Title: Innocents Abroad

Author: Green Quarter

Email: green_quarter70@yahoo.com

Pairing: S/B

Rating: R

Archiving: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/greenquarter.htm Copious credit to Kim for kindly caring for my crap.

Disclaimer: Characters of Popular belong to someone who is not me.

Feedback: Always appreciated, at above address.

Shoutouts: Many thanks to Carla for taking a look and giving me some much-needed input. Eternal gratitude goes to Junebug for advice on all topics medical, grammatical & plot-ical.

Notes: This fic is set in a Post Season Two Junior Prom World. The accident has brought a few changes to our favorite characters and things are a little different here.

Part 9

I gaze at Rebecca surreptitiously over the bowl of muesli she has so kindly provided me, looking for any indication that she was the one who kissed me last night. I study her lips as she spreads butter and jam on a piece of toast, wondering if they were the ones that took my breath away. I watch for a telling smile, a knowing glance, anything that will give me a clue, but either she ravages people in their sleep regularly and thinks nothing of it, or it wasn’t her.

“Did you sleep well, Sam?” she asks, topping up our coffee cups from the French press sitting on the table.

“For awhile,” I reply, “then something woke me up.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Rebecca returns distractedly as she reaches across the counter to flick the toaster lever, stopping the toast from burning. “I hope you got back to sleep.”

“Yeah, I did. Eventually.” The truth was that it took a long while for sleep to come. I could kick myself for not grabbing whoever it was who accosted me while it was happening, and then I was paralyzed with indecision about waking up both Brooke and Rebecca after the fact, not wanting to disrupt the innocent party’s sleep. I could just see myself standing over them, hands on hips, accusing the two of them, saying “All right, which one of you kissed me?” No thanks. After tossing and turning over it for what seemed like hours, I resolved to ferret out the truth in the morning, but it is not proving so easy to determine the identity of my secret make out partner.

Brooke stumbles into the kitchen and sits down at the little dinette set with Rebecca and me. I turn my eyes to her and examine her expression for clues. She still has that sleep-dazed look about her that I remember so well from mornings at home, and the same fitful bad humor that accompanies her morning mood. “Is there more coffee?” she grumbles.

“Yep,” Rebecca gets up to fill the French press with coffee grounds.

“What are you looking at?” Brooke asks sullenly, returning my gaze with moody aggression.

“Nothing,” I can’t help but smile. She’s so prickly in the mornings. It’s so cute. God, I have it bad. “Sleep okay, Brooke?” I ask leadingly, hoping she’ll give something away with her response.

“Fine.” She says flatly.

Nope. Nothing there. I don’t think it was Brooke. It doesn’t seem her style, not that I know what her style is when it comes to clandestine kissing. Besides, the girl is as straight as they come.

“Sam said she heard something that woke her up last night, did you hear it?” Rebecca asks Brooke as she places a plate of toast before her.

“No, I slept like the dead.” Brooke says, picking up a butter knife. She looks at her host and says sincerely, “Thank you, Rebecca; it was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a while. And thanks for the toast.” She picks up an unlabelled jar from the table. “What kind of jelly is this?”

“Apricot preserves. Your welcome.” Rebecca sits down and shoots a big smile my way.

It’s her. She’s sending me a signal. Why would she keep it a big secret? Maybe she doesn’t want Brooke to feel bad?

“You guys want to hit the beach today?” Rebecca asks.

“I do. What about you, Brooke?”

“Sure,” Brooke shrugs.

But before fun in the sun, we should try to take care of business. “Rebecca, I saw you have a laptop in the other room, can you access the Internet on it?” I ask, thinking of Glynnis.

“Yeah, dialup. You want to check your email?”

“Could I? That would be so great. We’re waiting to hear about some money that’s coming from the States.” I explain, although I already told her the whole story last night on the train.

I go into the other room and move the laptop to the bed close to the phone on the bedside table and boot it up, listening to Rebecca describe the beach to Brooke and the prevalence for topless sunbathing on the French Riviera. I hear her tell Brooke that she’ll only need her bikini bottoms and a whole lot of sun block. I’m entranced by the thought of a topless Brooke, my mind imagining the possibility of a covert examination of her body and I resolve to bring my sunglasses to the beach today. Then I consider the fact that Brooke will be half naked for everyone to see, not just me, and that gives me pause. But it doesn’t matter because Brooke primly replies that just because French people are exhibitionists it doesn’t mean that she has to be one, and besides she only has a one-piece tank suit in her backpack. This is the most surprising revelation of all because I can’t remember ever seeing Brooke in anything but a bikini. She is the original southern California bikini beach girl. However, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen her attired for the beach, and she never uses the pool in the backyard anymore.

Their conversation turns to other things and I busy myself with the computer, logging on to my account to find scads of new messages. I look only at the last day’s activity and ignore everything else, and am happy to see not only an email from Glynnis, but one from my mother as well. I open Glynnis’ message first:

Dear Brooke and Sam,

I finally got in touch with your father, and he is deeply concerned for your welfare and is very sorry that you’ve had to wait so long. I’ve obtained permission from him to make a reservation in your name at the Hotel Intercontinental in Paris on Rue de Castiglione. They will be expecting you at check-in, which is anytime after 3:00PM. Any charges will be made to your father’s company card, so have everything billed to the room.

Your father will be traveling to an American Express office in San Jose today to see about replacing your traveler’s checks and we will leave a message at the hotel when they are ready to be picked up in Paris.

I’ll update you when I have further information.


The one from my mother reads:


We are so worried about you and Brooke! We’re so sorry this happened to you, and we hope you both are okay. Mike and I are so relieved that you are traveling together. At least you have each other, and there is safety in numbers. Glynnis is making a reservation for you at a hotel in Paris, she’ll send you the details. Go there and rest for a few days before continuing your trip, and we’ll understand if you want to come home early. What an ordeal. I’m so sorry this had to happen while we are out of town, talk about lousy timing.

I hope you girls are managing to get along and that you were having fun before this happened. I got your postcard from Barcelona, it sounded like you were enjoying yourself but you didn’t mention Brooke. Don’t let this ruin your trip. Mike is adding a little extra for you girls to splurge on yourselves.

I’m sending this from an internet café near our hotel in Costa Rica and I’ll be checking in regularly. Please reply and tell me you both are okay. I’ll also try calling your hotel in Paris.

We’ll be home in three days. We love you lots and miss you even more. Can’t wait until you’re back on the 26th.



I compose a reply to my mother, assuring her that Brooke and I are fine, just a little sleep and nutrition deprived. I open another browser window and google French train schedules, quickly finding out times for Marseilles-Paris departures.

I leave the computer on and head back to the kitchen, where Rebecca and Brooke are discussing seafood, I think. “Good news, Brooke,” I interrupt.

Brooke turns to me with a hopeful expression. “Are we financially solvent again?”

“Not quite. But your dad is putting us up in a hotel in Paris until we are. There’s a train in an hour that will get us to Paris right about the time we can check in, or we can wait until this afternoon to leave. Did you still want to go to the beach?”

“I don’t care about the beach; I can see it every damn day at home!” Brooke exclaims. “What hotel is it? Is it nice?”

“I don’t know. It’s called the Hotel Intercontinental.” I shrug.

“It’s nice,” Rebecca says, impressed. “Very nice.”

“I left the email messages from Glynnis and my mom up if you want to read them,” I gesture to the other room and Brooke immediately gets up and walks out of the kitchen.

I take a seat next to Rebecca. “It looks like we’ll have to do the beach another time.”

“That’s okay,” she smiles at me. “If I had a room waiting at the Intercontinental, I wouldn’t hang around here either.”

“I want to thank you for your kindness,” I say earnestly. “If it wasn’t for you we’d have been homeless last night. I hope I can repay you one day.”

“If not you, then someone else. Kind of like that lame Pay it Forward movie,” she says easily.

She’s so cool. I decide to bring up the kiss, kind of. “I also want to thank you for last night. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience quite like that before.”

“Sleeping on the floor isn’t something you want to do every day, is it?” Rebecca grins.

Is she deliberately misunderstanding me? I don’t know if I should push it.

“You’ll look me up when you get to campus, won’t you?” she continues.

“Absolutely. Thanks again for everything.” I let it go, it obviously doesn’t mean all that much to her.

“Come on, Sam,” Brooke pokes her head back into the kitchen. “Get moving, we’ve got a train to catch.” She’s down the hall and in the bathroom practically before she finishes speaking.

I turn to Rebecca, smiling ruefully. “And Brooke appreciates it as well; she’s just been without her creature comforts for too long.”

“I understand,” she nods contemplatively. “Have you been stepsisters long?”

“Not officially, no. But we’ve lived in the same house for,” I think about it for a second, “nearly three years now.”

“Wow. I would’ve thought it was longer.”


“You guys just seem to have a really intense connection,” she explains. At my perplexed expression she elaborates. “You just really seem to care about each other. I’ve never seen such closeness between step-siblings. I’m certainly not that close to my step-brother.”

Like a blip on a radar screen an image flashes through my brain. Brooke’s face, deathly pale, eyelids fluttering as she tries to keep them open. I hear her gargle my name through what seems like a mouthful of liquid, “Sam.”

“Sam?” Rebecca prompts me out of my reverie, the image is gone.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I ask, shaking my head to clear it.

“I just said that you guys seem to care about each other,” she repeats.

“Well I do care for Brooke,” it feels strange to actually admit that out loud, even in such a nebulous way. “Although it’s not mutual. Personally, I think she could take me or leave me.”

Rebecca gazes at me in disbelief. “Are you kidding?” Have you seen the way she looks at you?”

What is she talking about? Am I even supposed to answer the question?

“She cares,” Rebecca says emphatically. “Trust me.”

Part 10

The Metro spits us out on a corner right back near the Jardin du Tuileries where we were just a few days ago, only now we have a destination to go to instead of wandering around aimless and destitute. Well, technically we are still destitute but the difference is that we’ll be sleeping on 1000 thread count sheets tonight and the finest pillows money can buy.

My sense of direction has been sharpened while I’ve been in Europe, and I easily find our way to the hotel, which has an imposing edifice of marble that looks to be hundreds of years old. In fact, from the outside, it looks nothing like a hotel. But the liveried doorman with his brass luggage cart tells me we are in the right place and, feeling like a derelict with my backpack and t-shirt, I lead the way into the lobby.

“Somehow I get the feeling that we are woefully underdressed,” Brooke states, seemingly cowed by the opulent surroundings.

If she’s feeling intimidated, with her innate sophistication, then I should be terrified. But I’m not. I’m psyched about living the high life for a little while. The doorman doesn’t so much as lift an eyebrow in our direction, merely opening the door with a distinctly French flourish.

The front desk staff is very kind and in moments we are being whisked to our room by way of an elevator that is encased in rich dark walnut and mirrors. I get visual confirmation that I look as bedraggled as I feel. Our feet make no noise on the rich pile carpeting as we make our way down the hall, the only sound is the hushed swish of the water inside my water bottle which is tied to the outside of my backpack with a bandana.

We follow the bellhop (do they even call them bellhops in joints as swanky as this?) into the room and I hear Brooke’s gasp of delight.

How do two scruffy girls with only a few euros in their pockets rate a room like this? The focal point of the room is the French doors with a spectacular view of the Place de la Concorde. I move closer to the floor to ceiling doors and see that there is a terrace beyond. The view is absolutely stunning.

“Sam, you’ve got to see this,” Brooke calls to me from the bathroom.

I give the bellhop five euros and see him out before joining Brooke in the bathroom, which is about three times the size of our bathroom at home. Highly polished white marble surfaces showcase an extra large porcelain bathtub, two pedestal sinks and a clear glass shower stall big enough for four people. Brooke is fondling the basket that holds the amenities, inspecting the labels on the soap and shampoo.

“I guess you’ll want first shower, huh?” I say, smiling.

“Are you kidding? I’m taking a bath,” Brooke states. “But I’m going to take a loooong bath, so you can have the shower first.”

I have to admit, I haven’t seen a nicer sight than the pristine stacks of fluffy white towels on the metal rack over the toilet in quite a while. Right now they rank right up there with the greatest works of art that maybe I’ll someday see in the Louvre. But I leave Brooke to it and wander back out into the room.

There are two giant beds with gorgeous brocade spreads, a heavy mahogany armoire that contains a TV and minibar, and a room service menu propped on a table in the corner that I instantly seize for closer examination. I’m suddenly famished.

“Hey, Brooke, are you hungry?” I call.

She comes back into the room. “I could eat, but what I really am is thirsty,” she says, somehow divining the location of the minibar and perusing its contents. Brooke pulls out two tiny bottles, Bacardi and Absolut. “Care for a cocktail?” she asks.

“Sure,” I reply, and watch as she reaches for mixers. “I don’t even want to know what this is costing us.”

“It’s not costing us anything. My dad probably feels so guilty he won’t bat an eye at the bill we run up. Will you go get some ice?”

I return three minutes later to find Brooke sitting against the headboard of the bed closest to the French doors, TV remote in hand, flipping the channels on the TV and sipping a tepid rum and coke. I dump a few ice cubes in her glass and retrieve the vodka and orange juice she made me, sitting in an overstuffed easy chair close to her bed.

“French TV stinks,” she says, turning it off. “Cheers,” she holds out her glass in salute. “Here’s to making it through being penniless for two and a half days in Europe.”

“Yeah, cheers,” I clink my glass with hers and drink deeply. “Now, how about some food?” I reach for the menu again. I start reading the fancy menu, one of the first items is escargot, and pass it to Brooke. “You look at it first.”

Brooke idly glances at it. “If you could eat anything in the world right now, what would it be?”

I think about it for a minute. It sure as hell wouldn’t be escargot.

“I would kill for a Devil Dog right now,” Brooke reveals, her eyes shining with memory. “Or a Ring Ding. Did you ever have those when you were young?”

“No, my mom was all about the healthy snacks in my lunchbox. I was lucky if I ever got a fruit roll-up,” I complain, still bitter after all these years.

“In primary school kids coveted my lunches,” Brooke says proudly.

“I’ll bet. Do you know how hard it is to trade carrot sticks for a Jell-O pudding snack? Or Fritos? I love Fritos.”

“Me too!” Brooke slaps me in the arm, grinning. “Whenever my mom made me tuna fish sandwiches I always asked for Fritos so I could put them in my sandwich. It made it so crunchy and yummy!”

“That’s just about the grossest thing I’ve ever heard,” I laugh at her, but she’s laughing too.

“I don’t care what you say, it’s so good. That’s what I would want if I could eat anything in the world right now, a tuna fish and Fritos sandwich made by my mom and me.”

“If I could eat anything in the world right now, it would be franks and beans,” I disclose, getting into the silly spirit of the thing.

“Oh my god, you mean like in ‘There’s Something About Mary?’” Brooke asks, appalled. Then she starts bouncing on the bed and shouting, imitating the movie, “Franks and beans! Franks and beans!”

“NO!” I yell loudly, trying to drown her out. “Not like the movie.” When she stops snickering and hopping all over the bed, I continue, “One time when I was little, my dad came home late from work and my mom made him Campbell’s baked beans with sliced up hot dogs in it. Maybe she was running low on groceries or something, and I don’t know what I ate that night, but it wasn’t that. I remember watching him eat. He was so tired, spooning up this stuff from a bowl in front of the TV, and I bugged him relentlessly. ‘Dad, what is that? Dad, what are you eating?’ until he said, ‘I’m eating cowboy food. You want to try it?’ My dad always made the most mundane things seem magical. That was all it took to make franks and beans the most exotic, coolest food in the world to me. I insisted on eating it all the time after that, imagining myself sitting at a campfire, eating franks and beans from a tin plate after a long day of rustling cattle or something. A lone cowhand on the Rio Grande,” I finish, suddenly feeling a bit foolish.

“Aww, that’s so cute. Sam the cowboy.” Brooke has a little smile on her face. “Have you ever seen ‘Blazing Saddles?’” her voice laden with faux innocence.

“Yes,” I sigh, aware of the scene to which she is referring. “It doesn’t matter; I still love franks and beans, although I haven’t had them in a very long time.”

“It’s been ages since I’ve had Fritos. I became so boring with all that healthy crap I started eating in high school.” Brooke reaches for the phone and presses zero. “Room service, please,” she tells the switch board operator. She pauses, twirling the phone cord around her finger while she waits.

I quickly pick up the menu. “Brooke I don’t know what I want yet,” I say.

“Shh,” she commands me. “Hello, this is room 518. We’d like one tuna fish and Fritos sandwich on white bread, one bowl of franks and beans, preferably Campbell’s, and two Devil Dogs. And two glasses of milk.” Her imperious tone brooks no argument, but she’s not getting the response she wants. “What do you mean, all you have is the milk?” Brooke asks, outraged.

“I’ll have a cheeseburger,” I interject placatingly, noting that its twenty-four euro price tag is one of the cheaper items on the menu.

“All right, we’ve changed our minds. Do you have salad? You have a Nicoise salad? We’ll take two, whatever those are. And two cheeseburgers. Do those come with frites?” She nods to me. “And what do you have for desert?” Brooke listens as the beleaguered room service order taker presumably starts to enumerate the dessert options. “Stop. We’ll take two crème brulees, too. And a bottle of champagne.”

My eyes bulge at the expense of champagne, it’ll be hundreds of euros.

“Okay, we’ll have the Dom Perignon. Thanks. Bye.” Brooke hangs up and smirks at me. “Sorry, they didn’t have franks and beans.”

“So I gathered,” I reply dryly.

“Cheeseburger,” she tsks, shaking her head at me. “We should be eating fine French cuisine, you know,” Brooke scolds mildly. “Now that we have the funds, we should be educating ourselves on all things French.”

“Relax, tuna fish girl,” I grin, “we’ll have a French breakfast. Crepes or something. At least we’ll be drinking French champagne.” I decide to stop worrying about the expense of things and just enjoy myself. “How about another drink?” I propose, going to the minibar and taking a look inside. “Or do you want an eight euro candy bar? Maybe some twelve euro mixed nuts? There’s a bottle of white wine in here, you want to open that?”

“What other mini bottles of liquor are in there?”

I look at the remaining inventory. “Gin, Scotch, and Tequila,” I report.

“If I have the Tequila, what will you have?”

I spy a can of tonic water. “Gin and tonic.”

“Okay, set ‘em up, bartender,” Brooke hands me her glass and the half full can of Coke she used to make her previous drink.

As I fix the drinks, the phone rings, and Brooke flops back down on the bed and answers it.

“Hello? Hi Jane,” Brooke looks at me and points to the phone. “Yeah, we’re fine. We just checked in. Really, we’re totally fine. Everything is okay. We just ordered some dinner and we’re probably just going to chill in the room tonight.” She pauses, listening to my mother. “I don’t know, we filed a police report but haven’t been around to follow up on it. Personally, I just want to forget about it, but I don’t know about Sam. Honestly Jane, we’re okay. Don’t worry about us, please. Is my dad there?” Brooke takes the Cuervo and Coke I offer her and sips while she listens to my mother. “Okay, tell him I said hi. He will? Okay. And tell him thanks for the hotel. Yes, we’ll be careful, I promise. Sam’s right here, you want to talk to her? Okay, I will. Thanks, Jane. Bye.”

“Hi Mom,” I say into the phone after Brooke hands it to me.

“Oh, Sam, sweetie, hi! How are you? It’s so good to hear your voice,” my mother’s voice is a welcome sound in my ear.

“It’s good to hear yours too,” I smile and roll my eyes at Brooke, who is watching me closely. “How are you? How’s Mac? How’s Mike? How’s Costa Rica?”

“We’re all fine and Costa Rica is nice. You and Brooke would love it here. Sam, I’m so sorry we weren’t home when you needed us. Mike had been working so hard and I just thought a little break would do us all good-“

“Mom,” I interrupt what I know will be an outpouring of unchecked guilt-ridden emotion, “it’s okay. We’re fine. It was just a little hiccup and we’re over it now.”

“Oh good, I’m so glad to hear it. Mike is on his way back from San Jose, he said to tell you that the new traveler’s checks are ready to be picked up at the Amex office on the Champs Elysees. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes, Mom,” we only spent about three hours there a few days ago.

“Good. So, are you two getting along? Are you having a nice time?”

“Yeah, we are. We’ve done lots of touristy stuff and been to about a million museums. Brooke knows a lot about art. She’s teaching me all kinds of things.” I glance at Brooke to see her look down at the bedspread, a delighted shy grin stealing over her face.

“You don’t know how happy that makes me, and Mike will be so pleased. I’m really proud of you girls.” My mother is getting emotional again. “So where are you going next?”

“We haven’t really talked about it. We’ve been in France for awhile but we haven’t really seen anything but the insides of train compartments. We’ll figure it out.”

“All right, honey. Oh! You got some mail from USC, and Brooke got a few envelopes from Princeton.”

“I’ll tell her. Thanks Mom.”

“I can’t wait to see you when you get home. Be safe, and take care of each other.”

“We will.”

“Mike, you’re back! Sam, honey, Mike has just come through the door. Can you put Brooke back on? I’m sure she’ll want to talk to him.”

“Sure. Bye Mom, I love you. See you soon.”

“Love you too, bye Sam.”

I hand the phone back to Brooke. “Mike wants to talk to you.”

“He’s there?” She breaks out into a wide grin and grabs the phone from me. “Daddy?”

I take my drink and go into the bathroom to give Brooke some privacy while she talks to her dad. They had a close relationship before the accident, but now they are even closer. My mother told me that he was the one who really got through to Brooke while she was recovering. I’m glad that he was there for her but a part of me has become jealous of their closeness. My mom and I are tight, but not anything like Brooke and her father. I’ve come to respect him a lot. He’s a good man, and he treats me very well, even after all that bitchy behavior I threw at him in the early days of his and my mom’s relationship.

I strip out of my clothes and get in the shower. Might as well make use of the time before the room service gets here. In a few moments I’m invigorated by the heated water that soaks my skin in the cavernous shower stall. I take my time washing every part of my body and pondering my mother’s question: where do we go next? Except I’m not thinking in terms of the next country on our itinerary but after that; what happens when we go home? We’ll both be going to university, I’m staying in California and Brooke will be on the east coast. I feel hollow at the thought of only seeing Brooke during holidays and vacations. I remember when I heard that Brooke was accepted to Princeton I was psyched, I was actually happy that she was going so far away and that I wouldn’t have to see her all the time. Ironic how that has changed. I saturate my hair under the hot spray, then lather it up with the hotel’s fancy shampoo. I toy with the idea of telling Brooke how I feel about her, but much as I’d like to get things out in the open, I’m just not ready to take the chance.

As I step out of the shower I hear a knock at the door. Room service, probably. Brooke answers and I hear her chatting amiably with the waiter as he sets up our dinner. I wring as much water from my hair as possible and comb it out, deciding to let it dry naturally. I look at my clothes strewn on the floor and can’t really face putting them back on. I slip one of the hotel’s fluffy terry cloth robes over my naked body and tie the sash, check my look in the mirror, and rejoin Brooke in the other room.

Our meal has been set up on a table in the corner, with everything from a white linen table cloth to crystal salt and pepper shakers. Brooke is opening the bottle of champagne, I hear a muted pop from under the napkin she has placed over the neck of the bottle. I can’t think of anything more romantic than dinner and champagne with an evening view of the city of Paris; it’s too bad only one of us is in love. Whoa. Did I just say that?

“Ready to eat?” She turns and looks me up and down, taking in the robe and my wet head with an inscrutable expression.

“Should I dress for dinner?” I ask.

“Not on my account,” Brooke says nonchalantly, “you look fine.”

We sit down at the table, then Brooke jumps up and rummages in my day pack. She pulls out her camera and flops back in her chair, looking through the viewfinder at me. “Let’s commemorate the moment,” she says, then hesitates. Lowering the camera, she flicks a finger in my direction, “You might want to close that up a little,” meaning the terrycloth vee of my robe where the fabric has gaped open, exposing a good deal of my chest.

“Oh god, sorry,” I blush, mortified. I clutch the material and adjust it so I’m not flashing her anymore.

“Not a problem,” Brooke aims the camera and snaps a picture of me, then lays it on the table.

We sit and begin our salads. I know immediately that we ordered too much. The salad is a gigantic feast with heaps of fresh green lettuce, green beans, tuna, new potatoes, red ripe tomatoes and lots of other things besides. “Well, it’s not tuna on white with Fritos but at least there is tuna in it,” I say to Brooke, but her mouth is full and all she does is nod happily.

“This is so good,” she says when she has swallowed and her manners allow her to respond. “I was feeling vegetable deprived, weren’t you?”

“I guess.” I didn’t really notice. We eat in silence for a few minutes. “How’s Mike?” I ask, more out of a desire to make conversation than anything.

“He’s fine. He felt terrible for not being home when we called. He was so apologetic it made me feel bad.” Brooke guiltily eyes the champagne bottle. “Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered this.”

“Well, it’s open now; I doubt the hotel would take it back.” I stand up and take it out of the ice bucket. “Do you want some?” Without waiting for her reply I pour the bubbly into the two flutes provided.

“Listen, Sam, I need to ask you something,” Brooke is frowning. It seems serious. “Would you mind not telling the parentals about my money problems? My dad would be so disappointed if he found out I was sliding back into my bad habits.”

Is that all? “No problem. I won’t say anything, my lips are sealed.”

“Thanks,” she smiles gratefully. “I don’t know what I would have said to him if I had to return early because I ran out of money. That was a really bumpy road there for awhile in our relationship,” she says, and I’m assuming she’s referring to her period of extreme shopaholism after the accident. Brooke seems to fall into reverie about that time when arguments about her out of control spending were the most common thing to be heard at home, then she snaps out of it and continues. “I’m just so glad that we ran into each other, and that you were willing to help me out.”

“No problem, Brooke,” I repeat. Meeting up with her was the best thing to happen to my trip.

“I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear. I got a little confused about the exchange rate, and stayed in a few places that were beyond my means,” she says earnestly. “I totally thought I had enough money when I bought all that stuff in Milan.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I’m actually very happy that it has all happened the way it has. My trip got a hundred times better when we started traveling together, I wouldn’t do anything differently.” I pause here, then decide to press on. “I like you Brooke. You’re fun and smart and funny, you make me do things I wouldn’t normally do, you push me to be me, which I’ve needed some help with lately.” It’s the closest I can come to making a declaration without spilling my sloppier feelings all over her. “I would share my last penny with you.”

Brooke opens her mouth, then closes it again with an audible click of her teeth. She has this intense expression on her face like she doesn’t know what to say.

I decide to avoid the awkwardness that is about to ensue as she tries to figure out a response to my embarrassing display of gushi-ness. “So let’s make a toast,” I raise my glass of champagne. “Here’s to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the mutually beneficial chance meeting we experienced on its hallowed grounds. You got continued funding and I got...” I think about all that Brooke has come to mean to me but instead say something more appropriate and less honest, “… a wonderful tour guide.” I clink my glass with hers and drink deeply, the bubbles tickling my nose on the way down and washing away the slightly acrid taste of disillusionment.

Brooke stares at me as she takes a sip but maintains her silence, and we both return to our salads. If I really want her to know how I feel I should be more obvious, maybe drop a few anvil-sized hints in her lap or something. God, she has to have some clue, or else why would she be so quiet? It’s in everything she’s not saying. Perhaps she is willfully ignoring my clumsy tentative overtures like that fiasco on the train platform the other night. The thought that she might know and is having a secret laugh at me is unbearable and I consider this possibility as I eat my salad.

I come to the conclusion that this whole Brooke thing is undoubtedly a colossal waste of time and energy and I don’t know why I’m allowing it to upset me; it’s bizarre to even contemplate the notion that she could actually return my feelings. Sure we are getting along now, but under the surface of our recent truce there lies too much turmoil and turbulence to disregard. It’s an exercise in futility so I change the subject. “My mother said that we both received some mail from our schools.”

“Probably stuff about housing and orientation,” Brooke guesses, visibly relieved at the new topic.

“Yeah. Rebecca was telling me about this on-campus housing called Sierra Apartments that sounded really great. I hope I get that one.” I’m determined to keep the conversation light.

“You and Rebecca got pretty chummy, didn’t you?” Brooke asks acerbically, taking a sip from her champagne flute.

“Didn’t you like her Brooke? I thought she was really nice, and fascinating to talk to.”

“She certainly took a shine to you,” Brooke snorts.

“Yeah, I think she did kind of like me,” I admit modestly. “She kissed me, you know,” I reveal to Brooke.

“WHAT?” Brooke slams her fork down and leans in over her salad. “When?” she asks, her voice dripping with disbelief.

“God, Brooke, is it so hard to believe that someone would want to kiss me?” I ask, insulted. She just continues to gaze at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. “It was in the middle of the night. I woke up and she was kissing me,” I confess, not going into detail about how passionate it was.

“Oh,” Brooke sits back in her chair. She grabs her champagne glass and downs it, then fills both mine and hers. “Well what did you think? Is she a good kisser?” she asks wryly. “That was your first girl-on-girl kiss, wasn’t it?”

“It was my first girl-on-girl kiss,” I acknowledge, “so I don’t have much basis for comparison. But, yes, it was very nice.” I shift in my seat, uncomfortable with talking about kisses with the girl who I want to kiss, but who will never want to kiss me.

“Nice?” That’s all?” Brooke seems blandly amused by my choice of adjective. “Come on Sam, I thought this was your new lifestyle choice. And the only word that you, the writer, can come up with to describe it is ‘nice?’”

Now I’m annoyed. Why is she needling me this way? “Shut up, Brooke! I don’t see you sharing any of the intimate details of your countless hookups with me so get off my case!”

She laughs humorlessly, seemingly unperturbed by the pot shots I’ve taken at her reputation. So I get out the big guns, intent on hurting her like her casual, disinterested teasing hurts me. Why does she have this power over me? All of the pointless feelings I have for her rear up and make me want to lash out and inflict pain - just like old times.

“Fine. You want details? I’ll give you details. It was an amazingly good kiss. I was trembling after she was done. I’ve never been kissed like that in my whole life, not that I have a ton of experience. But I know that you do have a lot of experience so maybe a little kiss isn’t enough to get you excited like poor wretched Sam the sexual non-starter. Or maybe a sweet, passionate midnight kiss like the one Rebecca and I shared would never be enough to penetrate that cold, sarcastic bitchy heart of yours. I may be an innocent when it comes to love, but at least I’ll be able to feel it if it ever comes my way. Will you? I’m thinking no. I’m thinking that a bitter angry shell of a person like you doesn’t have the capacity for love.”

That was harsh, and completely untrue. I’ve gone too far. As usual I’ve gone way overboard in exacting retribution for her mostly harmless slight. Why do I always feel so provoked by her?

Brooke is visibly shaking with rage, her hands palms down on the table, her face an expressionless mask. The only movement is her nostrils that are flaring with each violently expelled breath. “How dare you even think about judging me?” she says with quiet malevolence. “You don’t know me, you never knew me, you ignorant, thoughtless, insensitive...” She gets up from the table without finishing the sentence and walks across the room.

“Brooke, I’m sorry,” I exclaim. “I didn’t mean it.”

“You never mean it, do you, Sam?” Brooke turns back to say. “And yet you keep doing it.”

“Please, Brooke, I don’t know why I said that. I know it’s not true,” I get up from the table to follow her. “Please, let’s just finish our dinner. Please come back.”

She turns away from me. “I’ll be taking a bath. Don’t bother me,” she says, the anger gone, her voice just sounds dead.

“Brooke, STOP!” I cry desperately, somehow I have to get her to listen to me.

Miraculously, she does. She faces me once more and waits, hands on her hips and stone faced, for me to say something.

I take a breath. I feel as if I’m fighting for my life here, like this will be the last chance I ever get to make Brooke understand me. “What I just said was unforgivable,” I begin.

Brooke nods once.

“I don’t know what it is that makes me act like an off-my-meds-schizophrenic around you. I have no explanation for any of the things I do when I’m around you, but I do know one thing. You’re right, Brooke. The simple truth is that I don’t know you,” I stand before her and hold my palms out. “But I want to.”

She shifts her weight from one foot to the other and regards me warily.

It doesn’t matter anymore. I can’t keep it in. I take a deep breath and hope whatever comes out will make things better instead of worse.

“When it comes to you, I have some kind of disconnect between what I feel and what I do. It’s like dyslexia, but for emotions. I have a dyslexic heart.”

I keep talking because so far she’s still listening. I think I have found a way not only to explain it to Brooke, but to myself as well. “I want to know you, Brooke. You are all I think about, every minute of the day. I think about how different my life would be if you liked me the way that I like you.”

I stop and contemplate what I should tell her next, like how sometimes when I’m watching her it’s all I can do to stifle the emotions that inevitably arise like bubbles in that champagne bottle over on the table. But that sounds too dorky even for me so I continue with, “And that’s where the dyslexia comes in, I think, because all the effort I expend in hiding how I feel needs a place to go and unfortunately, it comes out in unexpected, often hurtful, ways. It’s frustrated love that I have strangled and pummeled and beat down until my stupid brain can’t recognize it and then spews out something totally inappropriate.” I need to get this out because if I don’t say it now I may never say it. “I just want to apologize. For this time and for all the other times. I never wanted to hurt you but it seems like that is all I’m equipped for.”

Brooke is looking at me bemusedly, but she makes no effort to respond to what I’ve said or accept my apology. I’m sure that blurting this out is not doing anything to further endear myself to her, but I’m on a roll and there’s no stopping me.

“Even though our relationship could be called barely functional dysfunction, there are some facts that I have gathered about you, some things I know to be true. I think you are an amazingly strong person, and I’m envious of that. You’re vibrantly alive where I haven’t lived much at all. You have become this wondrous, fearless person and it has been a pleasure to witness you in action. I have seen your intelligence, your curiosity, your vitality, and of course, your beauty. And yet there is so much more to you that I don’t get to see because we have thrown up these walls and I am not smart enough to figure out a way to tear them down.” I pause here, looking into those hazel eyes that are as mysterious as they are beguiling “I don’t know you, Brooke, and that is the misfortune of my life.”

Brooke’s expression has softened, and she bites her lip in momentary indecision before saying in a rush, “If you want to get to know me then you should start by knowing this.” Stepping into my personal space, she grabs me around my head with both hands and plants her lips on mine.

The instant our lips touch I know that she was the one who kissed me last night, not Rebecca. The urgency and passion are unmistakable, although there are differences too. She is more tentative, brushing her soft warm lips over mine, content to leave the kiss heated but chaste.

It feels like she has lit my body on fire and I can’t just keep kissing her this way. I have to have more of her. My arms, which had been hanging uselessly at my sides in surprise, now circle her waist and draw her to me, pulling her so tightly against me that I can feel between us the knot of the terrycloth sash that ties my robe together. I angle my face and pursue her lips with mounting need, letting my tongue peek out to taste their sweetness. She wraps her arms around my neck and winds her fingers in my damp hair, clinging to me as I cling to her, and we will bear each other up in the impending storm of emotion. Because now I know that Brooke has been hiding too, and she is finally revealing to me the fact that she has been wearing a mask.

The world slows to a crawl but my heart beats double time, thumping so loudly in my chest I’m sure that Brooke can hear it. My tongue has found its way into her mouth and I can feel hers sensually rubbing, inviting me to explore. She makes this sound deep in her throat that is like a moan and a growl combined and it makes me want to be even closer. My hands start to roam over everything I can feel, from grabbing handfuls of her denim-clad rear to tracing the line of her spine through the thin cotton material of her blouse.

Brooke has her hands on my cheeks now as she begins to dominate, thrusting her tongue into my mouth, forcing me to retreat and allowing me to enjoy the sensations that are coming at me in unceasing waves. She’s using her tongue, her lips, her teeth and I’m sinking. I’m drowning in her, clutching at her like she’s my life line, and she pulls back to gaze at me in wonder and I feel myself start to surface, gradually becoming aware of my surroundings again.

“It was you,” I say when I am able to speak, surprise coloring my words. I haven’t let her go, now that I have her this close I don’t want to ever let her go.

“Yes,” she replies simply.

“But why? Why in the dark? Why in secret?”

Brooke utters a choked little sound that could be interpreted as a laugh. “Which reason do you want? There’s about fifty.”

I can only look at her, at a complete loss.

“When the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it. I wasn’t strong enough not to,” Brooke tries to explain.

“You had to know I would think it was Rebecca.”

“I just wasn’t ready, Sam,” she says agitatedly, exhaling violently.

“Okay, okay,” I shush her, cupping her face in my hands and quickly kiss her lightly. “I don’t care why you did it, I’m just happy you did.” I can’t believe this is happening. We must have about eight thousand things we need to discuss, that need to be settled between us, but I can’t think of a single one right now. It’s impossible for me to stop myself from breaking into a wide grin, and to my relief, Brooke smiles back. She takes my breath away and I need to be closer. I create a few inches of space between us and swiftly untie my robe and open it, then press my naked body against her. We simultaneously sigh. “Is this okay?” I ask, knowing how she feels about touching.

“God, yes,” she breathes, slipping her hands beneath the terrycloth and taking hold of the bare skin right above my hips.

“Brooke I want to feel you too,” I murmur into her neck, hesitantly grasping the material of her shirt.

“No,” Brooke immediately replies, removing my hands from her waist and placing them at my sides. “Not right now,” her fingertips return, sending a shiver through me as she lightly skims the sensitive skin over my ribs.

Distracting as Brooke’s touch is, I realize that she is adamant and this would be absolutely the wrong time to press the point. I can’t argue this with her, not if I want to continue this intimacy. I have to wait until the time is right. “All right, but you have to let me put my hands somewhere, because this,” I shrug my limply hanging arms, “is not cutting it.”

“How about this?” Brooke smirks as she lifts my arms, letting my forearms rest on her shoulders. “Anything above the shoulders is fair game.”

“That’s good,” I tactfully don’t point out that I was touching her in other places just seconds ago. “For now,” I warn playfully. “So can we get back to the kissing?” I press myself against her again, wrapping my arms around her neck and capturing her lips, trying to regain the mood after all the negotiating.

“Mm hmm,” Brooke’s mouth is already too busy to articulate a more coherent affirmative response. And her hands are busy under my robe, burning a path down my back, stopping at my bum to pull me even closer.

Somehow I devote a pinprick of brain power to remembering the fact that there are two large beds in the room and I decide that it’s time to make use of at least one of them. I start to maneuver us toward the bed, taking baby steps backward and pulling Brooke with me, never relinquishing my hold around her neck or my lips from hers. When I feel the mattress at the back of my knees I let myself fall and take Brooke with me. We land with mutual grunts: Brooke’s of surprise and mine because one of Brooke’s elbows has collided with my solar plexus.

“Ooh sorry,” Brooke apologizes, still perched on top of me. “You should tell me when you plan to make a move.”

“You mean you didn’t notice?” I ask, amused. She is so incredibly beautiful looming over me like this. I reach up and run my fingers through her hair, brush my fingers over her cheek.

“I was busy concentrating on something else,” she smiles, then arranges us so that I remain on my back, my robe completely open, and she lies on her side next to me, a little lower so that her head, which is propped in her hand, is parallel to my shoulder.

She places her hand on my belly and lightly strokes in a circular motion, watching her fingers as they follow a lazy pattern. “Your body is perfect. Your skin is so smooth, so soft,” she looks up and into my eyes, “it’s flawless.”

“Thanks.” I’ve never been naked this way with anyone, and if you asked me before if I thought it would be this comfortable, I would have probably said no. There is no awkwardness, no anxiety over my appearance, no false modesty. I’m reveling in her gaze, like I am liquid and she’s hungrily drinking me in. No matter what I look like, I feel like she sees the best version of me and it meets with her approval. Her eyes sweeping over my body have me so turned on, my nipples are hard and I can feel the moisture between my legs - and she has barely touched me. I am now closer to having sex than I have ever been and I want it so badly; I hope to god she wants it too.

She keeps her eyes on mine as her hand travels upward, burning a path right up the center of my chest, coming to rest right between my breasts. Sliding sideways, her palm covers my nipple and I draw in a breath, expecting it but still not ready for how it actually feels. I can feel the rigid tip pebbling beneath the warmth of her hand. Brooke starts to stroke my breast, stretching the skin taut so my nipple is framed between her thumb and forefinger. I watch her head descend and raise my body to meet her mouth as it closes around the erect bud. It feels so good, warm and wet, and when her tongue rasps over me it sends jolts of electricity to my heart, my head and my crotch.

“Oh god, Brooke, please don’t ever stop,” I groan in a voice that is octaves lower than usual. I cradle her head in my arms, and her hand reaches to hold my other breast, gently massaging with her fingers. She begins to suck; I can feel teeth and lips and tongue and suction and it’s just about the most wonderful torture I’ve ever endured.

Her body is suddenly in motion as she throws a leg over me and suspends herself above me, resting her weight on her knees and elbows. This must be the position she took when she stole a kiss from me last night and I vow to have more of her this time. I grasp her around the middle and tug at her; I want to feel her body on top of mine, even if it’s through a layer of clothes. She doesn’t stop the sweet agony she is inflicting on my breasts but allows me to pull her down onto me, and her torso now rests heavily against me and between my legs. My pelvis reacts to her nearness and I can’t help thrusting as I strain for contact.

Brooke raises her head from my hot flushed skin, which immediately feels cooler as the dampness left by her tongue starts to dry in the recycled hotel room air. Her eyes are dark with ardor, but they become clearer as she studies me.

“I’ve never done this before,” she croaks, then clears her throat.

I know she means with a girl. “Neither have I,” I’m trying to control my breathing; I’ve been panting uncontrollably for what seems like an hour.

“Do you want to keep going?”

“Do you?” Suddenly I feel like I have to protect myself, but on the heels of that instinctual reaction I know I have to be completely honest. Before she can answer I blurt, “I think I’ll die of we don’t keep going.”

“Me too,” she sighs and gives me the cutest little shy smile. “Are you sure you want this?”

I know what I’m committing to, and I couldn’t be happier that it will be with Brooke. In reply I grin and say, “Get back to work, baby, you’re not finished yet.”

“Oh yeah?” her smile transforms from shy to sly. “Take this off,” she commands, fingering the lapel of my robe.

“Only if you take off something too,” I shoot back.

I hold my breath as Brooke considers for a long moment, then nods in acquiescence. She gets off of me and stands up, and I’m surprised when she unzips her jeans and pushes them to the floor. As I sit up and remove my robe I catch a fleeting glimpse of a pink scar that runs like a ladder up the side of her right leg, from her upper calf to just over her knee. I’ve only seen it once or twice in all the time Brooke’s been out of the hospital. It doesn’t take long for my mind to add things up and I realize the reason behind her reticence. My heart nearly breaks at the thought of what she feels she has to hide behind her clothes.

But she’s back, settling between my legs again and my brain nearly short circuits with desire.

“All right, are you happy now?” she asks, taking my face in her hands and crushing my lips to hers.

“Ecstatic,” I reply huskily when she has released my lips. I wrap my legs around her and try to get as much skin on skin contact as I can, rubbing my calves over hers. Brooke bends her head to my breasts again and I am lost in sensation. When it gets to be too much, there is nothing I want to do more than touch her so, obeying her wishes, I pull her face back up to mine and kiss her lips, her cheeks, her eyes, her nose, everyplace where my lips can land. My kisses start a downward trajectory over the delicate skin of Brooke’s neck, and I feel her pulse thundering beneath my mouth.

All this time Brooke has not stopped caressing me; her hand has been on a downward path as well. When she arrests its movement just below my belly button, I urge her on. I take her hand in both of mine and place it where we both want it to be. “Please Brooke, this is what I want.”

It looks to me as if Brooke doesn’t trust herself to speak, but she nods soberly, her eyes filled with tenderness. I am so caught up in the moment, I don’t know what I need but I think it’s her inside me, and I force my breath through my teeth when my assumption is partly confirmed and she finally touches me.

“Oh Sam, you feel amazing,” Brooke murmurs, relying on her sense of touch. She explores the most intimate part of me, staring into my eyes as her fingers do the most breathtaking things. Her thumb brushes my clit and I feel myself jerk off the bed a little. My reactions are enthralling her, and she looks at what she’s doing, marveling at her power over me. “I’m still right here, I just want to move a little lower so I can see you, okay?”

She moves down the bed but I still feel connected to her when she grabs my hand and laces our fingers together. I touch her hair as she surveys the territory, devouring me with her eyes, and then I feel her finger teasing my opening.

“Do it Brooke,” I plead.

And suddenly I’m not a virgin anymore as Brooke plunges into me, and it is strange and weird and wonderful all at the same time.

“Are you okay?” Brooke asks, worried.

“Yes,” I breathe, as she starts to move within me, and I try to get used to her presence. It doesn’t really feel all that sexy, and I wait for the pleasure to kick in.

“Sam? I’m going to try something. Are you still okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

Brooke lowers her face down between my legs and I feel her tongue tentatively lick my clit. The sensation on my little nub of nerve endings is overwhelmingly intense.

“Brooke!” I cry.

“What?” Brooke replies in alarm, her head pops up from between my legs.

“Do it again! Now! Do it all! Do everything! Fast!” I babble away as Brooke complies and I am jerking and bucking all over the bed as her tongue and lips engulf me and her finger slams into me and I am shouting her name over and over as Brooke leads me over the edge of the falls and into the reverberating, undulating pool of my first orgasm.

And then I’m laughing. And she’s laughing, as she crawls up the bed to cradle my exhausted body in her arms. I hug her neck to me, my heart still pounding and breathing heavily like I’ve just run up a very steep hill, a hill the size of Mt. Everest maybe. “Wow. All I can say is wow.” I bury my face in her neck, feeling bashful. “Well that wasn’t very pretty,” I say ruefully, “but it was sincere.”

“Are you kidding? It was beautiful. You’re beautiful,” Brooke says tenderly. “Do you know that? Absolutely lovely,” she hugs me back and kisses me, but I have to break it off so I can continue to gulp air into my oxygen deprived lungs. She gazes at me with concern.

“Don’t say it,” I preempt her. “I know I have to quit.” I definitely want to be in better shape if a rigorous sex life is in my future. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll save any thoughts about that for later. I look at Brooke and grin inanely at her, knowing I must look like an enormous goof. Very unsexy. “Thank you,” I say shyly.

“I was honored,” Brooke says humbly.

“You know that I’m beholden to you, right?” I say. “And that I am obliged to return the favor. Ancient French custom,” I announce as if it’s inevitable.

“You don’t say,” Brooke responds dryly, grinning pretty inanely right back at me. “I’ll have to take you up on that sometime.” Though we are comfortable with each other, and as physically close as two people can be, wrapped in each other’s arms, I can feel the metaphorical distance she is trying to put between us.

“No. Now,” I grow serious and hold her by the shoulders. “You have to let me do this for you.”

She pulls away defensively. “Not right now, Sam.”

“Please Brooke,” I say softly. I look pointedly down at her underwear. “You can’t tell me that you don’t want to.”

I put my hand between her legs and Brooke reflexively closes them, trapping my fingers against the silky material of her panties. I can feel how damp she is, and the heat emanating from her is intense.

“I can’t Sam,” she whimpers longingly.

“I think you can,” I feel confident, but then my insecurity rears its ugly head. “I know I’m green, an absolute beginner with no game but-“

“That’s not it,” she interrupts me.

“I know,” I soothe her, stroking her hair with my other hand. “I think I know what it is, and Brooke, you can trust me. All I want to do is make you feel good,” I start moving my fingers in tiny concentric circles over her mound.

“Please stop,” she says piteously.

I have to obey. I gently remove my hand from between her legs and Brooke sits up, scoots up against the headboard and wraps her arms around herself protectively. Her body language has effectively shut me out and it suddenly feels colder in the room. But what she has done for me, the gift she has given me makes me bold, and I am not giving up that easily. I may be presuming too much, but I don’t think this is what she wants.

I sit cross legged in front of her, trying to catch her gaze. “Brooke you asked me if I knew I was beautiful. And I don’t think anyone really does, but I believe you when you say it because when you look at me I feel beautiful.” She lifts her eyes from where her gaze was directed at the carpet to look at me and listen. “People are always telling you that you’re beautiful, they did before the accident and they still do, but I think somewhere along the way you stopped believing them. Believe ME when I say that you are the most beautiful thing I have ever beheld, both outside and in.”

“I’m not,” Brooke says wretchedly.

“You are,” I insist. “Any additions, subtractions or variations that may happen over the course of living a life get incorporated into the stunning original design and become part of your distinctive beauty.”

“You don’t know.”

“I think I can now admit that the amount of time I’ve devoted to thinking about you, covertly observing you, borderline stalking you, makes me uniquely qualified to make this pronouncement,” I say with a fond smile. “But if you still think I don’t know, then show me. What is it about you that you think is not beautiful?”

Brooke just shakes her head.

“Is it something similar to this?” I gently drag a finger over the scar on her leg. When she doesn’t respond I say, “Come on, Brooke. Show me. I won’t hurt you. Take a leap of faith.”

“You had to bust out the Reader’s Digest platitude,” Brooke says, and gives a little laugh. She is still for a moment, then relents, “Okay. Here goes nothing,” she pauses, “or everything.”

She slowly unbuttons her blouse, then unfastens the front clasp of her bra. Her hands keep the fabric closed for a moment, then she unflinchingly reveals her body. The scarring is more extensive than I imagined; it pretty much looks like she was sliced open and gutted like a fish. But the incisions are neatly done and probably a lot less livid than just after the accident. I will myself to have no reaction, even though I want to burst out in tears at the thought of her pain, and my pointless absence when I could have been helping her through it.

“From a laparotomy,” she says woodenly, pointing to a scar that starts at the top of her belly and continues down to her pubic bone. “My liver was punctured by one of my broken ribs; this is where they opened me up to fix it.”

She runs a hand over the rounded part of her shoulder where a white line runs down her arm. “Shoulder fracture, where they put the pins in. Lucky it wasn’t the collarbone.”

Brooke indicates another, smaller scar on her left side running parallel to her ribs. “This is a thoracotomy scar, where they had to drain blood from my lung.”

“And this one,” she gestures to the largest and most brutal looking scar, that starts between her breasts and goes all the way down her chest, “is from when my heart stopped during the thoracotomy and they had to split my breastbone to get at my heart.”

My hand reaches out to touch her before I even think to ask permission. “May I?”

When Brooke nods my trembling fingers brush lightly over her body, feeling the place where new skin has knitted and healed over the incision between her breasts. I run my hand down the newly created tissue, the thick, puckered, raised covering foreign to me. I make a thorough inspection of all that she has shown me, tenderly touching every inch before I move closer to her and start to kiss every part of her body that was forbidden to me, starting with her scars. Brooke doesn’t stop me, her posture changes to one of openness as she lowers her legs and arms, finally allowing me access to her entire body. I could spend a lifetime enveloping her in kisses, safeguarding her body from any further harm. I find myself touching her everywhere, trying to show her the depth of my feelings through sensory exploration. I’ve maneuvered myself from my place next to her to on top of her, stretching out to cover as much of her body as I can. We are face to face now, our eyes locked on each other, but I can’t stop my hands from stroking her beautiful, battle-scarred skin. Our breasts are pushed together and I can feel her nipples hardening against mine. She opens her legs wide, letting my hips settle down against the warm juncture between her thighs.

“You are beautiful,” I avow, worshiping her with my body. She’s more beautiful to me than any work of art, more sacred to me than any religion. She is my church.

“Sam,” Brooke is overcome, holding me to her, squeezing me tightly with both arms.

I lower my mouth to her breasts and taste her nipple for the first time. It is incredibly sweet, and my tongue tries to coax it into yielding more of its sweetness, making it oxymoronically firmer and softer in the process. I kiss a path across her chest, taking my time over the scar that I have to cross on the way; it’s not exactly an obstacle, but another sensory impression of Brooke to add to my growing collection. Eventually I find my way to her other breast, ensuring that it is equally as sweet.

“Sam,” Brooke repeats, “Please.”

Although I am the novice in the room, I automatically know what to do. I slide down her body, our sweat lubricating my path downward as I take the opportunity to trace the scar that leads to her pubic bone with my tongue. When I have reached my destination, I waste no time in exploring, using my fingers to discover how wet Brooke has become.

“Sam,” Brooke’s voice is urgent, and she lifts her hips to me, spurring me on. I dip down to taste her, and I can hear how her breathing has turned ragged. She responds to every flick of my tongue, I look up to see her chest heaving as she stares sightlessly at the ceiling, her hands gripping the bedspread. I slip two fingers inside her and set a rhythm which her pelvis instantly catches and we are moving in harmony. Her fingers entwine in my hair when I return my lips to the most sensitive part of her and the next thing I know she is coming, I can hear her low groans as her muscles clench around me and she stiffens while her orgasm rips through her body. I stay inside her but move up so that I am lying next to her, pressed against her everywhere I can be. Slowly I remove my hand. I rest my head against her chest and lightly kiss her skin, feeling her arms wrap around me and hold me close.

We lay quietly for a minute, an hour, a day – I can’t really tell. I feel at peace, happy. “Are you happy?” I whisper, I want her to be in the same place where I am, physically and emotionally.

“Yes,” she murmurs back.

Gradually, sounds filter through my consciousness and intrude on our idyll: traffic, voices on the street heard through the open French doors, the muted echo of a toilet flushing in the room next door. The incidental noises are jarring, just like the hotel lighting is too garish, casting an unflattering fluorescence over us. I have to fix these offenses against our sanctuary and make everything perfect for Brooke and me.

“Where are you going?” Brooke inquires anxiously when she feels me slip out of her embrace.

“Nowhere, I’m right here,” I reassure her as I close the French doors and pull the drapes across the windows. I place metal dish covers over our half-eaten salads, and extinguish all the lights save the one at our bedside table. As an afterthought I grab Brooke’s camera on my way back to the bed.

When I am again cuddled up against her warm flesh, glad to feel her arms snaking around my waist and her lips press against my cheek, I hold the camera at arm’s length, aiming it as best I can at our faces. “Smile, Brooke.”

She looks over and smiles sleepily at the camera, and I am entranced by her expression and forget to pose with her as I depress the shutter. She takes the camera from me and inspects the shot I just took. “You’re not even looking,” she gently rebukes, patting my cheek.

“The view was proving to be quite the distraction,” I confess.

“Let’s try again,” she positions the camera and shoots again, several times in succession. “One of them is bound to be decent.”

Together we look at the series of photos, inordinately pleased with how pleased we look. Brooke looks transformed; her beauty is luminous in the low lamplight. Her expression is placid, radiant and serene, much like one of the countless portraits of the Madonna we have seen in the past few weeks.

“You do look happy,” I declare.

“I am.” Brooke answers simply. Then she opens her mouth wide and yawns in my face.

“And sleepy,” I add with a grin.

“That too,” she acknowledges. She lays her head against my chest, her hand reaches up to curl around the curve of my neck, she sighs a deep sigh.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” I whisper, “won’t we?”

“Yes,” Brooke murmurs against my skin. “I feel like I can finally rest. Just don’t leave me Sam. Don’t disappear on me again.”

“I won’t,” I promise. I can hardly believe we are the same two people who checked into this hotel just a few hours ago. I feel like Brooke and I have reached a summit, a new high place where I can see an actual future for us unraveling like a lush green landscape. There will be time to process all that has happened later, but now I am as tired as Brooke and I feel sleep pulling at my body, tugging it down toward unconsciousness. My last thought before I succumb to slumber is to wonder if being in Paris, the city of lights and love, has had anything to do with it.

Part 11

Sam didn’t hear the words that Harrison had uttered; the pronouncement that caused Brooke to frown and get up from the table was completely lost on her. She only knew that something had made Brooke upset, and she guiltily acknowledged the part she played in causing it.

It had all gotten completely out of hand. Somehow one of her usual skirmishes with Brooke over dominance in their ongoing petty rivalry had exploded into an actual war, and Sam had just realized that the outcome of this particular battle truly mattered to Brooke. The evidence was in the defeated set of Brooke’s shoulders as she rushed from the dining room; this was serious, and Sam wondered when the rules of engagement had changed. She felt herself deflate a little bit at the thought that Brooke actually cared whether or not she was Harrison’s choice, that his wasn’t just another way for the two of them to safely come together in a clash of wits, sarcasm and one-upmanship.

Now Harrison was speaking to her and Sam couldn’t for the life of her decipher the words coming out if his mouth. Maybe she excused herself, maybe not, but the next thing she knew she was out of her seat and chasing Brooke out of the restaurant.

Brooke had definitely emerged victorious in the contest over their appearance. As Sam followed Brooke out onto the sidewalk, she couldn’t think of a time when her nemesis had looked more beautiful all dressed up for the prom, which they both knew Brooke would be attending with Harrison. Or did they? What the hell was even going on? Then everything but disapproval and annoyance left her mind as she watched Brooke step off the curb and into the street, not even looking to see if her way was clear. Look left, right, then left again was what every preschooler was taught when learning to cross the street, but Brooke had obviously forgotten this lesson as she stepped into the road, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.

All at once Sam heard an engine roaring with way more horsepower than necessary for the semi-suburban neighborhood where the fancy restaurant Brooke had chosen was located. Her eyes tracked the sound to a large and powerful foreign car, eating up the road at an alarming speed. Glancing back at Brooke, Sam realized that if Brooke and the car continued on their current paths, they would be intersecting in a potentially horrific and fatal way.

“BROOKE!” She screamed, their history of discord instantly forgotten, leaving her rooted to her spot in fear for Brooke’s safety. Reality slowed down and Sam watched the events unfold like stop motion photography, seconds ticked by like minutes, images of carnage imbedded in her brain and crystallized in sharp relief.

She was unable to move as she watched Brooke respond to her name being called, turning and finally noticing the car bearing down on her with an ungodly swiftness. In the split second before impact their eyes met, Brooke looked sad at the inevitability of her certain fate, but she didn’t look scared.

Sam heard a sickening crunch; if she had any intelligence she would have closed her eyes at that moment, but she didn’t. She saw everything that happened in excruciating detail. The chrome fender of the luxury car connected with Brooke’s knee and under such violence she seemed to snap in two, her body crumpling onto the hood and into the windshield. She was still in motion as the car’s velocity sent her over the roof and into the air, limbs flailing, as if she was a rag doll. When Brooke finally met with the earth again, she landed on her side, her upper arm and shoulder bearing the brunt of the impact before she rolled onto her back.

The car was gone; at that speed it could have been in Nevada already, not that Sam was thinking of the vehicle or its driver at that point. She found that her body could move again as she ran the few steps to where Brooke lay in the middle of the road. “Brooke, Brooke, can you hear me?” she asked breathlessly as she fell to her knees at Brooke’s side. Sam could hear footsteps behind her and cried, “Somebody call an ambulance! Please!” before directing her attention back to Brooke.

An inarticulate moan was all that could be heard from the motionless body of the only girl she considered to be her equal. Sam made a cursory examination and saw that with the exception of the grotesque way her leg was bent, Brooke’s body was intact, and there didn’t seem to be any bleeding. That was a good thing, right? She tried to keep calm despite the rising panic that she knew absolutely nothing about medical stuff. How would she even know what Brooke needed? Maybe she should ask. She looked down at Brooke’s pale face; if she didn’t know better she would think the girl was sleeping.

“Brooke? Are you in pain?” Jesus Christ, the girl had the starring role in a head-on collision, of course she’s in pain, Sam berated herself before trying again. “What can I do to make you comfortable?” she asked, before realizing that even people who had never seen an episode of ER would know not to touch her anywhere to avoid doing more damage. She had no idea what to do and was besieged by helplessness. The terror was overtaking Sam, and her next words were laced with hysteria. “Brooke! Please, say something. Just be okay, please. God, please! Brooke!”

Brooke chose that moment to open her eyes and Sam nearly wept with relief. She blinked a few times, then her eyelids fluttered closed.

“Sam,” Brooke choked out weakly, her voice sounding garbled and strange.

“Oh Brooke, thank god!” Sam heard the distant wail of sirens. “You’re going to be fine, there’s an ambulance coming,” she looked around for the emergency vehicles, hoping like hell that it wasn’t for another life and death traffic accident in the greater Los Angeles area.

“Sam, shut up. Listen,” Brooke wanted to say something; her voice had gained strength but still had a distressing gurgly quality to it. As the stricken girl opened her eyes with effort, Sam realized she loved the changeable quality of Brooke’s eyes, which were a muted dull brown at the moment.

“What is it, Brooke?” Sam knelt on the pavement so that her face was inches from Brooke’s. She didn’t want the girl expending any more effort than was necessary. Reaching out a tentative hand, Sam brushed a few strands of blonde hair away from Brooke’s face and lightly brushed away a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

“Sam, this is not good,” Brooke started.

“I know, but I’m going to get you help, Brooke, don’t worry-“

“Sam! Listen!”

Sam stopped talking and waited for Brooke to go on.

“I’m going to die, Sam. There’s a lot of my body that I can’t feel right now and what I can feel is more painful than you could ever imagine,” Brooke was calm, as if she were relaying facts from a biology text.

“Brooke, you’re not going to die! You can’t!” Sam had to interrupt. She couldn’t let Brooke continue talking this way.

Brooke couldn’t speak anyway, she began to cough. At first it was just a few involuntary rattles sounding deep in her chest, but then it got worse and Brooke succumbed to open-mouthed hacking for a few moments. Sam was so close that she could feel the spray of Brooke’s expectorating, and it wasn’t until she saw Brooke’s teeth stained red that she realized her face was now speckled with Brooke’s blood. That can’t be good. Which was better - bleeding internally or from actual visible wounds? Somehow Brooke managed to swallow and continue talking.

“Sam, I want to tell you this before I pass out.” Brooke opened her eyes and focused directly on Sam. “I want to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m sorry we couldn’t get along; it’s never what I wanted for us. I think you are wonderful.” She paused to smile, except it came out as more of a grimace, and Sam felt tears well up in her eyes as she watched Brooke stop to draw in a shaky breath.

“Please, Brooke, you can tell me this later, you need to save your strength,” Sam begged her.

Brooke winced as she tried to shake her head. “Ever since you came to live with us I found myself liking you, but every time I tried to get close we would argue.”

“Oh Brooke, I’m sorry we fight all the time.” Sam’s tears were falling freely. “You’re going to be fine. Please don’t say this now.”

“I have to,” Brooke insisted, laboring to say all she needed to. “I need to tell you because it has to be said before I go, otherwise it’ll be too late.” She paused, clearing her throat and spitting up blood, which rapidly trickled across her cheek.

“You’re not going anywhere!” Sam used the pause to interject forcefully, alarmed by Brooke’s Herculean effort to speak. Trying to wipe the blood from Brooke’s face, she only succeeded in smearing it over her jawline, like garish rouge on the wrong part of the cheek. For the first time it occurred to her that Brooke might not make it.

“I love you, Sam.” Brooke seemed to relax as soon as she said it. “I feel better already. It’s okay, I’m ready now.”

Sam was stunned by Brooke’s revelation, and instantly knew that she returned Brooke’s feelings. Everything made sense now. Her heart was gladdened by Brooke’s bravery, because she would never have been able to recognize her own feelings had it not been for Brooke divulging hers first. But her happiness at hearing Brooke’s confession of love was overshadowed by the resignation in the words that followed, and she was livid. She was furious that fate had shortchanged them this way, that divine comedy and tragedy had coincided at the same moment to give them the gift of love only to smack it out of their grasp a moment later. Fate had a sick sense of humor. And she was infuriated by Brooke’s defeatist attitude. This wasn’t over yet. Brooke had to fight.

“You’re fucking ready now? You’re just going to give up? Wait for Patrick Swayze or whoever to come down from heaven to escort you into the great beyond or something? That’s just awesome,” Sam raged. “Well, how about this? I love you too, Brooke! And now you’re going to check out on me and make me live the rest of my life knowing it could have been different?” She slammed her fist against the pavement in frustration. “Fuck you! How can you leave me now? I love you!”

“You do?” Brooke croaked.

“Yes! I love you! Don’t you get it? This is fate! We are destined to be together, can’t you see? Now we’re supposed to be together so you can’t die,” the faulty logic made perfect sense to Sam.

“Sam, it hurts…” Brooke’s eyes closed.

“Brooke! Stay with me,” Sam pleaded. “You have to get better. You can do it. We can do it. I’m going to help you. We’re going to make you better.”

The paramedics had finally arrived. A man and a woman rushed over to Brooke carrying a big orange board with a stationary hard collar and a huge plastic case that looked like a giant tackle box. They nudged Sam out of the way and began to work on her, one of them asking, “You know this girl?”

“Yes, she’s mine,” Sam stuttered. “I mean, she’s my step-sister.”

“What’s her name?”

“Brooke McQueen.”

“What happened?”

“She got hit by a car! It didn’t even slow down, maybe it even sped up, I don’t know. She’s going to be okay, right? She’s not bleeding very much so that’s good, right? She was just talking to me, but then she stopped,” Sam hovered around the pair, helplessly watching them put Brooke back together again.

“Miss, can you please step back? We need a little bit of room here,” the woman paramedic said, then directed her next question to Brooke. “Okay, Brooke, can you hear me?”

Sam stepped back right into Harrison. He put his arm around her, and she flinched before realizing who it was. “Oh god, Harrison, what if she’s not okay?”

“That Jaguar came out of nowhere,” Harrison said heatedly. “People get an expensive car and they think they own the road.”

The police arrived on the scene and made a beeline for Sam and Harrison. An officer with a handlebar mustache asked, “Did you see what happened?”

“Yes, she got hit by a car,” Sam said for what seemed like the twentieth time. He was in her way; she couldn’t see what they were doing to Brooke. “Harrison, will you take care of this?”

“Sure, Sam. Then I’m going to go to your parents’ house to tell them, okay? I don’t think they should hear about this over the phone.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Sam said distractedly, barely listening.

Harrison turned to the police officer to tell them everything he knew and Sam was free to hover around Brooke and the paramedics again.

After checking her vital signs and talking back in forth in a kind of short hand that Sam couldn’t understand, the paramedics strapped Brooke to the spinal board, carefully placing her head and neck between the two foam rubber bolsters of the hard collar. Sam stared as they loaded her into the ambulance, Brooke looking like a corpse with her peaceful pale countenance and ramrod straight posture. The woman paramedic turned to Sam, “Are you riding?”

“Yes,” Sam got in and scooted to the rear part of the ambulance and perched on a narrow bench close to Brooke’s head. The paramedics were stationed on either side of Brooke and quickly began working on her before the driver was even behind the wheel. One paramedic inserted a needle into Brooke’s arm and connected it to an I.V. hanging by her shoulder, then started attaching round white pads to Brooke’s chest and hooking them up to a monitor. The other spoke urgently and deliberately into a walkie talkie attached to her lapel, advising the hospital of Brooke’s status, while drawing some kind of liquid from an ampoule into a hypodermic needle. The heart monitor was turned on and Sam could hear a regular series of beeps that represented Brooke’s heart rate.

As the paramedics attended to their tasks, Sam bent low, positioning her mouth right at the ear hole in the orange bolster that kept Brooke’s head motionless, and began speaking softly in her ear. “Brooke, hold on, we’re going to the hospital where they’re going to fix you up good as new. Better than new. You just have to promise me that you’ll try. We can do this together. I’m going to be there every step of the way helping you to get better, okay?” Brooke’s eyes were closed, but Sam could hear her moan. She took it as a sign that Brooke was listening.

Sam abruptly looked up at the paramedics, needing to know more information about Brooke’s condition. “How is she doing? Is she going to be okay?” she didn’t recognize her own voice; it was high pitched and tight and thin with anxiety.

The woman answered, “It’s hard to say at this point. Emergency will do their best to stabilize her so she can go directly into surgery. They’re all ready for her.” She gave Sam a quick smile before returning to her work. “We’re doing the best we can for her. Keep talking to her, the longer she keeps responding, the better it is.”

Sam bent again to Brooke. “You hear that, Brooke? You’ve got everyone waiting for you. They’re going to fix you up, good as new, so we’re not going to talk about dying anymore, okay? I’ll be there when you get out of surgery, I’ll be waiting, and then I’m going to help you get better. I’ll be there every minute; you’re going to get sick of seeing me. I love you, Brooke. You have to get better, please. Get well for me, do it for me so we can be together, okay? It’s fate.” Sam just kept talking, repeating what she had already said, wanting Brooke to hear her voice, wanting to give the girl something to hang on to, something to live for. “I love you. Please don’t die.”

The monitor started screeching, a quick staccato dinging that hurt Sam’s ears.

“She’s coding! Check her airway! Start bagging her!” The male paramedic shouted.

The woman picked up what looked like a clear plastic football with a mouth piece attached to it and started manually pumping air into Brooke’s mouth. The man flipped the switch on a portable machine and began chest compressions. After a few moments the woman shook her head, “Nothing. I’m going to intubate.” She suddenly had a ghastly metal L-shaped object in her hand and she ordered Sam to get out of the way as she moved up to Brooke’s head. Sam thought she would throw up as she watched the woman insert the tube, it looked like it alone could kill Brooke. After the female paramedic had attached the clear plastic football to the tube, she repositioned herself at Brooke’s side.

The male paramedic now abandoned the chest compressions and prepared a hypodermic needle. “We have to defib! I’m giving her eppy.” While the man administered the shot, the woman prepared the paddles Sam had seen so often on medical dramas on TV. She knew what was coming next. When the machine was fully charged, the man said “Clear,” and laid the paddles on Brooke’s chest. The charge was so strong that it lifted Brooke’s body off the gurney for a moment. A steady beep could be heard from the monitor for about three seconds, then hell broke loose again. “Again. Charging,” he said, almost as a warning. Another blast of electricity went through Brooke’s body in an attempt to get her heart beating regularly again.

Sam could only stay out of the way of the flurry of activity. Brooke was dying and there was nothing she could do. She felt the tears coming again but wiped them away, trying to be strong for Brooke.

“It isn’t working, we’re losing her,” the female paramedic said. “Let’s get her ready to move.” The ambulance came to an abrupt halt and the paramedics prepared to transfer Brooke as the doors flew open and the entry way was filled with people in blue scrubs. The woman paramedic started relaying information at a rapid clip, hardly any of which Sam could understand, but she did understand when the woman said, “There’s a lot of damage, it doesn’t look good.”

Brooke was whisked away by the paramedics, nurses and doctors who would continue to try and save her, but Sam could see the handwriting on the wall. The ambulance driver helped her out of the rear of the vehicle, steadying her as she nearly tripped over her high-heeled shoes, and pointed to the entrance to the Emergency Department.

Sam approached the glass doors with steps that slowed until she had stopped in the middle of the ambulance bay. She had always considered herself a pragmatist, and didn’t see the point in shying away from the reality of the situation. Brooke was going to die. Nobody, not even Brooke, could survive a head-on collision of that force and severity. Brooke was going to die right after they had figured out what they could have meant to each other. Sam wasn’t sure what that would have included, and she started to cry again when she realized she would have a lifetime without Brooke to wonder about it. She didn’t know who to blame for acquiring a love she hadn’t known existed only to have it snatched away from her minutes later.

She stopped on her way to the doors to gaze through the wall of glass at a trauma room where a swarm of people surrounded Brooke, one of whom was cutting away the beautiful prom dress that Sam had admired not a half hour before. How in the world did they get here? She felt sobs welling up in her as the material was thrown to the floor, leaving Brooke exposed and bare to the alien hands and fingers that poked and prodded at her. It seemed that in these strangers’ attempt to save her, they were dehumanizing her to the point where she was just a body on a table, a chaotic collection of bones and organs and tissue in disarray that needed to be returned to order. She watched as the team worked with cold precision, zeroing in on someone whose features were cloaked by a surgical mask and cap making an incision under Brooke’s ribs with efficient brutality. Sam recognized that these people were just doing their jobs, but to her it looked like they were killing Brooke. Then she realized: they were either killing her, or she was already dead.

One of the nurses on the periphery of the group that surrounded Brooke looked up and saw Sam staring through the glass. Pausing to look at her in sympathy, the woman drew a privacy curtain across the trauma room, effectively shutting Sam out of the proceedings that she now knew she didn’t want to see anyway.

She turned from the window and walked away from the emergency room doors, withdrawing both physically and emotionally from the reality of witnessing such a harrowing ordeal. A short distance away in that building, Brooke’s body was lying on a table, but Sam’s muddled brain now refused to believe that the body on the table was actually Brooke. It was someone else, some other girl who had been hit by a car. Sam was sorry for that girl, but that girl wasn’t her Brooke. It was impossible to think that the vibrant and vivid Brooke who could at once frustrate, annoy and thrill Sam with a few well chosen words was the same as the pallid and battered Brooke who at this moment was fighting to stay alive. So in Sam’ numbly confused brain, she simply wasn’t. And if her Brooke wasn’t the one lying on that table, then there was no point even entering the building. No, her Brooke was around here somewhere, and Sam would just wait out here for her to show up and tell her that this was all a

Part 12

Instantly, I’m awake. I sit up in bed, breathing heavily, sweating profusely, and realize that I am in a bed in a hotel in Paris with a very much alive Brooke sleeping beside me. The room is dark but dawn is peeking through the opening in the curtain, and I can see the outline of Brooke’s body under the covers less than a foot away from me. We had fallen asleep wrapped in each other’s arms but must have separated in the night, a fact for which I’m grateful because otherwise I would have awoken Brooke with my movements.

The force and clarity with which my memory has returned overwhelms me and instead of the tears in my dream/memory, I am silently weeping for real. I quickly get out of bed and retreat to the bathroom so I won’t wake Brooke. Sliding down the cold marble wall, I sit on the even colder floor, the memory of the night of the accident as fresh as if it just happened. I weep for Brooke’s pain and for the months she spent suffering alone, waiting for me to show up and “be there every step of the way.” I weep for my aborted good intentions and the way my brain chose to deal with the trauma of seeing Brooke nearly dead before me. But most of all I weep for the forgiveness Brooke has shown me, and how I am so undeserving of it.

Shame presses down on me, nearly robbing me of breath. I force a deep lungful of air into me and try to control my tears. God, I could really use a cigarette right now.

I’m still trying to come to grips with what happened that night and the enormity of my cowardice. All those promises I made that went unfulfilled. I wonder if all of my assurances to Brooke that I would be there for her after the surgery had any bearing on whether she lived or died. Because in that ambulance bay that night, I was utterly convinced that she was, if not dead already, then very close to it. And in my fear and weakness I turned my back on her and did the very thing I admonished her not to do. I gave up on her.

I could argue that in order to cope with the shock of seeing Brooke broken and bloody before me, I had blocked out the memory of it, that it wasn’t really my fault that I wasn’t there for her. My mind was simply protecting me from something I couldn’t deal with. But I am disgusted with myself for even thinking it. There is no defense for this. For once I have to own up to my responsibility in this whole tragic story. I deserted the person who means the most to me, the girl I love, at the moment when she needed me the most. How can I live with that? How can she?

I wrap my arms around my chilled naked body, oddly comforted by my discomfort. Now that I have come face to face with the hard evidence of what kind of person I am, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do now. I’m ashamed to say that my first impulse is flight. The notion of picking up my things and leaving is an attractive one. Once a coward, always a coward, I suppose. But I discard that idea almost as quickly as it occurs to me. That is not the way to start making things right, much as I think that Brooke would be better off without me.

The important thing is to do what is right for Brooke. I ponder what that might be for awhile but I have even less an idea of what is going through her mind than I did last night. I decide that I will avail myself to whatever her wishes are. Our future will be in her hands.

I get up from the marble floor and go to the sink. I wipe the tears from my eyes and wash my face, trying to make it look a little less swollen and ravaged than it is. I look at my reflection, seeing my true self for the first time since the accident. It is humbling to be confronted with my flaws head on. If our positions were reversed, and Brooke had abandoned me when I needed her, would I have acted the same? Would I have eventually forgiven her as her actions last night seem to indicate she has forgiven me? But maybe I’m assuming too much. Maybe Brooke has not forgiven me. Maybe she just wanted a little action and I was a convenient warm body. The thought stops me cold, but then I reject it. I refuse to believe that last night was just a hook-up of opportunity. It was too beautiful to be something fleeting and without meaning.

The only person who can answer these questions is Brooke. And much as I am scared shitless of how she will respond to the knowledge of my returned memory, I’m not going to budge until she tells me to.

I return to the bedroom and approach the bed. I watch Brooke sleeping, her easy, even breathing lulling me into a near hypnotic trance. I want to get in bed with her and hold her close, but I know that if I did, I would wake her, and I’m not prepared to hear my fate just yet. I want to prolong this sweeter version of purgatory for as long as she sleeps. I won’t wake her.

Throwing on a shirt and shorts, I retreat to the chair closest to the bed. I promised her last night that I wouldn’t leave her, and I will never break another promise to her as long as I live. Watching as a narrow shaft of sunlight from the break in the curtains slowly crosses her beautiful, scarred body, I take up a vigil that should have started a year ago in the hospital where Brooke recovered without any help from me.


Section 4

Green Quarter


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