Taught by Love

Part 16

"You gotta come see it! It's huge!" an excited voice crowed over the phone. "He's an 8-point, and he weighs at least 150. Get over here!"

And before Molly had time to blink, much less respond, the phone line went dead. She looked at the receiver blankly for a second. Then she recovered. "Well hello to you, too, Noe."

Guess I'd better get over there to see this monster buck she got. Molly slipped into her parka and boots and grabbed her gloves before leaving the house.

It didn't take long to get to Noelle's house.

She pulled into the driveway and spotted the woman in the garage, the doors wide open to the cold. She saw the woman pulling on a rope, trying to hang… something.

Noelle heard the crunching of the snow and when she looked over and saw Molly, she let the rope slide through her mittened hands. "Hey!" she greeted. "I need your help."

She waited for Molly to stand next to her. "Help me hang this guy, would you?" referring to the something she was attempting to hang.

So together the two women hung the deer. Noelle secured the rope to a side beam in the garage then stood next to the dead animal.

"Isn't he a beauty?" she breathed, her hand absently stoking its hide.

"Uh… sure it is," Molly replied, clearly unimpressed by the buck.

"Look at this spread!" Noelle enthused, cranking the head around so the tall woman could better see the antlers. "Look at 'em."

"Jesus, Noelle, don't turn those eyes my way. It's freaking creepy." Molly shivered in horror, the thought of the glassy, dead eyes staring at her giving her the heebie-jeebies.

Noelle grinned. "Okay, I won't. But, believe me, he's something else."

With that, Noelle shoved Molly out of the garage and closed the door. "Let's go in. I need to shower and get these clothes in the washer."

Molly looked closely at Noelle for the first time since she arrived. The woman was covered in blood, her blaze orange clothing taking on a gruesome, macabre appearance. "That's vile, Noelle. Jeez."

The blond woman laughed. "Damned good thing I didn't take you with me this morning. You'd have thrown up sure when I gutted it." Noelle grinned at the other woman.

And it was then that Molly noticed tear streaks? Why? Why was she crying?

Deciding that she would just ask the woman flat out, Molly stopped the small woman. "Hey, Noe?" She reached out a hand to gently caress a tear-stained cheek. "Why the tears, sweetheart? You're not hurt, are you?"

Noelle looked down, avoiding the piercing blue eyes. "I… I didn't kill him on the first shot. I made him suffer until I got to him to get a kill-shot. He suffered. Now let's go inside," she finished softly, opening the door to the cellar. She pointed Molly up the stairs to the kitchen. "I'll be right up. I'm just going to start these now," indicating her clothing.

Molly nodded, wanting a minute to process what Noelle just told her. The tall woman hung her coat up and unlaced her boots, putting them neatly against the wall. She stepped into the living room and sat in the recliner. She really cried about not killing that thing with the first shot? She is so… I've never met anyone with a heart like hers, someone as innocent and good as she is. Jesus, I love her.

Molly's thoughts were interrupted when Noelle walked into the living room. She was clad only in her Thermax long johns and wool socks. She looked absolutely adorable to the tall woman.

The blond hair was plastered to her head from her hat, but no static, Molly thought with a grin, and her socks needed to be pulled up.

"Okay," Noelle said cheerfully, entering the room no further than the doorway. "That load is going, so I'm going to jump in the shower to wash this grime off. I'll be right back." Then she slid into her room.

The dark woman got up and followed Noelle into her bedroom, inexorably drawn to her. The other woman was turned away from the door and had just taken off her top and bra. Molly stepped behind her and nuzzled her neck.

Noelle jumped, her hands immediately moving to cover herself. "Hey!" she yelped.

Big hands covered hers on her breasts. She sucked in a breath and closed her eyes, leaning back into Molly.

But then she straightened. "Wait. Let me get a shower. I stink and stuff."

"Let me love you first, then you can shower," a husky voice breathed in her ear a second before a hot, wet mouth closed over her shoulder.

She leaned her head forward briefly, but then pushed the hands away. "Nu-uh. I'm taking a shower."

Insistent hands came back to grasp Noelle's hips and tug her back against the bigger body. "You want me to do this, so let me."

Noelle dropped her hands and stood perfectly still. "If it's what you want…" Her voice trailed off.

For whatever reason, it didn't register with Molly this time that Noelle wasn't responding. She slid a hand into the waistband of the long john pants, her other cupping and caressing Noelle's breast.

Noelle closed her eyes and endured the touch. Her body trembled in fear, and her breathing was rapid.

Fingers brushed springy curls and tugged lightly on a pink nipple. Hips ground into Noelle's backside and teeth bit gently on freckled skin.

Noelle whimpered, and it finally sank into Molly's brain that something was wrong.

"Jesus Christ," Molly whispered. Her hands dropped from Noelle's body and she took a step back. "Noe… I'm sorry. I don't… Jesus Christ. I'm sorry."

"I just wanted a shower," came the agonized whisper.

Molly reached out to touch the small woman but thought better of it. "I know. I'm so sorry, sweetheart. So sorry."

There was silence then, neither woman speaking or even moving.

Suddenly Noelle turned toward Molly and threw herself into the bigger body. "Hold me."

Molly's arms went immediately around Noelle, her hands rubbing her back. She kissed the top of the blond head. "I'm sorry."

The blond head shook. "It's okay."

Molly pulled back and tilted Noelle's chin up. "No. It's not okay, Noelle. I should have… I should have listened when you said no." She closed her eyes in sorrow. "I'm no better than he was."

"No! No, now you listen to me, Molly Cartwright." Small hands reached up to cup Molly's face. Thumbs stroked the trembling bottom lip. "You are so much more than he ever was. Do you understand me? You can never be like him. Not ever." Noelle paused and placed a soul-touching kiss on Molly's lips. "You can never be like him because you're in my heart," she whispered. "He never was."

Blue eyes snapped open. Did she say what I think she just said? Molly wanted very much to ask the woman what she meant, but she knew that right then probably wasn't the best time.

Once again she kissed the blond hair. "Go take your shower. I'll, uh, make something to eat."

Noelle started to laugh, a bit shakily at first but then it got stronger. "Please don't. I know you're upset, but God help me, please don't."

Molly smiled. "Okay, I'll go watch TV then. When you come out you can make us something to eat," Molly teased half-heartedly.

But as Molly waited for the other woman to finish in the bathroom, she picked up the phone and called for a pizza and wings. She had the pizza place throw in a couple of pops when she checked the refrigerator and found nothing there.

Noelle walked into the living room wearing flannel pants and a long sleeve t-shirt. She wore no shoes or socks. After sitting down in the rocker and putting her feet up on the stool, she leaned her head on the back of the chair. She closed her eyes and sighed.

But she opened them again when she remembered she was supposed to fix them something to eat. She rolled her head toward the dark woman and smiled. "Whatcha want to eat?"

Molly grinned. "Pizza."

Noelle frowned. "Umm, okay. I can call and order one if you want."

"I already did. It should be here any time now."

Noelle chuckled. "Thank you. You didn't happen to order wings, did you?" she asked with interest.

The dark head nodded. "You bet I did. 12 butter & garlic and 12 medium."

"Awesome." Her eyes drifted closed. "Thank you," she murmured.

Before long, the pizza arrived and the two women stayed in the living room.

Molly was amazed at the amount of food Noelle was able to eat, and she was mighty glad she ordered all that she did. By the time they were done, there was one wing left. And that was it.

Noelle reached for it but stopped herself. She looked at Molly. "You want it?"

Molly shook her head. "No. Be my guest."

"No sense letting it go to waste." And she made short work of the solitary wing.

"This was a good idea, Molly," she commented, licking the hot sauce off her fingers. "You're smarter than you look."

Molly warmed at the compliment. "Thank y- Hey! You just insulted me!"

"See? Smarter than you look," Noelle answered smugly.

Molly threw a wadded up napkin at the other woman, and they both chuckled.

After cleaning up from the afternoon meal, Noelle dug out a deck of playing cards and poker chips, and the two women played the betting game, occasionally discussing the upcoming first game of the season that would occur in two weeks time.

***** ***** *****

It was a week after Thanksgiving to the day when it happened.

Molly was rifling through some student schedules looking for study halls when Tony came hustling out of his office looking worried. He stood at Joan’s desk and fired off a question to the secretary.

"Where is Ms. Potter right now?" the man asked, his tone rushed and worried.

"I’ll need to check that, Mr. Avedo. Give me one second." Joan Gooding opened a drawer and quickly found Noelle’s schedule. "She’s got a class now," she answered.

"I need to speak with her, so that’s where I’m heading," he said, even then on his way out of the office. Seeming to change his mind, the principal reopened the door and stuck his head in. "Ms. Cartwright, will you come with me, please?" he asked.

Not liking his tone, the tall woman immediately grabbed up her papers, dropped them on her desk and hustled out the door.

"What the hell is going on, Tony?" she asked in a low, intense voice.

Tony filled her in on the phone call he had just taken as they made their way quickly to Noelle’s classroom on the second floor.

Dear God, this is it, Molly thought, feeling deep inside of her that Mary was just waiting for Noelle before she said goodbye. Sadness stole into her heart for the small woman who had no idea what was happening.

They saw Noelle through the window in the door standing in front of her class laughing with them about something. Tony glanced at Molly, sighed as he shook his head, and knocked on the door.

Noelle looked at her door, her heart smiling when she saw Molly standing in the hall. But then she frowned when she noticed Tony was with her. Neither of them looked very happy to be there. What the hell is going on? she repeated the question that Molly had voiced earlier.

She stepped to the door and opened it. "Hey, what’s up?"

"Noelle," Tony began, his voice grave. "I need to talk with you a minute. Mind stepping out here with us?"

Now truly worried but ever the professional, Noelle turned to her class. "I need to speak with Mr. Avedo for a moment. Pick up reading where we just left off, understand?" When heads bent to their books, the teacher stepped into the hall, closing the door behind her.

"What’s wrong?" she asked, not bothering to beat around the bush. She knew they weren’t there to inquire about her day or the state of world affairs.

"Noe," Tony said softly, now a friend, not a boss. "I just had a phone call from a Mrs. Miler. She was concerned because your mother never showed up for their bridge game at the senior center."

"But… she never misses a game," Noelle commented, clearly confused.

"That’s what Mrs. Miler said. One of the other women drove over to your mother’s and saw her car in the driveway. But when she knocked, there was no answer even though most of the lights appeared to be on in the house." Tony paused for a minute to let all that sink in. "Why don’t you sign out and head over there." The principal turned to Molly. "Will you be willing to cover Noelle’s afternoon classes?" he asked her unnecessarily.

Damn. I’d really rather be with her, Tony, for Christ’s sake. But, knowing she couldn’t say that aloud, Molly nodded. "Of course."

During the short exchange, Noelle just stood there, not moving, not speaking. Just… standing.

"But… she never misses a game," Noelle repeated, completely bewildered.

Tony smiled reassuringly. "I bet it’s nothing, Noelle. But go check just to be on the safe side."

Without another word, Noelle turned and started walking down the hall. But in a matter of a half dozen steps, Noelle started jogging. By the time she hit the stairs, she was at a dead run.

Tony turned to Molly. "Thank you for coveri- Hell," he swore softly.

Hard blue eyes shot to the principal. "What?" she asked, perhaps a bit too fiercely.

"You can’t cover her classes. It needs to be someone who’s certified, for God’s sake." Tony thought about his problem for a second. "Joan’ll need to find coverage." Then he smacked himself in the head. "Wait. I can do it. It's been a while, but I'd sure like to be back in the classroom."

Not fully understanding the man's musings, Molly became impatient to follow Noelle. "Good. It'll be good for you then."

The principal nodded. Then he looked Molly square in the eye. "I think I recall you having business out of the building today. Am I right?"

At first not understanding the man again, it quickly dawned on Molly what Tony was saying. She shot him a small smile. "Yes. Seems I have a meeting this afternoon." Then she glanced at her watch. "I better head there now. Thank you, Tony," she finished sincerely.

He nodded. "Be careful. And tell her we're thinking about her."

Deciding that the back stairs would be fastest, Molly took them two at a time down and strode purposefully through the hall. She poked her head in the faculty lounge and saw Noelle donning her parka. Noting that there was no one else in the room at the time, Molly stepped in and shut the door behind her.

"Noe," she began softly.

Not looking at the dark woman, Noelle fumbled briefly with the zipper before pulling it up.

Molly put her hands on Noelle's shoulders. She could almost feel the weight that rested there, and she hurt for the small woman. "Noe…"

"I don't have time," Noelle snapped. "Mary needs me." She shrugged the hands off and turned on Molly. "Now get out of my way."

Instead of heeding the warning in the voice, Molly stood more fully in front of the upset woman. "You're going to do her no good if you get yourself killed before you even get there. The roads are bad, you're upset, there are a thousand things that could happen between here and there. Take a deep breath, Noe, and just stop for a second."

Noelle looked at her scornfully. "Easy for you to say, it's not your mother. Now move, damn it."

"I'll follow you." Molly waited for the explosion she was sure would follow her pronouncement.

"Like hell you will," Noelle growled. Then, without another word, she left the room, stopping only to sign out at the office before leaving the building.

Molly walked to her office, looked busy for a few moments to give Noelle a few minutes' head start, then she grabbed up her coat and signed out. Not waiting for the Rover to warm, she immediately put it into gear and followed after the other woman.

She pulled in front of Mary's a few minutes later and opened the front door without bothering to knock. She saw Noelle's parka and shoes in the entryway. Then she heard her in the bedroom calling to her mother.

The tall woman stood in the doorway to the dark room, her heart breaking for Noelle.

"Mare? Hey, Mare?" Noelle tried shaking her gently. "Come on, Mom. It's me. It's Noelle," she whispered brokenly.

Mary's deep brown eyes fluttered open. They were glassy. And they already appeared lifeless.

Noelle smiled at her mother, hoping against hope that the older woman was just tired.

"That's it, Ma. Open your eyes and look at me."

"Noe?" Mary croaked. "So… cold."

Knowing that Molly was standing behind her, Noelle called softly to her. "Molly, would you please bring my mother the quilt from the couch?"

Molly went to do as Noelle bid, snatching the blanket off the back of the couch and bringing it in to the bedroom.

She handed it to Noelle then stepped back. But she didn't leave the room. She watched as the blond woman covered her mother and tucked the blanket in around the woman. Molly looked around. There was something…

It was Death.

Death was in the room with them. Molly could feel the coldness of it. She could hear the hollow whisper of the waiting, the eerie tingling of it. It was there with them.

Molly wished desperately that she knew how to fight this enemy. Bullies at school. Fights in the cafeteria. Discipline problems. I can fight all that. I can stop all of it. But not this. Not this…

Noelle sat on the edge of the bed and held her mother's hand. "It's okay, Mom. You'll be fine. You're just tired, that's all."

Mary shook her head feebly. "No." Her breathing was shallow and rapid, and there was a look of pain on her face, as if the act of breathing hurt every part of her worn body. "Please…" But she wasn't able to finish. Her eyes closed and she rested.

It was a long night, a night spent in keeping vigil with Mary, holding her hand, washing her face, stroking her hair.

Three times Molly tried to get Noelle to eat something, but each time she was brushed off.

"Noe, sweetheart. Come eat something. You haven't had anything since breakfast, have you? Let me make you a sandwich, okay?" Molly coaxed.

Noelle didn't move from her spot. "No," she answered absently. "I need to stay here with her. She might be afraid if she wakes up."

"Let me sit with her then while you eat. She won't be alone," Molly reasoned quietly.

"No," was the answer again. "I'm not hungry." Hopeful green eyes turned to Molly. "Maybe… maybe she just needs to eat something, huh? Maybe she's just hungry."

"Noelle, please. She's… Mary's dyi-"

"Don't you dare say that!" Noelle yelled, turning to face Molly. "Shut up and get out of here. We don't need you! We don't want you! We can do it ourselves! She's fine. My mother is fine! So shut your mouth and go away." Noelle's voice died to a whisper at the end. "Go away."

Blue eyes filled with tears at Noelle's despair. Molly moved to kneel at Noelle's feet. She rested a hand on the knee closest to her and looked imploringly into those green eyes.

"Oh, babe. Please listen to me. Mary's…" Molly closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. "She's dying."

Her only answer was a hard slap.

"Shut the fuck up," Noelle snarled, a deadly angry look transforming her sweet face into the face of a woman crazed with pain.

Then suddenly Mary was speaking, reprimanding her daughter. Blue eyes and green snapped to the woman in the bed.

"Young lady," Mary scolded, her voice weak and raspy. "You watch… your mo… mouth. And how… dare you hit… Molly? Apologize now."

"But… Mom? Are you…?" Noelle let the question hang in the air.

Mary shook her head. "It won't be… long, honey." Her glazed brown eyes shifted to look over Noelle's shoulder. "Your dad… he's waiting, Noe." Mary smiled. "He's waiting for me," she whispered, the deep, all-abiding love she had for her husband shining on her weary face.

"No!" Noelle said. "No, he doesn't need you, Mom. I do. I need you. You can't go." Her voice caught on a sob. "Please don't go. Not yet. There's still so much you have to do."

Mary shook her head again. "There's nothing… more for me to do here." She tried to draw in a deep breath, but began to cough from the effort. When she was able to recover herself, she started speaking again. "I was waiting for you. All this time, honey, I was waiting for you to find someone." Mary turned her head to smile at Molly. "And you have."

"No! Oh God, Mom. No. Please. Please don't leave me here. I don't want to be alone," the blond woman begged. "I don't want to be alone," she repeated.

Mary reached up a hand to stroke her daughter's cheek. But the effort was too much, and she was too weak. She let her hand fall back to the quilt. "You… won't be… alone, Noelle… Beatrice. You have Molly."

"I don't want Molly!" Noelle exploded. "I want you. I only want you."

The pain that sliced into Molly's heart at the words stole her breath from her body. The slap that Noelle had given to her face was nothing compared to the kick she just gave to her heart. Although Molly knew it was only the pain and fear speaking, it did nothing to lessen her own pain.

"Noelle Potter," her mother admonished her again. "You go… out… right now and get a… drink of water. You're talking… nonsense." When Noelle made no move to leave the room, Mary repeated her command. "Go now."


"No. Do it. I need to talk with… Molly," her mother told her.

"I… I'll be right back." Piercing Molly with an angry glare, Noelle left the room.

Mary closed her eyes, the bone-deep weariness settling once again around her. "She didn't mean it," she whispered to Molly.

At the words, the tears came freely to the dark woman, spilling out of her eyes and coursing down her cheeks. "Oh, Mary," she sobbed softly. "I'm going… to miss you…"

"Shh," Mary soothed. "Don't cry for… me. She needs… your tears." Tired brown eyes opened to look into pained blue. "She needs… you, Molly Cartwright. Be here for her." Mary paused and Molly thought she was done speaking. But she repeated her last words. "Be here for her." Mary drew in a shallow breath, the life-giving oxygen not filling her lungs enough. "Just… love her." Brown eyes closed in weariness.

Tears continued to leak out of anguished blue eyes. "I do. More than anything I do."

Once more Mary opened her eyes, fixing them steadily on Molly's. "Just love her," she whispered.

Those were the last words that Mary spoke until after 3 am. Noelle was sitting in a chair that Molly had brought in for her, and she was holding her mother's hand, humming softly to her.

Molly was sitting on the couch with her eyes closed when Mary's voice roused her. She got off the couch abruptly and went to stand behind Noelle, her hands resting on the back of the chair.

"Thank… you," Mary whispered, her eyes focusing on something… or someone… to her left. "I'm… coming, Joe." Then, without turning back to the two women sitting with her, Mary whispered, "I love you… both."

And those were the last words that Mary Potter spoke in her lifetime.

Molly and Noelle watched as Mary's eyes closed and her body struggled to take its last life-giving breaths. Finally, after three breaths, it ended. Mary's life was no more.

Noelle didn't move. She didn't speak. She didn't shed a tear. She just sat in the darkened bedroom holding her mother's hand.

After nearly a half-hour of standing and watching, Molly decided it was time to call the coroner.

"Noe," she said softly. "Come on, baby. We need to make some calls." She moved to stand next to the woman, and reached for her hand. "Come on."

Noelle removed her hand from Molly's grasp and once again held her mother's cold one, her eyes never leaving her mother. If it was possible to transfer the will to live from one person to another, Mary would have come back because of her daughter. Noelle hoped against hope. She prayed against all odds. "She'll be right back," she whispered to no one.

"Oh, sweetheart. She's gone. She's dead. We need to make the call," Molly pleaded. "Come on, Noe."

"Oh no," the blond whispered in horror and pain. "Oh, Mom. Please come back to me. No. Please don't go. Come back." Noelle laid her head on the bed next to her mother's. "Oh God, please give her back to me. Give my mama back to me."

The prayer ended on a sob. But there were no tears. Not then. The pain was too fresh, too new. Too deep. Noelle's grieving capabilities shut down at her mother's death. The time would soon come that she would grieve. But not right then.

She just wanted her mother back.

"Give my mama back," she whispered, her tearless pleading doing more to Molly than anything else could have.

"Oh, Noelle," she soothed, dropping to her knees next to the seated woman. She rubbed her back gently, tears filling her eyes and then overflowing. Mary was right. The tears weren't for the dead woman; they were for the young woman who was left with the living.

Noelle's pain was a tangible thing to Molly. It was a living, breathing, clawing beast that began to slowly eat away at Noelle's heart, a heart that was undefended because of the pain and loss.

"I want my mama back," the small woman whimpered.

"I know, baby. I know," Molly said, sadness and grief in her voice.

They sat like that for some time, until green eyes turned to Molly. "How come she didn't come back to me?" she asked, her eyes wide and frightened. "Why won't my mama come back to me? Make her come back, Molly. Please make her come back."

Then her eyes turned back to the body on the bed. "I want my mama," she repeated, her voice cracking.

Molly's heart broke a little more for Noelle. She stood up and held out her arms to the woman.

"Come on, baby. Let's go sit on the couch, okay? Let me hold you."

She held her breath as she waited for Noelle to move to her. And she did. The younger woman stood up and stepped into the waiting arms, and she held on for life. And because of death.

Molly led the two of them into the living room, guiding Noelle to the couch and easing her down onto it. She grabbed the lap quilt from the rocker and covered as much of Noelle as possible. She crouched by the woman and stroked her hair back from her face. "I'll make that call now."

Exhausted green eyes looked at her, not comprehending what was happening. "Don't let them hurt her, Molly," she whispered.

Molly smiled gently and kissed the warm forehead. "I won't."

"Promise?" she asked, her voice taking on an almost child-like tone.

"Yes, sweetheart. Now close your eyes. I'll be right back."

After her eyes had closed, Molly whispered "I love you." Then she got up to take care of things.

It was noon before Noelle woke up. She was confused, and for some unexplainable reason, scared. She looked over to the woman dozing in the recliner.

"Molly?" she asked, the fear tingeing her voice.

In the blink of an eye, the tall woman was kneeling by Noelle’s side. She smiled gently and stroked the soft cheek. "Hi."

"Where’s my mom? Why are we here?" the blond questioned, struggling to sit up. "Where’s Mary?"

"Oh, babe. Don’t you remember last night?" Molly returned in a whisper, moving to sit beside the trembling woman.

The blond head shook. "No." Then she started to get up. "Where’s my mother, damn it?" The anger was beginning to replace the fear.

"Noelle," Molly said firmly as she stood up. "Mary died early this morning. You were there with her. You held her hand."

"You’re lying!" Noelle screamed at her suddenly. "She’s not dead! She’s not!" She ran to her mother’s room, and when she saw only the stripped bed, the comforter folded at the end, she whirled around to confront the tall woman.

"Where is my mother?" she asked, enunciating each word very carefully.

Molly reached out to touch the small woman. "Noe, sweetheart, she’s gone. She’s gone."

"No," Noelle breathed, her eyes wide. "No… Oh God…"

Molly caught her just as she was about to crumble. "Shhh…" she soothed as she brought them safely to the floor. She held the trembling woman in her arms, rubbing her back gently.

"Oh no," Noelle whispered. "She’s gone… she’s… gone." The pain, the grief, it threatened to consume her, swallow her in its tearing, ripping jaws. She felt it, felt it scratching at the door, waiting for her, wanting her. It taunted her, tried to steal her heart and soul.

Her only salvation at that moment was the woman who held her in strong, safe arms.

And she held to that anchor tightly.

"Oh no," she whispered again. "Oh, Mom…"

Molly held the woman closer to her body, willing her strength into the trembling body. "Shhh… I’ve got you. You’re not alone, Noe. You’re not alone. I’m right here." She continued to mumble soothing, calming words for no telling how long.

Then she felt the woman gather herself and gently push away from her.

"Thank you, Molly," she said, her voice strong and determined.

The dark woman just smiled sadly. Already she felt Noelle pulling away from her emotionally, and it hurt her more.

Throughout the day, as Noelle made the rest of the arrangements and calls, Molly stayed close at hand, ready to support the woman should she need it. She knew Noelle would never ask for it, so she watched her closely until finally Noelle called her on it.

"Why do you insist on staring at me like that? Have I grown another head in the past 24 hours? No, I haven’t," she answered for Molly. "So stop following me around and stop staring at me." Then she looked closely at the other woman for the first time all day. "You look like hell. Why don’t you go home, get a shower, and get some sleep?"

"No. I won’t leave you," Molly replied.

Noelle sighed deeply. "Molly, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. There’s nothing more to do here, anyway. Everyone has my home number, so that’s where I’m heading."

Molly shook her head again. "No. I’m not leaving you alone. Not right now."

"Look, what if I give you a key and you come over, let yourself in later tonight? Will that make you feel better?" she asked.

"I… yeah, I suppose," the dark woman reluctantly agreed.

Molly drove home in silence, not even turning the radio on as she normally did. She walked into the equally silent house, the wind whistling through the pine trees in the backyard a fit accompaniment to the silence. Quickly the woman showered and changed clothes. Then she slipped into the big bed, lying on her side and pulling the bedclothes up to her chin. She closed her eyes, but sleep did not come.

Ah hell, she sighed much later. What the hell am I still doing here when I want to be there with her? From the moment she left Mary's house, Molly had been carrying around a feeling of dread, like maybe she shouldn't have left Noelle alone. So why am I still here? she asked herself.

The tall woman got herself out of bed, threw together an overnight bag, and headed over to Noelle's. It was dark when she arrived, and she wasn't surprised to see several lights burning bright against the darkness.

Smiling as she grabbed the key that Noelle had given her, Molly strode to the front door. Forgetting momentarily that she had free entry, the tall woman almost knocked. Shaking her head, she let herself in and hung her coat. Stopping to listen for Noelle, she didn't hear a sound.

Looking into the living room, where a table lamp cast shadows in the corners, she didn't see the blond woman. Nor did she see her in the kitchen. The door to the bedroom was closed halfway, Funny that I didn't say open halfway…, and Molly could see that a light was on inside.

Quietly she pushed the door open. The sight that greeted her made her heart clench painfully and tears come to her eyes.

Noelle was curled up in a fetal position in the very middle of her bed, her arms wrapped around the folded quilt that had covered Mary at the end. A light glowed softly from the dresser and it softened the edges of the room. The whole scene looked surreal to Molly, as if it was something out of a dream.

Then she simply stepped to the bed and lay down behind the small woman. She put her arms around Noelle and pulled her back firmly against her own body. Then she closed her eyes.

A new day was breaking when Noelle opened her eyes. She was aware of being almost completely intertwined with another person, and she knew, without thinking, who it was. She came…

Noelle remembered crawling into bed and feeling lonelier, more alone, than she ever had in her life. She had brought the quilt home with her because it was a connection, albeit a weak one, to her mother.

Oh, Mom. I miss you already, her heart cried.

After taking a long shower, Noelle had put on her oldest, softest, favorite flannel nightgown and crawled into bed with the quilt. If she tried hard enough, she could almost smell her mother's scent in the blanket. She had felt so alone.

Silently, unconsciously, Noelle had called to Molly. Or maybe it was her heart calling to the other woman's heart. Regardless, Molly had heard.

And she came, Noelle thought again in wonder.

"Morning," a deep, sleepy voice said softly.

Noelle looked up into sleep-filled eyes. Her eyes looked deeply into Molly's, searching for the support and strength she would need for the coming days.

And Molly opened to her. She offered her strength and support to the grief-stricken woman. And her love.

And perhaps that was the most important thing right then because Noelle closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, physically doing what her heart was doing emotionally… drawing strength and love from the woman who held her body and soul.

Then she sighed and opened her eyes, reality once again knocking on her door. "I suppose I better get up. There's a lot to do today before the funeral tomorrow."

Having decided on only one viewing time in the morning, the funeral would follow in the afternoon.

Strong arms tightened around Noelle, not letting her get up. "Tell me what you have to do today," Molly suggested softly.

"I, uh… I have to get things ready for tomorrow." She closed her eyes and swallowed against the tears that threatened. "Songs and readings and stuff. I have to call… Rev. Barnet this afternoon."

"Want me to-"

"Would you-"

The two women smiled, grief tingeing the corners of the smiles.

"Go ahead," Molly offered.

"I was just… I was going to… will you help me pick the stuff out for tomorrow?" she ended in a rush.

"Yeah, I will," Molly answered gently. Then she smiled. "I was going to ask if I could." She tilted Noelle's chin up. "Thank you, Noelle." Then she kissed the lips that waited for hers.

The day was a blur for Noelle. People came and went, dropping off food for the dinner that would occur after the funeral. The phone rang steadily from 11:30 until late into the night, friends calling to give condolences and ask if they could do anything.

Molly could tell it was grating on Noelle's jangled nerves. So she took the bull by the horns, How appropriate, and sent the woman to bed, knowing she would need all the emotional strength left inside to get through the day tomorrow.

It was a testament to Noelle's fatigue and numbness when she did as Molly bid without so much as a backward glance. Again she fell asleep holding the quilt, the light shining on the dresser.

Thinking she'd just slide in behind the sleeping woman, Molly stopped to turn off the light. But just as she reached for the switch, a voice stopped her.

"Leave it on, please."

Molly nodded and got into the bed, automatically pulling Noelle close to her.

***** ***** *****

"I swear to God, if one more person tells me how fucking good she looks, I'm going to scream," Noelle growled softly to Molly. "She's dead, for Christ's sake. She doesn't look good. She's looks dead," Noelle hissed.

They were at the funeral home, the viewing almost over. Many people had loved Mary, and the rooms were filled with friends and whispered conversation. Molly had stayed a discreet distance from Noelle, but still close enough should she need her.

She noted how pale and drawn the blond woman looked, the dark green dress she wore giving her a fragile look. She smiled at the guests, but it never reached her eyes. Noelle initiated no conversations with anyone, and she hovered around the casket, not leaving her mother's side even in death.

Molly noted all of this and did what she could for her. But she just wanted to take her home and love her.

Finally it was time to start. Reverend Barnet called the gatherers to their seats, people filling them and crowding into the other rooms. Noelle sat alone in the front row. Molly sat right behind and to her left one seat. Dear God, she looks so alone, so sad. The lone tear she watched slide down Noelle's cheek was too much. The tall woman got up, excused herself past the other people in her row, and sat down next to Noelle.

When someone sat beside her, Noelle looked up in surprise. Then gratitude washed through her when she saw who her companion was. "Thank you," she whispered, her hand creeping into Molly's bigger one.

Molly squeezed her hand lightly then turned her attention to the minister who was beginning the service.

It was a lovely service as far as funerals went. When the last scripture was being read, the dark woman leaned over and told Noelle she had something to do and that she would be right back. Molly caught herself just as she was about to lean over and kiss Noelle on the cheek. Damn it all.

Noelle closed her eyes when Molly left, trying desperately to shut out the sorrow emanating from the people gathered. Then suddenly the haunting, ghostly sounds of the violin, flute and trumpet playing Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven were heard throughout the rooms. Noelle turned to see Marla Bennet, the high school's band director, and two men whom she didn't recognize playing the instruments. Marla smiled as she played the violin.

Would you know my name

If I saw you in heaven?

Noelle's heart stopped when she heard the voice. Her eyes snapped to see Molly standing off to the side of the instrumentalists singing the words to the song. For an instant she marveled at the other woman's voice; it was a clear, beautiful alto.

Then she listened to the words. Oh God. Please don't, Molly. Please don't sing this song. Not this one, she begged silently. But the dark woman continued, singing for Noelle and no other person in the room.

Would it be the same

If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong and carry on

'Cause I know I don't belong

Here in heaven.

Please give her back to me. I want my mama back. Oh God, please. Please give my mama back.

Would you hold my hand

If I saw you in heaven?

Would you help me stand

If I saw you in heaven?

I'll find my way through night and day.

I just can't stay

Here in heaven.

How do I do it without you, Mom? Please come back to me. God, please bring her back to me. Inside, Noelle felt like she was going to implode from the sadness. It overwhelmed her, it blocked out every other feeling, thought, and word. The sadness was everything.

Time can bring you down.

Time can bend your knees.

Time can break your heart,

Have you begging please,

Begging please.

Please. I'll do anything. I need my mom. I want my mama back…

Beyond the door,

There's peace, I'm sure

And I know

There'll be no more

Tears in heaven.

When she heard Molly's voice waver on the last line, it was Noelle's undoing. "Nooooo…." She cried softly, sinking to her knees by the casket. "Mama, come back to me. Don't go. Please don't leave me," she sobbed, tears blinding her. "Please… come back," she whimpered, her hand holding tight to her mother's cold, lifeless one.

The sight of the young woman begging her deceased mother to come back to her brought many fresh tears to the mourners. Their sympathy was no longer for Mary Potter. It was with her daughter; it was with the young woman left alone without any family.

So consumed was she by her grief, Noelle didn't notice when the music ended abruptly and the minister and funeral home director hurried people out of the room. All she knew was that she wanted her mother back.


Molly waited just long enough for the two men to leave the room and close the doors before she moved to the sobbing woman.

"Hey, sweetheart," she soothed quietly, gathering the woman into her arms. "Come on, baby. Let them get her ready. It's time to go."

"No! Oh, Molly… I want my… mama back," she cried.

Molly cried with her. "I know you do. I know." She sat the two of them in the chairs that had occupied for the service. She had her arms wrapped tightly around Noelle. "Let's go in the other room while they get the casket ready."

Noelle made no move to leave. She held on to Molly and cried her loss.

After a few minutes, Molly saw one of the doors open slightly and the director look at her questioningly. Knowing what he had to do, Molly nodded.

And knowing what she had to do, Molly tried desperately to get Noelle out of the room so the director and pallbearers could prepare and close the casket for the drive to the cemetary. But Noelle wouldn't budge. So Molly held tight to her and prayed they finished quickly.

Noelle didn't hear the soft murmurings of the 7 men as they entered the room and did as the director bid them. But just as they were closing the casket, Noelle turned her face from Molly's chest.

"Nooooooo," she wailed, seeing them close the casket on her mother. "Mooooommm!"

The sound of the soul-wrenching cries coming from inside the room caused many waiting in the foyer to break down and lean on each other for support.

In the room, Molly tried to draw Noelle's attention from the activity happening in front of them. As the men picked up the casket and began to carry it out of the room, Noelle became more frantic.

"Bring my… mama back!" she cried again, trying to follow them.

Once they left the room and the director closed the door to give the two women a few minutes, Molly immediately did the first thing that came to her mind to get past Noelle's grief.

She kissed the woman. Deeply and roughly she kissed her. Molly held the tear-wet face in her hands and kissed the other woman, demanding she come back to her. It only took a few seconds for her to feel the change in Noelle. The small body seemed to melt into hers. But not in desire or arousal. It was in need and grief that Noelle turned to Molly.

The dark woman broke the kiss and hugged the small woman to her, running her fingers through the gold hair soothingly as the woman sobbed softly. "Shhh, baby. I'm right here. I'm right here."

When Noelle was able to do it, Molly stood up and held out her arms to her. "Come on, sweetheart, let's go lay Mary to rest next to Joe."

Noelle nodded and stepped into her arms. She allowed Molly to wipe her face with a tissue, and she took the one that was offered to her. Turning to blow her nose, she felt, and cherished, the arms that went around her from behind. For a moment, just one moment, Noelle leaned back into Molly's warm body. Then she straightened.

"Okay." And they left to say goodbye.

Continued part 17


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