RETRIBUTION - Part 2
Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
The inside of Rubys home was exactly as Id remembered; warm, comforting, smelling of cedar and freshly burned wood. I sighed happily, my tension melting like the snow on my clothes as she led us over to the massive stone fireplace that dominated one wall of the living room.
Smells have always had the power to relax or invigorate me, even as a small child. I can remember, on cold winter mornings, going into the bathroom and uncapping a bottle of suntan oil, fingering the sand that still clung to the neck, and taking in the scent, my mind instantly transported back to a sunny day at the beach and swearing that if I could just listen hard enough, Id be able to hear the crashing of the waves and the high-pitched screech of the seagulls as they wheeled over the sand, looking for a handout through beady brown eyes.
Just as a certain song might bring back memories of a sadly ended love affair, or the sight of the sunlight slanting through the trees a certain way might cause you to remember a wonderful day, the smell of Rubys home, with its merrily blazing fire, made me feel happy and young and free in a way nothing else ever could.
"Warm yourselves by the fire while I get you some dry clothes. Youll fit nicely into one of my robes, Tyler. You," Ruby paused, looking at my tall companion, "I think I have one of Jacks old robes stored away somewhere. Stay right here. Ill be back in a flash."
As she strode away with that brisk walk that had always been hers, I looked over at Ice, who was warming her hands in the fires friendly heat and rubbing them briskly. "Sorry," I offered softly, not particularly sorry at all, but needing to say something to break the tension I felt between us.
She returned my look, her eyes shadowed with secrets, and shrugged. "s alright." Then she turned her gaze back to the fire, seemingly absorbed in its flickering images.
Meaning, I could tell, that it wasnt alright at all. Meaning that Id stepped over yet another invisible boundary that she put up to protect herself from the outside world. Meaning that as well as I thought I knew her, I came to find, yet again, that I didnt really know her at all.
Oh, Corinne, I wish you were here right now. I sure could use some of your advice.
Though I missed the friends Id made in the Bog, and thought of them often, there was no one I missed as much as Corinne, whose motherly affection, gentle flirtation, and sage, if sarcastic, advice had never failed to put me at ease, almost always giving me the answers I sought.
Corinne, however, was still safely ensconced in the Bog, and probably would be until the day she breathed her last. That thought twisted my guts inside me into a painful knot, the feeling at jarring odds with the warmth and security surrounding me.
Plus, there was still Ice to deal with.
That particular problem would have to wait, however, because the sounds of Rubys staccato footsteps resonated on the wood floors of the hallway, coming closer at a brisk pace.
Ruby Anderson did everything quickly. Reading. Eating. Talking. I remember spending wondrous rainy day hours watching her knit, the needles flying so fast that I swore I could see sparks when they struck together. Scarves fit for giants would flow, like multi-colored waterfalls, from those needles in what seemed to be a matter of seconds.
She was a wonder to behold.
She came into the room, smiling and bearing two plush robes. Handing one to each of us, she placed a hand on my shoulder. "You remember where the bathroom is, Tyler. Take Morgan with you and get out of those wet clothes. Bring them back with you and well put them up on these quilt racks by the fire. Ill go make us some coffee."
With that, she was gone, rapidly retreating into the kitchen as I stared after her dumbly. After a moment, I turned back to Ice. "Cmon. Lets go get dry."
She followed after me without hesitation or complaint, and for that, I was profoundly relieved.
Rubys bathroom was a typical example of genus grandmotherus. Little soaps you didnt dare use lest you ruin their cunningly crafted shapes, the tastefully disguised denture cup (and for this, I was grateful. My own grandmother used to store her dentures in the tissue box. Great for avoiding looking at someones teeth sitting in a Polydent bath. Bad if you had allergies.). Tiny little washcloths that matched tiny little hand towels that matched bath towels, rugs, toilet tank covers, and the shower curtain, all done up in that "Antique Rose" color that, it seems, only women over the age of sixty five are moved to buy.
I stripped down to my birthday suit in no time flat, and was briskly rubbing my cold-numbed body with a thick, fluffynot to mention rosebath towel when I noticed Ice uncharacteristically fumble with the buttons on her cotton shirt.
While I had had the relative luxury of a thick down jacket to protect me somewhat from the elements, Ice had made due with her denim jacket and little else. She was soaked to the skin, and while the vision of her standing so close to me, her shirt plastered against her magnificent body, caused my hormones to jump up and start clapping, the more rational and clinical part of my mind worried about the pneumonia my dark lover was sure to catch if she didnt divest herself of her clothing immediately.
"Let me help you with that," I urged softly, dropping my towel and reaching for her shirt.
Scowling, she stepped back so quickly that she almost backed into the tub as she turned a shoulder away from me, not relinquishing the fumbling hold she had on her shirt. "Ill take care of it."
As I may have told you before, one of the most unwelcome gifts my father ever gave me was his penchant for sarcasm. It was a lesson of his that I learned well, and often, and, as his was wont to do, it came out at the worst times imaginable.
"Sure youll take care of it, Ice," I replied, my voice positively dripping with ridicule. "At the rate youre going, itll be summer before you even get half of your buttons undone. Just let me help you, alright?"
Her teeth flashed, but it wasnt a smile she was offering me. Or maybe it was. Just not the kind you associate with the happier emotions. "I said Id handle it."
I blinked, then backed up a step in unconscious reaction.
Sometimes, with Ice, its so easy to forget exactly who Im dealing with. Her absolute devotion, her utter tenderness with me causes me to sometimes overlook the dangerous, wild woman that lay beneath the trappings of civility shed learned to pull on, like a coat, in order to survive in what we call society.
But then there are times, like this one, where it all comes back to me, with the rushing speed of a southbound freight, just who, and what, this woman I love with all my heart truly is.
A cold blooded killer.
A hot blooded lover.
An icy reserve.
A loving tenderness.
Ice is all of those things and so many more. A contradiction wrapped up in an enigma, as someone somewhere has been known to say.
I finally let out a long held breath and forced myself to meet her icy gaze, pushing my fear down deep where she couldnt sense it. "Im sorry I pushed you," I began softly. "Im sorry I made this decision for both of us."
Frustrated by the lack of emotion in her eyes, I clenched my fists and slammed them down on my thighs. "Damnit, Ice! Im cold, wet, tired and hungry. And I really wasnt wanting to face the prospect of spending a cold, wet, tired and hungry night outside. Not when the answer to all of those problems was standing not three feet from me and being kind enough to offer up her home to us."
I sighed, still not able to break through the thick wall thrown up in my path. "Look. I know how much you hate charity. I also know that Ruby can be a bit of a martinet at times. But shes a good woman with a good heart and I couldnt see any reason to turn down what she was so generously offering."
Bending down, I gathered up my wet clothing, clutching it to my chest and wincing at the chill of the fabric against my naked skin. "I can understand how uncomfortable this makes you. If you really want to spend the night in our tent, then lets go. Ill think up some excuse to tell her."
My peace said, I spun from her and took a step toward the door, not even caring that I was still completely naked save for my clothes pressed up against the front of my body.
I stopped, but didnt turn, knowing instinctively that whatever my partner had to say, she would be more comfortable expressing it without having to look at me directly.
"This . . .really means a lot to you, doesnt it."
The hesitation in her voice drew me back around and I took in the almost lost expression on her face, my heart breaking, just a little. "Yes. It does."
She closed her eyes for a long moment, and when they reopened, the stone wall was gone and in its place stood the woman I loved. "Alright, then. If its what you want, well stay."
I nodded, unable to keep the smile from overspreading my face. "Thank you."
Saying nothing, she returned my nod. Her fingers had apparently warmed up enough during our small argument, because she removed her shirt without much trouble, her other clothes following quickly. Taking the towel I offered her, she dried her body thoroughly, then put on the old robe and belted it securely, hiding her wonderful body from my appreciative gaze once again.
Then, reaching out, she gently removed the wet clothes from my hand and replaced them with a thick, terrycloth robe, which I gratefully slid over my shoulders and belted closed. Then I simply stood there, arms loose at my sides, still unsure where we stood after all this.
As if reading my mind, she reached out and clasped my right hand, squeezing it tightly and bestowing upon me the tiniest hint of a smile. "Gwan now. Lets get you warmed up, hmm?"
Tugging, I brought Ices hand up to my lips, a smile in my eyes. "I love you too, Ice."
Maybe we were ok, after all.
I rolled in the bed once again, kicking at the covers which wound themselves around my legs like some earthbound octopus, and punched the pillow lying complacently beneath my head. The sigh that gusted from my lungs would have been nominated for an Academy Award, had anyone but the walls been around to hear it.
Flipping to my back again, I put one arm up across my forehead and stared at the ceiling with morose eyes.
I wasnt having fun.
Oh, the visit had gone well enough, with Ruby and I catching up on old times while she filled me full of the local gossip. Or as much gossip as a town this size could have, anyway.
Which wasnt much.
For her part, Ice seemed content to sit silently, sipping her coffee, and taking in the sights of the tastefully decorated den in which we were sitting. When Ruby saw her gaze land upon some of the trophies that decorated the large fireplace mantel, she launched into the story of her husband, Jack, dead many years, and how they had met and married.
I didnt remember much about her husband, but what I did remember, I liked. Jack Anderson had been a golf pro way back when. No one of special note, really, but he won enough tournaments to, as Ruby was prone to say, pay the rent in style.
They had met when he competed in a tournament which her company was sponsoring. Her knowledge of golf was nil; she likened it to watching the grass grow or the chickens molt. But the big, strapping man with the easy grin and the handsome face assured her interest in the sport for good.
Theirs was a whirlwind courtship, played out on the shores of Nantucket, her home. And when he asked her to marry him, she said yes without a second thought, and made her life with him in the very house in which we were sitting; a house he had built with his own hands.
Having heard that particular tale a time or ten in my life, I allowed my thoughts to wander, and before I realized it, was being shaken awake by a warm hand and looked upon by Rubys twinkling eyes.
After a suitable period of utter mortification, my small, if unintentional, bit of rudeness was brushed off as just being one of those things, and Ice and I were led to our rooms.
And therein lay the problem.
That was most definitely something I hadnt thought about during my quest to make Ice see the wisdom of choosing a warm house over a cold tent. And believe me when I tell you that when I realized that particular blunder, words which would scorch the paper this is being written on screamed through my head, though thankfully, they refrained from passing my lips and giving our gracious host a stroke.
You see, while in the Bog, one of my deepest regrets--only one of many, but still--was that I couldnt spend even one night sleeping in the arms of the person I loved. Yes, there was that wonderful, exhilarating night in the trailer, a night that even now arouses me just thinking about it, but aside from that, nighttime in prison meant battling your personal demons alone.
I swore to myself that if we were ever able to make it out of that particular hell, I would never spend another night apart from her again.
Yet here I was, not a month into freedom, sleeping without her. And trapped by my own cunning, no less!
"Congratulations, Angel. Youve just won the Idiot of the Year award. Where are you going to celebrate?"
I sighed again, my rebellious mind gleefully providing me a fantasy in which Ice and I had done things her way and we were, right this very moment, sleeping in that tent I had, up until an hour ago, so despised. Wound together like mummies in a single sleeping bag to conserve body heat.
Maybe doing a little something else to generate body heat.
I groaned and turned again, punching a pillow that, if it hadnt been a mere ball of feathers, would surely have punched me back in payment for the abuse I was heaping on it.
Great. Just great.
It was then that I heard the faintest scraping of my door easing open. A fractured beam of low light played through the crack, illuminating the edge of the curtain covering the window to my right.
The light was cut off almost immediately as the door silently closed, leaving me in darkness once again.
But not alone.
With instincts well honed by years in prison, I could feel anothers presence in the room with me. I tensed automatically, my hands gripping at the blankets which covered my body.
My ears strained for any sound at all, even the slightest breath, but silence held its reign over the small room. I could feel my heart picking up its pace even though the more rational part of my mind assured me that there was nothing to fear. This wasnt the Bog. This wasnt Pittsburgh. This was just a simple country home in the middle of the backwoods, miles from anyone who would want to do me harm.
Or so I hoped.
"Show yourself. I know youre in here." My voice surprised me with its absolute steadiness.
Silence, still. The pregnant kind, where you could literally hear the hairs on the back of your neck come to attention.
I opened my eyes wider, trying to take in any light there might have been, and almost fainted when a low rumble bathed over my heightened senses from mere inches away.
"Move over. Youre hoggin the bed."
It was the most wonderful-terrible scare Ive ever had and I grinned like a kid as I scrambled back against the wall, making room for the larger body of my partner, then snuggling into her open arms with a joy that is reserved for well-answered prayers.
"You have absolutely no idea how happy I am to see you," I murmured into the flesh of her gloriously naked chest. Then I stopped. "Well, not see you exactly. Mmm. But feel you. And smell you. And taste you. Definitely taste you."
A cleared throat stopped my effusive utterings. I turned my head up to where I knew her face would be. "Yes?"
"Its probably best if we dont go down this particular road right now."
"Why not?" I asked, knowing that I sounded like a petulant child being denied her favorite toy.
"Give ya a hint." There was a smile in her voice. "Shes about your height, gray hair, and ears she probably fine tunes every night before bed so shell have something new to tell the sewing circle in the morning."
"Well," I tried, "we could be really quiet."
A soft snort. "That would be great. If it were possible. Which we know it isnt."
"Hey!" I didnt know whether to be indignant or embarrassed.
She hugged me close briefly before loosening her arms. "You could be quiet as a churchmouse, Angel, and wed still have a problem."
"Oh yeah? And what might that be?"
I felt her stomach muscles clench beneath my thigh, then she bounced several times on the mattress.
The room was filled with the sounds of protesting bedsprings squeaking their displeasure.
"Oh," I said again, feeling my face heat. "Thats not a good thing."
"Well," she replied, sounding as if she were reconsidering the offer, "I wouldnt have a problem with it. It is your room, after all."
She bounced again, slowly, rhythmically, then steadily picking up speed until I was ready to just fall through floor in embarrassment.
I put a hand on her firm belly and pushed down. "Stop. Just stop."
Absolute, total and blessed silence.
Groaning, I plopped my head back down on her chest. "Youre an evil woman, Morgan Steele. Truly, heartlessly, evil."
Her long body stretched beneath me before settling back once again. "Thats what they tell me." She sounded quite, quite pleased with herself.
The payback list was getting longer.
I awoke to bright sunshine streaming through the window, putting a smile on my face before I even opened my eyes. The bed was empty and I spared a brief moment of wondering if the events of the night before had been just a dream when Ices scent came to me from the pillow Id cradled in lieu of her body.
My smile broadened as I treated myself to a healthy stretch, my muscles complaining only mildly over having shared sleeping quarters with a woman half again my size. The rest of me was just a happy puddle.
The tantalizing smells of breakfast cooking wafted gently into my awakening senses and I rolled over onto my back, finally thinking to open my eyes and take in the newly dawning day.
Well, perhaps dawning wasnt the best word for it. From the looks of things, the sun had been up for a good while, rising slowly in the sky as I slept on, blissfully unaware.
That thought gave me a moments pause. For more than five years, Id awoken at five thirty every morning to the sounds of guards shouts, bells ringing, and batons sliding against metal bars. The habit was so ingrained within me that even after Id left the Bog for good, not a morning had passed where I hadnt awoken in the dark, coming to my feet before my body even realized that my mind had given it a command.
"Well, whadda ya know," I said to the patiently waiting ceiling. "Maybe theres hope for me yet, huh?"
After another healthy stretch and a good, long yawn, I rolled out of bed and briefly debated pulling some clothes on. Tossing out that thought like yesterdays bathwater, I shrugged into Rubys comfortable robe and padded silently through the room, reaching out to touch a tiny figurine of a unicorn that had always enchanted me as a child. "For luck," I whispered before opening the door and letting myself out of the room, which in itself was a wonderful feeling, let me tell you.
I walked quickly down the stairs, the scents of breakfast leading me on like those smoky fingers you see on Saturday morning cartoons hooked through some characters nostrils.
Ruby turned from her place at the stove as she spied me coming into the kitchen. A wide smile of welcome creased her almost unlined face. "I thought this might tempt you into waking up. Good to see I havent lost my touch."
"Oh, you most definitely havent," I replied, walking over to help her with the plates.
"Just sit yourself down at the table, Tyler. Ive got this all taken care of."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. Just go sit down."
Resisting the urge to snap off a salute, I pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. Within seconds, a steaming plate piled high with food was placed in front of me. My mouth watering, I dug in without a seconds pause.
Ruby joined me at the table, cupping a coffee mug in her hands and taking small sips from it as she smiled at my talent for laying waste to vast armies of food, a trait Id had since I was a small child. "Your friend is certainly the industrious sort."
My fork paused halfway to my mouth. I shot her a questioning look, wondering whether I had cause to be nervous or not.
She gestured with her coffee mug toward the kitchen window, and I found myself slowly rising to my feet, curiosity pulling at me like a fish lure.
"Wow," was all I could say as I looked down at the scene laid out before me. The walk had been shoveled and salted, as had the long, winding driveway that led out to the main road. Snow drifts which had covered the first floor windows were completely cleared away, down to the grass. Trees near the house which had almost been bent double with the weight of the snow now were free of their chilly burden and standing straight and proud once again. "Unbelievable." My breath fogged the window as I spoke, misting the icy clarity of the incredible scene outside.
"I agree. Is she always like this?"
Turning back toward the table, I gave my host a smile. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Quite handy to have around then, Id say. Where did you meet her?"
I paused again, my thoughts running rapidly, if uselessly, through my brain. "Its a long story."
Which it was. Five years long, to be exact. Just not a story I was comfortable telling to the woman who was housing us, for obvious reasons.
The smile she gave me brought to mind pictures of dinosaurs Id seen in textbooks when I was in school. A predators grin, full of slashing teeth, topped by beady brown eyes.
Or maybe it was the way the light hit her face.
"Im an old woman, Tyler. Time is one thing I have plenty of."
I smiled, weakly. "Youre not that old."
The grin widened, recognizing, no doubt, my pitiful delaying tactic. "Old enough."
I took in a deep breath, the breakfast Id consumed sitting like a leaden ball in my stomach. My fingers were pressed white against the polished wood of the table top.
As I opened my mouth to speak, there was a brisk rapping on the front door, followed by a "Yoo hoo! Ruby! Are you home, dear?"
As Ruby slowly moved to her feet, the look she gave me let me know in no uncertain terms that this conversation was far from being over.
Oh, well. Id take a rain delay any day.
I walked outside, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and smiling into the perfect blue sky. The snow the night before seemed a sort of harbinger of spring and the temperature rose to lend strength to my supposition. The air was filled with the sounds of overburdened trees and rooftops dropping their heavy loads to the ground. Birdsong wove its way intermittently through the low percussion of the falling mounds of snow, and when I looked up, I spied a sizable flock of ducks circling the lake and looking for a nice, wet place to land.
My grin broadened as I walked down the shoveled path, my boots crunching the salt beneath my feet. It was a glorious day. The kind that made you believe in God, if you didnt already. And right then, I most certainly did.
Looking down the small hill that led to the lake, I saw Ice standing on the little green dock on our beach, looking out over the frozen water, her dark hair blown off her brow by a gentle spring breeze. Her posture was attentive, alert, but relaxed in a way I didnt often get to see.
I stopped, taken by the sight.
At that moment, I wished I were a painter so I could capture the beauty of what my eyes were seeing.
Because I wasnt, and still am not, I settled for a long, comfortable stare, capturing in my mind what my hands refused to render.
As if feeling my eyes upon her, she turned and her welcoming smile brightened up an already fabulous day. She lifted a hand in a casual wave. I waved back and resumed my trek toward her, stepping carefully around the shoveled square that had brought back to the surface the foundation of what had once been the cabin.
Quickly joining her on the dock, I slipped an arm around her waist and leaned into her body as I, too, looked across the frozen expanse of the lake, watching as the ducks finally found a patch of melted ice in which to land. "Beautiful day," I murmured quietly, unwilling to break the peaceful silence with too much idle chatter.
We stood there in companionable silence, enjoying each other and the day, for quite awhile before my attention was captured by a young boy and his dog who were coming toward us from the right. The boy threw a stick, and the dog, with a volley of barks that echoed across the lake, ran to retrieve it.
His attention was diverted, apparently, by the ducks which, alarmed by his barks, rose to take flight and he headed out after them, his paws slipping on the ice.
"King!" the boy shouted, running after his fleeing dog, "Come back!" His feet slipped on the slick surface and he fell, hitting his head a good one against the ice, but he was quickly back up and running again.
Suddenly, I heard a loud crack and the ice opened up to swallow the scrambling dog, who yelped and tried desperately to get back up out of the water.
Seeing what had happened, the boy tried to stop, but the ices slickness, combined with his forward momentum, caused him to follow his friend into the waters icy depths.
Ice was out of my arms and running before I even thought to blink. "Ice! No!" Like the dogs yelps, and the boys screams, my words echoed over the lake, damning me repeatedly with their sheer impotence.
Her feet were slipping and sliding in the worn boots shed donned, but she managed to keep her footing and continue forward, ignoring my cry. "Get help!" she shouted, not even looking at me as she headed for the hole in the ice which had claimed two victims in a moments short time.
I couldnt move. Couldnt respond to her tersely voiced order. My body condemned me to stand and watch as the boys head disappeared beneath the ice and my lover, not hesitating for even a second, gathered up her strength and dove into the water.
My rebellious body moved quickly then, though still not in the direction my partner had ordered. I was out on the ice before my feet even realized it, which caused me to fall after a single step. My head hit hard against the edge of the dock, causing stars to float tantalizingly before my eyes as I lay dazed for a moment, staring up into the sky and wondering what my name was.
It came back to me in a flash, though, and I tried to regain my footing, only to fall once again. "Damnit!! Ice!!!"
A strong hand hauled me back to my feet and pulled me easily onto the dock. I spun to take in the heavily bearded face of a large man who was looking at me with wide eyes. "What happened?"
Shaking my head, I tried to jerk from his grasp, my need to get out on that lake paramount. But he held me easily in his grip, shaking me as one would a rag doll. "What happened?" he asked again.
"A dog . . .a boy . . .chased the dog into the water! My friend went to help. Let me go!!"
"No! Its too dangerous. You cant go out there."
"Like hell I cant!" Raising my leg, I stamped down hard on his foot, wrenching away at the same time. I would have toppled back onto the ice for a second time if he hadnt reached out and grabbed me, pulling me to him once again.
"Listen to me. People are coming to help. People who are used to this kind of thing. You need to stay here. Youll only get in the way. Do you understand?" He spoke to me as if speaking to an infant, his words slow and clearly enunciated.
"You dont understand! Thats my friend out there! She needs help!!"
"And thats exactly what shes gonna get. Now just stay here and let us do our jobs, alright?"
After a moment, I relaxed and nodded, convinced by the sincerity in both his voice and eyes.
He smiled. "Good."
Releasing me, he turned his head, and I followed his gaze to where a group of men were hurrying down the small hill and onto the ice, armed with hooks and nylon ropes, looking for all the world like an army of industrious ants after a discarded candy wrapper.
"Whered they all come from so quickly?" I asked, not aware I was speaking aloud until the man turned his smile back on me.
"Well, you hear a dog yelp, a boy scream, and a woman yell ice, and you get the picture pretty quick, Maam."
The mention of my lovers name, though not intended, caused my attention to snap back to the lake and its unfolding drama. I could just see Ices dark head bobbing above the tilted sheets of ice which had fractured even more with the struggling of three living beings trapped within its confines. I could also see, and hear, the crazed struggling of the dog, but of the boy, there was nothing.
Ice took in a deep breath, and then she too disappeared into the black and hungry water.
Everything went silent then. Or at least it seemed that way to me. I found myself holding my breath in empathy with Ice until spots swirling before my eyes threatened to merge together into unconsciousness.
Gasping, I took in a fresh breath of air, then blinked.
Only the dog could be seen, paddling in useless circles in the ever widening pool, obviously too cold and too tired to even try to get a purchase on the ice surrounding him.
Its been too long. Too long. Too long.
My mind replayed this endless litany like a mantra that, instead of soothing, forced adrenaline and hopelessness through my body in equal measures.
I had just made up my mind to bolt off the dock yet again when Ice resurfaced, the small boy clenched tightly against her chest. Gasping for air, she flung her head back and opened her mouth to the sky, her hair slinging rainbow sheets into the warm, moist air. Her choking gasps were the only sounds I could hear above the joyful beating of my heart at the sight of her, alive and whole.
With a mighty heave worthy of a Titan, she threw the boy onto the firmer section of the ice. He slid several feet before stopping, a rag doll at Natures cruel mercy. His skin was marbled purple and pasty white, his lips and the flesh around them a sullen blue, and I imagined, were I to touch him, that he would feel the way he looked, a marble statue tossed aside by a forsaken god.
Beneath his drenched parka, his chest was still and lifeless.
The group of men crept forward on tentative legs, one reaching out with a large grappling hook and snaring his jacket, tugging the lifeless boy slowly, carefully, back toward the shore.
Another splash. Another body hitting the ice.
This time, it was the dog whod started the entire chain reaction, and of the three victims the water had captured in its gaping maw, only he looked none the worse for wear. Scrambling to his feet, he shook the water briskly from his fur, and after a moment of stumbling, trotted back toward the shoreline, seemingly without a care in the world. Another rescuer grabbed the dog and bundled him in a warm blanket.
All that was left in the middle of the half-frozen lake was my lover.
The sounds of sirens in the distance were unimportant things to me as I watched Ice try for purchase on the twisted blocks surrounding her. I could see her steady herself and take a few deep breaths for strength. My entire body clenched, a coiled spring, as I willed my strength to her from across the lake, my jaw clenched so hard I swore I could feel pieces of my teeth chipping away.
With a last, deep breath, she straightened her arms, her powerful strength managing to drag her body half out of the water and onto the ice. Her legs still dangled in the murky depths, kicking hard to give her the momentum needed to pull out fully.
The force was apparently too much for the still weakening ice to bear, and it split once again, sending a wide fissure almost to the shore and dumping my partner back into the freezing water.
When her body disappeared completely beneath the water, my paralysis broke and, without thinking, I ran out onto the ice, using my arms the way a tight-rope walker would, keeping my balance only by the strength of my will.
And where Ice was concerned, my will was pure steel.
Unfortunately, will doesnt count for much when youre tackled from behind by a bearded behemoth whos twice as strong as youll ever dream of being.
I hit the ground hard enough to force the air from my lungs in a coughing bark, and the stars that had faded from my last meeting with the docks splintered edge came back with a vengeance, swirling around me like multicolored fireflies.
I was hooked under the arms and unceremoniously dragged back toward the shore, my jacket and shirt rucking up around my shoulders, the ice burning my bare flesh as it slid beneath me.
The shouts of the men combined with the swiftly approaching sirens, both sounds helping to clear my head. I struggled to sit up, turning my head just in time to see a yellow nylon rope, a large loop knotted at one end, sail toward the hole where Ice had fallen.
The second fall through the ice had profoundly affected my lover, as I could tell by the slow, almost clumsy movements of her arms as she tried to reach out and grab the rope so close to her.
"Slip it over your head and under your arms!" one of the men yelled as another tied the other end off around a stout tree which hung out over the water like a flightless vulture.
I could see her dark head nod as she tried to follow her rescuers instructions, fumbling several times with the rope before finally getting it under her arms.
"Hold on! Were gonna pull you out!"
She nodded again, trying to get a firm grip on the narrow rope with hands, I was sure, that were numb past the point of feeling anything but pain, if even that.
"One! Two! Three!" Several men stood on the ice, the rope firmly clenched in their gloved hands. On the final count, they pulled, snapping the rope taut and slowly dragging Ice up out of the water, their grunts combining with the ices moaning protests at having to give up its feast and filling the air in a primal symphony.
Something happened, and to this day I dont know what, but she suddenly stopped helping and fell limp against the ice, her body half in, half out of the water. The men, still pulling, dragged her a few scant inches before her arms slipped upwards and the rope pulled away completely, leaving her stranded once again; this time totally unable to help free herself from the icy prison trapping her.
"Ice!" I screamed, trying desperately to get some reaction from her. My heart shattered into splintered fragments as the ice beneath her moaned threateningly and her body teetered on the edge of oblivion.
She lay there, limp and unheeding. My mind flashed back to another time, another place. Kneeling over her, holding her life in my hands as her blood pumped between my fingers in a red river. Begging anyone who would listen to help her; to save her.
No. Not again. Please, not again. Please. I cant go through this again.
Realizing what had happened, one of the men, throwing all caution to the wind, grabbed a long hook and ran out onto the ice with surefooted grace, straddling the fissure that was threatening to become wider as he ran.
My sigh of relief came out in a wail as he managed to hook the back of her sodden jacket and carefully pulled her away from the immediate danger. He pulled her to him, then dropped the hook and grabbed her under the arms, much as my own rescuer had grabbed me, and carefully pulled her to the safety of the shore.
I was by her side in a heartbeat, tears liberally mixing with the melting snow my knees were pressed into. "Ice?" I asked, brushing the wet hair back from her brow. "Ice? Can you hear me?"
There was no reaction, though I could tell that she was still alive by the faint movement of her chest against my free hand. I clenched the fabric of her shirt in that hand and shook her, angry at her utter stillness. "Damnit, Ice! Wake up! I didnt come this far with you for you to give up now, so youd just better damn well wake the hell up or I swear Ill hunt you down and kill you myself!"
After a moment, her eyes fluttered open, and Ive never, not even after an entire month of rainy days, been so glad to see the color blue in my life. Her gaze was dazed and glassy and, though she was looking right at me, I could tell she wasnt seeing me. But that didnt matter. Not really.
She was alive, and that was all that mattered.
And shed stay that way if I had anything to do with it.
And, by any god ever worshipped on this planet or any other, I would have everything to do with it.
The skin of her face, the only exposed surface I could see, was pasty white. Water droplets clung there like clear, fat leeches sucking away her vitality. Her lips were the deep purple of ripe berries, and so swollen that I wondered if they werent just going to split, right there, to expose the icewater that had replaced the blood in her veins.
Two men joined the third and bundled Ice into warm quilts theyd brought with them. They wore the rough cloth garb of Ices rescuers and not the uniforms I was expecting. I looked up, a question in my eyes. As if in response to my silent query, a tall, bespectacled, sandy-haired man squatted down beside me, an apologetic look on his face. "The little boy your friend saved is alive, but barely. The paramedics didnt want to wait to see if she was gonna make it out of there too. There just wasnt enough time. Unfortunately, theres only the one ambulance, so its going to take a while before they can make it back here."
I swallowed hard at the news, then nodded, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. Aware or not, Ice needed my strength, not my tears. "Is there anything we can do while we wait?"
Reaching down, I grasped her hand, taking it into my own. God, it was like touching a corpse. Or at least what I thought touching a corpse would feel like, not having had the actual experience myself. Her flesh was chilled, damp and stiff beneath my hand and I shuddered, half in revulsion, half in fear.
"Getting her someplace warm would be a good start. Where do you live?"
"With me," came Rubys voice off to my right. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, bearing forth my diminutive neighbor in all her headmistress glory. Taking charge in her typical style, she pointed to two of the biggest men standing with us; bearded giants, both of them. "You and you, bring her up to the house. Carefully. Ill go draw a bath."
I looked on in awe as the men, without hesitation, simply did as she ordered, lifting Ices limp body in their massive arms. A chill ran through me that had nothing to do with the snow I was kneeling in.
Never had I seen my lover looking so small, so helpless, so utterly defenseless.
It was a scene that, if I should live to five times the age I am now, I wish to never view again. At the time, I was sure the scene would haunt my dreams. And, true to my word, it has.
"No, no baths," the man squatting next to me interceded. "Just light a fire and warm some blankets. Well need to warm her up slowly or the shock could kill her." Standing, he reached down and helped me to my feet. "Im Steve, by the way. The town calls me Doc, so I guess thats what I am." His smile was charming and I found myself warming up to him.
"Im Tyler. This is Morgan."
"Well, Tyler, you have a very brave friend. Lets see what we can do about keeping her that way, ok?"
I nodded, the words stolen from me as I watched the men haul Ices body back towards Rubys house.
"Lets go, then."
The house was overwarm as I entered, shedding my jacket like a snakes second skin and walking over to the fireplace to be at Ices side as she was gently laid on the hearth rug. As the men stepped away, I took their place, grasping her hand once again and looking into eyes that seemed to be staring into eternity. "Stay with me, Morgan. Youre gonna be ok. Just stay with me."
The fire blazed high and hot within its stone confines, sending out a heat which caused beads of sweat to form on my forehead, dripping and stinging my wide, staring eyes. I wiped them away without thought, looking to the doctor who came to kneel beside me as one might a Savior, with bright hope and a subtle sense of doom lurking in the shadows of my heart.
He unbuttoned her jacket quickly, then disposed of her shirt by renting it from hem to collar with one savage tug, and exposing belly and breasts which were as pasty white and marbled as the flesh of her immobile face.
I felt a moments discomfort at the action, remembering her dispassionate tale of men who had stripped her and posed her for their own pleasures. Suddenly, I felt the almost overwhelming need to cover her, to preserve a dignity which she had never thought overmuch of, given the rude circumstances of her benumbed youth.
A plush towel dropped into my hands, and I used it as much to dry her as to cover her from eyes which, I felt, had no right to look upon such vulnerability.
As I was drying her upper body, the doctor reached for the button of her jeans. I immediately dropped my hands, easily displacing his on the soaked fabric. "Let me," I said in a voice which brooked no argument.
He looked at me and I swore there was understanding in his eyes before he grabbed my towel and resumed my forgotten task as I worked to undo the frozen zipper.
Within moments, it was done and she was covered with quilts heated by the fire, as warm and dry as we could possibly make her. The doctor withdrew his hand from beneath the quilts, bearing a thermometer which he looked at, brows drawn in a pensive frown, before shaking it down and placing it back in his case.
She lay still as death beneath her vestments of cloth and down, too deep within her own mind to even react to the intimate touches she was receiving from a stranger. My heart hurt looking at her. My guts twisted and roiled inside me as I stared on, helpless.
"Why isnt she shivering?" I managed to finally get out from between lips which seemed to forget how to form words.
"Her body cant waste the energy that would take. Everythings going to keeping her vital organs alive. She was in that water a long time." He turned to meet my gaze. "When she warms up, shell start shivering."
When. Not if.
I smiled a little, bolstered by his confidence.
He returned my smile, then turned away, reaching into his medical bag and pulling out an object wrapped in plastic. Opening the wrapping, he removed a long, flexible tube that was closed on one end, open on the other. "Whats that?"
"We need to warm up her on the inside too, but shes too weak to be able to take anything in by mouth right now, so Im going to slip this tube into her stomach through her nose and introduce some water that Rubys got heating up on the stove. That should help bring her core body temperature up."
The warming up the inside part sounded good. The sticking a garden hose down the nose, however, didnt. "Will it hurt her?"
The doctor smiled slightly as he lubed up one end of the tube from a foil packet hed ripped open. "Well, most people gag when its going down, but I dont think we have to worry about that in this case. Shes pretty out of it. It shouldnt hurt, no."
I looked at him doubtfully, but as he seemed pretty certain of his words, I didnt argue.
I should have.
After he measured from her nose, to her ear, and down to the tip of her sternum, he tilted her head back and deftly pushed the tube into her right nostril, feeding it through a little at a time.
Ice reacted the way I half expected her to, the way I imagined a wildcat would when trapped in a hunters snare; snarling, twisting her face away from the offending object, and lashing out blindly with both arms.
In her unthinking rage, she managed to crack one muscled forearm hard against the doctors cheek and send him flying back toward the fireplace, where only the upraised stone hearth kept him from being pitched headfirst into the flames.
I immediately dove into the fray, trying with all my strength to pin Ices arms down to her sides while laying my body atop hers to somehow stop her insane struggling.
She threw me off her body as if I were a child, and a small one at that, but I scrambled back on top of her, forgoing the useless attempt to hold her arms down and instead using my hands to gently cradle her face. "Ice, its me. Its Angel. You need to relax. Youre safe here. No ones going to hurt you. Please. You need to relax."
My soothing tones seemed to be penetrating the thick fog of her mind, because gradually she began to slow her struggles, her tense body softening beneath my own. Her eyes opened once again, and though her gaze was still dazed, I could see the faintest glimmer of the woman I loved looking back at me.
I smiled with probably more relief than Ive ever known, before or since. "Welcome back, my love," I whispered, tears sparkling in my eyes once again.
Her arm moved up slowly, but before I could stop her, she ripped the NG tube out of her nose and flung it away, gagging. She turned her head just in time as her chest heaved and a great glut of lake water spilled out onto the towel next to her head.
I clambered off of her and stroked her brow as she continued to retch weakly, gagging until nothing more was left to expel. Then she started to shiver, violently, her tremors so strong that she almost seemed to be having some sort of seizure.
I looked up, alarmed, at the doctor who was just now getting back to his feet and wiping the bleeding cut Ice had given his cheek. "She packs a mean punch," he muttered, shaking his head and coming to kneel beside us both.
Even in her misery, Ice managed to turn her head in his direction and narrow her eyes in a murderous glare before turning back to me, an eternitys worth of questions in her eyes.
"His name is Steve. Hes a doctor, and hes here to help." My smile became wider as I gently caressed a cheek which was already becoming warmer. "So dont go turning him into dog meat just yet, huh?"
She shot him another glare, but remained calm, if still wracked with violent spasms, beneath my hands.
At my nod, Steve came closer, bringing his head into Ices field of vision. "Id ask how youre feeling, but its pretty obvious what the answers gonna be, so I think well just skip that one. Youre suffering from severe hypothermia. Your shivering is a good sign, but your body temperature wouldnt even register on my thermometer, so Im gonna have to put that tube back down into your stomach so we can warm you up, ok?"
The good doctor had obviously learned a painful lesson on how to respect his patients, if his calm, coherent and logical explanation to my partner was any indication. I couldnt help an internal smirk. Ice had a way of teaching people things theyd never dreamed of learning. And not always in ways theyd expect to be taught, either.
By some superhuman strength of will, she managed to unclench her jaw and force words out from a raw throat. "N-no t-t-tube."
He smiled then. That patently false "And just where did you get your medical degree" doctor smile thats issued, I believe, with the diploma and Hippocratic Oath upon graduation from Medical School. Hippocrates himself probably practiced that expression while looking into still pools and waiting for his latest crop of peasants with foot rot to arrive.
I laid a quick hand on his arm, hoping to forestall the storm I could see brewing in Ices eyes. Eyes which were becoming more clear and more aware, and yes, more icy as the seconds passed. "Look. Its probably better if you just . . . ."
He raised his eyes to mine. "If there were any other way, Id use it. But shes shivering too hard to be able to drink. The tube goes back in."
Then his face paled as an incredibly strong hand clamped down on his wrist. He tried to pull away, but to no avail.
"No. Tube." She didnt even look at him. Just continued to clamp down on his arm while the rest of her continued to shiver violently.
I looked from one to the other, surprised that I wasnt more surprised that a woman who was dying moments ago could be more than holding her own against a strong and apparently healthy man.
After all, the woman in question was Ice.
"Ok!" I said brightly. "It seems were in a bit of a standoff here." And I was the resident expert on standoffs, having endured several during my time in prison. Of course, expertise didnt help when I felt my head nearly being seared off by two sets of scorching glances sent my way.
I smiled. Broadly. Then chose the pair of eyes to look into that didnt stand the best chance of incinerating me where I knelt.
"She doesnt want a tube shoved down her nose. You dont want your arm broken. I think weve got a little common ground to work with here, dont you?"
After a long, tense moment, he nodded. I think he was in too much pain to speak. I know I would have been.
"Good. Then heres my idea. You go into the kitchen and ask Ruby to change the water shes warming into a weak tea. Then well see if she can drink it. But if she chokes, or even sputters just once," and here I took a chance and looked down at Ice, "the tube goes back in. Deal?"
When Ice closed her eyes in resignation, I knew the war was won. Almost as an afterthought, I turned my attention back to the doctor, who was looking at me with a mixture of pain and amazement in his eyes. "Deal?"
When he finally nodded, I reached down and gently grasped my lovers hand, carefully prying her fingers loose from the doctors wrist. "Cmon, Ice," I murmured, my lips close to the frozen shell of her ear. "You need to let go so he can get your tea, ok?"
After several long seconds, I had her grip loosened enough so that Steve could remove his arm, which he promptly did, rubbing it and looking at both of us as if hed never seen us before. Smiling up at him, I gestured with my eyes his path to the kitchen, and when he got the hint and left us alone, I lowered my head the rest of the way and pressed a kiss to my lovers lips, hoping to warm them with my own. "Thank you," I whispered, smiling into her eyes.
She blinked once, in acknowledgement I thought, then rolled away from me and toward the fire, curled up into a fetal ball of shivering misery.
Unable to stand seeing her that way, I lifted up the covers and joined her beneath them, pressing my front against her back and slipping one arm around her waist, melding, as best I could, our bodies together.
The chill of her bare flesh was intense against the inadequate shielding of my T-shirt, and the violence of her shivering caused my own teeth to chatter.
It was like trying to hold onto an avalanche.
But hold on I did, as the voice of an old science teacher Id had once filtered through my mind, telling me that skin on skin contact was one way to combat the ravages of hypothermia. Pulling away slightly, I yanked my T-shirt up and over my head then cuddled back down, wincing as my warm flesh came into contact with her icy skin. I resisted the urge to pull away, instead forcing myself to move closer, wrapping my arm once again around her waist and hanging on for dear life as the tremors of her body went through both of us.
Placing my head against the back of her neck, I hummed something nonsensical and off-key, doing my best to let her know that I was there and wasnt going anywhere any time soon. At least not without her.
It seemed to work, or maybe my mind was just telling me something my heart needed to hear, truth or not, but her spastic tremors seemed to calm somewhat the longer she lay in my arms. Was her flesh just the slightest bit warmer, or was it my body that was so numb that it only felt that way to me?
Either way, I held on, prepared to do so for an eternity if thats what it took.
Ruby came out into the den, followed by the doctor. Both were holding two mugs in their hands and bearing identical, concerned expressions on their faces. Rubys eyes narrowed as she took in my position beneath the blankets with Ice, and I swore I could see the little computer in her mind clacking away and filing this new bit of information for further use.
At any other time, I might have felt some concern over this, but as things were then, I just couldnt give a rats hindquarters what she thought, as long as she helped Ice recover. Thered be time enough for tap dancing around the issue later.
"Hows she doing?" Steve asked, coming to stand beside us.
"I dont know. I think she might be a little warmer, but Im not sure."
e squatted down. "Well, I kept my part of the bargain, for all the good itll do. Heres the tea. How do you suggest we get her to drink it?"
To be perfectly honest, I hadnt thought that far ahead, but I sure as hell wasnt going to tell him that. Especially not with the slight sheen of condescension I could see shining in his eyes.
Well, Mister small town, know it all, got my license to practice medicine from K-Mart, Ive stood up against a whole ocean of fish bigger than you.
Biting the inside of my lip for a second, I hit upon an idea that I hoped would work and rolled up to a sitting position, keeping a firm grip on Ices waist as I did so. For being a woman without an ounce of fat on her, Ice was very heavy, especially now, trembling and dead weight as she was in my arms. Still, wanting to rub someones face in their own mess makes for good motivation, and with a strength I didnt know I possessed, I managed to bring her up to a semi-reclining position against my chest.
Even if someone had offered me, right then, a million dollars, I couldnt have kept the smirk off my face at the expression on the doctors.
Take that, you little two-bit know it all.
Of course, the hard part was still ahead. Ice was still shivering so violently that the clacking of her teeth was easily heard over the roaring of the fire. Just how she was supposed to drink tea with a jaw that was vibrating like an overused car engine I hadnt the first clue.
So I smiled, effectively putting the ball back into the doctors court once again.
He caught my look and scowled, but to his credit, did the best he could. Which, unfortunately, wasnt very good at all.
With tentative hands, he lifted one of the mugs after setting the other down near the hearth. I wasnt sure who was shaking more, doctor or patient, but the end result was that Ice was receiving a very impromptu, and by her expression very unwelcome, tea bath. After a few more fumbling attempts, he pulled the mug away, his eyes beseeching me to give in just this once.
Ruby chose that moment to step in, moving him out of the way and kneeling in his place. "Let me take care of this," she said in a voice just a hair short of disgusted. "Make yourself useful and go get some more blankets to warm by the fire. Theyre in the closet right down the hallway there."
I was sure I could detect his sigh of relief as he rose to his feet and hurried off to do Rubys bidding.
"Men," she muttered to herself while wiping the tea off of Ices skin. "Worse than a pack of half-blind sled dogs, they are."
Right then, she sounded so much like Corinne I couldnt help but laugh, even given the gravity of the situation I was in. She looked at me and winked before applying herself back to the task at hand.
Finished with her mopping job, Ruby lay down the towel and used her left hand to firmly grasp Ices quaking jaw. She raised the mug to my lovers lips with a steady hand. Tilting the mug just slightly, she poured the liquid in in tiny bits so that, before I knew it, Ice had finished half a mug without choking or sputtering even once. The second half went even quicker as the tepid tea began to work its magic on her insides, warming them slightly and allowing blood to spread to the rest of her body.
A quarter of the way through the second mug, Ice had had enough and turned her head away from the offering. "No more," she whispered.
To my surprise, Ruby didnt push, just wiped Ices lips and handed the mugs back to Steve, whod come in sometime between the first cup and the second, and was staring at us dumbly, hands on hips. "I think shes earned a bit of a rest, dont you?" she asked no one in particular.
I looked up at Steve, who half-smiled, half-shrugged, the way a pet dog might whos trying hard to get back into your good graces, yet not knowing quite what to do to get there. "I . . .um . . .should check her temperature again."
"Ok," I replied, drawing the word out as I wondered why he was looking so hesitant.
He winced. "Shes . . .um . . .still shivering too hard to take it by mouth."
I winced in empathy as his little problem became clear as crystal. The man had suffered a black eye from sticking a tube down Ices nose. Where he needed to place the thermometer would probably rate emasculation. "Oh. I . . .see your point." I smiled weakly. "She feels a lot warmer. Does that count?"
"Not really, no."
"Just get on with it already," Ices rough voice chimed in.
Spurred into action as if struck by a whip, the doctor literally jumped to his bag, removed his thermometer and most likely took the fastest temperature in the history of humankind.
Silently closing the door to Ices room, I padded back down the hallway and descended the stairs, a curious mixture of relief and dread coursing through me.
As evening claimed the day, Ice began to recover, slowly becoming warmer as my arms continued to enfold her, pressing her close to my body. Steve and Ruby had talked quietly, their words unheard over the fireplaces cheery crackles, and I felt my lover slowly begin to relax in my arms, finally falling into a deep, and I hoped restful, sleep.
The stresses of the day caught up to me, and I gave in to the insidious craving for sleep that seemed to envelope me like the blankets laying over both of us, only to be awakened what seemed to be a second later by a gentle touch to my shoulder.
After taking another temperature and proclaiming her safely in the land of the living once again, Steve helped me take Ice up the stairs and into her bedroom, escorting her to the bed and piling her high with blankets to ward off whatever residual chill that might have been lingering unseen by the two of us, waiting to take hold of her body once our backs were turned.
After handing me a bottle of antibiotic pills for the pneumonia he was sure would follow Ices icy swim, he smiled, still slightly embarrassed, and took his leave, gently shutting the door behind him, bathing the room in a gentle darkness.
I sat on the side of the bed for long moments, stroking Ices hair and trying desperately not to allow my mind to replay the events of the day. I needed to shut down, to tune out, to forget, even for a moment, how close I came to losing her.
Will it always be like this for us? Are we destined to forever stand at the precipice, gazing down into its gaping maw and praying for a gentle wind?
Shaking my head at my sudden attack of the blues, I placed a kiss on Ices forehead, then stood and smoothed clothes, taking in a deep breath and mentally preparing myself to face the music, which this time came in the form of a diminutive woman named Ruby.
What is it with me and my penchant for attracting, and having to answer to, elderly matrons, anyway?
Too deeply asleep to hear my silent question, Ice had no answers to give on this particular subject, though no doubt her advice would have been wryly humorous, had she deigned to give any at all.
I snorted softly. "Probably the same as yours for attracting blondes, psychotic or otherwise."
I, of course, did not count myself among that particular genus, blonde though I am, though Im sure some, maybe even some of you reading this right now, would beg to differ with my rather glowing self-assessment.
Alright, Angel. Enough stalling.
If there was one thing Id learned during my time behind bars, it was to do today what otherwise would get you killed tomorrow. Bravery had taken its sweet time in coming, but it had finally arrived and changed my way of thinking, and doing, for good.
"Wish me luck," I whispered to the silent figure on the bed before letting myself out of the room and into the line of fire, such that it was.
I came to the foot of the stairs like a condemned inmateand given my experiences, that analogy isnt exactly foreign to me, let me remind youand walked into the den, which was lit only by the still blazing fire. Ruby was sitting on one of the couches, a cup of coffee in her hand. Her eyes met mine immediately as I stepped into the room, as if shed been expecting my entrance all along, which, in truth, she probably had.
I summoned up a smile from somewhere and continued my advance, detouring over to the fire and holding my hands out to warm them, though they were already quite warm. Sweating, in fact.
"Everythings quiet, I trust?"
Her voice was flat, uninflected, and therefore difficult to read.
I stood, still turned away from her, and nodded, staring into the flames, my muscles almost as tense as theyd ever been during my time in the Bog, when my life, and not just my pride, was at stake.
"Would you like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot." Her voice was warmer this time.
Damning my cowardice, I continued to stare into the flames, shaking my head slowly in the negative.
"Whats wrong, Angel?"
I stiffened further, then turned, sure my face was an open-mouthed mask of shock. "How did you . . . ?"
"She called you that. When you were both sleeping." Rubys smile deepened, her eyes bright with understanding. "It fits you, somehow."
"Ruby, I . . . ."
She held up one hand. "No need to explain, Tyler. I might be old and gray, but I know love when its staring me in the face." Her smile warmed the craggy plains of her face. "And you love her very much, dont you." It wasnt a question.
Beyond stunned, I could only let my heart answer. "Yes."
Nodding sagely, she took another sip of her coffee, her eyes never leaving mine. "Shes a very lucky woman."
Somehow, I knew she wasnt talking about Ices escape from what seemed to be certain death.
"Youre wrong," I countered, feeling the sting of fresh tears as they pricked at my eyes. "Im the lucky one."
"Perhaps you both are."
And, just like that, I managed to find acceptance, and even love, in the one place I most needed for it to be, in the eyes of my childhood confidant. Noticing my tears, she held open her arms and I rushed into them, burying my face and body in the abundant and fragrant warmth of her, allowing myself the emotional catharsis I so desperately needed.
My tears fell in a cleansing rain, dampening the front of her housecoat. She just held me and rocked me, humming like she used to do when I was young and had been put off by my parents.
And so, a day that had started off wonderfully and gone steadily, horribly downhill from there, ended on a note much sweeter than I had any right to request.
And for that, I was very thankful.
The events of the next two weeks would have tried the patience of a Saint, and since Im not about to be canonized anytime in the foreseeable future, lets just say that every day brought to me new and inventive definitions for the word frustration and leave it at that.
True to the good doctors word, pneumonia did indeed decide to pay a little visit to my beleaguered partner. To say that Ice was a poor patient would be somewhat akin to observing that Mother Theresa is a nice woman; technically true, but an understatement of extreme proportions.
Thats not that she was the whiney type, because she wasnt. Whiney I could have dealt with easily, having had more than my share of exposure to it while still a young girl living under the roof of two parents who elevated that particular sickbed response to somewhat of an art form.
No, Ice was more the "dont tell me Im sick, because Im not" type. The "youre the one who needs to see a doctor, because I feel just fine" type. The . . .well, you get the picture.
It took all my not inconsiderable powers of persuasion to convince her that fevers rising above one hundred three degrees, coughing until blue in the face after such strenuous activities as sitting up or yawning, and vomiting up ones toenails at the mere mention of food was not normal in the course of human events.
Of course, my lover also suffered from selective hearing loss, and there were times where I was sure my voice was the perfect decibel level to activate that particular condition, much to my extreme vexation.
She showed enough presence of mind, however, to take the antibiotics I nearly shoved down her throat and, just prior to my appropriating some rope from Ruby and earning a question and answer session on our bedroom habits, the illness began to lose its interest in my partner and the light at the end of the tunnel stopped being an oncoming train.
Spring began to show her colors during my week of enforced isolation, and by the time Ice was again ready to step outside and wash the jailhouse pallor from her face, the snow had melted completely, revealing a verdant carpet underneath.
One morning, I decided that a walk into town was in order and, probably because shed grown somewhat used to my more dominant position during her illness and convalescence, Ice followed without much comment.
I knew that situation would change, and soon, but I was determined to enjoy it for as long as I could.
We walked slowly through a forest coming alive with springs bright blessing. Birds, animals and insects were everywhere and flowers bloomed in a riot of color. The tree-fractured sun was warm on my shoulders and the smile on my face was as wide as they came.
The sky was May soft and stitched with clouds which cast friendly shadows over the ground as they strolled their slow lovers promenade across the vast expanse of warming blue.
The last row of trees gave way and the town opened up beyond the woods. The initial sight of it made me stop and stare, astounded by how much of a difference three weeks could make.
Gone was the gray of a desolate community dying by slow inches. In its place stood something fresh, vibrant, new. Even the church, always the first building you passed no matter which way you came into town, looked inviting instead of imposing with its new coat of whitewash and its open, beckoning doors.
The Silver Pine looked as if the tornado of Oz had spun it away and replaced it with Glendas house. Big men on tall ladders washed windows and painted shutters Some were even hanging honest-to-god bunting from the eaves, as if the Queen were expected to pop by for a visit sometime in the very near future.
From the corner of my eye, I caught something very large and very yellow sail around the corner of the Inn, leaving a high falsetto voice and mumbled orders that caused the working men to redouble their efforts. I wondered about that for a moment, suspecting I had at last seen the much-maligned (by Ruby, at least) proprietress of the place, but before I had a chance to step forward and indulge my always rampant curiosity, Ice stiffened beside me and I looked up, catching the scowling expression on her face.
Following her gaze, I took in the scene presented me. A large, beefy and florid-faced man wearing a brown suit which screamed discount department store was standing beside the drivers door of a battered silver Volvo with Indiana tags and screaming into the impassive face of a man whod been ancient when I was a young girl; Mr. Willamette, the owner of the towns only gas station.
When the large man pulled back his fist and made as if to punch kindly Mr. Willamette, Ice stepped into action, getting there just in time to save the old man from eating dinner through a straw for the rest of his life.
I slid to a stop before the group just as Mr. Fist turned to stare disbelievingly at my partner, his rubbery lips parted to reveal crooked, nicotine-stained teeth and the flesh of his hand blanched white where Ices fingers were gripping it.
She gave him that smile that makes you wonder if shes contemplating adding homo idiotus to her list of dietary delicacies.
"What seems to be the problem?" I asked brightly, more to keep Ice from turning the man into a human stew then because I really wanted to know.
As Id learned from long, and painful, years of experience, asking the obvious question is sometimes the way to go in situations like these. While the bully in question is straining his somewhat less than vast mental resources to come up with a witty comeback, you usually have more than enough time to get your lips out of the way of his fist.
"Cars broke," came the voice of Mr. Willamette from my right.
"Brilliant deduction, Mr. Fixit," the stranger replied, pulling his hand loose from Ice, who was willing to let it go. "My question is: what are you gonna do about it?"
"Cant do anything about it. Like I told you, my mechanics laid up till fall, at least."
Temple vein throbbing, the man lunged forward again, only to be caught by his lapels by Ice, who shoved him back against the car and stared deep into his eyes, that little smirk still curving her lips.
"Who are you? The old goats bodyguard?"
Ices smile widened. "Nah. Just someone who likes to see how many limbs she can rip off before her victim starts screaming." She made a show of looking the man up and down. "I think one will do just fine here."
Wanting to stop this before the stranger stained his trousers, I stepped up to Ice and laid a hand against her lower back. "Maybe we could hear his side of the story?"
When she turned to look at me, her eyes were filled with mirth, and I relaxed slightly and looked around her broad back and into the face of the man who I was sure was going to be dashing off a very nasty note to the Volvo people at his first available opportunity. Assuming he managed to get through this with all parts intact, of course.
Which, at this point, looked to be a toss-up.
Releasing the mans lapels and brushing them flat against his natty suit jacket, Ice stepped back a pace and crossed her muscled arms over her chest, her raised-eyebrow expression leaving no doubt in the mans mind that if he were even to start thinking about acting stupid again, shed take great pleasure in pulling his spine up through his throat and beating him to death with it.
His mouth opened. Then closed. Opened. Closed.
Then hung open like a trap door and stayed that way.
"Okay," I said, breaking the silence and drawing the word out when it became obvious the man didnt have the presence of mind to say anything at the moment. (And having your bowels turned to water by six feet of muscled beauty will do that to you every time, believe me.) I turned to Mr. Willamette. "What are his options?"
"Well, like I told him, theres a phone in the station that hes welcome to use to call a tow thatll take him up the road to the next town over. They got a mechanic works full-time there. Have him fixed up quick." He shrugged. "Believe me, I could use the money, but I aint no mechanic so itd be useless to keep the car here. Itd only gather dust."
I turned back to the stranger. "Sounds pretty reasonable to me."
"Its not reasonable. I cant afford to wait around this two bit little town while some toothless old geezer decides to dust off his 23 pickup and jaunt down here to tow my car to another two bit town. I have a meeting that Im already," he looked at his watch, "three hours late for." He looked back up. "I want my car fixed and I want it fixed now, damnit!"
"And I already told you that I cant fix it, Mister. Now or ever. I dont know what part of that aint getting through, but the mechanic fairy aint gonna crap on my head just because youre whinin about it like some kid that lost his mommy, eh?"
Stepping forward before Ice could carry out her unvoiced threat, I pushed the man back against his car myself when it looked like he was going to damn the torpedoes and push foolishly ahead. "Look. Were all human beings here, right? Now, if you just relax and act like the gentleman I know is down there somewhere, I just might be able to help you out here, alright?"
The stranger looked at Ice over the top of my head, and whatever he saw there made him blanch several shades of white. Still, the maggot inside him wouldnt let go completely. "And what would you know about anything, blondie? You probably dont even know which parts the engine."
Resisting the urge to backhand him myself, I settled for a conciliatory smile. "Maybe not, but I might know someone who does. And if you play nice, I just might be persuaded to ask for help."
His eyes narrowed. "Yeah? From who?"
I jerked my head to the left. "From her."
His eyes widened back up. "Her? That . . . ."
"Now, now, now. Do you want your car fixed or do you want to spend the rest of your life as a stain on the road here." Releasing him, I stepped away, standing next to Ice and crossing my arms. "Your choice."
He looked at the three of us individually before settling his gaze back on me once again. "I . . .um . . .I . . . ." His eyes examined the ground at his feet. "I guess I could use the help."
In the silence, I was sure I could hear the sound of the male ego deflating.
It was glorious.
When no one answered, he looked back up at us, his eyebrows raised. "What?"
"Arent you forgetting something?" I asked.
"Well, the polite thing to do would be to ask for help, dont you think?"
His jaw dropped again. "But . . .you said. . . ." He sighed. "Alright." He looked to Ice. "Can you fix my car?" He hesitated a moment, then looked at his watch. "Please?"
Ice looked at him, assessing, then turned to Mr. Willamette. "You have tools?"
"Mechanic left em here when he got hurt. Welcome to use em. The garage too."
She nodded, then turned back to gaze impassively at the stranger. "Alright."
The resulting smile transformed his face into something almost resembling handsome. If you squinted real hard and threw in a healthy dose of cosmetic surgery for good measure. "Great! Ill just go use the telephone to let my clients know I havent dropped off the face of the earth."
As he started forward, he was stopped yet again, this time by a strong hand gripping the arm of his jacket. The smile disappeared. "What now?!?"
Ice narrowed her eyes at his tone. "Unless Volvo has made some drastic changes in the last five years, I dont think that car of yours is just gonna drive itself into the garage, do you?"
"But my clients!"
"You either help me put this car in the garage where I can take a look at it, or you start walking. Maybe youll get lucky and some trucker who hasnt seen his wife in six months will give you a lift." Her smile wasnt a pleasant one, but by the strangers expression, it seemed to get the point across quite nicely.
Shoulders slumped in bitter-tasting defeat, the man walked back over to his car, opened the door and began to push it in the direction of the waiting garage.
A short time later, shorter than I expected, actually, the car was back out under the mid-spring sky, motor humming complacently. The stranger, one George Roger Grayson by name, was just putting his wallet back into his coat pocket after having considered, I could tell, pitching yet another fit over the cost Mr. Willamette had quoted him. In the end, though, he paid and we watched as he pulled away in a cloud of dust.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," the shop owner observed, pulling his ball-cap back onto his head. "This is yours, I believe." He handed the somewhat sizable stack of bills to Ice, who just looked at the offering, not accepting. "Cmon now. You did all the work. All I did was supply the place."
"And the tools."
Wetting his thumb, he peeled back a couple bills, stuffed them into his pocket, and again held out the money to Ice who, with reluctance, finally accepted it.
"Theres work for you if you want it. Not now, maybe, but come summer, Ill be up to my eyeballs in broken down cars. Could use a pair of hands like yours around here. Youre some skilled."
The corner of Ices lip curled. "Im not exactly the employee type."
"Never said you had to be. I get a car, I call you. If youre around, you can come help. If not," he shrugged, "only costs a dime to get a tow. Good money in it. Cash on the barrelhead." His eyes glinted with the light of a man who enjoyed getting one over on the government. "Deal?"
After thinking on it a moment, Ice finally nodded. "Deal."
They shook to seal it.
"Names Willamette, by the way. But most folks call me Pop."
"Morgan. This is. . . ."
"The Moore girl. Tyler, right? I remember you when you were some smaller comin up here with your folks in summer. Place burned down a few years back. You thinkin to rebuild?"
I smiled. "Were hoping to, yes."
He nodded sagely. "Be good to have the place back up again." He turned to look at Ice again. "I heard what you done for the Halloran boy. The whole towns been buzzin about it for weeks. Like a bunch of hornets, they are. Bet no ones thought to thank you yet, so let me be the first. Most strangers wouldnt have thought to do what you did, puttin themselves in danger and all. So thanks."
Ice looked a little taken aback by what passed for effusive praise from the normally reticent man and brushed off his praise with a shrug. "Did what I had to do."
"More n most people would have. Itll be good havin you here. You too, Tyler." He tipped his cap in a courtly gesture. "Best be getting back to work now, such as it is. Be seein you."
As he walked back to his shop, I shook my head and laughed. Ice turned to look at me. "What?"
"Only you, Ice."
A raised eyebrow asked me to continue.
"Only you could break up a fight and wind up with a job."
If she were the blushing type, I probably would have gotten one out of her for that, but since she wasnt, all I received was a scowl and a half muttered comment that was probably better unheard. I laughed again. "Can I treat you to a cup of coffee, Ms. Mechanic? Maybe well get better service this time out."
Without bothering to reply, Ice started off toward the café, leaving me to trail behind, a growing smile covering my face.
Continued - Part 3
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