Disclaimers: None. I’m not disclaiming the need for an open mind. If you’re still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you’re getting into.
Author’s Notes: This is just because I wanted to write a story I could put THE END on before starting the next novel length story. J Sometimes, I just want to say I finished something and those are few and far between when writing the long stuff. The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect.
... but only one chance.
The room was bathed in white light and deathly silent. The floor was covered in fog, but it had no substance – neither cold and wet nor warm and dry. It was just there, covering everything to a height of about two feet. A tremulous touch on her forehead brought blue eyes open rapidly, only to slam shut immediately against the glare they encountered.
“C’mon, baby. Open your eyes for mama.”
The words made Sarabeth screw up her face tighter, afraid to look. Her mother had been dead for fifteen years, so that could only mean....
“Mama?” blue eyes popping wide open and staring at the woman whose touch she had missed so much for so long. She lifted a shaking hand to the other woman’s face. “Mama? Is it really you? Am I dead?” She realized her mother looked exactly as she had as she had last seen her... just before she had been killed by a drunk driver. The other woman allowed the feather light touch to go on for a while, knowing her daughter needed the contact and reassurance. Finally, though, she clasped her daughter’s hand in her own and brought it to her lips for a kiss. Sarabeth smiled shakily at her mother’s visage. “It really is you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, baby girl. It really is me, and no... you’re not dead.”
“Then where...? How? Why?” The dark head shook, trying to clear the jumbled thoughts rolling through it. “Mama, what’s going on?”
“You’ve reached a crossroads in your life, baby girl, and I’ve been given the opportunity to show you the optional outcomes you face, depending on the choice you make.”
“Why, Mama? Why do you get to help me now?” It wasn’t an accusation as much it was confusion. Her mother had been gone for so long, missed sharing so much. For years, she had prayed for her mother’s guidance, and to suddenly have it, even in this odd dream....
Mama brushed the dark hair off Sarabeth’s forehead and smiled sadly, her own blue eyes filling with tears. “What happened to me was truly an accident – I wasn’t supposed to die when I did. Because of that, The Powers That Be decided that I would get to help you when it was most important to you. Your happiness - your future and the future of so many others – depends on what you decide here.”
“So I’ll get to remember this?”
“I don’t know, baby girl. I mean – I’d like to think so, but then again, this is The Powers That Be. Who knows what rules they operate under?” Mama smiled and watched an echoing expression form on her daughter’s face. “Walk with me?” she invited.
They both rose from the platform and started walking through the mist, watching it a moment as it swirled around their feet. Sarabeth decided to wait and let Mama set the pace; she felt more than a little out of sorts with the whole situation. She just hoped she’d be able to remember any part of this when she woke up... especially if she got to remember time spent with her mother.
“I need to tell you something, Sarabeth.” Mama reached across and took both Sarabeth’s hands in hers, inadvertently pulling them to a halt. “And I think it’s important that you know and understand what I am going to say.”
“All right, Mama.”
“You’ve grown up into a brilliant, beautiful woman, Sarabeth, and every single day I am proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. I’d like to take some credit, but the truth is – you’ve done it all on your own. And for that I am the proudest of you. Yours has never been an easy destiny, but you surpassed everyone’s expectations... except your own. Be proud of yourself, Sarabeth. Everyone else is.”
“I am, Mama,” trying to blink the tears back. She wasn’t entirely successful and Mama gently wiped them away as they trickled down Sarabeth’s cheek. “There just always seems to be one more goal... one more thing I need to accomplish. Maybe then I can find peace or happiness or whatever it is that is missing from my life.”
“But it’s never enough, is it? It never quite brings the fulfillment you want it to, does it?” Sarabeth shook her head and bit her lip, refusing to allow more tears to fall. “I think that might be why I am here, baby girl. That is what your crossroads is about, because if you find that fulfillment you’ve been searching for, you should find happiness.”
Sarabeth nodded. That sounded so wonderful. It seemed like it had been a lifetime or two since she’d really been happy. Mama nodded as well and they resumed walking through the mist in silence. It could have been minutes – it could have been much longer. But after a time, the mist cleared and they were in a green meadow with blue sky above them and a tree for shade. Mama led them over to it and took a seat, motioning for Sarabeth to do the same.
The silence went on so long Sarabeth wondered if she should say something... anything... to break it. She opened her mouth to say something when Mama took a deep breath and turned to gaze into her blue eyes before speaking.
“Baby girl, tell me about Teagan.”
“Teagan? She’s my best friend.”
Mama waited, then sighed when nothing more was forthcoming. “Sarabeth Marie Beauregard!! Don’t sit there like you didn’t understand what I asked you.” Mama took a deep breath and calmed her voice. “I know Teagan is your best friend, Bethy. I want you to tell me about her.”
“Oh, um.... Well, we met when she was assigned to the project I am currently working on. We’d never run into one another before then, the company being a big as it is, but we kinda hit it off immediately. We found out we had a lot of common interests and we had a lot of fun together. We sorta fell into friendship, but we cultivated it until we became best friends.” She paused and smiled shyly. “She calls me Bethy, too. She’s the only one who does.”
“Is she? Did you tell her about it... about it being a special name between us?”
“Nope. When she heard all the guys calling me Beau, she decided she needed something different. So she asked me my full name and as soon as I told her, she decided on Bethy.” She shrugged sheepishly. “I couldn’t tell her no.”
Mama smiled. “Did you want to?”
“Not really. It made me feel special, and I liked hearing it again.”
Mama nodded as though she had expected that answer. “So how do you feel about Teagan?” she asked after another period of silence. “Really.”
“She’s my best friend,” like that explained everything.
Mama sighed. Either Sarabeth was being deliberately obtuse or she really was that clueless. God knew she was an incredibly intelligent woman; Mama suspected it was cluelessness. She tended to get so focused on her work that she missed everything going on in the world around her – or in this case, in her own heart and mind.
“Is that all?”
Sarabeth blinked and her blue eyes widened in confusion. “Isn’t that enough?”
Mama shook her head. “Is it, Bethy?” A pause. “Let me show you what your future could be like if that is enough....
Sarabeth was alone in her house; she sat at her computers, but her mind obviously wasn’t on whatever was in front of her. She looked around and sighed before trying to refocus on the screens in front of her. This went on for a few minutes until finally she gave up in frustration, slamming her fists onto the table and pushing away from the desk.
Sarabeth walked over to the mantle and gazed at the row of pictures along its top. A couple of them were of her family when her mother was still alive, another of her nieces and nephew; one of the company softball team she had played on and another of her lab guys after a particularly successful project experiment. The rest, another four or five, were of her and Teagan and one particularly nice shot of Teagan alone.
Sarabeth wandered around the house aimlessly. Other than the pictures, there were few personal effects. She went back to the computers and sat down for a while, then got up again. Sat down, got up; sat down, got up until the Sarabeth watching turned to her mother with confusion in her eyes.
“Is there a point to this? I mean obviously something has happened, but I am not getting it.”
“Keep watching; you will.”
Eventually, the sun went down and Sarabeth went into the kitchen to start dinner. She was about halfway done with her prep work when the door opened and a man Sarabeth barely tolerated now walked in the door like he owned the place. She accepted his kiss reluctantly, turning her face to ensure it landed on her cheek, but he was bright enough not to push it. He knew why he was part of Sarabeth’s life now – he was stable and dependable and the last connection Sarabeth had left from her previous life. He just hoped his patience with her would eventually pay off for him. He was well aware that she still barely tolerated his presence.
“How was your day, hon?” Sarabeth shrugged and turned back to her preparations. With any luck, he would leave her alone and do whatever it was he did here that didn’t involve her. “Can I help in any way?” This time she sighed. She should have known it wouldn’t be that easy; then she sighed again. It wasn’t his fault she hated her life now. She wondered again how it had come to this, and how she had ended up with him, regardless of what had happened.
“No, Turk... thanks. Why don’t you go... do whatever? Dinner’ll be ready in about half an hour.”
He wanted to stay with her – she could see it. So she deliberately turned her back to him and kept chopping. He gazed at her sadly, then grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked out of the kitchen. He didn’t have very high hopes for the rest of the evening to get any better.
“Okay... stop!” Sarabeth commanded. “What the HELL just happened here?? What happened to my job... my friends... my LIFE??? And why is *he* at MY house acting like he BELONGED there??”
“Sarabeth Marie Beauregard!!! Don’t you take that tone with me and you watch your language!! You may be grown, but I am still your mother, young lady.”
“I can’t answer your questions yet, Bethy, but I need you to answer mine. How do you feel about Teagan?” Mama asked Sarabeth again. “How do you really feel?”
“She’s my best friend, Mama; I love her.”
Mama sighed again. Sarabeth was going to drive her to drink at this rate. Was she really that clueless?? Surely with all the brilliance she possessed, Sarabeth could understand what was in her own heart and mind.
“Is that all? Just a best friend for whom you care very much?”
Sarabeth blinked and her blue eyes widened in confusion again. “Isn’t that enough?”
Mama shook her head once more. “Is it, Bethy?” A pause. “Let me show you what your future could be like if that is enough....
The sky was gray and overcast, heavy with the possibility of rain and even an early snow, but Sarabeth didn’t notice. Her expression was completely blank... except for her eyes. The pain they held was too deep to fathom and closing them only seemed to hold it in. She hadn’t slept in three days, and now it was time to go lay her friend to rest.
She put the finishing touches on her black suit, then walked downstairs to the living room where the rest of her lab team waited. They had decided to go as a group – they did everything else together, and Sarabeth was going to need their support to say goodbye to Teagan, whether she asked for it or not.
The ride to the graveyard was silent and Sarabeth sat ramrod straight, concentrating on breathing. She could do this – she had too. She owed Teagan this much. She could go home and collapse after it was all over; it wouldn’t matter then. But she had to get through the funeral first.
The car stopped, and one of the guys helped her out, then they surrounded her like a shield and made their way to Teagan’s burial site. The service was lovely, as far as funeral services went and Sarabeth spoke her piece without a hint of the heartbreak and guilt she felt seeping through. As soon as it was over, she headed back to the car, unwilling to accept platitude and condolences from people she didn’t want to mingle with in the first place. It didn’t take her guys long to follow her.
“Drop me at home first,” she commanded wearily. The guys exchanged worried glances before turning back to her.
“You’re not coming to the wake, Beau?”
The look Sarabeth gave the man stupid enough to voice the question could have melted steel. But her anger disappeared as quickly as it came and she forced her attention out the window. It kept her from seeing the pity in their eyes and it didn’t involve closing her own.
“No, Mike. I’m not going to the wake. I’m not going to join some goddamn celebration of my best friend’s death! I am going home... alone.” She turned her glare to each of them and they nodded reluctantly. Someone had been with her since it had happened – they weren’t going to be able to keep it up indefinitely, and all of them understood her need for solitude.
“All right, Beau. We’ll take you home... but don’t you dare do anything stupid.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “We’ve lost enough, Beau. Please don’t take anything else away.”
“I just want to be left alone, Mike. I need some peace.”
Reluctantly, they dropped Sarabeth at home. She entered her silent house and found the quiet grated along already raw nerves. She let her anger build, needing some sort of release for the guilt and sense of loss she felt. Sarabeth tore through her house like a whirlwind, knocking things off shelves and overturning furniture.
When the entire living room looked like a disaster area, Sarabeth stood at the threshold, chest heaving and tears running down her face. She screamed in sheer frustration, then dragged herself upstairs, dropping clothes haphazardly along the way until she was naked. Then she fell into bed and wrapped herself around her pillow, closing her eyes and hoping this time, the nightmares wouldn’t come.
”Stop, Mama... please,” Sarabeth pleaded, wrapping her arms around herself in defense. She felt cold and even stepping out from under the tree and out into the sunshine didn’t help warm her up. “God, that hurts - what happened??? How did Teagan die?? And why was it my fault?? Are these the only two options I’ve got? ‘Cause I’m not liking what I’m seeing.”
At least she was finally starting to think with more than her head, Mama thought. “I still can’t answer your questions, Bethy. Not yet. I promise I will soon, but I need you to answer mine first. How do you feel about Teagan?” Mama asked Sarabeth again. “How do you really feel?”
“She’s my best friend, Mama; I love her.”
“How do you love her, Bethy?”
“With my whole heart.”
Progress, but not enough. “But how? As a friend? A sister? A confidante? What does Teagan mean to you, Bethy?” Sarabeth scowled and turned her back, but she didn’t answer. Mama rose and walked to where Sarabeth stood. She put an arm around Sarabeth’s shoulders, thrilled when the younger woman relaxed into her embrace instead of pushing her away. “Baby girl, I’m not going to pass judgment on you; you’re the only one who can do that. But there’s nothing wrong with loving someone.”
More silence and Mama sighed. She had to wonder briefly if Sarabeth would have been more forthcoming if she hadn’t been dead during most of Sarabeth’s teenage and young adult years. “Bethy, the next few weeks are critical for you – personally and professionally. What happens in your personal life will have a direct effect on your work, and your work will determine so much for so many. Don’t ask,” Mama added, holding up her hand. “That’s all I can say about that. Come sit down and let me tell you what brought about those two realities instead. You need to understand.”
“You ended up with Turk because you and Teagan remained silent about your real feelings for one another. Somewhere along the line both of you decided that it was better... safer... for you to just stay friends and it caused you to lose one another as surely as if one of you had died.”
“Why? What happened to Teagan, my friends, my job? And why Turk? I’m not even fond of Turk!”
“Let’s just say that doing nothing cost everybody a lot – especially you.”
“What about when Teagan died, Mama? I could feel the emotions coming from myself when we watched that. It was my fault that Teagan was dead.”
“In that reality, Teagan came to you and confessed that she loved you – that she was *in* love with you. But you couldn’t accept that... not from her. It made things awkward and you started working opposite shifts to avoid one another. She was alone in the lab when it blew up. You never got over it.”
Sarabeth’s breathing was harsh and Mama just held onto her while she shook. When Sarabeth had calmed sufficiently, Mama kissed her temple. “Tell me more about Teagan,” she whispered. “What do you see when you look at her?”
“My best friend.” Sarabeth paused and Mama didn’t interrupt this time, knowing Sarabeth was finally ready and would continue if she was patient. “She’s beautiful, Mama,” Sarabeth finally said softly, a knowing smile on her face. “She’s got the prettiest green eyes and long golden hair and the most enchanting smile. She’s funny and bright and she thinks I’m funny too,” the last added almost shyly. “At least she laughs at my jokes.”
“She’s the life of the party. She’s so different from me, Mama. She is kind and caring and... and strong and stubborn and as ornery as the day is long. Once she gets an idea....”
“Sounds a lot like you, actually, Bethy. How does Teagan make you feel, baby girl?”
“Sorta like you do, Mama... warm and cared-for and... and loved.”
Mama smiled. “Would you like to see the third reality choice?” A nod was her only answer, but it was enough.
Teagan sat in a wheelchair, but even the physical pain she felt couldn’t take away the joy that bubbled up inside her as Sarabeth approached her, hands hidden behind her back. “I love you, Bethy... so much,” kissing the scarred side of Sarabeth’s face.
“I love you, too, Teag. How ya doing today?”
“I’m always good when you’re here, baby, but I am in a little bit of pain,” having learned the hard way to be completely honest about how she was feeling. “Too much time at the computer on top of a really hard PT session today has made me achy.”
“I’ve told you to take it easy, love. You’ll get there – we’ll work on it together, I promise. In the meantime, I’ve got something for you that might help.”
“Chocolate, champagne and hot monkey sex?”
Sarabeth eyebrows rose into her hairline. “Well, we can work on that as well after a nice long soak in the Jacuzzi. But first I want to show you what the lab boys and I cooked up for you. Now, these are prototypes, and we’ll have to measure them to fit you, but it will help speed your recovery.”
“Bethy, you didn’t have to do this. You have so many other important projects to work on. You shouldn’t be wasting time....”
“I’m not wasting my time, Teag. Nothing I do for you wastes my time. Especially since it’s my fault....”
“No, Bethy. What happened to us is either no one’s fault... or it’s both of ours. You can’t have it both ways. Besides,” Teagan added, cupping the scarred cheek and running her thumb over the damaged skin, “I would do it all again knowing everything I know now, if it meant it was the only way we could be together. I love you, Bethy – I have for a very long time; the accident didn’t change that.”
“You’re my reason, sweetheart... even when I was too dumb to know it.”
Teagan grinned. “Well, you know it now, and I’m expecting hot monkey sex tonight,” waggling her eyebrows. “But first, how about that Jacuzzi and then we can talk about those implants over dinner? We’re having your favorite.”
Before Teagan could protest, Sarabeth scooped her into strong arms and with much laughter and kissing, they went out to the kitchen.
“What happened, Mama? We look so happy together, and yet....”
“You are happy together, baby girl, and the accident only drew you closer to one another – once both of you worked out your guilt issues over what happened to each other. But you worked things out together – that was the main thing. As to what happened to get you to that place, well, Teagan came to you and told you she was leaving the company. You wanted to know why and when she told you she had fallen in love, it devastated you – until you found out it was you she was in love with.”
“So why is Teagan in a wheelchair? Why do I feel guilt for that, Mama?”
“For the same reason she feels guilt for what happened to your face. There was an accident in the lab. Teagan was closest to the blast and it crippled her; you were burned on your face, hands and arms when you fought to get her out.”
Sarabeth nodded as though the explanation made perfect sense to her, incomplete as it was. She was quiet and Mama was content to let her be for the moment, allowing Sarabeth to think through everything she had just seen and learned. Finally, however, Mama spoke.
“Baby girl, how do you feel about Teagan? In your heart... in your mind - how do you really feel?”
“She is my best friend, Mama, and I love her.” Sarabeth turned to face her mother, confidence shining out of her bright blue eyes. “I love her with my whole heart – as a friend, as a sister, as a confidante and if she’ll have me, as a lover.” She blinked, then looked at Mama with something akin to a revelation apparent in her eyes.
“What is it, Bethy?”
“Mama, those realities – are they the only ones The Powers That Be showed you? Are they the only options they offered?”
“Yes, baby girl, they were. Why?”
Sarabeth smiled. “Because I know of an option number four, and I think I’m going to go with that choice.”
“I’m not waiting for Teagan to come to me, Mama. I’m going to make the first move. I promise. She deserves that much courage from me.”
“That’s my girl, Bethy. I knew you’d come through for yourself.” Mama started to fade out as the fog swirled in and Sarabeth found herself back on the platform she had awakened on. “Remember I’m watching over you, baby girl, and I couldn’t be prouder of you. Now go get your girl. I love you,” fading out on the last word.
Sarabeth tried to answer, but her eyes were too heavy and she fell back into a deep sleep, hoping she would remember what she had learned... and how wonderful it had felt to be held in her mother’s arms one more time.
When she opened her eyes, Sarabeth recognized her bedroom, and she blinked awake slowly as she tried to reorient herself. She wondered how long she had been asleep as much of what she remembered quickly slipped into the unreality of the dreamscape. Sarabeth smiled, remembering the promise she had made and feeling the ghostly embrace of her mother’s arms around her once more. She knew it was more than likely her subconscious way of coming to terms with her true feelings for Teagan, but it had seemed so real and she took comfort in the fact that somewhere, Mama approved.
Sarabeth took a deep breath, then picked up the phone and hit number one on the speed dial. Her legs twitched nervously up and down in the three seconds it took for the phone to connect and ring one and a half time before a breathless, groggy Teagan answered.
“Teag, it’s me.”
“Bethy? It’s four o’clock in the morning. What’s wrong, honey?” suddenly wide awake.
“Nothing’s wrong, Teag. I mean... I just... I need to talk to you. Can I come over?”
Sarabeth could practically hear Teagan trying to blink away her confusion. “Now? I mean sure, hon. C’mon over. I’ll put the coffee on.”
“Thanks, Teag. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“Drive safely, babe. I’m not going anywhere.”
They hung up the phone and Sarabeth dressed faster than she ever had in her life. Just before she stepped out the door, she looked up at the ceiling. “Wish me luck, Mama. I’m going to go lay claim to the happiness I want in my life like I promised you I would. Thank you for showing me the way.”
She could have sworn she felt Mama kiss her forehead just before she crossed the threshold and walked boldly out into the night and towards her future.