Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) violence. There is, ultimately, after YEARS of dedicated reading, consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you get the point.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. If this offends you, is illegal where you live, or if you are underage—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who are brave enough (and persistent enough) to read this, my first work of fiction. Bear with me and forgive me for any significant grammatical or literary transgressions— Jericho and I are both works in progress.
Special Thanks : To my best pal, writing dominatrix (she looks really cute in that meter maid costume, but can never make change), and Beta-reader—the FAMOUS JLynn (who told me it didn't suck). So if you think it does , please tell her instead of me. You will find her works of fiction posted at this site, too.
If you decide that you like it, however, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright Ann McMan, November 2010. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Jericho is complete, but will be posted in ten parts.
Jericho Part IX
Maddie's first day back at the clinic was surprisingly low key, thanks to the seamless job Lizzy and Peggy had done managing her patient load during her absence. She was more besieged by well-wishing and curious neighbors inquiring after Celine, than by sick people needing treatment. By noon, she felt like half of Jericho had checked in. She actually was relieved when Gladys Pitzer showed up, complaining about stiffness in the joints of her left hand. Since this had been the hand she had damaged with florist wire on New Years Eve, Gladys was worried that there might be some nerve damage. Maddie had Peggy shoot some x-rays as a precaution, but she was pretty certain that what Gladys was suffering from was related more to the strain of repetitive motion after an injury.
She sat down with Gladys in one of her examination rooms and checked her hands and feet for redness, swelling, or inflammation. The discomfort seemed to be confined to her left hand, and more specifically, to her previously afflicted forefinger. She had good range of motion in both hands and feet, and no indications of joint deformity, so Maddie didn't worry too much about a rheumatic condition. As expected, her x-rays were normal.
She finished her examination and sat back on her rolling stool. Gladys seemed jumpier than usual—and that was saying a lot. Maddie often thought of her as the human incarnation of a squirrel—busy and industrious, but furtive and antsy. Today she seemed more agitated and distracted than usual. Her manner was anxious and fretful. She appeared overly concerned with what probably was a simple case of tendonitis. Maddie was determined to try and allay her concerns about her hand, without minimizing the condition.
“Well, Gladys, the good news is that there is nothing serious wrong with your hand. Your x-rays look fine, and you have excellent range of motion—always a very good sign. I think you have a trace of tendonitis from your injury over the holidays—maybe even a bit of bursitis. I can't be sure about that—but I'd like to give you some antibiotics as a precautionary measure, just in case there was some lingering infection in the wound that might have caused inflammation around the joints.”
Gladys nodded rapidly. Her appearance was almost comical. With her beady eyes and frizzy red hair, she resembled a bobble-head clown. “What do I do about work? Easter is coming—it's one of my busiest times. I have to work.”
Maddie raised a calming hand. “Easter is still several weeks away, Gladys. I think we can have you feeling better by the end of the week if you'll do a few simple things to rest your hand. Okay?”
Gladys sighed, plainly still agitated. She nodded again.
Maddie held her gaze. “Okay. I'm going to have Peggy give you some written instructions for how to take care of your hand. Simply stated, I want you to rest it, keep it elevated, and take some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like Advil or Motrin to reduce any swelling and help you out with the pain. Do this for two to three days, okay? And take the antibiotics as directed until they're all gone. If you don't feel better by the weekend, call me and we'll go on from there.”
Gladys continued to sit there on the padded table, holding her afflicted hand in her lap. Her shoulders were hunched together and her compact, wiry form looked like it had been folded up for ease of storage.
Maddie decided to take a chance. “Gladys, is everything okay at home? With Beau?”
Gladys looked up at her with alarm.
Maddie continued more softly. “Would he be able to help you out around the house for a few days? Just so you can rest your hand?”
Gladys shrugged nervously and looked over Maddie's shoulder toward the door that led to the hallway and the other examination rooms. “I don't know where he is right now—he hasn't been at home for over a week.”
Maddie felt a twinge of apprehension. “Is he working? Did he get a job someplace out of town?”
Gladys shrugged again. “I don't think so. I tried to get him to help me out in the store, but he didn't want anyone to see him working in a flower shop.” She looked down at the floor again.
Maddie affected an upbeat tone to try and put Gladys at ease. “Well, maybe you can take advantage of the quiet around the house to really get some rest. I'm sure you'll hear from him soon.” When Gladys didn't reply, Maddie leaned forward and met her eyes, trying to speak in vague but reassuring terms. “Gladys, I hope you know that you can always ask for help if you're worried or afraid. No one wants any harm to come to Beau—or to you. Please, don't try to manage anything on your own that feels too big or too frightening.”
Gladys nodded curtly and got to her feet. “Where do I get my prescription?”
Maddie sat back and sighed. “I'll write it up and bring it out to you while you're finishing up your paperwork with Peggy. You call me if you need anything. Let me hear from you toward the end of the week, okay?”
“Okay.” She refused to make eye contact. “Thanks, Dr. Stevenson.”
Maddie watched her narrow back as she exited the room and headed down the hallway toward the reception desk. Shit , she thought. Shit. She pulled out her prescription pad and started to write.
Maddie had arranged to meet David at the inn that night after work for a glass of wine. When she called him to set up the date, he teased her about her seeming formality.
“What's up with the cloak and dagger stuff? I can't be in trouble for anything—I haven't even seen you since the night you left for California.”
“You're not in trouble—I just need to talk with you.”
He was still suspicious. “I know you, Cinderella—you've got something up your poofy sleeve.”
Maddie sighed. “We've had this conversation, David. I don't wear poofy sleeves.”
“Hey? Allow me some artistic license here. If I wanna imagine you in poofy sleeves—then that's my prerogative.” He thought about it. “Yeah. Poofy. Knowing you, it would be something folksy and tasteless, too—like dotted Swiss.”
“You heard me.”
“Whatever. I'll be there at 5:30. Open something expensive.”
When she arrived at the inn, David was actually outside in the parking lot, unloading a couple of boxes from the back of the Range Rover. He stopped when he saw Maddie's Jeep approach, and stood back to wait on her to park and join him. They embraced warmly and he kissed her on the cheek.
“It's good to see you. I'm so glad about Celine. Syd told us how well she rebounded. It must have been harrowing for you.”
Maddie held him at arm's length for a moment before releasing him. He looked fit and handsome in the late afternoon light. “It was. You probably understand that better than anyone.”
He nodded. “Help me carry these inside?” He gestured toward the two boxes sitting on the ground behind his SUV.
“Sure. Whatcha got? New vacuum cleaner hoses?”
He gave her a withering look. “So much for honor among thieves…and I thought I could trust that blonde vixen of yours.”
Maddie laughed at him as they walked over toward the Rover. “That was your second mistake.”
“Hey…don't blame me—blame that damn Sex Lady on HBO. It was her idea.”
“I doubt that, somehow.”
“Yeah, whatever . Besides—this ain't new attachments for the Kirby. It's wine.”
“Oh, really?” Maddie noticed the Shelton label stenciled on the outside of the boxes. “Don't I have great timing?” They each picked up one of the cases and headed toward the porch.
“Great timing, my ass. I made a special trip to North Carolina in your honor. I know how much you like that Reserve Claret.”
“You trying to spoil me?”
“Nope. Bribe you. My instincts tell me that I'm in for something—and where you're concerned, I'm never wrong.”
He held the door open with his knee and Maddie entered the inn ahead of him. They walked together toward the bar and deposited the two cases of wine on a low table.
“You're not in for anything, David. But I do need to talk with you about something mom told me the other day when she was home from the hospital.”
He stared at her with wide eyes. “ Mom? ”
Maddie sighed and shrugged. She needed to get used to this reaction. “Yeah. I guess I should tell you about that, too.”
“I'll say. What in the hell happened out there?” He took off his jacket and dropped it over the back of a chair. “Sit down. Lemme open one of these.”
She complied and dropped into a chair, pulling another one over to prop up her feet. David returned to the table with two balloon glasses and a corkscrew. He reached over and drew one of the tall bottles out of a box. “You wanna do the honors?” He held the bottle and the corkscrew out toward her.
“Nope.” She laced her fingers together and stretched her long arms out, yawning. “I'm dragging. Must still be on west coast time.”
David began twisting the corkscrew into the top of the bottle. “Oh really? I'd have guessed it was more like sleep deprivation.”
She glowered at him. “Nice try. You aren't getting any details from me—so don't even ask.”
“I don't have to ask —it's all over your face.”
“The serene countenance of someone who's getting lots of nookie.” He extracted the cork with a loud pop. “This is the first time I've seen you without that annoying facial tic.”
“You're nuts. I never had a facial tic.”
“Well, then—it obviously was some kind of involuntary muscle spasm, discernable only by me.” He poured them each a healthy serving of the dark, ruby-colored wine. “I'd say let's let this breathe—but screw it.” He clinked glasses with her. “Welcome home, sweetheart.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks.” They each took a sip, then sat back and regarded each other.
“So,” David ran a hand through his dark hair. “What gives?”
Maddie twisted the stem of her wine glass around on the small table. “Mom finally told me the truth about what happened between her and dad all those years ago.” She met his eyes. “Did you know that dad was gay?”
David's mouth fell open. “ What? ”
She nodded. “Yeah. She found out by accident one day when she came home from work early and found him there—with Uncle Art.”
David closed his eyes. “Oh, my god.”
“Yeah. He never wanted me to find out, so he made her promise to keep it a secret.” She leaned toward him over the small table. “David?”
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
“I have to ask you this. Did you know?”
He hesitated before slowly shaking his head. “Did I know? No. I didn't know. Not for sure.”
She held his open gaze. “But you suspected?”
He exhaled and reached across the table to take her hand. She did not pull it away. “Yeah. I mean—I thought about it once or twice. But I never knew for sure—and I never asked him about it.” He shook his head. “Never. I couldn't. My suspicions were too vague—and it just seemed too unlikely to me.” He squeezed her hand. “That's why I never said anything to you—I was so sure I was wrong.”
She sighed. “Well, it turns out you weren't.” She sat back, but allowed David to continue to hold her hand. “What made you suspect it?”
He shook his head. “I dunno. There was never anything— concrete . It was more just like a feeling. And he was so supportive of me—so determined to make sure that I had a positive coming-out experience and a better chance at making a life for myself away from here.” He lowered his eyes. “I just wondered sometimes, you know? Especially when he never dated anybody else after your mother left. And he spent a lot of weekends in Charlottesville, but Art rarely came to the farm—at least not during the year that I lived there.” He looked back up at her. “I guess you never found anything in the house to make you suspect? No books or letters or anything?”
“No. Nothing. And after I moved back down here, I spent a fair amount of time packing up dad's personal effects. It was all pretty innocuous. No surprises.”
“Well. Art was here with him that last weekend—he was the one who called the EMTs when he found your dad in the barn.”
Maddie considered that. “Are you suggesting that maybe he took some items out of the house?”
David shrugged. “It would make sense, wouldn't it? I mean, especially if he knew how determined your dad was to hide the truth from you.”
“God.” Maddie pulled her hand free and rubbed it across her forehead. “I don't know what to think about any of this.”
“Maybe you need to talk with Art? I mean, now that you know.”
She nodded. “That's exactly what I've been thinking.”
They were silent for a minute. When he spoke again, David's voice was tentative. “Maddoe, I hope you understand why I never said anything to you. I never had more than a vague suspicion—and that was only fleeting on one or two occasions. If I had really known something, I would have told you—I never would have let you suffer the way you did all those years after your parents split up. Especially once you figured out that you were gay.” He shrugged. “That we both were gay.”
She gave him a small smile. “I know that, Davey. I believe you.”
He sat back. “So, when are you gonna go to Charlottesville?”
She took another swallow of the wine. “You know, I'm not sure. I may just live with this a little while before going to see him.”
“I can understand that.”
“I mean, I remember how devastated he was after dad's death—now I understand that in a whole new light.” She sighed. “I understand lots of things differently now.” She looked at David. “I'm not angry at him—any more than I am at dad—or Celine. I'm really just sorry . Sorry for all three of them—dad, mom, Art.” She slowly shook her head. “It's amazing to me that three such highly functioning professionals couldn't find a better way to resolve a painful relationship dilemma.”
David expelled a long, slow breath. “Well, at the risk of pissing you off, I think you need to admit that having a string of degrees as long as one of your glorious legs is no guarantee that you'll be able to manage the nitty-gritty of life any better than some poor schmoe on a loading dock. They're just human, Maddie—and they fucked-up. They made bad choices. Just like we have—numerous times. Remember my first five relationships? And Gina? Wanna talk about her for a while?”
She sighed. “Yeah, yeah. I get your point. But they all had one important thing in common that we didn't have. At least, I'd like to think it was important.”
“What was that?”
She felt the beginning sting of tears, and blinked to hold them back. “Me.”
He reached across the table and took hold of her hand again. “Hard to argue with that.”
The front door to the inn opened and closed, and they could hear the voices of several guests as they made their way up the wide stairs to the second floor. Maddie took advantage of the diversion to regain her composure. “So, I'm thinking I may just write him a letter—give him the space he may need to respond. Maybe I can go up and see him later on—over Easter, or something. Syd wanted to go back to Charlottesville in the spring, anyway. It might be a chance for us to get away for a night or two.”
“I can understand that. How are you two going to manage your relationship now?”
Maddie smiled at him slyly. “You mean, since we didn't take you up on the U-Haul offer?”
He laughed. “That's an open-ended offer—you can redeem it any old time.”
“If I had my druthers, we'd have it parked in my driveway tomorrow.”
“Now, why doesn't that surprise me?” He chuckled and finished his glass of wine. “So who's sandbagging? I know it ain't you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Oh, that's mature. I wish the Penn Board of Governors could see you now—they'd be so proud of their brainiac poster child.”
“Ex-cuse me?” He pointed a finger at his chest. “Do I look like a pygmy blonde?”
“Nuh uh. And a propos of her ,” she drained her own glass, “I need to hit the trail. We're having a late supper together.”
“And an early breakfast?”
She winked at him. “If I play my cards right.”
He laughed. “Lemme walk you out.” He stood up and grabbed his jacket, before pulling another bottle of the wine out of one of the cases.
They made their way to the front porch. Maddie turned around on the top step to hug him warmly and kiss his cheek. “Thanks, David.”
“For always telling me the truth. It would have been easier for you just to lie, and I'd never have known the difference.”
He smiled at her. “You should know by now that I don't do easy .”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “No. You never have. That's why I love you so much.”
“Really? And here I thought it was for my fashion sense.” He handed her the bottle. “Enjoy this with your dinner—on the house.”
She took the wine and smiled at him affectionately. “Thanks. We will.” She turned and descended the steps, waving her free hand back over her shoulder as she walked toward her Jeep.
Syd smiled broadly when she opened the door to her apartment and saw Maddie standing there, leaning casually against the opposite wall. She held out the bottle of Shelton wine like an offering. “From David. I think he wants me to get you drunk.”
Syd took the bottle and examined the label. “Really? And why's that?”
“I guess he thinks it might make it easier for me to have my way with you.”
“Hmmm. It never occurred to me that holding out might result in such lavish treatment. Maybe I should rethink all of this.”
Maddie stepped forward and bent over her so that their lips were close together but not touching. “Really?”
Syd closed her eyes and leaned against her. “No. Not really.” Maddie kissed her and they stood together in the doorway for so long that, finally, the wind sweeping up the stairs made them realize how cold it was in the hallway. Syd drew back from her reluctantly. “Come inside? I have something hot and spicy all ready for you.”
Maddie waggled her eyebrows at her. “I'll just bet you do.” Laughing, she followed Syd inside and closed the door. She stopped and moaned at the intriguing mixture of smells that wafted toward them from the stove. “What are you cooking? It smells fabulous.”
“Chicken and bean stuffed sopaipillas with Spanish rice.”
“My god. When do we eat? I'm famished?”
Syd set the bottle of wine down on her small kitchen table and smiled at her. “When are you ever not famished?”
Maddie stepped forward and pulled her back into her arms. “I seem to have acquired a hunger for all kinds of things recently.”
“I noticed. Lucky me.” They kissed again, and remained preoccupied until Syd's oven timer went off. Groaning, she pulled herself away. “Wanna open the wine while I fix our plates?”
“Sure. Where do you wanna sit?”
“You pick. Either here or the couch?”
Maddie headed for the small living room. “Couch. That way, I can sit beside you and pick at your goodies.”
“Are we still talking about food?”
Maddie laughed. “I'll never tell.”
“How did it go with David?”
“Fine. He was nearly as shocked as I was when Celine told me. He said that there were a few times he thought about the possibility—but that he never took the idea seriously.” She paused. “I believe him.”
Syd walked over to hand her the wine glasses and some utensils. “Of course you do. Why wouldn't you?”
Maddie shrugged. “Maybe I'm not as trusting as you are?”
“That could be true. But still, I'm glad you believe him. He's your best friend. I don't think he'd ever lie to you—even to protect you.”
“I don't either.”
“So what happens now?” She returned, carrying two steaming plates of food.
Maddie took one from her and sat next to her on the sagging couch. “I told him that I wanted to live with it all for a bit. Then I might write to Uncle Art—give him some time and distance to decide how he wants to reply. I thought maybe we could head up to Charlottesville later in the spring. See him, and have a nice weekend away. How would you feel about that?”
“Are you kidding? I'd love that.” She gave Maddie a sidelong glance. “Would we fly?”
“Do you want to?”
Maddie grinned at her. “It's a date, then.” They clinked glasses. “Now let's eat this wonderful meal before it gets cold. Then we can go straight to dessert.”
Syd looked at her sadly. “I'm sorry, baby—I didn't plan on anything for dessert.”
Maddie leered at her as she lifted a forkful of rice. “I did.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Thank god this is a high-protein recipe.”
Later, they dozed in Syd's small bed until it got so late that Maddie knew if she didn't get up and head for home, she'd never make it. Fortunately, she'd already stopped by the farm and fed Pete on her way back to town from the inn.
She turned her head on the pillow and spoke softly. “I need to go—it's nearly eleven.”
Syd sighed dejectedly. “I know. I hate this.”
“You'd hate it a lot more if Mrs. Halsey came in to open the upholstery shop at the crack of seven, and my car was still in the parking lot.”
“I know.” She sighed again. “How are we going to make this work? I don't want to have to sneak around like a horny teenager.”
Maddie kissed her on the forehead. “One day at a time, okay? That's what we agreed.”
“I know, I know. But this is nuts . I don't want you to leave.”
“Trust me. I don't wanna leave, either. But you were right when you said we needed to take more time.”
Syd snorted. “Yeah—we're doing great at maintaining some distance, aren't we?”
“Well…I guess we could try and not see one another every night.”
Syd sat up and looked down at her in disbelief. “You're kidding me, right?”
Maddie chuckled. “Yeah. I'm pretty much full of shit.”
“You are if you think there's any way I'll agree to that .”
Maddie pulled her back down so that her head was resting on her shoulder. “Relax. The one thing you can rely on is that I will always have less self control than you have.”
“So. Tomorrow night…my place?”
“ Nuh uh? ”
“At least not for dinner. I have an extra orchestra practice tomorrow night. Phoebe wants to meet with all the principals. In fact, I'm picking Lizzy up, and we're going to grab some dinner afterward.”
Maddie was intrigued. “Really?”
“Yep. Sorry, Stretch—we set this up last week.” She lazily ran her fingers back and forth across Maddie's collarbone. “But I could stop by on the way back home. I mean…if you're interested.”
Maddie sighed. “I don't know. Can I get back to you?”
Syd punched her on the arm.
“Okay, okay! I was joking. Of course I want you to stop by. How late do you think you'll be?”
“I dunno. Maybe 8:30?”
“I'll be waiting with bells on.”
“Oh—no need to dress up on my behalf.”
Maddie thought about that. “Okay, then—I'll be waiting in the nude.”
Syd smiled and began to kiss her way across her chest. “Make that 7:30 .”
It was another hour before Maddie finally waved goodbye to her from the parking lot below her apartment.
After rehearsal the next night, Syd and Lizzy stood chatting with David in the parking lot of the high school while they waited on Phoebe to lock up the outside entrance to the auditorium. David was giving his mom a ride home before returning to the inn, and he took advantage of their few minutes alone together to complain to the other two principals about how much of their spare time his mother's orchestral fantasy was taking up.
He leaned against the back of his Range Rover, and took another long drag on his cigarette before blowing out a stream of blue-tinged smoke. “She's really making me insane with all of this. I mean,” he waved his hand toward the building, “one or two nights a month are fine —but this twice a week shit has simply got to stop. I'm getting seriously behind on my Project Runway viewing. I totally missed Nicole Richie's hissy fit last week.” He shook his dark head. “You don't get another shot at something like that.”
Lizzy laughed at him as she shifted her flute case from one hand to the other. “It's not that bad, David. Besides…ever heard of TiVo?”
“TiVo? Up here in the sticks? Are you kidding me?”
“Well,” Syd chimed in. “I suppose you could always break out the old VHS recorder.”
David scoffed. “I could —if the damn thing wasn't gathering dust on the esteemed Dr. Stevenson's workbench.” He tossed his cigarette to the ground and twisted it beneath the toe of his shoe. “Good thing that tool-jockey has a day job.”
Both women laughed at him as Phoebe walked back over to join them. “I want to thank you all again for agreeing to put in this extra time. It's really going to bear fruit for us in the actual performance. See you all again on Sunday at 3:00?”
David groaned. Phoebe smacked him across the abdomen with her handbag, and he made an elaborate pantomime of doubling over.
“Jeez, mama—what've you got in that thing? Barbells?” His grousing gained momentum. The damn thing's big enough to hold the whole Chuck Norris collection.”
She rolled her eyes at her son. “Oh, be quiet. You're just bent out of shape because I beat you to it last week at T.J. Maxx.” She stroked the sides of her new handbag affectionately.
He rubbed his tummy and glowered at her. “I saw it before you did, and you know it.”
She sighed in resignation and turned back to face the women. “As I was saying—see you on Sunday?”
They both nodded.
Phoebe smiled and walked around to the passenger side of the Rover. David sighed, then shrugged and waved goodbye. “Tell that ole sawbones I said hello.”
They each replied, “I will,” before looking at one another in surprise. Syd felt herself blushing, but Lizzy just shrugged and smiled at her. In silence, they climbed into Syd's Volvo and followed David out of the parking lot.
Syd stole a surreptitious look at her watch. It was 7:15. “So,” she began. “Whatcha feel like eating?”
Lizzy looked over at her. “You know, I was over at my sister's yesterday, and she sent me home with a big pot of veggie soup. Would you like to just duck into my place and eat a bowl of that with me? She's a great cook—it's pretty tasty.”
Syd smiled at her. “You don't have to ask me twice. I'll take home cooking over fast food any day. Are you sure you're up for that? I promise not to stay very late—I've got a big Baker and Taylor shipment coming in tomorrow, and I need to be at the library earlier than usual.”
“No worries. I'll enjoy the company. And you haven't really seen the bungalow since I moved in—I'm anxious to show it off.”
“I hear you're doing great things with it.”
“I don't know about that. I'm mostly just consolidating piles of kindling. David's aunt had enough wood split to see her through until the millennium.”
Syd laughed. “Don't you get lonely being out there all by yourself, with no neighbors in sight?”
Lizzy shook her head. “Nope. I love it. After so many years being crammed into a noisy apartment complex in Nashville—listening to kids screaming half the night and smelling everyone else's dinner, it's like heaven . And I love lying in the dark, listening to the sound of the river—it lulls me right to sleep.”
“You certainly have seemed to fit right in, Lizzy. I'm amazed at how quickly you've made this transition.”
“Why? Nashville was a big enough city—but you forget that I'm really a redneck at heart. Jericho isn't much of a departure for me from the town I grew up in.”
“You're far from a redneck. Maddie says that you have about the best nursing credentials she's ever seen.”
Lizzy clucked her tongue. “She exaggerates. You should know by now that you can't trust those tall, smoldering Ingrid Bergman types.”
Syd looked over at her. “Smoldering?”
Lizzy smiled. “Okay…maybe not smoldering . How about mysterious? That certainly applies.”
Syd nodded and gave her a small smile. “I'd have to give you that one.”
Lizzy plucked absently at the bangs of her wavy red hair. “I confess that I don't know her very well yet, but one thing I have learned about her is that she will always exaggerate someone's else's good qualities while downplaying her own.”
“That sounds like a pretty apt description.”
“I hear she comes by that honestly—Peggy says that her daddy was the same way.”
Syd was beginning to feel uncomfortable discussing Maddie in this offhand way. It felt vaguely like gossiping—although she was certain that Lizzy was simply being open and honest in conveying her impressions of her new employer. There didn't seem to be any subterfuge or inappropriate curiosity lurking behind her observations. She sighed. What was really making her feel uncomfortable was the fact that she felt forced to conceal the true nature of her relationship with Maddie. It was hard to act interested and curious about Lizzy's perceptions—while maintaining the appearance of an indifference she did not feel. It was a balancing act she wasn't eager to perfect.
They turned onto the long lane that led down toward the river and Lizzy's small bungalow. Even in the dark, signs of improvement were obvious. Ladders, tarps, and cans of paint were tidily stashed at one end of the big front porch, and a brown construction waste dumpster was positioned just in front of the small detached garage. Lizzy hadn't exaggerated: there were stacked piles of wood in various sizes everyplace. It was already dark, but several lamps were on inside the bungalow, giving it a warm and welcome appearance.
Syd parked her Volvo behind Lizzy's old Subaru wagon, and shut the engine off. Lizzy unclipped her seatbelt and opened her passenger door. “Come on inside. I'll have the soup hotted-up for us in no time. You can give me your opinion about some new countertop colors for the kitchen.”
Syd smiled and followed her up the steps and into the small house.
“Make yourself at home,” Lizzy called out as she dropped her keys and her flute case onto a low table, then walked toward the back of the house. Syd could hear her opening and closing doors in the kitchen and putting a pot on the stove. She took an appreciative look around the small living room. It was charming—mullioned windows flanked a fireplace with a stone hearth. An antique-looking woodstove jutted out from its opening. There were heart pine floors and white, built-in cabinets that ran along the back wall, forming her dining area.
“I love this place, Lizzy,” Syd called out to her. “It's really charming.”
“Thanks.” Lizzy briefly appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. “See why I jumped at the chance to have it?” She held up an unopened bottle of wine. “Want something to drink while we wait on the soup to heat up?”
Syd smiled and nodded. “Thanks. That would be great.”
Lizzy disappeared again. “I'll be right out. Have a seat.”
Syd took advantage of the few moments of privacy to send Maddie a quick text message. She dug her cell phone out of her purse and sat down on Lizzy's small sofa—typing quickly.
Still awake? Grabbing a bite 2 eat @ Lizzy's. Won't b long. Ditch clothes. Love u.
She hit send just as she heard Lizzy coming back into the room. She quickly set her phone aside and turned to face her.
“Here you go.” Lizzy held out a glass of white wine. Syd took it gratefully—it had been a long day.
“Thanks.” Syd took a sip. The wine was cold and crisp. “This is just what I needed.” She inclined her head toward the rest of the small house. “Can I be bold enough to ask for a look around? I really love what you're doing to this place.”
Lizzy's smile was genuine. “Of course. I'd love to show it off. Come on—I'll give you the nickel tour.” Syd set her wine glass down on the end table next to her cell phone and got up to follow her.
They walked together toward the back of the house. Lizzy deposited her wine glass on a sideboard near the entrance to her bedroom, and flipped a wall switch. “This is the only bedroom,” she began before taking a step into the room, which now was flooded with overhead light.
What happened next seemed to take place in slow motion.
Syd felt, more than heard, Lizzy's sharp intake of breath—she felt it because she ran right into her when Lizzy stopped dead in the doorway to the room. Then Lizzy cried out, “Oh, my god! What are you doing here?” She pushed back against Syd, stiff with shock and fear.
Over her shoulder, Syd was stunned to see the hunched figure of Beau Pitzer, crouched behind the bed. She had only a moment to notice that all of the dresser drawers were pulled open, and that clothes and other personal objects were strewn everywhere. Behind him, she could see what was left of a broken window. It took her another moment to realize that he now was standing upright, and that he was holding a large hunting knife. He started to advance toward them. He stared blearily at Syd, before fixing a menacing gaze on Lizzy.
“I shoulda known you'd be one of them . Fucking dykes.” He was breathing heavily and his eyes looked glazed. He waved the knife at them as he rounded the end of the bed. Syd grasped Lizzy by the upper arms and tugged her back toward the living room.
“What do you want, Beau?” Syd was shaking all over, but somehow managed to make her voice sound authoritative. Lizzy was rigid and trembling with fear.
“What do you think I want, bitch? He took another step toward them.
Syd pulled Lizzy back away from him and stood in front of her, facing Beau. “Are you looking for money? Do you need money, Beau?” He was high—she was certain of it. He was high, and he was shaking almost as hard as she was. She gestured toward her purse, on the sofa near the front door. “I have some cash, if that's what you need. You can have it.”
“Damn straight I can have it.” He stumbled against the dining room table, causing a pair of glass candlestick holders to topple over. “I'll take the money—and maybe I'll take something else, too.” He advanced closer. Syd could tell that he was struggling to remain upright. He waved the knife at her, standing dangerously close. His breath smelled stale and slightly putrid. His pupils were so dilated that his eyes looked black and lifeless.
“You don't want to do this, Beau.” Her voice was a near whisper. “You don't want to hurt anyone.” Syd was desperate now. Her heart was pounding so hard she could barely hear herself speak. The sound of her own blood roared in her ears. “Just take the money and leave.”
He stared at her through a haze of pain and rage. Then he reached out with his free hand and smacked her across the face, knocking her to the floor near the woodstove. “Fuck you, dyke!” He advanced toward Lizzy, who now stood paralyzed with fear. “I know you've been waiting for this.” He grabbed her roughly by the arm and started to haul her with him toward the door. “You can come with me and we'll have a nice little party.”
Lizzy was crying now. Syd struggled to her feet, clutching the side of her face. She felt something wet and sticky beneath her fingers. Her head was reeling. “Beau,” she had to try again. “Beau, stop . Don't do this. You don't have to do this.”
He turned to face her, nearly losing his balance again. He held the knife out toward her, still grasping Lizzy fiercely by the arm. “Back off, bitch. You don't know anything .”
From its resting place on the table next to the sofa, Syd's cell phone began to vibrate. Beau looked quickly over at it in alarm, and that was all the distraction Syd needed. Without thinking, she grabbed a piece of firewood from a kindling bucket and slammed it against his arm as hard as she could. The knife went flying and he doubled-over in pain, releasing his stranglehold on Lizzy. Syd pressed her advantage and hit him again—this time, across the side of the head. She felt the blow reverberate up her arm and the sharp, fire-like bite of splinters driving into the palm of her hand. He fell to the floor, moaning. Blood began to pour from a long cut along his hairline.
“Cunt! Fucking cunt, ” he hissed. Dazed, he crawled to his feet and careened toward the door, knocking over a chair and end table on his way out. “You'll pay for this.” He threw the door open and staggered out—tripping over a pyramid of paint cans and half falling from the porch, before regaining his footing and disappearing into the darkness beyond the house.
Syd dropped the piece of wood and raced to the door behind him, slamming it shut and throwing the deadbolt into place. Then she turned and ran back toward the bedroom, shutting that door and hauling a dining room chair over to wedge beneath the knob. Shaking, she made her way back to the sofa and snapped up her cell phone. Lizzy was sitting in a heap on the floor, shaking.
“Hang on, Lizzy. Hang on ,” she whispered. “We're okay now—We're safe. I'm calling the sheriff.” With shaking fingers, she punched 911 and waited only a few seconds before a female voice answered.
“Tri-County 911. How can we help you?”
Quickly, although not very coherently, Syd told the operator what had happened—and that Beau was injured, dangerous, and still at large. She omitted details of her own condition. The operator assured her that help would be dispatched immediately, and cautioned her to stay inside with the doors locked. Then Syd collapsed on the floor next to Lizzy, and pulled the shaking woman into her arms. “It's okay. We're okay now. The sheriff is on his way. Lizzy?” She forced Lizzy to look at her. “Do you have any kind of weapon here? A gun? Anything?”
Lizzy dumbly shook her head. She seemed to notice Syd's injury for the first time. “Oh my god—you're bleeding . She raised a shaking hand to the side of Syd's face. “Let me look at that.”
Syd's adrenalin rush was beginning to subside, and she became aware of how much her head hurt, and the pulsing pain in her hand from the splinters. Her insides were cramping, and she felt like she might vomit.
“You need ice on that—and a butterfly bandage to close the cut. I can get those for you.” Lizzy was speaking in a monotone—her voice almost robotic. Syd feared she was slipping into shock.
Lizzy started to climb to her feet, but Syd stopped her. “I'm okay for now. Let's just stay put until the sheriff gets here.” Her voice sounded high and shaky. She knew she was hanging on by a thread. What if he comes back? Her gaze darted around the room. She crawled across the floor on her hands and knees and grabbed hold of the fireplace poker, hauling it back across the rug with her and resting it next to where they sat huddled together. Maddie. I need to call Maddie . She started shaking again. The minutes dragged by.
In the distance, they heard the wail of a siren cutting through the night like the cry of a screech owl. Thank god . The sound got louder and louder, and soon they could see the flash of blue lights through the front windows. Syd got shakily to her feet and walked over to unlock the front door.
If her hurt her, I'll kill him. If he hurt either of them—I'll kill him. Maddie drove as fast as her car, and her better instincts, would allow. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Syd was all right. They both were all right. She told me they were fine. Shaken but fine. The sheriff was there. They were safe. God, please let her be okay. Let them both be okay. She had thought to grab her emergency bag as she ran from the house, and it sat beside her on the front passenger seat of the Jeep. She wondered if she should have called the EMTs, just to be on the safe side. But Syd insisted that they both were fine. She could make her own assessment, once she got there.
She turned onto the road that led to Lizzy's bungalow. In the distance, she could see flashing blue lights. There were two sheriff's cars pulled in at angles behind Syd's Volvo and Lizzy's car. Syd told her on the phone that armed officers were combing the area around Lizzy's bungalow, and that the state highway patrol had been alerted to be on the lookout for Beau's pickup truck. As she slowed down and approached the house, an officer near one of the cars held up a hand, signaling for her to stop, and approached the Jeep with a large flashlight. He recognized her right away.
“Oh, hello, Dr. Stevenson. You can go right on in—I think they're all expecting you.”
Maddie nodded. Frank, she thought his name was. Frank Rogers ? Frank Smith? Frank—Something . Last fall, his daughter had the mumps. “Thanks, Frank,” she said, pulling over and stopping. She grabbed her bag and hopped out, taking the porch steps two at a time. She paused at the open doorway and looked into the house, feeling her breath catch at the sight that greeted her.
Syd sat next to Lizzy on a small couch. She was holding an ice pack against the side of her face, and her right hand was wrapped in a dishtowel. She looked up anxiously when she heard Maddie's footsteps on the porch. They gazed at one another in silence for a moment, before Syd dropped the ice pack and got belatedly to her feet—taking a halting step forward. Her jaw was quivering. Maddie dropped her bag and strode forward, pulling Syd's shaking body into her arms.
“It's okay, baby. It's okay. I'm here, now. I've got you.” She muttered into her hair, kissing the top of her head over and over. Syd gripped Maddie convulsively and pushed her face deep into her chest. After a few moments, Maddie drew back and tried to coax her to lift her head. “Hey? Hey, let me take a look at your face. C'mon, baby—I need to see if you're okay.”
“I'm okay. It's nothing.” Syd wiped her unwrapped hand across her eyes and drew back to gesture down to where Lizzy sat quietly on the sofa, watching them. “I'm worried about Lizzy.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He tried to take her with him.”
Maddie kissed her on the forehead one more time before releasing her and kneeling down in front of Lizzy. She laid a gentle hand on her knee. “Lizzy? Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
Lizzy met her eyes. Her gaze was steady, but vacant. Her face looked waxy and pale. “I'm okay. No—he didn't hurt me. Syd stopped him.” She looked up at Syd in wonder. “You stopped him. You saved me. You saved us both .”
The sheriff spoke up. “I think she might be a little in shock, Doc. We've called her sister—they're on the way to pick her up and take her back to their place in Jefferson.”
Maddie nodded. “That's good.” Maddie took hold of Lizzy's hands. They felt clammy. She noticed that she was sitting with her shoulders hunched together and her breathing seemed shallow. “Can you lie back for me, Lizzy? I wanna raise your legs a little bit.” Lizzy complied, and Maddie used one of the sofa cushions to prop up her legs. She pulled an afghan off the back of a chair and tucked it in around her. “Lie still now, until your sister gets here. Everything is just fine. There isn't anything to worry about.” She stoked her forehead gently.
She stood back up and wrapped an arm around Syd, guiding her to a nearby chair. “Sit down, honey. I wanna look at your face.” Maddie pushed back her bangs and looked at the cut and ugly bruise forming near her right eye.
Syd leaned heavily into her. “I'm really okay—I'm just exhausted.”
“I know.” Maddie knelt in front of her and lifted her hand. “What happened to your hand?” She began to unwrap the towel.
“Splinters.” Syd laughed bitterly. “I hit him, Maddie. I hit him with a piece of firewood.” She closed her eyes. “God. I thought I killed him—but he got right up again.”
Maddie felt a wave of anger wash over her. That bastard . She fought to keep her voice calm. “It's okay. I'll take care of it.” She reached back and grabbed her medical bag, pulling it over to where they sat. “Lemme get these out before they get even more swollen.” She spread the towel out across Syd's lap and drew a small bottle of antiseptic wash and a long pair of tweezers out of her bag. She looked up and met Syd's green eyes. “I promise to be quick, okay?”
Syd nodded. “Okay.” She closed her fingers around Maddie's hand briefly, causing her to look back up. “I love you,” Syd whispered.
The sheriff cleared his throat and walked back over toward the fireplace.
“I know,” Maddie said softly. “I love you, too.” She gave her a small smile and began to swab her palm with the antiseptic.
As she was pulling out the last splinter, the sheriff's radio broke the silence in the room. A crackly voice summoned him. “Sheriff Martin, we've got a 904B in town at the upholstery shop.”
He snapped the unit up off a table. “This is Martin. Say again.”
“It's Adams, sir. We've got a 904B at Halsey's shop in Jericho. Looks like it started on the loading dock out back.”
“Roger that. Anyone inside?”
“Negative, sir. VFD responders say both storefronts were empty—and they checked the apartment upstairs.”
He shot a quick look across the room at Syd. “Roger. Seal off the block and evacuate the rest of the buildings on that side of the street. I'm on my way.”
“10-4. Adams out.”
“What's going on?” Syd looked up at him in alarm.
He walked toward them carrying his radio. “Looks like someone tried to set fire to your library.”
“Jesus,” Maddie took hold of both of Syd's hands to restrain her. “How bad is it?”
“Don't know yet.”
From outside, they heard the sound of voices, followed by footsteps on the porch. Lizzy's sister and brother-in-law had arrived, and they rushed into the house. A sheriff's deputy walked over to brief them on the situation and to make arrangements for them to take Lizzy back to their house for the night.
Rachel Wilson was like a carbon copy of her sister. She had the same brown eyes and curly red hair—but right now, her face was pale and etched with concern. She perched next to Lizzy on the arm of the sofa and looked up at Maddie with wide eyes.
“Dr. Stevenson—is she okay? Do we need to take her to the hospital?”
Maddie stood up, trying to be as reassuring as the circumstances would allow. “I think she'll be fine, Rachel. She's a little in shock—she just needs some rest and some TLC. Take her home.” She smiled down at her nurse. “Give her some hot tea and a warm bed. By tomorrow, she'll be as feisty as ever. Won't you, Lizzy?”
Lizzy gave her a weak smile in return. “I'll sure give it a shot.” She looked over at Syd. “Will you be all right?”
Syd took hold of Maddie's hand. “I'll be fine. Don't worry about me. Right now, I just want to see if my library's okay.”
Maddie turned to face the Sheriff. “All right if we follow you over there, Byron?”
He sighed. Then gave a curt nod. “I don't suppose it would do me any good to say no.” He pulled on his hat. “Come on.”
They could see an unnatural light in the night sky even before they topped the last rise into town. Maddie heard Syd's quick intake of breath as she slowed the Jeep down and stopped behind Byron's car.
“Oh, my god. Oh, my god. What did he do? ” She was trembling again.
Maddie reached a hand over and rested it on top of Syd's, squeezing it gently. Ahead of them, the sheriff leaned out his car window and spoke to the uniformed officer who stood in front of a line of orange traffic cones. He gestured back toward Maddie's Jeep, and the deputy nodded as he stepped back to wave them through.
The closer they got to the library, the thicker with smoke the air became. Maddie pulled over and parked behind Byron's car, about half a block from the fire. There were small groups of people clustered on the perimeter of the scene, standing quietly with stunned expressions on their faces.
Several fire trucks, an EMT van, and half a dozen police cars filled the street outside the structure. There was water everywhere. It ran in crooked rivulets along the cracked pavement and pooled in the potholes that were reopened every winter by county snowplows. Maddie stood just behind Syd, and kept a protective arm around her shoulders—as much for restraint as comfort. From their vantage point, it was possible to see that the upholstery shop had sustained most of the damage from the fire.
It was clear that the Jericho VFD had most of the fire contained, but some flames were still visible on the second floor of Halsey's shop. All the windows had been broken, and shards of glass covered the pavement in front of the structure. Dark smudges from smoke and water lined the front of the building, tarring the masonry beneath the windows like cheap mascara. The library windows appeared to be intact, however—and Byron commented that, apparently, the thick firewall between the tandem buildings had done its job. How much of Syd's inventory would be lost to smoke and water damage was another matter. They'd have to wait until daylight to find that out. The fate of Syd's apartment, and all her personal belongings, was equally uncertain.
Maddie felt Syd sink back against her.
“My god. All that work . How could he do this?” She turned her head to look up at Maddie. Her expression was full of shock and dismay. “He came in nearly every day—he used the place more than anybody else in town. Why would he do this?”
Maddie tugged her closer. “I don't know, sweetheart. I don't know.”
A fireman, walking confidently across a field of broken glass and dirty water, approached the sheriff. He was carrying a white plastic container.
“Hey, Byron? Looks like this might be our culprit. We found it around back—near the dumpster.” He held it up.
Byron took it from him. “Acetone.” He shook his head. “Same brand as the stuff we found last week at that meth lab on the river. Christ.”
Maddie met his eyes. “You think it was Beau?”
He nodded. “Count on it. Don't forget that he was in rehab for meth addiction last year.” He sighed as he handed the bottle back to the fireman. “Give this to the fire marshal when he gets here.”
From inside her jacket pocket, Maddie's cell phone began to vibrate. She slapped her free hand to her side, and then reached into her pocket to draw it out and look at its display. She didn't recognize the phone number. Opening it, she held it up to her ear.
“This is Stevenson.”
The voice on the phone was panicked—nearly hysterical. It took her a moment to understand what the woman was saying.
“I shot him! Oh, god—I shot him. He isn't moving— you have to help him .”
Maddie stood there, dumbly trying to decipher what she was hearing, before realization washed over her like a tidal wave. She clutched the cell phone so tightly she thought she might break it.
“ Gladys? Where are you?”
“Home. I'm at home. He came here—he was crazy . I couldn't stop him. He wanted money. He…he….” Her voice wavered. “I had the gun—I told him to stop. I told him to stop…”
“Gladys, did you call 911?”
“No! I don't want them. They'll take him away again.” She was nearly incoherent. “Come. Come now …you have to help him. There's so much blood .”
Maddie was urgently signaling to Byron. “Gladys, is he still breathing?”
“I don't know. I don't know. He was choking—and now he isn't moving.”
“I'm on my way. I'm on my way. I'll call an ambulance. Don't touch him, okay? Don't move him . I want you to wait outside for me? Do you hear me? Go outside and wait for me .”
“Hurry. Please hurry.” Maddie heard the click as Gladys hung up her phone. She looked up at Byron. “It's Beau. She shot him—he's unconscious and still at the house.”
Byron was already in motion. “Ride with me—it'll be faster. We can radio for EMTs on the way.”
Maddie and Syd ran after him. Maddie yanked open the back door to her Jeep and grabbed her medical bag while Byron turned his car around. The two women climbed into the big police cruiser and Byron sped off. The shocked and tired-looking townspeople who had gathered behind the makeshift police barricades that lined the tiny main street, watched them go—then turned their gazes back toward the fire, as they continued to keep vigil in a haze of smoke and flashing lights.
Syd was surprised when Maddie climbed into the back seat of Byron's cruiser to sit beside her, instead of claiming the unoccupied front passenger seat. Byron didn't appear to notice, or, if he did, chose not to comment upon it, as they sped away from the scene of the fire. In the darkness of the back seat, Maddie took hold of Syd's hand and gently held it between both of hers as the car ate up the miles between Jericho and the small community where Gladys lived with her son.
Syd felt like she was fumbling about in a fog—not fully able to take in the evening's rapid sequence of events. Her face hurt like hell and her head was throbbing—she knew she'd have one whale of a shiner by tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow morning. What would tomorrow morning bring? How much of her fledgling library would be destroyed? How many of her personal belongings would survive the smoke and water? And Lizzy. How would Lizzy come to terms with what had nearly happened? Would she ever be able to return to her little house by the river?
The car swerved as Byron careened off the highway onto a side road that would take them to Gladys's house.
And now? Now they were rushing to try and save Beau. Beau—the one who had set all of these horrifying events in motion. Beau—who finally had pushed his own mother beyond all endurance. In a final act of desperation, Gladys had shot her own son.
And the irony of it all was that Maddie was now the one who might determine whether Beau lived or died. Syd looked over at her. The strong planes of her face were illuminated by strobe-like flashes of blue from the lights on top of the car. She was staring straight ahead—her expression was unreadable. What was she thinking about all of this? How did she feel about being placed in this position? She could have told Gladys to wait for the EMTs to get there. She could have stayed with Syd in town and not left the scene of the fire. She could have shrugged her shoulders and let the fates decide what became of Beau. But she didn't.
Maddie must have sensed Syd looking at her, and she turned her head to meet her eyes. She gave the top of her hand a gentle squeeze and bent forward to touch their foreheads together. “It's okay. It's all going to be okay— I promise .” Her voice was barely audible beneath the constant radio chatter from Byron's police scanner.
Ahead of them in the front seat, Byron ground out the stub of a cigarette he had been smoking, and took a long sip from an enormous drink cup. Syd could see a hastily wrapped hamburger perched on the top of the console between the seats. Byron must have been eating his dinner when he got the call to head to Lizzy's. She sighed. Almost on cue—her stomach growled. Vaguely, she wondered if anyone at Lizzy's had remembered to take the pot of soup off the stove.
Byron slowed down as they made the turn onto Gladys's street.
Gladys lived in a small company house along the north bank of the New River, about ten miles east of Jericho. The tiny hamlet had once been a thriving mill town, but the large textile plant that dominated life there had shut down over 20 years ago, and most of the residents had migrated on to other parts of the state in search of work. Now, only a handful of families remained behind to care for their tiny scraps of lawn, and to sit in the cool evenings on identical front porches that overlooked the crumbling brickwork of an ancient dam constructed way back in the 1900s. Locals joked that not even the river stopped there any more.
Gladys's house was a standout among the ramshackle structures on her street. It was painted bright yellow and surrounded by container plants in every shape, size, and color. They could see Beau's red pickup truck parked at a rakish angle on the street out front—and, as directed, Gladys was outside, too—her wiry frame was plainly visible, striding back and forth across her tiny porch in obvious agitation. The EMTs had not arrived yet.
Maddie leapt from the cruiser and ran for the house, carrying her bag. Gladys met her at the top of the steps.
She grasped Gladys by the forearm. “Where is he?”
Gladys gestured toward the open door and led her into the small house without speaking. Syd and Byron followed close behind them. Maddie could see Beau lying at a twisted angle in the doorway to the kitchen. A pool of blood was visible beneath his upper body. He was not moving.
“Gladys, where is the gun?” Maddie asked, as she quickly crossed the room and knelt down next to the unconscious man. She touched her fingers to the side of his neck and bent over to listen to his breathing. It was faint and constricted. His pulse was too rapid to count.
“It's over there,” Gladys gestured to a rifle, dropped on the floor near the back door of the kitchen. Byron quickly walked over to secure the firearm.
“It's a 12 gauge—squirrel gun.” He called out to Maddie as he broke it open. “One shell has been discharged.”
“Right,” Maddie responded. “Looks like subcutaneous and deep tissue damage to the face and neck. At least two perforating wounds to the upper chest and thorax.” She drew a small flashlight from her bag and opened Beau's mouth to search for any visible airway obstruction. Then she checked his pupils: they were not reactive. She quickly checked the time on her watch.
After carefully rolling Beau onto his back, she saw that he had sustained significant lacerations to the mid and lower face—possibly a mandible fracture. Most of the blood stemmed from a puncture wound on the right side of his neck. She drew the stethoscope from her bag and listened to his heart.
“Sinus arrhythmia. He needs air.” She feared that he was lapsing into ventricular tachycardia—a condition unrelated to his largely superficial gunshot wounds. He was clearly in respiratory distress. “Byron, can you find out where the hell the EMTs are?”
“Right.” He snapped his radio up off his belt. “Adams, it's Martin. What's the 20 on the ambulance headed to the Pitzer house? I need an ETA, stat.”
“Roger, that.” There was a brief pause. “They're still about ten minutes out—dispatch had to send a unit from Jefferson. It was the closest available—the Jericho wagon is at the fire.”
He looked over at Maddie. She shook her head.
“Too long. I'm going to have to trach him. He isn't getting any air.” She looked up at Syd, who stood silently next to Gladys. “I need a straw—a plain old soft drink straw. There's one in the cup Byron had in the car. Can you go and get that for me?” Syd nodded and ran for the door. Maddie shifted her gaze to Gladys. “Gladys, I need a couple of clean bath towels— fast .” When Gladys continued to stand there and dumbly stare at her, Maddie spoke more sharply. “Now, Gladys! I need towels, now .”
She opened her bag and drew out a large container of antiseptic fluid, some gauze pads, and a scalpel. She poured the rinse on Beau's neck and quickly began to swab the front of his throat. Gladys returned with a stack of mismatched blue and yellow towels, and Maddie took two and quickly rolled them up together. Gladys was beyond the ability to speak now, and meekly retreated behind a large recliner, to stand in stunned silence while Maddie worked on her son.
“Byron, help me lift his upper body a little—I need to get this between his shoulder blades.”
Byron knelt beside her and they carefully raised Beau up so Maddie could slide the towels into position. When they lowered him back to the floor, his head was slightly lower than his torso, and his neck was fully extended.
Syd rushed in from outside carrying a paper-wrapped straw. “This one was in the Wendy's bag on the floor of the back seat,” she said. “It hasn't been used.”
Maddie took it from her, smiling gratefully. “Thank god for junk food. Can you get me any kind of bowl or pot from the kitchen? I need to sterilize this.”
Syd nodded and ran into the kitchen, returning quickly with a medium-sized ceramic mixing bowl. It had a border of bright red poppies painted around the outside rim. Maddie handed a bottle of alcohol to Syd. “Pour about an inch of this into the bowl.” She unwrapped the straw, then quickly drew a small pair of scissors from her bag and cut it in half before dropping it into the bowl. She got a new pair of latex gloves out and rapidly pulled them on. After spreading one of the clean bath towels across his chest, she leaned over Beau and ran her left forefinger back and forth across his Adam's apple, pressing beneath it and then lifting it slightly.
“Syd, put these on.” She handed Syd a pair of the surgical gloves. “Then kneel down here and open a couple of these gauze pads. I'm going to need you to swab the blood away from the incision for me after I make the first cut.” She looked up and met her eyes. “Are you okay with that?”
Syd nodded, and quickly pulled on the tight-fitting gloves before kneeling next to Beau's head. She cringed when she noticed the ugly cut along the hairline over his right ear—and the matted blood on the side of his face. She looked away as she tore open several of the square gauze packets.
Taking the scalpel in her right hand, Maddie carefully positioned it over Beau's throat just beneath her left finger, and made an incision about two inches wide. Syd held the gauze pad beneath the cut to catch the ensuing small stream of blood. Maddie raised the knife and went back over the incision again, sinking the blade in deeper. She slowly rotated the knife 180 degrees before withdrawing it—then pinched the edges of the incision together, causing it gape open. Reaching into the bowl, she picked up one of the sections of plastic straw and carefully inserted it into the opening. There was an immediate hissing sound as Beau's chest deflated. Maddie bent over and blew air into the end of the straw, manually inflating his lungs. She drew back and waited for the air to escape, and then repeated the maneuver. When his chest began to rise and fall without assistance, she sat back and grabbed her stethoscope, holding it to the side of his neck, and then to his chest.
“No good.” She checked her watch again—then rummaged in her bag, withdrawing a prepared syringe. “Let's try some Heparin.” She tugged up Beau's t-shirt and quickly swabbed an area near his belly button before unwrapping the syringe and pushing the needle into his abdomen. After administering the shot, she held her stethoscope to his chest. She shook her head. “He's in V-tach.” She pulled the stethoscope off her neck and snapped up the scissors—cutting the hem of Beau's shirt, and then ripping it open. “Beginning CPR.” Maddie began applying rapid chest compressions and looked up at Byron. “Do you have a portable defib unit in your car?”
He nodded as he turned and ran toward the door. “On it.”
“Syd,” Maddie's voice was gentle. “Help Gladys.” She nodded toward the distraught woman who continued to stand rigidly behind the recliner with both hands pressed against her face.
Syd looked up at Gladys, then back at Maddie, who now was leaning over Beau and blowing air into the end of the straw that protruded from his neck.
“Okay.” She climbed to her feet and went over to Gladys, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and talking to her in low tones. “It's okay, Gladys—Maddie's doing everything she can to help Beau. It's okay, it's okay.”
Byron rushed back into the room with the portable defibrillator and knelt next to Maddie on the floor. “Sorry this is one of the older units—the county can't afford the new fangled ones yet.”
Maddie was still continuing the rapid chest compressions. “No problem. Charge it up and tell me when the LED shows a plus.”
He nodded as he unwrapped the two white paddles. “Got a plus,” he said, handing the paddles to Maddie.
She took them and positioned them against Beau's chest and side. “Lean back, Byron.” She pressed the switch on the paddle and waited. The room was quiet as the unit beeped, and then buzzed. Beau's upper body lifted up as he received a powerful electric shock. Maddie released the paddles and quickly felt his pulse. Shaking her head, she quickly resumed chest compressions and counted to 30. “Okay—clear,” she called out as she took hold of the paddles to administer a second shock. After an interval of about five seconds, Beau's body lifted up again. Maddie released the paddles and quickly felt the side of his neck. Then she grabbed her stethoscope and held it to his chest. She sat back and heaved a sigh. “Okay—we've got a pulse.” She dropped the paddles and checked his airway. “He's breathing normally.”
Byron reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a warm squeeze. They heard the distant sound of a siren, and within what seemed like moments, EMTs were inside the house and clustered around Beau—carefully lifting him onto a gurney, fixing him with an IV, and taping the short section of straw that protruded from his trachea into place. Maddie brought them up to speed, and related everything that had happened since her arrival on the scene. She asked who was attending in the ER, and said she would call ahead and brief him on Beau's condition. Syd heard her say something about a probable methamphetamine overdose, and cautioned that they should not treat him with any beta-blockers until they ran a full tox screen. Maddie suggested that his cardiac arrest was likely caused by atrial necrosis from prolonged drug abuse—and not related to his gunshot wounds.
She did not offer to accompany them to the hospital, but asked to be kept informed of changes in his condition.
Gladys rode with Byron to the hospital, after arranging to have her sister meet her there at the ER. Byron intended to interview Gladys about the shooting once Beau was stabilized, and they were able to talk more calmly away from the scene. From his vantage point, the sequence of events was fairly straightforward—and Gladys plainly had acted in self-defense.
Maddie gave her keys to a sheriff's deputy, and asked if he could have someone drive her Jeep back out to them. She explained that she wanted to spare Syd the ordeal of having to return to the scene of the fire. He consented at once, and was off like a shot—promising to have her car back in less than twenty minutes.
Byron had earlier arranged to have Syd's Volvo retrieved—and Maddie had instructed him just to have it taken to her farm, and parked in the barn next to her Lexus. He nodded briefly before walking off with Syd's small ring of keys—seemingly unsurprised by her request.
While they waited for the sheriff's deputy to return with Maddie's Jeep, the two women walked the short distance from Gladys's lawn to a picnic table that sat across the road on an undeveloped patch of grass, overlooking the river. The night now seemed unnaturally quiet—a stark and surreal contrast to the way the evening had commenced. The air here was cool and clear—no traces of the smoke that infiltrated everything just a few miles away. Sitting together now, in such a quiet venue, it was nearly impossible to reconcile the serenity of the scene with the horrors that preceded it. The few neighbors who had been clustered outside Gladys's house during the aftermath of the shooting had dispersed once the EMTs had departed—choosing to return to their beds or their late-night TV viewing.
Syd tipped her head back and took in a deep lungful of the crisp night air. Maddie sat quietly beside her, perched on top of the table facing the water. Syd looked over at her.
“What you did in there,” she began. “I still can't believe it.”
Maddie met her gaze. Her expression was sad and slightly apologetic. “I can imagine that it wasn't easy for you to see that—to watch me try to save him. Not after what he did to you and Lizzy—and then to the library.” She looked down at her hands. “I hope you know that I had to try.”
Syd listened to her in confusion, then quickly reached out a hand and grasped her arm. “Oh, god—no. That's not what I meant. Of course you had to try to help him. I only meant that I had never witnessed anything like that before. I mean—I knew that you worked in a big-city emergency room before coming here, but I guess I never really thought about the kinds of things you did.” She shook her head. “It was incredible .” She looked deeply into Maddie's blue eyes. “I'm still a little awestruck.”
Maddie exhaled and leaned forward, so that her elbows rested on top her knees. “Well, thank god for that. I was afraid you'd be—confused. Or angry.”
“Angry? God, no.” She looked down at her feet, perched on the bench seat below them. Her shoes were stained with black soot. “I'd be lying if I said I could forgive him for all he's done—but he didn't deserve to die because of it.”
They were silent for a moment. Maddie reached over and covered Syd's hand with her own, and gave it a squeeze. When Syd looked up at her, Maddie smiled. “I love you—you know that?”
Syd nodded. “Yeah. I kinda figured that out.”
“Besides,” Maddie continued. “You were the real hero tonight.”
“What are you talking about?” Syd was incredulous.
“You saved Lizzy. And even after you knew that Beau had started the fire, you still jumped right in to help me try and save him.”
Syd shook her head. “Nice try—but all the heroics belong to you. You were amazing, Maddie. I've never seen anything like that before.”
“I don't deserve any special credit for that—I was only doing what I've been trained to do. It's automatic.” She pulled Syd closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “But you —what you did shows a depth of character that defies description. At least, it does for me.”
Syd buried her head beneath Maddie's chin. “You're nuts.”
Maddie snorted. “There you go with the scientific analysis again.”
Syd laughed. “I thought you said you liked that? Are you changing your mind?”
“Nuh uh.” Maddie kissed her on the top of her head. “When it comes to you, I'll never change my mind.”
“I have something else to thank you for.” Syd said quietly.
“What's that?” Maddie was curious.
“It was your text message coming in that saved us. The sound of the phone buzzing distracted Beau, and gave me the chance I needed to hit him.”
Maddie tugged her closer, but didn't reply.
They saw the flash of headlights as a car approached, and turned around in time to see Maddie's Jeep pulling up and parking behind Beau's pickup truck. It was followed by another police car.
“Thank god,” Syd sighed. “I just wanna go home, crawl into bed, and pretend this day never happened.”
“Um, Syd—about that. You know it's probably going to be a while before you can…” Syd stopped her by quickly placing her fingertips against her lips. She gave her a small smile.
“I want to go home , Maddie—with you.” She lowered her hand, and hopped down off the table, turning to walk back toward the Jeep.
Back at Maddie's farm, the two women climbed out of the Jeep and walked hand in hand toward the big porch, while Pete ran in tight, happy circles around them. Once inside, they dropped their jackets and keys and stood facing one another in the kitchen. Syd looked exhausted.
Maddie ran a hand gently along the injured side of her face. “Why don't you go on up and hop in the shower? I'll turn off these lights and be right behind you.”
Syd leaned into her hand. “Promise?”
Maddie nodded. Syd reached up with both hands and drew Maddie's face down to hers, kissing her softly. “Find me something to sleep in?”
“I think I can manage that.” Maddie smiled at her, kissing the tip of her nose.
Syd dropped her hands and turned toward the back stairs that led up to Maddie's bedroom. Maddie watched her disappear around the corner before walking back through the house, turning off lights.
“C'mon, Pete!” She gave a short whistle, and Pete ran down the long center hallway, carrying a natty-looking tennis ball in his mouth. “Bedtime.” The big dog raced her to the back stairs and bounded up ahead of her, dropping with a huff into his oval-shaped dog bed. He tipped his head back as he chewed contentedly on his prize.
The light was on in Maddie's bathroom, and she could hear the shower running. Syd had neatly folded her clothes and stacked them on a low bench that sat just outside the bathroom door. Maddie deliberated only a moment before deciding to join her—shedding her own clothing and pulling on an oversized terrycloth robe that hung on the back of the door. She entered the large bathroom and opened her medicine cabinet, drawing out a bottle of antiseptic rinse and some butterfly bandages.
“Knock, knock?” She turned and tapped on the shower door. “Would it be all right if I joined you long enough to take a closer look at that cut on your face?”
Syd's naked form was plainly visible through the glass shower door. Against her will, Maddie felt the prick of arousal. As Syd moved toward the door, she realized that maybe this wasn't the best idea—they both were overtired and emotionally drained. Then the door popped open and a wet arm reached out to grab her by the lapel of her robe.
“What took you so long? Get in here—it feels wonderful .”
Shrugging and sighing happily, Maddie dropped her robe, and stepped into the cocoon of heat and steam. The corner shower had jets on both of its walls, and the pulsating, hot water felt marvelous on her tired muscles. Syd felt marvelous on her tired muscles. Syd's wet body moving against hers felt so marvelous that soon her muscles weren't feeling tired at all.
Syd's hands moved through her hair, massaging her scalp, then squeezing the soap out as she tipped her head back under a spray of water. Maddie was basking in the luxurious attention.
“Hey—I'm supposed to be taking care of you ,” she said, as Syd finished washing her hair and now was running the washcloth around in slow circles over her breasts.
Syd leaned forward and laid a series of small kisses across her chest. “You are taking care of me.” She dropped the cloth and moved into Maddie's arms. “I need this. I need you.”
Maddie pulled her closer. “You have me.” She lowered her head and they began to kiss deeply, eventually staggering back against the shower wall. Syd's hands seemed to be everyplace at once. Maddie threw her head back and gasped. “Good god. ” She ran her own hands down Syd's back and grasped her bottom, desperate for anything to hold on to. Syd's lips were now working their way back up her neck. Her tongue was teasing the outside of an ear. “Baby— please . My knees are about to give out. Let's go to bed—I think I'm clean enough.”
Syd drew back and looked at her though a haze of steam. Her green eyes were smoldering. “Really? Then let's go and see what we can do to make you good and dirty again.”
Maddie reached out and threw the lever on the shower valve, shutting the sprays of water off. Every part of her body felt alive. “I thought you were tired?”
Syd backed toward the door and tugged her along. “I seem to have rebounded.”
“Apparently.” Maddie sighed dramatically as she allowed herself to be led forward. When they both were out of the shower, they quickly toweled themselves off, and combed through their wet heads of hair. In the white light of the bathroom, Syd's face didn't look as bad as it had earlier. It was clear that she'd be sporting a class-A shiner, but now that the blood was cleared away, her small cut looked fine. Maddie carefully wrapped Syd up in her discarded robe, before picking her up and carrying her into the bedroom.
Syd wound her arms around her neck and nuzzled her ear. “Now this is what I call room service.” Maddie deposited her on the bed and slowly climbed up to straddle her. “Are you gonna get me some jammies?” Syd asked with an impish smile.
Maddie yanked off the towel she had loosely wrapped around her own body, and tossed it to the floor. “I don't think so.”
Syd was plainly struggling to remain coherent as Maddie leaned over her—propped up on her forearms. Her dark hair fell around Syd's face like a wet curtain.
“Do you want jammies?” Maddie's voice was low and husky.
Syd looked up at her. Resolving that actions spoke louder than words, she decided to show Maddie what she wanted—putting her hands and her mouth to good use. In short order, Maddie was doing a commendable job expressing what she wanted—gasping and moaning as she found release.
Then she rolled Syd over and returned the favor.
Wrapped-up together under the big, star-patterned quilt, they finally fell asleep—safe and warm, and confident that, together, they had pushed back the darkness that had swirled around them all evening.
As they slept, Maddie's cell phone vibrated in its resting place below them on the kitchen table. Miles away, under the bright lights of an ICU ward equipped with every medical advantage, Beau Pitzer suffered another heart attack. This time, he did not survive.
Maddie left early the next morning. Fortunately, she was scheduled for a lighter day than normal—but knew that with Lizzy out, she'd be seeing all of the patients herself. She kissed Syd goodbye a little before 8:00, and encouraged her to stay in bed a while longer. She promised to head home in the early afternoon so they go together into town to meet with the fire marshal, and review the condition of the library and Syd's upstairs apartment.
When she ventured downstairs, she listened to her messages. She stood for a few moments in the quiet of the kitchen before going back upstairs to tell Syd the difficult news about Beau. The two of them sat together in silence, not really knowing what to say or how to feel. Maddie finally spoke up, suggesting that she intended to talk with Gladys and reassure her that Beau's death was unrelated to his gunshot wounds. In addition to everything else she would have to contend with, Maddie didn't want Gladys wrestling with responsibility for that, too.
After Maddie left, Syd, who was unable to fall back asleep, wandered around the big farmhouse kitchen with a cup of coffee and made mental lists of all the questions she needed to ask related to recovery from the fire. What kind of help would be forthcoming from Richmond? What sort of insurance did the county carry on the facility? How much of her collection would be salvageable? Where did one go locally for disaster relief services? Would she be able to enter her apartment and get her clothes? Her books? Her computer? Who should she contact in Richmond to relate what all that had transpired? This is ridiculous , she thought. I need a notepad.
Refilling her cup from the pot of coffee Maddie left her, she walked back into the downstairs study and looked around for a pen and a pad of paper. She found an empty legal pad on top of the desk, next to a bronze lamp with a mica shade. Behind the lamp, there was a framed photo of Maddie with her father—clearly taken at her med school graduation. Maddie stood tall and beautiful, resplendent in a black gown faced with dark green velvet. There was a trio of wide green crossbars visible on the sleeve. She was hanging on to her father's arm affectionately—her head thrown back in laughter, smiling that trademark smile of hers that made Syd go weak at the knees. She was breathtaking—and Syd lost herself for few moments as she stood and stared at the picture and wondered about the amazing chain of events that had led her to be standing exactly where she was at that moment—in Maddie's house, looking at this very photograph. She was startled when the phone on the desk started to ring. Uncertain for a moment about the propriety of answering it, she finally opted just to pick it up. It might be the sheriff , she thought. Or Lizzy.
There was a brief pause before a woman's low voice responded. “Hello. I'm trying to reach Madeleine Stevenson.”
“I'm sorry, she's not at home right now. You can reach her at her clinic, or I can take a message.”
There was another pause. “Syd? Is that you?”
Syd felt confused. The voice sounded oddly familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. “Yes….”
Celine. Oh, my god. “Celine? Hello. How are you?”
“I'm fine. I was hoping to catch Maddie before she left for work this morning—that's why I'm calling her house phone.”
Syd glanced at her watch. It was 8:40 a.m.—5:40 in California. Celine was an early riser, like her daughter. “She had a hefty patient load this morning, so she went into the clinic an hour earlier than usual. I'm sorry that you missed her—she will be, too.”
“That's okay—I can try her cell phone later on. Or if she's that busy today, maybe she can call me back when it's convenient?”
“Um—is everything okay? I mean—are you doing all right?” Syd felt awkward and tongue-tied. She didn't know why she felt so embarrassed to be caught lounging around Maddie's house at such an ungodly hour of the morning. She certainly didn't need for her discomfort to make her sound like an imbecile to Celine.
“I'm fine —really. Thank you for asking.” There was a pause on the line. “Are you all right?”
Syd closed her eyes as she stood there with the phone pressed to her ear. She felt strangely overcome with the need to tell the truth. “No. No—not really. I'm sorry, Celine. I'm just—I…” her voice trailed off.
“What is it, Syd?” Celine's voice contained a trace of alarm. “Has something happened? Is Maddie all right?”
“No. I mean— yes .” She sighed. “Maddie's fine. But, yes—something did happen.” She shook her head to clear it, and sat down on a leather-covered ottoman. “I'm sorry, Celine—I must sound like an idiot.”
“Well, not entirely.” Celine's drollness was so reminiscent of Maddie that Syd couldn't help but smile. “Look,” Celine continued, “why not take a deep breath—and then tell me what's going on.”
“It's a long story.”
“That's okay—I've got a good long distance plan, and I haven't used many of my ‘friends and family' minutes up until now. I'd like to change that.”
Syd smiled and slid back onto a chair. “We'd like to change that, too.”
“Well, then this seems like as good a time as any to start.”
Suddenly, Syd wanted very much to talk—not only about the events of last night—but about events of the last six months. After nearly 45 minutes, she realized with amazement that she had been talking pretty much nonstop. Celine had interrupted her from time to time to react or to ask for clarification—but Syd found that Maddie's mother possessed uncanny reflective listening skills. She expressed concern and amazement about her horrifying encounter with Beau—and was unmistakably proud of Maddie's later, heroic efforts to save him. She was also a good sounding board for Syd to air her mounting anxiety about her immediate future—and her uncertainly about the wisdom of moving in with Maddie so early into their relationship.
“Is there some magic amount of time that you think should elapse before you take this step?” Celine asked, after Syd revealed that one of her greatest concerns was that the fire would force them into something they both thought was happening too soon.
“Well—no. I mean…nothing hard and fast.”
“Are you committed to each other?”
“I think so.” No, that wasn't right . “Yes.”
“But you fear that proximity will compromise that?”
“Well…I just don't want us to do anything that might jeopardize our future together.”
“And living together in a committed relationship with the person you love, might do that— how, exactly?”
Syd laughed. “Now I see where your daughter gets it.”
“Her annoying proclivity for winning arguments.”
“Oh,” she could tell that Celine was smiling, “I don't know about that. I think I could learn a thing or two from her.”
“Just remind me that I never want to be caught in the crossfire between you two.” Celine fell silent, and Syd realized how her innocent gibe might have gone astray. “Oh, god, Celine—I didn't mean that the way it sounded.”
“I know. It's all right. I'm hopeful that one day we will be able to spar with one another again—without the rancor or the baggage.”
“I know that Maddie wants that, too.”
“You're good for her,” Celine said, with authority. “I noticed that immediately when I saw the two of you together in Richmond.”
Syd felt embarrassed and wondered again if they should tell Celine the truth about Richmond. “I'm glad you think so.”
“You love her.” It was a statement—not a question.
“I do. More than I ever thought possible. It's been quite a transition for me—moving here and meeting Maddie.” She shook her head. “Going from being married to discovering I'm gay at what seems like light speed —even though I know it really didn't work that way. I don't know—it's like…I feel sometimes like I'm plastered against the cow catcher of a runaway locomotive.”
Celine laughed. “Interesting analogy.”
Syd shrugged and smiled into the phone. “I love trains. My favorite book growing up was The Little Engine That Could .”
“Well, lucky for you—this is one load you don't have to haul over the mountaintop by yourself. Let Maddie pull her weight—she's up to it. That's what relationships are supposed to be all about: sharing the hard parts along with the easy parts—getting to the same destination together.”
Syd smiled. “Thanks for reminding me of that. I tend to over-think things.”
“That's not always a bad quality, Syd. But if every signpost of life seems to be pointing you in the same direction, then the best and wisest course to follow just might be the one laid out in front of you.”
“I guess you're right.”
“Maybe. But one thing I've learned from my own mistakes is that we're generally better off if we listen to our hearts and not our fears.”
Syd was amazed. “You're the second person who's said that to me.”
“Well, if a third person says it, then your data will definitely be trending in a certain direction.”
Syd laughed. “Thank you, Dr. Heller.”
“Syd, may I make another suggestion?”
“If you haven't talked with them yet—call your parents. Tell them what happened last night—and let them help you.” She hesitated. “I'm sure they'll want to. Maddie spoke very highly of them both.”
Syd felt her eyes brimming with tears. “Okay. I will.”
“Good. You'll be glad you did—and so will they.”
Syd sat up straighter in the chair, feeling better—feeling more empowered and less tentative. “Thank you, Celine. I mean that.” She hesitated. “I hope we can talk again—I've really enjoyed this conversation.”
“I have, too. You can call me anytime, Syd.”
Syd smiled into the phone. “Count on it, then. I'll tell Maddie you called—she'll be so pleased.”
“I hope so. Thank you, Syd. Take care.”
“You, too, Celine.”
They hung up and Syd sat there holding the phone in her hand, feeling slightly dazed from their conversation. Then she exhaled and dialed a familiar number. When the phone was picked up on the second ring, she took a deep breath. “Hello, mom?”
Fortunately for Syd, most of the damage the library sustained occurred in the form of smoke, although there was some significant damage to carpet, interior walls—and the books that lined them—from rivulets of soot and water that seeped though cracks in the stairway wall. The upholstery shop was another matter—most of the ground floor of that building was destroyed.
Syd's apartment fared little better. The open stairway that separated the two buildings had acted like a massive chimney—its smooth walls fed a seamless updraft that channeled smoke and soot upstairs, seeking a natural outlet through the open windows on the second floor of the building. Most of the shabby interior furnishings were damaged beyond repair. The walls and the carpet were badly stained with soot. Most of Syd's clothing and other personal items would be salvageable after extensive odor neutralization and professional cleaning. Some of her books were destroyed—but others would be boxed up and sent to remediation facilities along with affected volumes from the library below. The local dry cleaner in Jefferson had a sizeable ozone chamber, and they graciously offered the use of it to Syd, to expedite the recovery of her non-textile items. In the meantime, a judicious sweep through the Wytheville Wal-Mart would have to tide her over until the rest of her clothing was cleaned and restored.
The library collection was still in its infancy, so the number of volumes affected during the fire was fairly modest. Disaster relief workers from Roanoke were able to quickly box them up and store them on refrigerated trucks. The now frozen books would be transported to a facility where a sublimation process would freeze-dry the volumes to remove all traces of smoke and dampness. The state library of Virginia insured the contents of the facility, but not the physical structure, so these more sophisticated recovery measures were undertaken immediately. Syd's housing was another matter. It would be days, perhaps a full week, before local insurance adjusters would offer their assessments to the library board—and then, the county would be faced with the prospect of determining whether the upstairs apartment could be made habitable again without a significant commitment of funds. In the meantime, Syd was homeless.
Word of the fire, and sketchier accounts of events that preceded it, spread quickly throughout the county, and Syd was besieged with phone calls. With the absence of a local paper, she decided that it made sense to release accurate information selectively using reliable word-of-mouth channels. So, after briefing all members of the Tri-County library board, she stopped by the mini-mart to share details with Curtis and Edna Freemantle. Freemantle's market functioned like a neighborhood wire service, and sooner or later, most residents of the area could be relied upon to stop in and add to or glean from the escalating summaries of what all had transpired the night before. Curtis later reported that they had run completely out of hot dogs and iced tea well before 11:00 on Tuesday morning—the first time that had happened since the day of the 9/11 attacks.
Across town, Maddie's clinic functioned in much the same way—and Peggy Hawkes happily took up the mantle of official fact-checker and primary information conduit. No, Syd was not at home when the fire started. Yes, the sheriff is sure that Beau Pitzer started it. Yes, Beau did try to rob Lizzy's bungalow. No, he did not rape her. Yes, Lizzy was taking a few days off to recover from her ordeal. Yes, she was staying with her sister in Jefferson. Yes, it's true that Syd was the one who saved Lizzy by chasing Beau off. Yes, Maddie was the doctor who responded when Gladys shot her son. No, he did not die from gunshot wounds. Yes, they think it was a drug overdose. Yes, she had heard that Phoebe Jenkins lost an entire parlor set when Halsey's shop caught fire. Yes, the library was now closed. No, she did not know when or if it would reopen. No, Syd would not be allowed to stay there. No, she did not know where Syd would stay in the meantime—or if she would stay on in Jericho if the county couldn't afford to fix the library. Yes, she was certain that Dr. Stevenson was losing patience with all the phone calls. Yes, she promised to call back later after work.
Maddie and Syd rode home together after their meeting with the fire marshal and their preliminary walk through the library and Syd's upstairs apartment. The Roanoke disaster recovery team was already on-site, thanks to an industrious Elizabeth Metcalf in Richmond—who understood that time was the enemy if there was any hope of salvaging books damaged by water. Other affected items would be disposed of, or aired out and cleaned on site. Once they were allowed upstairs, Syd and Maddie made short work out of stuffing Syd's smoke-infused clothing into large plastic bags—and carrying them downstairs to a waiting ServPro truck that was on hand to pick them up, and transport them off to Wytheville for cleaning.
After arriving back at the farm, they showered and changed clothes before venturing back downstairs to make dinner together. Maddie lent Syd a clean pair of hospital scrubs and her favorite oversized, black v-neck sweater to wear while their clothes were in the wash. In the kitchen, Syd had her first real opportunity to fill Maddie in on the details of her conversation with Celine, and her later phone call to her parents—who now were planning to visit the following weekend.
“I called Michael, and he's going to put them up at the inn. Secretly, I think Dad was thrilled to have another crack at that infamous bass that nearly drowned him the day after Thanksgiving.”
Maddie was opening a bottle of wine, but looked up at Syd with a disappointed expression. “Why couldn't they just stay here with us? We have plenty of extra room.”
Syd smiled at her sweetness—and her apparent lack of introspection. “Honey, it might be true that you have lots of extra room. But as far as my parents are concerned, I'm already a guest here—and they wouldn't want to impose on you, too.”
“ Impose? ”
“You aren't imposing on me.”
“That might be true. But I'm not exactly living here with you, either.”
Maddie looked like she was trying very hard not to pout. “You aren't?”
“No, I'm not. Not yet , anyway.”
“Well, I guess that's something.” Maddie resumed twisting the cork out of the bottle.
Syd stood regarding her for a moment, before walking across the kitchen and kissing her gently on the cheek. “Fire or no fire, you know there's no place I'd rather be than here with you—right?”
Maddie met her eyes sheepishly. “I know.”
Syd tugged at the sleeve of her shirt. “Then why the long face?” She leaned forward and whispered against her ear. “You know you're going to get your way in the end.”
Maddie gave her a small smile. “I am?”
“Of course you are. Don't you always?” She laughed. “Even your mother told me it was pointless to resist.” She kissed her again—on the lips this time. “Just be patient for a little while.”
“I guess I can do that.”
“I know you can. Besides,” Syd walked back over to the sink and resumed washing a pile of torn lettuce leaves. “I'm not ready to have my mother and father be right down the hall while I'm sleeping with you.”
Maddie looked at her. “Not to belabor the point, or anything, but we—I—do have three guest rooms.”
Syd raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that I could stay here and not sleep with you?”
Maddie thought about that. “So—Michael's putting them up again? What a great idea. Why don't we have them over here for dinner on Saturday night?”
Syd laughed at her. “I love you.”
Maddie smirked as she poured them each a glass of wine. “I know.” She crossed the room and handed a glass to Syd. She turned around and leaned her back against the countertop so she could watch Syd while she worked. “So, tell me more about your conversation with my mother.”
Syd was thoughtful. “It was amazing, really. I found myself just yammering on and on—like I'd been talking to her that way for years.” She looked up and met Maddie's blue eyes. “She's so much like you in so many ways—I guess that's part of what made it so easy for me to talk with her. I was impressed by her determination to reach out to you—to us both, really. That part was especially humbling to me.”
“Why? She knows how much I love you. She knows that you're a huge part of my life now.”
Syd smiled. “I think that's precisely why it was so humbling. It made all of this real for me in a whole new way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hearing your mother talk so matter-of-factly about our relationship—like it was ordinary or unremarkable. And I mean that in the literal sense—not in a judgmental way.
Maddie nodded and crossed her arms. “She likes you. She has right from the outset—before we even knew exactly where we were headed.”
“I know. I came close to telling her the truth about Richmond—but I knew that I couldn't do that without discussing it with you first. I don't like deceiving her—especially now.”
“Me either. I guess we do need to come clean about all of that.”
“Are you going to call her back?”
“Yeah. I thought I'd do that this evening.”
“Why don't you go and call her now, while I'm fixing us some dinner? It's going to be a good 45 minutes before everything's ready.”
“Are you sure you don't need my help with anything?”
Syd smiled at her. “I need your help with everything —but in this case, I think I can manage by myself.”
Maddie stepped forward and kissed her on the temple. “Okay, then—I'll go and call her.” She picked up her wine glass and headed toward the study. “Be back soon.”
“Tell her I said hello.”
“I will.” Maddie disappeared down the hallway, and Syd turned her attention back to the meal preparation.
Maddie reappeared about 30 minutes later, just as Syd was transferring sautéed chicken breasts to a baking sheet. She looked happy and relaxed. Clearly, the conversation with her mother had gone well.
“Mom said to tell you that she was glad the damages to the library were far less serious than they could have been.” She paused. “She's happy that you'll be staying on here with me for a while.”
Syd shot her a sidelong glance. “Are you two in cahoots now?”
Maddie smiled slyly. “I wouldn't say cahoots, exactly. But we are of the same mind about one or two things.”
“Color me so surprised.”
Maddie affected a high-pitched wail and fluttered the fingers of both hands. “Surrender Dorothy!”
“Hey, just be glad it's me and not David. He'd have hauled out the costume and the makeup.”
“Now there's a horrifying thought. What else did you two talk about?”
“Well…she floated the idea of coming for a visit this summer.”
“Really? That's wonderful.”
Maddie looked smug. “I thought so, too. You, know,” she continued, more thoughtfully, ”that will be quite an event. She hasn't been back here since the day she left—nearly 25 years ago.”
“A lot has changed since then.”
“It sure has. And speaking of things that have changed—you do realize that we put on quite a performance for Byron and Lizzy last night, don't you? I think any questions either of them may have had about my sexual orientation have been laid to rest.”
Syd turned around to face her. “Not just yours.”
She shook her head. “The things Beau said to me—about us . God. Obviously, he had pieced it all together. I don't know how. He must have been stalking us.”
“Probably.” Maddie's voice was gentle. “It doesn't matter now.”
Syd closed her eyes. “God, Maddie—I'm so sorry. It's my fault. I thought I could manage it. I really did. And then when I saw you walk through that door—I just didn't care any more. All I could think about was being close to you—I was so scared. The whole time he was there and waving that knife around at us—I thought I'd never see you again. I really thought he would kill us both—especially after I hit him and he got back up.”
Maddie quickly stepped forward and pulled Syd into her arms. “It's okay, baby. I'm not worried about it—not at all. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters except this. We're together and we're okay, and I don't give a damn who knows about it.”
Syd sniffed against her shirt. “I don't care either—not anymore.”
They stood there for another minute, holding each other in silence. Then Syd pushed back and looked up into Maddie's face.
“I guess we need to make a trip to the hardware store tomorrow.”
Maddie reached up and wiped a tear off her cheek. “What for?”
Syd smiled at her. “Because it looks like I'm gonna need a house key.”
George and Janet arrived in Jericho shortly after 1:00 on Saturday. Maddie was working a shift at the ER that day, and would be out of pocket until after 3:00, so Syd drove alone to meet her parents at the Inn. After lunch, they drove together into town to see the library, and to review the progress being made by the ServPro team from Wytheville. The worst of Syd's black eye had faded by they time they arrived, but traces of the large purple and yellow bruise were still visible enough to make Janet gasp when she saw her daughter for the first time.
“My god—what did he do to you?” Janet took Syd's face between her hands and turned her toward the light.
“It's fine now, mom. Honest. It looks a lot worse than it was.”
George ran a soothing hand up and down her back. “I can't believe he hit you. I would've killed him.”
“I nearly did—and if I had , that would have been even worse.” Syd put her arms around both of her parents. “Thank you for coming—I mean that. I didn't realize how much I needed to see you both.”
George hugged her warmly. “We would have been here sooner if we hadn't known that you were here with Maddie. She told us that you were doing just fine.”
Syd drew back and met her father's eyes. “You talked with Maddie?”
“Of course I did.” He smiled at her. “I called her as soon as you were off the phone with your mother. I wanted to make sure that you were as okay as you said you were.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “I couldn't stop him. I think he has her on speed-dial.”
“But in all fairness,” Janet continued, “If he hadn't, I would have called her myself.”
Syd smiled at both of them. “It's okay. I understand.”
“We're happy that you're staying there with her. We didn't want you to be alone right now.”
Syd looked at her mother. “Believe me when I tell you that I've never felt less alone.”
They regarded each other in silence. “I believe you,” her mother said, finally. “And I'm happy about that—for both of you.”
Syd couldn't hide her smile. “Thanks.” She looked over at her father, who stood watching them with a smug expression. “What?” she asked him.
He sobered and raised his palms. “Don't look at me like that. I told you from the get-go that I didn't care who got her as long as she ended up in the family.”
Syd poked him in the ribs. “Why are you suddenly talking like Tony Soprano?”
“Hey? Family is important. You only get one , you know. And speaking of that—your brother is coming down tomorrow.”
Syd was shocked. “He is?”
“Yes, he is. Just for the day. We thought that maybe the five of us could spend some time together. We've already asked Michael if he would cook for us all here.” He gave her a small smile. “I think we have a lot to celebrate—don't you?”
She nodded. “I suppose we do.”
“It's settled, then. And I'm going to ask Maddie if there's anyone besides David and Michael she wants to invite.”
“Dad, is this a family reunion or a block party?”
“Do I have to choose?” His green eyes twinkled. “Besides—I don't think one precludes the other.” He looked up at the sky. “Winter is finally over—it's about time we all spent a day in the sun.”
Continued in Part X(Conclusion)
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