"I think I'm ready to date again," Maureen announced after Jim and Carol had ushered their kids to bed. "It's been nine months since Beth…" Her throat tightened and she couldn't speak. Even after so much time she still could hardly bring herself to say it out loud.
"It's about time," Carol interrupted firmly. "I know you needed time to heal, physically and emotionally, but I've always thought that getting back on the horse was best. I'm glad you've finally come to your senses."
Maureen wasn't at all sure that her decision could be termed sensible. In retrospect, her choices in women had all turned out to be rather poor and there was no way to tell if her heart had wised up. All she knew was that as easy as it was to be alone, she was tired of being lonely. Somewhere out there was a woman she could build a life with and she wanted to find her. "There's a reason I'm telling you," she said nervously.
"Looking for a wingman?" Jim asked lightly.
Maureen had considered this moment for weeks. Jim was the engineer at a local radio station and knew Shine Avery. Maureen had been listening to that husky, velvet voice on the radio for over 4 years and knew from Jim that she was gay. She had expected to run into Shine accidentally through the local gay community a long time ago, but it seemed that no one knew of her. Having no other interesting women in her field of view, she had talked herself into at least attempting to meet the remote disc jockey. She remained a little uncomfortable asking her friends to help her. "Not exactly. I need an introduction."
"To whom?" Carol asked.
Maureen watched as understanding widened Jim's eyes. "You want to meet Shine, don't you?"
"What a great idea," Carol said enthusiastically. "Maybe we could invite her over for dinner. What do you think, Jim? Will she come?"
Maureen held her breath waiting for Jim's response.
"I don't know," he said slowly. "I do know she's single: that's one of the few things she'll admit to about her personal life."
"Are you sure she's gay?" Carol asked.
"Ninety-five percent sure," Jim nodded. "I've never asked her and she probably wouldn't answer me if I did, but yes. She's a lesbian."
Maureen frowned at his certainty. "How do you know? Does she look like a lesbian?"
Jim laughed. "Don't worry, Maureen. She's attractive enough. I just figured it out."
Jim glanced at his wife covertly before speaking. "She doesn't display any awareness of men as potential mates. When she looks at me, I'm just another human to her."
"Are you telling me," Carol said with wry amusement, "that you think you're so irresistible that women 'size you up' everywhere you go?"
Maureen grinned at Jim's discomfort.
He turned to his wife with a sigh. "Do you remember that guy in the grocery store last week? The one with the tattoos and his belly hanging out of his shirt?"
"And what did you say about him?"
Maureen had to bite her lip at Carol's expression. Jim was usually the loser in their lover's spats but it looked like today was different.
"I don't remember," Carol said tightly.
Jim chuckled. "You said-and I quote-'Not in a million years.' You sized him up in a single glance and rejected him out of hand as a potential mate. That's what I'm talking about. Shine doesn't do that."
"You make women sound like predators," Carol objected.
"I understand what he's saying," Maureen interjected. "Even when you're not looking, you're assessing."
"It's a reflex," Jim said. "Maybe men do it more than women. I don't know, but even if you're not interested there's a drive that makes you aware. When Shine looks at men, she's not seeing them as men: they're just people. At first it made me feel defensive, but now I like it."
"Why?" Maureen was even more intrigued with the voice on her radio than she had been.
Jim scratched his chin while staring at the ceiling. "I think it's because there's no pressure. She doesn't have any expectations about me. If she likes me-and I think she does-it's because I'm likable. I don't have to be a man for her."
Carol drew her knees up and pulled an afghan over them. "What is she like around women?"
"Respectful and polite." Jim cocked his head and stared at Maureen. "Why the sudden interest?"
This was the part of asking that she had dreaded. "It's not sudden really. I've been listening to her on the radio for a long time and she has such a beautiful voice. I've always been interested, but I haven't been available." Maureen spoke as steadily as she could and tried to pretend that she wasn't blushing. Even though these two people were the dearest friends she could imagine it was hard to open up about matters of the heart. Pain was so much easier to discuss. "I know almost every lesbian in the area and I don't see anyone else appealing to me. The fact that you like her," she said directly to Jim, "carries a lot of weight with me."
He nodded absently. "I'll see what I can do. I won't make any promises, but I'll do my best."
Shine Avery looked up see Jim entering the booth. "Hey. What's up?"
"Just stopped in to say goodbye to my favorite radio personality." Jim dropped into the guest chair across the counter from Shine. "Good show today."
"What are you doing this weekend? Anything exciting?"
She shrugged. "Not really. What are you going to do?"
"Just family stuff." He hesitated, then continued. "Actually…"
Shine felt her defenses go up and she waited quietly for him to get to the point.
"I'd like you to meet my family."
She smiled to take any sting out of her words. "Well, I appreciate the offer, Jim, but I…"
Jim held his hands up. "Let me finish before you turn me down, okay?"
She leaned back in her chair and bit off her words.
"I know you never socialize with any of us," he said. "I'm not sure why, but I'm hoping it's not because you think we don't want to. I was going to ask you over a long time ago, but I heard you turn down Bill's invite a couple of years back. You were really nice about it, but you were quite clear about not wanting to mix business with your personal life. I respect that," he said quickly, "but we're already pretty friendly so it's not much of a stretch. All I'm asking is an hour or so. Just long enough to have dinner with us. If you hate us, I'll never ask again and I won't hold it against you."
Shine held up a hand for silence as the song came to an end and turned on her microphone. After four years as the mid-day jock, most of what she did was by rote. She considered Jim's request as she played commercials and read the weather.
Shine liked most of her co-workers, but Jim was easily her favorite and the closest thing she'd had to a friend in years. She liked his quick smile and sharp wit. She had found him to be surprisingly intuitive despite his California surfer boy good looks. He was watching her intently as she worked and she tried to ignore his gaze. If she was honest with herself, she did want to accept his offer and that desire was what made her most uncomfortable. She had spent years pushing people away and while she had achieved a measure of peace in her isolation, she wasn't particularly happy and she was frustrated by it. It occurred to her that Jim had children and she felt a tickle of anticipation. Kids were her weakness and she got along better with them than with most adults. Shine started up another song and turned off the mike.
Working quickly she put things away and arranged her next commercial break. "Will your children be there?"
"Yes." Hope flared in Jim's eyes. "It'll just be me, my wife, her foster-sister and my three kids. If you want to bring someone, too, I have no problem with that. It's just a very casual dinner and you can leave right after dessert."
A wave of nausea rolled over her and she closed her eyes to get it under control. This is ridiculous, she thought.
She grinned with embarrassment at the incredulity in his voice and took a deep breath before opening her eyes. "Really. But just this once."
Jim leaned back, arms hanging loosely at his sides and a goofy grin on his face. "I can't believe it. I've been agonizing over how to ask you all week and it was easy."
"Don't make me change my mind," she said sternly.
Jim gave her his address and almost ran from the booth. Shine tucked the note in her pocket with a feeling of nausea. I just hope I'm not making a huge mistake.
The nausea returned as Shine lowered her forehead to rest on the steering wheel outside the address Jim had given her. She knew she was in the right place because his truck was parked in the driveway. Now that she was here, she wasn't sure what she feared more; the possibility of hating them or having a good time. Probably having a good time, she admitted. Maybe they won't like me and I won't have to worry about being invited back. Over the years she had moved many times from decent places to avoid being friendly with good people. The urge to run was strong within her even now. I could be packed and on the road in an hour. I could get my lawyer to have my things shipped to me as soon as I find a new place and he could put my house back on the market. Thinking about it didn't give her the same sense of relief that it used to and she yielded herself to the inevitable. If only I hadn't said yes.
With a sigh of resignation she pocketed her keys and started up the walk. The door opened before she could knock and Jim smiled.
"I thought for sure you would change your mind."
"I still might," Shine shrugged.
Jim's smile was full of concern. "Come meet my family," he said as he pulled her inside.
Shine left her coat on a peg near the front door and let him introduce her to his children. Travis looked to be about 10 and was the spitting image of his father. He stood up and shook her hand like a man and she decided she liked him immediately. His strawberry blonde daughter, Angela, appeared to be on the edge of a full-blown snit.
"She's mad at me," Jim said quietly. "She wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house."
More concerned with Angela's 7-year-old feelings than Jim's adult ones, she looked with shock at the little girl. "Is he always this mean?"
Angela's eyes darted to her dad. "Don't answer that," Jim warned with a cock-eyed glare. Angela folded her arms with a huff, but a smile played at the corners of her mouth.
Shine turned at the sound of little feet coming into the room and saw a little boy with hair as red as a stop sign come to a halt not 5 feet away. His round blue eyes wide, he screeched and tore back down the hallway. Shine burst out laughing. "Now that's more like it."
"Travis," Jim directed, "go drag him back in here for me. That's my youngest. He's our little drama king."
Travis came back with the struggling child in his arms and set him on his feet. "Colin,” Jim said, “say hello to Shine."
Shine raised an eyebrow at his belligerent expression. "You're short."
Colin scowled up at her. "You're a poo-poo head."
Shine couldn't prevent her grin. "You're a little spitfire, aren't you?" The glint in his eye told her she was right.
"You must be Shine."
She turned at the woman's voice and knew immediately that this was Jim's wife. She had the red hair present in the two younger children and Shine was a little surprised to see that she appeared to be older than Jim. Still, she was an attractive woman and Shine held her hand out. "I'm guessing you're Carol."
"I've been wanting to meet you for a long time. Jim speaks very well of you."
Shine didn't know what to say to that and settled for clearing her throat. Carol still had hold of her hand and pulled her towards the kitchen.
"I want you to meet my best friend. We grew up together. Maureen?"
Shine cast a look over her shoulder at Jim and saw him lower his gaze and shuffle his feet. Oh no…it can't be. Her hand was dropped and she reluctantly turned her eyes as Carol directed. Everything seemed to be out of her control and she found herself looking straight into the most molten brown eyes she'd ever seen. Time stretched for a dizzying moment as she took in what was surely one of the most stunning women on the planet. Short and curly brown hair, creamy skin, full lips, and a softly rounded, deliciously proportioned figure conspired to make Shine feel like a gawky 12-year-old. She took the outstretched hand more for balance than out of courtesy and a jolt of rightness surged up her arm. For a single heartbeat Shine was transformed, then fear swept through her.
"My name is Maureen Baird," the woman said. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I hope you like fried chicken."
Shine was numb with panic and murmured something she hoped was appropriate. She followed Jim obediently when he offered to show her his workshop. As the door closed behind her, fear was replaced by anger.
"She's the reason I'm here," she stated with far more calm than she felt.
Jim's eyes darted away contritely. "She's the excuse for inviting you, yes."
Holding her anger in was an effort. She wanted to scream at him for putting her in this position. "I feel like I've been punched in the head."
"I know," Jim sighed. "She's beautiful."
She opened her mouth to deny his words, but it was true. "That's not what I meant and you know it. I would never have agreed to come if I'd known it was a set up."
Jim sat down on a stool. "I know. I did mention she would be here, but I deliberately glossed it over. I also know that I jeopardized our friendship." His blue eyes stared at her earnestly. "She's a good woman, Shine. The best. And I hope you'll stay for dinner. If you want to leave, I'll understand and I'll smooth it over, but I hope you won't take your anger at me out on her. She doesn't deserve it."
Shine closed her eyes and slowly forced her anger down until she felt calm. I can be charming for an hour, she told herself. If I focus on the kids, I might even have a good time. When she felt better, she opened her eyes.
"Will you stay?" He asked.
Relief emanated from him. "Thank you."
Even though she was composed she still felt betrayed by him. "Don't get comfortable, Jim. If you ever give me even the slightest opportunity, I'm going to shave off your eyebrows as payback." He started to laugh and she raised one of her own. His laughter came to a choking halt and she felt a measure of satisfaction.
Her only concern now was the connection she felt to Maureen. She had thought herself immune to such attractions and it was disturbing to find otherwise. The last thing she wanted was a girlfriend.
In much the same way she made herself seem gregarious on the air, she eased herself into a friendly demeanor as they reentered the house.
A game of Yahtzee with the kids on the coffee table kept her occupied until dinner. At their request, she ended up seated between Travis and Angela. She was grateful she hadn't been placed next to Maureen until she realized how distracting it was to sit across from her. Every time she looked up her body resonated to Maureen's presence like a tuning fork. The feeling of being 12 returned with a vengeance.
Fortunately, they were a talkative group and all she had to do was smile and laugh in the right places as they recounted amusing tales of family life. It was during dessert that she was called upon to contribute.
"Where did you live before you moved here?" Carol asked.
"Um…I traveled around a lot."
"Any place in particular?"
Shine wasn't sure her vocal cords were capable of performing. "No." All eyes were on her and she realized she would have to do better or she would make everyone uncomfortable. "All over the United States."
"Did you ever go to Florida?" Travis asked.
"Did you see a crocodile?" Angela questioned her.
Angela's eyes opened wide. "Were you scared?"
Shine warmed to the idea of telling the children about her adventures. "Not nearly as scared as when I saw a grizzly bear in Alaska."
Travis' voice crackled with intensity. "You saw a grizzly bear?"
She put her fork down next to the remnants of her chocolate cake and leaned in conspiratorially. "I was exploring just north of a place called Palmer and when I drove around this one corner, I almost crashed my car into him."
"What happened?" Angela breathed.
"Why, I wet my pants, of course." She said this as if it was the most natural response imaginable and the kids giggled. Speaking slowly, she tried to convey what an awesome experience it had been. "He was right in front of my car and his head was bigger than Colin's whole body. His teeth were as long as your fingers."
"What did you do?" Angela asked.
"Well, I apologized for almost hitting him with my car and asked for directions to McDonalds."
Angela snorted in disbelief. "They don't have McDonalds in Alaska."
"Sure they do." After a dramatic pause she drawled, "Well, it’s called McDonalds, but they serve Big Moose burgers, they eat their French fries frozen and the Playland is made of ice."
"Mom?" Travis looked to his mother for confirmation.
"Don't look at me, son. I've never been there. If she says it's so, then it must be." Carol picked up a wet cloth and tackled Colin's face and hands.
"Did you see any Eskimo's?" Travis asked doubtfully.
"Of course. But I never did see an igloo. They live in houses and drive cars and watch TV just like us."
"What else?" Angela and Travis said together.
She smiled at their enthusiasm. "I saw a tornado once. That was pretty scary. I went rafting in the Grand Canyon a couple of times and I got lost in Texas once for 4 days."
"Did you almost die?" Travis looked at her seriously.
"No. But I almost got swept away in a flash flood once and I've been inside of volcanoes."
Maureen's voice crawled over her skin. "What was the most beautiful thing you saw on your travels?"
You, her body sang against her will. Using a glass of water to give herself time to think, she sorted through her memories. "Southern Utah at dawn. I slept in my truck a lot and this one particular morning I woke up after a terrible storm before the sun came up. The whole world was white with snow and the sky was overcast and it was so pretty I just had to go for a walk. When the sun came up, the sky turned pink." Just talking about it brought back the wrenching loveliness of it. "It reflected off the snow and the clouds and for about 15 minutes it was like floating in liquid pink. It tasted like cotton candy at the county fair." With a shake of her head, she thought of something else.
"I was on a road in Kentucky on a late fall afternoon once with those big old trees making a living canopy-almost like a tunnel-and the sun turned the air inside it into a shimmering gold."
"What did it taste like?" Maureen queried.
Shine felt foolish, but Maureen looked genuinely interested. "Taffy."
"Sounds beautiful," Jim said quietly.
"Why were you traveling?" Carol interrupted. "Was it business?"
Discomfort settled over her like a shroud. This was precisely why she avoided social situations. Her past was not something she was prepared to discuss. "No. I was just…traveling."
"I think it's time for all young children to go to bed," Jim said firmly.
Shine smiled at the agonized objections. She finished her cake as they were relentlessly herded away and stood to clear her place. In moments she found herself helping Maureen clean up. They worked in silence until Shine couldn't bear it any longer. "What is it that you do for a living, Maureen?"
"I'm the County Librarian."
Shine blinked at the casual way it was said. "As in the County Librarian?"
Maureen merely shrugged as she went by.
"You don't look like a librarian."
Maureen looked over her shoulder with a grin. "What do I look like?"
Shine felt her social skills slip to age 11 and knew she was in way over her head. If not for the dishes in her hands she would have run for the hills. "I don't know."
Maureen smiled knowingly, then gestured at the kitchen mess. "You don't have to help me with this. I eat here pretty regularly so it's only fair I clean up now and then."
Shine's parents had been free spirits, but they believed strongly in good manners and she felt their influence now. "I'll help. What do you want me to do?"
"Wash or dry?"
As she didn't know where anything went, she elected to wash. In no time at all they were done and the light conversation had kept to the task at hand. Jim came in as they finished.
"Carol will be out in a minute. Can I get you anything to drink? We don't have anything exotic," he said directly to Shine, "but we're pretty well stocked otherwise."
Maureen opened the refrigerator. "Do you still have any of the white wine we had the other day?"
"I think so. What about you, Shine?"
"I don't drink." She wanted to leave, but she felt trapped. "I'm fine." She wandered into the living room as they sorted out their drinks and settled into a chair. I'll just stay until a moment presents itself. I don't want to be rude.
"Did you really see a grizzly?" Maureen asked as she relaxed in the other chair.
Shine leaned back and placed a foot on her knee. "He was incredible. You just don't get the full effect when you watch them on TV. The car didn't seem like any protection at all."
"Have you traveled outside of America?"
"No." Please don't make me talk about myself anymore. "I made a few day trips into Canada, but not enough to feel like I spent any real time there. Did you decide to be a librarian or did it just happen?"
"I chose. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do. I've worked in one library or another most of my life." Maureen explained. "When I was a teenager, I volunteered putting away books and reading to the smaller kids. After high school, I went to the university over in Anderson and majored in literature with a minor in library science. When I graduated, I came home and got an assistant position in the branch library over in Rawley and worked my way up. I've been in charge now for about five years."
"I'm impressed," Shine admitted. It was a prestigious position and likely fraught with responsibility. "I'll bet it's a lot of work."
"It was," Maureen grinned, "until I learned to delegate. There's still a lot to do and I'm always involved in events or projects, but it gets easier with time. I'm lucky that I've got such great employees."
Jim came in and sat down on the couch. "We've hardly seen her the last three months or so, what with her latest project."
Shine looked a question at Maureen.
"We received a grant from the Gates Foundation for computers," Maureen explained. "It's a two-part project. First, we're in the process of putting the card catalog in computer format and getting all the branches networked. Patrons will be able to see not only what we have available, but which branch currently has it."
"How many branches are there?"
Shine swallowed the lump of intimidation in her throat. "What's the second part of the project?"
"Online computer access." Maureen's eyes lit up in excitement. "There's so much information out there and no way we can stock every book. Now patrons can go online and find the information they need or even make travel reservations. I'm thinking that we should even have classes for seniors about basic computer use."
"That's a great idea," Carol said as she sat next to Jim. "Kids learn computers in the cradle now. But older folks are intimidated by it."
"Exactly!" Maureen said.
Shine made herself small and watched the three friends discuss ideas. They were so easy with each other. She wondered how long they had been friends. During a lull in the conversation, she asked.
"I met Maureen my first day of Kindergarten," Carol smiled. "We've been friends ever since."
"We even roomed together in college," Maureen laughed. "Though I'm afraid we were a terrible example for the other girls."
"Speak for yourself!" Carol protested.
"What about you?" Shine asked Jim.
"I met Carol and Maureen on my 21st birthday in a bar." He smiled.
"On a bar," Carol corrected fondly. "He was adorable. And so incredibly drunk." Carol nestled under his arm. "He dropped to his knees in front of me and promised to do anything I asked if I would only let him be near me."
"She turned me down," Jim said with humor. "Can you believe that?"
"I did give you my number," Carol reminded him.
"It took me two years to convince her that younger was better."
"How old are you?" Shine wondered.
"I'm 34," Jim admitted.
"Forty-two," Carol volunteered. "And you?"
Shine could feel Maureen watching her and did her best to ignore it. "I'm 36."
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
Shine turned to look at Maureen's face. "You can." She felt trapped in her eyes and knew she was in trouble.
"Is 'Shine' short for something?"
"The Sixties." Shine fell back on her favorite response. People had been asking her variations of the same question all her life. The laughter helped to break the spell of intensity between her and Maureen.
"Then what's your middle name?" Carol asked.
Shine braced herself. "True."
Jim leaned forward. "Your name is Shine True?"
She nodded and everybody laughed again.
"I like it." Maureen said with a quiet smile.
Silence began to develop and Shine grabbed it hurriedly. "I should get going."
Maureen put a hand over her heart as Jim closed the door behind Shine. "Wow." She gulped the rest of her wine and held the glass out. "I need something stronger."
A pillow hit Jim in the back. "You call that 'attractive enough'? My God, she's magnificent!" Carol was almost sputtering.
"Magnificent?" Jim shrugged his indifference and disappeared into the kitchen. He was back with clean glasses and a bottle of brandy in short order. "She's not that pretty," he said as he poured for them all.
Maureen blinked at him. "Come on, Jim. Can you honestly say that she's not beautiful?"
He frowned at them both. "She's way too thin. She has no breasts or hips to speak of. Her mouth is too wide, her nose is too sharp and the color of her eyes is kind of creepy. Did you see her hands?"
"She's fit and strong," Maureen argued, "and her mouth is full. She would look ridiculous with a perky nose and her eyes are the color of a pale summer sky early in the morning. Her hair is like corn silk and her hands?" her mouth dried up and she reached for her brandy, then tossed it back neatly.
Carol reached over to pat Jim's knee. "Really, honey, your standards seem a tad high. She's quite lovely."
"Whatever." Jim followed Maureen's example and leaned over to refill both of their glasses. "She's just Shine to me. I don't see her that way."
"What did you two talk about in the shop?" Carol asked. "She seemed upset when you took her out, but she was fine when she came back in."
Jim recounted their conversation and Maureen buried her head in her hands. "Why didn't you just tell her?"
"She wouldn't have come," Jim insisted. "I didn't lie to her, I just glossed over the truth. Believe me, it was the only way."
Not wanting to dwell on what couldn't be changed, Maureen sighed. "What's done is done and you're probably right, Jim. She seemed to relax with your children, but she really doesn't like talking about herself. She seemed okay relating the things she's seen and done, but if a how or why question was asked, she hedged and changed the subject."
"I learned more about her before dinner than I've been able to glean in the whole time I've worked with her." Jim put his feet up on the coffee table and rolled his glass between his hands. "I just hope I haven't completely destroyed my friendship with her. Even if it was a tenuous thing to begin with."
Maureen reached over and gripped his calf briefly. "I hope so, too. I really appreciate that you got her over here so I could meet her."
"You're family, Maureen. Anything I can do for you, I will."
"You know," Carol speculated aloud, "if we can get her to relax, I'll bet she's a hoot. Travis has already decided that since they probably don't have cows in Alaska-it being so cold and all-moose burgers make sense."
Maureen started to giggle. "I just hope he doesn't repeat that nonsense in school." The image of it was enough to send them all into a fit of laughter.
Carol was the first to recover. "You do want to see her again, don't you?"
"Very much," Maureen admitted shyly. "But I don't think it's what she wants."
"What makes you think that?" Jim asked.
"Aside from the issue of trust?" Maureen considered her words carefully. "There was chemistry between us. Not just for me: for her, too. But every time we started to…connect, she looked…afraid. Several times I thought she was on the verge of jumping up and running away."
"But she didn't," Jim pointed out.
"So she has good manners," Maureen replied. "She's obviously not interested in a relationship."
Jim chuckled. "I forget how different men and women are sometimes."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Carol retorted.
Jim shrugged. "It's just that ninety percent of the relationships men have start just like this. You see an interesting woman and no matter what you say to her, she thinks it's a line. Most of us spend months just trying to get a woman to eat at the same table with us. We have to convince women that we're worth checking out." Jim sat up and put his feet on the floor so he could lean closer to her. "How many times have you invited a woman to dinner and been rejected for no particular reason?"
Jim shook his head. "And then what? Did you just give up?"
Maureen started to blush. "She came by a couple of days later and apologized, then asked me out."
"See?" He looked astonished. "Carol, how many times did you turn me down before you let me buy you lunch?"
Carol looked away demurely. "Four or five, I think."
"Eight!" Jim looked back to Maureen in triumph. "She is worth 10 times that many rejections to me, but you see my point, don't you?"
"Are you suggesting I stalk her?"
Jim flung himself back on the couch. "Women!" He rubbed his head and leaned in again. "Lesbian or not, she's a woman. You say she seems afraid, but she didn't run. In your shoes, I'd chase her slowly until she wants to be caught."
Maureen was at a total loss. "I wouldn't even know how to start."
Jim stood up and began to pace. "There are two important things to remember. First, don't give her a chance to indulge in anger at your persistence. Keep it short and keep it light. Second, make her anticipate the surprise of seeing you."
Shine used her back to close the door of her house and sank down to put her head on her knees. She felt battered and emotionally drained. Why now? Why her? What am I going to do if she calls me? I don't want to hurt her feelings. Why does she have to be so nice? Why did I let Jim talk me into dinner? His kids are so cute and I like his wife, but I swear I'll get him back for doing this to me. I don't know how and I don't know when, but I'll think of something.
Shine had herself calmed down by Monday morning. The previous day had been spent working on her house and yard in an attempt to distract her from starting over in a new town. She was determined to at least try to get her life back on track. She had finally achieved a measure of serenity and she wasn't prepared to have it disturbed by an impossible attraction to a woman she'd only met once.
But, every time she relaxed her guard, she caught herself thinking about Maureen's big brown eyes and generous smile with a flutter of nerves. It became an irritant that wouldn't go away. In moments of personal honesty, she knew that what really bothered her was that she wanted to see Maureen again.
Jim slunk into the booth shortly after she started her show and she managed to keep all expression from her face. "Good morning, Jim."
If he'd had a hat, he'd have been twisting it in his hands. "I only came in to apologize. I know you're a private person and I lured you into a situation that was probably extremely uncomfortable for you. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Shine waited a heartbeat for effect. "Thank you for the apology." He appeared to be waiting for forgiveness and she let him.
"Well," he spoke uncertainly. He reached into his pocket with a jerk and held out an envelope. "My wife made me promise to give you this. I don't know what it says."
Shine took it from his hand and he left the room with his head bowed. She almost felt sorry for him. The letter made her nervous and she avoided it for several hours. She finally couldn't stand not knowing and tore it open. A single piece of stationary was inside.
AFTER YOU LEFT THE OTHER NIGHT, JIM ADMITTED TO US HOW HE AMBUSHED YOU. PLEASE BELIEVE THAT WE HAD NO IDEA. I'D APOLOGIZE FOR MY HUSBAND, BUT I LIKE YOUR PLAN SO MUCH BETTER. I'D BE HONORED TO ACT AS YOUR SURROGATE. JUST SEND ME A RAZOR AND I'LL TAKE CARE OF IT. WE ENJOYED YOUR COMPANY VERY MUCH AND YOU HAVE A STANDING INVITATION TO RETURN ANYTIME. THE CHILDREN ESPECIALLY SEEM FASCINATED BY YOU. COLIN KEEPS ASKING WHEN 'CHINE' CAN COME PLAY WITH HIM. I CAN SEE WHY JIM VALUES YOUR FRIENDSHIP SO HIGHLY.
Oh, she's good. Shifting the blame onto Jim, offering to exact my revenge, telling me that the kids like me in hopes that it will soften me up, telling me that Jim really likes me and not a single word about Maureen. I wonder what she does for a living. Can I believe any of it? What if she's telling the truth? She set it off to one side and continued working, but her eyes kept coming back to it. It doesn't make any difference, she finally decided. Yes, I really enjoyed the children and as much fun as it would be to spend time with them, Maureen is part of their lives and I'd have to deal with seeing her. I can't do it. Not to me and not to them. It's just not worth the risk.
Having resolved to keep things the way they were she was frustrated to find that every time the request line rang, she hoped for and dreaded hearing Maureen on the other end. It was a slow and nerve-jangling week, but by Friday she began to relax.
Looking forward to the weekend, Shine signed off on the log at 5:30 and ten minutes later she left the building. She turned the corner of the building into the parking lot as she dug her keys out of her pocket. Looking up, she caught sight of someone sitting on the hood of her car. She stopped long enough to see that it was Maureen, then approached with a feeling of trepidation and delight.
"Good show today," Maureen said brightly.
"Thanks." Shine stopped a short distance away. "Why are you sitting on my car?"
"Because it's locked." Maureen slid to the ground. "Would you like to go out for coffee with me?"
Shine wanted to die or disappear. Maybe both. It was much easier to turn down a stranger. "I don't think it's a good idea." Even as she spoke, she fought a desire to say yes.
Shine walked around Maureen and unlocked the car door. She screwed up her courage to say, "I don't date and I'm not looking for a relationship. It's not a personal thing, it's just the way I am."
"What about friends?" Maureen grinned. "Do you allow yourself to have them?"
Shine was embarrassed. To cover her uncertainty, she stuck to her guns. "I just don't think it's a good idea."
"Maybe next week then." Maureen shrugged and walked away.
"Next week?" Shine said weakly. She stood inside the car door and watched the sway of Maureen's hips until she turned the corner.
Shine was almost to her car the following Friday before she noticed Maureen. Oh my God, she's back! She stomped on a gleeful flutter of excitement. "What are you doing?"
"I was thinking that if we just happened to go to the same movie at the same time and just happened to sit in the same row, it wouldn't be like a date or anything." Maureen had a twinkle in her eye that made Shine distinctly uncomfortable.
"You seem like a nice woman…" Shine started.
"I am a nice woman," Maureen said firmly.
“…but I don't care." Shine felt a little desperate. "I'm sorry to be so blunt, but there it is. I'm content with the way my life is. I don't want to go out with anyone."
"Content?" Maureen slid off the hood of the car and Shine nervously backed up a step, her heart beating a staccato rhythm. "Is that enough for you? What about happiness?"
"Happiness is not a sustainable emotion," Shine said harshly, chagrined at her rudeness and knowing that her mother would have washed her mouth out with soap.
"Maybe you're not doing it right," Maureen grinned, "or with the right person."
"Be that as it may…"
"How long has it been since you had a friend?"
Hoping to shock her and drive her away, Shine told the truth. "Eight years."
"Then it's a good thing I came along when I did," Maureen said lightly. "Just go to the movies with me. We don't even have to talk and you can pick the movie."
"Why do you want this so bad?" Shine demanded with some heat.
Maureen glanced away, then back. "Because I'm inclined to like you and I'm short on friends. Carol is the best friend I've got and she's busy with her family most of the time. I don't have anybody to hang out with and talk to."
Shine's heart ached at Maureen's words and it took an enormous effort to continue saying no. "I can save you a lot of time and trouble by telling you that I don't make a very good friend."
"How do you know? You haven't had one in eight years. Maybe you've turned into a good friend and you don't know it."
Shine rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I can't believe this is happening."
"I would imagine people ask you out all the time."
"Most people take no for an answer," Shine sighed.
"I'm not most people." Maureen smiled and walked away.
Shine was unlocking the door of her car with shaky hands when she heard, "Hey, Shine!" She looked over her car to see Maureen at the corner of the building.
"See you next Friday!"
Shine dropped into the car and slammed the door. She wanted to cry. I don't need friends! I don't! Especially not when they make me feel like this.
"I don't know if I can keep doing this," Maureen said into her drink. She had called Carol from the bar after seeing Shine and poured out what happened. "I'm just making her mad and my feelings are getting hurt."
Carol put her arm around her shoulders. "Jim said it would be like this, remember? Don't give up so quickly."
"She hasn't had a friend in eight years!"
"See?" Carol squeezed her. "She's giving up personal information already. Even Jim didn't know that."
"She might be more than I can handle," she admitted reluctantly. "Maybe she's right and she's not a good friend. I'm 42 years old and I'm not sure I have the time or the energy to fix someone just so I can ask her to dinner." She caught the bartender's eye and signaled for another drink. "Do you know what she said? She said, 'Happiness is not a sustainable emotion'."
Maureen looked at Carol in surprise. "What?"
"Well, it's not." Carol shrugged. "You can't be actively happy at every moment. I'm very happy with my life, but I'm not happy all the time."
"I guess you're right," Maureen admitted reluctantly. "I just don't want her to be right." She turned on her barstool to face her friend. "The thing of it is, the moment when she sees me-in that exact moment-I can see that she's glad to see me. And then she gets this…scowl. It feels like she's deliberately trying to hurt me."
"I can't imagine her hurting someone on purpose," Carol said with doubt. "Maybe she's trying to hurt herself."
Carol's words shot straight through the buzz Maureen was working on. Clarity was just out of reach, but her emotions sorted themselves out. "You might be right."
Shine went to work early on Monday morning. She walked straight into Jim's office and dropped into a chair. "What did you tell her?" She demanded. She had tried to alleviate her frustration over the weekend, but it had merely grown.
"Good morning, Shine," he said as he swiveled away from his workbench.
"Who are we talking about?"
"Maureen, of course. What did you tell her?"
"I'm not sure what you mean. What's going on?"
"Oh, please," Shine growled. "You probably know exactly what I'm talking about. She keeps ambushing me at my car, and she won't take no for an answer."
"That doesn't sound like Maureen," Jim said doubtfully. "She's never struck me as the aggressive type." He reached for his coffee. "I know she's pretty assertive at work, but she's a gentle woman in my experience."
"I'm starting to feel like I'm being stalked."
"I can think of worse things than going out with Maureen, Shine. Maybe you should just say yes and get it over with."
"I don't want a relationship, Jim."
"Why not?" Shine stood up to go and Jim grabbed her arm. "Whether you want it or not, I'm your friend, Shine. It's not dependent on you coming to dinner or going out with Maureen. I really like you and I really want to know. So, tell me: why don't you want a relationship?"
Shine rubbed her hands through her hair and wondered what to say. "I'm not good at them," she finally declared.
"Sit down," Jim directed. "Do you want some coffee?"
"No! I don't want coffee!" She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry, but she feared that she was going to do one or the other very soon.
"So what do you want?"
"I want…I want to go back to before I met her: before dinner at your house. Maybe I wasn't happy, but at least I wasn't miserable." She was surprised that she had said as much as that. The only thing worse than having feelings was talking about them.
"Do you object to Maureen because you don't like her or is it something else?"
Shine dropped her head into her hand with a sigh of resignation. "There's nothing wrong with her. She's very nice and she's very pretty."
"You're attracted to her then," Jim said with a wicked smile.
Shine squirmed on her seat. "She's beautiful, I admit that, but she's way out of my league."
"I thought you didn't have a league."
"She's a public figure!" Shine objected.
"So are you. Have you seen the latest ratings?"
His change of subject startled her. "No."
"You beat out Marty. No one's ever done that before."
"I beat the morning show?" Shine couldn't believe it.
"Actually, according to the survey, you're the most listened to jock in the county."
Shine closed her mouth with a snap and sat back thoughtfully. "Maybe I should ask for a raise."
"Now would be a good time," Jim agreed. "My point is that your job makes you a bigger public figure than Maureen."
"It's not the same. She's not just a librarian. She has a prestigious position and a lot of responsibility."
"She's just a woman, Shine. Don't let her job intimidate you."
"Well, it does."
"I think we're making progress," Jim smiled. "A few minutes ago, you didn't want a relationship and now you're worried that she's too good for you."
"I'm just trying to show why it's impossible," Shine said in protest.
"You haven't said anything yet that makes me think that. You don't have to marry her," he laughed. "Just go out with her! Maybe she'll decide you aren't what she wants and then she'll leave you alone."
"You told her to pester me, didn't you?"
"I would never!" Jim sputtered.
"You did!" Shine accused. "You think this is funny, don't you?"
Jim pushed his chair back and put his cup down with a smile. "My kids want you to come over again. They liked your stories."
"Forget it," Shine grimaced. "I've got enough trouble with Maureen stalking me. I'm not giving you and your wife another chance to set me up."
"Not much chance of that. We're rooting for Maureen."
Shine peeked around the corner to see Maureen sitting on her car again. She wasn't sure if the irritation she felt was because Maureen was persistent or because she felt so much pleasure at seeing her. She backed up and went back inside to Jim's office. She grabbed a coffee can and started emptying his little drawers of nuts and bolts into it, then put the lid on the can and shook it up. Feeling better, Shine went back out to confront Maureen.
"You're not going to give up, are you?" She asked as she reached the car.
"Not without a court order," Maureen laughed. "Just go to a matinee with me tomorrow and then we'll have ice cream."
"What happened to just having coffee?"
"Every time I have to come begging the ante goes up," Maureen grinned. "If you say no this time, next week it'll be dinner."
"And after that?" Shine couldn't help but ask.
"Dancing." Maureen scooted forward to put her feet on the ground.
Shine turned and sat next to her, but far enough away that they wouldn't touch. It seemed inevitable that Maureen would get her way. "We pay our own way?"
"Yes. You can meet me at the theater and I won't even ask to share popcorn with you."
Shine took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm going to do this."
"Does that mean yes?"
Shine nodded. Maureen patted her leg and stood up. "See how easy that was?"
"That was easy?" Shine laughed roughly. The spot Maureen had touched on her leg was tingling and she resisted the urge to rub it in front of her.
Maureen backed away with a bouncy step. "I'll meet you outside the theater at 12:30 tomorrow. Don't be late!"
Shine watched Maureen walk away and wondered if anything would ever be the same.
Shine had never seen so many different kinds of chocolate in one bowl and she had never seen anyone enjoy it so much. "That much chocolate can't be good for you," she warned.
"As a member in good standing of the Deanna Troi Chocolate Fan Club, I can tell you that it's only in massive quantities that chocolate displays its truly miraculous qualities." Maureen licked her spoon. "You don't like chocolate?"
"Chocolate is like salt," Shine explained. "A little goes a long way."
"Not for me. It's a food group in my house." Maureen took another bite. "Did you like the movie?"
Shine tried to remember. It had been a romantic comedy and was already fading from her memory. "It was alright."
"That means no," Maureen smiled. "What kind of movies do you prefer?"
"Action and science fiction."
"Then why didn't you pick that space thing that was playing?"
"I've already seen it and I didn't think you would like it." Shine dug out a bite of her banana split.
"I like most everything," Maureen waved her spoon. "Except for purely horror flicks. If it's got screaming girls in high heels or chainsaws, I've got better things to do."
"I have to agree with you on that one." They ate in silence for a moment.
"What do you think?" Maureen asked.
"Me. Do you like me even a little?"
Shine couldn't believe how brave Maureen was. "You said you're short on friends. How come?"
Maureen looked down at her ice cream. "I allowed my last girlfriend to drive them away."
Shine kicked herself for bringing up something painful, even if she hadn't known, but Maureen's phrasing was interesting. "Why did you do that?"
Eyes still downcast, Maureen answered. "I allowed myself to be distracted by the sex and a fear of being alone. By the time I realized what was going on, it was too late.
For a lot of things."
Shine wanted to know more but was afraid that an equal amount of intimacy would be required of her. She couldn't just let Maureen look so down though. "What do you do for fun?"
"Lately?" Maureen looked up with an evil grin. "Pester you mostly."
Feeling pestered, Shine rolled her eyes. "Anything else?"
"I love plants. I don't have room for a garden where I live so I stick to potted plants, but I have a lot of them. I also love to read, go to movies, concerts, and plays and I like to cook. I haven't done much of it lately, not having any one to cook for. I also dabble at painting now and then, but more for meditational purposes than anything else."
"Why is it that no one ever says they're good at painting?"
Maureen laughed. "My painting skills truly are abysmal. Rather frightening actually. I put them outside at Halloween to scare the trick or treaters."
Shine smiled at Maureen. "Okay. What else do you like?"
"Shopping and swimming in the summertime. What about you? What do you like?"
She shifted nervously. "Well, I read quite a bit. I rollerblade. I like to fix things. Sometimes I like to go hiking, camping and river rafting." Shine struggled for more. "I'm a football fan in the fall. I like parachuting, too."
Maureen's eyes went wide. "Parachuting? Out of a plane?"
"You should try it," she said. It felt good to shock Maureen considering how much she had been shocking Shine of late.
"I've never even flown on a plane; jumping out of one is unthinkable."
"You've never been on a plane? Why not?"
Maureen shrugged. "I've never needed to go that far."
Shine couldn't tell if she was being teased or not. "I don't know whether I should believe you."
Maureen held up her right hand with a serious face. "I've never lied to you and I never will. You have my word."
Unsure what to say to that, Shine took the last bite of her ice cream and picked up a napkin to wipe her mouth. "My hands are sticky. I'll be right back." She went to the restroom and washed up, studying her face in the mirror. "I do like her," she told her reflection. "But I still don't want a relationship." She considered a moment, trying to understand the confusion of emotion inside of her. "At least I don't think I do."
When she returned to the table it had been cleaned up and Maureen was waiting by the door. Without a word they began walking back to their cars. After a few blocks Maureen spoke again.
"It sounds like you like to do a lot of physical activities. That must be how you stay in shape."
Shine patted her stomach. "I can't take credit for that. It's genetic. I've tried to gain weight, but I can't. I guess I just have a high…" She realized that she was walking by herself and turned to see where Maureen had gone. She was standing very still about 10 feet away. Shine walked over to her. "What is it?"
"I know you haven't had a friend for a very long time," Maureen said quietly, "so let me tell you something for future reference. It's very distressing for people who can't seem to lose weight to hear people say that they can't gain any."
She glanced around and saw that there was no one else within earshot. "Don't worry, no one heard me."
Maureen squared her shoulders. "I heard you."
Shine started to smile, then understood. "You think you…?"
Maureen started walking again. "I've been fighting the same 30 pounds all my life."
"But?" Shine sputtered, "you're beautiful! When I grow up, I want to look just like you." I can't believe I said that!
"That's very nice of you to say," Maureen said with dignity, "but I don't think I'm beautiful."
Shine couldn't even speak she was so surprised. It was another half a block before the words would come out. "Maybe you should consider changing the way you think."
Shine leaned back against her own car as Maureen unlocked her car door. "Are you still going to stalk me? Or are we square?"
Maureen slowly turned; her expression cold. "Is that why you're here? So that I'll leave you alone?"
A wave of nausea washed over Shine and she broke out in a cold sweat. "I don't feel like you're listening to me."
"What do you think I'm not hearing?"
"I don't want to be in a relationship." She spoke as clearly as she could so there would be no misunderstanding.
"I haven't asked you to be my girlfriend," Maureen said angrily. "All I want is to spend time with you and see if we can be friends. If you don't want to be my friend, say so."
"I've been saying so."
"You said it didn't seem like a good idea. You didn't say no."
Shine couldn't believe it. She thought she had said little else in their previous meetings. Maybe she had never actually said 'No' to her, but she felt she had been more than clear about not wanting to go out.
"Well?" Maureen asked. "Do you want to be friends or not?"
Confused, Shine spread her hands out. "I don't know."
Maureen got in her car and rolled down the window. "Let me know when you do."
Shine watched Maureen drive away. She stood in the March chill for a long time thinking about what she wanted.
Maureen picked at her dinner and analyzed her date with Shine. She wasn't surprised that Shine hadn't liked the movie. Neither had she-what she could recall of it. The truth of it was that she had spent the entire time aware of Shine's shoulder against her own and listening for the sound of her breathing. The most rewarding time had been in the ice cream parlor. Shine had almost relaxed and Maureen had wanted it to go on forever.
What had her in a quandary now was the walk back to the car. Before she had time to think about it any further, she picked up the phone and called Carol.
"Tell me," Carol said brightly. "How did it go?"
"The jury's still out. I have to ask you something."
She was almost too embarrassed to get it out. "Do you think I'm…pretty?"
"Pretty?" Carol burst into laughter. "Jim! Maureen wants to know if she's pretty!"
Devastated, Maureen hung up the phone and buried her head on her arms. She let the phone ring 10 times before she picked it up. Carol was still laughing.
"Pretty doesn't even begin to describe you," her friend emphasized without preamble. "I've known you so long that I forget sometimes how extraordinary you are."
This was what Maureen wanted to hear, but that didn't make it easy to accept.
"You are," Carol said clearly, "the most stunning, voluptuous, dazzling woman I've ever met. The day I leave Jim he's going to apply for a sex change on the off chance that you might be interested."
"But I'm fat," she mumbled in shame.
"Fat? You?" All laughter was gone from Carol's voice. "You can't be serious. You take that back, Maureen. When I grow up, I want to look just like you."
Maureen almost laughed at her choice of words. "That's exactly what Shine said to me today."
"Shine said I was beautiful and that she wished she looked like me. I'm having a hard time believing it."
"I've known you for 37 years and I find out after all this time that you think you're fat and you don't even know how beautiful you are and all my life I've been judging myself by how you look and coming up short?" Carol's heated exasperation poured out. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard and I can't believe…"
The phone clattered and Jim came on the line. "Some friends we are," he sighed. "I can't believe you didn't know. It never occurred to me that you needed to hear it from us." Carol was still cursing in the background.
"It's not…I mean…I know I'm nice looking, but…"
"Maureen, you're gorgeous. You can argue with me if you want, but you're the reason other people get plastic surgery. Just accept it and move on."
Can it really be true? Is that how people see me? "I don't know what to say."
"Maybe part of what makes you so beautiful is that you're so unaware of it. Haven't your girlfriends ever told you how lovely you are?"
"Of course, but it's one of those things you have to say. You've got to take it with a grain of salt."
"In your case, it happens to be true," he insisted. "Listen, you've really thrown Carol for a loop. She's crying now, so I'm going to let you fix it with her."
She prepared herself to work it out with Carol. "Thanks, Jim."
"Next time I see you," he promised, "I'll swoon."
Shine had a change of heart on Sunday about the mess she had made of Jim's things and went into the station with a bag lunch to begin sorting it all out. She was down to miscellaneous bits and pieces when Jim arrived.
"Hey, Shine. What are you doing?"
"I made a mess the other day and I'm cleaning it up." She stretched and went back to work. "What are you doing here?"
"I have to go up to the translator on Cross Peak in the morning. I came in to get some tools together so I can leave from the house and save time." He pulled another stool over and sat down next to her. "What kind of mess was this exactly?"
"I dumped all these doohickeys in a can and shook them up."
"And you did this because…" Jim waited for her to fill in the blank.
"Maureen wouldn't leave me alone and I needed someone to pick on. Since it's your fault that I even met her, you were the most likely victim."
"And now you're cleaning it up. Does that mean Maureen is going to leave you alone?"
"Do you want her to leave you alone?"
Shine stopped sorting and thought about it honestly. "Yes and no."
"It's hard not to like her, isn't it?" Jim had a big smile on his face.
"Yeah," Shine said with embarrassment.
"So, what's holding you back?"
"I have baggage, Jim."
"Everyone has baggage. Even Maureen." He looked away.
"She said she lost her friends over her last relationship." Shine watched Jim's profile for clues. "It must have been pretty bad."
Jim's cheek clenched. "I prefer to think that she found out who her friends really were. And, yeah," he turned to look at her and Shine held her breath at the anger she saw there. "It was really bad."
Shine propped her chin up with her hand. "I'm sorry to hear that. It doesn't seem right that she was treated badly."
Jim rested an elbow on the corner of the table and scratched his head. "What I can't figure out is why you're so against having friends."
Shine locked gazes with him in silence.
"What happened to you, Shine?"
The desire to tell him was strong and she tried not to interfere with it. It seemed that all his attention was focused on her and his clear, blue eyes drew her out. "Why are you assuming that I was the victim?"
If he had blinked or changed expression in any way she would have stopped there, but he genuinely seemed to care. She brushed away involuntary tears before continuing. "My last lover caught me cheating with someone else." Pain blinded her and she couldn't speak above a whisper. "She killed herself."
"Ouch." Jim put an arm across her shoulders as she cried. "I can see why you wouldn't want to talk about it."
Shine sat back and wiped at her face with the backs of her hands. Tears were still flowing freely and she knew she was waiting for his judgement of her.
"But I bet you'll never do it again."
The tone of his voice, as well as the words themselves, made Shine start to laugh through her tears. Then Jim was laughing and Shine felt an incredible lightness flood through her.
"How long ago was that?" He asked.
"Eight years, five months and a couple of weeks."
"And you've been alone all that time?" he asked in disbelief.
"I haven't dared," she explained. "I don't want to hurt anyone again. I don't think I could handle it." Shine grabbed the cleanest rag she could find and wiped her eyes.
"Well, you sound like a good bet to me." Jim kicked her foot idly. "I agree that your cheating was bad, but suicide is not how a rational person handles it. I can't think of any reason why you should remain faithful to her memory any longer."
"I know all that. I've had a lot of time to think about it. But I can't remember how to be any other way."
"Well, now you're just feeling sorry for yourself." Jim got up and started collecting tools. "Maureen is a catch, Shine, and you're a fool if you don't at least try."
Fear lurked close by. "What if I hurt her?"
"What if she hurts you?" Jim said simply. "Just do the best you can."
Shine felt her mouth drop open in surprise. Her own guilt had been so consuming for so long that it had never occurred to her that she could be hurt as well. She let her reality adjust itself in silence.
Jim picked up his case and put a hand on her arm. "Now that you've cried on my shoulder, we're officially friends. Friends hang out for no reason. I'm going to tell the kids you'll be over for dinner Tuesday after work. Deal?"
Shine nodded dumbly.
"Bring more stories!" And he was gone.
Maureen was on the phone Wednesday afternoon clarifying budget allocations for the next quarter with a county supervisor when Carol breezed in waving a bottle of champagne. Confused and excited, she wrapped up the conversation while Carol popped the cork and poured them both a glass.
"What's the occasion?"
"Shine is interested in you," Carol said with great satisfaction.
Hope flared and Maureen beat it down with suspicion. "How do you know that? The last time I saw her I was about ready to give up."
"Jim, curse his little black heart, gave me 10 minutes notice last night that she was coming to dinner. He said he didn't want to give me time to screw it up." Carol snorted. "Apparently she cried on his shoulder last Sunday and now they're buddies."
Maureen sipped her champagne to cover the ache that started in her chest. "Why was she crying?"
"I don't know," Carol admitted. "He won't tell me and I really put the pressure on. All he would tell me was that everyone has baggage."
Maureen thought it over. "How does that translate into Shine being interested?"
Carol leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the desk. "I was right, you know. She's a hoot. She's far more comfortable with the kids than with Jim and I: especially when it comes to answering questions, but she has a great sense of humor. And you wouldn't believe how Colin is with her. You know how reluctant he is to cuddle. She wasn't there ten minutes and he was in her lap for the rest of the night. What kills me is that she's insulting to him and he just laps it up."
She was anxious to hear how any of the evening applied to her, but she knew from long experience that Carol would get around to it faster if she didn't push. "What does she say to him?"
"He smells; his head is shaped funny; he doesn't look very smart-all of the things I was taught you should never say to a child. She calls him monkey butt. I tease my children all the time, but she's brutal and he can't get enough. He cried when she left. He doesn't cry when I leave."
Maureen laughed at her distress.
"Did you know that she's been in every state in America? She's seen everything and once she got started, she told all kinds of stories about the places she's been and the things she's done. Jim and I talked about it after she left and she's got to have money. You can't do all the things she's done without some serious finances. What I can't figure out is why she decided to stay here."
Jealousy that Carol should get to spend so much time with Shine prompted Maureen to ask, "What did she say about me?"
"Oh!" Carol leaned forward to put her elbows on the desk. "She was playing video games with the kids in Travis' room and they asked her if she was going to be your girlfriend."
"And what was her response?" Maureen held her breath.
"That she thought she should get to know you better first."
Maureen frowned doubtfully. "That sounds pretty innocuous."
"She blushed almost purple," Carol laughed. "The kids pounced on it like rabid dogs and teased her in that singsong kids do. 'Shine likes Maure-en! Shine likes Maure-en!' I thought she was going to have an aneurysm."
Maureen blushed a little herself. Pursuing a woman who didn't want to be caught was difficult, to say the least. But knowing that Shine might want to be pursued after all made it seem almost fun. "Well, this is good news."
Maureen pushed herself back on the hood of Shine's blue Lexus and crossed her legs. She felt almost sick with anticipation. Sometimes Carol overstated things. Not that she lied exactly, just that sometimes her enthusiasm ran away with her. Maureen hoped that this was not one of those times.
Shine came out right on schedule and she could see her fighting a smile. I owe Jim big, she thought. Shine came to a stop right in front of her and she waited for her to speak first.
"You seem to have a thing for my ride."
Maureen ran a hand over the hood seductively and lowered her voice. "It's a really nice car."
Shine shoved her hands in her pockets and idly kicked the curb.
Maureen could see that she was stuck and only waited a moment before speaking. "I had a good time the other day. Thanks for coming with me."
Shine nodded shyly and pulled her car keys out of her pocket. She looked at them for a heartbeat, then held them out. "Maybe if I let you drive my car, you'll stop sitting on it."
Delirious, Maureen snatched the keys and used the remote to unlock the doors. "Where are we going?" she asked as Shine slid in next to her. She tried to think if she'd ever sat on leather seats before.
"You're driving," Shine said absently as she adjusted the passenger seat for legroom.
Maureen wanted to drive all night just to be this close to her but settled for heading across town to a quiet little diner she liked. On impulse, she reached over and turned on the radio. Static blared out of the speakers and she panicked.
Shine reached over her hand and turned it down. "What kind of music do you want to hear?"
"Whatever you like," Maureen said. "I was just curious what you listen to."
"I don't." Shine fiddled with it and brought up her own station. "After work I'm kind of tired of music. I don't think I've ever used this radio before." She turned it up slowly and grinned. "Maybe I should. It's got nice acoustics."
Maureen laughed as Shine started poking around the interior and opening the glove box. "What are you looking for?"
"I've never been a passenger in this car. It's kind of nice."
"Isn't that why you bought it?"
"I leased it." She pulled down the visor and played with the light. "They had the best lease program. It drives nice, but I don't think I ever really looked at it. How come they always put ashtrays in cars? Most people don't smoke."
She seemed like a little kid with a new toy and Maureen was delighted. "I don't know, but I'm pretty sure you can order this car without one."
Shine reached down and reclined her seat all the way back. "Cool. Does your seat do this?"
Maureen laughed as she changed lanes. "Now is probably not the best time to find out."
A few minutes later they arrived at the diner. The only table left was in the back by the kitchen, but neither of them cared. Maureen ordered a sesame chicken salad and Shine chose pancakes and eggs. "Do you always order breakfast at night?"
"Not always," Shine said, "but there's something about eating breakfast in the evening that's especially comforting."
Maureen couldn't resist. "And do you need comforting tonight?"
"A little, I guess." Shine ducked her head. "It's been a strange week."
Shine glanced up and away again. "I've been trying to be more friendly."
"That's what's different!" Maureen teased. "I thought it was your hair."
Shine shook her head in chagrin. "Sorry I was such a jerk."
Maureen thought Shine's blush was adorable. "I was a bigger jerk. Do you want to start over?"
Shine's extended her hand across the table. "Shine Avery."
Maureen took her hand. "Maureen Baird. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too." Shine took her hand back with a bashful smile.
"So, how's the friendly thing working out?"
"It's hard," Shine gave a full body sigh.
"What's so hard about it?"
Shine cocked her head with a grin. "That I like it."
They were still giggling when the waitress came with their drinks.
"Carol tells me that Colin is in love with you."
Shine ducked her head. "He is adorable, isn't he? Don't you love it when he snuggles up in your lap?"
"Aside from Angela, he hasn't snuggled up to anyone since he learned to walk."
Shine looked shocked. "Really?"
"Carol said he cried when you left. Do you like kids?"
"I didn't used to care one way or the other, but the last couple of years I've been wishing I were a teacher or something. I hardly ever get to play with them. I understand why it's like that," she said quickly, "but it makes it hard for people like me."
Maureen tried to make sense of Shine's words but couldn't. "You lost me. Why it's like what?"
Shine hooked an arm over the back of her chair and played with her fork. "Solitary adults do not inspire trust in today's society-particularly the ones who want to play with your children. You have to get to know the parents first and I just don't want…didn't…want to do that."
"I never thought of that." Maureen couldn't imagine the kind of isolation Shine had been living that made it impossible for her to be around children. "Maybe you should consider teaching a class. You like to skate, right? You could teach that." Shine didn't respond, but Maureen could see that she was thinking about it.
Maureen surreptitiously watched Shine's hands as she drove back to the station so she could pick up her car. They were strong hands-the nails square and utilitarian, but they looked as though every spare bit of padding had been stripped away. Thinking about the long, narrow fingers on her skin made the hair stand up on Maureen's arms. She had to look away to control the craving she felt.
"I had a nice time," she finally said.
"It was okay," Shine said positively.
Maybe it's a start. "If you ever want to do something like that again, I think it would be fun."
Shine glanced over with a nod. "I think that would be…good."
Maureen quietly cleared her throat. "You know, I have to make a trip out to Rawley tomorrow to deliver some things to the branch library there. If it's not too-much/too-fast for you, I could use some company on the drive. Maybe we could have lunch. If you want to, that is."
Shine looked at her carefully and then back to the road. "You want to spend the day together?"
Maureen shrugged. "I was thinking along the lines of a couple of hours. Unless you want to go window-shopping in their Old Town district."
Shine was quiet for a long moment. "I've never been to Rawley. How far is it?"
"About 45 minutes one way. If you take the scenic route along the river it takes about an hour, but it's quite pretty."
"Maybe," Shine said slowly, "we could drive out one way and come back on the other. If that's okay with you."
Maureen wanted to sing and dance. "That would be great."
"Where should I meet you?"
"Why don't I pick you up?" Maureen suggested. "There's no sense in both cars going to the same place."
"Okay." Shine said after a moment's consideration. "I live at 1811 Riverfront. Do you know where that is?"
"I grew up here. I know where everything is," she said with a laugh. "I'll pick you up at 10?"
She pointed out her car and Shine pulled up behind it. "Thanks for letting me drive your car."
"Are you going to stop sitting on it?"
Maureen assessed the look on Shine's face. "I haven't decided yet. I'll see you tomorrow." She was almost to the driver's door of her Chevy when she heard Shine call her name.
"We're…we're going to be just friends, right?" Her face was uncertain, her words halting. "I just...I don't have anything more to offer right now and…"
Shine was so obviously struggling to express herself without causing hurt feelings that Maureen took pity on her. She reached out slowly and put a hand on Shine's arm, stopping her voice. "If that's what you want, that's what we'll be." For now, anyway. "Everything will be fine."
Shine visibly relaxed. Maureen patted her arm and walked away. She could feel Shine watching and it made her knees weak. As casually as she could manage, she opened her car and got in. It wasn't until she had her seatbelt on, the motor running and the headlights on that Shine gave a little wave and drove off.
"Isn't that sweet?" Maureen said aloud. "She's looking out for me already."
Shine couldn't sleep. She spent most of the night replaying her conversations with Maureen: inventing funnier, wiser, more sophisticated responses. She tried warm milk, a hot bath and soft music, but she just couldn't turn off her head. Very early in the morning she slept fitfully for nearly 3 hours, then startled awake for no reason to begin again. Frustrated, she got up and cleaned the refrigerator. The sun was just coming up when she finished so she grabbed her rollerblades and went out into the brisk March morning. She pushed herself hard, skating on the edge of her abilities and arrived home sometime later with a welcome burning sensation in her hips and legs. She went straight out to the back deck, peeled off her clothing and slid into the hot tub with a groan of pleasure.
She warmed up slowly, her mind gradually clearing. When she began to nod off, she went inside and made coffee. By nine she couldn't pretend that it was just another day any longer. She was half dressed in her customary jeans and T-shirt when it occurred to her that she would probably be meeting some of Maureen's employees. Concerned with not embarrassing her new friend, she went to her closet.
Uh oh. I didn't realize how shabby my wardrobe has gotten. Except for the skirted outfit she had worn for her job interview at the station more than four years before and a pair of trousers that had looked slick on the hanger but made her look like a paratrooper, all she could find were more T-shirts, camping gear and sweats. Going through her drawers with her fingers crossed she found a pair of black denim jeans that were fairly new. With a little experimentation she decided they looked pretty good with the upper half of her interview clothes-a light blue blouse and a gray blazer.
Not bad, she thought as she studied herself in the mirror. It might be the only decent outfit I have, but I think it works. I'll have to get some new clothes though. I don't want Maureen to think I'm a slouch. Does this make me look too skinny? My legs look like they belong on a bird. Now, Maureen would look really nice in clothes like this. I just hope I don't embarrass her in front of her staff.
She was trying to decide whether to pull her hair back or leave it down when she heard the doorbell make a strangled thunking sort of noise. What an awful sound! I'll have to replace that.
"You look great!" Maureen enthused.
Shine was suddenly self-conscious. "Thanks. I didn't want to make you look bad in front of your employees."
"Don't even worry about that," Maureen laughed. "I love your house! It's huge!"
Uncertain of the protocols of friendship after all those years, Shine hesitated before inviting her in. For the first time she looked at her house through someone else's eyes. The front room was quite large with vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors and big windows, but held only a sofa, coffee table, floor lamp and color television over in one corner. Aside from books and magazines on the table there were no pictures on the walls or personal touches to relieve the starkness of it.
"Wow," Maureen said. "I like what you haven't done with it."
Shine flushed with embarrassment.
"No, really," Maureen soothed. "It's a beautiful room. Most people would have turned this into a decorator’s nightmare."
"As you can see," Shine swallowed, "over-decorating is not one of my faults."
Maureen laughed easily and wandered towards the dining room. "Is it alright if I look around a little?"
Shine nodded helplessly and followed her. She watched Maureen run her hands over the kitchen's marble counter tops and stainless Wolf oven.
"This is marvelous. You must love cooking in here. The cupboard space alone is worth its weight in gold." Maureen kept moving, only touching the surface of things-never opening anything that was closed. She stopped in the hallway and asked, "How many bedrooms do you have?"
"Four. And three and a half baths." She was reluctant to show her bedroom because it was a mess and decorated as poorly as her living room. "Do you want to see the big room? There's nothing in it, but…"
"I'd love to," Maureen interrupted.
Shine opened a door and discovered one of the regular bedrooms. "Wrong one," she said as she closed it. The next door opened on the big room. She let Maureen go in ahead of her. The room was very large and had a walk-in closet, a window seat and a door that opened out on the back deck. A fine layer of dust lay on the floor and Shine tried to remember the last time she had been in any of the spare rooms.
"Good Lord!" Maureen exclaimed from the bathroom.
Shine joined her. "I forgot how nice this is." Simply put, the bathroom was a showpiece. The whole room was done in shades of sea green and cerulean blue tile with gray marble counters, a very large shower with 2 heads and in the center of it all, a spa masquerading as a tub.
"I shudder to think what your bathroom looks like."
"Oh, it's nothing like this," Shine corrected. "Technically, this is the master bed and bath, but it's so intimidating. Mine just has a shower."
"You're not ever tempted to come in here just to soak in the tub?"
"No, I use the hot tub out back."
Maureen started to laugh.
Shine smiled curiously. "What did I say?"
"Nothing." Still chuckling, Maureen took her arm and started out of the room. "Let's go have some fun."
An hour later they pulled up to an old brick structure with a Historical Building marker next to the front door. "Is this it?" Shine asked. "It looks like a bank."
"That's what it used to be until about 30 years ago. This is where I started out after college. Wait till you see the woodwork."
Shine let Maureen hand her a box and followed her inside. Her eyes were immediately taken by the craftsmanship on display. She felt as though she had entered a cathedral. Joists, cornices and wainscoting of dark polished wood inspired reverence and Shine slowly turned in circles, trying to take it all in. The front desk appeared to be the original teller counter and she admired the baroque beauty of it. I can't imagine getting any work done in here. It's just too magnificent to ignore.
"Shine, this is Liz Emmett." Maureen's voice seemed sacrilegious in the cool stillness. "Liz, this is Shine Avery."
Lifting her box carefully onto the counter, she smiled at the wizened older woman with coke bottle glasses standing behind it.
"Shine Avery?" She squinted. "Well, I'll be danged! You're that gal from the radio, aren't you?"
"I am," Shine said shyly, reluctant to raise her voice above a whisper.
"I'm real pleased to meet you, Miss Shine. I listen to you all the time." Liz bustled out from behind the counter to shake her hand. "We finally get a real celebrity in here and Maureen has you hefting boxes like a field hand."
"I'm hardly a celebrity," Shine chuckled as Maureen got a hand truck out of a closet and headed back out to the car. "Is that your real name?" she heard Liz ask.
Keeping her voice low, she explained. "I was born in San Francisco in the late 60's. Given the names being passed out back then, I was actually one of the lucky ones."
"Well, it's a fine name. You look just like I pictured you, I'll be hung by my toes if you don't." Liz threw an arm around her waist and ushered her along. "No one is ever going to believe me when I tell them I got to meet Miss Shine Avery from the radio."
Shine grinned at Liz' manner of speech and determination to take her…somewhere. She spoke so quickly Shine couldn't get a word in edgewise.
"My friend Hazel is gonna lose her knickers over this, I tell you right now! And she doesn't even like that music you play. Me? I say it keeps you young and randy. Though you could play some Sinatra now and then-just for balance, of course. I hear tell he made a record with some of them new young singers. Have you got that record, Miss Shine? Well, no matter?"
Shine couldn't remember ever meeting anyone quite like Liz Emmett. She wanted to fall on the floor laughing but settled for covering her mouth while Liz hunted for something in the tiny office. She looked around quickly, not wanting to miss any of Liz' antics, and wondered if this had been the vault in some distant past.
"Here it is!" Liz crowed as she held up a Polaroid camera. "Hazel Smarty-Pants Whitaker will have to believe this, I'm telling you. You just stand right there and let me figure this out."
Normally, Shine would have run like her hair was on fire at the mere mention of having her picture taken, but Liz was just so extraordinary she couldn't object. She finally gave in to the giggles after the photo was taken. She was bent over a desk signing the candid shot when Maureen came in and inspiration struck.
"Will you take a picture of us?" She asked. Maureen nodded and Shine reached over the desk to pick up a blank piece of paper. In big, thick letters she wrote 'My #1 Fan' on it and added an arrow. Liz was momentarily speechless as Shine posed with her and the hastily made-up sign. She took the photo from Maureen and held it out to Liz with a grin. "Show that to Hazel Smarty-Pants Whitaker."
Liz was silent for a heartbeat and then threw her hands up with a cackle. "You're a pistol, you are! This is going to blow out the elastic in her panties, I'm telling you right now!"
Shine hardly noticed that Maureen had taken her hand and was leading her slowly to the front door. Liz was still cackling in high good humor about the state of Hazel's wardrobe as the door closed between them and Shine finally gave in to her hysteria.
She was wiping tears away with both hands, her sides aching, when Maureen parked the car next to an art gallery. "Is she always like that?"
Maureen was laughing, too. "She sure is. What you did with the picture was really sweet."
"Ah," she sighed in sweet relief. "I've never signed an autograph before, but she was just so funny. I had to do it."
"I'm surprised you don't get asked to do it more often."
"I don't know why anybody would want it. It's not like I'm famous or anything."
"I've heard people repeat things you've said on the radio in line at the grocery store. You're more popular than you know."
"God! I hope not."
Maureen laughed again. "This is where we start walking. There's a soup and salad place at the other end of this street where I thought we could eat. Walking up and back allows us to explore the shops on both sides of the street."
"It's kind of quaint," Shine said with pleasure.
"I'm sure you've seen a lot more interesting places."
"After a while it all starts to look the same," she shrugged. "But I haven't really been anywhere for years, so this looks like fun."
Laughing over Liz had opened something up deep inside of her and she felt particularly carefree. The feeling was addictive and she abandoned herself to it.
Maureen learned quite a bit about Shine just by paying attention to the things that caught her eye. She didn't seem to like anything abstract and she appeared to prefer simple, clean, honest lines. She wanted a picture to be recognizable and in the correct colors. She wasn't interested in textile arts at all, but in woodcraft, grain seemed to carry more weight than style or purpose. In pottery and ceramics, she admired rounded shapes and harmonious coloring.
She wondered why Shine's home was so barren when her taste in decor was so interesting. She had been shocked at how sterile the house had been. What was the point of living in such an extravagantly lavish home if you weren't going to live there? She didn't even use the master bedroom for heaven's sake!
She was looking at beaded necklaces in a crowded little shop when she heard Shine talking.
"Well, aren't you a pretty girl! Come here, baby. Come on!"
Maureen turned to see her calling to a life-size statue of an Airedale sitting with its head cocked to one side.
"Don't be afraid," Shine coaxed.
"Shine?" It was all she could do not to scream with laughter. Other customers were watching now and not all of them understood what was happening.
"Something's wrong with this dog," Shine frowned.
Maureen hissed. "It's not real."
"Of course she is." Shine reached out to pet it and jumped back in astonishment. "She's dead!"
Maureen burst out laughing with the other customers. Shine cautiously approached again and slowly figured out that it was only a statue. Maureen gasped for breath as Shine petted and stroked it.
"You need a bath, don't you girl?" Shine crooned. "You're covered in dust." She crouched down and picked up the heavy figurine in a hug.
Maureen's laughter ceased at the child-like expression of hope and need on Shine's face. A tidal wave of affection rolled over her.
"Can my dog ride in your car?"
"Of course." She reached out and caressed the stiff curls with a smile. "Does she have a name?"
Shine didn't even hesitate. "Mabel."
She knew it was only a statue, but she felt a completely irrational craving to have it sitting next to her instead of locked in Maureen's car. She didn't mind at all that she had made a fool of herself; in fact, it amused her to no end that she had been so thoroughly duped. Shine had never owned a dog but had always wanted one. Her father's allergies had prevented them from having any pets during her childhood. If she had known even the first thing about how to take care of a dog, she might have gotten one years ago, but in light of the recent realization that she wasn't taking very good care of herself, Mabel seemed like the best place to start.
"You're thinking about the dog, aren't you?"
Shine hid her eyes behind her hand at Maureen's question. "I know it's stupid, but I love that dog."
"It's not stupid," Maureen said warmly. "It's adorable."
Shine picked at her salad. "Have you ever had a dog?"
"We had an Irish Setter when I was a kid. She was beautiful and sweet, but only about as smart as a dust bunny. Daddy said he named her Skitters because her thoughts skittered around like drops of water on a hot skillet."
The imagery was so clear Shine laughed out loud. "That's pretty funny. Does your family still live around here?"
"I'm an orphan," Maureen said casually. "My entire family died in a house fire when I was 14."
Shine's belly turned over and landed somewhere between her feet. "I'm so sorry, Maureen. I never would have asked if I'd known."
"No, no! It's okay." Maureen looked distressed. "It all happened so long ago that I forget how it sounds. I still wish they were here, but I'm done grieving for them. Please, don't feel bad for me."
Shine put a hand over the ache in her chest. "That must have been really awful for you."
"It was pretty hard," she admitted. "I was spending the night at Carol's house when it happened. Her family took me in afterwards and I was very lucky to have them. What about you? Where's your family?"
Shine focused on relaxing through her fear of emotional closeness. "My father died of a heart attack when I was 17 and my mother died of a stroke 4 and a half years ago."
Maureen clucked sympathetically. "I'm sorry to hear that. Do you have any other family?"
"I have a cousin from my dad's side, but I haven't seen her in over 20 years. We were really close." Shine remembered Grace with heartache. "I still miss her."
"I know how hard it is to be alone," Maureen said softly. "When your mom died, was that why you moved here?"
Shine was uncomfortable with having the sequence of her life known, but while it was a difficult topic, it didn't touch on the core of her pain. "I just happened to be here when I found out she was dead. I flew down to take care of her and when I came back, I couldn't think of any place else to go." She remembered those days with reluctance. "There didn't seem to be any point to going on so I decided to stay until I felt like traveling again."
"We're both orphans then. That's something we share."
"It's kind of a depressing thing to have in common." Shine observed dryly.
"Granted." Maureen pushed her empty plate to the side and rested her chin in a hand. "Did you go to college?"
Shine squirmed and answered anyway. "I went to UCLA."
"What did you study?"
Shine considered carefully. "If I tell you, you have to promise not to tell."
"Because I lied on my job application at the station."
"Why did you lie?"
"I was afraid they would say I was overqualified and not hire me." Shine began to enjoy the surprise she expected Maureen to feel and waited for her to ask again.
"Don't make me beg, Shine."
"I'm an electrical engineer."
Maureen's eyes opened wide. "You're a what?"
Shine folded her arms on the table with a smile. "I started out studying physics. I had it in my head that physicists knew how everything worked, but I discovered along the way that physicists are born, not made. It's not something you become-it's something you discover that you are. People not born with the gift can pass the courses and get the degree, but they'll never really be more than engineers with attitudes. I didn't want to be like that, so I decided to be practical and studied electricity."
Maureen had a very satisfying look of shock. "Why are you working as a disc jockey?"
"I was bored and it sounded fun. I wanted something that was low pressure while I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The irony is that I turned out to have a knack for it and I really enjoy it."
"But what about your education?"
"I can't lose it, Maureen. It's up here," she tapped her temple. "I keep up on what's happening in my field and if I happen to find something I want to do with it, I'll do it." Shine bent back over her lunch and began eating again.
"Does Jim know this?"
Shine shook her head and swallowed quickly. "Please don't tell him."
Shine thought it over. "Habit mostly, but I don't want him to think I've been lying to him."
"Okay," Maureen conceded reluctantly. "I won't tell him but keeping it secret may give me a rash."
After lunch, Shine followed Maureen in and out of shops. It was hard to pay attention now to all the things on display. She pretended to examine some Christmas ornaments so that Maureen wouldn't feel she was being rushed.
"What does Carol do for a living?"
"She's a guidance counselor at the high school," Maureen answered absently. She had her nose in bath scents and held out a bottle of shower gel. "Do you like this one?"
Shine took it and smelled. "It's alright."
"That means no," Maureen smiled. "What kind of scents do you like?"
"I, uh…" she paused uncertainly. "Most of this stuff is a mystery to me. I've never really been into girl things."
"Soap is a girl thing?"
"Shower gel is a girl thing. Soap is normal."
"Funny," Maureen grinned. "You don't look butch."
Shine had to laugh. "I haven't heard that term in a long time."
"Do you think of yourself as butch?"
"No," Shine said slowly. "I think I'm something else."
Before they even got to the highway, Shine fell asleep in the passenger seat. Maureen drove as smoothly as she could manage; slowing down for corners and braking long before it was necessary; watching her sleep out of the corner of her eye with aching tenderness. She looks so defenseless and gentle. I could wake up to that face and be happy.
Maureen remembered the first time she had waited outside the station to ask Shine on a date. She's come a long way already. She would hardly speak to me at first. Now she's sharing secrets with me and falling asleep while I drive. I don't know if I should feel hopeful for more or be grateful for this much. I wish I knew what hurt her so badly. From the way she talks and acts, her 'traveling' must have begun after whatever it was. It's not the death of her mother that's causing her so much pain, though that couldn't have helped her. It wasn't her dad's death either because she went to college after that. She did say that she hadn't had a friend in 8 years, so if I use that as the starting point something happened to her at 27 or 28.
I remember my twenties. It wasn't till my 30's that I realized how dreadful it all was. I had just enough wit to keep myself alive and not enough sense to know what was in my best interest. It must have been the same for her. I think it's a pretty universal experience. Unfortunately, whatever happened seems to have made her believe that solitude was in her best interest.
She glanced over as Shine shifted position with a sigh. Eight years without a friend presumably means without a lover as well. I can't even imagine what that's like. Nine months is making me twitchy-eight years is incomprehensible.
Maureen drove slowly through town and into Shine's upscale neighborhood. She eased to a stop in front of her house and turned off the car. Shine continued to doze and Maureen took the opportunity to commit her delicate features to memory. With the gentlest of touches she caressed Shine's long blond hair, savoring the fine whisper of it across her fingertips.
When she could no longer justify her delay as considerate, Maureen rested her hand on Shine's shoulder and softly said her name. Shine's eyes opened instantly.
"Where are we?"
Shine looked around in sleepy confusion and stretched as much as the confines of the car would allow. "I fell asleep."
"I know. You must have needed it."
Shine nodded. "I didn't get to see the way home."
"Maybe I could show it to you another time." Shine's lazy smile siphoned away all her strength. I could die happy right now. Maureen caught her breath as Shine got out of the car and opened the back door to retrieve her dog.
Shine stopped, half in the car and half out, the statue in her arms. "I had a good time. Thanks for everything."
"Anytime, Shine. Anytime."
The TV was on, but Shine was oblivious to it. She lay sprawled in her favorite chair, one hand resting on Mabel's infinitely patient head, her mind sifting carefully through the debris of her life for remnants of direction and hope. It was obvious to her after spending the afternoon in Maureen's company that the life she had made for herself was deficient. She wondered if a person could actually die of emptiness; and if one could, how close had she come to the point of no return?
Now that she'd had a taste of friendship-first with Jim, then Maureen-she didn't want to give them up. She thought of Carol and the children with hopes that she could count them amongst her new friends as well. It seemed like plenty to start with.
But she just couldn't think clearly about the idea of a lover. After eight and a half years, sex just didn't seem necessary anymore. She remembered loving it and knew her body could love it again, but she didn't miss it. From where she stood now it just seemed complicating. Life could get spooky very fast if you started sleeping with someone. As soon as you made love all kinds of responsibilities and expectations came into play.
Shine admitted to herself that her most secret and furtive longing had always been to find someone she could spend the rest of her life with; a woman who was honest, reliable, and playful. But, at the same time, she was terrified of actually finding her. She had come to this point in her life precisely because she was avoiding any relationship that might introduce her to something more intimate. How she would handle that if it happened, she wasn't sure. She didn't have to worry about Jim's family for the obvious reasons. Fortunately, she and Maureen had already agreed to be just friends. She would just have to be careful about any new women she met.
Shine remembered most of her childhood with deep pleasure. As an only child she had enjoyed the focused attention of both her parents. Her father had been what was now commonly known as a computer geek. He was tall, blond, and handsome: his body razor thin as a result of allergies, of which he had many. Computer programming was his specialty and he was aflame with the possibilities creative minds could achieve in his field. Shine wished that her father had lived to see the incredible progress that had already been made. Many times, in the past 19 years, a new product or program had been released into the market that she clearly remembered her father predicting. She and her mother had laughed at him at the time, but he had been right. She still believed that he had known every interesting thing there was to know about science and what it could be used to accomplish.
Her mother had been a teacher for developmentally disabled children. As a teacher she had been personally involved with all aspects of Shine's own education. Technically speaking she was not a pretty woman, but with humor and patience to spare, she was transformed into a person who was regarded with the deepest admiration and affection by all who knew her. Shine had inherited her nose, her flawless skin, and her robust good health. The rest came from her father.
His unexpected death in her senior year of high school had been devastating not only for them both as individuals, but for their relationship. Without his calm presence to give them perspective, they turned on each other in their grief and it was with anguished relief that Shine had gone away to college. They healed their bond over a period of years, but that time in her life was emotionally unstable.
Fortunately for them both, her father had left not one, but two, generous life insurance policies, a nice home in an affluent neighborhood and a comprehensive portfolio of stocks in the burgeoning computer industry. Even without the partial academic scholarship she had won, Shine's financial future was secure if she exercised prudence.
Shine had always known that she was a lesbian. She didn't have a word for it until she was 13, but even as a small child she had known that she would choose girls over boys. As freethinking products of the sixties, her parents had gradually come to support her propensities. It wasn't that she didn't like men. Shine often preferred men in social situations because they were far less complicated and easy to be around. In matters of the heart, however, only a woman would do.
As a teenager her forays into the sexual arena were generally confusing and occasionally damaging. But when she arrived at UCLA, everything changed. On the surface, her sexual identity was of no importance to anyone-everyone was religiously practicing tolerance. In reality, it gave her instant access to interesting groups and people. Because she was a lesbian it was assumed that she was already 'in'.
With her relationship with her mother in temporary shreds, Shine frenetically threw herself into every group and activity she could find to fill the gap. She met Regina in a self-defense class for women.
Reggie was a natural beauty with a strong need to hide any trace of her feminine side. This created a paradox, which she handled by living on an emotional edge. She burned so fast and so bright that Shine fell onto her like a black hole in search of nourishment. That kind of emotional turbulence was outside of Shine's life experience and she interpreted it as love at its most passionate.
She and Reggie lived in an apartment off campus, charming in its rickety old age, for Shine's first three years of school. They were tempestuous, impulsive, and inconsiderate with each other, but they were also a core couple and provided an entertaining and educational haven for others. When Reggie, a year older than Shine, graduated with a degree in business it all fell apart. As students they had the same problems and pressures. With Reggie learning that the world wasn't like University, they discovered that their primary bond was sexual and it wasn't enough.
Senior year Shine changed her major and worked like a machine to meet the requirements. She dated occasionally, had sex infrequently, and graduated in the top ten percent of her class. Exhausted and still emotionally drained over Reggie, she went home and learned to enjoy her mother as an individual. At the end of summer, she decided to take her sheepskin out for a spin to see what it could do.
She came to understand very quickly what Reggie had been going through. Employers were impressed with her diploma and education, but as a young (strike one) woman (strike two) with no job experience (strike three) she couldn't find the kind of work she had expected to have handed to her. The real world turned out to be far more complicated than she had been willing to believe.
She finally accepted a very junior research and development position in a mid-size company that made testing equipment for microchips. In addition to designing small parts of a larger puzzle, they encouraged her to learn basic machinist's skills as well as mechanical and electrical assembly. During her four years with them she became their most flexible employee. With her all-around skills, she was sent out on some of the most difficult service calls. She could find the problem and fix it as well as adapt the machine's design and function to the specific task or environment for which it was needed.
On the romantic front, she had fallen in love with an Assistant District Attorney. Leah was 11 years older and reminded Shine of her father with her love of logic and reason. She was quiet and composed with none of Reggie's flamboyant emotional outbursts or tantrums. Making love with Leah was not as wild or fierce, but in many ways it was better. Shine learned to appreciate passion as an on-going form of expression rather than as an event.
The only problem Shine could see in their relationship was that Leah insisted they keep separate living arrangements. She never explained why she felt this was necessary, it just was. Shine grew tired of it quickly and it became a bone of contention between them. Leah would not discuss a compromise and Shine eventually couldn't maintain her feelings without a commitment. Their breakup was prolonged and agonizing for them both with neither really understanding the other's position.
Not long afterwards, Shine spotted an ad in a trade journal for a small new company that needed an engineer to fine tune their product and develop new ones. On a whim, Shine applied for it and her newly acquired mechanical skills turned out to be exactly what they were looking for. The company might have been small and the product may not have been very exciting (small motors to run medical devices), but Shine felt like the captain of her own ship.
One of her responsibilities was to work closely with the assemblers for the purpose of making the motors easier and faster to build without compromising safety or durability. The challenge of it was exciting and some days she couldn't wait to get to work.
Over time she struck up a casual friendship with an assembler her age named Debra. Together, they were the sum total of the company's les/bi/gay employees and it was just natural for them to become friends. For months they were lunch buddies. Debra was in a relationship and Shine was mentally consumed with her work.
Everything changed so quickly that it was still hard for Shine to identify the sequence of events. Debra's relationship was suddenly over and she was frantically looking for a place to live. Shine's second bedroom popped into her mind and before she had time to consider it, she had offered it to Debra. The moment when she could have taken it back passed before she could gain control of her tongue. Unable to back out of it, Shine bowed to the inevitable. They got on well enough at work and Shine assumed that as busy as she was, they would live around each other and not with.
Two days later she had a roommate. At first, Shine adjusted to it by hiding in her room to study mechanical texts and journals. Over the next several weeks, however, she discovered that Debra was very easy to live with. She was clean, quiet, and sweet. Shine began to spend more time with her.
Coming home very late one night after visiting her mother, Shine heard Debra crying in her room. It wasn't in Shine to ignore another person's pain and she went in to offer comfort. It gradually turned into passion and Shine found herself in a relationship by morning. Not wanting to hurt Debra's feelings, Shine went along with it. Knowing she had no one to blame but herself, she made the best of it. Debra was so loving and flexible about Shine's needs that Shine felt obligated to try harder. She was careful not to say that she loved her and never made any promises about the future, but she became increasingly unhappy.
Part of what made it so difficult for Shine was that her company had a zero-tolerance policy for romantic entanglements between co-workers. Not only had she allowed her personal life to get out of control; her job was at risk. She just couldn't see a way clear without hurting Debra or losing her job. She began drinking to numb herself to her plight.
On their last night together, Debra had talked Shine into going dancing at a local club. The promise of alcohol and booming music was just what Shine thought she needed. She started drinking hard and fast. The lights, the beautiful women and her own misery motivated her to let things get out of control. One woman in a skin-tight blue dress drew her attention and they surreptitiously eyed one another.
At some point, Shine made her way to the restroom and the woman in blue followed her. Without a clue, even now, as to exactly how it happened, Shine ended up in the stall with her. The sex was swift, savage and satisfying. The absurdity of it struck her and she was laughing when they opened the stall door.
Debra was standing on the other side of it, tears streaming down her face and all Shine could think to say was "Oops!" This made her laugh even harder. Debra ran.
Knowing she had done exactly what she had been trying to avoid, Shine drank herself into oblivion. Scattered images were all she retained of the rest of that night. She woke up in the local jail having been arrested for public drunkenness, disturbing the peace and vandalism. The police report stated that she had been found staggering down a residential street, screaming at the top of her lungs, "It's not my fault!" and breaking car antennas as she passed.
Having never been in trouble before and represented by her family's lawyer, she was released with a stiff fine and generous restitution. She counted herself as very lucky. Arriving home by cab in the late afternoon, Shine's life changed forever.
She started screaming the instant she found Debra's suicidal carnage and couldn't stop. Neighbors called the police and Shine was sedated as soon as paramedics arrived. When she was released from the hospital later that night her mother had come to take her home. She curled up in her childhood bed and cried. She wouldn't eat and nightmares sent her screaming out of sleep every night. Her mother and their lawyer protected her as much as possible. Having been in lock up at the time of Debra's death, Shine was legally absolved of any involvement. She wasn't surprised when she lost her job; she had expected it. Her mother had gone to the apartment and collected Shine's personal effects.
Shine donated the rest of her belongings to Goodwill and lay in her bedroom nursing her guilt for over a month. Her mother finally broke through the apathy by threatening to have her committed and Shine forced herself to start eating and taking walks, but the nightmares continued. While her physical health improved, her mental state became more precarious. With her mother's approval she tried sleeping pills, but they just made it impossible to wake from the dreams.
One night, out of frustration, she got into her car and started driving. Two hundred miles later she checked into a motel and had her first undisturbed sleep since Debra's suicide. The next day she drove home, but the nightmares came back. She got it into her head that if she kept moving the dreams wouldn't be able to find her. She packed some clothes and started traveling.
Staying in motels was hard on her finances, so after several weeks she traded her car in for a pick-up. She added a camper shell and threw some foam rubber in the bed and thereafter she slept in the truck. She followed good weather and parked in campgrounds as often as possible.
The backroads of America became her neighborhood. Every Monday night she called her mother so she wouldn't worry and as the first Christmas rolled around, she flew home for a few days. The nightmares came back immediately and it was with relief that she went back to her truck. Her mother seemed to think she was on the American version of the Australian walkabout. Once she promised to stay away from motorcycles and body piercing her mother was very supportive.
She was at a county fair somewhere in Arkansas after more than a year of traveling when she realized that she no longer felt anything at all. To prove to herself that she could feel if she wanted to, she bungee-jumped from a platform 150 feet in the air. The feelings it evoked were so intense she sat down on the pavement and laughed until she cried.
After that, the focus of her traveling changed. Instead of moving for the sake of moving she began to seek out new experiences. She dabbled in scuba diving, horseback riding, river rafting, parasailing, water skiing, parachuting, kayaking, rock climbing, more bungee jumping, snowboarding, hang gliding and surfing. She didn't care for scuba diving. It was beautiful, but too sedate for her taste unless there were sharks nearby and even in her desperation that just sounded stupid. She also discovered much to her surprise, that she was afraid of horses. And some things (like water skiing, surfing, and snowboarding) she never quite got the hang of. They required a greater degree of skill and practice and she never stayed anywhere long enough to acquire those things. Her favorite things were rafting and parachuting.
It was during this period that she took up rollerblading. Part of the attraction to it was that she could do it anywhere and it didn't take up much space in the truck. She tried to do all the tricks she saw the teenagers doing and was actually getting the hang of it, but a broken arm and bruised hip in Virginia reminded her that she was almost thirty. She contented herself with flawless footwork and speed.
Her daredevil ways had begun to settle and, though she had not yet admitted it, she was getting tired of traveling when she stopped at the Hidden Valley Resort just north of Edgewater. She did her laundry, serviced the truck, and skated around town for several days. On Monday night she called her mother at the appointed time and learned of her death. She cried most of the night, packed up her things and drove to the landing strip just south of town. She found a man who would fly her to Southern California for a terrific amount of money. She left her truck in the parking lot and gave the keys to the head mechanic in case it had to be moved while she was gone.
Arriving home and arranging the funeral and wake was surreal. Her mother had left specific instructions and all Shine had to do was go down the list and make sure each thing was taken care of, but it was the hardest thing she had ever done. Despite spending so much time alone, she had never felt alone before. In the back of her mind there was always a place where she could go with someone who cared for her. All of that was gone now.
Having put it off for most of a week, her mother's attorney finally cornered her in her childhood home and read her the will. Everything came to her as she expected it would. But everything turned out to be great deal more than she had known about. Her mother had turned out to be a gifted investor. Using the money and stocks left by Shine's father she had accumulated a net worth, including the house, of just under 8 million dollars. With what was left of her own inheritance added in, Shine now had over 9 million. It made her feel more alone than ever because she could not buy what she wanted the most-her family.
With nothing left to tie her to the place she had grown up, Shine put the house on the market. She hired a financial advisor named Roger Bingham on the advice of her attorney and they slowly hammered out what to do with all of the money. It was an interesting experience for Shine.
A third of the money was set aside to finance Shine's life and it continued to grow slowly. She had dipped into that money three times since living in Edgewater. She bought and furnished her house, built a playground in the poorer section of town, and paid for one little girl's kidney transplant. The last two things she had done anonymously with Roger's assistance.
Roger took the rest and invested it. He sent her quarterly reports, but she only skimmed them. The bottom line was always higher than the last report she had received so she left him to his own judgement.
When everything was taken care of, Shine flew back to Edgewater and checked into the Motel 6 for a good night's sleep. The following morning, she packed up the truck and prepared to move on. She couldn't even decide which way to turn out of the parking lot. She sat in the cab of the truck for over an hour with the motor running.
If you don't have anywhere to go, she thought, then staying where you are until you figure it out is the smartest move. She rented a studio apartment 2 days later and began shopping for a house. After moving in to the four-bedroom house and buying a minimum of furniture and kitchen stuff, she got bored and went looking for a job.
Shine wiped at her eyes and got up to make something for her dinner. Knowing how she had gotten here was one thing. Knowing how to get to a better place was another matter entirely, especially if you weren't sure where, and how far, you wanted to go. Sandwich in hand she wandered through her house and tried to decide what to do with it. Having Maureen see it like this had been embarrassing and she was determined not to feel that again. The room that spoke to her first was the master bedroom. She didn't know if she would be comfortable sleeping in it, but there was no reason why she couldn't put a bed in there.
She went to sleep early in anticipation of all the shopping she would have to do the next day. Mabel's curious expression watched over her from beside the bed as she slumbered.
She shopped for clothes first. It had been years since she had splurged like this and in no time at all she had more than she could carry. Stashing the bags in the trunk of her car she headed back inside the mall with shoes on her mind.
She turned in surprise just in time to catch Colin as he hurled himself at her legs. "Hey, monkey butt! How are you?" She swung him up in her arms and hugged him as hard as she dared. His little arms wrapped tightly around her neck and it felt so good she was reluctant to let go.
"Hi, Shine." Angela stood next to her with a shy grin on her face and Shine leaned over to include her.
"I love your hair," she said. "It's very pretty and it makes you look smart."
"Thank you," Angela said primly. "Mommy's over there."
Shine looked up to see Carol walking towards them with a shopping cart. "Look what I found," she called to her.
"Finder's keeper's," Carol laughed. "What are you doing here?"
"It's come to my attention that my wardrobe leaves something to be desired. I've been buying clothes."
"It doesn't look like you've had much success. Do you need help?"
Shine gestured to the parking lot. "The first load is in the car. Now I'm after shoes, lunch and a new bed."
Colin squealed. "I hungy! I wanna Happy Meal!"
Angela didn't say anything, but the look she turned on her mother spoke volumes.
"After we do our shopping," Carol reminded the children. "That was the deal."
Shine nervously cleared her throat. "I'll feed them while you shop if you like."
Carol looked at her steadily. "Are you sure?"
Colin was bouncing up and down on her hip and Angela oozed hope. "Yeah. It'll be fun."
Carol jumped on her offer and tried to give her some money, but Shine waved it off. "Colin loves ketchup," Carol instructed, "but he won't eat it. He just likes to play with it. And no caffeine for either of them." Shine assured her that she would follow the rules and Carol gratefully walked away.
Alone with the children, Shine couldn't help the grin. "Where's Travis?"
"He's helping daddy on the mountain," Angela said. "Do we get to eat now?"
Shine ordered three Happy Meals and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. They played with the little toys that came in the boxes and built cabins out of their French fries. She laughed at their jokes because it made them feel good and told them about Mabel. After they ate, she let them go into the Playland and waved at their antics.
Carol joined her sometime later. "How's it going?"
"Thanks for letting me play with your kids. They're great."
"They sure have taken a 'Shine' to you," Carol quipped. "Travis will be disappointed that he missed this."
"Did you finish your shopping?"
"In half the time, thanks to you. Keeping track of Colin and curbing Angela's spending fancies is a full-time job."
"I can only imagine."
"So," Carol said, "you're shopping for a new bed?"
"Well, I've got an empty bedroom and it's kind of in the way of an experiment. If I like how it turns out I may start using it."
"Where do you sleep now?" Carol looked confused.
Shine adjusted herself awkwardly. "I sleep in one of the smaller rooms. It's the master bedroom I'm going to work on."
Carol nodded as if it all made sense. "Do you have a plan or are you looking for ideas?"
"Looking for ideas," Shine admitted.
"Well, it sounds like fun. If you just can't figure out what to do, you should talk to Maureen. She's great at decorating. I know you two had dinner on Friday night. I'm sure she'd be glad to give you some advice."
Shine nodded, surprised that she didn't seem to know about the trip to Rawley. "I'll keep that in mind."
Carol collected her children and Shine hugged them goodbye. Focused now on her house, she went in search of furniture.
Shine had a grin on her face. She couldn't help it. The station manager, Bill Nichols, had announced the ratings earlier at the regular Friday morning staff meeting and her co-workers had been in and out of the booth all day with congratulations. She had already thanked Jim twice for telling her in advance.
Hats, T-shirts, and good quality jackets with the station logo on them had been handed out to everyone "to make you all more visible". Carlos, the week-night jock, had made a joke about cheap, self-sustaining organic billboards that made everyone laugh.
The request line rang and Shine picked it up absently.
"Magic 95, this is Shine."
"Hi! It's Maureen."
Shine looked around to make sure no one could see her blush, then felt stupid because she was alone in the booth. She ducked her chin into her shoulder and started picking at a piece of tape stuck to the counter. "Are you going to be waiting on my car again?"
"I can't today, I'm sorry."
Shine covered her disappointment with cheerfulness. "That's okay."
"I have a planning meeting at 6 or I would. That's why I called. And to ask if you have any plans tomorrow."
"Well, no. I don't."
"I have an errand to do tomorrow and I was hoping you would come with me and then we can go to lunch."
"No. This one is personal. I usually take Carol, but she hates it."
"Do I have to lift things?"
"No," Maureen laughed. "Nothing like that."
It wouldn't matter if I did. "Okay."
"I'll pick you up at noon?"
"See you then."
Maureen pulled up to a storage unit and turned off the engine. "There's a set of keys in the glove box. Would you get them?" She got out of the car and Shine joined her at the unit's door. Taking the keys, Maureen opened the padlock and Shine helped her push the heavy door up.
"What's all this?"
"My ex-girlfriend's things." The storage unit held a few pieces of furniture, quite a few boxes and a Monte Carlo. It had taken all week for Maureen to decide to invite Shine on this chore. She was dreading the whole thing for several reasons.
"I don't understand," Shine said. "What's the errand?"
"I come out every month and start the car so it doesn't get clogged up."
Shine turned to her with a puzzled expression. "Why do you have to do this? Where is she that she can't do it herself?"
"County jail." Maureen opened the car door and slid into the seat. She started the engine and revved the motor a few times to make sure it would stay running, then got out, closed the door, and stepped outside. Shine followed her with a grim expression. Leaning back against her own car, she waited for the inevitable questions, but they didn't come. Shine stood in front of her patiently waiting for answers.
"Her name is Beth," Maureen started. "It's hard for me to talk about this because it's embarrassing."
Shine's voice was quiet and hard. "Jim didn't tell me what happened, but he said it was very bad."
"It was." Maureen took a deep breath. "It's a long story, but the nuts and bolts of it is that when I tried to break up with her, she beat me up." She saw Shine stiffen. "I'm all better now, don't worry about that."
"Does it matter?" Maureen hated talking about her injuries. It always sounded more like bragging than it should.
"No," Shine said. "But I'll always wonder and eventually I'll go behind your back and find out for myself."
Maureen had to smile. There were any number of people who would be happy to tell Shine what they knew. Not all of them had her best interests at heart. "The worst was this," she held out her left hand. "Do you see it?"
Shine leaned closer to get a good look. "These three fingers look kind of bent."
Beth had repeatedly stomped on her hand. The worst damage had been to the middle, ring, and little fingers. That they only looked bent was a small miracle assisted by two surgeons. Maureen flexed her hand easily for Shine, though it had not always been so. She still had to do daily exercises to strengthen it and maintain its flexibility. "She broke them. They were a real mess, but they work fine now."
Shine's voice was small. "Do they hurt?"
"Only when it's really cold." Maureen shrugged it off. "I'm getting older anyway and aches and pains will soon be a fact of life. I just got an early start."
Shine dashed a tear from her eye with the back of her hand. "What else?
Maureen spoke quickly to get it over with. "Concussion, three cracked ribs and quite a bit of soft tissue damage."
"Do you mean bruising?"
"Extensively," Maureen admitted. "I was pretty lucky actually. If she had been any stronger, I might be dead."
She watched Shine struggle for a moment, not just emotionally, but physically. To her surprise, the taller woman lurched forward and gave her an awkward hug, then quickly stepped back. "I'm glad you're not dead."
That gesture meant the world to Maureen. "Me, too."
Shine's arm swept back to point at the car. Her demeanor was suddenly brisk and angry. "Will you tell me why in the hell you're taking care of her stuff?"
"Several reasons." Maureen patted the side of her car and Shine obediently sat next to her. "Beth was a bad choice. I think I always knew that, but I ignored it. For that reason, I have to accept partial responsibility."
"You think you deserved it?" Shock and outrage warred on Shine's features and she surged to her feet.
"No!" Maureen corrected. "I didn't deserve it. But I ignored the signs. If you willingly bend over and pull your pants down, you can't call it rape." She held her hand up to forestall Shine speaking. "I put myself in harm's way so I can't say that it was unexpected. Beth is very controlling. I chose to see it as butch at the time and allowed myself to become attracted to it. We were together almost 18 months and over that time I let her make all the rules in our relationship. My friends gradually drifted away and it wasn't until the end that I found out that she was going behind my back and telling them lies. Carol was the one who finally came to me and told me that Beth had told her and Jim that I spoke ill of them in private. Lucky for me they knew it was a lie, but it made me look at Beth more clearly. She controlled where I went, what I did and whom I did it with. And I realized that she did it because I let her. So, I changed the rules. Beth didn't like that. I told her it was over and asked her to leave."
"And she beat you up." Shine looked furious.
"Yes, but I need you to understand that I helped create the situation that made it possible. Do you see that?"
Shine's face blanched and she looked away, all trace of anger gone. "I understand perfectly."
Maureen was puzzled at the transformation. "Do you really?"
Shine nodded and looked back into her face. "Yes. What are the other reasons?"
Maureen folded her arms protectively in front of her. "She didn't have anybody else to take care of her things. She would have lost everything. But the biggest reason," she explained, "is that I'm hoping that if I behave in a civilized manner, she will, too." Shine raised her eyebrows and Maureen laughed. "I know. I tried to be civilized once before and ended up in the hospital." Maureen slowly reached out and put her hand on Shine's arm. "But I have to try."
Shine folded her arms and sighed. "You're a better woman than I am, Maureen. I would have sold what I could and trashed the rest."
"Why do you think you're here?"
Shine burst out laughing. "You brought me to keep you civilized?"
Shine shook her head. "When does she get out of jail?"
"September. They gave her 15 months on a plea bargain."
"Is that all?" Shine asked with surprise.
"A year for what she did to me and 90 days for assault on a police officer. She was a little upset when they arrested her."
"Still," Shine protested. "She got off lightly."
"I didn't have to go to court and it didn't get splashed all over the papers. That was my biggest concern."
"Good point," Shine nodded. She casually moved to sit next to Maureen again. "Why does it embarrass you to talk about it?"
"Well," Maureen admitted with chagrin, "it doesn't fit the image I have of myself. What does it say about me that I can manage over 40 employees, an army of volunteers and a multimillion-dollar budget, but I allow my girlfriend to run my life and beat me up?"
"I see what you mean," Shine said sympathetically. "Too bad they don't teach relationships in college. Jobs are easy in comparison."
"Love 101," Maureen suggested to lighten the mood.
Shine came back with, "Sexual History."
"Sex Lab Partners."
Maureen started to giggle. "Romantic Encounter Groups."
Shine grinned. "Pheromones: Love is in the Air."
"Bodies in Motion: An Astronomical Perspective."
"I took that class," Shine said with a snicker. "It wasn't about what I thought it was about."
"The same with Women's Studies," Maureen teased. They both had a good laugh and she decided they'd been there long enough. "Do you want to hang out for a while?" She asked hopefully as they locked the unit's door.
Shine looked thoughtful. "What do you want to do?"
Maureen struggled to appear as casual as possible. "I don't know."
Shine didn't say anything until they were in the car. "Maybe we could catch a movie."
Shine became Maureen's Saturday friend. They went to movies occasionally, ate lunches regularly, and stopped at yard sales. Spring was in fine form and as it warmed up, they started taking walks along the river or down Main Street. Shine was still cautious about sharing information, but she did talk more about her childhood. Maureen began to get a sense of who Shine had been and what she could become.
Shine talked frequently about her cousin, Grace, and how close they had been, but she stayed away from how they had become separated. She seemed willing to talk about everything good in her life, but reluctant to mention anything bad as though once started everything would come pouring out and Maureen wouldn't be comfortable with her anymore.
Maureen's attraction strengthened and she carefully watched Shine for any sign that her affections might be returned. Sometimes she could feel Shine assessing her and hoped that she was at least thinking about the possibility.
In the middle of May she called Jim and asked him to meet her for lunch. They sat on a bench at the park with sandwiches and spoke of trivial matters while she worked up her courage.
Jim successfully launched his sandwich wrapper at a garbage can and put his arm around her shoulders. "I assume we're here to talk about Shine."
She sighed deeply. "I think I'm in love with her, Jim."
"I thought so," he said quietly.
She wrapped up the remains of her lunch and set it aside. "Am I making a mistake? Is she capable of loving me back?"
"I think so, yes," he said with confidence. "Maybe you don't see her the way we do at the station, but she's not the same person she used to be. She's changed."
"She seeks people out and asks them how they're doing. She brings donuts on Tuesday mornings. People are still unsure how to handle such a radical change in personality, but she's persistent about it, I've got to give her that."
Maureen went to the heart of her concern. "Am I safe, Jim?"
He sat quietly, staring off into the park.
"She confided in you, didn't she? That's why she cried on your shoulder?"
"I can't tell you without her permission. You know that."
"I know, and I'm not asking," she reassured him. "I just need to know if I'm safe."
"I only know the bare bones of it, Maureen," he said after some thought. "It's impossible for me to be sure, but I feel pretty confident that she would rather die than hurt anyone. Whether or not she's capable of loving you, I just don't know; but I think that with a little more time and maybe a touch of pressure at the right moment you'll find out."
"Maybe you should let us invite both of you over at the same time."
"I think she likes feeling that your family is separate from me. I'm not sure how I know that, but I don't think she wants to share yet."
"Carol tells me that you take Shine with you now to check Beth's car. How's that going?"
"Fine. She doesn't like it, but she's a lot easier with it than Carol."
"Shine didn't have to sit with you in the hospital," he pointed out. "Carol still thinks of Beth as a rabid dog that needs to be put down."
"I know. Ever since my family died, she's tried to look out for me."
"She really does think of you as part of her family, you know. So do I."
She looked into Jim's familiar, loving face. "Do I ever tell you that I love you, Jim?"
"In a hundred different ways," he grinned. "Now, are you coming to our BBQ on Memorial Day Sunday?"
"Wouldn't miss it. What do I get to bring this year?"
"Chips for 12. I'm going to ask Shine to bring dip so you might want to talk to her about it."
"Do I sense some sort of plan?"
"Hey," Jim held his hands up. "I'm just the messenger."
The library stayed open till 8 on Wednesdays and Maureen usually worked the front desk for the last 2 hours. She felt it important to keep a hand in with checking out books and answering questions. It was too easy to lose sight of what her work was all about if all she ever did was paperwork.
The Wednesday before Memorial Day was no exception. With summer coming on the library was especially busy. She was just finishing up with a patron when she happened to look up as Shine walked through the lobby. Their eyes met and Maureen felt as though she had been stripped naked. Her mouth dried up and her knees shook. How does she do that? She wondered.
Shine sauntered past with a mysterious smile and Maureen was called back to work by the next patron. But no matter what her hands did, Maureen's single thought was that Shine was near. Maybe even watching her. Every move, every word and smile took on a special significance. She allowed herself to fantasize about kissing Shine in the stacks. This proved to be a mistake.
Shine laid the novel she had chosen on the counter in front of Maureen. "How do I get a library card?" Maureen seemed flushed and her hands were shaking. "Are you okay?"
Maureen cleared her throat. "Must be low blood sugar."
"Can I get you something?"
"It'll pass." Maureen handed over a small form and a pen with a weak smile. "Fill this out and I'll issue a card for you."
Shine scooted to one side at Maureen's direction. She bent to fill in address and phone number as Maureen checked out another patron. When she was done, Shine handed her the form. No one else was in line so she leaned over the counter to watch Maureen enter the information in her computer. "Do you need to see ID or anything?"
"Normally, yes. But I know you."
Maureen smelled like raspberries and cream. "It's okay that I came, isn't it?"
"Definitely," Maureen smiled. "I don't think I've ever seen you in here before."
"I was bored and I got to thinking that you listen to me on the radio but I've never seen your work. It seemed only fair."
Maureen looked over her shoulder at a clock. "We close in 20 minutes. Why don't you hang around and I'll give you a tour."
"If your blood sugar is low you should eat."
"Okay. I'll give you a quick tour and then we can get something to eat. Is that okay with you?"
Shine had already eaten, but she wanted to spend time with Maureen. "Sounds good." In minutes Shine had a new library card. "I haven't had one of these since I was a kid."
"Don't lose it," Maureen threatened, "or I'll have to charge you a dollar to replace it."
Shine picked up her book with a happy smile. She sat down to read but couldn't concentrate past the first page. Giving up, she watched Maureen checking people out and straightening the counter. Coming had been a spur of the moment decision, but she was glad she had. Sometimes, waiting for Saturday to see Maureen was almost painful.
Soon enough they were alone. She followed Maureen through a quick tour; surprised at all the things she was shown. When she had been small, libraries were for books. Now they had videos, computers, books on tape, music CD's, and an entire corner devoted to teaching people how to read.
"Your job is a little intimidating," Shine told her.
"And yours isn't?"
"I don't just mean the work. You're The County Librarian. That's not just a job. It's a position in the community."
"Do you see me as a public figure?"
Shine wondered at the tone of Maureen's voice. She wasn't sure if she had offended or not. "Sometimes, yes."
"I see you the same way. The difference is that people know your name."
Shine blinked in surprise. "All I do is sit in a little room and talk to myself."
"And at any given moment there are 10 or 20 thousand people listening to you. That intimidates me."
"More like 8 or 9," Shine said with acute embarrassment. "I think you would change your mind if you ever saw what I do."
"Is that an invitation?"
Shine thought quickly. "You're closed on Monday for the holiday, right?"
"Then come watch my show."
"Are you sure it's okay?"
"Positive. It'll be fun." Shine desperately wanted her to say yes. Other jocks had visitors on a regular basis. The weekend morning jock, Janie, always brought her eight-year-old daughter. Carlie knew how to do everything, including reading the meters. Shine was all for letting Carlie have her own hour-long show on Saturday morning.
"What should I wear?"
Shine laughed aloud. "It's radio, Maureen. You could wear pajamas and no one would know."
Shine had her arms full of dips and chips, so Maureen rang the doorbell. Carol pulled the door open. "Maureen! Shine! Come on in!"
Music was blaring on the radio and Shine could hear people laughing in the back yard. She carried her precarious load to the kitchen and searched for a place to put it all. "Let me help with that," Carol said.
Shine had spent Saturday afternoon making dips. Ranch and onion were the standards, but Shine felt creative. She also made artichoke, bean, clam, and spinach dips each in their own container and neatly labeled. She was feeling pretty proud of herself.
Maureen and Carol took over in the kitchen and she felt a little left out so she wandered out to the back yard. She knew Jim and his kids, and also Janie and Carlie, who she had not expected to see, but there were several more people she had never met. Jim grabbed her and introduced her to them.
Carl Macklin was tall, rough looking and appeared to be several beers into a really good time. A detective on the police force, he had been friends with Maureen and Carol back in high school. His 12-year-old son, Andrew, was a miniature version of his dad but with the sweetness of youth still in his face.
Joe and Faith Ackerman were a couple Jim and Shine's age. Joe was Jim's fishing buddy and they had two tow-headed kids: Tommy, 9, and Catherine, 8.
Grabbing a soda, Shine drifted to the kids playing Marco Polo in the yard. "Hey, guys. Can I play, too?"
"New guy's IT!" Angela screamed.
Shine closed her eyes, spun quickly three times and the game was on. She loved playing with children and so rarely had the opportunity that this was a real treat. Having a group of kids, different ages and genders, was like a dream come true.
When they tired of Marco Polo, Shine asked if they wanted to do something really fun. As she knew they would, they all agreed. Shine quietly told Jim she wanted to show the kids something in her car and they'd be right back. No one seemed to be paying any attention, which was exactly what she had hoped for. She led them through the side gate and to the trunk of her car. Shine had gone out early on the spur of the moment and gotten water pistols and the kids were delighted. They filled them at a spigot by the front porch. Inspired by the mud that quickly developed, Shine gave herself commando stripes on her face and the children creatively followed suit.
Dividing the children into two groups headed by Travis and Andrew, Shine got them positioned at both side gates. The attack on the unsuspecting adults went beautifully. Shine could hardly call Retreat she was laughing so hard at the mayhem. They regrouped in the front yard to plan a second assault, still congratulating themselves, and the sprinkler system went off. Shine's army scattered to the winds.
Having been crouched over one of the hidden sprinklers to talk, Shine had received a thorough soaking. She herded the kids into the back yard to surrender and Jim tossed her a towel.
"Are you having a good time?" He asked with a laugh at her condition.
"You have no idea." She grinned. She toweled her hair and wiped her face then tossed the towel back at him. "I need something to drink." She stepped inside and Maureen burst out laughing at her.
Puzzled, she let Maureen take her hand and lead her down the hall to the bathroom. Mud was smeared all over her reflection. She was shouldered aside and Maureen wet a washrag. Shine held still while Maureen cleaned her face gently. Her heart raced. She knew that she should stop her but couldn't think why. It felt so good to be this close to her. Not to mention Maureen's hand holding her chin and touching her face. While Maureen looked for mud, Shine looked at her. Such clear, beautiful skin and those eyes! Shine knew she could spend hours looking at those eyes and they would never look less lovely. She looked at Maureen's full lips and had the urge to kiss them.
"You look happy," Maureen said quietly.
The realization that she was happy almost knocked her off her feet with its intensity and tears rolled down her cheeks. Unable to run, Shine did the unthinkable. She lowered her head to Maureen's shoulder. Arms came around her to hold her tight and Shine gave herself to them.
"It's okay, Shine," Maureen said in her ear. "I've got all day."
Shine wrapped her arms around Maureen. She felt so right in the circle of Maureen's arms. The way she fit and moved and even smelled. Shine was warmed from the inside out. She relaxed into Maureen for as long as she felt she would be welcome and then eased her hold. Lifting her head, she let Maureen wipe away her tears.
"Do you need a minute alone before going back out there?" Maureen asked gently.
"Please?" Maureen left, closing the door behind her. We're just friends, Shine thought sternly. Just friends. The words only made her feel sad.
Maureen's feet didn't touch the ground. She went back through the kitchen and smiled secretly at Carol's raised eyebrow. Taking a beer out of the cooler by the porch door, she went outside and sat on the edge of the deck. The cold bite of the beer brought temporary tears to her eyes. She could still feel Shine's lean body against her own and thought it amazing that she wasn't glowing with pleasure. She had been sure that Shine was thinking about kissing her.
Maureen looked down into Colin's sweet face. "What is it, Colin?"
"Can Chine still play wif us?"
"Of course, honey, but I think she needs a break. She's pretty old, you know."
"Yeah," he said dejectedly.
"I bet she'll be ready after she eats something."
"Can we eat now?" He asked hopefully.
"You'll have to ask your dad."
"'Kay!" He yelled and ran off.
Maureen smiled after him and took another long pull on her bottle. Closing her eyes, she let her head fall back and enjoyed the feel of the sun on her face. She was aware of when Shine sat down next to her and opened her eyes. "Better?"
"Much. Thanks for letting me…" Shine paused, "you know."
Maureen swayed towards her and bumped shoulders. "That's what friends are for." Shine bumped her back with a shy smile.
Maureen parked as close as she could to the side door of the radio station. She grabbed the lunch basket she had prepared and hoped that no one was watching as she ran for the door. Per Shine's instructions she looked through the glass at a sign inside that said ON AIR.
"Just my luck," she said aloud when she saw that it was bright red. She looked down the street to see if anyone was coming. Seeing it was clear she checked the sign again. After a few seconds the red light went out and she banged on the door. She waited a full minute before Shine appeared on the other side of the glass and burst out laughing.
"Let me in!" Maureen called through the glass. She jumped inside as soon as the door opened. "I hope no one saw me."
Shine was bent over with one hand on the wall and the other on her knee, helpless with laughter. Unable to contain her own pleasure at a joke well played, Maureen laughed along with her.
"Feet!" Shine choked out and began staggering down the hall. She looked back over her shoulder and looked Maureen up and down. "Where did you get those?"
Maureen had gone online and ordered her full body pink fuzzy pajamas, feet included, first thing last Thursday morning. She had paid extra to have them delivered by FedEx to the library on Friday. "I stole them off some kid." Maureen had been rehearsing this line all weekend and was pleased to see that it worked as well as she hoped.
"Not so great when you have to go to the bathroom," she said running the zipper down to her cleavage and back up. She had practiced this, too. "Don't you have to play commercials or something?"
"I've got a minute. Come on, I'll show you the break room."
Maureen was given a cursory tour of the break room, bathroom and office before being led to 'the booth'. Shine pointed to a desk chair and small desk area in the corner and Maureen gingerly made her way to it. Setting the basket on the floor at her feet, she sat down and tried to make sense of the room.
Maureen couldn't remember ever seeing a room so full of electronic equipment in her life. She recognized reel to reel tape machines, and even an old turntable. The console she was sitting next to looked rather like pictures of those in recording studios, if not quite as complex. She was surprised to see a tall, revolving rack of what looked like 8-track tapes.
"I thought those were dead," she pointed.
Shine pulled one out at random and handed it to her. "It's called a cart. Looks like 8-track but it's a different kind of animal. We put commercials on them."
Maureen studied the 'cart'. Black on one side and clear on the other, she could see the tape inside and how it was threaded back upon itself. She handed it back and Shine shelved it.
Shine sat down in the office chair in front of the console and began shuffling carts and papers. "I've only got two rules. First, if I hold up my hand or even a finger, freeze and don't make any noise. Second rule; don't touch anything until I show you how to use it. Okay?"
"You're the boss." Maureen looked around again. "I expected it to be louder in here. I can hardly hear the music."
Shine turned a knob on the console and the music came up loud, then was turned down. She reached over the counter towards her and pulled some headphones off a hook. "These are for you to wear." She plugged them in and showed her how to adjust the volume. Picking up her own headphones, Shine put them on her temples.
"Aren't you supposed to put them on your ears?" Maureen asked.
"Do I tell you how to do your job?" Shine grinned.
Maureen opened her mouth to respond and Shine lifted a finger. Maureen almost swallowed her tongue in her haste to be quiet. There was a brief flurry of activity and then Shine was talking into the microphone. Hearing and seeing Shine on the radio at the same time was temporarily mind-boggling. Shine's eyes and hands were in constant motion and what she was doing didn't appear to have anything to do with what she was saying.
How does she keep track of what she's doing? Shine looked over at her and smiled as a commercial played in her ears. Maureen watched her slowly lift a finger up to her chin and push up. She was uncertain what Shine was trying to tell her, then realized that her mouth was hanging open. She closed it with a snap and Shine nodded. The fact that Shine wasn't mocking about it took away any embarrassment she might have felt.
She watched Shine's face as she finished the break and started another song. She didn't understand how everything was done, but the smoothness with which it was accomplished was a reflection of Shine's demeanor. She wasn't tentative or uncertain in any way. Her body was relaxed and her movements efficient and confident. Maureen's mental picture of Shine underwent a radical shift.
For the most part, she still thought of Shine as a wounded and frightened animal but she realized that she had been seeing only a part of the picture. Here was a woman of strength and poise: a woman to be respected and valued. She didn't sound good on the radio by accident. She was a professional and she was in her element here. A wave of longing flooded Maureen and she closed her eyes in an effort to contain it.
"You can talk now."
Maureen opened her eyes and took off her headphones. "I'm not sure what I expected, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't it."
Shine smiled and reorganized carts. "It's not as intimidating as it looks. When it stops being scary to you, I'll show you how to do some things."
"I'd rather not."
"Let's see how you feel in an hour," Shine said with confidence. "Do you want some coffee?"
Shine leaned over and Maureen could hear a click.
"I'll be right back. No matter what happens, don't touch anything."
"I promise." Shine left the booth and Maureen studied the rest of the room. The wall behind her had charts and slogans that she had heard on the radio too many times to count. There was a map of Edgewater and a color-coded pie chart with time notations. Behind her there was a window into another room that looked like a smaller version of the booth. The wall behind where Shine sat was floor to ceiling with thin white boxes arranged by some sort of letter and number system. Glancing at the reel-to-reel tape machines, Maureen puzzled out that the white boxes were more tapes. CDs covered another wall.
Feeling a little overloaded Maureen put on her headphones and turned up the music. She wasn't good at naming the artists of songs, but she was pretty sure that these were the Backstreet Boys. She had heard this song enough times that she almost had the lyrics down. She closed her eyes and nodded her head to the rhythm. The song wound down and she looked around to see if Shine was back.
Remembering Shine's 'no matter what' she waited to see what would happen. Just as she started to feel panicky, another tape machine started up and the songs smoothly changed. Sarah MacLaughlin replaced the Backstreet Boys and she smiled in relief.
Shine came back moments later with coffee. "Thanks for not panicking."
"Oh, I panicked plenty," Maureen laughed. Coffee and creamer were placed in front of her. "You have no idea how bad I need this."
Shine turned off whatever it was she had turned on earlier and sat down. "So what do you think?"
"I'm trying not to."
"Can I play something for you?"
Maureen doctored her coffee and thought about it. "Do you have Eric Clapton's Change the World?"
"I sure do."
Maureen nodded and Shine rolled her chair around to the CD section. She pulled it out almost immediately and rolled back to the console. "Contrary to what people think," Shine said as she loaded it into a CD player and consulted the play list on the case, "radio doesn't pay squat. Unless you're syndicated or in a huge metropolitan area, of course. Being a disc jockey only has one perk, but it's a big one."
Shine stood and rolled her chair under the counter. "The music. Come here."
Maureen walked around the equipment and stood next to Shine.
"See this button here?" Shine placed her finger on it. "I want you to push this when I tell you."
"No, Shine, I can't." Maureen tried to back up, but Shine's arm came up against her back. She looked into Shine's eyes and tried not to faint.
Maureen leaned forward and put her finger over the button. She could hear the song ending and she waited anxiously for Shine to direct her.
"Now," Shine finally said and Maureen stabbed at the button. Shine leaned over the console and turned a knob bringing the opening guitar up loudly. Music, pure and sweet, poured out of speakers set high in the corners of the room.
"Oh my," Maureen breathed as it rolled over her. By the chorus she was singing and swaying along with the music. The words came from straight out of her heart and she sang them with all of the pent-up longing she felt for Shine. The luxury of being able to say what she felt almost liquefied her bones. Maureen became nothing but love for Shine. Just before it ended, Shine stepped forward to put a cart in a machine and turned the sound down. A jingle played and Shine pulled her chair out to sit down. Unable to even conceive of not doing it, Maureen placed a hand on Shine's shoulder. "I can see why you would love that."
Shine put on her headphones and held up her hand. Maureen stayed just as she was as Shine talked into the mike. During the commercials, Maureen used both hands to gently massage Shine's shoulders. She knew she was taking advantage and didn't care. Not taking the chance would hurt as bad as Shine objecting to it. She couldn't tell if Shine was okay with it or not. She seemed as sure of herself as she had at the last break. When the mike was finally turned off, Maureen prepared for the worst only to have Shine drop her chin and relax.
Maureen's heart thudded painfully and she moved her hands under Shine's hair to work over her neck. The feel of her smooth skin made her dizzy with passion. Not wanting Shine to be the one to end it, Maureen ruffled her hair and stepped back. Shine slowly turned and looked at her with an unreadable expression.
"Was that out of line?" Maureen asked.
"Good." Maureen said with secret relief. "Teach me something."
The time flew by for Shine. She'd never had a guest before and found that she liked it. She would have liked to interview Maureen on the air about the library but sensed that Maureen wasn't ready for it. Shine had also never had a pupil before and was surprised how quickly Maureen picked things up. Once she relaxed, she had picked up the timing of the machines and was making one smooth segue after another. Maureen brought her chair around and commercial breaks became a joint effort. Shine controlled the microphone and Maureen did everything else at her direction.
Carlos showed up for his shift at 5:20 and Shine had a good laugh at Maureen's expense. She seemed to have forgotten that she was wearing pajamas that made her look like a bunny and Carlos found it quite amusing. After her last break, Shine rolled both chairs out of the way so Carlos could get his wheelchair into the booth and turned it over to him.
"We never ate lunch," Maureen said as Shine picked up her jacket. "Do you want to come over to my place and help me eat it?"
Shine got an idea. "Can we go to my place instead?"
Shine drove with a mind to Maureen's car in her rearview mirror. At home, she put on some music and they sat on the couch to eat. Maureen could hardly stop talking about being on the radio. Shine let her babble on, enjoying her enthusiasm. When the eating was over, Shine went to the bathroom and came back with two lush, over-sized towels and picked up Mabel.
"I have something to show you," she said. "Follow me." It was just starting to get dark and Shine led the way out to the back deck. Tossing the towels on the bench and setting Mabel off to one side, Shine kicked off her shoes and started the jets in the hot tub.
"You said it was a hot tub!" Maureen gasped. "It's a Roman bath!"
Shine almost laughed at how quickly Maureen got out of her pajamas and into the water. She took off her own clothes as Maureen berated her.
"I'll bet you can do laps in this thing! This is the biggest spa I've ever seen. What else are you hiding in this house of yours?"
"I'll show you later."
Maureen lay back with a deep sigh. "This is heaven."
Shine eased into the tub and sat across from her. "Sometimes I spend whole evenings out here."
"Thank you, Shine." Maureen's eyes didn't even bother to open. "Not just for this. Working with you was fun. I had a great day."
Shine stayed in the tub till she got dizzy. She got out and sat on the edge of the tub, wrapped herself in her towel and watched Maureen. She is so beautiful, she thought. I thought my heart was going to stop when she was singing that song today. Her hands began to itch and she scratched them idly. I wish my breasts looked like hers. Shine's own breasts barely filled her hands and she had always been disappointed in them. Maureen's were full and round without being heavy. Shine searched for the right words to describe them. They look? happy.
"Who?" Maureen asked.
Shine felt like a deer caught in the headlights. "What?" she croaked.
"Who looks happy?"
Shine couldn't help but look again and Maureen's eyes followed hers.
"My breasts?" Maureen asked in surprise.
Shine wanted to die. She covered her face with a groan.
Maureen laughed. "That's probably the best compliment I've ever had, even if you didn't mean to say it."
"I'm so embarrassed," Shine moaned. It didn't help that Maureen was still laughing.
"Shine, look at me."
"I can't." She heard Maureen get out of the tub and a moment later was sitting beside her.
Shine peeked and saw that Maureen was wrapped in her towel. She sat up straight but couldn't look into her face.
"I've had such a good time. Don't ruin it now by being embarrassed. I'm not."
"I didn't mean anything by it, you know."
"I know," Maureen looked away for a moment. "Can I ask you something? We've known each other for almost four months, but we rarely see each other except on weekends. Don't you ever want to spend more time together?"
"Sure!" Shine said in surprise. "I just assumed that you were too busy to get together more often."
"I'm never too busy to see you," Maureen said sincerely. "It's not enough for me to only be your weekend friend."
"You can come over or call me whenever you like. I don't really do anything except work. I've done more fun
things in the last four months than I did in the last four years."
"Is that a good thing?"
Shine put a hand to the ache in her chest. Habit tried to stop her from saying what she really felt and she fought it. "I'm never going back, Maureen. I don't think I can live like that anymore."
"How is it different now?"
Tears welled up and she wiped at them with the corner of her towel. "I don't think I can describe it. Everything seems brighter and more colorful. I can smell things. I feel more alive than I ever felt before. I can breathe." She laughed at herself shortly. "I know it sounds melodramatic to say it out loud, but I think I was dying. Not metaphorically: for real."
Maureen took her hand and held it. "I'm glad you didn't."
They sat in the dark holding hands and listening to the bubbling of the water for some time. "Hey," Shine said suddenly. "Do you want to see what I've done with the master bedroom?"
Using the door that opened onto the deck for the first time, Shine led her inside and turned on the light. She had found a wrought iron king-size bed that she thought Maureen would approve of and added oak nightstands, dressers, and cabinets. Except for the lack of linens and decorations, it was starting to look like a real bedroom.
Maureen ran her hands over the frame. "This is a beautiful bed and the furniture is perfect. You do have good taste."
Shine was almost giddy with her approval. "I'm just not sure what to do next."
"What are your favorite colors?"
"Blues, greens and purples."
Maureen walked around the room and looked at it from different angles. "First you need area rugs so your feet won't get cold in the morning. You also need a chest or a bench that you could sit on. Then you need bedside lamps and art. After that it's a matter of slowly adding things that look good to you."
"Would you help me?" Maureen's smile was all the 'Yes' she needed.
Maureen sat on the park bench, rolling her feet back and forth while Shine put her own skates on. She felt foolish with all the pads on her knees and elbows and even more so with the helmet. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this," she said to Shine. "I feel like I'm in costume."
"You do look kind of silly," Shine grinned.
Maureen pushed at Shine's shoulder and was rewarded with a giggle. "Why don't you skate a little first," she suggested. "Show me how it's done."
Shine stood up easily. "Nope. I know you're scared so let's just get it over with."
Maureen shakily got to her feet, tense and nervous. Shine held her hands out and she took them gratefully. She wobbled as Shine pulled her away from the bench then let go of her hands.
"What do I do?" she squeaked out.
"It would probably be best," Shine said casually, "if you fell down right away."
"You want me to fall?" she asked in disbelief.
"The first time is the hardest because you're so afraid of it. If you fall right off the bat, you'll not be so scared and you'll relax. If you can relax it will be easier for you to learn." Shine skated backwards about 10 feet and Maureen hated her for making it look so easy. "If you can reach me without falling, I'll let you off the hook."
Knowing it was inevitable, Maureen screwed up her courage and pushed off only to immediately go down in a tangle.
"That was very good."
Shine was right beside her, helping her to get back on her feet. Maureen got herself balanced again and Shine let go of her.
"Are you hurt anywhere?"
Maureen took stock. "Just my pride."
"We'll fix that," Shine grinned.
Shine was patient and encouraging but Maureen didn't think she would ever get the hang of it. She kept falling and was beginning to hurt, even if she didn't appear to have bruises and abrasions.
"I'm never going to be good at this, Shine." Maureen was ready to beg if Shine would only let her stop.
"Let's try one more thing and then we'll call it a day."
Maureen felt Shine's arm around her waist and the length of her body was pressed into her back. She took a shaky breath and let it out slowly. Maybe this skating thing isn't such a bad idea after all. Shine began to sway side to side, shifting her weight from one skate to the other. Maureen moved with her.
"Don't think about what you're doing," Shine said. "In fact, tell me a story."
"What kind of story?"
"Tell me about your family. What were they like? Did you have siblings?"
Maureen continued to sway, acutely conscious of being held. "My parents were named Alfred and Joanne and I had a younger brother named Geoffrey." Her mind gave way to memory and she remembered her family for Shine. Her father was a loud and boisterous man who had worked as a lineman for the Phone Company. He had not been very generous with hugs and kisses, but he was always there and a willing participant in the family. If most of Maureen's memories had him with a beer in his hand, he had at least been a pleasant drinker. He never had anything bad to say about anyone, but mechanical and technical failures drove him crazy. Having never gone himself, he was an ardent supporter of going to college and it was his attitude that made Maureen choose the path she had taken.
Maureen always thought of her mother as an artist, even if she never made any money at it. She had far more creative juice than most people did. That she was not particularly good at anything never seemed to bother her. It was the process of creating that her mother had taken the greatest pleasure in. Looking back, Maureen thought her mother should have lived in Greenwich Village or Haight Ashbury. As it was, her mother had involved her children in every artistic endeavor she undertook. Maureen remembered macramé, painting, sculpting, pottery, beading, sewing and a dozen other things. She had been eternally optimistic and supportive of her husband and children. Maureen had loved her mother deeply.
She still remembered when Geoffrey had been brought home from the hospital. Her father had been twice his normal size with pride and had set her new brother in her arms as soon as he came in the door. What kind of sister do you want to be? He had asked her. The good kind, daddy. He had given her one of his rare kisses and told her he loved her. It was her favorite of many good memories of her father.
Geoffrey had been a wonderful little brother. She had been 7 years old when he was born and she loved him completely. He had her mother's temperament and her father's looks. What she remembered best about him was how willing he was to laugh at himself. Geoffrey never got embarrassed. He came home from school more than once with a story of some silly thing he had done. Once he had?
Maureen realized she was skating without help and stiffened involuntarily. Too late she knew it was a mistake. She crashed onto the pavement and Shine fell over her. "Ouch."
Shine rolled to the side and sat up. "You were doing great!"
Maureen rolled onto her back and decided to not move for a week. "I think I'll just take a nap now."
"What happened? You were doing fine."
"I scared myself."
"Well, don't do that anymore!" Shine laughed.
"Maureen?" A familiar voice asked.
Maureen lifted her head. "Judge Farris?" Maureen had known the Judge casually for more than 10 years. He looked a lot like Santa Claus and took great pleasure in it.
"Are you alright? That was quite a spill you took."
Maureen grabbed Shine's knee to help her sit up. "I'll live." She introduced Shine and let herself be helped to her feet. "Shine seems to be under the impression that a little public humiliation will be good for me," Maureen explained.
Shine laughed heartily. "She was doing great until she started thinking about it."
"I was watching," he grinned. "I only came over to make sure that you were still alive." He gestured behind him. "My grandkids started their summer vacation today and I promised them a picnic. I couldn't believe it was you at first."
Maureen looked past him to see a party in progress. "Well, thanks for checking on me, Judge. Go have fun with your family." She pointed at him with a twinkle in her eye. "But, if you know what's good for you, you won't say a word about this."
The judge thought this was hysterical and he almost knocked her off her feet slapping her on the back. He said his gracious good-byes and Maureen staggered over to the nearest bench. "I've had enough, Shine."
"I know. I just wanted you to have some success before you quit."
Maureen looked back the way they had come and was surprised to see how far they had skated. "I did okay, didn't I?"
"Better than my first time," Shine laughed.
"Show me what you can do?"
Shine spun in a circle and skated away. Maureen took off her skates and began walking back to their blanket in her stocking feet. She watched Shine, amazed at the footwork she did with such ease. She looked as natural on skates as a dancer. She was beautiful to see. Maureen especially liked the blue spandex outfit she wore. She looked like an Olympic athlete in it and it showed off her body to perfection. Maureen could see the interplay of muscle and bone along the length of Shine's form. Reaching their blanket, Maureen dropped Shine's old skates on the grass and sat down to take off her pads, helmet, and heavy socks. Digging a soda out of the cooler, she lay on her least sore hip and watched Shine skating along the park's walkways.
In the last three weeks they had seen each other almost every day. Maureen had even taken lunch to the station twice to eat with Shine while she worked. And ever since the talk in the hot tub, Shine had become more and more confident in their friendship. Maureen knew she was in love. There was no doubt left in her and she knew that soon she would have to press Shine for more intimacy or else stop seeing her.
Shine had stopped to watch some boys doing tricks on a bench. She appeared to be talking to them and lifted an arm as if in display. Maureen wondered what she was doing, then saw her shrug and laugh. She had always seen teenage boys as strange and unusual, but Shine seemed to be easy with them. Thinking about it, Maureen realized that she had never seen anyone take badly to Shine. Everyone seemed to like her, especially children. She wondered if Shine wanted one of her own.
Trying to imagine Shine pregnant, Maureen at first didn't register what she was seeing. Shine had tried to copy the trick the boys were working on and had crashed heavily into a bench. Maureen got to her feet in fear and saw Shine slowly doing the same. She appeared to laugh it off but skated slowly towards her. Maureen pulled on her shoes and began packing up their things. Shine was injured; she could see it in the way she moved.
"Where are you hurt?" she asked as Shine got closer.
"I'm okay," Shine dropped onto the blanket and lay down on her side. She closed her eyes and breathed shallowly. "It's nothing."
"Liar," Maureen contradicted. "Where are you hurt?"
Shine slowly lifted her arm and twisted her hand to lay on her ribs. "This is the worst."
Maureen lay her hand gently on the spot and could feel it swelling already. There was no way she could look at it without undressing her and she tried to think what to do. "Does it hurt when you breathe?"
Shine slowly took a deep breath and let it out. "It hurts all the time, but it doesn't hurt worse when I breathe.
Wordlessly, she bent to untie Shine's skates. "My house is closer. We're going there now to take a look."
"I'm all right," she protested.
"Fine," Maureen pulled off one skate and tackled the other. "We'll go to my house and you can prove it."
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