Beneath A Vanishing Sky CHAPTER ONE I stumbled out of the strip club but I wasn't drunk or anything, just

clumsy. I hastily regained my balance, feeling the vibrations of the thumping music beneath my feet as I did. I straightened up and looked around, thankful to see that there was no one nearby to witness my brief but faltering argument with gravity. My stupid co-workers, whom I loved dearly, had thought it would be a great idea to bring me there in celebration of my divorce. Except that I didn't really want to celebrate my divorce. In fact, all I really wanted to do was be left alone with my grief. And, anyways, despite physical appearances to the contrary, I'm a straight female - so why they ever thought that I'd enjoy sitting in a rickety old building, out in the middle of nowhere, filled with smoke and naked dancing ladies I'd never know. But, apparently it's a really chic thing to do right now, women going to strip clubs I mean. Unfortunately, "chic" isn't a word that has often been associated with me. Oh well, I was happy to be outside for the moment, at least, where the air was cleaner and smelled far better than inside. I took a deep breath, the cool dampness chilling my lungs as I did, and looked up at the starless, nighttime sky. It felt good to be out there, I felt free...and I hadn't felt free in a long time. I took a few steps, then realized as I did that I had walked away from the other girls without even telling them that I was leaving and I wasn't entirely sure of when, or if, they would notice that I had gone. I briefly considered calling, Trisha, my publisher, on her cell but figured she'd never hear it in the cacophony that I had just left behind. Then again, they probably wouldn't even notice that I was gone until morning anyway. They were good girls, though, don’t get me wrong. We had worked together for a while at the local newspaper, where I had been assigned as a community reporter. Yeah, I know, four years of college and a Journalism degree later and I was reduced to covering quilting bees and boat races. But, hey, it was a living. Well, mostly... I fumbled for my keys, thankful that I hadn't had anything to drink while in the club. As I did, I could hear a particularly amorous couple not too far from me, entertaining themselves beside some of the cars. Of course, it didn't take long for me to figure out that it was my car that they were cavorting beside. Greeeaaaatttttt. The parking lot - well, if it could even be called that, as it was just some gravel thrown on top of a grassy field - wasn't lit, except for the half-burned out neon sign, which sat atop the club a few feet away. As it was the only light source available it meant that while I could make out the couple's melded features in the rainbowed hues of the neon, they couldn't see me. As I got closer, I could also smell the strong and unmistakable stench of alcohol wafting off of them in my direction, which nearly took my breath away. Fabulous. I was working up the courage to ask them to move when I heard the female half of the couple say, "Oh, no, honey, let's not tonight. Let's just get some dinner and go home." "What?!" I was taken aback by the man's brusqueness, as he seemed rather perturbed rather quickly...and very drunk. "I don' think so! You owe me, 'member?" "I know, I know, and you know I'm good for it, just not tonight. I mean, I been working all day long, I'm kinda tired and my feet hurt." I saw her try to pull away from him but he wouldn't let her as his hand stayed firmly clamped down onto her forearm. "Honey, c'mon," she told him, "don't be like this, you're hurting me!" "Damn it, J, you owe me!" He yanked her back to him and continued to slur, "I didn' jus' pay

nearly $500 for you to turn me down -" "You know I ain't like that!" She tried to pull away again. I noticed from my place in the shadows that she was a slight woman, slim and petite and while her partner didn't stand much taller, he definitely had at least 50lbs of weight and strength on her. (Of course, I'm 6'1, so just about everyone seems small to me.) I was beginning to feel extremely awkward standing there as they continued to struggle, unaware of my presence. I wasn't entirely sure of what I was witnessing, nor was I entirely sure if I was supposed to do anything about it. "Yes, you are! I pay, then you repay - it ain't that difficult a concept!" "You lousy sonofabitch! You told me it was a gift! Listen, just 'cause I'mma dancer don't mean I'm your personal whore, you know!" "Pff, whatever, whore, stripper, it don't matter!" he pulled her in to him and kissed her. "Uh, hey!" I finally croaked up, sensing that we were entering some kind of murky criminal territory and I really didn't feel like witnessing a crime at that moment, to be honest. The guy didn't even bother to look back at me as he told me to, unceremoniously, "Fuck off!" "Well, " I began, matter-of-factly, "as much as I'd like to, I can't. Plus," I motioned in her direction, "she doesn't really sound all that interested in what you're offering anyway." He let go of the lady and finally turned his attention to me. He was a little shocked when he realized the top of his head only came to about the level of my eyes. Of course, that fact did nothing to deter him in the least, "This don't concern you, buddy. Fuck. Off." Ok, I seriously hate being called 'buddy.' I continued, my calm exterior belying any of the true nervousness I felt inside, "Well, clearly it does since you’re in front of my car." I paused, then rubbed my temples with my thumb and forefinger, hoping to find the right words to avert any sort of escalation in our conversation, "Look, both of our nights seem to be sucking pretty hard, maybe we should all just go home, you know?" But my attempt at peacemaking fell upon deaf ears as he spat out, "I don't give a shit what you wanna do, you dumb bitch. Step off and get outta my business or you gonna regret it!" He squared up in front of me, as if ready to strike out at my face at any second. Maybe it was the crushing reality of the loss of my marriage. Maybe it was the frustration of being forced to go out on a night when all I really wanted to do was sit in front of my TV and eat ice cream while listening to sad songs. Maybe it was being called 'buddy.' Maybe it was none of those things, or all of them, but whatever it was, something inside me clicked and I knew I wasn't walking away, not at his command at least. I narrowed my eyes as I looked down at him and spat back angrily, "I doubt very much you could make me do anything I'd regret." "Uh, honey," the lady finally spoke up, her nervousness apparent, "I'm sorry we're in front of your car, we'll, uh, we'll just take this one inside. Right, Tommy?" She was tugging at his arm. In response, he shoved her back pretty forcefully, into the other car, "You shut up!" A white-hot anger filled my body as I heard the lady cry out, her back smashing against the other car's mirror. I shouted reflexively, "Hey, leave her alone!" "I'm ok, really, honey." She stood up and began to clean herself off, "I'm just gonna go -" He jerked her back towards him again, hard, "You ain't goin' nowhere. I'mma bout to teach this bitch a lesson, and then you gonna learn the same lesson." He released her and she stayed put, shaking, as he began to approach me, "You wanna step up like a man, then you about to learn -" I didn't wait for him to finish his sentence as I sent a right cross punch sailing across his ugly flat face. He fell to the ground and I immediately went into a fighting stance, expecting him to stand up and come back at me but, as it turned out, I'd actually knocked him out cold. The lady looked at me, her mouth agape and eyes just as wide, "Wh-what'd you do? Did-did you just kill him?" "No," I stated plainly as I stared down at the unconscious, but breathing, body before me. "How - how did you do that?!" "Boxing. I'm a boxer. Although I've never hit someone that didn't expect to be punched," I felt

the side of my mouth begin to curl up into a smirk. "He's gonna have a serious headache when he wakes up." I finally looked over at her, her curly, bleached blonde hair shaking against the neon lights, "You alright?" She nodded, "For now...but when he wakes up...?" "You wanna ride somewhere? Police station? Hospital?" She shook her head, "No, thank you, though. I-I can take care of myself." I had my doubts about that but kept them to myself as I shoved the guy's unconscious body out of the way with my foot so I could get to the door of my car. "Hey, wait!" I heard the lady shout behind me. I turned and looked at her as I opened the door, "Yeah?" "I could use a ride, yeah. I-I actually probably should clear out before he wakes up." I looked down as a snore escaped his lips, then back up at her, "Ok. Get in." She came around the passenger side of my little red sedan. As she slid in, I got a better view of her from the car's dome light. I was shocked to see that close up she didn't appear any older than me, about late 20s, possibly early 30s but the make up she wore and the overly bleached hair had aged her about ten years. "I'm Jeanie, by the way," her smile was hesitant. "I work at the club. I'm one-a the dancers." "Alexandria," I gave her a slight smile back. "Sooo, where to?" "Do you know where the Econo-motel is?" "Uhmm, yeah,...," I hesitated because most of the drug busts that came through across the police scanner at the paper came from over there. I suddenly began to feel a slight sliver of regret about my act of chivalry. "Well, that's where I need to go. I gotta get my...uh, stuff." "Oh...," I didn't really want her to elaborate. I mean, I'm sure she was nice and all but she wasn't exactly the type of person I was used to being around and I felt it was better for the both of us that I didn't know exactly what her 'stuff' was. "Is that cool?" "No, yeah, absolutely!" I said quickly, trying not to sound as rude as the thoughts inside my head actually were. I pulled out of the parking lot and then down the winding path that would lead us back up to the nearby highway. "So," she asked in the ensuing silence, "you're...a boxer?" "Well, sorta," I shrugged, my right hand on the steering wheel, my left resting alongside the door. I glanced down and noticed that the long, snaky white scars, which had been on my wrists since I was 16, were quite visible, even in the dark, and I tried to hide them quickly beneath the long sleeves of my shirt, "I mean, I do it as a hobby." "I bet you're pretty scary in the ring!" I laughed as it seemed to be the usual impression that most people got when they first met me. Like I said, I was 6'1, with hands that could palm a basketball, because, unlike my siblings, I had taken after my dad and inherited his rather large, muscular physique. Jeanie, on the other hand, couldn't've been more than 5'2, with dainty little hands and tiny little feet. She gave me another hesitant look, "By the way, I don't really have any money and I know I'm a stripper and all and I don't know what kinda payment you're expecting in return but I kinda don't really swing...that way. I mean, I've danced for women, sure, but...it's usually at the club in front of everyone, not the VIP rooms. I mean, it's nothing personal! It's just...," she trailed off. I looked at her in surprise for half-a-second, then back to the road when I realized what she had meant. I said, flatly, "I don't swing that way either." "Oh!" she seemed surprised, much like everyone else when they found out. "Ok, I mean, if you did that's cool, cause I have no problem with it. People are people, you know? But I don't know that I could...you know...perform privately...that, uh, way. I don't," she blew her curls out of her face, possibly realizing she had dug herself into a rather deep hole in which there was very little hope of ever getting out, “I just don't know how else I can repay you for the ride and, well,

y'know, knocking out Tommy." "Oh, no!" I started nervously shaking my head, "I don't...like, I'm not doing this for...you don't have to repay me. You just look like you needed help!" Her green eyes shone in the light of the night, "Wow, thanks! Nobody really does that kinda stuff anymore. You're like a knight! But, a chick knight!" I chuckled slightly as we pulled out onto the highway, realizing that I had just laughed twice as many times in the last five minutes than I had in the past six months, "No, don't worry about it, no skin off my nose." It was quiet for a second, until I asked, "Look, I know it's not any of my business or whatever but what was up with that guy? Did you know him?" She rolled her eyes and sighed, "Yeah. He's...kinda my boyfriend, I guess." I nodded slowly but didn't say anything. She continued, "He paid our rent at the motel for two months and I'm grateful for it, don't get me wrong, but I was really starting to feel like his personal whore or somethin', you know?" I didn't. "How long have you guys been together?" "Hmmm," she looked upwards, as if searching for the answer in the air above her, "I guess a week? Maybe a little longer." "Oh!" I tried to keep the surprise from my voice, but failed miserably. "So, wait, if you're not gay, what were you doing at the club?" I blushed slightly, "My, uh, co-workers. They kinda thought celebrating my divorce there would be a really fashionable thing to do." She laughed, "Yeah, we get groups of women like that in the club all the time." Her face fell slightly, "Sometimes, though, I wonder if they're there just to make themselves feel better about their life decisions..." I laughed shortly, "Well, I dunno about that. They seem to be more envious than anything. At least my crew -" "Wait, did you say divorce?" I nodded, "Yeah...I was married for, like, ten years." Well, almost. "What, uhm, what happened, if you don't mind me asking?" "We just," I shrugged again as I answered, "grew apart, I guess. Married too young, grew up and became different people." It was her turn to nod silently. I continued, unable to keep myself from speaking now that somebody had shown an actual interest in my situation, "I miss him, though, inna way." "Was it his decision?" she gently prodded further. "Yeah," I nodded again, "the last coupla years was just us going through the motions. He wanted to get on with life, so he filed and I didn't really put up a fight or anything. I mean, I knew it was for the best." "I'm...sorry...," her child-woman face seemed genuinely saddened by my situation. I shook my head, "No, it's ok, really. I mean, it was either keep existing in a loveless marriage that was more like friendship or go out on my own. And now I'm glad to be out on my own, 'cause, looking back, the other option was far more painful." Well, sometimes, anyway. We drove a little while longer until I saw the broken, burned-out sign that indicated we had arrived at the Econo-motel. It was a squatty set of cream-colored buildings right off of the highway and, as we pulled into a parking spot that Jeanie had pointed out for me, I noticed that the motel had most of its windows boarded up with plywood and there was lots of litter on the ground. A sizable group of people stood to our left and as I looked them over I couldn't help but hear the subconscious sounds of the crackling police scanner replaying within my head. "Hey," I turned to Jeanie as her hand moved towards the door, "where am I gonna take you after this?" "I was thinking maybe one of the shelters downtown." She sighed, "I pretty much stay there at least once a month."

"Look, I know this is gonna sound crazy but why don't you just stay at my place tonight? I'm downtown, too, so if you don't feel comfortable you can just grab a cab to the shelter." "Aw, that's very sweet of you but..." The truth was that I wasn't doing it to be sweet. I was doing it because I didn't like driving around in the areas where most of the shelters were located, especially at night. Plus, I'd already had my fill of excitement for an evening - maybe even for a whole lifetime. "C'mon," I urged again, "at least for tonight." She smiled, "Wellll, ok! For tonight, then! Be right back!" She exited the car as the group of people next to me grew louder, laughing at some unheard joke. Their laughter pierced through me, causing my heart to flutter as if I was an animal that had just been discovered playing in someone's trashcans at night. I quickly busied myself with the car's radio buttons to try and avoid looking over at them. Pleasehurrypleasehurrypleasehurry, my mind pleaded with Jeanie. About ten minutes later, she came bounding out from one of the nearby rooms, carrying a bag. She opened the back passenger door and threw it in. Then, just as it landed, a little girl crawled into my back seat after it. I stared at her and she stared back at me, a serious expression on her tiny, latte-colored face. We sat looking at each other, unblinking, for about three seconds. "She's half-black," Jeanie announced as she got back into the passenger side of the car. "Yes, I can see that." We were still looking at each other and not blinking. "Is that gonna be a problem?" I laughed and broke my gaze to look over at Jeanie, "No, why would it, ever?" "You never know," she shrugged, "some people got problems with it." "Well, I'm not one of those people. So, who is she, exactly?" "My daughter, Mira," Jeanie's face lit up with maternal pride as she said the girl's name to me, pronouncing it MEER-a. "Hi, Mira," I said to my new guest. "Hello," she maintained her very serious expression. Her short, slightly wiry hair stood out a little ways from her head in a natural unstyled fashion. "So, how old are you?" I asked over my shoulder as I put the car in reverse and began backing out of the parking spot. "8." "Well, it's very good to meet you." She blinked, "Likewise." "She's really smart!" Jeanie announced happily, "wayyyyy smarter than me!" I got the impression from the intensity of her stare that she was probably smarter than the both of us combined. "So, uh, Mira, where do you go to school?" I pulled out of the parking lot, relieved to see the motel fading behind us in the rearview mirror. "I don't. I'm home-schooled." Jeanie looked sheepish beside me, "We move around a lot, so it's easier that way - but she knows soooo much! She does all her lessons perfectly!" I nodded and glanced at the little girl in the mirror. She was sat completely still, her tiny hands folded in her lap as she stared out of the window, watching the scenery pass by. Jeanie turned to face me, "I really want to thank you for this, 'Lex." Lex? Nobody had ever called me that before. Actually, no one besides my dad had ever called me by a shortened version of my name. "Mamma?" I heard the tiny voice from the backseat call to Jeanie. "Yes, baby?" "What happened to that Tommy guy?" "Uhmm, welllll, he's...gone!" she tried to smile. "Good. I didn't like him."

"I know, I know, you warned me!" I side glanced at Jeanie, wondering if she was truly the adult in this parent/child relationship. Within another few minutes we had arrived downtown at the parking garage of my condo. I pulled into the well-lit, multi-level garage, waving to the parking attendant in his booth as he let us through the barrier. "Whoa," Jeanie said, blanching beneath the shadows that began to fall across the car in a rhythmic pattern, "these things kinda scare me!" She covered her eyes, "I always think they're going to fall down on top of me!" I laughed, loudly, because honestly, so had I, but I'd never felt comfortable enough to tell anyone that before, "Don't worry, I've lived here for two years and the garage hasn't collapsed...yet!" "Oh, greeeaaattt," Jeanie laughed along with me. I pulled into my assigned parking space on Level Three. "Ok, we're here," I smiled and turned off the car as I turned to look at them, "are you guys hungry? We can get pizza." "No, no," Jeanie shook her head, "you've already done so much to help us out - we don't need anything else." "Well," I began, feeling a little more like my old carefree self than I had in a long time, "put it this way: I'm starving." I started to grin, "So, you guys can either join me or sit and watch me eat." I winked at Mira, who was, in turn, staring at her mother, trying but unable to hide her hope for a pizza supper. Jeanie laughed, "Ok, ok, you win! I guess we'll have pizza, then." I was pretty sure, though not entirely positive, that I saw the tiniest of smiles grace Mira's face. "C'mon, baby girl, grab that bag," Jeanie instructed her. Mira did as she was told, even though the bag was nearly the size of her. I got out of the car and tried to take it from her but she wouldn't let me. Jeanie rolled her eyes, "She always likes to prove how strong she is." "Because I am!" the little girl snapped. "Yes, you are, honey," Jeanie responded, a little robotically, "you're very strong." I chuckled at the pair, my steps feeling lighter as I led them to a nearby set of elevators. We picked the one on the right, then once inside the doors, Mira turned to Jeanie, "Mamma, don't forget you have to be up at 5am tomorrow." "Oh, I definitely haven't forgot, baby, but thank you for reminding me!" "You have to be somewhere?" I asked awkwardly as I pressed the button marked '26.' "Uh...yes," Jeanie looked uncomfortably around the elevator, "I have a doctor's appointment in the morning." "Wow, that's kinda early!" "Well, he...he opens at 6 and always wants me promptly there," she smiled but I sensed an uncharacteristic sort of unease behind it. A few seconds later, the elevator stopped at my floor with a pleasant sounding 'bong.' We exited and I continued to lead them down the hallway. As I did, Jeanie exclaimed, "Umm, ok, so this is definitely not what I was expecting!" Alright, I'll admit it, the inside of the condo seemed a little on the ornate side when you first saw it. The decor surrounding us was done in a modern, simplistic style with recessed lighting that ran along the top of the chocolate-colored walls and reflected off of the cappuccino and khaki marbled floor beneath it. As we walked, our feet clicking and clacking on the marble floor, Mira dragged her fingers along the wall with her free hand, running them beneath a long row of colorful commercial art pieces, which were positioned every few inches from each other. Towards the end of the hall, and to the left, sat my apartment, number 2-6-1-2-B. I unlocked the door and flung it open - ok, perhaps a tad bit over-dramatically but I was in a really good mood for once - and announced happily, "Welcome to my casa!" They both walked in slowly through the doorway and into the large, open-planned but sparsely furnished apartment and looked around with wide eyes. The kitchen was to the right, with a small

bar area that looked out onto two white couches and a black coffee table, which sat before a contemporarily designed fireplace on the left, while an unused dining table with four chairs sat on the right. "Oh, wow," Jeanie exclaimed as she pointed to a framed sketch of a rather intricately-penciled, muscular woman holding a giant flaming sword that hung in the small foyer on the wall beside to us. "Did you do this?" I nodded slightly. "It's amazing! It's like something from a comic book!" I smiled sheepishly, "Well, it's alright, I guess." "No way, you're a freakin' artist!" I laughed uncomfortably, "I-I don't know about that - a lotta people don't really consider comic book sketches as 'art', you know?" "Ug, whatever," she rolled her eyes at me and then bounded energetically into the sitting area, where six large windows lined the entire far wall. "These windows are huge, girl!" she exclaimed as she ran over to one and looked out onto the sights below. I couldn't help but feel slightly amused, and somewhat touched, by Jeanie's childlike wonderment at everything around her, "Yeah, you can pretty much see the whole city from up here." She explored the room further, her wide eyes bouncing from every corner, examining every nook and cranny, "So, like, how many bedrooms is this?!" "Only three," I shrugged. Mira turned to me, "Why do you need three?" The question took me by surprise and I wasn't exactly sure how to answer, “I...don't know. It was a really good deal at the time." I scratched behind my ear and then hung my keys up on the hook next to the front door, "Anyway, set your bags down and make yourselves at home. My bedroom is back there on the right but you guys can take the ones on the left." "Oh, we'll probably just share," Jeanie smiled, waving her hand in the air. "We're kinda used to it." "Ah, ok then, well I'll go call us in some pizza. Pepperoni ok with everybody?" They both nodded vigorously. "Go ahead and make yourselves at home," I repeated, uselessly. "I'll just be here in the kitchen, using the phone." As I made my way into the kitchen, I saw Mira set their bag down and join her mother at the window. "We're pretty high up, huh?" Jeanie asked. Mira nodded. "You know, I heard if you dropped a penny from this high up it could kill someone!" "That's not really true, Mamma." "Oh, it's not?" she asked in a slightly disappointed tone but eyes that were filled with rapturous attention. I smiled and dialed the local pizza place as I heard Mira begin to explain the concept of terminal velocity to her mother. It didn't take very long to place the order, which really wasn't all that surprising as the pizza place that I used had my number and order memorized. Yeahhh, I called them pretty often. Then, once I hung up the phone, I joined them in the living room, "So...uh...whaddya think of everything?" Jeanie smiled and came away from the window, "Lex, I really just wanna thank you again, really and don't worry, we'll clear outta here by morning." "Well, you don't have to go right away...do you?" Was I really that lonely? ...yes. I really was. "Well, I got that doctor's appointment -"

"But, then what?" I asked, maybe a bit too eagerly. She looked unsure, "I-I dunno, maybe get a place in the shelter for the night. Then I gotta work, of course." Mira was still at the window, staring out, seeming to not pay attention to us. I suddenly felt sorry for her as I looked at her standing there. Well, for them both, really, remembering the way the guy had flung Jeanie against the car only a little while earlier. I felt as if I needed to do something, anything, to help them with their situation. I looked back to Jeanie, "Why don't you just stay here for awhile?" "Ohhhh, no," she shook her head, "no, no, thank you, though." "But, why not?" "Well, we're not really ones for charity -" "A shelter is charity." "She has a point, Mamma," Mira looked over her shoulder towards us. "Well, I...I guess, but..." "I really don't mind. I mean, I work all the time, like 13 hours a day. Although," I paused, "actually, this week I'm off. I forgot, I'm on vacation." I frowned. I had been forced to use up my vacation time before my next anniversary with the newspaper came around, even though I hadn't wanted to. "Well, I go to work every night around 4. Mira takes care of herself and really I can pay you." I shook my head, "I don't need money." "Yeahhh, I'm starting to pick up on that." I felt slightly embarrassed as she continued, "Really, though, I just wouldn't feel right unless I was repaying you somehow." "Hmm," I paused in thought... ...until Jeanie suddenly exclaimed, "Oooo, I know! I could cook for you!" "Cook?" "Yeah! I'm an excellent cook!" "O-ok," I was intrigued by the idea, I had to admit, as I hadn't had an actual home-cooked meal in a very long time. "She really is a good cook," Mira told me, matter-of-factly. "That's why I like it when we get to stay in places with kitchens." "Sure, why not? Y'know, I don't even think my kitchen has ever actually been used!" Jeanie's face lit up brightly with a smile, "I think this could work! At least just till I get on my feet!" As we waited on the pizza, Jeanie and Mira wandered around the apartment for a bit. I watched them and reflected on how good it felt to have other people around me. The truth was, it had been a very long time. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. I opened it and took the pizza from the delivery guy, gave him a tip, then set the pizza atop the nearby kitchen bar. I encouraged my guests to dig in and, as they did, was glad that I had eaten a little at the club because between the two of them, the pizza was gone in just under five minutes. I was bothered by their hunger and their homelessness and I realized, as I chewed a mouthful of pepperoni and mozzarella, that the reason that I was pushing so hard for them to stay with me was because I knew that I could save them. I could rescue them, be their hero! My rational side tried to talk me out of the idea, which had already solidified in the sponginess of my brain, but it was of no use. I had set my mind to it. Yes, I would indeed rescue them from their poverty and pathos. I would put Jeanie on the road to a legitimate job and enroll Mira into one of the best schools in the area! Yes, I would absolutely rescue them, I decided as I swallowed my last bite. I would rescue them and right all the wrongs of my past, all my failings. Jeanie and Mira would be my personal redemption project, granting me access to Heaven and giving me a way out of what had long become own private Hell. Of course, as I was very soon about to find out, Our Lady Fate sometimes gets her own ideas about the plans we make for ourselves.

CHAPTER TWO The next morning, while my consciousness was still hovering somewhere between the dark recesses of slumber and the dazzling brilliance of being awake, I swore that I could feel two tiny, unblinking brown eyes boring a hole deep into my face. I began to stir as my own eyes fluttered open and, with a startled gasp, confirmed that Mira was indeed standing before me, the sun only slightly beginning to show through the sheer curtains behind her. "Uh, good morning, Mira," I said awkwardly. "Do you, ah, need something?" "Momma needs shampoo. You don't have any in the other bathroom." "Ohhh, right," I nodded, my neck still stiff from sleep, "yeah, I’m really bad about stocking that other bathroom since nobody every uses it." I sat up, trying to catch a glimpse of the nearby alarm clock on the bedside table. I was pretty sure that the green letters read, "5:22 a.m." but couldn't say for definite as my eyes hadn't yet acquired the ability to focus, "But yeah, there's a few bottles in my bathroom. Just run in and grab whichever one you want." Mira did as I said, sprinting off and then returning a few seconds later with a green-apple scented one. She then shouted a quick, "Thank you!" over her shoulder and ran from the room, disappearing into the other end of the apartment. I looked around, more than a little surprised that I was even remotely cognizant before 8 a.m. and decided that I should probably get up and get dressed as it didn't seem very likely that I'd be getting back to sleep anytime soon anyway. I changed clothes, brushed my teeth, put my hair up into a ponytail and then made my way into the main room. As I did, I heard the shower cut off in my guests’ room and decided to take the opportunity to ask Jeanie a question. "Hey!" I called out. "Yeah?" I could hear her muffled voice beneath a towel being shaken vigorously over her head. "You know," I said as I made my way towards the direction of their room, "I could drive you to your doctor's appointment." I entered the room at the same time that Jeanie walked in from the adjoining restroom and greeted me with her starkly naked body, her pale skin still red in places from the hot shower as she continued to dry her hair with the towel. "Ah!! Sorry!" I yelled out in shock and shame as I spun around in a hurry, my face burning crimson. She laughed heartily at my distress, "Oh, Lex, you don't have to be embarrassed! I mean, it's

not like it's nothing ya haven't ever seen before!" Well, maybe, I thought, but I’d only ever seen 'it' on my own body and it had never looked like that! She laughed again, "Believe me, once you have a kid, you just don't care who sees what anymore." I laughed uncomfortably but stayed turned away from the nymph-like creature behind me until she finally announced, in a slightly exasperated tone, "Alright, Lex, I'm all covered up with the towel. It's ok for you to turn around now." I did and was relieved when I found everything before me to be less...naked. "Anyway, what were you saying?" she prompted me. "Oh, uh, just that I could drive you to your doctor's appointment. I'm not doing anything today - well, for the next week even," I laughed. "Man, I really hate vacations." "Oh," she shook her head but I could tell she was touched by my asking, "but you've already done so much -" "Yeah, but I'll just be sitting around here, bored, and I mean, why should you have the added expense of calling a taxi, you know? Especially when I gotta car sitting right downstairs in the garage, not being used." She continued to smile at me, "You know, there's no way you can be this nice of a person. No one's this nice." She laughed and then added, "I mean, when am I going to find out that secretly you're really a crazed psycho-killer?!" "Probably when you're asleep," I answered off-handed and without thinking. She froze for half a second until we both burst out laughing. The unfortunate truth, despite my laughter, was that I did have demons buried deep in my closets and while, thankfully, none of them involved being a crazed psychopath, I desperately hoped that Jeanie and Mira would never find out just what kind they were. "Alright, alright," Jeanie recovered from her laughter, "you can take us, Lex. Just give me a few minutes to get ready, ok?" I nodded and then made my way back into the kitchen where I went straight to the fridge. I began to dig around in the freezer until I found the box of frozen pancakes that I had suspected were in there. I checked the date, noting that they were still good. "Uh, Mira?" I called out, "would you like some pancakes?" Mira, quiet as ever, walked into the room. She looked so small against the high vaulted ceilings and mostly empty walls. I pointed to one of the stools that were on the other side of the bar in front of me. "I'll throw some in the microwave, that sound good?" She nodded as she began to climb up the stool with an earnestness of someone conquering Mount Everest. I opened the package and put a stack of what I assumed were frozen pancakes, but appeared to be three pancake-shaped rocks, on a plate and threw them in the microwave. As I started it up, I realized that I'd never noticed how loud the thing was before. "Did you sleep well?" I asked over the roar of the microwave. She nodded but remained silent and staring. I felt uncomfortable standing there under her intense gaze as I searched for something else to say, "Uhmmm...soooooo do you...watch TV?" "Not really," she shook her head. "I like to read books." "Oh?" I was pleasantly surprised. "What kinda books?" "Whatever I can find. Momma has lots of romances and they're ok." Her face brightened slightly, "I once read Treasure Island. They were giving it away free at a burger place we went to once." "And do you like books like that?" She nodded as the microwave 'ding'-ed beside me. I opened the door and saw steam rising from the newly softened pancakes. I grabbed the plate, which was warmer than I had expected, and set it before Mira, "Here, eat this." I grabbed a fork and some long-forgotten syrup that I had

retrieved from the back of a cabinet. "I'll be right back!" I half-jogged from the kitchen to my room and went to the short but wide bookcase that was positioned behind my door. I scanned the titles until I found the one that I was looking for. I smiled as I grabbed the old paperback and returned to Mira. "Here," I held the purple and green floral covered book out towards her, "this is The Secret Garden. It was my favorite book when I was your age!" She shoved the last bite of syrupy pancake into her mouth and immediately grabbed the book from my hands, reading the back of it. Her sharp eyes lit up and for the first time since we'd met, I saw her smile. She looked up at me. "Oh, thank you! I'll take good care of it, I promise!" I returned the smile and fought off a slight lump that had risen in my throat, "I-I know you will. I hope you enjoy it." "Oh, I will!" she opened it immediately and began to read. Jeanie walked in shortly afterwards, "Well, I guess I'm ready." She was dressed in faded skinny jeans, black spikey heels and a yellow shirt that I was pretty sure was intentionally ripped at the shoulder so that it slid off it, revealing a blue bra strap underneath. She had far less makeup on than the night before and her blonde curls were larger, more natural and not so stiffened by hairspray, making her look like a cross between Drew Barrymore and Marilyn Monroe. "Ok, lemme grab my keys," which I did, from the hook by the door. Mira hopped down from the stool, her eyes never looking away from the faded and well-creased book in her hands. We went back down in the elevator and then got into the car. Once in, Jeanie gave me the directions to her doctor. I pulled out of the garage, waving again to the attendant as I drove in the direction she had indicated. As we drove a few blocks, I soon noticed that we had entered a land of seemingly endless rows of worn-down sections of strip malls and broken up concrete sidewalks. Still-lit streetlights jutted up from their surface, which were fast becoming useless with the rising of the sun. I bit my lip and kept my thoughts inwards as I realized, once again, we were going into places that I had often feared to tread. She pointed to a driveway, which led to yet another strip mall, and had me pull into its parking lot. We stopped in front of an unremarkable building with a large, plain white sign that was hung above its glass door, which read, simply, "CLINIC"; no other writing appeared on the building except for some opening and closing hours posted on its entrance. A line of people had formed outside, some standing, and some sitting on the concrete walk way, talking to one another or playing with their phones. Jeanie smiled hesitantly, "Well, this is it. But you don't...have to come in or anything." "No, I will," I said, because despite my valiant attempt at keeping my impolite thoughts to myself, I wasn't entirely thrilled with the idea of sitting out there in the car, alone, in an unfamiliar place. I glanced back to see Mira still reading, then back at Jeanie, "Yeah, I think I'll maybe just come in with you guys." "Oh, ok," she opened her door with some reservation. Mira and I both followed her. As we did, I suspected that the clinic must've opened because the line began to move almost immediately. We fell in at the end and I was surprised to find that in less than five minutes we were already through the door and inside of the clinic. Looking around, the interior of the building seemed far smaller than I had expected from seeing it on the outside. I also noted that most of the people appeared to be lined up at a single glass-enclosed booth that was sat off to the right, while a few others sat along the grim walls in the half-lit room - although I wasn't sure why. I found out why not a few seconds later when a small, overweight Hispanic lady in light blue scrubs called out, "Only people receiving treatment in the line please. All others please exit the clinic or step to the side." I nodded at Jeanie and then went and found a place against one of the greyish walls, with Mira trailing behind me slightly. As we settled into our spots, I bent down to her, her head still buried deeply in her book. "So, what is this place?" I asked. "Is your mom, like, sick sick? I mean,

exactly what kinda 'clinic' is this?" Her tiny voice answered up at me, without hesitation, from behind the pages of her book, "Methadone." My eyes widened and I swallowed deeply as a tingling feeling crept up my spine and spread out through my limbs. Heroin, my brain called to me. Methadone means heroin. Heroin is bad. This is a bad place. You are not supposed to be here. My eyes darted around the clinic, suddenly wondering if everyone around me was a heroin addict. As my eyes fell upon them, young and old, male and female, all colors, all states of appearance, I realized that I had never felt more out of place in my entire life. I tried not to panic and instead focused on Jeanie as she reached the window. They gave her what looked like a tiny paper cup and she knocked it back in one gulp. She signed a paper, gave the cup back and waved at us. I tugged Mira slightly by the shoulder, "C'mon, let's go." We made our way through the crowd of people and back to my car in silence. We got in and I sat a few seconds and stared at the center of my steering wheel. "Uhm, so...," Jeanie began, "if...listen, if you don't want us stay-" "Methadone?" I asked, still stunned by the word coming from my own lips. I wasn't entirely sure that I had ever spoken it aloud before. She fell silent and, instead, simply nodded. I looked at her, trying to keep the accusation from my voice, "So, are you...an addict?" "Well," she laughed uncomfortably, "I was...or am. Depends on which organization you ask!" She laughed again, which seemed to me to be more of an attempt to try and mask her nervousness than with any actual merriment, "I've been clean for two years." "That's - that's good. I mean, yeah, I think that's really good." My words felt pointless, as if I'd only said them because that's what society had dictated I was supposed to do with my half of the conversation. It fell quiet again... ...at least until I offered her a slight smile, "I'm sorry, Jeanie. I know I'm coming off a total ass right now. I've never...my life is not...this is new. It's stupid and I know stuff like this goes on and I’m glad - for your recovery I mean," yep, I was rambling. "I just mean, I've never seen it personally, up close like this. I mean, addiction, yeah. I seen people addicted to alcohol, Valium, hell, even weed!" I was so flustered by the freight train of thoughts spilling from out of my mouth that I had to stop to take a breath, "But this? This is new." Jeanie cherubic face looked as if it could shatter at any minute, as if by saying the wrong thing in my very next breath I would be giving it command to. "But I don't mean it's bad or anything!" I said quickly, trying to redeem my horribly fumbling words. "It’s just new!....Different than what I'm used to." Will you please quit rambling?! I shouted at myself. "...and I think it's commendable that you've taken steps to fix it." "Commendable?" Her head cocked to the side like an inquisitive puppy. "It means...'honorable.'" She smiled broadly, her expression relaxing, "Well, I wouldn't go that far." "No," I nodded firmly, "I would." I smiled at my new friend, "Jeanie, I'm sorry I acted like a dick." She laughed, one of her hearty real ones, "But, Lex, you didn't!!" I shrugged, "Well, I feel like I did and I -" but the rest of my guilty confession was cut off when my phone suddenly 'ba-leep'-ed at me. I hurriedly fished it out of my jeans pocket, apologizing for the interuption, "Sorry, text." I swiped at the screen to unlock it and saw a text from little brother, "Mom says can you come out today. She has to tell us something. Wants everyone there." I quickly texted back, "I'm with guests." I waited a few seconds, staring at the picture of the wide expanse of the galaxy that was my phone's wallpaper. Finally, the little blue bubble came up, "She said that's fine. Bring them if you have to." "Uh...," I began as the content of our earlier conversation seem to evaporate into thin air, "so, um, how do you guys feel about going out to the country today?"

Jeanie looked at me curiously and Mira paused from her reading and raised her head. I smiled sheepishly, "That was my brother just now. I-I know it's last minute and all but apparently my mom wants me out at her place today. I told her I had guests but I guess it's super important whatever she wants 'cause she said to bring you guys." I didn't tell them that I also hadn't spoken with my mother in over six months. "Okkkkk," Jeanie said as she mulled the prospect over for a few moments, "uhmmm, yeah! I guess we're up for it!" "Ok, great!" I exclaimed and felt relieved, although again it was for selfish reasons. "Yay! Road trip!" she announced happily. "Well, it's only like two hours away - " "It doesn't matter - it'll be like a movie! Oooo, one of those indie flicks!" She held her hands up before her, as if indicating an invisible marquee, "I can see it now: you're the strange, yet kindly rich benefactor who's hiding a deep dark secret, Mira's the smart kid that says stuff that makes everyone think and I'm the stripper with the heart of gold! Like Julia Roberts!...except Julia Roberts probably never had crabs..." I laughed, long and loud, as my ribs ached and my eyes teared up until I was able to regain my breath a few seconds later and tell her, "Well, Julia Roberts was a prostitute with a heart of gold." She shrugged, "Well, whatever. Still, road trip! Yay!" She clapped her hands together. I had to admit, as I wiped at my eyes, that the more time we spent together, the more I was really beginning to enjoy the company of my new compatriots. I drove away from the clinic and stopped off at a gas station to fill up. While there, I bought a round of snacks and was, again, more than slightly disturbed by their seemingly insatiable hunger as they tore into them. I was beginning to think that despite Jeanie's stated ability to take care of herself, neither of them were actually used to eating a full three meals a day, or at least three substantial ones. As I settled back into the driver's seat, my thoughts drifted over the events of the past day. I still couldn't believe that I had knocked a guy out cold, taken in strangers and been to a methadone clinic. I shook my head at the disbelief of it all and thought how just a few hours before I had been a lonely, depressed divorcee. Well, ok, so I was still depressed and still a divorcee but at least I was no longer lonely. Strangely, meeting Jeanie was also making me come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I liked to think of myself as worldly and open-minded, I had only ever been surrounded by people who were just like me. People who liked the same music, same clothes, same ideologies and because of that I'd believed that everyone had enjoyed the same opportunities that I'd been given. I mean, no one would ever need to strip or live in a hotel or do drugs - because everyone was the same, like me! But Jeanie and Mira...? They weren't like me. They were nothing like me. "Hey?" I heard Jeanie's voice from far away, "Huh?" "You ok? You kinda zoned out there for a minute." "Oh, no, I'm fine! Just...thinking," I smiled and started the car. "Uh, Jeanie, can I ask you something? And if you don't wanna talk about it, that's ok." "Sure," she said brightly. "What?" "Well, how did - I mean, you, how," I stuttered and hesitated. She laughed, "Spit it out, silly!" I took a deep breath and said in a hurry, "Howdidyoubecomeastripper?!" She nodded, her smile fading slightly, "That's a good question." "I mean, if you don't wann -" "No, no, I'll tell you. I don't mind." "Was it because of your family?" I said and then blushed as soon as the question left my lips, suddenly all too aware of my own naivety.

"Not...really. " She adjusted herself in the passenger seat. "I...I actually come from a 'good' family. A normal one, really. My mom is a retired school teacher and my dad was," she laughed, "a cop!" I smiled, genuinely surprised, "Really?" She nodded, "He's retired now, though, but my whole life he was always on duty. Pff, he still thinks he's on duty!" "Do you speak to them often?" "Oh, yeah, definitely! In fact, me and Mira were just over there for Christmas and New Years." I looked at her oddly, "You were?" "Oh, yes!" "And they...support you?" She shrugged, "Well, they love me, which, really, is all that matters." I nodded slowly as Jeanie continued, "They also raised two very successful other kids. My older brother is a city planner and my younger sister is a nurse." I felt conflicted with myself as she spoke, realizing that I had done the one thing that I had sworn that I would never do to anyone and prejudged the woman next to me - based on nothing but my own assumptions. "Listen," she said, seeing the confusion on my face, which I was finding hard to hide, "Lex, I know it sounds weird, but I was normal once." "Normal? What's normal?" I laughed gently. "Real normal," she rolled her eyes. "Like, I went to college and everything." "You did?" I was impressed, "What'd you major in?" She looked down as she picked some random fuzz off of her jeans, "I didn't." She looked back up at me, "I didn't get to finish." "Oh...," I wasn't sure what to say. "I met Mira's dad, Mikael, in college." She smiled wistfully, "He was so handsome, Lex! And," she looked at me pointedly, "sooo incredibly smart." "What happened?" "Well, we were gonna get married, but...," she began to blink slightly more, then took a deep breath, "he was so amazing! I think you woulda liked him 'cause he was kinda like you. Kinda quiet, sweet, gentle." "So, why didn't you get married?" Actual tears now formed at the edges of her eyes and I quickly turned my attention back to the road, a feeling of uncomfortableness settling in around me. I glanced at Mira in the mirror, but she was maintaining a steady gaze into her book. Jeanie continued, "He, uh, he," she cleared her throat, "he wanted to set us up for life, you know? So, he joined the Air Force. So he had to leave. And, then, while on one of his leaves we got pregnant and - and everyone was so happy when we found out!" Jeanie quickly turned her face away from me and stared out of her window, “I...guess you can imagine what happened next." Could I? Up until that point everything that I had imagined had been completely wrong. "What happened?" I swallowed, dreading what was to come next. "He was killed...during a training mission," and with her admission, Jeanie's tears could no longer be restrained. I quickly indicated the glove compartment, which she opened and found the little package of tissues that were in it. She took one out and wiped at her face, "I know it's crazy to still be crying over it, but I loved him so much, Lex!" All I could do was nod solemnly. "They - they told me he died quickly but it took months for them to send his body back to us. Mira was already born when we had the funeral." I kept nodding, feeling completely impudent and useless. "Soooooo," she pursed her lips, regaining her composure slightly, "after that, I just kinda...lost it. I mean, I had thought I was gonna be this military wife and mother and have our perfect little

house on base and when he got out, he was going to be an airplane mechanic and we'd move to the suburbs and...," she stopped speaking. I glanced at her again and then back to the road. Her voice was quiet as she continued, "My world caved in. I don't remember exactly how it started but I was in so much pain. I asked the doctor for help and he gave me some pills. They didn't help, though. I kept spiraling. I went to clubs, leaving Mira with family or friends and disappearing for days. All I cared about was my pain. Well," she looked down at her hands holding the tissue, "getting rid of my pain." Jeanie looked over at me, her eyes like two bottomless pools of sadness and despair that I couldn't swim out of, "I was so desperate, Lex!" "I understand...,," I lied. "So, one night someone showed me something and said, 'Here, this will make you feel better!'...and, I’m not gonna lie, it did." She began to nod to herself, "It did make me feel better. It made all the pain and misery just...go away." She paused for a minute, "...but then, when I came down...," she shook her head, "it was...worse than anything." "...I'm sorry..." Jeanie laughed lightly, "Well, I got better, though! My mom, God love her, took Mira from me as soon as she found out what I was doing. Then my family staged an intervention and I went to rehab." "And rehab...worked?" "Yep! Well, of course, I wanted it to. Maybe that was kinda the clincher for me, but I wanted it to work because I missed Mira," the small smile that appeared was sad but glowing, "she was the only thing that I had left of Mikael." Her smile grew broader, "So I worked my butt off in there, got clean and got put on a regular dose of methadone. It was a high one at first but I’m on, like, the lowest dose now. Unfortunately, I might have to take it the rest of my life but," she shrugged. "So...how? I mean, you've got Mira now and...?" "Well, my parents knew that Mira was the best motivation for me to get my act together. They promised that as long as I stayed employed, took regular drug tests and was able to take care of myself, they'd give her back." It was the 'taking care of herself' aspect that I wasn't so sure about, "And the stripping? How did that come about?" "That one's easy," she said as if it really were, "I needed money to take care of me and a kid and that's a lot of money! Since I dropped out of college, I don't really have any job skills and I had no real work history. I could've flipped burgers but none of those places offer insurance. Well, none that I tried." "You get insurance?!" I was flabbergasted. "Absolutely!" "Don't you get some kinda assistance because he was in the military?" "Well, since we weren't married only Mira gets something but it's nowhere near enough on its own. So, I make about $500 a week dancing but most of it goes on student loans and then the college savings I have for Mira." I fell silent for a few moments, pondering things in my head. "Sooooooo," she asked after awhile, "what do you think?" "Honestly?" I sighed. "I think I'm a horrible person. That's what I think." She started laughing, "No, you're not!" "I am! I made all these assumptions...Plus," I glanced at her, "I've just basically sat here the last few weeks feeling sorry for myself, telling myself that no one could ever understand my pain, that no one could feel as low as I do." I shook my head, "After hearing you, I don't think I could do half of what you've done, even if I'd had to." She laughed again, "You'd be amazed what a person can do when they're forced to." "Maybe..." "So, what about you?" "Me?" I was surprised by the question. Very few people in this life had ever been interested in

me. "Yeah, how'd you end up...like you," she glanced down at my wrists then quickly back up. "Well," I started to smile, "it's all very strange...or, at least I thought so up until about five minutes ago. Hell, I wouldn't even know where to start!" "Well, start with your parents! Tell me about your parents." "Ah," I nodded, "well, my dad has passed on." "Oh, I'm sorry," her expressive face saddened with my revelation. "It's ok, he, uh, died when I was 16. He...he worked in finance, on Wall Street, so we had a pretty good inheritance and everything. He had invested all kinds of stuff for me and my brother and sister." "Oh, you got a brother and sister?" I nodded, "Yeah, they're twins. They're four years younger than me." "What do they do?" "I...," didn't know how to answer that because there was no way to say it without sounding even the least bit pretentious, "uh...well, a little bit of this and that, really." "And your mom?" I rolled my eyes, "Ug, what doesn't my mom do? Sheesh, that woman is on every board of everything everywhere! Hospital, charities - hell, she was even on city council once!! She's always been...ambitious." "That must be nice!" I grimaced, "Not really. She always wanted me to be ambitious, too." I shook my head, "But I'm just...I'm just not like them." "Ohhhhhhh," Jeanie said, knowingly, "you're the black sheep of the family?" "Basically, yeah." "Well, from one black sheep to another, us black sheeps always seem to be the ones that have the most fun!" She grinned at me. I smiled back but a part of me couldn't help but wonder exactly how the next few hours were going to go in the presence of my mother. We'd never really gotten along and the further I drove, the more I was beginning to think that I had made a terrible mistake. Pretty soon, after awhile of staring at the road before me in deep thought, I noticed that the car had gone remarkably silent. I hadn't realized it at first but when I did I cast a glance around and saw that both Jeanie and Mira were asleep. I smiled to myself. It had never failed that whenever I had people with me in the car they fell asleep. (Though, to be fair, so did I whenever I was the passenger.) As the minutes turned into a couple of hours, the highway around me began to change. The traffic lessened and the trees increased. It was the beginning of spring and I could see buds struggling to bloom in the warm sun. The wind, though, was still so cold - cutting you right to the bone if you weren't wearing a jacket. I was nervous, I couldn't deny it. As I mentioned earlier, I had my own selfish reasons for bringing Jeanie and Mira along. I was secretly hoping that their presence would distract my mother from asking me questions about my divorce, something that she hadn't actually supported. Which was funny, because she hadn't ever really supported my marriage, either. But, then again, that was my mother - a woman full of opinions, which frequently contradicted each other. Before long, I was turning down a little paved lane surrounded by gentle green hills and trees that dotted the horizon ever so often. I nudged Jeanie awake, "Hey, we're almost there." "Whoa," she opened her eyes, although not quite both at the same time, and stretched in her seat. "I fell asleep? God, I'm so sorry!" I shrugged, "It's ok, it happens." She turned in her seat and shook Mira's leg, "Get up, baby, we're almost there." "Hrmm?" the little voice said while she, too, stretched and then, upon becoming aware of her

surroundings, reached for her book. "Wowwww, I've never been this far away from the city before!" I laughed, "Yeahhhh, I never really liked living this far out." "Is this where you grew up?" "Sorta," I shrugged. Off in the distance I saw my mother's house, a lone structure placed atop a hill set against the sky. The neighbors were few and far between, making the building appear as the only thing on the horizon and as we approached the house, I noticed that the clouds had taken on a slight grey pallor, almost as if someone had taken a picture of it using a vintage camera filter. "That's your house?!" Jeanie said, a little too loudly. I blanched, "Yeah..." "That’s a freakin' mansion!" "No," I laughed nervously, "not quite." But it was a three-story federal style home, plain white, surrounded by well-manicured landscaping with an iron gated driveway that led to a circle drive before its door. "It is to me!" "It's ok, I guess." Mira's voice spoke up from the back, "It's a little bit scary." "Yeah," I nodded, "to me, too." "You guys are nuts! It's beautiful!" We turned into the drive and pulled up to the iron gates, which greeted us like the body guards that I had seen inside Jeanie's club the other night. I lowered my window and pushed the intercom button. "Hey, it's me." It was my universal greeting. I even answered my telephone that way. "Ah, Alexandria!" It was my brother. "I'll open the gates." The intercom buzzed and the gates before us began to part automatically. As they did Jeanie squealed beside me, "Oh my God, that's so cool!!" Again, another apathetic shrug from me - although, I had to admit that on the inside I was secretly enjoying Jeanie's awe and wonder at everything. We drove up the long drive, the house in the distance growing closer and closer until we reached the circle drive. I saw my mom's car ahead of me, surprised to see it out of the garage as she didn't usually drive, and parked behind it. I turned off the car and stared at logo on my steering wheel for a few seconds. "You alright?" Jeanie asked, slight concern in her voice. "Hmm? Oh, yes, just....whew, nervous, I guess." She looked confused. "Well, it's been a few months since I was last here and these people aren't always that nice to me. I'm sorry, I probably should've warned you about that." "Well," she raised an eyebrow, "they better watch what they say 'cause I think you're wonderful and I'll tell them that right to their faces!" I smiled warmly, though I doubted very much that they would care. We exited the vehicle and made our way up to the oaken front door. I used the heavy iron knocker on the front instead of the doorbell, hoping they might not hear us and we could just turn and go back. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before I heard the locks inside being slid to their unlocked position and saw as my brother, Brian, opened the door. His dark hair was longer that when I had last seen him, touching the back of the collar of his white dress shirt, which he wore under his usual black casual suit jacket. "Well, well, well, the prodigal daughter returns." "Yeah...," I said cautiously. "Oh look and she's brought guests!" his face feigned joy at his own sarcastic words. "You said mom said it was ok." "Oh, it is. It is." He smirked as he took Jeanie's hand, "It most definitely is." She smiled uncomfortably as he continued, "I'm Brian. I'm sure my sister has probably told

you all about me and has already warned you to stay away from me." No, I hadn't because all that ever seemed to do was intrigue the very people I was trying to protect. "Actually, she hasn't," she announced, pulling her hand back from his grasp. He glanced at me, somewhat disappointed, "Oh? I'm surprised -" "Brian? Briannnn, who is at the door? Is it Alexandria?" A nervous shiver went down my spine and a feeling of impending doom washed over me as my mother's voice grew closer and closer. "Oh, why it is Alexandria!" She was far shorter than I and not much taller than Jeanie, to be honest. Her salt and pepper hair was cut close to her head in a fashionable, yet easy to manage, style. She was plumpish and dressed in her usual floral-patterned, expensive flowy clothes that seemed to trail behind her every movement. Her face was covered in heavy makeup, as it had always been my entire life. In fact, I had never seen her without it, nor would she have allowed that to ever happen. On her neck, wrists and hands she wore chunky, pieces of expensive jewelry. Long ago, lying in my room one night, I had dubbed her "Anti-Mame," as it was very clear to me that she was Mame Denis' evil twin from another dimension. All she needed was the goatee and mustache to prove it. She gestured dramatically whenever she spoke, "Ah, Alexaaaaaandria, how nice it is to finally see you after all this time!" She leaned in for a kiss, her painted fingernails grazing the back of my neck. "Yea, Mamma, sorry about that. Things have been hectic." "Oh? I suppose you mean your little job where you report on which old woman has knitted the best afghan at the nursing home?" "Well, Mamma, it's not quite like that -" "But, it's not quite unlike that either, is it, dear?" "No," I sighed, "no, I suppose it's not." "And who do we have here?" She turned her attention to Jeanie. My sense of impending doom grew to the point where it was no longer impending but standing right there, beside us. "This is Jeanie." My mother held her hand out, squeezing just Jeanie's fingers, as was her usual way of greeting people, "It's a delight to meet you. You have interesting fashion taste. Perhaps you may rub off on my daughter, who, as you can see, has no fashion taste." I could tell Jeanie was about to say something, so I cut her off, quickly, "And this is Mira!" "Hello, Mira," my mother bent over slightly to get eye-level with the child. "You know, it's very rude to have your nose buried in a book when meeting someone." Mira lowered her book slowly and stared flatly at my mother. She didn't offer her hand or a smile as she stared silently and challengingly into my mother's eyes. I tried to hide the slight smirk that had snuck up on my face. My mother's smile faded as she straightened up, "She's very...different...than what I'm used to." I panicked, worried about just what my mother meant by "different." "...but then again," she continued, "Alexandria always had her nose buried in a book as well." I breathed a sigh of relief and my mother continued to gesture grandly, "Well, I hope you're all hungry. We are having brunch now and I've set your places." With that last remark she turned from us, also grandly, and proceeded into the direction of the formal dining room, which was towards the right and not very far off from where we stood. Brian gave Jeanie one last look up and down before he joined my mother. I sheepishly turned to Jeanie, "Look, I'm sorry, maybe this was a bad idea after all. Maybe we shouldn't do this. Do you want to leave?" "Are you kidding? Have you seen this place?!" She whispered loudly to me. "Well, yeah, it's my house." "It's amazing!! Ok, yeah, your brother's a little weird but I'm dying to find out what we're

going to be eating! Unicorn? Gazelle? Dodo bird??" I laughed, "No, probably just fruit salad and omelets or something. Maybe pâté..." We started to walk towards the dining room. "What's pâté?" "Liver, I think." A horrified look crossed Jeanie's face but before I could say anything more, my sister Sondra, tall and thin like Brian, floated over to us on two tiny, perfect feet. "Well, helllloooo, all!" she air kissed me, then Jeanie - whose face was still frozen in its horrified state. She then bent down to Mira, "What a dollllll!!" My sister was forever drawing out the end of her sentences, which was probably a side effect of being a trained opera singer. "Hmmm," she stood back up, putting her hand under her chin in thought, "we must do something about that hair, though." Mira didn't drop her book but I could see from where I stood that she was biting her cheek behind it. "Come everyone, sit, sit," Sondra ushered us towards the long, set table. Jeanie was almost giddy, "Oh my God, it's beautiful!" "Well," my mother feigned humility as she sat at the head of the table, "it's nothing really, just brunch." She leaned back slightly in her chair and called out, "Christina? Please, bring out the eggs for us! Oh and see if we have milk and cereal for the child!" She looked back levelly at the rest of us, "I hope frittatas and melon are ok." "Oh, that will be more than fine," Jeanie smiled politely and I thought I saw a glimmer of relief behind it after finding out we wouldn't be having pâté. Christina, my mother's long suffering employee, came out bearing plates and saucers two at a time, laden with the morning's fare while dressed in a pantsuit. She served Mira and Jeanie first. I glanced over at Mira, who had put her book down on the bare spot next to her bowl of multicolored cereal. "Ahem, Alexandria? Are your elbows on the table?" "What? Oh, sorry, Mamma!" I put my hands down in my lap. "You're always so distracted my dear! I can never figure out what's going on in that head of yours." "Oh, but, Mother," Sondra, who was sat on her left, across from me, exaggerated a defense, "she is an artist, don't you know? Their heads are always in the clouds!" My mother laughed derisively as I began to blush, "An artist!" She laughed some more, "Ahhh, Alexandria, were that only the truth. Now, your grandmother, God rest her soul, that was a true artist!" While my grandmother may have been an artist once, the only evidence to attest to that face was gathering dust in the dark of our attic, unseen by anyone since her passing. My mother smiled at Sondra, "Although, while singing is an art, dear," she glanced at me, "alas, funny book sketches are not." I looked down sourly at my plate, the steam rising off of it and twisting into itself like someone nervously wringing their hands, "Graphic novels, Mamma, they're called graphic novels." "Well, regardless of what they're called they are a worthless waste of time and I'm quite happy you finally let that silly little past time go." "What, you mean her sketches?" Jeanie spoke up beside me. "Are you kidding me? Have you even seen her stuff? It's amazing!" My mother's smile stayed plastered to her face, unmoved by the protestations of anyone's opinion outside of her own, "I've seen plenty of it and 'amazing' would not be the word I'd use to describe it, dear." My mother continued, speaking dramatically, "You must ask yourself, Jeanie, when viewing a piece of art: what does it mean when you look at it?" "Mean?" she turned her head to the side. "Exactly, it means nothing. Art must mean something, make you feel something." Jeanie set her spoon down as she thoughtfully and carefully processed my mother's words, then

spoke "But her sketch did make me feel something. It made me feel powerful! And strong! And I think that - that...means something. At least to me." She glanced at me and smiled. I smiled back, gratefully. But my mother simply rolled her eyes, "Maybe to you, but to the world at large?" She shook her head and waved a hand dismissively in the air, "Nothing." "Jeanie, I'm curious," my brother, sitting beside Sondra, cleared his throat to ask, "how did you meet our lovely and talented sister?" I looked down at my plate again, my appetite rapidly fading away. She laughed, "Well, basically she, like, saved my life!" I looked up and around nervously as each member of my family shifted to the edge of their seats at Jeanie's words. "Saved your life?" my mother asked. "I don't understand." "Well, I was at work and she happened to walk up just as I was being attacked. She fought off my attacker and saved the day!" "Hmm," my mother's perfectly veneered smile was nauseating in its smugness, "and I’m sure there will be accolades and awards aplenty, right, Alexandria? Isn't that how it generally works for you? I mean, you so do have a knack for such acts of bravery, don't you dear?" She looked levelly at my eyes, maintaining her cold-hearted stare as my face burned in embarrassment and rage and I could no longer maintain a reciprocating gaze. Jeanie continued to look confused, "It was a very brave thing that she did!" "Oh, I'm sure it was. We all know about Alexandria's bravery," Sondra laughed, her laughter tearing through my soul as if it were the most fragile piece of rice paper. She then cynically asked, "So, just how did she save you?" "Well, she punched the guy square in the face!" Jeanie punched the air as her faced beamed with the memory. "Of course she did," my mother rolled her eyes again. "I suppose you're still doing that masculine sport, then. That boxing." I stuttered, "Well, I, well, yes, I -" Sondra shook her head, "Boxing is so...menial. It takes no talent and is so brutish! Progressive people, people of intellect, they don't waste their time on such...past times." I continued my stuttering defense, "But, no, it takes, I mean, when you fight you have to constantly think and be quick -" My mother let out an exasperated sigh, "Well, let us all just be thankful that Alexandria was able to put her 'talents' to good use finally." Brian cleared his throat, "So, what do you do, then, Jeanie? You said you were at work, I'm curious..." My head shot up and I stared at him with wide eyes, mentally begging him to not ask any more questions, but as I did, I could tell that he was well aware of what he was asking. "I'm a dancer," Jeanie answered coolly. I looked over at her, still just as panicked. "Oh? Where do you dance, dear?" my mother asked. She shrugged, "Oh, here and there." "And just where did you study?" my brother's eyes narrowed. Then, for the first time since I'd met her, Jeanie's face hardened as she answered coolly, "I studied at the University here." "I didn't know they had a dance department -" "She - she also cooks!" I practically shouted. My mother gave me a look, "No reason to shout, Alexandria, we're sitting right here." "I do cook, yes and one day I hope to have my own catering business." I nodded like a moron, "Yep!" My mother ignored me as she placed her cloth napkin in her lap, "So, would I know your parents, dear?"

Jeanie thought for a second, "I don't think so, no." "You'd be surprised, for a large city it really is such a small place," my mother chuckled. "Yes, I suppose that's true," Jeanie agreed. Mira, meanwhile, had reached the bottom of her bowl and had picked it up and began to slurp the last bits out of it. "You know, dear," my mother began, "it's very rude to slurp at the table." Mira looked right at my mother and continued to slurp from her bowl. But Jeanie must've bumped her leg under the table because Mira suddenly put her bowl down and muttered, "Sorry." My mother gave her a disapproving look and then turned to my sister, "Sondra, do tell us, what has been going on in the world of opera?" "Well," Sandra primly patted her mouth with her white linen napkin and continued, "as you know I just returned from my European tour with the chorus and I will be shipping off again shortly to Japan as an understudy for Mimi in our production of La Boheme!" "That's wonderful, dear," my mother smiled. "I've been very blessed to find a livelihood that I enjoy doing." "Pff," I scoffed. No, her livelihood had come from dad's investments. If anything, her singing was a hobby that she had used to pass the time in a loveless marriage to a man twenty years her senior. She smiled at my scoffing and said, "Pity you couldn't find something you were talented at, Alexandria. After all, you will be hitting middle age soon enough!" "I'm only 31!" "Yes, but the clock ticks ever faster once you cross 30, or so I hear!" She was only 27. "I suppose having children and becoming a mother is completely off the cards for you now." "Oh yes, that reminds me," my mother interrupted, "I was speaking to William’s mother the other day." My heart stopped in my chest. William, Will, the man who was my now ex-husband. I swallowed, "Oh?" "Yes, we were playing Bridge the other day, at the Gardens? You know the club up the road?" Of course I knew it. She had gone to it my whole entire life, as had Will's mother. "Well, Nora says his new fiancé is an absolute dream!" I tried to continue eating, even as the swallowing became more difficult. "Yes, Vanessa is very sweet." And she was, too. Vanessa was not the reason for our divorce, though. She came after our separation and Will was very good about letting me know about her as things grew more serious between them. He had always been a good guy and my heart panged slightly at the thought of him. I just wish he'd never...oh well, it no longer mattered what I wished. "And she showed me a picture," my mother continued, "the tiny little thing is so petite!!! I have never seen such tiny feet on a woman! Must be a size 5 at the most!" "Yes," I blanched. "She is tiny." "Do you think, my dear, that that's why you got a divorce? Because of your size? Maybe if you could lose a little bit of weight -" "No, Mamma," I felt an new kind of anger rise within me, "that was not the reason for my divorce." "Yes, but you're so manly and I've always told you that no sane, normal man wants to be with someone more masculine than him." "Mamma, please!" "My God, that's a horrible thing to say!" Jeanie shouted. "Oh, please," my mother rolled her eyes, "it's not horrible. It's reality. She knows this." "That's not reality, that's just - just cruelty!" My mother simply shrugged, "Ah, but you see, my dear, the world is very cruel."

Jeanie stood straight up from her seat and looked down at me, "I think you were right, Lex, we should go!" I nodded and stood up alongside her, hearing my family mumble, "Lex?" to each other. Jeanie reached for Mira's hand and I said quietly, "Goodbye, Mamma," as we turned away. We had only taken about four steps when my mother suddenly shouted, "Stop!" I froze in place and turned slowly. "You can not go yet. I have something to tell you." She then looked at my siblings, "To tell all of you." She clutched hands with Sondra beside her, "I was speaking with Doctor Lovine the other day and..." she inhaled deeply, "it seems...I have lymphoma." My heart stopped again as my sister gasped and my brother exclaimed, "Mother!" "Yes, my dears, I have...cancer," she looked straight into my eyes from where she was sitting. I broke away from Jeanie and went to my mother's side, "What? How - but, what - I-" Brian said the words I could not, "What happens now?" "I find out tomorrow. I told him I didn't want to come in and discuss it, so he's going to call and let me know what the plan is." She looked down at me as I knelt beside her and I saw lines on her face that I had never seen before, "So, my dear, now do you see why I called you out?" I nodded, "Do you need me to stay?" She rubbed my hand as it rested on the arm of her chair, "I would like that, Alexandria. Will you?" "I will, Momma, of course I will." She looked at Jeanie, who still stood behind me, then back down, "We have a guest bedroom, you know..." I looked back and then stood and went over to her and Mira, "Can you stay? Just till tomorrow?" She looked apprehensive, "'Lex...my doctor's appointment..." "Does it have to be at 6 am?" "Well, no, but -" "How bout we leave as soon as the doctor calls?" She bit her lip, "Well...I - I suppose that would be alright." She smiled slightly, lowering her voice, "But just so you know, your family really are all a buncha jerks! I can't lie, though, I would kinda like to stay in a place like this, just once. Just to say that I did!" I smiled back, relieved and grateful. But I was a naive fool to think that any of us would come away from this experience with my family unscathed.

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