April 27, 2001
The knot in her stomach was still there, harder and heavier than ever. It had been there for two days and nights, and it had only gotten worse as she drove all day and all night, hoping that her battered car could hold out, that she’d have enough gas to make it at all. She hadn’t had anything to eat in that time; the choice was food or gas, and the needle had been sagging toward "E" as she finally drove into the parking lot. Here was the last hope, and it was a long one . . . but there were no others. Anywhere.
At that, maybe she was lucky, at least a little – the last word she’d had was over a year ago, and she hadn’t been sure then that it was right, but now it looked like it was. If that would help. If she didn’t get thrown out on her ass.
Realistically, the odds of that happening were pretty good.
She buried her head in her hands, trying to hold back the tears, the bad memories, the pain. The long-haired blonde girl behind the desk had casually given her a startling piece of news, and she wasn’t sure what to think about it. The news wasn’t surprising, in a way – but it had confirmed that things would never, could never, be the same again. It would be so nice to be a teenager like the girl behind the desk again, when all things seemed possible, rather than like things were now, when nothing seemed like it could go right.
The girl behind the desk had been nice enough, had offered her coffee while she waited, offered a doughnut, even a piece of bubble gum. The coffee was strong and hit her empty stomach hard turning immediately to acid, not doing anything for the knot of nervousness there. The doughnut hadn’t helped her hunger or the nervousness, either. The bubble gum – there’d been a time when a piece of bubble gum might have helped, but that was a long time ago. Now all she could do was wait for judgment to arrive, a verdict she realized now that she richly deserved. She’d been so dumb, so thoughtless, and this is where it all led.
Maybe she should just get up and go now, before they knew she’d ever been here. The only other alternative that seemed possible would ruin a happy occasion for those she’d hurt, and she’d hurt them enough. Better that they didn’t know at all. They wouldn’t have to know. But, there was still a flicker of hope, after all. There had been that one time, years before . . . but was it too much to hope for something like that happening again? Maybe she should just go . . .
But then, it was too late. She heard the squeal of brakes outside, heard the familiar voice she hadn’t heard for so long calling, "Back in a minute." The knot in her stomach rose hard, making her want to throw up. She fought it back, reaching for what little was left of her courage to stand up and face judgment as it came in the door. The door swung wide, and there were no more options. "Nanci!" she heard Crystal say in a surprised voice, eyes wide open. "What are you doing here?"
"I - I came to see you. And Mom," she told her sister, barely able to get the words out. "I - I . . . "
"What the hell happened to you?" Crystal frowned furiously at the black eye, at the bruises, all starting to go purple. "Is that Kip’s work?" she said ominously.
"N-no," Nanci said, afraid of the Amazon who stood before her, seeing the fire in her eye. The last time she’d seen her sister, Crystal had come close to killing Kip. Kip had beaten Nanci up, but not as badly as Crystal had beaten him in retaliation. It was that memory, and that alone, that made her think Crystal might be willing to help again, in spite of all that she’d done to her. "I - I haven’t seen Kip for years," she said, her voice hanging on the verge of tears. "C-Curt did this to me. He knew I had some money and he wanted it to buy drugs."
"And he beat you up for it," Crystal said harshly.
"Y-yes," Nanci sobbed. "There was some . . . " She didn’t get the chance to finish; Crystal came over and threw her arms around her, holding onto her tightly as she sobbed away a little of the pain and the fear she’d lived with the past couple days, the last few weeks. Even she thought Curt had been a louse, but he’d taken her in when there was no place else to go. "I - I had a little money he didn’t know about," she sobbed after a minute. "When he went out to score, I grabbed a few things, put them in the car and left. Crystal, I couldn’t think of anything else to do."
"Your dad?" she asked.
"He threw me out over a year ago," Nanci sobbed again. "After Mom filed for divorce. I - I don’t know where he lives now. The only thing I could think of was you and Mom. Crystal, I know I was dumb; I hurt you and Mom bad. God, I want to apologize to you and Mom for everything. I don’t even care if you don’t help me, but I need to at least do that."
"How’d you know we were here?" Crystal asked.
"I didn’t know," Nanci said. "After Dad threw me out, I called Thelma, where Mom used to work. She said that you were here, and she thought Mom might be with you, or you’d maybe know where she was, but she wasn’t sure. That was a long time ago, and I thought you might have moved on, but maybe someone here would know where you were. And then, when I got here this morning, I found out Mom is getting married next week. Crystal, I want to see her, if nothing more than to apologize to her and wish her well, in spite of all the shit I caused you and her."
"I told her about the wedding trip," the girl behind the desk said uncertainly. "And that Karin and Al were up rigging at Lee’s. I thought maybe she could drive up and catch them before you left."
"That’s OK, Michelle, you didn’t know," Crystal said.
"I would have driven out there," Nanci said, still sobbing, still holding tight to Crystal. "But I don’t have enough gas, and all the money I have is a dime I found in the parking lot."
"Oh, shit," Crystal said. "Nanci, you have to realize that things have changed a hell of a lot since you’ve seen Mom. Things have happened that you can’t even dream of. There’s not any room left in her life for your old horseshit."
"I know," Nanci sobbed. "Crystal, I fucked up so bad, and now I realize it. I know I can’t put things back the way they used to be, but I at least want to apologize to her. I’d like to go to the wedding, but I understand if I can’t."
"All right," Crystal sighed. "I’ll take you to see her. It may not be for long, the schedule is tight."
"Thanks, Crystal," she said, still hanging onto her sister. Scared of her or not, she was the one hope she had left.
Crystal raised her voice. "Michelle, I’ll drive her up there myself. We need time to talk. Get someone to bring my car back from Lee’s, maybe when they launch Scooter’s trip. If Jeff brings her back, cut her a check for, oh, five hundred, out of my pay, and give her some cash to tide her over till the bank opens. I’ll have to owe you."
"Sure, Crystal, no problem," Nanci heard the girl behind the desk say. "Anything else?"
"Yeah," Crystal said. "You’ve always said you could fit someone out for a trip from skin out from the lost and found. Here’s your chance to prove it. Nanci, you go with Michelle, and both of you, make it as quick as you can."
"Does this mean I can go on the trip?" Nanci said, a spark of hope in her voice.
"That’s not my decision to make," Crystal told her. "But, it does mean that you’ll be ready to go if the decision goes in your favor. Now, you go with Michelle, and I’ll run out and get Jeff moving."
* * *
In front of the Canyon Tours office sat an old brown-painted short-bodied former school bus. From the seat behind the driver, Tanisha watched Crystal head into the building. It was only supposed to be a quick stop, so her sister-in-law could check in with Michelle and pick up a late-arriving boatman and a couple things that would be needed at Lee’s Ferry, where the rafts were waiting for them. As the boatman carried his gear onto the bus and found a seat in the back, Tanisha took the opportunity to snuggle up next to her husband, lean over, and put her head on his shoulder, while he put his arm around her. "Jon, I can’t believe it," she said softly to him. "It looks like we’re finally going to get to go. Only three more hours, and then there’ll be no catching us."
"Relax," he said softly, He glanced down at her hand, warm and black in the white of his, and looked at the rings on her finger. It was still unbelievable that they were there, that those rings were his. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him, but oh, God, the price they’d both paid! "They’re not supposed to run the GNC test until this afternoon, and it’ll work anyway. Besides, it’s not really our department."
"Yeah," Tanisha whispered, a frown evident on her face. "But if it doesn’t work, you know who they’ll call."
They’d been trying to manage a Grand Canyon trip since shortly after reconnecting with Karin and Crystal a year and a half before, but it had taken over a year. They were new enough on their jobs that they had only limited vacation time, and twice when they’d scheduled trips with Al, Karin, and Crystal toward the end of last year, something important had come up at work. Both Jon and Tanisha worked for the same subcontractor that did high-level and very classified weapons research for the government. There was a systems test set for China Lake this afternoon that had made getting away iffy. It wasn’t something that was in their area of responsibility, but if things screwed up again, they probably would be wanted on the team that would pick up after the failure. The wedding trip was just too good of an opportunity to do the whole Canyon to miss – especially with Jon’s mother being the bride – which is why their cell phones and pagers had been turned off and left on the kitchen table in Phoenix. It was to the point now where Lambdatron would have to send a helicopter to Lee’s Ferry to keep them from making the trip; in another four hours, even that wouldn’t be a possibility.
"Relax," he whispered into her ear again. "They’d have to send a chopper for us, and Crystal said she didn’t think the National Park Service would allow that. Lambdatron is just going to have to make do without us for two weeks, and that’s that. It’s a long shot to catch us, now."
Tanisha shook her head. "You know one thing we forgot to do?"
"Build a shoulder-fired system. It’d be damn useful if we see any helicopters coming after us."
"Hmmmm," Jon whispered, his brow furrowed. "Could be done, I guess, but the power supply and shielding would be a bitch."
"Don’t you dare," she hissed. "It’ll be there when we get back. That was a joke. This is a vacation, Jon!"
"All right, all right," he grinned, although Tanisha could still see the gears grinding in his head.
In fact, they were grinding in hers a little too. It was something to think about . . . but not now. "Looks like a pretty good group," she said softly, trying to put the thoughts of work behind her in the face of other concerns. Most of the rest of the people on the bus, while well spoken of by Crystal, were strangers, and that made Jon and Tanisha a little wary, though they hadn’t talked about it. Between the fact that sometimes people weren’t very tolerant about their color difference, and the fact that they were still avoiding Jon’s father and her entire family, they tended to be a little nervous and shy around strangers. Jon had met Randy briefly several times years before, but Myleigh was a friend. Jon had known her for years, but when the reassembled part of the family met up for Christmas in Flagstaff sixteen months before, Tanisha had met her for the first time – and had been fascinated by the articulate, quirky woman. She hadn’t been able to get on a flight into Phoenix this morning, so they’d picked her up last night, and they’d spent a fun-filled evening, as evenings with Myleigh always were.
"I guess we’ll get the chance to find out," Jon observed. They did have some good friends among some of the raft guides going on the trip, because of the connection with Crystal and his mother. Over the past year, they had frequently driven up to Canyon Tours to help with packing and loading for the trip – it gave them more time with Crystal, Karin, Al, Scooter, Michelle, and some of the other people they knew from the rafting company. Sometimes, they’d driven on out to Lee’s Ferry, to help with rigging and the final loading of the rafts, so that part of it was very familiar to them. More than once they’d watched from the shore as rafts loaded with family and friends began the trip down the Canyon, then driven up to Navajo Bridge to watch sadly as the rafts floated by far below their feet, headed for two and a half weeks of adventure in some of the most spectacular landscape on earth. But, to have so many friends who were rafters and who spent large parts of their lives between the walls, and not to have done it themselves set them apart in ways that they really had been looking forward to overcoming.
"Hey, Jon," they heard Randy say from behind them, "you guys finished a marathon?"
Tanisha picked her head up, and Jon squinched sideways to look at him. He didn’t really know the short, muscular guy with the neatly-trimmed Van Dyke very well, but he knew that if things had worked out a little differently, he might have been his brother-in-law. He knew that Randy and Crystal were still close, even though Randy’s dark-haired wife, Nicole, sat next to him. "Yeah, no great time, but we did it."
"Kinda surprised me when I heard about it," Randy grinned. "When I knew you back in Glen Ellyn, I didn’t figure you could run across the street."
"Well, I couldn’t," Jon laughed. "But, things change. After we moved out here, we decided we ought to get in a little better shape, and one thing led to another." It was actually something he and Tanisha were rather proud of, although, like many things, they didn’t boast about it. They had been many hours behind the leaders at the finish – but he and Tanisha had started together and finished together, each one urging the other on through the last few painful miles. Together, like they did virtually everything, supporting each other every step of the way.
"Good deal," Randy told them. "I used to run some, but I never even thought about doing a marathon. I don’t know that I could hack it."
"Oh, you probably could if you were to train for it," Jon smiled smugly. Actually, he was in considerable awe of Randy. Though a small guy, a couple inches shorter and thinner than he was, Jon knew that Randy was well muscled and coordinated. More than that, he knew Randy had been a state-level wrestler in high school, and had moved on into martial arts from there. Crystal had told them some time ago that Randy had progressed far beyond her skill level, which was a little hard for Jon to believe. He and Tanisha had taken martial arts classes over the years, mostly to be prepared in case her brother ever showed up and got physical, but they were mere beginners, in comparison to Crystal and Randy. "How goes it with the martial arts?" he asked.
"Oh, pretty much the same," Randy grinned. "Just something to keep me from getting fat and lazy in the winter. There’s a group of us that gets together two or three times a week to work out. It’s pretty fun, occasionally I pick up something. It’s all nice to know and hope you never have to use stuff."
"Yeah, but you’ve had to use it," Jon said.
"Not very often, and the less the better," Randy said. "In fact, the last time I had to use it was back in college, when I threw Nanci’s boyfriend out of her room."
"I heard about that," Jon smiled. Nanci, his little sister, had gone to the same college as Crystal and Randy, apparently with the sole intent of being a party girl. Her actions all through her first semester and his father’s unwillingness to do anything constructive to control them except blame Crystal for everything had led to Crystal stomping out of the house at Christmas, never to return. It had also indirectly been the start of Jon’s own estrangement from his family – although his falling in love with and marrying the black girl he had his arm around had more to do with it. "That must have been a sight to see," Jon smiled.
"I’m not real proud of it," Randy said sheepishly. "It kind of scared me afterwards. Jon, I was seriously pissed about the way Nanci had trashed Crystal and her reputation. I could have handled that a lot better, but I let my anger get the best of me. That’s not good. Do you know if Nanci ever cleaned up her act?"
"Not that I’m aware of," Jon said. "But, there hasn’t been any word in a year and a half, since Mom and Crystal were beamed down into our lives like the Starship Enterprise. If I had to guess, I’d guess not."
Just then, Jon noticed Crystal come storming out of the Canyon Tours office. She raced up the steps of the bus and without preamble said, "Jon, Tanisha, come on outside, we gotta talk."
Oh, shit, Jon thought. God damn Lambdatron. God damn fucking system. Here goes this trip down the tubes, and they weren’t even supposed to hold the fucking systems test till this afternoon. What the hell happened now? He glanced at Tanisha, and the disappointed expression on her face told him that she was thinking exactly the same thing.
In seconds, they were off the bus, standing beside it. "Look, you two," Crystal said. "We got a problem. Nanci’s here."
"WHAT?" Jon exclaimed. He’d almost rather that the test had screwed up and they’d been called back in . . .
"She got beat up real bad by her latest boyfriend, and blew every cent she’s got to get here," Crystal said. "She wants to see Mom and apologize. I didn’t mention you two, but it’s not up to me to just do it."
"Thanks, Crystal," Jon said. He didn’t need to mention why; Crystal had known it from the instant that she’d caught Tanisha and him necking up in his dorm room back at Tech years ago.
"She sort of wants to go on the trip," Crystal continued. "I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no. Jon, she says she hasn’t seen Pete in over a year. She says he threw her out. I thought maybe you and she and I could go up there in my car and leave Tanisha on the bus. That’ll give you the chance to figure out what you want to tell her, if anything. If you don’t want to tell her anything, you and Mom and I can keep her away from the rest of the group, then we’ll send her right back with Jeff. If you and Tanisha can just stay apart and keep your hands off each other for a few minutes, maybe a half hour at the most, she won’t have to know."
"That might work," Jon agreed thoughtfully.
"Look, I know it’s not the greatest idea, but it was the best I could do at the moment," Crystal nodded. "I told her I’d take her up to see Mom anyway. If you don’t want to see her, the same thing works, just stay away from each other. I’ll keep her away from the group, and she shouldn’t find out. Either case, bro, it’s gotta be your choice to tell her."
Jon frowned. This was putting him between a rock and a hard spot and he knew it. "What do you think, Tani?"
"I think Crystal’s right, it’s going to have to be your decision," the black woman said slowly. "I’ll back you either way, but just remember, it’s your butt the skin comes off of if you’re wrong."
"All right," Jon said, a little defensively. "I’ll go with you. I don’t like it, but I don’t see much choice."
"Me either, bro. But it’s gonna have to be a gut call."
"I realize that," Jon told his sister. "And, it’s gonna have to be a gut call for you, too. She burned your ass a hell of a lot worse than she burned mine."
"I know." Crystal said. "And you wound up getting burnt pretty bad, anyway. But she’s still our sister, and I think we need to at least hear her out."
"You’re right," Jon agreed. "I suppose it could have been worse."
"Yeah," Crystal agreed thoughtfully. "It could have been Pete who showed up here, instead of Nanci. Tanisha, get back on the bus, I gotta get Jeff rolling or the schedule’s gonna get messed up. If we don’t get hung up here too bad, I’ll try to get ahead of the bus so we’ve got some time to talk up at Lee’s."
"OK, Crystal," Tanisha said, then turned to take Jon in her arms. Two hours up to Lee’s, maybe a little more – it would be their longest separation in weeks. Since they worked at the same job, they were rarely apart; sometimes they might go weeks before being separated for an hour. But, that was the way they liked it; despite the differences in their backgrounds, they almost always saw things the same way. They almost never disagreed on things – and never, not once, had they ever had anything that could be called an argument. She threw her arms around her husband and gave him a kiss, then whispered in his ear, "Do the right thing."
"I will, lover," he whispered back. "You better go."
It took them a few seconds, and in that time Crystal had climbed aboard the bus to have a quick word with Jeff. She scuttled back off the bus, just as Tanisha was set to climb on. In a few seconds, they watched as the bus pulled out. "Fuck," Crystal said, shaking her head. That seemed to sum it up pretty good, he thought, as she pulled keys from her pocket. "Jon, go get my car. It’s out back. Bring it up to the office. Michelle’s getting gear together for Nanci, and I better go help."
A few minutes later, Jon was sitting in front of the office, in the back seat of Crystal’s old Dodge that she’d inherited from Randy years ago. How would Nanci react to Tanisha, he wondered? Over the years, he’d been pleasantly surprised at how many people accepted her with little or no noticeable reaction to her color – but there had been enough who had reacted badly that he had reason to worry. His father would have been one of them, had he known. And, he knew well that Tanisha’s brother wouldn’t have been any better if he knew that she was married to a white guy . . . and just how the hell would he figure out how Nanci would react?