by Micheala Lynn
As a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Kate Riley spends her time dealing with the dead. A career that is more gruesome and intense than most people can handle, it has been her driving passion ever since her partner disappeared in college years ago. Nothing is more important to her than her job. Nothing, that is, until she meets ex-college basketball star and passionate kindergarten teacher, Lisa Sorenson.
Lisa Sorenson adores her students’ relentless enthusiasm. Light-hearted and intent on celebrating life, she’s intrigued by Riley’s cerebral aloofness. Drawn to each other, an unlikely romance blossoms and begins to thrive.
But when their professional worlds begin to collide in a most unlikely manner, a wedge is driven between them and threatens to push them apart. Can the love they feel for each other overcome such a gulf and can they find their joie de vivre—their zest of life—together before it’s too late?
“Riley, there’s more to life than dead people.” Susan stood across the examination table, her arms crossed over her tailored pin-striped business suit trying her best to cover her mouth and nose with her hand. Her short prematurely silver hair gave her a look of wisdom and distinction that matched perfectly with her position as Professor of Classic Philosophy. She grimaced as she stared down at the badly decomposed body lying between them.
“What? You know it’s what I do.” Dr. Kate Riley wiped her gloved hands against her plastic apron and glared at Susan through the disposable face shield. She didn’t have time for this conversation with her best friend—not again. Sure, maybe she meant the best, but she needed to give it a rest.
Susan threw her hands up. “For crying out loud, Riley, live a little. Work on your joie de vivre—you know, embrace the joys of life.”
“I know what it means.” Riley scowled.
“Then try it for a change. It’s not like I’m asking you to make a lifelong commitment. It’s only dinner. Eating, talking, having a good time—with live people. Besides, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. She works with Caroline.”
Riley groaned loudly and her shoulders slumped. She loved both Susan and her partner but why did they always try to set her up? It wasn’t as if she didn’t have a fulfilling life with her career. “I don’t know, Susan. I just don’t think I’m very good at that.”
“Good at what?”
“You know I’m not good at pair bonding.”
“Well, maybe if you didn’t refer to it as pair bonding.”
Susan now wagged her finger at Riley. “Don’t be starting that. Anthropologically speaking my ass. Good God, Riley, it’s just a dinner date. It’s not like you need to plan the next fifty years with her. Who knows, you might even have fun.”
“Okay, okay, fine. I give up.” She knew a lost battle when she saw one.
“Great.” Susan hopped on her feet, looking more like an excited middle school girl than a very senior academic. “Seriously, Riley, you’re going to like her. Just do me a favor and take a shower before you come. The last time we tried to fix you up, you showed up smelling like formaldehyde or something.”
“That wasn’t formaldehyde. It was the effluvia of putrefaction.”
“Jesus, Riley, I didn’t need to know that.” Susan was beginning to look decidedly green. “Just take a shower, okay?”
Riley couldn’t help but smile. “Okay, I’ll take a shower.”
“Great, it’s all settled then.” Now that she had Riley’s agreement, Susan bent down for a better look at the examination table, wrinkling her nose. “What are you working on?”
“It’s the body of a twenty-one to twenty-five-year-old male. See the narrow, heart-shaped pelvic inlet.” Riley pointed to where the flesh had mostly fallen away. “Police pulled him from the Grand River twenty miles south of here yesterday. Been in there two to three weeks, so mid-August judging by the level of decomp. Doesn’t take long in water, especially as warm as it has been.”
“Jesus Riley. Forget I asked.” Susan snapped up straight, waving her hands in front of her. “With all the subfields in anthropology, why anyone would choose this is beyond me. Why not archaeology or human biology or even linguistic anthropology? Something not so…not so…disgusting.” Again, Susan wrinkled her nose.
“Someone’s got to do it. Besides, I wouldn’t be good at linguistic anthropology. Languages aren’t my thing. Now Grace—”
“Speaking of which, where is your crazy assistant? I’d’ve thought she’d be elbows-deep right here beside you.”
“She’s out getting coffee and donuts. Want some?” Riley gave her a devilish grin.
“Damn Riley! That’s wrong…that’s just wrong. I may never eat another donut. And on that fine note…” Susan started to make her way toward the door then called back over her shoulder. “Remember, Saturday night.”
Riley grimaced. “Okay, Saturday night then.”
She turned back to the examination table. So far she hadn’t found any overt indications that this person had been the victim of a crime but that could change at any time. All it took was the smallest clue, the most minute detail, and a whole new story could evolve. The bones never lied. If there was something there, she’d find it. She had worked more cases than she could count as the lead forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University. Murder victims, burnt bodies, extreme cases of decomposition—she had seen it all. Whenever she wasn’t neck-deep in research or teaching—everything from Intro to Anthropology, Archaeology or Human Osteology—she was in her lab, trying to tease out that one clue, that one piece of evidence that might break open a case.
Still, she couldn’t quite dispel her conversation with her best friend. Although Susan and Caroline certainly meant well, she absolutely dreaded what Susan liked to call “a great chance to get out of the lab and socialize,” which essentially amounted to a blind date. Why couldn’t they just accept the fact that she was happy alone? Wasn’t that all she needed, that and some good friends? Anthropologically speaking—she then burst out laughing, thinking of the look on Susan’s face in response to her favorite phrase. Still, there was no better way to put it. Anthropologically speaking, not everyone was cut out for pair bonding.
* * *
“Hey Lisa, are we still on for Saturday night?” With a smudge of dry-erase marker across her left cheek, Caroline poked her head through the door to Lisa’s classroom, her short blond hair tussled and her blouse half pulled out from behind after a day of chasing twenty-four five-year-olds. Sunlight spilled through the windows across the brightly-colored posters featuring cartoon alphabet and math characters and paintings hanging to dry. A hustle and bustle of kids ran up the hallway behind her.
Right in the middle of flipping the tiny chairs over onto the tiny tables, Lisa Sorenson sighed quietly. She stood up straight, stretching her back—at six foot one, she often felt she was a giant in the land of Lilliput instead of a kindergarten teacher. Without answering, she brushed her shoulder-length deep auburn hair from her eyes and continued tidying her classroom. The more she had thought about the dinner invitation, the more she was sure it wasn’t a good idea. It sounded innocent enough—a dinner with friends while meeting someone new. With her back to Caroline, Lisa tidied another chair. “I don’t know. I’m not sure…the more I’ve thought…you know…”
Caroline stepped through the door and walked up to Lisa. “Oh, come on. You can’t bail on me now. Susan’s been planning this for weeks.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can make it.” Lisa felt her bottom lip quiver and that all-too-familiar threat of tears. It had only been a year since she had lost Jessie, her partner of a decade, to cancer.
“Sure you can. You need to start getting out, girl. You can’t spend all your time here or locked up at home. Besides, it’s only dinner and trust me, I think you’ll like Kate. She’s really smart,
like you.” Caroline bounced on her toes, looking much like one of her kids right before Christmas.
Lisa dabbed the corner of her eye. Great, now she was crying again. She was always on the verge of tears, as if at any moment her composure would come crashing down and she’d find herself crying once again. But how could she tell Caroline that she just didn’t feel she was ready? Not a day went by that she didn’t miss Jessie. She had been her life and now she was gone. A tear spilled over her eyelid and she quickly brushed it away.
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.” Caroline laid her hand softly on Lisa’s shoulder. “Forget I said anything. I’m such a jerk.”
Lisa shook her head. She didn’t want Caroline beating herself up. “No, you’re not a jerk. It’s all me. You and Susan are just trying to be kind and here I am being all Debbie Downer.”
Caroline wrapped her arm around Lisa and pulled her in tight. “I didn’t mean to push you. I know you miss Jessie—I miss her too.”
“You’re a great friend and I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Lisa did her best to smile. “I don’t know what’s up with me. I swear, half the time I feel like I’m bipolar—one minute I’m feeling fine, happy even, and the next I’m a blubbering basket case.”
“Sweetie, I completely understand. But I don’t think you’re bipolar. I’m sure what you’re going through is perfectly natural.”
“But Jessie wouldn’t want this. I know she wouldn’t.” Lisa stood up straight and drew in a deep breath. “You’re my witness. From this moment on I’m going to try to be more upbeat and outgoing.”
“That a girl.” Caroline patted her on the shoulder. “Look, it’s just dinner. No pressure, I promise.”
“Yeah, what about Susan? You know how she can be—always wanting to play matchmaker.”
“You just leave her to me.” Caroline gave her a squeeze. “Believe me, sometimes Susan can be a real pain in the ass.”
Lisa finally giggled. Caroline could always make her laugh. “I wouldn’t tell Susan that.”
“She already knows. She says the same thing about me too.” Caroline rolled her eyes. “That’s where the honesty comes from in our relationship. We can tell each other when we’re being a pain in the ass.”
By now Lisa was laughing, her entire body shaking as Caroline’s arm remained wrapped around her shoulders. “Okay, okay, I’ll be there. Just no pressure, all right?”
“No pressure, I promise.” Caroline traced an X over her heart with her finger. She then gave Lisa a quick hug before heading for the door. But before disappearing around the corner, she called back over her shoulder. “Saturday night then?”
“Yes, Saturday.” Lisa nodded as she flipped over the last chair. She didn’t know where she would be without her best friend Caroline, as well as Susan. When Jessie was sick they were always there for her. And then when she had lost Jessie it was only Caroline and Susan who had kept her from falling into that deep emotional black hole that had threatened to consume her. Still, she knew they meant well. Susan was a big romantic, but just the thought of meeting someone new twisted her insides. She didn’t feel it was right, even though Jessie had made a point that she should move on and not sit around lonely and pining. But how exactly was she to do that when Jessie had been such a big part of her life?
Finally she slung her satchel over her shoulder, her lesson plans and papers ready to grade later that evening. She took one last look around her classroom, her sanctuary, her safe zone. As long as she had her classroom and her kids, she didn’t need anything else. With the softest of smiles curling her lips she flipped off the lights and headed for home.
* * *
With long brunette wisps pulling out of her braid, Riley sat behind the wheel of her truck and slowly massaged her temples, her khaki shirtsleeves rolled up to her elbows. She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were redder than their usual steely gunmetal gray. Thank God it was finally Friday. What a week it had been. No fewer than four of her graduate students had needed spoon-feeding. An argument had spilled out of the English department and somehow found its way not only to the Anthropology Department but seemingly the entirety of both the College of Social Science and the College of Arts and Letters, and all over the virtues of Milton versus Shakespeare. It was like the bad penny of collegiate arguments that kept turning up when least expected. The only thing she knew for sure, no matter what department, everyone had a strong opinion one way or the other. And to top it all off, someone—of course, no one would fess up to it—had burned another bag of microwave popcorn, setting off the smoke alarm and evacuating the building as the fire brigade attended. Yes, what a week it had been.
At least now she could relax. That is except for that dinner date tomorrow night. If she could have thought of a legitimate excuse to wiggle out of it, she would have. What she wouldn’t have given for a surprise conference presentation (hey, can you come speak, I realize it’s last minute, but so and so pulled out). Or perhaps as an expert witness, maybe somewhere far away like Zaire or Myanmar, anywhere she wouldn’t have to make polite conversation to a stranger for two hours while Susan and Caroline looked on as if it were a live version of the lesbian dating game. If Susan hadn’t been her best friend she would never have agreed. How many dinner date disasters would it take before they realized it was a lost cause?
At least she had tonight to herself. And what better way to wind down from the week than a quiet evening at home? Maybe some chargrilled vegetables, some wine, the latest issue of Archaeology, a soak in the hot tub—what more could she want? She flipped on her blinker and eased across the two lanes of traffic, working her way over to the Meijer grocery store on the left.
Inside, she grabbed the last hand basket, getting a reproachful look in return from the harried woman behind her. One quick glance around the store packed with frantic shoppers and she regretted her decision. The place was a madhouse. However, since she was already there she might as well grab what she needed.
She scurried off to the produce section. The faster she loaded her basket, the faster she could get out. Eggplant. An essential. And luck be had, right there on top, like a cherry on the proverbial cake, sat the perfect specimen. As she reached for it, her fingers collided with another’s.
“Oh sorry.” She turned and sucked in a quick breath. The hand was attached to a stunningly beautiful woman. “I didn’t see you there.”
The woman flashed her a soft lazy smile. “No, that’s all right. Were you wanting that one?”
Riley slowly looked back at her hand, still pressed up against this stranger’s. She quickly jerked it away. “No, no, um…you…you can have it.” She didn’t know why she was stammering. Usually she was very articulate.
The woman laughed. “Are you sure? This is an excellent eggplant and I believe, you were here first.” She picked it up and made a big show of demonstrating its superb features.
Riley couldn’t help but laugh. Someone who had a sense of humor on a Friday night at the grocery store—truly a rare find. “It is a nice eggplant.”
“Then you should have it.” She pressed it into Riley’s hands before flashing another of those melting smiles.
As she walked away, Riley glanced back over her shoulder. The woman was now pawing through the rest of the eggplants. This encounter was definitely a welcome change of pace. She would’ve been less surprised if a deranged shopper had hauled off and pelted her with an eggplant. Still, the woman was striking with her shoulder-length deep auburn hair and brilliant blue eyes. And did she mention tall? She had always considered herself tall at five-nine but this woman was at least six foot.
With one last lingering glance, she turned back to her shopping. She grabbed a couple small yellow summer squash and a zucchini from the next row. But as she ticked the items off her mental list, she couldn’t quite push the eggplant encounter from her mind. She could just hear Susan too. “Hey girl, she was so flirting with you.” Susan liked to tease her by saying everyone was flirting with her whether they were or not, but as she had told Susan, she wasn’t good at pair bonding. She didn’t quite grasp all the social complexities that went into it, which was ironic since she was an anthropologist and social complexities should be second nature. Well, most were, she corrected herself—just not those that dealt with mating practices or more precisely, her mating practices.