Clara kept her patience, letting her mother fuss over her. After all, it was her day. Well, her day and three hundred and ten of her fellow classmates, anyway. She would be graduating from John Freed High School at long last! She never thought it would come, and never thought she’d get out of school.
“Okay, are you ready for your mortarboard?” Stephanie asked, unable to believe that her baby was graduating!
“No, not yet. I’ll just carry it with me for now.” Clara looked down at herself, secretly very pleased to see the gold gown she wore, the sunlight making it shine.
“Okay.” Stephanie was nearly beside herself, so proud of Clara. She would never tell her youngest, but she and Max had talked about it over the past four years, whether Clara would graduate or not. She hated school, though she was so intelligent. They never truly understood what the problem was, and Clara had never much been open to it. It had been beyond a fight to get her to register for college classes in the fall.
“I think you guys are supposed to be lining up,” Kerri said, indicating a woman who was trying to get the seniors – boys in green, girls in gold – in order for the march inside the stadium.
“Oh. Okay.” Stephanie gave her daughter one final hug and a kiss on the cheek, careful not to leave a lipstick smudge. Max stood back, videotaping the entire thing. The smile of pride wouldn’t leave his face.
Clara was nervous as she hurried to join her fellow classmates. She couldn’t believe the day had finally come, and was beyond excited. Even so, she knew this momentous occasion meant something bigger: real life. Well, almost. She’d be heading to college in the fall, though she looked forward to that almost as much as she looked forward to her period each month.
Family and friends had gathered at Stephanie’s house, where tables had been set up in the backyard, loaded with food. People stood around with plastic plates balanced on their hand, talking as they ate. Clara wasn’t entirely sure who everyone was, so just figured they must be cousins or something. She wasn’t all that close to her family outside the family circle of her parents, Kerri and her grandparents. She knew her mother had invited them so that maybe their monetary gifts would help Clara on the next stage of her life.
“Did you find the coleslaw?” Stephanie asked, working shoulder to shoulder with Max to try and make their youngest’s day as special as possible.
“Yeah, it was behind the pickles.” Max tore into another package of raw meat patties, then get them going on the grill. He felt a hand on his back, rubbing affectionately. He couldn’t help but smile, but then turned with surprise to see that Florence had walked up to him. “Hey.”
“Hi. Looks good,” his newest girlfriend said, eyeing the plate full of grilled burgers.
Florence walked away, her hips swaying in the denim shorts she wore. He tore his eyes off them and turned to speak to Stephanie, but she was nowhere to be found.
“So, I was thinking,” Kerri said, sitting on a blanket under the huge cottonwood tree in the backyard. The same one that she and Clara used to play on all the time when they were kids. The same one that Jason fell out of when they were ten.
“That’s a scary thought,” Clara muttered, having just joined her sister and Kerri’s long-time boyfriend, Zane.
“I know. You’d better run,” he snickered, getting a playful backhand to his stomach.
“Since there isn’t a kitchen or anything like it in the attic apartment, why don’t you just use ours?” She turned to her sister, taking a bite out of her hotdog as she waited for Clara’s response.
Clara glanced at her, uneasy at the sudden generosity. “Are you sure? I don’t want to encroach…”
“Don’t be silly. Trust me, Clara, once you’re in college, you won’t be able to afford to eat out all the time. You’ll need a kitchen. I’ve been there. Let me help you out.”
Clara stared at her for along moment, finally drawling, “Okay.”
The deal had been made that if Clara would go to college, she could move out. She wasn’t all that keen on living in the dorms, and Kerri and Zane had managed to find an old Victorian with a small attic apartment. Clara would live in the apartment, rent free, as long as she helped out in the massive, quarter acre yard.
Clara was still trying to understand how the whole sister thing worked. Ever since they’d been children they’d never gotten along, both girls far too different to even live in the same house, let alone the same planet. But, something happened over the past couple years. Once Kerri got into college – which she’d graduate from six months early, the following winter – they had formed some sort of bond.
She had no fantasies of them ever being close, or “best friends”, but was glad that they had reached some sort of silent understanding: yes, Kerri was older, should always be older, and therefore she had the right to boss Clara around at will. The flip side of that coin was that: yes, Clara was younger, would always be young, but was a human being with a brain and a purpose, other than to stuff into trash bins.
“Hey, guys. “We’re ready to cut the cake,” Max said, strolling over to the three sitting under the tree. He reached down to help Clara up as Zane did the same for Kerri. “Come on, kiddo.” He swung an arm over her shoulders, holding her to his side as they walked toward the patio where Stephanie was busy placing and lighting candles into the huge sheet cake. A smiling picture of a smiling, gap-toothed nine year old Clara was done in rice paper on top.
Clara held onto her father’s waist, which she’d noticed had slimmed down considerably since he wasn’t eating her mother’s home cooked meals anymore. The other women that had come and go in his life over the past four years had gone sooner than they’d been kept around. Clara never understood that.
“Um, Mom?” Clara said, watching as her mother lit the last candle, twelve in all. “it’s not my birthday. I only graduated from high school.”
“Only?” Stephanie said, hands on hips. “You accomplished something, sweetie, and I wanted to give you all the luck I can. There are twelve candles here, one for every year of school you’ve been in so far.” She smiled, proud of herself. “Make a wish!”
Clara decided to play along, scanning the rooms of her brain for what she wanted most. She leaned over, holding her newly-grown out hair out of the way, and blew out all the candles. The gathered guests clapped.
The party was a success, Clara walking away with just over two hundred dollars and lots of well wishes. Everyone had gone home, Max and the girls helping to clean up. Florence had gone home almost an hour before, irritated that Max wanted to help.
He sat on the front stoop of the house that he hadn’t lived at in four years. He’d been there hundreds of times for various occasions, never again missing a holiday after the first year, when Clara had been so upset at him. He took a drag from his cigarette, blowing the exhale out into the early evening of a warm, summer night. He sat on the front stoop, feet spread, a bottle of beer dangling from his fingers between his knees.
The moon was beginning to show itself over the roof of the neighbor’s house across the street. Max watched it, it’s bright yellow color and size indicative of the harvest moon it would become. He felt a certain level of peace as he sat there, for the first time in long time, a feeling of family love around him. He still couldn’t believe that both of his daughters had now graduated high school – one graduating college in December. Where had the time gone? Had he been everything they needed him to be, or had he failed them, the way he’d failed their mother?
Max’s thoughts were interrupted when the front screen door opened, then softly closed. The person who had entered his solace sat on the stoop next to him, taking his beer from his fingers and taking a quick swig before giving it back.
“Good stuff,” Clara said, looking out over the falling night.
“That it is.” Max took one final drag of the cigarette, swallowed the last of his beer and tossed the cigarette butt inside. The cherry fizzled in the tiny bit of liquid at the bottom of the brown glass bottle. “You got everything packed?” he asked, unable to look at his daughter. They’d been a team – through good and bad – for four years. He couldn’t imagine his life – or his house – without her.
“Yeah.” Clara was silent for a long moment, her thoughts running very much along the lines of her father’s. She was filled with a strange mixture of elation and loss. “Guess you’ll finally get to have that home office you always wanted,” she said, playfully bumping his shoulder with her own.
“Goodie,” Max smiled, no real enthusiasm behind it.
Clara looked at her father, gazing into his sad eyes. “Dad, I’ll be back. I promise.”
He nodded. “I know you will, sweetpea. I just hate seeing you go. All grown up, now.” He looked at her, taking in the breathtaking young woman she’d turned into. “No matter what happens – you and Kerri get into it, whatever – you’ve got a place to come back to.” He looked into her eyes, making sure she was really hearing him. “Okay?”
Clara nodded, a sudden lump forming in her throat. “Okay.” Her voice had become that of the child Max used to hold in his arms. She lost control of her emotions when she saw tears glisten in his eyes.
“Come ‘ere,” he murmured, pulling her against him in a one-armed hug. They sat in silence for a long moment, just absorbing the warmth and love of the other. Together they watched the sun set.
Clara never thought it would be scary to have her own apartment. To move to a place where neither her father nor her mother lived. It helped immensely to know that Kerri and Zane were two floors below, but still…
She sat on her bed, looking around the space. It was actually a really nice – albeit small – apartment. It was essentially a studio apartment, everything in the larger, main space, while the bathroom had been partitioned off for privacy. She had everything there that she owned: all her clothing, her minimal movie collection, and her CDs and stereo, a gift for graduation.
A few movie posters were tacked to the slanted ceiling by the two windows that allowed minimal light into the space. All her clothes were neatly tucked away in the dresser set her mother had bought for her, as well as the simply closet space her father had built in the corner. She was set.
She flopped back onto the comforter, hands above her head as she stared up at the ceiling, not really seeing the plaster and paint, but instead a future that was yet to be determined. She new the future her parents wanted for her: for her to go to college, do her best, and earn her degree, just as Kerri was doing. Max had worked for the garbage company for more years than Clara could remember, and Stephanie had been at the bakery for almost four years. Both her parents wanted more for their daughters than the hard, day-to-day life of someone “uneducated”.
Clara understood and respected that, but she just wished they understood and respected what she wanted, and whatshe knew of her future. She knew her future didn’t lie in the corporate world, or as some big wig in business. Her place in the world was to help people through her gifts. Her family refused to see this, worried that she’d never be able to make a living at it. Clara understood their fears, as she had the same fears herself. Even so, she was drawn.
Clara sighed heavily, glancing over at the backpack – already loaded with books bought for her upcoming semester – that sat on the floor by the wall. She didn’t look forward to her college career, at all. Yet another way she and Kerri were complete opposites. One of Kerri’s first words had been college.
“Shit,” she blew out. “I dread this.”
The campus of State was huge; much, much larger than John Freed High School, for certain. It had taken Clara several weeks to truly get her bearings in the place. Nearly through her first six weeks in college, she had found all her hang out and hide out spots. One of which, she was currently sitting in.
On the fifth floor of the library, which was a study floor with a few stacks of books, Clara sat in a cubby at the back of the large room, “reading”. In truth, she was peering over the top of her text at the girl who was shelving books. She’d noticed Shelby the first week of classes, and hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her since. Short blonde hair, cut in a sporty style, and smiling blue eyes. Dimples teased every time she spoke or smiled, which was often. She was adorable. She seemed to have a natural glow about her that drew Clara in like a bug to the zapper.
Clara had no idea what year Shelby was, or what she was taking. She’d never so much as spoken to her, but she had figured out what her work schedule typically was, and made sure to be on the fifth floor Tuesday nights. Thus, she was tucked away, watching.
Shelby pulled a two-level metal cart with her, books set in two neat rows on top and on the lower shelf. She took her time, reading the Library of Congress code on the lower spine then finding the correct location of the book before moving on to the next.
She wore black mesh shorts and a tank top. Her tanned skin looked pale and sickly under the fluorescent lights, but Clara had seen her on campus under the bright sun. She was stunning, her arms and legs well-toned, as though Shelby had played soccer or volleyball, or some other sport, for many years. Clara’s eyes followed the movement of her body, her stomach awash with nervous butterflies of excitement.
Shelby pushed her cart toward the cubby where Clara sat, making Clara want to vomit with anxiety. She turned her attention back to her book, though she couldn’t recall a single thing she’d read on the page she’d been on for the past twenty-seven minutes. She had been trying to figure out a good way to talk to the blonde for six weeks, but had no idea what to say, or how to go about it. Sometimes – most times – she cursed her quiet nature.
Clara snuck a peek over her book, only to find herself meeting Shelby’s gaze. She gave the girl a quick smile of acknowledgement, then went to bury her nose back into her book, but stopped. Sitting at the table Shelby was about to pass was a woman, her gaze locked onto Shelby. Clara looked from the library worker to the woman, but the woman had vanished.
“How’s it going?” Shelby asked politely as she began to push her cart past Clara.
“Fine. Um, hey,” Clara felt a bit devilish as she realized the woman she’d seen was a perfect segue into conversation with the gorgeous blonde. “Do you believe in psychics and Mediums?”
Shelby stopped, her brows drawn in confusion. “What?”
Clara opened herself up, reaching out towards the spirit of the woman whom she knew was still with them. She could feel her energy, and it was close to Shelby. “You know, people who speak to spirits.”
Shelby stopped, one hand resting on her cart, the other on her hip. “I guess. Why?”
Clara had to stop herself from grinning, proud of herself for taking advantage of the opportunity. “Well, there was a woman sitting over at that table,” she nodded towards the one in question, Shelby glancing over her shoulder to see it was empty. “She was looking at you, and I feel strongly she’s here for you.”
Shelby looked at Clara, looking as though she weren’t sure whether to tell Clara to go fly a kite, or to ask for more information. “Okay,” she said slowly, waiting for Clara to continue.
Clara listened for a moment, nodding slightly at the information she’d just heard in her mind. She also saw the woman again, this time standing just on the other side of Shelby’s cart. “I’m sensing a mother-figure. Has your mom crossed?” Shelby nodded, but said nothing. “About this tall,” she held up a hand to just a wee shorter than herself, “blonde hair, longer than yours. And,” Clara looked at the woman, watching as the older blonde opened her shirt just enough to bare her upper chest and an ugly scar that ran the length across from her right collarbone across her heart, and disappearing into the shirt. “And a really bad scar.” Clara used her finger to draw an imaginary scar across her own chest.
Shelby could only stare, her blue eyes wide. “Who are you?” she asked, about to run in the opposite direction.
Clara could tell the blonde was getting more and more skittish. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to freak you out. It’s just that, when they come to me, I feel kind of obligated to pass on the message, you know?”
Shelby nodded, rattled. “Alright. So, what’s the message?”
Clara glanced back over to the woman, Shelby following her gaze, baffled to see just empty space. Clara could see the woman’s lips moving, but the words came to her in her own mind. “Okay,” she murmured, nodding. She turned to Shelby. “She said to tell you that it wasn’t your fault that she passed. Does that make sense? She’s saying that it would have happened whether you’d hit it or not.” Clara’s brows drew, not understanding, but simply repeating.
Shelby apparently understood, as her hand flew to her mouth, a soft sob escaping her throat. “Oh, god,” she whispered.
“She also says that she knows about the thumb.”
Tears began to fall down Shelby’s cheeks.
“Aw, jeez. I’m sorry.” Clara rifled in her backpack, finding a travel-size pack of Kleenex. She handed them to the blonde. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.” What she had viewed as a great way to pick up a woman a few moments ago now made her feel terrible!
“No, no!” Shelby exclaimed, wiping at her eyes and laughing nervously. “This is amazing.” She glanced over to where Clara had been staring. “Is she here still, or something?”
Clara nodded. “Yeah. She’s standing about four feet away from you.”
Shelby looked at the spot, trying desperately to catch a glimpse, but it was impossible. She looked away, instead studying the wadded up Kleenex in her hand. “Does she say anything else?”
Clara glanced over to the woman, sad to see she was beginning to fade, though her lips were moving again. “She said she loves you and Monkey. Don’t forget about her, but she said you need to move on with your life, too.”
Shelby’s eyes got huge. “There’s no possible way you could know about Monkey,” she said, looking at Clara with almost accusing eyes. “How do you know this stuff?”
Clara shrugged. “I just repeat what I’m told or shown.”
“Wow.” Shelby blew out a long breath, wiping her face and blowing her nose. She took a moment to get herself together, Clara remaining quiet to give her time. “That woman was my mother,” Shelby began to explain softly, her focus once again on the Kleenex in her hands. “Lucy. She died last year from breast cancer.” She took a deep breath, trying to keep the emotions down that insisted on rising. “She was really sick, and I was driving her to the hospital. We got stuck in traffic, and um…” She looked up at the ceiling, her blue eyes vibrant from unshed tears. She cleared her throat, trying to get herself under control. “She died before we got there.”
“Oh, wow,” Clara whispered, shoving her hands into the pockets of her shorts so she wouldn’t reach out to Shelby and comfort her. She’d already freaked her out enough for one day. “Um,” she said, feeling rather sheepish. “Can I ask you who Monkey is?”
Shelby let out a bark of nervous laughter. “My dog. He was actually hers, but Monkey and I kind of had a love-at-first-sight moment, so she let me take him with me.”
Clara smiled, amused. “Well, I truly am sorry for making you cry, but I hope it helped. She obviously needed to talk to you, or you needed to hear from her.”
Shelby leaned back on the table behind her, needing the sturdy support. “I’ve been thinking about her a lot, lately. The year anniversary is coming up next month.”
“Yeah. So,” she shrugged, a smile on her lips. “Guess I really did need that. Thank you… ?”
“Thank you, Clara. That was really amazing, even if it was a little freaky.”
Clara was amused. “Yeah, well, what can I say?”
“Have you been doing this for a long time? Talking to dead people, I mean?”
Clara nodded. “Since I was a kid.”
“Wow.” Shelby sat on the table for a moment, her head finally shaking slowly side to side. “Wow.” She hopped up off the table and walked over to her book cart. “I need to get these finished before I close up the library for the night.” She put a hand on the cart, about to start pushing it when she thought better of it. She moved over to Clara, taking her in a tight, and all too quick embrace. “Thank you, Cara.”
Clara hugged her back, releasing her as soon as Shelby showed signs of letting go. She smiled as she met her gaze once they parted. “You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help.”
“You really did.” She took hold of her cart. “I’ll see you around, Clara.” She left with a brilliant smile, disappearing into the stacks.
Clara tried not to react to the shiver that traveled down her spine at the smile she’d just received, coupled with the memory of the feel of Shelby’s body against hers. After she’d broken up with Erica during the second semester of her Freshman year, Clara hadn’t bothered to date. She’d concentrated most of her energy into The Pagan – which she still worked at – and honing her gift. She didn’t have time for love, or for school work, for that matter.
She sighed as she watched the last of Shelby disappear. How wonderful it would be to feel that body again. She gathered her things together, noting that the library would be closing in forty-five minutes, anyway. She heaved her backpack on her shoulder and headed for the elevators.
Clara ignored the couple who were eating dinner on the couch. She kept her place in the Laz-E-Boy chair in the corner, her gaze on the TV, listening to Peter Jennings as he rattled off the nightly news.
“Hey, Clara, how did you do on your paper?” Zane asked, shoveling a spoonful of spaghetti in his mouth. A noodle and sauce fell onto his chin. Kerri rolled her eyes as he wiped it off on the sleeve of his shirt.
“You’re doing laundry next,” she stated dryly.
“I did good.” Clara turned to face her sister’s boyfriend, a sweet smile plastered on her face. “So how many of my first born would I have to sacrifice to have you write all my papers this semester?”
Zane looked her in the eye. “You couldn’t breed enough for that, kid.”
“Damn.” Clara turned back to the TV, only to have her sister grab her attention. “What?”
“What time is Tory coming over?” Kerri asked, setting her plate aside and wiping her mouth on the napkin in her lap.
Clara glanced at her. “Any time.” Though Kerri had stopped calling her a freak long ago, they’d never talked about her abilities. Kerri certainly had not requested them before, so she’d been stunned when Kerri had asked if she’d do a reading for one of her co-workers at the hospital, where Kerri was working while finishing up her nursing education. Zane rolled his eyes, getting up to put his dish and Kerri’s in the kitchen.
“Crazy-ass voodoo shit,” he muttered as he walked by.
Clara ignored him. “Where do you want me to do it? Want me to take her up to my room?” she asked, nodding in the direction where Zane had just disappeared. “Don’t want him to be uncomfortable.
“Eh, he’ll survive,” Kerri said, waving off her boyfriend’s attitude, which was even worse than Stephanie’s had been for most of Clara’s life. She’d never spoken with him about it, and hadn’t exposed him to much of what her sister was capable of, either.
“Okay,” Clara said skeptically, finishing her dinner.
Tory Amberson arrived fifteen minutes later, nervous about getting her first reading with a Medium, but open-minded, and apparently needing something from Clara. Clara wouldn’t allow her to give her any information about whom she wished to connect with, instead just letting the threads of information come to her naturally.
They sat in the front room of the Victorian, Tory sitting anxiously on the couch while Clara perched casually in the window seat, eyes closed as she took in several deep breaths, trying to open herself up for the connection that she could feel was beginning to come. She could feel energy beginning to gather around her, the coolness touching her leg. It was male energy, that much she could tell, and told Tory as much. She couldn’t quite make anything out about him, and asked silently if he’d give her some sort of clue as to his age at death.
“Okay,” Clara finally said, “he’s showing me baggy jeans. A flannel shirt…” her voice trailed off as she tried to focus in on the image in her brain. “Long hair. A younger man. Twenties, maybe?”
Tory nodded, trying to hold in any reactions, as she still wasn’t entirely a believer, yet. Not to mention, part of her was hoping Clara would truly be gifted, and part of her hoped she was a fraud. She was only there because her mother needed some answers, anyway.
“I’m seeing a … something silver.” Clara tried to focus harder on the object that glittered in front of her mind’s eye. “A keychain. Shaped like a skull.”
“Sapphire eyes?” Tory asked, her heart beginning to pound.
Clara nodded. “Yes. It says Brandon on it.”
“Oh my god,” Tory gasped. Clara met her shocked gaze. “That’s my brother.”
“Is that who you were wanting to connect with today?” At Tory’s nod, Clara continued. Her brows drew as she could feel Brandon’s energy even stronger. “I’m feeling something very, very negative around him,” she explained, shivering slightly. She couldn’t see Brandon very clearly anymore – some spirits stuck around in a visual sense, others preferred to identify themselves only once, then disappeared again – but she could feel him intensely. And it was incredibly unsettling.
Tory was shocked, but still wanted more confirmation that it was, in fact, her brother. “Can you maybe tell me a little more? About him, I mean.”
Clara nodded, amused. She never blamed her clients for their skepticism. She turned inward, focusing back on Brandon again, mentally asking him to give her more information about him. She gasped, a snapshot entering her head that chilled her blood. She saw two figures – neither in clear focus – in a struggle, then the echoing BOOM of a gunshot reverberated in her mind. At first she thought that perhaps Brandon was showing her how he’d died, but somehow that didn’t feel right. She then saw his eyes: black as night, and threatening to stare a hole in her. She shivered again.
“What is it?” Tory asked, her heart beginning to pound again. Clara had gone pale, and Tory couldn’t help but wonder if she knew why.
“Um,” Clara said, clearing her throat and trying to get the chill out of her spine. “Was Brandon part of something…” she was trying to decide the most tactful way to say it. Thinking of none, she just blurted out what she’d seen. “Was he part of a murder? A shooting death?”
Tory stared at her, mouth hanging open. Kerri, who had been asked by Tory to witness the reading, stared slack-jawed from her sister to her friend and back to her sister. She knew the details of Tory’s family’s history, and couldn’t believe Clara had picked up on it.
“Yes. He was. He-“
Clara cut her off. “No details, please. It makes it more difficult to do this if I know stuff beforehand.”
“Okay. Sorry. Yes, he was involved in a shooting death.”
“Okay. Was the victim a woman? I’m getting a female energy, like a girlfriend or wife.”
“His ex-girlfriend,” Tory validated. “The mother of his child.”
Clara pushed down her reactions. She had to try and stay somewhat detached on this one, because she had the distinct feeling she wasn’t going to like this guy very much. “Okay. He’s here, so what did you want to say or ask?”
“I want to know why. I want to know why he did it to Lisa. Why did he do what he did in prison.” Tory couldn’t keep her anger at bay. Though she’d never been close to her older brother, she still loved him, and
“Okay.” Clara waited, knowing that Brandon was able to hear his sister. She didn’t have to wait long before the answers began to come. “I’m getting something about Brandon’s past.” Clara looked the older woman in the eye. “Do you want to know everything, Tory?”
“Yes. I think so. Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Okay. Were you aware that your brother was involved with …” Clara saw a large number 2 appear in her mind. “with two situations?”
“Situations? What do you mean?” Tory asked, feeling slightly nervous at the answer. Her parents had denied for years that Brandon had been involved in anything dark, but Tory had always suspected something. She just never knew what.
“Yeah. I’m seeing two girls. He uh… Um. He-“
“Raped them, didn’t he?” She blew out a long breath at Clara’s nod. “I knew it. Danielle and Lee Ann.” Tory shook her head. “I always knew something happened that night.” She looked at Clara. “Lisa knew about it, didn’t she? Is that why she was killed?”
Clara turned her attention back inward to Brandon. She saw a struggle. Shapes fighting, yelling. “I think it was more of a fight. I think it came out, and her death was basically accidental/on purpose. “
Tory nodded her understanding. “I see. So what about what happened in prison?” she asked, still not wanting to lead Clara on with information given.
Clara could hear Brandon in her thoughts: Pressure. Too much pressure and guilt. She tried to make sense of the words, but decided it wasn’t hers to figure out. “He said, and I quote: ‘Pressure. Too much pressure and guilt’.”
“Coward,” Tory said, her voice bitter. “Thank you, Clara. I don’t really want to know anything else.”
Clara nodded. “Sure. I hope it helped.”
“Oh,” Tory said, shouldering her purse strap and rising to her feet. “It did. I’ll let my mother know.”
Clara stayed where she was as Kerri walked her friend to the front door. The two women stood in the entryway talking for a few minutes, then Tory was gone, and Kerri returned to the front room, taking Tory’s seat.
“That was really impressive, Clara.”
“He was a real bastard,” Clara said, a chill racing down her spine. “God, his energy was just… dark.”
“He was a bastard. Tory didn’t like him, and used to try and stay away from him. Her mother wanted this reading tonight. She never wanted to see Brandon for what he was. He was put in prison for Lisa’s death, then hung himself there.”
“Wow. I didn’t like that at all. Really, really creepy feel to him.”
“So, how did it go?” Zane asked from the archway leading into the room, a glass of iced tea in hand. “Is ‘this house clean’?” he asked, imitating the voice of Zelda Rubinstein as her character in the film, Poltergeist.
“Don’t be an ass, Zane,” Kerri said, shooting a glare to her boyfriend.
“This stuff is so creepy, Kerri.” He turned to Clara. “I like you Clara, but I don’t want you doing that voodoo stuff in this house. You got me?”
Clara could only stare at him, surprised and hurt.
“Zane!” Kerri said, again glaring at him. “What is your deal? She didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I didn’t say she did. This shit is creepy, and I don’t want it here,” he said, pointing to the floor at his feet.
Clara was embarrassed and hurt. She pushed up from the window seat. “Whatever,” she muttered, breezing past him, and up to her apartment.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Kerri asked, walking over to him. “That was really rude.”
“Doesn’t that shit make you feel uneasy?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “Does she even know what she’s doing?”
“Yes. She does. She’s not doing anything wrong, and you owe her an apology.”
“No.” He looked down at Kerri, jaw set stubbornly. “I meant it. I don’t want that shit here.”
Kerri shook her head, pushing past him. “Jerk.”
“Damn.” Clara stopped at the stop sign, chewing on her lower lip as she noted the orange construction signs on the next block, as well as the detour sign that would lead her to the university in another route. She was already running late, and now would be even later. “Damn, damn, damn!”
Clara had actually been up late studying for the test that she was going to be late for, and had overslept. When she awoke and realized how light it was out, she panicked, not even bothering to shower as she threw on some clothes, tugged her hair into a ponytail, and flew out the door.
As she sped down a side street, she noticed a small army of police cars parked outside of a house, as well as an ambulance. There was no activity outside, all apparently inside. She shrugged it off and hurried on to school.
Clara was in another of her hiding places in the Cantina – an underground cafeteria for the university – eating a slice of greasy, pepperoni pizza when her eyes alighted on an angelic sight. She was surprised, as she’d never seen Shelby in the Cantina before, and couldn’t pull her gaze away. The blonde library worker was talking to a black guy as they stood in line for Subway. Their conversation was animated, both all smiles, which made Clara immediately feel an uneasy jealousy just under the surface.
She had very little time to stew over the thought because Shelby spotted her and raised a hand in greeting. Clara swallowed her nervousness – after all, the woman was half a room away – and waved back with what she hoped was a friendly smile.
Shelby continued her conversation with her dark companion, but then moved away from him when she ordered her meal. Clara watched – with no small relief – when a Hispanic girl hurried over to them, immediately planting a kiss on the tall black man. Shelby greeted the girl and gave her a hug, then accepted her food, paid for it, then walked over towards Clara’s table.
“Oh, shit,” Clara whispered, panic setting in.
“Hey,” Shelby said. “Are you here alone? Mind if I join you?”
“No,” Clara said, tugging her heavy backpack off the table and to one of the other chairs. “Help yourself.”
Shelby got situated and began to prepare her salad. “So, how have you been? I didn’t see you at the library the other day.” She squirted a liberal amount of Ranch dressing over her greens.
“Oh, yeah. I had to work Tuesday night. Usually I have that night off, but Cassandra – my boss – wasn’t feeling so hot, so she asked if I’d be willing to work for her.” Clara quickly shut her mouth, realizing she was babbling.
Shelby smiled, as though realizing the very same thing. “Where do you work?” She stabbed a carrot with her plastic fork.
Clara picked one of the few pieces of pepperoni off her pizza and popped it into her mouth. “The Pagan. It’s a metaphysical shop downtown,” she explained, seeing the look of unfamiliarity on her dinner companion’s face. “We sell tarot cards, crystals, incense. That kind of thing.”
“Gotcha. Guess it makes sense, what with what you do, and all.” Shelby chewed her food, studying Clara thoughtfully for a moment. “I’ve thought a lot about what happened. With my mom, and everything. I’ve taken her advice. Now I only go to the cemetery once a week instead of almost every day.” Her smile was mischievous.
“Well, it’s a good start, I suppose,” Clara said, returning the humor, then quickly sobered. “I’m really glad, Shelby. You can’t let grief run your life. That’s one thing I’ve learned in all this. They may be gone, as in you can’t see them anymore, but they’re never truly gone.”
“Yeah, but you can see them and talk to them. It’s different for us mere mortals.”
Clara chuckled, shaking her head in disagreement. “Not really. I mean, if you pay attention, and I mean really pay attention, you’ll see that they actually find ways to get into contact with you all the time.”
“Like how?” Doubt was obvious on Shelby’s beautiful features. She sat back in her chair, forgetting about her food for a moment.
“Well, as an example. I know a lady who loves music, and music was a huge part of her and her mom’s life and relationship when her mom was alive. My friend was driving down the street one day, having a hard time with missing her mom. She felt compelled to turn on her radio, and when she did, it was a song that her mom used to love and listen to all the time.”
“Oh, come on, Clara,” Shelby said, leaning forward slightly. “That kind of thing has got to be just coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Clara said, complete certainty in her voice. “Nothing is by accident. Nothing.”
“Like us meeting? You think there was some sort of purpose in it?” she asked, a brow raised in challenge.
Is she flirting? Clara was doing a little happy dance inside. “your mom needed to give you a message, and it was one you needed to hear. I’ve been in that library how many Tuesday nights, and not once have you said a word to me. The one night that your mom has a message for you, you do. Coincidence? I think not.”
Shelby grinned, nodding. “Okay. But I still think most things in life are pure chance.”
“And that’s cool. You’re certainly entitled to your beliefs.” She held her pizza up to her mouth, about to take a bite, pausing for effect. “Even if they’re wrong.”
“Oh, nice!” Shelby laughed, playfully tossing a carrot piece at Clara. They ate in silence for a moment, then, “Doesn’t it bother you? Seeing the dead people?”
Clara shook her head. “No. Not at all. It used to. It used to scare the hell out of me, but now… Nah.”
“I don’t know. It’s just kinda… creepy.”
Clara shrugged. “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that, and it won’t be the last, I’m sure. When I was in high school, and really figuring this stuff out, I would ask friends, my parents’ friends, if I could do a practice reading for them. I was surprised by the number of people who weren’t cool with it.”
“Yeah. The peanut gallery is still out on that one for me, I think.” Shelby took a few bites of her salad, chewing thoughtfully before asking, “Are you from here?”
Clara nodded, recognizing the change of subject for what it was. At the moment, Shelby wasn’t comfortable with what she did. She hoped that would change in time. “Born and raised. You?”
Shelby shook her head. “No. I was born in New York City, but we left when I was still in diapers. We moved around a lot. I counted it one time: I went to thirteen different schools, and that was before high school!”
“Good god! That had to suck.”
Shelby shrugged, pushing her lunch away. “Sometimes. It was harder on my older brother, Dennis. He’s pretty shy, so I think the constant new people kind of threw him into even more isolation.”
“It would have done the same thing to me,” Clara admitted, tossing the remaining crust of her pizza to the paper plate it had been served on.
“Why? Are you shy?”
“Extremely.” Clara smiled sheepishly.
“Really?” Shelby asked, swinging her arm casually over the back of her chair. “So, what does it take to get to know you, then?”
Okay, she is definitelyflirting. Clara took a deep breath. “Well, why don’t you go to dinner with me and I’ll tell you?”
Clara breezed into the store. If it had been a cartoon, birds carrying a silken scarf in their beaks would have flown in before her, announcing her ridiculously happy mood.
“Good afternoon, Cassandra,” she hummed, heading around the counter and the older woman to the back room to drop off her backpack. She had some studying to do later, so didn’t want to leave the bag in her car.
“Good afternoon to you, too.” Cassandra followed her one employee to the back, amused. “How’s the new girlfriend?” She leaned against the doorframe, arms crossing over her chest with a jingle of bracelets.
Clara’s spreading grin spoke louder than anything she might say. Her boss chuckled. “So how has business been today? We gonna be busy tonight?” Clara donned her apron and nametag.
“You’re the psychic. You tell me.”
Clara followed Cassandra out of the back office and to the main part of the store. As she walked, she pulled her hair back into a loose bun. “What’s on the agenda tonight?”
“You have a reading at seven, and then one at nine,” Cassandra said, looking at her daily log of appointments.
Since Clara had started doing regular readings at the shop, business had nearly tripled. Clara kept all the money for her readings, but more often than not the clients would either come in early and shop, or stay to purchase something that Clara would recommend: often sage to cleanse their homes of unwanted spirits or energies. Usually after the sage the customers found themselves drawn to the books, and then the decks of tarot. It was a win/win situation for both.
“Sounds good.” Clara knew that she had stocking to do, as Thursdays were there delivery date. She quickly set about pulling the product from the stockroom before her first reading in less than an hour.
Clara had just found the new shipment of candles when she felt a presence behind her. She knew immediately who it was without turning around. “Hi,” she tossed over her shoulder.
“What’s up?” Erica asked, hosting herself up on a stack of boxes. The heels of her shoes beat a light rhythm on the boxes beneath her.
“Just working. You?” She turned to her old flame, arms crossed over her chest. It had taken some time for here to adjust to Erica’s dirty blonde hair, long ago freed of damaging dyes. She had lost the Goth façade a couple years before, instead allowing her true beauty to come through. Even still, Clara had fought hard against Erica’s natural charm for four years. It didn’t stop Erica from trying, though. Far from it.
“So, I was thinking of heading to the cemetery tonight,” she said, brushing dirty blonde hair off her shoulder. “Wanna come?”
Clara glanced at the young woman, now twenty. “Not really.”
“Come on, Clara. You know I don’t do that stuff anymore. I just want to go. It’s so peaceful.”
Clara leaned back against the wall, studying her old friend. “Erica, we’ve been through this. I’m not your personal spirit guide.”
Erica snickered, knowing of Clara’s beliefs in such things. “I know that. Guess I just hoped for old times sake.” She shrugged, playing the rejection off like no big deal. “We had some fun.”
“Clara, have you got those new candles, yet?” Cassandra asked, stopping when she stepped into the backroom. She could feel the tension in the air, and figured she could probably cut it with a knife. Looking from one young woman to the other, she decided she should leave them be.
Erica still carried a torch for Clara, and Cassandra knew she regretted the way she’d treated the younger girl four years before. She’d moved on, had dated this one and that, graduated high school and had gone off on her own. Even still, Clara had never been far from Erica’s thoughts.
Grateful for the interruption, Clara pushed away from the wall and grabbed the box of candles in question. “I need to get back to work.”
Two weeks had gone by, and Clara couldn't be happier. She spent as much time with Shelby as she could, though their work hours tended to get in the way, as Cassandra was asking Clara to work more and more nights. The older woman had started to teach a tarot class on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and so couldn't mind the shop.
It hadn't been firmly established just exactly what Clara and Shelby's relationship was, though Clara saw the blonde as her girlfriend, and anyone who knew that she was gay - all three people - believed the same thing. Except for Shelby. She was afraid to bring it up to Shelby. What if Shelby didn't feel the same way? What if she freaked out? What if Shelby just thought they were really, really, really good friends, and if Clara said anything that friendship would begin to deteriorate because Shelby would feel pressured, or threatened, or...
Clara took a deep breath, trying to calm herself so she wouldn't hyperventilate. She was at home, up in her small studio apartment, thinking. She was supposed to be studying, but it wasn't happening. Her mind had been in turmoil over Shelby for well over a week, now. What should she do? Should she say anything? Should she just kiss Shelby and let things happen as they would? Oh, so many choices!! None of them felt right to her, or seemed appealing.
Clara had thought about talking to Kerri about it, and try and get her advice, but she hadn't even told her older sister yet that she was a lesbian. What would Kerri do? Would she run off and tell their parents? What they say if they knew?
"Shit!" Clara flopped back on her bed, a headache beginning to creep up with all the thoughts and uncertainty whirling around in her mind. She groaned when she heard scratching on the door. "Moses!" she whined, throwing her legs off the bed and following suit as she got to her feet.
Kerri's cat loved to sleep in the opened area that was the closet Max had made for her. She padded over to the door and opened it, letting the black and gray feline run inside. She knew better than to close the door again, as he would meow and whine until she opened the door again. And, if she were to dare close it once more, he wouldn't quit. He wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased. Even if he chose to stay in her apartment all day, it didn't matter. He wouldn't want out until she closed the door.
Heading back to her bed, Clara plopped down, staring down at the sea of papers and books scattered on her bed. She had no desire to work on any of it, but knew she had to. Distantly she heard the doorbell, and a glance at the alarm clock on the dresser made Clara smile. Shelby had just gotten off work, and had come right over, just as she did every Monday night.
Clara felt her heart pound a little faster with every footfall that brought Shelby up one more stair towards her apartment. The blonde peeked her head into the opened door.
"Hi. Come on in." Clara shoved her books and papers to one side of the double bed, making room for Shelby to sit down. The blonde looked around the room that she'd been in dozens of times before.
"You really need to get some furniture in here, Clara," she said, sitting down, bouncing slightly on the mattress.
"Yes, yes, so you say every time you're here."
"And yet you still haven't done it." Shelby raised a challenging brow.
Clara rolled her eyes in the familiar game they played. They both grinned. "How was your day?"
"It was good." Shelby flopped back across the bottom of the bed, looking at Clara's calculator before moving it so she could rest her head in its place. "Long." She sighed, long and tired. "Caleb called off again, so I ended up working two extra hours today. I went in this morning before class, then worked my normal shift tonight. God!" she exclaimed, slamming a fist into the comforter. "Why the hell doesn't my boss do something about him? You know?" She turned to look at Clara, who quickly looked away. She'd been studying the blonde's profile, marveling at just how gorgeous Shelby really was. She had nearly gotten caught.
"Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. We had someone like that down at the shop for awhile, too, then Cassandra and I realized that we did better with just the two of us and got rid of Tammy."
"I don't want them to get rid of him, I just want them to hire someone who actually gives a crap and wants to work. I can't keep putting in the extra hours like this."
"I'm sorry." Clara shoved the books off the bed totally, and laid across her bed on her side, facing Shelby. She pillowed her head in the palm of her hand. With a slight grunt, Shelby re-positioned herself, mirroring.
"What do you want to do tonight?" the blonde asked, her tone turning from hard frustration to the soft, gentle tones always reserved for Clara. Or so Clara hoped.
"I don't know. I don't have a lot of money. I had to get that damn radiator fixed, Again." She sighed in her own frustration.
"Honey, why don't you just get rid of that clunker?"
Clara's heart leapt into her chest. She wondered if Shelby realized she'd just called her Honey. "I know. I just don't want to have to deal with it. Grrr!" She flopped over onto her back, warm fuzzies forgotten as she realized that her bank account was nearly dry after the four hundred and seventy-nine dollar bill she'd received from the garage. "I hate my car."
Shelby scooted over closer, looking down at her. "At least you don't have huge bills to pay," she pointed out, indicating the space around them. "You've actually got a pretty sweet deal right here."
Clara looked up at her. "You think so?"
Shelby nodded. "Oh, yeah. No rent. Only have to water the lawn. I'd say you've got it made in the shade."
Clara grinned. "Yeah, maybe. But I do have my books every semester. You've got that covered from your scholarship."
"True," Shelby conceded. "But I've got rent." She poked at Clara with a finger. "And food," poke "and I've got to put up with Jasper."
"The evil roommate."
"Yes. The evil roommate." She poked one last time, grinning at Clara's response. "I still say you should move in so I can kick him out."
Clara looked into Shelby's face, trying desperately to read her eyes. Shelby had said things like that before, but Clara always prayed and hoped that one of these days she would finish it with "we should move in together" rather than just Clara taking over for the roommate that Shelby didn't want in her apartment anymore.
The energy in the room began to change as Shelby continued to look down at Clara. She searched the younger woman's face, though for what Clara wasn't sure.
"Can I tell you something, Clara?" Shelby asked, her voice growing softer. Clara nodded. "I really like you. A lot.” She grew very shy as she played with the comforter that they lay on. “I've been having some pretty strange thoughts lately. I was hoping that maybe you could help me out a little." She glanced over at Clara.
"Okay," Clara said, her chest beginning to rise faster, as her heart sped up. "Tell me what you've been thinking. I’ll see what I can do."
"Okay." Shelby reached out and touched a long strand of Clara's hair, wrapping it around one of her fingers. "I've been thinking about you. About your eyes." She looked into them. "They're so beautiful. Really unusual color.” She brought up a finger, tracing on brow. “I’ve also been thinking about..." her words trailed off as her gaze settled onto Clara's mouth. Her eyes flicked back to Clara's, almost as though to see what her reaction would be to what she had insinuated.
"Have you ever kissed a girl before, Shelby?" Clara asked, her heart about to speed right out of her chest. Shelby shook her head. "But you want to. Right?"
Shelby nodded. "Yeah. Very much so. But only if it’s you."
"Come here. Let me show you."
Shelby's were the softest lips Clara had ever touched. She sighed into the kiss, as did Shelby. She didn't even notice when her slightly ajar apartment door was pushed slightly further open, just a bit, Kerri peeking her head in to see if the girls wanted to join her and Zane for dinner. Quietly, she closed the door and crept down the stairs.
She sat across from Clara, a stern look on her face. "No, you need to say it like you always say it, Clara," she said.
Clara was confused, and getting frustrated. Every time she tried to say it just like she was being asked, it came out wrong. "Okay. Let me try again." She cleared her throat and opened her mouth, intending to say it, just like she'd been asked. "I washed the dog." She heard it in her head, knew that was what she was supposed to say, but still it came out wrong: Save me.
"No, Clara! That's wrong! Say it right!"
Save me ...
Clara gasped as she awoke, looking around her room.
She heard it again, this time it wasn't a strange hiccup in a dream. She could feel that she wasn't alone, and knew Shelby's sleeping form had nothing to do with it.
She pushed the covers off of her, ignoring the cool chill in the night air, and padded across her living space. The tank top and panties she wore did little to protect her from the cold, or from the fear that niggled at her brain.
She stood in the center of her apartment, turning in a slow circle, trying to figure out where she felt the presence. Her senses landed on the area near the curtained-off bathroom, and she stared, trying to see through the inky blackness, but she could make nothing out.
Clara was startled by Shelby's sleepy voice. She'd never had anyone stay overnight before. "Yeah. Just gotta pee," she said, forcing herself to walk to the very spot where she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle to life.
Once behind the curtain, she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, trying not to let the fear and uncertainty get to her. Instead, she sent her thoughts drifting to Shelby, who had fallen back asleep in her bed. They had kissed a lot throughout the evening, never even leaving Clara's room, but had done nothing else. Clara knew how it felt, that want and desire, but fear of going too far, so had let Shelby lead. When the blonde had reached her limit, she had let Clara know, but had asked if she could stay. Clara wasn't about to say no.
She decided to go ahead and pee, since she was there anyway, then headed back over to the bed. She felt a shiver run down her spine as she thought of the sound of the woman's voice in her head. It hadn't exactly been an audible voice, but it sure had been clear in her mind.
Save who? From what? She had no idea, but knew that the woman wasn't going to go away until Clara did something. The voice had sounded pleading, yet utterly tired and defeated. Maybe she'd see if her grandmother could help, tell her what to do. It had been a long time since she’d seen her grandmother, and wasn’t entirely positive how to reach her. She just seemed to show up whenever the mood struck.
Clara climbed back in bed, and was immediately glad she did. Shelby rolled over to her and cuddled up against her, placing a soft kiss to Clara's neck. "Sleep," she moaned, half-asleep. "Stay here."
Clara nodded, knowing there was no other place she wanted to be.
"Damn it, Kerri, this isn't funny!" Zane exclaimed, glaring at his girlfriend, who was most amused.
"I know it's not, but what do you want me to do about it, babe?" she asked, clipping her hospital badge to the scrubs top she wore.
"I don't know," he blew out, hands on hips as he looked around the kitchen.
"What's up?" Clara asked as she bounded into the room.
"Zane lost his pocket knife. Again."
"This isn't funny, Kerri," he whined.
"So you've said." She got up from where she'd been reading the morning paper and began to look through the kitchen drawers again. "You're sure you left it in here?"
Clara joined the search, knowing that her sister's boyfriend was less-than-careful with where he put things. She opened the fridge, more to grab herself orange juice than to look for the wayward knife, and started. Sitting atop the lid of the butter container was the pocket knife that Zane's grandfather and namesake had given him as a boy. She held it up.
"Would this be it?"
Zane's brows drew. "Where the hell did you find it?" He snatched it out of her fingers.
"Sitting on top of the Parkay."
Kerri tried to hide her snicker, but wasn't entirely successful at it. With an irritated growl, Zane shoved the folded knife into his back pocket and stormed out of the room.
"Did he have a late night, or something?" Clara asked, sitting in the chair her sister had just vacated.
"No. I honestly don't know why it was in there, but," she shrugged. "so be it."
"Crazy." Clara drank her juice, sensing her sister's gaze hot on the back of her head. "Yes, Kerri?" she drawled.
Kerri chewed on her bottom lip, not sure what to say, or if she should say anything at all. Finally she took a deep breath and blew it out. "Why didn't you tell me you were gay?"
Clara choked on the drink she'd just taken, reaching out for a napkin from the wooden holder at the center of the table to wipe at her mouth. "What?"
Kerri sat across from her. "Why did you never tell me you were into girls?" she asked, her voice soft.
"I guess I never thought it was your business, just like it isn't now." Clara pushed back from the table, her defenses on high alert. Kerri grabbed her wrist, stopping her from storming from the kitchen.
"Wait, Clara. I want to talk to you about this."
"How the hell did you know?" Clara demanded, slamming the single serving-sized bottle on the counter.
"I saw you and Shelby the other night. I went upstairs to ask if you guys wanted some pizza. Your door was open, and..."
"And you saw us." Clara sighed at Kerri's nod. "Your cat is evil," she muttered, ignoring her sister's confused look. "I didn't tell you because I didn't know what you would do. I didn't know if you'd freak."
"Why would I freak?"
"Because I love girls!" Clara said, as though it was the clearest thing in all the world.
"Jeez, Clara," Kerri laughed. "We're almost at the new millennium, for crying out loud! I'm open-minded. Besides," Kerri said, taking a relaxed, casual pose in her chair, a relaxed, casual pose that she didn't really feel, "you've always been odd, doing your own thing, so why should this be any different?"
Clara rolled her eyes. "Great. Thanks."
Kerri laughed. "I'm kidding. It's okay, really. Just be careful."
“Of?” Clara leaned against the counter, still not sure what to think. She wasn’t entirely sure if she should believe Kerri’s supposed acceptance of her. She’d always felt judged by her older sister, and this was no different.
Kerri shrugged, slightly exasperated. “I don’t know! I guess who you end up with. What you do. Whatever.”
“Let me ask you something. Would you be telling me the same thing if I dated guys? To be careful, I mean?”
Kerri had to think about that one, realizing that Clara might have gotten her there. “I don’t know, Clara. All I know is that I love you, and I want to see you happy. If dating girls does that, then what can I say?”
Clara sighed, still not completely convinced. She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, grabbing the juice bottle in sweat-slicked palms. “What about mom and dad? Are you going to tell them?”
“I hadn’t really planned on it.” Clara sighed, draining the last of the juice then tossing the empty bottle into the trash. “Would you?”
Kerri sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure how they’ll take it. You know grandma will blow a gasket.”
“Of course she will. Everything is the end of the world with her.”
Kerri chuckled, nodding in agreement. “Mom will probably be okay. I don’t know about dad, though you guys are really close. If it were me, I’m sure he’d blow a gasket, too. But with you…”
“Stop. That’s not true and you know it.” Protective of her father to the end, Clara glared at her sister.
“Whatever. Either way, I’m not sure what to tell you where they’re concerned. Who knows,” she snickered, “maybe you should just show up with Shelby at Thanksgiving dinner.”
Clara stared out the window of Shelby’s small, two bedroom apartment. The snow was falling hard outside, the murmur of the stereo in the corner blocking the sound of the driving November winds. The holiday season was nearly upon them, and Old Man Winter was making his presence known.
Shelby chewed on the tip of her pen as she tapped in some numbers into her calculator, glancing every so often at her girlfriend, who was less-than-interested in her own homework. Clara was watching the snow fall, staring up at the ceiling, the floor, or at her.
“You’re not in homework mode, are you?” she finally asked.
Clara looked at her, surprised to hear Shelby’s voice, as neither of them had said anything in well over three hours. She shrugged. “Not in the mood, I guess.”
“I can’t recall a time when you are in the mood.”
Clara sighed, pushing herself up off the couch, where she’d been lounging with her head in Shelby’s lap. “Not really.” She indicated the books around them. “This just isn’t my thing, I guess. I never wanted to go to college, Shelby.” She ran a hand through her hair, messing up an already messy ponytail.
“Then why are you here?” Shelby put her text book aside, tossing her pen to the coffee table.
“Because my parents made me, to be perfectly honest.” Clara looked away, not wanting to see the disapproval she knew she’d see in Shelby’s face. The blonde was dead set on making her mark in the world, and doing it through business.
“They didn’t exactly hold a gun to your head, did they?” Shelby pulled her legs up, resting her chin on her knee.
“No,” Clara shook her head. “Not exactly. But I knew my dad would be disappointed. I told him I’d make a go at it.”
“But have you?” Shelby watched Clara, who still looked away from her. “Clara? What do you want for your life?”
“I don’t know,” Clara blew out. She stood from the couch and walked over to the window that had had her attention all night. The street two floors below was nearly empty at the eleven o’clock hour. Tracks made from earlier car tires were nearly gone, fresh snow in their place. “I wish someone could tell me.”
“No one can but you. Why don’t you give school a chance? You barely study. I don’t know how many classes you go to, let alone if you pay attention during them…” Shelby’s voice trailed off as she saw Clara’s body tighten as her anger built.
Clara whirled on her, arms crossed protectively over her chest. “Whose side are you on, Shelby?” she demanded. “I’m sorry if I’m not the academic like you, or like Kerri. I’m a different person than either of you. Maybe my interest doesn’t lie within academia.”
“Then what will you do? Work some nine-to-five somewhere, maybe buy a house in ten years? If you’re lucky, that is. You have to think ahead, Clara. I mean, jeez,” she got to her own feet. “You speak to dead people, for crying out loud. I’m sure they’ve told you that you don’t live forever. You have to start planning now.”
Clara shook her head, feeling sick to her stomach. “Jesus,” she whispered. Was there no one in the world who understood her? Anyone who would even try? “I gotta go.” She gathered her books, shoving them angrily into her backpack, looking for her pencil, which how somehow escaped during her hours of relaxing. “Shit, where’s my pencil?” she demanded, falling to her knees to look under the couch.
“Hey,” Shelby said, her voice soft as she rested a hand on Clara’s shoulder. “Wait.” She waited until she had Clara’s attention. “You can’t drive in this, Clara. Please don’t leave.”
Clara, on her knees, glanced out the window again. The snow was beginning to come down even harder, threatening an all-out blizzard. “Damn.” She knew Shelby was right, but didn’t have to like it. Getting to her feet, pencil forgotten, she zipped her backpack, finished with homework for the night. “I’ll stay until the storm begins to slow, then I’m gone.”
Shelby nodded, not wanting to fight with Clara. She knew the brunette could be extremely stubborn when she wanted to be. “Okay.”
It was growing colder in the small apartment as Clara huddled on the couch, wrapped in the blanket Shelby had provided. She could hear the blonde moving around in her bedroom, the door not completely closed. She glanced down the hall to see the sliver of golden light that emanated from the crack along three sides of Shelby’s door.
“Shit,” she hissed. She was cold, she was tired, and she was being stubborn. She knew that, though she didn’t agree with Shelby’s tactics, she truly was just trying to be practical. It amazed Clara on a fairly regular basis just how different the two of them really were. Even so, it seemed to work.
Trying to decide what she wanted to do, Clara wrapped the blanket tighter around herself as she stood from the couch as she shuffled her way over to the windows, pushing the closed blinds aside. The storm had yet to lighten, and she knew it wasn’t going to.
“Still snowing,” Shelby said softly from behind Clara, nearly making Clara jump out of her skin. Shelby grinned. “Oops.”
“God, don’t do that!”
“I’m sorry about earlier, Clara.” Shelby stood a few feet away, shivering in her sweats and tank top. “Know that I wasn’t trying to judge you. I know you’ve had a lot of that. I just worry about you. That’s the honest truth.”
Clara looked at Shelby, and knew that what she had said was in fact, the honest truth. She felt a warmth spread throughout her entire body. There had been very few people in her life who had only been looking out for Clara’s benefit. She was touched, and felt a wave of… dare she say love? … wash over her.
“You’re freezing,” she said in lieu of a response. She opened her arms, the blanket spreading out almost like wings as she engulfed Shelby in the cocoon of warmth.
“God, that feels so good,” Shelby moaned, nuzzling even closer as Clara’s arms, and the blanket, enclosed around her. “I don’t want you to go,” she murmured against Clara’s neck, where she was warming up her chilled nose.
“I’m not,” Clara whispered, eyes closed as she rested her head against Shelby’s. “The storm’s too bad.”
Shelby shook her head, still half-buried under the blanket cocoon. “No. I mean ever.” She raised her head, looking at Clara. “I want you to move in here with me, Clara.”
Clara studied her gaze, trying to read what wasn’t being said. “You mean as a roommate?”
Shelby smiled, finding Clara’s insecurity cute at times. “I mean as in my girlfriend.” She couldn’t hold it in anymore, and wanted to finally complete what they’d started.
Clara was startled by the power and passion of Shelby’s kiss, which she returned with equal vigor. She moaned as a hand made it’s way up her shirt, cupping her breast over her bra.
“Come to bed with me,” Shelby said, her mouth already laying a trail of kisses along Clara’s neck.
Clara didn’t have to be asked twice. The cold was forgotten as the blanket landed on the floor in a pile of blue fleece.
Kerri closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the hot water streaming down her body. A cold spell had hit, and the entire city was under dangerous temperature warnings.
It had been a long day at the hospital, and she was looking very much forward to a quiet night at home alone. Zane was working late, and Clara was upstairs packing. Kerri thought about that as she grabbed the bottle of Pantene, squirting a glob of the ivory-colored shampoo into her palm. Her little sister had gone and fallen in love. Clara had been overjoyed as she’d gushed about her plans to move in with Shelby. Kerri was happy for her, and to be perfectly honest, was kind of glad about getting the house back to just her and Zane. It had been a true joy having Clara around, but she looked forward to the total privacy.
Kerri’s thoughts were interrupted when she saw the shadow of a figure walk quickly by the closed shower curtain, the form distorted by the folds of the vinyl. She felt her blood turn to ice and heart stop as the figure seemed to vanish as quickly as it had come.
Taking a deep breath, she peeked her head around the curtain, thinking that maybe Zane had come home early to surprise her. Or maybe Clara had come in to get something. The bathroom was exactly as she’d left it, including the door being securely closed.
Letting out a shaky breath, she pulled the curtain back into place and began to rub the shampoo into her hair. She wanted to forget about what she thought she saw. Perhaps she hadn’t seen it at all, and it had simply been the figment of her imagination. Closing her eyes, she raised her face, allowing the water to wash the soap from her face before turning around and rinsing the shampoo out of her hair.
Kerri couldn’t stop feeling like she was being watched. She peeked around the curtain again, wiping at her eyes with the edge of her bath towel.
“Clara?” she called out, wondering if maybe her sister was just outside the bathroom. Perhaps while packing she realized that some of her things were in the main bathroom, where Kerri showered. There was no response.
Kerri pulled the curtain fully closed again, then screamed out as the shadow moved across the front of the curtain in the opposite direction from where it had started moments before.
Clara stopped, blood freezing in her veins as her sister’s scream reached her ears. She threw the t-shirt she’d been folding to the floor and ran out of the studio, clamoring down the stairs. She was nearly out of breath when she reached the second-floor bathroom.
“Kerri?” she called, banging on the door. She tried the doorknob but found it locked. “Kerri!” She pounded a few more times when the door flew open, a towel-wrapped Kerri flying into her startled arms.
Kerri clung to Clara, trembling as her panic turned into emotional release. She tried to stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks, but was unable.
Clara held on, frightened and totally bewildered. She looked into the bathroom, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. The shower was still running, water beginning to drench the toilet seat and rug on the floor in front of the tub.
“Hey,” she finally said, her wits returning to her. She pushed Kerri away from her just enough to look into her pale face. “What happened?”
Kerri couldn’t speak. She was still trembling, and wanted to get away from the bathroom.
“You’re cold. Can you go to your bedroom and put something on and I’ll turn the water off?” Clara asked softy, rubbing her sister’s naked shoulder. Numbly Kerri nodded, scurrying off to the bedroom she shared with Zane down the hall.
Clara took a deep breath, running a shaky hand through her hair as she headed into the bathroom. She looked around, trying to see if maybe Kerri had seen some sort of bug, spider or mouse. There didn’t seem to be anything. Nothing under the pile of neatly-folded clothes on the vanity counter. Nothing in the tub or near the drain.
“What the hell?” she muttered, reaching into the shower stall to turn the water off. She wiped her wet arm off with a hand towel, then headed to Kerri’s room.
Kerri sat curled up on her bed, dressed in a matching pair of sweats and sweatshirt with her university logo running down along the right thigh of the pants. Clara sat next to her, looking at her.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Kerri blew out a breath, then nodded. She was lost in her own head, remembering again what she’d seen. She couldn’t shake the image, no matter how she tried. Tears began to slowly slide down her cheeks once more.
“Hey,” Clara said, rubbing a hand across Kerri’s back. She was beginning to fill with true concern. This was completely unlike her sister. “What happened?”
“I was taking a shower,” Kerri began, her voice shaky. She brought a trembling hand up to rub at her cheek. I saw…” her voice trailed off, once again the image before her mind’s eye.
“You saw what? What happened, Kerri?” Clara asked, her voice more firm as she got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“I saw a shadow. I thought maybe it was you, or maybe Zane, but it wasn’t. I thought maybe I was crazy.” Kerri wiped at her tears as she tried to keep a sob in. “Then I saw it again. I pulled open the curtain, and… and…” She broke down.
Clara hugged her, trying to decide what to do. She knew there was more to this for Kerri to be so shaken by it. She looked around the room as she hugged her sister close, trying to decide what to do.
“It was terrible, Clara,” Kerri sniffled, head resting on Clara’s shoulder. “She was so awful. Her face was all bloody. She kept staring at me, her mouth moving but nothing came out. I think she was saying, ‘Save me’.”
Clara pulled away, nearly knocking Kerri over with the movement. “She said what?”
Clara felt dizzy, her stomach turning in knots. Those words echoed in her head, the tone still fresh in her head, though she’d heard it more than a week before.
“What’s wrong?” Kerri asked, wiping at her eyes and nose with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “You look like you’re the one who saw the ghost.”
Clara smiled at her sister’s weak attempt at humor. “Maybe. Are you okay?”
Kerri nodded. “Yeah. It just really scared me.” She got herself under control, taking a steadying breath. “Who do you think that was?”
Clara shrugged, shaking her head. “I’m not sure. I think it may be the same woman who came to me at night, once. Scared the hell out of me.”
“Was she all bloody?”
“I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was saying ‘save me’.”
A visible shiver raced through Kerri as she wrapped her arms around herself in a protective hug. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t know there was anything to say, really. I don’t know who she is, and I guess I just figured maybe she would go away.”
“Obviously not. You’ve got to get her out of here, Clara,” Kerri said, her voice pleading. “I don’t care what you have to do, but you need to get her out.”
Clara nodded, sighing heavily. “Okay.” How the hell am I going to do that? “I’ll do what I can.”
“Are you going to Shelby’s tonight?” At Clara’s nod, Kerri put on her best sheepish smile. “I need to ask a favor.”
Shelby closed the bedroom door softly, turning to see Clara already beginning to undress. “Do you think she’ll be okay out there?” she asked, sitting on the end of the bed to untie her shoes.
Clara nodded. “I think so. She had a pretty bad scare.” Clara looked at her girlfriend, walking over to her and placing a kiss on her lips. “I really do appreciate this,” she nodded towards the door. “I know she’ll feel a lot better sleeping out there on the couch than she will at home tonight. Zane won’t be home till later, so…”
‘No problem. I don’t mind. I like Kerri.” She finished undressing, throwing on a t-shirt and boxers, as she wasn’t entirely comfortable sleeping naked with Clara’s sister sleeping on the couch just down the hall.
They were quiet for a moment as they slipped into bed and settled in. Clara sighed in contentment, Shelby resting her head on her shoulder. She kissed the blonde head and reached to turn out the lamp.
“I probably don’t want to know what happened, do I?” Shelby asked at length.
“That’s up to you. I’ll tell you if you want me to, but…” Clara’s voice trailed off. Truth be told, she wanted nothing more than to be able to share with Shelby what had happened, and maybe try and get some advice.
Shelby raised herself to her elbow, looking down at Clara. She could see that Clara wanted to talk about it, but she truly wasn’t sure if she could listen. She understood what her girlfriend did, but she’d be lying if she said she was comfortable with it.
Shelby was interrupted by violent banging on the front door of the apartment. Both women jumped out of bed, startled and already shaken from the unusual events of the night. Clara quickly pulled on the jeans and sweater she had taken off only moments before, and hurried out of the bedroom and to the living room, Shelby hot on her heels.
Kerri was sitting up in the bed she’d made on the couch, her eyes wide with fear and surprise. “Are you guys expecting someone?” she asked as Clara and Shelby hurried into the living room.
“No,” Shelby said. She was about to look into the peep hole on the door when the person banged again. She nearly hugged the door to see who was on the other side, visibly relaxing. “It’s Zane.”
Clara and Kerri both breathed a sigh of relief as Shelby released the lock and safety chain. The door wasn’t fully opened when Zane pushed his way inside. He looked around the room until he spotted Kerri by the couch.
“What are you doing here, Zane?” she asked, moving over towards him.
“I think the better question is what are you doing here?” he asked, angry eyes finding Clara.
“I left you a note-“
“I got your damn note.” He moved into Clara’s personal space. “I told you I didn’t want your crazy voodoo shit in my house, Clara!” he boomed.
“Zane!” Kerri rushed between them, pushing her boyfriend out of Clara’s face. “Stop this.”
“Well, she brings all this crazy shit into our house and our lives, Kerri!” he said, glaring at Clara. “I don’t know what you did to scare your sister so bad, but I want you to fix it. I want it, and you out of my house. You got me?”
Clara took a step back, intimidated by Zane’s temper and larger size. She could only stare, stunned by his outburst. Kerri looked on, helpless, looking to Shelby for support. They exchanged a look of anger, then Kerri took action.
“Zane, quit it right now.”
Zane was about to continue, but Kerri was yanking his arm to pull him away from Clara, who looked like she wanted to cry. He took a deep breath, trying to let his anger and fear go. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing Kerri by the hand.
“I’m not going, Zane,” Kerri said, pulling her hand away. “I’m staying here tonight.” She took a step back, her, Shelby and Clara inadvertently forming a female triangle.
Zane looked from one face to the other. “Are you shitting me? Why?”
“Because I’m not comfortable there right now. I want a good night’s sleep, and I won’t get it there. I got really scared tonight.”
Zane glared at Clara once more. “I hope you’re happy, Clara,” he said, then slammed out the front door.
Stunned silence filled the room as everyone tried to reconcile what had just happened, and Kerri tried to reconcile where Zane’s irrational anger stemmed from. She shook herself out of it and turned to her sister. “Are you okay, Clara? I don’t know what set him off like that.”
Clara could only nod. She was hurt by Zane’s words, and frightened by the power of his anger, which came off him in waves. She fell back into the warm comfort of Shelby, who had walked up behind her and wrapped protective arms around her waist.
“Are you okay, Kerri?” Shelby asked softly.
Kerri nodded. “Yes. I don’t know where that came from. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
There was awkward silence as all three tried to think of what to say or do. Finally Shelby spoke. “Well, I guess we should all get back to bed.” After forty-five seconds, no one had moved a muscle. Shelby broke into laughter, followed by Clara and Kerri. “Or not.”
Twenty minutes later the three sat around the kitchen table, a cup of hot tea for Shelby, a beer for Clara and milk for Kerri.
“What do you think it is?” Shelby asked. She hadn’t wanted to know what had happened, but Zane’s enraged appearance had piqued her interest, despite her own internal warnings. She knew she’d be having nightmares that night.
“I don’t know. I need to ask my grandmother.” The words were out of Clara’s mouth before she could stop them. She could feel Kerri’s eyes on her. She took a sip of beer before meeting her sister’s gaze. “She’s my spirit guide.”
Kerri stared at her for a long moment. “Grandma Greenwold is your spirit guide?” she asked, incredulous. “I didn’t even know she believes in this stuff.”
Clara slowly shook her head. “Not Grandma Greenwold.” She waited for the light bulb to switch on.
“Wait, what?” Kerri leaned forward in her chair, utterly baffled. “Do you mean…”
“Yes,” Clara nodded. “Mom’s mom.”
“That’s not funny, Clara.”
“It’s not meant to be, Kerri.” Clara kept her voice soft and on an even keel, even as she felt her defenses begin to rise. She absolutely hated having to defend herself and her abilities.
Shelby was confused, as she’d heard none of this. “What’s the catch?”
“Our mom’s mom has been dead for thirty-five years.”
Shelby looked from Kerri to Clara then to her tea. “Oh.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘spirit guide’? What is that? Why grandma? You’ve never even met her, Clara. How the hell can she be your spirit anything?”
“Because she’s a spirit herself, mainly,” Clara answered, looking her sister dead in the eye, daring her to a challenge. It worked, as Kerri began to back down.
“Can you explain it to me?” she asked, her voice noticeably softer, less confrontational.
“I’ve always felt a connection with her. I’ve told you that before,” Clara explained. At her sister’s nod, she continued, Shelby’s attention bouncing back and forth between the sisters, like she was watching a tennis match. “She came to me one night a few years ago. Said she’s been guiding me this whole time. She helps me when I’m stuck. Like right now.”
“So, she comes to you?”
Clara nodded. “Sometimes. I need to figure out who to… summon, I guess the word would be … her. I haven’t really messed with it.”
“Why?” Shelby asked, intrigued despite herself.
Clara shrugged, finishing off her drink. “I don’t know. Sounds stupid, but guess I don’t want to bug her.”
Kerri chuckled. “I doubt that.” She played with her half-drank glass of milk for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip in thought. “What is she like?” Stephanie had said little about her mother, and Kerri wasn’t entirely sure that she remembered that much, considering how young she’d been when the accident happened.
Clara’s smile was immediate. “She gives me a sense of calm. I don’t know. It’s like… it’s like she gives me complete and total unconditional love. There’s no judgment. Just love.”
“All of this from your dead grandmother?” Shelby asked, the doubt obvious in her voice. At Clara’s nod, she scooted back from the table, images of her mother – cold and in the ground – entering her mind. “I’m going to bed. I have class early tomorrow.”
Kerri watched her sister watch her girlfriend leave the room. She remained silent, waiting to see what Clara would say or do. It was obvious Shelby was uncomfortable.
Clara cleared her throat, taking Shelby’s abandoned tea cup to the sink, rinsing it out and putting it in the dishwasher. “She doesn’t like to talk about this kind of stuff,” she said, her voice quiet. Clara tried to push it out of her mind, push out the fact that she was defending her girlfriend’s absence.
“Not everyone is, Clara.” Kerri dumped out the rest of her milk, the glass taken from her by Clara. Kerri rested a hand on the counter as she watched her little sister rinse the glass. “How are you with that?”
Clara shrugged after a moment. “What can I do? If she’s not comfortable, she’s not comfortable. Her mom died last year, and I think it messes with her pretty bad.” She finally met Kerri’s penetrating gaze. “What?”
Kerri shook her head. It wasn’t her place to judge or question. Clara had always been strong enough to stick with people who accepted her for all that she was. The older sister just hoped Clara wasn’t making an exception for love.
“So,” Kerri blew out, attempting to lighten the darkening mood. “What’s your plan to get that woman out of my house?”
“I’m not sure.” Clara hopped up onto the countertop, her bare heels bumping lightly against the cabinets below. “This woman is obviously in some sort of trauma. Have you ever noticed any activity in your house before?”
Kerri thought for a minute, then shook her head. “Nope. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“What about Zane constantly losing things? Have you ever lost anything there? Or something been misplaced.”
“Actually, now that you mention it, yes.” Kerri leaned against the counter, arms crossed over her chest.
“I don’t think that was random, Kerri. I think this woman has been trying to get your attention.”
“But it all seemed to start when you moved in,” Kerri said, not meaning to sound accusatory, but a fact was a fact.
Clara shrugged. “That may be. See, we all have a light, Kerri. A living light. People like me – those who can communicate with them, psychics, that kind of thing – have a living light that is nearly blinding. Spirits are drawn to it, like a moth to a flame.”
“Is that why weird shit seems to follow you around?” Kerri grinned.
Clara nodded, amused. “Exactamente. They know I can ‘hear’ them, so to speak.” She rested her head back against the cabinet behind her. “So, now I just have to try and figure out how to help her. How to reach her.”
They were quiet for a moment, both lost in the situation. Finally Kerri spoke. “I’m really sorry about how Zane reacted. That was completely uncalled for.”
Clara looked at Kerri for a long moment. “Why are you with him?”
Kerri was taken aback. “Because I love him.”
Clara nodded, but hopped down from the counter. “I’m tired. Gonna head to bed.”
Kerri followed her out of the small kitchen. “Why did you ask that, Clara?”
Clara looked at her for a long moment. “Because he’s an ass, Kerri. I’m sorry to say that, but he is.” With that, she headed down the short hall that would lead to the bedroom she shared with Shelby.
Shelby was lying on her side, facing Clara’s side of the bed. Clara stood next to the bed for a few moments, looking down at the sleeping blonde. With a heavy sigh, feeling as though a weight had been placed on her shoulders – though she wasn’t sure from what – Clara turned and walked over to the window. Pushing the gauze-like curtains aside, she stared down at the winter wonderland below. She loved the snow. Loved how pure it was.
Resting her forehead against the cool glass, she sighed, her breath leaving a circle of steam on the pane. She thought about her conversation with Kerri and Shelby, and then her thoughts roamed to her grandmother. She hadn’t seen her in a long time, though she felt that the voice of reason or suggestion she often heard in her head was likely her. One thing, though, ever since she’d been shown that Rebecca was indeed in her life, she felt a feeling of and well-being. It was almost as though no matter what, no matter where she went or what she did, someone was there for her. An ally. It was comforting.
“Baby?” Shelby mumbled. “Come to bed.”
Clara glanced over her shoulder into the darkness of the bedroom, able to make out Shelby’s still form beneath the covers. With one final sigh, Clara undressed and slid into bed.
Clara lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. She could hear the quiet, even breathing of her girlfriend next to her. She’d been laying there for more than an hour, unable to fall asleep. Thoughts of her grandmother kept racing across her thoughts, wishing that she’d show up, sit on the edge of the bed, and tell her what to do.
Close your eyes…
Clara looked around the room, halfway sitting up in search of the source of the voice. They were alone.
Close your eyes, Clara. See my face…
Clara’s heart began to pound, even as she lay back down and letting her eyes slip closed.
Deep, even breaths. Think of me. See me…
Clara did as she was told, feeling her body begin to relax, even feel lighter. She tuned out the sound of snow hitting the window. She tuned out the sound of Shelby’s breathing. She tuned out the sound of her own. At first what she saw behind her eyes was a swirl of blackness, the blood flowing to create crazy shapes and images. As she felt herself fall deeper, the blackness began to part, like a shroud, conveying her from one world to the next.
She found herself in a cave, a massive waterfall to the left. She quickly realized she was in the space behind the waterfall. Looking around, it was dark, but light seemed to emanate from an unknown source, giving everything a bit of a surreal, ethereal quality.
She decided to look around the cavern, noting there seemed to be carvings in the stone of the walls. She reached out a hand, amazed to find she could actually feel the coolness of the stone against her fingertips. There were indeed carvings, wonderful designs that pitted the stone. She was following one with her index finger when she realized she wasn’t alone.
Turning, she saw someone standing not more than ten feet away. The silent figure began to come into focus. Clara’s smile was immediate when she realized Rebecca stood there, watching her. She looked as she remembered: young and beautiful, her own natural light making her absolutely breathtaking. Her shoulder-length dark hair was pulled back from her face, left long in the back.
“Welcome,” Rebecca said, her voice soft, soothing. She held out her arms. Clara needed no other invitation. She found herself engulfed in the warmest, most comforting embrace she could ever remember having. Even more so than a hug from her own mother. “I’ve missed you, Clara,” she said into the hug.
Clara rested her head on her grandmother’s should, eyes closed. “Me, too. Crazy since I don’t really know you.”
“Not crazy. Your soul does.” Rebecca pulled back, looking into Clara’s eyes. “Do you remember this place?”
Clara looked around. Though she thought the cave was beautiful and very interesting, she knew she didn’t know it. She shook her head.
“It’s a favorite spot of yours here. We used to come here a lot before you incarnated.”
“So, we are close. Over here. Where am I, anyway?”
Rebecca smiled. “The other side, and yes. We’re very close. Come on,” she said, taking Clara’s hand in her own. “we have a lot to talk about.”
The next thing Clara knew, she was standing in the middle of what looked to be a very small cabin. The room was a rectangle, no halls or doorways leading to other parts. In front of her was a massive fireplace, which took up the entire wall, behind a green sofa, where Rebecca sat, waiting. She patted the cushion next to her.
Clara sat down, relaxing into the softness of the couch, and basking in the warmth of the fireplace and her grandmother.
“Come here, Clara,” Rebecca said, gently pulling Clara down until her head was resting in her grandmother’s lap. Clara sighed as she felt gentle fingers run through her hair. “We need to talk about this little problem you have.”
“What problem?” Clara muttered, barely able to think straight, Rebecca’s ministrations felt so good.
Rebecca chuckled. “Don’t fall asleep on me. I’ll lose you. We have limited time.”
Clara nodded. “Okay.” She focused on her grandmother’s voice instead of her fingers. “I don’t know what to do about that woman. How do I reach her?”
“You’ll have to go to her, Clara.”
Clara sat up, looking at the soft serenity of Rebecca’s face. “You mean…”
Rebecca nodded. “The after shadow, yes.” Clara began to shake her head, fear creeping into her eyes. “Clara, listen to me.” Rebecca cupped her face in her palms. “You can’t be afraid of it. You shouldn’t go there often, but there are times when you have to. This woman is stuck. She needs you to help her.”
Clara took a deep breath, turning to look at the fire, marveling at the brilliance of the colors of the flames. So much more vivid than anything she’d see on her plane. “Okay. Tell me how.”
“I will. When the time is right, I’ll be there.” She pulled Clara’s head into her lap once more. “For now, you need to rest.”
Clara sighed, content as once more Rebecca’s fingers began to sweep through her hair. Rebecca leaned over her, placing a soft kiss to her cheek.
“Tell your mother I love her,” she whispered.
Clara nodded, feeling her body begin to drift, as though on a sea of clouds. Contentment and peace filled her, sending her off into the land inside her head, deep in sleep.
“I didn’t mean it literally, Clara,” Kerri hissed as they walked up the walkway to their mother’s house, Shelby locking the car.
Clara grinned. “What, you mean I shouldn’t tell mom and dad I’m gay by bringing my girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Yes! They’re gonna freak.”
Clara chuckled. “I guess Dad’s already here,” she observed, noting his car parked at the curb in front of the house.
“Want some help?” Shelby asked, reaching for the large bowl of frog-eyed salad Clara carried, as well as two loaves of bread.
“Sure.” Clara readjusted her load, handing her the bowl.
The house smelled wonderful as they walked inside, and Clara felt like drooling. One memory she had through all her childhood years was the smell of turkey the night before Christmas and Thanksgiving. Her mother would put the bird in her big, white metal roaster late the night before, letting it cook slowly all night. Stephanie Greenwold was a wonderful cook, and Clara’s mouth was already watering at the thought of all the wonderful food that had been prepared. She knew her mother had spent a small fortune on the feast.
Max greeted his daughters with a wide smile and even wider hug. He was overjoyed to see them, especially his Clara girl, who he didn’t get to see very often, what with her busy school and work schedule. He was, however, surprised to see the cute blonde who stood behind her.
“Hi. I’m Max,” he said, holding his hand out. He hadn’t been told one of Clara’s friends would be joining them for the family dinner.
“Hi. Shelby.” Shelby shook his hand, returning his warm smile of welcome. She wondered if his smile would be as welcoming once he found out she was sleeping with his daughter.
“Nice to meet you. Do you go to school with Clara, or… ?”
“Actually, Dad,” Clara said, moving to Shelby’s side. She took a deep breath, knowing this was the moment of truth. She just hoped she’d still be able to have her mother’s famous mashed potatoes after that truth. “Shelby and I live together.”
Max’s smile froze on his lips, unsure what to make of the statement. He looked at Kerri, confused. “When did you move out of Kerri’s house?”
“Hey, girls!” Stephanie gushed, grabbing Kerri in a ferocious hug, followed quickly by Clara. She sensed something was up, and looked from Max to her daughters, to the blonde stranger. “What’s going on?”
“Did you know Clara had moved out of Kerri and Zane’s?” Max asked.
Stephanie shook her head, looking at her youngest. “No. No idea. Everything okay?” she asked, looking back and forth between her girls.
Kerri took a step back, not wanting to get in the middle of this. She thought it was nuts for Clara to spring it on their parents the way she was, but it was her deal.
“No, everything’s fine. Shelby and I just decided we wanted to live together.” Clara grabbed the blonde’s hand, holding it securely in her own, leaving nothing to the imagination of the manner of their relationship.
Max had to tear his eyes away from the sight of the clasped hands, anger beginning to build at being ambushed. He looked at Stephanie. “What the hell is going on?” he asked. Stephanie shrugged, shaking her head. “What the hell is going on?” he asked again, this time the question aimed at Clara.
“Dad, Mom, I know this is kind of an awkward time-“
Awkward?” Max boomed. “It’s Thanksgiving, for Christ’s sake!”
“Max, calm down,” Stephanie said, taking hold of his arm. “Keep a cool head.” She turned to Clara. “Clara, could you come talk to me and your dad in the kitchen for a minute, please?”
Clara looked at Shelby, her heart pounding. The blonde nodded her consent and let go of Clara’s hand, stepping over by Kerri. Clara held her head up high, exuding a confidence she did not feel as she headed into the kitchen. She looked with wistfulness at the bounty of food spread out over the kitchen counter and table.
“Okay, before we begin,” Stephanie said, turning pointedly to Max, “no one will lose their temper or say anything they might regret.” She turned to Clara, who stood dead center, arms crossed protectively over her chest. “Explain this to us, Clara. What’s going on?”
“I’m gay,” Clara said with a shrug of indifference.
“You are not gay,” Max laughed, thinking the whole thing was ludicrous.
“Max,” Stephanie warned. He shut his mouth, taking a similar position to that of his daughter. “Clara, why do you think you’re gay?”
Clara smirked. “Because I have sex with women.”
“Clara Jane Greenwold!” Stephanie scolded, angry at the flippant way her daughter was handling this. “This isn’t a joke. You need to have some respect for your parents.”
“I’m sorry,” Clara said quietly, dully chastised. “This isn’t new, guys. I knew back in high school.”
“And Erica?” Max asked, doing his best not to sound like Clara was in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. He wasn’t entirely successful. The squeeze on his bicep from Stephanie helped keep him calm.
“She was my first girlfriend.” Clara tried to physically relax, even if inside she was a molten core of worry and confusion. Why couldn’t they just understand she liked girls and leave it at that?
“I see,” he said, bringing up a hand to stroke the stubble that marred his chin. Didn’t Stephanie like facial hair on men?
“So, what does this mean, exactly?” Stephanie asked, resting her hand on the butcher block island at the center of the kitchen.
Clara shrugged. “It means that I’m in love with Shelby, like Kerri is with Zane, and we’re making a life together.”
Stephanie walked over to her daughter, eyes hurt. “Why did you never say anything to either of us about this, honey?”
“Because I knew I would get the third degree.” Clara’s defiance wasn’t helping her father’s mood.
“We have a right to know,” he said, no longer able to hold his tongue. “Instead, you bring your girlfriend here, during a family holiday, embarrassing us by blurting out this unbelievable news!”
“Max!” Stephanie turned on him then, glaring. “Please go set the table.”
“Forget it,” Clara said, slamming by her father and into the living room. “Kerri, can Zane give you a ride home later?” she said, not even bothering to wait for her sister to respond. Shelby, stunned, looked from Kerri to Clara, who was hurrying out of the house, then to Stephanie who was running from the kitchen following.
“Clara, wait!” she called.
“What do I do?” Shelby whispered to Kerri, who simply shrugged her shoulders.
Clara dug her keys out of the pocket of her jeans, tears making it difficult to find the right one. Finally she got the car unlocked and slid behind the wheel. There was a tapping on the passenger-side window. She saw Shelby standing there, and leaned over the front seat, unlocking the door for her.
“Clara, don’t do this,” Stephanie said, knocking on Clara’s window.
Clara looked up at her, rolling the window down just enough to be heard. “Enjoy your holiday, Mom. I’ll call you later.” She started the engine and backed out of the driveway.
Shelby stirred in the chocolate powder, leaving the spoon on a folded napkin as she carried the mug of hot cocoa in to where Clara sat on the couch. Her twilight-colored eyes were puffy and red from the crying she’d done once they’d reached the apartment.
“Here you go, sweetie,” Shelby said softly, setting the mug down on the end table next to Clara. She sat next to her. She studied Clara’s profile, not sure what to do. The day’s events had been a surprise to everyone, and she could tell Clara’s heart was broken. She hadn’t said much, but Shelby knew how close she was to her father. Apparently what he’d said had hurt her deeply. “He called again,” Shelby said softly, brushing a few stray strands of hair out of Clara’s face. “He said he’s going to keep bugging you until you talk to him.”
Clara took a deep, shaky breath, finally looking at her girlfriend. “I really didn’t think he’d do that, Shel,” she said. “I figured if anyone would be okay with it, he would. He always supported me on what I am, who I am. Why is this any different?”
“Because I think he felt cornered. Today may not have been the best time to break the news to them, baby. A little warning might have been better.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Clara asked.
Shelby smiled, leaning in to place a small kiss on Clara’s lips. “I did. So did Kerri.” She poked her playfully. “You’re just too stubborn.”
“Like him,” Clara said, trying to hide a slightly smile.
“You should talk to him, Clara. He sounds pretty broken up about this. He even offered to bring you a plate of mashed potatoes. Not sure what that means, but… He did offer.”
“I love my mom’s mashed potatoes. He knows that.” She let out a loud breath, which blew her long bangs. Sipping her hot cocoa, she thought about what Shelby had said. They’d been at the apartment for less than three hours, and the phone had rung nearly off the hook. She’d spoken briefly to Kerri, but refused to speak to either of her parents.
“Listen, I can’t make this decision for you, but I’d do anything to have my mom here to spend the holiday with. Monkey just doesn’t cut it, you know?” Shelby said, indicating the dog who slept undisturbed on the chair across the room. “Don’t take time with your parents for granted. They’re not perfect, just like you’re not. They make mistakes, too.” Shelby placed a solid kiss on Clara’s cheek, then left her alone there, heading off to shower and give her some privacy to think.
Clara took that time, sprawling out on the couch and sipping her hot drink. It was colder than a witch’s tit outside, and more snow was predicted for the coming night. Shelby had wanted to start her Christmas shopping on the traditional day after Thanksgiving, but Clara wasn’t positive anything would be open. She was just glad that Cassandra wouldn’t be.
She was about to take another drink when the phone rang once more. She glanced at the cordless on the coffee table as if it were a snake that would bite her hand should she reach for it. She could hear Shelby in the bedroom rifling through her dresser drawers. The movement stopped, as did the ringing. Distantly Clara could hear her voice, low and calm. Pleasantries were exchanged, then Shelby padded down the hall until she reached the mouth of the living room.
“That was your mom. She said your dad has asked for you to come to his place and talk to him when you’re ready. She said he’s off for the next four days, and said you have a key, so let yourself in if he happens to not be home.” Message delivered, Shelby turned and retraced her steps, ending in the bathroom with the soft closing of the door.
Max sat in his recliner, the neck of a beer bottle dangling from his between his fingertips. He watched the fire dancing in its brick prison, his thoughts troubled. Soft fingers trailed through his hair, even softer lips grazing his cheek.
“It’ll be okay, Max.”
“I just hope I didn’t mess up bad,” he said, taking a swig of the beer. A feminine hand reached down, taking the bottle from him. The diamond on a brand new engagement ring glinted in the firelight.
“Drinking yourself into oblivion isn’t going to help. You’ve done what you can, and the rest is up to her.” Another kiss was placed on his other cheek. “Come to bed. She’ll come around when she’s ready.”
Max blew out a breath, nodding his agreement. Even so, his stomach was tied up in knots. He followed where he was being led, eyes firmly glued to the shapely ass of the woman he loved. She glanced at him over her shoulder.
“You really should tell her, Max.”
He nodded again. “I will. When I see her.”