Eyes met across the airport lounge, locking instantly like heat seeking missiles. Morgan Gamble's actions ceased. She knew she should keep moving - go with the flow of the weary, irritable travelers exiting the International flight gate at Logan Airport, Boston - but her legs had locked and her muscles refused to comply with her brain.
A bump in the back of her legs broke her gaze and she stumbled forward mumbling an apology. She rearranged the grasp on her travel bag - her palms sweating, despite the cool October afternoon. She continued toward the madding crowd of welcoming loved ones.
Morgan paused in front of the five foot six inch woman, whose eyes were just as emerald as she remembered them. The dark auburn hair cropped shorter than she'd ever seen Shane wear her hair. But it had been a long time - too long - since she'd seen any images of her friend. Is she still a friend? She must be - she's here, isn't she? "You came?" Morgan muttered incredulously.
"You asked," Shane Waverly replied succinctly, unsure how to formally greet this blast from her past. She surveyed the dark circles prominent on the once youthful face. She moved her eyes surreptitiously over the faint scars that traversed down the right side of Morgan's face down to her collar bone. A reminder of Morgan's history and pain. She kept her hands linked behind her back to heed the temptation to run her fingers through Morgan's long, wispy blonde hair. She wanted to soothe the pain she could evidently see in the depths of the sapphire eyes.
Morgan allowed Shane the chance to scrutinize her scars as uncomfortable as it made her feel. She owed her friend that. She owed her more than words or actions could ever show. She owed her life to Shane. Even now, eight years on, Shane was still there supporting her - with no accusations or animosity. Eight years of silence on Morgan's part. Eight years of longing. Eight years of needing. Eight years of rejecting. Morgan caught Shane's stare and shamefully glanced away. "I had my doubts you'd be here. How are you?"
Shane turned to head for the exit. She needed a few moments to reflect on the question and quell her disappointment. What did you expect? Hugs and kisses? She's not the same person you knew. "I'm good. I wrote you letters - told you about my life. Did you get them? Stupid question - you must have read them - my phone number was in there." Shane answered her own question trying to suppress the accusatory tone and curtail her nervous rambling . "Life is good." She added briefly. She thought back to the message she had received four days ago on her answering service. 'Shane - it's Morgan. I need to call in a favor - I'm flying into Boston on the 30th October. Plane lands at 3pm - flight AA256. I need a ride.'
"That's cool." Morgan walked beside Shane, embarrassment bubbling under her skin. She had the letters. Her friend had faithfully written every other month, despite Morgan's lack of response. The notes had not always been wordy - an occasional 'Thinking of You' or a 'Miss You' - but the thoughts were clear. Shane cared for her - continued to care for her. However, Morgan's head had been too far up her ass for her to reply in kind. To think of others before herself - a lifelong flaw.
Shane nervously fiddled with her shirt. Morgan's lack of conversation or explanation made her anxious. You haven't seen hide or hair of her in eight years and she can't even explain why! Cut her some slack - this has got to be hard - keep the conversation light. "My car's over here." Shane pointed to the dark blue Ford Focus.
"I see you finally got rid of the old Escort wagon."
Shane nudged Morgan slightly, the first physical contact between them. "I didn't have a choice the thing rusted away. There're only so many inspections you can scrape through before you have to pay more than the thing's worth."
"I hear you." Morgan replied, but she didn't really understand. She'd always had anything she'd wanted, when she'd wanted it.
The pair settled into the front seats of the car and Shane turned the ignition key. She listened to the hum of the engine and moved to put the car in gear. She paused her actions when she realized she had no idea where she was supposed to drive to. She left the engine running and turned her body slightly so she could see Morgan's face, especially her eyes. Those eyes had always captivated her. "Where are you staying? I mean where am I driving you to?"
Morgan's stare met Shane's eyes. "I'm booked into the Radisson in Plymouth." She marveled as Shane's eyes glimmered in the sunshine. The dark flecks becoming more prominent. She looked so vibrant - so alive.
"Visiting your hometown . . . " Shane bit off the rest of her comment. Stupid remark . . . remember who you're talking to.
Morgan watched the red rise in Shane's cheeks. "Something like that."
"Okay, the Radisson it is. You'll have to give me some directions once we get off the highway. It's been years since I've been there."
"You and me both." Morgan muttered. Belatedly, she placed a hand on Shane's arm, "I really do appreciate this, Shane."
Shane felt the tingle from Morgan's touch and instinctively pulled her arm away. She maneuvered her car out of the parking space unsure where to take the conversation. She had so many questions she wanted to ask Morgan. She had tried to express how she felt in her letters but they'd never been answered. She now knew Morgan had read them but the lack of contact over the years had made her doubt their friendship. Her friend hadn't allowed her to be around in her darkest times. Shane felt the blame of that dreadful night deep in her soul. She desperately wanted to talk to Morgan but she didn't want to scare her away forever.
The journey south of the airport began in uncomfortable silence. Morgan strummed her fingers gently on her thighs. She liked the silky feel of her track pants and it comforted her as they drove into long forgotten territory.
Shane sensed the agitation growing in her friend. She glanced several times to her right trying to catch Morgan's eye. Finally, she couldn't handle the silence anymore. If this was to be their last conversation or time together she at least wanted answers to some of her questions. Tentatively, she cleared her throat and took a deep breath. "How have you been?"
"Fine." Morgan bit her bottom lip as she thought of a return question. "How's work going?"
Shane kept her eyes on the road and her frustration in check. "I'm enjoying it. It's nothing like I thought it was going to be - lots of paperwork and after school events - but the students are great."
"You've been at the same school since college?" Morgan queried, knowing the answer but filling the silence with any question to deflect them from her.
Shane pushed her sunglasses down from her head as the glare of the afternoon sun blinded her momentarily. "Yeah, I'm department head of physical education now. I have a lot of say about the programs we run in the school and I get respect from a lot of the staff and students. I'm comfortable there."
"That's cool." Morgan reached into her carry - on bag for her own sunglasses.
Shane waited for another question to be fired her way. When one wasn't she continued with one of her own. "Did you finish your degree?"
"No - I never really needed to. I received the money from the various insurance policies so I did some touring of Europe and helped Grandma out around her store."
"Sounds like you've been busy," So busy you couldn't write or pick up the phone. Shane tried to focus on the present and not the past. "How's your Grandma doing?"
Shane felt the car swerve as the answer registered in her brain. Correcting the motion of the car and her nerves she glanced briefly to Morgan. The stone - faced woman she saw was not the person she had known at Waterbridge College, eight years previously. "I'm sorry, Morgan - I didn't know."
Morgan shrugged, "Don't apologize - I'm the one who should be sorry. I call you out of the blue with no explanation and I treat you like a jerk the whole time." Morgan ran an agitated hand through her slightly disheveled hair. "It's just tough coming back. I didn't think I'd be able to handle it by myself. I could have rented a car or a cab but I needed someone to ground me."
"I'm glad you called and very surprised." Shane kept her left hand on the wheel and placed her right on Morgan's thigh, gently squeezing as she spoke. "You haven't been back since the fire, why now?"
Morgan stared ahead comforted by Shane's presence and the gentle administrations of her hand. "I didn't have any reason to stay in England. My Grandma was there for me when I needed to grieve and now she's gone."
"When did she pass away?" Shane asked.
"A month ago. She had a heart attack. The doctors said there was nothing I could have done. It's not like I haven't heard that comment before." Morgan spoke bitterly. She saw the signposts for Plymouth and adrenalin pulsed through her system. "I didn't think it would hurt this bad returning."
Shane nodded in response. She had no words for her friend's pain. "How long are you staying?"
"Depends . . . It could be a day or maybe longer. I played the stock market and invested wisely so I don't need to worry too much about money. I was also Grandma's sole heir, I inherited everything. It seems to be what I'm good at . . . cleaning up after the dead . . . "
"Don't . . . don't keep blaming yourself, Morgan. You weren't responsible for the fire. You were lucky to escape with your own life!" Shane admonished, tears tracking down her face.
Morgan clamped down on her words. Shane didn't know the whole story. Morgan had never told anyone about that night. "The anniversary is tomorrow."
"I know. I thought that was why you were coming back. I didn't want to bring it up until you mentioned it." Shane removed her hand from Morgan's thigh, placing her hand back on the steering wheel, signaled, and pulled off the highway. She headed down to the harbor directed by Morgan.
Morgan twiddled her thumbs restlessly, wanting to ask Shane for support. The beauty of the night sky amazing her as dusk settled out over the ocean. "I've missed this. Grandma lived in the middle of England. Nice area near Worcester but not too close to the seaside. I forgot how much I love sitting by ocean and feeling the salt air in my lungs."
Shane pulled up in front of the hotel and cut the engine. She felt the silence envelope them and didn't want to lose Morgan for a second time. "What are your plans?"
"While I'm here?" Morgan asked.
"Short - term, long - term - I'm just scared that I'll never see you again. I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you, too," whispered Morgan sadly.
Shane wiped at the tears that fell from her eyes. She couldn't control them from falling. The shell of her best friend sat next to her and she couldn't help her. "I'm here for you . . . I always have been and I always will be. I promised you that, Morgan. I keep my promises."
Morgan stretched out her arm and stroked the side of Shane's face gently. With her other hand, she wiped at an errant tear running down her own damaged cheek. "I know you do. It's why I'm here. It's why I asked you to pick me up. I need another favor." She smiled shyly catching Shane's eye as she did so. "I'm making up for all those favors you asked of me in college. I think on my last count you owed me three . . . three big favors - wasn't that what you promised me?"
Shane nodded, smiling slightly as she reminisced on their carefree days before the fire. "I remember my promise - three huge favors if you'd help me on my anatomy assignment." She blushed at the memory. "I never have forgotten the major muscle groups."
Morgan stretched her muscles out - memories of that night intensifying the ache in her heart. That's when I realized who I was. That night was the beginning of the end. She needed to return to her solitude but not before she asked her second favor. "I'm going to visit their grave tomorrow. I'm not sure I can handle being there alone . . . I haven't even been there." She admitted huskily, her voice thick with emotion. "I was hoping you'd show me their plot. Grandma said you were at the funeral."
"What time would you like me to pick you up?" Shane swallowed down her nerves. Graveyards were not her favorite places to visit - especially on Halloween night. However, her friend needed her and it was this thought that spurred her on.
Morgan let out a relieved breath. "Are you sure?"
"Positive - I never renege on an owed favor." Shane leaned over and gave Morgan an awkward side hug.
Morgan returned the embrace and then opened the door. "I was hoping to leave the hotel at eight tomorrow night." She climbed out of her seat - stretching her taller frame as she felt the kinks of the long flight snap into place. She leaned down to speak to Shane. "Thanks, you don't know how much this means to me." With those parting words, Morgan collected her bag from the back seat and headed into the hotel.
Shane pulled up in front of the hotel and waved at the waiting figure of Morgan. Her friend had dressed for the occasion, jeans, boots, and a fleece coat with a scarf wrapped around her shoulders. Shane caught sight of the blanket tucked under Morgan's left arm, a thermos, and flowers cradled in her right. Shane lowered the passenger window. "You look very toasty - do we need to stop off anywhere?"
Morgan switched the blanket to join the flowers in her right arm and opened the passenger side rear door. "No, I went down to the waterfront today and picked up these items. We're good to go."
Shane put the car into drive and let the silence fill it. Her nerves were swirling deep in her stomach. There were no words to signify what her friend must be going through. The fire had destroyed her life and her family. Gone were her mother, father, and little sister. She placed her hand on Morgan's joined hands. She knew the action was well - received when she felt Morgan squeeze her fingers lightly.
The journey to the graveyard was short. The family had been laid to rest at the town cemetery. Shane's usual delight at seeing the lights and decorations outside various houses and scatterings of children dressed in their Halloween costumes was muted by the somber occasion. She turned into the dimly lit graveyard and headed in the direction of the Gamble plot. She had visited the site earlier that day after school in order to orient herself to its whereabouts. It had been many years and she was glad she had made her earlier journey in the daylight. She had also wanted to tend to the grave unsure of whether any of Morgan's extended family still visited. She had placed several lanterns around the grave stone hoping to light them tonight and make it feel more welcoming.
Morgan tried to steady her breathing as the car drove slowly through the maze of little roads that marked out the pathway for hundreds of graves. She had cringed at all the flashing lights and inflatable effigies evident in many a yard or window they had passed. Halloween was rarely mentioned in England let alone celebrated. The pain of her worst nightmare surfacing when she thought back to the same night eight years prior. She never thought she'd make this journey. Years of guilt and pain had kept her away. She moved her eyes away from the window when she felt the car stop. She couldn't do this - she couldn't face her past. She felt her fingers being squeezed slightly and turned her gaze to Shane's.
"I know . . . I'm too scared to do this, Shane. I can't do this."
Shane released her grip on Morgan's hand and removed her seatbelt. She stepped out of the car and walked toward the grave. She bent down and took out the lighter from her pocket. Carefully, she lit each lantern and then walked back to the passenger side of her car. She opened the door and crouched down next to Morgan. "It's taken you eight years to do this, Morgan, but it's better late than never."
Morgan dropped her head into her hands and began sobbing.
Shane leaned over and released the catch on Morgan's seatbelt, pulling her friend into a bear hug. "You can do this. You were always the stronger one. We'll do this together."
Morgan rasped for breath, her head nuzzled against Shane's neck. "I killed them, Shane. I killed them . . . " Her body shuddered through her wracking sobs.
Shane lifted Morgan's head so their eyes were level. "You did not. You were lucky to get out of the house alive. You . . . did . . . not . . . kill . . . them!"
The weeping woman locked eyes with the one remaining connection in her life. Slowly, she breathed in - conscious of Shane's familiar scent filling her nostrils - anchoring her like she had so many times during their college years. "It was my fault."
Shane vehemently shook her head. "How many times do I have to say this - it wasn't your fault. The newspaper stated that it was an electrical fire - a fire caused by a faulty power strip. A freak accident. It wasn't your fault."
"You don't understand - I wasn't in the house when the fire happened. They must have left the lights and decorations on for me. Kept the house lit up so I'd see it in the dark." Morgan moaned through her tears and sobs. "They died and I couldn't save them. I tried so hard . . . "
Shane let go of Morgan and stood up. She opened the door to the rear seat and picked up the blanket. She laid it out gently next to the family grave and gently helped Morgan out of the car. "Tell me about it. Tell them how you feel. They can hear you, Morgan. Their spirits are here - especially on this night." Shane continued to support Morgan as she lowered herself to the blanket and pulled Morgan gently into her body. They sat for some time Shane's body supporting Morgan's. Morgan resting her head on Shane's chest listening to the slow rhythmic beat of her heart.
Morgan finally looked at the grave stone marking the spot where her family lay. She read the inscription carved into the stone.
No farewell words were spoken,
no time to say goodbye, you were
gone before we knew it, and only
God knows why.
A devoted Father - A loving Mother - An adored young daughter and sister
Morgan shuddered when she read the dates and silent tears tracked down her face.
Shane felt Morgan's body shake as she grieved for her family. Her mind replayed Morgan's earlier comments about not being in the house when the fire started. She waited for Morgan's breathing to calm before asking the many questions she had about the tragic fire that had wiped out Morgan's immediate family. "What happened, Morgan? Why weren't you home? I always thought you were there. They pulled you out of the fire - you got burned." Shane needed to know the truth and she felt Morgan wanted to tell it.
Morgan reread the inscription over and over again. That fateful night etched on her memory. If only you'd never told them! If you'd never stormed out - they might still be here. Tell her - tell her the truth. Tell her she saved your fucking life! Morgan began her tale in a monotone voice. "You saved my life, Shane."
"How?" Shane squeaked, unsure how she fit into the picture. "I wasn't even there."
"We had gone out as a family trick and treating with Ashley. Ashley was adorable dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The rest of us looked ridiculous - mom, dad and myself. I was the lion, dad the tin man and mom dressed as the scarecrow. I hadn't wanted to go - I moaned all the way around the neighborhood - I just wanted to be hanging out at the dorm with you and the rest of the hockey team."
Shane rubbed Morgan's arms as she listened to the tale. She remembered how much Morgan had wanted to spend the night at the college with their friends. "I remember you telling me about the costumes - I would have loved to have seen you in it. But I also remember how excited Ashley was to have her big sister take her out. She was always in awe of you whenever she stopped by the room. What happened later?"
"When we got home, mom settled Ashley into bed. She was exhausted and it was eight o'clock way past Ashley's bedtime. She was only six. Mom and dad wanted to do everything right with Ashley. They finally had the time and money to do things differently. Mom laid into me about my attitude and that all I ever thought about was college and spending time . . . with you."
Morgan wrapped her arms around her front and took hold of Shane's hands as they stilled on her arms. "Mom felt it was unhealthy the amount of time we spent together. She didn't like the fact that I rarely came home and when I did all I talked about was you. She told me that if I hung around with you too much people would start talking about us. She said people would say I was gay . . . too."
"I told you that myself," Shane dropped her head to the top of Morgan's and kissed it lightly. "Morgan, I knew you were straight but when you hang around with gay friends - people make assumptions. I'm so sorry." Shane hugged Morgan closer wishing her lifestyle hadn't tainted her friend's final minutes with her family. She had never felt the need to hide her sexuality and had decorated her half of their college room with rainbow flags. She'd outed herself within the first five minutes of meeting the Gamble family. After leaving college and moving into education she had learned to mute her statements regarding her sexuality - leaving it up to others to make their own assumptions.
Morgan wriggled out of Shane's hold and turned to meet the moist emerald eyes. "Don't be sorry. You should never apologize for being you. I told my mom that and then I told . . . and then I told her . . . I told her that I was . . . " Morgan stuttered unable to repeat the fateful words, " . . . and then I told her I was proud to be gay, too."
"Gay . . . you . . . you told her you were gay?"
Morgan continued to hold Shane's gaze. The shocked look on Shane's face a mirror to the expression her mother had held Halloween evening eight years ago. "I told her I was in love with you and she didn't believe me."
Shane pulled away from Morgan. "I don't believe this. First you tell me you're gay and then you tell me you were in love with me. When were you going to tell me this?" Shane tried to reign in her emotions - trying to remember that this was Morgan's story - Morgan's time.
Morgan turned her head back to the sight of the grave stone. She hadn't meant to tell Shane how she felt like this. She had never meant to tell Shane her secret ever. Somehow, though, fate seemed to hold this day as the night to reveal her own soul to those she loved. "I had only worked it out myself. I'd always liked you - felt special around you. The night we studied the anatomy books and you traced my muscles with your fingers answered all my questions." She summoned up the courage to turn her attention back to Shane. "I hadn't meant to tell anyone but my mom made me so mad. She acted like such a homophobe - I expected more of her. I expected more of them. Anyway, she told dad and he forbade me from sharing a room with you anymore. He said you were a bad influence on me and so I stormed out of the house."
Shane gingerly placed her hand on Morgan's leg - trying to reconnect with her. She moved closer and watched as the tears ran down the pale cheeks. She knew she was the only person Morgan would ever reveal this story to. "Where did you go?"
Morgan shrugged. "Nowhere specific - I just walked the streets and ended up on our community beach. Some of the neighbors had lit a fire and were drinking some beers. I just sat watching them and thinking about what I had done."
"But you got burned, Morgan. How did you get burned?" Shane reached tentatively and touched the faint scar with her fingertips.
Morgan placed her hand over Shane's and followed Shane's actions as her hand traced the scar that would never be erased. The memory of her family's fate engraved on her forever. "I was gone a few hours and when I returned I saw the flames and heard the fire trucks. I tried so hard to get to them. I couldn't get upstairs the flames were too hot. I did try Shane - I swear I tried."
Shane wrapped her arms around Morgan and held her close. "I know you did, sweetheart. I know you did."
They sat like that for a long time. Morgan weeping for the family she had lost and Shane finally understanding some of the reasons behind Morgan's self - inflicted exile.
When Shane felt Morgan's body relax a little in her arms she wanted to tell Morgan how she felt. How she'd always felt. "I tried to visit you in the hospital, Morgan, but your Grandma told me it was immediate family only in the ICU. I waited for days to hear of some news about you. Finally I returned to the hospital hoping to see you and they told me you'd been discharged. I only knew you were in England because that's what the Residential Assistant told me when she picked up your stuff from our dorm. I was heartbroken. I lost my best friend that day."
Morgan lifted her head and shook it violently from side - to - side. "No - you never lost me. I got your letters - you never gave up on me. I just couldn't get past the blame - couldn't rise above the guilt to see what I'd abandoned. But . . . I knew you loved me . . . I know you love me."
Shane placed her hand under Morgan's chin. "I do love you, Morgan. I couldn't help myself - you were so easy to love. I wish I'd told you before that night. I never thought you could love me back. If I had told you - maybe . . . maybe none of this would have happened."
"No - it's taken me all these years to swim through the pain - I won't have you blaming yourself." Morgan paused not quite believing that the conversation she had dreamed about for years was happening in a graveyard. She gave a shiver as she felt a sudden coldness shroud her. She held her hand up to Shane's damp cheek - seeking the warmth of touch. "You saved me - my love for you saved me. I ran out of that house because I loved you. You said it yourself this evening - it was a faulty power strip. I'll never know for sure if it was the lights they left on for me or the Halloween decorations. Who knows - all I do know is that I would have been asleep in my bed if it hadn't been for you. For my need to tell my family how I felt about you - my need to be alone and decide how I was going to let you know my feelings. You saved me then and you're saving me now."
Shane gently kissed Morgan's mouth. Her lips feather light against Morgan's dry lips. "I've loved you from the moment I met you, Morgan Gamble." She whispered against Morgan's mouth.
"I love you, too." Morgan whispered, moving closer to seal their lips in a longer, deeper kiss. After a few moments of savoring the taste of Shane's kiss, Morgan pulled away. She turned her head and read the inscription on the gravestone one final time. "I never got a chance to say goodbye to them."
Shane held Morgan in her arms and followed Morgan's gaze. "They can hear your thoughts, Morgan. They loved you - despite their final words - they loved you. I think they'll be happy knowing you followed your heart. You came back home."
Morgan nodded, "I did. Yesterday, you asked me how long I was staying for . . . " She paused as she felt the icy chill lift as she spoke the words. She was sure she sensed others present and heard whispers on the breeze. She closed her eyes and focused on the memories of her family. I came home, Mom and Dad. I miss you every day - I miss seeing Ashley running around the yard. I'll never get to tell you how much I love you and how every day has been a struggle. I have a chance to make myself happy . . . be with someone who has always made me feel special. I'll never forget you and I'm so sorry our last words were those of pain. Forgive me . . . you'll always be in my heart.
Shane waited patiently for Morgan to compete her sentence. She watched as Morgan closed her eyes unsure of what was going on in her companion's mind but not wanting to disturb her.
Morgan opened her eyes to see only love, patience and compassion radiating in Shane's eyes.
The flickering of the candle flames by the grave stone made them both turn to the gravestone. Morgan was sure she saw three shadows pause and then disappear into the marble. For the first time in years Morgan felt optimism and faith. She shook her head amazed at what she thought she had imagined. "I'm sorry - I had this strange feeling that they were here with us. I think I finally said goodbye . . . "
Shane stroked the edge of Morgan's hairline, "Good - maybe now you can begin to think about you . . . about what will make you happy."
"I think I have and I wanted to ask my final favor . . . "
"Anything." Shane interjected.
Morgan smiled - the first true smile in a long time. "This is my final favor - I want you to think about making a new life . . . with me. I want to start living again." She paused and rose to her feet pulling Shane up alongside her. "I missed so much time that I'll never get back, but for the first time today I thought of a future . . . with you."
Shane embraced Morgan tightly - her eyes never leaving the black marble grave stone. She mouthed a thank you to the three images shimmering in the candle flames. She leaned slightly away from Morgan, nodded, and sealed her answer in the form of a kiss.