Copyright April 2008 - Publication and reproduction permitted only with the express written permission of the author.
DISCLAMIERS: This story is the original work of this author only, and any similarities to actual persons or characters living or dead is entirely coincidental…References to fictional characters, movies, or television shows are for cultural purposes only and are not intended to infringe upon any existing copyrights.
CONTENT: Rated M for Mature for Adult Themes, Language, and on just general purposes. If you are offended by romantic relationships involving persons of the same sex, you have my deepest sympathies, but should probably move on. If it is illegal to read such fabulous material where you reside, then you have much bigger problems than reading this will bring you.
LANGUAGE: American English, which by definition involves a lot of cursing.
SEX: Not everything is about sex … but just in case … there’s always Part Two!
NEED TO KNOW: Please note that this story was written for the Royal Academy of Bards Summer Bard Challenge #19, “Personally Yours”, and therefore was developed to adhere to the rules therein.
THE PEANUT GALLERY: This story is my very first submission to the world of on-line fiction (or just fiction in general). Please be nice, or I will take my Lego’s and go home. If you hate it, please don’t tell me – I can criticize myself way better than you can criticize me any day. If you have constructive, helpful criticisms, or if you like it, please do tell me. You can reach me at: email@example.com. Please don’t be offended if I do not respond, as I am extremely shy and generally incapable of talking to strangers without embarrassing myself completely – and really, neither of us wants to see that, do we??
I threw my keys down onto the table just inside the door and dropped my briefcase next to it, exhausted. It had been a very long day, and I was desperately looking forward to a hot bath and a quiet dinner. And if I was really lucky Kelly, my roommate and long-time friend, would be the one cooking the meal in question. She was nothing short of a miracle in culinary matters, and I was an eager subject to test anything and everything she and her spatula were willing to create.
“You home, Kelly?” I called out.
There was no response. I wandered into the living room hoping for signs of life. Nothing.
I quickly headed upstairs to change into some lounge clothes. The loft had two levels to it. The foyer on the main floor opened into a sunken living room with vaulted ceilings, facing a tall wall of windows. The open dining and kitchen areas were to the right of it and the office and guest room to the left. A spiral staircase in the living room led up to the second floor, with two bedrooms at opposite ends of a long open hall that actually looked down over the main floor. The building was an architectural dream, and I had fallen in love it on sight, buying it despite the longer commute to my office downtown. When my best friend had also decided to move out of the city two years ago, I had been more than happy to have her move in with me and share expenses. We were old friends and easy roommates, and the last two years had passed in a happy haze.
Which was why, when I had come back downstairs to the kitchen, I was a bit surprised when I came across the newspaper lying on the dining room table opened up to an ad page, with one in particular that was circled in red ink. It wasn’t just any ad, you see. It was a personal ad. You know – personal, as in the let’s-get-together-and-see-how-it-goes kind of personal.
I looked around before I picked it up, as if somehow afraid of getting caught looking at it.
“Short blonde seeks tall brunette. Blue eyes preferred. Sexy look a plus.”
Huh? This was definitely not on my expected list, and for a moment I was left baffled.
Wait. Was this Kelly’s ad? She was blonde, and she was rather … well, vertically challenged, so to speak. But she would more than happily show anyone crazy enough to call her short what five feet three inches of pissed-off looked like, so I found it difficult to believe she would describe herself that way. Hell, even I risked life and limb calling her that when she annoyed me, and I had known her for more than fifteen years. On the other hand, it didn’t make any sense that she would be answering the ad, since she clearly didn’t match the description of the person being sought – well, except for the sexy part - so her placing the ad was the only option that made sense.
Still. No, that couldn’t be her. Could it? Why would she be placing a personal ad? She didn’t need to. She was … well, her. Not that it was any of my business either way, of course. Kelly and I were friends; I wasn’t like her keeper or anything. But still, I was surprised that she hadn’t mentioned anything to me about this. We talked about pretty much everything. At least I thought we did.
I frowned. I wasn’t sure why, but I was definitely feeling a little unsettled about the whole thing. I knew she hadn’t dated anyone in a while. In fact, now that I thought about it, it had been like a year by this time. Not since she had went out on that disastrous dinner date with that accountant ... Jerry or Joey or something similarly ridiculous. I’d met him on their way out the night they’d had dinner, and definitely thought she was far too good for him. Apparently I’d been right, since she hadn’t mentioned him again after that night, other than to say that it had been a waste of time.
Hmmm... I wonder why I hadn’t noticed until now that she hadn’t been going out with anyone for so long. Was she unhappy, or lonely, and I was blissfully unaware? Jeez. What a lousy friend I must be to have just figured that out.
I decided then and there that I would make an effort to get my head out of my ass and pay attention to what was going on with her; maybe try to be supportive of her apparent determination to find someone - even if, quite frankly, the whole idea of her using a personal ad to get a date seemed a bit extreme. As far as I could tell, the only people who placed personal ads were insane, kinky, or living so far in the middle of nowhere they couldn’t find another human being without a compass. Kelly, on the other hand, was none of these things. She was pretty damned cute. Actually, truth be told, she was more than cute; she was beautiful. Add to that smart and sexy, too. Not to mention those deep green eyes. Heaven help anyone who fell into them, because they would never get out.
Hell, if she weren’t straight I would date her in a second.
I blinked. Wait. Where did that come from?
Never mind that, my brain rallied me back on track. No time to think about that now. It was time to initiate Operation: Find Kelly a Date. I chuckled to myself, thinking about how appalled Kelly would be once again by my ridiculously bad sense of humor if she could have heard me. As she often said, only I could possibly think that I was funny.
Humming to myself as I started mentally plotting my as-yet-to-be-thought-up-but-unbelievably-clever maneuvers, I gently placed the newspaper back on the table in the exact position I had found it. It would not do for Kelly to know that I knew what she was doing. She might have been embarrassed by it, and I certainly didn’t want that.
I decided then that I would try to make dinner that evening; maybe give Kelly a break and pamper her a little since she was apparently in need of some attention. Of course, with my luck it would be more like medical attention from my cooking, but hey, you work with what you’ve got, right? Maybe she would end up meeting a doctor in the emergency room or something...
I proceeded to hunt around the kitchen for something to make that wouldn’t actually cause anyone injury while mentally going through my list of eligible men who were not morons and did not act like – well – guys. Kelly needed someone special. Very special. It would be tough to find someone that I thought was actually good enough for her, but I was determined to help.
As I was tormenting an innocent tomato into submission I heard the door open, and turned to see my best friend arrive home, dropping her own briefcase and kicking off her shoes inside the foyer. She padded her way over into the kitchen and quietly leaned sideways against the counter next to me.
“Hey you,” she gave me a small smile. She was still in her suit and stockings and looked tired. She also seemed a little hesitant that evening, and I noticed her briefly glance at the paper on the table, then look back in my direction. I pretended not to notice so as not to give anything away. I was guessing that she hadn’t told me about the ad for a reason, and I wasn’t going to pry. I assumed that if she had wanted me to know about it, she would have told me.
Instead, without a word I put down the chopping knife I had been using and wiped my hands off, then turned and gave her a full, warm hug. She was a little tense at first, but then she relaxed into me, squeezing me tightly around my waist, and I heard her sigh deeply. I held her tightly for a few more minutes before slowly letting her go.
“Hey back.” I smiled at her, then turned back to my culinary rendition of the Last Stand. “You’re getting home kind of late. How was your day?”
Spying my efforts, she raised one blonde eyebrow in my direction, and with a smile teased, “Apparently not as frustrating as yours. What in the goddess’ name are you doing to that poor fruit?”
I responded by sticking my tongue out at her, and then said, “It’s a tomato, my dear, and as you can see I am attempting to slice it for our dinner salad.”
“I know it’s a tomato - which is a fruit, sweetie, as I have pointed out to you many times,” she was smirking at me. “And I only ask because I’m fairly certain that what you have done to it might be construed as a criminal offense in several states.”
“Oh, what’s that? Lawyer-talk? I thought we had banned that from the house,” I mock scowled at her.
She laughed. “No, you banned it from the house, calling it ‘gobble-dee-goup’, and I ignored you, remember?”
“Ah yes,” I said. “It’s all coming back to me now.” I sniffed at her, feigning offense. “In any case, I don’t believe that you should be insulting the cook right before the meal. Isn’t that bad luck?”
She wasn’t buying my wounded look at all. “I think it would be more unlucky of me if I failed to file an injunction against you being in this kitchen,” she countered. “However, since it’s clearly too late for that – and for that mangled blob that used to be a fruit – may I instead offer my appreciation for your efforts and perhaps some assistance?” Her eyes were laughing at me, and I couldn’t even pretend to be affronted. But still.
“Smart-ass,” was my brilliant reply, but I was smiling all the while. “Go change out of your scary lawyer suit before I drip something on it, and then you can save our dinner from my evil clutches.”
She snorted as she turned and headed for the stairs. I watched as she walked away, pulling her long blonde hair out of the scholarly-looking bun she always tied it into for work as she went, and it occurred to me once again that she was really special, and I would clearly have my work cut out for me to find someone good enough for her.
Cooking that evening quickly turned into a raucous affair, with insults over fruit-cutting morphing into actual fruit-throwing, and by the time it was all said and done we had ordered Chinese carry-out and were laughing on the kitchen floor picking tomato pieces off of our clothing. All in all, it was a typically comfortable night at home. Nothing was ever mentioned about the ad, although I did notice that the paper mysteriously disappeared off of the table at some point while I wasn’t looking.
The next morning I scooted off to my office a bit early after waking my slacker roommate up with coffee and a miraculously un-burnt bagel. Kelly was consistently monosyllabic in the mornings, and often uncoordinated for the first hour after rising, so directing early morning activities had become my contribution to our home life. I made sure Kelly was up on time (even if that only meant upright) and brewed the coffee and got the paper. Luckily neither of us ate much more than toast in the mornings or there’d be trouble. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have loved sleeping in late myself – hell, I could sleep at the drop of a hat – but I didn’t mind the early mornings and was clearly more equipped to handle them than my roommate was. Mornings seemed to be the one thing Kelly wasn’t great at, so I happily took up the slack, fussing around the house, taking care of everything and enjoying feeling needed. It was a good balance, considering that in return Kelly kept me from either starving to death or poisoning myself in the kitchen. Not to mention that, strangely enough, in the last two years I had come to love sitting with a cup of coffee in the morning and soaking up the sun streaming into the living room from the tall glass windows, warming me and reminding me of the outdoors. It was times like those when I often wondered if I had been a cat in a previous life.
Kelly was at least moving around when I left that morning, which was a good sign. Starting out early gave me the chance I needed to stop into my favorite floral shop just inside the city. The fact that it happened to belong to Kelly’s mother, who was just as gorgeous and sassy as her daughter, didn’t hurt either.
On my way over I thought about the first time I had been at Mrs. Ryan’s shop. I was fourteen at the time, barely out of middle school and too young to even know how little I knew about myself. I had been nervously on my best behavior. My parents had driven me all the way across town to drop me off at the shop, where I was supposed to wait for Mrs. Ryan to finish up, and then go to spend the night at Kelly’s house before her mother drove us down to summer camp the next morning. I had never met her mother before, but I was already in awe of her just from Kelly’s stories. I also knew from Kelly that her father had died when she was barely old enough to remember him, though she did not talk about him much. Kelly and I had only met ourselves the summer before, but we’d been best friends immediately. We’d talked all the time on the phone and sent each other letters, but we hadn’t gotten to see each other during the school year, so I had been thrilled when she called and invited me to stay over and my parents had accepted, seeing the opportunity to have someone else drive me to camp the next day.
Whatever I had expected from Mrs. Ryan when I met her that first time, it was not what I got. She pulled open the door and grabbed me before I realized what was happening, scooping me up into her arms and squeezing me tightly.
“Well hello, you cute little thing,” she fussed. “You must be Allison.”
I blushed furiously, as I did perpetually in those days. “Yes, ma’am,” I had replied, the sound of my voice muffled by the chest I was being squashed into. It was immediately obvious that Mrs. Ryan was nothing like my own mother who, like my father, never touched anyone - including me - if they could avoid it. Our family was not a huggy kind of people. We were strictly an orderly kind of people, with lots of rules and no discussion. We didn’t talk about anything, not even the weather, so heaven forbid we should ever mention any such madness like emotions. Not surprisingly, I quickly found myself liking Mrs. Ryan’s easy affections and frequent hugs almost as much as I liked Kelly, and happily spent every minute I was permitted to with them.
Kelly and I hadn’t gone to the same school, or even lived on the same side of the city, but we were best friends nonetheless, and were inseparable all summer long each year. Once we were both old enough to drive we had been a menace on wheels driving to each other’s houses before I was sent away the summer before our senior year. We kept in touch even then though, and stayed close even after we went off to opposite sides of the country to go to college. I had taken off to the west coast, and she had gone to the east. Somehow we had both ended up right back here, in the middle, and were just as close as we had ever been.
I smiled then as I appreciated how much the Ryan women had been a part of my life. I knew I must have been some kind of lucky, and I was grateful for that.
The shop was in a quaint older building all to itself, and each time I went there I was reminded of an English garden. The shop was gated in front with wrought iron, an open archway inviting visitors into the flower garden that enclosed the short walk to the front doors. The antique bell over the door rang when I entered the shop, and the smell of hundreds of flowers greeted me. It was early enough that Mrs. Ryan was already somewhere about, but otherwise the shop was empty.
“Hey Mrs. Ryan,” I called out as I entered, loud enough for her to hear me from the back room. It was the same thing I had been calling out for years, and I knew exactly what response it would get me.
“Is that you, Troublemaker?” I heard her laugh at me from the back room.
“Who, me? It couldn’t be. I’m never in trouble.” I answered as expected.
A beautiful older blonde, the spitting image of her daughter except for the strands of white now blended into her already light hair, came out from the back room and around the counter and gave me a hug. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company today?” she smiled up at me.
“Well, surprisingly enough, flowers,” I chuckled. “Though the chance to see you is always reason enough, I actually need some flowers this time. For delivery, please.”
She arched an eyebrow exactly the same way Kelly did, and smirked at me. “Oh, really now? And to whom are we sending these lovely flowers?” She had known for years that I was gay; in fact, she had known before I had. To her credit - and my sanity - she had been the one person I had found that I could talk to about it when I was wrecking my way through age sixteen, trying to figure out what was so wrong with myself that my own parents didn’t seem to accept me. I owed her a lot, and I loved her even more.
“Actually, I would like them for your daughter,” I replied.
“My daughter?” she looked at me curiously then, smiling. She didn’t even need to ask which daughter. “Let’s see. It’s not her birthday, she hasn’t called me to tell me she’s won the lottery, and it’s not Christmas...hmmm ... I’m stumped. What’s the occasion? Did you piss her off?”
I laughed outright then. She so had my number. “Not this time, Maggie,” I replied. “But thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Well then, what’s the occasion?” she asked.
“Well ... -. “ I hesitated, unsure as to whether to say anything about it or not. “Actually, I think she’s just feeling kind of blah right now. So I thought I’d send her something to just make her day better, you know?”
She nodded. “I do at that. In fact, more people should have someone around who knows when to send them flowers. I’m glad that she has you.” She reached out and patted me on the arm and smiled.
“Me too,” I replied with my own smile.
She gave my arm a squeeze and then released me and headed into the back to work her magic. Ryan’s Flowers was an institution not simply because of the flowers, but because of the woman who had an unerring ability to just know what you needed, whether you did or not. She was like a psychic florist, sometimes to the point of scaring people. I had once seen her walk into the shop front with a bouquet in her hands and set it on the counter, telling her assistant Eric that a woman would be coming in about twenty minutes from then who had forgotten her mother’s birthday, and that he needed to give her the bouquet. When Eric had asked her what the woman’s name was, she had told him she didn’t know - there hadn’t been an order placed yet, but there would be, and that those were the flowers that the woman was going to need, no matter what she asked for when she came in. Mrs. Ryan just knew. Almost a half an hour later, a desperate-looking woman that none of us had ever seen before had flown into the shop, frantic for flowers for her mother, not knowing what she should get. Eric handed her the mysterious bouquet that had been left on the counter, so startled by the event that he forgot to charge her. After that, no one asked Mrs. Ryan about the bouquets she would occasionally leave with strange and sometimes confusing directions that would only make sense later.
I wandered around the front of the shop and looked at flowers while I waited patiently. After a few minutes she popped back in with a beautiful bouquet for my approval. Being the complete flower idiot that I was, I had no idea what they were, but they were lovely and they smelled wonderful. I told her so. She rolled her eyes at me, and then informed me that they were Irises. Thank the goddess for florists, or I’d be as likely to offer a woman weeds one day as not.
We chit-chatted then for a while about her newest card club member, Delores, and the woman’s obvious cheating techniques. I promised to drop in on a game the next time Mrs. Ryan hosted it and check the woman out, maybe out-cheat her and turn the tables. It was just a little something I had picked up in college. Don’t ask. I kissed Mrs. Ryan on the cheek for the flowers (we had long ago stopped wrangling over the issue of her refusing to let me pay and my stuffing the money into her antique cash register when she wasn’t looking), and gave her another hug before I sauntered off to work. The flowers would be delivered to Kelly’s office around lunchtime. In the interim, I had some time to whip up a list of potential eligible men to sweep my best friend off of her feet...
Making the list was a lot harder than I had thought it would be. Who knew that so many men were such putzes? Obviously not me, since I hadn’t dated a man since ... well, never actually. I had kissed Tim Guyer on the cheek in second grade and promised to marry him when we grew up, but since we had both turned out to be gay I was pretty sure that didn’t count.
Toby, my personal assistant, was of little help. His one concession to office attire was that his outfit actually included pants and not the skirts he always wore outside of work. The only men he knew were as flaming as he was.
“Why don’t you just go out with her?” he finally asked, exasperated. “As far as I can tell you’re the only human being on the earth that actually meets the impossible criteria that you have set out for this dream date.” He was annoyed, but only half-joking. I could tell by the suddenly speculative look he was giving me.
“I’ve told you, Toby, she’s not gay,” I answered patiently, for the thirteenth thousand time.
“So you say,” he replied. “I have my own opinions on that, sweetie.” He executed a perfect hair-flip, then flounced out of my office in a way that would have made Miss Jay from America’s Next Top Model proud. Of course, it didn’t look quite the same in a three-piece suit, but what the hell. His walk was killer.
I stuck my tongue out at his retreating figure, then went back to examining my very sparse list. As far as I could tell, there were only three people I knew of that could even remotely fulfill my lengthy list of criteria, and one of them was Xena: Warrior Princess, which didn’t help at all, as to my knowledge her “many skills” did not include being a man. Which of course was just fine with me, and most likely her lovely companion Gabrielle as well. That left Kelly’s friend Peter from law school that worked with her now at the court house or, strangely enough, my brother Jared.
Bizarre, but I suppose it makes sense. My brother is handsome, sexy, and has blue eyes. He’s also sweet, sensitive, and has a job he loves. Hmmm…I wondered briefly if Kelly might find it strange to date my brother. Would that be too weird? What if it didn’t work out?
That’s easy, I’ll just kill him. Who needs a brother anyway?
I snorted, laughing at myself. Which was exactly what Kelly heard when I picked up the phone on my desk when it began ringing.
“Let me guess,” she mused. “You’re amusing yourself again.”
“Why is it that when you say it like that it sounds as if I am doing something either lascivious or illegal?” I asked.
“I don’t know, A.J., maybe because it wouldn’t surprise me if you were,” she quipped back.
“Oh ha ha, counselor. Very clever. I’ll have you know that we architects are very trustworthy people. We have to be, otherwise people would still be living in caves for fear of the Big Bad Wolf blowing their houses down,” I countered.
“Ah, yes. Delusions of grandeur again?” she teased. Then her voice quieted a little, and she said softly, “I called to thank you for the flowers. They’re really beautiful; even if we both know that my mother helped you pick them out.” She laughed softly. Not for the first time, I noticed how musical the sound was. For some reason though, the effect it had on me was different than before, and I found my chest doing a little flip-flop, her laugh seeming to go right through me. I was momentarily thrown off balance.
Wait, what was that all about? It took me a minute to recover.
“A.J.?” she asked. I had apparently missed something.
“Oh, umm, you’re welcome,” I stammered, completely out of sync at the moment. “For the flowers, I mean. I just thought, you know, that...well...anyway, you’re welcome.”
“Are you okay?” she asked, picking up my strange tone.
“Oh. Sure. Just, you know, allergies getting to me, or...something,” I covered. What the hell?
“So do you want to go to the movies tomorrow night or what? The movie’s supposed to be good, and I know how you do love Sandra Bullock,” she teased. Tomorrow was Friday. We both knew I had absolutely nothing to do. I had no real social life, and my workaholic tendencies were strictly limited to Monday through Thursday, which generally left me to my own devices on the weekends. This was never a problem for me, since the one person I would have wanted to spend the time with was already there, right down at the other end of the hallway from me.
“Absolutely,” I answered quickly. “I’d love to.”
“Great. We’ll go after dinner. I’m making lasagna.” She knew how much I loved Italian.
“Fabulous,” I managed. We hung up and I just sort of sat there for a minute. What was going on with me?
I had a sinking feeling then, and it occurred to me, briefly, that I might be in trouble – the kind of trouble that only ends badly – but I quickly dismissed the thought. This was ridiculous; Kelly and I were friends, and that was all. I had never even thought about more than that before. Not once. Really.
I stayed late at work that night, ostensibly trying to wrap up the specs on a new building project, but even I knew I was just distracting myself from my earlier thoughts about Kelly. Before long I had abandoned my computer for my drawing table, and I found myself opening a box of craft sticks and pulling out a bottle of wood glue.
It wasn’t the easiest way to build a ship, but I often found myself working meticulously at it for hours whenever I felt unsettled or at an impasse about something. The whole process was strangely soothing for me. It was actually the inspiration that had driven me into architecture many years ago. It had started when I had been bored to death one summer, long before going to camp and meeting Kelly, and I had found a box of Popsicle sticks in my grandmother’s garage. I spent the better part of a week that summer building my very first wooden ship. It was a sailing ship, albeit a very crude one, and I had amazed myself with how well it had turned out, but more importantly, how much I had loved making it. I still had it hanging over my desk at home in my office. That ship had started my passion for building things, and led me to a career in architecture; a life of creating new things from already existing pieces, and of bringing amazing dreams to fruition.
It occurred to me then that I had never realized my most personal dream, however. I had never found anyone to spend my life with. Until I had found Kelly’s personal ad, it hadn’t bothered me. But now, it was weighing on my mind. Mostly due to the possibility that Kelly wanted to change her life – our life. It seemed as if she wanted more than what we had. She had every right to, of course. I mean, you can’t live with your best friend forever, right? Sooner or later, everyone moves on and finds someone to spend the rest of their life with. After all, who would want to live without romantic love in their life? I could definitely understand that. I had felt the need for that myself, though it had been strangely a good two years or so since I myself had even thought about dating anyone. I was content and happy just the way things were. But I knew it was selfish of me to hope that things would just stay the way they had been between Kelly and me.
But how was I going to get along without her? Not without her friendship, of course – I knew I would always have that, even when she found someone and moved out one day– but without her. She was a part of my life every single day, in every part, everywhere. Where can you go after that?
It occurred to me then that maybe Operation: Find Kelly a Date was for the best in more ways than I had known at the time. Maybe it was best if she found someone now, and moved on with her life before I got any more attached to having her so deeply in mine.
The next day I took a little detour over my lunch hour and did something I had sworn I would never do, but I figured that desperate times called for desperate measures. Unfortunately, as I was about to find out, my sacrifice was for naught as my initial effort to find a prince among the frogs was a complete waste, and in fact only made things worse.
I arrived home on time after work that day since Kelly and I had planned to have dinner, but I was a bit out of sorts after my lunch-time detour. On top of that I hadn’t slept well the night before and I was having trouble thinking about anything else but Kelly and the strange feelings I had been having about both her and the situation at hand.
She was in the office when I got home, apparently reading over some legal mumbo-jumbo. I would have teased her about it as I always did, but instead I stopped on a dime in the doorway when I saw her. She had on her reading glasses and was concentrating so hard on the document in front of her that her brow was furrowed and she was biting her bottom lip. Her hair was mussed from a long day at work and was partially hanging out of its clip.
She was, in a word, breathtaking. And I was the one she had taken it from.
How did I not notice that before? Clearly, it was because I had been a complete moron. But the worst part was that knowing it now didn’t change a single thing.
She must have sensed me there, because she looked up at me then. “Hey you,” she smiled at me.
“Hey.” I couldn’t help my smile. She was lovely, and just being around her made me happy.
“Dinner is in the oven, and should be ready in about …” she glanced at her watch, “thirty minutes.”
“Fabulous,” I replied. “It smells great. Just let me get changed and I’ll give you a hand.”
After I returned Kelly asked me to set the table out on the balcony off of the kitchen for a change, and I willingly did so. It was a gorgeous sunset, and there was a small breeze off the bay that was visible just beyond our building, making it perfect for a warm spring evening. She set candles on the table, and the effect was not wasted on me. I had already been feeling terribly emotional all day, for a myriad of reasons that I hadn’t wanted to examine too closely, and I had the sense as I sat down that I might have been safer playing with matches in a barn full of dry hay.
We chatted casually about work for a bit while we ate. She was up for partner at her law firm, but she was having trouble with one of the partners, Frank, who was a complete idiot in my opinion.
“I mean, what is it? It can’t really be because I’m blonde, for heaven’s sake. Nobody actually believes those stereotypes, do they?” She was telling me how yet again Idiot Frank, as I liked to refer to him, had talked down to her once again, as if she had just left law school yesterday and had no clue what she was doing, which was ridiculous.
“He’s just threatened by you, Kel,” I reassured her. “You making partner in half the time that he did threatens his ego. You’re ten times the lawyer he is, and he knows it. Hell, I know it, and I didn’t even go to law school. Anybody who’s ever seen you in a court room knows it.”
“You think so?” she asked.
“Yes. Absolutely. I think you’re amazing,” I nodded.
She tilted her head curiously. I could see the question forming in her head, and I realized I had given something away.
“Do you?” she asked curiously, in a tentative voice.
“Yes,” I blushed involuntarily, and could have kicked myself, both for the blushing and for the fact that I’d been caught out. “Actually, I was down at the court house today, looking at the plans for some of the older city buildings that are stored there,” I prevaricated. “I just happened to hear your voice when I was passing by one of the court rooms, so I stopped in.” I forced my voice to sound as casual as possible. I didn’t mention that I had actually gone there looking for her on the pretense of completing an errand that Toby would have normally done for me, or that I’d sat up in the balcony of the court room she was in for nearly an hour, just watching her, amazed by how competent and intelligent she was, and mentally kicking myself for not having done so long before then. I had left the court room convinced more than ever that I had to stop and see her friend Peter, for both of our sakes. I hated it, but I knew it was what I needed to do.
“Why didn’t you let me know you were there?”
“You seemed really busy,” I lied. “And I didn’t want to distract you from being brilliant, of course.”
“You’re such a nut,” she laughed. “You should have said something. I’m never too busy for you.” She was smiling at me happily then, pleasure written all over her face. Her look softened even more after a momentary pause. “I can’t believe you finally came to the court house. I’m honored,” she whispered, glowing.
I just smiled back, helpless to do anything else.
She furrowed her brow a little then, and reached across the table and took one of my hands into hers. “I know how hard that must have been for you, A.J., and that makes it mean even more.” She was right, but for more reasons than she knew. The court house had been the last place that I had seen my parents when they had relinquished custody of me to the state, their efforts to straighten out my sexual orientation, literally, having failed miserably. Going there was not something I had ever wanted to do for any reason, so to be going there now to help the person I wanted most in my life to find someone that would take her further out of it was messing with me on more levels than I was prepared to deal with at that point.
“Well, you couldn’t expect me to not see you in action at some point, right?” I shrugged, a little uncomfortable with my thoughts, and suddenly a little shy under her gaze. “Besides,” I continued more quietly now,” it was worth going there to be able to see you. I’m sorry that I never have before. You really are amazing.”
She stared into my eyes for a long moment, and I was hard-pressed to keep from looking away to make it easier to hide all of the things my heart was trying to reflect through my eyes. She abruptly leaned over the table and kissed me on the cheek, and for a moment my body was caught between breathing in from the shock of her kissing me and breathing out from the relief that she hadn’t seen the emotions swirling in my eyes.
The resulting poor air exchange left me with an annoying tickle in my chest and made me start to cough. That immediately brought her around the table to rub my back, which of course just made it worse. Her standing so close to me and touching me was suddenly sending all sorts of electrical signals through me to all the right places, affecting me in ways that I couldn’t even pretend not to notice, which only made me blush and then cough even more. I had nearly hacked up a lung before all was said and done and she was sending me inside, convinced she was saving me from catching my death from cold.
I sat on the couch and she brought me a blanket, convinced I was ill and needed to be warmed immediately. She tucked the blanket around me and then ordered me to take my shoes off and rest while she brought in the dishes abruptly left outside. I didn’t say a word - I could only sit there in shock, trying to sort myself out. Good grief. What is happening to me? I’m losing my ever-loving mind, I swear I am.
Other parts of my body had more immediate questions they chose to ponder instead. Holy heaven, if that’s what happens when she kisses someone on the cheek, I wonder how anyone would survive actually...Whoa! Stop right there! My train of thought immediately derailed itself. I could definitely not handle thinking about that.
After she had finished bringing the dishes in she plopped down next to me on the couch and sat close to me, curling her feet up under her and facing me. She slipped one arm onto the back of the couch and around my shoulders. Suddenly, I was having all sorts of temperature issues as well, and none of them had a thing to do with cold.
“You okay?” she looked at me, concerned.
“Absolutely. I’m fine,” I lied, again, my voice squeaking out much higher than normal. I cleared my throat and tried again, more convincingly, in an effort to reassure both her and myself at the same time. “I couldn’t be better. It’s just allergies, I’m sure of it.”
“Hmm,” she frowned. “You’ve been having a lot of those in the last two days. Do you need to go to the doctor?”
I shook my head. There was no known cure for stupidity so far as I could tell, and falling for your very best and very straight friend was certainly stupid, if nothing else.
Falling for? Who said falling for? I’m doing no such thing. That would be a disaster.
She reached up a hand to my chin and turned my face so that she could look into my eyes, searching for signs that I might indeed be in need of more immediate care. Her delicate touch sent tingling sensations down my spine, and the warmth of her hand made my face hot where the two connected. It was her eyes, though, that were the end of me. She was looking at me intently, her eyes a mixture of concern and deep affection as they looked into mine. But it was more than just the way she was looking at me that was wreaking havoc on my heart – it was the way that her looking at me made me feel that left me sinking. It occurred to me in that moment that I wanted to kiss her. A lot. And way far beyond the fact that she had taken my breath away was the knowledge that I would have easily given her my last breath.
This is your Captain Speaking. Ladies and Gentleman, welcome aboard the Titanic. Please be sure to locate you life-preserver before we embark.
She released me then, but it was too late. I had already drowned. “Well then, I have been dying to tell you what happened this afternoon. You’ll never believe it,” she started, clearly worked up about something.
“Huh?” I asked, stunned and shaken. I was having difficulty following the conversation just then.
Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice. “Peter Harris, that jerk of a troll of a man had the audacity to ask me out. Can you believe it?” she demanded. “Of all the nerve. I couldn’t believe it even as he was saying it.” She was on a roll, calling him everything but his name, apparently oblivious to my now impossibly increasing distress.
For the third time in two days my entire nervous system revolted, and I feared that I might actually hyperventilate. Air in; air out. Repeat?
“And the worst part was that he had the gall to say that he thought it was your idea. Can you imagine? I told him it would be a cold day in hell before I’d believe that nonsense.” She looked mightily pissed at that moment, and I was grateful she was distracted enough by her own venting that she missed my eyes almost popping out of my head and falling right there onto the couch.
I wondered briefly if I was going to have to start keeping a list of all the white lies I had been telling in the last few days. Santa was not going to be happy.
“That jerk cheated on my friend Lisa back in law school and now he acts like I don’t know that? Not to even mention how not my type he is,” she shuddered. “Yuck.”
“But I thought you liked him,” I managed after getting my breathing back under control. “You have lunch with him once a week and you gave that great speech about him last summer at your Firm’s annual dinner party.” I had gone to the event under duress, only after she had begged me not to leave her alone with twenty other lawyers and ten pounds of cheese dip. Trust me, if you knew that many lawyers that would make sense to you.
She looked at me at that point as if I had grown an extra head. Which actually would have been helpful since my current aforementioned appendage was about to explode.
“It’s called professional politics, sweetie. I have lunch with him because he’s the leading ADA, and I have to work with him constantly. As for that speech - I know you live in your happy world of overgrown building blocks, but even you must have been forced to do the crappy work no one else wanted to at some point in your career,” she groused. “Someone had to do the speech, and I was nominated because we went to the same law school and because I was the newest attorney at the firm.”
“Oh.” I frowned for a moment before something else occurred to me. “Hey!” I objected. “No impugning architects.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I’m just out of sorts these days, and that schmuck didn’t make it any better.”
I reached a hand over and placed it on her thigh. “I’m sorry too.” You have no idea how much. Obviously I had known something was going on, hence her personal ad and my super-secret plan to find her a date. But instead of making it better I had made it worse. “I don’t remember you mentioning that Peter and Lisa had ever gone out, much less that he was such an ass.”
“Well, it was a long time ago. I didn’t really have any reason to mention it, I guess,” she shrugged. “Anyway, him asking me out was just...icing on the cake, I guess.” She sighed softly then.
I decided it was time that I risked a question. “Is everything okay with you?” I looked at her closely as I asked, trying to gage her answer.
She glanced away from me, and looked out the window as she contemplated the question. She shrugged her shoulders finally, not really confirming anything either way.
“You know that you can talk to me, right?” I asked. Even if I couldn’t do anything about her search for a man in her life – I had proven inept at that task pretty quickly, even without my conflicted interests in the effort – I could still be there for her in other ways. “You know that I will always be here for you, even if you can’t always tell me what’s going on,” I assured her.
She nodded, but I had the feeling like she wasn’t really convinced, which was just crazy after more than fifteen years of friendship.
“You’re my best friend, you goof.” I gave her a playful shove with my hand that had been resting on her thigh just a moment before.
She smiled a little half-smile finally, and glanced over at me, looking at me from beneath her golden eyelashes.
Ah, hell. Suck it up. She’s been your best friend for half your life. Having that is worth way more than the risk of a little heartbreak. Or even a lot of heartbreak.
I opened my arms and tilted my head, urging her to move closer. “Come on, Ginsburg, get over here and hug me. You know you want to,” I teased.
She laughed softly and then moved into my arms. We held each other for the longest time, each of us seeming to have left too many things unsaid. The feel of her there, in my arms and in my heart, was pretty damned wonderful, even if it was bittersweet. She was warm and soft and it seemed to me that in a perfect world she would belong right where she was at that moment. Oh well.
“Ginsburg? Really?” she finally teased, her breath against my neck, wreaking havoc on me.
“She was the only female Supreme Court Justice that I could think of,” I pouted. “It’s not easy living with a walking law dictionary, you know.”
She laughed again, and squeezed me even tighter. I squeezed back. I was glad to have my best friend with me, no matter what.
We ended up skipping the movie that night. She was convinced I shouldn’t go out in my condition, and frankly I couldn’t have agreed more. The thought of sitting next to her in a theater in the dark for two hours really would have been the death of me. Instead, we watched reruns of the newly remade Battlestar: Galactica series on Sci-Fi and ate way too much popcorn. I noted, not for the first time, that as kick-ass sexy as Starbuck was, she had nothing on Kelly.
I made no further efforts over the next two weeks to find Kelly a date, for a multitude of reasons, and neither of us mentioned the personal ad. For my part, I just tried really hard not to think about it, because it seemed to mean that she was looking to move on with her life with someone that was not me, and I hated to think about that. I wasn’t exactly sure what else was going on with her, and I tried to ask, but my gentle inquiries were brushed away with reassurances that nothing was wrong. I knew that wasn’t true, of course. You don’t have to be married to someone to know their tell-tale signs of sadness, and hers were out in force. Seeing her hurting was hurting me too, now more than ever, but neither of us seemed to know what to do.
Curiously, she was always home on time and never seemed to need to go anywhere. I couldn’t imagine that she didn’t have hundreds of guys answering her ad, so it stumped me that I hadn’t seen her go on a single date with anyone since I had found her ad. I still didn’t ask about it though – best friend etiquette definitely called for me to wait until she was ready to talk to me about it, or about whatever it was that was bothering her so much that she would deny that anything was wrong when it clearly was, and we both knew it.
When I couldn’t take the stillness anymore I called my brother and some of Kelly’s friends and invited them all over to dinner. Maybe an evening of friends and some social interaction would help. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Thankfully, Kelly seemed to warm to the idea, and before long we were planning out the dinner menu, and the activity seemed to bring some of her old smile back.
On the Saturday of the dinner party, two full weeks after our strange dinner together and my catching a clue about my feelings for her, we were up early preparing for the evening. Clearly, and by the grace of all that is holy (and not to mention in order to get anyone to attend), Kelly was in charge of the cooking and my main was role was to run around cleaning the always-immaculate house and to sooth Kelly’s nerves in between running to the store for anything and everything that we’d forgotten. I also greeted our friends and family as they arrived, taking their jackets and such as they invariably drifted towards the kitchen to where Kelly was. The woman was a magnet for people even without the delicious smells of food emanating from that part of the loft.
Ironically, the dinner party really was the best and the worst idea that I could have had. All of our friends came, as well as some family, specifically my brother and Kelly’s mother and younger sister Sara, and it was a spectacular success. In my interpretation, that meant that everyone ate too much, drank a little more wine than necessary, and were all still sitting around giggling themselves silly well after the decent hour to leave had passed.
For the most part, I spent the bulk of the evening playing co-host. I made sure everyone had drinks and did my best to make sure that everyone had a good time, especially Kelly. I also kept watch over her surreptitiously throughout the evening. I would glance over every once in a while to make sure she was okay. I told myself I was just looking out for my friend, but the truth was, I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was wearing her hair down for the evening, and her long blonde locks shown brightly against the sleeveless black dress that clung to her body. She looked mesmerizing, and I found myself unable to look away from her. Every once in a while I would find her looking over at me, and I would catch her eyes, and we would both smile. It never failed to make me feel a little weak, or to take my breath away. Not even once. I was left at odds with myself for the better part of the evening, deeply drawn to her and yet wanting to keep my distance at the same time, to protect what I now recognized was my very fragile heart when it came to my best friend.
My brother Jared had come, and I was happy to see him. We didn’t get a chance to see each other very often even though we lived in the same city, but I adored him and spent all the time I could with him when he wasn’t away on business. We had always been close, even after I had been sent away from home. He was always on my side, no matter what. I guess it was a twin thing.
He always knew what I was feeling, and tonight was no exception. Sometime well after midnight he cornered me in my office and closed the door.
“Hey Brother,” I smiled, looking up from my desk drawer. I had been rummaging around for Mrs. Ryan’s keys. She was ready to leave and had amusedly assured me that she and her younger daughter Sara were both sober and able to drive home. Unfortunately, enough of our guests were still there that I was having a hard time telling the keys apart.
Jared smiled back. “Hey there, Sis. How are you?”
“Good. Just playing Key Master at the moment. You?”
Instead of answering, he looked at me closely for a few more minutes, as if thinking, and then asked me again. “How are you, really?”
I sighed. There was no point in pretending otherwise with Jared. It was impossible. We were so alike in so many ways that sometimes it was like we were the same person. It struck me then, for the second time, that maybe, just maybe, there was a solution in that. Hell, maybe the last man on my list really was the answer.
I pulled out my desk chair and sat down, giving up on finding the keys for the moment. Jared seated himself on the couch nearby, waiting patiently for me to begin.
I chewed on my lip for a few moments, trying to figure out what to say. “What do you think about Kelly?” I finally asked.
His eyebrows rose. For a moment, I think I actually surprised him. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“About dating her,” I elaborated. “What do you think about dating her?” I asked quietly. This was about to be the strangest conversation that we had ever had, and I was unsure what I wanted the outcome to be.
“Who? You?” he asked, clearly confused.
“No,” I answered impatiently. “Not me. You. What do you think about you dating Kelly?” My throat was getting dry, and it was hard to speak.
“Why would I do that?” he asked, giving me the strangest look I had ever seen on him.
“Because she’s Kelly for crying out loud,” I retorted. “She’s the hottest, smartest, nicest woman on the entire planet.” Why was he being so dense? “And I know that you’ve noticed it, dear brother, so don’t give me that ‘who me’ look.” It was so obvious that I could have kicked him.
“Wait a second,” Jared stopped me, putting his hands up in the air to emphasize his plea. “I adore Kelly, you know that. But she’s like a sister to me,” he said, looking at me as if I had lost my mind. “That’s all. And now before this conversation goes any further, dear sister, why don’t you back up to the beginning and tell me exactly what’s going on in that twisted brain of yours before one of us,” he glared at me, clearly indicating which one he thought it was, “says anything even more ridiculous than they already have and that they might regret later. Let’s try to avoid any madness, okay?”
I grumbled. I was exhausted and hardly in the mood to drag this out. “Okay Jared, the short version of it is this: Kelly is apparently unhappy. I guess she needs – you know –.” I was almost too uncomfortable to say it, “someone in her life besides her gay best friend to hang out with. She needs someone she can - you know - date. And like, get married and – hell, I don’t know, have babies or something – and I think that – well, you know – maybe you...” I looked at him significantly as my words trailed off. I was frustrated and upset, and really hoped to not have to actually spell it out. This was already feeling like a twisted version of hell.
“Okay, first of all, assuming for argument’s sake that you haven’t lost your mind completely,” he glared at me, “and that she wouldn’t be royally pissed off to know what you’re up to, I still don’t understand why exactly you’re asking me, of all people, about this.” He frowned, scowling at me.
“Because you fit the ad,” I answered softly, feeling miserable and defeated.
“The what?” he asked.
“The ad,” I repeated. “Kelly placed a personal ad in the paper, and you fit the ad,” I explained. “Actually, you’re the only guy I know that does. And she likes you. And, well, I trust you.” I shrugged.
“Let me see this so-called ad,” he said dubiously, shaking his head and giving me a look like I was either an idiot or had lost a screw, but that either way my older-by-two-minutes brother would be here to save the day.
I turned my chair around towards my desk and popped open my laptop, then pulled up the newspaper’s website. I ran a search for the ad and, upon locating it, rolled my chair to the side and showed Jared the results. “That’s it. That’s the ad,” I replied, pointing to it.
He got up off the couch and came over to stand beside me. He took a minute to read it, and then played with my laptop for a few minutes more before he turned and faced me, half-sitting and half-leaning on my desktop. For once, I couldn’t read the expression on his face.
“Before you say anything, let me ask you one thing,” he requested.
“What?” I asked. My stomach was tied into a thousand knots, and I felt sick.
“How do you know it’s her ad?”
Now we were getting somewhere. “I found the paper lying on the dining room table. She had specifically circled the ad - in red. And since she clearly doesn’t match the person being sought, but matches the person doing the seeking, it only makes sense that it’s her ad,” I replied. “Not to mention that - well, frankly she has seemed so out of sorts lately, especially since the ad came out, that it makes sense that it would be hers. She’s obviously looking for someone special to fulfill her life. And you,” I poked my brother in the arm, “match the description. And then some, I might add.” You lucky bastard.
He furrowed his brow at me. “And have you asked Kelly what’s going on, or maybe even – oh, I don’t know - how she feels about this set-up, Tarzan?” he asked, rather sarcastically.
I briefly responded to him with one finger, as only a sibling can, and then told him, “I’ve tried. But she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering her, and since she never told me about the ad, I’m guessing she doesn’t want me to know about it. So I thought that maybe… well, you know. I could help without her knowing,” I managed. This was hurting more than I had thought it would. “I just want her to be happy, Jared. And right now she’s not, and I don’t know what else to do.”
He stared at me for a moment. Then he opened his mouth as if to say something to me, but then closed it without a sound. Then he did it again. Then he reached over and smacked me upside the back of my head, hard, shocking the hell out of me.
“Ow! What was that for?” I demanded, rubbing my now-aching head. I hadn’t had anyone do that to me since he had done it last when we were fifteen.
“That was for being an idiot,” he announced. He pulled me, still in my chair, back over in front of my desk, then turned me towards my laptop and pointed at the screen. “Did you really take the time to look at this paper?” he asked impatiently.
“Well, not the paper itself,” I hedged, not sure where he was going. “But the ad is pretty much to the point, so what can I be missing?” I asked, looking at the same ad I had seen in the paper right there in front of me.
“I swear to heaven that I’m calling Stanford tomorrow to demand that they take your degree back. In the meantime, try looking at the top of the page.” He pointed at it again, clearly exasperated with me.
I leaned in closer to the screen and read the entire page. Then I blinked. Twice. For once, I was speechless.
My brother leaned down next to my ear as I continued to stare at the monitor, and said, very softly, in his kindest voice, “Has it ever occurred to you, little sister, that maybe it’s you that matches that description?”
Right there, at the top of the page, was the banner in plain sight: Women Seeking Women.
He continued, gently, “I’m a man, A.J., so I’m not going to pretend that I understand the inner-workings of the lesbian mind. But I do know what love looks like.” He stepped back then and turned my chair so that I was facing him. “I don’t know if this is her ad hon – only she knows that for sure. But frankly, it really doesn’t matter.” He looked me in the eyes to make sure he had my full attention. Deep, ocean-blue eyes, exactly like mine, stared back at me. “Because I’ve seen the way she looks at you. Have you?” he asked gently.
I was too stunned to speak. I just sat there, staring at him. He reached around me and pulled his keys out of the drawer. Then he leaned down and kissed me on the top of my head. “Talk to her,” he whispered, and then he walked out the door.
I don’t know how long I sat there before a knock at my office door pulled me out of my stupor. I quickly flipped down my laptop screen to cover it from view. “Yes?” I called out.
The door opened part-way, and Kelly leaned her head in. “There you are. Did you find my mother’s keys?” she asked.
“Oh. Right.” I scrambled to put my brain back into my head, and pulled the remaining two key sets from my desk. I brought them to her, and handed them over, careful not to look into her eyes. I had zero defenses at that moment, and couldn’t have hidden my feelings from a deaf mute three thousand miles away, let alone the beautiful and quite capable woman that stood there in front of me.
She took the keys in one hand, then reached out and touched my arm with the other. “Are you okay?” she asked gently. “I saw your brother off a little bit ago, and he had the strangest look I have ever seen on him when he said good bye to me. Is everything alright with you two?”
I nodded my head briefly. “Yes,” I whispered. “Everything is fine. Really good, actually,” I managed, rubbing the still-sore spot on the back of my head with my free hand. A good swat to the back of the head was apparently even better than a good kick in the ass for clearing one’s vision. I had a lot to be thankful to my brother for, but this one was the biggest. Now I just had to figure out if he was right – and more importantly, if he was, what in the hell I was going to do about it.
Sunday morning found me out on the balcony in my jammies with a cup of coffee watching the sunrise. I hadn’t slept well, again, but for completely different reasons. One part of me was deliriously happy at the prospect that maybe my brother was right, and Kelly had feelings for me as well. The other part of me was worried that he was wrong, and she didn’t. That part was easier to believe, to be honest, since Kelly had never expressed any lesbian or bisexual inclinations that I was aware of, and I had known her for years.
All of me was terrified no matter what part was right. I knew I could lose her friendship no matter what I did or didn’t do at that point, and that scared me deeply.
The irony was that the two people in the world I would normally talk to about things like that were the last two people I could talk to about it then: my best friend, or her mother.
I chuckled to myself, and envisioned having that conversation with Mrs. Ryan. I could easily imagine her grabbing me by the ear, as she had many, many times in the past when I had done something she did not approve of, and dragging me into her back room office at the shop to give me a lecture.
Only this time I doubted she would give me a hug and chocolate kisses when it was over. More likely than not she would not be happy. Not because she disapproved of me, per se. I knew that. More because she would know as well as I did how foolish it was of me to have done something like fall for someone that I likely could never have – or that, if by some miracle I could, to fall for someone with whom a relationship would bring so much risk. If things didn’t work out between Kelly and me, a lot more people would be affected by it than just the two of us. That alone was reason enough not to risk it.
Somehow, though, my foolish heart was unwilling to be convinced of this logic, and kept holding out for some kind of salvation from the obvious course.
“My mother would like to speak with you, sweetie,” a voice proclaimed from the doorway. The noise and the words both scared me half to death and nearly caused me to throw my coffee cup over the ledge onto some poor unsuspecting pedestrian. As it was, I ended up wearing most of it.
“Shit,” I dropped the cup down on the table then grabbed a napkin and started blotting up the hot coffee that was quickly burning me through my pj’s.
“Oh, sorry,” Kelly yelped, then quickly came over to help. She tried to help wipe the coffee off of me, but I jumped every time she touched me, nearly coming out of my own skin. Her touch completely frazzled me. I was shaken up from the feel of her hands on me, and realized quickly that I was trembling so much it was just making everything worse. Overwhelming fear and desire at the same time will do that to you.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I sputtered, then raced into the house as if I were being chased by the spawn of Callisto. I headed immediately for my room, not even stopping on my way through it to my bathroom, throwing my clothes off as I went. I jumped into the shower and turned the cold water on high so quickly that I left the shower door open.
Between my nerves and my burnt skin I was not prepared for the icy water, no matter how much I had braced myself for it. I shrieked at the shock. Loudly.
That managed to bring Kelly hurrying into my room to see if I was alright and, not finding me, she continued forward right into my bathroom.
I turned at the sound of someone coming into the room, and found myself face to face with Kelly. The last thing I remember was thinking, “Holy shit, I’m naked.”
Everything after that was a blur, as I had apparently passed out.
There was an annoyingly bright light in my right eye, but by some trick I couldn’t close my eye to block it out. I tried unsuccessfully to bat it away, and was greeted by a strange male voice.
“Well, it looks like she’s coming around,” it said. The same cruel light was now forced into my left eye, and I tried my best to focus so that I could smack whoever it was that was tormenting me, but it was to no avail. Apparently I was incapable of coordinating my brain and my limbs at the same time.
“I think she’s going to be fine, ma’am,” the disembodied voice said. “It appears she just has a mild concussion. Where did you say she fell at?”
Blurbs of memories were instantly blazing back into my brain at a speed that only humiliation can reach, and even though I couldn’t quite make sense of them yet, I knew it was bad. Really bad. Oh no. I blinked my eyes, and tried to focus them. I caught a voice that I recognized as Kelly’s talking quietly. “Are you sure? She’s not been well for a few days now. She’s been coughing and wheezing a lot. And I think she had a fever the other night. Could there be something else going on?”
Only stupidity, I’m afraid.
The image of the doctor and Kelly both came into view now. I was clearly in a hospital, and the unknown male in the lab coat, a balding troll in his fifties or so, was apparently my tormentor.
“It’s probably just a cold,” the doctor replied, sounding bored. “I didn’t hear anything in her lungs when we checked for water, and she doesn’t seem to have a fever at the moment. But make sure you discuss the other issues with her family doctor at the follow up appointment, okay?”
I heard Kelly agree, then the door closed behind Dr. Evil and Kelly was standing next to me, peering down at me with concerned eyes. Beautiful, amazing, mesmerizing green greeted me, and for a second I wondered if that was how Siren’s lured people into the sea. Forget the singing, they just needed to look at a person with eyes like these and people would be leaping into the ocean. I knew I would.
She reached out and touched my cheek softly with one hand. My face warmed under her touch, and I felt my heart rate pick up again. It was amazing what a simple human touch could do – especially this human. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “You took quite a fall there, Sport,” she teased.
“I’m okay,” I chuckled. “Embarrassed, but other than that, fine,” I assured her. “I’m sorry if I worried you.” I felt a little guilty at that point too. “You didn’t need to come all the way down here with me,” I apologized, not sure exactly where “here” was, but sure that it was going to be a distant memory as soon as I could find my clothes. I hated hospitals.
She frowned at me then, and for a second I thought she was going to smack me upside my head just like Jared had. What was up with all the head-slapping lately, anyway?
“I’m going to ignore that last part, because I know you’re not a well person right now. But I assure you, if you ever say something like that to me again, I will throttle you.” She glared at me briefly, then just as quickly her expression changed again, to worry and something else that I couldn’t quite figure out.
She leaned down and hugged me, at least as much as was possible in my position. She smelled like wild flowers and honey. Suddenly – and very strangely, I might add - I was reminded of her mother, and that Kelly had been trying to tell me something that involved Mrs. Ryan before this fiasco had occurred. But I couldn’t remember just then...
“Let’s go home,” she interrupted my musings, and I didn’t put up a fuss. I was thrilled to get out of Dodge.
I sat up and pulled the blanket off of me, determined to get out of there before they found a reason for me to stay. Then it hit me. I looked down and realized that what little I was wearing was not what I had put on when I had gotten dressed that morning.
“Oh shit. You saw me naked.” I sputtered before I realized my internal voice was apparently not working at that moment. See what a head injury will do to you? Oh, jeez!
Kelly must have either heard me or seen my steadily reddening face, because she started laughing at me. “Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ve seen you naked before, remember?” she teased. “I’m the one that caught you skinny-dipping with Cindy Kellerman – also known as the future Honorable Mrs. Cynthia Kellerman-Ross, Springfield Municipal Court Judge - at the end of the summer before we closed the camp our sophomore year.”
“Oh my god,” I covered my face with both hands. Could this day get any worse? “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
She continued to chuckle at me while she handed me her jacket to at least partly cover the bare t-shirt and pajama bottoms that were the only things I had on other than my socks. “Yes, well, try remembering that and having to keep a straight face while you’re arguing in her court room one day. That will really throw you for a loop,” she snickered.
I groaned on several levels as I pulled the jacket on and gently hopped down from the narrow hospital cart they jokingly called a bed. The floor was cold beneath my shoeless feet, but I figured they would heat up by the time I got out of the air conditioned hospital and was out in the sun. I really needed to go back home and get back into bed and try to start the entire day over again.
The good news was that Kelly didn’t seem at all affected by my previous nakedness, which I suppose was both a good and bad thing.
Lest I should get off that easily, however, the laughing hyenas of fate struck as Kelly walked me to her car. “By the way,” she whispered in my ear. “You look way sexier in your birthday suit now than you back did then.”
I think I actually whimpered then. Surprisingly though, I didn’t drop dead on the spot, which was helpful since I doubt Kelly could have carted me to the morgue. Apparently by that time I was getting used to my now-daily routine of embarrassment. Perhaps another few years and I would learn to stop blushing altogether…
I spent the rest of the day Sunday lounging around the house, wanting nothing more than a nap. I wasn’t allowed to sleep for more than an hour at a time for the next twenty-four hours though. Ironically enough, after my fit of insomnia I was finally so tired that I could have actually slept through the whole night if anyone had let me, but now no one would.
I couldn’t complain too much though. Kelly hovered over me like a blonde Florence Nightengale, and I don’t think Hades himself could have managed to remain grumpy with her constant attentions.
Kelly did finally remind me that her mother had called that morning and said she had something she’d wanted to talk to me about, which was what she had been trying to tell me when I had decided to shot-put my coffee all over myself that morning, the catalyst for my very bizarre day. It was probably about that card shark, Delores, I reasoned. I promised to call her mother back, but it slipped my mind along with everything else when Kelly advised me that my brother was coming over for the evening so that he could keep an eye on me while she took a nap, ensuring that she would be able to sit up with me that night.
“Jared’s coming?” I squeaked. Damn, that was going to be weird after our last conversation.
“Uh-hmm,” Kelly mumbled from where she sat on the opposite couch, chewing on the pencil sticking out of her mouth as she concentrated on the Sunday crossword puzzle.
“You talked to him today?” I asked nervously. My brother was loyal beyond reproach, but nothing stood in his way when he thought he needed to help me - even me, strangely enough.
She looked over at me then, a strange look in her eyes. “Yes, why?” she asked. She had clearly heard my tone, and seemed a bit confused by it.
“Oh, nothing,” I shrugged ever-so-casually. “Just wondered what he was up to, you know.”
“You just saw him last night sweetie, what could he be up to that is any different than it was just over twelve hours ago? Or did you forget that when you knocked yourself out?” she narrowed her eyes at me, clearly trying to figure me out.
Suddenly I realized what it must feel like to be grilled by her on a witness stand. Luckily for me, I was saved by the bell. The door bell, that is.
Jared practically leapt through the doorway when Kelly answered. I could see a little gleam in his eye from clear across the room and I knew I was in trouble.
“You’re here early,” Kelly said, surprised.
Jared jaunted down the two steps into the sunken living room and plopped down next to me with a huge smirk-filled sigh. “Oh, you know, I just thought I should get over here and check on my baby sister and her roommie,” he smiled, the devil in his expression. He tossed his arm around the back of the couch to briefly give me a squeeze before retreating back to safer territory. He was at least a smart demon.
We both knew I was sorely tempted to slug him, but I resisted only because it would have made Kelly suspicious. For her part, Kelly was already looking back and forth between Jared and me as if she knew something was up, but couldn’t quite get a handle on it yet.
“Alright, you two,” she pointed between the two of us. “I’m not going to ask. But whatever it is, just don’t kill each other before I get back.”
“You’re going somewhere?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Well, since Jared is here early, I think I’m going to take advantage of the extra time to run a couple of errands. I’ll nap when I get back, and then you” – she pointed only at me now – “are going to bed,” she announced, then shook her head and headed upstairs to get something.
I took the opportunity then to fulfill at least one of my recent impulses and slugged my brother, who was conveniently parked right next to my elbow.
He grabbed his side, then coughed and laughed at the same time, making him snort gracelessly. “That’s what you get for whatever it is you’re thinking about doing,” I informed him.
He was unfazed. “I’m not thinking about doing anything, dear sister,” he gleefully advised me. “You, however, need to get on the ball. So what’s your plan?”
I sighed loudly. “I don’t have a plan. There is no plan. In fact, I am not even sure there should be a plan,” I told him.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure there should be a plan?” he demanded.
“Exactly what I said: no plan,” I whispered, trying to keep Kelly from overhearing.
He paused for a moment, and looked at me, concerned. “You’ve got to talk her, you know that, right?” he asked gently.
“No, I don’t know that,” I insisted. “I don’t know that at all.”
He patted my arm and nodded towards the stairway to hold back any further comments on my part, and we both paused for a moment as Kelly came down the stairs. She was dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a white dress shirt, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She smiled at both of us as she headed for the door, and I’m pretty sure Jared and I both had a sappy grin on our faces in return, albeit for different reasons. “Have fun, you two. I won’t be long. Call me if you need anything.” She waved good bye and was gone.
We looked at each other for a moment, and then we both relaxed and propped our feet up on the coffee table and sighed at the same time. It was a few minutes before either of us spoke.
“You have to talk to her,” he began.
“I can’t,” I pleaded.
“You have to,” he insisted.
“What if you’re wrong?” I asked fearfully. “I could lose everything.”
“What if I’m right?” he offered gently. “Could you afford to lose that?”
“I’m terrified,” I whispered.
“I know,” he whispered back. “But you can’t live your entire life in fear that people will leave you like our parents did.”
There wasn’t much to say to that. He was right. We both knew it. He reached over and squeezed my hand.
Suddenly it was fourteen years ago, and we were at the county court house, and the judge was asking my parents for the hundredth time if they were absolutely sure that they wanted to give me up, and turn my custody over to the state’s children’s services. Yes, they insisted. It was for the best. I was incorrigible. The judge shook his head, slammed his gavel down, and called it a day. Jared had squeezed my hand then, and I heard him crying when they took me away. I couldn’t look back. I didn’t see him again for five years, until after I had gone to college and later returned to Chicago.
I hadn’t realized I had been crying until he handed me the Kleenex. I took a handful and wiped my eyes, then blew my nose.
“I won’t leave you Allison,” he murmured, using my full name. That was just low.
I responded by hitting him with the Kleenex box. I’d had all of the drama I could handle for one day and then some.
“I love you too,” he smirked, laughing at me.
“Good,” I grumbled. “Now that we’re gotten that settled, go get us some of that disgusting beer you like so much.” I nudged him, “I have the entire next season of BBC’s Torchwood on disc from my friend Patty in England, and I intend to watch all of it. I hate the fact that they’re always one season ahead of us.”
Jared and I were in pretty much the same position when Kelly came home and again when she woke up from her nap later that evening. We’d watched Captain Jack kiss no less than three males – human and otherwise - so far in the new season, all the while wondering if the writers were leading up to developing something between Jack and the main female protagonist. We were split fifty-fifty on the outcome.
Kelly shuffled down the staircase in pajama pants and a matching shirt, no doubt in deference to my brother. I was aware that she normally slept in much less, much to my recent consternation.
“Have a good time, children?” she teased, walking past us to the kitchen and straight for the coffeemaker. Coffee was required for all wake-ups, not just those that occurred during the morning hours.
I sighed, then clicked off the dvd player as Jared stood up and stretched, clearly ready to head home for the night. “Alright sister, it’s time to leave you in the care of your night nurse,” he smirked gleefully, knowing I couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
I glared at him anyway, and hoped my pointed look conveyed the heights of torment that I planned to inflict on him very soon. “You like living dangerously, don’t you?”
He chuckled evilly, and then headed over to the kitchen to say good bye to Kelly. They chatted quietly for a moment while I boxed up the discs and shut off the television. Then she was walking him to the door.
“What, no hug?” he looked over at me with feigned innocence. He was such a shit sometimes.
I walked over and met the two of them at the door and gave him a bear hug, just barely resisting the impulse to knee him below the belt. The grin he threw at me let me know that he was well aware of my thoughts as he released me and turned to Kelly.
“Goodnight, Kel,” he smiled, receiving a hug from her as well. She bade him good night and then headed back towards the kitchen and coffee nirvana, leaving us alone.
Jared gave me one last meaningful look, then simply patted me on the cheek and said “Good luck, little sister,” and walked out of the door.
Easy for him to say, I mentally muttered to myself.
I stood there and stared at the door for a few more minutes, as if willing for some miracle to burst into the loft and save me from myself and what I knew I needed to do. When no such lucky apparition appeared, I sighed and contemplated my options, which ranged from frightening to terrifying. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to make these decisions, I hedged. Maybe I needed more time to think this through. Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly from exhaustion and my head-first dive onto my shower floor.
“A.J.?” I heard again.
I squeaked and jumped half off the floor when a hand landed on my shoulder. Then I finally noticed I wasn’t alone in the foyer any longer. Kelly stood there next to me, looking at me worriedly. “Are you okay? You’ve been standing here staring at the door since your brother left. Is something wrong?”
“Oh, hey,” I laughed shrilly. Clearly, I was coming unhinged. There were way too many voices around me arguing for my attention at that moment, confirming once again that I really needed to lie down before things got any worse. “Everything’s fine,” I insisted.
She looked at me dubiously, and then reached up to press a hand to my forehead. She frowned. “Well, you don’t have a fever, that’s good at least.”
I shrugged and nodded vaguely several times. I felt like a bobble-head.
“You ready for bed?” she asked.
My brain seized up for a moment at her words, but then I took a deep breath and got my errant nervous system under control. I could act like a reasonable adult - I was just sure of it - even if at that point I suspected madness was just right around the bend. I definitely needed to just go to sleep.
I nodded once again, and we silently turned out the lights in the living room and headed up the stairs. Not surprisingly, Kelly tucked me in. It felt a little strange watching her fluff my pillow and then cover me up after I dutifully crawled into bed, but then it occurred to me that I had seen her mother do this with her a million times when we were kids. Kelly had clearly inherited her mother’s nurturing tendencies.
I looked up at her. “Kelly?” I asked softly.
She looked down at me, smiling. “What? Need a bedtime story?” she teased.
I laughed. “No, thank you though.”
“Then what can I do for you?” she asked gently.
Normally, that would have been a loaded question in my book, but at that point I was way beyond exhausted, my brain did not seem to be working properly, and even my usual silly humor was dutifully subdued. On top of that, I was feeling unbelievably emotional and couldn’t seem to shake the unexpected desire to crawl right into Kelly’s warm arms and stay there.
I had intended to thank her for all that she had done for me that day, but the words that came out were definitely not the words I had formed in my head. “Love me,” I blurted out suddenly, surprising myself as much as I surprised her.
Oh my god. My stomach dropped as far down as it could go despite my being horizontal, and I broke out into a cold sweat, my heart pounding furiously as my words sank in.
She stared at me for a moment, clearly caught off balance. I stared right back, just as thrown by what I had said as she was. I stopped breathing right there and then, all of my air trapped in my chest. Everything in my life tilted sideways, balancing on a razor’s edge while I waited for her to say something. Anything.
She laughed then, suddenly, and slapped me lightly on the arm. “How is it you can knock yourself unconscious and still fail to be serious for more than five seconds?”
My breath came out in a whoosh then, and I stuttered, “No, Kelly, really.”
But she was having none of my protestations, and ignored me, tucking my blanket under my chin.
“I love you, Kelly,” I tried again. But it was too late. She just giggled, and I could tell that she would not be taking me seriously anytime soon, thanks to my unbelievable lack of finesse.
Jeez, how can I be a disaster at this too? I demanded of the mocking fates.
Kelly leaned over me then and kissed me gently on my forehead. The touch of her lips left me even more speechless and senseless, if that were possible, but she seemed completely oblivious to my distress.
“I love you too, A.J.,” she whispered before heading back to her room to set her alarm clock to go off in an hour for my check-up.
I sighed in aggravation. Love would be the death of me, I could just tell.
The rest of the night passed in a blur, mostly because I had been more exhausted than even I had realized, and I slept soundly for the first time in days – well, with the exception of my hourly greeting by two green eyes peering down at me and asking me bizarre questions to make sure I was coherent and prove that my brain had not slipped out of my head in my bathroom fall - which of course Jared had ever so helpfully dubbed my “swooning incident.” I probably don’t have to tell you what I had dubbed him. Or what the sight of those beautiful green eyes had done for my dreams in my brain-addled state. It was a good thing I didn’t talk in my sleep, or I’d have probably woken up with a restraining order.
All in all, it was probably the best night of sleep I had had in years, and I had no doubt that it had everything to do with knowing that Kelly was so close nearby.
Oh well, so be it.
When I finally woke up to the new day, I found that I was clear as a bell and unbelievably calm and rested. Kelly was sleeping beside me on my bed, with one arm flung around my waist. I looked down and realized that I was clutching onto that arm with both of my hands. A feeling of peace enveloped me. I was still nervous, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew what I needed to do, no matter what the outcome of it was.
I looked over at my best friend’s sleeping form. A few blonde strands were the only other signs of her presence besides her arm resting comfortably around me. The rest of her was buried under a pile of pillows and blankets. I couldn’t help but smile. It was adorable. Now that was my kind of attorney, I chuckled to myself.
A sound came from the other side of the bed, from somewhere deep within the recesses of the covers.
“What?” I asked, perplexed.
A pillow was flung in my general direction, barely missing my head, then a muffled voice huffed at me, “I said, whatever you are planning, Darth Vader, just don’t.”
I chuckled outright then. She had my number as easily as her mother had it.
“Want some coffee, Shorty?” I taunted. Somehow I just couldn’t help myself.
Suddenly there was more than a pillow being heaved in my direction. A short blonde was tackling me and nearly drove me over the side of the bed. I screamed in surprise, then howled in laughter as she started hitting me with an errant pillow.
I didn’t stand a chance against her, and we both knew it. I was taller and stronger, but she was feisty as hell, and easily outmaneuvered me.
Her laughter slowed her down enough that I finally managed to catch my breath in between attacks and managed to stick one arm out to block the oncoming pillow barrage while the other grabbed her shirt front and yanked her down on top of me. I threw my arms around her then and pinned her against me in a bear hug, clamping her arms tightly against my sides. I held on while she tried unsuccessfully to squirm away. When she finally realized she couldn’t get her arms free enough to get away or to lob her pillows at me, she did the next best thing – she started tickling me.
I shrieked then. Tickling was my most serious weakness, and she knew that. I released my hold on her immediately, and threw my hands up in surrender. “I give! I give!” I shouted through my laughter. “Uncle!” I cried finally, shouting out the universal sign of defeat. She continued to laugh at me, but finally had pity on me and stopped her merciless tormenting.
She had used my own weaknesses against me to win. Sexy and smart. Oh yeah. It was so not fair.
She sat up and was straddling my hips, her knees resting on each side of me, balancing her weight. We were both still laughing. I dropped my hands down onto her knees and watched as she tried to push her hair out of her eyes and into some semblance of order. She paused her efforts long enough to swat at me for good measure, and chuckled breathlessly. The sunlight streaming in through the window made her blonde hair glow. She was as out of breath as I was, flushed from the physical exertion of our romp, and suddenly I found myself staring at her, my laughter slowly fading to silence. She was beautiful, that was obvious. But it was more than that. There was something else; something in her eyes. I could see it, but I didn’t know what it was. I felt suddenly like maybe this was where we were always meant to be. Here, together.
She realized I was watching her, and her movements to straighten her hair slowed to a stop. She lowered her hands and rested them on my stomach. She watched me watching her, and for a moment neither of us said a word. The only sound was our breathing and irregular heartbeats, and as we looked at each other, so close together, I opened my eyes to her. I mean I really opened my eyes to her.
I stopped seeing what I expected to see in her eyes, and started looking for what was really there. It was terrifying and thrilling at the same time, but I couldn’t stop. I was mesmerized. Her eyes shifted between shades of green, and there were very tiny bits of blue in there as well. It’s amazing how many tiny flecks of color make up our eyes, and how every emotion in our hearts can be found there.
Her eyes shifted from light green, the color of her laughter, to deep green, the color of her love. It was breathtakingly warm. She quietly watched me watching her, a tumble of emotions flickering across her face all at once. Then her eyes shifted again, the tiniest flecks of blue weaving their way into the spectrum, blending to become that amazing balance between sea green and ocean blue. It was the color of her…desire. That was it; desire. How had I missed that before?
The connection between my mind and my heart clicked into place, and suddenly it occurred to me that she was looking at me with those eyes. My heart skipped painfully, and for a brief moment, we both froze. I could actually see in her eyes the moment when she realized that I saw her desire for me. And I wasn’t sure, but I suspected that she could see mine for her as well. Suddenly all of the air went out of the room, and we were hung in the balance, dangling precariously between love and fear, the outcome of this weighing far from certain.
We both moved at the same moment, but not in the same proverbial direction. I reached for her, and she reached for safety, jumping off of me and out of the bed faster than a comet and racing for the door.
I jumped out of the bed after her, and was down the hallway in a shot, standing in front of her now-closed bedroom door.
I hesitated a moment, taking a deep breath, and then I knocked gently on the door. “Kelly,” I called to her softly.
She didn’t answer.
“Kelly,” I repeated.
“Kelly, please,” I gently pleaded. I was trembling now, shaking from fear and uncertainty about the thing I most needed to be certain of in this world: Her.
I leaned my head against the door then, the heart of me crumbling more with every moment that passed with doors and walls between us.
I stayed there, waiting for her, for I don’t know how long before I heard her strained voice reach out to me.
“A.J.,” she whispered. She was right on the other side of the door.
“I’m here,” I said hoarsely, my throat tight. There were water marks on my shirt. I hadn’t realized I’d been crying. I wiped the tears from my face and cleared my throat, standing up straight and waiting, hoping.
“I know we need to talk about this, I do,” she offered. “But I’m not ready yet.”
“Um…okay,” I replied, not sure what else to say. “I can understand that.” I nodded then, knowing that she couldn’t see me, but unable to stop. “Right. Absolutely.”
“Can you give me a little time?” she whispered again, her voice sounding as strained as mine was.
“Uh, yeah, of course,” I was nodding my head still, for all the good it did me, my previous connection between my brain and my heart obviously completely obliterated at that moment. “Whatever you need, okay?” I assured her.
“Thank you,” she answered.
I wanted to ask her how long that would be, but I knew that that would defeat the entire purpose of her asking for more time.
I stood there, at odds with myself, and completely at a loss as to what to do next. Finally, I went back to my own room when it occurred to me that hovering in front of her door was not likely going to be of any help to either of us.
I showered and dressed, taking my time. I had already taken the day off from work due to my swan dive the day before, so I had nothing to do with myself. I paced around my room for a while, then went downstairs and paced around the office for a while more. It didn’t help.
Finally, I grabbed a light jacket and walked to the park nearby. It was only a half mile or so from the loft, and it was a warm Spring day. I sat down on a bench in the park and soaked up the sunlight. Even that couldn’t soothe me though. I was restless and anxious, and unable to focus on anything other than my rapidly disintegrating world.
This was turning into exactly what I had feared the most. I felt like I was no more than two heartbeats away from losing everything at any given moment, and it didn’t seem like there was anything that I could do about it. I was never more frightened in my entire life than I was right then.
Three hours later found me in exactly the same spot. Literally. For the first two hours I was humming with emotions, but unable to figure out what to do with them. I would get up from the bench every few minutes, then realize that I didn’t know where I was going, and just sit back down. To anyone watching I must have looked like I was a crazed jack-in-the-box.
For the last hour I just sat there, completely drained, physically and emotionally. I was sick to my stomach from crying, but it didn’t seem like there would be an end to it any time soon. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever - I had to go home and face whatever it was she was going to tell me. But I hesitated, wanting to put it off as long as possible; to delay what, based on her response so far, seemed pretty clearly to be things I would not want to hear.
Worse, I knew too that our friendship would never be the same, and there was nothing I could say or do to change that now.
Obviously, whether Jared had been wrong or right didn’t matter. I could see in her eyes that Kelly had wanted me – even I wasn’t that dense - but wanting someone and being willing – or even able - to change your entire way of life to be with them was not the same thing. It was not that simple, no matter how much you might want it to be. The problem was, I wanted it to be.
My heart ached, deeply, and I started to feel like all of my will had seeped out of me. If this broke our friendship, I had no idea how I was going to make it without Kelly in my life.
Part of me just wanted to lay down right there on the bench and refuse to get up again, but I knew that wouldn’t help. Finally, around dusk I dragged myself up from the bench and headed home to whatever awaited me.
Unfortunately, what awaited me was worse than I had imagined. The fear of Kelly leaving had weighed heavily on my mind, but not quite this way. I had at least figured that we would have talked about things first, but instead I returned to find that she was simply gone. I was stunned. Kelly was not normally the kind of person who ran away from anything, so I found it hard to comprehend when I returned to the loft that the silence was all that was there to greet me.
A note on the table next to the door simply read: I’ve gone to Sara’s. I’m sorry. K
The door to Kelly’s room was open, so I walked in. She had apparently packed an overnight bag, and little to nothing else. I wasn’t sure if that meant that she’d be coming back or not, or even when that might be if she did. Either way, it was much too painful for me to bear, so I simply turned and walked away.
I probably should have called my brother, or even one of my other friends. But frankly, I couldn’t even imagine how I would have found the words to explain what had happened. So I just didn’t.
Instead, I did nothing.
The next day, Tuesday, forced me out of bed and off to work, but the change in geography had no effect on my breaking heart and listless soul. Toby knew immediately that something was wrong, but he took one look at me and wisely left me alone.
I didn’t snap, or get angry, or even shed one more tear. Other than the movement required to get from one point to another each day, not a single thing occurred in my life for the next three days. It was almost as if time had simply stopped – or I had just decided not to acknowledge that it existed at all. I knew the phone rang, and I knew the mail came, and I even knew that someone came to my door every single day. But I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to talk about it, and I certainly didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t bother to answer the door because I knew it wasn’t Kelly. No one needed to tell me who they were; I already knew who they weren’t, and that was all that mattered to me then.
I think that things might have gone on that way indefinitely if I’d been left to my own devices. Unfortunately - or fortunately, strangely enough - Kelly and I weren’t the only ones hurting.
On Friday evening as I approached home after another useless day at work, a very harried-looking Eric, of all people, popped out at me from the entrance way to my building. He was agitated, and nearly bowled me over in his haste to greet me.
“Oh my god, thank the heaven’s I’ve found you!” he grabbed me by the arm. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to reach you?!”
I couldn’t imagine why Mrs. Ryan’s assistant would be trying to reach me. Something in his tone scared me though, and for a moment I crawled out of my haze to focus on something other than my own misery. Had something happened to Kelly? “What’s wrong?” I demanded. “Is Kelly okay? Has something happened to her?” I rapidly shot questions at him, not even giving him enough time to respond in between.
“I have no idea,” he huffed, “but whatever you have done has Maggie in an uproar, and she sent me to get you right now,” he emphasized, yanking me by the arm towards his car parked on the curb.
A summons from Maggie Ryan, Kelly’s mother, could be good in absolutely no way, but I was in no shape to argue. I hadn’t been sleeping again and my diet of coffee and misery had left me as weak as a kitten.
One thing did occur to me though as Eric stuffed me into his Honda: Oh my god. Kelly told her mother and now she’s going to kill me. If I had actually cared about my future existence just then, I might have actually thought that was funny.
Eric had always been a notoriously bad driver, and he proved that fact yet again when he wasted no time driving me into the city, speeding fast enough to make a Tasmanian devil nervous. I pointed out to him that it really wasn’t necessary to drive quite that fast, and that it might actually be more helpful for him if we got there in one piece instead of four hundred and twelve of them, but he just scowled and ignored me.
When his car screeched to a halt in front of the flower shop, I hesitated to get out. Eric was having none of that, however, and promptly leaned over and unbuckled the seatbelt that I had been clinging to in terror while he drove. He pointed at the door silently. I didn’t need an interpreter to get the message.
I drug myself out of the car, but to my dismay Eric stayed put. Apparently, he had no intentions of protecting me from his employer.
I stood outside of the shop for a moment, fearful of going inside. Mrs. Ryan had taught me a lot about love and family, and so I suppose then that it should have been no surprise that it was her daughter who had taught me even more. I hated the thought that I might have just lost both of them from my life.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t put it off forever, so I stepped forward and turned the handle, pushing open the door. My hands were shaking, my chest was heavy, and I had to stop and breathe several times to keep myself from bursting into tears. I had managed to avoid that over the last few days, and I had no interest in starting back up right then.
As I stepped into the shop, I was greeted with silence. It was after business hours then, so the shop had already been cleaned up and was clearly empty. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought no one was there.
I hesitantly stepped further inside, then stopped and tried unsuccessfully several times to make my voice cooperate. It just didn’t seem to want to though, and I had to swallow several times to get the tightness out of my throat, before I managed to call out my familiar greeting. “Hey Mrs. Ryan,” I choked out.
After a moment, I heard Maggie Ryan hurrying out of the back of the shop. As she approached me I found that I couldn’t look her in the eyes, for fear of what I would see.
She was having none of that, however, and as soon as she reached me she grabbed my left earlobe with two fingers and pulled my head down to her level, heedless of my painful protestations.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch!” I sputtered, trying to reclaim my ear in one piece.
When she was certain she had my undivided attention, she spared no time in letting me know exactly what was on her mind.
“You have been like my own child since you were no bigger than a snap pea,” she fumed,” so if you think for even one minute that I am going to allow you to just give up and throw away every blessed thing the two of you have together, then you haven’t learned a thing from me in all these years and I ought to just put you over my knee right here and now!”
Oh holy hell.
“But - ,” I sputtered.
“I have been calling you for a week,” she fussed at me, clearly upset.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I thought you might not – “
“Allison Jackson Hayes, don’t you dare even say it,” she interrupted, scowling.
“But -,” I started again, only to stop in my verbal tracks at the look she was giving me. I had never seen her that mad before, and it was more than I could stand. I burst out crying, completely wrecked.
Her expression moved from angry to mothering in the flash of an eye, and she finally released my ear to gather me into her soothing embrace instead. I cried even more then, wrapping my arms around her and laying head on her shoulder.
She patted my head. “There, there, sweetie. It’s going to be fine, now,” she shushed.
She let me cry myself out, just holding me there, quietly reassuring me, until I finally stopped. I sniffled, stepping back and wiping my eyes and face. She pulled a handkerchief out of the pocket of her shop apron, and handed it to me to assist in my efforts.
The look she gave me then was a mixture of love, comfort, and exasperation all at the same time. “The two of you are both making me crazy.”
I gave a half laugh then and nodded at her, “I’m sorry.” I said, gracing her with a crooked smile. I took a deep breath then, letting it out slowly to calm my frayed nerves.
“Hmmph,” she clucked at me. “You’re sorry, she’s sorry, everybody’s sorry - but nobody’s talking. How are you supposed to fix anything like that?” she reasoned.
I shrugged. She was right, as always.
“Of course I am,” she nodded.
“Now,” she directed, “take these flowers I’ve been putting together for you all week, and get over there and talk to her before I’m forced to waste one more bouquet waiting for the two of you to get your acts together.” She nodded towards the counter, where there were a half dozen arrangements waiting.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Which one? All of them,” she huffed, scowling affectionately at me. “I’ve been waiting for you since Sunday morning. Just because you were late doesn’t mean they weren’t already here.”
Sunday morning? But that was before we had even -
“How did you –,” I started.
She rolled her eyes at me and then shushed me with a wave of her hand. “In the future, young lady, be here on time. Flowers hate to be wasted.” She pushed me gently over to the counter, where she started loading the arrangements into my arms. When I finally had all six bouquets precariously nestled against me, she turned me around and pushed me towards the door. “Now get going, you don’t want to be late.”
The next thing I knew, she had kissed me on the cheek and then shoved me through the door. Then she locked the door to the shop behind me and turned the light off, and I was left standing outside, confused and weighted down.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Eric called over to me from where he’d waited in his car. “Hurry up and get in. Maggie said to have you home at exactly seven-thirty,” he emphasized, “so we have to get going.”
I shook myself out of my baffled stupor and headed to the car. Eric got out and helped me with the flowers, then reassured me that I hadn’t fallen into the Twilight Zone when he broke at least fourteen new traffic laws on the way back to my loft.
It only occurred to me after he had shoved me out of his car in front of my building that I still had no idea where I was going, or what I was going to do once I got there. I sighed.
Well now what?
The best laid plans…
I took no more than two steps into the building and promptly collided with someone coming out. I fell to the floor at the same time that they did, and we both dropped everything that we’d been carrying.
“Are you okay? I’m so -,” I started to apologize, but then stopped suddenly when I realized who I had plowed into.
Kelly. Sitting there on the floor in front of me in the same pile of flowers, vases, and pots that I was in. My heart lurched painfully at the sight of her, and I had to resist the urge to reach out and pull her close to me. I had missed her like crazy even as I knew how hard it would be to see her again.
She seemed just as surprised to see me as I was her, and for a moment we both just sat there, staring at each other.
“I was just –,” I stammered.
“– looking for you,” we finished at the same time. She gave a small laugh and shook her head.
“Exactly,” I confirmed.
“Yes, me too,” she nodded towards the floral train wreck on the floor around us and asked simply, “Mom?”
I nodded and laughed at first, then stopped when I looked around me and realized that between us there were a full dozen bouquets. Apparently I wasn’t the only person on the receiving end of Maggie’s assistance.
I blushed then when it occurred to me that that meant that Kelly had been bringing me flowers as well.
“Did she grab you by the ear and lecture you too?” she asked amusedly.
“Oh yes,” I responded, smiling wryly. “I can’t say that I can ever remember her being that mad at me before.”
“I know, believe me,” Kelly looked down then, and was silent for a moment.
I looked at her closely, and realized that she didn’t seem to be in any better shape that I was. She was always beautiful, but right then she also looked tired and a little sad. I knew exactly how she felt.
“Do you, you know - ,” I hesitated, unsure of what to say. I looked at her helplessly for a moment, worried that I would scare her away.
“Yes, I think we probably should talk,” she whispered. She seemed unsure of herself, and I couldn’t help but feel nervous.
“Yes,” I nodded.
We both paused for a moment, as if neither one of us wanted to move forward for fear of the outcome.
I pulled myself up then, and helped Kelly to her feet. She brushed off her jeans and I brushed off my dress suit and then together we quietly gathered up the remnants of our floral encounter and turned and headed towards the elevator.
We were forced to fumble our way through unlocking the door as we were both inundated with flowers. Several exchanges of bouquets and dropped keys later, I had potting soil all over my dress shirt and the small landing between the elevator and our door was covered in various sprigs and petals. By the time we had finally managed to get the door open and drag ourselves inside, I didn’t know whether to laugh myself silly or cry myself into a coma. I was elated to see her but terrified at the same time by the thought of what might happen next. My life had proven to be way too surreal of late.
Kelly seemed as unhinged as I was, and we were both quiet as we set our parcels onto the island in the kitchen. Most of them were in vases of water, but a couple had come in planters with potting soil. Of course I had not a clue as to what was what and what I was supposed to do with any of them.
“Do we need to, you know, water them, or something?” I questioned, looking worriedly at the multitude of colorful plants that I would surely be the death of.
Kelly noticed my terrified look and smiled a little half smile, and shook her head. “You spent how many years hovering in the shop and you are still completely clueless about everything that grows. How is that?” she teased gently.
“Well,” I shrugged self-consciously as I replied. ”I guess truth be told I wasn’t really there for the flowers,” I admitted. “I just wanted to be around you – my best friend.”
“Best friends,” she repeated half-heartedly.
“Yes, always,” I tried to reassure her. I hoped she knew that I wanted to hold on to that, no matter how difficult things seemed to be right now.
Her movements came to a complete halt at my words. She stopped trying to repair the damaged flowers and rested her hands on the counter. She looked down at her hands, quiet for a moment, as if deciding how to respond. Her expression was closed, her thoughts hidden from me.
“So what do we do now?” she finally spoke, her voice barely audible. I could hear the strain in it.
There were at least a thousand responses in my head to her question, but I had no clue where to start, and feared any misstep could cause a lot more damage than we could repair. But every conversation, easy or hard, simple or convoluted, starts somewhere, and that moment was the beginning of ours. I just had no idea where or when it would end.
“What do you want?” I asked hesitantly. I had no idea what she was thinking about everything that had happened, but I knew that at that point I was willing to live with whatever it was that she wanted.
She looked over at me then, studying me carefully for a long moment, as if carefully weighing my intentions and measuring her responses to them. Her eyes were still guarded, as if she feared what they might give away.
I waited, nervous, unable to trust myself to move or speak.
She took a breath, then after a moment of hesitation seemed to come to a conclusion. “The truth is, I’m not sure,” she softly whispered, shaking her head rather ruefully. “I can honestly say that this wasn’t something I had ever planned for.” She blinked, clearly trying to hold back tears. “But I’m afraid that whatever it is, it will be more than you can give me.”
‘More than you can give me.’ I couldn’t look at her any longer as my own began to fill with tears. Clearly, I had been right in thinking that whatever had passed between us on our last day together was not what she wanted between us.
“I’m sorry -,” I wanted to tell her how sorry I was for my part in how we’d come to find ourselves there, but couldn’t speak through the tightness in my throat.
My barely begun apology only seemed to hurt her more, as she covered her eyes with one hand then, as if trying to block out the words.
I started to tremble in reaction. I turned abruptly and walked away from her over to the windows, where I laid my head against a glass pane, facing the darkness, seeing nothing. I just wanted the moment to be over.
“It’s okay,” I reassured her quietly. “I mean, I can certainly understand that. It makes perfect sense really. A person can’t just change who they are, you know? They can’t become someone that they’re not, no matter how much…” I stumbled on my words here, not wanting to say more, but needing to be honest. “…no matter how much someone else might wish for it. That’s just the way it is.”
The silence that followed my words was broken only by the sound of crying. She was hurting as much as I was, and I hated my part in that.
“This is my fault,” I whispered hoarsely. “I just thought…hell, I don’t know. For a brief, crazy moment, I got…confused, and thought – oh hell, it doesn’t even matter what I thought.”
I thought you might love me the way that I love you. But apparently I was wrong.
I was disgusted with myself at that point, and glad my back was turned, because I couldn’t have stood to see her reaction. “The point is that I’m sorry. I swear that I am sorrier than you will ever know. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I would give anything to take it back, so that we could just go back to being friends without any of this between us. It’s my fault for letting my feelings for you get out of control and ruin our friendship.”
A tear drop that fell from my eyes splashed onto the window pane, then began rolling down the glass. My eyes were quickly too bleary to see the many that followed its path.
In a voice so low that I almost couldn’t hear came the whispered, “What did you just say?”
I almost whimpered, not sure that I had enough of anything left in me to discuss this much further. “Oh please,” I begged, “just please don’t make me say it again. I’m so sorry. Please let’s just try to forget this ever happened and move on. I know you need someone in your life that is right for you, and I want that for you as much as you do, believe me. I want you to be happy more than I can even say. You’ve been my best friend for most of my life. No matter what ever happens, I would always want you to be happy.” I laughed then, but there was no humor in it. “Hell, I even tried to help in my own stupid, ridiculous way.” I turned and looked at her then, miserably contrite. I wiped the tearstains from my face, and tried to get my heart back under control long enough to get through the end of my torment. “I’m sorry for that, by the way. I really am. Trust me when I tell you that I really didn’t know what an ass Peter was.”
She was staring at me strangely then, an expression that I couldn’t read on her face. “You told Peter to ask me out.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. I’m sorry. In my own moronic way I really was trying to help.”
“Help me what?” she asked, looking at me as if I’d lost my last marble, and she just wanted to be sure of it before she called in a search party.
“Help you find someone,” I repeated softly. “You know, a…man. You just…seemed so unhappy, even before the other morning. You wouldn’t talk to me about it, but I knew. And then I found the ad that you had left on the table,” I confessed. “I didn’t tell you about finding it because I didn’t think you wanted me to know about it. And then of course, I…I completely fucked everything up and betrayed your trust in me by…” I looked away from her penetrating gaze again. As much as I didn’t want to continue, I knew I had to be honest about everything that had happened if I were to have any chance of saving what was left of our friendship “…by falling for you, and seeing what I wanted to see. I ended up hurting us both, and risking everything – our entire friendship, your trust in me, my relationship with your mom – everything, with my stupidity.”
There was silence for a few moments, neither of us saying a word.
“Please,” I implored, finally breaking under the tension, “please tell me there’s some way that we can put at least some of this behind us, so that we can remain friends.” I still couldn’t look at her, fearful of what she would say.
“Ask me again,” she whispered.
“What?” I was confused. I looked at her finally, uncertain of myself. Her eyes stared back at mine, an almost wildness in them for a moment that I couldn’t begin to fathom.
“Ask me again about the flowers,” she asked softly. There was something in her tone, but I couldn’t quite figure it out.
I didn’t understand her request, but I did as she asked just because she had asked it. “Kelly,” I managed through my tight throat, “Do we need to water the flowers?”
“How is it that you spent all of those years in our shop, and you still don’t know anything about flowers?” she asked me all over again.
I hesitated, unsure of where this was going. “Because I wasn’t there for the flowers,” I whispered shakily. “I was there to be near you.” As if the words commanded me to, I stepped back over towards her, coming to a halt just a few feet across from where she stood.
“Well then, let me tell you about them,” she whispered. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of me, and she still didn’t as she spoke. She watched me with an expression that was almost like…hope, before she turned to the flowers. She walked around the island to stand next to two planters of white blooms. We were only a few feet apart then, the rectangular island the only thing between us.
“These,” she pointed to the first set, “as you should know by now since sent them to me,” she shook her head, her sparkling eyes rueful. ”These are Irises. They’re a symbol of faith, wisdom, and valor. They can also be given as a sign of deep, abiding friendship.”
I nodded, watching her as she moved around the island to a set of tall, thin reeds with purple and white blossoms. Her movements were graceful, elegant. “These are Orchids.” She touched them lightly, delicately. “They represent beauty, magnificence, and refinement.”
My heart fluttered at her words. I knew immediately why her mother had chosen them. They were practically made for Kelly.
She stepped a few more feet around the island. “These,” her voice was quieter now, “are Heliotropes.” She gave an ironic half-smile then, and looked over the tiny violet petals at me for a moment, gently watching me. “They represent devotion.”
I closed my eyes for a moment then, feeling exposed and vulnerable all the way to my core.
Kelly continued as I listened. “These,” I opened my eyes to see her staring, transfixed, at two sets of red blooms. “These are Red Carnations.” She hesitated before continuing, “They mean ‘my heart aches for you’.”
I was having trouble getting air into my lungs. I knew I had tears in my eyes again. I couldn’t have imagined before then how true those words would turn out to be.
Kelly paused at the next set, almost as if unable to say more. She cleared her throat softly, but her words, when they came, were still strained. “Gardenias,” she took a breath, “represent unspoken or secret love.” The delicate fragrance of the white starbursts invoked a sense of intimacy and longing.
We were both crying now. Everything I felt for her was right there, in front of me, for all to see. I couldn’t understand why then she was exposing my every emotion so thoroughly.
Kelly stood silently in front of the last set, not saying a word for several moments. It seemed too difficult for either of us to speak.
“We don’t need to,” I implored.
“Yes, we do,” she said, her voice hushed. “So there are no more unspoken truths between us.”
I nodded then, though I almost couldn’t bear it.
“These,” she trembled, “These are Marvels-of-Peru.” The potted bouquets were mixed, with reddish-violet, yellow, and white blended together brightly, their petals shaped like flickering fire. She stopped to catch her breath, and then tried to start again, only to stop.
I could do nothing more than wait there, at the edge of everything.
“The eternal flame of love.”
My heart was pounding out of my chest then, and I waited in turmoil for her to explain.
She picked up the beautiful, exotic bundle, and then took the short step over to stand in front of me. She reached out to me and took one of my hands, gently pulling it until it was palm-up between us, and holding it there in hers.
She nervously looked up at me, her eyes latching onto mine, willing me to look at her. Deep green swirled and stormed at me.
“This one,” she whispered, her voice husky,” is mine.” She set the fragile bloom on the palm of my hand. “And this is exactly where it is supposed to be.”
I was trembling now for an entirely different reason than before. Fear and longing were raging through me, wrestling each other for dominance. “What are you saying?” I entreated softly, terrified that I would misunderstand yet again.
She smiled at me sweetly then, her eyes still looking deeply into mine, completely open to me. I blinked at the intensity of her gaze that pulled at me so strongly, drawing me easily into her. I opened my eyes fully, letting her see into me as well. We both stood there for a moment, our hearts reassuring through our eyes what our words had not been able to make clear.
“Are you sure?” I breathed.
“I have been sure for longer than you can imagine.” She said tremulously, a little smile making its way to her lips. “I just couldn’t believe...” she blinked more tears from her eyes…”It never occurred to me that you might feel this way too.”
“You never said,” I lamented.
“Neither did you.”
“The other day...I thought you knew, and that was part of why you left. I thought you’d realized that I...love you,” somehow saying the words out loud made me breathless, “and that you didn’t want to tell me that you didn’t want that from me.”
She shook her head slowly. “No. It was never that, believe me. I’ve been in love with you,” she paused a moment, shy then, as if not quite able to believe we were actually putting into sound the feelings we had both hidden for too long, “ I’ve been in love with you for so long. The other day when I knew that you saw that, I panicked. I was so afraid of what you would say that I couldn’t even see what you were trying to tell me. I just knew that I was about to lose everything, and I ran. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to talk to you, but when I came out, you were gone.” She looked lost and sad for a moment as she was thinking back to that morning. “I thought you were so...disappointed in my foolishness that you didn’t even want to talk to me.”
I reached out slowly and touched her cheek with my free hand. Her skin was soft and warm under my touch. “Never that,” I whispered. “I could never be disappointed in you. You are so amazing, and so beautiful. You were the best thing that had ever happened to me even before I fell in love with you. Now, I don’t even have words for what you are to me.”
She was glowing at me as she said, “You’re the keeper of my heart, Allison. That’s what you are to me - the keeper of my heart.”
I couldn’t even imagine what to say, my heart left knocking me around from the inside. “Will you teach me how to take care of it?” I cradled her flower in my hand, holding it more gently than I ever had anything in my life.
She smiled again, a little laugh on her lips. “You already know how to do that. You’ve been doing that for a long time now.”
I finally smiled too, tremulous, overwhelmed and relieved all at once. I reached over and took the second exotic flower off of the island, and offered it up to Kelly.
She blushed as she accepted it from me. I just grinned like the complete fool that I was. Then she stepped into me and turned her face up to mine. I bent down as she reached up, and our lips met softly in the middle. Her kiss was sweet and warm and shook me all the way to my toes. In all my life, no kiss would ever mean as much as that one did.
Oh. My. God.
It was, in short, the best moment of my life, and the absolutely ridiculous look on my face must have said so, because Kelly laughed when she pulled back and saw my expression.
I blushed like a mad woman. “You’re...wow,” was all I could manage at that moment.
She laughed again, blushing too. “You’re pretty ‘wow’ yourself.”
I just giggled like a lunatic.
She gave me a coy, teasing look. “So,” she raised her eyebrows, “what do you think about maybe…oh, I don’t know…” her eyes were sparkling at me “…going out on a date or something with me, Ms. Hayes?”
I burst out laughing then, unable to help myself. My pent-up nerves were finally released. “Well, I don’t know, Ms. Ryan,” I winked at her. “I’m not sure your mother would approve.”
“Are you kidding?” she laughed incredulously. “Who do you think left that damned ad on the table for you to find?”
My jaw hit the floor.
“She swore to the saints that if I didn’t get my ass together and tell you how I felt she was going to do it herself. It’s amazing how devious my mother can be when she puts her mind to it. Psychic florist my ass,’ she grumbled, clearly not at all upset.
I just stared, unable to make all of the parts of my brain function together at once enough to comprehend what she was saying.
Kelly just laughed at my dumbfounded look, and then put her arms around me, holding me tightly. It was pure bliss.
Oh hell yes. Love was definitely going to be the death of me. Thank the goddess.
To Be Continued….