This story is intended for mature readers only. There are no scenes of an explicit sexual nature, no graphic depictions of violence, and only a little foul language. However, it does feature a budding relationship between two adult and consenting women, so if that kind of thing bothers you... well, go away and quit bothering me. Jeez. Anyway, the following story is © 2011 and is written purely for entertainment purposes. It cannot be reproduced in any shape or form without the author's prior consent. And of course no true styles of music were hurt, compromised, mocked, hummed along to, sung along just a fraction off-key to, or even badly composed during the production of this story... well, maybe a little.
AWARDS: Winner of the inaugural Cocktail Hour
writing contest, October 2011.
When you got right down to it, fate was nothing more than a bully. That thought had occurred to Danielle as she trudged down the sidewalk, her sodden clothes dripping and each squelching footstep leaving a path behind her.
The thought irked her, a little like spending day after day on an overly complicated jigsaw puzzle, only, upon completion, to find there was one piece missing right from the very centre. Danielle had no problem understanding bullies who had motives or an objective, no matter how stupid or pointless she thought those motives were. She had encountered enough of them throughout her life, after all. She seemed to attract them like flies to honey and that experience had taught her more about bullies than her few psych classes ever had. Envy, resentment, domination, low self-esteem, shame, depression... she had heard it all and forgiven none of it.
Annoyingly, however, fate had recently been pushing her along without any discernable motive. She didn't like it. But it wasn't as if she could do much about it, she supposed. Again, she'd long since learned all the tricks in dealing with bullies and none of them would help her now.
Stand up to them; that was what parents and teachers would advise at first. A bully is just a coward; that was something Danielle had been told more than once, although she personally believed that to be one of the worst lies a parent could ever tell a child, outside of the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. The whole reason bullies were bullies in the first place was because they were anything but cowards. You didn't get to become a bully without taking a few knocks yourself, after all.
The lie didn't matter in the end. If you were stupid enough to fight back you either didn't hurt the bully, in which case it was pointless, or you hurt them really bad. Either way, they usually came back and hurt you much worse the next day. Sometimes Danielle felt as if her whole life had been one big fight, and one she was probably losing on a technicality.
That was still true for her today, Danielle thought. Twenty years old, halfway towards getting her college degree, and somehow she was still dealing with this crap. Sure, she no longer had to fear physical violence, that hadn't happened since the early days of high school, but plenty of mental and verbal abuse still got thrown her way on a daily basis.
She did her best to avoid trouble, now as always. That was something that actually worked, at least in the short term; she had learned that very early on. There were routes to school through the neighborhood to steer clear of said bullies. Crowds you could hang around with, never truly belonging but blending just enough into the group so as to avoid unwelcome attention. There were clothes you could wear, fashions to follow, trends to keep to - not so closely that you set them, but closely enough to make it appear you were just copying everyone else. And most important of all - never show folks how you honestly feel.
But, annoyingly, you just couldn't do any of that with fate. It seemed to Danielle that if fate was indeed set on being a spiteful bully then you couldn't ignore it, you couldn't fight it, you couldn't try to avoid its attention, and you certainly couldn't try to reason with it. Worse still, fate always knew where to find you and how to hurt you the most.
She shivered. Her wet clothes stuck fast to her, feeling like thick frost scraping against her dark skin. What an absolutely shitty night. Humiliated, soaked to the bone, and stranded in the middle of God-knows-where. She wanted the sunshine to hurry on down, for this day to be finally over. It had been one hell of a stormy Monday, but she guessed Tuesday would be just as bad.
Her grandmama, rest her soul, would have frowned on Danielle's revelation, although in her own way she too had been something of a bully. The old woman had believed strongly in àyànmo, the fate we all hold within ourselves and shape as we move through life. But grandmama, Danielle thought, had been strong-willed enough to bend fate to suit her own purposes and thought everyone else should do the same. If grandmama had ever realized that Danielle had always believed destiny was intent on royally screwing her, she would have raised merry hell.
Danielle's mother had once said grandmama been displeased enough when the family had adopted a Western name in an effort to blend into their adopted homeland a little more. Turning their backs on their Yoruba heritage, so grandmama had said. She'd blamed her son-in-law and had promptly not spoken a word to anyone in the family until Danielle had been born. And then the whole stupid row had erupted yet again right before the baptizing. Up until the day she had died, her grandmama had refused to call her Danielle, instead referring to her as Akanbi, a slight that her parents had always deigned to acknowledge.
A dog howled in the distance. It could have been a wolf for all she knew. Sure sounded like one. The dog was probably cooped up somewhere and just wanted the chance to be free. It sure sounded like it was spoiling for a fight. She knew how it felt.
She had passed a rundown Burger King a little ways back but the place had been firmly closed. She'd even gone so far as to bang on the door, hoping to use their phone, but had no luck. Only the outside sign was still lit and that was faulty, with only the 'B' of the word 'Burger' still illuminated and even that kept sputtering on and off. Her watch had stopped working when it got wet so she could only guess it was at least an hour past a very dreary midnight.
So instead Danielle had continued walking down the levy, with her head hanging low. She didn't know where she was going but if she kept moving at least she'd keep somewhat warm. She'd walked so far she wouldn't be surprised if she'd worn a hole in her last pair of shoes. She stepped over a pool of muddy water and then saw a four-way intersection up ahead. And on the corner of the crossroads there was a bus-shelter.
Danielle sighed with relief when she finally saw the bus stop, her breath fogging the chilly air. Odd how such a small shelter could muster so much hope. If she could just find out where she was, then she would have some idea of how to get home. And who knows? She might even be able to catch the next bus going in the right direction. She had a little cash left in her pockets, enough for a short trip at least.
There was a malfunctioning streetlight behind the bus-stop. The flickering, stale yellow light did little to impress. It was only when the grey clouds shifted and the light of the moon going down dispelled some of the starkest shadows that, with a start, Danielle realized the shelter was already occupied.
A figure sat hunched at one end of the plastic bench, head bowed, hands plunged deep into the pockets of a dark red sweatshirt. The hood was pulled up but she could see a little dark hair falling forward, further hiding the face from view. It took Danielle a second or two to realize there was something odd about the shape of the stranger's head, something oddly familiar but unnerving at the same time. Was it the crumpled fabric of the hood or just shadows playing tricks on her eyes? What the hell was it? She could swear it looked like horns. She felt her heart begin to pound.
Danielle paused, hesitating over whether or not to continue on her way. But she didn't know the area at all and so had no idea where the next bus stop would be or how far. She didn't want to keep walking, and she really needed a rest. But at the same time she just wanted to get home. That was all. Home, a hot bath, and a dry bed. She'd have to risk it. She was so tired of being afraid, tired of the life she lead. Suddenly overcome by a wave of determination, Danielle stepped forward, trying to kick away the fears she knew.
A willow tree stood on the grassy verge beside the bus-shelter. As she passed it the wind rose briefly, causing the leaves to tremble and the branches to shake, rattling on top of the roof like the impatient drumming of fingers. Fate was behind Danielle once again, hurriedly shoving her forward.
She had to move into the road rather than step over the long, outstretched legs. Tight blue jeans and surprisingly clean white sneakers, she noted. She risked a quick sideways glance as she walked by. The sweatshirt was definitely red but at the same time had a partially obscured Duke logo emblazoned across it, which puzzled her. There was a bottle beside the stranger, partly hidden in a crumpled paper bag, and an untouched apple next to that.
There were no horns though. If she hadn't been so cold, so angry, and so desperate to get home, she might have laughed at her own foolishness. But then she couldn't remember the last time she laughed. It was a guitar. Or rather the headstock of a guitar within a soft carrying case, poking up from behind the figure. Blurred by distance and shadow, the guitar and its faint reflection on the glass behind had seemed unreal for a while.
All the same, her heart refused to calm down. She could feel it thumping so hard against her ribs, as if it had finally had enough and decided to escape. You're on your own, kid, it was saying, just let me be on my way and we'll say no more about it. Danielle took a deep breath as she moved up to the other side of the bus shelter, putting a tiny bit of distance between herself and the stranger, and tried to concentrate on the timetable she found there. It did no good. Past midnight, no phone, no purse, in unfamiliar territory. The only scarier thing than being all alone was suddenly realizing you're not all alone.
As she studied the timetable, out of the corner of her eye Danielle saw that she was being watched. In the reflection of the dirty glass she could see the stranger leaning forward, more strands of hair - dark red, Danielle noticed now that the light was better and she was closer - falling out from under the hood. A hand was held out, palm up. She thought at first that an appeal for spare change was being made but then saw the hand wasn't directed at her, rather out past the shelter of the bus-stop.
Danielle sighed. Even out here in the middle of nowhere she couldn't get away from sarcastic jibes. No, it wasn't damn well raining, she wanted to say. Instead she studiously ignored the gesture. She'd had enough humiliation for one night, thank you very much.
The timetable was making no sense. There was a map above it but that wasn't much good to her either. The only thing she could place was the St. James Infirmary, as she'd spent a couple of weeks studying there last year, but she didn't remember any of the roads around it. She looked east and west, trying to figure out the street-names on the crossroads. Twelfth Street and Vine. Well, that didn't help at all.
The voice surprised her. It was softer and kinder than she had supposed. A stranger still, but not a man then. That was some relief. She almost turned, caught herself just in time. Out of the corner of her eye, Danielle watched the figure shift the strap of the guitar case across her chest. Yes, definitely a woman now that she looked closely, Danielle thought, not that it made much difference. She could still very well be some kind of homeless psycho.
Danielle shivered. She had known it was cold but the brisk walking pace she had set for the last twenty minutes had kept her warm. Now she'd stood still for a few minutes, that warmth was going away, and the wet clothes were like ice plastering her skin.
"You don't know the half of it," Danielle said after some hesitation.
"You'd be surprised. Still, it's about to get a lot worse."
The voice was level, no trace of anger or threat. All the same, what was said made Danielle feel a hell of a lot colder all of a sudden. She tried to say something but her mouth moved wordlessly.
The woman pulled back her hood. She was smiling, not maliciously, not meanly, like so many other smiles Danielle had seen lately, but a genuinely friendly smile. Her skin was as pale as Danielle's was dark, her face cute in an odd kind of way, with a nose that was a little too long and eyes that caught more shadow than light.
She did have red hair, Danielle confirmed. The color looked a little too natural to really be natural though. The hair was cut in a low bob, framing her face well. It was probably a stylish cut two or three years ago, although that whole hip-retro look seemed to be what the woman was going for, what with the washed out jeans and oddly-colored sweatshirt. Like a party-goer who was always fashionable late by just the right amount of time, this stranger's whole ensemble was just a little past its prime. It worked though. It was certainly a good look on her, Danielle thought. She could bring eyesight to the blind.
"The buses stop running at midnight."
Damn, Danielle thought. Damn, damn, damn! Fate was laughing at her yet again, having found her so gullible and willing. She could feel tears welling up and she swallowed hard, forcing herself to remain as calm as she could. Damn it, she just wanted to get home. Why was that so hard?
"I have a cellphone," the woman said, "if you need to call someone."
"There's no one to call."
An eyebrow was raised. "No friends?"
"They're all at the party."
Danielle shook her head without thinking. No, her family were all back in Hazlehurst. Not that they would particularly want to hear from her anyway. And stupidly, Danielle had admitted to a complete stranger that if anything happened to her, no one would come looking. Not for a while, anyway. She wasn't sure this woman meant her any harm but all the same...
"Okay then," the woman said, still smiling. She stood, then dug into the pocket of her jeans and drew out a cellphone. Flipping it open, she dialed quickly, held it up to an ear, and then tapped her feet impatiently while she waited for someone to answer. "Hello? Oh hi, I'd like to request a taxi, please."
Taken aback, Danielle tried to say something but the woman silenced her by holding up her free hand.
"The bus shelter at the top of Vine Street. Yes, that's right, the crossroads. How long will that be? Okay, thanks." She snapped the phone shut and it disappeared into a pocket again. "See? All sorted."
"What did you do that for?" Danielle said.
"I'm trying to help. There are some people who still do that, you know."
The smile wouldn't go away, Danielle noticed. She had to stop staring. "I have no money."
The woman frowned. "Then how were you going to catch a bus?"
"Well, I ain't broke. I have a bit of cash, a few bucks, but not enough for a taxi. I was just hoping to ride the bus for as far as I could."
"Further on up the road? Well, don't worry. I'll take care of it. Tips were good tonight."
"I can't possibly..." Danielle protested feebly.
The woman held up a hand again, cutting off the objection, and then gestured instead at the crossroads in front of them. "Well, you could stay here until the break of day or you could keep walking, but the way is dark and the night is long. And this old town is a mean old place. Your choice."
Danielle thought about it. It didn't take long. "Thank you," she said, and she meant it. She didn't like the idea of being obligated to anyone, least of all a perfect stranger, but at least this way she'd get home a lot sooner. She really didn't like the idea of walking for another five or six miles, or however much longer she had to go. There was still a small part of her that was telling her this situation might be too good to be true, but after all that had happened tonight she was past caring.
"It's nothing. I'm sure you'd do the same."
Danielle wasn't so certain she would have done. Wisely, however, she chose not to say that. "I'll pay you back, I promise."
"You don't have to."
"I will, I swear. If you give me somewhere to reach you, and your name too, I suppose..."
The woman held out a hand. Caught off-guard, Danielle found herself shaking it. The skin felt soft and surprisingly hot. There was a tiny little part of her that regretted she had to let go.
"Short for Roberta."
"Oh. Well, Bobbie, I'm Danielle. Danielle Webster."
She shivered again. The wind had gotten colder and dark clouds were rolling in, hiding the moon and throwing a gloom across the street. Through the cracks in the shelter, a breeze caught at Danielle's blouse, chilling her to the bone and forcing the damp cotton to cling painfully against her skin.
"You're cold," Bobbie said. She pulled the strap over her head and carefully placed her guitar on the bench behind her, then began peeling off her sweatshirt. She had bare arms underneath, Danielle noted, with a sleeveless white tee. The right arm was somehow darker and seemed to fade into the shadows as it moved. It took Danielle a moment to realize the darkness was a tattoo; a rearing black snake wound itself around the forearm.
Feeling more than a little guilty, Danielle watched the stranger strip. Now that she was standing, Danielle could see how she was long and lean, with a waist that was perhaps a little too skinny for her frame, especially for her wide hips. Her tee was drawn up as she reached up to haul the sweatshirt over her head, and Danielle couldn't stop herself from admiring the taut stomach and the way the low-cut jeans barely hung on those broad hips.
As she was handed the top, Danielle again tried a half-hearted protest, but apparently her savior would brook no argument. It was a thick fleece material, and Danielle could feel the warmth of other woman's body radiating from it still. For a second, she longed to bury herself in the fabric and honestly didn't know why.
When she hesitated, Bobbie tilted her head and smiled again. "I can turn around if you like. If you're embarrassed, I mean."
Danielle almost laughed. Almost. Funny, she thought, how comfortable this woman was making her feel in such an uncomfortable situation. She began pulling the sweatshirt on over her blouse. "No, there's no need. But I'll just wear it until the taxi gets here, okay?"
"If you like," Bobbie said with a shrug.
"How long do I have to wait?" Danielle's voice was muffled as she pulled the top on over her dreadlocks.
"Twenty minutes or so, they said. It could be longer, who knows? I'll stay with you, don't worry. I could do with the company. I think I've had enough of not wanting a soul around me. You know, if you like, you could tell me how come you're soaking wet. Just to pass the time. Get a notion to jump in the ocean, did you?"
"No, not really. I didn't jump so much." Danielle straightened out the borrowed sweatshirt as she spoke. She felt warmer already, although her legs were still freezing, the thin fabric of her slacks catching the slightest gust of the night wind and making her shudder again. She supposed she had no chance of getting into Bobbie's jeans. She smiled to herself. God, what was she thinking?
As she sat down beside Bobbie on the cooling board of the bus shelter's bench, she made an effort to change the subject. She really didn't want to talk about what had happened to her earlier. Besides, something had just occurred to her. "Hang on... if there are no more buses running, then what are you doing..." She stopped, thinking about how best to delicately phrase her question. "Then how are you planning on getting home?"
An indifferent shrug. "I couldn't sleep tonight, I may not ever. So instead I was just waiting for someone."
"The first person to come along."
Okay then.... Danielle wasn't sure what to make of that. Instead she kept talking. "You said tips were good tonight. Are you a waitress?"
"No, a bartender. I work in the 12-Bar down the street. You probably passed it."
"But..." Danielle gestured at the guitar, her question obvious.
"Oh, this? I only work in the bar late nights, once cocktail hour is over. They couldn't pay me enough to deal with those drunks and reprobates, trust me." Bobbie picked up the guitar and placed it on the ground, resting against a corner of the bench, so they both had more room, then settled down into a more comfortable position. Danielle sat down beside her, careful to keep a little distance. "Most evenings I busk in Willie Coffee. That's a bookstore and coffee place down by Statesboro Street."
"You have two jobs?"
"A girl has to pay the bills. Not that I've done a lot of that lately. Besides, I tend to lose jobs on a fairly regular basis. I've had plenty over the years; you can take my word for it. When I was in college, about your age I guess, I worked in the kitchen of a fancy French restaurant. I think that's were my bad luck with work started. I was only there for two days before they fired me for burning stuff."
"You can't be fired for burning food..."
"No, not food. But the entire kitchen, sure. It was a four-alarm fire, apparently."
Danielle couldn't help but laugh at that. She didn't want to, tried to stop herself, but the laughter just bubbled up and exploded out. And it felt good. She hadn't realized how much she needed to laugh.
"After I got my degree, I went to work for a PR firm."
"Not at all, that's why I was fired. I made it a lot more interesting."
"Dare I ask how?"
"Sure. The things I used to do! I suppose the breaking point for the big boss man was when I persuaded a micro-brewery, who were trying to market a beer at women mind, to call their product Dead Clam Beer."
Danielle frowned. "Doesn't sound very appetizing. But again, that's not enough to get you fired, surely?"
"No. But if you mix the words around..."
"Dead Beer Clam..." Danielle repeated the words. "Clam Dead... Beer Dead Clam... oh!" She covered her mouth in shock but couldn't help but grin.
"Yeah," Bobbie said with a shrug. "Not my best idea. Not my worst either. That would be asking the guys in the art department to use a Georgia O'Keefe painting as the bottle label."
"Not at all. Needless to say, the idea and the beer didn't go down well." Bobbie paused suggestively. "Unlike me."
Danielle found herself blushing and turned away. Well, that was a surprise, she thought. You meet an attractive older woman and you consider the possibility, perhaps even hope, but you never really expect anything but straight. Not with her luck, anyway, Danielle thought.
Bobbie must have sensed her discomfort. "Sorry, I get horny when I'm tired. I should have stayed in PR. People said I was suited to it."
She got a shrug in answer. "Beats me. Julia always said that I was manipulative, that I always worked the angles to get what I wanted. I never thought so, but maybe she was right, and maybe that's what people picked up on."
Danielle wanted to ask who Julia was, but before she could speak Roberta went on. "I'm talking too much. That's a bad habit of mine. Sometimes, when I get through talking, can't remember a thing I said. So what about you? I'm guessing you're in college, am I right?"
"Sure enough," Danielle said, wincing. She looked up, bothered by the constant flickering of the streetlight overhead. It was going to give her a headache, on top of the cold she was probably going to catch. Still, she supposed she should consider herself lucky the light was working even half the time in such a rundown neighborhood as this. "I'm studying nursing over at UMMC. Not as exciting, I know."
"What, as busking or serving drinks to cheap lechers?" said Bobbie with a gentle smile. "No, not even close. A nurse... huh. It figures."
"What's that mean?"
The question was ignored. "So it was a college party then? You mentioned a party earlier. Come on, you might as well tell me about it. A trouble shared and all that. We've still got a ways to wait by my reckoning."
Danielle sighed and as the breath left her body, her resistance finally crumbled. "Alright, what the hell? I got invited to a party by Regan Teivel, which was odd. She's in the popular clique at the Medical Center and wouldn't usually spit on me if I was on fire. Jesus, listen to me talking about cliques and popularity, like it's high school all over again. You'd think a university would be different, you really would. I did."
"So you're not popular?" Bobbie said, then hastily held up her hands in a placating gesture when she received an angry glare. "Forgive me, but you did say there were no friends you could call."
"I suppose I'm not. I keep myself to myself, mostly. And then there's..." Danielle paused, not knowing exactly how to continue.
"Your sexuality?" Deflecting another fierce look, Bobbie hurriedly went on. "Sorry to disappoint you, but it's not exactly hard to tell."
Still glowering, Danielle nodded silently. She felt ashamed. Not of her wants, her desires, or even of herself, but just because this conversation was turning out to be the closest she had ever got to admitting who she was to any another person. Everyone knew, of course, or maybe knew was too strong of a word. Suspected. That was more like it. Her mother, back in Hazlehurst, probably knew, judging from the way she behaved. She'd drop clumsy hints here and there about local available men, what good prospects they were, and how Danielle shouldn't reject all their advances. She thought her brother had even tried to talk to her about it once, although she wasn't too sure - he'd been nervous and clumsy in his phrasing, but then she had cut off that conversation as quickly as she could. And everyone else in college probably had a good idea too. The way she was treated would seem to indicate as much. It made no difference. Danielle herself had never got so close to being honest.
No, she thought, that wasn't quite true. This was the second closest she'd ever got. One night, last spring, after days upon days of studying for the approaching exams, she had finally broken down and walked away from the college. Not forever, although she had considered it at the time, but just a break. Just one night away from the books.
She had known about the bar on Hob's Lane for a while but had never dared walk in. She knew the smoky red neon sign so well that sometimes she could see it whenever she closed her eyes. Walked past the bar on countless occasions, sure, always trying to summon up enough bravery to take a plunge, but never in. What if someone at college saw her? Or someone else who knew her family and word got back home?
But that night, fueled by desperation and a craving that she didn't understand, she found the courage from somewhere. She had never been so scared in all her life. But it had worked out. It had done her studying, her confidence, her self-esteem, and even her ego the world of good, being hit on so quickly. And where it led... oh, she thought, if only she could capture that particular lightning in a bottle again...
Her reminiscences were interrupted by Bobbie speaking again. "Hmm. Well, Regan Teivel doesn't strike me as the tolerant type."
"You know her?" Danielle said, surprised.
"I've met her, once. She got caught with a fake ID in the bar. I let her get away with it, almost. Bit high on herself, I thought. She's the sort of person who'd do anything for money, if you know what I mean."
"You got that right. Well, anyway, I didn't know how to get there, so some of Regan's friends gave me a ride. Stupid of me. I should have known there and then that something was up. But I'm an idiot."
"I doubt that. You don't seem to be."
Danielle ignored her. As her mother said, she never was comfortable with taking compliments. "So I get to the house out in the middle of nowhere. And there's a party, alright, so at least that's one fear dealt with, you know? And things seemed to go well, for a while. Most everybody is out the back by the pool..."
"Ah..." Bobbie said quietly, following along.
"Yeah, you can see where this is going. To cut a long story short, a little time goes by and then Regan and her friends push me in the pool. I'm mortified, they're all either laughing at me or calling me names, and it just gets worse."
"Well, I drag myself out with what little dignity I have left. No one helps me, of course. But by the time I walk through the house, I realize my purse is at the bottom of the pool."
"And there goes your phone and your cash, right?"
"Yeah. And my credit card too. There's no way I'm going back for any of it, not that the phone would be any good, so I just keep walking. Luckily I memorized at least the last part of the ride over, so I know which way to head, but fairly soon I'm lost. I was lucky to run into you, believe me."
"Yes, lucky," Bobbie said. "Why do you think they did it?"
"How should I know?" Danielle spat.
"Come on, you must have done some wrong, on a dark and distant day."
"No, I haven't. I try to avoid trouble. It's something I learned to do a long time ago."
"Huh. Well then, looks like I was right first time. It has been a rough night for you, hasn't it?" Bobbie reached down to the open bottle that sat on the bench between them and held it out for Danielle to take. It was a Kansas City wine, Danielle saw. "Drink? You probably need one."
"No," Danielle said emphatically. She eyed the other woman a little cautiously. "Thanks, but no. Should... you be drinking?"
In answer, Bobbie raised the bottle and took a long swig. She wiped her lips on the back of her hand, returned the wine to the bench and then smiled again. "Lately, I've been drinking like never before. I'll quit tomorrow, unless I'm feeling tomorrow just like I'm feeling today. Look, it's just to help me sleep, okay? That and the long walk, I'm hoping. I ain't slept a wink since Sunday. I can't eat a thing all day."
"What happened on Sunday?"
The smile faded, ever so gradually. She didn't meet Danielle's eyes for a moment, instead choosing to stare down at the weeds growing up through the cracks in the concrete at her feet. Then she looked up suddenly and the smile was back, although it was easy for Danielle to see it was a lot less genuine now. It was a smile that hid something, if only she knew what...
"So are you seeing anyone?"
"What?" Danielle said, caught off-guard by the question.
"Come on, it's a fair question. Obvious one too, I guess. I take it from your horror story that you went alone to the party tonight, so is that a no?"
Danielle pursed her lips. "It's not easy," she finally said.
"Other people never are. You have to stick with it though. It generally pays off."
"I mean, I'm not good at meeting new people."
"You're doing okay with me."
"I'm serious," Danielle said. "I never know what to say."
Bobbie's grin grew wider and a little more honest. "So long as you know what to do. Sorry, I did warn you. Look, treat this as a first date, if you like."
"What? Are you kidding?"
"No. Why not? I don't see no taxi yet. And you'll find I'm a good listener. I'm good at a lot of things."
"I wouldn't know where to start," Danielle said uncertainly. "Sorry, it's been a while since I've been on a date. Actually, I don't think anything I've ever been on could be considered a date."
"That bad, huh? Well, there's a first time for everything. Tell me about yourself. I know you want to be a nurse, that you're in college for that in Oxford, but what else? You said you don't have a family. Why not? Did they disown you or something?"
"No, nothing like that. My father died when I was young, my mother still lives in Hazlehurst. That's where I'm from, Hazlehurst."
"Okay, you're a southern girl. So you moved here to go to college and to get away from the nest, right?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," Danielle said with a smile. "My mother's okay but she doesn't like the idea of me... well, you know. I've never told her but I think she knows. She'd have to be deaf and blind not to. Anyway, we were never close. With my father gone, my grandmama did the most to raise me, although she's no longer with us either. That's probably why I was always closer to her than my mother, although I don't really know why. She wasn't exactly a loving person, always quick to criticize and point out faults. For our own good she'd tell us. And always, and I do mean always, lecturing us about our heritage. Didn't even like the family going to church on a Sunday."
"I guess. As much as the next person."
"Depends on who you're standing next to," Bobbie said, gesturing towards herself. "Personally, I have no tolerance for something that lends itself to such intolerance. If you see what I mean."
"Not everyone in a church is close-minded, believe me. I'm not devout or anything, not by a long stretch, but I guess whenever it's possible I take heed of the gospels, always with a pinch of salt, mind." She paused. "Are you sure I'm not boring you?"
"Not at all. What heritage are you talking about? If you don't mind telling me, that is."
"Oh, it makes no difference to me. My family's originally from Nigeria, we're descended from the Yoruba people. Grandmama was very proud of that, although I could never figure out why. She tried to teach us all about our music, our beliefs, our pantheon of Orishas, the whole works."
"It didn't take?"
"Some of it sunk in, I guess, although it had strong competition. Hellfire and brimstone, free every Sunday, Baptist-style. Not that I listened to that very often either. I skipped out of church every opportunity I could get. I'd get a spanking whenever I'd get home but it was worth it. The way I figure it, I was still somebody's angel even if I didn't go to sermons. My mother always said I was reckless. My father said I was just a wild child."
"You sound like you really loved your father."
"I used to think I did. But lately I sometimes wonder if I only love the idea of him. I was fairly young when he died, so I don't remember much about him to be honest. I do remember how he used to talk to me when I was young and foolish, which was often. He'd never be angry with me, just explain what I'd done wrong and how I could fix it. Now I have no father and my sisters and my brothers, they don't care for me."
"You come from a big family then?"
"Yeah, two brothers, three sisters. I'm kinda in the middle. The eldest, Jabez, works in real estate. He's okay, although he gets a little full of himself from time to time. He still lives with our mother and tends to take care of the family, has done since my father died. Thinks he's the head of the family now. And the youngest, she's still in high school. Marley's a total brat, believe me."
Danielle paused, aware that she had been doing most of the talking for the last few minutes and suddenly horribly self-conscious. She yanked at the bottom of her borrowed sweatshirt, trying to stave off another chilly gust of wind. "Haven't you heard enough of my tragical history?"
"Okay, so let's talk about something else," Bobbie said. "Do you date much?"
Danielle gave a short, bitter laugh. "Hell, no! I've only been involved with a couple of women and none of those have been serious relationships, believe me. I think none of them lasted for more than a month."
"Nothing serious..." Bobbie said, as if the words meant something to her.
"Well, I haven't really told anyone... I mean, I think people know, some people, anyway. But it ain't nobody's business how I live my life, right?"
"I tell a lie, there was a girl in our church who I fooled around with one long summer. We used to skip out on church on a hot Sunday and lay together on the river bank and make-out. It never went any further, which is probably just as well. When the fall came she got all pious and holier-than-thou and told me where to get off. I guess I should count my blessings that she kept quiet about me. If you really want to know... I can't believe I'm telling a perfect stranger this..."
Bobbie flashed her another wicked smile. "You should know by now, Danielle, that I'm far from perfect. Close, some women have told me after the event, but never exactly perfect. Try as I might."
"Yeah, well, if you really want to know..." Danielle said, summoning up her courage. This conversation had taken another turn towards the uncomfortable. "I've only ever been with... well, you know... only once before. Six months ago."
"Really? Only once?" Bobbie seemed deep in thought. "That is interesting."
"I'm glad you think so," Danielle said. She was feeling decidedly awkward now. This hadn't exactly been an interrogation but it was sure beginning to feel like one. She was embarrassed by talking about herself for so long. It didn't feel right. Instead, she tried to change the subject. "What about you? Are you seeing anyone?"
Was, Danielle thought? What did that mean? She glanced down at the near empty wine bottle. Had Bobbie's lover left her? Did that explain the drinking and the lack of sleep she had admitted to? She opened her mouth to ask, although she wasn't entirely sure what she was going to say. In the end it didn't matter. Bobbie didn't give her the chance.
"Julia died. About two months ago."
Danielle's mouth gaped open. "I'm so sorry," she finally managed to say. "Could I... I mean, would you mind if I asked how?"
The slightest of sighs escaped from Bobbie's lips. She quelled it with another long drink. "Julia was a nurse, just like you want to be. I actually met her in the hospital. I won't bore you with details but it was about six years ago, and I had just gone through a very rough night of my own. I was in a bar, sloppy drunk off my ass, seriously hammered. About a nine and a half on the Dino scale of drunkenness and doing my best to get all the way to eleven. You get the idea.
"Anyway, I shot my mouth off a bit too much - that's a trend of mine, you've probably guessed as much by now - and landed myself in trouble in a big crowd. To cut a long story short, I wound up in the emergency room and she was the unlucky nurse who drew the short straw and had to deal with me. I'm not a good patient when I have the flu, so you can imagine how bad I was with cuts that need stitching and a ton of glass that needed to be plucked out of my shoulder. And me being drunk as well. Still, that was lucky, I supposed. If I hadn't been out of my skull I probably never would have had the nerve to ask her out. Thinking back, I can never actually remember asking her. She always swore I did but I can't remember. It still amazes me that she agreed. Perhaps she knew I was a little lost, that I needed someone's help to get my life back on track.
"Julia always wanted to help people, you see. That's one of the reasons why I was attracted to her. She was so old school, a believer in the good in people and the community and such. Maybe that's why I wanted to help you tonight. Julia had an infuriating habit of allowing her good traits to rub off on other people.
"We were together five long years and then out of the blue she tells me she wants to help more. She wants to serve her country is what she said. I told her no way. No way in hell am I agreeing to her joining the army, even as a medic. But she talked me round. She always did. So she signed up, underwent some perfunctory training, and then was shipped out to Iraq. It all happened so quickly. I hated it. I tried not to let it show but I think she knew. I didn't do so well without her and I really couldn't bear the idea of her being so far away from me. I would lay awake, praying for her each night, praying that she would come back home to me, thinking of nothing but her kiss and her warm embrace."
"Iraq... is that where...?" Danielle said softly.
Bobbie nodded. "Two months ago, she was in a troop convoy moving to Basra to aid the British soldiers there. Some field hospital exchange or something. Nine Hum-Vees in total, they told me afterwards, but her's was the closest to the IED that went off." She paused, her brow furrowed. "They told me she didn't even know what hit them. I try to believe that, really I do."
She said nothing for a moment, and the silence ran away with itself, neither woman daring to confront it.
Eventually, Danielle felt she had to say something, anything. "I haven't had much experience with death. I suppose that will change over time, especially considering what profession I'm studying for. I don't remember my father dying, nothing about it all. I have memories of him being there, and I have memories without him, that's all.
"But I was there when my grandmama passed away. She was unwell for a long time and the family sat up with her most nights. I remember one night, when my mother had fallen asleep in her chair and I was left all alone with grandmama, and she caught me crying. She told me not to be so foolish, called me an ogberis. I had to look that up. Even then she had that harsh tone to her voice. I can't recall her voice ever sounding any different, even when she was so worn-out and frail.
"There was nothing to be scared of, she told me. It was the unknown that scared me, and only little children were frightened by what they did not know. She had lived a gentle life, so there was no need for tears or regrets. She told me that those that die live on elsewhere, somewhere just out of reach, a short skip across an unseen stream."
Her voice tailed off. She could have gone on, could have explained more of what had been said as her grandmama lay dying, but it looked like Bobbie wasn't listening. She was staring at her shoes again, moving her left foot back and forth, and scraping the heel against the concrete, leaving a thin stripe of dirt across the paving slab.
Not for the first time tonight it turned out that Danielle's assumption was wrong.
"A gentle life?" Bobbie said almost inaudibly. "How does anyone know if they've lived a gentle life? What impossibly high standard are we all being held too? And by who? A gentle life... shit... I can tell you that I probably haven't lived one." She smiled again. "It's just as well then, that I ain't superstitious. Julia was, but not me."
It was a religious belief, Danielle thought, not a superstition. Although she supposed that to some people it came to much the same thing. She didn't say anything at first, uncertain if she should answer or if she should play it safe and change the subject. After a few moments, she chose the latter. "So what kind of music do you play?" It was weak, half-hearted, and Danielle hated herself for not having the strength to let the quiet go on.
Her hand half-raised to take another drink, Bobbie looked at her for a long while, then put the bottle back down. She scratched absent-mindedly at her right arm and let out a low half-moan. "Blues mostly," she then said, "although really whatever I feel like playing at the time. Lately, it's been a lot of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan, that kind of thing. Those early blues are what I love to sing the most these days. That's not so surprising, I suppose."
Danielle frowned. "I'm sorry; I don't know who any of those are."
"Not many people would, not these days. Joplin, then? You've heard of her, I take it?"
"Of course. So, blues with a bit of soul? It's that a good way to describe it?"
"I guess. A little soul is important, after all, Danielle."
"And have you had any success? I mean, do you want to be...?"
"Famous?" Bobbie interrupted. "A star? No, that's not for me. I'm happy enough with what I do now. And as for success, well all day the phone rings, but it's not for me."
Danielle took a breath. She wasn't sure if she dared broach the subject again, but something was pushing the thought forward, tugging gently but persistently at her brain, making it the only thing she could focus on. "I did take a couple of psych classes last year..." It sounded lame to her even as she said it.
Danielle gulped nervously. She didn't think there was any rage or frustration in Bobbie. There might have been, once, but she suspected it had long since burned away, eroded by sheer exhaustion and too much alcohol. Now there was just an unrelenting sadness. Hidden well, certainly, but there to see if you looked closely enough. What was more carefully concealed was the cause of that sorry. Like that jigsaw again, she thought, there was one tiny piece missing, one that spoiled the entire picture.
All the same, even if she suspected that there was no real danger, Danielle chose to tread very carefully. "Well, you can't sleep..." she began cautiously, "and you've been drinking. And then there's the blues, a depressing style of music if there ever was one, and you've admitted that's what you most feel like playing right now."
Another deep breath. Now or never, she thought. "So what happened Sunday?"
To her credit, Bobbie didn't try to avoid the question this time. She remained silent for a moment, although Danielle knew, somehow, that the answer was coming.
Bobbie lifted the wine bottle again then immediately put it down. She looked Danielle square in the eye, her face apologetic. "What good can drinking do? I got a death letter on Saturday, although I was working late and I fell straight into bed without opening it. I didn't read it until Sunday morning, that was in her place in bed."
"A death letter?" Danielle asked, puzzled.
"An army term. It doesn't happen very often, not nowadays, what with e-mail and web video and such. But like I said, Julia was always old school. She wrote me letters, can you believe it? Wanted me to write back but I never did. I called her as often as I could but she always told me to write, always wanted me to."
She leaned forward suddenly, one dark arm outstretched towards Danielle, who, confused by the unexpected movement, backed away slightly. Bobbie caught hold of the hem of her red sweatshirt, reached into the pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper, then sat back.
"Sometimes," Bobbie went on, "the mail from a soldier overseas gets delayed somehow. And don't ask me how, because I don't know. Normally this isn't a problem. One late letter isn't much in the grand scheme of things, no matter how late it is. Like two months in this case."
"But when a soldier writes a letter, gets killed in action, and then the letter gets mislaid or sent to the wrong address or whatever, it's known as a death letter. Because the delay means that the family receives the letter long after the death of their loved one."
"And that's..." Danielle said. The question didn't need to be answered, so she let it go. Instead, she said, "I can understand why you'd be upset. Getting a letter like that, so long after... well... I... I just mean I think if it happened to me..."
"Oh no," Bobbie said quickly, interrupting. "Receiving the letter wasn't the worst of it. I could have dealt with that. I think I could, anyway."
"You see, it wasn't a letter, not really. It was a confession."
Danielle said nothing. She didn't know what to say, didn't know exactly where this conversation was going, but she knew that she had to let Bobbie go on. There is a time to talk, she knew, and a time to listen.
"It broke my heart. That's... that's not true. Of course it didn't. A heart can't break. It's a design flaw. If it broke, then at least it wouldn't hurt anymore. And it hurt... so damn much!"
She was crying now, Danielle noticed. Not sobbing, not bawling, just softly crying.
"I've got to get myself together," Bobbie said, brushing at the tears rolling down her face, "before I lose my mind. You see, she admitted to having an affair. She was home on leave, just for a few weeks, right before her second term of service, and we'd been arguing. It was hard adjusting, going from having her with me every day, to not, then back. She accused me of being co-dependent. She was probably right. Right or not, I treated her pretty shabbily, I can't deny that. You'd think I'd be glad to have her back, but you'd never know it from the way I treated her."
"We had a bad fight that night, the worst we ever had. I walked out on her, stormed out in a mad rage, yelled at her that I couldn't stand it no more. She told me in this," Bobbie held up the letter between two fingers, "that was why it happened. She had nowhere else to turn, she said, and she just needed someone. I'm not sure I believe her. And it was just one night, she told me. Just one night."
"She begged for my forgiveness. She wrote that it was a mistake, that she didn't mean for it to happen, that if she could take it back, she would. All this from someone I can never forgive. Not because I don't want, because I would in a second, and not because she doesn't deserve it. It's too late, my baby's gone."
"And she told me everything. When, where..." Bobbie looked steadily at Danielle. "...and who."
Danielle couldn't believe what she had heard. If she was right about what she suspected Bobbie was saying then her one moment of absolute truth, her only moment, had caused so much misery. How could that be?
Bobbie unfolded the letter, her moves so slow as to be almost reverential. Her voice cracked as she began to read aloud.
"My days are so long, babe, you know my nights are lonesome too. Don't you know that I love you? Honest I do. I'll never place no one above you. Since I first met you babe, I never knew what I was missing.
"I've been honest with you and told you everything that happened. You know I am to blame. My ma told me these days would surely come but I wouldn't listen. All I can say is that I made a mistake in life and I've probably ruined our happy home. I really meant I was sorry for ever causing you pain. You walked out anyway.
"This is a mean old world, babe to live in by yourself, all the more so when you can't get the woman you love. I am so sorry, please know that. I've prayed every night since then, that the Lord will acknowledge to my good gal, that I have done you wrong.
"If I live, I pray I don't get killed. Please write my mother and tell her the shape I'm in. Tell her to pray for me, forgive me for my sin, for all of my sin."
Bobbie looked up from the letter. "I won't read it all, it's too long. But the gist of it is that this was six months ago. Julia wrote that she went to a bar by the local nursing school to try to get drunk. She didn't intend to hook up with anyone, she just wanted to let off steam. But in the bar she met a beautiful black woman called Danielle Webster, who needed a release of her own, a break from the stresses of a rigorous college schedule. One thing led to another, she said. Like it was so simple."
"She makes a point of saying how beautiful you were. In the letter, I mean. She's not talking about looks, she never cared about those. She was with me for long enough, after all. The soul, that was what she always looked for. She said yours took her breath away, how you were such a beautiful woman, and how sad it made her that you couldn't see it yourself. She even writes that she thought I would have liked you."
Bobbie wiped at her eyes again. The crying had stopped but her cheeks were still wet, so she rubbed frantically at her face. "And you know what's funny? I think I actually do."
She glanced over her shoulder. Twin headlights had appeared in the distance, closely followed by a big snake of red tail-lights. "Your taxi's here," she said.
"I didn't know, I swear," Danielle said quietly. "She never said... not once..."
"I believe you. Julia said in her letter that she lied to you about her name. Guilt, I suppose, even then."
"You planned all this. Didn't you?"
Bobbie smiled sadly. "I'm afraid so. I wanted to meet the woman Julia turned to when I let her down. And while I'm sure there were easier ways, insomnia has meant I've had a lot of time on my hands. I go a little crazy without sleep."
"You had my name, so I guess I wasn't hard to find. You liked the fact that I was a nurse. And you knew that bitch Regan... I'm guessing you arranged for her to invite me to the party?"
"Not so much arranged, as coerced. That fake ID of hers came back to haunt her."
"I suppose even pushing me in the pool was your idea. And you knew that I'd follow this road..."
"Like I said, I manipulate people. You'll have to forgive me."
Danielle was quiet for a long time. The bulky yellow shape of the taxi pulled up beside the bus shelter, its engine idling. Finally, she glanced up at Bobbie and said, "Should I? Could you forgive Julia now?"
"I'm not sure. I think I'm closer to. And for that I thank you."
"You're thanking me?" Danielle was incredulous. "You're not angry with me?"
"Why should I be? Trust me, I know how easy it was to fall in love with Julia." Bobbie smiled. It was a warm, honest smile. "She had a lot of love to give, and she attracted a lot of love too. Oh, I admit that at first I wanted to hurt her, like she had hurt me. But I couldn't, could I? And never you. I never wanted to hurt you. I don't have it in me. Push you around a little, maybe, try to get an honest reaction from you, see what kind of person you really were."
"Did you get what you wanted?"
"I think so. Maybe. Then again, maybe not."
Danielle got to her feet. "There's a way you can find out, you know."
"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Danielle said. "I told you I was no good at this. And you haven't made it any easier, you know."
"Well, I suppose I could ask you out for coffee or a drink but what would be the point? You probably get enough of both."
Smiling, Bobbie stood and moved a little closer. She reached down to pull open the car door, allowing Danielle to clamber in to the back seat, then passed the driver a small bundle of bills. When she came back to the door, she asked, "Okay, then, so maybe you want to get a bite instead?"
"At this time of night? I'm not really hungry."
"Who's talking about food?" Bobbie said with a wide grin. "Sorry, there I go again."
Danielle blushed, in spite of herself. She held out a hand and the other woman took it gently, stroking the palm gently with her thumb. "I need to change my clothes. And we both need to get some sleep, especially you. We can talk tomorrow, if you like. I'm sure you know where to find me."
They held hands for a brief moment longer, then Bobbie stepped back and pushed the car door shut with a soft click.
The taxi pulled away. Bobbie sighed, picked up her guitar case from where it lay, threw it over one shoulder, and began walking. She had a new long road stretching out in front of her and fate had already started nudging her along it.
Up above, the streetlight flickered once more and then finally went out.