Chapter XIII

 

RJ leaned back in the seat of the truck. She kept her face firmly turned to the window as she chewed on the nail of her thumb. Iíve got to make it clean. Do whatever it takes to make her leave and never come back. I canít go on like this.

She glanced over at her companion, who at the moment was getting a report on the location of the nearest highway patrol over the CB. Iíve just been alone too long. What if I fell for the first pretty woman to give me the time of day? Okay, maybe not the first Ö She sighed. Leigh is special woman who deserves more than I can offer her. A once-a-week quickie in a garage is not a life. Itís not what she needs. Itís not even what I need.

The pilotís foot began to bounce nervously as she continued to chew on her thumbnail. Oh, I just had to go and fall in love with her, didnít I? Couldnít keep it to just sex. No. I had to go and get attached. Serves you right, you damn fool.

Over the past couple of days RJís mood had worsened with each passing mile. Leigh had hinted several times that sheíd be by the diner to see RJ again very soon. And though her heart thrilled to hear the words, at the same time they made things a hundred times more complicated. That she was in love with the woman was one thing. But to have those feelings returned, knowing all the while she was only hours away from ending things outright, was nearly more than RJ could bear. Sheíd had an upset stomach and headache for twenty-four hours straight and couldnít see things getting better anytime soon.

She glanced to the clock in the dashboard. Two more hours and sheíd be home.

"Youíre awfully quiet today, RJ." Leigh peered into her side mirror before smoothly changing lanes. "Are you okay?" Sheíd asked that several times today but couldnít help herself. Something wasnít right.

"Yeah, Iím fine, lass," RJ lied, not knowing how unconvincing she sounded. Every time she looked at Leigh she felt her heart break again. She closed her eyes, forcing the tears away and trying to clear her mind. God, Iím tired.

***

 

"RJ," Leighís soft voice coaxed from fitful sleep. "RJ, wake up."

RJ opened her eyes slowly, wishing that Leigh wasnít running her fingers through her hair. This was going to be hard enough without the sweet, lingering feeling of her touch.

"You have beautiful hair," Leigh whispered affectionately, still gently stroking the wavy auburn locks. "It would look even prettier longer, Iíll bet."

"Yeah?"

Leigh grinned and nodded. "Yeah." She leaned forward and kissed RJ softly on the cheek. "Weíre back."

RJ slowly sat up in her seat. She took a deep breath, letting it out explosively when she saw diner staring back at her through the front window of the truck. "So we are." She reached back and grabbed her travel bag, smiling sadly at the canvas duffel full of teddy bears that was tucked just behind the seats. Without looking back at Leigh, she opened the door and climbed down.

The air was warm and dry and held the scent of tall grass, rich soil and home. Fitzís sign reflected the bright afternoon sun, and RJ could see that another bulb had blown out in her absence.

She was tempted to rush inside and not face Leigh, but couldnít force her feet to move in time.

Leigh joined her in front of the truck and laid a warm hand on the small of her back, rubbing gently. The simple gesture nearly undid her. "Well," with a shaky hand RJ shifted her bag over one shoulder. "I guess this is where I get off."

Leigh shrugged half-heartedly. She ducked her head and kicked at a rock by her foot. "I wouldnít mind taking you home. To Glory, I mean." Truth be told, she was hoping for a few more moments together, admitting to herself for the first time that she didnít want to leave RJ at all. Besides, sheíd been wondering about Glory for weeks.

RJ shook her head. "No, thatís okay. My truck is right over there, and I should probably go inside and see if Fitzís is ready to fall down. With just Pete looking out for it, thatís a definite possibility." She shifted uncomfortably, looking back and forth between Leigh and the diner.

Leigh frowned a little as a growing sense of apprehension blossomed in the pit of her stomach. "Okay." She drew out the word. "At least let me walk you to diner."

Do it, you damn coward. Do it now. "Okay," she heard herself say. They began a slow walk, with RJ detouring slightly to toss her bag in the bed of her pickup truck. She reached in through the open window, intent on snagging the open pack of cigarettes from the dashboard, but stopped herself. Instead, she fished a nearly empty pack from her pocket, quickly lighting a cigarette. RJ took a deep drag, holding her breath for a long satisfying moment before releasing the smoke into the afternoon breeze. "So," she cleared her throat and picked a tiny piece of tobacco from her tongue. "Will you be going back to see Judith now?"

Leighís blinked and her jaw sagged noticeably. "WaÖ What?"

RJ tried for nonchalant. Iím so sorry, lass. Please forgive me. "I just figured that now that youíre rid of me, you might try your hand at fixing things up with her. She was pretty enough. Nice hair and eyes. You could do worse." Jesus, Iím dying all over again.

During Leighís long, stunned silence, RJ told herself that this was the best thing for both them. That Leigh would be able to get back to her life, while she got back to her eternity. They could never really be together. This was the only way. Say something, dammit. Anything.

Leigh could tell by the look on RJís face that she wasnít joking. She replayed what had just been said over and over in her mind, feeling the words as though each one were a 2x4 to her chest. "Why Ė " she stopped and swallowed back the acrid taste that had built up in the back of her throat. I will not puke. "Why would I go back to Judith?" You canít want that, can you? I donít understand! her mind screamed.

"Just seems to me to be the logical thing for you to do." RJ refused to look up from the toe of her boots. She took another drag from her cigarette, releasing the thick white stream of smoke through her nose. "I know I was a pleasant distraction for you, but I think if you went back there you could work things out with her. Sheís had plenty of time to cool off."

"I donít want to work things out with her!" Leighís hand shot out and she snatched the cigarette out of RJís mouth. She flicked it to the ground and crushed it under her shoe. With the palm of her hand she grasped the taller womanís chin and forced eye contact. "What in the hell are you talking about?" Her voice was demanding and rough, but RJ couldnít help but hear her rising panic.

She gulped hard and forced herself to directly meet Leighís confused but fiery glare.

"Donít make this harder than it has to be. Do I really have to explain things, lass?"

Leigh ran her hands through her hair. "I guess you do, RJ. Because I donít understand what the hell is happening."

"Itís over, Leigh. The week is done. Now the best thing you can do is climb in your truck and drive away." Every word tasted foreign and bitter, and her heart cried out for her to stop.

But she didnít.

"We had fun." RJ shrugged again, pulling her chin from Leighís grasp and looking away. "But now the fun is over."

The fun is over? "Youíre dumping me?" Leigh whispered incredulously, trying desperately to figure out what had happened. Things were wonderful between them. Better than wonderful. Sure, she hadnít said the words yet, but that didnít make her feelings any less real.

RJ clenched her fists nervously. "Címon, Leigh." The dull ache in her chest intensified. "It was sex. A week of wonderful sex, granted." She gave the trucker her best roguish look. "But youíve got to know Iím not exactly the type for anything long term."

"I never asked for anything long term!" But the protest sounded hollow even to Leighís own ears. She hadnít asked for it. But thatís exactly what she found herself wanting.

RJ pointed at the truck. "Look, lass, I really think you need to just climb back in your truck and head down the road. Iím sure if you drive real fast, that pretty waitress will be more than happy to make you feel better." From the corner of her eye she could see Pete and her mother standing in the door of the diner, waiting. RJ could sense their pity, and she would have none of it. She bit her lip and refocused on Leigh. She needed to end this now, before she changed her mind. "Iím sure sheíll be more than happy to make a spot for you in her bed."

Leigh spun away from RJ and moaned out loud as though she was in physical pain. "I thought you loved me!" She whirled back and glared. "You said that." She was yelling now. "I heard you."

The pilot clenched her teeth so hard it felt as though her jaw would break. You heard that and you still stayed? This is not fair! She gestured aimlessly. "Pillow talk."

"Why are you doing this?" Tears filled confused eyes. This isnít how things were supposed to be. Weíre supposed to end up together. I know it.

"Doing what, Leigh? Being true to my nature?" RJ forced out a cruel laugh. "Do I look like the type of person who wants to have someone attached to them?"

"I Ö I thought Ė"

"You thought wrong. Leigh, you donít really believe youíre the only woman that Iíve had here, do you?" RJ closed her eyes briefly before forcing the next words from her lips. "You were my Tuesday afternoon distraction."

SMACK!

The sound of the loud slap rang out in the quiet parking lot. "You bitch." Leighís face turned bright red. "Thatís a lie and you know it."

RJ felt the slap deep into her soul and knew she deserved that and ten times worse. Yes, it is, love. She nearly faltered in her determination, but a deep breath allowed her to press on. "You give yourself a lot of credit, Leigh Matthews. Thatís one helluva ego you have." She pulled another cigarette from the pack, letting the empty wrapper fall to the ground. She lit it and tossed the match over her shoulder. "Whatís the matter? Donít like it when someone beats you at your own game? Donít care for it when someone uses you for a quick fuck?"

Through Leighís astonishment and mounting anger, the truth in the words still tore at her. Is that what this is? Some sort of cosmic revenge for enjoying women? But sheíd never led anyone on. Not like this. "Quick fuck," Leigh laughed humorously, saying it out loud to make it sound real. "Now, I see."

RJ let out a shaky breath. "Finally." She plucked her cigarette from her mouth and waved toward the rig again. "So why donít you go ahead and head back to the waitress. Though I have no doubt youíve got one in every city between here and Seattle."

Leigh took a step closer to RJ, crossing the boundaries of her personal space as though they didnít exist. "Smoking is a nasty habit, RJ. It could kill you." She patted RJís chest with startling tenderness. "Enjoy your cigarette." With that, she turned on her heels and began marching back to her truck. Tears blurred her vision and when she was far enough from RJ so that she was certain that she couldnít hear, Leigh let out a gentle sob, her shoulders shaking.

As she walked past RJís rusted pickup, she kicked at one of the tires, cursing at the instant pain it caused her foot. "Piece of shit truck!" Fury and embarrassment washed over her and when she saw the crowbar lying in the pickup bed, she didnít hesitate for even a second. She snatched it up and set out to demolish old machine.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" RJ spun around when she heard the first sounds of glass breaking. But Leigh managed to shatter three windows, the front windshield, and put a huge hole in the back glass before RJ could make it back to her. "Have you lost your senses?" she yelled as she tried to grab the crowbar away from the furious blonde. "Christ, if youíre mad at me then hit me! Donít take it out of my truck."

"Fine!" Leigh threw down the crowbar and took a swing at RJ, barely missing her as the auburn-haired woman ducked out of the way.

"Shit." The pilot continued to back up as Leigh kept swinging at her. "I hope this is making you feel better, because you look like a lunatic."

The words only made Leigh madder, and she cried out her frustration at not being able to do any real damage as RJ ducked and weaved out of her way.

"Címon now and calm down. You give yourself a couple of weeks and youíll have forgotten I even exist."

Leigh swung again and again, grunting when she managed to graze RJís shoulder, the impact causing the taller woman to wince. "I donít want to forget you!" she cried. Suddenly she froze as the realization of what she was doing hit home. The energy seemed to drain from her body and like a rag doll she fell limply to her knees, panting. "Thatís not what I want." Her voice broke. I want you. She looked up at RJ hopefully, hot tears spilling over. "Please, RJ." Leigh stiffened when her lover didnít answer. "Is that what you want? For me to forget everything?"

RJ felt her carefully measured control slipping. It wasnít supposed to be this horrible. This was too hard. She wanted nothing more than to pull Leigh into her arms, beg her forgiveness, and promise they would be together forever. But as sure as she was standing there RJ knew one thing with soul-shattering certainty. Her own heartís desire wasnít a possibility. Her hands shaped white-knuckled fists. "Yes," she ground out harshly before turning and walking away.

She left Leigh on her knees in the dirt, crying. With her back to her lover, she allowed her own tears to fall. RJ could hear the love of her life ó and afterlife ó pick herself up, dust herself off, and stomp back toward her rig.

Leigh paused for a moment, wiping her cheeks on her shirtsleeve, embarrassed and angry over the tears. She turned slowly and watched RJís retreating form move closer and closer to the diner. "You can go to hell, RJ," she called out.

RJ continued to walk, not even flinching at the words. Before stepping onto the porch, she warily peeked over her shoulder in time to see Leigh climb in the truck and start the engine. "Iím already there, Leigh Matthews." She continued to stare as Leigh slammed down hard on the accelerator, sending an enormous cloud of dust into the sky before she disappeared. "Take care of yourself, love. Iíll miss you."

Sixty years of built-up resentment bubbled over, and RJ stomped her foot down hard on the porch steps, knowing what would happen. She felt her world spin and gasped as her chest tightened to an unbearable degree just before everything went black.

She never felt Pete and her motherís loving hands lower her to the ground. They tried to ease her on her short journey back from life to what lay beyond. But as always, this was one trip that could only be taken alone.

Katherine looked down at RJís rumpled clothes and then at the black pickup surrounded by shattered glass. At that very second a large chunk of glass fell from the driver's side window into the dirt. She cringed. "Peter," she turned accusing eyes on the heavy-set man, "why didnít you tell me the lady trucker had Irish in her? My RJ could have been killed!"

***

 

"Pay up, loser."

The male squirrel grumpily pulled his head back into their nest. "How?" He threw his paws into the air. "How could that have happened? The darker human has at least six inches and forty pounds on the smaller one." Last time I ever bet on human female fight. "It was a sure thing. In the bar parking lot across from the park the fattest human female always wins," he bemoaned, slumping down on their bed. "Unless one has really big hair or is from New Jersey. But those are the only things that trump blubber. Everyone knows that!"

"Wrong. Size doesnít necessarily matter."

He looked down at himself and then back up at her hopefully.

"Except there."

The male scowled and crossed his legs.

"Well?" She held out her paw. "Youíre not going to welch, are you?"

"Of course not!" he lied. The male pretended to look for an acorn in the soft grass that lined his bed. "Youíll just have to take a rain check." His voice dropped to a mumble. "I donít happen to have payment at this very moment."

"What?" his mate roared.

"You heard me." He scratched his thigh. "Itís not like Iíve been able to go out gathering for a few days, you know."

The female sucked on her pointy canines. This much was true. Her mate had spent the last three days in bed due to a mysteriously contracted itching illness. It had been pure hell. Her evil deceit had snared her like a spider caught in its own web. But sheíd finally learned her lesson once and for all. Dammit. Never again! Next time she did it sheíd be sure to store up a good supply of food first.

"What are we going to do?"

She joined the male on the bed. Taking pity on him she scratched his back, which was now covered with short, soft brown fur. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," he began to quake, "I canít take the pressure of being in charge!" Tiny squirrel tears began to fall. "I know I said I was going to from now on. But Ö but itís too much to handle. The pressure! The demands! The expectations! The sacrifice!"

"All youíve done is lay in bed for seventy hours straight."

"I know," he cried miserably. "But I was thinking the whole time."

"Did it hurt?"

"You could tell?"

The female thought about that for a moment. She had assumed that the pained, nearly constipated look on his face was beer withdrawal. But thinking pains, so common in males, was another viable possibility.

"Iím not a modern squirrel. Iím not," he pressed.

She sighed. "Well, the truth is Ė"

"Please, please, canít we go back to our established familial roles? With me as the virile, squirrel-about-town bread winner. The squirrel that makes your cold black heart pitter-patter. And with you as my loyal, scheming and surprisingly organized housewife?"

"I do excel at scheming and I am organized."

"And who are we to question the eternal wisdom of Meatloaf?" he crowed.

She had to admit, "Two outta three ainít bad."

"Exactly."

"But why should I?" She never had any intention of losing the mantle of power. In fact, sheíd forgotten heíd even said anything about it. But this was too fun to ignore.

"Iím losing my sense of self. I canít take it. I donít know me anymore. Iím adrift in a sea of confusion."

The femaleís eyes widened a little. Had he somehow gone from beer to crack without her knowing about it? How could he not offer to share?

He wiped away his tears, clearly sensing that she was weakening. "A switch in gender roles is not something that a squirrel can be expected to adapt to in a day or week. It takes years of inter-spousal communication and understanding. If done improperly it could tear the very fabric of squirrel society, not to mention our marriage."

"You just couldnít think of a plan to save us from the cat," she said knowingly.

"Not a single one."

***

 

Pete watched as RJ propped a tall ladder against the frame of the sign. She hadnít said much since her return, and her mood was growing darker with each passing day. He knew she was hurt and upset, but he didnít have a clue as how to ease his friendís pain.

"Anything I can do to help?" he inquired as RJ started up the ladder, new bulbs in hand.

"No thanks."

Pete held the ladder steady as he watched her climb the steps. "Fitz, you canít keep doing this to yourself. You knew your time with Leigh was limited."

"I donít want to talk about it." She continued at her task, removing one of the burned out bulbs and laying it on the signís ledge.

Pete called up, "Your mother is worried about you."

RJ scowled and touched a strand of blowing hair behind her ear. "My mother worries too much." She removed the next bad bulb and laughed without a trace of humor. "Itís not like it can kill me."

"Stop saying that over and over. RJ, thatís not even funny."

"Sure it is." She looked down at Pete. "Leigh will be fine."

"Will you? Eternity is a long time to have regrets."

One of the bulbs was rusted into place and RJ cursed as it shattered in her hand and nicked her palm when she tried to remove it. "Iím sure Iíll get used to it," she answered tersely. She quickly put the new bulbs into place and collected the old before starting down the ladder. At the bottom she wiped her hands on a rag. "Itís amazing the things you can get used to when necessary."

Before Pete could say another word, RJ collapsed the ladder and hoisted it onto her shoulder. She turned and walked toward the garage.

"What is it that you want, RJ?" Pete called to her retreating form. He hoped to get any reaction at all out of her. He figured that even anger was better than the listless and depressed woman who had taken the place of his friend.

RJ threw the ladder down with such force that it bounced once before settling on the ground. She spun around in the dirt, causing dusty clouds to swirl at her feet as she glared at Pete. "What I want? What I want is no doubt several hundred miles away by now!"

She stomped closer to him, her hands curled into tight fists. "Probably finding comfort in the arms of a woman who canít possibly love her as much as I do. The one I want thinks Iím a right bitch who used her and never cared for her, when in reality Iíve never loved anyone the way I love her!"

She was furious and shaking all over; tears leapt into her eyes, but she refused to let them fall.

"Is that what you wanted to hear, Peter? Did you want to hear that Iím miserable? That it hurts all the time? That I canít shake the feeling of her touch, that I hear her voice in my head every second. That when I close my eyes," she paused as the angry energy began to drain from her and the tears became nearly too much to fight, "I see her face."

He saw her shoulders slump as she turned and stalked over to her truck. She climbed in, sitting stock still for a moment before more anger burst forth and she beat her fists against the steering wheel. Once the tide of fury had subsided, she started the truck and pulled out of the parking lot.

Pete watched her drive away, headed back to Glory. He sighed, then felt hands on his shoulders.

"Sheíll be all right. RJís a strong woman," Mavis offered quietly.

"This is a hurt thatís going to take a long time to heal."

"Weíll help her." Mavis rested her cheek against Peteís shoulder.

"She doesnít want our help."

"In time sheíll realize she needs it."

"I hope so, but the one thing we know about RJ is sheís as stubborn as a two-dollar mule."

***

 

Highway patrolman Jerry Englund sat Ďmeditatingí in his patrol car in his hidden spot alongside the road. His eyes had just begun to droop and he let out a soft snore when a bright red semi-truck went barreling past him at what had to be over a hundred miles per hour.

Something crashing against his windshield and the loud dull thud sent him bolting upright. Confused, he rubbed his eyes and looked around, but the truck had already disappeared over the hill in front of him. "What the hell?" Had a bird hit his windshield while his car was standing still?

The patrolman exited the vehicle and walked around past the front bumper. His gaze dropped to the ground and his deeply set, brown eyes widened. "Iíll be good and god damned."

Over the past few months heíd found more than a dozen mutilated stuffed bears alongside the highway. They intrigued him to no end. Who was this sicko?

Patrolman Englund picked up the soft brown teddy bear and gasped. The head had very nearly been severed, remaining attached by only the barest of threads. Tire tracks were embedded in the fur and there was a hole in the bearís chest where his heart would have been. If stuffed toys had hearts. Englund suspected they were dealing with an enraged sociopath. He grinned broadly and tossed the bear into his backseat as a souvenir. He was sure that someday it would fetch a handsome price on eBay. Maybe he could even sell the head separately.

***

RJ settled on her parentsí front porch swing, watching the sun go down, sipping a beer. She looked at the sweating bottle, running her thumb through the condensation. She sniffed, then tipped the bottle to her lips, drinking deeply.

She glanced up when she heard the screen door creak open. Her brother Liam sat down next to her and took a deep breath as he contemplated very carefully what he wanted to say.

"I know," he finally started, "that this may not mean much right now, but itíll get better. Itís only been a couple of months."

"Why did it happen, Liam? How could I let myself fall in love with her?"

The man scratched a stubbley jaw. "I suppose thereís no good answer to that. I could say itís one of those lessons life is suppose to teach you that sometimes things donít work out like you want it to." He winced at how lame that sounded.

"I thought I learned that lesson when my plane crashed."

Liam nodded. "I suppose thatís true, but that wasnít a lesson of the heart. Those are always the hardest lessons to learn."

The pilot grunted and rolled her eyes at her brotherís attempt at waxing philosophical. She took another sip of beer. RJ was by no means drunk ó yet. Right now she was feeling pleasantly numb. "I wonder if she misses me," she said softly, eyeing a rabbit that jumped happily through the yard.

Liam placed a gentle hand on his sisterís knee. "Iím sure she does, RJ. But you know what you did was best for you both," he assured confidently.

Her auburn head bobbed weakly, and she became aware of the strands brushing the tops of her shoulders. She had started to go to Sammyís Barber Shop weeks ago but couldnít bring herself to do it. She knew it was foolish, but every time she tried to get it cut she kept hearing Leighís comment about how good it would look longer. Wish you could see it now, lass.

"RJ, thereís something I think you should know." Liam shifted uncomfortably on the swing. His sister deserved to know this, but he wasnít quite sure how she would take it. RJ was never one to appreciate meddling. "While you gone with Leigh, Mother tried to get the council to allow you to go permanently. So you could be together."

A single dark eyebrow shot upward.

"Her request was turned down."

RJ stared at her brother, her disbelief clear. "Really?" She blinked stupidly. "I thought Mother didnít care for Leigh."

Liam smiled sadly. "She wanted what sheís always wanted, for you to be happy."

RJ sighed. "You know, brother, Iím starting to believe that I was never meant to be truly happy."

 

***

"Shut up, Rooster," Leigh said in warning. The man had been calling for her over the CB every day for the last few weeks. Sheíd listened to other truckers report theyíd seen what they thought was her truck, but they couldnít be sure since her motherís nude body no longer graced the side.

"Címon, Leigh. I know youíre out there somewhere. For Christís sake, pick up the radio."

Leigh glared at the radio evilly. She was tempted to just shut the damn thing off, but she found the thundering silence to oppressive too bear.

"Tom Cat, I Ė"

Leigh snatched up he receiver. "You asshole, Rooster. I told you never to call me that." Her irritation was clear.

"Ah Ö I knew you were still alive."

"Of course Iím still alive. Why wouldnít I be?" She rubbed her eyes tiredly, intentionally not thinking about the haunting, dark circles that now seemed a permanent fixture on her face.

"Well, I heard you picked up another route along with the already impossible one you drive."

Leigh didnít answer.

"Plus, I havenít seen you at Rosieís in forever."

"So?"

There was a longer silence this time.

"So the guys are worried about you," Rooster finally said.

"Bull shit. The guys donít even know me. And neither do you."

"Leigh Ė "

"Drive your truck and leave me alone, Rooster."

Rooster sighed and Leigh could hear the enormous man shifting in his seat. The flat tone to her voice worried him, but he wasnít about to piss her off any further. Sheíd come around eventually. "If thatís how you want it."

"Thatís exactly how I want it."

"Okay, but if Ė"

Leigh slammed the receiver back into its holder and clicked the radio off. The small teddy bear that was hanging by a homemade noose from her rear view mirror caught her attention and for several moments she stared at it, her face a stone mask. Then she punched it and watched in satisfaction as it banged back and forth several times between her windshield and the roof. "I donít need you." Without warning, she felt tears sting her eyes for the first time in weeks. She would have sworn she was all cried out. "I donít need anybody," she whispered harshly as she punched the gas.


Three hours later the road was blurring so badly she couldnít see it. Angry at her bodyís relentless demands, she jerked the wheel to the left and pulled off the road onto a wide shoulder. Fully dressed, she flopped gracelessly down on the small bed. After a brief war with herself, she reached out a hand slowly and rooted around in a pile of new towels sheíd purchased the day before to avoid having to do laundry. Quickly, she found what she was looking for ó a well worn, small black teddy bear, the last bear that remained, save the one hanging from her rear view mirror.

The bearís coal black eyes stared back at her and she lightly fingered the soft black fur that stuck out in all directions. RJ had pinned the pilot wings Lucy had given her on the stuffed toyís chest. As furious and heart-broken as Leigh was, she didnít have the heart to remove them. She pulled the bear to her breast and curled up into the fetal position, trying not to feel the ache in her chest or think about anything at all as she let the infrequent hum of the late night traffic lull her into a fitful sleep.

***

RJ let the beer bottle drop carelessly to the floor as she drove toward the diner. She wiped the sweat from her face, wondering why it was so damn hot. Her vision was unfocused and her head was spinning just little.

The ache had only gotten worse over since sheíd parted with Leigh. For her there simply was no peace. She continued with her duties as guide to Glory and handyman to the diner, even setting aside a portion of her day to remain utterly sober. What more did they want from her? They have no right to ask for more. Why canít they just leave me the hell alone?

Pulling her truck around behind the garage, she killed the engine and pushed the door open, stumbling out of the truck and nearly falling on her face in the dirt. At the last moment she managed to retain a tiny bit of her balance and pull herself up by the door handle. She stared at the truck, which still had its broken windows, then she slammed the door and staggered toward the garage.

As she leaned drunkenly on the garage door it fell open, sending her sprawling to the floor, landing at the feet of a very surprised Tony.

"RJ! Are you okay?" He dropped to the floor near his friend.

She shook her head. "N Ö no." She burst out laughing. "Iím not even close to okay."

The smell of stale beer was overwhelming, and as much as Tony loved the beverage when the odor came out of someone elseís mouth it was just plain putrid. He tried not to gag as he placed his hands under her and began to tug her to her feet.

"I think you need some coffee. Címon, letís go to the diner."

"Donít want to go to the diner. Came to finish fixing the roof."

"No way, man. Just no way. Iím not going to let you up on the roof like this. You could kill yourself."

RJ laughed so hard she started to cough. "You donít get it, do you, boy? Weíre dead. I already went splat. And from a lot higher than this roof. Trust me: I wonít die again. If I could find a way, I would."

Tony went a little pale. "Stop talking like that." He pulled her up, wrapping his arm around her waist. "Letís get you sobered up."

"You know how?"

The young man nodded grimly thinking of his own childhood.

RJ slapped him on the back. "Good, lad."

He maneuvered them to the door, pulling her toward the diner. Just as they made it to the back door they turned toward a crashing sound to see RJís pickup truck rolling down a slight incline, tearing out small trees and bushes as it went. In stunned silence their eyes tracked the truck as it rolled right into pond.

RJ pulled away from Tony, swaying and laughing as the black truck slowly began sinking into the murky water. "Guess I forgot to set the brake," she slurred before her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out, falling face first to the ground.

 

***

Leigh switched off her ignition and stared at the diner. She knew it was a bad idea coming back here. But she had no place else to go.

She yanked the hanging bear from her mirror and exited the truck. The sunset cast its orange and red rays across the plains, painting them in rich color. Leigh pulled off her sunglasses and drew in a deep breath of the fragrant late-summer air. Then she waited, knowing she was bound to see her soon. She swallowed nervously when the woman appeared out the front door of the diner and lit a cigarette. Leigh closed her eyes and firmed her resolve. With a negligent hand she tossed the bear into the ditch alongside the parking lot. It was time to do something, and Leigh marched determinedly toward the front door.

"Leigh?" She quirked an eyebrow. "I didnít think Iíd see you back here."

Leigh ducked her head. "Hello, Judith," she said quietly.

Judith took a step closer to her old lover, visibly cringing at Leighís appearance. "Jesus Christ. What have you done to yourself?" She laid a comforting hand on Leighís shoulder. "Have you given up sleep and food completely?" Her fingertips brushed across Leighís arm. "Youíre all skin and bones."

Leigh sighed and closed her eyes at the comforting touch. "Iím okay," she assured softly.

"I can see that." But Judithís sarcasm held no real malice.

Leigh shook her head. "Itís been a long time."

"Three months." Judith paused. "Youíre not really okay, are you?"

Leigh looked up with painfully honest eyes. "No," she admitted. "I guess Iím not."

"Címere, honey." Judith opened her arms to her friend, and Leigh gratefully stepped into them.

Chapter 14

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