiet Christmas Eve. The grandfather clock struck midnight.
“Merry Christmas, Kate.”
“Oh! I forgot to tell you. I pulled a few strings at the paper and it looks like they'll hire you. Of course, there'll be a trial period, but I'm sure they'll love your work. You start right after the holidays.”
Kate couldn't think of a better Christmas gift and silently counted her biggest blessings. She'd been wandering aimlessly through life without much rhyme, reason, or purpose, and even though she loved music, she found the party life was boring. Thanks to Jane, she suddenly found a career that would drive her out of bed in the mornings and happily so. She'd also found a dear friend, someone missing in her life, who was started on the road to recovery from a hell nobody deserved.
She looked over at Jane. “Looks like we're both on a better path.”
Words used: All of them (120) from A-Xe.
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