She hated the stares. Why did people have to stare? It was rude, disconcerting, and it really ticked Clara off. She sat with her back against the wall, as was her lunch habit, watching her fellow high school students. She was baffled as to why she’d been going to John Freed for nearly half a semester, and yet she hadn’t made one friend. There had to be something terribly wrong with that picture.
She bit into her egg salad sandwich, relishing in the tangy taste of lots of Miracle Whip. That had always been one problem when her mom made it: too much egg, not enough of the good stuff.
Clara had tried to get a table, since it was far too cold to eat outside anymore, and she had learned from that first day not to sit against the lockers anymore. She had found herself a fairly clean spot on the floor, which was cold tile, and was giving her chills through the seat of her jeans. She glanced down at her half-eaten sandwich as she chewed, fingering a large chunk of egg before plucking it out and popping it into her mouth. It was then that she noticed a pair of black combat boots standing not three feet from her.
The Goth girl from the locker incident looked down at her, a smirk on her red-slashed lips. “Hey,” she said.
“I’m not in front of your locker,” Clara said defensively. The girl had never spoken a word to her, other than to be incredibly rude.
“Very observant.” The girl squatted down to Clara’s level and looked into her eyes, leaning in a bit to get a better look. “You have got some wicked eyes,” she said. “Like the color of twilight or something.”
Clara felt uncomfortable at the up close and personal scrutiny, and looked away. “Thanks.”
“You’re Clara,” the girl pointed out, a self-satisfied smile on her face.
“Yes. I know.” Clara wasn’t sure what to think of this girl. She looked at her face, what she could see beneath the black hair that hid a lot of it.
“I’m Erica.” Without invitation, she sat down where she’d been squatting. “You’re the one who got ‘lost’ right?”
Clara grimaced. Lost? Was that the rumor? “I didn’t get lost,” she muttered, tossing the rest of her sandwich into the brown paper lunch sack.
A grin split Erica’s face wide open. “That’s what I thought.” She leaned forward, her dark eyes boring into Clara’s. “You saw him, too, didn’t you?”
Clara could only stare back at the girl. She was trying to read her, get a vibe off her. Was Erica playing a game with her? Trying to make her look stupid? Would she run back to her friends and tell them all about the “freak”? “Saw who?” she asked, deciding to play it safe.
“The man. He has one of those little paper-boy hats,” she said, demonstrating with her hand. “My mom used to work here in the lunch room. She used to see him all the time. Said he carried a big hammer, too.”
“It’s a wrench,” Clara said automatically.
Erica got excited. “I knew it! I knew you saw him, too!”
Clara mentally smacked herself upside the head. “Yes, I did. I followed him.”
“My mom would love to hear the story. She’s a witch and gets into all that shit.” Erica reached into her backpack and pulled out a notepad. She spoke as she scribbled something on it. “She owns this shop now. It’s down on Prairie.” She tore off the sheet and handed it to Clara. “You should go there some time. She’d like to meet you. I told her all about you.” Erica grinned wickedly.
Clara felt a flush of heat wash over here, and quickly pushed it aside, unsure of where it stemmed from, and feeling uncomfortable with it. “Why?”
Erica zipped her backpack up and slung it over a shoulder as she was about to stand. “Because she’s interested in new talent.” Getting to her feet, she ran a hand through her hair, pushing it away from her face, only for it to fall back. “I’m having a party at my place next weekend. You should come.”
Clara felt her heart stop, and a cold sweat break out over her body. She swallowed. “What kind of party?”
“The fun kind. I wrote my address n that paper I gave you along with my mom’s store. If you want to come, it’s Saturday night, around nine-thirty or ten.” With that, she walked away.
Clara watched her go, her stomach in knots at the prospect – part excitement, part dread of having to meet new people in a completely unfamiliar environment. “Man, I wish you were here, Jason,” she muttered, and got up to throw her lunch away.
“If you need anything, you call me. Okay?” Max looked at his daughter through the darkness of the cab of the truck. He could tell she was scared, but truly thought it was a good idea for her to go. She hadn’t made much of an attempt at making any new friends since Jason’s death, and even when he’d been alive, hadn’t had many. He didn’t understand it: Clara was a beautiful young girl with a wonderful intellect and sense of humor. What wasn’t to like? Granted, he might be a bit biased.
Clara blew out a long breath, scrubbing her palms on the thighs of her jeans. She nodded, glancing over at the house they were parked in front of. It was a modest home, nothing huge or too small. It looked average, sitting in an average neighborhood. “It’ll be fine,” she blew out, more to convince herself than her father.
“Of course it will, sweetpea.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Go have a good time. Just be smart. I’ll be back at midnight.”
Clara nodded again, then gathering her courage, reached for the door handle and let herself out, stepping into the cold, October air. She knew her dad was watching her as she made her way up the walk. In one way she wished he’d just go, as she felt like a dork having her dad drop her off. But, on the other side of that very nervous token, she was glad. What if it was a joke after all, and nobody was even home, and Erica had given her a bogus address?
“Stop it, stop it, stop it,” she muttered angrily to herself, trying not to let the butterflies in her stomach get the best of her. Before she could take another step, the porch light flicked on, and the front door opened. Erica was standing in the warm entrance dressed in her usual all-black attire, a welcoming smile – as much as she was seen giving, anyway – on her lips.
“Hey. Come in.”
Clara heard the loud engine of her father’s truck rumble off into the night as the front door closed behind her. The inside of the house was dim as they entered what looked to be a typical family room: TV, sofas, low wooden and glass tables and framed pictures on the walls, though it was entirely too dim to see what they were of.
“Can I take your coat?” Erica asked, tugging at the lapel of Clara’s leather jacket. She took it once Clara shrugged out of it. Erica folded it over an arm and headed down a hallway that Clara figured was probably the bedrooms.
She walked further into the house, realizing the single light source was coming from the kitchen, and that was a lamp that had dark red cloth covering its shade. There was a breakfast bar where two teenaged boys were sitting, each sipping from a beer. Clara thought she recognized one of them from the halls at school, but wasn’t sure on the other. Like Erica, they were dressed in dark clothing, one wearing dark eyeliner.
“Hey,” one said, the other raising his beer in salute.
“Hi.” Clara felt near nude standing there, unsure of why she was even there.
“Want a beer?” Erica asked, entering the room and heading to the fridge.
“Um, sure.” Clara had never had a beer before, and didn’t really want one, but figured she might as well try and fit in as much as possible. She took the cold bottle that was handed to her, trying to ignore the jolt that passed through her hand and up her arm as Erica’s finger grazed hers during the transfer.
“Is Richard coming?” the boy Clara recognized asked, finishing his beer and setting the empty bottle next to two others. He accepted the fresh drink Erica offered him.
“Yep. He’s bringing the twins with him, too.”
Clara made her way to the opposite side of the kitchen as the breakfast bar, leaning back against the stove so she could observe. Her gaze scanned the outfits the boys were wearing – black pants with chains hanging off them, the pants so huge she couldn’t even tell what kind of shoes they were wearing. One was wearing a black concert tee, the other a black tank top. She glanced over at Erica, who was resting her folded arms on the breakfast bar countertop. Her pants were her usual baggy black ones with the heavy combat boots. Her shirt, however, was a deep purple in the dim light of the lamp. It was tight and very fitted to her breasts and flat stomach.
She tore her eyes away only to find she met the other guy’s dead on. He smirked at her and took a drink from his beer. It wasn’t long before people began to show up – more Goth, Morticia Addams types. Clara felt like she was completely out of her element, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it. She had finished her first beer, and was starting on her second, which one of the guys had so kindly brought to her, the cap already popped.
The people around her were laughing and talking, enjoying each others company. Clara stood back, watching and listening, amused a few times at some of the snippets of conversation she’d been able to take in. Erica zoomed back and forth from the main area of the house where her friends were gathered and the back bedroom, putting away and grabbing coats as people came and went.
As Clara took a long swallow from her second beer, she began to feel a bit dizzy, as though her head were filled with cotton. She set the bottle of beer down, reaching out to grab onto the breakfast bar counter. She blinked several times, finally squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head, trying to shake off the effects of the moderate, inexperienced drinker-buzz she was on.
She turned and looked at the covered lamp in the kitchen, and realized that instead of the muted red light it had once been, it was now a strange gray light, as though the color had been bled from it. She looked around the room, trying to focus. It wasn’t exactly black and white, but more like what room would look like if moonlight shining in through a window were the only light during a dark night.
She made her way towards the dining room table, seeing that it was still there, though now it had a strange shape to it, was smaller, and not dark wood. Her footfalls echoed off of wood flooring rather than the carpet which she’d been walking all night.
Looking up, Clara gasped, as there was a figure standing not two feet from her. He was a tall man, maybe in his fifties. His face was heavily lined, and the stench of cigarettes clung to him. He said nothing, simply looked at her, his eyes hard and unfeeling. She staggered back away from him, reaching back to catch herself on the breakfast bar counter, only to fall to the ground. She looked up and saw there was no breakfast bar counter. Only open space leading into the kitchen.
Quickly getting to her feet, she made her way towards the living room, bumping into something that she couldn’t see. Feeling hands on her, she screamed out, lurching away from those hands, nearly running over a small boy who looked up at her with sad eyes. He wore knickers and leather buckle shoes. He reached for her, but Clara was too terrified to take his hand.
Relax. It’s okay. Just relax.
Clara wondered if those were her thoughts, or did she just hear that in her head?
Erica’s party guests watched Clara with fear and confusion. She seemed to be on some sort of bad trip, though they knew nothing like that could be happening. She was screaming out at something, lashing out at thin air. She had run into a couple of the gathered group, and when they’d tried to help her, she’s only scream and try to get away. The girl’s eyes were wide and wild, filled with absolute terror.
“What the hell did you put in her drink?” Jacob Phillips asked his friend, Derrick.
“Nothing, I swear. I chickened out.” He saw the doubtful look on his friend’s face. “I swear, dude. I didn’t.”
Clara found herself in an open room, which she knew had been the living room of Erica’s house. The furniture was gone, as was the TV. She saw looming shadows groups, and felt her heart begin to race when she saw them move towards her. She felt like she was trapped in a horror movie.
She had to run! She darted down a long, narrow hallway, throwing herself into the first open door she found, slamming the door behind her. She pressed her forehead into the cool wood, crying out when she felt hands on her shoulders.
Erica barely missed being slugged by a terrified Clara. “Hey!” she said, shaking the girl to try and get her attention. Clara’s eyes were huge, the pupils dilated. She looked through Erica as though she didn’t even realize Erica was there. “Hey, hey, hey. Clara. Come back. It’s Erica.”
Clara heard her name and stopped, listening to the voice. Clara. Erica. I know that name. She blinked, trying to focus, seeing her new friend when she did.
“Hey,” Erica cupped Clara’s face in her hands, holding the trembling girl’s face still. “It’s okay. What’s wrong? What happened?” Erica’s own heart was pounding in her chest.
“I wasn’t here,” Clara cried, her voice a high-pitched rush. “There was a man. And a boy. It wasn’t here. It was so scary. Dark.”
Erica listened, remembering her own mother talking about that very place. She grinned, taking a half step away from Clara. “Sounds like you ended up in the after shadow.”
Clara took several cleansing breaths, then looked at Erica for the first time since she’d crashed into the room. “What?”
“Come on. Sit.”
Clara looked around for the first time and figured she’d stumbled into Erica’s bedroom. The overhead light was on, but the walls were draped in black fabric, and the window had a heavy, black drape over it. Candles were placed on just about anything that would sit still, though none were lit.
She was led to a double bed, and with gentle pressure put on her shoulder, sat down.
“I’ll be right back. Stay here, okay?” At Clara’s nod, Erica left the room, closing the door securely behind her.
Erica marched up the hall, turning on every light she passed until the entire house was lit up like a Christmas tree. Noticing the new atmosphere, the party guests stopped talking, turning to see a seething Erica standing in their midst.
“Alright, which of you fuckers did it?” she asked, arms crossed over her chest.
Everyone looked at her, then at each other, confused. “What are you talking about?” a girl named Lacey asked.
“Which one of you put something in Clara’s drink?”
Jacob looked at Derrick. He smacked him with his shoulder. “Derrick did.”
“What?” Derrick sputtered, his face turning crimson. “I didn’t! I swear it, Erica. I was going to, but I totally chickened out. I swear!” He reached into his pocket, pulling out the tiny plastic bag with the white powder in it. The bag was still obviously full.
“I think this was her drink, and it smells fine,” someone else said, holding up the mostly-full beer Clara had left on the breakfast bar.
Still doubtful, and a little worried, Erica decided to call it a night. “Everyone out.”
Groaning and muttering their disapproval, the crowd filtered out, plans to continue the party at someone else’s house called out to a rush of cheers of agreement. Once the place was empty, Erica went back into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Clara was exactly where she’d left her, though she’d fallen back on the bed, her feet still on the floor, one forearm resting over her eyes.
“You okay?” She sat down next to her, putting a hand on Clara’s leg.
“Fine, other than feeling like I was stepped on by a moose. On my head.”
Erica smiled at that. “Listen, I need to ask you something, and need you to answer honestly, okay?”
Clara blew out a breath and nodded, pulling herself to sit up. “Okay.”
“Did you take anything, or do you remember anyone offering you anything, or giving you anything?”
Clara shook her head immediately. “No. Nothing like that.”
“You’re sure? Did you drink taste funny? Like, kind of bitter, maybe?”
Clara thought about it for a moment, then shook her head again. “No.”
“You don’t do drugs on your own, do you?” Erica was baffled. She kicked off her combat boots, curling her legs up as she turned to face Clara on her bed.
“God, no. I never have. I don’t believe in them.” Clara looked at her with innocent eyes, not sure why Erica looked so confused. “What?”
“So, you’re telling me that you got to the after shadow without the help of drugs of any kind?” The doubt in her voice was obvious.
“Well, I don’t know. I think you should tell me what the after shadow is before I can answer that question.”
“You don’t know what that is?” Erica was stunned when Clara shook her head. She could tell the girl was telling the truth. “It’s the spirit realm. Well, actually, they say we all live in the after shadow all the time, and that’s how people see ghosts, and that kind of stuff. But, where you went was the dark side of the after shadow. It’s the place where spirits get stuck. My mom says it’s creepy as shit. Was it?”
Clara nodded, a shiver passing through her. “Yes.” She hugged herself.
“Man, that’s cool. My mom always takes some sort of herb to get there. I can’t believe you went on your own! What was it like?”
Clara closed her eyes, trying to bring back the moment and remember how it started. Her head felt fuzzy, her memory seemingly affected by what had happened to her moments before. “I don’t know,” she murmured, staring up at the darkened ceiling, trying to bring back the moments. “I guess it felt like being a stranger in a very strange land, and I didn’t belong there. It was almost like being awake and trapped in a nightmare. Very strange,” she whispered, her thoughts drifting off, back to what Erica called the after shadow.
“You’ve got to meet my mom. She will absolutely love you!”
“I don’t know,” Clara sighed, sitting up. She ran her hands through her hair, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. A glance at Erica’s bedside alarm clock told her it was nearly midnight. Her father would be there any moment. “I need to go. My dad will be here in three minutes.”
Erica glanced at the clock then back to the girl sitting on her bed. “Will you hang out with me tomorrow?” she asked, trying to mask the hope in her voice, but not doing a stellar job of it.
Clara was surprised by the invitation. She got to her feet and stretched. “Um, sure. What do you want to do?”
Erica shrugged, also standing. “I don’t know.” A wicked grin spread across her face. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
Clara finished picking her clothes up off the floor of her bedroom – something which she had promised her father she would do before bed – and then stripped out of her clothing from that day, leaving it trailed on the floorboards leading to her bed. The night was cold, so she decided to forgo her usual tank top and panties, and put on her flannel pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. The bed was beginning to warm up, as she turned on her electric blanket before she began to clean up her bedroom.
As she lay in the dark, she thought back over the night at Erica’s. She didn’t want to think about the beer, or the friends, and certainly not the after shadow. Instead her thoughts drifted to more pleasurable thoughts. Erica. A small smile spread across her face as she pictured the pretty girl. Erica was a Junior. As Clara thought about her and pictured her, she felt a flush wash through her, as she suddenly knew that Erica liked her. But, what was she supposed to do with that? The topic of Clara’s sexuality had never come up with her parents.
“Oh boy,” she murmured, then with a sigh, rolled over to her side and closed her eyes.
Sleep was somewhat restless, and Clara couldn’t stop fidgeting. She was in a strange place between sleep and awake, where strange dreams and visions came at her, yet she was not fully resting, and somewhere inside she was very aware of the surroundings in her bedroom.
Clara wrestled with the sheets, her body reacting to hearing her name.
Clara. Open your eyes.
Fear swept through her. She knew she was not alone in the room, yet didn’t feel that she was in any danger, per se. She just knew that something was very off.
Clara. Open your eyes for me.
Outside the window a car backfired as it drove down the street. Clara was ripped out of her state of delirium. She sat up, chest heaving. Looking around the dark bedroom, she saw nothing, not even in the corner. She ran a hand through her hair, leaving it to stand on end.
“God, what was that about?” She glanced at her alarm clock and groaned when she saw it was only just after four in the morning. She felt exhausted, her eyes like sandpaper had been rubbed into them. She flopped back into the pillow and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she decided to give it another try, this time pushing the blankets off her. She always slept better cold, so maybe that would help.
Within minutes, Clara grabbed her covers, bringing them up to her chin. She felt incredibly exposed and vulnerable, and had no idea why. Closing her eyes, she tried to relax herself enough to fall back to sleep. She felt her body began to calm, her chest rising and falling under soft, even breaths. She could feel her body beginning to float off into relaxation and down into sleep.
Clara. Open your eyes for me. Open your eyes.
Clara wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or not. She felt her body react, a thrill of fear and uncertainty reaching into the very depths of her soul.
Don’t be afraid, Clara. Open your eyes….
Clara wasn’t entirely sure what state exactly she was in. Was she awake? Was she asleep? Wherever she was, she opened her eyes, and standing beside her bed was the beautiful woman with the dark hair that she’d now seen twice.
“Who are you?” she asked, looking into dark, twinkling eyes.
It’s time for us to begin, Clara.
“Begin what?” Clara sat up, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs.
The woman’s voice was soft, filled with kindness. “I’ve seen you before.”
The woman smiled, nodding.
Many times. More than you realize. I need you to have faith.
Clara felt fuzzy and confused. She was so tired. “Faith? In what?”
The woman smiled again, then began to back away from the bed.
Have faith, Clara. I’ll be back soon.
Clara found herself staring into a dark bedroom, completely alone. She blinked several times in utter confusion. Had she just seen a woman standing next to her bed? A woman dressed in a simply black dress, her hair pinned back away from her face. Or was she just simply crazy? She buried her face in her hands.
“I’m so confused.”
“I have to say,” Max said, amusement in his voice. “You look like shit.”
Clara glared at him, then turned back to her cereal, head resting against the palm of her hand. “Thanks.”
“Look, I’m not going to yell at you for drinking, because I know you’ll do it anyway. But,” he said, pointing his spoon at her, a small chunk of Chex sticking to the rounded back. “don’t you ever come to my breakfast table hung over again.” Feeling his fatherly duty was done, he tucked back into her cereal.
“I’m not hung over, Dad.”
Max looked at her, surprised at Clara’s denial. He thought he’d been pretty easy on her. “That’s a load of crap.”
“I had two beers, yes. Well, one and part of another one, but that’s it.”
“Then why do you look like hammered shit?”
“Sorry. I was born with this face.”
Max threw his head back and laughed, loud and deep. “Oh, you’re priceless, Kid.” He got up, taking his empty coffee cup with him, refilling it and returning to the table. “If you’re not hung over, what’s wrong with you?”
“I didn’t sleep very well.” Clara dug through her bowl of Lucky Charms until she had plucked out all of the rainbow marshmallow pieces.
“That mattress again, huh? We can get you another one-“
“Try some lady was bugging me all night. ‘Clara, open your eyes. Open your eyes,’” she whispered, wiggling her fingers in a show of monstrous creepiness.
Max looked at her, a brow raised. “What?”
The girl nodded. “Yep. Some woman – a spirit – was in my room most the night.” She took a bite of her cereal and chewed, her brow creased in thought. “You know, I think she’s been haunting me my whole life.”
Max stared at his daughter, coffee cup halfway to his mouth. There she sat, talking about some ghost woman that stays in her room at night like she was talking about what she should do with her Saturday afternoon. “That’s creepy, Clara.”
Clara shrugged, taking a drink of her orange juice. “Not really. I think she’s fairly harmless.”
“Did she tell you who she is?”
Clara shook her head. “Nope. We didn’t get to formal introductions.”
Max smirked and turned back to his breakfast.
“Does it bother you? This stuff that I do?” Clara indicated the space around her with her spoon. Her father looked up, meeting her gaze. “You know, the spirits and stuff.”
“No. Should it?”
“Well, no. But, does it creep you out at all? Make you uncomfortable?” Clara nearly held her breath. She wasn’t sure why she was asking, because she’d never gotten that feeling from him before. In fact, he’d always seemed interested in what she did and saw. But, somehow she had the feeling that her abilities, or “gifts” as she’d heard them referred to, would become even more a part of her life soon. Very soon.
“Not at all. In fact, I think it’s great. I admire you for what you can do.”
Clara looked away, feeling suddenly shy by the compliment. “I don’t do anything,” she muttered. “It just happens.”
“That may be, but you’ve got the guts to go for it. You don’t block it out like your mom did.” Max’s eyes grew big and he tucked his lower lip into his mouth.
Clara grinned. “It’s okay. We had a talk. She told me about everything.”
“Oh. Okay. Good. I never knew why she didn’t want me to say anything.” Max sipped his coffee.
“Because she was ashamed. Her aunt and uncle made her feel like she was doing something wrong. She was weird, or a freak, as Kerri is so fond of saying.”
“Eh, Kerri’s the freak,” Max said, winking with a devilish grin.
“I agree. I’ve been saying that for years, but no one would listen.”
Max got quiet for a moment, deep in thought. There had been something he’d been wanting to ask Clara for a week, but had chickened out every time. He glanced at her, saw that she was thoroughly engaged in her own thoughts and her Lucky Charms, so turned back to his own breakfast. Finally he sighed, putting his spoon down. “Clara, I need to ask you something.”
“Shoot,” she said, shoving a large spoonful of cereal into her mouth.
“How would you feel if I started dating?”
Clara stopped chewing and looked up at him. “You mean that woman you were fucking before?”
Max sighed, holding his temper down. “I’m going to give you one free pass with a comment like that because I know what I did was crappy. But only one,” he held up a finger to emphasize his point. “And you just used it up, kiddo. Got it?”
Clara nodded, trying to stamp her own anger down. She swallowed the rest of the food that was in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of orange juice. She was trying to stall for time before she had to answer. She could feel his eyes on her, though. Finally she sighed, running a hand through her already morning-mussed hair.
“Why are you asking me?” she asked at length.
“Because I respect you, and your opinion. I don’t want to hurt you anymore than I already have. Or Kerri. But, what’s done is done, and I’ve made my decisions in life, and I want to move on.”
“So, there’s no chance that you and mom will ever get back together, is there?” Clara tried to be brave, tried to be the little adult she knew her father needed her to be.
“Clara, there were a lot of problems between your mom and me. We didn’t share them with you girls because we wanted to protect you.” He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe that was a mistake. But, we did what we thought was right at the time. The problems had been there for years. It wasn’t just something that popped up over night.”
“A guy said that when someone cheats it’s because there’s something at home they’re not getting. Is that true?”
Max smiled. “Who said that? You been watching Oprah again?”
“Montel Williams, actually.”
Max chuckled. “Yeah, I’d say that’s about right. There was something missing in your mom’s and my relationship.”
“Was she a bad wife?” Clara asked, pushing her nearly-finished cereal away.
Max shook his head. “No. And it’s not that simple. You’ll understand more once you get into a relationship of your own. Sometimes,” he sighed and shrugged. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work. People grow apart.”
Clara knew he was right, there was no way she could fully understand without experiencing it herself. It still made her sad, though. “Well, I guess then you have to do what you have to do.” She pushed back from the table and stood up. “I need to get in the shower.” She cleaned her dishes and stowed them in the dishwasher, then turned to her father. “If you want to date, Dad, I’m not going to stand in your way.”
Max watched his daughter leave the room, feeling the resigned sadness radiate off her. It made him feel sad, too. Sad for her and Kerri, sad for Stephanie, and sad for himself. He so often wondered what went so wrong? Where had his life slid off course from he saw from himself over twenty years ago, when he’d proposed to Stephanie Holdridge. Back then she had been a young, beautiful, vibrant girl of seventeen, just about to graduate from high school. He’d fallen in love with her spirit from the first time he’d seen her. Despite the harsh hand life had dealt her already by that time, she hadn’t lost her spunk for life, nor her hope for the future.
“What happened, Steph?” he muttered to the empty kitchen.
“Are you sure you don’t mind? I don’t want to push you, or anything,” Erica said, her eyes never leaving the road.
“No, that’s fine. I’m cool with it.” Clara held her hands in her lap, looking every bit the polite little girl as she sat in the passenger seat of Erica’s 4Runner. Her emotions were tied up in a mixture of nerves and excitement. She was nervous as hell because Erica made her nervous, for some reason, and she was excited, because it felt good to be out with a friend again. It had been a very long time. Since Jason’s death that summer.
“I figure, we can kill two birds with one stone.” Erica stopped for a red traffic light, only then glancing over at her passenger. She grinned. “Lighten up, Clara. You look scared to death over there, huddled next to the door.” She pushed playfully at Clara’s shoulder. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Clara took a deep breath, nodding as she slowly let it out. “Sorry. Guess I’m just a little keyed up.”
“It’s okay. I just don’t want you to be afraid. No reason. I’m perfectly harmless.” She grinned and laughed. “For the most part. Anyway, I figured we’d kill two birds with one stone by dropping by my mom’s shop so I can deliver that package I told you about, and introduce you to her. She’s dying to meet you.”
“Okay. I’m fine with that, really.”
“Cool.” They drove on in silence for several blocks before Erica spoke again. “Listen, about last night. I was thinking a lot about it today before I picked you up. I think it’s pretty amazing what you did. Have you ever done that before?”
Clara shook her head. “No. Never. And I’ve never heard of the after shadow before, either.”
“Well, if you’re interested my mom can fill you in a lot more than I can. Did I tell you she’s a witch?” At Clara’s nod, she continued. “I don’t fully understand all that stuff,” Erica said, waving off the idea. “I think it’s cool and stuff, but I don’t really like the spells and all that. Just creeps me out. But you…” She glanced at her passenger. “You’re the real deal I think. Like, the real deal.”
Clara felt slightly uncomfortable at Erica’s enthusiasm. She really didn’t want to be the focus of the discussion anymore, and she certainly didn’t want their entire day to revolve around what she could or couldn’t do. “Erica, would you think I was a total bitch if I asked that we don’t talk about my abilities?” She saw the confusion on Erica’s face.
“Why? I don’t think you’re a bitch, but why? It’s so cool! You’re very special, Clara.”
Clara shrugged. “Maybe today I just don’t want to be special.”
Erica studied her for a long moment, then smiled with a nod. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m just excited.’
“It’s okay. I’m excited about myself just about every other day, too.”
Erica burst into laughter, turning on Prairie that would lead to her mother’s store.
The Pagan was located off the busy intersection of Prairie and Thorp Streets. The squat, brick building was nestled between two taller ones. The store front was made up of two huge window, posters and coverings blocking view of the inside. A bell jangled softly as Erica pushed the glass door open. As they walked in, Clara’s senses were immediately assaulted by strong incense and soft Indian music.
The walls of the shop were painting a deep purple, much of the wall space covered by hangings of deep red sheer material, much like the walls of Erica’s bedroom. Shelves displayed various candles, books and canisters of incense. Pagan jewelry and symbolism were also offered under the glass of a locked case.
A tall, rail-thin woman was draped in material, that Clara supposed would be called a dress. The free-flowing material billowed around her every time she moved. Her deep red hair was piled on top of her head, large earrings batting against her long neck with every movement of her head.
“Hey, Cassandra,” Erica said, walking over to the woman, who stood behind the counter. “Here’s your package.”
Clara followed Erica, but continued to look around. She could immediately feel eagle-like eyes on her. She turned to find the woman Erica called Cassandra eyeing her. Her eyes were dark and sharp, much like Erica’s.
“Cassandra, this is Clara. Clara, this is my mom.” Erica made the introductions casually. Clara was surprised, wondering why Erica called her mother by her first name.
“Nice to meet you, my dear.” Cassandra breezed out from behind the counter, never taking her eyes off Clara. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Clara could hear a slight accenting lilt to the woman’s voice. Romanian, perhaps? Cassandra placed heavily ringed hands on either side of Clara’s face, her touch gentle. She looked deeply into the girl’s eyes, causing Clara to want badly to squirm. “You have the gift, that is for sure,” she said at last.
“How do you know?” Clara asked, taking an unconscious step back from the woman once she was released.
Cassandra went back behind the counter, taking a very sharp dagger and slicing into the tape on the box Erica had brought her. “I see it in your eyes, child. Such beautiful eyes. The soul of one who’s subconscious mind has been unlocked. That’s what I see.” She gave an approving sigh as she unpacked several silver candle holders shaped in the form of a praying goddess.
Clara also looked at the candle holders, thinking them beautiful, if a bit gaudy.
“Well, Cassandra, we’re going to head out,” Erica announced, grabbing Clara’s hand and tugging her towards the door.
“You girls have fun,” the older woman said, eyeing the two for a moment before her gaze locked on Clara. “You come back, Clara. I’d love to speak with you.”
“Okay. Um, it was nice to meet you,” Clara said before she was yanked out into the cold day. Erica let go of her hand as they headed towards her car. “Your mom seems nice.” She buckled herself in. “Why do you call her Cassandra, though?”
“Because that’s her name,” Erica said simply, as though that answered everything.
“Oh.” Clara was quiet for a moment, chewing on her lower lip as they merged into traffic. “But, why don’t you call her ‘mom’?”
“Because she’s not.”
“What? Wait. Now I’m really confused.”
Erica grinned, never taking her eyes off the road. “You hungry? Want some lunch?”
“Yeah. My Lucky Charms didn’t last long, I’m afraid,” Clara said, placing a hand on her stomach.
For anyone who was lucky enough to watch Clara eat a sandwich, it was a real interesting experience. Erica sat across from her at a sub shop, one dark brow raised in question. Clara had picked her turkey and American cheese sandwich apart, smearing onto the bread mayo, ketchup and a dab of honey. The stems of the three jalapeños she’d added could be seen sticking out the sides. She put the whole concoction back together, and happily took a bite.
“What?” she managed around the food in her mouth.
“That was disgusting,” Erica said, her own sandwich still in its wax paper wrapper. “Do you actually kiss someone after you’ve eaten something so gross?”
Clara grinned, shaking her head. “Can’t say as I’ve had to worry about that, no.”
“Well,” Erica said, sipping from her Coke. “You sure as hell wouldn’t be kissing me after that.”
Clara looked down at the table, her face flushed with excited embarrassment. She finally managed to mutter, “I’ll remember that.”
“Good. You do that.” Erica was amused as she watched Clara’s flush deepen. Bingo. “Does it bother you?” she asked, intentionally being vague. She ripped a bite from her meatball sandwich.
“Does what bother me?” Clara finally was able to make eye contact with the Goth girl.
“When I flirt with you?” Erica popped a Lay’s potato chip into her mouth, never taking her eyes off Clara.
Clara swallowed, butterflies doing battle dome in her stomach. She shook her head. “No.”
“Good.” Erica turned her attention fully on her lunch, intentionally leaving Clara to ponder over that little bit of conversation. She had liked Clara since the first time she’d seen her, wondering around the mall the summer before. Erica had been working, so hadn’t been able to talk to the beautiful girl, but had gotten – and blown – her chance in the restroom later that same day.
Erica had thought that was pretty much it, and Clara was one that got away until she saw her sitting against her locker during lunch on the first day of school. Almost like a gift, all wrapped up and delivered. Then she’d blown it again, by being aggressive. Now was, hopefully, another shot. She didn’t want to blow this, especially since she’d could sense that Clara was if not interested, could definitely be persuaded to be. After the boiler room incident at the school – which everyone knew about – Erica knew her best chance to get in might be Cassandra, and Clara’s own abilities. It had worked, and here they were, eating lunch together and whiling away a Saturday.
Clara was caught up in her own thoughts as she forced the rest of her sandwich down. She felt nervous, her stomach tied up in knots. Though Erica was fully engaged in eating her lunch, Clara could still feel a strong energy coming from her. It was like a heat wave washing over her.
While Erica was busy eating, Clara took the chance to really study her new friend. She wondered what color Erica’s hair actually was. She tried to tell by the roots, but wasn’t able. Maybe her hair was naturally dark? Clara didn’t think so. Her gaze traveled to what she could see of Erica’s face, made more possible as Erica tucked one side behind her ear so it wouldn’t get into her food. She was able to study her face. Dark eyes were topped by delicate arched brows, which if used correctly, could seem quite sexy, or quite bitchy. Erica’s features were small and petit, much like her body structure.
Clara’s inspection was cut short when her gaze was met by twinkling dark eyes.
“Tell me about you. Are you new to the area?” Erica sat back in her chair, her appetite sated. “I don’t remember you from any of the schools around here.”
“I was born and raised here, but I used to live on the south side. My parents split over the summer, and I live with my dad now. That’s why I go here. My sister is a senior at South.”
“Oh wow. That sucks. I’m sorry to hear that. You and your dad close?”
“Yeah. Very.” Clara picked at her Lay’s chips, deciding she didn’t want them. “We were close before, but something happened over the summer that made me go live with him.”
Erica could tell by Clara’s expression that it was painful for her. “Hey,” she said, reaching across the table and lightly touching Clara’s arm. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“No. It’s okay.” Clara took a deep breath and let it out before taking a quick sip of her drink. “My best friend Jason was killed this past summer, and I saw it all happen in a dream. I was warned, and my mom wouldn’t let me call him or his dad to tell them.”
“Jeez! What a bitch!” Erica exclaimed, disgust on her face.
“Well, hold on a sec.” Clara explained the talk she’d had with her mother, and though it didn’t fix what had happened with Jason and the dream she’d had, it helped Clara to understand.
“Wow. You must have gotten your abilities from your mom, then. It’s usually hereditary, and through the mom. So I hear, anyway,” Erica amended. “It’s still not right, though. Your mom not letting you call, knowing how gifted you are.”
Clara shrugged. “Nothing I can do about it, you know? I have to think that maybe Jason was supposed to die. I wasn’t supposed to be able to help him.” She sighed, playing with her straw. “That’s how I sleep at night, anyway.”
Clara leaned against the post that held the No Parking sign, her bottom lip tucked between her teeth. She stared at the store front, the CLOSED sign staring back at her. According to the posted store hours, Cassandra would be opening the shop any minute.
She put her hands in her coat pockets, her fingers wrapping around the bus ticket she’d bought. She couldn’t wait until she turned sixteen over the summer. Her father kept telling her there was no car in her near-future, but she somehow doubted that. Maybe she could get a job and help pay for it.
“Good morning, Clara.”
Clara mumped in surprise at the voice that suddenly appeared to her right. She looked to see Cassandra smiling in greeting. “Good morning.”
“Early bird shopper?” the older woman asked, teasing in her voice. She dug out a heavy key ring and slid a silver key into the lock of the store. She held the door open for Clara to follow her inside.
“Yeah. Guess so,” Clara said, closing the door behind her, and turning the lock as instructed. She was grateful to get out of the bitter cold of the October day, her cheeks red and nose running. Unsure of what to do or where to do, she stood in the center of the store, hands still in her pockets. Cassandra unwrapped her scarf and unbuttoned her coat as she made her way around the counter and through a darkened doorway that led to an unseen room.
“Come back here, Clara,” she called.
Clara did as she was asked, and found herself in a small room with a desk and computer, tall filing cabinets, and a coffee maker. She watched as Cassandra booted up the computer and checked the calendar hung on the wall.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d come back or not,” she said, never taking her attention from her opening duties.
“Why?” Clara leaned back against the open doorway to the small room, feeling somewhat uncomfortable in such a small space with a total stranger.
“Well,” Cassandra said, gracefully lowering herself into the desk chair. “Because you looked frightened last time you were here.” She spared a glance and a smile. “I thought you would run fast and far. Either that or Erica would have scared you away.” She smiled. “She can be a scary girl.”
Clara smiled and looked away, her cheeks flushing slightly. “No. Not yet.”
Cassandra studied the slightly flustered girl. “Hmm. Perhaps not.” She slapped her palms on her skirted thighs. “So, dear Clara. What can I do for you that got you out of bed so early? I know how you young girls work. You all love your sleep.”
Clara chuckled. “Yes we do.” She felt slight panic for a moment. Why am I here? “I was wondering if maybe you could give me some advice. Maybe tarot cards… I’m not really sure.”
Cassandra turned the desk chair away from the desk and her opened email and fully faced Clara, giving the girl her full attention. “You wish to learn,” she said simply. At Clara’s nod, Cassandra smiled. “Then I will teach you. I will learn much from you in return, I suspect.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Clara hedged, shifting nervously where she stood. “I don’t know anything, Cassandra. That’s part of the problem.”
“No, the problem is you do not understand that a natural gift is just that – natural. A musician, for instance. If he is a natural talent with a guitar, he will pick up the instrument and begin to play. It may take time, and certainly practice, but he will master it soon, yes?” she asked, her accent giving a pleasing spin to her words.
“Same with a cook. Or an actor. The same is true with you, young Clara. You have a natural gift, and one that should not be taken lightly. Or wasted.” She stood, breezing past Clara to the main room of the store, Clara at her heels. “I have many questions for you.”
“Like what?” Clara asked, moving to the customer side of the counter as Cassandra began to prepare to open. She headed back into the office for a moment, returning with a money tray, which she began to count.
“Well, for instance, Erica told me what happened at her party the other night. Unfortunate in front of a group of teenagers, no doubt, but a wonder all the same.” She glanced up at Clara, her hand filled with the stack of one dollar bills she was counting. “She told you about the after shadow, yes?”
“Yes, she did. Before that, I’d never even heard of it.” Clara leaned on the counter, her chin resting in her palm.
“No? Have you gone back since?”
“God, no! It scared the hell out of me!”
Cassandra laughed, a soft musical sound. “It is nothing to fear. The after shadow is a part of life. It can be a dark side of life, but it is part of life, all the same.” She inserted the money drawer into the cash register, slamming the cash drawer closed. “Get the sign, will you?” she asked, indicating the CLOSED sign on the door. “Turn the lock, too.”
Clara did as she was told, the store officially open for business. She made her way back to Cassandra. “Why is it scary? And, Erica mentioned something about we live in the after shadow now, but there’s a dark side to it.”
“And she is right. So she does listen, eh?” Cassandra smiled, her dark eyes twinkling. “We do live in the after shadow. The dark side is for those who are lost. As well, it serves as a sort of bridge to the other side. You see, young Clara, the other side – where we go when we die – is actually where life is. This world,” she indicated the store around them, “is simply a place to learn. School, if you will. Our souls are learning through life, through adversity, and through pain. Negativity is the greatest of all teachers, and there is no negativity on the other side. Only love.”
Clara tried to absorb all that she had just been told. Her mind somersaulted over the information, her brain trying to fit it into the world of understanding she’d been given: Christian beliefs, Heaven, Hell, God. “What about God?”
“He exists, but not in the traditional teachings. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, but very different from what the Christians would like to claim. He does not punish. He does not put demands on us.”
“Then who does? There’s got to be a price for everything, right?”
“Of course. We put the demands on ourselves, Clara. Our souls. We determine what our lives will be, who we’ll be, and what we’ll learn before we ever make the journey back to this realm.”
“Back? As in reincarnation?”
“Exactly. But,” Cassandra said, placing heavily ringed fingers on Clara’s arm. “these are only my beliefs, Clara. I do not expect you to follow them. You must follow your own heart, and your own gift. Alright?”
Clara nodded, not entirely sure what to think. “Okay. I do want to learn.” They were interrupted when the bells above the door announced the entrance of a small group of older women.
“Do me a favor, Clara, and go light the incense.” Cassandra handed the girl a box of matches.
Clara had found herself an interesting book, which she read while tucked away in an out-of-the-way corner of the store. The three ladies that had come in were still with Cassandra, the four chatting away about candles and the importance of colors and duration of burn. Clara had long ago stopped listening, instead reading about tarot cards, and their many uses. She had always found tarot cards interesting, but had never owned a deck, and wasn’t entirely sure she wanted one. The cards and their uses just didn’t call to her. All the same, it was an interesting intermission while Cassandra was busy.
Clara jumped, startled. She saw a grinning Erica squatting beside her. “That wasn’t very nice. You scared me.”
“That was the point.” Erica got herself settled on the floor beside her. “What are you reading?” she asked, lifting the book so she could see the cover. “Tarot and You. Gonna get a deck?”
Clara shrugged. “I don’t know. Just passing time while Cassandra deals with those women.”
Erica followed Clara’s gaze to see the three sisters speaking with the shop owner. “Ah. You’ll be waiting awhile. Those are the Frank sisters. They’ll keep Cassandra busy for hours.” She checked her watch. “And I’d guess they already have. When did you get here?”
“Awhile ago,” Clara hedged, slightly embarrassed to admit she’d been waiting for Cassandra before the shop even opened. “Well, I just got off work, thus the smell of greasy fries. Want to go grab something to eat?”
Clara was amused by the hope she saw in Erica’s dark eyes, and utterly charmed by it. She nodded. “Okay.”
Even with the light of day shining in through the windows in the rest of the house, Erica’s room didn’t look much different. Clara wandered around the small room, the sound of Erica’s shower running in the distance. She reached out, touching the material that was draped on the walls, its softness gliding against her fingertips. She wondered why Erica had created a virtual tomb for herself as a sanctuary. The material covering the window above the bed had been so completely covered that not even one tiny lick of sunlight managed to sneak in.
She noticed the candles that were placed all over, most well used with frozen droplets of melted wax running down the sides. Most of the candles were black, though some were red, and a few were white. Her gaze wandered to Erica’s bed, bringing back memories of the party the previous Friday night. She remembered lying on that bed, trying to get her bearings back after her strange trip into the after shadow.
The bedding was a dark purple, the bed not made, so the grape-colored sheets were visible. The two pillows were askew, as though Erica had been lying on one while hugging the other in her sleep. She could almost see Erica lying there in her mind’s eye. She wondered if she even slept in black pajamas. This thought was interrupted by the sound of someone entering the room.
“Thanks for waiting. I really appreciate it.”
Clara turned to see Erica standing just inside her bedroom doorway, her hair still wet, a towel vigorously rubbing through it to dry the dark strands. Erica didn’t have a bit of makeup on, and Clara was amazed at just how beautiful the girl really was. Without all the heavy darkness around her eyes, and the slash of red across her lips, she had a youthful, innocent look to her. The black hair looked horribly out of place with that face, convincing Clara that Erica’s natural hair color must be a lighter shade of brown, or perhaps even blonde.
Her gaze fell from Erica’s face and hair to the white tank top she wore, a bit short and showing creamy white stomach with the movement of Erica’s hair-drying. Erica didn’t wear a bra, and her nipples stood erect under the thin white cotton of her tank. She swallowed. Hard.
Erica stopped her drying, her gaze finding Clara’s eyes, and realizing where those twilight eyes were latched onto. She looked down at herself, then back at Clara, a smirk firmly planted on her lips. “Like what you see?” she asked, tossing the wet towel to her laundry pile in the corner.
Clara nearly choked over her tongue at being caught. She looked into Erica’s eyes, expecting to see her angry or offended at such crass behavior, but what she saw couldn’t be further from offended. She swallowed again, her hands finding their way into the back pockets of her jeans as she began to shift nervously.
“It’s okay, Clara,” Erica said, slowly making her way to her fidgety friend. “You can look all you want.”
Clara couldn’t look at Erica as she advanced, instead her eyes finding perch anywhere else they could. She could feel the girl’s body heat getting closer, could smell her freshly-washed skin and hair. It was all intoxicating. Clara’s heart began to pound in her chest, nearly painful in its excited cadence.
“I really like you, Clara,” Erica said softly, brushing Clara’s forearm with her fingertips, marveling at the soft skin she found there. “A lot.”
Clara took several deep breaths, wanting to speak, but unable to say a word. Nothing could get past her frantic heart, or her dry throat. Instead, she found the courage to look into Erica’s eyes.
“I think you like me, too. Am I right? If I’m wrong, it’s okay,” Erica said, for just a moment her slight insecurity showing through, which, though she didn’t realize, made Clara feel better.
Clara still couldn’t speak, so she simply nodded her head.
Erica stopped her advance, their breasts nearly touching. “I’d really like to kiss you. Can I?”
Clara felt a wave of heat wash through her, her stomach dropping south. She nodded again, her body trembling a bit.
“Why are you shaking?” Erica asked, bringing up a hand and cupping Clara’s chin. “Are you afraid?” At Clara’s nod, she smiled. “You don’t have to be. I’m not going to hurt you.” She ran her fingers through soft, brown hair, brushing long bangs out of beautiful twilight eyes. “You’ve never kissed anyone, have you?”
“No,” Clara whispered, her gaze falling from Erica’s eyes to her lips, then back to dark eyes. “Never.”
“That’s okay.” Erica smiled with understanding. “We all have our first.”
“Have you? Kissed someone before?”
Erica nodded. Her hand left Clara’s hair and slid to cup her jaw. “I’ll go easy,” she promised.
Clara thought her heart was going to pound right out of her chest as Erica got closer. She’d seen enough in movies and TV to know to close her eyes. As darkness filled her visual world, her sensory one exploded with color and sensation. Erica brushed her lips against Clara’s, the other girl so soft and gentle. Clara immediately wanted her to return, which she did. The second pass was with a bit more pressure, but still infinitely soft.
“You okay?” Erica whispered against Clara’s mouth. At the younger girl’s nod, she moved in a bit closer, pulling Clara to her with an arm around her back. Their bodies made full contact with a gasp from Clara. Erica smiled, then deepened the kiss. She knew she’d have to take it slow, as she didn’t want to scare her before they’d even started.
Clara tried to follow Erica’s lead, afraid she’d screw it up and the older, experienced girl wouldn’t like her anymore. She tentatively reached out a hand, resting her palm against Erica’s waist. The warm skin beneath the thin cotton nearly burned her at the touch. A small sigh escaped her as yet another wave of warmth flowed through her, landing squarely between her legs.
Erica gently stroked the side of Clara’s face and neck, tilting her head so their lips would fit better. Within moments she’d coaxed Clara’s lips open, and she gently stroked the inside of the other girl’s mouth. She deepened the kiss as she pressed their bodies even closer, her hand sliding down Clara’s back until finally it rested just above her ass, unsure how far she’d be allowed to go.
Clara started, realization dawning on her: she was kissing a girl, and that girl’s hand was nearly on her butt. It wasn’t that she wasn’t enjoying it, because she was. Thoroughly. But, a trip of fear and uncertainty made her push lightly against Erica’s shoulder.
“Wait,” she said, her voice breathy from her excitement.
“Are you okay?” Erica dropped her hands from Clara’s body, taking a half step back. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No! No. Not at all. I just…” Clara blew out a breath, running a trembling hand through her hair. “I just need a minute.”
“Okay.” Erica’s insides were flying, her heart pounding, her inner thighs slick. She could tell by the flushed cheeks of Clara that she had enjoyed it just as much. “Are you okay?” she asked again.
Clara nodded. “Yes. I’m fine.” Clara took a deep breath, then grinned at Erica. “That was nice. Can we do it again, sometime?”
Max rubbed the back of his neck as he paced once more across the living room of his estranged wife. Stephanie sat on the couch, sipping a cup of coffee. Max has been there for less than twenty minutes, just long enough to get out the reason for his visit.
“So?” he asked, stopping his pacing just long enough to spare her a glance. “what do you think?”
“Well, do you think she’ll be able to handle it and her school work?” Stephanie asked, pushing to her feet to head to the kitchen. She could hear Max following her.
“I’m not sure. She’s doing well. She’s gotten A’s and B’s on her reports and school work so far this semester.”
Stephanie refilled her mug. “Are you sure you don’t want some?” she asked, raising the half-filled pot. When Max shook his head, she refilled her own, adding cream and sugar. “What about waiting until the semester ends? That’s only in what, just over two months?”
“She’s not going to like that,” Max warned, leaning his backside against the counter, arms crossed over his chest.
“Well, then I’d say it’s a good thing you’re the parent then, wouldn’t you?” Stephanie drawled, blowing on her coffee to cool it down.
“I’m very aware of my role, Stephanie,” Max bit back. “You don’t have to live with her. She chose to stay with me, remember?” Max regretted the words the moment they were out of his mouth, and felt even worse when he saw the tears that immediately welled up in his wife’s eyes. For some reason he hadn’t been able to get himself to go down to the courts and draw divorce papers yet. “Aw jeez, Steph, I’m sorry. That was a really shitty thing to say.”
“Yeah Max, it was.” She angrily wiped at her tears before they could fall. She didn’t want to give him that satisfaction. Not anymore. “Well, if she’s your daughter, staying at your place, then why the hell are you here? I couldn’t possibly be any help to you.”
“Stop it. Just stop the damn theatrics right now!” Max could feel his anger rising. He hated the passive/aggressive stuff, and it was a big reason for his leaving in the first place. “I said I was sorry and that’s the end of that. It was shitty, and I admit it. I came here to talk to you about our daughter. Now, can we please continue like adults?”
Stephanie took a moment to gather herself then nodded, knowing full well he was right. She was angry at herself for falling back into her old patterns. Her counselor, Brittany St. James, had been talking a lot about that with her. “I’m sorry, too. I’m trying to break myself of that,” she said softly, staring into her coffee. “Brittany has been working with me on it.”
“Brittany? Is that the lady you’ve been seeing?”
Stephanie nodded, blowing out a long breath. “Okay, so where were we?”
“I was about to tell Clara that she has to wait until winter break before she can begin working at that metaphysical store, and I was about to have to hear an earful of whining protest.”
Stephanie grinned. “Better you than me, bucko. Guess that’s what you get for charming our daughter away from me.”
Max was about to let loose when he saw the twinkle in her eyes. “Cute,” he said instead. “Alright. I agree with you. I think right now – her Freshman year, only fifteen – waiting till winter break is the best way to go.”
“Okay. I’ll back you up.” Stephanie set her mug down, imitating Max’s position. “How is she doing? She talks to me, but I’m never sure if she tells me everything that’s going on in her life. Is she making any friends?”
“Did she tell you about Erica?” Max walked over to the fridge, suddenly in the mood for a beer. He had his hand on the handle when he remembered it was no longer his house. He stopped, awkward. “Um, do you mind… ?”
“No. There’s Miller Light on the door.” Stephanie watched as Max got himself a beer, her heart hurting at the sight that was once so familiar to her. She cleared her throat to clear away the memory. “Erica?”
“Yeah. Some little Goth girl she met. A Junior girl. Seems nice enough. I guess her mom owns the shop where Clara wants to get the job at.”
“She hasn’t mentioned her.” There was hurt in Stephanie’s voice.
“Eh, it’s a pretty recent thing. I think the only reason I know about it is because I dropped her off at the girl’s house one night.”
Stephanie was silent for a long moment. Even though her youngest was upstairs, asleep in her old bedroom, she felt so removed from her. It varied on how often she saw Clara. Sometimes it was twice a month, sometimes twice a week, sometimes she’d go an entire month without seeing her at all. It was all up to Clara, which made it so difficult. The times when she didn’t see Clara at all, or saw her less, she couldn’t help but wonder if it was something she’d done wrong. Had she let the girl down as a mother somehow. Never ending questions and doubts. She wondered if she’d ever get used to it, and in some ways, hoped she wouldn’t. If she got used to it, would that mean she no longer cared as much?
Max watched Stephanie, paying careful attention to her expression as her emotions changed with her thoughts. He’d known the woman for more than half of her life, and knew well what was going on inside her mind. No matter how many problems they’d had as a couple, there was never any doubt about how much she loved her children.
“This is harder on her than you think, Steph,” he said softly. “I think Clara is very confused by all this. It doesn’t help that she’s never even so much as had a boyfriend, let alone a husband to understand what can happen between two people. She loves you, and she hurts.”
“How did we mess it up so badly, Max?” she asked, her hand covering her mouth as she tried to keep her emotions under control. There was no answer from Max, which she didn’t expect there to be. It had mostly been a rhetorical question anyway.
“What’s important is that no matter what, we’ve got to keep the girls in mind first. We decided to bring them into this world, and very fucked up situation, so now we’ve got to protect them.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie blew out, feeling suddenly very tired. “You’re right.”
Max threw back the rest of his beer, then tossed the bottle in the trash. “I should go.” He grabbed his keys off the counter. “If you need me to come pick up Clara Sunday let me know.”
“Okay. I should be able to get her home. Or Kerri can. But thanks.” Stephanie followed him to the door, watching as he stepped out onto the front porch. He turned and gave her a smile and a small wave. “Be careful. Are you okay after drinking that beer?”
“Yeah, fine,” he called as he made his way down the path toward where his truck was parked. “’Night.”
Stephanie watched him climb in and turn on the engine. “Good night, Max,” she sighed, and closed and locked the front door.
Clara stopped, bringing up a hand to cover the phone as she thought she heard footsteps in the hall outside her door. She was right, and heard Kerri’s bedroom door open then close.
“I’m going to have to go soon,” she said, uncovering the phone. “My sister will want to use the phone.”
“When can I see you again?” Erica asked, impatience in her voice. “How long are you stuck at your mom’s?”
“I’m here until Sunday.” Clara tried to fight her sadness, as she wanted to see Erica in the worse way. It had been a whole day! She brightened as an idea hit her. “I’m going to a movie with my mom and Kerri tomorrow. Why don’t you come over after? We can hang out here.”
“Will your mom mind? I mean… you know.”
Clara grinned. “We’re not going to make out in the living room or anything,” she said, then immediately blushed. She could hear Erica’s laughter on the other end of the line.
“You’re all flushed, aren’t you?”
“No,” she lied.
“Yes you are. You’re blushing! You’re blushing!”
“Stop!” Clara buried her face in her hand.
Erica laughed. “Okay, okay. I have to work until three. What time is your movie?”
“Okay. I’ll call you when I get home and showered. What’s your mom’s number?”
Clara gave her the familiar digits, then quickly hung up the phone as the line had already been picked up twice in just the five minutes since Kerri had gone into her room.
“Phone’s free!!” she yelled out.
She plopped onto her back on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, a hand resting on her stomach. She felt giddy and goofy all at the same time. I kissed someone! Better yet, someone kissed me!
“That is so cool,” she whispered.
They had spent the rest of that day together, hanging out at the mall for awhile, then going to see a movie. They’d glance over at each other shyly, then laugh at their own antics. Clara felt her heart flutter every time she had seen Erica at school over the previous week. They were in different grades, which meant their classes were in different halls, and typically different levels of the building. Seeing each other was rare, though Erica had given her a ride home the one day she didn’t have to report immediately to work.
They hadn’t really talked about the kiss since it happened, but Clara could feel the same intense energy coming off Erica in waves ever since. She felt the older girl wanting to find a way to do it again, and Clara was more than willing to give it another round, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. She figured Erica knew more about that kind of stuff, so would leave it to her.
Clara found herself sitting on a stone bench, cold beneath her. She looked around, noting the sky was a strange yellow, rose hue in color. No clouds floated by, only the bright purity of color. The ground at her feet was inlaid stones cut into geometric shapes, the bench of the circle they created. Behind her was a hedge, probably at least five feet high, thick and lush. The hedge wall was formed in a horseshoe-shape, leaving an opening, which Clara looked out of.
A pathway led from the circle of stones to a small knee-high maze of cut hedges, which she could see was in some sort of Celtic knot pattern Beyond that was another path, which connected to another circular setting of the inlaid stones, and a bench similar to the one she sat on. Instead of a hedge wall around that circle, there was a huge X-shaped sculpture behind the bench.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Clara whipped around, shocked to find the dark-haired woman sitting next to her. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry.” She smiled, bringing a hand up and gently caressing the side of Clara’s face. “You’ve turned into such a beautiful young woman, Clara. Like your mother.” Her dark hair was pulled back away from her face, her dark eyes with the ever-present twinkle in them. She wore dark clothing, fitted close to a petit frame.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Rebecca. But you can call me Grandma.”
Clara was confused as she looked at the woman who couldn’t be any more than thirty. “Grandma?” she asked. The woman nodded. Before Clara could say anything else, the woman changed. Her dark eyes turned green, black hair brown, cut in a style that Clara was very familiar with. Suddenly before her sat her grandmother, her mother’s long-dead mother. She gasped, tears springing to her eyes.
“Shhh. It’s okay,” Rebecca said, wiping away a few stray tears, even as her appearance slowly faded back to that of the woman with dark hair and eyes. “I’ve been watching you for a very long time. Your whole life, actually.”
“Why do you look like this? I don’t understand…”
“This,” Rebecca said, looking down at herself, “is what my soul looks like. You know me by what I looked like in my last life. But, I assure you, I’m one in the same.” Her smile was contagious, and Clara felt herself return it, if shyly. “I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to you. But first, there’s someone who wants to say hello.”
Clara followed her grandmother’s pointing finger, a gasp and a cry escaping her throat. She was on her feet and running toward the Celtic hedge maze. Jason wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly against him as she cried.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “I wanted to warn you.”
“Shh. Hey, I know,” he soothed, rubbing her back. “It’s okay. Everything happens as it’s supposed to, Clara.”
She pulled away fro him just enough to look up into his eyes. She studied his face, pulling away a bit more to look him over. He looked as young and strong as ever. “Why do you look like you and she doesn’t?” she asked, indicating Rebecca, who still sat on the bench, patiently waiting.
“Because how else were you going to recognize me?” he asked, a brow raised in question. Clara half-laughed, half-sobbed as she hugged him close again.
“God, I’ve missed you.” She pulled away after a long moment, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
“I’ve missed you, too. I have to go now, Clara, but please tell my dad that I love him, and I don’t blame him, okay?” He looked her dead in the eyes, making sure she fully understood. “Okay?”
“Okay. I promise.”
Jason squeezed her arm as he began to back away, never taking his eyes off her. “And Clara, look for the birds.”
Clara stared after him as he turned and walked back towards the X sculpture, fading into the bench until he was gone. “The birds?” she asked, confused.
“Come sit with me, Clara. We have a lot to talk about,” Rebecca called softly from the bench.
Clara turned to face her, a flutter of love in her belly. As she looked at the woman sitting there, her youthful face and eyes, somehow she knew that Rebecca was telling the truth. In her eyes she saw the truth, and she saw the love she always felt when she looked at the picture in the living room of her mother’s house. Though this time there wasn’t the grief and heartache to go along with it.
“Where is this place?” she asked, once again sitting next to Rebecca.
“This is the other side. The place where you’ll return to when you die.”
Clara looked around, stunned. “Is this Heaven?”
Rebecca chuckled. “If you want to call it that, but that’s not entirely correct.” She shrugged. “It’s the other side.”
Clara studied her for a long time, her grandmother’s gaze unwavering. “You are my grandmother, aren’t you?”
Rebecca smiled. “Yes, Clara. I am. I died in that car accident in 1958 with your grandfather and your aunt, Carol Ann. Your mother, her younger brother and sister were the sole survivors.”
Clara could hear sadness in Rebecca’s voice, as well as a slight hitch. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, wanting badly to give Rebecca a hug. “Can I…” she chewed on her bottom lip. Without having to say anything else, Rebecca opened her arms. Clara’s eyes slid closed as she felt herself engulfed in warmth and love like she’d never known. It was beyond unconditional. It was beyond motherly and beautiful. It was a truly religious event.
“I love you, little Clara,” Rebecca whispered. “I always have. Your mother, too. Will you tell her that for me? That I love her and I’m sorry?”
Clara nodded, her eyes closed as she allowed herself to be rocked and caressed.
Clara’s eyes opened wide as she gasped, pulled into the world of the waken. She looked around the bedroom in her mom’s house, trying to figure out what had woken her. The knock sounded again on the door.
“Clara, honey, are you awake? I need you to open the door,” Stephanie’s muffled voice said from the hall.
Groggy, Clara pushed the covers off her and made her way to the door, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as she did. She pulled the door open only to find her mother standing there, tray laden with steaming pancakes, freshly cooked bacon and eggs, and a tall glass of orange juice and milk, and a smile.
Stephanie hurried past her daughter, about to drop the heavy tray. “Come on. Have breakfast with me.”
Clara walked back to the bed, sitting cross-legged as her mother got everything organized and ready for consumption.
“I know damn well that you’re surviving off Lucky Charms at your dad’s,” she continued, preparing everything exactly how her daughter liked it. “So,” she said, finally meeting Clara’s gaze, “I wanted to make you something special this morning.”
“Grandma says she loves you and she’s sorry,” Clara blurted out, having no idea where that had come from. Since opening the door for her mother, the strange dream she was having had already begun to fade into strange images of hedges and X-shaped sculptures. And Jason. Oh, Jason. She felt tears sting at the backs of her eyes as she cut herself a fluffy bite of pancake.
“She did?” Stephanie asked, fighting her knee-jerk need to deny what Clara said. “When?” She slid a bit of scrambled egg into her mouth.
“I’m not sure,” Clara said, brows drawn. “I just know that she told me to tell you that.”
Stephanie forced a smile. The subject of her dead parents had always been a difficult one for her. It brought back memories of a cruel aunt and uncle, and the feeling of being abandoned her entire life. “I’m glad you did, sweetie. Thank you.”
Clara nodded, tucking into her breakfast with vigor.
The movie and day spent with her mother was a good one. The movie had sucked, but Stephanie was always fun to hang around with, though Clara would never admit that aloud. She was grateful that she had gotten permission for Erica to come over, which she did around six-thirty that night.
“And,” Clara said with a flourish, flinging her door open. “this is my room.”
Erica stepped inside, looking around with open curiosity. She wondered what the sleeping digs of the younger girl would look like. Clara was a bit of a mystery to her. One minute she was quiet and introspective, the next she was jabbering on about whatever came to her mind. But, all in all she found her to be a quiet, shy girl who was filled with unwitting charm and definite beauty.
“Very nice.” Erica walked over to a poster of a famous singer. “I wouldn’t have you placed you in the Jon Bon Jovi fan camp,” she said, tapping the poster with a raised brow.
“Yeah, well,” Clara said, feeling shy and extremely nervous at having her new friend in her bedroom. She’d already given her the tour of the rest of the house, purposely leaving the room for last. “I don’t seem like a lot of things.”
“This is very true,” Erica said, walking back over to Clara. “I missed you this week,” she said, her voice low. She took hold of Clara’s hand as she walked past her, just far enough to push the bedroom door closed, then tugged the girl until they were nearly body to body. “A lot.”
Clara felt her heart begin to do a jig in her chest. “I missed you, too.” She swallowed, feeling her breathing begin to pick up just a bit as she had a very good idea of what was about to happen. Erica let go of her hand, sliding her palm up Clara’s arm, over her shoulder, and finally to the back of her neck and head.
“God,” Erica whispered, her lips nearing Clara’s. “I’ve been wanting to do this all week.”
Clara’s eyes slid closed, only to pop open when there was a loud knock at the door. “Shit!” Clara hissed, jumping away from Erica and heading to the door. Kerri stood on the other side.
“Hey,” the older girl said. “I’m going to Abby’s for a party tonight, and don’t know if I’ll be back before you leave tomorrow.”
Clara felt her stomach clench slightly at the mention of her sister’s blonde friend, but then felt immediately guilty, as Erica stood next to her. “Okay. Have fun and it was good to see you.”
Kerri gave her a half-hearted one-armed hug then headed out, never giving Erica the time of day.
“That was my sister Kerry,” Clara explained, her hand on the doorknob to close it when she heard her mother’s voice.
“Hey girls?” Stephanie called from the bottom of the stairs. “You want some popcorn and a movie?”
Clara glanced back at Erica. “You hungry?”
Stephanie was completely unaware of the longing looks tossed back and forth between her movie mates. She sat on the couch, feet up on the coffee table and happily munched on popcorn. Clara sat next to her, Erica on the comfortable chair that matched the sofa and loveseat. She liked Clara’s new friend, but didn’t understand why she’d cover up her natural beauty underneath all that heavy makeup and dark, creepy eye shadow.
Clara was miserable. She wanted nothing more than to grab Erica by the hand and run upstairs to her bedroom with her and be kissed again. She felt guilty, knowing that she saw her mother so rarely, and didn’t have the heart to decline Stephanie’s invite to them. Her only solace was that the movie was almost over. On the flip side of that coin, it was nearly ten, and she wasn’t sure how long Erica would be allowed to stay.
Erica, for her part, wanted nothing more than to grab Clara, throw her down onto her bed, and undress her with her teeth. She glanced over at the center of her carnal interest, her gaze falling to Clara’s breasts, hugged tight in a knit sweater. She groaned inwardly. Goddess, give me patience.
The movie came to end and the credits began to roll. Stephanie stretched, smiling over at her daughter. “Did you like it? The girl at the rental place said it was good. She was right.”
“Yeah. It was great, Mom. Thanks.” Clara gave her mother a smile, which she hoped Stephanie believed. She glanced over at Erica, silent communication passing between them just before Clara glanced at the clock. “Mom, it’s getting kind of late, and I was wondering if maybe Erica could just stay the night.”
Erica was stunned – though secretly thrilled – at the prospect. She looked from Clara to Mrs. Greenwold, trying to give her best, most innocent look.
Stephanie looked from one hopeful face to the other, then back again. “Sure, sweetie.” She smiled and leaned over to kiss her daughter goodnight. “You guys keep it down.” She looked at Erica. “Please make sure it’s okay with your mom, okay?”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Greenwold,” Erica said, taking the cordless phone that Clara passed to her.
Clara climbed the stairs, easily able to pick up on Erica’s energy behind her. Once they entered her bedroom once again, she closed the door, but before she turned around, she said, “Can we maybe talk for awhile?” She was nearly trembling, wanting Erica to kiss her again, but she didn’t want it to just be that. Plus, she was nervous and worried about where the kissing would lead. She could sense how excited Erica got, and had no doubt the older girl wasn’t new at all of this.
“Sure,” Erica said, sitting on the edge of Clara’s bed. “What do you want to talk about?” Erica tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice, knowing that she had to take it easy with Clara.
“Well,” Clara said, walking over to her friend. She pushed her back on the bed, positioning Erica so her head rested on one of the pillows. She walked over to the light switch and flicked it off, the glow-in-the-dark stars coming to life. She lay down next to Erica, her hands resting safely on her stomach. “I don’t know. Anything.”
Erica stared at the solar system above her. “Wow. That’s really cool.” As she stared at the stars, she felt like she could reach up and touch them. Doing just that, she could barely make out her raised arm in the darkness, her fingertips only touching air.
“Thanks. I’ve been staring at those most of my life.” Clara glanced over at Erica, not able to see her profile just yet, her eyes not adjusted to the darkness of her bedroom. Slowly, however, her friend began to come into shadowy focus. “How long have you been into girls?” she nearly whispered.
Erica turned her head, looking where she figured Clara’s face should be. “All my life, I think. I was pretty young when I knew. That much I know for sure.”
“Does Cassandra know?” Clara turned to her side, sliding her arm underneath her pillow and head.
Erica nodded, but then remembered Clara likely couldn’t see the gesture. “Yeah. I think she knew before I did, actually.”
“Is she cool with it?”
Erica smirked. “There’s very little I could do that Cassandra wouldn’t be cool with.” She also turned to her side, able to see a bit more of the younger girl. “Have you always known you were into girls? Or are you even into girls? Are you just into me?”
Clara smiled. “No. I like girls. I think I figured it out – well, was able to admit it to myself, anyway – last year. I never told anyone. Not even Jason.”
Clara shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t pressed into the mattress. “I don’t know. Afraid, I guess. I’m not sure what my parents will say. My sister will call me a freak, I’m sure.” She sighed, feeling somewhat sorry for herself. “I don’t know if I can ever tell them.”
“Give it time. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
They lay in contemplative silence for a moment before Clara spoke. “If Cassandra isn’t your mother, who is she?”
“It’s a long story, Clara,” Erica said, feeling somewhat protective of her past.
Clara grinned. “Good thing we’ve got all night then, huh?”
Erica returned the grin, able to almost totally make out Clara’s features now. “Cute. Okay, fine.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, don’t.”
“No. I’ll tell you, though I doubt you’ll believe me. My mother and Cassandra were girlhood friends, growing up in a tiny town in Romania. They belonged to a gypsy family. One day my mother got pregnant – raped – and guess what? Poof! Here I come.” There was slight bitterness in her voice. “She died during childbirth, and made Cassandra promise she’d take me to America and raise me. So, she did.”
“If she raised you from birth, why don’t you just call her mom?” Clara asked, unable to stop herself as she reached out a hand and touched Erica’s arm.
“Because she didn’t want me to. She always told me about my mom, and what she was like. Gave me pictures of her. Cassandra didn’t want me to forget her, or try and replace her, so I’ve always called my mother mom, and Cassandra by her name.”
Clara was quiet for a moment. “You’re right. I don’t believe you.” She giggled as suddenly she found herself the victim of very fast, and very strong tickling fingers.
“You don’t, huh?” Erica said through clenched teeth, grinning as she pinned Clara to the bed with her playful assault.
“No!” Clara cried, though Erica wasn’t sure if she was telling her to stop tickling her, or that she didn’t believe her.
“’No’ what? Huh?” She had moved so she was straddling the younger girl, who continued to squeal at her attack.
“Okay!” Clara cried, trying desperately to grab Erica’s hands so she’d stop tickling her. “I believe you! I believe you!”
Erica stopped, nearly panting from the exertion. She chuckled as she moved off of Clara, lying on her side next to the girl who was sprawled out on her back. “You’re fun,” she said, brushing some bangs out of Clara’s eyes.
Clara got herself under control. “You, too. She rolled over onto her side, holding herself up on one elbow so she could look down at her friend. “Is that true about your mom?”
“Yes,” Erica said, her voice soft. She looked up into Clara’s eyes, mesmerized by their color and depth. “Come here.”
Clara leaned down, one of Erica’s hands finding its way to the back of her head, fingers losing themselves in the short locks of her hair. The kiss was immediate, both girls sighing into the contact. Clara loved the feel of Erica’s tongue moving against her own, and opened her mouth a little wider, accepting more inside.
Erica slowly urged Clara closer, until finally she had gotten her to lay atop her. Clara wasn’t sure what to think, the feel of Erica’s length against her own sending shooting waves of pleasurable heat between her legs. At the same time, it felt incredibly bizarre to lay on top of another person’s body. She was worried she would hurt Erica, who’s frame was petit, but with enough of Erica’s urging, she finally lowered herself completely, resting her weight on her forearms, which rested on either side of Erica’s head.
Erica was anxious to feel Clara’s body, and ran her hands down and over her shoulders and back as the kissing continued. She was so turned on, and could tell Clara was, too. She ran her hands down Clara’s sides, able to feel her breasts. She was pleased by the surprised little gasp that incited, as well as by the way Clara’s hips bucked slightly, completely involuntarily. Erica took that opportunity to shift their positions slightly.
Clara wasn’t sure what Erica was doing, and nearly moved off her when she felt a thigh come into contact with her center, sending shocking jolts throughout her entire body. She broke the kiss, her forehead finding Erica’s shoulder as she pressed down against the pressure.
“That feels so good,” she breathed, her breaths ragged and hot against Erica’s neck as she placed a kiss there.
“I know,” Erica whispered, her hands finding Clara’s backside and grabbing hold, pressing Clara firmer into her thigh. “Ride it, baby,” she whispered.
Clara couldn’t stop. It was as though her body had totally gone out of her control. The pleasure was coursing through her, and she couldn’t stop it, didn’t want to stop it. She buried her face in Erica’s neck as her orgasm exploded from her. Erica held on as Clara’s body shook violently, her own arousal pushed back by the surprise of how hard the other girl’s body had reacted.
Clara felt immense shame as she pulled away from Erica, tears running down her face. She moved away, curling up on the edge of the bed.
“Hey,” Erica said, moving up behind her, utterly confused. “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
“I’m so embarrassed,” Clara whispered.
“Why?” Erica leaned over her, brushing bangs out of closed, wet eyes. “Why are you embarrassed, Clara? That was amazing. Really beautiful.”
Clara didn’t know how to respond. How could she tell Erica that she had just experimented with masturbation three weeks before, only reaching orgasm twice? She felt ashamed and bad, like a very young girl playing a very big girl’s game.
“I’m sorry, Clara,” Erica said, moving in until she was spooning Clara’s body. “I didn’t mean to push you too far. I’m really sorry.” She rested her cheek against Clara’s shoulder, letting the younger girl work through her own emotions, meanwhile letting her know that she was there with her.
After a few moments Clara got herself under control. “It’s not your fault, Erica. I’m sorry I’m such a baby.” She sniffled, reaching over to the nightstand to snag a tissue from the box next to her alarm clock. She wiped at her face and chin, blowing her nose.
“You’re not a baby. I’m just really sorry. I don’t ever want to make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed again.”
Clara turned over to her back, Erica moving to give her the space. She rested on her side, head held in her hand as she looked down at Clara. She was amazed all over again at just how beautiful Clara really was, made even more so by the fact that the girl had no idea.
Clara stared up into Erica’s face. “What did we just do?” she asked, truly baffled. She felt a new wave of embarrassment wash through her as Erica chuckled softly. “What? I’m sorry, okay? I’m new at all this.”
“I know. It’s fine. I’m sorry.” Erica cleared her throat, trying to calm herself even though what she really wanted to do was burst into hysterical laughter at the innocent comment, as well as to release a bit of her pent-up arousal. “It’s called dry fucking.”
Clara scrunched up her nose. “Dry fucking? Sounds painful.”
“And anything but dry,” Erica said with a wink. Certainly not according to her absolutely saturated Calvin Kline’s. “It’s when you have sex with your clothes on,” she explained.
Clara’s eyes got huge. “We had sex?” she whispered.
Erica suppressed another laugh. She nodded. “Essentially. But, it’s all up to what you define as sex.”