The Right Thing

By SX Meagher

 

Part 4

Hennessey’s grandparents insisted that the girls go off and do something fun, so the brunette decided she wanted to take Townsend to her favorite place in Beaufort County. The day was a little cooler than the previous one had been, and they dressed in turtlenecks and sweaters, along with jeans. They stopped at a local diner and had a fantastic breakfast, with Townsend wondering why any of the locals were thin. "Is everything fried down here?" she asked, watching Hennessey eat fried cornmeal mush drenched in maple syrup.

"Unh-uh. Some things are made up entirely of sugar, and we don’t usually fry that – although there are exceptions."

"I’m gonna gain ten pounds in two weeks, Hennessey."

"You might," she agreed. "But you’ll enjoy every minute of it."

* * *

They drove to the ACE Wildlife Preserve, with Hennessey going on and on about how the land came to be set aside, and how many acres it covered. She was a font of knowledge on the subject, and by the time they reached the land, Townsend felt like she could teach a course on it, as well.

They got out of the car and walked for a long while, hands loosely linked, neither speaking. "This is what the low country was like just one hundred fifty years ago," Hennessey said. "Hardwoods, pine forests, swampland – just pure natural beauty as far as the eye could see. All sorts of wildlife – alligators, herons, bald eagles … you name it. But once it was discovered that Sea Island cotton grew well here, hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared to plant the crop. The cotton crop made a lot of landowners very, very wealthy – it helped to build a lot of the mansions we saw down on Bay Street. But when the market went bust, all we were left with was a screwed up ecosystem and a lot of cleared land. Damn, some of those trees were hundreds of years old – gone like that!" She snapped her fingers, while shaking her head.

"Conservation means a lot to you, doesn’t it?" Townsend asked.

"Yeah, it does, but like most things in the South, I have decidedly mixed feelings about it."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning my family makes their living by fishing, and has done so for well over a hundred years. Fishermen fight tooth and nail to escape prohibitions and conservation measures, even though without conservation these waters will be fished out within a generation." She shook her head sadly. "Like the big fight that’s gone on for years about the sea turtle. Shrimpers are the biggest culprits, Townsend. I’m sure my father and grandfather have personally been responsible for unintentionally killing hundreds, maybe thousands of sea turtles by catching them in the shrimp nets. They’re on the verge of extinction in some areas, and there’s a simple gadget, called a turtle extruder device that’s pretty effective at keeping them out of the nets. But the shrimp industry has been fighting on every front to avoid using them. On one hand it makes me crazy, but on the other hand, my family depends on shrimp to stay alive. I think it’s fairly obvious that we’re small time, and the margin we operate on is razor thin. Reducing our catch just ten percent could put my grandparents on welfare." She laughed bitterly and added, "Knowing my grandparents, they’d starve before they’d go on government assistance, and I mean that literally."

Townsend had nothing to say to her friend’s emotion-filled tirade. She just clenched her hand a little tighter, and walked with her – trying to see Hennessey’s beloved homeland through her eyes.

* * *

They walked for almost two hours without a word being exchanged. "This reminds me of the walks I used to go on with my granddaddy. We hardly ever said a word, but just holding his big, rough hand was reassuring to me in a way I can’t explain."

"Hey, I’ve only been here one day. My hands can’t be that rough, yet."

"No, your hands aren’t rough, baby. They’re about the softest things I’ve ever felt in my life."

Snaking an arm around Hennessey’s waist, the blonde teased, "I’ve got a few softer spots. One day you’ll get to feel them."

"One day," Hennessey said. "That’s the key."

* * *

On the way back home, Hennessey grew quiet, not talking for quite a few minutes. This was not the same easy silence they had shared on the walk; Hennessey was obviously troubled. "What’s going on in that pretty head?" Townsend asked her.

"Mmm … I was thinking that I should go visit my mother. I mean, it is Christmas and all."

"That’s okay, baby. You do what you have to do." Reaching over to pat her leg, she said, "I’d be happy to go with you – but only if you want me to."

"Would you really? It’s never pleasant, Townsend. She usually winds up screaming at me or crying, and I always end up in tears."

"I’m very good at drying tears," Townsend assured her. "At least, I think I am. Wanna try me out?"

Hennessey gave her a half-smile, and nodded. "Let’s give it a whirl."

* * *

They headed out to the "bad side of town" as Hennessey put it, and Townsend wasn’t able to dispute her claim. Hennessey’s family was poor but proud, but these people had lost even their pride – probably generations before. The level of poverty was shocking to Townsend, who thought she’d seen poverty in the rough parts of Boston. But this was a whole new animal for her. And when this sort of back-breaking poverty was so close to the playgrounds of the very, very wealthy, it just made it all the more poignant.

They passed a grocery store that looked like it was gonna be the last one they saw for a while, so Townsend made a suggestion. "Why don’t we stop and buy your mom some food, honey? You say she always asks for money – why not beat her to the punch with a gift?"

Hennessey nodded. "That’s a good idea, sweet pea. I think I’ve got about $15 on me. That’ll buy her a decent meal."

Once inside the store, Hennessey shopped carefully, trying to make her funds last. "Is there anything special we could get her? Kinda like a present?" Townsend asked.

"Well, I hate to contribute to her demise, but she does love to smoke. I could probably buy her some cigarettes." She shrugged. "If I bought her anything decent, she’d return it and buy liquor. At least she loves cigarettes as much as booze."

"Let me buy her some, baby. Just as a little Christmas present from her future daughter-in-law."

"You know, I don’t think I go more than five minutes at a time without smiling when I’m with you. You’re very good for me, Townsend. Very good, indeed."

Townsend was more persuasive than she knew, and Hennessey allowed her to buy, not only two cartons of cigarettes, but a canned ham, some cans of tuna, peanut butter, jelly and a few boxes of crackers. At the checkout counter, Hennessey asked, "If I decide I don’t want some of these things, can I bring them back?"

"Why on earth would you want to do that?" the clerk asked.

"I don’t know. I just might not be in the mood for ham later on."

"No, honey, you can’t return food unless there’s something wrong with it – and we check."

"Fine." Hennessey gave her a warm smile. "That’s just fine."

Townsend had added a roll of wrapping paper and a roll of tape, and they spent a few minutes wrapping the cigarettes on the trunk of the car. The blonde then produced a card that Hennessey hadn’t seen her buy. It was a syrupy, sappy card that sang the praises of motherhood, and when Hennessey’s eyes widened, Townsend said quietly, "Even though she’ll know it’s not true, it might make her feel better to think that there’s a chance you feel this way about her."

Wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, Hennessey signed the card with the gold-toned pen that Townsend supplied. "Keep your eyes on your wallet, and that pen," she advised, her mouth set in a grim line. "She’s tried to take my wallet from my pocket while she’s hugging me."

They got in the car and drove the rest of the way in silence, Townsend unable to think of a comforting rejoinder to Hennessey’s comment.

* * *

"Well, here we are. The great trailer burial ground." With wide eyes, Townsend looked around. Most of the trailers looked like they’d been damaged in some way, or had been discarded by their previous owners. It wasn’t exactly a trailer park – more like an eclectic assemblage of the battered homes without much rhyme or reason.

"Do they have electricity?" Townsend asked.

"Yeah. They have hook-ups – when they pay the bill. Half the time my mamma’s place is in the dark. Thank God there’s a portable toilet over at the edge of the lot. Knowing her, she’d go right in the middle of the rug when the water was turned off."

"Damn, we should have bought her some bottled water!"

Turning off the car, Hennessey sat quietly for a few moments, then leaned over and kissed Townsend’s forehead tenderly. She wrapped her in a hug and held on tight for a surprisingly long time. "I never thought anyone would understand," she whispered. "I’ve always worried that the guy I fell for would run for the hills when he met my family. And here you, one of the wealthiest people I’ve ever met, not only understand – you want to make her life better. Thank you, Townsend. Thank you so much."

"I do understand," the blonde murmured. "I also understand that I could have ended up in her shoes if a certain blue-eyed girl hadn’t helped me climb out of the hole I was in. You understood me," she said. "No one ever had."

Hennessey released her, then got out of the car, carrying the majority of the bags. As she trotted alongside, Townsend asked, "Should we keep our story straight, that we’re friends from Harvard?"

"Doesn’t matter. She won’t even remember we were here."

* * *

Much to her surprise, when Hennessey knocked on the door, her mother answered almost immediately, and upon quick inspection, appeared to be sober. "Hi, Mamma," she said, giving her a tight smile. "Just came by to wish you a merry Christmas."

"Hennessey! Get your self in here, girl!" They entered the ramshackle trailer, and Townsend now understood what the term "dirt poor" meant. The place was ghastly, and smelled absolutely awful, but Hennessey’s mother was fully dressed and sober, so she counted her blessings.

"Mamma, this is my very good friend, Townsend. Townsend, this is my mother, Maribelle Pikes."

"Pleased to meet you," the woman said. Townsend parroted a reply, too taken aback by the woman’s appearance to say more. If Maribelle had been placed in a lineup with an African American, a Japanese, and an Inuit; and Townsend was charged with picking out Hennessey’s mother, Maribelle would have been her last choice – even if the others were men. There was not one hint, not one iota of resemblance between the women, and Townsend wondered if Hennessey could have been switched at birth. Maribelle was no more than five foot six, and as Hennessey had warned, she was dangerously underweight. Her hair was an odd, lackluster mousy brown, curly in spots, and wavy in others, and downright sparse in various places. Her eyes were close in color to her hair, and were as flat and lifeless as a doll’s. With skin that looked as though it hadn’t been exposed to the sun in years, blue veins were luridly visible, making Townsend a little sick to her stomach. But when Maribelle showed her teeth, the young woman almost lost it. Crooked, yellowed, a few noticeably missing, Maribelle had the look of a woman who’d lived on the streets – although with her pale skin, she must have only come out at night.

"We brought you a few things for the holidays, Mamma. I know times are a little tight right now."

"Oh, my, they surely are," she agreed, her accent much stronger than Hennessey’s. "I was just down at the county office this morning – just got back not a lick before you showed up. I told that man I needed an increase, but they don’t listen. They never listen, you know."

"I’m sure they don’t, Mamma. Well, I know you like to have a little food in the house, so we bought you some things that’ll last for a bit. Is your power on?" She looked pointedly at a lit candle, which provided the only illumination in the dim trailer.

"Why, of course it is, honey. Why wouldn’t it be?"

"Oh, you never know. Anyway, I bought you a turkey and some potatoes. Since tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, I thought you might like to make a nice dinner for you and …" She pursed her lips, trying to think of the latest man her mother had mentioned.

"Kenneth, honey. Well, that’s very, very nice of you. I’m sure Kenneth would love a good meal." She went to the bags and started to paw through them. "Now, if I just had a little holiday cheer, you know, maybe some eggnog …"

"I’m sorry, Mamma," Hennessey said, actually sounding as though she were. "I didn’t have enough money for anything extra." She extended the wrapped package and the card, and said, "But we did buy you a present. It’s not much, but …"

The paper was off the package before Hennessey could complete her sentence. "Boy, do I need these," Maribelle said, sounding genuinely pleased. "Thanks for thinking of your Mamma, baby." Townsend noticed that the woman didn’t even give a thought to opening the card, and she tried to avoid looking into Hennessey’s eyes, unwilling to see the hurt that she knew would be there.

"Well, I guess we’ll be off, Mamma. We’re gonna go help with dinner at the shack."

"You can stay and visit for a while if you want," she said, the invitation decidedly unenthusiastic.

"No, I know you’re busy. I’ll let ya go."

"You stop in and say hello again, all right? I hardly see you at all anymore. Where you been keeping yourself?"

"I’m away at college, Mamma," she said softly, and Townsend made the critical error of meeting her friend’s eyes. She nearly burst into tears, but she knew she had to be strong for Hennessey, so she held them in.

"Oh, that’s right. Where do you go again, baby?"

"Boston," she said, not wasting the breath to explain exactly where Harvard was.

"That’s right. You go to Boston." She started to walk them to the door, cocking her head to ask, "How do you pay for a plane ticket all the way to Boston, baby?"

Unable to witness another moment of this torture, Townsend twitched her head in the direction of the car and walked down the gravel path, trying to give her friend some privacy. She turned and watched the scene, seeing Hennessey’s hands go to her back pockets as she rocked on her heels, a nervous habit. The dark head shook, softly at first, then more vigorously. Finally, she tossed a hand in the air in a poor attempt at a wave, and stalked away. Maribelle started to come after her, but when Hennessey heard her, she wheeled around and shouted, "Don’t you dare ask her for money! Don’t you dare!" She turned and started to jog, grabbing Townsend’s hand as she flew by. They ran until they reached the car, then Hennessey jumped in and peeled out so quickly that Townsend almost didn’t get her leg in. As soon as they reached the dirt road that led to the place, Hennessey turned off the car and leaned against the steering wheel, crying so piteously that Townsend was unable to hold her own emotions in any longer. Eventually, they came together and held each other, their tears dropping onto each other’s shoulders.

* * *

As they made their way back to the house, Townsend said, "We may as well get all of the upsetting topics out at once. I noticed your father didn’t come home last night again. Is that something you’re worried about, too, baby?"

"No, not really. He’s a pretty good-looking guy. It’s not uncommon for him to pick up a woman and shack up with her for a few days. Eventually, she’ll get sick of his act and throw him out. I can’t imagine he’s not impotent," she said, with no emotion in her voice. "I’m not an authority or anything, but I’d think that most women that picked up a good-looking, fairly charming man would be disappointed when he couldn’t perform."

"Do you think of him as your father?" Townsend asked. "I don’t mean that like it sounds, baby," she added when Hennessey gave her a stunned look. "I just wondered if he seemed more like an uncle or a much older brother."

"Oh. Well, I guess in a way that’s what he seems like. It was always like my grandparents had two kids – only I needed less watching over."

"He does know you’re coming home, doesn’t he?"

"Oh, sure. He’s still got a pretty good memory. He’s not nearly as bad as my mother is. He’s always been more of a binge kinda guy. He could be perfectly fine for months at a time, but something would set him off. My guess is that my coming home did the trick this time."

"But why …?"

"He’s a pretty smart guy, Townsend, he had a lot of promise in school. Gramma says there was talk of him getting a scholarship to U.S.C. But he knocked up my mother, and around here you do the right thing and marry the girl. That destroyed any chance he had at a better life. He started working with Granddaddy, and that’s all she wrote. He didn’t love my mother – hell, I don’t think he even liked her. She wasn’t even his girlfriend to hear Gramma talk. But you know how guys are – they hear about a loose girl and they all want a pop at her."

"I know; I was that girl," the blonde said quietly, making Hennessey want to bite her tongue for saying such an insensitive thing.

"I’m sorry, sweet pea. I know you’ve made some of the same mistakes my mamma did. I just thank God that you stopped when you did."

"I do, too, Hennessey, believe me, I do, too."

* * *

They were once again forbidden from helping with the dinner crowd, so they sat in the restaurant, hanging out at a table in the rear, just watching the other customers and chatting when something struck one of them.

"We just have time to make the meeting, honey. Ready to go?"

"I think I had a meeting already today, Hennessey. Seeing your mother strengthened my resolve to stay sober more than a dozen meetings."

"All right. I’m a little sick of seeing the effects of alcohol myself."

When there was a lull in the crowd, Hennessey went into the kitchen and came out with a big platter of fried shrimp and hush puppies, watching with delight while Townsend once more sang the praises of Chez Boudreaux.

Around 8:30, a very tall, ruggedly handsome, black-haired man came shuffling into the restaurant. "Hennessey, your father’s here," Townsend said quietly.

The young woman turned around and got up, going over to offer a tentative hug. The man returned it awkwardly, then walked over to meet Townsend. "Daddy, this is my good friend, Townsend. Townsend, this is my father, Dawayne."

Townsend stood and extended her hand, shaking the large, rough, callused one that Dawayne offered. "It’s nice to meet you."

"Same here," he said, smiling gently. He actually looked a little sheepish and more than a little shy, and Townsend could see why women would be drawn to him. He had retained his good looks, his constant exposure to sun making him look tan and healthy, even if he wasn’t. "Mamma and Daddy in the kitchen?"

"Sure are."

"Gonna see if I can scare up some supper. I’ll be right back."

He left, with Townsend looking after him as he walked. "Gosh, you look just like him, honey."

"Yeah. I guess I do. When I was little, I used to hear about some child or another being born and no one knowing who the daddy was. I used to dream that no one knew who my mother was – that I belonged to just my daddy."

"So, he’s been pretty consistent with you?"

"No, nothing like that. He’s completely unreliable. But when he was home he was always pleasant and quiet. He acted like he knew he should be a better father – he at least has some remorse."

"He doesn’t drink at home?"

"No, no, no! There isn’t a drop of alcohol in the house. Never was, never will be. My granddaddy had a habit when he came home from the war, and my gramma put a stop to that immediately. They say you can’t force someone to stop drinking, but Gramma did. I don’t know how she did it, but he hasn’t had a drop since … oh … 1970 or so."

"I guess there’s an exception to every rule," Townsend said, smiling.

"That’s Gramma. She’s an exception to a lot of rules."

* * *

After the kitchen was cleaned, both women were wrung out. When Hennessey came out of the bathroom, Townsend was lying on the box spring, just as they had agreed.

When Hennessey was settled, the blonde turned to her and asked, "You know, in all this time I’ve never asked you who you were named for. Is Hennessey a family name?"

"Not hardly."

"Uhm … wanna tell me?"

"Yeah … I guess. Uhm … my mother had rather romantic notions when she was a girl. She’d been trying to think of a name for me while she was pregnant, and she wanted it to be something classy. She wasn’t having much success, and my daddy was no help at all. So, on the day she gave birth, they were traveling down some country road on the way to the county hospital – where they could have me for free." She gave Townsend a tight smile and continued. "They came upon a billboard for Hennessey brandy … Heck, I think it’s still standing, whoever owns it obviously forgot about it. Anyway, it was a picture of a man and woman, toasting each other with brandy snifters. The man had on a tuxedo, and the woman was in an evening gown, with her hair all done up. Apparently, my mamma thought that was about the classiest thing she’d ever seen. Daddy didn’t have any objection, so Hennessey it was – whether I was a girl or a boy."

The story was vaguely humorous, but it was also so deeply poignant that Townsend felt incredibly sad. Sad for the young woman who dreamed of a life far beyond her station; sad for the baby named after the substance which would destroy her relationship with her mother; and sad for the shame she could hear in Hennessey’s voice.

"You know what?" Townsend asked, softly. "I’m feeling a little raw. Could I impose on you for a friendly, definitely non-sexual hug?"

"How about a cuddle?" Hennessey climbed onto the box spring and folded her long body up behind her friend. Both women sighed as their bodies molded together, and after a long while Hennessey heard herself say, "Did I promise this was a non-sexual cuddle, or did you?"

"That was me," Townsend giggled. "You’re free to do as you please, sweetness."

"I’d like to kiss the back of your neck, then get onto that mattress before my hormones change my mind for me." She lifted Townsend’s pale hair and tenderly brushed her lips against the soft, smooth skin. "Delicious." Climbing off, Hennessey lay quietly for a moment then said, "Wanna know a secret?"

"Sure."

"At camp, when I pulled that spider from your hair, I found myself having the fleeting thought that I’d like to kiss your neck. I pulled your hair away, and your neck looked so tasty and sweet … That was the first time I’d ever felt that way. It scared me."

"I still remember how cool and gentle your hands were. I should have been frightened to have a big spider crawling on me, but once you touched me I knew I was safe."

"Can you sleep on your tummy?"

"Huh?"

"If you can sleep on your tummy, you could dangle an arm down, and we could hold hands while we sleep. Does that sound like a good idea?"

Townsend rolled over onto her belly and dropped her arm, smiling when Hennessey grasped it and then placed a gentle kiss on her pulse point. She held the warm hand in both of her own, and murmured, "I feel safe when I hold your hand. Safe, and warm and secure. Like nothing can hurt me."

* * *

Hennessey had big plans for Christmas Eve. She was bustling around the house by the time Townsend came downstairs, and the blonde cocked her head and asked, "Are we going somewhere?"

"We most certainly are!" A pile of gear was blocking the front door, and Townsend looked from it to her friend. "We’re going to the beach to have a big-ass picnic. You’re gonna love it."

"Well, I’m sure I will. What should I bring?"

"Warm clothes and a hearty appetite," the brunette said, grinning.

* * *

After stopping at the local seafood purveyor – since Hennessey was loath to dig into her family’s meager catch, they drove to a completely deserted beach on one of the islands that made up Beaufort County. Sitting on the blanket that Hennessey had brought, Townsend watched, laughing, as her friend tried to fight the brisk wind and keep a rather poor quality box kite up in the air. The kite was made of paper, and after struggling for nearly a half hour, the exhausted woman ran back to the blanket and collapsed. "Damn, that was hard work! No wonder you don’t see many people with kites."

"You did very well for yourself," Townsend assured her. "You can give it another try if the wind dies down."

"Don’t think that’s gonna happen," Hennessey said, surveying the sky. "Actually, I’m a little chilly. How about a fire?"

"Oh, don’t look to me for help. I was a Campfire Girl drop out."

"Didn’t like the uniform?"

"No, it wasn’t that. Too much structure," she said, wrinkling up her nose.

"Couldn’t follow orders even as a little girl, huh?"

"Nope. I’m positively docile now compared to how I was then. I’ve always been a trouble-maker."

"That’s part of your appeal," Hennessey told her honestly. "That’s what gives you the fire in your personality. I hope you never lose that."

"Much to my surprise, being sober hasn’t changed my personality. It’s let it emerge. That’s been a nice thing to discover."

"I couldn’t agree more, Townsend. When we first met, you were so angry that I only saw tiny little snippets of your personality. I feel like I’ve just started to know you since you’ve been sober."

"I’ve just started to know myself," she agreed. "Now, show me how to start a fire, hot stuff. It’s never too late to be a Campfire Girl."

* * *

They didn’t do much during their time on the beach, but neither woman minded. Mostly they talked, and watched the surf, and talked some more. Hennessey was being very affectionate, and was now leaning against a huge piece of wood she’d managed to find. Getting settled, she pulled Townsend against her, letting the smaller woman nestle between her long legs. "Comfortable?" she asked, her lips close to her friend’s ear.

"Deliciously."

"Warm enough?"

"I am now. A nice, big fire, a nice, big girlfriend. What more could a woman want?"

"I think I’ll order up the nice big fire with a slightly smaller girlfriend. I like having you fit against me like this."

"Agreed. Let’s stay just like we are – right here – forever."

"Oh, no, baby, we can’t miss a meal!" She pulled the cooler over and took out a big plastic bag filled with oysters and clams. "How about a little lunch?"

"Mmm … I love oysters. Are they local?"

"Not very, but they’re delicious. Wanna shuck?" She said this with a decidedly sexy voice, her breath warm against Townsend’s chilled ear.

"I’m not even gonna nibble on that one, Hennessey. You’re just trying to incite me, now."

"I’ll shuck myself, then," the larger woman teased. She had to scoot back a little to operate, but Townsend praised her efforts, adding a bit of the tangy cocktail sauce to each of the mollusks as she held the shell to her lips and let the meat slide down her throat.

"Damn, these are fine! So far I haven’t found one thing about South Carolina that I don’t like," the blonde decided.

"Let’s hear you say that if we come in the summer. We don’t have screens on the house," warned Hennessey. "The mosquitoes feel like they’re gonna pick you up and carry you out the window."

"Honey, I can take care of myself. I might have to sleep in mosquito netting, but I can manage. If you’re in the immediate vicinity, all of my needs will be met."

* * *

They’d been cuddling for hours, neither woman willing to move – the gentle hugging so reassuring to both of them. "I’ve been thinking about something you said yesterday," Hennessey said. "You don’t have to talk about this if it upsets you, but I wondered about the comment you made about being the girl that the boys all wanted to … date."

"Fuck, honey. They didn’t want to date me. Why waste ten bucks on a movie ticket and popcorn if you don’t have to?"

"I uhm … I don’t even pretend to know much about this … but why were you sleeping with boys? I got the impression you’ve always thought you were gay."

"I don’t know what I was. I guess I was just lonely. I was left alone a lot with just an employee to watch me. And when I was a freshman in high school, I started to mature – physically, at least. The boys in school started to show some interest in me – something that had never happened before. Just the year before I’d looked like a little kid – but now they were treating me like a woman. I didn’t have good boundaries; I guess I never have. I uhm … had sex with the first boy who asked. I didn’t care for it at all, Hennessey. Not at all. But almost immediately everyone wanted to go out with me. I just wanted the attention, I guess. If I had to fuck a guy to get the attention – well, that started to seem like it was just the price of admission."

"You poor thing," Hennessey soothed, tightening her hold around her waist.

"No, that’s not true. I got what I deserved." She was quiet for a moment, then said, "Hennessey, I need to tell you something, but I’ve been petrified to do it. I … I’m afraid you’ll lose what little respect you have for me."

"Sweet pea, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You can tell me anything; I won’t judge you, I promise."

Hennessey could hear her swallow, then, in a very quiet voice Townsend said, "I got pregnant."

"Oh, baby, I’m so sorry," Hennessey murmured.

"I told my mother on a Monday morning, and that afternoon I had an abortion. I didn’t even know where we were going when she picked me up from school. I found myself in a doctor’s office, and before I knew it they had given me a shot of something. When I woke up, it was gone." Her voice was flat and lifeless, the trauma obviously still fresh in her mind.

"Is that when you started drinking?" Hennessey asked softly, still holding her tightly.

Townsend leaned her head back against the taller woman’s shoulder and looked at the fluffy clouds in the Carolina blue sky. "I … I guess it is. I don’t remember drinking or doing drugs before then. I … wow, that’s weird."

"Sweetheart, you were violated. The boys who had sex with you violated you, and your mother violated you by not letting you have a voice in what became of the baby. I’m not saying that having an abortion was the wrong choice for you, but you didn’t get to make that choice. No matter how young you were, it was still your body, Townsend. It was your baby."

"Do you hate me for killing it?" she asked, tears streaking down her face.

"No, of course not. I could never hate you, Townsend. I’m sure your mother did what she thought was best for you. I know you’ve been in therapy; have you talked about this?"

"No," she mumbled. "I’ve always been too embarrassed to admit to it. You’re the first person I’ve ever told."

"Look, Townsend, I want you to find someone that you can talk to about this when you get back to Vermont. You need to get your feelings about this out, with someone safe."

"Okay," she said softly. "I’ve been tormented about it ever since I’ve fallen in love with you."

"Really? Why do you think that is?"

"Mmm … ‘cause I think of what it would be like to have a baby with you, and then I think that I already had my chance – and I destroyed it. I worry that I won’t ever have another opportunity, that I don’t deserve one."

"Yes, you do, baby. You deserve another chance. You were in a tough situation, Townsend. You may have fared better by having the child and giving it up for adoption, but that’s no easy decision, either. God knows that you were too young to raise it yourself, and it’s clear that your mother didn’t consider raising it for you. All of your choices were bad, baby. You did the best you could. Now you have to learn how to let go of the guilt."

"That’s always the hardest part," the young woman murmured.

* * *

After having another little snack, they lay down on the blanket, spooning with each other, Townsend’s head resting on Hennessey’s arm. "This is divine," Hennessey murmured. "I had no idea it could feel this good to just hold someone."

"Hennessey?" the blonde asked hesitantly. " Uhm … you said something last night … and it was the first time you’d ever really said anything like that …"

"What is it, baby?"

"Uhm … you said you were feeling sexual about me. Was that true?"

"Yeah, that was true," she quietly admitted. "I’ve had the clamps on my sexuality for so long that it caught me by surprise when it happened. I definitely felt something – and it was decidedly sexual."

"How do you feel about this, honey? I mean, you told me just four months ago that you were heterosexual. Is this a lot to absorb?"

"Mmm … not as much as I would have thought. It’s odd, Townsend, but I really mean it when I say that I just closed off my sexuality. I tried never to think about it. I just went to school, and studied my ass off, and worked in the shack every spare moment I had. It’s true that if you stay busy enough you don’t really have time to think about sex. Most nights I’d be so tired that I’d fall asleep before I even got my teeth brushed."

"Most nights?" Townsend asked, a slight tease in her voice.

"Yes, sweet pea, most nights. Every once in a while I’d get the urge, and it just wouldn’t go away until I took care of it."

"Did you fantasize about boys when you touched yourself?"

"No, but I also didn’t fantasize about girls. I just felt how good it felt to touch myself like that. It was very soothing."

"Do you have orgasms?" Townsend asked, intensely curious.

"Yes, honey. Everything works down there. I’ll be able to answer the call when the time comes."

"So … do you think you’re a lesbian?"

"Oh … probably. I guess we’ll find out someday, huh?"

Townsend turned her head, seeing the teasing smile. "I’ll pop you one if I spend all this time with you only to find that you don’t care for it."

"Oh, I think I’ll care for it." She cuddled up a little tighter and said, "The last few times I’ve touched myself I found myself dreaming about an adorable blonde woman, with the prettiest green eyes I’ve ever seen. The last time it wasn’t so soothing – it was very, very exciting."

"Ooo, baby, you’re making me shiver. Don’t even talk like that. I want you so bad my teeth hurt."

Hennessey gave Townsend a squeeze. "Patience, baby. This is a long-term goal. We’ve got to work for it to make it what we both need."

* * *

It was nearly dark when Hennessey stirred from the light doze she’d fallen into. She was still wrapped tight against Townsend, and she lay still for a few minutes, just feeling the connection that continued to grow between them.

Speaking softly, she asked, "Ready for some dinner, baby?"

"Mmm …" Townsend stretched languidly, rubbing her butt against Hennessey’s lap for a moment, making the larger woman’s heartbeat pick up. "Yeah, I could eat. What are we having?"

"Low Country boil," the brunette said with glee. "A Christmas Eve tradition."

"Honey, should we go home and have this with your grandparents? I mean, don’t we have to go to church or something?"

"Lord, no! We celebrate Christmas tomorrow, honey. We’ll have a nice, big, deep-fried turkey."

Townsend gripped her arms tightly, turning to stare at her. "You’re kidding."

"Uhn-uh," she said, looking entirely serious. "We always fry our turkey. It’s fantastic." Hennessey had a look of such intense pleasure on her face that Townsend decided to believe her.

"Well, what about church?" Townsend asked again. "I don’t wanna upset your gramma."

"We’re staunch Catholics, Townsend, but none of us have seen the inside of a church, save for funerals and weddings, since I was born."

"Well, that’s a religious practice I can live with. I guess I’ll be Catholic, too."

* * *

The fire was just about perfect, and Hennessey began to assemble all of her ingredients. "Sausage?" Townsend asked.

"Yep. Andoullie. Nice and spicy. You’ll love it." She tossed the sausage and some new potatoes into the big kettle which she had filled with water that they’d lugged with them. Then she added cayenne pepper, cloves, garlic, a couple of bay leaves, the ever-present Tabasco, and some Old Bay seasoning.

"Hey! We use this in New England for clam bakes."

"We use it for almost everything. One more thing we have in common." They sat quietly watching the gentle surf and the crackling fire. Hennessey was a very laid-back cook, not bothering to even check the food for a good, long time. She wriggled out of Townsend’s embrace after a while and tested the potatoes, pronouncing them perfect. She then added some cut up squid and some of the ubiquitous shrimp. "Gramma wouldn’t approve of the squid," she admitted, "but this isn’t crab season, and I need something with a little bit of chew to it."

"Oh, are there local crabs here?"

"Honey, I could regale you with stories about crab until the cows come home. This is definitely crab country. This is where we should come for spring break – soft shell season is my favorite time of the year."

"Spring break, huh? Sounds like I’m beginning to convince you." Townsend wiggled her eyebrows, making Hennessey chuckle.

"You’ve been very well behaved so far, sweet pea. Although I do find myself touching you much more than I had planned."

"I think that’s okay for couples when they’re courting," Townsend decided. "It’s a nice way to get to know each other’s bodies without getting into too much trouble."

"Well, I think we should limit it to when we’re fully clothed. Snuggling up against you when you only had on your pajamas was too dangerous for me. It was all I could do to not reach around and touch your breast."

"I hate to say this, but I wouldn’t have stopped you, honey. I have no willpower at all."

"That’s the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard out of you," Hennessey said. "What on earth are you using other than willpower to stop drinking or smoking, or having sex. Come on, baby, give yourself a little credit."

"Okay," she said softly. "I’ll try."

Hennessey leaned over the bubbling stew and sniffed approvingly. "Damn, I wish we had some corn, but I won’t buy that frozen stuff they sell in the winter. This is a whole ‘nother experience with fresh crab and corn on the cob. But, I still think you’ll like it."

She ladled out a healthy portion, putting it into just one big bowl. "I thought we could share." She filled the spoon and blew on it a little to cool it down, then eased it into Townsend’s mouth.

"Good God, I haven’t had anything that good since … yesterday! You’re as good a cook as your gramma, Hennessey."

"Nah. She’s got me beat by a mile, but I do have a certain talent," she admitted.

They shared the stew, along with some crusty hard rolls that Hennessey had picked up, both eating more than was wise. "I’m as full as a tick," Hennessey moaned. "I might have to unzip my jeans."

"Need some help?" Townsend wiggled her eyebrows, flirting shamelessly.

"I think I’d better stay buttoned up. At this point, I think your willpower is greater than mine." She stretched out on the blanket and looked up at the stars. "I think I feel so relaxed when I’m home that all of my emotions are close to the surface – including the naughty ones."

"There’s nothing naughty about the way I feel about you, Hennessey. My feelings for you are almost – sacred." She lay down next to her friend and tucked an arm around her waist, while she rested her head on her shoulder.

"I uhm … have a Christmas present for you," Hennessey said softly.

"Hey! No fair! You made me promise not to buy you anything."

"Well, it’s for you — but in the future. I’m gonna keep it for a while."

"That’s an odd definition of a present, but go on," Townsend said, smiling warmly.

Sticking her hand in her pocket, Hennessey pulled out a thin gold chain, with a small, gold disk attached to it. It was too dark for Townsend to see it well, and Hennessey wasn’t ready to let go of it, so the smaller woman waited patiently.

"I’ve given this a lot of thought, Townsend, and one thing I know is that it’s always a mistake to get into a relationship before you’ve had a year of sobriety. That’s a precept that’s proven to be true for a lot of people, baby, and I’m not going to test the theory. Not with you. You’re too precious to me to risk having this blow up in our faces."

"But we are in a relationship, Hennessey. How can you deny that?"

"It puts a whole different dimension to it when we add physical intimacy, Townsend. Right now we’re very good friends, who care for each other deeply and are trying to learn as much as we can about each other. I truly think we need to keep it right here until you’ve been sober for a year."

"But … that’s six more months," she said, her eyes growing wide.

"Yes, it is, and I know that seems like a long time, but it really isn’t, baby. We’ve known each other for six months now, and the time has gone by in a flash. We can do this, I know we can. When you’ve been sober for a year, we can start to move forward, if you want to, that is."

"Start to move forward …? What does that mean?"

"Well, I’m gonna be back at the Academy, and I have a feeling you might like to come back, too. I won’t feel comfortable having sex with you if you’re a student – even if you’re not my student."

"What if I were an employee? We’d be equals then, wouldn’t we?"

"Well, yeah, but what would you do? I know you have promise, baby, but MaryAnn would never hire you to teach without some experience."

"I don’t care what I’d do, Hennessey. I’ll work in the kitchen, I’ll clean the bungalows. Hell, I’ll just sit in your room all day, waiting for you to come home. No one has to know I’m there. I’ll be your secret stowaway."

"Well, that would give me something to look forward to," Hennessey said with a smile, "but that’s not how I conduct myself, baby. I’ll have to tell MaryAnn the whole story and see if she even wants me back."

"She’ll want you back. She’s crazy for you … and so am I. I’ll do anything to be with you, Hennessey – anything."

"I’ll speak with MaryAnn. I was going to go see her before I go back anyway. Maybe she’ll have a creative way around this."

"You’re such a good teacher, Hennessey, maybe you could teach two classes, and not work as a house leader."

The brunette thought about that for a while, "You know that might work. I got $750 a week to teach, and $250 to be a house leader. Damn, if I could make $1500 a week I’d be able to start putting money away for graduate school."

"And we could live off of the compound," Townsend suggested. "I could easily afford to rent us an apartment or a townhouse."

"Wait … wait … hold on. There’s a lot to cover here, baby. Let’s take it one step at a time. I’ll talk to MaryAnn about teaching two classes – and tell her about my … lifestyle enhancements."

"I like being an enhancement," Townsend said.

"So," Hennessey said, "all we have to agree on is that we don’t go any further until you’ve had a year of sobriety." She turned her head and looked deeply into Townsend’s eyes. "It will be hard for you, baby, but I know that eventually you’ll get sober and stay sober. I just want you to understand that I’ll be patient with you – even if you have a slip. Eventually, you’ll be able to stay on the path – I believe in you."

Townsend hugged her tight, squeezing her until Hennessey let out a yelp. "It feels so wonderful to have your trust."

"You do." She held out the chain and placed it in Townsend’s hand. "This is a one year chip. I don’t want to put pressure on you, so I’m not going to give it to you, yet. I’m going to keep it to remind myself of what we’re working towards. We’ll get there, Townsend, and when we do, I’ll put that necklace on you, and kiss your sweet neck. Then, I’ll kiss a few other things I’ve been dying to put my lips on."

"Oh, damn, why can’t the days move faster?" the blonde sighed.

"No, we need this time, baby. We both need it to grow up some more. You need to work on your sobriety and keep your grades up, and I need to work on letting my libido come out and play a little more. It’s time to start letting my body feel pleasure – so I’m ready for you when you’re ready for me."

"Do you love me, Hennessey?" the blonde asked softly. She was hovering just above her friend, watching the faint moonlight reflected in her eyes.

"I do. I love you, Townsend, with all my heart."

"I love you, too, sweetheart." She placed her head on her friend’s chest and held on tight, feeling Hennessey’s rapidly beating heart against her cheek. "You told me before that once we were sure we were in love that we could start to kiss. Is that still true?"

"Uhm …" The heartbeat picked up even quicker as the woman struggled with her thoughts. "I don’t think I can kiss you and not want to go further, baby. I just don’t think I’m that strong. But I want to – God, do I want to."

"Well, it’s Christmas, and you’re the best present I’ve ever received. Maybe we should celebrate that with just one kiss. One kiss to carry us until June."

"Until you have a year’s sobriety," Hennessey reminded her. "Don’t be too fixated on the day – that’s an easy way to lose the path, baby. You really do have to take it one day at a time."

"Okay, you’re right. Why don’t we kiss to celebrate Christmas and our love."

"Just one?"

"Yeah, just one, but it’s gotta be a good one. No cheating like you usually do, with those little pecks on the forehead. I need a real kiss to last me until I have a year of sobriety – whenever that may be."

"Good girl," Hennessey beamed. "Okay, I guess this is a pretty momentous occasion. Want me to start, or would you rather lead?"

"You start. You need the practice."

Smiling, Hennessey pinched her firmly on the waist, then turned onto her side, taking Townsend with her. She paused over her for just a moment, then blinked slowly and whispered, "I love you, Townsend." Leaning in just an inch, she pressed her lips to the incredibly soft skin, moaning a little when her mouth opened to Townsend’s probing tongue. Townsend rolled her onto her back, then pressed their bodies together, needing to feel her flesh compress against Hennessey’s. The kiss went on and on, with Townsend’s hands going to Hennessey’s hair to hold her still.

Hennessey’s hands roamed up and down the smaller woman’s back, pausing to cup her ass just briefly, then giving it a squeeze. All the while, the kiss continued, their tongues darting and swirling in each other’s mouths. Hennessey’s heart was beating so hard she was sure it would burst, but she could feel an equally wild beat from her partner, and somehow that reassured her. Finally, and with great reluctance, Hennessey began to pull away, her libido on the verge of pushing her rational mind aside. But Townsend held on tenaciously, slipping a leg between Hennessey’s thighs and pressing against her, making the brunette groan loudly. Those long legs compressed against Townsend and Hennessey shifted her hips gently, purring as she did so. Knowing that they were on the verge of combusting, Townsend gathered her wits and severed the kiss, panting softly as they broke apart.

"My, God! Is it always like that?" Hennessey gasped.

"No, no. It’s never been like that for me. That was … magical."

"How can I be so hot on such a cool night? I feel like taking my clothes off and jumping into the ocean."

"That’s called sexual excitement, honey. Get used to it, ‘cause I plan on feeding you a steady diet of it for the rest of your life."

"Thank God we go to school in different states," Hennessey moaned. "Now that I’ve felt that, I could never keep my hands off of you for six more months." She grasped the hem of her sweater and fanned it up and down, trying to get some cool air on her heated skin. "Uhm … just for the record, do most kisses involve a knee to the groin? I mean … I didn’t mind, but I wanna be prepared next time."

Townsend rolled on top of her, getting very used to the sensation. Her eyes were twinkling when she asked, "How would you prepare?"

Chuckling, Hennessey said, "I have no earthly idea. But I’m beginning to understand how people get carried away – even when they’re just kissing."

"That was some kiss," Townsend sighed. "Absolutely the best one I’ve ever had. How about you?"

"Yeah, I’d have to agree. Much, much better than Gramma and Granddaddy ever give me," she said, her eyes twinkling.

Sitting up and staring at her, Townsend gasped, "You’ve never kissed anyone?"

"Just you, sweetheart. And this is the first one that counts, since the other one was a dying woman’s last request."

"Secret?" Townsend asked, grinning impishly.

"Sure."

"When the horse kicked me I knew my skull wasn’t fractured. I’d had a concussion before, and it felt just like that. I knew the blood wasn’t coming from my ear, either. I could feel it pouring out of the cut and dripping into my ear."

"Why you little faker! I was so worried I was sick!"

"I’m sorry, honey, I just didn’t think I’d ever have another chance. And I had to kiss those pink lips. From the first day I saw you, I knew you were the woman for me – I just didn’t think you’d ever realize it."

"I realize it now," Hennessey said, beaming a grin. "And I’ve never been happier. Merry Christmas, Townsend."

"Merry Christmas, Hennessey." She leaned forward and tried for another kiss, but Hennessey was on to her tricks, and she turned her head at the last second, presenting her cheek.

"No more kisses until this necklace is settled right between those cute little collar bones. I love you enough to say no to you, Townsend."

"You know," the blonde said thoughtfully, "I think that’s the greatest present I’ve ever received. Saying no to someone can be a bigger gift than saying yes. Thank you, Hennessey. Thank you for loving me enough to do what’s right – rather than what’s easy. That’s the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.

* * *

Continued in Part 5

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