Leigh and RJ made their way up the walkway that lead to the reception area of the Golden Link Retirement Center. As the sign proudly stated, it was an ‘assisted’ living facility.
Stepping inside, RJ shook out the umbrella they’d both huddled under on their way from Leigh’s Jeep.
"You think this is the place?" Critical green eyes surveyed their surroundings. It wasn’t nearly as sterile as RJ had feared and was filled with warm-colored furnishings and carpet, cheerful Big Band-era tunes playing softly in the background.
"The address and name match," Leigh commented as she took off her jacket and tucked it under her arm. She began tugging RJ to the receptionist. "Are you sure we shouldn’t have called first?" Leigh said quietly, feeling like she was in a library and would be scolded for being too boisterous. Or for having sex in the bathroom. That was even worse than an overdue book. Unless, of course, it was the actual librarian you were having sex with. Leigh sniggered her to herself.
"No. I’m not sure." RJ’s voice was tight, and she felt Leigh pull her to a stop.
The blonde woman squeezed RJ’s hand reassuringly, surprised to feel a slight chill. "Are you okay?"
"I’m a …" RJ licked her lips nervously, intentionally not looking at the curious receptionist who was watching them both. "I’m a little nervous, I suppose. I’ve never been in one of these aged homes before."
Ah. Now that made sense. Even the nice ones could be a little unsettling, Leigh knew. "I visited my grandpa in a place sort of like this, only it looked a little more like a hospital than an apartment complex." She wrinkled her nose. "It smelled funny."
RJ nodded. "But this place isn’t too bad."
Leigh smiled softly. "No. It’s a very nice place." She allowed RJ a few more minutes to look around before gently prodding her with her elbow. "Ready? That receptionist is about ready to die from curiosity about the two woman standing in the middle of the room and not moving."
RJ shot Leigh a mild look. "I’m ready, lass. You’re coming with me, right?"
"Do you want me to?" Leigh had figured on waiting in the visitor’s lounge, and reading two-year-old copies of People Magazine while RJ met with her granny’s friend.
"I … I want –" RJ abruptly halted her speech and bent down to whisper in Leigh’s ear. "I want you to come, Leigh. If only for a few moments."
Leigh’s heart broke at the abject fear in RJ’s voice. "Of course, I’ll come."
RJ exhaled explosively and bravely headed for the reception desk. "Good." I knew I could count on you, darlin’.
"I don’t have her listed as a resident or you as a visitor," the man said politely, rechecking his log one more time to be sure. "What was the resident’s last name again? We have several Lucy’s."
"Was that her married name, RJ?" Leigh leaned forward over the desk, trying to get a peek at the ledger.
"No. She was single when … err… I don’t know if she ever married."
The man closed his book. "Can you describe her?"
RJ’s eyes went a little round. She had no idea what Lucy would look like now. "Short." She wrapped her arm around Leigh and pulled her directly in front of the man’s face. "Shorter than her even."
"Hey!" Leigh squawked.
The man laughed and waited for more. When RJ remained silent he said, "Sorry. That doesn’t help me much. This is a retirement community. All our Lucys are short. Anything else?" he prodded carefully.
"When she was young her hair was flaming red and her face was covered with freck– "
"Oh, that Lucy! Lucy Gelland. The one who curses like a sailor when something happens that she doesn’t like."
"Yes!" RJ grinned broadly.
"When her TV blew during the World Series last year I could hear her all the way in the parking lot."
RJ laughed. "That had to be her Lucy Slocombe, who usually lost a full third of her paycheck in fines for cursing over their plane’s radio. "That would be her."
"She’s in room forty-two." He reopened the book, immediately turning to ‘G.’ "In fact, her granddaughter and her three devil children are due for a visit in just a while. I’ll show you to her room and make sure that’s she’s awake."
Leigh blinked in surprise.
"This is a residence for the elderly, not a prison," he assured her knowingly. So many people had the wrong idea about this type of facility. "The only folks who have restrictions on visitors are ones who place them there themselves. And Mrs. Gelland has never done that. So –"
"So, why are we still here?" RJ asked, smiling.
"Good point," the man agreed. "C’mon."
"Mrs. Gelland?" The receptionist knocked gently on her door. "Are you up for some visitors?"
"Are they Jehovah Witnesses? If they are, they can just go the hell away. The last thing I need at this point in my life is to be saved. Anyone else can come in. I don’t bite. Especially when I forget to put in my damn teeth. God …" The rest of the sentence trailed off.
Leigh’s hand flew to her mouth where she clamped down on a burst of laughter.
RJ smiled wistfully at the sound of her co-pilot’s voice, which, even though it was a little scratchier than she’d remembered it, was still recognizable after all these years.
"They’re not here to solicit you!" the receptionist called to Lucy. One little mistake six years ago and the residents never let him live it down! He turned to RJ. "You’re not, right?"
"No worries." She patted him on the back. "We’ll take it from here. Thank you."
He nodded and lowered his voice. "Just one thing. Mrs. Gelland suffers from Alzheimer’s disease."
"A disease?" RJ hissed quietly.
"I’m afraid so. It’s not terribly advanced, but she does tend to be a little forgetful at times." His face flushed. "You’ll probably see for yourself and I really shouldn’t have said anything. I mean, I could lose my job and –"
Leigh quickly shook her head. "We didn’t hear anything from you."
He exhaled in relief. "Thanks. I just didn’t want you to be surprised or upset. Some people get that way and well … it can be a little hard on the residents. And Mrs. Gelland isn’t nearly as bad off as some."
"Thank you for warning us," RJ said sincerely. She’s senile is what he’s sayin’. Not that I should be surprised.
"I’m leaving you to your guests, Mrs. Gelland," he said loudly and turned to go.
"Yeah, yeah, go back to your desk, Leo," came the grumpy response from behind the door.
Leo laughed and began walking down the hall.
RJ reached for the door handle. Her hand was shaking so badly that Leigh closed her own over it, steadying it.
"Ready, sweetheart?" The endearment slipped out without Leigh even knowing it as she felt a surge of protectiveness for RJ, who suddenly looked a little pale.
RJ smiled and nodded, turning the handle. Forgive me for all the lying I’m about to do to you, Leigh. It is, sadly, the only way other than not having you with me at all. And right now that’s not an acceptable choice.
Lucy Gelland was sitting in a recliner near the window. She was dressed in a long nightgown covered by a pink terry cloth robe. She appeared to be engrossed in a novel.
Then several things happened at once. Leo, the receptionist, remembered he had RJ and Leigh’s visitors passes still in his hand and he shouted to RJ who was standing in the doorway.
RJ stepped away from the door toward Leo while Leigh walked into the room.
Lucy turned toward the young blonde. "Helen?"
Leigh shifted uncomfortably, looking over her shoulder for RJ who was nowhere in sight. "Sorry. But my name is –"
"I know good and goddamn what your name is, young lady."
"But I’m not –"
"Come and give your great auntie a kiss on the cheek."
Leigh groaned inwardly and inched toward Lucy the way a kid makes a forced march to the principal’s office.
"Jesus, girl! I’ll be dead before you reach me at this rate. March like you’ve got a purpose in life! Move! Move! Move!"
Leigh bolted across the room. She fought the urge to salute Lucy when she stopped in front of her chair. Bending, she reluctantly placed a gentle kiss on Lucy’s cheek, her skin feeling soft, warm and paper-thin. "Hello," she said softly.
"Hello, child. You look a little different than the last time you came to visit. Did you cut your hair?"
Leigh looked into Lucy’s soft brown eyes and realized that she didn’t want to upset or disappoint her. So she dutifully nodded.
Lucy smiled and Leigh smiled back, taking a good look at the woman. Her dark eyes smiled along with her lips and the tiny freckles of Lucy’s youth, though faded from time, still spattered her cheeks. She’s still beautiful.
RJ walked into the room and closed the door gently behind her. Leigh and Lucy both turned their heads toward the sound.
Lucy’s novel clattered to the floor.
"RJ Fi …" Lucy had to swallow and start again. "RJ?"
Leigh quickly moved back to RJ and whispered in her ear, "She think I’m someone else too. Do you look like your grandmother?"
RJ’s heart was thundering in her ears when she whispered back, "The spitting image. But –"
"I don’t think we should upset her, RJ."
RJ nodded and said a small prayer of thanks. She’d wondered if Lucy would recognize her and how exactly she would explain it to Leigh. Things just got a whole lot easier.
RJ quickly squeezed Leigh’s shoulder and moved past her to greet her dear friend. "Hello, Lucy."
Lucy’s round tear-filled eyes grew even wider. "It is you!" Then they narrowed quickly. "Isn’t it?"
"Of course," RJ snorted through her own tears. "I look just the same and you look older than Methuselah and twice as wrinkled." She winced inwardly at what Leigh would think of the seemingly rude words, but got the reaction from Lucy that she knew you would.
"RJ!" Lucy opened her arms wide and accepted an enthusiastic hug from the pilot.
Leigh shook her head, slightly amazed at the scene before her. You should get an Academy Award for this one, RJ.
"Don’t tell me I’ve finally died and you’re here to take me to hell?" Lucy’s voice didn’t sound the least bit fearful.
RJ laughed and shook her head. She knelt down in front of the big blue recliner that seemed to swallow her friend. "No, lass, you’re alive and kicking, just like always. Besides, and I hate to break this to you, my friend. But hell doesn’t want you. They’re afraid you’ll take over the joint."
Lucy smiled a smile so incredibly wicked that Leigh actually gulped out loud. "I wouldn’t want to take over, RJ. Only have a little fun." She and RJ burst out laughing at what seemed like an old joke. Though Leigh knew that was impossible.
Then, as though Lucy just realized something and despite the fact that she seemed to know it only seconds before, the look on her face shifted to one of abject grief. Fat and hot, tears rolled down her cheeks and she reached out and took RJ’s hand, squeezing it with startling strength. "You died," she said fervently.
RJ’s heart clenched as she slowly nodded.
Leigh moved forward, fascinated by the exchange. She allowed her hands to rest softly on RJ’s shoulders.
RJ sighed silently at the touch that unknowingly comforted her.
"I’ve missed you, Ruth Jean. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you." Lucy’s bottom lip began to quiver. "I tried. I –"
RJ was quick to calm her by gently wiping dry Lucy’s wet cheeks.
Unexpected tears pricked Leigh’s eyes. But she remained silent.
RJ sniffed. "I know. And I know you did everything you could. You kept me from drowning and being lost to the sea forever. The crash was just too much." She paused and wiped her own eyes after she finished with Lucy’s cheeks. Flashes of her crash came rushing back, bold and vivid, and she could almost feel the water trying to reach up and claim her. She swallowed painfully and pushed those thoughts aside. Now was not the time to relive that particular memory. There were others to be talked about in this place that were far sweeter. "I didn’t come here to talk about that. " Her smile was bittersweet. "I came to talk to my co-pilot, and I see you’re just as much trouble as always."
Weakly, Lucy slumped back in her chair. Her eyes flicked to Leigh, and a thought crossed her mind. "Why are you here with my niece Helen? If you’re sleeping with her, RJ, I swear I’ll kick your ass. I’ve done it before!" But the hacking cough at the end of her words did make them somewhat less threatening.
RJ snorted. "No, Luce, this isn’t your niece Helen. It’s my very dear friend, Leigh Matthews." She rolled her eyes and nodded before Lucy could even ask. "Yes, if you must know, we’re sleeping together."
Lucy looked at Leigh, who was fidgeting uncomfortably and trying to wrap her mind around the fact that RJ’s grandmother was a lesbian. And one who really slept around to boot. She wondered idly if that were the case how RJ’s mom ever came into being.
The old woman cocked her head to the side and examined Leigh’s face. "You’re not Helen?"
"Why didn’t you just say so? I get confused sometimes, but I’m not deaf!"
"I tried but –"
"Young people and your lame-ass excuses!"
RJ jumped in to tease her beloved copilot. It was one of the simple joys of life that she’d missed most. "She didn’t say anything, you grumpy goat. Because you didn’t give her a damn chance. Just like always."
"Defending her, are you?" Lucy leaned forward and nudged RJ with a bony elbow. "And sweet on her too, I’ll bet. ‘Course, when you’ve slept with the entire Army Nursing Corps, I suppose you’ll eventually get so tired you’ve got no choice but to settle down or succumb to pure exhaustion." She glanced back up at Leigh. "And she’s a pretty one too. Not that I would expect anything less."
Leigh began to choke as she tried to stifle a laugh. By the sounds of things RJ’s grandmother was as big a handful as the tiny Lucy Gelland. She could only imagine the pair they must have made.
"I didn’t sleep with all of them," RJ protested half-heartedly. "Just the ones who wanted a really good time."
It was Lucy’s turn to roll her eyes and snort.
"And Leigh and I aren’t settling down, so don’t be planning the wedding just yet. Leigh doesn’t like me that much. She just wants me for my body." RJ turned her head winked at the trucker. "She rented it for a week or so."
"I take it you got out of hand and she gave that shiner? Damn, I haven’t seen one that sweet in years." Lucy winced at the lurid purple bruise.
Leigh blushed and gave the woman a small, slightly embarrassed nod. "But I swear it was an accident." She found herself also wanting to say that RJ meant more to her than a week of whoring fun. But the surprise words caught in her throat.
Thinking Leigh was upset about the comment about RJ’s eye, Lucy said, "Don’t worry, girl. Ole RJ’s had much worse and recovered nicely. Consider this accidental one a down payment for the next time when she really deserves a bop in the eye."
Lucy slapped her knee and laughed long and hard. By the time she finished, however, she had something else entirely on her mind. "RJ," Lucy said quietly. "I need to thank you for something and let you in on a tiny secret I’ve been keeping forever."
RJ’s brows knit. "What secret could you possible have from me?" They had told each other everything. Or so she thought.
Lucy drew her fingertips across RJ’s cheeks then reached back and tugged on her auburn hair. "You’re wearing it shorter nowadays."
"That’s the big secret?"
"Impatient as ever." Lucy sighed. "I’ve always been just a little bit in love with you, RJ. Then and every day since then." She shrugged and smiled, her eyes twinkling softly. "Maybe it wasn’t such a big secret after all."
Leigh held her breath, waiting to hear how RJ would answer for her long dead ancestor, already feeling the slight churning of what she fully knew was an irrational jealously.
The tips of RJ’s ears turned red. "Ah, lass, you know I’ve always felt the same way." She smiled gently at Lucy, whose bright grin answered her back. "Though we surely were never meant to be together in that way."
Leigh blinked. This is amazing. RJ’s one hell of an actress. I keep forgetting she’s not really her grandmother.
"No," Lucy intoned seriously. "We weren’t. But it didn’t stop me from loving you just the same."
"And that goes double for me." RJ rubbed her eyes with the back of her hands. Just when she felt like she was about to unravel, she felt the gentle squeeze of Leigh’s fingers again, telling her everything okay. She reached up and absently patted one of the small hands. "You needed to come home and marry that flat-footed accountant you were always nattering on about. And by the looks of this room," RJ made a sweeping motion with both hands, indicating the dozens of photographs of happy people, "I’d guess that you did that very thing."
"As usual, RJ, you’d be wrong." Lucy’s voice grew stronger. "No, I didn’t marry Harold and that’s what I have to thank you for." The old woman reached over the stand next to her chair and picked up a small picture in a pewter, heart-shaped frame. She brought it to her lips and kissed it reverently before setting it in her lap and beginning a short tale.
"I don’t know how much you remember about us being fished out of the ocean when our plane went down." Lucy’s face turned a little ashen, but she pressed on. "You weren’t doing so good."
A grim look swept across RJ’s features, but when she noticed how intently Lucy was watching her face, she replaced it with a more mild one, even managing to smile reassuringly. "Go on, lass. It’s all in the past and can’t hurt us now."
Lucy asked Leigh to fetch her Kleenex from the night stand, which the trucker did, waiting patiently while trembling fingers pulled out exactly four tissues to blow her nose. "We were both Medevac’d to the island hospital. Me with a broken knee and foot and you ... well ... you." She sighed in bitter resignation and wiped the corner of her eyes with her Kleenex. Then, unexpectedly, a heart-stopping smile creased her still damp cheeks. "Your doctor was fresh out of his surgical residency and you were his first patient. He was a beautiful blond man from Chicago, my Max. He was gentle and wild and his eyes were bluer than a summer sky, just like your friend’s here." Lucy’s gnarled finger pointed over RJ’s shoulder to Leigh.
"Anyway, after you ... went and croaked! God dammit, RJ. I’m still pissed about that, you know!"
RJ crossed her arms over her chest and barked out, "It’s not like it was on the top of my list of things to do that day, Lucy!"
Leigh wondered if things might turn into an argument until Lucy continued speaking as though the outburst had never even happened.
"After you died, Max and I got so rip-roaring drunk that they locked us up in the stockade, in side-by-side cells. For a week! At first I was worried we’d kill each other. By the time the week was over I was more concerned about getting pregnant." She laughed softly, lost in her own well-savored memories.
RJ’s eyebrows crawled up into her hairline. "You both were in different cells, but you were still worried about getting pregnant?"
"Where there’s a will there’s way, Ruth Jean. As if I have to tell you that."
Leigh burst out laughing.
Lucy gave the young blonde a ghost of a wink. "Anyway, things on the island were crazy and then quiet and I guess they forgot about us there. Can you believe that?" She dropped her tissues into a wastebasket that sat alongside her chair. "We never were really apart after that, at least not in our hearts. He passed on two years and two months ago." She picked up the photo in her lap and proudly showed it to RJ.
It had clearly started as black and white with the color added later. Lucy’s red hair was flaming and her dark eyes fairly danced with merriment. Snuggled up to her cheek was a toothy, tow-headed man with a burr haircut and thin mustache. He was grinning like he’d won the lottery. As far as RJ was concerned, he had. "We have three children, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. That’s what I wanted to thank you for. My whole life."
Tears slipped down RJ’s cheeks and she smiled through them, laughing softly as she spoke. She felt a tiny piece of resentment she’d always harbored deep in her heart shrivel up and blow away at Lucy’s words. "Ah, lass, I’m glad some good came out of it then. It sounds as though you have a wonderful life and that’s really what matters most. I always wanted that for you. Max was a lucky fella to have someone like you loving him for so many years."
"Fifty-six years," Lucy clarified, her pride evident. "Fifty-six wonderful years of marriage." She handed the picture back to Leigh, who resettled it on the nightstand next to the bed. Then she looked to RJ and gave another wicked little grin. "You still a hard drinker?"
"Is there any other way?" The pilot nodded.
Lucy gestured with her chin, to the dresser across the room. "Leigh, in the bottom drawer there. There’s a bottle of good Irish whiskey, get it for me, will you?"
It was all Leigh could do to keep from laughing out loud at these two. RJ played her grandmother’s part perfectly and Lucy seemed to come to life as she talked about the old days. Leigh was glad she’d come with RJ. Lucy was nothing short of an endearing character, and the trucker realized that without women like RJ’s grandmother and Lucy she certainly wouldn’t be doing what she did for a living. Some women simply could not be made to fit into a mold and changed things for those who came after them, whether they intended to or not.
Leigh retrieved the bottle and found a couple of glasses, which she handed to RJ.
RJ glanced at the bottle and gave a low, appreciative whistle. "Whoa, lass! This is good stuff. How in the hell did you get this?"
Lucy smirked. "Leo’s a good boy."
RJ cracked the seal on the bottle and drew in a good whiff of the strong liquor. "Hmm, now that’s lovely." She poured a little into the glasses, handing one to Leigh and the other to Lucy. She winked. "I’ll take mine straight from the bottle, if you don’t mind."
"Yup," Lucy raised her glass in toast, "that’s my RJ."
The trio brought their glasses together before throwing back their drinks.
Leigh hissed as it burned a path down her throat.
RJ hummed her pleasure while Lucy licked her lips and shakily set her glass off to the side. She started to offer Lucy another, when the old woman shook her head.
"I’d better not, RJ. My granddaughter is due this afternoon and she’ll have a fit." She rolled her eyes in irritation. "But you and your lady friend can indulge as much as you like. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion and this is the most wonderful surprise."
RJ tipped the bottle toward Leigh, who shook her head. She was driving, after all, and the last thing she need was to get stopped for DUI. The pilot, however, could think of no earthly reason not to indulge. She never could resist the call of a good bottle of Irish whiskey and unrepentantly swallowed down another healthy swig.
"Leigh, has RJ ever bothered to tell you about the time she actually shot down two Jap fighters?"
Leigh smiled at RJ, wondering how she was going to get out of this one. She pasted on her most innocent look. "Why no. RJ somehow failed to mention that to me."
"Well," RJ coughed as her mind raced to find a way to toss the ball back into Lucy’s court. Finally, she shrugged and did her best to look humble. "That’s because I’m so modest, you see."
"Oh, bullshit!" Lucy and Leigh exploded at the same time.
Leigh bit her lip, realizing once again she was supposed to be talking to RJ’s long dead grandmother. Then again, it seemed like the women were an awful lot alike and she privately figured that RJ would probably end up a lot like Lucy. The old woman had a fire in her that was still burning nice and hot despite her years.
"RJ Fitzgerald, you lying sack of –"
"Lucy! Now be nice."
The old woman shook a finger at her friend. "You know as well as I do that you were so proud of yourself for that, you nearly popped the buttons off your uniform." Lucy’s gaze swung to Leigh. "You see, what happened was this, we ran into a couple of Jap fighters while delivering a plane. But that particular plane had a Tucker gunner’s turret complete with a fully loaded antiaircraft gun. So, Lt. Fitzgerald here decided to turn the plane over to me while she slipped down below and shot those Jap planes right out of the air. I could barely believe my eyes! As far as I know, RJ is the only woman in history to have shot down two fighters. ‘Course no one ever gave her the credit she deserved for doing it. Stupid, no good bastards," she grumbled, then slapped her knee. "But damned if she didn’t!"
RJ scratched her cheek and tried not to blush at the story. She looked at Leigh and shrugged.
Leigh smiled indulgently at Lucy, suddenly glad that the old woman had told the story herself and that her RJ hadn’t disappointed her by not knowing the details. My RJ? Oh, boy.
"That reminds me." Lucy brought her hand to her lips, a look of concentration sweeping over her face as she thought. "In the closet there’s a gray metal box. Could one of you get it for me?" She knew she sounded like a lazy old thing. But she figured the last thing RJ needed was to see her limp across the room. Her knee had never healed completely, and it had only gotten worse as she grew older. Some days it was all she could do to get out of bed and make it to her recliner.
Leigh quickly volunteered and was moving toward the closet before RJ could say a word. She found the box on the top shelf and returned to the old woman, setting it gently in her lap.
Lucy opened the box and pulled out an old, faded photograph. She smiled and handed it up to Leigh, who leaned forward to take it. It was of RJ and her copilot in their heyday. They had their arms thrown over each other’s shoulders and were standing in front of one of the bombers they flew, with grins a mile wide.
"That’s us in forty-three, I think."
Leigh glanced down at the photograph. Her jaw dropped. "Holy shit!" Her eyes flicked wildly between RJ and the picture and her jaw dropped a little further. "Bu ... bu … bu …"
RJ snatched the picture from Leigh’s fingertips. She looked it for a long moment before holding it next to her face, "It’s an old photo, lass, but you have to admit it’s a good one." How in the hell am I gonna get out of this one? Please just buy it, Leigh.
The look on Leigh’s face shifted from amazement to something slightly more complicated. Her brow furrowed and for a moment RJ thought she was going to let the cat out of the bag. But soon a small, if slightly confused smile was tugging at Leigh’s lips. When she looked up from the photo she exhaled slowly, finding RJ’s eyes with her own and holding the stare. "Yeah." Her voice softened and her gaze turned fond. "It’s an amazing picture."
Lucy broke the tension between the women with a loud exclamation as she pulled a small velvet box out of the gray metal one. "Here it is." She placed the box in RJ’s hand. "I always wanted to give these to someone, but I wanted to do it in person and … well … it never happened. Now I guess I can just let you have them back — it’s where they belong."
RJ cracked the lid to find her pilot’s wings. That’s when the dam broke and all the emotions that she had tried so hard to hold back began spill over. She sniffed loudly, unable to stop a scattering of tears from rolling down her cheeks. RJ nearly choked on the words when she softly said, "Thank you."
Just then a loud knock shook the door. "Granny! We’re here!"
Lucy’s eyes went a little round. "Good Lord, it’s the devil children. Hide me."
Leigh tugged on RJ’s limp hand until the woman stood. Her friend looked as though she was ready to burst into more tears, and for a second Leigh had a hard time reconciling this person with the cocky-pilot persona she’d seen only moments before.
Leigh bent down and hugged the Lucy, who remained firmly seated in her recliner. "We need to go now, Lucy. It’s been a pleasure meeting you."
RJ pocketed her wings and leaned over, kissing Lucy on the cheek. "God bless you, Lucy."
"Wait." Lucy cupped RJ’s cheeks and confusion colored her words. "You’re not a ghost?"
RJ shot Leigh a anxious look.
Leigh smiled sadly and went to wait in the hall, giving the two women a moment of privacy. How am I going to stall the devil children? I don’t know anything about children. She reached for the whiskey bottle on her way out, only to change her mind at the last second. It wasn’t like she had enough glasses to go around.
RJ turned back to her co-pilot, covering the wrinkled hands with her own. "No, lass. I’m not a ghost." She grinned broadly. "At least not today."
Lucy looked RJ dead in the eye. "I knew it."
"You were always too smart for your own good." RJ hugged her and leaned close so she could whisper directly into Lucy’s ear. "Max will be waiting for you, but there’s no need to hurry. Your family loves you too much for you to leave them anytime soon." She pulled back and winked, not caring when her lower lip began to quiver. "Be good."
The female squirrel shook her head in amazement. "I can’t believe you survived!" The twitching of the body was a sure sign.
The male was sprawled out on his belly, his furry face caked with mud. He shook his head to try and dislodge a particular troublesome chunk of dirt from one of his nose holes. "What do you mean survived?" he gasped. "I was already dead before I stupidly agreed to be bait!"
"True," she agreed happily, tossing her head back and laughing in that devil-may-care way that her mate usually loved. It was strongly reminiscent of Miss Piggy. Without hair. Or lipstick. Or pork.
The male sneered.
"But," she continued cheerfully, reaching down and boxing his ears.
"You can still feel pain."
He rubbed his ears.
"So it could have been worse. You could have been Flea’s afternoon snack."
"Snack?" The male puffed up his chest indignantly. Unfortunately, the action only caused him to cough and wheeze. "I’m more than a snack, baby, and don’t you forget it," he spouted cockily.
Out of pity, the female remained silent. Her husband’s skinny-ass legs spoke for themselves.
"Did you see me? Did you? Huh? Huh? Did you?" he exploded, suddenly reliving what he was certain would be the second bravest and most triumphant moment of his squirrel afterlife. Someday he just knew he would drink an entire can of beer without belching even once. But for now, he couldn’t have hoped for more!
"I saw." Her eyes misted over. "You were… it was just…"
"Magnificent," he breathed reverently.
The female had to agree. Even though her plan had failed. It had been a valiant effort. And one she would never forget…
"Okay, here’s what you do … Nothing."
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"Nothing," she repeated impatiently. "Flea is going to see you and come after you." She finished tying a long length of twine around her mate’s bushy tail. "You are simply going to lure her."
"Like cheese in a mousetrap!" She made a face. "Only more stinky."
"Hey!" he snorted. "I’ve been working here."
His protest was ignored. "Anyway, just when Flea is about ready to eat you, I’ll pull you out of the way with this rope. She’ll lunge for you and fall into the pit. And presto –" The female snapped her fingers. Well, she would have snapped them had squirrels been able to do such a thing. Spiteful God!
"Wait. Stop. Backup." He put his hands on his hips. "Why does it have to be ‘just’ before Flea eats me. Why can’t it be a reeeeeeeeally long time before she eats me? Just to be on the safe side."
The female rolled her eyes. "DUH! If I pull you away too early, she won’t lunge for you and fall in the pit."
"Cheese is braver than you."
The male gasped. "It is not."
"I will! Let’s go. I’m ready for that cat."
‘Males,’ she snorted inwardly, nearly pitying her intellectually inferior husband. ‘Can’t live with them. But they make great bait. Once.’
The female squirrel put the twine between her teeth and scurried up the tree. She found the perfect branch and looped the twine over it, hiding herself in a handy hollow. When Flea showed up and tried to eat her mate all she had to do was tug and he would be snatched from the jaws of death. So to speak.
Now they waited.
The male looked up. "I’m wishing Flea would come and eat me and put me out of my misery!" he barked, knowing his mate would hear him, even high up in the branches.
A large acorn mysteriously came flying out of the tree and hit him directly between the eyes.
"Ouch." He began to stagger. "Of all the rotten luck."
Just then Flea padded slowly out of the diner. She was a little depressed. RJ was one of her favorite humans, and she found herself surprised to be missing her. ‘Wait, what was that?’ Flea’s golden eyes narrowed as she spied her squirrel friends. Oh, they’d been great fun! She hadn’t indulged her dark side like this in years! She wondered briefly what it would take to import more rodents into Glory for entertainment purposes. Sure, she could always pester the humans … but generally, their dull wits bored her.
Flea blinked. Was that a trap they had laid for her? Her day just kept getting better and better!
"That’s her!" The female hissed to her mate, giving the twine a little jerk just to make sure he was paying attention. She hated how he tended to tune out at the most inopportune times.
The female smiled. She should have put her mate on a leash years – Her joyful thoughts were interrupted by the rapid shaking movement of the rope in her paws. She looked down to see that Flea had her mate’s entire head in her mouth. The cat was shaking him wildly, his bushy tail waving frantically in the breeze. "Oops."
The larger squirrel pulled hard on the string and the male suddenly popped out of Flea’s mouth.
"Ahhhhh!!!" he screamed. Then he went silent. What had Flea had for breakfast? He licked the fur around his mouth. Ummm… liver.
Flea stopped and cocked her head to the side as she stared at the squirrel, who was now hanging about a foot and a half off the ground by his tail. A piñata? How wonderful. She hadn’t been to a fiesta in weeks!
"Higher! Higher!" the male hollered as Flea happily batted him about the head and shoulders, all the while deftly avoiding the branch-covered pit only inches from her paws.
Fearful that her mate wouldn’t last too much longer — it wasn’t like she had another immediate source of bait — the female pulled the string again, this time putting pulling? her mate just out of Flea’s immediate reach.
Flea hissed, unhappy at the temporary interruption in her play and simply jumped up and grabbed onto the squirrel’s body, swinging them both back and forth as the two animals shook and twisted wildly.
The female glanced down. They were both swinging directly over the pit now! If she cut the twine at precisely the right moment. No. That would be too cruel. Too hideous. ‘But your mate is already dead,’ her mind tempted. ‘And remember the time he got you a tiny squirrel vacuum for your anniversary?’ She began to chew her squirrel nails as the anxiety welled up within her. Trying to push the consequences out of her mind, she brought her razor-sharp teeth to the twine, opened her mouth, and –
"Flea!" Mavis called. "What are you doing to that poor animal?"
Flea immediately let go of the male squirrel, dropping down to the ground just in front of the pit. She pointed to herself as if to say, ‘Who me?’
Mavis frowned. "If you want a ride back to Glory then you’d better come on."
Flea was torn. Then again, she could always come back to the diner tomorrow and visit her new friends. It wasn’t like they were going anywhere. Without wasting another second, the cat dashed away from the tree and the squirrels and jumped into Mavis’ waiting truck.
The male whimpered. Most of his body was numb.
The female whimpered. ‘They had been so close! Gently, she lowered her mate to the ground, making sure he cleared the pit. She scrambled down the tree, unable to believe he was still in one piece. Who knew squirrel skin stretched like that?
"I was the best darn bait that ever was," the male said, shaken out of his reverie by the sound of a horn honking in the parking lot in front of the diner.
"You put earthworms and leeches to shame," his wife agreed.
"Damn straight." He stood up and dusted himself off, allowing his mate to untie his tail.
"We need a new plan."
"C’mon. I think better at home."
The male took one step, tripped on the acorn that had hit him in the head earlier and fell backwards into the pit, crashing through the thin branches that covered it.
The female’s beady black eyes widened as her mate plunged over the edge and she heard a splash. What had her mate put in the pit? She assumed it was full of razor-sharp spikes, or broken glass or something equally horrendous. What could have made a splash? She inched closer to the edge, not wanting to look inside, afraid she’d see her mate’s bleached skeleton. What if he’d filled the pit with acid?
Then she heard a faint. "Mmmmmm." Overcome with curiosity she peeked inside the hole.
The male squirrel was floating happily in a pool of blue liquid.
"What is that?"
"Wow. This tastes really good." His butt and back stung a little but he ignored it. He took another drink. "It’s almost as good as beer!" I wonder what kind of buzz I could get? And does it have as many calories? A squirrel’s got to eat!
Lazily, he looked up. "It’s antifreeze."
"Yeah. I’ve always heard it kills cats."
The female exhaled wearily as the male took another sip. "And just how do you think it kills cats, dear?"
The male swallowed his next drink loudly, gargling it a little as he did the backstroke. He looked up again, blue liquid oozing from the corners of his mouth. "Huh? I dunno." Suddenly he gasped, grabbed for his throat, and fell face down in the pool.
"Huh." She scratched and flicked a tiny flea from her fur. "I wonder if he’ll ever figure it out."
From the kitchen, Leigh watched RJ sit down on the couch. The tall woman was looking at the pilot's wings and wiping silent tears from her cheeks. Nononnnonnonononononono! Please don’t let her cry. I can’t handle crying women. Her mind raced for a way out. I could run out and buy Kleenex and by the time I came back she’d be done crying. Leigh heard another sniff and her heart sank. She wouldn’t do that. Again. The last time she’d ran out on a crying woman, the evil bitch had smashed the motel television set to bits and disappeared into the night, leaving Leigh with the bill.
But even though she didn’t want to go into the living room, she felt the urge, no, the demand, her heart was making on her to comfort RJ. For that one moment, however, her brain was still in charge of her. And Leigh’s brain told her to stay in the kitchen and fix them tequila. And to make them doubles. And to drink a shot right from the bottle.
Her eyes, however, seemed to be ruled by her heart and her gaze was drawn once again to the profoundly sad look on her friend’s face. Shit. Leigh had no choice. Her muscles allied with her heart, and the resulting coup caused her to walk out of the kitchen and kneel down in front of RJ.
The blonde let her hand slowly move up RJ’s leg then up her arm until it found her cheek. She tenderly caressed damp skin with her thumb. "Hey," she whispered, ducking her head, trying to get force eye contact with her friend. "You okay?"
RJ tried to smile, and gave a little nod. "Yeah, I’m fine." She held up her wings for Leigh to see. "Impressive, aren’t they?" She was thinking of the proud men and woman who wore them — their names were jumbled but their faces were bright clear, forever young.
"They are." Leigh’s eyes never left RJ’s face. She wanted to make RJ feel better but didn’t have the slightest clue as to how. "It was nice of Lucy to give you those," she began nervously. Why had this visit effected RJ so? Ultimately, it wasn’t sad at all. Lucy was alive and seemingly well, and they’d both heard several tales about RJ’s grandmother, which was the point, after all.
"I’m sorry about letting this get to me. I didn’t mean for this to ruin our day. I’m not sure why –"
Leigh pressed her fingers to RJ’s lips. "S’okay. We all have things that affect us in ways we don’t expect." Like the way you affect me, for instance. "But … um …" She licked her lips nervously. "You will be all right, right?"
RJ smiled and kissed Leigh’s fingers. Then she reached out and brushed her own fingers through the smaller woman’s thick hair. Feeling Leigh lean into her touch, she brought up her other hand and placed it on the other side of Leigh’s head, pulling her closer. "I never expected this, Leigh Matthews," she whispered, staring intently into the trucker’s eyes. Both women were surprised by the words, and RJ leaned forward and gently brushed her lips against Leigh’s, sighing at their softness. I never expected you to be like this.
Slightly startled by the outpouring of emotion in RJ’s simple kiss, Leigh pulled back a little. "That’s," she paused and gathered her thoughts. "That’s a good thing though, isn’t it?"
A brilliant smile was her answer. Then RJ yawned.
"C’mon." Leigh stood up and offered her hand to RJ. "Let’s go to bed."
"It’s only –"
"Who cares what time it is? I can see you’re exhausted."
RJ let out a grumpy breath. She was exhausted. The mental drain of seeing Lucy had been more than she bargained for, though a big part of her knew she simply wasn’t adjusted to being alive again and to the seemingly endless demands of her body.
Leigh led RJ into the bedroom. Not bothering with the light, she quietly stripped her companion out of her clothes, making a special effort to keep her hands to herself. RJ was exhausted and although Leigh suspected that with even the slightest of overtures she could have her, it somehow didn’t seem right this time.
RJ lifted her eyebrows when the last of her clothes hit the floor. "You’re comin’ too, right?"
"Uhhh …" Leigh heard the slight pleading in RJ’s voice. "Sure," she heard herself say.
RJ slipped into bed, her eyes drooping before Leigh could even crawl beneath the covers.
The blonde lay facing, RJ, feeling awkward as she gazed into heavy green eyes. Leigh blinked. I’ve never done this before. Well, not since elementary school … and she didn’t really think you could count the time when she was seven years old. There’s always been sex.
"Aren’t you tired?" RJ yawned, fighting hard to stay awake. "I can get up. You must be –" the mumbled words drifted off as RJ’s eyes slid shut.
Leigh rolled over and stared out the window into the just darkening sky.
She opened her eyes, not knowing how much time had passed. The room was draped in shadows when, over her shoulder, she heard a whispered voice, hoarse with sleep, float through the stillness.
"I love you, Leigh Matthews."
RJ’s warm breath tickled Leigh’s neck, but she remained still, wondering when she forgot how to breathe.
"God, forgive me, but I do." RJ exhaled wearily and Leigh could easily visualize the worried, pensive look that held her face for just a second before dropping away.
Leigh’s heart started beating again.
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