Carol sighed as the door slammed closed behind her. She knew the entire precinct was watching her every move. Randell glared at her from the side of the large room, close to where their desks were situated. She didn't want to meet his eyes, knowing the fury she would see there and unable to deal with it at this moment.
The desk sergeant muttered something unintelligible when she passed him, but she knew it wasn't good by the snickers from the other officers standing nearby. Unable to decide what to do, the dark-haired cop walked right out the front door so she could be out of the stifling building. She tried to remember the weekend instead, which had been much more pleasant.
She and Erin had slept in, warmly embraced in each other's arms. Then they'd gone downtown for breakfast and a stroll in the open area of shops. The blonde had been animated and energetic, constantly making Carol laugh out loud, often doubling over and fighting for breath. It was at those times that Erin would rest a warm hand on the other woman's back and laugh with her, the connection of souls and bodies too much to deny.
Carol took a deep breath, raising her face to the sky and feeling the sun's warmth drown her. She'd taken Erin home after lunch, kissing her gently and holding her close on the front porch until the sound of Minos clearing her throat had interrupted them. They'd both flushed with embarrassment and said good-bye. Between missing the warm body at her side and dreading this meeting, Carol had slept horribly.
"Hey," a soft familiar voice interrupted her thoughts and Carol opened her eyes to glance down the sidewalk. Erin sat on the curb, wearing a long dress and her hair free of braids again. Carol almost burst into tears at seeing her, the relief so overwhelming.
"Hi," the dark woman responded softly, tugging self-consciously at the uniform she wore. She walked over and sat on the curb next to the blonde.
"You'll get your uniform dirty," Erin admonished gently, bumping the taller woman with her shoulder.
"I don't care," Carol assured her. "Why are you here?"
Erin smiled, reached a hand out to tentatively touch the dark-haired woman's knee. "I thought you could use a friend."
"Yeah," the officer replied gratefully. "I do need a friend."
"Here I am," the blonde murmured.
"Here you are," Carol confirmed. "Thank you, Erin," she whispered, taking a deep breath.
"Was it bad, honey?" Funny how the endearment seemed so natural.
Carol shrugged. "He had me retell the story three times. The first two he hinted that I should change it slightly. The last time he flat out told me."
"And you told the same story?"
"Every time," Carol nodded, covering her face with both her hands.
Erin moved her fingers from the dark woman's knee to take a hand and pull it away so she would be able to see her companion's face. "I'm proud of you, Carol. You did the right thing."
"Then why do I feel so bad?" the officer asked, tilting her head sideways to meet the emerald eyes peering her direction. She found in them affection and compassion. It was almost her undoing.
"Cuz the whole thing just stinks. It's a bad situation any way you look at it."
"No argument here."
They sat silently for a few minutes, soaking in the late morning sunshine.
"How long have you been waiting?" Carol asked suddenly. She'd been in with the Chief for hours. What had started as an inquiry had turned into an inquisition.
Erin shrugged, the corner of her mouth lifting upwards in a smirk. "A while."
"It means a lot to me that you came here ... just to support me," Carol responded softly, squeezing the fingers that were laced within hers.
"Wouldn't be anywhere else," Erin assured her friend with a warm smile. "Do you have some time?"
"Close to lunch?" Carol asked, confirming that when she looked at her watch. "Yeah. I'm supposed to meet with the desk sergeant at one to get my assignment," she grimaced.
"Not good, huh?"
Carol snorted and shook her head. "Prob'ly not. What did you have in mind?"
"You wanted to see some of my work?" Erin asked, standing and tugging at her companion's hand, which she still held.
The dark woman accepted the prompting and stood as well, fairly towering over her smaller friend. "I'd like that a lot. You sure you can take me there like this?" Carol asked, indicating the uniform she wore.
Erin hadn't really thought of that or the questions that would arise if she saw people she knew. But more than anything she wanted to be with Carol. She could sense the dark woman's uneasiness. The morning meeting had shaken her up and she was both depressed and confused. Erin had waited for close to three hours, often questioning the stupidity of sitting on the curb and watching the morning mist break with the rising sun. She'd especially questioned herself when cops had hassled her, threatening to take her in. She'd agreed to leave only because she wanted to be here for Carol, not in another jail cell. So she walked around the block and regained her seat once they'd left.
During all this time the only thing she'd thought about was how much Carol would need her and how much she needed to be there for her friend. She hadn't considered what would happen now. How she wanted to embrace her companion and kiss her, wipe away the fears and uncertainty she knew lingered there. How that would be awkward for both of them in their separate circles. Finally, Erin raised green eyes to her companion, meeting dubious blue. "I don't care what anyone thinks, Carol," she affirmed softly. "Let's go."
Carol smiled and followed the younger woman down the sidewalk towards the college campus.
Erin led her friend slowly across campus, chatting the entire way about the weather or activities at the house. The ongoing babbling was welcome, the young woman's lilting voice easy on the officer's rattled nerves and soothing her immensely.
Carol provided comments where necessary but otherwise allowed the walk's conversation to belong solely to the blonde at her side.
They walked through the Student Union towards the back of the building where Erin opened the door for her friend, ushering her into a room which served as a gallery for student art. Carol followed willingly, stepping just inside the room and waiting for Erin to come to her side.
"This way," the smaller woman encouraged, leading her companion towards some paintings on the back wall and standing silently in front of them. Carol tilted her head, studying the signature first and then the art itself. There were three pieces side by side, all were signed simply with Sky. One was of sunrise coming over the college campus, washing the buildings in orange and red. The common grass areas should have been open and green but instead were littered with lifeless bodies, each calm as if sleeping. But the flavor was different, the question remained whether the crowd was sleeping off an overindulged night or dead where they lay.
The next painting was of a child, long brown hair and deep brown eyes, wearing a blue gingham dress. She was sitting in the grass in front of headstone, hugging a stuffed bear in her arms. The bear wore a uniform, the grave presumably belonged to her father. The emotions and expressions in the child's face were nearly tangible and touched Carol deeply. She turned to the young woman who was looking at the paintings as well. "That's amazing," the officer said softly. "You're very talented."
Erin blushed and shrugged her shoulders. "I paint what I feel. My drawings are better ... oil and water color really aren't my preferred medium." She pointed to the third piece of art hanging with the others. It was a charcoal drawing of Rainbow at the park, bandana around his neck, tongue lolling freely.
Carol smiled at the familiarity of the work. "Do you have a drawing of the little girl?"
The blonde nodded. "Have drawings of all my paintings. They start there."
"I'd like to see it. What do you call it?"
Erin shook her head. "I don't name them. Gives them preconceived interpretations, don't you think? I want people to get what they can out of them, not what I think they should."
The dark woman pursed her lips in thought and nodded. The rationalization made sense.
"There ya go!" Erin shrugged, turned to her friend.
"It's wonderful, Erin. I really am impressed," Carol smiled, running a warm hand down the blonde's arm. "Is there more?"
"Not here. I sell some from time to time. There's a small private gallery downtown that has one but it's not one of my favorites. One in another place on campus. The rest I keep at home."
Carol glanced at the works one more time, her eyes lingering on the mourning child, before stepping back and walking towards the door. "Lunch before I go back?"
"Sounds good," Erin agreed readily, following her friend through the Union and back out to the daylight.
They agreed on a deli down the street and were silent for the small journey, ordering their sandwiches and taking seats on the small outdoor patio. "I checked on Jimmy," Erin said cautiously, not sure that Carol would want to talk about this.
"Chief said they didn't know about him."
Erin nodded. "They don't think he's going to make it. I guess the bullet did extensive damage to his stomach and spleen. It nicked his spinal cord on the way out."
Carol took a deep breath and swallowed it, knew her eyes were welling with tears. "Thanks for finding out for me."
The blonde reached a hand out and touched Carol's arm. "It's not your fault, honey. You know that."
"Seems like I should have been able to prevent it. Has he been conscious?"
"No. And there were a couple of uniforms crawling around."
Carol snorted, slowly chewing a bite of her turkey sandwich before responding. "They're probably waiting to tell him what happened when he wakes up. Arrest him or something."
"The blood work came back clean," Erin provided.
This caught the officer's attention and she looked at her friend. "How did you get that information?"
"I'm pretty persuasive when I want to be," the blonde grinned. "He wasn't on anything, that much was evident."
They ate in silence for several long minutes. "Was it really bad?" Erin asked softly. "Your boss? Was he hard on you?"
One broad shoulder shrugged. "He knows I was telling the truth. He also doesn't care. I'm sure they'll clear Randell and make me a desk jockey or something."
"I think Randell's an asshole."
"I think you're a smart woman," Carol leaned forward conspiratorially.
Erin laughed, watched her friend finish off her sandwich and soda, then wipe her mouth. The blonde did the same.
"Walk me back?"
"Love to," the smaller woman smiled, falling into pace beside the dark officer.
They stopped outside the station, standing awkwardly and watching each other. "Are you gonna be okay?"
Touched by her young friend's concern, Carol nodded. "Yeah," she paused. "You up for dinner tonight? I'd love to see you," the officer asked the question sheepishly, her pale eyes bouncing from the small woman to the buildings across the street.
Erin smiled warmly, reaching out to tangle her fingers with Carol's and squeeze gently. "Same here. Can I come to your house about six?"
"Sure. How do you get around anyway?"
"I've got feet," the blonde said with mock indignation.
Carol raised one dark eyebrow until it was hidden in her bangs.
"And a bus pass," Erin relented with a grin.
They took a few steps apart as Carol started towards the front door. Then she stopped suddenly and turned around. "Erin?"
The blonde stopped and turned as well. "Yeah?"
"If ... if you wanted to stay ... tonight ... that would be great."
The small woman smiled, the grin nearly swallowing her face. "Okay."
Carol returned the smile and started back towards the station. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for the worst.
Top of her class at the academy, medals of valor since she'd come on duty, and here she was filing papers. Carol growled darkly into the small archive room, shuffling through the manila folders she held and placing the appropriate ones on top of the 'A-E' filing cabinet. The rest she set aside for later perusal.
It had taken only a minute for the desk sergeant to lead her back here and gruffly explain filing and archiving. Being a 'good ole boy's' shop and filing being a job for a woman, there were literally years of it backlogged, sitting in stacks throughout the small room. First she'd gone through the filing cabinet and pulled out all the files over ten years old to put them in boxes labeled to go to records. Now she was just starting on the piles of work. She'd decided to do the alphabet a section at a time because the entire thing was just too daunting otherwise.
Frustrated, the officer ran a hand through her bangs, grateful at least that the station had air conditioning or this small room would be unbearable. Check that, more unbearable. She looked at her watch with some relief, realizing that in about twenty minutes she could head home and start dinner for Erin. She was planning to spend the night with the small woman and forget about work and its draining drudgery. Suddenly, life didn't seem so bad after all and she caught herself actually grinning and she filed away the folder on Daniels.
She stopped at the grocery store on the way and let herself into the small house while juggling two brown paper bags. She'd never thought to ask what her young friend liked or didn't like but knew a couple of safe items from their few meals together. So she'd planned on grilling chicken and having a pasta salad. With that thought in mind, she went right through the house, placing the bags on the kitchen counter, out the back door to start up the grill. Once the flames were licking at black coals, she went back to her room to change out of her uniform and into jean shorts and a T-shirt. She still had about thirty minutes until Erin was due so she went to work boiling pasta and cutting up fresh vegetables to go into it.
The doorbell rang not too much later and Carol set down her knife, wiping her hands on a convenient dishtowel, before walking down the short hallway. She opened the door to reveal Erin standing on the stoop. The blonde grinned and held up a bag, which Carol took as she motioned her inside.
"Hey," the officer said softly, bending to place a very gentle kiss on the woman's fair cheek.
"Hi," green eyes flashed a smile as Erin placed her palm on Carol's taut stomach. "Smell's great."
"We'll see. Come in, come in. There's iced tea in the refrigerator, help yourself." Walking behind the woman back to the kitchen, Carol opened the bag slightly and peeked inside. "What did you bring?"
"Dessert. Better put it in the freezer."
Carol grinned as she placed the four individually wrapped ice cream sandwiches next to the ice cube trays. "Great idea."
"Hot today," the blonde said lamely, grimacing slightly at her awkwardness as she poured herself a tall glass of ice tea and topped off Carol's.
"Sure was. Did you have class this afternoon?"
"Yeah. Professor let us sit on the lawn for it, though. So that was cool. Those stupid old class rooms don't even have working fans," Erin said with distaste.
"Yuck," Carol agreed, resuming her position at the counter chopping vegetables. "Chicken's about ready to go on the grill," she motioned with her knife to the breasts which were in a shallow bowl soaking in dark brown teriyaki sauce.
Erin nodded silently, taking a seat at the small table and running her fingers through the condensation on her glass.
Suddenly Carol realized that the blonde had only been carrying the bag of ice cream sandwiches. She couldn't help the feeling of disappointment and it must have shown on her face because Erin's brow wrinkled slightly.
"What's wrong?" the girl asked slowly.
Carol tried to shrug it off. It wasn't a big deal if Erin didn't want to stay. "Nothing."
"Unh unh," the hippie shook her head. "Tell me."
The officer grinned sheepishly, pausing in her slicing lest she lose a fingertip due to her distracted state. "I thought you were staying the night. But you didn't bring anything."
Erin chuckled dryly, taking a drink of tea. "I didn't realize it was a slumber party. I brought me and a toothbrush," she patted a large checkered pocket on her dress. "Should I have brought more?"
The dark woman blushed imperceptibly, feeling foolish. "No, of course not. I thought you might have changed your mind."
"Nope," Erin paused a minute while she looked around the clean room, taking in again the decorations she'd seen over the weekend. "Have you?" she asked suddenly, turning her attention back to Carol's long form where the woman had resumed slicing a cucumber.
"Nope," Carol chuckled. "We're pretty pathetic, aren't we?"
Erin laughed, nodding. "I've never really ... cared before ... if someone liked me or not," she admitted hesitantly.
"Well, relax. Because I like you."
"You relax, too," the blonde responded, finishing her tea quickly and standing for more. She paused by the chicken. "Should I put this on?"
Carol glanced over her shoulder at the boiling pasta. "Few more minutes," she decided after some thought.
With a nod, Erin continued to the refrigerator to refill her glass. After she was seated again, she decided to broach the touchy subject that had been eating at her. "How was your afternoon?"
Carol paused a moment in her slicing before she continued. She finished the cucumber and moved the pasta to a cold burner before she responded. "Coulda been worse."
"Coulda been better?"
She shrugged. "Sure. Randell went out on our beat with some rookie. I got to spend the afternoon in the filing room."
"Doing what?" Erin asked, fearing her friend had sat in the corner like a punished child.
"Umm ... filing," Carol responded with a grin. "Filing ... room ... you put files in there." She drained the pasta in a colander and ran cold water over it, tossing the tight curls and letting the water run all through it.
Erin let out a sigh of relief. "Were they nice to you?"
Carol just cast her an awed look.
"Okay ... were they not mean to you?" the blonde grinned.
"You're good at that."
"Word nuances," Carol replied, tossing the pasta with the freshly cut vegetables and then a light Italian dressing.
"Thanks ... I think," Erin looked at her in puzzlement.
"No, they weren't mean. Just not friendly. Not that they ever were, but now it's cold. I imagine they're trying to figure out how to get me transferred out of the station."
"Will they fire you?"
"If I don't keep my nose clean. I'm sure they're looking for any excuse. I have an appointment at the shooting range tomorrow for recertification. Hmmm ... what a coincidence."
"When did you find out about that?"
"After lunch," Carol knelt in front of the refrigerator to clear a spot for the salad, then she slid the large glass bowl inside. Then she moved across the kitchen to the back door, leaving it open when she went to toss the chicken on the grill. "Come out here and sit," she called.
Erin obliged, finding the grill situated on a small wooden deck. Two nylon chairs sat with their backs to the house and Erin took one of them, cradling her glass of ice tea in her palms. Silence reigned for several long minutes.
"What are you thinking?" Carol asked at last, taking the chair next to Erin's and leaning back in it.
Erin quirked a grin and looked at her companion's profile before looking across the small backyard. "I'm thinking I should come up with something really supportive to say but the truth is I can't. I know that you're one of the few officers who cares about all of us but I also know it's an establishment of closed minds and brutal training."
"You think it's a good thing this all happened?" Carol asked softly, her eyes closed as her head tilted back to welcome the sun's rays.
"No ... I mean ... it's not a bad thing. It's an opportunity for change and growth. You've stood up for yourself and your beliefs."
"And where did it get me?" Carol groaned.
"Don't give me that self-pitying bullshit, Carol," Erin said crossly. "You know you made the right decision. I'm only sorry the Force wasn't what you wanted it to be. If it were, I may not be who I am."
"I wouldn't be anti-establishment. I wouldn't be participating in demonstrations and sit-ins and doing my best to hamper your colleagues," she grinned recklessly. "I'm not an idiot. I'm not one of those potheads looking for a cause. I'm educated and down to earth and I believe in a cause worth fighting for."
"The greater good," the dark-haired woman murmured.
"Ah. You have been listening," she paused, attempting to lighten the mood. "Of course a good toke has its benefits."
Carol laughed, eyes still closed. "I know you're not an idiot, Erin. You're intelligent and creative, you have a great depth of understanding and acceptance. But what I can't figure out is how you ended up here, with Minos and the others."
"It's where I want to be," Erin shrugged, puzzled. "I like Minos and the house and the classes I take. What I do, I do for me, not because I don't have a choice. I've chosen this, all of it: the drugs, the rallies, the lifestyle. I'm happy where I am."
"What about your parents?" Carol asked carefully.
"Fuck 'em," the blonde replied flippantly. "Is that chicken done yet?"
Taking the not-so-subtle hint, Carol let the subject drop again. She felt rather like an open book to the young blonde, whereas she still knew very little about the hippie. "Lemme check," the officer said, rising to her feet and moving towards the grill. On her way past Erin's chair, she felt a feather light touch near her elbow. She glanced down into vibrant green eyes that flashed apology. Carol simply smiled and ran her fingers gently through the woman's bangs before resuming her trip to the grill.
"I'm just not ready ... to talk about them ..." Erin said slowly.
The dark woman waved her off with one hand while poking the meat with a fork in the other. "No sweat, Erin. You don't owe me anything. We're here for dinner and some company, right?"
After dinner, they sat on the couch in the downstairs TV room where the cement basement walls kept the room pleasantly chilly. Carol had scrounged up a notebook and pencil for Erin and watched the young woman intently as she sketched everything from daisies to skyscrapers. It turned into a game of sorts, Carol calling out items and Erin drawing them in sure gentle strokes. The officer was completely astounded by the young woman's talent.
Erin was tucked solidly into Carol, the taller woman having one arm across her midsection and the other in her lap. Carol's mouth was only inches from Erin's ear, the soft breath when she spoke all but distracting the young artist.
"Easy," Erin chastised, sketching the lines quickly and fluidly, giving her horse a diamond on his forehead and some spots over his haunches. "Challenge me," she said, putting some final wisps into his tail.
"Umm ... a field in the winter," the dark-haired woman replied smugly, quite proud of herself. How did one draw a field of snow with a pencil and nothing else?
Erin nodded slowly, flipping the page and setting to work. Carol watched the pencil tip dance across the paper, tilting her head when the image didn't make sense and she couldn't follow the young woman's train of thought. Then, slowly, she saw it: a field with a tree dripping icicles, patches of snow mingled with dead grass, an overturned wooden wheelbarrow blanketed in a carpet of snow. The young artist even sketched in the grain of the wheelbarrow and footprints from it. She penciled the bark of the tree, added her short signature across the bottom corner.
Carol gasped softly, causing the blonde to grin. "You are amazing."
"This is what you should do for a living."
The hippie shrugged. "Nah. This is what I do for my heart. Give me another one." She was enjoying the challenge and the camaraderie.
Taking the hint that harder subjects were better, Carol pondered a moment. "Here we go. A soccer team of young boys who've just lost their first game."
"Good one," Erin nodded approvingly and dove into the request.
They passed the evening like that, wrapped in each other and listening to the television drone on while they merely absorbed the sense of belonging they'd both been missing so terribly.
Later, they made their way to Carol's bedroom, changing into nightclothes and crawling into bed. Hesitantly, they snuggled next to each other.
"Thank you for coming over," Carol murmured, tightening her hold on the blonde, relishing the feeling of her body touching along the length of the smaller woman.
Erin grinned, rolled her head slightly so she could kiss Carol's shoulder. "Thank you for asking me."
"I didn't sleep well last night," the officer admitted sheepishly.
"You were worried about your meeting today, that's understandable," Erin acknowledged.
"And I missed you," Carol whispered, having trouble confessing the feelings.
"I missed you, too," Erin responded. "We'll both sleep better tonight."
"Are you sure about this?" Carol asked, looking over her shoulder on several occasions.
Carol and Erin hadn't seen each other since the morning following their dinner and had agreed over the phone last night on lunch today. Erin had claimed the food at the cafeteria was the best in town. The place was packed as they stood in line, waiting to pay for their sandwiches and sodas. The officer could feel all eyes upon her. She could honestly say she had never felt more uncomfortable in her life. Even the third day of her boring filing assignment was fun compared to the eyes of the students boring into her back now.
"Relax," Erin soothed. "They don't bite. Honest."
Carol smiled. Erin had a way of calming her like no one else ever did. The cop had heard just this morning that Jimmy had died in the night of his wounds and needed, more than she wanted to admit, Erin's soothing presence to assuage her rattled nerves. It turned out Erin had also heard the unpleasant news and was equally drawn to the dark woman, needing to offer her silent support. Though Jimmy's name hadn't yet come up, and wasn't likely to, it was in the back of both women's minds as they absorbed each other's presence.
When they reached the cashier, Carol started to dig into her pocket.
"No," Erin insisted. "You made dinner the other night." She handed over the bills to the cashier who now had a raised eyebrow. "Is there a problem?" Erin asked the cashier bluntly.
"No. No problem."
"Good then you can keep the change," Erin smiled. "Come on. Follow me," she told Carol.
Carol obeyed. They were on Erin's turf now and it was best if she let the honey-haired woman lead. They walked down a long corridor, paper-sacked lunches in hand.
"Here," Erin said as she came to a lazy stop. She pointed to a framed picture on the wall. The colors were brilliant and the contrasts had no distinguishable features.
"What's this?" Carol asked.
"It's one of my other works."
Carol didn't know what to make of it and she cocked her head from one side to the other - wondering just what the hell it was. One thing was certain, it wasn't like the other paintings she'd already seen or the sketches they'd played with just a few nights before. Finally, she decided to ask.
"What the hell is that?" Carol chuckled dryly, shaking her head.
Erin joined her laughter, not offended in the least. She'd expected such a reaction after Carol had seen her other work.
Erin chuckled again. "It's modern abstract art ... Kind of like Warhol's work ... that bastard," she swore under her breath.
Carol laughed. She'd never heard Erin swear outside of topics concerning her parents. It was kind of endearing and humanizing. "I take it you don't like Andy's work then," Carol responded with a grin.
"Oh I loved his work at one time. Minos met him at a party on campus when he was up here a few years back. They talked about art. She shared some sketches. Son-of-a-bitch, he stole her soup can idea!"
"You mean the Campbell thing with the-
"Yeah! Dirty prick. Makes me wonder how many other works of his are original. Maybe he just goes campus to campus and steals ideas."
"Why didn't she say anything?" Carol asked.
"Who's gonna listen to a college freshman. Honestly?"
"Ya got a point," Carol said going back to examining the work. After a few moments Carol turned back to Erin, "I like it," she announced.
"Oh really?" Erin asked skeptically.
Carol paused a moment. "No, I'm just trying not to offend you," Carol laughed nervously. "Look I'm sure it's a wonderful abstract painting. I'm just ..."
"Not into abstract art?" Erin offered.
"Exactly!" Carol sighed.
"Good, cuz neither am I," the hippie grinned. "I did this piece sophomore year and my instructor just loved it. Many famous painters line the walls here," Erin added with a wave down the corridor. "Since he loved it who was I to say no, I gave it to the University. Maybe someday the fact my name is on this it will mean something."
"You said before you didn't want to do this as a living?" Carol asked, indicating the painting with one large hand.
"I'm majoring in political science and communications. I have dreams of my art being something some day, but I'm not a dummy," she grinned.
Carol reached out and stroked the length of Erin's arm. "Dreams are wonderful, I think if we stop dreaming we stop living."
"Honestly?" Erin questioned with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, absolutely." Carol replied quickly. "Why do you ask?"
"You didn't strike me as a dreamer, Carol. You seem so deep in reality is all."
"Perhaps, but everyone should have dreams," Carol answered.
Erin came within inches of Carol looking up into the deep blue of the officer's eyes. "And what about you Carol? What are your dreams?"
Carol let out a ragged sigh. "To be the best cop I can be. To be a leader of men and women. But with all the things that are happening ... well, it feels like my dreams are dying before my very eyes."
The reality of Carol's predicament almost knocked Erin off her feet. She knew the situation looked grim but it was more than just Carol's occupation - Carol's dreams were fading too. And Carol was right. Dreams are what keep us going. But in the same light, dreams can change. The dark woman had remained somewhat stoic about the change in assignments and the treatment from her co-workers but Erin could tell how much it bothered her.
"But you know what, Carol?" Erin said trying her damnedest to sound optimistic. "We can always re-invent our dreams, adapt them to fit our life."
"Yeah," Carol grinned trying to put up a good front. "You know what I'm dreaming right now?"
"What's that?" Erin asked playfully, trying to keep the course Carol was setting.
"I'm dreaming of a ham on rye," she said, waving her bag. "Let's eat!"
Erin laughed lightly and took Carol by the hand, leading her to the exit. "I know a perfect place by the student union. Let's go."
Moments later they were under a huge weeping willow, eating their lunch - sharing their sandwiches. Carol had to commend Erin's assessment of the cafeteria quality. It was pretty damn good for school food. Heck it was even better than the deli she and Randell often frequented during lunch. They sat finishing up the last of the meal when they noticed Stan making his way over. Erin tensed at first but pushed it down. Carol was the woman she was falling for, uniform or not, and she refused to let the officer's exterior be a problem for her in front of her friends. She certainly didn't want the dark woman to think that she was embarrassed to be seen with her.
"You okay?" he asked suspiciously as he walked up, his eyes shifting between the officer and his friend.
"I'm fine, Stan," Erin replied with a smile. Suddenly her expression shifted to questioning. "Hold on. Aren't you supposed to be in World Geography now?" Erin realized, looking at her watch.
"Yeah, but Minos sent me to find you. I've been looking all morning," he replied. He did a double take on his next glance to Carol. Realization washed over his face: it was the same woman that was in his kitchen. "Oh my God, you're a cop?!" he exclaimed.
Carol and Erin looked at each other and burst out laughing. "No Stan, she's just got a thing for police apparel," Erin said sarcastically between chuckles.
"But don't worry," Carol added calmly, taking a drink of her soda. "It's not contagious."
Erin and Carol looked back at each other and started to laugh again.
"Whoa, man, that's heavy. A cop huh?" he sighed, shaking his head. He looked up to see two sets of eyes burning into him. "I mean it's not bad or anything. I think ... nah, it's kinda groovy," he said nodding his head repeatedly. "So are you two kinda ..." He let the sentence hang, not sure where he wanted to go with it or what he really wanted to say.
"Yeah ..." Erin answered with a bashful grin. "Kinda," she added in after thought. "Anyway, you said you had a message or something."
"Oh yeah! Minos said your mom called about your dad. Or was it your dad called about your mom? Shit, I don't remember. I was half toked when she told me to find you." Stan froze, realized what he just said and in what company he had said it. Erin didn't notice. She was too deep in thought. "Anyway, you're supposed to call home. Gotta run. See ya."
Stan made his way from the pair as Carol grinned and shook her head at the now paranoid message boy. She might have been in the uniform but she wasn't always a cop. Carol was going to make some joking comment to her young companion but the expression on Erin's face altered her words.
"What's wrong Erin?" she found herself saying instead. The girl had grown as white as a sheet in the course of the thirty seconds it had taken Stan to deliver his message.
Erin came back from her thoughts at the sound of Carol's voice. "Do you think you can find your way back without me?"
"Sure," Carol answered, rising up along with Erin. "Is everything all right, sweetheart?" Carol could see Erin was shaken by the message and not just emotionally. Her young love interest was physically vibrating.
"I don't think so," Erin said, a sob teetering on the edge of her voice. "I can't explain now. Can I call you at home later tonight?" The question sounded like a plea.
Carol smoothed large hands over Erin's arms, hoping to calm the young woman's jumping nerves. She'd never seen Erin this unsettled before and it frightened her. She wanted to demand that the blonde tell her everything right then but she kept her voice flat and even.
"You can call me any time you like," she answered instead.
Erin nodded and started to make her way home but Carol couldn't let her leave like that. She stopped Erin and brought her into a tight embrace, nearly crushing the young woman against her.
"I love you," Carol whispered into the honey-hair.
She wasn't sure how it slipped out but it felt so natural and she hoped the confession didn't cause Erin more distress. She was relieved when she felt the woman's tension ease just a bit and her returning grip get firmer. But soon after, the blonde pulled back a few inches, her hands gently tugging Carol's head down.
"I love you, too," Erin returned the whisper. She reaffirmed her words with a light, affectionate kiss to Carol's lips. "I'll call tonight. I promise."
With that Carol let Erin leave her embrace. Only after the girl was out of sight did she make her way back to the station house.
Carol was further frustrated by her treatment in the afternoon. Once she'd successfully completed rearranging the files and boxing up the archives, the desk sergeant had given her another assignment.
"You've got to be kidding me?" she groaned, looking at the slip of paper she held in her right hand. She glanced from the script on the page to the sergeant.
He smiled gleefully, his grizzled appearance actually seeming to soften with the smile. "All yours, Johnson. Do us proud."
"C'mon, now," she complained. "This is rookie stuff."
The sergeant raised one bushy eyebrow. "Are you refusing an assignment, Johnson?"
"Of course not," she replied softly, promising herself she wouldn't complain again, no matter how hard they made it on her.
She checked a black and white out of car pool and made her way to the address on the page. Pulling up in front of the corner store, she shook her head ruefully before sliding out from behind the wheel and closing and locking her door.
"Mr. Barnes?" she called as she opened the door to the small grocery store. "It's Officer Johnson. Hello?" The tall woman closed the door behind her, the jangling of bells disturbing the silence of the store. "Mr. Barnes?"
"In here," he called from the back room and Carol made her way through the main aisle and around the cash register to the storage room beyond. A gentle breeze floated in from the back door which opened out onto an alley. It was in this open doorway that she found Mr. Barnes and his latest unfortunate victim.
Mr. Barnes was an elderly man who gave every appearance of being fragile but he had a hot temper that immediately flared any time he thought someone might be insulting him. Apparently the milk delivery man had offended him today and had found himself in an unpleasant position. Wiry Mr. Barnes had the tall white uniformed man backed against the wall just inside the door, a broad mop held across the taller man's throat.
"What's the story, Mr. Barnes," Carol said cooly, trying not to sound as bored as she was. They got a call about once a week from the cagey old man and it was always something painfully inane.
"Young lady," he began, glancing away from his prey long enough to run a discerning gaze up Carol's lanky form. "This thief tried to trick me out of two quarts of milk! I run an honest business here and I won't be taken advantage of!"
Carol ignored the slimy feeling of being leered at by a seventy year old man and instead turned her attention to the guy in the uniform. "What's your name?" she asked shortly.
"Ben. Ben Casings," the man responded. He sounded more annoyed than frightened and that humored Carol slightly.
"Okay, Ben. I'm Carol Johnson. Station sent me down to see if I could help you guys work this out peacefully." She turned her attention back to the elderly man still wielding the mop. "Put down your weapon, Mr. Barnes. Ben isn't going anywhere. Are ya?"
"Not much point to it," the man agreed affably. Carol guessed him to be in his early thirties. He was calm and collected in his white uniform with his short hair and clean-shaven face. He didn't look like a thief. Of course, none of Mr. Barnes's victims had been proven a thief yet.
"Officer Johnson, I won't be made a mockery of," Mr. Barnes declared.
Too late, Carol thought to herself, biting back the sigh at the edge of her lips. "Of course not, sir. Put down the mop and we'll get to the bottom of this."
Slowly, Barnes lowered his weapon and let the fabric end thunk on the floor and echo in the small concrete room. "Where's your partner? Can they send a lady out on her own? Doesn't seem proper," he gruffed, beady eyes traveling from the relaxing milkman to the tall officer.
Carol shrugged. "On my own today. Now, let's start at the beginning."
It took nearly two hours to go through the inventory on the truck, in the store, and the delivery orders to determine that the elderly storeowner had not, in fact, been cheated out of anything. Luckily, once the man saw all the proof and paperwork in front of him he had the good sense to back down and apologize to the unfortunate delivery man who was now well behind schedule. After bidding Mr. Barnes goodbye, Carol walked out into the alley with Ben.
"Sorry about that," she said with a slight grin. "Happens about once a week. Didn't your company tell you?"
"Nah. Started new just yesterday. I think they were trying to initiate me."
Carol laughed, shaking her head. "We do the same to rookies ... send them to Mr. Barnes here for a day of counting stock. You can press charges if you're so inclined. He did hold you at mop point. If you want to, you'll have to come down to the station and fill out a formal report."
Ben shook his head, opening the door to his truck and climbing up inside. "I'll just pay more attention next time I work with the old man," he sighed.
"Most do," the dark woman agreed, her thoughts already wandering back to her house and how empty it would be. She'd hoped Erin might be able to come over tonight but the mystery phone call could very well prevent that. She checked her watch.
"Get off soon?" the man asked, leaning an elbow on the steering wheel.
"Huh?" Carol looked up. "Oh ... yeah." It wasn't until just this moment that she noticed how the man was looking at her. His expression was gentle and hopeful and while Carol certainly didn't find him unpleasant he didn't do a thing for her either.
"Interested in maybe a cup of coffee when you get off? I have to deliver quite a bit more but I could meet you around, what, six?"
She found herself blushing at his attention as she smoothed a wayward wisp behind her ear where it had escaped from the French braid. "No thanks," she smiled.
"No really, just a cup of coffee. I find you really intriguing." He made an obvious glance at her finger. "You're not married."
"No, I'm not," she agreed. "But I'm involved with someone. I do appreciate the thought," she assured him, trying to let him down easy, flattered by his gentle attention. "If you change your mind about the charges, c'mon down to the station." Not waiting for his response, she waved at him slightly and then made her way down the alley around the corner of the building towards her parked patrol car. Involved with someone, she mused. And she told me she loves me. She realized the grin on her face probably made her look plain goofy but she didn't care.
Hours later, Carol moved quietly around the house. She'd put on a TV dinner, not wanting to make a meal for just herself, and was now walking through her father's office, tilting her head to read the spines of the books in shelves. She wanted something to curl up with, to distract her from the fact that she was lonely. She'd been alone a large part of her life, never making close friends or lasting relationships, but this was the first time she remembered feeling lonely.
Part of her was also concerned for her young friend's well being. When Erin had left, the hippie was obviously nervous or upset about something. Carol realized she knew very little about the spunky blonde aside from her arrest record and her big heart and zeal for life. She couldn't even begin to imagine what had caused her friend such concern.
Finally, the dark woman settled on an old favorite of her father's, one she had read many times herself, and carried her selection back with her to the kitchen. She tossed the paperback on the table and cracked the oven to peek at her dinner. The ringing phone startled her.
"Hey," the soft voice was immediately recognizable.
Carol sat down, relieved to hear Erin but also immediately concerned by the defeat she heard in the now familiar tones. "What is it, honey?"
"I ... uh ..." the young woman sounded like she had either been crying or was about to soon. "I need to leave town for a few days, I wanted you to know."
"What's wrong?" Carol inquired gently, wishing the blonde were here so she could hold her tight and comfort her.
"Something at home," she sighed, obviously struggling with how much to share.
"Erin," the dark woman said softly, her husky voice lilting warmly into the phone. "You don't have to tell me anything you're not ready to. Nothing could change how I feel about you."
The blonde laughed dryly, little humor actually in the sound. "God, I wish I were there right now."
Carol hopped up. "I'll come get you, Erin. We can talk for awhile, or let me just hold you," she wondered if she sounded as desperate as she felt. "Are you at the house, sweetheart?"
"No ... no," the blonde stammered. "I mean, yes I am. No, you don't need to come here. I'm packing some stuff and then Minos is going to take me to the bus station. My bus leaves at eight."
"Can I come by and pick you up? I'll sit with you until you need to leave."
Her request was answered by ragged-breathed silence.
"Erin, I know I'm pleading ... and maybe I sound too desperate. But I can tell how much you're hurting. I love you. I want to help you," the dark woman's voice was no more than a whisper when she finished and she could hear across the line that Erin was crying now.
"I don't feel right dragging you into this mess," the blonde said at last. "It's something I started a long time ago and it's not right for you to have to be involved."
"I want to help you, Erin. Let me do that." Had it always been so hard for this small woman to accept someone's assistance? How had Minos ever gotten in?
Erin was quiet for a long moment before she took a deep breath. "I'll be ready to go in twenty minutes. That would give us time for a coffee while we wait."
"I'll be right there," Carol promised. "Bye." She barely waited for Erin's response before she hung up and turned off the oven. She dragged the aluminum dish out and set it on the cold burners before finding her keys and coat and heading out the front door.
Erin and Minos sat side by side on the top step of the dilapidated porch. Carol parked the Mustang right in front of the house and made her way cautiously up the walk. The two women sat very close to each other, the older one's arm around the slight blonde's shoulders, her head tilted as she spoke to Erin in muffled tones.
The night was clear and warm, the breeze doing little more than ruffling Carol's bangs, giving no relief from the humid day. The dark-haired woman walked up silently, kneeling in front of the two on the step. Minos looked up first and for the first time since they'd met, Carol saw gentle acceptance in her gaze.
Minos grinned meekly, murmured something to Erin, then kissed her cheek warmly and went inside, leaving the two lovers on their own. Carol took up the recently vacated seat.
"Hey," the officer said softly, reaching out a large hand and stroking her young friend's hunched back.
"Hi," Erin looked up and smiled weakly, wiping her sleeve across watery green eyes.
"I ... I want to ask you some questions, Erin," Carol said slowly. She'd thought about this the entire drive across town. "If you don't want to answer, that's okay."
The blonde nodded.
"Are you walking into a dangerous situation going home? Will they hurt you?" the officer asked carefully.
"No," Erin sniffed, wiping her eyes again. "They won't hurt me. Probably tell me how worthless I am and what an embarrassment," she let out a watery laugh. "They'll try to make me stay ... but they won't lay a hand on me." Though she spoke the words with a certain amount of conviction, she couldn't help but wonder if it were the truth. Her mother had never physically hurt her and never would, of that she had no doubt. Of course, the state of her stepfather's health would be the determining factor in his own ability to hurt her. She decided to leave that out, easily sensing her dark companion's concern.
"Are you afraid to go back?"
"A little. I never planned to. I kinda burned some bridges, ya know?" Or the bridges were burnt for me, she thought. But I never tried to stop the flames.
"Yeah," Carol agreed, using her large hand to rub up and down the small woman's back.
"If I stay too long, I might not be able to graduate."
"How long do you think you'll be gone?" Carol asked moving her hand up to smooth away long strawberry blonde hair. The smaller woman's cheeks were wet and glistening in the porch light.
She shrugged, tilting her head to meet concerned blue. "What do you see in me?"
It was such a sad, insecure question from this young woman who had an uncanny ability to exude confidence. It nearly broke Carol's heart. "I love you," the dark woman said gently. "You're warm and funny, brilliant, witty. What's not to like, huh?"
Erin grinned slightly before looking away, letting her emerald gaze travel across the darkened front yard to the street beyond.
"No matter how they make you feel, Erin, or what they say ... they can't take away what you are inside. You know that."
"Yeah," the blonde chuckled softly. "Yeah. It took me a long time to realize that ... what I could be without them, in spite of them. The skin's still a little soft sometimes."
Carol slid closer and wrapped her arms around the small woman, relieved when Erin relaxed in her embrace. "A couple days, you think?"
"Prob'ly," Erin's response was muffled by the dark woman's shoulder. She sighed. "My father, stepfather, is really sick. My mom asked me to come back."
"So it could be awhile?"
"Maybe. But I have to graduate, Carol. I didn't come this far not to."
The officer nodded, pulling the smaller woman around so the blonde straddled her lap. The new position allowed Carol to embrace her companion more tightly. "How far away is home?" Carol questioned, tilting her head into blonde tresses.
"This is home," Erin responded without hesitation.
Carol chuckled softly, kissing the head tucked beneath her chin. "How far away is your mom?"
"Ten hours by bus."
"If you need to come home for exams, I'll come get you. Okay? And then take you back to your mom's."
"You would do that?"
"Of course, Erin. You have to graduate. You've worked too hard."
"I love you," Erin murmured, snuggling deeper into the strong arms.
"C'mon," Carol began to disentangle herself. "Let's go get that coffee?"
"Yeah," the blonde wiped at her tears one last time, using Carol's broad shoulders to push herself to a standing position. "Thank you for coming over," she smiled shyly.
The officer returned the smile and gently ruffled her companion's hair. "This your bag?"
Erin nodded silently and followed Carol down the walk and towards the waiting car.
Erin crept silently into the room, looking left and right. She spotted her mother on the far left side of her father's hospital bed. Tubes, wires, and machines were littered around his area.
No one had met her at the bus stop, not that it had surprised her necessarily, but the inconvenience of hitching a ride across town had slowed her down considerably. When she'd arrived at the house, there was only a housekeeper there. It wasn't the large Hispanic woman, Maria, she remembered from her youth but instead was a svelte young blonde. She imagined her stepfather had had something to do with that change. Maria had been a wonderful woman with a huge heart, raising Erin and caring for her as if they were blood. In fact, it was Maria that Erin had cried for on the nights after she had left. Never once had she shed a tear for either of her parents.
The blonde housekeeper had been rude and disdainful, her brown eyes looking down an aquiline nose at the young hippie before her. Had Erin not been so out of sorts from the long bus ride and the hassle to get here, she would have launched a few choice words in this woman's direction. Instead she simply asked which hospital they were at and then began the mundane duty of hitching another ride across town.
She'd ended up walking for about five miles, weary from her lack of sleep and emotional turmoil. But all of that seemed to leave her now as she peered at the two people in front of her.
God. How long had it been since she saw them last? Five years, perhaps? The gray in her mother's hair had shocked Erin for a moment. Breathing hard, heart pounding, she crept closer.
"Mother?" she approached cautiously. She didn't add more, instead waiting to see what move, if any, her mother would make.
"I didn't think you'd come. Busy with your own life 'n all," her mother replied.
Erin let the comment go. She could argue the point that her mother was just looking for a fight like always but instead of provoking it she simply let it slide off her back. "What's wrong with him?"
The tone of the word 'him' didn't go unnoticed by mother or daughter. Erin didn't mean to let her disdain out but it just tumbled forward before she could stop it. She wanted to chalk it up to how tired she was, how drained, how much she longed for Carol's comforting presence. But the reality was that she could never think of or speak of this man fondly.
"I know how you feel about David. You never-"
"If you say the words, 'got a chance to know him' I swear I will walk right out of this room," Erin barked, any pretenses at being friendly jumping out the window into the sunlight beyond. "And I will never look back. I'm tired of the rhetoric mother. It's trite, cliched and not worth listening to anymore - as you pointed out ...I have my own life and all."
"Why do you hate him so?" her mother pled. She was an older version of Erin with darker hair. She still had the same green eyes and fair skin. Her light brown hair was streaked with gray and pulled back into a tight bun, so fitting of the woman herself. Erin tried, but she couldn't remember a time when she'd looked at her mother and felt anything but distaste. Distaste for a woman who couldn't stand on her own two feet and say enough is enough. A woman who wouldn't defend her daughter to a man's brutality because she was afraid he'd leave her and she'd had nothing to fall back on: no schooling, no skills. She was raised to be a wife and a mother, knew no other tasks and gave up her maternal instincts to support the man who put bread on her table.
Erin took a moment to consider the words, tilting her head in thought, trying to rein in the overflowing emotions that threatened to break the dams of her restraint and come pouring forth in vicious outlashing. "He always thought he was someone he's not, like my father. That man is not my father." She spoke the words neutrally, stepping closer so she was close enough to touch her mother but not daring to do so.
"He was the closest thing you've had to a father for years, Erin. People lose parents but you have to move on. You can't blame us for everything in your life." Her mother sounded weary and her words appeared rehearsed. Had she stayed up nights having imaginary conversations with her missing daughter? Had they looked for her? Had they cared? Obviously her mother hadn't had too much trouble finding Erin this time. Did that mean she'd never even tried to before?
Erin started to chuckle cynically, not believing for a moment that either had done anything but celebrate her disappearance. "Who's blaming anyone here? Do you have a guilty conscience, Mother? Do you finally see that the years that man spent drinking have caught up to him?" Erin crept closer to get a better look at his face. "I'm surprised he's lasted this long," she smirked defiantly, hating the cold side of her that was coming forth but unable to control it. The hatred she felt for the man was thick and heavy in her stomach, the bile that rose scratching her throat and coming out in heartless words.
"That happens to be my husband you're talking about," her mother argued, still not raising her voice, still appearing weary and defeated.
"And I happen to be your daughter," Erin spat harshly, taking a step back, shaking her head. "But that didn't seem to matter to you did it? You did every single thing that drunk told you to do because you had no backbone, no spirit to stand up for what was right. You never stood up for me, not once. In all the drunken battles I had with that man, and I use the term loosely, you never stood up for me. You were never there for me. Now the SOB is on his way to the other side and you need me to prop you up? Well, sorry, Mother, it just doesn't work that way." She willed herself not to cry, not wanting her mother to see how much she hurt. She felt the salty prickle of tears against the corners of her eyes and she pinched the bridge of her nose in an effort to hold them off.
"I asked you here because I thought it would be your last chance to make amends," her mother answered beginning to tear up herself, letting go of her husband's hand to reach towards her daughter. The irony of that gesture was not lost on Erin but it simply wasn't enough. Not after all this time and all the heartache.
Erin's face was dark. Cold. Unreadable. "I love you, Mother, but I don't like you. And if a peace with him is what you're looking for, well, let's just say that any hope of that dashed with this scar," she said revealing her arm.
She didn't have to explain. Her mother remembered quite well how Erin had gotten it and she could no longer meet her eyes. All Erin could do was sigh in defeat, dropping her arm to dangle by her side - nothing had changed after all these years, she thought glumly.
"Look, Mom," Erin began, her anger deflated when she realized how pointless it was. She couldn't change things, never had been able to. "For what it's worth, I hope he pulls through for your sake. But don't ask me to do the 'Leave it to Beaver' scene. That just isn't gonna happen." With those final words, Erin turned her back to her mother and began to make her way to the door until her the other woman's plea stopped her.
"Wait!" she exclaimed softly. Erin slowly turned to face her mother, wondering what would come next. She watched as the older woman struggled for something to add, some reason to keep her there a bit longer. But instead of words, she heard her mother sigh in defeat. "Take care of yourself, Erin," she replied softly.
Erin tried her damnedest to grin through the pain. It was the end of a chapter in her life and she could almost hear the book slam with harsh finality. I have no family. "Always."
With that she walked out without a backward glance.
Return to The Bard's Corner