Copyright: This story is owned by me (zuke) and is entirely my own creation. It may not be used or cross-posted, in whole or in part, without my written permission.
Original Fiction Warning: This is not your mama's uber. OK, it's not anyone's uber. It's in no way, shape, or form an uber. If original fiction scares the bejesus out of you, then run away now. But if you're really attached to tall brunettes and short redheads, feel free to picture the characters that way.
Warning: This story is intended to be frightening, troubling, scary, and downright disquieting. Some people may think that it's none of those things. But if you have a sensitive nature, you may want to skip this story.
Love/Sex: This story depicts a sexual relationship between two women. If this isn't your cup of tea or is illegal due to your residence or your age, please hit the back arrow now.
Geography: Seaburgh does not exist, although the coast of Northern California does. I have manipulated geography slightly to suit my story. My apologies to those who get hung up on that kind of thing. A lot of places in this story are real, and if you're interested in finding out more, drop me a line.
Acknowledgements: This story is dedicated to all of the writers who scared the piss out of me. In particular, this story owes an incredible amount to M.R. James and Stephen King. I'm not claiming my story is on a par with their work, just that I owe them for inspiration.
Special mucho thanks to Patty for beta reading and keeping me on track and encouraged when my simple little story turned into a novella.
Feedback: Your comments are always welcome. Please drop me a line at email@example.com
It was a dry, hot autumn afternoon. As Keira drove out of the tunnel that sliced through the east bay hills, she rolled down her window, taking a deep breath of the October air. The scent of dried leaves and dust filled her nostrils. It was the smell of ending, the last gasps of life before the unremitting rains of winter. But the warm breeze blowing in from the Pacific held a promise, and the world around her seemed to pulsate with it. Even the trees seemed to understand that their death was temporary, just a step in the cycle of life.
As she turned around the curve of the highway, the Bay glittered before her. The blue expanse was dotted with sailboats, taking advantage of the breeze and soaring across the waves. The white sails against the azure water reminded her of the day they'd painted the bedroom.
"You've ruined your favorite shirt," she said, pointing at the white spots that dotted the teal fabric.
"No I haven't," Fiona replied, her green eyes twinkling merrily. "I've made it even more special."
"Even more special," Keira whispered.
As she turned northeast, driving through Berkeley, she glanced again to her left at the Bay. Angel Island rose like the hump of a giant whale, the grass of its meadows the same rich green of Fiona's eyes. To the south, the City's buildings crowded the tip of the peninsula, like white and black trees planted in too small a space, pushing higher and higher for meager sunlight. The air was clear and she could see far to the south and north. Only to the west was her view impeded, a thick bank of fog pushing against the blood red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A sports car changed lanes suddenly in front of her and she tapped her brakes and her horn at the same time. She received a middle finger salute, though it was quick and half-hearted, and she knew she'd made her point. The driver had made his point as well, and Keira turned her attention to the road instead of the view. She soon lost sight of the expanse of water in any case, as she turned slightly inland and passed through Richmond. Her eyes weren't as tempted to roam to the oil tanks on the denuded hills.
She stopped to pay the toll, and then slowly ascended the steel monolith of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Once again, she spared quick glances across the Bay, having an even better view from the upper deck of the bridge.
"What if there was an earthquake right now?"
Had Fiona asked the question or had she? Maybe they both had. Jinx.
The car would be launched off the bridge, thousands of feet above the Bay. And for one glorious instant, before gravity's inevitable cruelty, they could believe that they were flying. Soaring toward the blue infinity of the summer sky.
"Then we'd land on that little island down there and so much for the bird sanctuary."
It had been easy to joke about death. Before it was the smell of hot copper and sweat. The final rattle of breath. A familiar face turning to blue marble.
Keira turned north and merged onto the 101. Again she looked west. The fog wrapped itself around Mt. Tam like an octogenarian's shawl, crocheted in grays and blacks by arthritic fingers. She stared at the horizon and allowed herself one last moment of indecision. Doubt burned the back of her throat before she swallowed it, nearly choking with the struggle.
And then resolution returned. She knew what she had to do.
Six months earlier
"It looks clear at the coast," Fiona observed as they headed north.
Keira followed Fiona's gaze toward the west. The dark green hills were outlined clearly against the cerulean of the sky.
"Let's go the long way, Keir."
Fiona eyes were wide and hopeful, like a child who had asked for an ice cream cone. Keira marveled at how excited her partner could get over something so trivial.
"It's going to take a lot longer going that way," Keira said. She watched as disappointment wilted Fiona's features.
"If you get tired, I could drive," Fiona offered, a hopeful glimmer still lighting her eyes.
"You hate driving on Highway One."
"That's true, but " Fiona's voice faded as she failed to come up with an argument. She sighed and leaned back in her seat, chewing lightly on her lower lip. Keira knew lower lip chomping was a sure sign that Fiona was unhappy, but not angry. When she was angry, Fiona jiggled her knee. So far, the lightly freckled and incredibly sexy knee was jiggle-free.
Still, it was going to be a long day if Fiona was already unhappy. Keira contemplated the route ahead of her. She checked the time and did some quick mental calculations.
"We'll be a lot later than we planned," Keira said. "Your sister won't be happy."
"Maeve can deal." Fiona shrugged. "She has two other sisters who I guarantee will be on time. Not to mention the boys."
Keira's thoughts were drawn to the O'Reilly family. On even the simplest occasions, the O'Reilly clan Mom, Dad, seven children, their spouses and kids, and too many aunts, uncles and cousins to count was boisterous, temperamental, and just plain loud. Keira began to consider the upcoming wedding weekend. Suddenly a nice leisurely ride up the coast was extremely appealing.
"Anyway," Fiona continued, "my sister's the one who decided to get married on a bloody cliff overlooking the ocean. She can damn well be patient while we all make our way out to the middle of nowhere."
"All right," Keira said, trying to look like she'd only reluctantly agreed. "But don't complain to me when you get car sick."
Fiona's smile lit her face as brightly as if she'd held a flashlight beneath it. It was infectious, and Keira grinned back as she changed lanes in preparation for taking the westbound ramp.
It was a glorious morning, and the closer they got to the coast, the lighter Keira felt as if she was throwing off one heavy garment after another. It had been stifling in their apartment that morning, and the heat, as well as one final emergency call from work, had made her cranky and irritable. But now the pager was off, the cell phone was forwarded to voice mail, and she could smell the hint of salt water on the cool breeze. Not to mention the fact that the love of her life was sitting next to her. Life was good.
Shame about the music. Keira frowned as Fiona popped a CD into the player and the first notes of some over-produced, over-hyped, and under-talented teen pop star filled the car. Fiona was just about the perfect woman: she could cook, play three musical instruments, touch the tip of her nose with her tongue, and make such sweet love that it often made Keira weep. But her taste in music was positively abysmal.
Keira opened her mouth to begin a familiar complaint, turning toward Fiona just as the first verse began. Fiona started to sing along, drowning out the mediocre singer with her superior voice. Fiona rocked in her seat, and Keira realized that the magic of the road trip had affected her partner as well. Fiona's face seemed smoother and younger; the tiny stress lines that had been creasing the corners of her eyes had magically disappeared.
"Go ahead, say it." Fiona stopped singing and scowled at her partner. "Tell me how much you hate my music."
"I love your music," Keira replied honestly. "I've never heard anything so beautiful."
Fiona grinned and started singing once more.
They stopped for a leisurely lunch in Tamales Bay. The local oysters were wonderful, although the rest of the food left a lot to be desired. Keira was impressed at Fiona's restraint. Fiona barely twitched, even when the dessert tasted more like rum-flavored bread pudding than Tiramisu. It was relatively easy for Keira to forget about work. If there wasn't a computer system requiring her maintenance, she could pretty much keep her job out of her mind. Unfortunately for Fiona, being a chef wasn't as forgettable. She couldn't exactly hide from food. When food was badly prepared through ignorance or laziness, Fiona usually felt a need to point that out. This time, however, she remained silent and seemed happy to gulp down the dessert.
As they left the restaurant, Keira realized they still hadn't seen the ocean. But after driving for another half hour, they crested a hill and spied the Pacific stretched before them. When there was a safe area to park, Keira stopped the car and they got out and wandered to the edge of the cliff.
"It's big, isn't it?" Fiona said, shading her eyes as she gazed over the blue immensity.
"Nah, I think I can just about see Japan." Keira pulled Fiona in close, resting her breasts against Fiona's shoulder blades.
Fiona chuckled and then grew serious again. "I wonder what Balboa thought when he first laid eyes on it?"
"Probably: Holy shit, I've got a lot farther to go before I can refill the spice rack."
"They should have just been happy with salt," Fee suggested.
"Yeah, but what would they put on top of their lattes?"
Fiona chuckled, causing Keira's breasts to jiggle. The movement sent unexpected tingles all over Keira's body. She was just about to lean in to nibble an inviting earlobe when a loud crunch of gravel stilled her movements. They turned to watch a mid-sized RV pull into the wide shoulder beside their Toyota. Keira read the words written on the side of the RV while pretending to mind her own business. They were written in large red, white and blue scroll: "1-800-Roam-USA: Cruise the USA in Style".
"Let's go," Fiona whispered, already starting to move away.
"We were here first," Keira stubbornly replied. "I haven't finished soaking up the Pacific ambiance yet."
"You just want to kiss me in front of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America," Fiona said with a frown. "I refuse to be turned into a tourist attraction."
"But you're such a cute tourist attraction." Keira gently grabbed Fiona and pulled her back into her earlier position, nestled against Keira's chest. They stayed that way as Mr. Middle America got out of the RV and walked to the edge of the cliff. He stood silently, gazing across the expanse of water just as Fiona and Keira had.
"Makes you realize just how insignificant you really are."
The man didn't turn and Keira wondered for a moment if he was speaking to them.
"It always makes me feel alive," Keira said with a shrug, deciding it was rude not to offer some sort of comment.
The man turned and smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. The wind caught a stray tuft of snow-white hair, and he brushed it out of his eyes with a movement that suggested an ancient habit.
"'They say the sea is cold," he said, flinging open his arms, "but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.'"
"D.H. Lawrence." Fiona identified the author of the quotation, causing the man's smile to grow even wider and his eyes to dance.
"Very good!" he cried. "Someone paid attention in English class."
"I had a crush on my poetry teacher in twelfth grade," Fiona admitted with a slight blush.
"So did I!" the man replied. "It was a love that couldn't be denied. At least not once I graduated. I ended up marrying her." He turned toward the RV, shouting, "Carole, are you going to stay in there all day? Come out and stare at the ocean with us!"
Keira heard a muffled grumble, and then a petite woman with short salt and pepper hair emerged from the motor home, a Jack Russell terrier at her heels.
"Sorry. I had to convince Ozy that he wanted to come out for some fresh airOh, hello." Carole noticed the two women and smiled. Her brown eyes matched her husband's in intensity, though they were hidden behind thick tinted glasses.
"Come and meet my two new friends," the man said. "Of course, I've completely failed to introduce myself."
"Oh my, what a surprise." Carole's gentle grin took the sting out of the sarcasm. "Allow me to redress my husband's poor manners. I'm Carole Bradford and the old fool who has no doubt already quoted poetry at you is Matthew Bradford."
"I'm Keira Sterling and this is my partner Fiona O'Reilly."
"Ah, 'Keira' and 'Fiona'," Matthew said, nodding knowingly. "With names like those, you were destined to be together."
Keira smiled, marveling that Matthew seemed totally unaffected by her relationship with Fiona. She didn't expect the older couple to turn around and leave upon being introduced to a lesbian couple, but she was surprised when she didn't see the hesitant exchange of glances that she was used to - especially from people of Matthew and Carole's generation.
"I think you've left out someone from your introductions," Fiona said, bending down to greet the terrier, who was sniffing her shoes.
"Ozy, leave the poor girl's shoes alone," Carole commanded. Ozy gave his mistress a token glance, and then sniffed even harder.
"'Ozy' as in 'Ozymandias'?" Keira asked.
"Another poetry lover!" Matthew exclaimed. "And were you also smitten by a teacher, Keira?"
"No." Keira shook her head vigorously. "My English teacher had hair growing out of his nostrils and made a whistling noise when he breathed."
"Oh well, then I suppose Fiona and I should consider ourselves truly blessed." He smiled at Carole, and from the look of love in his eyes, the passion of his boyhood crush hadn't faded over the years.
"That's some set of wheels you've got there," Keira said, nodding her head toward the RV. "Are you enjoying it?"
"Ah, the RV." Matthew brushed the lock of hair out of his eyes once again. "Carole and I were seduced by our peers and their endless tales of life on the open road. So we decided to try it. We don't have any children to save an inheritance for, but my wife, being the pragmatist of our partnership, urged me to go the rental route first."
"And what's the verdict?" Fiona asked.
"We hate it," Carole replied succinctly.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Fiona replied with a sympathetic frown.
"Don't be." Matthew chuckled and shrugged. "We're just glad we didn't spend the rest of our retirement savings buying one."
"What exactly is the problem?" Keira asked.
"I'm afraid we're hedonists," Carole replied. "We like large comfortable beds, long, hot showers not to mention a bath now and then and, well " Her voice trailed away and she blushed slightly.
"A place to attend to one's bodily functions without scraping your elbows on the wall and your knees on the door." Matthew supplied the words for his wife. "Not to mention the ability to pull a handle and forget the rest."
"Oooh." Fiona looked a little green. "I see what you mean."
"But it hasn't ruined our holiday," Matthew said with a pleased grin. He turned to Carole and she grinned back in agreement. "We just stop whenever we miss all those things too much. It might mean we go home to Cincinnati a few days earlier, but we're still having a great time."
"Well, that's good to hear," Keira said.
"Matty, don't you think we've taken up enough of these ladies' afternoon?" Carole raised her eyebrow at her husband, who immediately looked contrite.
"Oh, of course," Matthew said, blushing. "I do apologize. Sometimes I forget that not everyone lives a life of leisure like myself. Retirement does that to you."
"No worries," Fiona replied, giving Ozy a farewell scratch behind the ear. "We're not in that big of a hurry."
"Just have to be in Mendocino by this evening or your family may disown you," Keira joked.
"Ah, Mendocino." Matthew once again threw his arms wide, a gesture that Keira now recognized preceded his oration. "'Along the northern coast, just back from the rock-bound shore and caves.'"
"Oh no, you've set him off again," Carole said. She shook her head and chuckled, scooping up Ozy. "Come on, old man, let's hit the road and leave these ladies in peace."
"Whether we shall meet again I know not," Matthew said with a wave before ascending back into the motor home. "Therefore our everlasting farewell take."
Carole rolled her eyes, but then cast a loving and indulgent glance at her husband. Keira and Fiona reluctantly waved their farewell and watched as the couple headed back onto the highway.
"I can't wait to grow old with you," Fiona said, leaning up to kiss Keira softly on her cheek.
"Be careful what you wish for," Keira replied with a crooked grin.
"What's that smell?" Fiona took another delicate sniff of the air. They had been back on the road for an hour, still driving leisurely up the coast.
"Garlic fields," Keira replied, not at all concerned with their pace. She pointed at a few acres of land nestled against the highway. "It reminds me of growing up in San Jose. In the summer, the wind blew in from the southeast, bringing the smell of garlic up from Gilroy. There was a tomato canning company near our house and together the smells made me think I was living in an Italian kitchen."
"Those are wonderful memories, Keir, but I wasn't talking about the garlic, I was talking about"
"Shit." The smell of something burning finally penetrated Keira's senses just as warning lights lit up the dash.
"That," Fiona finished, as Keira pulled over.
"Shit, shit, shit," Keira hissed.
"It's OK, babe, I'll just call the auto club on the cell phone."
"The cell phone that isn't getting any signal out here?" Keira snapped. She felt instantly contrite when she saw the hurt in Fiona's eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to take it out on you."
"It's OK." Fiona instantly brightened, accepting Keira's apology without resentment.
Keira thanked the gods for such an understanding partner, and then considered their predicament.
"I guess I'll just walk back to Fort Ross," she said with an irritated scowl. "It's only a few miles back. You might as well stay here. No sense in us both getting hot and exhausted."
"No," Fiona said sharply. She shivered and looked out the car window. "I don't want to be left alone."
Keira looked around. It was quiet. No cars passed them. The grass on the side of the road bent in the gentle ocean breeze. Two sparrows flitted among the branches of a small bush next to the car. On her left, the Pacific Ocean disappeared into the afternoon haze.
"It's perfectly safe," Keira argued. She was about to push the issue, but the fear in Fiona's eyes stopped her words. She patted Fiona's knee in a feeble attempt at reassurance, then shrugged. "OK, let's go for a little walk."
Fiona still seemed unsure, her eyes darting from the fields on one side of the car to the cliffs and sea on the other.
"Why don't we just put the hood up and wait for someone to come by?" She suggested.
"Fee, it's a quiet Thursday. It's not like a Good Samaritan is going to appear out of nowhere."
Fiona took one more hesitant glance back toward Fort Ross, and then she turned, grinning broadly at Keira.
"You were saying?"
Keira followed Fiona's gaze and watched as a tow truck ambled around the bend in the road. She was so surprised she almost forgot to flag it down. She opened the car door and stepped out as she raised her hand. The truck pulled over quickly, throwing up a thick cloud of dust.
Keira watched a young man descend from the cab. He adjusted his baseball cap, causing his brown hair curls to stick out even more from under the edges. He smiled, his face friendly and open. The name "Dave" was emblazoned on his shirt pocket right above "Coast Towing".
"What seems to be the trouble?" Dave asked, the time-honored phrase bringing a slight smile to Keira's lips despite the irritating circumstances.
"We smelled something burning and then the warning lights started flashing brighter than the lights on a Christmas tree," Keira replied.
"OK," the young man replied. He went back to his truck and got a box of tools, then walked to the front of the Toyota. "Pop the hood for me, please."
Keira did as requested and then let Dave get on with his work. Fiona had been quiet as Keira interacted with the tow truck driver, and as he started to work, she got out of the car and sat down next to Keira on a large bolder. Her eyes continued to roam the area around them. Keira began to feel edgy just watching her nervous partner.
"This place gives me the creeps," Fiona said, rubbing the goose flesh on her arms.
"You think this is creepy?" Keira said as she put her arm around Fiona. "Wait till you see me in a dress and high heels."
Keira was pleased when Fiona chuckled at her joke and seemed to relax. They spent the next few minutes in companionable silence. After a relatively short time to Keira's estimation at least Dave asked Keira to "try it". The engine started without a problem, and the lights on the dash stayed off.
"Yes!" Keira and Fiona cried in unison.
"It's only temporary, I'm afraid," Dave said as he made an image of Keira's auto club card and had her sign the paperwork. He looked apologetic, as if he'd been the cause of their engine problems. He seemed about to say something more when a crackling call came over his radio.
Fiona got back into the passenger seat and clipped in her seatbelt as Dave went back to his truck. Keira watched as Dave spoke into his radio. She couldn't hear what was being said, but she did notice that Dave kept peering anxiously up the road in the direction that Keira and Fiona were headed.
Dave finished his brief exchange and returned to the car. He leaned down and spoke into the Toyota, looking even more ashamed than before. "Sorry about that. I need to get on. A bad accident back near Jenner. But as I was saying, I fixed you up enough to get you up the road apiece."
Keira smiled at the old-fashioned expression. "Thanks. We'll stop at the next town with a garage."
"The next town?" Dave's eyes shifted, as Fiona's had earlier, looking around nervously. "You can probably get a bit farther than that. I wouldn't bother stopping at the next town if I were you."
"Well, there's no need to push our luck," Keira replied with a shrug.
"You've certainly been lucky so far," Dave said, nodding as if he was agreeing with something beyond Keira's statement. "I usually dont pass through here at this time of day. So, let's hope your luck holds out."
"I'm sure it will." Fiona smiled at the man reassuringly, as if she was also sensing his remorseful tone and wanted him to know she was accepting whatever apology he was offering.
"Well, I better get on my way," Dave said with another nod.
Keira returned the gesture. They watched as Dave climbed back into the cab of the tow truck and made a careful u-turn across the highway. He looked at them in his large side mirror, giving them a farewell wave. Keira saw a shadow lurking in his brown eyes before he turned to peer down the road. It was a look of dread.
"It must be horrible to head toward the scene of an accident and pretty much know what you're going to find," Fiona said softly.
"Yeah," Keira agreed with a shiver as an image of a blood-covered corpse swamped her vision. "Horrible."
Keira continued up Highway One, her eyes darting nervously to the dashboard, her ears listening for any unusual clicks or pings, and her nose sniffing the air for the smell of burning. She kicked herself for not asking Dave what exactly was wrong with the car, although her knowledge of car engines was pretty limited. It probably wouldn't have made much sense.
After only a few miles, her anxiety about the car was causing her neck to tense up painfully.
"We'll stop at the next town," Fiona said, not allowing for argument even though Keira wasn't about to give one.
"Sounds good," Keira said, her eyes expressing her gratitude. "Where is the next town?"
Fiona fumbled in the glove compartment and finally extracted a crumpled map. She was busy trying to find their current location just as Keira approached a green highway sign.
"Seaburgh." Keira read the sign. "Eight miles."
"I don't see a Seaburgh on the map."
Keira glanced at Fiona, who was trailing her fingertip slowly up the small black line on the map, and felt a tickle of disquiet.
"Oh, here it is." Fiona smiled triumphantly. "For a minute there I thought we'd ended up in the Twilight Zone."
"Well, judging by our luck so far, I was beginning to wonder."
"Dave said we were having good luck," Fiona pointed out. "Anyway, if the size of the letters is any indication of the size of the town, Seaburgh looks big enough to possibly have a garage."
"Keep your fingers crossed."
"Will do." Fiona dutifully did as she was told, peering out the window for the first signs of the town.
The odometer became one more stop for Keira's restless eyes as she drove along the twists and turns of the highway. At exactly eight miles, a green sign proclaimed the Seaburgh city limits, population 1,263. A white cross stood just beneath the signpost. It was festooned with fresh roses and something silver that glittered in the sunlight.
"Must have been a car accident here," Fiona said.
"Mmm," Keira agreed softly. "Strange place for an accident. It's the first straight, level stretch for miles."
"Sometimes when people are tired an unexpected sign will draw their attention and they'll accidentally plow right into it, or veer away from it right into oncoming traffic."
"I'd guess the latter." Keira gestured toward the other side of the road. "There's a cross on that side too."
"Welcome to sunny, peaceful Seaburgh," Keira said sarcastically. "Where people are just dying to visit."
Fiona rolled her eyes, but the black humor seemed to lighten their mood a little. And as they passed the outlying homes and entered the town proper, they found that Seaburgh was actually quite peaceful and, on this afternoon at least, extremely sunny.
The niggling sense of dread that was tickling the back of Keira's brain faded as they drove slowly down Main Street. Like most towns along Highway One, the speed limit dropped and the highway became the main road through town. Businesses clustered along four blocks, clean windows with bright lettering and an occasional kite or flag vying for the attention of motorists just planning on passing through. The attraction had worked in most cases, as obvious tourists, dressed in shorts and t-shirts proclaiming their last stop, strolled along the streets. Couples and families walked hand in hand, strolling down the street and moving in and out of the shops that sold coffee, books, and a variety of kitsch.
"Ooh, ice cream!" Fiona cried when she spotted a little girl clutching a cone, more ice cream on her face and shirt than could have possibly made it into her stomach. "Can we get an ice cream, Keir?"
"As soon as we fix the car," Keira promised, frowning as she scanned the businesses. "If we can find a garage. That mini-mart and pumps at the beginning of town may be the only thing they've got. I might have to turn around and"
"There!" Fiona pointed at a Chevron station with a two-bay garage attached. A sign identified it as an official smog check station and it looked clean and well maintained. Keira sighed with relief as she pulled in and parked, and she and Fiona got out to find the mechanic.
Although an open sign rested against the window and the door to the little shop was open, there was no sign of anyone working. Fiona went around back and Keira walked cautiously into the garage, both women calling out a greeting.
The garage was quiet and much cooler than the outside. A Ford Explorer, undergoing a brake job, loomed above her. She walked slowly around the suspended SUV and stared at the auto parts that sat in shelves or hung from various hooks on the wall. She could identify some of the parts and tools hoses and belts and filters but most of them looked completely alien. Some resembled Iron Age tools, others looked so modern they might have come from the space shuttle.
As Keira walked past the Explorer, she discovered an engine lying in the other half of the garage. It was covered in a dark, viscous material that had formed small puddles on the concrete floor of the garage. Keira was struck by how menacing and intricate it looked, reminded of a medieval torture device she'd once seen in a museum.
"Hello?" Keira tried one last time, whispering the greeting as if she'd been transported back to the museum and didn't want to disturb anyone.
The response sent Keira flying just about as high as the Ford.
"Jesus," she snarled, clutching at her heart to encourage it to slow down but not give up entirely.
"Oh my dear, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's OK." Keira peered at the man, and then the corner where he stood. The corner that had no door. The corner that she swore had been empty a moment before.
"I'm afraid I was miles away," the man said, grinning sheepishly. "You see I was putting new brake pads on this Explorer. And I was thinking about my buddy Freddy Walsh. We were in the army together. Worked in the motor pool."
The man easily launched into his story, and Keira listened with a bemused expression on her face.
"Freddy used to hate doing brake jobs," the man continued. "I don't know why. But he'd look at the brakes and say, 'These brakes will hold for a few hundred more miles; let's change 'em next time it comes through.' And I'd agree. But I tell ya, every set of brakes on every vehicle in our pool squealed like a herd of pigs."
The man chuckled at his own story, laughing so hard that tears leaked from the corner of his eyes. He rubbed them away with a greasy, scarred knuckle.
"Yes, well " Keira mumbled, smiling to be polite.
"Oh good lord!" the man cried, wiping his palms on his dark blue coverall, then sticking out his right hand. "Where are my manners? My name's Monty. Monty James."
"Hello, Mr. James. I'm Keira Sterling." Keira took Monty's offered hand and shook it. His shake was gentle, but Keira could feel the power behind it, carefully caged. His hand's calluses and scars were like a roadmap to his life.
"What can I do for you this fine afternoon, Ms. Sterling?"
"Keira?" Fiona took that moment to poke her head around the side of the garage.
"Two beautiful women in my garage on the same afternoon?" Monty chuckled again. "I'm luckier than the Pied Piper's cat!"
"This is my partner, Fiona O'Reilly," Keira said with a smile. Monty's sense of humor was starting to grow on her.
"Fiona! I once knew a girl named Fiona. Had red hair, just like yours. I met her in a pub in London during the war. We were both homesick her for the Emerald Isle and me for the California coast. We ended up drowning our sorrows in Guinness. You ever drink Guinness?" Keira and Fiona both nodded, though Monty's narrative didn't slow down. "Wonderful stuff, like drinking a beer milkshake. Goes down smooth, you know? Seems innocuous at the time. Packs a powerful punch if you drink enough of it, though. And I have to admit, Fiona and I definitely drank enough that night. Beautiful girl."
Monty sighed and his eyes became unfocused, his memories obviously drifting back to that night in London. Keira's thoughts also went to London and the war. London implied Europe, which in turn implied World War II. But that would mean Monty was in his early seventies at the youngest. If so, he was the best-preserved seventy-year old man she'd ever met. Other than a soft dusting of grey at the temples, his hair was jet black. Only a few laugh lines marked his face.
"Well, I'd love to hear more about London and the war, Monty, but " Keira put aside her musing for more pressing matters.
"Oh no, I've done it again!" Monty said, holding up his hands apologetically. "I'm so sorry."
"That's OK," Fiona replied with a forgiving smile.
"Let me use my psychic powers and guess that you're having car trouble." Monty moved out of the garage toward their car.
"We broke down just north of Fort Ross," Keira explained as she followed Monty out of the garage. "A tow truck driver named Dave helped us out. Fixed her up well enough to get us here, but he said we should stop somewhere to have something permanent done."
"Coast Towing?" Monty asked, his eyes narrowing and growing dark.
"Ye-yes," Keira replied, taken aback by the first sign of anything other than mirth in Monty's expression.
"Must have been Dave Hamilton. If he knows half of what his father does, he fixed you up as good as he could." Monty smiled reassuringly at Keira, but his eyes didn't lighten. "His father and I go way back. Used to be partners. But we had a falling out."
"Must have been why Dave acted so strange about us stopping in Seaburgh," Fiona said.
"Oh really?" Monty's expression changed once again, and Keira was reminded of a hawk she'd seen on a nature program. The camera had focused on the hawk's eyes as they roamed over a field, instantly calculating the exact speed, angle, and force it would need to capture the rabbit that had just poked its nose out of a hole. What was most chilling about the hawk's eyes was the tremendous amount of intelligence balanced with an absolute lack of emotion.
"He sort of implied we shouldn't stop," Fiona replied carefully. Keira looked at her lover and realized that Fiona had picked up on something too.
"Well, I'll have to speak to his dad," Monty said evenly. "No sense in having our feud scare people off from visiting Seaburgh."
"Well, he didn't succeed anyway," Keira said with a smile. She felt relieved when Monty succeeded in mimicking her expression.
"You're right!" Monty said, slapping his hands together. "So tell me exactly what happened and let me have a look under the hood."
Keira did her best to explain the smell, the warning lights and what Dave had done. Monty nodded and then spent ten minutes poking around in the engine. He crawled under the car as well, murmuring occasional "hmmm's" and "oh's" and "ah ha's". Finally, he stood before them with a frown, wiping his hands on a dirty red cloth that he pulled from his coverall pocket.
"Well, I have some good news and some bad news."
Keira and Fiona groaned in harmony, and Monty smiled apologetically.
"The good news is that it's a simple and inexpensive repair," he continued. "The bad news is that I can't get the part until tomorrow."
"Oh, sweet Mary and Joseph, Maeve's gonna kill me," Fiona said.
"Maeve is her sister," Keira explained at Monty's quizzical look. "She's getting married on Saturday outside of Mendocino."
"Oh no!" Monty shook his head in dismay. "Believe me, if there was anything I could do, I would. I have an order of parts on their way up, but they're not due until first thing in the morning. I really am terribly, terribly sorry."
"Are you sure " Keira's words trailed off, knowing there wasn't any option.
"I'll just have to call Maeve and let her know we won't get there until early tomorrow," Fiona said with a shrug. "It's OK, Monty. At least it means I get my ice cream cone. And we'll get to see more of Seaburgh."
"Maybe we can find someone to give us a lift up to Mendocino " Keira knew it was a long shot.
"Hitchhike?" Fiona asked with a grin. "I don't think so. Besides, it'll just be a big hassle. We're not missing that much if we arrive tomorrow morning, just the rehearsal. I think I can figure it out as I go along. I'll call Maeve right now and let her know. Can I use your phone, Monty?"
"Of course!" Monty nearly tripped over his own feet as he led Fiona to his little office, happy that things seemed to be working out despite the minor disaster.
Keira kicked the car's tire, punishing it for its treason. She felt a bit better for showing the car who was boss. Monty caught the action as he walked back from the office and nodded knowingly. He moved into the garage and hooked the engine to a chain, swinging it out of the way. Then he took the keys from Keira and pulled her Toyota into the empty bay.
"Did I tell you yet how sorry I am?" Monty asked when he got out of the car.
"Yes." Keira nodded. "But it's not your fault. I'm just glad you can get the part and help us get back on the road first thing."
"I can probably get it done before the tide's in." He laughed at the blank expression on Keira's face, and added with a wink, "Tomorrow, that'll be around 8:15."
"Oh, that would be great," Keira replied. "The O'Reilly brood probably won't even be up by the time we arrive."
"Fantastic," Monty said. "And just to make things a little easier, I want you to go stay at my sister's hotel. She'll put you up tonight free of charge."
"Monty, I can't do that."
"Can't do what?" Fiona had returned from the office to catch the end of the conversation.
"Monty says we can stay at his sister's hotel tonight free of charge," Keira said.
"We can't do that."
"That's what I said."
"Of course you can," Monty said firmly. "And she runs the nicest place in Seaburgh, let me assure you. Better than that cheap place out on the highway. Her hotel has great ocean views and a big whirlpool bath in every room."
"Well, we'll definitely want to stay there," Keira said, her muscles relaxing at the mere mention of a whirlpool bath. "It sounds great. But we really can't accept a free room. It's not your fault our car broke down."
"Listen, you girls deserve a break. Besides, if you like the hotel, you can recommend it to all your friends. You can even get on the Internet-thingy and rate it. My sister tried to explain that stuff to me the other night. I didn't really understand it, but I'm sure you young kids do. So you see, I'm just being nice for my own self interest."
"Sure you are," Keira said with a smirk.
"It's settled then." Monty clapped his hands together in victory. "It's the Seaburgh Lodge on Ocean View Drive. The city planners used real imagination when it came to naming streets around here. We've got Ocean View on one side of town, River View on the other, Cliff Road straight down the middle of town, and then first through sixth streets running parallel to good old Main Street."
"Well, at least it's easy to remember," Fiona said.
"Oh, that it is. Anyway, let's get your stuff loaded up into my truck and I'll run you up there. Everything in town's within walking distance, so you won't be stranded if you want to go out later to get a bite to eat."
"How was Maeve?" Keira asked as they helped Monty load their suitcases into the back of an ancient Chevy pickup truck.
"Madder than a cat in the rainforest. But she was calming down by the time I got off the phone. It might actually be for the best, you know. The uncles are already drunk and singing Irish rebel songs, the kids are fighting, and Gran says if Maeve and Aaron don't get married in a church within a month, she's never speaking to any of us."
"Does she know the groom is Jewish?" Keira asked as they got into the cab of the truck, the three fitting comfortably on the huge bench seat.
"No, she does not. And don't you dare say that again until we're back home and the whole nightmare is over."
"Marrying across faiths." Monty shook his head knowingly. "I know you young folks don't hardly think a thing about it, but I can tell you, it causes nothing but grief in the long run."
Keira made a non-committal sound of understanding, which seemed to be all Monty expected. He whistled as they drove back down Main Street for a block, and then turned toward the ocean, traveling a short way to the edge of the cliffs.
Keira hadn't really been expecting much, despite Monty's praises, but the Seaburgh Lodge was gorgeous. It was a large structure and looked new, or at least newly restored. It was built above and slightly into the cliff, on different levels so that each room had a private balcony with an ocean view.
Monty escorted them into the lobby, which was contained in a separate building.
"Why couldn't Maeve have gotten married here?" Fiona whispered as they spied a large room off the lobby with cathedral ceilings and plate glass windows, obviously designed for weddings or meetings.
"Mary?" Monty called. "You've got customers!"
Monty's sister hustled out from a small back room. She was a large woman with rosy cheeks, white hair, and silver wire-frame glasses. She reminded Keira of Mrs. Claus, and she grinned at them as if they were little girls coming to ask Santa for new dolls.
Monty explained the girl's story and the deal he'd already arranged, and as Keira opened her mouth to protest, Mary nodded vigorously.
"Of course you aren't going to pay," she said. "Especially after that little Davey Hamilton suggested you drive past Seaburgh without stopping. Imagine that!"
"He didn't exactly " Fiona began with a pained expression, looking as if she was sorry they'd ever mentioned Dave at all.
"Well, Monty and I are glad you did and we know you're going to adore my hotel."
She pulled out the guest book and Keira filled in the blanks and signed it, deciding that she'd leave some money in the room in the morning.
"Here's the key," Mary said, handing Keira a plastic key card. "Your room's on the end at the top. Room 303. Monty, take the girl's bags for them."
"Please, that's not necessary." Keira grabbed her own bags and was pleased to see that Fiona was as quick on the trigger. "We can at least haul our own stuff. It's the only exercise we've gotten all day."
Monty and Mary laughed, conceding that their generosity had hit its limit.
"All right, I'll let you girls get on," Monty said. "Give me a call tomorrow whenever you get up and I'll give you a progress report. If it's ready, I'll come pick you up."
"OK, sounds good," Keira said.
"Oh, and don't forget to try out that whirlpool tub. The wife and I check in every few months just to you know." He waggled a bushy eyebrow and winked.
Keira grinned back and then laughed at Fiona's adorable blush. For the second time in a day, she was shocked at someone from Monty's generation accepting their relationship with so much ease. Maybe the world was changing after all.
"Thanks, Monty. You've restored my faith in humanity."
Monty just smiled and winked again, as if sharing a secret. For a disconcerting moment, Keira wondered what the secret actually was.
When Keira pushed open the hotel room door, her nose instantly detected a light, floral odor. It wasn't overpowering, unlike the room's décor.
"Good Lord," Fiona exclaimed softly as she moved into the room and set down her heavy suitcase. "Look at the colors."
"I think they were going for a seaside motif," Keira said, eying the wallpaper, carpet and bedspread, which were all glaring and clashing shades of pink and blue. "You know, coral and seashells and salmon sunsets."
"And they ended up with a nursery on acid?" Fiona asked sarcastically.
"Something like that." Keira sat put her suitcase into the closet, and then moved Fiona's. "Hey, speaking of nurseries " Her words trailed off as she became suddenly tongue-tied. Fiona turned to her expectantly when words failed to make their way past Keira's vocal chords.
"I mean " Keira tried again. "I was just thinking that maybe "
Fiona's eyes twinkled and a little smile twitched at the corners of her lips.
"If you're going to ask about making another appointment at the fertility clinic," Fiona said, putting Keira out of her misery. "I already did."
"You did? I mean, I don't want to push you I want you to be sure about this if it's not something"
"Of course I want it," Fiona interrupted. "We've both been over this a million times. Anyway, we have an appointment in three weeks to give it another try. I'm pretty regular, so I should be ovulating. They said to just give them a call when I think I'm ready."
Keira grinned and pulled Fiona into a hug, squeezing her tightly and kissing her forehead.
"It's gonna work this time, Fee, I just know it is."
"Well," Fiona replied, leaning into the hug. "If it doesn't work you may need to step up to the plate, slugger."
"What?" Keira gasped in mock horror. "Push a watermelon through this pelvis?" She clutched her sides as Fiona chuckled at the running joke.
"Speaking of that pelvis " Fiona said in a husky whisper, running her hands seductively down Keira's sides, trailing her fingers down the "v" of her pelvis.
"Ye-ees," Keira purred.
Fiona met Keira's eyes. Keira noticed that the normally light green irises were a dark emerald, the pupils widening. Fiona's tongue ran slowly across her lips, and Keira felt her abdominal muscles clench from both the tickling fingers and the anticipation of something more.
"You promised me an ice cream," Fiona said, ruining the seduction with a childish grin.
Keira groaned and could almost hear her libido's echoing complaint. "You are evil."
"That's right," Fiona agreed. "Evil incarnate."
"It's so quiet here." Fiona peered around the nearly deserted streets of Seaburgh.
It was late in the afternoon. The sun was casting long shadows and painting everything in golden hues. The tourists had headed home or in search of lodging for the night. The locals, apparently, weren't big on strolling their town's streets, and Keira and Fiona walked slowly up the deserted Main Street as Fiona ate her ice cream and Keira window-shopped.
A cool wind had started blowing in from the sea, and Keira stopped in a little shop to buy a sweatshirt. It was forest green, with "Seaburgh" embroidered in light green letters on the left side of the chest.
"You made it just in the knick of time," the woman behind the counter said when she handed Keira her change. "I would normally be closed, but I was just sorting through a new shipment that arrived today."
Keira checked the clock on the wall and saw that it was just after five.
"Sidewalks roll up early around here, huh?" Keira tried hard not to sound like a cynical urbanite.
"We stay open later on Saturday," the woman replied with a friendly smile. "Folks from Seaburgh are used to doing most of their shopping then, I suppose. Weekdays, especially sunny ones like this one, they tend to stay close to home."
"Why especially sunny ones?" Fiona asked. "Seems like they'd be out more on a sunny afternoon."
"I know it sounds crazy," the woman said, chuckling at her town's eccentricity. "But sunny days are bad luck in Seaburgh. I suppose it's because they're the exception rather than the rule. Folks prefer cloudy or rainy days. Foggy days are even better. My dad was a fisherman, before the factory ships ruined the fishing, and he used to say that the fish swam away from the sun. The fishing was always better when it was darker."
"Well, I suppose someone that fished every day would know better than a city girl like me," Keira said.
"I guess." The woman shrugged. "Folks around here have a lot of strange superstitions. I've learned to take most of them with a grain of salt."
"Well, thanks." Keira took her sweatshirt and pulled it on over her polo shirt. "I don't need a bag."
"OK. You ladies have a good evening."
Keira and Fiona nodded their thanks and left the shop. They turned up Cliff Road to continue their exploration of the town. It was still eerily quiet. A dog's bark disturbed the silence, echoing louder than a factory whistle. The two women strolled past the town's three bars, two restaurants, grocery store, post office, bank, and school. An old movie theater had been turned into the "Seaburgh House of Worship."
"'All denominations welcome'," Keira read from the theater's marquee. "I guess a town this size can't support a church for every religion."
"I suppose not," Fiona replied, "but how on earth do they manage it?"
"Maybe they have little partitions in there," Keira suggested. "But the Quakers would have to keep shushing the Pentecostals."
"Stop all that speaking in tongues nonsense," Fiona said, trying her best to impersonate an irate Quaker. "We're trying to have an hour of silent meditation."
"I'd love to check it out sometime," Keira said wistfully.
"Well, then we should. I love it here, Keir. Let's come back when we have more time."
"Sounds like a plan." Keira bent down and sealed the agreement with a light kiss.
"Oh dear, you girls are at it again!"
Fiona and Keira turned at the familiar voice and found Matthew and Carole beaming at them from a few feet away.
"Hey, what are you guys doing here?" Keira smiled in surprise.
"Well, we were just meandering up the coast. We spent most of the day at Fort Ross. Fascinating place. Then we came across this charming village. We decided it was the perfect place for our evening of decadence."
"And where is my shoe-sniffing little friend?" Fiona asked.
"Ozy is sleeping in the RV," Carole replied. "He doesn't seem to need an evening of decadence. He's happy wherever we put his doggy bed as long as he has his favorite chew toy."
"So we checked into The Seaburgh Lodge," Matthew explained.
"That's where we're staying!" Fiona cried.
"Excellent." Matthew clapped his hands together in pleasure. "We were just looking for somewhere to eat if you ladies would like to join us."
"'And homeless near a thousand homes I stood," Fiona quoted, "And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.'"
"Wordsworth." Matthew grinned. "Perfect!"
"Oh, jeez, don't you two start again." Keira groaned and poked Fiona in the ribs.
"Besides," Carole interjected, "there's nowhere near a thousand homes in this little town. Less than fifty, I'd say."
"Ah yes," Matthew agreed. "Makes their claim of 1,263 souls a bit suspect."
Keira nodded, remembering the population on the sign at the city limits. "And however many there really are, they obviously prefer staying in their homes, even on a night as lovely as this one."
"Typical," Matthew said with a dismissive wave. "I blame it on the evil boob tube. People prefer to sit in front of their televisions instead of meeting up with their fellow man for even the smallest bit of human interaction."
"Not to mention fresh air," Fiona said, taking in a large breath of the cool, salty air. "It makes me feel so invigorated."
"It makes me hungry," Keira said. "Shall we?"
Everyone nodded and then peered around them.
"Looks like our choices are somewhat limited," Matthew said. "Chinese food or pizza. Unless you want to take a chance on the bar that serves 'Hot Food'. Though I must say the generic label does not bode well."
"Let's check out the Chinese," Carole suggested. "If it looks too scary, we can try pizza."
"Excellent suggestion, my dear." Matthew took his wife's arm and led them toward the restaurant.
They approached the establishment from the side, and as they neared the corner on which the restaurant sat, they passed an open door that gave them a view of the kitchen. Keira peered inside and spotted two teenagers chopping a huge collection of vegetables. An old woman was busy cooking over a massive wok. The kitchen was spotless, the vegetables were fresh, and the food smelled scrumptious. Not being the expert, she turned to Fiona for a final decision.
"Looks like a winner." Fiona nodded.
"She's a chef," Keira said when she spotted Carole and Matthew's confused expressions.
"For a minute there I thought she was a health inspector," Matthew said. "Now that's a job I wouldn't fancy."
It was dark and warm inside The Great Wall. They were the only patrons, aside from a young couple, who eyed them suspiciously for a long moment before returning to their meal. A middle-aged Chinese woman greeted them with a friendly smile.
"You can sit anywhere that's set for four," she said.
They chose a table by the window and the woman brought them their menus, returning a moment later with a pot of tea. "We have very nice asparagus in today and the prawns are fresh," she said. "I'll give you a moment."
They smiled and nodded and then eyed the extensive menu.
"How about we just go for the dinner for four?" Keira suggested.
"You're so unadventurous." Fiona shook her head in teasing disappointment.
"Well I think the dinner for four sounds great," Matthew said, slapping his menu closed. "Go ahead and call me unadventurous as well, but I'm not quite ready for braised tofu in black bean sauce."
"You don't know what you're missing." Fiona continued to shake her head in dismay, but grinned at them. When the waitress returned, Fiona ordered the dinner for four, but added a few small touches. She obviously wanted to take her partner and new friends on one or two little adventures.
Keira only half listened to Fiona's order, her attention captivated by a mural that covered one wall of the restaurant. It depicted the restaurant's namesake, the Great Wall of China. She'd seen the Wall depicted many times, but never like this.
"Somewhat unappetizing, isn't it?" Carole asked, following Keira's gaze. Matthew and Fiona turned around to look as well.
The picture featured the Wall rising up and away into mountains in the distance. What made this picture unique were the small figures painted on each side of the Wall. On the right side, clusters of soldiers were obviously preparing for battle. Some were setting up catapults; others held swords or bows and arrows. Frightened farmers and villagers huddled in groups behind the soldiers. The left side of the wall was a scene of carnage. Figures that appeared to be winged demons were either killing and eating men, or massing together in obvious preparation for climbing over the wall to meet the soldiers in battle.
"My grandfather painted that when he bought the restaurant as a young man," the waitress said, placing a large soup tureen in the middle of the table. She returned with four bowls and ladled out the wonton soup. "My grandmother didn't like it. She told him it would scare people away."
"Well, I guess she was wrong if the restaurant's still in your family this many years later," Carole pointed out.
"That's true." The waitress smiled. "Besides, he agreed with her. But he believed it would scare away the people that should be scared away."
"As well as the evil spirits?" Keira said, pointing to the mirrors that faced the doors and the small shrine in the corner. "Looks like you've got everything covered."
"You can't be too careful," the waitress said with a knowing smile.
"It's beautiful." Keira gazed at the sunset that painted the sky pinks and purples and oranges, like a box of pastel chalk.
Their meal had been wonderful, the company even better. But both couples had the same idea in mind: to hurry back to their rooms to watch the sunset. Keira and Fiona were pleased to discover that they had a perfect view from the window above the whirlpool bath, and were now transfixed by the sight as warm bubbly water danced around them.
"Perfect end to a perfect day." Fiona sighed and leaned back between Keira's legs. The sun copied her actions, easing into the welcoming embrace of the sea.
"A perfect day," Keira agreed. "All except for the car breaking down and the fact that we totally missed your sister's wedding rehearsal and dinner."
"All except for that." Fiona chuckled.
"Well, I have to say I'm in complete agreement with you." Keira took a sip of wine. They'd discovered a complimentary bottle waiting on their doorstep when they returned from dinner. Keira was beginning to wonder if she'd died on the road and was actually in heaven. "I guess old Dave was right about our luck."
"Yep." Fiona looked up at Keira and smiled seductively. "And I'm hoping my luck hasn't run out."
"Oh?" Keira lifted an eyebrow. "Do you feel lucky, punk?"
"Let's just say I'm glad Matthew and Carole are staying on the other end of the building. Because I intend to make you scream before the night is over."
"With the amount of hints Matthew was making about enjoying the whirlpool, I might not be the only one making a little noise tonight."
"Ewww." Fiona lifted her hand. "Don't go there."
"What? People over fifty are allowed to have sex you know."
"I didn't say they weren't allowed to have sex. I just don't want to think about the details."
Keira laughed. "Well, it's exactly the same as younger people's sex except the pubic hair is usually grey and they can't bend quite as far."
"Would you stop please? I don't want to think about grey pubic hair or bending appendages."
"All right." Keira kissed the top of Fiona's head, the soft curls tickling her nose. "I'd much rather bend your appendages anyway."
Fiona turned her face up and replaced her hair with smooth lips. Keira could taste the lingering hint of cherry and oak from the wine. The flavors danced across her tongue as she traced Fiona's lips and then slowly entered her mouth. Fiona's long auburn lashes lowered over emerald green orbs as their tongues began a gradual, seductive dance.
They stayed that way for an eternity, as the sun was consumed by the sea, and the world grew dark around them. The passing of time meant nothing to them. They melted into one, the sole occupant of their universe.
A tender caress. A soft moan. The musk of arousal. The salty tang of a drop of sweat. The pink areola of a milky white breast. These were the stimuli of their world. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else ever had. Nothing else ever would.
"Please." Keira's whispered plea was a roar in her mind. Fiona required no further words. Her needs were Keira's needs; her desires were Keira's desires.
Fingers thrust deeply into a welcoming, grasping embrace. Mouths sucked on hardened nipples. Teeth grazed against pulse points.
"Yes!" The twin scream was torn from the same throat.
Keira called for a break to their lovemaking around midnight. They'd made it out of the bath at some point, although their fingers and toes had become albino prunes a fact that had led to a little nibbling, a little sucking, and then a lot more sex. The bed was as soft as it looked, although they had to test-drive the couch and the carpet before they made it that far.
"God I love that woman," Keira said as she sat on the toilet and emptied her full bladder. She could still smell Fiona on her skin, taste her on her fingertips.
She turned off the light before opening the door, in case Fiona was asleep, and then felt awkwardly for the sink. She managed to find the taps after knocking over the mouthwash. As she washed her hands, a flash of light in the mirror caught her eye. She peered out the little window beside the sink, wiping her hands on a towel.
It was dark outside only a feeble yellow light marked the entrance to the hotel parking lot. The breeze that had been blowing in the early evening had died out with the sunset. The tree beside the parking lot no longer rustled like an impatient student waiting for recess. Keira could see the lights from the bars in town still twinkling, only slightly brighter than the legion of stars overhead. But it was different lights that had captured her attention.
"That's strange," she whispered.
"What's strange?" Fiona asked, suddenly behind her, small hands on Keira's hips.
Keira jumped, knocking her elbow against the windowsill. She would have continued to fly if Fiona's hands hadn't held her down.
"Sorry, my love." Fiona kissed Keira's bare shoulder. "What's strange?"
Keira took deep breaths and waited for her heart to stop trying to burst from her chest.
"Look." Keira pointed out the window, indicating three lines of lights heading toward the center of town.
"Cars?" Fiona squinted, as if trying to bring the scene into better focus.
"Yeah," Keira agreed. "Cars moving down from the outskirts of town, from the hills down River View and Cliff Road and Ocean View." She rattled off the three streets, remembering Monty's Seaburgh geography lesson. "It looks like rush hour traffic in the Bay Area, except that it's midnight in a little coastal town on a Thursday night."
"There must be some kind of party," Fiona guessed. "Or maybe it's a fishing thing. You know, the spawning of the steelhead or something."
Keira looked dubious, but had no better explanation.
"Ozy doesn't like it, that's for sure." Fiona nodded her head toward the other end of the parking lot.
Keira had been so enraptured by the cars that she hadn't noticed the barks of the little dog. The RV was parked nearer to the Bradford's room, but Ozy's barking was only slightly muffled by the distance and the metal walls of the motor home. Keira wondered what had got him so upset.
"I'm off to bed," Fiona said. "You coming?"
Keira mumbled her agreement, but took one last look out the window. The lights reminded her of her grandmother's pearl necklace. When the old woman had died, her daughter's had fought over it. Keira could still remember the sniping, bitchy arguments about what was promised and who was loved. Her grandmother had gotten the last laugh, though she'd added an addendum to her will that she be buried with those pearls around her neck. Keira had stared at them during the funeral. Focused on the string of white instead of the cold, dead face.
"Weird," she mumbled and turned away slowly. As she left the bathroom, she head Matthew shouting a command to Ozy, and then the world outside was silent again.
Ozy's barks woke Keira once more. She peered at the crimson numbers on the digital clock. Three a.m. Ozy sounded louder this time, and she wondered, in a muzzy, half-asleep way, whether he'd gotten out of the RV.
And then she heard a yelp, followed by a thump that she couldn't identify. She strained to hear more, but all she heard was her own heartbeat instead of the hollow footsteps or the crunch of tires on gravel that she expected.
She lay awake for several more minutes, until her heart slowed and the sound of Fiona's soft breaths lulled her back into oblivion.
When Keira woke the next morning, her head was fuzzy. She felt as if someone had shoved cotton balls into her brain through her ears.
"Or up my nose," she mumbled through a stretch and a yawn.
"Yes, you're right," Fiona said brightly.
Keira chuckled at her lover, knowing that the comment was a response to a dream conversation and not to Keira's cotton ball theory. Fiona had a habit an adorable one in Keira's estimation of talking in her sleep. She always seemed to be reliving some childhood adventure, sounding sweet and spunky and full of delight.
"I'd like a scoop of chocolate, please," Fiona said, smiling, her eyes dancing under closed lids.
"You even dream about ice cream," Keira murmured. She shook her head ruefully and stumbled out of bed, walking like a zombie toward the bathroom.
She took a peek out of the window on her way to the toilet and found that the weather was as grey and foggy as her brain. Seaburgh was still unnaturally quiet, although Keira could hear an occasional car whirring past on the highway. She began to hazily remember the sights and sounds of the night before, but the memories were like a sandcastle slowly collapsing under gentle yet unceasing waves. There goes the castle walls; there goes the turret. She tried to hang on to the images, but they were fading, becoming shapeless before disappearing all together.
"Damn, that must have been a better bottle of wine than I thought," she muttered, rubbing her face and turning to the bathroom. Perhaps a hot shower would clear her head.
"Thanks for getting this done so early, Monty." Keira listened to the soft rumble of the engine. The car sounded better than it had when it was new.
"No problem," Monty replied, taking a sip from a huge mug of coffee. "I knew better than to get on the wrong side of an Irish family."
"Very wise," Fiona said. She gripped an equally large Styrofoam cup, courtesy of Mary, who wouldn't let them leave until they'd eaten breakfast. They devoured the best cinnamon rolls they'd ever eaten and the freshest grapefruit. Then they headed out with two large coffees after swearing on various ancestors' graves to return to Seaburgh.
"Now you drive carefully up the coast," Monty said, shaking his finger. "Don't try to pass anyone in this fog."
"I promise," Keira said.
"And call me if you have any problems at all," Monty added.
"I will," Keira said. She was beginning to wonder if she'd ever get out of Seaburgh and on the road.
"And tell your mechanic back home to take a look at the timing belt." Monty rubbed his chin. "I'd say it has a while before it gives you any problem. I would have gone ahead and changed it if I"
"Goodbye, Monty," Keira interrupted. She grinned at him and he smiled back sheepishly.
"Goodbye, you two." He stepped away from the car and waved as Keira pulled out slowly. "Come back soon."
"We will!" Fiona said, leaning out the window as she passed him. "We promise!"
Fiona sighed and leaned back into her seat as Keira patted her on the knee.
"I don't want to leave," Fiona said with a grumpy frown. "It's so peaceful and everyone was so nice."
"Yeah," Keira said. "It's amazing how fate turns around on you."
"I wish we could have said good-bye to Matthew and Carole before they headed out."
The Bradford's RV had been gone when they left their hotel room. Mary informed them that the couple had checked out at dawn and seemed excited about making their way north to see the redwoods.
"Well," Keira said. "We said our good-byes last night. And we have their address in Cincinnati. We'll send them a note in a few weeks."
"I wanted to say good bye to Ozy," Fiona said with a pout.
Keira didn't know where the thought came from. It was like a camera's flash, burning incredibly brightly and then leaving an afterimage that faded slowly. She took a sip of her coffee to hide her discomfort. Fiona didn't seem to expect a reply and leaned her head against the car window, gazing at Seaburgh as if she were memorizing every building and tree and sidewalk.
"We will be coming back, won't we, Keir?" Fiona turned wide eyes to Keira, almost desperately seeking reassurance.
"Of course," Keira replied, stroking Fiona's knee.
Keira turned back to the road, crossing a green steel bridge over the harbor that marked the north end of town. She glanced into her rearview mirror, sparing Seaburgh one last, longing look.
"Doesn't she look radiant?" One of the aunts Keira couldn't remember which one had sidled up to her at the reception. Aunt Somebodyorother nodded toward Maeve, who was greeting her wedding guests while holding tightly to her new husband's arm.
She looks hung over, Keira mused. She smiled and nodded, which seemed to satisfy the aunt who went to join the receiving line. The wedding party, which included the bride's sisters as bridesmaids, already looked like they were ready to stop receiving and get on with the party.
Keira managed to catch Fiona's eye. Her partner looked miserable, with a smile that was hanging on by a thread. Her pink dress made her red hair brassy, and the sea air was making the curl tighten, giving an overall impression of Ronald McDonald in a bridesmaid's dress.
Keira felt a pounding between her eyes and decided that wedding cake on an empty stomach probably hadn't been a good idea. She found an empty chair and sat down, the rickety plastic legs wobbling in the soft, wet grass. She rubbed her temples, feeling slightly hung over herself. She and Fiona, along with the rest of the "young girls" that was Fiona's mother's term - had spent the evening drinking cheap wine and talking about sex. More specifically, the straight chicks talked about sex. Fiona and Keira sat by uncomfortably, listening to story after story of horrible sex, fantastic sex, kinky sex, and boring sex, until Keira thought her head would explode if she heard the word "manhood" one more time. She found it amusing that despite the women's familiarity with the male member, they couldn't manage to say "penis."
Finally, after enduring an excruciating discussion of the merits of circumcision, Fiona got a glint in her eye that Keira recognized immediately.
"You guys can have all the dick you want," Fiona blurted. "But you haven't lived until you've had a woman's skilled tongue on your clit."
Keira had felt the burn of alcohol in her nasal passages as the whiskey she was sipping forced its way through her nose. Fiona's eyes twinkled, and she looked exceedingly proud of the shocked expressions she'd placed on six faces. Not surprisingly, the evening came to a halt soon after. When Keira grabbed Fiona around the waist to steady her on the way out of the bar, she noticed a few jealous looks, which were of course quickly hidden.
"Auntie Keira, I throwed roses!"
Keira's mind returned to the wedding reception and she turned her attention to the enthusiastic blonde girl and her older sister, who had wandered away from the strange ritual of shaking hands and giving air kisses that strangely occupied the grownups.
"I know, Annie, I saw you!" Keira replied, pretending to be just as enthusiastic. It actually had been one of the highlights of the ceremony the sweet three-year-old had held onto her rose petals until she was even with the groom's mother. Annie then decided to dump all of the rose petals at once. It was one of life's little ironies that the woman was highly allergic to roses and proceeded to sneeze like a hyena in heat for a good ten minutes.
"You threw roses." Mary corrected her younger sister and then sat down next to Keira, scuffing her white shoes in the wet grass.
"Are you munchkins having fun?" Keira asked.
"I'm not a munchkin," Mary said, rolling her eyes. "I'm nine."
"Oh, sorry." Keira rolled her eyes back at the girl. "You're just vertically challenged then."
Mary considered the phrase, obviously not sure what it meant but too proud to ask. She decided to go for a subject change instead.
"I'm going to get married when I'm twenty," she pronounced matter-of-factly.
"I'm going to get married to Grampa," Annie said.
"You are not." Mary shook her head at her sister's stupidity. "He's already married to Grandma."
"I'm sure if you ask him, he'll consider it," Keira said as she patted her lap invitingly. Annie smiled and crawled up. "So why twenty, Mary?"
"Because I won't be a teenager anymore. I'll be a grown up."
"Ah." Keira rocked Annie slightly, sensing that it was almost naptime. The little girl snuggled close, tucking her head under Keira's chin. Keira felt a rush of longing to have her own little girl assume this very same position.
"Are you married to Auntie Fiona?" Mary asked.
"Yes. You were there, remember?" Keira tried not to let her bitterness show to the kids. She and Fiona had held a commitment ceremony the summer before. It had been attended by only a few of the O'Reilly siblings and their families. Fiona's parents had passed on attending, though they sent a card with just the right Hallmark well wishes. Those who attended spent the time trying to look comfortable, their faces pinched and their jaws clenched with the struggle.
"But that wasn't a wedding," Mary said pedantically. "Mommy said it was a um com "
"Commitment ceremony," Keira supplied. "And it's the same thing as a wedding." She wanted to add, "but lesbians can't get legally married" and then launch into the child's first lesson on gays in American society. But she knew it wasn't her place, so she bit her tongue.
"What's that?" Annie asked in a sleepy voice, pointing at Keira's neck, right above the collarbone.
"It's a spider bite," Keira said, knowing without looking down what the little girl had spotted.
"No it's not, it's a hickey." Mary peered at the bruised spot. "Did Auntie Fiona give you that?"
Jesus, how do I answer that? Keira thought frantically. How much does a nine year old know about sex? I don't think I even knew what a hickey was when I was nine.
"Look, your Mommy's coming." Keira sighed as she spotted the receiving line breaking up and both Fiona and her sister Siobhan coming toward them.
"Mommy, can I have a sip of champagne?" Mary asked as her mother drew near.
Keira thanked God for children's short attention spans.
"Looks like naptime hit a little early," Siobhan said, carefully taking her half-asleep daughter from Keira. "I better go find a place for her to sleep." She turned to Mary. "And no, you cannot have a sip of champagne. Go find your great-Gran, Mary Francis, and tell her what the nuns have been teaching you."
"She's obviously learning things I never picked up in fourth grade," Keira mumbled as Siobhan left with her daughters and Fiona sat down beside her.
"Do I want to know what you're talking about?" Fiona leaned her head against her partner's shoulder, and then caught herself and self-consciously pulled back upright.
"Let's just say your family's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy has suffered a few set backs this weekend." Keira pulled Fiona back toward her shoulder. "And you resting your head chastely on my shoulder is nothing compared to a drunken comment about clits or a certain love mark that everyone, including your niece, has taken note of."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Fiona moaned. "Is it over yet?"
"No," Keira said with a phony bright smile. "We have several hours of drunken toasts, dancing to family favorites, and karaoke. The fun has only begun."
"Please," Fiona begged. "Kill me now."
Fiona's knee hadn't stopped tapping since they'd pulled out of Mendocino and headed south. Keira watched it out of the corner of her eye. Up and down, up and down in an angry, jerking motion.
"Boy, your Uncle Frank sure sounds a lot like Billy Joel. Although I wouldn't consider your Aunt Deirdre much of an Uptown Girl."
Fiona snorted, but it was a quick, humorless sound and her knee didn't stop its movement.
"My family is just . I hate . It's just so " Fiona scrunched her face in frustration. "Argggh!"
"I know, sweetheart." Keira stroked the jiggling appendage. "But I really think they're starting to come around. Well, some of them anyway."
"Are they? I'm not so sure." Fiona crossed her arms and leaned her head back against the seat's headrest. "Do you know how many times my mother asked me whether I was still trying to get pregnant? And my father kept asking me about Paul. Have I seen him lately? Is he still single? I know they have this fantasy that I'm going to get pregnant and then see the error of my ways and get back together with my high school boyfriend."
"You don't know that," Keira said gently.
"I do know that," Fiona countered. "My folks are the most transparent people I know. And my siblings aren't much better. Jesus, they were all born in twentieth century America, but they're so friggin' closed minded you'd think they were living in some medieval monastery."
"Well, your sisters weren't too closed minded when it came to talking about their sexual experiences."
"Oh God, don't remind me. I really didn't need to hear that Siobhan likes the occasional anal action." She shivered and shook her head. "But see, that's just one more example of my family's bloody double standards. What pisses me off the most is that we have to put up a fucking front whenever we're with them. I'm sick of seeing the wide-eyed stare or the disapproving squint whenever we mention anything that alludes to us as lesbian partners who, heaven forbid, actually have sex!"
"I know it's hard."
Keira tried to find words to soothe her partner, but Fiona didn't appear to be in the mood to be placated.
"It doesn't even have to be a comment about sex!" Fiona continued, not acknowledging Keira's comment. "I was talking to my dad about having our baby and how you want to be there for the birth. I told him you'd probably pass out like he did when he saw Colleen being born. He just got this sour look on his face because I dared to remind him that you were the other parent in the family."
"Maybe he just didn't want to be reminded of an embarrassing moment."
Fiona sneered, obviously not agreeing. Keira decided to try changing the subject.
"Do you really think I'll faint?"
Fiona shrugged again, and stared out the window, frowning as she gazed out at the ocean.
"Sometimes I think that if I cause them so much disgust and am the source of so much discomfort, I should just get out of their lives."
"You know that would break their hearts."
"Would it?" Fiona turned her green eyes to Keira. "I doubt it. I sometimes think that if I dropped off the face of the earth, my family wouldn't bat an eye."
Keira frowned, having finally run out of things to say that would convince Fiona to give her family the benefit of the doubt. Her own experience with her parents had taught her to look beneath the surface. She hadn't been close to her parents, even growing up and despite the fact she was an only child. She always got the impression that she'd been a mistake or was an intrusion into their lives that they regretted. Once she'd left for college, she returned to her childhood home only for holidays. Each time, the conversations were stilted, always bland and non-controversial, sticking to safe subjects like the weather or politics or sports.
Keira had interpreted her parents' cold silence as, at best, indifference to her life and at worst, disappointment. But then there'd been the accident, and her parents' lives had ended on a rainy night at the hands of a drunk driver.
Keira had returned home to put her parents things in order and bury the couple she barely knew. It was at the memorial service that all of Keira's assumptions about her mom and dad were shredded, as one by one her parents' friends and coworkers approached.
"How's your job going? Your dad mentioned you were working in computers. He always said you'd end up with a better career than he had."
"Where's your partner? Your mother told me you'd fallen for a pretty Irish girl."
"Your dad was always so proud of you."
"Your mom loved you so much."
"You were the apple of their eye."
And she'd cried for the first time since hearing the news of their death. The tears were a bitter mixture of sorrow and anger as she realized that the words she'd always longed to hear had been said but not to her. And now those comments were just echoes and would never be more than that.
Keira sighed and glanced at her partner, who was now resting her head on the glass of the window. Fiona still stared desultorily out the window.
They approached the turnoff for the quicker route home, which would take them away from the coast. Keira considered the drive ahead and made a quick decision. She slowed at the intersection, and then continued south. Fiona sat up and looked at Keira, her brows drawn in confusion.
"You missed the turnoff," she said.
"Yeah," Keira said with a grin. "I just got a sudden urge for ice cream and I happen to know a great little place just south of here."
Fiona's expression lit the car's interior, as if a thunderhead had suddenly moved to expose the summer sun.
"That sounds like the best idea I've heard in a long time."
Fiona's knee stopped bobbing and both women looked intently down the road, anxious for the first sight of Seaburgh.
It was a little too early for ice cream, so Keira and Fiona bought lattes instead, then wandered up Main Street to Monty's Chevron station. The garage doors were shut and Monty was nowhere to be seen.
"He never works on Sundays." The bored teenager manning the cash register barely gave them a second glance, far more interested in his video game magazine.
"We'll catch him next time we pass through," Keira said. She wasn't surprised when her comment received no acknowledgment.
They strolled back up the road. The fog was thick, obscuring the hills and the sea. Keira had grown up with the fog in the city, and she found it comforting. It wrapped her in a little bubble, protecting her from the harshness of the world around her. As she walked, she looked around and watched the fog creep along the street one moment, and then fly gracefully the next. She looked into an alley, where it hunched in a grey mass and then loosened, revealing a familiar vehicle.
"Hey, check it out." She pointed to the RV parked in the alley between the ice cream parlor and the card shop. They recognized the Bradford's motor home from the familiar logo advertising the rental company.
"What are they doing back in town?" Fiona asked. "I thought they were heading home to Cincinnati."
"Must have liked Seaburgh as much as we did. Or maybe it's someone else. The Bradfords aren't the only couple to rent an RV in California."
"I suppose." Fiona studied the vehicle, and then shrugged. "Well, it doesn't look like they're around anyway."
"If the RV's rockin', don't bother knockin'." Keira nudged Fiona, and they both chuckled.
"Come on," Fiona said, taking her lover's hand, "I want to get a sweatshirt like the one you got the other day."
"OK, as long as we never wear them at the same time. That is just a little too weird for me."
Fiona chuckled and then solemnly crossed her heart as they neared the shop. "I swear I will always check with you before putting it on. Cross my heart and hope to die."
Keira frowned as she entered the shop. "I hate when you"
"Damn, damn, damn." Keira's words were interrupted by a very unhappy clerk. "Don't you dare do this to me. You damned computer from hell!"
"Having a problem?" Keira approached the counter and stared at the store's computerized cash register, which was currently displaying a blank screen.
"Oh, jeez, I'm sorry." The clerk grinned sheepishly. "Oh, it's you guys again. Welcome back."
"Thanks." Fiona smiled and then stepped back to let her partner do what she did best.
"Looks like we came back in the nick of time," Keira said. "I think I can save the patient if you need a hand."
"Are you kidding? Of course! I don't know anything about this blasted machine. Whenever it dies I call the owner, but he never works on Sundays."
Keira moved around behind the counter and checked the connections before rebooting the machine. As she began to type commands, Fiona browsed through the little shop. By the time she'd chosen her sweatshirt, Keira had gotten the machine back in working order.
"That's amazing," the clerk said as she scanned Fiona's purchase and looked at the monitor. "You even made the screen color easier to read. I've asked Steve to do that since I worked here, but he said it couldn't be changed. And no one else in town knows anything about computers. Thank you so much!"
Keira shrugged and laughed at the woman's enthusiastic gratitude. "You're welcome. I just wish the people at work were as appreciative of my efforts."
"Well, you should move up here and start a business then. If you could fix everyone's computers and show us how to use them, you'd be the biggest hit since James Dean came to town to film East of Eden. All the girls played hooky from school just to get a glimpse of him."
Keira raised an eyebrow, and then decided that the young woman had obviously heard the stories from her mother.
"Well, if we don't leave soon, we may have to take up permanent residence," Fiona said as she picked up the sweatshirt and pulled it over her head.
"Thanks again," the clerk said. "Come back soon."
"We will." Keira knew it would be an easy promise to keep.
Keira felt a longing when she drove out of town, just as she had the first time they'd left the city limits. It was as if a lover was beckoning her back to bed. She could almost feel the warmth of the blankets, the promise of gentle arms wrapping around her, the erotic odor of arousal.
"It's not such a crazy idea, you know."
Fiona's words jarred Keira's reverie. "Hmmm?"
"Starting a computer business in Seaburgh." Fiona met her lover's eyes.
"Not such a crazy idea at all."
To be continued in part 2 of 3
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