by Dillon Watson
Sara Gordon knows better—don’t sleep with women she works with. It just leads to awkward mornings and moving on. But she did and it does. Now she’s in her hometown of Atlanta, looking back at a string of broken relationships and making the same promise to herself on the eve of yet another new posting.
Mikaela Small’s last date set personal and regional records for Worst Ever. On the upside, there’s a plum job opening in her firm, but the competition for it will be fierce. This is not a good time to make an epic mistake, like falling into the arms of the gorgeous new security guard.
This time will be different. Neither of them knows how right they are.
Lambda Literary Awards
Full Circle, Finalist, Lesbian Romance
GCLS Goldie Awards - Praise for Dillon Watson
Keile's Chance — Debut Author.
Sara Elaine Gordon slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle a giggle. She and her dad were playing hide and seek, and she just knew he wasn’t going to find her today. How could he when she was in the greatest hiding place ever? She’d found it by accident while checking for hidden birthday presents. In one week she was going to be seven, and she just knew even if she couldn’t find it, she was going to get something good.
She was hoping for a new bike ’cause she’d gotten too big for hers. Her mom had explained it wouldn’t be a brand-new bike with the baby due soon. But that was okay with Sara. A baby brother was better than a new bike. As her dad said, the bike would be new to her. And please, God, don’t let it have a sissy basket and pink handle bars like her friend Elaine’s, she prayed.
Sara thought she’d talked her mom into getting her a boy’s bike. Especially after her dad said the geometry was better with the third bar—whatever that meant. To Sara they were better ’cause they had ones with Batman stuff and she could ride up and down her street in her old Halloween costume and be matching.
She yawned and wondered what was taking her dad so long. He probably got distracted by her mom—again. They were probably in the kitchen kissing and hugging. They did that a lot. She didn’t really mind, and it was a whole lot better than Danny’s parents, who screamed bad words at each other all the time. Real loud where you could hear it outside the house and had to pretend to Danny that you couldn’t. Yeah, she thought, covering another yawn, it was good that her parents liked to kiss and hug instead of yell.
Her stomach rumbled, and she covered it with her hands, afraid the noise would give her away. But maybe she should give up. Her mom would be calling her to come set the table soon anyway. She could keep this hiding space a secret and use it next time. And she could tease her dad about not being able to find her ’cause she had the bestest hiding place ever.
Convinced she’d won the game, she pushed on the knob and slowly eased out the piece of wood covering the opening to her hiding place. The wood barely made a sound as she lowered it to the thick carpet covering the floor of her parents’ huge closet. Once she put the wood back, she made her way through her parents’ room. She couldn’t help giving the bed a look. It was high off the ground and fun to jump up and down on, but she was only allowed to do that if her mother or father was in the room.
Holding on to the rail, she hopped down the stairs two at a time. The downstairs was quiet, without the sound of the news or her father talking back to the TV. She didn’t even hear her mom moving around in the kitchen as she fixed dinner. Sara wondered if her parents were playing a trick on her and hiding.
She crept into the kitchen as quietly as she could so they wouldn’t know she was coming. Sometimes her dad liked to hide behind the pantry door, then make scary sounds and flash the lights. But she wasn’t sure her mom could fit behind there now that her stomach was so big.
The lights stayed off when she entered the kitchen. She looked real hard, but she couldn’t find either of her parents in the pantry or anywhere else in the kitchen. She hurried through the empty dining room, which didn’t have any hiding places, to the family room. It was empty as well, as was the office room and the small bathroom.
“I give up,” she announced loudly, standing in the foyer by the front door. “You can come out now. Dad?”
Silence. All she could hear was the sound of her own breathing. This wasn’t right. Her mom and dad never left her alone in the house. Never. She wondered what she was supposed to do, what would happen if she never found them. When her chest got so tight she could hardly breathe, she felt a scream in her belly. A scream that was trying really hard to fight its way out…
* * *
“Shit!” Sara sat up and took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. Lucky for her, she’d had enough control to pull out of the dream before the screaming began—her own. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she cleared the sleep out of her eyes.
Double shit. She suppressed a groan. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had this dream. Couldn’t remember the last time it had seemed so real. Fixing a smile on her face, she turned to look at her bed partner. “Sorry. Gotta go.”
“But it’s only three thirty.” Vonnie Lewis peered at her owlishly.
The expanse of milky white skin brought back memories. Limber and enthusiastic were two words that came to Sara’s mind. No wonder she’d been too tired afterward to do her usual hit and run. “I…I forgot. Need to be ready early. New job. Make a good impression, you know.” It wasn’t all a lie, but what she mainly wanted was to get home, where she could exhaust herself on the treadmill and rid herself of the last vestiges of the dream.
“Okay. Call me?”
“Sure,” she said, knowing she wouldn’t. Vonnie was enjoyable, but all Sara had been looking for was a few hours of company. Someone to occupy her thoughts and keep her in the moment. The sex had been a bonus.
In less than ten minutes, she was on the road. The highway stretched out before her, all but empty. Sara enjoyed driving in the early morning hours when Atlanta’s notoriously bad traffic was nonexistent. Her Hyundai sedan ate up the miles, taking her from the northern suburbs of Fulton County to south of downtown Atlanta and her tiny basement apartment within walking distance of the Atlanta Zoo.
She got off at Boulevard Avenue, made a right, then drove past a mix of businesses and large older homes. A left onto Berne and up the hill and she was at one of the larger older houses, where she lived. She was lucky to have off-street parking right at her door. A door her landlords, for reasons known only to them, had painted turquoise. If she ever invited anyone over, it would serve as a great landmark.
A loud meow greeted her entrance, and she had to step carefully to avoid tripping over the fat, purring tabby threading through her legs. “No. It’s not time to eat,” she told Tabitha firmly as she picked her up and rubbed under her chin until purrs filled the room. It didn’t matter to Tab if the person she allowed to keep her had only gone out for ten minutes or for hours; she always expected to be fed.
Feeling more awake than she had a right to, Sara changed into workout clothes and headed to the tiny second bedroom, which served as both gym and storage. The treadmill had come with the apartment and now was a good time to put it to use. In deference to her mood, she ran with heavy metal blasting on her MP3 player. Once she got her stride, she worked really hard not to think back to that day her life changed. Really hard.
New job, she told herself. Think of the new job. On paper it was better than her previous one. The hours were better and there’d be no more drama with Jill, the boss she’d made the terrible mistake of having sex with. The boss who in the end wanted more than Sara had to give. But she’d learned a valuable lesson, hadn’t she? Getting falling down drunk around the boss was a no-no. Especially if the boss was drop-dead gorgeous, had shapely legs that went on for days and made no secret of her willingness to play.
“Look, yes. Touch, no.” That was going to be her motto from now on. Not that she had to worry about that with her new boss. Word was he was an older male and her interest in them had died in the car wreck along with her father. Tears burned the back of her eyes at the thought of her father and she quickened her pace.
She wasn’t going to think about that now. She just wasn’t. But it was hard not to remember a father who’d picked her up and twirled her around until she was dizzy when he came home from work. If he was really quick, he would do the same to her mother, then laugh when she swatted his arm. He hadn’t been able to do that once the pregnancy advanced.
Despite her best efforts, tears streaked down Sara’s face. Maybe it was okay to cry for what she’d lost almost twenty-seven years ago, she thought, not bothering to wipe them away. She was alone. There was no need for the tough-girl front she’d perfected over the years. No need to pretend she didn’t miss her parents, didn’t miss her previous life every damn day. It was always harder to take this time of year with the anniversary of that day looming. That’s the way it was for her. The way it would probably always be.
Being back in the city where it happened did seem to make it more difficult to keep the loss off her mind. She hadn’t expected that. Hadn’t expected the memories to be clearer here, more bittersweet.
At the five-mile mark, Sara decreased the speed until she was walking. Her tears had long since dried, but the ache was still there, close to the surface. Maybe she’d made a mistake returning to the city of her birth. It had been an impulse, a place on the map she hadn’t seen as an adult.
But if it got to be too much there was nothing holding her down, she told herself and reached for a towel. No commitments she had to keep. She was free to go where she wanted, to do what she wanted. Finding a job to meet her meager needs hadn’t ever been much of a problem, and she had stashed money away with the idea of maybe going to college one day, but there was nothing written down about not using some of it to get out of her lease and leave Atlanta behind.
* * *
“Well? How did it go last night?”
Mikaela Vanessa Small made a big show out of turning her head to look at her treacherous roommate and supposed friend. Casey Atoms was leaning against the door jamb, looking as if she hadn’t set up Mikaela on the worst date in human history. To add to the insult, Casey had won their unspoken contest and was already dressed in a steel gray pantsuit, her black hair pulled back in her trademark French plait. She looked ready to kick some lawyer butt. “Last night was your lucky night,” Mikaela finally deigned to say.
“That good, huh?”
“No, no, no,” she said rapidly, shaking her head. “Your luck was that I was so grateful to be away from that woman I let you live. If you ever have occasion to think about setting me up with a friend of a friend of a friend, your life will cease to exist.” It was small of her, but she took great pleasure in the death of Casey’s grin. “That woman should have come with a hazardous material sticker. Bright orange. No. DayGlo orange that can be seen from outer space, giving innocent bystanders the chance to plan an escape route or, failing that, the chance to end it all.”
“She couldn’t have—”
She pinned Casey to the wall with a glare. “Gratitude is melting like the Wicked Witch. You too can die.”
“I owe you big, don’t I?”
Her lips twitched at the look of shamed resignation on Casey’s face. “Big being the operative word. I’ll throw out a couple more: bitter and vindictive. She spent the entire evening trashing her ex. I didn’t have to say a word. She never shut up. Never. Not ever.” Mikaela blew out a breath and dug through the top bathroom drawers. “Have you seen my red hairclip? Didn’t you borrow it last?” Mikaela’s hair was thick and fell below her shoulder blades, so she always felt the need to confine it during work hours. Made her feel more professional.
“Tried to. You never found it, remember?”
Frowning, she pulled out the black one. It wasn’t as fancy, but it would do. “So then she had the nerve to ask when she could see me again. My jaw hit the ground. I mean, really? The pained expression on my face wasn’t a big fucking clue? Seriously, I was having fantasies about strangling her with her own tongue and she has the nerve to want to know when she can see me again. As if. Can you believe it?”
“Uh, ‘takes all kinds’?”
Mikaela’s pointed finger stopped Casey’s retreat. “You don’t get to talk. You should be afraid. Your friend of a friend of a friend should be afraid.” Satisfied that Casey was frozen in place, she pulled back her hair and fastened the clip. “Lucky for you I’m running behind and don’t want to spend any money on parking.”
“Should I draw up papers promising to never set you up again, even if the woman in question thinks you’re the most beautiful woman in the world? Or should I loan you the money for parking so you can punish me to the fullest extent of the law?”
“Don’t try your lawyer sweet talk with me. I refuse to be amused or flattered. And I already owe you twenty. Which I absolutely promise to pay back Friday.” She took one last look in the mirror and decided the red blouse that she shouldn’t have bought because it blew her budget looked good against her olive complexion. Very good.
“What’s with the nice suit?” Casey asked as Mikaela shrugged on a jacket to match her skirt. “Oh, wait. Headquarters guy, right?”
“Yeah, so I’d better run.” She rushed into the living room, drew on her heavy winter coat, grabbed her industrial-sized pocketbook, then hoofed it down the long hill to the bus stop. She arrived at the same time as the bus. Breathing heavily, she dug out her monthly transit card and climbed aboard. After greeting the bus driver and the regulars, Mikaela found an empty seat near the back door, removed her coat, slipped in her earbuds and listened to a mix of slow songs on her phone.
As usual, the sounds of her favorite tunes took her away from the overheated bus. They failed to totally clear her thoughts of last night’s disaster however. Going out with “that” woman, as Mikaela had decided to think of her, had to be an all-time low on the Mikaela Small dating scale. What made her situation more depressing was that it was in keeping with the last six months. Well, the last year if she was honest and counted from when she’d come up with the crazy notion that Nina Carson was the best she could do.
Mikaela looked at her ringless pinky finger with disgust. Dumped. She’d been dumped like trash and after six months it still stung. Stung more because she hadn’t been the one to do the dumping than because of any hint of heartache. Everybody and their blind grandma had known the relationship was spiraling down the drain. She, in her infinite stupidity, had ultimately decided not to decide. After all, she had been busy working full time, taking courses at Georgia State University and foolishly thinking of putting more effort into her relationship with Nina. With all that, it wasn’t any wonder she didn’t have time to come up with a great “this isn’t working” speech. And you couldn’t end a relationship without one.
Too bad Nina hadn’t known that bit of breakup etiquette. She’d announced they were through without a good spiel and without having the decency to let Mikaela recover from the beating she’d received from the late afternoon August sun as she’d trudged the five blocks from the train station. Hell, Nina hadn’t given her a chance to do much of anything. And to Mikaela’s continued shame, she’d stood there sweating like a pig, her mouth hanging open as she was given her “cease and desist” order.
Mikaela remembered having one clear thought once the haze brought on by Nina’s pronouncement dissipated—it wasn’t love, had never been love. All she and Nina had was lust twisted into like, which she’d convinced herself to parade as love. Somewhere along the way they’d lost the like. And on her part the lust too, she admitted with a melancholy sigh. Losing the lust had been the hardest thing to deal with. Even harder than having to clear out of Nina’s townhouse with a few days’ notice. It was a good thing she prided herself on accumulating only as many possessions as she could stuff into her old, beat-up station wagon. It had been an even better thing that Casey’s guest room was available and fully furnished.