For complete disclaimers see part 1.

If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at:

Come visit me at: or my publisher at:

1049 Club
Kim Pritekel

Part 17

Jennifer's brows drew, resting her hands on her thighs as she took a closer look. She brought a finger up, ticking each fish she saw off with a stroke to the air. Only counting nine, she began again, moving around to the side of the tank, then the other side, looking for the elusive number ten.
"Hey, Dad?" she called, moving back to her starting position in front of the aquarium.

"Yeah?" Michael walked into the living room, dishtowel in his hand, where he and Conrad had been washing and drying the dinner dishes.

"We're missing Rusty."

Michael bent down, grabbing the small green net from the storage compartment under the fifty gallon tank. He brought his own finger up, counting the air as he squinted into the shipwreck half buried in the white and blue rocks covering the bottom of the tank.

"Where you at, little guy," he muttered, sticking the net into the water, waving it around to try and shoo the angel fish out of hiding, if he was hiding.

"You don't think it got caught up in the filter, do you?"

"Hope not." He waved the net around again, both groaning when the body of the fish floated up from where it had died and settled. "Aw, that sucks," the mechanic muttered.

"Conrad," Jennifer called out, still gazing into the tank. "Your fish died."

"What? Which one?" the teen asked, stepping into the room.

"Rusty," Michael supplied.

"Figures," the kid snorted, voice dripping with angry sarcasm.

Michael stood, turning to face his son, who was eyeing him suspiciously, stomach churning at what might come out his mouth this time.

"Why would I think you could keep a fish alive."

Jennifer yelped, hands covering her mouth as her brother hit the floor, their father standing over him, hand still stinging. "Don't you ever, ever say anything like that again," he growled, trying valiantly to hold his temper in check.

Jennifer watched in shock as her father stepped over the prone boy, slamming out of the house, followed quickly by the slam of his truck door and roar of the engine.

Stunned and thoroughly disgusted, the girl looked at her brother, who was starting to pick himself up. "You little bastard," she hissed. "How dare you say something like that to him." She felt tears of rage and grief flow down her face.

Conrad got to his feet, feeing sick to his stomach at what he'd just said to their father. His jaw hurt as he adjusted it, and deep same suffused his face. He didn't know why he'd said it, it had just kind of slipped. Now Jenny was mad at him, and she was the last person he wanted upset with him. In a lot of ways, he felt she was all he had. When they thought both their parents were dead, he and his sister had gotten very close while living with their grandparents.

With a heavy sigh, he went to his room, closing the door behind him.

Michael pulled into Stuffy's Bar parking lot, shifting into neutral, and slamming the heavy metal door behind him. The small bar, which he hadn't been to in over five years, looked as it always had- small, smoky and the cheap beer flowing. Everything seemed to stop as he walked in, all eyes on him. He wasn't in the mood for excitement or for folks to get all up in arms cause he was alive, surviving some crash.

Ignoring the attention, he took a seat at the bar, ordered a cold one. Once the mug was in his hand, he took a sip, closing his eyes as the liquid slid down his throat. Opening them, he stared at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, stroking his trimmed beard with thick fingers. Why did Conrad hate him so bad? What had he done to deserve that? Michael carried enough guilt over Melissa's death. The fact that his son blamed him for that hurt almost as bad as though Melissa had slid off the wing all over again.

Running a sandpaper-like hand over his face, Michael's head fell, staring down into the amber liquid of his beer, unsure what to do. Maybe it would be best for everyone involved if Conrad went back to live with Meredith and Walter.

Funnily enough, as he sat there, his family from the island popped into his mind. He thought about Pam, wondering what she would do in a situation like this. Michael actually smiled at the thought; no doubt she'd pop the boy into next week. Which made the mechanic think about what he'd done. Never had he struck his kids like he had. Conrad had dropped immediately, Michael's hand still hurt from it. He brought his hand up, looking at it, spreading out his fingers before slowly curling his fingers into a fist, noting the reddened skin. His luck, he'd get back to the house to find a police officer waiting for him. Not like he wouldn't deserve it.

Michael sighed again. Opening his wallet, he removed the two folded Polaroid's, straightening them out flat on the bar. In one was Rachel, Dean and Mia, all three smiling into the camera, just before leaving Duke's house to head home. Dean stood in the middle, grin huge as the two girls flanked him, an arm around each of their shoulders. The other picture was of Pam, Denny and himself, in a similar pose, though Pam was sitting in a chair between the others. He looked at all the faces, all six of them, a smile creasing his grizzled features. It amazed him just how much simpler life was when they'd been on the island. He wouldn't give up his kids again for a moment, but couldn't help but wonder how everyone else's lives were going. With any luck, smoother than his.


"Will this work? I know it's not exactly the Taj Mahal, but it's warm and dry. And private."

Denny looked around the tiny room. To one side were stacked boxes, filled with old paperwork that needed to be shredded. On the other side was a foldout sofa and small breakfast nook, replete with dorm fridge and wet bar sink.

"This'll work, Joni." She nodded, imagining her meager belongings stacked in the corner- all six boxes of them.

"Okay. Well, I need to get back downstairs, so if you need anything, just holler." Joni gave the dazed woman a firm hug, then left her alone, her footfalls fading as she scurried down the steep staircase that led to the sidewalk, right next to the entrance to Mile.

Denny blew out a breath, hands in her back pockets as she walked around the small space- all seven steps of it. There was one window on the wall where the boxes were stacked. She grunted quietly as she pushed it open, determined to get rid of a bit of the mustiness. Window opened, Denny turned back to the room, running a hand through her hair. She had slept in the guest bedroom the night before, though sleep had been a joke. Over a barely picked at breakfast, she and Hannah had decided that perhaps too much water had gone under the proverbial bridge, and it was time to call it quits. Hannah had cried, which had inevitably tore at Denny's heart, but they both knew it was for the best. To make it as easy on Hannah as possible, she had waited until the researcher had left for work, then had loaded up what was left of her belongings in her VW van, given Joni a call, and had left a note behind.

Flopping down on the couch, grimacing at the boing of an unhappy spring, the brunette buried her face in her hands.


"Hello, my friend!" Reenie took the blonde into her arms, hugging her tight before releasing her, moving aside so Rachel could enter the loft. "Is this all you've got?" she asked, indicating the backpack slung over the blonde's shoulder.

"Yep. Light packer."

"I guess. Come on in. Beth's here."

"Oh, great!" Rachel had met Reenie's actress friend a time or two, always thinking she was a beautiful talent.

"Well, it's great to see you!" Beth Sayer's said, standing from where she'd been lounging on the couch. She walked over to the author, wrapping her in a warm hug. She smiled warmly down at her. "What a great thing to happen to a storyteller, huh?" she teased with a wink.

"You have no idea," Rachel chuckled. "It's good to see you again, Beth. In town for a show?"

"Yeah. Got about two weeks left, then I'll be out of this one's hair." Reenie waved her off.

"Sooooo," the editor purred, nodding toward Rachel's laptop, tucked inside her backpack. "you finished?"

"Yep." Rachel grinned proud. "Martin has it, so you should be getting it soon." Rachel flopped down on the black, leather couch, Beth sitting next to me, taking up the blanket she'd been wrapped in before. "He's looking to get this thing out by the two year anniversary, in June."

"Of the crash, or of the rescue?" Reenie asked, handing both women a cup of coffee, then cuddling on the loveseat with her own mug.

"The crash- June 5."

"Ah, so the media hound strikes again." Reenie was still angry with her employer for sending the dogs after Rachel. It had taken the author to disappear, closed up in a mountain cabin for five months, to give her some privacy and a chance to bounce back. During that time, she'd written, what Reenie thought, was her greatest work.

"So are you coming out of self-isolation? Reen tells me you were in Beaver Creek."

"Sure was," Rachel said with a huge grin.

"It's beautiful up there."

"You've been there?" the blonde asked, relaxing into the corner made by the back of the couch and the arm. She wrapped chilled fingers around her mug of coffee. Beth nodded.

"I grew up in Pueblo, not all that far."

"No kidding? I didn't know that."

Beth nodded, sipping from her own mug. "Yes, ma'am. I haven't been back in some time, though."

"Does your family still live there?"

"My mom."

Rachel could tell that was a conversation perhaps best served by a change of subject, noting how Beth's eyes fell, her shoulders stiffening. "I've actually been puttering around Oregon again, looking to buy a house. I'm ready to head back home."

"Well, good for you." Beth smiled, her entire face lighting up. Rachel, who hadn't seen Beth in a few years, was struck all over again by the woman's beauty. She found it funny- since she'd accepted her attraction to Denny, she'd realized that she had always looked at women in degrees of attractiveness. She didn't gauge them in comparison to herself, as she knew a lot of women did, but rather as to what sort of character they'd make. Now, after everything with Denny, she had to wonder if it were perhaps more accurately, in degrees of how they'd be for her. "So what's your next novel about?"

Beth's voice shook Rachel from her thoughts, making her blush slightly as she looked away. She missed the amused gleam in blue eyes. "Well, I'm actually considering something dealing with Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D."

"God, doesn't that require more research?" Reenie asked, resting her head against her closed fist. Rachel nodded vigorously, eyes twinkling. Reenie rolled her eyes. "I don't get it."

"A woman with a brain- it's sexy," Beth grinned. She caught the warning glare Reenie sent her way. Don't worry, Reen. I know, hands off.

Rachel blushed again.

"I saw your Island Six on TV the other day," Reenie said, stretching her legs out, resting her crossed ankles on the coffee table.

"Really?" She had Rachel's attention. She'd been purposefully avoiding television and any newspaper articles about it. She didn't want to see Denny. She already saw enough of her in her dreams.

"Apparently Dean has taken up the cause of the environmentalists." Rachel stared at her, stunned. Reenie chuckled, amused. "Yep. He's become the lawyer for WorldWin. Quite the little prize fighter, from what I'm hearing."

"I'll be damned."

"Have you kept in contact with anyone?" Beth asked standing to refill her coffee, bringing the carafe back to give anyone else a warm up.

Rachel shook her head with a heavy sigh. "No."

"Why not?" The actress sat back down, tucking her bare feet under her body.

"I don't know, to be honest. I think a lot of it is because I had so much to deal with when I got home. Hell, everything just kind of…"

Beth nodded in understanding. "Who knows, they may have been able to give you the support you needed."

"Probably, and in retrospect, undoubtedly. I don't know," she sighed, mind focused on a single image. "I think I needed to get on with my life without memories of what happened." She looked down at the mug, which she slowly turned in her hands. Beth studied her movements, then glanced at Reenie, who shook her head slowly, as if to say "Don't ask".

"It's probably best, hon," she said, reaching over to squeeze Rachel's arm. The blonde smiled, though it was forced. Beth watched the interaction between the two women, and when blue eyes focused on the author again, she saw it plain as day- longing. She knew that look well, and knew the heartbreak that went along with it well.


"Beth, would you help me for a second?" Reenie asked, getting to her feet and snagging Beth's hand as she walked in front of the couch.

"Uh, sure, Reenie." Beth rolled her eyes at Rachel, who chuckled. "What?"

Reenie waited until the swinging door of the kitchen had swung safely shut, then turned to her friend. "Listen, Beth, I saw the looks you were giving Rachel in there. I know she's a beautiful woman, but don't even-"


"-think, huh?"

"Shush. Do you really think I'd do that to your best friend?" Beth crossed her arms over her chest, more amused than offended. She saw the shame suffuse Reenie's face. "Listen, Reen, yes, she's beautiful, and well, hot as hell, but something happened on that island, didn't it?"

The editor looked up, dark eyes surprised. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not stupid, and I'm not blind. There's someone on that island special to her, isn't there?" Beth's eyebrow raised in challenge, daring Reenie to deny it.

The dark-haired woman sighed, running a hand through her short hair. "I can't talk about that, Beth, I'm sorry."

"I understand. It's just," Beth looked down at the tile, nudging at the pattern with her toe. "I know that kind of sadness and loss. I don't know," she shrugged. "Maybe I can help her."

"Don't!" Reenie's voice was quiet so Rachel wouldn't overhear, but firm "She's confused enough as it is."

Beth studied her face for a moment, then nodded, the barest hint of the corner of her mouth curling up. "It was a woman, wasn't it?"

"Goddamn you, Beth," Reenie fumed, "How do you read me so goddamn easy?"

Beth threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, honey. You're priceless."

"Uh, ladies, if you'd like to talk about me some more, I will happily leave so you can do it in the comfort of the living room." Two stunned pairs of eyes stared at Rachel, who had poked her head in through the door. "Honest, guys, I won't break."

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Reenie said, squeezing Rachel's shoulder. "I was just trying to tell Fido, here, to behave."

Rachel met Beth's amused gaze and shrug. The author shook her head, walking back out into the living room, followed by the other two.

"Thanks a lot," Beth hissed. She almost growled when she heard Reenie snicker.


Lynn Mason looked over the rims of her glasses, pen paused in mid-sentence at what she'd just heard. Clearing her throat, the counselor studied her young charge. "Why do you think your father hates you, Conrad?"

"Because he does," the boy said. Lynn had grown used to the boy's obtuse nature, but something in his voice as he spoke those words made her take notice.

"Because why?" The counselor cocked her head to the side, removing her glass altogether.

Conrad sat on the couch, elbows resting on his thighs, one foot jiggling. He leaned forward, staring out the window, watching as traffic on Ute drove silently by. His hands dangled between his knees, and he stared down at them. There was silence, Lynn Mason waiting for him to explain his comment. He hadn't meant to say it, but it had just come out. It had been three months since his father had struck him, since he'd said… it. Michael Dupree avoided the boy, muttering only a few words to him, and only when necessary. Some of the light in his father's eyes seemed to have dimmed that day. Conrad truly didn't know if he could bring it back.

"I said somethin' I shouldn't have said," he finally muttered. Lynn had to strain to hear his words, but when they finally sank in, she was intrigued, though kept her body language even, calm. Conrad was surprised when he felt the sting of emotion behind his eyes. He cleared his throat, sitting back into the soft cushions, stretching long legs out in front of him. He'd grown a lot over the past year and a half. He was proud to say he was at his dad's shoulders now.


"Yeah?" the boy near whispered. He was trying to keep it in, trying to be strong and a man. He knew what she was wanting, so he pushed himself up in the seat, preparing to talk when Lynn Mason said magic words.

"It's almost time, Conrad. Do you want to stay and talk about this?" She wasn't surprised when the boy shook his head, bringing a hand up to quietly wipe something from his eye. "Alright. I'll see you next week."

The boy could only nod, afraid that if he said anything, he'd lose control. It made it worse when they walked out of Lynn's office and Michael was sitting in the waiting room, reading a magazine. Jennifer had dropped him off, and he wasn't expecting to see his father. He figured he'd at least have the ride home to get his emotions back under wraps.

"Ready?" Michael asked, tossing the Parenting magazine aside and pushing to his feet. Without waiting for a response, he held open the door for his son, nodding at the receptionist behind the counter. The walk to the truck was a silent one, Michael thinking about his day at work, Conrad trying to think of a way to talk to his dad. He glanced over at him, noting the way the big man's jaw was working, as though something were on Michael's mind.

Conrad climbed into the truck, tugging at the seatbelt as his dad brought the truck to life. Clicking the buckle into place, the boy stared out the passenger window, his stomach in knots. He tucked his bottom lip in, as if to keep in words he may not be ready to say, not knowing what to say. Panic gripped him as he felt the stinging of tears in his left eye. He tried desperately to keep his eyes open, so as not to squeeze out the betrayal of his emotions.

Michael whistled softly between his teeth, glancing out at the scenery as it passed by. It was a chilly fifty-nine out, and he was glad he'd brought his coat. He glanced over at his youngest, trying to not feel anger as he did so. He was surprised to see the boy bring up a hand to quickly swipe at his eye.

"You alright, son?" he asked quietly. Michael nearly ran the truck into a compact car in shock when the fourteen year old broke into uncontrollable sobs. Pulling the truck off onto the shoulder of the road, he unbuckled his seatbelt. "Hey, hey, now," he cooed, startled and unsure.

"I'm sorry, Dad!" Conrad almost yelled, everything he'd bottled up over the past year and a half breaking free. He felt strong arms tug him across the bench seat of the Ford, Conrad unable to fight his dad, instead burying his face in the fleece canvas jacket he wore. "I'm sorry…"

Michael felt his own tears mix in with his beard, he chin resting on Conrad's head. "It's okay," he whispered, eyes squeezing shut. "It's okay."

"Why'd you have to go!" the boy cried, his words muffled, his hand clawing at Michael's jacket-clad chest. "Why'd she have ta die!"

"I don't know, son. I just don't know," Michael's own sobs matched that of his youngest child. "I'm so sorry, I tried, Conrad. I really, really tried. I couldn't save her."

Conrad felt just like a little baby again, allowing everything to finally burst free, feeling so safe as his dad tightened his hold around him, rocking him as they both cried for what was and what would never be again. After long moments Michael felt Conrad calming, his breathing becoming warm and even against his neck. He continued to rock his son, sensing that they both desperately needed this. He smoothed the boy's hair down absently, blinking a few times to clear his own eyes of the backlog of tears.

"I love you, Dad," was muttered quietly.

"I love you, too, son. Never, ever doubt that. We're gonna be just fine. You, me, Jenny and Alan."


Denny tossed the last of the trash into the bin behind the coffee shop, the alley just beyond. Looking up into the night sky, she smiled weakly- snow. Closing her eyes, the brunette inhaled the cold, wonderful smell of moisture in the air. She figured they'd have a goodly amount by morning. Reaching up, she took the baseball cap off her head, running a hand through her flattened bangs, then replaced it- maroon with Mile stitched in bold, yellow letters.

"Busy day," Joni said from behind her. Denny turned and met the older woman's gaze, nodding. The owner sat on the top stoop, so Denny took her place off to the side, one step down.

"Never thought it would end."

"Yeah, well, with the better competition gone…" Joni brought out a pack of cigarettes, pounding the tobacco to the bottom of the pack, then snagged a smoke between her lips.

"Mind?" Denny asked, grabbing for the pack. Her boss shrugged and handed it to her before lighting the tip of her cigarette.

"Didn't know you'd started back up," Joni commented, the smoke bouncing with each word.

"I didn't. Sounds good, though." Denny inhaled, closing her eyes a she did, trying not to cough. She'd stopped smoking six years ago. After the first puff and taste filled her mouth, the brunette grimaced, tugging the smoke from her mouth and smashing it on the cement next to her. "Nasty"

Joni chuckled, letting her cig dangle between her fingers, which hung over the side rail. Sighing heavily, Denny resumed her examination of the night sky.

"You coming over for Thanksgiving?" Joni asked, taking another puff.

"Not sure. I don't know just how much of the holiday spirit is in me these days, Joni."

"Yep, I could see that. I'm not going to force you, but if you want, you know you're more than welcome. Steve would love to see you."

"Thanks. I'll think about it. Mind if I still come over to wash my clothes?"

"Nope. Not one bit."

"You know, I want to know something," Denny said, again swiping the cap from her head, tossing it around a finger. "How did I go from being a successful business owner, living in a beautiful home with a beautiful wife, to living in a ten by ten room and wearing a stupid hat?" She held up the hat to her eyes. "Some days I feel like I'm in prison," she whispered.

Joni reached out, squeezing the thin shoulder before her. "I don't know, hon. I wish to god I did."

Denny blew out a breath, setting the cap aside and tugging on the hair tie that had been holding her hair back in a ponytail all day. Running her fingers through the strands, she said nothing more, afraid she'd start to cry if she did.

Joni took one last, long drag, then flicked the cigarette into a puddle of something wet and very smelly in the alley. She listened for the satisfying hiss of the lit tip hitting liquid. "I've been thinking about something, Den," she said, folding her hands, which dangled at the wrist over her knees. She saw blue eyes look at her. "I want to retire soon. Within the next six months. I'm tired, and want to enjoy what's left of my time before Steve retires."

Denny smiled, knowing how much the couple fought like cats and dogs when forced to spend long periods of time together. She nodded in understanding.

"I've been thinking that maybe you could take this place over, run it."

Denny wasn't surprised by the offer, but as she looked into the face of her long-time friend, and one-time mentor, her mind whirled. She imaged herself owning another shop, running Mile, and maybe turning it into another DiRisio's. She imagined living in the neighborhood, maybe tearing down some walls above the shop and creating herself a nice little apartment. She imagined Buffalo, seeing the same streets for almost thirty-five years, and she imagined the same faces coming in day after day, asking for the same thing day after day.

Trapped. Denny felt like a rat in a cage, and it had nothing to do with her tiny, sparse living quarters. Something was missing, and she just wasn't sure she'd find it trying to recapture the life she'd left the moment she stepped aboard flight 1049.

Shaking her head slowly, she met Joni's eyes. "No. it's not for me anymore, Jo."

Joni was only mildly surprised by Denny's answer, but she was surprised by the elation that filled her at the rejection. A slow, wrinkly smile rolled across her lips, head nodding. Denny matched her smile.


"What are you thinking about out here all by yourself?"

Rachel turned from her place leaning against the balcony railing, watching as Beth shrugged into a sweater, walking toward her.

"Hmm. Nothing much."

"Oh, I don't know about that. Looked pretty serious." Beth leaned her forearms against the railing, mirroring the blonde's position.

Rachel looked down at her hands, which held something. She brought it up for Beth to see. It was a Polaroid, three deeply tanned, smiling faces. "This was Dean, Mia and I just before we left Florida." Beth took the picture from her. "I wish I had one of the others. They hadn't been rescued yet."

Beth nodded in understanding, examining the faces closely, settling on the young girl who flanked the other side of the good-looking man with dark hair. "The teenager and… I don't remember- either the Texan or the attorney."

Rachel smiled, taking the picture back. "Dean, the attorney. He'd laugh his ass off if he knew you mistook him for Michael."

"Guess we won't tell him, then."

"Nope. I was just thinking about everyone, wondering where they're all at, how their lives are going. Are they as crazy as mine started out being? Were they happy to be reunited with their families? Their lives."

Beth noted the softening of the author's voice. "Thinking of one in particular, Rachel?" she asked gently. Rachel didn't look at her, but nodded, absently running her thumb over the glossy images. "Do you want to tell me about her?"

Rachel looked over at the actress for a long moment, wondering if Reenie had spilled her secrets. As though Beth had read her thoughts, she shook her head.

"It was a guess. Reenie can't lie to me."

Rachel smiled, nodding. She knew that trait in her friend. "Denny. That's her name. The coffee shop owner," she explained before Beth could ask. "I don't know. We just… clicked somehow."

"By the look in your eyes, I'd say you more than clicked. If I'm off base or out of line, please tell me."

"No. To either." Rachel looked at the picture again, unable to help smile back at her family. She missed them deeply. She missed Mia's sweet innocence and Dean's brash, good heart. She missed Pam's no-nonsense attitude and Michael's heart of gold. "I've never in my life felt such a wonderful connection with someone, and with her it was almost instantaneous. We were pretty inseparable. Till the end," she whispered.

"Where is she?" Beth moved a bit closer, until her shoulder almost brushed Rachel's.

"At home with her partner, I assume. They live in Buffalo." She smiled, though it was incredibly sad. "Denny's probably trying to concoct some new holiday creation at her shop."

"You're going to let her go?"

"What choice have I, Beth? I can't disrupt her life. She loves Hannah." She shrugged. "I can't deny her tried and true happiness."

Beth was silent for a long time, then she inhaled the cold, night air. It would snow soon, no doubt. "Can I tell you something, Rachel? A little wisdom from my experiences."


"I met the one person who would change me forever, the love of my life, when I was nine years old. She lived next door to me, and we became best friends, almost right away. Somewhere, deep down inside, I knew I was in love with her from the first moment I saw her in that stupid Mickey Mouse shirt she always used to wear." She smiled, though it was painfully wistful. "We did everything together until around high school, her parents treated me like one of their own. My folks were so caught up in their own problems, and then my dad left us. She got me through it. Without her," she shrugged. "who knows. Anyway, once we hit high school, pressures started, and boys and all that. I already knew by then that I liked girls, and that I especially liked her. We, uh, we got physical one New Years. We were both drunk, but I have to admit I played far more drunk than I really was."

Rachel smiled, staring out over the railing as she listened.

"We were fifteen, I think. Anyway, things began to change. I knew then what I wanted, and who I was. She had no idea, and I think was terrified to find out. Back and forth, back and forth… Man, that was a hard time. I started getting into drugs, and she poured herself into her studies. She'd always wanted to be a lawyer." Beth smiled, pride shining in her eyes. "And she did it, too. Anyway, getting ahead of myself. Her aunt died, who she was especially close to, and I was there for her, tried to be what she needed. The day of the funereal," Beth's voice cracked, and she cleared her throat a couple times, trying to hide the obvious pain of the memory. "Things got out of hand in her room, and we almost got caught. She got angry with me and told me to never come back."

"Oh, Beth." Rachel reached over, placing a warm hand on the actress' back. The tall brunette smiled gratefully.

"I left, and then I dropped out of school. I couldn't be there anymore, couldn't be around her. God, it hurt. Well, we ran in into each other again, a year or two later. She had graduated from high school, and was set to go off to college. She'd always wanted that." Again, the smile of pride. "She said goodbye to me, and I watched her go, walking out of my life yet again. I wanted so badly to stop her, to beg her to stay with me, or at least let me go with her. I loved her so much, Rachel. But I let her go, walk out of that theater where she found me, and head up to Boulder for school."

"Why didn't you?" the blonde asked, entranced by Beth's voice and tale.

"I don't know. I guess I figured if I did, she'd not follow her dream, for me. And I couldn't do that to her. I felt it was best to let her go, as painful as it was, cut her free."

"Did it work? Have you seen her since?"

"Not done yet."

"Oh. Sorry."

"A couple years went by, and I traveled around Colorado and did some theater workshops in Utah and Arizona. Finally, for some reason, I decided to go back home, and find her. I headed up to Boulder, and by the grace of god, was accepted. I remember how bad my stomach used to lurch every time I'd walk the campus, my eyes always looking for her. I craved seeing her, and dreaded it all at the same time. Then one day it happened. She was working some sort of club table, and I saw her, talking to another student. We became friends again, then we became best friends again. I had pretty much made the decision then that nothing would ever happen between us again. Never. She was my best friend, my soul mate, but that would be all. My heart couldn't take it again, couldn't fall for her only to be ripped out again." She sighed long and heavy. "That whole thing about good intentions paving the road to hell…"

"What happened?" Rachel was almost breathless as she waited for more.

"We made love," Beth said simply. I couldn't resist her anymore. I loved her so much, and I guess needed to show her. It was truly the most amazing night of my life, Rachel. As long as I live, I'll never forget it."

"What happened?" The blonde was surprised to see tears suddenly spring to Beth's beautiful blue eyes.

"I let her go," she said, voice thick with emotion. "I had to."

"But why? You obviously love her so much. She loved you, too, right?"

Beth nodded. "You know, that was five years ago, and it's something that has haunted me ever since. I think I always looked up to her so much, always admired her drive, her ambition, who she was, that I never thought I measured up, you know? I was so afraid that someday she'd be so successful, practicing law somewhere, and she'd look at me and say, who are you? What have you done with your life? I couldn't take it if she was ashamed of me, Rachel."

"Do you really think she'd do that?" the author asked softly, now facing the actress, an arm around her shoulders. It looked as though Beth were almost in tears.

"At the time, yes. Now, no. Away from the situation and far more confident in who I am as a person, and what I've accomplished, I realize that it was simply the insecurities of a girl who had no idea who she truly was."

"It's not too late, Beth."

The actress smiled, bringing up a hand to briefly touch the author's face in appreciation of the determined fire in her eyes. "I saw her recently, you know. Well, last summer. I was doing a show, and I saw her leaving, holding the hand of another woman."

"Oh, Beth. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. The reason I'm telling you all this is because I don't want you to make the same mistake, Rachel. Don't let something that was meant to be get away."

Rachel nodded, her own tears threatening. "What's her name?"



"Got everything?" Joni asked, looking around the small space Denny had been calling home for two and a half months.

"Yep. Everything I'm taking, anyway. Hope you don't mind, but uh , well, your trash bin is preeeeety full." Denny cracked a grin at the eye roll that earned.

"Where will you go?" All amusement aside, Joni was truly concerned for her friend.

"I'm not sure. I know of one stop I'll make here before I go, but," the brunette shrugged. "Just… go. I'll just keep going until I find a place that feels like home."

"Please be careful," Joni whispered into Denny's ear as she took her into a tight hug. Denny nodded, eyes squeezed shut. She'd miss the older woman, who had been such a wonderful friend to her.

"I will. I promise." Released, Denny gave her old friend a brave smile. Joni walked her out to her packed van, a cooler filled with food and drink in the passenger seat, a box of CDs on the floor. Joni opened the door for her, Denny setting in. She could feel the older woman's eyes on her, making sure she buckled up.

"Take care, sweet girl," Joni said, leaning in through the open window to kiss the brunette on the cheek. She felt like her little girl was leaving her again, just when she'd gotten her back into her life.

Denny adjusted her rearview mirror, checking her side mirror as well. She'd never done something so crazy before, but felt good about it. Keeping an eye on the road, Denny reached over to the glove compartment, digging around for her sunglasses when she hissed, slicing her finger on something. Stopping at a red traffic light, she bent over to see what it was, surprised to see a sealed, slightly plump envelope. Plucking it from its cubby, she held it up, seeing her name printed in neat, block letter on the front. Tearing it open, she saw a note written in the same, neat writing, and a ten one hundred dollar bills. Tears came to her eyes as she began to read:

JONI & STEVE           


Return to the Academy