Chapter 21 - Payday
"Come in," Janice answered the firm knock. She looked up from her desk, surprised to find Mel entering her office. Janice's heart beat with anticipation and hope.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know you had company, Dr. Covington," Melinda said with surprise, looking at the young man in the ill-fitting outfit, who stopped sorting through Janice's books and looked at her curiously. "I'll come back later," she quickly said and retreated from the office.
"Wait! You don't have to go. Titus can . . . ," Janice said getting up with alarm.
"I'll be back later," Melinda announced briskly and shut the door behind her.
"Fuck!" Janice said and growled as she sat down. Why did she keep doing that to herself? Getting her hopes up was only setting herself up for a big fat disappointment. Like usual.
"Who was . . . "
"Shut up, Titus," Janice said without anger, prompting him to shrug and return to sorting the books as she tried to grade the rest of her papers.
Finally finished grading, she looked up to the young man in the ill-fitting suit. Oddly, she didn't really mind his presence. He was a diversion, even if he was a wacko. When she offered him her musty and bumpy couch in her apartment to sleep on, he seemed genuinely happy and accepted it as a gift. He almost seemed like a one of the survivors from the camps, only he looked too innocent and unaffected by life's cruelty. Perhaps that was the reason she felt compelled to help him find his way . . . and his book, if he even really lost one. He looked so lost and out of place, she thought with still-raw understanding.
Last night, during one of the most excruciatingly unproductive conversation she could ever recall, he had said he had just gotten a job at the Library when he lost a book. So he came here looking for it, Janice thought and sighed, watching him continue to sort through her books with enthusiasm. She was going to tell him to stop when he started rearranging all of her books. But she thought better of it, noting it seemed to make him really happy.
"You doing OK there, Titus?" She asked. He turned to smile at her with a book in hand.
"Oh yes. This is far easier than at the Library. There's no STD index, which makes filing much easier," he said.
"You know, the Space -Time-Dimension Indexing System?"
"Oh. Right. The STD index," Janice responded, leaning back in her chair, interested in his tale. Coherent conversations really were highly overrated, she concluded.
"Yes. It is tricky. And may the Guardian's help you if you mix up the time with the dimension coordinates," he said, shaking his head. "I can't believe I made such a stupid mistake. I really hope they don't fire me."
"Who are "they?" The Guardians?"
"Oh no," he chuckled with amusement at her gaff. She smiled weakly. "The Administrators. They are sticklers for accuracy."
"With those books to worry about, do you ever have any free time - outside of the library?" She asked, probing curiously. "What to you do for fun?"
He looked at her oddly, then looked at the book and held it up with a shrug.
She sighed. Glancing at her watch, she got up from her desk.
"Where are we going?"
She had to smile at his presumption. "To the admin office to pick up my check, then to see my boys for lunch. I think you'll like them," she said as they walked down the hallway.
"I think so too," he said, glancing uneasily at all the people they passed in the hall. They kept glancing at him curiously.
"Oh? Why's that?"
"I like you," he said firmly, as she opened the admin office door.
"You're not so bad yourself, Titus," Janice said, chuckling when he smiled brightly.
Mrs. Kipler looked up from her desk with interest. "Dr. Covington," she said with unusual politeness as she curiously eyed the young man in an ill-fitting suit. What is it with young people not caring about their appearance these days?
"Mrs. Kipler," Janice smiled weakly. "Are the checks ready yet?" She asked as walked to her mailbox.
"Yes, just like the memo said," she said, sorting through the stack of envelopes. When she pulled out the archeologist's check, the young man was standing in front of her, holding his hand out. Mrs. Kipler looked at the helpful man an uneasy moment and hesitantly handed him the envelope, but didn't let go. Instead, she pulled him closer as she leaned in to whisper. "So, she's the one, huh?" He followed her gaze to the archeologist, who grumbled as she fanned through the stack of memos she found in her box.
"Yes. She is the one," he answered with certainty, bringing a big grin to Mrs. Kipler's face. Wait until Gladys hears about this!!
"Well, congratulations. . . . ?" The older woman said, waiting for introductions.
"I'm Mrs. Kipler," she said, holding her hand out with a smile.
"I know. That's what Janice called you," he said, looking at her hand curiously.
Her smile faded as she awkwardly retracted her hand. They deserve each other.
The door opened and Nurse Gail entered with a smile, which quickly fell at the sight of Dr. Covington, who was reading through a stack of paper, crumbling up the sheets, and tossing them at a wastepaper basket. Nervously, she quickly approached the older woman's desk, hoping to get her check and leave, before an uncomfortable meeting with the archeologist.
"Mrs. Kipler, do you have the checks?" Gail asked softly, unable to stop glancing over to the archeologist, who was joined by a young man who handed her an envelope. Seeing Janice look up and spot her with surprise, Gail quickly averted her gaze and looked at the older woman with a weak smile.
"Yes, here you go." Mrs. Kipler handed over her check with a smile. "You know him?" She asked the young nurse, hoping to get a name.
"Uh . . . should I?" Gail asked.
"He's Dr. Covington's mysterious fiancé," Mrs. Kipler said in a whisper.
She's engaged?!? Nurse Gail's eyes widened.
"But he's terrible with his manners. Wouldn't even properly introduce himself," Mrs. Kipler said in a hushed voice. "It's no wonder we've all been guessing about him for weeks."
Gail's eyes narrowed. Weeks?!? She angrily turned, startled to find the archeologist standing in front of her and her fiancé hovering behind, smiling.
Janice wanted to get to the bottom of this ridiculous accusation. "Gail, can we go someplace and talk . . . ."
The slap was loud. And it stung. Janice would have cursed but . . . why bother? Sighing, she just rubbed her face as Gail stormed off. Apparently, Gail wasn't too thrilled about talking either, she concluded.
Janice looked at the stunned older woman, who she could almost see salivating at this juicy fodder. Perfect. "Have a nice day, Mrs. Kipler," Janice said with weak smile and started to leave with a confused Titus in tow.
"Janice?" Titus asked curiously as Janice reached the door. She sighed wearily, glancing at him just as the door opened abruptly, smacking her in the face. As her hand shot up to her nose and Janice stumbled back, Mel gasped.
"OH! I'm so sorry. Are you OK?" Melinda gushed with concern, reaching out only to pull awkwardly back.
With hand still on her nose, Janice blinked back tears. Now THAT hurt. She shook her head with a humorless laugh at the absurd question and left the office.
"Janice?" Titus asked, following after her.
"Shud dup, Tidus," she responded.
Though she wasn't sure what to expect when she first ran into Janice, it certainly wasn't this, Mel considered uneasily, watching the archeologist disappear around the hallway corner with that man. Her eyebrows furrowed. Who was that man?
"I'd call the nurse, but that might not be such a good idea," Mrs. Kipler said with a snicker as she pulled out Melinda's check.
Mel closed the door and walked to the older woman's desk. "Why?" Mel asked with concern, hoping Janice's indiscretion with the nurse had not become fodder for the gossip mongers.
"It seems Gail wasn't too pleased to find out that man was Dr. Covington's fiancé," she said with amusement.
"Fiancé?" Mel said with surprise.
"If you had been here a moment earlier, you'd have seen just how unpleased she was. Gail slapped her, right in that very spot," Mrs. Kipler shared enthusiastically.
Mel looked surprised then glanced down at her feet then back at the older woman. By every right she shouldn't care, but . . . she did.
"I think he must have been Gail's old boyfriend, before he got Dr. Covington in the family way," she said. She couldn't wait to tell ol' Gladys about today's spectacle.
Mel pushed up her glasses. "Thank you for the check, Mrs. Kipler."
"You're welcome, Dr. Pappas," she said as the phone rang. "Administrative Office, Mrs. Kipler speaking," she answered melodically as Melinda started to leave. "How may I help . . . ," she stopped abruptly and her cheerful demeanor disappeared.
"Dr. Pappas!" She called with alarm, stopping Melinda at the door. "Something has happened at the high school," she said urgently, holding out the phone for her.
"Janice, why did that woman slap you?" Titus asked as they walked down the street.
"Because, Titus, she's a woman. And that is the most you'll ever hope to know about them," she said with a nasal voice, tentatively touching her cheek with her free hand while her other hand still gingerly held her nose.
"But . . . you are a woman."
"Yeah," Janice sighed. "And I still have no hope of understanding them."
A frantically honking horn, startled Janice, who quickly turned to see a familiar sedan flying towards them. When the car screeched to a stop beside them, Janice immediately went to the car and looked into the passenger's window at the clearly worried driver.
"Mel?" Janice asked uneasily.
"Something's happened to Paul," Mel gushed with concern, confirming Janice's fear. "Get in, I'll drive you to the hospital."
"Hospital?" Janice said with alarm, then nodded nervously and quickly got in as Titus climbed in the back seat. Mel looked at him oddly but said nothing, pushed up her glasses, and peeled away from the curb.
"I don't know," Mel blurted with frustration, passing a car. "Grandmother called from the hospital and said there was an accident at the high school. She said they were looking at Paul now and hung up," Mel said, taking a few deep breaths as she passed another car.
Janice nodded. "Thank you," she blurted, looking at Mel uneasily. "For finding me and . . . thank you," she finished with an awkward whisper.
"Janice, the boys need us," Mel said firmly.
Janice glanced at her with surprise and confusion. Apparently, Mel had changed her mind since the other day, when she had clearly indicated that the boys didn't need her. But Janice held her tongue. She just nodded weakly.
Victoria and Daniel paced in the hospital waiting area, each taking turns glancing out the window when they passed it. When Janice and Mel burst into the hospital together, Victoria and Daniel looked at each other uneasily.
As they marched to the front desk, starting to demand information about Paul, Daniel called to them. "Muló, over here," Daniel said, gaining anxious looks from the two women. The front desk nurse watched the women abruptly turn and storm to the waiting area. Titus walked up a moment later, looked at the curious nurse, smiled, and turned, following behind the two worried women.
"How is he?!?" Janice asked with urgency as they joined Victoria and Daniel. "Where is he? What happened?!?" Janice blurted nervously. Instinctively, Mel placed a hand on Janice's shoulder and squeezed gently.
"He's in x-ray now," Victoria said, glancing from the two women to the unfamiliar man. "Who's that?" Daniel blurted, looking at Victoria uneasily then at the unexpected intruder, who smiled at him.
"Titus," Janice answered. Mel impatiently asked "What happened?"
"He fell from the bleachers," Daniel offered, cringing when Janice sucked in an uneasy breath as she thought the worst - head injury, broken neck, broken back . . . . Mel squeezed Janice's shoulder again.
"How . . . How high?" Janice asked.
"I, I don't know. I didn't see him fall," Daniel said uncomfortably, glancing at Victoria, who nodded in understanding and offered "Why don't we go to his room and wait there? It's more private."
"Third floor," Victoria said as they filled the elevator. As he pressed the button, Daniel glanced over to Janice and winced at how tense she was. Once again, Mel instinctively placed a comforting hand on Janice's shoulder, which relaxed slightly. Daniel briefly glanced up to Victoria, who firmly offered "it will be OK, Daniel."
"Yeah, Daniel. You always did say he had a hard head," Janice joked awkwardly, patting his back. He nodded with an uneasy sigh.
The elevator doors opened and the worried women quickly stepped out and looked at Victoria expectantly. "Room 323. Down the hall, turn right, last room at the end," she informed them, prompting silent nods before they anxiously headed towards the room. Victoria and Daniel looked at each other, then Titus.
"Mr. Titus," Victoria said and cleared her throat as she pulled out her change purse. "Would you mind terribly getting me something to drink? I'm a little parched. I'm sure Janice and Melinda might appreciate something too," she said with a smile handing him some change.
"OK," he said, looking curiously at the silver coins in his hand.
"Coca Cola would be fine," she said.
He nodded. "Where would I get that?"
Victoria and Daniel looked at each other.
Chapter 22 - A Family Affair
Janice pulled open the surprisingly heavy door, allowing Mel to enter the empty room first. Mel glanced around the Spartan and sterile space uncomfortably, noting curiously that the bed had leather straps on them. When Janice started to pace like a caged tiger in front of the barred window, Mel winced sympathetically and sat down on the lone chair, knowing Janice would not be needing it any time soon.
"Fucking bleachers?" Janice muttered with amazement, shaking her head. He had survived the camps when so many had not and now he could be . . . Jesus Christ, please don't let this be bad.
"I'm sure he'll be OK, Janice." Mel's words were as much for her as for Janice, who latched onto those words desperately.
"Yeah. Yeah, he's a tough kid," Janice said with forced confidence, absently touching her tender face and nose as she paced.
"Yes. He is," Mel agreed with a guilty cringe as her gaze dropped to the floor. "You know, when we see him, he'll probably wonder why we were so worried," she added with a shrug and pushed up her glasses.
Janice stopped her pacing a moment and eyed Mel, who looked up curiously. "What?" Mel asked.
Paul stood at the end of the corridor and nodded to Victoria, who glanced at Daniel and nodded, prompting him to quietly kneel down in front of the hospital room door with the report. Placing it on the floor, Daniel carefully slid it towards the door but stopped, quickly looking up with alarm. It wouldn't fit underneath the door.
Victoria's brow furrowed.
"I . . . never mind," Janice said, shaking her head as she returned to her pacing. "I don't want to argue. Paul needs US," she said pointedly.
Mel looked at her curiously and agreed. "Yes. He does."
"I'm really glad to hear that now," Janice said sharply.
"Janice, whatever problems we . . . . " Mel said, but stopped when Janice suddenly stopped pacing and glanced at her with an odd look on her face. ". . . What?"
Victoria held up her hands, motioning to him it was OK. In charade fashion, she opened her hands up like a book and took one imaginary sheet at a time and motioned to slide each one after the other. Daniel lit up with understanding and rolled his eyes at the obvious answer. Victoria smiled encouragingly.
"He's been in hospitals, but not as a patient. Not since Birkenau . . . ," Janice said with concern. "God, why didn't I even think of that?!?"
"Janice," Mel said confidently, standing up. "We'll go find him. And if he's upset, we'll help him."
Janice nodded, silently repeating the words "we'll help him" as they went to the door. Turning the handle, Janice pushed, but it wouldn't budge.
"What the . . . ?" Janice turned the handle and pushed again. The door wouldn't open. Peering through the long and slender, wire-reinforced door window, she caught a glimpse of lavender. The same lavender Victoria wore today.
Mel curiously eyed Janice, who sighed heavily and banged her head against the door a couple of times.
"Oh, they're good," Janice said. "And DEAD, because I'm going to fucking KILL THEM ALL for scaring the HELL OUT OF ME!" Janice bellowed and loudly pounded her fist against the locked door.
They jumped, clearly hearing the threats and pounding through the thankfully sturdy door.
"Well?" Victoria whispered impatiently, looking up and down the hall.
"There's still something in the way! I can't even get a damn piece of paper through!" Daniel hissed with concern as he frantically continued to jam another sheet of paper beneath the door, succeeding only in crumpling it into a wad against the door jam.
"Daniel, there's really no need for that kind of language," Victoria scolded the boy who looked up at her with amazement, convinced she didn't fully understand the situation.
"Have you tried on the sides?" Paul whispered with concern as he joined them.
"Yes!" Daniel snapped, still trying to force a piece of paper through.
"I don't suppose you have a plan "B"?" Paul asked Victoria.
"But they're good," Janice added bitterly and stepped back.
"Janice, what on Earth are you . . . ?" Mel said as Janice stepped back and graciously allowed her to try the door. "It's . . . locked," Mel said with confusion, then it finally dawned on her. "This whole thing was a setup?"
"Yes," Janice hissed tightly and walked to the barred window, which did not open enough for her to crawl out of. She'd have to break it then bust the bars. Her eyes narrowed as she seriously considered it.
Mel let out a breath of relief. "Thank the Lord Paul is OK."
"Until I see him," Janice growled and clenched her shaking hands as she shook her head with great irritation. She hated being manipulated! She hated feeling so out of control! She hated all of this!
Mel sighed and sat back down in the chair. "Well, since we're here, I suppose we should talk," she said uncomfortably, clenching her purse in her lap.
"Really? I had thought you covered all the bases, Mel. Or is there something else you wanted?" Janice snapped and looked out the barred window with consternation. Even if she could break the window and bust through the bars, they were three flights up, making the window escape route a bit more difficult. And if she killed herself, she really didn't want to have to explain.
Just when was this fucking nightmare going to end?
"Well, how about the truth for a change?" Mel snapped, prompting Janice to roll her eyes and conclude it wasn't going to end any time soon. "I just want to know . . . ," the Southerner asked as her gaze dropped to the floor and her anger fled, leaving behind the hurt. "Why? Why did you sleep with her, Janice?" She asked softly, pain and confusion evident her voice.
"I did not sleep with Gail," Janice said and sighed heavily. She looked down to the ground three stories below. It wasn't like it was certain she'd kill herself. . . .
"You know, I think that hurts just as much, Janice," Mel said blinking back tears. "This ridiculous denial. I think I could almost forgive you - if you were just honest with me."
The words struck an incredibly raw nerve. Janice spun around and glared at Mel, tired of being on the receiving end of these ludicrous accusations. "I'll tell you what hurts, Mel. You! Condemning me for something I would NEVER DO!" She erupted. "And you know something? I'm starting to wonder if this was all just an elaborate excuse to break up!"
"What?!?" Mel said incredulously. "I saw . . . !" She said, utterly flabbergasted.
"I knew it wouldn't be easy," Janice interrupted, her angry tirade was not to be denied. Enough was enough! "I even told you that when you found me. But you didn't listen! OK, fine. You tried. And I can accept that this wasn't what you bargained for, because it sure as hell wasn't what I bargained for. And somehow, because I really don't have a goddamned choice, I'll deal with the fact it's not what you want. I'm not what you want. But, Jesus Christ, Mel, couldn't you just fucking say so? Did you really need to accuse me of adultery!?!"
"We could always just open the door and hand it to them," Paul said as the three stood, holding various crumpled sheets of paper, and stared at the door while the shouting continued.
Victoria and Daniel slowly looked at Paul.
"I, I saw . . . !" Mel sputtered with amazement.
"And how DARE you give that little speech about the boys being better off with you . . . !"
"Speech? What sp . . . ?!?"
"You had every right to ask me to leave you, but did you really think I could just walk away from the boys just because you told me it would be best?"
"What!?!" Mel said, totally baffled at these absurd accusations. "I'd never. . . ."
"I'll tell you something, Mel. I don't give a flying fuck if I'm not a model parent! They have done all right by me. They've done better than all right," Janice angrily amended with conviction. "And I'm sure as hell not going to let you or anyone tell me . . . . "
"Good Lord, Janice, what are you talking about?!?" Mel interrupted, startled by Janice's outrage.
"I'm NOT going to leave the boys here with you and just disappear, just to make your life easier. I'd do almost anything for you, Mel. But not that," Janice ground out between clenched teeth.
"I have never asked you to!" Mel responded with shock. "I'd never, EVER do . . . that," she finished uneasily, the words of denial were eerily familiar. Only this time, she was the one proclaiming her innocence.
"Are you going to stand there and tell me that you did not tell me the boys would be better off with you?" Janice asked incredulously, recalling that painful conversation vividly.
"I swear to GOD, Janice. I never said that!" Mel said with amazement as Janice eyed her with anger that slowly turned into confusion, knowing Mel would never swear like that if it wasn't true.
The women stared at each other as their thoughts warred with their emotions.
"It's quiet again," Victoria said anxiously, quickly glancing at the twins with hope before straining to hear something through the door.
"Maybe they've killed each other," Daniel offered flatly, staring at the door with crumpled notes in hand.
"Muló's still going to come back and kill us," Paul said with a dejected sigh, glancing at the wads of paper he also held.
Daniel and Victoria eyed Paul.
"Janice . . . I saw you in your office with Gail . . . on the couch," Mel said uncomfortably. Seeing Janice cringe and shake her head no, she asked a question she had never thought to ask before. "Was that you?"
"No," Janice gushed, wanting to cry for joy, finally hearing a direct question. "I'd never do that," she added emphatically.
Desperately wanting to believe, Mel searched Janice's eyes, which would show her the answer. An answer she had been convinced she knew before, but now . . . she didn't know anything. Among the jumble of emotions reflected in the flecks of green, there was no hint of deception or guilty aversion of her gaze. Janice was telling her the truth. But how was that possible?
Janice was encouraged by the confused look on her partner's face. "And you didn't come to the house Saturday morning to tell me that the boys were better off with you?" She asked uneasily.
"Good Lord, no! I haven't even been to the house since Friday," she replied with bewilderment. "And you must believe me that I honestly don't think that, Janice," Mel added with concern, getting a small accepting nod from Janice as her mind raced to sift through the facts. "But . . . you saw me," Mel added, enormously disturbed at that thought. Janice nodded.
"And you saw me with Gail," Janice said as a matter-of-fact. Mel nodded with a wince at the memory. "What a coincidence," Janice added sarcastically as her eyes narrowed angrily.
Mel's moment of profound relief was short lived. "But how?" Mel blurted. "Why?"
"I don't know the how, Mel. But I think the why is simple," Janice said and added "Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to get me out of the way."
Mel looked at Janice curiously before her eyes grew wide in understanding as the events of the past month started to fall into place.
"Dear Lord! She tried to kill you!" Mel said with horror, which transformed into incredible anger. "Oh, she's not going to get away with that," Mel warned in a low growl as her eyes dangerously narrowed. When she stepped towards the door, it looked like she might rip it off its hinges.
"Whoa, Sweetheart," Janice said with concern, reaching out and grasping her lover's forearm. "We can't just charge in and hope for the best."
"Are you saying we do nothing?!?" Mel roared incredulously, startling Janice. "Good Lord, Janice, she's been trying to kill you!! I am NOT going to just stand by and do nothing. I am NOT going to let her continue to torment you with whatever her sick little mind . . . !?! Why on EARTH are you smiling like that?!?" Mel blurted with exasperation, seeing Janice's happy face.
"I love you, too."
"Go on," Victoria urged Daniel, who stood at the door warily.
"Why do I have to go first?" Daniel muttered unhappily, glancing at Paul.
"You're braver than I am?" Paul shrugged, prompting a groan from his brother.
"But they would be less likely to hit an old . . . ," Daniel said, pointing to the Pappas Matriarch, whose eyes widened indignantly. "Mature? Uh . . . I'll go," he finished uncomfortably, gingerly retracting his finger.
Daniel cautiously looked through the narrow window and sighed with relief, surprising Victoria and Paul, who leaned over to look into the window. They all smiled at the very right sight of Mel holding Janice tightly in her arms. The trio of smiles nervously faded as the women slowly stepped back from the embrace and glanced right at them with neutral expressions.
Janice beckoned them with her index finger.
After they hesitantly filed into the hospital room and the door closed behind them, Janice erupted. "Do you know what you put us through?!? Jesus Christ! After the past few days of hell, you just had to add to it?!?" Her angry blast made Victoria blanch and the boys look to Mel for help.
"Well, Janice, this . . . deception . . . did actually work out for the best," Mel offered diplomatically and squeezed her partner's hand, getting an incredulous look.
"We were only trying to get you two to talk," Victoria explained quickly.
"We did," Mel said softly as she squeezed Janice's hand again. Janice sighed heavily, reluctantly acknowledging that was what she had wanted. Though she was still not pleased that they had scared the hell out of her in the process.
"I hope you know, Melinda, Janice could not have possibly . . . ," Victoria said, pausing uncomfortably as she considered the appropriate word.
"Fucked," Daniel provided helpfully.
"What?!?" He said with irritation, glancing at the disapproving four.
". . . had "relations" with that woman in her office," Victoria corrected pointedly, prompting the three conspirators to hold out crumpled proof in their hands.
"What's that, Bleacher Boy?" Janice snapped, grabbing a ball of paper from Paul, who cringed.
"A time line of your activities, which I had confirmed by various people, which puts you many places that day, Janice," Victoria explained. "But not in your office when Melinda supposedly saw you," she declared with conviction, looking at Mel, who was amazed. Her grandmother was looking out for Janice when no one else was. Including me, Mel thought guiltily.
Janice glanced up from the wrinkled paper with surprise.
"I know it wasn't Janice," Mel said uneasily, adding a weak "now."
Janice nodded and awkwardly focused on the paper in hand, too stunned to read a single word. Effort on her behalf by the Pappas Matriarch, especially involving her worthiness for her granddaughter, was the last thing the archeologist would have expected.
Victoria looked between the two women as Janice took another piece of paper from Paul and stared at it with great concentration.
"But you were so sure, Melinda. What did you see?" Victoria asked Mel with confusion.
"I know this will sound odd," Mel prefaced, causing the three to roll their eyes. "But I did see Janice with Gail," she said, holding her hands up and quickly continued to preempt protests. "But it was someone else . . . someone who has the ability to change her appearance," Melinda said uncomfortably. "She even posed as me and went to the house Saturday to tell Janice to leave!"
"Who would do that?" Victoria asked, aghast.
"Miranda," Janice growled, looking up from the crumpled paper with anger.
"How?" The twins asked.
Janice and Mel looked at each other and sighed with frustration.
"I've got the soda!" Titus announced happily as he entered the room with three bottles of soda awkwardly clenched to his chest, clinking together.
Janice looked at him thoughtfully as he handed out the soda to Victoria then Mel. Mel looked at the bottle in her hand then curiously at Janice who accepted a soda and started to laugh wearily. Pinching the bridge of her sore nose, Janice asked "Uh, Titus? About this book of yours. . . ."
"Janice, I don't like this!" Melinda said with annoyance after Victoria and the boys reluctantly left the hospital room. Now Janice was trying to get her to leave too!
"Mel, you know she's dangerous. If she thinks her plan to keep us apart didn't work, she'll try something else. And if she gets mad at you. . . ." Janice said with worry.
"With the Book, she has the power to hurt you and your family," Titus interjected gravely.
"She already has!" Mel cried with frustration, looking at the one hurt the most.
"Mel, I can't protect you or the family if she turns against you. I have to get that book back before she knows we're on to her."
"I know," Mel said begrudgingly, then growled. "But why you?" She looked at Titus with irritation. "He lost the book. Why can't he get it back?!?" He flinched at her glare.
"He asked for help," she said, then smirked. "And he thinks I'm special. Right, Titus?"
"Yes," Titus said seriously.
"She's special to me, Titus," Mel countered firmly. "Why is she special to you?"
Janice and Mel were surprised by the answer. They waited for him to explain, but he didn't. Janice rolled her eyes as Mel growled impatiently and asked "Why does that matter?"
"Mel, you really need to go and let me quiz Titus about the book," Janice said uneasily when another person passed the door.
"Aren't you the least bit curious as to why he thinks your immortality will help?" Mel said with amazement.
"Yes, but right now we don't have the time it'll take to get a useful answer," she said, causing Titus to furrow his brow. "And I don't want to risk being seen together. She'll find out. I don't know how she knew exactly what buttons to push, but it was like she was watching us. You've got to go, Sweetheart," Janice said uneasily, glancing at the door.
"Janice, you can not do this alone. I am not going to just . . . ."
"Mel, we shouldn't waste time arguing," Janice interrupted firmly, then softly added "Please, Mel."
Mel closed her eyes at those two, highly unfair words and exhaled loudly. "You'd better tell me what you are doing," she warned as she rested her forehead on Janice's, as if their touching gave her strength. A hand instinctively rose to caress Janice's cheek, which she felt lift in a small smile.
"I will. As soon as I know, you'll know," Janice said softly, pulling away the distracting hand that had started to trail down her neck. "Mel. . . ."
With her other hand, Mel lifted Janice's chin and looked into her eyes with a mix of sadness and guilt. "I've missed you," she whispered emotionally, before placing a tender kiss upon Janice's lips.
Titus looked at the two curiously, as the kiss grew.
Knowing if she didn't stop now, she might not be able to, Mel reluctantly pulled back with a growl. Gazing into her lover's blinking eyes, she took a quick, fortifying breath, and promptly left.
Janice stared at the door, still blinking and catching her breath. Even with the sexual frustration she now had to deal with, she smiled, feeling more at peace than she had over the past couple of days. Though she had no idea how they were going to get through this mess with Miranda, she somehow knew they would.
Chapter 23 - A Dinner Date
As she left the room and walked down the hallway, Melinda grimaced with frustration. From the most wonderful revelation, which she didn't even have the time to properly enjoy, to a most frightening discovery, life had once again proven anything but dull. She wondered how much longer they would be separated, not sure she could endure much more. They had already lost eight years and now Miranda was stealing more time from them, she thought angrily as she rubbed the back of her neck.
When she turned the corner and took a step towards the elevators, her anger turned to fear. Mel stopped, sucking in a nervous breath as she watched Miranda walk towards her deep in thought. Mel took a step backwards, then another, in hopes of retreating around the corner unseen. Mel winced as she saw the student look in her direction.
"Dr. Pappas?" Miranda said with surprise. Mel smiled weakly at her.
"Miranda, what are you doing here?" She said with forced nonchalance, pushing up her glasses with a slightly trembling hand.
"I was visiting with Ellen," she said, pointing absently over her shoulder.
"H..How is she?" Mel asked.
"Still unconscious," Miranda said and sighed. "What are you doing here?"
She nervously adjusted her glasses as her mind raced. While she certainly felt ill at the moment, Mel knew that at some point, Miranda would hear about Paul so she opted for cautious truth. "Well," she said uneasily. "I was told that Paul was injured so I came right over."
"Dear Lord, is he OK?" Miranda said with genuine concern.
"Uh, yes, thankfully," Mel said, looking at her with surprise. "It turned out to be a ploy to get Janice and I to talk," Mel said, swallowing nervously as Miranda's face darkened. She had seen that face before, when they had "the talk" in her office and the subject of Janice came up. But this time, she knew what Miranda was capable of doing - and that was truly frightening.
"Really?" She said flatly.
"Janice and I . . . well," Mel quickly said with a deliberate sigh, fully aware that Miranda had to be handled carefully. "There are just some problems that can't be resolved with words," she added sadly, noting the curious student regarding her curiously as she pressed the down button. "Would you like a ride back to campus?" Mel suddenly offered the surprised young woman, who immediately brightened to Mel's relief.
"Uh, yes. Thank you," she gushed.
When the elevator arrived and the doors opened, Melinda politely allowed the beaming student to go first. Glancing down the hall, Mel thought her heart stopped when Janice and Titus came around the corner and headed towards her. When Mel's eyes widened in panic, Janice stopped and held out her hand, stopping Titus, who looked curiously between the two women and started to say something.
"Are you OK, Dr. Pappas?"
Melinda's head snapped towards the elevator. "Yes! Yes. I guess, I'm a little off. Today has been rather . . . difficult," she said, shaking her head as she walked into the elevator.
When Mel turned and pushed the button for the main lobby, Miranda's eyes lit up as a wonderful idea came to her. "You know, talking to a sympathetic ear might help. Why don't we have dinner tonight? My treat?" Miranda said with a hopeful smile.
"Tonight?" Mel blurted nervously, pushing up her glasses. "Uh, OK," she offered weakly.
The elevator doors closed.
As they drove to campus, Mel was quiet, hoping Janice would find the book soon or she might just strangle the happily rambling student. Rambling on and on as if she hadn't tried to kill my lover, twice, Mel thought with clenched teeth.
"Are you OK, Melinda?" Miranda asked, eyeing her curiously.
"I will be. It has been a stressful day."
"They shouldn't have scared you like that," Miranda said tightly.
"They really did mean well, Miranda. My family has always done what they thought was best for me," Mel spouted nervously. "And this time, they thought that meant talking with Janice. They had hoped I'd forgive her. . . . but sometimes, there are some things you can't just forgive," Mel said vaguely, glancing at the student.
"So, you and Dr. Covington had a falling out?" She asked innocently.
"Yes," Mel said tightly.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Miranda said with a poorly hidden smirk. Mel fumed as she bit her tongue.
"So . . . what happened?"
"Miranda, it's private and I'd prefer not to discuss Dr. Covington with you," Mel snapped.
"Of course," the student quickly said with concern. "Please know, I really do care about you, Melinda. I want to be your friend," she said as Mel pulled the car to the curb in front of the quad.
The muscles in Mel's jaw flexed again. She looked to the student, who waited for a response. She looks so young and innocent, Mel thought with amazement.
"Well, I appreciate your concern, Miranda. But the past few days have been very difficult for me and I'm not ready to discuss them - even with a friend. I'm sorry," Mel offered briskly and looked out the windshield.
"I understand. So . . . am I?" Miranda asked timidly. Mel looked at her curiously. "Your friend?" The student said.
"I had hoped you would be," Mel said honestly.
Miranda instantly smiled. "Well then, I am. A..Are you still interested in dinner?" She asked hesitantly.
"Seven-ish?" Mel asked, gaining another smile.
"Should I come by and pick you up or would you rather meet someplace?"
"I don't want to trouble you," Miranda gushed, prompting Mel's hands to strangle the steering wheel.
"Why don't I come by?"
"That would be wonderful," Miranda said wistfully. "It'll give me time to freshen up."
"Yes. Uh . . . what's your room number?"
"213, but I can come down and meet you here."
"A lady doesn't wait at the curb, Miranda," Melinda said firmly.
"You're so sweet."
Mel forced a smile. "I'll see you at seven, Miranda," Melinda said as the student happily nodded and exited the car.
With a happy wave, Miranda walked towards the dormitory with a bounce in her step.
Mel leaned back in the car seat and looked up. Dear Lord, help me through this.
When Mel returned to the mansion, she was startled by the crowd of concerned family members waiting for her in the foyer.
"Melinda, what are we going to do now?" Victoria asked. "Honey, can we help?" William asked. "Yeah Mama, what can we do?" JJ asked. "We'll help too," the twins said.
"Stop! Please," Mel said, halting the barrage of well-meaning offers. "I appreciate the support but you could get hurt. That's the last thing Janice and I want. Please, just let us handle this."
Ignoring the unhappy grumbling, she looked at her watch. "I've got to go get ready," Mel said and climbed the stairs.
"Ready?" Victoria asked. "For what?"
"Dinner," she said numbly.
With her hair pinned up, Mel sat in the tub full of comfortably hot water. Absently gliding her buoyant arms through the water, she sighed heavily, staring at the wall on the other side of the bathroom. She had hoped the hot water would help relax her. With a defeated shake of her head, she got out of the tub and pulled a fluffy white towel from the towel rack and dried herself off.
What was she thinking? Well, she knew what she was thinking, but she wondered why it seemed like a good idea at the time. How on Earth would she be able to sit through a meal with Miranda? With a fortifying breath, she sternly reminded herself that handling the unpleasantness of an onerous evening with an objectionable dinner companion was not a unique challenge to a Southern lady. Though, she suspected finishing school was not considering the case where a dinner companion's objectionable qualities included an inclination towards murder.
Slipping on her robe and glasses, she returned to the bedroom.
As she headed for the closet to pick out an outfit, she glanced over to the corner of the room and jumped, spotting Janice sitting in the reading chair. Despite the narrow eyes, furrowed brow, and tense posture that strongly hinted at displeasure, Mel started to smile, always pleased to see her archeologist . . . if that was her archeologist.
Oh my. Her smile faded. How was she going to tell whether it was Janice? Mel nervously tightened her sash and looked anxiously at her visitor, who was breathing rapidly, like she had just run a long way.
"What the FUCK do you think you are doing?" Janice finally erupted, bolting from the chair.
Mel exhaled with relief. "Getting dressed?"
"Mel," Janice growled then asked incredulously "Dinner? Dinner?!?"
"Janice, I bumped into her at the elevators. Then you came. I had to do something,!" Mel said with exasperation.
"Dating her. Good plan."
"Janice, she was the one who suggested dinner. I didn't want to make her upset by refusing. You said we should keep her happy until you get the book," Mel pointed out.
"And just how "happy" do you intend on making her?!?"
"Janice . . . ," Mel said wearily.
"What if she wants a goodnight kiss? Did you think about that? And what if she wants more than that?!?" Janice blurted with concern.
"I don't think she'll want to ruin our budding relationship trying to rush into anything," Mel said with calm reason.
"What if you're wrong?" Janice challenged.
"Well, I am a Southern lady, Janice. I know how to stall," Mel said, slightly offended.
Ignoring Janice's baiting, Mel continued. "If you think about it, Janice, this really is a perfect opportunity. While she's preoccupied, you can look for the book which is probably in her room," Mel said with enthusiasm for that plan, which could finally end this horrible situation.
"And just how "preoccupied" do you intend . . . mmffpt!" Janice's protest was silenced by a kiss, which ended too soon. Janice cleared her throat and muttered "that had better not be your answer."
Mel smiled, giving a quick peck on Janice's lips. "She's in room 213," Mel informed her and tenderly traced over the suddenly furrowed brow before tenderly kissing it.
"And if that's what you consider stalling, I am NOT letting you leave this room," Janice declared, getting Mel to chuckle.
"Promises, promises," Mel said seductively and kissed her other brow.
"Mel, I just don't like this," Janice protested.
"Is this better?" She asked and kissed Janice on the cheek.
"Mel. . . ."
Mel sighed. "I know you're not happy about it, Janice. But I really can't back out now," she said, kissing Janice's other cheek.
"You could get sick?" Janice suggested hopefully. Mel rolled her eyes.
"Shouldn't you be planning with Titus or something?" She asked, kissed Janice on the nose, and smiled.
"You really want to do this," Janice said flatly.
"No. I'd rather spend my time with you and the boys in our home! But the sooner you get that book the sooner we can move past this whole mess and we can go home," Mel said with frustration.
The archeologist nodded with a weak chuckle. "And just deal with the mess we had before," Janice offered with a dejected sigh, glancing at Mel uncertainly. Though she knew the hurtful words were Miranda's, she couldn't help but think about them. Mel had to put up with a lot. And she still had no clue how they were going face the future, Janice thought as her eyes dropped with guilt.
"Janice," Mel said with concern. "I love you and the boys. I can't see my life without you and I don't want to. I know we have a few problems and I know I've been afraid of some of them. But even when I've been afraid, I had this feeling, deep down," she said, placing Janice's hand against her heart. ". . . that we'll be OK, Janice. As long as we face them together," Mel said with conviction, looking intently into Janice's eyes.
Janice nodded. With great need, Janice burrowed into the tall woman's arms. Mel was her refuge. Her home.
After a moment, Mel gently lifted up her chin and brushed their lips together. The brief touch was followed by a tender kiss that became more passionate as their caressing touches grew bolder and more insistent. With immense will power, Janice pulled back and cleared her throat.
Mel understood why, but wasn't happy about it. She exhaled with frustration as she fanned herself with the collar of her robe. Janice smiled with amusement and tenderly caressed her cheek before walking to the door. As she placed a hand on the doorknob, Mel offered "Good luck."
Janice turned and for a long moment, looked thoughtfully at the woman who had given her so much.
"What?" Mel asked when Janice's eyebrows furrowed.
"Are you sure you feel up to going out? How's your throat?"
"Janice," Mel groaned.
"Oooh, that sounds pretty bad, Mel," Janice offered. Mel shook her head wearily with a small smile, which Janice shared.
"I'll see you later," Mel said. Janice nodded and left the room.
"Are you sure you don't want to just use the front door?" JJ asked in a loud whisper as Janice started to climb out of the same window she climbed in. It was nicely framed by very large, beautifully leafy trees that provided excellent cover. However, when she had stepped inside, she quickly discovered it was JJ's room when he jumped up and gave her a big hug. Now, he looked at her with concern.
"Nah. Bad luck," she said, glancing up with a wink.
"Sure . . . if someone sees me that shouldn't see me . . . ," Janice said vaguely as she shifted against the windowsill on her stomach and carefully planted a foot on the trellis.
"Oh. So would you say it was worth some Baklava to keep me quiet?" He started, prompting Janice to stop and level a glare at him. "But . . . ," he immediately protested. "But you said when I have an advantage, I could use it. Now I have the advantage."
"Yes," she responded, finding a footing for her other foot. "The important part is deciding when to use it. Right now? Pressing your advantage would work against the family."
"I don't want to do that," he said with worry.
"I know, Sport. But I have to say, your instincts for identifying opportunity are sharp," she said, getting a smile. "But you are still as subtle as a sledge hammer." He frowned. "What if you found Daniel or Paul were like this?" Janice asked curiously, motioning to herself and the window.
"Definitely my advantage," JJ said confidently.
"But. . . ."
"But. . . ?"
"If I kept quiet, then they could go off and do something stupid. Like drink alcohol or something."
Janice knew they wouldn't be rushing off to drink.
She actually didn't mind if they drank as long as they didn't try to hide it. Her opinions on alcohol differed greatly from Mel's, having been allowed to drink at a young age by her Dad. She did not think it had to be such a big deal, especially since the bigger the deal, the more likely kids wanted to do it, regardless of whether they liked it or not. She remembered catching the twins sneaking beer when they were thirteen. She surprised the hell out of them by allowing them to drink their fill with her. They promptly drank more than that and got really sick. Caring for hung-over twins wasn't exactly pleasant, but she did enjoy telling the young, hung over boys "Rule three - be prepared to pay the price if you screw up."
When she later invited them to have a beer with her, they looked at her with grimaces and declined. Since then, they haven't expressed an interest in drinking.
"I know you and Mama wouldn't want them to," JJ continued.
"We don't want them to sneak around and get themselves into trouble," Janice said, aware both of them were in agreement there.
"So, I couldn't keep quiet and have to tell on them. So, I really wouldn't have an advantage."
"Yes you would."
"No, I wouldn't. That would not be good for Daniel or Paul or you and Mama."
"You'd still have an advantage, JJ. But you have a choice. Will your potential gain be worth the other person's possible loss? Sometimes that question is hard to stop and ask yourself, especially when the gain is so tempting, like some Baklava."
"I don't want Baklava that much," JJ said thoughtfully, getting an approving nod and smile.
"Good. Perhaps tomorrow you can share with me some of your Baklava that's filling up your great grandmother's refrigerator," she said as she looked behind her at the path she was going to take on the trellis. Why was going up always was so much easier?
"Again? There's not that much . . . . Hey, how did you know there's any Baklava? You didn't go to the kitchen," JJ asked suspiciously, prompting an amused smile from the archeologist. "You are not omniscient," he quickly countered.
"You weren't at the hospital and you've got Victoria wrapped around your little finger," Janice informed him, knowing full-well Victoria wasn't the only one. The seven-year-old grinned unrepentantly and shrugged.
Janice winked and started down the trellis.
Busily finishing up with her makeup, Miranda took a look at herself in the mirror. She smiled, happier than she had ever been. Everything was working out as she had hoped.
Hearing a knock on the door, she jumped. "Oh my! She's here. She's here," Miranda rambled nervously as she started for the door then dashed back to the mirror for a final look. Finding a stray strand of hair, she tucked it behind her ear. "She's here!" She softly squeaked in delight.
Rushing to the door, she paused to collect herself and straighten her dress nervously. Stop acting like a giddy schoolgirl, she scolded herself with a grimace, knowing that wouldn't do at all around the sophisticated Southerner. After a couple of calming breaths, she opened the door and smiled brightly at the tall professor. She's so beautiful, Miranda thought wistfully.
"Am I early?" Mel asked, rubbing the back of her neck.
"No. You are perfect . . . ," she sighed happily.
"Thank you. Though, I know many who would disagree," Mel said with a polite smile.
Miranda laughed and laughed, causing Mel to slightly wince. "Oh, you have such a wonderful sense of humor," the student said merrily as she grabbed her purse.
"Thank you," Mel said awkwardly and noted to herself to avoid all humor. "Did you have someplace in mind?"
"I know you love the Spot."
"We don't have to go there. Where would you like to go?"
"The Spot is fine," Miranda said with a smile, causing Mel to sigh. "Is something wrong?"
"No. It's just that . . ." Mel said and paused deliberately.
"Janice and I went there often. I'd just rather go somewhere else." . . . and avoid an interrogation by a nosey hostess.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't even think about that."
"What about Danby's, just outside of town?"
"I've never been there."
"Well then, it will be an adventure for both of us," Mel declared with a smile, getting a happy nod from the student.
Chapter 24 - The Date From Hell
Mel was relieved when they entered the restaurant. It was dark. Normally, she preferred to be able to see beyond her own nose and read the menu, but the dark room held a certain appeal this evening. The hostess looked up from her podium and smiled.
"We don't have any reservations. I hope that is not a problem," Melinda said with a smile.
"Not at all. As you can see, we are not terribly busy on the weekdays," she said, motioning to the dark room. Mel squinted curiously as the hostess led them to their seats.
"Your waitress will be with you in a moment," she said, handing them their menus with a smile.
"It seems . . . nice," Miranda offered hesitantly, squinting through her glasses as she looked around.
"How can you tell?" Mel said flatly, adjusting her glasses as she looked around. Miranda laughed and laughed and laughed, making Mel cringe and add sarcasm to her list of things to avoid.
Titus and Janice stood on top of the roof of Miranda's dormitory. He watched as Janice checked on the knot securing the rope to the metal ladder railing for the third time. She planned for them to climb down from the roof and enter through the window. After glancing at her watch, she looked at the slowly setting sun, and sighed.
"Why are we waiting?"
"Harder to see us when it's night," Janice said, checking on the knot and the rope again.
"Oh," Titus said, peaking over the side uneasily, through the branches to the ground.
"You don't like heights?"
He looked at her with a grimace and shook his head no.
The waitress came to their table and smiled. "Would you like something to drink?" She asked, prompting serious contemplation by Mel.
"Rum and Coca Cola, please," Miranda said with a smile, then gushed "I just love that old song, don't you?"
Mel smiled weakly and nodded. Old song?
"I'll have a coffee," Mel said, making the student frown.
"I'll have a coffee instead," Miranda quickly said, surprising the waitress, who sighed and scratched out the rum and coke and scribbled coffee.
"You don't have to have coffee on my account, Miranda," Mel said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," Mel said, biting her tongue to avoid a sarcastic comment.
"Well then, I'd like a rum and Coca Cola," Miranda said, smiling at the waitress, who smiled weakly and scratched out the coffee and scribbled down the drink.
"Have you decided on dinner or would you like a few more minutes?"
"A few more minutes please," Miranda said. "This all looks so good, how am I ever going to decide?" She added, shaking her head.
The waitress looked at Mel, who smiled weakly and shrugged. "I'll be back with your drinks in a moment," she said and rolled her eyes as she left their table.
"You seem upset," Titus noted as Janice paced on the roof with a frown.
"I just don't like Mel being on a date when it's not with me."
"But you said she was giving us time to find the book," Titus said curiously.
"No!" Janice blurted out with irritation, then sighed. "Not exactly," she said, then growled "Kind of."
"It doesn't make any sense, I know. She loves me, not Miranda. But with that book, I don't know what Miranda might do to get what she wants," she said, shaking her head. "Do you know what it's like to lose someone you love, Titus?"
"I've only lost a book . . . "
"I thought I lost her a few years ago, when I thought she got married," Janice said quietly, looking at the pinks and oranges of the sun slowly setting. "I wanted to die. A part of me did."
"But you can't die," Titus said curiously.
"Yeah," Janice said dejectedly. "You can't always get what you want."
"You want to die?" He asked, genuinely surprised.
"Not right at the moment, Titus. But who in their right mind would want to be immortal?"
"Mortals. Throughout history has not mankind sought some sort of immortality. Medical advances, pagan rituals, religions, superstitions . . . " he rattled off.
"That only proves the grass is always greener," she said with a soft chuckle, getting a curious look. "People might think immortality means having the time to learn and do amazing things, or to gain power and wealth," Janice said with a shrug. "I suppose it does. But what if you are already experiencing something amazing, right now? What if you've found someone that loves you, balances you . . . fits with you perfectly," she said with wonder. "Someone you know is half your heart and soul," she said with conviction. "Then immortality only means living an eternity without them after they're gone. Now why would I want that?" She asked with a grimace.
Titus looked at her with a frown. "You could try and find someone else to love."
"It wouldn't be Mel," Janice said, shaking her head.
"No, but . . . "
"Titus . . . even if I could bring myself to find someone else, they would eventually die too. Don't you see?" She said with irritation that quickly faded. It wasn't his fault he didn't understand, she thought and sighed. "I've seen enough death already. I don't need to see anymore," she said softly, looking at him sadly. "But thanks to ambrosia, I don't have a choice."
"You're not afraid of dying?"
She shook her head. "Eternal life if far more frightening."
Titus looked at her thoughtfully.
The waitress came back with the drinks. "Are you ready?" She asked, pulling out her pad and pen and offered with a smile, "The special is chicken and dumplings."
"The duck looks wonderful. I'll have the duck," Miranda said confidently. The waitress nodded and wrote down duck. "But . . . the steak with a baked potato and that vegetable medley is so tempting," Miranda said, adding "mmmmm." Mel cringed as the waitress sighed and briskly crossed out the duck.
Miranda giggled, gaining curious looks from Mel and the waitress. "I just love the English language," she shared. "Of course "medley" is derived from the Medieval Latin misculare - to mix thoroughly," the student informed the waitress, who stared at her blankly. "But I can't help but picture a group of vegetables singing," Miranda shared and chuckled at her amusing thought as she returned her attention to the menu.
The waitress stood, not nearly as amused, and impatiently tapped her pen on her pad, waiting. Mel winced.
"What was the special again?" Miranda asked.
"Chicken and dumplings," the waitress said flatly.
"Hmmmmm. Oh, that fish platter sounds good . . . is it fresh?" Miranda asked, looking up from the menu curiously. "I really don't like fish when it is . . . well, fishy," she said with a grimace. "If you know what I mean."
"Why don't I go check on the fish for you?" The waitress said tightly and escaped to the kitchen. Miranda smiled at Mel, who weakly smiled, wondering if they'd see the waitress again.
"So what are you thinking of getting?" Miranda asked, still undecided.
A couple of aspirin and a bottle of Southern Comfort? "The special," Mel said and pushed up her glasses. The student nodded thoughtfully and returned her gaze to the menu.
Mel glanced out the window longingly as she rubbed the back of her neck. Maybe I do have a scratchy throat, she contemplated as her fingers brushed over her throat as she cleared it. But Janice would need more time, she considered and sighed, resigning herself to staying.
Janice watched the sky grow darker and the stars begin to waken. She pulled a quarter from her pocket and loaded the slingshot. "So, all I have to do is grab the book," she said, glancing down through the branches to ensure the coast was clear on the walkway below.
". . . and give it to you?" Janice repeated the plan, aimed, and fired, squarely hitting and shattering the nearby lamp, which immediately darkened the area.
"Yes," he said and added "sort of." He received an annoyed look from Janice.
"What the hell does that mean?!?"
"Miranda has a bond with the book. That bond must be broken before I can return the book to its proper place."
"Titus, are you saying . . . I have to kill her?" She asked with alarm.
"No. She will not even be injured if the bond is broken properly. Either she willingly gives up the book," he said, gaining a snort from Janice, who thought that kind of power would be impossible for the student to give up. "Or you can break that bond by reading the incantation on the first few pages."
"What language?" She asked, skeptical that it was going to be easy.
"Aeolic," he said.
"As in a dialect of Greek?" Janice asked for clarification.
He nodded. Janice nodded, feeling a bit of hope. Maybe this thing was going to work out after all. "So the book is from Greece?" She asked, her curiosity peaking.
Janice blew out a frustrated breath and looked into the dark sky. "Let's go."
After Mel took the opportunity to order for both of them, since Miranda was unable to choose, they finally got their meals.
"This place was a great idea," Miranda offered.
Mel smiled weakly. "I'm glad you approve."
"Oh yes," Miranda said with an enthusiastic smile. "May I ask you something?"
Mel nodded hesitantly and braced herself.
"I am planning on getting my doctorate, but I know when you got yours, you were a bit older than most students. Why did you wait?"
Mel exhaled and smiled - an easy topic. "I had always wanted to be a translator, like my Daddy. He opened a wonderful door for me by teaching me what he knew. It was fascinating to be able to read the original text and not some third-hand interpretation edited by a supposed scholar. But even though I was good at it, really good, I never got any encouragement from home to pursue a career."
"Why not?" Miranda said with surprise. "You said they wanted what was best for you."
"Well, they wanted what they thought was best for me. At the time, my grandmother thought the only Southern women with careers were prostitutes," Mel said dryly, gaining a frown from Miranda.
"In her opinion, a Southern lady's role was to marry well, have a family, and become a leader in Southern society. I was to follow in the long line of Pappas women. When my Daddy died, I was thirty, still single, and almost ready to believe that. But then, I found a note in my father's study asking for help translating ancient Greek. I took it as a sign. So, I went to Macedonia to answer that note. It was my first time outside the country and I went alone," Mel said with some pride. "That certainly shocked my family. They didn't think I had it in me. They also thought I'd be home in a month, disillusioned and ready to forget that "translating nonsense." Well, a year later," Mel said with a satisfied smile. "I returned with . . . ," Mel said and stopped uneasily. Clearing her throat, she quickly sipped her water as her mind raced. "Excuse me," she said with a weak smile to the mesmerized student, who nodded.
"I returned with a better sense of myself. And I was determined to live life the way I saw fit. The way I needed to, to be happy. Thankfully, my family finally came around to understand and accept that," Mel said, knowing how woefully incomplete her story was without mentioning the very reason for her confidence and ultimately, her happiness.
When she first laid eyes on the extraordinary woman, whose rugged attire routinely included a pistol and bullwhip that complemented her "don't fuck with me" attitude, Melinda knew she was someone who lived life to its fullest and on her own terms. She had to know what drove that fiercely independent woman, whose intoxicating confidence demanded respect or at the very least, cautious consideration. Melinda had to know everything about this dangerous woman whose simple presence aroused her like no other.
Mel cleared her throat. "So what about your family, Miranda? Do they support your choices?"
Miranda glanced down at her chicken and stabbed it with her fork. "They never approved of anything I did. We never got along," she said with a shrug and forced smile.
"Well, take it from me, families can change their minds," she said encouragingly. "It just takes love and lots of patience. . . ."
"They're dead," Miranda interrupted coldly, then smiled and took a dainty bite of her chicken, which she quickly swallowed. "This really is delicious, Melinda. I'm so glad you decided for me. And I'm really glad we gave this place a try. You never know what kind of food you'll get when . . . ," Miranda said, continuing to ramble on.
Whatever appetite Melinda may have had was now gone.
Janice, climbed over the edge of the roof and rappelled down the side of the building. Reaching Miranda's window, she opened it and climbed inside. Taking a few steps, she tripped over something big and fell down.
"Goddamnedsonofa. . . ," she growled and got up, looking around the incredibly neat room then at the trunk she had tripped over. Kneeling down, she lifted the hefty lock up and inspected it with interest. Glancing around the room, she spotted a hairbrush. Next to it, she quickly found a couple of hair pins and returned to the lock. With practiced ease, she inserted the pins and promptly opened the lock with a satisfied smile. Piece of cake.
Noting Titus's continued absence, Janice frowned and went to the window, looking up. With a wince, she hesitantly looked down - she still didn't see him. "Titus!" She called up with hushed annoyance. "Come on Titus! Get the fu. . . ."
"Yes?" He said from directly behind her, making her jump.
"Jesus! How did y . . . Why the hell didn't you tell me you could do that!" Janice growled.
"You didn't ask." He looked at her, puzzled.
Chapter 25 - How Do I Love Thee?
On the slow drive back to campus, another car passed them. Startling Mel, Miranda leaned towards her. The student eyed the speedometer, then Melinda, and smiled with delight. "You're not anxious to get back either, I see."
"Uh, no," Mel said nervously, making Miranda smile with joy.
"We could go someplace," Miranda suggested, eyeing the beautiful woman's distinguished profile with a slight smile.
Dear Lord. "Oh? What did you have in mind?" Attempting nonchalance, Mel's voice cracked.
"We could go to Granby road and look at the stars by the river," Miranda said.
"Granby road?!?" Mel thought with panic, knowing that was a popular romantic spot with college students.
Oh Janice, hurry up!
Opening the lid, Janice found what she was looking for. "I'll be damned," she said. She eyed the old leather-bound book with interest, wondering where it came from, where it had been, what it was capable of. She looked up at Titus who smiled.
At Miranda's suggestion, they drove to a spot that was popular with couples. Melinda's palms sweated. She had confidently told Janice she could stall. What had she been thinking?!? Now she was going to have to prove it!
When she parked the car, Melinda felt the confining space closing in on her and quickly asked "Would you like to go for a walk?"
"That would be wonderful. It's such a beautiful night," Miranda said airily.
"Now what?" Janice asked, looking up at Titus curiously.
"The first page will have an incantation that you need to read quickly. If she realizes what you are doing, she'll try to stop you."
"How would she know?"
"The book is part of her."
"Uh huh. Where did it come from? You said there was Greek writing in it, is it something the Greek Gods created?? Are there any other books like this?" Janice rambled with concern.
"Uh, we don't have a lot of time," Titus interjected uncomfortably, glancing at her then the book expectantly.
Except for occasional happy sighs from the student, they silently strolled along the river, which sparkled in the moonlight. Melinda nervously pushed up her glasses and glanced around, hoping to spot other strollers. However, she was very much alone with Miranda in this romantic setting. It was the kind of place Janice enjoyed - a tree-lined walkway by water. Mel enjoyed that too, but found she really didn't need the romantic trappings to get swept up in romance. Sitting on a bumpy rock at a dusty, hot site would suit her as long as Janice was there.
She smiled, recalling how years ago they had been painstakingly uncovering a small armory they thought could have belonged to Xena. The sun blazed and the sweat poured from them, drenching their dirt-covered clothes. They worked well into the night, dropping from exhaustion, only to rise a few short hours later to resume the back breaking work. With huge, painful blisters that formed on her feet, rebelling against her new boots and calluses that started to develop on her hands, which ached from the repetitive motions, the weary and sore Southern lady had every right to be miserable.
But she wasn't.
After an initially challenging period with Janice, who didn't know what to make of a Southern lady abandoning her life of luxury for hard labor, Melinda had finally earned the right to work side-by-side with the driven archeologist and share in something that was such a big part of her. The experience quickly confirmed what Melinda somehow knew - many thought they understood the archaeologist, but few did.
Few knew how intelligent the daughter of the grave robber was, scoffing at her supposed doctorate as just a fake to gain credibility. Few knew of her inspiring dedication and passion for a job well done, assuming money was the only Covington motivator. And very few knew that beneath the incredibly blunt and rude exterior was a woman with amazing compassion and tenderness, which Mel had personally received - like the time when Janice stopped everything and angrily ordered Mel into the tent. With great effort, Mel managed to make it to the tent without limping too much. Janice was right behind her and ordered her to sit on the chair. Mel started to protest but Janice barked "sit," pointing to the chair. Hesitantly, she sat and found the archeologist on her knees, taking her boots off.
"Janice, what . . . ? OW!!" Melinda said as the boot was yanked off, revealing a bloodied sock.
"Jesus Christ, Mel! If you don't take care of your feet, you'll be no good to me," Janice growled, getting up and retrieving the water pitcher, basin, soap and a wash cloth.
"I'm sorry," Mel said weakly, wincing as Janice carefully pulled off a sock. Tears filled her eyes as the pain grew along with her shame for her weakness.
"I am too. I should have remembered you aren't used to boots. And these are a long way from being broken in. I can be pretty dense sometimes," Janice said with irritation as she looked over the bare foot, surprising the Southerner.
"It's my fault, I didn't want to bother you with my discomfort. I . . . didn't think it would get this bad," Mel said and sucked in a breath as the ache continued.
"Well, bother me next time, OK?" Janice looked up and got a weak nod. "You know, there's no sense for both of us to be foolishly bull-headed. That's my department. You're supposed to be the sensible one," Janice said dryly as she carefully pulled off the other bloodied sock. "Now this will probably sting but I want to make sure they are clean," Janice said, looking up into Mel's watery eyes. Mel nodded and watched with amazement as Janice gently washed her feet and chatted about the stash of arrows they uncovered, which helped to take Mel's mind off of her feet.
"Huh?" Mel said, hearing Miranda ask her something.
"Can I tell you something, Melinda?" Miranda asked again.
"Uh . . . sure," Miranda said with attempted nonchalance.
"I've really enjoyed being with you," Miranda said, slowing her pace. Mel smiled weakly, glancing around nervously, reaffirming they were alone. How was it that this happened to be the one night that the entire student body suddenly decided to be studious and stay in!?!
"And I hope you feel the same way," Miranda said, looking up expectantly.
"I . . . Miranda," Melinda said uncomfortably, pondering how best to gently let down a homicidal whacko.
"I know you are worried," Miranda said.
Perhaps a sudden attack of food poisoning?
"I am a student and you are a teacher," Miranda said with a small smile, repeating Melinda's explanation of the differences between them.
Wouldn't exactly be a lie, that chicken really isn't sitting very well at the moment. . .
"But I am an adult and you are not my teacher anymore, Melinda," Miranda said, reaching out to gently take Mel's hand.
Dear Lord, Janice! What's taking you so long?!? "Miranda . . . ," Melinda said nervously as she tried to pull her limb back.
Janice sighed and nodded as she reached in the trunk. Opening the book, she noticed it felt oddly warm. Her eyebrows furrowed when she discovered pages were torn from it. Concern quickly washed over her as she looked up to Titus.
"Oh no," he gasped.
To her surprise, Miranda suddenly dropped her hand. "No," the student shouted, her face twisting in horror. She stumbled away from her beloved as if wounded. "Noooo!!!"
"M...Miranda, what's wrong," Mel said nervously, as Miranda's rage consumed her. With a deep breath, the livid student flung open her arms towards the starry sky. After a blinding orange flash, Janice stood between them, holding the book with a startled look on her face.
"The dinner, this walk . . . was just to get me out of the way so SHE could get the book!" Miranda accused with anguish as she cast Janice away from her line of sight with a flick of her hand, sending her against the nearby tree.
"Ugh," Janice sharply exhaled upon impact and fell to the ground with the book clenched in her hands. She struggled to catch her breath.
"Yes," Melinda said, trying not to shake as she glanced over to Janice with concern.
Miranda blinked, not expecting such brutal honesty. "She wants the power for herself," Miranda accused. "She's not going to get it, immortal or not," she spat. Her eyes narrowed and focused with deadly intent on Janice, who found it harder and harder to breath.
"NO, Miranda. Stop this now," Melinda pleaded. "Stop hurting her."
"I loved you," Miranda said sadly, turning her gaze to Mel, allowing Janice a moment to breath. "As long as she's here, you won't be able to love me," she said.
"Miranda, I'll never be able to love you the way you want."
"Because SHE's in the way!!" Miranda spat, flicking her hand, causing a park bench to hurl towards Janice, who barely dodged it.
"No! Because she will always be the one I love and you are trying to kill her!" Melinda snapped back angrily.
"To free you!" Miranda argued.
"For a straight-A student, you don't listen very well," Janice said, getting a sneer.
"And you don't stay dead very well," she countered, flicking her head at Janice, who was lifted up like a rag doll and slammed against another tree. Mel sucked in a breath.
"Ah fuck," Janice wheezed as she fell and hit the ground.
"Every time you hurt her, you hurt me! Don't you understand that?!?" Melinda shouted.
"You don't know what you are saying. She has . . . corrupted you!" Miranda said defiantly. "But it's not too late...."
"How can I possibly love you? I don't even know if I will ever be able to forgive you for what you've done already."
"You can't see it now, but I've done it all for you, Melinda," Miranda explained passionately. "We belong together. You and I," she said focusing intently on the tall professor. Mel found her feet taking her to the student.
Miranda smiled at the beautiful woman, who now stood before her. Feeling a powerful attraction, Mel started to lean towards the student.
"Mel," Janice said between belabored breaths. "Fight her, Mel!"
Melinda stopped, just before their lips touched. "Forcing me is not love," Mel gritted out through clenched teeth as she fought against her witchery.
"Ugh! You think she really loves you?!?" Miranda cried out incredulously.
Mel stood up and took a confident breath. "Yes."
Miranda looked between the two women and sneered with disgust as she waved her hand at the tall Southerner. "What about now?!?" She spat venomously. "Can she love you like that?"
Mel felt her strength drain away as her clothes seemed to grow baggy. Only her clothes did not change, she did. "Oh Lord," Mel said, looking at her aged, liver-spotted hands before they nervously touched her face that now held the wrinkles of an old woman. "Janice," she gasped in fear, wavering from the century of life suddenly thrust upon her now feeble frame.
"Mel," Janice said, scrambling to her side before she collapsed. "Sweetheart," she said nervously to the frail woman in her arms weakly clinging to her. Melinda desperately searched Janice's face. "I love you," Janice said softly, tenderly caressing the aged face. "We'll get through this," she added. Her touch and confident words, calmed the older woman.
"You have a choice, Melinda. Her and death. Or me and life," Miranda said, her eyes wild with power as she reached towards the book that jumped into her hands, pulsing with a deep orange glow.
Janice looked into Mel's eyes. "Not much of a choice," Janice said sadly, tenderly touching the aged cheek.
"I'll always choose you, Janice," Mel said, her voice cracking as she grew too weak to stand. "Oh," Mel said with fear as her breathing became ragged.
"How's that?" Janice asked uneasily as she carefully lowered her to the ground, holding her protectively.
"Better?" Mel nodded weakly.
Miranda erupted with a frustrated scream. "NO!"
"Just hang on, Sweetheart," Janice said, gently caressing her white hair. "Rest a bit. You'll feel better."
Mel wheezed, causing Janice to shift again and try to make her more comfortable.
"I offer the world and you choose her!!"
"Mel, come on honey. Just keep breathing. Slow and easy," Janice said, adding a soft plea. "Please . . . whose going to put up with me like you do?" She joked awkwardly. "I need you, Mel," she whispered desperately.
"You disgust me! You don't deserve my love," Miranda spat at Mel as her book grew red.
Mel's breath became increasingly difficult, but her blue eyes looked up confidently. "You don't need me," Mel wheezed.
"God damn it, Mel. You're wrong," Janice responded, shaking. "I need you!" She countered and weakly added "I've always needed you."
Mel looked into frightened green eyes with sadness and nodded. "I'm sorry. Forgive me for ever . . . doubting you . . . my love," Mel exhaled, relaxing into Janice's arms.
Janice blinked, anxiously waiting for the next breath. Her hand trembled as she reached to caress her lips. "Mel," she whispered in disbelief, realizing that next breath would never come.
"See what you did?!? She could have had a long, happy life without you!" Miranda spued hatefully, hovering over them.
Janice took an uneasy breath and carefully lay her partner on the ground, tenderly pushing a stray gray strand from her face. Mel was always meticulous about her hair.
"You ruined her!" Miranda ranted. "You could have left, you could have saved her and her family from . . . ugggh," she blurted, suddenly feeling the powerful fury of the archeologist, who tackled her. She hit the ground hard and felt the book torn from her hands. Before she could react, an angry right hook knocked her out.
"TITUS!!!!" Janice screamed into the night, holding her wavering, furious fist over the now unconscious student.
He appeared from behind a tree and nervously approached. "Take the book. NOW," she said, breathing heavily, barely able to keep from killing the student.
Titus nodded and picked up the book.
Pulling herself off of the murderer with disgust, Janice sluggishly returned to Mel's side, uncertain what to do now.
Titus looked sadly between the archeologist and the old woman and disappeared.
Janice fell to her knees, breathing uneasily. After an uncertain moment, she spoke. "He has the book," Janice said softly with a sniff, looking over the old face. "A little late," she added guiltily and blinked back tears.
"I've always had lousy timing, haven't I?" She whispered. Slowly reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small velvet bag. She stared at it a numb moment and extracted the gold ring. "I wanted you to have this," she said.
"I still do," she added, her voice cracking.
Clearing her throat, she nodded as the painful silence continued. She lifted Mel's frail hand uneasily and slipped the band on Mel's finger. She completed the gift as her lips pressed against her knuckles.
"It looks a little loose," she noted as she touched it and it moved easily about the thin finger.
"I'll make sure the boys are OK," she promised as she traced her trembling fingers over her partner's wrinkled forehead and cheek. "And I'll try not to curse around JJ," she said. "But sometimes I can't seem to help myself. It . . . it just slips out," Janice said guiltily as tears filled her eyes. "Fuck," she said with irritation and wiped her eyes. With a humorless laugh, she added "Like now . . . sorry."
Hearing footsteps behind her, she slowly turned to find Titus.
"Can you take us home? I . . . I don't think I can drive," she asked softly and received a nod from the man before his brow furrowed and gaze drifted towards the student.
Miranda sat, hugging her knees and numbly staring at Mel.
Titus watched as Janice carefully placed Mel on their bed as if not to disturb her sleep. She sat on the edge, looking at her still body. Mel didn't deserve this, Janice thought with tears stinging her eyes as she tenderly caressed her cheek. JJ didn't deserve this. God damn it, she thought with growing anger, none of them deserved this!
Suddenly, she looked at Titus with hope. "Can you bring her back?" She blurted anxiously.
"No," he said, shaking his head. Her head and hopes swiftly dropped as she wondered how she was going to tell JJ. Oh God. . . .
"But you can," he added with a small smile.
"Wha. . . ?!? " Janice blurted as her head snapped up. "Why the hell didn't you say so!" Janice said, jumping up from the bed and grabbing his collar, looking at him with a mix of anger and amazement.
"I wasn't sure it would be allowed," he said. She quickly let him go, uneasily patting down his wrinkled collar.
Unfazed by her outburst, he held out his empty hands. A moment later the book appeared in them. "But I told them how you helped and what you lost to recover the book for us. I told them we owed you."
"Who the hell are you?" She whispered, looking into the man's friendly face.
"Titus," he responded, puzzled at the odd question.
Janice shook her head with a weary laugh and sighed, giving up. The only thing she really cared about at the moment was Mel. "I'm immortal, can I really use the book?" She asked.
"Of course," Titus said simply. Janice rolled her eyes.
She reached out and took the book, looking at it with trepidation. "What do I do?"
"The book amplifies your emotions. Love is the most powerful emotion of all. Use your love."
Janice looked at him and chuckled through tears that started to freely fall. "That's it?"
His brow furrowed. It didn't seem amusing to him.
Janice returned to the edge of the bed and sat. Glancing at the book then Mel apprehensively, she picked up a frail hand, holding it gently as she gazed upon the aged face. "Come home, Mel. I need you here," Janice said softly. She glanced at the book, startled, as it grew warm to the touch.
"Go on," Titus said softly, getting a nod from the archeologist.
"Sweetheart," she whispered. "I'm not ready for this. I'm not ready to start spending an eternity without you. I don't think I ever will be. But I know right now I can't do it," she said, sniffing as tears fell. "You know, you still have to watch the kids grow up and have families," she said firmly.
"I want us to do that together, like other parents. The boys need you, Mel. And I need you. I need to see your face each night when I go to sleep, and each morning when I wake. I need you to remind me things will be OK," she said. "And when I'm being an ass."
"I want to spend a lifetime loving you, Mel. Showing you how much you mean to me. Come back and let me. Let's live that life we both had wanted, before this mess happened . . . please. Come back to me, Mel."
A sphere of blue light surged from the book, enveloping Janice and Mel and filling the room. Janice could feel the warmth of the light that embraced them. It was surprisingly intoxicating. She watched with amazement as Mel's wrinkles and gray hair faded and her youthful appearance returned. When a breath filled the Southerner's lungs, her eyes fluttered open. Finally open, blue eyes looked at the blurry archeologist with confusion.
"Oh God," a tearful Janice laughed with relief and kissed her lover's forehead, temple, cheek, lips, and . . . .
"Janice, what happened?" She said weakly, interrupting the display of affection and squinted at her lover, who sat up with a calming breath.
"Um . . . I'm afraid your date ended badly," Janice said with a sniff, wiping her eyes.
"Can I have the book back, please?" Titus blurted anxiously, eyeing the still faintly glowing book. Janice looked at him oddly and shrugged as she handed him the book, feeling an odd sense of loss as he quickly took possession of it. He sighed with relief.
"You got the book," Mel said groggily, eyeing Titus, who patted it and smiled. Janice gazed at her lovingly as she held her hand. "What happened to Miranda?" Mel asked with concern that they were not finished dealing with the dangerous student.
The nurse walked past a hospital room and stopped in her tracks, hearing someone softly talking between giggles. She curiously entered the room to find a young woman on the floor, curled up in a corner, rocking back and forth as she spoke.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . . one, two, three," Miranda said, then giggled.
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