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Braxton felt weird. There was no other word for it. Weird. She’d woken up that morning to find her legs and arms in a tangled mess with Becca’s, her head resting on a very soft breast. She had jerked up so fast, she’d nearly fallen off the bed backwards. Though Becca’s eyes had remained closed, Braxton had no delusions that she’d actually remained asleep after such an abrupt parting.
Braxton had hurried off into the bathroom where she’d showered and dressed, then had cooled her heels inside the small bathroom. What was she supposed to do? How could she face Becca?
“Shit,” she muttered, knowing she couldn’t stay in there forever. She chewed on her lower lip, listening as she heard movement on the other side of the door in the room, then a knock.
“Braxton? Are you okay?” Becca asked softly.
“Yeah. Be out in a minute.” Braxton cursed the situation, then forced a smile onto her face and pulled the thin, wooden door open. Becca stood there in her panties and t-shirt, hair disheveled all over her head. For just a moment she wanted to reach up and run her fingers through it, but quickly shook that thought out of her head.
Becca stared down at her. “You want to grab some breakfast before we start in again?”
“Yeah. Sure. Okay.” Once again the forced smile.
“Good. Okay.” Becca gave her one of her own. “Well, uh, if you’re done…” she indicated the bathroom that Braxton was still standing in.
“Oh! Right.” Braxton quickly moved past the taller woman and into the room. She heard the bathroom door close softly behind her. “Oh, this is bad,” she murmured, throwing herself face down on the bed, nearly bouncing back off from the bad springs on the bed. Rolling to her back, she stared up at the water-marked ceiling. “What do I do now?” she asked the empty room.
“Braxton?” Becca called, her head peeking out of the bathroom door. She caught the blonde’s gaze from where Braxton lay on the bed. Sheepish, Becca grinned “Um, I forgot to grab my duffel. Can you please bring it to me?”
“Sure.” Braxton spied the bag next to one of the two chairs placed on either side of the round table under the window. She grabbed it, then took a deep breath, and headed toward the bathroom. Becca opened the door a little wider to accept it, which showed beautiful shoulders and a strong arm.
“Thank,” Becca said softly, meeting Braxton’s eyes for a moment before she took the bag and closed the door again.
“It doesn’t mean you’re gay.”
Braxton looked up from her eggs Benedict, eyes wide. “Huh?”
“That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it?” Becca asked, leaning slightly forward over the small table separating the two, her French toast, slathered with strawberries and whipped cream only half-eaten.
“No,” Braxton said, though the fact that she couldn’t hold Becca’s gaze said far more than her verbal cues.
“Braxton? Will you look at me, please?” Becca waited until the hesitant green eyes were focused on her. “You’ve been through a lot. I know your emotions have been all over the place, and you’re trying to do this all on your own. I don’t think it’s that far out of whack to think you’d need a bit of human touch.”
Braxton said nothing for a moment, caught up in a mixture of anger at Becca that she’d think what happened between them meant so little to Braxton, and was merely “human touch”, and anger at herself because if she admitted that it meant more than that, she’d actually have to think about what happened, and the thought of that scared her to death.
She opened her mouth, about to tell Becca that they should just forget it when someone walked up to their table. She looked up, recognizing Mrs. Martha Schmitts.
“You poor, poor dear,” the elderly librarian said, nearly pulling Braxton out of her chair as she insisted on hugging her. “What you must think of your horrid mother!” Hug. “It’s just awful!” Squeeze. “I told Harry that we should bring you dinner over at the house last night, but you’d already gone by time we got there.” Kiss. “How are you holding up, honey?”
“Oh, uh, I’m okay, Mrs. Schmitts. Thank you.” Finally let go, Braxton sat down, nodding toward Becca. “Becca, this is Martha Schmitts. She used to be one of my father’s congregants. Mrs. Schmitts, this is my friend and roommate, Becca Steiner.”
Martha looked at the lovely girl sitting before her. “You certainly don’t look like a Jew, honey,” she remarked, eyeing Becca’s light brown hair, straight nose and blue, blue eyes.
Becca was stunned, unsure what to say, so she blinked a few times then turned to Braxton, who quickly intervened. “Uh, thanks for stopping by, Mrs. Schmitts. Are you coming to my father’s services?”
“Oh, how lovely!” Martha gushed. “When?”
“I, uh…” Shit. “I’ll let Ron know down at the paper. We’ll make an announcement.” Braxton smiled.
“wonderful. Such a good girl, isn’t she?” Martha asked the little Jewish girl with the blue eyes.
Becca raised her brows with a smile in response. The smile slid off her face as she watched the portly woman waddle away, then rolled her eyes. “Jesus,” she muttered, turning back to her breakfast.
“God, I’m sorry,” Braxton whispered, her face buried in her hands. She peeked at the older woman through her fingers, afraid of what she’d see. Instead, she saw a look of amusement cross Becca’s features. “Welcome to Ivanwood.”
Jared stepped out of his car, his eyes riveted to the front of the Crowley house. He had spent an endless amount of time there as a kid, and those memories swarmed for a brief moment. He started as the front door was open and yet another trash bag was heaved out to join it’s mates across the dead lawn. The tosser stopped, her blue eyes pinning Jared where he stood.
“Hey,” Becca called, doing her best to keep her voice even, even as her hand clenched into an involuntary fist. She knew how much Jared had hurt Braxton, and she was not okay with that.
“Hi.” Jared slammed his door shut, his own jaw muscles tensing as he made his way up the overgrown walk. “What’s going on?”
What does it look like, asshole? “Braxton is clearing the place out. Trash gathering.”
Jared nodded, noting the contents of one bag that had torn. He noted a slew of bibles, a few with the pages having worked loose during flight. He stepped inside the house, noting the cool air inside, and the fresh smells of autumn flowing through all the open windows. He remembered that the house had always been closed up, no matter what time of year. Fletcher hated the windows opened.
“You’ve got company,” Becca said through the open door of the bedroom Braxton was in. The blonde, who had been going through the short filing cabinet, sorting through her mother’s papers, stood, her back cracking from hours hunched over.
“Me.” Jared leaned in the doorway, his eyes taking in the disaster area that was Braxton’s old room, that had apparently been turned into some sort of pseudo office in the interim of her college years.
“What are you doing here?” Braxton asked, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.
“I came to help.” He glanced at Becca, who hadn’t moved from her perch against the doorframe. “Didn’t realize you already had it.”
“Yeah, Becca came down with me.” Braxton sent a look of challenge his way. It’s not like you were there, Jared. She kept silent. No reason to start a fight, at least verbally, though from the look in Jared’s eyes, she could tell he’d picked up on her barb.
“Alright. Well, guess you’re all set then.” Jared pushed away from the door, picking his way over stacks and piles of endless scraps of magazines, old newspapers, more bibles and random knick knacks, headed for the front door.
Braxton felt guilt wash through her, and she sighed. “Damn it.” She quickly made her way out of the room, breezing past Becca in her quest to reach Jared before he could leave.
Jared was digging in his pocket for his car keys when he heard his name called. He stopped and turned, watching as his friend hurried from the house, breathless from her near run. “Wait,” she breathed, finally reaching him. She caught her breath, then looked at him. “Why are you here?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back here? You shouldn’t be doing this alone, Brax,” he said gently.
Braxton felt anger fire up in her veins. “I’m not exactly alone now, am I?”
“I don’t mean literally. I lived through all this with you,” he said, gesturing toward the house at Braxton’s back. “I know what he was like, what he did to you and your mom. You should have called me. I would’ve dropped everything. Did drop everything, to come here for you.”
She was incredulous. “Are you serious? Jared, you haven’t even been back to the house for more than ten minutes at a time since we fought. And most of those times, I’m in class. If you think I’m going to hunt your ass down and ask anything of you, let alone something like this…”
“But you’d ask her?” he said, voice angry.
Braxton kept her cool, understanding his jealousy, as she had felt it of late, herself. “She asked, Jared. Simple as that. She’s been there for me through every step of the way. And,” she said, holding up her hand to forestall whatever smart remark he looked like he was about to make, “she knows what my mom is going through right now, as well as what her own family went through when it was her turn. Please don’t be cruel. She paid her dues, Jared. You have no right to continue to crucify her. No one does.”
Jared heard her, his hands shoved into the pockets of his cords. He kicked nervously at a sickly looking weed growing through the cracks of the walkway. He knew Braxton was right, and had felt bad about what he’d said since he’d said it. Stubborn pride hadn’t allowed him to apologize to either Braxton or Becca, who he really didn’t want to talk to, let along apologize to. He felt like he was losing Braxton, and it certainly felt like it was to Becca. “This is hard, isn’t it?” he asked quietly, surprised he’d even spoken the words aloud.
“I think we’re growing up, Jar,” Braxton said, just as quiet. She sighed, looking around at the neighborhood, seeing her and the cute blonde boy everywhere, on their bikes, on foot, always in trouble.
“Yeah, guess so.” He blew out a loud breath, then turned back to Braxton, an adorable smile in place. “We had fun though, didn’t we?”
Braxton matched the grin, nodding. “Yes. We sure did.” She nearly ran into them when Jared opened his arms to her. She was immediately engulfed. “I’m not letting you go, Jared,” she murmured against his chest. “You’re my best friend.”
Jared couldn’t believe the amount of relief that flooded him. “You, too. I’m sorry.”
Braxton nodded, accepting the apology. “Me, too.” She pulled away just enough to look up into his handsome face. “You need to apologize to Becca, Jared. I think you really hurt her.”
He sighed, but nodded. “Okay. You’re right.” He met her gaze pointedly. “But only for you.”
Braxton rolled her eyes, slapping him playfully on the chest. “Big man. Come on. You can help us.”
Becca wasn’t sure what to think, what to feel. If she were honest with herself, she would admit that she was jealous as hell, which only made her angry at herself for the selfishness of it. The three of them sat in the middle of the living room floor, an open pizza box between them. Braxton and Jared were engrossed in old stories of the neighborhood, which Becca only absently smiled dutifully at. She sat away, her back resting against the sofa, a plastic cup of Coke balanced on her thigh.
She hadn’t been sure how to take Jared’s seemingly genuine apology earlier, but she’d done her best to accept it graciously, if for no other reason than for Braxton’s sake. It seemed to make her happy.
Becca knew her jealousies were childish and petty, but she couldn’t help it. She hadn’t had anyone she truly considered a friend since her high school days, and even then, her looks had kept most at bay. She had learned young that those who traipsed around her usually just wanted to act as a parasite on a beautiful fish. The modeling world, of course, was filled with parasites, and she’d learned to take from them what she wanted. She hadn’t felt an actual bond with anyone in many years like she felt with Braxton.
She chuckled at a story Jared was telling about a night filled with random egging around town, but soon Becca’s gaze settled on the blonde, her eyes bright, smile radiant as she filled in the blanks Jared left in the story. She couldn’t help but think about the night before, something they hadn’t talked about all day, and she seriously doubt they ever would. It wasn’t hard to bring back to mind the need and desire in those same green eyes that were fixed firmly on Jared at the moment. She could feel the warmth of Braxton’s body beneath her own, even though two layers of clothing had separated their skin.
About to making a flushed fool of herself, Becca excused herself, heading into the kitchen with her paper plate and cup of warm, flat Coke. She trashed the plate and dumped the soda. With a heavy sigh, she looked out over the yard, watching as a few leaves, beginning to change colors, were tossed around in the merciless wind that had struck up. Soon, the leaves gave up their tenuous hold, and were blown across the yard. She understood their aimless voyage, unsure where they’d land, and if it would be a soft or hard drop. She felt the exact same way, drifting in a life that she had never foreseen as a kid.
Becca turned, startled to see Braxton seeming to magically appear next to her, a warm hand resting at the center of the taller woman’s back. The warmth of Braxton’s palm made Becca want to cry. It had been so long since she’d experienced the tenderness that Braxton seemed to give so freely. “Huh?” she asked, distracted by the color of Braxton’s eyes to remember what she’d said.
“I asked if you were okay. You looked lost there for a moment.”
Becca nodded, a stiff smile on her lips. “Yeah. Just got lost in thought for a moment there.” Becca shook herself from her morose thoughts, rinsing the plastic cup from the tap. “Listen, Braxton if you need me to go, want to do this alone with-“
“Hey,” Braxton placed two fingers over Becca’s lips. “Stop,” she said softly. “I don’t work that way. Just because one friend shows up doesn’t mean that I’m done with the first one. Okay? I asked you to be here because I wanted you to be here. You’re not a replacement for Jared.”
Becca felt silly, like she was ten years old again, fighting over her neighborhood friends. Nodding, she met Braxton’s gaze. “Okay. I just thought after last night…”
Braxton bristled slightly, a pang of uncertainty flowing through her. “That was… complicated.” She blew out a breath then bravely met Becca’s demanding gaze. “And something we do need to discuss. Later. Okay?”
Becca nodded. “Okay.” She matched Braxton’s smile, the blonde turning to leave the room. “Hey,” she caught her arm to stop her. “I’m really glad you guys worked things out. Your whole lives is an awful long time to throw away a friendship.”
Braxton studied Becca for a long moment, her head slightly cocked to the side as she measured the sincerity behind Becca’s words. She could sense the tension and mental tug-of-war between Jared and the beautiful woman. Finally she decided that Becca meant it. “Yes, it is. And thank you.”
“So, what’s the plan now?” Becca asked, her voice light to try and break the new tension of a heavy subject.
“Jared’s going to take another load to the dump, and I’m going to start cleaning. You’re welcome to go with him,” Braxton smirked, “or you can stay and help clean.”
Becca smiled, big, bright and beautiful. “Where’s the Mr. Clean?”
“Jeez, how many plates of cookies do they think I can eat?” Braxton asked an hour later, the front door closing after her third well-wisher, and third plate of baked goods. She put them on the kitchen counter next to the other covered dishes.
Becca had followed her into the kitchen, peeking over her shoulder. “Ohhh, chocolate chip cookies.”
“Please, eat them. I can’t eat another bite of anything,” Braxton said, heading back to the bathroom where she had been scrubbing at the tub before the latest interruption.
Becca chuckled, stealing a cookie on her way back to her own bucket of hot, pine-scented water. Cookie clenched between her teeth, she continued scrubbing down the baseboards, which were layered with years of grime.
“You now, my mother stayed at home her entire married life. What the hell did she do if not scrub this damn house?”
“Survive your father?” Becca muttered, chewing happily on her treat. She heard the snort from the other room.
“So, was your aunt always so scary?” Braxton called out, her ass in the air as she leaned over the rim of the tub, using both hands to scrub. She didn’t see Becca move to the doorway, stopping short and staring in appreciation.
“My aunt is not scary,” she growled.
Braxton yelped, nearly falling on her face in her haste to get to her feet. She turned on the taller woman, using her forearm to brush her bangs out of her eyes, only for them to fall right back into them. “Yes she is. She’s huge. I think she could break me in half.”
A burst of laugher escaped Becca. “Yeah she could, if she heard you say that about her, anyway.”
“Which she won’t.” She saw Becca’s smirk. “Right?”
Becca sighed, all dramatic. She looked at her paint-splattered hands. “I don’t know, Braxton. I mean, I came here, was immediately put to work.” She wiggled her fingers. “Got paint all over me…” Another heavy sigh. “I just don’t know if I can keep my mouth shut. Just don’t think there’s enough in it for me.”
Braxton threw the sponge she’d been using back into the tub. “Becca,” she said, voice a low warning.
Braxton peeled first one rubber glove off, then the other, slowly advancing on her quarry. “I know you don’t want me to get killed, now do you?”
“Oh, come on, now. Aren’t we being just a little dramatic?” Becca asked, holding her thumb and index finger an inch apart.
“No. Your aunt could break me in half!” Braxton stopped, right in front of the taller woman, who looked down at her with amusement.
“Yes, she could. We’ve established this, I think.” She suddenly got a most mischievous urge. Raising a hand, she tapped the tip of Braxton’s nose with one of her paint-covered fingertips. She tried to hide the smile, but it lit her eyes.
Braxton’s eyes were nearly crossed as she tried to assess the damage. “I can’t believe you just did that,” she breathed. Focusing back on her friend, she poked her in the chest. “You got paint on me!”
“Yes, it seems I did.” Becca grabbed the finger, smudging even more paint on Braxton. She leaned down toward her. “What are you gonna do about it, Crowley?”
“Kick your ass, Steiner.” Braxton pushed forward, her finger still held in the larger hand. Becca backed up slowly. “Come on, little Jewish girl. What’cha gonna do about it? Huh?”
Becca grinned, then with a growl, she grabbed the petit woman, heaving her onto her shoulder, fireman-style. Braxton screeched, beating Becca’s shapely ass with her palms. “I think the question is, what are you gonna do about it?” Becca panted, breathless from the excitement of their play and exertion. Braxton may be small, but she wasn’t that small.
“Put me down, you brute!” Braxton laughed. She groaned and cried out as Becca began to turn in a quick circle, the room spinning. “I’m gonna puke!”
Laughing, Becca decided to have mercy and stopped, but instead of putting Braxton down on her feet, she walked into the bedroom, tossing her like so many sack of potatoes, giggling as the blonde bounced on the bed, glaring up at her.
Becca’s giggles turned to an oomph as she found herself lying facedown on the bed, Braxton on her back, enthusiastically tickling her. Their giggles were interrupted by Becca’s plea for mercy, which would swiftly earn her more tickling.
“Paybacks are a bitch!” Braxton crowed, digging into the taller woman’s sides. “Whoa!” she cried, the body beneath her arching her back, Braxton tumbling down Becca’s raised ass. She fell to the floor, causing more giggles. She looked up to see an upside down Jared standing in the doorway, looking at her with a raised brow. “What?” she asked, lacing her fingers over her stomach. “Problem?”
It took everything in Braxton to not growl every time someone came up to her and either hugged her, touched her, or told her how sorry they were. She smiled and retuned the affection, though she was about ready to go postal.
She had organized a service for Fletcher the day before, the local funeral home willing to donate the goods for their “fallen son”. Braxton wanted to roll her eyes, but instead thanked Mr. Homestead for his kindness.
Her father’s church was filled with murmured organ music, canned of course, the congregants filling less than half the available pews. She found it interesting that in one way the town of Ivanwood was willing to bend over backwards to help clean up the Crowley mess, yet the other half were now free to show their true feelings for their reverend. Braxton knew for certain that during any regular Sunday, the seats were all filled, the small church filled with voices raised before God. Where were they all now?
“We’re ready to begin when you are, Miss Crowley,” the new pastor said quietly, his black suit just so, a large hand running down the front of the buttoned jacket, flattening the line.
Braxton smiled at him. “Thank you. Go ahead and start. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Of course.” With a small smile, filled with the appropriate amount of sorrow, the squirrelly man was gone.
Braxton walked over to the closed casket, her father’s remains tucked inside. A small spray of flowers had been placed atop it’s shiny top. “Well, here we are,” she said softly, running her hand along the polished surface. “Never thought we’d be here, Fletcher. Did you? No. Probably not. I’m sure you thought you’d be here forever, didn’t you? Thought you could control your world till the end.” She laughed ruefully. “Guess you were wrong.”
She walked over to the open front door of the church, noting the sedan parked at the curb. Becca sat behind the wheel, her head resting back against the headrest. She didn’t feel it was her place to join the services. Jared had headed back the night before as he had an early class he couldn’t miss.
She turned back to the casket, her heart cold, eyes dry. She felt nothing. Nothing. Reaching into the pocket of her slacks, she felt the hard object, warmed by her own body heat. Her mother’s own wedding band was held between her fingers. She kissed it, then set it on the top of his casket, next to the flowers.
“You’re control is finished. We leave you now, Fletcher. Enjoy eternity alone.”
With those final words, Braxton walked out of the church.
Return to the Academy