Persistence of Memory - Pt. 25
by Paul Seely
Diana stood in the dark foyer with her back against the locked door, counting each passing second. She waited, tense, silent and blind, listening for sounds of the silver Callaway in retreat. What a powerful yearning she held for that simple, mechanical music - shifting gears, tires on concrete - knowing that it would serve as the driver's exit theme.
* Go away, Julia. Call it a day. Please, please... just leave me alone. *
Finally, she heard the car slip into first and head out. It took longer than she expected.
* Fifty-four seconds, * she tallied to herself. * After taking her final bow, Julia leaves the stage to thunderous applause. *
> Clap! Clap! Clap! <
That hurdle cleared, Diana opened her eyes and scanned the living room for any sign of Charlotte's presence. No lamps were lit, no clothing lay scattered over furniture, and she found no shoes discarded in the entryway - all bad signs.
Usually, Charlie could barely get herself through the door before she began stripping off the confining pumps, stiff suits, and hot stockings her job required. The formal attire she had worn this evening probably chafed her like a full-body strait jacket, and Diana was disappointed not to find the get-up strewn willy nilly around their habitat.
* Maybe she's staying late with her folks, * she reasoned sadly. * I bet Emily got her to - *
The stream of excuses abruptly ran dry, dammed up by something glinting in Diana's peripheral vision. To her left, on the lightly scuffed wood table, lay a bulky set of keys on a plain golden ring.
"Oh, divine providence," breathed Diana.
She shucked the black leather gloves, picked up Charlie's keys and cradled them in her bare palm like a talisman. She walked into the living room, then down the short hall into the bedroom, finding it black and empty as a tomb. She was puzzled by the excessive darkness until she remembered that the broken skylight was boarded shut. She would have the glass replaced tomorrow.
No answer. Standing near the bed, Diana kicked idly at the large dhurrie rug, straightening a folded corner. She reminded herself to rent a Stanley steamer to clean Dan's blood from the carpet beneath; another item on her 'to-do' list for Tuesday. Being so pragmatic was a habit, a coping mechanism, not an indicator of aloofness. The guilty memory of what lay beneath the rug made her queasy.
Down the hall again, past the vacant sofa and cold television, she found herself peering through the back windows. No one in the yard. By bright moonlight, she saw a broad rectangular mound of freshly turned earth near the back fence. Diana winced and drew a shaky breath, realizing anew that she had turned their idyllic little home into a graveyard.
Her voice sounded small and faintly desperate. Again, there was no answer. She turned away from the window and walked slowly to the kitchen, her clay feet dragging along the carpet.
Opening the kitchen door, she found the room dark, like all the others. Unlike all the other rooms, it was not empty. At that realization, Diana nearly burst into song, instantaneously renewed by joy. After a second's debate, she talked herself out of doing a happy dance, fearful it would be premature. She knew that her better half would set the tempo from here on out, dictate the pace of revelation and possibility of revelry. That suited Diana just fine.
Charlotte Browning sat at the oak dining table, slouching inside her thick white terrycloth bathrobe. She was sipping from a bottle of Evian and eating some form of food directly from a black enamel pot. She dropped her fork into the pot when she saw Diana standing before her, nervously shifting foot to foot.
They looked at each other for an endless, heavy moment, transmitting and receiving dense waves of emotion. Euphoria, suspense, remorse, contrition and gratitude all shuttled between them through eyes and breath and stillness, the odd sort of telepathy they shared when they were all alone.
"Is she gone?" Charlie finally asked.
Diana hesitated, then mutely nodded. She took the seat opposite her lover and braced both elbows on the table, battered hands folded together in an almost prayerful pose.
"For good?" Charlie asked again, needing clarity on this salient point.
Though she wanted to say yes, Diana hedged her bet. "For now."
Charlie pondered that for a bit, then shrugged and took up her fork again. "It's a start." The attorney dug into her food, shoveling it down like an engineer commissioned to fill the Grand Canyon.
Diana mustered a grin at the evidence of her strong appetite, knowing it was a good general indicator of well-being. "How's the tummy that ate Korea?"
Charlie smirked around her fork. "Much better, no more yakking up. Bulimia's for the birds."
Diana leaned up and looked into the pot, glimpsing stout orange noodles. "So whatcha eatin'?"
"Kraft Macaroni and Cheese," Charlie mumbled. "Blue box."
"Didn't know we had that in stock."
"We didn't. I had Emmy run me by the 24 hour Ralph's on the way home."
Diana made an 'ohh' face, though she was mildly puzzled by the choice. "You like it?"
"Ehh," Charlie answered, waggling her cast side to side. "It's a childhood thing. Comfort food." She paused and slid the pot halfway across the table. "Want some?"
"Nope. Not hungry just now, but thank you for offering to share."
Charlie smiled at her and resumed eating. "It's the mature thing to do."
"Ethan loved Kraft dinners," Diana cheerily revealed. "I think that's only because the stuff was orange. Circus peanuts, Cheetos... the boy would eat anything orange. Except oranges."
"Sounds like me. Emily cooked this stuff for us on six navy bases," Charlie contributed. "It always helped us feel at home wherever we were. We grew up on hot dogs and Day-Glo macaroni."
Diana snaked a hand across the table and touched the fingers poking out of Charlie's cast. She was immeasurably pleased when two of those fingers curled around her thumb and held tight, connecting them as they prattled on about nothing, as if this were just another day.
"Judging by the way you turned out, it must be the food of the gods."
Charlie stopped chewing and looked a tad bashful. "I think it stunted my growth."
"You're perfect," Diana replied sincerely. "Many blessings on Kraft and Oscar Meyer."
The attorney blushed faintly and took a sip of water. "You don't think I'm too short?"
Diana immediately shook her head. "You're big where it counts. Big brain, bigger heart."
Charlie smiled again and snorted softly. "Still wish I were taller. Stronger," she said. "I would have kicked Julia's skanky butt all the way to Tijuana, then come back for Lia."
Tapping her fingers against the plaster covering her lover's broken hand, Diana grinned broadly. "I don't think Angelia found you lacking in physical force."
"Julia thinks I'm a twinkie," Charlie retorted, trying not to sound bitterly insecure. "Human snack food. I got the impression that she found me wanting, inadequate as a suitable companion for you in the long term."
"Forget everything she said or implied," Diana testily instructed. "Her words and opinions mean nothing because Julia does not know you."
Charlie raised her eyes until they locked on blue. "Yeah, well she knows you."
Diana felt the mood change, felt the turn steering them away from the soft shore and into deep, tilting swells. It hadn't been a day at the beach for either of them, and playtime was apparently over.
"Not as well as she thinks," Diana amended. "She wanted me to leave with her. You know that."
Charlotte nodded. "I know. She was never vague about her intentions."
"Despite those intentions, she's gone. And here am I." Diana curled her fingers around Charlie's cast, emphasising their connection, proving her presence. "Obviously, Julia's intel was flawed."
"Obviously," Charlie said, flashing a smug smile. "She was so confident, so sure she'd get you to bug out and dump me. She had me worried... for a minute or two."
"I told you when all this started - "
"I know, I know. Pointless to worry about that," Charlie finished, completing her lover's kept promise. "You just love being right, don't you?"
"About that, yes. Yes, I do," Diana agreed. "When it comes to you, it would take a tectonic shift to change my mind or my heart. Julia gave it a go, but I don't think she took it to the wall."
"She gave up too easily. She had an edge on me tonight, and when push came to shove, she didn't use it." The dark woman shrugged, rubbed her brow with a tired hand. "I'll never understand her. Trying always gives me a headache."
Charlie laughed softly in sympathy. "You, too?"
"Everybody," Diana confirmed. "That's the way she likes it."
"I've been thinking about all this. Her plan, I mean. Bringing Angelia here, sort-of-kind-of trying to have me knocked off, that kill switch business."
"It's a right mess. You able to make any sense of it?"
Charlotte nodded once and launched into her explanation, hatched in the time it took to boil the macaroni. "Distilled to a phrase, I think Julia's strategy was divide, confuse, conquer. She separated us, put a bunch of obstacles in your path, and hoped that the struggle would demoralize you enough to call it quits and run off with her. Am I close?"
Diana blinked a few times, letting her weary mind soak up the blunt wisdom. "Close as anyone, I guess. Sounds like you've got Julia pegged pretty good."
"In this case, maybe. It's clear as crystal... in retrospect," Charlie admitted. "Wish I could have seen it all sooner. I'd never have left you alone with her."
"It worked out better this way." Diana's voice dropped low, scraping the bottom of her register. "There were some factors I needed to deal with alone. When you're around, I can't see past you."
Perversely, Charlotte smiled again, mouth twisted with an odd sort of pride. "Glad to hear my dense nature proved helpful. Still, I know she couldn't have pushed you so hard with me there."
"I don't know." Diana shook her head slowly, contemplating the final minutes spent in Julia's company, the things they discussed. "Like I said before, she didn't push me nearly as hard as she could have. Maybe she finally understood the hold you have on me. How much I need you."
Charlotte closed her eyes to trap those words inside, glowing against her lids like neon script. How much I need you. Very carefully, she took Diana's hand, gently tracing her palm with a thumb.
"Phases," she whispered.
Distracted by the young woman's confident touch, Diana barely heard the word. "Hmm?"
"Some people seem to think this is a phase, us being together," Charlie explained. "My parents - or maybe I should just say my mother - thinks you're my rebellious experiment, a fling before returning to Richard and settling down for good. Julia thinks you're sampling life as a homebody, that you'll get tired of me and go back to her when boredom settles in."
"Dummies," Diana said dismissively. She mentally replayed Charlotte's words and lit on a puzzling exclusion. "Why single out your mother? Did Charles change his stance?"
Charlie widened her eyes and shrugged. "Possibly. Ready to hear about my night?"
Grateful for a change of subject, the dark woman nodded. "If you're ready to tell me."
Clutching Diana's hand a bit tighter, Charlie drew a deep breath and started in the middle. "He's dying. Brain tumor, stage four. He has a few months left, maybe less."
Even with all the angst and ambivalence involved in Charlie's relationship with her father, Diana could tell this news had truly hurt her. Though she was able to write off a bad connection with a friend, colleague, or even a lover, Charlotte had never been fully able to relinquish hopes of gaining her family's acceptance. Now it seemed she might not have the chance to make that happen.
"Honey, I'm sorry," Diana whispered. "I should have been with you."
Totally against her will and aware that it was horribly inappropriate, Charlie snickered. "You were busy trying to keep me alive, if I recall correctly."
Diana blanched at that innocent description of her activities. She let the flinch melt away, preferring to wait until later before dragging out that nasty bit of business. "Still, I know you must - "
"It's okay. You're with me now. That's the only thing that matters."
With that gentle assurance, Diana felt her natural inclination toward guilt and self recrimination ebb away. The pain Charlie felt over her father was an independent fact, not another atrocity of Diana's doing. Her role was to listen and comfort, not to apologize for things she could not control.
"What will you do now?" she asked. "Now that he's told you this."
Again, Charlie tightened her shoulders in a shrug, as if the answer hadn't come to her yet. "Daddy says he wants to make amends, get to know me and Emily better. I think he means it."
"Guess the trick will be finding a place to start," Diana noted.
"Oh, he's got that covered. He wants to make me the estate executor. I am to handle the distribution of his dear departed Uncle Namor's fortune. Stocks, scholarships, charities. The whole mess."
Diana's brows furrowed in surprise and disbelief. "That's quite a chore. Do you want to do it?"
"I don't see how I can say no," Charlie grumbled. "If it's the first step toward something more, I can't turn him down. Emily says that if we reject him now, that would be it. No more chances."
"How did Em react?"
"Sad, crying. Then stunned. Then the will talk started and she got dollar signs in her eyes," Charlie said, instantly regretting her callous words. "No, wait, that wasn't fair. She's confused, doesn't know what to make of him yet. Relative to that uncertainty, the money is a safe focal point. I think we're both gonna take it a step at a time, not get our hopes up too high too soon."
"But she wants to try him again, right?"
Charlie nodded, ducking her head low, slightly ashamed of herself. "Emily's being her typical, tough self. If she's afraid of getting hurt by him, she's not letting it show."
"Are you afraid?"
"Hell, yes. Scared to pieces."
"Don't be," Diana smiled. "You're the strongest person I've ever met. Even if it doesn't work out, you'll know you tried. That satisfaction alone might justify the risk."
Charlie tilted up her chin and gave a dubious squint. "You think?"
"Sure. But you've gotta believe it's worth it," Diana stressed. "Your first instinct is usually the right way to go."
"Ha! Following my first instinct has gotten me arrested, married, nearly disowned, shot - "
"Ahh, but some of your gambles pay off big, counselor."
"Not often, stretch. You're the exception that proves the rule." Charlie drew Diana's hand to her lips, kissed a bruised knuckle. "Daddy's still a big IF, but you... you've never let me down. I do believe you're worth it."
Charlotte's words conveyed a faith deeper than lunar canyons, a trust more precious than tomorrow, and a love no weak, flawed mortal would ever deserve. More than anything, Diana wanted to be worthy of her lover. She wanted to be steadfast and strong, caring and generous, sweet and passionate, kinder than saints, honest as stones...
* Honest, eh? * the dark woman thought, * Honesty is always a good place to start. Seems like we've done this countless times before. And here we go again. *
"I mentioned earlier that there were some... factors... things that happened tonight," Diana cautiously began. "Things I needed to deal with alone."
Charlie curled her fingers around her lover's broad palm, holding on as tight as she dared. "Whatever it is, you know you can tell me."
"Right. I know." Diana nodded vigorously, then lost her voice for nearly a minute, unsure where to begin. When she picked a starting point, her stomach lurched like she was in freefall, and her voice was soft and frail as spring snow. "I think I had... a relapse. With the... in my head. I mean, I... "
"Honey, it's okay, just - "
"I killed him, Charlie."
It was out before Diana realized what she was saying. That was the root of the problem, the fact of Chen's death and the circumstances surrounding it. She was powerfully compelled to dig out that root and serve it to her confessor, to feed Charlie the bitter, dirty truth and see if she could swallow it.
For her part, Charlotte was quiet. She still held Diana's hand. Though her fingers trembled and her palm started to sweat, she was determined not to let go.
"Chen?" she questioned, her gentle voice devoid of judgment.
Diana nodded. A round tear rolled free and streaked down her face. "I beat him to death in your parent's back yard."
Ashamed and afraid, Diana could not meet Charlotte's eyes. She looked down at her hand - cut and swollen and still entirely too lethal - resting in Charlie's palm like an unloaded weapon. She felt no strength in her hands now, could not even make a fist if she tried. Touching Charlie made her weak, sapped the anger from her flesh, rendered her docile as a lamb.
"He attacked you, right?" Charlie pressed, nervously searching for a rational explanation. "You defended yourself. You have a right to do that."
"No. No. See, I had him down, pinned," Diana confessed. "I could have knocked him out and kept him alive, but I... that didn't happen. I didn't stop."
"Well, you've been under a lot of stress, and sometimes when - "
"Charlie, please don't defend me," Diana begged. "I can't take that right now."
The attorney bit her tongue and nodded, vowing to keep quiet and listen to the whole confession before mounting a rebuttal. It was her nature to defend Diana against any attack, even one she launched against herself. Charlie kept her teeth clamped down tight to fight off the urge.
"I'll stop," she promised. "Just talk to me. I'm not going anywhere."
Diana took a deep breath and tried to find the thread of her confession, but she lost it as soon as she looked into Charlotte's eyes. There was such regard there, such surety that she had done the right thing, that she had good reason for killing a man with her bare hands. It made her so ashamed that she wanted to curl up and weep herself dry, cleanse her conscience with tears.
But that never worked before. The only thing that ever did work was telling the truth, letting Charlie see her dark half and receiving absolution from her lover's words and hands and eyes. Diana would never feel that she deserved such acceptance, but like an aged drunk shaking in the presence of liquor, she was helpless against the blood-deep need.
"I told you about what Mangano did to me," she murmured.
"The programming?" Charlotte responded. "The stuff you had to fight through when you surfaced."
"I think the program got turned on again. Tonight."
Diana's statement tripped and stumbled into Charlotte's disbelieving ears. "But... how?"
"I'm not sure. When I had Chen down, I heard this voice... in my head... and I got these hot flashes all over. Started sweating real bad."
She paused here to think, and to recharge her courage. By simply flexing her fingers against Charlie's hand, feeling that she was indeed still there, she found the strength to continue.
"The voice told me that I had to kill him, just to be sure that he wouldn't hurt us. I tried to fight it off, I think, but it just rolled over me and I got so scared... "
"Had you heard this voice before?"
"No, I don't think so. It wasn't Riggins or Mangano. In fact, it sounded like me," Diana revealed. "I heard it again later, when I was dreaming... or whatever. It was acting as a sort of narrator, twisting my perspective, showing me bad things."
"What do you mean by 'bad things?'" Charlie inquired. "Was it Ethan? The warehouse?"
"No, it was nothing real. It was only a dream. It doesn't mean anything." Diana's argument was so weak, she couldn't even convince herself to buy into it. Her dreams always meant something.
"Your dreams always mean something," Charlie intuitively persisted. "Was it really so bad that you can't tell me?"
"I just don't think it's relevant. Besides, it happened later, after the trouble with Chen."
"Relevant or not, you better tell me or I'll have to break out the hot lights and rubber hoses."
Too unnerved to pursue any humorous course from that remark, Diana just held up a palm and surrendered. "It was just a dream or part of the program, but... I saw you kill me."
"I killed...?" Charlie's mouth dropped open from shock, anger. "The hell you say!"
"I told you it doesn't mean anything. It was just the program trying to scare me."
Charlie took a few deep breaths, calming herself. "I need more context, please."
"In the dream, I was trying to hide Chen's corpse here in the house. You caught me, then you got scared and pulled the .38 on me."
"I fired a gun at you," the pacifist shuddered.
"Right down the hall in our bedroom," Diana explained. "Bang, bang. My baby shot me down."
The lawyer took a minute to sift through the images, not liking the inference at all. "Diana, you know that I would never... that's just... I don't think I could... "
"I never said I believed it, Charlie."
"But you thought it! That horrible thought was actually in your head!"
"The fear of being hurt by you has always been there," Diana said bluntly. "From the first time we made love right up to now, you've held my fate in your hands. I'm yours. I trust you. That doesn't mean that I'm not afraid of you."
"You have no reason to be afraid of me! How could I possibly hurt you?"
Diana sighed and shook her head, as if Charlotte were missing the obvious answer. The young woman never seemed to grasp the amount of power she held, how her least reaction could set her lover's moody spirit flapping - a high sail in a hurricane. Her love had become an elemental force in Diana's life, a binding reality like the burn of fire, the quench of water.
"I don't have any family. I don't have any friends who really know me. I can't go back to the way I was before. Those doors are all closed to me." Diana wiped her eyes and her shaking hand came away soaked with pitiful tears. "Charlie, you're all I've got. If I did something so bad, so heinous that it made you reject me... that would kill me."
She waited. Breathed shallow and quiet. Waited some more, just to be certain Diana was finished, then Charlotte spoke. "That is never going to happen. After all the things you've told me, all the things you've done... if you don't believe in me by now, you never will."
"But I do believe in you," Diana insisted, her voice strangled with fear. "That's why I'm telling you now about Chen, about what I did. I can't lie to you. I can't hide from you. I don't want to ever start down that road. I murdered a man tonight, and I'm afraid that might not be the end of it."
"There's more?" Charlie was straining to maintain her composure, to keep her keel even and stay in afloat until the end. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It just... I don't know." Diana struggled to find the right words, ones that wouldn't elicit terror or confusion. "If the program is active, it's possible that I could... overreact to a threat. Lose control somehow. It could be a defense against mortal threat or it could be more sensitive than that. Until it happens again, I won't know how far it goes, what triggers it."
With that loaded warning, Charlie was reeling, lost. Without thought, her hand slipped out of Diana's grasp and she folded her arms across her chest. "I don't know what to say here."
"Say anything!" Diana's eyes blazed, bright with tears and anxiety. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to yell. Just tell me what you think. Just... talk to me. Please."
Charlie flinched visibly when Diana raised her voice. She straightened in her chair and tried to stay cool, to keep her head as she worked through the potentials. "Do you feel that you might pose a danger to me or my family?"
She wanted to dismiss that possibility out of hand, but her conscience demanded full disclosure. Lowering her head, Diana wiped her wet eyes and nose across the sleeve of her jacket, then folded her hands across her face. "I honestly don't know."
"Oh, God." Charlotte's voice was broken and small, crushed by the weight of Diana's words. Her own eyes watered silently, leaking frustration. "I didn't need to hear that."
"Yes, you did," Diana insisted. "I would never want to hurt any of you, but I didn't want to kill Chen, either. I never intended for things to go that far. I just couldn't stop myself. You need to understand what that might mean."
"I understand what you're saying, but I don't accept it," Charlie stated. "I know you, Diana. You'd sooner die than hurt an innocent person."
"I wanna believe that I can control it... "
"You can. You did before, when Riggins ambushed you at Marco's, remember?" Charlie eased forward, loosening her posture and using her hands as she made her argument. "You were totally lost that night, and still you managed to avoid hurting me and Maribel, even Marco - and he deserved it. You knew it was wrong and you stopped yourself."
"It wasn't like that tonight. There was a disconnected feeling to it, but I was still lucid. I was aware of my actions the whole time with Chen. Right now, I could name each bone I broke, every muscle torn. It was never like that before."
"So the program changed tactics. That doesn't mean you can't beat it again."
"I tried, Charlie! I tried to stop and I failed!"
"Chen Kaige was going to kill me!" the attorney cried, matching Diana's frantic tone. "The way you reacted to him can't be used to project the way you react to me or anyone else! You didn't kill Julia, did you? No! You didn't kill Lia's sonofabitch father! They were threats, too, right?"
"To an extent, but - "
"But nothing! This is bullshit!" Charlie swept her cast across the table, flinging the black pot across the room in a violent outburst of temper. By the time the pot clattered to a stop, her eyes were agate-hard, her course set. "I know why you're telling me all this. You're not afraid of hurting me. It's a pretty slick smokescreen, baby, but I see through it. You're looking for an excuse to leave me."
Diana reacted as if stricken, shot with a flaming arrow. Her chest caved and her shoulders bowed forward, her voice a foul, powerful bellow. "I AM NOT!"
"Julia's probably waiting right down the block." Charlotte wiped her eyes dry and ran a hand through her hair, casual as hell and twice as cruel. "Go to her. Don't let me keep you."
Blue eyes turned dark as Diana grasped that her lover was serious. Her heart was being cut from her chest with a dull spoon, scooped out and discarded in cold, dead chunks. She had to make her see, had to convince her that she was mistaken...
"Charlie, I don't know what you mean. Julia's gone. She has nothing to do with this."
"So it's Angelia, then?" Charlie sniped, skipping right to the second alternative. "Guess it's true what they say about never getting over your first love. She must have been one sweet lay. Pity I never got that far with her."
Diana's head began to throb, her eyes shut tight against overwhelming pain. In the back of her mind, she felt a tiny flame burst to life, warming her slowly, spreading through psychic kindling and igniting her worst fears. "Don't," she whispered, laying her heavy head against the table. "Don't do this."
"This is what you wanted. You need a reason to push me away, well you've got it. I won't risk you hurting our family." Charlie got up and moved around the table until she stood over the nearly collapsed body of her lover. She reached down and wound her fingers in black hair, hauling Diana's head up until she met her eyes. "Get out."
Diana's jaw went slack, her eyes glassy, breath grinding wet and hot. The heat spread through her limbs like a strafe of napalm, and she heard the voice waking, laughing inside her mind.
"I fucking told you so! Feels like you're dying, doesn't it? She did it to you again, bitch! I knew it! I fucking knew it all along! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhaha--------"
"I told you to get out!" Charlie repeated, jerking her fingers free. She drew back her hand...
"Here it comes! Here it comes! Oh, this is perfect!!"
... and slapped Diana full across the mouth with all the strength she could martial.
"There we have it, sports fans! Full contact dumpage! Are you just gonna take that, babe?"
Diana felt the sting on her mouth, the wet spill of blood dribbling down her chin. She felt the heat stoking higher, and she started to sweat fiercely under the Armani jacket.
"GO, GODDAMMIT!" Charlie yelled, drawing back her hand again.
"She's gonna hit you again! Stop her! Hit her back, dumb ass!"
"No," Diana muttered, both to Charlotte and her own internal coach. "Never."
Charlie slapped her again, and her hand stung like a hive of bees had attacked her at once. She had to ignore it, had to keep going until she got what she wanted. What she needed. Again, she swept her hand back, cocked to deliver another blow.
"She's ripping you apart, beating your ass, and you're not gonna do anything? You are pathetic! Stand up! Stand up right fucking now, you pussy! Stop her!"
Diana abruptly stood and swept her chair aside, sending it toppling over onto the floor. She towered over Charlotte like a high stone pillar, moonlight from the kitchen window casting her shadow over the young woman's tight, determined face. Charlie swung again and this time, Diana caught her wrist, stopping the palm inches from another impact with her damaged mouth. Charlie froze, knowing her own fate was now in Diana's hands... literally.
"Do it, killer. She lied to you, then tore a hole in you. Time to make her pay. Do it."
Shaking with the effort of her own resistance, Diana grasped Charlotte's wrist tighter, almost leaning against the smaller woman. Her eyes were struck through with scores of angry red jags, seared nearly shut with molten tears. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead and ran down into her densely bunched brows.
"If you're gonna do something, do it now," Charlotte urged, trembling from feet to scalp.
"Do it, killer. You tell the truth and she calls you a liar, betrays your trust. Make her pay."
"GO AHEAD! DO IT!" Charlie bared her throat, giving Diana a clear target. "DO IT!"
"Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it -----"
Diana's free hand darted up and long fingers wrapped around Charlie's neck, pushing her, forcing her to stumble backwards until she collided with the refrigerator. She bent her lover's good hand behind her back and pinned it hard against the fridge. She formed a fist, drew her arm up to strike.
If she was surprised or scared, the attorney's hazel eyes didn't show it. She looked up at Diana, stared through blue and red, directly into the unseen black fire...
"I love you," she said.
Charlie's words rang out like a careless cry in snowy mountains. An avalance tumbled from high cliffs, falling heavily on internal fires, obscuring half of Diana's demon in a cloud of rising steam.
"Liar! Liar! Kill her now, you stupid fuck! Kill her! Do it!"
The voice was weaker now, distant and desperate. Dying. With a scream torn straight from the pits of her soul, Diana bundled up what remained of the voice and crushed it to smoldering dust her palm. She threw it forward into one mighty, bone-crunching punch...
... which landed just beside Charlie's head and mightily dented the freezer door, knocking all the magnets off in a wild explosion of post-its and smiley faces and falling teen idols.
In Diana Starrett's head, all was quiet, white and cold as a virgin snow drift. She closed her eyes and searched inside for the voice, for the program, for her fears. They were lost; if not gone, at least covered, buried somewhere far beneath deep drifts.
The lawyer's nerves finally gave way, and she burst into tears, shuddering and crying out the last of her energy. Her knees wiggled and threatened to dump her to the floor, but she was still effectively pinned between Diana and the icebox, so she let them hold her weight. She looked up at Diana and searched her face, found what she needed to see.
"I knew it," she said simply, too weak and relieved to gloat properly.
Diana leaned in and pressed her lips to Charlie's forehead, leaving the hot
imprint of a bloody kiss.
She released Charlie's arm and took one step back before crumpling to a wasted heap on the kitchen floor. One hand strayed to the waistband of her pants, withdrew the .38, and offered it to Charlie.
"I can't leave you. I can't hurt you," she groaned, utterly spent and defeated. "If you want to get rid of me, you'll have to kill me."
Charlie had a moment of panicked confusion before she realized that Diana did not yet understand what had just happened. With slow, patient movements, she took the gun, opened the cylinder, and dumped the bullets. She then tossed the pistol away, further cluttering the crowded kitchen floor.
"You're not going anywhere, stretch. Not now, not ever."
Diana blinked hard, wiped her eyes to make sure she was seeing clearly. Charlie had stooped down and was now kneeling over her... smiling. Twice. Once on her mouth, once on her forehead.
"I had to show you," Charlie said. "Now you know. You can beat it. You won't hurt me."
Slow as a winter dawn, the light of understanding washed over Diana's face. "You played me?"
"Not you. Never you. The program... or whatever. I picked a fight with your subconscious and counted on you to bail me out," Charlie explained, as if it were the simplest tactic in the book.
Diana sighed and worked her aching jaw. Her lip had stopped bleeding, but was still very tender from her fit lover's hard smacks. "That was a very dangerous thing to do, counselor."
"Depends on your point of view. It was more dangerous for me to let you walk around doubting yourself, always afraid you were gonna blow up and cap me... or any of the myriad people who tick you off on a given day. This way, we know for sure that you've got a grip. You're in control."
"My mind is not a set of tinkertoys, Charlie. How could you know that would work?"
"Bait the hook, taunt the witness, and let them twist on the line," Charlotte said, drawing a confused scowl from Diana. "Nasty old courtroom trick Quentin taught me. Your Doctor Mangano might have been an ace head shrinker, but he obviously never went to law school."
Diana's scowl deepened until Charlie tipped down and kissed her nose. Then she just frowned and canted her head like a curious, annoyed puppy as the lawyer finished her summation.
"And he obviously never had a clue about how strong you are when you're in love. You can whip anything, Diana. Anybody. Even yourself. I knew that all along."
"You sure had me convinced otherwise," the dark woman retorted. "All that stuff about Julia and Angelia, telling me to get out - and did you have to hit me so damned hard??"
"Selling the drama. I'm sorry, baby. Let me get you some ice."
"No, no. I don't need ice right now," Diana said, waving her off and summoning her closer in one motion. "Come here."
Charlie smiled graciously, wiped her eyes and nose. She scooted closer and eased down herself onto Diana's prone body, folding herself into open arms, feeling them wrap around her and squeeze like twin pythons. It was not in her to object, even when the pressure threatened her ability to breath.
When Diana was this close to her, she was far too happy to need something so pedestrian as air. Everything she needed to survive armageddon was held tightly in her arms, safe and alive and totally hers, forever and ever, amen. Diana was right - sometimes her gambles did pay off big.
It suddenly occurred to Charlotte that no one else could have done such a thing to Diana and lived. She also realized that no one else would have been dumb enough to try. Against all odds, she found the grain of sugar in the salt mine, and she savored it with a sweetened laugh.
"What fun," Diana moaned sarcastically, so far from laughing herself that it really wasn't funny. "We gotta do all this again sometime."
"No need, dearest," Charlie sing-songed, kissing a convenient ear. "The yellow brick road is closed for repairs. The witches are melted, the tin man's got a heart, and you're all mine, Toto."
"Have you been drinking?"
"Not much and not recently."
"Well, I think that macaroni was laced with something. You're entirely too loopy."
"Does your mouth hurt real bad?"
Diana pursed her lips, testing them. "No. Why? Feeling guilty?"
Charlie raised a brow and frowned, then shook her head. "I want you to kiss me."
"Oh. I guess I can do that."
She edged forward and pecked Charlotte's mouth, almost chastely. The attorney was clearly expecting something more earth-shattering. She showed her disappointment by rolling her eyes and blowing a raspberry.
"Inadequate?" Diana queried, her missing smile making a cameo appearance.
Charlotte nodded mutely.
"You're the one with all the brains in this outfit," Diana teased. "Maybe you should show me how you want to dance and I'll see if I can stumble into the steps."
Charlie grinned with a sudden lusty mirth, then she sallied forth to take what she had been promised Sunday night, in Room 216 of Elceda County General Hospital. She latched onto Diana's mouth like doomsday was upon them - bombs were dropping, missiles flying, cities falling - and the only thing that could save the planet from complete destruction was the birth of the perfect kiss.
She was gentle, mindful of the cuts, tasting the occasional tang of copper as her tongue swept over Diana's lips and slipped into the pulsing hollow of her mouth. Long moments passed in soft, warm exploration as Charlie set the pace, telegraphing her desires through nips and sucks at the upper lip and long, languid sweeps of the lower.
The kiss was replete with abbreviations and suggestions, sent in a lover's shorthand, and Diana spoke the language like a native. She noted every signal, carefully logging each in her mind as if they were transmissions received from space. Charlie was making this so easy... but then, she always did.
The youngest Browning always knew what she wanted, and she almost always knew how to get it. She once told Diana that nobody worked harder than her, that she always got her way in the end because of sheer persistence. Ingenuity, reckless disregard for personal safety, and an unshakable faith in her own opinion also helped greatly.
But at times like this, Diana felt the savvy young professional shouldn't have to work so hard. All she ever had to do was ask - out loud, with her eyes, or with her body - and she would receive.
Sharp teeth clamped down lightly on a skilled tongue as the kissee took charge of the kiss and shifted their positions. Diana rolled Charlie beneath her and thrilled the young woman by laying her body down fully, crushing her with an achingly sweet press of flesh and bone in all the right places.
"Oh, yeah... like that," she mumbled, her words lost in Diana's mouth.
Charlie was never happier than at such moments, when her lover's long form was covering her like a protective shield of muscle and bone. It barely made a difference whether she was gloriously naked, or clad in tonight's strangely arousing combo of black Armani, pungent sweat, and faded Levi's.
The key factor was her weight, Charlie figured; the solid, encompassing feel of Diana stretched along every length, touching every inch of her, reminding her entire body that she was loved from stem to stern and cherished at all points in between. Being squashed into the cold tiles of the kitchen floor was such a good thing. So good that she'd lost track of Diana's hands, which had somehow untied her belt and opened her robe without her notice, and were now drawing circles around her breasts.
"Oooohhh." Charlie broke away from the kiss to issue a moan of approval. "Like that, too."
"Do tell," Diana drawled, her voice dropping into a devilish growl. "Wouldn't have known if ya hadn't told me."
Charlie knew she was being teased, for her drawn, tight nipples had provided all the evidence Diana needed to prove certain charges - namely, arousal of a high and aggravated nature. She started to speak to this issue, but Diana was way ahead of her, already licking a path down her throat and attaching her mouth to one key witness... the left one.
"Sweetgodsandgoddessesoftherealmsofheavenandhell," Charlie breathed, forcing it all out at once.
Diana paused and looked up at her curiously. "That was a new one."
"Make me wait much longer and you'll hear plenty of new ones."
"I'll hurry," Diana lied, returning to her slow worship of a particularly worthy breast.
Charlie knew her lover's words weren't entirely true. With Diana, foreplay could go on for hours. Literally. One night, Charlie had secretly kept track of the time between opening ceremonies and the completion of the first act - Diana clocked in at just under three hours.
Not that she was complaining - or ever would - but that was in the bedroom, in their nice, soft, warm, spacious bed. This was the kitchen floor, and though Charlie loved Diana more than her luggage, she didn't think her back would ever forgive her for submitting to such a gorgeous torture session on the unforgiving tiles.
Just to ease things along, she placed her hand on the crown of dark hair and urged her sideways. Diana resisted at first, closing her bright teeth around the crown and hanging on until Charlie gave up... only then did she surrender to the suggestion and move her attentions to the neglected twin, which had been attended and primed all the while by tweaking, stroking fingers.
Diana wasn't ignorant. She knew that her speed was a frustration and a torment to her lover, but she could never bring herself to rush through lovemaking with this woman. Charlie could zip right through the preliminaries and bring the tall woman to a moutainous climax in minutes, but Diana's ceremonial leanings would not allow her to reciprocate in kind.
Charlie deserved the best she could offer, every time. She merited romance, and Diana always found herself compelled to deliver, as if there were some a priori deficit she had to repay with centuries of massage, millions of kisses, and enough hugs to squeeze an orange grove dry. She didn't mind in the least, but she knew now was not to be one of those times.
Too much had happened tonight. And besides, the kitchen was never her favorite place to make love. The tile floor was too cold, too hard, and that bobbly-eyed refrigerator magnet of James Dean always seemed to be watching her too closely. He wasn't a factor just then, having tumbled to the floor when she smacked the Whirlpool fridge and dented the freezer, but still... it was creepy.
She kissed a rambling trail down Charlie's stomach, pausing here and there for a bite of firm skin or to nuzzle baby-fine hair scattered across the landscape like gold dust. She received no objection when she moved lower still and kissed protruding hip bones, though when she began suggestively sucking on the points, Charlie lost her body awareness and spat out a curse as she brought her cast down on Diana's skull a little too hard.
"Ow! Shit!" Diana swore, rubbing her sore head. "I'm going as fast as I can, here."
"I'm sorry!" Charlie giggled, blushing deep red. "That was not a commentary on your technique."
"Hope not. Watch that cast, please."
"Aww, did I hurt my snookums widdle kwanium?"
"Did I mention that I have a mild concussion?"
"I did not hit you that hard."
"It's from earlier. Julia knocked me out cold."
"When? Why? That bitch! I'll give her something to - "
"Don't get mad. She found me working on Chen and stopped me. If she hadn't been there... "
"Mood killer. No more Julia talk. Just... go about your business."
"I forget where I was."
Charlie growled from deep in her chest as she placed both hands on her lover's dark head and pushed her down and sideways and then just a bit higher until she had Diana right where she wanted her, right where Diana always wanted to be.
Where she would have wound up on her own... eventually. Charlotte Browning was her true north, and though others may set magnets near the compass, give false directions, and otherwise try to steer her off course, Diana Starrett knew that she would always remember how to get home so long as she had her heart to navigate.
True love may not always run smooth, but it beats GPS any day of the week.
By the dawn, the story was all out. Charlie listened, commented, and forgave things she felt she had no right to forgive. But her careful words of absolution were what Diana needed to hear, and she would always, always give her beloved whatever she needed to set her at ease, to make her smile. That was her nature. That was her mission. That was her greatest joy.
It would take much longer for her to summon enough good will to forgive Julia, Angelia, and those long-dead bastards who made Diana's sanity a plaything. There would always be doubts, she knew that now, and they would learn to live in the long, cold shadow of what might happen, but Charlie was confident that they could fix anything as long as they stayed together and continued to trust in their love. It hadn't failed them yet.
As Tuesday crept up and sat on Elceda, Charlotte lay awake in bed and watched Diana sleep. She looked so formidable in the light of day, with her guard up and her game face on, but when she slept it was a different story. With her sharp eyes trustingly closed, powerful arms curled under her chest, wounded hands bandaged... Charlie was struck by just how fragile the woman really was.
* She breaks just like a little girl, * she thought, not for the first time.
It bore repeating because it was so easy to forget. Diana Starrett wasn't perfect or invincible, or even particularly brilliant. But she was strong and honest and beautiful and smarter than most people ever dream of becoming, and she was so easy to love that Charlotte actually found herself sympathizing with Julia and Angelia and poor Will Franklin, because they would never know how this felt.
Just to be lying there with Diana in her arms, watching her sleep, knowing she was loved by her.
As the morning sun beamed through the windows, she could almost fool herself into thinking that it was just another day. In an hour or so, she would rise and shower, dress, go to work and make excuses to Quentin Carver, and she would lose herself in the pile of paperwork that surely built up in her one day of absence.
She had to call Richard and make an appointment to go over the will. She would call Emily. She would call their father and try to be nice to their mother. Then she would call Emily again and dish about whatever was said. She would take Lynn Piolo out to lunch and thank her for covering Monday's appointments. Then she would settle in with Carver and the partners for another round in the eternal battle of Trumbull, et al VS Rowland Phamaceuticals - a case that threatened to become her own personal Quixotic joust.
She had stuff to do. Stuff that didn't involve Diana. And she didn't want to do any of it. Charlie wanted to call in sick and spend the day in bed, watching Diana sleep. But she knew that her lover would wake soon, and that such moments weren't meant to last forever, or even all day. They were fragile and precious and all too brief, and she was already building up a new store of them to last her through the next hard time, which was always just around the corner.
"Love you," she whispered, kissing Diana's hair to complete the moment with a tangible sensation.
On cue, Diana woke up, sleepy blue eyes blinking open to the sound of Charlie's laughter.
Epilogue - Thirty Days in the Life of the Supporting Cast
Gedde Yoshima watched the changing hues of a russet sunset glimmer on flowing water, tint the green grass of the riverbank, and brighten the faces of his mother and sister. He stood before a canvas, paint brush in hand, and preserved final bits of the peaceful scene in jubilant watercolor strokes. This painting would be his third in less than a month, and he wondered how long his fit of creative productivity would last. He hoped it would go on forever.
Angelia sat on a blanket, shuffling through items in a wicker picnic basket, while their mother stood over her, occasionally brushing back the young woman's long hair with gentle, hesitant fingers. Each time she did so, Angelia would gaze up at her and smile, fighting to keep sweet tears at bay.
Jae Chiang Kamura, formerly known as Mrs. Hideo Yoshima, was in the final stage of treatment to cleanse her system of anti psychotics - drugs she never needed in the first place. Her small body was weak, her skin wrinkled and sallow, her hair almost entirely gray, but she was growing stronger with each passing day, learning how to speak and move and express, learning how to live free again.
The three were adjusting to each other more rapidly than anyone could have predicted, and they rarely spent more than a few hours apart from their reassembled nucleus. Angelia shopped in local markets, cooked and cleaned and wrote in her journal. Gedde fixed loose boards on the front porch of their secluded country house, mended leaks in the high roof, and painted every single day.
Their mother mostly watched them, occasionally mustering the energy to help. More often, she just stood nearby as her children went about their tasks, relishing the ability to reach out and touch them at will... her only dream during all those stolen years.
Learning a new language was difficult, but Gedde and Angelia were acclimating to their new nation rather well. The Dutch people were kind and open, and many spoke English fluently. Angelia had an interview set with a communications troubleshooting firm in the city, and her technical expertise almost guaranteed work, although they didn't really need money.
Harry Mars came through for them on all counts. When they arrived in Amsterdam, they found a house, a car, and a modest wealth of native currency waiting, all to ease their settlement. New names on passports, papers of citizenship, physicians to care for their mother - he'd provided nearly everything they could have hoped for.
Still, Gedde found himself looking for her, scanning every woman for gray eyes and platinum hair, aware that he was harboring foolish hopes. He would never see her again. Although she was loathe to admit it, Angelia was guilty of the same folly. Some part of her would always search every room she entered, seeking the black and sapphire beauty who would never be there.
They were together, brother and sister and mother, but a fragmented shard of their hearts would remain reserved, alone, waiting in hope. As Gedde predicted, they commiserated like mad. Wine and words, art and work and science, all helped to begin the transition that they feared would never be completed - to a comfortably numb state where you live with a dream that will never be realized.
On the plane that Julia chartered, Gedde read and burned her note. The content would stay with him always, and he had no need to keep the paper. He would recall unto death the lilt of her script, the gentle words she selected to convince him to let go of pretense and falsehood, to embrace only the truth of the present, to weed out fear and sentiment and get on with his life.
"With memories, as with jewels, it is always the most brilliant, the most beautiful which are false. Rely on your perceptions of each new moment. Distrust the glamour of memories. They betray us all, darling boy, and you deserve better than lies. If you should need aid, do not call on me. I cannot be trusted with a fragile thing. My only pride is that I did you no harm."
He recognized the first sentence as a paraphrase of Salvador Dali's words, and he always smiled at the remembrance of the surrealist's wisdom put to such practical use. Julia was terribly keen, that much was certain, for she utilized the voice of Gedde's idol to belittle herself, to influence his mind and make him uncertain of her worth. It very nearly worked. Nearly.
Angelia had no such comfort, no warning to steer her away from the rocks. She cried in her sleep, unwilling or unable to share the encompassing nature of her pain. Gedde did what he could, but she remained inconsolable, rejected and well aware that it was no one's fault but her own. She tried to live by Diana Starrett's parting advice, to live each day anew, to shed the burdens of past mistakes, but it was a struggle. She would try, though. That much she had promised, and she's be damned if her final words to that woman would prove false. She would try.
The first canvas Gedde completed during their month of solitude was a cryptic scene composed in oils of black, blue, red and white. A mighty woman stood in a snowy forest, one hand reaching high, grasping the cold moon, the other submerged in the earth, tugging red hell up through the surface. Her face showed the strain of futile effort, and the snow was wet with her crimson tears.
Angelia first thought the woman was Diana. Then she assumed that Gedde had painted Julia. Then she stopped wondering, proclaiming the true answer was irrelevant. As with most paintings, people see what they want to see, and Angelia did not want to see herself as a figure of tragic proportions. She was a garden variety fool, selfishly broken, not the type to engage in epic struggles.
Each time he looked at his sister and remembered the sacrifice she made to keep him and his brother safe, the tortures she endured to spare them from harm, Gedde knew different. His mission in life became a quest to make Angelia see herself through better eyes, to see the truth, the strength and love she held inside. He saw it. Diana Starrett definitely saw it. Even their addled mother saw it.
Eventually, they would make her see that she deserved to be happy, teach her how to let the past go. Maybe by helping her, they would learn how it was done. Maybe they could all let it go. Maybe they could find a better tomorrow together.
After six days of hospital vigil and a few weeks worth of home care, Sherrie Rinna-Klein left her second husband and moved from their two story house house on Windham Hill into Teddy's four room apartment on Vista Terrace.
Their daughters, Gina and Marie, were cramped into one bedroom for the first time in years, but they were so happy that the lack of personal space didn't matter... at first. Their family was together again, for however long Teddy and Sherrie could make it work, or however long the two preteens could abide the close quarters.
Teddy recovered nicely, though he occasionally grumbled and fussed like an angry bear. His medical bills were fully covered, thanks to Charlotte's legal intervention. On pain of an impending lawsuit, she wrangled Teddy's HMO into a corner and they coughed up one hundred percent payment, leaving him with the sole worry of minding Nurse Sherrie's orders and getting back to full strength in time to keep his feisty daughters from killing each other.
Diana let him know that she was taking a position as an investigator for the Elceda County Sheriff's Department, and that he would have her help only on a moonlighting basis. Teddy was cool with that. Their agency had established a good rep for trustworthiness and discretion, and he knew that there would be enough piecemeal work to keep him busy indefinitely.
Once, when they were having lunch alone in his hospital room - a smuggled feast of Reubens and potato chips and bottled Budweiser - he asked Diana what happened to the man who shot him. She told Teddy that the shooter was dead. He took a long swig of beer, bit off a hunk of his sandwich, and nodded. He was alive and well, cared for by loving family and honest - if mysterious - friends. Diana's answer was enough for him. Teddy Rinna let it go.
For the first thirty days, Julia ran her crew from a rented apartment in Manila. She linked by satellite to her contacts - including Ilya Kurzin, who was most pleased with a certain shipment of armored helicopters - and made scads of deals for purloined property she held in unofficial escrow.
Money was ridiculously easy to come by, and her meager brace of operatives soon became the best equipped, most elite strike squad in the region. Before two weeks had passed, they busted three local drug gangs and took their stash, trading the prisoners and their booty to the Philippine government for transportation logs and classified computer codes, which they used to hack into shipping registries and trace the path of heroin floating through the Pacific.
By the third week, Julia owned two unregistered freighters and had a crew of forty-eight mercenary pirates ready to do her bidding in order to stay out of jail. She used the ships to provide safe transport for all varieties of cargo, everything from stolen antiques to precious humans (mostly influential political dissidents and refugee idealogues), and her network of contacts grew exponetially.
Her four-man core quickly came to view her as something quite other, for she was radically different from anyone in their former group. Julia allowed them input on mission decisions, and though their thoughts were sometimes casually disregarded, she was never derisive or unappreciative. She gave them judicious amounts of personal freedom, gobs of spending money, and provided sage advice with an almost maternal affection. Contrary to their expectations, they felt safer in her rag-tag unit than they had in the cryptic, cold enormity of their former group.
Within the first month, the four had forged a secret pact to remain with her. Their decision came not from necessity or fear of death, but was born of grudging admiration and fast loyalty. Julia was out to accomplish something in the world, and though they did not know specifically what her agenda was, they felt that following it through to fruition had to be better than a life devoid of purpose and meaning, a selfish life lived with blind eyes and closed ears.
In short, they had stood too close and been thoroughly magnetized. Joseph and Brian were mildly, discreetly in love with her, Sonya viewed her as a sort of quasi-feminist guru, and Josie... well. Best to say that their third date was quite eventful and leave it at that.
They had seven more months of quarantined activity ahead before they could launch out into the great, big world beyond the Pacific rim, and Julia was determined to make each moment count. She would not rest, she would not give herself time to stop and think, to ruminate on her failure. If she found herself lonely, she sought company. If she found herself bored, she authored a new mission.
Even so, there were a few stray seconds in every day when she would drift into memory and replay that last minute in Charlotte Browning's driveway, when she threw in the towel and let Diana walk away from her again. There was no question in her mind that she had allowed it to happen, that she had pulled back in those final moments rather that bludgeon her intended into submission. Why?
Perhaps she had simply acknowledged the futility of pursuing it further, sensing that Charlotte's hold on the dark woman went deeper than Julia knew. Perhaps she had glimpsed the pain her sharp words caused in Diana and she grew reluctant to hurt her by pressing the issue.
Or maybe Julia had felt a sort of pain herself. Maybe it hurt her, knowing that what she wanted was out of reach, that Diana would never willingly choose to be with her again. Her pride prevented her from indulging in such weak, maudlin behaviors as begging, threatening, forcing... and she chose to give up and walk away rather than debase herself in pursuit of a lost cause. Maybe that was it.
In any case, these thoughts occupied her for only a few seconds each day. Not enough to worry about, certainly not enough to weaken or distract her in any measurable way. Julia had work to do, and as long as she had other things to focus on, she could manage to confine her pondering to brief dips in the pool of melted memory. Eventually, perhaps she could let it go. Let Diana go.
In the evenings, Julia did the same things she did every night: make plans, make love, make tiny little wars, and make light of the notion that she would someday take over the world. After a few drinks, she would sometimes sleepily whisper The Bard's advice into Josie's blushing ear.
"The first thing we do, darling, let's kill all the lawyers."
Brief, dopey fit of self-indulgence - not necessary to read.
Theories abound on the nature of human memory; its intricate structure, chemical components, and biological nature have provided a worthy subject of study for gifted philosophers and able scientists all through the ages.
Some of these learned hands write that memory is no more than a series of words, images and sensations converted to engrams and encoded on the hippocampus, then downloaded into the vast, cavernous warehouse of the forebrain in a jumble of propositional knowledge and personal experience. How these memories are prioritized is something they - in all their finite wisdom - have failed to adequately explain. This is where the conceptual mystery known as the 'persistence of memory' phenomenon comes into play.
Memory is like space, in the sense that it is curved and unfathomably large. It also has ripples and storms and black holes scattered throughout, places where knowledge drops off the map and pops up again at a some far point, just on the other side of when you needed it. There are, however, certain predictable facets to this theory, and they are universally cruel.
Bad memories are in it for the long haul, autonomously clustered together in thorny groups, indifferent to change and growth - they're like cactii. Conversely, good memories must be constantly tended and renewed in order to keep them alive - like orchids. High maintenance things, they are.
If a person is to remain sane and happy (without the use of Prozac, that is), they have a lot of work to do. Even a person of normal upbringing, one blessed with an uncheckered past, has to fight each and every day to make sense of tragedy, loss, and to fend off the constant threat of dreams withering before they have the chance to bloom.
The human condition demands that we hold our pain close to the surface, post it like a watchman on the prow in order to warn us away from the icebergs that litter the seas, waiting to sink our hopes. This is something that we cannot change, nor should we try. It is a necessary evil.
What we can do is to try and strike a balance between the two. In this day and age, when nightly newscasts trumpet the marvels of genetic engineering, it just might be possible to cross-breed a cactus and an orchid. We've all met people who have endured horrible things and come out the other side smiling and appreciative of the joys life has to offer. They can't forget the bad stuff, but they've learned how fragile the good stuff is, and they treasure it with an enviable passion.
If you hurt someone, own it and seek their forgiveness. If someone has hurt you, forgive them and get past it. If you're lucky enough to have love in your life, love that person the best you can. If it doesn't last, you'll know you tried. If it does last... you'll know you both tried.
Keep making the good memories, and try to keep the bad ones in perspective.
Forgive my rambling, please. It's dark out now, and I'm stupid tired. Think I'll have a mug of Bailey's and hot milk, then off to bed.
Thanks for putting up with me for this past year (plus change),
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