A Crystal Hall Library Entry
E. E. Nalley
There is no such thing as 'Your Truth.' There is The Truth and your opinion.
It's the details that really sell something.
I'd never been one for details before all this. You'd think a graduate student working on their masters would be diligent in such things, but I'm afraid there are time's other things were more pressing. I was in a rut of just sleeping, for which there was never enough time, studying, ditto and eating. My eight year old self would be devastated to find out you can grow tired of peanut butter and jelly. I was dangerously flirting with burn out and becoming another failed ABT Master's candidate. Then my master's thesis project was approved and I had a fat grant check burning a hole in my account, so yes, I have to admit I was less than ethical with some of those funds and splurged a bit.
If you can call a bowl of stew and a beer splurging. That's when I met Greg.
He was a KSU alumni and still going to the dive bar all of us hung at; Kreegan's Irish Tavern. Most of us went to Kreegan's because it was the closest bar to campus, was reasonably priced and had resignedly embraced being a college bar. I never did find out why Greg went there, maybe he didn't feel like he fit in at the 'Gentleman's Club' the other members of the Firm that had hired him right after passing the Bar socialized at. Maybe he just liked slumming, or wanted to remember what being young and hungry was like so he kept the fire in his belly. Not that he was old, mind. Older than me, sure, but probably less than five years. He'd filled out nicely, thanks to the Athletic Club membership that came with the job, the understated, but expensively nice clothes fit him like a panther prowling in the jungle; six foot four of Alpha Male with a little boy smile.
Every girl in the place noticed him when he paused in the doorway, nodding to the hostess and surveying the Thursday night crowd, like he was picking out his prey. I was at one corner of the bar, against the wall by the server's station, mostly because I had a girl friend who waited tables at Kreegan's and we'd chat in her spare time.
This also gave me a ready excuse to brush off the creeps and frat boys, but I repeat myself.
Greg's sense of personal style was somewhere between '90s Denzel Washington and '70s John Shaft; black leather jacket cut like a sport coat, a camel hair cable knit sweater and jeans I'm certain he had not bought in their current 'distressed' condition. He didn't go for the stool that was open next to me, instead taking the one on the other side of the server's station and flashed that little boy smile at me before he turned to get the bar tender's attention.
I hadn't come to Kreegan's to be picked up, but suddenly the pressure of finishing my Master's degree, 'only' swapping my normal PBJ fare for the bowl of Paddy's beef stew I was enjoying just then seem like I was wasting my time. I have to admit, the fantasy that swam through the back of my eyeballs as his pint arrived would be hard for any man to live up to. It'd been a long winter, let's say and leave it at that. Though I have to give him credit, I could tell by the way he savored his first sip of Guinness that it wasn't his first sip. Lots of guys will buy an Irish beer in an Irish pub, then have a double take, being unprepared for the strength of it. He liked Guinness, which I found interesting in and of itself. Then he turned to me and wasn't surprised I was watching him, flashed that little boy smile again and said, “Any pick up line I could use would seem terribly trite, so, how about I start with, 'I'm Greg'?”
I liked that he was articulate. “Alanna,” I replied. “Alanna Byrne. Are you looking for a pick up?”
He leaned against the bar and took another sip of his beer, turning toward me to show I had his full attention. “I find it tends to scare off the girls if I lead with a marriage proposal, so I thought we'd just talk for a bit and see where it goes.”
That got a chuckle out of me, for sheer audacity if nothing else. “That's original, I have to admit. I wouldn't be much of an anthropologist if I wasn't interested in human interaction. Functionalism demands it.”
He turned his face side long. It was a nice face, gently symmetrical Afro-American, with a smooth, milk chocolate complexion crowed by intense, amber eyes. He wore his hair in a professional length Afro, shorter on the sides than on top, which drew his off hand in a slightly embarrassed scratch, his class ring glittering on it. “Oh, do I sense a Master's Candidate?”
“All But Thesis,” I admitted. “If you're half as smart as you look, you'll run for your life.”
He took another sip of beer. “Can't. Masochism is part of passing the Bar.”
“A lawyer? Poor soul!”
“I spent a small fortune on my business cards,” he confided with a grin. “Want one?”
I smirked at him, but I have to admit, his game was solid and smooth. I knew he was seeing how far he could get with me, but I was still intrigued, despite that. “Well, since you went to all the trouble of having them made, it would be rude not to accept,” I replied and he reached into the jacket pocket to present it with a flourish. It was as professional and understated as he was, listing a firm that was big enough that even I had heard of it from the News and proclaimed him Gregory J. Walker, Civil Litigator and Criminal Defense. “Personal injury and defending criminals, you're in danger of becoming a stereotype, Mr. Walker.”
“I love a good argument,” he shot back. “Besides, not every body slapped in handcuffs is actually guilty. The Police, however good intentioned, do make mistakes. And it's Greg to you, Alanna.”
It might seem trite, but when you make a career out of understanding people and the connections they make, the societies they build and the history they leave, you actually get to be a pretty good judge of people individually. Oh, don't get me wrong, Greg Walker, esquire, wanted between my knees and I was certainly smart enough to know it, but I had this weird feeling he actually wanted more than just between my knees. He was good looking, witty and charming, so he pinged my physical and interpersonal attractors, he had a degree and a career which demonstrated he stuck with things so the provider bit was covered, and Lord above was I actually considering his marriage potential while being picked up?
I guess it had been a long, cold winter.
Perhaps it was time to see how he dealt with hard truths. “Well, Greg, do you know what they say about red heads?” I asked, with an indication of my own ruddy locks. “It's all true.”
He came around the waitress station to the open place next to me, but he didn't sit down. “The opinions of weak, fearful men, incapable of dealing with a challenge don't interest me.” He smiled again and took another sip of his beer, licking the foam off his upper lip. “Besides,” he intimated, “Like I said, I love a good argument.”
“Oh really? Well, I'm not the kind of girl who...”
“If you were,” he interrupted smoothly, “We wouldn't be having this conversation.” He indicated the empty stool as I considered such a striking statement. “May I join you?”
I gave him a hard, measuring glance. I hadn't really had a 'relationship' since I was an undergrad. My studies and desire to achieve my academic goals didn't leave a lot of time for social distractions. Ironic, isn't it? The Anthropologist wannabe didn't have time for social interaction. Well, those who can't, teach, right? True, he didn't know what I had been about to say, though it was an easy guess, and the implication that he wasn't going for a one night stand was honestly intriguing. Was that just some kind of reverse logic tactic, or did he really have some kind of intentions towards me, a woman he'd just met. I decided I'd listen to his pitch, if nothing else it would make for an interesting evening. “It's a free country,” I told him and his smile got a little brighter as he slid onto the stool.
“I'm doing my part to keep it that way,” he assured me. “How's the stew?”
“Greasy, but it's an Irish Pub; it's supposed to be.”
“I'll have a bowl too,” he told my girlfriend, who I honestly hadn't notice come over. She gave me a wink with her back to him and headed to the kitchen to get his bowl. “So,” he led with. “I'm in here a fair bit, maybe not as much as I used to, but I like to think I'm still a regular, but I don't recall seeing you.”
That was too cliche not to respond with another. “'Of All The Gin Joints In All The Towns In All The World,' I walked into yours?” I paraphrased. He smirked, showing he'd caught the reference and shrugged.
“Well, technically I walked into yours, didn't I?” His stew arrived and he actually took a taste before he reached for the pepper. “Still, if I have to play the chick role, who better than Ingrid Bergman, am I right? At least there's no Nazis.”
“That's reasonable,” I agreed, taking another spoonful of my forgotten stew and chewing thoughtfully. “And your memory isn't playing tricks on you, I'm not in here very often. Unlike the Frat boys, I'm paying my own way through KSU and I intend to get my money's worth.” He raised his glass in toast and took a sip.
“Bravo! Nice to see I'm not the only one who attended this school whose parents raised them right.”
“What?” I demanded with mock incredulity. “No heart warming testimonial of over coming adversity and clawing your way out of...” I realized I was about to say something that might be taken as offensive even though I had no such intention, and so cut myself off, but his smile never wavered.
“The Ghetto?” he finished for me. He shook his head. “You can say it, Lord knows it's a thing. Me? I grew up in the suburbs. My parents are both lawyers, so it's the family business so to speak.” He ate a spoonful, reached for the salt, then reconsidered. “That I have no idea what a Ghetto looks like is one of the blessings I count.”
“Sorry,” I told him softly, and I meant it.
“Don't be,” he was quick to correct me. “You're absolutely right, lots of my brothers play that card, and most of them, like me, have never been in a Ghetto. I'm Black and you're White and neither of us picked that. I have nothing to prove and you have nothing to apologize for. This is America, after all, and as you pointed out, we're both free.”
I felt something inside me relax, like muscle that was clinched and I only just realized I had been needlessly holding it. We were different, that's true, but we were far more alike than I had realized. It was as if he had given me permission to realize it, permission to just be me. That I didn't have to prove to him I wasn't like some other people he had doubtlessly met. He would be him and I would be me, and the differences of our genetics could just be biological quirks and not charged political landmines likely to go off in our conversation. I liked him. That was also quite liberating. “So,” I started, both genuinely curious and eager to move the conversation away from my gaff. “What's it like being a lawyer?”
He tore off a piece of the sour dough roll that came with the stew and sopped a bit of it up with it. “It's...liberating,” he declared after a long moment of thought. As though he'd never really considered his profession before. “It reinforces my certainty that I made the right choices when it mattered, makes me glad I didn't act out when I was a stupid teenager. Makes me really thank God for my parents, and giving me the wit to listen to them. Pay's nice, too.” He winked at me and gave me another look at his brilliant smile. “What about you? What's Anthropology like?”
“It's...the difference between reading history, understanding history and getting history,” I told him after my own moment of consideration. His eyebrows rose as though impressed with my insight or as if I'd said something profound, but it wasn't condescending to experience it. Even if it sounds like it was to say it.
He nodded sagely. “Nice. That's important, helping people understand and get history. You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.” He chuckled and added, “I imagine that requires a lot of hit the books time, which would explain why I've missed seeing you here.”
“Were you looking for me?”
The amber eyes found mine and were intense again. “If I wasn't before, I certainly am now.”
I was glad I had only the one beer I hadn't finished yet and that one I had been eating while I drank it. I was already a little buzzed from being the focus of such unrelenting attention, a beer buzz on top of it would certainly complicate things. But then, some very warm part of me retorted, some complication would be very nice. “You must be quite the ladies man, I see.”
His smile became coy. “A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell.”
Some men don't have to brag, I thought to myself and felt my cheeks blush, which he noticed, even in this terrible light in the bar and the smile became self satisfied. “Oh, she blushes! Why Alanna, what were you thinking of?”
“Nothing I'd tell my mother,” I assured him. I realized I'd finished my stew and took a drink of my beer to steady myself. I have to hand it to Mr. Walker, he was good. There were parts of me that really wouldn't mind getting my ashes hauled by a stud who knew what he was doing. And if he was nothing else, I was just as certain Greg Walker was a stud of the first rank that knew what he was doing. I was also torn that I was at a really delicate stage of my scholastic career and getting into a relationship might derail something I'd spent the best part of a decade working on, counting high school and under graduate work. If he's just a cad looking for a good night, that won't derail anything, my shoulder devil assured me.
And if you want more than a good night, he's just the sort of man that would encourage you, my shoulder angel piped in. It would seem that both halves of my spiritual life agreed I needed a good shagging. Suddenly feeling very flustered and excited, I asked him, “Though I have more than a passing interest in what you're thinking of...?”
He found that funny and chuckled. “Why, Lana, how salacious!”
“I'm an Anthropologist,” I told him. “Human interaction is my thing.”
“Well, who am I to interrupt the scientific progress of mankind? Dear lady, I am quite at your disposal.”
There are those, I suppose, who would raise their eyebrows that I decided to go home with a man I'd met that evening. To them, I would say first of all, I'm not stupid; I excused myself to the ladies room and my smart phone's browser let me check up on Mr. Gregory J Walker. The Firm's website had his picture and a bio bragging about him, so I knew he was who he said he was and did what he said he did. I also found he'd never been arrested in the United States, wasn't on any Registered Sex Offender list in any state and was a member in good standing of the Bar Association of this state. I also had a kind of frantic conversation with my friend who had quickly followed me in to the bathroom as to who he was and that I was going with him and authorized her phone to be able to look for mine if I didn't text her later that night that all was well.
Nor did we just finish his dinner and bail; we actually had a longer conversation that I won't bore you with. It was the usual kind of getting to know you things people talk about on a first date. Even though this wasn't a first date, but you get the idea. That said, what clinched my decision was he waited until I came back from the restroom before asking if he could get me a new drink.
I also discovered he was a good dancer.
He had a really nice BMW, which we took to his apartment. It was certainly in a nicer complex than mine was, closer to the heart of the city, but nothing to take your breath away. He was a young, urban professional, not a playboy. Still it was nicely appointed, though, very masculine in it's décor. There were even some trophies in a display case, most which were dated in the last few years, but there was one from this year. So there was some competitive something he was still taking part in, though the plaques only used acronyms I couldn't suss out.
He came out of the kitchen with a pair of bottled beers, Heineken, and opener, which he used before handing me one. “My golden pillow award,” he declared, indicating the trophy case I'd been looking at with a self deprecating kind of smile. “Came in last at the match, but I'm getting better.” He looked at me and asked, “Nervous?”
I decided to be honest. “A little,” I admitted.
“No pressure,” he assured me. “New friends,” he toasted and we clinked our bottles together.
“No, it's not that, I...” I started, trailing off as he laughed.
“I get it,” he chuckled. “First time with a black guy.”
I felt myself blush again and tried to hide it behind a sip of beer. “I'm not, I mean, sure, I've seen dirty movies, so I...Oh God, I am not usually this much of a goober.”
“No pressure,” he said again, and he hugged me to underscore it. “I'm not offended and I don't hold anything against you. Curiosity is natural. Yes, we're different and yes we're also the same. You don't have to do anything you're uncomfortable with, ok?”
“I get the feeling I'm not your first white girl,” I declared, and I meant it to be funny, but even to my ears it sounded a bit petulant. He just grinned again.
“Let's just say I have a weakness for red heads.” His arms were still around me and I felt very safe.
I looked up into his amber eyes and confided, “I did notice you only giving me sealed drinks so I won't worry later I've been slipped something.”
With a quiet confidence and just a hint of appreciation of his efforts being noticed, he said, “I never want you to worry you aren't safe with me.”
“I'm not worried,” I told him. And I wasn't; I was tremendously excited and more than a little nervous, but I'd never been so certain I wanted to do something. I was holding him and he was holding me, and then suddenly we were kissing. It was quite remarkable how gently he could kiss me; I opened my mouth to tell him, only I hadn't stopped kissing him first and his warm tongue slid into my mouth and my groin caught fire. I was tingling so much I was vibrating, and when his hand slid up my side to take a hold of my breast my nipples got so hard they ached.
We kissed and squirmed, each pulling clothing off the other until my blouse and bra were over his coffee table and I'd gotten his jacket and sweater tossed behind his couch and to this day I have no idea how we managed it without interrupting our kiss, but we did it. Where did the beers go? I honestly don't know. Our lips actually smacked when we parted as I finally climbed out of his eyes to look at his bare chest. His complexion was ever so slightly lighter from not being exposed to the sun I suppose, and his skin was like silk under my fingers, smooth and hairless as I traced his well defined muscles, making them tremble as I tickled him on accident. At the same time, I felt his eyes on me and I couldn't help standing tall so my breasts stood out, full and proud. “Wow,” he whispered as he filled his big hand with one of my breasts and his lips descended on the other.
His lips gently sucked and kneaded my areola while his tongue found a live wire that was connected from the end of my nipple down to my nether regions then up to the center of my brain. It was beyond electric, and he was just what a girl wants in a man, slow, confident, strong. He eased me down to his sofa and helped me out of my my jeans then kissed his way down my stomach, and he grinned at me when he found I was a natural red head. Then his tongue parted my folds and he conquered me.
He went to work on me and all I could do is hold his head and enjoy the ride.
You would think that having this many orgasms would be tiring, but I wasn't tired so much as relaxed, languid as I rode his tongue and felt my belly and thighs tremble in response to him. I was panting after my breath when he finally stood after what felt like forever, his hands fumbling with his jeans and then they slid down to puddle at his feet. I imagine there are some who would ask if the rumors were true, to which I would reply I had sample size of one which is statistically insignificant and being a scientist, statistics are an important metric to me. I simply have no idea about all black men.
That said, I can attest that the penis of Gregory Walker was the biggest I'd ever seen personally.
I sat up on the sofa, marveling as I watched it sway between his legs. I looked up at him, smiling down at me and I whispered, “Wow,” as I reached out took a hold of him. It was heavy in my grasp, pulsing gently in time with his heart beat and as velvety smooth as the rest of his skin had been. I leaned in to get a better look and my nostrils were filled with the wonderfully musky scent of him. I didn't even hesitate as I lifted it and took it into my mouth.
The taste was indescribable and there was the added texture of his foreskin rubbing back and forth over the rapidly thickening head of him under my tongue. I wished I could have given him half as good of a blow job as he had just given me. I'm sure I was nowhere near that goal, but he did moan as he ran his hands through my hair. He didn't grab it, or pull me, he was just caressing me as I looked up at him looking down and watching me. I smiled around me forced myself to relax so I could work as much of him into my mouth as I could. Almost immediately I felt him stiffen as I became aware of a salty new flavor that began to trickle over my tongue every time I worked to get a bit more of him into my mouth every time I slide down him.
Now it was his turn to pant as he freed his manhood from my lustful embrace. Kicking out of his shoes and pants, he reached down and picked me up as if I weighed nothing and we kissed again as he carried me to his bed. As he laid me down, I whimpered a bit, seeing how rigid it had become. I thought it had looked and felt big soft. “Be gentle,” I whispered, eyeing it a bit fearfully.
He kissed my forehead as his arms slipped under my knees to support me. “I won't hurt you,” he promised, then I felt him at my entrance. He worked his hips and that caused it to rub through my folds, bumping on my clitoris and becoming slick with the moisture flowing out of me in a flood. I nearly came again just from that, then right as I was about to, he stopped and I whimpered in protest, looking into his eyes. Then I was spread, wider and wider and wider as he claimed me and my body was forced to make room for him.
I came so hard it forced him to stop and he grunted with the tight constriction on his member. His lips settled on my neck and his abdomen clinched and once again he began to enter me. I grabbed his back, transfixed with the contrast of my skin against his, my legs bouncing between trying to pull him into me by wrapping around his waist and splaying wide to give him room. I felt his scrotum against my cheeks and I realized he had gotten that monster completely inside of me and I came again. I must have been clawing at him without realizing it, because I felt his hands grab my elbows and take a hold of my fore arms. So there I was, on my back with him on top of me, his arms splaying my legs, his hands on mine, holding me down as he held himself up. I was helpless, completely full of him, and I felt a brief stab of panic and the look on his face was so tender I felt my eyes fill with tears, then he slowly withdrew until I felt hollow from the absence of him, then his back arched and I was slowly filled again.
It was so beautiful I couldn't help but cry. He kissed me, gently, soothing, as he made love to me. He was my center, my everything and God this sounds so sappy and overly romantic, but if you'd ever been made love to, you understand.
The Greeks tell us that Zeus and Hera once had a tremendous fight, arguing over which gender enjoyed sex more, each certain it was the other that in fact, received greater pleasure. To settle the argument they descended from Olympus to find the oracle Teiresias, who had been born a man, been cursed to become a woman for seven years and had that curse lifted and gone back to being a man. Each deity made their case and demanded Teiresias settle the matter and Teiresias proclaimed there was no doubt who enjoyed sex more.
Teiresias told Hera that if he could divide the pleasure during intercourse into ten pieces, women would take nine of them and men only one!
He was right. By the time Greg tensed and filled me with his seed I had lost count of the number of orgasms he'd given me. I fell asleep in his arms, sated, blissful and utterly spent.
I woke up the next morning before he did, to find his arms wrapped around me like a drowning man clutching a piece of flotsam. I found it sweet and romantic. I had been worried about waking up this morning, that I would feel guilty both thinking of my self as a slut for what I'd done and yet conversely afraid I was going to get the 'I promise I'll call you' line and never hear from him again. Actually, on waking up I found I wasn't as afraid as I had worried I would be on either account. You don't realize just how much you need to feel the connection of another human until you've gone without for a long time and then gotten exactly what you needed. On the other hand, I was so grateful he had been such an incredible lover, if he wanted to part ways, I wouldn't be happy, but I could be thankful for the night I had. Indeed, I felt more alive than I had in a good long time and I felt wonderful.
Sore, but wonderful.
I carefully extracted myself from his embrace without waking him and found the bathroom to take care of my morning needs. As I did so I sent Tina, my waitress friend from Kreegan's the all clear text. She immediately hit me back demanding salacious details, but I just sent her a cat purring emoji with a promise of a good talk later. Which, ironically, was how I felt. I wasn't just the cat who got the cream, I felt like I'd broken into the dairy.
For a brief moment, once I was done answering the call of mother nature, I considered donning one of his shirts to hunt for the morning coffee, but while some men found that a turn on, I didn't want to give the impression I was rummaging through his things. So, once I was a bit more ready to face the day, I padded barefoot and naked out into his living room to collect my clothes and get dressed. With the morning light coming through the dramatic picture window giving a lovely view of the Sun rising behind the down town skyline lighting my way, I went into the little galley pretending to be a kitchen that every bachelor apartment seemed to have.
I found the coffee pot already set up, which was great, so I just turned it on and then opened the fridge to see what I could use to make a breakfast. Yes, I was feeling very domestic; you have a night like I just had after a long dry spell and see if you don't have your nesting instincts start pinging. Sadly, in this regard he was very much a guy and there wasn't much to work with, just beer, left over take out and cream for the coffee at least.
What? Surprised it wasn't stocked like a gourmet chef lived here? Come on, nobody's perfect! To be making the amount of salary he had to be making to pay off his student loans and still afford a place like this and the car that brought me here, he had to be putting in a lot of hours. I honestly hadn't expected much else, to be honest.
Still, coffee was better than nothing, so I found some mugs, the sugar and got the creamer out while I waited for it to brew. Whatever else his culinary shortcomings might be, he had great taste in coffee, it smelled incredible. “Good morning!” I heard from behind me and I turned to find him standing, bare chested, though he had pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms and slippers, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I expected to find you in here just wearing one of my shirts,” he said with a smile.
“I considered it, but I figured you being a lawyer, you might be picky about your professional wardrobe.”
By the expression on his face, it was obvious he was genuinely touched by my consideration of him and as sappy as it sounds, that made me feel nice. “Thank you,” he said as he took the pot off the brewer and poured for both of us. “Though, in future, feel free. I have to be honest, the thought of seeing you that way will play a starring role in my fantasy life.”
I smirked as I finally found the cutlery drawer and came over with a spoon for us to share. “Well, you'll just have to invite me back over then, won't you?”
He chuckled as he traded me my cup for the spoon. “Actually,” he declared. “As it's Memorial Day weekend, I'm off today and Monday, so, how would you feel about spending the weekend with me?”
I arched an eyebrow at him as I poured the creamer into my coffee. “Are you serious?”
His face flashed through concern and then worry before he forced a smile, like he was putting himself on guard to keep from being hurt. Do guys worry about being dumped after a one nighter? That seemed incredible to me, but before I could consider it further he asked, “Do I seem insincere?”
I took the spoon and added sugar, purposefully stepping into his personal space and he didn't back away. “No, you don't seem insincere,” I told him as I stirred. “You honestly seem as afraid of being hurt as I am, which, I have to admit makes me...happy. Not happy you're afraid, happy you're feeling the same way I am. This is the best morning I've had in a time far too long for me to admit to. I wasn't looking for a relationship, Greg, but I'm not adverse to the idea either. What is it you want?”
Maybe I'm more observant than I give myself credit for, because he relaxed, almost imperceptibly. “I could get used to this,” he admitted. “Hell, you're being honest so I will be too, I want to get used to this, but, as I said last night, no pressure. For right now, I want to spend the week end with you, get to know you better, and see where that goes. How does that sound?”
I thought about the time line for my project, the amazing sex I'd had last night and admitted to myself that I wanted more of it in the worst way and decided I could multitask. “I need to go by my apartment for some clean clothes and I'll need some time to work on my notes for my Master's project, but I can do that this evening, if that's ok?”
“Mi casa es su casa,” he invited amicably. “I have some discovery work I can do at the same time for a case, so we can work together if you don't mind the company.”
I took a sip of coffee made appreciative noises. It was really amazing coffee. “It's a date.”
“Awesome,” he declared with a now authentic smile of delight. “I don't think I have anything I can make for breakfast, so how about I get dressed and take you somewhere?”
“You don't have anything,” I told him with a wink. “I looked.”
“You were going to cook?” he asked with very credible mock incredulity. “And my fridge was empty? I feel so inadequate now!”
I let my gaze linger on his crotch long enough to be sure he noticed, then looked him in the eye. “Mr. Walker, you are doubtlessly many things, but inadequate will never describe you.”
“Miss Byrne, you flatter me!” He put his arm around me and gently pulled me against him. “However shall I put my ego back in it's box with praise like that?”
I smirked at him. “You had no difficulty putting your ego in my box last night, so I think you'll be fine.” His grin promised a wonderful weekend.
“I aim to please, Ma'am.”
I stood up on tip toe to kiss him. “You hit the mark, sir! Now drink your coffee and get dressed! I'm hungry!”
He kissed my forehead gulped down his coffee. “As my lady commands!”
We took his BMW back to Kreegan's so I could get my car, a tired, but well loved little hatchback and then he followed me to my apartment. Which, thank you, Jordan Peterson, was clean. Cluttered, yes, cramped? I'm a grad student, what do you think? But it wasn't dirty. I didn't have to feel embarrassed that he was in the living room waiting while I packed a week end bag, my lap top and got the charging cords for my devices and the smart watch I'd been given, which was where I got my first surprise of the weekend.
I picked it up, and I was glad I'd settled on the neutral black leather band that let it go with everything and while the display had the right time and it showed it was talking to my phone, underneath at the bottom of the display it read 'canceled'. If I hadn't been in such a rush, I might have paid it more heed, but he was waiting and I was enjoying what amounted to my first vacation in years. I was having my cake and eating it too, and how often do us humble grad students get to say that?
I ran through a quick shower, half wishing he'd surprise me by joining me, but he was probably hungry so I stayed alone. He was wearing some kind of military T Shirt under his jacket, maybe he'd done a stint in the Army or something to help pay for Law School, so I just grabbed my T Shirt that had come with my membership in the American Anthropological Association, which was clean, though I did put on a Victoria's Secret bra that did very nice things to the girls that I'm sure Mr. Walker would approve of then ran a brush through my shoulder length hair and pronounced myself presentable.
“All set!” I declared as I rejoined him in the living room/dining room/only other big room in the apartment. He was in his phone, but immediately put it away and stood to join me.
“Were you this good looking last night?” he asked with a smile. “I'd swear you couldn't have gotten more beautiful and then you prove me wrong.”
I smirked at him. “If you're waiting for an objection, counselor, I'm afraid you do so in vain.”
“Lawyer jokes?” he demanded with much, and completely false, long suffering. “Are we at the lawyer joke phase of our association?”
“You knew the job was dangerous, when you took it, Greg.”
He wrapped an arm around me as I got the door to my apartment locked, then relieved my of my bag as he led the way to his car. “Danger is my racket,” he retorted, holding open my door for me, then pausing by the trunk to store my bag on his way to the driver's seat. As he slid into the leather seat he intimated, “I thought we'd have brunch at a little place I know. It's not far.”
“I'm in your hands, sir,” I replied and he winked at me. Turns out, his little place was a pretty pricey breakfast and lunch specialty cafe that was attached to University Mall. I didn't frequent it because, as I've said, I'm a grad student. To be honest, I didn't really shop at the Mall either for the same reasons. When I insisted he didn't have to spend money to impress me he just shrugged and kept leading the way into the restaurant.
I have to admit, it was fun to watch him be in charge. He led so easily, always smiling and genial, but clear he was the customer and he was right. It was subtle and low key, but it was there, giving him an edge, and it was fun to watch. He asked me what I wanted, then ordered for me, which was novel, but by now it was clear he'd come from a solidly upper middle class family, perhaps more as both of his parents were lawyers. Me? Well, like I said, I was paying my own way through college and I wasn't looking forward to starting to pay off the loans I'd taken out for this education I'd been getting.
However, things would be better once I had my masters, then I would have plenty of options. I could do field work for the Government, or the UN, I could get a professorship while I worked on my Doctorate, either of which offered stability and a nice salary with plenty of benefits. Either way I never thought of something like this as anything other than a splurge, but it seemed very normal to him. He obviously could afford it and so didn't give it a second thought.
One of the great truth's in History was that money bought options. Greg was certainly living proof of that. So we had brunch, which was a novel thing for me to be honest, and talked mostly about our academic careers at KSU. I tried not to be an Anthropologist, but I was sitting with someone whose experiences had been completely different from my own and I wanted to ask him about them, but at the same time I really didn't want to spoil a really nice outing and what I considered a very nice place.
We were having coffee after the meal when thunder struck and it began to rain. “Now I'm glad we didn't take one of those outside tables,” I told him as I watched patrons trying to salvage their meals and running inside. Evidently the storm had come on quickly; not just raining but really pouring down in sheets.
“It wasn't supposed to rain today,” he replied, angling his head to get a better view out the window. “I'll get the car and pick you up so you don't have to get soaked.”
“We could just window shop for a bit, if you'd rather,” I offered. “Wait for it to blow over.”
“There are worse ways to spend time with a beautiful woman.” He waved to get the waiter's attention and just handed him an Amex card without looking at the bill. Once that was sorted and a generous tip left, we went deeper into the mall and just browsed. He started asking me about my taste in jewelry in a round about way that immediately put me on guard that he was thinking of buying me something, and I put my foot down to tell him not to.
He proved that he did in fact love a good argument and we debated for the better part of half an hour when was the appropriate time in a new...whatever we were to begin giving gifts. We settled on at least four dates before that kind of thing happened and that last night would count as date One, and this extended weekend mini-vacation we were taking all counted as a single date which would be 'Two'.
While I do employ the word argument for the discussion, I mean it in it's more formal and correct usage not as a lover's quarrel, but a kind of relaxed debate where the merits of two positions in opposition to each other were discussed and a consensus reached. We had just about decided to move back towards the restaurant entrance to see if the rain had stopped when I happened to notice a fellow that seemed very interested in us. I'd seen him several times around the mall, but every time I caught sight of him, I'd found him looking at me, whereupon he would quickly look away. “Everything ok?” Greg asked me and I turned to look at him then back only to find the man gone.
“I...I'm not sure,” I hedged. “I keep seeing this guy and every time it's like he's looking at us, like maybe he's following us.”
Greg sighed, offered his elbow and began to head towards the entrance. “Unfortunately, Lanna, that's something you'll have to get used to if we spend any kind of time together.”
“Racism?” I asked, and the word tasted ugly in my mouth.
“Not as much as you'd think,” he replied. “Thankfully. Some, yes, there are some...uneducated individuals in the older generations that hold unpopular views. Fortunately, they're dying out. Some are just innocently curious, mixed couples are not nearly as rare as they...we...used to be, but far from common place. Some of it will be jealousy, wondering how I got to be so lucky to have you on my arm.”
“Gregory Walker, you are a shameless flatterer,” I scolded him. “I do love it. Continue.”
He grinned that little boy grin and patted the hand I was holding his elbow with. “So, word to the wise, being stared at is probably something you'll have to get used to if you and I become a couple.”
“I'm sorry for that,” I told him and he made a dismissive gesture.
“You have nothing to apologize for and I'm not going to waste my time trying to convince the people who do have things to apologize for the error of their ways.”
I smiled at him and squeezed his arm. “You are a remarkable man, Mr Walker and I am very happy we met.”
“As am I, dear lady. As am I.”
The rain slacked off enough for us to get to the car and run through a grocery store for supplies and get back to his apartment with out getting too soaked. After we got the groceries put away, we decided to stay in and get our work out of the way. He set up a place for us both in his living room and we had a quick discussion about music to find each other's tastes. I was glad he found Rap distasteful and he was glad I didn't care for Country and Western. We both enjoyed the usual stuff, rock, top 40 and some jazz, and we both had a bend towards classical, though my preferences ran towards orchestral sound tracks of movies I like where as his turned to Opera of all things. We compromised on a kind of Top 40 of classical music; you know, stuff like Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven for back ground music. That sorted, we got the laptops comfy and got to work.
Between my tablet and a number of legal pads I had bibliographies on, I began to collate the research on my master notes file for my thesis and he was surprised that I had more paper things scattered around me than he did. “What on Earth could require this kind of detritus?” he asked with genuine surprise. “What is your thesis on?”
I chuckled darkly as I rummaged through the tablets, chasing a citation I knew I'd need later, but couldn't find. “The origins of Western Civilization in Iron Age Europe,” I told him as I flipped through the papers. “And I need all of this because all of the Social Sciences are guilty of a nearly complete lack of falsification and replication, which allows any personal bias in the researcher to creep in the results and in a number of instances become set as the zeitgeist of some disciplines that have little to no basis in documented observations. Those of us who take the science seriously have to be extra careful and be able to cite sources of everything.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Could you say that again, but in English this time?”
I blushed and quit digging for the notes I couldn't find so I could give him my full attention. “Let me explain it like this, are gender roles a societal construct?” He started to give me a knee jerk answer, but I pressed on quickly before he could. “Are they learned behavior through nurturing of the young and imprinting the behavior on children from a young age, or are they an expression of our genetics expressing adaptation over thousands of years of successful breeding and genetic predisposition to successful division of labor?”
He blinked and then began to parse my, admittedly, overly technical question into it's core assertions. “Do little girls like playing with dolls because they're genes tell them to be mothers, or because mothers buy their daughters dolls?”
“Exactly!” I enthused. “What's your opinion?”
He actually gave the matter a moment or two of thought and then shrugged. “Fifty/fifty, I guess. Why does it matter?”
“Auschwitz,” I declared, which took him aback.
“What?” he demanded. “What do the Nazis have to do with the fact that girls like to play with dolls?”
“Is it a fact?” I countered him. “If gender is a societal construct, then it is strictly learned behavior, and thus those taught behaviors can be changed. It then follows that, among other things, a completely egalitarian society could be created through several generations of children being taught in a gender and racially neutral manner. On the other hand, if our genes do play a part in why children pick certain toys to play with as they grow and discover how they fit into their family and society at large, then the Nazis actually had a point and Eugenics, the breeding of humans for specific traits is a legitimate science thus QED once a consensus is reached as to what kind of humans we want to breed, the elimination (IE sterilization or murder) of undesirable persons to prevent them from breeding becomes acceptable.”
“Auschwitz stops being evil,” he whispered.
“Yes,” I said with great weight. “That's why I have to be so anal about my bibliography. While nobody with a brain can argue with what happened in the past, why it happened is very much up for debate. So it falls on those of us in the social sciences who actually give a shit and aren't talking out of our asses to be able to cite our sources and prove conclusions repetitively. Ideally, when I'm done, anyone can go through my data and come to the same conclusion I did, even if they go into it certain I'm wrong.”
Slowly, and very carefully, he asked, “So...you think that...they did have...?”
“No!” I replied emphatically. “It hasn't been satisfactorily proven what, if any, role genetics play in Anthropology! And even if genetics do have some role, we as humans all have moral responsibility and agency to choose how we behave! I have to be certain my research can't be misused that way!” I sighed and smiled a little smile as I saw a look of absolute respect for me and my ethics on his face and yes, I know I shouldn't need validation form an external source for this, but God it felt good to be admired for who I was and why I did what I did. I gave a gesture at his remarkably smaller pile and asked, “What are you working on?”
“Trying to figure out how to prove my client didn't commit murder,” he said heavily.
“He killed someone?” I asked.
“Yes,” Greg replied, fiddling with his table and then turning it towards me. It was a still frame from a security camera of a young man with a handgun, pointing it at a convenience store clerk. “That's without question,” he continued, putting his tablet on the table. “I have to figure out why it isn't murder.”
“But, I mean, that seems pretty cut and dry...?”
He nodded as he typed quickly for a moment. “Do you know what murder is, Lanna?”
“Isn't it when you kill someone?”
“Depends,” he replied, looking at me over the top of his laptop screen. “Did you mean to kill him? That might be murder. Was he trying to kill you first? That's self defense, not murder. Was it an accident? That's manslaughter.”
I considered that for a moment. “Well, did he?”
Greg shrugged. “I don't know.”
That was somewhat confusing, so I asked, “Didn't you ask him?”
“No,” he replied. “In fact I told him specifically not to tell me.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I'm an officer of the court,” he declared and I picked up on the weight he placed on the title. “As such, I cannot knowingly help a guilty person to escape justice, that's a violation of my ethical standards. However, everyone in this country is entitled to an informed defense against the allegations of the State, therefor it becomes incumbent on me to counter the State's accusation of malice murder with an alternative interpretation of the events that exonerates my client.”
“Don't you have to prove he didn't do it?”
“No,” he said patiently. “The State has to prove him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. His innocence is presumed, it's my job to show that there is reasonable doubt the State proved its allegation.”
I considered that for a long moment, then asked, “That's a pretty fine line, isn't it?”
“Perhaps,” he admitted and gave me a smile. “But, as Justice Blackstone declared, 'It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.' We are all entitled to competent, aggressive defense.” He sighed and turned back to his screen. “Perhaps my client is guilty, but that has no bearing on me. I have to do my best to induce that reasonable doubt in the minds of his peers who will sit on his jury. But, if he admits to me he did everything the State alleges, then as an officer of the Court, I must recuse myself because I have no reasonable doubt, therefore it is unethical of me to try to lie on his behalf. That's my battle against Auschwitz, I guess.”
“He's lucky to have you representing him,” I assured him.
Now it was his turn to laugh darkly. “That remands to be seen. Still, I'll give it the old college try.” My laptop beeped to tell me that I had a new email. “Ugh, what would you rather have for dinner? The steaks or the chicken?” he asked.
I felt very weary of the grind so I closed my laptop, stood and stretched, which instantly got his attention. “I dunno yet,” I told him with a salacious wink. “Care to work up an appetite?” He practically threw his laptop to the couch so as to clear his lap.
“Where have you been all my life?” he demanded as I straddled him with grin and kissed his forehead.
It was a buzzing on my wrist that aroused me from sleep, laying on his chest. Night had fallen and the little watch face was bright in my sleepy eyes so that it took me several seconds of blinking before I could focus on it. It still had 'canceled' across the bottom, but now there was an exclamation mark in a triangle on the screen that flickered back and forth with Alert. This was serious enough that it penetrated my selfish desire to enjoy my situation and ignore it longer. They had been emphatic that icon meant bad, bad things.
I touched the watch to acknowledge it, then carefully got out of Greg's bed and padded, first into the bathroom, then into living room and my discarded laptop. I looked out the picture window at the skyline of the city while I was waiting on the laptop to boot. I was surprised to see one of the sky scrappers was on fire, but there were other fires burning down town as well. “What the hell?” I muttered and instead of launching my email client I hit one of the news sites. There had been a bombing down town which had triggered riots. Several other major cities were experiencing unrest as well. But, no one seemed to know why.
“What's going on?”
I turned at the sound of Greg's voice, my original answer dying on my lips. “Is that a gun?” I asked.
He looked down at the thing in his hand, then did something to it that locked it open and split it into two pieces, one in each hand. “When I woke up, you were gone,” he explained rather than answering my question as he came out of the hall way into the living room, towards the window. He put the gun and what I presumed were it's bullets on the book case next to it. “I heard you out here, and thought you might be in trouble.”
“What would make you think that?” I demanded.
“Being a criminal defense lawyer,” he shot back.
“Touche,” I admitted. “The web says there was a bombing, and riots. Not just here, but some of the bigger cities too.”
He turned back to me, his eyes bright in the low light. “Why?” I shrugged and shook my head.
“I haven't found out yet.” I called up my email program as he looked out at the city. What I read chilled my blood. Major malfunction? Don't panic? Remain safe and Guides will come to extract anyone who is canceled?
“Are you alright?” I looked up to find him looking at me. “You're white as a sheet.” I forced a smile.
“I guess riots and I don't mix,” I tried to be flippant as I closed my laptop. He came over and hugged me and I'd be lying if I didn't admit those strong arms around me and the knowledge he had weapons and would come to my rescue made me feel better than any corporate damage control email.
“It's ok,” he assured me. “They're a ways off and there's a precinct between us and that smoke. You've never handled a gun before?”
“I haven't even seen one that wasn't on TV or in a movie,” I admitted. I looked up into his face and his amber eyes were concerned.
“Well, I know what we're doing tomorrow, then. I'm going to teach you how to shoot.”
“Oh, I don't...”
He gathered me into his arms and picked me up. His lips mashed against mine and the sheer force of it took my breath. “Yes, you will,” he ordered. “You mean far too much to me for me to risk harm to you. It's settled.” Then he carried me back to his bed and shut the door so the light from the fires couldn't be seen.
The next morning I found out what those trophies in his display case were for.
When we arrived at a somewhat rural field at the end of a road that was paved only in the euphemistic sense of the word that was evidently known as the Pine Mountain Gun Club and I discovered everyone there knew Greg. Some part of me whispered that these people might be dangerous, but not only was Greg evidently quite well liked, but not a soul had so much as an untoward look that I was with him as he introduced me around. Evidently, I have a fair number of assumptions to re-think.
It was here I found out that Greg shot competitively, which was what those trophies were for, and he had been quite modest about 'getting better.' He'd missed being the state champion last year by fourth tenths of a second. I had to sign in, then present ID to show who I was, then a series of legal waivers including a testament under penalty of perjury that I wasn't a felon or in any way barred from possessing a fire arm, as they were somewhat doggedly referred to.
Guns, I was playfully corrected, only applied to shot guns or naval ordinance as the joke went.
I don't know why it's supposed to be funny, I just smiled as they chuckled. Once that was out of the way, and I wasn't jumping every time I heard a gun shot, we drove to the other side of the club where the sounds were much more muted, and Greg unpacked the car with a number of cases and laid them out on a bench we had mostly to ourselves. There was another club member further down with his daughter and some kind of military looking rifle that was almost as big as she was, but she handled it like she knew what she was doing. I turned back to Greg and asked, “Machine guns?”
He just laughed and shook his head. “It's not a machine gun. Let's start you a little smaller though, and if you're game later on you can try it if you want.” He opened a case and produced another pistol, this one was smaller and older looking; ironically it looked like something some Nazi officer would carry that he was screwing some kind of extension onto. He saw me watching and indicated it. “This is a suppressor, what you've probably heard called a 'silencer'.”
“Aren't they illegal?”
“No, just taxed,” he elaborated. “This way, you won't need to wear hearing protection.” He indicated the old looking pistol. “This is a twenty two, so it's not going to kick or anything. So, let me walk you through the controls and the safety you need to keep in mind.”
The next forty minutes was a kind of a dry talk using a number of words he had to define; some made a kind of sense, like safety, some not. He was very patient with me, and I was grateful he had his hands over mine the first time I shot it so I didn't drop it when it jerked in my hand. It surprised me how quickly it moved in my hand, considering the bullets that were loaded into it were tiny. I was expecting that thwap sound they made in the movies, but it just made a metal on metal clack of the 'action' moving.
Once I got over my fear, it did get to be a kind of fun, kind of like those carnival games, but I struggled to remember all the safety things. That caused him to correct me sharply once or twice, but he always explained why, and the reasons were important. It was just a great deal to take in all at once. That he was so certain of himself gave me confidence in what he was teaching me. While, at the end of the day I was not going to be competition against him in any state championship anytime soon, I managed to hit the target mostly where I intended to.
I suppose I should also admit the little girl half my age was better at this than me.
After we got the guns all locked safely away, he took me to an early dinner at the restaurant that was a part of the club and it was interesting seeing him around people who were obviously his friends. Again I worried someone might say something about me being with him, but I was greeted with smiles and made to feel welcome.
The number of women there surprised me too.
They seemed to be from every age group, and while most seemed to be at least as well off as he was, I got the feeling some were closer to my income level. And, surprisingly enough, he introduced me to a silver haired matriarch who was practically regal even in a plaid out door kind of shirt and her hair in a bun. Greg greeted her as 'Your Honor.' “Gregory,” she greeted and I had to hide my snicker behind my napkin that she used his full name. “I am surprised to see you here considering your work load...?”
“Still hard at work, Your Honor,” he assured her. “I had the pleasure of making a new acquaintance and, considering the current unrest, I thought a day at the range would be useful.” She arched her eyebrow and turned a bit to look at me and I got the impression the gimlet eye of a Nun at a parochial school would have been easier to stare down.
Finally, the stare eased just a touch, as if she had decided I would be allowed to associate with her...what? What did she consider Greg? She extended her hand and I took it at once. “Helen Mathers,” she declared in the same tone of voice that she could have used to announce royalty.
“Alanna Byrne, your honor,” I replied and indicated the empty chair at our table. “Won't you join us?”
Greg stood at once and held the chair for her to sit down. “Perhaps for just a moment. I shouldn't like to keep Mr Mathers waiting too long. He might fall asleep and drown in his soup!” Greg got seated again, but I was still the focus of her attention and under a microscope. “And how do you know Gregory, Miss Byrne?”
“Oh, we both went to KSU though I think I'm a bit behind him, we met at...uh...well, it's a little pub right off campus that is favored by students.”
“I see,” she drawled like Sherlock Holmes just as he'd figured out the entire case. “And where are you in your studies of Anthropology, Miss Byrne?” I blinked, surprised for a moment, then remembered I'd decided to wear my AAA shirt out to the range.
“I'm a Masters Candidate, your honor, just finishing up my thesis.” She was greatly amused that I was an academic and turned back to Greg.
“As I foresaw, Gregory, your knight errant complex has come to fruition. My congratulations, Miss Byrne seems to be a fine princess you've rescued from the Ivory Tower!” Greg hid his embarrassment and humor well.
I honestly had never thought of myself as a princess.
“Thank you, your honor.” Catching my confused glance, he declared, “Justice Mathers sits on the State Supreme Court, I interned for her as Law Clerk before I took my current position.”
Justice Mathers rolled her eyes. “Yes, I'm still breaking in your replacement.”
I smiled at Greg. “I imagine finding someone to replace Greg is a tall order.” She looked at both of us and then stood.
“Well, I shan't keep you young people from your outing. I hope you have a very pleasant weekend. Gregory, I will expect your deposition on my desk first thing Tuesday.”
“Yes your honor, I'll be waiting for you.”
She smiled and patted him on the cheek. “Not too early, mind. Miss Byrne, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure was entirely mine, your honor.” I watched her head over to another table where an older man, who was still a bull of a fellow stood and held the chair for her.
Leaning forward, I teased him, “She likes you.”
“God Mothers are funny that way,” he told me with a wink. “My mom clerked for her too.”
Reluctantly, I said, “If...if I'm keeping you from finishing something...”
“Nonsense,” he declared. “We can work together, can't we?” I smiled at him as the salads of our order arrived and I swore to myself to let him get some sleep. It was a remarkably fun day and on the drive back, I realized I had a great many things to reconsider. Fortunately for me, as an Anthropologist, discovering new ways people interacted was the best part.
When we got back to his apartment, the news declared the building that had been on fire was out and engineers were assessing the damage. There had been some additional unrest and the Governor had sent additional police to assist the Mayor and promised the National Guard if things didn't calm down. Greg tucked in to his papers almost as soon as we got in, so I brewed some coffee for both of us, prepared it as I'd seen him do on his own, and brought it out to the coffee table for him.
The expression on his face as he saw what I'd done made me feel very warm as I sank down on my side and decided I had best figure out what was going on. I sent a reply email to the Don't Panic email, demanding further explanation, and CCed it to every contact I had with them. Still, it was the weekend, and a holiday weekend at that so I likely wouldn't get a response quickly. I then typed out a letter to my advisor, to let her know of the problem and that my thesis might be delayed.
That done, there was nothing else to do, but work on my thesis.
Have you ever been so deep into something you just tune out everything around you? I didn't notice Greg stand from his chair, nor come around behind me until he'd lifted my hair out of the way and kissed my neck. It didn't shock me, indeed, his touch was so welcome I felt a wave of relaxation and leaned back to reach over my shoulder and hug him as he necked me. Joints popped which was an indicator of just how long I'd been bunched up, scribbling frantically, writing paragraphs only to erase them and start over. “Mmmm, that's nice,” I murmured as I got my head around to kiss his ear.
“You know I have thoroughly ulterior motives,” he whispered in my ear and we both chuckled.
“The more ulterior the better,” I encouraged him.
He came over the couch, sliding in beside me without disturbing my piles of research, a feat in and of itself, and pulled me against him. “More than you know,” he replied, and he held his phone up where I could see it. It was a text message from a contact that was labeled 'Mom'.
Who is this girl Helen saw you with?
Well, that certainly poured a bit of ice water on my libido. “It would appear we've been ratted out, Counselor.”
“'Fraid so, babe.” He paused for the length of a bible, and then asked, “What do I tell her?” I laid my head back so I could look up into his face.
“What do you want to tell her?” I asked him softly. The smirk on his face bespoke him censoring himself, which I was beginning to pick up on.
“I asked you first,” he settled on.
“Oh, is that how it is?” I demanded with much put upon angst. “You want me to meet your parents, don't you? Three days after we met, you want to introduce me to your folks? As what, exactly, Greg?”
“How would you like me to introduce you to them?”
I blinked, a little stunned. “You do, don't you? You want me to meet your parents?”
He arched an eyebrow at me, a gesture I now realized he'd stolen right off the face of Justice Helen Mathers. “I thought I was pretty clear in the 'wanting to get used to this,' assertion yesterday morning.”
“You barely know me!” I protested.
Now he frowned. “Do I?” he countered softly. “I'll admit this romance of ours has been 'speedy' to put it mildly, but I actually hang on your every word, Lana. I know your taste in music and jewelry. I know your work ethic and your morals. I've seen you reassess your presuppositions, conquer your own fears and open yourself to points of view completely opposite of your own. I've see you be gracious, and considerate yet still be able to stand up for yourself when you needed to. What more do I need to learn about Alanna Byrne before I can be sure I want to learn everything about her?”
I opened my mouth to rebut, but then decided to consider the question more deeply and slowly closed it. I couldn't exactly hold it against him for being so sure he wanted a relationship with me seeing as I had been evaluating his marriage suitability within a few seconds of learning his name. Not only had I discovered all of my suppositions to be correct, I had discovered new things about him that stood him in good stead.
More to the point, I found I enjoyed just being around Greg. Our senses of humor were practically identical and the way we could banter kept a silly smile on my face. Yet we could just be together in the same room and I would feel safe and cared for, even as I battled my thesis and he was over there saving the world one trial at a time. He was considerate, thoughtful, educated and a full on stud in bed. Despite our genetic differences, I found him very handsome, tall, well built, your basic dream prince, right? He was all the things I wanted in a boyfriend/husband. And he hadn't been the only one learning things.
I'd learned at the Gun Club he was not only well connected, but that obviously influential people thought very highly of him. He was certainly used to getting his way and his love of arguing meant we'd probably have some fights as a couple, but then, what couple didn't? He seemed to have mastered his temper as nothing I'd seen so far seemed to phase him, but then I had to consider another truth. Gregory Walker wasn't asking me to marry him, he was asking if I wanted to meet his parents as his girl friend.
The question at hand was did I want to be his girlfriend?
What more did I need to know before answering that question myself? Obviously I would want to know him better before I consented to be his wife, assuming he ever asked me, but right now, even this early, he was as comfortable as an old, favorite pair of jeans. Everything I knew so far said Gregory Walker was prime boyfriend material and that I should be maneuvering him towards popping the question. Well, I told myself. You said you weren't adverse to the idea. Time to put your money where your mouth is. I took in a deep breath and said, “Do you think your parents would give you trouble by introducing a woman you just met three days ago as your girlfriend?”
“I doubt they'd ask, but as I lawyer, I specialize in being vague,” he told me with a smile.
“Your parents are also lawyers, so I imagine they specialize in spotting bullshit,” I warned him.
He just laughed and made a dismissive gesture. “Of course they do! They're parents! But, more to the point, they trust me. I only ask for your comfort.”
“Thank you,” I told him and I meant it. “So, sure, you can tell them we're a couple.”
“Your wish is my command,” he declared and started typing on the little screen on his phone. After a few minutes of comfortable silence, he asked, “Are you hungry? I could grill up those steaks...?”
“It's awfully late for steak,” I replied with a quick look at my watch. “What about...?” I was cut off by his phone beeping that it had received a new text. He looked at it, winced, and turned the screen to where I could see it.
Good! I look forward to meeting her!
I'll set an extra place for dinner tomorrow. What time can we expect you both?
I made a pillow of my arms on his stomach and rested my chin on it to look up at him. “How long have you been ticking off Murphy over his law, Counselor?” He arched his eyebrow and shook his head.
“I didn't do nothing, nobody saw me do anything, nobody can prove a thing! That's my story and I'm sticking to it!” he declared emphatically. “Two?”
I sighed. “Two.” My fate sealed, I laid my head down and listened to his heart beat under my ear. He put his phone on the coffee table, then laid one arm over my shoulders and the other was stroking my hair. Thunder pealed in the distance and rain began to fall which would probably help with things down town. I watched the rain come down and enjoyed feeling his hands on me.
I suppose I should have been uneasy, between the interpersonal stuff tomorrow and the stupid down town and those terrifying emails, I should have been running in circles in a blind panic. I wasn't though, and, to be honest, I'd never felt so safe. So I just watched it rain and listened to his heart beat.
Yeah, I could get used to this.
That night was the first time we slept together without having sex first.
It was...different, brushing my teeth next to him as he went through his own more normal nightly routine. Either due to or because of my interest in Anthropology, I had a more active imagination than most and it was very easy for me to pretend this might be what being married to him would be like. It was a comfortable familiarity as we got ready for bed, separately, but together. It was fun watching his muscles bulge under his skin as he brushed his own teeth and that was very sexy. This was the best light I'd seen him bare chested in and it was entrancing.
Oh, he wasn't a body builder, but he was fit and very strong.
I only just kept in a giggle of imagining me trying to wash clothes using his abs. My compliments to your personal trainer, Greg! I wasn't a slouch myself; being a big Irish farm girl you'd never call me petite, but I curved where a girl should, so I was confident I could look good in any bikini I had the courage to be seen in, but I wasn't as cut and defined as he was. That and, ironically, I was very Irish as you might guess and my complexion could best be described as 'vampiric' so unless I wanted to look like a lobster, fresh from the pot, I'm not exactly a sun bather. Which, as you might imagine, made for some interesting contrast in the mirror. He wasn't as dark as I was pale, but still, it was very striking.
We had slept naked, but tonight he pulled on a set of the pajama bottoms I'd seen him in before and I pulled on an oversize sleeping T Shirt that had Snoopy and Woodstock on it. Once I'd laid down, he adjusted the blanket so I had plenty then immediately drew me into his arms, spooning up behind me. “Sweet dreams, Lana,” he whispered as he turned out the light.
I kissed his arm that he had around me and whispered back, “Sweet dreams, Greg.”
As I lay there, in the dark, with his arms around me, I went over in my mind the last few days. Tina had been constantly sending little texts to my phone, demanding the salacious details and I had kept putting her off. Finally she'd asked if I was ok and to allay her fears I reminded her of a particular incident that only the two of us knew and assured her I was ok. At first, I hadn't wanted to call her because I was enjoying myself, but now...now it was private some how. Just me and my boyfriend, Greg, and that felt a little strange and new.
I'm not a whore, I told myself. I'm Greg's girlfriend.
That seemed to settle my conscience, so I closed my eyes and I was soon fast asleep.
The next morning I woke early, mostly from having had to work as a teaching assistant until the pressure of my thesis had become too great. Most of the classes I'd taught had been first AM ones and my biological clock was still set to rise early. A look at my watch told me it was too early to start making breakfast for him, but I was awake and there was no point in just lying there. With a sigh, I got myself out of his arms without waking him and padded to the bathroom.
I'm honestly surprised a guy would rent a place with such a great bathroom. Not only was there the double vanity we'd used last night, but the toilet was behind a little privacy door and bath was actually split between a huge garden tub and separate shower both of which could easily accommodate the two of us at the same time. There were even two shower nozzles in the separate shower room.
Once I'd finished in the bathroom, I pulled the bedroom door to, so I wouldn't wake him and headed to the kitchen. I got the feeling some mornings he had to rush as there was a normal coffee pot and one of those pod machines that brews one cup at time. That was handy as I didn't want the smell of a pot to wake him, or have him have to drink old coffee if I was successful in keeping him asleep until his normal rising time. It was still dark out the picture window, but even from here I could see the glow at the bottom of the skyline; more fires. What has gone wrong with this world?
I got out my laptop and called up the email program on the off chance I'd gotten some replies. I wasn't cold, and the coffee was hot, but some of what I read chilled my blood. The Don't Panic email had bounced and it was tough to work out through the gibberish, but it seemed to be saying the company website didn't exist. That spurred me to bring up a browser and when I tried to get to the page it told me LiveTheExperience.com was unknown. Not couldn't be found, not having difficulty, it was available and did I want to buy it? “This is not happening,” I whispered to calm myself. I still had the emails from before, from setting things up, confirmation of my choices, appointments, but now, nothing.
I took a few deep, calming breaths. Obviously, whatever malfunction they'd experienced, no pun intended, was worse than perhaps they'd thought. It wasn't as if I was in physical danger, how could I be? But, then, if that was true, why the directive to remain safe? Why would a Guide be needed? None of it made any sense. However, that was not the only bit of strange in my mailbox. I had a reply from Dr Carstairs, my advisor and what I read previously confused me, this was downright alarming.
I must say I am disappointed by this latest request for more time from you. I begin to question your commitment to this process and this career path you've chosen. The actions of some misguided idiots down town should not, in any way, interfere with a thesis as straight forward and well covered as yours. Tracing the origins of Western Civilization from the Iron Age is well documented, both in our library for primary sources, case studies and the Internet. If you cannot be prepared to submit your thesis Friday, as we agreed when I gave you your last extension, then I will have no choice but to recommend to the committee that you be dismissed from the Masters Program.
I should not have to remind you the jeopardy this will place me in as your advisor in addition to having taken your side with the committee, and arguing for your second chance. Do not let me down, Alanna.
You are capable of doing this. I still have every confidence your thesis can be strong enough to be accepted as written. I know your passion for this field, you just have to focus and not falter this close to the finish line!
I will expect your thesis, by the end of my office hours, Friday.
Focus and Get It Done.
John Carstairs, Ph.D.
Boas College of Anthropological Studies
I read it three times to be sure I wasn't miss reading it. Then I went to the KSU portal and the CV of all the professors of the Anthropology department. I read over the entry for Dr. Carstairs until I practically had it memorized, as if willing it to change would do so, before it hit me. I quickly called up the documents of my thesis, not what I'd started here at Greg's, but the existing documents on my laptop. I read it, more than a little stunned and began to try and think. How deep did this go?
I looked out at the glows of the fires in down town, still visible, despite the rain outside. What had I gotten myself into? I got up and opened the sliding door to his patio and stepped out to look at the skyline. Police sirens wailed in the distance, and the predawn air was a bit chill. I looked at the glow and everything seemed to crash down on me at once.
The first tear I thought was a drop of rain, but it was joined quickly by more and the next thing I knew I was sobbing uncontrollably. I leaned against the side of the building and cried, my mind going in crazy circles of panic. Why didn't I listen to Dr Carstairs? My mind screamed at me. What is going to happen now? Is this real? Am I trapped?
“Lana...?” I turned just as he reached out to hold me and I warred with myself whether I wanted to push him away or just sob. Sobbing won, and I bawled into his chest and I was ashamed for being so weak in front of him, but try as I might I couldn't stop crying. “What's wrong?” he exclaimed as he picked me up and carried me back inside to set me down on the couch. He put my coffee in my hands and I was only just able to choke down a sip to get warm as he closed the sliding door and came right back to comfort me. “What's happened, baby? What's going on?”
“Oh, God, Greg, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean for any...I...” I put the coffee down for fear of dropping it as my hands were shaking so badly. He pulled my head against him and just held me and maybe it makes me less of a person, but I could only cry and let him comfort me because it felt good to be held.
“It's alright,” he told me, over and over, gently stroking my hair. “I can tell my folks we'll met them another time, I didn't mean for you get so wound up over it, baby!” I worked an arm free and made a vague gesture at my laptop, which was still open. He leaned over, without releasing me, to be able to read the email and was immediately contrite. “Christ, Lana, if I knew you were so close, I... I had no idea you were having trouble! I...How can I help you? What do you need to get it finished?”
I tried desperately to get a handle on my emotions and looked up in his face. There was no trace of annoyance at being woken up by a weepy girl, there was only worry for me and resolve that whatever was in his power to do to help me, he would. That was it, that was the moment my heart broke and no matter what, I was going to grab at this and hold on tight. “You...” I managed around my tears, “you are amazing, Gregory Walker, God help me, I love you.”
He blinked and that smile spread across his face and melted what was left of my heart. “Oh my sweet little drama queen, I've wanted to hear you say that since I first saw you at Kreegan's.”
I cried and laughed at the same time; I don't recommend it, it's not fun. “I...I warned you Red Heads were trouble...!”
“Danger is my racket,” he assured me. Then he leaned down and kissed me, pushing all the worry and fear out of my mind, leaving only room for him. “What do you need from me? You need me to cancel with mom? I will.”
“Am I shooting myself in the foot if I say yes?” I asked him. He considered for a moment and I saw on his face that canceling was not the thing to do. You never get a second chance to make a first impression after all.
“How about I tell them we'll met them somewhere? So there's not so much pressure on you and we can keep things shorter? Then we'll come back here and I'll keep your nose to the grind stone until it's done?”
“But, Justice Mathers...?”
“Dropping off my deposition won't take long,” he promised me. “And I've got plenty of flex time I can use to work from home to help you.” I smiled weakly and nodded.
“Are you sure?”
He chuckled and kissed my forehead. “I've never been more certain of anything.”
I squeezed him as hard as I could and laughed, or as close to a laugh as I could manage in my present state. “I need a shower.”
I was surprised when we got into the shower that he didn't wet his hair, and actually seemed to be avoiding it. “You're not going to wash your hair?” I asked him when I got the water out of my eyes. I found his gaze somewhat intense and there wasn't much of his usual playfulness when he answered.
“I'm black, Lana. If I wash my hair more than twice a week it will get dried out and brittle.”
I reached for the shampoo I'd brought when I packed my bag, but he took the bottle from me and after I showed him how much to put in his hand began to wash my hair for me. If you've never had your hair washed by a lover, I highly recommend it. “Really?” I asked through a pleasant haze. Greg's hands are as strong as the rest of him is and the mix of gentle, but firm, was both relaxing and arousing in an odd way. “My hair would be a greasy mess if I didn't wash it at least every other day.”
That he found funny and chuckled. “The joys of genetics.” He guided my head under the water and gently coaxed the shampoo from my hair. “I can't get over how soft your hair is,” he said with another laugh.
“Only because of the amount of work I put into it,” I assured him as I got my conditioner and helped him run it through my mane. “I've been thinking of just chopping it off and getting something easier to manage...”
“No,” he ordered me. Then he cleared his throat and in a more diplomatic tone of voice added, “You look beautiful with long hair. It really suits you.” Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow at him as I got his body wash and shower poof to get wet.
“Why Mr. Walker, do you have a thing for long haired girls?”
He smirked at me and I knew I'd just discovered one of his fetishes. After the emotional roller coaster I'd been on, having him bare something so intimate to me really warmed my heart. Yes, I was aware he was hard, so wet nude girl was also a thing for him, but with what dignity he could muster, declared, “Miss Byrne, I'll have you know, as a red blooded American Male there are many aspects of the female form I find particularly attractive.”
I had his poof dripping with white foam all over both hands as I asked with a complete lack of innocence, “Is that so, Mr Walker?” I reached out and began to bathe him, and at the risk of falling into a stereotype, I did very much like the smell of his body wash and how it interacted with his own indescribably masculine scent. I pressed my wet body against his back and I soaped his arm and whispered in his ear. “Pray tell, what else do you find particularly attractive, Mr Walker?”
“You are a shameless tease,” he declared breathlessly. I wrapped my arms around him to wash his chest from behind.
“I am not a tease, sir!” I protested in his ear. “I have every intention of following through!” He grunted and tried to turn to face me, but I reached down and took a hold of him. I was careful not to hurt him, but I held him hard enough to have his full attention. “Stay still,” I commanded. “This is my time.”
He actually panted and my God that felt powerful. “You...your wish is my command...” I slid around him, lifting his member which felt like steel in my grip, then penned it to his body with mine. Now I was rubbing against it as I bathed him and staring into his face, I could see the need was wild in his eyes, but I had conquered that iron will of his and I knew he wouldn't move unless I gave him leave.
I guess, after all of this, I just needed to feel like I had control and this playful game I'd stumbled on let me feel that way. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit this was fun. Once I had cleaned every inch of him except his pride and joy, I slid down him to squat before him. I looked up at him, with his back against the shower wall and his arms splayed where I had left them as if he was holding back a dam that was about to burst.
Which, in a way, I suppose he was.
I made sure my hands were soapy, then began to clean him. A shiver ran up and down his body as I did so and his breath became coarse and in gasps. “Why, Mr Walker,” I murmured coquettishly. “Are you enjoying my bathing you?”
Dear Lord, did it get bigger? “I...didn't know...you...were a sadist...” he panted. I smiled as I gently kneaded his balls through his sack with both hands.
“You're the masochist,” I replied blithely. “I just aim to please.” I let my hands slide up his groin and up his shaft and another shiver ran up his spine. His fists clinched and his nostrils were flared while he screwed his eyes shut. I could feel how tightly he was clinching his abdomen, fighting against what I was doing. “Open your eyes!” I commanded and he obeyed, wild eyed. I squeezed him as tightly as I dared as I was playing with him, not trying to do him harm. “Give it to me!” I ordered and I let my hands fall into a rhythm up and down him.
His entire body shook before his manhood vibrated in my hands and a massive spurt of semen erupted from the head and splattered across my breasts. To my immense surprise it was actually hotter than the water cascading on us. He moaned, unable to look away and three more surges splattered on me as I pulled them from his body. His abdomen and thighs were trembling as I gently drew him through his orgasm. I rinsed the soap from his manhood and completely caught up in the moment, I leaned forward to finish cleaning him with my mouth.
He moaned and shook again and a pungent, salty fluid leaked from him and coated my tongue. I was honestly surprised he had anything left, considering the warm mess covering my breasts. The flavor of his seed in my mouth did something to me; it was as if I was becoming addicted to him, bonded in a way that was heretofore alien to me and my world view. I swallowed it as though to lay claim to this feeling, owning it and making it my own.
His hands took a hold of my head, bringing my awareness back to the world so I could see he was shaking almost uncontrollably while gasping for air. Gently, but firmly, he pulled me off of him then helped me to my feet. I looked up into his face looking down at me the way a starving man eyes food. He was past wanting me; it was clear on his face. He had to have me, to possess me, to own me. There aren't words for the feeling that bloomed in my heart and spread throughout my body at that realization, but I can only say it felt good. And that is a completely inadequate description. “I told you I love you,” I whispered. “Now, you believe it.”
“Yes,” he managed after trying to catch his breath. “Yes, I do.”
I guess I has awoken his competitive nature by what I'd done because once he'd bathed me, and we were both dry, he felt the need to return the favor I'd paid him. I was carried back into his bed laid down and, for lack of a better word, consumed.
The sun was well up by the time he'd finished with me and left me in such a state that I probably could have used another shower to be honest. My hair was a wild mess from my thrashing about on the bed and the only way I could tame it was to get it into a french braid. Considering our exertions, we had a lite breakfast then he called his mother and they talked for a about a half hour as the plans were changed. They settled on that Brunch place at the Mall where he had taken me for our first date together.
I tried not to listen in, even though he made a point of having the call in the living room in front of me. I had my laptop open again and was trying to consider what I would do. Things had changed decidedly and I was at a loss of how to proceed. Guides will come, I thought to myself. But there's no telling how long that will take. I looked up at him and decided I had to consider myself stranded, which meant, my first order of business was my own survival. Looking around the apartment I decided I could definitely survive here.
That changed a great deal of how I dealt with this, so I put the bits I had been working on here in a separate folder, then pulled up all of the rest of my thesis that was already on the laptop to get an idea as to where I was on it. Thank God, it seemed mostly complete. It would obviously need a heavy edit pass, the bibliographies would need to be double checked and I'd have to go over all of the citations and foot notes to be sure of them, but that was work I could definitely accomplish by Friday.
I can do this, I assured myself. Jane Goodall lived with a chimpanzee troop for years, I can do this. So, as promised, I put my nose to the grind stone until noon, when it was time to begin getting ready to meet his parents. I saved my work, then saved it again to a thumb drive because if you'd ever lost a month's worth of research you'd be paranoid too. Then I got out the cosmetics I'd brought with me and dove around YouTube for a good 'casual, but well put together look' makeup tutorial that would fit my skin tone. Fortunately, there was a red head I had book marked whose complexion was almost identical to mine who did such videos and I carefully followed her as I got my face 'made'.
Oh, I was no movie star at the end of it, but I was fresh faced, youthful and professional all at once if I do say so myself. Fortunately, I'd brought a couple of more dressy kinds of clothes in case he'd wanted to go somewhere more dressed than jeans. He'd settled on a set of classic twill dockers but with a crease so sharply pressed into them you could cut a diamond with it. To this he'd added a polo that was one of those hard define colors that I decided to call 'charcoal' and a navy sport coat over it.
I decided to follow his 'business casual' look with a high waist A-line skirt that fell just to my knee that was actually quite close in color to his shirt with a white three quarter sleeved blouse and pair of black wedge heels that brought us only an inch or so apart in height. When he saw me finished and dressed, he grinned and shook his head. “I will be the envy of every man who sees me today,” he declared.
I caressed his cheek, but didn't kiss him for fear of damaging my look. “You say the sweetest things, Counselor. Don't stop on my account.”
“I didn't know what I did to deserve meeting you, but I will definitely thank God for it.”
I turned a slow pirouette. “Will your mother approve?”
He gathered me into his arms and just beamed at me. “My darling, you could not be more of a proper lady. I am certain she'll adore you as much as I do.”
“Oh, that will be awkward, what will your father say?” He gave me a gimlet eye, but he was grinning from ear to ear even as he wagged a finger at me. “You sure I look alright? I could change...”
“Don't gild the lily,” he told me earnestly. “You are perfect as is. Come on, I can't wait to introduce you.”
I took his arm and he led me out to his car and my heart was beating like a trip hammer the whole way. Three days ago I was getting picked up at a college bar for a well deserved break and bit of casual tom catting. Today I was meeting my prospective in laws. What a long, strange weekend it has been.
Garibaldi's was very much a European kind of place and the space in the Mall it occupied had been heavily re-worked to look like something that came out of an idealized south central Europe. The theme of the cafe was of the kind of village eateries that the Continent was famous for. The walls were white plaster with what looked like oak beams. The ceiling was low, not so low you actually had to stoop, but you felt like you almost needed to. There was a fireplace in the center of the room that was burning merrily while the walls were covered in black and white photographs and turn of the last century cooking pans.
The cafe's owner had grown up in a picture post card town called Lavachey where the boarders of Italy, France and Switzerland met, so both the decor and the menu were a bit muddled with flavors from all three countries. Not that I minded in the least; French pastry, Italian coffee and Swiss chocolate? What's not to like?
I discovered their hot chocolate was to die for.
Greg's parents were easy to spot, nestled in a corner table away from the door and they both stood as we approached. “Mom,” he greeted with a hug, then a one armed hug for his father. “Dad, it's great to see you.” He turned and indicated me. “May I introduce my friend, Alanna Byrne?”
“Mister Walker,” I greeted as he took my hand. He had big, strong hands like his son. They were roughly the same height, though he probably had about fifty pounds or so on his son, the product of late middle age success that he carried well. He was either bald, or shaved his head as it was perfectly smooth, but he had a full, bushy salt and pepper beard that, along with the Cliff Huxtable sweater and Chinos gave him a very august air of casual authority.
“Mrs Walker,” I said as I turned to his wife, my boyfriend's mother. She obviously took care of her self and was still a very trim, lovely woman. Her cafe au late complexion was noticeably lighter than her husband which made Greg's milk chocolate almost a perfect median between them. She had blue eyes, which were very bright out of lovely face with Greg's cheek bones. Her hair was a dark brown she wore relaxed, or perhaps it hung this way about her shoulders naturally. She was dressed in a gray silk skirt suit that was very fashionable which as it was actually above her knee and showed off her legs. “It's a pleasure to meet you both.”
“It's just Vivian, my dear,” she informed me as she gracefully side stepped my offered hand and hugged me. She was about three inches shorter than me, even in the heels she was wearing so she was quite a petite beauty, though something about her eyes made me think she was capable of being quite a fire brand. “Please, sit down and join us.” Her husband held her chair as Greg held mine for me and it was instantly transparent what good parents they must have been. “I hope my son doesn't have you too terrified of us?”
I smiled and took a sip of my water glass to give me time to set up an answer. “Greg has nothing but good things to say about you both,” I assured her. “Besides, getting to enjoy being around a well mannered gentleman like him tells me he was very fortunate to be blessed with excellent parents.”
Mr Walker almost laughed, but was able to quickly hide it with a cough and a quick sip of water himself. “You're very kind to say so,” Mrs Walker replied, with a sidelong glance at her husband. “Though I have to wonder if I did raise him as well as you compliment as you are a complete mystery, my dear.”
“We've both been very busy,” I assured her. “I'm in the final stretch of my master's thesis.”
“Congratulations,” Mr. Walker declared. “What is your field of study, Miss Byrne?”
“I'm a Cultural Anthropologist with a specialization in Archaeology,” I replied with what I hoped was a good smile. “Or, at least I will be if I can get my thesis accepted and pass my defense of it.”
“That must be fascinating,” he replied. “I must admit to being bit by the history bug myself, though my life's work has been locking up my wife's clients.”
“Herbert,” Vivian scolded her husband.
“It's true,” he chuckled and with the look he gave his wife, I had no trouble at all believing his next statement. “I enjoyed arguing with her so much I had to marry her to keep doing it in my spare time!”
“I see where Greg gets his love of debate,” I couldn't help but note and both Greg and his father chuckled. I think I was beginning to win over Mr. Walker, though the jury was still out on his mother. He reached over and took a hold of his son's shoulder and beamed with pride.
“I don't say it enough, but it bares repeating how proud I am of my son.”
Greg grinned sheepishly and hung his head. “Dad...”
“Alright, I won't embarrass you,” he laughed. He picked up his menu and gestured for us to join him. “Please, order whatever you'd like, it's our treat.”
“Dad, I invited...” Greg started, but his father brushed aside his complaint.
“The prosecution has rested, my boy,” he declared with great weight. “Better luck next time.” I hid behind my menu a bit and tried to find something that would be inexpensive enough so I wasn't taking advantage of their generosity, but cost enough so they wouldn't be offended.
As I did so watching them proved rather illuminating. It became apparent I'd passed whatever bar Mr. Walker had set, but Greg's mom wasn't convinced. They were a lovely couple, obviously very much in love with each other and their son.
So we ordered and ate, and had a barbed conversation of crossed swords the whole meal painted over with a fig leaf of geniality. I think that Vivian knew exactly how enamored of me her son had become, and the fact that she was just learning of me, and precious little of that had triggered her maternal protectiveness of her son. Greg and his father, for the most part, were just having a conversation of the 'catching up with family since I saw you last' type while Vivian took every opportunity to toss a barb my way.
Greg was nervous, but so far, I'd had enough grace under fire to keep her opinion of me guarded rather than outright hostile. The conversation was not entirely without merit, I learned that Greg had a younger sister who was away at university out of state. As the way they talked around her suggested she might be something of a 'free spirit' to employ a polite cover phrase and they were concerned about her. My anthropological studies stood me in good stead to be able to read between those lines and I think I can't be sure, but I think that perhaps this sister had a thing for white men and part of Vivian's alarm was that I might be a sign of her son doing the same.
Let's just say I have a thing for red heads, my mind recalled he had told me and I realized her concerns were not in fact baseless. Which begged the question how many other women had run this gauntlet? Did she have reservations about me because her daughter was too 'loose' in her opinion? Or was this a racial thing because evidently both of her children leaned to interracial choices for their sex partners? I didn't think that was the answer because she was still being pleasant, if guarded.
I had just about decided that she was more irked with her son 'springing' a girlfriend on her when he was obviously pretty wrapped up in this stranger from her point of view. Then, towards the end of our meal, she declared, “Well, I think I'll need to freshen up before we leave, Herbert. You boys excuse us.” Then she speared me with a glance that brooked no argument on my part.
Plucking my napkin from my lap, I dabbed at my lips and stood. “Certainly,” I said as a band aid of geniality over the command. Then I was led to the ladies room with all the finality of a march to the gallows. Once we arrived, she noted there were only two stalls, made sure they were empty, then turned on me, her face set.
“Exactly how long have you known my son, Miss Byrne?” she demanded without ceremony. My next words would be crucial and I was smart enough to realize it. So I licked my lips and chose my words with great care.
“Mrs Walker, Greg and I bumped into Judge Mathers on our third date,” I told her slowly. “I had never even seen a gun and with the unrest, he wanted to teach me how to shoot, so he took me to the gun club he's a member of and we had dinner there after.”
That mollified her a bit. “So, you two aren't really a couple?”
“I like to think that we are,” I replied. “Greg wasn't hiding me from you, we just haven't been dating very long.”
“That's not the impression I got from Judge Mathers,” she declared, daring me to deny it.
I sighed and nodded. “I think she picked up on the fact that I'm very taken with Greg, or maybe it was the other way around or both. I can't say as I don't know what she told you. I just know that I want a relationship with him and I am enjoying our time together.”
Her blue eyes narrowed. “My son is not a scratch for your itch of jungle fever...”
“Excuse me,” I declared, far more forcefully than I'd intended. “Your son introduced himself to me, picked me, not the other way around, and the differences of our genetics has no bearing on my attraction to him. I don't care what color his skin is, I love Greg for being Greg!” Her eyes went wide and for a split second I was afraid I'd misspoken.
After a long moment, in a whisper she demanded, “Love?”
I took a deep breath and decided to be completely honest. “Love,” I declared. “Mrs Walker, your son is the most wonderful, caring, compassionate man I've ever met. He is the only man I've ever even thought about being married to. He is an amazing human being! I understand your protectiveness of your son, I do. Your son is not a fling or a fetish to me. Maybe I needed to say these things out loud to you to realize it for myself, but I am coming to understand I may have found my soul mate.”
“Those are strong words, Miss Byrne,” she told me.
“These are strong feelings, Mrs Walker,” I assured her. After a long moment, she nodded and gave a little smile that was kind of an apology that didn't really reach her eyes.
“Alright, Alanna,” she said, using my Christian Name for the first time. “I am willing to see how things go and give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Thank you, Mrs Walker.”
“Vivian,” she said, then raised a finger. “Someday, that might even change to 'mom'.” Her face went stern and she stepped into my personal space. This was quite intimidating, despite my being taller and likely weighing more than she did. “In the meantime, Alanna, I will give you this warning. I will take at face value everything you have said to me today. I promise to you I will weigh all of the facts as we come to know each other and I will judge you fairly. Make no mistake, I will judge you. If for a moment, I get so much as a wiff you're some kind of gold digger coming after my son I use every trick I have learned in this trade, every favor owed and every string I can pull to make your life living hell. I will make you wish you were never born. Do we understand each other?”
“I will take good care of him,” I declared. “I promise.”
She squared her shoulders, then took a step back with her hands clasped together at her waist. “So, now you know what kind of a bitch I can be. I hope you won't ever see that side of me again and we can both concentrate on becoming if not friends, friendly. I love my son, Alanna.”
I smiled and nodded. “I can see that, Mrs Walker. I understand where you're coming from, I wouldn't have it any other way. Because I love him, too.”
“I want to like you,” she admitted as though that surprised her. “I pray you never give me a reason not to.”
“No ma'am.” She nodded, as if she had satisfactorily finished some item on her to do list, then shocked me by sweeping me into another hug and this one seemed far more genuine.
With a smile she actually meant, she said, “Relax girl, the dragon is back in her cage. Like I said, I want to like you, you seem like a fine young woman. If you're worried about my opinion of you, show me you can finish what you start; get your thesis finished.”
I nodded and she smiled again, released me and turned towards the sink and began to wash her hands. “Well, I think we've left the boys alone long enough...?”
I pointed to a stall with a sheepish grin. “I'll be right along.”
Even after I had answered the call of nature I sat in the stall shaking a bit, trying to get control of myself after the grilling I'd just received. I had a feeling Vivian was made of much sterner stuff than her slight stature would imply and I have to say, being proven right is seldom an enjoyable experience. I had absolutely no doubt she would be as good as her word and was quite capable of destroying my life, which had me sitting there, reassessing my life choices that led me here. I had no idea the changes that would be inflicted on me by doing this, how my feelings would be swayed and I danced on the edge of an emotional cliff. Desperately wanting to have my happy ever after with Greg and terrified my selfish desires could have dire consequences.
The things you risk in the pursuit of science.
Finally, I had myself under control, the toilet flushed and my hands washed. Ready, I thought, to finish this emotionally charged brunch and there's a phrase I never thought I'd ever use! As I pulled on the restroom door to open it, there was a loud, echoing pop that after what seemed like a lifetime my brain processed to being the same sound I'd heard at the Gun Club. Then came two more in rapid succession and with it the awful realization I was hearing gun shots.
Someone is shooting!
My brain caught up, right as the patrons of the restaurant also realized they were in the middle of a shooting. There came a collected scream, a kind of cacophonous noise of words, names and cries of alarm that blended into the unholy sound a panic makes. More gun shots rang out and the screech of tables and chairs being shoved aside filled the air with the thunder of footsteps and glass breaking.
I got the door open and stepped out, just as a human wave of patrons fleeing for their lives was forced down the narrow hallway the bathrooms were on. Trying to fight a panicked stampede is asking to be killed, so I didn't resist being swept up in the press of bodies, through a fire door at the end of the hallway. Now the fire alarm klaxon was added to the din as we ran down a long, featureless service hall towards a set of steel doors marked Exit.
We burst out in the open air of the parking lot and I was able to get over to one side, out of the stream of panic and into a copse of little bushes and decorative trees that were hiding some kind of utility service box. Panting after my breath, I looked about, trying to figure out where the shots had come from. This was the parking lot that Greg's and I presumed his parents car was parked in, so I had just made up my mind to go to it, when someone grabbed my wrist and pulled, hard.
With a squeal, I was yanked around to come face to face with a blocky, square faced man with most forgettable features I'd ever seen. Honestly, I don't think I could describe him now, there was a kind of aura about him, not invisibility. Rather and kind of 'don't care' or 'someone else's problem' feeling that just didn't let you remember his face. “Let go!” I yelled, which brought his other hand up to cover my mouth.
The icy fear of rape stabbed through my heart just as he hoarsely whispered, “Byrne, I'm your Guide!”
My heart was threatening to explode from my chest as I wrenched my hand free from him and took a fearful step back. “Prove it!” I shouted, causing him to hold up an ID card in a plastic holder on a lanyard around his neck that had the correct logos and matched what I remembered at the facility.
“I know who you are,” he assured me. The burden of Atlas rolled off my shoulders.
“For the love of God, what is going on?” I hissed at him. “Why haven't you people woken me up or whatever...?”
He seemed confused. “Woke...?” Then the confusion turned to anger. “Did you not read the damn manual? Does anybody ever read the fucking manual?!”
“This isn't some kind of computer simulation?” I asked him and he just rolled his eyes. From a bag at his side, that was actually a plastic shopping bag from one of the electronics boutiques in the mall he produced a new smartwatch and an odd device.
“You idiots are all alike,” he growled. “I swear I don't know...”
Something wet spattered across my face and he staggered into me, but he was too heavy for me to support. I fell backwards and he came down on top of me. There was a look of shock on his face and he was working his mouth like he was trying to talk, but only blood was coming out. I pushed at him to roll him off me and suddenly I realized there was a jagged hole in his throat.
And I was covered in his blood.
I can't say I'm proud of what happened next, but I couldn't help it; I screamed in a blind panic. It was, ironically, that scream that saved my life. Because as I got him off me, behind him, I saw a wild eyed lunatic was standing over us.
Have you ever seen someone who is truly insane? Not depressed, not mentally deficient, I mean insane? There is a horrifying blankness to their stare at you, like they cannot see you, nor understand whatever it is they think they are seeing. He was babbling incoherently, something about letting the monsters out of their shells, I think, then I noticed he had a gun in his hand that he was raising up to point at me. His head cocked to one side and he said, utterly and terrifyingly clearly, “I'll let the evil out of you.” Then the muzzle of that pistol was the only thing I could see and it seemed like a cavern you could drive a car through.
I jumped as I heard three shots in rapid succession and the maniac lurched, struck by some invisible fist, first on his right shoulder, that pulled the pistol up and away from me. Then he was struck in the left shoulder, just as his head was snapped backward. His legs locked and the inertia of the blow carried him back until he fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
It was my scream that had saved my life. That Greg had recognized as my voice and come running. The bullets that had saved my life had come from the gun of the man who picked me up a few days earlier. Of course, I didn't realize it then, but looking back on it, it's very, very comforting to have your life saved by the man you love.
Then there was Greg's face in my eyes, and his pistol was in his hands. His mouth was moving, but he seemed so far away, that I couldn't hear him. He moved the pistol to his other hand so he could take me by the shoulder and shake me until time seemed to start moving again. “Lana!” he shouted as he hauled me to my feet. “Are you shot? Are you hit?”
It took everything I had to shake my head no, then he spun back to the man he'd shot. He and his father, both with guns out advanced enough to kick the gun from the crazy man's hands, but I noticed the crazy man wasn't moving. I turned and looked at the Guide.
His face, covered in blood, was slack and his eyes stared up into the sky, wide and unseeing and for the first time in my life I saw a dead human first hand. My hands began to shake and it was too much for me. I vomited up the wonderful breakfast I'd just had as I tried to cry and vomit and scream all that the same time.
I remember Greg holding me, ruining his clothes from the blood I was covered in without a care about them, just holding and consoling me. After a lifetime, the Police and paramedics came, but it didn't matter. The gunman and the Guide were both dead.
The gunman, I would learn was a homeless man who had a fit in fast food place half a mile away. They'd called for the police to come and take him away for a mental health hold, when he'd gone berserk and gotten the gun from the first officer on the scene and shot him twice in the head. That accomplished, he took the spare magazines from the dead policeman and whatever voices in his head he heard drove him here to just start shooting people randomly.
The Police had come as fast as they could, of course but there were still twenty odd people shot and eight were dead.
They were going to arrest Greg, standard procedure I'm told, but his father being a senior Assistant District Attorney assured them it was completely self defense. The numerous witnesses also took Greg's side as well, and the captain of the police once he'd arrived, with Mr. Walkers assurance that his son wasn't a flight risk, released Greg on his own recognizance.
The paramedics checked me, but the bullet that had blown a hole in the Guide's throat had missed me and, except for a burned esophagus from the vomiting, I was fine. Physically, anyway. Mentally, I was a wreck, sitting on the bumper of an ambulance in a ruined dress, covered in another man's blood. Sally, the paramedic immediately helped me clean the blood off my face and gave me antibacterial sanitizer to rub over my skin. “Do you know whose blood this is?” she asked and I nodded, pointing at the guide's body that was being loaded onto a stretcher to be taken to the morgue.
“I need a blood pathogen sample from him!” she yelled at the crime scene techs and one waved an acknowledgment. Turning back to me, she smiled and rubbed my arms, “Sweet heart, you need to go to the hospital.”
“Why?” I mumbled, but Sally just nodded.
“You're going to need a Hep B vaccine booster and they'll need to draw blood for tests. If he was infected with something...”
“I've got it,” I nodded. “Can Greg take me?”
“No sweetie, that dress is contaminated. We'll take you, can your man get you a change of clothes?”
“Yes, I can,” Greg assured her and me. “Where are you taking her?”
“University Hospital,” she told him. Greg squeezed my arm in encouragement.
“You'll be alright for a bit, my love?”
I smiled at him and forced a nod. “I didn't think I'd hear it this way, but it's nice,” I said with a giggle I tried, and probably failed, to keep from sounding hysterical. He squeezed my shoulder and stood.
“I'll be back in just a minute,” he promised.
“I'll need the jacket and the shirt,” the tech told him. “Any blood get on your skin, sir?”
Greg stripped out of the jacket and shirt to stand, bare chested and gave the clothes to the tech. “I don't think so.”
“You're fine,” the tech told him.
Sally leaned over to me and whispered, “Does he have a brother?” We shared a giggle and I shrugged my shoulders.
“He's got a sister if you swing that way?” I replied and she just smiled and shook her head. I watched Greg leave, smiling and waving after me then sighed and turned back to Sally as the police captain was walking up. “So, what now?” I asked. The captain reached out, with a bag in his hand.
To Sally, he said, “You're clear to transport her now,” then he turned back to me. “I'm sorry you had to go through all of this, “Miss Byrne. I've got your bag, here, we won't need it as evidence.” I realized he was handing me the bag the Guide had and I took it as calmly as I could.
“Thank you, Captain.” Then Sally ushered me into the ambulance and we were on our way.
Does anybody ever read the fucking manual?!
As I sat on a gurney bed in the ER, wearing the gown they'd supplied me with after they took my clothes, that exasperated cry from the dead Guide echoed over and over in my mind. I came to realize I didn't have the first real clue as what I had been experiencing, or how much danger I had put myself in. What I had taken as completely harmless fantasy and perhaps something I could do uniquely for my Masters was not the bill of goods I'd been sold. While parts of it had been wonderful beyond my wildest dreams this was definitely not what I'd contracted for.
Sadly, I must admit, I have really no idea what I had contracted for.
So here I was, trapped in...what? I had no idea, really. What I had taken as a computer driven fantasy was now very, very real to me. Perhaps too real for the Guide. Was he dead? Had he returned to whatever I thought of as reality? Somehow, I really doubted it. So, on the advice of a dead man, I got out my phone and its email client and opened up the PDF file that had come with my acceptance letter to The Experience.
It was time to read the fucking manual.
Among the many wonders of our modern age, I read, perhaps the greatest was The Experience. The Experience is probably the single greatest leap in entertainment technology ever made. Bursting onto the scene a few years ago, it offered the ultimate escape; a combination interactive narrative and vacation venue where everything was tailored to the users desires. Now you could take a vacation from being yourself. There were the usual kinds of power fantasies on offer, Action Hero, ladies man, being President or Famous, but that wasn't the limit of what The Experience was. Did you want to take a perfect vacation? No crowds, no rain, it didn't matter what you wanted, it could be perfected, right down to the twinkle in the eye of whoever caught yours.
Most interesting was the more radical departures on offer. Don't care for the Current Year? Would you like to go back in time? Did you want to not be yourself at all? Are you old? Would you like to be young again? If you're a woman, would you like to find out what it's like to be a man? If you're a man, would you like to find out what it's like to be a woman? You could literally be anyone, all it took was you to imagine it, and The Experience could make it real.
Of course, the company had always been a little vague on how it actually worked, but the rave reviews and the enthusiastic testimonials were all over the net. Indeed, statistically there should have been someone just trolling and giving a one star review because they didn't get what they thought should have been the correct number of danishes on the Continental breakfast by now. You would think someone would be upset, but you'd be wrong. Not on any of the Company's advertisement spaces, nor on any independent forums; at least none I could find, did anyone have anything bad to say about The Experience.
With glowing praise like that, you wouldn't be out of place to think that there would be long waiting lists for time on however they accomplished this little miracle, and even there you would be mistaken. When I inquired about a somewhat lengthy block of time, I was assured all my needs could be met.
I had done my research, I was a researcher, after all; or so I had thought. They had assured me long stretches of immersion would not be a problem, and that everything I would see and feel and touch would be absolutely real. Of course I had wanted to test this thing and be sure it was everything they claimed, but I'm a grad student and I'm not made out of money. Still, when Dr Carstairs had rejected my original proposal for my thesis, when she had told me that tracing the origin of Western Civilization was old and trite, she had urged me to do something original. So decided that I would become a part of my thesis, study through living and contribute first hand accounts of what I would live through.
I'd put in my outline for my thesis with my advisor, to become a new Jane Goodall, not in the wilds of Gombe Park, but in the Urban Jungle of the early Twenty First Century. It was, admittedly, an over the top idea, not to mention giving a first hand account rather went against the concept of a research masters thesis. Regardless, to my immense shock, she had approved it, but she had cautioned me about how difficult getting such a thesis past the committee would be. I should have heeded her warnings.
But, as certain as only a Grad Student can be in my own genius, I then had a lengthy and embarrassingly personal conversation with one of their 'guides' as they were called so that what I was looking for was fine tuned. I'd spend a month in the early twenty first century to get used to things; to understand how we had survived this pivotal turning point in our history. I had just assumed what I would experience would be a simulation, a hyper realistic electronic MMO with my body laying on some kind of connection bed, being fed intravenously while my mind was living in the past, or as close as could be achieved with modern technology.
Except, that wasn't how it worked at all.
Theoretical Physics are about as far from my field of specialization as you could go and remain in the Ivory Tower, but I did pass my science classes. I'll admit I had trouble following even the dumb-ed down version of the explanation, which was buried under a reminder of the Iron Clad Non-Disclosure Agreement we had to sign to take part in The Experience. If I understood it right, there were an infinite number of alternate realities that exist in and around our own. Anything you could imagine, and nightmares you'd much rather forget, all existed somewhere, along side us on some kind of different frequency than what we could perceive.
Or what we could before The Experience.
It turns out, all those questions I'd been asked had been used to navigate to this reality I was in now. A reality where I was still an ABT Anthropology Major, but instead of frumpy, ugly me, I was a curvy red head in her middle twenties who lived in the early Twenty First Century. Not a beauty beyond the lot of mortals me, but the me I always saw in my mind's eye, young and attractive, the kind of beauty, that could be dolled up or dressed down with equal aplomb. Idealized me in an idealized era that held my interest. When I had woken up here, I wasn't in a computer, I was in a completely different reality. The watch I'd been wearing was the tether between me and the me that had come to The Experience to contract for being sent here.
It was my only way back.
And when whatever malfunction occurred that lost it's sync my 'home reality' so badly it marked itself Canceled because that line had been cut. This wasn't my daydream anymore, though it would continue with those basic premises. But it was also a universe set in the early Twenty First Century, one of the most violent and turbulent epochs in our history. An age that we still didn't exactly understand how we survived and it would continue down that path, but to where was now anyone's guess. To the best of my knowledge, I was stuck here, now in this situation which was now my situation, my reality.
I wasn't Jane Goodall any more. The wilds I was in was not a park that could be left; it was all there was. There was no England to return to. I was as castaway as Robinson Caruso, adrift in a sea of possibility and probability.
I don't think anyone could blame me for hanging my head and giving in to my emotions and having a good cry. I don't know how long I cried, before I heard the ER Doctor's voice clearing his throat. “Miss Byrne?”
I couldn't tell you why I tried to cover up that I'd been crying. Maybe it's just a part of society that we strive to not burden others with our emotional out bursts. Ten thousand years of stumbling from barbarism to civilization one suppressed emotion at a time. In any event I wiped at the mess my face was in, from being cleaned from blood spatter, make up and running tears, and tried to pretend I was in high spirits. “Yes, doctor?”
The curtain parted and he came in, harried, a little raccoon eyed from lack of sleep, but a decent looking guy. A full nights sleep, shower and shave would likely allow him to shine up like a new penny. “I can't imagine what you've been through, though the trauma is plain. If you'd like, I'd be happy to have someone from our...to have a therapist come and speak with you.”
I shook my head and sniffed, trying to clear my sinuses. “I'm fine,” I lied. “Really. Is Greg here? Can I go?”
He smiled and the way it sat on his face told me he knew I was lying to him and he chose to let it pass without comment. “Greg is your...?”
“Um, Significant Other right now,” I admitted. “He's bringing me a change of clothes. Greg Walker is his name.”
He made a note on the clip board. “I'll be sure to let security know to allow him entry. I have some good news, we've finished the tests on the blood samples you gave, and the test samples we had from...the source of the possible infection. We found it all negative, no STIs, no Hepatitis, no TB, so you can breathe a sigh of relief.”
“That is good news,” I admitted.
“I'll want you to follow up with your regular doctor next week some time, to double check just for safety.” I nodded. “Forgive me, I have to ask some personal questions; are you sexually active right now?”
“Um, yes,” I replied guardedly.
“When was your last period?”
“I...” I started and trailed off. “I'm not sure,” I hedged. He looked at me over the clipboard. It was a hard look, the look of someone who wanted to disapprove, but was being professional not to. Finally his eyes returned to the clipboard to continue his questions.
“And what are you using for birth control?”
To say that this line of questions was making me uncomfortable was an understatement of monumental proportions. “Why is this relevant?”
He looked up again from the clip board and gave a sheepish smile. “I'm sorry, believe it or not, there are laws that govern this. I have to ask.”
“I...see,” I mumbled. “Um, I, well, I'm not using any kind of birth control right now.” He didn't say anything, he just noted on the paper, but I could feel the disapproval radiating off him. He went over to a cabinet and opened it, removing an odd plastic tray that vaguely looked like a pilgrim hat and bottle.
“I'm sorry, we'll need a urine sample.” He handed them to me and indicated behind him. “You know where the rest room is?” I nodded. “Great. Just put your name and date of birth on the jar and leave it in the little door.”
“Alright.” With as much dignity as one can muster in a hospital gown, I shuffled down the ER bays to the rest room. Finally having a little more privacy, I locked the door and opened up the Guide's bag. Inside were five smartwatches like mine, the strange device he'd started to get out when he'd been shot. Did this program the bracelets? Why were there four others? Was I not the only person he was supposed to retrieve?
I took the strange device from the bag and turned it over in my hands. It looked like a small tablet or computer, with a display, but there a couple of mechanical controls on the side. Maybe this thing was going to program my band to get me back, or maybe it took the carrier back, or, honestly I had no idea. I put it back in the bag and took care of the reason I'd come here, placing the sample into the tray behind the little silver door and went back to my gurney. I had no idea how to operate the thing, and if this 'experience' had taught me anything it was not to mess with things I didn't fully understand.
If they sent one Guide, they would send another when I didn't get back, right? When the dead Guide missed his check in or something. I just had to wait. But those four other watches gnawed at my conscience like a dog worrying a bone. Sure I had caught the eye of a handsome young lawyer, waiting for me would be easy. What about these other four?
Did I even have some way of finding out who they were?
I sat on the gurney, my thoughts in a spin as I tried to decide some way that inaction would not be something that would look poorly on me. Try as I might, I couldn't find any way, then realized the more I tried, the less I liked myself.
Greg arrived not too long after and I was able to get dressed so he could drive us back to his apartment. I was quiet and remorseful the whole way such that he finally reached out and took my hand in his. I leaned over and laid my head on his shoulder as he drove. I couldn't get out of my mind how close I had come to dying, the horror of what I lived through, and fear of the unknown in front of me.
When we got back to his apartment I wondered over to the sofa where my laptop and notes were and sat down on the floor to use the coffee table as a desk as I listlessly tried to get my mind on finishing my thesis. Greg followed me, a confused look on his face. “What are you doing, baby?”
I looked up and sighed. “Trying to finish this.”
“No, you're not,” he told me as he reached down and picked me up, then got us both comfortable on the couch. “We are going to relax and let you unwind from what you went through. We'll work on things tomorrow.”
He smoothed my hair and held me against his chest. “Shhh,” he told me. “Just be for a little while. I'm here and you're safe, concentrate on that.” Under his shirt, I heard his heart beating and the gentle, steady rhythm soothed me. My mind was calmed by his presence such that I felt all the stress clinching up my muscles relaxed; I had found my safe harbor in the storm. “See?” his voice rumbled under my ear. “It's not so bad.”
“What's going to happen?” I asked.
“I'll have to face a hearing to adjudicate my use of deadly force,” he replied softly. “Dad will, of course, recuse himself, but he'll file an amicus curiae, as will I for his hearing, since he fired as well. Don't worry, this is all just due process; what we did was justified, but the State must be sure.”
“Does it bother you, that you...?”
He chuckled, darkly. “As much as I'd like to be macho about it, it...is a heavy thing to live with. I had hoped that I would never have to do that, that I just did this for sport because I like the competition.” I felt his muscles flex and then his lips on my head, kissing me. “I did what I had to do, for everyone. While I hope I never have to again, I will, to protect you.”
“Are your parents ok?”
“Dad's fine,” he replied quietly. “He was in the Gulf War, so this wasn't his first fire fight. He got mom out then helped me look for you. Mom was really relieved you were ok.”
I couldn't keep in a snicker at that, considering how we had parted company in the women's room. “Really?” I drawled.
“She gave you the third degree in the restroom, huh?”
I raised my head to be able to see his eyes. “If you call 'using every favor owed she had to ruin my life' the third degree, then yes. Very much so.” He shook his head in either chagrin or regret, I'm not sure which to be honest.
“Yeah, mom can be a little scary at times,” he admitted. “But, then, I've had some...interesting...relationships before you, Lana.” I got my hands between my chin and his sternum to be more comfortable and let the expression on my face do my questioning for me. “It's not your fault,” he assured me. “I should have warned you that might be on offer, but I didn't want to prejudice you against her. Mom loves me, but I've made some...less than optimal dating choices. That, and she had kind of a tough time growing up. Her father, my grandfather, is white.”
“I wondered about her eyes,” I said.
“Yeah, and if we got stares, imagine what her parents dealt with. Mom too, growing up.” He laid back his head on the arm rest and looked up at the ceiling. “People can be stupid,” he declared in a philosophical tone of voice. “It wasn't illegal for Grandpa and Grandma to get married, but that didn't matter for much back then. I asked Grandpa about it once, about why he stuck it out? He could have left, but they're still together. He told me, 'Son, a man doesn't run out on his family.' I guess that stuck with me. Mom, she just doesn't want to wish what she had to grow up with on us.”
“Does she not like me?” I asked him, a little fearful of the answer. “She said she wanted to like me...”
“You didn't do anything wrong,” he declared. “Mom will come around, don't you worry.” He smiled at me and started stroking my hair again. “I have high hopes for us.”
I laid my head down again on his chest and closed my eyes. “Me too,” I whispered.
After the holiday weekend from hell, the following week was downright sedate. True to his word Greg played chef, cheer leader and critical reader of my thesis and actually made some unique insights into my premise. That didn't keep him from finishing the deposition he owed Justice Mathers, or being there, waiting on her to turn it in Tuesday morning as ordered. I had gone with him and Helen, as she insisted on being called, invited us into her chambers for coffee and some of the muffins she had brought that morning for her staff.
It was interesting, peeking into this world and this part of Greg's life, which Helen seemed very knowledgeable about. I gathered she took her responsibilities as his Godmother quite seriously. It was also fun to listen to all the embarrassing stories she had about him as a boy and young man. Helen regarded him as a fine young man, a man of principals, education and morals; all of which underlined what I already knew of him. I didn't need an Associate Justice of the state Supreme Court to tell me that, but it is certainly great ammunition to have when my subconscious tries to play tricks on me.
From there it was back to his place where, as promised, I put my nose to the grind stone and got serious on finishing this thesis. It didn't matter that it wasn't my thesis, but one for this universe. In fact, it made the most sense as had no idea how long I would be waiting and I would certainly have bills to pay and a need to eat between then and now.
And as the week went by, in companionable company with Greg, I began to wonder if I wanted to go back.
So, with my head held high, at nine AM on Friday I met John Carstairs for the 'first' time with my thesis in hand. He seemed like a nice enough man, very pleasant and to say he was delighted I'd crossed the finish line would be putting it mildly. On his desk was a picture of a little blonde girl, who was three or four or so, smiling impishly into the camera.
It was a smile I completely recognized seeing on her sixtyish face; the face of Dr Ruth Carstairs who had been my advisor when I'd started this journey. I kept my humor of her father being my advisor in this alternate reality to myself. “You'll still have to defend this,” he warned me and I nodded my understanding.
After a sigh to clear out my mental cobwebs, I asked, “When?”
He eyed the binder critically, then stole a glance at the calendar on the wall. “Probably a month from now. I'll present it to the committee and once we're on their schedule, I'll let you know.” He smiled at me. “I told you, you could do it.”
“Thank you, doctor,” I told him. “I appreciate all your patience.”
“Go take some time off,” he ordered. “Relax, the hard part is over. Then go back over this, and be getting ready to defend it.”
That weight off my back, I thanked him again and headed back out to my car with a grateful sigh of relief. After the week I'd had, I felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation. That inevitably brought my thoughts back to the little bag of disguised smart watches and the device the Guide had left me. I had to do something, but, didn't I deserve some measure of happiness?
More to the point, what could I do?
I had no idea who these other people might be, or what kind of universe they might be in. Where they in mine? Was I alone here or were these others from my universe in this reality somewhere? And since this was supposed to be their 'fantasy' wouldn't they be in a situation as good or better than mine? I slid into my little hatchback's drivers seat and sighed, looking at myself in the rear view mirror. “I'm not a hero,” I told myself. “I...”
Have you ever looked in your own eyes and judged yourself?
It's not a good feeling when you decide you aren't living up to your own morals. That brought a decision to try and find something. I took out my phone and within a few seconds my favorite voice was in my ear. “How did it go, beautiful?”
I smiled, imagining Greg in that magnificent suit he'd been putting on as I left to get to KSU, sitting in his window office, being all powerful and alpha male lawyer. Of course, not terribly powerful as he was merely an Associate of the Firm, but that he had an office with a window seemed to indicate he was on his way up. “Hey, Counselor! I've leveled up! I am now Awaiting Defense.”
“Alanna Byrne, AD has a great ring to it,” he laughed. “Now that you have that accomplished, what are you off to for today? And what do you have in mind for this evening?”
“Greg,” I said softly, in a more serious tone of voice. “How...how would I find out about what happened to that man, that fell on me? He took that bullet for me. I should at least send some flowers.”
I heard his keys typing for a second. “Sweetheart, he hasn't been claimed. They're calling him John Doe.”
“What will happen to him?”
“Well, if he's not claimed within thirty days, the county will have him cremated and then the ashes stored in the unknown remains vault.” It wasn't hard to play up my dismay.
“That's horrible! Could...could someone...?”
“A non-relative claim the body?” he finished for me. “I'll look into it. I suppose we both owe him a debt of thanks. Alright, Lana, I'll see what I can find out.”
My smile, if disingenuous, was genuine. “You're the best, my love.”
“I was inspired,” he told me. “So, tonight, I thought we could get date four out of the way? You feel like celebrating?”
“Anytime with you is a celebration, Greg,” I replied. “Were did you have in mind? And how shall I dress?”
“I'm not going to change.”
I smiled and allowed myself a little shiver. “Mmm, you do look delicious in that suit. I think I have a little black dress that might set you off.”
“Be still, my beating heart!” he laughed, but there was an undercurrent to it, as though I'd given him quite the 'pick me up' that would put some spring in his step for the rest of the day. “I have something for you. Be at my place at four?”
“With bells on!” I assured him. “See you then.”
“Can't wait,” he told me and we sadly both hung up to get on with our days. I had an outfit to work out so I headed home to start getting ready. Soon, I realized, I would go from being a grad student to 'Magister' to use the old term, although if the University offered me a teaching position again, I'd be Professor Byrne. I had some real decisions to make about my future. Was I going to pursue my own Doctorate? Teach if offered a position, or try for field work? I had so wanted to get into the field and discover the past, but that would take me away from Greg, and I wasn't sure it was what I wanted any longer.
“Professor Byrne has a nice ring to it,” I told myself, to which my subconscious quickly retorted Professor Walker sounds better. “Yes,” I whispered as I merged into traffic. “Yes it does.”
SOHO was probably the most casual of the 'fine dining' restaurants in the city. We were far enough from downtown that the unrest seemed further away, and yet enough 'in town' to have the city lifestyle vibe. It was a remarkably friendly and welcoming place despite the 'fine dining' moniker, run and hosted by people who seemed to truly enjoy giving exemplary service. It was the kind of place that employed a sommelier whose job was actually grading wines and suggesting them, not a title given to a waiter to sound important.
Not that I was in any way used to dining at restaurants that employed a sommelier, properly or otherwise.
As I'd promised Greg, I had found a lovely, long sleeved knit sweater mini-dress in black with a sufficient V Neck to set off my decolletage while the black swede knee boots I was wearing were doing a similar service to my legs. It also hugged my body very well and set me off to my best possible light. Greg already looked like a million dollars in that suit, but I imagine with me on his arm he felt like a billionaire. We had a lovely meal of small portions, but multiple courses which was interesting without feeling gluttonous.
As we were nibbling on a plate of different cheeses and a lovely white wine, he decided to become serious. “So,” started after a sip of the wine and looking at me just a bit sideways with an expression I'd come to recognize on his face as playfully sarcastic. “We just are just about at the end of date four, would you agree?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “What do you have in mind?” I demanded but his smile just became coy.
“I am simply trying to abide by the rules of civilization as I have been informed of them by an expert anthropologist of my acquaintance.”
I held up glass in salute. “Bravo, Counselor, I due believe that you could argue a rainy day into sunshine. Therefore, yes, I will agree that our forth date is in it's closing stages.”
“Well,” he said, digging into his breast pocket, “as we are past the fourth date, as agreed, I have a gift for you.”
He produced a small burgundy velvet box that, thankfully, seemed to be too large to be a ring box. “You don't have to buy me things, Greg,” I scolded him, but he just grinned.
“I didn't have to fall in love with you, either, Lana, but I did. Besides, what good is money if it can't bring joy into our lives? You bring joy into my life and I want to bring joy into yours. Open it.” I shook my head a bit at his reasoning, but it was very romantic, none the less.
“I do delight in humoring you,” I told him as I picked up the box. I opened it to find a beautiful torc necklace, the opposing ends of which were claddagh or Celtic crowned hearts and the body was magnificently engraved with a circular knot work pattern. It was in a shiny metal I took for silver at first blush, but then the luster and way it caught the light made me think it was something far more expensive.
That was not the only thing in the box, however.
The torc wrapped around a simple door key in the box. “It's beautiful,” I complimented him, realizing he had in fact been hanging on my every word in that jewelry debate in the mall. “But, Greg...”
“But nothing,” he told me with a smile. “It's yours, so you'll just have to be graceful and accept it.” I took it out of the box, finding significantly heavier than I thought it would be. I delicately put it around my neck so that the claddagh framed my esophagus. The metal warmed quickly against my skin and I imagine between it and the black velvet, my skin must appear to be alabaster.
I looked him in the eye and asked, “How do I look?”
“Like a star descended from the heavens to shine at my table,” he told me and I blushed so fiercely my skin must have turned bright red. “It's platinum, so you won't have to worry about it tarnishing.”
My suspicions were instantly confirmed and I realized this was now the single most expensive piece of jewelry I owned. “Greg...!” He just grinned and shook his head, gesturing at the box and it's key. “You want to give me a key to your apartment?” I was still taken aback by this gift so I didn't catch the significance of the amount of trust he was displaying.
“No,” he replied calmly. “I want you to have a key to our apartment.”
“You want me to move in with you?” I demanded feeling very overwhelmed.
“Yes, I do.” He took the key out and laid on the table by my hand before he closed the box and tucked it back into his jacket. “And don't make excuses about how much I do or don't know you,” he told me in an earnest tone of voice. “I know nothing worth having is without risk. But after many trials and much error, I like to think that I've developed a sense of judging good risks versus bad ones. I am aware we're still very new to each other. I also know you are a beautiful, conscientious, caring woman who is exceptionally intelligent and well educated; you're easily the finest woman I've ever met. I know a good thing when I see it and I'm not about to have a woman of your quality get snapped up by someone else because I was indecisive.”
He picked up his wine glass and took a sip. “So, what do you say? Let's finish getting the 'getting to know you' stuff out of the way together, so we can get serious.”
My heart was pounding, but I knew he was right. He was what I wanted and I seemed to be everything he was looking for. I took up my clutch purse and opened it so I could get out my key ring and added his to mine. “God save you, Gregory Walker, I say yes.”
Later that night I discovered that women in stockings and garter belts were also a rather large turn on for him.
It turns out, that our State actually coded into law that any personal willing to take on the responsibility of proper burial could claim a body after all other attempts to contact family were exhausted. Greg, generously paid for a funeral home to collect John Doe, even though we had to be present to do so. It's somewhat macabre, but the attendants are required to have the claimant verify the corpse they are taking possession of is in fact the person they think they are. They very carefully unzipped the bag so that his mortal wound wasn't shown.
It is a strange thing to see a body. Except for the pallid, pasty tone of the skin, you would think they were merely asleep, but also not in a very disturbing way.
Greg held me as we both nodded that this was the person we meant to help, and the mortician closed the bag and began to wheel the gurney to the hearse he had arrived in. The ME then took us back to the lobby before the secure area and she pulled out an envelope she opened and laid out on the table. “His clothing was contaminated,” she told us softly. “We had to destroy it, however these are his personal effects.”
On the table was a smart watch, a small note book and pen and a phone. Frowning, I looked up, “Where is his ID?”
The ME looked at me side long. “If we had an ID, he wouldn't be John Doe.”
“Lana?” Greg asked.
“Around his neck, there should have been an ID card on a lanyard,” I protested. “I'm sure I remember seeing it.”
The ME shook her head. “This is all he came to me with, but I'll have the CSI team check their logs and inventory. I have your name and contact number on the release so if something turns up, I'll call you.”
I nodded as Greg signed the forms. “Thank you.”
It was raining when we went outside, which was fitting for a day to claim a body. Greg had me wait in the Sally Port of the Coroners Office while he went to get the car so I would stay dry. Once he had, I took the notebook out and opened it. The hand writing wasn't the greatest, but I could make it out and I found a series of notations of twenty people, their physical descriptions, names, addresses, who they were here, everything. I was number fifteen.
I sighed, feeling my shoulders sag a bit. I had to find these people, and if nothing else, set up some kind of communication ring so we could support each other. And I had to decide what, if anything, I was going to tell Greg. I put the notebook in my purse and resolved myself.
I would make sure the remaining four were alright. If not...well, that was a bridge I would cross when I got to it. For now, Greg didn't need to know, and that was a decision I prayed would not come back to haunt me. Lord, give me strength.
* finis *