Welcome to What-A-Burger @janewithay
Chapter 12: Down the Drain

Chapter 12

Down the Drain

When outworn with weary thinking, sight and thought were waxing dim, and my mind began to wander, and my brain began to swim, then those hands outstretched to save me seemed to call me back again -

***WTWAB***

The ride back to Miss Vick's is tense, at least on my part; I simply can't seem to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn't James after me; it was Boots.

Boots, the smart-mouthed, red-neck, with the green eyes and the perfect hands that held me and made me feel safer than I've ever felt in my life, bar none.

Boots, the grown-up version of the little boy, who wore his cowboy boots everywhere, even to the town pool.

Boots, the boy who once ran but who now clings to everything he holds dear.

Boots, the hard-working, simple man, who was unlucky in love, but so fortunate to have friends, family and a community to love, support and nurture him.

Boots, the man with the southern drawl, quick temper, foul mouth, but from all accounts, has a heart of gold.

Boots, the man who scooped me in his arms and made me feel safe.

Edward, the lover, who made my body come alive, my heart soar, and my soul sing.

And to think I left him there, all alone. What if James had been there; what then? He could have killed him. I never even thought of his safety, only that of my own.

I'm a terrible person. He was so sweet to me, and this is how I repay him? And what if James had gotten to him … how would I ever have faced his family, or worse, his little girl?

Girl, you fucked things up, royally, and that's a fact. Mmph.

"Annabelle, will you quit fidgeting back there? I declare your leg is agitating the backseat of the car so much that I'm half-convinced the engine is about to fall out!" Yells, Rose.

It's Bella," I say quietly. No point in perpetuating the lie any longer. I've already told Boots, and these girls deserve to know at least some of my truth.

Nonplussed, Rose and Alice simply smile at each other.

"I told you so," Quips, Alice. "I knew Bell wasn't right. Bella … yep, that sounds more like you, hun. It's such a strong name – suits you to a T.

I don't respond to her statement – my mind is still too overwhelmed, and my nerves are on fire. I dread going back to Miss Vicks. I dread seeing Boots. Guilt, shame, and remorse cloak themselves around me like old friends. Well, they're not exactly good friends, but at least they're loyal.

"Honey, if you're worried about Ole Boots running himself ragged in Miss Shelly's vintage tablecloth, you can set your mind at ease. I might not have picked up his sorry-ass, but I'm not a first class bitch; I did call Jake. Look there – see? That's him heading his way now. Lord … I guess it gives a whole new meaning to Boot's Tow and Go, and that's the truth."

I look out the window to see Boots' tow truck flying past us in a faded blur.

My stomach clenches.

"Release them butterflies, Bella! He'll be fine; pissed, yes, but fine. Besides, he's got to pick up that pup from Miss Pig's; she called the Burger just before we left. That's how we knew where y'all were; said she sent y'all to the spring. Don't think we didn't give her shit for that, either. Lord."

At this comment, I sit up straight. "Alice, what does that mean, exactly?"

"What does what mean, Shug?"

"About going to the spring; Edw-I mean, Boots said something similar, that's all," I stammer.

"Huh." She turns around in her seat, gives me a considering look for a moment, and then flashes me a grin.

"Well, okay … so, legend has it that if you want to get someone to fall in love with you; like real, forever-kind-of-love, then you take them up to the spring. Now, if you just want a little slap and tickle, you go to the spring but you don't get in the spring … that's only for them that want the real deal - not for the ones who just want to scratch an itch. Know what I mean?"

Uh, that would be a no. Huh?

"What she's trying to say, hun, is that the water is reserved for couples who want to get themselves hitched, see? Like, say one of you is really interested in getting married and all, but maybe the feller, well, he ain't so keen. I mean, he loves you and all, but he's got cold feet and what not. That's when the girl says to herself, Lord … that dumbass is one slow Stanley; I'd better haul his hiney to the spring for the day and fake a drowning, and maybe ole Lou will finally get a clue. Know what I mean?"

I really don't … maybe ole Lou can sell me his clue.

"Oh, my lord."

"He didn't?"

"The hell he did."

"Girl … did Boots get you in that water or did y'all just sit and stare at it while y'all ate ya'll's picnic?"

"Um …"

"Well, SHEE-IT."

"I done tried to tell you, Rose …"

"I know you did, Ali, but Boots has sworn himself off women for the past five years; what in the hell was he thinking?"

"It's the way it's meant to be Rose. I told him years ago how it was gonna unfold."

"I know - right state, wrong girl. I remember. But still. Shee-it."

That gets my attention.

"What do you mean, Right state, wrong girl?"

"Nothing," she says, a little too quickly.

"No … I know it means something; Boots said something about it to me earlier."

"Oh, what did he say, hun?"

"Well – uh – I mean … he …"

"Damn, that shit-ass cat's back Ali. Quick, get him out of the car before he get's Bella's tongue again. Lord."

I chuckle in spite of myself.

"I'm sorry, it's just … well, I'm not used to opening up to people; especially strangers."

"Oh honey, I think we went way past being strangers the second I pried your bony, frozen fingers away from the steering wheel inside that sorry-broken-down- truck you were sitting in a few days back, don't you?"

"Yes, I suppose we did," I admit.

"So spill."

"Okay, well, Boots mentioned his first wife was from Massachusetts –"

"Pft … she thought her tony ass was from Massachusetts, but she was nothing but a foster kid, same as us. Now her daddy might have been from up north, who knows? That girl - she always did have stars in her eyes and her inner compass said due north, so she followed that constellation to her untimely death. I tried to warn her but she would she listen? No indeed. And now she's gone and left that sweet lil girl of hers without a mother; shameful."

"Tis," agrees, Rose.

"Well, aside from something that, Boots also mentioned something about …"

"About?"

I sit and play with my hands not knowing how much I should divulge.

"Oh, would you just spit it the hell out?"

"Me. He said something about me."

'Well, what about you? Lord, it's like pulling teeth out of a live bear."

"Just that he said Alice told him I was coming."

At this Rose pulls the car off the road.

"Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit; don't tell me he finally got his head out of his ass? And to think he didn't even need a referral from Daddy."

"Daddy's a doctor," says Alice. Apparently, my face looks as confused as I feel.

Okay, that makes so much more sense. Huh?

"Never mind that, snaps, Rose. "This is huge, Ali. Boots never believed nothing you told him before, and now look; he's wooing her with passages straight out of the Alice Brandon Book of Revelations."

Alice rolls her eyes and turns to me saying, "Bella, what else did he tell you, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Just that I looked familiar and that was why he got so mad the first time he saw me."

"Hmm. Well, I declare, it's about time he started listening to his baby sister," she says, satisfied.

"Well, don't look now, but here he comes with Jake."

"Oh, hell – and Miss Vick was counting on that show-down in her backyard, too."

The butterflies in my stomach give way to nausea, and I feel like I am about to throw up.

I look up in time to see them slow down to a crawl, right beside Rose's car. Our eyes meet and lock for a brief moment. I watch his as his anger flashes and then changes to something else; hurt? He turns his face away from me and says something to the driver. The man nods his head and pulls on past. He doesn't look back.

"Whew … crisis averted; I guess Miss Vick's gonna get her show after all. Let's go home before she loses her mind or gets into her daddy's spirits again."

***WTWAB***

Ten minutes later, we pull into the circular driveway in front of Miss Vick's house. Before we even have an opportunity to open our doors, a car is behind us; a long, sleek, black sedan that appears to be from another era; the early sixties, perhaps?

I hear her before I see her; the high-pitched voice of a very excited, little girl.

"Ant Rosie … Ant Al … look and see what Mama Shelly bought me at Miss Pig's … just you wait and see … I can't wait to show Daddy; he's not even gonna believe his eyes! Come quick now and see what I got; they're bee-yoo-tee-ful!"

The girls laugh, good-naturedly, and hop out of the car. I sit in the back seat, wringing my hands.

"NO –no … where's Mizz Bee? She has to see too; come- quick and see my pretty mentionables, Mizz Bee!"

I look up to see the sweet, freckled face of Boots' daughter peering into the window. She struggles to open the door with her small hand, but it's difficult when her arms are full of bags and packages. They're full to the brim, bursting at the seams and spilling over the top. I can see a pop of pink and white lace and a splash of purple-plaid peeking out from the top of a pale blue bag. I can't help but smile back at her.

Alice helps her open the door, and I tumble out (my legs and feet are so sore that I can barely stand let alone walk.)

"Ro, I think you'd better take over here with Miss Bella; poor child needs some help getting in the house, and I've got my hands full with Elizabeth."

"What's wrong with Mizz Bee's feet; where's your shoes?" She turns to speak to me directly.

"Did you throw out your shoes because they were ugly? I did that on my first day of school. My daddy bought me the ugliest shoes you ever saw, I declare … just as ugly as dog dirt. I told him I didn't want them, but he made me get 'em, and as soon as I got to school, I threw them in the trash. I got in trouble too, and Daddy said it served me right for being an into-grate."

I laugh in spite of myself; how old is this child; seven? She talks like a little old woman!

"Ingrate," I correct her gently, without checking myself.

'Yes, Ma'm an into-grate. He said I had to realize that there were children who didn't have feet, let alone shoes; ugly or not. He made me feel real bad about that too; he made me cry. But I spose he was right, so I got them out of the janitor's trash the next day, and I wore them until my feet hurt. Then Daddy bought me the most beautiful pair of red shoes with sparkles and –"

'Elizabeth Marie Cullen! I swear you could chew the ear off a brass monkey. Now go on in the house and show Miss V what all you got down at Miss Pigs; I declare that child just bout wore me out this afternoon. Lord," calls out Miss Shelly from the top of the porch.

"My middle name is Marie, too," I tell her without thinking. I blink twice; why is it always so easy to confess things to a child?

"It is? Daddy always said he loved that name; it's French for Mary. Mary is a pretty name too, but it's kinda plain ... I like fancy names better. I wish I had a fancy first name; Elizabeth isn't fancy; it's beagle."

Beagle? I look at her face all pink and shining and smile as realization is finally made clear in my tired mind.

"Do you mean, regale?"

"Yup; just like a Queen. Daddy says there are a hundred and one nicknames for it, so I plan on trying them all out to see if one of them strikes my fancy."

"Queen Elizabeth's nickname is Lilibet."

"Uh-huh, Mee-maw said so. I tried that one out last week. But I like French names best. I wish my name was Veronique."

"Elizabeth, you best get your tail in the house before Miss Shelly comes after it with a switch," says, Alice.

I cringe at her words.

"A switch? Oh, no ... she wouldn't hit would she? I'd hate …"

"Oh, hush … Boots wouldn't let us touch one red hair on that precious head of hers let alone tan her hide. Lord, no. Not that we'd ever want to anyway -it's just an expression. We have other ways of dealing with an ornery child round here, believe you me," Alice laughs, pulling Elizabeth's hand. She flashes a toothless grin and waves shyly at me with her too-full hand.

"Now, come on honey," says Rose. "Let's get you inside, and I'll take you upstairs and run you a bath. You need to soak your feet in some salts."

Elizabeth follows behind Alice, laughing and spilling the contents merrily as she climbs the steps. Miss Shelly picks the plaid bra off the steps and sighs, then smiles. I can hear Elizabeth calling for Miss Vick to come see her mentionables from the bottom of the stairs.

"Is she always like this?"

"Lord, yes. That child came into the world with her mouth wide open, and it hasn't shut up since. Poor Daddy had to take a tonic after he delivered her; said he never heard such caterwauling from a newborn in his life."

"She is rather precocious," I admit."

"She's a mess, is what she is," laughs Rose. "Now let's sneak inside through the back door before Miss Vick catches sight of us; you're sure to give her the vapors with that sad, too-big dress of mine; why it's hanging off you." She looks at me strangely and grins. "I guess you must have been in an awfully big hurry; you got that damn thing on backward. Lord have mercy; what they don't teach you gals in Massachusetts is a lot. I sure got my work cut out for me this summer, and that's the truth.

"This summer? But I –"

"Oh, hush … you ain't goin nowhere fast, girl. It's about time someone told you to sit your butt down and let your brain catch up with your feet. Might as well be me."

***WTWAB***

Fifteen minutes later, I find myself sitting in a large, white claw-foot tub, the bottom is so old and worn that it feels almost gritty against my rear end, but I don't mind. I lie back against the porcelain and rest my head on a small bath pillow.

The room is large, dramatic and dark. The single window is shuttered and surrounded by a fussy curtain of gray and lavender flowers. The paint is a deep shade of purple – so dark that it almost appears to be charcoal. The tub sits in the center of the room with the faucets to the front and my head to the doorway. The entire monstrosity is shrouded by a billowing curtain of white illusion.

Rose lit a large candle that sits on the back of the commode. The soft flickers cast long shadows on the walls, creating dream-like characters. I find myself sinking back into the lavender scented waters. The scent is calming, as she assured me it would be, and soon I find my body relaxing, even as my mind is conjuring up every possible scenario involving Boots. I both dread and long to see him.

I know I have to apologize to him but more importantly, I want to explain myself. I owe him that much. His face; that look of hurt that crossed over his handsome features when I brushed his hand away as he tried to smooth back my hair.

I'll never forget that look. Or regret it more. Why did I do that?

Because you were scared.

And also, because you're stupid.

The door opens a crack. I sit up, grab a face cloth to cover my breasts and look over my shoulder, startled.

"It's only me, hun," whispers, Rose. "I wanted to bring you that shampoo I was telling you about earlier; it'll make your hair shine like a new penny. It brings out all the chestnut highlights. I bought it for Alice, but her hair just won't shine anything but black."

I reach for the bottle, but she shoos away my hand.

"No, you just relax – I'll do it for you; just scootch up a bit so I can work it into your scalp real good. You're sposed to leave this in for five minutes and then put the conditioner on it and leave it in for another ten." She takes a pitcher of warm water and pours it over my head. It feels wonderful.

"Shit – I forgot the conditioner. You just relax, and I'll be back in a jiff," she says, drawing the flowing, sheers. It shrouds the tub and adds to the dreaminess of the room. I feel like I am inside a cloud.

I lie back in the warm water and decide it's growing too cool. I turn the hot water back on to warm it, but the heat of the water mixing in with the cool reminds me painfully of the spring.

And Boots.

I shut it off just as Rose reenters the room. I hear the door close and the quiet click of the lock.

"Shh," she says, quietly, drawing the curtain and sitting behind me. I don't turn around; instead, I surrender to her administrations and try to turn off my restless mind.

Her hands feel strong and capable as they work the shampoo into a lather. Is there anything better than having someone wash your hair? Probably, but if I had to write a catalog of the top pleasures in life, this would certainly make my list.

I lean into her hands as they remove all traces of the day; from the first kiss to the last tear. I find myself welling up anew at the thought of them vanishing into the foamy waters of the tub that will soon be drained and gone forever.

"Shh …" she mummers again as she continues to rub, stroke, and tease through the tangles and snarls of my hair, my day, and my life.

She pours the water over my head, and I close my eyes as it washes over me. I know it's ridiculous, but in these few precious moments, I feel cared for in ways that I haven't felt since I was a child.

Her hands touch me like someone who cares for me – cares about me. They're a mother's tender touch. A father's playful pat. A sister's teasing tug. They're familiar and friendly and God … they make me feel safe and loved.

Have I ever felt this way; safe and loved by the simple touch of someone's hands?

Certainly, Renee had loved me, but she was never one to bathe and care for my physical needs. I can't recall a single instance when she ever gave me a bath or washed my hair. Aunt Margaret definitely loved me, but by the time I came into her life, I was far too independent for her to bathe. Besides; she was never overly demonstrative; a hug from her was rare and when given, was always special and felt like a reward. Charlie … well, my father was never one for physical affection either. He was loving in the way that a father is who rarely sees his child due to separation from divorce. There were always presents and promises that he meant to keep, but didn't or couldn't, and then he died.

Rose's hands continue to caress my neck and shoulders. Her strong fingers trail down my spine, massaging me gently. Her touch … it still feels gentle and loving, but it's no longer familial in nature, although it is familiar.

I sit up, confused.

It feels more like a lover's –

Bang Bang Bang!

"Hey … are you okay in there, sugar? Why'd you lock the door?"

My eyes fly open, and I swing myself around, but the hands that were so gently caressing me just seconds ago, stop my movement.

"Tell her you're fine and that you just need a minute," he whispers in my ear.

I shiver in the water, which has grown cold … colder than the ice running through my blood, if that were possible.

I do as he asks – I'd know that voice anywhere. A tear falls from my eye before I can check it. It rolls down my cheek, over my chin, and into the tub, with a plop. Another soon follows, but a long finger, clean, white, and elegant, reaches out to stop its journey before it winds its way past my nose.

"Okay," I hear her call, faintly. But I'm too fixated on his fingers … they're stopping my tears. They're caressing my face. They're cupping my cheek.

He comes from behind to face me. I see him in the shadowy light of the candle … His eyes … so questioning, so soft, so tender, and so very green.

"Boots … I'm so –"

"Hush," he whispers. He leans forward and softly, strokes my face once more.

I reach to touch him, but he stops my hand before it can make contact with his skin. He holds it in his for a moment and then places it on the side of the tub.

I watch and wait.

He's wearing a pair of coveralls - the kind the men wear when they're working on automobiles. It's clean, but not his – the name embroidered on the pocket says, Jake.

I squint to see him more clearly, but it's too hard … my eyes are full of tears.

Even so, I can read his face like a map. I follow each hard line and worried crease of his journey, and it makes my heart ache to know that I'm the one who blazed this trail.

"Boots … please …."

"No."

He stops my words with his mouth.

His kiss is surprisingly tender. I open my mouth to apologize, but he kisses the words away before they have a chance to form. I try to kiss him in return, but when I do his lips leave mine and find their way to my forehead, where they pause and linger oh-so-briefly.

He sits back on his heels, and I watch his eyes and face harden.

"This is what we could have had … you and me. Nights spent like this … just the two of us, sitting in the shadows, with me washing your long, dark hair, then making love for hours and maybe … maybe, even loving you. But you'll never know, we'll never know because you didn't give us a chance to find out. Alice was wrong, and I was a fool to listen, I guess. "

"No … Boots … No." I stand in the cold water and let it run down my body. I'm cold and shivering, but it doesn't matter … I can't let him leave. I have to make him stay … I have to let him know how sorry I am, that I want to stay … that he needs to know what happened to me and why I ran. I need … I need for him to know me.

He hands me a towel. I grab it from him and wrap it around myself quickly, just as I watch him turn to the door.

"Edward!"

He stops at the door and turns to face me.

"Goodbye, Bella."

He unlocks the door with a click, and it swings open wide. My heart slams shut with a thud, as he walks into the hall, and out of my life.

I stand there, in the middle of the tub, with my mouth open. All the words I wanted to say to him are still poised on the tip of my tongue, but he's gone. I close my mouth slowly. Failure to launch, mission aborted.

The room is silent, save for the drip, plop, swish of the bath water.

"Well, what in the ever-loving-hell are you waiting for; Christmas? I declare, some girls just don't have a lick of sense. You've used those feet to run from someone so many times I guess you've forgotten they know how to run towards someone, too."

I look at the wizened face of Miss Vick and watch her pluck a chopstick from her faded red and white bun. I feel my eyes grow round as she comes towards me and points it at my chest.

"Wha -"

"Oh don't be such a ninny, Crowsie," she says, punctuating her words with the chopsticks like they're a symphony and she's a composer.

"Go and get your man!"

"He's – he's not my man," I cry in the sudsy, cold water. She leans over and plucks out the stopper with her gnarled, bejeweled, hand.

"No, and he never will be if you let him walk out that door. Now, stop over-thinking for once in your silly life, and just GO!"

I scramble out of the tub and bolt past her like a prize horse at his first Derby.

I sprint down the stairs. The wide expanse of spirals and steps are dotted with women; Rose, Alice, Shelly … some woman with caramel hair and a big grin, Elizabeth …

Lord-have-mercy!

Are you encouraging that child to run half-necked down Main Street?

Gracious

What'll the neighbors think?

Same thing they always think I spect; that we're plumb crazy!

Amen!

Lord

Can't somebody throw her a robe or something?

That'll take too long – sides – where's the fun in that?

Well, if that thing slips an inch the whole town'll see her religion

Mmph … I spect Preacher Ben's gonna have to do two sermons come Sunday next … one about Boots in a tablecloth and now Miss Bell in a towel.

You go get him, honey!

Everything will turn out just fine, Bella!

Where's she going? Where's Daddy? I want to show him my –

Hush

Their voices swirl and cyclone down the stairs as run for the back door. I pause for a moment … I have no clue where he went!

"Head down the sidewalk, honey … he's heading for Miss Pigs!"

Miss Pigs? Oh right … the dog groomer. I run as fast as I can down the driveway and round the corner, nearly knocking a blond-haired, gentleman down in the process.

"Oh, beg your pardon, Miss … er …"

"I – Edward – He's - …"

The man gives me an amused grin. "Oh, you mean, Boots? Why he just passed me about a block or so. Just head that way," he says, kindly, pointing down the street.

I nod my head and continue running, yelling, "Thank you," over my shoulder.

I spot his long, canvas-covered legs, just as I round an overgrown Azalea bush. The petals catch on my towel and cover it in a spray of red blooms and green leaves. I brush them off, and scream, "Boot's – you wait for me!"

But he doesn't wait; he keeps right on marching; never missing a step or losing his stride. I, on the other hand, am slowing down at this point; I picked up a piece of glass or something, and it's stuck in my heel. But I don't stop to remove it; instead, I keep on running towards him.

People are on their porches and watching me as I run, but I don't care. I'm a woman on a mission, and that mission is about to get away from me if I don't do something drastic.

"Edward Cullen … you listen to me! I need you to know something before you walk into that store and right out of my life," I scream right in the middle of Main Street, USA.

That gets his attention. He doesn't turn around, but he does stop for a moment. My heart flutters with the possibility of hope, but all too soon he begins to move away. I watch him go until he is nothing more than a coppery dot on the horizon.

I force myself to move.

I half run and half hop on down the sidewalk; my towel is coming undone, so I grab it together lest I get myself arrested for indecent exposure before I have a chance to tell Boots how sorry I am, for, well, everything.

There he is! I see him just ahead … too far to touch, but close enough for him to hear me.

"My name is Isabella Marie Swan. I'm a college professor at Haworth-Adams College in Western Massachusetts. I was born on September 13th, and my parents were Charles and Renee Swan. My father was the chief of police, and he was killed in the line of duty. That was in Forks, Washington. But before that, my mother divorced him and brought me to Arizona. It didn't work out because she fell in love with a ball player and she was, well, a flake, so she took me to Massachusetts, and my Great Aunt Margaret raised me."

I stumble over a child's scooter that's lying on the sidewalk. Ouch. I don't fall, but I do stumble. Twice. Still, I keep on running both my mouth and my feet.

"I got bit by Happy when I was twelve years old, and that's why I'm skittish around dogs. I met James Witherdale at the college in January and fell in love with him, but he turned out to be a cad who was only after me for one reason, and that's why I am skittish around men."

I cross the street just behind him. A car slams on the brakes and toots the horn.

Sorry

"I found out all about him when I went into his closet. That was after the violets died and he hit me. And then his closet wasn't a closet; it was a costume shop. And he wasn't British; he was an actor. And he wasn't a college advisor; he was a murderer."

I stop for a second to catch my breath.

"So, I killed him. Or I thought I did. I don't know. He wasn't as dead as he was supposed to be because I didn't know I was supposed to tap him twice like Jasper and Miss Vick said. I never have watched the Walking Dead."

I bump into a couple out taking a stroll. The man, a middle-aged fellow with a large mustache, tips his hat in my direction. The woman gives me a smile.

I mumble, excuse me and keep on running.

"But, James? He came after me after I killed him. He turned up on Jasper's farm. I was looking for Jasper because I thought he was dead too – but not by me – that was supposed to have been by James. I think. I can't remember now. I hid in Jasper's apple orchard while James hunted me … He told me he was going to blow up old Howie and then kill my mother - who is a lesbian - by the way, and he was mean about that too, and he called her a dyke."

At that, I see him pause, and I think he's going to stop again, but he doesn't. So I don't either, even though I've stepped on a wad of bubble gum and it's wedged between my toes.

Ick

"So then I ran to the barn, and I heard him say he was going to kill that god damned chicken and well, Foghorn isn't a chicken; he's a rooster. And I couldn't let him do that, so I stuffed him inside my Michael Kors bag that Jessica, my TA, had given me for my birthday last year. Then I grabbed the keys and shoved Foghorn in the truck, hopped in, started it up, floored it, and broke down the barn door. And I just kept right on going – just like I am now!"

I stub my toe on a manhole.

Shit

My toenail rips, and it hurts terribly, but I don't care. I deserve it, and I'm not finished … he's still walking.

"Anyway, after that, I stopped in New Jersey and called Jasper. I told him everything, and he told me off and called me a dumbass, but then he was sweet, and he told me what to do. And I did everything he said to do, too. I really did, Boots. But then, when I stopped to get gas in SC after I went all the way to Florida to see my mother and she was out of the country, I discovered my purse was stolen, and I found my Aunt's barrette that I left in the closet. I lost all my money, my phone, and my mind by then, but I kept on driving until I needed gas. Then I sold a bunch of Jasper's Civil War regalia to some boy in Georgia, who acted like I was Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny come to life. Then the car broke down, and I heard tapping at my window. I figured my number was finally up and James had found me. But it wasn't James after all, it was Rose and Alice."

Ow!

This time I step on a half-lit cigarette butt. I shake it off and limp-hop-jump towards Boots.

"I don't have any money. I don't have any clothes. I don't have a truck. I don't know Jasper's phone number. I can't call Old Howie because James will know where I am. And I can't call Jasper's Mee-Maw to get it because she just had a stroke and I'll probably give her another one."

I'm panting, and huffing and tears are streaming and flying everywhere, but I can't seem to stop. In my periphery, I know an audience has formed and that people are standing at the edge of their manicured lawns and milling into the street to witness my breakdown.

I don't care.

"I didn't mean what I said to you in the spring … Really, I didn't. I'm not a mean person. I swear I'm not. You have to forgive me, Boots. Please, forgive me. Please."

He stops.

"I'm a girl who has lost everything. I don't have a single thing to my name – nothing. But – but … if I lose you too … none of that stuff matters. I want what you said in the tub, Boots. I do – I want that. I want… I want you to …"

He turns around.

Finally. I can't read his expression – he's still too far away, but I cross my fingers and make a wish like a child.

He walks towards me. I stand and watch his shadow grow larger as he approaches. He doesn't say anything, and neither do I – I've said everything I know how to say.

"Your Mama's a lesbian?" he says, raising his eyebrows. And then, he grins.

I crumple to the ground.

When I look up, I'm staring at his knees. He squats down to face me; his eyes are so green and warm.

"What is it you want me to do, Yank?"

I blush all over. I want everything. But I can't say that.

"You have to say it out loud."

I bite my lip. I don't have any words left … there all scattered about on Main Street … every last one of them. He gives me a slight nudge with the tip of his foot

I look up at his face expecting to see him mocking me. But he isn't. His face is friendly, kind and open. It gives me the courage I need to find and say the words he needs to hear.

"I – I want you to, maybe, love me."

"You do?"

"Yes."

"Huh."

The silence is so loud that all I hear is my breathing and the occasional murmur of:

What's she gonna say next?

Do you think that towel will hold?

Lord, I hope so

Lord, I hope not

He lets out a puff of air from the side of his mouth and gives me a pointed look.

"Well, all right then. I guess we'll have to see about that."

"Oh, okay," I say, feeling more than a little stupid. I stare at the hole in his coveralls; it's just above his ankle. Gingery hair pops through the opening and waves back at me.

Suddenly, my face is lifted, and his is so close … so close to mine that I can almost taste his breath. It's cherries, and bourbon and Boots.

"So, a college professor, huh?"

"Yes."

He nods his head.

"And you think a gal like you, would be happy with a grease monkey, like me?"

"You – you're not a grease monkey," I say. You're –"

"A mechanic. A dirty mechanic, remember; the one who gave you that Mechanic's Disease?"

My eyes fill with tears. "I didn't mean that, Boots. I'm sorry."

He shakes his head and chuckles.

"Dry your tears, Yank. I deserved it. I never should have let things get that far out of control."

We sit there for a few minutes saying nothing. He toys with a strand of my hair, and when he tucks it behind my ear with his fingers, I don't brush it off; I lean into it and relish his touch.

"So, you gonna stick around for awhile then?"

"Yes."

"And you gonna let me try to help you figure out what to do about that asshole … what's his name?"

"James."

He nods his head.

"And you can't call Jasper or the school, because?"

"He'll kill them all."

"And he's fixing to do this, how?"

"I don't know exactly … he's-he's dangerous. He's got a - he's got a gun."

"A gun?"

"Yes, Boots, a gun. So you have to promise me you'll be careful. I'm still a liability to you and everyone in this town. He's insane. He's ... he's armed, and he's a hunter.

"A hunter?"

"Yes."

"A hunter - with a gun?"

"Yes."

At this, Boots grins wide, throws his head back, and begins to laugh loudly. So loudly, and uproariously, that the scene I made earlier, is now attracting even more attention.

"Lord, save us … he's a hunter, and he's got a GUN!"

"Boots … you're making a scene."

"I'm making a scene – after you just … well, shit." he chokes out, laughing.

"Yes," I say, trying hard not to laugh back at him.

But he can't stop laughing. Instead, he rises to his feet, cups his mouth and hollers:

"Hey … how many of ya'll are hunters and own a gun?"

Me

I do

Yup, me too

That's right … I got five counting Grannie's ole musket

I got twelve and that ain't counting Cee-Cee's pistol she bought for herself, neither

Why – you need me to fetch my rifle, Boots?

I got mine in my truck

Mine's in the shed

Mines hanging over the mantle

Got mine in the closet

Mines between my knees

Boots squats down again, puts his arms under my bottom and hauls me up, cradling me to his chest.

"Somehow, I don't think you got a thing to worry about in this here town if that son-of-a-bitch decides to come a calling, Yank."
"I don't?"

"Nope. But you still got a big problem on your hands though.

"I do?"

He looks at me and grins.

"Yup."

His mouth is so close. I grab the collar that isn't his, and pull his face closer, closer, closer …

"And what's that?" I ask against his lips.

"Me," he says, crushing his mouth to mine.

The sound of catcalls and cheers breaks our kiss. I look up startled. There, all around us, are people. Townsfolk … men, women, and children; they're all laughing, clapping and teasing us. I cover my face in the crook of his neck.

"Oh-hell-no … you were brave enough to run into town in nothing but a towel and chase after me like a hoochie mama, and NOW you're gonna act all shy?"

"A hoochie mama?"

"Yes, Ma'am, and that's a fact. So suck it up, and at least nod your head at these folks- they're gonna be your people too, for as long as you want'em, anyhow."

I look at the crowd – they're smiling, no, beaming at us. I smile back and nod my head.

"I'll introduce them to you tomorrow. I expect you're gonna have to work the register for the first week or two; you sure did tear your feet up, honey." He squeezes my bottom lightly.

I look at him, puzzled. "The register?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, if you ain't got any money and you want me to fix that no count truck of yours, then I guess you're gonna have to pull a shift or something down at the Burger. I got a feeling you didn't think to bring your fancy diploma with you – what with killing that low-down-sick-mother-fucker, him springing back to life, and you stuffing roosters inside Mikie's purse and all, now did you?"

"No – I –"

"Uh-huh."

"Boots!"

"Damn – I forgot all about the dog," he exclaims, as Miss Peggy Pig comes running down the sidewalk, with Bert in tow.

"I plumb forgot my wallet, Mizz P … can I stop by tomorrow and make good on it?"

"Shoot, y'all don't owe me a dime. I'd have paid a million dollars to see that performance y'all put on back there. Lord, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself near as much."

We both laugh. Well, Boot's laughs, I sort of giggle like a hyena. I'm so tired. I let out a huge yawn.

She hands Bert's leash to Boots, and he trots along beside us, happily.

We talk as we walk and he shifts me in his arms every so often. The townsfolk follow us down the sidewalk like we're the head of a parade. I guess we are in a way.

"Boots – is that your new girl?"

"I dunno, Bobby ... she just put her application in a few minutes ago; I still got to check her references."

I grab the back of his hair and give it a hard tug.

"Hey, that's no way to …" I shut him up with a kiss just below his ear.

"Okay, darlin, you're hired. Let's see how you work out, maybe give it the summer, and we can revisit it in the fall."

The fall?

Images of Old Howie flash before my eyes, but I chase them away. Right here, right now? Well, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I don't want to think about the fall. I don't want to think about James or any of that mess. I know I need to figure out a plan – and find a way to contact poor Jasper, but with Boots by my side, and the girls helping me out, maybe it won't be so bad. Maybe I …

I let out another yawn, and my head falls to his shoulder.

"That's it, honey. You just close your eyes and go to sleep. Ole Boots is here. I've got you now," he whispers in my ear.

And he does.

***WTWAB***

A/N: Well, damn ... I figured she was done for in that tub scene, din't you? Lord. I read that paragraph out loud to my son, just to see how it flowed. He said ... "WTH? You scare me sometimes, mama, you really do." That's how I knew I'd done good.

Thank you so much for reading and your reviews. Speaking of which .. if you haven't left one, please do. Reviews really dill my pickle, js.

Thanks to Fran for her support and mad beta skills. I love my fic sis!

Well, I gotta go. Boots is attempting to write his point of view in the next chapter, but I told him to keep his big nose out of it; this here is a Bella POV story only. Sigh. He might get an outtake later on, less I hear from y'all that you'd like one. We shall see.

Jayne xo

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