by Carol McMillan, 1228 words

The relief Bilan felt after her conversation with Dr. Schwartz poured through her like melting wax. Uncertain that her legs could hold her, she let herself sink onto the grass as years’ worth of unshed tears fell in two parallel rivulets down her cheeks. The lump in her breast would be attended to, and it probably wasn’t cancer after all.

When Jerome saw her collapse, he could no longer contain himself. Rushing over, he knelt beside Bilan, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. With so many emotions churning through her, Bilan let herself be comforted.

“Thank you for your contempt for me,” she managed to sniffle out.

Jerome pulled back in shock. “Contempt?”

Bilan knew from his response that she must have mixed her words up again. Despite her tears, she could almost read the word she wanted from the Duolingo screen in her mind.

“Con. . .” she was sure that was how it started. And didn’t chocolate tempt you? So wasn’t “tempt” good? But Jerome had pulled his head back and was staring at her. Tempt must be wrong.

“‒cern! Concern! Thank you for your concern.” Now she felt foolish. “My English gets refused.”

Jerome’s face had relaxed a bit, but still looked questioning.

“Oh, it’s another “con”, isn’t it? My English gets con-fused.” She couldn’t stop her tears. Tears of relief had turned to tears of frustration as she tried to voice her thoughts in this third language she was learning. “I’m sorry. I am very bare assed.”

Jerome pressed his lips tightly together, forcing them not to curve up into the smile that threatened to leak through.

Bilan opened her eyes wide as she heard herself. “Oh no,no! I am EMbarassed!”

She stared in horror into Jerome’s dark eyes. Seeing the twinkle he was trying so hard to suppress, Bilan’s sobs morphed into a gale of laughter, which released the failing dam of Jerome’s attempts to stifle his own.

            Flora watched the two of them collapse into each other’s arms. Jealousy reddened her cheeks as she imagined what those strong, dark arms would feel like wrapped around her own body. Ah well, she sighed to herself, that man is just going to have to join the list of her might-have-beens. Asi es la vida.

            Alice had been standing at the edge of the group where Phyllis had left her, when she’d watched the ravings of her seemingly mad father go from dangerous to pitiful. She had fallen to the ground, trying to make herself as small as possible when Willoughby had swung a rifle around yelling that everyone deserved to die. She had been hugely relieved when Dwayne managed to disarm him. She had watched her father crumple from a raving wild man into a timid fool. Now she was horrified to see her sister drop to the ground beside him, hugging him! Was the woman insane? What could she possibly be thinking?

            Fury rose in Alice. She hated them both. They were the ones who deserved to die. Both had stolen her mother’s love from her. Meghan had done it unconsciously, but Willoughby had done it with malice.

Dwayne had taken the rifle into the building and left it somewhere. Could she find it? Could she grab it and do them both in before they stopped whatever ridiculous interaction they were having right there in front of God and everyone? So what if she’d be caught immediately, her life was shit anyway. No one cared about her, even though her mother was trying to make her believe she did. There was no way to make up for all those lost years. Her life had been ruined by those two demented humans in front of her. Maybe somebody would just shoot her if she shot them, and then her pitiful life would be over.

Alice made up her mind. Determined to get the revenge she could almost taste, she started to get up and make her way to the door. Just as she got to her feet, the earth heaved and rumbled. Alice grabbed her head as she fell back down. Electricity raced through every molecule of her body. After lying paralyzed for a moment, she started feeling around her head, wondering if it had split into pieces. Finding it intact, she opened her eyes. Only Jerome seemed to have been affected the way she had. Now it was Bilan who was looking concerned as Jerome bent over, holding his head in his hands.

Finding her body able to function, Alice sat up. She felt dazed. Four men were striding across the yard toward the group. Large and bearded, they looked powerful in their lumberjack shirts. As three of them headed toward Bilan, one turned and strode straight toward her. If she’d been on her feet, Alice would have backed away. Sitting on the ground, however, there was nothing to do but wait to see whether he really was heading for her and, if so, what he wanted. When he drew closer, she could see that the man was not fat, but muscular. Large and strongly built, he was what people sometimes called “a man’s man.” His dark hair fell in waves onto his shoulders, and his beard was thick and wide.

“A purty lady like you shouldn’t be settin’ by herself on the ground like that.”

He reached a calloused but clean hand toward her. “Oh my, will you look at those eyes! Why I could prospect in those eyes, just searchin’ out every little fleck of gold that’s sparklin’ in there.” His own eyes were twinkling as he looked into hers.

            No one had ever spoken to Alice like that. She had no idea how to respond. He had called her pretty. Well, darn it, maybe she was pretty! People thought Meghan was pretty, and Meghan was her twin sister, even if they weren’t identical. Maybe everyone around her had just been too mean to tell her how attractive she was.

            “Well, ma’am, we could hold like this all day, but I think my arm might get a bit tired and all. Why don’t you let me help you up?”

            Alice settled her small hand into the large one being proffered. With a fluid motion the man effortlessly helped her to her feet.

            “Now my name is Langdon, ma’am, and I bet you have a name that’s just as purty as you are. Am I right in thinkin’ that?”

            Alice felt light and floaty beside the strength of this gentle giant. An unusual sensation, something like warmth, seemed to wrap itself around her. Safety, she thought. Is this what it’s like to feel safe?

            Alice reached behind her head and unclipped the plastic barrette that held her dark hair pinned tightly against the back of her neck. With a deep breath, she shook her hair loose, then squared her shoulders, raising her chin up toward the surrounding trees.  With a shrug, she allowed the army-green sweater to fall away, revealing a snug white t-shirt outlining her surprisingly amply breasts. As she and Langdon began walking together in the direction the men had come from, Alice flipped her hair over her shoulder and glanced back at Amy, raising her eyebrows in a well-why-not kind of gesture. Her clear, strong voice answered Langdon’s question: “I’m Alice Smyth.”