BOOK 3 - THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Cassey Peters was in the kitchen doing the dishes. The doorbell rang, and she wiped her hands on her apron. As she passed a small mirror, she stopped to check her hair so she'd look her best for Toni's return.
She opened the door. Outside were two men in police uniforms. They took their hats off when they saw her.
"Miss Peters?" the one nearest her said.
"May we come in?"
"What's this about, officer?"
"We better go in, Miss."
"Not before you tell me what it's about."
"According to our data, this is also the residence of a Miss Willis?"
"We really should go in, Miss."
They went into the living room. Cassey happened to look out of one of the windows, and observed, with some curiosity, that the sky had turned blood red.
"Miss Peters, it saddens me deeply to inform you that Antonia Willis has been found dea..."
"NOOOOOO!" Cassey screamed into the darkness of the night. The sound of breaking glass was heard.
Her heart was beating so rapidly her chest hurt. Her eyes were burning hot, and she could taste the bile at the back of her throat.
"Cassey, wake up... wake up, honey, please. You're having a nightmare..."
Toni's voice came from a million miles away, but the dark timbre soothed Cassey's soul. Slowly, her heart settled down and she opened her eyes. Toni was above her, framing Cassey's face with her hands.
"God, that was frightening..." Cassey whispered, and breathed a trembling sigh of relief.
"For me too, honey. I've never seen you so scared. Your... your face was all twisted and..." Toni didn't want to continue, so instead she leaned down and kissed Cassey on the forehead.
"I need some water, please," Cassey said.
"I'll get it, don't go anywhere."
Toni got out of bed and promptly stubbed a toe on the alarm clock Cassey's flailing arms had knocked to the floor.
"Ouch!" she said out loud.
Cassey got her bearings and found the switch for the lamp on the dresser next to their double bed.
She leaned over the side of the bed and saw that the clock's glass housing had broken into several sharp shards, and they were now embedded in the carpet.
Toni returned with the water.
"Stop where you are Toni, there's glass all over the floor here... I... I broke the alarm clock you gave me for Christmas. I'm sorry..."
"No sweat, gives me an excuse for giving you another gift. My big toe found the clock, but how the hell did I miss the glass on my way out?"
"Don't know, but you better put on some shoes before you get back here."
Toni came back, this time wearing her cowboy boots. As she stepped over to the bed, the glass from the alarm clock crunched under her heels.
"I'm glad you noticed, honey. That would have been nasty," Toni said as she gave the glass of water to Cassey.
"Stay in bed, I'm gonna get the hoover."
Cassey nodded. She felt so damn tired. All her energy had been used up in a split second by the nightmare. It still lingered on the back of her mind, and her soul felt like it had been put through a wringer.
After she finished vacuuming, Toni sat down on Cassey's side of the bed.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she said softly.
Cassey closed her eyes. It was all still there.
"I'm not sure I'm ready for it... but I feel I need to tell you..."
"It was all so brutally simple, really. Two cops at the front door telling me you were dead. But it felt so *real*..." she said and shuddered.
"It was just a nightmare, honey. Come on, let's lie down," Toni said, and put her arm around Cassey's shoulders.
She took off her boots and got back into bed. She slid very close to Cassey and held her tight.
"Try to go back to sleep, it's only a quarter to five. Let's talk about it when it's daylight outside, OK?" Toni whispered.
"Yeah. Sorry for waking you up," Cassey said and gave Toni a kiss on the cheek.
"Anytime you need me, I'll be there for you."
Toni quickly fell asleep, but Cassey couldn't. That nightmare continued to play on her mind. It was so real, almost like she had seen a glimpse of the future - that thought sent a shiver down her spine, and she tried to move even closer to the dark haired woman spooned up next to her. Eventually the steady rhythm of Toni's heartbeat and the warmth of her arms around Cassey's waist made the blonde woman relax and fall asleep again.
Monday, March 12th, 1979
Cassey awoke some time later, and this time it was a lot gentler. She could smell coffee from the kitchen, and she could hear Toni humming quietly.
Instinctively, she reached for the alarm clock, but suddenly remembered it wasn't there anymore. Instead she found her wristwatch and to her great surprise it was almost half past nine already.
She sat up in bed and scratched her hair. Remembering to check for any shards of glass Toni might have missed in the night, she got up and padded on bare feet into the kitchen. She moved over to where Toni was and gave the taller woman a fierce hug from behind.
"Whoa honeybuns, I'd say you're up now, huh?" Toni said and laughed.
"'Morning old girl."
"Old girl!?" The dark haired woman said and turned around so she could get a real hug.
"Honeybuns?" Cassey replied without missing a beat.
"I think we're gonna have to kiss and make up!" Toni said with a seductive laugh, and leaned down to give Cassey a nice, loving good-morning kiss on the lips.
"Er... what were we talking about?" Cassey laughed.
"No idea," Toni replied and winked at her.
A little later. The two women were eating breakfast at the small kitchen table.
"Is that nightmare still bothering you, Cassey? You're hardly eating this morning," Toni asked concerned.
"Not really... I'm just thinking about us."
"Do you think we'll always love each other?"
Toni's brow furrowed. Hmmm.
"That's a pretty big question for a quarter to ten in the morning, honey."
"I guess it is. But it's something I haven't been able to stop thinking about after I heard my parents are getting divorced."
"I understand..." Toni said.
"Man, listen to me, huh? Twenty-three years old, and full of insecurities..."
"It's because you've already been burned once... and honey, I promise you I'll do all within my powers to make sure we're together 'till the end of time. What I told you last night is 100% true: Anytime you need me, I'll be there."
The young woman could only nod, afraid that she'd break into tears if she spoke.
"Partners?" Toni reached out her hand.
"For life," Cassey said, and grinned. She took Toni's hand and held it tight.
While Cassey showered, Toni did the dishes. Almost subconsciously, she saw how the brush moved in small seductive movements, gently caressing the china and carefully washing the soap off the plates. She felt a familiar sensation stir within her, but she tried to ignore it.
In the shower, Cassey started to hum a happy tune and pictures of a showering blonde filled Toni's mind. She picked up a mug, but before she had moved it an inch she put it down again and headed for the bedroom.
In an instant she shed her clothes, grabbed a towel and went across the hallway to go into the bathroom.
Cassey stopped humming the second she saw Toni standing in the doorway, nude save for a cheeky grin.
"What kept ya?" she giggled, and put out her arm to welcome Toni under the warm water.
Toni grinned broadly and kicked the bathroom door shut with her heel.
Later... much later.
Cassey sat in the couch trying to find something interesting on the TV when someone knocked on the door.
Even though Cassey knew exactly where Toni was - she was outside preparing the truck for the run tomorrow - she couldn't help but feel a knot form instantly in her stomach. That goddamned nightmare. Was this how it would be every time someone knocked on the door... or when the phone rang? Jeez what a miserable life that would be. Cassey shook her head and turned off the TV.
She got up, and pulled the curtain aside to see who it was before she opened the door. It was Old Fred, their neighbor.
"Hello Fred. Come, sit down, no point in wasting your energy." She and the old man sat down on the wooden bench on the front porch.
"Hiya kid. I came by earlier, but you didn't hear me knockin'"
"No, we were... kinda... busy."
The old man didn't stop to think about what that might imply, but continued:
"Toni told me you gonna leave tomorrow?"
"That's right, Fred, we're going on a little trip north. It'll only be three or so days this time."
"Ya want me to take care of ya plants, as usual?"
"Yes please, if you don't mind?"
"No problemo, I still got the key from last time... so... I was wondering, are you gonna borrow the Chevy today? 'Cos the gas is kinda low, and..."
"Oh Fred, you haven't been driving again have you? You've lost your license, and if the police catch you, you're going to get a giant fine... or worse!"
"Don't worry kid, I've been drivin' since I was 13. I know how to run from the fuzz," the old man said, and flashed her a toothless grin.
"Yeah, but anyway... never mind. I think we might borrow it, actually. We'll fill it up for you," Cassey said, and gave the old man's hand a little squeeze.
"Much obliged, kid. If there's anything I can do for ya, just lemme know, OK?"
"You got it, Fred."
The old man got up, staggered a bit, and then walked back over to his own house. Cassey made sure he made it safely across the road between their houses before she went looking for Toni.
"What the hell's going on with all those cookie crumbs!" Cassey heard Toni mutter, dragging the vacuum cleaner out of the truck after she was finished vacuuming the sleeper cab. Cassey tried to hide a giggle, unsuccessfully.
Toni noticed and climbed down.
"I think you've got something to do with that, haven't you?" Toni said, and gave her a nudge with her hip.
"Who me? I never leave any crumbs behind, I eat every single one of 'em," Cassey said.
"Can't argue with that."
"Old Fred was just over. He asked in a roundabout way if we would mind putting some gas in the Chevy. And that gave me an idea."
"Oh yeah?" Toni said while she was rolling up the cord for the vacuum cleaner.
"Yeah, I was thinking about going to the mall, because your birthday is coming up, and..."
Toni turned around and opened her mouth to speak, but Cassey cut her off.
"... no, let me finish. I know you told me you don't like to celebrate it, but I insist. You gave me a wonderful day at the Autumn Fair last year, and this time I want to give you something you won't forget in a hurry. And besides that, our one-year anniversary is just around the corner, too."
"Now that sounds better, Cassey, that date is worth celebrating. Not my birthday."
"You can huff and puff, but I won't give up. And you know how stubborn I can be," Cassey said and winked at Toni.
"Don't I ever," the older woman growled seductively and winked back.
"... yeah, well, anyway, back on topic," Cassey said and cleared her throat.
"Since we always do everything together, I wondered if you would pick out your present yourself. I'll pay for it."
"I've got a better idea, Cassey. Let's find something that would be useful for both of us, and we'll split the cost," Toni said.
"Yeah, but, it's your birthday..."
"And the birthday girl always gets her wish, right?"
"My wish is that we buy something together. I don't need much anyway, Cassey. I already have what I want the most. You."
Cassey blushed furiously. If they hadn't been standing outside, she would have kissed the taller woman already. As it was, she fidgeted with Toni's belt buckle.
"We're going to have to get a rain check on those thoughts of yours, honey. We've got a lot of things do to today," Toni whispered in Cassey's ear.
"So now you're a mind reader, too?" she answered with a grin.
"No, but I know that look on your face, honeybuns," Toni said and kissed Cassey on the neck, before rapidly moving into the house.
"I'll 'honeybuns' you, ya big tease!" Cassey said and followed her partner inside.
After finding a space for Old Fred's Chevy pickup in the parking lot, Toni's legs felt like lead as she came closer and closer to the most horrible place she knew - the shopping mall. Thousands of yelling children and yapping women, and not to mention the air conditioning which was never more than two degrees above freezing. At least she had remembered her jacket this time. It wasn't that Toni hated
the shopping mall... she just didn't know what the hell to do there.
But one look at Cassey's beaming face made her realize that a relationship was always give and take. And besides, she had exposed Cassey to a few seedy and rundown truck stops where Toni was sure the young blonde felt the same as she did now.
"So, where do you want to go first?" Cassey said.
"Oh, honey, you're the expert here. I'd just get lost. What do you recommend?"
"Yeah, but that's just it, I don't really know what we're looking for."
"About the gift? I'll know when I see it."
"Great! Then we're just gonna have to start from one end and work our way through!" Cassey said.
"No sweat, honey, only 150 shops to go!" Cassey said and slapped Toni's shoulder.
"Lead on, Cap'n!" Toni said and gave her a mock salute.
About an hour later, Toni felt they had looked at several hundred shops already...
"Eh, I don't know, Toni. Four identical white T-shirts...? I know it's like your uniform and everything, but..." Cassey said, while carrying the four mentioned items on her arm. They had visited every single clothes shop in the mall before ending up in a sports equipment store.
"It's what I wear."
"Sure, but what about trying something wild and different, like buying a 'T' in another color, like red, green or... how about yellow?" Cassey said, and held out a yellow t-shirt for Toni to see.
"Yellow! I don't do yellow. I'm just a blue jeans and white t-shirts kinda gal. You, on the other hand, everything looks sensational on you, from pea green to crimson velvet. I think it's your smile, it goes with anything," Toni said and winked.
Cassey shook her head and laughed.
"Gee, thanks for the compliment, but it's you we're buying clothes for today."
"You know what, I think I'll try something really daring and buy a red T," Toni said.
25 dollars poorer, the two women sat down at one of the cafés and ordered some coffee.
"Wow, I can't believe I've been shopping!" Toni chuckled.
"I can't believe I actually convinced you to do it! So, your birthday... have you seen anything that might interest you?" Cassey replied.
"Well, not really... no."
Cassey's eyebrows slowly climbed up her forehead and she plonked the coffee cup down on the table.
"We're here to find you a present, right?"
"So we're not leaving until we've found you a present!"
"Oh..." Toni said, dreading the prospect of going through all those shops again.
Toni sighed and emptied her cup of coffee.
About an hour had passed when Toni suddenly noticed Cassey's face was very pale.
"Honey, are you all right?" she said, and took Cassey by the elbow.
"Cramps," the blonde woman said as she sat down on a nearby bench, pressing her hand against her abdomen.
"Yeah... I... I don't feel too good. Would you mind going home early, Toni?."
"Of course not. Can you walk?"
"Yeah... If I'd said no, would you carry me to the truck?" Cassey said and tried to smile.
"Yes I would," Toni said without hesitation, and helped Cassey up from the bench.
Safely home again, Cassey was in the bedroom taking a nap. Toni didn't feel well either, but that was because she couldn't stand seeing her partner in pain. She grabbed a Coors from the fridge, kicked off her boots and collapsed onto the couch with a long sigh.
Her thoughts began to wander. She thought of the time before her father got sick, and all the stupid things she did back then.
She remembered how she was as a teenager - snotty, sarcastic, obnoxious and just plain abrasive, with no friends, no lovers, no nothing. She was an expert in hurting people and pushing everyone else away from her. Firmly believing she could manage on her own, and running away to San Francisco in '67. Getting stoned out of her skull together with some complete strangers, and then winding up arrested for possession were just some of her personal highlights.
She was 19 then, the same age Cassey was when she moved in with that creep Tommy. Toni had never even met him, but she still knew a lot of things about him. How he liked to slap Cassey around when they were in bed and all kinds of sick things like that. What a fucking animal.
Toni sighed again and got up from the couch. She went quietly past the bedroom and into the little storage room at the end of the hallway. She quickly found the brown suitcase where she kept all the records of her father's illness. She had wanted to throw it out when he died, but now she was glad she hadn't.
On her way back, she picked up another beer, cracking it open as she sat down on the couch. She opened the suitcase. The first thing she saw was a black and white photo of her dad and herself, taken when she was about 15. He had been a very handsome man; always warm and kind, even when Toni had made yet another mess of her life.
'Dad would have loved Cassey,'
Toni thought and sighed again. She took a large swig of the beer, and started to look through the papers.
Cassey yawned and stretched. The nap had helped her, the ache in her abdomen was tolerable now and she generally felt much better.
She put on a bathrobe and padded into the living room. She found Toni sitting on the couch, staring into an old suitcase. A photo on the coffee table caught Cassey's eye. It was unmistakably a picture of Toni, even though she looked to be very young. Four empty beer cans were on the table as well, and it gave Cassey a very unpleasant flashback to her days living with Tommy where empty beer cans always littered the tables. She shook those negative thoughts out of her mind, but worried about what had caused Toni to drink so much on a Monday evening.
Toni held a letter in her hand, but didn't appear to be looking at it. Cassey saw the stationary was from a law firm in Albuquerque and briefly wondered if they had trouble coming. She tried to read the letter from where she was standing, but couldn't.
"Is there something wrong, honey?"
Toni hadn't noticed that Cassey was there, so she jumped. Her knee hit the underside of the table and the four empty cans clinged and clanged, resulting in one of them falling over the edge. Toni quickly picked it up and placed it back on the table. She cleared her throat.
"These are some of the papers from when my dad was ill," Toni said quietly.
"Oh. I wish I could have known him, Toni. From that picture and what you've told me he seemed like such a nice man."
"He was. He would have loved to meet you..." A tear escaped Toni's right eye and ran down her cheek. She didn't do anything to stop it.
"It was diabetes, wasn't it?" Cassey asked concerned.
"Yeah. The autopsy showed he had suffered a stroke in his sleep. Hopefully, he never felt anything. He was 57."
Cassey sat down next to Toni and leaned her head against the older woman's shoulder.
"Why haven't we ever visited his grave?"
"He didn't get one. He wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave."
"Oh. But we could still visit the cemetery?"
Toni just shrugged.
Cassey didn't want to push Toni, so she merely nodded.
"He didn't leave me much... some tools for the truck, a photo album with some pictures of my real mom, things like that. The bank took nearly all the assets," Toni said and leaned back in the couch. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. The four beers had finally caught up with her, not to mention being so worried about Cassey, so she felt drowsy.
Cassey took the letter from Toni's hand. She read it, and was astounded to see the date listed for the death.
"That's the day before your birthday... oh, honey, why didn't you tell me? No wonder you don't like to celebrate it..."
Toni shrugged again.
"Listen, would you like me to make you a mug of tea, Toni? I'll add some mint and lemon if you like?" Cassey asked quietly.
"... yes, please. I sure could use that right now," Toni replied without opening her eyes.
"Let me get dressed, and I'll be there in a flash."
While the water was heating up on the stove, Cassey went around the house and did various little jobs, preparing for the run in the morning.
"You're gonna get a hangover tomorrow, Toni," Cassey said as she removed the empty cans.
"Nah, not of four beers."
"Still, I wouldn't drive anywhere the rest of the day if I were you."
"Not planning to."
Toni collected all the papers and put them back in the suitcase. She took one last look at the photo and closed the lid.
The kettle whistled merrily and Cassey poured the boiling water into two mugs. She crushed a mint leaf and put it into each mug, and squeezed about 10 droplets of lemon juice into the water. She stirred and carried the mugs over to the coffee table.
Toni came back from the storage room and sat down next to her. She picked up the spoon and started stirring her tea.
"Are you feeling better now?" Toni asked.
"Yes. I don't know what that was. I've never had that before.. I guess my period's coming up. You know how highly strung I can sometimes get when it's my time of the month."
"Do you still want to join me the run tomorrow?" Toni asked.
"You better believe it! You're not getting rid of me that easily, Toni. Now get down here and kiss me!" Cassey said and tugged on Toni's shirt.
Toni chuckled and leaned down to comply.
The two women were up at the crack of dawn, getting ready to leave.
"OK, here's the plan, I'm going out to Greasy to try to catch a trailer going north. You'll finish up here, and when I've secured a load, I'll call you."
"Sounds fine. Damn, it's early," Cassey said and yawned.
"You know what they say about early birds."
"Who gives a shit about the wildlife at 6:15 in the morning!" Cassey growled.
Toni was all set to go, and she had her hand on the doorknob.
"Honey, are you sure it's safe?" Cassey said.
"Look, Cassey, just because I'm now certified to drive Hazardous Goods, it doesn't mean I have to haul nitro every day, you know. I thought you'd be happy for me. It was difficult as hell to get it..."
"I am happy for you, but I won't lie: I don't particularly like it. This is exactly what my nightmare was about. One day there's going to be a cop knocking on the door telling me that I need to come down to the morgue to ID your charred body," Cassey said in an increasingly frail voice.
"That can just as well happen now. I might get a flat and run off the road in half an hour. There are so many things that can go wrong in life..."
Toni moved away from the door and stood next to Cassey.
"I'm doing it for *us*. With the Hazardous Goods certificate, I'm going to get a big increase in salary. We could use the money, you know."
"Yeah... I suppose. Well, at least I'm along for the first run."
"Yep," Toni said and ran her fingers through Cassey's golden locks.
"Who knows, I might talk so much you're gonna drop me off at Myrna's on the way out!" Cassey said, and laughed nervously.
"Oh, I wouldn't... do that to Myrna, honeybuns," Toni said and nibbled Cassey's ear, secretly pleased that Cassey was coming along for the run. She had been alone on scores of runs over the years, and it was always much more fun when Cassey was with her.
Cassey guffawed, and slapped Toni's butt playfully.
"Now what did I tell you about calling me that, huh?"
"I can't remember. You're gonna have to tell me again..." Toni said and moved in to give Cassey a goodbye kiss on the lips.
Toni's truck rumbled into the freight central. She found an empty parking space and went looking for a load supervisor.
She knocked on the door of a small booth where a haggard looking man was sitting at a desk barking orders into a CB mic.
"Mornin' Toni, long time no see."
"Morning, Greg. Got something Hazardous going north?"
"Yeah, several. Take your pick," he said and threw a clipboard in her general direction.
She looked through the list and spotted one load in particular.
"Got it, Greg. WBC1104."
"That's a chemical tanker, for Walker-Benson Chemicals in Omaha, Nebraska. Lemme check it... wait a sec..." Greg said, and shuffled through a large stack of yellow files.
"Oh yeah, that's a two truck job, a load of drums as well. They go together."
"Shit," Toni said disappointed, and reached for the clipboard again.
"No sweat, I'll just find someone who's available..." he said, and once again shuffled through files - pink this time.
"... ah... ah... Ernesto Chavez isn't doing anything. I'm gonna call him in, he's local, so it shouldn't take long."
"Tell him to meet me out at Myrna's in an hour or so," Toni said.
The load supervisor reached for a piece of paper and scribbled down the information.
"... Myrna's. Yep, got it. OK Toni, since it's Hazardous I'm gonna need to see your papers."
Toni handed the supervisor the paperwork, including her newly-acquired certificate allowing her to haul Hazardous Materials, Class A-through-F.
"Yep, yep, looking good. All right, sign here... thanks. The trailer's in lot H1 stall 12. It's silver with a large red stripe down the side. Think you can find it?" he said and beamed her a smile.
"I'll manage... See ya, Greg," she said and grinned.
Toni found the tanker without much hassle, connected the brake lines and retracted the support wheels on the trailer. After checking the tires and the lights, she climbed up into the truck and drove off slowly.
As she drove past the main building, a man came out and waved at her. She stopped and rolled the side window down.
"No, but the boss asked for you."
"Yeah, all right, but I haven't got all day."
"It won't take long."
She turned off the ignition and got out of the truck to follow the man back to the office building. She knocked twice on a fancy glass door and opened it.
"Hiya, Toni. Come in, sit down."
"What's the occasion, Greasy?" Toni asked impatiently.
The 55 year old freight controller was sitting in a swivel-chair, looking smug. His real name was Andy O'Keane, but everyone called him Greasy because of the way his hair was constantly slick and shiny from the copious amount of Brill he put in it. Sixty lbs. and twenty years ago he might have been considered good-looking, but he definitely wasn't now. Toni always thought he looked like a cross between a weasel and a jackal.
"I was just wonderin' why you aren't working for me?"
"I've always been an independent, you know that."
"Yeah, but I've heard that your... hm, personal situation has changed, so I was thinking, maybe..."
"Where did ya hear that?" Toni said sharply.
"Can't remember, but anyway..."
"Not interested," Toni said, and folded her arms across her chest.
"A steady paycheck doesn't interest you Toni?"
"'Course it does, but I can't see you offering me enough."
"It must be expensive owning your own truck, insurance and everything..."
"Get to the point."
"Well, I was thinking... I could buy the tractor unit from you, and you could work for me."
"Well... 45 grand?"
"As I said, I can't see you offering me enough, Greasy," Toni said and started to turn around to leave the office.
"Look... I'm just not interested, OK?" She sighed.
The freight central controller had a sour look on his face, but knew better than to get on the bad side of Toni Willis.
"All right, Toni. Let's drop it. For now." He put his hand out.
"First smart thing you've said today," she said, and shook the older man's hand.
She left the office, and Greasy was left tapping his fingers on his desk. He picked up the phone and dialed a local number to one of the Load Supervisors. He was put on hold, which didn't improve his mood.
"Greg? It's Greasy. What load did Toni Willis get? That's a two-truck deal, right? OK, fine. Who's on your list to drive the second truck? Chavez? Forget him, I want Doug... what? Yeah, Dickhead Doug, that's right. No I haven't forgotten he's on probation. I want him. On the double."
He put down the receiver, and an evil smile slowly spread across his face.
The phone rang. Cassey put down the camera she was working on and picked up the receiver.
"Cassey Peters speaking."
"Hi, honey, it's me. I'll be by in about twenty minutes or so... that is if you still want to go?"
"I've just fixed the sandwiches, and I'm preparing my new camera now, I'll be ready. Ahh, what kind... what kind of load did you get?"
"A chemical tanker, northbound. We're going to Omaha, Nebraska."
"Yeah, I figured it might be a good omen for my first Hazardous Goods trip. When we first met I was hauling a grain tanker, remember?"
"Sure, but grain is one thing; chemicals..."
"It's as safe as it ever can be, Cassey."
"... and if something happens, at least we're together."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Twenty minutes?"
"Yes, if you'll ever let me hang up!"
"Har har, missy. I was planning to blow you a 'See ya soon' kiss through the telephone, but now I've changed my mind!"
"That's all right, I'd much rather have it in person anyway! I'll be home before you know it. Gotta go - CLICK"
Cassey was left looking at the receiver, and chuckled as she put it down.
Toni opened the door to Myrna's truck stop. She noticed someone had made a graffiti on the "Open 24 Hours" sign that said 'just like the waitress'. She chuckled to herself. Whoever scrawled that on the sign obviously didn't know Myrna.
She went up to the counter and bought a cup of coffee from the elderly waitress. After exchanging the customary greetings, Toni began to look around to see if she knew any of the customers.
She spotted a familiar head of ash blonde curls buried behind a newspaper. Toni picked up her cup and walked to Laura's table.
"Hiya, Curly," she said with a exaggerated Southern accent.
"Hey Toni, where the hell have ya been!" Laura replied, and put away the newspaper.
"Here and there, I've been pretty busy."
"I heard ya got the Hazardous Goods certificate."
"Yep. On my first run now, actually."
"Nah, it's not too bad. Just follow the rules, and it'll be fine."
"How about you?"
"Furniture. Pretty boring stuff..."
Laura tapped her fingers on the table and continued:
"Say... I don't wanna pry, but I heard something about you hooking up with someone...?"
"You heard right."
"I'm happy for you Toni. You needed it. Is it anybody I kn..."
At the same time, Cassey opened the door and looked around to find Toni. Laura recognized the blonde immediately but she couldn't believe her eyes.
"Well I'll be a son of a..."
Toni tried unsuccessfully to hide a big grin. Cassey came over to the table and scooted down next to Toni. She remembered Laura and gave her a big smile.
"Cassey, I think you know Laura Yates already? Laura, this is Cassey. She's the one."
"I was guessin' as much, Toni," Laura said astonished.
"Hello. Pleased to meet you again," Cassey said and nodded at the curly haired trucker.
"I reckon you found a ride to California, huh?" Laura said with a big smile.
"Oh you betcha," Cassey said, and caressed Toni's arm.
"Listen honey, I need to use the restroom before we leave. How long do I have?" she asked Toni.
"Just as long as you need. But if you're not back in 20 minutes I'll come lookin' for you."
"All right. See ya Laura," Cassey said, and left the two older women.
"Wipe that smirk off your face. It ain't becoming of you," Toni growled to the other trucker and winked to take the edge off the words.
"I'm impressed Toni. I really am. But there are two things I fail to understand," Laura said mischievously.
"And they are...?" Toni sighed, knowing full well that she was about to be insulted.
"Number 1, how the hell can a gorgeous creature like that fall for a grumpy old saddlebum like yourself... and number 2, does she have a sister!" Laura said and laughed out loud.
"Well, number 1, we fit together like two adjacent pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and number 2... no. She's unique," Toni said quietly.
Laura nodded understandingly, and got up from the table.
"Well, the clock is ticking, and I have to go - stay safe, Toni. And I really am happy for ya. Sounds like she's worth hanging on to." Laura leaned down and slung her arm around Toni's shoulders.
"But... if she ever loses interest in you, tell her to call me!" she said and quickly moved away from Toni as the dark haired woman tried to slap her on the butt.
"Catch ya later, Laura."
After Laura had left the truck stop, Toni picked up the newspaper the curly woman had discarded, and started to read.
'Not gonna happen, Laura. Not gonna happen,'
she thought to herself as she scanned the headlines.
Ten minutes later, Cassey returned and sat down opposite Toni.
"So, are you ready for your first trip to the great undiscovered North?" Toni asked her.
"Yep. Think so."
"We're going to have a small convoy on this trip. The company ordered two loads, and it was easier to use two trucks rather than drive twice."
"Really? I've never tried that!" Cassey said excitedly.
"There's nothing in it, honey, it's just two trucks driving behind each other. We've done that countless times," Toni said to the smiling blonde.
"Yeah sure, but this time we're all going the same place."
Toni chuckled. Can't beat that kind of logic.
"Do you know the other driver?" Cassey asked.
"No. But I asked the freight central to tell him to meet us here."
If there was one thing Toni absolutely hated, it was when she was made to wait for other people. She checked her watch again - this Chavez character was nearly fifteen minutes late, and her patience was running very low.
She was sitting on the aluminum steps leading up to the cab on Cassey's side of the truck. The door was open to get some air, but Toni wasn't in a sociable mood so she didn't speak a word..
A noisy and out-of-tune airhorn signaled the arrival of a beat-up old brown Kenworth that wheezed to a stop next to Toni's immaculate black Mack. A man jumped out and shut the door with a rattle.
"Yo babe, Doug's here! Whassup?" the man said. He was about 25, pale and scrawny. He was dressed in black jeans and a Cheech & Chong T-shirt that looked like it hadn't been washed since it was bought.
"Greg told me the other driver would be someone called Chavez. You don't look like a 'Chavez'," Toni said dryly.
"Don't know shit about that, I'm here now. Where' we goin'?"
He started to laugh off the look on Toni's face.
"Chill, babe. Greasy told me all about it. I'm jus' making fun."
"Fun was 10 minutes ago, now we're running late," Toni hissed at him. He didn't notice, because he was busy getting an eyeful of Cassey, who had come out into the cab and was sitting in plain sight behind the open door.
"Oh yeah... heh heh... are you gonna keep the little doll up there all the trip, or can we share or..."
"Let's move," Toni said, already thoroughly fed up with Doug. She walked around the front of her truck and left him standing by himself.
"Sure, sure, whatever you say, chief," Doug said loudly after her, and laughed before he re-entered his own truck.
As the two trucks left Myrna's truck stop, Cassey settled into her seat.
"I did *not* like that guy, Toni. I've known my fair share of creeps so I can recognize 'em in an instant... he was one."
"I agree. But you don't have to talk to him if you don't want to."
A little later on.
"... and then he got his tie stuck in the copier, you should have seen it, it was hilarious!" Cassey said, and laughed.
"I can imagine. That's what happens when guys try too hard to impress the ladies," Toni added.
"Yeah. Nah, he's a nice guy actually. He's married, two kids."
"You know, Cassey, I'm really glad to hear you've settled in so well. I told you there would be light at the end of the tunnel. I seem to remember you were skeptical."
"I guess I was. Working in Albuquerque, I can at least go home to our house every day and not live in a cockroach-infested flat... which reminds me, when we get back, I need you to check something in the engine in the Beetle."
"What's wrong with that bucket of rust now?" Toni said and sighed.
"It may be a bucket of rust, but I paid for it myself! Don't know what it is, sometimes the engine sounds funny."
"It's fifteen years old, honey. It won't last forever. How many miles has it done again?"
"Well, 140.000... but they were built to last, you know!"
"That's what they said about the Titanic."
"Funny," Cassey said and made a face at Toni.
Cassey crawled back in the sleeper and picked up her new Kodak camera.
"I can't wait to try this out for real. I already got four shots of the truck after we arrived at Myrna's."
"Oh yeah?" Toni said.
"Yep. Wanted to test some funny angles and stuff. Hey, do you think I might be able to sell some of the shots to magazines or newspapers, I mean if they're good enough of course?"
"Eh, I don't know, you might... I can't really say. The roll you took to try it out back home turned out pretty good."
"Especially that shot were you posed as a..."
"Especially that one!" Toni said and laughed. Yeah, who knew that a bedsheet could double as a toga when *somebody* suddenly had the urge to play Aphrodite and Adonis?
"Boy, it's good to be back on the road again. And I love it when you're with me, you know that honey?" Toni said with a smile.
"We've really experienced a lot together when we've been on the road, haven't we?" Cassey replied.
"We really have, and Cassey... it's still true, every time you're with me, strange things happen. I mean, now with what's-his-name... Doug. Back at Greasy's, the Load Supervisor told me to my face that he would call someone called Chavez. Greg's a friend of mine, he wouldn't lie to me..."
"Couldn't Chavez have been sick? Or something?"
"Well, I suppose he could..."
"But, anyway, I know I'm a trouble magnet. Let's just hope the strange things stay reasonable... hey, remember that highway robbery in broad daylight? From our first trip together?" Cassey said and chuckled.
"Sure do, the feel of your hand on my thigh is etched into my brain."
"My hand? I don't recall that..." Cassey said, scratching her neck.
"You leaned over me as they drove past in their car, and you put your hand on my thigh to keep your balance. I was worried that my jeans might catch fire," Toni said and wiggled her eyebrows.
"Oh yeah, I remember now. That was completely unintentional, I can assure you!" Cassey said and laughed.
The CB crackled to life.
"Hey chief, I have to take a dump at this truck stop, I'm pullin' over."
"Doug, for mercy sakes, we ain't got time for any more delays, we're running late as it is!" Toni said angrily into the mic.
"Chill dudette, I said I have to take a dump. Do you want me to do it outta the window?"
"All right, all right, we're pulling over," Toni said and sighed. She hung up the mic.
"Man, what did I do to deserve him?"
The next one hundred miles passed without incident. As usual, Toni had the needle on the speedometer glued to the 'double nickel', 55 mph. Suddenly she noticed that Doug had started to overtake them.
"Oh, what the hell's that guy doing?"
"Overtaking us. Told you he was trouble."
"Actually, you said he was a creep, Cassey."
The Kenworth thundered past them, doing at least 65 mph. The barrels on the trailer were dancing about dangerously.
"Goddamnit, look at that. Irresponsible son of a..." Toni growled.
A few miles further along the highway, Doug's truck started to carelessly sway between the lanes.
Toni shook her head in disgust.
"Breaker one-nine to that Doug fella up ahead. Just what do you think you're doing, champ, over?"
"Lay off mah drivin', man! I'm flyin'!"
"... You're all over the road, Doug, over."
"No I ain't, you're just seein' double!"
the voice said from the CB, followed by an almost hysterical laugh.
"What the hell is that guy's problem?" Cassey said.
"He's high as a kite."
After driving like a madman for a while, Doug settled down somewhat, and at least tried to stay in the right lane. However, he was still going way over the speed limit, and by now he was far ahead of the black Mack.
"Typical. Never any cops around when we need 'em," Cassey said.
"Usually you don't like cops much, honey."
"I like jerks like Doug even less."
The truck thundered past a large roadsign.
'WEIGHBRIDGE 2 MILES - ALL TRUCKS MUST STOP'
"Well, this is going to be interesting. If he doesn't stop they'll go after him," Toni said.
"If he really is high, he won't notice anything other than what's in his mind," Cassey added quietly.
A few minutes later, they arrived at the weighbridge. Men in uniforms were swarming all over the place and lights were flashing on all the police cruisers. A very familiar rust-brown truck was parked at an awkward angle... right on top of a booth where the officer checking the weight usually sat.
"Oh Jeez, he's really done it now..." Toni said and rubbed her forehead.
"I hope no one was in there... " Cassey said concerned.
Approaching very slowly, they could see Doug being hand-cuffed and dragged over to the office building by four agitated police officers.
Toni drove up to one of the two remaining scales that still worked. The officer there waved her forward and she stopped right on the marks.
"License and manifest, please Ma'am," the officer said to her.
She reached down and gave the man the two documents.
"Did anyone get hurt in that mess, officer?" Toni asked.
"No. The space cadet tried to use a lane that was closed for repairs. He nailed the booth, though."
The officer checked the documents thoroughly before handing them back to her.
"Your weight's in order. The manifest says the destination of the load is Walker-Benson Chemicals...?"
"That's right, officer."
"Then I need you to park over on the Hazardous Goods lot, Ma'am. Follow the red arrows."
"Yes, officer," Toni said and sighed. She just knew that Doug would get them in trouble somehow.
She started and followed the red path to a remote parking lot.
"Now what?" Cassey asked.
"Don't know, honey, but it's probably got something to do with Doug."
After driving a short while, they stopped in the designated area. A police car arrived and two men stepped out.
"Trouble," Cassey said out loud. A shiver ran down her spine but she forced herself not to panic.
"Ma'am, I need you to turn off the engine and come with us to the office building," a heavy-set police officer said.
"Do you need to see the manifest again?"
"No Ma'am, just you."
"I have a passenger."
"Then we need to see him too," the officer said.
"I'm afraid they want you to go too, honey," Toni said to Cassey.
"Yeah, I heard."
The two women sat in the backseat of the police car as it made its way back to the office building.
Cassey looked out of the side window. Her guts were all twisted up into one rock-solid knot. Toni noticed Cassey's paleness and took her hand and held it the rest of the short drive.
Cassey tried to smile, but it only creased her lips slightly.
When they arrived at the building, they just caught a glimpse of Doug being thrown into a police van.
They were helped out of the police car and into the office building. The heavy-set police man knocked on a door to a Sergeant's office.
"Enter!" a gruff voice said from behind the door.
"... so, to make a long story short, you're allowed to drive on if your blood sample is clear," the Sergeant told Toni.
"How long will that take, Sergeant?" Toni asked while fidgeting with the small bandage on her arm covering the tiny hole caused by the needle.
"We told them to rush it, probably two hours from now." He got up from his chair and rolled down his shirt sleeves. When he was done, he ran a hand over his crew cut and cleared his throat.
"Now, ladies, please wait in the small cafeteria. There's a coffee machine if you want some," he said, making it clear the conversation was over.
Toni and Cassey sat down in the cafeteria, which really wasn't more than four tables and an ancient looking machine that produced hot beverages.
"Damn, we're gonna miss the deadline," Toni said and flung her cap onto the table.
Cassey was still pale, and she appeared very small as she sat down on one of the chairs.
"I know this must be killing you, honey. When we get back home, I promise you I'm going to kick Greasy's ass from one side of New Mexico to the other," Toni said, and put her hands on Cassey's shoulders.
"Every time the door opens, I expect to see Tommy walking in," Cassey said in a very small voice.
"Tommy's far away from here, honey. It'll be all right. And in any case, he'll have to go through me first," Toni said.
"I love you Toni," Cassey whispered.
"I love you too, honeybuns."
One hour and forty-five minutes later a officer walked in and said:
"Miss Willis? Miss Peters? The Sergeant wants to see you in his office."
Toni put down the week-old newspaper she'd been reading, and gently touched Cassey's arm. The young blonde had been trying to relax by using some old meditation techniques she had remembered reading about - unfortunately, they hadn't really worked.
"Come on, the Sarge wants to see us."
Cassey yawned, but got up and followed Toni out of the dreadfully dull cafeteria.
"You're free to leave when you want to. Your blood sample was clear," the burly Sergeant said as he was shuffling through some paperwork.
Cassey breathed a big sigh of relief, and she wiped off her sweaty palms on her jeans.
"May I ask what happened to the driver of the truck that crashed?" she said.
"That idiot? He's a collar on possession and a severe case of DUI. He didn't understand one word when we read him his rights, so we've sent him to detox," the sergeant said and rolled his eyes.
"That's all, ladies. I'm sorry to dismiss you like this, but I'm real busy, so..." the burly man said and got up from his chair.
The fresh air smelled like a sea of roses to Cassey when they stepped out of the glass doors, and she breathed deeply all the way back to the truck.
It had turned dark while they were waiting for the results to come back, and Toni was furiously calculating how to get to the chemical company in time to meet the deadline. Frustrated, she discovered it couldn't be done. They had lost too much time waiting for Doug and the cops, so they were going to have to spend the night at a truck stop.
"I need a hug, a kiss and an Aspirin - in that order," Cassey said when Toni unlocked the door to the truck.
They both climbed up and Cassey immediately stepped into the sleeper cab.
She sat down on the bed and let out a long trembling breath.
"Man-o-man what a day..." Toni said and flopped down next to the blonde woman.
Cassey put her arms around Toni and almost squeezed all the air out of her. After a minute or so of holding on for dear life, Cassey's muscles began relaxing and she felt like she melted into a big puddle. Her eyes were burning, but she forced herself not to cry.
Toni lifted Cassey's chin with a finger and looked lovingly into the green eyes. Cassey cocked her head slightly, making room for Toni to claim her partner's soft lips.
Cassey really needed that kiss, and if she could have continued to kiss Toni for a week, she would have. Alas, she needed air all too soon and they moved apart.
"God, I needed that," Cassey whispered.
"Me too. Now let's find you that Aspirin, and let's get the hell outta here."
A quarter past midnight. For once they'd been lucky and found a truck stop pretty quickly. Outside the truck the world kept turning, but all Toni wanted was a soft bed and a warm blonde to hold in her arms.
"Can't sleep either, huh?" Toni whispered into the darkness. She was spooned up behind Cassey and she could feel the younger woman moving around restlessly.
"No," Cassey answered and sighed.
"Do you need to talk about today?"
"Yeah. I need to wind down. Do you mind?"
"Of course not. Go ahead."
"What do you think Doug was on?"
Cassey turned over so the two women were face to face.
"Have you ever tried that?"
"... no. But I've been offered it dozens of times."
"Were you ever tempted?"
"I'd be a liar if I didn't say yes. But I was afraid I might like it too much... get addicted."
"I'm glad you didn't. One addict is enough in this relationship," Cassey said bitterly.
"Oh honey, I don't... you're not a drug addict."
"I so nearly was... there's a particular story I've never told you. And it isn't pretty," Cassey said and sighed.
"I'll listen, Cassey. Please tell me."
"On New Year's Eve two years ago, Tommy and I were invited to a party with some friends. It was the last time I saw them. I made a fool of myself that night... probably scared them off for good," Cassey said and shook her head.
"This was before things got out of control with Tommy, you understand... well, anyway, he'd brought some weed to the party, I don't know where or how he got it... it was stronger than anything I had ever tried. He mixed the joints himself and gave me one... I was..."
Cassey shook as a cold shiver ran down her spine. Toni started to caress the younger woman's arm to make her feel safe.
"I was totally bombed out. Later he told me I was hiding under a table... for eight straight hours. The sounds were magnified in my head, and the world was in all kinds of weird colors. I had never been so scared in my life, Toni. I had really extreme hallucinations, insects eating people's faces... things like that."
Cassey moved closer to Toni and put an arm around her waist. In a strange way it felt good to share that story, and Cassey was surprised she didn't even feel like crying.
"God, what a horrible experience... I'm glad you wanted to share that with me. I don't think that was pure marijuana in that joint, Cassey. It sounds to me like it was spiked with something else."
"If it was, he never told me."
"Yeah, well, you know how I feel about that Tommy character," Toni growled.
"Oh god, I wish I'd known you earlier, so many hurtful things would never have happened..." Cassey whispered.
"I wasn't always an altar girl either, Cassey. I've done some shit in my time," Toni said and turned over onto her back. She put her arm around Cassey and held her tight.
"Maybe so, but I refuse to believe you've ever done things to deliberately hurt people," Cassey said with her head resting on Toni's shoulder.
A long, pregnant pause.
"Have you?" Cassey said, very surprised. She lifted her head and looked straight into Toni's blue eyes.
"Well... not deliberately... but I've hurt people. My dad loved me, but I think he was hurt by some of the things I did, and why I did them. Remember I told you I'd been arrested in Frisco? I'll never forget the look on his face when he came to pay the bail. He wasn't angry, he was just... sad and hurt. But did I change? No."
"I wish I could have been there for you, Toni."
Toni's eyes flashed with love for the younger woman, but suddenly she was overwhelmed by a large yawn.
"Hey honey, I think I'm ready to sleep now. How about you?"
"Yeah, I guess I am. Good night, old girl," Cassey said, and kissed Toni on the cheek.
"Good night, honeybuns."
"But I ain't moving an inch, I got you just where I want you!" Cassey said and gave Toni a little squeeze.
"Great. Good night."
8:35 am at the Walker-Benson Chemicals Co. factory in Omaha.
Cassey watched Toni unhook the trailer after backing it up to one of numerous loading ramps. The tall trucker waved at Cassey and left for the office.
She returned only a few minutes later which was never good news. Cassey looked on in silence as Toni climbed up into the cab and gripped the steering wheel. Cassey had learned that, in situations such as these, it was better for everyone involved if Toni was allowed to cool off for a few minutes.
After a minute or so, Toni slowly exhaled a lungful of air and released the death hold she had on the wheel.
"Bad experience in there, honey?" Cassey asked cautiously.
"He yelled at me for being late. I don't respond well to being yelled at."
'Tell me about it,'
"So no return load here?"
"No. He told me to fuck off, actually."
Cassey's temper rapidly went into the red zone, and she was just about to go in there and give them a piece of her mind when Toni started the truck.
"Let's get the hell outta here before one of us makes a mistake, huh?"
"That's probably a good call, Toni."
When they drove through the factory gates, Toni got an idea, and she grabbed the CB mic and pressed down the button.
"Breaker one-nine to anyone listening. I need advice on finding a freight central, over."
'This is the Midnight Express and I got ya loud and clear breaker. What's your Twenty?"
A female voice said from the CB.
"Just outside the gates of Walker-Benson Chemicals, over."
"All right, the nearest freight central is about five miles south of where you are. Find a road called Wellstone Boulevard and head south. You can't miss it, over."
"That's a big 10-4, Midnight Express. My handle's Little Toni. Thanks a whole bunch. Over and out," Toni said and hung up the mic.
"Wellstone Boulevard? Wasn't that the big road we crossed before we entered the industrial area?"
"I believe it was. Let's check it out," Toni said and turned the truck right.
The black Mack rumbled into the freight central. They went around once to look at the trailers lined up. It wasn't as busy as Greasy's place back home, but it looked like there was plenty of work to be found here.
"Do you want to wait here or come with me, honey?" Toni said, and reached for her logbook in the glove compartment.
"To tell you the truth, first of all I need to go to the little girls' room!" Cassey said and laughed.
"That's over there," Toni said and pointed out of the window at a low building off to the right.
"I noticed. I'll wait by the truck if you're not here when I come back."
Cassey watched Toni stride over to the office building searching for a controller to talk to. She just loved to see her walk... it was so powerful, so uncompromising, so... well, sexy.
As Cassey turned around to go to the restroom, she noticed a sunflower yellow Freightliner with very shiny chrome trimming parked across the yard. The female driver was sitting next to the truck in a deck chair, having a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
After Cassey had used the surprisingly clean facilities in the restroom, she walked over to the yellow Freightliner.
"Hiya doin'" the woman said. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, with graying hair cut very short and crow's feet around her eyes. She was wearing worn blue jeans with a huge belt buckle and a plaid shirt over a black tank. Her shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing several faded tattoos - Cassey thought she could recognize a bull and an eagle.
The driver finished her cigarette and she threw the butt onto the ground, and crushed it with her boot.
"Are you Little Toni?" the woman said.
"No, but I'm riding with her. You wouldn't happen to be the Midnight Express, would you?"
"Yep. Angela's my real name."
"Mine's Cassey, hello," she said, and put out her hand.
"Where ya goin'?" Angela asked as she shook Cassey's hand, surprised over the young woman's firm grip.
"We're trying to find a load going south."
"Heh, me too."
"Really? Not much to find here, then?" Cassey said disappointed.
"Weeelll, yes and no. I wasn't too keen on the first load they offered me, so they decided to put me on hold. Eh," Angela said and shrugged.
"I've heard that story before. What'd they offer you?"
"You know, johns... toilet bowls. I said, no flippin' way, man," Angela said, and laughed out loud.
"Why did you call your truck the Midnight Express when it's so brightly yellow...? If you don't mind me asking, of course," Cassey said.
"I had a dark blue truck when I started to go by that name, and it kinda stuck. I like it. Want some coffee?"
"No, thank you."
"Suit yourself," Angela said and emptied the thermos into her Styrofoam cup.
"Would you mind if I took some pictures of your truck when Toni comes back?" Cassey asked.
"I've got a brand new Kodak I'm dying to try for real over in the truck. I've only done a couple of shots of the Mack..."
"Sure, go right ahead. Only of the truck, OK? I don't want my ugly mug contaminatin' any family album!" Angela said and laughed.
Cassey laughed too and nodded.
"Then it's a deal," Angela said.
In the background, Toni came out of the office with the controller in tow.
"Hey, there's the controller, I better look like I know what I'm doing!" Angela said.
She took one look at the statuesque woman with the jet black hair walking in front of the fat controller and let out a long wolf call. Cassey blushed and looked at the older woman like someone had caught her with a hand down the cookie jar. Angela noticed and laughed.
"Judging by that look on your face, I'd say that's Little Toni...?"
"Are you and her, ah...?"
"Almost a year now, in fact."
"Well, excuse the hell outta me, then!"
"Don't think about it," Cassey said and laughed.
Cassey met Toni and the controller halfway to their own truck.
"Find anything?" Cassey said.
"Sorta. That woman you were talking to, is she the Midnight Express? ... and did she just whistle at me?" Toni said and raised an eyebrow.
"Er, yeah. She did. And she is," Cassey said and tried to hide a big grin.
"I gotta have a word with her..."
"Oh Toni, you're not gonna..." Cassey said shocked, and put a hand on the taller woman's elbow.
"... about a load. Whassat?"
"... never mind," Cassey said, and feigned innocence.
Half an hour later, the two trucks left the freight central loaded with sanitary equipment: Toni carried the same trailer with toilet bowls Angela had rejected earlier, while the 'Midnight Express' was hauling bathtubs.
"So we're going to drop off the trailers at a construction site, huh? How exciting!" Cassey said.
"Let's see how exciting you think it is when we're hosing down the truck afterwards so the mud won't stick."
"Heh, hadn't thought of that... but of course, you in a wet t-shirt does make up for quite a lot of hassle."
"You wish!" Toni said and laughed.
At noon, the two trucks made a lunch break at a truck stop, and Cassey went to get some coffee and sandwiches. The roads were congested, and they didn't want to waste any more time than absolutely necessary. Angela felt tired, so she had decided to stay in her truck and sleep a bit.
Toni sat on the bottom step of the cab and examined her left boot. There was a stone in it somewhere, and it was driving her nuts. She looked up and noticed a man walking among the trucks. He wore several cameras around his neck, and occasionally took pictures.
While she was busy getting her boot back on, the man approached her.
"I'm sorry, Miss. Are you the driver?"
"That's right. Can I help you?"
"I was wondering if you'd be interested in earning a few dollars?"
"Doing what?" she said rather skeptically.
"I'm a photographer, as you can probably see, and I have to say you are by *far* the prettiest, hell, the most strikingly beautiful woman I've met for some time. Have you ever been professionally photographed? I'm sure you have, with those gorgeous eyes. Here's my card, my name's Anthony Jones."
"Oh yeah?" Toni said with a great deal of sarcasm in her voice. Mr. Jones didn't pick it up.
"Yeah! I was thinking maybe a... a swimming pool! Yes, a swimming pool so the water would match your eyes. I can see it now, you in a... white bathing suit, tasteful of course, and..."
"You're wasting your breath, buddy."
"No, no, don't say that, I haven't even told you how much you could earn yet... 200 dollars! How about it?"
"Forget it," she said and got up. She climbed the steps up to the cab and closed the door behind her.
The photographer shrugged and moved on to find someone else he could talk up.
A few minutes later, Cassey came back with a very sour expression on her face.
"What is it honey, didn't they have your favorite sandwich?"
"I've just met the most sleazy photographer. He offered me 200 dollars to have my picture taken... in a meadow that would match my eyes!"
Toni laughed out loud.
"Yeah, well, he told me I'd look great in a white bathing suit!"
"What a jerk. And just how long do you think it would take for him to 'suggest' we took our clothes off?" Cassey grumbled, handing Toni a sandwich.
"Fifteen minutes, tops. This is how I figure it: Let's say there are maybe five women a week who accepts his deal. At least two of those are also willing to do nudes, and at least one of them is ready to do porn. Then, he sells the porn to someone higher up and makes a lot of money."
"Yeah, but what happens when some of the women refuse to do nudes?"
"He gives those women the 200 dollars he promised them, and let 'em walk away. The last thing he wants is to have the police on his back," Toni said as she unwrapped and started eating her sandwich.
Cassey let out a long, slow sigh and shook her head.
"Man, this world is going to hell in a handbasket, you know that?"
"Supply and demand, Cassey. That's all there is to it."
"Yeah, well, but... ugh. Mind you, he wasn't all wrong. I think I'm inspired to do something with my own camera that involves you wearing a white bathing suit..." Cassey said and tickled Toni's thigh.
Toni lifted an eyebrow.
"I'll keep that in mind for later. Now, finish your ham-and-cheese. We'll be going in a short while."
The black Mack was trucking along and everything was going fine for a change.
Cassey was driving Toni to distraction by having her feet up on the dashboard and displaying her perfectly shaped legs.
"Hey, did you see that? Wasn't that a police cruiser?" Cassey suddenly said, interrupting Toni's pleasant thoughts.
"We just drove past it, he was parked behind a road sign."
"I didn't see it. You sure it was a cop?"
"Oh yeah. I just looked up, and there it was."
Toni grimaced over Cassey's unintended double entendre, but grabbed the CB mic anyway.
"Well, Cassey, now you're gonna have your big CB debut."
"What? No, no, you better..."
"Come on, you're not afraid are you?"
"I don't know what to say!" Cassey said, and laughed nervously.
"Sure you do, come on."
Toni handed her the mic, and Cassey cleared her throat.
"Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine, with a smokey report. There's a bear working the I-8-oh Westbound just outside of North Platte, over."
She handed the mic back to Toni with a beaming smile. Before long the CB crackled to life.
"10-4 fair lady, I copy."
"10-4 on the smokey report li'l gal, much obliged."
"Wow, they really listen to me!" Cassey said.
"Of course they do. We truckers are depending on someone telling us where the cops are."
"Yeah, but you never go too fast."
"No, but they don't always need an excuse, Cassey."
"Don't I know it."
"Yeah well... anyway, since you've had your on-air debut now, I think it's about time you got yourself a handle. Do you have anything in mind?"
"A handle? You mean like The Bandit?" Cassey said and chuckled.
"I do believe that's taken..."
"Yeah, a handle... let me think about that. Hmmm," Cassey said, and leaned back in her seat.
After a couple of miles, Cassey shrugged her shoulders.
"I'm stumped. I want the name to be fun, but not tacky... but not boring either - if you know what I mean."
"I've got one for ya," Toni said, and flashed Cassey a blinding smile.
"Oh yeah?" she replied rather apprehensively.
"The Green Eyed Goddess."
Cassey promptly buried her face in her hands.
"The Green Eyed Goddess?" the blonde woman said in a muffled voice.
"Yeah, I thought of Goldilocks, but that was too silly, or even TexasGal, but that's too common... so... Green Eyed Goddess," Toni said, still biting her tongue trying not to laugh at Cassey's facial expression.
"Little Toni and the Green Eyed Goddess, huh? I guess that has a certain ring to it."
"You bet it does, Cassey. Besides that, it suits you. Every morning I look at you and I can't believe how beautiful you are," Toni said and reached out to hold Cassey's hand.
"Oh God, you make me blush..." Cassey said, and her cheeks and ears were tinted in the cutest shade of pink this side of Graceland.
"Yeah, but then you wake up and it's back to earth with a bump," Toni added and stared straight ahead, whistling slightly and waiting for the inevitable fallout.
Cassey blinked once, twice, three times...
"I'm tellin' ya right now darlin', one day that one's gonna come back and haunt ya with a vengeance!" Cassey growled in her best Clint Eastwood imitation. She leaned over and kissed Toni on the cheek to take the sting out of the words.
"I'm sorry, Cassey, that was in poor taste," Toni offered.
"Yes it was, but, hey, I'm used to it by now," Cassey said with a cheeky grin.
"The Green Eyed Goddess..." Cassey said and leaned back in her seat, chuckling over the silly name. After a while, she found that she actually kinda liked it.
A little later, after they had safely left the crowded small town, the CB crackled to life.
"Breaker one-nine to the black and yeller trucks up ahead. Do y'all mind if we joined ya, over."
"How about that, Toni, we've got company!"
"Yeah, looks like we've got ourselves a convoy."
Toni picked up the CB mic and pressed the button.
"Hello breaker, you're runnin' with Little Toni and the Green Eyed Goddess sharin' the black Bulldog as your front door with Midnight Express in the rockin' chair. Who we got with us, come back?"
"Y'all got the Spanish Fly and the Texas Raider here, the Raider's got the back door covered."
"That's a big 10-4, Texas Raider. Keep your eyes peeled, smokey's real active today," Toni answered.
"Will do, Little Toni. Out."
"Oh, this is so exciting!" Cassey said and almost squealed with joy.
"Well, yeah, but it carries some obligations too."
"We're the front door, and that means that I have to raise the trucks coming towards us for smokey reports from time to time. And things like keeping to a set speed, you know..."
"Wow, I never thought of it that way."
"That's really what we do out here, Cassey. We're just trying to get from A to B and hope the law won't put their hands too deep into our pockets. We're all out here trying to make a buck for ourselves and our families."
"And they're all following us..." Cassey said and tried to see the other trucks in the rear view mirror.
"No they ain't, we just happen to be in front."
A truck approaching them flashed its high beams. Toni quickly grabbed the mic.
"Breaker breaker, who was that just flashin' his lights, over?"
"That would be the Guilty Pleasure, darlin', I'm jus' tellin' ya the road is clean and green, over."
"Much obliged Guilty Pleasure, out."
"Darlin'!" Cassey said and raised an eyebrow.
"That's how we speak out here, you should know that by now," Toni replied with a smile on her face.
"Sure, but I don't want nobody else calling you 'darling' but me..."
"Man, that Texas Raider's really talking, huh? He hasn't stopped squawking since he joined us!" Cassey said half an hour later.
As if on cue, the stream of words from the CB stopped suddenly, and the Raider delivered an important message to the other trucks:
"This is the backdoor, looks like we've got a bear in a plain brown wrapper creepin' up on us."
"10-Roger, backdoor. I got it covered," Toni said, and paid extra attention to the speedo.
Sure enough, a few minutes later an unmarked beige Oldsmobile slowly drove past the four trucks. A large CB antenna on the roof was swaying in the wind.
"He's got his ears on. He's probably listened in on us for the last five miles or so. Maybe more," Toni explained to Cassey.
"We're not doing anything illegal here, why the hell won't they leave us alone?"
"It's all part of the game," Toni said and shrugged.
"One I could happily do without."
"Me too, but that's just the way it is, you know," Toni said.
They continued to be part of the convoy for another half hour or so until they found the off ramp where they had to leave the highway.
"Breaker, breaker to the Spanish Fly and the Texas Raider, it's been a real pleasure to be part of your li'l ol' convoy, but here's where the Midnight Express and myself leave ya. Catch ya on the flip-flop. Bye-bye."
"10-Roger that Little Toni and Midnight Express, stay safe wherever you're goin', Texas Raider out."
"The Spanish Fly wishes you a happy journey, see ya."
Toni stopped at the entrance to the construction site. The ground looked muddy and slippery, and there were plenty of potholes all over the place.
The two truckers drove on very carefully to try to avoid at least the deepest holes, not always successfully so, and were soon at the off-loading ramps. The place was deserted, except for a single man in a hardhat.
Toni rolled the window down.
"Where the hell is everybody?"
"I'm all there is, we don't have enough workers to help you unload. Everyone's busy fitting the window sections," the man said.
"Ya gotta be kiddin'!" Toni said in a thoroughly fed up tone that made Cassey giggle.
"Sorry, Ma'am. The forklift is over there. Go over to the barracks after you've unloaded and we'll settle the payment there," the man said and left.
"Pfffffffff," Toni said and shook her head.
"I can't drive a forklift!"
"Yeah. Let's hope Angela can, or else we're up dung creek without paddles."
"Angela, please tell me you can drive a forklift?" Toni said into the CB.
"I can drive any fork you can think of!"
A few minutes later, Angela sat in the driver's seat of the forklift and stared at all the buttons and instruments.
"Of course, they did have fewer knobs and dials when I last drove one..." she said, almost as an afterthought.
"The basics must be the same, however. Lemme see, Raise fork, here..." she tried a lever.
"Hmmm, no... OK, safety switch, got it." She turned a big red switch to the 'on' position and tried the first lever again. This time the forks went up.
"Great, got that. Forward... reverse... fork up, fork down. OK, I'm ready!"
"Don't knock yourself out," Toni said. Cassey kept a safe distance.
"I'll try not to," Angela replied.
There were a few beginner's mistakes, but Angela soon got into the swing of things, and within 45 minutes she had unloaded both trailers.
While Toni and Angela went to collect the money from the foreman, Cassey stayed behind to watch the rest of the construction site. The house being built was a beehive of activity with dozens of workers on scaffoldings putting in the windows, and it was fascinating for the young woman to see how everyone seemed to know exactly where to be and what to do.
She dug out her Kodak and took at least a dozen pictures of the various things from the construction site.
"I gave Angela some of our share. She deserved it after all that hard work," Toni said when she returned with the money.
"That's fair enough."
"Hey, I think it's time for a cup of coffee. There's a truck stop not far from here, whaddaya say, over?"
Angela said on the CB.
"That's a big 10-4. You lead and I'll follow. Out," Toni said.
A little while later. After dropping off the trailers at a local depot, they hosed down the tractor units on a lot next to the truck stop's gas station - and just as Toni had predicted, everyone's clothes got wet.
"I'm gonna change, meet ya inside in five minutes, OK?" Angela said and tried to get her unruly wet hair settled down.
"Yep. We'll be there," Toni said as she rolled up the hoses and put them on the hook next to the diesel pumps.
Tony and Cassey quickly changed into some dry clothes and entered the truck stop to look for Angela - they found her sitting at a table, eating an enormous cheese burger.
"Don't look at me like that, all that work made me hungry!" she said between bites.
"I'm actually hungry too, Toni, do we have time to eat?" Cassey said, and showed Toni the cutest puppy dog eyes imaginable.
"Well, if you eat as much as you usually do, then maybe not..." Toni said mischievously. She sat down opposite Angela and picked up the menu card.
"Har har, smartypants," Cassey said and turned to Angela.
"You want something, Angela? A soda?"
"No thanks, Cassey, I'm full."
Cassey turned around and headed for the counter to order her food. Angela watched the young blonde for a bit before wiping her mouth and fingers in a napkin.
"How long have you been trucking, Toni?" she said.
"Since '69. I became a gypsy in '75. How 'bout yourself?"
"I started driving in '62, and I got my own license nine years ago. To tell you the truth, I've been looking to get out of the business. I'm 45 now, and I'm beginning to feel the long hours. There are days where my back's killing me."
"I hear you," Toni said and toyed with the salt and pepper shakers. She vividly remembered days where she could hardly stand up after driving too many hours without a break.
"Cassey told me this morning that you've been together for almost a year. That's rare in this business. I guess I don't have to tell you that, huh?"
"No. I know we've got a good thing going. If I could only stop puttin' my foot in my mouth we'd be great..." Toni said and shook her head.
"Don't worry, she loves ya," Angela chuckled.
"We love each other, but I'm not always making it easy for her."
"It's easy to fall in love, living together's the hard part," Angela said.
"That sounds like experience talking."
"Yeah, I guess. I've never had a relationship last as long as yours. So..." Angela shrugged and ran a hand through her hair.
"I never imagined I'd be in one that would last that long either... but something happened. I don't know, maybe we were hit by Cupid's arrows."
"Whatever it was, it got you good, I'd say," Angela said and chuckled.
Cassey returned and placed a plate on the table with a cheeseburger the same size as the one Angela had just finished, and a mountain of French fries.
"Here Toni, I bought you a Coke," Cassey said, and put down the cup in front of Toni.
"No way you little featherweight can eat all of that!" Angela said.
"It'll be gone within 15 minutes," Toni said.
"No way. $5 says she can't eat all the fries."
"You're on," Toni said, and placed a fiver on the table.
"Done," Cassey said twelve minutes later.
Toni grinned and put the $10 in her wallet.
"Told ya so."
Angela repeatedly shook her head over the sight of an empty plate in front of the petite blonde.
"Oh man, that's so unfair! I look at a donut and gain weight, and you little leaf can eat half a cow and not even look stuffed afterwards!" Angela said and pretended to sob.
"That's just the way it is, I don't know where she's putting it, either!" Toni said and laughed.
"Yeah... Well, it's been a hoot guys, but I've got to leave the party now. I've got a regular run to do tomorrow, so..." Angela said and got up. She shook hands with Cassey and Toni.
"It's been fun, Angela. Stay safe," Cassey said to the older woman.
"Always. You too, huh? Both of ya."
"You bet," Toni said and nodded.
A few minutes later the yellow Freightliner went by the window where Toni and Cassey were sitting. Angela saluted them with two long PWAAAAP's from the airhorns before she went out into the congested late afternoon traffic.
Toni tapped her fingers on the table.
"What's on your mind, honey?" Cassey asked.
"I have an idea. It's a quarter past four. If we bunked down and tried to sleep now, maybe five or six hours or so, there would be a lot less traffic on the roads. We'd get home with less stress."
"Without a new load? Won't that cost you money?" Cassey asked concerned.
"Yes. But I was thinking you'd might be tired of the run...?"
"Hell no, Toni. I'm up for it if you are!"
"And you're not just saying that...?"
"We're here to make money, aren't we? And besides, I think I'm beginning to like the endless highways... especially when you're driving."
"All right, then I have another idea. I saw a freight central not far from here. We can sleep for a few hours, and then go out there to see if they've got something for us. OK?"
"Oh yeah, that sounds a lot better. Of course, we could also..." Cassey looked around, and then leaned in real close to Toni's ear.
"... make love first, and then sleep..." she whispered.
2 am. So far Toni's plan had worked out fine. The traffic was almost non-existent and the miles flew by underneath the truck.
It had been a long time since Toni was fresh and unstressed when she was driving by night, and she realized she'd missed it. Driving in the night was a completely different experience to driving in daylight. It was much more tranquil. With the horizon so much closer, she could focus solely on the driving.
Cassey had said earlier that she had begun to like the driving, but Toni doubted she would ever get to like it as much as she did herself.
In a way it was in her blood. Whenever she was on the road, going from A to B she really felt alive. It didn't matter what the load was, or even if she had one at all - it was all about the driving.
Not that she didn't feel alive when she held Cassey tight, or when they made love. Of course she did, but those sensations were very different. Toni smiled, thinking about the intimate moment they had shared only a few hours earlier.
Once again Cassey had done her best to make Toni deaf on one ear by howling straight into it as she climaxed. One of these days she was going to buy some earplugs, but on the other hand, the cries of passion bursting forth from the young blonde was almost half the fun...
"Break one-nine for that black Mack up ahead. Ya got ya ears on, buddy?"
Cassey was resting in the sleeper cab, so Toni had turned the CB down low.
"I got ya ten-ten on the side. You've got Little Toni and the Green Eyed Goddess at your front door. Who is this, come on back?" Toni answered and tried to keep her voice down.
"Moonshine Joe's the name. Whatcha haulin' in that silver dropdeck, over?"
"Howdy Joe. It's chemicals, so you might wanna stay back some!" Toni said and laughed.
"Yeah, I better. Listen Toni, are ya familiar with the roads around here, over?"
By now Cassey had heard the conversation and peeked her head through the leather curtain. Toni noticed and turned the volume back up to the normal level so she could hear it clearly over the hum of the engine.
"No, this is the first time I'm here, over."
"I thought as much. Ya goin' too fast. We're crestin' a hill in about a mile or so. There's a steep descent on the other side that leads into Dead Man's Curve. Ya need to slow down to about thirty if ya don't wanna get ya angel wings early."
Cassey's eyebrows shot up, and she hurried into the passenger seat. She picked up the map she had followed earlier and looked at it thoroughly - there was no mention of a steep descent.
"10-4 Joe, obligin'" Toni said and hung up the CB mic. She started to gear down and put it into low. The Mack had gone down to 30 mph when they crested the hill and the road suddenly seemed to drop out of sight in front of them.
"Christ almighty Toni, look at that, it's not on the map!"
Toni expertly drove the Mack slowly down the hill and round the bend. A large cross had been erected right on the entrance to Dead Man's Curve, proving that not everyone had been so fortunate.
When they reached the bottom of the descent, Toni craned her neck to look in the mirrors. She could see the headlights of Joe's truck following them down the hill. When she was sure he had time to answer, she picked up the mic.
"Thanks, Joe. I owe you one, over."
"You're welcome, Little Toni. We gotta look out for one another out here. Just glad I could help. Moonshine Joe out."
"It looks like we're coming up to a truck stop." Cassey pointed out of the windscreen at some bright lights and a few neon signs a couple of miles ahead.
"Hope it is, I could use some coffee," Toni said.
"Me, too," Cassey said and yawned.
Joe's Peterbilt overtook them as they slowed for the truck stop, and Toni pulled the chord for the airhorns to salute him. He answered, and then he disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Toni opened the door to the cafeteria and let Cassey inside. The place was deathly quiet and the only person in sight was a waitress taking a nap, resting her head in her arms across one of the tables. Her glasses and a long forgotten mug of coffee were placed next to her on the table top.
"I have to take a leak," Toni said, and headed for the restrooms.
Cassey cleared her throat, making the waitress jump.
The elderly woman looked around disoriented before remembering to put on her glasses.
"Whaddaya want?" she growled.
"Coffee, please," Cassey said.
"Wakin' me up at God knows what hour just to get some goddamned coffee. The nerve of the young people these days..." the waitress muttered under her breath. Growling and cursing, she kicked the percolator into life and emptied a fresh bag of coffee beans into the machine.
"Jeez, you'd think they'd never seen a goddamned sodapop machine. When I was their age, I'd already..." the waitress said, going on and on.
Cassey rubbed her face and sighed deeply, wishing that Toni would come back quickly. Fortunately her prayers were heard and the driver returned, using a wad of toilet paper to dry a large, wet stain on the front of her T-shirt.
"No, it's not what you think it is," she said as she saw Cassey open her mouth to speak.
"The damn faucet on the sink is broke. The water's going everywhere!"
"She probably fixed it herself," Cassey said, and pointed her thumb at the cursing waitress.
"Remind me not to stop here in the future, OK?" Toni said quietly. Cassey nodded solemnly.
Finally, the waitress put down two mugs of coffee on the counter. The brown liquid sloshed over the edge and down the sides of Cassey's mug, and Toni casually handed her the wad of toilet paper to wipe it off.
The waitress put out her hand and growled:
"That'll be $3.50. And no plastic!"
Cassey duly put the coins into the open hand, and the waitress retired back to her table.
Several hours later.
Toni hung up the CB mic. She was still laughing from the conversation she had just had with a fellow trucker.
Cassey smiled at the sight. She just loved to see Toni happy.
"I know I'm probably being stupid, but I don't understand some of the pet names you give the trucks in the CB lingo, Toni..." Cassey said and turned towards the driver.
"What do you mean?"
"I can understand Bulldog because of the little figure out front, but 'Jimmy', 'K-Whopper', 'Fruitliner' ...? I just don't get it."
"I've got no idea where they came from originally, but they're not hard to decipher once you get to know them. 'Jimmy', that's easy, that's a GMC, and..."
"What about a 'Jimmy B', then?"
"A Jimmy B is a GMC Bison. It looks a little like the Mack RS from a distance, but up close they're really different."
"For you, maybe," Cassey said and laughed.
"K-Whopper that's a Kenworth..."
"Oh yeah, that was the truck Jackson drove when we met him last year, right? The red one?"
"That's right. A Fruitliner, well that's just a Freightliner. And don't ask me how they got from one to the other..." Toni said and smiled.
"And then a 'Pete' must be a Peterbilt?"
"Yep - see, you already know a lot of them."
"Yeah, well... oh, look at that fantastic sunrise, Toni!"
Toni turned her head and looked at a breathtaking array of colors spreading out over the Eastern sky. The sun had just climbed above the horizon, chasing away the last of the night.
"Oh, yeah. Looks kinda great," Toni said.
"Toni, if I said 'pleeeeeease', would you stop the truck so I could snap a few photos?"
"Sure thing, honeybuns," the driver said, and started to gear down.
80 miles further down the road.
"What's this?" Cassey asked, and showed Toni a piece of paper. She had been looking through the sleeper cab for something to eat when she had found the paper with Toni's handwriting on it.
"Oh, that's just something I wrote down a couple of years ago. Wow, I can't believe you found it... I thought it was gone forever."
Cassey started to read it.
"You wrote this?" she asked surprised.
"No no, I didn't write it, I just copied it from someone I met a truck stop. But I liked it a lot, so I wanted to keep it. It's from a song by Dave Dudley."
"Yeah. Hey, Cassey, do me a favor? Would you please read it out loud?"
"I'd be honored to!" Cassey said and cleared her throat.
'Dear God above,
Bless this truck I drive, and
Help me keep someone alive
Bless my sight on this day
On streets where little children play
Bless my helper fast asleep
When the night is long and deep, and
Keep my cargo safe and sound
Through the hours big and round
Make my judgment sound as steel
Be my hands upon the wheel
Bless the traveler going past, and
Teach him not to go so fast
Give me strength for every trip, so
I may care for what they ship, and
Make me mindful every mile, that
Life is just a little while
"Amen," Toni echoed.
Cassey lowered her hands into her lap as a content silence filled the cab of the black Mack. Both women knew that further words were needless, so they kept quiet and savored the moment.
A while later.
"Toni?" Cassey said in a sweet voice.
"Look straight ahead and have a determined look on your face."
"Just do it."
CLICK - FLASH!
"Don't waste your film on me, honey."
"Nonsense, this one's gonna be the best shot of all," Cassey said, and advanced the film with her thumb.
"I'm really glad you've found something you're interested in, honey. That deck of cards you used for solitaire was pretty much worn out," Toni said.
"Yeah. In a way I've rediscovered something I already loved a long time ago. I got a camera for my... oh gosh, perhaps 10th birthday, and the next year or so I went through at least 15 rolls of film. I shot everything in sight, people, landscapes, cars, everything," Cassey said as she attached the lens cap to the camera.
"Sounds like fun."
"It really was. It got a little expensive in the end, though. My dad suggested that I took a break from it. A thirteen year break, as it turned out! And of course, not all the shots were good, we threw a lot of them away after they'd been developed. But I kept the best ones in albums. I wonder where they are now... perhaps my parents got rid of them after I moved out."
"I doubt it, honey. Parents tend to keep things their little ones have made."
"Heh. I'm gonna have to ask mom about that the next time we talk on the phone."
"I've got an idea, why don't we buy something for your camera as our anniversary gift? A zoom lens, or a tripod or something..."
"Well, we agreed on getting a gift that both of us would enjoy, remember? You wouldn't get much pleasure out of it if we got something for my camera..."
"Yes I would, honey - I'd get to see your beaming face whenever you use it. I'm serious, Cassey, your eyes light up just by talking about it. And I'm never more happy than when you are."
"I... well, a zoom lens would allow me to get closer to whatever it is I'm looking at, without disturbing it too much..."
"You see? Let's go to the mall again next weekend. The shop where you bought the camera will be more than happy to see you again. What was that guy's name..."
"Mr. Jenkins," Cassey added.
"Right. He seemed to be trustworthy. I'll bet he knows exactly what to get for that Kodak."
"Oh yeah, no doubt about that."
"I think that's pretty much settled, then... huh?"
Cassey smiled so broadly Toni almost needed to shield her eyes. The young blonde leaned over and kissed Toni on the cheek.
"And then you're gonna have to teach me how to use the camera. Otherwise we won't have any pictures of you," Toni said.
"I think we can manage that, too," Cassey said and laughed.
Three hours and 165 miles later... somewhere in Colorado.
"I can't believe how active the bears are today!" Toni said as they were passed by what felt like the 30th police cruiser of the day. The car drove onto the off ramp a few miles later.
"Breaker one-nine, this is Little Toni, I'm looking for a smokey report. I'm southbound on I-25, over," she said into the mic.
"Hello breaker, this is the Cottonmouth, ain't nothin' in sight, she's all clean and green. You're clear to mash the gas, over."
Toni looked at the receiver and furrowed her brow.
"10-4 Cottonmouth, I copy," she replied after a short pause, and then hung up the mic.
"Is that like pedal to the metal?" Cassey said and giggled.
"Yep. But there's something fishy. I don't think that was a truck answering."
"Oh? Why not?"
"The sound was too clear. No engine in the background."
Cassey turned in her seat to look at Toni.
"I noticed, but couldn't he just be taking a break somewhere?"
"In that case, he can't see what's going on out here."
"Yeah, you're right... then what?"
"The bear that just passed us," Toni said, and checked the mirrors.
"But why would he do that... wait a minute, he's trying to set a trap for us!"
"What an asshole," the blonde woman growled.
"Yeah, well, we're not gonna give him that pleasure, are we?" Toni said.
Toni made sure the needle was glued onto the double nickle, re-checking constantly. Cassey giggled at the thought of the two of them fooling the cop.
After six miles of keeping to the speed limit, Toni noticed a car following them closely.
"Cassey, look in the mirror. We've got company. It looks like we made the right choice this time."
"*You* made the right choice, honey," Cassey corrected her.
The police car pulled out and drove alongside them for nearly a mile, like he was marking his territory.
Just as Toni reached for the CB to ask if there was a problem, the police officer stepped on the gas and roared off into the distance.
"Shithead," Cassey said and waved her middle finger after him as a parting salute.
Toni chuckled at her partner's temper.
"I know, I know. It's just that some days I want 'em all to disappear, you know?" Cassey said frustrated.
"I understand perfectly honey, but really... then we'd just have to deal with jerks like Doug all the time."
"S'pose," Cassey said and shrugged.
"Enough talk about cops. When we get home, I promise you won't see another uniform for as long as you want," Toni said and gave Cassey's knee a squeeze.
"When we get home I'm not getting out of bed for a week," Cassey said. She shook her head and sighed deeply.
"Yeah?" Toni said, wiggling her eyebrows.
"Well, at least some of the time...?"
"Let's do something fun to get my mind off all the negative stuff. You wanna play twenty questions?" Cassey asked.
"I suck at twenty questions, Cassey, you know that."
"Yeah, that's why it's so fun to play with you!"
"How about I Spy?"
"Sure, unless you plan to use my belly button again..."
"I'm not," Toni said and chuckled.
"Then it's all right."
"OK, I spy... let me see... yup, got it," Toni said and smiled at Cassey.
"Is it animal or... well, technical," Cassey said and smirked, looking around in the cab.
"Huh. OK, then... is it..." she looked out of the windows onto the scenery whizzing by.
"Is it that group of horses over there?"
Five minutes later, Cassey looked at Toni who wore a very suspicious looking smile on her face.
"You promised you wouldn't use my belly button again," she said.
"I didn't. You give up?"
"Yeah!" Cassey said exasperated.
"It's the remains of your ham and cheese from yesterday," Toni said and pointed down at a mess in the small tray between the seats.
"My... oh yuck, I forgot to throw it out! Why didn't you tell me!" Cassey said and picked up the other half of the sandwich that had tasted so strange she couldn't eat it. She rolled down the window and threw the bundle out with a disgusted look on her face.
"I only just saw it. Hey, I won, didn't I ?" Toni said.
"Yeah, yeah. I owe you a kiss."
"Make it a sloppy one."
Cassey reached down into her carrier bag and pulled out a paperback.
"Let's see if I got my money's worth with this thing."
"What is it?" Toni asked.
"A romance novel."
"I bought it a little while ago, at one of the truck stops we visited."
"Since when did they sell romance novels at truck stops... and since when did you even read them? They're trash," Toni said.
"They can't all be bad. You know what, I think I'll torture you some more while I'm reading. Serves you right for not telling me about that stinky sandwich!" Cassey said teasingly, and put her feet up on the dashboard.
"So you've noticed, huh?" Toni chuckled.
"Oh yeah, I could feel your eyes burning a hole into my thigh a couple of times."
"That's your own fault honey, you could just be old and fat like myself."
"Old, fat and needing glasses, honey," Cassey said flatly while leafing through the book, making Toni laugh out loud.
'Reginald's strong arms held Abigail tight. The young woman was swept helplessly off her feet by the dashing rogue who had saved her from the marriage to the homely prince. She nearly fainted as his lips touched hers...'
Cassey read the paragraph out loud to Toni.
"What a load of bull," the blonde woman said.
"Told ya so."
"Yeah. $1.99 wasted. Those novels are so far removed from the real world it's a wonder anyone buys them. I mean, come on..."
"Well, true, but a lot of people want to escape the daily routines with a touch of romance, Cassey."
"And besides, a girl can use her imagination, right?"
"Well, that's true. Perhaps it would go a little something like this..."
'Toni's strong arms held Cassey tight. The young woman was swept helplessly off her feet by the dashing rogue who had saved her from the rotten creep. She nearly fainted as their lips touched...'
The two women looked at each other for an eternal second.
"Much better. But you actually kissed me first," Toni said.
"Yeah, now you mention it."
Several hours later, Toni slowly drove the Mack up to the end of the queue for Greasy's freight central. It was apparently a busy day, as they were only fifth in line.
"Honey, please, promise me you won't do anything you'll regret," Cassey pleaded.
"I promise I won't kick his ass to Arizona, even if he deserves it. No, I'm going to act as an adult and speak with him instead... well, yell at him."
"Kidding," Toni said, but Cassey wasn't entirely convinced.
They went a truck length further in the line before stopping again.
"I did *not* need this," Toni said and sighed deeply.
"I know what you mean, I just wanna go home!" Cassey said and yawned.
After nearly ten minutes of waiting, it was finally Toni's turn at the booth. The controller was Greg, the man who had organized the load on Monday.
"Papers," he said roughly, without looking at who it was.
"Ya better get Greasy on the horn. Tell him I wanna see him," Toni growled as she handed the controller the manifest.
"Oh... Hi Toni... yeah, er, Greasy's sorta preoccupied today..."
"Greg, do I look like I give a shit?"
"Er, no, but he's talking to the cops..."
"Yeah, two cops came by earlier today, and they've been talking to him for nearly two hours..." Greg said, and put a stamp on the paperwork.
"And my money...?" Toni said.
"I got it, don't worry. Tell you what, I got a break coming up, so... meet me in the Hazardous lot in, say, 10 minutes?" he said as he handed her the documents.
"You better not be bullshitting me, Greg. I'm not in the mood to play party games," Toni growled and pointed her index finger at him.
"I'm being totally honest with you, Toni."
Toni put the truck in gear, and the two women drove off.
"So, Greasy's talking to the cops, huh?" Cassey said.
Driving around the lot, they were soon faced with the remains of Doug's rust brown Kenworth hanging off the back of a wrecker truck.
"Holy shit! They can forget about fixin' that thing. It's a writeoff," Toni said. The front axle was gone completely and several large pieces had been torn out of the engine cover and the wheel arcs. The windscreen was missing, and the left hand door was only attached to the top hinge, making it sway in the wind.
Cassey quickly took a picture out of the opened window as they drove past the wreck. The flash lit up the scene, saving Doug's stupidity for posterity.
Toni unhooked the dropdeck tanker and left it for the shunters to deal with. She had just about had it with the whole thing.
For once, Greg was there faster than he said he would be.
"Hi again Toni, hello Miss," he said, and nodded to Cassey.
"I'm Cassey," she said and shook hands with him.
"I'm Greg. Nice to meet ya. So, Toni... I'm really sorry about what happened on Monday. I didn't have anything to do with it. I was going to call Chavez like I said I would, but Greasy told me to call Doug instead."
"Yeah well, Doug turned out to be a piece of trash."
"Yeah... Greasy insisted. I told him Doug was on probation, but..."
"Probation, for what?" Toni interrupted.
"A prior case of DUI."
"DUI my hairy backside!" Toni growled.
Cassey guffawed and slapped a hand across her mouth.
"He was a pothead! A heavy user, too! He was probably already loaded when he met us out at Myrna's. And then he wrecked one of your trucks. I just saw it, it's ripe for the trashcan," Toni said.
"Yeah... and allegedly, and please note I said allegedly, there's some business about smuggling Weed as well."
"By Doug or Greasy?" Toni asked.
"Both, according to the grapevine."
"Oh that's just ginger peachy, Greg. Tell ya what, I don't give a shit about your mess, so just give me my money and I'm outta here."
"All right, all right, I got it right here."
Greg dug out a large wad of cash from his attach‚ case, which made Cassey's eyes grow as big as saucers. He flipped through some of the bills and handed Toni her payment for the run.
"Here ya go. Satisfied?"
"Yep. Thanks Greg. I'll be back on Monday."
"Is that a promise or a threat?" he said and laughed cautiously.
"Depends on you," Toni said in a menacing tone which was offset somewhat by a lopsided grin on her face.
Greg opened his mouth but not a sound came out. He settled for nodding.
"Come on Cassey, let's go home," Toni said.
"I can't wait," the blonde woman said and climbed up into the truck.
6:20 pm. It was gray and overcast, which pretty much reflected the mood of both women.
Toni pulled into their driveway and shut off the engine. Both women were quiet. This was a trip they wouldn't forget in a hurry.
Cassey's face cracked wide open in a yawn that threatened to dislocate her jaw.
"Man, I'm beat."
"Yeah, me too. This run was harder than I thought it'd be," Toni said and rubbed her eyes.
They grabbed their various bags and climbed down from the truck.
'Strange... I love the truck and I love the driving, and yet I can't leave it quickly enough when the run's over,'
She shook her head, and stretched out her arms above her, making her back creak and pop in protest.
"Remind me to give you a back rub later on, honey," Cassey said.
"I will. I need it," Toni replied, and sniffed her shirt...
"...And a shower."
Cassey unlocked the front door and placed their bags on the floor. Old Fred had placed the mail on the coffee table, and she skimmed through them before heading for the kitchen to put a can of soup on the stove. There was a letter from her mother. No doubt with some info about her parents' divorce, Cassey thought.
"Anything interesting in the mail?" Toni asked as she entered their house and closed the door behind her.
"Nah, not really. Letter from my mom."
"I'm gonna grab a quick shower before we eat, OK?"
"Sure. It's chicken soup," Cassey said, and held up the can for Toni to see.
"Great. I'll be right there."
Cassey removed her shoes and relished the sensation of walking around in bare feet for the first time in several days.
She emptied the can of soup into a large pot, and turned on the gas stove. Satisfied that the soup was warming up as it should, she opened the letter from her mother.
"Hello Cassandra. It seems like I'm always bringing you bad
news. I just had a call from the police station. Tommy Rawlins
is dead. He was..."
Cassey stood up from the kitchen chair like she'd been bitten by a snake. She stared at the letter in a haze. Tommy dead? Walking on auto pilot, she went over to the stove and used a large wooden spoon to stir the soup, still holding the letter in the other hand.
"... is dead. He was shot in the line of duty. Sunday evening
he pulled over two kids in a stolen car. As he checked the
driver's license, the passenger ran away from the car. Tommy set
after him, but the passenger pulled a gun and shot Tommy in
the chest. A terrible tragedy. I tried to call you all Monday,
but no one answered, so I guessed you were away..."
Sunday evening. She had had the nightmare very early Monday morning. 'Oh man, that's creepy. Majorly creepy'
, she thought.. If she had still lived with him, that whole dream would have happened for real. Cassey broke out in goosebumps all over her body.
"... you were away with Toni. Tommy's funeral is set for this
Sunday. I know you won't come, but I'm going to send a wreath
with all our names on the card. I know how you feel about him, but
all of that doesn't matter now, and especially not to his parents
and his sister.
If you're home, please call me on Saturday after 11 am.
Love you, mom."
Cassey put down the letter on the kitchen table and stared out into empty space. Wow.
Toni entered the living room, drying her hair with a towel.
"I'd forgotten how good hot water felt. Hey, honey, you're really pale. You shoulda told me you weren't feeling well, I would've made dinner..."
"Oh... it's not that, honey," Cassey said, and poured the hot soup into two bowls.
"You don't look too well," Toni said concerned.
"It's the letter from mom. It just shook me up a bit... Tommy... he's dead. He was shot in the line of duty."
"Yes. Sunday evening. I... I don't know how I feel about it, to be honest... but anyway, I'm starving. Let's eat while it's hot," Cassey said, and pulled out a chair.
Toni looked at her partner and knew that Cassey's apparent calm was only a facade, but she decided to let the younger woman set the pace.
After the dishes were done, Toni and Cassey went to sit in the couch. Cassey leaned her head on the taller woman's shoulder, and absentmindedly toyed with a loose thread on her jeans.
"I can't believe it," Cassey said quietly.
Toni gently ran her fingers through the blonde mane.
"It must be difficult to understand."
"Yeah. He wasn't always a bastard, you know. I did actually love him... once. When I first met him, he was so kind to me. He bought me gifts from time to time... even if it usually was a six-pack of Bud."
Toni smiled and kissed Cassey's hair.
"I saw his good side... and I felt his bad side," Cassey said and involuntarily touched her throat where the angry marks had long since faded.
"You know, Toni, I think it's a good thing I wasn't home when this letter arrived, because... I don't know what I would have done. I'm so glad you're here with me, and that you don't mind listening to my babbling."
"Oh come on, honey, I love to listen to you. Your voice soothe my soul."
"And you're not just saying that because you need a back rub?" Cassey tried to joke, but the laughter stuck in her craw.
"No," Toni said reassuringly.
Cassey suddenly leaned forward and buried her face in her hands.
"I have such a guilty conscience, Toni. I should be on my knees weeping over the death of the man I lived with for two years, but I can't cry. In fact, I feel... liberated. I feel sorry for his family, but for him... no. I can't cry."
Toni scooted over and put a leg on either side of Cassey. She pulled the younger woman back to lean against her body.
"The only advice I can give you is to remember the good times you had - and let the bad memories be erased by the love we share now," Toni whispered in Cassey's ear.
The blonde woman nodded. Almost in spite of herself, a single tear ran down her cheek.
"I love you, Toni," Cassey said quietly.
"And I love you... so... very... much..." Toni whispered, and gently kissed her partner's neck.
BOOK 4 - TWO MONTHS TO REMEMBER
SPECIAL HURT/COMFORT DISCLAIMER:
One of the plot points of book 4's chapter 19 is an illness-related hurt/comfort scenario with the lead characters. Readers who are sensitive to such a scenario may wish to skip the scene.
10:30 pm, Wednesday October 31st, 1979 - Halloween.
"How much liquor do you want in your coffee, honey?" Toni asked as she opened the cupboard and took out a bottle of O'Connor's Finest Irish Whiskey
"Enough to taste it, but not so much I'll get drunk..." Cassey replied from the couch.
Toni poured what she hoped was the right amount in the two steaming mugs, and then stirred. She took the mugs and headed for the couch.
"Here ya go, hon."
"Thanks. Come sit down. I've found a great little story I want to read for you," Cassey said, and padded the couch with her hand.
"Can't wait. Lemme kill the lights, and we're set."
Toni turned off the lights and for a brief moment the two women were sitting in total darkness.
Outside, the wind was whistling around the corner of the house, and leaves were blowing down the street.
"Don't you just love Halloween? We've got pumpkins, a spooky book, and the wind's blowing. Perfect!" Cassey said, as she used a lighter to ignite four candles on the coffee table.
"And tomorrow *somebody* has to rake together those leaves out on the front lawn, honey," Toni said as she sat down.
Cassey kicked off her shoes and folded her legs up underneath her. She lowered her voice to a whisper.
"I hope you're ready to get spooked, honey. This story's pretty creepy."
"I'm ready," Toni whispered and kissed Cassey's cheek.
"You better be," Cassey said and kissed her back.
The blonde woman cleared her throat, and began to read from the book:
"All right, 'The Undead Shall Inherit The Earth'
. The night was dark and stormy..."
Fifteen minutes later...
"Brooke constantly looked over her shoulder as she walked along the gravely path into the graveyard. She could feel she was being watched, but there wasn't a living soul in sight..."
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
"DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN!" Cassey half-screamed and dropped the book on the floor.
Toni, who had closed her eyes and was resting her head on Cassey's shoulder, almost had a heart attack.
"GOD DAMN!" she said out loud.
"Oh my heart..." Cassey said, trying to calm down after the fright.
It knocked on the door again.
"Do you think it's one of the undead?" the young woman whispered to Toni.
"If it's anything less than Frankenstein's goddamned monster, I'll kick its butt to Arizona for interrupting your story," Toni growled, and headed for the door.
It turned out to be Old Fred, their neighbor.
"Hi, Toni, I just came home and saw fire flickering in here, and I worried you had forgotten a candle or something...?" he said, honestly concerned.
"We appreciate it, Fred. No, we were just... ah, we were just reading a scary book, you know... Halloween."
"Oh damn... I forgot that was tonight ...I'm real sorry, Toni," he said and took his 1961-vintage baseball cap off.
"It's all right, Fred. We're glad you're watching the house for us. Don't worry about it."
"Say hello to young Cassey for me, huh?"
"Will do, Fred. See ya."
"Was that Fred?" Cassey asked, still a bit unsettled.
"Yep. He saw the candlelight and thought we'd forgotten it. Nice of him to notice. He's gotta work on his timing, though," Toni said as she sat back down.
"Yeah... so, where were we..." Cassey said and brushed a golden lock of hair away from her eyes.
"I think we were just getting to the chapter where you become possessed and ravish me 'till the break of dawn..." Toni whispered seductively in Cassey's ear.
"Mm-hmm?" The younger woman replied and smiled before she continued:
"It does sound tempting... but I wanna finish the story first!" she said and gave Toni a bump with her elbow.
Cassey laughed off of Toni's cute pout.
"It's the last chapter anyway... so, where were we, oh yeah... there wasn't a living soul in sight."
A little while later:
"Brooke forced the wooden stake into the vampire's heart! Mankind had finally been freed from eternal torment. The End."
Cassey closed the book and put it on the table.
"That was nice and scary, don't you think?" she said to Toni.
"Oh yeah. God, I can't tell you how much I love just to listen to your sexy voice rumbling in your chest," Toni said, and moved her hand across the younger woman's stomach.
"Hey honey, that story wasn't supposed to get you hot!" Cassey laughed.
"It didn't... you did..." Toni said, as she moved her mouth close to Cassey's ear and began to suck on her earlobe.
Cassey flushed furiously. The feel of Toni's tongue dancing on her ear nearly caused her to rip her clothes off right there on the couch.
"Honey, mmmffmmmmhhh, honey... we're not dressed for the occasion..." she managed to say between breaths.
Without a word, Toni grabbed Cassey's blouse and pulled it up just enough to get her hand underneath it. She gently clawed at Cassey's smooth skin and felt the younger woman's impressive abs retract. Cassey moaned, and it only helped to increase Toni's passion.
Cassey turned around on the couch so she was face to face with Toni, and stretched her legs out underneath Toni's long frame.
They were so close they were breathing the same air. Each woman became lost in the other's hungry eyes, each of them swimming away on the stream of passion emanating from the other.
Cassey let her fingers climb slowly up the inside of Toni's thigh, a motion she knew drove her partner wild - and sure enough, Toni closed her eyes and growled as she felt Cassey's gentle touch on her.
As the probing fingers found their target, Toni closed the rest of the distance between them and claimed her partner's soft lips in a heated kiss.
"Good morning, honey," Cassey said to Toni as she entered the kitchen.
"Which hand?" Toni teased, holding out two clenched fists.
"The left one."
Toni opened her left hand, revealing it was empty.
"No, that's your left, I meant my left!" Cassey said and laughed.
"You got it," Toni said, and used her other hand to reach behind Cassey and draw her real close.
"Hmmm. Now this I like," the blonde woman said and grinned.
"Thought you might," Toni said, and leaned down to kiss her partner.
After a minute or so they broke contact.
"Mmmm," Cassey hummed.
"You'd almost think we're on our second honeymoon, huh?" Toni said and laughed.
"Well, as long as we spend it on the couch or in the bedroom, it's fine with me," Cassey said and turned away from Toni, making sure her backside was wiggling as she walked.
"Are you trying to kill me, woman? Yeah, I bet that's what you're planning. Kill me with your curves and live off the life insurance," Toni said and laughed out loud.
"No Ma'am. Can't make love with a life insurance," Cassey said, and winked at the older woman.
The phone rang. Toni left the kitchen table and picked it up.
"Toni Willis speaking. Yeah? Yeah. Really? That's interesting. Thanks for letting me know, Greg. I'll get back to you."
Toni put down the receiver but didn't go back to the table right away.
"What was that, honey?" Cassey asked.
"That was Greg from the freight central. He told me that one of the drivers has broken a leg in a car crash. He asked me if I could take over the run."
"A run? Now?" Cassey said interested, hoping for some more adventures.
"It's right away, but it isn't an interstate load - it's all here in New Mexico. And... it's steady hours. Seven am to four pm Monday through Thursday. Fridays to three pm."
"Really?" Cassey felt disappointed, but she was unsure as to why.
"Yeah. It's for a couple of weeks, at least."
"Wait a minute, you'll be home at four-thirty or so every day? That means you'll be here when I get back from work! Oh, that'll be great, Toni!"
"Honey, you make it sound like I'm never home..."
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that, it's just that steady hours is... well, it's just completely different to being away for days on end."
"Yeah. So what do you say?"
"I say go for it!"
"That's a deal, honey," Toni said, and picked up the phone again.
Toni was sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of papers in front of her.
"This is really weird, I've not been an employee for years... not since before my dad died," Toni said as she leafed through the papers she had received from the freight central, confirming her new status as an employee of Detillo Freight, Inc.
"I could easily picture you running a desk instead of a rig. You know, a pencil in your hand, horn-rimmed glasses, your hair in a bun, a nice green- and yellow flowered dress..." Cassey said, as she did the dishes after lunch.
"Watch it, young lady. Keep that lip up and you'll get in trouble," Toni said with a mock scowl.
"Oh yeah?" Cassey replied undaunted.
"Yeah!" Toni growled teasingly.
"What'cha going to do, make me eat your pancakes?" Cassey said and giggled.
Toni turned around.
"Hey, I only messed up the pancakes once!" she said with a pout.
"Once was enough."
"Well, I did make it up to you afterwards."
"That you did," Cassey replied and kissed Toni's cheek.
"So, what's on our agenda for the rest of the day and tomorrow?" Cassey said as she pulled out a kitchen chair.
"Drive to the mall for the BK and a movie?"
"I've heard it's not as good as the last one."
"Heh, me too. Let's skip that one, then."
"BK sounds great, though... hey, wait a minute, I've got an idea," Cassey said as she went hunting for the newspaper.
"What's that, hon?"
"Look here, Miller's Furniture has a special November sale today and tomorrow. How about we drive down there and see if they have a new bookcase?"
"Well, we're a little low on finances, Cassey."
"I know, but looking is free, honey. Come on, let's do it. Have a little look-see in the furniture store, and then go over to the BK."
"I guess a little... shopping... won't kill me," Toni said and winced.
"No, and if you behave, there might be a little reward for you at the end of the evening..." Cassey whispered in Toni's ear.
As soon as Cassey had moved away, Toni jumped up and grabbed her winter coat and the keys to the Beetle.
"We're off!" she said.
Cassey had to rub her eyes. Toni scratched her neck.
"$198 for a bookcase... what's wrong with this picture?" Cassey said disbelieving.
"That can't be right. Let me get a salesman..." Toni said, and started to look around for someone to help them. She quickly found a man and signaled for him to come over.
"How may I help you ladies?" the salesman said.
"Is this price right for this bookcase?" Cassey asked.
"Yes. $198. It's for sale today and tomorrow, down from $248. It's popular, so if you want it, I suggest you move fast."
Cassey looked around in the store. There were maybe two other customers in the whole place.
"We'll manage without it. Thank you very much," she said, and wanted to leave.
"Try to feel the texture, Miss. This wood is of the finest quality, genuine American, not that foreign plywood junk. This'll last for a hundred years, easily," the salesman said.
"Fella, it's a bookcase, not the key to the city," Toni said sourly and walked away, with Cassey in tow.
The salesman shrugged and went back to the cash register.
"You know, Toni, shopping would be a lot more fun if it wasn't for those obnoxious people...," Cassey said as they left the store.
"Heh, never thought I'd hear such words coming from you," Toni said and chuckled.
"Anyway, I'm hungry. Let's go find that BK. My treat."
As Cassey munched on the last of Toni's fries, as usual, the tall woman was thinking hard.
"I've been thinking, Cassey, it would be a lot cheaper if we just bought the wood and made the bookcase ourselves."
"... then we'll have to stop by the library first to pick up a book about woodcarving, 'cause I don't know the first thing about that," Cassey said before finishing the soft drink with a loud slurp.
"Me neither, but we know someone who does."
"Old Fred, our neighbor?" Cassey said, shaking her head slightly.
"No, Old Fred the plumber."
Cassey raised an eyebrow, much to Toni's delight.
"Some time ago, Fred showed me a couple of things he'd made. They looked pretty good. He made his own bed, did you know that?"
"Now, Toni, dear... what were you doing in Old Fred's bedroom?" Cassey said with a wicked gleam in her eye.
"I was delivering a letter to Fred the mailman had given us."
"Uh-huh. And then you just happened to go into Fred's bedroom?"
"You know me, I'm like a choirboy. So was Fred," Toni said, playing along with a smirk.
"Yeah? Like they're always angels," Cassey said and rolled her eyes, grinning.
"Anyway, back to the real world! To cut a long story short, as I said, he showed me some of his work. I'm sure he would want to make a bookcase for us."
"Have you forgotten he's blind as a bat?"
"No problem. When he's working, he's got these unbelievably thick glasses."
"Do you really think he'd do it?" Cassey said, and slurped the last drops of her soft drink through the straw.
"Absolutely. I think he'd love to have something to do."
Sunday, just before lunch.
Cassey was cleaning up a little. She was listening to the radio and humming along to the familiar tunes, occasionally breaking out into loud, slightly off-key singing.
As she was dusting off the tv, her peripheral vision picked up a shiny object hiding under the couch. At first she thought it was a coin, but she soon identified it as the button of Toni's jeans.
Things had been very... rumbustious last night when Toni received her Patient Citizen reward. Cassey chuckled at the thought. How their lovelife could continue to be so fiery was beyond her. Not that she complained, of course.
She moved the coffee table and got on the floor as she tried to reach the damn button. No chance, her arm was too short. She couldn't reach it from the other angle either.
Cassey kneeled and dusted off her hands. She tried to push the couch away, but the damn thing must've weighed 250 pounds as it wouldn't budge an inch. All right, plan B. If she couldn't get to the button, the button better get to her. She looked around to find a long object - equipped with a spoon, she tried again.
At the same time Toni opened the front door. She had been busy working on Cassey's ancient Beetle, but her rumbling stomach had convinced her it was time for lunch.
She stopped dead in her tracks as she saw her partner's very shapely backside point up in the air next to the couch. Cassey made all sorts of funny, moaning noises, and she moved in a strange, yet rhythmic way.
'Should I interrupt her, or should I leave?'
Toni thought, but decided that if Cassey was doing anything naughty, she wanted to be a part of it.
"Darling?" Toni said. Cassey stopped what she was doing, and was just lying there, backside up.
"This isn't what it looks like," a muffled voice said from somewhere halfway under the couch.
"No. I'm trying to reach a goddamned button in here."
"Are you making fun of me?" Cassey said, still with her backside pointed upwards.
"The thought never crossed my mind," Toni said, and stifled a laugh.
"Yeah well, since you're here now, may I suggest that Miss Longarm gets down here and picks up her own button," Cassey said as she pulled herself out from the dusty underside of the couch.
"My button?" Toni said as she got down on the carpet next to Cassey. She peeked in under the couch, and continued:
"Oh, yeah, from last night..."
"Exactly," Cassey said, and brushed several dust bunnies out of her hair.
"I can reach that, no problem," Toni said, and effortlessly pulled the errant button out.
Cassey grumbled under her breath.
"Why was I at the back of the line when they gave out the long arms?" she said.
"Because it would have been unfair to everybody else if you had been given long arms in addition to your stunning beauty, honey," Toni said, and presented the button to Cassey.
"Silver tongued devil, you."
"That's what they call me."
"Oh yeah? Sure it's not... HA-CHOOO! ...Oh, for Pete's sa... HA-CHOOO!"
"Yeah, it's kinda dusty under there, huh?"
"I think it's best if I made lunch today, honey," Toni said and chuckled.
Monday morning, 6:15 am. Cassey was so bleary-eyed she could hardly see straight when Toni left for the freight central - fortunately, she could find her partner's lips with her eyes closed.
"Hiya Greg!" Toni said to the load supervisor, as she drove the pickup through the entrance to the freight central and waited by the booth.
"What the hell Toni, where'd ya get that old wreck?"
"It's my neighbor's."
"Right. Park next to the warehouse, I'll be there in ten minutes."
"So, Toni, have you ever driven a Louisville?" Greg said as he handed Toni the keys to the Ford delivery truck she'd be using.
"Nope, but there can't be that much difference."
"Nah. A smaller engine and only half the gears of your rig, but the rest 's about the same. But, er, Toni..."
"You're gonna hafta wear overalls."
Toni raised an eyebrow.
"It's in the new regulations... sorry. The new owner's kinda strict on following them."
"All right, since it's you. Where do I get one?"
"Right here," Greg said, and opened the bag he was carrying. He pulled out a brand new set of polyester overalls. The set was light brown and it had the yellow company logo prominently placed on the back and on the breast pocket.
"Thanks. You sure it's my size?"
"It's the biggest one we have."
"Jeez, I'm not that fat!" Toni growled, but laughed at the load supervisor.
She held her new overalls up and checked the size.
"I think I can wear this over of my regular clothes... if that's not against the new regulations?"
"I don't think anyone's ever thought of adding something like that into them, Toni."
"OK. Toni, I know you're an experienced driver, but I have to go through the procedures with you anyway," Greg said as they were sitting in the cab of the Ford.
"It's the new..."
"... the new regulations. Yeah. Go on," Toni said.
"All right. This is a refrigerated truck, so you must keep the compressor running at all times. The truck's load is organized so it follows the route. As you go through the route you'll work your way through the load. The last items in the truck will match the last dropoff on the route. You with me?" he said, and looked at Toni, who had suddenly lost her sunny mood.
"I'm not a rookie, nor a retard, Greg."
"I'm really sorry, Toni, but the new boss'll have my ass if I don't do this..."
"Who the hell is the new boss anyway?"
"A big shot from California. Richard Detillo."
"Never heard of him."
"You can't miss him, he's always wearin' a bowtie."
Toni rolled her eyes.
"Now, I guess you've understood the orders. I need your signature here," Greg said, and pointed at a dotted line while presenting Toni with a pen.
"Do you have any questions?" he said.
"Are there any of the dropoffs I should be particularly concerned about? Like is there room to park, things like that?"
"Not really. Have a nice run."
Toni arrived at the first stop on her list, a fancy restaurant. As the hydraulic rear hatch was slowly lowered to a horizontal position, a very dandishly dressed woman came out of a back entrance.
"You're late!" she said in a real grating high-pitched voice.
"No I'm not... ?" Toni said and checked the order sheet and then her watch.
"You're ten minutes late! Don't argue with me!" the woman said.
"Yes, boss," Toni said and rolled her eyes.
"Get working! Do you expect *me* to carry it inside?" the woman said, and held the door open so Toni could carry the goods inside.
Toni hopped up on the lift and checked the order sheet. Three items for this dropoff - two trays of tomatoes and a crate of lettuce.
She quickly found the goods and lowered the lift to the ground. She carried them inside - Toni calculated they must have weighed all of eight lbs. in total.
She placed them on a table and waited for the woman to catch up with her.
"What are you waiting for? A tip?"
"Your signature, Ma'am."
"Oh yeah..." she said, and scribbled something illegible on the sheet.
"Thank you, Ma'am." Toni said politely, but the woman had already left her.
Walking back to the truck, Toni mumbled a few choice words about the other woman's ancestry.
The next stop was a Korean restaurant just around the block. Fortunately, that went a little easier.
The third stop brought new problems. It was a seedy bar, which of course didn't bother Toni, but there were two police cruisers and an ambulance parked outside, all with their lights flashing.
She checked the sheet. The bar was scheduled to get eight crates of miscellaneous items. As she walked round the truck, two paramedics wheeled a man out of the bar on a stretcher... with a knife hilt-deep in his chest.
Her eyebrows went up. 'Must be a nice neighborhood,'
she thought. 'It ain't even half past nine.'
A uniformed cop came over to her.
"What's your business here?" he said.
"I've got a delivery for the bar."
"Don't go anywhere," he said and left.
"Right..." Toni mumbled, and leaned against the truck.
A few minutes later, a pot-bellied detective approached her with a notepad in his hand.
"I'm detective Walker from the 2nd precinct. The officer told me you've got a delivery for the bar?"
"That's right, Sir."
"Eight crates, Sir," Toni said. She was nearly a head taller than the detective, and she secretly loved that he had to lean his head back to look her in the eye when he addressed her.
"Lemme see..." Toni said, and folded out the order sheet.
"... a Mr. S.E. Jones," she continued.
"Yeah, now, that might be a problem," the detective answered while picking his ear with his ball point pen.
"Don't tell me that was him on the stretcher..." Toni said and sighed.
"Do you know what the delivery is, does it say on your note, there?" he asked.
"No, Sir... just 'miscellaneous items'."
"Yeah. Probably nothing. I better check anyway. Lower the platform," he said.
Toni did as told, and the detective climbed up on the hydraulic lift.
"Got a knife? These are all wrapped."
"Sorry, no. I'm not allowed to open them, Sir."
"Hmm. Then we're gonna hafta confiscate them. Wanna give me a hand getting them down from here?" he asked.
"No problem, but I need someone's signature for the order sheet."
"I'll do that afterwards."
After all that nonsense, Toni needed a break, but there were three more dropoffs to do before lunch... and nine more before the day was over.
'It sounded like a really good idea at the time...'
Toni grumbled to herself. 'Now I know why I'm an interstate trucker.'
By the time her lunch break came around, Toni was ready to pack it in and go home, but she was determined to get through this job - after all, she had volunteered, and she didn't want to be known as a quitter.
The cold, stale coffee didn't improve her mood, and the four lukewarm sandwiches didn't either - but as she picked up the last sandwich, a piece of paper became visible.
'Hello, honey. Isn't this fun? I haven't written little notes like this since I was in school. I hope your day is pleasant, and when it's done, I hope you hurry home to your woman, because she might have a little surprise planned for you. Cassey XXX'
"Hell yeah!" Toni said out loud, before looking around to see if anyone had seen her talking to herself.
The rest of the day went by noticeably quicker, and Toni was soon on her way back to the freight central with an empty truck.
She went in through the back entrance and parked the Louisville in a loading bay. She stepped out of the scratchy polyester overall and flung it over her shoulder.
When she returned to Fred's truck she found a note stuck under the windshield wiper.
"You need to see the boss ASAP when you return. Greg."
Toni rolled her eyes. Not now, for cryin' out loud. She looked at her watch which read five past four. While she hadn't said to Cassey what time she'd be home exactly, she knew that the 'surprise' probably had a limited shelflife...
'I better get it over with,'
she thought and rolled her eyes again. Reluctantly, she wiggled back into the polyester overall.
Toni knocked on the door to the boss' office. The last time she was here, it was still that creep Greasy running the place. To say that everything looked different would be an understatement. Everything had been painted yellow and brown - the walls, the ceiling, everything - they even had a brown carpet.
Toni shook her head at the ghastly sight.
"Enter," a voice said from the other side of the glass door.
Toni really tried not to do a double-take, but only succeeded partially. The man sitting by the desk wore a big yellow and brown bow tie that stuck out like a sore thumb. He looked to be around 45, with graying hair at the temples and a slightly unhealthy facial color - a reddish complexion that betrayed that he liked to drink a bit more than he should.
"Hello, Miss Willis, I'm Richard Detillo," he said, and put out his hand. Toni shook it and was pleasantly surprised to feel a strong grip.
"Please have a seat," the boss said, pointing at a brand-new plastic chair - of course yellow with brown highlights.
"I have to admit I find it really nice of you to jump into this job while the regular driver's recuperating. We really appreciate it."
"Greg told me you're usually a long distance trucker?"
"Isn't it boring to drive around in the city instead of the open road?"
"Yep," Toni said with a smile. Maybe he wasn't as dumb as the bow tie suggested.
"Well, it's only temporary. I hear you own your own truck?"
"Have you ever considered joining the team here?"
"No. I'm a gypsy driver at heart. It wouldn't work, Mr. Detillo. Actually your predecessor asked me the very same thing, and I gave the very same answer."
"Really? There's no mention of that in the records..." he said and shrugged.
"Well, I don't think Greasy was big on paperwork," Toni added flatly.
"I guess he wasn't... anyway, I'll put it in your personnel record now. If you ever reconsider, my door is always open."
"All right. Thank you for the offer."
"You're welcome. See you tomorrow, Miss Willis. It was a pleasure talking with you."
"Likewise, Mr. Detillo."
They shook hands again, and Toni left the office pondering this new development.
By now, Toni was rather eager to see Cassey, so she didn't even bother parking the old truck in Fred's driveway. Instead she just left it behind Cassey's VW.
She opened the front door carefully and peeked in, anxious not to ruin the surprise. Cassey was sitting on the couch reading a newspaper.
"Toni? Is that you?"
"No, darling, it's the tooth fairy."
"Come on in, Miss Fairy. You can't stay long, I'm expecting someone."
"Har Har," Toni said as she entered their house.
Cassey got up and gave Toni a tiny little kiss.
"How's your day been?"
"Your letter saved it."
"I'm glad you liked it. Listen... why don't you go grab a quick shower, and I'll... prepare the surprise," she said, and winked mischievously at Toni.
"I'm on it," Toni said, and made a beeline for the bathroom.
When she was done showering, Toni put on her white terrycloth bathrobe. She combed her long, black hair while thinking about what the surprise might be.
She opened the bathroom door and was somewhat baffled to see the door to the bedroom closed. Her eyes locked on to a note taped to the doorhandle that said,
'Follow the red ribbon.'
She looked down and saw a red ribbon lying on the floor. She didn't want to disappoint Cassey, so she followed orders. The ribbon went into the kitchen, where a piece of paper tied to it had an 'I'
on it. Toni's eyebrows shot up. She continued to follow the ribbon and found another piece of paper on the coffee table, this one with a big red heart and 'LOVE'
The red ribbon went under the door to the bedroom. Toni opened it, and saw another piece of paper on the floor. 'YOU'.
"I really do," Cassey said, holding the end of the red ribbon in her hands. She was reclining on the bed between a couple of pillows, wearing a sexy smile, a red silk negligee and red lace panties. She had loosened her golden hair and it cascaded down over her bare shoulders.
"Oh, dear god..." were the only words out of Toni's mouth.
Wordlessly, she went over to the bed and sat down on the foot-end.
"What did I do to deserve this?" she whispered to Cassey, while slowly running her fingers up a deliciously bare leg.
"Nothing in particular... just being who you are. Do you like my surprise?"
Toni's fingers slowly traced a line up Cassey's thigh, finding their way under the negligee and onto Cassey's stomach.
With her other hand, Toni eased out of the bathrobe. The cool air tickled her naked body, already humming with lust and need.
Cassey presented the end of the ribbon to Toni.
"I think it's time to unwrap the gift, don't you?" Cassey said, and moved into a sitting position.
Toni carefully pulled the negligee off Cassey's body and marveled at the sight. Cassey slipped back down on the bed, and Toni crawled up next to her. She gave Cassey a loving kiss on the lips, before moving down to kiss the delectable belly button.
Her hands glided upwards, cupping the perfect breasts. She gently kissed each of Cassey's erect nipples, earning a passionate moan from her partner.
Toni made a string of little kisses on Cassey's chest and throat, ending up with tickling the young woman's earlobe with her tongue.
Toni framed Cassey's face with her hands, moving a stray lock of hair away from the blonde's forehead. She couldn't help falling completely, hopelessly, endlessly in love with Cassey all over again.
"So much..." she whispered.
Cassey's green eyes were pulsating with lust as she put her hand behind Toni's head and greedily pulled her down to claim her lips.
The passionate kiss went on for several minutes, but finally they had to break away to get some air into their lungs.
"I'll bet you never expected this, huh?" Cassey said with a cheeky grin on her face.
Toni was mesmerized by the emerald green orbs in front of her, so she could only shake her head.
"Do you like the red lace panties?"
"Oh yeah," Toni said, brushing her hand across the delicate cloth covering Cassey's hip.
Cassey smiled and leaned in to kiss Toni again.
"So do I, but I think they've been on long enough..." she whispered into Toni's ear. She moved over onto her back and wiggled down between the pillows to get comfortable. She lifted her hips slightly so Toni could take off the panties.
Toni immediately understood what was required of her, and she slowly moved down Cassey's body, placing a long line of kisses between the perfect breasts and onto the soft stomach. When she reached the belly button, she let her tongue play around the small hollow.
"It's a bit lower, old girl," Cassey said and giggled.
"Oh..." Toni said, playing along. She continued downwards and put her thumbs inside the red panties. She pulled them off with ease and leaned down to gently place a kiss on Cassey's patch of golden hair. She crawled back up Cassey's body, kissing her way back to the enticing lips.
Toni slowly traced Cassey's upper lip with her tongue, and it only took a heartbeat for the blonde to open her mouth and invite Toni inside. While they were kissing passionately, Toni ran her fingers through Cassey's loose hair, reveling in the feel of the silky soft strands. She pulled back slightly and looked lovingly at the young blonde before her.
The look of uninhibited lust in Cassey's eyes sent a wave of pleasure through Toni, and she couldn't hold back a passionate sigh.
"Let's do it together," Cassey purred, and put one of her legs between Toni's. They both turned over onto their side so they had better access to each other. Without breaking off a kiss, Cassey let her hand run slowly down Toni's body to caress the hardened nipples and the full breasts she found there.
Spurred on by her partner's actions, Toni did the same on Cassey's body, and she was soon rewarded with a throaty moan from the young blonde. Toni pulled back from the kiss, content with looking at Cassey.
Cassey took that as an OK to go on, and she let her hand continue its journey downwards until it rested on the dark patch of hair.
"Are you ready?" Toni whispered, and pulled Cassey closer.
Cassey nodded, and felt Toni's hand match the movement she had just made herself.
Moving as one, they let their fingers brush across the wet folds of their partner a couple of times before very gently inserting first two, and then another finger into each other.
Cassey's breath hitched and Toni's hips bucked as they felt their partner inside them, and they gave each other a bit of time to get used to the new sensations. Soon, they started moving their hands to a slow rhythm, all the while looking deeply into each other's eyes.
They started kissing again, their tongues engaging in a sensuous dance that only added to the pleasure for both women.
They continued like that for a long time, making slow and gentle love to each other and giving their partner all she needed.
Toni knew she wouldn't last much longer, and she could feel her entire body trembling from Cassey's intimate touch. Her face and chest were flushed, and her breath was shallow.
"Oh baby, I need you so badly," Toni whispered as they kissed again.
"Come on, roll over..."
They withdrew their fingers from each other and Toni did as she was told, spreading her legs as she rolled over to make room for Cassey.
Cassey made herself comfortable between Toni's legs and placed a line of little kisses down the inside of both of Toni's thighs. When Cassey started pleasuring Toni's swollen nub with her tongue, the dark haired woman threw back her head and groaned loudly in a way that made Cassey's nape hairs stand on end.
Never breaking contact with her lover, Cassey gently inserted two fingers deep into Toni's very wet opening and resumed the rhythmic motion.
Toni moaned and grabbed hold of the sheet, crumpling it into a ball in her fist. Her hips matched Cassey's rhythm, meeting her thrusts perfectly and allowing the fingers to move even deeper inside of her. Several times, she bucked upwards, almost throwing Cassey off in the process.
Cassey pulled back and wrapped her free hand around one of Toni's thighs so she could hang on the next time, but Toni immediately started whimpering from the loss of contact. Cassey grinned and went back to work. She started slowly to allow Toni to catch up, but she soon went back to the original cadence.
Toni's breathing became faster and faster, and suddenly her internal muscles clamped down on Cassey's fingers, effectively trapping them deep inside the velvet prison. Cassey knew this meant Toni was close to her release, and she let her tongue flick across Toni's clit to help intensify her climax.
Toni's hips bucked again, and she cried out in a long, unrestrained, throaty groan that made all her pent-up frustrations melt away. She arced her back off the bed as the powerful orgasm rushed through every fiber of her body and soul, overpowering her completely, and rendering her incapable of even the simplest of actions. She flopped back onto the bed and let her useless arms fall limply to her sides.
When Toni's muscles relaxed, Cassey withdrew her fingers and she wiped them and her mouth off on the sheet. She crawled up to lie next to Toni and put her head on the taller woman's shoulder. Moving a damp lock of hair away from Toni's eyes, Cassey couldn't help but chuckle at the sight of the usually strong woman being so wrung out.
Toni still hadn't recovered fully from the rush, but she slowly came back to reality and soon found Cassey's lips. She wrapped her arms around Cassey and gave her lover a heartfelt hug.
"God, that was so good... I love you, baby," she whispered in a hoarse voice.
"I love you too, Toni. I'm glad you liked my surprise," Cassey said and drew a pattern on Toni's collarbone with her index finger.
"Mmmmmm. And we're only halfway," Toni said and grabbed hold of a laughing Cassey, pulling her down to claim her lips in a searing kiss.
The rest of Toni's first week as a delivery driver went by rather more quietly compared to what happened on Monday. By the time she parked the truck on Friday afternoon she was convinced this wasn't a job for her - not now, not ever. However, she was determined not to leave Greg and the others hanging, so she gave due notice that she would only do this for one more week.
"Are you sure this was the right decision, Toni? It was a steady paycheck," Cassey said, and put down her mug of tea on the table.
"I know it was, honey, but... it just wasn't me, and it could never be."
"I'm made for the open road - once a gypsy driver, always a gypsy driver," Toni said and shrugged.
"Yeah, and if you weren't, we'd never have met," Cassey said, and pulled her legs up on the couch so she could snuggle even closer to her partner.
"Damn straight, honeybuns." Toni reached over to muss Cassey's golden hair.
"So, now what?"
"Well... I guess I'll take a couple days off to spend some time with a certain gorgeous blonde I know, and then... we'll see."
"Do you think you can find a long trip here in November?"
"There's always a load waiting to go somewhere. Are you interested in coming along this time, if I can conjure something up?"
"Well, that was the plan, yeah. Depends on how long the trip will be, of course. December is off limits, that's a very busy time in the office."
"I really need those couple of days off, so that'll be... the 20th, 21st or so before I'll be ready to look for a load."
"Damn, not much time there. It'll be Christmas before we know it," Cassey said disappointed.
"Yeah. Perhaps we should just settle for waiting 'till next year, huh?"
"Damn," Cassey said again, and turned on the couch so she could rest her head in Toni's lap.
"Don't be sad, honey, I'll make it up to you. I promise," Toni said and rubbed Cassey's stomach.
"Well... I'm just a bit disappointed I won't be able to share some time with you on a trip, that's all. Heh, I wouldn't have predicted in a million years that I'd like the long runs so much, but I do."
"Yeah, you're turning into a genuine Lady Trucker, aren't you?" Toni said and laughed.
"I guess I am. I just love that we're that close together for so long..." Cassey said, and held on to Toni's hand that was still resting on Cassey's stomach.
"...but anyway, I don't want to spend energy worrying about that now. I'm a big girl, I can wait until January."
"Yeah, and don't forget I'll be home the entire week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. We'll have plenty of time to live and love, then."
"I'm looking forward it to it already," Cassey said and pulled Toni's hand up to kiss it.
Cassey steadied the tray in her hand, and knocked on Old Fred's door.
"Hi Cas... ohhhhh, is that... is that a blueberry pie?" the old man asked as soon as he had opened the front door.
"Yep. It's also a bribe. May I come in?" Cassey asked with a sweet smile.
"A bribe? Oh yeah, come in, kid. I just vacuumed last month, so everything is pretty clean."
"Thanks..." Cassey said, and made sure to look down when she walked, so she wouldn't step in anything.
"That pie smells damn fine... pardon my French, Miss," he said, as Cassey sat down at a surprisingly clean coffee table.
"I live with a truckdriver, Fred, I'm used to swearing by now."
"Heh. I take it we're gonna eat that pie, huh?"
"That's why I made it."
"Lemme get some plates... and some cutlery."
After a few minutes, he came back with two plates and a couple of spoons. Cassey had put the tray on the table and Fred used a big knife to cut a large slice out of it.
"I've died and gone to heaven!" he exclaimed happily after taking the first bite.
"I'm happy you like it. I've put a shot of Rum in it as well," Cassey said, and winked at the old neighbor.
"You really know how to spoil an old coot, huh? Now, what was it you said about a bribe?" he said, as he used a napkin to wipe off some berry juice running down his chin.
"Well, I had ulterior motives making this pie. Toni told me you used to make some of your own furniture..."
"That's right. I used to pretty good at it, too."
"Used to be? You don't do it anymore?"
"Well, I have all my old tools, I just haven't had much to do with them. The stuff I built lasts too well. Are you looking for some new furniture?"
"Yes, a bookcase. The one we have is old and rickety. I'm afraid it'll collapse one day."
Old Fred nodded. In his mind he was already going through the list of materials he would need for that.
"And last weekend, Toni and I went down to the mall to check out a new one, but at $198 we couldn't afford it."
"200 bucks! For a bookcase! Jeez, the nerve of those people," Fred said loudly, as he grabbed the next slice of the pie.
"Depending on the size and the number of shelves, of course, I guess I could make it for... $30-$40. And another blueberry pie," he said and a beaming smile lit up his wrinkly features.
"You can have all the pies you want, Fred. We haven't thanked you nearly enough for looking out for the house while we're away."
"Oh hell, kid, that's what neighbors and friends do. Think nothing of it."
"OK. I've made a little piece of paper with the size, here... the old bookcase is 70 inches tall, with four loose shelves, 27 inches wide, and they're 9 inches deep. How about that?"
"How high a quality do you want the wood to be?"
"Nothing fancy. Just regular wood."
"I see. Hmmm. That's quite a tall bookcase, it'll be closer to 40 instead of 30 dollars."
"That's quite all right, Fred. As long as it isn't 200, we're fine."
He nodded and eyed the last slice.
"Are you gonna...?" he asked.
"Knock yourself out," Cassey replied with a laugh, and pushed the tray towards him.
After waving goodbye to Toni, Cassey went over to the soon-to-be-replaced bookcase. She removed four books she knew Toni wouldn't even dream of looking at, and pulled a small piece of paper out of its hiding place.
It was an ad she had cut out of a magazine she had read in her lunch break at work. A downtown clothes boutique had already started selling their Christmas products, and there was one item in particular that Cassey could easily see Toni in. But would she wear it? Toni could be quite headstrong from time to time, and she might deem the item impractical to wear at work.
It was a denim jacket, dark blue, with an off-white synthetic fur liner. Cassey thought it looked absolutely fantastic, and she was especially looking forward to seeing Toni's long black hair flow around the collar of the jacket. It wasn't an expensive brand, but $69 was still money.
Cassey debated with herself for a few minutes, before arriving at the conclusion that if Toni didn't like it, they could always swap it for something else, or get their money back.
She found her winter jacket and her wallet. She locked up the house and waved at Old Fred who was out walking the mutt. The ancient Beetle started at the third attempt, and she left for downtown.
Being in this part of the city always made Cassey uncomfortable, but fortunately she could park right outside the shop.
A little bell dinged when Cassey opened the door, prompting a young girl to come out from behind a curtain. Her hair was dyed in a curious shade of purple that made Cassey look twice.
"Hello Miss, can I help you?" the young girl asked.
"You might, do you still have one of these left?" Cassey said, and showed the other woman the ad.
"Yes we have, Miss. They're right over here," she pointed to the far wall, and led the way.
"Is it for yourself, Miss?"
"No, it's a Christmas gift."
The denim jackets were hanging on coat hangers, and they looked even better up close. Cassey went through the jackets, but to her great disappointment, they didn't have one in Toni's size.
"Oh no, the size I'm looking for isn't there... I need it in extra-large," she said.
"The jackets are not unisex, Miss, they're cut for women," the shop assistant said.
"Yes, I know, but she's... a big woman. You don't have it in extra-large at all, then?"
"Hmmm. I don't think so, no... I'll check."
They walked back to the counter.
"Please wait, Miss, I'll call the company where we bought them."
After a short conversation, the young shop assistant turned to Cassey, still holding the receiver.
"Well, I have good and bad news, Miss. The good news is that the jacket is actually made in extra-large, and they're prepared to ship one to us, but the bad news is that it can't be here until Saturday. Is that appropriate for you?"
"Saturday... sure, I can wait. I really want that jacket," Cassey said and nodded.
"All right, the customer accepts. Yes. Yes. OK. Goodbye."
"So, I'll just come back Saturday, or..." Cassey asked.
"Tell you what, Miss, I'll just make a little note here... this is the phone number for the boutique. I'd suggest you call first, saves you the drive here. 555-3211, and ask for Tiffany, that's me. We close at noon, so it'll have to be sooner than that," the shop assistant said as she folded a piece of paper, tore the bottom half off, and gave it to Cassey.
"All right. I'll call. Thank you very much."
"You're welcome, Miss."
Thursday afternoon, and Toni was in an unusually good mood. She only had to endure one more day of dumbass people bitching and moaning about her being late, even though she wasn't, or delivering the wrong stuff, or whatever the hell they complained about. Goodbye and good riddance. Not to mention the downtown traffic. She would take even the most boring stretch of open road over the rush hour congestion any day.
Toni went through the dirty clothes for Saturday's laundry when a small piece of paper fell out of a pocket of one of Cassey's jeans.
She picked it up and looked at it out of curiosity. The words made her pay attention. They were written in a very feminine hand, on pink paper, and read:
The words were underlined with two fat lines made by a pencil.
Toni heard a nagging little voice at the back of her head telling her that not much good had ever come out of someone giving someone else their phone number, *especially* not when they're called Tiffany... and Cassey had a day off from work yesterday. Hmmm. Oh boy. Not that 'Tiffany' sounded like just someone, of course. No, 'Tiffany' sounded like trouble.
'Well, actually, have you taken a good look at Cassey lately, huh? 24, looks like 19, sunflower yellow hair, green eyes with a hint of gold, a killer smile, a body to die for, full of passion and life, and when she laughs, the sound will warm your soul. It's going to take an awfully big stick to beat the wolves off of her tail.'
The more Toni thought about it, the more depressed she became.
The flipside of the note consisted of a set of numbers that Toni vaguely identified... 36˝C/26/37. Oh rats, it was a woman's measurement. But not Cassey's, Toni knew her size by heart... or rather by hand.
'I shouldn't. I really shouldn't. Cassey'll kill me if she ever finds out. I really, really shouldn't... but I have to,'
Toni rationalized in her mind on her way to the phone.
She dialed the number.
"Spencer's. This is Tiffany, how can I help you?" a very charming, young voice said from the other end of the connection.
"Hello? ... Hello? ... *click*"
Toni looked gobsmacked at the receiver. Now she wasn't depressed, now she was confused. Spencer's... Spencer's the bar?! The smoke-filled, seedy, filthy, run down beer joint across town? What in God's name would Cassey want to go there for...?
Suddenly she heard Cassey's noisy, ancient Beetle pull up in the driveway and Toni hastily folded the note back together, ran into the bedroom, and put it into the right pocket - or rather, what she thought was the right pocket.
"Hi honey! Where are you?" Her partner's voice rang out through the living room.
"In the bedroom, sorting the laundry," Toni replied.
"Hi. Gi's a kiss..." Cassey said and went up on tiptoes. She puckered her lips and generally looked adorable.
"Hi honey," Toni said and kissed the blonde woman.
Cassey immediately spotted her jeans spread out on the bed. Uh-oh. The note!
"Those jeans don't need to be washed already, Toni..."
"Well of course they do. Have you forgotten you spilled half a can of Coke on them last night?"
"Oh... yeah..." Cassey said, and for a split second she had a desperate look in her eyes.
"I... I need to go to the bathroom."
"That's right over there," Toni said and smirked, while she pointed to the small room across the hallway.
Just as Cassey was closing the bathroom door, the phone rang. Cassey watched Toni go into the living room to pick it up, and she quickly ran across the hallway and into the bedroom. She dove into the pocket where the note... wasn't!
"You wanna talk to *who*?" Toni said in the living room.
"Hey, buddy, you've got the wrong number," she said and put down the receiver.
Cassey hadn't found the note yet, but she was forced to jump back over to the bathroom.
Toni hadn't gotten more than two steps away from the phone before it rang again.
Cassey thanked her lucky stars for second chances, and ran back to the bedroom to continue the search. She found the note in the back pocket, where she certainly hadn't left it. That meant that Toni had seen it - probably read it as well.
"Now look here Mister, I'm tellin' ya for the last time, you've got the wrong flippin' number!" Toni said and slammed down the receiver.
"That'll teach ya, jerk," she growled.
Cassey flew back into the bathroom and closed the door - just in time.
"Hey, honey, are you still in there? Are you all right?" Toni asked concerned and knocked on the door to the bathroom.
Cassey pulled the chord and opened the door before she washed her hands.
"Oh, yeah, yeah. I'm... I had four cups of coffee today, that's all."
"Good, 'cause I was getting worried," Toni said and mussed her partner's golden locks.
Cassey nodded with a smile.
'Did she read the note?'
she thought, hoping the emotion wouldn't show on her face.
'Should I ask Cassey about the note?'
Toni thought at the same time, but decided against it.
An uneasy silence filled the space between them as Cassey dried her hands on the towel.
'Oh well... one shouldn't rush into bad news. I guess I'll hear about it soon enough,'
Toni figured, and shrugged.
"So, how was your day, honey?" she asked instead.
"Oh you know, same-old."
Cassey reached around the taller woman's waist, put her hands in Toni's back pockets and pulled herself real close.
"How about you, huh?"
"Same-old. Sorting the laundry when I got home."
"Oh that's exciting."
"Yeah. But I've been fine. I've had the TV droning on in the background, and I was just, you know... counting the hours 'till you returned."
"Ohhhhh! You sound just like a bored housewife," Cassey said and gave Toni's buttocks a squeeze.
"Housewife, no, bored... well..." Toni said, and leaned down to kiss Cassey.
"Let's call for some pizza, Toni. I don't think we'll have time to make dinner tonight," Cassey said, and winked.
"Sounds like a good plan, honeybuns..."
An inch and a heartbeat before their lips touched, the phone rang again.
Friday, November 16th, 1979, 1:22 am.
Toni knew something was wrong the minute she woke up. The room was spinning even when she was flat on her back in bed. Her stomach felt like lead and she had the most god awful taste in her mouth. She could feel her t-shirt was soaked with sweat, so she knew she needed to get a dry one.
She turned her head to look at Cassey, but the young woman appeared to be sleeping normally, and Toni didn't want to wake her up for nothing.
She sat up and swung her legs over her side of the bed... and nearly fell down again as the world started tilting.
'Oh Jeez, I'm in trouble...'
she thought as she tried to get up, but couldn't. It took four attempts before she was able to stand up, and she staggered through the bedroom with unsteady steps.
She'd only made it as far as the foot-end of the bed when her stomach clenched. She clamped a hand over her mouth, but she wasn't fast enough to stop the first volley from ending up all over the bedroom floor.
She forced herself to run the rest of the way into the bathroom, and fell heavily onto her knees in front of the toilet bowl.
Cassey was woken up by the vile stench and the unpleasant sounds coming from the bathroom. She reeled at the smell and pinched her nose tight with her fingers. She clicked on the reading lamp and got out of bed. When she saw the sea of vomit on the carpet she nearly lost it herself, but she turned her head away from it and followed Toni's trail into the bathroom.
She looked concerned at her partner who was still on the floor, heaving for all she was worth.
"My God, Toni... what's happened?"
Toni shook her head, but regretted it immediately as she was hit by another dizzy spell.
"Water..." she croaked.
"Of course. Hang on, I'll get you some!" Cassey said, and ran into the kitchen to fill a mug with water.
When she returned, Toni was sitting on the floor, using the toilet bowl as an armrest. Her skin color was waxen, and she had red spots on her cheeks from the exertion. Her eyes were glazed over, and she was holding her stomach.
Cassey gave her the mug, but she could see at once that Toni's hand shook too much to hold it, so she brought it to her lips instead.
"Come on, you need to rinse your mouth... come on," Cassey said, and made sure Toni took a mouthful of the water.
Toni sloshed the water around in her mouth and spat it out into the toilet bowl. She leaned her head against the tiles and sighed deeply.
"Let me feel..." Cassey said, and put her hand on Toni's forehead.
"Jeez, Toni, you're burning up!"
"Shit, Cassey, I feel like..."
Suddenly her stomach clenched again, and she stuck her head down the toilet. Cassey ran into the living room so she wouldn't have to listen to the horrific sounds.
She went over to the kitchen to refill the mug with water. This was going to be a long night.
It lasted several hours before Toni's stomach had settled down enough for her to go back to the bedroom. She was dead tired, but she couldn't relax enough to fall asleep. She felt so incredibly embarrassed about having thrown up on the carpet, and it pained her a lot to see Cassey on her hands and knees on the bedroom floor, wiping up after her.
... and this was supposed to be her last day at work as a delivery driver. Great. Now she had to call Detillo and explain what had happened. She looked at the alarm clock - 2:58 am. Tomorrow was going to be a bitch of a day...
"I'm so sorry, Cassey... I don't know how I could've done that..." Toni croaked, her throat still quite raw.
"It's all right, honey, you were sick. It happens," Cassey said. Finally done mopping up, she wrung out the floorcloth into a bucket, and wiped the sweat off her brow with her sleeve.
As she got off the floor, her knees protested loudly against the abuse they had endured for the last hour, and she had to grab hold of the bed until the throbbing pain calmed down.
Toni noticed, and felt even worse about the whole situation.
Cassey left the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the back door. She unlocked it, and emptied the bucket out into their backyard. The night was freezing cold, so she quickly locked the door again and went into the bathroom to wash her hands.
In the mean time, the medicine Toni had taken was finally working, and she had cooled down sufficiently to need the down blanket pulled up around her. A wave of exhaustion flowed over her and she fell asleep on her back, mouth agape.
When Cassey returned to the bedroom, she couldn't help but chuckle at the sight. Toni looked so tranquil compared to how she had been earlier. Toni's skin color and the high temperature had frightened Cassey, and she didn't like being frightened.
She took off her terrycloth bathrobe and placed it across the back of a chair. She yawned very wide, and sat down on the bed to take off her slippers. The alarm clock read 3:09 am, and she knew that she'd be cranky as hell tomorrow. She was supposed to get up in only three and a half hours' time...
She snuggled up next to Toni and kissed the taller woman on the cheek.
"Sweet dreams, old girl. Let's not make this a nightly occurrence, huh?" she whispered, and rolled under the blanket.
Cassey awoke with a jump and quickly looked at the alarm clock. 7:25 am.
"Oh shit, I'm gonna be late for work," she said out loud and scrambled out of bed. She didn't notice until she came back from the shower that Toni wasn't in bed, but rather sitting on one of the kitchen chairs.
"Good morning, honey," Toni said hoarsely, giving Cassey a good morning kiss.
"Hrmpf," Cassey replied, not looking particularly fresh.
"Do you want some coffee?"
"Funny, that's exactly how I feel," Toni croaked.
Cassey gave her partner a good look, and decided on the spot to call in sick - it wasn't entirely untrue, after all.
She went at once to the telephone and dialed the number to the office. After a short wait, she spoke to one of the other secretaries. She explained the situation, and told her that she'd make it up to her by working late for all of next week.
"All right, looks like I'm spending the day at home," Cassey said, and sat down heavily on a chair next to Toni.
"Me, too. I called Detillo when you were showering," Toni croaked.
"Your voice sounds like you've been smoking a pack of cigs all at once, honey..."
"That's how I feel, too."
"What the hell could have caused that?"
"I don't know... but it sucked. I'm really sorry that you had to wipe up my mess..." she said sheepishly.
"Well, it was a bit... hmmm... but this isn't a fair-weather relationship. 'In sickness and in health', you know!" Cassey said and grinned.
"Thanks," Toni said, and leaned forward to kiss Cassey.
"Honey, your eyes are bloodshot... they look terrible!" Cassey said as they separated.
"Just sit still, and I'll make some coffee for you."
"Well, I'd like some tea, if you don't mind?" Toni said.
"Sure! Hang on, I'll fix you some," Cassey said and got up. She took out two mugs and two tea bags from the cupboard and then went over to the fridge to get the milk.
"Toni?" Cassey said, looking into the fridge with a horrified expression on her face.
"I think I know what caused your condition."
"Come take a look... on second thoughts, perhaps you shouldn't," Cassey said, and took the remains of Toni's pepperoni pizza from last night out of the fridge.
"Oh Jeez... what's that green stuff on top of it? Oh, Jeez..." Toni said and walked away from the ghastly sight, all freaked out.
"... Toni, perhaps we should drive to the hospital so they could check up on you. Food poisoning is not something to be taken lightly," Cassey said, after coming back from throwing the remains of the pizza into the big trashcan outside.
"I'm fine, honey."
"I'm fine. Trust me."
"All right, but you better believe I'm gonna pamper you for the rest of the day!" Cassey said, and put her hands on her hips.
Even though Toni would never admit it, she still felt a bit weak, and her stomach muscles were still sore from all the activity the other night.
Cassey had gone to do some shopping, and there was nothing on the TV, so Toni was bored. She made herself comfortable on the couch, and soon her eyelids began to droop - within moments, she had fallen asleep with the TV Guide in her lap.
Half an hour later, Cassey returned and locked herself in. She had to put her hand on her mouth so she wouldn't laugh out loud over the funny sight of Toni sitting upright on the couch, with her head slumped over in sleep.
Cassey hung her overcoat on the hallstand, and put the groceries into the fridge. She went over to the couch and kneeled down.
"Honey? Wakey-wakey," she whispered, and gently touched Toni's arm.
The dark haired woman stirred and yawned. As she turned her head to face Cassey, she discovered her neck wouldn't follow orders.
"Ouch!" Toni said, and massaged it.
"Come on old girl, I think you need a proper nap."
"Not tired," Toni lied.
"Yes you are. Come on, no fuss, please. You know you need it."
"But, mom!" Toni mocked.
"Don't give me that tone, young lady, you do as I tell you, or you won't get your allowance!" Cassey said, and winked.
"Yes, mom," Toni sighed and reluctantly went into the bedroom.
Toni stopped in the doorway and looked in disgust at the stain on the carpet. Even with Cassey's hard work, it hadn't come out entirely.
"We're not going to get that stain out, honey. It had already embedded itself too deep into the carpet when I started mopping it up," Cassey said, like she was able to read Toni's mind, and snuck her arm around Toni's waist.
"I'm sorry for making such a mess. Shit, you'd think I was five years old!" she said.
"Hey, we all get sick, you know. The next time I'm under the weather, I'll let you handle everything."
"Deal," Toni said and yawned.
"I thought you said you weren't tired?" Cassey said, and poked Toni in the side.
"Yeah, well... how about a little pre-nap kiss?" Toni said and puckered up her lips.
"Mmmmua! Sleep tight, honey. And don't be alarmed if you hear the front door, I may have a little errand to run," Cassey said, her face as innocent as a cherub.
"...?" Toni looked at her quizzically, but no reply was forthcoming. She shrugged, and took off her bathrobe.
Cassey closed the bedroom door and went straight to the telephone. After all the latest troubles, it felt more important than ever to give Toni a present she would be happy with.
Cassey picked up the receiver and sent out a prayer before dialing Tiffany's number.
A minute or so later, her face lit up like a little sun. She quickly hung up, grabbed her winter coat and left.
She came back an hour later with a very large plastic carrier bag, and one thing on her mind - where in the world could she hide this huge thing for six whole weeks?
After they had eaten dinner - a nourishing salad, much to Toni's disappointment - they were doing the dishes. Cassey took the plates Toni handed to her, wiped them dry and placed them in the cabinets.
"There's only a month and a half 'till Christmas. Do you have anything in mind you might want?" Toni asked.
"You know, I actually do, but I don't know if it's appropriate... " Cassey said, as she wiped off their mugs.
"What is it, pizza plates?" Toni said and winked.
"Oh honey, how can you even joke about that?! You could've been seriously ill!" Cassey said slightly shocked.
"I'm sorry, honeybuns. I'm just trying to be funny..."
"Well, it wasn't pizza plates. It was something for my camera."
"Now you're talking!"
"I was thinking about maybe a tripod. I don't want an expensive version, just one with three legs," Cassey said and giggled.
Toni wiped her hands on the towel and pulled out a chair.
"You know, honey, I still can't believe you got first place in that photo competition," she said.
"I got lucky," Cassey said as she sat down next to the older woman.
"Lucky my ass, you're good," Toni said, and turned to look at a framed photo of a nesting bird. A gold medal was pinned up on the wall next to it.
"Maybe so, but it was the zoom lens you gave me for my birthday that allowed me to shoot it."
"I still think the best photo you've ever taken was that one where we played Aphrodite and Adonis," Toni said and wiggled her eyebrows.
"Yeah, but we sure as heck aren't going to submit *that* one to a competition, are we!" Cassey laughed, and reached out to hold her partner's hand.
The women looked lovingly at each other, fondly remembering that delightful afternoon.
"We better not," Toni said and cleared her throat.
"Nah. If it ever made the papers, we'd have to move to Alaska!"
December 25th, 1979, 8:15 am.
Toni stirred and yawned.
'Christmas morning... damn how time flies,'
she thought, and craned her neck so she could peek through the curtains. Still dark outside.
Cassey was draped all over Toni's body, the golden mop of hair resting on the older woman's shoulder, and Cassey's arm placed possessively just below Toni's breasts.
"Wakey, wakey, honey," Toni whispered to the young blonde and gently moved a hand up Cassey's arm.
"Hmmmpf, humr, hhhmmmhuh?" Cassey mumbled, making Toni chuckle.
"Yes, that's right, it's Christmas morning. Careful, I'm just gonna..." Toni said quietly and started to move Cassey's arm so she could get out of bed - however, Cassey surprised her by holding on to her.
"It's waited a year, it can wait another thirty minutes..." the younger woman said from her position on Toni's shoulder, and kissed her partner on the neck. At the same time, her fingers had gone under Toni's oversized t-shirt and were teasingly drawing a pattern around a full breast.
"I suppose it can..." Toni added huskily.
A *little* later...
"Are we going to do this like last year?" Toni asked.
"Yep. We're not gonna get dressed until we've had our presents. Christmas morning was the only time I was allowed to run around in my nightgown when I was a kid, and it's a tradition I intend to keep."
"Suits me fine... you look so damn cute in that Minnie Mouse nightshirt."
"Sit down Toni, and I'll go get your present."
Toni did as instructed, and sat down on the couch. They didn't have a Christmas tree as such, but Cassey insisted on putting up the seasonal decorations so there were little Santas, snowmen and Red-Nosed Rudolphs everywhere.
Cassey returned with one of the largest plastic bags Toni had ever seen.
"Merry Christmas, my love," Cassey said and handed Toni the bag.
She quickly opened the plastic bag, and pulled out another bag, clear this time, which revealed the jacket.
"Oh man!" Toni said excitedly.
She carefully extracted the denim jacket from the clear bag, and looked at it. She eyed the small tag in the back of the jacket. Spencer's Denimwear. Toni blinked a couple of times. Spencer's? Oh boy, it was a good thing she hadn't confronted Cassey with that note she had found in her jeans back in November. Toni pushed all of that nonsense out of her mind and tried on the jacket. Perfect fit. She swooped her long, black hair out from under the collar, and noticed that Cassey wore a very cheeky grin.
"Jeez, this is fantastic, honey!" Toni said and hugged Cassey tightly.
"You like it?"
"It's perfect, I love it!"
"I was worried about the size, but that thing's tailor made for you."
"Yep. How do I look?" Toni said, and turned around like a fashion model.
"Unbe-flippin'-lievable, honey," Cassey said and laughed.
"And now it's my turn. Sit tight." Toni got up and went into the bedroom, still wearing her new jacket. When she returned she had a very long cardboard tube and a small paper bag in her hands.
"Holy shit!" Cassey said.
"Go get your camera, honeybuns," Toni said with a grin.
"You got it," Cassey said and went over to the bureau to retrieve her Kodak.
"OK, this one first," Toni said, and handed Cassey the cardboard tube. She quickly unwrapped one end and pulled out a tripod.
"Yay, just what I wanted!"
"Glad to hear it. But that's not all. Here ya go," Toni said, and gave Cassey the paper bag.
"What's this, we agreed on one gift each!"
"Hmmm, well, yeah..." Toni said and smiled mischievously.
Cassey opened the small bag and looked inside. At first she couldn't recognize the strange object in there, but as she took it out she knew at once what it was.
"Oh, this is a remote trigger!"
"Yep. I was looking through our photo albums, and the very few photos you're in are shaky 'cos there was a dolt behind the camera at the time. This is a gift for both of us, so when we're old, gray and wrinkled we can admire what a goddess you used to be."
Cassey laughed out loud.
"Flattery will get you everything. God I love you so, ya big lug!" Cassey said and yanked Toni over to her, nearly crushing the older woman in an embrace that ended with a kiss that made the windows rattle.
"I love you, baby," Toni whispered.
The next day, at lunch.
"Man, I haven't worn a skirt since... I can't even remember when," Cassey said as she smoothed the unfamiliar piece of clothing.
"Yeah well, you needn't have bothered for my sake," Toni said from the bathroom.
"How do I look?" Cassey asked, and adjusted her shirt collar.
"Look? Honey, it's old Fred, not the President," Toni said, turned off the lights and closed the bathroom door.
"Sure, but who wants to look like a slob when we're having a guest over for lunch on Christmas Day?"
"I suppose you want me to change, too?" Toni asked, and looked down at herself. As usual, she was wearing her 'winter uniform' - a long-sleeved white T-shirt and blue jeans.
"Naw, you look fantastic. You did take a clean T, right?" Cassey said and continued to fidget with her collar.
"No, it's two weeks old," Toni said, and laughed off Cassey's raised eyebrow.
"Of course I took a clean shirt, honey! C'mere, let me help you with that collar. There ya go," Toni said while straightening her partner's reluctant shirt.
"Anytime," Toni said and slapped Cassey's backside.
Just before things got out of hand, old Fred knocked on the door.
"There he is. Now behave!" Cassey said.
Cassey opened the door and had to do a double-take at their neighbor. He wasn't dressed in his customary khaki overalls, but rather in a very nice pair of blue jeans with a shiny beltbuckle, a brand new blue-and-green plaid shirt, and a bolo tie. He had shaved and his hair was water combed. He was holding a large bouquet of flowers that he gave to Cassey.
"Merry Christmas, Miss Cassey!" he said, beaming.
"Merry Christmas, Fred. Please come in. We're almost ready."
"Much obliged. Ooh, whatever your cookin' smells great!" he said, and entered the house.
"Hiya Fred. Man, you're lookin' sharp today," Toni said and shook hands with the old man.
"Yep, 's only Christmas once a year, so I thought I'd go for it. Listen, the book case is ready, but it's gotten so heavy I can hardly move the damn thing..."
"Don't worry, I'll go get it afterwards."
Cassey opened the oven and pulled out the pan. They had agreed to forego the pork roast because they knew Fred couldn't chew very well anymore, so instead they'd made a minced meat pie with a salad. She moved the steaming pie over to a tray.
"Dinner's ready, guys!" Cassey said, and placed the tray on the table.
"Oh man, that looks fantastic!" Fred said and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Beer, wine or water, Fred?" Toni asked.
"Beer. Coors if ya got it," he replied.
"Never drink anything else," Toni said and grabbed a sixpack in the fridge.
"Er, it's the first time I've eaten here... do ya usually say Grace, or something?" Fred asked before diving into the pie.
"Not usually, no. We kiss the cook instead," Toni said and flashed a smile at Cassey, who returned it.
"I'll make a note o'that," Fred said and laughed.
A little later.
"Allow me to be the first to kiss the cook!" Fred said and kissed the back of Cassey's hand.
"Why thank you, Fred. Now, go and sit in the couch while we do the dishes."
"You bet. I've never been really good at doing the dishes anyway!" he laughed.
It didn't take long for Toni and Cassey to finish, and Cassey soon joined Fred in the couch. Toni sat down in one of the comfy-chairs.
"I can see why you wanted a new book case. That one over there is about to draw its last breath," Fred said.
"I brought it from Arizona when I moved here six years ago," Toni said.
"I remember when you moved in, Toni. I was really happy to see a friendly face. The dude living here before was a piece of sh... work."
"You can say shit here, Fred, we're not nuns," Cassey said and chuckled.
"All right. Well, he was up to no good. Kicked my dog around all the time."
"Yeah, there are people like that out there, huh?" Cassey added.
"Yeah. But anyway... my dad always told me that Christmas time was good for anecdotes and tall stories. So, did I ever tell you guys about the time I was in Rome just after the war? It was 1947, and..."
"I never figured you for a romantic, Fred!" Cassey said, as she poured the freshly made coffee into the Sunday cups.
"Well... I wasn't always an old coot, ya know."
"Do you want a dash of Irish Whiskey in your coffee, Fred?" Cassey asked politely.
"I really shouldn't... well, maybe a little one?"
"All right, I'll give you a few drops. Toni?"
"No thanks, Cassey. Not today."
Cassey poured a small amount into Fred's cup, and then put the bottle away.
"I trust that both of you are fit and healthy?" Fred asked.
Toni put down her cup and cleared her throat.
"Mostly, yeah. Back in November, I had a little problem one night where I almost puk..."
"Toni! We're drinking coffee, here!" Cassey said sternly.
"Well, Fred asked..."
"She's trying to tell you she was ill one night, Fred," Cassey said.
"I kinda figured as much," Fred said and laughed.
"... but other than that, we're doing great," Toni said.
"I'm glad to hear it. When you get to be my age, you'll be happy if you can bend over to pick up the newspaper, let me tell you!"
"Can't wait," Cassey said, and winked at Toni, who raised an eyebrow in return.
"What was it that made you ill, by the way?" Fred said.
"A bad pizza."
"Figures. It's always the little things that get ya."
"Yeah," Toni said and winked back at Cassey.
New Year's Eve, a few minutes to midnight.
Toni had always considered New Year's Eve to be the longest and most boring evening of the year, so she was taking a nap on the couch. Cassey chuckled at the sight of Toni's long legs sticking out over the edge.
"Old girl? It's almost midnight," Cassey said as she gently touched Toni's shoulder.
"I'll give you old girl, young whippersnapper. When you get to be my age you'll need a nap too," Toni said as she sat up and scratched her hair.
"Oh gee, the grand old age of 31 and a half!" Cassey said and caressed Toni's neck.
"Why can't New Year's Eve be held at noon instead so all us grownups can go to bed at regular hours," Toni growled, and leaned into Cassey's touch.
"'Cos then you'd have to find something else to complain about, honey," Cassey said and gave the older woman a squeeze.
Walking outside, Toni took a deep breath of the frosty air.
"You'll need a jacket, honey."
"Got it. Oh boy, the stars look great tonight!" Cassey said.
"Yeah. They're very pretty," Toni added flatly, earning an elbow in the side.
"They are!" the tall woman said with mock indignation.
"What a year this has been, huh? I have a hard time believing we've been through so much. First my parents got divorced, then Tommy's death, the scorching summer, my promotion, your new job... and then your illness..." Cassey said, still getting the chills from thinking about how ill Toni had actually been.
"Yeah, we've been busy this year, I'll give you that. Some of it I could have done without," Toni said and put her arm around Cassey.
"There were good times too, though. I'll never forget your little red ribboned surprise," Toni said and winked at her partner.
"I guess it all worked out in the end. Still, I wouldn't mind if 1980 was slightly less exciting," Cassey said and sighed.
The clock struck twelve, and soon they could hear and see the fireworks from Albuquerque way out in the distance.
"Happy New Year, honey, love you," Toni said and leaned down and kissed her partner lovingly.
"Love you too," Cassey said and returned the kiss.
"Do you have any New Years' resolutions?"
"Hmmm. It's the same as always - do what I do to the best of my abilities, and hopefully, good times will follow. How about you?" Toni said.
"I'll do my very best to make sure we'll love each other, now and forever."
A contented silence filled the air as the two women stood and watched the new year's celebrations.
"I'm freezing my butt off, so... I was thinking... how about we go inside and make some fireworks of our own?"
"Now you're talking!" Toni said, opened the screen door, and swooped up the young blonde into her arms.
Cassey's joyful laughter echoed through their back yard as the door slammed shut behind them.
Concluded in Part 3