by MB Panichi
Amry Marasich is a lesbian novelist whose day job is editing for a local paper in Minneapolis. Vacationing in her hometown of Hibbing in northern Minnesota’s spectacular Iron Range, she meets forestry officer Takoda Running Bear while cycling the scenic Mesabi Trail. The attraction between them is instantaneous and almost magical.
Unfortunately, reality rears its ugly head, in the form of Amry’s homophobic siblings. Although they both profess to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” like so many of their ilk, “hate” seems to be the operative word—reviving in Amry painful memories of growing up different in a close-minded small town and reminding her of why she chose to leave it for the anonymity of the big city.
Neither Amry nor Takoda are interested in a summer romance, so the geographically challenged couple struggle to make time for each other with long phone calls and short, passionate visits. But for Amry, falling in love would mean falling back into a life she fled. When fate turns her world upside down, will she have the courage to surrender the past and commit to a new life and an unknown future with Takoda?
Author of Running Toward Home and Saving Morgan, Bella’s MB Panichi won a GCLS Goldie for Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy and was a Goldie finalist for Best Debut author.
Lex Kent's Reviews - I was so into the story, that when the ending came, I wanted even more. To me, that tells you when you have read a good book, that you don't want it to end. While, I really enjoyed Saving Morgan, I think this may be her best book yet. I easily recommend this to drama-romance fans.
Summer sun blazed through the south-facing window in my parents’ kitchen. I set a plate of lunch in front of my dad, then joined him at the table.
He studied the ham sandwich, chips and apple slices for a second before folding his newspaper and setting it aside. “Thanks, Amry.” I watched while he took a big bite of the sandwich and smiled around it. “This is good.”
“Glad you like it.”
I wasn’t any kind of a cook, but since I’d arrived a little before noon, I figured it didn’t hurt to make him some lunch. I’d driven up from Minneapolis to my hometown of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. I planned to stay with Dad that night and the next and then finish my week-long vacation chilling with my friend Rose at the family cabin twenty minutes north of town.
A widower in his late sixties, Ray Marasich remained roguishly handsome. His gray hair was combed back from a deep widow’s peak, and he still had a solidly built physique from working as a laborer in the taconite mines all his life.
He finished another bite and washed it down with soda. “So, what’s new?”
“Not much. Work’s busy but good. I’ve got an editing project and I started writing another novel. Other than that, just the usual.” My reply was noncommittal, but I had learned long ago to avoid mentioning my lesbian friends and gay-related events. Previous confrontations had been between Mom and me. Dad had never once brought up the subject. I always took Dad’s silence as agreement with her opinion. My siblings, on the other hand, continued to be vocal in their distaste for my lifestyle.
I asked, “What’s been going on around here?”
“Haven’t seen much of your brother and sister lately. Bethany called last night. She’s good. Her boys are still playing baseball and Stephanie has those dancing classes, so Beth is busy hauling the kids around. Tom hasn’t called in a few days.”
“Huh. Yeah, I haven’t talked to them either.” The truth was, the twins and I weren’t close and never had been. Other than emergencies or major holidays, we didn’t contact each other, and when we did communicate it was in innocuous generalities—their children, the weather, sports or Dad.
“When is your friend Rose coming tomorrow?”
“Early afternoon. I figured the three of us could have dinner before she and I head up to the cabin.”
“I brought some pop up for you girls the other day when I went fishing. There’s gas in the boathouse for the boat.”
My best friend Rose and I spent a week up at my parents’ cabin every year. Dad and Rose got along well, bantering back and forth about fishing and Minnesota Twins baseball. Mom had been much more reticent. She’d liked Rose until I’d come out, which was when she’d decided she didn’t want the two of us at the cabin alone because it didn’t “look right.” It had taken a while to convince Mom that Rose was straight.
After lunch, Dad settled in to watch the ball game, so I decided to take my bicycle out for a ride. I didn’t feel like watching the Twins lose again.
I retreated to the bedroom my sister Bethany and I had once shared. I changed into black spandex bike shorts and a loose, quick-dry T-shirt. A glance in the mirror reflected an average-looking woman with short, spiky brown hair and close-set brown eyes—a stereotypical thirty-something dyke. The shorts and T-shirt fit decently enough. My legs were strong from biking, and there was a slight curve at my hips, mostly hidden by the long T-shirt. My arms showed some definition, and my skin was slightly tanned from hours spent on my bike.
I snatched up my sunglasses, wallet, keys, cell phone and bike shoes. On my way out, I stopped at the kitchen sink to fill two bike bottles.
Sitting down on the cement back stoop, I velcroed up my bike shoes, then click-clacked to the garage to retrieve my mint-green Cannondale road bike from the rear carrier rack on my car. I settled the water bottles in their cages and stuffed everything else into my handlebar bag. A quick check of the tires and the brakes, and I was good to go.
Dad stood in the doorway watching me strap on my helmet and gloves, shaking his head. “All that just to ride a bike?” he asked through the open screen.
“Don’t you have a game to watch?” I grinned to take the sting out of the question as I donned my sunglasses.
I swung onto the bike, clipped my left shoe and pushed off down the driveway. “Be back in a while!”
“Be careful, Amry!”
I waved as I rolled into the street, then powered north toward the bike trail. I pedaled through an older section of town a couple blocks north of my parents’ house and picked up the dirt track at the end of the street that connected to a paved bike trail.
The Mesabi Trail crossed northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. About seventy miles long, the paved bike path wound past open-pit mines and through woods and small towns. Beyond the trail, iron-ore tailings dumps rose into the sky like flat-topped red-orange mountains. Two or three hundred feet high, the “dumps” were leftover piles of rock and gravel dug out of the open-pit iron-ore and taconite mines that defined the landscape of the entire Iron Range.
Nature had reclaimed much of the land since the original mines had been dug. Pines, birch and poplars forested all but the steepest drops of rock. The air smelled of dusty grass and weeds, and the early August sun beat down on the asphalt, heating my head and shoulders. Sweat trickled down my back and my legs as I pumped up a short, steep incline. The familiar motions brought a sense of freedom and simplicity that I craved.
I rode past a long-forgotten junkyard and under a divided highway, cruising easily along a relatively straight stretch. I glanced at the watch strapped around my handlebars and decided I’d ride another hour or so before I turned back.
The trail was in great shape other than the occasional weed poking up through miniscule breaks in the tar, and I built up my speed as I pedaled around a wide corner. A few hundred feet ahead, someone leaned over a bike that rested upside down at the edge of the trail. As I closed in, I realized it was a woman bent over the rear wheel. Man or woman, any decent biker would check to make sure all was well. I stopped beside her.
“Hi, need a hand?”
She lifted her head and my heart stuttered.
“Hi,” she said. “No, I’m okay. Just a stupid flat.” She smiled and held up the wheel she’d removed. Her dark hair hung in a long ponytail, accenting her tanned complexion, deep chocolate eyes, high cheekbones and straight nose. I wondered if she were of Native American heritage. When she straightened, I took in the totality of her lean, solid build. She had to be nearly six feet tall.
I tried not to drool as I said, “I’ve got CO2 cartridges if you need ’em to pump up the new tube.”
“Really? Thanks. They’d be a hell of a lot more effective than my little pump.” Her voice poured over me like sweet molasses, slow and low. Christ on a bike, she was hot.
I swung off my road bike. Somehow I even remembered to unclip my shoes from the pedals so I wouldn’t fall on my ass.
“Nice ride,” she said.
“Thanks. So’s yours.” Well, that was lame, Amry. But she was riding a high-end, fully suspended Specialized mountain bike, with disc brakes. If I weren’t already practically drooling over her, I’d be drooling over her bike. Attempting to shake off the idiocy, I fished in my seat bag for the promised CO2 cartridges and trigger pump.
She very efficiently removed the bad tube from her tire with strong, long-fingered hands. I love those kinds of hands. “I’m Takoda, by the way,” she said as she worked. “Takoda Running Bear. Thanks again for stopping.”
“Amry Marasich. Nice to meet you.” Really nice, in fact.
She sat down on the edge of the trail with a new tube and her wheel and started feeding it around the rim. “Are you new around here? I’ve never seen you on the trail before.”
“Not new, really. I grew up here, but I don’t get home much.”
She shot me a quick grin, and I nearly swooned. It wasn’t like me to be attracted to someone so quickly, but seriously, I could have stood there all day watching her fix flats. “You’re vacationing, then?” she asked.
I felt my face flush. “Um, yeah. Spending the weekend in town visiting my dad, then a friend and I are going to spend a week up at the cabin.”
“Big Sturgeon. Not too far from the state park. We spend a week every year.”
“You picked a great week then. The weather is supposed to stay nice.” Takoda worked in silence for a few minutes and finally got her inner tube settled properly. “You have that CO2?”
“Sure.” I handed over a couple cartridges and the trigger.
“Thanks again. Sadly, mine are in my other bike bag. I hadn’t been intending to take a long ride today, but when I got going, I kept pedaling.”
“How far did you come?”
“Just past Virginia.”
“Nice. That’s at least, what, twenty miles?”
Takoda nodded and puffed a little air into the tire, checking the seating again to make sure the tube wasn’t sticking out anywhere. Then she emptied the cartridge into the tire. “That ought’a do it,” she said, checking the tire for hardness.
She handed back the unused cartridge and the trigger. By the time I put the tools away, she had the tire on and was getting the chain reseated. Takoda flipped the bike upright in a smooth motion, then leaned over to scoop up the empty CO2 cartridge and the flat tube. She stuffed those into her seat pack. “How far are you going?”
“Probably ride for another hour before I turn back. You?”
Takoda flashed me a brilliant smile. I was appropriately dazzled. “I’m not working today, so no real plan. You want some company while you ride?”
And what red-blooded American Lesbian would turn down a woman who looked like Takoda Running Bear? Not me, that was for damned sure. “Sure. Which way?”
She nodded in the direction I was already headed. “I was thinking I should head back anyway, and now I’ll have company for a while.”
“Works for me,” I agreed.
Takoda put on her helmet. She straddled her mountain bike, clipped into one pedal and pushed off. I paced her as we rode side by side. We must have made a slightly comical pair because her mountain bike was about four sizes taller than my road bike.
I asked, “You’re from Virginia?”
“Born on the Leech Lake Reservation, but grew up in Alaska. My folks moved us back to Minnesota when I was about nine years old.”
“Alaska, huh? I bet you can handle the winter here.”
Takoda laughed. “Yeah, this is pretty mild, sometimes. Dad worked for NOAA doing weather research, so we lived way out in the wilderness while he studied glaciers and climate change. When he got laid off, we ended up living outside of Duluth. He was a meteorologist for one of the news stations there before he retired and bought land up here.”
We spun up a steep hill and started down again. I caught my breath as we upshifted into another flat stretch.
“What do you do for a living?” I had to admit, I was curious.
“I work for the Forestry Service. We help with the local fisheries, monitoring the health of the lakes and the forests, and then the law enforcement side, monitoring the trails and lakes, hunting and fishing laws, that kind of thing.” She glanced at me with a wicked grin. “Do ya have a trail pass?” she asked pointedly.
Huh? I was busy thinking about her in uniform with a gun at her waist. “Uh. No. Should I have?”
Takoda Running Bear laughed and my insides melted. “Yes, you should. I could ticket you, if I were on duty.”
Guiltily, I admitted, “It never even crossed my mind.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can get you one, if we ride again, if you want.”
If we ride again? If I want? Like, duh. “Yeah, that’d be great,” I managed.
“What about you? What do you do?”
“My day job is editing for an entertainment magazine in Minneapolis, but I also edit novels for a smallish publisher. I write too. Fiction. It’s not glamorous like the Forestry Service, but it pays the bills.”
“Forestry isn’t glamorous. Mostly it’s all about mosquitoes, mud and frostbite.” She made a face. “I like to read. What kind of fiction do you write?”
Ah, and there’s the hundred-dollar question, I thought. What would the reaction be when I told her I wrote lesbian novels? I got a sense that maybe, just maybe, she was family, but that could have just been my own biased reaction to the fact that she was hot as hell. If I were wrong, though, at least we weren’t on a tandem, and I could ride away if she took offense. I took the plunge, and the words spilled out in a rush. “Lesbian fiction. Sci-fi, romance, adventure, that kind of thing.”
I couldn’t bring myself to look at her expression.
“Oh, cool, like Missy Good or Karin Kallmaker?”
My head snapped toward her, and I nearly fell off my damned bike. I quickly turned back to the road. “Uh, not so well known or prolific, but, yeah.” I snuck a glance and caught her giving me a once-over.
“Sweet,” she said. “So, have you met any of them?”
I grinned. “A lot of them, and I can honestly say they are an amazing group of women, and lesbian writers’ conferences are really great hug-fests!”
“Oh my God, I am so jealous!”
We discussed our favorite lesbian authors, touched on gay rights and politics, environmentalism and music, and found we agreed on most topics.
Our discussions took us all the way through to the Kinney trailhead before I decided I’d better head back. It killed me to have to end our ride, but I knew Dad would want to go out for something to eat, and I was going to need a shower.
I turned my bike around, and we stood there, straddling our rides. I wanted to ask for her phone number. I wanted to see her again, even if I was only going to be around for a week.
Takoda cocked her head and gave a sheepish half-grin. “So, do you think maybe you’d want to get together again while you’re here?” she asked. “I mean, it’s been fun talking to you.” She shrugged embarrassedly. It was adorable.
“That would be really great.” I was certain I was grinning like an idiot.
After exchanging phone numbers and making tentative plans to meet, I rode home powered by pure adrenaline. My feet barely touched the pedals, and my bike sailed on wings over the asphalt. I had Takoda Running Bear’s phone number, and she wanted to see me again.
When I reached my parents’ house, a monstrous black SUV clogged up the driveway, forcing me to ride on the grass to get around it. I pulled up in front of the garage, unclipping before I put my foot down on the cracked cement. I didn’t recognize the vehicle, but figured it had to belong to either Bethany or Tom. My guess was Bethany because I was pretty sure Tom drove a truck.
The screen door opened and slammed shut as I took off my helmet and gloves. My younger sister strode toward me, flipping her dark blond hair over her shoulder. “About time you got home, Amry.”
I wondered if it were possible for Bethany to begin a conversation in a nonconfrontational way. “I was only gone a couple of hours, Bethy.” I used the nickname because it pissed her off.
The door opened and slammed shut again.
My nine-year-old niece Stephanie jumped off the stoop and rushed past her mother to throw her arms around my waist. Her blond hair bobbed in a ponytail at the top of her head. She wore pink shorts and a matching pink-and-gray T-shirt splashed with sequined hearts. She exclaimed, “Wow, that’s a nice bike!”
I gave her a big hug. “Hiya, Stephie, how ya doing?”
“I’m good. We got to go to Target today! Mom said you were staying here this weekend. You wanna go to the park later?”
I had forgotten how fast nine-year-olds talk. “Sure, we can walk to the park if it’s okay with your mom.” Anything to get away from my scowling sister. “When did you get here?”
Bethany said, “A while ago. I thought you were visiting Dad. Where have you been?”
I leaned down to remove my bike shoes. “We had lunch and then he wanted to watch the game, so I decided to take a ride. I’m visiting, not babysitting. If you’re so worried about it, you could probably spend a little more time down here. Dad said he hasn’t seen you in a couple weeks.”
“Some of us have a life,” she snapped and turned back to the house.
“Whatever.” Arguing wasn’t worth the effort.
Stephanie asked, “Can I ride your bike, Aunt Amry?”
“My bike is way too big for you, hon. But if you brought your bike here, we could go for a ride together.”
“Okay. My bike is a girls’ bike. Why is yours a boys’ bike?”
“Because my bike is for going a long way, and they only make bikes like mine as boys’ bikes.” I didn’t bother to mention that I wouldn’t be caught dead on a girl’s bike. It had been a major cause for contention when I was Stephanie’s age.
Typically, though, my niece just went right past it. “Oh. Okay. Maybe someday I can get a bike that goes real far too. Let’s go see Grampa.”
“Lead on, kid.”
I followed her into the house, carrying my bike shoes, wallet and phone. Stephanie scampered ahead of me and into the living room, while I slipped down the hallway to put my stuff away. I grabbed some clean clothes and headed to the basement for a quick shower. It might have been rude not to join the family right away, but I needed to get cleaned up before I was ready to face them.
When I padded into the living room fifteen minutes later, barefoot and with wet hair, Bethany gave me a disgusted glower from her place on the love seat. I wasn’t sure what she was annoyed by, other than my existence, so I ignored her. Dad rested in his recliner with Stephanie sitting on his lap. The Twins’ baseball game was still on with the volume turned down. I squinted to see the score. They were losing again. Friggin’ Twinkies.
Dad asked, “Did you have a good ride?”
I nodded and settled myself on the sofa. “It was nice. It’s a beautiful day for it.”
“You’re the only person I know that’s ever on those damned trails.” He teased me with that line every time I visited.
“As it happens, I met a very nice person on the trail today. Helped her with a flat tire and rode with her for a while before I turned back.”
“That was nice of you.”
I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of my new friend. “It worked out okay.”
Dad just nodded, oblivious to any undercurrents, and turned his focus back to the ball game.
Bethany sent me a suspicious glance, and I knew she was mentally accusing me of picking up chicks on the bike trail. Or maybe I was reading into her attitude problem.
Stephanie asked, “Mom, can we bring my bike over tomorrow so me and Aunt Amry can go for a bike ride?”
Bethany said to me, “I don’t want you on the trail with her. Just around the neighborhood.”
“As you wish. I’ll be heading up to the lake tomorrow with my friend Rose, so it’ll have to be early.”
Dad said, “Tom and his wife and the boys are stopping by tomorrow morning too.”
I sighed. Wonderful. The whole family together. I hoped Rose would show up early.
Sunday morning, Dad and I sat at the kitchen table with the local papers scattered between us. I sipped a cup of coffee, splitting my attention between the email on my laptop, chatting with Dad and the vague but titillating memories of last night’s dreams of Takoda Running Bear.
“Wonder what time Tom and his family will be here.” Dad glanced out the side door, then at the clock.
“I’m sure it won’t be too long.” I knew Dad was anxious to see his grandkids. I didn’t mind seeing them either, but I wasn’t so excited about spending time with my siblings. I took a few seconds to consider leaving for the cabin before they arrived but forced myself to relax. Running away was a cop-out.
Still, I’d rather avoid the twins than see them. Was it cowardice or the simple avoidance of confrontation? Was it wrong that I didn’t particularly want to deal with my sister examining me as though my soul could never be saved? Was it a sign of weakness that I didn’t want my brother to scoff at me?
The old hurts had long ago morphed into anger that sprung up easily and quickly. Most of the time, I squashed it and put on a pleasant face. But I was tired of playing the game and sick of dealing with their crap just to keep peace in the family.
The house rattled as a silver F-350 Super Cab lumbered into the driveway. Dad hurried to the door. I stood off to the side and watched through the picture window overlooking the driveway.
My brother Tom strode around the front of the truck. Tall and muscular, he’d inherited Dad’s dark good looks and height. His wife, Darlene, slipped down from the passenger seat and their two boys piled out of the backseat.
Darlene led the way into the kitchen, stopping to give my dad a hug and greet him. She toed off her low cowboy boots. I’d always thought of Darlene as Tom’s trophy wife. She had long, wavy blond hair and blue eyes. Narrow-framed and slim, she could have been a model in her tight jeans and neatly tucked-in Western-style blouse. “Hello Amry.”
“Hi Darlene. How are you?”
Towheaded and husky, twelve-year-old Joey slipped past her and threw himself at my dad, who wrapped him in a big hug.
Tom came in next, kicking off his sneakers. “Hey Dad, Amry.” Tom’s glance flicked over me, and there was no warmth in his greeting. I simply nodded an acknowledgment.
Joey yelled, “Hi Aunt Amry!” as he stepped away from Dad, then announced, “I’m goin’ outside,” and disappeared back out the door.
Tom and Darlene’s older son, Nikko, walked into the house as Joey ran out. He greeted Dad, then me and gave me a strong hug, which I returned heartily. I was glad my sixteen-year-old nephew still felt comfortable showing his affection.
“How’re you doing, Nikko?” I had to tip my head to meet his gaze.
“I’m okay. It’s really cool to see you.”
The door opened again, and Bethany, her husband David, and their three kids trooped into the house to another round of hugs for Grandpa. Bethany’s kids couldn’t have been more different from each other. Stephanie rushed in, bright and happy. Her younger brother Peter greeted Dad quietly, then slipped back outside, presumably to play with Joey. Eleven-year-old Theo sulked into the kitchen and looked over Nikko’s shoulder as Nikko flipped through an ad from an electronics store. Stephanie settled happily in my lap when I sat down.
Bethany’s husband, David, greeted me with a smile. We did the usual “how are you” routine as he took the empty chair across from me. David wasn’t a bad guy; just quiet and unobtrusive.
Bethany got coffee for herself and David and sat at the head of the table farthest from me. Darlene got coffee for herself, topped off Dad’s cup and mine and set a soda in front of Tom before sitting down on my left.
Tom grabbed the sports section, already talking baseball with Dad and David as he flipped pages. Darlene gestured to my laptop. “Working on anything new?” she asked.
I was never certain if her interest was real or if she were being polite. “I’m about halfway into the first draft a new novel.”
Nikko asked, “This a new laptop?”
“Had it a few months. Take a look if you want. It’s not super-high-end, but it’s pretty speedy. It’s hooked up to my hot spot, so there’s Internet, but don’t stream any video, okay?”
“Sure. Thanks.” He lifted the computer onto his lap.
Darlene cautioned, “Don’t break anything, Nikko.”
He made a face. I could practically hear the implied “Duh.”
“Not much there he can break.”
“You kids and your electronic crap,” Dad said. His eyes twinkled, softening his words.
Nikko said, “Anytime you want to learn to use one, Grandpa, let me know. I’ll set you up.”
“You’re all gonna ruin your eyes staring at those screens.”
Theo leaned over Nikko’s shoulder. “Does it got any games?”
“Sorry, Theo, no games, unless you count Mahjong.”
His expression told me how boring I was.
“I got a new game for my LeapPad,” Steph said. “It’s really cool.”
“It’s a stupid kids’ game,” Theo muttered.
Darlene steered the conversation in a different direction, and topics bounced around the table, varying from news about the taconite mines to the kids’ summer events. I sipped my coffee and decided it was possible I wouldn’t be driven insane in the couple of hours before Rose arrived.
Then Nikko asked, “Aunt Amry, is this your new book?”
Aw, crap. The conversation around me stopped. I glanced at the screen. “Yeah, it is.”
“Can I read it?”
You could, but I’d likely be tarred and feathered, and you’d probably lose your eyeballs from reading lesbian sex scenes. “It’s not finished yet, so I’d rather you didn’t.”
Over the top of her coffee cup, Bethany narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you shouldn’t let him snoop around on your personal laptop.”
I met her gaze. “Nikko is respectful and knows to ask first.”
Under his breath, Nikko said, “I’m not stupid.”
At that, Darlene smiled. It made me think better of her for not jumping on him.
Conversation picked back up, and I let it go on around me while keeping an eye on Nikko and Theo. For the most part, I mostly chatted with and listened to Stephanie, who rattled on excitedly about her friends and learning tumbling and cartwheels in her dance class.
I jerked in surprise when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket and the message tone sounded a little too loudly over the conversation. I reached around my niece so I could get the phone out of my shorts’ cargo pocket. I figured it was Rose letting me know her ETA.
When I glanced at the name on the text message, I couldn’t stop the delight that spread across my face. Keeping the phone out of Stephanie’s view, I swiped my thumb to unlock the screen.
Takoda: Hey, Amry. I really enjoyed our ride yesterday. Can you do lunch tomorrow?
Oh. My. God. I barely held back an excited cheer as I rapidly texted back.
Me: Absolutely! What time?
Me: Perfect. Wanna meet at Riverside? or Bimbo’s?
Takoda: Let’s do Riverside.
Me: Great!! :)
Takoda: Super! Gotta run—at work. TTYL!
Me: C U tomorrow :)
Un-fucking-believable! I wanted to kiss the phone. Actually, I wanted to kiss Takoda. A wave of giddiness splashed over me.
“Who the hell are you texting?” Tom asked. “You’re grinning like an idiot.”
Startled out of my ecstatic reverie, I locked the phone. “Just a friend.”
Bethany’s blue eyes bored into me. “Was the message so important you had to answer it immediately? It’s impolite to have your phone ringing off the hook and be texting when you’re visiting.”
My giddiness drained away in a flash. “Get off your soapbox, Beth. I wasn’t part of your conversation so I didn’t interrupt anything. And yes, it was an important message.”
“If it was so important, who was it?”
Her holier-than-thou tone grated on every nerve in my body. I fought the urge to slap her silly. “Nobody you know.”
I thought she was going to push the issue, but instead she turned back to Darlene and picked up their conversation. The guys had already gone back to theirs. I leaned back, relieved to have an end to the inquisition. I asked Stephanie a question about her dance class, and she was off and running.
I did not intend to discuss Takoda Running Bear with my family.
Rose had arrived at my dad’s house early Sunday afternoon and the two of us headed up to the cabin shortly after to begin our annual northland getaway. On Monday morning I relaxed and treated myself to my first idyllic, lazy vacation morning at the cabin. A steaming cup of coffee rested on the faded vinyl tablecloth beside my open writing journal. The morning sun poured into the kitchen, lightening the wood-paneled décor and drawing a bright line up the river-rock fireplace that marked the center of the cabin’s main room.
A fresh breeze blew through the open windows, smelling of pine and grass. I gazed out the front picture window that overlooked the lake. The water rippled and glittered under a cloudless blue sky. Stands of birches and a few old pines grew along our property line and down the steep hill to water.
I returned to scribbling in my journal, trying to capture my sense of peace with words. Even if I only spent a week a year up here in the woods, it was a place that spoke to my soul and gave me time to slow down and step back from my life. Not that my life was so horrible or crazy. But it was nice to be able to put work aside, not worry about the world and maybe put things in perspective. Usually, this was the time when I got some good work done on a writing project. Rose and I would spend a few hours hiking and biking or out on the boat, and the in-between times I would write while she read. Rose was one of the few people in my life with whom it was okay to have silences.
Usually, in the serenity of the cabin and nature, my journaling tended toward philosophical meanderings and quiet musings on life in general. Today, visions of Takoda Running Bear and thoughts about our lunch date dominated the pages, and my jumbled stream of consciousness was anything but peaceful. Instead, the scrawling cursive covering the narrow-lined pages was hormonal, anxious, wondering if it was the right thing to meet her, wondering if she felt the same way, and then squashing that last part because I was just too average to be noticed.
“I knew you’d be up early, driving yourself crazy.”
Rose shuffled out of the master bedroom that opened into the main room. She wore an oversized T-shirt and shorts, her long hair tousled, and she rubbed her eyes as she wandered into the kitchen area.
“It’s almost noon,” I pointed out with a teasing smile.
She waved a hand as she got a mug from the cupboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Whatever. I’m on vacation.” She dropped into the chair across from me.
I held up my pen. “I was journaling.”
Rose snorted. “And daydreaming about your hot date.”
“Shut up, smartass. You want help getting the boat out before I go?”
“Naw, I got it.”
“You going fishing, then?”
Rose sipped on her coffee and stretched. “For a while, anyway. But I’m not in a hurry.”
I closed my notebook and pushed it aside. Rose was the receptionist/office manager at the magazine publisher where I worked as an editor. She’d been there all of the ten years I had. Our friendship had started with running out for lunch, then progressed to hiking and biking and annual trips to the cabin. Rose made me laugh. She was so practical about life and relationships and the world. It didn’t matter that she was straighter than straight and I very much was not. We got along like sisters.
Rose asked, “So, are you nervous?”
“She’s probably nervous too, you know.”
“I don’t know. She’s a cop. Cops don’t get nervous meeting someone for lunch.”
Rose laughed. “Most cops spend half their shifts crapping their pants. Don’t worry so much. Just pretend you’re meeting a friend from high school or something.”
“Oh, and that should make me feel so much better.” School hadn’t been that great an experience. I hadn’t been part of the “in” crowd, hadn’t dated, and only had a handful of friends who were as geeky as me.
“Maybe you should have spiked your coffee.”
“Yeah, well, look who’s talking. You were at least this pathetic before you went out with what’s-his-name last month.”
She shrugged. “I got over it. And hopefully your lunch will go better than my lousy date with what’s-his-name.”
I glanced at the clock. “Gotta get dressed.” I downed the rest of my coffee and retreated to the tiny front bedroom, where I picked through the clothes in my duffel bag. What the hell was I going to wear? I hadn’t packed for dating. All I had with me were cargo shorts, spandex bike shorts and T-shirts. With a frustrated sigh I decided on army-green cargo shorts and a black Joan Jett concert T-shirt. If Takoda didn’t appreciate my sense of style, then so be it.
When I came back into the kitchen, Rose gave me an assessing once-over and raised her coffee mug in salute. “Well, it isn’t preppy chic, but I suppose if you’re going for relaxed butch, it’ll do.”
“I sure as hell hope so.” I grabbed my car keys from the fireplace mantel and shoved my wallet into a pocket. “Wish me luck.”
“Enjoy your lunch. I’ll be waiting to hear all the intimate details.” Rose leaned back with her coffee and a book. I wrapped my courage around me and headed out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, I turned into the mostly unpaved parking lot at the Riverside Inn Bar and Restaurant. The weathered one-story building had been here since I was a kid. Cracked paint and missing shakes from the front façade showed its age. The sign at the parking entrance had faded to chipped pastels.
As I stepped out of the car, Takoda rolled up in a black four-door Jeep Wrangler with its top removed. Dark glasses framed high cheekbones and a strong, angular jaw. My heart pounded.
The Wrangler ground to a stop, and Takoda jumped out. “Hi!” She pushed her sunglasses to the crown of her head, smiling widely. “I’m glad you made it.” She rocked back on her heels and pushed her hands into her jeans pockets as I joined her.
“Hi. Glad you suggested it.” I wondered if we should shake hands or something. I settled for putting my hands in my own pockets. We stood there grinning at each other. I felt like a nervous schoolgirl and got the impression that she did too.
“Shall we?” Takoda nodded toward the building.
We crossed the parking lot and entered the dimness of the bar.
The older man behind the counter raised a hand in greeting. “Hey Running Bear, long time no see.”
“How’s it going, Leo?”
I followed her through the bar and into the bright, open restaurant. A wide window at the front of the room overlooked the road, while the picture windows on the side showed a grassy park with a wire-fenced woodsy area and a creek with a small walking bridge.
We claimed a table by the side windows. The frail, stern-looking waitress, who could’ve been anywhere from sixty to eighty years old, arrived with two glasses of water and single-sheet laminated menus, which she placed before us without smiling. Her nametag said Dora, and I mentally tagged on “The Explorer.”
“You girls want something to drink?” Deep wrinkles lined her thin face, and her voice was scratchy and hoarse.
Takoda opted for a Coke. I went with the diet version. As Dora walked away with a slight limp, I asked, “What’s good?”
“You’re probably safe with a burger. I haven’t actually eaten here in years. Been in the bar a few times, though.”
“Now you tell me,” I said. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid. All I remember is feeding the deer out back.”
“My grandfather used to take my brother George and me to feed the deer too.”
A warm, happy spot grew in my chest, knowing that we had a shared experience. In some way, it suggested that maybe we had more in common than just an accidental bike ride.
When Dora returned with our sodas, we ordered cheeseburgers and fries.
I asked, “Are you off work today?”
“Actually, I’m off for the next week. I was supposed to go camping with my brother, but he broke his ankle. I figure, I’ll get some stuff done around the house, maybe do a little fishing.”
“Bummer your plans got canceled.”
“How’d he break his ankle?”
“Roofing his house. He’s lucky he didn’t break his neck.” She shook her head. “Poor George. He’s been working so hard getting his house done, trying to save money doing the work on his own. Best laid plans and all that, right?”
“That so sucks.” Just the thought of being up on a steep roof made my insides squirm.
She cocked her head. “You don’t come up here much?”
“I try to stop up for a weekend every two or three months to see my dad. My best friend Rose and I are staying at the cabin through the rest of this week. We’ve made it an annual trip for almost ten years. You should come out and hang with us. Rose loves to fish. I lounge in the boat with a book or a notebook.” Jesus. I was babbling. I reached for my soda and took a gulp to shut the hell up.
“I may take you up on that. Tell me about the cabin.”
I did, and she told me about the log home she’d built on a small lake about ten miles outside Hibbing, where she lived with her two rescued Labrador-mix dogs. Dora brought our lunch, and we continued to chat, keeping to mostly general subjects. Takoda was close to her family and spent a lot of time with them. I spent most of my time with my friends, who were more like family to me. Her Native American heritage intrigued me.
“Can I ask what the name Takoda means?”
“Sure. My grandmother—my father’s mother—wanted my parents to give me a traditional Ojibwa name. Mom, who’s through and through hotheaded Irish, saw the name Takoda in some romance novel she was reading. It’s Sioux, and it means ‘friend to everyone.’ Mom liked it, and Grandma could live with it, even if it wasn’t Ojibwa. Then when I arrived, it turned out I wasn’t a boy. Mom still liked the name. She added Lynn to appease the Irish relatives on her side. So, my full name is Takoda Lynn Running Bear.”
“That’s really cool.”
“What about Amry? That’s a different name too.”
“Yeah. They named me Ann Marie. My brother and my cousins butchered it and called me Amry. It stuck and it fit better than Ann Marie, so I changed it legally when I was in college. My mom had a fit. She called me Ann Marie anyway. She was the only person who ever did.”
“I suppose we grow into the names we’re given and make them our own.”
We fell into silence and worked on our burgers. Takoda gazed off into the woods. She wore a pensive expression, and I wondered what was going through her head. After a few moments, she asked, “So, how is it that a nice girl like you is still unattached? I mean, are women in the cities that stupid?”
I nearly choked on a french fry. “Oh, I don’t know if I’m that great a catch. I’m a writer, so I need time and space to create, and not many women get that. I can’t write when someone sucks up all my energy and makes me feel guilty if I have boundaries around my time and space. I can be pretty antisocial if I’m on a roll. And I’m probably too honest for my own good. Sorry.” I managed an embarrassed smile. No fucking wonder I didn’t have a girlfriend.
Takoda’s expression seemed more understanding than put off by my behavior quirks. “I understand the need for alone time. When we moved from Alaska, living in town felt so crowded. It was a big adjustment. It’s better now, but I still prefer the quiet. That’s why my house is so isolated. It keeps me sane.”
Relief made my chest lighter. “Guess we’ve both done okay for being slightly hermitlike.”
A broad, happy smile made Takoda’s eyes light up. “I guess so.” Takoda laid her hand over mine on the table and gave it a squeeze. My insides turned to goo. Her hand was warm and her dark eyes held mine. When she removed her hand, the thought that flashed through my head was that I didn’t want her to let go. “You want dessert? I hear the pie is great.”
I had to force myself to respond to the question because I was still thinking about holding her hand. “I’m stuffed. I couldn’t eat another bite.”
“Me either, actually.”
The waitress dropped off the bill, which Takoda claimed before I could get a hand on it. “I got it,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Besides, I invited you.” She leaned back in her chair. “I really want to see you again.”
“Really?” God, I sounded like an idiot.
I didn’t date much. It was generally a crappy experience, filled with uncomfortable silences or overly clingy, annoying chatterboxes or, in the case of my ex, Susan, manipulative, controlling women who sucked up your life so subtly that you didn’t realize you’d lost it until it was already gone. But Takoda wanted to see me again. And there was something about her: she seemed so genuine. Not pretentious. Just straightforward.
I swallowed hard, and the words bubbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I want to see you again too. Why don’t you come to the cabin tomorrow? Rose will be there, but she’s cool. You’ll like her. We can go hiking or biking or fishing or something.” It wasn’t a date. It was safe. She’d probably think it was stupid.
“I’d like that.” Takoda touched my hand again. “I know you’ll go back to the city, but…” Her eyes focused on her hand. Which rested on my hand. My heart started racing, and my brain turned to mush.
I twined our fingers together. Her darkly tanned skin contrasted against mine. In that tiny moment of time, the air stilled around us. A sense of endless possibility was born and then slipped away in the next second. She was right. I would return to the city and my life there. But while we were here, anything could happen.
Dora returned to take the bill folder. Her gaze went to our clasped hands, and her expression soured into a tight-lipped frown. She grabbed the folder and spun away.
When she returned a couple minutes later with the receipts and Takoda’s credit card, we were still holding hands as we chatted. Dora muttered something like “Thanks for stopping in” as she hurried back to the kitchen.
We snickered. I was used to living in the city, where public displays weren’t any big thing. People didn’t care or didn’t pay attention. I wasn’t ashamed of my sexuality. It seemed Takoda wasn’t either. Takoda signed the charge slip and returned her credit card to her wallet.
Instead of going directly to our cars, we followed the path around the back of the building and into the park, strolling along the chicken-wire fence searching for deer. Takoda took my hand. I looked up at her and smiled. Just like that, the day was perfect.
“There,” she whispered, pointing into the brush.
I followed her direction. Two fawns stood at the edge of the brushy tree line. Their soulful black eyes watched us. Dusty brown fur and fading white spots blended into the dappled sunlight of the wooded background. The deer took a couple steps into the sunlight, then at some signal only they knew, their tails stood straight up and they whirled and bounded back into the woods.
We wandered back to the parking lot. I had never felt so comfortable with someone I’d only just met. Holding her hand felt so natural it didn’t even occur to me that I was in the homophobic northland. Of course, there wasn’t anyone around to see us.
When we reached our vehicles, we stood for another few minutes making small talk, both trying to find a good way to part. Finally, I smiled regretfully. “I should head back.”
I wanted to invite Takoda along, but I didn’t want to offend Rose. This was her vacation too. “This was wonderful. Thank you for lunch.”
“You’re more than welcome.” Takoda stepped back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She opened my car door for me, then hopped into her Jeep.
I started the engine, and she followed me as I drove out of the parking lot and turned to the left. She turned right, and I watched her Jeep disappear in my rearview mirror.
A warm, tickly feeling fluttered in my chest. I bounced between excited, nervous and slightly nauseated because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Whatever this was between Takoda and me, I knew nothing could come of it. She was here, and I would be returning to the city in a week.
Long-distance relationships didn’t work, but maybe we could be friends. A girl could never have too many friends.