The Heart of the Matter


Author's Notes:  See Part One

Part Two

Chapter 6

The two days between sessions with Crystal passed quickly for Lauren. That was due in large part to her bad habit of answering her phone. If she hadn't answered her phone, she wouldn't have talked on Wednesday to the day Charge Nurse in the Pediatric ICU. If she hadn't talked to her, she wouldn't have heard how short handed they would have to work if Lauren didn't pick up an extra twelve-hour shift that night.

What a sucker for a sob story I am,Lauren thought as she drove to Crystal's house. I absolutely have got to get caller ID. A mid-morning dentist appointment and abbreviated sleep had left her bordering on exhaustion.If it were anybody but Crystal, I'd have called this evening off.

The Mustang made the final turn onto the street where Crystal lived. The nurse drove slowly as she looked for the house number. Finding it, she pulled up in front of an older home that showed a few more signs of wear than the others in the neighborhood. It was far from dilapidated, but it did need a little attention.

Dusk had fallen and lights were visible through a large picture window and a smaller window to the left of the larger one. Though the house wasn't in peak condition, it exuded a cheerfulness that made it seem inviting somehow.

Lauren walked up to the front door, passing by Crystal's minivan and a Honda Civic she didn't recognize. As she reached to knock on the door, the owner opened it. Crystal wasn't alone; Patsy Cohen from the support group was with her.

"It was Thursday evening that I was supposed to be here, correct?" Lauren questioned. "And this is Thursday, right?" she asked, suddenly unsure. She thought back rapidly…she went to work on Wednesday night and then stayed up to go to the dentist. She then slept for a few hours; it should still be Thursday.

"Yes and yes," Crystal assured her. "Patsy was just taking off; come on in." Lauren moved past the two women and into a cluttered but clean living room. Her peripheral vision noted Crystal giving Patsy a quick hug.

"Call me when you find out anything," Crystal said, patting the older woman on the back.

"I will and thanks again, sweetie," Patsy answered as she moved away and headed out the door. "I have my cell phone if you need me." Crystal watched Patsy leave and closed the door behind her. She turned back to the living room and her guest.

"Hey, how are you?" she asked Lauren, "Other than tired, I mean. Work last night?"

"It shows, huh?" the nurse said in reply.

"A little around the edges."

Lauren smiled. "I bet." She nodded her head in the direction of the departing Patsy. "Everything okay?"

Crystal hesitated; she liked Lauren, but wasn't quite sure how much of that like translated to trust yet. She opted for something vague. "A little family problem. I'm going to keep Sydney here a day or two. Needless to say Davey is ecstatic. Now he has a cohort for his X-box. I've tried it, but I'm no competition."

"I know what you mean. The first time I tried to play one of those things I was convinced I had yet to fully take advantage of evolution. My opposable thumbs just couldn't seem to keep up with my twelve year old niece."

Crystal laughed quietly. "You can feel a little left out of the loop. Davey can do everything but have the characters on the screen make you breakfast and I take the controller and can't make the darn things even run in the direction I want!" She suddenly noticed they were still standing in the living room. "Hey, I was going to get something to drink, you want anything? She nodded at a doorway that led to the kitchen beyond.

"Whatever you're having will be fine," Lauren said, following her hostess into the kitchen.

"Okay," Crystal said walking over to the refrigerator. She removed a large pitcher and poured two glasses of thin orange fluid that Lauren didn't recognize. The nurse was handed one of the glasses and took a cautious sip.

"I know that flavor..." She began.

"Tang," Crystal said. "I loved it as a kid and I still do…sugar-free of course now. Got to have something to balance out the sugar blast of these chocolate chip cookies." She brought out a large plastic storage container from a nearby cabinet. Lauren's mouth watered when the lid was opened. Honest to goodness real homemade chocolate chip cookies, she hadn't tasted one in years. Baking had been an elusive conquest and most baked goods in Lauren's kitchen came directly from the Nabisco kitchens instead of her own. One bite convinced the nurse that Nabisco had nothing on Crystal.

"Oh my God! These are fantastic! How do you get them all soft and chewy like this? Mine never come out like that." She finished the first cookie and reached for a second before thinking that maybe she was making a pig of herself.

"Go on," Crystal urged. "Take as many as you want. Oddly enough Safeway has yet to run out of chocolate chips so I think I might just be able to make more."

"Can I be here when you do? There's got to be a secret to this racket that I haven't been let in on." Lauren blushed as she realized she had just invited herself over to Crystal's house again.

"I think we might be able to squeeze in a little cookie making in between the thesis writing," Crystal assured her. "You want to sit in the living room or stay in here?"

"The living room, I think. There's way too much temptation in here." Lauren took a seat in the living room as Crystal took a few cookies back to the kids.

"They're currently engrossed in saving the world from something that looks like a cross between a vampire and my third grade teacher," she said on her return. She dropped into the recliner opposite the sofa Lauren was seated on. "Now that I think about it, my third grade teacher was scarier than a vampire."

"I didn't get my scary one until I was in sixth grade. That was the first time we lived in Texas and it was when my parents decided they would retire there eventually. Miss Shaw was the teacher. As I think about it now I realize she looked like Joan Crawford with a lazy eye." Lauren paused to take a sip of her Tang. "That was the last year I had one teacher for every subject during the day. I didn't appreciate then what a hard job that must have been, to teach everything, I mean. I just knew that all day, every school day,I was under the control of Miss Shaw."

Lauren smiled wryly at the memories. "When my parents retired back to Texas, I saw Miss Shaw in the local grocery store. She had a grocery basket of microwaveable meals for one and a big bag of cat food. I realized then that I didn't know a damn thing about her or her life and I've tried not to be scared of anyone without reason since then."

Crystal tilted her head to the side in thought. "Why were you scared of her in the first place?"

Lauren raised her eyebrows. "It was the eye. I always felt like it knew just what I was doing all the time. I've never been a morning person and I hated to go to bed on time. I was almost always tired in the morning. I don't get why school has to start at eight. What's wrong with noon anyway? Anyhow, I would be tired and get sleepy and my eyelids would droop. That's when she would call on me. Every time."

"Stop! You're giving me goose bumps with a terrifying story like that," Crystal gently teased. "You're still a night person I take it? On the night shift voluntarily?"

"Oh yeah. I know I'm a little droopy right now, but real soon I'll start to get my second wind and then we can really get down to work. I'm feeling better already."

Crystal nodded. "Sounds good. I'll tell you what, why don't I get the kids stared on their baths and set up the inflatable bed for Sydney. You just relax and we can sit and talk for as long as you like when I get done. Need anything?"

"How about the TV remote? Maybe I can catch up with what's been going on in the world while I've been working. You get Headline News?"

Crystal picked up the remote from the table next to the recliner. "Channel 36…I don't have a lot of time for the news either," she said as she tossed the object to Lauren. "Be back in a couple of minutes." Lauren watched Crystal walk down the hall and appreciated the sight of firm buns moving in snug jeans.

Must be more tired than I think. Now I'm ogling straight women. Waste of time, girl.Lauren watched until Crystal disappeared into what she assumed was a back bedroom. Maybe not a total waste of time.I just made sure my eyes are still working and they're still connected to my pulse.

Settling back into the comfortable sofa, Lauren quickly found the Headline News channel. She slipped off her trainers and her feet thanked her for the sensation of freedom as she turned her attention to the broadcast. Now what the heck is George W. up to?


Crystal came back up the hall. It had taken her fifteen minutes to set up the bed and get the kids ready for baths. Sydney was washing up in the main bathroom and Davey was waiting his turn and brushing his teeth in the small bathroom off her bedroom.

The sound of the sports part of Headline News could be heard coming from the living room. I wonder if she's a sports fan too? That would be great.Her friend, Trish, couldn't stand sports and Crystal loved most of them.

As she entered the living room, she was greeted with heavy breathing. It wasn't a snore exactly, just the deep slow breathing of heavy sleep. Lauren was pressed back into the cushions of the sofa, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. In sleep, her face seemed relaxed and peaceful and Crystal didn't have the heart to wake her.

She gently removed the remote from where it lay on Lauren's lap and turned the volume down low. She clicked off the lights in the living room, locked the front door and headed back down the hall to the kids. She stopped for a moment and turned around. Lauren's heavy breathing continued rhythmically and for a moment Crystal just watched her sleep. Then she walked to the sofa and draped the afghan sitting on the sofa's back over her guest. She moved a stray lock of hair off Lauren's face. It really is an attractive look for her.

Crystal went back up the hall, hearing the unmistakable sounds of soapy bath water splashing onto the bathroom floor.


Why the Prime Minister of England would be speaking to her about international terrorism, she couldn't say, but he was. Lauren cracked open one eye and saw the news report on Tony Blair. Just the TV,she thought and closed the eye again.

The feeling of mortification warred mightily with the feeling of comfort she had been experiencing only moments before. My apartment, my apartment…please.Opening the same eye that had been open previously, Lauren was confronted with what was the "worst" on her worst possible scenario list. She had fallen asleep on Crystal's couch.

With both eyes now open she took stock of the situation. She was curled up on her side with an afghan covering her from toes to shoulders. If the nearly overwhelming need to finda bathroom wasn't prodding her to get up, she might actually have considered staying there for a while longer.

Giving in to bodily needs, she got up from the couch. The television provided sufficient light to guide her down the hall in a search for the bathroom. Peering in to the first room on the right, she found two kids fast asleep. Davey's room was crowded with all of the boy's things plus the inflatable bed placed on the floor. Looking at the peacefully slumbering children it was hard to imagine they were both afflicted with serious heart problems. They look like anybody else's kids.

Lauren thought a moment. They could be anybody else's kids. It could happen to anyone. Her bladder interrupted her thoughts and she remembered why she had come down the hall in the first place. She continued on her search, passing first by a closed door that proved to be a closet and then a room apparently used for storage before finding the bathroom.

Finishing relieving her most pressing problem, she washed her face and straightened out the parts of her hair that were sticking out sideways. She turned off the light and waited a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dark before she opened the bathroom door again. She walked a few steps further down the hall, wondering if she should tell Crystal she was leaving. She found the blonde in the last bedroom on the right. Muted moonlight beamed softly in through partially open curtains.

Lauren took a step into the bedroom and knew she wouldn't be able to wake Crystal. She smiled as she noticed the blonde slept to one side of the bed, the other side virtually undisturbed. So different from me. She watched Crystal sleep another minute or two, feeling suddenly and inexplicably protective of the other woman.

"Thank you for the hospitality, Crystal," she whispered as she left the room. Her friend slept on as Lauren made her way back to the living room. She folded up the afghan and took her glass into the kitchen. She rinsed it and put the glass in the sink. She returned to the other room and sat briefly on the couch to put her trainers back on. She then picked up her bag and went to the front door.

Opening the door silently, she turned the lock on the knob and let herself out into the cool San Diego night. Making sure the door had locked behind her, Lauren walked to her car, but couldn't shake the feeling she was leaving something special behind her.

Chapter Seven

Swimming. Up from the depths. Lauren had taken a deep breath and dove deep. Now she was surfacing. She did not want to come to the top, but an irresistible force was calling and she was not an immovable object. She reached her hand out to break the surface. Grabbing the phone blindly, she pulled the handset to her.

"Hmmph?" she mumbled.

"Lauren? Oh my gosh, you were still sleeping. I'm so sorry. Go back to sleep; I'll call you back later."

"Crystal?" Lauren asked, her fuzzy mind finally identifying the speaker. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing. Really. Forget I called. I'm so sorry to have woken you," she continued to apologize.

"S'okay, I had to get up to answer the phone anyway. What's up and what time is it?"

"It's almost one o'clock. It's…well, when you weren't on the couch this morning, I got a little concerned. I just wanted to make sure you got home okay," Crystal admitted. "You were pretty tired."

"Yeah, but later I got that second wind I was bragging about. Of course it was after everybody had gone to bed, but I got it. I let myself out, drove home and caught up on cleaning my apartment. I went to bed about nine this morning, but I guess I can't sleep all day."

"Why not?" Crystal asked.

For the life of her, Lauren didn't know. "I don't have a clue. Okay then, with your permission, I'm going to be a sloth for the rest of the day." She turned from her side to her back, bunching her pillow under her head as she did.

"If you think you could drag yourself out of bed by this evening, Davey and I would like to invite you over to supper. I think you got gypped a little last night on the research, even if you were the one doing the gypping," Crystal observed.

The idea of a home-cooked meal appealed to Lauren, especially as it promised to be something other than soup from a can or a microwave meal. "So what's for dinner?" she asked, accepting the invitation.

"I don't know. Sometimes the cooking goddess calls to me and sometimes you get meatloaf.

Lauren laughed. "I'll take whatever there is."

"Okay, I'll see you around six tonight. You can talk andwrite or you can help cook…your choice. Right now I've got to go because I'm committing the eighth deadly sin…using the bank's phone for a personal call."

Lauren smiled. "See you at six, Crystal."


Lauren sat at Crystal's kitchen table watching her friend work at the counter. She never knew making meatloaf could be an art, but the blonde's hands were those of a sculptor. She was forming the meatloaf while portioning in the ingredients without measuring.

"I've never liked cooking, but I always thought if I had a good recipe I might give it a whirl. How much is that anyway?" she asked as her hostess added bread crumbs to the mix.

"Some," Crystal replied honestly.

"Okay, keep me in the dark, Julia Child. See if I mind," Lauren teased.

"No, really, I can't give you specific measurements in cups or teaspoons. That's not the way I learned," she explained

"And what was your method?"

Crystal shrugged. "Same way as I learn anything…hands on." Lauren thought about how long it had been since she had experienced anything 'hands on', but kept it to herself. "I'll show you," the blonde offered.

"Oh no…" Lauren began.

"Oh yes," her friend insisted. "Wash your hands and come over here." Reluctantly the nurse did as she was told.

"To start with, don't be afraid of the food. It doesn't hate you or have mysterious powers. As a matter of a fact, you rule the food. Remember that," Crystal instructed.

"Yes'm," Lauren replied, not at all sure she had been given dominion over the substance in the large mixing bowl. "Now what?"

"Texture. When you're working on something like this it's all about the texture. You have to touch it. Watch…" Crystal put her hands back in the meat mixture, separating the contents in half. On one side of the bowl she work with the mixture, adding a bit more of the bread crumbs until she was happy with the result.

"Okay, that's mine. Now you make your half feel like mine. That's what I mean by texture. You just know when it's right."

Lauren eyed the meat dubiously. "My hands in there? What about e.coli or mad cow?"

"I bought the mad cow free brand. Geez, come on." Crystal reached over and took Lauren's hands. She brought them to her mixture. "Feel this one first." Keeping her hands on top of Lauren's, she watched as the nurse squished the substance between her fingers. "Now this one," Crystal said as she lifted Lauren's hand to the other half of the bowl. "Feel the difference?"

"Yeah," Lauren said. "I see what you mean. Texture."

"Right, now make yours like mine. Use the bowl of bread crumbs." Lauren concentrated on the feeling of the mixture, but didn't miss it when Crystal removed her hands. The contact had been pleasant. She worked until it felt like the one on Crystal's half.

"Done," she announced proudly.

"Great, you're a chef," Crystal said as she picked up the bowl and emptied it into the baking dish.

"Hey, aren't you going to check it? I worked hard on that meatloaf," Lauren whined.

"Lesson Number Two. It's close enough. Come on, time to wash again." Lauren watched Crystal's hands as they washed the mixing bowl with warm soapy water; the same hands that had felt so nice when they touched hers during the mixing. Crystal noticed Lauren watching her.

"What?" she asked.

"Just waiting my turn to wash," Lauren covered, raising her greasy hands. As they were cleaning up, Davey and Sydney came into the kitchen.

The small boy walked over to his mom. "Can we put on the Shrek video?" He looked over at Lauren shyly. "Hi Lauren."

"Hey there, dude. I don't think I've met your friend formally." Lauren indicated Sydney. "Could you introduce her to me?"

"That's just Sydney," Davey said in the voice children get when they have to explain to adults something they think they should already know. Lauren turned to the young girl. Her brown hair had enough red tint in it to remind the nurse of her grandmother. There was a lot of Patsy Cohen in the girl. Lauren stuck out her hand.

"I'm Lauren Cook. I'm a new friend of Davey and Crystal and I'm very pleased to meet you." She shook Sydney's hand, something that caused the little girl to laugh and blush.

"I saw you at the meeting last week. You talked to my grandma."

"You have sharp eyes, young woman. I sure did talk to her and she is a very nice person. So you're going to watch Shrek?" Lauren looked over to Crystal. She nodded.

"Yep, come on, Davey." Davey started to follow his friend out of the kitchen, but stopped and came back to Lauren.

"Lauren, look," he said. Davey opened his mouth and drew back his lips. Using the tip of his tongue, he wiggled his front tooth back and forth.

"Davey!" Crystal began.

"No, no, that's very impressive," the nurse said. "Can I try?" she asked the boy. Davey nodded and held his mouth open. She gently used her index finger to wiggle the tooth. "Not going to have that tooth much longer, that's for sure." The boy glowed with the attention and skipped out of the kitchen.

"Now that's a cute couple of kids," Lauren said to Crystal who had moved to the stove and was placing red skinned potatoes into a pot.

"Yeah, Sydney's a great kid. She tolerates Davey though she's a few years older than him and they seem to like the same things. I like it that their friendship isn't based on the biggest thing they have in common…the heart problems. They're just everyday, normal kids who like video games, riding their bikes and thinking up reasons not to have to go to bed at night."

"So how long is Sydney going to be with you?" the nurse inquired.

"A couple of days I would think," Crystal said, running water over the potatoes and turning the flame on under them. She was unsure, like the night before, of how much to tell her new friend. I guess I'll trust in her discretion. "Patsy has a family problem. She has a daughter who has been in trouble for most of her life. She started running around with the wrong crowd at a young age and got into drugs pretty heavily from there. Patsy's husband had passed away and she was working fulltime to keep their home together." She placed a lid over the potatoes, tilting it sideways slightly to allow the steam to vent.

"She got busted a year ago for possession with intent to sell and got three years out in the women's prison at Chowchilla. The judge suspended the sentence and put her on probation, mostly because of Sydney and the fact that she was willing to go into rehab." Crystal and Lauren took seats at the kitchen table.

"The minute she got released from jail though, she went back to making the same mistakes and that got her probation revoked. Six months ago she was sent to Chowchilla to do all the time remaining on her sentence," Crystal confided.

"So Patsy has had Sydney fulltime since then?" Lauren asked. Crystal nodded. "I bet she didn't think she'd be raising a second family at this time of her life."

Crystal smiled wryly. "She said that this was the last thing she expected to be doing in her 'golden years'. She thought she'd be sitting around in a lawn chair honing her gardening skills. That dream was pretty much shot to hell the day Sydney was born. She has had to take Sydney in off and on since she was a baby. Candy, that's Patsy's daughter, has been strung out, in trouble with the law or just plain ignoring the little girl for a long time." Crystal got up and removed four plates from a nearby cupboard.

"When Candy went to jail this time though, Patsy had to step up in a more formal way. She's Sydney's legal guardian now and she's looking into ways she might be able to adopt her outright. Candy won't object, half the time she doesn't even know the girl exists." Crystal kept her voice down so only the two of them would hear it.

"What is Sydney's heart problem?' the nurse asked.

Crystal turned the flame down under the potatoes. "Shehas cardiomyopathy from a bacterial infection she got as a baby. Candy knew she was sick, but waited too long to take her to the doctor. Patsy was the one who finally got Sydney the help she needed."

Lauren listened to Crystal's tale with dismay. She had heard it all too often at the hospital. Kids neglected and abused by parents who should know better. Pediatrics was Lauren's favorite party of nursing, but the frustration of dealing with people who put kids in danger because of their stupidity or cruelty,could be overwhelming. More than once she had clenched her jaw when kids were returned to parents who couldn't raise a houseplant, much less a child.

"That's a tough break for Sydney," Lauren said. "Thank goodness she has someone like Patsy to show her the love and attention she needs. Have you heard from Patsy today?"

"Not today," Crystal replied. "But she said it might be a day or two. There was some kind of problem at the prison, that's all she knew. It was actually Candy's attorney who contacted her and asked her to come out."

"Let me know if there's anything I can do," Lauren offered. "I have the weekend off so if you need me to watch the kids or anything like that, just let me know."

"Thanks for the offer, but we're fine for right now," Crystal assured her.

Lauren just watched as Crystal checked the oven and the potatoes. "You guys are amazing. How do you and Patsy handle things day to day?"

"Neither of us knows any other way. This is all part of what makes up our 'normal' life. The medications, monitoring Davey's fluids, watching for signs that fluid is accumulating in his feet, hands or lungs…it's all part of our routine. I watch Davey's color and check his pulse. It's as much a piece of his routine as brushing his teeth and combing his hair."

"But what about what that all means? You aren't just supervising his grooming, you're watching for signs that his heart is failing. That's a hell of a lot more than most parents have to do," Lauren observed.

Crystal thought a moment. "If I didn't make all that stuff part of Davey's routine, I would want to put him in a plastic bubble. If I didn't treat this like no big deal, I would be buying myself a one-way ticket to Nervous Breakdown-ville. I already have a ticket to Wrinkle City, I don't need the whole tour."

Though she knew Crystal was kidding, Lauren found herself searching the blonde's face anyway and liking what she saw there. Stop it, Lauren. If you don't watch out you'll be a lesbian stereotype…gay woman with a crush on a straight girl.

The racket from the living room broke into the nurse's thoughts.

"Mom!" Davey cried.

"Crystal!" Sydney echoed. Crystal didn't hesitate, but took off for the other room at a run. Sydney was standing over Davey who was facedown on the floor with his arm twisted out from him at an awkward angle.

"Davey, oh my God, what happened?" Crystal cried as she rushed to her son's side.

"He was jumping on the couch when the movie was on and one time he missed," Sydney supplied. The reason was clear as both of Davey's socks had apparently wiggled down and were now flopped over on his feet like the ears of a basset hound.

Lauren's training kicked in and she thought of the traumatic possibilities. Blunt head trauma, lacerated spleen, extremity fracture…

"Got it!" Davey said triumphantly, pulling his arm out from under the couch and sitting up. When I was jumping and I missed that one time, my teeth hit each other and it came out!" Davey held his arm out with the palm up and showed them his prize. There in his hand was his upper right front tooth.

"That is so cool!" he exclaimed with a slight lisp on the 's'. His smile seemed all the wider with the large gap in front where his tooth would have been.


"My meatloaf was pretty good, huh?" Lauren asked for the twentieth time.

For the twentieth time Crystal responded, "It was delicious; I couldn't have done better myself." The women were loading the dishwasher and scrubbing the pots and pans. They worked together in a comfortable harmony.

"And that's that," Lauren commented as she washed, rinsed and handed the last pot to Crystal who wiped it off and returned it to its home in a low cupboard.

"You want a cup of coffee or tea?" Crystal offered. "I usually have something in the evening."

"Whatever you're having will be fine. I'm more of a tea drinker though."

"Sounds good. Go ahead and sit at the table; I'll bring it over." Crystal filled an old-fashioned teakettle and put it over a flame on the stove. She removed a few objects from the cupboard and refrigerator. "I'll just make a pot of my favorite."

Lauren was content to watch Crystal putter in the kitchen. "This was fun," the nurse said. "I know we're supposed to be working, but I have to tell you, I'm really enjoying your company. I think I've let myself become a little bit of a hermit."

Crystal took two large mugs and placed milk and honey in the bottom. "I can relate. Sometimes I think I've forgotten how to interact with anybody over six years old in my personal life. If it's any consolation, I'm enjoying your company too." She glanced over to the brunette at the table and smiled shyly. "I'm not psychic or anything, but I've got a feeling I'm going to know you a lot longer than it takes to write your thesis. That's a good thing, right?"

"That's a very good thing," Lauren said with conviction.

This time the smiles held until the whistling of the teakettle interrupted them.

"One cup of Bengal Spice tea coming right up," the blonde announced as she moved to the noisy appliance and turned the flame off, effectively ending the moment.

Lauren watched Crystal make the tea and put some of her fabulous chocolate chip cookies on a plate. She is absolutely terrific. She is a wonderful person, a great mom, excellent friend…Oh my God! I've got a crush on her already.She was equally excited and dismayed at the prospect.


Lauren had driven off in her yellow Mustang and Crystal had finished getting the kids ready for bed. She had put a dollar under Davey's pillow for the tooth and now she was in the living room, channel surfing. The lower numbered channels on her cable system were full of the usual late-night talk shows. As she surfed into the higher numbers she hit the premium channels. She had a few; the bigger packages were a luxury she couldn't afford. She put down the remote and picked up the television guide in the local newspaper to find a relaxing movie to top off one of the best days she'd had in a long time.

Unique Film Channel. Better than Chocolate. Hmm, must be a movie about cooking. Oh what the heck.Crystal picked up the remote.

Chapter Eight

Lauren's eyes stung as she left the patient's room. The family would remain behind for a while; it was never easy to leave. She went to the nurse's station to deal with the interminable paperwork.

Lauren had done a rotation through Labor and Delivery when she was in nursing school. Very soon after birth, footprints and fingerprints had been taken on the newborn. Document and certificate creation started almost from the first breath. It was the same at the other end of the span of life. Documentation in the nurse's notes, a note by the resident on the physical findings, mandatory notification of the Organ Donor Network and a filling out of the expiration paperwork and release of body form. So much paperwork before a life could officially be over. The life of a child.

Quesha Southard had been in the Pediatric ICU many times. As a pediatric AIDS patient, she had run the gamut of problems in her short twelve years of life. Her very first problem was a mother who passed on HIV to her and then passed care of her to the State.

California had enacted a law attempting to decrease the amount of "dumpster babies", infants that had been born and then thrown away. The law said a mother could drop off an infant in any Emergency Room and it would be taken in, no questions asked. It was the last consideration Quesha's birth mother had given her.

HIV positive babies aren't very popular on the adoption scene. Even with the new medications and combination of medications, having an HIV positive child is no walk in the park. Quesha's neighborhood didn't even have a park. A foster family took Quesha in and what love and attention she had lacked at birth, she received in vast quantities afterward.

The Southard's were an older black, middle class family who recognized the blessing of having raised two healthy children and now never had less than two special needs children welcomed into their house. The unhealthy, unclaimed and unwanted had passed through the doors of their family home. Sometimes it was a baby with a cleft palate or lip who would be adopted out after being tube fed and then loved through a difficult surgery. Sometimes it was an emotionally troubled child saved from an abusive situation. Sometimes it was a child like Quesha.

Quesha had been with them the longest and had maybe had the roughest road, except for the day her adoption by the Southard's was made official. She had survived pneumonia, systemic infections and the variety of other HIV related problems, the worst of which occurred when Quesha was eleven. She became nauseated and bloated and a CAT scan and biopsy found lymphoma. The cancer was malignant and the little girl with big brown eyes started on an aggressive course of chemotherapy. She was a quiet child and rarely complained. Her expressive eyes would watch Lauren and the other nurses as they did their work. They found themselves trying to coax smiles from the shy youngster. Quesha weathered the chemotherapy and was discharged home after several stays in the Pediatric ICU including one when she had developed blood clots in her legs which then traveled to her lungs. She had barely survived that episode.

She hadn't been home forty-eight hours when Mrs. Southard had walked into her room to find Quesha unconscious. That had been only a day ago and this night they had learned the truth. At age twelve, Quesha Southard had suffered a massive stroke. The young girl who had started life with little hope finally had none at all.

Lauren had entered Quesha's room earlier in her shift to find the girl's parents talking softly.

"You know, Inez, God gave us Quesha to love and watch over while she was on this earth," James had said. "I guess he's ready for her to come home now and take that job himself. We've got to let her go." Inez Southard had turned into her husband's arms and sobbed. Lauren quietly withdrew and Quesha's parents stayed with her until, without ever regaining consciousness, she passed away.

Lauren glanced up at the clock and realized it would be another hour before sunrise. Just hold it together another hour or two, Lauren. Just another hour or two.The door to Quesha's room opened and Inez and James Southard emerged.

"We're leaving now," James said. "Thank you and please tell the othernurses how muchwe appreciatewhat you all did for Quesha."

"I will," Lauren assured him. She went over and took each of their hands in turn. "Quesha was a very special little girl." Inez was silent as her husband seemed to be trying to find words, any words at all. He nodded.

"Take care of our baby," he said finally in voice thick with emotion. As Lauren watched the couple leave, she felt the liquid proof on her cheek that holding it together was going to prove impossible.


Crystal had been trying to work up the courage to speak to Trish all day. She knew she could usually trust her with anything, but this topic might be a little touchy. Trish was a wonderful friend, but occasionally her religious views got in the way of discussing some subjects.

And this subject might be one of them. It's that movie; I couldn't take my eyes off it. I don't understand why it made me so…needy. Is there something wrong with me?

Crystal tried a gentle probe to test the waters. "Um, I was thinking of taking Davey to the beach this weekend, but I guess I'll need to take another route from the way I usually go. Think this Saturday is the Gay Pride Parade."

Trish was attempting to balance her cash drawer. "Eighty dollars off. Where are you, eighty bucks?" She looked up at Crystal. "Go north and catch the freeway, that would be easiest I think." She furrowed her brow. "Are those people marching again? It seems to me like they did the same thing only a few months ago."

"Maybe I was wrong about which group it was; I just saw something briefly about it on the news." Crystal fibbed, noting Trish's use of the words "those people". Both women turned their attention back to the work they'd need to complete before going home.

"Gotcha!" Trish announced. "I didn't enter the money order I cashed this morning. I'm balanced." Crystal smiled over at her friend, knowing how frustrating it could be to get everything to come out right on certain days. "You ready to go?" Trish asked.

"Yep I'm good," Crystal answered. They took their cash drawers to the vault and locked both of them inside under the watchful eye of the branch manager. They got their belongings together and left the bank.

"I don't understand all this marching business anyway," Trish said as they reached their cars. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't care what anybody else does with their life, but if you're gay, why can't you just keep it to yourself? You don't see me marching because I'm straight."

Crystal thought there might be a few more reasons for the Gay Pride March, but she kept quiet. She didn't want to end the day in a debate.

I'll talk to somebody else about it.


Lauren woke with scratchy and tired eyes, a sure sign that she hadn't slept nearly enough. She had a powerful yearning to go back to sleep, but a quick peek at the clock showed that she would need to get up for work in another hour anyway. She had tossed and turned most of the day despite having the room dark and cool like she preferred it.

She rolled to her left side from her right and looked at the empty half of her queen-sized bed. She missed having someone she could talk to about the nights that were stressful or traumatic. Talking about the difficult nights sometimes helped her not to relive them in her dreams all day, like she had this day. Images of Quesha's last hours replayed over and over in her mind.

She clicked on the lamp sitting on the table next to her bed and squinted at the intrusion of light. Sitting up, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over her dresser. Dark circles graced the area under her eyes and the only word to describe her appearance was "haggard".

Lauren trudged to the bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror there. The visual wasn't enhanced by the addition of even harsher illumination. Look at that…patriotic eyes. Red, white and blue. Standing there a few moments more, she came to a decision.

Screw it, what's sick time for anyway?She walked back into the bedroom, picked up the phone and called the hospital.


Crystal had picked up Davey and Sydney from hermother's house. Georgieand Dave Jenkinswere supportive of their daughter and her struggle with her son's condition. The blonde tried not to rely too heavily on her parents though, feeling it was up to her to manage on her own. She was determined not be one of those women who asked her parents to raise her children. The Jenkinsprovided after school care for Crystal and shewas both grateful for the help and determined that her mom and dad wouldn't need to give her anything else. She wanted them to just be able to be grandparents and not caregivers.

As she pulled into her driveway, she recognized a car parked there. So did Sydney.

"Grandma!" she screamed and leaped from the minivan as soon as it came to a stop. She ran up to Patsy and hugged her hard as soon as the redheaded woman extricated herself from her car.

"I thought you'd call first," Crystal remarked as she stepped from her vehicle. She got in line to get a hug from her friend.

"I was going to give you a heads up before I got here, but once I started driving I had so much on my mind I was here before I realized it." She looked a bit uncomfortable as she glanced toward her granddaughter. "Sydney, honey, why don't you take Davey and start collecting your things? I want to get home soon and sleep in my own bed again. That darn hotel mattress has caused the arthritis in my back to kick up again."

Okay, Grandma," Sydney said as she deposited her small pink school backpack at her grandmother's feet. "It won't take me very long."

"Take your time, sweetpea. I want to catch up with Crystal a bit before we go." The young girl headed into the house with Davey close behind her. "She's a sight for sore eyes, Crystal."

"She was good as gold while you were gone too. She and Davey were thick as thieves. Neither one wants to admit it, but I think they both wish they had a brother or sister." Crystal avoided the subject of Patsy's absence; she figured the woman would bring it up if and when she wanted to. Apparently Patsy wanted to at that moment.

"It was horrible, Crystal." Patsy sagged against her car. "She's done it this time; she's really done it." Patsy glanced toward the house. "And it's Sydney who's going to pay the price." Crystal waited for Patsy to elaborate.

"Candy has been in trouble out at the prison before. You would think that a place that can keep seven hundred and fifty women inside would be able to keep drugs outside. No such luck. Candy has been written up for drugs three times already and that would be bad enough, but apparently she was helping to sell the drugs to the other inmates to earn enough to pay for hers."

"Oh Patsy, I'm so sorry."

"That's not all though, Crystal. I can talk about it now, but all I've done the last few days is cry about it. She killed another inmate over those damn drugs. She told me it was self-defense, but there were plenty of witnesses that it was just cold-blooded murder. She'll have another trial for the killing of course. Her lawyer isn't hopeful at all and told me to expect the worst." Tears welled in Patsy's eyes.

"When Candywas eighteen she was arrested for breaking into a store in a strip mall with a few other people. She was drunk or high, maybe both, and they trashed the place pretty badly. Anyway, she was convicted,but because it was her first brush with the law as an adult, she was given a fine and ordered to pay restitution and do community service. I almost didn't remember about it until the lawyer reminded me." Patsy's voice had the tone of a woman who had heard much worse.

"It was a felony, Crystal. Even though she didn't go to jail that time it was a felony. Along with the drug conviction and now the killing, that makes three." The realization of what Patsy was saying struck her then. Candy had committed the third felony in a state with a "three strikes" law. Three strikes and you are out. Candy would never leave prison again.


Lauren sat on the couch trying to find something entertaining on the television. What a wasteland! She flipped the set off and tossed the remote on the coffee table. She had been vacillating between feeling justified that she had called in sick and feeling guilty for the same reason.

Ram seemed to sense his human's distress and made one of his rare comforting visits. He jumped onto the couch and settled next to her, purring as she began a rhythmic stroking of his soft fur.

"I must be really pathetic if you're taking pity on me," she said to the cat. Her repetitive motion stilled as she spoke and the feline nudged her hand to start the attention again. The cat twisted its body, never allowing Lauren's hand to leave its head, until he was on his back.

"I know what you want," she told the cat and began a gentle scratching of the feline's chest. "Ever since you were a kitten, this has been your favorite. Do I know you or what? You're a cat hair depositing, repulsive food eating bag of fur, but I love you, Ram. Want to hear about my night?" The cat's eyes drooped slowly shut. "Is that a no?" Lauren kept up the scratching, finding the interaction with the cat somehow as soothing to herself as it obviously was to Ram.

Lauren allowed her eyes to close as well. She could feel her body relax in the way it always did before she fell asleep and she welcomed the sensation. No dreams this time,she silently begged.

A moment later she was pulled from sleep by the ringing of the telephone. The digital readout of the time on her VCR showed that the moment of sleep had actually lasted three hours. Ram was nowhere to be seen. She reached over to the phone, wondering who would be calling her at almost eleven at night.

"Hello?" she said after pulling the portable phone from its base.

"Lauren? What are you doing home? I thought you were working and I'd get your machine." Crystal's voice was as welcome as an oasis in the desert. The nurse pulled a small blanket from the back of the couch and arranged it over her lower body.

"I was supposed to be at work. I called in sick though."

"Are you okay? Do you need anything?" Crystal asked.

"I'm fine," Lauren assured her. "This was a mental health night off. Things were a little stressful last night. What are you doing up so late?" There was a hesitation on the other end of the line.

"I had kind of a stressful day myself. I…I'm not sure why I called you when I thought you'd be at work. I guess I couldn't think of anyone as easy to talk to as you. I thought maybe I'd leave a message and ask you to call me tomorrow or maybe…I don't know. I sound pretty lame, don't I?"

Lauren smiled sleepily. "I don't think I'd say that. To be honest, I'd have called you earlier tonight if my sleep-deprived brain had been working right. Oddly enough I'm available now though if you're not too tired."

"I'm not certain I could sleep much anyway. You're sure I'm not imposing on you?" Crystal asked. Ram appeared then. He had been sitting on the sill behind the curtain of the living room window. He ignored her as he made his way to the spare room where his litter box was located. Lauren saluted him as he passed, acknowledging his continued domination of the residence.

"I'm sure. Now, what's up?"

Chapter Nine

"You're a terrible influence on me," Crystal observed. "And I'd just like to thank you for that."

"Hey, if God didn't want us to eat ice cream at midnight, he wouldn't have invented the all night grocery store, right?" Lauren asked as she spooned another scoop of mint chocolate chip from her pint. The San Diego night was mild and pleasant and the two women sat on the front steps of Crystal's house. The neighborhood was quiet and illuminated dimly in the soft orange glow of the streetlamps.

"Now there's a religious philosophy I can get behind," Crystal concurred. Her pint of Rocky Road was nearly half gone. Lauren deciding to come over and talk instead of chatting on the phone was unexpected; her idea to stop for ice cream was inspired.

"So we both agreed on the phone that today sucked, right?" the nurse asked. At Crystal's nod she continued, "So you want to go first or should I?"

Crystal looked at the amount left in her pint as compared to her friend's. The teller had more. "You go first," she decided. Noting the factor in Crystal's decision, Lauren had to agree.

"Okay, well last night was one of those nights that make me both question why I ever became a nurse and at the same time tells me I absolutely made the right choice. There was a little girl named Quesha…" For the next fifteen minutes Crystal listened as Lauren told Quesha's story.

"And that's why my night sucked. I saw Quesha a thousand times in what I'll loosely call sleep today." Lauren noted that Crystal still had more ice cream left than she did. "I hope this doesn't mean I have to keep talking." Crystal looked into her rapidly melting Rocky Road; she hadn't realized just when she had stopped eating and became absorbed in Lauren's story. She put the container on the step and turned concerned eyes to her friend.

"I don't know how you do it. I don't think I could stand that all the time," she said.

Lauren laughed lightly. "That's what I thought about your life, so I'm going to tell you something you said to me. It's not like that every day. You don't spend every moment dwelling on the fact that Davey has a heart condition and I don't expect to have my soul shredded by a little girl dying before she ever really had the chance to have a life. We deal with it and our life continues. Maybe we have to take a little time out now and again…that's what I did tonight. It doesn't mean I won't be right back in there on my next day to work. It doesn't mean you give up hope for Davey."

"I get it. That's pretty sneaky, using my own words."

"Not using…reminding. Don't worry about me; I'll be fine. I appreciate you letting me talk about it though. It'll really cut down on the amount of time it will take me to get to fine." Lauren set her container beside her friend's. "So what happened with you?"

Crystal hesitated. "Well, it was Patsy actually who really had a couple of bad days. It looks like her daughter's problems are going to be a heck of a lot more serious than she initially thought." She briefly caught Lauren up on the things Patsy had told her that afternoon.

"So what is Patsy going to do now?" the nurse asked.

Crystal shrugged. "What can she do? She's going to go back to court to get full custody of Sydney and not just be her legal guardian. Candy isn't going to fight it."

"That's rough. No other alternatives?"

"Nope. Patsy has only had Candy and Sydney since her husband's death. Patsy knows she has to line up alternatives for childcare and I promised to be one of the people she could count on if she needed to be away like she did the last few days. There are a few other people in the support group she's going to ask also. The better your plan, the better it looks when you go before the judge,she told me."

"That's nice of you. Patsy's lucky to have someone like you that she knows she can count on. I'm a little curious though. Other than it making your friend upset, how did that news make your day suck? You said on the phone that it had been a stressful day." Lauren felt there was something else Crystal wanted to talk about, but was holding back. The nurse knew she might not talk about what was bothering her, but she was going to give her friend every opportunity to do so.

Crystal was sure Lauren could see her blush, even in the muted light of the streetlamps. One of the lights flickered out suddenly and Crystal was amused. "I still have the power."

"Huh?" Lauren asked, clearly stumped.

"When I was a kid, I thought if I rode my bicycle by a streetlight and it went out that I caused it. I thought I had some magnetic power or something. Pretty crazy, huh?"

Lauren smiled. "Maybe it was the bicycle," she ventured.

Crystal snickered briefly. "Maybe. I can really tell you anything, can't I? You're really going to be that kind of friend, aren't you?"

"I hope so," Lauren said seriously. "I'd like to be that for you. I don't know what it is about you, but I know we have a kind of connection between us. I haven't got a clue why it is, but I'm hoping you feel the same way. This is going to sound really lame otherwise."

Crystal stood up and walked a little way out into her front yard. "I never had a friend like that before. Oh, don't get me wrong, I've had friends, but not the kind I could tell absolutely everything to. Maybe I just never trusted anybody enough." She pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "I'd like to trust you."

"I wouldn't have come over at midnight if I didn't want you to trust me. What is it? You can tell me," Lauren urged.

Crystal walked closer to Lauren and lowered her voice. "I watched a movie."

"A movie. Okay, what movie?"

The blonde lowered her eyes. "Better than Chocolate. Ever heard of that one?"

A small light went on in Lauren's mind. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew what was going on in Crystal's thoughts. "I think I've seen that one, yeah." She waited, knowing her friend would speak at her own pace.

"Well I hadn't," Crystal said as she began a slow pace in front of the nurse. "It was surprising. No, that's not right. I was surprised about me…how I reacted." Crystal put her hands over her eyes and groaned. "This is so stupid." Lauren knew then she was right. She also knew it was time she was open about herself to Crystal.

"Crystal, before you go any further, there's something I need to tell you. I'm not sure what assumptions you made about me and I'm not sure what assumptions I let you make, but I should tell you I'm gay. I like you and I hope this doesn't make any difference to you." She'd said it, now she waited for whatever reaction was to come.

Crystal stopped her pacing and moved back to Lauren again. "Difference? Of course it makes a difference. Here I was thinking I would just talk about this rather interesting feeling I had and it turns out maybe you can give me some real help here. Why didn't you tell me before? Okay, maybe it was none of my business. So what do you think?"

Lauren was trying to keep up, but was losing ground rapidly. "Um, about what?"

The blondestood still and reviewed what she had said. "Oh yeah, I guess I never did spell out what was going on. Sorry about that." She joined Lauren on the steps again and looked out toward the street, trying to order her thoughts in some way.

"That movie…I don't know, it caused a response in me that I wasn't prepared for and was surprised by. Since Sean, I haven't really thought about my own…needs. I guess sometimes I usedDavey as an excuse not to get back out there, but in truth I wasn't all that interested in the physical side of a relationshipthat much anyway. I guess my sex life with Sean was okay, I really didn't have much to compare it with." She stopped here.

"God, I can't believe I'm telling you all this, but I've started and there's no reason to stop now." Taking a deep breath, she continued. "Well anyway, I was watching that movie and when the scene with those two women together came on; it peaked my interest." She glanced over at Lauren to make sure she understood what she was saying.

"You were aroused by it," Lauren paraphrased.

"Yeah," Crystal replied in a tone of confession.

"Good for you," the nurse said. "It goes to show you aren't dead and that you haven't lost being a woman in being a mom and a good employee. That's a good thing."

"What about it being two women that did it for me? What do you think that means?"

Lauren nudged her friend. "Of course I'm going to think it's wonderful, but then again I'm prejudiced. I just think you shouldn't worry about it. Sexual excitement is normal and healthy and I think you should be happy to know you're still interested in it."

"But I've never had that kind of reaction to a woman before. I don't think…"

"Oh Christ," Lauren interrupted in exasperation. "Look, do you suddenly have an urge to go out and meet a woman? To start dating and have a relationship?"

"Well, no, I hadn't thought about it," Crystal said.

"I didn't think so. A very beautiful scene of two attractive adults enjoying each other in a physical way turned you on. The movie industry will be happy that they succeeded in getting that response from you, but Crystal, being gay is a lot more than responding to a sex scene in a film."

Crystal smiled sheepishly. "I suppose you're right. Maybe what intrigued me was that I never defined myself as straight or gay. I mean, I didn't consciously rule out women sexually, I just never considered them."

"The union will be so disappointed to have missed out on you."

The blonde laughed. "I've been a little idiotic, haven't I?"

"No, you've been a little human and there's nothing wrong with that. So, are you better now?" Lauren asked.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good, well my workhere is done. I'm going to head on home and let you get on to bed. You have to work in the morning," Lauren said as she rose and fished her car keys from her pocket. She walked over to her car with Crystal accompanying her.

"I think I may take a page from your book and take a mental health day. Thanks for the ice cream and the talk. I needed that reality check," the blonde said as Lauren climbed into her Mustang.

"Not a problem; what are friends for?"

"To talk sense into someone being a bit foolish I think. Thank you, friend," Crystal said. She leaned into the car and gave the nurse a quick peck on the cheek. "Drive carefully, okay?"

"I will. Give me a call when you get the time today. I'd like to schedule that observation session."

"You got it. Goodnight, Lauren."

"Night, Crystal." Lauren started the car, turned on the headlights and eased up the street. Almost unconsciously she reached up to touch the spot that Crystal had kissed.

Crystal returned to the steps and picked up the ice cream containers and the spoons, recalling Lauren's words as she went. Start dating and have a relationship. She glanced in the direction that Lauren's car had gone even though she knew the taillights would no longer be visible.


Lauren was working on her computer, organizing her outline for the thesis, when the phone rang. It seemed she had been waiting for the phone to ring all day though she would have denied it if asked. She had left Crystal's physical presence during the night, but the blonde had stayed with her all day in her mind


"Hey Lauren, it's Crystal."

"Hey there, how are you feeling?"

"Not bad considering I've got that twenty-four hour flu that's going around. At least that's what my boss thinks. I've felt almost decadent today. I don't think I could do this very often, but I enjoyed the extra day off. I got a lot of work done around the house too. With Davey in school I didn't have any distractions and I got several things done on my long 'to do' list."

"It was worth it then?"

"Definitely, so thanks for the idea. That's the reason I'm calling. I'd like to pay you back for the company last night and the good idea for today. My parents called and said they have oranges on their tree that need to get picked. The branches are getting so heavy that they will snap off if some of the weight isn't taken off. How would you like a bag?"

The thought of fresh, juicy oranges appealed to the nurse. "Oh man, that sounds great. You sure it isn't any trouble to get them?"

"I told Davey to just get on the bus as usual when I dropped him off this morning. It takes him right by my mom and dad's house and I usually pick him up there. Now I will have to reach up a little to get the oranges, but I think I can handle it. You working tonight?"

"Nope, one of my co-workers needed the weekend off so I traded her some time. I don't work until Saturday. I could swing by later and pick them up. I have a couple of chores I still need to get done," Lauren commented.

"You weren't as productive as I wastoday, huh?" Crystal teased. "I'm going to get Davey and the oranges in a bit. If you want to come over, you can have supper with us…if you don't have plans of course," she added quickly.

"Hang on while I check my pressing social calendar." There was a fraction of a second's hesitation. "Gee, it appears I'm free. How about I trade you some Chinese food for those oranges. I think it's about time I provided the food."

"A day off andno cooking? I'm going to get spoiled."

An unexpectedly protective feeling surged through Lauren at Crystal's words. She needs someone to spoil her. "So is there anything in particular you like? I like to get my Chinese at this great little hole in the wall place over on Crabtree Street."

"Two Wongs Make it Right? I've heard that place is fantastic. Davey and I don't get to eat out much, but that's one of the places I've always wanted to try. Davey will eat anything with chicken in it and I like most everything. Just get what you like; I'm sure it will be fine."

The women hung up and Lauren headed to the shower. The prospect of spending more time with the blonde was exciting. As she turned the water on she thought again about the time she had spent with Crystal the night before. More and more she was finding herself drawn to the blonde and the pull was nearly irresistible. Lauren reached out and turned the water to cold.

Chapter 10

"Hey Stewart, how's business?"

"I can't complain, Lauren. Your order will be up in a minute." Stewart Wong and his brother, Truman, were third generation Chinese and were the epitome of American businessmen. Armed with Stewart's degree in business and Truman's flair in the kitchen, they had opened Two Wongs Make it Right to rave reviews from customers and critics alike. It was only takeout and delivery, the Wong brothers never wanted to be slaves to their business.

Lauren paid the bill and Stewart placed the hotboxes into a large white paper bag. "Walnut Shrimp, Vegetable Foo Yung, House Fried Rice and Muu Shu Chicken. Either you're really hungry or you've got company."

"Just treating some friends to a little of your wonderful food." She watched as the man added packets of soy sauce, hot mustard, fortune cookies and a plastic container of plum sauce for the Muu Shu to the bag.

"Stewart, do you still have some of those special fortune cookies?" The businessman looked up in surprise.

"It's been a while since you asked for them. Must be a really special friend," Stewart speculated as he reached into a bin beneath the counter. He dropped two fortune cookies into the bag. "The special ones have the red printing, remember?"

"Vaguely," Lauren said and winked.


As soon as Crystal opened the door, Lauren knew something was wrong. Her friend's body language was different than it had been at any time in the past.

"What's wrong?" Lauren said, entering the house as the blonde held the door open wider.

"I'm mad, that's what's wrong. How are you, by the way?"

"I'm good," Lauren replied, "But you obviously aren't. Care to share what's put a burr under your saddle?"

"Davey…and this." Crystal held up an envelope. "This came home pinned to him today." She handed the envelope to Lauren. "Go ahead and read it; it's from his teacher."

Lauren pulled a single sheet from the envelope. It was printed with the name and address of Freeman Elementary School.

Dear Ms. O'Brien,

I just wanted to bring to your attention that Davey is doing it again. He was out at recess playing a game of tag with his classmates when he started doing the same thing we've talked about before. I would appreciate you talking to Davey about this again.

If you have any questions or if I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to call me.

Vicky Weaver

Lauren looked up at Crystal. "Davey has been acting up in school?"

"Not acting up, just acting." At Lauren's confused look, the teller clarified the situation. "At the start of the school year, I had a meeting with Davey's teacher and the school nurse. Vicky is a great person and a good teacher. I explained about Davey's condition and when I need to be called. We talked about the kind of symptoms he might show if he was having problems. You know, squatting and panting, dusky color and being excessively tired."

Lauren nodded and they made their way to the kitchen. She put the bag with the food on the table there.

"Well, Davey is no dummy. He knows the teacher and a few of the other students know about his heart problem. The Hypoplastic Heart Syndrome isn't anything I think should be hidden from the teacher and he's told a couple of friends. A couple of months ago I got a phone call from Vicky. Davey was playing a game with some of his friends outside and apparently his team was losing. The next thing Vicky knows, Davey is squatting down and panting a little. Game over; panicked call to me at work."

The light was beginning to dawn on Lauren. "Let me guess…Davey was fine."

"Better than fine. When I got to the school he was kicking back in the nurse's office, playing with her tongue depressors. This was the first time I had been called to the school and my worry over-ruled my common sense. In the back of my mind I knew he'd been faking, but I was more relieved than anything. We talked about how important it was for him not to exaggerate or 'make believe' when it came to his health. I thought he understood and that we wouldn't have any more problems. We didn't, until today."

Lauren was unpacking the bag, careful to keep the fortune cookies inside and near the chair she planned to sit in. "So you've talked to him about this already?"

"Not yet, I was too irritated to speak to him before. I don't want to be mad when I talk to him; this is too important for him not to listen because I'm angry." Crystal brought a kettle of tea to the table and a carton of milk. "Go ahead, sit down. I'm going to call Davey." Crystal left the kitchen and Lauren opened the hotboxes, placing them directly on the table. She pulled the fortune cookies out of the bag and placed two with red printing and one with black printing in a small pile next to her plate.

The fortune cookies with red printing were ones with a romantic theme and the black printing indicated the regular cookies Two Wongs used. Originally used for a Valentine's Day promotion, the ones in red printing remained popular with customers who knew about them. Lauren would have Stewart put two of the cookies in her order when she was with Rachel. It was just something silly and romantic and Lauren hadn't felt like getting any of them in a long time.

If Crystal has any questions about her preferences maybe 'the fates' can lend her a hand.Guilt assailed her momentarily, but it was quickly replaced by the certainty that she couldn't come right out and tell Crystal she was attracted to her. The whole concept is too new to her. No sense scaring her off. Something as subtle as a fortune cookie is a much better idea and if I get a romantic one too, she won't think it's a set up.She was satisfied with her plan and was retrieving serving spoons for the boxes when Crystal and Davey entered the kitchen.

"Fortune cookies! Cool!" Davey said as he grabbed for one. One with red printing was in his hand before Lauren could do anything about it.

"Davey, don't you open that up until after dinner," Crystal instructed. Davey frowned,but put the unopened cookie next to his own plate. Lauren eyed the situation with dismay, but was determined to give Crystal the other cookie with red printing.

"You might as well take yours now too," the nurse said casually as she handed the other red printed cookie to Crystal.

"No way! It's an old family tradition…if you touch the fortune, it's yours. I'll take this one." She reached past Lauren and took the only one left on the table, one with black printing.

Let that be a lesson for me,Lauren thought wryly. If things are meant to be, they're meant to be. Maybe I'll remember that the next time I try to mess with destiny. I sure hope Davey will enjoy knowing true love is right around the corner!

Dinner was spooned out of the hotboxes and Lauren enjoyed showing Crystal and Davey how to put together the Muu Shu Chicken. "It's like a Chinese burrito," she explained as she picked up one of the thin pancakes. "Put some plum sauce on it and scoop the chicken and vegetable mixture on top. Roll it up and there you are." The meal was progressing nicely, the conversation enjoyable and comfortable.

About halfway through, Crystal spoke to Davey. "I got a letter from Miss Weaver today. She said you were pretending to be having problems when you're outside playing games with the other kids." She gave her son the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

"It's not fair, Mom. I'm the smallest one in the class. I can never win the games and if I get close to winning I get tired sometimes." Lauren's heart went out to the little boy and the frustration he had to deal with on a regular basis. Crystal was a different story though.

"Your heart muscle is small, not your brain. Are you telling me it's impossible for you to win any kind of game?"

"No," Davey said in a small voice. Lauren said nothing, but watched as Crystal dealt with the boy.

"It's not the game that's the problem, Davey. What were you doing today that Miss Weaver had to write me a note?"

Davey's eyes dropped to his plate. "We were playing tag and I was 'it'. I couldn't catch the other kids so I pretended I was sick and when they came over to me I tagged them." The nurse had to turn away for a moment to suppress a smile. She thought Davey's ingenuity was admirable, but knew Crystal had an important lesson to impart to her son.

"A few weeks ago you were in the hospital and Dr. Larry had to work on your heart. You were really sick then and the only way I knew it was watching you and figuring out that something was wrong. When you pretend to be sick and you aren't, nobody can tell when you may really need to go to the hospital or see the doctor." Davey had no reply and Lauren knew Crystal was right; Davey was smart. He knew he'd done the wrong thing.

Crystal continued. "I can't take the chance that you may need help one day and somebody will say, 'oh, he's just pretending'. You know you did the wrong thing, don't you?"

Davey looked at her. "Yeah."

"We talked about this before and I know I made myself clear when I said you weren't to do it anymore. This time you earned a punishment," Crystal said in a tone indicating she was about to pass judgment. "No video games for a week."

Davey's expression was one of devastation. He opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off by Crystal. "End of discussion," she said. "Can I have some more of that Walnut Shrimp? That's the best I've ever tasted I think."

"Um…sure," Lauren replied, just realizing Crystal was speaking to her. "Two Wongs is the only place I call now for Chinese." She handed the blonde the box with the rest of the shrimp and glazed walnut mixture.

"I can see why." They continued their meal and Davey even seemed to forget about his looming punishment. He was shy and animated, boisterous and distracted. He was an average six-year old boy.

"When would you like to schedule the observation session?" Crystal asked, reminding Lauren of one of the reasons for her visit.

"I think I just had it," the nurse said. "There isn't anything more honest than what I saw tonight and it wasn't with any observation session in mind. This was the kind of interaction I wanted to observe and I should tell you one thing." Lauren looked at Crystal earnestly. "I'm damn impressed."

Crystal blushed. "I'm not doing anything that any other mom isn't doing every day with their kids. It's not heroic, it's just family." Crystal downplayed her action, but was secretly pleased that Lauren had noticed.

"I'm done now," Davey announced. "Can I have my fortune cookie now?" Crystal looked his plate over. It wasn't completely cleared and she noticed a familiar pattern to the seemingly haphazard leftovers. "Still can't stand green beans, huh?" Davey smiled his wide single-tooth missing grin and shook his head back and forth rapidly.

Crystal laughed and said, "Go ahead." Davey tore off the red printed wrapper and broke the cookie in half, tossing the paper inside to his mother.

"Let's see what the great Chinese fortune tellers have to say to you," she said to Davey as he popped half the cookie into his mouth and produced a loud crunch. Lauren prepared her face to reflect innocence.

Crystal straightened the paper and read, "'You will achieve victory over many things.' Hey, that's pretty good." Davey nodded and began to chew on the other half of the cookie.

Lauren was confused. She looked again at Davey's wrapper. There was no mistaking the red wrapper that should have contained a romantic fortune. Lauren didn't understand it, but was grateful to be spared the embarrassment.

"Let's see what mine says," Crystal said. She tore open the cookie with the black printing and broke apart her cookie. She handed the cookie to Davey who was surprised, but not enough so that he failed to start munching on the treat. Crystal read the fortune silently and stared at the message a moment.

"What is it?" Lauren asked. "Are you going to come into unexpected money or go on a long journey? Go ahead, read it."

Crystal looked up from the small piece of white paper. "It says, 'New and wonderful, love is within your reach'." She glanced at Lauren. "I'm not sure I ever came across a fortune like that before." Her look never left Lauren's blue eyes.

"Sounds mushy to me," Davey said as he finished the remainder of the cookie. "Can I go watch TV?"

"Um…sure," Crystal said, her attention finally moving from Lauren. "No X-box though!" she called as her son left the kitchen. "Oh, Mom!" was heard as he moved down the hallway.

Crystal returned her gaze to Lauren. She nodded toward her unopened fortune cookie. "You going to open that?"

"This? Well, I've never been a big believer in fortunes, fortune tellers…that sort of thing," she said. The wrapper with the red printing seemed to glow like neon next to her plate.

"Open it," Crystal said in a challenging voice. "Do it."

"Okay, okay, I'm opening it," Lauren said in a defeated voice, wishing she had never even thought about giving destiny a nudge.  She pulled the wrapper off and broke the cookie in half.  Taking out the paper from the center she smiled as she read the words.

“What is it?  What does it say?”

Lauren held up the paper for Crystal to see.  “It says ‘Honesty is always the right policy’.”  She started to laugh.

For the life of her, Crystal couldn’t figure out what was amusing Lauren so much.

to be continued....

Return to the Academy