posted July 2003
The lights! Will someone turn off the lights!
Steph tried to shut her eyes tighter than what was physically possible. It didn't help.
Regrettably, she let herself be pulled out of what was left of her sleep. Peeking carefully, she discovered she, had forgotten to pull that dark curtain across the skylight above her bed last night. Groaning, she tried to reach for the fabric without sitting up.
"Oh damn it!" She cursed as she failed and heavily fell back against the pillow again. The sun, the same one she normally loved, annoyingly tortured her with needle sharp rays.
I need to work on my party manners , she moaned, shutting her eyes again.
Tossing around in bed, she pulled the covers high up over her face and lay completely still. Listening to her own breath, she hoped sleep would return but the only thing that happened was breathing became more and more difficult. Steph moaned and sat up. With fumbling fingers she opened the skylight, letting the fresh breeze stream into the cabin. Slowly, carefully, she sank back against the pillow again.
The sky outside was clear blue, with a few fluffy clouds passing by. A seagull sat on the top of the mast screaming for attention. Steph lay still and let the brisk ocean winds purify her.
Thoughts of yesterday began to filter though the hangover haze. Last evening wasn't bad , she recalled, despite her unsettled nervousness before the party.
Very nice actually.
An image of Kate slowly emerged. Steph could still sense the smaller body against her own - inviting, soothing. Rolling over on her stomach, lying with her face deeply buried in the pillow, Steph could not resist grinning. Then a twist of frustration or anxiousness, she couldn't determine which, passed through her body. She couldn't put words to what it was but she did feel … different.
Sighing, she lifted her head. I have to focus on the lecture. But right on the heels of this thought came, the recollection of Kate's hands around her waist: like being swept into warm robe after a cold bath; comforting, safe, cared for.
The gravity from the pillow got stronger. "Stop that!" she ordered herself.
"Get up! Go and pick up your son!" Yet, not a single movement occurred and it took several long moments before she managed to force herself out of bed.
Meanwhile, on land, standing behind the counter in the restaurant, wearily overlooking the sky outside, Kate felt a slight hint of a headache sneaking in from the back of her head. Last evening had been a success, something she gave herself mental praise for. Even the Tiramisu was perfect , she thought, chuckling at the memory of Fabricio's outburst after the first, failed attempt with the dessert.
The door swung open and Kelly entered. Kate blinked herself out from her slow-motioned state.
”Good morning, dear Kate! Congratulations for a successful evening.”
Enthusiastically, Kate replied. ”Well, thank you Kelly." She continued in the same pace, "I must admit, I'm pretty satisfied myself. Everybody really seemed to enjoy themselves.”
Nodding, Kelly took off her jacket. "That is so true," she grinned, seeing the dark rings under her friend's eyes. You do look really tired, Kate, she mused to herself as she sat down on a stool by the counter.
Kate placed two cups of cappuccino at the counter and sprinkled chocolate-powder on top of the foam.
Noticing the strained wrinkle between Kate's eyes, Kelly first looked down at the light brown beverage and then threw a smug expression at her friend. ”Is the regular coffee too much for your stomach today?” She asked, resting her cheek onto the palm of her hand.
Kate groaned. ”It's all the mixes - drinks, wine, grappa, more drinks." She brushed her hand over her stomach. "I've become soft.”
Chuckling heartily, Kelly casually began to play with the foam in the cup as she reflected, ”Speaking of soft; your date seemed to be a nice person.” Holding back the grin that played in the corner of her mouth, she eyed Kate.
The memory of Steph's soft voice sweeping across her ear made Kate warm, planting a wistful expression across her face. She hadn't yet dared to think of the soft hug, the closeness and the frustration she had felt when Steph had left her standing alone on the sidewalk.
All of a sudden, years of being alone seemed to be forgotten. Kate realized she didn't want to be alone anymore. The awakening had sneaked upon her, and her clear view of who she was, of what she wanted and had done … suddenly it all was blurry. Like scanning the ocean, when the thick mist comes rolling in over the coast, she now tried to see what was hiding out there. Not until the mist dissipated, would she find the answer, though. She knew that.
Fiddling with the straight line of glasses behind the counter, Kate frowned, ”Date! Still very funny.” She turned away. ”She's a really good friend but … yes," she threw a quick glance over her shoulder while holding two small plates in her hand, " she did enjoy herself.”
Recalling Kate's repeated lingering look at Steph last night, Kelly couldn't let go of teasing her friend. Casually she said, ”Anyhow - you do look kind of cute together."
Kate quickly turned to face Kelly. Smirking she asked, ”You think I'm cute?”
”Together with Steph you are,” Kelly smugly clarified. ”Alone you're just … gorgeous.”
They both chuckled. Kate returned to the counter with a box of brownies, and seductively placed them in front of Kelly. Kelly didn't even try to resist them and picked one up.
”Mm, these are good,” she said, looking at the chocolate confection in her hand. A short pause fell while Kelly daydreamed resting her eyes on the cake. Slowly returning to reality, she casually stated, ”You know - you better look out for our friend, the doctor.” She raised her eyebrows to point out she was serious. ”Richard seemed … very interested in your pretty friend.”
Feeling a jealous jolt pass through her stomach, Kate bit back a dry reply. She had noticed Richard's careful attempts to get Steph's attention, but she had also noticed how Steph hadn't invited him. She had gracefully rejected him in a way that wouldn't make him uncomfortable.
Richard Wilson was only a few years older than Steph, and Kate had to admit they would make a stunning couple. For some reason though, she felt that Steph wasn't looking for a husband. Perhaps not interested in finding one? It had struck Kate that building a family might be good for Steph. Get her to settle down and see another side of life. Yet, the picture of Steph with a husband by her arm wasn't appealing to Kate.
Well, I like things the way they are now, she thought selfishly, aware that Kelly was watching her, waiting for a response.
“Yes, he did,” Kate replied, not able to hide her jealousy. “And he's certainly worth a pretty woman like Steph. However, I'm not sure she is interested in a relationship right now.” Briefly she let her eyes wander. When they returned to Kelly, she casually stated, “Could be that too much is going on in her life already.”
Slowly nodding, Kelly couldn't help but wonder how close to the truth her teasing of Kate had come. Perhaps Kate actually had found an interest in Steph beyond mere friendship. The thought made her grin.
Continuing the conversation, Kelly playfully agreed, "I guess you're right. She wasn't exactly eager."
To change the subject, Kelly made a quick shift to something that didn't need too much thought. "Have they returned your pans and whatever else is yours?"
Kate leaned back against the counter behind her. "No, not yet," she replied casually, looking at her wristwatch. "I'm expecting them in an hour. ‘Heard there was a lot of food left so if you don't want to cook tonight, take a bag home with you."
Kelly smiled appreciatively then sighed. "Too bad we've promised the kids to drive to Providence this afternoon, for pizza," she mumbled, watching Kate walk around the counter.
"I can't imagine a better way to spend the day than going home with a little bag full of goodies." She straightened herself, letting a yawn out before she sank back against the counter. "Perhaps you'd like to join us?" She asked nonchalantly.
Grimacing, Kate sat down on the stool next to Kelly. "Pizza sounds awfully fat for me today." Tiredly, she rested her head in the palm of her hand. "Besides - I have already invited Steph and Jason for a leftover dinner."
Kelly's eyebrows arched. "You're going to stay here all day?" She wondered. "At the restaurant?"
Scoffing at the idea, Kate replied, "No, I've invited them over to my place actually." Reaching her hand up and around her neck she tried to rub the tension out. Kelly had told her on several occasions that she should try to have a life outside the restaurant, and she knew her friend would appreciate her initiative.
A bit surprised, but not overly, Kelly quirked her head. She had heard so much about Steph from Kate, and now -. She liked the idea of Kate having a new friend. She was happy for her.
"Well, it's an improvement. One small step for man, one giant leap for Kate."
Grinning, Kate turned around to face the gray sky outside the window, reminded how seldom she invited people to her home.
Casually she mused, "Yeah." She threw a quick glance at her friend. "I agree I'm a bit weird about that.” Clucking she continued, “Steph might think I have something strange hiding in my apartment."
Suspiciously looking at Kate, Kelly playfully asked, " Don't you? I've heard rumors about an old, dead woman in a rocking-chair?"
"And we all know where that rumor came from," Kate drolly replied.
Suddenly the door opened. An excited Jason rushed in with his mother right behind. The young boy beamed with joy as soon as he saw Kate.
"Aunt Kate! Look what I have," he shouted in one breath, scrambling over to her while holding up his arm.
Kate shrank at the sudden outburst. "Hello there, young man," she said chuckling while trying to defend herself from Jason's attack. With her eyebrows stitched together, she looked at his arm.
"What have we here?" she asked, not understanding what it was she was looking at.
“I got a tattoo yesterday," he stated with a proud smile stretching from ear to ear. Still holding his right arm in front of Kate's face he forcefully whispered, "It's Homer Simpson!"
All three women laughed at his enthusiasm. Looking at the blue and yellow picture attached to the tiny arm, Kate noted that the tattoo sure wasn't pretty. The young boy was very excited though. Gently poking her finger on Homer Simpson, Kate commented, "I bet your mother is very proud of you!" She cast a quick glance at Steph who only rolled her eyes in response.
Sighing Jason pulled back his arm. "She says he's ugly but I think he's really cool."
Laughing, Kate put her arm around him. "Well that's what counts," she replied, kissing the boy on top of his head.
"So, Steph,” Kelly spoke, up. “How'd you like the party last night?"
Jason broke lose from Kate's gentle embrace. Steph immediately grabbed him by the hand. He had been too much of a six year old when she had picked him up at the daycare center, and she now needed him to calm down a bit. Feeling the boy struggle in her hand, she, after barely noticeable hesitation, replied, "It was interesting."
Memories of Kate observing her passed through her mind; when they had arrived, on the terrace, when she had danced with Wilson . She had felt Kate gazing at her more than she might have been aware of.
“Interesting?" Kelly questioned curiously, noticing dark lines under the young woman's weary eyes.
Steph gave Kelly a cunning smile. "Well, there is no place like a party," she explained and changed her look to Kate, "to find out the true nature of the people surrounding you."
Noticing the change, Kelly found the young woman's moves quite delicate. Kelly had done, what she promised herself to - kept an eye on Kate during the party. Not surprisingly found Kate, on several occasions, eyeing Steph, standing close to her, following her; most definitely she had found her friend searching for her.
Smugly, Kelly looked at Kate and casually agreed, "Indeed."
Kate's heart began to beat faster, hearing the talk. Blinking back her surprise, she tried to act casually, find something amusing in what Steph had said. The only thing she found though was the comfort of Steph's body against her own. Recollection of their good bye from last night surfaced again.
She couldn't recall the last time she had had such a close moment with anyone. Not that it mattered, but there had been something in it that was more natural than anything she had ever experienced. Kate could feel how their friendship, at that moment, developed into something that was close to being described as something more.
She swallowed, hard.
What if people begin to talk? she asked herself silently, eyeing the blond woman. And what about me?
Feeling Kelly looking at her, Kate was not able to find an answer to her own question. Realizing that both Steph and Kelly were mocking her, she collecting herself. Actively searching for an escape route, she found one in the beat of the moment.
"Well, the true nature of Charles Redgrave was fascinating" She grinned, satisfied about having changed focus to someone else. Playing further on the same card, she added, "I doubt Maggie is of the same opinion though."
Kelly chuckled - both at Kate's save and Charles. "Poor Charles. He only wants to have a good time," she commented, amusingly. "Too bad Maggie won't let him. He is really funny when he loosens up a bit."
"I think Charles is a sweet man," Steph filled in. "I only talked to him a couple of times when we lived at the hotel. I'm guessing Maggie has pretty reins?"
Frowning, Kate replied, "Well, that's an understatement," letting it be known she didn't like the hotel manager very much. Mrs. Redgrave had an ability of spreading bad vibrations, no matter what. Kate did not like that.
Jason wriggled in Steph's hand. Looking down on her son, she said, "We should get going. Jason just wanted to show you his tattoo, Kate." She looked up and met Kate's eyes. "And I figure you are pretty impressed by it?"
Kate smiled in response and looked at Jason. "Oh, very," she seriously replied, winking her left eye at him. The boy grinned back.
Looking back at Steph, she casually reminded, "Dinner tonight." A beat passed, giving Steph time to connect the statement, before Kate added, "My place."
"Your place?" Steph warily replied, her eyebrows quirked.
Kate blushed, aware that she was offering Steph into a more personal space. "Well, it's about time," she whined, trying to keep the issue on a playful level.
With any other person, Steph wouldn't have found the invitation unusual, but with Kate … Her intuition argued that this meant something else. Another door was to be opened along the path she had with Kate, taking her … somewhere.
Smiling, she gave Kate a short nod of acceptance, before facing Kelly. "Good to see you again, Kelly.”
Stretching her back, Kelly replied, “Good to see you too, Steph. I'm sure we'll run into one another again soon."
"I hope so," Steph replied. She gave Kate a quick smile before she, still holding Jason's hand, turned around.
Kate watched them leave. The silence left in their absence was tangible.
Finding it uncomfortable, Kate slid off her stool and offered, "How about a real cup of coffee?"
Kelly laughed. "Why not an espresso?"
Playfully hitting her hand on the counter top, Kate stated, “An espresso it is!”
The entire Sunday after the party, Port Baily was closed up like a clam. People casually strolled along the shore, though believing they had done something useful, that rather gray day in the beginning of November. The majority of the inhabitants hadn't been present at the party however yet. the ones who had spread an air of hangover to everybody else. Life seemed to get going in a very lazy way.
But since last night, people passing by Voyager now nodded in recognition at Steph. Some she remembered, some she couldn't recall at all.
She sat on the deck, making a few adjustments to the rig. Although it was the beginning of winter, there was always a possibility for a good day at sea. Steph still wanted to take Kate out on a short cruise, but she was skeptic that a day that perfect would come.
With Kate's expressed fear of sailing, Steph knew the conditions would have to be gentle. It had surprised Steph that, someone who loved this small town, a town so influenced by the sea avoided being one with the element. Kate, who lived for Port Baily, didn't share, what many thought was Port Baily – the ocean.
This particular day would have been a good one, if it hadn't been for the pulsating pressure behind Steph's eyes. Like the town, she had not escaped the hangover.
“Someone's able to do some work today!”
Looking up to find the voice, Steph found a pale, yet smiling Jake Larry standing ashore. Like many this day, he too was hiding his eyes behind dark shades. His arms were tightly crossed over his chest, and despite his dark blue down-jacket, he seemed to be cold. Next to him stood a young man, less defined than Jake.
Steph smiled weakly at him. ”I think it looks more productive than it actually is. I've held this block in my hand for so long now that I've forgotten what I was suppose to do with it.”
Jake turned in haste to the young man by his side and nudged him gently forward.
”I don't think you were introduced to my son, Jake Jr., last night?”
The younger Jake stepped forward, outstretching his hand to Steph.
Leaning down from the boat, Steph politely returned his greeting. ”Nice meeting you,” she said to the 20-something copy of Jake Larry.
“Likewise,” Jake Jr. replied in a much smoother voice than his fathers rather harsh one.
The older Jake stood behind his son, his hands now deeply buried in his pockets. Speaking for his son, Jake added, ”He has been curious about Voyager since he first saw her a few days ago.”
“Really?” Steph responded, watching both of them. Jake Jr's glance was on Voyager, his father's was on his son.
“Yes,” he continued. “And, if I'm not mistaken, I think he wonders if he can take a closer look?”
Jake Jr., not gifted with his fathers' straightforward manners, blushed. Looking up at Steph, he exposed a shy smile. Steph took pity on him.
Parents , she thought amusingly. I wonder if make Jason this uncomfortable?
”Of course,” she responded, immediately standing up. ”Come aboard,” she said enthusiastically, hoping that the young man would relax.
At the same moment Jason, curious about the voices outside, came up from his cabin below deck. Through sleep-swollen eyes, he looked at the guests.
“Ah, young Jason,” the older man said, grinning at the tired boy. “You look like I feel.”
Jason, not really hearing what he said, mumbled in response. “Hello, Mr. Larry.”
Steph guided Jake Jr. around the boat - both up on deck and down below. He asked a lot of questions, mostly about the technical equipment and what improved Voyager when she sailed. Steph patiently answered his question, actually enjoying the young man's honest attention.
She explained that she, herself, had adjusted Voyager for single-hand sailing. It had been necessary for her to do, but perhaps not something she would recommend for someone who wanted to experience real sailing.
”Sometimes,” she explained when they stood in the stern, holding on to the roll furling, “I miss light wind sails. Not having them was a choice I made because we would be out for so long. Jason was only three when we went out, and he called for attention. It's about acting safe.”
Thoughtfully, Jake Jr. took in what he heard. ”I wish I could do something like this, ” he mused in admiration, scanning first the deck and then up along the tall mast.
”But I could never afford a boat like this.”
Steph wasn't here – onboard this large, expensive vessel – because of a romantic dream, but for much more personal reasons. She knew that, but people around her didn't - no one, but Kate.
Voyager had been her hideout, her protection from a life she hadn't known how to handle. The endless days of loneliness on the vast ocean had sheltered her. Out there, no hands had reached out for her, offering her comfort nor had they threatened her. The only bond she had allowed herself to have was the one with her son.
Their present situation though, stranded on the rough shores of northern America , reminded her that life was not something she could escape from. Now, as she took faltering steps in her recovery, she found that Jason was not there for her alone. He was about to take his first steps along his own path, making his own life. Steph knew she would support him, but she could not walk along with him. Her path was somewhere else. The search for it took more time than she had expected, but she felt as if she was heading in the right direction now. Unconsciously, she threw a quick glance at the restaurant above the harbor. A soft smile teased the corner of her mouth.
Gently putting her hand on Jake Jr's shoulder, she calmly said, ”Someone once told me; ‘fortunate are the ones who dream dreams, and have the capability to fulfill them'
Still admiring the tall mast, reaching for the sky, Jake thoughtfully commented, ”Wise words.” Letting go of the sky, he looked at her and asked, ”What kind of dream, had that someone fulfilled? ”
Briefly she faced him before glancing up the masthead, casually replying. ”He climbed to the top of Mount Everest .”
A short, barely countable, pause fell. Both of them maintained the silence until Steph faced the young man again.
”Don't be afraid to do the things you dream of, Jake. If blue water cruising is what you want – then do it. No one but you, yourself, can make that decision.”
Pondering, Jake looked out over the ocean. Where his thought had taken him, no one but himself would know. “Thank you for the tour,” he said shortly, returning his attention to Steph.
The older Jake Larry, still hiding behind his dark shades, hadn't heard what they were talking about, but reading the smile on his son's face, as they returned, told him Jake Jr. was pleased.
”I guess my 24 ft J-boat won't do anymore,” he complained to Steph as Jake Jr. jumped back onto solid ground.
Grinning at him, Steph replied, ”You have to work a bit harder, Jake, so your son can have a real boat.”
The older man made a grimace. ”I was thinking he could play golf or something like that.” Patting his son's shoulder, they slowly began to walk away. Playfully he said, “His old man would like to quit working before he dies.”
”Oh, you wish,” Steph chuckled, waving them off.
The Larry's waved their hands, looking back over their shoulders. ”See you around!” The older one shouted, while burying his hands deep, deep into his pockets.
Steph went down below deck, threw her yellow sailing-jacket on the seat by the navigation table, and called for Jason. No response. Carefully she went to his cabin.
Under the thick comforter, Jason lay with his eyes closed,. His breathing was deep. Carefully Steph lay down next to him. A tired mumble came from the small boy, but he didn't open his eyes.
”Rough night?” Steph whispered.
The young boy wriggled, burying his face in her armpit. ”I'm just tired,” he slurred.
Caressing the blond, silky hair with the tip of her fingers, Steph said in a low, soothing voice, ”We're going to Kate's in a few hours. For dinner.”
A muffled response was heard. ”We are?”
Blue, tired, eyes looked up at her, the young face was wrinkled from sleep. ”I should get up then?”
Kissing his cheek, she snuggled closer to him. ”Let's stay in bed for an hour,” she yawned. Within minutes, the sound of snoozing filled the large, blue boat – one soft, the other one even softer.
”Thank God, for leftovers,” Kate told herself, tasting some of yesterday's bean salad. ”Mm! Even better than yesterday!”
Not having had the most constructive day in her life, Kate had no intention of making it any different.
After Kelly left her alone in the restaurant, she had waited for the servants to return what was left of food and utensils. Fabricio had made a brief visit to help, but as soon as she saw his blood red eyes and pale face, she was convinced she would do better without him.
”I'm okay,” he had weakly declared. Shortly thereafter, however, he rushed into the bathroom to throw up.
After having picked out the best foods and stowed the rest away, Kate walked home without anything in particular to do. She had briefly considered going down by the wharf to see how Steph and Jason were doing, but as soon as she had turned in their direction, she realized she was being ridiculous. Having seen them before noon and seeing them again this evening was enough.
At her apartment, she had taken a round with the vacuum cleaner, a few strokes with the dust cloth and then, a well-deserved nap.
Kate was chopping vegetables when the doorbell rang. She put down the knife, strode out from the kitchen into the living room and finally reached the door.
”Welcome,” she said, smiling at Steph and Jason, giving them room to enter. ”Come in!”
Jason, straight forward as always, took the lead but stopped immediately inside. Smiling, Kate leaned down to the young boy, her hands resting on her knees.
”How's my sailor-boy today?” she asked playfully, nudging his nose. ”Still have that strapping tattoo on your arm?”
With a quick move, he shrugged off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve. ”Sure have,” he proudly stated.
She looked at the picture of Homer Simpson, sucking in air between her teeth. ”Well, you're certainly my kind of man,” she said, nodding slowly.
Quietly observing them, Steph pondered about the interaction between her son and Kate. She has such a good way with him, she mused silently. And he is … affectionate with her. He really does trust Kate.
Straightening up, Kate met Steph's look. The young woman smiled shyly, saying, ”This dinner feels a bit more … formal,” and revealed a bouquet of lilies from behind her back. ”Being invited to your house, I mean.” She gave the flowers to Kate, concluding, “For the hostess.”
Glowing, Kate took the bouquet. Admiring them she said, ”They're beautiful.” She put her nose to them. ”And they smell lovely.”
A bit uncomfortable in the moment, Steph just smiled in response.
Kate briefly eyed her friend before closing the one step between them, “Thank you,” she whispered, giving Steph a warm, but quick hug.
”You're welcome,” Steph replied softly, letting go of Kate. ”I also want to thank you for yesterday. I am so glad I joined you.”
Once again, Kate recalled Steph's warm breath against her ear. She blushed and deliberately, looked away to let the memory pass by.
Regaining herself she replied, ”I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.”
”Mm. I haven't been around many people in some time. It was fun.”
Looking at her flowers, Kate said, ”I better put these in some water. Make yourselves at home. Look in every corner if you feel like.”
Leaving the foyer, which was a little room of its own, Steph entered the living room. Jason had already dashed through all the rooms and she heard him talking to Kate in the kitchen.
The floor in the living room was made of a light hardwood. The flooring continued on into a short corridor, leading to - Steph guessed – the bedroom and bath. The walls of the living room were painted in white with a slight, pale tone of beige. A red-wine colored sofa was against the interior wall and faced the street-side windows. Below the windowsill was a row of cubic cabinets. The cabinet front was in some pale wood Steph didn't recognize. The top though, was a one-inch thick mahogany board, joining the cubes together.
Above the couch, a five by five foot painting, sparkling with colors, hung on the wall. It had been the first thing Steph had seen as she entered, but she had avoided looking at it, saving her curiosity for as long as possible.
The first impression of the painting was that it didn't depicted anything, but taking a closer look, Steph found people walking, animals hiding in red trees, boats sailing on a green sea. In the corner, faint letters revealed the painters name ‘Kate J. – 94' .
Surprised, Steph's eyebrows arched. Looking at the painting again she mumbled to herself, “You have hidden talents, my friend.”
Smiling at her discovery, she continued her tour into the kitchen.
Standing on his toes, Jason was following every move Kate made. ”How come,” Steph said, leaning against the doorpost, “I always find my son hanging around you like a puppy?”
Both Kate and Jason pivoted at the sound of Steph's voice, looking wide-eyed as though they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie-jar.
Grinning, Kate replied, ”Well, if you had followed Jason's example, or your survival instincts, you wouldn't have hung around the art-collection.” Kate teasingly, winked at her.
“Oh, it was quite an interesting tour,” Steph commented, watching Kate pour tonic water into a glass with something already in.
“I bet it was,” Kate said matter of fact. Taking the glass in her hand, she faced Steph. ”Here, have a gin and tonic.”
Slightly grimacing, Steph accepted the drink. ”Is this really what I need today? I'm not sure I've recovered from yesterday.”
”A G n' T is always good for you,” Kate clarified, turning to Jason, handing him a glass also.
”As is a COJ for you, my young sailor.”
Taking the glass, Jason curiously asked, ”COJ?” He eyed the dark beverage.
”Coke and orange juice,” she explained, patting his shoulder.
The boy's face lit up. Carefully he tasted his drink and then burst into a grin. ”This is really good, Mom!”
Steph chuckled in response and raised her own glass to Kate. ”Thank you for inviting us.”
”Thank you for coming,” Kate responded.
Taking a sip of her drink, Kate took the opportunity to notice Steph. Dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white V-necked pullover, she thought the young woman look shamelessly good. Suddenly, Kate felt old.
You're ten years older than this woman is, she reckoned with herself as she felt the alcohol hit her stomach. Shouldn't you be hanging around people your own age?
As she watched Steph kneel in front of Jason and brush away a sprinkle of COJ from the tip of his chin, Kate realized she was enjoying the friendly atmosphere that had settled down in her kitchen.
She sighed. The hell with difference in age, she declared for herself, as the alarm from the oven chimed.
Looking up Steph offered, ”Let me help you with something.”
Holding a hot pot, Kate looked around for something to put it on. ”Yes, please. Place one of the trivets on the table,” she said, nodding at a pile of wooden squares on the shelf above the stove.
Without hesitation, Steph did as she was told. ”Here you go.”
Kate gave one final glance to see that everything was ready.
”Like I said - leftovers,” she stated, brushing strands of her auburn hair away from her face, pointing for her guests to sit down.
Steph was glad to see the mozzarella and tomatoes. Her senses still could recall the taste as she sat down across from Kate with Jason seated between them.
”This looks as delicious today as it did last night, ” Steph hummed with her first bite.
Kate nodded, finishing her bite. ”I can promise you that the beans are better today after an extra day in the juices,” she replied.
A carafe of water sat on the table. Lifting it, Kate smugly said, "I'm sticking with water today but if you want, I'll open a bottle of wine for you?"
"Water is exactly what I need today," Steph replied gratefully, holding up her glass. “This gin and tonic,” she clinked her fork on the other glass, “is all the alcohol I should today.”
Steph had served Jason's plate and with child-like manners he dived into his food. Looking at him, dressed in a red sports sweater, Kate felt her heart twinge with care for the young boy.
She had never wished for children of her own and she also never had felt that she was missing anything. The genuine childish manners by her table tonight though, caused her motherly instincts to surface.
Motherly instincts, she mused. Whatever that is.
Her own mother had, for as long as Kate could remember, argued with her about the importance for a woman to raise a child of her own. Kate had always found it easy to argue against her – especially after her divorce. Her younger sister had two children and Kate believe they were enough to have around the family table.
The six-year-old boy at her left, greedily eating his food, however, was changing her opinion. This evening, she even found loud chewing cute.
I wonder if he inherited table manners from his father? she pondered amusingly, aware that Steph had never said anything about Jason's father. It didn't really matter to Kate who the father was although she, sometimes, wondered about the story behind the boy who had charmed her.
Feeling he was being watched, Jason looked up and grinned at her. ”I think Mom looked really hot yesterday. Don't you?” He put a large bite of cold lamb-steak in his mouth and expectantly looked at Kate.
Kate's cheeks burned in response. I should have known the Devil himself was hiding behind the precious youthfulness, she thought dryly, eyeing Jason. Pull yourself together now, Kate! Somewhere, far away, she heard Steph choke a laugh. Now!
Chewing with enthusiasm, Jason waited for an answer.
”Well,” Kate began slowly and bravely leered at the person of interest. Amusement played in Steph's face, yet, a slight blush colored her cheeks. Realizing her young friend was curious about the response, Kate regained herself. She bit her lower lip and shot away a tender smile. She then escaped to face Jason again.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't, she figured.
”Hot,” she mused aloud, “is maybe not the choice of word I would use.” She paused for a beat. “It actually sounds like something Fabricio would say? But if you want to know my opinion, I would say your mother was beautiful.” She hesitantly turned to Steph, softly stressing, “She is very beautiful.”
The response made Steph speechless. Perhaps not as much what Kate had said, but how she had said it. Honestly and from her heart. Sensing this had unexpectedly become tense, Steph formed her mouth to a silent, “Thank you.”
A little embarrassed she looked down at her plate.
The tender moment Jason had created passed him by unnoticed. Shrugging his shoulders, not convinced that Kate was right, he declared, ”I'll stick with Fabricio's. He's major cool.” Taking yet another bite from the plate, he continued. “But beautiful is okay too. You can say that about my mom.”
Both Kate and Steph chuckled. The moment was gone and the evening could now continue. Kate reached over and lovingly ruffled the boy's hair, adding, ”Thank you, Jason. I appreciate that.”
Outside it was dark and cold, and a winter rain was beginning to fall. Inside though, the kitchen was cozy with candles and warmth. Relaxed, Steph leaned back letting her delicious meal settle for a while. Admiring the cherry cabinets on the wall, she found the unfamiliar, spacious room welcoming. The cabinet hatches had a modern touch - smooth surfaces and knobs of stainless steel. Over the sink, a round window - like an eye – looked out onto the darkness and rain outside.
”I talked to my sister earlier,” Kate said, breaking into the quiet. Putting down her fork, she raised her glass of water and took a sip. Taking her time, she put down the glass, and then said, ”If you want, you are very welcome to join us for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Between them, Jason jerked and looked hopefully at Steph. "Can we?" he begged. "I want to be with Aunt Kate."
Still feeling like the guest she was, Steph hesitated. ”You have no idea how much dinner I already owe you,” she winced. “Now, you want to spread my debt to the rest of your family?”
Frowning, Kate replied, ”Haven't we had this conversation before?” You don't owe me anything. I've invited you because I like you, it would mean a lot to me.”
She looked down on her empty plate, hearing the echo from the words of appreciation from the night before. Then, it had caused a cascade of emotions inside and a sleep full of abstract dreams. Now, she could only state that everything she'd said still was true. She did nothing but accept that. Not wanting to make Steph uncomfortable, she looked up again.
”If you want to return the favor, my sister and her husband Robert would always enjoy a tour on Voyager,” she said . ”They've talked about buying a sailboat for as long as I can remember.”
Aware that Kate was trying to persuade her with lingering talk, Steph felt her defenses drop. She knew Kate wouldn't bring this up again if she didn't want them to come, but that was what was frightening to her.
It wasn't so much the invitation that made her hesitant. A meal was always nice to get. No, inside her, a creeping affection for the comfortable way of a life among others had begun to sprout. A life together with people she now realized she cared about.
By participating in one of the most family orientated gatherings, she would take one step further away from the life she lived for the last few years. A dinner with Kate and her family was so much more than just turkey and mashed potatoes. It meant embracing the lifestyle she had run away from three years ago.
Steph thought back to last year's winter. In the luxurious Bahamian archipelago she and Jason had forgotten all about turkeys and cold weather. By avoiding the exploited islands and reaching for the smaller ones, far away from airports and large harbors they had come close to the relaxed West-Indian lifestyle. Turquoise water, white beaches and tragically poor people had made her own problems small and distant. They were offered love, a place at the table with people who didn't own anything. It had been a great winter.
Steph's mind returned to Port Baily and the kitchen she was sitting in. Kate, still smiling, looked at her with a glowing honesty Steph imagined she could touch if she only tried.
Nothing stops you from having a great winter again, she silently assured herself.
Nodding, Steph replied, "Alright. We would love to come.”
Unconsciously, Kate took a deep breath feeling the apprehension she wasn't aware she carried, float away from her.
They rounded off the dinner with a small piece of chocolate cake and glass of sweet sherry. Even if Kate praised the leftovers, in her heart she couldn't allow herself full satisfaction without a freshly made dessert. After a rough day with hangover and lack of sleep, the chocolate melted in their mouths.
It wasn't very late, but Steph felt herself beginning to doze off after the meal. Jason had already left the table and she could see him laying on the sofa in the living room. A quick glance at her wristwatch confirmed they weren't staying for much longer.
Stifling a yawn, Steph looked at Kate with an apologetic smile. ”Thank you for this exquisite dinner, Kate.”
”If you think this was exquisite,” Kate replied playfully, “then I'm beginning to question your honesty.”
Noticing Steph's tired expression, Kate felt she too, was done for the day.
”Let me help you with the dishes,” Steph said, abruptly standing up, and began to clear off the table.
”Don't worry,” Kate responded, taking the pile of plates Steph held. ”I'll just be putting it in the dishwasher and all the troubles will be gone.”
Rain hit the window, now more determined than before and the wind had picked up. As she she looked out through the round window, Kate was glad she had invited them over to her place. Getting out in the dark, cold evening wasn't appealing.
Putting the dishes on the counter, Kate, could see Jason sleeping on the couch, spontaneously said, “Listen, Steph. Why don't you two stay here for the night?”
The offer floated in the air. Kate thought she could almost touch it and for a blink of an eye she thought about reaching out for it, to take it back. She didn't. Instead she slowly turned around. Steph stood before her a bit taken aback, so Kate argued her point.
“Look at the weather,” Kate stressed in a faint voice. “And Jason is sleeping, so why wake him up if you don't have to?”
Steph heard what she had said but still didn't fully connect. The warm, softly lit kitchen, Kate's entreating face and the wild darkness outside slowly brought the lose ends together. She doubted she, herself, ever would have given the same offer. It wasn't that she didn't see the reason for it, but more because she didn't know how to come up with the idea.
Their home aboard Voyager would be chilly by now. When they got back, she would have to turn up the heat to get it more comfortable. The sheets and pillows would still feel damp when, after awhile, the difference in temperature, separated only by the hull increased. Steph didn't think about it when they were onboard. She was used to the environment but now, having this evening in Kate's warm home, the contrast was taken to a whole different level. Suddenly, for the first time in years, she didn't long to get back to Voyager.
Even though her response did take awhile, it came without hesitation.
“Thank you, Kate. That would be great.”
Unconsciously having held back on breathing, Kate exhaled, “Good!” She replied a little too enthusiastically. With more control she repeated, “Good.”
Throwing a glance at the boy on the couch, Kate continued, “You two can take my bed.” She saw Steph immediately begin to make an objection. Holding up her hand she calmly said, “Don't argue. I've slept many times on that sofa. It won't be any problem. You two need more space.”
Smiling, Steph shook her head. “You are hopeless.”
“No, but persistent.”
Jason was the first one to wake up the next morning. Disoriented, he sat up and found his mother sleeping on her back next to him.
No response came.
“Mom!” He said a little louder, nudging her shoulder.
“Mom! Wake up!”
One eye at a time, Steph slowly faced her son. His hair was all mussed up and she couldn't avoid smiling. “What is it, Jason?”
The boy tossed around and looked down at her. “Where are we?” He asked fully awake.
Stretching her arms over her head, Steph let her eyes wander around the unfamiliar room. The walls were deep, burgundy red. A painting, not as bright as the one in the living room, yet with the same style was on the wall opposite the bed. The white-framed window let the faint light of morning into the room. Steph felt like she was in a nest, safe from the winds and harsh conditions.
Turning to Jason, she whispered, “We're still at Kate's. Don't you remember? I carried you in here.”
Only recalling he had lay down on the couch, Jason shook his head. “Nope,” he answered.
Playfully Steph pulled the boy down. “Well, you were very tired and,” she softly tickled his belly, “very heavy.”
Giggling, Jason wriggled. Steph put her finger to her mouth, gently hushing him so Kate wouldn't wake up.
“It rained heavily last night,” Steph continued, tenderly brushing her lips over the blond hair. “So Kate suggested we stay.”
Not used to all the space, Jason again tossed around. His face buried in his pillow, he giggled, “The bed smells of aunt Kate.”
Recognizing the innocence of Jason's remark and yet, without knowing why, Steph felt her cheeks flush. Curiously she pulled the sheets to her nose and took a careful breath. Wash-powder was what she first discovered but there was also something else. Not perfume but something she had felt before. She couldn't say what.
Kate , she thought and quickly sat up. Whatever fragrances it was, it was of Kate. From that moment, Steph didn't dare to think more about this being Kate's bed.
Looking down at Jason instead, she said, “Let's get up and find some breakfast.”
Kate found herself walking down an empty road. There were no houses, no trees, no soil – just a road, floating in nothing.
“Damn!” She said aloud, no one but herself listening. “How long am I going to walk before I find … something?”
The road was soft and she found it hard to walk. It was exhausting.
Warm winds hit her face. The air dry and hot, it even smelled hot. It smelled like …
“Coffee?” She stopped in her tracks, looked around and scanned the horizon. Suddenly she saw someone. Far away someone was standing, waving at her. She closed her eyes, rubbed them with her fingers and slowly opened them again.
The large painting hanging on the wall in her living room looked down on her. Kate blinked, satisfied by the familiar surrounding.
I wonder what time it is? She thought just as the scent of coffee hit her senses - again. Sounds of whispering, feet tip toeing and cups being put on the counter could be heard. Smiling, Kate sat up and saw Steph pour coffee in a cup.
Dressed in the same cloths as yesterday, Kate found the picture of the woman in her kitchen more familiar than it could possibly be. It was like she had been there forever. The blond hair hung loose and just as Steph turned around, she brushed her hand through it. Hypnotized, Kate followed every motion. Their eyes met. Steph smiled. Kate, still hypnotized, reflexively smiled back.
When Steph suddenly walked towards her, the cup of coffee in her hand, Kate's consciousness coughed in the back of her head, reminding her to say something.
“Good morning,” she said, nervously adjusting her shirt and her hair.
“Good morning,” Steph replied while casually sitting down on the armrest. She gave Kate the cup.
“Mm, you're spoiling me,” Kate managed to say, taking the cup.
With a smug expression, Steph responded, “You think it wrong of me to do so?”
Glad she was looking down into the black beverage, Kate was a little taken aback by the comment. Chuckling, she, after a couple of long seconds looked up and replied with a simple, “No.”
A pause entered between them yet their looks exchanged much. Their eyes spoke a language not yet translated into words. It was a powerful language but the words were shy, still learning and not ready to speak before it was certain how.
Breaking their soundless communication, Kate again looked down into her cup and whispered, “No, I … think I like getting spoiled by you.”
The moment had become more serious than either of them was prepared for and when Jason, with a child's energy, jumped in between them, both were actually relieved by the interruption.
“Good morning, Jason,” Kate smiled. “Did you sleep well? ”The bed bug didn't bite you, did he?”
Jason smiled with self-confidence. ”There is no such thing as bed bug,” he stated, looking up at her.
”No. Mom says so.”
”She does?” Kate turned to face the amused mother. ”Well, then it must be the truth. Right?”
“Yes,” Jason replied impatiently. “Come on now, Aunt Kate. Breakfast is almost done.”
The boy, unmarked by the pretentious carefulness of adulthood, snuggled up closely to the older woman. “I think we need some help,” he whispered in her ear.
Looking at Steph, Kate grinned. “You do?”
Nodding, Jason slid off the sofa and took Kate's hand. “You need to get up now.”
“Oh, Jason,” Steph said, warning. “Give Kate some time to wake up.”
Chuckling, Kate rose from the couch. “Don't worry, Steph. He's right. It's time to get up.”
Dressed in her white silk pajama with navy blue stripes, Kate felt exposed. Shyly, she realized that she had invited Steph and Jason to more than just dinner in her house, but also, as it turned out, to her very private self.
Smiling at this thought, Kate clasped her hands together and said, “I'm just going to get dressed. I'll be back in a sec.”
After taking a quick sip of her coffee, Kate went over to the fridge and brought out eggs and milk. Without being asked, Steph put plates and forks on the table. Kate handed her a jar of jam, which she too put on the table. They didn't say much. Only small words here and there; ‘Is scrambled eggs okay?'; ‘Wheat or rye?'; ‘Does Jason eat cereal?'.
There were two more people in the kitchen, and yet it was not crowded.
“What are you going to do today?” Kate asked as they sat around the table.
Just having taken a bite of toast, Steph chewed a little faster before answering, “Well, I have to go to the elementary school.”
Wondering, Kate looked at her. “What for?”
“Oh, it's silly actually. I've been home schooling Jason this year, but someone told the school board that Jason is now living ashore and therefore should be in regular school.”
“Yes.” Steph took a sip of coffee. “Jake received a letter addressed to me.”
Nodding, Kate pondered about this. It didn't take her long before all the pieces fell in place.
Waving her fork, Kate clarified, “Charles is the president of the school board, and I bet my right hand that Maggie has pushed him into this.”
Steph's eyebrows stitched together. Maggie had never been mean to her but also never someone she felt free to share anything with. There was something nosy about her, something that made her want to leave the room. Recalling their weeks at the hotel, Steph sighed and found it quite amazing that they hadn't left Port Baily as soon as possible. Now, sitting in Kate's kitchen, having breakfast like … a family, she was glad there hadn't been any possibility of that happening. Not a reasonable one anyway.
“Well, at first I got a bit irritated but,” she looked at Jason who, with his hair still mussed, grinned back at her, “I think it is for the best. It will be good for him to be with other kids.”
With his mouth full, Jason turned to Kate and said, “I can already read.”
Kate chuckled. “Oh, I bet you can.” A quick glance at Steph and she added, “You've had a good teacher.”
Jason only nodded in response.
With breakfast over, the dishes done, they all stood in the small entryway, dressed and ready to leave the apartment.
A bit hesitant, Steph stepped closer to Kate and pulled her in for an embrace. ”Thank you, Kate. For dinner, a comfortable bad and breakfast.”
Arms around the narrow waist, Kate closed her eyes as the warm voice caressed her. ”The pleasure is all mine,” she mumbled letting their intimate moment surround her. Both relaxed in one another's arms and slowly they tuned out from the rest of the world around.
”Mm. I think I could fall asleep like this,” Steph mumbled with her cheek resting against the auburn hair. ”This is more dangerous than the mermaids singing.”
”There are mermaids but no bed bug?” Kate softly reflected.
Steph increased the hug a bit more, before letting go of the warmth. ”Oh yeah,” she stated, giving Kate's hand a squeeze. ”If you join us on a trip - I'll show them to you.”
Kate returned the playful statement with a confident smirk. ”Well in that case -,” she said, opening the outer door.
From the corner of Main Street , Maggie Redgrave, surprised and somewhat baffled observed Kate leave her apartment with the blond woman and her son by her side.
Shaking her head, she mumbled, “This is just wrong. Flat out wrong!”
Continue to Part 5