Monday, August 1, 2016

The Virgins Club, Volume 4

  Chapter 7
Old Miller's Road was just east of Walsh River near the straightaway run of the river itself.  It was still pretty intact in places but mostly broken up when it got near the bend in the river.  It had originally been paved with local quarry stone and had been built to service the two grain mills that had located on the river more than a hundred years before.  It wasn't officially a road anymore and could only be accessed by car if you knew just where to turn off  towards the end of Prospect Avenue after you passed the public housing apartments.  The local kids for three generations had held beer bashes in the stone ruins of the mills accompanied by loud music, bonfires and  rumored skinny-dipping.   Everyone referred to the area as just "the mills" or "lovers lane"  and once or twice each summer the cops would bust up a party there just to keep up appearances.
You had to cross Paxton owned land to get there but the Paxton's didn't own the mills area itself.  Old Frederick Paxton had tried for years to purchase the land but had been unsuccessful due to probate problems and unpaid taxes on the property, it was a legal tangle that for some reason had never been straightened out and it irked the hell out of Old Fred that he had never found a way around the legal entanglements or found the right county official to bribe.  A group of local parents had implored the Paxtons to put up a fence or some sort of barrier at the end of Prospect to discourage their perceived acceptance of the use of the area but they always refused.  His annoyance over not being able to purchase the area had riled up his stubborn streak to the point where he felt that if he couldn't have it, well then, it may as well get trashed by kids and their partying.  If the county would only sort out the problem of ownership so he could buy it he would have been happy to clean it up and fence it off, but until that day they could twist in the wind.  The stand-off had continued for years, and Old Fred had died without acheiving ownership.  His dream of owning all the land between the west bank of the river and County Road 10 had died with him and no subsequent Paxton had bothered to pursue the purchase of that coveted chunk of land in his stead.  It grated on him till the end that he could see the mills area from the horse barns at Winbrook and he rarely missed a day surveying it from the hilltop and vowing to make it his own.
There was a particular spot on Old Miller's Road that was a favorite parking area for teens and college students with love on their hormone addled minds.  Four Pines Bend was the unofficial designation for this destination where the stone pavement gave way to gravel and eventually grass that was heavily criss-crossed and tire flattened by the cars turning around to find their way back into town.  Four ancient and weather battered pine trees marked the spot and for the last quarter-mile or so in approaching the trees from the south they seemed to blend together into one
massive sentinel.  It wasn't until you saw them up close that you could clearly distinguish the four separate tree trunks from one another, so grown together they were.  It was to this spot Josie had returned innumerable times in her dreams, the sort of nightmarish darkness that made her fear falling asleep.  But on this day, on the occasion of her fortieth birthday, she stood at the foot of the pines in the soothing daylight and breathed in deeply the warm scent of the trees and wondered about what percentage of the county population had lost their virginity at this location.  Josie knew that she had.  Her eyes remained dry and she thought it odd that what she felt at the moment was nothing.  Just nothing.  No anger or sadness.  She thought that maybe the ground itself should be alive with passion and violation and blood and tears and would be capable of swallowing her whole. But to feel nothing was a surprise and a puzzle to her.  The old pines that had silently witnessed so many incidents of carnal pleasure and pain had nothing to say.
Josie turned and walked the few steps back to the car and climbed inside.  She had parked on the river side of the trees so the car wouldn't be easily spotted from the heavily traveled County Road 10 just a few hundred yards away.  She carefully produced the half-pint of vodka she had purchased at the River Run Liquor Store just fifteen minutes before, broke the seal and removed the lid, and set the bottle up on the dash.  The sweet dreams stash was then retreived from her purse and she twisted off the child-proof cap.  Josie questioned whether she should have bought a larger bottle of vodka.  Was there enough to wash down all of those pills?  Only one way to find out.
Josie felt a familiar nothingness when the vodka was gone.  Maybe a little heartburn from the earlier consumed margaritas and drinking on an empty stomach.  The car felt warm and stuffy.  She wondered if she should roll down the window but she was so tired.  Too tired to turn the key so she could lower the power windows.  So tired and sleepy and maybe a little numb.  Josie  had never seriously considered a method other than booze and pills.  Shooting herself or running her car head on into a tree were immediately dismissed as too ugly, too messy, too violent.  She imagined herself just gently falling asleep, drifting off into a haze of darkness.  No more nightmares or noise or knowing anything.  Josie's mind had decided it wanted to die thinking her body would just go along quietly for the ride.  Sleep in heavenly peace.  Josie feebly hummed the tune of the familiar Christmas song as she began to slip away.  She didn't realize that she would likely die by drowning in her own vomit as her body violently protested her intentional ingestion of poisons.  Sleep in heavenly peace.  Not by a long shot.

                                                                Chapter 8
Nina and early morning were not good friends.  They were barely on speaking terms most days.  But her attention to detail and clear sense of purpose had awarded her the job of road trip manager if only by default.  Who else could possibly make sure that they had everything along that they would need?  If planning today's trip had been left to Wyn or Josie they may never have made it to the outskirts of town.  With Nina in charge everything was accounted for including lunch, snacks, necessary potty stops, the best music, and prompt arrival at the half-way house to pick up Josie's brother.  As much as she hated dragging her sleep-heavy body out from under the warm blankets she knew it was necessary to keep to the schedule if they were to arrive at the shopping mall in Fargo in time to watch The Young and the Restless at precisely eleven AM.  The plan was to hang around in the Sears electronics department and change the entire bank of display television sets to the correct channel.  A road trip was an important bonding experience but they simpy could not miss their favorite soap.  Evil old Mrs. Chancellor was so close to inflicting a horrible, alcoholic tantrum on sweet, unsuspecting Jill.  It was just not a good day to miss what might be the impending melodramatic climax that had been building for most of the summer.  Nina grumbled when she hit the snooze button for the last possible time.  Turning off the alarm she crawled out of bed and down the hall to the bathroom.  Standing in the sleep chasing spray of the shower she began to wake up to the possibilities of the day.
At promply seven-thirty the Parker's late model Chevy Caprice pulled up in front of Nina's apartment building with Josie behind the wheel.  Wyn occupied the passenger side of the front seat.  She lowered  her oversized sunglasses to nearly the end of her nose and peered over them quizzically.  Nina stood at the curb clutching her pillow.  Slung over her shoulder was a large tote bag, or maybe it was just the biggest purse either of them had ever seen.
"Where's your teddy bear, little girl?" giggled Josie.
"Pipe down and let me in the back seat," replied Nina.  "I need to sleep some more.  I don't enjoy being bitchy but I can't help it when I'm sleep deprived.  Laugh it up but I'm not sharing my pillow with either of you.  And for your information we're going to need every item in this bag before the day is through so don't mock me."
Wyn opened her door and unfolded her long legs from the front seat allowing Nina access to the back seat of the two-door vehicle.  "Neen, you love being the bitch and you don't have to be short on sleep to do it.  You are the all hallowed mistress of bitchiness and we lowly girls worship you and pray to grow up just like you."
"Thank you, Wyn, it's nice to hear respect even from someone as pathetic as you."  Nina settled into the backseat and rummaged about in the tote bag producing a map that was marked with the day's route.  "Here you are, ladies, don't get lost while I'm sleeping."

"I know the way," protested Josie.  "You didn't need to do this."
"Yes, she did," said Wyn.  "Will you please shut up and drive?"
And drive Josie did even as she continued to grumble about how she really was capable of finding her way across the state without Nina's help.  Nina ignored her and was asleep before they reached the highway.  Wyn opened her copy of The Fountainhead  and began to read.
"Aren't you ever going to be done with that book, I swear you've been carrying it around for a couple of years, I can't understand how it could be that interesting." said Josie.
"I'll never be done with this book, Jose, I've read it three times and now I just go back and re- read parts I like.  I just may be the human embodiment of Dominique Francon.  We need to prepare for the end of society as we know it.  I just need to find a red-headed, renegade architect to make my life complete.  Then I need to break up a marble fireplace."  Wyn laughed.  "I'm kidding.  I just like it.  There's a purity and sense of purpose to this story  that appeals to me.  I even make Justin listen to me read parts of it out loud, it's sort of a test."
"Is he passing?"
"So far."  said Wyn as she buried her nose in Part II, Chapter 2.  The miles slipped quietly away while the sun rose over the prairie on the way to its late summer pinnacle in the sky.
Two hours later placed them at nearly the halfway point of their journey, Nina was squirming herself awake in the back seat.  Stretching as much as the confined space allowed she reached for her tote bag and once again rummaged around through the contents and produced a lukewarmish can of Tab.  Popping it open she took a long drink and swallowed, then took a shorter pull from the can and swished it around as a sort of carbonated mouthwash.  Her wake-up ritual was nearly complete as she stretched her legs forward between the front bucket seats and rested them on the center console.  One final stretch settled her back in a comfortable slouch as she placed her sunglasses squarely on her nose and let loose with a resounding belch.
"Omigod, Neen! Gross, absolutely gross!" observed Josie.
"Burping is a perfectly normal and natural bodily function that I will neither apologize for nor suppress," answered Nina.
"It's not your outgassing, it's the hair.  Your legs are like a little forest!  When are you going to give in and shave?  asked Josie.
"Never." replied Nina.  "My refusal to shave is a political statement.  When the women of this world are no longer oppressed and have attained full equality I will then shave.  Until that time I am solidly committed to being a gorilla girl."

"Attagirl!"  chimed in Wyn.  "I fully support your commitment to your cause.  Even if it's disgusting.  I personally will continue to shave."
"Really, it's not so bad now.  At first it was prickly and scratchy but now that it's grown out some it's just sort of fuzzy."  Nina said.  She had been impressed with the fact that most European women don't bother with removing the hair from their legs and underarms.  Pia, last year's foreign exchange student from Finland, had filled Nina in on many interesting details of life in her country.  Nina failed to take into consideration that Pia wore this look well because she was blonde and her body hair was quite light in color and texture.  Nina's pale skin in contrast to the dark brown growth of her own hair was a different matter entirely.  After the first week of abstention she had broken down and started shaving her underarms because applying deoderant had become awkward and messy.  She wasn't enamoured of the appearance of all that leg hair particularly because she lived in her swimsuit most of the summer.  It did please her that others were taken aback at the sight of her hairy legs protruding from the swimsuit of this otherwise well-groomed girl.  She would shave when she was good and ready.  Regardless of the state of women's rights in the world.  She might just wait until she had a good reason, like a social occasion requiring formal dress or some other earth shaking, pivotal event.  For instance, if her mother was to take a liking to it.  Or even notice it.
Nina checked her watch and looked up for a mileage marker on the highway.  After consulting the map she was pleased to note that they were right on schedule.  "Lunch will be at eleven-thirty and we can stay in the mall to eat or we can go through a burger drive-up.  I would prefer to not have to eat in the car." she said as she polished off the last of the Tab.
"The mall?  What are we going to the mall for?"  asked Wyn.
"We can't miss The Young and the Restless, can we?  I have carefully constructed our schedule today to allow for watching our soap in a department store electronics department and up to an hour for lunch or whatever.  This is a road trip, so we're supposed to have some fun, right?" said Nina.
"Absolutely!"  chorused Wyn and Josie.
"Should be good."  said Josie.  "But it's only Tuesday.  If anything is really going to happen it probably won't until Friday.  Nothing happens until Friday and then they leave you hanging to make sure you'll tune in on Monday.  It's a ploy to keep you interested."
"Yeah.  Then what do we do when school starts again.  Maybe we can plan our free periods around the show.  Or take turns going home sick to watch it."  mused Nina.
"Speaking of soap operas, I have some news."  said Josie.  "We need to call a meeting of The Virgins Club.  Have I got a story to tell you!"
"Okay!" said Wyn, her curiosity piqued.  She continued solemnly.  "I, Wynifred Wihelmina Paxton, President of The Virgins Club, do now call the meeting to order.  Are all members

"Secretary/Treasurer Nina Elaine Bradbury is present."
"Vice-President Josie Lynne Parker is present."
"All members present and accounted for.  Has anyone among us fallen from our ranks or breached our rules of conduct?"  inquired Wyn.
"No, Madame President."  responded Nina and Josie.
"Excellent.  I beleive Josie requested this meeting.  Josie, please recount to us what is in your heart."  said Wyn.
Josie could hardly contain herself  and blurted out something about overhearing her mother talking on the phone.
"Jose, slow down, we can't understand you." said Wyn.
Josie took a deep breath and started again.  "I know why Collette Rowan went to spend the summer with her aunt.  And it's not just for the summer, she won't be back till after Christmas.  The story is that she's working for her aunt and uncle over the summer because they own this resort place on a lake or something and then she's supposed to take some advanced placement courses or something at this fancy private school in the fall and then come back and graduate with us in the spring.  The real story is that she's pregnant and she's going to have to give up the baby for adoption and this going away stuff is just to make the whole business easier for everyone, especially..."
"Wait a minute,"  interrupted Wyn, "everybody knows that, it's a pretty lame cover-up if you ask me."
"What's the real story, Jose.  Come on, spill it."  said Nina.
"Well," continued Josie, "everyone just assumes the baby is her boyfriend's.  She and Jason Halliwell have been together for like, more than a year so everybody just assumed, you know.  So, last night my mom is on the phone with Mrs. Beihn and they're talking about country club boring stuff and then I hear Mom say something about poor Mrs. Rowan and that got my attention.  So, anyway, it's not Jason's baby.  And not anyone that you'd ever guess.  It's Mr. Henderson!  I don't know how it got out but I don't know how they can let him keep teaching if they know or even if they think it's true.  And all three of us are in his business law class this fall!  How gross is that!"
Josie's revelation had it's desired effect on Nina and Wyn.  They were stunned and speechless.  What could they say?  It was too disgusting for words.  Mr. Henderson's reputation was so far behind reproach anymore that his having sex with a student wasn't that much of a surprise.  They

had been pretty sure that something had been going on with him and Candy Preston, but quiet, mousy little Collette Rowan? Josie went on to explain how Collette had been babysitting regularly for the Henderson's three monstrous children, and how one time, maybe even more than once, he had taken the long way home.  Or maybe the dirty deed happened at school, in his office or maybe even in a classroom.  Collette had been secretary of FBLA last year so there could have been ample opportunity for them to find themselves alone together.
"This is seriously creepy.  We're in his classes this year.  And he's the advisor for FBLA so we'll have to be around him even after school to work on projects.  I just might quit." said Wyn.  They all had been members of Future Business Leaders of America last year and had enjoyed the field trips and competitive activities associated with it.
"Me, too," agreed Nina.  "Poor Collette, it must just be so awful for her.  I mean, he's nice looking and funny and everything but there's something, you know, just creepy about him that I can't explain.  Maybe when the school board gets wind of this he'll get fired, I mean, it's got to be illegal or something."
"Not likely," said Josie.  "As long as Jason is willing to take the rap for it nothing is going to happen.  And she's putting the baby up for adoption so that kind of puts things to rest.  I think Collette's either too scared or to embarrassed to finger Henderson.  And her parents sure aren't going to drag this whole business out any longer than they have to.  That's why they sent her away.  It's pretty convenient since she was going to go away to school next year anyway.  But nobody believes it.  It just makes me sick how people can know the truth and talk trash about each other and than smile to each other's faces like my parents and half the people at the Glades.  I know how things work in this town."
Josie and Wyn went on to discuss the possibilty of them exposing Henderson for what he was and the repercussions of such an action while Nina fell uncomfortably silent in the back seat.  She was afraid she might throw up and was regretting having downed the can of soda so quickly.  She rummaged in her bag for something salty to munch on to calm her stomach.  There were some saltine crackers in there somewhere.  She opened the cellophane packet and placed a cracker salty side down on her tongue and felt her momentary nausea begin to ease.  How easily it could have been her in this predicament.  She felt an uncomfortable kinship with Collette because she, too, had served as a babysitter for the Hendersons.  Just a few times, and for sure the final time had been just a month earlier.  Unknown to Josie and Wyn, and a serious violation of the bylaws of The Virgins Club, Nina had a secret.
A month ago, Nina had babysat with the Henderson brats and had decided before the evening was up that it was the last time.  No matter how well they paid her she would not be back again, she really liked kids but these were horrible little beasts.  They fought and screamed incessantly and went about in tag-team fashion creating messes for her to clean up.  The Hendersons had warned her that it would be quite late when they got home and that she could be prepared to spend the night if she liked and they would take her home in the morning.  Nina had opted for going home whenever they got home, the thought of spending any more time than necessary in their house and then having to wake up to those rotten kids was just too much.  She had fallen

asleep on the couch all wrapped up in an afghan and awoke with a start when she heard their car in the driveway.  It had been nearly one-thirty in the morning and she was feeling so groggy that she forgot to give them the little speech she had rehearsed in her head about how she was going to be looking for a part-time job and wouldn't be babysitting anymore.  Nina felt chilled in the cool night air and wished she had worn jeans or at least brought a sweatshirt.  She was nearly shivering as she climbed into the car and crossed her arms in front of her to contain what little body heat she was generating.  When Mr. Henderson drove her home it seemed to take forever, she remembered wondering if he'd been drinking a lot and had slowed down for greater control.  Then he  slowed to a stop and pulled over to the side of the darkened street and slipped the gearshift into park.  He then touched the power lock button that locked all of the doors.  Although Nina could have unlocked her door and fled the sound of all the doors simultaneously locking had a temporary but strong psychological effect on her.  She sat momentarily frozen as she felt his hand moving up her thigh.  She smelled more than felt him moving closer to her as he whispered huskily to her.  "Nina, sweet Nina, you're shivering, you must be as excited as I am, I've been watching you and you know I'm not going to hurt you, I'm just going to kiss you.  Then we'll see what else you like...".  Nina had screamed and broken free of him and escaped the car and his ugly, oily voice and smell.  She ran most of the five blocks home with the eight dollars she had earned for the evening's work clutched tight in her fist, feeling all the while that her heart would burst from her chest and that she'd die on the spot.  Safely inside the entry door of the apartment building she slowly climbed the first flight of steps.  She slumped down and cowered against the wall just outside the door of 2D.  Fat, silent tears began to plop down in her lap.  She was exhausted and horrified and exhilarated at the same time over what had just happened.  Eventually she had gotten up and let herself into the apartment and gone to bed.  The familiar sound of her mother snoring wafted across the hall.  Nina was relieved that her mother seldom if ever waited up for her because she wouldn't have been able to cover for this.  She told no one but now felt as if she should at least tell Collette.  Sometime.  If an opportunity ever came up.  She shuddered as she joined in the giggling over a joke she had only half heard.  Shaking off her disturbing recollection she offered gum and crackers and mints to her companions in the front seat.
Wyn fiddled with the radio controls in an effort to find a listenable station.  "Neen, do you happen to have any tapes in that bag of yours?"
"Absolutely," Nina answered.  Rummaging in the bag once again she came up with two cassette tapes that she handed to Wyn.
"Hmm, Steely Dan and The Eagles.  Not bad.  I love My Old School."   Wyn popped open the Steely Dan tape and slipped it into the tape player.
"Geez, I should have thought to bring tapes," said Josie, "I was afraid my dad was going to make us take the Jeep and I really wanted to take the car because it has a stereo."
"This is precisely why you need me.  I'm here to take care of the details, and to prevent us from having to listen to Donny Osmond, which is probably what you would have brought," said Nina.

The car had other advantages over the Jeep.  Certainly more comfortable seats for a long drive but the cruise control was what Josie really enjoyed.  Keeping a car that wanted to go much faster down at the 55mph speed limit would have been a chore without it.  Looking out at the remarkably flat terrain had a calming effect on her as she drove.  There were few curves in the highway stretched out before them, just lock in the cruise control and lean back.  Josie was excited about a number of things that morning, above all that she had won out in being allowed to bring her two best friends along.  Her father had wanted Kirby to accompany her, that three young girls on the road alone were ripe for trouble should they have break-down or even a flat tire.  She had begged and pleaded and had finally worn him down.  She and Kirby hadn't been on the best of terms that summer, he was pretty annoyed with all the time she was spending with Wyn and Nina instead of with him.  Josie was also very anxious to see her brother, he hadn't written to her much while he had been incarcerated and she was worried about him.  It would be so good to see him and make her own assessment of how the time in jail had affected him.  It had been such a shock to her to find out about his drug use and the whole messy business of him being involved in dealing drugs as well.  She forgave him, though, which was much more than her parents had done.  They were willing to let him move in at home for a while but not to his old bedroom, to the somewhat seedy guest apartment above the garage.  DeeDee felt it would give Ethan some security but also some privacy, a comfortable distance for all of them to get used to each other again.  Josie was just glad that he would be home again.  One of the conditions of him moving in over the garage was to make the necessary repairs and bring it back to the cozy quarters it had once been.  For the last few years it had been used only for storage and some squirrels had taken up residence in there and caused some damage.  August felt it would be therapeutic for his son to do some carpentry work around the house and the business until he found a regular job, it would also give him an opportunity to keep an eye on Ethan and determine whether prison had done him any good.
Josie remembered all too clearly the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend a year and a half before.  The phone call that had pulled her away from the skating party at Wyn's.  How Kirby had driven her to the hospital where Ethan lay unconscious for several hours.  How embarrassing it had been for her at school during the whole business.  Her adored big brother had fallen from his pedestal in a big way, but not for Josie.  She took it upon herself to write to him every week, telling him most of the trivial details of school and the best gossip from around town.  She couldn't bear to lose him like she had lost Annie.  Making the trip to pick him up today was the final step in making certain that he, like Annie, wouldn't evaporate from her life.
"I seriously need to pee," announced Nina from the back seat, "we will be coming up on our exit here in just a couple of minutes."
"To the mall." shouted Josie.  "Like my mom says, Charge!!"
The Young and the Restless was a disappointment that morning.  Josie had been right, the plot didn't advance on a Tuesday, they just kept setting you up.  Lunch consisted of pizza and Pepsi Light and ice cream cones to slurp in the car on the last leg of their journey.  Ethan had given Josie specific directions and the address of the half-way house and had told her to wait in the car.  Seeing his sister for the first time since his sentencing would be humiliating enough but he didn't

want their reunion to be witnessed up close by the other rehabilitated felons awaiting release.  The last hour in the car gave the girls some time for reflection on the penal system and they all became somewhat uneasy about this trip they had all volunteered for.  Nina found herself feeling particularly uncomfortable, mostly because she had never met Josie's brother and had no idea what to expect.  Josie had told her the whole story of how he had come to spend the last year and a half in prison and that it had just been really unfortunate and stupid of him but that he was a good person and she was sure it would never happen again.  Wyn and Josie had an advantage over her because they had known him all their lives.  Nina found herself wondering if she would have to share the backseat with him and constructed in her head various excuses and reasons for alternate seating arrangements that would relieve her of having to do so.  When they finally pulled over to the curb across the street from their destination all three girls climbed out of the car to stretch and take in the warmth of the sun on their skin.  The all too efficient air conditioning in the car seemed to be either all off or all on with no in between.  They had opted for all on in the ninety degree heat even if it was a shock to their systems when they stepped out into it.
Ethan saw the blue car pull up across the street and observed his sister and Wyn emerge from inside.  He wondered who the third girl was who was unfolding herself from the back.  Not as tall as Wyn but still much taller than Josie.  Long, dark hair.  Cute.  Ethan signed his name on the check-out sheet that gave him a twenty-four hour window in which to contact his parole officer, gathered his book and suitcase and headed out the door and across the street to freedom.
Josie jumped up and down and squealed in delight as Ethan scooped her up in a big bear hug.  Wyn and Nina stood a polite distance back to give them what little privacy the wide open street afforded.  After a good long time he set her down and Wyn stepped forward to give Ethan a welcoming squeeze.  When Wyn stepped back Nina stood still for a moment before she held out her hand toward him.  She meant to tell him who she was and the all the regular introductory stuff about how you've heard so much about them and how it's nice to meet them but her brain was stuck somewhere between brain cells and all she could come up with was choking out one monosyllable.  "Hi," she said.  What seemed an interminable silence followed.  Ethan took her hand in a medium firm handshake and Nina felt a bolt of lightening soar up her arm and shoot in all directions through her body.  All she could see were steely blue eyes and dimples and jeans that fit in a fascinatingly loose yet tight manner.  Her tongue was limp and useless in her mouth and she hoped someone would speak. Soon.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Josie.  "Ethan, this is my newest best friend, Nina.  Nina, this is my brother, Ethan."
"Pleased to meet you, Nina," said Ethan as he released her hand.
"Same here," stammered Nina.
"Let's get out of here, ladies.  This boy wants to go home." said Ethan.
"Do you want to drive?" asked Josie.

"Maybe later," said Ethan, "for now I'd just like to ride."
Wyn and Nina got into the backseat.  Nina retreated to her corner behind Josie who was once again positioned at the wheel.  Josie was chattering a mile a minute at Ethan to catch him up on developments back home and for once Nina wasn't irritated by the constant chirping that Josie was so capable of producing.  Her knees felt weak like they do when you catch yourself when you think you're at the bottom of the stairs but there is actually one more step to go.  You don't fall and you're not in any danger of being injured but the fight-or-flight adrenaline rush has already taken over.  She did her best not to stare at Ethan but her perfect line of sight to the passenger side of the front seat made it difficult not to.  Nina was so thankful that she didn't blush because she could feel the warmth creep up and around her cheeks and then recede.  Looking out the window was the obvious thing to do to keep from examining the man in the car she had felt instantly drawn to.  Man.  Not a boy.  Boys her own age didn't interest Nina, she had always looked past them or around them and had avoided dealing directly with them except in the most dismissive fashion.  Unfortunately she had discovered that this only encouraged many of them and then she found she had to be downright rude to get them to leave her alone.  Calm down, she thought, a man like Ethan was no more likely to show interest in her than she was likely to all of a sudden show interest in any of the boys she knew from school.  She was also abruptly and acutely aware of the hairy state of her legs and wondered if he had noticed, I mean after all, here was a guy who hadn't been in contact with women for months.  Maybe he was already undressing her in his head.  Maybe that was what she wanted him to do.  Nina fervently hoped for these thoughts to take leave of her when she became aware that Wyn was looking at her.
"What?" she said.
"We're going to stop and get gas up here.  Do you need the lady's room?" said Wyn.  She had a funny look on her face, trying to decipher what was going on in Nina's head.
"Yeah, sure," Nina said.  "What?" she said as Wyn continued to give her the eye.
"Nothing," said Wyn.
Nina gave Wyn the eye right back as they pulled into the Amoco station.
Wyn had taken a nap once she wheedled Nina's pillow away from her and Nina had tried to concentrate on the book she had brought along.  The collected short stories of Mark Twain weren't holding her attention but at least it gave her an excuse not to take part in any conversation.  She considered dozing off or faking dozing off but Wyn had her pillow.  Besides, if she were asleep she couldn't sneak admiring glances at Ethan's profile.  Nina decided she liked his arms the best.  Not too thick and meaty but nicely masculine with just a pleasant bulge of bicep lurking behind the white T-shirt sleeve.  She felt incredibly stupid over the introduction bungle from an hour earlier.  She was such an idiot, she thought.  How am I ever going to go over to Josie's house now.  He'll be there and I'll be stupid.  Nina concentrated on the number of

girlfriends he must have waiting for him and that helped a little.  She dreaded but couldn't wait for the moment when they would drop her off.  At the last rest stop Nina and Wyn had resumed their seating positions in back and Josie and Ethan had swapped places giving him the opportunity to drive.  Now Nina was fixated on the sandy hair that was close enough for her to touch after he moved the seat back to accomodate his height and had reclined a couple of notches.  He had asked her if she was sure she had enough room and she lied yes.  Within fifteen minutes her left leg was cramping from the position it had been forced into.  Nina compensated by adjusting her position every few minutes.  If she could be sure that her voice would work properly she would have asked him to move forward just an inch or two.  But she wasn't sure so she pretended to read the book she couldn't concentrate on.
A late afternoon pall of summer heat and humidity hung in the air as they entered the city limits.  Walsh River.  Population 29,461.  Things hadn't changed much in eighteen months.  Only that it was now summer with mingling browns and greens and it had been gray and wintery when he left.  Without prompting Josie gave Ethan directions to Nina's apartment building.  Soon Nina was standing on the same stretch of curb once again holding her tote bag and pillow as they said their goodbyes. There had been one last awkward moment as Ethan got out of the car to let Nina out.  He offered his hand to help her out and she took it while she tried to appear uncaring and uninterested yet held on as long as she possibly could without arousing any suspicion.
"See you guys tomorrow, where are we swimming?" she had called.
"My house," Wyn had called back to her.  "I'll call you later."
Nina watched the car proceed down her street and turn left.  She wished they had come in from the other side of town so she would be dropped last.  Just a few more minutes in his presence, she thought.  Or even better a few minutes alone with him.  She couldn't even speak coherently or put two thoughts together when he shook her hand, how could she possibly be alone with him?  Even so she silently wished to be alone with him.  Careful what you wish for, girl, it just might come true.  Nina's mother's platitude intruded on her musings as she turned toward the apartment.

  Chapter 9
Nina struggled with the seat belt that was securing Isabella's infant car seat.  It just did not want to unlatch.  It was so awkward to deal with in the center of the back seat, she should have gone in from the other side instead of trying to reach it over the back of the front seat.  It wouldn't be long before the seat could be placed in the car facing forward, her beautiful little girl was growing so quickly.  There, it was free.  Damn!  A broken finger nail.  She examined the severity of the break and wondered if she had a nail file in her purse.  Isabella squeaked and waved her little biscuit fists.  Nina forgot all about the broken nail and gazed lovingly at the gurgling baby whose good nature never failed to astound her.  There was no doubt that the child's sunny disposition had come from her father, Nina certainly couldn't take credit for it.  She really hadn't wanted to take Isabella along to the hospital but the urgency of Wyn's phone call only twenty minutes earlier hadn't given her the time to call a sitter.  Evan's flight wouldn't arrive for another two hours and her mother hadn't answered her phone. Left with no other options she hurriedly packed the diaper bag, scooped up her baby and left for the hospital.  Wyn hadn't told her much, just that it was Josie and that she should go in through the emergency room entrance, that she would be there waiting for her.  Josie. Hospital.  It didn't make sense.
With the diaper bag hoisted over her left shoulder balanced by Isabella in her car seat in her right hand Nina strode across the parking lot to the ER entrance.  She was familiar with the hospital having given birth here recently but she had never come in this way before.  The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach was distressing.  Wyn had been fighting back tears on the phone and Nina wasn't accustomed to having to comfort her.  Usually it was the other way around, Wyn was able to stay calm and unruffled and held things together while Nina went off on a tangent.
It was only mid-May but it had been an unusually warm spring thus far and Nina was breaking into a sweat under the burdens of baby and baggage and the eighty degree heat was getting to her.  A welcome rush of air-conditioned coolness enveloped her as she passed through the automatic doors.  There was a small waiting area and an unmanned counter.  She stopped to slip her sunglasses up to the top of her head and to look around for someone to help her.
"Nina, you're finally here!"  Wyn hurried around the corner from the crossing hallway.  As she got closer Nina could see that she had been crying.  Smart, capable Wyn who had breezed her way through law school.  Cool, icy Wyn who had been her rock for over twenty years.  Stoic Wyn who had delivered twins refusing an epidural.  This unfamiliar, tearstreaked Wyn was now looking to her for comfort.  Nina carefully set down the car seat containing her child and dropped the diaper bag.  Wyn was in her arms and sobbing.  "Nina, it's just so unreal, so horrible.  My name was still on her emergency contact card.  After all this time! So they called me when they brought her in. And I had to call her parents and then I called you.  This is such a nightmare."

"Wyn, what's going on?  Slow down and tell me, you're not making any sense."  Wyn took a deep breath and looked down at Isabella who was calmly looking around with her wide, dark eyes.
"Hi, Izzie, how's my beautiful girl!" she cooed.  Isabella, recognizing Wyn's voice more than her physical presence, cooed and squealed back.  Turning her attention back to Nina she started once again.  "Okay.  Okay.  It's Josie.  She's in the ICU upstairs.  They spent nearly an hour working on her after the ambulance brought her in.  They pumped her stomach and did some other things, when the ambulance got to her she was unconscious and they thought maybe she was dead.  But they got her out of the car and I think her heart stopped at one point but they got her back.  God, Nina, at first when I saw her through the curtains she looked blue."
"Car, she was here, in a car?  Was it a car accident?" asked Nina.
"No.  From what they could tell she had been drinking alcohol and had taken a bunch of pills.  There was an empty vodka bottle and an empty prescription bottle on the seat beside her.  Nina, some kids who were swimming down by the Mills saw this car parked next to Four Pines Bend.  When they saw that there was someone inside they opened the door to see if she was all right.  When she didn't move one of them ran for the convenience store up on the hiway but that's close to a half mile away.  Probably the only reason the ambulance got there in time was that one of the other girls saw that there was a cell phone lying on the seat, she picked it up and it was working so she dialed 911.  Neen, they're calling it a suicide attempt.  Why would Josie want to die?  Why would she come home and not tell anyone and then try to kill herself?"
"So they took her upstairs, does that mean she's okay?"  Nina was worrying at the ragged edge of fingernail on her right thumb.
"She hasn't regained consciousness, she's in a coma.  They won't know much until the tox screen test comes back and they know what she took.  It doesn't look good, though.  They called me at the office.  My name and phone number were on a card in her wallet.  Neen, how could we not know that something was this wrong with her.  I just saw her two months ago when I was out in L.A. on business.  She was just Josie, you know.  Funny and normal.  She seemed to drink a lot but she always has been able to drink and not look drunk.  I don't know.  This is all such a shock.  I would be so happy if the alarm clock would go off about now and we could all wake up from this nightmare."
"Can we see her?  Will they let us go up to the ICU?"
"No.  They're only going to let family in to see her now.  August and DeeDee should be here by now.  Then they can give permission for other visitors if they want to.  I wish they'd get here."
"This is so odd, I was thinking about Josie this morning, it's her birthday today.  She's forty."  Nina tried to smile for Wyn and sniffed back the tears that were forming in her eyes.  "We'll all be forty soon, I wasn't exactly looking forward to it but this is a hell of a way to celebrate."

Wyn and Nina looked up as they heard the whoosh of the automatic doors.  August and DeeDee Parker had arrived.  August was dressed in khaki slacks and a garish but expensive looking polo shirt.  He was suffering from a serious case of hat hair and was holding a Nike baseball cap in his hand.  How inconvenient of Josie to pull him off the golf course, that must be what had taken them so long, thought Wyn.  DeeDee's hair was carefully styled, every hair in place, she had recently abandoned the ratted-up and sprayed down look for a more natural swept-back bob that required only blow-drying and a touch-up with a curling iron.  Nina wondered if August had noticed his wife's new hair style yet or if it had been due to his preference that she had updated it.  DeeDee was dressed spring-like in white slacks and white canvas clogs with a coral colored short sleeve cotton sweater.  She always looked so perfect out in public.  You wouldn't believe it judging by her current appearance that her normal attire was an old cotton bathrobe.  Wyn rose from her chair and murmured, "Give me strength," to Nina and walked over to Josie's parents.  Nina waved to them in greeting but stayed in her chair and turned her attention to Isabella.
Wyn spoke quietly to the Parkers and accompanied them to the elevator that would take them up to the third floor ICU.  The typical elevator ride with all passengers intently studying the blinking advancement of floor number lights ensued as if some divine guidance would result from their rapt attention.  Nina watched them disappear down the hallway and decided to take advantage of the quiet, deserted waiting area.  She was not completely comfortable with nursing away from home unless she could find a private, out of the way place.  Discretely placing a receiving blanket over her shoulder she adjusted buttons and flaps of fabric until her breast was made available and quietly tucked Isabella's head behind the blanket.  Finding a comfortable position in the metal framed chair proved to be nearly impossible until she flopped the diaper bag up on the seat next to her and rested the elbow that cradled the baby's head upon it.  That was better.  She leaned back and closed her eyes and ran through the unlikely events of the day thus far.  Josie was here, in this building, upstairs fighting for her life.  At least the paramedics and doctors and nurses were, if she had attempted suicide she had been intent on doing just the opposite.  Nina wondered if August and DeeDee would allow just family members in to see Josie.  All four of Josie's grandparents had lived locally but Nina didn't know the status of her relationship with them.  Come to think of it, she wasn't so sure they were all still living, maybe just Grandma Amundson, DeeDee's mother.  As far as she knew Ethan still lived in New Mexico and should be relatively easy to contact.  August and DeeDee were both only children so there wasn't any extended family to speak of.  Josie had two ex-husbands in the Los Angeles area that Nina knew of but they were probably long out of the picture.  Nina wondered who else should be contacted, maybe Josie's business manager or the producers of her show.
It suddenly became very clear how out of contact she had fallen with Josie over the years.  It had gradually become easier over time for them to stop writing and calling, eventually there was the annual Christmas card but even that had stopped before they had turned thirty.  Wyn always kept her posted on the major events in Josie's life so after a while it just seemed natural that they didn't communicate directly.  Nina and Josie had never been as close friends as she and Wyn had become over the years.  Nina and Wyn had even picked up where they had left off without missing a beat when Wyn returned to Walsh River to establish her law practice.  Wyn and Josie shared a special bond of having grown up together since they had been tots, something Nina couldn't compete with.  In her heart Nina had always wondered if Josie knew about her

relationship with her brother and possibly resented her for it.  She hadn't been kind to him, she had become involved with him before she had learned to be kind.  Ethan.  The last time she had seen him had been at Wyn and Marc's wedding and that was nearly twelve years ago.  She still thought of him often, more often than she thought was appropriate but she passed it off to the fact that he had been her first love.  It wasn't him so much as the role he had played. At any rate, her memories of Ethan were all mixed emotions that she hadn't bothered to sort out at the time.  Then he left so abruptly, leaving her to figure things out on her own. Evan was the love of her life now and had been for so long that their life together was seamless, without beginning or end, just there and constant and dependable.  Evan who would be waiting at the airport in just a couple of hours.
Isabella had fallen asleep and Nina wanted to hold her but it was just too warm.  She gently placed the sleeping infant in the car seat and buttoned up the open flaps of her own clothing and removed the damp cotton blanket from over her shoulder.  Folding the blanket and tucking it into the diaper bag she looked at her watch.  It had been forty-five minutes and not a soul had passed through the area, the glassed-in counter area was still deserted.  Nina got up to stretch and walk around the waiting area to get the kinks out of her legs without straying too far from her sleeping baby.  Soon Wyn reappeared with the proverbial good and bad news.  The bad news being that the longer Josie remained unconscious the less likely she would wake up without long term complications.  The good news was that she was breathing on her own and her parents had consented to a short list of visitors that included Wyn and Nina.
"Are they still up there?" Nina inquired, "I didn't see them leave."
"No, they are such cowards, they stayed a whole ten minutes, mostly to make sure that Josie had medical insurance so they wouldn't be stuck with the bills," said Wyn bitterly.  "I don't know which exit they took, for sure not the front door.  Some other country club people might see them.  Sorry I left you stranded down here for so long, I went in the room and sat with her and talked to her for a while.  It's important, you know, for coma patients to have stimulus, it helps in their recovery.  And then I just couldn't tear myself away."
"It's okay, Wyn, I just fed Izzie and she fell asleep.  I was getting up to stretch when you got back."
"Listen, I'll stay here with Izzie so you can go up, if you want.  I need to call in to the office but I won't be going back in today so take as long as you want.  Just ask for Dr.Conner when you get to the ICU nurses' station.  But be strong, what's lying there in that bed doesn't look much like our Josie."
Nina gave Wyn's arm a heartfelt squeeze and walked toward the elevator.  After she pushed the up button she glanced back at her dear friend and sleeping daughter.  Be strong, Wyn had said.  Nina felt a shudder run up her spine as she stepped into the elevator and pushed the button marked 3.  The doors opened near the nurses' station, a place of hushed activity where each person carried out their particular duties with quiet efficiency.  Nina approached the counter and asked for Dr. Conner, that she was there to see a patient of his.  He was paged and Nina paced

the short hallway until he arrived just a few minutes later.
"Oliver Conner, what can I do for you," said Dr. Conner as he shook her hand in greeting.
Nina stared at him for a moment, puzzled by the familiarity of his name.  She tried to mentally subtract twenty years from his face.  He was good-looking, sort of tanned and outdoorsy with friendly crinkles around his eyes.   "Oliver.  Oliver Conner, class of '75?" she asked.
"That would be me." he answered.
"Do you still do card tricks?"
"Anytime I can draw a sympathetic audience." he answered.
"I'm Nina Bradbury, I'm here to see Josie Parker, I'm so surprised, Wyn just said ask for Dr. Conner, she didn't say anything about it being you but I guess this whole business here is a little weird."
"Of course, I never forget a girl who turned me down, you haven't changed a bit."
"That's a lie but it's one I don't mind hearing."  She paused, puzzled once more.  "Turned you down?"
"I asked you to prom when we were seniors.  You were going with somebody else.  I got over it."
"How could I have forgotten, that's funny, it's girls who usually remember things like that.  So, can I see Josie?"
"Yes, you may.  Walk with me and I'll take you to Josie's room.  Her appearance may be a bit of a shock, there is some bruising on her face from various emergency procedures and some swelling as well.  The swelling is primarily due to the effects of the drugs still in her system, as they are metabolized her color should improve and the swelling will be reduced.  She is breathing on her own, a good sign, but we won't be able to fully assess her condition and what damage has resulted until she regains consciousness.  I don't know how much Wyn told you but the sooner Josie wakes up the better.  Typically with a coma the longer the patient is comatose the less likely they will wake at all, and when they do it is more likely that they will have permanent brain damage."
Nina walked along beside Oliver nodding her understanding of the state of Josie's condition.  When he opened the glass door into the softly lit cubicle Nina gasped quietly over what she saw.  Oliver, Dr. Conner, told her she could stay up to a half-hour and reminded her that it was good for her to talk softly to Josie, that often coma patients remember hearing visitors' voices.  He left, and Nina stood motionless while her eyes adjusted to the soft lighting.  Josie's pixie-like face was relaxed and pale, around her mouth and on her chin there was some skin discoloration, evidence

of the trauma from having her stomach pumped.  Her face was so much thinner, the cheekbones much more prominent than Nina expected.  Twenty years before her face had still displayed the roundness of childhood, Nina thought the adult, television version of Josie's face was the product of make-up and lighting.  But here, even in the flattering, soft light of the ICU Nina could see more than just today's damage.  The soft curls that fell over her forehead were familiar but the myriad tiny lines around her puffy eyes and bruised lips hinted of too much time in the sun.  The alcohol seemed to have caught up with her, too, and she looked so thin.  The pressure to look a certain way regardless of the health consequences had taken their toll.  How could we let this happen to you, thought Nina as she silently positioned a chair near the side of the bed.
"Hi, Jose, it's me, Nina.  Oh, Josie, you've got to come back to us as soon as you can.  I'm going to come see you every day until you do, Wyn and me, we'll make sure you have company every day.  Next time I'll bring something really boring to read to you and I'll keep doing that until you sit up and beg me to stop.  I'm sorry that it's been so long since we talked, it should never have ended up like this.  I watch your show every week and Evan gives me endless shit over it.  You have no idea what humiliation I have to go through just to watch Silicon Valley Girls. He watches it, too, though, he usually has a magazine or a newspaper that he pretends to read but I know he's watching, too.  I'm a mom now, Josie, Wyn must have shown you pictures when she came out to see you but you really need to see her in person to get the full effect.  Isabella is downstairs with Wyn right now and I promise I'll bring her up to see you, soon.  I'm sorry I can't stay longer but I have to pick up Evan at the airport in less than an hour so I have to get going.  Listen, Jose, promise you'll hang in there and try to wake up.  I'll see you tomorrow.  Bye."
Nina pushed open the door and was once again in the more brightly lit hallway.  She blinked back tears, some were generated by the sudden increase of light but mostly  they were the result of a deep sadness and despair she felt sinking in concerning Josie.  She dug in her shorts pocket for a kleenex and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.  At the nurses' station she inquired about visiting hours.  The nurse gave her Dr. Conner's business card with instructions scribbled on the back to call him with any questions.  Needing the adjustment time Nina looked for stairs to take back down to the main level instead of the elevator.  She wondered why she hadn't run into Oliver before now, she had been a frequent visitor to the hospital in the last couple of years with her step-father's heart attack and child-birth classes.  He must be in practice at the other clinic in town or maybe he was just on staff at the hospital.  Not that it was important, they had never been close, Nina had only gone to high school in Walsh River for one and a half years.  She ran into people from that era every day and sometimes recognized faces but seldom had names to attach to them.  Such a rootless childhood, she thought, and I've nearly let one of the ones I was close to slip away.  She hoped it wasn't too late.
Nina wearily pushed open the door to the echoing stairwell and descended the steps to the main floor of the hospital. She followed the shiny tile path and the signs on the wall back to the ER waiting room.  Wyn was sitting in a chair with her back toward the hallway, Isabella was awake and smiling, gripping Wyn's index fingers in her tiny, round fists as she bounced in Wyn's lap.  Nina paused for a moment to watch.  Wyn spoke softly to the smiling baby as she gurgled and squeaked in delight, her chubby little knees disappeared and reappeared as she folded and extended the miniscule length of her baby legs.  Sometimes there are moments, isolated little

droplets distilled from everyday life.  The best thing about them is how unexpected they are.  The essential thing about them is how they save you from whatever crises was weighing you down only seconds earlier.  Nina closed her eyes to freeze the image in her mind, nothing was as healing to her heart as the smile of her child.
Wyn looked over her shoulder when she heard the rhythm of  Nina's sandaled feet approaching.  "Look, Izzie, it's Mommie!  And we're having such a good time, you and Mom need to come over and visit, my girls have been asking about you and if you're doing anything interesting yet." She looked soberly at Nina who had taken the seat beside them.  "When exactly does it happen that the little dimples on the backs of their hands turn into knuckles."
"I don't know.  But I think Josie still had dimples when we were in high school.  There was always something childlike about her, you know, something innocent."  Nina extended her arms toward Isabella.  "Come to mommie, sweetheart, we need to go get daddy!"
Wyn picked up the car seat and the diaper bag after transferring Isabella to her mother.  "I'll walk you two out to the car, I think I'm going to pick up the girls at school and go home. Mom will want to know what's going on.  Knowing the grapevine in this town I'm sure she's already heard something."
"Say, why didn't you tell me that Dr. Conner was weird Oliver?  The only reason I didn't faint was because I'm beyond overload already today.  Actually he seems pretty normal now."
"It didn't register with me, Oliver and Josie and me, we were in the same kindergarten class.  I guess I heard that he had moved back here, but only a few months ago.  A year ago when his mother died he was back settling her affairs and liked what he saw.  I think he'd been living in Chicago and was tired of city life, but his wife is from there so it took some convincing to get her to even come out and take a look.  I think she questioned whether we have indoor plumbing out here.  They have four kids and I think they wanted to simplify.  You know, let the kids play outside and walk to school by themselves.  She's quite a mover and shaker, his wife.  My mom said she's practically taken over at the Glades."
"Say hi to her for me, we'll have to come up and have a girls only afternoon with your mom soon.  We have to come up with a schedule to make sure Josie has company every day.  Who is there besides the two of us?  I think we should read to her and have music going, I can bring a boombox and some CD's, it may be guilt talking here but we've got to do our part to help her get better.  If she dies," Nina's voice gave way to tears, she had managed to hold back even in Josie's hospital room but the thought of her dying was too much to deal with right now.  She busied herself strapping Isabella into the back seat and felt more in control.  "Wyn, if she dies we'll never know why.  We are her best friends and if we can't figure out why she did this, who can?  I know I've neglected her for a long time but if I can help her now maybe I can make it up to her."
"I'll call you tonight.  We'll figure this out together, I should try to call Ethan, he'd want to know, he may even come home.  And my mom will help, I'm sure there must be some volunteer thing she can help us organize."

"My mom will want to put in some time on this, too.  And Evan's done with his book tour, now, so we'll be pretty flexible, he doesn't have a deadline for anything coming up, he wanted to have a couple of months to play housedad so I guess this is his opportunity. Gotta go, talk to you tonight."
"Bye."  Wyn stood in the parking lot waving after Nina's deep emerald green mini van.  When she got to her own car she was glad that she had left the windows down, it was so hot for this time of year.  She sat for a few minutes before starting the car and heading for Hastings Elementary to pick up the twins.  Nina was right, if Josie died it would leave such a big, unexplained mess.  The lawyer in her wondered if Josie had a will.  The best friend in her wondered what had been so wrong that she would feel that she needed to end her life.
Nina pulled out onto the service road and decided to go north on the bypass to get to the airport.  She skipped back and forth between the three local radio stations hoping to hit a news report to see if anything had gotten out to the media about Josie.  Nothing yet but she wondered how long it could be kept quiet considering Josie's celebrity status.  She had made the cover of the tabloids for less than this and most of that stuff had been phony anyway.  The digital clock on the dash read 3:44, they would be at the airport in plenty of time to see Evan's plane land.
Nina had never loved a car before.  A car was a car was a car, it started, it ran, it got you to where you needed to go.  But this van was different.  Evan had bought it for her just before Isabella was born, he had just gotten a big paycheck from his publisher for turning in the finished manuscript for his third book and wanted to buy Nina a car.  Nina had chosen the practical mini van over sleeker cars, she said it made her feel like a real mom.  She also felt like it was the only thing she could fit into at the time, at eight months pregnant her belly was rubbing on the steering wheel of her old car.  Evan didn't think a van was called for until you had at least three kids but he knew better than trying to talk her out of something she had set her mind on, her pragmatic nature left little room for another's opinions.  That lesson he had learned early on in their relationship when he had given her driving advice one too many times on their way out of town to a flea market in search of some second-hand items to furnish their first apartment together.  Nina was driving his pickup, a battered but reliable vehicle with a sometimes stubborn manual transmission.  Evan had suggested that she downshift for an upcoming hill so the engine wouldn't stall when she unexpectedly came to a full stop in the middle of the road, pulled the parking brake and put the gearshift in neutral.  While he was busy panicking over the possibility of being rear-ended by oncoming traffic Nina had turned to him and coolly offered to trade places with him if he wanted to drive.  When he said no, that it was fine if she drove she had then informed him that unless he wanted to drive that he should just keep his mouth shut.  Evan had the feeling at the time that if he had said anything else she might have rolled him out in the ditch and left him there.  From that point on he fully supported her when she had made up her mind and had discovered over time that she was a much more rational person who was given to discussion and even compromise when she wasn't driving.  Not that she was reckless, there was just something about her that moved a few degrees to the left when she was behind the wheel.  Nina was passionate about driving.  She became one with the vehicle she was operating and she preferred a stick-shift.  She wasn't like other girls, and that was what he loved the most about her.

Isabella was still awake and cooing when Nina parked at the airport.  She decided that getting the stroller out of the back was the best way to handle transporting the baby through the airport, it was probably close to a quarter mile from the parking lot to the gates.  Pushing the stroller sounded much easier than lugging all the baby paraphernalia that was necessary for even the briefest of outings.  Loading up the stroller Nina realized that she had forgotten to eat lunch, in fact, except for coffee and some toast that morning she had forgotten to eat at all.  She had been busy with tending to Isabella and making an effort toward cleaning up the house for Evan's homecoming and then Wyn had called.  Nina had intended to spend the afternoon planning a nice meal for him and then grocery shopping after Izzie napped.  It was looking like take-out was the only option at this point, maybe Chinese. Self-conscious over holding up the line going through security juggling the baby, the stroller and diaper bag, what to have for dinner was the least troublesome thing on her mind.  Nina felt hungry and light-headed, but not particularly like eating.  Everything with Josie and this unseasonal heat.
Finally past security having set off the metal detector twice, first with the stroller, then with her large set of keys that she had meant to leave in the car, they moved briskly down the concourse.  Evan's flight was listed as on time on the information screen so he should be landing anytime.  Nina impatiently consulted her watch and parked the stroller near a window.  Isabella exhuberantly pounded on the padded side rail of the stroller in protest of them stopping.  Nina scooped her out and set her up on the deep windowsill, supporting her as she stood looking out the window.  There, that must be Evan's plane, Nina thought as the DC10 with blue stripes crawled past the window.  Picking Isabella up she parked the stroller out of the way and walked over to the chairs at the gate waiting area.  Izzie had ahold of her index finger and was busily poking it into her mouth and making incomprehendable remarks over it when Nina pulled her finger back with a start.  "Ow!" she proclaimed, startling Isabella as well.  "Oh, sweetie, mommie's sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, let me see in your mouth."  Isabella unintentionally obliged her mother's request by laughing.  There was the source of the red mark on her finger, right in the center of her lower gum were two incipient baby teeth just beginning to poke their way out.  No wonder she had been chewing on everything she could get her hands on, she was teething.  Not the horror story teething that her own mother had described in detail but instead a drooling and laughing discovery.  "Izzie, you have teeth!"  Isabella squealed loudly and moistly in agreement.
"There he is, there's Daddy!"  Nina waved and moved a few feet to a less crowded space that Evan could make his way toward.  He looked rumpled and reassuringly familiar.
"How are my beautiful girls!"  Evan dropped his carry-on bag and wrapped his arms around Nina and Isabella.  Nina's free arm slipped around his waist and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"Here, take Izzie and I'll get the stroller," Nina said as she reluctantly pulled away from him.  "I'll be right back.  She bit her lower lip and tried not to cry, all of a sudden the events of the day were catching up with her.  By the time she wheeled the stroller back she had composed herself.  She didn't want to fall apart here, there would be time for that when they got home.  She didn't want to spoil what should be a happy reunion.  Smiling at Evan she kissed him warmly and

asked him what he wanted for supper.
"I don't care, I'm just glad to be home with my two favorite girls."  Nina was grateful that there was no checked luggage to wait for, Evan was one of those people who could get by with just a carry-on bag, he knew the secrets of traveling light that Nina just couldn't fathom.
Once more in the van Nina was leaning on the steering wheel when she couldn't hold it in any longer.  Everything from the top of her head down between her shoulder blades to her lower back felt compressed and tight and ready to spring open.  Evan was occupied with strapping Isabella into her car seat and didn't notice what was going on until he was getting in himself.  Nina's face was buried in her hands and great sobs were issuing from deep within her chest.
"Nina, honey, what's wrong?" he asked as he moved closer to take her in his arms.  "What is it, did you find another man while I was gone!"  His attempt at a joke fell flat as he held Nina close.  "Tell me, what happened."
Nina reached around into the back seat for the diaper bag to find a kleenex.  She felt a little better having let go, she didn't realize what an effort she had been putting forth to keep it contained.  She didn't know where to begin, how to explain this whole mess.  "Let's just go home.  It's kind of a long story, and I don't know all of it yet."  She smiled at Evan and wiped her eyes.  "Really, I'm okay, we'll talk at home."
They stopped for Chinese take-out on the way home.  Sesame chicken and beef lo mein and those little dumpling things with plum sauce.  They ate out on the patio while Nina nursed Isabella, swearing she could feel those new teeth and greiving over the inevitable end to breastfeeding her baby.  Evan's book tour had gone well, Nina had seen him on all the morning news shows.  There had been a good turn-out at the mid-Manhattan Barnes & Noble store where his publisher had hosted a book-signing.
Nina knew that he was exhausted and felt like she shouldn't burden him with her news of her old friend.  He looked at her expectantly and the love and strength in his eyes pulled the story from her.  She told Evan about what had transpired that day and how Josie lay in a coma at the hospital.  Josie, who Evan knew only as Adara Adams, the B-movie scream queen who had been her high school friend and was now the star of Silicon Valley Girls, a sort of Charlie's Angels as industrial spies meets LA Law.  Strangely enough her outburst in the car had been due more to the fact that Isabella was teething and would soon be weaned than the predicament of Josie's attempted suicide.  Nina felt so removed from Josie and whatever had gone wrong in her life that she didn't know how to react to it.  Mostly she felt bad for Wyn because the two of them had been best friends since the age of three.  Maybe it wasn't such a big deal that Isabella was graduating to bottle feeding but it was very significant to Nina.  It was the next step away from dependance on her, the first of many to come that had begun with her birth and would progress until she was grown.  It was actually good timing, she wouldn't be returning to work until the end of July but there would be plenty of time for Izzie to adjust to formula and the fact that nourishment would come from daddy more often than it came from mommy now.

Wyn called to say that she would take the first shift with Josie in the morning after she dropped her daughters off at school.  She had found her old paperback copy of The Fountainhead and thought she would read it to her.  Remembering how much Josie had disliked Wyn toting the book around constantly for a couple of years during high school Nina thought that if anything would wake her up that would.  Nina and Wyn had a good laugh over Josie sitting bolt upright in her hospital bed in protest over the reading material.  Nina said she could come and take over in the afternoon, Wyn's mother Miriam had volunteered for the evening shift and that she would be able to draft enough volunteers from the Society to cover a few hours.  She had agreed that it was important to keep a steady flow of company to stimulate Josie, that they would fill whatever hours the hospital and her doctor would allow.
Wyn saved the more interesting news for last, saying that she had gotten a call in to Ethan but hadn't spoken to him, she had just left a message on his answering machine.  She was pretty sure he would call back, he and Josie had remained close over the years and had seen each other at least a couple of times a year.  The only times that Josie had left Los Angeles in recent years was to escape to Ethan's home in the mountains near Santa Fe where he was a resident former hippie artist.  Ethan had never been a hippie but people believe what they want to believe.  When he had moved to New Mexico he had purchased some mostly useless land up in the mountains and focused his efforts on building a house out of adobe and stone.  He had found working with the stone difficult and challenging and soon was distracted from house building and concentrating on chiseling the stone into whatever form was inside waiting to be revealed.  For the first ten years he was there he worked in construction off and on to make a living and split the rest of his time between finishing his own house and working on the stone sculptures.  A local gallery took interest in his work, it was brought to their attention by a newspaper story about local architecture featuring the guy from up north who had taken ten years to finish building his house in the mountains.  Ethan's house was certainly unique and beautiful but it was his sculptures that commanded attention.  The character and grace of the faces and hands that emerged from the stone were remarkable and lifelike.  They sold like crazy and were shipped to eager owners as far away as Europe and Australia.  The originals stood outside public buildings and were tucked amid the fastidiously landscaped lawns of the very wealthy.  It was the composite castings sold at upscale gardening centers and monument companies that raked in the money, everyone wanted an EPIc of their own.  Ethan Parker Icons and Ethan Parker Iconocasts were everywhere.
The unlikely evolution of Ethan Parker from hockey player to ex-con to desert dwelling artist was mysterious and thought-provoking to Nina.  She had enough to digest already without contemplating whether Ethan would be showing up.  She didn't need all that old stuff stirred up all over again.  She had Evan.  She loved Evan and they had Isabella. Ethan had been so long ago.  Besides, he had been the one to leave, he'd walked out on her.  There was no reason for her to care anymore but there it was, just the thought of him brought on that internal flutter that should have faded but was still as strong as ever.
Nina tiptoed down the carpeted hallway to peek at her sleeping baby.  Precious and content, Isabella's regular breathing had a comforting effect on Nina.  She gazed a while longer before pulling the door shut and going downstairs.  She took the afghan from the back of the rocking chair as she passed through the living room.  In the kitchen she found a bottle of mineral water in
the refrigerator and took it out to the patio.  She settled herself in the yard swing and wrapped the afghan around the thin cotton material of her nightgown.  Twisting open the bottle of water she took a long drink and sat back and sighed.  Her breasts felt heavy and her back hurt and she wondered how long it would take for her to stop producing milk.  She remembered how Wyn had been uncomfortably engorged when she had stopped nursing and hoped the same fate wouldn't happen to her.  Her head just wouldn't shut off and let her go to sleep and after an hour of fidgeting in bed she had given up and gotten up, afraid that she would wake Evan.  She looked up at their dark bedroom window.  She wanted the world to just disappear and let them be, let them live their lives without these complicated little intrusions.  Nina knew she was being selfish and she also knew that she would be clearer on everything by morning if only she could get some sleep.  She finished the bottle of water and went back into the house.  Back in bed she snuggled up to Evan's comfortable warmth that she had missed the last four nights.  Sleep finally came only because she was completely exhausted and she dreamed of closed doors along a dimly lit corridor.  Doors.  Some that were locked and some that opened freely but none of the rooms that she visited gave reassurance or held answers to the questions that would still be there when morning came.

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