Disclaimers: This is an
original work, copyright reserved, all characters belong to me. While both
lesbian and heterosexual relationships are represented, there is no sex.
There is mild swearing and some violence.
Thanks: A huge thank-you to my beta reader Chris. Her help with character and plot development was invaluable.
Comments: Always welcome. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com
Dedication: To the Muses. It's nice to have you back.
I've never been great at telling stories, which is kind of strange because I teach history for seventh and eighth grades. I can quote dates, and events, and even explain exactly what happened, with details in the appropriate places. But that's history. It's not entertainment.
When I've tried in the past to tell a story, something to entertain someone, I can't seem to pull it off. I forget details, I get confused as to the order of events, and I have to start over two or three times before muddling through. By that time, no one really cares what the story was about, they're just glad I finally reached the end.
The last time I tried to actually write a story was in my junior year of high school. I nervously sat and chewed my finger nails after having given three pages of my newest manuscript to my good friend Ross. He read themthensighed. Looking me straight in the eye, he crumpled them and tossed them into a nearby wastebasket.
"Maybe you should just concentrate on math, huh, Kelsey?"
"But I hate math. I like writing."
"Fine. Write all you want."
"Sure. Just don't try to write fiction."
And I haven't. And I won't.
However, I do have a story to tell you. And if I mess up a few details, forgive me. This really isn't my thing.
I pulled into my best friend's driveway early on Thursday morning. For me, I was right on time; seven o'clock was when I'd promised I'd be there, and I was normally up by now anyway. For her, it was too damn early; seven o'clock was the time she was normally snoring into her pillow, not having to be out of bed for another hour.
She was up this morning, groggy and a little grumpy, but Taylor was awake. She opened her door just a few minutes after I honked, and by the time I had shut off the engine and opened my door, she was coming down the walk way, one pack already on her back, and another smaller one dangling from her hand.
"You're on time; I'm shocked."
"Stuff it, Kels. You owe me breakfast."
"And we'll be stopping for it very soon." I tried to use a soothing voice, knowing she wasn't quite fully awake. "Are you sure you packed everything?"
"Yes, Mom. Jeeze, Kels, we do this every year, and I always pack the same stuff, every year."
"And you always forget something. Last year it was your toothbrush. The year before, you forgot the toothpaste."
"And you always forget sunscreen, which I always manage to have. Shut up and drive." She hesitated a moment. "And no, do not start singing that ridiculous song."
I laughed and turned the truck's ignition. "Wouldn't think of it."
We ate breakfast at Harry's Diner, out on Highway 119. I watched Taylor as she wolfed down a plate of pancakes and two cups of hot chocolate, contenting myself with scrambled eggs and a slice of ham. I drank coffee, which Taylor detested. She loved the smell, though, and if she stayed the night at my place, she was always up the next morning just to smell the coffee as it brewed.
"So, who all is going to be there this year?" She had stolen my biscuit and was mopping up the last of her maple syrup.
"Same gang as always, with the addition of Roger."
"Jenny got the extra day off, and -- Roger? You actually invited him?"
Roger was the new beau of our friend Amy, and he and Taylor got along really well, as long as they weren't within sight of each other. As a matter of fact, we all kind of felt the same way about him. No one liked him.
"How could I not? Amy's been part of our group since high school, and even if Roger's an idiot, she says she loves him."
She shrugged. "I suppose you're right, but -- I hope she'll forgive me if I just haul off and punch him at some point."
"I'm sure if he does anything stupid, either Jay or Ross will correct him."
"No. Ross will correct him. Jay will rip him a new one."
I had to laugh with her, partly because it was just funny, and partly because she was absolutely right.
We finished breakfast and headed back to the truck. As I knew she would, Taylor fell asleep, the heavy food and the rhythm of the road lulling her into a short nap. I turned the radio down and watched the road, wondering what to expect over the next few days.
This was our yearly summer celebration; ever since we turned eighteen, we'd spent a weekend, either before or after every July 4th, at my Great Aunt's place for three or four days of camping and drinking and doing whatever we wanted. Besides Taylor and myself, there were six others, all in couples. Ross, that same literary critic from high school, had at some point begun to romance my younger sister Sarah. Like me, he had become a teacher, while Sarah stayed in college, working on her Master's in biochemical engineering. Right now she worked as a research technician for a company investigating the latest asthma treatments while slowly writing her thesis for her PhD. She and Ross had both been on our very first camping trip. Since they'd been happily married for a year, it wasn't looking like we'd get rid of Ross anytime soon. Not that we'd want to, since Ross was a great guy anyway.
Jenny was another friend from school; she'd been a computer nerd that Taylor and the rest of us had adopted in school. She was the first person we knew to come out of the closet. After graduation she was the first to complete college, finishing her undergraduate degree in just under three years. An up and coming computer game company had been her first interview, and she'd gone on to be a hot shot programmer. That was where she met Jay, the woman who she'd fallen in love with over a hot-dog at a company picnic. Jay was a hardware tech at her company, and when the two of them "geeked out" in computer talk, the rest of us usually just sat and stared.
Jay was the first outside of our gang to be invited to our summer camp weekend. From the first, she fitted in like she'd always been there, and sometimes even I forgot that she hadn't.
Amy was the last of our high school gang, and was known for her abysmal taste in men. She'd gone out with drug dealers (yes, plural), as well as with an older professional gentleman who forgot to mention that he was married, and a younger man who didn't bother to tell her that he wasn't into commitment but was into threesomes. We'd often joked with her that she might as well turn gay, since she'd probably have more luck with women. Her parents hadn't really given her great models, with a father who drank too much and spent more time with his mistress than his wife, and a mother who forgave her husband anything in order to avoid a divorce.
Amy's latest choice was Roger, who was only slightly better than most of her choices. He wasn't married, didn't do drugs, usually drank in moderation, was willing to commit, and he even seemed to genuinely care about her. The only problem? He was an ass, who told offensive jokes without knowing it, a slob who didn't pick up after himself, and a general pain in the ass. Like I said, he was only slightly better.
Then, of course, there were myself and Taylor.
She mumbled and opened her eyes. "Hey."
"Hi. You awake, or just taking a break from the dark?"
"Trying to wake up. Might sleep a little more, though." She sighed. "Had a rough night."
"Yeah. Too many shadows."
I nodded, and turned the radio to a classical station I knew she liked. She smiled at me and let her eyes close again.
"Let me know if you get sleepy and you need me to keep you awake."
"I will. Get some rest, Tay. We've got at least another hour to go. I'll wake you when we hit town."
She nodded and laid her head back into the jacket she was using as a pillow. After a moment she was gently snoring again.
With a sigh, I glanced over at her, taking in the dark hollows above her collar bone and the smudges under her eyes.
"Too many shadows."
She was struggling again. She did every summer. It almost seemed that with the summer heat, came the ghosts.
Taylor was a psychic. She'd told me this when we were both nine years old. I'd asked her how she always knew what I wanted to play, and she'd simply shrugged and said, "I can hear it in your mind."
I kind of went, "Oh," and didn't think much more about it that day. When I did think about it, I asked her to explain. She told me that sometimes, when she'd touch me, she'd get flashes of things I was thinking about, things I wanted. She could see and hear them, as if I'd spoken to her.
Curious about why she could do that and I couldn't, I made her sit with me for hours as I tried to read her mind. It never worked.
When we were ten, she told me about the people she saw. Sometimes she had nightmares about them; sometimes she just sat on her bed and talked with them. Once she tried to introduce me to one of them. It failed miserably, as I couldn't see the person, and for some reason the person couldn't see me. It was like she was half in this other world that I couldn't share. For a while, it made me angry. But then the fire happened, and I was glad I couldn't share that world.
In the summer when we were eleven, there was a fire at the roller rink in town. It had been a hot day, followed by a thunderstorm in the evening, and lightning had struck the building right near the electrical box. When the power went out, everyone thought it was just a fuse blowing. But when they opened the door, the flames poured through. Five people died, including three kids.
And Taylor saw them all.
We hadn't been near the roller rink for days, having spent most of the time swimming at Amy's house, or at Jenny's, playing Nintendo. But that evening, as she and I sat in her room and watched a movie on her VCR, she suddenly sat straight up and said, "The roller rink is on fire."
I rolled over and looked at her.
"How do you know?"
"Steve Windham told me."
He's standing there, in the corner. He died." Her face twisted. "I don't
wanna see him,
Kels. He's all burnt." She started
When the others showed up, she began screaming. Her parents came running and found me holding onto Taylor while she screamed at the ghosts to go away. Her father, a doctor, gave her an injection and asked me what she'd been screaming about.
I was only eleven, and I didn't know that I shouldn't tell, so I did. I told him that Taylor had seen the ghosts of the kids who died in the fire at the rink. They asked what fire, and I could only tell them what Taylor had told me. Then the phone rang, and her father had to leave to go to the hospital. Five had died, but many more than that had been hurt.
She wasn't around for several days after that. I'd go to her house and ask her parents where she was, but they only said she was in the hospital. I'd ask if she was sick, and was I going to get sick too. I didn't realize then that the hospital she was in was for mental illness.
Taylor finally came home a week later. Other than her statement that she could see ghosts, the psychiatrist found nothing wrong with her. She'd even proven that she had some psychic ability. Her parents, still reeling from the shock, did what they thought they should: they ignored it, telling her only to stop pretending.
She stopped talking to them about it. But she continued to see ghosts. Mostly she told me about them. Sometimes she didn't.
The two of us came out as lesbians when we were fourteen. She actually had a much better time with her parents than I did with mine. Hers found it easier to deal with her being a lesbian than they did with her being psychic. My parents flipped out and I was grounded for two weeks while they figured out what to do with me. What they finally did was order me to go out with at least one guy for every girl I dated, saying I should keep my options open and we would revisit the subject when I was older. I was eighteen before they finally accepted it.
I glanced to my left. "Hi. Waking up?"
"Yeah. Where are we?"
"About twenty miles from town. Are we stopping for ice cream?"
"Don't we always?"
I laughed and switched lanes to the right as our exit was coming up.
Even though it was just coming on eleven o'clock, stopping at Stuart's for their ice cream was a must. Anna Stuart and her husband George had owned the little grocery store in Idaho Springs, Colorado, for twenty-two years. Every weekend in the month of July, George got up extra early to make several buckets of home-made ice cream. There was always vanilla but the other flavors all depended on what George had around the place, and what he was feeling like. Sometimes there would be a chocolate swirl, sometimes there was fruit. One year he'd made green apple, and Taylor and I made ourselves sick on the stuff.
This year there was peach.
"Ooh, George, I think you've outdone yourself."
George laughed at my statement then laughed even harder as Taylor chased a renegade dribble of ice cream down her hand and around her wrist.
"Thought you liked that cherry stuff last year well enough, but since you always buy that peach juice, you might like this, too."
"I love it. Thanks, George."
"Yeah," Taylor chipped in, finally taking a napkin to her wrist, "thanks, George. This is great, as usual."
"'M glad you're enjoyin' it." He hesitated a moment then looked at me and dropped his voice. "You goin' up to your aunt's place?"
I nodded, crunching a partially frozen peach. "Just like every year."
He sucked on his back teeth as he wiped the counter. "Well, just you all be careful. Things have been a mite -- noisy up in that area."
For a moment I wondered what he meant, but then it hit me. The house had been noisy. I contemplated that as we gathered up the last of our purchases from the Stuart's small store and headed back out to the truck.
We were quiet as we drove. The radio stations had given way to static, and I hadn't felt like pulling out my mp3 player, so we drove with only the sound of the road between us.
"Is it -- Is it going to bother you? To be up here?"
She sighed. "Kelsey, you ask this every year. We've been coming up here on and off since we were kids, and it hasn't given me a problem yet. Why should it?"
"Well . . . George said it was noisy. He was meaning the house, probably; everyone around here knows it's . . ." I let my words trail off.
"Everyone knows it's haunted." She finished for me. "Yeah, I know. And it is." She shifted in her seat, trying to stretch her legs just a little more. "Which, by the way, is why I don't go in the ruins of the house, as you might have noticed."
I had noticed that, and yes, ‘ruins’ was the right word.
My great grandparents had built the house in the 1930's. My great grandfather had been the first Sheriff of Clear Creek County, and when he gave up his badge, he became the editor of the first newspaper, the short lived Idaho Springs Gazette. My grandmother had been a school marm, and it had been stories of her days teaching that had helped me decide to become a teacher myself. My great-aunt Elizabeth had been born in 1931, followed two years later by Annabelle, my grandmother. Great-grandfather had decided he wanted a bigger house for his children, so he built the large, four bedroom house about ten miles outside of Idaho Springs in 1935. Sadly, he died ten years later after being thrown from a horse in a thunderstorm.
Though the family stayed in the small town, my great-grandmother often went to visit relatives down in the lower part of the state. She would take the train down, and sometimes my grandmother would go with to keep her company. It was on the train that Annabelle met Frank Simmons, who would become my grandfather. The two of them married in 1955 and moved to the west to the booming city of Golden. My grandmother moved in with them a year after my mother, Katherine, was born.
Elizabeth, my great-aunt, met her husband when she was 26. Brett Ridgely was two years older and had just been released from the service after a tour of duty in Korea. They lived in the house until 1967, when Uncle Brett was killed in a mysterious shooting that had never been fully explained. The house had burned to the ground some short time later.
And yes, legend said the ruins of the house were haunted. So did Taylor, and I trusted her a lot more than I trusted the legends.
"Have you actually seen a ghost there?"
"Did you see my uncle Brett?"
"I don't think so, both the spirits there were of women."
"Did they say anything to you?"
She shook her head. "No. I didn't get close enough, and they didn't seem interested in moving from where they were."
"What did they seem to be doing?"
Taylor shrugged. "Waiting."
"Jeeze, Kelsey, I told you, I don't know. I didn't talk to them. Okay?"
It was quiet for a little while longer, just the sound of the truck engine and the wind whistling by. I started watching for the turn off to the land.
"How is your great-aunt, by the way?"
Auntie Liz, as Sarah and I called her when we were growing up, or Beth to her close friends, now resided in a nursing home just outside of Evergreen. "Good, last we heard from my mom. Why?"
"I don't know. I just always think about her when we come up here."
"You met her just the once, right? When we were kids?"
"Yes." Taylor reached down and pulled a bottle of water from the pack at her feet. "But I've always remembered her. She was so sweet, and asked me to call her Beth and everything."
"She doesn't let many people call her Beth, so you should feel special."
"I do." She sipped her water and then pointed. "There it is."
I don't know how, but she always seems to spot the turn before I do.
Slowing, I put my signal on and turned onto the broken gravel road. The dips were even worse this year, and I made a mental note to call someone about getting it smoothed out. My mom had been talking about bringing my dad up here just for a day, and after his stroke, he didn't need to be bounced around like that.
Taylor didn't seem to mind. She just hung on to the door handle and moved with the truck. There was a small smile playing on her face as we got closer to the camp site.
Finally I pulled the truck to a stop, right beside Ross's beat-up Jeep, and hopped out, taking a deep breath of fresh air.
"Well, we're only the second ones up here this year." Taylor was out of the truck as well and was stretching, her back arching into a bow with her arms raised over her head, making her short t-shirt rise up to show just a sliver of her back.
I swallowed, trying to force myself to look away. "Yeah, we made good time. It's just a little past noon, and I don't expect the others until late in the afternoon."
"What about Jay and Jen?" She turned toward me and squinted in the sunlight. "Aren't they supposed to be here about now?"
My eyes wandered down to the sliver of skin now apparent on her front side.
"Jay and Jen?"
"Huh? Oh. Um, I don't remember. They said something about catching a ride, but I don't know if they meant with Amy or with Ross and Sarah."
"Hah!" The voice startled both of us and we jumped, then looked sheepish as Jay came around the side of the Jeep. "Like we'd ride with Amy and her boy-toy."
"Hey, Jay." Taylor offered a hug to the taller woman, instantly being swallowed up in Jay's longer arms. "So you rode in the rust-bucket with Ross?"
"Yeah, it wasn't so bad." Jay shrugged, then turned to me with a grin. "I gotta do something about your sister's taste in music, though."
"Oh, don't look at me. I've tried for years to get her off that crap she listens to."
"I'll work on it." Jay hugged me, and though I'm taller than Taylor, it was still like being a child wrapped in the arms of a grown-up.
She leaned down and whispered in my ear. "Better watch where your eyes go if you want to keep that crush a secret." With a wink, she pulled away, putting her arm around Taylor to lead her to the campsite.
Did I mention I'm in love with my best friend?
At the age of twenty-seven, I think I'm too old to have a crush, or at least to have a crush like this one. I've known Taylor almost all my life; we met in second grade and bonded very quickly. We've suffered through every teenage hormonal episode you can think of, and hundreds of others that you probably can't. We've always been friends, and we'll always be friends.
And yet . . .
There are times when I see her move and I just can't help but think about what it would be like to touch her. It doesn't happen often, and I don't ever say anything, but I'm well aware that once in a while -- okay, just about every time I see her -- I want to wrap her up in my arms and make the world go away.
I confessed this to Jay one drunken night, while she and Jenny were over at my place. Jenny had conveniently taken on Taylor in some video game and was kicking her butt. I was kicking back some shots, watching Taylor as surreptitiously as you can when you're drunk. Jay had taken advantage of the situation, and I'd folded like a house of cards, crying on her shoulder when she confronted me about it.
But she'd kept what I'd said in confidence, and never mentioned it. I don't think even Jenny was privy to my crush. Just Jay and I. And, since my own sister had missed out on the wonder and tragedy of the gay gene, Jay became my confidant. When I could no longer take the feelings trying to crawl their way out of me, I called her to whine, and she listened.
The last time we'd talked, though, she sighed loudly at one point and said the following terrifying words:
"Kelsey, you need to just tell her."
After freezing in terror, I hung up on her. I called her back a few minutes later to apologize, but told her in no uncertain terms that I couldn't and wouldn't be doing that.
"Why not? What have you got to lose?"
"How about my best friend?"
"How about all this tension and anxiety you've got going on?"
"And again, best friend?"
"How do you know she doesn't want you, too?"
I scoffed. "Right. Beautiful Taylor would really want me, the school teacher who normally drives a Honda and goes to bed early on school nights. Tell me another story, Jay."
"Fine, don't believe me."
"I'm sorry, but I can't. I've known her for, what, seventeen years? She's never so much as flirted with me."
"And how often do you see Taylor flirt anyway?"
She had a point.
"She's never so much as kissed my cheek."
"She doesn't kiss anyone's cheek. Psychic images, remember?"
"Jay, there's just no --"
"How do you keep this a secret from her anyway? I'd think that when she hugged you or something she'd pick up on it. Hell, she picks up on whatever I'm thinking or worried about."
I turned red, then breathed a sigh of relief that we were on the phone. "I -- well, we just -- don't hug anymore. Or we do it really, really briefly."
Jay didn't say anything for a moment. "You're kidding."
I heard her let out a great big sigh. "No wonder you don't get any signs from her. You're really careful not to give her any, aren't you?"
It wasn't a question, and I didn't answer it.
We arrived at the camp site to find Sarah and Ross wrestling with each other in front of their tent.
"What's this all about?"
Sarah looked up. "Taylor! He hid my bathing suit, so I can't go swimming tomorrow!"
Ross, who was on the bottom, squinted against the sun. "I'm not letting her go swimming half naked in front of four lesbians and --"
Jenny had just emerged from her already set up tent to hug Jay. "You might want to stop right there, Ross."
"AND in front of that pervert Roger!"
I tossed my own bags to the ground next to them. "That second concern I get, but you need to take back the first part."
Sarah grinned. "Or I'll sic Taylor on you."
"Oh, and Taylor's going to do what to me?"
"She'll tell me all the little nasty fantasies you don't want me to know about."
"And how will she know?" He struggled a little more.
"She'll use her magic powers!" Sarah nearly fell off of him, but regained her position on top. "Now tell me!"
They both froze when Taylor cleared her throat. She stepped forward slowly, stretching her hand out in front of her. Leaning over, she let a lazy smile cross her face.
"I'd tell her, Ross." Jay gave a fake shudder. "I wouldn't want Jen to know all of my secret fantasies."
As Taylor's hand got closer and closer, Ross's eyes got bigger. Finally, he swallowed and went limp. "It's in the bottom of my back pack, under the extra battery packs for the camera."
"Yes!" Sarah bent over and kissed him on the cheek, then jumped up to hug Taylor. She whispered in her ear, then dove into the tent to search for the hidden bikini.
Taylor laughed out loud.
"What did she say to you?"
She looked at me and grinned. "She said I only went along with it ‘cause I wanted to see her in that bikini."
"Yeah, right." I rolled my eyes.
Jay grinned. "I'd have done it. Sarah's hot."
Ross immediately tackled her and the wrestling match continued even after Sarah came back out of the tent, stolen swimsuit in her hand. She stood next to Jenny, her arm around her shoulders, as they laughed and watched their significant others roll around on the ground.
Taylor and I looked at each other and shrugged, grinning. We'd been saying to each other for years that the four of them were just an orgy waiting to happen.
As she and I put our tent together, I thought about what had just happened, with Sarah threatening to use Taylor's powers against Ross. It said something about the dynamics of our group. They'd all known since high school that Taylor was psychic, since that was how she and Jenny had become friends. When Jay had joined the group, she hadn't really believed until Taylor did the thing of touching her and telling her about herself, things she couldn't have known. She was shocked, and at first a little worried, but after a few weeks, she'd accepted it. Now it was just natural.
Sometimes it even seemed that we were more comfortable with her powers than she was.
Or at least they were. I had my own reasons for not wanting her to see too much in me.
It wasn't like Taylor intentionally tried to read people whenever she touched them, it just happened. Some people she could read like a movie, seeing parts of their lives, all from a single touch. Others, she just got a whirlwind of emotion, or could hear what they were thinking about. Touching her close friends wasn't so bad; we'd known each other so long that she'd developed a kind of shield or barrier that let her touch us without being overwhelmed. I think she was just so used to us that she became conditioned to fading out our thoughts and emotions. It was other people that she had to be careful not to touch.
It wasn't always like that. In fact, when we were younger, she hadn't been able to read anyone that well without concentrating. Back in high school, to really read what was going on, she needed to be in physical contact the whole time, and be in a fairly quiet place where she could concentrate. If it was just a casual touch, she would only pick up the strongest emotions or thoughts, and those, only if they were exceptionally strong, like the hopelessness that had filled Jenny in high school.
Jenny was Sarah's age, a year younger than Taylor, Ross, and myself. She'd had a couple of advanced classes with us, and one time she dropped her book at the end of class. Taylor had leaned over to pick it up and as she handed it back, her hand brushed Jenny's. She'd frozen, and I remember Jenny pulling away quickly, leaving Taylor just staring after her before turning to me and telling me we needed to catch the younger girl. With Taylor leading the way, we'd all adopted Jenny.
It turned out that Jenny suffered from depression, brought on by the death of her mother and being an outcast in school. Taylor had picked up on her desire to kill herself, and thankfully, between her and Ross and the rest of us taking her in hand, Jenny had made it through high school intact. She still went to therapy, and she'd accepted that she would probably fight with the depression for the rest of her life, but she no longer had any desire for that life to end.
It took Taylor years to stop checking on her with surreptitious touches. Even now she'd occasionally hold Jenny's hand a little too long and stare into her eyes. Jenny would calmly look back, a smile on her face, and assure her without words that she was okay.
Taylor was Jenny's hero. In fact, she was our hero. But she was also our friend, and that was so much more important.
Only with us was Taylor vocal about her ability. She didn't do the psychic thing for a living; she ran a bookstore, one of the few independent bookstores left in the region, and the only one in Longmont. With her ability to know what her customers wanted, and to find books that others couldn't, she still had quite a following, even though we had a Borders Books & Music, and nearby Loveland had a Barnes & Noble. Taylor's Ruffian Books seemed to have found a niche that would be hard to push her out of.
She joked that if they did push her out, she'd simply start telling people's fortunes. We all knew she'd never do it.
Speaking of ruffians . . .
"Did you order books for the fall yet?"
"No, not yet. Usually the middle of July. But you're really close to the cut-off date."
"Can I give you the title next week?"
"Sure. Something new coming out in the Dick and Jane series?"
Ross taught fourth grade, but often complained that some of his students had never gotten beyond the first year readers with Dick and Jane and Spot.
"Oh, hah. That was funny. No. Actually, I wanted to get an old classic."
"My Brother Sam is Dead."
"Oh." She pounded a stake into the ground, finishing securing our tent. "I can probably get you a good price on those. But -- you might have trouble teaching that in this political climate."
"I know, but this climate is what makes me think it's necessary. We have to make people think, even at that age."
I nodded, knowing how he felt. "Hell, I'd love to teach that. I know a few of my students have read it, but maybe it's time they read it again."
Jay dropped down on one of the chairs near the fire ring. "Isn't that a little old to teach fourth graders?"
Ross shook his head. "I don't think so. I read it at the age of 9, I think, so I don't think it'll be too difficult for them."
"And if you teach it first semester, I can take your books and teach it second semester, to save on costs."
Taylor frowned as she played with the hammer she was still holding. "Don't you think it would be odd to teach something in seventh or eighth grade that was just taught to the fourth graders? I mean, what does that say to the reading level of your students?"
"Nothing. Ross will be teaching it just to work on their reading comprehension, while I look at the political and historical climate of the book. He'll focus on the simple themes while I work on comparisons with today's world and how we look at the government and its actions." I nodded in further contemplation. "I think this is an excellent idea. I was looking for a new way to talk about the Revolutionary War this year."
With a shrug, Taylor stood. "Okay. I'll get some quotes for you next week, and if you can get me a purchase order I'll get the books."
"Thanks, Tay, I appreciate it."
"No problem, Ross. Come on, guys, let's get the rest of the stuff from the truck."
Jay and Ross followed Taylor, arguing as they did every year about who could carry more in one trip. Sarah and Jenny rolled their eyes and trailed along behind the ‘boys.’
I walked behind them all, still lost in thought.
When we got back, Jenny had set up her laptop, along with the shade that protected it from the sun and the small table that she'd purchased specially for our camping trips. She had a solar powered back-up for it, courtesy of her company and her own personal hardware tech named Jay. There was nothing unusual about this, as the laptop had made an appearance each of the last two years.
What was unusual was the camera that was hooked up to the computer, and the fact that it was pointed at the ruins of the old house, clearly visible on the side of the hill, about fifty yards behind Ross and Sarah's tent. The ruined building was separated from the camp by a stand of trees, but was high enough on the slope that the camera, small but powerful looking, would still get a good view of the whole house.
"What's with this?"
Jenny looked up at me, shading her eyes. "Well, I got to thinking about things --"
"You've been watching Ghost Hunters again, haven't you?" Taylor's voice was carefully neutral.
"Well, yeah, but . . ."
With a sigh, she shook her head. "Can't you just accept that it's haunted?"
"Sure I can, because you've told me that they're there." Jenny shrugged. "I just -- come on, Taylor, I just want to see them for myself. Can't you understand that?"
"And you think that filming the house for a weekend will help?"
"It can't hurt."
Jay and I stayed on the sidelines. She looked decidedly uncomfortable, especially when Taylor glanced her way. We all knew that she had been the one to actually set up the camera.
"Fine. But turn it off for now and save your battery. There's nothing there right now."
Jenny looked at the house, then at Taylor. "You're sure?"
Taylor rolled her eyes and headed for the tent.
"Jay, turn it off." Jenny's voice was soft, almost regretful.
I followed my friend, hoping this didn't put a damper on the weekend for her.
In silence, she unrolled her sleeping bag, then spent ten minutes arranging and rearranging her gear on her side of the tent.
"You okay, Tay?"
She shrugged. "Why can't they just leave it alone?"
"I don't know. I could have guessed that Jenny would get into something like this, but I didn't think she'd do it here, on the trip."
"You thought she'd set up a camera at your aunt's house?"
"No, I thought she'd do something to try and capture a ghost."
She shook her head and dropped onto her sleeping bag. "Why can't she just take my word for it?"
I sat beside her. "She does. She just wants to see for herself." I hesitated, not sure if I should admit the truth or not. "Honestly, I think I'm interested to see if she catches anything." She turned toward me, a flare of anger in her eyes. "It has nothing to do with not believing you, Tay. Please, understand that. It's just --" I slumped a little and looked away. "We've been best friends for so long, and this is about the one thing I can't ever share with you. It would be -- interesting, I think, to see what you see. Even if it's just on the camera lens."
For a few moments, I could feel her gaze on my face, but I couldn't turn towards her. Then her arm slowly slipped around my shoulders. I forced myself not to freeze up, but trying to hold back any emotion she might pick up.
"I wish I could share it with you, too, Kels."
Turning, I gave her a full on hug, squeezing tightly before letting go and pulling back. "Forgive me? And Jenny?" With a smile, she nodded, and I smiled back. "Good. Ready to set up the net and beat somebody at badminton?"
She laughed, a little of the seriousness ebbing from her eyes. "I so love the way Ross refuses to say 'cock.'"
"'Shuttle-bird.' He's such an uptight prick sometimes."
A mischievous grin sprouted from her lips. "Ah, but according to your sister, he's not quite as uptight in bed."
"Ew. Since when do you and my sister talk about her sex life?"
"We always have, dork. Ever since she told you about kissing Alan in seventh grade and you ran from the room with your fingers in your ears going, 'La, la, la, I can't hear you.'"
Remembering that teenage moment, I burst into laughter.
"I stuck around to listen, and now I can't seem to get rid of her. She doesn't seem to understand that I don't want to hear about her hetero lifestyle."
"Yeah, straight people suck."
"Yeah." She stood. "Come on, find the shuttle-bird and we'll go kick their co-- uh, asses in Badminton, okay?"
I grinned and let her pull me up, falling in love with her again.
She looked at me a little strangely, but didn't say a word.
As it happened every year, Taylor and I beat Sarah and Ross, and then fell in inglorious defeat to Jenny and Jay. Jenny, with her small frame and nimble feet could catch the shuttle-co-- excuse me, shuttle-bird in almost any area of the court before it hit the ground. That was, if you could get it past Jay, who, being tall enough to reach over the net, simply slammed it down into either the ground, or the person foolish enough to stand in the way.
"You know, you two should take up volleyball. You'd be killer at it."
"We would, but Jenny hates sand."
I had a bruise and Taylor was complaining of a headache from being hit on the head two many times when we finally called it quits. The sun was about to set, and we were all looking forward to lighting the campfire, which would mean the official start of our long weekend.
We were about to start cooking hamburgers on the fire when we heard the roar of an engine. Rolling our eyes and giving mild glares at the ending of our peaceful evening, we watched as a Hummer 2 pulled up the road.
"I guess someone should go down to meet them." Jenny poked at the unlit fire with a stick. "Kels, why don't you go?"
I frowned. "What, Amy can't find her way up here by herself?" After finding a comfy spot against a log, I really didn't want to move.
Taylor sighed and stood, brushing dirt from her jeans. "Come on, Ross, you and I will be the welcoming committee."
Jay stopped in the middle of adding a log to the fire. "Why you? You going to shake his hand?"
"Ew, no. Did that once before and didn't like it." She waited for Ross. "I'm going to shake HER hand."
I nodded. By shaking Amy's hand Taylor would be checking to see how her friend really was. Without having to actually touch the slob of a boyfriend.
As they walked away, I was still wondering what she had picked up from our hug earlier. She hadn't said anything, and nothing between us had changed, but I kept seeing that strange look in her eye as we left the tent.
"You okay there, Kels?"
"Yeah, Jay, why?"
She grinned. "Just checking. You've been awful quiet since we kicked your butts."
"She's still nursing her bruises." Sarah snickered. "You need to learn to get out of the way quicker, sis."
Yes, I'd been the idiot that tried to stand in the way of Jay's shots. Taylor may have been hit in the head, but I took all the body shots. "Ah, fuck all y'all."
They started laughing at me, but it was cut short when we heard a booming voice talking about the rough road, and the lack of a cabin, and that this was his first time in the woods and were there snakes around.
"Stupid jerk, I hope he runs into the wrong end of a skunk." Jay's voice was bitter, and I knew she had reason to be.
As Amy and Roger entered the tent circle, he hollered out greetings to each of us. The fire began to flare brightly and Jay watched it, ignoring Roger as she kept an eye on the flames. After he greeted Jenny and Sarah and I, he came up and slapped Jay on the back, almost making her fall over.
"Jay!! How's it hangin', babe?"
It seemed like Roger always remembered that Jay was a girl, thus using the nickname babe, but the only way he could deal with the tall, shapely butch being a lesbian was to treat her like a man, hence the back slapping and male in-joke. The rest of us, with our vaguely feminine looks, he had no problem dealing with.
"I'm fine, Roger." She spoke through closed teeth. "Why don't you and Amy get your tent set up while we get dinner going?"
"No dinner yet? We're starved." He nodded at Amy. "Besides, she's the one that knows how to set up the tent. I'd just be in the way."
Amy slumped her shoulders, knowing her boyfriend really wasn't making a good impression on the rest of us. "Come on, Rog, you can help me pound in the stakes at least. It won't take long for the food to be done."
He shrugged and headed over to join her. I couldn't help but notice that, other than the six pack of beer and a small bag, his hands were empty. Amy carried the tent and her own pack, while Taylor and Ross were hauling a cooler. From their frowns, I'd guess Rog had pulled the six pack out of it.
"Sure, sweetheart. You need a man for that kind of thing anyway."
Jay picked up the small hatchet she used for stripping the bark off logs, and made hacking motions towards Roger's back. I had to stifle a giggle, and Sarah didn't even bother to hide hers.
Taylor, having dropped her end of the cooler, had come to sit next to me in front of the log. She was staring off into the darkness, toward the ruins of the house.
"You okay?" I asked quietly, not wanting to alert anyone to anything. She just nodded, leaning her head back before taking a deep breath.
Jen looked up from where she was trying to surreptitiously get the hatchet out of Jay's hand. "Yeah, Taylor?"
"Um. You might want to turn on the camera."
We were silent for a moment, and then Jay walked over to start the equipment. "Should I zoom in on any particular area?"
Taylor shook her head. "No. A wide angle of the house would do fine."
Jay nodded, glancing at the view finder before stepping back to look at the image on the screen. "Nothing yet."
"Keep filming, but no guarantees."
After that, the camera was ignored. Dinner was cooked and served, with the last burgers going to Amy and Roger after they finished setting up their tent. Roger thanked Ross for his help, not noticing that Amy's face held a deep frown. She'd never needed help before; then again, she'd never had an idiot like him tagging along either.
Halfway through his third burger, Roger finally noticed the camera rig. "What's with that?"
Jenny was ready with an answer. "Oh, we're just doing some work on wildlife in the area. It's an infra-red camera to capture any animals that pass by."
"That's cool, Jen." Amy glanced at Taylor. She probably surmised what they were really looking for, and wondered how she felt about it.
"What types of animals? Bears? Something Ross and I can protect you little ladies from?"
I almost laughed at that image. Ross would lay down and let the bear take what it wanted -- that would be almost intelligent. I could picture Roger screaming and running, and the bear chasing him, until he was locked in his stupid Hummer, without the keys. Picturing him half naked at the time put a smile on my face.
Full naked would just be disgusting.
The only one I'd truly trust to protect us from a bear would be Jay. If I couldn't see her wrestling with one, I could see her making enough noise with her voice and her hatchet to scare even Sasquatch away.
Normally on our first night of camping, we pulled out a couple bottles of wine and passed them around. Jay brought her guitar, proving that she wasn't just a techno-butch, she had a soft side, too. Sarah, who had the best voice of all of us, would sing most of the songs, but we'd all sing along on a few.
Tonight, however, there was no move to pull out wine or guitar. After dinner was cleaned up, we talked around the campfire, catching up on little things we'd forgotten to share before, or telling old tales of high school. After a while, though, Ross yawned and stretched, and he and Sarah retired, pleading exhaustion. Jenny said she'd been up late finishing something for work, so she was excusing herself as well.
Amy sighed and didn't say much. Roger, though, seemed happy. He'd drunk four beers, his cans littering the area around his seat.
"Come on, Rog, let's get some sleep."
"Or maybe something else, eh, babe?" He pinched her ass hard enough to make her jump. I saw Jay's jaw clench even tighter than her fists, but she kept her seat.
Amy led the way back to the tent and waited until her boyfriend was inside. She glanced at those of us still around the fire. "I'm sorry, guys. Goodnight."
And just like that, it was Jay and Taylor and I, all alone.
We didn't last much longer. A few silly jokes and some muted laughter to get Jay in a better mood, and we were ready to pack it in for the night.
"Should I leave the camera running, Tay?"
With a shrug, she answered, "Couldn't hurt, if you've got enough batteries."
"I can run it without the computer, so I'll shut that down and leave just the camera going."
"Fine with me. G'night, Jay."
"Night, Taylor, Kelsey."
It must have been maybe three or four hours later when I awoke to Taylor muttering on her side of the tent. I moved to wake her, thinking it was a bad dream, when suddenly she sat upright, an urgent cry of, "No!" springing from her lips.
"Taylor? What's wrong?"
"He shot her. Oh, my God, he shot her." And she started crying.
I didn't know what else to do, so I wrapped my arms around her and held on while she cried.
"Nobody got shot, Tay. We're all just fine. Everyone's okay." I rubbed her shoulders and cooed in her ear, sliding my hands down her back to soothe her.
It took a few minutes but she finally stopped crying. I moved back, not sure if I would do more harm than good by being so close. She stared at the ground for a few minutes, then struggled out of her sleeping bag and threw on a jacket against the chill.
"Where are you going?"
"To talk to Jay."
"I wanna see what's on her camera." And with that she was into her boots and out of the tent.
I followed as quickly as I could, arriving at Jay and Jenny's tent just as Taylor was asking a sleepy Jay to show her what was on the camera.
"Jeeze, Taylor, it's the middle of the night? What's so important?"
"Please, Jay, I need to see, and I don't want to have to explain this to anyone else." She glanced toward the tent Amy was sharing with Roger. Jay was sleepy, but she was starting to wake up. With a nod, she moved toward the camera, still yawning.
"Okay, but we're not turning on the computer. We can do a really thorough exam tomorrow, but for tonight we'll just rewind and play it on the view screen, okay?"
"Absolutely. Thanks for this, Jay. Sorry I woke you."
"No problem. How far back do you want to go? To the beginning?"
"No. Just about -- ten or fifteen minutes ago?"
"You got it." Blinking sleepily, Jay watched the timer on the camera go backwards until it showed twenty-five minutes prior. "Here we go. Mind if I watch with you?"
"No. Go ahead and play it."
Jay seated herself in the chair that Jenny used for the computer, while Taylor and I stood behind her. We watched the first few minutes, then Jay turned up the speed so we watched it in a blurry fast forward kind of motion.
There was nothing there, and Taylor turned away, biting her lip.
Jay moved to stop the play, but I touched her shoulder and pointed. "Stop. Rewind that again, just a few minutes? Just play it."
She did. At first, nothing changed. Then there was a flash in the ruins, followed by another one, then a third from another area.
"Where did those come from?"
"Where did what come from?" Taylor had walked away, but now she turned back toward us.
Jay motioned to her. "Kels spotted something. I don't know if it's what you were looking for, but I'll play it again." She did, watching Taylor's face as the flashes erupted across the viewfinder.
Taylor's eyebrow rose. "Three? Why three?"
With a frown, Jay stopped the playback. "How did you know there'd be one?"
"I -- I dreamed it."
"What is it?"
"I think -- it's from a gun. Someone got shot. I saw it." She turned back to the ruins of the house. "But three?"
After a few minutes of silent staring between us, we all headed back to bed. Taylor said the house was now quiet and she didn't think the camera would do any good. Jay said she'd be sure to save the images so Taylor could see them on the computer. Jenny would kill her if she didn't, anyway.
As we crawled back into our tent, I kept an eye on Taylor. She seemed jittery, almost nervous, and spent the next twenty minutes tossing and turning in her sleeping bag.
I finally scooted closer and put an arm around her. She sighed deeply, and was asleep within minutes.
I was awake until the sun rose.
The next day was our annual trek to the lake for a day of swimming and fishing. We didn't normally get up early for it or anything, but this time everyone was awake before nine. Everyone, that is, but Roger.
I had finally fallen back to sleep just as the sun was beginning to light the sky. Taylor had let me sleep, getting up to help with breakfast, and only waking me with the smell of bacon and pancakes. I changed quickly, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, and joined everyone around the fire. Even Amy was up early, looking sheepishly at the rest of us.
"Okay, gang, I know he's a little rough, but he's really sweet, too."
Ross shrugged and handed her a plate. "It's fine, Amy. I just have to get used to having another guy around here. It's usually just me and Jay." He winked at our resident butch as he said it.
"And we need to keep Jay away from the hatchet, that's all." Jenny grinned and kissed her girlfriend on the cheek. "We really don't need a scene from Fried Green Tomatoes, you know?"
Jay frowned. "That was a frying pan, not an axe. And I wouldn't do that." She lowered her voice and muttered, "He wouldn't taste good anyway."
We finally headed up to the lake a little before noon. It lay about a mile and a half away, and at our leisurely pace it took us about an hour. We were maybe a quarter mile away when Roger started complaining of a stiff shoulder due to having to carry the cooler. Amy offered to take over for him, but he argued that, "We have so many strong dykes here, maybe one of them should take a turn." We all knew he was talking about Jay, but she was burdened with a bunch of fishing poles along with the tackle box. Jenny had to wrap her arms around her to keep her from putting them down. Taylor finally rolled her eyes, flexed her muscles and took up the other end. Ross winked at her, and we were off once again.
Every year we set up at the same place, near this outcropping of rock that rose over the surface by ten feet. You couldn't dive off of it, because it was fairly shallow right there, but it was wonderful for sun bathing and just contemplating things. Many serious talks and not-so-serious jokes were had on that rock.
Just to the left of our perch was the perfect spot for the fisherfolk among us. There was a drop off from the shallow area to a depth of about twenty feet. We often had dinner the second night from the trout we caught at the lake, and since Jenny had a bite within minutes of dropping her line, it looked like we'd do so again.
Taylor and I stretched out with Sarah and Amy on the rock while the other four all tossed lines into the water. Most every year we took off not only our shirts but our swim tops; Ross was like a brother for most of us and he'd long gotten over the shock of seeing naked breasts. Without thinking about it, Taylor moved to take off hers, and Amy put a hand on her shoulder.
"Don't." She glanced toward the fishers, directly at Roger, then mouthed 'Sorry' at all of us. With a sigh, Taylor left her swim suit on and lay back on her towel, her eyes closed, tension in her face.
I stifled a sigh and copied her actions. From the moment Amy had asked if Roger could come, I knew everything was going to be different this year. Yes, I lied to the others -- I didn't invite Roger, Amy had asked, and I didn't have the heart to say no.
Now I was wishing I had.
Everything went well for a while. The four fishers caught fish, mostly trout, while the four of us sunbathing told each other some funny stories of our work, or what ever else was going on in our lives. It's strange how you can see someone so often, in some cases every day, and still have so much to say to them. I think that's a big part of a good friendship. There's always something you need to say.
And yet the silence can be just as comforting and eloquent as speech.
Sarah, Jenny and Amy all wanted to go swimming. They finally ganged up on Taylor and I, dragging us both from the rock and down the edge of the lake to a sandy spot where we could swim without danger from the fish hooks trailing through the water. We teased Sarah about her bikini, with me playing the dutiful older sister and telling her it was too immodest. She just rolled her eyes and asked who was going to flirt with her in front of Ross? Jenny volunteered, then changed her mind when Taylor reminded her that Jay would be there. A jealous Jay was worse than an overprotective Jay.
When we went back to join our three fisherfolk, Taylor and I were dressed, but the other three were carrying their jeans, not wanting to put them on while wet. This got the requisite cat calls and whistles as Ross, Roger and Jay all showed their appreciation of the female form. It didn't escape my notice that the only three of us not dressed all had significant others to show off for.
After hugging their guys, Amy and Sarah once again joined Taylor and I on the rock. The sun had shifted, with the rock being just inside the shade of the trees, while the fishing area was in full sun light. The good sunbathing hours were past, but it was nice just to enjoy the slight breeze that blew through the trees.
After an hour Jay came bounding up on the rock, bringing us all water and holding a beer for herself.
"Anyone wanna take my pole? I wanted to get some shade."
To my surprise, Taylor jumped up. "I'll do it."
A look of mock horror spread over Jay's face. "Please, tell me someone else wants to?"
Sarah looked over lazily, one eye open. "I'm comfy. Let Taylor."
Amy shrugged and I just shook my head. "Don't feel like moving, Jay. Let Taylor have some fun."
"Okay, but if anyone ends up with a hook in their ear, don't say I didn't warn you."
Sarah burst out laughing and the rest of us weren't far behind. We'd forgotten about the incident two years ago when Jay nearly lost an earring because Taylor cast without looking behind her. Or tried to, anyway.
With a frown, Taylor put her shirt back on. "To quote Kelsey, fuck all y'all."
There were clouds moving in from the east. This wasn't always a bad thing, but there was a scent in the air, and it warned that we might be eating dinner in the rain tonight. I lay back on the rock, smelling the ozone and watching the clouds. If my weather sense was right, and it usually was because this was one science area I enjoyed and actually studied, we had about three hours before the squall would break, and even then it would only last an hour.
But I'd been wrong before.
Taylor hooked a fish and it must have been big because Ross helped her reel it in. As my eyes drifted closed, I could see what was happening in my mind. Ross always helped in the same way. Instead of taking the line away and doing it himself, he would wrap an arm around whoever it was, and help brace the pole while the other person worked the reel. It really was team work, and since we were all comfortable with him, there was never any problem. Jay was the only exception, but she never needed help anyway.
A few minutes later, after another cast, Ross was wrestling with his own line when Taylor got a bite. Once again, she asked for help, but the wrong person offered.
"Here, I'll brace you."
"Roger, don't touch me."
"Hey, just --"
"Roger, don't." Amy was up in an instant and crawling down the side of the rock.
"-- let me get an arm --"
"I said don't."
"Hey, Roger, come get my pole, I'll help Taylor."
"What's the big deal? Come on, just let me --."
"I said NO!"
Crunch. "Ow!" There was a splash, but it wasn't loud enough to be a person.
"Leave her alone." That was Jenny's voice, and it was shaking more than I'd heard it in a long time.
I cringed at the sound of someone landing heavily on the ground. That's when I finally sat up and looked, feeling almost like a voyeur. Sara seemed to feel the same, as she appeared embarrassed to witness what was happening. Jay was scrambling after Amy, her face as dark as the storm clouds that were moving steadily closer.
Taylor was standing near the edge of the water, her hands still wrapped around the pole, the line pulling quickly from the reel. About three feet behind her, Roger was sitting on the ground, having tripped over a knocked over camp stool, a look of anger and bewilderment on his face. He was looking back and forth between Taylor and Jenny, who was several feet away her arm raised, an empty beer can in her hand.
"You dykes are crazy!"
"Roger, I told you, no one touches Taylor."
"Well, Ross obviously did."
"I've known her longer than you. She trusts me." Ross had cut his line, rather than finish wrestling with whatever tree root he'd caught in on. He reached out carefully, trying not to scare Taylor. "Tay? Hey. You in there?"
She stood stock still, clutching the pole, not even feeling the line as it kept running. Ross reached out and cut it, stopping the buzz of the reel. It wasn't until he actually touched her hand that he got a reaction from her. "Taylor?"
With a moan, she dropped to the ground, tears rolling down her face.
I was on my feet in a moment, scraping my knee as I went over the edge of the rock. Jay turned at the last moment to catch me as I slid and almost fell, but I ignored her, heading toward my best friend who was now silently rocking back and forth at the edge of the water.
Whatever she'd seen when Roger touched her, it wasn't good.
Amy must have caught on to that as well, as she stopped in the middle of helping up her boyfriend.
"Taylor?" I was whispering in her ear, not yet touching as I knelt behind her. "Taylor, it's Kelsey. Can you hear me?" There was no response, so I did what I always did. "Taylor, I'm going to put my hand in front of you. If you can hear me, take my hand, sweetheart."
Slowly I reached around her, not touching, until my hand was in front of her. As she usually did, she grabbed it, hanging on with a strong grip. In response I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her against me. Once she started to relax I leaned back a little, getting into a comfortable position and humming in her ear.
I know what you're thinking. Wasn't I worried about her finding out? Absolutely. But I couldn't think about that.
There was a fight going on behind me, but I concentrated on Taylor. I had to stay calm, it was how I was always able to reach her in one of these storms.
She'd compared them to a cyclone. If she wasn't ready when someone she didn't know touched her, she could become overwhelmed with what she saw. Their past, their emotions, could become a storm of wind, whirling around her and trapping her in them. It's why she didn't touch people. Even her close friends, on a bad day, could trap her in their emotions.
It's why we didn't touch her unless she invited it.
When Taylor finally slumped against me, I turned my attention to what was happening behind us. Apparently, Roger had headed back to camp -- alone.
"I'm sorry, guys, I really am. He -- I told him not to touch Taylor, but --"
"It's not your fault, Amy." That was Ross, ready to forgive. "It was a misunderstanding and --"
"Oh, bullshit." Jay, the no-nonsense one. "She told him to back off and he didn't."
"He didn't understand, Jay."
"He didn't try really hard, did he? God, Amy, how can you put up with him?"
"Easy, babe." I could almost see Jenny putting an arm around her partner. "It happened, and you can't change it. Let's just wait for Taylor, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." I heard them start moving away, then they stopped. "Makes you wonder, though, doesn't it? Just what did she see in him, Amy? Hm?"
But I knew they wouldn't ask. And Taylor wouldn't tell, even if they did.
Though I wondered if she'd tell Amy.
Jay and Ross had started gathering equipment, with Jay muttering about the lost fishing lines.
"Looks like we'll have enough fish for dinner, though." Ross pulled the fish from the water, packing them in the now empty cooler.
"Quit bitching, Jay, it doesn't make it any better."
"Would you rather I bitch, Ross, or pound that stupid -- "
"I'm heading back." Amy stood, turning away from Jay, who continued to reel in lines and put tackle away. "Anyone wanna walk with me, or am I the outcast now?"
Sarah stood up and brushed off her jeans. "I'll walk with you, Amy."
"Don't suppose you two could carry some gear or something?" Ross asked.
"Want us to take the cooler?"
"Think you can manage it? It's full of fish."
Sarah tested an end and nodded. "We've got it. If it gets too heavy we'll just rest for a moment. Ready, Amy?"
They took off, the cooler slung between them.
Jay was binding the poles and still muttering about getting her hatchet. Ross was folding camp chairs and stuffing blankets and towels in the duffel bag. Jenny sat down beside me and Taylor.
"How is she?"
"She has a headache, and your girlfriend isn't making it better."
I glanced down to see Taylor still had her eyes closed. "Are you with us?"
"No, I'm talking in my sleep." She pulled away, but kept her hand on mine. "Jay, would you please shut up? Let it go already."
"No. Just stop it, Jay. He made a mistake. So did Amy, by not telling him why he shouldn't touch me."
"She couldn't --"
"She couldn't say I'm psychic, I know, but she could have said I'm terrified of people or something, anything to make him understand. He didn't understand, but he didn't mean to hurt me. So knock it the fuck off, okay?"
Jay let her shoulders slump. Her body posture was suddenly that of a little child as she kicked at a small rock in the dirt, her hands gripping the tackle box. "I'm sorry, Taylor."
Taylor rose unsteadily and carefully put a hand on Jay's arm. "I know. It's okay." She waited for Jay to look up at her. "You're sexy when you're being all protective."
And just like that, everything seemed better. Jay smiled, Jenny grinned, nodding in agreement. Ross even chuckled.
I sat still, letting the conversation flow past me. I had been concentrating on not feeling anything for about an hour and now that the situation was over, I felt like crying. I think Ross knew that, cause he smiled down and offered me a hand. When I stood, he hugged me tight and told me I'd done a good job.
"I didn't do anything."
"I know. But you were there for her, Kelsey. And she needed that."
I glanced at my best friend, glad her attention was on Jay and Jenny for the moment. "I've always tried to be there, Ross."
"And she's always known it." He put an arm around me and led me over to the rest of the gang. "We ready to leave?"
"Only if Jay surrenders her hatchet. I don't want any scenes from --"
"It was a frying pan, not a hatchet!"
Taylor gave her a mock glare. "I wasn't talking about Fried Green Tomatoes. I was going to say, I don't want any scenes from Little Red Riding Hood."
We all laughed, and Jenny immediately got into the spirit, using a rough voice in imitation of Roger. "Oh, Jay, what big muscles you have for a girl."
As we started walking, Taylor replied, "All the better to swing my axe."
"And what a big axe you have!"
"All the better to chop you up with! Aargh!" She made chopping motions using her hand.
"Oooh, no, ahhhh!" Jenny giggled.
Jay sighed and hefted the poles over her shoulder. "Fuck all y'all." She stopped. "Shit, now I'm talking like Kelsey."
And we all laughed.
We got back to camp to find Sarah all alone and fuming. She was also cleaning fish and muttering to herself. For a brief moment I thought she was trying to do an impression of Jay. If so, it was a passable one.
"What's wrong, babe?"
Sarah glared mildly at her husband. Then she turned her attention to Taylor and I. "They're at the house."
My eyebrows rose and I could feel Taylor stiffen beside me.
The ruins of the house were just that -- ruins. There were still a few walls up but most of the ceiling had collapsed and you couldn't walk from one end to the other without stepping over debris and charred furniture and roof beams. The part where the ceiling hadn't yet collapsed was the most dangerous, because it could come crashing down at any time.
To get inside, you had to climb or step over broken walls. The front door was still there, but there was debris blocking the other side so you couldn't open it. I knew this because of the one or two times that Sarah and I had snuck inside as kids. Our parents had made it clear that we weren't to play there, it was too dangerous. But we wandered off a few times and snuck over a badly crumbled wall on the west side, where one of the bedrooms had been. We'd found a few little broken knick-knacks, and enjoyed a game of hide and seek.
Our fun in the house ended the year we heard the rumors in town about it being haunted. Not being believers, we snuck back into the house, and ended up near the back, in the kitchen. Out of nowhere, we heard a loud moan and Sarah said she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. We ran through the house and woods, tripping and falling, scraping our knees and elbows, arriving back at our camp crying. After being scolded for disobeying, we swore we'd never go in the house again. And we hadn't. So far as we knew, no one had.
"What the hell are they doing there? Amy knows no one's supposed to be up there." Ross actually sounded angry. He knew the family story as well as we did, and if it upset his wife, it upset him.
"Roger was already up there when we got back. We saw him from here and Amy said she'd go get him. They've been gone for at least twenty minutes."
Taylor was stiff as a board, and her eyes had shifted to the house.
"Tay? You all right?"
"He's going to disturb things, Kels."
But she didn't answer.
We were all silent as we pitched in to get dinner started. Sarah and I stripped the scales off the fish, then passed them on to Ross, who gutted them while Jay got the fire going again. Once cleaned and filleted, the trout were given over to Jenny, who rubbed them with her special spices and fried them in a big pan made especially for camping trips.
As Roger and Amy approached, I saw Jay staring at the pan, hard. Jenny must have noticed, because she nudged her and whispered, "No, babe."
"Why not?" Jay's reply was in a whisper as well, and I had to strain to hear Jenny's answer.
"It's not hard enough, you'd break the pan, not his skull."
Taylor had missed the exchange, and looked at me strangely as I chuckled.
In keeping with the strangeness of the afternoon, Roger did something completely unexpected; he apologized. Following Amy into camp, he immediately came up to Sarah and I, who were cleaning the knives we'd used to de-scale the fish.
"Sarah, Kelsey, I'm sorry. Amy didn't tell me the house was off limits, and I thought it would be a good place to just sit and think for a while. Now that I know, I won't go up there again."
We looked at each other in shock for a moment, then faced Roger again. "It's okay, Roger, just -- our uncle died in the house, so we're a little . . . jumpy about people being up there. You know?"
"I understand, Kelsey."
Sarah put the knives away before saying anything. "Did you . . . see anything?"
He looked confused. "See what?"
"Any . . . one?"
"You mean other than Amy?" Roger was baffled. I stepped in to clarify.
"She wants to know if you saw any ghosts, Roger. People around here say the house is haunted."
"Haunted?" He laughed. "No, sorry, no spooks spoke while I was up there." He shook his head. "Is that why no one goes there?"
"Don't you believe in ghosts, Roger?" Taylor's voice was very soft.
He turned to face her, and his demeanor changed subtly. When he answered, his voice was softer. "No, I really don't, Taylor. I grew up in a Christian household, and my father didn't hold with such nonsense." Roger took a step towards her, but stopped when he noticed Jay tensing on the other side of Taylor.
"And I'm sorry, Taylor. Amy told me nobody touched you, but then I saw Ross, and I thought, well, I can do that, and -- I guess I just forgot I really wasn't a part of this group yet." He shrugged, looking decidedly young in that moment, and dropped his gaze to the ground. "Sometimes -- sometimes I see how close you all are, and I -- well, I guess I just get a little jealous. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I never had more than a friend or two, and . . ." Another shrug as he trailed off. "I'm sorry, Taylor. I'll try not to do any more dumb things today."
Taylor just smiled at him. "We all do dumb things, Rog. Ask Ross sometime about when he first started going out with Sarah -- and his trip to the hospital by way of the berry patch."
Sarah and Jenny giggled, while Ross looked up sharply. "Hey, now, no need to bring that old story up."
"Aw, but it's such a great story, Ross." I grinned at him, then stuck out my tongue. Having been the driver for the trip to the hospital when we were nineteen, I felt I had a right to be a little bit childish.
"Someone wanna tell me what happened?" Roger was grinning as he sat down on the camp chair next to Amy.
"It was really pretty sweet, actually." Sarah started the story out, but Jay interrupted.
"Do I know this story?"
Ross, his face red, threw his arm around Jay. He knew better than to try to ask his wife to be quiet about this. "Hey, buddy, we might need a few more fish, wanna go back to the lake with me?" There was a desperation in his voice.
"Are you kidding? I ain't missing this." She grinned at him. "Buddy."
He groaned and dropped into his own chair next to Sarah.
"It was our second year of all of us getting together up here. Jay wasn't yet with us, so it was just Amy, Taylor, Jenny, Ross, and my sister and me. So we get up here, and Kelsey and I are reminding people that the house is off limits, and we'd heard there was a wildcat around that summer so people weren't to wander off, and don't go up near Berry Hill and so forth."
"Berry Hill?" Jay asked.
I spoke up. "Berry Hill is about half a mile from here, and it's named not only for the people that used to own that land, but also because there's a stand of blueberry bushes near the top."
"Ross asked that same question." Amy smiled as she remembered. "And Kelsey gave the same answer."
"Right, only that wasn't good enough for Ross," Sarah continued, "especially since he'd just found out a few weeks before that I love blueberries. So, he decides he's going to surprise me. He goes off on a hike by himself, and comes back a few hours later."
"Oh, he looked awful." It was Taylor's turn to jump in. "His face was swollen, and he was having trouble breathing, and he limped."
"But, he was smiling, and carrying this little bucket." Sarah's face creased into a large and happy grin. "He'd gone up the hill and picked blueberries for me. And he smiled and gave them to me --"
Jenny, Taylor and I all said the last line together. "And collapsed at her feet."
We were all laughing, while Jay and Roger looked confused, and Ross just glared at the fire.
"Why'd he collapse?" Roger asked.
I finally recovered enough to answer. "The reason we tell everyone not to go up there is because Berry Hill is also covered in hornet's nests. And they're mean little creatures."
Sarah slid her arm around Ross, smiling. "My man got himself stung twenty-two times while picking berries for me. We had to throw him in the back of Kelsey's truck and drive him sixteen miles to the emergency center. They kept him overnight and when he got back, he was groggy from all the medicine." She hugged him. "But I'll tell you, those were the sweetest blueberries I'd ever had." Ross, finally smiling, turned to kiss his wife.
The rest of us, as usual, just went, "Awwwww."
It started raining just as we were finishing dinner, about half an hour after my original prediction. Most of us retired to our tents to rest and avoid getting too wet. Jay stayed out for a few minutes to watch over the fire, but she soon retreated as well. As I expected, it didn't last too long, about forty minutes, and we were soon all gathered around again as Jay finally pulled out her guitar and she and Sarah did a couple of duets. We did the sing-a-long thing, Roger surprising us with the quality of his voice. Taylor talked him into doing a song solo, with Jay accompanying, and he obliged, his face smiling in the light of the fire.
As we were all heading to bed, Jay asked Taylor if she should set the camera up again. Taylor glanced first at me, and I shrugged. "It might rain again. Can't tell right now, but the air does still smell like it."
"Better not, Jay, don't want to risk it getting ruined in the rain."
Jay nodded, though Jenny looked disappointed.
"That's what the camera was really all about, huh?" Roger was stretching, getting ready to head into his tent. "I'd wondered why it was pointed towards the house instead of the woods."
"Yeah, we're trying to catch a ghost, Rog." Jay shrugged. "You may not believe, but -- we're gonna try anyway."
"Cool with me. I may not believe, but I watch Ghost Hunters." He shrugged. "G'night, all."
It was a rough night. The weather blew up into another squall, lasting for a few hours. It seemed to steal into Taylor's dreams as she slept, making her toss and turn in the tent. I finally resorted to another round of holding her, which calmed her for the most part. She still frowned and muttered in her sleep, but she stopped throwing elbows.
Finally, as the rain left, so did her bad dreams, and we both slept peacefully till the sun was high in the sky.
I awoke first that morning, heading out of the tent carefully, intending on making some coffee before everyone else got up for the day. Sarah must have had the same thought, and I could smell the liquid already simmering over the fire.
"I'm surprised the rain didn't put it out last night."
She shrugged. "It did. Jay was up earlier. Got it started for me."
"It wasn't too wet?"
"You know Jay, she's the ultimate bushman. She said she got up when the rain started the second time and covered everything so we wouldn't get washed away." Sarah pointed to a couple of frames with aluminum over them. "Guess they worked, cause she had the fire going in no time."
"Great. Got enough coffee for me?"
Soon I was sitting next to her, contemplating the sun, the flames, the air, and whatever else crossed my still sleep blurred mind.
"Did Taylor say anything else about the house?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well . . ." She shifted in her chair. "I heard her tell you that Roger might have disturbed something. Did she say what?"
"No. We didn't talk about it." I took a healthy sip from my mug. "She had a rough night, lots of tossing and turning."
"Hm." She was quiet for a moment, then took a deep breath. "You were always closer to Aunt Elizabeth. Did she ever tell you what happened that night?"
"When Uncle Brett died."
"Oh." I sipped, stalling. "No. I heard the basics from Mom, but Auntie Liz never said anything." I'd unconsciously called her the name we'd used as children. "All I know is there was a third person who shot them both. Uncle Brett died, the intruder died, and she was hurt, shot in the shoulder."
"That was what, 1970? Mom was . . ."
"About thirteen, I guess."
"Hm." We were both quiet for a while, letting the birds and insects drown out our thoughts. "Did she ever say if the intruder was a man or woman?"
I looked at her. "No. I just assumed it was a man."
"So did I, until a few summers ago."
"Why, what happened?"
Sarah took a deep breath. "Remember that time I had to work the morning we were going to leave? And Ross came up with you and Taylor so he could help get things set? I drove up later, by myself, and that rainstorm hit."
"I remember. Ross was pacing in the mud waiting for you."
"And I had pulled in at the Stuart's place to wait out the worst of it. Well, I sat with Anna for a while. She was talking about 'the old days' like she does. And she mentioned Uncle Brett and said she wouldn't have been surprised if the woman who shot him was a scorned lover of his, cause he was known to be unfaithful from time to time."
"Oh." I didn't have anything to say to that. "Huh."
There was rustling from Jenny and Jay's tent, and I knew our silence wouldn't last much longer. Sarah must have known it as well. She leaned over and put her hand on my shoulder. "If Taylor ever sees anything, you need to tell me, all right? I know I'm your little sister, but you don't need to protect me anymore. Promise me you'll tell me?"
I nodded. "Promise."
Then we weren't alone anymore, and any further discussion of family secrets was shelved for the time being. I hadn't had time to tell her about the flashes on the film, or the gunshot that Taylor heard in her dream. But I didn't stop thinking about it.
In my mind I could hear Taylor going, "He shot her. Oh, my God, he shot her." With Sarah's new revelation, I couldn't help but wonder who 'he' was.
Our second full day in camp was always hike day. It was usually Taylor and I, along with Jenny and Sarah and Amy, with Jay and Ross staying in camp to prepare their special barbecue sauce for the evening's feast of grilled chicken and corn. Taylor and I were always scheduled to do breakfast on our last morning, which I was grateful for. Usually nobody wanted anything big because of the huge meal the night before.
This year Amy decided to stay in camp to watch over things, since Roger wasn't coming with us either. Just before we set off, he pulled out the cooler of beer he'd been saving. He offered a beer to Jay with a kind of sheepish apology for his behavior the day before, and when she took it I felt a chill go down my spine. I loved Jay, but my one round of seeing her totally drunk wasn't a good memory.
Jenny noticed as well, and before we left, she took her partner aside for a hug and a short lecture. Jay must have understood what Jen said, because her head went down and she nodded, and when she looked back at the rest of us, her eyes had a glint of guilt in them. I had a feeling she wouldn't be drinking much after all.
Taylor and I stood there watching as our two hiking buddies kissed their partners. Then we looked at each other, and I swear we had the exact same thought at the same time. Her evil grin gave her away, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud.
"Darling," she said to me, "I'll miss you so. Be careful and come home safe. Mwah!"
"Sweetheart, I'm already missing you. Stay away from Berry Hill!" Then I made a kissing noise and we went towards each other with open arms.
Jenny reached into Roger's cooler and grabbed some ice to throw at us. Sarah just stuck her tongue out and kissed Ross again.
Taylor, still laughing, led the way out of camp. It was going to be an interesting day.
The family land we were on was sandwiched in between the old Berry property, including the hill, and a state park which hemmed us in on two sides. The place we were heading was close to the boundary with the park, and occasionally we had run into hikers or campers that had missed the private property signs. Today, however, we saw no one, and it was just us and the sun and the insects as we climbed to the top of a jagged overlook about a mile and a half from camp.
From there we could see the outline of Berry Hill as well as the lake we'd been to yesterday. We would have been able to see camp, but it lay on the other side of the hill we'd climbed to get here, having hiked an extra half mile to find the easiest path to the top.
After sweating our way up to the cliff we were currently sitting on, we pulled out lunches, courtesy of Ross and Jay. Thick ham sandwiches, with a bag of sliced apples for us to share, along with bottles of orange juice and water. We ate quietly, tired from the hike and enjoying the peace of the small mountain.
Surprisingly, it was Taylor who started the conversation.
"Jen, do you think Jay's going to be drunk when we get back?"
Sarah shuddered. "I don't like it when Jay drinks heavy. It's the only time she's ever scared me."
I nodded in remembrance while Jen sighed.
"No, I don't think she will. I reminded her of that time, and she kind of wilted."
Taylor nodded. "That's good then. I didn't want to have to kick her butt."
"I'd pay to see that." Sarah laughed. "Taylor, kicking Jay's ass."
"You don't think I could?"
"Don't put anything past this one," Jen said. "Besides, Taylor could just look angry at her and Jay would probably give up. She's actually a real pussy cat."
"Interesting choice of words there, Jen." She reached over and pushed me, making me tilt to my left.
For a moment we all went quiet again before Sarah spoke up.
"Jen? Did you study the tape?"
"The tape of the house the other night when you filmed it."
"Oh." She scratched her neck. "I saw it, yeah."
"Jay said there were just some flashes. Is that what you saw as well?"
Taylor turned to Jenny as well, who blinked at being the center of attention.
"Well, there were the flashes, and a little bit before that there appeared to be some shadows moving around. I couldn't tell if they were from animals, but they did appear to move independently of their surroundings, so it wasn't a bush or a tree growing in a strange place."
"Did they seem agitated?" Taylor's voice was low, and she'd turned to look out over the cliff again.
"Um. Well . . . since I don't have anything to really judge against, I'd have to say no. I mean, they weren't moving around really quickly --"
"But they weren't sitting still either."
Sarah turned her attention to Taylor.
"Will you tell us what you know, Tay?"
"I don't know anything, Sarah."
"Oh, come on. We've been coming up here for years. You always tell us not to go into the ruins of the house, then you have this nightmare, even before Roger enters and," she used her fingers in quotation marks, "'disturbs' anything. And Jenny has unexplained shadows and flashes on her film. And you knew she would. So, give. What's going on at the house? What have you seen? What do you know?"
Taylor sighed and turned towards her. "I don't know anything. All I ever saw before were two women, and they always appeared happy, yet they seemed like they were waiting for something. I don't know what. This year it's different. I haven't seen them as much, but -- there's something in the air that's tense. Like a bowstring, or --"
"Or a fishing line."
She looked at me. "Yeah. A fishing line." Taylor turned back to Sarah. "So I don't know anything, Sarah. I really don't."
"But you saw gunshots."
"I dreamed one gunshot. One. That's all I saw, that's all I know."
"Who shot who?"
"I don't know!" She turned away that time and I could see her almost folding in on herself as she hugged her knees to her chest. "Leave it alone, Sarah, please."
My sister frowned, but didn't say anything else.
Instead, Jenny asked the question. "What did you see when Roger grabbed you, Taylor?"
"Fuck!" To everyone's surprise, Taylor exploded to her feet. "Why can't you just leave it alone?"
"Easy, Tay, Jen didn't mean anything --"
Sarah cut me off. "Taylor, we're worried about Amy, and don't tell me you aren't. If you saw something about Roger that -- "
"That what? That upset me? If I did, I wouldn't be telling you about it! Everyone's entitled to their secrets."
"Yeah? So what secrets are you keeping, Taylor?"
"Are you really so keen to get into this discussion, Sarah?"
"I have no secrets --"
"Really! Then why haven't you told Ross that you're pregnant?"
My mouth dropped open, and for a moment I did a good impression of a goldfish before turning to my sister. "You're pregger-- ah, pregnant?"
She nodded, her face red and her gaze dropping to her boots. "About ten weeks." Raking a hand through her hair, she sighed and raised her eyes back up to meet Taylor. "Touche'. You made your point."
"Do you think I liked doing that?" Taylor looked like she wanted to cry. "Do you think I like knowing things no one else knows? Seeing what you all want to keep hidden?" She took a deep breath and looked out into the distance. "Sometimes I really hate it. I reach for something at a grocery store and brush against someone's hand and I know they're afraid they're husband is cheating on them. Or I give change to a customer at the store and touch their hand and know they're struggling because their mom's dying of cancer. Or they're afraid because the doctor told them to stop smoking and they can't, or they know a friend who stole that car from down the street, or they can't stop hitting their kid."
Her posture slumped and she turned to face us again. "And all of you. You think you can trust me with your secrets, because I know everyone's. So you tell me what's really going on behind the facade, like Sarah moaning because Ross stopped bringing her flowers, or Jenny and Jay having problems because she wants kids and Jay doesn't. Either you tell them to me, or you try to hide them from me and you can't." She glanced toward me as she said the last line and I got a chill down my spine. "You can't. And I get so tired of keeping all your secrets, even the ones I'm not supposed to know." She turned around again, this time with her arms wrapped around herself. "I'm so fucking tired of it."
Jenny climbed to her feet slowly, but faster than I could. Carefully, she took the three steps she needed to be right behind Taylor, and then slowly, she took a deep breath and put her arms around her. "Feel that?"
I could just see Taylor nod her head over Jen's shoulder. "That's not a secret, Taylor. It's love. The biggest secret I ever kept nearly killed me, and when you discovered it, you saved me. And this is the result; I'm alive to care about you." Using her hands she turned Taylor to face her. "I love you, Taylor. You saved my life."
"No, I didn't."
"I was going to kill myself."
"And my discovering that fact didn't change anything." Taylor shrugged. "I learned a secret, Jenny. That's all I ever do. After that it was Ross, and Sarah, and Kelsey who saved your life."
"They would have never known without you. Don't you see, Taylor? You saw my secret, the one secret that I couldn't tell, the one I needed to scream. And because you told when I couldn't, I got help. Because you told Ross and Amy and Sarah and Kelsey, I didn't end up dead at sixteen. Maybe you think we trust you with our secrets because you won't tell. But I think you're wrong. We trust you because we know that you will tell, when it's absolutely necessary." She moved a lock of hair off Taylor's forehead. "We know how much you love us. We can feel it, as strongly as you can feel us."
To my utter surprise, Taylor started crying. She let Jenny hold her gently, as Sarah stood to join the hug on the cliff's edge. They were silent tears, but they streamed down Taylor's face in great numbers.
I sat still, watching the scene, stunned to silence. I couldn't help hearing Taylor's words from moments ago. "You try to hide them from me and you can't."
I had to wonder if she knew. She had to know. That was my secret, after all, the only one I'd ever hid from her. She knew.
And she didn't want to know. That's what kept me sitting still as Jenny and Sarah hugged Taylor on the edge of the cliff.
It took a little while for Taylor to calm down. When she did, the three of them resumed their places on the cliff and all four of us sat in a line up, Jenny, Taylor, me, and Sarah. We stared out at the bright blue sky and the earth below for quite a while, until Taylor started talking.
"Roger's not a bad guy. In fact, he and Jay have a lot more in common than they know."
"How so?" Jen's voice was curious.
"Oh." Her voice was flat, and I exchanged glances with Sarah. This must be one of those secrets Taylor was talking about.
"He was raised, as far as I could tell, in a fairly religious Southern Baptist family. He's had to fight against a lot of what he learned as a child just to accept Amy's friends."
"You mean us." Sarah said.
"I mean us as in Kelsey and Jay and Jenny and myself."
"You mean us queers." I can't say there wasn't any bitterness in my voice.
"Well, if you want to put it that way." She shrugged. "But he's done okay, I think. He's kind of like Jay in that he's afraid of what he doesn't really understand, or people he doesn't understand. I think that's why Jay fascinates him. Cause she's something he's never experienced before and he wants to figure it out, but he's a little afraid as well."
"Yet he's nothing like Jay, because Jay isn't an arrogant, overbearing--"
"You weren't there when I first met her, Kelsey." Jenny chuckled in memory. "This arrogant butch walked into my cubicle and proceeded to tell me that I'd set up my equipment the wrong way which is why I was having problems. Then she tried to talk programming, figuring I was just a newbie that didn't know anything yet."
"And? What did you do?" Sarah was grinning, even though she'd heard the story before.
"I told her that I hadn't set up the equipment, one of her fellow techs had, and then I gave her a half hour lecture on programming and which language was best to work in." She grinned. "Jay always told me she fell in love with me right then and there, and now if I talk about C++, she still gets wet."
We all laughed at that, even Taylor, who managed a chuckle.
"He's just -- he's not a bad guy." She shrugged. "And he loves Amy. That I don't doubt in the least."
Sarah nodded, giving a sigh over her crossed arms. "I'll try not to worry, then. But it's hard. I just don't get what she sees in him."
"I don't get what you see in Ross, Sis." I leaned over a little and threw an arm around her. "But he's a good friend, and you love him so I forgive your eccentricity."
"Oh, thanks, Kelsey, how magnanimous of you."
"It is, isn't it?" I gave her a full hug and we laughed for a moment.
Jenny leaned back on her hands. "Hey, Sarah? How come you didn't tell anyone that you were pregnant?"
We all went silent, waiting for an answer. Taylor probably already knew, but she wasn't saying any more.
Finally, she pulled away from me and looked down at her boots, rocking back and forth just a little. "I wasn't sure I wanted to keep it."
"Why not?" Jenny's question was the better one; I had been so shocked I couldn't believe my ears.
Taylor said nothing.
My younger sister threw a stone off the cliff. "Look, I'm twenty-six. I did most of the work for my Master's degree when I was still an undergrad, and before I even had my Master's I was planning what my thesis was going to be on and how I'd do the research. I'm a year from a possible Ph.D. I'm respected in my field, I have a great job. I've been working so hard toward this goal for so long -- and I'm supposed to just stop so I can have this child that I'll be responsible for for the next eighteen years? Why?"
"Because having a child is important, Sarah."
"Fine. You have it."
It was a low blow, especially after the secret Taylor had just parted with. Jenny drew in a shocked breath, and I saw Taylor wince. After a moment, Sarah's brain jumpstarted and she dropped her head.
"I'm sorry, Jen. That was awful of me."
Jenny bit her lip and wiped her eyes. "No problem." But her voice cracked. Upon hearing it, Sarah stood and moved over beside her, sitting back down and wrapping her arms around her friend.
For a moment I felt like I was psychic and all I could feel around me was the pain of my friends here on the cliff. Blindly I reached out for the one person that always anchored me, and that I had helped to anchor for so long. She caught my hand and held it tightly.
The four of us sat like that until the sun was about to set. Then we climbed down the hillside in silence, helping each other like we always did. On the face of it, it was a normal end to one of our hikes. But there was so much more going on under the surface, and I wondered if the weight of our own secrets would drag us down.
On the walk back to camp, Jenny led the way with Sarah beside her. After a few minutes they began talking in hushed voices, and Taylor and I back off a little further to give them a bit more privacy. I think we were all still reeling from the revelations on the cliff side, Taylor as much as any of us. She seemed distracted, missing her footing every now and then to trip over a rock or tree root.
"Are you sure you're okay?" I asked after the third stumble.
"Yeah." She took a breath. "Hey, have you seen that new Pixar movie yet?"
"About the robot? No. Why?"
"Would you like to? Maybe . . . next Friday? With me?"
I stopped and stared. Was she asking me out on a date?
"Are you --"
"I just thought, since I haven't seen it, and you haven't, and I know you love Disney movies, maybe we could . . . go see it together. That kind of thing." She looked away but her face was red from more than the sun.
"Okay." I nodded, shifting the back pack I was carrying. "I'd like that."
"So, next Friday?"
"Want me to pick you up?"
"Sure. How about at six, so we can get a quick dinner? The movie's at 7:20."
She already knew the movie schedule? "Great. Sounds perfect."
"All right." Inside, I was jumping over the fallen logs in our path. I had a date with Taylor, even if it was just a movie like we'd done a hundred times before.
At that point I didn't think there was a secret in the world that could pull me back to earth.
We got back to camp to find Ross and Amy at the fire, both of them staring at the flames. Ross was occasionally watching over the chicken, turning them or adding barbecue sauce to them.
Sarah immediately went to him. "Where's your barbecue buddy?"
He sighed and pointed down toward the vehicles. "She's off with Roger -- and his cooler of beer."
This did not bode well. Jenny crossed her arms. "Are they both drunk?"
It was Amy's turn to sigh. "Roger's pretty much gone, yeah. At last count, Jay had only had four beers, but that was before they left, about half an hour ago." She looked up at Jenny, her eyes filled with remorse. "I'm sorry, Jenny."
"Not your fault, Amy." She headed to her tent and dropped her backpack before turning toward the vehicle area.
"Where are you going?"
"To get my goddamned partner." I'd only heard Jenny this angry once before. This did not bode well for Jay.
I remembered the one and only time Jay got really drunk. It had been at a party at somebody's house, and she'd spent half the evening playing pool and downing shots. The other half had been spent in the dog house after she got into a fight with someone. She'd been so angry at this guy flirting with Jenny that she'd decked him, then slapped Jenny when she tried to explain. Jenny had spent that night and the next at Taylor's, and Jay agreed to get help for her temper and never drink like that again.
That had been two years ago, and she hadn't had more than two drinks or a few beers since then. Jenny said her temper was nearly non-existent.
All we could do was hope that was still the case.
As she stalked off, Taylor looked worriedly at Ross. "Don't you think you should go after her?"
"Why should I?" He and Sarah had been there the night Jay got so drunk, but had left before the fight erupted.
"I'd just -- feel better if someone went with her." Taylor didn't want to tell another secret. I wasn't sure if I should do so or not.
Sarah saw the worried look on Taylor's face and nodded. "Ross, just go check on them, please? I'll watch the chicken."
With a sigh and a kiss, Ross stood to follow his wife's direction. Before he could actually leave the camp, however, we heard the group of them coming back. Roger's voice gave it away long before we saw them as he talked about his heyday as a college athlete.
"Man, I was a chick magnet back then, Jay."
"I'll bet you were." Jay was walking with her arm around Jenny, but didn't seem to be laboring too much. Instead of a beer, she carried a water bottle.
"So, you like the Hummer?" Roger, on the other hand, was listing badly to the right. He had to make frequent course corrections, often letting the trees on the side of the trail help him to stay upright.
"Sure, but I don't think you need it in the city."
"But it sure is fun to drive! Hey, baby." Amy had gone over in time to keep him from falling. She started guiding him towards their tent. "We goin' for a little whoo-woo?"
Sarah looked at me and tried not to giggle. I pulled my lips into my mouth to keep myself from saying anything.
"Whoo-woo?" Jay actually said it with a laugh in her voice, but Roger was too far gone to notice as he obediently let Amy steer him.
"I'll try to sober him up a bit. Sorry, gang." She disappeared into the tent with him, where he continued to ask in a loud voice if they were going to -- well, you know. Finally Amy shushed him somehow and not much later he was snoring.
Jay sat down and laughed. "The man's a total nut job. Thinks Amy likes him cause he's got a big dick. Actually asked me how big mine was."
"What?" Even Taylor was shocked at that.
"He didn't!" Jenny put a hand over her eyes, then moved it down to her mouth.
Sarah grinned. "What did you tell him?"
Jay kissed Jen, then chuckled. "You think I'm stupid enough to answer a question like that? I asked him about the Hummer. He was happy and chattered on about it for thirty minutes. Completely forgot what he'd been asking me."
We all laughed with her. She looked over at Ross. "Sorry I left you alone, buddy, but I figured you'd get more done without him around, so . . ." She shrugged.
"No problem. I was more worried about you punching the daylights out of him."
"I thought about it, but Jenny would have been upset with me." She kissed her shorter partner again. "I promised you I wouldn't get drunk, babe."
"I know." Jenny snuggled against her partner, a proud look on her face as she glanced at Taylor and me.
"How long till dinner? I'm gettin' hungry."
"About half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, Jay."
"Sounds good." She shifted her attention to her partner. "Wanna go for a little whoo-woo?"
Jen rolled her eyes and smacked Jay's backside. "No, and you won't be getting any nookie either."
"Shut up, Kelsey."
Roger was still passed out in his tent when dinner was ready. Amy came out to join us, apologizing once again. Full dark had set in, and we were all enjoying the good food and the good company.
"One of these days I'm gonna get this recipe from the two of you." Taylor always said that. She grinned, a streak of barbecue sauce down her cheek. "I think it's even better this year."
"Never gonna get it from us, Taylor." Jay wiped a hand across her mouth. "It's our little camping secret."
Ross snorted as he ate his corn. Finishing, he tossed the cob into the compost bucket and leaned back. "Right. You'll never get it from us, Taylor. Because there IS no secret recipe."
We all looked up in surprise.
"Like Jay and I know what we put in that pot every year. Haven't you women noticed it's never the same two years in a row?"
"It's a year between the times we have it, Ross, and we're supposed to notice subtle differences in the sauce?" Sarah was leaning back, having opened the button of her jeans so she could breath easier after the large meal.
"Oh, come on, guys, there's gotta be some basic ingredients that don't change." Amy stuck a finger in the sauce. "I can taste garlic and black pepper. Anybody else want a guess?"
"Oh, sure, name the two most obvious ingredients." I licked a fingerful of sauce myself. "Vinegar, definitely. And chili powder."
"The chili powder was the obvious one, Kels." It was Taylor's turn to stick a finger in for a taste. She squinted into the fire. "Well, there's tomato. That's another easy one. And brown sugar."
Jay was nodding, a big smile on her face. "Okay, all right so far. But you'll never get the secret ingredient. The very last thing added before we put it on the fire to simmer."
Sarah snuggled up against Ross. "Wanna tell me what that is, sweetheart?"
"And why would I do that?"
"Because if you don't you'll be very cold tonight."
Ross gave her a sad look. "Well, then, I'll have to be cold, because to be honest, I don't know."
He shrugged. "'Tis true. Jay adds the final ingredient every year, and she won't tell me what it is."
All eyes went to our tall butch, keeper of the secret of the sauce.
"What? I ain't telling."
Sarah giggled, and we all looked at her. "We could always threaten her like I did Ross the other day."
I laughed, remembering Taylor's slow advance on the man, and his sudden capitulation.
Taylor shook her head. "Uh, no." She dipped her finger back into the sauce on her plate, smelling it before she tasted it. "Besides, I think I figured it out."
"What?" I don't know which of us said it first, but it was like a chorus going through our ranks.
"Liquor. I always wondered why you buy a bottle of Jack Daniels right before the trip, but I never see you drink it up here."
Jay faked a grimace, then smiled. "Dammit."
"Aha!" Jenny kissed her cheek. "That's where that bottle always goes! And here I thought you were just sneaking off in the middle of the night for some drinking time."
The smile faded from Jay's face. "You really think I'm out drinking alone up here?"
In contrast, Jen's smile got larger, but seemed softer at the same time. She leaned closer to her partner. "No." Then she kissed Jay on the mouth, not letting up until several of us were making cat calls in their direction.
"Hey, anything left of dinner?"
Roger joined us, and unbelievably, he was still slightly drunk. I marveled that the man could have enough beer in his system to still be intoxicated ninety minutes after his last drink.
"Where'd the beer go?"
"Away. You've had enough, Roger." Amy handed him a bottle of water.
"Aw, come on. Jay'll have another beer with me. Won't you, buddy?"
"Nah, I'm done for the night, Rog. My girl doesn't like me going to bed with beer on my breath."
Roger laughed. "Never figured you for being whipped, Jay."
"I'm not. Just respect my girl, that's all."
As they went back and forth on the subject, I noticed Taylor staring off towards the hillside where the house had stood. She seemed suddenly antsy as her hands were clenching and unclenching, her knee bouncing as she slowly straightened up in her chair.
I leaned over. "You okay?"
"Yeah. There's someone there."
Catching Jenny's eye I mimed holding a camera to my eye. She nodded that she understood and got up to go turn it on. Jay had set it up earlier in the evening.
Everyone else was involved in the argument suddenly going on between Roger and Jay. The camaraderie they'd showed each other that afternoon seemed to suddenly be in short supply.
Taylor quickly got up, and I followed her to Jenny's side.
"How close a shot can you get?"
Jenny looked surprised. "Um, about the same as the other night. Why?"
"Can we get it any closer?" She looked nervously at the house. "There's -- something . . . happening."
"At the house?"
Jenny looked around nervously, noting Jay and Roger becoming louder in their argument. Roger had gone from teasing her about being whipped to asking about something guys seemed to always brag about with each other: sex. Only Jay didn't want to brag, or even talk and the intimate questions, laced with sarcasm, were beginning to anger her.
I could see the wheels turning in Jenny's head as to whether or not she should be by Jay's side, but she looked at Taylor and bit her lip. "I -- I suppose we could move it a little bit away from camp."
"Will it take long?"
"No, we just need to make sure it's a flat spot with a good view." Jen took a good look at Taylor. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just . . . move the damn thing, okay?"
I helped them to move the camera, resetting it about fifteen feet further up the path, beyond the light of the campfire. This was the last spot where you still had a clear shot of the house before the trees began to block the view. It wasn't much closer, but a little, and it actually had a better shot of the door and the front room, where only half of the wall was left.
We'd just turned it back on and Jenny was checking the focus when we heard Ross yell at Jay to stop. Turning, we saw Roger's fist connect with Jay's face before she took her own swing at him, putting him on the the ground. Amy screamed as he fell, then knelt next to the prone Roger, her arms spread over him in a protective stance.
Ross seemed hesitant to touch Jay as she taunted Roger to get back up. Sarah was standing off to the side, one hand over her mouth.
"Oh, my God." Jenny and I ran back toward them. She immediately grabbed Jay's arm just as the taller woman was reaching down for Roger's shirt. To everyone's surprise, Jay pushed her away, and she fell against me with a yelp.
For a moment we all froze. Then Jay was apologizing to Jenny, pleading with her for forgiveness. Jenny just glared at her and brushed her off, her anger showing on her face.
"Jenny, I'm so sorry, please, I --."
"Save it." Reaching around her partner, Jenny helped Amy get Roger to his feet. Other than looking dazed and having a split lip, there didn't seem to be any other damage. "Come on, Amy, I'll help you get one of the children to bed." She looked at Jay. "Then I'll deal with the other one."
Jay cringed, knowing she was in trouble.
Ross stepped up to help Jenny and Amy get Roger to his tent. Still dazed, the half drunk man muttered something about Jay's parentage, but Jay had her head down, staring at the dirt as she kicked it. Spotting one of Roger's empty beer cans, she picked it up and threw it as hard as she could. Then she dropped to the ground close to her own tent.
"Maybe we should all just get some sleep, huh?" Sarah's voice was soft and low as she tried to be soothing.
I nodded, but didn't say anything. Jenny let Amy and Ross take over the now dozing Roger and ducking into her tent. She returned after a moment with a first aid kit, stalking over to Jay, who just sat on the ground.
Thinking I'd take my sister's suggestion, I looked for my tent mate. She wasn't where I'd left her. "Where's Taylor?"
Sarah gazed around the camp site. "I thought she was behind me."
I spent a few moments calling her name, then checked the area by the camera before going back to the fire. "She's gone to the house. We have to find her."
My sister looked puzzled. "Wait, she's never gone up to the house, Kels."
"She did tonight. I know she did."
Ross had just gotten back from Amy and Roger's tent. "What's all the fussing about now?"
"Taylor's missing. Where are the big flashlights?"
"In my gear. Calm down, Kelsey, don't you think it's possible she just got fed up with those two," he motioned towards Jay, obviously including Roger, "and decided to take a walk?"
"No. Something's up, Ross. Please, get the flashlights? I have to find her."
Jenny was wiping the blood from Jay's split lip. "I think Kelsey's right. Taylor was staring up at the house, and she didn't look happy."
"I'll help find -- ow!" Jay yelped as Jenny put some peroxide on a cotton ball and ran it roughly over the cut.
"You've done enough. Just sit still till I'm finished."
"Can I help?" Amy must have heard me calling, because she was holding her flashlight.
"Where's your boyfri-- ouch!" The sneer on Jay's face lost some of it's power as Jenny wiped her lip with more peroxide.
"Not helping, Jay." She said softly, with more than a hint of anger.
Ross emerged from his tent with two large flashlights and a couple of small ones. He handed the one of the large ones to Sarah, and kept one for himself.
"Kelsey, are you sure --"
We all jumped, shocked by the sound of a gunshot in the night.
Two more made us flinch, and then a loud scream was heard.
"Was that -?"
"Sounded like a wom--"
But I couldn't wait. Something told me Taylor was in trouble, and I ran for the house as quickly as I could. The small flashlight I'd gotten from Ross didn't give as much light as I needed, and I was constantly tripping over tree roots and rocks. The path wasn't easy, even when lit, and now in the dark it was dangerous and spooky. I went down at least twice, and by the time I got to the ruined building I was bleeding from a scraped knee and a cut on my cheek where a tree branch whipped against my face.
"Taylor?" There was no answer, and as the others made their way up the trail behind me, I climbed over the stones, swinging my feet over what was left of the wall, and landing on the old wooden floorboards with a slight thump. Another call went unanswered, and I began sweeping the beam of my flashlight from side to side, all around the room. All I found was debris and dirt, with sprouts of vegetation that was coming up through the floor. No sign of Taylor, not even footprints in the dirt.
But I knew she was here somewhere.
The kitchen was a mess, but with no signs that anyone had been there. I backed out of there and headed towards the front, looking into the bedrooms as I did.
I found her in the living room, in front of the burned out remains of the couch.
"Guys, she's here, I found her!"
I dropped to my knees next to her, taking in her pale features and closed eyes. She was lying on her side, her back against the sofa, one arm stretched over her head. I played the beam over the length of her body, looking for any injuries, but didn't find any. Obviously she'd been more careful on the trail than I had.
It was just as Sarah came into the room that I noticed she wasn't breathing.
"Taylor? Taylor, come on, wake up!" I tapped her on the cheek, then pulled her away from the couch and pushed her onto her back. "Dammit, Taylor, don't do this!" I tilted her head back to start mouth-to-mouth, and she coughed, then started to choke. Sarah helped me roll her back onto her side, and she retched for a moment, spitting up what looked, in the muted glare of the flashlight, like a clot of blood. When she finished, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her back to my chest, crying with relief and the after-effects of my harried trip through the woods.
"Taylor?" Sarah's voice was soft, and she tipped Taylor's chin up to try and look at her face.
Taylor coughed and poked at my hand. "Kels, ease up, please? My chest hurts."
I did so, pulling her gently backwards to rest in my arms. "You scared me. Are you okay?"
"Hurts to breathe, but I think I'm okay. Just give me a minute." She blinked in the light of Ross's flashlight. "What happened?"
"We'd like to ask you the same thing." Sarah ran a hand over her forehead, obviously in relief. "Why did you scream?"
"I didn't. I just -- I -- she trailed off, looking around the room. "He was here."
"Who was here?" I let Sarah lead the questions. "Taylor, what did you see?"
"I -- He --" She coughed again. "My chest hurts."
"Wanna go back to the tent?" I asked softly.
Taylor nodded. Sarah didn't look happy, but she agreed, realizing her answers would have to wait.
"Can you stand?" Another nod, but Taylor made only a feeble attempt to get up before clutching at her chest again.
"Taylor, want me to carry you?" It was Jay. She and Jenny had obviously followed Ross and Sarah into the room.
With effort, Taylor shook her head. "Ross?"
Jay looked disappointed, but Jenny patted her arm and she glanced over with a small nod. "I'll go make sure the way is clear."
I took Ross's flashlight as he moved closer and slid his arms under Taylor's legs and back. Standing slowly, with Sarah steadying him, he shifted once to get settle the load in his arms, then headed for the door, with me on his heels. To get over the wall, he passed her first to Jay, then climbed over himself and took Taylor back into his arms. Jenny wrapped an arm around Sarah, while Jay took the lead, sweeping the foreground for any rocks or dangerous tree roots. I stayed right behind Ross, with Amy a silent presence beside me.
It took us a while to get back to camp. Ross's face was showing the strain of carrying Taylor, even though she's a fairly small person. Jay started to build up the fire a bit, while Jenny started some tea. Amy simply sat at the fireside, her head in her hands. Sarah joined her, rubbing her back.
I held the tent flap open while Ross bent to get inside and gently dropped Taylor on top of her sleeping bag. She opened her eyes long enough to smile and say thanks, and then they were closed again.
As he left, Ross put his hand on my shoulder. "If you two need anything, let us know." He glanced back. "Sarah's going to wanna know what happened. I'll try to get her to leave you both alone for tonight."
I nodded. "Thanks, Ross. Tell everyone else I said thanks to them as well, okay?"
"Will do." He squeezed my shoulder and left.
By that time Taylor had crawled into her sleeping bag and was turned on her side.
"Taylor? You okay?"
She nodded. "Chest hurts."
"What happened to your chest?"
She shrugged, one hand rubbing in a circular motion right between her breasts. "I -- I thought it was just a dream."
"What was a dream?"
"What?" I was on the edge of panic, remembering the three loud bangs we'd heard. "Shot where?"
"It was a dream, Kels."
"Then why is your chest hurting?" I sat next to her, resting my hand on her arm. "Taylor, let me see? You're scaring me."
"It was just a dream, Kelsey, really. I'm not bleeding."
"I know that, but you weren't breathing for a little while either. Please, maybe you fell against something and you bruised yourself? Just roll over and let me see where it hurts."
With a sigh, she gingerly rolled over and let me unbutton her top shirt. When that was done I separated the sides and carefully lifted her t-shirt over her breasts to the place she indicated was hurting.
I gasped softly and dug my nails into my thigh to keep from passing out.
Just to the left of her sternum, above the valley of her breasts, was a dark circular mark, surrounded by an already purpling bruise. A tiny trail of dried blood ran down her stomach towards her navel.
"What the hell happened, Taylor?"
She looked down at herself, surprise showing in her eyes. After a moment, she pulled the shirt down and rolled back onto her side, grabbing my hand in the process.
"Would you please just hold me tonight?"
I could do no less than she asked, and I wrapped my arms around her tightly, whispering softly in her ear that I'd protect her.
She smiled, just before falling asleep, and muttered that there was nothing left to protect her from. He was gone.
I had tons of questions and few answers, but she was safe and in my arms, and it was the best night of sleep I'd had since we got there.
The next morning I awoke well before Taylor. She was still curled up next to me, one arm wrapped around mine, holding me in position. I was careful not to wake her as I quietly extracted myself.
I sat for a moment and just watched her. I didn't get to do this very often, and she was seldom as still as this. Her hair had taken on a lighter color due to all the time spent in the sun, and her skin was darker. She had just a few freckles but they had come out in full strength, making her look younger. Her face was relaxed in sleep, without the tension I'd seen in her last night, and I felt the strongest pull to kiss her. Finally giving in, I kissed her forehead gently then watched as a smile briefly crossed her face.
Feeling the need to stretch and figuring no one else would be up that early, I carefully unzipped the flap of the tent and climbed out. The sun had maybe been up for an hour, but after the night we'd all had, I didn't think I'd see anybody else around. I was wrong. Jay was up, sitting by the fire and waiting for a pot of water to boil. I saw the instant coffee, the sugar, and a cup sitting next to her.
Before I could do anything there was movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and was surprised to see that Amy and Roger's tent was gone, and so was most of their stuff. The movement I had seen was Roger, hands in the pockets of his jeans, quietly walking toward Jay with his head down. I tensed slightly as he approached, but didn't say anything.
They stood there and looked at each other without saying anything for a moment. Then Roger threw a thumb over his shoulder. "Amy and I thought it would be best if we took off." He shrugged. "I guess I've caused enough problems around here this weekend."
Jay nodded but didn't say anything. I almost ducked back into the tent, but worried that any movement from me would distract them and bring attention, so I stood there, trying to disappear.
"You want some coffee before you go?" Jay never ceased to amaze me.
"Nah, Amy said there's a place in town to stop and get some." She nodded at him, and poured her own cup. "Jay, I --" He stopped and took a breath. "I guess I'm sorry doesn't really cut it, does it."
"Nope." She took a tiny sip, wincing at the heat. "But it's a start."
"Well, I am sorry. I was drunk, and outta my head and . . . " He sighed, then gave a sad chuckle. "I gotta admit, I don't get it."
"Don't get what?"
"You. Jenny. Any of it." Roger shrugged, his head dropping. "And when I don't get things, I just -- well . . . "
"Roger, you don't have to get it." She sipped again, then squinted up at him, the morning sun in her eyes. "All you have to do is accept it."
He nodded. "I'll try."
"You do that."
I wouldn't say they parted as friends, but there were no punches thrown, and it felt like progress to me. I had to agree with Taylor that Roger wasn't a bad guy. But I doubted we'd all be hanging together much for a while.
After he left, Jay glanced my way and waved the water pot in my direction. "Want some?"
"Sure." I hated instant coffee, but you know the saying about beggars. I headed for the campfire and sat down next to Jay.
"Were you hiding out over there for a reason?" She asked as she handed me a mug.
"I, uh, didn't want to interrupt. Then I didn't want to move cause I was embarrassed." I still was.
"Don't worry about it."
We sat for a few minutes, each drinking our coffee. For instant, it wasn't bad. Of course, Jay had dumped a ton of sugar in it.
I frowned. "Still sleeping."
"Was she okay last night?"
"I don't know." I remembered the mark on her chest and wondered what to make of it.
"Did she tell you what happened? Did she fall or something?"
I shook my head and took another sip. "She didn't tell me."
After another moment of silence, Jay turned to me. "Those sounded like gunshots, Kels."
I nodded. "Yeah. They did."
"But there was no one else around."
"Nope. There wasn't."
"And you're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
After another sip, I sighed. "Can't tell you what I don't know, Jay." She nodded and we were both quiet until I decided to go on the offensive. "Jenny still mad at you?"
Jay gave a soft chuckle. "I guess you could say I'm in the doghouse, yeah."
"Think she'll forgive you?"
"I sure as hell hope so."
"Me, too." I tossed the rest of my coffee into the fire and got up. "I think I might go for a walk. Need to clear some cobwebs."
"Okay. I'll let Taylor know where you went if she wakes up."
"Thanks." I started to walk away and she called my name. I turned.
"You going to the house?"
I shrugged, not wanting to admit I might end up there.
The path to the house, as overgrown as it was, could be easily found in the sunlight. I followed it slowly, marking the signs of our passing last night in broken branches and trampled plants. I didn't remember much of the headlong run I'd made, but my knee was still sore and the cut on my face was still tender. Those would be enough to remind me for a while.
Instead of making my way to the back, where I had climbed over the wall, I stopped at the edge of the trees, facing the front of the house. There wasn't anything there for me to see that was different than any other day. If I took another ten steps or so I could turn around and see our camp. Now, though, I was content to lean against a tree and contemplate what I was seeing.
It was just a ruined house. In the daytime there was nothing freaky or scary about it. The walls were crumbling, and you could see where plants had begun to sneak up even between the stones in the walls, but there was nothing sinister, nothing . . . ghostly. It was simply a house sitting in the morning sunshine.
After a while it became clear that whatever answers I was searching for weren't here. I headed back down to camp, wondering what I was looking for in the first place. Hopefully Taylor would be more willing to talk to me this morning.
Hopefully I wouldn't run into Sarah until Taylor was ready to open up.
When I arrived back at camp, it was like walking into a frozen stage. Ross and Sarah were sitting together, with Sarah staring out at the forest and Ross rubbing her back. Jay was sitting close to Jenny, watching her, looking fearful and protective at the same time. Jenny was staring at the screen of her laptop computer, frowning and biting at a fingernail.
The only one missing was Taylor.
"What's going on? Did Roger and Amy make off with the fishing gear?" I was trying to inject a little levity in the situation, but it didn't work.
Sarah glanced at me, but then looked back at the forest. "What did Taylor tell you about last night, Kelsey?"
"She hasn't said anything yet."
"You didn't ask her?" She managed to sound incredulous, afraid, and angry, all at the same time.
"I did, but she wasn't ready to talk about it. I was going to ask her this morning, after breakfast." I glanced up at the sky. "Speaking of which, it's our turn to cook, so I should make her get up."
Ross was still looking at his wife. He shook his head. "It's just not possible."
"What? What's not possible?"
Jay motioned for me to come closer, and when I did, she grabbed my arm and pulled me around to Jenny's side of the computer. "Play it for her."
Jenny, who still hadn't looked up from the computer, hit a couple of buttons on the keyboard and suddenly the screen was filled with a picture of the house, sitting serenely in the moonlight.
"Oh, the footage from last night? Is Taylor in it?"
Jay got up from her chair and pulled me into it. "Just watch."
The picture shifted slightly, to a closer view of the building. That must have been when we moved the camera after Taylor's request. The outline of the house was clearer, and the front door was no longer in shadow, though I don't know if that was from the position of the camera or the moon. Details were still blurry, but generally it was a good picture.
Suddenly the image seemed to shift and then settle again, and I guessed that either Jenny or myself had bumped the tripod when we turned and ran back to camp.
Then Taylor appeared on the screen. She seemed transfixed by the house, but looked back toward the campfire before taking a few hesitant steps in the opposite direction. After a moment, and one final backward glance, she shoved her hands in the pocket of her white vest and began climbing up the hillside. Her image was soon swallowed by the forest.
"So it shows Taylor heading up the house. We already knew she'd gone there."
"Just keep watching." Jenny's voice was soft, and she was working on another fingernail.
A few minutes later, Taylor could be seen stepping out of the trees in front of the house. I waited for her to head for the side of the building, where it was easy to climb over the broken wall. Instead, she stood at the end of the old front walkway, looking at the heavy wooden door. I knew from experience that the door was blocked. There was no way to get through it. But to my surprise, Taylor began moving toward the door.
I noticed a strange thing happening. The whole area on the tape began to brighten, as if it was the sun was starting to rise. At the same time, Taylor's image started to become . . . almost see through. As if someone had faded it in a graphics program or something.
As she approached the front door, she raised her hand to knock, but to my shock the door began to open -- and then Taylor disappeared.
The scene went back to how it had been just moments earlier, before Taylor had stepped out of the trees.
"What the hell?" I looked up to find Sarah staring at me, her arms folded. Jay was standing off to the side of Jenny, who was now looking down at her hands, her nails all bitten to the quick. "Who fucked with the tape?"
"No one, Kelsey. Just fucking watch." Jay didn't sound angry, just very serious.
I turned my attention back to the screen and waited, a sinking feeling in my stomach.
At first there was nothing, then things began to get brighter again. I saw the same faded image of Taylor inside the house, in the living room, standing in the hallway opposite the front door, off to the side of the couch. Suddenly there was a flash of light, and Taylor jumped forward toward the couch. Then a second flash, and a third just a moment later. Each flash came from the same place as they had on the tape from two nights ago.
Seconds later the tape went darker again, as the brightness disappeared again. Taylor was left standing in the middle of the room by the couch, and as I watched, she slowly became a solid figure again and crumpled to the floor.
And a few moments later there came my own image as I blundered past, running into the trees on my headlong flight up the hill to the house.
Jenny reached out and turned it off. "The rest is just us bringing Taylor back to camp."
I just stared at the screen, realizing I was doing a decent impression of Jenny just moments ago.
"It's not real." I shook my head. "It's not real. Someone fucked with the footage."
Jay snorted. "And which of us are you accusing, Kels, me or Jenny?"
Whirling toward her, I glared. "You can't tell me that's real. You can't." I started pacing, throwing my hands up in the air. "People just don't -- disappear!"
Taylor's voice froze all of us. She was standing near our tent wiping sleep from her eyes.
We all stared for a moment, then one by one our gazes dropped to the ground.
She must have known something was up. "What's going on?"
"We could ask you the same thing." It had been a long time since I'd heard Sarah with that much anger in her voice.
"I --uh -- if you're talking about last night --"
"Like there's anything else we'd be talking about, Taylor." Sarah stood up, her arms folded. "Tell us what happened last night."
"No, no stuttering, no excuses, no stalling. Tell us what happened."
Ross approached his wife from behind, his hands landing lightly on her shoulders. "Easy, babe." He kissed the back of her head. "Whatever happens, she's still your friend."
For a moment I almost expected Sarah to argue with him. She didn't, though, and just looked away.
Jen sat up in her chair and motioned to Taylor. "Come and watch this, and then you can see why we're all a little . . . out of sorts this morning."
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Taylor took the seat I recently vacated. Jenny restarted the video. I didn't watch; seeing it once was enough for me.
"Sarah, want to help me make breakfast?" I thought some activity would be good for both of us, and besides, we still needed to eat.
Taylor watched the video in silence while Sarah and I threw eggs into a pan and scrambled them. There was toast to go with it, and ham slices grilled over the flames. None of it took long to cook.
As we worked, I heard Taylor ask to see the video again. She was frowning at the screen, but it was more of a glare of concentration than anything else.
Finally we were passing out plates, and Taylor took hers absently as Jenny began to shut down the computer. After three viewings, not even Taylor wanted to see it again.
Sarah had the patience to wait until after we'd all eaten. "Will you tell us what happened, Tay?"
Taylor took a deep breath and let it out. "Sarah, I don't think I'm ready to talk about it."
My sister's face reminded me of a summer storm moving in. I was just waiting for the thunder and lightning.
"Taylor, that's bull-"
"Sarah, please." Taylor held up a hand. "I know. You want answers. And I will tell you, I promise. But -- it just happened. Give me some time to process, please?"
And just like that the clouds began to move away.
"You promise you'll tell me? Soon?"
"I'll tell everyone, I promise." Taylor moved to Sarah's side and hugged her. "I'm sorry. I just can't yet."
Things lightened up a little after that. We all seemed to remember that this was Taylor, our Taylor. She'd been there for us through everything; saving Jen, helping Ross through his parent's divorce, calming Sarah on her wedding day. She rarely asked for anything, and if time was what she needed, we'd give it to her.
But I figured Sarah would last a day, maximum. When she and I were younger, our parents had kept from us every bad thing that had happened. We had been protected by not being told anything. With that behavior as our example, Taylor and I had done the same thing with Sarah, treating her like the younger sister who needed to be protected. It was the reason for our early morning talk the previous day, and I could hear her say again that she didn’t need me to protect her anymore. While neither of us withheld anything from her anymore, she was never certain that we were telling her everything. Her paranoia was our fault, and I knew she’d be asking Taylor questions again within a day. She wouldn’t be willing to wait long.
I didn't know if I could wait either. The slow disappearance of Taylor from the screen ran through my mind once in a while, and I had to blink hard to get the image out of my head. I'd be talking with my best friend -- soon.
Jenny and Jay decided to pack away the camera and computer. As Jenny said, she didn't feel like doing anything from work right now, and they no longer needed it to run the camera. They stowed it all away in their carry bags and lugged it to Ross's car.
When they got back, we all cleaned the campsite, gathering the last of Roger's beer cans, and clearing away the last trash from breakfast. Even though we were supposed to stay one more day, it felt like the weekend was over.
"Since Amy and Roger are gone, are we staying or going?" Ross asked the question I'd been wondering about.
Jay glanced at Jenny, then shrugged. "I'm okay with staying another day, but . . . I guess it's up to everybody else." Meaning that she'd do whatever her partner wanted.
Jenny gave her a measured look, and smiled at her for the first time that morning. "I say we play it by ear, see how everyone's feeling by this afternoon. We've got the food, good company, and the weather's been decent. If we feel like packing up later, that's fine, but for now . . . how about a hike to the lake, Jay?"
There was an immediate change in Jay's demeanor, and I sighed inwardly in relief. Jen's offer for a hike was a signal that she'd forgiven Jay, and we all knew it.
"That'd be great, babe. Should we take the poles?"
Jen laughed. "I think we'll let the fish be today. I just wanna take a walk."
Ross looked to Sarah. "Babe? Up to you."
She nodded. "Let's stay, at least for now. I'm tired, and we just ate, and I don't feel like doing anything much."
I grinned at my sister. "Yeah, and you need to take it --" I stopped suddenly, remembering that she hadn't told Ross anything. As far as I knew, she hadn't even decided whether or not to keep the child, and I didn't want to spoil anything with my big mouth.
Luckily, Ross smiled and slipped his arms around his wife. "It's okay, Kelsey. She told me last night."
Realizing it was safe to react, I did so the way I'd wanted to when we first heard. I whooped and got up to hug them both. "I'm gonna be an aunt!"
"I couldn't say it before, cause, well, you hadn't told anyone, and then things went crazy, but -- woohoo! I'm gonna spoil that kid rotten!"
Ross groaned while Sarah just laughed at me. Taylor tilted her head. "I thought the grandparents were supposed to spoil the children."
"There's no clause that says I can't."
"She's kidding." Ross was whining against Sarah's shoulder. "Please tell me she's kidding."
"I'm gonna teach her how to throw a baseball and catch a football, and --"
"What if it's a boy?" Jenny was teasing me, but I had an answer.
"If it's a boy, I'll teach him to cook." I stuck my tongue out at her. "Screw gender roles."
Jenny and Jay headed out for their walk shortly after that. The rest of us sat around the fire for a while longer, talking about everything we could think of. We talked about baby names, whose house we were doing Christmas at, our jobs, and whether we thought the Colorado Rockies had another World Series run in them.
"They got slaughtered so bad I'm not sure I want them to go back for a while." Ross had always been Mister-Doom-and-Gloom on the subject.
"I still say they'll win the series before the Nuggets win a championship." Nobody argued with Taylor on this. It was a foregone conclusion that the Nuggets sucked, would always suck, and we were all just hoping the WNBA would eventually put a team in Denver.
The Broncos were universally ignored. They'd had maybe two good seasons since Elway retired.
Out of nowhere came the sound of a phone ringing. Sarah, my incredibly intelligent little sister, still had an actual ring for her cell-phone ring tone.
She waved it off. "It's either a problem at work, or mom wanting to know if we're coming to dinner on Wednesday like we always do."
I frowned. "Why would work call you on a holiday weekend?"
"And your mom knows you and Kelsey are camping." Ross pointed this out with a frown.
The phone stopped. "Well, whoever it is, if it's important, they'll call back." Moments later, they did.
"Sarah." Taylor's eyes were unfocused and she had a slight frown on her face. "I think you need to take this call."
After the uncanny events of the previous night, no one was arguing. Sarah practically leaped for the tent flap and moments later we could hear her muffled hello as the ringing stopped.
I only understood a few exclamations and answers, but I knew it was my mom calling. Remembering that I'd shut my phone off and left it in the truck, I bit my lip, wondering what was up. Ross was right, she knew we were camping.
Sarah soon returned, holding her phone in her hand. Her eyes were red, but not really wet, which meant she was upset but not enough to be crying.
"That was Mom."
"I know. What's wrong?"
"It's Auntie Liz. The nursing home called. She had a severe heart attack last night, and a slight stroke this morning."
I was already on my feet. "What did the doctors say?"
"She's hanging on, but they don't expect her to last more than another few days or so."
My shoulders drooped and my head went down. Auntie Liz had supported me in everything. When I came out to her, she smiled and told me she was proud of me. If it hadn't been for her support when I was sixteen, I'd probably be a much more screwed-up person.
Taylor's hand was rubbing my back. I smiled at her in thanks, then stepped forward to hug Sarah. She started sniffling a little, and I tightened my hold.
"Is Mom driving down there?"
"She can't until later; there's no one to sit with Dad."
"Someone should be there."
Sarah nodded then shrugged. "I guess . . . that means we'll have to pack up anyway."
"Not necessarily." Taylor bit her lip. "Look, it's only an hour to Evergreen, if that, more like forty minutes. Someone has to wait for Jay and Jenny to get back so they'll know what's going on. Why don't we do this? You and Ross stay here; relax. Go the lake and go skinny dipping or something." Sarah giggled, even as a tear rolled down her face. "Kelsey and I will go to the nursing home and find out what's up. Then, if it's as serious as your mom seems to think, we'll call you. If it is, you're still just an hour away. If it's not, me and Kels will come back, we'll all spend another night, and you can drive to Evergreen in the morning." She looked back and forth between us. "Does that sound okay?"
I nodded. "She's right about someone having to wait for Jay and Jen."
Sarah looked at the ground. "You were always closer to Auntie Liz, so I guess it makes sense."
"Sarah, if you'd rather go with, I'll stay and help Ross get things ready." Taylor shrugged. "I just know you don't like hospitals."
"Which I always find hilarious since --"
"For the last time, I don't work with patients, Kels. I do paperwork and look at slides all day."
"You wear a white lab coat and you work in a medical field yet you hate hospitals."
"Watch it, Kels, or I'll put a white coat on you -- backwards."
The threat of the straitjacket notwithstanding, the goal of making Sarah smile was accomplished.
Thirty minutes later Taylor and I were headed down to Ross’s Jeep. He’d had insisted we take it so they could start packing the supplies in the bed of my truck. The Jeep was an older model with one front bench instead of two bucket seats. It took me a few minutes to get used to the brakes, but it had newer shocks than my old truck, so the way out to the highway was a little smoother than the way in.
I headed east on I-70, towards Denver, and we pulled in at a truck stop on the interstate for showers before heading south on Highway 65.
The radio was playing softly, and I thought Taylor was asleep when the sound of her voice surprised me.
"They're afraid of me now, aren't they?"
It didn't sound like a question, and I glanced at her. "Who's afraid of you?"
"Ross, Sarah, Jay . . . Jenny." She paused, her breath hitching slightly. "You."
"No, we're not afraid of you." I bit my lip, wondering how to express how I was feeling about the situation. "I can't tell you exactly how the others feel, but no one's afraid of you, Taylor."
"And how do you feel, Kelsey?"
"I . . . I suppose you could say I'm a little in shock. I mean, we all knew you were psychic, you'd proved it, but -- " I hesitated. "This went a little bit beyond, and I don't know what to think about what happened. But I do know this." Chancing another, longer glance at her, I reached over and touched her knee, trying to let her feel what I was saying. "You're still my best friend. That will never change."
She smiled and folded her hand around mine until I needed it for driving again.
As I made the turn onto our last stretch of highway, I glanced at Taylor to find her turned in her seat and watching me, a curious expression on her face.
"No, don't start that. What, Taylor?"
"I was just wondering about something."
"Wondering about what?"
She bit her lip, and looked away for a minute before answering. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"That you're in love with me."
"Wha--" My tongue seemed to freeze for a moment. My instinct was to deny the accusation, but I couldn't, because it was true.
"I said pull over. Do it now!"
Worried, I pulled to the side of the road and turned to face her. To my utter shock, she scooted over into the middle part of the seat and kissed me.
It wasn't a light kiss, either, and it didn't stop at one. Each time our lips met, they opened a little wider until I felt her tongue swipe across the inside of my bottom lip. When she finally backed away I was breathing deeply and fighting to keep my hands to myself.
"Now that that's out of the way . . . Kelsey, why didn't you tell me?"
I looked down to where my hand was lying at the bottom of the steering wheel. "I don't know. I guess . . . I was afraid."
With a sigh, I rolled my eyes. "No, Taylor. I'm not now, nor have I ever been, afraid of you. Stop that, okay?"
"I was afraid of losing our friendship. I mean, neither of us have good track records as far as relationships go."
She laughed. "That's an understatement. We've had what, six girlfriends between us?"
"Yeah, and no relationship has gone longer than a year." I laughed. "Remember Rebecca?"
"The pothead, in college? Hell, yes. She got you so stoned you thought YOU were psychic."
The two of us laughed for a couple of minutes before she came back to the topic.
I swallowed. "Two years. At least that's when I really realized it."
Her voice went soft, as if she was thinking out loud. "Two years . . . right after the swimming accident."
I nodded. We'd gone swimming in the lake two years ago and I went exploring a little deeper than I should have. Got my foot caught on an old fishing line, and almost drowned. Ross found me, but I was waterlogged and spent the night in Taylor's arms.
"Yeah, after that. And no, it wasn't hero worship because you resuscitated me. I thought about that, but when it didn't go away . . . I figured . . ."
"And that's when you stopped hugging me."
"Uh, yeah." I didn't feel very good about that. "I . . . didn't want you to pick up on what I was feeling."
"Right." She nodded. "So that's why I got cursory hugs on holidays and no more back rubs."
"Well, damn you, Kelsey. I thought it was my fault."
"That was right about the time I started going out with Adrian, remember? You didn't like her."
"Well, no, but that was because I wa--"
"Wanted me for yourself, yeah, I get that now, but at the time I thought it was because of what she was into. And that you were angry at me for that."
"Oh." Adrian was a black woman from Denver, and she was into the leather community. "I didn't realize you thought that. Taylor, I'm sorry. I liked Adrian, and I didn't care that she was into leather." I shrugged. "I was just upset that she was into you, and you seemed really into her. That's when I decided to just hide it."
"And you did a good job of that for a while."
"When did you know?"
"Um." It was obviously her turn to be coy. "A while."
"Right. How long, Taylor?"
She sighed. "About a year."
"Last June, before the camping trip, Ross and Sarah threw that party, remember?"
"Vaguely." I'd just left my last relationship and had gotten completely trashed.
"I helped you to bed that night. And as I was holding you I kept getting images . . . things I didn't really understand. I thought it was just because you were drunk, but the next day, when I rubbed your back during your hangover, they were still there. Any time I touched you after that I would get these feelings, or I'd see something from your perspective."
She actually giggled. "Like me, shirtless, or me taking off my clothes. Or just me smiling at you."
"So you knew a year ago."
"And why didn't you say anything?"
"Because you didn't. And I didn't know why, so I figured you didn't want me to know."
She kissed me again, then smiled. "Well, that's an interesting image."
I blushed, knowing what I'd just been thinking about. "Maybe we should get back on the road?"
With a laugh, she patted my arm and moved back fully into her seat.
A moment later, I thought of something, and a goofy smile crossed my face.
"I was just thinking about something."
I glanced at Taylor. "Sex with you would be pretty damn interesting."
"Why do you say that?"
"I couldn't ever fake it, cause you'd know."
We both laughed, loud peals of laughter that were just shy of real guffaws.
Afterwards, we were both quiet for a little while, simply sharing shy glances between the two of us.
Finally, I took a deep breath and asked her the question I knew Sarah would want me to ask.
"Taylor, will you tell me what happened last night?"
She nodded, but didn't look at me. "I will. I just . . . think we should see your aunt first."
"Just because. I promise, Kelsey, I'll explain, just . . . let it be for a little longer, okay?"
As we approached the outskirts of the city of Evergreen, I agreed with a nod.
Elizabeth Ridgely was seventy-seven years old. She'd seen tough times, and good times, and the lines on her face showed the years full of laughter and heartbreak. Though she'd never had kids, she'd worked with them on and off for years, as a substitute teacher, then at a daycare center, and then as a volunteer at a youth rec center in Golden. When Sarah and I were small, she spoiled us as only a maiden aunt can. Her brown hair was now grey, and not as full as it used to be, her skin wrinkled and dotted by age spots, but to my eyes she was still a beautiful woman.
Three years ago, after a serious fall in her own apartment, Auntie Liz had agreed to let my mom set her up in this nursing home. It was well recommended, the patients were well taken care of, and we were just a couple hours away. Mom came down at least twice a month, and Sarah and I traded off, one of us making the drive every three to four weeks. She wasn't lonely, as she'd made friends quickly, as she always did. And if there was something she wanted or needed, the phone was put to good use. Auntie Liz had never been shy.
But I still felt a sense of guilt every time I saw her in this place, and today even more so when I thought of all the times I could have come to see her and didn't.
She was sleeping when we got there. I entered the room slowly, not wanting to disturb her, with Taylor creeping silently beside me. She had met my aunt once, a long while ago, when we were still teenagers. They'd had a long conversation, and my aunt had asked about Taylor on and off ever since then. Sometimes I'd ask Taylor to come with me to see her, but she wasn't any more fond of hospitals than Sarah was.
I stood near the head of the bed, taking in the lack of medical equipment. They had a machine to monitor her heart rate and respiration, but my aunt was on a Do-Not-Resuscitate Order, so not much more than her oxygen line was allowed. Aunt Elizabeth had signed that order herself. She had her moments of perceived senility, but for her age her mind was remarkably clear and active.
Her body, however, was giving out. I had to stop a tear as I reached down to take her hand.
Her eyes, once bright blue but now cloudy with age, opened wide, and she looked at me with a smile. "Come to see your old aunt, have you?"
I smiled and nodded. "Mom called, said you were chasing the doctors again and I should come scold you."
"Bah. Ain't no cute ones to chase anymore. Though," she winked at me, "there are some good-lookin' nurses, if you wanna do do the chasin'."
There was nothing to do but laugh. "I'll remember that, Auntie Liz."
She coughed for a long moment, a deep rasping sound in her throat. Her heart monitor raced, her face turning red, and she gasped for air. I noticed that the side of her face wasn't really responding to anything, and her left hand was clutched into a claw-like shape.
When the spasm eased, she looked at the heart machine with disgust. "Sometime soon, the old thing's just gonna up and stop."
"Nah, you'll be fine. You're gonna be here for years to come."
She looked up at me sharply. "Don't you lie to yourself, Kelsey Rose Barrett. And don't you lie to me neither. I know damn well what the doctors say."
My face turned solemn, and I nodded. "Yes, Ma'am."
"Now, you know I don't want no big ceremony. You mom has a list of what all the arrangements should be, but don't you let her be addin' nothin', you hear? You leave things just as they are."
"You know I love you, right, Pipsqueak?" I nodded, the use of the old nickname bringing a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. "Well, you make sure to tell your sister I love her, too."
"She'll be coming to see you, Auntie Liz."
"And I'll tell her then, but I want you to --" She noticed movement behind me and tried to see who was there. "Is that my Sarah?"
"No." I maneuvered partly out of the way so I could bring Taylor up to the bedside with me. "Auntie Liz, you remember my friend Taylor? You and she met a long time ago. You told her she could call you Beth. You remember?"
To my shock, my best friend's face paled considerably. She leaned forward, one hand tightly on the guardrail, and whispered, "Hello, Beth."
But what shocked me more was my aunt's reaction. She reached out with her good hand and took hold of Taylor's. Her eyes were watery, and as I watched, the tears began to roll down her cheeks. She held my friend's hand to her cheek and whispered, "It's you. You came."
I could only blink.
Taylor, slowly regaining the color in her face, leaned closer and kissed one withered cheek. "Yes, Beth, it's me. I'm here."
"Is -- Is she here?"
Glancing up to the other side of the bed, which was blocked by equipment, Taylor nodded. "She's here. She's waiting for you."
Aunt Elizabeth began crying in earnest, and I backed away, not sure what was going on. Taylor turned to me, tears of her own on her cheeks.
"Hey, Kelsey, you said you wanted to talk to the doctor, right? Why don't you go to the nurses desk and see if he's still here. I'll wait with your Aunt until you get back."
Part of me was angry. This was a family matter, and Taylor seemed suddenly involved and keeping secrets from me. But then again, this was Taylor, and she was family, so I supposed that made her involved.
Taking a deep breath, I nodded. "I'll go check. Auntie Liz, I'll be back soon, all right?"
I don't think she even heard me, and as I looked back from the doorway I saw the two of them crying again, their heads bent together, like a priest with his confessee.
Not sure what to make of any of it, I headed down the hall looking for someone to give me answers to my questions.
They weren't the biggest questions I had, but they were the only ones I'd probably get answered right now.
The weekend on-call doctor was just finishing his rounds, and I was able to spend a little while talking with him. I called Sarah with the news, letting her know that while he did not expect Aunt Elizabeth to last the week, he did believe that she had at least another day, maybe two.
"The heart attack wasn't as severe as Mom made it sound. It just exacerbated the problem. She's got fluid in her lungs, and because of the small strokes she keeps having, they can't do anything about it. They've given her medication, and anti-biotics, but she's just not strong enough this time to fight it off, and the heart attack weakened her even more."
"Okay. I talked to Mom again and she said she'd gotten someone to watch Dad. She's on her way. Can you stay with Auntie Liz until Mom gets there?"
"Yeah, Taylor and I will stay." I decided not to say anything about the unusual scene between my aunt and my best friend. "You'll be here in the morning?"
"Mom will stay through the night, and I'll relieve her in the morning. Maybe the three of us can work out a plan that covers Dad and Auntie Liz both?"
"With Ross and Taylor helping, I'm sure we can."
She paused for a moment. "Kels, is something going on between you and Taylor?"
"Um." I had to think quickly, not sure what Taylor would want me to say. I also wondered how Sarah knew, but then again, she was my sister. "I think there might be, but . . . hang on a sec, Sis."
Speaking of Taylor, she had come out of my aunt's room and was walking towards me as I stood just outside the door to the courtyard. I motioned to her and she quickened her pace.
"Um. Sarah wants to know if there's anything between us, and since we haven't . . ." I trailed off as she took the phone from my hand.
"Sarah? Yeah, it's Taylor. Listen, your sister and I finally confessed to each other and are trying to work things out." She paused. "I'm in love with her, Sarah." Another pause. "I know. I know. We'll explain things more when we get back to camp tonight." Taylor took a deep breath. "Yes, Sarah, I promise." Then she handed the phone back to me, reaching out with a finger tip to close my mouth. "Say goodbye to your sister, Kelsey."
"Sa--" My voice squeaked and I had to clear my throat. "Sarah? We'll be back to camp in a few hours."
"Do you know what you're doing, Kelsey?"
"Not a clue, but hey, I never do. Tell Jay -- tell Jay she was right, and I should have said something a long time ago."
"Jay knew about this?"
"Jay's wiser than we might think. If she listened to herself, she just might find that out."
"Right. Well, Jen and Jay say hi, and Ross sends hugs. We'll have dinner waiting for you two when you get back."
"Sounds great. See you later."
We hung up and I turned around to see Taylor leaning against the wall and watching the sky through a small window with a small, sad smile on her face.
"Everything okay?" I nodded and she took my hand. "Good. Then I think it's time to tell you a story."
"What kind of story?"
"A ghost story." Taylor's smile grew wider, but impossibly softer.
Instead of starting the story right away, we waited for my mother to show up. I decided that once Taylor got started, I didn't want anyone interrupting. Mom got there about forty minutes later; forty minutes that I spent sitting in a chair with an arm around Taylor.
I thought it was a real sacrifice.
Once Mom arrived, we both stepped in to say goodbye to Auntie Liz, and Taylor assured her again that "she" was watching and waiting. My aunt closed her eyes to sleep with a smile on her face.
After hugging Mom one last time, we went to the Jeep in silence, Taylor letting go of my hand reluctantly as she headed around to the other side of the vehicle.
"We headed back to camp?"
"Nope." I started the Jeep, and drove only 4 blocks.
Oak Creek Park was quiet in the early afternoon sunlight. Just a bare patch of grass, with trees surrounding it, and a slow moving stream flowing down the middle, it was a nice place to just sit and watch the world go by.
We sat on the side of the down slope that led to the stream. Taylor seemed to lose herself in the running water for a few minutes. She stared into it, her face pinched in a look of concentration. Finally, she sighed, pulling one leg up and wrapping her arms around it. I sat next to her, cross-legged, pulling up a blade or two of grass to play with while I listened.
"Okay. I'm going to tell you what happened the other night, but I need you to not interrupt, okay? You need to be quiet, and let me tell it, and you need to keep an open mind. Can you do that, Kelsey?"
I nodded. What else was there to do?
"From the very beginning of the weekend, I knew something was different about the house. I didn't know what it was, but . . . from the time Roger showed up, there was a different feeling. For years it's always been just -- like something or someone was watching, waiting. But as soon as Roger got there, it changed. Like something was happening."
"You said on Friday that he was going to 'disturb' something by being in the house. You think he did?"
She shook her head. "No, I think it started when he arrived. I had the nightmare before he went in the house, remember?"
"Right. Go on."
"So, the nightmare. It wasn't really detailed. I was in the house with two women, and this man broke in and shot one of them and I woke up. I only saw and heard the one shot, Kelsey, so I didn't know there were any more."
"The film showed three flashes that night."
"Yes. So. Last night." She took a deep breath and turned her head to watch the fountain again. "I remember this feeling, like someone was tugging at me. Like I was supposed to go up there. I'd never felt that before, or at least not there. I helped Jenny with the camera, hoping that would make it go away, but it just got stronger. When the fight broke out it was like this wave washing over me, calling me. I HAD to go. I just didn't know why.
"I got through the woods, and I remembered that you told me the only easy way to enter was on the side of the house, but I kept being drawn to the front door. I stood on the walkway, and suddenly . . . suddenly everything changed. The sky got lighter, like an early sunrise, and the house seemed to . . . fade and then grow solid again. And then I wasn't standing in front of ruins, but in front of a real, solid house. And I knew I was supposed to be there, to do something. So I headed up the front walk and tried to knock on the door, but before I did, it opened. And she was standing there."
"She who? My aunt?" I had totally forgotten I wasn't supposed to interrupt, but I couldn't stop myself.
Taylor ignored me. "She was maybe 40, maybe a little older. Black hair with slight waves that hung just to her collar. Beautiful. She introduced herself to me as Colleen, and she had a touch of an Irish accent.
"I had some idea that this wasn't real, that it wasn't truly happening, or that it had happened before. Colleen quickly confirmed that . . . "
"You know, I been waiting for you for a long time, now." Her voice was soft and she smiled almost shyly at Taylor. "Took you long enough to find your way."
"You've been calling me."
"Aye, that was me."
"You'll know." Colleen put a hand on Taylor's shoulder. "You'll know."
She led her further into the house, beyond the front room, and down the back hall to the kitchen. There, in the bright sunlight, a woman with long brown hair tied up in a bun was taking a pie out of the oven.
"Who is that?"
Colleen smiled. "My angel." She waved Taylor into the large room. "Beth, I'd like you to meet someone."
Beth, also known as Elizabeth Ridgely, placed the pie on the counter and turned, sliding an oven glove off her hand. "Who's this?"
"This is Taylor. She's come to visit with us this afternoon."
"Hello, Taylor. It's so good to meet you."
Taylor reached out to shake her hand and noticed that it was considerably warmer than Colleen's had been. "It's nice to meet you as well." She sniffed the air. "Is that blueberry pie?"
Beth's eyes lit up. "It certainly is. And if you'd like to wait a little while till it cools, I'll cut you the best slice of pie you ever had."
Unsure of how long she was to stay, Taylor glanced at Colleen, who smiled and nodded. "Stay, Taylor. You won't be late, and you won't regret it."
For some reason, she trusted the Irish woman, and Taylor nodded. "That would be great. I'd love to stay."
The three of them sat at the kitchen table for a little while, just chatting. Taylor found out, through subtle questions, that the year was 1967, the month was June, and Colleen was staying with her friend Elizabeth after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Ain't no cure for it. Some say the treatment is as bad as the disease. Myself, I'd rather let nature take its course. Stay here, do some work, look at pretty scenery. Best way to go."
Taylor couldn't argue with that.
The pie, served still warm, was as good as predicted. The blueberries were plump and sweet and burst in Taylor's mouth as she chewed. Her eyes closed as she savored every bite. After finishing it, she looked up curiously. "These blueberries wouldn't be from . . . Berry Hill, are they?"
Colleen nodded. "Picked them myself."
"How'd you get past the hornets?"
Beth stood up. "I don't know how she does it, and I don't think I want to." She winked at her friend and went to the sink to do the dishes, humming to herself as she did.
With a shrug, the Irish woman leaned back in her chair and said, "Smoke. Get a good fire going, with the wind blowing the smoke toward the top of the hill, the smoke's like a sleeping potion. Gives me enough time to get a pail of berries before I can't stand the smoke or the fire goes out."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"Sure. Still gotta watch where you step, but it works." She sipped her coffee and watched Beth, a solemn and loving look in her eye. "You figured it out yet?"
"Figure what out?"
Beth interrupted them. "I have to start making dinner. Why don't you two go in the living room? It'll be a while before it's done."
"We just had pie." Taylor raised an eyebrow. "And now we're having dinner?"
Both her new friends laughed. "These are the mountains. You'll be hungry by the time food's ready." Beth waved a towel at them. "Show her the barn, Col. She looks like a horse lover."
Leading the way out the back door, Colleen offered Taylor a jacket. "Gets a mite nippy here in the evenings."
"Is it that late already?" Taylor looked up at the sky, surprised to see the sun starting to touch the horizon. With another look around she noticed the cleared drive that led down to a dirt road heading off toward Idaho Springs. In the drive was an old truck and a smaller station wagon. They sat beside a barn that Taylor had never seen before.
"Wow. That's . . . new."
"Old, actually. But, it won't be here much longer."
"What do you mean?"
Colleen shrugged. "You'll see. Come on. You can meet the horses while you're here."
The hike to the barn wasn't long. Attached to the building was a corral where three horses all stood, nudging at the smallish grass plants that cropped up around the fence posts.
"This here's Daniel. He's my big boy." Colleen pointed at the nearest horse. "That black one there is Gem, cause of the star on his forehead. They're both geldings. And this little pretty one," she reached through and tried to touch the third horse, a smaller palomino, "this is Charity. She's Beth special one, the only one she rides. Aren't you, girl?"
The horses ignored her.
"They don't know we're here, do they?"
Colleen sighed and shook her head. "Nope. They never do."
Taylor looked around taking in the full forested trees and the lack of a road, and the full house in front of her. "Colleen, what's going on? Why am I here?" After a moment, Taylor shook her head. "I'm not really here, am I?"
"Sure you are. Those blueberries tasted real, didn't they? You're as close to here as you can be without actually being here."
"What does that mean?"
Another shrug. "You'll get that in time. What have you figured out?"
"Well, you're not really here."
"How'd you get that?"
With a tilt of her head, Taylor looked up at her. "It wasn't that hard to figure you. You knew I was coming, said that you'd called me. You're cold and Beth's warm. You're not asking me any questions, and she is." She shrugged. "And the horses don't know either of us are here. So . . . tell me what's going on?"
The Irish woman sighed and shook her head. "I can't, Taylor. I can't tell you that."
"Why am I here?"
"Cause you need to be. And one day, you'll know. For now -- let's go back up. It's getting dark. Dinner will be ready soon."
And suddenly sunset was over and dusk had set in.
"But -- it was just --"
"Time moves fast on you. You need to pay attention." And she led the way to the back door of the house.
Dinner was a boisterous affair, with Colleen telling stories of her large Irish family and the troubles they'd gotten into. Beth entertained her friends with anecdotes of her younger sister and the kids she now had. After the tale of how Kelsey's mom ran through the pine trees naked and screaming, Taylor wasn't sure she could face the woman without smiling. That thought sobered her for the moment, and Beth noticed.
"What was that sad look there, Taylor?"
"Oh, nothing. Just . . . " She let herself trail off while looking for the right words. "I guess I just miss my home a little bit."
"Is it far away?"
"Seems like it. I don't know how I'm going to get back there."
Beth patted her hand and squeezed it. "You just gotta have faith. You'll get back there, and you'll see your family." She tilted her head, reminding Taylor of Kelsey. "You got a fella back home, hon?"
"Um. No." Taylor shrugged. "There's someone I like, but . . . well, it's not an easy situation."
Beth nodded, her eyes moving to Colleen before dropping to the table. "It never is, hon." She got up to clear the dishes, waving both Taylor and Colleen off when they tried to help.
"Taylor, you're a guest, sit down and relax. And Colleen, you shouldn't leave our guest alone. You're supposed to entertain her. Now, you two go on into the living room and I'll be right out. Go on, now."
With a shrug, the two of them followed Beth's directions. Colleen stood looking out the front window into the night. She seemed apprehensive, but glanced at Taylor with a smile.
"What are you thinking, Taylor?"
"You're in love with her." After watching all evening, this was something Taylor was certain of.
Colleen nodded. "I am indeed."
"Does she know?"
The Irish voice was soft. "Yes. She knows."
"Is she in love with you?"
The smile on Colleen's face was sad. "No." She turned to Taylor. "The lady of my life . . . is straight." She sighed. "I don't know what God was thinking when he made me fall in love with her. But I did."
Stepping up, Taylor watched out the window with her. "And she . . . just doesn't care?"
"Ah, lass, she loves me in her own way. I'm her best friend, her confidant, her . . . everything. Except her lover. It's the only thing I'll never be to her."
Not knowing what to say, Taylor simply stood and watched out the window. But after a few minutes, curiosity got the better of her and she began to look around the room.
Noticing a picture, she crossed to it and picked it up. It showed Beth in a wedding dress next to a handsome man with blond hair and a smile. "Who is this?" There was something in the man's eyes that frightened her.
"That's Brett. Beth's husband."
Taylor frowned. "Where is he?"
Colleen shrugged. "In town. They're separated for the moment."
That was a story Taylor had never heard. "What happened?"
"Life happened. As it will." With a sigh, Colleen turned away and walked over, taking the picture from Taylor. "Brett married her because she was going to inherit the ranch. He wanted a wife that was his slave, cook and clean for him, be there when he wanted her to be, but would let him whore around if that was what he wanted." She snorted. "That's not Beth, and he learned that pretty quickly."
"He cheated on her?"
"More than once. And when she confronted him about it, he raped her." With a thud, the picture was placed back on the mantel. "She got pregnant from it. Was willing to let Brett come home and be a father if he wanted, as long as there were no more women on the side. He laughed at her."
"So, Beth is pregnant?"
"No." Colleen shook her head sadly. "I found him in the kitchen, kicking her. He'd beaten her, knocked her down, started kicking her in the stomach over and over. Said he didn't want to be a father to any whelp, and he didn't take orders from anyone."
Stunned, Taylor looked back at the picture. "Did she lose the baby?"
A silent nod was her only answer.
"When was this?"
"About two weeks ago."
Another nod. Taylor turned to look at Colleen. "You said they were separated. Is this permanent? Hopefully?"
"Yeah." She sighed. "I drove her into Denver a week ago to see a lawyer. Brett's to be served with the divorce papers."
Before Colleen could answer, Beth entered. "Well. This doesn't look very entertaining. Colleen, where are your manners?"
The Irish woman smiled. "I seem to have left them in the barn. I'm sure I can find them again if you'll give me a few moments?"
"Off with you then. And while you're looking for them, why don't you be looking for that guitar of yours? I'm sure Taylor would enjoy some music this evening before we all turn in."
Colleen gave an exaggerated bow. "Your wish, my lady, is my command."
"Oh, get along with you." Beth shook her head. "You and your flattery. Git!"
With a wink at Taylor, Colleen headed up the stairs. "Back in a minute."
Beth watched her go, a fond look in her eye. Then she turned to Taylor. "Tell me. This person you like, in this difficult situation. Is this a guy? Or a girl?"
"Uh, I . . ." Taylor swallowed. "How'd you know?"
Chuckling, Beth sat down on the couch, pointing Taylor to the rocking chair beside her. "Oh, after living with Colleen for a few months, I know the signs." She sighed. "I could wish that she'd been born a man, or I had been, but that would have changed both our lives and we wouldn't have met. And God help me, I do love her, Taylor. I just -- I'm just not as brave as she is."
"I think you're very brave, Beth."
Again Beth patted her hand. "Thanks, Taylor. But . . . all I've ever done is sit here in this house. Never anything more. And Col? She's seen the world." She nodded. "Did you know she was in Vietnam?"
"Yes, ma'am. Colleen Shaversmith was a nurse in the army. Was sent to Vietnam to help save soldiers, and then one day her Mash unit was under fire and she had to pick up a weapon. Even fired it in combat." She sighed. "It did something to her, I think. They released her a few months after that, and she got on the trains and started travelling, just looking for some place to be, some one that needed her." With another tilt of her head, she said, "I don't think either of us knew that we needed someone till we met."
"How'd you meet?"
"On a train. Where else?" She smiled. I was taking the train from Denver down to Pueblo. You know where that is?"
"She was travelling, was riding the train down. We sat next to each other and got to talking, and when I rode back up the next week, there she was. So, I asked her to stay over for a day or two. This was a few months ago. She's never left."
"I thought she came here because she has cancer?"
"No, she stays because she has cancer. She came here cause she has no where else to go."
"Found it!" Colleen came down the stairs with her guitar, a broad smile on her thin face. "And what songs shall we sing here tonight, my ladies?"
That began at least an hour of singing and laughing, with Taylor learning songs from Woody Guthrie and other folk artists; she was inundated with groups, names, and songs she'd never heard before. Occasionally Beth looked at her strangely and asked if she was born under a rock, but for the most part it was a pleasant evening, and the clock was just striking ten when Beth called a halt.
"I think it's just about time we all hit the sack. Now, Taylor, there's a perfectly good bed upstairs for you, so don't even think about trying to get back to town tonight. You can stay, and we'll have some pancakes in the morning."
With another glance at Colleen, who'd begun to look sad, Taylor nodded. "That would be wonderful, Beth."
"Colleen, would you lea-- now, who could that be driving up here this time of night?"
And with those words the atmosphere changed. Colleen went from being sad to being agitated, her hands tightening on the neck of her guitar.
"I'll step outside and see if I can recognize the car." She whispered to Taylor. "Stay with her, okay?"
Taylor nodded, picking up Colleen's fear.
Beth didn't seem worried at all as she tidied up in the living room, chatting to Taylor about the rudeness of people to just come by without calling, and picking up the dishes from the tea she'd served an hour ago.
Colleen came back in, slamming the door behind her.
The pieces began to fit together in Taylor's mind, but she still didn't know what she was supposed to do.
The sound of a car door slamming made Beth jump.
"Beth, go into the kitchen, please?" Colleen took her hands. "He must have gotten the papers today. Go, hide. Taylor, take her, would you?" She headed up the stairs again, at top speed.
"Where are you going?" Beth shouted at her friend even as Taylor tugged at her arm. "Colleen!"
There was the sound of obscenities being screamed outside, and then Colleen called down, "I'm getting my gun!"
With Taylor insistently pulling at her arm Beth seemed frozen. Taylor had her in the hallway and halfway to the kitchen when the back door opened. As her husband's angry face appeared, Beth screamed and began running back toward the living room. Brett went after her, barrelling into Taylor and knocking the small woman into the wall.
Brett caught his screaming wife by the throat and began to choke her. Pulling a gun, he began to shout obscenities at her. He slapped her and pushed her toward the couch where she landed, gasping and holding her throat.
"You two-faced lyin' bitch! You cunt! Ain't no way you're divorcin' me, you no good whorin' --"
"Brett! You let her go!" Colleen stood at the top of the stairs, but Taylor couldn't see her because of her own position halfway in the hall. She did see Brett turn, pointing and firing at the same time.
To her horror, Colleen tumbled down the stairs.
With a grin on his face, Brett Ridgely turned and pointed the gun at his wife.
"I killed your lover, bitch! I seen how she looked at you, and how you looked at her! You thought I didn't know, but I did!" He cocked his weapon slowly, almost teasingly. "And I killed her! You wanna die with her, bitch?"
Taylor could hear Beth pleading with him, a sob in her voice.
"Too bad! I say when something happens! I say it! And I said I wasn't through with you, but now I am!"
Seeing his finger tighten on the trigger, Taylor made her decision. She leaped forward, pushing Brett away and standing in front of Beth.
Brett's gun went off, and Taylor felt a shock of pain in her chest. She couldn't breathe. Then another gun roared, off to her right, and Brett Ridgely's head exploded. Turning slightly, still not breathing, Taylor saw Colleen at the foot of the stairs, blood on her chest, gun in her hands.
With blood on her lips, the Irishwoman smiled at Taylor and mouthed, Thank you. Then her head dropped, her arm fell, and her last breath bubbled wetly from her lungs.
Taylor heard Beth scream as she fell, darkness engulfing her.
"And the next thing I knew, you were yelling at me, and I was choking with my chest on fire."
It was almost full dark, with only the barest sliver of sun poking above the mountains behind us.
I was stunned.
"So, my uncle was the intruder?"
"I suppose so. Although, Beth said the official story wasn't quite like it happened. The police had to be involved because people knew that Brett was headed out to the house; he'd been in a bar when he'd been served. The first thing they could think of was the intruder story, and it would have looked worse for Beth if she'd known the person who'd killed her husband. So, the story was that someone burst in on her and Brett when they were talking about reconciling, and Brett had been killed. The sheriff bought the story, and since his shooter was dead and Beth Ridgely was from a prestigious family, he never questioned anything."
Staring off into the dark, I sighed. "And she had to pretend to be the grieving widow?"
Taylor gave me a sad smile. "She might as well have been. She really did love Colleen."
"Where'd they bury her?"
"Believe it or not, she's buried on the property."
"Yeah. Beth said she was placed between those two huge blue spruce trees out by the lake." She sighed. "She told me that it was where Colleen first admitted she loved her."
I threw a twig toward the stream. "So . . . you were . . . what -- chosen to witness this?"
Taylor shrugged. "Damned if I know. I can tell you what happened, Kels. But that's all the answers I have."
"You were there to -- take the bullet for my aunt?"
She scratched her head. "That's just it. I didn't."
"I mean, I did, but I must have just slowed it, because Beth was hit, in the upper arm. Didn't you ever wonder where she got that scar?"
I remembered the scar on her left shoulder. She'd told us she got it in an accident when she was younger. But she never told us exactly how.
"So you think you slowed it down?"
"If I hadn't been there, he would have fired point blank into her chest, Kelsey."
"But, Taylor, you weren't there! You couldn't be!" I was almost angry at the illogic of the situation.
"I know that. But she remembers me, Taylor. She said I was in the house that night. She saw me. I had dinner with them. And seconds after the bullet hit me, I disappeared!"
My aunt saw her?
I was completely confused, and I just stared into the dark, rocking back and forth in the grass.
I was a logical person. Had a BA in History, with a teaching certificate. Was working on my Master's degree. Had a brilliant sister who was getting her PhD. I lived a logical life. I dealt in facts, events, dates, all provable, all concrete.
This? This was completely beyond my experience.
"I just keep thinking back to something you said when we were kids, Kelsey." Her voice was low, a little frightened. "Remember, I told you I'd introduce you to the ghost boy? But you couldn't see him and he couldn't see you. And you told me that it was like I lived half in their world and half in yours."
And suddenly she was crying. Her hand came up to wipe at the tears on her cheeks. "I don't wanna live there anymore, Kels. I wanna be here, with you, with Jay and Jenny. I don't wanna know these things, I don't wanna see anymore."
I scooted closer, slipping an arm around her.
"I watched her die, Kelsey. She died, right there on the floor, the gun in her hand. She saved Beth, and she died, and I had to watch it."
Pulling her close, I let my own tears fall as she sobbed on my shoulder.
I don't know how long we sat there. My cell phone had gone off a few times, but I didn't want to let go of Taylor long enough to answer it.
My mind was all over the place. I could see in my head the images Taylor had painted, from the laughing smiles of the afternoon, to the terror of those few minutes, and the pain of watching her new friend leave this world.
And then I remembered. "You told Auntie Liz that she was there. That she was waiting."
Lifting her head, Taylor managed a half smile as she wiped her eyes. "Colleen was there."
"Did she say anything to you?"
She shook her head. "Gave me a smile, that's all. I think she was more worried about Beth."
"She's been waiting for her?"
Taylor gave me a nod and another smile. "Yeah. Waiting. For thirty-eight years."
The phone rang again. This time I denied the call and sent a quick text message to my sister telling her we were okay and we'd be back on the road soon.
She hesitated and I looked up to see her biting her lip, looking at me shyly.
"Would it be too corny to say that I'd wait thirty-eight years for you?"
I smiled and hugged her again. "Yes. Completely corny."
"Then I won't say it."
"All right, then."
Shortly after that, we gathered our things and headed back to the Jeep. Although it wasn't a long drive back to Idaho Springs, we were both tired, and it wasn't a pleasant drive in the dark. You had to watch for deer crossing out of nowhere.
Taylor sighed as we buckled up. "Mind if I catch a little sleep on the ride back? If you need me to be awake, I will be."
"No, you can sleep. I'll keep the high beams on and go slow."
"Good." She yawned. "I still have to tell Sarah and the others what happened." A sad look crossed her face. "If the tape didn't scare them, the story behind it sure will."
I shook my head. "They're your friends, Tay, and they've been with you through thick and thin since high school. It may take them a little time, but they'll deal."
"Think so?" Her face was halfway between hopeless and hopeful.
"Yeah, I know so." I put the Jeep in gear and started to drive.
We pulled away from the park and moved easily onto the highway.
"Taylor, if you don't want to tell them tonight, it's okay with me. It's been a rough day."
She yawned again, her eyes closed. "No. It's the last night at the campfire. We always tell ghost stories. The only difference is that they're usually fakes, and this one's real." She shrugged, the movement of her shoulders making her head roll against the window. "Besides, I want to get it over with."
"Okay, but . . . do me a favor?"
"Leave out the part about the blueberry pie."
One heavy eyelid rose and she looked at me sleepily. "Why?"
"Cause then you'd have to tell where the blueberries came from, and how Colleen got them."
"And do you really want to do that in front of Ross?"
The two of us couldn't stop laughing as we drove on into the night.
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