Disclaimers: This is an original work, all copyright reserved, 2009I would rate this PG, maybe PG13.
Many thanks to Chris K. for giving me the idea and pushing me through the writing. No story is complete without work by a beta reader, and she's one of the best.
Author's Note: Halloween is not specifically noted in the story, and it's not as spooky or ghostly as previous Halloween stories, but I still believe it fits the time of year. Comments are more than appreciated. I may not respond to all of them, but I will try. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ringing of the phone woke the figure in the bed. For a moment, there was no movement, but then, with an explosion of blankets and curses, a hand grabbed the phone on the third ring. The receiver was pressed against an ear as Steve sat up, eyes squinting in the sunlight.
The voice on the other end was hesitant. "Is this -- Stephen Hearst?"
"Yes. Can I help you?" He made an effort to sound more awake.
"Stephen Hearst, who was the director of 'Sands of the Sphinx'?"
His shoulders dropped. "No. That was my grandfather, Stephen with a 'ph'. I'm Steven with 'v'." He yawned loudly, no longer concerned with making a good impression. "Sorry, but my grandfather died last year." He got a few of these phone calls every once in a while, but they'd been dwindling since the older man's death.
"I see. That's too bad."
"Yeah. Sorry. Anything else I can do for you?" He edged toward the nightstand. "No? Well, you have a great day, and remember, 'Sands' was released on video last year along with many more of my grandfather's works. They make great Christmas presents. Have a nice day."
He hung up, ignoring the words still coming from the other end of the line.
"Fucking groupies." With that, he dropped back into bed.
Within minutes the phone rang again, and Steve glared at it before picking it up.
"Listen, I'm really glad you liked my grandfather's movie, but --"
The voice sounded familiar, but male, and definitely not the one that had woken him moments earlier.
"Steven, this is Bob Russell calling." The voice chuckled. "And I hate to admit it, but I never saw your grandfather's work."
For a moment, the young man was silent, his mouth opening and closing, but no sound coming out.
The producer Bob Russell was on his phone. This was the man whose hands he'd been trying to get his screenplay into for months.
"Yes? Sorry, just had to deal with an enthusiastic fan a few minutes ago. It's really great to hear from you, Mr. Russell."
"Call me Bob. Would you have time to meet me for lunch this afternoon? Harvey Mitioner gave me your script and I'd like to talk to you about it."
Steve threw both hands in the air and pumped his fists several times, trying not to shriek in glee. Then he put the phone back to his ear and tried to speak in a normal tone of voice. "Absolutely, Bob. What time, and where?"
"Place in North Hollywood, called Little Toni's. Ever been there?"
"Absolutely." Which meant he'd heard of it, and thought he could find it online.
"Service isn't great, but the food's fantastic. See you there about one?"
Steve nodded, then remembered he was on the phone. "One sounds great."
"Super. I'll look forward to it."
There was a click and a dial tone. Steve hung up the phone and jumped out of bed. He danced around the room for a moment before catching a glimpse of the clock. It was already after ten and he tore off his pajama bottoms on the way to the shower.
The ringing phone went unanswered.
Script in hand, Steve opened the door and entered Little Toni's. It was just a hole in the wall place, with red vinyl booths and the quintessential red and white checked table cloths. Toward the back of the small place was a large man ordering food from a blue-jeaned waitress. Swallowing, the young man ran a hand over his blue shirt, smoothed his collar, and approached.
"-oh, and give me extra sauce, would you? And extra cheese, please." The menu in Bob Russell's hand was folded shut and handed over before the large man looked up and noticed his lunch companion approaching. "Steven? Great to meet you!"
"Good to meet you, Sir." Steve shook the outstretched hand before sliding into the booth opposite the producer. He kept his back ram-rod straight to show his full height. Even sitting, the man across from him was a giant, and Steve fought the intimidation.
"I've ordered a large pepperoni and olive pizza. Hope you don't mind; you like olives, don't you?"
Steve hated them, but he wasn't about to admit that. "Yes, sir."
Russell waved a hand. "Drop the sir, I'm just plain old Bob."
"Yes, si-- uh, Bob." He smiled hesitantly and placed his script on the table next to him. "So, you said you read my script?"
"I sure did, but let's hold off on that for a while. Wanted to get to know you a little first." Bob leaned back and let the waitress pour a glass of red wine from a gallon jug. "Join me in a glass?"
"Oh, come on." Bob pushed a full glass at him and motioned to the waitress for another. "Italian food is always best with a glass of red wine."
Nodding and taking the tiniest sip, Steve fought back a grimace. It wasn't bad wine, but it wasn't great either.
"Now, you mentioned your grandfather this morning. I understand he was a producer way back when."
"A director, in the twenties. Did a lot of silent movies."
"Only silent? What, couldn't hack it when the talkies got big?"
Steve felt his hackles rise a little. He'd never been a big fan of his grandfather's movies, but the man was family after all. "He made a couple of them. Then he quit directing in the early thirties. Got married, had kids, the usual."
"Right." Russell was dismissive. The waitress dropped off an order of garlic bread and disappeared again without looking at the younger man. Russell put a piece of bread on a plate and pushed it toward Steve, then took two for himself. "What about you? You wanna direct some day?"
"Well, to be honest, yes, I'd like that a lot. In fact --"
"It takes a special kind of writer to be a director too. Some can do it, some can't." Bob crunched into a large piece of garlic bread and chewed for a moment. "Most writers think they can best direct their own characters, but they're too involved. Gotta have a little distance to be a good director, you know?" He crunched again, and Steve tried to jump in.
"That's true, I suppose. But wouldn't you agree that --"
"That the writer knows his or her own character? Sure. But just cause they know the character doesn't mean they know shit about bringing the character to life. Trust me."
"Yes, but --"
"It's kind of the difference between silent pictures and talkies. I mean, you can write great dialogue, but if you don't know how to get the actor to say it right, it might as well be just words on the screen."
The pizza arrived at the table, and Steve decided to just eat his pizza and wait to find out why Bob Russell had invited him to lunch.
He slammed the car door as he got out, then kicked his tire for good measure.
"Fucking egotist." Another kick. "Goddamn know-it-all." He raised his voice and spoke in a mocking tone. "'Gotta have distance to be a good director, you know?'" Heading up the walk towards his apartment, he kicked at the dirt. "Fuckin' jerk. 'We wanna buy your plot and rewrite it, how do you feel about that?' How the fuck does he expect me to feel?"
"Excuse me? Are you Steven Hearst?"
Steve turned to look back down the road. Standing next to a blue Prius was a blond woman in blue jeans. Her hands were in her back pockets and she looked nervous.
"Tara Langley. I -- we spoke this morning on the phone."
"We did?" Steve looked at her closely, trying to remember if he'd ever seen her. "Oh, wait, don't tell me you're the one who called about my grandfather?"
"Well, yes. But I --"
"Look, I told you, he's dead. If you want, I can give you directions to the grave."
"I don't care about the grave. I'm sorry he's dead, but you're the one I want to talk to."
Steve shook his head and started walking again. "Sorry, but unless you're a studio exec or a producer, I'm not really wanting to talk to you."
"I'll pay you."
He stopped in his tracks. "Pay?"
Turning, he raised his arms. "And what are you paying me for? Cause I really don't see myself as a gigolo."
"And since I'm with someone, that's not a good idea anyway." Tara took a few steps closer. "Actually, it does have to do with your grandfather. I'm looking for one of the props from his movies."
"Oh, you must be joking."
"I'm not. I'll pay you to help me find it."
Steve turned back towards the door. "Sorry. Not interested."
"Please. It's very important."
"Sorry." He stopped at the mailboxes and opened his. "Maybe if you call the studio they can help."
"I did call. They said you had anything that was left."
Steve stared at the envelope in his hand. It was his electric bill. "How much did you say you'd pay me?"
Tara stopped, surprised. "Um. I don't know. A hundred dollars?"
"A hundred dollars just to find something?" He slid a finger through the flap and opened the bill. "You just want a look at one of the costumes or something?"
"Ye-- I mean, no."
He turned to the woman. "Which is it?"
Taking a breath, Tara let it out slowly. "Fine. A hundred dollars to help me find it. Once it's found we can talk about how much to buy it."
"Make it a hundred and thirty-five and you've got a deal."
Blinking, Tara shrugged. "Fine."
"Great." He tossed the bill at her. "Pay that for me. And since you obviously have my phone number you can call me tomorrow and tell me what we're looking for." He opened the apartment door.
"Where are you going? What about now?"
Steve turned, holding the door. "First you pay. Then you call. And remember to bring me a receipt. As for me?" He grinned. "I'm getting drunk."
Then he let the door close behind him, leaving Tara staring up at him, the electric bill in her hand.
Tara closed the door behind her quietly, anticipating that her lover would be asleep in the bedroom. Instead, she was surprised to find her curled up on the sofa, watching television with the sound turned off.
"Hey, you. Shouldn't you be in bed?" She headed toward the couch and knelt beside the woman there.
"I'm okay. Just tired." The dark haired woman carefully pulled herself up into a sitting position. "Did you find him?"
"Um. Yeah. I did." Tara pulled the throw from the back of the couch and spread it out over her lover. "He's -- not what I expected, Sher."
"What did you expect?" Sher took hold of the hand that was smoothing down the blanket over her legs. "Tara? I'm okay."
"You're not. You're shivering."
"So I'm a little cold. I'll be fine." Gently, Sher pulled her lover on to her lap. "Now tell me what you expected. You sound disappointed."
She sighed. "I suppose I am, a little. I expected him to -- I don't know, not be a jerk? Although why I would expect that after the phone call this morning I don't know."
"You want him to be as special as his grandfather was."
Tara hesitated, then nodded. "You've told me great stories about him."
"And you want his namesake to be like him. I understand that." Trying to hide a shiver, Sher tightened her grip. "What did he say? Will he help us?"
With a derisive sound, Tara nodded. "I had to stop and pay his electric bill tonight. That's why I was late."
"Why'd you have to pay his electric?"
"I offered to pay him for his help, and he said he wanted a hundred and thirty-five dollars, and when I said yes, he tossed the bill at me. Told me to pay it and call him in the morning. Oh, and I'm not to forget the receipt." She made a face and rolled her eyes.
"Sounds like a perfect gentleman. Do I get to go with you?"
"Um, no. I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Not surprising." Sher nuzzled into her girlfriend's neck. "So you have nothing to do until tomorrow?"
"Well, not nothing, but . . ."
"And what were you planning on doing tonight?"
Putting both hands on either side of Sher's face, Tara smiled and her voice turned soft. "Taking care of you." She kissed her lover delicately.
"Ah. So you were planning to have your way with me, eh?"
"Maybe. Any objections?"
"Not at all."
Their next kiss wasn't delicate at all. =====
When the phone rang the next morning, Steve thought it was the alarm and batted it off the nightstand. It stopped ringing, but his cell phone started to beep a few minutes later.
With a groan, he got out of bed and dragged himself over to it. It took him two tries to punch the answer button.
"Are you up and ready to go?"
"Go where? Who the hell is this?"
He heard an exasperated sigh. "It's Tara Langley. We met yesterday. You made me pay your electric bill, asshole. You'd better be awake, cause I'm on my way over." There was a click, and nothing more.
"Son of a bitch." He tossed the phone on the bed and rubbed his face. "How the fuck did she get my cell number?" Then he shrugged and headed for the shower.
Tara was still smoldering when she pulled up outside the apartment house. She turned off the engine and forced herself to count to ten, trying to keep her temper from exploding. When she thought she was cool enough, she climbed out of her car and headed for the door.
After three knocks and no answer, she was angry again, and she raised her fist to start banging. The door opened and her hand was caught before it could land on Steve.
"Easy, babe. You won't get what you're looking for if you knock me out."
"Don't call me babe. Fucking took you long enough."
"Yeah, well, sorry. Was up late writing last night. Jumped in the shower after you called." He stepped off the porch, then snapped his fingers and turned around. "That reminds me, how'd you get my cell phone number?"
Tara smirked. "Can you keep a secret?"
"So can I. We'll take my car. Come on." She brushed past him.
"Wow, old joke, babe."
"Don't call me babe."
"So where are we going?"
"Right off the 101, on Franklin. You know that storage place that has all the freaky pictures of stars?"
"Yeah, I know it."
"My grandfather had a storage facility there. I haven't been there since he died. If what you're looking for is anywhere, it would be there." Steve opened his window and dug out his cigarettes. "What are you looking for, anyway?"
"Please don't smoke in my car. It bothers my girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" Steve laughed. "So you're a dyke?"
Tara glared at him as she headed for the highway entrance. "Yeah. Got a problem with it?"
"No, no. I don't care." He pulled out a lighter, only to find his cigarette pulled from his hand. "Hey!"
"My car, my rules. No smoking."
Steve slumped against the door, sliding his lighter back into his pocket. "Fucking should'a taken my car."
They were pulling into the tiny parking lot at the storage facility when Steve asked his question again. "What are we looking for?"
Tara bit her lip. "Um. It's a bottle or jar of some kind. From a movie."
"A jar?" She nodded. "What movie?"
"'Sands of the Sphinx'."
"That old hack job?"
Tara put the car into park. "Excuse me? Hack?"
"Oh, come on. The stars were forgettable, the writing was --"
"Forgettable? Evelene Duhane was fantastic."
"Are we talking about the same woman? She did three movies and disappeared."
"A lot of great actors never even got one starring role, much less three."
"Please. She looked great, but her acting was so over the top."
"It was the silent era, all the acting was over the top."
"Bingo. Can we get out of the car now?"
With a glare, Tara turned off the ignition and got out. "Where are we going?"
"Lead the way."
The padlock on the door wasn't the one Steve was expecting. Then again, he wasn't expecting the paper taped to the door that said the last months rent was due, along with late charges, before the key to the new lock would be handed over.
He shrugged. "Sorry, babe. Looks like we're both outta luck."
"Are you kidding me? How much are we talking about?"
"Not sure. Probably a couple hundred." Steve shook his head. "Damn. I probably could have pawned a few things in there to help cover my phone bill."
"Don't you have a job?"
He glanced up at Tara sharply. "I'm trying to be a writer, here."
"Well, so are a million other people in Los Angeles. Most of them have other ways to pay bills until someone buys a script."
"Yeah, well, I hate waiting tables, and washing dishes doesn't pay very well."
"So, what, you just wait for some sucker like me to come along and pay one of your bills?"
"No, I've been living off my trust fund from my grandfather. But occasionally I go over budget." He shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. "I just need to get through till the first. Then I'll be fine."
"Really. The first." Tara rolled her eyes and snatched the paper off the door. "Well, I can't wait that long." Taking long strides, she headed for the office they'd passed earlier.
Steve glared after her. "Fuckin' bitch." After a moment, he yelled out to her, "If I'd known you were made of money, I'd have made you pay the gas bill, too!"
She gave him a silent finger and disappeared around the corner. All Steve could do was wait for her return.
Ten minutes later, Tara reappeared. She was cursing and glared at Steve, but she had a key in her hand.
"Cool." He reached for it. "How much did it cost you?"
She pushed past him and stuck it into the padlock. "More than you're worth. And when we find it, I'm not paying you one more penny for it." With a twist, the lock was open and off. She struggled with the massive door for a moment, finally getting it open. When Steve offered to help, she glared at him until he stepped away, his hands going in the air.
"Hey, easy, babe, just tryin'--"
"Don't." She stepped close to him, her index finger pointing towards his face. "Don't. Call. Me. Babe. Got it?"
"Sure." Steve shrugged. "Coulda just said it bothered you."
Tara blinked several times, then let her shoulders drop in frustration. "You know what? You're just not worth it." She turned away from him, looking inside the storage locker. "Oh, shit."
Steve grinned. "Yeah. Grand-dad was a packrat."
The locker was stuffed to the brim with boxes and bags. Most of them were closed, some were standing open and had other boxes sticking out the top, along with pieces of costumes, props of all kinds, newspapers and books.
"Is that . . .?"
"Yep. It's the actual, to-scale model of the city of Thebes, as seen in the movie 'Sands of the Sphinx.'" He ambled over to the box the model was sitting on top of and poked at it with his finger. "Piece of junk, really, but it was good enough to make it seem like they were actually in Egypt."
"They did go to Egypt, didn't they?"
"Are you kidding me? You know what kind of budget they had? Almost nothing. They used all the money paying for stars and building sets. There wasn't even enough to have the wrap party catered -- legend has it Evelene Duhane baked cookies and someone else made the punch."
"Huh. Interesting." Tara sighed. "Okay. What I'm looking for is a jar, or a bottle."
"Yeah, I remember. From 'Sands'."
"It's made from stone -- possibly alabaster."
"Right. Well, how do you wanna do this? Start at one end and just go through boxes?"
With a nod, Tara rolled up her sleeves. "I suppose it's the best way to start. Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll be right up front."
Steve rolled his eyes. The way his luck had been going lately, they'd probably find it in the very bottom of the very last box.
If they could find it at all.
They had made their way through three different boxes before Tara lost her temper.
"Have you seen 'Sands of the Sphinx'? Cause if you had, you should know that none of these are the right bottle. I told you what it looked like, right?"
"Yeah, well -- look, I'm just trying to be thorough." Steve tilted his head. "And I have too seen 'Sands'. Just not in a very long time."
"I should have made you watch it before we did this."
"Do you have the movie?"
"Yes." Tara used her car key to cut through the tape on another box. "I bought it for my partner last year when it came out on video."
"So it's your partner that's a fan of my grandfather's work?"
She shrugged, lifting up layer upon layer of cloth. "We both are, I guess, it's just -- never mind." With a sigh, she dropped the material back into the box and winced at the amount of dust that filled the air. "God, how can anyone find anything in this mess?"
"No one's looked for anything here in years." He picked up an old suit jacket and slipped it on. It had ruffles and a few small holes where moths had gotten to it. "Too bad, too, cause some of this stuff -- whew! Don't you think the ladies would like me in this stuff?"
Tara had to chuckle. Steve was irritating, annoying, and several other negative adjectives that she could think of, he did make her laugh. And the jacket looked ridiculous on him.
"What, you don't agree?" He looked down at himself. "Would it help if I found the pants to go with it?"
"I'm sure it would." No longer annoyed, she pulled over another box, this one already open.
"What's so special about this bottle, or jar, or whatever it is anyway?" Steve lifted the lid on an old trunk and started digging through the contents, still wearing the moth-eaten jacket.
"Its -- well, it's hard to explain. Let's just say it's very important to my partner."
"Ah, so this is like a big birthday or Christmas present for her or something?"
"No -- well, okay, yeah, I suppose you could look at it like that."
"How do you look at it?"
"I--" Tara stopped, her head down.
"What -- are you crying?" Shocked, Steve stared for a moment. "Tara?"
She looked up and sniffled, then chuckled. "So you do know my name."
He grinned. "'Course I do, babe."
"Don't call me babe."
"Right." Shifting closer, he slid an arm part way around her. "You okay?"
"What's with the waterworks?"
"I'm not crying. Your jacket is making my eyes water."
Steve put a hand to his chest. "Ow. I'll have you know, this jacket --" He stood up and spread his arms, puffing out his chest to show the ruffles to full effect, "was one of my grandfather's prized possessions. He loved it. It came from the movie 'Sunset on Broadway' where it was worn by the leading man in the final climactic moment when the hero saves the day and gets the girl." He bowed slightly, one hand coming across his waist as he smiled at her.
Tara folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. "Prized possession?"
"But of course."
"Did your grandfather wear it?"
"Then how did it end up here?"
"He . . . lost it in a box of other clothes when he was cleaning out his apartment." Steve's face drooped in a sad pout. "He was devastated."
"But he used to wear it?"
"All the time."
"Really. Because I've heard that your grandfather was a short man."
"He was, shorter than me."
"And the jacket hangs off of you, so it must have dwarfed him."
"You made the story up, didn't you."
He shrugged. "Sounded good, though, didn't it?" Slipping off the garment, he grinned. "Besides, if I make up some good stories about things, maybe I can sell some of this and actually pay my bills."
"Or you could get a job."
"Or I could write a fantastic screenplay and become a famous Hollywood writer and director, and you could say you knew me when."
"Hey, it could happen."
"Yep. I knew you when we were going through old boxes together. Speaking of which, pull out the next one, would you?"
Tara had picked up Steve at nine-thirty and they'd started their search just after ten in the morning. By two they'd found nothing, and Steve was ready to pack it in.
"Look, you can keep the key, come down whenever you want. You paid the bill, they'll let you in without a problem. But I'm starving, I'm thirsty, and I'm tired." He coughed. "And my throat hurts from the dust."
"Yeah, okay, I got it." Tara sighed and looked around. They'd gotten through maybe a quarter of the junk in the locker, and while Steve had found a few things he thought he could pawn, there had been no sign of the bottle they were looking for. "You wouldn't mind if I came back by myself?"
"Nope. You can even take Thebes if you think your girlfriend would like it."
Tara glanced at model and smiled. "She might," she muttered. "Or it might make her homesick."
"Nothing." Tara stood up and stretched. "Will you come search with me again?"
Steve shrugged. "Maybe. Gotta try and get this screenplay sold." His mouth twisted in disgust as he tossed his cigarette away. "Hopefully to someone who's not gonna just tear the damn thing apart."
"What d'you mean?"
"Just what I said." He kicked at a box. "It's the best thing I ever wrote, but the only producer that's looked at it said he wants another person to rewrite it."
"Who's the producer?"
"Oh." Tara shrugged. "Forget him. He's a hack himself."
"He is. Look, I've worked in films for six years now and I know a good producer from a bad one. Russell isn't good, just lucky. He can't direct, and he doesn't know good writing from bad writing, so he hires others who are good, and then buys up screenplays for them to rewrite so they can claim it as their own." She shook her head. "That's why he's got a cult following – no one else gives a damn about his work."
Steve shrugged. "I like his movies."
"Oh, don't get me wrong. The guy makes decent movies. He's just not the one that should get the credit for them."
"Cause he just hires people."
"Right." Tara looked down at her watch and sighed. "We're not gonna find it today, are we?"
"Nope." Steve waved at her. "Come on. Drive me home. I'll help you look again tomorrow if you want."
"Sure." He glanced at the box that held a few small treasures he'd chosen to sell. "Just let me pawn these so I can pay the gas bill."
"Just gotta make it to the first of December, right?"
"Well." He stuck his hands in his back pockets and looked down. "I kind of meant the first of the year."
"Oh." Tara tilted her head and looked at him. "Will you make it?"
"You paid the electric, right?"
"Yeah. The receipt's in the car."
"Good. Then – I'll at least get to December. Which is better than I did last year."
"What happened last year?"
Steve shrugged, looking chagrined. "I made it to October and had to beg my grandfather's lawyer for more money."
"Did he give it to you?"
"Not really. I gave him the bills, he paid them, and took it out of this year's money."
"How much do you get each year?"
"About a hundred grand."
Tara's mouth dropped. "Is that before or after taxes?"
"Well, damn. There goes all the sympathy I had for you."
"My partner and I together don't make that much a year. And you can't make it a full twelve months? What the hell do you spend it on?"
Steve shrugged. "Rent, food, gas, phone – what does anybody spend their money on?"
"Oh, I don't know. That's a pretty fancy car you had in the drive."
He grinned "Ain't it, though? I lease one at the beginning of every year."
"Oh, man. Skiing in Aspen in February. The best snow in the world."
"And I'll bet you don't write your stuff on an electric typewriter, do you."
"Do you know how fast a computer goes obsolete? Gotta get a new one each year, practically."
Tara shook her head. "Come on. I'll drive you home."
"Cool. I'll come search with you tomorrow."
They closed up the garage, and Tara kept the key. Steve rolled his eyes, but didn't argue. Picking up his box of treasures, Steve followed Tara to the car.
"Hey, I'm starved. Wanna stop for lunch somewhere?"
"Hey, you paying?"
He waited a beat. "Does that mean we will or we won't?"
Tara rolled her eyes as she opened the trunk. "Just get in the damn car."
They ended up stopping at a taco stand on Sunset. Tara bought them each a burrito and drink, and they ate at a tiny cement picnic table.
"Hey, Tara, you said you'd worked in movies for six years?"
"What do you do?"
"Right now? Nothing. I'm taking care of Sher right now on a leave of absence."
"Sher? Your girlfriend?"
"Why are you taking care of her? What's wrong?"
Tara hesitated, not sure she wanted to answer, but also wanting to tell someone. "She's – she's dying."
"Oh, shit." Steve put his burrito down and looked away. "Sorry. I didn't – I mean --"
"Don't worry about it. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No, hey, it's my fault. I've been a jerk about it, and I'm sorry." He took a sip of his soda. "So, that's why you've been looking for this thing? As a last gift?"
She gave him a sad smile. "Yeah. Kind of. I guess."
"Well, that's cool. And we'll find it, even if we have to tear that locker apart." His gaze held confidence, and Tara felt herself responding to it with a smile.
"No problem." He took another big bite of his burrito, and watched her for a minute. After swallowing, he asked, "So, what do you do when you aren't being a good Samaritan for your partner?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "I was a script assistant to Jeffrey Bronson."
Steve gaped at her. "Bronson? The producer Bronson?"
"Yeah." Tara sipped her drink, trying to remain nonchalant under his scrutiny. "I looked over scripts and recommended them for further review, as well as co-ordinating with agents and writers for the purchase of new scripts."
His mouth still hanging open, Steve just stared.
Finally, Tara rolled up the wrapper from her burrito and tossed it into a nearby trash can. Then she calmly reached over and closed Steve's mouth for him with a snap.
"Come on." She picked up her drink. "I'll take you home."
He just nodded dumbly and followed her back to the car.=====
Tara glanced at the man beside her as she pulled up in front of Steve's place.
"You have plans tonight?"
He shrugged. "Just writing. Probably drinking."
"Can you do that at the same time?"
"You're not Hemingway."
"You just keep insulting me." Steve grinned at her.
She raised her hands in an apologetic gesture. "Sorry, but you make it so easy."
"Yeah, right." He opened the door. "So, I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Absolutely. I'll call before coming over."
"I'll try to be awake." Steve moved to step out of the car, but Tara put a hand on his arm. "Hm?"
"Hey, if -- if you want, I'd be willing to look at your screenplay. If you want me to, I mean."
"Why would I want you to do that?"
She shrugged. "I just -- well, I do have experience in choosing scripts. And -- if it's good, I can maybe help you get your foot in the door with my boss."
"Your boss, Jeffrey Bronson."
He tilted his head and looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "I'll think about it."
"Yeah." He got out of the car and turned back before shutting the door. "But you owe me breakfast tomorrow. Bagels are cool, but no onion. And bring some honey butter. I don't like cream cheese."
"How can you not like cream cheese? And hey, why do I owe you breakfast? I just bought you lunch!"
"I'll work for tacos and bagels. Nothing less." Then he winked and closed the door to head up the driveway while Tara stared at him, her mouth open.
After a moment, she shook her head and chuckled softly. "Brat." Then she put the car in gear and drove away.
Pulling into her own driveway, Tara turned the car off with a sigh. It had been a long day, and the exertion was catching up to her. They hadn't found the jar they were looking for, but they'd made a good start. With Steve's help, she was sure they could find it in a few days, a week at the most.
She patted her pocket which held the key to the locker. Even without Steve she was sure she could find it. It would just take her a little longer.
Letting herself lean back in the driver's seat, she sighed and looked toward the front door of the duplex she and Sher lived in. Memories went through her mind, of other times, other days, when she came home to find her lover covered in flour or other substances, dishes piled up, and wonderful smells filling the house. Sher was known for her incredible dinners, and her ability to make Tara swoon with her cooking skills.
Since the illness had set in, those dinners were few and far between. She had to admit, she missed them, especially the late night activities that usually followed those candlelit dinners. Even cleaning up the next day had been fun, the two of them pitching in and clearing things with a camaraderie that Tara had never experienced with anyone else. Every once in a while Sher was up to sharing duties in the kitchen, but it wasn't the same, and Tara sighed again as she got out of the car and headed for the porch.
It was quiet as she closed the door behind her. That wasn't unusual, Sher was sleeping a lot these days, and Tara accepted that her partner needed the rest. She slipped her jacket off and hung it in the closet as she headed for the kitchen.
She stopped without entering the room. The table was on its side, dishes broken on the floor, and a pot on the stove overturned, its contents dripping down the oven door. Tara noticed the gouge marks on the counter beside the sink, and she turned and ran for the bedroom.
"Sher?" She flung the door open, taking in the torn pillow and the blankets that were pulled askew on the bed. Tara took another step into the room, but there was no one there. Confused and worried, she headed back toward the living room when a sound from the bathroom made her stop.
It was a cross between a growl and whine, and it made chills rise up her spine. With slow steps she moved to the bathroom door and peeked in cautiously. "Sher?" The curled up form in the corner made her open the door the rest of the way, and stepped inside. "Sher! What happened?"
"Get out." The anger in the growled words made Tara stop. She stared at her lover, taking in the taut muscles, the torn shirt, and the sheen of sweat that covered her.
"Sher? Baby?" Another cautious step forward, but she stopped when Sher whipped around, growling.
"I said get out!"
And now Tara could see the extended claws on Sher's fingers and the light brown hair that had sprouted to cover her lover's hands and face.
Swallowing back the sudden surge of bile, she turned from the sight and ran, slamming the bathroom door behind her.
It was hours later when Sher finally pulled herself off the bathroom floor. Exhausted from the inner battle, she really just wanted to sleep, but she knew there were more important things right now. She needed food, for one thing, or another attack was likely.
And then there was her girlfriend to worry about.
She showered quickly, wincing at the bruises and scrapes. As she toweled off, she looked at herself in the mirror, feeling the dread of what was to come weighing down on her shoulders.
There was a decision to be made. Sher could only hope that she was strong enough to make it on her own, because she'd get only opposition from Tara, who had said she would stand by her no matter what.
And who would pay the price on the day that Sher finally lost her battle.
Sighing, she slipped into the bedroom to get some fresh clothes, and stopped. The bed had been remade, and the damaged pillow was gone. A set of sweats was laid out on the bed for her, along with socks and underwear.
Tara's doing. A way of showing her forgiveness, and all it did was make Sher feel the guilt that much more.
She tracked her lover to the kitchen. The destruction was mostly gone, the pot missing from the stove and the oven door clean. The floor had been swept, and possibly mopped, and the smell of whatever was now cooking in the wok was making her stomach growl.
"Dinner will be ready soon. Would you like some iced tea?"
Tara pulled a glass from the cupboard and handed it to Sher. "Pitcher's in the fridge."
After pouring the glass, she put it on the table and edged closer to her partner. Tara had moved over to the stove and was stirring the contents of the wok, adding a little soy sauce. Moving slowly, Sher slipped up behind her lover until their bodies were just touching. She put her hands on Tara's waist and gently rested her chin on the shorter woman's shoulder.
Neither spoke for a moment. It wasn't a comfortable silence, but Sher didn't pick up on any anger from her lover, and she breathed a sigh of relief at that. Her gaze drifted down to the stir fry Tara was working on, and a brief smile crossed her lips.
"I thought a vegetarian dinner would be a good idea."
Sher chuckled softly. "Yeah. A good idea." She moved just a little closer, her arms starting to circle around her lover. Then she noticed the deep gouges in the counter, and she stopped. The guilt deepened, along with her fear, and she started to pull away, only to have Tara grab her arms and hold her in position.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Sher nodded slightly. "Are you? I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"No. You didn't come close to me." Tara raised one of Sher's bruised hands and kissed it. "You'd never hurt me."
"Don't say that, Tar. If I lose control --"
"Then it wouldn't be you hurting me, would it." Tara turned in her lover's embrace and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. "I was worried about you."
"I'll find the jar, Sher. I will."
The two of them stood there for several moments, almost afraid to move, lest they destroy the moment of peace they had.
The next morning, Steve surprised himself by being up early, or at least as early as he could remember being up in recent years. He fried himself an egg, just in case Tara forgot the bagels, and then actually took a few minutes to use the massive workout machine he'd bought years earlier.
Feeling accomplished, he headed to the shower, turning up the radio so he could drown out his own singing.
He swung his shaving mirror away from the wall and looked at his image.
"Well, good mornin', handsome." The shaving gel went on smoothly, turning quickly to a white foam as he spread it over his face. "You know, if you don't get a job as a writer, you could try being a model." Razor in one hand he struck a pose, raising one arm to make a muscle that didn't really appear. Steve grinned at himself. "Yeah. Keep dreamin', stud."
He laughed and started to draw the razor across his cheek, continuing the conversation with himself.
"Besides, I'm a damn good writer, and someone's gonna pick up my screenplay and then Mr. Bob 'I love Italian food' Russell can go fuck himself." Another stroke. "But, you know, it would be cool if Jeffrey Bronson were interested. His films aren't always blockbusters, but they make money, and they're always up for awards." The blade was rinsed before he drew it up his neck. "And I do have a way in, now. Tara said she'd show it to him."
He could almost hear the mirror image reply, "She said she'd show it to him if it was good."
He nodded to his reflection. "I know! But she'll love it!"
His image just stared back, one eyebrow raised. Steve sighed. "Yeah, yeah. I'll show it to her. Maybe she can tell me what's wrong with the damn ending."
Not quite as happy with himself, he finished shaving and moved the mirror back against the wall.
By the time Tara called he was dressed and ready, and busy printing out another copy of his screenplay.
"Tara! Funny I should hear from you this morning, I was thinking of going searching for something in my grandfather's stuff; you wanna go with me?"
"Oh, you're real funny. I'll be there in a few minutes. Will you be there or will I have to pound on the door again?"
"Maybe I'll make you pound on it just for the heck of it."
But he didn't. Instead, he was outside practicing his fake jumpshot when Tara pulled into the drive. Steve waved, then grabbed his bag and jogged toward the passenger door. He was reaching for the handle when he noticed someone else in the car, and smoothly shifted direction to the back door. He slid onto the seat easily, closing the door behind him.
"Hey, Steve. You're pretty chipper this morning."
"Yeah, hey, imagine that."
"Get a call on your script?"
"No, but," he shrugged, "I will. And, I decided to take you up on your offer." He patted the bag he was carrying. "I brought my script."
"Oh, right. Cool. It might take me a few days to read it, but I will, I promise." Tara glanced beside her. "Steve, this is my partner, Sher. She decided to come along with us today, if that's okay with you."
Steve answered with a shrug. "Cool with me. Hey, Sher. Is that short for Sharon?"
"No. My mother was Egyptian, and she gave me the Egyptian name of Miw-Sher. I shortened it." She slipped a hand into the back seat for an awkward handshake. "It's good to meet you, Steve."
"Same here." He shook her hand. "Tara told me you're a fan of my grandfather's work."
She chuckled. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"Have you seen all of his movies?"
"Most. I wasn't really interested in the two war films he made."
"Ah, yeah. His short-lived return to film in the fifties." Steve sighed and leaned back, stretching his arms across the top of the seat. "He got the critical acclaim, but nobody else liked them.""I think it was just bad timing. Nobody wanted to see that kind of film right after the war ended."
"Yet John Wayne built his career on them. Go figure."
"His career was built on westerns, actually. And the biggest war movies, especially after World War Two, all had US troops racing in to save the day. Nobody cared about the heroics of the fishermen who rescued British troops at Dunkirk, or the aftermath of the nuclear bomb."
"No one except my grandfather." Steve felt a little annoyed at the tone Tara's girlfriend was using.
"You're right, no one except your grandfather." Sher chuckled. "He was ahead of his time, was Stephen Hearst."
"He was." Steve sighed, then brightened. "Hey, maybe that's my problem. I'm so far ahead of my time no one gets what I'm writing about."
"Does that mean in fifty years someone will buy your script?" teased Tara.
"No, someone will buy it sooner. It'll just be appreciated in fifty years."
Both women chuckled.
Sher's eyes grew very wide when the door to the storage space was opened.
"Yeah." Tara nodded. "But we'll find it, Sher. I know we will."
"This thing really means a lot to you?" Steve was on the other side of Tara.
Sher nodded. "It really does."
"Then we'll find it." Steve tilted his head to look around the blonde between them, waiting until Sher turned to meet his gaze. "I would never let a couple of pretty ladies down."
Tara rolled her eyes, but Sher smiled. "Well, then, let's get to work. Where'd you guys leave off yesterday?"
They set up a system; Tara and Sher would go through a box each, while Steve lined up boxes for them each to work on. Finally, when he'd lined up at least three for each of them, he took a box for his own, one without a top, to dig through.
"Hey, look, it's the dummy hand from 'Piece of Me'."
"Great. We're looking for a jar, Steve."
"Yeah, but this was the first animated hand in the movies, Tar. This led the way for Thing in the Addams family."
"Right." Tara waited a minute. "What's the Addams family?"
Steve raised his head and stared open mouthed at her. Sher just laughed and tossed a balled up piece of cloth at her girlfriend. "Tara, stop teasing the boy. Steve, she's just kidding."
"Right. Course she is." Steve didn't sound convinced, but he just raised an eyebrow and lowered his gaze back to the box."
"I say we play a game." Tara held up a handful of dead flowers as she made her announcement.
"Let's see who can find the strangest thing that your grandfather kept."
Sher chuckled, and Steve shrugged. "Big or small?"
"Not a problem. I win." He pointed to a bag hanging from hook high up on the wall. "That thing."
"No, dummy, what's in the bag."
Tara crossed her arms. "Okay, I'll bite. What's in the bag, Steve?"
"The head of a lion."
Sher looked up quickly at him, then stared at the bag. Tara winced.
"The actual real head?"
"Actual real head. Mummified. He found it in the desert in Egypt."
"Well, not mummified the way we think of it, by people. This was done by the desert sand, totally natural. But it's the strangest thing I know of that he had."
Tara nodded. "You're right. You win."
The two of them went back to searching. It was a moment or two before Tara realized Sher hadn't moved, her gaze still on the bag near the ceiling.
Steve turned and grinned at her. "Yes, dear?"
She glanced at him, but quickly re-focused on her girlfriend. "Sher?"
"Can I see it?"
Tara stopped, her face an expression of shock. Steve wasn't far different.
"Uh – yeah. I suppose." He looked up at it again. "IfI can get to it, that is."
It took them a few minutes to figure it out, but finally, with Steve standing on a chair and Tara holding his legs, they managed to hook the handle of a cane under the bag and lift it off its hook. It slipped down, but Sher caught it, holding it reverently.
"The head of Sakhmet."
"What?" Steve jumped down from the chair. "What was that?"
"The head of what?"
Sher never looked up at them. Steve crouched down to look at her face and was struck by how lost the woman looked. There was a depth to her eyes that he'd never seen before, in anyone, an aged yet ageless expression that made him want to close his eyes and cry.
Her voice was quiet as she spoke. "It's said, among the legends, that Sakhmet went to the desert to sleep until the Pharaohs arose anew. But Set, the deceiver, followed her and once she was asleep, he beheaded her, then ate her body and took her head as a trophy. But he was waylaid by Isis and Hathor, and in anger at what he had done, they used their magic to bind him, then tossed him into a pool of scorpions. The next day, with his powers diminished, they cut him limb from limb and fed the pieces to a sphinx." She sighed. "But the anger of Set and his murderers, as well as the fury of Sakhmet created a pool of rage in the sphinx. And so the line of the Sphinx, now without their goddess protector, was forever cursed by the fury of the gods."
It was quiet when she stopped speaking. Tara was biting her lip nervously, staring worriedly at her girlfriend. Steve, lost in those deep brown eyes, had to shake himself to pull out of the spell Sher had woven with her quiet words. Looking down at the bag, he reached for it.
"It's just an old lion." He kept his voice soft as he carefully undid the knot at the top of the bag and opened it, folding it halfway down to reveal the dessicated skull. "This isn't a goddess, Sher. It's just a dead animal."
It was a grotesque representation of what the lion must have looked like in life. The skin was still stretched over the bones, but it was pulled tight, the nose eroded, while the teeth were bared in a snarl, the gums receded into nothing. The eyes were closed, but the skin had sunken into the empty sockets, creating holes that only emphasized the death the head represented.
Sher blinked, as if coming out of a dream. "The head of Sakhmet was buried in the desert by Isis and Hathor."
"Maybe so, babe, but this isn't it."
With a nod, she pulled the folded bag back up, blocking the image from view. She shook herself, still blinking occasionally.
"Sher, you all right?"
"Yeah, Tar, I'm okay." Handing the bag back to Steve, she stood quickly. "I just -- need a little air." With deep breaths and quick steps she headed out of the storage locker.
Before she turned the corner she looked back. "Steve?"
"Don't call me babe." Then she was gone.
Tara dropped carefully onto the top of a closed box. Steve just stared after the dark haired woman.
"Well. That was interesting."
After giving Sher a few minutes to gather herself, Tara went to look for her. She found her lover at the other end of the storage place, pacing next to the street, her hands clenched as she walked, her head down.
"Go away, Tara."
"Just tell me you're okay. Do you want to go home?" She received no reply. "If you need to go, we can. Just -- tell me. I'll give Steve money for a cab and we'll head home, or -- or up to Griffith park? You love it up there."
There was still no answer, but Sher began to twist her head every couple of minutes.
"Love? Come on." Tara, frustrated, stepped forward and touched Sher's shoulder. "Sher --"
"Don't touch me." The words were snarled as Sher's head snapped up and she slapped Tara's hand away. With her lips pulled back to reveal fangs, dark hair falling to cover one eye, Sher grabbed Tara's upper arms and pulled her closer. "I've told you I don't like it when you touch me."
Tara swallowed, knowing she wasn't dealing only with her girlfriend, and her voice came out as a whisper. "I'm sor--"
"Sorry!" Sher shouted, then growled. "You're always sorry. Always whining that you're sorry." She twitched, and her eyes closed, and something shifted. The fury in her seemed to melt, and her hands relaxed a little, her lips uncurling. When she opened her eyes again the rage that had been there moments earlier was replaced by confusion.
"Sher?" Moving carefully, Tara pulled her arms out of the weakened grasp. She put her hands on the sides of her girlfriend's face and looked deep into her eyes. "Baby?"
Squeezing her eyes shut, Sher shook her head, then opened them again, focusing on Tara. "What just happened? Did I lose it again?"
"Yeah, but only for a moment. You fought back. You came back really quick." Tara hugged her. "Any idea what brought that on?"
"We were talking about – Sakhmet, right?"
"Yeah." Tara pulled away slightly. "Is that true? What you told us?"
Her girlfriend shrugged. "As true as any legend can be. Mom told it to me, said that a time would come when I would know the rage of Sakhmet."
Tara let her head drop, her blond hair falling in front of her eyes. "Right." She took a deep breath and bit her lip. "Let's leave it for today, okay? We did really well, it won't take us much longer to find the jar."
Sher nodded. She didn't bring up what would happen if they didn't find it.
"A picnic in Griffith Park? Just you and me?"
She nodded again, not wanting to burst the happy bubble that her lover tried to live in.
"Okay. I'll go give Steve the money for a cab and let him know you're not feeling good. You just head for the car, and we'll go, okay? Stop at Gelson's for food? Or just TJ's?"
"Great. Go on, I'll see you at the car."
Before she left, Sher kissed her lover gently on the cheek, then turned and walked to the car, her hands stuffed deep in her pockets and her head down.
Neither she nor Tara saw Steve at the corner of the building, watching them in concern.
=====When Tara returned to the locker, she found Steve wearing a sombrero and digging through yet another box. This one was filled with small objects, even Christmas ornaments, and old time action figures from every show one could think of, from GI Joe to a hand held Howdy Doody.
"Whoa. Was that the robot from 'Lost in Space'?"
"Yep. Grandad said it was pretty good for a kids show." He shrugged. "Then again, in a lot of ways, he was just a big kid himself, so -- he'd know."
"Yeah." Tara glanced behind her, then stepped closer to him, not noticing how he tensed. She flicked a finger at his sombrero. "Nice."
"Thanks. Seemed to go with the maracas I found, but you missed that part."
"Sorry." She winced, hearing Sher's voice tell her that all she ever did was say she was sorry. "Hey, listen, Sher's not feeling really good. We're gonna head out."
"Cool, let me grab my jacket and --"
Tara held up a hand, stopping him. "Steve -- she's -- well, she's not really good company right now. I was gonna give you some money for a cab."
"Oh." He raised his eyebrows and blew out a breath. "Cab fare. Gotcha."
"Yeah. I'm really sorry. It's just -- she gets confused sometimes, and it's best she's not around people when she does."
Steve nodded, putting his hands in his back pockets. "I get it. It's cool. Can I do anything?" He glanced around at the scattered mess around them. "Besides find the jar, I mean."
"No, I don't think so." Tara pulled her wallet from her pocket and opened it. "Any idea how much a cab will cost from here to your place?"
He waved her off. "Just make it a five. I can take the bus."
She looked at him, her own eyebrow rising. "You'll take the bus? From here to your place? One bus?"
"Please. It's not that far a walk from here to the Metro stop on Hollywood and Vine, and then I can take the Metro north and catch a bus to a stop a block away from my place." He sighed. "I learned the route really well a couple years ago when I couldn't drive for a few weeks."
Another sigh. "Unpaid parking tickets. They towed my car."
Tara fought not to laugh; it sounded exactly like something Steve would do. "Okay, then. Here's a ten. Pick up some food for yourself."
"Fast food, how kind."
"Fine! Have a twenty!"
"I'm kidding!" He pushed the larger bill away and stuffed the ten in his pocket. "Go on. Your girlfriend's waiting on you."
"Yeah. Thanks, Steve." She gave him a smile and turned to leave.
"She always grab you like that?"
"What?" Tara turned, her eyes not quite meeting his. "Like what?"
"Like the way she did. Out by the street."
"You were watching?"
"Yeah." He folded his arms and leaned against a box. "Does she get mad a lot?"
"No." Tara shook her head. "It – it really doesn't happen often, and it's something pretty recent."
"Does she hit you?"
"What? No!" She held up a hand. "Steve, it's --" Tara sighed and put the same hand to her forehead. "Look, it's complicated. Short version is that the anger is a by-product of her illness. She can't help it. But, she doesn't hit me. Okay?"
He nodded. "Okay."
"So, we're good?"
Another nod. "We're good."
"Okay. I'm gonna go now."
"Right." He waited till she had turned around. "Tara?"
"Yeah?" She looked back at him.
"If she ever does . . . or if you just. . . need someone. To talk, or anything. You can call me. Okay?"
Closing her eyes, Tara looked at the ground, then smiled at Steve. "Thanks, Steve. I appreciate that."
"Go on. Don't keep her waiting."
This time she made it out of sight before he sighed again. "Bitch better not ever hit her." Then he turned and started the search again.
Tara called that night just after he got home. Between the long walk and the hours of bending, Steve was tired, and didn't answer the phone. After showering and wolfing down the burgers he'd bought, he pushed the button to listen to her message.
"Hey, Steve, it's Tara. I'm getting a little worried about you, so give me a call when you get this. Just want to know you made it home safe. Oh, and I have an appointment tomorrow afternoon, so could you drive your car tomorrow? I'd feel better if you weren't taking the bus.
"Sher's fine. She said to say she's sorry she broke down, but sometimes it just happens. She's asleep right now. She doesn't sleep through the night very often, but I'm hopeful that she will tonight. It was a good day, overall.
"So, I'll see you tomorrow. Around eleven? I think we can find it tomorrow. I really believe we can. Thanks for all your help, Steve, I really appreciate it. Take care and call me when you get home. Bye."
Steve listened to the message twice. The second time he closed his eyes and imagined Tara on the phone, her blond hair glinting in firelight. She'd put the phone down and smile at him, then move forward, putting her hand on--
"She's got a girlfriend, you idiot." He jabbed his finger on the delete button, then picked up his beer. "Okay, yeah, so she's an idiot girlfriend who hits her, but she's still the girlfriend. You? You don't even have the right equipment." He took several healthy swallows from his bottle. "Unless she likes strap-ons." He grinned, a fantasy slipping through his mind quickly before he shook his head to clear it.
He headed for his computer to check his email.
At eleven the next morning, Steve pulled over to the curb near the Hollywood storage facility and waited in his car. There was only one parking space left in the three spot parking lot, and he felt like being chivalrous and leaving it for Tara.
Someone pulled into it at quarter after eleven, and Steve groaned. Swearing to himself, he got out of his car, slamming the door, and dug into his pocket for the change he'd gathered before leaving home. Four quarters got him two hours, the maximum, and he swore that if there wasn't a spot open then he'd just head home.
Tara still hadn't shown by eleven-thirty. At quarter to twelve, Steve pulled out his cell phone and dialed her number. There was no answer, and he took to leaving the locker every few minutes to check the parking lot. He had pulled out his phone to call her when he finally saw her car pull in and come to a stop in a newly vacated space.
Folding his arms, he leaned back against the wall, prepared to tease her about being late. He grinned, anticipating her chagrin. The smile faded, however, when she failed to step out of the car right away. He could see her, with her arms folded on the steering wheel, her head resting on her arms. Steve was about to go over and see if she was all right when the door finally opened and Tara stepped out of the car.
She was limping. It was minor, but Steve could see her favoring her right leg just a little. As she came closer, he noticed a thin red line on her face, running the length of her jaw on the left side. His heart started hammering in his chest.
Tara noticed him and gave him a smile. "Hey. Sorry I'm so late. Had a little accident."
"Accident?" Steve raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, we were moving a cabinet and I twisted an ankle and fell."
"A cabinet." Steve raised his head, his gaze moving above her to the skyline. "Is that the story you thought up for today? Cause I gotta say, I thought you were more creative than that."
"What are you talking about? That's what happened."
"Right. And tomorrow, when you have a black eye, will you tell me that you fell into a door? Or when she splits your lip, will you say something fell from a cupboard and hit your mouth?"
"I don't know what—"
"Come on, Tara!" Steve glared down at her. "I know the signs, okay? She's beating you."
"You don't know what you're talking about." Tara tried to push past him, but he stood his ground.
"The hell I don't." By this time he'd noticed the slightest edge of red where it ended just at the collar of her t-shirt. Slowly, he drew the material aside, exposing three angry red scratch marks. "What do you call that? Foreplay?"
Angrily, Tara pulled away from him and moved her shirt back into place. "It's none of your business."
"You're searching for something from my grandfather's collection to give to this woman who's beating you --"
"She's dying, Steve."
"And she's liable to take you with her!" He grabbed her arm, his anger and fear making him squeeze tighter than he meant to. "Goddamnit, Tara, open your eyes! Her illness doesn't give her the right to hurt you like this!"
"And you don't know what you're talking about!" Jerking free, Tara turned away.
"What?" Her head came up and there was disbelief in the question.
"Leave her." Steve moved around Tara, forcing her to face him. "You can stay with me for now, just --"
Growling in frustration, Tara turned away again. "I don't believe this! What, did you decide you had a crush on me or something?"
"No, I just --" Her guess had struck a little close to home, and Steve pulled back for a moment to get his bearings.
"Just what? Thought I'd leave her for you? Did you forget you're not exactly my type?"
Steve shook his head. "Look, I'm just worried about you, okay? I mean, I know we don't know each other that well, but --"
"We don't know each other at all, Steve."
"--but -- I do know the signs of abuse, and --"
"Oh, for God's sake, Sher is not abusing me!"
"-- and maybe you should just think about --"
"I'm not listening to anymore of this."
"Tara, I'm serious!"
"So am I! It's not what you think, so just fuck off!"
"Then tell me how it is, because all I see is you with a bunch of bruises."
"Look, I don't need you to tell me about my relationship, all right? All I need is for you to help me find that damn bottle."
"Why? So she can put it on the mantle and look at it after she's beaten you?"
"What's so fucking important about a goddamn bottle that's worth her hitting you like this?"
"You don't get it, so just shut up." She turned away, then faced him again. "I think you should leave."
He stepped back. "Fine. I'll leave. After I close up." He turned and headed for the locker.
Tara followed close on his heels. "You can't close it, I need to search."
"Not without me being here." He pushed a box back inside and reached for the door.
"Look, just give me the key back and --"
"No." Giving it a hard yank, he pulled the metal door down, letting it slam against the ground with a loud clank.
"No." He reached in his pocket for the lock and keys. "You told me to leave, I'm leaving."
"Don't do this!"
With the door locked, he turned to her. "If you think I'm going to help you when you won't even help yourself, you're crazy." His jaw clenched, hands in fists, he headed for his car.
Tara watched him go, her eyes wide. As Steve gunned the gas and drove off, she turned and stared at the storage shed.
By the time she'd gotten to her own car she couldn't see for the tears in her eyes.
Steve had no clue where he was going. He was surprised to find himself lost in the middle of Griffith Park. Shaking his head, he stopped at a sign and looked for a clue as to how to get out of the hillside forest, finally locating a road he knew and turning right.
As he pulled up to the light at Griffith Park and Los Feliz he felt his anger shift to the pain he'd been trying to close off. For the first time he admitted to himself how much he cared about Tara. It wasn't like him to care about someone so fast. He'd been known for either one night stands or long, drawn out courtships. But Tara seemed to draw out a protective side he didn't know he had. And Sher was abusing her, he was certain of it, even if he'd only known them a few days.
Of course he'd know the signs. His own father had abused his mother, which led to him being left with his grandfather so often. He'd grown up with the old man, or hiding from his parents. He'd seen the black eyes, heard the excuses, had even been the one to call 911 when his mother had been unable to stand. Age nine and he'd watched the men load the woman into the back of an ambulance, watched the cuffs be put on his father's wrists. Then his grandfather had taken him home and let him watch silent films the rest of the night. Steve had fallen asleep next to his snoring grandfather, content to feel the old man's arm around him.
Not that life had gotten easier. Stephan Hearst had been a strict director, used to having absolute control over the things in his movies, in his life, in his home. A nine year old boy with his own mind didn't fit into the man's ordered world, and the two clashed weekly, though Steve knew he'd take the arguments with his grandfather over the fistfights of his parents, who died in a car accident when he was fifteen.
Sitting at another stop light, he felt a hitch in his breath and fought to swallow it down. Having been through therapy at his grandfather's insistence, he could recognize what he was feeling. This was helplessness. He knew it well. As a child he'd been unable to help his mother escape his father; she'd gone back to the man time after time. Now, as an adult, he couldn't find a way to help Tara. In the face of her love for the woman that beat her, he was helpless.
As he drove down Franklin, the storage facility on his left at the overpass, he considered for a moment that there was maybe one thing he could do. Tara seemed convinced that if they found the jar, it would help Sher, and the beatings would stop. He knew better. But maybe if they found it, and nothing changed, she would finally wake up to the inevitable.
Maybe then she'd listen, and he could help her, hold her . . .
"You idiot. Wrong equipment, remember?"
But he put on his left blinker anyway and prepared to start the search again.
I've decided it's time for me to start keeping a journal. I don't know what good it will do, especially since no one will really believe it, but -- I don't know. Maybe I'm hoping that it will be a comfort to Tara one day. Because I really do love her. And even though she's hoping against hope that we find the jar, I don't think we will, and I want her to know that it's not her fault.
It's not, babe. Believe it.
And where is the love of my life right now? Out with Steve, searching for the jar in his grandfather's storage shed. I was going to go with her, but she said I should rest. I wish she would. She's been searching for months now, only recently discovering that Hearst had kept all the props from the movie. I know he kept the jar, but who knows where it is now? My mom only told me that it was in the safest place in the world. I wish I'd asked more questions when I had the chance, but I didn't honestly believe this day would come.
It has. Steve really is our last hope. Because I don't think I have time for more research.
Just this morning we were moving a filing cabinet and I felt myself get angry. It just came out of no where, and I dropped my end of the load and punched the wall we'd been moving it toward. The damn thing nearly fell over after landing on Tara's ankle. The top corner scratched her face; not bad, but enough that it'll show.
Other emotions are coming through as well. Tara says she likes how passionate I've been when we've had sex, but I think it scared her last night. I scratched her. She dismissed it, said it was worth it, but I worry. Things are getting out of control quickly, and I don't think I can stop it.
Therefore, the journal. And plans. Must make plans, and Isis help me, I need to keep them secret from Tara. Because she'll try to stop me.
Mother Goddess, please keep her safe, from me above all else.
Tara let herself into the house as quietly as she could. Sher had been sleeping when she left, but after several attacks in the last few days, she had no idea whether she'd be facing her girlfriend or the beast within her.
She was surprised to find Sher sitting at the table drinking coffee and reading an advertisement. The dark haired woman looked up and gave her a hesitant smile.
"How are you feeling?" Tara leaned over and kissed Sher on the forehead. "You look better."
"I feel better. More in control at the moment." She hugged Tara around the waist. "Any luck? I thought you'd be gone longer."
Biting her lip, Tara shook her head. "Um. Steve and I -- we kind of -- got into a fight."
"A fight?" Sher looked up at her girlfriend. "What's going on with that? The way you two were laughing, I thought you liked him."
"I -- I did. I do. We just -- it was just an argument. It'll blow over. I'll call him in a day or so."
Sher nodded. She squeezed Tara's waist and then moved to stand. "Well, while I'm feeling okay, I'm going to make dinner tonight. Anything special you want?"
Tara shrugged. "Not really. Anything you feel up to making." She kissed her lover. "You want some help?"
"Um, actually, I thought you'd have something else to do." Sher pointed across the table at a bound screenplay. "Shouldn't you read that?"
Picking it up, Tara sighed and flipped through it. She was surprised that it actually passed the Hollywood flip test. Then she turned to the back page and looked at the number.
"Hey, he already passed two tests. The formatting is right, and he kept it under a hundred and twenty pages."
"Does that mean you'll read it?"
"Sure." Another kiss, then she walked to the fridge and pulled out the iced tea. "Let me get a glass and I'll go in the living room to read."
As she poured, Sher approached her from behind and put her arms around her again. "Have I thanked you lately?"
"Thanked me for what?" Tara stepped away and returned the pitcher to the fridge.
"Thanked you for taking care of me. For not leaving me to do this on my own." She caught Tara's hand as she was reaching for the glass. "Thanked you for loving me."
With a smile, Tara moved closer, letter her arms slide around Sher's neck. "You don't need to thank me. Loving you is one of the best things I could ever have done."
Sher looked down. "Even if I hurt you?"
"You haven't hurt me, Sher."
"Oh, really?" She softly pulled down the collar of the t-shirt Tara was wearing, exposing the claw marks. "What do you call that?"
Tara removed her hand, then kissed her again. "For the last time, Sher, that wasn't you."
"It's a part of me, it's what's inside of me --"
"Maybe, but it's not a part of the Sher that I know and love. You will never hurt me. And I will never back down from what's inside of you." She punctuated her sentence with one last kiss. "Is that clear, Sher?"
Sher nodded, a hesitant smile on her face.
"Good. Now, you make dinner. I'm going to read. Then we'll have an early evening and you can hold me until the sun rises. Sound good to you?"
Another nod. Another kiss from Tara, and the shorter woman was out the door, leaving Sher alone in the kitchen.
For a moment, she just stood still, staring at her hands. Then she looked up at the ceiling.
"Great Isis, please. Don't let me harm her." Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she wiped her eyes, and began pulling out food for dinner.
Steve pulled up into the parking lot at the storage facility and cut the engine. He sat still for several minutes, trying not to think too much about his day so far. It hadn't gone well.He'd finally had to admit that he was broke. Making the phone call to Bob Russell had galled him, and his stomach had been churning the whole time. When Russell had laughed at him on the phone and told him that it was too late, he'd been partially upset and mostly relieved.
It was the visit to his grandfather's lawyer that had galled him.
He'd gotten the lecture, the angry tirade about being conservative with his money, the disgusted looks. Then he'd gotten the money.
Part of him wanted to go spend it just to prove he was in charge. But mostly, he just wanted to stop feeling like a little boy playing in a man's suit.
Instead of some fancy food, he'd gotten some tacos and gone home. After paying all the bills, including the next month's rent, he'd found himself at a loss. The only thing he thought about was Tara, and the jar, which led him down here at four-thirty on an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon.
For some reason, though, he felt good. He felt lucky. As he turned the key in the padlock, he smiled. Maybe he could salvage this day after all. It was enough to give him a little more energy and he lifted the door with a heave, watching as it rolled all the way up without stopping.
"Okay, here we go. Granddad, help me out here. Tell me where that damn bottle is, huh?"
There is a plan now, even if it's not a solid one. Step one, sleeping pills. After punching a hole in the wall and leaving scratch marks on the tub in the bathroom, I discovered sleeping pills seem to give me a little more control. I have to take more than the recommended dosage, but it works. I can deal with being a little drowsy. I'm sure Tara would rather have me sane and sleepy than wide awake and viciously ripping at her.
I have to be careful though. It's getting stronger, and sometimes I misjudge the number of pills.
There are other plans in the works. It was good that Tara left the house for a while today. I had to go pick up a few things for steps 2 and 3. Tara won't like Step 2. And she doesn't have to know about Step 3 till it happens.
Then she can be as angry as she wants -- at least she'll be alive, even if . . .
She hasn't talked to Steve lately. Wonder what's going on with that? They'd been getting so close.
For Tara, it was the end of an exhausting week. While she wasn't officially working right now, her boss had called her and begged her to help sort things out with a script re-write that had gone horribly wrong. She'd spent three days torn between work and home; if she was at work she worried about Sher being home alone, and if she was at home she worried about how things were going at work.
The only good thing about heading back into the office was that she had been able to pass on Steve's script. Impressed with the characters, if not the actual dialogue, she'd handed it over to both Jeff Bronson and the development team they worked with. While it was still a long shot, she hoped Jeff would see the potential in the young man's writing and possibly take a chance with him.
At home, things were momentarily stable, if not pleasant. After another severe episode, Sher had taken to using sleeping pills in an effort to control the changes happening within her. Tara had found a large stash of several kinds of pills, and she knew. If Sher thought she was losing control, she would take the safe way out. The knowledge had only contributed to Tara's stress, and she'd vowed that today she would call Steve and apologize.
The jar was the only hope they had, and she clung to it.
They seemed to walk on eggshells most of the time, and as Sher came into the kitchen, still groggy from the pills, Tara felt herself tensing again.
"Would you like tuna salad for dinner? Or, we've got some shrimp in the freezer, I could do --"
"I'd like a great big steak. Think you can do that?"
There wasn't any anger in the tone Sher used, but Tara knew there was an unspoken frustration building.
"We agreed no red meat. You said the taste--"
"I know what I said, you don't have to remind me." Sher ground her teeth for a moment before forcing herself to relax. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. "Shrimp is fine, Tar. I'm sorry."
Turning away, Tara took the frozen package from the freezer, then pulled out a wok.
"I said I was sorry."
"I know, I heard you."
The oil was heating in the wok when the doorbell rang. Sher had retreated to the bedroom, claiming a headache, and Tara frowned when the bell rang a second time.
"I'm coming!" With a flip of her wrist, she turned down the heat and headed for the front door.
Before she got it all the way open, Steve burst into the room, a package in his hands.
"Guess what I have in here!"
The excitement in his voice was catching, and she closed the door with a smile. "What?"
"Oh, nothing. Just a prop from the movie 'Sands of the Sphinx'."
Hope flared. "You found it? You found the jar?"
He nodded. "Three fucking boxes left, and there it is, under a goddamn turban, next to a box of ostrich feathers."
"Sher!" Tara ran for the bedroom. "SHER!"
"What?" The door flew open as she got there. "What the fuck are you shouting about?"
"Chill, Sher. I found your jar." Steve reached into the bag and pulled out his prize. "Ta-da!"
It was beautiful. Tall, with a rounded shape, and a stopper made into the head of a lioness, the color was an off-white, almost beige. Around the base of the jar was a line of hieroglyphics.
Sher approached slowly, her eyes frozen on the object in Steve's hand. With obvious reference, she reached up, her hands shaking, and took hold of the jar.
Her body slumped, her head tilting, her face going slack.
"This is plastic."
"Well, yeah, it's the prop from the movie."
"This is the fake one. Where's the real one?"
"Real? What are you talking about?"
"My mother told me they used the real jar in the movie."
"They did, but only for one scene." He shrugged. "Not even sure why they did that, but Tara said you wanted the prop, and this would be it. Who's your mom?"
"Steve, I said I wanted the jar, made of alabaster or stone." Tara's gaze went back and forth from her girlfriend to Steve. "I never said anything about plastic."
Steve glared. "You said prop."
"I said stone."
"Well, why'd you even come to me then?"
"The studio said you had the props --"
"I do. I have the props. But Granddad didn't own the real artifacts he used in the movie. They were from some collector or something and the guy's family made him return them in the late 80's."
"Why didn't you tell me that?"
"You didn't ask about that, you just said pro--"
The sound of something cracking and breaking surprised them both into silence, even as little pieces of plastic rained down around them. They turned to stare at Sher, who returned their gaze, fury radiating from her eyes.
"You fucking incompetent, mentally defective --"
"--arrogant, foul-mouthed --"
"-dimwitted human fuckups!" In a rage, Sher kicked at the end table close to her, breaking one of the legs and sending it crashing to the floor.
"What the fuck is --"
Turning with a growl, Sher rushed at Steve, slamming him backwards into the door.
"Sher, no!" Tara grabbed at Sher's arm, but was flung backwards, landing awkwardly against the side of an easy chair and crumpling to the floor. She looked up shaking her head.
Steve, shocked at the violence from the smaller woman, simply stared at her, his hands clenched at his side.
"I've seen the way you look at her, fucker, and she's mine. You touch her and I'll gut you." Slamming him into the door again, she stepped away and glared.
Swallowing hard, Steve took in the shaking body, the angry eyes, and the flaring nostrils. He waited until she was far enough away before asking his question again.
"Who was your mother?"
Anger still flaring, she turned her head to look at him. "Evelene Duhane. Now get out." Then she flung open the door to the bedroom and entered, slamming it behind her. ----------------------------
Tara caught him halfway down the driveway.
"Steve! Please, I --"
"You need to come with me, Tara. She's insane."
"No, she's not. She's just --"
"Tara, there's no way her mother is Evelene Duhane. The woman died in the early sixties. Sher can't be more than about twenty-five --"
"-- which means she was born in the early eighty's. Evelene Duhane died in Egypt, childless. Her body was never returned to the states because no one claimed it, not even my grandfather. Your girlfriend is either lying or just plain crazy."
"She's not what?"
"Lying. Or crazy. Please, Steve, you have to listen to me."
"Why? All that's happened since I listened to you is to spend my days searching through a bunch of crap in my grandfather's storage while fighting off sneezing attacks and watching her abuse you. Why the fuck should I listen to anything else? So she can come at me with a butcher's knife?"
"Listen to me! Sher is sick, she's -- there's something inside her --"
"Aw, what, more excuses for her? Tara, come on! If she's that sick that she's flipping out and hitting you then she needs to be hospitalized!"
"No! You don't understand! She's -- "
"What, Tara, what don't I understand?"
"God, would you just shut the fuck up and listen to me for a minute?!"
Not used to having Tara screaming at him, Steve stopped. He folded his arms and waited. "Fine. Tell me. Make me understand."
Taking a deep breath, Tara ran a hand through her hair and turned away to collect herself. After a moment, she turned back, resolve in her eyes and in her stance.
"Sher's not completely human."
Steve's face went slack. He blinked, and opened his mouth only to close it again.
"She is the daughter of Evelene Duhane, who wasn't human either. Sher may look twenty-five, but she's a lot older than that, nearly fifty. And her mother isn't dead. She just -- returned to the desert. Sphinx's can grow very old."
Steve stared at her. He blinked again, then turned away for a moment. When he turned back he licked his lips and leaned down.
"Do you even hear what you're saying? Can you honestly believe that --"
"She's changing, Steve, and I've seen it. I've seen the --"
"Yeah, I've seen it, too. I've seen her go from being a mild mannered woman to an absolute bitch in twenty seconds flat. But that's still human, Tara, and has nothing whatsoever to do with --"
"The jar, Steve. It can help her. It can stop what's happening, let her control her other side. We need that bottle --"
"Oh, right, the bottle! We find the bottle and she what, becomes human again? Stops being a bitch? Stops hitting you? Well, why didn't I think of that?"
"We're talking about my girlfriend's life --"
"No! We're talking about a stupid game, or a joke! And I'm not playing anymore!"
Flinging curses into the air, he turned and walked quickly to his car.
Without even acknowledging her, he got into the vehicle and turned the key.
A shake of his head and Steve put the car in drive, pulling out into the street with a squeal.
Tara could only stand and watch as his car disappeared into the night. ------------------------
Re-entering the house, Tara tried to be as quiet as possible. She closed the front door slowly, muffling the click as it locked, and turned toward the damaged end table. With a sigh, she began to pick up the books and remotes that had spilled onto the floor, stacking them on the sofa before lifting the table itself and looking at the splintered leg.
The table was useless now, one leg broken and another cracked. Even duct tape wouldn't keep the splintered pieces from growing weaker, and after clucking her tongue, she took the pieces of broken furniture out the back door, leaving them in the blue recycling bin.
After that, she returned to the kitchen, wondering if she should finish the stir fry she had started, or just call for Chinese take out.
She was still staring at the thawed shrimp when Sher came into the kitchen.
"Tara?" Her voice was soft, and sleepy.
Tara turned to her girlfriend, surprised to find her leaning heavily against the wall, her eyes half closed. Sher looked like she could pass out any moment, and Tara felt worry roiling heavily in her stomach as she stepped closer.
"Sher? Sweetheart, are you okay?"
"I just wanna sleep, but didn't wanna do tha' withou' you." The dark eyes blinked sleepily at her.
"Sher, how many pills did you take?"
She shrugged. "Enough so I'm no' mad, so I won' hur' you."
And that would be her lover's first concern, Tara realized.
"Baby, why don't you go lay down, okay? I'll clean the kitchen and --"
"No. Come wi' me." Her eyes closed for a long moment, then opened again. "Please?"
There wasn't anything else she wanted to do at the moment. Moving quickly, Tara put the shrimp back in the fridge, then dumped the pan in the sink to worry about in the morning. The vegetables were tossed back in the drawer, and then she was taking Sher's arm and helping her towards the bedroom.
"Sher? Come on, baby, you need to walk."
"'Kay." But her steps were stumbling as she tried to maneuver through the living room. When she finally got to the bed, Sher dropped, her body bouncing for a moment on the mattress.
"Baby, how many pills did you take?"
It didn't really matter; it wasn't like she could take Sher to the hospital if she'd overdosed.
"Lot." She was quiet for a moment, her eyes drifting shut. "Not enough."
Tara took a deep breath, feeling the knot loosen just a little in her chest.
"Okay. Let me brush my teeth and I'll be in, okay?"
After washing her face, Tara ran a toothbrush across her teeth, then quickly changed to shorts and a tank top. She climbed in next to Sher, pulling her arms around her.
"I love you."
"'Uv you." Then Sher was snoring, her body going completely slack, even as her breathing deepened.
Tara held tight to the woman. After the events of the evening, she was facing the inevitable. Sher would die.
Tara wondered if she was strong enough to stand by her and watch -- or join her.
She closed her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Steve dropped by last night. He thought he'd found the jar, and Tara thought he'd answered her prayers. Unfortunately he found a hunk of plastic. I think the last of mine and Tara's hopes shattered when I threw the thing against the wall. The beast was inches from breaking loose, and I could feel the claws extending on my hand.
I have the chains for step two. When the time comes, I'll lock myself in chains and hopefully take enough pills to put the beast to sleep forever. I'm hoping it will never get to step three, but I did buy the gun in case I needed it.
And I might. I took half a bottle, over thirty pills, and it put me to sleep without a problem. But I felt fine when I woke up, and I only slept for four hours. The beast gets stronger. I worry.
Part of me wants to push Tara away, make her leave me to keep her safe. But -- I don't know if I can. I love her. I want her with me; she's the only comfort I have. Even the beast wants her here, though I don't know if it's because she soothes it at times or because it wants to kill her. I just know -- we both want her. I hate hurting her. I hate it when I say things or do things that I can't control. She says it's the beast, but it's not; it's just me losing the censor we all have. That little voice that tells us not to say what we really want to, even if we don't really mean it, because sarcasm isn't going to help. The sarcasm just -- flows. And when I see her face, it hurts.
I had been thinking, when the inevitable occurs, that I should send her to Steve. I think he's in love with her, and he'll take care of her. But -- I might have messed that up last night.
The beast is happy about that. It makes it a little calmer today. It won't last.
The phone rang early in the morning, much earlier than anything Steve was expecting. Of course, after a half bottle of rum the night before, he'd been expecting to sleep until noon.
He dropped the phone once before getting a handle on it, then had to turn it around properly to speak in the right end.
"What? I mean, hello?"
"Hi, is this Steven Hearst?"
He flopped back into bed, his eyes still closed. "Depends. You lookin' for Steven with a 'v' or Stephen with a 'ph'?"
"Uh. The name on this script is spelled with a 'v'."
He cracked his eyes, the light hurting his head. "Right. Me. Who's this and what script?"
"Well, the script is called Riddles, and I'm Jeff Bronson."
Steve shot up out of bed. "Jeffrey Bronson, the producer?"
The man on the other end chuckled. "That's right. I know it's a little early in the day. Most of my writers don't like being up until about ten or so."
"Yeah -- I mean, no, no, it's fine." Steve swung his legs over the edge of the bed and made his way unsteadily into the bathroom. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bronson, could you hang on for just one minute?"
There was an affirmative answer on the other end, and Steve put the phone on before reaching into the shower and turning on the cold water. He stuck his head under the nozzle, counted to five, and then pulled back. Turning off the water, he grabbed a towel and shook his head vigorously.
"Thanks for holding, I appreciate it." He ran the towel over his wet head. "You have me at a bit of a loss, sir. I wasn't aware you even had a copy of the script."
"Call me Jeff. My assistant Tara gave it to me a few days ago, said I might be interested. I agree with her that the ending needs work, but we also agree that the characters are believable and engaging, the plot works, the dialogue has wit, and with a little reworking, this could make a great movie."
Steve stopped. "Reworking?" Bob Russell's laughter floated through his mind.
"Just the ending. I'm not talking a heavy rewrite. A few scenes here and there can be tightened, and that last scene just doesn't grab me, but the rest of it does. Can we talk, or shall I have my lawyer contact your agent?"
"Uh, no, we can talk." Especially since his agent wasn't taking his calls.
"Great. Care to do lunch? If you like Chinese, I know a great place just outside of China Town."
They set a time, and Steve hung up the phone. He stared at it for several long moments, then did a jig in his bathroom, stopping only when he slipped on the small puddle he'd dripped onto the floor. Banging his arm on the shower door, he winced and rubbed it. Then he headed back to the bedroom, picking up the covers he'd dragged onto the floor.
As he sat on the mattress, he heard Bronson - Jeff - say once again that his assistant Tara had given him the script.
"Shit. She really came through for me." Remembering how he'd left her last night, he felt his gut clench a little. "I thought -- I -"
He remembered Sher's anger, Tara's fear, his own confusion, and the disbelief he'd felt.
"It's a fucking story. It's just a cover for that bitch to hit her."
But Tara - she'd looked so devastated when he left her in the drive. The look in her eyes was so hopeless.
It was insane. The story couldn't be true.
"Besides, Evelene Duhave didn't have any kids." Did she? There was only one way to prove it.
He glanced at the clock, noticing it was just coming on nine-thirty. Plenty of time till his lunch meeting. After getting a glass of orange juice, he sat down at his computer and opened his browser.
"Chris Carter said the truth is out there. Let's go find some."
With tears in her eyes, Tara slammed the door behind her, listening to the crash of glass as the destruction continued in the house.
She slumped to the ground, her knees coming up in front of her, her head dropping into her arms as she cried.
There'd been no warning tonight. Just an angry lover who'd begun panting and sweating as they sat down to dinner, only to throw her plate against the wall, the table soon following. From there it had gone downhill until Tara was running for the door, afraid to look back, afraid to see what had become of the woman she loved.
And now she knew: there was no saving Sher. The best they could hope for was that she'd come back from this episode for one last good day. After that, she would have to let her lover go.
Tonight, she would pray, plead with the gods, any god, that Sher came back one last time so she could say goodbye.
As another crash sounded behind her, against the door, she stood, wiping the tears from her face. Slowly, she walked to the car, getting behind the wheel and staring at her home.
There was nowhere else she really wanted to be, no one she wanted to see, but she couldn't stay here. Starting the car, she backed out of the driveway and left.
She didn't know where she was going. The windows were down, even though it was a cold night for L.A., and she had the music up, one of Sher's favorite classical artists playing on her favorite station. At first she just wanted to drive, keep driving, because as long as she kept moving, maybe time would be suspended, and when she finally stopped, she'd find the cure, find a way to save the woman she loved.
Instead, she found herself in a familiar neighborhood. She didn't know why she was pulling up in front of the old house, but she realized as she turned off the engine that she didn't have anywhere else to go.
She wasn't even sure if she'd be welcomed here.
But as she got out of the car, she saw a light flicker on in the living room, and then the front door opened and she knew.
There was only one place to go.
She climbed the drive slowly, every step adding weight to her feet until she was standing in front of him, her eyes on the ground, hands in her back pockets.
"Hey." Without another word, she felt his arm slip around her and he began to guide her inside. "Stay the night."
"I will." ---------------------------
They ordered Chinese; Tara didn't know exactly what dishes Steve asked for. She ate fried rice, vegetables, and shrimp, sitting on the couch silently, taking a bite when he reminded her to, staring at her food when he didn't.
As they'd waited for the food, he'd carefully cleaned the scratches and cuts on her neck and cheek, wrapping her badly bruised arm with an ace bandage. She hadn't told him about the pain in her side, but somehow he knew, bringing her an ice pack and placing it gently against her ribs.
Tara knew he wanted to do more, but it was more than she'd been expecting.
"You still don't believe, do you?"
He sighed, stirring his food. "Believe that she hurts you, that you're in danger? Absolutely. Believe that she's turning into a monster? Sure. Do I believe it's more than a figurative monster?" Steve shrugged, putting down the carton, his chopsticks still sticking out of it. "I can't. I haven't seen it."
"So, what? You think I'm crazy?"
Shaking his head, Steve stood, making his way to the computer on the desk. "You're not crazy. Sher, I'm not sure of, but I don't think you are."
She could feel relief color her question. "What makes you say that?"
"Something I found today. I went digging. I was so sure I was right, and then . . ." Pulling out the chair, Steve dropped into the seat, turning his computer monitor on. After a moment the picture came on, slowly clearing into an official looking document. "I found this."
"What is it?"
"Sher's birth certificate."
"What?" Tara stood quickly and went to his side. "Where did you find that?"
"I'm a writer. We do a lot of research." He wasn't going to mention the private detective his grandfather's lawyer had pointed him to.
"You found this online?"
"Yep." Not quite a lie, since he'd found it tucked into an email from said detective.
He stood and let Tara sit in his chair. She reached for the mouse and slowly scrolled through the document onscreen.
"Do you believe this is real? I mean, I know that Sher is older than she looks, but this says Miw-Sher Rehema was born in 1956."
"Well, when I first saw that, I figured she was lying about who she is." Steve shrugged. "I was pretty sure of it, until I saw the picture."
Gently taking the mouse from her hand, Steve clicked over to a second document. "This is from a 1973 yearbook. Roosevelt High School, right outside Orlando, Florida. Picture of the senior class." He scrolled down a little and pointed. "Look familiar?"
It was a picture of Sher, looking much like a high school graduate. The name underneath the photo was Sherry Rahema.
"This is in the same town where Evelene Duhane lived for ten years before leaving for Egypt in 1961. From what I've learned, the birth was kept very quiet."
"And if the certificate is real, then Sher really is--"
"A very healthy fifty-three year old that could pass for twenty-five any day." Steve nodded and moved away, his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. I don't know whether to jump for joy, or get checked into a mental hospital." He dropped onto the sofa and brought a foot up onto the coffee table.
"You're starting to believe me."
"I believe there's something weird about your girlfriend, yeah. I don't believe she's turning into some kind of -- of -- furry monster that's going to kill everyone because we can't find the original bottle from some Egyptian tomb." His exasperation showed on his face. "For God's sake, how can you think I'd believe that?"
She pointed to the picture on the screen and waited quietly.
For a moment Steve's eyes went back and forth between Tara and the picture. Then he jumped up, scowling at her.
"Okay, yeah, it's weird, and I can't explain it. That's her, even though it can't be. If that's real, she oughta be ready for the old folks home, not looking like she lives with Hugh Hefner. If that's real, then I don't know what she is, okay? Are you happy now?"
"Steve, I --"
"I don't know, Tara! God, I'm just -- I --" He felt like stamping his foot, but settled for raising his arms and dropping them. "Sometimes I wish we'd never met. Then my life wouldn't be so confusing."
Her gaze dropped to the floor. After a moment, she stood. "I'll go." Crossing to the sofa she took off the sweat shirt he'd lent her. "I hope things are good for you, Steve."
"Tara . . ."
"It's okay. Things will be less confusing."
She was headed for the front door when his words stopped her.
"Jeff Bronson called yesterday."
Her hand on the door knob, she stopped and looked at him, waiting.
"We're working out a contract. He doesn't know if they'll actually film it, but he says he wants to, and will work on funding for it." Steve couldn't turn and look at her.
"That's great, Steve. Really. And it's a good script."
"The ending sucks."
"It can be fixed. The characters are great."
"Yeah?" He finally turned to look at her. "You think?"
"I really do. If I didn't, I wouldn't have given it to him."
Steve nodded and stepped toward her, moving one foot at a time, slowly. "I was -- really happy when he called. Just -- amazed. For once in my life, something looked like it was going to pan out. And it made me -- feel like there just might be magic in the world." He stopped, just within arms reach. "And then I remembered the night before. And Sher's reaction. And what you said. And I just felt -- dead." He shook his head. "That's why I started searching. I wanted to find something -- anything -- that would prove she was lying. Prove you were wrong to believe in her. But I couldn't."
Letting go of the door, Tara turned to him. "And now that you've found that? How do you feel?"
"Now?" He shrugged and gave a humorless chuckle. "Now, all I can do is wish that you wouldn't go back to her. Wish that I could take you away from there."
"Steve, I --"
He held up his hand. "No. I know. You're a lesbian. And you love her. I got it. But how do I feel now?" Leaning closer to her, Steve put one hand on the door behind her, then raised his other to his cheek. "I feel like I would gladly give up everything -- the contract with Bronson, the possibility of my movie being made, even my grandfather's trust fund -- everything -- if you would just stay."
Their gazes locked, and Tara swallowed.
"Stay. You said you would. Stay the night with me. Give me one night to try and make you happy."
Neither moved. The apartment was quiet, the cd having shut off earlier. The ticking of the clock in the hall, normally loud enough to be heard in the living room, was muffled. The only sound Tara could hear was her own heartbeat, and the sound she made as she swallowed hard, feeling a dryness in her throat.
Then Steve closed the final few inches and kissed her. His lips were gentle, but they soon became firm, his hand stroking down her cheek to her neck and across her collar bone.
After a moment, she responded, her own lips pressing harder against him, her hands coming up to encircle his neck. His mouth opened against hers and she responded easily, letting the kiss deepen even as his hands pulled her closer, her body leaning forward to balance against his.
Somehow they ended up back on the couch. Steve pushed the coffee table further away and knelt between her legs, her hands restless on his shoulders as his fingers reached for the hem of his t-shirt. Pulling away for only a moment, he yanked the garment over his head and threw it across the room, not seeing where it landed. Then his mouth returned to hers as she began exploring his newly exposed skin.
At first, they barely heard the buzzing; it was simply an annoying sound they could ignore as they continued to touch and tease and taste. Then the vibrations against her side registered with Tara and she pulled back, her hands pushing on his chest. Surprised, he stopped, his hands dropping to her thighs even as he gasped for breath.
Tara was trying to calm her own breathing. She looked at the display on the phone, not sure if she was glad to see that it was Sher calling or not. As she looked up at Steve, she felt the guilt slam home. Then she was standing and moving away, pressing the talk button.
"Tara? Baby, are you okay? I woke up and you weren't here."
"I -- I had to leave --"
"Did I hurt you? God, Tara, please -- are you all right?"
She shook her head, knowing Sher couldn't see her. "I'm fine. A few scratches and a bruise. I'll be okay."
Sher began to cry. "Tara, I'm so sorry. I never meant to --"
"Shh. I know. Sweetheart, I know. It wasn't you, and I never thought it was."
"No. It wasn't you. We've been over this. You could never hurt me."
The crying continued.
"Sher? Baby, please stop. I'm okay." She listened for a moment, but could only hear the gulps of her girlfriend as she tried to quiet her sobs. "Listen, baby, I'm on my way home. Okay? I'll be there soon." She could almost feel Steve's disappointment and frustration behind her. "Just sit tight, love."
"But -- Tara, maybe you --"
"Don't start that. I'm on my way."
"What if I --"
"I love you. I'll be home soon." She hung up and stared at her phone for a moment.
When she turned around, Steve was holding out his sweatshirt.
"Here. It's cold outside."
Their eyes met for a moment as Tara reached out and took the shirt. She slipped it on quickly, then nodded at him. "Thanks."
She headed for the door, not trusting herself to look back.
Pausing, she took a deep breath. "Goodnight, Steve." Then she opened the door and went through it, closing it behind her.
But she was already gone, and all Steve could do was listen to her car as she drove away.
She's on her way home. I was right, she went to Steve. I'm just glad he took her in. I fear what would have happened.
I pulled the chains out. Now I just need to explain to Tara -- and find a way to anchor them so I'm fully restrained.
It's going to have to be the gun. Knives won't work. The beast knows what they're for, and when I tried to cut my wrist tonight it wouldn't let me. I fought with everything I had, but it raged until I threw the knife across the room. And then it raged more. Like it was punishing me.
It's not intelligent, but it's not stupid. If I die, it dies. And it so wants to live.
I wish I did.
The house was mostly dark when Tara got home. She let herself in carefully, wondering what destruction awaited her. There was more than she'd hoped for, and less than she expected.
Cushions from the couch were missing; tiny bits of stuffing still littered the floor in the living room. The books on the shelves were out of order and several appeared ripped, but they'd been picked up and replaced, their tattered covers a mute testament to the battle that had raged while she'd been gone.
The dining room wasn't much better. One chair she knew had been broken, and now it was gone, a simple plastic folding chair in its place. The table had been turned upright, and the broken dishes had disappeared, as had the dinner she'd made that night. Small stains littered the rug like war wounds.
The only light came from the over head fixture in the dining room, and that was set on a dimmer. Turning it up a little, she listened for movement and could hear noise in the kitchen. Deciding to take just a moment more, she headed for the bedroom, removing Steve's sweat shirt as she went.
A shower, she thought, would be good. Lately Sher's sense of smell had been extraordinary, and she knew the woman would catch Steve's scent on her. Sher had never had two attacks in the same night, but Tara remembered what her lover had growled at Steve just a few nights before and decided to play it safe.
She finished quickly, stepping from the bathroom into the bedroom with a robe wrapped around her, a towel in her hand as she rubbed her hair to dry it. Suddenly she stopped. Sher sat on the end of the bed, Steve's sweat shirt in her hands.
For a long moment they just looked at each other. Sher's eyes were red, as if she'd been crying, and they also looked dull, as if the woman was sleepy. Tara felt marginally better at that, though slightly guilty; it seemed the only time Sher's eyes didn't have that sleepy look is when the beast was pushing its way out. She missed the laughter she'd always seen in Sher, but at least she didn't feel afraid at the moment.
Sher raised the shirt. "Steve's?"
Tara nodded. "I was just driving, and suddenly found myself near his house." A shrug, and her eyes dropped. "He knows what's going on, even if he doesn't believe it."
"You told him?"
"The other night, before he drove away."
"He -- let me stay. We talked."
"Talked? About what?"
"His script. Jeff called him."
They stared at each other for another minute.
"Are you all right?"
Sher nodded. "I'm more worried about you. I can see the cuts on your neck, and the scratches on your cheek. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
Tara sighed. "My arm is bruised."
"And -- my ribs."
"The table caught me as it flipped."
Another nod, and Sher was looking down at the sweatshirt in her lap, the fabric clutched tight within her fingers. She stood, taking a slow step towards her lover and handing over the garment.
"He likes you."
"I love you."
"I know." She moved around Tara. "You should go to him. When it happens, I mean." Then she entered the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
Tara took Sher's place on the foot of the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Steve stared out the window as he waited for the coffee to brew. He'd already had most of one pot before tossing out the dregs and starting a second. Food had been a little tougher, and he'd burned the first set of scrambled eggs he'd made for himself. The second set, the last of the eggs in the house, had been merely browned, but he'd downed them with some cold sandwich meat and the last of the milk, though that had been a little sour.
Breakfast wasn't a normal event for him. Unless there was a reason for him to be awake, he was normally asleep until ten, and even then he had some sugary breakfast that would get him wound up for the day. Normally his drinking did not allow him to see early morning with any kind of clarity.
Pulling his gaze from the window, he glanced briefly at the bottle of rum he'd decided to finish off the night before. It hadn't happened. After Tara left, he'd poured a tall glass over ice, raised it in salute to the ridiculousness that was his life, then drank it down, stopping only once to take a breath.
He'd promptly been sick, vomiting over himself once before rushing to the bathroom to lose the rest of the alcohol as well as whatever remained from dinner.
He hadn't tried another drink.
Instead, he'd showered and thrown himself into bed for a fitful sleep, then woken at sunrise with nothing to do. Eventually he found himself at his computer, making random searches that hadn't turned out to be quite as random as he thought. When the information he'd been searching for finally showed up, the sun was high in the sky, and he knew there was a decision to be made.
The idea of breakfast gave him an excuse to put off the inevitable, but as the coffee slowly dripped into the pot Steve knew it wasn't a decision as much as an admission.
What he wanted wasn't just Tara. It was Tara's happiness. And Tara? She wanted Sher, alive and whole.
If he could give that to her, he would, his anger towards Sher notwithstanding.
Digging through his cupboards he found an old thermos that didn't smell like soured milk. Filling it with the pot of coffee, he added some sugar and then turned off the machine. Grabbing the coffee and his small packed bag, he turned on the light on the porch and locked the door behind him.
Fifteen minutes later he was knocking on Tara's door. When Sher opened it, he managed to pull a half smile.
"Hey. Can we talk?"
Sher looked at him with glazed eyes, slightly befuddled, but let him inside, calling to Tara as the door closed behind them.
Tara came into the room, stopping suddenly upon seeing him. From the look in her eyes he could see fear, and Steve guessed that she was worried he would make a scene and tell Sher what had passed between them last night.
It wasn't his intention, and he shook his head slightly, trying to ease her fears without words.
"Steve says he wants to talk, babe."
Sher sat down on the couch heavily, leaning back and blinking her eyes. "Don't know."
Steve looked at her closely. "Are you okay, Sher?"
The woman nodded at him sleepily as he sat down across from her. "Pills. They help."
Tara dropped onto the sofa next to Sher, taking her partner's hand into her own. "Sleeping pills. They help keep her -- docile." She sighed, stroking the fingers in her hand. "But she has to take a lot, and they make her a little drowsy."
Sher chuckled, but made an effort to sit up a little, leaning her body against Tara's. "What's up, Steve-o?"
Shaking himself slightly, Steve blinked. Inside, he acknowledged that seeing the two of them sitting so close together hurt, but not as much as he expected. And he had a plan, a possibility. Whatever else happened, he would try to make Tara happy.
Even if it wasn't with him.
"First off, I wanted to apologize, Sher. I didn't believe you when you said your mother was Evelene Duhane. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."
She frowned. "What changed your mind?"
He took a deep breath, wondering if what he was about to say would anger the woman, or if she would understand. "Well, I went snooping. Found a copy of your birth certificate. And a picture from your graduation."
For a moment there was no reaction. Then Sher lowered her eyes and nodded. "Hired someone, huh?"
Tara looked startled as the guilt seeped onto Steve's face.
"Yeah. Through my grandfather's lawyer. Sorry." He glanced at Tara, but looked away, feeling bad for not admitting that to her.
"S'okay. At least it didn't scare you away." She sighed, letting her head rest on Tara's shoulder. "And I should thank you. For taking care of her last night."
Steve gave what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug. "No problem." Then he cleared his throat. "Anyway. The big reason I came here is because I started doing a little more research this morning. And I found something."
"What did you find?" Tara looked interested and hopeful. Sher's expression didn't change.
"Well, I started looking through some of the correspondence from before my grandfather passed away. And I found a name -- Barnaby Lathrop. Does that sound familiar to either of you?"
Tara shook her head, but Sher looked interested. "I know the name, but I can't think from where."
"He's the guy that discovered the Egyptian artifacts my grandfather used in the film. From the stone Sphinx, to the broken chariot, to the alabaster stone jar -- he found them in a tomb outside the Valley of the Queens. This was just after the First World War, and he somehow circumvented customs and a bunch of other regulations to bring the stuff to the U.S."
"But they belong in Egypt." Sher lifted her head and rubbed her eyes. "Wasn't there some kind of outcry about that?"
"Yeah, in the 80's, when Lathrop's cache was rediscovered. However, the pieces he'd leant my grandfather had stayed with my grandfather. And there was a court battle to get them back. Lathrop's family said it had never been his intention to give the items away, and that certainly there was no record of any kind of sale. My grandfather was adamant that they had been a gift, but the court ruled against him, and the items were returned. After that there were several more court battles, this time Lathrop's estate against the Egyptian Antiquities Board. But because the actual theft was so long ago, and the finds held little in academic weight, or so the experts said, both sides agreed to settle. Some few items were returned, but most of the collection was left with Lathrop's heirs, with the condition that they had to be under some kind of exhibit for at least half of every year. Museums lined up to get access -- anything Egypt is considered to be a big seller."
He took a breath and noticed that Sher's eyes were getting clearer. Tara was looking more and more hopeful.
"Now, I don't want to get anyone too excited, okay? This may be a longshot. I couldn't find a list of exactly what items are being shown, and I'm not even sure I can get us an up close look at it if it is on display. But --" He pulled out one of the papers he'd folded and shoved in his pocket. It was a flyer for an exhibit. "Lathrop's collection is being shown at the Klaus Baer Library of Egyptology on the Berkeley Campus. It's about a ten hour drive, eight if we push it, six and a half if we push it and get good traffic. We could leave today, spend the night at a hotel, and see the exhibit tomorrow."
He focused his gaze on Sher. "Think you can keep it together that long?"
Tara let out the breath she was holding. "Give me half an hour to pack, and --"
Sher put a hand on her knee. "Tara, are you sure you want to come? I mean --"
"I'm going with, Sher. Whatever happens, I'm not leaving you."
With a smile, Sher nodded, then reached out and took the flyer from Steve's hand. "Make sure you pack the sleeping pills." She winked at Steve. "They'll keep me from getting carsick."
Realizing what she meant, Steve swallowed hard, but managed a smile.
What have I gotten myself into?
I can't write much. Steve showed up, with one last ray of hope. We're heading for Berkeley. Unless there's a miracle, I'll die there.
Tara was looking for a hotel, but I asked her to look for a cabin, or a campground, or a house or something. Less public. And after I'm dead, it'll be easier for them to clean up.
She's letting herself hope again. I worry. But at least Steve will be with her. He'll watch over her.
I keep wondering if they'll hate me when this is over. Can only hope I get a chance to tell Steve thanks.
Have to go now. Need to pack the chains and the gun.
As Sher and Tara packed a bag for each of them, Steve wandered around the apartment. He couldn't help but see the signs of destruction, from the missing end table he'd seen Sher break, to the scratches in the kitchen counter, to the walls that were missing patches of drywall or had holes punched clear through to the other side.
While most of it could have been done by someone in a temper, it was the scratches that startled him. They were in the exact pattern as fingernails, but how fingernails could score through a hardened formica countertop, he didn't know.
Tara found him in the kitchen, a glass of water in one hand, while his fingers traced the marks, feeling their depth, realizing the power and force behind such a grip.
He turned quickly, almost embarrassed at his surprise. "Yeah, fine." Unable to stop himself, he glanced back down at the scratches. "Was that -- um --"
"Sher? Yes." Tara opened the refrigerator. "I brought up the cooler from the garage. There's plenty of ice and we can take stuff for sandwiches, and fruit and soda. Sound like a plan?"
"Absolutely." With a final look at the counter, Steve shook himself and moved to her side. "We should make a bag for fresh ice, and then just dump the rest into the cooler."
"Great. I left the cooler in the hall. Can you get it? I'll find the bag and start with that."
"Sure." Putting his glass of water on the small table, he took a step towards the door. Tara's hand on his back stopped him. "Yeah?"
"Steve, thanks." She fidgeted a little, looking away before meeting his gaze. "Whatever may happen, it's a better chance than we had. Thank you for that."
"You're welcome." He smiled and reached back to squeeze her hand before letting go and leaving the kitchen.
The long drive was mostly quiet. Tara rode in the front with Steve, while Sher crashed in the back seat. Every hour Tara's watch would beep a warning, and she'd open a bottle and hand several pills to Sher, who would down them with whatever liquid was handy. They never really put her to sleep, but she remained calm, content to watch the scenery and listen to the music, the monotony broken only by occasional conversation.
The sports car was a little cramped, but none of them had packed overly much, and the cooler had fit neatly behind the front seat, giving Sher a place to put her feet up if she wanted. Besides that, it gave a smooth ride, and Steve easily wove it through the traffic on the I-5 as they headed north.
Following the directions Steve had printed, they found the University about seven-thirty that night and their hotel shortly after that. Taking Sher's warnings seriously, and remembering the destruction he'd seen, Steve had agree that a regular motel wouldn't be appropriate. Instead, they were staying at Canyon Lodge on the edge of the Claremont Canyon Preserve. Beside the lodge were a number of cabins, all separate from each other, but only a short walk to the main building. Tara agreed that they seemed a little more private, and she requested the furthest one from the lodge.
Once settled into Cabin D16, Steve suggested a steak house for dinner but was quickly vetoed by Tara. Instead, they sent him to pick up food from a Chinese restaurant, with Tara calling the order in so he wouldn't have to wait. Before he could argue, she ordered a teriyaki chicken plate for Steve, while keeping to vegetarian for herself and Sher.
When she hung up the phone, he opened his mouth, a slightly outraged look on his face. Holding up a hand, Tara glanced to one of the queen size beds where a lethargic Sher calmly flipped channels.
"Sphinxes are meat eaters. We don't want to encourage bad behavior."
It sounded for all the world like Tara was talking about a naughty child, but the image of the scratches he'd seen leaped to mind, and Steve simply nodded. Chicken wasn't so bad, after all.
Unlike most exhibits from ancient Egypt, the Lathrop collection held no large statuary. The only collossal faces that stared down in royal glory came from tapestries that were hung about the library. The items from the collection were small enough to be presented in glass cabinets that lined the walls along the front area of the library.
Even without giant statues, the exhibit was impressive. Barnaby Lathrop had chosen his items for their shine, or their rare beauty, and gold gleamed throughout the room. Even simple objects such as a comb were inlaid with faience or had a gem inset, or were covered in gold leaf.
Steve let Tara and Sher get well ahead of him as he took his time looking at some of the items. Unknown to the others, he had memorized the list of pieces his grandfather had been forced to return. He checked several off his mental list; there was a small stringed instrument with golden hieroglyphs, as well as a necklace with a lion's head pendant and a golden amulet in the form of the eye of Horus.
What he didn't see was the one small statue Lathrop had spirited across the ocean. It had sat in his grandfather's den, suddenly disappearing when Steve was still a small boy.
Nor was there an alabaster jar like the plastic one he'd found.
Sher seemed to be lost in her own pensive thoughts, whether memories or not, Steve couldn't be sure. Her hands at times reached out to the glass, as if to take hold of the items inside. When the glass stopped her, she frowned, laying her palms flat on the surface and staring for a moment more before moving on.
Tara had left her partner to wander and had walked through the collection. She came back to Steve now with a frown.
"It's not here."
"So I'd gathered. Has Sher noticed?"
With a sigh, Tara shook her head, turning a little to keep her partner in view. "I don't think so. She took a few extra pills, just in case . . ."
Steve said nothing. He'd seen the handful of pills that counted as 'a few extra'.
Hands in pockets, he glanced around. "Well, I can tell you this. Several of the items loaned to my grandfather aren't here, so I'm hoping they have them in back. I'm going to find a curator or librarian or something. Stay with Sher, okay?"
He found the person he was looking for at an information desk. Wearing a name tag that identified her as 'Kathleen', she was reading a book on hieroglyphics while making notes on a pad next to her. As Steve approached, she looked up with a smile.
"Can I help you?"
Steve blinked for a moment, surprised to find himself staring into her warm brown eyes. After a moment he caught himself and glanced down, hoping she hadn't noticed. When he brought his gaze back up to hers, her smile said she'd noticed, but wasn't offended.
"Hi. I'm hoping you can help me. Is this the entire Lathrop collection?"
"Well, no, but these are the traditional pieces always shown to the public. There are a few items we didn't have space for here in the exhibit room."
Swallowing a bolt of excitement, Steve leaned a little closer. "Are those pieces here in the library?"
The woman nodded. "They're being kept for study by our students. A few of them hold unusual hieroglyphic texts that have never been adequately copied or examined."
"I don't suppose there are any alabaster jars in that part of the collection?" From Steve's recollection there should have been several.
"There are. How did you know that?"
Smiling, he held out his hand. "Hi. I'm Steven Hearst."
She looked puzzled, but took his hand anyway. "Should I know that name?"
His expression dimmed, but only a little. "You've never heard of Stephen Hearst, the film director? He used --"
"Oh, him. Sands of the Sphinx. The controversy over the Lathrop items he used. Yes, I remember." She was smiling and still shaking his hand, but her head tilted. "You can't be him, you're too young. And I thought I heard that he died."
"He did. I'm his grandson, Steven with a 'v'." He grinned again, finally letting go of her hand. "Listen, Kathleen --"
"Kathy." She blushed. "I asked them to change it on my name tag, but they never listen."
"I get it; no one listens to me either." He winked at her, enjoying the slight flush that covered her cheeks. She was pretty, and he found himself on the verge of flirting. "Kathy, could you show me where I can find those other items? A couple of them were in my granddad's place when I was just a little boy, and when I saw the notice of the exhibit, well, I got a little sentimental." He did his best to appear bashful for admitting this.
"I'm so sorry, Steven, that area is off limits to the public. It's strictly a work place for students."
He nodded. "I understand. But, listen, even though I'm not a student, I'm kind of attached to these things."
"I understand, but --"
"Even after he was forced to return the items, Grandfather kept the copies at the house, and --"
"Copies? He had copies made?"
"Props, for the movie?"
"Ah, yes, I see."
"Yeah, so, I really liked some of those things, and to see the originals -- well, that would be fantastic."
"Steven, I don't --"
"It's Steve, and I would really appreciate just a glimpse." She looked a little uncertain, and he smiled shyly. "Please?"
Kathy looked a little exasperated, but a smile lingered on her lips. "You're flirting with me, aren't you?"
"Maybe." He tilted his head. "Is it hurting my case?"
After another moment, her own gaze turned shy. "No, not really."
"Then, yes, I'm flirting." To his surprise, he really wanted to. "Tell you what. If you're not doing anything tonight, maybe we could go to dinner?"
"I can at least buy you coffee for taking me to see the rest of the collection."
"Which I haven't agreed yet to do."
"But you will." With one hand he reached across the counter and took the hand he'd been holding a moment ago. "Cause I'm irresistible. Right?" To seal it, he winked at her.
She laughed, shaking her head. "You're something else, you know that? Besides, didn't I see you come in with two other women?"
"Wow, your eyes are sharp as well as beautiful. You did see me come in with a couple of friends who happen to be female."
"And very attractive."
"They are." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "So sad that they're lesbians and they're hotness is wasted on each other instead of me." He winked again, then chuckled at her expression. Speaking in a normal voice, he explained. "Seriously, they are. They're a couple of good friends of mine, and they wanted to come with me to see the collection." He shrugged and motioned toward them with his head. "Besides, Sher's Egyptian on her mom's side."
He could see Kathy glancing at them, then back at him, as if trying to judge what he was saying. Steve kept his expression interested and a little shy, his smile as non-threatening as he could make it.
Finally, Kathy sighed and nodded. "Fine. I shouldn't, I know it, but I don't see what it can hurt."
Trying to contain his excitement, he fought against doing a fist pump. "Kathy, thank you so much. I appreciate this very --"
"But!" She held up a finger in his face. "But -- not until tonight. There's no one signed up for studying after seven-thirty, and the library doesn't close until nine-thirty. And I'm known to show up at odd hours to get some time in, so no one will think anything about it." Kathy reached for a piece of paper and pulled a pen from a cup on the desk. "You can take me to dinner first. There's a wonderful Japanese restaurant I love not far from here. Call me later, about four, and I'll give you directions to it."
"I'm not picking you up?"
She looked at him. "Are you kidding me? I know nothing about you other than your name."
"Well, I'm twenty-seven, I have a trust fund I'll inherit when I'm thirty, and I'm trying to be a screenwriter. I live in Los Angeles." He shrugged. "And I just got an offer for one of my scripts, so go me. Anything else you want to know?"
Kathy laughed and thrust the paper at him. "Not right now, no. Call me at four."
"I will. And thanks, Kathy." He squeezed her hand and winked. "Can't wait for dinner."
"Neither can I." Steve started to turn away, but Kathy stopped him with a word. "By the way, there's more than one reason I said yes."
"Oh, really?" He raised his eyebrows and grinned, surprised that she suddenly looked so serious.
"Really. There are a couple of mysteries about some of the items your grandfather had for so long. Questions that have never really been answered. I'm hoping you can answer some of them for me."
His smile faded and he swallowed. "I'll answer anything I can."
"Good." She nodded. "Talk with you later, Steve."
"I'll call. Bye, Kathy."
He didn't look back at the collection, merely giving a head motion to Tara. She followed him quickly, towing Sher behind her.
"Steve? What did you find?"
"A way to the rest of the collection, but I have to go alone, and it's gonna cost me dinner, first." He shook his head, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Not that I mind. She's kinda cute."
Sher chuckled. "Yeah, she is. Way to go, stud."
The happy look faded a little. "I'm doing it for you, Sher."
"I know." She shrugged, her arm sliding around Tara''s waist. "But it's okay for you to have a little fun. Besides, what's the likelihood of this one having a psycho girlfriend?"
Tara winced while Steve looked away. Sher sighed, pulling her arm away and sticking her hands deep in her pockets. "Sorry. The censor switch is broken right now. Think I'll wait in the car." With that, she walked away from both of them, her shoulders slumped, but her back rigidly straight.
"Well, at least it wasn't an angry tantrum?"
"Don't even joke about it, Steve."
There wasn't much conversation in the car on the way back to the lodge. Sher dutifully took several pills and seemed to sleep a little, while Steve kept his eyes on the road. Tara stayed in the back, her arm around Sher, hand gently rubbing her back. Occasionally, when he had to look in the rear view mirror, Steve would see the two curled up and have to acknowledge, to himself at least, just how much it hurt.
Then he would think of his date and a sense of excitement would light inside him, like an exclamation point. Steve wasn't sure if it was because of what he might find, or just because of the date, but remembering the look in Kathy's eyes made that exclamation point glow like a candle.
When they reached the hotel, Tara watched her girlfriend carefully until Sher got tired of it.
"Tara, I'm okay. Really."
"I know, I just --"
"You don't know. You think I'm going to -- fly off the handle, or scratch Steve's eyes out or something. And I'm not." She kissed Tara firmly. "Really. I'm feeling okay right now. Please stop worrying. Please?"
Tara nodded, but even as she sat down to watch television her eyes would drift to her girlfriend every few minutes.
Finally, Sher decided to take matters into her own hands. Moving right up beside Steve she whispered in his ear.
"Can I ask you to leave the cabin for a little while? I need to prove to my girlfriend that I'm okay and I love her, and it might get a bit noisy."
"Noisy?" He whispered back.
"Yeah. Besides that, I don't need an audience."
Slowly, Steve nodded. "Give me a minute or two. I wanted to check the score on the UCLA game."
"Right. Well, we'll be in the shower."
With that, she walked over to Tara and took her hand, pulling her from the chair.
"Just come with me."
The bathroom door closed hard, but Steve had a feeling the bang had to do with someone being pushed up against the door rather than someone deliberately slamming it closed.
After a few minutes Steve could hear giggling, then Tara's voice. The water turned on, her words disintegrating in the noise of falling water. Adjusting his grip on the remote he continued watching the scroll at the bottom of the screen, concentrating on reading the scores.
He dropped the remote when the noises started. First a rhythmic pounding against the wall that echoed through the cabin. Then a high-pitched squeal accompanied by a deeper voice moaning. Even through the sound of the shower, Steve could identify who was who, and hear Tara yell her lover's name.
As he turned off the television, the jealousy he'd been fighting grew inside him. He tossed the remote back on the bed and grabbed his jacket, his mind playing a litany of photographs to match the sounds he'd been hearing. Envy turned to anger as he left the room, and as the door closed behind him he turned and slugged it.
"Goddamn son-of-a-bitch, that fucking hurt!" Recoiling at the pain in his fist, he shook his hand out before heading away from the cabin.
"Fucking lodge and its stupid hard doors."
A while later the door from the bathroom opened slowly, and Sher leaned out. She had a towel wrapped around her waist, and another one in front of her to hide her breasts.
There was no answer. She took a step out of the bathroom and looked over at the beds. Then she dropped the upper towel and waved at Tara.
"It's okay, he's not here."
"Where'd he go?" Tara came out of the slowly, naked.
"I don't know. Somewhere not here." With a flourish, Sher stripped the towel from around her waist, making her as naked as her girlfriend. "Ta-da!"
Tara giggled, even as she moved toward her open suitcase. "Cute, Sher. Now put some clothes on; Steve could be back any minute."
"I doubt it. I think he's more intelligent than that." Taking hold of Tara's hips, she pulled her backwards against her body. "Besides, he's got plenty of time before his date -- and I'm not finished with you yet."
"Oh, no?" Tara turned in her arms. "What did you have in mind, Miss Rahema?"
"Oh, nothing much. I just wanted to hear you scream again like you did a few minutes ago." She let her hands drift down her girlfriend's body, her fingers trailing against skin still heated from the shower.
"Really." Responding in kind, Tara began rubbing Sher's shoulders in a circular motion, less massage and more enticement. Slowly, she began dragging her hands down and across Sher's breasts, ending with her palms over two stiff nipples, only to start again.
"Oh, yes. Screaming, moaning -- begging."
"I don't beg."
"You will." Sher took hold of her waist and lifted, giving her girlfriend an uncharacteristic show of her strength. Gently, the smaller woman was placed gently on the bed they shared. Sher knelt in between Tara's legs, her fingertips tracing patterns down her lover's torso. "You will, because I want you to."
Tara smiled, but didn't disagree. She raised one hand to the back of Sher's head and pulled her closer, kissing her deeply. As Sher's lips moved to her cheek, then down her throat to her collar bone, she bit her lip and closed her eyes.
"Do you -- I mean, are you --" She took a breath, not sure if she should even bring up the subject.
Sher seemed to understand. "I'm okay. I can't guarantee how long, but at least an hour or two. There's no anger, Tara. Just -- want." Pulling back slightly, she slipped her hands up to either side of Tara's head, kissing her gently, then more firmly. "I want you. Let me have you, Tara."
Letting her eyes meet Sher's heated gaze, Tara could only nod. Then it was just Sher, and heat, and moist flesh, filling her with overwhelming sensation until she begged, and screamed, and collapsed back on the bed, exhausted.
With a tender smile, Sher watched her girlfriend's eyes flutter closed. Staying absolutely still, she waited, humming softly as Tara's body relaxed, sinking deeper into the bed. It was only when she was certain the woman was asleep that she slowly moved away, stopping whenever Tara twitched, or even frowned.
Finally, she was able to stand completely, moving away from the bed. After donning a pair of shorts and slipping on a tank top, she carefully pulled up the sheets, covering Tara's naked body. Checking the clock, she noted that she probably didn't have much time.
She pulled a cola from the cooler and settled down at the table. Finding a piece of stationary and a pen, she leaned back, staring at them, trying to figure out what she wanted to put in the note.
The journal entry seemed easier and she started with that.
So here we are, in Berkeley. We went to see the exhibit today. There was no bottle, but Steve's wrangled an invite to see some of the collection that's been held back from the public. He thinks it might be there, hidden, and he charmed one of the grad students into letting him look for it.
The strange thing is, he's starting to believe. He's beginning to accept the beast inside me, this monstrous creature that's taking me over. Of course, he's never seen it, not even the barest hint of change. The temper? Sure. But nothing else. And yet, because of several other small things, he's starting to believe -- while I lose any faith I once had.
Steve and Tara think he can find this magical jar, and then come save the day. I no longer believe it. The only thing I believe is that if I don't do something, the beast will take control. It's becoming stronger, more aware. It knows the pills make it sleep, make us both sleep, but it hasn't stopped me from taking them. It's the only defense I have left.
So Tara and I will wait, supposedly, for Steve to pull off his miracle. I think he'll come back empty handed. What he doesn't know is that when he does, he'll be coming back to a corpse. The only question will be if it's mine or Tara's.
I'm going to try very hard to make sure it's mine.
First off, know that I love you. In all the years I've been on this earth, no one has made me happier, no one has offered as much of themselves, no one has accepted and loved me the way you have. Without you this life would have been less, and I need you to know how much I care.
Steve thinks he'll come back with a miracle. You and I, as much as we want him to, know that he won't. The jar of Bastet, where ever it's been hidden, is beyond our reach. And I'm out of time.
I want you to know
Sher stopped, putting her pen down, words failing her. There was so much she wanted Tara to know, but what did one say when she knew she was going to die?
Steve was playing with his key card as he walked towards the cabin. Surprisingly, the lodge had a pretty nice bar, and he'd had a good afternoon watching a college basketball game while flirting with a pretty bartender. He'd had a cheeseburger that had taken the edge off his hunger, while two beers had done the same to his temper.
Plus, he'd had time to think about his 'date' that evening, and found that he was looking forward to it. He'd actually thought more about Kathy than he had about Tara and what she and Sher were doing in the shower.
And then he'd called her, at four on the dot, and the two had flirted over the phone. He had directions to the restaurant, and would meet her there at quarter to six which gave him plenty of time for a shower and change. He'd picked up a brand new shirt in the shop downstairs, a nice green polo that would look nice with his stonewashed jeans.
Arriving at the hotel room door he paused, trying to listen for any signs that he shouldn't go in. Things seemed silent, but then again, he mused, it was a steel door. Even so, everything seemed calm, and there was no "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. Steve had a feeling Sher might be perverse enough to even use a pair of panties on the door handle to warn him away, and he shook his head, thinking he actually had a bit in common with Tara's girlfriend.
But the silence continued as he unlocked the door. He pushed it open, then leaned through the opening to look. Only Sher was visible, sitting in a chair against the wall, one foot on the chair seat, her knee under her chin. She turned her head and raised her finger to her lips, then motioned him to come in.
Steve did so quietly, not speaking, and not letting the door slam behind him. As he stepped in far enough to see the beds, he noticed Tara. Her bare shoulders made him realize she was naked under the sheets, and he blushed for a moment, turning away. His gaze landed on Sher, who was slightly smirking at him.
"Sorry," she whispered. "Didn't want to wake her just to put clothes on her."
"Nah, it's fine." Steve whispered back, then cleared his throat softly. "Good afternoon, I take it?"
She nodded, the smirk changing to a genuine smile. "I think so. I wanted to make it good for her, you know?"
Returning both nod and smile, Steve slipped into a chair on the opposite side of the table.
"How are you feeling?"
"For the moment, not bad." She shrugged. "It won't last. Even now I can feel it stirring within me."
"Do you need some pills?" Steve started to stand, but sat back when she waved him away.
"I took a few a little while ago." Sher shifted around to face him instead of the bed. "When do you leave for your date? You did call her, right?"
"I called. We're meeting at the restaurant, and I think it's about a twenty-five minute drive."
"So you'll leave here at, what, five or so?"
"Five or five-fifteen. I'd like to be early, give her a good impression, you know?"
"I get it." She smiled at him. "She's cute, Steve. And I think she likes you."
"Yeah." Stretching, she moved her foot from the chair down the floor and leaned across the table towards him. "Do we have time for a talk before you need to shower?"
There were a thousand things she might have wanted to talk to him about, but the only thing that went through his head was the kiss. Steve gulped, glancing at Tara in the bed.
"Don't be so nervous. I'm not angry with you."
"No." She tilted her head. "I know you kissed her. I know you like her. I only hope you remember that she's a lesbian, Steve. That will hurt you worse than I ever could."
Steve stared at her. "You -- uh -- how did? Um, did she tell you . . .?"
"Did Tara tell me you kissed her? No." She shook her head. "She wouldn't do that to you. The other night when she came home I could smell you on her. I figured something happened, and since I doubted she'd slept with you, I figured there was at least a kiss, so . . ."
"You mean, you guessed. And I just confirmed it."
She grinned. "You could say that."
Sher's laughter was quiet, and after a moment, Steve joined in.
"I know she's a lesbian, Sher, and I know she loves you."
"Yeah." That brought on a sigh. "And that's what I want to talk to you about." Folding her hands in front of her, Sher took a deep breath and became serious. "When I die, she's going to need you, Steve."
He froze. It was a scenario he hadn't truly considered. "You're not going to die, Sher."
"I have to."
With another sigh, she clenched her hands tighter. "I don't think I can stop it anymore, Steve. The change, I mean. And if I can't stop the change, then I have to make sure I can't change. Dying is the only way to do that. You see?"
"No." He shook his head. "Look, I'm just starting to believe in this change of yours, that there's something inside of you. But what you're talking about is suicide, Sher. I can't let you do that." He leaned forward, looking as serious as she did. "Besides, I thought the bottle or jar or whatever it is will save you. Isn't that what you told Tara? Isn't that the whole point of my date tonight?"
"No, the whole date is for you to have fun. I want you to enjoy yourself, Steve. You deserve that." She shook her head. "Look, if you find the jar, wonderful. But then you still have to convince your friend Kathy to let you take it out of the collection, then get it out of the library, through security and make it back here. I know you're resourceful, Steve, but I really don't think you'll be able to do all that before I actually lose control and kill Tara. And I'm not going to take the chance that you won't be in time."
"But -- the pills --"
"Are barely working anymore. For fuck's sake, Steve, I was taking ten an hour and it wasn't even knocking me out. Even when I took more, when I swallowed half the fucking bottle, I could still feel the beast prowling inside me." She shook her head again, frustrated. "I'm going to lose the battle, Steve, really soon. Probably tonight. And I know that Tara won't agree to leaving me alone. And if she's here when it happens, I'll kill her."
They both turned to the bed, where Tara still slept, snoring very lightly.
"Did you drug her?"
Sher smiled softly at the figure in the bed. "No. I just -- exhausted her."
Steve didn't need details to understand how Sher had managed that. "Are you going to let her say goodbye?"
With a hard swallow, Sher shook her head. "That was goodbye."
"That was your goodbye. You should let her have hers."
"Why, so she can argue and try to talk me out of it?"
"If that's what she needs to do. But also because she deserves better than to wake up and find herself alone in a hotel room with the dead body of her girlfriend."
"Steve, I --"
"Look." He reached out and put a hand over hers. "She can't sleep much longer. Sher, you've gotta give her a chance, and you have to give me a chance. Who knows, I might be able to pull off a miracle tonight. Even if I can't, you owe Tara the chance to say goodbye."
"It's too dangerous."
"How were you gonna do it? Blow your brains out? Slit your wrists? Leave her to clean up the blood?"
"No, not if I can help it." She lowered her head. "Besides -- I tried that, the wrist cutting thing. The beast won't let me do it."
"The beast won't let me. I know, I tried while Tara was at your place." Staring at her wrist, she remembered the knife against her skin, the terror she felt when she couldn't actually cut herself.
Sher swallowed. "Well, that's one of the reasons I've been taking the pills so much. I wanted to get to the point where the beast doesn't think they're meant to hurt me. So it doesn't object." Standing, she moved to the small bag she'd packed, bringing it back to the table. After digging for a moment, she pulled out a bottle of pills. "These aren't the over the counter crap I've been taking."
Steve took the bottle, his eyebrows rising as he read the label. "Oxycontin -- forty pills? You're taking all of these?"
"Yes, all at once, and hopefully it will kill me."
"And if it doesn't?" Steve thought they probably would, but he was grasping at straws.
"Well, then there might be a mess to clean up. But they should at least put the beast to sleep for a while." Dropping the pills on the bed, she reached into the bag again, digging into a hole at the end. When she pulled her hand out she was holding an automatic pistol. She swallowed, her eyes dropping to the floor as her voice dropped to a whisper. "Don't make Tara do it alone, please?"
For the moment, Steve ignored her last plea, mostly because he couldn't really deal with it yet.
"So -- what, you're just gonna take these and let Tara wake up to find your body?"
"No." Steve slapped the bottle onto the table, wincing at the noise it made. Instinctively both of them glanced at Tara, but the woman was still sleeping peacefully, occasional snores coming from her open mouth. "No, Sher, you've gotta give me more time."
"There isn't any more time, Steve."
"You look fine now, what's wrong with a few more hours?"
"Even now I can feel it starting to wake up. It's getting stronger. I can't fight it anymore, Steve."
He began pacing a little, two or three steps back and forth. "Look, I won't even get into the collection until past seven-thirty."
"No. You have to give me time, Sher, please. If you insist you have to do it tonight, fine, but please, not until nine-thirty at the earliest. You have to give me a little time."
She sighed. After a moment, she nodded. "I'll do my best. Okay? No guarantees, but I'll try to give you until nine-thirty to get back here." Sher swallowed. "If you're not here, I'm pulling the damn trigger." Or begging Tara to.
"Got it." Glad he'd gotten at least that much of a compromise out of her, he stood, moving carefully around the table and hugging her. Then he grabbed the bag with his new shirt, his shower kit, and the rest of his clothes for his date.
"Why are you suddenly a believer?"
He turned around and looked at her. "Is that what I am?" He thought about it for a moment. "You know, I don't know that there's some beast in you trying to get out. That sounds a little farfetched to me."
"But what I can't figure out is, how or why you would take a tool to that formica countertop and make it look like you had a visit from a werewolf. Nor can I figure out how the fuck you could take so many pills, over the counter or not, and still be mostly awake. I mean, how the fuck is that possible?" He looked around the room with a sigh, then let his gaze land on Tara for a long moment. "And why the fuck does she love you enough to let you beat on her when she could just walk away?" He shook his head. "No, I don't believe in your monster, your beast, Sher. I just believe in her." Then with a shrug, he headed for the bathroom.
Which left Sher to stare at her girlfriend again, one hand resting on the goodbye note she'd already started.
Five o'clock came too soon.
Steve left, after arguing for several minutes about whether or not to wake Tara. Sher finally pushed him out the door, reminding him about being punctual and telling him to have a good date.
Before she closed the door he reached in and grabbed her arm, not letting go even when she growled at him.
"Anything you could tell me that would help me find this thing? An inscription, a marking, anything?"
She thought about it. "Well, my mom always told me it looked exactly like it did in the movie, and that it was in the safest place in the world."
He raised an eyebrow, but after a moment said, "Don't forget. You gave me until nine-thirty. Don't you even give up on me till then, Sher."
Fighting her desire to rip his hand off, Sher made herself nod. He nodded back and withdrew his arm. The door closed and Sher stared at it for several minutes.
She could feel the heaviness in her soul as she whispered a quiet goodbye to him. Nine-thirty would be too late, and she knew it. Even now she could feel the beast stir, pacing inside of her soul.
But she had a little time left and they had large numbers of sleeping pills. Resigned to wait a couple more hours, Sher poured out half a handful of tablets. An already open bottle of water sat on the table, and she used it to down the medication with several swallows.
"Sher? What time is it? Did Steve get back yet?" Tara was sitting up and stretching. "What's going on?"
Sighing, Sher walked over to sit on the bedside. This wasn't a conversation she was looking forward to.
The Japanese restaurant chosen by Kathy was a Teppan steak house. Since it was early evening, there were few other guests, and those had already begun their dinner. Steve and Kathy were led to the smallest table in the restaurant, where they waited with cocktails to see if anyone else would be joining them at the six person table.
Seated side by side, they each chose beef and shrimp, pleasantly surprised when it seemed they'd be alone for dinner. Their conversation was simple, just two people getting to know each other, asking about families and friends and interests.
"I've always loved Egypt. There's always been an air of mystery about it, like a puzzle that I wanted to solve."
"Like a detective."
She nodded. "With a cold case a few thousand years old."
To Steve's surprise, she'd seen some of his grandfather's work.
"Well, only Sands of the Sphinx. It wasn't bad -- a little simplistic, but not bad."
"You know they didn't actually film it in Egypt."
"Yeah, I got that. But they did a good job, especially with the overhead shots."
"They used a model."
"Pretty sophisticated for the 1930's."
"I have it. I could show it to you some time."
She smiled at him and nodded. "I'd really like that."
Tara stared out the window, her arms crossed. It wasn't yet dark, though the shadows were lengthening as the sun dipped lower and lower on the western horizon. Watching the gold and red streaks shooting across the sky, she prayed that the sun would never set, that the shadows would not lengthen any farther, that time would stop, and that Sher would never leave her.
But even as she stood there she heard her lover pouring pills into her hand, closing the container, and unscrewing the water bottle. The silence in the room was so profound that she could even hear Sher's swallows as she downed the medicine that would hopefully keep Tara safe.
"So you're waiting for Steve? You told him you would."
Sher sighed. "I'll wait as long as I think it's safe. But I don't think he'll make it back in time."
Tara turned her body, bringing her girlfriend into her peripheral vision. "How will you know when it's not safe?"
Running a hand through her hair, Sher took a deep breath. "I'll know."
"So that's it? You're just going to choose a time and do it? End everything? Blow your brains out because you're tired of waiting? That's not fucking fair!"
"What d'you want me to do?" Her eyes were wide and pleading. "Wait until the last goddamn minute, when it's too late, and I can't think? I won't be able to pull the trigger, Tara! I have to do it while I'm still in control!"
"Fine." Nodding slowly, Tara crossed to the table. Carefully she reached down and picked up the weapon, checking the safety before putting in the waist band of her jeans. "You won't have to use it."
"Tara, no, I can't ask you --"
"You're not asking." Returning her gaze to the window's view, Tara spoke without looking at her girlfriend. "But you're giving him as much time as possible. You understand?"
Defeated, Sher nodded. "I will." Sher settled on the bed. "But you can't wait too long, Tara. You'll be in danger." The only reply was a snort. Sher sighed once more. "Tara . . ."
Making a decision, Tara turned away from the window, marching across to the bags still mostly packed. After digging for a moment she came up with a small black duffle bag. It was heavier than it looked and landed with authority on the bed, making an impressive indentation.
"Here. You're so worried about hurting me, we'll use these. As long as you're restrained I'll be fine, right? And we can wait longer."
Sher laid a hand on the bag, willing the tears in her eyes not to fall. After a shaky breath, she shook her head. "That's not what I'm talking about. Tara -- you have to watch, watch my eyes. If -- if they turn yellow, just . . . go. Pull the trigger and go."
That brought Tara back around to face her. "What? Why?"
Sher sighed. "As the change takes effect, my eyes will turn. From what my mom told me, from what she put in her diary, I'll go back and forth, between the beast and me -- right up to the point where my eyes change." She swallowed. "Once that happens -- I'll be the beast. The sphinx. No control, no changing back."
"They'll turn yellow?"
"First yellow, then they'll turn catlike, with the irises changing shapes." Wrapping her arms around herself, she stared down at the bed. "Please don't let it get that far, Tara."
Facing the window once more, Tara folded her arms, staring at the now darkening sky. "I won't. Now put the cuffs on."
Tears falling, Sher did as she was told.
They were laughing now, dinner having been cooked on the grill in front of them, and they were enjoying trying the different dipping sauces offered with the meal.
"I like this one, adds a kind of horseradishy flavor to the meat."
Steve nodded. "I like it better on the shrimp, though."
"I had noticed you like the shrimp better than the steak." She winked at him, an impish glint in her eye. "Does that mean you like fish better than meat?"
"No, I like meat just fine, steak especially, I just --" His mind finally processed the hint behind her words, and he blushed, almost dropping his chopsticks. "Um. What -- I mean --"
Kathy laughed, her head thrown back, her face full of mischief. "Oh. Oh, my God. You should have seen your face. It looked like you bit into a sour apple and found a worm."
He shook his head. She'd been a little bit up on him most of the evening, it seemed. Steve supposed he should have been expecting that, as she'd had him off kilter since they met in the library.
"I can't decide if I like you or just want to strangle you." She pouted and he laughed. "Okay, fine, I'll postpone any strangling."
"Good." She swiped a piece of meat off his plate, but stopped before putting it in her mouth. "Hey, Steve?"
"I don't -- get to do this very often. The date thing, I mean. Last time I did, the guy I was dating tried to lecture me on some energy thing, and -- well, by the time we got around to desert, we wanted to kill each other with our spoons."
Steve took a moment to dunk another piece of shrimp in the sauce. "What did you do when he lectured you?"
"Turned it into a debate."
"Yeah? Who won?"
"I did. That's why he was annoyed with me."
"Ah." He chewed slowly, then turned to look at her. "Well, I don't think there's much I could lecture you on. Unless it's the movie industry, and then it would just be on how badly writers are treated. And if you want to lecture -- I'm not in a position to start a debate, unless we're talking about screenplays and whether or not using a voice-over is a cop-out or a legitimate strategy."
"Afraid I don't know much about screenplays."
"So, no debates." He grinned at her. "But, I've really enjoyed hearing a little about what you're studying, and would love to hear more. And you haven't told me my movie idea sucks, so it's already been a good night in my book."
"Really?" She gave him a suddenly shy look, and Steve started to realize that most of what he had thought was confidence was really bravado.
"So. Tell me what's so fascinating about ancient Egypt."
Kathy's grin was hesitant. "Are you sure you want to ask that? I could probably talk until midnight."
"Well, the restaurant closes at ten, I think, so we're safe. And yeah, I'd like to know. I mean, I know a little bit about it, most people do if they like films."
"Why do you say that?"
"Do you realize how many film classics there are that are either in or based on a legend about Egypt?"
"I can think of a few."
"Let me guess, you're thinking of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, and The Ten Commandments."
She nodded. "Well, those and the original Mummy. Gotta love Boris Karloff."
"Okay, good. But there's also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, Alexander, and at least two films based on books by Agatha Christie, including Death on the Nile. Not to mention Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy , and numerous mummy movies and shorts from the early nineteen hundreds."
"And the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors which ended up on Broadway and on film. I get it. But you know what?" She tilted her head and smiled. "All of those fantastic stories? They're not even as interesting as the truth."
"No. I mean, how can you not be interested in a civilization where the gods were humans with animal heads, where sex was a part of the creation mythos, which is completely opposite of Christianity where the act of sex was banned and made into a sin? How can you not love a society where being a priest was a part time thing, and yet the entire populace believed so strongly in their religion, their rulers, and their country that they spent decades building monuments and temples out of stone while they lived in mudbrick houses? Egypt is just --"
She stopped, seeing a smile on Steve's face. "I'm sorry."
"For what? No, go on. It's really cool to hear someone talk about something they love like that. Besides, if you don't, I'll just regale you with tales from Hollywood."
Letting another shy smile slip out, Kathy took a bite of her meal, then glanced up at him. "I'd like to hear that."
"Later. Right now, tell me about Egypt." He grinned back at her before a thought crossed his mind and he glanced at his watch.
I have time.
"Good." Tara kissed the toop of Sher's head even as her girlfriend tightened her arms around her.
They had pushed their bed against the wall and taken all the pillows from Steve's to make a cozy nest for themselves. Cuddled together in only the barest of clothing, with drinks and snacks lined up next to the bed, Tara could push the inevitable away.
"Tara? Are you sure you want --"
"Stop talking, Sher."
When Sher was quiet, when there was only the soft rumble of their breathing and the tunes from the mp3 player, or the everyday noise from outside, it was easier for Tara. Easier to pretend that this was a romantic getaway for the two of them, that the world had gone away. Easier to forget that Sher was wearing leather wrist cuffs, that a set of hard chains were wrapped around the bed, waiting for those cuffs to be snapped into place.
Easier to ignore the temperature changes in Sher's body, the constant need for more sleeping pills, now mixed with aspirin to make them last longer. Easier to forget the gun on the table, just in case.
"Sher? When this is over, can we go to Egypt?" Tara wasn't sure where the question had come from, but with her lover tucked against her naked breast, she could feel Sher smile, and she was glad she'd asked.
"Yes. If Steve pulls off his miracle, if I live through this night, then yes. I'll take you to Egypt."
"Have you ever been there?"
"No." Sher rolled a little, pulling Tara's arm closer over top of her shoulder. "Mom asked me to go with her, but I decided to stay here. I was having too much fun then, and . . . well, I have to admit, I didn't think this day would come."
"Did this ever happen to your mom?" Tara ran her hands over Sher's bare stomach, enjoying the goose pimples that popped up on her lover's skin. "Did she have to find the jar?"
"Alas, no." Sher sighed. "If she had, she'd probably have had the jar and given it to me." She shrugged. "As it was, she just told me I'd need it someday and that it was hidden and ready for me."
"Yeah." Turning fully onto her stomach, Sher braced her chin on her hands, looking seriously at Tara. "Legend says that the jar was made before the murder of Sakhmet, one of several Isis saved from her ruined temple. Each jar was blessed, so that any water within the jar would then carry the blessing of the goddess."
"So, it was touched both by Sakhmet and Isis?"
"Yes. The magic, the blessing it carries, allows the sphinx and human to blend seamlessly, allows the human to control the anger of the sphinx, and stay awake when even to take the form of the beast."
"Because it was touched by the hand of the goddess; it carries her blessing, her magic. The magic to blend the sphinx and human seamlessly, to control the anger, to keep the human awake when the form of the beast is taken."
"You always told me you need to drink from the bottle. When Steve brings it, I just pour water in and have you drink. What happens after that?"
Sher shrugged. "I only know what will happen from the letters my mother left me."
"Did she know when this would happen?"
When I fell in love. "No, she didn't." Sher shivered. "Can you hand me the next dose?"
As she reached down for the water and pills, Tara glanced at the clock.
They had left the restaurant and were headed for the library. Since they still had forty-five minutes to kill, Steve had suggested they walk down to the school. Kathy, used to walking everywhere, agreed.
"So, tell me why you really want to see the rest of the collection."
Raising an eyebrow, Steve looked at her. "I told you. I miss some of the pieces that I grew up with."
"Right. And I'm an Egyptian princess."
"You don't believe me?"
"No. You just don't sound like a sentimental sort to me."
"What sort do I sound like?"
"Well, from our conversation I'd say you're very matter of fact, not given to flights of fancy, even in your films. I think you write films with a basis in fact."
"I don't know about that--"
"Do you write fantasies?"
"No. I started in horror."
"Of course." Kathy rolled her eyes. "Horror is just an expression of frustration with today's world, where the hero has to outmaneuver the bad guy who represents the elements of society that hold us back. It's still based in reality, just a way of expressing anger at it."
Steve stopped and raised his eyebrows. "I thought you majored in history, not psychology."
She shrugged. "I took a couple of psychology courses."
"With straight 'B's." Kathy laughed and took his arm. "But I enjoyed it."
"I'll just bet you did." He chuckled and shifted to settle her arm more comfortably.
"So? Why are you so interested in the collection? Looking to make a movie about Egypt, like your grandfather?"
He glanced at her, then looked away. "No."
Kathy waited, but Steve didn't say anything else. "Hey? Are you okay? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hit a sore spot."
They were passing a small coffee shop with outside tables, and Steve steered them towards a couple of chairs. Once Kathy was seated he looked at her seriously.
"Do you believe in magic?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Um. Well. The Egyptians certainly did; it was an everyday part of their religion. Thoth was the god of magic, as well as writing. But do I believe in it?" Biting her lip, she shrugged. "I can't say that I've ever seen it, so I have to say no. As much as I wish it existed, I don't think it does."
He nodded. "You said there were mysteries or questions about the pieces my grandfather returned. What did you mean?"
"Well -- what does this have to do with believing in magic?"
"Maybe nothing, maybe something. Tell me."
"Okay. Well, there are a couple of mysteries. The first is the whereabouts of a certain bottle, an alabaster jar. Your grandfather denied that it was even a part of the original inventory he'd been given, and it wasn't listed on the original manifest from Barnaby Lathrop, but one of his sons swore it was there. Also, he pointed out, it was in the movie, so it had to be from, and should be a part of the collection. But nobody knows anything about it."
Steve was biting his lip. If what Kathy was saying was true, then there was no jar for him to find.
"The second question is actually two questions for one item. There's a statue of a sphinx. It's not large, maybe only four and a half feet tall, but it's the largest item in the collection. It's also the most mysterious because no one knows where it came from." She shifted a little. "Some people even think it's fake. There's no way to date it, because there's no cartouche. It does, however, have hieroglyphics. In fact, there' s a long section of glyphs that tell a story about the curse of Sakhmet, and the rage of the Sphinx."
Steve swallowed hard. "Let me guess. It was something about how Seth murdered Sakhmet, but he was killed and fed to a Sphinx, thereby cursing the Sphinx forever with the rage of Sakhmet."
Kathy stared at him. She blinked several times, her mouth opening and closing. Finally, she nodded. "You seem to know the story."
"A friend told it to me."
"I'd be interested in meeting that friend, especially since the story, as carved into the statue, has never been fully translated. There's a part that's just too faint to make out and another where the stone is broken." She cleared her throat. "And that's another thing. Supposedly, when this object was loaned to your grandfather, it was in excellent condition. Weathered, but with no cracks. Now, there are cracks, there are little pieces broken out here and there. Yet your grandfather, in the transcripts from the court case, swore he had received it like that, and as the movie, 'Sands of the Sphinx', showed, the cracks were there as early as the film. So, no one knows what happened to damage the item."
"Well, since I wasn't alive at that time, I can't help you there."
"And your friend? Could I talk to her about the story? I've never heard it told so succinctly. Like I said, it's such a strange story, and the piece is just so unusual, most people think it's a nineteenth century creation."
"Gotcha." Steve nodded and sighed. "Well, I don't know about talking to my friend. At least for tonight, but --" He checked his watch. "Maybe you'd like to hear a story as well?"
"Okay. But, you have to keep your mind open, Kathy. I'm serious. Wide open."
She leaned back in her chair, her arms crossed. "I'm listening."
Sher blinked the sweat out of her eyes and tried to unclench muscles that had been tight for several minutes.
"I'm here." The voice was soft and Sher could hear the tears under the surface.
"Are you o-- did I hurt --"
A wet cloth stroked her cheek, and with another blink, Sher could see her girlfriend. Other than the moisture in her eyes, she seemed okay. "How long?"
"Not long, just a minute. You pushed me, then growled, before you collapsed on the bed."
Sher nodded. "Good." Swallowing, she put a hand to her head. "Good." Then she noticed that the wrist cuff was attached to one end of a chain. She shifted her gaze to her girlfriend.
Tara was beside the bed, holding the other end in her shaking hands. "I was trying to get this one hooked when you woke up."
Nodding, Sher moved her body closer to the center of the bed, then spread her limbs out. "Make them tight; arms and legs, okay?"
"Right." Pulling the chain taut, she used the panic clip to secure Sher's left arm.
"Take it in another link or two."
"Are you su--"
"Just do it, Tara." The words came out with a growl and Sher winced, feeling the beast pacing within her still. "I'm sorry, babe."
"Don't be sorry. It's not you." The words were like a mantra by now, and Tara heard them over and over again in her head as she worked to attach the ankle cuffs, stretching Sher's legs as she had her arms. "Tight enough? I think I can get another link, but . . ."
Sher pulled at her bonds and shook her head. "No, it's good. Not enough play. If the beast breaks that, one link won't have mattered." With a sigh she tried to relax her muscles. "What time is it?"
"After seven." Tara reached out for a glass of water and a dose of pills. "Here, take these."
"They're not helping much."
"They help enough. We only have a little over two hours."
Sher laughed. "It's two and a half and might as well be a year. I can't --"
"You can." Tara gently lifted her lover's head, giving her several pills followed by a mouthful of water, over and over until her hand was empty. "A little over two hours, Sher."
"And if he doesn't find it? Or doesn't show up?" She shook her head. "I don't think I should wait."
"You should. You promised."
Rising from her knees, Tara sat on the bed beside her lover. "Did you lie to me? You said you'd try. Were you lying?"
Was I? She wasn't sure. But she knew she'd never lied to Tara before. And she didn't want to start now. "No. I wasn't. But, Tara --"
"Shhh. Just try, Sher." Leaning close, ignoring the low growl coming from Sher's throat, she kissed her girlfriend's forehead. "Just try."
Swallowing and gritting her teeth, Sher nodded. "Why don't you read something to me? Keep my mind off things."
Neither of them mentioned the fangs that protruded from Sher's mouth or the fine sheen of silky hairs that covered parts of her skin.
"What you're talking about is patently impossible."
"You think I don't know that? You think I haven't wondered if I'm crazy?" Steve kicked at a stone in the road. They'd resumed their trek partway through his story, and now Kathy was looking at him in a way that said she was wondering the same thing.
"Steve, do you realize what you're asking me to believe?" She stopped and looked at him. "This story implies that the gods of ancient Egypt were real, that one of the most mystical creatures ever is an actual breathing animal, that humans can turn into one of these creatures, and that an actress from the silent movie era really was a sphinx rather than a human, or at least partly human, and that she left a part sphinx daughter that is losing control to the sphinx side of her, which is coming out and if you don't find this jar, which might or might not be somewhere in Barnaby Lathrop's collection, the woman is going to die. Is that right?"
"Well, yeah, more or less." He looked uncomfortable with it being laid out in this manner, yet had to agree with the basics of the story."
"And you expect me to believe it?"
"No. I just expect you to keep an open mind. You said you would."
Steve sighed. "You know, there's a simple way to test if I'm telling the truth."
"Sorry, not in the mood for riddles right now."
"What?" He looked at her confused.
"Never mind. What's your simple test?"
"Take me to see the collection. If we don't find the jar, you can go on with your life and forget this ever happened. No problem. I'll completely leave you alone."
"And if we do? What does that prove?"
"Nothing. But if we find the jar, then you complete the reality test by joining me, and the jar, back at the hotel room."
"Oh, right!" She slapped her forehead and turned away, raising her arms to the sky. "So simple! If we find an alabaster jar, we simply STEAL it from the library! Yes! Why didn't I think of that?"
"How would it be stealing if it's not supposed to be there in the first place?"
"What?" She stared at him.
"You said yourself that it's not listed on the initial inventory that Lathrop made, and it's only been seen by one of his sons. So, even if we find it, it doesn't officially exist. So who says it's stealing?"
Her jaw dropped open at his audacious suggestion. She closed it, then turned around, only to turn back once more. "If it doesn't exist, why the hell would we look for it? Because, I'm telling you, Steve, I've been through ninety percent of that collection. There is no alabaster jar like you're describing."
He nodded, his expression one of worry. "I got that. But I still have to try, Kathy." He thought of Tara, and the love in her eyes when she looked at Sher. "I have to try."
Kathy shook her head. "Yeah? Well, I don't." Gathering her purse, she stood, looking down at him. "Goodnight, Steve," and she began to walk away from him.
"Kathy, wait! Please!" Steve followed, jogging to get in front of her and face her, walking backwards. "Kathy, you said you'd show me the collection. Please? At least do that?"
"Why?" She stopped and glared at him. "And don't give me anymore of this damn story about a woman turning into a monster and you need to play the rescuing knight. Give me one goddamn good reason I should even consider letting you into that collection after you asked me to steal a priceless artifact."
"Because, even though you think I'm crazy, you don't know for sure. And you want to know. As a scientist, you need to know. " He stepped closer, looking down into her eyes. "And because there's a part of you that loves Egypt so much, that wants to touch the magic of that ancient culture so bad, that you can't walk away from this. The scientist may say it's not true, but the believer inside you wants it to be true, and one needs to prove the other wrong. That's why you shouldn't walk away."
Kathy stood still, staring at him for several minutes. She blinked, then blew out a breath and looked away. "And here I was thinking you took me to dinner because you liked me."
"I do." Gently, he put his hands on her shoulders. "I do. Kathy, I haven't had this much fun on a date in a long time, and if this . . . dilemma wasn't hanging over my head, I'd beg you to take a walk on the pier with me. But I can't. I need to try to help my friend." His voice lowered as his hands squeezed her shoulders. "Please. Help me?"
After another moment of agonized silence, she threw up her hands. "Fine. Let's go look for your non-existent bottle."
"Sure. Why not?" Kathy shook her head and began leading him down the street again.
"And when we find it? We take it to the hotel?"
She shrugged her shoulders, her voice aggravated. "If we can find a bottle that doesn't exist, we can certainly take it to a hotel to save a woman I don't know from a beast that I don't believe in. Absolutely."
He knew she was being sarcastic, but he didn't acknowledge that. "Thanks, Kathy."
"You're not welcome."
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
She was sweating profusely now, the pillow under her head already damp to the touch, and her breath came in heavy pants through her open mouth. The fine down that had covered her face and hands had crept across most of her body; the hairs were lighter on her hands, face and breasts, the body hair perceptively darker.
"Tara, please. Just give me the pills." Muscle cramps had begun, through her legs and across her shoulders and back. "Please."
"No. Sher, it's too early." The pleading in Tara's voice was half fear, half desperation. "It's just past eight, you have to hang on."
"I'm try--" Sher cried out as more cramps hit and her leg muscles spasmed.
As she watched, Tara could see muscle movement under the skin, movement that seemed to change the shape of the leg, making it bulge in places and shrink in others. She had to blink, realizing that this was happening, Sher was changing in front of her.
As Sher tried to speak, there was a low growl from her chest. "Tara . . . goddammit, give me the pills."
Swallowing hard, tears in her eyes, Tara reached for the bottle. "All of them?"
"I should go slowly, so you don't vomit."
Muscles still clenching, Sher nodded. "Do you still have the gun?"
"I won't need it. Steve will be here soon." Reaching carefully toward Sher's face she placed her fingers by her jaw. "Open your mouth, Sher."
The first dose went smoothly, and Tara waited five minutes before giving her the next.
Another five, a third dose, and Sher's body started to relax.
Tara looked at the clock. "Hang on, baby. Steve will be here."
At that moment Steve was staring at several shelves, crowded with items. Most had tags of some kind, though a few just had cards leaning up against them.
In front of the shelves were several crates, all crammed with items wrapped in bubble wrap. Steve half heartedly poked at one or two of the wrapped items before looking up at Kathy.
"I thought you said there wasn't much back here."
The grad student shrugged. "Compared with what's already on display? There's not much. Besides, most of these are incomplete; they're broken or chipped, or simply statues with no markings to identify even a time period." She knelt, reaching into the box and pulling up a wrapped item. "Not all of these have been opened, but those that have are tagged on the wrappings. Most are simple statuettes." Looking up at him she raised an eyebrow. "A few jars, but none of them like you described. Mostly just figurines."
"Right." With a glance at the shelves, he sighed. Nothing up there that looked like the prop he'd held. "So, I guess the place to start is to move aside those already tagged? Then we can look at those that aren't."
Kathy sighed and shook her head. "Steve, there are maybe ten or fifteen things that haven't been checked, and I don't think any of them are jars."
"But you don't know for sure."
"Look, it's not here!"
"You don't know that!" With a glance at his watch, Steve sighed. "Look, I'm running out of time. Either help me or don't, but I need to start searching." Shrugging off his jacket, he knelt by one of the crates, pulling out an item and checking for a tag. He found one and set it aside, moving on to the next.
Kathy watched him for several moments, arms still folded, face set. She didn't know what to think about this man she'd met. He seemed normal, if a little eccentric, but his story, and his belief in it was insane. Having been trained in logic, she couldn't believe him, but he was so sincere that she almost wanted to. The dichotomy of it bothered her.
Either he was insane, or he was right. Kathy didn't like either choice. With a sigh, she went toward to the other side of the room, coming back with an empty crate.
"Here, put the already tagged stuff in this. We'll sort them, and then look at what's left."
Steve looked up gratefully and nodded.
They worked in silence.
The pills were gone. A few doses had been mixed with whiskey to increase the potency, and it seemed to help. The tension had slowly slipped away from Sher's body, her breathing slowing perceptibly, the muscle spasms easing, though the physical changes remained.
Now, however, some of the tension was back. The final dose of pills had been mixed with a generic anti-nausea medicine from the first aid kit. Still, Sher could feel her stomach rolling, and she closed her eyes in an attempt to keep the pills down. They'd do no good if her body rebelled and rejected them.
"You falling asleep on me?"
She gave a weak chuckle. "I wish I could. It feels like I'll never sleep again."
"You will, Sher." Tara leaned over and kissed her, one hand stroking the softly furred cheek. "It won't be long. Steve will show up and this will be over."
She really wanted to believe. Even now, even as the changes had become more and more apparent, Tara still sounded confidant that their friend would come racing in to save them. Sher wanted so much to see it happen, to believe that it could. For a moment she saw herself holding Tara, the two of them on their couch, laughing at some ridiculous line in a romantic comedy. A half smile crossed her face.
But it was quickly gone when her stomach lurched, and she moaned. "No, nonono."
Her body wasn't listening. Spasms in her stomach and throat overtook her as her body began to expel the poison she'd taken. She choked, the mass of pills and liquor burning in her throat as she gagged, trying to vomit and swallow at the same time.
Tara panicked. "Sher!" Reaching up, she hit one panic snap, releasing Sher's arm and pushing her body to the side. For several moments the retching continued as Tara rubbed her lover's back. When it stopped, there was a long pause, as Tara murmured softly and Sher gasped for breath.
Suddenly a deep growl echoed. Tara's hand tightened on Sher's shoulder. "Sher? Baby?"
In a flash Sher rolled back, her face drawn into a snarl, her hand slashing toward Tara, claws out.
Shocked, Tara grabbed at the arm, feeling the nails rake across her skin. It took all her strength to push the limb down to the bed, fumbling with the snap to once more secure Sher's thrashing figure. Sher lunged at her girlfriend, growling, jaws snapping, and Tara leaned too far backwards, falling off the bed, blood running down her arm from where Sher's deadly claws had caught her shoulder.
As Sher continued to thrash and growl, yanking on her bonds, Tara cradled her right arm. Her eyes closed, but still the tears came.
They'd gone through both crates. Anything not marked with a tag was now partially unwrapped, and Steve had to admit Kathy was right. There was no jar, made of alabaster or anything else.
"I'm sorry, Steve. This is all there is."
"It has to be here. It has to."
Kathy sighed. "Well, it's not." She glanced up at the clock. Quarter to nine. "I know you're upset, but there's nothing else I can do."
He nodded, one hand combing through his hair. Steve was sitting against the wall, his knees in front of him, forearms braced on his legs. Speaking more to himself than Kathy, he muttered, "I'm missing something. What am I missing?"
"You're not missing anything. No jar, no bottle, not even a broken vase, Steve. We went through it all. Twice."
Steve didn't answer, his head now resting in his hands.
Kathy folded her arms. "Are you ready to answer some questions of mine, now?"
"That." She pointed to a large, plastic covered object at the back of the room. "To me, it's the most intriguing piece in the collection, though no one agrees with me."
Raising his head, Steve blinked. "What is that?"
His mouth opened in a perfect 'O'. "Right. Statue."
Following Kathy's lead Steve helped pull the plastic, then the cloth, off the hidden statue. It looked mostly like he remembered, if a little more worn than it had when he was a kid. Carved out of what appeared to be solid red granite was a seated Sphinx. Its face was intact, and looked nothing like the Great Sphinx on the Giza plateau. In fact, it looked little like the face of any other sphinx he had ever seen, and seeing it as an adult he had to tilt his head in confusion.
"You see? The face is unique, with more female characteristics. Now, in Greek lore, the sphinx was female, but it's always been portrayed in Egypt with more male features. This one has less of an angular structure, more like a woman's face."
Steve nodded. He stared at it, then blinked and shook his head. "I must be more tired than I thought." For just a moment the face had morphed into Sher's.
"But this is the fascinating part. Here." She beckoned him to look more closely at the front of the statue, under the head, where a tablet of stone with heiroglyphics rested against the front legs of the stone beast. "This is the tale of the Sphinx and the curse of Sakhmet's rage. Part of it is broken and chipped, making it unreadable, but the basic story is the one you seem to know. The goddess was killed by Set, who ate her to gain her power, but he was in turn destroyed and devoured by a sphinx."
His hand on his forehead, Steve tried to remember the story Sher had told them. "The Sphinx didn't kill him. Isis and . . . Bastet, I think? They killed him and cut him up and fed him to the sphinx." His eyes closed. "Sakhmet had been the goddess protector of the Sphinx and her rage would forever fill the line of the sphinx." Putting his hands on his hips, he frowned, looking at Kathy. "That's all I know. What does this have do with the statue?"
"I don't know. That's the irritating part. I can read the story, but then the stone fragments and I can only read bits and pieces. It speaks of the birth of a new line, and a joining, and tempering the rage, and something about a womb, but --"
"A womb?" Something clicked in Steve's head. He tried to mentally grab it, but it disappeared almost as fast as it came. "What about a womb?"
Kathy raised her arms and dropped them. "I'd tell you, if I could read it well enough."
"Well, tell me what it does say -- word for word." He shrugged. "I don't know if I can help, but -" Something in his head wanted to hear this, even if he didn't understand why. "Just read it to me."
Rolling her eyes, Kathy retrieved a flashlight and a magnifying glass, then knelt by the front of the statue. Carefully, she trained the flashlight on the broken words.
"The last readable line is, 'A new sphinx shall arise, cursed, but holding the key.'" She paused. "Or, 'the sand holds the key'? Something like that. And then there are just words. 'Stone', 'person', 'rage', and again a key." Kathy looked up at him. "Do you think your friend would be able to decipher it?"
"I don't know." Steve was frowning in thought. "You said the inscription had to do with a womb? Or did you say tomb?"
"No, it's womb. Strange, I know, but it's attached to the word stone, like a womb in the stone."
"That's what it says? Womb in the stone?" That clicked echoed in Steve's mind again and this time he was able to grab hold of it.
"No, not in those words, but it can be inferred."
"What are the exact words?"
"Steve!" Kathy threw up her hands. "Aren't you listening? This part is completely unreadable, a word or two in a line, that's all! I can't tell you the exact line!"
He nodded, then took a better look at the middle of the back of the statue. "Didn't you say something about it looking like this had been cut open and put back together?"
"Well, yeah, but it's not obviou--" Kathy stopped as Steve picked up a hammer and chisel. "Steve, what are you doing?"
Hammer in hand, Steve looked at her and grinned. "A womb in the stone. Sher told me that her mom always said the jar was in the safest place in the world. And I had a friend who got pregnant who told me the safest place in the world was a mother's womb." Finding the line down the back, obvious now that he was looking for it, he put the chisel against it. "What's safer than this?"
"Steve, no!" Grabbing the chisel from his hand, she pushed him slightly. "Are you crazy? You're going to destroy a priceless artifact!"
"If it can be opened and put back together once, it can be put back together a second time."
"Right, and I'm going to hide this, how?" She waved her arms around, motioning to the room. "Remember where we are? Library? Security? Ring a bell?"
"Turn on some music." Steve pulled the chisel out of her hand. "If it's not true, if there's no space, if all we find is stone, then you can call security and have me taken to jail. If it's there, you keep your part of the bargain."
"No! Steve, you can't do this!" Kathy grabbed for the hammer, but Steve kept it out of reach. "Please! You're going to get me thrown out of school!"
"I'm going to save a friend." And for the first time, Steve found himself utterly believing that statement. "I don't pretend to understand everything, but I know, I know that the jar is here, it's hidden inside that statue. It's why my grandfather fought so hard to keep it, cause he knew what was in it. And I know it can help Sher. I know it."
Whatever truth or emotion he was feeling, it must have shown in his eyes. Kathy stopped, staring at him, still angry, but not as wildly defiant as she had been moments earlier.
"So you're just going to smash a priceless statue? Because you suddenly had an epiphany?"
Steve frowned. "I'm not sure what that means, but if it means I suddenly figured something out, then yeah. And no. I'm not just going to smash it. It's been opened once, as you pointed out. I'm just going to chisel in where the line is. Hopefully it'll open for me the same way."
Once again, Kathy could do nothing but throw up her hands. She stared down at the statue, letting out an angry breath.
Logically, this was wrong. This whole tale was nonsense. A human-sphinx? A magic bottle? A hidden womb in the stone? She was a scientist! Believing in these things, this fanciful tale, meant suddenly believing in magic, believing in what could not be seen, nor replicated, nor measured. It went against everything she was, everything her world was about.
Looking back at Steve she saw something in his eyes that she'd never had. She'd never had faith. One didn't have faith in science; you simply trusted empirical date to tell you the truth of the world. Faith was something she'd never had, never believed in. Faith led you from history to legend, from fact to myth. From science to . . . magic.
Who didn't want to believe in magic? Faced with his faith, her empirical data lost its strength.
"Fine. I'll let you try to crack the statue down the obvious line. But I have two demands."
"If it starts to crack the actual stone, if it even looks like it's going to, you stop. Period."
Steve looked away and rolled his eyes, but then nodded. "And your second demand?"
"If I'm right and there's nothing there, you tie me up and tell the police I was tied up the entire time."
He grinned. "Hedging your bets, huh? Good plan. Now move. Time's wasting."
With chisel and hammer they began, slowly chipping away at the obvious joint, which became more obvious as they worked. Pieces of material flaked away, only to reveal a whitened plaster beneath, as if the top layer had been painted over in red to hide the damage.
"It has to be here, it has to."
"Shut up, Steve."
Now fully invested in the project, Kathy gently used a brush to clean the line, pointing out spots for Steve's chisel, even positioning the tool every so often.
Finally, with Steve carefully reaching further and further into the revealed gap, there was a tink of falling rock against something glass like. He looked up with a smile on his face.
Kathy was beyond listening to an I-told-you-so, and well past any question of belief or disbelief. The scientist was back, for the moment at least, and she raised a hand.
"No more in that section. Whatever's in there sounds breakable, and that's the last thing we need to do."
Working carefully it took them another fifteen minutes to open the statue. When they finally, slowly, pulled the two halves apart, it revealed an inner hiding place, and two items.
The first, in shining gold, was a statuette of a woman with the head of a lion. Her mouth open in awed amazement, Kathy gently removed it, noting the heaviness of the statue, the fine workmanship and detail, and the tiny gemstones worked into the collar of the statue.
"Sakhmet. Protector of the pharaoh."
"And of the sphinx." Steve reached in and picked up the second item, a jar almost exactly like the prop he'd seen just days earlier, but much heavier, and with a more yellowed look to it. "And here's the prize."
For a moment they both merely stared at the items in their hands. Then Steve glanced at the clock.
"Shit. Ten after nine, I'm late. Come on, I gotta go."
"What? You can't just leave."
"What are you talking about? We had a deal!"
"And I'll honor it." Carefully, Kathy replaced the statuette where she'd found it. "But first help me push these back together. I'll need to sweep the dust a little. Then we can go."
"Steve! Just do it!"
Several tense minutes later, the room was presentable by Kathy's standards, and she reached for her backpack. "Okay, I'll leave a few books here to make room and we'll take it out with my pack. Gerard's on tonight; he'll flirt, but he never searches me."
"He flirts with you?"
Kathy looked at him with wide eyes. "We're about to steal a priceless artifact and the guard flirting with me is the one thing you pick up on." She shook her head and shouldered the bag. "Come on."
Tara had wrapped a towel around her shoulder, keeping the blood from leaking any further. It wasn't a very effective bandage, but she couldn't maneuver with one hand to bandage herself, and Sher . . . wasn't exactly able to help.
"Tara? Did I -- oh, fuck, I can smell the blood; are you okay?" Sher's voice was low, gravelly, and breathless.
"I'm fine. It's just a nick." Tara didn't think lying at a time like this was a bad idea. "Are you back? For the moment at least?"
"Moment. Hard to think." Sher shook her head and drops of sweat and saliva flew. The fine down was a now an almost full pelt on her body, and her teeth had changed from human with fangs to a full set of canine teeth. Her voice was deep, the words less and less clear. "Tara . . . time. No more waiting."
Taking a deep breath, Tara shook her head. "No." Leaning over carefully, knowing it was dangerous, she kissed Sher's brow.
"Tara! No time! Please!"
"No, Sher. We're waiting until the last possible moment."
"No! Tara, ple--" The words were cut off with a fierce growl and a hard lunge against the restraints. Her eyes opened and sharp teeth snapped shut on the air where Tara's head had been just moments earlier.
Sher's eyes were blue puddles in a sea of yellow. Frightened, Tara pulled away, backing up against the wall. Her hand reached for the gun, the butt of it smooth in her hand.
"I don't like you very much right now."
Steve looked over at his passenger. "Why not?"
"Because I thought -- was hoping, really -- that this was going to be just a regular date. That maybe there was something here, you know?" Kathy watched the city speed past. "And now I feel like I've been plunged into some adventure movie. I expect Indiana Jones to jump out and be holding a crystal skull or something."
For a moment, Steve was quiet. Another glance at Kathy brought a frown to his face. He liked her. He really did.
I want you to enjoy yourself, Steve. You deserve it.
Well, so did Kathy. "Tell you what. No matter what happens tonight, we'll do this again tomorrow. But it'll just be the two of us -- no one else. I'll take you somewhere really nice -- maybe out on the pier? And we'll have dinner, and ask all the questions about family and dreams and --" He was about to say friends, but didn't think that would go over very well. "And just everything." Another glance found her looking back at him, her expression unreadable. "I like you, Kathy, and I'm sorry that we met now, when things are so crazy. I'd like a chance to, just, I don't know, hang out with you. See how things go." He waited, trying not to look over at her again.
She didn't answer for at least a mile.
"Will you buy me a rose?"
"A rose?" He flicked his gaze over before putting on his blinker and slowing down. "I'll buy you a dozen if you want."
"Just one." Kathy folded her arms. "Just one for now."
They took the exit ramp in silence.
Sher had seemed to settle for the moment and Tara took the opportunity to wash the blood from her arm. She'd told Sher it was just a nick, but it was actually much worse. Three harsh and deep claw marks ran from just behind the top of her shoulder half way down her upper arm, one down the side and the other two in the front. It ached, and when she tried to move it, sharp pain moved through her. With her left hand she opened the first aid kit, hoping she had enough gauze to cover the wound.
After several fumbling attempts to use an actual wrap, she gave up, using two large pads and securing them with medical tape. Slipping into her shorts and t-shirt, she thought about using a sling, but that would make it difficult to move in an emergency, so she chose not to.
As she was packing up the first aid kit she heard angry growling from outside the bathroom, accompanied by a tearing sound. Looking at herself in the mirror, Tara took a deep breath, and stepped outside to check.
"Hey, Sher, you okay? What was that -- Sher, no!"
The figure on the bed, now looking more and more like a lion with a human face, continued yanking on one upper limb, and as Tara watched the leather tore completely through, giving the beast the freedom to roll her upper body, growling and yanking, clawing and biting at the second cuff.
"Sher, no, stop! You need to keep those on!" Tara started for the bed, her intention to grab the arm and force it back into position.
The beast turned, jaws hanging open, fury on the still human, still Sher-like face. A cross between a growl and a roar echoed in the cabin, and Tara choked, taking a step back.
Sher's eyes were like those of a cat's, yellow surrounding a slitted pupil. The face was human, the eyes no longer were, and Tara realized her time was up. Her own eyes beginning to tear up, she reached into her waist band for the gun -- only to realize she'd left it on the counter in the bathroom. With a curse, she turned and raced back, hearing the second cuff give way.
Moments later the weapon was in hand and she did what Sher had taught her; flip the safety off, check the cylinder, hold the gun with both hands. Her right one shook slightly, and she swallowed, looking in the mirror once more before nodding and turning away, ready to face the beast.
She stepped out of the bathroom and screamed as the beast lunged, the very tips of its claws leaving red trails across Tara's stomach even as it was dragged back. It had made short work of the third cuff, which had let it leave the bed, but it hadn't bothered with the last one, which was the only thing that saved Tara, who had dropped to the floor in fear and shock as much as pain.
Scrambling backwards and not even daring to rise, Tara found herself against the wall, feeling blood running down her arm to mix with the new wounds on her abdomen. Pain made the tearing in her eyes worse and she blinked several times to clear them, trying to focus on the figure stalking her from across the room.
The beast was up, chewing on the cuff still attached to its leg. As Tara raised the gun, the creature turned its head, growling, and gave the leg a final jerk. The cuff separated and fell apart, the chain clanking against the floor.
In fear, Tara pulled the trigger.
The beast jerked its head to the side, whimpering for a moment, then growled and shook its head as if to free it from an irritating fly. Blood flew, droplets raining on Tara's outstretched legs, but with a snarl, the great beast gathered itself, then leaped.
Focusing, Tara whispered her love under her breath, and pulled the trigger.
"You're staying all the way out at the lodge? Why?"
"Cabins." Steve shrugged as he negotiated the driveway entrance. "Sher was worried about noise and ... other things."
"Right." Kathy resisted the urge to roll her eyes, merely shooting Steve a disbelieving look. "Let me guess; easier to bury the body in the dead of night if you had to kill her?"
Steve said nothing but raised an eyebrow; such a thing hadn't been discussed, yet it had been obvious to him that it had been on Sher's mind when she asked for the last cabin, the one furthest from the lodge, closest to the edge of the small forest on park land.
He took the fork to the left, driving past the cabins of C block and slowing in the curve before D section. There was only one other vehicle in this parking area; November wasn't a popular time for people to visit the lodge and most wanted to be closer to the main building.
Pulling up and yanking on the parking brake, Steve looked at his passenger with a deep breath. "Ready?"
"To meet a crazy woman? Sure." With that, Kathy did roll her eyes and open the car door. She stepped out, stretching for a moment, but carefully cradling the wrapped jar in her arms.
"Look, you don't have to believe, Kathy," Steve said as he shut his car door and hit the alarm button, "but please try to be nice to Tara and Sh--"
The sound of a gun shot cut through the night and they both froze for a moment.
Steve took off towards the cabin at a run, his voice starting soft and ending in a yell. "Oh, no, God no, not now! Tara, Sher, stop!"
Kathy was on his heels, just a step back, eyes wide.
His keycard had already been in his hand, and it was a moment's time to swipe it and push the door. As he did, another shot rang out, and a figure fell to the floor halfway across the room.
Steve stopped short just inside the door, his breath stopping in his chest. Kathy squeezed in behind him and stared.
As she saw it, a strange woman, blood flowing down her arm and streaked across her stomach, was lying against the far wall, a gun still held in her hand.
Just a foot from where she lay, possibly in shock, was a figure with the body of a lion. The golden coat was bloodied, though she couldn't see the bullet hole. What was odd about the whole scenario, what immediately grabbed Kathy's attention, was the lack of a mane about the neck of the lion, and the dark hair that flowed from the head, human like hair, that seamlessly blended into the tawny fur at the neck line.
No one moved until the gun dropped to the floor with a thump.
Tara looked up at Steve, tears rolling down her face, every breath a gasp and a wheeze.
"Did I kill her?"
The beast's leg twitched and they all jumped. The small movement, along with Tara's question, pushed Steve into action, and he quickly knelt beside the prone form. Carefully he rolled the figure onto its side, wincing at the bloody hole on the right side of the golden chest. Feeling a puff of air against his fingers, he let out a hopeful breath. "No, you didn't. She's breathing. Kathy, unwrap that and fill it with water; bathroom's here next to Tara. Oh, and," he tried a light chuckle, "Kathy, Tara. Tara, this is Kathy."
Eyes wide, Kathy nodded. "Hi."
Tara nodded back.
"Kathy, the jar, come on."
"Oh, right. Sure." She began to unwrap it, keeping one eye on the lion body next to Steve, trying not to see the human face attached to it.
Tara sniffed, one bloody hand swiping at her face and leaving a red slash across her skin. "Steve, I don't know if it will help now. She -- she said -- her eyes --"
"It'll help." Wanting to speed the process in case Sher began to wake, Steve reached out to take the now unwrapped jar from Kathy. "We didn't come all this way just to lose her." Moving into the bathroom to fill the jar at the sink, he continued his monologue, his voice echoing into the other room. "I didn't become a believer and bring you all the way up here, and screw up one of the best dates I've had in a long time, just for her to fucking die on me," he came back out of the bathroom, jar two-thirds full, a couple of bath towels in his hand, "and I'm not gonna let her die." He knelt beside her. "Kathy, hold her head, will you?"
Nodding, she lowered herself to the floor awkwardly. Steeling her nerves she took the still human head in her hands, lifting it slightly as Steve maneuvered the lip of the jar between the jaws of the beast.
"She just needs to drink it, right? That's what she said? Come on, Sher, fuckin' drink." Some water sloshed out onto the carpet, but he got enough of it into her mouth to trigger her reflexes and she swallowed, once, then twice, and once again before he stopped pouring.
Setting the jar aside, Steve let out a deep breath and patted the dark head. "That should do it. You want to wait with her?" Kathy's eyes were still wide and she slowly shook her head. Chuckling, Steve nodded. "Will you look at Tara? I think I saw the first aid kit in the bathroom." He pressed one of the towels to the wound in the beast's chest, then put the other against the bleeding gash across her cheek.
"Ri--" She cleared her throat. "Right." Standing, she carefully skirted around the beast and stepped into the bathroom. Taking a moment to stare into the mirror and gather herself, she turned around feeling much more determined and capable. Kit in hand, she kicked off her heels and knelt smoothly beside Tara. "Hi. Awful way to meet, but -- I'm Kathy." She eased Tara's t-shirt up over the wound in her stomach.
"Hi. Guess you guys found it, huh?" Tara gave a chuckle of her own. "I only wish you'd been sooner." Her sad gaze rested on the still form. "Her eyes changed."
Pausing in the act of wiping away the blood , Kathy looked up at her. "What do you mean? What about her eyes?"
"They turned yellow, and then they turned into a cat's eyes." Her shoulders drooped a little further. "Sher told me if they changed, it would be too late. She would be the sphinx."
"Cat's eyes, huh?" Something about that ticked over in Kathy's brain. She frowned while putting gauze over the wounds. "Her eyes changed. But a sphinx would have human eyes, or at least has always been shown with human face, human eyes. Why would her eyes change?"
"That's just what she told me -- ow."
Kathy looked up apologetically. "Sorry. They don't teach bedside manner for archeology students."
It made Tara smile just a little. "It's okay."
"There's blood on your arm; are you hurt there as well?"
"She -- Sher got me on the shoulder earlier. I was bandaging it when I heard her break the chains."
"The chains?" Steve crawled across the floor to look at them. "She tore through the leather. Should have found a metal cuff."
As Kathy re-taped the gauze on her shoulder, Tara bit her lip, watching her lover worriedly. "There's been no change, has there, Steve?" Her voice was hopeful and desperate at the same time.
He shook his head. "No, not yet. She's gotta change back soon, though, right? I mean, we got the jar, she drank from it. The story says it'll help her, right?"
"Right." Kathy pulled the sling out of the kit, helping Tara to slip it over her head and under her arm, taking the pressure off her shoulder. "You know, it would have helped if any of you could read hieroglyphics."
Tara's head came up. "Why?"
"Did you notice there's a line of them around the bottom of the jar?"
Steve looked up, meeting Tara's gaze. "What do they say, Kathy?"
Standing, Kathy smiled at Tara before taking a deep breath and moving back to Steve's side. "They're a prayer to both Bastet and Isis. You hold her head this time, Steve. We need to get more water in her."
For a moment he gaped at her, then quickly moved to hand her the jar, taking hold of the beast's head. "Go on."
As she carefully poured the jar's contents into the fanged mouth, Kathy slowly recited the syllables she'd read over and over during the car ride. She kept pouring, reciting the prayer a second time, then a third, before pulling the jar back and setting it aside.
All three of them watched expectantly, fear and hope thick in the atmosphere of the small cabin.
Ten minutes, nothing. Tara's head had dropped, and Steve had turned away with a loud sigh. This left only Kathy who saw the change begin. She gasped out loud, eyes going wide again.
Steve's head whipped around. "What?"
"The wound is disappearing."
"What?" Tara struggled up from her seat against the wall, moving slowly to join them.
"It's disappearing." She pointed out the now almost healed spot on Sher's face where Tara's first shot had marked her. "Look, it's almost gone."
Carefully, Steve moved the bloody towel from Sher's chest and inhaled deeply. "This one's healing as well."
But it wasn't a bullet wound that Tara was interested in. Reaching out with shaking fingers she touched the soft pelt that had covered Sher's body, then slowly began to cry again.
Sher's body slowly began to change back, her legs lengthening, straightening, her hands turning back to normal, the fur slowly sliding away, as if it was pulling back under her skin. As her claws disappeared, Tara took her hand, holding it against her cheek.
When Sher's eyes opened, they were normal, her very own deep brown, and she blinked several times before taking in Steve's worried eyes, Tara's tear stained cheeks, and the continued look of surprise on Kathy's face.
"T--" She coughed several times, and Tara put a hand to her cheek.
"Don't try to talk, Sher. You just came back. Rest now. I'll watch over you."
As tired as she was, Sher didn't argue, simply smiling at Tara and letting her eyes close again.
Carefully, Steve slid his arms underneath the now naked and sleeping woman. "Kathy, can you pull up one of the quilts?"
They placed her on the bed that didn't have gouges from claw marks and settled Tara next to her. Within minutes Tara was sleeping as deeply as her girlfriend, both cuddled together in a heap.
Steve sighed, slipping an arm around Kathy. "Do you believe me, yet?"
After a moment, she shook her head. "No." Then she sat on the side of the other bed, her fingers tracing a particularly deep slash in the mattress. "But you owe me dinner and a rose tomorrow."
Sitting beside her, he chuckled, bumping her shoulder with his. "Right. One rose."
She nodded, her eyes on the still figures in the other bed. "Just one."
They stayed like that for a long time.
Six Months Later
Cursing at himself, Steve pulled his car to a stop in front of the apartment building and jumped out. He was halfway up the sidewalk, moving at a brisk jog, when a whistle cut through the air, stopping him in his tracks.
Rolling his eyes, Steve came back down the walk. "I know, I'm sorry. Meeting ran long last night and I overslept." He leaned over to grab the suitcase before she could. "Then there was traffic, and I had to stop for gas -- but I made it!" He tilted his head and grinned, trying to look contrite and adorable at the same time. "I'm not that late, and I didn't get a speeding ticket. Don't I deserve a kiss?"
Kathy regarded him from behind her sunglasses. "Maybe."
With a smile she relented, unfolding her arms and hugging him before giving him a solid kiss.
"Good. Now come on, we're going to be late."
He opened the door. "I doubt it. Wouldn't be surprised if we beat them out there."
"I don't know. Last night when I called Tara she said she was really excited about this."
"I know." Steve closed the door after Kathy got in, and headed for the driver's side. Sliding behind the wheel, he started the car and continued the conversation. "We're all excited about this, but I think Sher's most excited, and that means they probably had even a later night than I did, and got up later than I did, so they'll be late, and we can pretend we were on time. Good plan?"
Kathy laughed. "Great plan. Let's see if you're right. Personally, I think you're wrong and Sher's going to roll her eyes at you."
"Never gonna happen."
They drove east, out of Los Angeles, before turning northeast and heading up towards Barstow, and the road to Vegas. Just past Barstow, near the town of Baker, they turned north again, taking state road 127 toward the small town of Shoshone, on the edge of Death Valley National Park.
Just before reaching the town, they took a seldom used utility road into the park. Eventually it turned from pavement to dirt, and Steve grimaced as they hit pot hole after pot hole.
"She told you to rent a car for this."
"Yeah, yeah." He slowed down, trying to avoid the worst of the ruts.
Near a small ramshackle hut they pulled over, parking in an abandoned parking lot that was more a collection of broken rocks and deep ruts than anything else.
Turning off the engine, Steve shook his head and sighed. Kathy patted him on the back, grinning. "Told you."
"Do you enjoy always being right?"
She seemed to think about it, then grinned. "Yes." With a chuckle she leaned over and kissed him. "Because it means you're always wrong." With a laugh, she evaded his hands, jumping out of the car and heading for the woman sitting in the open back of an SUV.
"Hi! Did you guys have a nice drive?" Tara hopped out and hugged Kathy.
"We did, once he got to the house." Glancing back at Steve, who was ambling over, she whispered, "Don't tease him too much, okay? He had a late meeting, and you know Sher intimidates him."
Tara nodded. "I already told Sher not to say anything." Giving her friend a smile she stepped toward Steve, holding out her arms for a hug. "How'd the sports car hold up?"
He gave her a mock glare. "She had to choose a place with lousy roads? Hell, probably did it just to screw with my suspension." But he hugged Tara close, squeezing tightly for a moment. "How're you doing, Tar?"
"I'm good, Steve." She kissed his cheek, then pulled back, taking his hand. "Come on. Sher should be getting back soon."
"She already took off?"
"Yep. It's . . . a heck of a sight."
"I believe it."
Leading Steve and Kathy to the edge of a sandy embankment, Tara shaded her eyes, looking out across the dunes. For a moment there was only sand and sky, but then a blur caught her gaze and she pointed, grinning. "Right there. See?"
Kathy squinted, but nodded. "Hard to see against the sand. Wow, she's fast."
"Where? I don't see anything." Steve slipped his sunglasses on, then followed where Kathy was pointing. "Oh. Right." He inhaled, then let the air out slowly. "She really is beautiful."
Tara's voice was soft, and Steve could hear the smile in her words. "I know."
Across the valley, racing through the sand in giant leaps, was a golden figure, brunette hair streaming behind it in the wind. Born of the desert, the great sphinx had returned.
Somewhere, a goddess smiled.
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