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On Hallowed Ground

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CHAPTER 1

Riley let out a sigh as she dropped the duffle bag at the bottom of the stairs. Cradling her cell phone on her shoulder, she listened with quickly fading patience, before sitting on her sofa facing the dingy windows of her small loft. She bent over to tie her hiking boots then slumped back into the cushions. She rubbed her forehead, trying in vain to fight off a headache. Glancing out, if she angled her head just right, she could see the reflection of the sun barely peeking over the downtown Chicago skyline through the windows of the apartment across the alley.

She blew out a breath and ran her fingers through her long dark hair as she yawned and stretched the last remnants of sleep from her body. Tilting her phone out from her ear, she rolled her eyes as a male voice droned incessantly over the line. Finally, she put the phone back to her ear and broke in, "Al…Al, listen to me. That story on the cuts to the state education budget will just have to wait. This is more important; it’s a family emergency."

Riley looked down at the coffee table and traced her finger over the name at the top of the obituary column: Deborah Marie Jacobsen. She didn’t bother to read the rest of it – she didn’t have to. Over the last few days, she’d read it hundreds of time. It never changed the fact that her name wasn’t listed as one of her mother’s survivors, not that she expected to be. Not after what happened. Sighing, she leaned back again into the plush couch, catching the thread of what Al was saying on the other line.

“She’s dead, Riley. She’s going to stay dead forever,” he ended his rant.

The words were true, but they still kicked her in the gut, making her wince. Looking back at the table, she could see the white envelope next to the obituary with the name of the lawyer’s office printed in heavy bold lettering: Blanchard & Associates. Her mother’s estate lawyer had informed her that her childhood home was turned over to the church, and the pastor was made executor of her mother’s estate. Any profits made from the auctioning of items or selling of property would go directly to the church. However, a caveat was provided that gave Riley fifteen business days to claim any possessions. That deadline was next week. Riley had put it off as long as she could.

She could hear water running in the background and knew Al was finally out of bed and getting ready for work. Something clattered over the line and he cursed. Riley smiled in spite of herself. Her friend was such a klutz. He sighed into the line. “Look, Riley, you don’t have to do this. There’s really nothing left for you there. What? Some pictures from when you were five before you became the daughter she didn’t want? She treated you like crap!”

Riley closed her eyes to fight the tears coming up. They had been just below the surface for the last few days, ever since she had received the letter from the lawyer reminding her of the painful past that had never really gone away. He had a point, but it was more than her mother’s estate driving her back home. She couldn’t tell him everything, not yet. He was so protective of her that she knew he’d do everything in his power to stop her.

The more Al talked, the more boisterous he became. So much so that Riley had to hold the phone away from her ear again. There was a long stretch of silence, and she chanced placing the phone back at her ear.

“Are you there?” She asked.

“I just worry about you opening old wounds and getting hurt more,” he finished softly.

There came the tears, but only a few. She needed to hold it together. Sniffling as quietly as she could, she wiped at her nose. “I know, buddy. It’s like you said though, she’s dead. She can’t hurt me anymore.”

Al blew out a frustrated breath. “I know. I still worry about you though.”

“You’re a good friend, but I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine.” Riley smiled into the phone.

Since he’d said his peace, Al changed the course of the conversation, sighing with surrender. “So, when are you leaving again?”

Riley looked at her watch and jumped up from the couch. “Shit! I have to be at the airport in thirty minutes! Dana’s probably already downstairs waiting. She’s gonna kick my ass!”

He laughed heartily. “She’s about the only one who could and get away with it!”

She stuffed the papers on the table into her duffle and looked around to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. She smiled at Al’s comment. Dana was definitely one tough cookie! It was one of the things that she found so attractive about the blonde. “I’ll call you when I get there.” It was said more as a question than a statement.

“You better!” He demanded.

Shaking her head, she made her way to the kitchen and her extra tall travel mug of strong black coffee. After a few final pleasantries with Al, she flipped her cell phone shut.

Riley rubbed her hands over her face, brushing away the traces of tears still there. She thought about what Al had said and knew he was right. It didn’t stop her from knowing she had to do this.

Alonzo Perkins was not just one of Riley’s best friends but he was also the junior editor and official resident shit deflector for Riley, who was the star journalist for their small local newspaper. Ever since Riley was captured by a drug dealer six months ago during one of her undercover stories though, Al’s concern for her well-being had intensified. It didn’t help Al feel any better knowing that Riley had a natural nose for news and didn’t fear going where the clues and information led. It had served her well, earning her some great stories and one really close call. Fortunately, for Riley, another one of her best friends, Dana Jackson, a private investigator and ex-cop, went undercover with her on the drug story. Together, they were able to pull off an escape and the leader of the ring was apprehended and incarcerated.

Riley’s boss and editor-in-chief, Jack Jessly, while thrilled with the story because it had finally put his two-bit Chicago news-rag, The Weekly Herald, on the map with the local presses, was less than pleased though with the massive doctor bills and lawsuits the paper had to cover after Riley had punched her captor. Riley broke two fingers in her hand, but the drug dealer had to have reconstructive surgery to his nose. To say Riley had to work a lot of overtime to make up for it was an understatement. In the end, it was worth it to her. She had finally received recognition as a hardcore investigative reporter, even getting an award from Chicago’s mayor and a feature article in several major newspapers. One day she’d write for a paper like that. In the meantime, she’d have to be content with being the feature story instead.

First things first though, and that’s why she was leaving at the crack of dawn. It was time to clean up the mess of her past in order to clear the way for her future.

Grabbing her mug, she re-adjusted her duffle on her back for the ride down the rickety elevator. When she got downstairs, she was surprised that Dana wasn’t there. She looked at her watch again and knew they’d be cutting it close. Fortunately, the traffic was incredibly light because it was so early. While she waited, she reflected on the life she had now. The high-rises and urine-stained city streets were a far cry from the magnolia blossoms and cicadas of her youth. Her life now was vastly different from the life of her childhood that, as she stood looking up at the towers of steel and glass surrounding her like giants, it seemed surreal. Sometimes, the disconnect between those two worlds collided inside her, and she felt the persistent fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As she waited on Dana, she sighed and tried to calm her nerves.

Since leaving home six years ago for journalism school at Columbia College, Riley maintained only one piece of remaining contact with her hometown of Warrior, Alabama – a subscription to the town's local paper, The Warrior Way. Her mother’s obit had been sandwiched between announcements for the local councilman's daughter's wedding, the latest natural disaster in Sri Lanka, and a full page ad for Warrior First Baptist Church's Real Life through Jesus program. Curious, Riley followed the link provided on the Internet for the program. The intent of the program didn’t shock her or that the church was involved in it, but it did unnerve her that she was on a plane bound for the one place she swore she'd never return to. Of course, this wasn’t just for her. It was for Dana too who was working on a case of a young man who had gone missing.

The last time Riley had stepped foot into Warrior First Baptist Church was also the last time she had seen the town or her mother six years ago. Leaning against the light pole, decorated by torn and faded papers of lost dogs and magic weight loss programs, she recalled how she had come to the decision to leave. Looking back, she wondered if it was a decision of her own making at all or simply some destined path she had been set on nearly sixteen years ago.

She closed her tired eyes as the images of her past revolved in her mind like an old movie. With time, it was almost as if it had happened to someone else. There were times when her past didn’t seem real. When she left Warrior, she refused to think about the life she’d left behind. It was so much easier to not dwell on things she couldn’t change. Now, it was like a life someone else had lived, and there were moments where she wondered if she had imagined it all.

The familiar sound of a revving engine pulled Riley out of her dark thoughts. She smiled as she opened her eyes to see the classic black Corvette convertible pulling up to the curb. Dana had a knack for intercepting her dark moods before they overtook her, and this time all it took was a sly smile and a light revving of the engine as she parked at the curb.

The blonde stretched across the seat and popped the passenger door open from the inside. “Hey, beautiful! Sorry I’m late.”

Riley tossed her duffle into the nonexistent back seat area and slid into the passenger seat. “Yeah, what’s that about? You’re never late.”

The blonde smiled and shifted the sports car into gear, picking up speed quickly as they navigated the city streets to the airport. “It’s about that cute little redhead I was chatting up last week.”

Riley couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “The coffee shop girl?”

“Her name’s Kailin, and she’s a philosophy major at U,” Dana defended.

The brunette fought back laughing more but couldn’t quite help it. “And I bet she’s a huge Indigo Girls fan and been out all of a year, which coincides nicely with the amount of time she’s been in college and away from home. Funny how that happens.”

“She has a beautiful mind!” The blonde scoffed, but smiled in spite of herself as she stopped at a red light. She tried to sound indignant, but Riley didn’t believe it for a second.

“And an even more beautiful ass.”

Dana popped Riley on the arm. “Shut the hell up! As if you have any room to talk in the romance department.”

Riley giggled then relaxed into the leather seat and conceded her friend’s point. “True, but I’m too busy with work to worry about dating. It’s way too much effort.”

“Don’t say that too loud. You’ll break every lesbian’s heart in the Windy City.”

Shrugging, Riley let the banter between them fade into comfortable silence as the wind rushed around them. She watched the waking city pass by, catching sight of the few pedestrians reflected in the glass of high rises and the random homeless person curled up on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral. She had been to that church once, when she had taken one of her many walks to clear her head. It was the quiet of the empty church that drew her in and always managed to fill Riley with a sense of awe. Being comfortable with the dour and understated Southern Baptist style back home, the massive ceiling and ornate gold décor of the Catholic cathedral overwhelmed Riley’s senses. As she sat on the pew during her lone visit, she wondered why she was drawn to these places when they gave her such a deep sense of peaceful sadness.

Despite growing up in a small, rural town, she hadn’t become accustomed to attending church as a matter of course, like so many kids did. When she was a child, her family had never been big on “Sunday morning show-and-tell,” as she remembered her father describing it, but as she grew up she watched the other neighborhood kids find a commonality by going to the same church. She’d listened to them talk over lunch or in class about all of the fun things they did and their plans for the weekend, and she found herself wanting to be a part of it. After much pestering, her mother finally agreed to let her walk to the church many of the kids attended – Warrior First Baptist.

“Are you sure about going through with this?” Dana’s concerned question pulled her back to the present.

Riley sat up a little straighter in the seat. “Yeah, everything’s set. I got my registration confirmation last week. I…I still haven’t told Al.”

“Riley!” Dana took a warning tone.

“Please, Dana,” Riley begged. “If I tell him, he’ll have a coronary.” She paused then murmured, “But you could.”

The blonde slammed her head back against the headrest. “Damn it, I knew you were going to do this to me. Al and I can barely keep from strangling each other. Now you’re really going to make him hate me.” She made the mistake of looking over to see Riley’s pouting face. Sighing, she gave in, “Okay…fine! I’ll do it.”

Riley chuckled. “Thank you. Just wait at least until I land in Birmingham.”

“Fine!” Dana threw a hand up in the air. “I guess I can keep him busy with some research. Financial maybe? It seems like something he’d be good at,” she thought out loud. Looking over at her friend, she reached across and took her hand, entwining their fingers and squeezing gently. “Hey, you don’t have to do this alone. This is a lot to deal with on your own – your mom’s estate and helping me with my case.”

The brunette tilted her head to the side and looked at her, smiling fondly. “Hmmmm, I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me bringing my ex-girlfriend along. As much as I like to play cop with you, maybe we should just go into business together.”

“Okay.” Dana happily accepted.

After a moment’s pause, both of them started giggling. Riley said, “We’d kill each other.”

“I know!” Dana immediately responded, still laughing.

Dana followed the exit off Interstate 55 for the Midway Airport. She found the area for departing flights and pulled up to the curb.

Riley turned in her seat to grab her duffle bag. She caught Dana’s sad eyes, and they stopped her cold. The two women looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, Dana reached for Riley and kissed her with passionate tenderness. Riley felt a tear splash on her cheek, and she pulled Dana into a hug.

“It’ll be okay,” Riley whispered in her friend’s ear.

“This is crazy.” She buried her face in Riley’s neck, taking in her scent, memorizing it. “I never should have let you talk me into letting you do this alone.”

The brunette joked to lighten the mood, “I thought you liked me a little crazy. And I’ll be fine. All I have to do is fake trying to go straight long enough to see if that kid Phillip is there.” She pulled back from the hug and smiled. “Besides, it works out perfectly, in a bizarre kind of way, because the kid’s aunt thinks he’s been convinced to go to this ex-gay camp.”

“Which just happens to be in your hometown where your mom recently passed away and you just happen to need to go there to settle her estate. Nope, nothing weird about that,” Dana quipped.

“Maybe there’s a divine reason for it. Who knows? I just know there’s no reason for you to traipse off to Alabama to an ex-gay camp when I have to go there anyway for my mom’s estate. I bet I’ll be there less than a week. Just long enough to go to a meeting and find out Phillip’s not there, take care of meeting the lawyer, getting the goods, then coming home,” Riley rattled it all off assuredly.

“In a way, I hope you’re right.” It was all Dana could say. Riley was determined, and if there was one thing she knew about her ex-girlfriend was that you don’t try to talk her out of whatever she’s determined to do.

Dana smiled softly and nodded. “I’m going to miss you. How long is this stupid camp again?”

“Eight very intensive weeks!” Riley shook her head in dismay that she was actually putting herself through this. “I’ll call you all the time though. Oh, that reminds me.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a check for the next two month’s rent. “Thanks for taking care of this.”

“It’s the least I can do. And you have to call me. That was the deal, remember?” Dana leaned her head to the side, resting it on the seat back as she watched Riley open the door and climb out.

Riley sighed as she lifted her duffle out of the back. “It’ll be okay,” she said again.

“Who are you trying to convince?” The blonde smirked then turned serious. “I love you.”

Riley swallowed hard. “I love you too.”

Turning from the car, she made herself walk away. She fought the desire to jump back in the car and race back to her normal life that was free of the judgment and fear she’d faced growing up. She had to do this though. Ever since she’d seen her mom’s obituary and got the letter from the lawyer, she knew she had to face the memory of her mother and her past.

The circumstances now though, combined with the potential truth of what Dana had told her over the past few weeks, only intensified the need for resolution. Riley wasn’t sure what role she was assuming in all of this – prodigal daughter, haphazard detective, or a crazy ass reporter. Maybe she was all three. Hopefully, she could keep it all straight long enough to get some answers.

When she heard the acceleration of the Corvette behind her, she knew there was no turning back. With a deep breath, she entered the terminal.

The problem with traveling, and the alone time it entailed, was that it gave Riley plenty of time to think. The world she was going to was something she really didn’t want to think about anymore. Except for what she’d read in the local Warrior newspaper, the place and the people there hadn’t crossed her mind in over six years. Unfortunately, the only other option was talking to the balding salesman sitting next to her that kept glancing over trying to check out her cleavage. Instead, she pulled out the magazine in the pocket in front of her and pretended to care about Swiss Army knives with the airplane logo that was for sale.

Sitting in the plane’s cramped window seat as it taxied down the runway, Riley stared mindlessly at the pictures in the magazine while her mind recalled the emotions and feelings of belonging in those early days at the church. Like the billowy clouds the plane thundered past in the iridescent sky, her mind drifted back in time.

The fellowship hall practically vibrated with the noise of the kids running and laughing. The multipurpose facility served as a gymnasium, a banquet hall, and Sunday School classrooms. One area in the back corner was the new daycare facility that Mrs. Janet, Riley’s Sunday School teacher, had opened a few years back. Next to it was the large kitchen that was perfect for wedding and party catering. Tonight, it was the sight for prepping burgers and hotdogs for the Fall Lock-In Party at the church.

Riley ran up to the preacher who was helping some of the deacons move extra tables out so everyone had somewhere to sit and eat. She tapped the preacher on the shoulder and he turned around smiling. “Hi, Riley!” He hugged the lanky brunette. “How are you?”

She smiled and leaned into the hug. “I’m good, Reverend John. Do you have the key for the equipment room?”

He felt around in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a set of silver keys. “Here you go!”

“Thanks! I’ll bring them right back,” she yelled as she jogged across the large hall to the room where they kept the sports equipment. Riley liked a lot of different sports, but since it was turning cold outside, she opted for something the younger kids could do inside. She picked up a basketball and volleyball. With one of her feet, she moved a kickball out of the corner and managed to somehow navigate her way back across the hall to give the keys back to the preacher.

“Are you in charge of games tonight?” He asked Riley as she came back over to him.

“Yep!”She set the other two balls to the side and did a fancy dribble behind her back with the basketball.

“Not bad!” He smiled and then smoothly intercepted the ball on a bounce, stealing it out from under her. He turned and winked playfully as he bounced the orange and black ball effortlessly. “But not quite good enough.”

She chuckled and lifted her hands up, giving a small shrug. “I let you have it. I’d hate for you to be shown up by a girl.”

The preacher nodded at her fondly and rolled the ball between his hands. “Keep working hard, Riley, and you might be onto something.”

A loud crash outside the hall made everyone turn and look. The reverend tossed the ball to Riley and jogged towards the now raised voices that could be heard beyond the double doors. Curiosity getting the best of her, Riley followed as did a few of the adults.

“That’s enough, Johnnie, knock it off! I said stop it!” Riley couldn’t make out what was happening, but she clearly saw the preacher pulling his own son, John Jr., away from another boy, who was leaning heavily against the wall with a cut on his lip.

John pushed away from his father and threw his hands up in the air. “What? I didn’t do anything!”

The older man spoke low but with clear authority. “The blood on his face says otherwise.”

A commotion from the rear of the gathering caused people to start moving aside. “What in the world is going on up here?” An attractive, petite blonde pushed her way forward, and seeing the boy bleeding on the ground, raced to his side. “Oh my goodness! Are you okay?” She checked over the boy, and when he nodded, she stood up and grabbed Johnnie by the collar. “You better get to talking right now, young man!”

“Mom!” Johnnie indignantly exclaimed. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“And what did he do so wrong that he deserved to be punched?” Reverend Porter insisted of his son.

Johnnie rolled his eyes and leaned back against the wall, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He looked down and mumbled low, “He was ragging on the team.”

“Excuse me?” His mother asked in surprise.

“But Mom, he started it!” Johnnie yelled.

“Since when is that grounds for hitting another person?” Sullenly, Johnnie looked down in embarrassment at his father’s demanding tone. “You know better than that, Johnnie. He taught us to turn the other cheek.”

Johnnie nodded, but Riley could see how he clenched his jaw in anger. “Yes, sir.”

The older man continued to speak low to his son, “You’re the leader of your team, son. They look up to you to show them the way. Fix this. You know what to do.”

Nodding again, Johnnie moved toward the other boy who was now standing again. He stretched out his hand. “I’m sorry, Robert. I shouldn’t have hit you. I hope you can forgive me.”

Robert looked between Johnnie’s parents and then back to Johnnie, skeptically. Finally, he reached out to shake hands with Johnnie. “Sure.”

John directed his wife, “Honey, why don’t you take Robert to the kitchen and get some ice for his lip?” He watched her walk off with the young man and saw Riley standing behind him. “Well, at least Sammie didn’t see that. She hates it when he gets like that.”

Riley nodded knowingly. Johnnie was known for his temper and getting into trouble. He was also charming and good at weaseling his way out of that trouble too.

Loud laughter from inside made Riley and the preacher turn around and head back into the gym area. The older man’s tired sigh next to her made Riley glance to the side. He ran his hands worriedly through his thick salt and pepper hair as he watched his son at the far end of the room. Johnnie was already laughing with his friends from the football team, his arm wrapped around the shoulder of a cute brunette in a ponytail and cheerleading uniform. The punching incident would now go down in the archives of John Porter Jr.’s many escapades.

Reverend Porter turned to Riley and gave her a tired smile. Desperate to shift the focus to something more pleasant because she truly liked the older man and felt sorry for him being burdened with a son like Johnnie, she asked about a topic that always made him smile, his youngest child Samantha, “Where is Samantha anyway? Usually she’s in the middle of everything, and I haven’t seen here yet.”

Samantha Porter was the exact opposite of her older brother - her cherubic face framed by blonde curls and set off by laughing green eyes. Just thinking about the younger woman made Riley smile.

Reverend Porter smiled genuinely as well, the thoughts of his troubled son pushed aside for the time being. “We put her on the task of helping the pre-school kids with their paper machete project.”

Riley laughed. “That should keep her busy for a while!”

“Speaking of keeping busy, let’s get those hot dogs and burgers out here! I’m starving!” He patted her on the shoulder and guided her in the direction of the kitchen.

Even though she would later come to regret being a part of Warrior First Baptist Church, as a lonely young girl, she’d been thankful for the chance to make what she viewed at the time as real friends. Over time, the lanky, dark-haired girl found a place to fit in among the other kids. While she had let go of the emotional memories evoked by her time at the church years ago, she hadn’t eradicated the lessons learned.

From the time when Riley had joined the church at eight years of age until that fateful day five years later, Mrs. Janet’s Sunday School lessons had transitioned from stories about bravery and character to morality tales meant to tame the raging hormones of normal adolescence, mirroring the real life changes of the young flock under her charge. Looking back with an adult's eye, the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Riley also began to realize that the moral lessons weren’t what kept her coming back every Sunday. It wasn’t even the joy of having a home and a place of her own within the church. It was a precocious and friendly blonde that never left her mother’s side. Samantha Porter’s smile made the hours of memorizing Bible verses or playing the role of one of the Wise Men in the Christmas play worth it. It was a thought Riley put out of her head at the time and something she hadn’t thought about since leaving for college.

Samantha Porter had been Riley’s first infatuation, but she wasn’t the one that turned Riley’s young life upside down.

When Riley was eight years old, Warrior First Baptist Church accepted a new pastor, the first in nearly forty years. Reverend John Porter was a young, handsome, and enthusiastic
preacher - the polar opposite of the man he replaced, Frank Smith. Reverend Frankie, as he was known in the community, had not only grown older but also senile. As a child Riley had heard stories of Reverend Frankie - how his family had lived for generations in Warrior and founded the church he eventually assumed. The older preacher had never had any formal education, most townsfolk didn't, but he knew the Bible word-for-word. For the locals, that was all he needed to know.

Reverend Frankie's family, however, eventually became concerned about the elderly man’s ability to continue his ministry. After wandering off twice, and one of those times being found naked and disoriented on the side of Highway 31, his wife and children decided to search for a replacement. In those days, the natural place to look was the nearest Christian college, and there was no shortage of them in the South.

With his charms, good looks, and cutting edge ideas for developing the youth base of the church, a move that would ensure the growth of members for generations to come, John Porter easily wooed the search committee.

Quick to be good to his word, Reverend Porter and his family tackled the youth segment through the local schools – with Johnnie drawing in the athletes and Samantha’s appealing to the younger crowd. Within five years of his arrival, Reverend John Porter and his family had nearly doubled church membership, a large majority of which were under the age of twenty five with young cildren.

It was in those same five years that Riley’s world shifted uncertainly beneath her.

At eighteen, she had entered the double pine doors of Warrior First Baptist Church determined that it would be for the last time, with little more than a duffle bag containing a few mementos and clothes. At the time, she reminded herself that college students didn't need luxury to succeed, only desire. Only two desires existed for Riley at that moment – to make something of her life and to escape the repression of her hometown. The next day she would leave to start a new life, but as she sat in the hard wooden pews, she had to let go of an old one. She now realized with startling irony that letting go of your past was easier said than done.

Glancing out the plane window, Riley felt her stomach knot into a sickening spasm, and she felt like running, but she couldn’t run when she was thousands of miles up in the sky hurtling through the air in a metal tube.

Riley contemplated as the plane began its descent into Birmingham her true driving force to go back to Warrior when there was nothing left for her there anymore. She had survived it once. Hopefully, she’d have just as much luck this time around.

CHAPTER 2

The road out of Warrior had been more arduous than the one coming back. Riley had vowed that she’d never return. Never say never, Riley mused. The events that transpired when she was thirteen made Riley’s pursuit of a sports scholarship impossible, so she put the same zeal and passion for sports into learning. Long hours at the local library, reading everything she could get her hands on and studying with the same drive as practicing her free throws, earned Riley a place as Warrior High’s valedictorian and a one-way ticket to freedom.

Now, the prodigal child exited the Birmingham airport and was reminded instantly why she had left. Taunting her from across the street was a huge billboard for Warrior First Baptist Church with the tagline: Spreading God's message of love to a lost world. She shook her head in disgust.

Before the tall woman could even get her bags into the Jeep, a special-request rental she splurged on every time she traveled, her cell phone started ringing. Pushing aside pleasant images of chucking the contraption into the nearest lake, she rifled through her bags until she found the sleek piece of silver.

"What?!" The oppressive Southern heat was already fraying her ragged nerves as she brushed the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead.

"What me! What you, Jacobsen! Where the hell are you?" A gruff but worried voice greeted her. She gritted her teeth and inwardly cursed herself. One of these days I'm gonna get caller ID!

"Heya, Jack, what's up?" Trying to be more nonchalant and pleasant towards her boss than she felt at the moment, she slipped into the leather seats waiting for the inevitable explosion that didn't come.

"I'll answer your question when you answer mine. Al waltzes into my office this morning to tell me that you’ll be out of the office for a while. A while is, oh, two hours. Not eight weeks." Now, Riley knew it was going to be bad because Jack was way too calm. Normally by the end of that statement he would have been yelling. He wanted to; she could hear it in the strain of his voice. She could almost envision the red splotches breaking out all over his face and neck as he tried to stay calm.

Holding the phone to her shoulder, she effortlessly pulled back her long dark hair in a ponytail then started the car. "I'm in Alabama." She held her breath waiting for it to sink in.

"Ala…what the hell’s in Alabama?” He knew a little of her story, enough to know that Alabama was the last place she’d willingly be. Then it struck him that maybe she was snooping for some crazy story again. His voice boomed through the line, “No, Riley! I told you no more shenanigans!”

Riley jerked the phone away from her ear, wincing at the volume. She cut in before he could take a breath and go on. “My family, Jack! That’s why I’m here. Well…sort of. Look, my mom died, and I have to go deal with some issues with her estate.” She didn’t bother to tell him about the camp. For now, that was between her and Dana. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Besides, she could tell from the rasp in his voice and his labored breathing that he didn’t need the stress.

“Oh…hey, kiddo, I’m sorry. Really. Why didn’t you tell me?” He sounded hurt. Jack and his wife, Patti, practically adopted Riley when she first moved to Chicago and begged him for a job.

“You know it’s not my favorite topic.” Merging onto the highway, she had to nearly yell to be heard.

“I understand. Just take care of yourself, okay?” She could hear the fatherly worry in his voice. She hated that she wasn’t completely honest with him. He was practically a father to her, and since he and Patti hadn’t had kids, she had a feeling that it was mutual.

“Thanks, Jack.” She wished more than anything that she could hug the bear of a man right then.

“No problem, kid.” She heard what sounded like a sniffle and then he was gone. She snapped the phone shut and dropped it in the passenger seat.

When she first met Jack Jessly, it had irritated her that he never said "bye," but now she knew it was part of his personality. It was an aggravating part, but a part nonetheless, and she was learning that his brusqueness was what made Jack, well, Jack. It actually made it hard to stay mad at him.

She was glad Jack hadn’t caught on about the eight week absence because she hadn’t really considered how to explain it. Nobody needed eight weeks to settle an estate!

Finding the one and only rock station in the area, she turned up the radio and took the ramp to Interstate 65. Heading north, the city turned to suburbs and eventually rolling hills of green as far as the eye could see, letting the warm wind and the scent of pine and honeysuckle transport her to another moment from her childhood. Passing the same fields she remembered as a kid, she pulled a rare memory out, one of her riding with her dad on his motorcycle. When they were out of eyesight of her mom, her dad would let her stand on his legs, while he held onto the belt loop of her jeans with one hand. It was terribly dangerous, but the edge she had for risk-taking had to be genetically predetermined. Together, father and daughter reveled in a moment of freedom that only the two of them could share.

“Hey, Bucky, come here.” Riley responded to her nickname as her dad called from the side of the lake. She stuffed the pecans she had gathered from the tree they were sitting under into her jean pockets and walked over to her dad.

He adjusted the navy ball cap he always wore to block the sun filtering through the tree branches as she stepped closer. He put a finger to his lips to silence the inevitable question from his curious daughter. Whispering quietly, he pointed out across the river, “Look, over there. Do you see it?”

The thin brunette sat down next to her dad to be at the same eye level. She started to shake her head and then gasped as she saw what he pointed at. “Is that…?”

“An owl, yeah,” he answered softly, close to her ear.

She smiled and leaned into her father. He put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s beautiful.”

He squeezed her affectionately. “Almost as beautiful as you, my Bucky.”

“Is it more beautiful than mom?” Riley asked.

“The only thing in this world more beautiful than your mom is you, baby.” He kissed the top of her head as they watched the owl slumber in peace.

There was no rush to get back home. Her mom would be at work for several more hours and then she’d probably take another two for shopping with money they didn’t have. This was their quiet time, their getaway. Sometimes her dad would bring fishing poles or sometimes little cages to catch crickets in that would be used later as bait. She hated to put them on the hook, but she loved fishing with her dad. She’d do it to spend time with him. He never treated her like a kid or like she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. She liked that a lot. He was the one that encouraged her to play sports and get dirty. Her mom called him a “bad influence” on her, and it had been the source of many fights between her parents. So, Riley and her dad simply took to having quality time when her mom wasn’t around to question it.

Her parents were like night and day. Sometimes Riley wondered how they ever managed to get along much less love each other enough to get married. The question of how they met had been on the tip of her tongue a lot lately, but the time never seemed right. She really wanted to know though.

“So, um, dad?” She started.

“Yeah?” He brushed an ant off her pants leg and waited for the question.

“Why do you love mom?” He gave her a surprised but amused look. For a moment, he looked like he wanted to laugh, the edges of his blue eyes crinkling with reserved mirth. That wasn’t the best way to ask so Riley tried again, “I mean, what made you fall in love with her?”

He pulled up a blade of grass and shredded it between his fingers as he thought. “Well, there’s the obvious – she’s absolutely stunning. It was more than her good looks though. She made me laugh and forget my troubles. There was something about her that made me want to be a better man, and there were small moments when she’d smile or laugh that I couldn’t imagine a day without her in it.”

Riley couldn’t fathom why but she felt incredibly saddened by what her father described. It was like a sadness gripped her heart and squeezed. She swallowed and forced down the feeling. “Is it still like that?”

He looked at her somberly. “Sometimes. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand one day.”

Silence stretched between them. She could feel his eyes still on her, but she didn’t look up. “Why do you ask? Is this about a…boy?”

She bumped him with her shoulder, playfully. “Dad!”

“What? It’s a legitimate question.” He laughed at her embarrassment yet relieved that he didn’t have to worry about cleaning his shotgun anytime soon.

She was smiling but he sensed her own sadness. “No, there’s no boy.”

For a long moment, he looked at her. There was more to the story than what his daughter was letting on. A part of him was aching to ask, but she was so young. Certainly, she wouldn’t have any ideas like that yet. There was something about her posture though, like she was hurting and trying not to show it. He gave the best response he could at that moment and hoped it would be enough for her young wounded heart.

“There doesn’t have to be a boy. I won’t love you any less.” He wrapped his arm around her again and having her trapped, he broke the tension by tickling her ribs.

Squirming and squealing, Riley struggled to get away. She laughed with joy, not just because of her dad’s antics, but because she felt truly loved in that moment.

Swiping at the tears running down her face, she pulled off the road to get herself together.

"Bastard," she growled loudly to no one.

"Excuse me?" Riley nearly jumped out of her skin. Lost in her melancholy, she didn't hear the other car pull up beside her. A blonde head poked out of the window, holding a hand up to shade her eyes.

"Sorry, just thinking," Riley apologized. The blonde tilted her head to the side, looking at the dark-haired woman with scrutinizing eyes, a soft smile curling her lips.

"It is you…Riley Jacobsen." The petite blonde quickly slipped out of the car. "It's interesting to have you back in town. I'll be honest, I never expected it to happen." She crossed her arms as she walked over to the Jeep and studied Riley.

When she looked over the names of the incoming group, Riley's name jumped out at her. She couldn’t believe it was really her. After looking back through their high school yearbooks and Googling her name for reassurance, the mystery was solved. Small town girl goes bad, runs away to the big city to live a life of sin and debauchery, her mom dies, the guilt eats at her until she decides to change her ways. At least that was the rumor all over town. She had seen similar scenarios played out many times over the last several years, but she didn’t put much stock in hearsay.

Riley felt uneasy under the woman’s curious gaze and teasing smile. "Yeah, well, I better get going."

"Sorry! Where are my manners? You probably don’t remember me since I was behind you in school. I’m Samantha Porter, but everyone just calls me Sam," she said and held out her hand to Riley.

Riley was lost for a moment in the playful, green eyes that bore into her with a touch of amusement. The feeling unnerved Riley, and she wish she could wipe the teasing smirk off the blonde’s face. Breaking eye contact, she stared down momentarily at the small hand that had been thrust towards her. Finally, she gave in and took it in a firm shake. "And some call you the perfect little preacher's daughter. Yeah, I remember you too."

"Some still call me that, and it usually has that same bitter tone too.” Sam was still holding Riley’s hand from shaking it, and she finally noticed that she had neglected to let go.

Chuckling nervously, she tucked a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear. “Well, you're in luck, Riley. I'm the church welcome wagon. Follow me and I'll show you where you're staying," Without even looking back, Sam ran back to jump in her car and drove ahead of Riley down the road.

Taking a deep breath, Riley shifted the Jeep into gear. "Well, this should be interesting."

Sam watched from her rearview mirror, contemplating her memory of Riley with the woman here now. Aside from adding a few years to her face, she looked exactly the same – dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and legs that seemed to never end. Riley was three years ahead of Sam in school, but Sam distinctly remembered her first memory of the other woman – a weekend youth retreat to the beach that her dad called “Fun with the Son.” The slogan still made her groan at its ridiculousness. She seriously doubted that worshiping God was the primary thought on the minds of the teenagers on the trip.

Riley was the type of girl that didn’t know she was gorgeous. She covered it up in worn jeans and baggie t-shirts or the uniform of whatever current sport she was playing. When she came out of the beach house in a royal blue two-piece bathing suit though, everyone noticed. The guys openly ogled her and the girls talked about her behind her back. For the girls it was jealousy and fear that Riley would steal their boyfriends. Up until then, Riley had very few female friends. The only one that ever got close enough to Riley was a girl that moved in from out of state, Susie Graham. For years, Sam considered Riley snobby, and she didn’t bother trying to get to know her. Yet, she thought Susie was the luckiest girl in the world.

Unbeknownst to Riley or anyone else, Sam watched the brunette secretly. At school, she went out of her way to go down the hallway where the upper classmen’s lockers were located just to see Riley. She usually made an excuse about needing to tell John something or ask him for a pencil. She had thought about slipping a note in the older girl’s locker, but she wasn’t sure what she’d say anyway so she changed her mind. At church, it wasn’t as hard to catch glances at her from the choir loft. Even thinking back on it now, Sam broke into a smile remembering how Riley became so animated and happy when they sang hymns at church. It was so different from the reserved image the older girl projected to the world.

The older Sam got, the more fascinating Riley became to her. That weekend at the beach Riley was particularly mesmerizing with her dark hair falling in a shiny braid down her back and her skin glowing in the sunlight. At least the girls from the church agreed on one thing, Riley made the perfect pick for the girls versus guys’ game of beach volleyball. With her long legs, she effortlessly spiked ball after ball.

Driving down the road, Sam chuckled at the memory of that game.

Johnnie glowered at Riley’s back as she turned away and high-fived Sharon Johnson. The sting of the ball Riley spiked radiating throughout his shoulder.

Sharon, who dated Johnnie’s best friend Caleb, taunted from the girl’s side of the net. “Come on! I thought you were big, tough men. You’re not gonna let a girl do that to you, are you?”

Sharon leaned across the net closer to Johnnie, who was still pampering his bruised ego. “Besides, I think she likes you.”

Caleb laughed and gave him a chuck on the shoulder, “How many girls does that make for you this week alone, Johnnie? Three…four?”

An idea began to form in John’s mind and he smirked across the net at Riley, who was oblivious to the conversation as she waited at the line to serve. She yelled to the other girl, “Quit flirtin’, Sharon! Let’s go!”

Later that night on the beach, they sat by the fire and sang hymns. John tried to coax Riley off for a walk, but she found one excuse after another to stay near the fire. Sam remembered spending a lot of time watching Riley, but not really sure why. There was a strange aura around her. She didn’t follow the lead of the other girls. She didn’t babble over boys and makeup, yet she seemed quietly content with herself, almost…confident, as if she didn’t need the usual social trappings to feel at ease. Sam was…intrigued.

Sam’s smile dropped thinking about the day everything changed for all of them, especially Riley. Watching from the periphery, the events that unfolded in Riley’s life had a long-term impact on Sam and the course her own life took. Within a few days, Riley became a shell of the girl she once knew. The change had come on a surprisingly chilly October evening. Sam had been sitting at dinner with her parents and John, when the doorbell rang.

Her dad answered the door, ready to politely send whoever it was away. “Yes, may I help you?”

Painful sobs carried past the door before anyone heard a voice, “You…you don’t know me, but my daughter goes to your church.”

Fearing the worst, like the death of a child, her father immediately ushered the woman in and invited her to sit on the couch. Sam’s mom, realizing the gravity of the situation, told Sam to go to her room.

“Honey, go upstairs.”

Sam could see who it was now. She had seen the older brunette, her hair lightly streaked with gray, sometimes picking Riley up after church. It was impossible not to notice the older woman because she was simply an older version of Riley.

This time though, the woman was alone - the dark-haired girl was nowhere in sight. Sam couldn’t bring herself to leave the room. Her heart clinched in a palpable ache. Something was terribly wrong. Fear gripped at her, and she was paralyzed, unable to move from her chair.

“Samantha, listen to your mother. Go.” Her father was more forceful, and Sam instinctively stood and walked to the steps leading upstairs. It didn’t occur to her then that it was odd that John got to stay. She climbed the stairs in a daze, but as she reached her bedroom door, she stopped with her hand on the door knob. She couldn’t just walk away and ignore what was happening. She had to know what was wrong. She opened the door to her bedroom and then closed it again without going in. Slumping against the wall across from her door where she could huddle in the shadows, she listened to the conversation.

“Who’s your daughter, ma’am?” her father gently directed the woman to continue.

“Riley…Jacobsen,” she barely got the name out before breaking down in sobs again.

“Please, Mrs. Jacobsen, start from the beginning. Is she okay? Is she hurt?” The preacher pleaded.

The woman chuckled in a way that sent shivers down Sam’s spine. She had heard a laugh like that once before when her father took her to visit her Aunt Mae in the hospital.

“She’s not hurt…not yet, and I doubt she’s okay, not anymore. I just…I don’t know what I did wrong. She didn’t learn about stuff like this from me! This…filth! This… perversity.” The words were sputtered from her mouth as if the very sound of them made her sick. Sam crouched deeper into the shadows. She didn’t like where this was going. The more Mrs. Jacobsen talked, the more exposed Sam felt, and she found herself trying to curl into a tighter ball in the darkness.

Her father kept a soft, soothing tone, “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. You’ve done the best you can. Sometimes you have to leave them in God’s hands.”

She came back with a soft, defeated voice, “I don’t want her to burn in hell, Reverend. She’s my daughter, and of course, I love her. But, that’s what’s going to happen to her, isn’t it? That’s what we’re told in the Bible…in Leviticus.”

She could hear her father release a defeated sigh, as if he knew already what Riley’s mom was going to say. Sam could hear the heartbreak in his voice as it cracked with emotion. “We’re told a lot of things in Leviticus. What did she do?”

“I don’t want to say it. It’ll make it real, and I don’t want to believe it. I don’t want to believe my own flesh and blood is a pervert.” Sam could practically see the older woman shaking her head in disbelief.

“If we name it, we bring it out of the dark and take away sin’s power. We can’t fight it if we can’t call out the demon by name. What is your daughter’s sin?” Her father’s voice had taken on his official spiritual air of authority. He sounded like he did in the pulpit. Sam had an urge to cover her ears. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear this, but she couldn’t stop herself from listening.

There was a stretch of interminable silence, only broken by occasional sniffles from Riley’s mom, and now that Sam was really tuned in, she could hear the weeping of her own mother, before Mrs. Jacobsen finally spoke in a deadly calm, “Homosexuality.”

Her father took a deep breath before speaking, “Mrs. Jacobsen, I’m so sorry this has happened to you, and I’m sorry that you have to endure this pain. The good news is that Christ can fix anything, if He deems it broken, and nothing is too broken for Him. There is no evil strong enough to defeat a mother strengthened by the love of Christ. Do you want to save Riley?”

“Yes, of course.” Her voice was incredulous that he’d ask her such a thing, then just as fast it became angry and hard, “It was that no-good father of hers. He always indulged her, letting her act like a tomboy with playing sports and all. Then he left us and left me to deal with this mess.”

Sam’s father sighed again before speaking, “Mrs. Jacobsen, we can’t undo the past, but we can fix the future. You must show strong leadership for your daughter and encourage her back to the right path. But, you can only do that by example. You must give yourself to Christ and thank Him for this opportunity to serve His will through your daughter.”

Sam wasn’t sure what was happening. There was no sound except the quiet crying of the two mothers in the room.

A deep sadness washed over Sam, and she brushed at the tears that were now falling down her cheeks. She wasn’t sure if the sadness was for Riley’s mom or for Riley herself. It could have even been for her. Hearing the confession of Riley’s mom struck something within her that was familiar yet alien. For such a great evil, she was surprised she had never heard of homosexuality until that night, but the word didn’t scare her. However, to hear her own mother crying in pained sympathy for another mother of a child afflicted by this evil did scare her. She didn’t want to hurt her mother like Riley’s mom was hurting. She didn’t want to hear her father speak of her as a perversion. Whatever this sin of homosexuality was, one thing was for certain Sam was never going to take part in it.

Hearing the mumbled beginnings of prayer, Sam slinked over to her bedroom door and quietly entered. In the dark, she prayed for Riley.

Sam glanced in the mirror as she approached the house Riley would be staying in. She pulled to the curb and waited for her to park. So many things were starting to make sense. Looking back now, she could even see why John developed an almost obsessive interest in Riley during high school. It would be interesting to see how he would react to having Riley there. For her part, Sam hoped she could just make this experience as painless as possible for the broken woman. Maybe Riley just needed a good friend.

******

Riley had followed Sam at a reasonable distance trying to keep the dust and dirt from coating her in a fresh layer of travel grime. After passing through a row of trees, the fields opened up to neatly manicured lawns and row after row of white fence guarding nearly identical prefab houses. The houses looked fairly new and a couple still had red clay in the front yards instead of seed grass.

At the end of the road, a familiar white steeple rose high in the sky, reaching for the unattainable. As if on command, Riley felt her stomach tighten with the uneasy roll of nausea. Slowing to a stop behind Sam’s car at the third house on the right, Riley slipped her shades off. Climbing out, she rounded the front of the Jeep.

Sam practically leapt from the car, beaming a bright white smile. "Home sweet home!"

"You’re kidding me, right? This isn't exactly a vacation in Tahiti for me, ya know?" The dark-haired woman cut into the petite blonde with ice blue eyes, and Sam had the decency to look away, realizing her faux pas.

"Well, guess we better get you settled in then." The blonde moved past Riley to the back of the Jeep, reaching in to tug the duffle bag out.

"We? There's no 'we' in this." Riley followed her and took the duffle bag from Sam's hand then turned in the direction of the house. She knew she was being unreasonably terse with Sam. She couldn’t even really put her finger on why she was feeling so hostile toward the blonde. Too many memories? Too much pain? Guilt by association? Whatever the reason, Riley knew Sam didn’t deserve it.

In her urge to make things better for Riley, Sam seemed to only be making it worse. She tried a softer approach and placed her hand on Riley’s forearm. She swallowed at the tall woman’s hard look, but she endeavored to push forward. She put everything she knew of the other woman aside and tried speaking with honesty, "Riley, you can't expect to do this on your own. What you’re dealing with is a struggle, probably one of the hardest ones you’ll ever face, but you’re going to need friends while you’re here. I’d like to be that for you."

The blue eyes riveted on the gentle hand before rising to bore again into soft green. Riley raised one dark eyebrow and leaned in a little to get her message across. “That’s probably not a good idea.”

The switch in Riley’s tone from stern to sultry made Sam suddenly realize how her unassuming touch could be interpreted and pulled away quickly. The tingling in her fingertips from the brief touch made her rub her hands together. "I just mean that we're here to help you, Riley. That's all. Let me help."

Riley sighed and stretched to her full six feet. She was disarmed by the sincerity in the blonde's eyes, but there was too much at stake to let emotions get in the way. She pushed down her desire to accept the younger woman’s offer of friendship. That time in her life had come and gone. She had a job to do, a friend to help, and she couldn’t let the ghosts of her past deter her.

"Maybe some other time." Riley adjusted her duffle bag onto her shoulder and began to walk up the path to the house.

For some reason, Sam couldn’t stand the thought of Riley walking away, and she thought of the first thing that came to her mind. “Good. I’m gonna need some help with something, and I’m volunteering you.”

"Excuse me?" Riley stopped mid-step, turning to give Sam an incredulous look. “I guess you can’t take a hint.”

“You don’t have to be so hostile with me. I didn’t do anything wrong to you.” Sam shuffled her feet and looked down at her tennis shoes, wondering at her sudden compulsion to weasel her way into Riley’s good graces. She had never acted like this with any of the other camp members in the past. "Actually, it’s part of the treatment – developing a feeling of family and community outside of the gay lifestyle. Anyway, the July 4th celebration will be in less than a month and our church always puts on a picnic for the community, and I could use the help.”

"And…?" A dark eyebrow rose high waiting.

Sam felt her stomach flip lazily at Riley’s facial gesture. She cleared her throat and nervously tucked a runaway strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, would you mind helping me?”

Riley crossed her arms and shrugged. “Why should I help you?”

The blonde rubbed with frustration at her forehead. “Look, if it’s not this, it’ll just be some other community project and at least I’m not a tyrant. But if you would rather pick up dog poo in the park, don’t let me get in your way!”

Riley shook her head. It was like Sam was willingly oblivious. “After all that went down when we were kids, do you really expect me to be nice?”

Sam was becoming angry with stubborn woman. “Then why did you come here? There are other facilities you could have gone to.”

A little stumped by the question because her emotions were overriding her ability to be logical and focused, Riley closed her eyes to give her a moment to get back on track. “I had to take care of my mom’s estate issues anyway…thanks to your church. I guess it’s a way to kill two birds with one stone.”

The blonde looked up into Riley’s sad face. The hurt and loss in Riley’s eyes clinched at her own heart. “So, you really are here to change.”

Clearing her throat, Riley looked up and away. “Yeah, I kind of made a mess of my life, messed up things with my family. The least I can do is try…for my mom. Look, um, I can get settled in fine, but if you need help with that thing you’re doing, sure…I’ll help.”

If the sun hadn't already been high in the sky, Sam's smile would have lit up the entire encampment. "Great! I'll call you sometime this week; give you a chance to get settled!"

Before Riley could respond, Sam hopped in her car and sped off down the street. She forcefully racked her fingers through her hair and pulled down her ponytail in the process. She turned to go in the house then realized she didn't get the key from Sam.

"Crap!" She leaned her head against the cool metal door and fumbled hopelessly with the handle. Suddenly, the door gave way, causing Riley to stumble into a small foyer.

Riley climbed back to her feet. Looking closer at the handle, she narrowed her eyes. "No keys and no lock. Fabulous. Yep, this is going to be interesting." She kicked the door closed with her foot and mumbled, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?"

CHAPTER 3

Sam felt anxious yet exhilarated as she pulled away from the curb. While she mentally congratulated herself for getting Riley to let down her guard, even just a little bit, it felt like a hollow victory. The verbal sparring with the older woman had set Sam on edge. She had an urge to do something, but she wasn’t sure what. The girl Sam thought she had known wasn’t anything like the woman before her. The seemingly confident young woman who walked away from all she had known and refused to apologize or look back had become someone lost and grasping for hope. At the moment, she couldn’t explain it, but she had an urge to shake Riley out of her melancholy and scream at her to fight.

When her cell phone rang, she chanced a glance at the caller ID, having a good idea who was on the other end.

“Hi, Bobby.”

Even though they had only been dating six months, Sam had known Bobby McIntyre since her family had moved to Warrior over ten years ago. They had been friends, hanging out at the church and doing random group things with the other kids, long before he dared to ask her out. The assumption through school had been that Bobby would be one of the few who would make it out of their small town. A basketball scholarship to the University of Alabama confirmed it. A huge party was thrown at the church for Bobby before he left for college, and Sam remembered the two of them talking long into the night about their hopes and dreams. Bobby was so thankful that he wouldn’t end up at the steel factory like most of the men from their town.

Unfortunately, in his first outing on the court, a forward from Florida State mowed him down trying to get to the ball before it went out of bounds. Bobby and the other player went one way. Bobby’s knee went the other. That fall ended his chances at the pros or anything else, so he came back and started working at his dad’s car shop until he could figure out what to do next. It was then that he gathered up his nerve to ask her out on a date. The date wasn’t fancy; just a simple night out at a chain restaurant and a movie afterwards. Bobby had been sweet and respectful. It took him a whole month to chance holding her hand and another two months to kiss her goodnight.

He didn’t push, and Sam didn’t encourage him. And she was fine with that.

“Hey, beautiful! How’s your day shapin’ up?” Sam parked her car in the driveway at her house and struggled to hold onto her phone, keys, and grocery bag at the same time.

“Not bad, I guess. I ran into a camp guest on the way back from the grocery store and had to show her where she was staying.” Sam jimmied the front door open and put everything down on the kitchen counter with a sigh. She looked at the clock and realized she needed to get started on supper so it would be ready when John got home.

“So, it was one of those people in the program?” Sam ignored his long-suffering sigh on the other end.

“Yeah.” Sam rifled through the refrigerator and found the condiments for making hamburgers. She hadn’t told Bobby about Riley being in the program. It really wasn’t her place to say even though he knew Riley. The knowledge wasn’t something she wanted to share with him.

“Why can’t Johnnie do some of that? What does his lazy ass do all day?” Bobby grumped.

His dislike of Sam’s brother was well-known. They had played football together, and John had enjoyed embarrassing him every chance he got. It was petty jealousy on her brother’s part. Bobby was the town’s golden boy who could do no wrong and John hated him for it. When Bobby got hurt in college and had to come home, John had gloated incessantly for over a week.

Bobby had strove to be the bigger man, overlooking John’s hateful comments. Sam had a feeling he did it for her sake. Bobby had complained more than once that if it wasn’t for her everything would fall apart. She didn’t doubt that, but it wouldn’t change the fact that she had no other options. She just kept putting one foot in front of the other.

“There’s no sense in complaining about it. Nothing’s going to change even if I say something,” she said as she put a frying pan on the stove.

She could hear him sigh on the other end. “I guess so. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

She wrinkled her nose and smiled, even though he couldn’t see it. “I know. And you know I appreciate it, right?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “So, do you want to do something tonight?”

Sam looked at the clock again before answering, “Bobby, I’d love to, but tonight’s not a good night. I just finished running a bunch of errands for supplies and food. I have to start dinner, and then I have to check on dad and…”

He cut her off before she really got going, “Whoa! Hang on there. Tell you what, forget dinner. I’ll stop by the diner on the way in and bring enough food for a small army. You go check on your dad. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

“Well, I can hardly refuse that, now can I? You’re too good to me.” Sam heard his chuckle and could tell he was smiling. The thought of it made her smile too. He really was one of the best people she knew.

“That’s my job. See you later. Love you!”

Before Sam could react, Bobby had hung up. The dial tone buzzed in her ear like one of those annoying gnats that wouldn’t go away. She put the phone down and scrubbed her hands over her face. That was the third time he had said those words lately. She had yet to say them back, and she felt sad and guilty about that.

She spared an irritated glance at the dirty bowls John had left in the sink. Closing her eyes, she groaned in frustration. There were other more important matters to tend to at the moment. She didn’t have time for romantic drama.

A lot of women in town would welcome the chance for that kind of drama with Bobby. After all, he was a prime catch, even if he hadn’t finished college. Tall and gentle, with boy-next-door good looks – the wavy dirty blonde hair and brilliant white smile easily making him mistaken for some California surfer. Any other woman would have squealed with delight and called her best friend to brag. Sam wasn’t any other woman though. There were no best friends to gossip with, and she wasn’t sure if she would even if she had one. She was just Sam, and her life was complicated enough as it was without this.

******

Riley glanced around the nondescript house. The eat-in kitchen was small but filled with the necessities, even a coffee pot, which made the brunette smile. A modest living room led to two sliding glass doors that looked out over a deck and tiny backyard. In the distance, she could see the edge of the river that ran along the edge of the small town. Riley sighed. It was livable but it definitely wasn’t home.

Heading down the short hallway, she found the bedroom and threw her duffle on the floral print full sized bed before heading to the bathroom. She chuckled at the subtleties of the house. A full size bed? Barely enough room for one person, much less anyone else. Not that Riley had any intentions of needing room for anyone else, but still, it made her laugh. A simple black, leather-bound Bible sat on the bedside table, and a cross hung over the bed.

She checked out the kitchen and found the refrigerator already stocked up with basics – bread, cheese, water, milk and lunch meat. Riley’s stomach growled at the sight since she hadn’t had anything to eat on the plane. Reaching into the refrigerator, she pulled out the items to make a turkey sandwich and got to work on it. When she finished and put everything back, she walked over to the couch. She picked up the remote as she sat down to get comfortable and turned on the TV, ready to settle down for a little relaxation after a long and already stressful day.

After clicking the channel button a few times, Riley glared at the small flat screen in frustration. “Seriously? No cable?” There went her chances to even watch bad soft porn on Cinemax! Without thinking, the lanky woman set her plate on the wooden coffee table in front of her and took a shortcut over the back of the couch. She came back with her laptop and plopped back down on the couch.

“Guess I’ll have to entertain myself then.”

It took a few minutes to get the wireless to pick up, and Riley breathed a sigh of relief when the Internet connected. In a few clicks, the order had been placed. She estimated that with delivery time it would arrive after the first group session, exactly when she’d probably need it the most. Opening her email and opting to ignore anything work-related at the moment, she sent a quick message to Dana.

“You suck! I can’t believe I agreed to this. *kisses* I’ll call you later.”

She played around on the Internet for another hour, but eventually got bored so she pulled out her notepad and started taking notes on her experience thus far. She wanted to write it down while it was still fresh. In fact, she made a mental note to start journaling her experiences. While she wasn’t officially at the camp for a story, that didn’t mean she couldn’t keep a journal.

By the time she was finished writing and there was nothing but crumbs on her plate, it was only seven o’clock. She was already bored out of her mind. She killed some more time cruising around CNN’s website before finally closing her computer all together. By then, it was only seven thirty. Tapping her fingers against her knee in a bored rhythm, she eventually gave up for the night and clicked the TV back on to mindlessly watch the Miss America pageant. It was the best thing on.

“Someone shoot me now.”

********

The room was dimly lit by the bleeping of the heart monitor in the corner. Sam walked over and turned it down a little so her dad could get a good night’s sleep. The morphine drip more or less ensured that would be the case, but she wanted to be sure. She checked his IV and diaper. When she realized he would be good for a few more hours, she kissed his forehead, automatically checking for fever with her touch.

She let out the breath she had been holding at the feel of his cool, dry skin.

She brushed the graying and nearly non-existent hair out of his eyes. She tried not to think about him giving her piggy back rides or teaching her to swim in the lake. To think about the way he used to be hurt too much. After her mom had died, he tried desperately to continue on, but it seemed like from the day they put her mom in the ground, John Porter, Sr. had slowly begun to wither away and die too.

Sam had always been amazed at the depth of love her parents had for each other. They laughed and joked with each other, and once Sam even caught them necking like teenagers on the sofa. Her young teenage mind at the time couldn’t stomach it and begged them to stop damaging her fragile sensibilities. She had heard of love like that existing though. That two people could be so connected that when one dies, the other soon follows, as if the two souls couldn’t exist apart. Not for the first time, she wondered if she’d ever find a love like that.

Hearing the back door open and then close downstairs, she straightened unnecessarily around her father’s room. No one except the nurse that came by once a day to check in on him ever entered her father’s room.

With a sigh, Sam wandered back downstairs to see Bobby standing in the kitchen. He had come through the back door as he had become accustomed to doing in recent months and made himself at home. She stood on one of the stairs and watched him move around the kitchen with ease, realizing this is what it would be like if they were to marry. Perhaps she was jumping the gun by worrying about marriage proposals, but she had tried to ignore for too long Bobby’s lingering and tender looks and how he had gradually become more and more affectionate towards her. At this point, she should be smiling and getting little warm and fuzzy feelings in her stomach, maybe even imagining a couple of kids running around his feet screaming and tugging on him. But she didn’t. All she saw was year after year of the same scenario, the same lackluster feeling greeting her.

Certainly this wasn’t how her mom and dad had felt towards each other. It wasn’t a feeling that made her want to giggle and make out on a couch with Bobby, that’s for sure.

He turned and spied her on the stairs. “Hey, baby. Come on, I got your favorite, that Hawaiian pizza you like with extra pineapple.” He walked up to her and pulled her into a strong but gentle hug, before kissing the top of her head. “How’s your dad doing?”

She smiled at him wearily and accepted the assumed hug. Pulling back, she stuffed her hands into her pockets and leaned against the countertop. “He’s fine. Today was a good day for him.”

Bobby sprinkled a little extra parmesan cheese on her pizza, just the way she liked it, and set her plate at the kitchen table. He came back over and ran a gentle hand over her cheek. “I’m so glad to hear that, baby. But it’s time now to sit and relax for a bit. Come on, everything’s ready.”

Sam fought to put on a smile, but she felt like crumbling inside. When he pulled out a chair for her, she wordlessly sat down. Bobby really was a good guy, and she felt nothing for him other than friendship. The frightening truth of it took her breath away. She watched as he poured her some soda, and realizing he forgot to get her a straw, because that’s the way she liked it, he jumped up to get her one. He smiled at her sweetly over his slice of pizza before taking a bite. She lifted her own and made herself take a bite. Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry anymore.

*****

A knock at the door startled Riley from her slumber, causing her to nearly fall off the couch. Looking around in shock, she tried to place where she was at. When recognition kicked in, she remembered falling asleep on the couch to an old Andy Griffith episode. She struggled to her feet and stumbled into the end of the couch.

“Ow! Shit!” She rubbed the spot where her thigh had hit the couch and limped toward the front door.

She smacked her lips trying to rid herself of the bale of cotton in her mouth as she headed towards the front door. The knock came again, longer and more fervently than before.

“Hold ya horses, I’m coming!” She flung the door open to glaring sunshine. Disoriented and now temporarily blinded, the brunette had a hard time focusing on the knocking irritation. “Yeah, what?”

“Good morning to you too, Riley.” Sam smiled far too brightly for so early.

“Don’t tell me, you’re a morning person.” She placed a hand above her eyes and squinted.

“Not really, but I realized after I left yesterday that I forgot to give you this.” The perky blonde stretched out a hand holding what appeared to be a large gift bag, complete with bow and frilly ribbon.

Riley leaned back suspiciously. “My birthday was last month, what’s this?” She gingerly took it by the handle.

“Since I’m the welcome wagon, this is the customary welcome package. There’s information in there on the program, a rule book, dates for different events, group meetings, special speakers, and such. Oh, and some books you are required to read for group.” Riley shook her head at Sam smiling up at her before turning to walk back inside.

“It’s too early for this. I need coffee.” She plopped the bag recklessly down on the kitchen counter before pilfering in the cabinets for sustenance. When she looked up, Sam was still standing in the doorway watching her.

“So much for a quiet, peaceful morning to myself,” she mumbled under her breath. Turning back to the blonde, she offered a fake smile, “Would you care to join me for some coffee, Sam?”

From the grin that broke out on Sam’s face, you would have thought Riley had just surprised her with a puppy on Christmas morning. “I’d love to!” She slid onto the stool at the counter, “I’m not usually up this early but so much has to be done to get ready for the first group session.”

Riley grunted but didn’t turn around. Sam tapped her fingers on the countertop. Looking around the living room, which was really pointless considering she knew exactly what each house looked like but it gave her something to do, she waited while the dark-haired woman set up the coffee to brew. “I guess you’re not a morning person, huh?”

“Gee, whatever made you think that,” Riley intoned flatly and pressed the button to start the coffeepot. Turning, she saw the hurt look on the Sam’s face. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

A slight almost shy grin came back to Sam’s face. “No problem.”

“Yes, it is. I’ve been a jerk. I shouldn’t take my issues out on you.” Taking a deep breath, Riley changed the subject. “So, what’s on the agenda for this group thing?” The brunette was going to try valiantly to be hospitable to the younger woman. It wasn’t her fault that being home was stirring up emotions Riley had long pushed away. Simply breathing the same humid air again made her stomach twist with nausea. Even the air was oppressive. She opened the refrigerator to get the cream out and set it on the counter in front of Sam.

“It’s all in the bag.” Sam motioned to the discarded item, “but we’ll start with introductions then probably have a rundown of the program, the expectations, rules, goals…things like that.” Riley slid the cream and sugar over to Sam, followed by a hot cup of coffee that had just finished percolating. The blonde stared at the proffered items strangely.

“What?”

“Can I have some sweetener?”

Riley scrunched her eyebrows up and poked at the container of sugar.

Sam snickered, “No, not sugar. Sweetener.”

Riley practically slapped her own forehead. “Oh! THAT kind of sweetener.” She reached behind her to grab the box then slid it across the counter. “Yeah, here you go.”

Sam grabbed three packages, tore them open, and poured them in her cup. The taller woman felt a tad queasy just watching the amount Sam put in her cup. It must have shown because when the blonde looked up she laughed.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…really. Sure you don’t want a little coffee with your sweetener?”

“Oh yeah? Well at least mine doesn’t have any calories.” The blonde leaned smugly back in her chair.

“Maybe, but at least I’m not starting early trying to preserve my body for science,”
Riley shot back as she prepped her own cup of coffee.

“Haha, you may not be a morning person, but you sure are a smartass.” The unexpected profanity from Sam made Riley practically spit her coffee out.

“My, my, what would your daddy say if he heard that kind of language from you?” Riley had to admit that she was enjoying the banter passing between them. In spite of their rough start yesterday and her obvious irritation with being awakened at an ungodly hour, she was enjoying Sam’s company.

The smirk on the brunette’s face, however, quickly disappeared when she noticed the dark look come over Sam’s face. The blonde had a death grip on her coffee mug and was staring into the creamy liquid.

“Hey, it’s okay. I was only joking. It’s not like you offended me or anything.” The sudden serious turn bothered Riley. Sam wouldn’t look at her so she reached for her hand only to have Sam jerk away at the last minute.

“I better go. Thanks for the coffee. I’ll see you in group tomorrow.”

Riley watched in stunned silence as Sam made a quick exit. “What the hell?”

*****

Sam rubbed away the tears that were finally beginning to subside. When Riley had mentioned Sam’s father, she was hit hard by emotions she usually kept to herself. There were very few people in town that knew the seriousness of her father’s illness. For her father’s sake, she tried to be strong and respect his dignity.

As she sat on the lake dock, Sam kicked herself for the way she had acted toward Riley. The older woman had no idea why Sam had reacted that way. She probably thought Sam was some nut.

Thinking back through the short conversation, Sam suddenly gasped then groaned. “Oh God, she touched me, and I jerked away! She probably thinks I freaked because I thought she hit on me.”

She ran her hands through her hair and sat back. “Well, this is gonna make things awkward!”

CHAPTER 4

The alarm blared far too early for Riley. She stumbled out of the small bed, cramped and stiff from having her long legs pulled up all night on the short mattress, and bumped the doorframe leading into the bathroom with her shoulder.

“Son of a bitch!” She rubbed at her shoulder and glared at the doorframe as if doing so would make it cower into submission.

She fought to open her eyes under the harsh fluorescent lights and made a face at herself in the mirror. “Welcome to your first day in hell, Jacobsen.”

In the kitchen she added a little extra to her scoop of coffee. She felt like she’d need it today since it was the first group meeting. She wandered back to her bedroom and grabbed the first pair of jeans she found in her duffle and a rumpled David Bowie t-shirt. She had five minutes to get to the meeting so she quickly pulled her hair back in a ponytail and slipped on her worn baseball cap before heading out with her coffee mug in hand.

Walking down the neatly trimmed sidewalk towards the church, she mused that life like this was easier in some ways. At least she didn’t have to remember to lock up or worry about locking herself out of the house now. Of course, that meant she kept her ID and credit cards with her at all times and took the extra step to change the encryption on her laptop and phone. She may have been born in the country, but she was refined by the city. In the city, danger could come head on. Out here, you never knew where danger resided. Even more so considering the situation she found herself in.

But the true bonus…no makeup. After all, there was no one to impress and this wasn’t business. Hell, no makeup and no heels either! Those two things alone could make this adventure into hell worthwhile!

******

The meeting house was set off to the side of the church. It was a basic warehouse style building with the only sign as to its current purpose being a simple sheet of computer paper taped to the inside of the door that read “Real Life Program.” The large aluminum building was in the same location as the church’s old recreation center, but it definitely wasn’t the same building. Glancing to the right of the double doors, she noticed that the name plate was different. The engraved plaque now read “Peterson Christian Life Center” where it had at one time simply been the recreation center. There wasn’t even a need to put a formal name on it. Everyone knew the building belonged to the church.

With a deep sigh, Riley opened the door and went inside. The crisp chill of the air conditioning hit her and made her shiver since the walk to the church had caused her to break into a sweat already.

Directly in front of her, down a short hallway, stood a fold-out table with a laminated sign on it saying “Check In.” The Hilton this was not, Riley mused. Two gray-haired ladies sat at the table, and they smiled at her kindly as she approached.

As she got closer, a pair of familiar brown eyes scrutinized her before recognition dawned. It was Mrs. Peterson, her tenth grade English teacher, the woman who had encouraged her love of reading and writing. If she had to attribute anyone with her becoming a journalist, it was Mrs. Peterson. She had worked for The Warrior Way part-time while teaching and told her students of her love for her “other” job. She had a way of telling it so it sounded far more exciting and glamorous than it probably was. Looking back on it, Riley couldn’t imagine that there was a whole lot of scandalous and riveting news happening in Warrior, Alabama.

Riley’s surprise turned to a pang of sadness though, one that comes with the realization that one of the people you respected as a child supports such a horrid program. There was no other reason for Mrs. Peterson to be there unless she was helping out with the program. The truth of it hit Riley in the gut. She couldn’t believe Mrs. Peterson, of all people, who spoke with such passion about human and civil rights for blacks, a daring thing to do even just a few years ago in their small town, would be here. Mrs. Peterson had been Riley’s very own hero, but in the end, she was human and flawed like everyone else.

The elderly woman stood and walked around the table. She took the taller woman in her arms. “Riley Jacobsen. It’s so wonderful to see you again. I couldn’t believe it when I saw your name on the list, but the Lord answers prayer and here you are. Welcome home, honey.”

Riley fought to keep down the tears, and struggled to speak. She put on a brave smile and pushed forward. “Mrs. Peterson, you look good. What are you doing here?” She hoped against hope that she misinterpreted the elderly woman’s presence. Maybe the regular volunteers were sick or something.

Mrs. Peterson took her hand and patted it, maternally. “Doing the good work of the Lord, honey. I’m the church secretary now. You know me, I couldn’t stand to sit still for long.

Riley nodded. “That’s nice. How’s your family?”

“Oh, Mike’s as ornery as ever. That ol’ goat was one of the biggest reasons I had to get out of the house again. When he retired from politics, he ended up being under foot all the time, and it was driving me crazy. Oh, and Sylvia, my youngest, you remember her. Well, she gave us our first grandchild last month.” The older woman laughed and boasted proudly. “She and Brian had been praying and trying for so long, but the Lord finally saw fit to bless them.”

“That’s great!” Riley dug through her memories of the family and realized that Mrs. Peterson hadn’t said anything about Randall. He had been a few years older than Riley and was a quiet and reserved kid. Much like her, he left town shortly after graduation and was never heard from again. She couldn’t remember Mrs. Peterson ever speaking of him once he had left.

Before Riley could ask about him, Mrs. Peterson patted Riley’s captured hand again and drew the younger woman’s attention back to her. “I was so sorry to hear about your mother, dear. She was such a wonderful, God-fearing woman. We were in a prayer group for mothers and she volunteered a lot for us near the end.”

“Thanks,” Riley shifted on her feet and answered uncomfortably, not having much good to say about her mother. Despite the feeling of knowing the answer to the question she wanted to ask, she couldn’t resist. “How’s Randall? I haven’t heard anything about him in years.”

The older woman’s face turned dark and sad. Dropping Riley’s hand, she moved to sit back in her chair, rubbing at a sore spot on her hip.

“He died three years ago,” she paused a long time, a hardness coming over her face, as she nearly snarled the word out. “AIDS.”
Riley should have seen that coming, “Oh, Mrs. Peterson. I’m so sorry.” She was going to say more, but the elderly woman cut her off.

“Don’t feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for him. I’m sure the devil’s making him quite sorry right now for the choices he made.” The older woman reached for some papers in front of her and after shuffling some of them around, she looked up calmly. “Come, let’s get you signed in.”

With that, the conversation was closed. The chill that hit Riley this time wasn’t one she could blame on the bitter cold of the air conditioning. Mrs. Peterson’s words went straight through her. She never would understand how a mother could think so cruelly of her own child and shut off her emotions so easily. But she was familiar with it nonetheless. Her own mother had done the exact same thing.

******

Riley took a seat on one of the hard metal chairs set in a circle near the back of the building. Across from her were three other people, two women – one older and stocky, the other looked like one of the misplaced church members with a delicate build and feminine style, and a young man who appeared to be barely an adult. His mousey blonde hair was neatly trimmed, and Riley was hard-pressed to tell if he even had enough facial hair to require a razor. None of them looked at each other or at her, but stared at their hands or a vague point off in the distance. Apparently, there was a spot on the wall that was far more intriguing than the humans around them.

Suddenly, a loud bang behind Riley made all of them jump.

“Ow!” A muffled yelp on the other side of the door was the only indication that someone was trying to get in. Riley turned to see a blonde head and shoulder poke through the heavy metal door.

She jumped up and ran for the door to grab it before Sam seriously injured herself. “Whoa, easy there! I got it.”

Sam looked up smiling, as she tried to blow a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Thanks!”

Riley eyed the dolly full of heavy boxes that nearly crushed each other under the weight that Sam was trying to pull in behind her. “Here, let me get that.” Without discussion, Riley took the handle from Sam and began to tug. “Hold the door for me.”

With a yank, Riley pulled the heavy load over the threshold and into the building. “Did you get all of this here by yourself?”

“Yep!” The blonde held the door and tried to stand out of the way to let Riley enter.

Riley shook her head as she cleared the door and then turned the cart around in front of her. “Next time ask for help, okay? I don’t mind.”

The blonde put her hands on her hips and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself after the exertion. She nodded her head and smiled. “Sure, I’ll remember that.” Sam glanced down quickly, unable to keep eye contact with the blue ones that watched her intently.

Riley eventually looked away and cleared her throat. She wanted to ask about the other day, but she got the distinct impression that Sam didn’t want to talk. Now probably wasn’t a good time anyway. But soon. Adjusting her grip, Riley asked the blonde, “Well, good. Now where do you want this?”

“Over there.” Sam sighed and pointed to the opening in the ring of chairs. “Put it in the middle of the circle.”

Sam followed and watched as Riley carefully unstacked all the boxes on the floor. When the tall woman straightened up, she indicated the dolly still in her possession. “What do you want to do with this?”

Sam reached out for the cart. “I’ll just take it back to my car.”

“I’ll take it. It’ll give me a reason to keep moving. All of this sitting and waiting is making me nervous.” Riley laughed and gave her a crooked smile.

Sam self-consciously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and chuckled, conceding the point. “I can understand that.” She led the way outside, popped the lock on the back of the church van, and turned back to Riley to get the dolly from her.

“I got this,” Riley chuckled and moved around Sam to put the dolly in the back of the van. She slammed the door and turned back around.

The blonde stuffed her hands in her pockets and bounced nervously on her toes. “Come on, it’s time to get started.” Sam turned to go back into the building.

Riley crossed her arms and leaned against the van door as the younger woman walked away. When Sam had nearly made it to the door without so much as a glance over her shoulder, Riley scoffed and threw her hands dramatically in the air. “You’re welcome!”

Sam stopped and turned. The playful gleam in Riley’s eyes made her realize her mistake. It also eased the awkwardness between them. The blonde raised her hands in surrender. “Alright. Sorry! Thank you, Riley, for your help.”

Riley smirked, pushing off the van. The annoyance she had initially felt with Sam was fading. She had never had a chance to know the other woman when they were growing up, and when she had the chance, she blamed her en masse with all the other people in the church. Knowing she was going to have a few weeks to get to know Sam was strangely pleasing to her. “That’s better. We are in the South after all. The niceties must be observed.” She bowed in mock gentlemanliness.

“Absolutely.” Sam laughed at the other woman’s antics and waited as the brunette walked over.

Riley opened the door and made a grand gesture for Sam to enter, making Sam giggle more. “M’lady.”

Both stopped laughing as they entered and noticed at the other end of the building, a handsome man in a dark suit was charming Mrs. Peterson into a fit of girlish giggles. With the burgundy bound Bible tucked neatly under his arm, he used the other to wrap the elderly woman up in a one-armed hug.

“Let me guess. That’s…” Riley didn’t get to finish.

“Yep! Taller and a little thicker in the middle, but Johnnie hasn’t changed much, huh?” The blonde’s nervous tension was palpable to Riley, and when she glanced over at Sam, she could see the slight clenching of Sam’s jaw.

“Nope, still charming anyone with two X chromosomes, I see.” Riley turned back to focus in on John, feeling something was off but not being able to put her finger on it.

“Not everyone with two X chromosomes,” the blonde muttered next to her. She looked over to see a slight smirk on Sam’s face at the reference to their shared past.

Riley chuckled. “True. That hasn’t changed either.”

Sam smiled in spite of herself, and the two women shared a look – not awkward but knowing.

“Yet!” Riley quickly added to her last comment. Shaking the confusion she felt, Riley sighed and changed subjects, looking back in the direction of Johnnie as he sauntered toward the group of attendees. “So, I thought your dad ran this gig.”

Sam crossed her arms again. If she wanted Riley to trust her, she was going to have to demonstrate how it was done. “Well, see, that’s an interesting story. Our dad’s been sick the last few years so he’s never actually had a hand in the program. It’s really all Johnnie’s baby.”

Riley’s feeling of relief was stronger than she expected at that news. It had been hard for her to reconcile the man she had admired and looked up to as a young girl with someone who would run an ex-gay ministry. She had never gotten the feeling that John Porter, Sr. was a hateful or judgmental man.

The well-groomed man across the room though was another matter altogether. Something about the whole situation felt wrong. She made a mental note to talk to Dana about that later. Riley also realized that she was glad that Sam seemed to distance herself from the program and her brother as well. She even felt a touch of animosity coming from the petite blonde.

Riley looked at Sam with curiosity. “Hold on. Back in high school, when I…” Riley closed her eyes and shook her head slightly before continuing, “Your father was pretty clear with my mother about how to treat me.”

The blonde bit at her bottom lip and looked sadly at the other woman. This was something Sam had spent countless hours thinking about since that night. Hopefully, it would help Riley to know it too. “I truly believe my father was speaking from his religious beliefs. It had nothing to do with a formal program like now. This was never on his agenda. He never made it a point to rally against gay people. He was just a preacher, and to be honest, as far as I know, he never dealt with anyone being gay until you. I think he reacted the only way he knew how.” Sam sighed and turned back to look at her older brother speaking with a couple of other church members.

“But he did rally against gay people, Sam. He rallied my mom against me,” Riley said, her anger rising at the old pain.

Sam shook her head. “I know it’s hard to understand, but my dad was…is a simple man. His world was uncomplicated, and you and your situation wasn’t something he was prepared for. I’d be surprised if he even thought on it before your mom asked for his help. In the whole time he was preaching, even after what happened with you, I never remember him speaking a cross word in the pulpit or at home about gay people.”

Riley blew out a frustrated breath as her eyes narrowed at Johnnie across the room. “So, your brother runs it under your dad’s name and under the name of the church even though he’s not the official pastor here. This is all his doing.”

Sam gave a rueful chuckle. “Let’s just say that Johnnie is the classic businessman. He knows who to know and how to get to know them…the right politicians, donors, national organizations. People have never heard of or even stepped foot in Warrior, Alabama, but they know Johnnie and they believe in the cause. Come on, looks like we’re starting.”

“Sam!” Riley stopped her before she walked away. The blonde turned back to look at her with sad eyes. “What about you…and this?” Riley asked, indicating the anti-gay ministry. She needed to know where the younger woman stood.

The blonde shrugged. “Someone has to take care of my dad. If I didn’t stay and do it, he’d be in a home right now. I couldn’t stand the thought of it.”

Riley acknowledged Sam’s meaning with a nod, glad that her intuition about the woman was right earlier. She watched as Sam walked away, approaching her brother. She was close enough though that Riley didn’t miss his first words to her, “This is bit of a mess, ain’t it, for the first meeting? I expect it organized better next week. I know it’s a small group, but that’s no reason to be lazy.”

Johnnie started to walk away and then turned back. “Oh, and would you get me some coffee?”

Riley noticed Sam struggle with the words, “Sure thing, John.”

The brunette didn’t have long to contemplate the surge of anger that rushed in her veins when the dark-haired salesman-turned-preacher faced Riley, a sneer on his lips and his voice dripping with condescension and personal satisfaction, “Well, if it isn’t Riley Jacobsen. The prodigal child has returned.” He let his eyes drift over her body in blatant appreciation. “All grown up.”

“And some things never change, I see,” Riley’s responded, her blue eyes burning into him with cold intent. His only response was to smirk at her before turning away. Riley noted that some things truly hadn’t changed here. John was still the patronizing, ball-shriveled little bastard he had been in school, and she was suddenly very relieved that her shipment was coming in this afternoon. She was definitely going to need it.

******

The air in the chilled room became still and tense as John made his way over to the small group. Riley watched as each of the group members reacted to his presence. The older woman sat erect in her seat, her hands neatly folded together and unmoved with nerves. Her slightly wrinkled face – a study in stoicism. The younger woman next to her slumped in her chair, her fingers fidgeting and twisting at a tissue she had pulled from her pocket. She didn’t look up at John as he approached. The young man next to Riley shifted uncomfortably in his seat, one leg bouncing quickly up and down as he chewed at a nail. He looked up expectantly at John as the older man came to stand over him. Riley noticed the young man’s nervous swallow.

“You must be Phillip,” John said as he looked down at him. Like a stern father, John widened his stance and gripped his Bible in front of him with both hands, holding it flat and close to his body.

Riley sucked in a quick breath and held it. It was the Phillip that Dana was looking for in her case. It had to be!

Phillip answered softly, “Yes, sir.”

Nodding approvingly, John moved aside slightly and pointed at the space between the other two women. “I need you to move over there.”

The odd request confused Riley and before she could think to ask, John spoke as he pointed to the older woman then to Phillip then to the younger woman, “Male and female. That’s the way we were created. That’s the way we pair off. There will be no physical contact between members of the same sex while you are here. Not even in comfort. You will learn to seek and yearn for that comfort from the opposite gender.”

Phillip quietly stood and slid his chair over to the spot designated for him.

With an approving smile, John looked at each of them in turn and then grasping his hands behind his back, he turned and walked a few feet away from the group. Spinning back around, he had replaced his authoritative grimace with a charming smile before continuing, “Let’s start from the top, shall we? Welcome to the Real Life through Jesus program. We’re pleased and excited that you all are here, and that you’ve chosen to move your lives in a positive and healthy direction – a direction God intended for all of us.”

He wasn’t far into his welcoming speech when Riley realized she was biting her tongue quite literally. Since she was thirteen, she hadn’t felt so much frustration. She focused on trying to be objective and listening more than thinking. John had instructed them about their first group task, which would be to share their story. He wanted to know what brought each of them to this program.

Alicia Thomas, the youngest of the three women, was selected to go first. She cleared her throat and twisted the tissue tighter, the edges beginning to fray as she talked. The daughter of a single mom, Alicia had more or less raised herself as her mom worked and tried to get her college degree. Alicia’s mom had dated several men, but that ended when one of them molested Alicia at the age of nine.

As Alicia talked about her lack of trust in men and how she had sought out relationships with several only to have them fall apart, she admitted to deliberately “trying” lesbianism in college.

Johnnie asked her about her college studies and the lesbian relationships she had pursued. Turned out she was a psychology and women’s studies double major. Riley rolled her eyes at the obvious stereotype. The women Alicia had dated were domineering and possessive. One had to have a restraining order put on her. Another was an alcoholic and abusive. To deal with her depression and low self-esteem, Alicia had turned to prescription drugs. When she woke up in a bed full of strangers, she knew she had to change her ways.

“That’s how I ended up here,” she finished quietly. “I have to at least try.”

“At least you all are young enough to turn your lives around,” the older woman said sadly.

Johnnie nodded his head. “Go on, please. Introduce yourself.”
The woman cleared her throat and sat up straighter in her chair, if that was even possible, and held her chin high. “My name is Judith…Judith Walker. I had never been with a woman or had been attracted to a woman until five years ago, when I met Sue. She was a few years older than me, beautiful, confident, and my boss. I left my husband of twenty years for her and broke my son’s heart. He refuses to even talk to me, and I’m not allowed to see my three grandchildren.”

Suddenly, the composed woman broke down, her hands coming to cover her face. “I miss my son…my family.” Tears leaked out between her fingers as she spoke, haltingly, “I just want them back, and if this is what I have to do, then I’ll do it. Sue hates me too. We got married in Boston two years ago.” She shook her head and brushed away her tears. Sam came up behind her and handed her a box of tissues. Judith looked up gratefully. “I’ve destroyed everything.”

Riley bit her lip, wanting to shake the woman. She wasn’t the problem. The world was the problem. Her selfish and cruel son was the problem. Instead, she leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. She asked, “How did your husband react? What has he said about your son’s behavior?”

Judith looked at her strangely, as if she couldn’t believe someone actually asked her a question that wasn’t laced with condemnation. She opened her mouth to speak, but Johnnie interrupted, “Her husband and son were deceived by her. They reacted as most of us would…hurt. Judith is right. She’s destroyed lives, including her own, and we support her in turning her life around and getting back on the right path.” He looked at the older woman. “Good for you, Judith.”

Gritting her teeth, Riley crossed her arms and sat back. Across the room, she caught Sam looking at her. The corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smile. Riley nearly smiled in return but pulled back quickly and looked away before someone noticed.

“I believe it’s your turn, Phillip,” John pushed forward to their next group member.

Phillip rubbed his palms along his pants nervously and tried to sit up straighter. His voice was soft and cautious. “Um, my name is, um, Phillip…Dwyer. When I was fifteen, my mom caught me with another boy from school. I told her I had been drinking, which I hadn’t, just so she’d believe that I didn’t know what was happening. She just kind of went on like nothing happened until I was caught behind the mall with a guy I worked with. The police arrested me for lewd behavior, and that’s when everything went bad. The screaming and crying was terrible. My dad wouldn’t even talk to me. He locked me in my room. I humiliated them, they said; ruined the family name. My parents made me come here. I wanted to leave to go live with my aunt and maybe start college. But they told me they wouldn’t pay for my college if I didn’t go here first.”

“Your parents worked so hard to teach you right from wrong. They gave you a good life and this was the way you repaid them,” John chastised. “I hope you see this as your second chance before you do real damage to your life, your body, and your spirit.”
Looking over at Phillip, Riley could see his jaw clinching. She couldn’t tell if he was angry or upset, but she was angry for him. His story was similar to her own, except she had managed to escape Warrior before the same thing happened to her. An old saying from her church days came back to her: There, but by the Grace of God, go I.

“And we’ve saved the best for last or at least the most famous...Riley?” Johnnie smiled at her smugly.

“Famous?” Phillip asked curiously.

She smiled at him. “I’m not famous. I’m just a journalist, but I grew up here.”

“Really?” He seemed genuinely surprised. She nodded. “So, what’s your story?”

“Not a whole lot different from yours.” She looked at him then scanned the group. Across the way, she saw Sam move from her spot and walk over. Suddenly, she realized she was nervous and took a deep breath to calm herself. “I actually went to church here as a kid, and it was like a second family for me. I loved Mrs. Janet’s Sunday School class.”

She caught Sam’s warm smile at the mention of the blonde’s mother then continued, without breaking eye contact, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel drawn to other girls, but exactly what that meant didn’t become apparent until I turned thirteen and Susie came into my life.”

Her mind wandered as she remembered the redhead’s charismatic persona. “She was bright and funny and made me feel like I was the only person in the world. Me, this gangly and awkward athletic girl. I couldn’t believe this beautiful popular girl wanted to be my friend. She didn’t seem to notice that I was poor or awkward.”

Rubbing her hands roughly across her face, she barreled into the hardest part of her story. “My world was going really smooth until one day after church.”

Riley stared up at the ceiling. The pink and purple princess sheets of Susie’s bed was soft and smelled of lavender and vanilla. It was relaxing and luxurious and so different from the basic white sheets she had on her bed from the dollar store. They were making up a story as they reclined on the bed. Susie would tell her part and Riley would jump in and add to it. Somehow it worked out that Susie was the princess in distress and Riley was the handsome, courageous knight.

“Oh, Prince Riley, my love! You saved me! How could I ever thank you?” Susie rolled over and leaned over Riley before planting a kiss on her lips.

Riley pulled back with a shocked gasp, but instead of being upset, Susie smiled mischievously and kissed her again.

Riley loved kissing Susie, but she felt guilty being sneaky. She wondered why they could only kiss in Susie’s bedroom and when they acted out that fairy tale scene. They never kissed for the sake of kissing. It was always under the guise of the story.

For several months, they continued on this way until Susie’s mom caught them one afternoon after school. The redhead broke down into tears in her mother’s arms and the older woman yelled at Riley, who stood by in shock as the unthinkable took place.

Susie turned with red-rimmed eyes and a snotty nose to point an accusing finger at Riley. “She did it! She made me kiss her! She said she wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t.”

Mrs. Graham loosened her hold on her daughter, stepping between the two girls. Riley tried to look around the older woman so she could talk to Susie and ask her why she lied, but Susie’s mom didn’t give her a chance.

Instead, Mrs. Graham grabbed Riley by the front of her t-shirt and led her out of the house. She pushed Riley down the steps, and somehow Riley managed to stay on her feet. Spinning around she looked into the angry visage of a protective mother. “Take your disgusting and dirty self away from here and don’t you ever try to talk to Susie again.”

Riley wasn’t sure how long she stood in the front yard shaking after the front door slammed in her face. She didn’t remember how she had ended up at her own house, tears long dried on her face. Numbly, she opened the door and headed for her room.

Later that afternoon, Riley was roughly wakened from a fitful nap. Her mother pulled her out of bed and demanded to know what had possessed her to assault Susie Graham. Riley tried to explain what had really happened, but her mother wouldn’t stop yelling long enough to hear her. Eventually, Riley gave up trying to talk. She simply sat there and cried as her mother, a woman who never darkened the doorway of a church, prayed to God for Riley’s deliverance from the evil spirit possessing her.

After her mother ran out of rantings and prayers, she sent Riley back to her room. When Riley’s dad came home, he removed every means of communication and luxury item from her room because his wife insisted on it – her TV, her phone, even her video game console.

She could hear her parents arguing about her. Cracking the door open, she felt a breath of hope fill her as her father told his wife to let it go and that Riley was just a kid and experimenting. She wasn’t sure what that exactly meant, but it didn’t sound nearly as bad as what her mother said back to him.

“See! This is the problem. You always defend her. You encourage her to horse around, play ball, and act like a tomboy. You never encourage her to act like a girl. No wonder she’s so messed up! She idolizes you, and you make this behavior okay.” Her mom’s voice became a hoarse shrill at the end. To Riley, it felt like her mom had been yelling for days, when it had only been a few hours.

Riley’s dad laughed at this. “Oh, so it’s my fault. That’s wonderful.”

There was a stretch of silence, and then she heard her mom’s voice, clear and calm. “It makes sense that you’d baby her so you wouldn’t feel so guilty.”

“Don’t say it, Deborah,” her dad said. He sounded sad and resigned.

Her mother didn’t relent. “Do Joan Simpson’s kids get as much attention from you as Riley does or how about…?” Riley felt her heart stop at the accusation. She covered her ears with her hands. She didn’t want to hear anymore. Tears came to her eyes and she squeezed them shut tight, trying to stop the tears from falling. She could almost see the victorious look on her mother’s face.

Riley softly closed the door and slid to the floor. Her father had always been a hero to her – larger than life. He had fought in Desert Storm and gotten several medals for bravery. They weren’t rich by any means, but he never let her go without. He worked hard to provide, but it looked like he was just as human as everyone else. Like her mother and Susie, her father was just another heartbreak for Riley.

A few weeks later, her father moved out, and after a bitter custody battle, her mother got sole custody of her.
Riley never went back to church after that either and never faced Susie again. When school started that fall, the pretty redhead wasn't there. She asked a couple of kids from the church, and they said she had moved with her family to Atlanta.

The images of a crying Susie and her angry mother, her own mother yelling at her, and her father ultimately leaving flickered in Riley's memory as she came back to the present. “It felt like everywhere I looked people knew. Even if they didn’t, it felt like it. I just shut down, focused on finding a way out.”

Riley sniffed and realized with embarrassment that she was crying. “I didn’t want to hurt her, but now she’s gone and I can’t fix the mistakes I made.” She took a deep breath, playing the role to its fullest. “I can’t change what happened, but I can start now trying to change me.”

CHAPTER 6

The sun was high in the sky as Riley brought up the last bucket of dirt from the river. It was a slow go, but as she hoisted the padded cylinder on top and locked it into place, she knew it all going to be worth it. She wiped away the sweat rolling into her eyes as she stepped back, slipped on her gloves, raised her fists, and let loose with a vicious roundhouse kick.

The satisfying thwack of skin hitting plastic sent a thrill through Riley. “Oh yeah, I needed this.”
Thinking about group this morning set her off into a series of jabs and uppercuts. John’s comment to Phillip caused her to swing around and land a vicious spinning backhand to the punching bag. The poor kid started bawling when he had told the story of being kicked and beaten by a group of boys at school. Judith was crying too at Phillip’s story. Eventually, Judith stood from her chair and walked over to cradle the young man. John stopped her with a hand to the shoulder, a hard look in his cold, blue eyes. “Phillip doesn’t need a mother to coddle him. That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” John addressed the trembling boy and continued, “What you really need is a strong male figure to show you how to be a man. Your father was weak, deferring to your mother, so you replaced him with male lovers.”

Riley had found herself fighting the urge to knock John’s lights out. Phillip cried harder at his words and if she wasn’t mistaken, John smiled at the kid’s pain. Son of a bitch!

The rest of the group session didn’t get any better. John took his pot shots at the rest of them but seemed to get distinct pleasure out of emotionally torturing Phillip.

Riley wasn’t sure how long she had been blindly throwing punches and kicks at the bag, but it had been long enough that her long dark hair was hanging in wet tendrils and the sweat was dripping from her white tank top. She was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t see Sam walk up behind her, and she nearly punched her out with a spinning back hand.

The brunette had barely pulled back in time to stop from hitting Sam. In the process, she lost her footing and fell hard to the wooden deck when her fist missed the punching bag as well.

Riley grabbed at the knee she had fallen on and muttered a string of curses as silently as possible. She only managed a semblance of composure before blurting out, “Jesus Christ, Sam! What the hell are you doing sneaking up on me?”

Sam was smirking…actually, smirking. “Sorry. I really shouldn’t have gotten so close. I was calling your name from the moment I walked in the door, but you were…in a zone, I guess. So I came around back thinking you’d hear me then. Are you okay?” The blonde reached her hand out to help Riley to her feet, but she was waved off.

Riley pushed herself up and brushed off her backside. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” She then pulled her gloves off and handed them over to Sam. “Here, take a shot.”

Sam simply shook her head. “Um, no. Hitting things is not my idea of fun.”

“Come on, just a couple of punches. It’s amazingly liberating. Here, I’ll show you how.” She stepped closer and slipped the gloves over Sam’s hands, then moved around behind her. The slight brush of Riley’s breasts against Sam’s back forced an unexpected gasp from Riley, and it made the blonde quickly pull away.
“That’s okay. You’re…,” she wanted to say ‘braless,’ but thought that would just prove she had taken notice of Riley’s breasts, which she hadn’t, “all sweaty.”

Riley pulled back, self-consciously. “Oh, yeah…sorry.”

Sam held up her gloved hands. “Maybe some other time?”

“Yeah, sure.” Riley removed the gloves and tossed them onto the nearby table. She took a few steps away, needing some distance from the blonde. “So, what’s up?

Sam shifted nervously on her feet before stuffing her hands into the pockets of her cargo shorts. “You seemed a little…how can I say this, bothered, at group? I wanted to check on you. I had no idea all that happened back then had to do with Susie.”

Looking down, Riley nodded. “Yeah, well…that was a long time ago.” The brunette turned to go back inside.

“I remember, you know?” Sam said to her back then began following her. “I remember when your mom came over to talk to my dad.”

The tall woman paused in the doorway. She didn’t look back at Sam, and her voice was low and sad, “I really don’t want to talk about my mom. Not right now.”

“It might help if you talk about it,” Sam suggested, trying to climb the walls of the aloof woman.

Riley sighed and closed her eyes. “I’m sure it would, but not now.” She walked into the house and headed directly for the kitchen, leaving Sam on the deck.

Eventually, San followed her and leaned against the wall at the corner of the kitchen. She watched as Riley pulled some orange juice out of the refrigerator and swallowed it greedily straight from the container. She wanted to know more about this mysterious woman, but she didn’t want to drive her away either by being too nosy.

The brunette wiped at her mouth and glanced up uncertainly at Sam. She seemed to be pondering what to say as she closed the refrigerator door and leaned back against it. “I’m sorry. I’m just really not in the mood to talk about my mom. I have to go to the lawyer tomorrow and sign some paperwork. Then I have to see what’s in storage and sort through it.”

Riley’s voice faded off. It was evident that the older woman didn’t want to dwell on her mother’s estate. Sam decided to switch topics, hoping that dropping the sore subject would get the older woman to open up. “Okay, so, what about Susie? I only knew her in passing, but she seemed nice enough.”

Riley didn’t mind the change in subject. She knew she’d have to open up about it eventually, but right now, she just wasn’t ready. The brunette shrugged, put the juice back in the refrigerator and turned to her friend. “So, what do you want to know about her?”

“Was she a good kisser?” The blonde waggled her eyebrows, and Riley couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Okay, that was the last question I expected from you.” Riley laughed. “It was…enlightening. Everything I had been feeling suddenly made sense.” She shrugged and looked up to see Sam smiling brightly at her.

“I can’t really blame you though. From what I remember, Susie was cute.” Sam realized she may have said too much by the surprised but confused look on Riley’s face. She cleared her throat then stood up straight looking around. “I’m going to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

Sam didn’t wait for Riley to respond. She walked quickly to the bathroom and locked the door. She mumbled with frustration, “What is wrong with you, Samantha Renee?” She decided to go through the motions of going to the bathroom in order to not be too suspicious. When she came back out, Riley was sitting on the couch, a towel draped around her neck.

Riley turned to the younger woman as she came back in the room. “So, you said there were a couple of things you wanted to talk about.”

Sam smacked her own forehead. “Oh yeah! I knew there was something I was forgetting. You said earlier if I needed help to ask for it. Well…help?”

“Okay, I guess.” Riley shrugged and shook her head. “What do you need help with?”

Sam climbed on the chair at the bar. “The 4th of July picnic thing,” she said it as if it was the most obvious thing she needed help with.

“You have nearly a month!”

The blonde pushed some hair nervously behind her ear and grimaced. “Yeah, and I haven’t done anything on it yet. Well, I mean the invitations are out and the ads are out, but the actual event…no. I need to go shopping. I need to do a LOT of shopping, which means I’ll have a lot of stuff to load into the van, unload from the van. Lots of carrying heavy things and you’re good with carrying heavy things and…”

Riley waved her hands in the air and then crossed them into a T. “Whoa, Sam! Time out. I’ll help. Don’t worry, I’ll help. When do you want to do this shopping thing?”

Sam beamed at Riley. “Day after tomorrow?”
“As long as it’s not before 10am,” the brunette said with finality then sighed as Sam smiled. Then added, “And as long as I can ask a favor of you.”

Sam cocked her head to the side, curiously awaiting the other woman’s request. Riley blew out a sigh and asked quickly, “Go with me to the lawyer?”

A bright smile lit Sam’s face. “Of course! Tomorrow?”

Riley nodded and felt her body relax knowing she wasn’t going to face tomorrow alone. Aside from Al and Dana, she had never really had anyone she could depend on or call a friend. This was good. “11AM. I’ll pick you up.”

*****

The lawyer’s office was elaborate, but not nearly as ostentatious as Riley expected, for being located in the Mountain Brook neighborhood. The building it was in looked more like an antebellum plantation home that had been converted into commercial use. Two-story rounded pillars, oversized double doors, and spacious twelve foot vaulted ceilings greeted Riley and Sam as they entered. A woman, immaculately dressed in a dark suit and wearing a headset, looked up from the expansive mahogany desk in the middle of the foyer to greet them.

“Good morning, ladies. How may I help you?”

Riley smiled hesitantly. “Morning.” She looked down at the blonde next to her and saw her looking up at the ceiling with her mouth open. She reached for her friend’s sleeve and tugged her forward. “I have an appointment with Mr. Blanchard for noon.”

The woman was nice but efficient. Before Riley finished speaking, she was already dialing a number and spoke to them at the same time. “I’ll call up for you.”

Riley mumbled a “thanks” and turned to Sam who was still looking around the ornate space.

She whispered over to Riley, “I didn’t know you were rich.”

“I’m not. We weren’t,” she added.

“Then how…” Sam was interrupted by the administrative assistant.

“You can go up now. There’s an elevator around the back of the stairs, take a left off the elevator, and all the way to the end of the hall.” Riley nodded her head at the woman’s instructions and guided Sam towards the elevators.

Once in the elevator, Sam looked at the taller woman, her green eyes wide with wonder. “Nervous?”

Riley scoffed. “Wouldn’t you be in a place like this?”

“I just wonder where the slave quarters are,” Sam murmured.

The brunette couldn’t help but smile. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some here. You know the South can’t give up the ghost.”

The elevator dinged and the shiny metallic doors slid open. The two women stepped out onto the hardwood floor. It was so well-shined that they could see the reflection of the ceiling above them with near perfect clarity.

Turning to the left, Riley looked back at Sam and jerked her head down the hall. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”

Standing before the large dark wood doors, Riley wasn’t sure if she should knock or just go in. Finally, she opted for a little of both, giving two quick knocks and turning the handle with the other hand. Another open and spacious entrance greeted the women. Large glass windows behind the main desk a few feet in front of them showed off the ornate office where the lawyer actually worked.

A dowdy woman in glasses too large for her head and about three decades out of date glanced up with a serious expression. “You must be Ms. Jacobsen.”

“Yes. I am,” Riley clarified.

“And you are?” The woman briefly looked at Sam, her words acknowledging her more than her disinterested glance.

Riley opened her mouth but stumbled with her words. Sam jumped right in, “A friend…for moral support.”

“Very well. Have a seat. Mr. Blanchard will be with you in a moment.” She dismissed the pair and called into the interior office to announce their arrival.

The wait was awkward and felt far longer than it really was. Riley shifted nervously while Sam tried to occupy herself by looking at a Fortune magazine. Looking at the pictures of wealthy, beautiful people just made her feel bad about herself so she dropped it back onto the side table and sat back to wait with Riley.

After a few more minutes, a buzz was heard and the woman spoke over the top of the desk. “You can go in now.”

Riley would have said thank you to the woman, but she doubted she would have even realized she’d been spoken to. Sighing she stood. Sam touched her arm in understanding as she came to stand beside her, and Riley glanced down at her new…friend?

“I’m right here,” Sam encouraged.

Friend was good. Smiling, Riley opened the door, and they entered the office.

An hour later, the duo walked out of the fancy lawyer’s office. Sam felt as shocked as anyone by the news they’d heard. It was bad enough that Riley’s mom had essentially turned over her estate to the church, a fact that Sam hadn’t been aware of until now, but that the estate had grown in significance – though outward signs suggested different – and the land Riley’s childhood home was standing on was prime real estate for conversion into commercial property. If that wasn’t bad enough, Riley also found out that the house would be leveled by the end of summer to make way for a new project. Not even the lawyer was sure what that project entailed, just that the house would be taken down and the land prepped for this new venture.

*****

The Jeep rumbled underneath their feet as Riley maneuvered the vehicle over a rough dirt road. It had taken Riley some mental encouragement to get up the nerve to make this drive, but after meeting with her mom’s estate lawyer, she felt like she needed to do something. The idea on exactly what that should be had occurred to her on the way back to camp on a barren country road that was rarely traveled by anyone except the locals.

After a couple of turns, she was at the gate of a once well-kept front yard. The knee-high white wooden gate was torn off its hinges. She reached in the back of the Jeep, ready to do what she came for. Distantly, she felt a hand gently squeeze her arm and she looked back to see Sam’s encouraging smile. “I’ll be here.”

With a nod of acknowledgement, Riley moved away from the Jeep. Gingerly, she stepped over the broken wood of the gate. The two story wood house was in an obvious state of neglect. White paint peeled away from the wood and windows were boarded up. Ivy and kudzu were slowly creeping up the sides of the house and had already overtaken the basement windows.

Riley sighed deeply, sadness washing over her.

She could have simply gone to the graveyard, saved herself the heartache and trouble, but after hearing the lawyer say that the house was going to be torn down and the land used for some new commercial purpose, she knew she needed to do this. No matter what became of it and no matter her experiences there, this was her home – the only one she’d ever known as a kid.

If she closed her eyes for a moment, she could still hear the creak of metal-on-metal from her old swing set. She looked in the general direction of where it had once stood, sheltered by the long branches of an old oak tree. When that tree was only a fraction of its size, she had climbed as high as she could to see over the bluff behind the house. Unfortunately, the limb being so young wasn’t strong and it snapped under her weight.

She remembered letting out one lone scream of pain as her ankle gave way under her, but when her mother arrived, she didn’t so much as whimper at the throbbing pain the twisting had caused.

A lump rose in her throat that she forcefully pushed down. It was the first time she was chastised for being a tomboy, but it wasn’t the last time she’d climb that tree or the last time she had been admonished by her mother. Usually, it was to get away from the ranting and raving of her mother to begin with and the pained look of disappointment in her eyes. As the tree grew, she had to resort to nailing one-by-four pieces of wood to the trunk so she could reach the branches. This tree had been her awakening and her salvation in so many ways. When no one else would listen, the gently swaying leaves held her secrets.

Stepping closer, she ran her hand over the rough bark touching a dark hole in the trunk a little above her head. She took a deep breath before stepping away. It was time to do what she came for. Walking far out into the backyard, less than a hundred feet from the bluff drop off, she found the right spot. Lifting the simple white cross in her hand, she knelt down, and with the hammer in her other hand, she rammed the sharp end of the wood into the ground. She ran her fingers over the crude lettering of the black magic marker she’d used: “Deborah Marie Jacobsen b. 4/3/64 d. 10/12/03”.

“I doubt this is the way you expected me to show back up, huh, Mom?” She paused as if expecting an answer before continuing her one-sided conversation.

“Yeah, well, neither did I. There were so many things I didn’t say to you, that I wish I had. I wanted to tell you how angry I was with you, how angry I still am with you.” A tear fell silently down her cheek, and she swiped at it in frustration even though no one was there to see.

“You…hurt…me, Mom. Do you even realize that? You chose these,” the words stuck in her throat, “people, this church, over me. You gave them everything, even our home. MY home. You picked them over your own daughter. All because I love differently than you. Because you didn’t understand me. Because I embarrassed you. I know you felt like you failed somehow in raising me. I wanted to reassure you so many times and tell you that you didn’t fail as a mother, but the truth is…you did. Just not the way you thought. You let me down. When I needed you, you abandoned me. You orphaned me…for strangers, even while I was right here under your roof.”

The words and tears fell from her lips, bitter and filled with years of hurt. She no longer bothered to wipe them away. She wanted to rage, but the anger wouldn’t come. She finally had said the words she had wanted to say, express the grief and loss the way she had needed to for so long, and now all she felt was numb...empty. She leaned close to the cross and whispered, “I love you, Mom, in spite of it all, even if you couldn’t love me back.” She placed a kiss on the wood before finally saying goodbye and walking away.

The drive back was somber. Riley took the dips and curves slow. In the distance, the sun was beginning to set. She pulled over to watch the oranges shimmering with heat above the horizon before turning to deep red and finally purple. Sam sat next to her, silently offering her support. It was rare that Sam wasn’t talking randomly about something, but she sensed that idle conversation wasn’t welcome right now. She reached across the open space between the seats and covered Riley’s hand as it rested on the gear shift. The dark-haired woman never turned her gaze to Sam, but she did lean back resting her head against the seat, turning her hand over to lace their fingers together. Sam felt an almost imperceptible squeeze, and she basked in the warmth it caused. Dropping her head back to her own seat, they watched the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon.

*****

Riley tapped away on her computer, letting the words flow from her. Without the structure of work holding her writing style back, she wrote from feelings and emotions mixed with facts. Normally, as a journalist, she’d worry about being too close to the story and that proximity affecting the written product. But this was for her, not for a paper. She had no intentions of putting this out into the world so she opened up to the anger and sadness she had squelched years ago.

She rifled through the “gift bag” Sam gave her, making notes on its contents, just in case she got the urge to “accidentally” burn them all. She smiled mischievously and typed out the reactions she had to the material inside. One book title Love God’s Way with a man and woman in wedding attire outside a church made Riley chuckle. While another book called Undefiled with a man bowing his head in shame in front of a cross brought a rush of anger and frustration out in Riley. She typed harder as she put feelings into words.

When she finished typing, she looked at the clock. It was dinner time, but she wasn’t hungry. The sun was setting and the camp was quieting down for the night. Strangely, though, she felt keyed up and fidgety. Eventually, she gave into the urge and pulling her hair back, slipped on a baseball cap.

In the warm evening air, she slowly strolled past the identical houses. She looked back at her own temporary residence, making a mental note of its location so she wouldn’t accidentally wander into another house. Eventually, she knew she’d get used to it, but it was still disconcerting to walk outside and see every house looking exactly alike. It was like an ex-gay Stepford Wives gated community.

The only evidence that people lived in the homes was the soft light that brightened drape-covered windows. The small camp was eerily quiet. A dog barked in the distance and some grasshoppers chirped loudly down by the river, but otherwise, nothing.

Riley stopped and looked up at the imposing cross on the steeple in front of her, a familiar feeling of emptiness and loss washing over her. She sighed, hating the way it made her feel now. It was hard to imagine a time when she looked on the solid structure with joy and excitement. Nothing about this church had changed though. The field surrounding it was now home to all the cookie-cutter homes of the camp, but the church had remained the same. Same pine doors. Same chipped white paint peeling from the wood that you wouldn’t notice until you got closer. From a distance, the church looked pristine, almost ethereal in the glow of the rising full moon – a beacon of perfection and welcome. For a few years in her youth, she had actually believed it was perfect.

She walked closer and slowly ascended the handful of steps until she stood in front of the imposing entryway. She pulled at the heavy doors and slowly opened them. She had at one time questioned Rev. Porter about the doors staying unlocked, and he had told her that God doesn’t work on our time and that he left the doors open for those who found themselves on God’s time. She took a few steps in and breathed in deeply. It even smelled the same as she remembered – the excessively-polished pine pews filled her senses. She closed her eyes and could still hear the choir singing “Amazing Grace.” Even after all these years and all the pain, she still loved that hymn. She couldn’t sing it anymore though. Every time she tried, she barely made it through the first stanza before breaking down in tears.

She walked through the foyer and into the sanctuary, running her fingers over the slick wood of the pews. She felt still and quiet, like this small town. Her heart ached for what had been lost, but she couldn’t change what had happened or who she was now. She sat in the third pew from the front, the same one she always sat in as she was growing up, and put her head in her hands and wept.

*******

Sam watched the tall, dark figure emerge from the house and slowly walk down the sidewalk path. The branches of a tall magnolia tree in front of her bedroom window providing coverage for her open appraisal. She ran her finger over the pane, blocking the image of Riley from her view for a second. Her first instinct was to go to the other woman, maybe ask her to go for a walk to the river, but she knew that wasn’t acceptable. She was already taking a chance asking her to leave town for a shopping trip and spending so much time with her. It wasn’t against the rules for her to spend time with Riley, but she knew it would raise suspicions. For now, she resisted the urge to go to her.

Something tugged at her about Riley though, made her want to reach out. The sadness that Riley exhibited all through school had never gone away. Being here hadn’t lifted a burden, it seemed to only make the weight heavier. It was an emotion that Sam understood far too well. She touched the gold lettering of the Bible sitting on the window sill in front of her. She should pray about these feelings so she could put them away – name them, as her father had said to Riley’s mother years ago, to take away their power.

A bell ringing snapped her out of her thoughts. With a sigh, she rushed through the dividing door that separated her room from her father’s, secretly thankful to be able to lose herself in another emotion for the moment. She hurried to his bedside, while he continued to persistently ring the small bell.

“I’m here, Dad. What do you need?” She checked the IV drip. He still had another hour’s worth of morphine before she needed to put more in his drip. He struggled to sit up.

“Whoa, Dad. Take it easy. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Suddenly, the old man whimpered and fell back on the bed, the yellow stain quickly spreading from his waist to his knees. Tears slid down his cheeks at the humiliation of wetting himself in front of his own child.

“It’s no problem. We’ll clean you up in no time, okay? Let me go get John. I’ll be right back.” She quickly stepped down the stairs and heard the cheering and caught the smell of beer long before she reached the living room. Four men sat huddled around the TV, drinking and eating pizza. When the quarterback got sacked, John jumped up and threw his empty can at the TV.

“Stupid, fucking faggot! Run, you idiot!”

“Johnnie?” The bellowing man turned at Sam’s voice, his eyes glassy from the alcohol and adrenaline.

“What do you want?” He growled.

Sam walked up to him, not wanting to say this in front of his friends. “I need your help with Dad. He soiled himself. I need help getting him into the bath.”

He shook his head at her and sat back down. “Then why the hell did I build in all those rails and buy those special chairs for him to sit on? Just wipe him down with a rag. He’ll be fine.”

“Johnnie, he hasn’t had a bath in a week. I can’t pick him up.” She could feel tears of frustration constricting her throat. Bathing her father always fell to her because her father would be too humiliated for anyone outside of the family to see him naked. She was pushing her luck with Johnnie though, and she knew it. When John drank, he got in a particularly nasty mood.

“Goddamn it, Samantha! Get the fuck out of my face! I pay the goddamn bills here, not you. You want to call the shots, then you run this fucking fag camp.” His buddies snickered behind him. He smirked and turned to his friends. “I made a funny, guys. Get it, fucking fag camp?”

Sam felt the words bubbling up before she could stop them. In spite of the work they did here, she hated the slurs her brother freely used. She pushed past the tightness in her throat and ground out through clenched teeth, “I already do run it. You can’t even get your own coffee. Do you need help wiping your ass too?”

“Ohhhhhh,” John’s buddies guffawed in unison.

The quick flicker of fury in his cold eyes let her know she had gone too far. Before she knew what had happened, he backhanded her in the mouth, splitting her lip. She fell back against the wall, the metallic taste of blood filling her mouth. Long ago, she had stopped crying when he hit her. It still surprised her that his mere words could make her cry, but being slapped shut it off like a faucet. She straightened up and simply licked at the cut in the corner of her mouth before walking back up the stairs. John had already turned back to the game, dismissing her by ignoring her as if nothing had happened. She stopped off in the bathroom to spit out the blood and wash out her mouth. She didn’t need her dad seeing this.

When she got back to the room, the acrid smell of urine filled the room. She covered her nose and moved to the bed.

“Dad?” She felt his pulse. It was weak but steady. The rest of the medications must have kicked in. He would be out cold until they wore off. She did the best she could to undress him, wipe him down, and change his sheets without help.

When she rolled him over and caught a whiff of the foul smell, she nearly gagged, but it was the sight that drove her to finally cry. On her dad’s low back, a red whelp the size of a baseball was oozing puss.

She covered her mouth and let the tears fall freely. “Oh Dad, I’m so sorry.”

With anger and frustration driving her, she finished changing and cleaning her father, taking special care to wash and dry the sore before applying an antibiotic and bandage.

Moments later, she was showered and out the door. She had to escape. Once in her car, she let the dam open on her tears. Eventually, she had to pull over because she couldn’t see the white lines on the road anymore. She got herself together and pulled back on the road. After a few minutes of driving, she pulled into a gravel driveway and climbed the steps to Bobby’s apartment over the car shop.

“Hey,” she said and tucked her hands in her jean pockets.

“Hey…are you okay? You look upset.” He reached for her hand and gently took it.

“Can I come in?”

“Yeah, sure.” Bobby stepped aside to let her in.

She looked around the small space at the football posters, makeshift basketball goal on the wall, and a Hooter’s calendar by the refrigerator. There was something so comfortably typical about the space – a constant in her uncertain world. She could always depend on Bobby, and Sam was certain that the person he was now would be the person he’d be twenty years from now. It was safe and for some reason, thinking about it made Sam want to hurt him, slap him, push him…do something…anything. When she first started having those thoughts, she was shocked but not anymore. She had heard other women talking about men, especially their boyfriends and husbands, with such disdain that she wondered if there was ever love involved in the relationships. Eventually, she just accepted it as the way the world was supposed to be. Men did stupid things that made women mad and women complained to their friends. Bobby was such a nice, decent guy though. He certainly didn’t do anything to her to make her feel this way. So why did she have this angry compulsion towards him sometimes?

He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, placing his head on top of her head. She hated it when he did that so she pulled away. Okay, maybe he did do things that got on her nerves.

“I don’t know what to do.” She sighed and rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

“About what?”

She moved away from his embrace, over to the sofa and sat down on it. The sofa had seen better days about four owners ago. As long as Sam had known Bobby, he had owned this beat up old couch. One leg was broken off so it had to be propped up with magazines and an old Biology textbook Bobby had from college. He had dreamed of being a doctor when he was a kid so he kept it as a souvenir of his college days.

She ran her hands over her hair and looked up at him. “Dad has bedsores, and um…I, um…I can’t keep doing this myself.” Bobby came to sit next to her, gingerly putting his weight down fearing the couch would collapse.

“But Johnnie…,” he started but she interrupted him before he got too far.

“Johnnie won’t do anything. It’s like Dad doesn’t even exist for him anymore, so it’s all up to me.” She looked at him with pleading eyes, her voice cracking with emotion, “He wet himself, Bobby. He’s getting worse.”

When she broke down crying again, he put his arm around her and pulled her close. He stroked her hair and kissed her cheek, brushing the tears away with his rough thumb. When he pulled her chin up into a kiss, she let him, consciously trying not to pull away. She told herself not to think too much - that he cared about her, even loved her, and she needed to let him know that she cared for him as well. But his kisses got rougher until he brushed the sore corner of her mouth from Johnnie’s slap, making her jerk back with a hiss.

She licked at the fresh blood and he turned her head to see better, the dim light in his apartment making it difficult. She saw the flicker of anger on his face.

“When did this happen?”

“Tonight.”

He shook his head. “He must have really been drunk.”

She laughed at his naiveté and stood up, walking to the window to look out. “It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. This is just the first time he was stupid enough to leave a mark that would show.”

“Well, it should be the last time,” Bobby was standing too and his voice was more forceful than she had ever heard it.

“Don’t get yourself worked up, Bobby. There’s nothing you can do anyway.” He hated the truth in those words, but he knew she was right.

A few years after the Porter’s had moved to Warrior, the Reverend had bought up several strips of land along the main road of town since the bank gave out low interest loans to churches. At first there had been homes on the land and Sam’s father had rented the houses out. It was a little extra income for the small family living on a minister’s salary, which was a step below meager. It was enough to pay the mortgages on the small homes and leave a decent bit left over.

One of those homes had been rented by Bobby’s family. Sam’s father eventually turned them over to commercial property as the property values climbed and allowed the families renting to buy the homes and start businesses there if they wished. It sounded like a good deal to Bobby’s dad since he had always wanted his own shop. Within a few years, the strip had grown tremendously sporting a dozen or so local businesses. Sam’s father, however, continued to own the land and ultimately had say so in what happened to the people on the land. Now that her dad was in bad health and Johnnie had taken over the finances, he called the shots. For Bobby to challenge Johnnie would be the death of his dad’s shop and they both knew it.

She turned and saw the look on Bobby’s face. She knew he was thinking about it too, and she wanted to kick herself for making him feel bad about the situation.

She walked over and took his hand, asking softly, “Just help me figure out what to do with my dad, okay? I have the part-time home care nurse coming, but I can’t afford to make it full-time care. I need another solution.”

He smiled at her then as an idea came to mind. “I think I know what you can do.”

Sam headed back home in a much better mood than she had left. Bobby had suggested that she talk to Mrs. Peterson, the church secretary, about some of the church ladies helping her out. They could come in and take turns watching him while Sam’s out running errands and a couple of them were in good enough health to help get him into his wheelchair so Sam could take him to the bathroom for a bath. Since they wouldn’t actually help with the bath, her father shouldn’t feel awkward about them being around. Feeling like she had a handle on things for the first time in a while, she bounded up the steps to her room.

CHAPTER 7

Riley watched amused as the blonde barreled south down the interstate into Birmingham. With the emotional tumult of the days before behind her, she found herself thinking about Sam most of the morning. Mainly she wondered if she had imagined Sam’s sudden awkwardness and withdrawal when she had Sam punch the bag the other day. Yet Sam had willingly held her hand after coming back from the lawyer.

It was hard for Riley to put away who she was, ignore the way she interacted with women, especially women she found attractive. And as much as she may hate to admit it, because this was definitely not the time or place for it, she did find Sam attractive. Time hadn’t deterred those feelings. There was an allure about the younger woman – an innocence and openness to life, something missing for too long in Riley’s heart – that drew her to Sam. Damn it! Riley ground her teeth together determined to keep her distance from the blonde. It was hard though with Sam so close.

She looked at the younger woman again. Her blonde hair fell from the ponytail in ringlets around her face. There wasn’t a drop of make-up on her face, but she was naturally beautiful. Her lips curled into a soft smile as she talked about some of the new attractions that had recently opened up in town. Apparently, there was a new planetarium on the edge of the city, and Sam became quite animated when she talked about the planets and stars, re-telling the myths surrounding the celestial names.

Riley smiled as she listened to Sam rattle off constellation information, while at the same time, she pushed down her own desire to stare endlessly at the younger woman. Images of the two of them lying on a blanket in an open field staring up at the stars and laughing flitted in and out of Riley’s mind. She shook her head to clear it of the image. It all felt so real, yet so impossible.

Sam was the epitome of the girl-next-door, and Riley had a hopeless weakness for that type. Susie Graham was proof of that, and that was a mistake Riley didn’t intend on making again. Besides, she reminded herself, she wasn’t here for that. In fact, she mentally reminded herself that she owed Dana a call soon about Phillip.

Heading the wrong way down the parking lot, Sam pulled into the closest spot to the store’s entrance. Riley always hated big box retail and looked up at the huge blue letters with a sigh. When she moved to Chicago, she made it her mission to shop at small, local stores. It was her way of sticking it to the big stores who ran the little guys out. In the city, it wasn’t hard to find neighborhood markets. Every corner seemed to have one. But, she was back in Alabama where it took a thirty minute drive on the interstate to even get to the edge of the city. Down here, avoiding the fill-in-the-blank marts was about as likely as seeing a deer at sunset.

They had barely made it down two store aisles when Riley already felt drained and tired. It didn’t faze Sam though. She seemed even more animated as she checked out the sale racks.

“Oh, these pants are adorable! Don’t you think so, Riley?”

Riley lifted her head from her chin resting in her hand, which was resting on the handle of the basket. “Oh, yeah, adorable.”

Sam carried a deep purple blouse over to Riley and held it up to her. “This would look great with your eyes.”

Riley looked down at it with barely withheld disgust. “It has kittens on it. Do I look like I wear stuff with kittens on it?”

“Yeah, well, except for the kittens.” Sam shrugged as she put the shirt back on the rack. “You’re not much of a shopper, are you?”

“Am I that obvious? I tried so hard to hide it!” Riley sarcastically replied.

The blonde teased her, tugging playfully on the basket. “Awww, come on. When in Rome?”

Riley glared at her, trying to hide the fact that Sam’s adorable pout had any effect on her. “Over my dead and cold body.”

Laughing, Sam shook her head and pulled on the front of the basket. “Come on, spoil sport!”

In short order, Sam found and attacked the seasonal decoration aisle, filling the basket with enough paper plates and cups for a small army.

“So, which one do you like?” The blonde held up a generic red, white, and blue table topper decoration in her right hand and an even more hideous version of it in her left. Sam jiggled the item in her right hand. “I kind of like this one because it’s simple, but the other has the neat fiber optic sparklers coming out of it.”

Riley gave her the same look as the one with the obnoxious shirt. “You must be a terror at Christmas!”

Sam laughed out loud. “Look, it’s either this or you’re going to be spending every night this week with me doing red, white, and blue color-by-numbers.”

Riley grimaced and pointed at the lesser of the two evils in Sam’s right hand. “Oh, don’t threaten me. That one, please!”

Sam grabbed a handful of table toppers, an equal handful of table covers and a mix and match variety of napkins decorated as the flag. Turning around, Sam brushed her hands together in accomplished satisfaction. “Okay, I think that’ll do. I’m hungry. Wanna get some lunch?”

Riley didn’t even hesitate with her answer, “Sure!” Then added under her breath, “Anything to stop shopping.”

On the way out, Sam deliberately went past the pants rack from before and pulled her size off.

Riley laughed. “You just couldn’t resist, could you?”

“Nope.”

*******

Both women had their heads deep in their menus trying to decide between the smart choice of a salad bar and the fun choice of a double bacon cheeseburger when the voice of their waitress interrupted them.

“Hey, my name’s Natalie. Can I get you ladies some drinks?” The woman rattled off the specials, not really paying attention, as she placed two coasters down on the table. “We have a 2-for-1 special on margaritas.”

Riley’s mouth watered at the thought of a good margarita, but knew that was not an option with the preacher’s daughter across the table from her. Sighing, she waited for Sam to give her order, but was taken back when Sam jumped up from her seat and hugged the waitress.

“Natalie? Natalie Smithfield? Oh my God, how are you?”

“Oh wow, Sammie! It’s been so long!” She pulled back and looked Sam over with an observant eye. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Sam sat back down. “I didn’t know you were back in town. I thought you went to school out west somewhere.”

“Southern Cal. Business, yeah. They didn’t tell me that general business majors are a dime a dozen, and that I’d end up back home working my way up to management. I could have done that without the degree! Oh well, school was great and I met a great guy there. We got married last year,” Natalie rattled off her life history, barely taking a breath then thrust her sparkling diamond ring at Sam.

Riley rolled her eyes, and had the urge to excuse herself to the restroom at Sam’s exuberant reaction. “Oh, that’s wonderful! Congratulations! So, any plans for kids?”

“Oh, believe me, we’re working on it.” Natalie giggled, feigning false embarrassment.

“If you two would excuse me.” Riley stood up. She started to walk away, then coming to a decision, turned back around. “I’ll have that margarita special, by the way.”

Natalie looked at the tall brunette seemingly for the first time, yet dismissing her all the same. “Sure.”

Sam watched Riley’s quickly retreating figure, when Natalie drew her attention back to her. “Hey, Sammie, is that Riley Jacobsen?”

“Yeah.”

Natalie sat down across from Sam, leaning over intent on some juicy gossip. “Oh my God, is she at that camp of yours? I heard what happened to her. I can’t believe she likes to,” Natalie stalled on the words and cast her eyes downward, “you know, to other women. That’s just gross!”

Sam squirmed, uncomfortable with where this was going. The mental image of Riley doing that to another woman wasn’t helping either. Sam felt her face grow hot.

“That’s my brother’s camp, not mine, and you know I can’t talk about who’s there and who isn’t.” Sam busied her hands by unrolling the wrapper holding her napkin and silverware together. She was more than ready for Natalie to leave. She really didn’t want to talk to her about this and she certainly didn’t want to talk to her about Riley.

“Well,” Natalie started to say and then stood, “I sure hope she’s getting some help. If she isn’t, then I’d watch out for her if I was you.”

Sam suddenly felt her ire rise at Natalie. She had a sinking feeling that nothing good was going to come of it, but she asked anyway, “What does that mean?”

“From what I’ve heard, she likes the young, innocent types. The younger, the better, if you know what I mean. You’d be just her type.” Natalie’s self-satisfied look made Sam feel sick to her stomach, but she wasn’t sure if it was from Natalie’s implication or Natalie herself. Maybe both, or something else entirely. Whatever it was, Sam felt like slapping the smirk from Natalie’s face.

“Well, you haven’t been around her for what…years? I don’t think you’re an expert on Riley Jacobsen, so until you have proof, maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself,” the blonde snapped at her old high school friend; the action surprising both her and Natalie.

Natalie gave her a disdainful look and stood. “I’m just worried about you. No need to get so testy.”

The blonde shook her head. Everyone assumed she was naïve, and it was becoming more difficult to ignore her annoyance the older she became. “In spite of popular opinion, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Unlike some people.”

The other woman stared down at Sam, anger flaring. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

A surprising calm settled over Sam and awareness came with it. Almost feeling pity for her former friend, she shrugged. “All the diamonds in the world won’t protect your heart, Natalie. That’s all I’m saying.”

Natalie had no retort so she huffed off in the direction of the kitchen, nearly running into Riley as the tall woman made her way back to the booth.

Riley sat down, mildly amused at Natalie. “Wow! She looked ticked. Is everything okay?”

Sam smiled at her, trying to put Natalie’s comments out of her mind. The last thing she wanted to do was tell Riley about it. “Yeah, her boss just came by and chewed her out for making chit chat.”

She noted Sam’s flushed cheeks and tight smile. She wasn’t buying the story, but it wasn’t worth seeing Sam more upset. Instead she played along. “That would make me mad too. I think I’m going to live it up and have the cheeseburger.”

“Great minds think alike!” Sam smiled genuinely.

Riley was relieved to see her friend relax. “Darn, and I thought maybe I was just a bad influence.”

“There is that,” Sam joked, rolling her eyes playfully.

A few minutes later, a server came by to drop off the drinks and another waitress appeared shortly to take their orders. Natalie never returned to their table, but Sam saw her across the restaurant taking orders from a large group of businessmen. Apparently, Natalie had traded off her table to another waitress and Sam couldn’t help but be relieved.

******

It was midafternoon when Sam and Riley made it back to the camp. Riley offered to help her unload their party stash before heading back to her place.

Riley had dropped the last bag on the kitchen counter when Johnnie came in the back door.

“Sam, did you get me some beer at the…?” He stopped mid-sentence when he saw the two women in the kitchen. With obvious disgust, he looked Riley up and down. “What are you doing here…with my sister?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Junior? I’m converting her to my evil ways.” It wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but Riley was finding it hard to control her temper around Sam’s brother. She hadn’t liked Johnnie in school, especially after some of the tricks he pulled once he knew she was gay, and she really didn’t like him now. The fact that he seemed to treat Sam as nothing more than convenient slave labor wasn’t helping his case.

“That’s not funny,” he growled at Riley.

Riley stepped forward, instinctively ready to respond, but Sam intercepted her by moving in front of her. A gentle hand on her forearm drew Riley’s eyes back down to pleading green. “Thanks for your help getting this stuff in, Riley. I really appreciate it.”

Sam’s eyes sent the message loud and clear, and Riley stepped back, giving a quick nod of acknowledgement. “Sure, no problem.”

John glared as he watched the exchange and his icy eyes followed Riley as she headed out the door. When he looked back at his sister, she was busy putting away food in the refrigerator.

“Samantha,” he started with his warning voice, but Sam cut him off hoping to deter him.

“I forgot the beer. I’m sorry. I’ll go back in a little while and get it.” The blonde didn’t look at her brother as she worked.

“Hear me. Don’t let your guard down with her. She’s a predator, just like the rest, and she’ll latch on to you because you trust too easily. You’re naïve, and you have no idea what these people are like.” He huffed out.

Sam ground her teeth together at being talked to like a child for the second time today. When she didn’t respond, John slammed his hand down on the counter with a loud smack. “Answer me!”

Sam jumped, immediately responding, “Yeah, okay. I hear you.”

“Good.” He opened the refrigerator and pulled the last beer from it. “Yeah, maybe you should go back tonight for the beer. This is the last one.”

“Sure,” she muttered as he walked into the living room to cut on the television.

She went upstairs to check on her father, who was sleeping soundly. She looked at the chart and saw that the day nurse had given him a dose of morphine two hours ago. She checked to make sure his diaper didn’t need changing and when she was confident that he would be okay until she returned, she gave him a kiss on the forehead and left the house again.

Before she drove off in her car, she dialed Mrs. Peterson to talk to her about Bobby’s suggestion of getting the ladies of the church to help out with her father.

After several rings, the line was picked up by voice mail. Sam thought that was odd because Mrs. Peterson rarely leaves the house after dark, and her husband’s cataracts are so bad that he can’t drive at night anyway. Shrugging it off, she left a message after the beep then pulled out of the driveway to head back to the store.

******

The sun was setting as Sam made her way back into camp. She slowed to a crawl when she got close to Riley’s house. Pulling to a stop next to the walkway that led to Riley’s door, Sam tapped her fingers nervously against the steering wheel, debating the logic of dropping in on her. Taking a deep breath, she made her decision and got out of the car. She jogged to the door before she could talk herself out of it. She looked through the window and saw Riley on the back deck rhythmically punching the bag. Instead of risking her life a second time, she walked around so she was in Riley’s line of sight.

Riley stopped when she saw her approach, and smiled. “Smart girl! You learned.”

“Maybe. Sometimes I doubt my logic.” Sam shrugged and slowly climbed the steps up to the deck. Riley tilted her head a little and took in the sad countenance of the younger woman. She was about to speak when Sam broke in, “Look, I’m sorry about Johnnie.”

“Don’t apologize for him. It’s okay. Besides,” she smiled wickedly at Sam, “he gave me focus for my workout.” With that, she let loose with a rapid fire succession of punches and kicks that stunned Sam. She watched as the weighted bag moved a few inches back along the deck.

“Wow! Did you train to hit like that?”

Riley shrugged. “I took a few kickboxing lessons in college, but got bored with them. I just really needed something to take my aggression out on.”

The blonde squinted at Riley, considering what she knew of the other woman’s past. “I guess after growing up here you needed that.”

Riley chuckled and pulled her gloves off. “You could say that.” She watched as Sam’s green eyes glanced at the bag, then back to her, as if contemplating something before stepping forward, motioning for the gloves.

“Show me.”

“Ah, ha! I knew I’d tempt you to do my evil bidding!” Sam laughed at Riley’s fake evil laugh.

The brunette slipped the gloves onto the small hands and showed her the basic fighting stance, but Sam was still too squared off. “Almost. Not quite. Here, let me show you.”

She stepped behind Sam and placed her hands on the smaller woman’s hips, guiding her into position. Sam had her hands up, in a fighting pose, when she felt Riley’s hands caress the bare skin along her waist where her t-shirt was riding up. A rush raced through her body, and she struggled with the urge to lean back into Riley or simply run away. The dueling emotions warred within her faster than she could analyze and it left her feeling excited but unsettled too.

As hard as she tried, Riley couldn’t stop her hands from softly touching the exposed skin. She knew she shouldn’t do it. She knew she was playing with fire. Nothing would get her kicked out faster than making a move on the preacher’s daughter.

As quickly as it started, Riley cleared her throat and pulled away. “That’s it. Now let’s see a punch.”

A part of Sam was disappointed when Riley moved away, and she tucked away the emotions it provoked for another time. The blonde shook her head to clear it of the dizzy feeling that had come over her. Using the adrenaline pumping through her veins from Riley’s touch, she reared back and threw the hardest punch she could muster.

“Not bad.” Riley quirked a dark eyebrow and smiled. “How did it feel?”

Sam nodded, putting her gloved hands on her hips. “Good. I think I can see what the fuss is all about.”

Riley smirked at her teasingly. “Want to do some more?”

The blonde crinkled her nose and nodded giddily. “Yeah.”

“Well, alright!” Riley went into full teacher mode and gave Sam some more instructions. “Now, when you throw a punch this time, I want you to put your whole body into it. Women are stronger in the legs so to get the full effect of a good punch, you need to twist from the hips and put the power of your legs behind it. Like this.”

Riley demonstrated slowly for Sam, twisting at the hips like she had told her. Sam watched the muscles of Riley’s thighs bunch and tighten. She had the urge to reach out and touch the sweat-glistened skin and feel the muscles move under her fingers. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

A hard thwack snapped Sam out of it. Riley had finished her demonstration and Sam had completely zoned out thinking about things she had no business thinking. Suddenly, she pulled off the gloves and handed them over to the brunette. She had to get her bearings and put some distance between herself and Riley.

“I better go.”

Riley looked at her puzzled, but let it go. “Um, okay, sure. Come by any time you need to hit something,” she joked.

“I’ll remember that.” Sam smiled tremulously, but Riley noticed it didn’t reach her eyes. She watched the blonde leave, not quite sure what had just happened.

When Sam rounded the corner of the house, she broke into a run. She didn’t stop until she reached the creek a few hundred feet past the property line of the church. She fell to her knees and looked up to the swaying branches above her.

“Help me. Show me the way. I can’t go through this again, Lord,” her whispered plea dissipated on the humid air, mocking her with silence in her time of need. Slowly, from deep within, a pain she had long ignored surfaced and the helpless cries came with it until she was doubled over with her head in her hands.

*********

When Sam entered the house, she heard laughter coming from the living room. Seated in front of the TV watching some random sitcom she didn’t recognize was Johnnie and Bobby. Bobby jumped up when she came in and gave her a friendly hug. “Hey, baby!”

Sam patted his back and moved to the refrigerator for some water. “Hey…what are you doing here?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled at her sweetly. “Just thought I’d drop by. I hope that’s okay. Where in the world were you anyway? I looked all over for you.”

Sam bit her lip and tried to act nonchalant. “I went for a walk. It was kind of nice out tonight.”

Bobby looked over his shoulder at Johnnie. “Too bad, I was kind of hoping we could take a walk. There’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight. Thought it would be cool to see.”

Sam watched Bobby shift uneasily on his feet and put his hands in his back pockets. It was a nervous gesture she noticed when he asked her out the first time. Anytime he had something big or important to tell her, he did a nervous shuffle and tucked his hands away. Suddenly, her mouth went dry, and she didn’t even want to be in the same room with him. Something felt off kilter and surreal. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Johnnie stand up.

“I think that’s my cue to leave.” He nodded to Bobby and headed out the door.

Sam swallowed hard and looked back to Bobby.

“Can we talk, Sam?” he asked hopefully.

“Bobby, I’ve had a busy day. I really just want to get a shower and go to sleep.” After dealing with Natalie’s condescending attitude and Johnnie’s demands, then to face the tumultuous emotions that Riley evoked in her, Sam was drained. She didn’t have much left to give and all she wanted was to be alone.

“Please? It’s important,” Bobby begged, making Sam feel guilty and even cruel.

She sighed and made a decision. “Okay. Let’s talk.”

Bobby walked into the living room and sat on the sofa, taking the liberty to cut off the television. Sam regretted the loss of the distraction. Right now, she really wanted to imagine that none of this was happening or pretend she didn’t hear anything Bobby was saying. She sat safely on the edge of the recliner across from Bobby.

He looked at her oddly. “What are you doing way over there? Come here, baby.” He reached out for her. Instead of taking the proffered hand though, she slid over slightly but not close enough for them to touch.

He shook his head and shrugged. “Okay.”

Sam raised her hand to stop him from saying anything else. “Bobby…”

“Wait, Samantha. Please, let me say this. If I don’t, I may never get the nerve up again,” he said and slid closer to her on the sofa, finally close enough to take her hand in his. “I know this is moving kind of quick, and that we’ve only been dating for a few months. But we’ve known each other forever and I really care about you. I…love you, and I need for you to know it. I want everyone else to know it too.”

He reached into his pocket and produced a small black box. Sam closed her eyes as her head started to spin. She put her hand over the box to stop him from opening it and looked into his eyes, the now confused and vulnerable look in them making tears spill from her own easily. He didn’t deserve this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. None of it felt right to her.

She whispered around the lump in her throat, “Don’t…please. Don’t do this.”

“But I…I don’t understand. I thought…,” his voice broke at the realization that his proposal wasn’t going to go as he had hoped. He gritted his teeth to hold back tears he refused to let fall. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

“Bobby, you’re a great guy. I like you, but I don’t...” Sam fought to get the words out around the lump in her throat.

“I even asked Johnnie for your hand. I bet he’s out telling everyone we’re getting hitched.” Bobby made a quick swipe at his eyes before Sam could see the tears.

She hated what she was doing to him. “I’m sorry. I should have said something sooner. I just don’t feel the same way about you.”

Anger was starting to win over the hurt and humiliation, and he lashed out at her, “Yeah, why did you do that? Why did you lead me on?”

She ran her fingers through her hair and shook her head. “I wasn’t trying to. I just realized not long ago that I didn’t feel the same way about you. I thought I did at one time, and then I thought that if I tried hard enough, I would. But I don’t. It’s not your fault, Bobby. It’s me. And you deserve better.”

“That’s the best you’ve got? A cliché?” Bobby just looked at her sadly, then stood and walked to the door.

Sam stood as well. “Bobby, don’t go.”

He turned back with his hand on the knob, his voice cracking with emotion. “Why shouldn’t I? There’s no reason for me to stay.”

“But we’re friends too…right?” she pleaded.

Hot tears fell freely down his rugged and stubbly cheek. He had tried to hide them, but he didn’t even care anymore. “We were. But a real friend would have told me the truth a long time ago, before I fell in love with you.”

When the door closed behind him, she finally let the sob she had been holding in free. Dropping her head into her hands, she let the tears come. Seeing Bobby heartbroken and crying had hurt more than she thought it would, and remembering the look in his eyes made fresh tears come. After a few minutes though, she let out a deep, cleansing breath. For the first time in years, she felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. She felt like she could finally breathe.

She was still sitting in the dark when Johnnie came home. She slunk deeper into the cushions, hoping he wouldn’t see her. The last thing she wanted to deal with today was his cruelty.

He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. Popping the top, he leaned against the counter still facing away from her. His voice was chillingly calm, “I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking, but don’t do something stupid. You still have time to fix this. I suggest you do it.”

Without another word, he climbed the steps, leaving Sam alone in the dark.

*****

The storage facility was non-descript and on a bad side of town, far removed from the upscale lawyer’s office Riley and Sam had been to only a few days before. Bennie, the facility manager, walked, if you could call his hobble that, the two women past several seemingly endless rows of storage sheds. With a grunt and a curse about his “bum knee,” Bennie turned to the left and pointed to a shed on the right numbered fifty-three.

“Dat’s it, right cher,” he said in his thick Southern accent.

Even after being gone for a few years, Riley could easily discern his meaning. “Thanks.” She took the key as the old man turned to leave.

“You jus’ drop her off when ya done,” he said with a wave as he walked off.

Sam noticed the weary sigh and reached out to touch Riley’s arm. “Are you up for this? You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Yes, I do. I can’t explain why. I just…” Riley’s words drifted off. She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to say. She turned the key in the lock and the internal mechanism popped loose. With a small nudge, the metal door receded along the ceiling allowing the sunlight to fall over the boxes and knick-knacks strewn haphazardly across the small space.

Sam watched her friend as she took several hesitant steps into the shed and ran her hand over a dusty desk.

“This had been in my room,” Riley spoke over her shoulder, but she was talking so softly that she could have easily been speaking to herself.

Even through the dust and neglect, Sam could see it had been a beautiful piece. She walked over and stood next to the brunette, resting her smaller hand on the top of the desk and let her fingers trace a deep gouge in the wood. She could see the faded marks made by an ink pen, and she wondered fondly if Riley had filled in the space on a bored night of her youth.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

Riley turned to her when she spoke as if seeing her for the first time. “Yes, it is.”

Slowly, Sam blinked and leaned forward. She could feel the heat radiate off the taller woman and the scent of warm skin kissed by the sun. She held her breath when Riley glanced down at her lips and angled towards her. The blood rushed through Sam’s veins at the look as her heart began to pound against her rib cage. She squeezed her eyes shut and broke the contact. Stepping away, she squeaked out, “Is it an antique?” She turned her back to Riley and braced herself against a pile of boxes. Lifting a hand, she could see the visible tremor. She swallowed trying to regain some composure.

Riley was no idiot. Something had happened just then. She had felt that inexplicable tug of attraction, a wickedly fast pulse of desire deep in her belly, and then she felt the pain of withdrawal as the blonde pulled away from her. The sudden switch of emotions made her dizzy and unfocused. Taking a deep breath, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and resolved to keep her senses about her.

Moving to a box on the far end of the shed, Riley opened it as she answered Sam’s question, “Actually, yes, it is an antique. My mom went through a phase of wanting to have nice things. Since we couldn’t afford to buy them directly, I think she must have hit up nearly every estate and garage sale in a fifty mile radius. Part of it, I think, was to get away from dad and I.”

Feeling more in control, Sam looked over at the brunette as she lifted a set of books out of a box and read the spines. She brushed a hand tenderly over the books and set them aside. “Do you mind if I look too?”

Blue eyes turned to her and a friendly but distant smile greeted her. “No, of course not.”

Nodding, Sam opened the box closest to her. “So, you don’t talk much about your dad. I know he left when we were still in school, but that’s all I know.”

At the bottom of the box she was looking through, Riley saw a picture album. She picked it up and flipped it open. “Honestly, that’s all I know too. My mom wouldn’t talk about him. It was like he dropped off the face of the earth.”

Riley smiled as she ran a finger over a picture. Walking over to Sam, who looked up as she came closer and stepped back slightly, she pointed to the picture she had noticed. “That was him. He loved that motorcycle. He’d take me riding on it almost every weekend as long as it wasn’t raining.”

Tears were running down her face before she even realized it. Quickly, she brushed them away and turned from Sam.

Sam reached up to comfort her, running her fingers across Riley’s back. She felt the flinch and jerked back. Riley sniffed and walked back to her side of the shed, but she spoke to her as she moved, “We need to get moving looking through this crap. We’ll be here all day if we don’t get a move on. Say, if you see anything else like this album, take it out, okay? I doubt random pictures of people would interest anyone at an auction anyway.”

Even though Riley chuckled at her last comment, Sam could still feel her pain. She wanted to comfort her, but Riley obviously didn’t want it. She sighed and looked back at the box she’d opened. Over the next two hours, she steadily looked through every box on her side of the shed and pulled out the items that Riley would want the most. In one box, Sam found a picture of the brunette in her basketball uniform. There were several other pictures similar to it so she picked her favorite and pocketed it, glancing quickly over her shoulder to make sure Riley didn’t see.

On the ride back to camp, Riley was more withdrawn than usual. It took everything Sam had not to reach for the brunette’s hand. She wanted to connect with her, draw her out so desperately it was like some animal trying to claw its way out of her body. To occupy her hands, she bit at her nails, a bad habit she’d given up years ago. Now it was back with a vengeance. She turned the radio up, watched the birds fly in the sky, and tried to fill her head with any number of random thoughts in an effort to not think about the beautiful woman next to her and the blue eyes that riveted her in place earlier and made her shake.

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t realize Riley had parked in front of her house until the older woman turned down the radio and cleared her throat.

“Thanks for going with me, Sam,” Riley said as she did anything but look at her.

The blonde shrugged happily hoping to lighten the mood a little. “It’s the least I could do for torturing you with shopping.”

“At least you didn’t make me buy that ugly kitten shirt,” Riley joked.

Sam smiled, feeling better now that the other woman was poking fun at her. “Well, there’s always your birthday…and Christmas, don’t forget Christmas.”

Riley groaned at the suggestion making both of them chuckle. Suddenly, their eyes locked and the awkward silence was back. Riley sucked in a deep breath and looked away. “I better go. Thanks again.”

Feeling a little hurt by the abruptness of Riley’s tone but not knowing how to address it, Sam reached for the door handle and opened the door. “Night, Riley.”

Riley glanced at her briefly, forcing a smile. “Night.”

Watching the Jeep pull away from the curb and drive in the opposite direction of the camp, Sam mumbled to herself in frustration, “Way to go, Sam!”

Driving into the darkening night, Riley hit the steering wheel. “Damn it! What are you doing? Don’t be stupid!” She punched the accelerator as the road straightened out, feeling the need to get as far away as possible from Sam and the goddamn camp.