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Better Than Fiction

Chapter Text

Life in a small town has its established, predictable patterns. The cycle of the seasons, the last names of the important folks in town, the shop on the corner that keeps changing names and owners, but can never establish solid footing as a reputable business.

Dixon, Alabama was no different. The first names of the residents changed, but the last names mostly didn’t. It was comfortable for most, a luke-warm bath of familiarity. Even the seasons had little in the way of variation. Most of the trees were pines, and kept their green garments on all year round.

Summers were particularly challenging, something to be dreaded rather than welcomed. The red clay earth soaked up the sun until it cracked and turned into dust, coating the windshields of the cars and the roadside grasses. And when the temperatures rose into the 90s, life started to become unbearable, people dashing from their air conditioned cars into air conditioned buildings as quickly as possible. The small streets were deserted in the middle of the day, except for a few desperate shoppers running into the Five & Dime or some poor soul who had to make a trek to the bank. Those who were in the hot, humid air for only a moment became instantly sticky with sweat, their hair damp and matted to their foreheads.

If they were lucky, the weather would be like this through all of July and August and then reluctantly start to release its grip in September. But this year did not look promising, as the ungodly temps had started in early June and showed no sign of letting up. School would be starting on Tuesday, as it always did the day after Labor Day.

The paper mill had its annual barbeque every year on Labor Day, and it was the one day the mill shut down completely. The kitchen staff cooked a massive feast of pulled pork, coleslaw, and baked beans for the thousands of mill workers and their families, who came from all over to enjoy the sweet smoked meat and the free ice cream and cases of paper towels that each family would receive.

The mill was the heart of the town and several towns around it. Without it, there would be no Dixon, at least not to speak of. The chemicals used to turn the pine trees into pulp and bleach them to be made into toilet paper created an odor of cabbage soup and pesticide that tainted the cloud cover and clung to the clothes of the workers, wafting its way into the town when the wind was right. It provided a reliable income, even if it meant a missing finger here or there, or a smashed foot - all in the name of industry, and for the chance to own a home and a nice car.

And if the mill was the heart of the town, the library was the brain, small though it might be. Every year they struggled with the budget, dealt with the threats of reduced hours, and begged for donations from the big-name families in town. But still it squeaked by, managed by a frugal librarian who fought with the town every year to keep the funding intact and shopped the booksellers for bargains to keep a few new releases on the shelf at all times.

This, too, was a predictable pattern, and one that was wearing down the librarian. Because even though she had started into this job with a noble heart, every year here in the town was killing her, a quiet death of strangled isolation, feeling like an alien in this strange land that was her home town.

Therese unlocked the door to the library at 7:30 a.m., and already the air was so thick that she could barely breathe. The library was stuffy too, as she turned up the thermostat to conserve energy overnight. She made a beeline to the temperature controller and adjusted it, alarmed at the overwrought groan that it made as it kicked on.

Oh lord, the last thing we need is a bill for a/c repair.

She walked through the small, darkened rooms, not yet turning on the lights. She had another hour and a half to work in silence before the other staff member arrived or the patrons. She flicked on the small coffee maker in the staff area and filled it with water, enjoying the silence of the place at this hour. At this moment, it was just her and the books, all those stories on the shelves waiting to come alive. Each book had potential, a beginning, characters who could go on adventures, encounter obstacles, and come out victorious ... and maybe even find love.

And so Therese lived vicariously through them; she clung to them like a life raft in a fractious sea. She fought fiercely for the books, because they were all she had. And in a place like rural Alabama, they were a respite from a world which seemed to close in around her, with people who all seemed to think the same, to vote the same, and enjoy the same vicious gossip. The world as she knew it was small and claustrophobic, and in the short 30 years of her life she had already decided that people were more of a liability than an asset. Her friends were here on the shelves around her, or in her precious cassette tapes that she went into the city to buy on occasion, the music that swept her away, so different from the country music played on the local station and at the dentist's office.

She wandered back to the stacks of fiction, seeing so many familiar titles that she had already read. Did she want to pick a new friend this morning, or go back and see an old, familiar one? There weren't too many choices that would be new to her – she had read most of the fiction the small library had.

She paused, remembering a title that had come in two days ago that she had just put on the display for new books. She walked back up to the front and picked up Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.

Hmmmm, interesting. Isn't Fannie Flagg the silly woman who was on the Match Game all the time?

She turned it over and read the jacket – it was a tale of female friendship, with part of it set in the 30's and all of it in the deep south.

Well, guess I'll give it a shot.

She took the book back to her little office, pouring herself a cup of coffee on the way. She wasn't officially on the clock until 9, so if she wanted to enjoy a little fiction on her own time, she wouldn't feel guilty about that.

She felt the slightest puff of cool air as she settled into her chair to read, and felt relieved that maybe the old air conditioner would live to chill another day. She was engrossed in the book by the time the alarm on her watch beeped, letting her know it was 8:55, time to open the front door to the library. She set the book aside with a sigh and got up with her large ring of keys.

She was happy no one was waiting outside on the landing; that was always the worst scenario, when someone was waiting anxiously to rush into the library, frantic for some item to complete a child's school project or, even worse, someone obsessive who had been thinking of a subject all night and then came racing into the library on a mission to conquer the topic with research. Small towns bred large personalities, and Therese did not want to spend a good part of her morning helping someone who was either unwilling or unable to use the card catalog.

She heard Sandra coming into the back door, late as usual, but Therese didn't mind. In fact, she was happy for whatever extra few minutes she could have away from the woman. She brought with her a wave of incessant chatter, gossip and speculation, and a running report of what was happening on her favorite soap opera. Not only that, but Sandra wore the cheapest, and therefore loudest, pantyhose under her frumpy skirts, and the sound of her thighs rubbing together as she walked was enough to alarm squirrels a mile away. She tucked her book away into her backpack and braced herself for the onslaught.

This morning it was all about her mother's emphysema, which was no surprise since the old woman smoked like a chimney. But Sandra remained perpetually shocked and saddened that her mother did not improve. Therese started to wish for one of those loud and demanding patrons to arrive, not sure how long she could contain the eyeroll that threatened to burst forth at any moment.

Finally, she pretended to hear the chime of the front door and fled off into the stacks with a cart of books for re-shelving.

The morning was like most mornings, a few mothers with small children coming in to pick out books, staying for a while to play with the Lego blocks in the corner. She couldn't avoid Sandra completely, so she suffered a few encounters which were mostly about Erica and Palmer on “All My Children,” and their latest ridiculous escapades.

By the afternoon, she was going batty with boredom, and she looked forward to the after-school rush. She smiled and waved as the children started to stream in, some of whose parents treated the library like free after-school daycare. The acceptable noise level in the small building rose considerably after 3:00, and, even though Sandra complained, Therese preferred to treat the library as a community of active learning, which could be a little boisterous sometimes.

She sat down at a table with some 10th graders who had been assigned a term paper, and talked with them about their ideas for possible topics. Having known most of them since they were old enough to read, she could provide gentle suggestions for things that might interest them. She knew which ones liked to read, which ones were sporty types, and which ones were more creative and artsy. In each one, she tried to find something that would spark an interest to learn and research.

With her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her naturally petite frame, she looked like she could have been one of the 10th graders. She glanced up to see Sandra pushing a cart of books by the table, giving the whole group a disapproving scowl.

The second wave of noise came around 3:30, when the kids from the private school made their way over to the little library. It was obvious they were comfortable with her by the way they joked and laughed, probably because she had babysat many of them when they were younger. She had gone to the private school herself, something she was not particularly proud of, but there was nothing she could do about it at this point. The private school was where many of the middle and upper class whites sent their children, all under the guise of giving them a good education. But the real truth was that a flurry of private schools had sprung up all over the deep south around the time of desegregation, and for the price of a steep tuition, parents could continue to keep their children separated from what they considered the "undesirable" elements of the public school.

But here in the library, the kids from both schools mingled away from the prying eyes of their parents. And, Therese thought, at least the ones who went away to college would finally have a more interracial educational experience. She remembered her first class in college with a more diverse group of students and how it had expanded her view of the world, how refreshing it had been to have those other perspectives in the room with her. Thanks to the college's scholarship program, there had been a fairly wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, a decent mix of minority students, and even a thriving population of foreign exchange students, most of whom Therese knew from spending so much time in the International House on campus.

Those four and a half years in Birmingham at her small liberal arts college had been a little slice of heaven, but that all seemed so far away now. She kept in touch with a few close friends, getting letters from wherever they had settled in the world. They had gone off to New York, to California, to Tennessee. They were doing interesting things with their lives, traveling, making a difference in the world – and she was back here.

She snapped out of her reverie when she noticed an unfamiliar face in the library – a girl, probably around 10-12 years old, with flaxen blonde hair and a splash of freckles across her nose. She made a mental note to find out her name, as she did with any of the new kids at the library.

She didn't have to wait long, as the girl came up to the circulation desk 15 minutes later with a book in her hand.

"I'd like to get a library card," she said breathlessly.

Therese smiled; it was always fun to see a child excited about reading. She noticed the girl had a strange accent, definitely not from around here – or anywhere in the south, for that matter.

"Fabulous!" she said, wrinkling her nose and giving the girl a goofy grin. "What's your name?"

"Rindy Aird."

Therese noted the unusual name and was careful to spell it right on the card. She was especially sensitive to such things, having an unusual name herself and often having to correct it for other people. She took the remainder of the girl's information and made a library card for her.

She picked up the book that the girl had brought to the counter and noticed it was one of the Trixie Belden series; Therese approved. The series involved a tomboyish girl who liked to solve mysteries – like Nancy Drew, but much less stuck up. Therese had a standing policy not to mention anything about the books her patrons checked out, pretending not to notice which titles they selected. She did this to help them avoid any embarrassment they might have about selecting a particular book, for whatever reason. If they felt they had confidentiality with the librarian, then they could feel more free to explore the world of books around them without shame or judgment.

But there was something about the way Rindy looked at the book with glowing eyes and then back up at Therese expectantly that made her break her own policy. She sensed a certain loneliness in the girl, which was understandable for a child new to the tight-knit community.

"Have you read any of this series before?" Therese asked.

"No, but my teacher at my last school told me she thought I would enjoy it, so it’s cool you have them here!”

"Oh, well they were some of my favorites when I was your age, and I think your teacher must have had very good taste."

Therese could see the girl thinking about this, remembering her teacher, and she could hear a note of sadness in her voice when she replied, "Yes, Ms. Gerhardt was really smart and funny, too. And she and my mom were good friends, so I got to see her a lot."

"Where did you live before?"

"Vermont," the girl replied, and Therese whistled low under her breath.

"Wow, that's a long way from here."

"Yes," the girl said, biting her quivering lower lip, "my dad got a new job here, so we moved."

"Ahhh, I see," Therese said, smiling warmly. "Welcome to your new home. You'll like it here, once you get settled in.” She winked and smiled again, despite the lie she knew she was telling the girl.

Oh well, maybe she WILL like it here. Some people like it. I guess a lot of people do. Maybe I'm the only one who's miserable living here.

The girl nodded, taking her book and heading towards a quiet corner of the library. She left about an hour later, when it was near time for Therese to lock up for the night. There were a few stragglers here and there, and she was at the circulation desk checking in returned books. The girl smiled and waved at her as she pushed open the large glass door to leave.

"Bye Rindy, enjoy the book!" she said cheerily, and she could see the girl blush that Therese had remembered her name.

When the girl had time to descend the stairs down to the pavement, Therese slipped out from behind the desk curiously, wondering if she could catch a glimpse of these exotic Vermonters who had entered their town. In one of the parallel parking spots by the curb, she saw a sleek, forest green Jaguar.

Whoa, I've never seen one of those in Dixon before.

Through the driver's side window, she could just catch a glimpse of golden curls peeking out from under a beige patterned scarf, and red manicured nails on the steering wheel.

She saw Rindy climb into the passenger side and the woman lean over to give her a hug.

Somebody has money.

She watched the fancy car as it disappeared into the sweltering heat of an Alabama afternoon, the sun still high overhead as the air wavered off the heated asphalt.

She went back to the desk, finishing up a few administrative items and waving to the few remaining patrons as they left. Sandra made her loud and ungainly exit, the sound of her cheap pantyhouse sounding like a choir of crickets as she waved goodnight. Finally Therese was alone again, and she went to the front door and locked it with her ring of keys.

She let herself out the back door at 5:05, happy to see her father's yellow pickup parked out back.

She climbed into the passenger's side, giving her father a weak smile, noting only the slightest whiff of alcohol coming from his side of the truck. He had the air conditioner cranked to high, and she leaned back against the sticky vinyl seats as he drove them the short distance home.

Chapter Text

Therese thought about all those delicious Sundays in college when she had slept in. Every single one had been a gift, and she had thought how it was so lovely not to go to church, to spend the morning doing whatever she wanted. So she would sleep in late, then get up for a stroll, or meet some friends on the Quad for a late breakfast.

But that wasn't an option in Dixon – or at least it wasn't worth the stir it would create. She had been raised in the church that she described to her friends at school as "Southern Baptist on steroids," a particularly conservative and marginalized group even for her small town. The 28 members of the church didn't believe in instrumental music, or church dinners, or using church money for charitable organizations. It was all about sending money to missionaries who shared their particular view of righteousness, and solely for the purpose of setting "heathens" on the one true path to salvation. As for baptisms, unless you were fully dunked under water as an adult, there was no way you would escape the fiery flames of hell.

Therese had been a true believer as a young adult – she had never sworn, or lied, or missed worship service unless she were sick. She had been baptized in front of the whole congregation, wearing a white gown 3 times too big for her, the preacher holding her nose shut as he leaned her back under the waters of the baptismal pool. It had been a proud day for her, but also a continuation of her never-ending worry that she might be doing things or, more likely, thinking things that were displeasing to the all-knowing God who ruled her life.

But at college, her faith her faith had started to slowly come unraveled, like a beloved sweater that starts to show signs of fading and pilling. She had professors who challenged her, but even more so, she had friends of different faiths and beliefs who she had a hard time believing would burn in hell just because they weren't raised to believe as she did.

And then there were the feelings she had, the ones she had shoved way down into the dark places of her mind. She had a boyfriend named Richard, a fair-haired boyishly nice looking guy who was a pre-med student. He made her laugh, he was smart, and she enjoyed spending time with him and his roommates watching  The Simpsons. She even enjoyed making out with him sometimes, although her strong religious beliefs ensured they both stayed completely clothed whenever they were together alone in his dorm room.

But there had been a girl in the dorm across the street – a voluptuous, dark-haired beauty with wild curls and large chocolate-brown eyes and the fullest, softest-looking lips Therese had ever seen. And whenever this girl called her, Therese would drop everything and go to her, do whatever she asked. She would cancel plans with Richard at the drop of a hat if she called, and she found herself making excuses to spend the night in the girl's room with her, sleeping next to her in the narrow single bed.

Nothing had ever happened between them except some intense cuddling, and the one night that she had brushed noses with the girl and rubbed her cheek against the soft skin of her face and neck. It had been enough for Therese to totally freak out, to stop returning the girl's calls – and also to break up with Richard. Because being with him was just a bleak reminder of what she could never have, could never feel with another person. Because it was wrong.

But was it? A seed of doubt had been planted, and she began to question what she heard at the small neighborhood church near her college, wonder how a loving supreme being could make her have these strong desires and then tell her those wonderful feelings were wrong.

And finally, the horrible moment that had made that seed grow into an insurmountable forest of darkness and plunged their whole family into despair.

In the first month of her sophomore year she had gotten the call. Not from her mother or father, but from her grandmother. She was hysterical, crying.

Her younger brother, Greg, had been in a car accident. Emergency crews had used the Jaws of Life to cut him from the mangled wreckage of his beloved Maverick, but he was gone before they could even take him out of the car.

He had been the light in her family, the one who made them all laugh, with his fair-haired complexion and wide, goofy grin. He had the same dimples that she did, but his were visible a lot more often. He had her mother's sense of humor, her same easy way of loving people and drawing them in.

And when he was gone, so was her mother's smile. She had left school for the semester to be home with her parents, but there was nothing she could do to bring her mother peace or to stop her father's frequent retreats to the bottle for comfort.

By the time she had returned for the second semester, she decided that no God who would take such a beloved and innocent person from the world, only to leave her and her family in this pit of grief, was worth worshipping.

And so began her deliciously free Sundays, although the first few were tinged with guilt, and she started to explore what she really thought and felt, now that she did not have the fear of an invisible monitor judging her every thought. She questioned everything she had ever believed, and it was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Because if the church did not provide the moral framework for her life, what did? How could she determine what was right and what was wrong? And why was Greg gone? What force could snuff him out so quickly, and where was he now?

These were the questions that could still flood her mind at night, making her restless and unable to sleep.

As she got dressed for church in her childhood bedroom, she gritted her teeth in frustration at this trap she was in. If she didn't show up for church, then she would have to suffer the questions all week as to why she wasn't there. And these people really did care for her – they were her extended family.

But to go was another sort of torture in itself, to hear things said in the pulpit that she was certain was a lie. So she had developed a bit of a trick, to let her mind drift off in fantasy while pretending to stare at her Bible in rapt attention.

She sighed deeply, trudging down the hallway to make a cup of coffee and some cereal. As she passed her father's room, she could hear his loud snoring on the other side of the door. That would be another sour pill in her day, having to hear "Tell your Daddy we missed him at church!" But she was used to hearing that by now, as he rarely made an appearance these days. And that was probably for the best, because his red-eyed and rumpled appearance at a service only raised more questions and eyebrows.

It was good she had set the clock an extra hour early, because it was going to take more time than usual to walk the 2 miles to church in this heat. It was already 82 degrees and it was only 7:15.

By the time she walked in the small church foyer, she was completely damp with sweat. She felt gross, not at all like the creature who had stepped out of the shower this morning all scented and fresh. She slipped into the ladies room to splash cold water on her face and smooth her damp bangs back out of her eyes. At least the church was air conditioned, and she took her blouse off for a moment in the tiny bathroom to flap it in the breeze and let the sweat dry on her skin.

She cupped her hands under the water and took giant gulps, cooling down. She pulled a lipstick and some powder from her purse and did her best to repair the damage the heat had done. At least it brought a nice flush to her cheeks, so she didn't need blush.

She took a deep breath and forced herself back into the foyer, where the rest of the faithful were starting to come in, complaining of the heat.

She ran the gauntlet of hugs and handshakes, making her way into the auditorium to claim her spot in the very last row, against the back wall. She opened a hymnal, pretending to be engrossed in learning the music for a particular song, which significantly reduced the number of people who would stop to say hello.

Except for Miss Jen – she would always come over to say hello, but Therese didn't mind. She had been her mother's best friend, and she was the nicest, warmest person Therese had ever known. She sensed her presence before she said hello, and Therese looked up to see the kind, watery brown eyes looking down at her. She stood up to hug the woman, who had become slightly hunched in the last several years and had slowly become shorter than Therese.

"You look so beautiful in that dress," Miss Jen beamed, and Therese blushed. Even though Miss Jen always complimented her, she always managed to make it feel sincere. "You look more like your mother every day," she said, and Therese laughed, because there was no way that could be true, but she liked hearing it just the same. Her mother had been fair like Greg, while she was so much like her father that no one ever doubted she was his child.

She exchanged a few pleasantries with the older woman and settled back into her seat as Miss Jen headed to her usual pew towards the front. The man leading the singing service for the morning was getting his hymnal out, signaling the service would begin soon. She pulled her hymnal out again and flipped it to the song number listed at the top of the wooden board in the front of the church.

In the flurry of people moving towards their seats, she noticed someone sliding into the pew in front of her. It was the little girl from the library ... what was her name? Ah yes, Rindy!

She was holding on to the hand of a tall blonde woman who she could see in profile. The profile was striking: an aquiline nose, full lips, sharply cut cheekbones. But before Therese could get more than a glance, the woman had her back to her, sitting directly in front of her, and a tall, handsome, dark-haired man had settled in as well, on the other side of Rindy.

The trio looked impossibly crisp and fresh for the summer heat, perfectly put together, and the wealth and status they exhibited rolled off them in waves. Therese thought she caught a whiff of the woman's perfume, and she leaned forward in her seat, pretending to sort through the hymnals in the holder behind where the woman was sitting.

Yes, there was definitely a scent of some delicious perfume, and she admired the small swath of skin where the blond wavy hair nestled at the nape of her neck, just above the collar of her cotton summer dress. She cursed herself that she had not been paying attention to their entrance. She had to imagine what the rest of the woman must look like, how the dress was cut, what kind of shoes she was wearing. All of this she had to conjure from staring at the back of her head, or getting the smallest glimpse of profile when the woman leaned her head down to talk to her daughter.

Therese found herself actually happy to be at church, because nothing interesting like this ever happened to her, new faces to examine and new stories to unfold. If only she would turn around and look at her straight on.

But on the other hand, Therese really didn't want that to happen. That would spoil the illusion. The woman would probably turn and smile, revealing a mouthful of rotted teeth, or cloudy eyes, or an unsightly birthmark. No, it was better to have this fantasy for the next hour, to imagine her as she wished her to be, a blank canvas on which to paint the perfect face.

She held the hymnal up to her face as they sang, peeping over the top of the book and taking in all she could of the woman, tilting her head forward slightly to listen for the sound of her voice.

When the preacher stepped up to the pulpit, Therese slumped back in her seat, laying the Bible in her lap and fixing her eyes on the back of the woman's neck. She created a story in her head of the family of three, their beautiful house with the green Jag parked in the driveway, their evening meals always perfect and spent laughing together over the antics of the day.

She shifted in her seat, leaning forward again and pretending to place her hymnal back in the holder on the pew in front of her, surreptitiously taking a deep breath in to smell her again, looking over her shoulder to see the curve of her bare arm with the milky skin, the fine blonde hairs glistening.

Therese sat back again, her head spinning, the smell of the woman the most delicious scent she had ever encountered. She had an urge to throw herself forward and press her face into the bare patch of skin at her neck, to bury her nose in those golden locks.

In a moment, the woman turned slightly, reaching her arm up and over Rindy's shoulders, her slender, elegant fingers rubbing the top of the girl's arm absently. Therese wanted to be Rindy in that moment, to feel the woman's arm around her, to feel those red manicured nails scratching lightly at her skin. She shook her head in a daze.

This is so wrong, to be having these thoughts in church.

She couldn't stifle a grin, and she looked down quickly at her lap before anyone could see her smiling.

When the sermon was over, it was time for the Lord's Supper, a Sunday ritual where crackers and grape juice were passed around as a symbol of the body and blood of Christ. All the baptized members of the church partook, including Therese – to refuse would have drawn too much attention. But, oddly enough, when the plates and cups were passed around, the woman did not take any, but passed the items along to her husband, who did eat and drink. She could see out of the corner of her eye that other members of the church had taken note.

Ohhh, a rebel!

A collection plate was passed around, and the adults put checks and paper money into it, while many of the children were given coins to put in. Therese rolled up a few single bills and put them into the plate, trying to make the wad of money look significant even though no one was watching.

Then it was time for them to stand and sing the final song of the service, the "invitation" song, where sinners were invited to the front to repent and be baptized, or to ask for the prayers of the church. Hardly anyone ever took them up on that invitation, but it created a little mini drama at the end of every service nonetheless.

For Therese, the drama was that the woman in front of her was now standing, and she could look down over the top of the pew and see that the summer dress just came to her knees, and below that a pair of incredibly shapely legs tapered down into a pair of lovely toeless matte white pumps, revealing red manicured toenails performing a little peek-a-boo of their own.

Her heart started to hammer in her chest, because after this song all that was left was the final prayer, and then the woman might turn to look at her. She wanted to see her, but she didn't want to be seen. She felt so ugly and rumpled from her sweaty walk that morning. She was self-conscious to the point of panic, and as the congregation bowed their heads for the closing prayer, Therese lost her composure completely and slipped out of the pew quietly, escaping out to the foyer and then into the blazing heat of the noon sun.

Chapter Text

She was kicking herself for her cowardice. Here she was, the chief complainant that nothing interesting ever happened in town, and now something ... or someone ... undoubtedly intriguing had happened and what had she done? Fled like a rat off a sinking ship.

She stopped at the gas station on her way home, buying a cold Orange Crush and standing, peeking through the windows of the store, wondering if she might see a green Jag pass by. No such luck, and after some strange looks from the cashier she figured she should leave.

She trudged the rest of the way home, finding her father lying on the couch and staring at the tv as usual. She made them both a sandwich – she was sure he would never eat if she didn't put a plate in front of him – and took hers to her room. She stripped off her sweaty clothes in the dim light of her bedroom, laying back against the cool sheets in only her underwear. Images of the tall woman kept flashing through her mind, and she tried to put together the rest of her face from the pieces she had seen.

She spent the afternoon reading and napping, and when it was time to attend the 2nd service of the day, she had worked up her courage to face the mystery woman that evening. But when she arrived, she was disappointed to find the new family wasn't there. There was, however, lots of information about the new family from all the gossipy members of the congregation.

Therese gathered that they were Harge and Carol Aird, and they were originally from Vermont. Harge had gotten the job as the new Mill Manager, replacing the guy who had run the place for the last 6 years before getting promoted to a Vice President position somewhere in Minnesota. They had, rather predictably, bought one of the expensive houses on Lake Louise, a man-made lake surrounded by a housing development, which was where the mayor, the dentist, and several doctors lived.

There were comments about how the woman had been quiet, that she was pretty but older, probably in her 40's, and that she probably thought she was "too good" for their small town. Therese thought the real reason was that they felt threatened by her stylish good looks.

There were several discussions about their accents, and how "Yankees are weird," the term "Yankee" being used broadly to describe anyone who was originally from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Therese listened closely if there were any other details about the woman, but she didn't want to appear too interested. Mostly she just nodded, staying after church later than usual to see if she could pick up any additional nuggets.

As she was leaving to walk home, a battered black and silver Chevy Cavalier pulled up beside her.

"Hey, little girl, want some candy?" the driver asked as he rolled down his window. Therese laughed and reached through the window as if to smack him. She had known right away it was Dannie; she would recognize the car anywhere.

"Where ya headed? Want a ride?"

"Hell yes," she said, running around to climb into the cool cabin. "Home, Jeeves," she said, buckling her seat belt.

She and Dannie had been friends since elementary school – he had been one grade behind her, and they had both been nerdy sorts, both in the marching band. After finishing school, he had come back to town to work at the local pharmacy, and, truth be told, to live close to his mama. The two of them had a close bond that had always inspired jokes from the other kids at school, but he was not embarrassed about how much he loved her. He was close to his father, too, a quiet man who was an electrician at the mill. Dannie and his parents had been known to travel to comic book conventions together, and he had never been known to have a steady girlfriend.

For Therese, he was just a comforting presence – a short, slight man with chocolate brown eyes and dimples like herself. He had an easy sense of humor and a ready laugh, and Therese had suspected at times that he had feelings for her that he never acted upon. This was fine with her, because she thought that such a confession could screw up a really nice friendship.

"Headed home from church?" he asked.

"Yeah." She nodded, and she could see the disapproval already on his face. He was the only person in town who really knew about her falling out with religion.

"When are you going to tell them that you're just not that into it?"

"Oh Dannie," she said, exasperated, "you know better than anyone that it's just easier to go with the flow around here. I would never hear the end of it."

He shrugged. "It's your Sunday. But I think it would be much better spent playing Atari or renting some movies to watch in the a/c."

"Can't disagree with you there."

"How's your dad?"

"Oh, the usual," she said, and Dannie nodded in understanding. "How about your folks?" she asked in return.

"Good, real good. Mama cooked a big spread after she and Daddy got home from church and my belly is still full." He poked at his paunch under a faded Incredible Hulk t-shirt.

She laughed, and they pulled into her driveway.

"Thanks for the ride," she said.

"Any time, toots," he replied, and tipped an imaginary hat in her direction.

She went inside and found her father in his usual spot on the couch, and he slurred a hello.

She popped a bag of microwave popcorn and took it into her bedroom with a glass of Mt. Dew, sitting in front of her small tv and flipping the channels restlessly. The Sunday night movie was really lame, so she finally turned it off in disgust and took her shower. Before she went to bed, she went and woke her father up on the couch and made sure he made it back to his own bed for the night.

The next morning, she woke and dressed for work, taking her time walking the mile or so there. She fixed her coffee, pulled the book from her backpack to read a while, and opened the front door on time. She heard Sandra coming in, about 10 minutes late. So far everything was on pace to be dull and determined.

In the afternoon, the public school kids flooded in, followed in a bit by the ones from the private school. In the second group, she noticed Rindy bouncing in. She was with Melanie Hudsell, the girl who always dressed like Madonna, or Boy George, or Cyndi Lauper – or probably, in actuality, like some combo of the 3. Whatever it was, it involved black lace and fingerless gloves and lots of wild, sparkly costume jewelry, usually with a wide-brimmed black hat.

Interesting choice of friends – she wondered what it meant, if perhaps Rindy was being treated as an outcast because she was a Yankee girl, and she had found someone else who was also out of the norm with whom she could relate.

Therese felt her heart flutter just at the thought that maybe she would get to see the flash of blonde curls again in the green Jag when Rindy got a ride home. She watched the girl and the clock, not daring to leave the circulation desk for too long.

She had just finished packing the cart with books for re-shelving when she heard the swoosh of the big glass front door. She turned her head, and her mouth dropped open when she saw the most gorgeous creature she had ever laid eyes on. She was tall, with beautiful golden hair and striking sharp cheekbones, wearing a tennis skirt revealing long, tanned legs and a sleeveless top. She was wearing large-framed sunglasses in movie star fashion.

Therese felt the rest of the room dim and narrow in to this one vision, as if there were a spotlight shining on her in a darkened room. She could feel her heart drop into the pit of her stomach as she watched the striking woman drop her sunglasses to her nose and scan the room for her daughter. She took in the full, red lips in that impossibly wide mouth, the way her chin was held upward, proudly, and her elegant strides across the library. She had spotted Rindy and Melanie and was headed their way, when, almost as if she could sense Therese's stare in her peripheral vision, she turned her head sideways to return the look.

It was blinding, like looking directly into the sun, to have that icy blue gaze directed at her. She knew she should close her mouth, stop staring, but she was like an animal caught in the light of an oncoming train. She was paralyzed by her beauty. And then, incredibly, beautifully, the corners of the woman's mouth turned up in a smile, an unspoken acknowledgement and ... something else there. A sense of Therese being recognized, as if the woman had seen her before and already knew her down to her soul.

The woman had stopped in the middle of the library and was gazing at her, and for a second time stood still, Therese feeling an embarrassed flush creep over her neck at being caught stunned and staring, and then they both heard, "Hey, Mom!"

The lights in the room suddenly came back on, all the sound returned, the "Play" button in her mind had been pressed to resume the action. The woman turned her head and saw her daughter smiling and waving.

Therese cleared her throat, remembered to breathe, and absently picked a book up off the counter and juggled it in her hands. She went back to her work, or at least attempted to, but her eyes kept being drawn back to the woman now sitting at a long table with Rindy and Melanie.

And then, as she was stuffing envelopes with letters for people with seriously overdue books, she saw out of the corner of her eye that the woman was approaching. She dropped her pen, then knocked the box of envelopes off the counter as she leaned to retrieve it. The envelopes scattered all over the floor, and Therese cursed under her breath. She shoved them to the side with her foot and then stood again, bumping loudly into a nearby cart and raising her eyes to find the woman directly in front of her. She was blushing like mad.

The vision before her spoke.

"You all right back there?" she said, and winked, and Therese thought her heart might shove itself through her ribcage.

"Uhh, I ... yes ... just ... dropped some envelopes, I mean, my pen, well, both actually," Therese stammered and shrugged a little, clutching the edge of the desk between them.

I am such an idiot.

The tall woman leaned forward, peering across the desk and towards the floor at Therese's feet, which were surrounded by envelopes. The lean brought her in closer proximity to Therese, and she felt her body ignite with the nearness of her ... and she could smell that delicious, otherworldly scent again. Therese flicked her eyes down to catch the tiniest glimpse of the woman's cleavage as she leaned forward, and she felt another wave of heat envelop her as she quickly looked away.

When she straightened, she looked at Therese again with a smile she could only interpret as cocky and said, "Well, I'm sure you have that situation under control. I'm Carol Aird."

"Oh, hi, yes, I met your daughter," Therese said, still blushing.  "Welcome to our town."

"Thank you," Carol said, and then there was an awkward silence.

Finally, Carol spoke again. "And you are ...?"

"Oh! Right, yes, I'm Therese. But people usually call me Terri, I mean, except some of my closest friends and stuff. Although I'm not sure where that came from," she babbled.

"Therese," the woman said, breathing out her name softly, dragging out the "zzzz" sound at the end of her name, and Therese was transfixed by those beautiful red lips pronouncing her name. "That's lovely," she said, looking directly at Therese, giving her a look that implied she was talking about more than just her name.

Therese was caught in her spell, not sure what to say at all. Somehow "thank you" seemed inadequate, but she went with that.

"I think we go to the same church," Carol said, and Therese couldn't hide her surprise.

"Oh, yes, yes I think that's right."

"It is," Carol said. "I saw you in the back pew, but you were very engrossed in your reading so I didn't want to disturb you. And then, when I turned at the end of the service to say hello, you were gone. So then I started to wonder if I had imagined you." Carol's eyes sparkled, and a smile tugged at her lips.

Therese knew her face must be 10 shades of red, she could feel the burning in her cheeks.

She noticed me.

"No," Therese gulped, "I'm real. Not even a figment."

Again, Therese, you are an idiot.

Carol nodded. "Well, that's a good thing. I hate it when I hallucinate."

Therese covered her mouth and giggled, relieved to hide her nervousness with a laugh.

"Well, Therese," she continued, "unfortunately for you, you are going to have to put up with a lot of me. I am working on my Master's thesis, and this seems to be my best resource without driving all the way to Tuscaloosa."

"Oh!" Therese said, thrilled at the thought, not sure what to respond to first – that she did not find herself unfortunate to be seeing a lot of Carol, or that she was afraid the small library would be found woefully lacking in the area of research.

In the end, all she came out with is, "What's your thesis on?"

"Feminist themes in American and British writing of the early 20th century." She said it with a practiced tone, as if she had rolled out that description a lot and it gave her pleasure.

"Wow. That's a fascinating topic."

"I hope it will be. I was just getting into a good groove writing it when we ... had to move."

Therese noticed a shadow cross the beautiful face, and looked down at her hands, still gripping the counter.

"Well, whatever I can do to help ... I mean with your research. I can look up things and also order books from other libraries. We are small but we have a good lending network."

The woman flashed a brilliant smile at Therese, revealing a row of straight, startlingly white teeth. Therese thought of a wolf, of the sun, of bite marks on her neck. She shook her head to clear it.

"That's so kind of you! I guess it's true what they say about Southern hospitality ," Carol said, attempting to drawl with the last 2 words.

Therese shook her head again, this time feigning a serious face. "You are going to have to work on that accent. It's atrocious."

Carol laughed, "Hey, I just got here, cut me some slack."

As they were laughing, Rindy and Melanie ran up to the desk. "Hey Mom, can Melanie come over?" Carol turned her attention to her daughter, sweeping her bangs off her face with an elegant hand.

"Not tonight, but maybe this weekend." The girls made noises of disappointment, and Carol turned back to Therese with a rueful smile.

"It looks like this party is over. But I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yes," Therese said, and smiled, looking back down quickly so as not to appear too eager.

She turned and walked towards the front door with Rindy, who was dragging her feet. As she pushed open the door, Carol looked back at her with a sly grin.

"Goodnight, Therese."

Therese held up a hand and wiggled her fingers, unable to speak.

Chapter Text

Therese felt so alive, more alive than she had felt in years. There was something to look forward to in her life, a rare occurrence. Sure, it was silly that it was as simple as getting to see the beautiful blonde woman again, but it was a thrill that she couldn't describe and wouldn't take for granted. When pleasures are few and far between, each one is to be savored.

Therese was cooking dinner for her and her father, round steak in gravy with onions and peppers, with mashed potatoes and green beans as sides. She liked to cook when she had time and when the house was sufficiently cool to stand the oven being on. Usually in summer she kept meals light, but tonight she was craving something hearty and decadent. Also, her father had picked her up from work sober enough that she felt they could risk a trip to the grocery store. He waited outside in his truck while she dashed into the cool grocery store, the refrigerated aisles raising the goose bumps on her arms.

Now she was mashing the potatoes by hand, humming along to a 'Til Tuesday cassette, sometimes joining in to sing harmony on the chorus. She boiled some water and put in the tea bags, letting them steep for a while before pouring the warm liquid into a giant pitcher and adding several tablespoons of sugar. When dinner was ready, she filled two frosty glasses with ice and enjoyed the crackle as the warm liquid transformed itself into iced tea.

Her father came in to sit at the table, looking a little sleepy but otherwise normal. She enjoyed him when he was like this, more open and talkative. He was a quiet man, but he had a certain joking turn of phrase, a mischievous twinkle that sometimes still made an appearance in those sad eyes.

"What were you up to today?" she asked, spooning out a helping of mashed potatoes onto his plate.

"Oh, I helped Freddy work on his truck. Don't know why he doesn't just buy a new one. He's got plenty of money, but he'll pinch a penny until it hollers."

"What's wrong with it now?"

"Needed new brake pads. I ran into him in town and the truck was squealing like a stuck pig. So I told him if he'd go over and buy the new pads, I'd help him put 'em on."

Therese nodded. She was enjoying the steak – it had turned out nice and tender, just like when her mother used to make it. She would never get her gravy as smooth and delicious as Mama's, but she believed she had conquered the steak. Her father seemed to agree, as he was wolfing it down like a starving animal. It was good to see him have an appetite for something other than whiskey. Days like this, moments like this, she could pretend everything was normal.

"What's new with you?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing much. There's a new family in town, new mill manager and his wife and daughter. They were at church on Sunday. I met the wife at the library today."

He nodded, chewing.

"Her name is Carol," she said, indulging herself in the sound of her name. She would have liked to have described her in detail, told him everything she knew about her and even some things she had imagined, but she thought it would be too conspicuous. "So, they are living up at Lake Louise."

"Ooooh, fancy," he drawled, somewhat sarcastically.

They laughed together at that, as the folks who lived on the man-made lake were somewhat of a running joke between them. "Too big for their britches" was what they called the fake people at the fake lake, pretending to be a big deal when they lived in small deal Dixon. But it was easy enough for them to be a big fish in a little pond here, where most people lived paycheck to paycheck. Although, it was suspected that most of the people at Lake Louise were living beyond their means and were up to their eyeballs in debt.

They continued their meal in a companionable silence, their relationship never needing a lot of talk to feel comfortable. She had always been a Daddy's girl, and one of the biggest heart aches in her life was watching his steady decline, becoming a shadow of the person he once was as he pickled his brain in alcohol. Her childhood memories were of him being so strong and capable, always clever with his hands. He had fixed the lawn mower and roto-tiller, done carpentry work, re-wired faulty appliances, and probably saved them thousands in car and home repairs. And she had followed him, been his little shadow, helping him put the lawn mower back together after repair and going to fetch tools that he needed. He had always been kind and patient, and he had made her feel like the smartest and prettiest girl on the planet.

He had worked out at the paper mill for the longest time, as had her mother – they used to ride together in the early mornings when he was on day shift, him heading to the packing building to relieve the overnight shift, and her heading to the mill's nursing station, where she attended the minor aches and pains of workers and tried to keep them as healthy as possible under the tough conditions.

After her death, there had been an outpouring of love and grief from the mill community. People Therese had never known had approached her in town, tears coming to their eyes as they told her some small act of kindness or generosity that had been done for them by her mother. She had listened with a lump in her throat and a sense of embarrassment, holding herself together until she could return to her house and weep in private. Yes, her mother had been special, and a selfish part of her wanted her mother's memories all to herself.

She and her father almost never spoke of her, because when they did the silence would loom so large and uncomfortable that they both would end up fleeing to their separate corners of the house. The ghosts of the two people who were no longer there, her mother and her brother, hung like a cloud of pain, their belongings still remaining in their rooms, and neither of them had the courage to go through the items and clean out closets or free up space for themselves. So they lived with these things, relics of their broken pasts, not speaking of the memories each item conjured or the daily torment of their losses.

It was during her mother’s long illness that her father's drinking had become intolerable. The occasional binge had turned into daily bouts of stupor. She knew that it was because he couldn't bear to watch her mother suffer, didn't know how to deal with the inevitability of losing her. But damn him – if Therese could have the courage to stand up and take care of her, to deal with the doctor's visits and long sleepless nights in the hospital, then he could have done it too. She had felt abandoned by him when she needed him most, and a part of her felt that resentment against him even now, seven years after her death.

She held it against him, too, that he was the reason she was stuck here. He had lost his job, after even the most sympathetic of the mill supervisors could no longer tolerate the smell of alcohol on his breath when he came in late, their fear of what could happen with the heavy machinery and his impaired judgement a spectre in their minds. So her small income was what kept the household going, along with a little of the settlement money from her mother's life insurance.

And she shuddered to think of what would happen to him if she weren't here to take care of the house, to provide him a warm meal, to clean and buy groceries and remember to pay the electric bill. In this new world they inhabited, they had completely reversed roles and now he was the child. She was the one who must be patient and kind, and remember to build him up and keep his world patched together. Because he was fragile, and the smallest thing might break him completely.

Therese stood up to clear the table, taking the dishes to the sink and filling it with warm, soapy water. She found something about washing dishes cathartic, wiping the slate clean and returning the dish to its original sparkling condition. She wished people could be so resilient, greeting each day fresh and new, and not bogged down by all the dark marks on their hearts.

She plunged her hands into the warm water and thought of her, thought of Carol, wondered what she was doing now. She wanted to memorize her face so that she could replay every line and detail in her mind, recall it like a beloved piece of art. It would be a task for her to undertake, and she would enjoy it while it lasted.

For if there was one thing she had learned in her short life, people were the gateways to disappointment. They would always let you down, and they would never live up to what you expected them to be.

Chapter Text

The library was quiet even by library standards. It was a Tuesday, Sandra's usual day off, which they had decided because it was one of the slowest days at the library. Only one patron had come in, and Therese figured since the temperatures were supposed to top 100 today it would keep many people inside.

She was beside herself, waiting to see if the gorgeous woman would actually materialize today. It had been hard to sleep the night before, and she had awoken several times during the night to roll over and look at the clock on her nightstand, wondering if it was time to get up yet and start this day of Carol goodness.

Slightly sleepy from her restless night, she decided to take advantage of the quiet to clean up the children's corner. It was an area that could get wildly out of control if not tended to regularly.

As usual, there were puzzle pieces scattered all over the tables, Legos on the floor, and books haphazardly placed out of order on the shelves. Therese lowered herself into one of the tot-sized seats at the tiny table and started to replace all the pieces to the map puzzle of the United States. Puzzle pieces were lost all the time, and she remembered a whole week when Idaho went missing. She had found it in the small music section, crammed into the case with the B-52's cassette "Wild Planet," which just happened to have the song "Private Idaho" on it. Even Sandra had to laugh at that one.

She was studying the puzzle intently, trying to fit in pieces of the vast midwest, when she heard the front door open. She looked up to find the tall, stunning blonde making a beeline for where she sat. She was wearing knee length white shorts and a turquoise polo shirt, and those even white teeth were displayed in a lovely smile. She realized how ridiculous she must look, sitting in a tiny chair and working hard at a child's puzzle. Her face flushed, and she tried her best to return the woman's brilliant smile.

"Hi," Therese said quietly.

"Hello again," she said as she looked down at the puzzle, "hard day at the office?"

Therese's face blushed a deeper red, not knowing if the woman was mocking her or trying to be playful.

"Oh, just cleaning up, making sure I have all the pieces."

Carol nodded, then, to Therese's amazement, pulled one of the tiny chairs out from under the table and attempted to sit in it. Sitting so low in the chair, Carol's knees came up almost to her chest, and she gave Therese a goofy grin that made her laugh. She picked up Montana and placed it on the map, and Therese said, "ooooh, good one!"

"Hey, we'd better get this puzzle done before some 2nd grader comes in and humiliates us both."

Therese laughed. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time. I'm absolutely terrible at geography of any sort. I remember in 4th grade, we were supposed to memorize where all the states were and their capitals, and it's the lowest grade I've ever made on a test ... ever."

"Which was?"

"46."

"Ohhh, that IS bad," Carol said in a serious tone, "I hope you managed to pass 4th grade. Well, I suppose I'll just have to help you out."

"If you could just get me through some of these midwest states ... they're all so ... square!”

Carol nodded. "Don't worry, dahlink, I've got zis all under control," she said in a silly accent that sounded like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Therese watched her put the pieces quickly into place, or rather, she mostly watched her face as she concentrated. When she was done, she sat up straight in the little chair and made a dusting motion with her hands. "Piece of Cake."

"Very impressive, Mrs. Aird."

Carol picked up a small matchbox car that was on the table. "Now that we have our states all assembled, where should we go?"

"Go?" Therese asked.

"Yes, on our road trip! Where are we going?"

Therese cupped her chin in her hand and peered down at the map. "There are so many places I'd like to go, I don't even know where to start."

"Definitely someplace cooler," said Carol. "The mountains ... I know, the Adirondacks!"

"The what quacks?"

Carol threw her head back and chuckled. "The Adirondacks - it's a beautiful park in upstate New York with acres and acres of mountains, miles of trails to hike on, lakes, and ponds, and streams. It's heaven."

"Hmmm, there is something in New York besides New York City?" Therese laughed, knowing she was being ridiculous but half-way serious about the question.

"My dear, the state of New York is vast and beautiful, and most of it is so wonderfully unlike New York City that your head would spin. So that settles it – we'll go to the mountains first, then make a detour to the Thousand Islands."

"Where they make the dressing," Therese said, trying to ignore the heat wave she had felt at hearing Carol call her "dear".

Carol rolled her eyes. "Yes, right, the dressing. We'll eat lots of salads. My my, Miss Librarian, do I ever have some things to show you." Carol grinned and started to drive the little car across the puzzle map, making silly car noises on her way.

Oh, I'll bet you do.

Therese watched the elegant hand on the car and imagined being in a vehicle with this magnificent creature, in a tiny bubble of solitude where the smell of her would be contained and ever-present. Therese closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

When she opened her eyes, she saw Carol was watching her. No, studying her.

She laughed self-consciously and looked down. Carol, she noticed, did not seem self-conscious at all about looking at her that way. Whatever way that was, Therese felt unsure. But it was not like anyone else had ever looked at her before.

She pushed back the little chair from the table, almost tipping it over in her haste to get up.

"So, would you like a tour?"

"Yes," Carol said, and rose from the chair, unfolding her tall frame inch by inch in a graceful ascent. "The grand tour."

Therese was unsure how she would make her legs function appropriately to walk and not trip, knowing Carol's eyes were on her as she followed her through the small library. She showed her the sections for fiction and non-fiction, the collection of encyclopedias, the two word processors and dot matrix printer available for use by patrons.

"Ahhh, perfect," Carol said when she saw the computers, "I have the start of my paper on floppy disc, and I thought I was going to have to write it out longhand until I could get somewhere to type the rest of it out. But this way, I can just use one of these and write as I research."

Therese nodded, immediately thankful that she had begged and begged for donations for the two machines. They meant that Carol would be here at the library even more often. She would have pulled the money out of her own meager paycheck just to make that happen.

She helped Carol locate a few resources to get started, and was simultaneously happy and unnerved to find that she settled in to a table visible from the circulation desk.

"Give me a whistle when you need help finding anything," Therese said, and Carol gave her one of those wide and devastating smiles.

"Well, I do know how to whistle," she said, "I'll just put my lips together and ... blow."

Therese's heart was pounding – the way she had said it, and the way she had looked – my god, she was even sexier than Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not." And Therese hadn't even known that was possible.

"Well, if you keep quoting classic movies, it's going to be hard to get rid of me," Therese said, trying to control the tremor in her voice.

"And what if I don't want to get rid of you?" Carol asked teasingly.

Therese bit her lip, her mind racing, trying to find a snappy comeback, but all the blood had left her brain and was headed for regions south. It was so hard to think.

"Well, then I guess I'll just be right over here, in that case," Therese said awkwardly, pointing at the front desk. "So, see you later. Well, actually, I guess I'll still see you. You know, from over there."

Shut up, just shut up now. Oh for fuck's sake.

She turned and walked off, but she could hear Carol's throaty chuckle behind her as she went back behind her desk and stared intently at a cart of books, pretending to be working.

Throughout the morning, Therese felt the woman's eyes on her, but she tried not to cross paths with the stare. She would steal glances from hidden places, or when she wasn't feeling the gaze upon her. And maybe she was just imagining it anyway, the little hairs on her neck rising at the feeling that she was being watched. Because surely, why would the woman be watching her? She was not interesting in the least. So yes, it all must be her imagination.

But in the moments when she watched the woman, leaning over her books, writing into a large leather-bound notebook on the table, she admired her every feature and memorized it all. Her face reminded her of an exotic jungle cat, whose eyes slanted at an upward angle, the cheekbones and sharp chin, and that impossibly wide mouth. She had an obsession about that mouth; she wanted to see her eat something, no, to devour something. To see her tongue slide across those full pink lips. It was all she could do to keep away from her, to at least pretend to get her work done, and to tend to the trickle of patrons that came through the door.

By 11:30, Therese was exhausted with the effort of staying away. She casually walked by the table, pushing a cart of books, waiting for the woman's eyes to lift to hers. When she was still several feet away, Carol looked at her, and when their eyes met, Therese could feel a bucket of minnows sloshing in her stomach, swimming around frantically and colliding against each other and her stomach lining. The effort of walking forward loomed large, and she felt glad she had the little cart to hold on to.

She stopped beside the table and whispered, "How's it going?"

"Slowly," she said, resting her cheek in her hand and looking at her intently, pausing long enough that the small brunette felt her insides quake again. "I've been distracted."

Therese clutched the cart so hard that her knuckles turned white. Something about this jungle animal felt dangerous at the moment, predatory. Therese felt the heat rising up the back of her neck. She cleared her throat nervously, reminding herself that this was all in her mind.

"Well, yes, umm, research is hard work, I know," she mumbled, straightening a few books on the top row of the cart so that their spines aligned perfectly. When she looked at Carol again, her face had softened and the tension had left the moment. Therese let out a breath, almost disappointed to feel it dissipate. Carol looked back down at her notebook, sighing, "It's hard to get back on track when you've had a break from it. I feel like I just need to get my momentum back. It was hard to be disrupted, with the move and all. And it's been stressful helping get Rindy settled into a new school and home."

Therese nodded. "At least she's found a friend."

Carol picked up a pen and fidgeted, twisting the two halves back and forth to open and close it. "I guess so. It was just very different where she was before. She felt more ... normal. And now she says she feels like a freak. And I understand that, believe me I do," she said, looking up at Therese again. "But I'm beyond the age where I care so much about that. To her, though, these things are still important."

"Wish I knew what that was like," Therese said quietly.

"What?" Carol said, cocking an eyebrow.

"Being beyond the age where it matters."

"Ahh, you're young yet. How old are you, anyway?"

"30."

Carol nodded sagely. "It's a turning point. You're getting there. In your 30's, it gets easier."

Therese looked at her, wanting to ask the question, but feeling it was rude. Carol saw the question in her eyes and answered for her anyway. "I'm 45. Practically ancient. It's a miracle I can even remember being your age," and then she winked.

Therese blushed. "Oh no! You are certainly not ancient. Not by any stretch. I think you are ... you are ..."

Magnificent. Stop it, do not even ...

"Timeless."

Carol tilted her head to the side, a curious expression on her face. "That's certainly something I've never heard before. I'll have to think about that."

"Something else to distract you, I guess," Therese said, surprised at the words that tumbled out of her mouth. She was secretly pleased with herself, and figured she would leave it at that – quit while she was ahead. Because it was so rare she could produce a witty come-back.

She pushed the squeaking cart off towards the non-fiction section, not risking a backwards glance at the blonde predator in her library.

Chapter Text

When Dannie called her Thursday morning, she was feeling antsy. It was her day off, so she had no hope of seeing Carol. And the woman hadn't stopped into the library the day before, so she was beside herself wondering if she might be there now.

It was good that Dannie was going to take her mind off it. He had suggested they go into Jamison, Mississippi, for the day and see a movie, maybe do some shopping. Jamison was the nearest city big enough to have a shopping mall and a movie theatre, about a 50 minute trip for them.

Dannie had the day off too, and he often invited her along for company on his trips to the city. He picked her up around noon in his Cavalier, and Therese jumped in carrying her purse and a faux-leather briefcase that held her favorite cassettes. The car was already pleasantly cool, and she gave him a strange sideways look when she noticed he was wearing cologne.

Hmmm, I think he's even wearing an actual shirt with a collar. Are we going to visit someone in the hospital?

Being with Dannie was always like a strange time warp – in a way, she felt like they were still in high school, without the cares of being an adult. She could set aside the weight of her everyday life and pretend the world was still full of possibility. Among all her classmates, Dannie was the only one who seemed to be stuck in the same sort of way that she was. Sure, other classmates had come back to this town to live, but they had come back as dentists, and mill workers, marrying, and settling down, and having children. They seemed more like adults, not like Dannie and herself, who were still tethered to their parents and their pasts, not quite launched into full blown adulthood.

They set off down the two-lane highway lined with pines and trailer parks, Dannie cracking jokes and making her laugh as always. "I swear, Miss Akins came into the pharmacy yesterday and tried to convince me to give her anxiety medication for her dog, Lulu. And she knew I was going to say no, because she had a box of chocolate chip cookies with her as a bribe. Did she really think she could buy me off that cheap? So I told her, come back tomorrow with some brownies and a Pepsi and we'll have a deal."

Therese laughed and  punched him playfully in the shoulder. "Pepsi is awful, you should have asked for Coke."

"Pharmacists have to be real careful  mentioning coke – people think you mean cocaine, and next thing you know the FBI is knocking on your door."

"You watch too much tv, Egghead," she said, using her childhood nickname for him.

"Maybe, but you'll never catch me getting roughed up by the feds. I am too cagey ... and manly," he said, flexing an imaginary muscle.

Therese pulled the large cassette tape case into her lap and popped it open. "How about The Cure?" she asked, and he nodded agreeably. He always let her pick the music when they rode together.

She popped "The Head on the Door" album into the player and "In Between Days" started to play. The two sang along at the chorus, practically howling at the part where Robert Smith sang, "Without yoooooooooouuuuuuuuu, without youu ew ew ewwww."

In what seemed like no time, they were pulling into the mall parking lot. Dannie always offered to take her to the mall on their trips, knowing that she didn't have much opportunity to buy clothes. They split up, Dannie heading to the video game store and Therese dragging her feet towards JCPenney's. She hated shopping for clothes, but it was a necessary evil to at least look presentable. She figured if she could find a skirt and a couple of blouses it would tide her over for a while. She ripped through the sale racks, trying to find something affordable and not hideous, and finally found a plain navy skirt and a checked blue and white blouse to go with it. Then she found a simple button-down white short-sleeved blouse that would go with just about anything.

She rushed to the cashier, eager to get out of the store as soon as possible. Because now that the drudgery of buying clothes was over, she could fly to where she really wanted to be – Turtle's Music and Video.

The chain store was at the middle of the mall, and it was a hub of activity. Therese practically danced in, scanning the store for Dannie, who planned to meet her there. He was in the rock section, probably looking for new punk bands. She made a beeline for the Stevie Nicks section to see if there was anything new, then over to 10,000 Maniacs. In the tab marked Suzanne Vega, she hit the jackpot. They had a copy of her first self-titled album, and Therese had been looking for it ever since she fell in love with her second album, "Solitude Standing."

She scooped it up and went jogging towards Dannie, waving triumphantly.

"Whatcha got there?"

"Score!" Therese whooped, and showed him her find. He knew she had been checking for that album for a while, so he tried to be enthusiastic on her behalf. He had a goofy grin of his own as he held up two used Atari games he had found at the game store.

"Well, this calls for a celebration!" she said, giggling. "Something grand, worthy of this occasion." She paused for a moment, then raised her eyebrow significantly. "Shall we have a Subway, Monsieur?"

"Ohhh yes, Madame," he said in a terrible French accent. "Let us feast on the finest sandwich that this glorious country has to offer."

They finished perusing the new music section, made their purchases, and headed off for a sandwich before the movie. Therese wolfed down an Italian sub, her favorite. Having it was a rare treat, since the only restaurants they had in Dixon were a Hardee's, a diner, and a fried chicken joint.

They were in fine spirits when they got to the theater. They had looked at the paper and picked out a movie, and thankfully there had been one easy to agree on: "Beetlejuice." Their tastes in movies were usually quite different, and sometimes they even went to separate movies when they could find ones with times close together. Last time, he had wanted to see "Superman IV" and she had gone to see "The Witches of Eastwick." She remembered the women in the film, the way they had been so flirty with each other, and how it had made her feel all warm and tingly inside.

They walked past posters for upcoming movies and discussed which ones they would like to see next. "Big" with Tom Hanks was currently playing, and next week they were going to start showing "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

"Cruise is so cool," Dannie said, "he's the idol of all short guys."

"Yeah, he seems like such a normal guy too," Therese said. "Not sure I want to see that film though. Sounds like kind of a bummer."

"How about this one?" he said, pointing to the poster of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

"Eh, I'd try it, but probably would wait for it to come out on VHS. Could be kinda goofy."

They bought a large bucket of popcorn with extra butter to share, and they each got their own drink. Therese inhaled the lovely scent of butter and musty curtains that always greeted her here. They drifted into the cool darkness and found their seats, the audience already speaking reverently in whispers. The two had their regular routine, finding a seat in the middle towards the back, propping the popcorn between them, and doling out a giant stack of napkins for their buttery fingers.

As the room went completely dark and the trailers started to play, they munched on their popcorn, sometimes commenting on a movie that they thought looked particularly stupid or interesting or incredibly trite. Sometimes Therese's hand would bump against Dannie's as they both reached for popcorn.

The movie started, and Michael Keaton was hamming it up on screen, dishing up the dark humor and plenty of yuk yuks. He was currently yelling something about Sandworms.

Therese found her mind wandering, thinking of Carol and what it might be like to go to a movie with her. Would they share a popcorn? What if her hand brushed against Therese's in the bucket? No, Carol would never eat popcorn, that would be too low-brow for a woman like her. But maybe their arms would brush against each other's in the dark as they shared an armrest. Or Therese would let her leg relax just a little too much, so that her knee would brush against the side of Carol's thigh. Women casually touched like that all the time, didn't they? It wouldn't be a big deal.

There, in the dark, she could easily imagine Carol beside her; she felt her breathing quicken at the mere thought of it. She felt Dannie's warmth beside her and leaned into him a bit, still imagining she was with the mysterious beauty. And then she caught a whiff of his cologne, so unlike the delicious, feminine scent of Carol, and it burst her dream bubble. She felt Dannie shift in the seat beside her, leaning his elbow on the armrest between them.

She turned her attention back to the big screen, where the Geena Davis character had developed a rather nurturing relationship with the goth daughter, Lydia. She felt a pang, thinking how nice it would be to have a woman mother her this way – she wondered when she would ever grow up, ever grow out of wanting to have someone love her like this. She bit her lip, thinking how ridiculous she was being in this movie that was supposed to be a dark comedy, but had now made her think about death, and her mother, and the loneliness and isolation that she felt. She wiped off her greasy fingers in the pile of napkins and slouched down in her seat, propping her feet up on the seat in front of her.

She looked out of the corner of her eye and could tell Dannie was enjoying the movie. At least one of them was having a good time.

She swore at her own capricious mood, so low and so high in such a short time, and she willed herself to overcome it. But somehow that only made it worse, and she sulked in her chair and dashed a tear from the corner of her eye. Sometimes the grief for her mother seemed a well she had fallen into that she could never quite climb out of – just as her fingers gripped the slippery stones near the top of the well, an old memory would dislodge itself, like a stone crashing down from overhead to send her toppling back down to the darkest depths. It was something that she no longer dared talk about with her friends, not even Dannie – because none of them had lost a parent, and could not understand why all this time later it was still something that could slice into the very core of her, leaving her bleeding and raw.

She slipped quietly out of her seat and went to the ladies' room, where she splashed her face with cold water and looked at her face under the horrid fluorescent lighting. It called out dark circles under her eyes and gave her skin a yellowish undertone. She thought of how ordinary she looked, how totally unremarkable. She turned away from the mirror in irritation, walking back into the lobby to take a few deep breaths and look at the movie posters again. She looked at the people waiting in line at the box office and noticed a particularly attractive couple, the man tall and dark haired, the woman leaning into him petite and blonde, having the sort of easy smile and kind eyes that made her immediately likeable.

Therese wondered what it must be like for them, to be so obviously in love, on a date, holding hands in public. And what things they would do together in the dark of the theatre, and then later again when they got home. Would they kiss and hold each other, have sex, fall asleep together? What was it like, to have that kind of intimacy with another person?

And then she realized she must have been staring, because she noticed out of the corner of her eye the woman who had taken her ticket earlier, who was looking at her oddly. She smiled awkwardly and then scurried back towards her theatre and her seat beside Dannie.

He glanced at her. "You ok?"

"Yeah." She felt a wave of gratitude for Dannie, for his concern.

"I ate the rest of the popcorn."

"That's ok."

It's ok, Therese. You're going to be ok.

She raised her hand to her own cheek and stroked it softly, soothing herself. She focused on her breathing, and she could feel her heart start to slow down.

As they walked back out into the lobby to the sound of "The Banana Boat Song," Dannie nudged her gently, "Hey, wanna go out for a drink or something?"

She glanced down, pretending to look at a watch that wasn't there. "Nah. I shouldn't. I have work tomorrow."

"OK," he said, somewhat dejectedly.

"Sorry," she said, flashing the biggest smile she could muster at him, "but next time we will, I promise."

"Rezzie, you ..." he shook his head, then started to laugh, "you know you always say that, right? You are so full of shit."

She caught a bitter undertone to his words, but laughed it off. "Hey, a lady-killer like yourself wouldn't want to have me along anyhow. I'd only cramp your style."

He smiled, relaxed into his facade of hyper-masculinity and faux-preened for her. "Well, that's a true statement. I was rather hoping you'd be my bodyguard. You know, keep the ladies off of me so that I could just entertain the best ones."

She nodded, feeling them settle back into comfortable territory. On the way home, she let him pick the music.

Chapter Text

Therese was in the back office doing paperwork when she heard the voice that conjured images of melted butter, wine-stained lips, and morning sun slanting in on rumpled bedsheets. She stood up quickly, searching for an excuse to go up front. She grabbed some books off her desk and walked up behind Sandra at the circulation desk, searching over her shoulder to find the tall blonde standing at the other side of the counter.

She tried to fix her face into something that didn’t look to eager or expectant.

"Oh hi," she said in what she hoped was a casual tone. Carol looked back at her and smiled, and Sandra looked back over her shoulder at her in mild annoyance.

"I was just returning this book and checking to see if the one you ordered for me the other day had come in," Carol said. "Unfortunately, looks like not yet."

"Yes, it can take a while."

Sandra broke in, "So I hear ya'll are living out at the lake. How do you like it?"

Carol smiled patiently. "Oh, we like it fine."

"Have you met the Remingtons yet? They live out that way," she lowered her voice, "but I hear they are having marital troubles."

Carol's smile tightened. "No, I'm afraid I haven't. Sorry, I really should be going. Thanks for checking on the book!"

She turned on her heel, waving, and in a flash she was gone. Therese was flooded with disappointment as she watched her pushing through the door and out into the bright sunshine. Her blonde hair glimmered like gold.

"Wonder why she was in a such a hurry?" Sandra asked. "She doesn't have a job, and it's not time for school to be out yet."

Therese shrugged, then glanced at the counter where Carol had returned her book.

"Oh Sandra, I almost forgot, would you mind going to check our post office box? I am expecting a shipment any day now."

Sandra smiled, and Therese knew she loved making the trips to the post office. It meant she could waste a little time driving around in her car and get some french fries or a shake at Hardee’s. It was always a sure bet way to get rid of her any day that she was grating on Therese's nerves.

Sandra headed for her keys, taking a chorus of crickets with her as her thighs rubbed together. Once she was safely out of the library, Therese picked up the book that Carol had brought back, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway . She stroked her fingers over the fabric binding, then opened the back cover.

Inside was the empty pocket for the check out card. She flipped through the filed cards until she found the correct one for the book. Each card was a little history of all the people who had checked out the book – their neat signatures with a return date stamped beside it.

This card had Carol's name written in a flowery hand at the bottom. She looked up surreptitiously, then looked back down again and ran her fingertips over the name. She slipped the card into the waistband of her skirt, next to her skin, and typed up a new card to place into the book.

Saturday passed with no sightings of Carol, which made Therese especially anxious to get to church on Sunday morning. The heat had finally broken a little, and she was happy she could make the walk to church without breaking into a sweat. She had even applied a little powder and lip gloss, and she was wearing a white cotton dress splashed with red poppies. She had a pair of glossy red mary janes to match.

She was inside and seated on the back pew 10 minutes early. She didn't bury her face in a book; instead, she watched eagerly for the other families to file in. And then finally, a couple of minutes before the service was to start, the Aird family walked in. She looked over at them and smiled, and they filed into the pew in front of her.

Rindy turned to her. "Hi, Miss Terri!"

"Hey Rindy, how are you?"

She saw the tall man beside Carol give her an inquisitive look, and she noticed Carol looking stiff, like a mannequin in a store. "Hi," she said softly, then turned to the man. "Harge, this is ... Terri. She's the librarian. Terri, this is my husband, Harge."

Therese extended her hand, doing her best to ignore the sharp pain in her heart. The man's hand was large and rough, but he had a nice smile.  She hated him instantly.

"Nice to meet you, Terri!" he boomed. The song leader stood up to start the service, and Carol looked relieved to turn away from her.

She didn’t even smile at me. And now it’s Terri??

Therese slumped in her seat, grinding her teeth. The object of her obsessive thoughts for the last several days seemed completely uninterested to see her. If her eyes could have burned through the woman in front of her, her blouse would be smoking by now. By the time the sermon had ended, Therese had forced her face down into her book again, conscious that someone else might see the look she was giving the blonde woman's back.

She resisted the urge to run again before church was over. When the last song had finished and they had said the final prayer, Therese held her breath to see what would happen next. The Airds were immediately swarmed by other members of the congregation, trying their best to make the prosperous family feel extra welcome. Therese tried to be inconspicuous as she observed how Carol handled it all. She flashed her stunning smile, but her eyes were not smiling. It all seemed very superficial.

For one moment she saw Carol scan the room, and her eyes briefly landed on Therese. Her expression didn't change, but she thought for a moment her eyes seemed to change to a lighter color, then just as quickly her eyelashes fluttered and she returned to look at the elderly woman who was clutching at her elbow.

Therese turned away from the group to catch up with Miss Jen, who was just getting over a nasty cold. Therese promised to fix her a batch of her famous chicken soup. When she looked up again, she saw the backs of the Airds as they whisked out of the vestibule.

"You ok, sweetie?" Miss Jen asked, and Therese looked at her concerned face.

"Oh yes, of course."

"You just seem a bit off – hope you are not getting sick!" she said with a kind smile.

Therese shook her head and gave her a quick hug before slipping out of the front door.

As she walked home, she replayed the few minutes with Carol in her mind. She was so angry at herself for caring, for making this into more than it was. She was not the kind of person to indulge in drama. She was orderly, and quiet, and observant, and calm. Feeling rattled this way by something so small made her blood boil, the indignation at her mistreatment by Carol spiraling into a thousand wild stories.

She doesn’t care about me. She thinks I’m a toy. This is all a game to her. She flirts with everyone. I am a stupid, stupid girl. I am sick and defective, and my feelings are so wrong.

By the time she got back to the sanctuary of her room, she was tearful and exhausted. She buried her face in her cool pillow and cried, the small voice inside her saying all the cruel things that would make the tears come hard and fast. She was brutal with herself - she would weep the feelings out now so that they wouldn't be tempted to seep out later.  Finally she fell asleep, her eyes puffy and red, dehydrated and headachey from her sobbing.

She didn't see Carol again until Tuesday morning, and by then she had steeled herself into a firm resolve. She would not let this woman get under her skin. She would treat her just as any other patron: friendly, polite, and with a cool detachment. She was the pen on the desk, the wallpaper, the high polished credenza - just another inanimate object in the library. She could slip back into her safe role of observer in the world, numb herself to the frivolous emotions and actions that made all the other silly girls in this town so worthy of Therese’s ridicule.

The library was quiet, and Therese was trying to get some new book orders completed when she heard the front door open. She walked up to the front desk, and there was Carol. She bit the inside of her cheek, reminding herself of her new resolution.

"Hi, Therese."

Oh, you remember my name now?

"Hi," she said, emitting a smooth tone of efficiency. "Can I help you?"

Carol tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "Yes ... yes. I have a few books I'd like to see if we can get on inter-library loan. The last one you helped me find was great – it led me to a bunch of new resources."

Therese nodded, her eyes fixed on the counter between them. "Sure, just leave me a list here," patting the counter, "and I'll look them right up."

She sensed Carol hesitating, and she pointedly avoided her gaze. She turned to go back to her office.

"Therese."

Something about her voice when she said her name -- she could swear she heard a note of vulnerability in it. Her heart was pounding; she felt her bottom lip trembling and she pressed her teeth into it to regain control.

Keep it together, Therese. You can do this. This woman is just another library patron.

She turned around again to the desk. "Yes?" she asked, venturing a quick look up at the woman.

"I ..." Carol played with the bracelet on her wrist, a slim silver wire dangling with charms, "I really appreciate the help you've been giving me. You're very kind."

Carol looked up at her through her lashes then, her smile seeming shy, apologetic. It was a look she had not seen before.

"You're welcome," Therese said softly, the coldness leaving her voice. She supposed this was as close as someone like Carol could ever come to an apology. "Here," she said, "you can write your book titles on this pad. I just need to ... fetch something from the back for a minute."

Therese scurried back to her tiny office, struggling to breathe properly.  She leaned against a wall, her legs weak. She felt nauseous, and ridiculous. She had been sulking like a child, and for what? This drama she had whipped up in her mind had to stop. She smoothed her hands down over her skirt, then brushed the bangs back from her face, plastering on a smile before going back out to the desk again.

She could see the smooth golden crown of Carol's head as she was leaned over, writing on the pad. When Carol was done, she looked up at Therese with a small smile, then pushed the pad across the desk towards her.

The older woman gathered up her leather-bound notebook and headed off to the same table she had sat at before. Therese watched her walk away, her hips swaying hypnotically, and tore her eyes away before Carol turned to sit. She looked down at the small notepad. It had a list of 4 books, and at the bottom was written:

At your convenience, Therese, please and thank you.

<3 Carol

Therese felt her face flush with heat, and she glanced up at the woman only to see her looking back inquisitively. She pulled the notepad off the counter and took it back to her office with her, where she studied it again for several minutes, examining it like an artifact for layers of meaning.

When she was done putting in a request for Carol’s books, she went to the hold shelf and pulled a title off of it marked for Carol Aird. She walked over to where she was sitting and placed the book in front of her, which caused Carol to jump in her seat.

"Oh, sorry, didn't mean to startle you."

"No, of course," Carol looked up and laughed, her long eyelashes fluttering, "it's a library, I guess you're supposed to be that quiet."

She picked up the book, which had the title, The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader . She gave Therese a wry smile.

"Have you ever read 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?"

Therese shook her head and Carol continued, "It was written in the late 1800's, about a woman who is suffering from depression, and her husband and doctor recommend a 'rest cure.' Which means she mostly lays about and stares at the hideous wallpaper in her room. By the end of the story, she's gone completely mad."

Carol looked up at Therese. "Of course, I just completely over-simplified it. It was very groundbreaking in its day, and still holds true now. Themes of being trapped, of women being controlled by men, of unhappiness and loneliness ..." She trailed off, and her eyes took on a hint of smoke.

"It sounds ..." Therese struggled to find the words, to show that she was smart enough to be engaging in this conversation, "incredibly sad. And like maybe she was an influence to Sylvia Plath, or to Woolf." She felt secretly pleased with herself, that she had come up with the names of these authors. For once, her brain hadn't failed her in the presence of the blonde goddess.

Carol nodded and smiled, a hint of sadness in her eyes. "Maybe you'd like to read it when I'm done."

"Yes. Yes, I would," Therese said. "I put in the order for your other books. Should be here within a week or two."

"Thank you, Therese," Carol said. "I have to find a way to repay you for all of your help. I know," her face brightened, "I'll take you out to lunch. Do you have plans today?"

The offer was so unexpected that Therese involuntarily took a step back. "Well ... I ... sometimes I close the library at lunchtime, when Sandra's not here."

Carol nodded. "So you will?"

"Yes."

"Where shall we go?"

"Hmm, would have to be somewhere kind of fast, close by."

"Hardee's is not an option, I have to add," Carol said, raising an imperious eyebrow.

"So I guess that leaves us Lynn's Diner. It's reliably good, and fast."

"OK," Carol said, looking down at her watch. "At noon, then?"

Therese nodded. "Yes, that would be nice. Thank you."

Carol looked back down at her notebook and picked up her pen, effectively dismissing Therese. She tried not to let that sting, to remind herself that she had made it all out to be more than it was. This woman was a stranger in her town and she was looking for friendship. But friendship to northerners might be different – this might be how they talked to each other, one moment as warm as gravy, the next cool as a pitcher of iced tea.

She walked back to her post behind the circulation desk, trying not to obsess over what the lunch hour would bring. But she couldn't help it; she thought of possible topics of conversation, questions she could ask to avoid awkward silences. Of course, not the questions she REALLY wanted to ask – those would be too intrusive. She thought of bland, non-threatening questions, questions about where the woman had grown up, or what she thought of life in the small town, or how her paper was progressing. It was the type of thing all Southern girls were taught early on, how to make small talk and make the other person feel at ease.

But her mind kept being flooded with those other questions, the ones which really mattered to Therese. She walked back to her desk and pulled out a notepad. She thought if she wrote the questions down, it would help her put them aside for the moment – like scratching an itch, or listening to the full version of the song snippet that kept playing in your head.

She wrote across the top of the pad in bold cursive "Things I'd Like to Know" and then listed out her questions as bullet points below:

  • Why do you look at me that way? What does it mean?
  • Why were you so cold to me at church yesterday?
  • Do you love your husband?
  • How do you manage to always look so perfect?
  • Did you know your eyes are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen?
  • Why don't you take the Lord's Supper in church? Do you believe in God?
  • What makes you happy? How can I make you happy?

At the last question, especially, Therese's cheeks flamed. She looked at the pad of paper and knew this was something no one else could ever see. She used her pen to scribble out each question meticulously, ensuring not a single word could be read. Then she took her scissors out and snipped the paper into tiny pieces into her wastebasket.

These were the questions she would never ask.

Chapter Text

Therese was anxiously counting the seconds until it was time to go to lunch with Carol. The time she didn’t spend looking at the clock, she was distracted by the jungle cat perusing her books at the table nearby.

She tried her best to get some sorting and organizing done, and she was also trying to plan the calendar of events for the next month. But her mind felt so foggy, and she was deeply aware of an ache deep inside her, a longing that she didn't know how to name or satisfy.

At 11:55 exactly, the feline stirred. Therese watched her out of the corner of her eye as she picked up her belongings and stacked her books into a neat pile.

As she stood up from her chair, Carol caught her eye. Since she had been caught looking anyhow, she decided to indulge herself, to watch the woman gather her things and stride confidently across the patch of carpet between them. As she walked, Carol locked eyes with her, a little flame dancing in her dark pupils and a smile playing across her lips.

As she strode up to the counter in front of Therese, her smile widened and she quirked an eyebrow.

“Therese, are you checking me out?”

Therese blushed furiously, looking down at the counter, the breath momentarily knocked out of her as she gasped, “Wh … What?? Sorry … I …”

Carol twirled the stack of books on the counter, smirking, her gaze boring into Therese. “I’d like these books – are you going to check me out?”

Therese could feel her eyes burning into her, and she didn’t dare look back up as she stamped a date into the first check-out card.

She did that on purpose! She is totally playing with me!

Therese wondered at her motives, her mind in parallel processing what it must be like to be so devastatingly gorgeous that you just KNOW other people are attracted to you. Wow, the power in that.

Therese’s emotions swirled, at once irritated at being toyed with this way while at the same time being so incredibly turned on that she could hardly focus. Her body was a traitor, and there was nothing her mind could do about it.

She felt her skin break out into a light sweat as the flames of Carol engulfed her. It took all of her willpower to focus and complete the check-out process. Even then, she was worried she had screwed something up in the simple procedure. She was afraid that by the time she was done, all that would be left of her would be a pile of ashes.

She continued to avoid eye contact with this combustible version of Carol, not sure if the danger period had passed, and she scurried to the front door to lock it before any other patrons could come in. She flipped the sign that announced she would be back at 1:00.

She took a deep breath, then turned to look at Carol, who was casually leaning against the counter and watching her.

“Shall we?” she said, and Therese swallowed hard and nodded in response.

“My car or yours?”

“Yours, if that’s ok,” Therese mumbled, not really wanting to get into a conversation about her driving.

She led Carol out of the back door, and they walked out onto the steamy street where the green Jaguar waited. The car was sleek and feline, like its owner. Carol opened the door and popped the locks, and Therese climbed into the sweltering heated space that was full of Carol – her scent and her closeness.

She closed the door and leaned her head back against the headrest, closing her eyes momentarily. She felt Carol shift in her seat. “You tired?” she asked.

Therese opened her eyes and laughed nervously. “Oh, maybe a little.”

Carol nodded as Therese watched her out of the corner of her eye. “You work hard.”

“Yes.”

Carol cranked up the car and then looked over at her again. “Put on your seatbelt, my dear. I wouldn’t want you hurt if we get in an accident.”

Therese quickly buckled her seatbelt, flushed at the thought that Carol actually cared about her and her well-being. As she did that, Carol followed up with a sly tone, “But if we did get in an accident ... you are wearing clean underwear, aren’t you?”

Therese blushed furiously. “You really are a piece of work,” she said finally, after a flustered silence.

“Am I?” Carol asked, tapping her fingernails on the steering wheel as she backed the car out of the spot and headed towards Lynn’s Diner.

“You know that you are.” Therese crossed her arms in front of her, signaling that the matter was settled.

“Tell me how.”

Therese squirmed, feeling the scorching leather seats burning the backs of her thighs where her dress had ridden up.

She struggled to come up with something, but all she could manage was, “You just say the most outrageous things.”

“Only around you. I think you must bring it out in me.”

Therese studied her out of the corner of her eye, glad Carol couldn’t look at her and drive at the same time. She was smirking again.

Thankfully, the ride to the diner was short. They pulled into a spot and Carol fed coins into the parking meter.

When they walked in, Therese noticed familiar faces all around. She was simultaneously proud to be dining in the company of such a gorgeous woman and mortified to find herself suddenly the center of attention. All her life, she focused on flying under the radar, going unnoticed as much as possible, being the observer rather than the observed. But she noticed immediately the diners give her a quick smile, study her lunch companion, and turn to each other – obviously to discuss the new arrivals.

Her cheeks were burning as she headed to her usual booth in the far corner. Her sweaty thighs scrunched against the cracked vinyl seat as she climbed in. Carol slid in on the other side, looking cool as a cucumber, her skin matte and creamy white with the pressed powder she had applied that morning, and her lips looking as if she had just applied lipstick.

They hadn’t even settled into their seats when Peggy came over with her little notepad to take their orders. Therese had known her forever and always looked forward to seeing her. She was about the same age as her mother had been, and she had a sort of timeless beauty to her, with her frosted hair, even features, and nails always done in a French manicure.

“Hi Therese!” she chirped. “Who’s your friend here?”

“This is Carol,” Therese said, and Carol smiled politely at the woman. “Carol, this is Peggy. She’s practically the mayor of the town,” Therese said, winking at Peggy.

“Nice ta meetcha,” said Peggy, giving Therese a little wink back and then smiling at Carol broadly. “I’d give you a key to the city, but I’m all out at the moment,” she said, pretending to check the large pockets of her apron.

“Guess I’ll just have to come back, then,” Carol said, her tone just cool enough that Therese noticed, but she was sure Peggy didn’t.

“Therese, you having the usual?” she asked, and Therese nodded in response.

Carol asked for water and perused the menu as Peggy scurried back to fetch Therese’s Coke. When she came back with the large plastic tumblers, sweating with condensation, Carol ordered the diet plate, a strange combination of fruit, cottage cheese, and tuna salad all resting on a leaf of iceberg lettuce. Therese wrinkled her nose but did not comment.

“So, this is the hub of activity in town?” Carol asked, looking around.

Therese nodded. “Sad though it may be.”

“So what keeps someone as young and … promising as yourself in a place like this?” Carol said, focusing her gaze again on Therese.

“The nightlife, of course.” Therese was ready with her usual flip response to this question. It’s not as if she hadn’t been asked it a million times before.

“So what do you think of small town Alabama?” she asked, hoping to turn the tables on Carol and get her on the defensive.

Carol waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, I imagine you already know what I think. But I don’t want to talk about me. Let’s talk about a more interesting subject. Let’s talk about you.”

She grinned widely, those grey cat eyes narrowing.

Therese rolled her eyes. “A very boring topic, if you ask me.”

“Well, I didn’t ask you. So tell me, have you lived here,” she waved her hand around, as if indicating the diner, “all your life?”

Therese nodded yes.

“And your parents, they still live here?”

“My father does.”

“And your mother?”

“Dead.” The word rolled out before Therese could stop herself, could come up with a flowery euphemism. It was just too exhausting.

She could see Carol flinch a bit at the word, and for once, she actually seemed at a loss.

Therese jumped in to gloss it over. "It's been a long time ago." The phrase seemed a betrayal of sorts, and she felt a pang in her chest when she said it, but she saw Carol's shoulders visibly relax.

Carol shifted gears, changing her line of questioning, and asked her about where she went to college and her life and friends there. She asked if Therese had a boyfriend at college, and Therese squirmed uncomfortably and gave a short answer about Richard.

Peggy showed up with their plates, a welcome distraction. Therese saw Carol's eyes widen at her large cheeseburger and generous helping of steak cut fries.

"How do you eat like that and still," Carol indicated Therese with a flourish, "look like that?"

Therese looked at her with a mouthful of cheeseburger and shrugged. When she had swallowed, she said, "How do you manage to eat like that," and pointed at her plate, "and not die of boredom?"

Carol downed a spoonful of cottage cheese as if to make a point. "It helps me keep my figure. If I ate like you, I'd be big enough to work at the circus." She put her spoon down and looked carefully at Therese. "You know how men are about women's figures. Harge would have a fit if I put on weight."

Therese prodded her pile of french fries with a fork. "So? It's not his body," she said sullenly, then recovered quickly. "I mean, that's what your feminist writers would say, right?"

"I suppose. If only life were like fiction."

"If only," Therese said, letting out a sigh.

"So," Carol said, lifting an eyebrow, "I suppose the man in your life is happy with you just the way you are."

Therese shook her head quickly. "Oh no, I mean ... there's no man."

"Ridiculous," said Carol, "I'm sure you have the young men pounding down your door day and night."

Therese laughed, knowing Carol meant it as a compliment. She leaned towards Carol and whispered conspiratorially, "In case you haven't noticed, this town is not exactly full of well-read eligible bachelors. Most folks around here think of me as rather a strange duck."

Carol propped her elbow on the table and cupped her cheek in her hand, leaning in as well. "And is that what you're waiting for? A well-read bachelor?"

"No," Therese said, sucking in her breath.

"So what is it then? What are you waiting for, Therese?"

Therese felt her bones melt, the sound of her name in this exotic creature's mouth still enough to shake her.

"I don't know," she said softly. "I guess I'll know it when I see it."

"I see," said Carol, picking up one of the orange slices off her plate and placing it sideways between her full, red lips. Therese was mesmerized as she bit into it, the juice dribbling just a little onto her lips, and she flicked out her tongue to retrieve it. Therese imagined all the tiny capsules within the slice bursting in her mouth, giving up their juice.

Oh, to be an orange.

Chapter Text

The town finally received the cool-down it expected with fall. As the calendar rolled into October, a few trees started to reluctantly release leaves, and some of the pine needles turned brown at the tips. They were nowhere near a frost, but at least the temperatures would allow walking outside without an immediate sweat.

Therese was relieved at the change in seasons, and how it improved her walks to work and church.

The enigma that was Carol Aird had slowly started to reveal itself to her, and she saw her at least 3 times a week at the library. Therese helped with her research as much as she could, locating a good sized stash of relevant books at other lending libraries.

During short conversations and light lunches at Lynn's, Therese found out more about Carol's life in Vermont, and her upbringing in Albany, NY, where her father worked in a minor government role. In turn, Therese told her a bit about her childhood, the town, and a very edited version of her life at college in Birmingham.

Therese felt that she was living from one Carol encounter to the next, and her moments away from the woman were obsessed by thoughts of when she would see her again. Being with her was like an addictive drug, and the scent and sight of her was the most intoxicating experience the girl had ever had.

It was a sweet torment, this obsession. For one, it occupied her empty moments and gave her something to look forward to. But at the back of her mind was a niggling thought, that she didn't know where this was going or how it could manage not to end up in disaster. She tried to sooth herself with the thought that all her past infatuations had cooled with time. There had been the Swedish exchange student in high school who she had followed around like a puppy. She spent hours helping her improve her English and trying to make her laugh with silly jokes. And by the end of the year, she had found the mysterious pull to be with her all the time had lessened, and she thought of her more like the rest of her friends.

And the girl from her college days – well, when Therese had forced herself to pull back from her a bit and set some boundaries, the girl had revealed herself to be somewhat petty and cruel, and the last straw was when she made fun of Therese's devotion in front of some mutual friends.

But this thing with Carol felt different. It was as strong as the magnetic pull of the earth, a force she could not deny no matter how hard she tried. At night she lay awake in bed, replaying their last conversation, imagining how the soft wisps of hair fell across her face, the sight of her slender hand and ringed fingers wrapped around the shifter of the green Jag.

There was such a longing, a hollowness in the pit of her that no amount of cheeseburgers or Mountain Dew could ever fill. She was even uninterested in her books, the copy of Fried Green Tomatoes lying unopened on her bedside table. The only plot she was interested in following was that of Carol Aird – who she was and what her life was like when she was away from Therese.

Which was why Therese was thrilled beyond belief when Carol asked her if she would come over to babysit for Rindy. She would be in Carol's house, among Carol's things!!

But it also brought her to the awkward moment when she had to admit to Carol that she didn't drive. They had been sitting in Lynn's diner, and Therese had demurely ordered a salad with grilled chicken, much to Peggy's amazement.

As they chatted between bites of lunch, they had been having a lively discussion about music. Carol was arguing that the 70's were the best decade of music, and she was extolling the virtues of disco. Therese kept rolling her eyes at Carol's dubious music choices, and was trying to explain to her about the talented writers of the 80's who had mixed folk and rock into a stunning blend of artistry with a social consciousness.

And, as if to emphasize her point, Therese pulled a mix tape out of her purse that she had made just for Carol. She handed over the cassette that she had spent hours slaving over, carefully selecting each song and making sure the recording of each was perfect. She had carefully written the name and artist of each song on the tiny lines on the inside, and she had decorated the outside cover with an ink drawing of flowers and vines. At the top of the cover, she had written in calligraphy "Carol's Tunes."

Carol tucked the cassette into her purse, promising she would listen to every song and give Therese's taste in music "careful consideration”. The last words were said with the quirk of an eyebrow as a smile twitched at her lips.

"Oh, that reminds me," Carol said, with what seemed to Therese to be feigned nonchalance, "Harge and I were hoping to go out to dinner this Friday, and I wondered if you could come and watch Rindy."

"Of course."

Carol smiled warmly. "That would be perfect. Rindy already knows and likes you, so that makes it easy. And of course, we would pay you whatever your going rate is."

Therese looked down at her plate and poked at a piece of lettuce with her fork. She was always uncomfortable when the subject of money came up.

"So, there's one small hitch ..." She looked up at Carol briefly, then back down at her plate.

"What's that?"

"I would need a ride to and from your place." Therese could feel the heat creeping into her cheeks, embarrassment consuming her skin inch by inch.

"Oh?" Carol asked. "Is your car in the shop?"

"That's the thing, I don't have a car." Therese shifted in the cracked vinyl booth uncomfortably. Carol looked totally perplexed.

Therese hoped she would just leave it at that.

No such luck.

Carol put her fork down, leaning her forehead in towards Therese. "Why don't you have a car?"

Therese shrugged and laughed nervously. That only intensified Carol's gaze.

"Therese."

It was a tone that Therese now recognized from Carol – an insistence there that she would not take no for an answer. Therese had a fleeting thought that Carol should have been a police detective. When she wanted to know something, there was no denying her.

She fidgeted like a child and started, hesitatingly, "Well, I just never exactly learned how to. Drive, that is."

"Nobody taught you?" she said incredulously.

"My father tried, I just ... didn't want to."

There, surely she'll leave it at that.

"How could you not want to? It's not like there is public transportation here. How do you even survive in a place like this without driving?"

"Look. It ... makes me nervous. I get by without it."

"You are purposefully avoiding my questions. Stop making me pull it out of you and just spill it."

Therese flopped back against the booth, her salad abandoned. Suddenly the diner felt very small, the walls closing in on her.

"Sometimes I get nervous, things just make me nervous. When I turned 15, my dad took me out to learn how to drive in his Mazda stick shift. We lived at the bottom of this giant hill, out on highway 20 – all the time we would hear the semis and the log trucks rumbling by. Well, my dad decided I should just pull right out onto that highway. And before I knew it, a log truck was barreling down on my rear. I couldn't shift gears fast enough. My dad was yelling. It was such a disaster."

She paused there, hoping it was enough, but Carol nodded for her to continue.

"Well, fortunately the truck was able to go around me, but I was shaking like a leaf. And I realized I should just never drive. I was awful at it! I'll never forget the feel of my sweaty fingers on the gearshift. He tried to get me to keep going, but I pulled off the road and refused to get back in unless it was on the passenger side. He tried a bunch of other times, but I just knew it was a bad idea. I'm just bad at mechanical things."

"Ridiculous," Carol puffed. "Anyone can drive. It's not hard."

Therese shook her head, her ears burning that Carol had called her ridiculous.

"I can't have that kind of responsibility. What if I wrecked and killed somebody? The last time I even tried to get behind the wheel, I broke out in a cold sweat and felt like someone had sucked all the air out of the car." She added this last bit to let Carol know that it was more than just your average, run of the mill nervousness that she experienced. This fear that she had was incapacitating.

She could feel Carol's eyes still on her, studying her, but she dared not look up into those eyes to see the judgment there. Instead, she looked around for Peggy, for their bill.

When the woman arrived, Therese already had money out to push into her hand without even looking at their check. Carol protested, of course, but Therese was insistent on paying for this one – Carol almost always paid.

Therese's eyes were fixed on Peggy's retreating back, trying to look at anything and everything but Carol.

Carol's voice was soft, conciliatory, "OK, I'll pick you up at 6:15 on Friday. Give me your address."


 

Therese sat perched on an old fashioned armchair by the front window, waiting for the green Jag to pull into the driveway. When the headlights finally swung across the window at 6:21, Therese grabbed her purse and dashed out the front door. She couldn't risk Carol coming to the door, seeing the shabby surroundings of her house or catching a whiff of her whiskey-soured father.

She pulled open the door and jumped into the cool confines of the car, immediately assaulted by the scent of Carol and a new perfume, smelling of chocolate and cherries and a hint of dark  musk. Therese shut the door and looked over at Carol, a sight that literally took her breath away.

She stared dumbly at the woman, who had on a dark red lipstick and had extra eyeliner and shadow around her smoky eyes. Her eyes seemed to take up her whole face, floating in a sea of creamy pale skin, and Therese felt her heart fluttering, the brief thought that she wished Carol was picking her up for a date, that Carol would have dressed this way for her .

"Hi," Carol said breezily, her hand smoothing the ruffles of the dark grey dress she was wearing.

Therese finally found her voice again, and her breath. "Hey."

I must seem like a total freak. I have to stop staring. I am going to creep her out.

She broke her eyes away to look out the front windshield, into the evening where the sun was just cresting the treetops. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Carol's fingers drumming lightly on the steering wheel, a large square-cut emerald glinting off the ring finger of her right hand.

Carol was quiet. There was a nervous energy coming from her that Therese didn't quite know what to make of. She inhaled the scent of her, pressing the new fragrance into her memory, and looked out the window at the cars passing by.

When she couldn't take the silence any more, she said, "So ... where are you guys going for dinner?"

"Oh, we're going to Jamison," Carol said, glancing at Therese.

"Well, yeah," Therese said, a hint of "duh" in her tone.

Carol sighed, the corner of her mouth twisting down.  "Red Lobster," she mumbled, and Therese had to suppress a gasp.

This fancy, highbrow couple are going to freakin' Red Lobster??

Carol blew out a breath. "It wasn't my idea. But I'll agree to just about anything just to get away for a bit."

"That bad, huh?" Therese said, feeling Carol's disdain  like a punch in the gut.

Carol took a longer glance at her, registering her mistake. "Oh no, I don't mean it like that! I am just not used to small town life. You know, we'll go to the mall and such too. See some actual traffic."

Therese nodded. "Yeah, there is not much to do here." It was going to take her a while to get over the shock of Red Lobster. They were only a couple of hours from the Gulf Coast, for goodness sake. There were places to get actual good, fresh seafood!

"Well, here we are," Carol said, pulling into the driveway of a large, modern house with a wrap-around deck facing Lake Louise.

It was so much like Therese had pictured it, lots of wide open spaces, and the house smelling of new furniture and polished hardwoods. There was a wall of family photos, mostly featuring a smiling and snaggle-toothed Rindy.

Carol laid her keys on the counter and disappeared down the hallway. Rindy showed up as soon as they were through the front door.

"Hi Miss Terri! You wanna see my room?"

"Sure!" she said, "Just a minute though. I wanna see if your mom and dad have anything they need me to know."

Harge emerged from the back of the house looking scrubbed clean, his hair swept in a side part and fixed in place. He smiled broadly.

"Hi there, Terri. Thanks for looking after Rindy. It's good to get the little woman out of the house."

Therese swallowed back the bile in her throat and plastered on a smile. "Hi, my pleasure. It will be good to spend time with little Miss Rindy here," and she ruffled the girl's hair and gave her a genuine smile.

Carol came up behind Harge, struggling with an earring. Her eyes were far away and distracted.

Therese scanned the room. "You have a lovely house."

"Thank you," Harge boomed, "we are still getting settled in. I don't think we quite have the furniture arranged the way we want it yet, but it's getting there. We shopped all over the North Carolina furniture stores to get just the right pieces. I spared no expense!"

Therese nodded, shifting from foot to foot and trying not to show her anxiousness.

"Should we get going?" Carol said stiffly, brushing the back of Harge's jacket with her hand.

"Sure," said Harge, "I can just hear the garlic cheese biscuits calling my name."

Carol made a face behind his back, which Therese ignored.

"We should be home by 11," Carol said as they walked out. Therese closed the door behind them, Rindy tugging her hand towards her room. As they were half-way down the hall, Therese heard the door open again. She turned, and Carol rushed in, her eyes sparkling.

"I forgot my purse," she said, panting slightly. Rindy rushed over to her to give her one more goodbye hug. She picked up her large purse and grinned at Therese.

"I hope you have fun tonight," she said, and winked at the younger woman.

Therese blushed, but couldn't keep the begrudging tone out of her voice when she replied, "You too."

And just like that, she was gone.

Chapter Text

Therese thoroughly enjoyed her evening with Rindy. She cooked a frozen pizza for them, and they watched The Little Mermaid together. Rindy was surprised to find that Therese knew the words to many of the songs.

They giggled and danced and sang together. In Rindy's room, they played with her Weebles treehouse play set, and then the Play-Doh barbershop set. They had a competition to see who could give the Play-Doh people the wildest hair-do.

"Does your mom play barber shop with you?" Therese asked casually, always wanting to gather any information she could about the mysterious Carol.

"Yeah, sometimes. She likes the Weebles treehouse better. And my matchbox cars."

"Oh?" Therese asked, remembering sitting in the library with Carol while she drove the little car across the puzzle map.

"Yeah, she likes to drive fast," Rindy giggled. "She does in her real car too. One time I was with her, and we got a speeding ticket. But we didn't tell Daddy," she lowered her voice conspiratorially.

The hint of mischief in her voice and the twinkle in her eye was so like Carol that it made Therese laugh. "No?"

"Nah, Daddy isn't home all that much anyway. He travels on important business. So I went to court with Mommy and she talked to the judge to get the ticket off her record."

Oh, I'll bet she did. That judge didn't stand a chance. I just can't understand what was wrong with the police officer that gave her the ticket in the first place.

"But it's our secret. Mommy and I have lots of secrets together."

"You do?" Therese said, dying to ask what those secrets were. But Rindy seemed pleased to share anyhow.

"Yeah. We used to go visit my teacher sometimes at her house when Daddy was away. She was fun. I miss her."

"Oh, your teacher who ... told you about Trixie Belden?" Therese dug deep for the memory that the little girl had shared.

"Yes, Ms. Gerhardt!" Rindy said, not even surprised that Therese had remembered. "But she let me call her Abby when we weren't at school. Mom thought I should call her Miss Abby but she said we were too good of friends for that."

Therese nodded with interest and tucked away that bit of information, and then Rindy became intent on showing off her collection of books.

Rindy's bedtime was set at 9:00, and she went with a moderate amount of protest. Therese finally got her to agree by promising to read to her from one of her books, and she enjoyed the feeling as the warm girl snuggled against her from under her bedspread, leaning her cheek against Therese's arm.

When the story was finished, Therese smoothed her hair and smiled at her fondly. "Goodnight, Ariel," she said with an exaggerated wink.

"G'night, Sebastian!" she said, chortling.

"Why do I gotta be da crab," Therese said, attempting her best Sebastian accent, which still failed miserably.

"Because you know how to make the crab faces!" Rindy said, giggling again.

"So unfair!" Therese said, and poked out her bottom lip in Sebastian style, then smiled and waved goodnight. Therese turned out the light and shut the door softly, the little girl's laughter following her out.

Now the large house seemed so still and quiet, and Therese looked around the cavernous living room at the figurines and pictures. There was a small framed photo of a young Carol in her wedding gown, and an incredibly handsome looking Harge next to her in a tuxedo. She studied Carol closely; she looked so much the same as now, but she looked lighter somehow. Happy. Her eyes didn't have the same hint of sadness that Therese saw in them now.

Still, Therese didn't find the Carol in the photo as attractive. Surely she was stunning in every conventional sense. But she was so sharp and angular, her skin tight as a drum, the type of woman that Therese would never have dared speak to. She looked like her tongue would be sharp and her looks dismissive. Not like the Carol she knew now, who had softened into maturity, with lovely fine wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and mouth, suggesting a million genuine smiles in her past.

She walked into the kitchen, where there was a fancy pot rack and many utensils that looked very high end and mostly unused. The kitchen didn't seem very warm, and her earlier perusal of the cupboards and fridge had revealed mostly processed and pre-prepared foods.

She sat on the couch in the silence, trying to feel the presence of Carol here, in this house. Even though some of her things were here, it just didn't feel like her. It felt very ... artificial. It felt like the house she was supposed to have, the façade of the perfect family. There were none of the bright splashes of color that Therese saw reflected in Carol's clothing, nor any of the soft feminine fabrics that seemed to be her style.

She felt the bedroom calling to her, her curiosity building. She knew she shouldn't look. What if they came home, what would her excuse be? That she got lost on her way to the guest bathroom?

She got up and paced, looking at the clock. It was only 9:30 – they probably wouldn't be home for another hour or so. And if they drove up, she would probably hear the car doors slam. Could you see the lights of the master bedroom from the driveway? She peeked out the front windows, then determined that the master bedroom faced the back of the house. She wrung her hands, shifting from foot to foot, the suspense making her heart race.

She walked to the door of Rindy's room and put her ear to it, not hearing a peep from the girl. Now she was halfway down the hall. Just one more door down and she would be at her room ... at their room.

Just a quick peek, that was all. She swiftly walked to the doorway of the room, the finding the bedroom door wide open. The light from the hall spilled into the room, revealing plush cream carpet and a bedspread of deep purple. She could smell Carol in the room, her lipstick and her perfume.

She flicked on the light.

The bed was rumpled, unmade. Lavender sheets and pillowcases were on the bed. She could smell the scent of Harge too – masculine, a heavy aftershave, the familiar chemical scent of the paper mill coming from his closet. She walked past his closet to the second one, nearer the bathroom, the one that must be Carol's.

She turned on the light and saw the rows of clothing, the bright colors and soft fabrics, rows and rows of shoes in all styles and colors. The smell of her was strong here, and Therese inhaled deeply. Nervously, she turned the light back off and moved into the master bathroom. She could see Carol's make-up scattered across the counter, claiming 3/4 of it. Harge's razor and aftershave were in a small area on the far end.

Her heart raced, here among Carol's things. There was a cotton ball with a hint of blush and a smudge of deep red lipstick on it. Therese grabbed it quickly and shoved it into her pocket, taking one last quick look before she shut off the lights and scurried out of the room.

Back on the couch, she was triumphant, having explored without being caught. She turned on the tv and tucked her legs underneath her, absently skimming the channels, in awe of how many were available, since the Airds had the luxury of cable.

Her fingers reached into her pocket and felt the cotton ball there, and she felt a small shiver knowing that it had touched Carol's lips. She knew deep down that she should feel ashamed of her strange behavior, but Therese had no more room left for shame. She was too filled up with desire.

She had almost started to doze off on the couch when she heard them coming through the front door. Harge barged in first, and Therese noted an odd flush to his cheeks. His eyes were slow to locate her on the couch.

"Hi there," he smiled goofily, "looks like you had a quiet night." His words were not quite slurred, just a little sloppy around the edges.

Therese noted Carol slipping in quietly behind him. She thought her face looked a little puffy, her eyes red.

Hmmm, maybe they've both been in the cups.

But when Carol spoke, her words were crisp, even though her voice sounded a little strained. "I hope everything went ok with Rindy. I can drive you home now."

Therese stood up quickly. "Oh yes, she was just great. We had a nice time."

Harge pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. "How much do we owe you?"

Therese shifted awkwardly. "Oh, well, you know, whatever you all usually pay is fine."

Harge looked up at her and frowned. "Don't you have a usual amount? Or a flat rate or something?"

Therese shrugged, saw Carol watching her over Harge's shoulders. Yes, her eyes were definitely red and slightly swollen, as if she had been crying.

"How about $30?"

Harge smiled broadly, and she knew immediately she had low-balled the price. He pulled a 20 and two 5's out of his wallet and handed them over to her.

"OK good, hope you'll do this for us again. It's good to have someone reliable."

He turned and headed down the hallway, his hand sliding against the wall as he walked.

"Thank you," she said softly, not really caring if he heard or not. She looked back to Carol, who was holding the keys to Harge's SUV. She swapped them for the keys to her Jag and walked to the front door, holding it open for Therese.

Silently, she walked outside and obediently loaded herself into the car. Carol slid into the seat beside her, putting the keys in the ignition and firing up the engine. She took a deep, halting breath, then slid the shifter into reverse.

"You ok?" Therese said just over the purr of the car's engine.  

"Sure," Carol said, glancing quickly at Therese as she shifted the car into first. "Not bad for a hostage, I suppose."

"What?" Her voice was louder than she intended; had she heard that correctly?

Carol's mouth crinkled at the corner and she seemed to be biting at the inside of her cheek. "Oh, don't pay me any attention, I'm just being dramatic."

She sighed and continued. "Moving down here wasn't exactly my idea."

Therese settled back into her seat. "So I guess getting away to the big city wasn't the remedy you hoped it would be."

"Oh, it could have been. But then, wherever you go, there you are. Or rather, there your life is," she laughed bitterly, a staccato bark.

Therese ran a fingertip over her nails and found a snag at the corner of her index finger. She brought it to her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. She wanted desperately to make Carol feel better. She couldn't bear the thought that she might have been crying.

"I'm sorry," she said, suppressing the urge to reach out and touch her.

Carol rolled her palms on the leather steering wheel, and it squeaked softly.

"It's my own damned fault. I've allowed all of this to happen. I deserve it."

"Oh Carol," Therese breathed, "I can't imagine that you deserve anything but happiness."

The corner of Carol's mouth curled into a mirthless grin. "You don't know that. You don't know me. And the things I've done." She turned into Therese's driveway and pulled the parking brake.

She must have seen the look of hurt on Therese's face when she turned in her seat to look at her. Because then, her face softened, and she took Therese's hand in hers. "I don't mean it that way. I just mean ... I'm damaged goods. I've mucked things up beyond de-mucking. And whatever circle of Dante's hell this is, I'm sure it's where I'm supposed to be. Only ..."

Therese's hand burned in Carol's grip, the press of her soft, warm skin a sweet agony.

"Only?" she said, working hard to control her voice.

Carol's voice lowered an octave, and her thumb skimmed ever so slightly against the top of Therese's hand. "Only I didn't expect hell to have such pleasant company."

Therese licked her lips, which had suddenly gone dry. In fact, her whole mouth was completely devoid of saliva. She suppressed a sigh of regret when she felt Carol release her hand. She could feel a warm tingle still cling to her skin every place that Carol had touched.

Her head spun and she was, yet again, at a loss for words in front of this intoxicating creature.

"I'm sorry," Carol shifted in her seat, "I've said too much."

"No." Therese reached for the words, "No, I'm glad you told me. I wish you would tell me more. I wish I knew what was bothering you so." Her mind flashed to the list of questions, scratched out and shredded in the wastepaper basket of her office.

"I'd like to know you better."

Carol lifted her shoulders. "Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn't."

Therese gripped Carol's arm softly, wanting any excuse just to touch her wonderful skin again. "I would."

She saw Carol's eyes flutter down to her hand on her arm, and her rational mind wondered how long it was acceptable to leave it there.

"Try me," the girl whispered, squeezing the arm in her grip softly before reluctantly moving her hand away.

"Tomorrow," Carol said, sounding as if she was catching her breath slightly, "Have dinner with me?"

"Yes," Therese said.

When she slipped the key into the lock of her front door, she felt that her feet were not even touching the concrete slab  beneath her.

Chapter Text

Therese lay awake in bed, unable to sleep. Her mind was whirling with all the new information she had gained about Carol.

Carol keeps secrets from her husband. Carol is not as happy as she seems. Carol has done things she regrets. The perfect Aird family is not so perfect after all.

The top of her hand still tingled where Carol had touched it, and she tried to burn into her memory the feel of the soft, luxuriant skin of Carol's arm. God she was soft, and her skin was so hot.

Therese flipped from her side to her back to her other side. She had laid the cotton ball from Carol's bathroom on her nightstand. Occasionally she would bring it to her nose and inhale the scent of Carol's lipstick. She felt ashamed, but she also felt a deep throbbing in her lower lips whenever she did so. Somehow the furtive pleasure of it only intensified her feelings of desire.

The next morning Sandra commented on the dark circles under her eyes, probing for more information as to whether Therese had had a wild night out.

"Nope, just a quiet evening," Therese half-lied, not wanting to get into the topic of babysitting for the Airds. If Sandra found out that she had been inside their house, she would pester her for details until it wore her out.

She wondered what Carol had in mind for dinner – she didn't even know what time she had been thinking of meeting, or if she were going to pick her up here or at home. She drummed her fingers on her desk until Sandra nudged her in annoyance.

"Cut that out, would you? Librarians are supposed to be the quiet ones."

Therese laughed it off, and stacked a cart full of books to reshelve in the depths of the library.

There were quite a few people in and out during the morning, many of them looking at the small collection of VHS tapes for loan. Lots of families came in, since it was a Saturday and free entertainment was hard to come by.

Every time the front door opened, Therese looked for Carol.

Dannie came in with a stack of comic books that he was donating. He asked Therese to go to lunch, as he often did on a Saturday, but she waved him off with an excuse of having too much to do and that she had packed her lunch.

Mrs. Roberts came in looking for travel books, Doug Flynn came in looking for anything on fishing, and Nora Reynolds wanted to know where the cookbooks were. Therese helped them all, as friendly and helpful as she could manage in her current state of high alert.

Finally, at around 4, Therese's vigilance was rewarded. In strolled Carol, looking almost like she was dressed for church in a flowing blue skirt and printed silk blouse. Therese noted she was wearing more make-up than usual, and she tried not to be too obvious in her hungry appraisal of the woman.

Her blue eyes sparkled when she spotted Therese, and she acknowledged her with the slightest upturn in the corner of her mouth. She sat at her usual spot and opened up her leather notebook, picking up a pen and clicking it thoughtfully.

Therese wanted so badly to go to her, but she took a deep breath and forced herself to stay away just a little longer, not wanting to look too eager. And what if Carol had forgotten about their dinner plans?

But she had not forgotten.

When Therese finally strolled by her with an armload of folders, Carol looked up and gave her a stunning smile.

"Hi there," she said, and popped the end of her pen into the corner of her mouth, twirling it.

"Hey," said Therese, stopping to lean her hip against the table.

"You hungry?" Carol asked, lifting an eyebrow.

"Very," Therese breathed, attempting her own flirtatious look back. Carol's eyebrow lifted a quarter inch higher, and Therese felt the table shift away from her hip. She had leaned on it too hard, and now she stood up straight again, laughing.

"So, what are we doing? For dinner."

"Oh, I thought we could just pick up some things to make sandwiches. Go to my house ... if that's ok with you?" Carol's voice lifted in a question.

"Sure," Therese said. "So ... we're having dinner with ... with ... the family?"

"No." Carol set her pen down on the table and closed her notebook with studied nonchalance. "Rindy is staying at a friend's for the night, and Harge is out golfing with the boys. They usually stay out late for dinner and drinks. So it'll just be me and you."

"Oh!" said Therese, trying not to let her excitement show. "Well, if that's the case ... I could cook for you. It's a shame for that beautiful kitchen to go to waste."

Carol's laugh was warm and lovely. "You would want to cook? For me?"

"Yes," Therese said, then fluttered her lashes, "I think you're practically malnourished." And with that, she swept her eyes up and down Carol where she sat. "And you should find out what good southern cooking tastes like."

"Is that so?" Carol breathed, rolling the pen between manicured fingers.

"It's so."

Carol's eyes found the clock. "How soon can you blow this popsicle stick stand?"

Therese glanced down at the folders in her arm, then looked quickly back at Sandra at the circulation desk. Damn that nosey bitch, she was watching them.

Therese lowered her voice. "Could you ... I mean, this sounds ridiculous I know but ... would you mind meeting me outside just after closing?"

Carol cocked her head, and her eyes tracked over to where Sandra was staring. She looked directly at the woman and smiled, lifting her hand and waving her fingers at her.

That sent Sandra scurrying for the back room. Carol returned her attention to Therese.

"Of course. I mean, we wouldn't want to start any rumors, would we?" Her eyes burned through Therese, who flushed and shook her head once.

"So, see you in a bit," she said and took the folders to the back.

Therese's hands were trembling by the time she locked the library door for the night. She slipped quickly down the back stairs and around the front to where Carol was parked. She found her sitting in the car with the engine on, listening to music. Therese hopped in next to her, and started grinning like an idiot as soon as she realized Carol was listening to the tape she had made for her. “Need You Tonight” by INXS was rumbling through the car, the bass beat pumping loudly.

She looked over at her excitedly. "So, what do you think?"

Carol tried to look begrudging, but a smile was playing at her lips. "I guess it's acceptable. I wasn't quite sure, so I had to listen to it about another 10 times or so just to make sure."

Therese giggled as Carol put the Jag into reverse. She kept her foot on the brake and looked over to Therese, lifting an eyebrow. "Seatbelt, young lady! How many times do I have to tell you?"

Therese felt her ears burn with pleasure. It had been a test – she had left it off purposefully to see if Carol would notice again. And she had.

As soon as she was buckled in, Carol roared off in the direction of the Piggly Wiggly, a garish red and white building with a half-naked cartoon pig perched on top. Carol parked well away from any other cars in the parking lot, and the two women strolled into the cool of the grocery store together.

"Here, I'll grab us a buggy," Therese said.

"A what?" Carol asked.

Therese grabbed a shopping cart and pushed it towards her, gesturing at it. "A shopping buggy."

"Ohhhh, you mean a cart."

"Whatever," Therese rolled her eyes. "You have to learn southern terminogy."

Therese pushed the buggy, confidently striding down the aisles to gather what she needed. She had a list in her head of all the things she needed. She wished she had known she was going to cook tonight, so she could have brought some of the smaller items from her own cupboard. But it was ok, this way Carol would have the things already at her house when she cooked for her next time.

Next time? That's quite the assumption, since you haven't even done it once. What if she hates it?

But Therese pushed her self-doubt aside. She was a good cook, and she knew it. She enjoyed the way Carol trailed behind her, an amused smile on her face as she selected the things for dinner without consultation. Occasionally she would check - "You don't have any allergies, do you? Do you like onions? Do you have any baking soda at your house?"

Carol let her have her way, until Therese put a bag of peas into the cart. "Um ... I don't really like," Carol wrinkled her nose, "peas."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Therese. "These are pink-eyed purple-hulled peas, and they are the closest thing to heaven you will ever put in your mouth."

Carol smirked and gave an exaggerated eye roll. "Well, now I know  you're a liar. And flying purple people what?"

Therese just shook her head and drove the buggy on to the next aisle.

When they were finished, she pushed the buggy into the check out. The cashier eyed them as they argued over who would pay. When Carol put her hand firmly onto Therese's to push her hand with the wallet on it back into her purse, Therese lost all the strength in her body to resist. She looked down at Carol's hand on hers and let her pay.

In the car, Carol admitted to being a terrible cook. She told Therese about some of her cooking disasters early in her marriage. They were both laughing over her crispy burnt chicken and crunchy hard rice meal when she pulled into the driveway.

They carried in the bags and Therese got right to work in the kitchen, opening all the cabinets to find what she needed. There was no decent cast iron skillet for the cornbread, but she found a pan she could make do with. Carol pulled up a bar stool and cupped her cheek in her hand as she watched Therese. Therese worked hard to ignore her, because every time she saw her and the look of admiration she was giving her, her breath caught in her chest and she could barely function.

She started a pot with collard greens, adding some onion and a generous ham hock. The peas were simmering with bacon. She thinly sliced some green tomatoes and dusted them with flour and cornmeal for frying.

Her hands were quick and sure as she chopped, mixed, and prepped the ingredients. As long as she could block out the notion of Carol, she was in her element.

"I had no idea you were such a domestic goddess,"' Carol commented, and Therese jumped as she almost sliced into her finger with the knife. Therese glanced at her from the corner of her eye.

"Maybe ... you should go do something else for a while."

"Why is that?" Carol asked.

"You're distracting me."

"But I like distracting you, Therese."

"In that case, I hope you will still like me with only 9 fingers."

"I would ... but I warn you, I have an 8-finger minimum." Therese laughed nervously and picked up the knife again.

"I promise to behave," Carol said, more quietly.

"Don't make promises you can't keep."

"True. Would you like some wine?"

"Sure, but we have to have iced tea with our dinner."

"My my ... I didn't know you would have all these rules. We're not in the library anymore." Carol poured two generous glasses of Chardonnay and handed one to Therese.

Therese shrugged. "If I cook, then I get to make the rules about dinner."

"But it's MY kitchen!"

"You're welcome to take over the cooking duties if you like."

"No no no," Carol said, holding up her hands in surrender, "we'll stick with your rules. Besides, we'll want to actually be able to EAT the dinner, right?"

Therese sipped her wine and poured some oil into a frying pan.

"Did your mother teach you how to cook?" Carol asked.

Therese nodded.

"What was she like?"

"She was very kind, and funny as hell. She was quick-witted and always had a snappy response. Kinda like someone else I know," she said as she wiggled her eyebrows at Carol.

"Do you look like her?"

"No, I look more like my father."

"He must be a handsome devil," Carol said, crossing her legs and stroking her fingers along the stem of her wine glass.

Therese flushed and turned back to drop the slices of tomato into the bubbling oil. "Hush now," she said, "I'm dealing with scalding oil here."

Carol sipped her wine silently, and Therese was conscious of her eyes on her the whole time. Her mind swirled.

What does she want from me? Better question: what do I want from her?

Everything. I want everything.

She had timed the meal perfectly so that everything was ready at once. It was an art form taught carefully to her by her mother.

Therese filled both of their plates, a smile of pride on her face. She cut a generous triangle of cornbread for Carol, then slit it sideways and slathered the inside with butter.

“This is what you’d traditionally make for dinner on New Year’s Day – for good luck and prosperity in the coming year. The collards are supposed to be green like money, the peas are like coins … although technically they’re supposed to be black-eyed peas. But these pink-eyes are just the best.”

“Well, I feel lucky and prosperous already,” Carol said, looking down at her plate with great amusement. "Are we sharing this one plate? I think it's enough for both of us."

"No. Eat."

"Aren't we going to pray first?"

Therese's head jerked up and she looked to see if Carol was serious. Her eyes were smiling.

"Just fuckin' with ya," she said, low in her throat, and Therese was a little shocked by her language.

"So the church thing," she said, sensing her opening.

"It's Harge's thing," Carol interrupted. "I go to placate him. And for Rindy."

She picked up her fork. "This smells divine."

Therese mentally checked off the answer to one of her unspoken questions. She held her breath in anticipation as she watched Carol balance a small bite of collard greens on her fork. The greens disappeared between those luscious, full lips and she chewed.

"Mmmmm," she said, and Therese could hear a hint of surprise in her voice.

Therese gestured at the cornbread. "You're supposed to eat those together with the cornbread. Go ahead, take a bite."

Carol bit into the warm, buttery bread and moaned softly. "Ohhhhh," she breathed, and Therese blushed at the sound if it. She took another bite of the greens while she still chewed the bread. Therese was transfixed by her.

When Carol scooped up a fork full of peas, Therese could hardly stand the anticipation. Carol hoisted the fork, as if saying "cheers," and slipped them into her mouth. Her eyes rolled back in her head slightly as she encountered the creamy goodness of the peas.

"See, I told you!" Therese said excitedly.

"Well, I won't say it's the best thing I've ever put in my mouth," Carol said with a devilish grin, "but it's the best thing I've had in there in a really long time."

Therese almost spit out her mouthful of iced tea at that. The combination of Carol's sex noises as she ate and the talk of putting something in her mouth sent lascivious thoughts shuffling through Therese's mind like porno on a projection screen.

But seeing her so thoroughly and obviously enjoy the food that Therese made gave her a sense of pride and fulfillment that made her heart swell in her chest. She had brought Carol pleasure, and it meant everything to her.

Carol ate with gusto, her fingers pulling off chunks of cornbread, picking up the slice of fried green tomato in her hand and biting into it, a bit of grease from the fried food glistening on her lower lip. The jungle cat was feeding voraciously, and all the dainty manners of their prior meals had dropped away like an unnecessary last vestige of civilization. This was primal, this meal, and in it Therese felt herself being consumed, this symbolic gesture of Carol accepting her, of taking her in, of eating a part of her.

Carol stopped suddenly and looked down at Therese's plate. "You've hardly touched your food. What's wrong?"

Therese swallowed nervously. "Oh, I am just not as hungry. I'm just ... enjoying you so much. That you like it."

"Like it." Carol shook her head. "No, I don't like it. I love it. I adore it. This one meal alone might be worth my living in the south. Holy hell, woman, your cooking is amazing!"

Therese's cheeks glowed and her stomach fluttered. She continued to pick at her food which, she knew, was delicious. But her insides were flipping around too much to allow for much else inside. And any moment eating took away from her concentration on Carol, of Carol's enjoyment, Carol's pleasure, Carol's mouth moving as she chewed, the fork slipping between her lips. And Carol seemed oblivious to her watching her, so absorbed was she in the meal before her. It gave Therese the ability to outright stare, to study her up close in a way that she hadn't been able to before.

She thought of the films on Wild Kingdom, when they had a hidden camera set up close to the animals. She had seen a lioness making a meal of an antelope, ripping into the flesh of it, the camera zooming in just for a moment to reveal the dribble of blood on her mouth. She had shuddered at the sight of it.

But this was her own private showing, and she would not turn away, not even when the teeth looked like they could rip her heart into shreds.

When her plate was completely empty and she had sopped up the last bit of "pot liquor" (pea juice) with her cornbread, Carol leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh.

"Good lord, I am so full I don't think I can move." She looked up at Therese, who had a smile of satisfaction on her face.

She cocked her head, her eyes on the small brunette, studying her. "You are full of surprises. Thank you for this amazing dinner, Therese. What a gift."

Therese smiled shyly then. "You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it," then paused a moment before adding, "I like cooking for you."

Carol gave her a searching look. "I like you being here. Last night, when I left with Harge, I was so jealous."

Therese wrinkled her forehead. "Jealous? Of me?"

"No, of Rindy. I wanted to stay here with you."

Therese blushed deeply and shifted in her seat. 

Oh, I wanted you here. So much.

"Well, I did hear that you like the Weebles Treehouse very much. And matchbox cars. But I already knew that."

Carol laughed from her belly, the sound deep and melodic. She would never grow tired of hearing that sound. She wanted to know how to bring that sound from her often, and she would spend the rest of her life studying just how if that's what it took.

“You’d make a good mother,” Carol said, surprising Therese. “Rindy adores you. She begged me to ask you over again soon.”

Therese felt the happiness percolating in her chest, and she wondered how much more of it she could contain. “She’s a great kid.”

“Do you want children?” she asked pointedly, and Therese was unsure how to respond. “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.”

She unfolded her long, lean frame from the chair and picked up her empty plate and Therese's mostly full one. "I probably should be suspicious of a cook who doesn't eat her own food," she said, taking the plates to the sink. Therese started to get up but Carol motioned her back down.

"No, sit, I'll clean up. Time for you to relax."

Therese smiled at her as she set a fresh glass of wine in front of her. She sipped daintily, watching Carol move around the kitchen and put away the large portions of leftovers.

Therese felt the questions swirl in her head again, like a dust devil sweeping across the prairie. She remembered Carol's troubled face from the night before, the face of a woman with secrets and regrets.

She resolved that when Carol was done cleaning the kitchen, she would be bold enough to ask her what she had meant about being "damaged goods." And she wouldn't let Carol turn the spotlight on her this time. She would unravel another piece of this mystery, peel back another layer of this gorgeous creature.

She would know her.

Chapter Text

When Carol was done tidying up the kitchen, she refilled their wine glasses. She was groaning and laughing about her full belly, pretending to waddle around the kitchen island.

"Let's go sit in the living room where it's more comfortable," she said, and Therese got up and walked over to the cozy couch she had sat on with Rindy the night before. She sat at the end of the couch and leaned back against the soft cushions, cradling her glass of Pinot Grigio.

Carol sat near her on the couch, tucking her feet underneath her and swinging her knees in towards Therese until they were almost touching the girl's thigh. Carol had her body turned toward her, propping her glass on top of her leg, her elbow propped on the back of the couch and her cheek leaning against her fist. She was so close that Therese could feel the heat coming off her body. She caught the scent of her again, her skin and the smell of her shampoo when she moved her head. All of her senses were on high alert.

She took a deep halting breath to slow the beating of her heart. This was no time to let herself be distracted. She had a mission, and she would not let Carol take her down her own teasing rabbit hole. No more games, no more probing questions about Therese. This night would be about Carol.

She looked at Carol steadily over the rim of her glass as she took a healthy sip, feeling the warmth of it down her throat and into her sternum.

"So ... you promised to tell me more about yourself if I cooked you dinner tonight," she said, smiling so that it felt more light-hearted.

"Did I?" Carol said skeptically, and Therese nodded. "That's not how I remember it at all."

"Oh, I'm pretty certain."

"Are you about to make another rule?" Carol asked.

"Yes."

"Bossy," she said, clucking her tongue.

"Or you could just tell me, without me having to make a rule."

"What do you want to know?" Carol said, and there was a long silence as Therese thought, the word that had come to her before repeating itself insistently.

"Everything," she said finally, giving herself over to the word.

Carol chuckled nervously. "Well, you're not very demanding, are you?"

"For starters ... maybe you could tell me why you seemed so sad last night."

Carol sighed so deeply that Therese felt it vibrating the fine hairs on her arms.

"Therese, do you know what I like about you?"

"What?" said Therese, sensing Carol creating a diversion but unable to resist hearing what it was that Carol liked about her.

"Everything," she said, smiling softly and giving Therese a sly wink.

Therese crossed her arms and puffed, obviously not buying it.

"Oh come on," Carol laughed, tugging at Therese's arms to force her to uncross them.

"Seriously ... I like how you make me feel. How I can leave all the sadness behind for a while and just enjoy ... you."

Therese chewed her lower lip, struggling with two competing desires: her wish to give Carol what she wanted -- the simple joy of her company -- and her own desire to truly get to know her. But were these things really at odds?

She cleared her throat softly and then said, "Carol, I don't want to just be your good time girl. I want to be your ... friend. You know, be there for you."

Therese looked up at her through her lashes, feeling shy and vulnerable at this admission. And when she dared look, what she saw in Carol's eyes made her shiver slightly, a mirror of vulnerability, the mask momentarily gone and the true soul of the woman showing through.

Carol swallowed hard. "I don't want to lose," she waved her hand between them, "this. What if I tell you something that makes you think less of me?"

"I told you already, you just have to try me. Trust. Me."

Carol downed the rest of the wine from her glass and got up to refill it. She brought back the rest of the bottle with her.

"Shit," she said softly.

Therese watched her, waiting for her as she settled back into the couch, just an inch further away from Therese than she had been before. Therese had measured it, calculated it with her eyes.

Carol took another incredibly deep breath, her chest rising and falling slowly.

"Before we came here," she started, faltering slightly, "well, of course, you know we lived in Vermont." She scrunched up her face in frustration. "What an idiot," she grumbled.

Therese watched her having this dialogue with herself, but still, she patiently waited. It was something that she was very good at. Waiting.

"I was married young. Harge was young too. Handsome. He had ambition. He came from humble roots, but he wanted to make something of himself. I admired him for it."

She reached for the wine and emptied the bottle into Therese's glass.

"And I guess we were happy enough." She shrugged. "I mean, I didn't know what it was supposed to feel like, to be married, to be in love. He was a nice person," she stopped, corrected herself, "he is a nice person. A good guy, by any woman's standards. I fell into it all, and into a routine of being a young housewife. Of course, I couldn't cook or keep house worth a shit, but Harge didn't seem to mind. He was working so much, late nights, early mornings. And I spent time with my friends from school, it was kind of like we were still in college. We would go out to lunch and drink and play tennis and ... well, it was easy."

Therese nodded silently, watching Carol's face but trying not to stare too intently. She didn't want to do anything to startle this shy creature who had appeared so miraculously before her. She savored every moment, every word that Carol shared with her. Because Therese could tell every moment of it was hard won.

"Then in a few years, Rindy came along. And she was such a joy, my whole world. I knew then what it felt like to love totally, selflessly, and completely. I would do anything for her."

Therese saw the flame grow in Carol's eyes as she spoke of her cherished girl with so much passion.

"I could pour everything into her, all my love and hopes and desires, they were all funneled into this small being who had come into my life. She was so easy to love, it was all so effortless. Do you understand?" Carol looked up at Therese, twisting a lock of her hair nervously.

"Yes, of course."

"And somehow that made me wake up. My love for her. It made me stop being numb and realize there could be more to my life. And what I was missing with Harge."

At this, she took a nervous glance at Therese again. "You know I value marriage. And Harge is very religious. He is the one who got me to go to church all the time. And so I was determined to make it work. I would sacrifice, if it meant keeping my vows and keeping a stable home for Rindy."

Therese took a shuddering breath. She felt she knew what was coming next.

"I failed, Therese."

She could see Carol's lips trembling slightly.

"I had an affair. Someone who ... woke up all the feelings I had been pushing down. And I felt guilty as hell, I did, but I just couldn't bring myself to ... stop."

She looked cautiously at Therese, as if to see if she hated her yet. Therese was careful to keep her face empathetic, nodding her head slightly.

She shrugged. "And of course, I got caught. Like the sneak, like the weasel I was. I got caught. And Harge was crushed."

She was quiet for a long time, and Therese finally prompted her. "But Harge forgave you, for the affair?"

She shook her head miserably. "No, he's never really forgiven me. Because it wasn't just the affair." She paused again, took a deep breath, then forged on, "I was going to leave him."

Therese's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"He was going to move here, take this job. I didn't want to move. I wanted to start a new life, a better life. I begged him to let me stay, to keep Rindy there with me. She would be happier there too, I knew it."

Therese could feel the pit of her stomach churn, the wine mixing with her stomach acids and boiling there. She could see the agony and the worry on Carol's face as she relived the most painful moments of her life.

"But he said he would take her away from me, and that he would expose ..."

She stopped, drained her glass, set it down on the coffee table. Therese saw her hands were shaking.

"He would expose this person. Who I had the affair with. And it would ruin ..." She bit her lip. "Well, you know."

Therese noticed that Carol had started talking awkwardly. What was it about the way she spoke that suddenly seemed so odd? She tried to put her finger on it.

"So that's why you said you were a hostage," Therese said, her voice thick with sadness.

She nodded and bit into her trembling lower lip.

"And still I feel like I've made a horrible mistake. I can't live here, but I can't go back there."

"Are you still in touch with ..." Therese paused, the jealousy over this person who had made love with Carol making her feel nauseous. And then, like a lightbulb, it occurred to her.  

This person. Who says that? She would have said "a man" or "he."

She looked down at her fingers clenched tightly in her lap.

"Carol," she breathed, interrupting her own question.

Carol must have heard the change in her voice; her head jerked up and she looked directly at Therese.

"Was it Abby?"

Carol sat bolt upright, her eyes suddenly filled with fear and then ... anger.

"Who ... How ... What do you know about Abby?"

Therese retreated as much as she could into the corner of the couch. "I don't know. Just ... Rindy ..."

"Rindy doesn't know anything!" And then her breath caught in her throat and her eyes went wild. "She doesn't, does she?"

"Whoa, Carol, calm down. I just guessed."

Carol's eyes burned through her like dry ice, the coldest blue she had ever seen.

Therese felt herself inching up onto the arm of the couch. "I mean, she mentioned she had a teacher that you were friends with, that's all. And how much she liked her."

She plunged forward. "And you were being weird about pronouns."

The chill in Carol's eyes softened just a second, replaced for a moment by curiosity.

"Pronouns?" she asked, her voice cool and even.

"Yeah, so, I'm a librarian. I notice words. What can I say?"

Carol stared at her for a long moment. Therese squirmed like a butterfly pinned to a board, feeling her whole body covered in a fine sweat. But she had come this far, no sense in taking a half measure now.

"So, it's true? You had an affair with a woman?"

Carol grimaced. "Yes. And I know how that must sound. I ... you probably haven't known anyone before who ..."

"I have."

Carol's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "You have ... what?"

Therese realized what Carol thought and she shook her head quickly. "Oh, oh no. I mean ... what I meant was that I've known people who ... who ...," she searched for the word and came up lacking, "you know, who liked someone that way."

Hell, Therese, you sound like such a bumpkin.

Her cheeks must be bright pink; she felt the humiliation flush through her system. But when she looked at Carol, all she saw was a woman too twisted up in her own pain and confusion to notice Therese's blunder.

The pull of her, the urge to comfort her was so strong. Her heart cramped and pulsed painfully. She felt Carol's agony as her own physical ache.

She dropped down from where she had partially climbed up the arm of the couch and moved closer to Carol, picking up her warm soft hand in her own.

Carol's eyes found her, and instead of the fierce jungle predator, she saw only a timid and frightened housecat, left out in the rain and cold for way too long.

"Carol, it's ok. I don't care about that. Not any of it. I don't judge you."

Carol's face showed disbelief, but as Therese looked steadily at her and continued to press her hand between hers, the look turned to something like wonder.

"But ... but surely you must think I'm an awful wife and mother. A cheat and a sneak."

Therese recognized in the blonde woman's voice the same tone she used when she was brutal with herself. That evil inner voice that came out to bite and torment.

"I think no such thing. I think you've been in a terrible situation. And you deserve to be happy."

Carol's eyes filled with tears. Therese hesitated, then moved towards her as if in slow motion, wrapping her arms around her. Her hand cradled the back of Carol's head and brought her down to her shoulder, making soft soothing sounds. And while she knew she was there to comfort and soothe, the primal part of her body surged to feel her soft skin under her hands, her fingers roaming through the silken curls she had longed to touch since the first day she saw her.

Therese was overcome by the sensation of her in her arms, her scent in such close proximity, touching her, caressing her. Being pressed against her was heaven, her warmth and her curves, the swell of her breasts so soft against Therese's chest. She swallowed back a moan, making a strangled noise in her throat. Her whole body pulsed and throbbed, and she felt a gush of wetness release into her panties.

She felt Carol's breath hitch in her throat, felt her breathing quicken. And that same primal part of her felt the surge within Carol, the heat that let her know Carol was feeling the same things that she was, desire met with desire.

Carol lifted her tear-streaked face from her shoulder, her lips were moist and parted, and she was panting softly.

At that moment, they heard the keys rattle in the front door.

They jumped apart guiltily, and in walked Harge.

Chapter Text

Therese's hands were shaking as she buckled her seatbelt. Her body was a swirl of heat and confusion, an emotional and physical car crash as the reality of Harge slammed into the fantasy world that had been her and Carol on the couch.

She could tell Carol was shaken too. She was silent, and her face was ashen.

Therese sent thanks to the universe that Harge was not a very observant man. He had tromped into the living room, apparently oblivious to the scene he had disrupted. The only thing he seemed to notice was the smell of cooking in the house, and he gave Therese a pleased and appraising look when Carol quietly said that she had cooked dinner.

"Are there leftovers?" Harge had asked, his nostrils twitching. Therese shook herself out of her frozen state.

"Yes," she said, "Good southern cooking. So of course there's lots of it. It's the only way I know how to cook. My grandmother always cooked enough to feed an army."

“Well, I don’t know how you haven’t managed to land yourself a man yet! You’d make a good wife.” And with that, he looked at Carol pointedly, then wandered into the kitchen to poke his head into the refrigerator.

Carol stood up, smoothing her skirt, and Therese followed suit. She wasn't sure if it was the heady passion of the experience or the effect of the wine, but she felt unsteady on her feet and had to reach for the arm of the couch. She looked at Carol, whose wide eyes indicated she was suddenly stone cold sober.

Now, in the car, she could smell the faint hint of alcohol. She knew she wouldn't have been able to drive in that state, but she didn't know how Carol handled her liquor. She had the distinct feeling that Carol was used to polishing off a bottle of wine on a regular basis.

Carol sat quietly behind the wheel, pausing for a moment, her breaths coming slower as she took some studied deep breaths. Therese wondered which version of Carol was here with her now – she couldn't see her face in the dim light of the car.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the headrest. A wave of exhaustion washed over her. It was too hard to try to figure out what Carol was thinking. Her sex still throbbed – it hadn't caught up with her mind yet to know the moment had passed. And her heart seemed to still be settling down from the marathon run it had raced in the moments leading up to Harge's entrance. Suddenly, she just wanted to be home, in her room, where life was quiet and uncomplicated. And where she could relive the evening she had just experienced and try to make sense of it all.

She heard Carol clear her throat and shift slightly in her seat, and the sound of it brought her back to the present. She rolled her head to the side, looking over at her in the car. Her eyes were forward, on the road, but she could tell that Carol had been stealing glances at her.

Finally, Carol said something so softly that Therese almost thought she was talking to herself. "What are you thinking?"

For a moment Therese thought of pretending that she hadn't heard. How could she be expected to articulate all the thoughts swirling in her head? Why should she be the first to explain herself?

She took a deep breath.

"I'm thinking ... "

A thousand possible responses spun through her head.

I'm thinking I am totally screwed. I'm thinking your husband has shitty timing. I'm thinking your skin feels like warmed silk. I'm thinking I can't live without you. I wonder what would have happened if we had just one more minute alone. And I am one big ball of want. I want and want and want.

"I don't know what to think." She took a cautious sideways glance at Carol, trying to gauge where she was, who was there with her in the car. "Maybe you could go first."

Carol's head snapped quickly to look at her, then back just as quickly to the road. They were fast approaching Therese's driveway. "What do you mean, go first?"

"Maybe you could tell me what you're thinking ... first."

Stalemate.

Carol tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then turned the blinker on and swept into the driveway.

"Therese," she said, and there was that voice again, the magical sound of her name. Oh how easy it was for this woman to turn her into a pile of tingles.

In the silence that followed, she tried to anticipate what Carol might say next.

Oh please. Please. Give me something.

Finally she cleared her throat softly and continued, "I seem to leave a path of destruction wherever I go. And I won't have you be part of the carnage."

Well that wasn't even close to anything I thought you might say.

"What are you talking about?" Therese said quickly, her tone sharper than she intended.

Carol put the car into park. When she turned to look at Therese, she could see the shimmer of wetness in her eyes.

"I've ... behaved in ways I shouldn't. I might have made you think ... well ..." She twisted her body in her seat to face Therese.

"You know that I care about you, don't you?" She furrowed her brow, and Therese felt her heart pick up its frantic pounding again.

Is this it?

Therese nodded slowly. "Sure. Yes."

"I would never hurt you on purpose. I would never. But I seem to have a habit of hurting the ones I ..." She twisted her hands in her lap, then shook her head in frustration.

"So I just have to be more careful," she said, again more like she was talking to herself than Therese.

After another painful pause, she choked out, "I'm sorry, I must sound insane,” and Therese could see Carol make the effort to fix her face into a calm and collected smile.

Therese shook her head quickly, terrified, seeing this moment so quickly slip away. If she could only grab the rope before it disappeared completely. Where is the life ring?

"I care about you too," she blurted, but didn't know how to follow it up.

"I know," said Carol softly, an unmistakable sadness in her voice.

The space between them in the car became a chasm, and into it fell all the unspoken words between them. There was nothing safe to say, and therefore nothing left to say.

After an uncomfortable moment, Therese sensed that Carol wanted her to go. She put her hand on the door handle and pushed it open. Before she got out of the car, she turned to Carol one more time. "Will I see you tomorrow?" she said.

She could see the momentary confusion on Carol's face. "At church," Therese continued.

Carol chewed her lip, then shook her head slowly. "No. I don't think ... I'm going there anymore."

When Therese got to the door of her house and slipped her key in the lock, she couldn't help but compare the feeling she had now with how she had felt the night before in this very same place.  Her feet had become embedded in the concrete slab beneath her. She could barely lift them to go inside.

She took one long look back over her shoulder at the car headlights retreating into the darkness.

Safely shut into her quiet little room, Therese studied the little shrine to Carol on her nightstand.

The cotton ball.

The library card with her name on it.

The note with the list of books she wanted.

She slipped the cork from their bottle of wine out of her pocket and set it beside the rest.

She stared at the shrine until the sight of it was blurry with her tears.

Chapter Text

Therese didn't go to church on Sunday. She was worried if she saw Harge there without Carol, she might punch him in the face. She, in fact, had woken up that morning with a general murderous impulse. She felt she could stab a stranger if he looked at her wrong. So, for the good of the community, she stayed home.

Therese the rage-monkey was doing the breakfast dishes and cleaning up the general mess her father had left around the last couple of days. He was passed out on the couch, and she heavily clanked and banged the dishes until he rolled over, groaning, attempting to shield his ears with a couch pillow.

She shot daggers with her eyes at the shapeless lump of his body and turned on her radio, pumping up the volume on Billie Idol as he screeched out "White Wedding”.

Her father finally got up and stumbled off to his own bedroom, never giving her a second look.

After she had taken out some aggression by scrubbing the bathroom and vacuuming all the carpets, she swept and mopped the linoleum floor of the kitchen. The kitchen was harvest gold, and the linoleum had an odd swirling of orange, yellow, and green that always made her think of someone throwing up vegetable soup.

She didn't feel like eating, which meant she didn't feel like cooking. And her attempt to watch some mindless tv ended with her yelling aggressively at a stupid re-run of "Moonlighting”. It was ridiculous that a hot woman like Cybill Shepherd would ever give a second look to a troll like Bruce Willis. And Therese had had enough of it. And she told them so. Both of them.

She turned off the tv in frustration and flopped back on her bed. Her eyes fell on the abandoned copy of Fried Green Tomatoes . She sighed. She really should take that back to the library. But nobody was going to charge her fees for an overdue book. Being the head librarian had to have some perks.

Desperate for anything that could sooth her frustrated mind, she picked up the book and flipped to the page with her bookmark. She lay back against her worn pillowcase and started to read.

She found herself pulled into the world of a small town in Alabama reminiscent of her own, only set in the 1920's. And deep in the heart of the story was a beautiful friendship between a tomboy named Idgie and a lovely woman named Ruth. It was a friendship that turned into a romance. Therese was completely enthralled, the turn in the story was so unexpected. Although the romance was never explicit, it was definitely woven into the plot in a way that seemed natural and accepted by the other characters in the story. And those two women loved each other without a doubt.

Therese could feel her heart squirm and twist in her rib cage as she read, the feelings it brought to her seeming strange and new but somehow all so familiar at once. Here it was, on the page, a mirror of who she was – or at least of who she could be. And seeing it there, embedded in this lovely story in a way that was so loving and understanding, it lifted a burden from her shoulders that she had felt for so long.

Because how unusual could she really be if this had been imagined and written by Fannie Flagg, and then actually published and sent to her very own library? Surely there were other people like her. But of course, she knew that. She had known a lesbian couple at college – well, not really known them, but seen them around campus, some friends of a friend. And a couple of her friends in concert band had been gay men.

And then there was Carol.

Her mind flipped back to the girl in college who she had been so obsessed with and the feelings she had brought out in her. The sleepless nights snuggled next to her in her bed, her body wanting something more, but she wasn't quite sure what it was.

Now she knew. And it was all so obvious. She smacked her own forehead with the heel of her hand.

This was what she wanted from Carol. And it was what she couldn't have. Because friendship was not how you described this thing. And Carol was a married woman.

Of course she had wanted to be near her, to press her body against her. And last night she had realized so urgently that she wanted to kiss her.

But now ... now she realized one other incredible thing. She wanted to make love to her. She wanted to be with her naked and explore every inch of her with her mouth and her hands. And the waves of desire she felt whenever she was around this beautiful woman made so much sense.

This is what I am. This is who I am.

She put down the book and stared at the ceiling with a sense of wonder. How this had not occurred to her before now was ... well, incredible.  She guessed it was true that denial was a powerful thing. The mind's capacity to self-protect, that was what had taken her so long. Because to discover this before now, before she had dealt with her religious hang-ups and established herself as an independent being ... well, she might not have survived that.

Now, even though it wasn't an easy thing to accept, at least she didn't feel so much like a freak, someone unloveable. When she started to replay the interactions between her and Carol in her mind, she could see the invisible thread that stretched between them. Though it was a small notion at first, the more she thought of it and put the pieces together, the more she knew that Carol felt this way about her too.

When that thought clicked into place, the thought that Carol would want to kiss her, and hold her, and have sex with her, fireworks went off in her brain that traveled through the core of her body and exploded in the secret heat between her legs. Her nipples stiffened and ached underneath her t-shirt.

Quickly she stripped naked and slid between her sheets, suddenly frantic with need. She closed her eyes and let her hands roam her body, imagining her hands as Carol's hands. She reached for the cotton ball by her night stand to have the scent of her as she caressed her breasts and slid her hands down her belly.

And then in her mind, she was Carol, and her hands were touching Carol's body, feeling the soft velvet of her skin, running her fingers in her golden curls. She pressed her open mouth to the back of her hand and kissed and licked and bit.

I am kissing Carol. I am making love to Carol.

Her right hand slipped between her legs and she gasped as she felt a fountain of wetness there. She laid her index and middle fingers on either side of her clitoris and rubbed up and down and circled it, feeling how incredibly stiff and hot it was.

I am touching Carol. I am putting my fingers inside Carol.

She grabbed her pillow and pulled it over her face, biting into it to muffle her cries as she reached her climax.  

Afterwards, she lay still that way for a long time in the dark and quiet. She wasn't angry anymore.

Chapter Text

The Carol who showed up at the library on Tuesday morning was noticeably different. Most obviously, she was dressed in black and gray, very demure and toned down. Her hair was pulled back in a simple clip, and she was only wearing the slightest hint of blush and lip gloss.

But the most striking thing to Therese was the way she looked at her. The fierce, bold jungle cat was nowhere to be found. Instead she looked reticent, almost shy and uncertain to see Therese. Therese felt something inside herself crumble a bit. To see the mighty fall so far and so quickly, what horrible thing could have happened to her to bring her this low? Surely they had left things in an awkward place, but Therese had felt herself pull out of it in the last day or so. She felt she could find her words again in front of Carol.

But to see her this way, the pained and apologetic smile on her face as she settled down in a table further away from the front desk with her leather bound notebook … well, it knocked the wind out of Therese. She shuffled to her little office and closed the door, sitting heavily in her chair and allowing her head to sink to the desk for just a moment. It was all contained in that look – the knowledge that Carol saw her differently now, would treat her differently. And after coming so close to her on Saturday night, the thought of that was unbearable. Coming so close to everything, touching her, holding her in her arms, and now to have her fall away, a climber encountering loose stone and tumbling off the edge of a cliff. How could she live without her now?

Pull yourself together, Therese.

She pinched the soft flesh of her inner arm hard enough to leave a bruise, bringing her back to herself, pulling her head out of the awful spiral. This was not the end. It couldn’t be.

Therese stood up again, giving herself a moment to balance and stop her head from spinning. The place they had reached up to this point had been all up to Carol. Carol had the map, and the compass, and had taken her hand and led her through the woods. Therese had stood in the clearing and felt the warm sunshine on her face, had finally seen the blue sky and smelled the scent of freedom.

And now, just because Carol had become uncertain and had lost her way, didn’t mean that Therese had to go back track. There was no going back to that dark, claustrophobic place, now that she knew how the rest of the world could be.

In her mind, Therese picked up her walking stick and tightened the laces on her hiking boots. Determined, she strode back into the main part of the library and watched Carol for a while, making wide arcs in an orbit around her, thinking of her next move.

She waited for a quiet lull in the library, when they were the only two people there. She made her way over to the table. She knew Carol could sense her getting closer; there was an almost imperceptible change in her face. But Therese had studied her so closely whenever they were together, that she could now read the finest changes in her features.

She stood next to Carol’s table and put her hand down on its surface, near Carol’s haphazard pile of books.

“How’s the view from over here?” Therese asked, already anticipating her response.

Carol looked up at her with a tired smile. “Hi Therese,” she said.

Is that all? Where’s the part about the view not being as good?

Therese pulled up a chair across from her and sat down.

“Are you ok?” she asked, though she knew the answer was no.

Carol shrugged and chewed at her lower lip. “I’ve been thinking,” she said simply.

Therese furrowed her brow. “That’s not even an answer.”

“I know,” she said, and then the old Carol peeked through for a moment and grinned at her.

Therese kicked her lightly under the table. “Cut it out.”

“Owww!” Carol whined, pretending to be hurt.

“Seriously, Carol, what the hell?”

“Ooooh, you swore.” Carol lifted an eyebrow. “Next thing you know, you’ll be saying ‘fuck’,” she said, her top teeth biting into her lower lip to exaggerate the “f” in fuck, the word drawn out low and slow.

“Don’t make me kick you again.”

Carol put her pen down and sighed resignedly. “Such abusive behavior.”

Therese crossed her arms over her chest and waited, giving her an exaggeratedly stern look.

Carol leaned forward and lowered her voice, even though they were the only two people in the building. She stared at a point on the table between them.

“I’m just trying to do the right thing, Therese. I’m like a hurricane slowly lumbering up the Gulf Coast – I leave a path of destruction wherever I go, but I’m pretty easy to avoid if you just get in the car and drive away.”

Therese rolled her eyes. “Oh please, Hurricane Carol … I’m shaking in my shoes.” She nudged her with the point of her toe again under the table.

Carol raised her eyes to look at her then, her voice small, “You don’t know what you’re asking of me. You’re young. You’re … innocent.”

“I’m 30,” Therese huffed. “And I’m not innocent.”

Carol lifted an eyebrow, leaned even further in towards her. There was a steel rod underneath her tone, and her eyes sliced into Therese.

“Have you ever had sex, Therese?”

Therese pushed back her chair and almost fell over.

Who asks that? That’s private! And we’re at my work, for God’s sake!

She stood up and looked around the library again, even though she knew there was no one else there.

“Jesus, Carol, that’s quite a thing to ask.”

“Yes, but now I’ve asked it. You said you weren’t innocent ... so, prove it.”

“Innocence is about more than just virginity,” she growled, louder than she had intended.

“So you are a virgin,” Carol said softly, whistling low under her breath as she leaned back in her chair again.

Therese could feel the steam coming out of her ears, she was so angry.

“Carol Aird, you are such a … such a … “ she squinted her eyes at Carol and screwed up her lips, “a fucker! You are such a fucker.”

Carol started to shake her head, and then a snort came from her nose. And then she started to laugh. A deep belly laugh.

“What the hell is so funny?” Therese demanded, stamping her foot in frustration.

“When you’re angry,” Carol said laughing, “God, you’re adorable.”

“It’s not funny!” Therese stamped her foot again, and started to poke out her bottom lip, and then the sheer ludicrousness of it all caught up with her. Carol’s laughter was so contagious. And it was actually HER again, the Carol she knew – not the whipped dog with her tail between her legs.

She allowed herself a small smile.

Carol’s laughter finally subsided, and the tall woman cupped her chin in her hand and looked up at Therese. “What am I going to do with you?”

Therese bit back several inappropriate replies.

Instead, she said, “Well, I can tell you what you’re NOT going to do. You’re not going to shut me out. I won’t allow it.”

Carol bit at the inside of her cheek, and finally said quietly, “Ok, Therese.”

 


 

The next time Carol showed up at the library, she sat at her usual table. She gave Therese a sweet smile and fluttered her lashes, as if to say, "See, here I am. Sitting where I’m supposed to.”

Therese raised her eyebrows at her and cocked her head saucily. When there was a lull in activity, she walked over to say hello and see if she needed any research help.

"Actually," Carol said, "I was wondering what you're doing after work."

"Oh?" said Therese. "What do you want me to be doing?"

Carol smirked. "You'll just have to wait and see. Meet me out front after 5."

"OK," Therese said, and then took Carol's marked up list of books that she wanted to request from other libraries.

"How's the paper coming?" she asked.

"Surprisingly well, really. Those last two books you got for me were great finds. I've got a solid outline, lots of reference material, and I think I'm almost ready to start putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard, I guess you'd say."

Therese smiled broadly at her, feeling proud of her, proud to know her. "Good," she said, and took the little sheet of paper to the back to start making the requests.

Therese didn't even notice Carol leave in the afternoon, she had gotten so busy with a rush of juniors who all had research papers due. After Sandra had gone and she finished locking up, she gathered her things and went down the back stairs and around to the front of the building.

Her face fell when she didn't see the green Jag parked out front.

Oh no, she's late.

She looked around and pondered sitting on the library steps, but she didn't want to risk getting her skirt dirty. And then a cherry red station wagon honked right in front of her and she almost jumped out of her skin. She hadn't even noticed anyone sitting in the car.

She looked closer, and it was Carol! Carol, laughing like crazy and pressing the horn to honk at her again.

She ran to the side of the car and jerked open the door to climb in.

"Stop that, you maniac!" she yelled, laughing.

In response, Carol honked the horn and made her jump again. Therese leaned over and pinched her smartly on the arm.

"Abuse!" Carol howled. "I didn't know you were such a violent person!"

"Honk that horn one more time and you'll see just how violent!"

Carol laughed and put the car in reverse.

"What's up with the tank? I would have never imagined you driving a station wagon."

"It's not a station wagon," Carol said haughtily. "It's a Subaru wagon, a different beast entirely. It was our winter car in Vermont, when I didn't want to get my car out in the salt. And it has all wheel drive, so it's great in the snow. When we moved down here, I just couldn't bear to give it up. I'm hoping it lasts long enough to be Rindy's car when she's old enough to drive."

"It makes quite the statement," Therese said wryly.

The blonde turned in her seat and gave her a pointed look. "It will make a great car for her, because it's awfully easy to learn how to drive in."

Therese backed herself up against the car door. "Oh no," she said, seeing the look in Carol's eyes, "don't even go there."

"See?" Carol said, putting her hand on the gear shift, "It's an automatic. No clutch, no changing gears. Just put it in drive and put your foot on the gas."

"I'm not doing it."

Carol put the car in gear and drove at what seemed a much more leisurely pace than usual. Therese watched her suspiciously. She was smiling slightly, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, heading towards the outskirts of town.

She pulled the car into the lot of the old sewing factory that had shut down years ago. The large square parking lot was still a popular place for people to walk or jog. One trip around it was a quarter mile, and you would always find at least one or two people walking there on a weekend.

This evening it was deserted. Carol put the car in park and looked over at Therese. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do," she said.

"Good, because I don't plan on it." Therese's heart was pounding and her palms were clammy. She wanted to get out of the car and run around the block.

"Therese," she sighed deeply, "you asked me to trust you."

Therese pursed her lips and lifted her eyebrows once in acknowledgement.

"Well, now I'm asking you to trust me. Just a little." She looked at Therese hopefully.

Damn it, how can I resist her?

"Come on, just sit behind the wheel. You don't even have to put it in drive."

Carol got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side, opening Therese's door.  Therese looked up at her, all 10 feet of her, standing there so tall and lithe and lovely, the sun framing her golden hair from behind like a halo. She knew she would have to at least try.  She groaned and unbuckled her seatbelt begrudgingly, sliding out of the car and brushing past Carol on her way around to the driver's side.

She slid under the wheel and looked at it ruefully, as if it would shock her if she put her hands on it. Carol slipped into the seat beside her.

"Now put your hands on the wheel." Carol was leaning in close to her. She put her hands up close together at the very top of the steering wheel and gave it a death grip.


Carol reached up and put her hand on Therese's lightly. "Here, move it down here, you want them at 10 and 2, like the hands of a clock. And hold it lightly, it's not going anywhere."

Therese moved her hands where Carol wanted them, and tried to loosen her grip on the rubbery cover.

“Now just close your eyes for a moment and take some deep breaths. Imagine yourself driving, that it’s a beautiful day out, and you’re free. And you are confidently driving down the road, the Mistress of this machine.”

Therese did as she was instructed, and did feel her raging heart beat slow down just a touch. It was the low and melodic sound of Carol’s voice, calming her.

She could hear Carol’s breathing beside her, smell her perfume. She imagined herself driving somewhere far away with Carol. Escaping. She smiled in spite of herself.

Carol mistook the meaning of her smile.

“See there?” she asked. “Now you are getting the feel of it.”

Therese’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked again at her hands on the wheel. She could feel the vibrations of the engine rumbling through her palms.

“OK, put your foot on the brake – that’s the one on the left.”

Therese felt a touch of annoyance that she was speaking to her like a child. But it did keep it simple.

No big deal.

“Now try switching to the accelerator. It won’t go anywhere, it’s in park.”

Therese shifted her foot and revved the engine a little. The old Subaru made a comforting purr.

“That’s really good, Therese.”

The small woman turned her head to the side to see if Carol was teasing her. But there was only warmth and encouragement in her eyes. She felt a little glow from the praise.

“Now go back to the brake and keep your foot there.”

Therese did so, and her eyes widened when she saw Carol reach down and shift the car into Drive. Her heart started to hammer again, and she licked her lips nervously.

“No! Carol I’m not ready!”

“It’s ok,” she soothed. “As long as your foot’s on the brake, we’re not going anywhere.”

Therese could feel her foot trembling on the brake, and she had an irrational fear that her foot would suddenly just slip off, or her muscles would grow weak and she wouldn’t be able to hold the pedal down anymore.

She felt Carol’s warm hand on her shoulder. She squeezed lightly and left it there. Usually that touch would send her mind reeling, would send her blood pulsing through her veins like wildfire. But now, in the car, facing a fear that loomed so large, that hand was comforting. Steadying.

Therese tried to focus on her breathing again, her eyes drifting back down to the shifter locked in Drive.

“If you take your foot off the brake without giving it any gas, the car will roll forward very slowly. And you could keep your foot hovering right over the brake and stop it immediately.”

The way she said it was factual, not forceful. It was up to Therese whether to let the car roll forward or not. She stayed fixed in place for a good minute, trying to steady her breathing. Carol’s hand never left her shoulder.

There’s no danger here. There aren’t any cars or people around. This is silly – I should be able to do this.

Her rational mind fought with the fears in her head, her worries about injuring herself or others, her lack of confidence in her own abilities.

Carol was quiet, letting her sift through her thoughts, her breathing slow and calm beside Therese, and that hand on her shoulder exuding the utmost confidence in Therese. Carol was not afraid to be in a car that Therese was driving. Carol had faith in her, that she could do this.

Therese took a deep, shuddering breath, and let her foot off the brake tentatively. The car rolled benignly. Therese hit the brake again, too sharply, and the car lurched to a stop. Carol chuckled softly.

“Go ahead, get used to how much pressure it takes to stop.”

Therese would let the car roll a little and then apply different amounts of pressure to the brake.

And so the lesson continued, Therese getting up enough confidence to even apply a little pressure to the gas pedal, steering around the empty parking lot. Carol murmured words of praise and encouragement at every small advance, never pushing her too hard to try the next thing.

Therese found herself much less afraid. She wasn’t enjoying the experience, by any stretch, but she had overcome the initial terror that left her sweaty and breathless. Finally, she shifted the car into Park on her own, feeling exhausted.

“Is that good enough?”

Carol nodded. “For now, yes. You did great.”

Therese’s eyes sought hers, and Carol was beaming at her. Therese reached over and squeezed Carol’s knee gently.

Carol gave her a wink, then slipped out of the car to walk back around to the driver’s side.

“Jesus, take the wheel!” Therese exclaimed, laughing.

Chapter Text

Therese was startled when she heard the phone ring. Sometimes she wondered if it was still working, it rang so infrequently. But the few times it rang, it was almost always something good. Her friends from college would call occasionally with an update, or her Aunt Lucy would call from Atlanta to ask after her and her dad. She would only put her dad on the phone if he were sober, and most of the time she could cover it up easily by making the excuse that he didn’t like to talk on the phone. But she suspected that Aunt Lucy knew the deal with her younger brother.

So when she picked up the phone, it was with a smile. And she expected to hear a female voice. What she didn’t expect to hear was Carol. She had given the woman her phone number, but she had never called her.

“Therese?” the soft, breathy voice asked.

“Carol!” she exclaimed, then caught herself. “Yes, hi. How are you?”

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but I wanted to ask if you might be available on Thursday to babysit. Well, actually, Wednesday night into Thursday.”

“Oh,” Therese said quietly, thinking that Carol could never be a bother.

Carol took this as a hesitation, and rushed on, “I know it’s your day off, and it’s probably the last way you’d want to spend it …”

“Carol, of course I will. I don’t mind. What’s going on?”

“I had a doctor’s appointment planned for early morning and now it turns out Harge has to go out of town on business, even though he promised me he would be here on this date. It’s going to be a long appointment and I don’t want Rindy to have to get up early and have her day ruined because of me.”

“A doctor’s appointment?” Therese frowned. “Is everything ok?”

“Oh yes, of course,” Carol said, trying to sound cool, but Therese could hear some underlying nervousness in her voice.

“Carol, what is it? You know I'm just going to worry if you don’t tell me.”

The voice on the other end of the line laughed, and she could hear a bit of sheepishness in the tone when she admitted, “Well, I have a tooth issue that apparently requires a specialist. I need a bit of a tricky root canal. And I’ve been putting it off, but this tooth is getting more and more demanding. And this is the first appointment I could get into, and I’m getting kind of desperate to get this thing out. It kept me up all night!”

“Awww, I’m sorry your tooth is bothering you!” Therese said, wanting so much to comfort her. “Is the appointment in Jamison?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to drive back ok after that?”

“Yes, yes of course,” Carol brushed her off. “But if I could just know Rindy was taken care of and not have to worry about her sitting in some waiting room while I’m getting this done …”

“Absolutely,” said Therese.

“So,” Carol said, and Therese could sense hesitation in her voice, “I was wondering if you’d like to spend the evening with me and Rindy. We could order a pizza and watch movies.”

“Absolutely not,” Therese said firmly, and she savored the shocked silence at the other end of the phone.

“Oh, well … ok, I’m …”

Therese interrupted Carol with her giggling. “Of course I’ll come over, but the pizza here in town is atrocious.  I insist on cooking for you both.”

Carol chuckled softly. “You drive a hard bargain, Therese Belivet. But if you do that, you have to give me a grocery list and I’ll go shopping to get the provisions.”

Therese pondered this, if Carol could be trusted to purchase the right ingredients at the store. She decided to give her a simplified list and then supplement from her own kitchen.

“OK,” she agreed, and they chatted a few more minutes about what type of food Rindy liked and what movie they might want to rent for the evening.

Therese enjoyed the intimacy of it, this quiet conversation alone with Carol. She clutched the phone and held it close to her ear, and she could feel the heat building up in her skin where the earpiece was pressed. Carol’s voice was low and sweet, and she imagined her face as she listened, her smile, her sparkling eyes. The Carol on the phone seemed a little more relaxed than usual. She wondered why she had never called her before.

When she sensed the call was wrapping up, Therese reached out to grab a trailing thread, not wanting to let it end just yet. “Carol,” she said, her voice a question, “does Harge mind if I … well, will he feel suspicious if I’m there with you … you and Rindy … overnight?” Therese felt her insides churning, wanting to know, but feeling awkward just at the asking, the suggestion of it.

“Of course not,” Carol said quickly, “there’s no reason for him to feel suspicious.” Her tone was no-nonsense, as if Therese had asked the most ridiculous question she had ever heard.

Therese felt a thickness in her throat and her eyes stung.

Therese, you idiot. Your feelings are so one-sided. You should have just let the call end.

She felt a need to explain herself. “I mean,” she choked out, then cleared her throat to remove the hurt from her voice, “just because of Abby, I mean. Does he mistrust you? That’s all I was asking.”

Carol was quiet for a beat too long.

“Of course he mistrusts me. But he trusts you. You go to that church of his,” she said, spitting out the word “church” as if it were something nasty.

A part of Therese wanted to defend the church she grew up in, but that felt too much like defending Harge. Besides, she felt too hurt to even bother. She held the phone in stony silence, not trusting her voice.

“I should go,” Carol said briskly. “I’ll pick you up around 6:00 on Wednesday, if that’s ok.”

“Sure,” Therese said. “Bye.”

When she hung up the phone, she felt hollow inside, a naked raw shell of herself. She had a knack for reading things all wrong, and she had done it again. Her own thoughts and fantasies had projected themselves onto Carol, a blank canvas for her desires. And just because Carol had admitted having an affair with a woman, it didn’t mean she liked all women – and it certainly didn’t mean she liked Therese. Not that way, anyhow.

And now Therese had taken and twisted it in her mind into something dirty. This woman who was lonely, and unhappy, and isolated had turned to Therese in friendship, and she could only think of herself. Her unfulfilled needs. And if she wasn’t careful, she was going to push Carol away.

Therese felt sick.

To have a friendship with Carol was better than nothing. She resolved herself to minding her manners, to behaving, to showing Carol that she was someone who could be trusted to respect her and her marriage.

And what she had to keep reminding herself of was the fact that Carol was just one of those kinds of women – whose efforts at friendship could seem flirtatious sometimes. Sure, she touched Therese more than seemed necessary. But it was probably because of the way the touch burned her that Therese noticed it so much.

And their moment on the couch at Carol’s house, what did that mean?

Obviously, Therese had caught Carol at a vulnerable time. Maybe she had imagined herself in Abby’s arms again. And if Harge hadn’t interrupted, maybe Carol would have locked eyes with her and realized it was just Therese after all and not Abby. Not the woman she truly wanted.

She climbed into her bed and pulled the covers over her head, spending yet another night with tears staining her pillow.

 


 

 

Carol was a little late picking her up on Wednesday. Therese had her bag of supplemental spices and cooking utensils ready, and she was anxiously watching for her from the front window. Her father was on the couch, watching some silly football game.

When he had asked where she was going, she explained she had an overnight babysitting gig, not bothering to go into the details. He nodded, satisfied. He was used to her side jobs.

When Carol roared into the driveway, Therese smoothed her hair and strode out casually. Carol popped the trunk for her to put the cooking items and overnight bag into the back. She climbed in the car slowly, affecting a professional air.

“Hello, Carol,” she said, barely looking at the woman.

“Hi,” she said quietly, “Thanks again for helping me and Rindy out with this. You’re too good to us.”

Therese nodded. “I don’t mind.”

They rode along in stilted silence, and Therese watched the little town pass by out the window. She thought Carol might still be angry at her, from their phone conversation. Worse yet, Therese thought she might still be angry with Carol. She sighed deeply.

“What?” Carol asked.

“What what?” said Therese, not even aware that she had sighed.

“What are you sighing for?”

“Oh,” said Therese, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“OK, if you say so,” Therese said and rolled her eyes.

“Where’s Rindy?” Therese said, suddenly realizing the object of her current mission wasn’t even present.

Carol pulled into the driveway. “She’s here. She wanted to come with me to pick you up, but I told her it would be good practice for her to spend a little time alone. I’m trying to gradually get her more independent.”

“Oh.”

“You say that a lot.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know I was bothering you so much with my sighing and the way I talk,” Therese huffed. She blinked rapidly and bit her lip, feeling tears threaten her eyes.

So much for my plan to be professional and resolved.

“Oh honey,” Carol said, reaching and squeezing the flesh of Therese’s upper arm. Therese tried to shrug out of her grasp, but Carol gripped tighter. “Look at me, Therese.”

Therese scrunched up her face, fighting the emotion she felt there, and doggedly stared out the opposite window. “We should get inside, Rindy’s waiting.”

“Therese,” Carol breathed, her voice so soft that Therese was forced to pull her face together and look at her.

“Why are you upset?” and then even more quietly, “Did I say something to hurt you?”

Therese’s eyes swam with tears, and she rubbed her palm furiously against her nose.

You know you did.

She shook her head in denial.

Carol’s grip loosened a little on her arm, but she could feel that an imprint of her nails would be left there. It hurt a little, and Therese felt a strange satisfaction that the sting in her arm was an outer expression of her deep inner ache.

She could see Carol look at the house, checking for Rindy.

“I can be an awful shit sometimes, Therese. I’m just a dried-up miserable bitch, and sometimes I say things I don’t even mean. So whatever I said that upset you, you just have to ignore it.” She released Therese’s arm and got out of the car.

Which things? Which things didn’t you mean?

Therese hesitated a moment and then climbed out of the car too. Carol was already reaching into the trunk, retrieving her bags. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched her, letting Carol carry in the bags.

Chapter Text

The assault of Rindy was upon her as soon as she stepped in the door.

“Miss Terri!” the little girl shouted, flinging herself at her and wrapping her arms around her hips. “Are you really going to cook for us? Can I help?”

Therese felt the tension of the car melt away. The warmth of this sweet little girl washed over her like a soothing balm.

“Of course, sweetie, I could use the help! Your mother’s no help at all,” she said, giving Carol a backwards glance that was less than charitable.

Carol lifted her eyebrows in response and gave her a wry look.

“Let’s see how she did at the grocery shopping,” Therese said, continuing to needle at Carol, and opened the fridge to take a peek.

Rindy danced around her in excitement, wanting to know what they were having for dinner and filling her in on the movie they had rented.

While they talked, Carol got out a bottle of wine and poured Therese a glass without asking, placing it on the counter for her beside the stove. Therese picked up the glass without looking at Carol, taking a dainty sip and nodding enthusiastically at Rindy. The energetic mini version of Carol was telling her about school and the marching band, and Therese asked her questions in between pulling things out of the refrigerator and retrieving her cooking utensils.

When she finally glanced at Carol, she saw her watching them, a look on her face that Therese could not interpret. She didn’t look away when Therese caught her watching.

Therese was much more comfortable in the Aird’s kitchen now – she remembered where most things were located. She gave Rindy little tasks to help with, retrieving the flour or pulling strings off the beans. Carol, ever vigilant, had refilled her wine glass twice by the time she had dinner ready.

They all sat down at the table to heaping plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and store bought rolls. “You’re a great sous chef,” Therese said to Rindy.

“What’s a soup chef?” the girl asked.

“No, it’s pronounced ‘SUE’ chef – and it’s like the second in command in the kitchen.”

Rindy smiled proudly.

The three dug into their meals, and little sighs and moans of appreciation were heard all around the table. They enjoyed a lively conversation, full of teasing and friendly banter. Rindy enjoyed poking fun at her mom, and Therese smiled at the two blondes and their adorable relationship.

Therese had made brownies with icing for dessert, and she had to cajole Carol into eating one. “I’ve already eaten too much tonight!” she protested, but Therese cut her a bite-sized piece and held the chocolate square up to her lips. She opened her mouth and Therese popped it in, and she and Rindy both giggled as Carol moaned over the luscious treat.

Carol washed the dishes while Rindy took Therese into her bedroom to show her the plastic tank of sea monkeys she had ordered from the back of her Mad Magazine. Therese pretended to be enthralled by the tiny shrimp swimming in the water, and Rindy told her when and what she fed them.

When she was done cleaning up, Carol suggested they all put on their pajamas before watching the movie. Therese pulled out thin plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a comfortably worn t-shirt from her bag and slipped into the spare bathroom to put them on. When she came out, Rindy was in a matching Minnie Mouse pajama set.

Rindy and Therese put in the tape of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and settled into the big comfy couch, rolling through the opening trailers while waiting for Carol.

When Carol came back down the hall from her bedroom, she was a vision in pale pink silk pajamas with a long-sleeved button-down top. Therese thought she could see her hardened nipples through the fabric, and she averted her eyes quickly to look back at the television screen while Carol sat down on the couch beside Rindy.

Therese thought about the last time they had been on this couch, without Rindy between them. She tucked her feet underneath her and forced herself back to the present, where Pee Wee had started the search for his missing bike. As they watched and giggled, they would interject their own impersonations of Pee Wee saying funny things like, "I know YOU are, but what am I?"

When they got to the part about Large Marge the truck driver and the face she makes with the crazy bugged out eyes, they rewound it several times and replayed it, howling with laughter.

Therese enjoyed feeling the giggling, warm girl beside her, and when Rindy said she was cold, Carol got up to get her a blanket. When she came back to the couch with a warm fleece throw, she put it over Rindy and Therese together.

Therese looked up for a moment and caught her eye, and Carol gave her a wink. When the movie was over, they were all laughing and practicing their Pee Wee “Tequila” dance, which they all had to admit that Carol was the best at. Mostly because she plastered a maniacal toothy grin on her face whenever she did it.

Finally, Carol sighed and looked at the clock. “Past your bedtime, young lady,” she said, and Rindy groaned in disappointment.

“Will you read to me, Miss Terri?” she said, looking hopeful. Therese looked at Carol for approval. She nodded her assent, adding, "But only for a few minutes. We don't want Miss Terri to get too tired and fall asleep in there."

Rindy ran to brush her teeth and wash up before getting into bed. While she did so, the two women sat with the conspicuous space where Rindy had been between them. Therese stole a glance at Carol, who gave her a little smile and picked up their wine glasses for a refill. They were well into their second bottle of wine, which was fine since no one had to drive anywhere tonight.

Rindy came bouncing back in, ready for Therese to join her. She climbed under the covers of her fluffy pink bed, and Therese settled in on top of the covers beside her, using pillows to prop herself up as she read.

She picked up Little House in the Big Woods , the first in the series of Little House on the Prairie books. "Excellent choice, Rindy," she said admiringly.

She turned to the page that the girl had dog-eared and started to read about the family's first Christmas on the prairie, when little Laura receives a doll that she names Charlotte. As she read, she could sense Carol hovering just outside the door. It wasn't even a sight, smell, or sound – somehow she just knew she was there. Her suspicions were confirmed as, just as she ended the chapter, Carol swept into the room in those glowing pink pajamas.

She sat on the other side of Rindy on the bed, smiling down at her adoringly. She tucked the blankets up around the girl. Therese watched, her heart fluttering to see this intimate moment between the two. "Goodnight, sweetheart," she said, leaning down to kiss Rindy on the forehead.

Therese felt her heart twist into a knot; she wanted so badly to be tucked in and kissed this way by Carol.

"Goodnight Ariel, sweet dreams," she said, quickly sliding off the bed before either could catch a glimpse of her face. She paced back into the living room, finding her wine glass and taking a healthy gulp.

In a moment, she heard Carol turn off Rindy's light and shut her bedroom door. She turned to look at her. Her eyes were soft in the dim light. She inclined her head towards the couch, as if to ask.

They settled back down into the soft cushions together, each cradling their wine glasses.

"It was nice, you being here with us tonight," Carol said, and the younger woman smiled in return. "It's lonely sometimes, with Harge being gone so much." She paused. "Hell, it's even lonelier when he's here."

Therese took another healthy sip of her wine glass, draining it. She got up to pour the rest of the bottle evenly between their two glasses. She could feel the wine making her extra warm and loose.

She sat down again and watched as Carol twirled the stem of her wine glass in her fingers. "I'm just waiting until she's grown up ... well, at least off to college. I have to make sure she's ok. And then, after that ..." She looked up at Therese, "I can be free."

Therese sucked her lower lip into her mouth, biting it softly.

"But that's a long time away. And the world moves on while I'm standing still."

Therese remained quiet, hoping Carol would go on and on, reveal more of herself. And she did.

"So, even if I did ..." her voice faltered, and she looked uncertainly at Therese, "if I cared for someone in a way that I shouldn't, it would be unfair of me to hold them back. It would be cruel. So I have to be careful. For myself, and for Rindy, but mostly for ... well, for anyone else who could be hurt."

Therese swallowed hard. She felt she was working at a riddle, the push and pull of her.

Did she or didn't she?

She felt the wine make her head swim, the room growing softer and warmer and dimmer by the minute. "But still, you're human, you have feelings," she said, her voice slurring slightly.

"Yes, Therese, I do," she smiled sadly.

"Come on, I think you should get to bed. You've had a bit much to drink."

She stood up and went over to where Therese's bag lay on the floor, picking it up and heading down the hallway. Therese followed her to a room across from Rindy's, where she flicked on the light. Therese was surprised to see it looked somewhat occupied - there was change on the dresser, a clock on the nightstand, a clothes rack with ties hanging in the corner by a mirror.

Carol turned back to her, tilting her head. "This is usually Harge's room."

Therese gave her a quizzical look, her foggy brain not computing.

Carol must have seen her look of confusion, and of course she understood. "We don't sleep together, Therese. Not since we moved down here."

Therese flushed and coughed apologetically. But secretly she felt a wave of relief flow through her. Carol placed the bag on a chair and moved towards the bed, turning the covers down. She motioned for Therese to get in.

Wordlessly, Therese obeyed, slipping between the soft cool sheets that smelled of dryer sheets and somehow, of Carol too.

Carol leaned down over her and pulled the covers up around her neck as she had done with Rindy. She sat on the bed beside her, and Therese could feel her arms pinned down under the covers. She was a little rolled burrito with just her head popping out of the top. Her body rolled slightly towards Carol's weight on the side of the bed.

Carol looked down at her, and Therese's head swam and buzzed like a swarm of busy bees. Gently, like a whisper, Carol reached her hand down and brushed the bangs off Therese's forehead.

Her skin burned from the touch, and an ache rolled from her chest and down between her legs to the center of her. She was paralyzed, transfixed, wanting this moment to never end, to die here happy and looking at this goddess in pink at her bedside.

Carol was looking at her so tenderly, with so much love in her eyes that Therese's earlier doubts and fears about her feelings were swept away. Surely no one who looked at her that way could feel just friendship.

They stayed that way a long moment, their eyes fixed on each other, telling each other with their eyes all the things their lips couldn't say. Finally, Carol's weight shifted on the bed, and Therese sensed she was about to leave.

"Will you kiss me goodnight?"

Carol looked at her for a long time, undeniable desire in her eyes, and then she stood up.

"No, Therese."

Therese felt crushing disappointment, and she bit her lip.

Carol leaned back down to caress her cheek again, lightly. "I can't. It doesn't mean I don't want to. I just ... can't."

Chapter Text

Therese pressed her fingers into her throbbing temples and rolled over, wondering why in the hell she felt so awful. She caught a faint scent of Carol, then opened her eyes, blinking into the morning light and suddenly having it all rush back to her. She was in Carol's house, in the guest bedroom.

Wait ... did she really ... ask Carol to kiss her last night?

Oh God.

And Carol had said that she wanted to but she couldn't. Did she dream that?

Therese sat up reluctantly and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, her mouth tasting like a wild animal had stopped by in the night to take a shit there.

The house was quiet; she looked at the clock to see it was just 7:30. Slowly, painfully, she rolled out of bed to find her way down the hall to the bathroom. Gagging, she brushed her teeth and rinsed several times. When she was finished, she looked around and could tell that Carol had already gone. She didn't know how she had managed to roll out of bed so early after so much wine the night before, but Therese felt the excess of the evening torturing her body now.

She stumbled into the kitchen and found a note by the coffee maker.

It's all ready to go, just press start. Have a good day, girls! - C

Therese smiled and turned the coffee maker on, hearing its cheerful gurgle almost immediately. She padded down the hallway and listened at Rindy's door. She was still sound asleep.

Silently, she tiptoed down the hallway towards Carol's bedroom. The door was open a crack, and she pushed it the rest of the way open. She cast a look back towards Rindy's bedroom. She would hear if the girl got up.

Her bare toes dug into the plush carpet of the room. Carol's bed was unmade, tossed into an unruly knot. She stood beside the bed and looked down at the soft, mint green cotton sheets. She put her hand on them, imagining she could still feel Carol's warmth there.

What would it be like to lay in this bed with her, to feel her warm beside her, to have the luxury of her naked skin against her own? Her tired, aching head pounded harder with the beat of her heart. The urge to be near her converged with the urge for comfort.

Therese climbed into the bed and pulled the covers up around her. She was enveloped in the smell of Carol. The scent of her hair and her skin were there, strong, and she pulled the covers over her face, scissoring her legs between the sheets where Carol had lain.

She closed her eyes and breathed the scent in deeply, an animal making an imprint of the smell of home.

She turned over on her stomach and grasped the pillow, burying her face in it and rubbing against the place where Carol would lay her cheek.

When she turned over again, the fan of the sheets sent another scent up to her nostrils. A different smell, but still of Carol, surely ... this scent was more earthy, primal. Faintly it came to her, the realization of what this new smell must be.

As it dawned on her, she groaned softly into the sheets.

Oh Carol, this is your essence. I want to bathe in it. I want to bottle it and take it home with me.

There were a few golden hairs on the pillowcase, and Therese picked one up between her fingers and stared at it in wonder.

Carefully, she plucked a hair from her own head and laid the single dark strand across Carol's pillow. A piece of her would be here with Carol tonight.

She allowed herself one last rub of her face into the scented pillow before reluctantly climbing from the bed. She wandered into the master bathroom in search of painkiller. It was much like she remembered it from before, Carol's things scattered over the counter, lotions and perfume. She ran her fingers over the bottles and jars, the tubes of lipstick. She rummaged in the medicine cabinet and found some Advil, dumping 3 into her palm and swallowing them without water.

She padded back down the hall towards the now-full pot of coffee, pouring herself a generous cup and doctoring it with 2 teaspoons of sugar. As she sipped it, the warmth of it flowed through her veins and brought some relief, but her stomach seemed to roll and pitch more. She put 2 slices of toast in the toaster and looked in the fridge for butter and jelly.

Being in Carol's kitchen had started to feel like a second home. She closed her eyes and let herself imagine living there, a pleasant little daydream of spending evenings with Carol and Rindy, watching movies and cooking dinner, and then going to sleep with Carol in her big soft bed at night. It sounded like heaven.

She jumped when the toaster popped. By the time she finished with the first slice, she was feeling almost human. She sat on a bar stool and looked out into the back yard, where there was a deck with a pool covered for winter.

She looked up when she heard a rustling coming from down the hall. There was Rindy, her eyes puffy from sleep, smiling to see her.

"Hey there, want some breakfast?"

Rindy nodded.

Therese made her scrambled eggs and toast, sitting across from her and sipping a second cup of coffee while she ate. The girl was quiet in the mornings, and Therese smiled to see her tousled blonde hair sticking up wildly and the red creases on her face from where she had lain on the pillow.

The morning was peaceful, with Rindy watching tv and reading, and Therese wandering around the house, flipping through Carol's magazines and studying the books on her bookshelves. Her mind kept replaying the evening before after Rindy had gone to bed, and the veiled admissions Carol had made to her.

It was confirmation of her feelings in return, at least as much as Carol could admit right now. In a way, it was a relief to know she felt the same. Therese could finally put her mind to rest and know she hadn't been just imagining things, or projecting the way she felt onto Carol.

But in another, deeper way, it fueled the flames within her and intensified her torment. It caused her mind to leap ahead to all the things that could be, if only Carol were not in this predicament. Maybe they could be lovers and form their own little family with Rindy.

She pondered this. Could she do it? I mean, it was one thing to think of a Carol who was free and unfettered. But how could Therese escape her own obligations? This town would never accept a lesbian couple, and her father needed her, depended on her. The whole situation seemed hopeless and endlessly frustrating.

If she could figure out a way to just put her feelings into a box, and then only open the box when she was alone.

By the time the afternoon rolled around, she had started to worry about Carol. She hoped the procedure had gone ok and that it was safe for her to drive herself home. She was irritated with herself that she couldn't drive, because if Carol was somewhere and needed her, she couldn't go get her.

She was pacing around, looking out the front window every minute or so, to the point where Rindy complained that she was "disturbing her reading." She sighed, and decided to distract herself by going with Rindy into her room to play with her Hot Wheels race track. They were racing an ambulance against a police car when they both heard the front door open.

Therese jumped up quickly and forced herself not to run to the front entry.

Carol looked pale and the right side of her face was swollen. She wasn't wearing any make-up, and when she attempted a smile at Therese and Rindy, it ended up in a grimace.

Therese felt a physical ache in her arms; she wanted so badly to wrap them around Carol and take care of her. Rindy seemed somewhat oblivious to her mother's condition, and ran to her as usual to give her an aggressive hug around her waist. Carol tipped back a bit and smoothed the girl's hair, holding onto the doorframe.

Therese noted how dim and dull her eyes looked. "Rough time of it, huh?" she said sympathetically.

Carol nodded. "Especially when the feeling started to come back to it about half way home. I feel like I've been punched by a prizefighter."

Therese took her purse from her. "Why don't you go get changed and lie down? I'll figure out something you can eat."

"But I need to get you home. It's not fair, I've taken up your whole day off."

"Oh hush," said Therese, "go on."

Carol tottered toward her room and Therese searched through the cupboards, finding a can of broccoli and cheese soup to warm on the stovetop. She found a tray and put the bowl of warm soup on it, along with a napkin, a spoon, and a glass of water.

Rindy had settled back down into a recliner with her book, half hanging off of it while she read. Therese carried the tray down the hallway, calling out to Carol before nudging the door the rest of the way open with her hip.

Carol was propped up on pillows in her bed, looking like it was a struggle just to keep her eyes open.

"Here, try to eat a little something. Did you get a prescription?"

Carol shook her head, and Therese went into the bathroom to get the Advil. She didn't bother to pretend that she hadn't been in there before.

She put 3 Advil on the tray and told Carol to take them after she was finished with her soup. She stood by the bed and watched Carol carefully slurp down a spoonful. Carol looked up at her, her swollen face and droopy eyes making her look so pitiful, and then patted the side of the bed. "Sit with me for a minute?"

Therese sat down beside her, careful not to disturb the soup tray. She could feel the warmth of Carol's body pressed against her side, feel the slight movement every time she took a breath. The only sound in the room were the quiet sips of soup and water, the spoon clinking against the bowl.

Therese turned her head away so that Carol wouldn't see her grin. Here she was, in bed with Carol after all.

When she had eaten half the bowl of soup, Carol reached for the Advil and swallowed them down, then relaxed back into her pillows. There was an errant lock of hair across her forehead, and Therese resisted the urge to brush it away. She clenched and unclenched her fingers.

Seeing Carol's eyes droop heavily, she carefully took the tray. "Sleep now," she said, "you'll feel better when you wake up."

Carol closed her eyes, and Therese slipped out of the room quietly.

Therese warmed leftovers from the night before for herself and Rindy. She tidied the kitchen, stripped the sheets off the bed she had slept in, and washed them with some towels from the hamper.

While she was remaking the guest bed, the phone rang. She hesitated, not sure whether to answer. What if it was Harge? But he might be checking in on her. He probably would want to know that she's ok. Or at the very least that Rindy was ok.

Rindy made the decision for her, dashing into the kitchen to snatch the phone off the cradle.

"Ohh hi!!" she said excitedly. Therese cocked her head, listening to the one-sided conversation.

"Mom's in bed. She had her tooth fixed and she had to lay down."

Hmmm, definitely not one of Rindy's friends. And doesn't sound like Harge, either.

"Pretty good. School is kinda lame. They are behind where I was at St. Bernadette's. And none of the teachers are as cool as you."

Abby.

She felt like a sneak, listening in. But she couldn't help herself. They talked a little longer about Rindy's school, her friend Melanie, and a boy who teased her and call her "Windy Rindy" and make fart noises behind her during class.

Therese felt jealous of the easy banter between them, how much Rindy obviously liked this woman. The familiarity that was so obviously born of many hours spent together. Together with Rindy ... and Carol.

Finally she heard Rindy say, "Ok, I'll tell her! Bye, Abby!"

She went back to making up the bed, pretending that she hadn't heard any of the conversation. Rindy's face popped into the doorway.

"Hey, that was my favorite teacher!"

"Cool," Therese said, not looking up.

"She said she wants to visit us this winter, while the weather is so nasty in Vermont."

The hairs on the back of Therese's neck stood up, and she ground her teeth together. She jerked the bedspread up to the top of the bed and shoved the tuck of it under the pillows.

She heard the creak of a door and soon Carol was behind Rindy in the hallway. She stretched and rubbed the side of her swollen cheek. "Did I hear the phone ring?"

Rindy chattered excitedly, telling her about the call from Abby. Therese saw Carol glance over the girl's head at her once, looking uncomfortable for more reasons than just her achy tooth.

Therese gathered her things and put them back into her bag. "Well, I should get going," she said.

"Oh," Carol said, running her hands down her pink silk pajamas, "right, you have to work tomorrow. Just a minute, I'll get dressed and take you."

"No, no need for that," Therese hurried, "I'll call Dannie. He can come pick me up."

Carol furrowed her brow, but the look immediately made her wince in pain again. She still looked like 100 miles of bad road.

Therese rushed past the two blondes and into the kitchen, dialing Dannie's number.

As always, he was friendly and accommodating, not even asking questions about why she needed a ride. She would explain to him in the car.

She hung up the phone and saw Carol watching her. "Who's Dannie?" she asked.

"A friend. We went to school together."

Carol crossed her arms and leaned against the wall.

"Are you feeling better?"

"I've got one hell of a headache, but it's better than it was."

"You should keep on the Advil," Therese said.

"Thank you for looking after Rindy ... and me." Carol smiled shyly, then seemed to remember something and snapped upright. "I should get your money."

Therese shook her head. Carol was headed for her purse, and Therese intercepted her. "No, I don't want that."

Carol looked confused. "Well, of course you have to get paid, you just spent your day off babysitting and then playing nursemaid to a sick old lady."

"I'm not taking it," Therese said firmly. "I wanted to do it." When Carol still reached for her purse, Therese shoved her hand away. "That's what friends do. They look out for each other."

Just then, they heard Dannie's car pull up in the driveway. Therese picked up her bag and ran out the front door, yelling over her shoulder, "Don't forget the Advil!"

Chapter Text

The driving lessons were progressing nicely. Therese didn’t look forward to them at all, but having Carol has her teacher was quite a motivator.

Carol was so patient with her, so kind and understanding. She always praised her for her progress, and overlooked when Therese hit the brakes too hard or turned the wheel too sharply.

“Maybe you should go get your permit,” Carol said. “Then we could venture out a little more.”

Therese looked at her skeptically. “I haven’t said I’m going for my license. As long as you’re in the car with me, I’m doing ok. But to have some stranger evaluate me while I try to concentrate on driving? Nuh-uh. Ain’t happening.”

“One thing at a time,” Carol said softly. “Just go get your permit. For me?”

So Therese did.

November brought some damp, bitter days, and it was more miserable to walk to church. She found herself using that as an excuse quite often. She was losing her interest in keeping up appearances, and she found the messages from the pulpit more and more upsetting.

It was all about how people at that church knew the one path to salvation, and everyone else was going to hell in a handbasket. All the Catholics, and the re-married people, and the Baptists, they were all going to hell. But ESPECIALLY the homosexuals. There was an express one-way ticket with their names on it, and they were doomed to a crispy burnt ending. Unless, of course, they changed their evil ways.

One day, after a particularly blistering sermon, Therese had enough. She vowed not to return, no matter what the church gossips said about her. She started to feel that her attendance there signified agreement, and it was something her conscience could no longer justify.

For Therese, to be a moral being in the world started to demand more honesty – or at the very least, less complicity in a world view that she felt was evil.

The cold November wind didn’t make her walk to work any more pleasant either. But on a couple of particularly bad days, Carol had cruised by in her green Jag to give her a ride to work after dropping Rindy off at school. Of course, Carol had acted nonchalant about it, as if she had just happened to be driving by. But Therese knew the truth.

Carol's paper was progressing nicely, too. She spent many days at the word processor typing away, and her requests for new books came fewer and farther between.

This particular Monday, it was a deluge, the rain coming down in sheets so hard that her mother would have called it a "gully-washer." Carol called her early and told her she would come pick her up, saying, "Oh, I need to get an early start on my research today, so I thought I might as well swing by and get you."

Always so casual, making it seem like she was just being practical, Carol's voice was cool and confident on the phone. But nothing could wipe away the fact that she had called her and offered her a ride on a day of such torrential rain.

When the petite woman climbed into the Jag, the heat was blasting onto the windshield, the wipers swinging back and forth desperately in a vain attempt to keep up with the rain. As always, the car was full of the scent and heat of her, and Therese luxuriated in this environment so saturated with Carol.

She watched Carol's hand on the gear-shift as she expertly shifted, those long slender fingers wrapped around the knob and the emerald ring glinting off a finger. She noticed the way a lock of hair was falling across her cheek as she leaned forward slightly to peer anxiously out the windshield, struggling to see the road ahead.

For Therese, every moment with Carol was a new study, a new angle in new lighting, like a piece of momentary artwork made just for Therese, a fleeting image soon to disappear and transform itself into another beautiful work of art entirely.

She wished the ride to work were longer.

She let Carol in the back way, since it wasn't quite time to open the library yet. Therese put an extra scoop of coffee in her little coffee maker, enough for two. Carol joined her back in her little office and looked around at the cramped space. The delicious aroma of the coffee started to mingle with the irresistible odor of Carol and the faint smell of their damp clothes and hair.

She poured the coffee into her mug, apologizing to Carol that she only had the one. "It's ok, we'll share," said Carol, giving her a wink. Therese severely cut back on the amount of sugar she added, and took a dash of creamer from Sandra's desk since Carol liked creamer in her coffee.

Carol wrapped her fingers around the steaming mug and took a sip as she looked over the rim at Therese.

"Oohhh, that's just lovely." 

She handed the mug to Therese.

Therese held the cup in her hands, warming them on the thick ceramic, desperately wanting to put her lips exactly where Carol's had been. But she couldn't be too obvious about it. She had to distract her.

"So, this is my kingdom," she said, sweeping her arm across the tiny office. "Dusty though it may be."

Carol turned to a pile of magazines on the desk and gently thumbed through. While she was looking away, Therese turned the mug and found the bright red lipstick mark. She pressed her lips to it and took a long, slow sip of the coffee.

It was the best thing she had ever tasted.

Carol turned back to her, leaning back against a small table and crossing her legs at the ankles. "It's not a suitable office for you. You should have a giant desk with a padded leather chair, elegant dark cherry bookshelves lined with first editions, and an antique quill and blotter."

Therese giggled, and handed the mug back to Carol. "I'll have to put that request in to the board and see when they can work that into the budget."

Carol's brow furrowed, and she looked at Therese.

"Oh, sharing a mug seems to have made a mess of you," and before Therese could comprehend, Carol had leaned forward and brushed her thumb just below her lower lip. Therese gasped and her eyes widened, and Carol pulled away her thumb with a smudge of bright red lipstick on it.

She smiled, and her eyes burned into Therese as she held up her thumb. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't mean to share my lipstick."

But Therese could tell that she was not at all sorry.

Without thinking, she flicked her tongue out at her lower lip. She watched Carol sip from the mug again, a small swirl of steam rising from it and drifting across her forehead. She took a tissue from the box and smeared the lipstick from her thumb onto it, tossing it into the garbage.

Therese watched it float slowly down to the bottom of the empty wastebasket. Her lower lip still tingled.

They continued to watch each other, passing the mug back and forth between them, talking quietly about the progress Carol was making on her paper, the library fundraiser Therese was planning. But it was a talk of surface things, when beneath it all there was a subtle rumble, a fissure in the crust of their conversation, and they both knew there was molten lava flowing underneath.

Therese felt the bright hot yellow and orange magma flowing through her veins, pulsing behind her eyes, swirling her insides until she was almost unable to speak. And Carol watched her, simmering, one hand clasping the table she leaned against with white-knuckle intensity.

They both jumped when Therese's little alarm clock went off, signaling it was almost time to open the library. Therese exhaled, trying to hide the shudder in her breath. She ran her fingers through her dark locks.

"Time to make the donuts," she said, attempting a weak smile. Carol nodded and picked up her notebook.

Therese opened the big front door while Carol settled at her usual table, planning to take a few more notes before moving to the word processor.

Therese heard Sandra coming well before she saw her, and the woman huffed and wheezed and complained about the weather as her damp umbrella dripped all over the tile floor. Sandra shook herself like a wet dog, and was on her way to the office to make herself a cup of coffee when she noticed Carol. "Oh, we have an early bird, do we?" Sandra said conspiratorially to Therese, a note in her voice that made Therese perk up her ears.

Therese shrugged and nodded, and Sandra shuffled off to the back.

She was still getting control of her raging heart, desperately wanting a gallon of ice water to cool the heat in her veins. And especially to chill her molten core. If she could have run outside into the cold rain without risking suspicion, she would have.

Instead, she was boiling like a tea kettle on the inside, the steam rising and threatening to blow her whistle.

She took a deep, jagged breath and looked at her task list for the day. She found a few things to start with that were distracting, but not too mentally taxing. Because most of the blood in her body had temporarily left her brain, and was being fairly slow to return to its proper location.

Around 10, Dannie stopped by. He was planning a trip to a comic book convention in Atlanta, and he was looking for travel books about other things to see and do there. Therese gave him a couple of names of restaurants there she liked, since she had gone to Atlanta several weekends with friends while she was in college.

"You're going to love it!" she gushed, telling Dannie all about the amazing bookstore in Druid Hills, and Underground Atlanta, and the Coke museum. "But you really have to go to The Raj and try Indian food."

Dannie made a face, and she punched him. "Don't be such a baby, you should try something new," she cajoled, and he begrudgingly agreed.

They were reminiscing about the first time Therese had gotten Dannie to try Thai food, in the short 3 month period that there had been a Thai restaurant in Jamison. He had gotten something way too spicy for his delicate palate, and he had broken out in a visible sweat at the restaurant.

They had fallen into a fit of giggles, and Therese kept shushing them both because they were in a library, which only made it worse. Therese looked up to see Carol watching them, a strange expression on her face which almost immediately made her stop laughing. Therese cleared her throat and nudged Dannie again.

"Straighten up, joker, or they are going to send the men with the white jackets here and take you off to the funny farm."

Dannie rolled his eyes. "You forget, I already tried to get in there and they just wouldn't take me. I'd never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member anyhow."

"You always screw up that joke."

Therese started stacking up some returned books, trying to get Dannie to wrap it up. Carol had stopped outright staring, but she could tell the woman was still watching them.

"Want to go to the mall on Thursday? Mama wants me to get some more of her special bath gel, and I thought we could make a trip out of it. Maybe go to Olive Garden."

Therese's eyes flicked from Dannie, to Carol, and back to Dannie again. "Maybe," she said hesitantly, "call me on Wednesday night?"

"Ok," he said with a chipper grin, and saluted as he turned on his heel to leave. "Call you Wednesday!" he said, as he pushed open the front door, and Therese waved. When she looked back at Carol, the blonde looked down quickly, but not before Therese had seen the hard line of her mouth.

Before she could figure out an excuse to go talk to her, Sandra showed up. "How are the driving lessons going?" she said, a mischievous smile on her face.

Therese's eyebrows shot to her hairline. "What?"

"The driving lessons," Sandra said, tilting her head towards the table where Carol sat. "I heard the Yankee woman has been teaching you, spending a lot of time at the old factory lot."

Therese swallowed hard, trying not to let her irritation show. "They're going fine, thanks."

The rumor mill. Here we go.

"I could have taught you to drive, I just didn't know you were interested," Sandra said, obviously trying to pry more out of her.

Therese shrugged and tried to move slowly towards the office to escape her. Sandra moved the cart a little, partially blocking her. "So you two have gotten to be awful chummy, huh? I've heard from other people she's a real cold fish, but she seems to like you plenty."

Therese bit back an angry retort and turned sideways to move past the cart. "Yeah, she's all right. For a Yankee."

She fled to the back office, hoping no one else had heard that conversation, especially not Carol.

 

It felt like an eternity before Sandra announced she was headed out for lunch. Therese barely acknowledged her noisy departure.

She was in her small office, gathering up a few new books to bring to the front and add to the permanent collection, when she felt a presence behind her. She turned to see Carol leaning in the doorway with her arms crossed.

She opened her mouth to speak, but Carol interrupted.

"Who was that?"

"Who was what?"

"That ... boy ... who was in here talking to you. The one with the ridiculous shirt on."

Therese crossed her own arms. "He’s not a boy, he’s a grown man. A pharmacist. And his name is Dannie. And for your information, that shirt is not ridiculous, it's a limited edition Spiderman shirt."

"I suppose, if you approve of grown men who watch cartoons."

Therese studied her. What the hell was this all about? She felt a surge of protectiveness for Dannie, her only friend here in town who was always willing to drive her places and cheer her up when she was down.

"He's a really nice person, a sweet guy. I don't think you should judge him by his shirt."

Therese waited a beat while Carol looked at her skeptically, chewing her lower lip.

"I guess word is out about the driving lessons."

"Is that so?" Carol said, her expression not changing.

"Yeah, Sandra just said something to me. So I guess we will need to find some other places to go where people are not so nosy."

"Why? Are you ashamed of being seen with me, Therese?" The way she said "Therese" this time was not the usual "butter melting in your mouth" sort of way, but rather an exclamation point at the end of her question.

"Of course not! I just don't like people in my business!"

"Well, you don’t seem to mind everyone knowing when you go to Jamison with Mr. Spiderman."

Therese felt the anger flare up in her, burning to the tips of her fingers. "What's your point? Look, I am just doing this for your sake. I don't care if people see us," she sucked in her breath, and then blew it out as she packed her wallop, "I'm sure your husband knows about the driving lessons, so no big deal, right?"

Therese could see the line of Carol's jaw tighten. The tall woman's voice dropped an octave and she spoke slowly, accentuating every syllable. "You know that's a special circumstance."

Therese shrugged, her eyes suddenly falling on the lipstick-stained coffee cup from their morning together. How different the tension in the air felt now, but still, the air sparked and jumped with electricity. She could see the color high in Carol's cheeks, a white-hot heat in her eyes, and she was aware of the predatory beast that roamed within her.

Therese slumped back against the edge of her desk, wanting the extra support for her suddenly weak legs.

"Does that boy … are you … does he kiss you?"

The question was so unexpected, so ridiculous, but the last thing Therese wanted to do was laugh. She saw the eyes of the cheetah looking out at her, and she had a wild urge to dangle a piece of meat in front of its hungry fangs.

She braced herself against the desk, feigning more boldness than she felt. "Well, somebody needs to."

Carol took a step towards her, and suddenly the already-tiny room had shrunk to half. Her eyes leapt with fire, her mouth glistened, and Therese wasn't sure whether to fling herself at her or run away.

"Tell me you're lying."

Therese's heart hammered in her chest, the challenge in Carol's eyes intoxicating and terrifying all at once.

"I'm lying," Therese said, breathlessly. Carol closed the small distance between them, and suddenly she could feel those long legs brush against hers. Carol towered over her now, completely in her space, putting her face so close to Therese's that she could feel her breath on her chin.

The room spun. She felt Carol's hand on her face, firmly cupping her chin, and those full, red, luscious lips came crashing down into hers, possessing her, her mouth open and hot and wet.

Therese moaned into her mouth as she kissed her, opening herself to the fierce, searching tongue that swiped at her lower lip and pressed itself insistently into her mouth, flicking and exploring. Their teeth clicked and clashed, and Carol bit at her lips, her hand slipping around the back of her head to tangle in the hair at the nape of her neck and pull Therese's head into her.

She could feel Carol panting into her mouth, the kiss so revealing in its hunger, a kiss that took and took and took. Therese slid her hands to Carol's waist, drunk from the feeling of touching her, of kissing her. She thought she might pass out from the rush of blood from her head to parts south.

Carol wound her other arm around her back and pressed the small woman against her, letting her feel the softness of her breasts. The world was rich with the taste and smell of Carol, and the molten lava in her core seeped up through the cracks and threatened to destroy the whole world around them.

Because here and now, there was only Carol, nothing mattered but Carol. In the dim corner of her consciousness, she heard a pile of books slide heavily off the desk and crash to the floor.

Fuck books, fuck the library, all I want to do is fuck Carol.

She slid her hands under the hem of Carol's sweater and groaned again as she felt the soft flesh there. Carol pulled away from the kiss enough to murmur against her lips, "Oh darling, I've wanted to kiss you since I met you. God, what you do to me."

Therese was too overwhelmed to speak. She clutched at Carol, digging her fingers into that soft velvety skin as Carol moved her lips to her cheek, her ear, flicking her tongue gently at her earlobe before nibbling at her neck.

Therese threw her head back in ecstasy; it was all too much. So much better than all her hungry dreams could have ever imagined.

She felt Carol move the collar of her blouse to the side, exposing the flesh between her neck and shoulder, and then she felt her teeth there, biting hard enough to leave a mark. The pleasure swirled and mixed with the intensity of the bite, and Therese writhed under Carol. She slid her hands up frantically towards Carol's bra, wanting so much to cup the soft mounds in her hands.

She heard Carol take a shuddering breath, and suddenly she was standing up straight, taking a step back from Therese. She was breathing hard, her lipstick smeared and her hair disheveled. Her eyes were wild with desire, and she blinked several times as if to clear them.

"Therese," she panted, "we've got to stop. Not this, not here."

Therese barely knew where she was, and she really didn't care. She wanted to be taken here and now, on this desk, and the entire town could parade by and watch if they wanted to. She shook her head and tried to reach for Carol's arm to bring her back to her.

Carol took another step back, just out of reach, even though she could tell it pained her to do it.

"No, baby. This is not good. You've got lipstick on your face. Go get cleaned up."

Something about the words suddenly brought Therese back to herself – she was at work. This was dangerous for her and even more so for Carol.

Carol reached and stroked her cheek gently, then wiped a smudge of lipstick off her lips. "Go on now," she said, and Therese stood up on wobbly legs to totter towards the ladies room.

She looked at herself in the mirror after splashing cold water on her face. The animal who looked back at her was something entirely new, a self she had never seen before. It was hungry, and fierce, and the eyes held deep within them a knowledge of all things carnal.

In them was the catalog of desire.

Chapter Text

Therese shoved open the swinging door to the ladies room and blinked at the dim lighting, forcing herself to take several cleansing breaths. At the counter of the circulation desk, Mr. Archer, the band director at the private school, was waiting impatiently with a book of music theory.

She moved slowly, like moving through warm molasses, the realization coming to her that Carol had just barely saved them both from certain disaster. Her eyes swept the room and found Carol at her usual spot, her face completely hidden as she leaned over a book with only the golden crown of her head visible, her hair falling down over the pages.

She walked behind the desk, still feeling as if her insides were completely liquid, and stared at the band director dumbly. He pushed the book across the desk at her, giving her a piercing look. "I'd like to check this out, please. Today, if possible."

Usually, his snark would have bothered Therese, but she was wrapped in a thick warm haze that was barely penetrable by words. Mutely, she stamped the card and pushed the book back across the desk to him.

She looked back over to where Carol sat, but she was obviously avoiding eye contact, trying to get herself under control.

If she couldn't have Carol now, then at the very least she wanted to go back to her office and wrap herself in the warm glow of the memory of her, re-live every touch, every caress, every hot swipe of her tongue. She wanted to imprint every moment of it while it was still fresh, replay it until it was impossible to forget one second of what had happened.

Her whole world was on fire, consumed, burning at a frantic pace, and Therese wanted to go lie down in the ashes.

Take me, take me now.

Another patron came wandering into the library, a familiar face but she didn't know the name. The man smiled at her cheerfully and waved, and she managed to lift her hand and wave while she gave him a blank stare. At the very least, she managed not to convey her total annoyance at his presence.

How she hated him. She hated everyone but Carol. The world needed to go away and leave the two of them alone.  

She shook her head to clear it, and walked back to her office to grab a Mountain Dew out of her mini fridge. She saw the tumbled stack of books had been picked up and placed back on her desk. Apparently Carol had done some cleaning up.

She pulled the cold can out of the fridge, snapped it open, and chugged half a can, the icy cold bubbles burning her throat as they went down. It helped to clear the fog of her head a bit, and she leaned against her desk again and looked around the office.

Was there anything else different here? Any sign of what had occurred? A volcano had erupted here, Mt. Vesuvius had exploded, an avalanche had wiped out the entire landscape. How could this office look just the same as it had before?

Therese was dumb-founded.

She looked down at her own hands, the dress she was wearing, her plain black pumps. It was all just the same. But she recalled the animal who had looked back at her from the bathroom mirror, and she knew it was not the same.

She wasn't sure how much time had passed when she heard Sandra sweeping back in, the chorus of crickets in her cheap pantyhose giving full throat. She was rambling on about where she had gone for lunch, how rude the woman at the drive-in window had been, but Therese couldn't even hear it for the buzzing in her ears. She was drunk, completely looped out, intoxicatingly, maddeningly consumed.

She wandered back out to the circulation desk and made an attempt to look busy, sneaking glances at the object of her affection, who had begun to write in her notebook. Therese was aching to touch her again, to at least be near her. It was torment to have her so close but be unable to love her with her eyes and her hands.

She filled a cart with books for reshelving and pushed it in Carol's direction, intentionally bearing down on it to make it squeak more loudly as she approached.

When Carol looked up at her, it was just for a moment, and Therese saw the instant flash of heat, the deep liquid pools of desire almost consuming the light ring of blue around them. The flame in her chest leaped up with an instant intensity, like someone throwing a match on gasoline. It took all of her self-control to keep pushing the cart past her, to not fling herself at her and take her down to the floor.

In a quiet aisle of non-fiction, she leaned weakly against the rows of books, scanning the covers to give her eyes something to do while her brain reeled.

She could say she was sick, that she needed a ride home.

But no, her father was home. He was always home.

They could drive to the park and make out in an abandoned lot like a couple of horny teenagers.

But it was too risky. There were eyes everywhere in this town. Even when you didn't know you were being observed, you were still under a microscope.

A frustrated groan escaped her throat with a soft gurgle.

You have to pull yourself together, Therese. You cannot call attention to yourself. Or to her.

She forced herself to straighten, to pick up the first book from the cart, study it, and find its rightful place among the shelves. She was a soldier, marching forward, dealing with the tactical issue at hand until the moment when she could stop and be more strategic.

By the time she had finished reshelving the books, she was feeling a bit calmer – though the throbbing, aching puddle between her legs was still a constant distraction.

Carol did not look at her when she pushed the cart by her again, and she steered around her far enough that she wouldn't be tempted to reach out and touch her on her way by.

As she put the cart back in its place, she noticed Carol start to pack up her books. She felt a wave of panic, of abandonment – hopelessness wrapping itself around her heart.

She watched as Carol moved towards her, not looking at her, her eyes fixed on the wood of the desk. Her cheeks were still flushed, but her downcast eyes were unreadable.

She saw the blonde look around and make sure no one else saw, then she pushed a tri-folded sheet of paper across the desk at her. She looked up at Therese, just for a moment, and her face was a tangled mix of emotions.

She turned and was gone, Therese still standing there clutching the letter in her suddenly-sweaty palm. Wildly, she shoved it into her pocket, keeping her hand on it there. It burned against her fingers, against the skin of her leg.

She rushed into the bathroom and locked herself in a stall, opening the paper with trembling fingers as she sat on the lid of the toilet.

The page was full of Carol's lovely, even script.

 

My darling Therese,

I can't imagine what you must be thinking now. What you must think of me and how I have behaved. In my defense, the limits of my self-control have been pushed to the brink. I am a broken woman.

So here it is, all of it. And you can do with it what you will.

I can no longer deny my feelings for you. I am tormented by thoughts of you in every waking moment. You asked me to kiss you weeks ago, and it took everything in my being to say no. And since that moment, I have regretted it. Because the thought of being able to kiss you, even just once, is worth risking everything.

I should feel ashamed for what I'm telling you now, but I can't find any in me. All that is left is my desire. And yes, my possessiveness too. Even though I can't have you, I don't want anyone else to have you either.

I don't have any right to ask you what I am about to, but I'm going to ask anyway. And I'll understand if you say no.

I'm lying, I really won't understand. But I'll respect it.

I want you to go away with me for the weekend. I want one weekend alone with you, to have and remember for the rest of my life. One beautiful weekend, to make love to you, to touch you as much as I want, to kiss you everywhere. To show you what it feels like to be taken and treasured.

But it's all I can give you. You know my situation -- I am in no position to make you promises about the future.

I'd rather you make this decision with your rational mind, not in the heat of the moment. So that you can know this is your choice too and have the chance to think through what this could mean, and the hurt it could cause you. The last thing I want to do is to hurt you, Therese.

I'm a broken woman. All that can speak for me is my desire. I am worn out with my desire.

If you want to, call me tonight, around 8.

-- Carol

Therese read the letter several times. Of course, there was no doubt in her mind as to her response.

She folded the letter with trembling fingers and slid it back into her pocket. She suddenly had the embarrassing thought that she had no idea how long she'd been in the bathroom.

When she walked back to the circulation desk, she thought Sandra gave her a strange look. The heavy woman was thumbing through a new stack of magazines, looking through them as she always did before putting them in the periodicals area.

"I swear, this Cosmopolitan has just gotten so nasty," she said, "I don't think we should be carrying this filth in the library." She said this as she had her nose poked deep into that very magazine, and Therese noticed she always read Cosmo cover to cover.

She continued, even though Therese wanted nothing more than for the earth to open up and swallow her whole. "Can you believe there's a story in here of two women together? And I mean ... together ! Like a man and a woman! Just terrible!"

Therese's cheeks flamed hot. Was Sandra trying to send her some kind of veiled message?

Therese shook her head and said adamantly, "Oh yeah, just awful." She scurried to the back office quickly in search of asylum.

She was struck with a wild, irrational fear that the letter might fall out of her pocket. She clutched at it in her pocket. It was all there. It revealed everything. And in the wrong hands, it could be a disaster.

 

Chapter Text

When she got home, Therese was surprised to find her father at the sink washing dishes.

"What's gotten into you?" she asked, still clutching at the letter burning a hole in her pocket.

"Oh, just thought I should help you out a little. You've been so busy lately. I can't remember you being gone so much as you have been these last few weeks."

She put her purse down and shrugged off her coat. It was a revelation that he still tracked her comings and goings, and that her business would manage to pierce the usual fog of his indifference.

"Thanks," she said, "do you want me to make you a sandwich?"

He shook his head, and she could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to say something else. She stood there, waiting for it.

"Are you ... seeing someone?"

She froze for a moment, the flood in her brain sending off several different answers.

Yes, but I'd like to see her more. Yes, and I plan to see even more of her. Yes, but her husband doesn't know about it. Yes, and you'd hate me if you knew anything about it.

"No." She turned and walked quickly down the hallway to her room. She had never been a good liar, and she couldn't risk having any follow up questions tossed her way.

She shut the door and leaned against it heavily, pulling out the note from Carol and clutching it against her chest. How she would survive until 8:00, she had no idea. So many questions swirled in her mind.

She lay on her stomach and unfolded the letter, running her fingers across the script, reading each word slowly and carefully. It was here, in writing, the declaration of Carol's feelings for her. Unmistakable. It didn't say "love," but it said "desire." And in the lines she saw her own obsession reflected back to her.

She rolled over on her side, rubbing her cheek against the pillow as she closed her eyes and let her mind drift back to that morning: the shared coffee, the damp skin, the steamy looks ... and then Carol's eyes on her and Dannie, the tight set her of mouth. And finally, the explosion of her in the small office, her heat consuming everything, rage and lust and jealousy all in one ferocious fireball.

Carol's lips had been so soft, her skin beneath the sweater like warmed silk. The taste of her mouth had been sweeter and more intoxicating than the most expensive wine. She groaned as she replayed it all in her mind, keeping her hand on the letter to assure herself that yes, it was all real; it was not a dream.

The heat and the passion she had felt from her – it was like a rolling wave, sweeping them both up and carrying them far out to sea. And now she was adrift, alone on a raft with Carol, the mainland be damned.

She was so restless, and she was drenched, bathed in salty water. It was the ocean. She was the ocean. She was the waves, she was the dangerous undertow.

No, Carol was the undertow. And it would be a sweet drowning, she would take it into her lungs and sleep under water, she would forsake all life for the dark pull of her beneath the choppy surface.

Years passed. Decades. Entire epochs. And then 8:00 finally arrived.

She held the phone in her sweaty palm, the receiver pressed hard to her ear. The phone barely rang once before it was picked up.

"Hello?" came Carol's voice, higher than normal, obviously anxious.

"Yes," Therese said. "Yes."

There was a silence as both of their hearts pounded. She could hear Carol's breathing on the other end of the line. And then there was a soft chuckle as she let out her breath.

"You're sure?"

"I couldn't be any more sure."

"Hmmm." Carol's voice dropped to a soft purr on the other end. "I was dying, waiting for you to call me."

"You're alone?" Therese asked.

"Yes, Harge took Rindy to rehearsal for a play she's in. I have a little time."

"So ... Harge," Therese took a shuddering breath, "how are we going to have a weekend together?"

"I've told him that I will need to go to Birmingham to do some research. For my paper. And that I'll need to go alone so that I can get a lot of work done and there won't be any distractions."

Therese was quiet, her finger tracing circles on her quilted bedspread. Carol must have misread her silence, because she continued, "You must think I'm an awful person, lying like that. I just can't ..."

"Hush," Therese interrupted. "I would lie to God himself if I thought it meant having time away with you. When can we go?"

"Next weekend. I'll book a room for us. That is, if you can get off work?"

"Yes. I'll close the library down if I have to. Or I'll set it on fire."

Carol laughed then, a warm, beautiful sound that pulsed through the phone, into Therese's ear, and straight into her chest where it bubbled and expanded. She breathed softly into the phone.

"Your letter. It was so beautiful. The most beautiful thing I've ever read."

She heard Carol exhale softly, and she smiled to herself, continuing, "And that's saying something. I'm a librarian, you know."

"Yes, I do know. And a very good librarian, at that. The sexiest of all librarians."

Therese giggled shyly at Carol's directness with her. In spite of the letter, and their heated kiss, she had not heard Carol speak so boldly.

"Therese, you are so beautiful."

She was speechless. She could feel the throb of her heart in her ears, and a sweet expanding feeling in the front of her skull as the heat traveled up the back of her neck. She had been called beautiful before, but never like this, and certainly not from the object of her obsession.

She traced her fingers over the mouthpiece of the phone and softly whispered, "Carol."

It was all she could say, but she was sure that the longing in her voice said it all, how much she wanted her, needed her, would give anything to be with her.

"Yes, Therese," she purred back, drawing out the end of her name, sending goosebumps down Therese's spine and down her arms. The salty sea inside of her swirled again, and the waves pounded, and there was a drenching splash of wetness between her legs. Carol was the Gulf of Mexico crashing against her white sandy shoreline, the dunes cresting and crumbling with the pounding of the waves.

She panted softly, and reached down between her legs to press her hand at the damp gusset of her panties, a vain attempt to stem the tide.

"Carol," she whispered again, struggling to find her words, clinging so hard to the phone that she thought she might break it in half, "talk to me."

Her voice was breathy, full of desperation. And Carol must have heard it, must have known the state she was in. Because her voice was there, low and sweet and seductive in her ear, calling on the waves, demanding the flood.

"I am going to spend every moment I can touching you. I want to hold you, and kiss you, and study every part of your body. I will study you with my eyes, and with my hands, and with my mouth, and I will show you exactly how much I have wanted to have you all these months. I will take out my frustration on you until you are aching and sore and begging me to stop."

Therese moaned into the phone. Her treacherous fingers snuck their way underneath her panties. She blushed as she stroked her hand across her stiffened flesh, whitecaps tossed in a tempestuous storm. What would Carol think if she knew this was what she was doing now?

"My mouth is kissing your neck. I am flicking my tongue against your earlobe. Breathing softly into your ear as I trace my fingernails down the center of your spine."

Therese's breath came harder, and she swirled her fingers, whipping the waves into a frenzy.

"Therese, touch yourself for me."

Therese couldn't help but laugh. "Too late, I already am," she said shyly, breathlessly.

Carol's groan was low and strangled. She could hear the passion throbbing through the phone line.

“God, you are so sexy. I can’t wait to have you in my mouth, your taste on my tongue.”

Therese was clinging to every word, her arm slipped through the center of a life ring that tossed her wildly on the waves. She sighed and moaned as her fingers dipped through the wetness.

"My baby," Carol sighed, and the tenderness of it sent Therese over the edge, cresting, peaking, hurled into sweet oblivion.

She bit back the howl in her throat, biting into a pillow to stifle her moans.

As she came down, she could hear Carol cooing softly in her ear. "I wish I could hold you right now. You sound so sweet."

Therese whimpered into the phone, every cell in her body aching to be in Carol's arms.

"When we are together, I'm going to hold you all night. I'm going to sleep with you, and wake a thousand times to kiss you and caress you."

"I won't sleep," murmured Therese, her fingers stroking the curled telephone cord, her toes clenching and unclenching as her whole body throbbed with need.

"Sleep now, angel," Carol said.

Therese kissed the phone before reluctantly placing it back in its cradle.

Chapter Text

Friday morning found Therese in her usual spot, watching out the front window for Carol. Her father had seemed surprised she was going away for the weekend, and even more so when she was evasive about where she was going. She had muttered something about "friends in Birmingham," and she had waited until the last minute to even let him know she was going.

Now she just hoped that he didn't take a peek out of the window to see who was picking her up. Not that he would even know, except that the green Jaguar had started to become highly recognizable around town.

Her mind flipped through the last week and a half, when time had dragged agonizingly slowly. She had seen less of Carol, as if the woman had intentionally kept herself away for fear of losing self control. She did make a point of coming to the library on Tuesday, and Therese sighed at the memory of the soft, stolen kisses they had shared in her office during lunch break.

Carol had been carefully restrained, though, keeping her body at an arm's length. Even though Therese could see the fire burning in her eyes, she knew that the blonde had caged her inner beast and was keeping it fiercely contained until it could be fully and completely unleashed. There was a fear there, of what might happen if the wildcat was allowed to roam at this moment – they might both be ripped to shreds.

But Carol had called her almost every night, even if it was a whispered "sweet dreams" while Harge and Rindy were occupied for a few minutes.

Therese's nights were haunted by visions of Carol, the sweet anticipation mixed with an anxiety over what would be her first time to have sex with another person. Would she do it right? Would it be ok? What if she smelled funny, or if she did something weird that other people didn't do during sex?

It was enough to keep her awake well into the night, wishing that there were someone she could ask about such things. She could only imagine what two women would do together ... and imagine it she did.

She was confused when she saw the Subaru wagon pull into the driveway, and she wondered if something had happened to make their plans change. She left her bag inside and walked out to the driveway.

Carol stepped out of the car and looked her up and down, her face falling. "Where's your bag?" she asked.

"Oh! It's inside! I just didn't know ... " she waved her hand at the car lamely, hoping Carol would fill in the rest.

Carol looked at Therese and then at the car. "Well, obviously, you're going to help me drive."

Therese didn't know how panic and relief could live simultaneously in her chest the way that it did at that moment. But she smiled back shakily at the tall blonde.

"I'll go get my bag."

"Well ... can I ... come in?" Carol said, falteringly.

"I won't even be a minute," Therese said, talking as she was already turning on her heel to trot back into the house. She yelled a hurried "goodbye" to her father who was somewhere in the depths of the house and shut the door quickly, bag in hand.

Carol was standing at the open hatchback, giving her a curious look. Therese tossed the bag in, wanting to kiss her and resisting, and went back around to the passenger's side.

When Carol climbed in beside her, the blonde's smile was almost shy. "So, here we go," she said, taking a shaky breath.

Therese reached over and put a hand on Carol's knee, her boldness coming from the days and nights of longing. She squeezed it gently, and Carol sighed. Carol pulled out into the street and they were off on their weekend adventure.

Therese was thrilled. She counted the hours that she would have Carol all to herself. Immediately, a countdown clock started to tick in her head. 56 hours with Carol, and she planned to make the most of every minute. Unabashedly, she studied her while she drove.

Carol smiled nervously, giving her a sideways glance. "Are you going to stare at me like that all the way to Birmingham?"

"Yes," Therese said.

"No you're not, because before we get to the interstate, I'm going to put you behind the wheel."

Therese groaned in frustration. Driving was such an irritating inconvenience that would only get in the way of her admiration of the goddess beside her.

"It's only fair, my dear. I deserve my turn getting to stare at you."

Therese flushed, always amazed at the power this woman had over her, how a simple word from her could shake her to her core. Her hand stroked Carol's knee, then slid just a few inches up her thigh.

"Careful," the older woman said softly, "you don't want to make me run into a ditch."

Therese chuckled and kept her hand still. She was surrounded by the scent and feel of Carol. She couldn’t resist reaching up to touch a lock of her hair, brushing it behind her ear.

She noticed her custom mix tape was playing in the cassette deck.

"Aren't you tired of that yet?" she said mischievously, nodding towards the radio.

"Never," Carol said.

"Well, let me know when you're ready to hear something else," Therese said, pulling a second mix tape out of her purse. It had hearts and flowers drawn all over the cover, and in bold script it had the words "My Desire."

Carol quickly reached over and snatched the tape out of Therese's hands. "Another one!" she squealed, and opened the case while swerving slightly on the road.

"Here! Give it back, I'll do it," Therese said, eyeing the road nervously.

She popped the other tape out of the player and replaced it with the new one. They settled back and listened to the first track, "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman. Carol grinned at her, "This would be perfect – if only we were in the Jaguar."

"It's perfect anyway," Therese said, running her fingers along Carol's arm.

"Agreed."

The morning sun angled in through the driver's side, softly kissing Carol's cheek and illuminating her golden hair. Therese was overwhelmed by it all, her whole body tingling with excitement and the thrill of Carol beside her.

The rough two-lane twisted and turned through small dusty towns, semi trucks loaded down with pine logs, fields of cotton plants mown down to stubs. They went over the muddy Tombigbee river, and a tugboat chugged along in the brown water underneath the bridge pushing an empty barge.

They pulled into a tiny gas station just before the interstate ramp and Carol got out. Therese hesitantly swapped places with her behind the wheel, and anxiously pulled onto her first 4-lane road.

The wide highway was separated in the middle, and to Therese's great relief it was mostly deserted. She knew that the stretch of road to Tuscaloosa was fairly desolate, and most of the exits didn't even have a gas station or fast food place to stop at. The traffic was light, and Therese squinted intently whenever a car passed on her left.

She could feel Carol's eyes on her, and that added to the light sweat that formed on her upper lip. Her hands trembled slightly on the wheel.

She started to relax after a half hour or so, listening to her own music playing for Carol, the messages she had planted there for her. She hummed along to "Every Time You Go Away," and her confidence grew and she watched the speedometer needle ease slightly upward.

As they neared Tuscaloosa, the traffic picked up and Therese white-knuckled it again. They took the McFarland Ave. exit and found a gas station to top off the tank. While Carol pumped the gas, Therese went in to buy Cokes and a bag of Nacho Cheese Combos.

As she waited in line, Carol came in and stood beside her, so close. They finished their purchase and made a side trip to the ladies room. The bathroom only had one stall and Carol pulled Therese inside with her. She pressed her against the door and kissed her hard.

"I've been wanting to do that for the last 100 miles," she breathed.

Therese was giddy, boldly brushing her hand across Carol's stomach to cup her breast softly. Her fingers could feel the pebble of a nipple underneath her sweater.

"Don't get me started," Carol growled, kissing her again with such urgency that Therese wondered if they would make it out of the tiny bathroom. She felt wet kisses and licks peppered down her cheek, her neck, and onto her collarbone.

Carol's thigh insinuated itself between her legs, and the smaller woman pressed and throbbed against it. She pulled the neck of Carol's sweater down to lick at the soft flesh peeking over the top of her bra, biting gently, tasting the delicate skin.

Carol stepped back, her cheeks flushed, her chest rising and falling quickly. "Nope. I will not have your first time be in a gas station." She pushed at Therese's shoulders gently for emphasis.

Therese mewled softly as Carol withdrew her thigh, and the hunger in her roared like a lion.

Carol took her by the hand and led her out, continuing to hold onto it as they walked through the tiny gas station, drawing a few looks from the other customers. Therese's face was beet red and probably peppered with lipstick. She rubbed at her burning cheek self-consciously.

Back in the car, Carol took the wheel again, not wanting to subject Therese to city driving just yet. They pulled onto the ramp towards Birmingham and enjoyed the little signs of civilization along the way.

It took several miles for her breathing to steady. She could barely look at Carol, she wanted so badly to climb on top of her, not caring if they both ended up driving off the highway into a gully. Her brain was no longer in charge ... but obviously it hadn't been for quite some time.

Finally, the Birmingham skyline loomed in the distance. Therese could see the Harbert Building, standing tall and proud and sparkling new. It had still been under construction the last time she visited, and she smiled to see the beautiful finishing touches that had been added to the top of it.

Carol took one of the downtown exits as Therese read the map, telling her where to turn in the sprawl of one-way streets.

They found the hotel and pulled into the front to register. Therese was wide-eyed with the opulence and extravagance of it, as Carol handed her keys to a valet and another man took their bags from the hatch. She strode into the lobby with the confident air of a woman who was used to nice things, as Therese trailed behind her reminding herself to keep her mouth closed.

Carol efficiently checked them in and headed towards the elevator, the bell hop in tow. Carol pushed the button for the top floor and gave Therese a secretive wink.

Carol tipped the young man generously, then closed the door behind him. She turned to face Therese, who was looking around the large, beautiful room in wonder. The slender brunette had walked over to a bank of windows which looked down upon the expanse of the city. She could see Vulcan standing proudly on a hill in the distance. She was dumbstruck.

She felt Carol come up behind her, wrapping her arms around her waist and tucking her chin into her shoulder.

"Well," she said softly, her breath hot in Therese's ear, "we're finally alone."

Chapter Text

Carol wrapped her arms around Therese and breathed in her ear, "Well, we're finally alone."

Therese turned from the beautiful view out the window to face the breathtakingly stunning view in the room before her. She reached her hands up to cradle those angled cheekbones, letting her thumbs slide along the lines she had admired for so many months.

She raised up on her tiptoes and pressed her mouth to Carol's, letting her own tongue slip out to explore and swipe at her mouth.  Carol moaned into her mouth, her breath coming in deep, heaving waves. She took Therese by the hand and led her over to the bed, where her small suitcase lay.

Carol unzipped the case and pulled out a package wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with a blue ribbon. She handed it to Therese.

"This is for you," she said simply, light dancing in her eyes. Therese was unsure – the only package she cared to unwrap right now was Carol. But she could tell from the look on the woman's face that this was important to her.

Inside was the most beautiful, delicate silk negligee in cerulean, trimmed in the finest lace. Therese held it up and admired the way the light hit it, the sheer femininity of it.

"Go put it on." Carol nudged her towards the bathroom with a hand on the small of her back. Therese went in and shut the door, moving the sinfully decadent material against her cheek. It was going to feel so good against her skin.

Quickly she stripped, taking an extra moment to use the toilet and freshen herself up with a fluffy thick washcloth and scented soap. When she had wiped herself, there seemed to be an endless flow between her legs, a river of desire.

She slipped the delicious silk over her head and it brushed against her skin, and she could see her hardened nipples peeking through the fabric. She smiled at herself in the mirror, at the way the color complimented her dark hair and pale complexion.

She gave herself a last look.

This is the last time I'll look at a virgin in the mirror.

She smiled at herself shyly and noticed her hands were trembling. She took a deep, shuddering breath and pushed the bathroom door open.

When she saw the beautiful blonde by the bed, she froze.

Carol had one hand on her cocked hip, her knee bent; she was wearing a negligee identical to the one she had given Therese, except it was a deep, shimmering red. Carol had re-applied lipstick that matched the nightie perfectly, and her even, white teeth gleamed in the wide smile that traversed her face.

She held out her hand to Therese, and the smaller woman went to her, suddenly noticing the bed was turned down and there were red rose petals scattered across the sheets. She covered her mouth and giggled self-consciously, her heart flipping over and over in her chest as she thought of how much effort Carol had gone to for her.

Carol's hand was soft and warm as she pulled Therese forward, guiding her into the bed and pushing her back against the pillows.

Carol climbed on top of her, straddling her, her hands resting just above Therese's shoulders as she leaned down to look at her. Her hair was a curtain around her face.

Therese was surrounded by Carol, enveloped in her. She reached up and wound her arms around her slender waist, caressing the soft silk and the even softer skin underneath.

She looked up into the most intense blue eyes she had ever seen, eyes that were open in their admiration of Therese, a look that made her feel so beautiful that she welled up to bursting inside.

Outside, the afternoon sun was shining, the hum of traffic wafted up from the street. People were working, walking home after school, driving to the grocery store.

Inside, Therese was consumed with Carol, the two alone as their blood boiled, their skin melted into one, and the rest of the world dissolved away.

Their kisses swelled and receded from urgent and harsh to gentle, butterfly licks. Therese pushed at the hem of Carol's top, and Carol sat up to slowly pull it over her head. Therese's eyes drank in the beautiful, full breasts capped with hard, rosy nipples. Her mouth watered at the sight of them. Eagerly she reached for them, and Carol brought them down to her mouth, one and then the other. She pressed her face into the cleft between and breathed her in, her face swallowed in softness. Carol's hands moved along her body, teasingly caressing her, coaxing more and more heat from her skin.

Her eyes were wide open, so full of the sight of her, this woman who was so impossibly beautiful, more curvaceous and perfect than she could ever have imagined. Her body was full of hidden wonders, of treasures large and small, places Therese wanted to visit and explore over and over again.

The desire in her swelled and swelled, and she didn't feel anxious anymore. It no longer felt new. It felt like this thing she had done with Carol forever, would continue to do with Carol forever. It was in her nature, it was in the coursing of her veins, Carol was already in her mouth and underneath her skin.

Carol undressed her tenderly, her fingers playing over every inch of skin as it was exposed, and her mouth following the path her fingers traced.

Her belly coiled and tightened, and between her legs was a sweet, building agony. She felt the rose petals crushed beneath them and ground into the sheets.

When she finally lifted her hips for Carol to slide off her underwear, she felt no shame or embarrassment. She felt hungry to have this last part of her touched by Carol's fingers, devoured by her eyes, and consumed by her mouth.

When Carol's tongue finally touched her there, at the center of herself, the pleasure was almost too much. She thought she might die then, and die in complete bliss. She arched and moaned and hissed as her eyes rolled back in her head.

Therese looked down between her legs to see those liquid pools of desire looking back at her, Carol’s face there, the most erotic sight she could ever imagine.

And the woman she adored held her suspended, safe in her mouth, her hands cradling her buttocks and holding her tightly as she brought her safely to harbor.

-----------------------------------

The essence of their lovemaking was in the sheets and on their faces, scenting their fingertips and their hair. And that was how Therese thought of it  – as lovemaking.

Because there was no other word to describe how tender and considerate Carol had been with her, bringing her to heights of pleasure that she had never imagined possible again and again. And the way Carol had looked at her had made her feel like the most desirable and adored person on the planet. Surely no one had ever been looked at that way before. But Therese did her very best to return the look to Carol. It was how she felt, so it must be apparent in the way she gazed at her.

Carol was propped up in the pillows on her side, and Therese was tucked into the curve of her shoulder, her palm laying against the softness of Carol's belly as she breathed the smell of both of them in. Together they were an elixir, a smell of earth and fire and water, woodsmoke and flowers and exotic herbs.

Carol was running her fingers through Therese's hair, and occasionally she would lean down to brush a kiss along her temple or the top of her head.

Her voice was hoarse when she spoke, and Therese noticed how different the sound was when she had her ear pressed directly to Carol's chest. She had been listening to her heartbeat.

"Was it what you expected, darling?"

"Ohhh Carol," she breathed, "it was so much better. So much more than I could have ever imagined."

"I wanted it to be special for you. Not in some dusty library office, not in a gas station restroom. Somewhere and something as magnificent as you are."

She nuzzled against Carol's neck and kissed where she could feel the blood pulsing underneath. "It wouldn't matter where it happened, as long as it was with you. That's what makes it special."

She slid her hand up to cup the underside of Carol's breast. Between her legs the throbbing was pleasant now. She felt utterly sated, drowsy and relaxed. Happy drugs coursed through her veins and made her head throb sweetly.

She had found heaven and she was floating in a cloud. Her skin tingled when she rubbed against the sheets, and heat flamed wherever her skin touched Carol's.

"Thank you," she said softly, and Carol reached down to cup her chin and tilt her head up to meet her eyes.

"How can you thank me, when you've just given me the greatest gift?" Carol said, and leaned to kiss her again.

They lay together, their limbs entwined, listening to each other's breathing and heartbeat. Outside they heard an occasional siren, a car horn, a shout from the street. The shadows lengthened across the floor as the sun started to slowly sink below the city skyline.

Therese felt her bladder painfully full, and yet she couldn't bear to pull herself away from Carol. Finally she couldn't wait any longer.

She laughed and jumped up quickly. "Don't you move," she warned Carol, and ran into the bathroom to pee.

When she joined her in the warm bed again, Carol had moved down lower in the pillows, and she tucked her face into Therese's chest. Therese cradled her head in her arms, leaning down to inhale the sweet scent of her hair.

“How can any human smell this good? The scent of you drives me crazy.”

Carol sighed softly, sliding her hand down the curve of Therese’s thigh.

It was all so peaceful. She never wanted this moment to end.

"It feels so natural to be in bed with you," Carol murmured into her skin.

"Mmmmm," Therese purred, stroking her fingers lazily down to scratch at the porcelain skin of her back. She traced her fingernails in circles, and Carol groaned with delight.

"Ohhh god, how did you know having my back scratched was my favorite thing?" And then she paused, and looked up at Therese and giggled like a young girl, "OK, maybe my second favorite." And then she licked her lips and gave Therese a devilish grin. "It might have even slipped down to third or fourth place. Hell, my priorities are all fucked up now."

She tucked her face back into Therese's chest as she continued to scratch at her back, running her nails up the back of her neck and into her hairline, sending goosebumps down the length of that perfect skin.

"I never want to let you go," Therese sighed, feeling the clock in her head ticking, refusing to look at the nightstand to confirm how many "Carol hours" still remained.

Carol was quiet then, but she moved her hand to snake around Therese's waist and pressed herself more firmly against her.

They held on to each other, Therese trying to keep her heavy eyelids open to savor every moment, to remember every detail.

Carol's soft, rhythmic breathing was the final siren's song, and she succumbed to the pure blissful pleasure of it, the most intimate thing they could do together: they slept.

Chapter Text

At the dim corners of her consciousness, Therese could feel the warm body pressed against her back, an arm thrown across her hip. She had slept lightly, ever aware of the strangeness of having someone else in bed with her, conscious of Carol's breathing and the slight twitches of her body as she slept. She squinted one eye open to a darkened room, then peered at the digital letters of the alarm clock glowing 8:17 P.M.

She stretched, turned over, and marveled at the outline of Carol beside her, the ambient city light from the window caressing a pale, bare shoulder. Soft as a whisper, she reached out and touched her hair. She was magic, a being from another world transported into her life and into her bed. How she had survived all these years without Carol Aird was a mystery.

Now she felt she desperately needed her, like water, like dark chocolate. Her presence was a life-sustaining force.

She stirred then, sleepy eyes opening, blinking, with a smile spreading across those gorgeous lips as she focused on Therese.

"Hello," she said, her voice still husky with sleep.

Therese reached and brushed her bangs off her forehead.

"Hello yourself." Therese grinned, and felt her heart doing giddy somersaults behind her ribcage.

Carol pulled herself up on an elbow, then leaned down to kiss her, the warmth of sleep radiating off her. She trailed her fingers down Therese's cheek and onto her neck. Like flicking a switch, Therese felt her breath quicken and her body start to respond to her again. God, it was so easy.

Suddenly Carol was on top of her, and Therese's body arched up to meet hers. She pinned the smaller woman beneath her, her elbows on either side of her head on the pillow.

She looked down into Therese's eyes, smiling wickedly, "Are you as hungry as I am?" As if to accentuate the point, the brunette’s stomach growled.

And as soon as she said it, the younger woman knew it was true; she felt an empty howling in her stomach, a weakness. She guessed sex was like swimming – it made you very, very hungry.

"Soooo hungry," Therese said, "but I am having trouble deciding what to eat."

"Room service first, and then, I have an idea for dessert." Carol gave her a lascivious wink, and then she was up and out of bed, the light casting shadows on her naked frame. She pulled a silk robe off the chair and slipped it on.

They turned on the bedside lamp and looked at the room service menu together, picking out salads and a sandwich to share, and Carol insisted they order a bowl of creamed spinach soup. Therese wasn't so sure about that, but she'd try anything for Carol.

After calling for their food, they reluctantly put on some clothes, not wanting to call attention to themselves in front of the delivery person. While they waited, they looked out at the city lights together, Carol's arm around Therese's shoulder, and Therese's arm around Carol's waist.

The food arrived and they put the tray on the bed, an impromptu picnic that they devoured ravenously, holding morsels to each other's mouths, feeding each other and laughing. Carol held a spoonful of the soup to Therese's mouth, cupping her hand underneath to catch any drips. Therese sipped and felt the smooth, buttery richness coat her tongue. She moaned, it was so good.

Therese could feel the strength coming back into her limbs, her energy revived. To her, the older woman had a glow around her, a light shining from her that she could almost reach out and touch. Her face had become open and unguarded, and her laughter was warm and came easily.

Carol noticed how she studied her, and cocked her head to the side. "What are you thinking about over there, Miss Mysterious?"

"How complex you are. How there is always more to know."

Carol smiled self-consciously. "Hmmm, and I have thought the same about you. You are always just slightly out of reach. You keep your cards close to your vest, Miss Belivet."

Therese was surprised to hear Carol say that. She had thought of herself as so obvious, so open in her admiration of this woman. She had felt a fool a hundred times when Carol saw her gawking.

"What is it you want to know?" she asked, not without some trepidation.

Carol set the empty tray on the floor and then leaned across the bed towards her. "What does your room look like? Why won't you ever let me in your house? Why do you stay in such a shitbag of a town? Why don't you ever mention your mother? Why do you look so sad sometimes?"

Therese felt the wind knocked out of her, and she chewed at her lower lip. "Oh. Is that all?"

Carol paused, studying Therese. "That's just for starters."

Therese looked down, her fingers tracing the pattern of the bedspread. She didn't think Carol would be interested in such things. The small details of her life, the many tragedies that stacked up to box her in and keep her prisoner.

Therese's voice came out very small and quiet. "I don't think you would find my house very interesting. It's not nice like your house."

Carol shrugged her shoulders. "It's probably more inviting, though."

"No," Therese shook her head, "it's ... " She faltered, not sure how to describe the situation with her father. "My dad's always there. He ... likes to drink."

Carol's eyebrows raised ever so slightly.

"Mostly since my mom died. He doesn't take care of himself. I have to look after him."

Carol nodded, her face compassionate. "I guess that does explain a lot."

She moved closer to Therese on the bed, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. "Now I've gone and made you sad again."

The dark haired woman leaned her cheek into Carol's shoulder, inhaling the scent of her.

"How could I be sad, when I have your arms around me?" Therese smiled up into her eyes.

Carol blinked lazily, gazing at Therese in a way that made her shiver.

She pushed her down into the bed, lying beside her, running her hand underneath the hem of her shirt and onto her belly.

"I'm still hungry," she purred.

They undressed each other between kisses, and Therese felt it was like unwrapping a present all over again. She was breathtaking in her beauty, in all her naked splendor, proud and savage and deliciously carnal.

Therese kissed and licked at her neck, tasting her skin, sliding her hand down a firm, taut thigh.

"Teach me how to please you," Therese breathed into her ear.

"You already do please me, in every way," Carol said huskily, kissing her.

"Yes but ... I want you to tell me exactly what you like. I want to do to you ... what you did to me."

Carol's shuddering breath gave her away. She was eager to have Therese there, to feel her tongue on her.

Therese leaned and captured a nipple in her mouth, suckling it into attention. She swirled her tongue around it and flicked swiftly, a lascivious preview of what she planned to do down below. Carol arched her back and panted.

Therese felt a surge of power within her, a heady, prideful feeling. She could tease and tantalize and make Carol squirm with pleasure. She was the puppet master who pulled the strings of this glorious creature, here, in this moment, and she wanted to make it last for as long as she could.

She kissed her way down the valley of her breasts, down her smooth stomach, nipping softly at the point of her pelvic bone. She swirled her tongue in the crease of her thigh, the primal scent of Carol strong in her nostrils now, her undeniable arousal leaving a scented dew on the blonde curls of her sex.

Therese stroked the outer lips with her thumbs, then pulled them open gently as Carol moaned and spread her legs wide for her. She gazed into the heart of her in wonder, studying all the mysterious folds, the pink, heated flesh, the secret entrance to the tunnel inside her.

And at the top, stiff and proud, was her swollen clitoris, rosy pink with the pearl of pleasure just peeking from underneath. Carol squirmed in her grip, and she ran her forefinger ever so gently through the lower folds, spreading moisture up to her straining clit.

"You're so beautiful," Therese breathed, her breath hot against Carol's folds, "and you smell like heaven. Tell me what to do."

Carol panted softly, "Take my clit into your mouth. Suck on it."

Therese flicked her tongue out and licked just below her clit, wanting the juices on her tongue. She drank in the essence of Carol, then moved her mouth up to take the throbbing nub of flesh between her lips. She suckled gently, her eyes roving up Carol's body, past her heaving breasts, to where her eyes were fixed on Therese.

"Ohhhh yesssss, so good," she sighed. "Now swirl your tongue around the top, side to side."

Therese savored the feel of her in her mouth, how she could feel every pulse and twitch, her sweet musk inundating her nose and her tastebuds. She could feel Carol's arousal coating her face. She had never felt more desirable, more wanted, more completely in control.

She moved her tongue in different ways, experimenting, watching Carol's reactions with every flick. She caressed the long, lean trembling thighs with her hands, saw Carol's own hands reaching for her breasts to tweak at her nipples.

Therese could feel the pounding between her own legs, and it was all she could do to ignore the demand there, to keep her focus on the beautiful writhing body in her grip.

"Now slide two fingers inside me," Carol panted. "But don't take your mouth away. Don't stop."

Therese slid her index and middle fingers in slowly, feeling the clench of the tight, slick heat of her. Her fingers were bathed in Carol, and she groaned into her sex as she pushed her way inside her. She was connected with Carol, a part of her, a puzzle piece fitting into the exact place that it belonged.

"Hook your fingers..." she gasped "... up, into me ... wiggle against the spot ..." Carol was having trouble forming sentences now. Therese would have smiled had her mouth not been so busy. She drummed the pads of her fingertips up and into Carol, tap tap tapping out a rhythm of pleasure.

She moved her tongue more firmly, insistently, watching as Carol arched higher off the bed, her neck elongated as she stretched her head back into the pillows. Her face and chest were flushed, her neck muscles strained, and Therese could see the veins standing out as she gasped, and panted, and arched, clawing at the bedsheets.

Therese moved her mouth, traveling with her as she rocked her hips, keeping herself fastened to the seat of her pleasure, determined to ride with her to desperate heights.

"Oooooooooooohhhhhhhh," Carol groaned, a guttural, unintelligible sound coming from her lips. It grew louder, and louder, until it roared in Therese's ears like a steam train.

Carol reached down for Therese, grabbing her hair wildly, stroking her fingers through it, twisting her fingers in the dark curls as Therese continued to lash her with her tongue.

And then her pleasure arrived in full force, shaking them both until their teeth rattled, their bones shook. An earthquake rumbled beneath the bed, and Therese felt as if she had been flung into the dark coolness of outer space.

Carol tightened her grip on Therese's hair, pulling her face back, panting "oooh no more!" and closing her thighs.

Therese lifted her glistening face up and Carol rolled onto her side, Therese's fingers still clenched inside of her. She could feel the muscles clenching and contracting around her fingers, and she held them motionless as Carol panted and moaned and sighed in pleasure.

She reached her hand up to slide along the curve of Carol's hip, her buttock, her long, lean thigh. Her skin had a sheen of sweat and was giving off heat from every pore.

After Carol's contractions had stopped, and only the occasional shudder wracked her body, Therese withdrew her slippery fingers slowly, not without regret. She wiped her fingers and her face off on the bedsheet, and scooted up beside Carol to wrap her arms around her.

Carol nuzzled her face into her neck, still breathing hard. "You," she said, having to take a breath between each word, "are ... a ... fast ... learner."

Therese kissed her warm flushed cheek. "I had a very good teacher," she whispered, still tasting and smelling Carol on her lips.

Carol's hand moved down Therese's belly, and inquisitive fingers slipped between her legs. When she found the soaked, heated place, she groaned. "You're so wet, darling."

"That's what you do to me," Therese panted, spreading herself for Carol's fingers, willing them to do whatever they wanted to her. And as her fingers deftly and expertly stroked her, Therese held onto her tightly, thrusting her tongue into her mouth and sucking at her lips, sharing her own flavor with her.

When she came, she moaned into Carol's mouth, finding there an echo of the other woman's moan of passion, an echo that bounced and reverberated and shattered them both.

 

Chapter Text

They had stayed up, late into the night, until today became yesterday. There could never be enough of talking, of knowing. Each of them was page after page unfolding, a novel too good to put down, a series of dog-eared entries worth coming back to again and again. Carol was the best book Therese had ever read.

By the time they had both drifted to sleep, the first rays of morning sun were peeking over the ring of hills that held Birmingham in its palm.

When Therese's eyes opened again, the sun was streaming in and she heard the squeak of the maid's cart just before a sharp knock on the door made her sit up straight.

"Housekeeping!"

"Oh no! No thank you!" she said, practically yelling, pulling the covers up over her bare chest in a panic.

"Ok Miss, you want some fresh towels?" the voice on the other side of the door asked.

"No, we're all set," she said, and turned to see Carol's laughing eyes and amused smile. She was still thick with sleep, stretching like a cat, one naked thigh hanging out from under the sheets.

"I really do think we should ask her to bring those towels in," Carol whispered, and Therese gave her a menacing look.

"I really do think I should find a way to shut you up," Therese said, and pressed a kiss to her mouth, noticing with a quickening heart that the skin of her upper chest and collarbone were revealed, milky white sheer perfection.

Carol wound her arms around the smaller woman's waist, rolling her in the bed. Everything was warm and delicious and scented with sleep. She noticed a twinge between her legs, the skin there sticky and sore. It had been a night of hard use, and the slight pain there delighted her, the evidence of how well-spent she had been. Her hips and her thighs ached too, as did the muscles in her upper arm. When she opened her mouth to yawn, her jaw was sore.

She had been running the Carol sprint, and now she wanted to settle in for the marathon. It was going to take some conditioning, but she felt she was up for the task. She had trained her whole life for this event without even knowing it.

She pulled the sheet down slowly to reveal Carol's ample breasts, the nipples puckering when the cooler air of the room hit them. The wonder and the mystery of Carol was a revelation, a new spiritual awakening. She was the temple, the shrine, and the holy sacrament all in one. Therese would have no other gods before her.

Slowly, they traced their fingers over each other's skin, studying each little line, scar, and freckle. The day felt lazy and warm, and Therese felt the insistent little heartbeat between her legs start up again. Finally, Carol sat up and yawned, stretching her arms over her head.

"Coffee," she sighed, and got up to pad naked over to the tiny coffee maker that made just 2 cups at a time. Therese watched her as she opened the coffee packet, took the carafe into the bathroom to fill it with water, and came back to pour it into the little machine.

She would be happy for Carol to just walk back and forth in front of her all day, naked. The morning sun shifted and played against the angles of her skin as she moved, little highlights in her hair glinting. The curve of her hip into her buttock was an artist's wet dream, the most perfect statue in motion.

Carol saw her watching and gave a sassy shake to her rear, making Therese giggle. She was happy at how comfortable Carol seemed in front of her, completely naked. There was nothing to hide between them.

She brought two steaming paper cups filled with coffee back over to the bed. Therese's was black with sugar – she had remembered how she liked it.

They leaned back into the headboards sipping their coffee, their bare hips touching, a companionable silence filling the room.

Finally Carol sighed. "I really do have to visit the library today," she said ruefully. "Fortunately for me, I have a top-notch researcher to take with me to make the trip extra fast."

"At your service." Therese smiled, and lifted her cup in a mock toast. "I know how to get there, too. I spent quite a bit of time there when I was in college."

Carol touched her cup to Therese's, then leaned to give her a slow, warm kiss that tasted of coffee and cream. Therese wanted to stay here all day, in the tangled sheets, exchanging kisses and tasting each other's skin. Reluctantly, they both rolled out of bed.

Carol went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Therese could hear the water bouncing off the tiles. She thought how even just a few minutes away from Carol seemed too many. In a moment, the tall woman poked her head out of the doorframe.

"The water's just fine. Want to join me?"

Therese pretended to look uncertain, while inside her heart did a giddy flip. "Well, logistically speaking, I guess that makes sense. I mean, to conserve water and all."

Carol chuckled and disappeared back through the door. Therese practically ran for the shower, climbing into the steamy enclosure to find Carol's body already slick, the fat drops of water rolling down her shoulders and back. She pressed her slickened body against her, feeling Carol's rounded ass pressing back against her lower belly.

She wrapped her arms around her and sighed, the water running into her face, spraying against her cheeks. She slid her hands up Carol's ribcage and across her breasts again, and she felt Carol's breath quicken. She spun in her arms to face her, and they kissed as the water caressed them both, their slick skin slipping and pressing against each other.

Carol tilted her head down to lick the droplets of water off Therese's shoulder and neck.

The water conservation idea was out the window, as the shower ended up taking much longer after all. Their skin was pruney by the time they got out, and a thick fog covered the bathroom mirror.

Therese was wrapped in a towel, and Carol had insisted on drying her hair, standing behind her with the blow dryer in her hand. Their two figures were reflected dimly from the steamy mirror, one tall, one short.

They pulled clothes on over their damp bodies, and Therese watched as Carol fixed two silver loop earrings into her ears. She marveled at seeing her without make-up, the naked beauty of her face even more radiant, the small lines around her eyes and mouth more apparent, but somehow making her seem more vulnerable and more beautiful.

Carol sat down at the desk with the phone on it, giving her an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I just have to check in with home."

Therese felt her stomach twist, and she nodded, standing up as Carol started to dial the phone. She was suddenly so uncomfortable, not wanting to hear her voice when she talked to Harge, to analyze the sound of it when she spoke to him.

"Hello darling!" Carol said brightly, and Therese could tell it was Rindy on the line. She grabbed the room key and her wallet, giving a distracted Carol a small wave as she slipped out the door and walked to the bank of elevators. She went down to the lobby and wandered around, looking at the tasteful decorations and original artwork hanging on the walls. Her nose led her to a small cafe adjoining the hotel, and she ordered two breakfast sandwiches to go.

She fidgeted with the cuff of her sweater, ran her finger along the edge of her worn leather wallet, watched the expensively-dressed patrons walking back and forth through the lobby.

Finally, the waitress handed over two sandwiches, warm and wrapped in aluminum foil, and Therese took them back up to the room. She was relieved to find Carol off the phone, but she felt the mood in the room had shifted.

While she was out, Carol had applied her make-up, pale powder on her skin and full, dark red lips. Her eyelids were smoky charcoal.

She smiled shyly and handed her the sandwich, and Carol took it, thanking her, sitting on the edge of the bed to unwrap it. Her knee bounced as she ate, and Therese watched her mouth as she chewed. Her eyes were distant, glancing out onto the city buildings caught in a light haze, a few grayish clouds starting to form.

She knew enough to keep her distance for a moment, to let Carol have her mental transition from home back to here and now with the small woman perched on the opposite corner of the bed. For Therese, it was just another angle of Carol in all her moods, the chance to study her again in the private and quiet of their room, where she didn't have to hide her gaze from prying eyes.

"Everything ok at home?" she finally asked into the stillness.

"Yes," she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear and crumpling the aluminum into a ball. "Rindy has a dress rehearsal for her play coming up on Monday. She's so excited."

Therese smiled at the girl's name, but she noticed Carol's voice didn't carry the usual warmth it held when she spoke of her daughter. She watched Carol bank the ball of foil off the wall into the wastebasket.

Carol stood up, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her dark skirt with the ruffles at the hem. She was wearing knee high black boots underneath, and a soft lilac cashmere sweater up top. Therese felt underdressed in her jeans and clunky Doc Martens, but she was just going to a library. It didn't really require dressing up, did it?

She brought her hand to her face, catching the slightest scent of Carol underneath her fingernails. She wanted to keep this smell with her always. Unbidden, her eyes moved to the clock. 29 hours and 37 minutes of Carol time left.

She stood up quickly, suddenly wanting this library visit to be accomplished as soon as possible. "Ready?" she asked.

Carol nodded, picking her coat up off the desk chair. Just as Therese had her hand on the door knob, Carol stopped her.

"Wait, not ready," Carol breathed, and then pulled her into her arms, leaving the stain of her lipstick on Therese's mouth. It hit Therese's bloodstream more strongly than the caffeine kick of the coffee.

Out on the street, the city of Birmingham seemed held in a mist, the air thick and smelling of impending rain. Carol steered the car as Therese directed her, sweeping down one-way streets through light traffic.

Therese noticed Carol’s left hand on the steering wheel, a faint pale circle where her wedding band usually lived. She had been wearing it yesterday. Hell, Therese even remembered it from the shower this morning.

They found a metered spot in front of an imposing brick building, solemn enough to be worthy of a library.

When they walked in, Therese inhaled deeply, the smell of old books, decaying leather, and musty carpeting so familiar and dear to her that she smiled inwardly. She led Carol around, helping her locate the articles she wanted in the extensive collection of microfiche and showing her how to adjust the machine.

Once she had gotten Carol settled in for her research, she wandered around the library, casually running her fingertips across the embossed titles in row upon row, letting herself get lost in the stacks. She marveled at the amount of information contained in this one building, the stories contained here, each author connected by a thin thread back to the ancestors of all writing. Each story was a metamorphosis of its predecessors, having already been told before in one form or another. Maturation stories, adventures, loves gained and lost, heartbreak and grief, and spiritual awakenings; all were part of a broader story, the story of all of us and our common humanity.

She was so lost in her reverie that she jumped when a voice called to her. "Therese! Is that you?"

She looked down the row to see a slight woman with short cropped dark hair and a wide, even smile. She blinked and walked forward, confused, knowing the face but seeing it out of context.

"Sherry?" she said finally.

"Hey!" the woman rushed towards her, hugging her exuberantly. "I thought so! You haven't changed a bit since college!"

Therese smiled warmly. Sherry had been with her in many of her library science courses. They hadn't been close, but she had always found her to be kind and intelligent, an outgoing girl who was friendly to everyone.

She noticed a small name tag pinned on the woman's blouse. "You work here?" she asked.

"Yeah! For about 5 years now. Once I got a taste of 'The Ham,' I couldn't go back to Arkansas."

Therese grinned at Sherry's use of Birmingham's pet name, a truncation of the word but also a reference to its penchant for barbequed pork.

She looked the woman up and down. Her hair was much shorter, and she had an edgy, artsy look that Therese didn't remember from college. "It suits you," she said simply.

"What about you? Where did you end up?"

"Oh, back in my home town. Small potatoes, Alabama." Therese could hear the bitter tone in her own voice, suddenly aware of just how resentful she was.

"Well hey, I'd love to go out for dinner or a drink. Do you have plans tonight?"

Sherry smiled, and Therese noticed a twinkle in her eye. Was this woman flirting with her?

"Oh, sorry, I already have plans with ... for dinner ... with a friend of mine ... tonight," she stammered, blushing.

"Well, I hope she's as pretty as you are," Sherry grinned slyly, and actually winked at her. "When you're up this way again, why don't you give me a call? I'll show you the town and how it's changed."

"Thanks," she said, blushing, as the woman fished a business card from her pocket and handed it over.

The woman must have picked up on her discomfort. She dropped the sly facade. "Really, it's good to see you. And if you ever want to move back to the city, let me know. I have connections here at the library, and I can vouch for what a hard worker you are."

Sherry's smile was genuine, and Therese let her breath out slowly. "That's really nice of you. And I will give you a call next time I'm in town, for sure. I'd kill for a trip out to Niki's West!"

They both grinned at the memory of their favorite spot for homestyle soul food, a delicious cafeteria where hungry college students could get their fill of southern cooking just like Mom would make. And then for dessert, there was always lemon ice box pie.

"Sure thing," Sherry said, and hugged her quickly again before heading back off to work.

Therese slipped the business card in her pocket, her mind traveling over the possibilities. There was a world outside, and she wanted a piece of it.

When she found her way back over to where Carol was sitting, she was almost done with her research. She had a yellow lined pad full of notes, and her brow was furrowed as she scanned the large lit screen.

Therese's fingers itched to put her hands on her shoulders in a familiar way, but she shoved them into the pockets of her jeans instead. Sherry's card was there, secret and mysterious, and she pinched it between her fingers.

Carol's smile was excited as she looked up at her. "This was definitely worth the trip! I feel like I have the little piece I have been missing to finish my paper!"

"Cool beans," Therese said, slipping back into her college slang from the pure rush of memories that flooded her.

Carol quirked an eyebrow at the saying, but didn't comment.

She turned back to the machine for a few more minutes while Therese watched her quietly, looking at the patterns her blonde wavy hair made in the back, and the small patch of skin at the back of her neck that was visible. She was reminded of looking at her that first time in church, studying her from the back. She was a different girl now.

No, she wasn’t a girl any longer. She was a woman.

Chapter Text

Carol was on cloud nine, triumphant with her successful research and overjoyed to be done with the library so that she could spend the rest of her weekend with Therese.  The light in her eyes and the way she linked her arm through Therese's on the way out of the library said it all.

There was a thick smell of rain in the air, conjuring images of iron and wet earth, and the pointed tops of skyscrapers poked at the bruised underbelly of a fast-moving cloud. The pair cut through the atmosphere like a knife, sharp and bright and full of promise. As they climbed into the car and pulled out into traffic, they could hear a rumble of thunder in the distance.

Traffic had picked up, as the city residents were done with their morning coffee and were ready to roll into the town in search of joy and commerce. Therese directed Carol through the streets, past the shop that sold only hubcaps and the housing projects with their teal-tinted murals on the concrete curbing, and into the eclectic neighborhood of Five Points South.

They found a parking space near a small art studio and headed up the cobblestone street to the center of the neighborhood, where five streets came together in a circle and gave the neighborhood its name.

The place was funky and "alternative", with blue haired skaters and tattooed musicians, women in Birkenstocks and bags made out of hemp, long-haired guys in tie-dyed shirts, and a fair blend of yuppies and college kids sprinkled into the mix. It was the naked beating heart of a city that wore a very conservative face, a place where artists and anarchists could shake loose.

Therese had spent some time here with friends in her college days, and she always found it welcoming, a place where all sorts of people could mix together with the tacit understanding that they would all mind their own business.

They crossed the street to Magnolia's, a gift shop with funny cards, silly toys and novelty items. In the corner of the shop was an old-fashioned photo booth. Therese fed coins into the booth and pulled Carol inside, closing the curtain behind them

When the strip of photos came out of the front, it showed the two women glowing, their cheeks pressed against each others as they smiled, then made silly faces. In the last picture of the strip, Therese turned to press a kiss to Carol's cheek, and the look of surprise on Carol's face was priceless.

Therese tucked the photos into her pocket. Then she took Carol to one of her favorite places: Lodestar Books. The small, independently-run bookstore was fiercely feminist, and Therese had spent many fond hours looking at books of poetry and art inside.

A trio of bells clanged as they pushed open the door, and a woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a crew cut waved to them from behind the cashier's desk. They were immediately overtaken by the fragrance of incense and the sound of lilting new age music wafting from the store's speakers. On a front rack, a row of crudely carved wooden figures portrayed women with large, sagging breasts and pregnant bellies, naked and fertile.

Carol gave Therese a sideways glance, and in that look she could read a hundred things, but the loudest of all was "Why are you bringing ME in HERE?"

Therese flashed her a cheeky grin and pulled her by the wrist over to the poetry section. Therese pointed out some of her favorite poets, contained both in thick anthologies and small pamphlets printed by independent presses. She watched Carol trying her best to look interested.

She made a quick scan of the store, noting that no one else was there and the cashier was engrossed in a magazine. Then she quietly tilted her head over towards the section in the back, an area she had filed away in her mind a long time ago. Carol followed her over to it.

The shelves were marked "Gay and Lesbian Literature." Therese had been too embarrassed to ever go near that section before. What if the cashier had noticed her looking or, worse yet, one of her classmates had walked in?

But now, her curiosity outweighed her embarrassment. She wanted to see herself reflected in words, in pictures, in culture. Carol looked at her, raising her eyebrows slightly.

Therese ran her hands along rows and rows of books, reading the titles to herself, breathing the names like reciting a mantra. These were books that would never be allowed in Dixon’s library. She picked up one called RubyFruit Jungle and turned it over to read the back cover.

She could feel Carol watching her out of the corner of her eye as she pretended to look at the titles herself.

Therese tucked the book under her arm, deciding she would buy it. She then saw a grouping of magazines and noticed Whoopi Goldberg on the cover of one. It was called The Advocate .

She tucked that one under her arm too, and gave Carol a smirk. Carol by now had crossed her arms and was smiling slightly, her eyes flicking from Therese to the young cashier, who seemed to suddenly be aware of their location in the store. They spent quite a long time opening the books and magazines, showing pictures or passages to each other, talking quietly as they saw the chronicles of the lives of women like them, or at least who had one thing in common with them. Loving women was discussed without shame or apology, part of an overall bold feminist message that pervaded many of the texts.

Therese felt wonder, and community, and a sense that there were so many others out there like her who were already living openly and freely. Inside she felt a deep yearning, an animal rattling its cage, poking its tiny face through the bars and demanding an explanation.

When they took their purchases up to check out, the woman was suddenly warm and friendly. She was cute in a boyish sort of way, with big brown eyes and dimples in her baby face.

She smiled broadly at Therese as she handed her the bag. "Hope to see you again soon!"

Therese returned the smile and said, "Thank you, you will."

As they walked out of the store, she felt Carol's hand gripping the back of her arm, just above the elbow. She smiled to herself.

Fat drops of rain had started to fall lazily on the sidewalk, and they walked quickly over to Pickwick Plaza. The big courtyard was partially enclosed and ringed with shops and galleries. Therese led her up the stairs and into Cosmos Pizza.

Carol looked around the tiny place with cheap silver chairs and formica tables, eyeing it dubiously.

"You want to eat here?" Carol asked. "Really, I'll take you anywhere you want to go, you don't have to worry about money."

"I'm not worried about it. This is my favorite pizza in the city. But we're not eating here."

She paused, and gave Carol another cheeky grin. "We're ordering it to go."

"Ahhhhh I see," Carol breathed, her own smile broadening. "Well, let's get to it, then."

They ordered pepperoni and mushroom with extra cheese and sat on two barstools looking out the window as they waited. The rain was coming heavier now, and the deluge had cleared the streets of anyone but frantic soaked humans.

"Definitely a day to be indoors," Carol nodded sagely.

"Yes, perhaps we can think of some fun rainy day activities."

Therese grinned as she watched the blush creep up from Carol's chest. By golly if she wasn't getting the hang of this after all.

They dashed to the car, Therese balancing the box of pizza and Carol carrying Therese's bag from the bookstore and a bottle of wine from the shop next door. Even in the short sprint to the car, they were drenched, laughing at each other's "drowned rat" appearance.

They were back at the hotel within minutes, and Carol pulled into the valet parking. They drew a few curious glances as they made their soggy way back through the posh lobby, laughing loudly and dripping all over the carpets, damp pizza box in hand.

Back in the room, they quickly stripped off their clothes and Therese put on a soft, worn t-shirt. She saw Carol looking at her curiously.

"What?" she asked.

"You have another one of those?"

"Another ... of these?" she asked, pulling on the fabric of her t-shirt.

"Yes."

Therese rummaged in her bag and brought out her faded white Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians concert t, handing it to the tall woman.

It had always been large on Therese, but when Carol put it on, it was rather snug. She could see the outline of her breasts, and it clung to her stomach and upper arms. Most distractingly, she could see the shadow of her nipples peeking through.

Therese reached out a tentative hand, but looked up for Carol's assent before touching her. She couldn't resist cupping the soft curve of her breast through the cotton material, and Carol let out a soft moan.

The taller woman ran her hand up the back of her neck and into her wet hair, leaning in to kiss her.

"First, we eat," she said, giving her a heated look.

Therese cocked her head sassily. "And then?"

"I eat," Carol said, licking her lips crudely. Therese shivered as she saw the jungle cat flash its fangs at her.

Ohhh yes, consume me.

Carol opened the bottle of wine and poured it into the hotel’s water glasses while Therese popped open the pizza box and served them each a piece on a napkin.

They sat on the bed eating and drinking and laughing, their hair still damp from their run in the rain.

To Therese, the pizza had never tasted better, and no wine had ever tasted sweeter. It was all so beautiful, so perfect here with Carol. Being in public with her had felt wonderful, sharing new experiences with her, showing her the city, and feeling proud that she was with such a gorgeous woman.

As much as she loved the city, so much of her college days had been spent feeling lonely and unsure of herself. With Carol beside her, she was suddenly confident, ready to tackle the world, knowing in her heart that if someone as wonderful as Carol would want to spend time with her, then surely she was special.

“What were you like in college?” Carol asked, biting into her second slice of pizza.

“Kind of shy at first, but going off to school was the best thing for me. I realized I could recreate my identity at college, and I didn’t have to be the Therese everyone knew in Dixon. Nobody from my home town went to my school, so I could be whomever I wanted. And … I could also just be left alone if I wanted.”

Carol cocked her head questioningly.

“Well, in Dixon, eyes are on you all the time. You feel the weight of other people’s expectations. What they think you should do, what you should say, when and where you should go to church.”

She sighed deeply, then continued, “I get so tired from what is expected of me. Trying to be the good daughter. Being asked when I’ll be the good wife.”

Carol reached and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand. “I certainly understand that,” she said.

Therese took her hand between her own and stroked it. “What were you like in school?”

“Decadent.” Carol threw back her head and laughed. “My parents wanted to strangle me, I was such a terror. Barely scraping by in my classes, going out partying all the time. And then, in my junior year, I had this amazing English professor. She was so brilliant, and she made the subject just come alive for me. Of course it didn’t hurt that she was cute, too.”

Carol gave Therese a wink and they both laughed. “After that, I buckled down, as they say. But I still liked my sorority parties, going out dancing, having some drinks.”

“You were a sorority girl?” Therese gasped, mock-horrified. “That settles it, I’m not putting out for you anymore,” she said, inching away from her on the bed.

“Is that so?” Carol growled, closing the pizza box and tossing it onto the floor.

Therese gasped as the lithe blonde crawled across the bed towards her on all fours, crouching over her, then pinning her down by the shoulders.

“I might be convinced to reconsider,” the smaller woman said in a strangled voice, already feeling her breath coming fast and her heart pounding.

And then Carol’s mouth was on her, a kiss that roared and clashed, reminding her of their very first kiss in the little library office. She wound her arms around Carol’s waist and pulled her down on top of her, wanting to feel her weight against every inch of her skin.

Her tongue was searing hot in Therese’s mouth, and she tasted the wine and the pizza and Carol. She could feel her hands all over her now, searching and commanding and possessing her.

Teeth bit into her neck, hands dug at her hair, her lips felt bruised from kissing – and she offered her body up for all of it, arching up into her, her body an altar for all the brutality of worship.

Their inner beasts tangled and growled and rolled together, and she felt the raw inner passion in her met and doubled in Carol’s own heartbeat. It was not tender, it was furious and frantic, a tornado rumbling through a trailer park wrecking havoc. They twirled on the bed like dust clouds, all the sheets ending up tangled on the floor.

She felt the marks Carol was leaving on her, the possession of her, the culmination of all the looks she had given her throughout the day. It was the fulfillment of a promise in her eyes, the ending act of that very first kiss.

Carol was stretched out, shimmering, raging in all her glory, wild and untamed. Together they were a beautiful disaster.

Chapter Text

They were naked again. Curled up under the sheets together, lying on their sides facing each other, legs intertwined. They were constantly touching – a hand on an arm, a cheek, stroking fingers through tangled hair.

Therese had lost all track of time. She was lost in Carol, in knowing her. They talked softly, murmuring, looking into each other's eyes, asking questions. Therese told Carol about her brother, how beautiful he had been, what a great loss he had become. And Carol told Therese about Abby, her long friendship with her, their brief affair.

The dark-haired woman felt a sharp pang of jealousy at hearing about this other love, but it was overridden by her curiosity. She felt she needed to know all of the things that had brought Carol through time and to this very place, to this hotel room with her. Each person they had encountered, each experience, had led them to each other. Therese felt a strange sense of gratitude for people and places that she had never felt before.

They talked until both of their throats were dry and aching, and still they both wanted more. They were trying to pack a lifetime of discovery into a weekend, an impossible task from the start.

They had slipped into a comfortable silence, and the tall woman wrapped her arms around Therese, squeezing her tightly and placing little kisses on her forehead and temples. Then she sat up in the bed and propped herself on pillows, pulling a thick book, long and narrow, from off the nightstand.

"What's that?" Therese asked, burrowing close to nestle herself under Carol's arm, her cheek nuzzling at Carol's chest. She stretched her leg across Carol's naked thigh.

"This," Carol explained, waving the book, "is Frommer's Travel Guide. It tells you about all the places worth seeing in a city."

"Hmmm," Therese said, confused. "You're going sightseeing ... now?"

She looked out at the darkened city, then glanced at the clock that read 9:30 p.m.

"WE are going sightseeing," Carol said, "and there is one sight in particular I want us to see."

Therese watched Carol as she flipped through the pages to find a section of the book for Birmingham, then to a subsection called "Gay and Lesbian." Therese's eyes widened.

Carol pointed to an entry for a place called "Bill's Club." "It says here that it is predominantly a club for women, and there is dancing and a pool table."

Carol looked at Therese, obviously pleased with her own resourcefulness.

"We're going to a gay bar?"

"Uh huh."

"Now?"

"Uh huh."

Therese's heart pounded with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. She sat up in the bed and Carol chuckled. "I want to take you out and show you off. I want to kiss you in public, where we can feel normal if only just this once."

Therese's toes tingled at the thought of kissing Carol in public.

"But, what am I gonna wear?"

"Those tight jeans you had on earlier will work just fine, I'm sure."

Therese sprung out of bed and started looking through her suitcase while Carol watched her with an amused smile.

"Are you hoping to pick up someone there?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Therese froze. "NO! Of course not ...." and then she heard Carol's warm laughter and she knew the woman was just teasing her.

They spent the next hour or so cleaning up, getting dressed, doing their hair and make-up. Therese let Carol fuss over her with powder and blush, and she painted Carol's signature bright red lipstick on her own lips.

Carol had put on black slacks and a cotton sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. Her make-up was low-key, showing off her flawless glowing skin. Therese was giddy with the thought of going on "a date" with her. She wondered what the bar would be like, what the women there would look like, what they would all think of the two of them.

Finally they were both ready, and they went out to find the car.

"Can I show you the lights of the city first?" Therese asked, looking around at the lights that sparkled, everything looking fresh and new now that the heavy rain had washed the grit of the city away.

"Of course."

Therese directed Carol through the grid of city streets and onto the curving lanes of Highland Avenue, past the historic homes and old apartment complexes. They turned and wove and climbed up into the hills of Birmingham, onto a narrow road that could barely be called a two-lane, perched on the edge of a cliff above the city. They drove slowly, the streets up here quiet, and they looked down at the booming steel town, the rust of manufacturing still in evidence in places, the lights of the University of Alabama at Birmingham making its own brilliantly lighted sprawl, the houses dotting the hills, the traffic and the skyscrapers.

Therese's heart ached. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed the city, especially seeing it at night. It was a soft city, warm and open, without the aggressive edges of a place like Atlanta or Jackson. At least if you stayed in the right areas – and there were certainly places that she would never let Carol drive them to.

Therese pulled out the map and started to direct them towards the nightclub, nestled in a place that she wouldn't have normally gone to voluntarily. The area was industrial, seeming abandoned late on a Saturday night. They pulled into a small parking lot across the street from where they thought the club was located. The whole area was dark with the exception of a lone streetlamp in the parking lot.

The lot was almost full, and as they got out of the car a lone police cruiser pulled in and slowly shone a light onto the license plates of the cars in the lot. Then it pulled behind them and followed them at a slow pace as they walked down the lot, the headlights making their shadows elongate in front of them. It was unnerving, the way the cruiser inched along, its brake pads squeaking. At any moment they expected the window to roll down and the officer to start questioning them.

They hurried out of the parking lot and across the street to a building with no sign out front. They could see a dim light coming through a doorway, and someone was standing in the door smoking a cigarette. They exchanged looks, already rattled from the police cruiser and still not sure if the officer was going to get out and follow them.

"Well, we won't know unless we check it out," Carol said, taking a deep breath.

"Yup."

Therese's hands were trembling a little. The combination of such an unfamiliar place in an intimidating neighborhood, coupled with not knowing what she might find inside was making her sweat.

Carol gave her arm a quick squeeze and they moved forward.

The bouncer, or so they supposed, eyed them suspiciously, frowning. As they got closer, they could see that what they had thought was a man was actually a woman, heavy set with a man's haircut, in a jean jacket, white t-shirt, and a baggy pair of pants.

"Can I help you ladies?" she said in a tone that was more of a command than a question.

Carol cleared her throat.

"Umm ... yes. We were looking for ... Bill's Club?" Carol's voice raised at the end, sounding tentative.

The woman eyed them again. "Do you have ID?"

Therese looked down, fumbling in her purse for her wallet, but she heard Carol's voice again, stronger this time. "But ... this IS Bill's club, right?"

"Yeah, this is the place." The woman was still looking at them like they were alien life forms as they presented their identification. They could see the woman's eyes occasionally flicking to the slow-moving police cruiser as she spoke to them. Every time her eyes moved to the cruiser, her eyes shot daggers at it.

Therese felt a clamminess under her armpits as the woman scrutinized her photo and then looked at her again.

After an eternity, the woman returned their cards and nodded. "Well, enjoy, ladies."

She moved aside to let them enter the door.

As dark and menacing as the outside had been, the inside seemed warm and bright and full of activity. The bar was bustling, people were buying drinks, and the tiny dance floor was packed with bodies as Janet Jackson's "Control" thumped through the speakers. A gray cloud of smoke hugged the ceiling, and the place smelled of cigarettes, stale beer, and women's perfume.

She felt like about half the people in the bar turned to look at them when they walked in. She tried not to make eye contact and focused on weaving her way through the crowded front entrance, looking for a spot that was inconspicuous where she could stand and get her bearings.

Carol put her hand on her arm and led her gently through the crowd, and she watched the center of the tall woman's back as they made their way to a wall on the far side, near a busy pool table.

They found a spot and leaned against the wall, and Therese tried to catch her breath. She finally dared raise her eyes to look around and take in the surroundings.

What she saw was nothing short of amazing. She saw women of all types and skin colors, tall and short, women who looked incredibly masculine, those who were extremely feminine, and everything in between. Most of the women were dressed casually and had an air of toughness, of blue collar bravado.

The song changed to a slow one, "Always" by Atlantic Starr, and Therese watched as women wrapped their arms around waists and necks, their bodies touching and swaying to the music slowly. Therese saw a few of them kissing on the dance floor, and in the darkened corner at the opposite side of the bar, she saw what appeared to be a pretty heavy make-out session between two women with dark curly hair and olive skin.

Her eyes were huge, taking it all in. She had never seen women together, being intimate. It was mind-blowing. She felt a mad swirl of arousal in her chest alongside her pounding heart as she watched the ladies being free and open in their desire for each other.

She felt Carol's arm brush against hers, and then she took Therese's hand. Her cheeks flamed.

I am holding Carol's hand in public!

She studied the ladies, trying to see a reflection of herself somewhere. Did she look like any of them? Was there "a look”? Was this her tribe?

She couldn't get enough of looking, and she gave Carol a sideways glance to see the woman dividing her attention between the bar and watching Therese. She was smiling at her, obviously enjoying that she was giving the younger woman this new experience, seeing the bar and the women through her eyes.

She watched through several songs, letting her mind take in the crowded bar and the pool table where shouts, back slaps, and the crack of the cue ball rang out above the music. There was some similarity to the look of a lot of the women that she could not quite put her finger on, a certain toughness, the way they styled their hair, perhaps. It was like they had all prepped themselves for the evening according to some secret code, a language that she couldn't quite interpret at the moment.

As she openly ogled, she heard someone to the side of her say "Holy shit!" And then the voice came louder, closer to her, "Holy shit, I KNEW it!"

In a daze, she turned her head to see what all the commotion was about and came eye to eye with Sherry, her college friend from the library.

Therese wanted to sink through the floorboards, to run away. She quickly let go of Carol's hand and looked at Sherry in disbelief.

What in the fuck are the chances??

"Welcome to the club, T!" Sherry squealed. She was wearing a white button-down shirt with the collar popped up, and her hair was sticking up, spiked with hair gel. She could see a small blue butterfly tattoo low on her chest where her shirt was open. She looked very different here, in this setting.

"Uh ... hi," Therese managed, and Sherry babbled on, oblivious to her discomfort. "Well hell, no wonder you blew me off," she laughed, eyeing Carol. "Hell, I'd blow me off too!"

She stuck her hand out to Carol. "Hi, I'm Sherry. It's a pleasure to meet you," she said with a mock bow.

In Therese's narrowed vision, she could see Carol take the offered hand. The bar seemed way too crowded for her now, and she was having trouble breathing. Her mind was calculating who might know about her now, who might find out. She scanned the bar for any other unpleasant surprises.

She felt a hand on her upper arm and turned to see Sherry now looking at her with concern.

"Hey, you ok?" she asked, her forehead wrinkled.

"Yeah I ... was just surprised. I've never been here before. And now you ..." she trailed off.

"Ahhh," Sherry breathed, nodding now in understanding. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. And you're safe with me, you know? I wouldn't tell anyone – hell, I'd be outing myself. This bar is a little haven. What happens in here, stays here."

Therese felt some of the blood start to return to her fingers, and they tingled. She took some deep breaths and tried to control her heartbeat. She swiveled her head to find Carol watching her, those calm blue eyes studying her face.

Without a word, her eyes asked if she was all right. Therese gave her a tiny nod, and forced a small smile to her lips. She was glad she had been standing against a wall. It supported her now, kept her legs from buckling.

"So you ... are ..." She hoped that Sherry wouldn't make her finish the question.

"Yep," she said cheerfully, "queer as a 3 dollar bill."

Therese couldn't help but smile a little as the phrase, usually a hateful slur, came out so flippantly from Sherry's mouth. She had embraced it; she wasn't embarrassed by who she was.

Sherry's self-acceptance was contagious. Soon Carol and Therese were both talking with her about her life, her activities with the women's softball league, and her friendships at the library with other employees who were gay or lesbian. Sherry was well-known at the club, and many women seemed to use her as an excuse to come over and meet Carol and Therese. They seemed to be the hub of activity now, people coming by to say hello and flirt outrageously with one or sometimes both of them.

But during this meet and greet, Carol had recaptured her hand, holding it possessively and obviously for anyone to notice. Therese had started to enjoy herself, to feel free and light and happy. She gave Carol an openly adoring look, testing out what it felt like to be able to let her eyes love her in a public space.

It felt delicious.

They drank, and they laughed, and they met women who worked for FedEx, for the county government, even a very closeted elementary school teacher and one who was a lawyer at a small firm in the city.

Therese could tell that within the groups there were factions, and jealousies, and petty disagreements. This one didn't like that one, this woman dated my girlfriend's ex, the handsome dyke over in the corner had dated half the women in the bar. It was a close-knit community, at times almost too close. But it was a community, and the women were unanimous in their contempt for the police car that patrolled the parking lot in an attempt at intimidation, and the church groups who attended the small gay pride festival every year to shout bible verses and damnation through a megaphone.

By the end of the night, Therese felt like she had a whole group of new friends, including many invitations to come back and stay and to "crash" at various apartments around the city. They were careful not to talk about their personal situation, and the women seemed to just assume they were an established couple. Therese was relieved that Carol had removed her wedding ring, because that certainly would have raised some eyebrows.

When the crowd had started to dissipate a little and Sherry had gone over to talk to a girl at the bar who she thought was cute, Carol took her hand and led her out to the dance floor. A slow song started to play, and the tall woman wound her arms around Therese’s neck, pulling her close. She found her face close to Carol’s soft breasts, their bodies pressed together and swaying sensuously. She could feel both of their hearts pounding as she leaned her cheek to rest against Carol’s chest. She felt the woman’s fingers at the back of her neck, twisting in her hair.

She let her hands roam up and down Carol’s back as they lost themselves in the crowded dance floor of women holding onto women. Their thighs brushed against each other as they swayed, and she could feel Carol's hair brushing her cheek, her breath hot in her ear.

Carol reached down and cupped Therese’s chin, tilting her head up and giving her a wide, wicked smile.

"Well," she purred, "I still haven't gotten my kiss."

"What's stopping you?" Therese said, grabbing Carol's waist with both hands and pulling their bodies more closely together.

And with that, they kissed, and Therese felt the whole bar and everyone around them drop away into nothingness.

Chapter Text

When they got back to the hotel, their clothes and hair reeked of cigarette smoke and stale beer. It was late, but they both wanted to shower off the smell. They got into the shower separately this time, quick and efficient. While Carol was bathing, Therese looked woefully at the clock: only 15 Carol hours left, and at least part of that time should be sleeping. She yawned in spite of herself.

She put on her silky negligee from Carol, feeling the luxuriousness of it against her clean skin. When Carol came out from the bath, still damp and wrapped only in a towel, she smiled broadly at the sight of the pale brunette wrapped in silk.

Her damp hair clung to her cheeks in wet strands, and there was water still glistening on her shoulders. Beneath the hem of the towel, her legs went on for miles. Therese still felt lightheaded at the mere sight of her in this private mode, a state of undress only a very few had had the privilege of enjoying.

She swallowed at the lump in her throat, a feeling of time slipping away swiftly, these intimate moments all too fleeting.

Carol in a towel. And nothing underneath.

Therese slid to the middle of the bed, inviting her in. Carol dropped the towel on the floor and climbed quickly under the sheets, affording a quick view of her full glory. She was so damp and warm under Therese's hands, and she twirled wet strands of hair in her fingers.

Their kisses were urgent, all of the pent up passion and energy from the bar sparking like electricity from their fingertips. Therese had seen the looks that the women at the bar had given Carol. Some had looked like they wanted to devour her whole. She saw her own desire for Carol reflected in the eyes of strangers, women who wanted to touch her and caress her, and take her home to claim her.

Therese was rough when she pressed her hand between Carol's legs. Her tongue was forceful when she took her mouth. She was on top with a flame in her belly, crashing down into a wave that rose to meet her, colliding. Their breath came fast, and the images of the women in the bar dancing together flicked through her head, interspersed with the eyes of the women who wanted her, and wanted Carol, and the beautiful images of the woman in bed with her at this moment.

Carol's long neck was corded with tendons and veins, arching back, seeming like an invitation for Therese to sink her teeth into it. But when Therese did so, Carol pulled her away with a gasp, a quick muttered, "No, not there, not where someone could see." She pushed her head lower, directing Therese to the part of her shoulder that would be covered by a shirt. "Here, mark me here."

Therese's stomach coiled and she pushed a sick feeling away. She had lost her urge to bite, so she kissed and licked the spot instead. She lowered her mouth to Carol's nipple, to lose herself there in the sensation of it on her tongue. She felt Carol's hands in her hair, urging her on, kneading at her.

Therese lifted her head up, gasping for air, a ripping in her chest. Her mind was trying to ruin it for her early; she couldn't push the thoughts away.

I still have 14 and a half hours left, damnit. Focus.

But the more she tried not to think of it, the more her mind zoomed in on it. Attached to it. Would not let it go.

She rolled off of Carol and curled up at her side, hiding her face against a long, lean arm. She could feel Carol shift toward her and she burrowed her face deeper, sinking her teeth into her lower lip until a coppery taste came.

Shit shit shit.

She could feel Carol's hand cupping her chin, trying to tilt her face up towards her. Her voice came soft, though she was still breathing hard.

"What's wrong, Therese?" And when she didn't answer, she stroked her cheek and asked, "Where did you go?"

In a strangled voice, Therese said, "I went to tomorrow. And you weren't there." She could feel burning in her eyes. She was revealing too much right now. Showing herself not to be such a tough, grown up woman after all.

She felt strong arms wrap around her, and she was pulled firmly into the softness of Carol's breasts. She left a salty streak on the skin of her chest as she felt Carol rocking her gently, sighing.

"Shhh," she said, "it's ok. Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow."

She felt angry. Irritated with Carol for being so flippant, pissed at the situation they were in and everyone in their town, but most of all furious at herself for ruining some of the precious few moments they had left.

She took deep, hitching breaths, digging her fingers into the flesh of Carol's hip, her side. After a while, Carol cupped her chin again, dragging her face up to make eye contact with her. And then she could see it, the tears bright in Carol's eyes, her red nose, a salty streak on her cheek. She didn't say anything, just looked at her, deep into her, and let Therese see the pain there, her mutual sadness.

And something about that set Therese right again. It pulled her out of herself and back into them, into her. Because seeing Carol so sad made her heart ache, and pulled at everything in it to make her feel better. She tipped up her head to kiss her lips softly, to lick at the trail of a tear. They nuzzled their noses together, their cheeks, pressed their foreheads against each other.

They became breathless together, the heat between them building again, slower this time, with an undercurrent of immense longing. Each touch was a word, a sentence, their kisses were whole paragraphs. Together they wrote a novel of love and tenderness and incredible heartache, each syllable of heartbeat asking a question that couldn't be answered, biting into the unspoken words on each other's tongues.

Blessedly, the night became long and dark. And in an exhausted tangle, they were both finally able to sleep.


 

 

The rays of the morning sun didn't wake her. Neither did the noise of others leaving their rooms, talking in the hallways, making plans for the day.

Therese was so completely drained, emotionally and physically, she had not a shred of consciousness left for the world. She could have slept for a thousand years, her body melted into the sheets, the hotel crumbled around her, and vines from the forest grown up and around her bed. Woodland creatures could have used her hair for a nest and stored nuts in her armpits, and still she would have slept.

But she was awakened by a kiss from Carol.

As her eyes slowly forced themselves open, she saw that the woman was already up and dressed, but her hair was a wild tangle.

Therese slurred sleepily, "You should not have gone to bed with wet hair last night. THAT is a disaster."

Carol gave her a smirk. "This is your fault."

"Agreed," Therese said, stretching in the bed and forcing her eyes to the clock on the nightstand.

Fuck.

It was close to check out time. Therese was going to have to get up and get dressed.

"I let you sleep as long as you could. You seemed to need it," Carol said, stroking her cheek tenderly.

Therese captured the hand on her cheek and kissed it, nuzzling her face into it for just a moment longer.

She pulled her aching body out of the bed and limped into the bathroom, moaning into the hot washcloth she pressed against her face. It was like a hangover, but worse. A hangover where you had also been hit by a bus, and then your heart had been removed from your chest, run through a washing machine, and placed back in your body in a slightly different spot. Her entire body felt like it had been through the spin cycle.

Numbly, she put on a fresh t-shirt and pulled a green cotton sweater over top that came down below her hips, with a cream colored pair of stirrup pants on the bottom that hugged every curve.

Carol came out of the bathroom with a hot washcloth on top of her hair, trying to steam down the wild patterns that had formed in the night. She looked tired, with large dark circles under her eyes.

She handed Therese a cup of lukewarm coffee with an apologetic smile. They both scurried around, shoving things back into their suitcases, putting on shoes, checking under the bed to make sure they didn't leave anything behind.

It was already past check-out time now, and someone knocked at the door. "Housekeeping!"

"Just give us 5 more minutes, please?" Carol asked

"Yes Ma'am."

Therese felt frantic. Here it was, their last 5 minutes together and truly alone. She dragged her suitcase over to the door and placed it beside Carol's.

Both of their eyes roved the room, drawn to the bed as the centerpiece of the tableau, a wild toss of sheets and pillows smelling of sex and sweat. Therese locked the image into her mind, this place that she knew she would still remember when she was a very old woman.

She turned to look at Carol, who was watching her with eyes that looked grey now in the light, little storm clouds threatening rain. There was so much she still wanted to say to her, to show her, but time ticked forward relentlessly.

She stepped into her and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's waist, burying her face into her neck. She could feel long arms wrap around her shoulders, pulling her in so close, almost crushing her into her body. Therese squeezed back until there wasn't room to breathe, or speak, or even think, and especially not room to cry.  In the world, there was only their two bodies pressed together, trying to merge into one person.

She wanted to hold on to Carol and onto this moment until her arms went limp and she fell down from exhaustion.

Another sharp knock on the door made them jump apart. "Yes, coming," Carol shouted breathlessly.

Without a backwards glance, they both grabbed their suitcases and purses and walked into the hallway, past the maid's cart filled with dirty laundry, down the elevator and into the lobby.

Carol sent the valet to fetch the car, and as they climbed inside, Therese felt it all was like a movie reel run in reverse, retracing their path back until it inevitably reached Dixon.

Chapter Text

In the car, Carol squeezed Therese's hand, and her voice came out firm and clear.

"Now, here's what we're going to do."

Therese waited for the grand plan, Carol's idea that would untangle them both from this complicated knot.

"We are going to go to brunch, and we are going to enjoy it. And we are going to drive home, and talk and laugh, and we are going to enjoy that too. And who the hell knows, we might just drive off a cliff on the way home and then we've spent time being sad for no reason."

Therese thought it all sounded like nonsense, although the visual of driving off a cliff with Carol was somehow intriguing, very cinematic and satisfying.

"Ok," she replied, "Let's enjoy the fuck out of this day and then hope to get hit by a bus. You make a lot of sense, Carol Aird," she said dryly.

"A lot of my life makes no fucking sense. I'm getting very good at it. Now tell me how to get back to Highland Avenue."

Therese didn't bother to ask where they were going, she just told Carol where to turn. Therese noticed Carol's wedding ring glinting off her left hand on the steering wheel, reflecting brightly as they made a right turn onto Highland Avenue.

They pulled up in front of Bottega Favorita, a historic building that was once a department store and an artist's residence, but had just that year been renovated into a high-end Italian restaurant infused with Southern flavors. The restaurant was split into two sides: Bottega Restaurant, which was open for dinner only and required a reservation, and the more casual Bottega cafe, serving many of the same delicious dishes but in a more casual atmosphere.

Carol had read about the opening in the Birmingham News and decided to take Therese there for brunch as a treat. Therese's eyes were wide with the opulence and grandeur of the place, and their solicitous waiter seated them and introduced himself as Nelson.

Carol ordered mimosas for both of them, and then they sat looking at the menu, their mouths watering. Therese decided on crab cakes, while Carol went for a plate of eggs benedict with homestyle biscuits.

The room was airy and light, with high ceilings, huge windows, and the wall behind the ornate bar painted a deep red. The chatter of the bustling Sunday crowd mixed with the clatter of dishes and the clink of glasses, and the room buzzed with warmth and energy.

Therese felt the sweetness of the mimosa spread across her tongue, and she leaned back in her chair to enjoy the scene. She tried to imagine what it must be like to feel at home in a place like this. Carol seemed so comfortable, so at ease. These were "her people," people who never looked at the prices on a menu or worried about the next electricity bill.

She watched her long, elegant fingers tipped with red, twirling the stem of her glass, and as she sipped, her eyes found Therese's. Her lashes partially veiled her eyes, and she looked coy as she set the glass back down.

"Well, do you like my surprise?" she asked.

Therese nodded. "It's very nice."

Carol was watching her in a way that made her feel unsettled, not sure what she wanted from her now. She was already nervous about the multiple utensils at her place setting, self-conscious that she might look like a hick for using the wrong one. She pretended to be very interested in the art on the walls, the people coming in fresh from Sunday morning church service.

When Nelson delivered their food with an obsequious flourish, she watched carefully to see which fork Carol used, then did the same. The first bite of her crab cakes made her eyes almost roll back in her head. They were so light and delicate, with the very thinnest crispy fried crust on the outside giving way to creamy, crabby deliciousness.

She closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the rich buttery flavor on her tongue. When she opened them, Carol's eyes were on her again, obviously delighting in watching her enjoy her food.

"It beats the hell out of Red Lobster, huh?" Carol said, an obvious dig at Harge. Therese looked down quickly, not wanting to hear anything that made her think of Harge, even if it was a put-down.

"It's very good," she murmured, taking a sip of her mimosa. She glanced back over the rim of her glass to see Carol absently twirling a lock of hair in her fingers.

"How's yours?" she asked, tilting her chin at Carol's plate.

"Excellent," she said. "Would you like a bite?"

Therese nodded, and she watched as Carol carefully gathered a portion of biscuit and egg and sauce onto her fork, balancing it across the table towards Therese with her hand underneath to catch any drips. Therese leaned forward and took it into her  mouth, her lips sliding over the tines of the fork as her eyes locked on to Carol's.

She chewed. This was delicious too, but she was distracted by the pulse she felt at Carol feeding her this forkful of food, this intimate gesture in a public space. She could see the color had risen slightly in Carol's cheeks, and Therese flicked her tongue out to catch a little bit of sauce at the corner of her mouth, intentionally drawing Carol's gaze.

She leaned back in her chair and went back to her own plate of food.

In a moment, Carol said in a mock-hurt tone, "Well, aren't you going to offer me a bite of yours?"

"Sure," Therese said, then slowly and deliberately slid her plate over to Carol's side of the table. Carol's eyes flicked from her down to the plate, then dug her fork in for a very large hunk of the crab cake.

She took a bite, and with what Therese thought was an exaggerated moan said, "Mmmmm, so good."

Therese gripped the edge of the plate and pulled it back across the table.

The rest of the meal was mostly quiet. Carol made some attempts at small talk, but Therese was not particularly in a mood to keep up her end of the conversation. She was mostly content to be quiet and focus on her food and look at the people around her, making up stories in her head about their relationships to each other, where they had come from and where they were going. She wondered if there were other people here, right now, who were like Carol and herself.

She also wondered if anyone else's lives were as complicated as theirs. She doubted it.

Carol was so beautiful, all made up and wearing a matching skirt and jacket. It almost hurt to look at her. Her lips were so bright red. How did she manage to eat and not lose her lipstick?

She couldn't think of what was going on in that blonde head right now. She had tried to imagine, but it was like looking into a hall of mirrors, where all you saw was yourself reflected back a million times, getting smaller and smaller with each repeated image.

Who am I now?

The trick was not to get so small that she would never find herself again.

The stirrup pants she was wearing clung to her sticky, damp skin, and she was annoyed with herself for not wearing her nicer slacks today. She hadn't known they were going someplace nice to eat. Certainly not this nice.

When asked if she would like dessert, she declined. Carol asked if she was sure she didn't want coffee, an espresso, perhaps? But she didn't want anything else. So Carol didn't order anything either.

When Nelson returned with their check, he knew to leave it by Carol's plate. She watched as the woman reached in her handbag and counted out the cash, doing the math in her head for what Therese was sure was a generous tip.

This probably costs more than what I make in a day.

When she had put the cash in the leather holder, she looked up at Therese and nodded, signaling she was ready to go.

They walked out into the crisp air, a few rays of sun fighting their way through the overcast day. The neighborhood was full of people walking their dogs, jogging, pushing babies in strollers. A gaggle of goth kids made their way over to a Volkswagen Bug, looking uniform in their attempt to be unique.

Mix tape #2 started playing when Carol cranked the car, but after a moment, she turned it off. She shifted the car into reverse then turned to look at Therese, her foot on the brake.

She opened her mouth, then stopped.

"What is it?" Therese said, surprised a bit at Carol, who never seemed at a loss for words.

"I ... I just wanted it to be nice for you," she said, and Therese could hear the hurt in her voice even though her eyes didn't change.

"It was," Therese said, relenting, and reached over to touch her hand on top of the shifter, "it's the nicest place I've ever been."

Carol's eyes looked down to Therese's hand on hers, and she could see the tall woman's throat constrict as she swallowed hard.

She pulled Carol's hand to her lips and kissed it softly, and her eyes burned a little when she did it. She returned her hand to the shifter and swiped the back of her other hand across her nose.

Therese took a deep breath, searching for what to say. "The whole weekend ... has been ..." she stopped, faltered, started again, "I didn't know it could be like this."

She saw Carol's face in profile, saw her bite her bottom lip. "That makes two of us," she said quietly, and took her foot off the brake to back into the street.

They wound back through the neighborhood, Therese quietly telling Carol where to turn to make their way to the expressway. Therese looked out the side window at the passing cars, the buildings and smokestacks of Birmingham fading into the distance. She slipped her shoes off and tucked her knees up to put her feet on the dashboard, feeling the heat from the vents blowing softly on her legs. She wiggled her toes in their cream-colored socks, watching the view from between her feet.

When she could no longer see Birmingham, she glanced back over at Carol. She was gripping the steering wheel with both hands, looking straight ahead, and her jaw had a firmness to it, the hard line of it curving up into her hairline.

"Hey you," Therese said softly, into the silence.

Carol turned her head slightly to look at her, then looked back at the traffic. The muscle in her jaw twitched slightly, and then the corner of her mouth curled just the slightest bit.

"Hey."

"What's the best meal you've ever eaten?"

Carol smirked, and Therese could tell she wanted to say something scandalous, but she quickly reeled herself back in.

"Hmmmm, that's hard to say, I've eaten so many wonderful things," she said, a devilish grin working at her mouth. "But I'd say maybe ... this little Mexican restaurant in Sedona. I was there with a ... a friend. And it was this little place called The Coffee Pot. Which doesn't sound like a Mexican place, but it's named after a red rock shaped like ... well, somewhat like ... a coffee pot. And the homemade guacamole in that place, I swear, it would make you slap your grandma."

Therese giggled. She could feel the bubble of tension in the car burst, and Carol laughed too.

"Is it nice there – Sedona?"

"It's gorgeous. And the drive from Phoenix, to Sedona, and then on up to Flagstaff is the most beautiful drive I've ever made. The change in landscape is so dramatic it takes your breath away. First you are in the desert, and it's so brown and desolate. Then cacti start to dot the landscape. The elevation takes you up and up into the red rocks of Sedona, so grand and mysterious. And by the time you have gone all the way up to Flagstaff, everything is so lush and green, like a rainforest. What a difference a couple of hundred miles can make."

"Tell me more," Therese said, and sat back and closed her eyes, imagining the places that Carol had been, enjoying the melodic sound of her voice. It was soothing to her, comforting, and somehow Carol knew. She kept talking, told her about her trips to the ocean, to the mountains, of skiing at Whiteface and taking a river rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.

Therese thought of all the places she'd like to go, of all the places she would like to see through Carol's eyes, with Carol. In this moment they were together in all of those places, all over the country, tasting wine and good food, hiking through forests, walking barefoot on rocky beaches, riding in a jeep through the desert.

She reached over and took Carol's right hand from the wheel and pulled it down into her lap, holding it between both of hers. It stayed there for the rest of the drive back to Dixon.

Chapter Text

Re-entry to the world of Dixon, a.k.a. "the real world," was a bitch. Therese had been so exhausted from lack of sleep, the emotional turmoil, and her sexual gymnastics that all she had wanted to do was go straight to her room and sleep. She could process it all later, but right now, she could barely remember her own name.

When she walked in the front door, still wiping her eyes from her tearful goodbye with Carol, her father was sitting upright on the couch waiting for her.

Fuck, since when is he so sober all the time?

"Hey, T-bear, how was your trip? Did you have a good time?" he asked, using his old pet name for her.

Usually seeing him in this coherent state would be a bright point to just about any day. Not today.

"It was good," she said tiredly. "I just didn't get much sleep. I'll tell you all about it after I've had a nap, ok?"

"Well, I was hoping we could catch up a little bit."

Therese stopped in her tracks.

"About what?"

"Well, Miss Jen called while you were out. She was worried about you."

Therese felt a jolt of electricity shoot through her body. She turned and headed a few steps back to the doorway of the living room.

"Why?"

"She says you haven't been at church lately. She wanted to know if something was wrong."

Therese felt the exhaustion and frustration in her bubble up, combust into a wave of anger.

"Well I guess you could have noticed that yourself, if you had been going," she paused for effect, "or even if you had been sober enough to notice I had stopped."

His lips disappeared as he sucked in, a wounded look in his eyes.

He held his hands palms up and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, we both know I'm already lost. Beyond saving. But I still want things to be better for you."

She wrapped her fists tightly around her anger and tried to hold on to it. It was the only thing keeping her upright at this moment.

"You're not lost, you've just decided to give up. But I'm tired of giving up, and I'm sick of letting everyone else dictate how I'm going to spend my time."

"Miss Jen says you've been spending a lot of time with that Yankee woman. They're worried she's a bad influence on you."

Therese reached out to grip the doorframe, her legs shaky. "They? Who is 'they'?"

"You know, the people at church. C'mon, T, don't be this way. You know they care about you like family."

She took in a deep breath and exhaled some of her rage. "Look, I'm just really tired right now. We can talk about this later."

"Well, I told Miss Jen she could stop by after church. I figured you would be home by then."

"You what??"

Her father shrugged, and she looked up at the wall clock. Church would be getting out in about a half hour. Not enough time for the sleep she so desperately needed. Maybe just enough time for a shower to wake her up a little. She would need to be on her 'A' game for this one.

She gave her father a searing look. "This is way out of bounds. I'm a grown woman. I should just leave you here to talk to her. Maybe she can ask you all about why you aren't going to church anymore."

She could see the muscles in his jaw clench, and he got up to go into the kitchen. As he opened the refrigerator, his voice drifted back over his shoulder. "She was your mother's best friend. She loves you, and you owe her respect."

Therese grumbled and headed down the hall, dragging her suitcase. She quickly rummaged through her drawers for clean underwear and a t-shirt, her foggy brain and tired body protesting.

The lukewarm shower helped a little, and as she dried her hair she planned how to politely tell Miss Jen to butt out. Surely, her natural southern politeness would keep her from pressing the issue too hard. Maybe she could get rid of her quickly.

When the doorbell rang, Therese padded to the door in a sweater and jeans, her hair still damp and pulled back in a pony tail. Miss Jen was on the doorstep, looking frail as she balanced a massive crockpot in her hands with the handle of her purse hanging from her forearm.

"Oh, what is this?" Therese said, taking it from her quickly and stepping back so she could come inside.

"My beef stew, of course. I thought you and your daddy might want some."

Therese felt her hardened heart melt a little. This dear old woman had been like a second mother to her, always supportive and kind. She was not an inconvenience, she was someone who cared about her. Someone who had brought her beef stew.

Therese set the pot on the counter and lifted the lid to inhale the scent. It took her back in time. She remembered so many times, playing in Miss Jen's kitchen while she and her mother talked and cooked and doted on her. They would blanch corn and slice okra and stew big batches of tomatoes to make the delicious mixture in giant pots to portion out for freezing. The smell of it would permeate the whole house, and by the time Therese was able to have a bowl her stomach would always be frantically growling.

"Thank you," she said, smiling at the gray-haired woman and giving her a hug. "I never have been able to make it taste like you and Mama did."

Her father had vacated the living room and was nowhere to be seen.

How convenient.

She invited her to sit in the one nice chair in the room and settled herself across from her on the weathered old couch. Somehow she doubted if Miss Jen would have been able to get up from the decrepit couch without assistance.

They made small talk for a while about the fall weather, Miss Jen's arthritis, their respective plans for Thanksgiving. She could tell it was all a warm-up, a preamble to the big speech Miss Jen probably had been preparing for the past week. But there was no getting right to the point, the demands of southern decorum must be met, so she willed her tired brain to be patient as they went through their paces.

"We've been missing you at church lately," Miss Jen finally said.

Ahh yes, here we are. The main event.

Therese nodded. "Yes Ma'am, that's what Daddy said."

"We're worried about you, Therese."

"No need to worry. I'm just fine."

Miss Jen's forehead became even more wrinkled, showing her concern.

"It's not like you to miss services. You've always been such a good Christian."

Therese cringed and she squirmed in her seat. "Well, there are some things I'm trying to sort out."

"You know, your Mama always said how proud of you that she was, that you were such a good Christian young woman. She thought you were a stronger Christian than she was."

Hearing her mother brought up in this context made her feel nauseous. The tears welled up in her eyes and threatened to spill over.

She swallowed down the lump that had risen in her throat. "I'm not sure I believe what I used to believe."

Miss Jen looked shocked. Horrified.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm just thinking about some things. I ... my feelings have changed about ... the church."

"Therese Belivet!! I know you've been hanging around that Aird woman, and there's no telling what ideas she's put in your head. But you can't let some woman with her fancy ideas and high and mighty attitude make you think you're too good for the Lord."

Therese felt her cheeks flaming. "It's got nothing to do with her! What makes you even say that?"

"She's not coming to church either, and the men of the church have taken her husband aside and talked to him. He needs to get her in hand, and she shouldn't be all over town making a bad influence on a young impressionable girl like yourself.."

Therese sprang up from the couch, her legs taking on a life of their own.

"They did what??"

"It's what’s best for you and for her too. She needs to get herself right with the Lord, especially for her daughter's sake. You know, that’s the trouble with people getting over-educated. It weakens their faith, pulls them away from God and makes them think they are too smart to believe in Him anymore."

She felt the rage building inside of her again. It burned behind her eyes, turned her fingers into claws.

"Everyone needs to get out of my business! I am not a little girl anymore. I don't need you all deciding what's best for me!"

Miss Jen shrank back in her chair, and Therese could see her lips quivering.

"Therese, in all your life you have never raised your voice to me," she said softly.

It took all of her strength to try and compose herself. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't yell. But you need to listen to me."

"No, sweetheart, you need to listen to me.” Miss Jen leaned forward in her chair, her forehead looming as she pursed her lips, “You need to think about the consequences of your actions. Don't you want to see your Mama and little brother in heaven?"

She might as well have punched her in the stomach. Therese fell back down onto the couch heavily and buried her head in her hands. She couldn't stop the tears from coming.

She did want to see them. More than anything.

If only she still believed there were such a place, and that they would be there waiting for her.

She didn't hear Miss Jen get up, but suddenly her hand was on her back, rubbing gently, trying to soothe her. Her blood roared in her ears, grief and anger and frustration all-consuming.

She was tired. Weak. Overwhelmed. She just wanted to go to her room and sink into the cool numbness of sleep.

She thought of her mother and her brother, of what they would think of her now. She would never be able to tell them who she had become. They would be so disappointed in her.

After another half hour of strangled conversation interspersed with tears, she was finally able to convince Miss Jen to leave her alone. But it was a long time before the sleep she so desperately craved would come to her.

When sleep did come, she had a dream that she was sitting in a darkened room, one whole end of it opening out into nothingness. A man went running towards the nothingness, stepping out over the ledge. For a moment, he began to float upward, and he cheered happily. But in the next moment, he started to drop, and flames sprang up from the nothingness below and licked as his feet. He wailed in agony as he descended into the flames, out of sight.

She woke up to sheets drenched in sweat and the sour taste of acid in her mouth, the screams of the damned still echoing in her ears.

Chapter Text

Sandra was taking forever to hang the turkeys across the children's area of the library. The 3rd and 4th graders who had come in for a special crafts program had all traced their hands on brown construction paper and then added beaks and wattles and eyes to their creations. Therese had splurged on the eyes this year, getting the googly eye style where the pupil rattled and rolled in its plastic case.

Now the special Thanksgiving decorations were strung from a clothesline, and Sandra was on the library stepladder attempting to attach it with duct tape to the tops of 2 bookshelves.

Therese pondered the morbidity of having turkeys as the official symbol of Thanksgiving, since the poor creatures were the ones least likely to be smiling and strutting as a result of the season. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched Sandra struggle.

Really, she should offer to help. But it was too fun to watch the woman huffing and puffing, cursing under her breath as she wobbled on the ladder, and Therese was so sick of her meddling that she hoped the activity would keep her occupied for another hour or so.

She allowed her dark thoughts to take over just long enough to gleefully imagine Sandra falling off the ladder and landing in the middle of the short table with the puzzle map, the whole thing crashing as Sandra's skirt flew up and exposed what would surely be oversized granny panties.

With a snicker under her breath, she went back to sorting through the books that had been returned in the overnight depository, replacing the cards with the date of return neatly stamped.

She froze when she picked up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. She knew who had last checked out this book. It was Carol. Why had she returned it in the overnight bin? Why hadn't she come in to see her?

It had been over a week now since their trip, and Therese had not heard from Carol. She knew things must be tense between her and Harge, especially if the men of the church had embarrassed him by calling out his wife's wayward tendencies. But surely she could have still found a moment to call her, to at least let her know she was ok.

Therese had been too worried to call Carol, not wanting to raise any more suspicion should Harge be the one to pick up the phone. But she had waited in the evenings for her call, had repeatedly looked to the front door of the library every time she heard it open, hoping to see Carol walk in. She didn't even stop by on Tuesday.

Her nerves were totally frayed, her mood becoming more fractious by the day. She had run out of excuses on Carol's behalf, and this book seemed to carry a dark foreboding. The fact that she couldn't even be bothered to bring it inside while the library was open, to see Therese even for 5 minutes. What the hell?

Therese felt so drained, all she wanted to do lately was sleep. But as soon as she climbed into her bed, she felt the absence of Carol there. The two nights of sleeping with her had somehow ruined the pleasure of sleeping alone. And her tired mind ran along the same exhausting track: why doesn't Carol call me, is everything ok, what is she doing now, does she miss me, does she care that I am hurting, how can I live with this awful ache, why doesn't Carol call me ... and on and on, the same cycle of obsessive thoughts.

The first couple of days apart, she was living on the memories of the weekend. It sustained her. She lay in bed at night and hugged her pillow to her, remembering the softness of Carol. But as time dragged on, it became more painful to think of their time together, as it swirled with the anxiety and uncertainty in her head.

There was no way this had all been one-sided. Carol felt the same way for me too, right? No one is that good of an actress. But if she cares at all, how can she leave me hanging like this?

She heard a thump and noticed that Sandra had finished hanging the turkeys and was folding up the step-ladder. She was still holding on to the Sylvia Plath book, absently stroking her fingers over the dust jacket. She flipped through the box of cards until she found Carol's, studying the neat, rounded script of her name as if it would unlock a mystery.

Sighing, she slipped the card back into the pocket inside the back cover of the book.

Dannie stopped by the library on Wednesday, pre-emptively full of holiday cheer. She could tell he was already anticipating his mama's huge Thanksgiving feast, a special dressing with oysters and onions to go along with the turkey, green bean casserole topped with fried onions, and all of it followed by a towering red velvet cake slathered with icing. Therese had to give it to her: that woman could cook.

Usually, she'd be looking forward to the holiday herself. The library would shut down early that afternoon and be closed all the way until Monday. Four whole glorious days off.

Of course, a good chunk of tomorrow would be spent in the car with her father. They were going to Selma to visit her Granny, her mother's mother. And she wasn't sure what she would do if he started a line of interrogation about her recent activities, especially trapped in a car and unable to escape to her room, which had been her only strategy lately.

Ahh well, she would deal with that later. For now, she tried to soak up some of Dannie's goodwill and let his excitement cast a reflected glow onto her.

"So, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Ruth Anne got here last night and they brought their Beagle, and he's already chewed on Mama's favorite pair of shoes. I thought she was going to kill him. And then, this morning, he came waddling into the living room with a ummm ... feminine item from the wastebasket in his mouth. Aunt Ruthie just about had a stroke. I had to leave the room and go outside to laugh!"

Therese giggled. She could almost forget for a moment how miserable she was. She ignored Sandra's pointed looks and leaned against the counter, asking Dannie all about the rest of his relatives who were there to visit. It seemed his mother's house had turned into a temporary roadhouse, with cots and pallets scattered throughout and a horde of kin tucked into every corner. His brown eyes sparkled as he told about the family drama, and his white, even teeth showed whenever he made her laugh.

Sandra skulked in the back office, eavesdropping, pretending to do some filing. Therese knew better. But there was nothing between her and Dannie to hide, so she thought the silly old fool could listen as much as she liked.

Dannie must have picked up on the eavesdropping too, because he waggled his eyebrows at her significantly and said in a stage voice, "And then, we invited all the snake-handlers from the church and their pet rattle snakes back to the house for pie and mice!"

Therese covered her mouth and attempted to stifle a snort. Dannie's parents belonged to another marginalized church way out in the country, known for intense worship sessions where members "spoke in tongues." He knew the derisive laughter townspeople shared about his family and their choice of spiritual practices, and he chose to play it up even more for the entertainment of the ignorant and nosy.

"When they recovered from their latest giggling fit, he reached into his messenger bag that he referred to as his "man purse," saying, "Oh, I brought you something." He brought out a chocolate wrapped in foil in the shape of a turkey, its ridiculous cartoon face and crossed eyes making her giggle again. It was somewhat of a tradition – the last several years he had brought her one the day before Thanksgiving.

"What a surprise!" she exclaimed, holding her hand against her heart dramatically. "Thank you!"

He grinned at her and tipped an imaginary hat, wished her a wonderful holiday and was off into the blustery day that had whipped up outside.

The next morning, she was up early making a sweet potato casserole to take to her grandmother's house. Granny had protested, but she insisted on bringing a dish to contribute. It was now in the oven, and she would check it in an hour to see if the brown sugar and pecan topping had started to bubble.

She showered and dressed, then spent some time just sitting on her bed and staring into space, wondering what Carol had planned for the day. It was funny to her that neither of them had brought up the impending holiday during their time together. She wondered if they would be taking off for a few days to visit family, perhaps even taking a flight. She wished she could drive by her house and see if a car was in the driveway, if lights were on.

She decided she would move forward with getting her driver's license, regardless. It would enhance her stalking capabilities.

She knocked on her father's bedroom door and made sure he was up. Her grandmother wouldn't like it if they were late. She was a very sweet, tolerant lady, but she did not appreciate anyone being late for dinner. Everything had to be perfectly timed so that it was at the perfect temperature the moment it hit the table. Therese wanted to get there early to help her with any last minute preparations.

The oven timer sounded, and Therese hurried in to check the casserole. It was browned to perfection, and she grabbed an oven mitt to carefully remove the hot dish.

She made some toast and scrambled eggs for her father, and she was pleased to see him looking fresh and clean-shaven, wearing the shirt she had pressed for him the night before. The blue in it made his green eyes turn almost aqua, and he had recently had all his hair clipped short, making his receding hairline less apparent.

She made an excuse to go back to her room while he sat at the table and ate. She wanted to keep their time together today as short as possible. He was looking awfully clear-eyed.

In a bit, they loaded themselves and the still-warm casserole into the truck for the hour ride to her grandmother's. She surprised her father by offering to drive.

"What?" he said, bewildered.

"I've gotten my permit and have been learning. Here, I'll show you," she said, pulling her bill-fold out of her purse and presenting her permit proudly.

"Well I'll be damned," he said, and smiled. "That's great, T-bear!"

Her hands shook a little as she gripped the wheel. This was definitely different than Carol's Subaru. But this was the vehicle she would be taking her driver's license test in, so she needed to get used to it.

She decided that her nervousness for driving would be a great excuse to keep her father silent during the ride. She wasn't sure if the excuse worked, or if he was just in a mood to be quiet. Either way, there was little said beyond some quiet observations about the weather, the road conditions, the blissful lack of log trucks on the road during a holiday.

It was strange that she still needed him to tell her where to turn to get to Granny's house. Apparently, when you're not driving you just don't pay that much attention to how to get places. She knew they were getting close when they passed the Baptist church that her grandmother attended.

Finally, she recognized the end of the red dirt driveway down to the house. She signaled and turned in, passing her Aunt Suzie's house on one side and her Uncle Alan's trailer on the other. Her grandmother's house was tucked down at the end of the road, beside a sprawling field of brown corn stalks and bean poles next to a tumbling-down barn.

“The family compound,” her father said with a wry smile. She put the truck into park, satisfied. She hoped some of her relatives had seen her driving. She felt like a real grown-up, complete with her own casserole dish.

People poured out onto the worn wooden porch as they approached, her Granny first out of the door still in her blue flowered apron. She flung her arms wide open for Therese.

“Hey, Suuuuuuugah!” she said, drawing the word out, wrapping Therese into a crushing hug. Soon she was being hugged by aunts and uncles and cousins, a mad rush of bodies that had always made her feel somewhat apprehensive. Usually, she dreaded the hugs before she approached the porch, but this time, she decided to give in to it and just enjoy their affection.

She was well-loved here, though not well understood. For a long time she had felt out of place here, like an alien sent to study life forms on another planet. It had only gotten worse once she went off to college.

She was the only one here with a college degree, with the exception of her cousin Donna. Donna had gone to nursing school and had moved back to Selma to work at the hospital. She was the go-to for all family medical crises. But she was married with children, and had otherwise fallen into line with family expectations.

“You’re just so pretty!” her grandmother gushed. “I’ll bet you have to beat those boys off you with a stick!”

Therese blushed, mumbling, “Well no, not exactly.”

“You’re going to make me some very pretty grandbabies one day,” she said, ushering Therese inside, through the pine boarded living room and into the large kitchen with the formica table in the center. She had been rolling out crusts for a pie.

The smell of the kitchen was heaven, and Therese closed her eyes for a moment to inhale. When she opened her eyes, she looked at her grandmother again, really looked at her. The woman looked smaller, more frail than the last time she had seen her. She must be in her mid-70’s at this point.  She quickly rolled up her sleeves to help.

The next hour was spent as the apprentice in her Granny’s kitchen, and she tried to soak in as much of it as she could. Although it was hard to follow any of her “recipes,” which mostly consisted of “a dash of this” and “a pinch of that,” with quite a bit of “add this until it looks about right,” thrown in for good measure.

A herd of other people walked in and out of the kitchen, talking and laughing and trying to steal cornbread keeping warm on the top of the oven. She tried to suppress her feelings of disdain for the crowd, her latent superiority. They were rough country people, with hard hands and even harder opinions. There was little room for variation in their lives, and anything or anyone different was immediately under suspicion.

Granny herself kept out of the fray, and Therese had never heard her say an unkind word about anyone. She could listen to gossip with undeniable relish, but the most she would ever contribute to any negative talk was a sincere “Bless her heart.”

Her home was always open and food warming in the oven, and a rag-tag crew of lonely bachelors and friends of her deceased husband would often show up for lunch or a chat. There were several of these men here now, farm workers with no family nearby to spend the holiday with.

Finally, Granny declared the meal ready and ordered everyone in to sit down. She and Aunt Suzie stayed on their feet, bringing over dishes, fetching more iced tea, and being at the beck and call of everyone assembled. They would eat after everyone else was finished.

Therese had protested, saying she could help serve too. But Granny insisted that she sit and enjoy while everything was hot.

She piled her plate with a turkey leg, cornbread dressing, and her own sweet potato casserole. She drizzled the turkey and dressing in thick, rich giblet gravy. She ate until she thought she was going to be sick, then got up with her rounded belly to help clear the table.

She thought of her aunts, uncles, and cousins, the limited exposure they had to other parts of the world, to other people. To them, Selma was the whole world, except for brief family vacations to the Gulf Coast or shopping expeditions to Montgomery. She couldn’t really blame them for who they were, what they thought.

She wondered if any of them had ever had a realization, something that brought a difference so painfully to light that it made them question everything else. What if the thing that they wanted was in direct conflict with everything they had ever been taught, the core of what they believed? Surely not all of their lives had been simple and uncomplicated.

She thought of the stories that must be in this room, most of them untold. When she thought of each of them as a separate story, she didn't feel quite as alien anymore.

Chapter Text

Driving home from the family Thanksgiving feast, Therese was still uncomfortably full. She had unbuttoned her pants and unzipped them half way, thankful that she was wearing a long shirt to cover this indiscretion.

She found herself thinking about her grandmother. It was the first time she had thought of her as an actual person with her own identity, separate from just being "Granny."

As odd as it may sound, she had never considered Granny's inner life: her hopes, her dreams, her disappointments. Her life seemed very simple; she was a woman with limited choices.

Marry young, have children, raise a family, go to church on Sunday. But how must it feel to have lost a grandchild and then her own child, while seeing herself live on?

In her own grief, she had been oblivious to the suffering of anyone but herself and her father. The two of them had been bound together in their misery, her obligation one of a silent witness, watching him crumble.

But what was the grief of a mother and a grandmother? How did it feel to lose something that had once been a part of her, had lived inside of her? And then, 5 years ago, she had lost her husband of 56 years. His Sunday suits still hung in the corner of her closet, his straw farmer's hat on the shelf.

She shuddered and gripped the wheel tighter, suddenly realizing that she hadn't had to consciously think about driving. Her mind had been able to go on auto-pilot, without the constant stream of babble about staying between the lines and applying the correct pressure to the gas pedal. So, there was progress after all.

She dared a sideways glance at her father, who was staring out the side window, his forehead pressed against the glass. He had been very quiet at dinner. She tried to remember if he was always quiet around her mother's family.

She thought of Christmases spent there, a gaudy tree with tinsel and flashing lights, and she could remember her father wearing a jaunty Santa hat, handing out presents. He had once been the life of the party. Of course, that had all changed when her mother died.

And the family was different towards him in return. Loving and kind, yes, but treating him like a broken thing - someone to be talked about in hushed tones.

As they crossed the river bridge, she asked him, "How does the water look?"

"Cold."

She nodded, even though he wasn't looking at her.

In a moment, he cleared his throat. "You're doing a nice job driving. I like having you behind the wheel."

"Thanks."

"So ... what finally got you to drive?"

She knew what he was really asking. He was asking "who."

And she was ... well, honestly, she was dying inside to talk about Carol Aird. To say her name out loud, at the very least.

"My friend, Carol," she responded, trying to sound nonchalant. "She taught me at the factory parking lot in her old Subaru."

She stopped, though she wanted to say so much more. She wanted to say how beautiful she was, and how kind.

The way she looks at me.

She felt a shard of glass shifting in her chest, slicing.

He grunted softly. She couldn't read the sound.

"Oh, is that who you've been spending so much time with?"

"Some."

"I thought maybe ... there was a boy."

She sighed. "Wishful thinking on your part, huh?"

He shrugged. "Well, I do want you to be happy. To have a family. You shouldn't be stuck with me forever."

She wanted to reassure him. To tell him she was happy. But they both would know it was a lie.

"I'm not stuck with you," was all she could manage.

"If something was going on with you, you would tell me. Right?" He still wasn't looking at her. She wiped a fine film of sweat off her upper lip, licked at the saltiness there.

"I'm fine."

He turned towards her, and she could feel his eyes on the side of her face.

"That's not exactly an answer."

She waited a long moment.

"You can't fix it."

"Let me try?"

"Daddy," she said, and the lines of the road wavered a bit, "I appreciate it. But I'm a grown up now. I have to figure it out on my own."

He grumbled softly.

She smiled a little at him, at his protectiveness.

"Remember that time I was at day camp and I wanted to play kick-ball with the boys, but the counselor made me go make crafts with the girls?  She told me I wasn't very lady-like, and that I needed to stop being such a tomboy. And I came home so upset, because I thought my whole summer was going to be ruined by that awful lady."

He chuckled. "Well, Miss Turnbine was an old battle-axe."

"Mmm hmm, she was. But you were ready to head right back up to that camp and give her what for. You were so mad."

"Yep," he said, "nobody was going to treat my baby girl that way. Your mama practically had to tie me to the dinner table to make me not go back up there."

"You always encouraged me to be who I wanted to be. To not worry about what other people thought," she said softly. "You were a great dad."

She stopped for a moment, realizing she had said it in the past tense. She didn't mean it that way.

But when she looked at him, he was smiling.

The rest of the ride home felt peaceful, the hot air from the vents of the old truck toasting the hairs inside her nostrils.

There was nothing on the answering machine when she got home. Although she didn't expect there to be. But still, she had harbored a small, quiet hope.

Her father had gone straight to his decanter of whiskey, giving himself a healthy pour and adding a splash of water from the tap.

That night in bed, she clutched her pillow to her chest and thought of Carol. She tried to imagine a world where she could take Carol to her grandmother's for holidays, introduce her to the family. It was inconceivable, like putting a delicate flower into a hog's pen and expecting it not to be trampled.

The next day was surprisingly warm and mild, and she walked into town and picked up a few things at the grocery store. She watched the streets for the green Jaguar, but all she saw was the usual array of Oldsmobiles and pick-up trucks. She made herself busy around the house, cleaning and cooking a nice meal for herself and her father.

She went into Greg's old room and carefully dusted, changed the sheets. When she was done, she laid on top of the bedspread and stared at the Little League trophies, the Kathy Ireland poster on the wall.

He would have been 26 now, almost 27. She tried to imagine the man he would have been, handsome and kind. He probably would have been married by now, maybe even with a child of his own. She could feel a tear slip down the side of her temple and run into her hairline, hot and wet. She remembered fighting with him when they were kids, him spraying her with the water hose when she was all dressed up to go out with friends.

And she remembered their late night talks, when they would wistfully speak of getting out of Dixon, of moving to a place where they could be anonymous and not have everyone in their business. He was going to move to a big city and be an actor, or maybe a stand-up comedian, or even a musician, even though the guitar in the corner of his room sat dusty and untuned most of the time.

He would wonder why she was still here. No, maybe he would understand.

With a sigh, she heaved herself up off the bed and went into the kitchen, re-arranging the cupboards for lack of anything better to do.

The next day was much the same, spent restlessly wandering around the house, sometimes turning on the television and relentlessly turning from one bad channel to the next. She spent some time reading Rubyfruit Jungle, but right now it was all too close to home. It broke her heart a little each time she picked it up. She definitely needed to think of non-lesbian things.

By Sunday she was climbing the walls, bored, frustrated, and lonely. She convinced her father to go out driving with her, since he seemed to be functioning pretty well. She needed to learn to parallel park if she was going to pass her licensing test.

He was very good at explaining it to her, even drawing her a little diagram of the maneuver at home before they went out to try it in the truck. She was a surprisingly quick study and was pleased with herself that she was able to get fairly close to the curb after a few tries, even in a truck with limited sight.

When they were done with parking practice, she asked if they could drive around for a little while, just "for practice," she had said. But she knew where they were ultimately headed, and in her mind she mapped out a route that would eventually take them by Carol's house without being too obvious.

She circled the small town, in and out of the neighborhoods, stopping at stop signs and the two traffic lights, pretending to think hard about when and how to turn on her blinker.

When she turned into the planned community where the Airds lived, her father was leaning back in his seat, relaxing, his eyes half-closed at the sun coming in through the side window.

She held her breath when she drove by the house. She wasn't sure what she expected to see – Carol out in the driveway, perhaps?

But it was a non-event: either the Jaguar wasn't there or it was parked in the garage. A lamp was on in the front window. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it was quiet on this cold and overcast day.

Self-consciously, she kept the truck at the same speed as it rolled past, trying to take in every detail that she could. Once they were back on the highway, she sat back in the seat, feeling her stomach churning. She was ready to go home.

By the time Monday rolled around, she was almost happy to go back to work. She needed something to occupy her mind, to give her temporary relief from the constant torment of wondering about Carol. She had picked up the phone a dozen times, cradling the receiver against her ear and listening to the dial tone.

Yes, the phone is still working. No, I shouldn't call Carol at home.

As the week progressed, she looked for Carol less and less. Her hope faded. She went home in the evening and went to bed early, stripping down to her panties and climbing in under the heavy blankets, the weight of them a comfort.

She listened for any mention of the Airds, but there was no one she could ask. No mutual friends, except the people from her church. And since she knew the gossip mill was already churning about her and Carol, there was no way she could ask one of them.

By the time the next weekend rolled around, she was worn out with the weight of it all.

She picked up the phone for the hundredth time, listened to the dial tone.

And then she called Sherry.

Chapter Text

Sherry didn't seem surprised to hear from her. It was almost as if she had been waiting for the call.

Therese made small talk for a while, asking how her job was going, about how her friends were that she had met at the bar.

But when Therese started to share with her the reality of her life, Sherry did seem surprised.

Therese had always been on the more reserved side, holding her private thoughts inside and rarely sharing a glimpse into her heart with even her closest friends. But now, she felt she had been stripped raw. She desperately needed someone to confide in, to ask advice of ... and Sherry was the only person she could think of who had a chance of understanding her situation.

When she started to tell Sherry the truth about her and Carol, she even surprised herself. She spoke about their relationship without apology or excuse. And Sherry listened.

As it turns out, Sherry had been with married women herself. It seemed that the situation Therese was in wasn't uncommon at all. She listened sympathetically, letting Therese spill every last detail of their time together.

"Look, Therese," she said, her voice full of concern, "I know this is really hard to hear. But I've had my heart broken more than once this way. These women are never going to leave their husbands. They might talk about it, hell, they might even leave for a week. But when it all comes down to it, the social pressure is just too much. They get scared and they go running back to hubby. And you're left picking up the pieces of your shattered heart."

Therese wanted to protest, to defend Carol. She was different.

But she could hear the truth in what Sherry said, as crushing as it sounded. Especially in light of the way Carol had disappeared on her for the last two weeks. If she couldn't even be brave enough to risk calling her, how would she ever take the leap and leave him?

Carol had said it herself. She was staying. She hadn't made any promises, not even hints of a future together. It was there in writing, in Carol's letter. All she could give her was a weekend.

"I know," Therese sighed, "and I don't want to give you the wrong idea. She never promised me anything. It's my own damned fault for letting myself get sucked in."

And so it went, the two of them talking late into the night, Therese feeling just the slightest bit of air going out from her tense lungs, the secrets spilling, relieving the pressure. It was like a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew when you first opened it. You open it just a crack, hear the hiss of the carbonation escaping, and let it slowly fizz out until it's safe to take the cap off.

Sherry was so warm and kind – and experienced. Therese felt she had already done so much more than her. She had left her small town and made a life for herself, dated women, loved and lost. It was like having an older sister, one who would give you advice but also listen, and also occasionally talk really filthy about the details of her sex life. The escapades of Sherry and her circle of friends was so entertaining, a peek into another world completely.

By the time they hung up the phone, Therese felt that she had a true friend. Finally, someone to confide in and help relieve the ache in her heart. Sherry had said she could call her any time or, better yet, she should come for a visit.

"I'll introduce you to lots of women," she said, " single women. Although if that blonde is your type, I'm going to be hard pressed to find anyone so ... sleek."

Therese laughed where Sherry could hear her, but her insides shrieked at the thought. She didn't want to date other women. She didn't want some cheap replacement for Carol.

She wanted Carol. She wanted her so much that her chest was an aching, empty cavern.

She lay back on her bed in the darkness, looking at the glow from her alarm clock illuminating the ceiling. Carol was only a few miles away. But she was worlds away.

She had a mad impulse to put on her shoes and walk to Carol's house in the dark. She could sneak to her bedroom window and knock quietly on it. Rouse her from her sleep. Kneel in the mulch outside the window until her knees were raw and bloody. Whisper until her voice was hoarse. Tell her in so many words about her feelings, how she didn't want to live without her. Make a grand gesture.

That's what happens in romance novels. Someone takes a big leap of faith, and it's always rewarded. You show up at the airport with a bouquet of flowers and, just before the flight takes off, you tell the woman you love her. You run through the streets chasing her in a taxi. You hire an airplane pilot to write both of your initials in a heart in the sky.

Risk and reward.

Now you've completely lost it, Therese. If this woman wanted you, she would have found a way to call you by now. She is doing what she needs to do. She had a weekend to get it out of her system. And now she is over it.

Over. You.

She put her forearm across her eyes as the tears came again, streaking down her cheeks. Her aching chest heaved, and she put a pillow over her face to muffle her sobs.

All the losses piled up, came crashing in like a series of waves swamping her little boat. Her mother. Her brother. Her father, in his own way. And now Carol.

She was utterly lost, lonely, abandoned by them all.

She cried like an orphan child, her face collapsed in on itself as the tears and the snot poured from her,  her head starting to pound as she gave in to the agony of her life now. She let the cruel voice in her head sneak in and throw its icy barbs, telling her she would always be alone, she would always be lacking.

By the time the morning sun came through her window, her face was so red and swollen and her eyes so puffy that she looked like she had lost a bout with a prizefighter.

She called Sandra at home and told her she'd have to open the library by herself. In a hoarse voice, she croaked out that she was sick and would be in tomorrow.

She didn't care what events were scheduled for the day, what books were backlogged, or if she had promised anyone to help with research. All she cared was that her head throbbed and her heart ached, and she couldn't bear to go out into the light of day. Especially not on such a crisp, sunny morning, when the birds outside her window seemed so cheerfully obnoxious.

She thought about her father, what magic elixirs he might have stashed around the house to dull the pain. She wanted to sleep, sleep until she was an old woman and none of this mattered anymore. Suddenly she saw the appeal of Rip van Winkle.

But when she walked out into the living room and saw her father snoring softly on the couch, she decided she didn't want any part of his poison. Instead, she headed to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and doled out 3 Benadryl tablets, pink and perfect, and downed them with a large glass of water.

Now she would sleep.

When she woke again, it was to the sounds of her father rustling around in the kitchen. She sat up on the edge of the bed, groggy. The letter from Carol was by her bed, and the cotton ball with her scent on it, and the library card with her perfect script. Her sad little shrine, set up on the bedside. She might as well light a candle and pray to it.

She thought about lighting a candle to burn it. But her heart wouldn't let her. She picked up the items and tucked them into a shoe box, back under her bed where she kept postcards from her mother, an old Valentine's day card that Greg once gave her, stiff with Elmer's glue where cut out pieces of lace attached to the edges.

In the kitchen, they were silent together, barely acknowledging each other's presence. The toaster ticked, butter sizzled in a pan where her father was scrambling eggs, their bare feet scuffed along the linoleum. Therese made a pot of coffee, strong and black.

She sat at the kitchen table and made a list for herself:

  1. Pass driver's license test.
  2. Build up savings.
  3. Talk to Daddy.
  4. Work on resume.

Just looking at the list made her exhausted all over again. But it was a start.

Chapter Text

They had taken down all the decorations from Thanksgiving, and it was time to switch the library over to full-blown Christmas cheer. Therese had always felt ambivalent about Christmas.

Sure, there was the food and the time off and the flurry of activity at the school, but there was also the high expectations that came with the holidays. Expectations to be gloriously happy, to give the perfect gift, to be utterly overjoyed at receiving a gift, to be holy and pious and full of "Jesus is the reason for the season" righteousness.

Part of the problem was her small church upbringing. Since the group believed in a very literal interpretation of the Bible, they didn't believe in celebrating holidays not specifically mentioned in the King James version. Although all the members celebrated Christmas, they celebrated it in a purely secular way. Christmas trees and Santa Claus were ok, nativity scenes and crosses were not.

It was always something that caused her classmates to look strangely at her when she was younger. Her lack of participation in the school Christmas pageant if it involved singing religious songs to instrumental music made her stick out like a sore thumb during this particular time of year. Especially since her whole family was known for being ultra-conservative and religious, it made those around her wonder what exactly her problem was with Christmas.

Although she didn't have those conflicts now, her general unease at the season seemed to hang with her, like the feeling when you're wearing a shirt with the sleeves too short and too tight across the shoulders.

She was turning it over in her mind at this moment, as she hung the elaborate snowflakes carefully cut out by 6th graders at the public school. How could she change her approach to the holiday madness this year? Where could she opt out, and where could she try to embrace some traditions with a less critical eye?

It didn't help that this Christmas season she was particularly miserable. She was feeling the absence of Carol like the sudden withdrawal of sunlight, a looming dark cloud that had eclipsed the sun and refused to release it from its grip for the past 3 weeks. Each day that passed only seemed to increase her desire to pick up the phone and call her, or just to show up on her doorstep.

When she looked at herself in the mirror these days, her eyes looked hollow, the dark circles underneath them a testament to her lack of sleep. And yet it seemed she was always trying to sleep. When she wasn't working, she was lying in her bed, the tv on, or a book held in her hands. She would stare at the pages, reading paragraphs over and over, still not comprehending.

She had started a diary. It was the only way to contain her thoughts, keep them focused, not running all over the place like a jar overfilled with sudsy water. The bubbles of her thoughts would scurry across the surface and burst. In her diary, she could write about how she felt, one structured sentence at a time. Noun, verb, object – an adjective thrown in for color. The voice in her head that narrated her pain was calm and impersonal, a reporter giving just the facts.

She was done hanging the snowflakes, and she stepped back from them, cocking her head to see if any one of them needed adjustment. She had never seen a real snowflake, and she wondered if they looked anything like this, or more like the snow globe on her bedroom shelf that, when she shook it, looked like a million pieces of white confetti swirling in a pine tree sea.

She heard the front door of the library swoosh and, like a tired reflex, turned her head to look. It was a stream of junior high kids from the private school. She recognized one of the boys who was the nephew of one of her former classmates. Her eyes flicked from face to face, registering the familiar.

Her eyes stopped, hung up on one face in particular. Rindy.

She looked several inches taller than when Therese had last seen her. Of course that was ridiculous, it had not even been two months before. But it was obvious in the odd way that children of that age had sudden growth spurts, their bodies elongating awkwardly, stretching out the baby fat into smoother planes and angles.

She was laughing with the group, and Therese would have normally smiled to see her starting to integrate with her classmates, to not be such a loner. But she was too busy obsessing over the girl, the tightrope which stretched to Carol, an opportunity to walk the line and find out what was going on.

She tried to steady her trembling hands and stepped back behind the circulation desk, pretending to be very interested in a sheaf of papers laying there. But really, she was watching the girl from under her eyelashes, watching them settle at a table, at Carol's table, the girl sitting only one seat away from where her mother usually sat.

Keep your cool, Therese. Do not act like a freak in front of this girl.

She flipped through the papers, her senses fine-tuned like a bat flying through the night. Her ears angled towards the table, listening, sensing any movements. She willed the girl to come to her, to talk to her.

And then, in her blurry peripheral, she saw a small figure moving closer. She looked up from the trembling bundle of  papers clutched in her hand.

"Hey Rindy," she said, trying to sound friendly, but not too friendly.

"Hi Miss Terri," she said shyly, all gangly arms and legs.

"Looks like you've got some new friends," Therese said, pointing subtly with her chin at the table of kids.

"Uh huh."

"Working on a project together?" Silently she cursed herself, not wanting to turn this into a one-sided interrogation. The girl had come to her.

"Sort of. A bunch of us have book reports coming up, so we thought we'd work on them kinda together."

Therese noticed a slight drawl had crept into the girl's speech. She was starting to talk like her schoolmates, like one of them . She wasn't sure how to feel about that.

Therese paused, hoping the girl would initiate the next bit of conversation. It was painfully silent for a moment, then Rindy spoke. "My folks let me stay by myself sometimes, when they go out now. So I don't have to have a babysitter anymore."

Therese nodded, and the girl continued, "But I wish you could still come over and cook and stuff. You know, hang out."

Therese gave her a warm smile, her heart hammering hard in her chest. "I'd like that very much. You'll have to ... ask your mom when would be a good time."

Rindy chewed at her lower lip, studying her hands.

Therese plunged on, asking the question that had been on her lips all these weeks, "So, how is your mom? Haven't seen her lately."

Rindy shrugged. "She's ok."

Therese's mind searched for an appropriate follow up question. "What about your dad? Is he traveling much?"

"No Ma'am. He's been home."

She thought she could detect a hint of surliness in the response. "Hmmm. Well, that's good. Then you've been able to spend some time with him. You and your mom both."

Therese was on a fishing expedition.

"Eh, he's grumpy. And he hogs the remote. But sometimes he'll bring home fried chicken from the mill, so that's good."

Therese knew about the epic fried chicken from the paper mill cafeteria. She missed it.

"That's the best chicken ever!"

"Sure is!" Rindy looked back over  her shoulder towards the table of teens. "Well, I should get back to the group. To studying, you know."

"Right," Therese said, seeing the moment slip away with this quiet girl. "Well, tell your mom I said hi."

"I will," Rindy said, already turning towards the table and walking away from her.

She dug her fingernails into the heels of her hands in frustration. She felt the raw ache for Carol roar up inside her like hunger, her mouth suddenly dry with an unquenchable thirst. She stumbled into the back office, grateful that Sandra was somewhere out in the library, out of sight. She slumped against a wall and leaned over, holding her stomach, cradling the emptiness there.

She stayed that way for what felt like an hour, but was probably only minutes, swallowing back dry heaves, panting like a landed trout.

Through the angry buzz of her brain, a thought came to her.

Carol will come and pick up Rindy. I have to be there when Carol comes for her.

She grabbed a cold Coca Cola out of the mini fridge and sipped it tentatively, not sure if it would make things better or worse. But the sugar and caffeine hitting her system seemed to revive her, the carbonation settling her stomach. She sipped a little more and burped, holding the back of her hand to her mouth.

She clutched the can and wobbled back out to the front desk, verifying that Rindy was still there. And then, she pretended to be busy, shuffling papers, pushing the cart around, adding and subtracting books from it. But her eyes were on the door, and on Rindy.

Right at 4:30, she saw the girl stand and start to pack up her book bag. She was smiling, talking mostly to a slight brown-haired boy with a rash of freckles across his nose. Therese's eyes darted to the door. She was holding her breath, waiting for her.

But in a moment, Rindy had slung the bag over her shoulder and was headed for the front entrance, turning to give her a friendly wave as she exited. Therese sternly told her mouth to form a smile.

As soon as the girl was out, she pushed the cart out from behind the desk, frantically trying to think of an excuse to run to the front door, to stop her.

She couldn't think of an excuse, but she went anyway, walking quickly to the huge glass double doors and looking out into the chilly afternoon. The sun was low in the sky; it would be completely dark by 5.

In the dimming light, she could see Rindy climb into the green Jag. In the car, there was a set of slender hands on the steering wheel, the glint of a diamond flashing on a finger as the car backed into the street.

Her stomach swelled and threatened to push her heart out through her throat. She thought she might vomit right there. She crossed her arms over her stomach tightly, and returned to her place behind the desk, ignoring the heavy cart still sitting in the middle of the library.

She was still shaken and nauseous when she locked the library up for the evening.

That night, after she had showered and put on her pajamas, the phone rang, a sound so alien that it startled Therese out of her stupor. She picked it up on the second ring.

"Hello?" she said, her voice raspy.

There was no sound on the other end of the line. Therese pressed the earpiece harder to her ear.

"Hello?" she said again. She thought she heard breathing, and the sound of someone moistening their lips.

"Carol," she said, feeling sure it was her. She could feel her energy anywhere.

She heard a sound, like a gasp or a sob. And then she heard a click as the line went dead.

Chapter Text

It was Sunday, and Therese was on a reconnaissance mission. She had walked down to the diner that was directly across from the church and staked out a spot near the window. She ordered french toast and an omelette, which she knew would take them a while to prepare and even longer for her to eat.

She had finished the first piece of french toast and half of her omelette when she recognized Harge's dark truck pulling into the church parking lot. She watched as he stopped under the awning by the front and Rindy hopped out of the passenger side. Just Rindy.

The truck rolled behind the church to park, and in a minute she saw Harge walking back up the driveway and entering the front of the church.

She ate a few more bites of her breakfast, her pulse suddenly beating hard in her ears. She knew it wasn't just the effect of the 3 cups of coffee she had downed in quick succession.

She checked her watch as she saw a few more of the church regulars piling in. She noted it was church start time. She gave an extra ten minutes until she saw the Martins driving up – the family was perpetually late.

When all of the faithful were safely encapsulated in the church, Therese knew it was time for her to exit the diner and walk back home. She walked quickly, breaking a sweat even in the chill December air.

The whole way home, her mind raced.

She bolted into her room and shut the door, noting that the house was still quiet. She wiped her forearm across her brow, leaving a patch of moisture on her sleeve.

She flung herself on her bed, picked up the phone, and stopped a moment to steady her breathing.

She dialed the number by heart. The phone rang, an electronic purr.

It rang again. And then 4 more times.

Therese was just about to give up, the phone gripped so tightly in her hand she thought she might break it in half.

And then, there was a click, and her voice on the other end of the line.

"Hello?"

"Carol," she barked out, relief and irritation all in one breath.

The woman was quiet except for her breathing.

"Where have you been?" Therese asked into the silence, all of her carefully rehearsed scripts for what she would say suddenly out the window.

"I ... it's been really hard around here. Harge ... he suspects ... something."

"Yeah, but you could have come by the library. Or called me when he wasn't home."

"Therese, it's so risky. You don't know what's at stake."

And in the speaking of her name, Therese's ears pricked. There was something odd about the way it sounded in Carol's mouth now. There was a slight slurring.

"What's at stake? Do you have any idea how worried I've been about you?"

It came out harsh, like an old woman, a mother dishing out guilt.

"I'm sorry," Carol said, sighing, "I just haven't been able ... this fucking town, there are eyes everywhere. And if I actually saw you, then what would I do?"

Her voice broke at the end, and Therese recognized the slow thickness of her speech.

"Have you been drinking?"

"What does it matter?"

"It's 11 o'clock in the morning, and you're drinking alone. That kind of matters."

Carol's voice sharpened up then, hardened. "Look, I am doing the best I can here. Do you know Harge took me to a therapist? And I'm using air quotes now, because it's no real fucking therapist. It's a preacher who lives in Jamison who is providing some 'family counseling.' Except apparently I'm the only family member required to attend."

Therese sucked in her breath. "Well ... what are you supposed to do there?"

"Listen to him spout some bullshit about how homosexuals are an aberration and try not to claw his eyes out when he compares me to necrophiliacs and child molesters."

"Ohhh, Carol. But ... he can't make you go. You should just say no."

Carol laughed then, a harsh and bitter coughing sound. "It's how I can appease him – to make him think I am trying to change. Then maybe he'll stop sniffing around like a hound dog all the time, wondering what I'm doing. But if he catches wind of me being seen with you, even talking to you like this, all bets are off."

"So you're just going to live a lie. Let him dictate to you who you can see." Her voice was flat.

"I'm going to survive. And I'm going to continue to live with my daughter and be here for her. And if you can't understand that ..." she paused for a long moment, and Therese could hear her swallow hard. "You don't get to judge me."

All of Therese's insides were twisting and squirming; her saliva felt hot in her mouth. This was not at all how this was supposed to go.

Where are my secret words of love and devotion? Who is this bitter-sounding woman on the phone?

"Carol," she whispered, hoping the sound of her name would conjure the real woman, bring her back to herself. "I'm sorry. I'm not judging. I'm just worried about you."

A deep sigh on the other end of the line was the only response.

Therese breathed into the phone, "I miss you."

She heard a crunch and scrape, the sound of a hand being pressed over the mouthpiece. The hollow echo of it was with her for several long moments, and she held her breath, trying to hear through the fingers that she imagined clutching, covering the holes that let the sound in.

Carol's voice came back again, through a strangled, thick haze. "I'm sorry, I just can't. I'm sorry."

And the line went dead.

She stared at the receiver in her hand, in shock. All the breath was sucked out of her, like a vacuum cleaner stuck to her mouth attempting to suck out her insides. She fell back on the bed, gasping for air.

She will call me back. She will say it was an accident. She hung up by accident.

Frantically, Therese placed the phone back in the cradle and then laid on her side, hugging herself tightly, watching the phone.

All she would remember from the rest of that day was the chill, the absolute impossibility of warmth, and the interminable silence of the house.

Winter was on her now, a season of grief. Its claws shredded at her, thick billowing gray clouds blocking the smallest ray of sunlight.

Her spirit was a small thing, made of fur and blood and bones. It was starving and cold, but still alive. It had taken a mighty blow, a direct strike. And still its tiny paws continued forward, even when the mind had shut down. Its heart refused to stop beating.

Numbly, she went through her days. Caroling, Christmas pageants, parties, and the town parade all passed by her without acknowledgement. Her clothes felt heavy on her, and her shoes were filled with lead. She woke up, ate, worked, ate, went to bed, eventually slept, and woke again to start the day over again.

She was a hamster on a wheel, but somehow the hamster knew if it kept going, just continued moving forward, eventually something would happen. Something would happen, and it would set her free.

Just move forward.

And then something did happen.

One late January morning, she woke up, and she felt better. Or, at least, she felt. It was like she had been covered from head to foot in cotton gauze, swimming through a thick haze of pea soup. But on this morning, she could feel again, almost too much, like she had shed skin and exposed raw new cells underneath.

Her senses awakened. She noticed it first when she tasted the thick, creamy yolk of the egg she had fried over-easy, how it mingled with the buttery comforting flavor of her grits, her rich morning coffee. Her appetite was back.

In the shower, the water felt so gloriously hot, the soap fragrant, and she watched in wonder as large soap bubbles rolled down the plane of her chest. She spent a long time raking her fingertips through her scalp, massaging in the shampoo and raising it to a rich lather.

Even when she brushed her teeth, she noticed the feel of the fine, soft bristles on her gums and the cool sting of the toothpaste at the corners of her mouth. She sucked in the cold morning air across her minty tongue.

On her walk to work, she wrapped her coat against the chill, but she also noticed a ray of warm sunshine slanting across the bridge of her nose.

And of course, she still felt the ache of Carol's absence, a feeling that was ever-present, but sometimes receded to a whisper, or could, unexpectedly, roar up into a wave of anguish, a splintering.

But it felt somehow manageable. She was alive, she had survived, and she would continue to get better.

And after a few days, a streak of manageable days, she felt sure the numbness was gone.

Chapter Text

Therese walked out of the musty-smelling brick town hall building with a small plastic rectangle bearing a horrible picture of herself. Such a small, seemingly insignificant thing actually meant everything. It was freedom and adulthood, all wrapped into one small official-looking package.

Her father was waiting for her outside in the truck. She wouldn't need him to ride shotgun anymore – she could go by herself. And soon, she thought, she would buy her own car.

It was late February, and a few audacious daffodils had dared to push their heads up through the cold earth and burst into bloom. The sun had started to feel much warmer, and the birds were more active. It would still be a little while until official spring, but there were enough signs of the earth waking up that you could feel the energy of it everywhere.

She had seen the green Jag around town a few times, caught a glimpse of Carol picking up Rindy from the library. But she hadn’t seen her face in all these weeks. She had the strip of pictures from the photo booth in Birmingham, and sometimes she would pull it out to look at the face that seemed unrealistically gorgeous in her memory; then she would look at the picture, and find it to be all too true. The face that looked back at her was exquisite, and her own face beside Carol’s in the frame was soft and full of light.

The weekend in Birmingham had started to fade into the distance, something that seemed at once so magical and simultaneously so tragic that she couldn’t dwell on it for too long. The thought of it could drive her mad.

Instead, she focused on work, on preparing her resume, on telling her father in subtle ways that he was going to have to get his act together, because she wouldn’t be there forever. And now, license in hand, she had another weekend in Birmingham to look forward to. It would be her reward to herself, to see Sherry and her friends and spend a weekend immersed in the culture of her newly found tribe.

She had spoken to Sherry at least twice a week, and she had proven to be an amazing sounding board. She listened patiently and helped Therese work through her feelings, and she gave her career advice and told her she felt sure she could help her land a job at one of the Birmingham area libraries if she decided to move.

She was now a woman who had options. And it made all the difference in the world.

As she drove her father home, she passed by Dannie going the other way. She honked and waved like a maniac, and as she pulled into her driveway she could see him turning around and pulling in behind her.

She jumped out of the truck, waving her new license wildly, and he got out and gave her a huge congratulatory hug.

“You did it!” he shouted. “And now you can drive me home from Jamison after I get hammered.”

She laughed and punched his arm. “No way, you lush.” She caught her father giving her a sideways glance as he got out of the passenger side and waved to Dannie.

She turned and looked at him fully, raising her eyebrows at him. He lifted his chin slightly and then slunk off into the house.

She leaned against the truck to talk to Dannie, rubbing her chilly hands together in the afternoon sun. He had been scarce lately, since his mother had been sick and he was helping her out a lot at the house; fortunately, she was getting better.

“Hey,” she said quietly, looking back over her shoulder to make sure her father was in the house. “I’m working on a plan to move. To Birmingham.”

Dannie’s eyes widened and his mouth went slack. “What?”

“I’ve gotta get out of here. I have friends there. If I can get a job, I’m going to go.”

Dannie’s eyes tracked to the house where a lamp had been turned on by the window. “What about your Daddy?” he asked, but something about his face said he was not thinking of her father at all.

She shrugged. “He’s going to have to figure out how to take care of himself. I found out there are programs for people with … well, with problems like his. And even if he can’t pull it together, I can't keep living here.”

“Why not?” he said, hurt creeping into his voice.

She could feel the veins in her temples throbbing. This was not the reaction she had expected at all. She reached out and tugged at the sleeve of his worn blue jean jacket. “You know I don’t belong here.”

“I do?”

“Yeah. Think about it.”

“What’s wrong with here?” His eyes had taken on a slightly wild look, and she could see his nostrils flaring.

“I just … I never intended to stay here. You know I don’t fit in.”

“You fit in fine. We fit in fine. What are you talking about?”

She squirmed uncomfortably. She trusted Dannie, but she didn’t know how he would take her news. Maybe it was something he really didn’t need to know.

“I want to have a life of my own. To find happiness. And love.”

A cloud passed over Dannie’s face, and when the cloud lifted, it revealed everything. Therese stepped back in shock before she could catch herself.

He had tears in his eyes then, a faint glimmer in the fading daylight.

“Dannie?” she said, a question that wasn’t a question.

“I gotta go,” he said, backpedaling towards his car.

“Wait,” she said, following him, unsure of what else to say.

“I’ll come by and see you later. Mama probably needs help with dinner. Bye.”

He jumped into the car and slammed the door shut before she could reach him.

She watched him back out of the driveway and pull into the street.

How could I have been so clueless?

Her mind whirled through all the time they had spent together, their movies in Jamison, his visits at the library. Their friendship and closeness all through high school and into adulthood was something she had always taken for granted. He would always be there.

Still, she had never realized that he loved her.

She shook her buzzing head, amazed yet again at how naïve she was about love and desire.

You, Therese Belivet, know nothing. Someone is in love with you and you never realized it. Someone else never loved you at all, or at least didn’t love you enough, and you didn’t realize that either.

She stayed leaning against the truck until it was dark out and her hands were so cold she couldn’t feel her fingers.

Without Dannie, there was even less to hold her here now. She couldn’t stay and wait for a ghost to show up in the library again, the echo of a distant passion. Whatever was going on with Carol Aird, it had made her extinct. And although she ached for her, had imagined a hundred times her walking through the library door, she couldn’t help her.

If Carol was determined to go down a path of self-destruction, she couldn't stop it. She had watched her father do that very thing and knew it to be true.

When she went inside, she could tell her father had been waiting for her. She ignored his look and went straight to her room. He was a puzzle to deal with another night.

For now, she had to write. It was the only thing that could help her make meaning of it all.

The next morning was beautiful, but she drove her father’s truck to work anyway. Just because she could.

She thought it would be a hectic day, as Fridays usually were. She knew Sandra would loaf around on the day that Therese was off, but she never called her on it. She just used it as an excuse to immerse herself in her work and keep busy.

When Sandra came in, she was on her second cup of coffee, and had almost finished filing all the cards from the overnight book depository. She made small talk with her, catching up on what she had missed from the day before.

“Oh, the Yankee woman stopped in for a bit yesterday,” Sandra said in a way that Therese could tell was practiced, trying to sound nonchalant. She didn’t want to take the bait, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh?” she said, unable to hide the quiver in her voice.

“Yeah. You probably are sorry you missed her.” There was definitely a bite in her tone, a suspicion of something, but of what she wasn’t sure.

She shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll see her next time.”

Sandra was quiet, not giving an inch. Therese’s resolve broke.

“Was she … working on her paper?”

“Yep. She stayed for a good two hours typing away on the computer. I tried to talk to her a little, but you know how she thinks she’s too good to talk to anybody from around here. Well, except for you, I guess.”

“She doesn’t think that way.”

Sandra snorted. “Well, I reckon she knows Mr. Beecham at the liquor store pretty good too. I hear she goes there quite a bit.”

Sandra was eyeing her intensely now, looking for a reaction. Therese turned on her heel and walked off, too torn between defending her and asking for more pathetic details. Was Carol drinking regularly? Did she have a problem?

She walked by the computer where she knew Carol had worked, irrationally hoping to catch the slightest whiff of her scent still lingering there. She spotted a torn piece of paper underneath the keyboard, just the edge of it peeking out.

She looked around to make sure Sandra wasn't watching her, then pressed her fingertips on the paper and slid it out from underneath. It was barely larger than a 50 cent piece.

She turned the paper over in her fingers and saw the words there in Carol’s handwriting: “I wish you happiness.”

She stared at it for a moment, her mouth hanging open in surprise while her stomach turned somersaults in her belly.

She crumpled the paper in her fist and shoved it deep into her pocket.

It stayed there for about an hour, burning her fingers whenever she touched it and threatening to force the tears up behind her eyelids. Finally, she couldn't stand the feeling of it any longer. She took it into the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.

Chapter Text

It was settled. Her weekend in Birmingham with Sherry and her friends had provided the final push she needed to make her decision. She would be much better off in Birmingham, where she could have a fresh start, make new friends, and be a more authentic version of herself.

On top of that, the seemingly huge obstacle of her financial situation was now only a minor bump in the road. Sherry had offered to let her move in with her until she could get more solidly on her feet. Something in her must have sensed Therese’s desperation, her need to escape from her small town and find freedom.

As she drove towards home in her father’s old pick-up, she rehearsed what she would say to him. How she could possibly break the news that she was leaving … soon. The tires hummed on the pavement as her mind settled into a certain sense of peacefulness. The decision was made; now it was a matter of executing her plan.

She let the images from the weekend flood her mind, remembering the raucous game night at Sherry’s, dancing at Bill’s Club. She had gotten so much attention: it was flattering. She discovered a new side to herself, a side that could be flirtatious, and spontaneous, and open.

A tall woman with beautiful honey-kissed skin had slow danced with her, and she still could feel where the woman’s thighs had brushed against hers, her strong hands and long fingers splayed across her back. She had thought of kissing her, of seeing what it was like to kiss someone besides Carol. But then the song had ended, and their bodies had drifted apart on the dance floor.

Watching the other couples together had been hard, and she had several flashbacks to when she had been at the bar with Carol, looking into her eyes the same way she now saw these women look at each other. Finding that again seemed so impossible. No one else could be her.

She had settled into the ache that was in her heart, and a part of her believed it would always be with her. Something in her would never be completely whole without Carol, just as life could never be complete again after the loss of her mother and brother. There would always be pain there.

But she could move on, she could still find happiness, and maybe even love. At Sherry’s, she had laid in the single bed in the small spare bedroom and imagined herself living there, working in Birmingham, meeting new people. When Sherry’s cat Pixie jumped up on the bed and curled into a warm ball beside her thigh, she felt she had been officially welcomed into the tribe.  

Now, as the old truck rattled and bounced the last few miles on rugged country roads, she already was thinking of Dixon as a chapter in her past. But she didn’t feel any nostalgia for the place. It was so associated with her hurt and feelings of alienation, that right now there was no room for love. She let her anger for the place and her situation propel her forward, give her purpose and direction.

She couldn’t know that one day she would write about it with some affection for the people and the place, even with a sense of empathy. It would take so many miles of distance and passing of time for her to get to that place. At the moment, sadness and memory were not useful; anger and self-righteousness were.

She turned into the rutted driveway of her house and killed the engine on the truck, taking a moment to thank it for reliably getting her to the city and back. She thought she would never get over the sense of freedom driving brought to her, especially driving alone.

She grabbed her weekend bag from the passenger’s seat and went into the house, which smelled stale and slightly sour. The kitchen was a wreck, and there were several liquor bottles scattered about. She knew this story all too well. Her father had taken the opportunity of her absence to binge. He probably had not eaten a bite of solid food since she had left.

He was passed out on the couch, snoring, and he didn’t stir when she walked past.

He’s not going to feel very good in the morning.

She went into her room and closed the door, pulling a book out of her bag that she had purchased in Birmingham. It was about addiction and recovery, and she had started reading it while still at Sherry’s in an attempt to prepare herself to talk to her father and suggest treatment options for him.

But so much of the book had reminded her of Carol, too. She thought of the way Carol drank the night she had made her dinner, when she made her confessions. Of course, Therese had been drinking too. But something about Carol’s desperation when she grabbed the bottle, the way it seemed she had to have the drinks in order to be able to tell Therese the truth about her life ... it made the situation come more into focus for her.

Like her father, Carol used alcohol as an escape, a way to numb the pain. And as she thought of the way her father had continued to decline, had slowly destroyed his life until he was no longer able to work or have a social life, she knew that she didn’t want the same thing for Carol.

She couldn’t save either of them. But she could at least talk to them. Both of them. And the rest would be up to them to decide.

She finished unpacking her bag and put on a load of laundry, then stretched out on her bed on her stomach to read. It was a long time before she felt tired enough for sleep.

The next morning, she fixed some toast and coffee for her father, who was groggy and nauseous. She barely spoke to him, and quickly got dressed for a quick walk to work. She was making a concerted effort to be nice to Sandra. It didn’t help her transition plan to make enemies, and the woman was so easy to appease with just a little extra attention and a fake smile sprinkled in every now and again.

It was a fairly busy day at the library, and Therese kept herself occupied with helping people research and stuffing envelopes with donation requests.

She had been standing so much that her feet were aching by the time she got home. She kicked off her shoes and immediately put her feet up. She could hear her father rumbling around in his room and wondered if he was feeling better.

She took out a piece of paper and made an outline of what she wanted to say to him. It was pointless, but somehow putting structure to it all made her feel better. As if bullet points could reduce the emotion that this conversation would stir up and neatly formed letters would make it all ok.

She could feel her heart racing in anticipation, and she knew that prolonging this would only make her anxiety worse.

Just remember to make this about him. It’s not about you.

She nodded to herself, put her hand on the doorknob of her bedroom, and took a deep breath as she pulled the door open and walked out into the hallway.

He had made his way into the kitchen, and dark patches of stubble were on his cheeks and chin. His eyes looked dark and hollow, and his wavy hair was a riot of cowlicks on his head. She felt a rush of love for him, of protectiveness as he stood there looking so vulnerable, like a little boy who had lost his way.

He looked at her uncertainly, no doubt wondering if a scolding was coming for his weekend drinking bout. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and waved her hand at the other one, inviting him to sit down.

The scrape of the metal chair legs on the scuffed linoleum cut through the silence between them. He set his coffee cup down, then pulled it to him with both hands, cupping it and feeling the warmth of the liquid on his hands, the same thing she always did with a nice warm mug.

She looked at him, seeing so much of herself mirrored there, and so much of what had shaped her. Underneath, he was still the same person. It was just all the layers of numbness and disappointment that had formed a thick coating over him. She felt a tear threatening at the corner of her eye, and he looked at her with concern.

“Are you ok? Did something happen on your trip?”

She scrunched up the corner of her mouth in an attempt at a smile.

“The trip was fine, Daddy. Actually, really nice.”

He nodded.

“I have some new friends there,” she continued, “I mean, one old friend from college. But some new ones too. It’s a good place for me.”

He looked at her thoughtfully and took a sip from his mug. His nails were smooth and pink underneath. They had always looked polished, even when the grime from working on machinery had been embedded around his cuticles. He had always had nice hands.

There was no good way to say it. “I think I might be better off there, in Birmingham.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not right. I know it would be good for me to move. So I’m starting to make plans. To go there. And live with friends.”

Her words came out haltingly, and she couldn’t bring herself to look at him just yet.

She could hear his breathing, the clink of the coffee cup on the table.

“When will you go,” he said finally, his voice deep and husky, not giving an indicator of how he was feeling.

She looked up to find the feeling in his eyes and could see so many emotions mixed up there, his inner struggle. She knew deep down he didn't want her to go. Of course he didn't. But he also wanted her to be happy.

“I’m not sure yet. I would like it if … I could make sure you were ok first. Get you help. But that has to be your decision.” She stopped again, looked back down at her hands. “I’m going, either way.”

Her nostrils were stinging and she felt the ping of her heart in her chest. It was even harder than in her imagination. His silence was so heartbreaking. She fought back the voice that told her she was a traitor, that she was abandoning him.

“I was wondering when you were going to tell me what’s going on. I know when something’s bothering you. Always have.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, the words slipping out before she could stop them. She had sworn she wouldn’t apologize for doing what she needed to do, for taking care of herself. But there it was. And she wasn’t even sure what she was the most sorry for.

“Don’t be. You do what you need to do.”

And now his voice matched his eyes, and she could tell how hard it was for him to say that. To let her go.

“I’ll still come see you, and check on you, and maybe I can even send you money sometimes if you need it.” She turned towards him in the chair and picked up one of his big hands off the table, holding it in both of hers. “You have to get help though. You can’t go on like this. We both know it.”

He looked down at their joined hands. “I’m fine.”

She shook her head and squeezed his hand … hard … forcing his eyes back up to hers. “If you don’t get help, you will die. And I don’t want you to die. I’ve already lost enough.”

She swallowed back a lump in her throat and could feel a hot rivulet of tears stream down her cheek. She held eye contact with him and let him see her ... really see her and her pain.

He reached up his free hand and brushed the dampness off her face. She could see him chewing at the insides of his cheeks, squinting his eyes, holding in.

“I’ll think about it,” he said, and pulled his hand from hers. He stood up then, signaling the conversation was over. But she wasn’t done.

“One more thing. You should think about selling this house. You could use the income and have a smaller place, an apartment. It would be good for you to … get away from the ghosts in this house.”

He turned away from her and walked down the hall, a soft grunt his only response.

She went back to her room, closing the door behind her and collapsing onto the bed. She could still feel the pump of adrenaline through her body, a feeling like she had just run a series of sprints uphill.

It was done.

She had tried, and now it was up to him. But she would no longer be responsible for keeping him afloat in his misery. And she would not stand by and watch if he chose to continue his march towards death.

Chapter Text

Therese was standing on the front steps of the library letting the warm March sun kiss her all over her face. She had just met with the Library Board of Trustees and let them know her last day of work would be April 8 th . They had been surprised, to say the least. She knew they would have a hard time getting a qualified librarian to move to this small town and barely scrape by on the meager wages provided.

Oh well, they could always just promote Sandra.

She snickered. Sandra had not taken a single class in library science and knew very little about the management of libraries beyond reshelving books. And even if they offered her the job, she wouldn’t take it. She had no interest in the longer hours that Therese worked, or the administrative headaches.

She felt the excitement coiled in her belly, a feeling that she could run down the street laughing and shouting. It was a moment she would have never thought possible a mere 6 months ago. But her plan was all coming together now. Emancipation was eminent.

She had sent her resume to Sherry, who had sent it through her network of librarian friends in the city. Therese had been prepared to wait, knowing it could take time for an opening to coincide with her resume landing in the hands of the right person. But, to her surprise, a call had come just a week later.

There was an opening right in the main library, where Sherry worked. A co-worker had recently left to fill a position in one of the small suburban libraries, which opened up a place on the downtown staff. It was a more junior position, but the pay was above what she was making as the head librarian in Dixon, and it offered a wealth of career opportunities to her.

Best of all, it solved the problem of transportation. It was on a main bus line from Sherry’s apartment, so even if she were unable to ride with Sherry on certain days, she could still easily get to work. And she wouldn’t have the extra expense and worry of trying to buy a car before she moved.

It was all happening so fast, she could hardly wrap her head around it.

The Board of Trustees meeting must have ended, because the members were starting to trickle out of the building and wish her well. She had left the meeting early to let them talk about their plans for replacing her. Many of them she had known since childhood, and now that they had gotten over their initial shock, many of them were sincere in their congratulations on her new job.

She walked home without a jacket on, smelling the damp earth of spring and watching the trickles from last night’s thunderstorm leave muddy streaks on the pavement. When she walked into the house, she brought the smell of spring with her; she could feel it radiating off her clothes every time she moved.

She had started to go through her things, getting ready for the move. She was throwing away so much, or donating it. The life she was about to lead had so little to do with her past, it was easy to trim everything down. Board games, a badminton set, a pair of rubber muck boots, a VHS tape collection of classic black and white films – all of these went into a box for donation. And then there were the stuffed animals, countless ones on shelves and in closets, some having a sentimental connection for her that she could no longer afford. She even cried as she threw away one ratty old bear that she had had since she was a toddler. She remembered holding it while she sat in her mother’s lap, her soft voice reading her a story. But she realized she didn’t need a thing in order to keep that memory. It was ok to let go.

She could tell all the movement and disposal was disturbing to her father. It was concrete evidence of the changes about to come. They were no longer a theoretical thing, an idea talked about in passing. Therese was moving, and he had decisions to make.

She had offered to do some clean up of Greg’s room and her mother’s closet, but all he did was shake his head. She knew in her heart it was something he would have to do himself, when he was alone – if he was able to.

As she sifted through the items, trying to imagine what would fit in Sherry’s small spare room, she took her time sorting pictures and going through her treasured books. There were some things she could leave here, leave behind until her father made his decision about moving.

She pulled the shoe box from under her bed, full of her most cherished items, including her shrine to Carol. She pulled out the little strip of photos and studied both of their faces in the frames. They looked so happy.

She put the lid back on the box, deciding it took up so little space that it would make the cut and take the trip to Birmingham with her. She looked around the room, the only place she had ever lived besides her short time in a college dorm. She tried to feel something about it … love, or regret. But she found she didn’t feel anything. It was just a room. And sometimes it had been a cage.

Now that the wheels were in motion, it seemed that everything was moving so fast. Days at the library were hectic, with word spreading that she was leaving. So many people came by to say goodbye, to bring her cookies and promise to visit.

Miss Jen came by and gave her a hug and a kiss. She didn’t say much, but gave her a sad smile and told her she would always be there for her if she needed her. Her visit also came with an admonishment that Therese should "find a good church in Birmingham to attend."

Meanwhile, Sandra had been in a barely concealed rage. She stormed around the library, feigning extreme busyness. Therese didn’t know if it was her anxiety over having a new boss, a feeling of abandonment, or just the simple anger that one of the other inmates was escaping while she was still stuck behind bars.

She honestly didn’t care.

And suddenly, it was her last week. She had put her organizational skills to work and had much of her life in order. But there were some things that could only be done just before her move.

Today she was going to go to the post office and put in her official address change. Tomorrow was her solo day at the library, and she was going to take advantage of the last quiet day without Sandra to put in the new book order and make a list of tasks and resources for whomever they hired to replace her. Wednesday she would go to the grocery store and make sure her father was all stocked up on the essentials. And on Thursday, her day off, she planned to show up at Carol’s house while Rindy was at school and Harge was at work.

She would force Carol to talk to her if she had to.

She was at the front desk on the phone when Dannie walked in. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise to see him; he hadn’t been around since their awkward discussion. She hurriedly finished leaving her message as she waved at him, then hung up the phone.

“Hey Rezzie, what’s new?” he said, and smiled his trademark Dannie grin.

“Hi!” she said, smiling broadly, and catching his look said, “I guess you’ve heard what’s new.”

“Yeah,” he said, picking at a hangnail. “Look, I wanted to come by before you left. I didn’t want to leave things … the way I did. I’m glad for you. I want you to be happy.”

She wanted to hug him. It was so brave of him to come by this way, and generous for him to let her off the hook.

“Thanks, Dannie. You’re just the best.” She gave him the warmest smile she knew how to give, right from the depths of her heart. “I hope you’ll come visit me.”

“Yeah?” he said, lifting his head up to look at her. “I’d like that. If you wouldn’t be embarrassed for a bumpkin like me to be around your new-fangled friends.”

“You’re not a bumpkin! And anyone who I’d want to be friends with would definitely like you.”

He waggled his eyebrows in classic Dannie style. “Maybe you could introduce me to some city women!”

She shifted uncomfortably. “Hmm yeah, I could introduce you to some women all right.” She smiled inwardly at her private joke.

“Then I’m all in! Let me know when you’re settled. You know how to reach me.”

“I’ll keep your number right next to my heart.” She grinned, patting her chest, then realized that she might be giving him the wrong impression yet again.

But he winked at her, showing he didn’t take her seriously and, more importantly, that he didn’t hold a grudge. It was such a relief.

She spent some time telling him about her new job, the apartment she would share with a friend, and her plans for the move. By the time she was done, she was almost bouncing with excitement. When he left, she hugged him goodbye and couldn’t resist giving him a peck on the cheek.

“Thank you for being such a wonderful friend. You’ve been one of the few things keeping me sane all these years.”

He winked at her again, then crossed his eyes and made a crazy face. “Who says either one of us is sane?”

He walked out of the library while she was still laughing.

But something about his words niggled at the back of her brain. What is it he had said?

“I want you to be happy.”

She worried at the phrase, wondering why it made her stomach flip. And then it came to her. It was so much like the cryptic note Carol had left for her in the library. “I wish you happiness.”

Why had it seemed so brave for Dannie to say it, like he was releasing her, setting her free?

But coming from Carol she had seen it as a cop-out, a betrayal.

She didn’t have an explanation for her different interpretations, and it forced her to reconsider her thoughts. What did it really mean about Carol's intentions?

Tuesday morning, she got to the library extra early and made herself a large pot of coffee.

My last Tuesday in Dixon.

The past week had been like that – marking off the “lasts” of everything. She was sipping her coffee, working on the last book order that she would make. In the list, she included a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle and the first novel of the Tales of the City series. She grinned to herself, imagining how scandalized Sandra would be if she read the back covers of either. Well, she supposed the chances of that happening were slim.

Then, she started the task list for the new librarian, separating the items into daily, monthly, and yearly headings. As she made the list, she was a bit in awe of herself, of how much she had accomplished and organized for the little library.

I should have made this list earlier. It would have proven why I deserved a raise!

Ahh well, a lesson learned for next time. In the future, she would not be so timid about asking for a fair salary.

Her little alarm clock went off, signaling that it was time for her to open the library. She carried her mug to the front and unlocked the glass door.

She noticed the clouds outside. It was shaping up to be rather a gray day, with a threat of a storm. That should make the day even quieter than usual.

She settled back in behind the desk and worked more on her list, also starting a separate list of people to call and various resources available.

She was deep in thought when she heard the whoosh of the front door. Absently, she glanced up from her work.

Then, she did a double take.

It was Carol.

Chapter Text

Therese blinked several times, afraid that she was seeing a vision. Maybe she had completely lost her mind. She had wanted her to walk through the door so many times, and her brain, stressed from all the logistics of the impending move, may have finally given out on her.

But no, as the woman moved forward, she could see she was very real. Therese was having trouble breathing, her eyes fixed on the blonde’s face.

And what a face it was. As beautiful as always, but showing the signs of worry around the eyes, her hair slightly mussed. The set of her mouth showed the anxiety she must have felt at being there, as if she were afraid to smile.

Therese was frozen, unsure of what to do. So she just stared and let Carol come to her.

“Hi,” Carol said softly, and put her hands on the desk as if to hold herself steady.

“Hey,” Therese said back, her mouth suddenly feeling as if someone had poured a bucket of sand into it.

Carol looked around the library, then back at Therese for confirmation. “Are we alone?”

She nodded.

“Can we go back in your office for a moment?” Her cheeks blazed, and Therese could tell that she was thinking of the last time they were both in her office, because she hurriedly added, “Just for some privacy.”

Therese turned and walked back into her office on wobbly legs, not even looking behind her to see if Carol was following. She walked around her desk and fell heavily into her chair, the little wheels squeaking as she rolled back with the force of sitting.

Carol sat down across from her. “So … I heard you were leaving.”

Therese nodded again, feeling like a dumb and mute rag doll, her limbs full of stuffing.

Carol looked down and fidgeted with the corner of a paper on Therese’s desk.

“When are you going?”

It took all of her effort to speak. “Saturday.”

Carol sucked her bottom lip in, chewed on it. “I just needed to see you before you left. And to tell you … I’m sorry.”

Therese couldn’t look at her now, so she focused on her own trembling hands. The irony, that the one person she had wanted to see so badly for all these months was now in front of her, and she could barely look at her.

Carol continued, “I shouldn’t have just disappeared on you like that. I mean, I at least owed you an explanation. But I can’t do anything about that now.”

Therese attempted to get a shrug into her stiffened shoulders. She sat forward in her chair, pushing out her breath, and her words.

“I was going to stop by and see you on Thursday. When Harge and Rindy were out.”

She looked up at Carol just in time to see surprise flash across her face.

“I guess I needed to see you one more time too.”

Carol was watching her closely now. She pressed on.

“I’m worried about you, Carol. I want you to get some help. And get out of … your situation.” She quickly added, “I’m not saying that because of me. But because you deserve to be happy.”

Carol let out a breath, a long, low sigh.

“I know. I mean, I’m starting to know.”

Therese was hesitant to say the next part, but she thought Carol needed to hear it. “I’ve already watched one life ruined by alcohol. I think you might have a problem …”

Carol held up her hand in the air to cut her off. “I know. I know.”

“Well, I don’t know if you know. You got awfully defensive with me on the phone.” Therese crossed her arms over her chest, holding herself together.

“I’m sorry. Shit, I seem to be saying that a lot lately. But I know it has to stop. And things have to change. The way things are now, no one wins. I'm a terrible wife, a bad mother to Rindy. And I'm miserable.”

Therese felt her heart racing, the blood coursing through the veins in her neck. She had to ask.

“Well, what are you doing about it?”

“Nothing … yet. Just thinking about it. Honestly, I only just realized it.” Carol’s eyes found hers before she said the next part, “When I heard you were leaving.”

The wheels on Therese’s chair squealed again as she slid back a few inches.

“What do you think you are going to do?”

“For one, I’m not going to see that fucking preacher joke of a therapist anymore. I’m going to find someone who is an actual counselor. And I’m going to start working on a plan to … end my marriage.”

Carol was looking around the office now, to the open doorway. “I just have to be really careful. If I can keep myself above suspicion, not give him any evidence to use against me. Just make it about irreconcilable differences or whatever and not about … anything else.”

Therese felt her skin flushing hot and cold, prickles of sweat on her skin.

“And after that?”

Carol was pressing her fingernail hard into the blotter on Therese’s desk, leaving an imprint. “I don’t know. I just know I have to divorce Harge and put up a fight for Rindy. Finish my thesis and actually get a job. And then, when that’s done, maybe I can think about … other things.”

Her eyes were a blue-gray thundercloud, and Therese searched her face for the future. “That sounds like a long time from now.”

“Yes. Yes it does,” Carol choked out, her voice sounding thick.

“Surely you’re not asking me to wait?” She watched closely for the answer to her question, one small shred of her heart still pulsing and wanting to be asked, no, to be demanded … to wait.

“I’d never ask that.”

Therese felt all the anger and frustration and sadness from the last few months cresting inside her. This woman in front of her held her in the palm of her hand. She would have done anything to be with her. Anything, except sacrifice her future to this maddening uncertainty.

“But it meant something to you, didn’t it? Tell me it did. Tell me I did.”

Carol gave her an accusing look. “How could you even ask me that?”

She wasn’t sure what to make of this; her insecurities knocked at the back of her brain.

“I have to ask. You were gone, vanished, what was I supposed to think?”

Carol dashed the back of her hand across her face, wiping moisture from her eye. “Of course it did. It meant … everything.”

Therese felt her body plummet to the earth, crashing down hard. She understood now why Carol had avoided her all this time. It was because of this, to avoid this feeling of slamming into the wall of reality again. Her body felt like a fragile bag of guts in a thin skin, bouncing off concrete.

It helped to hear it from Carol. But in another way, it was the worst thing. The confirmation of this thing that was so close to her she could almost touch it, but yet was another lifetime away.

She could not afford a set-back. Not now.

Carol stood up from her chair to leave, and Therese could see her trembling. Therese got up quickly and moved around the desk. She wrapped her arms around this woman who turned her insides into a blender, felt her quiver against her skin. She buried her face in her neck, smelled the scent of her that she had missed with every cell in her body. She felt Carol’s hands at her back, pressing into her.

They stayed that way for a long moment, neither of them speaking. Then she felt Carol’s lips brush against her cheek as she pulled away.

“Goodbye, Therese,” she said, and through her blurred vision she could see the tears in Carol’s eyes, too.

“Good luck, Carol,” Therese breathed, squeezing her eyes closed for a moment to send a wish out into the universe.

And with that, Therese experienced yet another last for the week: the last time she would see Carol in Dixon.

Chapter Text

At one point, the windows in the library had rumbled and rattled, but for most of the day it was just the steady, playful bass beat thrumming through the walls that were the tell-tale sign of the raucous festival outside.

It was June in Birmingham, and already the pavement was scorching hot and temperatures had soared well into the 90’s. That didn’t stop the organizers of CityStages from launching a new festival that brought musical acts from all over the country and blocked off several acres of busy downtown Birmingham.

Therese could see one of the stages from the windows of the Central Library, and she could also see the long line of blue porta-potties with people in various stages of sobriety lined up in front of them. She could feel the heat through the windows, and she knew the temperatures made the alcohol more potent for the resident party-goers.

She anxiously awaited 6:00, when she would be off work and could join the throngs headed to the night stage, where they could take advantage of the slowly cooling temperatures and enjoy some local acts. Sherry kept passing her in the hallway with a big, goofy grin on her face. They were all anticipating the evening adventures.

It would be a whole weekend of fun and debauchery, and their weekend was full of plans of meeting up with groups of friends for different musical acts. Therese was doing her best to embrace the spontaneity of it and not trying to schedule every moment of her life. Birmingham had challenged her in that way. She had gone from a totally predictable existence to one where possibility lurked around every corner.

Sherry was the type of person who had friends drop by unannounced all the time, and people felt comfortable at her apartment. There were always visitors, and there were frequent offers at the last minute to come to a party, or meet out for drinks.

She had been immediately embraced by the large circle of Sherry’s Birmingham friends – they instantly gave her the benefit of the doubt, and would often say “any friend of Sherry’s is a friend of mine.”

She appreciated the highly structured and solitary nature of her new job, and it gave her a break from the frantic social pace of her home life. But she felt it was a good balance for her. She still had the familiarity of library work to cling to, but she had new experiences to challenge her and wake her up.

By the time she ended her work shift, she was practically vibrating with energy and anticipation. Feeling the beat of the music through the walls, watching the throngs of people outside the window, she felt an urge to get out there and join them. To breathe in the hot humid air, to smell the sweat and the stale beer, to taste the salt of her own sweat on her upper lip. She was living, completely alive. She loved feeling herself totally in her body, soaking in her atmosphere like a porous creature.

She walked out onto the steaming pavement with Sherry at her side, feeling more confident and less overwhelmed for having her there. They bought tickets for the weekend for only $5, which left Therese with some extra money for snacks and maybe even a t-shirt or CD.

She wanted to try a falafel – she had heard about them from Sherry but never had one herself. So they found a food vendor and ordered up pitas stuffed with bean sprouts, diced tomatoes, falafel, and soaked in tzatziki sauce.

Therese took a huge bite of the steaming hot wrap and felt the flavors explode in her mouth.

“Oh yeah, I see why you like this,” she said to Sherry, covering her mouth while she still chewed.

Sherry gave her a big grin and bumped her pita against Therese’s in a “cheers” motion. The two sat leaning against the SouthTrust bank building, stuffing their faces and watching the crowds stream by. There was no feeling quite like the anticipation of a whole weekend of fun spread out before her.

They finished off their wraps, dusted off their butts, and made their way to the stage. Sherry pulled a giant blanket out of her back pack, and they staked out a spot and waited for the rest of their friends to arrive. There was so much to see: couples strolling and holding hands; roadies setting up the equipment on stage; groups of teenage girls laughing and holding on to each other as they made their way through the crowds; people dressed to show that they were obviously just there for the country music, or the punk, or the jazz.

She watched the sun start to set over the buildings, a welcome relief. She longed for the coolness of night, but knew it would be a long time coming, if at all. She kicked off her shoes and grabbed blades of grass between her bare toes. She flicked out her tongue, tasting the air like a snake.

And then the friends started to arrive, in pairs or in singles. They spread their blankets around them as if they were the hub of a wheel. A few crammed onto the blanket with them. She smiled and listened, mostly, watching them all interact with each other, the easy comfort. It was the queer little corner of CityStages, and they seemed to all be congregating here. It was as if the sweet little group that they had started had sent out a beacon to all other gays and lesbians in the area, and they had started to gather around them, laughing and talking. There was a zone of safety around her, cocooned in the presence of those around her, an assumption of understanding.

The sun gave up its fight and darkness started to caress them all, bringing quiet to their voices. The lights came up on stage, and someone did a last check of the microphones. Down near the stage, she could hear a few loud, drunken shouts.

And then John Prine walked on stage with his guitar. Therese wasn’t sure what to expect, but Sherry’s friend Rachel had insisted that they all show up to see what she called “the Grand Daddy of folk music” perform live. The man had a scratchy, strange voice, and the strumming of his guitar had a country feel to it. The band picked up and his lead guitarist laid in some perfect notes to complement the songs. She particularly enjoyed watching a lanky man plucking at an upright bass, dancing along with the music.

Therese listened to the lyrics, which had a mixture of cynicism, humor, and deep nostalgia. She looked around to see most of the women on the blankets around her quiet, entranced. There was an outsider feel to what he sang that had captured them all. One song had a funny, upbeat tune and he strummed heavily on his guitar while he crowed:

Blow up your t.v.

throw away your paper

go to the country

build you a home.

Plant a little garden

eat a lot of peaches

try and find Jesus

on your own.

Therese giggled as a few people around sang along. She saw Rachel looking around and their eyes met, and she smiled at her in gratitude for this moment and this feeling she had introduced her to.

When he started to sing “Far From Me,” Therese laid back on the blanket with her hands folded under her head, looking up at the stars obscured by the lights of Birmingham. Something about the song with the slide guitar made her think of listening to country music on quiet mornings in the garage with her father, fixing and tinkering.

Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle

looks just like a diamond ring.

But it’s far, far from me.

She wondered how he was tonight. He had started going to an AA group, so at least he was making an effort. She knew he had already backslid at least once; she heard from other people that it was common for that to happen, and not to give up on him. She called him every few days to make sure he was eating properly and knew she was there if he needed her.

She sent a quiet wish up to the stars for him, that he could find healing and happiness.

And then, predictably, her thoughts drifted to Carol. Where was she right now? Had she made any progress on her plan, or was she still stuck in neutral? When she thought of her, she put a time limit on herself – just one minute, to remember and to hope for her. She fixed her eyes on the brightest star, near the sliver of moon.

She felt Sherry lean back next to her, and then she felt her breath on her cheek, her voice in her ear, “What are you thinking about?”

It gave her a little shiver.

“Oh nothing.” She turned to look at Sherry and could see she wasn’t buying it. “A little of everything, I guess.”

“Do you like the concert?”

“Mmm hmm, it's amazing.”

“Me too.”

She was resting back on her elbows, and Therese studied her profile in the ambient light. She was the Mrs. Dalloway of lesbians – she knew how to bring them all together.

She had introduced her to Debra, a short woman with ample curves, wild curly brown hair and almond-shaped brown eyes.

The two had an immediate attraction, and Therese had some fun times with her. Her lips were so full that kissing her reminded Therese of biting into ripe fruit, and she sunk into the softness and the mystery of her. But she soon discovered that some women made assumptions once you had sex with them. Debra had thought that she was her girlfriend after just two nights together. So Therese had shut that down. Quickly.

Since then, she had been more careful in how she got involved, and almost abrasively explicit about her lack of interest in a long-term relationship. She wanted to 'just have fun” and “play the field,” she would tell the women who flirted with her. And for some, that was just fine – but for many others, they just didn’t want to receive the message she was trying to send.

For her, the whole experience was so new, so full of new flavors and textures and smells. Each woman was unique, and she found herself openly gawking at the wide variations of the female form. In each of these women, she found more love and admiration for her own body, for its imperfections. This was how women really looked, not like the pornographic magazines she had sneaked into the adult toy store to buy.

She sat up on the blanket again and looked at the faces around her, imagining the thoughts each one must be having right now. She had found herself looking at strangers often, imagining their back stories, their motivations. She wondered how many of them were just as afraid of heartbreak as she was.

She had started jotting down some of these little ideas she had in her diary, brief character sketches of people she would meet on the street. She thought of how she would capture the feeling of tonight in her little book, the sounds and the smells and the night air, and the overwhelming feeling of sadness and hopefulness, community and loneliness, and how all of these things mixed together in an incongruent stew.

She wasn’t even sure why she would try to write it all down, except for this feeling that everything was moving so fast, and that time and memory could slip through her fingers like grains of sand. This was her way of holding on.

When the concert was over, she wanted to go home and write. But the group had other ideas. So she headed out with them, into the bright lights of Birmingham and the unpredictable night.    

Chapter Text

The sun was beating into her brain and the metal bleachers were frying the backs of her thighs. She wasn’t sure whose bright idea it was to have a summer softball league in Birmingham, but she supposed she couldn't be too critical when she had been dumb enough to come out voluntarily to watch a game.

The hair around her face curled in damp wisps, and she clutched at a beer that was rapidly going from ice cold to tepid. She tried not to drink it too fast, but she was parched, and her lips felt like the cracked red clay of the field. Before she had even finished half of it, it hit her like a freight train. She slid off the bleachers and wobbled over to a scrawny tree that offered the tiniest patch of shade, where two women were already congregated.

She sat down by the strangers and gave them a rueful grin.

“It’s so hot, I think we all might be vaporized.”

The paler of the two women shaded her eyes with her hand and laughed, her cheeks bright spots of red, and her chest showing a splotchy patchwork in the v of her button-down checked blouse.

“Yeah, we are nuts to be out here, but not as crazy as those women out there running around.”

The other woman chimed in, “It ought to be illegal to have outdoor activities in August. We should all be arrested and taken to a very cool, very damp jail cell.”

Therese looked out on the field to see Sherry, standing a little off second base and shifting her weight from foot to foot, leaning over in anticipation of any incoming balls. There was a giant of a woman standing at home plate, and the way she held the bat in her hands reminded her of a lumberjack with his axe. She had cut the sleeves off her jersey, and her hair was styled in a rather majestic mullet.

On deck was a tall, muscular woman with smooth russet-brown skin that reminded her of a polished acorn, her dark curls cropped close to her head. The woman must have felt her eyes on her, because she turned and gave her a sly smile, and a wink.

Sharlene.

Therese had just met her a few days ago at a party for the softball league. Sherry had dragged her along, as she often did. Therese was standing in a corner, trying to disappear, when Sharlene sought her out. She towered over Therese, but she exuded such a kind and gentle spirit that she didn’t seem threatening at all. Her teeth were so white and perfect, except for a mischievous gap between the front two, that Therese was mesmerized whenever the woman ran her tongue over them.

They had hit it off right away, and Therese found out that Sharlene was a deputy in the Jefferson County Sherriff’s office. Immediately, she wondered what Sharlene would look like in uniform. She had great stories, tales of chasing down suspects on foot and even one time on a bicycle when she was on bike patrol. Therese laughed easily with her, and when Sharlene asked her out to dinner the next night, she was quick to say yes.

Best of all, the woman hadn’t batted an eyelash when Therese gave her list of caveats, that she wasn’t looking for anything serious, she was just dating casually right now, and she wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. Sharlene had just given her a calm, confident smile and nodded.

After a fun dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, the two had found themselves in bed together in Sharlene’s apartment. Sharlene was a confident and aggressive lover, and Therese allowed herself to lay back and enjoy it. She even found her mind wandering to the handcuffs she knew Sharlene had to have stashed somewhere, but she giggled at herself and pushed that to the back of her mind. Orgasms with her were quick and powerful.

Now she was admiring the firm curves of her ass as she stepped up to the plate, swinging her bat confidently as she looked out over the field. She was pitched 2 balls, then a strike, then the crack of the bat signaled she had connected firmly with the ball and sent it well into left field. It sailed over the fielder’s head, and Sharlene had touched the bag at second base before the ball was thrown in to the third baseman, halting her progress.

Sharlene wiped the sweat off her forehead and looked to find Therese, who was cheering and clapping for her. She looked very heroic standing in the sun in the center of the field, little clouds of dust still settling around her. Sherry stood just a few feet to the right of her, also looking at Therese, obviously disgusted that she was cheering for the other team. Therese gave her a cheeky grin.

When the game was over, they all went out for Mexican food, demolishing several baskets of tortilla chips and ordering giant plates of enchiladas, chimichangas, and refried beans. Therese was chugging water, trying to get her system hydrated again. Sharlene’s fork kept wandering over to her plate to sneak bites of guacamole, and Sherry was kicking her under the table and lifting her eyebrows at her. She blushed to be the center of so much attention.

Sharlene pulled her aside to kiss her good night before she rode back home with Sherry. Her kiss tasted of salt and lime, and she could still feel the press of her fingertips just below her elbow. She thought of the strong muscles of her forearms with veins that stood out when she flexed them and the lascivious dimple on her chin. She felt a happy little throb down below.

Back at the apartment, she took a shower and then flopped on the couch beside Sherry, enjoying the last few hours of the weekend with some mindless TV. She and Sherry had settled into a comfortable routine – they got along well, were considerate of each other, and were complementary in the chores that they preferred to do. Therese loved to cook, and Sherry didn’t mind cleaning up after enjoying a delicious meal.

Therese hated cleaning the bathroom, but Sherry didn’t mind doing that if Therese would take care of vacuuming and cleaning out Pixie’s litter box. For the most part, they enjoyed the same kinds of movies and tv shows, and Sherry enjoyed all kinds of music so she didn’t mind Therese’s demands on the stereo system.

All in all, it had been much easier than Therese had thought it would be to live with another person. Living with her father had been like living alone, so she had worried that Sherry might demand too much of her time and attention. But Sherry made her laugh, and she was a good listener, and she didn’t take offense if Therese locked herself in her room for hours at a time to read, or write, or just think.

Sometimes the way Sherry looked at her made her wonder if she wanted more. But it was as if they had an unspoken agreement not to cross that line. It would be way too risky, because not only could a fling ruin their friendship, but it could mess up Therese’s living and work situations. And Therese knew that that was all she was capable of right now: a fling. She needed Sherry very much right now, but as a friend.


 

The following Friday found her rushing around the small kitchen apartment, preparing dinner for Dannie. He was in town for a pharmaceutical convention, and she had invited him over for some down-home cooking. She hadn’t seen him since she had left Dixon, and she was looking forward to his goofy humor and kind heart.

When he knocked, it was just past 7:00. She had made the roux for the gumbo the night before and gotten most of the ingredients together. Tonight, all she had to do was add the fresh shrimp and crab she had picked up at the market and let the flavors blend. The whole apartment smelled heavenly.

He gave her a giant hug in the hallway, and then came in, looking around the apartment. “So this is how you live in the big city, huh?”

She smiled. “Yep. Fancy pants.”

She poured a beer into a glass for him and he sat down at the small kitchen table while she finished making a salad. He started to catch her up on all the gossip from town, which she prompted by asking about people and events. It didn't take long before he dropped a bombshell.

“Sandra quit the library.”

“Holy shit! She did?” Therese turned to look at him, still holding a dripping spoon.

“Yeah, she said the new librarian woman was too bossy and she wasn’t gonna put up with it.”

“She probably asked her to actually do some work.”

“Or get some new pantyhose.”

Dannie told her Sandra was now working at the dollar store, and there was a healthy amount of skepticism as to whether she had quit the library or been fired.

They were both laughing when Sherry walked in. Therese introduced her, and Dannie stood up and shook her hand in a formal way that made them both laugh.  

“Nice to meet the famous Dannie, finally,” she said, grinning.

“World-renowned, truly,” he said as he mock-bowed.

Therese wasn't sure how, but it seemed that they immediately discovered they were both obsessed with the movie "A Fish Called Wanda," and also John Cleese, and then, therefore, Monty Python. Her mind wandered as the two of them swapped Monty Python quotes for what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes ... and she finished making the salad.

"He's pining for the fjords!" Dannie said in a terrible British accent as she focused back in on their conversation.

Sherry crowed back in a high, demanding voice, "He's not pining! He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he'd be pushing up the daisies!"

Dannie was doubled over laughing, and Sherry turned to grin and wink at her. Therese had invited Sherry to eat with them, but she insisted on going out and leaving the two to catch up on their own. When the two were done with their Monty Python tirade, she bid them a good evening and headed out into the sweltering night.

When she was gone, Dannie waggled his eyebrows at her. “Hey, the roommate is pretty cute.”

Therese shrugged. “Guess she is.”

“Is she single?”

“Yep.”

“Well, what’s her type?” Dannie puffed out his chest a bit and squared his shoulders.

“Ummm, not you.” She gave him a playful shove on the shoulder.

"Why not? We obviously have excellent rapport," he said, again in his terrible British accent.

“She hates comic books," Therese responded.

He looked crushed. “Definitely a deal breaker. The girl has no taste.”

They sat down to steaming bowls of gumbo over sticky white rice, with buttery garlic bread and a side salad.

“Whoa, this is ahhh – MA—zing!” Danny groaned. “Why didn’t you ever make this for me in Dixon?”

“Too damned hard to get fresh seafood there. And … this one is a little time consuming to make. Consider yourself special.”

“Oh, I do. I really do!”

For a few minutes, there wasn’t much noise except the clinking of their spoons against the bowls, the crunch of salad and bread, and the slurping of the rich, dark brown liquid.

Then he asked about her job, what she did for fun, and if she had made any friends. She told him a mildly edited version of her life in the city, and when she talked about going out to bars on the weekends, she didn’t quite specify what kind of bars.

He wasn’t shy about asking for seconds. When he was halfway through his second bowl, he stopped abruptly, remembering something.

“Hey, something weird happened last week at the pharmacy.”

“What?”

“That smokin’ hot blonde who taught you to drive stopped in. What’s her name … Aird?”

Therese nodded, watching him, all her senses now focused on his every word.

Dannie continued, oblivious to her laser beam eyes. “Yeah, she came looking for me. I didn’t even know she knew who I was. But anyhow, she was asking about you.”

“Oh?” Therese felt her palms get instantly damp, and the bit of food in her mouth turned to sawdust.

“Yeah. She wanted to know how you were doing. And she asked me for your address. Which I thought was weird, because … well, I figured she would have your address and number already, you being friends and all.”

He looked at her, but she quickly looked down into her bowl. “But I thought maybe you were just so busy with the move and all that you forgot. So … I gave it to her. I hope you don’t mind.”

She glanced back up at him and tried to assemble her face into something normal, neutral.

“Are you ok? Did I screw up?”

“Oh, of course not. Sure it was ok.” The words sounded strangled, even to herself.

“What’s up?”

She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up shakily. “I just need … be right back.”

Her vision was narrowed as she stumbled down the hallway and into the small bathroom. Frantically, she turned on the tap and splashed cold water onto her face. She looked up at herself in the mirror, her cheeks pink and dripping with water.

Why in the hell does she want my address?

She gripped the white porcelain edge of the sink, steadying herself.

How do I explain this to Dannie?

She could feel her heart thumping against her ribcage, apparently trying to free itself. All through the week, she had debated whether to tell Dannie more about her life, to let him in on her secret. It seemed so risky that it had made her temples throb just to imagine it.

And now it was complicated by his news about Carol, a twist that made it impossible for her to sound calm and normal. She needed to get more information from him, but if he thought Carol was just a friend, he would certainly wonder about her freak out now.

She took a deep, shuddering breath.

You can do this, Belivet.

She walked back in and sat at the table, noticing he had taken the pause in the conversation to finish his second bowl of gumbo. He finished chewing a bite of garlic bread, watching her while he took a sip of beer.

They were in a bit of a staring contest now, and the silence swelled out of the kitchen and spilled into the tiny living room.

He set his glass down with a clunk.

She sat forward in her chair and pushed her bowl aside, folding her hands on the table. Here was the wind up, and the pitch.

“It’s fine you told her. I’m glad you did. What else did she say?”

“Not much, she just wanted to know about you. If you liked your new job, where you were living, if you were happy.”

Therese nodded. “Anything else? Did she tell you anything about herself?”

“Geesh, what’s with the interrogation? Did you guys have a fight or something?”

She shook her head quickly. “No, nothing like that. It’s just … complicated.”

He scrunched his mouth to the side. “You women are so weird. I’ll never understand.”

Here it was. He was letting her off the hook. And she could just let it ride.

But no.

“So … I’ve been wanting to tell you something.”

He tilted his head to the side, nonchalant. “Go ‘head.”

She blew out a big puff of air. How had she imagined saying it?

“I like women,” she blurted.

Well hell, that was not in the script.

He cocked his head further over. “Umm, k.”

“No, I mean … I like women … as more than friends.”

At this point, Dannie looked like the RCA dog, his ears cocked, trying to comprehend the sounds.

“I’m not following.”

She raised her voice and could feel her cheeks burning. “I like women romantically, I like to date them. Dannie … I’m a lesbian.” By the end she was almost shouting. She wasn’t sure what had overcome her. But she had finally gotten the words out. It was the first time she had even said the word out loud.

His face turned pale and his mouth was hanging open.

Finally he spluttered, “Shit, you live in the city for what … 6 months … and it turned you gay? What the fuck, Rezzie?”

She shook her head vigorously. “No, it didn’t turn me anything. I’ve always been. This is who I am.”

“If you are yanking my chain right now, this is seriously not cool.”

“Dannie, I’m not joking.”

His eyes had in them a mixture of hurt, fear, and confusion.

She sat back in her chair and watched him now, backing away like you would to give a frightened animal space. She could see the wheels turning in his head, processing.

Sherry had warned her, some people need time. And for some, there was never enough time, or enough understanding.

His voice was quiet when he spoke again. “But you seem so … normal.”

“I am, Dannie. I’m still me.”

“I just don’t get it. You’re a nice girl, Therese. You’re not like that. You’re just confused. Something ... must have happened.”

“Nothing happened except me realizing who …”

“That Aird woman,” he interrupted. “She have something to do with this?”

She felt a lurch in her stomach. Dannie could ruin things for Carol. This was too dangerous.

“No. Of course not.”

“But you liked her?” he persisted.

“I don’t want to talk about that. She has nothing to do with it. With who I am. I just want you to know about this part of me, so it’s not a secret between us.”

His face was clouded with suspicion. “I don’t know what to think.”

“It’s ok. You don’t have to decide anything right now. I just need you to promise me you won’t tell anyone. I’m serious, Dannie. I trusted you, and I can’t have that getting out back home. It would upset Daddy.”

He nodded slowly. “I won’t.” Then he added, “Just be careful. There are hateful people out there.”

She took that as a good sign, that he still cared.

She tried to steer the conversation back to safer topics, to find out more about home or to get him to tell her a funny story. But the evening had been ruined, after all.

He stood up and made excuses about an early morning seminar the next day. She gave him a tentative hug and he was gone, without plans for when they would talk again.

After she closed the door behind him, she leaned against the wall and felt a hot tear trickle down her cheek. It was the loneliest she had felt since leaving Dixon.

Chapter Text

Therese was twirling a chunk of her hair around her fingers, feeling the comforting pull of it against her scalp. She was supposed to be looking through the archives to pull a few articles for a wealthy library donor, but she was having trouble staying focused.

Since her dinner with Dannie, she had been obsessed with two thoughts:

  1. Would Carol send her a letter?
  2. Would Dannie share her secret with anyone and cause fall-out all over her sleepy little home town?

And of course, these thoughts spawned other thoughts, like a massive hurricane spawning legions of tiny twisters. What would Carol say to her? How would she react? Did she make a mistake by telling Dannie? Would Dannie still want to be friends with her? Did he figure it out about her and Carol? What if Harge found out?

And on and on her thoughts raged, sending dust clouds over the prairie of her brain. Work stood no more of a chance than a trailer park full of ramshackle mobile homes.

When her day finally ended, she managed to sneak around a back exit and avoid having to face her supervisor. She vowed to herself that she would do better tomorrow and get back on track. She lurked around the side of the building waiting for Sherry, and the two walked together to her burgundy Corolla in the second level of the concrete parking deck.

She had told Sherry about her conversation with Dannie, and Sherry had rolled her eyes as if to say his reaction was all too expected. “So typical of these redneck guys and holy rollers,” she said.

But she didn’t know Dannie. Therese had faith in him, that he would come around. Or at least she hoped he would.

She hadn’t mentioned anything to Sherry about Carol, though. She knew Sherry wouldn’t have an ounce of patience to hear about it. After the time she had spent weepily on the phone with Sherry, or crying on her shoulder as she listened to her Carol saga, she had put her feelings into a neat little box that she only pulled out when she was alone. For all Sherry knew, she was over it, had moved on.

But a part of her would never move on, and it was why she questioned if she would ever be able to have a serious relationship. There were nights when she lay in bed and imagined Carol beside her, when she let the ghost of her under the covers in the shape of a pillow clutched close to her chest.

On the rare occasion when she’d stayed the night at another woman’s house, she would wake up in the night to a warm body beside her, and feel the deep disappointment of knowing that the woman wasn’t Carol. It wasn’t her smell. And if she reached out her hand, it wasn’t the silk of her skin she would touch.

When they pulled up in front of the apartment, they had barely spoken during the ride. That was part of the beauty of her relationship with Sherry. Sherry knew when to just let her be.

It wasn’t long before Sherry had changed and was headed back out again to meet up with friends for dinner. Therese was already changed into shorts and a pajama top and was standing at the stove making a grilled cheese sandwich.

Sherry put her hand on the doorknob but then paused. “So, you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

She could feel Sherry’s eyes on her, so she looked up from where the cheese had oozed off the bread and was burning slightly in the bottom of the pan.

“You just seem in a funk. You sure you don’t want to come with me? I’ll wait.”

“Nah, I just need some couch potato time. That’s all.”

“Ok, watch something trashy for me.”

“Will do.”

As the door closed behind Sherry, Therese sighed. The only sound was the click of Pixie’s claws on the linoleum and the gentle lapping of her tongue as she drank from her water dish. Usually she enjoyed these times in the apartment alone, but tonight she wanted a break from her obsessive thoughts. She kept imagining a letter from Carol, somehow slipping through a crack in the side of the metal mailbox and going unnoticed for weeks.

She shoveled the grilled cheese onto her plate and sat down on the couch in front of the tv, flipping through the channels to see what kind of mindless distraction she could find. Ahhh, there it was … “Roseanne,” a sitcom about a dysfunctional family, complete with sassy teenagers.

“That Aunt Jackie could be kinda cute if she had a better haircut,” she thought.

She was in luck – it was a marathon, and she lost herself in several episodes of Roseanne Barr's "domestic goddess" schtick.

She had completely lost track of time when she heard a knock at the door.

Crap. I don’t want any company tonight.

She thought of changing out of her pajama top, but she thought she’d take a look through the peephole in the door first, since it was probably just a friend of Sherry’s stopping by to see her.

What she saw through the peephole took her breath away.

The most beautiful woman she had ever seen was standing just outside the door. Like a vision, she had materialized out of the darkness, her blonde hair glowing under the light outside the apartment door.

A spotlight. A halo. A ray of pure sun.

Carol.

She quickly unlocked the door and flung it open, and there was Carol on the other side, startled, wide-eyed, with nothing separating the two of them but empty space. Time was suspended for a moment as they stared at each other, drinking each other in.

Therese’s hands were at her sides, her fingers clutching and unclutching. She could feel a tremor through her whole body, knew her mouth must be hanging open.

“Hello,” Carol said, which suddenly seemed like the most ridiculous thing she had ever said.

Therese didn’t say anything, just took one step back and opened the door wider. There was so much to say, or rather, so much to ask. She couldn’t possibly think of what to say first. So she just stood like a mute and waved her inside.

Carol walked into her apartment leaving her own distinctive scent in her wake, so familiar, unleashing all the cravings that Therese had harbored all this time. The smell of Carol was like a powerful drug, and Therese knew just one hit of it could send her to the edge of sanity.

So much potential came with the sight and smell of her, but so much risk too. Danger. Red lights flashed from behind her eyes and her heart pounded. It was such a crazy mixed-up mess of emotions: excitement, euphoria, fear, anxiety, and above it all, riding on the very crest of the wave, intense desire.

She still wanted this woman more than she had ever wanted anything. It was such an irrational drive, one that could bring her to the brink of her own annihilation. The voice inside her head was shouting at her to be cautious.

This woman could rip you apart all over again.

She shut the apartment door.

When she turned, she expected Carol to be looking around her apartment, checking out the surroundings. But Carol was looking at her, just her. Her skin was so pale that it made her lips look even redder than before, crimson rose petals floating on a milky sea.

“I’m sorry to disturb you … so late and … without warning,” Carol said, which was officially the second most ridiculous thing Therese had ever heard her say.

“Sit,” Therese replied, waving her hand at the couch. “It’s fine.”

Carol perched on the edge of the couch and looked at the tv, which, at the moment, featured John Goodman drinking a beer and joking with one of his on-screen daughters. Therese hurried over and turned it off.

“Your apartment is nice,” Carol said, absently tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, not even bothering to pretend to look around the place. Therese shrugged.

“You … have a roommate?”

“She’s out.”

Therese knew she must sound like a sullen child. It wasn’t how she was feeling at all. She felt so much that it took all of her strength to hold herself together and not burst into a million pieces.

But Carol didn’t know that. Couldn’t know it. So she sat and looked miserable and uncomfortable on the couch.

When she spoke again, she was looking down at her hands, intently studying her nails. “Do you hate me, Therese?”

She said it in the same tone that she had used to ask if she had a roommate. Calm, polite, like a high society lady at a cocktail party.

Therese felt the cracking and splintering all through her chest, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.

“No,” she whispered. “Of course not.”

She saw Carol’s chest and shoulders rise and fall again, slowly, heard her exhale.

A wall clock ticked. Carol looked back up at her. “I wanted to see you. To let you know what’s going on. I hope that’s ok.”

Therese nodded, sure that her face must be telling her at this moment that it was more than ok that she was here.

“It’s been really hard. Things are so complicated. But I’m trying to sort it all out.”

“Tell me.”

“I filed divorce papers. According to the lawyer, it could take a while for it to be final. But I moved into my own place now, in Dixon. Rindy’s still with her dad, except when he travels for work and sometimes on the weekend. I’m trying to let him have a taste of how difficult full-time custody could be. He’s stubborn though … and he’s really angry. He’s going to fight me for her.”

Therese listened, feeling like her brain was processing everything several seconds behind Carol speaking it. She focused intently on her mouth, trying to understand everything, to comprehend.

“And I’m slowly coming to realize, he’s going to win. Maybe not initially, if I keep my nose clean, but the minute I … step out of line, he’s going to win.”

Therese furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”

“Homosexuality is illegal in this state, Therese. Automatic grounds for taking a child away, granting custody to the other, ‘less immoral’ parent,” she said, making air quotes. “So even if I get through all of this, deny that I ever had the affair with Abby, somehow manage to get custody, I would still have to watch my back, always. I could never live how I truly want to live. I could never be free.”

She could see the mist in the storm clouds of Carol’s eyes, glistening. She felt a pang, an urgent need to hold her and comfort her, tell her that it would be ok.

What is she trying to tell me?

The apartment door opened, and they both turned to see Sherry coming in. Her face went from relaxed, peaceful joy, to confusion when she saw Carol on the couch.

And then there was a definite flash of anger.

“Hi, Sherry,” Carol said. “Sorry to barge in unannounced.”

“Hi,” Sherry said stiffly, then looked at Therese. “Can I speak to you for a minute?”

Therese looked back and forth from Sherry to Carol, stammering, “Uhh umm, I …”

“Alone,” Sherry said, her jaw set. “I just need a minute.”

“Sure,” Therese said, looking at Carol apologetically. “I’ll be right back, ok?”

Carol nodded.

She stood, and Sherry touched the back of her elbow, guiding her back to her bedroom and closing the door behind them both, out of earshot.

Chapter Text

Sherry closed her bedroom door firmly behind them, then turned quickly to face Therese.

"What is she doing here?"

Therese shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. She just got here."

"Look, T, I know it's confusing for her to just show up out of nowhere, but that woman wrecked you before. She can't just waltz in here and expect everything to be forgiven."

"Like I said, I don't even know why she's here. But it's rude to leave her out there. I need to get back to her."

Therese started to make a move for the door, and Sherry put her hand up. "Just wait one minute. Take a breath. I'm only saying something because I don't want to see you hurt all over again."

Therese felt torn between acknowledging the concern of someone who had been nothing but loyal and kind to her ... and feeling the magnetic pull of Carol in the other room.

"Sherry, it's fine. She's just here to talk."

"Promise me you won't make any rash decisions."

Therese wondered what that was all about. What decision was there? She just wanted to see her, be near her.

"Ok, I promise," and with that she brushed past Sherry and back down the hallway, almost certain that when she got there again she would find that Carol had just been a hallucination, her tired and fevered mind conjuring the thing that she wanted to see most.

But no, there she was, still perched uncomfortably on the couch, a strange look on her face.

"Sorry," Therese said, sitting back down across from her.

"No, it's ok, I'm the one who's interrupting." Carol's eyes shifted back down the hallway towards Sherry's bedroom.

"No you're not. It’s fine."

Therese felt so rattled her teeth were chattering. She tried to pick up the thread of what Carol had been trying to say before. Carol was brushing imaginary lint off her skirt, looking distracted, her brow furrowed.

Therese gripped the arms of her chair, leaning forward. "So you were saying ... about Rindy ..."

Carol bit her bottom lip. "It's been an adjustment, not seeing her every night. But I'm busier now. I got a job. Two jobs, actually."

"Oh?"

"Yes, I teach an evening class at the Junior College – basic English Lit. And I'm also working at Lockley's Gifts."

"Wow. I can't imagine you working in that store."

Carol looked a little stung, so Therese tried to reel it back. "No, I just mean, I can't imagine you buying anything that's in there, so to imagine you working there ..." Therese stopped, realizing she hadn't made it any better.

Carol shrugged. "Hey, I have to support myself. Harge is not exactly coming through with spousal support right now. He says he doesn't have to, if the divorce isn't final."

Therese bristled at the injustice of it all, this man who was keeping Carol's daughter away from her and trying to control her by locking down their joint finances.

"I guess he thinks I'll get tired of fighting and come back to him. I just don't get it. He isn't happy either, so why in the hell can't he just let it be?"

Therese shook her head, but in her heart she knew what Harge must be feeling. To have once possessed this beautiful creature, to have had her all to himself ... it would be unbearable to let her go. Therese knew it all too well.

She watched her, studying her every movement as if she were prepping for a final exam. She would memorize everything all over again, take in as much as she could. Ephemeral as she was, she could be gone again at any moment.

Towards the back of the apartment they heard a door open, then steps, another door closing, water running. Sherry in the shower.

Carol's eyes locked with hers. "Are you two ..." She stopped, as if unable to finish the thought.

For a moment Therese hesitated, even though she knew it was cruel. She remembered jealous Carol, prowling and hungry Carol. She ached to bring that out in her again.

"Does it matter?"

Carol's nostrils flared. She had hit her mark. But it didn't bring her any satisfaction. She saw the predator take a deep breath and bring herself back under control.

In a quiet, measured voice, she said, "It matters to me."

Therese swallowed hard, feeling a sting at the corner of her eyes.

"We're not," she said. The air in the room was so thick, so full of electricity that she felt almost suffocated.

"I've missed you," Carol breathed, and the words hung between them, almost visible in the stillness of the room.

Therese moistened her lips, finally hearing the words she had longed to hear from her, this admission that the world was a barren place without her. She wanted so badly to be missed by her. To know. She didn't trust her voice to speak.

Carol leaned forward slightly. "It's been so hard, not knowing how you are, what you're doing. I work, I eat, I come home to an empty apartment. At night, I'm torn between imagining you there with me or resolving myself to the loneliness – I don't know which is worse. I feel like I've given up everything, and now I don't even have Rindy."

"Carol," Therese whispered softly. It was a statement, a question, and an expression of sympathy, all in one word.

"None of this is your problem. I'm not here for you to feel sorry for me. You can tell me to go, you have every right. But I had to allow myself one more chance to see you and find out."

When Carol was quiet for so long, Therese cleared her throat, forced out the words.

"Find out what?"

Her eyes searched Carol's face, and what she found was a mixture of fear and desire. She was an even more impossible shade of pale.

"If you've missed me too." She waited a beat, then forged ahead. "If there's any hope of a future. For us."

Therese's brain buzzed, crackled, and popped. It was a total system overload.

If only she had come to her sooner, this would have been an easy decision. If she had asked her to wait when she saw her the last time in Dixon. But she had just spent the last 6 months letting her go, pulling up the roots of hope tendril by tendril and raking through the depleted soil of her heart.

And in that process, she had lost trust in her, in who she was. How could a woman who truly cared for her abandon her for all this time, without a word? It had become a pattern for her – to show up, stir up Therese's emotions, and then leave without a trace.

Hell, just a minute ago she had wondered if this woman was an illusion.

When do you reach the point where it's too late, where you can't go back again?

The silence in the room was heavy, and she knew Carol was waiting for her now. It felt like she would have waited all night.

"I ... I just don't know."

She avoided looking into Carol's eyes, knowing it could make her crumble and give in. Red lights flashed in her brain. She could hear Sherry's voice in her head, "Promise me you won't make any rash decisions."

She could hear Carol's uneven breathing, see her pressing the point of her shoe into the shaggy carpet. A small, mean part of her enjoyed the thought of making her wait. She could see what it felt like, to wait and hope.

There it was, at the heart of it. A streak of anger, quick on the heels of her fear.

The meek shell of herself fell away, and for a moment she didn't worry what Carol thought of her, or of her feelings. She just felt what she felt, and she released it into the room. She would not hold it in, or fight to hide the pain she had experienced.

She found Carol's eyes, and she showed her the ugly crumple of her face, the redness of her eyes, the streaks that started to form on her cheeks. Her lips were trembling, and then her whole body shook.

"How could you leave me like that? And how could I ever trust you ... now?"

Carol slid from the couch and moved toward her, kneeling on the carpet beside her chair and reaching up to clasp her hand. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know it was a mistake. But you have to understand how hard it's been for me, to even think of losing Rindy ... if you were a mother, you'd know. I would do anything for her."

Therese was sobbing now, the snot running out of her nose. Through the blur of her tears, she could see Carol crying too. It was like holding a mirror up to herself. She saw that now – Carol's anguish, her feeling of being torn in half, the awful grim choices that left no option for a purely happy ending. And in her eyes, too, that same strange mix of fear and desire. Wanting so badly, but terrified that what you want isn't attainable.

Like a switch had flipped, her random thoughts sought to rescue her. When things got too hard, her brain would pop in with an unsolicited advertisement, a piece of music, a quote from a movie. This time it was all too appropriate – a section of lyrics from a song by Howard Jones:

You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat
You can feel the cushion, but you can't have a seat
You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim
You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin

And you want her, and she wants you
We want everyone
And you want her and she wants you
No one, no one, no one ever is to blame

They both felt this tearing. Neither of them were to blame. Now the question was if Therese could move past it, could try to find something with Carol. A new thing.

She didn't have the answer to that question right now. She needed time to think. She ducked her head and wiped her face on her pajama top, trying to control her breathing.

She took Carol's hand in both of hers and squeezed it, then lifted it to her lips to kiss her knuckles gently.

"I'll think about it, ok?"

Carol nodded, her eyes red-rimmed.

"Where are you staying?"

"I have to drive home tonight – work in the morning. Really, I just had this tiny window to come. But I couldn't wait another minute. I got home from work, and suddenly I felt like I might die if I didn't see you."

A grand gesture.

Therese smiled in spite of herself.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "That means something."

A part of her wanted to ask her to stay. But this was too big of a decision to make on a whim, just because her body wanted so much to be near her again.

Carol shifted to get up, and Therese stood up quickly to help her to her feet.

"I'll make you some coffee, for the road," Therese said, not letting go of her hand as she led her into the kitchen.

Somehow she managed to fill the coffee maker, put in a filter, spoon in the grounds, and turn on the pot all one-handed. While the pot dripped and gurgled, she turned to face Carol, and they both seemed to make a conscious decision to enjoy their few moments together and talk of light-hearted topics.

Therese wanted to know how Rindy was doing and about Carol's students at the Junior College. Carol had questions about Therese's new friends and how she liked living in the city. Neither of them wanted to ask what it meant, what the future might hold. Even if Therese's answer was yes, then what?

The coffee was ready all too soon, and Therese fretted over a tired Carol getting back on the dark highway back to Dixon.

"Will you call me when you get home, just to let me know you're safe?"

"Definitely."

Therese put a travel mug into her hand, then wrapped her arms around her and allowed herself a moment to bury her face in her hair, nuzzle against her ear, feel her warm body pressed against her as she smelled the scent of home.

"Be careful," she said.

Carol touched her cheek. "I will."

 

Chapter Text

Therese leaned her head back on the couch cushions and sighed deeply. There was no way she could sleep now, not until she knew Carol was home safely. It was just as well – her mind was swirling, in a spin from their conversation.

So much to think about and process – pros and cons to sort, decisions to make. But it wasn't what she wanted to think about now. She wanted to just remember her, the scent and feel and look of her, right here in her apartment. She closed her eyes and imagined it all.

She was so beautiful. Exquisite.

And she has missed me.

Therese let her guard down and enjoyed the feeling of Carol's longing for her. A warm glow radiated from the pit of her stomach and flowed through her veins. Outside her window, the city traffic had slowed into the late night whisper of tires interspersed with a heavy bass beat of music thumping, young boys out on the town cruising.

She might be halfway to Tuscaloosa by now. The invisible cord between them stretched, wound around curves, sliced into the mist coming off the highway.

Down the hall, a doorway creaked and she heard soft footsteps coming toward her, bare feet on the carpet.

Sherry eased herself into the chair where Therese had been sitting before, and for a startled moment she imagined it was herself sitting across from her, ready to re-enact the scene. She wanted to see it all from Carol's perspective, how her face had looked, know what Carol had felt.

"You ok?" Sherry asked, and her voice came out more like a hoarse croak.

"Yeah," Therese answered, pulling her knees up to her chest. She didn't want this interruption right now, the pin prick in her magic bubble. Why couldn't the rough demons of reality check their baggage at the door right now and leave her in peace for the night, sensibility be damned?

"What did she want?"

Her patience was wearing thin. She wanted to shout "None of your business," but instead she shrugged nonchalantly.

Sherry ran her fingers through her hair, ruffling the short, dark waves. As if reading her mind, she said, "I guess it's pretty rude of me to ask, huh?"

Therese lowered her eyes. "It's fine."

"Look, I wouldn't ask. Normally. You know I've tried to let you be, do your own thing. You've been dating around, and I haven't even butted in once, right?"

Therese wondered at the point of this speech, but it was a passing thought, like watching a blurry advertisement whiz by on the side of a city bus.

"Sure."

"T, I've been ... waiting. I've been trying really hard to give you space. I know this is all new, and that you were getting over a broken heart. You said you didn't want anything serious, just wanted to date around and sow some wild oats."

Something in Sherry's tone had changed, made Therese sit up a little and take notice. There was a plea in it. Something was coming, something would be asked of her.

"Waiting?"

"That came out wrong. I just mean I've been working really hard at being patient, letting you find your own way, and just hoping that you'd see it too."

"See what, Sherry? I'm tired and my brain can't handle any more riddles tonight."

"Shit. My timing sucks. We can talk about this tomorrow."

Therese felt the frustration rising in her, but she tried to contain it just so she could find out what this was all about.

"Sherry, just spit it out."

"Look how we've been living here together, and working together too. We get along well, we share friends, we like a lot of the same things. It's easy. It feels so natural and normal. I like you, Therese."

Therese blanched, tried to deflect. "Sure, it's been fun living here and I'm really grateful. I like you too."

Sherry shook her head. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. I'm attracted to you. And maybe I'm crazy, but I think you've had feelings for me too."

Therese couldn't deny she'd felt admiration for Sherry and maybe even some attraction – but she had kept her in the "friend zone" all this time for so many reasons. She wasn't ready for anything serious, she didn't want to hurt Sherry, she couldn't risk losing her friendship, much less her living situation ... the list was long.

"Sherry, I think you're wonderful. And I would never want to risk losing your friendship."

"But we could still be friends, Therese. More than friends, too. That's what good relationships are built on, strong friendships. Things in common. Mutual respect. Enjoying each other's company. And I'm right here, right now. I'm single, available, without all the baggage."

Therese knew this was a direct dig at Carol, at the complications that came with letting her back into her life. Sherry's face was so earnest, her eyes so full of hope. She was making the full sales pitch. She could hear the lines that Sherry must have rehearsed in her head so many times.

There was logic to it, something that appealed to her rational brain. True companionship, friendship without all the heartache and drama, mutual friends and interests and a future together – it was an attractive offer. She took in Sherry, all of her. She was small and trim with lovely slender hands, a warm smile, adorable dimples. There was no lack of interest from women when she went into the bar, and she was so funny and outgoing that she could almost take her pick of admirers anywhere she went.

So many women would be thrilled to hear this declaration from Sherry. She was flattered.

Therese felt Sherry's eyes burning into her, waiting for her response. "I didn't know you felt that way. It's all so much ... "

She saw Sherry's bottom lip quiver a little, and she rushed to recover the moment somehow.

"It's really wonderful of you to say so. I don't think I'm worthy of that. I'm just messed up right now, and I don't even know which way is up. I am so afraid of fucking everything up."

"Oh, you're worthy," Sherry said quietly. "You're a really special, beautiful, smart, and creative person, Therese. You deserve happiness."

Happiness. What would bring me happiness? What does happiness even mean? Passion? Stability? Confidence? Companionship?

"Thank you for that," Therese said, blushing. All this attention was so unnerving. She wanted to disappear so that she could think.

Again, Sherry seemed to know her thoughts. "Look, I'm sorry to just spring this on you. I don't need you to answer, I just want you to think about it ... and I guess I just wanted you to know. Before whatever that was," Sherry waved her hand towards the front door, "slid back into the picture to turn the world upside down again."

Therese ducked her head, not sure how to respond to that one.

She saw Sherry's bare feet on the carpet moving towards her. Her hand reached out and caressed the back of her shoulder blade for a split second, then was gone.

"Goodnight, T."

"'Night, Sherry."

She listened to her pad softly back down the hallway, then shut her bedroom door with a click.

She sat alone in the stillness, listening to the street noises. Off in the distance, a siren wailed. She replayed moments from the last 6 months, looking for clues. Carol's absence, Sherry's presence.

And then there was the comparison she made of the way each woman's touch made her feel. There was the slightest whisper where Sherry had touched her shoulder, but she felt her fingers still tingling from where she had held Carol's hand.

By the time the phone rang two hours later, she had grown sick of weighing all her options and had turned the television back on again. She jumped to answer it before it could ring again.

"Hello," she said, suddenly out of breath.

"Hi," Carol's voice returned, sounding tired but still full of honey and spice. "Did'ja miss me?"

"Yes," Therese admitted easily. "I'm glad you're home safe."

Chapter Text

The ride in to work with Sherry the next morning was painfully awkward. They both tried to pretend the conversation the previous night had never happened, but their chatter sounded forced in the confines of the small car.

Therese was trying not to sound cheerful.

The morning had brought clarity. Actually, the many times she had awakened during the night to think of Carol had revealed the truth to her. As much as she struggled, as much as she wanted to be logical and reasonable and guard her wounded heart, she knew her mind was not going to win this battle.

She wanted Carol. She wanted her with her whole being, with every cell of her body. Her cells were filled with water, and Carol was as powerful as the moon over the tides. The pull and push of her was as undeniable, as irresistible as defying the currents in her veins.

There was a joy deep within her to be able to think of Carol again, to remember every moment with her and replay her voice in her head. Those memories had been too painful to recall during their separation. She would allow a thought of her only for a moment, then shove it away to a deep, dark place. Now she could bring those memories and those feelings back out into the sunlight again, just as she had taken a moment this morning to pull the shoe box out from under her bed and expose all the relics of Carol to her adoring eyes.

She ran her fingers over the signature on the library card and held the lipstick-stained cotton ball to her nose to inhale deeply, even though she knew the scent was long gone. Tears of joy welled up in her eyes to feel that part of her spirit awaken again, bringing with it the celebration of the return of something she thought was forever lost.

Certainly, there was still an element of fear in all of it – and so much uncertainty. She didn't know how they could make this all work with the predicament that Carol was in. But she felt a grim determination to help her figure it out, to stand beside her, to wait for her as long as it took.

Because now she had been asked to wait. She was wanted and needed.

As Sherry pulled into the parking garage, Therese gave her a sidelong glance. She didn't know how she would navigate this situation either. Sherry had become so dear to her, as good a friend and confidante as she could have asked for during such a tumultuous time.

Comparing Sherry to Carol was like comparing Dixon to Birmingham. There was the predictable, the known factor, the numb comfort of routine. On the other hand was excitement, possibility, and yes, fear too ... but passion. Therese had lived long enough in the shadow of her own fear, weighed down with the expectations and beliefs of others. She knew something about herself now that she hadn't known before – she knew she was strong, that she could handle rejection, and that she could survive and even thrive on her own.

Carol represented risk, and there were no guarantees, but she knew she could survive now even if they couldn't make it work between them. Certainly, she would be crushed, heartbroken, and sad for a very long time. But she would recover eventually.

But if she didn't take this chance for Carol, for their love, then there would be no recovery from that. It would be submitting to her own anxieties and sinking to despair, denying herself the one thing she wanted most.

In the musty basement of the library, she flipped through rolls of microfiche and struggled to maintain her focus. Work was torment. All she could think about was when she would have a chance to call Carol, to hear her voice again, to tell her that she wanted to be with her and she would help her work it out. The logical part of her brain that should have been working on her research assignment kept running different scenarios of what she and Carol should do, how much money she would need to save, where they could live. She had a wild and dangerous thought of the two of them kidnapping Rindy and driving north into Canada. She imagined the three of them racing away in the green Jag, laughing and singing silly songs, stopping for quick breaks and snacks at gas stations along the way.

And then the other part of her brain would take over, imagining sleeping in the same bed with Carol every night. Her body throbbed at the memory of her, the softness of her skin and the smell of her most intimate places. Her mind would wander until she ached with need and had to visit the restroom to wipe away the gushing dampness. Being in the same room with her had awakened all the deep desires she had pushed to the back of her mind all these months. Her mind swirled with a lust that sent a buzz through her brain and made her vision foggy.

Her supervisor showed up after lunch, looking irritated that her research project was taking so long. She promised him that she would finish by the end of the day and gave a vague excuse about being nauseous. When that didn't seem to get him moving along, she added something about "female issues," which made him blush and leave in a hurry.

She gave herself a stern lecture on focusing and getting her work done, which did result in at least a solid hour of effort. The last thing she could afford right now was to lose her job.

By the end of the day, she just managed to hand over the requested files to her supervisor, who could appease the wealthy library donor and ensure another year of generous contributions. He still seemed embarrassed about their earlier conversation, and she giggled to herself about the rare benefits of being female in the workplace.

She found Sherry and told her she had an errand to run and that she would take the bus home. It was a bit of a fib, but Sherry let it pass. Sherry had an equally lame excuse that she had dinner plans with a friend and was going to go straight to the restaurant after work.

Therese tried to hide her excitement that she would have quiet and privacy to call Carol. She walked down to the corner bus stop and leaned against a light post, waiting in the humid evening air until the large gray bus lumbered up with a gasp and a groan.

On the bus, people read books and bobbed to music pumped through giant headphones. In the back, a small man with a giant afro held a boombox on his shoulder and cracked jokes with a few of his friends. The bus lurched, and Therese leaned her forehead against the smudged window and watched the sidewalks and buildings pass by. She felt insignificant riding in the belly of this mechanical beast, looking at the sun glinting off the grays of the city, the throngs of people just getting off of work and heading home, or to the grocery store, or out with friends.

Sometimes in the city, she found herself straining to find a familiar face. She found it astounding, and somewhat unsettling, that she could look at hundreds of faces and never see someone she knew. Coming from a small town, it was hard to believe that there could be so many people out in the world that she had never met, would never meet. Who were they all and where were they going?

But as tiny and insignificant as she was, swallowed up by this big city, she mattered to someone. There was a certainty in her heart and warmth that radiated through her body, to know that there was someone who thought of her and desired her. If something happened to her right now, someone would miss her.

Back at the apartment, she quickly stripped off her clothes and got into the shower to wash the city grime off of her. Something about riding on the bus always made her feel greasy and gritty.

She toweled off and partially dried her hair, putting on shorts and a worn nightshirt. She made a grilled cheese in the skillet. It was feeling like a repeat of the night before. She grinned to herself, wishing that a surprise knock would come again, revealing Carol standing outside under the porch light.

She didn't know Carol's new schedule or when she might be home from work, so she sat and watched the clock as she ate her sandwich and let her mind replay moments with Carol.  She layed them out like playing cards, randomly and without sequence, stopping at a thought of Carol's sly smile, the curve of her hip, the water on her shoulder in the shower, the predatory look of her jealousy. She thought about the moment she first saw her in the church, the agony of sitting behind her in the pew and feeling a strong attraction she couldn't understand or contain.

And then there was the first time she spoke to her in the library, and the unrestrained joy of knowing she would come back to the library again. The overwhelming happiness that it had become just to see her.

When she couldn't stand the anticipation any longer, she picked up the phone and watched her trembling fingers dial Carol's apartment. It rang once ... twice ... and then a low, smoky voice picked up and answered.

"Hello?"

"Hi, it's me," Therese said, a goofy grin on her face.

"Well hello, Therese," Carol purred, and Therese felt her bones melting away.

"I wasn't sure when would be a good time to call."

"Whenever you call, it's a good time," Carol said, and Therese could hear the smile in her voice. It occurred to Therese that this was the first time she had felt free to call her, to not worry about Harge lurking in the other room.

"Were you very tired today?"

"It wasn't too bad. I was only scheduled for 6 hours in the store. And no class tonight."

"Good."

"And what about you? I kept you up awfully late."

"Oh, I was fine."

Besides being completely distracted, euphoric, and filled with lust.

Therese wrapped the spirals of the phone cord around her finger and tucked her feet up on the chair.

She could hear Carol sigh softly and make a sound like she was stretching. They were both getting comfortable, settling in.

"It was good to see you last night," Therese said softly.

"I'm glad to know I didn't make a fool of myself," Carol said. "I doubted myself the whole drive to Birmingham. I had visions of you slamming the door in my face."

"I'd never do that."

"Does that mean you'll let me visit you again?" she asked. There was a teasing tone in her voice, but Therese could hear a hint of nervousness underneath.

The brunette took a deep breath and pressed her own hand against her chest to feel her pounding heart. "I've missed you, too."

She heard Carol let out a breath, and she waited a moment before she continued. "You asked me a question last night, about if we had a future. I'd like for us to. I'd like it very much."

She twirled the phone cord in her fist, wishing she could take Carol's hand this very moment, a part of her regretting very much that she hadn't taken the opportunity to kiss her last night.

"Me too," Carol's thickened voice replied.

"When can I see you?"

"Can you meet me on Saturday? I can drive to Birmingham after work."

"I'll meet you halfway," Therese said. "I know a place in Tuscaloosa we can stay."

"OK, it's a date."

Therese giggled into the phone. "Does this mean we're dating?"

"Mmm hmm."

She felt absolutely giddy.

Chapter Text

Therese had tried cracking the windows to enjoy some fresh air on her ride to Tuscaloosa, but the heat was so oppressive that it felt like a furnace blast. She was now blasting the air conditioning in the purple Geo Prizm she had rented and kept scanning the radio stations looking for a good song.

In many places, the beginning of September would have had a hint of fall to it, but here there was not a changing leaf in sight. The trees along the roadside were mostly pines, anyway, long and lean and swaying in the hot wind.

As she left the city limits of Birmingham, she still felt the sadness of her conversation with Sherry clinging to her like a damp t-shirt. She was worried she had forever lost a friendship. Sherry couldn't comprehend why she would go back to Carol again, especially when there was so much uncertainty about her future. It was as if Sherry had never been wildly, irrationally in love before.

She told her that she had never truly gotten over Carol, and she had come to realize that this was why she had not been interested in committing to any other relationships. Sherry had rolled her eyes and told her that she wasn't going to be there to pick up the pieces when Carol inevitably left her again. "You're going into this with your eyes wide open," she said, "and when it all goes to hell, you'll have no one to blame but yourself."

She had to admit that the words had a dampening effect on her excitement about her weekend with Carol. Here they were, having to meet in secret for the weekend, Carol still technically married and embroiled in a losing battle for custody. If Carol couldn't be with Rindy, then how devastated would she be? And would Therese somehow become a source of guilt and blame for why she was separated from her daughter?

Still, the further she drove away from her conversation with Sherry, the closer she was to Carol. Carol would not have even left Dixon yet, as she wasn't supposed to get off work until 5. But Therese had decided to go there early, to check in and shower and make an indoor picnic spread for Carol when she arrived. She felt a nervous anticipation at seeing her again, at kissing and holding her again, and finally, to be romantic with her. To proudly display her heart on her sleeve for Carol to see it, and to know finally how much she meant to Therese.

Maybe Carol would think she was just a silly girl, with all her romantic notions, but then Therese remembered that Carol had been the one to cover the hotel bed with rose petals that weekend so long ago. She, of all people, would understand Therese's desire for romance.

When she was about 20 miles out from Tuscaloosa, the traffic started to get thick and slow to a crawl. She couldn't understand what the heck was going on until she turned to a radio station where the announcer was talking about the home game the University of Alabama would have that evening against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Right, this place is going to be a zoo. No wonder I had trouble finding a room.

She got off the McFarland exit and crept along with the parade of cars decked out with Alabama flags and signs with things like "Whip the Dawgs" and "You can't stop the Tide" scrawled in large letters.

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. She had been raised an Auburn fan, and the rivalry of the two teams was epic. If you were a fan of one, then it was automatic that you loathed the other team. The mere sight of all that crimson and white made her skin crawl.

She had an hour or so before she could check in, so she stopped into a grocery store and bought fresh strawberries and dark chocolate truffles to add to her little feast. At the check out, a large, sunburned man wearing a "Roll Tide" t-shirt gave her a toothy grin and asked if she had tickets to go see the game or if she were going home to watch it on tv.

"Neither," she managed to reply without snarling. "I have some other plans."

"Ohhhh," he replied, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Must be good plans!"

"You have no idea," she said, and gave him a sly wink before sliding away from the check out with her bags.

She crept back through the traffic and pulled into the parking lot of the Super 8, giving the "Color Cable TV" sign a skeptical look.

She checked in at the hotel with her small overnight bag and several grocery bags draped over her arms. When she confirmed a king bed with two adults, the man at the front desk asked if she would need two keys.

"Yes, but the other person isn't going to arrive for another couple of hours, so they will stop by for a key."

"Name?" the man asked, picking up a pen.

"Carol Aird," she said, blushing. His face didn't register a change, but she felt embarrassed that this man knew she would be sharing a king bed with another woman. She slid her key from the desk and hurried towards the stairs to the second floor room.

The room was neat but spartan, with a mini fridge and an ancient looking television set perched on top of a dark-grained chest of drawers. She busied herself redecorating the room. She had brought a colorful comforter from her room, a cheerful tablecloth for the scarred round table in the corner, and a big bouquet of fresh roses and daisies in bright pops of red and yellow.

She had lavender tea candles that she set around the room, and two tapers in holders with a little bowl of floating hyacinths that she placed on the table. By the time she had finished, the room looked brighter and smelled of flowers and scented wax.

She stepped into the shower and washed herself with peppermint soap, lathering her hair into a thick foam and letting the steam of the shower gather her in its warm embrace. She dried her hair while wrapped in a towel, her skin tingling and her toes gripping at the damp bath mat beneath her feet.

She tried to take her time putting on her make up and getting dressed, but she was so excited for Carol's arrival that she found herself rushing, panting to race around the room and make it and herself just perfect.

She couldn't think of anything else to do by the time the clock hit 6:30, so she sat at the end of the bed to wait. She had a bottle of sparkling water chilling in a bucket by the tv, and a plate of cheese and mini sandwiches in the mini fridge. She plucked at a thread on the hem of her mint green summer dress, feeling conspicuously overdressed for her surroundings.

She imagined Carol on the road, driving towards her, and wondered what she must be thinking and feeling at this moment. She hoped the blonde was as excited as she was. Would it be awkward at first, or would they fall into each other's arms immediately?

Her body was already feeling the signs of arousal, preparing itself for Carol, for her touch and her kisses. She could see the points of her nipples pressing at the fabric of her dress.

She jumped at the sound of a key in the door, springing up off the bed, starting to run towards the door then holding herself back. She was standing awkwardly by the small closet door when Carol walked in.

She was wearing a white sundress splashed with yellow flowers, shiny white patent leather heels on her feet. She looked as cool and crisp as a spring day, and her lips were glossed with pink. She smiled widely at Therese, revealing startlingly white teeth.

"Well hello, gorgeous," she purred, balancing her purse on one arm and a Louis Vuitton bag on the other. She kicked the door closed behind her with her heel, and Therese couldn't wait any more.

She leaped at her, almost sending her toppling into the door with her bags, reaching up to clasp her face in her hands and press a kiss to her lips. She heard the sound of Carol dropping her bags with a heavy thud and felt those long, strong arms wrap around her as she returned the kiss. She pulled back at her so hard that Therese was on her tip toes, her mouth open as Carol's tongue pressed into her mouth and licked at her.

Carol walked her back towards the bed, her mouth never leaving hers, both of them blindly stumbling. Therese was pressed back onto the comforter and Carol climbed on top of her, moaning into her mouth as Therese's fingers assaulted her body.

The heat between them raged, and in this moment all their months of longing, their agonized waiting, and their loneliness expressed itself in a frantic tumble of hands and mouths and intertwined limbs.

Therese could feel the lip gloss smeared across her neck as Carol bit and kissed her there, and she pressed her knee up and between Carol's legs as her dress rode up to her hips. She reached her hands down to cup at her firm buttocks and pull her moist heat down against the top of her thigh.

They were both animals, creatures of need and want and primal urges. Therese pushed at Carol and flipped them over so that she was on top now, tangling her fingers into Carol's hair, feeling the urgency of Carol's hips moving beneath her. They pressed at each other, forcing as much of their bodies to connect as was physically possible, wanting every inch to rub and grind and chafe against the other until they merged into one beast.

Therese had never felt so desperate to touch and be touched, the sensation of it like coming up for air after being under water for a very long time. She gasped and heaved and sucked in the oxygen that was Carol. Like a blind woman, she read her body like Braille, tracing every line of their history, grasping for a deeper knowledge of this woman who was her obsession.

When their lovemaking was finished, their clothes were still twisted and mangled on their bodies, shoved up or aside to get at the essential places. Carol leaned on her elbow looking at her and laughing as she slid her hand down her belly, pretending to daintily smooth the rumpled dress. She seemed to take note of the surroundings for the first time.

"You did some redecorating, huh?"

Therese was still foggy from her orgasms, and she replied to Carol in a dreamy voice, "Uh huh."

Her skin stung and tingled, and she knew she must be covered in bite and scratch marks. She reached her fingertips up to press at a small purplish bruise at Carol's collarbone where her teeth had clashed against it.

Carol sat up and pulled her dress over her head and threw it on the floor, then did the same with her bra. Therese watched her in wonder, not sure how this goddess could manage to look ever more beautiful each time she saw her.

Carol reached for her to undress her too, and then their naked bodies slipped and slid against each other as they stroked and caressed and tenderly kissed each other. Carol's hands were everywhere, as if to claim and possess every inch of Therese as her own. She even pressed her fingers into Therese's mouth and ran the tips of them over the ridge of her bottom teeth. Enchanted, Therese lay back and let her do whatever she wanted, as limp as a doll, her eyes liquid emeralds. Time was suspended as the candles burned down the wax and their breathing was the only sound in the room.

Carol's hand moved up to cup her cheek, and their eyes met again, their faces so close together that her entire vision, her whole world was Carol.

"I love you," the beautiful woman said softly, and a thousand candles leaped and flamed in Therese's heart. "You have no idea how much I've dreamed of this moment, to have you in my arms again."

"Oh I do," Therese gasped, breathless. "I love you too, Carol. So much."

"My sweet girl," Carol murmured against her lips as she kissed her again.

And this time, when they made love, it was slow, and tender, and achingly fervent.

As if they had all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

The bedside lamp shade was stained yellow inside, giving the room a curious glow when Therese turned it on. All of the tea candles but one had burned out, and the tapers had sagged and guttered until they were nothing but lumps on the table.

Carol was sitting up in bed, propped against the pillows and running her fingers through tangled curls.

"I'm starving," she said.

"Lucky for you, you're traveling with a Girl Scout," Therese replied, and hopped out of bed stark naked to retrieve the snacks from the mini fridge.

"Lucky me, indeed," Carol replied, giving her form an appraising look as if she hadn't just spent the last several hours exploring every inch of the body she now ogled.

Therese set the plate on the table and then moved the ice bucket there too.

Carol swung her legs off the bed, then hesitated for a moment. "That," she said, pointing to the bottle in the ice bucket, "I don't drink. Not right now."

"Oh, no, it's sparkling water!" Therese said, plucking the bottle out of the mostly melted ice.

Carol nodded. "Good. Do you have a t-shirt I can borrow?"

"I brought two, just because I knew you'd want one of mine."

"Right. Girl Scout."

Therese gave Carol a worn shirt featuring a grinning Siamese cat with the words "Up to No Good" printed beneath it. The shirt fit tight and was so thin that she could see her nipples through it. Just as she planned.

Therese pulled her 10,000 Maniacs "In My Tribe" concert tee over her head and took the saran wrap off the top of the tray of cheese and sandwiches.

Carol bit into a crustless triangle of sandwich and closed her eyes in pleasure. "Mmmm, pimento and cheese. How did you know?"

"Jedi mind trick."

Therese picked up a turkey and tomato sandwich for herself, and poured sparkling water for both of them into the motel's paper cups.

"Which car did you drive?"

"The Jaguar. Of course."

Therese giggled. "I'd be willing to bet it's the first one that's been in this parking lot."

"Perhaps."

Carol's eyes scanned the room, wrinkling her nose slightly. "You know, I would have been happy to book something for us."

"I know. And you would have picked something much nicer." Therese cut her eyes at Carol, who shrugged.

"This is clean, though, and cheap. We should be watching our money."

She watched Carol's face for a reaction, and she got one. Just a flicker of acknowledgement. This was Therese planning a future. For both of them.

"She's beautiful and she's practical," Carol hummed to herself, "and also, she makes a good sandwich. This one's a keeper."

Therese giggled and blushed like a schoolgirl. "Well, somebody has to be practical. You're certainly not."

She grinned, poking Carol's thigh with her toe. Carol grabbed her foot and tweaked her toes playfully.

"I'm learning."

"Where's the new apartment?"

Carol told her about her tiny studio above the offices of the tiny Dixon Weekly, where the smell of newsprint wafted up through the vents every Saturday.

"It's noisy and hot as fuck, but I can afford it without asking Harge for money."

Therese rolled her eyes. "He doesn't just get to keep everything. That's not the law."

"I know. I'm just trying to appease him right now and hope that he gets less angry. It's not pretty right now. Lord knows our daughter is angry enough for all three of us right now."

"She is?"

"Yes. She's furious with me for moving out. She doesn't understand why I would need to do that, since I already had a separate bedroom and Harge travels so much. She blames me for leaving them ... and Harge has been awfully good at playing the martyr."

Therese nodded sympathetically. "It's hard to understand adult relationships when you're a kid."

"Especially when there are huge chunks of information missing from the story you are getting. But that's the way I want to keep it – I want to play this clean, even if he goes low and dirty. At the end of it all, she has to be able to trust at least one of us. And if that one person has to be him, then ..." Her voice broke a little.

Therese got up from her chair and leaned to wrap her arms around her. She put her lips close to Carol's ear and murmured comfortingly, "She'll get over it. She'll understand. It will just take her a while."

She could feel Carol shrug in her embrace. "I hope so. Because it's killing me to see her hate me this way. It's ... the second most painful thing I've ever been through."

Therese pulled her face away just enough so she could see her. "And what was the first?"

"Losing you."

Therese cupped her chin and turned her face to kiss her softly, caressing her cheek.

"It will be ok. I'm here now. And she'll be back."

"I don't understand why the world has to be so cruel. Why can't I have you both?"

Therese didn't have an answer to that. It made no sense to her at all. So much about life didn't make sense to her.

Carol continued, "Do you remember that night you spent with me and Rindy, when you sat on her bed and read her a story?"

"Oh yes. I remember everything about that night," Therese said, blushing at the mere memory of asking Carol to kiss her and being turned down.

"Well, I was standing out in the hallway, listening, I just remember leaning my head against the wall and imagining what it would be like for the three of us to be a family. My heart ached so much for it to be true. It was a fantasy I played over and over in my head, of you tucking her in and then coming to get in bed with me, and it was just so normal and natural. I would imagine days like that – what it would be like for us all to get up together every morning and have breakfast, weekdays of dropping her at school and you to the library for work, weekends of movies and popcorn on the couch. Nothing fancy, no exotic vacations or wild plans, just life as a normal family. Living like we want to and being left alone."

Therese could feel her stomach churn. It was something she hadn't thought about, but now that Carol said it out loud she knew it to be true: how much she had longed to be seen as normal. To not be extraordinary or some freak show open to ridicule. She wanted to work, and buy groceries, and go to the park on weekends, and climb into bed every night with Carol without fear of retribution.

She didn't know how to tell Carol that she understood and shared her dream with every fiber of her being. Even being a mother to Rindy – it sounded so wonderful. How she would cherish being able to take the sweet girl into her arms and make her feel loved, help her navigate the world and listen to her worries, and make sure that her life was filled with good stories and lots of laughter.

She knew the silence had stretched on too long. "That sounds like a beautiful fantasy," she said softly. "Do you think there's any place in the world that could be that way for people like us?"

Carol shook her head slowly. "Not now. Not yet. But I hope with all my heart it's coming. All we can do is work to be a part of the change we want to see. And this scares the hell out of me but ... I think the only way to help make that fantasy become reality is to be seen. For people who know us to know the truth. So that they can't deny it, or pretend they don't know any gay people, or call it a 'lifestyle choice.' I can't live a lie any more."

Therese sucked in her breath sharply. "But you ... your custody battle. You'd lose for sure."

Carol's face was pale but her jaw was set determinedly. "I won't have my daughter, or anyone, think I'm ashamed of loving you. Because I'm not. I am going to live on my own terms, honestly, and make these hypocrites question what they think is true and challenge it with the reality of the good person that I am."

Therese squeezed her more tightly. She felt so frightened at what Carol was proposing. But she felt proud of her, too. This woman was so brave, as fierce and majestic as a lion. She had made the decision that would set her free, and even though it would leave her scarred and wounded, she would no longer be a captive.

"Whatever you want to do, I support you," Therese said quietly, and she could tell by the look on Carol's face that it was the perfect thing to say. "But you have to know you can't stay in Dixon and live your truth. It would be too dangerous."

The older woman nodded slowly. "Yes, I remember last summer those two women hiking the Appalachian Trail were shot because some lunatic was angry they were lesbians. I am not going to hide, but I'm going to be careful too. And part of that involves moving to a more urban area."

Therese could feel her heart hammering in her chest. She felt so much all at once: worry for Carol, sadness at the separation she would face from her daughter, exhilaration that Carol might move to Birmingham, and anxiety that she might have somewhere else in mind.

"Would you ... move to Birmingham?"

"Yes. If that's ok with you. But it will be a while yet. After the divorce is final."

"It's more than ok, it's wonderful," Therese breathed, already imagining a tiny apartment on the South Side where her days – and her nights – would be full of Carol.

Therese got up and put the remaining snacks back in the fridge, with the exception of the strawberries and chocolate. She got back on the bed and waved the tray of decadent treats enticingly.

Carol crawled onto the bed on all fours, her smile wide. She crouched over Therese and opened her mouth for a strawberry, which the smaller woman held up to her lips. The blonde bit into it with a low growl, the juice glistening on her lips, as she lowered herself onto the bed, pinning her down and smiling widely. Therese kissed the strawberry off her lips.

They were kissing and talking and laughing, lounging on the bed and eating chocolates when Carol sat up suddenly.

"Hey, I saw a 'For Sale' sign in front of your old house."

"Yep. It's sold already, can you believe it? Daddy is going to move to an apartment in Jamison."

"Wow. Are you sad about it?"

"Nope. Not even a little bit. It's going to be better for him, more manageable and affordable, and it will be a clean slate for him. He needs to get away from all the memories of that place, the good and the bad. Right now, every inch of the house is a constant reminder of Mama and Gregg. He's had a sober streak for the last 2 months, and I think a change of scenery will help keep him out of trouble."

"Good for him!"

Therese licked a bit of chocolate off her fingers. "In two weeks I'm helping him move. I'm coming up early Saturday morning and we'll spend the day moving. That night I am going to be with Dad at his new apartment, but maybe on Sunday you could come see me in Jamison?"

"Nothing could keep me away from it," Carol said, her eyes narrowing as she smiled.

"Maybe we could even go out to dinner. I was thinking something fancy. Red Lobster?"

Carol scrunched her face and then realized Therese was kidding. She punched her playfully on the arm. "Very funny. But hey, I may have something worth celebrating at that dinner."

"Oh?"

"I finally turned in my thesis. Now I'm just waiting to hear back on whether it was accepted or not. I am hoping it will be any day now."

"Wow! Carol, that is amazing!" Therese flung her arms around her in happiness. "I can't believe you finished it, especially with everything else you've had going on."

"I had a certain research assistant who was instrumental in helping me find what I needed." She winked slyly at Therese.

Therese blushed at the compliment. "Well, that's quite an accomplishment. I'm sure that's a relief to get it done."

"I hope it will open up some doors for me on the career front, once I'm ready to move."

"It definitely will."

Therese felt more hopeful than she could ever recall. There was a future for them now, and though they didn't spend much time dwelling on their plans, it was now part of the way they spoke to each other, an assumed language of togetherness. They were now a "we."

Carol stretched and turned off the bedside lamp, and they lay in the darkness for a long time, sharing the trivial and the profound. Therese's head rested so naturally in the curve of Carol's shoulder, her arm draped across her stomach. Carol's fingers combed through her hair, comforting and soothing. The desperation of the day was gone, and with it the frenetic sense of the months they had spent apart.

Therese wanted to know everything about her, every small detail. She had never been so interested in another person before. What was her favorite color? Her favorite food? Her favorite toy as a child? How many times had she been in love? If she could go anywhere in the world, where would she go?

They talked softly, their words a stream tumbling over rocks, spring thaw of the winter freeze. Sometimes the silences were so long that one of them dozed a bit, but it was as if the conversation continued even through their unconscious. She didn't know how long she had been asleep, but she was awakened by Carol's breath on her cheek and a stirring between her legs. Drowsily, she reached her hand to caress the curve of her hip, feeling for her in the dark. She touched her slowly, leisurely, savoring the feeling of the supple skin under her fingertips. This was a new Carol, a more vulnerable Carol, wrapped in the unguarded gauze of sleep.

She could only see a faint outline of her in the dark, but her memory filled in all the details of the places where she touched. Carol shifted slightly and moaned in her sleep, her legs falling open.

Therese's fingers, soft as a whisper, slid down her belly, underneath the hem of her t-shirt, to the coarse curls beneath. She combed her fingers through them, noting Carol's change in breathing. She wasn't asleep. But she was pretending to be.

Therese smiled to herself, liking this little game. Her fingers prodded and explored, so gently. Carol shifted again, her legs falling further apart. Therese scooted down the bed, underneath the bed covers. Down here the air was saturated with Carol's scent.

She brushed her cheek against Carol's inner thigh, then kissed her there until Carol could no longer hide that she was awake. But still, she was yielding to Therese's desires, letting her explore and massage her, a raft tossed about on the crest of a salty wave.

For Therese, it was a private feast, a ceremony, a celebration of desire and need and fulfillment. She took what she wanted, and she didn't lift her head until she was completely satisfied.

Chapter Text

It was well before sunrise and Therese was on the road, sipping at her travel mug of hot coffee as she watched the yellow stripes in the road flick by under her headlights, each one taking her a little closer to Dixon. Luckily, this rental  car had a cassette player, and she had a large case of her favorite tapes on the passenger seat beside her.

Right now she was enjoying Anita Baker singing about "Sweet Love," but she knew she would eventually work her way into the Roxette and Samantha Fox tapes that Sherry had loaned her. It was just too early in the morning for anything loud or rowdy.

Besides, letting herself remain just a little on the sleepy side helped keep her anxiety at bay. She wasn't sure what the day would bring, for her father or herself. They had talked quite a bit about this move, but making the final preparations and saying goodbye to the house for the last time might prove to be more challenging than they bargained for. She hoped it would be a positive move for her father and not cause him to have a setback in his sobriety.

She had taken the exit off the interstate before the sun started to poke its honeyed fingers over the pastures and pine scrub, and the little car bounced along a rural road for the last half hour of her drive. She could tell by the strong grip of those rays that the day would be clear and hot, and she was glad for the ice chest of cold Cokes on her back seat.

When she pulled into the driveway, she was dying to pee, having driven non-stop in her rush to get there. She dashed out of the car and to the front door, not even bothering to knock before she opened it.

She saw her father at the kitchen table in a pair of boxer shorts. He looked up in surprise, blinking sleepily as he held on to his coffee mug.

"Hi Pops!" she yelled, running for the bathroom.

She could hear his laughter following her down the hallway.

When she had relieved herself, she went back into the kitchen and poured herself a cup, settling in next to him at the table.

He leaned over and gave her a one-armed hug. "Hey, baby."

She smiled at him, reading his face for clues as to how he was handling the day, and life in general. He looked good – not quite as old somehow, and his eyes were clearer.

Now that she knew the answer, it felt safer to ask. "How are you?"

"I'm fair to middlin'," he said, a phrase that Therese never quite understood, but knew he only said it when he was in a decent mood. "I can't complain. Nobody would listen anyhow."

"Good. Big day ahead."

"Yep. How was your drive?" When he said the last word, his voice lifted slightly, as if he still felt a bit of wonder that she was able to accomplish this on her own.

"Uneventful, just like I like it."

They sat in silence for a little while, listening to the ticking clock and the clink of the mugs on the white formica table.

Her father finished the last sip from his cup and stretched and yawned loudly. "Well, should we do this thing?"

She hesitated for a beat. "You ... have a plan?"

He shifted slightly in his chair. "Well, I was hoping you'd pack up the kitchen stuff. Maybe go through it and take some things you want. I don't cook much, so I don't need much stuff."

"Sure, that's fine."

"And then, I thought I would work on my closet and ... I've been working on Gregg's room a little at a time, but I need to finish it." His voice went thin and hoarse for just a moment, then he cleared his throat.

"I tried to clean out your Mama's closet but ..." He looked a little lost, then, and he rubbed his hand roughly across the stubble on his jaw. Therese felt her eyes sting at the weight of what was left unsaid. She spared him.

"I'll do it."

He nodded. "Thank you."

He stood up, the metal chair legs scraping on the linoleum, and she listened to his footsteps fade down the hallway. She sat in the still and quiet of the kitchen for a moment, remembering.

In this room, the spirit of her mother was strongest. She had been thinking so much about her, mentally preparing herself for clearing out the last of her things and saying goodbye to the house where she had been nurtured and protected by this strong woman.

She carried with her a strong memory of her mother in the kitchen early on Sunday mornings, cooking breakfast in a pink flowered apron, her hair still in curlers. She could smell the bacon frying, sending mini grease showers into the air as it popped and sizzled in the cast iron pan. Her mother would then fry eggs in the bacon grease and serve them up with biscuits warm from the oven. Sunday breakfast was always special.

Her mother never complained about Therese wandering around in the kitchen, even though she realized now she must have been underfoot. She would take the time to show her how she measured out the flour for the biscuits or cut in the lard. And she answered what seemed to be a non-stop flow of questions from the dark-haired inquisitive child who would have tested the knowledge and patience of any zoologist, philosopher, or theologian.

The best thing about her mother, she thought, was that she didn't mind telling Therese when she didn't know the answer. She had found, at school and at church, that most adults pretended to know everything. If they didn't have an answer at hand, they would smile knowingly and say, "Why don't you go look that up?" As if they already knew, but were encouraging Therese to do research on her own as part of her growth.

With the unerring clarity of a child’s perception, she could sense it was bullshit.

Nonetheless, it fostered in her a love of research. She learned to find information quickly, and in weekly trips to the library she would pile the stack as high as her library card would allow. At home, she cherished the row of leather-bound encyclopedias on the bottom row of the hallway bookshelf and would flip them open to random pages to learn something new. She wondered if they were still there, if part of her packing today would be to stack them into a box for a trip to the Salvation Army.

Her mother encouraged her research, as she shared her endless curiosity about the world, and they could talk for hours about the Latin roots of words, rules of proper grammar, or the identification of local birds and plants.

As she stood and picked up the mugs and a dirty plate, she remembered the summer she and her mother learned the Greek alphabet together and would use it to speak in code at this very table. Her brother would be irritated by it, but her father would grin, ruffle his hair, and tell him that if he wanted to know what the two women were saying so badly, he should learn the Greek alphabet too. Of course, he never did.

She tried hard to remember her smell, the way it felt to have her arms around her, the exact shade of her eyes. It was frightening to her how much the memories had faded, and she worried that one day all she would have was a picture to remember her face by. For a while, how her mother looked during her illness had taken over all of her memories, and she was relieved to have those start to slip down into the black waters of her subconscious, only to be revived by an occasional nightmare. But it was disheartening to know these other things were slipping away too, and she made a conscious effort to recall specific moments with her mother and mentally lock them into her brain, remembering as many details as she could.

She ran her fingers over the surface of the scarred and battered table and swallowed hard, thinking of her mother’s small, strong hands covered in flour. Then, she straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and got started packing.

Going through the cabinets was a bit of a treasure hunt, and she found things shoved towards the back that she didn't know were there. She put things aside in a few boxes for herself, and she smiled to think of these things making their way into her own kitchen – the kitchen she would share with Carol.

She had made good progress in a couple of hours and was just wrapping up the last two glasses in newspaper when she heard a knock at the front door. She wiped her grimy hands on her jeans and went to open it.

She took a step back when she realized it was Dannie, standing sheepishly on the front stoop.

"Hey, Rezzie."

She pushed her uncertainty aside and smiled at him, opening the screen door.

"Hey, Dufus, what are you doing here?"

"I heard it was moving day, so I came to help."

She was flabbergasted. "Wow ... uhhh ... how did ... are you sure?"

As shocked as she was, she certainly wasn't going to turn down the help.

He nodded.

"Thank you. That's so nice! We will owe you ..."

He cut her off. "No, you don't owe me a thing. But I'm hoping it will go a little ways towards you forgiving me."

"Forgiving you?"

She saw his eyes flash past her for a moment, looking into the house for her father. He lowered his voice.

"For acting like an ass. You told me something important that was hard for you to tell me. And I ... well, I just didn't handle it well. So I hope we'll be cool again."

Therese's laugh sounded a little like a sob, and she dashed the back of her hand across her mouth quickly. "We're cool. Especially if you can lift heavy things," she said, turning and heading back into the house.

She could feel her face prickling hot and cold all at once, her ears burning. She couldn't bring herself to let him know how much this meant, because then he would know how much his prior rejection had cost her. She swallowed it all down and tried to focus on the task at hand, and at being grateful he was here now.

"Could you take these boxes out to the car?" She looked up at him, at his kind eyes and familiar face. His head was tilted slightly.

"Yes Ma'am," he said. He bent to pick up the boxes, and she reached out and caught his sleeve, tugging it quickly.

He stopped, his hand on the top of the box.

"Thank you. For all of it," she said softly, and gave him an awkward hug from the side while he was still leaned over.

Before he could respond, she was headed down the hallway to retrieve more empty boxes.

"Dannie's here!" she yelled to her father. He emerged from Gregg's bedroom looking pale. A dose of Dannie would do him good right about now. "Go say hi to him – see if he wants some coffee."

"OK," he said, heading towards the front door like a prisoner escaping his cell.

She opened the door to her old room and noticed the dust motes twinkling in the morning sun.. Four indentations in the worn carpet indicated where her bed had stood, and the wall had a lighter patch where the nightstand used to be. There were a few books still on the dusty bookcase and a prom dress and some old clothes hanging in the closet. Other than that, most of Therese had been wiped from this room.

Another family would live here, and maybe a young girl would occupy this room and fill it with her own fantasies. Therese wished her better luck.

She hastily finished clearing out the room and brought the boxes to the living room, noticing that the two men were still out in the driveway. She drew the curtain back and peeked out at them, noticing that Dannie had gotten her daddy to laugh. She smiled, and had a pang of regret that her father would never have this son-in-law to bring joy into his life. And then there were other regrets which quickly followed, and worries about future conversations, and thoughts which she quickly decided she couldn't afford to have right now. She dropped the curtain and headed back down the hallway.

She leaned against the doorframe of her parents’ bedroom for a moment before going in. Then, she pushed the door open and entered. It was neater in there than the last time she had seen it. There were years where she dared not step foot in the room that was the eye of her father's hurricane.

The room smelled of him, of his cologne and his sweat, but it was mostly tidy. The bed had been stripped bare. On one nightstand was an ancient alarm clock and a picture of her parents on their wedding day. Her mother was wearing a simple church dress, smiling, her hair bobbed short. Her father was all dimples and cheekbones, his hair in a tight buzz cut, looking slightly awkward in a tight suit.  How could those two have known the life that waited for them, the children they would raise together, the losses they would suffer?

She gave the photo a sympathetic look.

Her insides felt liquid, quivering at the thought of opening the side of the closet that had belonged to her mother. She conjured an image of the liquid cooling, dropping in temperature as she turned to ice, freezing until icicles dripped from her fingers. She pulled back the slatted door. Inside, there were clothes on hangers, wrapped in plastic dry cleaning bags, a few purses hanging on pegs, and a neat row of shoes on the floor, mostly dress flats and sandals.

Impulsively, she lifted one of the plastic bags off a cluster of cotton blouses and pressed her face into the material, hoping to recognize an old familiar scent. But there was nothing but the perfume of dry cleaning fluid, dryer sheets, and the mustiness of things shut in a dark closet for far too long.

She sighed.

A line from Elizabeth Bishop's beautiful and mournful poem, "One Art," popped into her head: "The art of losing isn't hard to master," and then another, "practice losing farther, losing faster."

She knew far too much about loss and grief. She hoped there were other, less painful lessons to be learned in her near future.

She started to sort through the clothes without scrutinizing them for too long. She didn't want to be tempted to hang on to things needlessly. It was a task better done quickly and without too much thought, like ripping a bandaid off a cut.

She heard her father's and Dannie's footsteps in the house again, their lively chatter. In another room down the hall, they seemed a world away. She imagined for a moment what it would be like to have Carol here with her. Not even saying a word, just sitting on the bed quietly, being there for a gentle, reassuring touch when she needed her. The mere presence of her would be a soothing balm, the constant reminder that she was not alone. Thinking of it made the ache for her worse, and she calmed herself with the thought that she would see her tomorrow.

She checked a shoe box that seemed especially heavy and was surprised to find a bundle of letters, tied up with twine. Some were in envelopes addressed to her mother, some were just folded sheets of paper. In the bottom of the box were a few trinkets: a lock of dark hair, a man’s handkerchief, a smooth rock that was vaguely heart-shaped. She was sure each of these items told a story.

She put the lid back on the box and held it in her lap for a moment, unsure of what to do. Give it to her father? Save the letters for herself to read and cherish this slice of her mother's life still left on earth? Burn them in respect for her privacy?

It was too big of a decision for today. She walked to the front room and tucked the little package into one of the bags bound for her apartment.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon passed in a blur, a hustle of moving boxes and the shuffling of feet. Around 3:00, her father's pal Freddy showed up in a U-haul with two strong-looking men who looked to be in their early 20's. She could have wept with the relief of it, to know they had strong young backs to take up the heavy lifting.

She guessed Freddy was footing the bill, and she wasn't about to ask any questions. It was wonderful to see him coming through for her father – and to finally open up his wallet a little and spend some of the money he was usually so stingy with.

Now that the boxes were packed, she stood in the hallway directing traffic as the boys came in and out through the swinging screen door, marking each box with the room in the new apartment where it belonged.

She couldn't believe how quickly the truck was packed. Freddy slid the metal door on the back of the U-haul shut with a clang and roared, "She's ready to roll!"

They were all standing in the driveway under the shade of a gnarled old Hickory. She grabbed her father's elbow, pulling at him.

"We just need to do one last walk-through. You boys help yourself to a Coke in the cooler."

She led her father back into the house, looking around at the empty walls. So this was it. The end of this place, of this point in time.

She could see him looking around too, remembering. She felt a sudden wave of sadness and anxiety that she had not expected. It almost knocked her flat, and she reached out for him.

His arms were around her then, and they were holding on to each other, holding each other up. She could feel the tears on her own cheeks, and she knew by the gentle heaving of his chest that he was crying too. They were saying goodbye.

His fingers cradled the top of her head.

My Daddy.

He was protecting her. She felt a certainty that they would make it through this transition, together. There was a peace to it, and a finality.

She let go of him, and they both dashed at their eyes bashfully.

"We ready?" she asked him.

"Ready."

By the end of the day, Therese was physically and emotionally exhausted. She was relieved that they had gotten everything to her dad's new place. It looked like a train wreck at the moment, but he was more than capable of unpacking the boxes and getting things settled on his own. She sensed that he would even prefer it that way – to make this new space truly his.

He had finally wobbled off to his bedroom, and she had dragged her tired self into the shower to get cleaned up before collapsing on the couch with a pillow and a blanket. She fell quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.

___________

Waking up on the couch was disorienting. For a moment, she thought she was in her own apartment and Sherry was coming home from the club. Then she realized it was her father, opening the front door with a tray of steaming cups and a Hardee's bag.

"Breakfast!" He grinned at her.

"Mmmm, biscuits!"

"And hash rounds."

"You, sir, are a prince among men."

He bowed elegantly, balancing the tray of coffee.

They made small talk over breakfast, mostly about how sore and stiff they were from all the work the day before.

"What time do you have to head back today?" he asked.

"Well ... " She had been going back and forth in her mind about how much to reveal of her plans. But lying didn't sit well with her.

"I don't have to be back until later, but I've made plans to spend the day with a friend."

He raised his eyebrows, a hash round paused halfway to his mouth.

"You never met her."

She watched his eyebrows return to normal position, his crispy fried potato back en route.

"She was my friend in Dixon. The one who taught me how to drive."

He nodded. "The Aird woman."

She couldn't tell from his expression if he had heard any rumors of her divorce, or if he just remembered the name from the few mentions she had made.

"Right."

"Still amazes me that she got you behind the wheel. I never could."

She gave him a small smile. "I guess we can all change and learn new things."

He nodded, looking thoughtful. “I reckon so.”

“You know, I am really proud of you,” she said, feeling her cheeks burn. They were both making a point not to look at each other, so there was no danger of making eye contact.

“Thanks. I’m proud of you too, Squeak,” he said, bringing back a nickname from so early in her childhood that she had forgotten its origin.

Her mouth was suddenly full of saliva, and she swallowed hard. She couldn’t help but wonder how proud he would be if he really knew her, all of her.

She wadded up the rest of her biscuit in the wax paper and got up to throw it in the garbage bag slumped against the kitchen wall. She could hear her father stirring too as she busied herself  unpacking the essential kitchen items and organizing a few cabinets. The kitchen was much smaller than in their old house, so it was good she had pulled out some items for herself. It was questionable what she was going to do with it in her own small shared space, but she would worry about that when she got back to Birmingham. She had smoothed things over somewhat with Sherry, but she didn't want another fight to erupt over clutter in the apartment. She just needed to keep things cordial and uncomplicated for a while longer.

After breakfast, time seemed to crawl. Twice she thought her watch was broken. Finally it was time to hug her dad goodbye and leave him to settle in on his own.

When she pulled into the parking lot of her favorite Italian place, she found she was still 20 minutes early. She sat in the car with the air conditioner running, distracting herself by skimming through the Jamison radio stations.

Her heart leaped when she saw the green Jag pulling in. She shut the car off and jumped out quickly, waving like a dork. Carol pulled in beside her, sliding from the cool interior and into the warm autumn sunlight with a perfectly outlined smile.

They hugged awkwardly, aware they were in a public place. Therese knew her eyes would give her away, but Carol's were hidden behind dark sunglasses. She pulled them off as they entered the dark interior of Sal's, a small place crammed with booth seating against the dark paneled walls.

The hostess indicated they could pick anywhere to sit – it was mostly empty and the lunch rush was over. They sat across from each other, sliding into the booths on red vinyl seats. Therese found looking at the menu inconvenient. She'd much rather look at Carol. She already knew what she wanted, anyway.

Carol peeked at her over the menu and winked. "Any recommendations?"

"Everything. It's all good. But my favorites are the eggplant parmesan and the pasta with clam sauce. Oh, and if you like gnocci, it's great here. But there's also this dish with angel hair pasta and butter and garlic shrimp."

Carol started to laugh. "My goodness, are you going to tell me the whole menu?"

Therese shrugged. "I said it's all good."

Carol laid the large laminated menu back down on the table and drank Therese in with her eyes. Therese shivered a little under the intense heat of her gaze. It was torture not to be able to touch her, to reach out and hold her hand.

About then, she felt Carol's foot nudge against her ankle. She pressed back.

"How did it go yesterday?" the tall woman asked, propping her cheek in her hand, her head tilted.

"Better than I expected. I missed you, though."

Carol pressed her lips together, trying not to look too pleased at that, Therese thought.

"Good."

Just then the waitress showed up with a basket of bread and ice water. She took their orders and then scurried off towards the kitchen.

"So, do we have something to celebrate?" Therese asked.

The blue eyes sparkled. "Oh do we ever! I got the letter on Thursday but kept it a secret to tell you in person. I've officially graduated!"

Therese lifted her water glass. "To you and all of your hard work! Congratulations!"

Carol chuckled and clinked her glass against Therese's. "There were definitely moments when I thought I would never finish."

She could see Carol’s excitement and pride at seeing it through. She looked radiant.

Luckily for them, there weren't many other diners around to see them making moony eyes at each other throughout the meal. Carol's toes stroked her ankle and up her calf, making her blush and squirm in her seat.

Therese felt drugged, her brain buzzed and fuzzy, and eventually she gave up even trying and focused on the pure sensuality of Carol's presence, the delicious, decadent meal, and the uncomplicated joy she felt at being able to be with her in person and look at her unguardedly.

She was reminded how beautiful it was to watch her eat. There was  something about it so primal, her lipstick wearing off, a bit of olive oil shining on her lower lip, her long fingers holding the fork and twirling pasta around it artfully. Therese couldn't have said who else came and went in the restaurant, or even what the waitress looked like. In her world, there was only Carol, and she was consumed by her entirely.

Therese insisted on paying for lunch as a treat for Carol's graduation. When they walked back out to the parking lot, the afternoon sun had started to take on the soft, magical light that only autumn days can offer. They got into the Jag together, and Therese could feel the sunlight slanting in through the window and caressing her cheek.

"Where can we go?" Carol asked, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.

"There's a park about 10 minutes from here. Or we could go to a movie."

Therese remembered her trip to the movie with Dannie and her fantasy of sitting in the dark with Carol, sharing a popcorn. She would be able to touch her in the dark without anyone seeing.

She watched Carol's face as she deliberated. "I just want to be alone with you."

"Me too."

Carol reached across the seat and squeezed her hand gently, then shifted the Jag into gear.

"Which way to the park?"

Therese directed her to the small urban park with a large fountain and a memorial statue of Jefferson Davis, the one time President of the failed Confederacy. She tucked the Jag into a spot and cracked the windows, shutting off the engine. A breeze came in through the cracks, bringing the smell of freshly cut grass and a hint of cigarettes.

Carol made a gesture at the statue. “Still haven’t gotten over the war, huh?”

“Welcome to Mississippi,” Therese said. “You know, we Alabamians always say ‘Thank God for Mississippi.’”

“Why’s that?”

“Because if there’s any ranking of the states, whether it’s education or poverty or whatever, we’re sure to be #49. But Mississippi is always #50.” She gave the woman a sassy grin.

“Well, that’s quite an achievement.”

“Hey, at least they’re consistent.”

Both women giggled.

The park was fairly quiet, but there were just enough people walking around that they couldn't guarantee not to be seen.

Carol asked her again about the move, her father, how it felt to leave her childhood home for good, as if she sensed that Therese had not shared the whole story in the restaurant. It felt strange to her to be under such scrutiny, but she could sense Carol’s deep curiosity about her, her hunger to know her more deeply and to understand. It made her feel interesting. Important. Cared for.

Therese could feel herself opening up, like a sunflower slowly turning its face to follow the sun. There was no need to pretend with her, to hide how difficult the previous day had been. It made her realize just how much she had been holding herself in, containing herself to protect against the violent wind storm of emotions that had blown around her.

But now, she could release her grip, climb into the shelter that was Carol, and feel the relief of trust and vulnerability.

Starting from her morning drive, she unfolded to her the events of the day and how she felt about each thing. She told about packing up the kitchen, the strong memories of her mother, and the shoe box of mementos in the closet. She explained about the sudden appearance of Dannie, the love for him that she felt and the relief that he was back in her life. And she told about the crushing sadness and anxiety she had felt at leaving the house, and how she and her father had wept together, remembering the half of the family that was no longer with them in the world.

The calm grey-blue eyes watched her, taking in every word, her face a reflection of Therese’s own feelings.

Carol had turned sideways in her seat to take Therese's hand again, holding it down low and out of sight.

“That must have been so hard for you,” she said softly, and Therese could feel her bottom lip trembling. Carol reached out and stroked her hair away from her cheek, tucked it behind her ear. For a brief moment, Therese nuzzled against the hand like a doting cat. She could feel a trace of wetness as Carol dabbed at a tear with her thumb.

Carol leaned across the gear shift and hugged her awkwardly, and she felt the strength of her flowing through the embrace. She was amazed, even in that brief touch, how much she had the power to comfort her and heal her. She had seen the fortitude of this woman, had admired her grit in declaring that she would live her own truth, regardless of the consequences. But now she realized this carried through to their relationship too, that Carol could be strong for her , could be a fortress against the million needles of a cruel world.

She hadn’t known it could be possible, but she found herself loving this woman even more, the depths of her passion and admiration finding a new level. It left her breathless.

The embrace was all too brief, the concern for their surroundings enough to burst the bubble of their intimacy. For two women friends, it would have been a natural thing, the type of comforting gesture that occurs all the time. But their own paranoia made it a loaded gun, their knowledge combined with a fear for their own safety. It made them question how they were together in public, in a way that might have, in itself, become conspicuous.

"I'd give anything just to kiss you right now," Carol said, her voice husky.

"Me too," the smaller woman replied, still trying to regain her normal breathing.

"One day we'll have all the time we want to be together, in our own place."

"I hope it's soon."

"I'm working on it, baby."

"You're worth the wait," she replied, reaching over and placing her hand just above the tall woman's knee, relishing the feel of her muscular thigh through her linen pants.

Carol left a trail of heat as she traced her fingertips up the soft inside of Therese’s arm, making goosebumps scurry all the way up to her neck.

Such sweet torment. They stayed together for as long as they could, but Carol started to fret about Therese driving home in the dark alone.

Reluctantly, she drove her back to her rental car and then, taking a quick glance around the parking lot, leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to her lips.

"Drive safely, my darling. Call me when you get home."

"I will." And then she said more quietly, shyly, this thing that they had started to say to each other that made her so incredibly happy. "Love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart."

As she pulled back onto the main highway, the Jag in her rearview mirror was slightly blurry from her tears. The more time she spent with this amazing woman, the harder it was to leave her each time. Some nights, it took all of her willpower to hang up the phone from talking with her.

Today, getting back in the car, she had felt a ripping sensation in her ribs, a feeling of being homesick and hungry all balled into one terrible wave of emotion. On top of it all, she was incredibly frustrated, as if she had been starved for days and then invited to a beautiful buffet with her jaws were wired shut.

The drive back to Birmingham would be long, but at least she would have her fantasies. And Samantha Fox.

She turned up the radio and blasted "Naughty Girls Need Love Too."

Chapter Text

The aisles of the grocery store were jam-packed. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and everyone seemed frantic to pick up last minute items, as if the very happiness of their families depended on it.

Therese did not feel frantic. She had one hand on her shopping cart, pondering which type of rice to buy. Should she go for a basmati, jasmine, or some long-grain wild rice? She supposed the wild rice would go best with the Cornish game hens she was planning to prepare. It was more expensive, but it would be worth the splurge. Her mouth was watering already, imagining the delicious and decadent meal.

And then, as if conjured by magic, Carol came around the corner with a can of cream of mushroom soup in her hand. For a moment it took Therese's breath away. Even when Carol was out of sight for just a few moments, when she reappeared again, Therese had to check reality. She could not believe this beautiful, amazing woman was now a constant in her life.

But here she was, smiling triumphantly with the can of soup. "It was the last one!" she said.

"Phew. Dinner is saved!" Therese said, grinning back, as if this can of soup were a winning lottery ticket. But they both knew it was not the soup she was so pleased about.

"What's next on the list?" Carol said, nudging against her playfully and taking over control of the cart.

"Corn meal and white bread – to make the cornbread dressing."

"Right-o," Carol said, affecting a chipper British accent.

It was heaven, being here with her in the grocery store. Such a simple slice of domestic life, the concrete proof of the existence they now shared. What snacks does Carol like? Does she buy butter or margarine? Whole or 2%, white or wheat, romaine or iceberg? So much to discover, and explore, and delight in. Her eyes roamed her body, taking in the way her soft camel-colored sweater hugged the curve of her breast and snugged in at her slender waistline. 

She felt inconspicuous watching her study the products on the shelves as she pushed the cart smoothly around a corner. It was a public space, but everyone was too distracted, busy with their own personal missions to pay any attention to the two women bantering by the cranberry sauce.

"You have to get the whole berries," Carol said, waving the can of Ocean Spray at her.

"Nope. That's so wrong. It's supposed to be this jelly kind. And when you slide it out onto a plate, it stays in the shape of the can."

Carol mock huffed and rolled her eyes. "Philistine," she muttered under her breath.

They ended up with both cans in the basket – a ridiculous amount of cranberry considering it would only be the two of them at dinner.

Therese felt a pang of guilt at her extreme happiness. She had all she wanted for Thanksgiving: she had Carol. But she knew the holiday would be difficult for the older woman, her first time away from her daughter on a day that was supposed to be all about family and gratitude. She resolved herself to be extra kind and loving on that day and do whatever she could to entertain and distract her love. She scooped up the can of cranberry jelly out of the cart and jogged to put it back on the shelf.

When she caught up with Carol again in the next aisle, the woman raised a quizzical brow.

"I'll try the whole berries," she said. "A new tradition. Our tradition."

For a moment, she thought of the way Gregg had always poked at the jiggling cranberry jelly on the table with his butter knife, the pats of butter in the shape of a turkey her mother had always bought for the special occasion. She thought of her father's delight over the giblet gravy, his silly maniacal grin as he carved the turkey.

Thanksgiving had contained the spaces of the missing for a long time in her own life. To add her father to the list seemed less than tragic, part of the art she had learned so well. Of course, Therese had felt the sting of her father's rejection when he chose to go spend the holiday with his sister in Atlanta. On her last visit home, she had finally broached the subject of her relationship with Carol, providing as scant detail as she thought she could get away with.

But she did explain that the two of them were living together, that Carol's divorce had gone through, and that he would probably hear some rumors from his friends back in Dixon. He hadn't said much, had not asked any follow up questions, and seemed to be under the impression that if he just ignored the whole situation, it would go away. Given the drama that was rocking Carol's world, she was actually relieved at his approach – to not have to talk about it, or process it, or explain details that would only make her squirm and blush.

After all, she had her Carol, and she had days and nights full of her to look forward to. They each had a few days off from work, and then Carol would start her new job as an adjunct professor at UAB on Monday. They would start to find a routine together, the rhythm of their days and nights, going out separately into the world only to anticipate the sweet return home again, the delicate collision of their bodies rejoining.

When they had checked everything off the list and then found themselves tempted by a lemon pie at the bakery, they stood in the cashier line together watching the world swim around them, floating serenely in their contentment. Therese was close enough that she could catch the scent of Carol whenever she moved her head, or reached to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

She wanted to touch her, and she made an excuse to lean and rearrange something in the cart so that she could brush her hip against her, feel the delicious burn of the brief moment of contact. Carol's body felt so hot through her thin slacks.

The cashier was young and dark-complexioned, chewing on a wad of bright pink bubble gum and blowing bubbles. When she totaled up their items, Therese stifled a gasp at the price tag. Their savings were exhausted, with the cost of both of their moves, the deposit on the apartment, and the trip to Wal-Mart for some cleaning supplies and a small vacuum cleaner.

Carol charged it on her credit card. Therese determined at that moment that she would create a budget for them and manage to stick to it, no matter how many boxes of Kraft Mac 'n Cheese they had to consume to stay within their means.

Carol, on the other hand, had obviously been crafting her own agenda. "After this weekend is over, we are going to start eating healthier," she said, eyeing the bags of food as she pushed the cart out of the store and over the cracked pavement of the lot.

"Hmmpf," Therese replied.

Carol opened the hatch of her red Subaru, and Therese started to load the bags into the back. It was a practical car, but she missed the sleek, sexy power of the Jaguar and the way that Carol had looked behind the wheel. She knew it had been hard for her to sell it, but it was a luxury that she couldn't afford in these lean times, especially when simple maintenance on the car was triple the cost of the station wagon.

A drizzle of rain started to fall on their drive home, and the wipers squeaked across the windshield, creating a world that cleared and blurred in a rhythmic pattern, each swipe a new mystery revealed.

Home.

Therese smiled. The last several days had been a flurry of moving into their tiny apartment off Green Springs Avenue, a place that lacked any charm but was affordable and seemed reasonably safe. Most importantly, it was a place that they could call their own, a haven away from the world that judged them, where Therese could reach out at any time and touch Carol's hair, or Carol could take her hand and kiss her palm.

They walked up the stairs to the second floor and opened the door, ignoring the cockroach that scurried back into a crack between the moulding and the carpet. The place was a disaster, with half-opened boxes and clothes hangers everywhere. They kept getting distracted from their tasks by each other, by their desire to touch and be touched, by the double bed with the tangled sheets that seemed to call them back to it in every waking moment.

There would be time for unpacking, for organization, for the demands of adult things. Right now, they were giddy with love, drunk on it, their time together unspooling into endless possibilities and explorations.

At this moment, a kiss seemed urgent, before they had even unpacked their first bag. Carol pressed Therese against the door of the apartment, locking it as she dropped her bags to the floor and slipped her tongue into her mouth. Therese wound her hands awkwardly around her waist, the plastic grocery bags dangling from her wrists, weighing them down. She laughed into the kiss, a bubble of joy bursting in her chest.

They broke the kiss and stumbled together into the battle-scarred kitchen, clutching each other. The stove was old-fashioned, porcelain with black knobs and gas burners, standing alone at the end of the narrow kitchen. Therese thought it would be too small for a turkey, and she was glad again that she had gone for the Cornish hens.

They unloaded the cold items into the fridge that Therese had just cleaned that morning with disinfectant wipes, the dim light inside illuminating a lone box of Chinese take-out from the night before. Now, with their items from the store, it seemed like a real refrigerator, one in a place where grown people lived, people who cooked and had jobs and paid rent.

Therese peered out of the window into the backyard of the neighboring house and saw a blue jay perched on a bird house with the words "See Rock City" painted on top. Around the perimeter, hostas and daisies fought with weeds for prominence. The early setting sun reflected off the striped green and white aluminum awning below.

Carol sprawled on the couch and gestured for her to come over. Therese sat between Carol's parted legs and leaned back carefully against her, not wanting to crush her. Carol's strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her more firmly back, and she felt cool fingers move the hair off her neck and warm lips pressed to the place where her blood pulsed.

Outside, the neighborhood noise echoed off the blacktop: a pod of wild children playing stickball in the street, a man pushing a shopping cart with a boom box blasting from inside it, the brake pads of a rusty old Chevy screeching and rattling.

Inside, the temperature in the apartment was just starting to drop, the drafts coming in through the windows and under the door making little currents of cold.

Carol pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and spread it over them both, then her fingers returned to the dark hair, stroking and untangling. Therese turned her cheek to press against the softness of Carol's breast, her ear seeking the persistent heartbeat. Her toes wiggled happily under the blanket.

She was in a state of suspended bliss, drowsy, warm, and safe. She nuzzled at Carol like a kitten.

"When did you know you liked me?" she said, her voice a little slurred from the close proximity of her favorite drug.

"Always," Carol said simply.

"Nooo, silly, I mean when did you feel ... you know, attracted to me."

"Always," Carol said again. Therese tilted her head up, but all she could see was the bottom of Carol's chin, the point of her nose, her cheek bones.

"Of course, the first time I saw you, I only was able to catch a glance of you in church. You were sitting right behind me, so it wasn't like I could turn around and get a better look. But I thought to myself, 'Ahh, maybe there's something in this crap town that isn't so bad after all.' And this might sound crazy when I tell you this, but it was like I could feel you behind me the whole time. It was so distracting."

"You probably felt my eyes burning a hole into your back."

Carol chuckled. "Maybe. But I was intrigued from the first moment. And then, that day in the library, when I was finally able to talk to you, I could feel something in my chest shift, an instant connection. More than an attraction, but this feeling like I knew you. Like I had known you forever. And would know you for the rest of my life."

Therese felt the butterflies in her stomach and she stroked her hand up Carol's arm. "I felt that too. But then, I was always questioning myself. LIke there was no way someone as smart and beautiful and confident as you would be actually interested in me. So then I would think you were just fucking with me ... you know, being flirty with me because it was fun to watch me blush and squirm."

"Oh, I'm not gonna lie. That part was definitely fun. It's how I knew you liked me too. But I was definitely ..." she paused, brushing her thumb across the younger woman's cheek, "...definitely interested."

"I wish you would have just come out and told me."

"I know, darling. But it felt so risky. If I was wrong, if I would have hurt you. Everything in my head was so confused, and there were times when just being near you felt like pure danger. And I was worried I wouldn't be able to control myself. That one day, I would just ... pounce."

Therese grinned and shivered a little, remembering the day the jungle cat had finally captured her prey in the library, the smoldering kiss in her little back office. "I guess your instincts were right."

"Hmm, yes. I just couldn't keep myself together any more. And the thought of anyone else touching you drove me ... well, still drives me insane." Carol moved her hand down to cup Therese's breast possessively, her fingertip brushing a nipple.

"I'm yours. No one else is going to touch me."

Carol twirled her nipple into hardness, then rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. There was enough pressure to make a sweet ache in the pit of her stomach. "Good. I wouldn't want to have to mark my territory," she said, pinching the nipple just a touch harder for a brief moment, sending a jolt down between Therese's legs. "Mine." 

Therese twisted her body around, turning to face the golden lioness who held captive every part of her. She pushed herself up on her hands and pressed a kiss to her luscious full lips, feeling them acquiesce to her probing tongue. She could feel the heat from Carol against her knee, slender fingers sliding down her back to cup her buttocks and pull her in closer.

The noise of the street faded away and all she could hear were Carol's moans, her breath in her ear, the sound of her own cum-cry as skilled fingers claimed her. It was good the apartment was small; it meant they didn't have far to walk on wobbly legs to get to their bed. They slept together, cocooned, two parts of a whole.

Chapter Text

November 25, 1999 -- Thanksgiving day

Therese had been up since 4 a.m. Not because she had to, but because her eyes had popped open and her body had compelled her to get up and write. She had an end of year deadline, but she always liked to finish with plenty of time for her own edits and clean up before handing over to her editor. She only had 2, maybe 3 chapters left to write.

Besides, the end of the year would be the new millennium, and there was so much paranoia about computer systems crashing and data being lost that she wanted to have her manuscript printed and saved in multiple media formats before the new year.

She had an extra layer of anxiety about this novel. Her first 3 books had been murder/mystery plots, loosely based on true crime stories she had read, combined with a totally fictional character she had created of a quirky female detective. While she had drawn elements of the main character and other threads of the story from her own life and experiences, it was far detached from her daily reality. While not best sellers, the stories had given her enough success to quit her job and become a full time writer, and she had a good relationship with her publisher.

Her publisher had wanted her to do more of the same -- to keep building on the detective series and let the popularity continue to grow through word of mouth and the occasional book tour. And she planned to ... eventually.

But the book she was working on now, against her publisher's wishes, was intensely personal. It was a lesbian love story set in the deep South, about two women who, against all odds, managed to find each other and true love in an oppressive setting. So much of it had been taken from her love affair with Carol and the early, painful memories of discovering her own sexuality. There had been moments, sitting in front of her computer, when she had started to cry, or laugh hysterically, or felt a sudden wave of heat and animal lust wash over her. The feelings were raw with this story, and she experienced them on a level far deeper than anything she had felt with her other novels.

Most of all, she felt so invested in the two main characters and wanted desperately for them to find each other and be happy, finally. There were times during the story where she had to fight against her own wants and desires for the two of them and try to remain true to what she felt was right for the story -- to let them struggle, and cry, and come to their own conclusions.

Now, here she was in her little study with the sky still pitch black out her window except for a sliver of moon glinting off the snow on the bushes outside. She sipped black coffee and typed, then backspaced, then typed again. She found herself smiling, laughing at her own jokes in the manuscript.

She loved writing in the still and quiet of the early morning hours. The desk chair creaked when she leaned back, and she heard the soft pad of feet coming in from the hallway. It was JoJo, her fat orange boy cat, strolling across the hardwood floor to twirl around her leg flirtatiously. She patted her lap, and he jumped up for a snuggle. His purr was hypnotic, and she buried her face into the thick fur of his neck, enjoying his warmth and comfort.

By the time she finished the chapter, her legs had fallen asleep from the effort of trying not to move and disturb his peaceful slumber. She shifted, and he opened a cautious eye, a grumpy warning that he was not done napping.

She laughed. "Too bad, big boy. I have got to get up and start prepping for dinner. Big day today!"

He managed a noise half between a moan and a meow as she shuffled him off her lap. The sun was just starting to peek over the trees and trickle in through the kitchen window as she checked her schedule for the day. She had put a lot of thought into it, determining the best timing to get every dish to the table hot and fresh. Today was going to be a lot of work, but she would love every minute of it.

Last night she had done quite a bit of chopping and prep work, and she had carefully injected the giant thawed turkey roosting in the refrigerator. The first order of the day was to get it in the oven.

She had just finished getting the turkey settled when she heard the shifting of floorboards toward the back of the house, and then the flush of a toilet, running water. She could feel the excitement rising in a warm bubble in her chest. The day was really beginning now -- time to share it with someone else.

A tousled mop of dark hair poked its way around the doorframe, followed by a face that was all yawn.

"G'mornin'," followed the yawn, as she headed straight for the coffee.

"Good morning yourself. How did you sleep, sweetheart?"

"Mmmm good. We've been so busy at the museum lately that it feels great to have a few days to relax."

"Sit down. I'll cook you some breakfast. How does a little bacon and egg omelet sound?"

"You spoil me, Terri." The girl's eyes twinkled over her mug of coffee, the steam rising in a curl over her forehead.

"I'm happy to do it," she said, walking over and putting an arm around her shoulders for a squeeze. She seemed thin to Therese, so she felt it was her job to put a little weight on her while she was visiting. Therese thought she was going a little overboard on the Goth phase, but as long as she seemed healthy and happy she wasn't one to complain. Sure, it was unsettling the first time she had come home with her hair dyed black and five studs dotting one earlobe -- she practically had to peel Carol off the ceiling. But it was just some hair dye after all, and a little self expression. She had consoled Carol with the fact that at least she hadn't gotten any tattoos yet. Well, at least not that they knew of.

When Rindy sat down at the table with her cup of coffee, Therese indulged herself in just a moment of taking her in, sitting there. There were so many years without her at the table, or only sporadic visits. Harge had done his best to turn her against them --and even more potent had been the religion she was steeped in. But this little rebellious streak in her, the same one that had compelled her to dress all in black and buy Doc Martens, that streak had made her question the teachings of the church and reach out to a mother who had always been loving and kind.

Once she was able to drive, she had started to steal away to Birmingham on the weekends to see them, and she would call a fuming Harge to tell him that she was ok, but that she was going to spend the night with her mother. Carol would just shrug her shoulders at him and smile cryptically as if to say, "What can I do? I can't make her leave." Secretly, her admiration for her fierce and strong-willed daughter gave way to the type of appreciation that a parent can only experience when watching their child grow into adulthood.

And then, there came a pivotal moment for all of them. Carol's reputation in the academic world had been flourishing, and she had published several articles in respected literary journals. She started being invited to speak at conferences, and it wasn't long before job offers started to come in from various schools for positions with the promise of tenure.

They had sat down at the kitchen table, the three of them: Carol, Therese, and Rindy -- and they talked about where they would all like to live, and where Rindy would like to go to school. For the schools where Carol had offers, she could provide Rindy with a tuition-free education. It was too good to pass up.

Therese could still remember that conversation, and how outnumbered she had felt at the time. Mother and daughter had been lobbying hard to return to Vermont.

They had friends, connections, and most importantly, fond memories of the time when they had lived there. It had reached an idyllic status in their minds, and Therese was skeptical of how much of their fond remembrances would be a reality.

Also, she was a southern girl through and through. She had barely been out of the South, except for a short trip to New York City where she felt overwhelmed and completely out of her element. She had no idea what Vermont would be like. How would she handle the cold? She was terrified at the thought of driving in snow -- she had only seen snow once, and it had completely shut down the city of Birmingham with less than an inch of it on the ground. Would the people there make fun of her accent? Would they think she was dumb, or a hillbilly?

And most importantly, would she be able to find work in her field? A degree from a small liberal arts college in Alabama might not hold any sway in the great frozen North. 

But finally, they had worn her down. Their enthusiasm was contagious. And Carol had promised her, if she would just give it a try, that they could always move back to Birmingham when Rindy finished college if she really hated it. So Therese had moved, reluctantly, with a 4-year calendar count-down in her mind.

It was nothing like she had imagined.

They had told her that Vermont was full of beautiful country, of trees, and cows, and farmland. They had told her about the mountains and the clean air. But nothing could have prepared her for the pure splendor of it, the sparkling waters of Lake Champlain, the way the morning mists rolled off the pastures, the thousands of tiny streams tumbling from high places down over rocks as smooth as dinosaur eggs. From her first week there, she was smitten.

And then there were the people. They had many of the characteristics of the small town folks she had met in Alabama: willingness to help, a friendly charm, quaint and even downright quirky behaviors. But there was a certain reserve as well, a cautiousness and tendency towards privacy that Therese could appreciate, had even embraced herself. There was a "live and let live" mentality that seemed to thrive in the place that they settled, and not only did people not pry into their personal lives, they seemed careful to avoid any topic that might be of a more sensitive nature. With most of their neighbors, they talked about the weather, and the crops, and the recycling rally being held downtown. Therese had never met such a bunch of recyclers in her life, and she got a crash course in how to be more eco-friendly as soon as she moved.

As she plated Rindy's omelet and heard the pop of the toaster, Therese smiled to herself at the memory of their first few days after they had moved to the sleepy little village of Vergennes. They had explored Main Street with its upscale bistro and homey diner, plundered the little bookshop, and marveled as they saw a man in overalls on a John Deere tractor driving through the center of town. On their 3rd evening in their new home, they had gone to Button Bay State park to sit on the rocks and watch the sun set over Lake Champlain, feeling the crispness in the air that signaled the impending fall and the start of Rindy's education at Middlebury College, and Carol's professorship in the English and American Literatures department.

Even though she had felt a little lost as the two of them started off to work and school, it had given her a chance to explore the area and get the lay of the land as she did her job search. She had enjoyed a few solitary hikes up lush mountainsides, and she had discovered that she loved paddling a kayak in early morning to the call of the loons.

To her great surprise, an opening had come up within a month at the tiny Vergennes library. It reminded her of her job in Dixon -- well, the good parts of it, anyway. She was able to organize community events and programs for children, order books, and help patrons with their research projects. The main difference was this library had a generous budget and the full support of the community. She was able to hire plenty of help to keep the little library running smoothly, and she had no problem stocking the shelves with a healthy collection of Gay and Lesbian literature. On Tuesday nights, she started what was to become a very popular writer's group. This was where the seed of her murder mystery series had taken root, and she would always remember her first book signing at that little library as one of the highlights of her career.

Now Rindy had graduated and had gotten a job as a curator at the Shelburne Museum, a sprawling and eccentric collection of antiques, art, and pop culture history on 45 acres of private land. It was her dream job, as she got to help set up new exhibits, work on restoration projects, and interact with visitors to share the history of the museum and the area. And, it was a job where her quirky personality and dress were seen as an asset rather than a liability.

She ruffled the girl's hair affectionately, and Rindy playfully slapped her hand away. "Hey, I'm not a kid anymore!"

"I know, you're a grown-ass woman," she said, and gave her a wink. Rindy might protest, but she knew that she loved being pampered when she came over to visit. She was still in those early struggling years, just scraping by on her salary, and Therese and Carol were only too happy to cook for her and buy her things. They were trying to make up for the time they had lost -- an impossible task, she knew, but it didn't stop them from fawning over her.

The sound of someone clearing her throat made them both look up at the doorway.

Therese's heart made that silly little flip-flop it sometimes did when she saw her. Even after 10 years, there were moments when the sight of her still took her breath away.

She was so incredibly tall, leaning against the frame of the door in her blue silk pajamas, her arms crossed over her chest and watching them with a bemused smile on her face. Her hair was tousled from sleep, and the creases in the corners of her eyes were deeper, the blush of the pillow on her cheek.

"You finally managed to wake up, huh?" Rindy teased.

Carol crossed the room to where Rindy sat and wrapped her arms around her neck, leaning down to kiss the side of her face. "I did. But I feel like I'm still dreaming. My two favorite ladies in the kitchen."

The blonde looked at Therese over Rindy's head and gave her a sly wink, and she felt a warm flush through her body. They were still careful in front of Rindy -- no matter how many times she told them she was "cool with it," the old habits of containing their affection in front of others was a hard one to break. For her own part, Therese didn't mind. Something about being restrained from touching her for a short while just increased her desire, made it all the more sweeter when they could reconnect again in private. It was the ingrained pattern of their existence, the early avenues of their desire, a series of restraint followed by passion unleashed.

The certainty of it all now, the knowledge that Carol loved her, would always love her, made her feel connected to her always, like a tether stretching between them wherever they were. There was no need to hesitate when they were finally alone. She would fall on her, drown her in kisses, mark her and claim her all over again.

As she watched mother and daughter together with a catch in her throat, she saw so much of Carol's face reflected in Rindy. She could see the pride and protectiveness in every angle of Carol's body: her baby was home. She had fought for her and finally won her over again, and it would take nothing short of death to keep her away now. She could see Rindy's impatience, her desire to pull away. When she was feeling strong, like any young woman the urge was to separate, to declare her independence. But as she watched, the girl's eyes softened, and she allowed herself to be hugged and kissed again, and she only sighed a little at her mother's attentions.

Therese brought Carol a steaming mug of coffee, and their fingers brushed briefly as she handed it to her. Electric.

"Thank you," she said, and her eyes said so much more.

"You're welcome," Therese replied with a slight lift of her eyebrow.

Carol sat at the table with Rindy and Therese brought her 2 slices of buttered toast, her only concession to breakfast. The smell in the room was starting to hint at the turkey roasting.

"What time does your dad's flight arrive?" she said, the toast poised in her right hand.

"12:15. Are you sure you don't mind going without me?" Therese asked.

"Not a bit. I wouldn't want to mess up that artfully crafted food schedule," Carol said with a crooked smile.

"He'd rather see you than me anyhow. Just get ready for all the questions about farming in Vermont."

Carol nodded. "Ready. I had lunch with one of the Agricultural Studies professors from University of Vermont last week just to up my game a little."

"He'll be impressed."

"Wait 'til you show him your goats," Rindy chimed in. "Those guys are the most spoiled things I've ever seen."

"The second most," Therese said, raising a meaningful eyebrow.

"Touche'."

Therese still couldn't believe that Carol had wanted to buy a farm. She had always thought she born for high society, someone who expected and needed expensive things and a fancy lifestyle. The reality was that Carol was really a simple country girl at heart. Sure, she still enjoyed dressing up for an evening at the symphony, and Therese had never seen her without her nails polished.

But Carol in jeans and a button down plaid shirt carrying water for the goats, or feeding the chickens, was truly a sight to behold. Her face serene under the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat, she looked as natural in the landscape as the squirrels and the bumble bees.

Last year, she had bought a horse, and resumed the riding that she had loved as a child. Therese didn't want anything to do with riding the huge, intimidating beast, but she loved to help brush him down and clean the tack in the barn that smelled sweet with hay. She would stand in the yard and watch Carol as she rode off down the path towards the woods and the pond, tall and majestic in the saddle, as if she and the horse had merged into one creature.

She was excited for her father to see the farm. He hadn't been to visit since they bought it. And she was even more excited just to see him, to hold his hand and look him in the eye and get a sense of him. It had been a tough year for him -- the last time she had seen him, he had been just getting over a terrible bout of double pneumonia. She and Carol had flown down to Jamison to check on him and help nurse him back to health.

It was then that Carol and her father had finally bonded, as if, in that visit, he was finally able to see the intense love this woman felt for his daughter. Once he realized this shared interest they had in common -- their mutual undying love and affection for Therese -- it was as if all the other barriers were lifted and they could find their other common interests.

Therese checked her schedule -- almost time to pull the cornbread out of the oven to cool. There was a pot of fresh cranberries on the stove just about ready to come to a boil. As soon as she got the homemade cranberry sauce made, she would start on the lemon ice box pie. It was Abby's favorite.

If you had asked her 6 years ago, Therese would have said there was no way she would make a special pie for Abby except if she thought she might choke on it. The beginnings of their relationship had been rocky, to say the least.

Surely, having Carol's ex-lover less than an hour down the road from them had not been a selling point to the merits of Vermont. And when she met Abby and saw how attractive she was, and the natural humor and ease that the two women shared, her jealousy had burned a hole in her stomach.

When she was with Abby, there was yet another side of Carol to experience. A Carol who had a biting wit and a penchant for sarcasm, and the two of them were constantly tossing playful barbs at each other.

Therese had felt left out, especially in their frequent strolls down memory lane, the antics of their youth and the drunken parties they had attended. It didn't help in the least that Rindy was head over heels for Abby, too. The two of them could stay up all night talking about art and the creative process. Every encounter with Abby left her feeling crabby and unsettled, and Abby's not-so-subtle mentions of her age and inexperience only added to her irritation.

One day, she had finally had enough. Abby dropped by when Carol was out riding, and she had draped herself in a kitchen chair while Therese was busy cooking.

"Look, kiddo, the only way you are going to get ahead is to really push with a publisher. You have got to get your work out into the world," Abby drawled.

This was in line with the many tirades Abby had given her about her writing, how she needed to find a good editor, how the publishing houses were so full of crap these days, that she should be mailing at least 100 manuscripts out to executives ... and on and on and on.

Therese ground her teeth and took her anger out on the mashed potatoes. "I've tried," she said, keeping her voice low, "it's just not easy."

"Nothing's ever easy, kiddo. That's what is wrong with you young folks, you expect things to just ..." 

Therese snapped. "Stop calling me kiddo! I'm fucking 37 years old! And if I needed your advice on getting published, I would have asked you!"

Therese stopped, her hand on the potato masher, her own surprise registering on her face. Abby definitely looked surprised. She whistled low under her breath.

"Well ... I didn't know you had it in ya."

Therese gaped at her. She could feel herself cooling off, like a pressure cooker that had released its steam and was settling down to a simmer.

"Sorry," she said, not exactly meaning it. "I just ... it's frustrating."

Abby nodded. "Well, I'm only being a pain in your ass because I believe in you. I have read your work, and it's damned good stuff. You should be published. But I'll lay off -- I didn't know it was bothering you so much."

And that's when it had clicked for Therese. Abby's intentions were good; she just didn't know how to be anything but slightly insufferable. And she believed in her. She was the first person who believed in her work who didn't have skin in the game. Her support and encouragement, and the connections that she helped her to find, ended up helping her get the start she needed to her writing career.

She owed a lot to Abby. And she realized that she wasn't a threat. Carol loved her, surely, but as a friend. There was nothing to compare to the way that Carol looked at Therese; it had been so obvious all along.

So, she was making her mother's lemon ice box pie recipe. She had made it last year for Abby, and the woman had swooned over it. This year she would make two, so that she could secretly send one home with her after dinner was over.

She had just slipped the second pie into the fridge when Rindy wandered back into the kitchen and asked if she could help. Therese was only too happy putting her to work chopping onions and peeling hard boiled eggs. The two women giggled and bantered as they worked. Rindy had an interest in cooking that she certainly didn't inherit from her mother, and Therese promised to show her how to make the cornbread dressing.

But the promise came with a caveat.

"Swear to me that you will not give the recipe to that horrible woman."

"Cross my heart," Rindy said, fluttering her lashes. "Besides, even if I gave her the recipe, measured out all the ingredients, and even mixed it up for her, she would still manage to find a way to screw it up. She can't cook for shit."

Therese laughed. "Really, it can't be that bad, can it?"

"I am still recovering from the unidentifiable lump of charred meat I had to hack my way through the last time I visited. I didn't know it was possible to screw up pork chops, but I guess if you work hard enough at it, you can."

Therese giggled guiltily. She knew she shouldn't enjoy Rindy's criticism of Harge's wife so much, but she couldn't help the ripple of glee. In their brief interactions, she had been nothing but nasty, and her incurable nosiness reminded Therese of her old nemesis, Sandra.

Rindy always came back from visits with stories of how the holier-than-thou bleached blonde with fake nails like talons had pumped her for information about the "unnatural lifestyle" of her mother. Over the years, Carol had gone from being indignant, to mildly irritated, to now, where she actually relished the thought of filling this woman with false and fanciful stories of their lives.

With Rindy in collusion, the three of them would concoct adventures and odd rituals to feed the silly biddy's curiosity. Now Therese was in full-out creative mode -- she was, after all, a writer.

"I think you should tell her that we've gone vegan, and I served you tofu loaf, quinoa, and kale for Thanksgiving dinner."

"You're assuming she'll even know what any of that means."

"I trust you can explain it to her in horrifying detail." Therese smirked. "Oh! And I think you should tell her we're up to 10 indoor cats and a colony of 15 feral cats in the barn."

"As long as she doesn't demand photo evidence, I think I can pull that off. Speaking of which, I am still wanting to get a photo of you guys in Birkenstocks and tie dye dresses."

"Over my dead body," Therese said, laughing.

They were cackling like setting hens about the idea of gluing cat hair on Therese's legs and under her armpits for a very interesting photo shoot when Carol waltzed in, fresh from her shower.

"My goodness, I could hear you two all the way in the back of the house!"

Rindy flashed a smile very reminiscent of her mother's. "We were just plotting what I am going to tell Debbie about the latest developments at 'Homosexual Haven.' You're now a vegan with pit hair."

Carol nodded sagely. "Ahhh, I've gotten wiser in my old age. And how many cats are we up to now?"

"25," Therese chimed in. "And at least 5 of them are missing legs or eyes .....oooh, what about one with no ears?"

"Brilliant!" Both Rindy and Carol said at the same time. Carol laughed and playfully poked her daughter in the side.

"I'm just about ready to head out to the airport," Carol said, leaning against the counter near Therese. "Any chance you could help me find that scarf I was planning to wear?"

"Scarf?" Therese asked, then caught the mischievous look in Carol's eye. "Oh right, the scarf. Let me go see what I can do."

Therese did a quick check that everything in the kitchen would be ok for a few minutes before following Carol down the hallway to the bedroom. Carol waited by the door while she walked in, then quietly shut the door behind them. Therese pretended not to notice and made for the walk-in closet.

"So, is it the green and white scarf you're looking for?" she said, hiding a grin.

In a moment, she felt Carol behind her, wrapping her arms around her, pulling her over and onto the bed with a thump. Therese was trying not to giggle.

"Goodness, be quiet! What will Rindy think?"

"She'll think her mother is a very lucky woman," Carol smirked, then leaned in to press a kiss to her lips. "God, you look so sexy in the kitchen. My very own domestic goddess."

Therese wound her arms around Carol's waist. "You look pretty good yourself. I guess family holidays look good on us." She could feel her heart thumping as she looked up at the stunning woman leaning down over her, a shower of blonde hair with threads of silver sparkling and cascading around her face. The years had softened her cheekbones and her jawline, deepened some of the creases around her mouth and her eyes, and added just a little extra curviness to her hips and breasts. Her eyes held a deep kindness and wisdom now, an empathy for others born of her own years of suffering.

To Therese, she was even more beautiful to her today than she had ever been. Every day was an opportunity to learn her anew, to adore and admire her, to watch her persevere. Each gray hair, each fine line, the accumulations of the little scars and imperfections that signaled a life well lived -- Therese wondered at every one of these and felt grateful for them, that she was the one who got to know her so well, to study each mark that their lives together left upon her.

She stroked her thumb along Carol's cheek. "You're loving having your baby here, aren't you?"

Carol smiled at her, kissed her thumb, and she thought she could see just the hint of wetness in the corner of her eye. "Having my two favorite girls with me is the best gift I could ever have. It's life at its fullest."

Therese slid her hand down and pressed it against Carol's chest, over her heart. For a moment time stood still and they just looked in each other's eyes, savoring this sweet moment and storing it in memory for later days.

Carol kissed her again and pressed against her ... hard. She knew just the places to touch that could take Therese from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat, the knowledge of a long-term and observant lover. Her breath was hot in her ear as she whispered, "Later, my darling, I am going to ravish you so mercilessly that you will have to shove the pillow into your mouth to keep from waking the rest of the house."

Therese swallowed hard, looking into the desire that burned in Carol's eyes.

"Well, happy fucking Thanksgiving to me," she murmured, and they both started to laugh.

Reluctantly, they pulled away from each other. "You'd better get to the airport," Therese said, giving the tall woman a playful smack on the ass.

"I'm so hungry already! The smell in this house is pure torture."

"Don't you dare snack before dinner time. We're going to eat at 2:00. As long as Abby's on time, that is," Therese said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, don't worry. I lied and told her dinner was at 1:00, so she should be here by 2:30 at the latest."

"Brilliant," Therese said, standing up and smoothing out her rumpled blouse. "Now I'd better get moving, time to make the gravy."

Therese had her hand on the doorknob when Carol stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Therese," she said in that way that she still had of saying her name and almost knocking her knees out from under her with the power of it.

"Mmm?"

Carol moved in close, cupping her chin and kissing her softly again.

"I love you."

"I love you too, darling."