The Right Thing

By SX Meagher

 

Part 18

Townsend extricated herself from Nicole’s embrace, patting her lover gently as she reached for the ringing phone. "H’lo?"

"Hi, it’s me," Hennessey said. "Am I disturbing you?"

"Wha … oh, uhm … we were just … napping," she said, referring to the near-coma she and Nicole had worked themselves into that afternoon. "Let me go into the living room." She blinked repeatedly, trying to get her bearings. "Are you back?"

"Yeah, I'm in my bungalow."

"Great! I'm so excited to have you back home! But let me call you in a second, okay? I have to pee."

"All right. I’ll be here." Without another word, Hennessey hung up.

It took a few minutes for Townsend’s head to clear, and by the time she reached the phone in the living room, her heart was beating heavily. Speed dialing, she waited for Hennessey to answer, then asked sharply, "What’s wrong?"

With a very short grunt meant as a laugh, Hennessey asked, "How do you know something’s wrong?"

"Because I know you, stretch. Something’s wrong — very wrong."

"I guess I can’t argue with that," the brunette admitted. "Something is wrong. Things aren’t working out like I thought they would. Kate’s … Kate’s not going to Charleston. As a matter of fact, she’s not going anywhere."

"What?!"

"That’s exactly what I said when she told me," Hennessey said with a wry laugh. "I don’t even know why I’m laughing. It’s not funny in the least."

"Hennessey, tell me what’s going on!"

"I’m not really sure," Hennessey answered. "All I know is that Kate has decided that she can’t bear to be a psychiatrist."

"What?!"

"This conversation is going very much like the one Kate and I had. I screamed ‘What?’ every couple of seconds when she told me, too."

"Well, Jesus, Hennessey, she can't jerk you around like this!"

There was a brief silence, then Hennessey said, "I know you're on my side, but try to have some sympathy for Kate. This is really hard for her."

"I'm sorry," Townsend said immediately. "I shouldn't stick my nose in."

"No, that's not a problem. I'm … just frustrated and short tempered."

"Is Kate still gonna be a doctor?"

"Yeah. At least I think she is. She just knows that she can’t be a psychiatrist. She says that she’s given it a genuine try, but that she hated it."

"Did you know this?"

"No, not really. I mean, I knew that psychiatry wasn't her first choice, but I didn't know she hated it. I’m learning that Kate keeps things to herself until she’s completely made up her mind. It pisses me off, but I don’t think I can change her."

"So what will you do?"

"Well, she can’t apply for another residency until next year, so we’re going to live here in Hilton Head until she makes another attempt. I think she’s going to look like a lunatic by the time she finally settles on a discipline, but I guess that’s just something we’re gonna have to live with."

"Oh, Hennessey, I’m so sorry this is working out so poorly for you."

"Well, it’s not so bad. At least I’m where I want to be and doing what I want to do. I guess I just have to put my life on hold for another year, hoping that Palmetto will take another chance on Kate after she turned them down once."

"That truly sucks, Hennessey. I’m so sorry she’s having so much trouble making up her mind."

"Me, too. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Now tell me how your summer’s going. I wanna hear some good news, buddy."

"I think things are going well. I like Nicole a lot, and I think she cares for me as much as I do her."

"Do you think she’s ready to move here?"

"No, she’s not ready for that yet. She wants to spend some time getting to know the area and deciding if there are enough cultural opportunities for her to be happy here."

"Couldn’t she have done some of that in the last six weeks?"

Townsend laughed. "She could have if I’d let her leave the house. It’s been a long time, stretch. A looooong time."

Hennessey joined her friend’s laughter, adding, "I’m glad that she makes you want to stay home, buddy."

"Oh, we stay home, all right. I’ve lost ten pounds in six weeks! We rarely eat dinner, and —"

"Too much information," Hennessey interjected. "You lovebirds just continue to remain horizontal. Kate and I are going to spend the rest of the summer exploring South Carolina. As long as we’re both not working, this is the perfect opportunity for me to sell her on my state. As a matter of fact, we’re gonna go to Beaufort tomorrow to spend a few days with my family. I’m gonna try to keep the visits short so that everyone can get used to each other gradually."

"Have fun, stretch. I know you can convince Kate that South Carolina is the best place on earth. If you need any help, I’ll be glad to pitch in. I think I love it as much as you do."

"Thanks for the offer, T. I think we’re gonna do some beach camping and slowly work our way down to Florida. Kate wants to take me to Disney World."

"Aren’t you a little old for that?" Townsend teased.

"I’ve never been, and I’m not getting any younger, so I guess there’s no time like the present. I’ll call you when we get back, okay?"

"You’d better, stretch. Take care of yourself."

"I will. Make sure you let Nicole come up for air once in a while, you hussy."

"If you think I’m a hussy now, you have a short memory, Hennessey," Townsend said, laughing.

* * *

"Welcome back," Townsend said the moment she saw the dark head poke into the office.

"It’s good to be back," Hennessey replied. "Most people would kill to be on a six week vacation, but I was itching to get back home after two."

"Did you have fun on your trip down the coast?"

"Yeah. Most of it was a lot of fun, but the visit with my grandparents didn’t go very well."

"Why not?"

"Nothing big happened," Hennessey admitted, "but I don’t think Kate will ever warm up to my grandparents — or my father."

"What’s wrong with your father?" Townsend asked sharply.

Hennessey smiled. "I love how defensive you are of my family."

With a small smile Townsend said, "They deserve defending. They have their faults, but they've all done their best, Hennessey."

"You know I agree with you, but Kate thinks Daddy uses the money I send for alcohol." Hennessey shrugged her shoulders. "She’s probably right. She thinks I should pay some of their bills directly, rather than give him a check."

"I’m sure you considered that," Townsend said. "Why did you choose to do it the way you do?"

"Because he’s my father," Hennessey said. "I know he’s an alcoholic, and I know he’s often irresponsible, but he’s my daddy. I can’t take away the little bit of pride he has left. I’d have to tell him that I don’t think he’s able to handle the money, and that would break his heart."

"I understand, Hennessey. I really do."

"Thanks," the older woman said. "I might be enabling him by giving him money, but in his case, I think it would be worse for him to know I don't trust him. I'm trying my best."

"I know you are."

Hennessey shivered and shook her head. "This makes me anxious to talk about. Why don't you tell me about Nicole."

"We had a great summer," Townsend said, smiling brightly. "We took short trips all over the region. We went to Atlanta, Savannah, Winston-Salem, Charleston … just about every place I could think of to give her a taste of the South."

"Did she like it?"

"Yeah, I think she did, but I'm certain she likes me. That's the important part," Townsend added, wiggling her eyebrows.

"Then why didn't she stay? I thought that was the point."

"Yeah, that was part of the reason, but she really likes her job in Boston, and her family is there. She has some young nieces and nephews that she's positively wild about, and she hates the thought of leaving them. I think she wants to take it slow to make sure we aren't making a mistake. I don't mind," Townsend insisted. "I want her to be sure before she gives up too much of her life for me."

"Must be nice," Hennessey said, a look of sadness stealing over her features.

* * *

"Hey, Townsend?" Hennessey’s voice broke the stillness in the office, and Townsend found herself starting at the sound.

"Yeah?"

"What are you gonna do for Thanksgiving?"

"I’m gonna go to Boston. Why do you ask?"

"I wasn't sure if you were gonna. If you weren’t, I thought you might come home with me."

Townsend blinked at her friend. "That’s … a bit of a surprise."

"Surprise?"

"Uh-huh." Townsend stood up and walked around her desk to perch on the corner of Hennessey’s. "I … haven’t brought it up, but one of two things is happening. Either you're sick of me, or Kate isn’t too crazy about me. I have a feeling I know which one is the truth."

Hennessey leaned over and rested her head on her stacked fists. The posture was one that Townsend had seen hundreds of times, and each time, it made her imagine her friend as a small child. The angle of her head usually made her dark hair fall into her eyes, and she looked so earnest and thoughtful that Townsend wanted to kiss her on the crown of her head. This time she didn’t resist the impulse, and when she pulled away, Hennessey looked up at her. "What was that for?"

"For looking adorable." She shrugged her shoulders. "Couldn’t help myself."

Giving her friend a full smile, Hennessey said, "It’s not that Kate doesn’t like you, Townsend. She does. She just … she doesn’t like us."

"Us?"

"Yeah. She feels like a third wheel when we’re together. You and I speak in a shorthand that she doesn’t understand, and it makes her feel left out."

"Then how were you planning on getting away with having me come to Beaufort with the two of you?"

Hennessey rolled her eyes and said, "I’d rather have Kate be slightly angry with me than have you be alone on Thanksgiving."

Townsend ran her hand through Hennessey’s thick hair. "You’re a doll, but I’m gonna be far from alone. I miss Nicole like crazy, and we plan on spending most of the holiday together. I want to remind her of what she left behind in South Carolina."

"Ooh … that sounds like fun."

"I think it will be," Townsend agreed.

She got up and walked back to her desk, and she heard Hennessey’s quiet voice ask, "Does it bother you that we don’t see each other outside of work anymore?"

"Of course it bothers me, but I’m plenty busy. My taskmistress, Nicole, has dragged me — kicking and screaming — up to chapter twenty-two of my novel. I could never have finished that much if I were spending all of my evenings with you. So, you’re doing me a favor by ignoring me." The blonde stuck her tongue out at her friend, but immediately saw that the gesture wasn’t appreciated.

"I would never ignore you, Townsend. Don’t even joke about that. The only reason I’m allowing Kate to set our social schedule is because I hope she’ll come to love you if I don’t push the issue."

"Love might be a bit much to hope for," Townsend said, smiling warmly at her friend. "Let’s go for like."

"As I’ve told you, she likes you fine; but she’s a long way from liking us."

* * *

"Hey, good lookin’, how was your holiday?"

Hennessey put her bag down and crossed the room to kiss Townsend’s cheek. "Before I start, I want to hear how your Thanksgiving was. My story will take a while."

Townsend ran her hand through the dark hanks of hair that had fallen forward when Hennessey leaned over. "Are you all right, baby?"

"Yeah. I’m fine. I just have a long story to tell. So … spill it. How was your time with Nicole?"

"Good. Very good, actually. She spent time at my parents’ house, and I went to Sconset to meet her family. We had a great time together, and both of our families seemed to approve."

"That’s it? That’s all you have to report?"

"Well, we spent a lot of time together, and I think my charms had their intended effect." Townsend’s face bore a pleased smile as she added, "She wants to spend the summer together, and if things work out as well as we think they will, she’ll quit her job and move here."

"Excellent! I’m so happy that she’s agreed to move here!"

"Well, let’s not jump ahead that far. She’s agreed to give it a try."

"It’s a done deal," Hennessey beamed. "No one could spend the summer with you and have any desire to leave. Fait accompli!"

"We’ll see," Townsend said demurely. "Now tell me your story. It must be a good one."

"It’s an exciting one, I’ll give you that." The dark-haired woman took in a breath and asked, "Have you met my cousin Brett?"

"No, I don’t think so. How’s he related?"

"He’s my grandmother’s brother’s grandson. His mom is my Aunt Helene."

"I met your aunt and a bunch of her children, but I don’t remember a Brett."

"Oh … he might have been in jail at the time," Hennessey said, a nonchalant tone to her voice. "He spends a good deal of time there."

"For what?!"

"He has the usual Rubidoux vice: he gets drunk and starts fights with people. He’s a couple of years younger than I am, and he’s usually full of piss and vinegar before any get together ends."

"Sounds like a fun guy," Townsend said.

"Yeah, he’s a lot of fun — just don’t make him mad." Hennessey laughed at her own joke and continued. "We had most of the Rubidoux clan over on Thanksgiving. We usually alternate the Rubidoux and the Boudreaux families for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

"Are the parties always at your place?"

"Oh, yeah. We’ve got the most space and the biggest kitchen. One of the drawbacks of owning a restaurant," she said. "Anyway, it was Thanksgiving Day, and we were obviously closed, but a car filled with some good ol’ boys pulled up at around ten o’clock. I went out to tell them that we were closed, but they weren’t of a mind to leave. One of them in particular was determined to have a meal, and it was pretty obvious that I was the entrée he had in mind."

"Oh, my! You shouldn’t taunt the poor men with your charms, Ms. Boudreaux."

"Yeah," Hennessey said, laughing. "I’m all about taunting men to get them to hit on me. Anyway, I was well in control of the situation, but Brett stuck his head out and heard one of the guys ask me to get in the car and go for a ride. He had to start cussin’ a blue streak, and the guys took offense. Before I knew it, the guys were out of the car and Brett was calling for reinforcements."

"Oh, shit!"

"Oh, shit is right. My cousins started streaming out, and when the guys in the truck saw how outnumbered they were, one of them pulled a boning knife from his tackle box. They’d obviously been out fishing and drinking all day, and they were as drunk as Brett was."

Townsend’s eyes were as wide as saucers, and she had paled considerably. "What happened?"

"Like an idiot, Brett rushed the guy. I think the guy had only pulled the knife as a threat, but when Brett came at him, he used it. He held it up in a defensive posture, and in the blink of an eye, blood was gushing out of Brett like a geyser!"

"Jesus Christ, Hennessey!"

"Yep. As soon as my cousins saw that, they started pummeling the guys. One of them was stabbed in the side, and another one suffered a bad concussion."

"What happened?! Did anyone die?"

"Nope. Thanks to Kate, everyone will be fine. While the fight was still raging, she kept a cool head and got two of my uncles to carry Brett into the shack. Someone ran to the house to get her medical bag, while she put pressure on Brett’s carotid artery to keep him from bleeding out."

"Bleeding out?"

"Yeah. Bleeding to death. You can die in less than a minute from a wound like that, but she got to him in time. I ran back into the shack and helped her — even though my hands were shaking like I’d had a hundred cups of coffee."

"What did she do?"

"She managed to suture the wound and get him stabilized, then she went to work on the other guy who’d been stabbed. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, but she was fairly sure he hadn’t been hit in a vital organ. By the time the ambulances got there, she was starting to work on the guy with the head injury, but the paramedics took over."

"God damn, Hennessey. I’ve never heard of anything like that!"

"You know, I’ve been proud of her accomplishments all along, but I’ve never seen her in action. She was so skilled, so competent. Her hands were so beautiful when she was working." She shook her head to focus her thoughts and continued, "She jumped into the ambulance with Brett, and when we all reached the hospital, she started barking out orders to the ER staff, telling them Brett’s blood type and how much blood he’d lost."

"How’d she know his blood type?"

"My Aunt Helene knew his blood type. He’s spilled a lot of it over the years." She shook her head. "I’ve never seen Kate so decisive, so excited. She was bubbling with an energy that fairly radiated from her, Townsend. She was … full of herself, and I mean that in the best possible way. She used every one of her talents and skills that night, and she was truly a dynamo."

"Your family must be ready to adopt her," Townsend said.

"Just about. When we finally got home that night, my gramma hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks." She started to laugh and added, "She said, ‘I know your people don’t believe in the Lord, but Jesus was guiding your hands tonight, Kate.’" Townsend collapsed with laughter, and Hennessey joined in. "Even Kate thought that was funny."

"God, how must it feel to be able to save a man’s life," Townsend said, her voice nearly a whisper.

"It must feel like an aphrodisiac," Hennessey said. "We rocked the house when we went to bed." She shook her head and whistled, then said, "She’s never been so … so … I don’t even know what to call it, but I hope it comes back soon!"

"You could hang out with Brett when he gets back on his feet," Townsend teased. "He sounds like he could use a personal physician."

"Yeah, he could," Hennessey agreed. "But I think this experience showed Kate — and me — that she’s a born trauma surgeon. Psychiatry will never be enough for her, Townsend. She needs the adrenaline rush. That’s why she was drawn to medicine."

"Wow." Townsend leaned back in her chair. "That decision has a lot of repercussions for you two."

"I know it," Hennessey agreed. "But if she feels stifled in her career, she won’t be a good partner."

"No, but if she’s gone for twenty hours at a time, she won’t be much of a partner, either."

Hennessey shrugged. "One step at a time. We both need to find satisfaction in our careers, then we’ll do what we have to do to be happy in our relationship. You can’t have everything you want. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that."

* * *

"Hey, look at this Easter basket!" Townsend gave her friend a delighted smile while ripping open the clear, pink plastic that covered the gift.

"I couldn’t go home for Easter and not bring you a basket as nice as mine was," Hennessey explained.

"Did you have fun?"

"Yeah, I did. And for a change, I think Kate enjoyed herself, too. Gramma still thinks she’s a saint, so that helps a lot, and everyone else has started to treat her like a member of the family. She seems much more comfortable."

"Hmm … your words say one thing, but your expression says another. What’s wrong?"

"Oh, nothing. I’m just … uhm … Kate has made some decisions about next year, and I’m not very happy about them."

"Are you working on anything that’s absolutely pressing?" Townsend asked, in a seeming non sequitur.

"No, not really. Why?"

"Because we haven’t played hooky in ages. Let’s sneak out and go to the beach."

"To the beach?"

"Yeah. I’d love to take a long walk on the beach, maybe rent some surf casting gear. C’mon. We deserve a day off."

"We just had a five day weekend," Hennessey said, her blooming grin telegraphing her feelings.

"Yeah, but we weren’t together. I need a day with you. Now come on." She stood and picked up her carryall, giving Hennessey a questioning look.

"You’re the boss," the older woman said, adding a wink.

* * *

The pair deposited their shoes on a dock and took off, walking in the chilly surf. "It’s kinda nice to have a job where we can wear shorts most of the year, isn’t it?" Townsend asked.

"Sure is. Do you think you can wear shorts and walk on the beach in Baltimore in April?"

"Hold on there, sport. What’s this about Baltimore?"

"Johns Hopkins is Kate’s number one choice for a surgical residency."

"Oh, Hennessey." Townsend wrapped an arm around her friend’s waist and gave her a squeeze. "What happened to South Carolina?"

"If she’s gonna be a top flight trauma surgeon, she has to do her residency at a top flight hospital. USC isn’t a bad place, but it’s certainly no Johns Hopkins."

"Where are her other choices? Is USC one of them?"

"Nope. The others are in New York, California and Chicago. It doesn’t really make much difference to me which one she gets. None of them are near my home." She let out a melancholy sigh and shook her head. "None of them are near my job or my best friend, either."

Townsend reached over and took Hennessey’s hand. They walked in silence for a long while, both privately reflecting on the distressing development. "Are you considering staying behind?" Townsend finally asked.

Hennessey’s shoulders slumped as she said, "This is one of the ‘for better or worse’ times. I don’t want to leave, Townsend, but I have to be supportive of Kate. I can’t abandon her for four years — especially when she’ll need me so much."

"I assume that her residency will be tough, but will it be tougher than med school?"

"Oh, yeah. Much tougher. She’ll have much more responsibility, and her hours will be even worse. Most people agree that a surgical residency is the toughest of them all, and knowing Kate, she’ll throw herself into it with all of her heart."

"Where does that leave you? What about your career?"

"I’m going to try to find a teaching job," she said, looking thoroughly dejected. "I’ll apply at every college near her choices and hope that I get something in the city that Kate gets. It’s a crap shoot, but I don’t know what else to do."

Townsend stopped and let her hands drop to her sides. Her head tilted back, and she stared up at the sky for a full minute. "I hate to be this selfish, but I can’t bear the thought of your being so far away for so long." She ineffectually sniffed away her tears as Hennessey wrapped her in an emotion-filled hug.

"I don’t want to go," the brunette whispered. "I’m so happy here … so happy with my job … with our friendship. I love Kate; you know I do, but I love my life, too. And my life is here … with you."

"Oh, Hennessey, how are we going to get through this? I can’t do your job, and I can’t leave it open until you get back. It’s not fair to hire someone and then fire him or her when you return — if you return."

"No, of course you can’t do that," the brunette agreed. "You’ll have to replace me." Her voice caught as she said this, and she was unable to stop her tears. Her legs slowly gave out, and she found herself sitting cross-legged on the sand, her head buried in her hands.

Townsend was beside her in the blink of an eye, holding her and murmuring, "I don’t want to replace you. I don’t … I don’t."

With tears streaming down her face, Hennessey looked at her friend and sobbed, "What are we going to do?"

"I don’t know, sweetheart, but we’ll think of something. I swear we will. We’ll figure out a way around this, no matter what." She wrapped her arms around her friend’s shivering body and held her close, her own tears slipping into the inky, black strands of Hennessey’s glossy hair.

* * *

Hennessey jumped for the phone when it rang, Townsend staring at her with wide eyes, amazed at her quick reaction time. "Hi, baby," she said, a smile twitching at her lips. "What’s the news?" She paused for a moment, and Townsend could see her wince slightly, then let out a breath. "Wow. That’s quite an accomplishment, Kate. I don’t know many people who get their first choice after having been out of school for two years. You should be very proud of yourself — I know I am."

Townsend smiled at the dark-haired woman, happy to have a friend of such character. She knew this was the last thing that Hennessey wanted, and she truly admired her for being so supportive of her partner. She got up and let the women have their privacy, pausing to run her hand through her friend’s hair and pat her shoulder as she left the room.

* * *

Three weeks later, Townsend walked into the office to find Hennessey making a series of paper airplanes and sailing them across the room — trying to reach the wastebasket. "Having fun?" the blonde asked.

"Not really. I’ve decided to stop saving my rejection letters. I’m throwing them all away, just in case they’re bad juju."

"No luck, huh?"

"Nope. I got some interest from Loyola, in Chicago, and the City University of New York, but they won’t do me much good in Baltimore. Baltimore is a smaller town, with far fewer colleges and universities. It’s gonna be much tougher to find a job."

"What will you do if you can’t find one? Don’t you need the money?"

"Hell, yes, we need the money," Hennessey said with more asperity than she had intended. She shook her head and said, "I’m sorry, honey. I’m just on my last nerve. Kate’s gonna make less than minimum wage when you consider the hours she’ll be working. I’m gonna have to find something — even if it’s not teaching."

"Like what?"

"I don’t know. I guess I could waitress — Lord knows I have enough experience."

"Hennessey, I can’t let you do that! You have a Ph.D!"

With another perturbed scowl settling on her face, the brunette said, "I know that. No one knows better than I that I’ve worked my ass off for that Ph.D., but if I can’t find a teaching job, I have to do something, Townsend. We can’t live if I don’t work."

"Let me lend you the money," Townsend offered. "I’d be happy to lend you enough so that you could stay home and write. This could be a great opportunity for you to work on your novel."

Hennessey sighed. "I can’t. I wish I could, but I can’t."

She was shaking her head as she spoke, and Townsend knew her well enough to know she was wasting her breath, but she continued to press. "Hennessey, don’t be so hard-headed about this. How will it help your relationship for you to spend four years working as a waitress? How will it help your career? How will it prepare you for your next career move?"

"It won’t," she admitted quietly. "But Kate would never allow you to support us. Her parents have offered, but I don't feel right about taking money when I'm fully capable of working."

"Listen to yourself, Hennessey! Is your pride worth more than your future?" She wiped at her face with her hands, her eyes tightly closed. "Shit. I’m sorry. This is none of my business. Only you two can work this out." She gave her friend a chagrined look and asked, "Forgive me?"

Hennessey let a small smile escape, then nodded slightly. "Of course I do. I wish that I could be more flexible, but I've got too much of my gramma in me. I can't bear to accept money for not working."

"Isn’t there any way I can help?" the smaller woman asked.

"None that I can think of. But believe me, if I think of a way, you’ll be the first to know."

* * *

On the following Saturday, Hennessey stood on Townsend’s porch, trying to maintain her composure. "I’ll have my computer hooked up soon, and I’ll write to you before you leave for the summer," she said, her voice strained and tense.

"All right." Townsend looked deeply into her friend’s eyes, and for the first time, she saw an underlying unhappiness reflected in the bright orbs. Without allowing herself a moment to censor her thoughts, she said, "Are you sure this is the right thing for you? Baltimore's only a day’s drive from here, and you could easily work a four-day work week and take off on Friday for a long weekend with Kate. Plus, you have the entire summer off. Is it worth it to give up something you love just for the two of you to be in the same city?"

The dark head nodded slowly. "I love Kate more than I love my job." Her lips twitched into a smile, and she added, "That just shows how much I love Kate." Hennessey wrapped her arms around her friend and hugged her close. "I’ll miss you more than I will ever be able to tell you. These last two years have been the happiest ones of my life, and you’re one of the biggest reasons for that."

"I feel the same," Townsend sniffed. "Your friendship means so much to me. I don’t know how I’ll get through the summer, much less the next four years."

"Well, you don’t have to spend the summer miles from an Internet connection," Hennessey chided teasingly.

"I never thought it would happen, but I really enjoy hiking. Thank goodness Nicole’s as much an outdoorsy type as I am. Not many sane women would agree to spend the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail."

"I think it’s fantastic," Hennessey said, her pleasure showing in her eyes.

"When does Kate begin her residency?"

"July the 15th. Until then, we’ll be finding a place to live and trying to get comfortable in Baltimore. I know it’ll be easier to find a job when I’m there, so I’m trying to be confident, even though I have no particular reason to be." Hennessey’s eyes shifted. "When are you going to start looking for your new Director of Curriculum?"

"Not until I get back from my vacation. I’m going to spend the summer trying to talk Nicole into moving down here. That’s what I’m going to focus on. We’ve got fall term nailed down, so there’s no hurry to find someone."

"Maybe Nicole can replace me," Hennessey said, sounding suddenly jealous.

"I don’t think that’s a goal of hers, but we’ll see," the blonde said. "I don’t think I’ll ever find anyone to do the kind of job that you did, baby."

"You’re being too generous, but I appreciate it," Hennessey said. "I’d better get going. Kate wants to leave by 10:00. Oh … she wanted to come say goodbye, too, but I wanted to be alone with you. I didn’t want to have to put on a brave front."

Townsend hugged her close and said, "You never have to put on a front for me. I love you just as you are."

"I know," Hennessey whispered. "I feel the same about you."

"You’d better scoot. Don’t want to keep the good doctor waiting."

Hennessey kissed Townsend gently on the lips. "I love you," she said hoarsely. "I always will."

"I love you, too," Townsend said, her voice breaking. "Please, please, be happy. I won’t be able to bear it if you’re not."

"I’ll do my best," Hennessey said. "You do the same for me."

"I will." Slowly, they released each other and stood for a moment, looking deeply into each other’s eyes. Finally, Hennessey turned abruptly and scampered down the steps, holding up a hand in a final wave.

* * *

The middle of August was always hot in South Carolina, but this year it seemed even hotter than usual. Hennessey knew that part of the problem was that she'd lived and worked in air conditioned comfort for too many years, but that wasn't something she'd ever admit to her family. So, she tried to cope with the heat by wearing as little as possible and staying outside as much as possible. But on this particular night, the bugs were biting; and no matter how much insect repellent she put on they were still getting to her.

Heading upstairs, she went into the bath and filled the tub with cool water. She undressed and climbed in, feeling as down and rootless as she could ever remember. Her restless mind wandered to Townsend - as it often did, and she tried to imagine how hot and tired her friend must be. She doesn't have air conditioning or a tub, so I should count my blessings. But she didn't feel like counting her blessings; she felt like sulking. And that's exactly what she did - for nearly an hour. She hadn't turned the light on, not wanting one extra bit of heat in the room, and slowly the soft night-sounds of the Low Country started to soothe her.

Finally refreshed, she got out and dried off deliberately ineffectually, wanting the fan in her room to hit her wet skin and drop her body temperature another degree or two. She had dozens of books she wanted to read, but couldn't manage the interest, so she plugged her computer in. I'm sure I don't have any mail, but I can at least write to Townsend. It always feels better to put my thoughts on paper. Hmm … I guess someone should coin a new phrase. I hardly ever write on paper anymore. Maybe … put fingers to keyboard? I'll have to work on that.

Her computer screen threw off a dull, blue light in the dark room, illuminating the space just enough for her to be able to move around without tripping over anything. She sat on the floor to write, the coolest place in the room. I guess I should check my mail. I don't think I've looked at it all week. It took a minute to find the modem line, and a few more to creep down the stairs to plug the fifty foot cord into the phone jack in the kitchen. Once back in her room, she was pleased to see that she had six messages. None of the addresses were familiar, and she was set to delete them all, but she was bored enough to read them. The first three were variations on a theme — offering more porn for less money — and she quickly deleted them. The next two were also spam, solicitations for on-line casinos, another service she wasn't interested in.

The last note was from the United States Forest Service, and it took her a moment to check the header to see that it was from Townsend. "Cool!" she said aloud. Quietly, she began to read.

From: U.S. Forest Service <usfs.gov> Sent: August 15, 2003

To: Hennessey Boudreaux <hbeaudreux@freemailcom>

cc:

Subject: DON'T YOU DARE DELETE THIS, STRETCH!

Hi I know this isn't my usual e-mail address, but neither of us thought of having remote access to our computers at camp. I wish I could blame you, but I think it's my fault, so I'd better not try. You always know the score, stretch. Anyway, we're at a small camp that the Forest Service maintains for hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Boy, did we ever need it! Having a cot and a kitchen — even a poorly equipped one — has been a blessing. I'm so sick of dehydrated food that if I never see another foil packet of beef stew it will be far too soon! I don't have a new e-mail addy for you, and since I can't get to my mail, I'm just gonna guess that you're still using your freemail account. I know you hate to pay for things that you can get for free, so I'm betting on your cheapness, bud <s>. Things are going pretty well on the hike. I'd love to do this again someday, Hennessey, but next time I'd like to do it with you. I know you'd love hiking if you'd give it a try, and your creative mind would soar out here with nothing but the beauty of nature to distract you. I had high hopes when I started this trip, but things haven't worked out like I'd planned. Nicole is almost the perfect woman for me, but as you told me a long time ago, almost isn't good enough. We haven't fought, so things are fine between us — well, not fine, but not tense, either. I know she's hurt, and I hate that I hurt her, but there's something missing, Hennessey, and I can't build a life with a woman when I know something is missing. Nicole's a very good sport, and she's done her best to make me feel better about breaking up. That's just the kind of woman she is, and that's one of the many, many wonderful things about her. But I don't love her with abandon — and I've got to be able to do that. Life's too short to be with someone that you can't love recklessly. I think she understands — she says she does — but I still feel like an ass for having led her on for so long. She's a great woman, Hennessey, she's just not my great woman. I'm not sure I'll ever be with the woman I dream about, but I'm not going to stop hoping — at least not yet <s>. I hope things are going great for you, bud. You can't write back to me since I don't expect to stop at even a rough camp again, but I'll be home on Labor Day, and I'd better have a very long letter from you waiting for me. It's gonna kill me to start work again without you, but I'm gonna do my best to keep moving forward. I hope that some day you can come back to camp, but I know that's unlikely. It's just one of the dreams I have, Hennessey, and I'm not ready to give it up. I love you, and I want nothing but the best for you. Be happy — for me. Love, T

  

 

 

Hennessey read the letter at least a dozen times, each reading bringing a bigger and brighter smile to her lips.

* * *

On Labor Day, Townsend pulled her SUV into the driveway of her home, stunned to see Hennessey’s father's dilapidated truck parked at the front of the space. Jumping out, she ran around the back of the house and found her friend sitting on the wide, shaded porch.

A cheap, Styrofoam cooler, filled with cold bottles of water and cranberry juice, sat beside her, and an open bag of chips lay on the table. Hennessey was wearing the top of a pink and white Hawaiian print bikini, her burnished skin glowing with a fine layer of perspiration. A very small portion of her brown legs was covered by white, cutoff jeans, and her feet were bare. Her long, black hair was twisted into a braid and had been clipped to the back of her head, making her look remarkably cool despite the sizzling hot day. When Townsend came dashing around the corner, Hennessey’s head turned, and she let a slow, lazy smile play at her lips. Tilting her water bottle at her friend, she asked, "Thirsty?"

"Hennessey Boudreaux, what in the hell are you doing here?"

"It's a holiday so I decided to spend it with my best friend. I got your letter and knew you'd be back today — so here I am."

Townsend climbed the few stairs and gave her friend a very generous hug and a kiss. Hennessey’s lips were moist and tasted of perspiration, but Townsend had rarely experienced a nicer kiss. "I missed you." Townsend ostentatiously sniffed all over her friend’s mostly bare body, "You smell wonderful. Kinda like a Pina Colada. Damn, I’ve missed you so much. You have no idea."

Patting the arms that encircled her, Hennessey said, "I think I have an idea. I have a darned good idea if it was half as much as I missed you." She pulled away and took a good look at her friend. Townsend was wearing a white, sleeveless cotton shirt, and a pair of khaki shorts. "My, that’s a nice tan you’ve got there," she said, not managing to stifle a laugh. She poked gently at the various lines, commenting, "I love tan lines, but I don’t know that a dozen of them is the best look for you."

"Funny." Townsend gave her friend a pinch and said, "I wore the strongest sun block available, and I changed the length of my shirtsleeves and shorts and socks every day, but it didn’t help much. We were in the sun for twelve hours a day and I kept wishing that I could wear my bikini top, but there were too many insects. I’d much rather have a bad tan than a bunch of bug bites."

"I think you look cute," Hennessey said. "Fit and trim and healthy. You honestly look fantastic," she said, her sincerity obvious.

"Thanks," Townsend said, blushing slightly.

"Now sit down here and tell me what happened with Nicole. Your letter didn't go into much detail."

Townsend took out a bottle of juice from the cooler and drank half of the bottle in one long gulp. "I, uhm … I don’t really know what to say," she mumbled, looking vaguely uncomfortable. "We get along very well, we’re very fond of each other, and we both want the same kind of life."

"So where’s the problem?" Hennessey asked, her brow knit.

Townsend looked away, staring at a blue heron that was moving slowly across her yard, seeking some unseen prey. "I … I don’t know," she said.

Staring at her intently, Hennessey asked, "You don’t know, or you’d rather not say?"

Lips pursed, Townsend closed her eyes and said, "A little of both. I love her, Hennessey, and she loves me, but we discovered that we don’t love each other enough to make it work. We’re not … totally committed to each other. And you should know better than most that a relationship takes a total commitment. I wish we could have made the leap, but I think it’s better to know the truth now — rather than have her pull up stakes and move here, only to turn around and go back."

Hennessey nodded. "I understand that you need to keep some things private, baby, but if you ever want to talk, or cry on my shoulder, I hope you know that I’m here for you."

Smiling warmly, Townsend said, "Only in the metaphysical sense, sweetheart. When do you have to go back?"

"I’m leaving tonight. I need to be back for the breakfast shift."

"Oh, shit," Townsend moaned. "Are you really waitressing?"

"Yeah, but I hope this is my last week. I was hoping I could talk my old boss into taking me back."

Townsend gave her a perplexed look and asked, "Old boss? What old boss? You’ve never worked in Baltimore before. Do you have a professor there?"

"Nope." Hennessey looked her in the eye and said, "I’m asking for my job back. I want to work for you again, Townsend. That is, if you haven’t already filled my slot."

"What? Jesus, Hennessey, what in the hell's happened?"

"Is that a yes? I’d really like to get this job thing settled. I can’t be a waitress for one minute more than I have to be."

Townsend threw her arms around her friend and said, "Of course you can have your job back! Of course!" They hugged for a long time, with Townsend finally saying, "Oh, Hennessey, I’ve missed you so much. No one has ever held me like you do. No one has ever made me feel so well loved."

"I’ve missed you, too," the brunette whispered. "You can see how much when you get your e-mail."

The blonde head lifted, and Townsend asked, "E-mail?"

"I’ve been writing to you all summer," Hennessey said. "I knew you wouldn’t read it until you returned, but I needed to sort things out, and I’ve never found a better listener, even when you’re not there."

"Tell me what’s happened, sweetheart," Townsend said. "Why are you coming back?"

"It's a long story," Hennessey said. "A very long story. I could try to tell you everything, but I'm sure that I'll forget something. Why don't you read the e-mails I sent? Then you'll get the whole picture."

"Really?" Townsend's nose wrinkled as she studied her friend. "Is that really what you want?"

"Yeah. I don't have long and I don't want to spend the whole time talking about me. I'm much more interested in you."

"Well, I'm interested in you!" Townsend slapped at her friend's tanned leg and squeezed her thigh. "You're getting a muscle there."

"I am," Hennessey agreed. "Being on my feet has been good for me after spending the last hundred years sitting on my butt. I've been thinking about starting to exercise. Can you help me out?"

"Yes!" Townsend's eyes lit up with delight. "We can go walking in the morning before work!"

"It's a deal," Hennessey said. "I've always been an early riser. Might as well do something productive."

Townsend looked at her friend for a minute, her eyes taking in the long body then lingering on her face. "Something's happened with Kate, hasn't it."

Smiling, Hennessey said, "Many things. And when you read your mail, you'll learn about all of them."

"Okay, okay. Just tell me one thing. Are you happy?"

"Happy?" Hennessey sat back in her chair and stared into the middle distance for a few moments. When she turned back, she had a half smile on her expressive face. "I think …" She pursed her lips and then thoughtfully bit the bottom one. "I think I'm on the verge of being happier than I've ever been. I might be completely wrong, but if things work out like I hope they will …" She gave Townsend a blindingly bright smile and said, "I'm tentatively blissful."

Townsend's expression showed she was baffled, but she allowed her friend to keep her secrets. "I guess I'd better read my e-mail, huh?"

"The e-mails just tell what's happened this summer. You won't learn all of the secrets to my happiness in them. I'll have to fill a few things in."

"But you won't."

"Not right now, I won't."

"When?"

"Soon." Hennessey smiled and patted her friend's knee. "Or never."

"Could you be any more obtuse?"

"Don't think so." Giving her an adorably charming grin, she added, "Actually, I probably could be a little more obtuse, but then I'd just be annoying."

"You're annoying now!"

"Sure you want me back?"

"Positive. Even when you're annoying, you're still my favorite person."

"That's my goal, ma'am," Hennessey said in her slowest southern drawl.

Townsend got up and sat on her friend's lap, making Hennessey blink in surprise. "I can't help it," the blonde said. "I missed you so much, I have to hug you for a while."

"You won't hear a complaint from me," Hennessey said. "I have to leave in about an hour, but you're welcome to my lap for the duration."

Cuddling close, Townsend said, "I might take you up on that, stretch. It's been a long summer without you, and having you here again is a dream come true."

With a little bit of luck, we'll both have some of our dreams realized this year, Hennessey thought, closing her eyes and relishing the feel of Townsend's body.

* * *

Townsend insisted that Hennessey leave while it was still light out. "You've got a very long drive ahead of you, and I don't want to be worried about you all night. Now get going, and I'll see you sometime this weekend. We start work bright and early on Monday morning."

"I've never heard sweeter words," Hennessey said. She gave her friend another long hug, then kissed her gently on the lips. "I'm so glad to be back home."

"I'm so glad to have you. Now I have to go inside and find out why you're coming back."

"Have fun," Hennessey said, showing a devilish smile.

* * *

concluded in Part 19