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In Search of the Final Freedom: Chapter 54a

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

In Search of the Final Freedom: An Erotic Socio-Political Novel

BOOK FOUR

Sounding the Clarian Call

Chapter 54



Holidays with the Campbells


Bonnie slipped into the booth at Waffle House beside DeeDee. She was the last of the four mothers to arrive and apologized for running behind.


“Not a problem,” Trish said. “We all just got here.”


Right off Bonnie looked across the table to Slosh and asked, “Well? What did you find when you got home last night?”


“I found them asleep in front of the fireplace in the front room,” Marcy replied pulling her cell phone from her purse. “With the Christmas tree behind them and my crocheted throw blanket partially over them, I couldn’t resist taking a picture.” She pulled up a photo and handed the phone to Bonnie. “I had to take a couple of pics until I got one where there were no naughty parts showing so I could keep it.”


Bonnie loved the photo of Sarah and Lamar lying on the floor, Lamar spooning behind Sarah, both of them obviously asleep. The lighting from the Christmas decorations and coals from the fireplace combined with just enough light streaming through the window gave a lovely effect. Bonnie handed the phone to DeeDee saying, “I must have a copy of that. That is a real keeper.”


Slosh nodded, “Yes, I know. After I got the picture, I covered them up with another heavier blanket. This morning when I was leaving, I saw them asleep in her bed upstairs.”


Bonnie was happy to hear things had gone well for her son. It was not that she was worried things would not have gone well, but the confirmation was comforting to her. Bonnie then told the group what had happened when she got home and found Misty and Tommy in the kitchen. She couldn’t help laughing at Tommy’s discomfort, “I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but it was. He was mortified getting caught with just a towel around his waist, yet at the same time, he just couldn’t take his eyes from my boobs showing through my dress.”


The other mothers laughed with her just as their waitress arrived.


She loved these Saturday morning meet-ups with what she’d begun to think of as the Group of Four, the mothers of the four young lovers. Each week they shared the trials and joys of mothering teenagers. Though she actually had missed most of these little informal meetings due to her work, she enjoyed the ones she could make very much.


***

When Lamar awoke, the sun was shining brightly through the windows in Sarah’s room. She was still asleep, her face pressed to his chest. He took care not to move. He did not want to wake her.


Laying there, listening to her slow breathing, it was like his heart so filled his chest with love that he thought it might burst. He wanted to pull her tight, but he resisted the urge out of a fear of waking her. How could he feel so much love for her? It didn’t seem possible. If someone asked him to, he knew he couldn’t describe how he felt. He just knew he loved her so very much, so much it hurt.

What had changed? He knew, but he had a hard time understanding why it was so. For months he’d told himself that putting his dick into Sarah was really not a big deal. His mother had made such a to do about last night, but he kept telling himself it really wasn’t. He had been wrong. It was a big deal. A very big deal, bigger than he’d even begun to imagine. He didn’t know why putting his cock into her made so much difference, but he knew it had. When they’d done it the first time, all that banging was wonderful, and no matter what he’d told himself before, nothing they’d been doing the past months was anything like the feeling of driving his hardon into her and feeling his body impact on hers. And when he’d held her hips and felt his cum flow up from his balls, through his dick, and into Sarah, it was way more than just the cum going into her pussy for the first time. It was almost like a part of his essence was flowing between him and into her.


Yet, that first time was nothing compared to what he’d felt with her on that blanket in the light of the Christmas tree. By porn standards what they did in front of the fire would seem like nothing at all. But, laying here with Sarah in the light of morning, he knew it was what they had done downstairs that really made last night special. He didn’t understand fully what had happened down in the Marshal’s front room. He and Sarah had just laid cuddled on their sides for the longest time, talking and kissing while he just barely moved his dick in her. While it really was wonderful right from the beginning, yet, slowly their connection seemed to grow and create a sort of energy. It was like what he and Sarah always felt when they lay naked with their bodies pressed together, but with him inside of her, it was way more intense.


It wasn’t until he’d actually gotten on top of her and she’d wrapped her legs around his hips to pull him in deeper… that was when the magic really had begun. In concert with pushing her hips up off the floor, it felt like she was trying to pull him in. As they looked each other in the eyes while they were as fully connected as they could possibly be, alternately talking and kissing, the feeling that they were enmeshed in a way he’d never felt before grew. Most confusing was that the feeling of connectedness didn’t center on his dick or anywhere near there, it seemed to fill his chest. Last night he naturally assumed it was part of them having sex, yet, this morning, he still felt it. Not nearly as strong, but it was still there; a feeling of love that seemed ready to burst out. He wondered if it were a physical manifestation of his feelings for Sarah. He didn’t know exactly what to call it, but of what he had no doubt, was that his life would never be the same again.


His thoughts about last night were interrupted when he felt her lips touch his chest in a soft kiss. She slid her body up so that her head rested on his pillow. “Good morning,” she cooed.


“Good morning, my love,” he responded without meaning to actually say that last part out loud. Even as he was saying it, he was sure that phrase was so cheesy she would laugh at him. Yet, this morning those words were exactly what he meant. She was ‘his love.’


“Good morning,” came her reply without even a snigger. She followed up with, “I love you so much,” a sweet kiss and she pulled her body closer to his. As soon as her chest pressed on him, and she’d pushed her thigh between his, the spiritual aura that had been lodged in his chest seemed to grow and envelope them both. He was quite sure he was a little crazy, but it seemed so real.


Without moving her face out of the crook of his neck, she said “Don’t you love when we have skin sex like this?”


“Skin sex?” he wondered but did not ask where that term had come from. He knew what she meant though. “Yes, I do, very much,” he replied.


She just seemed to make a sound of contentment as she nuzzled him. With her awake, he could resist no more and he used his arm to pull her tightly… very tightly against him.


“That hurts!” she suddenly squealed, “not so hard.


Her words, or rather her reaction to his overly energetic hug broke the spell that had been there since the moment he awoke. “I’m sorry,” he answered and loosened his grip.


Apparently, she too saw the moment was gone and rolled back a little to say “Do you know what time it is?”

Her mother, coming in through the opened door said, “It is quarter till eleven.” She was carrying what Lamar knew was his own duffel bag. “Lamar,” she went on, “When I was at Waffle House, your mother gave this to me. It is clothes for today and tomorrow. Sarah, I think it is time for you to make room for his stuff in your dresser. Not just for next week, but I think perhaps it will be a good idea for you to make his space more or less permanent. What do you think?”


“I think you are right. I’ll make him room.”


Before leaving Mrs. Marshal let them know she’d have lunch ready for them in half an hour.

“Well, my love…” Sarah said. Lamar wasn’t sure if she was making fun of him for calling her that earlier, or did she like that he’d done it and perhaps wanted to adopt it as their pet name. The rest of what she said sidelined his question, “…do you want to lay here for half an hour or do you want to make love to me again?”


He did not have to think long on the question.


***


Bonnie made it to her home around the same time Slosh did. Nearly as soon as she’d hung her coat up on the coat rack by the door, Misty came bounding down the stairs. There was no question her daughter was in a buoyant mood. Even as she walked toward the living room, Misty had begun her tale of the night before, beginning with her talk with Tommy as they drove to the party. Bonnie listened patiently, asking questions from time to time. When Misty got to the end of telling about their first lovemaking session and her emotionally charged super-orgasm, Bonnie had to assure her daughter “I think I know what you are describing, and yes they are rare, for me it has only happened a few times and always with your father when we’ve made love after some very special event. It happened to me on our honeymoon. It scared me too. But it is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it is a very special experience. You should feel fortunate.”


Once she’d told her mother about Tommy calling her Eve and how he reacted to the photos in the study and living room Misty said, “I really do think he understands about the nudity, and I don’t think he felt guilty about us having sex. I know that is still a long way from accepting that I can love him, be a committed Christian, and share my body with my friends. But it is a start.”


Bonnie repeated, “Yes, it is a start. It is a very good start.”


“This morning Tommy sent me a coded text message to let me know he did not get caught coming home at past 5:00 AM. He couldn’t say it outright because his mother looks through both his emails and his phone messages.”


“Isn’t that going to make things difficult on you two?” Bonnie asked.


“Yes, it is. We are working on some ideas, like him getting a burner phone at Walmart. But we haven’t decided for sure how we will keep his parents in the dark about things we don’t want them to know.”


Bonnie just shook her head. While she gave a smile, inside she was worried. She knew this kind of thing had all sorts of potential problems. To her, as a mother, it sounded like a harbinger of challenges to come.


Misty chattered on, “We are having a late lunch in town in a little bit, but we will not be able to come back here afterward because he has a church Christmas event he has to go to.”

Bonnie asked, “Is there a reason you aren’t going with him to that church thing?”


Misty got a face, “Yes there is. While to his parents my name doesn’t ring a bell, there are too many people who go to his church who know who I am an what I represent. It would not be helpful for me to go with him.”


Her mother understood.


Misty then asked, “Would it be OK to invite him over for lunch on Tuesday? He can’t come over at all tomorrow. Would you believe that he would like to get to know you and Dad better?”


“That is impressive,” her mother responded. “Most high school boys do everything they can do to avoid their girlfriend’s parents.”


Misty smiled broadly and nodded, “Yes, I know, it is impressive, especially after that fiasco when you got home last night. But he wants to get to know my whole family.”


“That is a good sign,” Bonnie replied. “Of course, we would love to have him over here, but would it be OK if we all went to the McGregor Mill Bistro for lunch then come back to the house?”

The McGregor Mill was an abandoned textile mill that had been converted into an indoor shopping center, sort of the Sparta version of a mall. It was particularly special to the Campbell family because the mill had been built and operated by the husband of Cooper’s great-great aunt in the early 20th century. Additionally, Cooper had been the architect who had designed the conversion of the old mill into its present use of mixed-use shopping/dining. It had been his first project fully independent of LeMarco & LeMarco. That project, though modest by even the standards of places like Macon or even Milledgeville, was the single largest investment in the town of Sparta for more than a generation. It was also Cooper’s first project fully independent of LeMarco & LeMarco. The McGregor Mill had been the go-to place for special events for the Campbell family since it was completed when Misty was ten years old. The Bistro, one of two restaurants in the converted mill, was actually the nicest restaurant in Sparta. Not fine dining by a long shot, but not a greasy spoon either. Misty understood the significance of her mother suggesting they go there for lunch. “That is a great idea, it will give Dad something to talk about to Tommy,” Misty had agreed. So, the plan was made.


***

Like their arrival at the party the night before, Misty and Tommy’s arrival at the House of Pizza did not go unnoticed. As she had known would happen, photos of the two of them at the party were being passed around via social media even before they had made it to Misty’s house the night before. At the restaurant, they had a stream of well-wishers telling them how great they’d looked in the party photos; most of whom were fishing for any hot gossip, like had he gone to her house afterward. None were rewarded with even a hint that he hadn’t just said goodbye at her doorstep.

It was hard when he had to go. Misty was tempted to call one of her friends, but she did not. Instead, she did something she had not done in months. She slept in her bed, alone on a Saturday night. Though, via her cell phone, she wasn’t quite alone. Once Tommy was home from church he called, and they talked for three solid hours. She went to sleep a little lonely, but contented.


***


The rest of Lamar’s weekend with Sarah was more conventional feeling than that first night, but the feeling of love that made his chest feel full never quite went away. It became stronger at times, but not only when they were making love. Sometimes he would just reach out and touch her and his heart would swell. Once it was just a look from her. He began to wonder if this was a new normal. What he was sure of was that he loved her with all his heart, mind, and soul.

Sunday afternoon, Lamar and Sarah were relaxing in the hot tub. She was leaning back onto him as they sat quietly in the still water. It was quite cold outside (by Georgia standards) and Lamar liked seeing the steam rise from the water into the frigid air. He’d been avoiding this subject all weekend, but he had to address it before they got ready for Youth Group in a couple of hours. “Sarah?” he asked, then waited for her to respond.


“Yes, my love,” she responded. Since the first time he’d used that little phrase, she’d used it repeatedly, so he had too. He had decided he liked it.


“Do you remember the date I have with Gabby tomorrow?”


“Of course, I do. Did you really think I’d forget?”


“No, not really,” Lamar answered. “If you want me to, I can call and cancel with her.”


Sarah turned in his arms so as to look at him, “Why would I want you to do that?”


Lamar was at a loss for words, he had convinced himself that after the last day and a half that she would not want him to turn around and give to Gabby what he’d just given to her.


Sarah moved up into his lap and wrapped her arms around him “You are so sweet. I understand why you are asking. You know the past two days have been something deep and special for us, and you don’t want to spoil it for me.” She tilted her head up to kiss him on the cheek, “Don’t worry. By keeping your date, you will not be taking anything from me or from what we have. You told me of how you feel like your chest is so full of love that it hurts. Spending a few hours with my friend Gabby won’t make that go away. You won’t be giving away our love.”


It took him perhaps a full minute to answer, “Yes, that is exactly what I’m afraid of. I don’t want to lose this feeling I have with you.”


She snuggled in closer to him. “You won’t. What we have is ours, ours forever. I’m excited that Gabby wants you to be her first. I’m pretty sure she is in love with you and you feel a growing love for her. Tomorrow, in your bed, you will be creating a new kind of love with her… and just for her. But that does not mean you love me any less. What we have is ours. I know you have felt it this weekend just like I have. I am sure my mother is right that you have a place in my heart that will always be yours, even when I’m old and decrepit like she is.”


Lamar couldn’t keep from laughing, “Don’t let her hear you call her that.”


Sarah smiled, “I won’t and she’s not really decrepit… yet. But you and I are bonded in a way that no one can ever take from us.” She paused, then more somberly said, “Even when I go off to Ohio to college a year from September and you stay here.” She paused and seemed to be watching to see how he would respond. Lamar looked back at her unsure of what to think of that comment, but as the seconds ticked by, he thought he understood. It was not something he wanted to think about.


“She went on, I don’t know what the forever future holds for us. If I could, I would stay in your arms the rest of my life, just like this. But we can’t even stay this way until tonight. We have to go to Youth Group. Then you will go home with your parents and we won’t see each other until Tuesday. We can’t always be like this, but you will always be with me… in my heart forever. Do you understand?”


He nodded. He wanted to believe she was right because he didn’t want to be without her, ever.

Sarah went on, “I will still be with you, in your heart, when you are with Gabby tomorrow. If I didn’t think it would take away from her moment, I would offer to be there with you two. But I think she wants this to be a special moment with just the two of you. I’ve been texting with Hannah about it, and Gabby is so excited.”


“You have?” Lamar asked. “So, does like everyone know about tomorrow? Like will everyone at church know about it?”


Sarah laughed, “Not every single person at Youth Group tonight will know, but yes, all the club girls for sure. They are so happy for her, just like they are happy for us. What better Christmas present could she get?”


Lamar didn’t know what to say to her.


After Youth Group was over and the hall was beginning to empty out, Lamar and Sarah were talking at the back of the Family Life Center to Megan and her cousin Tori. Hannah, Troy, and Gabby came up to them and Gabby threw her arms around Sarah. The two girls hugged with what appeared to be a spirit of camaraderie that took Lamar by surprise. Releasing Sarah, Gabby said, “Congratulations on your big weekend. Lindsey told me it went great.”


“It hasn’t just been great,” Sarah replied with a grin that went ear to ear, “it has been truly epic. Better than I’d dreamed. While you know I’ve been… active, since August, with this weekend, with Lamar it was like it was all brand new to me.”


Predictably her comment led someone, Tori, to sing a few lines from the Madonna song:

You're so fine and you're mine

I'll be yours 'til the end of time 'cause you made me feel

Yeah, you made me feel I've nothing to hide

Like a virgin,

Touched for the very first time

Like a virgin

And just as predictably came the laughs. Lamar was pretty sure Sarah had not meant to set herself up for that, but it was funny… and meaningful to him. He knew he’d never hear that song again without thinking of this weekend.


Megan, who had been speaking to Sarah when Gabby arrived, asked in a more serious tone, “What do you mean it was all new?”


Lamar was quite curious what her answer would be.


Seeming to know she was not just speaking to Megan, but to all those in the little circle, Sarah said, “The simple answer is I learned to screw in Miami, this weekend I learned to make love. With Lamar, there is a part of the experience that goes beyond the physical. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It is like….” Now she seemed to have to think for the words. “Like I was so full of love I wanted to run up and down the street and tell everyone.”


There were a few laughs, but Lamar saw something in her eye that got his attention. Something had come into her head. Even as he started to wonder what it was, she turned and stepped up onto the platform that held the sound equipment, then onto the sound mixer’s chair. The people in their little circle watched her in surprise, but no one else in the Family Life Center seemed to notice… until she raised her hand and very loudly exclaimed, “I want everyone to know,” she waited for most of those who had not yet left to turn to her before continuing, “I love Lamar Campbell so much that I can’t help but tell you all. Lamar is my love, my true love!”

There was some applause and one voice yelled back, “Yes we know.”


Sarah turned to blow Lamar a kiss then hopped down.


Lamar just stood stunned. He didn’t know whether to feel proud or cringe in embarrassment. Once she was standing on the ground, she grabbed him and gave him a demonstrative kiss, which prompted even more applause than before. She then turned to Megan, “This weekend has been great because I love Lamar. It is our love that made the difference. Do you understand what I mean?


“Yes, I get it,” Megan replied, “So you say it was how much you love him that made it all, well, like you said new.”


Sarah nodded “Right. I’ll confess it surprised me, but while doing it for fun and friendship is great, our love simply makes it something new.” She then turned to Gabby, “So Gabby, I know how you feel about Lamar and I hope your time tomorrow afternoon is just as special as mine was.”

Gabby beamed, “Thank you Sarah. You are an amazing friend.”


There was agreement all around. Sarah thought for a moment then said, “You know, I don’t know if it has been put down anywhere, but this kind of sharing, without jealousy really is what the Euro-Club is all about.”


Misty, who had caught that last part as she came up behind Sarah, looked over her shoulder to the others and said, “I think she is right. When we founded the Euro-Club it was all about sunning naked at my pool, but Sarah has hit the nail on the head. The most distinctive defining feature of the club has become our willingness to share with our friends without reservation.”


There were head nods all around the circle, which had added several more club members after Sarah’s public announcement of her love.


Misty wrapped her arms around Sarah, “I plan on talking about that at our next club meeting.” She kissed Sarah on the cheek.


That received agreement all around. Megan asked, when will our next meeting be?”


Misty rapidly replied, “Before the party gets going on New Year's Eve.”


Once the Family Life Center was put back together and Lamar’s parents were ready to go home, Lamar had to say goodbye to Sarah for a few days. The parting was hard and their kiss in the dark parking lot was long. Even so, he found himself in a wonderful mood as he rode home with his mom and dad. Even his mother’s never-ending string of questions about his weekend didn’t dampen his mood. Answering them simply reminded him how wonderful life for him had become.

Gabby’s visit with Lamar’s family on Monday went exceptionally well. He was surprised at how relaxed she was at lunch with his parents and sister. He knew part of that was because Gabby wasn’t new to his parents. Gabriella, unlike most of the teens at the church youth group, came with her mother to St. Thomas every Sunday morning. He was pretty sure his mom would call her mother, Candice Motts, a friend. She was one of the few parents that his mother could count on to help with youth group activities when she needed an extra adult. He also knew from his long talks with Gabby that she and her mom had a great relationship.


Gabby didn’t flinch when Misty began to talk about her time with Tommy in fairly explicit detail. When Misty later repeated what Sarah had told her about Lamar’s developing bedroom skills, Gabby didn’t even blush. Directly to Gabby Misty said, “From what Sarah told me, and she went on and on about it, my little brother is a fast learner. Sarah is quite sure that he will make your afternoon something to remember.”


Gabby had just smiled, taken Lamar’s arm, and said “Yes, she told me the same. I have no doubt at all that this is a day I will never forget.”


In support, Lamar’s mother added, “I’m sure it will, Gabby. Just so I don’t say something I shouldn’t, may I ask if your mother knows why you are here tonight?”


Gabby answered, “I’m not quite as comfortable talking about sex with her as Misty is with you. I didn’t just outright tell her that today I’d be having sex for the first time with Lamar this afternoon; but from things I’ve been saying to her for the last few days, I’m pretty sure she knows, or at least strongly suspects. She definitely knows about our relationship and that we spend time in his bed and do a lot of physical stuff. If you talk to her, you have my permission to say anything you want. As you have taught us to do, I am not going to do anything today that I am ashamed of.”


His mother replied, “That is good. I wish all the club girls had that kind of relationship with their mothers. If there is anything I can do to help to make today everything you hoped it would be, just let me know.”


In his bedroom, Lamar was far more confident than he would have been just three days before. Unlike with Sarah, he took the lead and kept it nearly the entire time they were together. For over three hours they went on with only two short breaks. Only at the very last did Gabby take the initiative to mount and ride him hard, harder than Sarah had done all weekend. Not that he objected one bit. It was truly a wonderful experience for him, with a different vibe as it were. It was also his first experience with using condoms. He was not nearly as proficient at it as he would have liked and they changed the experience for him. Even as they were going at it, he thought that difference in his time with Gabby was a good thing for him. As far as Lamar could tell, the afternoon went as well as Gabby had hoped. Not only was she full of praise and gratitude; for the first time she said “I love you, Lamar.”


He surprised himself when he replied, “I love you too, Gabby,” and he meant it. He knew he didn’t love her in the same way he loved Sarah, but he had no doubt that the affection and desire to please that he felt toward Gabriella was indeed love. For the first time, Lamar really considered the truth of all that stuff his sister said about loving more than one person at a time. Now he knew it was true after all. He wondered why neither Misty nor Sarah had ever discussed how the love for one person can be so different than the love for another.


After they both knew they were spent, Lamar and Gabby took an additional half an hour to simply lie together. That felt far more like his time with Sarah than anything else. He was very happy that she had not just gotten dressed and left right away. Her phone alarm had already gone off to tell her she needed to head home when she asked, “Would you mind if I called Sarah and talked to her? Not only do I want to tell her how wonderful my day has been, but I’d like to ask her about the club’s New Year's Eve Party.”


“Certainly, I don’t mind if you call her. She is your friend after all, and I think that would be a good way to keep things cool between the three of us. What about the party?”


“I want to ask if we could both be your date that night. I’m not trying to take you away from her, but I would like to be open with everyone about what we are doing.”


He’d not even thought that far ahead. Going to the party with two girlfriends? Was he up to that? Yet, he told himself, that was the situation he’d created. Gabby was not just a casual fuck like the guy Sarah does with Lindsey, she meant something to him. Not the same as what he had with Sarah, but it was real love none the less. After thinking about it he said, “I will be happy with whatever arrangement you two work out.


And so it was, Lamar found himself with two relationships. One was characterized by a totally consuming love that he could hardly understand, and one was… was what?


***


Misty had not seen Tommy since he left her room just before 5:00 AM on Saturday morning, but they had talked on the phone for many hours between then and Tuesday when he was due to arrive. She berated herself more than once for the inordinate amount of effort she took on her appearance in anticipation of his arrival, but she just couldn’t help herself. She wanted to be perfect for him.


Tommy arrived at the Campbell home in the late morning. Misty met him at the door with a very extended kiss before escorting him into the living room. Her parents both stood to greet him. Right off her mother embarrassed and infuriated Misty.


“Tommy,” her mother said, “I guess Misty already told you that we have 11:30 reservations at McGregor Mill Bistro. I’m sorry but we will need to leave nearly immediately to get there on time. Her brother and Sarah will be meeting us there. But we would understand if you and Misty wanted to stay here and play while her father and I go out.”


Of course, Misty had let Tommy know that she had told her mom everything. Thus, when Bonnie asked if Tommy and Misty wanted to just stay at the house and “play,” it was not even a thinly veiled way to ask if they wanted to stay at the house and have sex. If her mother had asked Misty before Tommy arrived, she would most certainly have said she wanted to stay and have sex. However, she asked Tommy, not her.


“I have been looking forward to this since Saturday,” he replied. “And I don’t have to be home until eleven tonight.”


Misty couldn’t help but notice that he did not elaborate on what it meant that he did not have to be home until eleven. But the implied meaning was quite a step for Tommy. In their phone conversations over the past few days, Misty had told him in far more detail than ever before about the openness with which her family discussed sexual things. She knew he was expecting today to be quite a stretch for him, and she was quite pleased to see him trying to fit in right off.


“Good,” Bonnie said as she picked up her coat and headed toward the front door. As they headed out, she stepped rather close to Tommy and in a lower voice added, “So, even if we stay out to do some shopping today there will be plenty of time for you two to romp when we get back.”


Misty smacked her mother on the arm for that remark. It’s not that her mother wasn’t right, in fact, she knew that was so. It was just she didn’t like her mom picking at Tommy. She was also afraid of what she might say at lunch and wanted to give her mother a warning to be on her best behavior.


***


Once seated in the Bistro, looking at those in his party, it occurred to Cooper that this really was a seminal moment in his family’s history. Today, they weren’t a married couple and their two young children, but rather it was three adult(ish) couples sitting at the table. From what his wife had told him, for both his daughter and his son, this was their first ‘true love’ experience. While he knew that in the coming five or ten years, his two children would almost surely go through a series of ‘true loves,’… yet neither he nor Bonnie had a real love prior to meeting each other… so who knows what the future holds. Either way this first time was a very important time in their lives. Oddly, it made him feel both very proud of his simply terrific daughter and son, and yet somehow it marked a melancholy milestone for him and for Bonnie. They were no longer young married people with rambunctious children to manage; they had become a middle-aged couple with their nearly grown children and their significant others. Yes, Bonnie had been right to come to this place for this “event.”

***


As it turned out it was not Misty’s mother who crossed into subjects that Tommy was not used to hearing, it was Sarah. Once Mr. C. had gone on and on explaining to Tommy all about the McGregor Mill and his family connections and his role in the conversion into its present use, Sarah began to tell Mrs. C. all about her weekend with Lamar. When she finished the last lurid tale, she told all she knew about Lamar’s time with Gabby.


Bonnie could not help wondering what Tommy was thinking as Sarah told all about the love she felt for Lamar before describing, in explicit detail, all about their lovemaking that went on for two nights and two days. Then, without a break, she went right into recounting, with relish, how her boyfriend made love to one of her friends the very next day. While Bonnie knew that Misty had tried to explain their broader vision of sexuality to Tommy, she was sure that Sarah’s evident happiness that Lamar had sex with another girl yesterday was bewildering to him.


As Sarah was wrapping up, she said, “Mrs. C., when I talked to Gabby last night, I told her that I was meeting you for lunch and she asked me to tell you that it was the best day of her life. She wanted me to thank you for all your support and making it possible. It seems that several of her friends had bad first-time experiences, and even among those who did not have really bad first-times, she is sure that no one she knows had a sexual debut remotely as good as hers. She is very aware that would not have been possible without you and all that you do for all of us.”


Bonnie smiled and told Sarah to let Gabby know she felt privileged to be a part.


“I’ll tell her that.” Then Sarah added, “Oh, Mrs. C, there is something else. After I got home from shopping yesterday, while Lamar was still with Gabby, Misty came to see me. We talked about the changes in our lives now that the relationships we have with our guys has moved to a new phase.” She looked right at Tommy, “If you only understood how much she loves you, it would scare the socks off of you. As my mother told me, no one loves as wholeheartedly without reservation as a teenage girl; Misty loves you just like that.”


Turning back to Mrs. C., she went on “I asked Misty if it would be OK with her if, from here on out, on Saturday nights I sleep in Lamar’s bed, rather than hers. But I let her know that if she isn’t with Tommy that night, I would still like to have our time together, only do it before I go to Lamar’s room, not after. As much as I love Lamar, my time with Misty is very important to me. It's not just the sex, just being connected with Misty has helped me more than you can imagine, but it would drive me crazy to know My Love is alone just down the hallway.”


Bonnie had no problem with the reversal of the Saturday night schedule and said so. But she could not help but wonder if Misty had prepared Tommy for what Sarah had so blithely said. Misty’s tight face indicated that she had not done so.


Sarah, for her part, clearly did not have a clue she’d said anything amiss. She just went right on to say, “Thanks Mrs. C., but of course, we will be at my house the next two Saturday nights.” Then she went right back to her prior discussion, “Gabby wants to know if she and I can meet with you after you get back from Tennessee to talk,” but before Bonnie could answer Sarah went on, “You know Mrs. C. it’s been since September since we girls had a time to sit down and talk with you outside of Youth Group. A lot has happened since then, and I know for a fact that Gabby isn’t the only one of the new club girls who would like to have a sit-down with you.”


Misty’s mom sat for a moment thinking then answered, “You can tell Gabby and the others that I’d love to have a girl’s time like that. But starting the first week in January, I am going to be very busy, like too busy. Perhaps, if they are interested, they could come over to the house for lunch the Sunday after I get back from Tennessee. How does that sound?”


“That would be wonderful, I’ll let them all know.”


As they readied to leave, Bonnie asked Lamar, “What are your plans for this evening?”


He replied, “We are meeting up with some of the club members and their guys out at the lake.”

Sarah jumped in “We are having a bonfire and weenie roast as sort of our own little Christmas thing. After that, if it is OK with you, Mom said Lamar can stay over again tonight.”


Mrs. C. nodded, “A bonfire & weenie roast, sounds fun. We are having Amy Douglass and Denise McKinnon over for dinner, but Lamar, you don’t need to be there. You do need to be home by around 10:30 tomorrow morning to get ready to go over to Grandma Campbell's. Sarah, can you get him home on time?”


“Sure Mrs. C., I promise he won’t be late.”


***


Misty was sure that Sarah had filled Tommy with all sorts of thoughts and feelings, she very much wanted to get him alone and talk through what he’d heard. However, things did not go as she’d hoped. As Misty and Tommy followed her mother into the house and into the living room, she asked “Misty, how are you set for condoms?”


Misty purposely glared at her mother. Didn’t she know Sarah brought up some things that she needed to address?


“What?” Bonnie asked “I just wanted to know if you need any from the basket in the game room before you guys get into it.”


Misty wasn’t sure if her mom was just being smart or did she really want to know. After all, her mother knew full well that on Friday night she and Tommy had gone without a condom for the last few hours. “I have condoms,” she said. “I got some from the basket before he came over this morning.” Then, without really planning to do so, Misty added, “But, if Lamar and Sarah can do without, can’t Tommy and I?”


Bonnie had actually been expecting this question earlier. She knew Sarah was bound to have told Misty about the rule change for their quad, and as far as she knew Tommy had only had one partner before, Shannon Howell. From what Misty told her, it had been the first time for both of them. She didn’t like backing off of the house rules, but she knew that Misty was fully aware that her parents never used condoms with the people in The Circle (as she and the others from church had begun to call their group). Bonnie didn’t even have the out of claiming the condom rule applied only to teenagers since Heather had still been in her teens the first time she’d come over to the house, and so had Nell. She asked herself “What answer would send the right message to Tommy?”


Cooper heard the exchange, but went right on into their bedroom leaving her to handle this sensitive topic all on her own. Bonnie wanted to be miffed about it, but she knew this was something she had to do. She took a seat in her Lazy Boy and motioned for the couple to sit. “You are right Misty, I did make Lamar and Sarah an exception to the condom rule. If you recall, we actually talked about this on Saturday after you told me how you and Tommy had gone unprotected for the second half of your time on Friday night. You and I had concluded then, that in going without a condom with him that you were taking virtually no risk since you have an IUD; but given your extensive sexual history, Tommy did.”


She saw her daughter squirm and Tommy appeared to be mortified by her very direct statement. Yet, it was Misty who had brought this up, even after she’d been so careful not to embarrass Tommy at the restaurant. With that in mind, Bonnie went right ahead, as if Tommy were as used to this kind of talk as her kids were. “Misty, if you had wanted to go without condoms with Tommy, you should have gone to get tested for sexually transmitted infections in advance. Yes, you were tested after we came back from Miami, but you have had quite a few male partners since then. While as far as I know you have not had vaginal sex without using a condom since the few times you did on that trip, Tommy doesn’t know that. It is just your word. Given how quick you were to go bareback on Friday night, I’m not sure he should give you that trust.”

Bonnie could see Misty’s reaction was defiant as she sat up straight on the sofa, looking right at her mother; and yet her eyes told her that this talk hurt her as well. She did not want to hurt her daughter, but she could not sugarcoat this. That would do neither of them any good. She looked right at Tommy, “In this case, since the risk is yours, so is the decision.” Then back to Misty she asked, “May I tell him how I make that decision in my own life?” She seriously doubted that her daughter had told him even a fraction of all the sexual things her licentious mother did; but she needed to be candid to make her point.


Misty nodded and Bonnie, looking right at Tommy said, “We all make choices about risk, nothing comes at no risk and sex is no exception. In my case, I’ve had a partial hysterectomy so I can’t get pregnant, therefore that is not an issue. But I can, and have, contracted a sexually transmitted infection before. So, I make choices to bring my risks to a level I’m willing to take. When I am on the road for my job, I have sex nearly every week with someone I meet out of town. When I do, I always use a condom for vaginal or anal sex. Always. However, when I am home, I sometimes share my body with the husbands of some of my church friends. When I do, I do not use condoms because our open-sex circle has agreed to always use condoms if we ever have sex outside of our group. In practice, only a few of us have done so, and only two of us do it regularly. So, my risk is quite low. It is not risk-free, but for me, it is acceptably low.”


“Right after Thanksgiving, I went to the university clinic in Augusta and got tested for a range of STI’s. And just so you will know, I was clear. It is the third time I’ve done it this year and I will continue to be tested bi-monthly for the safety of my friends. Just as I have to make choices, so do you… I mean you personally Tommy, not you as a couple. Now, I am going to my room to join my husband for sex and then a nap. I suggest you two need to discuss this before you start your own playtime.” With that, she went to her room, and unusually, she pulled her door behind her until it was nearly shut.


Misty noticed and appreciated her mother’s gesture with the door. She knew she needed to say something, but wasn’t sure what. She’d not expected her mother to be so direct. But she knew that she had indeed started the conversation when she said she should not need to use condoms with Tommy, so she could not be mad about how it turned out. Before the condom talk, her plan had been to show him the playroom when they went upstairs. In doing so she was going to tell him how her mother’s expansive view of Christian sexuality translated into action, but now that cat was already out of the bag. She was sure he must be reeling from what her mom had said.


She turned her body toward him, “Tommy.” When he turned toward her, she could see his eyes declared his confusion… or was that consternation? “I know that was a lot for you to take in. What Sarah said at lunch, now this. You have been bombarded with a ton of information that you were not prepared to hear, and I really didn’t want you to have to hear it that way. Sometimes my mother can try too hard to be helpful.”


Tommy shook his head, “No, she didn’t say too much. She was just honest in a way I have never, ever heard a parent be about their own sex life. How can I not respect that. I have several friends from church who know one of their parents have had affairs; yet, not one of them has ever admitted they have had sex outside of their marriage. One of my best friend’s dad is a deacon in our church. He knows without a doubt, well apparently everyone in his company knows that his father not only screws his secretary in his office, but he takes her on business trips with him. He is sure his mom is aware of it, but everyone simply pretends he is the paragon of virtue he loudly claims to be. Even more annoying is that those same cheating parents are all about True Love Waits, and all that garbage for their children. Your mother just laid out the truth without hedging about her own behavior. And I think she is right about the risk we took Friday night. I don’t know all of your sexual history, I’ve never asked. I know you have had way more sex with way more people than I have. I knew specifically that you have a relationship with Sarah as well as Caitlin, you have told me so more than once. Before your mother just told me so directly, I also sorta knew you had sex with more than one guy while you were in Miami. But your mother is right about condoms, I have to make a choice for myself, even if you don’t think we need to use one.”


His words surprised her more than anything her mother had said. He was right, she knew that, but it was his willingness to say it that surprised her. For Tommy to verbally acknowledge she’d had sex with many different people was quite a leap for him. Even before he had finished speaking, she knew this was the opportunity she’d been looking for. She’d been seeking a way to address this sensitive subject, she knew it had to be addressed, and it seems she had the opening she’d needed. She stood up, “Tommy, I think I need to show you something.”


She led him up the stairs, and as they went Misty asked, “The other night, did you take time to look at the pictures in the upstairs hallway?”


“No, it was too dark to see much. And besides, I was not really looking at the walls,” he said as he gave her a deliberately lecherous look.


She responded with a little laugh. Just as they turned into the hallway she said, “I guess I knew that you weren’t looking at the walls. Well, I’d like you to look at them now.”


She could see his eyes widen as he walked past Lamar’s door. On one side was the photo from Haulover Beach with Misty and the eight members of the Silverfire Guild. On the other was the bulletin board filled with large photos of Misty posing with each of the nine original Euro-Club members… and their boyfriends. Beside that photo collection was a new bulletin board with only three photos pinned on it: one with Misty and Sarah, one with Misty, Everleigh, and two guys from Youth Group, and in the third Misty posed with Mimi and her two boyfriends. In all, there were thirty-three completely unclothed people with Misty in those photos. There was no way Tommy failed to see the significance of the nudity, the poses, and that nearly all the photos were taken in a bed. She doubted he actually realized that every photo was carefully crafted to hide the things that cannot be shown, but right now that was not the point.


Once he’d looked over all the photos, Tommy turned back to her. Misty wasn’t sure what that look meant, but she had to go forward. “No matter what you have heard about me at school, this….” she indicated the photos on the walls, “… is the truth about what my mother just called my extensive sexual history. Here you see all of the sexual partners I have had, every one of them. The oldest photo is the one of me and Kelli in lingerie. My mother took us shopping to buy those outfits last March. Cody took the picture of us before I had sex for the first time… I mean with a guy, with Cody. To be clear, some of my girl friends and I had been doing it for a long time before that night, so it depends on your definition of sex as to how many partners I’ve had and when I first did it. But the first guy with whom I had sex was Kelli’s boyfriend, Cody. She was right beside me when I did. For my money, there is no better way to have a sexual debut than having a close friend to be there with you for support and to act as a guide. The rest of the photos you see here are the lovers and playmates I’ve had since that first time with Cody.”


His response was not at all like anything she’d expected. He looked over all of the pictures once again. He took a long look at the one of her and Sarah. It had been taken by Lamar after they had made love in Misty’s bed. To her, the glow of post-orgasmic bliss was quite evident. She didn’t know if Tommy saw that part. He then stepped over to look at the photo of Misty and Kelli in their lingerie. Pointing to it, he said, “That is really a great photo. Too bad the school paper doesn’t have a pin-up page; it would be a real hit at Jeff Davis.”


Once she got over her utter surprise, Misty began to laugh. “Yea, I can see us uploading that to the paper. It would be very popular, well until Dr. Collins found out and we both got expelled from school.”


He laughed as well then added, “But from what I’ve heard, Mrs. Maybree wouldn’t object at all if we did.”


Misty nodded, “Oh, I’m sure she’d give us kudos for our free spirits and boldness… right before we got expelled.”


With that exchange, all her concerns about Tommy’s reaction to knowing the truth about how many guys she’d fucked were dispelled. Apparently, he had already known, or assumed, what she’d just confirmed.


After Tommy read the two signs her mother had posted at the end of the hall, he said, “Wow. It's like every time I think I fully get your mom, you show me something else. And now I understand why the discussion downstairs. I didn’t realize she’d actually posted an official house rule on condom use.”


“Yes,” Misty explained, “This rule had been ironclad until this past week. Since the sign clearly says the rules are for visitors, technically she’s not abandoning her stand since Lamar and I are not visitors. But Mom doesn’t think it would be good to weaken the call for condoms, so she told Lamar and Sarah not to publicize that they don’t use them when they do it. She also told them that their exemption does not apply if other people are with them. I guess all that applies to me and you as well… that is if you decide not to use them tonight.”


She did not want to appear to be pushing him one way or another. She really did want him to do what he thought was best for him, so she dropped the matter and led him into her room. Although earlier she had planned on showing him the playroom, she ignored the closed door. For a second time, she put it off so as not to risk spoiling the moment.


Rather than jumping him right off when they were in her bedroom, Misty sat down on the side of her bed. “You have met my family; you have seen and heard a lot today. Before we get busy, I’d like to hear what you are thinking.”


Tommy sat beside her, “You must know I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days. I’m not saying I agree with all you and your mother believe about Christians and sex, but I see the whole openness thing has real merit. I know you remember how last year I said your parents are sick for letting you do it in the house, but now I understand how wrong I was. It was just such a new idea. Now I see how it works, and how well your family gets along with it. I don’t know what I believe now, but I am seeing more of your point.”


Misty thought through what he said. “Well, we are not perfect. Mom and I have had our share of fights and Lamar sometimes drives me crazy.”


Tommy came back, “I didn’t say you guys were some perfect TV family, I just said I see how taking away all the stupid secretiveness out of sex stuff seems to make you all more open to talk to each other in general. My older sister moved out because she said she felt so stifled at home. Now looking back, I see the real issue was she and her boyfriend, and sex. In my case, I know I have to deceive my parents about what I do. I’m pretty sure they knew Shannon and I were having sex because my mother found my box of condoms when she was snooping one day. But even then, they did not confront me, instead, they started preaching about abstinence every other day. Looking back, I now see that while they thought what I was doing was super sinful, they did not tell her parents even though they are friends of theirs. I guess they just couldn’t bring themselves to bring the subject up. It’s like the game they all play so as not to talk about the truth. It sucks.”


Misty reached out and took his hands into hers. “And what about what Sarah said?”


“Do you mean about her, Lamar, and her friend Gabby? Or you and her?”


Misty thought a moment then answered, “Actually the two are the same issue. I think you noticed that Sarah didn’t think anything she said was the least bit out of the ordinary. To her, talking about Lamar having sex with her friend, and talking to my mom about how important our physical relationship is to her, right in front of you, are more or less the same thing.”


Tommy sat looking at the wall, not Misty. “Yes, I did. Her casualness about it said more to me than the details. To her, for Lamar to have sex with her friend, or for her to have sex with you even though we are together now is just what she expects.”


Misty didn’t want to push it, but she had to. If this was a barrier that he just couldn’t cross she had to know. “With my brother and Gabby, Sarah said, and he confirmed, it wasn’t just that he had sex with her. They have fallen in love, and she was very happy they had. And though she didn’t say it explicitly, she loves me. It's one thing for me to tell you I love Sarah, which I’ve done before; it is something else to be sitting at the table while she talks about how much she values our relationship… not just our emotional one but our physical relationship as well. I’d not really wanted to bring that up today, but well, I can’t pretend Sarah did not say what she said.”


Still looking at the wall he slowly replied. “As I said, it was how she said it. She was not trying to provoke me or hurt me. After all, she happily talked about how your brother has fallen in love with another girl. She was happy about it.” He slowly turned to look at her. “And I suspect she is also happy that we have overcome our differences so we could physically express the love we have felt for months. She loves you, I don’t doubt that, but the way she talked to me, she really is happy for us.”


“Yes, she is. And might I add, so was Caitlin when I told her how Friday night went and how my love for you is like nothing I have ever felt before. Though Caitlin and I love each other in a deep way that I can’t describe, she is so very happy for me that I’ve found this kind of love with you.”

The question in his voice, when he spoke, told Misty that the surety that he knew how love works had cracked. “So you can have different kinds of love? I mean real true love.”


Misty worked to keep back her smile while she nodded.


Tommy continued, evidently working out the words carefully. “You really do love me the way you have been saying the last few days, with all of your heart and soul; yet, at the same time, you love Sarah just as much but in a different way, and Caitlin in yet another way. But it is all true love.”

Now Misty thought she was going to smile, but suddenly she felt tears running down her cheek. “Yes, Tommy. That is exactly right. My love for you is nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced. It makes me want to shout with joy or dance on the moon. I can’t imagine being any more in love than I am with you. To me our growing love over the fall has been like a flower that grows from a tiny bud and you can see as the flower within takes shape and color; but it will not open until the sun shines on it. That was us, our love was fully formed yet it would never have opened into its full beauty without an external factor. If that thing it needed never came, it would have just withered and died having never bloomed.”


Tommy stepped in to offer the next words as if they had been rehearsed, “Friday night, the sex, was what we needed to bring our love alive.”


More tears came, she tried to make them stop but she couldn’t. “Yes, we needed that physical connection. That is why it seemed to burst open fully formed. It was formed over these last months, but had we never added the physical love, we would never have known its beauty. My love for you is as perfect as a newly bloomed lily in my mother’s garden. It is unique to us. There will never be a love just like this ever again, just like each flower is unique.”


She knew, she just knew he saw it. She wanted to just stop there but she couldn’t. She had to go forward. “My love for Caitlin is different. We grew up together. We have been sleeping in the same bed since I was six years old. We have been holding each other close, crying on each other shoulders for all these years. When our bodies began to change, we explored them together. We learned about sex together long before we had the slightest idea the way we touched each other had a name, or that anyone in the world did it too. My love for her is at the root of who I am. And… for Caitlin and I to express that love with our bodies is as natural as breathing. While my love for her is quite different from my love for you, that physical component is just as important. She and I were forcibly separated for over a year. The pain and sadness were constant for both of us. And, you need to know, we both have an abiding hate for her mother’s boyfriend who did that to us. I cannot, I will not risk destroying the love I have for you by cutting her out of my life… or my bed. You have to know, the person you love is tied at the heart to Caitlin Richards. The person you know and love simply wouldn’t exist without her.”


She’d said it. She knew she would have to eventually, but it was done. The seconds seemed frozen in time. Perhaps it wasn’t even a matter of seconds before he replied, but it seemed like an eternity.

Tommy pulled her toward him until he could lean over and put his lips to hers. Sitting back up he said, “I told you I love you for who you are. And yes, it is very hard for me to fully understand and even harder to reconcile with my church, but I love every part of you. I don’t want to change you or take anything away from you. I’m sure we will talk about this again as you help me understand. But I believe what you say and I will not jeopardize what we have to make some stupid stand to please my family or my youth group or my pastor. If loving Caitlin, and I suppose Sarah too, is part of what makes you, you; then I want you to keep loving them… to keep being you. I won't grudgingly tolerate it; I want you to have it.”

Without another word, the lovemaking began. She threw herself into showing her love and gratitude. When it came to the point of needing to decide about condom use, Tommy said that since half their time making love to that point had been without one, there was no reason to start. While she still played the lead role as they made love, Tommy appeared more willing to express things he would like to do. They were laying exhausted with their bodies intertwined when Misty’s mother called her cell phone at 5:30 to let them know dinner would be ready in half an hour.

Though she didn’t tell him so, she was a bit disappointed that she didn’t have the same extraordinary experience she had the first time she'd had sex with him. That was not to say it was not wonderful, because it was. Once they were done, she decided that Tommy was much more relaxed this time and Misty could imagine how it would be with him going forward.


When Misty and Tommy finally made it downstairs Bonnie met them in the living room. Misty beat her to the punch and said “We had a great time Mom, but I might want to borrow some of your flavored lube after dinner.”


Unphased Bonnie said, “You are in luck, when your father and I were out Christmas shopping in Macon yesterday, I stopped by the sex shop and bought several new bottles of fancy flavored oils. They aren’t water-based lube, but unless you really need it for vaginal or anal lubrication, they are better than the K-Y flavored stuff.” She gave a face and added, “I was going to put them in your stocking for Christmas morning, but I guess I’ll let you have one or two of them after dinner. Come on, dinner’s waiting.”


Bonnie led the young lovers into the dining room where Cooper sat at the table with Dr. Douglass and a woman Misty had never met. However, from photos taken in New York, she knew it was Dr. McKinnon. On the way home from the restaurant, her mother had explained that the two FFF board members had been at some sort of event in Atlanta, and they would be stopping by on their way home to South Carolina.


Misty thoroughly enjoyed dinner with Dr. Douglass whom she virtually idolized, and she found Dr. McKinnon as interesting in person as Misty had found her book to be. The professor apparently was impressed that a high school student had read it. All through dinner she was afraid Tommy was feeling way out of his depth with a total of three college professors at the table. Much of the discussion centered around her mother’s presentation on the history of sexual oppression. As the two bottles of wine began to empty, the talk got ever more explicit and the comments more suggestive. The conversation even continued for some time after they had all finished eating. One thing she knew for sure was that Tommy was not bored.


When her mother’s boss shifted the topic to tell the professor from The University of South Carolina how talented Misty was with her camera, she had been both flattered and embarrassed. “Misty already has her own glamour/nude photo business and her mother has been showing me her work pretty much every week. She has a real natural talent and her work belies her age. There was a reason she received the internship with Kate Evans last summer even though she was still in high school.”


Dr. Douglass then looked right at Misty and in a much less exuberant voice said, “The real reason I came by tonight was not for dinner or the other things. It was to tell you that if you choose Augusta State for next year, I have already arranged to offer you an independent study class with me in my studio. Your mother says you want to pursue a communications degree, which I think is very wise; however, if you are interested in a fine arts minor or even to double major in both communications and fine arts I can help you. I am in a position to ensure I will be your faculty advisor. In doing so, I can help you build on your rapidly developing talent in glamour/nude photography. That is if you are interested.”

Misty had been totally unprepared for what Dr. Douglas said. She looked to her parents who both had grins on their faces, they were not surprised. Clearly, they already knew about this offer. She had already received her acceptance letters from all three schools to which she had applied (Georgia Tech, GCSU, and Augusta State), but she had not decided on which one she would attend. Certainly what Dr. Douglass had to say would sway her choice, but the truth was a degree from Georgia Tech would open more doors for her in the future.


Distressingly, the only thing that came out of Misty's mouth in answer to Dr. Douglass was, “uhhh, wow.” She felt like a total idiot, but still couldn’t make a coherent reply.


Her mother came to her rescue, “I’ve already told Amy that we are working with you to decide what is best for your future. Last week we talked about this at length and she told me that with her help, you could have your own personalized course of study. I let her know that we weren’t pushing you to make a final decision until early spring.”


After dinner was done, the adults went to the living room to continue their talk while Misty and Tommy began to head upstairs. Before they could do so, Bonnie diverted her daughter to her bedroom to let her choose two new bottles of flavored oil. While out of earshot of both their guests and Tommy, Misty’s mother said “I am pretty sure Amy is planning a play time before she and Denise go. They might even stay the night; I don’t really know. But you need to let Tommy know what he will likely see if you two come back downstairs in the next few hours. I closed my door twice now to make the transition easier for him, I won’t be doing it again.”


Misty said she understood and would talk to Tommy. When they made it up the stairs, she explained to him that in all likelihood her parents would have a foursome with Dr. Douglass and Dr. McKinnon. Tommy took it far better than Misty had expected, telling her, “I expected as much. I wasn’t asleep at the table. Dr. Douglass made several side comments that gave me that impression.”


“Sounds like you picked up on things I didn’t. Or perhaps you are more sensitive to such things because they are not just a normal part of your world.”


In her bedroom, Misty put the two small glass bottles on her dresser. Tommy picked one up and read the label. “Misty, I don’t mean to sound like a yokel, but what is this stuff used for.”

Misty turned to him and a leer came over her face. “Well Tommy Francis, I guess I am just going to have to show you.”


For over two hours she showed him use after use of the oils, much to the delight of both of them. She knew she was getting it all over her sheets, but she didn’t care. It was worth it. At a little before 10:00, Misty suggested they needed to get the oil off before he had to go home, then she added with a grin, “Though I’d considered sending you home like this, then you could explain to your mother why you smell like strawberries and chocolate.”


In the upstairs bathroom, he appeared to think they would take a shower together, but she had another idea. When her parents had remodeled the kid’s bath a few years back, Misty had commented about the oversized faux-marble tub they had put in. Her mother’s only explanation was “In a few years you will understand why. What her mother didn’t know until several years later was that within weeks of the completion of the remodel, she and her girl friends learned all about the kinds of fun two people can have bathing together.


When Misty began to run the tub, Tommy seemed confused, “Oh, I thought you meant for us to take a shower together.”


Misty asked, “You mean you don’t want to take a bubble bath with me?”


When she put it that way, Tommy thought she had a wonderful idea. After a great deal of splashing and having a generally good time until their skin began to prune up, it was finally time for Tommy to leave so as to make his curfew time.

As they dressed, Misty said, “From this coming Monday morning till Saturday evening, I will have the house to myself. I would love it if you were here the whole time, but I know you can’t.”


“You can be sure I will come over as much as I can possibly manage. I might be able to get one of the guys to cover for me so I can spend a night or two.”


Misty was elated to hear that, “Oh, I so hope so. And remember that Thursday night is the club’s New Year’s Eve Party. If you could at all find a way to come, I would so like you to be there as my date.”


“You can be sure I will do everything possible to make that happen. But our church is putting on a New Year’s Eve event for the teens, it will be hard for me to get out of that. I will look for a creative solution so that I can go with you.”


They did not make it downstairs until the last minute before Tommy had to leave, or perhaps a few minutes after that. Standing in the doorway, her arms around Tommy, Misty said, “I love you more than I can possibly say. I am so, so happy we had the day together.”


“So am I.” Their kiss was passionate, but not overly long since he was already running late. In her robe, she stood in the cold driveway and watched his car drive away. She wasn’t sure if the tears that ran down her cheeks were for the joyous day and night they had, or for his leaving. Perhaps, she thought, they were both.


In the living room, she found her parents, also in their robes, sitting in their Lazy Boy recliners. Her mother had a wine glass, and her father had a glass of sweet iced tea. That was pretty normal. On the coffee table was a tray of meats, cheese slices, and crackers. “Have a seat and join us,” her mother said. “We have been waiting for you since Amy and Denise left about half an hour ago. I hope he makes it home in time, you two cut that a little close.”


Misty picked up a saucer and put a few pieces of meat, cheese, and crackers on it before sitting. “Yea, I know. We lost track of time while we were taking a bath together.”


“Now that is a nice way to end a long day with your lover,” her mother replied. “I think the entire day went about as good as we could have hoped.”


Misty couldn’t help but to agree. “I can’t help but feel hopeful that this really will work out. He wasn’t surprised at all when I told him that Dr. Douglass and Dr. McKinnon would almost surely be joining you two in bed before they leave.”

“That is a hopeful sign. It mostly was me and Denise on one side of the bed and your father and Amy on the other. Amy has told me more than once that she thought we would be very compatible. She was right.”


After Misty told her mom she was happy she might have found a new friend, she asked “Is it bad that I still haven’t shown Tommy the playroom? I feel like I’m hiding something important from him.”

“Misty, you have shown remarkably good judgment about such things for your age. Trust yourself. You will know when the time is right.”


Misty hoped she was as wise as her mother seemed to think she was.



***

The next morning, Christmas Eve, Sarah dropped Lamar off at just after 10:15. By quarter till eleven, the family was on their way to Grandma Campbel’s. Some fifteen years ago Cooper’s father passed and his mother had moved into town. Ever since then, Cooper, his brother, and sister (along with their families) had met on Christmas Eve at their mother's new place. Cooper had repeatedly offered the use of the family homestead, where he now lived, but their mother had been adamant that it was her Christmas celebration and it was going to be at her house.


Cooper was the youngest of the three siblings, but he was the only one to still live in the Sparta area. Grandma Campbell’s house was always quite full for these events, but it was one of the few times each year all the cousins were together in one place. Cooper’s sister, Collette, had been divorced for several years and had two children each roughly a year younger than Misty and Lamar. His brother, Collin, and his wife, Karen, had three kids between the ages of seven and twelve.


Because their aunt and uncle both lived in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Misty, and Lamar often felt like outsiders at these gatherings since the other cousins saw each other on a regular basis. However, because Misty was a year older than Collette’s son, Anson, and Lamar was just a year older than her daughter Tiffany, the four older cousins usually had more in common than with the younger ones.


On the way over to Grandma’s, Bonnie had reminded her two children that they were not to let on to any of the family members about all the changes that had occurred in their lives since last Christmas. “You know we are not the least bit ashamed of how we now live, but, it would create problems for your father if you fill your cousin's heads with all sorts of new ideas. However, once they arrived, both Misty and Lamar found it difficult to talk about anything in their lives with their cousins that did not touch on those new things.


For instance, when Anson began to talk about his hot girlfriend, Lamar simply found it impossible not to talk about Sarah (at length). Or when fourteen-year-old Tiffaney cornered her older cousin Misty bemoaning the fact none of the boys she liked seemed to want to be her boyfriend; Misty had to be very careful about what kind of advice to give.


To Bonnie, it appeared that things were progressing in the usual fashion with Grandma Campbell busy in the kitchen for the first hour while the adults talked and the kids played. However, when she asked the adults and high school grandchildren to be seated at the main table, it was hard to miss that Grandma had set one extra place setting. Everyone noticed, but in the bustle, no one asked about it. Once her three children, their two spouses, and the two oldest grandkids were seated at the main table, Grandma just stood between the two chairs at the table’s head. Right off Bonnie could tell she clearly wanted to say something. It took a few moments, but soon she had everyone’s attention.


“I have something I want to tell you all. I’ve been wanting to tell you since summer, but I just haven’t found a way and didn’t know how you would react. It has been sixteen years since Collin Sr. passed. For ten of those sixteen years, Collette has been urging me to find a new life partner, and I’ve been telling her I didn’t need a man in my life.” She stopped, closed her eyes as if saying a prayer, then opened them and said “But life brings us things we don’t expect, and don’t know we desperately needed until we have them.”


Bonnie was sure she was not the only one who could see what was coming next. Grandma’s three adult children’s eyes were fixed on her, but their faces were hard to read, even Cooper’s.


Grandma went on after another pause. “Last spring, quite by happenstance, someone came into my life that reawakened a part of me that I didn’t even know still existed.”

Suddenly Bonnie put together things she’d noticed over the fall with Grandma Campbell. Individually they had seemed to be unrelated, but with instant clarity, she saw they were all part of a pattern. She’d updated her hairstyle for the first time since Bonnie could remember. Her style of dress had gone from dull, almost deliberately so, to vibrant and fresh. And most of all, she had a new spring in her step, she seemed much more engaged with the here and now. At Thanksgiving, she distinctly recalled how Grandma Campbell talked about a salsa dance class she was taking with some of her friends. While both Cooper and Misty had told her they were very excited to see her doing something new, no one saw the pattern, until now.


Grandma Campbell, aka Beatrice (Bee) Campbell, might seem old as the hills to Misty and Lamar, but Bonnie knew she was no such thing. She’d married the much older Collin Campbel Sr. only a few weeks after she’d finished high school, which was not uncommon for well-born Southern girls in the late 1960s. What Bonnie knew, though it was not talked about, was that the Hancock County debutant was already two months pregnant with Collin Jr. when she graduated from Jefferson Davis High (which was also not uncommon in those days). Collette had come a year later and when Cooper came along, Bee was the ripe old age of twenty-three.

Though Bonnie had never really thought about it until the talk about a salsa class. Bee Campbell was trim, lively, and had a certain kind of mature attractiveness to her. She’d simply not seen it as long as Bee had exclusively played the role of widow and grandmother. But now, wearing what was clearly a new, modern cut dress that accentuated that she was very much a woman; she was someone brand new.


Bee Campbell took a deep breath and said “I have found love again. Or perhaps love found me. His name is Travis Mathews. He is a widower who lost his beloved wife of thirty-three years to cancer. He owns the local State Farm Insurance agency on Main Street here in Sparta, though he is in the process of turning it over to his daughter. We have been seeing each other since summer and now it is a nearly every day thing. Though I’d not let any of you know, Travis and I have been looking for a home on the lake for several months. We are now in the final stages of jointly buying a very nice waterfront property. When we do, we will both move there, after which we plan to sell both of our homes here in town.”


Collin Jr. spoke up, “So, you are getting married?”


Quite firmly his mother said “No, we are not. At our age that would simply complicate our finances, and later your inheritances. That matters since we both have substantial financial assets. We are buying the house together, in a business-type partnership. Travis and I are now life partners, and while I know some of you might not like it, we do not plan to get married… ever.”


While she explained it all so logically, Bonnie saw that what she was saying was that she and Travis Mathews were lovers and they would be moving in together in the near future. She was not the only one to get that message, Collette’s face beamed but Collin Jr.’s went dark in disapproval. Bonnie had to look over to see her husband’s reaction. Cooper was evidently having difficulty processing what his mother had said. She understood why, this was so unexpected.


When Bonnie had been in Tennessee after her mother’s funeral she had, quite by accident, found out that her father already had a girlfriend. He and Stella, the woman his dad had suggested she hire to help him cope with household tasks, had been seeing each other for nearly a decade on the sly. Though it had taken her off guard to hear them having sex that first time, she’d not been surprised in the least that he would have a lover. Bonnie didn’t even think of it as cheating since she was sure he and her mother hadn’t had sex in decades. And the truth is, that was the kind of man he was. In the weeks she stayed in Tennessee after Cooper and the kids had gone home, Stella came over every evening after work. By staying those extra weeks, she and Stella had talked a good deal, and though it was odd she and Bonnie were almost the same age, she liked her a lot and was glad her father wouldn’t be alone. Since then, she’d checked up on her father by calling Stella once a week. But Grandma Campbell’s announcement was a real shocker, even to her.

There was a long silence. Bonnie was waiting for someone to congratulate Cooper’s mother, but nobody did. It was one thing to be taken off guard by the announcement, it was something else to be unsupportive. After all, it had been fifteen years since her husband had passed away and Grandma Campbell deserved love and companionship just as much as anyone else. Since no one else seemed ready to do so, Bonnie opened her mouth to congratulate her mother-in-law, when Misty cheerfully said, “That is super great Grandma! I am so happy for you.”


Misty’s enthusiasm appeared to take everyone by complete surprise. However, one person was not. Grandma Campbell smiled and said, “Somehow, I was sure that you would be in my corner on this. You know I’m not as blind and deaf as your father seems to think I am. But I appreciate your support.”


Bonnie wondered what exactly she meant by that last comment.


With the ice broken, both Collette and Bonnie added their congratulations. Neither Collin Jr. nor Karen said anything. Cooper just smiled and said, “You know we will totally back you on whatever brings you happiness. And I think Dad would agree.”


“Thank you, Cooper,” his mother said with a nod. “One last piece of news. On Tuesday, Travis and I are leaving for a two-week Mediterranean cruise. We will be flying non-stop from Atlanta to Santorini, Greece where we will stay for three days before our ten day tour of the Mediterranean.”


After dropping that last stunner, she began to move from behind her chair, before saying, “With that out of the way, I want you to meet Travis.” She went out of the room, to the front door, waited a minute then returned with a well-dressed, nice-looking man who appeared to be Bee’s age.


Once Bonnie tuned out the glowers from Collin Jr. and his wife, she had a lovely time. Travis turned out to be winsome and charming. She could see how he transformed Grandma Campbell back into Bee. She also couldn’t miss their interactions that were almost teenager-like in open affection for each other. Bonnie could not help but muse on how Miss Bee (Bonnie had decided right then that would be how she’d address her from now on) who was solidly in the gentry class with deep social connections was openly proclaiming her relationship with Travis no matter what others said. Yet, her own father, a hillbilly moonshiner at the lowest rung of the social ladder, continued to hide from everyone his sexual relationship with the neighbor lady. “How odd and inconsistent people act about love and sex,” she thought. “It just makes no sense.”


As dinner went on, several times Bonnie looked over to the table set up in the living room where the younger grandkids were eating. Collet’s fourteen-year-old daughter Tiffany sat between twelve-year-old Mary (Collin Jr.’s daughter) and Lamar and seemed to be leading the conversation at that table. All three faced the head table and had a clear view of Grandma’s beaming face from their vantage point. There was confusion on Mary’s face. That was no wonder since her parents were making quite a show of their disapproval while everyone else appeared very happy for Grandma. Seeing there was a conversation going on, Bonnie had confidence in her son to say the right things to calm his cousin.


After dinner, the gift exchange was only slightly less tense. Bonnie couldn’t miss how Mary and Tiffany both latched on to Misty, dragging her as far away from Mary’s parents as they could get. As much confidence as she had in Lamar to do his best, Bonnie knew that Misty was better situated and equipped to really help the girls deal with the turn of events. She was quite sure her daughter was telling her two younger cousins that only Granma Campbell knew what was right for her life. That surety of her girl’s maturity and wisdom made her feel very good in itself. While parenting might well be the most difficult task anyone ever takes on, there are times when the rewards are worth the effort.


***


After the gift exchange, Grandma Campbell pulled Misty aside and whispered, “Perhaps when I get back from Europe you can come over, I think we should have the woman to woman talk that has been put off far too long. I don’t know why your parents seem to think that I don’t hear all the same things that everyone else at church does. Perhaps, with a few hours for just us, you can see clear to separate the malicious rumors from the truth. But know this granddaughter, though you have not been aware of it, your grandmother has defended you with every bit as much resolve as you have shown me today.”


What she said made perfect sense to Misty. Why have her parents assumed she didn’t hear all the talk? And she’d been defending her? To who? Cautiously Misty answered, “I think we can do that. And thank you for your support even when I didn’t know I had it.”


“Family sticks together. That is what we do. I will look forward to you coming over.” Then her grandmother added, “But for now, let's keep this between the two of us.”


Later, as Cooper drove the family home, Bonnie asked Lamar and Misty about their talks with the two younger girls. Lamar answered first, “Both Tiffany and Mary were weirded out that Grandma Campbell has a boyfriend. Tiffany seemed to follow her mother’s lead and said it was a good thing though, but Mary just couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea. To be honest, most of the talk was between them. I only chimed in a few times. But I think they listened to me when I told them that for the first time, I know what it is like to really be in love. Before dinner, I’d told them, and Anson, about me and Sarah, but just the safe stuff. But at the table, I told Tiffany and Mary how my love for Sarah fills every corner of everything that I am.”


Bonnie just had to butt in, “I bet they ate that stuff up. After hearing that I am quite sure your two cousins will look at you differently now.”


Misty agreed with a laugh. “Yea, Tiffany asked me about and I let her know he wasn’t just putting on for them.”


Lamar seemed not to understand why his cousins would think more of him for just telling the truth. "I told them how I simply can’t go on with life as before; and if Grandma Campbell has found love again, she can’t either. I went on a lot longer with them, but that is the gist of what I said. I don’t think they expected that from me, but I think they heard what I was saying.”


Bonnie once again felt a rush of pride in one of her children. To be honest with herself, she never believed she’d hear those kinds of words come from her son’s mouth. She did not tell him that, she only said, “Good job.”


Misty’s explanation was longer. “Tiffany and Mary sort of guided me away from Mary’s parents before the gift exchange started. Right off Tiffany asked me why I thought what Grandma Campbell had said about her and that man was so good. I told her that everyone deserves to find love, even old people. We talked about that, and I ended up telling them about how much I love Tommy. Until just now I had no idea that Lamar must have said the same things in different words. Of course, since I’m a girl, they asked a million questions about our relationship. I did my best to be evasive about things I didn’t think you wanted me to talk about.”


Their mother thanked her for backing up her brother’s words as well as supporting Grandma’s right to happiness.


“But, Mom, like I said I did my best to be evasive, but I think Tiffany read between the lines and is pretty sure that I’m sleeping with my boyfriend.”


Bonnie answered, “That isn’t really a problem since my guess is that her mother just naturally assumes as much. She’s not in a Baptist fantasy land like Collin Jr. and Karen.”


Relieved, Misty went on, “So I’m OK on that score. Good. After we’d been talking a bit Tiffany asked me if I thought that Grandma Campbell and her boyfriend were having sex… well she didn’t use the “S” word, but I knew what she meant. I told her that they aren’t that old, and that she can bet they are having sex. I did use the ‘S’ word though.”


Bonnie let her know she approved, “Good answer. And what did they say about that?”

“Mary was sort of grossed out by the very idea, but Tiffany just asked me what I thought of it if they were. I told them that it would be wonderful if they could. Then we got to the real question, which was did I think it was moral for them since they are not married? I hope I did the right thing, but I made the case that you and Dad make about sex outside of marriage. I did it as carefully as I could, but there is no doubt in my mind both of them know exactly where I stand on the subject.”


Both her parents said Misty had done the right thing given Grandma Campbell’s announcement. Her father followed up with, “Now in the next few days I will have to answer those same questions when my brother and sister call. And I know they will.” Looking into the rearview mirror to the back seat, he added “If I can do as well as you two did, I will be quite pleased with myself.”


****


Family traditions for the holidays are normally an amalgam of the childhood memories of the parents which they adapt to the changing culture around them. The Campbell home was no exception. The fact they had moved into Cooper’s childhood home before Lamar’s second Christmas caused those traditions to be heavily tilted toward the way it had been when he’d grown up in that house. It took a few years for their traditions to formulate, but the year Misty was in first grade became the model for Christmas Day at the Campbel home as both children moved through childhood and their teens.


That year, Bonnie had invited the young single mother who had become her closest friend (Gina Richards) to stay the night before Christmas in the upstairs guest room. She knew Gina had very limited financial resources and she wanted little Caitlin to have the same kind of Christmas that her children would. From that Christmas, until Misty was in 9th grade, Santa left similar gifts for all three children under the tree in the game room. Only once in those years was Caitlin’s mother not sitting right beside Bonnie as the packages were unwrapped, the year that Gina was incarcerated.


Each year the Christmas morning process started the night before when the three children helped prepare the milk and cookies to be left for Santa right before they were sequestered upstairs. They were all given dire warnings should any of them be tempted to come down before morning.


Cooper, Bonnie, and Gina then went to the living room to relax from the hectic pace all parents endure during the holiday season. The women shared a bottle of rather expensive wine bought for the occasion, while Cooper sipped his sweet iced tea. After the mothers made a final check to ensure the kids were settled, if not yet asleep, they went back to the sofa while Santa went to work. Cooper, and only Cooper, took all the brightly wrapped boxes from the verboten walk-in closet in his bedroom to the Christmas tree at the far side of the game room beside the sliding glass door.


For Cooper, this was a very important, even sacred time. Since he had been seven-years-old, when the large addition to the Campbell homestead (which was afterward called the kid's wing) was completed, that corner of that room was where Christmas was held. The process of laying out the gifts always brought back memories of his own childhood and of his deceased father into whose role Cooper had stepped. Once he had arranged all the presents in exactly the right way for the children to find in the morning, he invited his wife and Gina to join him sitting in the comfortable chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the display.


Bonnie and Gina invariably teased Cooper about how long it took him to take a simple photo of The Night Before Christmas, but he would not be rushed. Indeed, once the kids were in bed, the night before Christmas was never rushed in the Campbell home. In the quiet dimly lit room, the three parents typically talked well past midnight. Though this was quite enjoyable, it was also the way they ensured all three children were fast asleep before the parents retired for the night.


On four of those Christmas Eves, rather than just talk, Bonnie posed in front of the tree and gifts, wearing the lingerie Cooper had bought her just for that night. Gina was always happy to play the role of photo assistant. Importantly, Gina was never once asked to change into lingerie and pose with Bonnie despite, or perhaps because of the fact she made her living in front of a camera fully unclothed. Cooper and Bonnie were always very careful to treat Gina with the same deference they would the most pious woman in the church, and they always worked to treat her job as no different than any other. Other than when Bonnie posed, they both wore flannel Christmas pajamas and Gina always slept upstairs in the guest room.


Only on that very last Christmas before Gina traded her freedom for a stable home for Caitlin, Bonnie and Cooper had a very serious talk about inviting her to join them in their bed. By that Christmas, they had playfully joked about that idea for over a year. They both knew without a doubt that should they ask her, Gina would accept an offer to join them in a heartbeat. However, Cooper and Bonnie weren’t quite ready for that step yet. They were very close, but not quite there. It was that following year that they had opened up their marriage when Bonnie began her sexual relationship with Jill Banning and her husband.


The children all knew they could come downstairs at first light, but they could not touch the wrapped presents until all three adults were dressed and in their places. However, Santa always left one present unwrapped, always a toy or some other thing that would keep the eager hands busy until the grown-ups could pull themselves out of bed. Once the parents were all in the room, Cooper acted as master of ceremonies, reading off the name on a box, handing it to the recipient and not passing out the next until everyone had seen what was inside.


Once the last present was unwrapped and the corner of the room was filled with wrapping paper, the kids were given leave to go play with their new things. Inevitably, Gina would break down in tears as she thanked and hugged Bonnie and Cooper for doing for her child what she could not. Christmas morning, three years ago, when Gina and Caitlin were not there for the first time, their absence left a large hole in the Campbell family’s Christmas joy.


Because the family had their Christmas feast the day before at Grandma Campbells, their tradition was a Christmas brunch served around noon, buffet style, from the kitchen island. Once the food was gone and the kitchen cleaned up, the adults simply relaxed and enjoyed the sounds of the children at play. To Bonnie and Cooper, that was the sound of Christmas.


Misty helped her mother clean up the mess of wrapping paper and discarded boxes. Under the tree were four more unopened colorful packages. Misty didn’t have to look at what the tags said, she knew each one read:

To: Caitlin

From: Santa


There had been presents with those tags under the tree as long as Misty could remember. Two years ago, when no one in their family dared get near Mr. Bob’s trailer, the packages had been delivered by a lady in the church on the first day that Gina’s husband was back to work. Last year Caitlin had just begun to visit the Campbell home again and opened them herself two days after Christmas.


Caitlin had long been the nearest thing Misty had to a sister. She had been sorely missed when Mr. Bob had forbidden contact, especially at Christmas. Misty had known Caitlin since her first year in elementary school. Looking back, she now could see that some of her schoolmates over the years had shunned Caitlin because she was "trailer trash", which in Handcock County was code for being a poor white kid. Her sometimes shabby clothes got her much ridicule over the years, though Misty knew that her mother had done much to alleviate that, especially when they got older. But what may have been her fatal problem with such people was that she was both very smart and very pretty. Once, Misty’s mom told her that one thing most people hate is a person that doesn’t fit neatly into their prejudices.


When after the mess was cleaned up and her mother had gone to the kitchen to start on the food, Misty looked at her phone, she saw a text from Caitlin:


I need out of here. Would it be possible for me to come to stay with you for a few days?

Misty ran full speed up the stairs to get her shoes and jacket, only stopping long enough to send a reply: I am on my way.


Caitlin didn’t complain about Mr. Bob or the oppressive atmosphere in his home like most people would. She was hard, too hard, and it took a lot to get her to ask for help like this.


Twenty minutes after she’d read the text, Misty’s yellow Mini Cooper came to a stop on the dirt parking area in front of the double-wide mobile home. It was actually the nicest home Misty recalls Caitlin and her mom had ever lived in, and Misty had been to a whole string of places when visiting her over the past decade.


As soon as they were off the rutted drive and onto the pavement, Caitlin visibly relaxed. On the fifteen-minute drive back to the Campbell house, Misty heard about the growing tensions between her mom and Mr. Bob.


Misty couldn’t help saying what she knew that Caitlin already knew, “You and your mom have a home at our place anytime she wants to move in. I know that for a fact.”


“Yea, I know that and so does Mom. But I think she really wants to stick it out until I graduate. We’ve started talking about moving to Milledgeville this summer before I start at GCSU in the fall. She’s been squirreling away money all year, and she still has some money from when she was working in a bank account that Bob doesn’t know about. But she knows if things get unbearable, she has a safe place to go with your family.”


Evidently, to change the subject, Caitlin told Misty about a guy she'd gotten to know at her biological father’s tire shop in Milledgeville this week. “I told you my dad asked if I wanted to start working part-time at his shop. Well, on Monday I started by organizing his office and learning to check people out. You’d be surprised how many people buy tires right before Christmas. I was.”


Misty actually had never thought of buying tires at any time of year before. She listened as Caitlin told, at length, about a GCSU student who had been working in the shop for a month or so. It was obvious that Caitlin was smitten. That had never happened before. Misty had several crushes when they were younger, but never Caitlin. She was always wary of boys… but not this time.


Caitlin wrapped up just as they pulled into Misty’s driveway. "I really wanted him to come tonight, but he had a commitment at GCSU. We haven't had a date yet, but I have a really good feeling about him."


Misty was happy for her friend and hoped it would work out, though if she’d invited him to the party, it would have posed some very sticky problems for Misty.


***


Bonnie was very pleased when shortly before she began putting out the food for the Christmas brunch, Misty and Caitlin walked into the kitchen. Without a second thought, she wrapped her arms around her ‘2nd daughter.’ As they were hugging, Misty told her mother, “She called me while you were cooking and asked me to come get her.”


It was only when she let Caitlin go that Bonnie saw she was holding a large duffel bag. When Caitlin saw what Mrs. C. was looking at, she said, “Things are getting pretty tense at home. So, if you don’t mind, I asked Misty if I could stay here for a few days.”


“A few days?” Bonnie exclaimed. “You know full well you have a home here for as long as you like.”


“Yes, I actually know that. I have a home and a second mom here and I’m sure I always will. But I think it might go badly for my mother if I just moved in with you guys. Bob has been jealous of you and Mr. C. from the very start.”


Bonnie nodded, “I understand. I wish I didn’t but I do.” Then changing the mood, she said “You go on and get settled in for however long you plan on staying. I’ll have the food ready in about fifteen minutes.” Then as the girls walked away, she added, “Oh, I think there are a few boxes still under the tree from Santa with your name on them.”


Later, Caitlin came into the kitchen when Bonnie was cleaning up. She began to help without comment. Bonnie made some light conversation as they worked, but she suspected Caitlin came in for a reason. Just as they were finishing, she found out what her other daughter wanted to say.

“Mrs. C., you were right,” Caitlin said in a hushed voice. Bonnie put down the dish towel and turned toward her to ask, “About what?”


“You were right to tell me I should not join you and Mr. C. in bed.”


Bonnie just nodded in understanding but did not say anything.


“I was hurt when you said it was too soon, but you were right. I won’t say I don’t want you, and have since our trip to Miami, but I need you as my mother far more. Since I was little, I have thought of you like that, even if I never called you Mom, you are. You always have treated me as if I were your own child and I’ve never doubted your love for me. You have never ever made me feel like I was unwanted… or the child of a whore… or white trash.”


Those words hurt Bonnie, even coming from Caitlin herself. They hurt because she knew full well that over the years Caitlin had been called those things and worse more than once.


I am now old enough to understand how much you protected me all these years, and I know I can never repay you for what you have done for me. This house is my real home, the only real home I’ve ever known.” Even softer she said, “I know there have been times Mom couldn’t be there for me, but you have always been there… always. Just as I know now, if Mom needs somewhere to turn, to hide; you will be there for her.”


Without warning, Caitlin threw herself at Bonnie and wrapped her arms around her. “I was so stupid to want to risk what I have, for asking to change an irreplaceable relationship that I still need. I don’t know what I was thinking. Thank you for doing the hard thing and telling me no. I could tell, even as we talked that day how difficult it was for you to deny me what I wanted. But you did it, for me.”


Bonnie wrapped her arms around Caitlin. This little girl, who now wore a woman’s body, was indeed her daughter in all but legal status. Nestling her face in the thick auburn hair, she said gently. “That is what mothers do.”


That was the last straw for Caitlin. She began to sob. Bonnie knew full well the tears welled up from a deep reservoir of pain that Caitlin always carried with her. This was far from the first time the little redhead girl had cried her eyes out in Bonnie’s arms. She had no idea how many hours she’d spent over the years holding and comforting Caitlin. From the moment that Caitlin had arrived today, fleeing, she’d expected this moment. She also suspected that was why Misty had not come into the kitchen with her dearest friend. Misty surely knew what Caitlin needed and why she’d gone to see Mom. And Bonnie, as she had been doing for over a decade, would hold and love the grieving girl as long as she needed.


***


Sarah arrived at the Campbell’s around 3:00 PM. Her family had been in Milledgeville for Christmas dinner with her father’s parents. Bonnie requested she and Lamar stay downstairs and play games with the rest of the family for a while before they go up to his room for their private play. Though she knew both of the teenagers wanted to get with it right then, she also knew they would stay if she asked. Bonnie was glad they had because the six of them had an absolutely wonderful Christmas afternoon. By around five though, she could tell she was losing the young couple’s attention and she sent them upstairs.


A short time later, she found Misty and Caitlin snuggled and softly kissing in the game room. “Would you two like to go upstairs where it is more comfortable?” she asked.


Looking up at her mother Misty said, “Yea, maybe we will. But not all night. We will be down in an hour… or two.”


“That’s fine. I think your father and I will take a nap, then we thought we could all watch a Christmas movie together later on.


And so it happened, the Campbell’s Christmas Day ended with the four teens on the sofa snuggling as two couples while Mom and Dad sat in their LazyBoy recliners. On the screen was the musical version of Scrooge with Albert Finney, one of Bonnie’s all-time favorite movies. Sitting in her chair, inconspicuously watching the kids, Bonnie thought to herself “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”


***


For Lamar, Christmas and all the festivities were simply a backdrop for the monumental changes going on in his life, and in him. While he knew his life had been morphing into something new since summer began, by now it was nearly unrecognizable. Last Christmas when Santa brought him an Xbox One, he thought it was the greatest gift ever because his whole world revolved around video games. All he thought about were video games, all he did in the evenings was wrapped around playing, reading about, and talking about video games. When he was with his friends that is what they all did. He just didn’t look beyond that. Yet, he’d not even turned on his precious Xbox One in a week. Two weeks? He actually didn’t remember.


As he sat watching Scrooge with Sarah in his arms, that version of him seemed like a distant memory. Two days before, it had been odd to sit with his parents and Misty & Tommy at the McGregor Bistro as almost a peer. He and Sarah were one of three couples at the table, he had not been the little kid shut out of the “adult” conversation. This morning, after they had opened their gifts, he’d volunteered, without prompting from his parents, to help Misty unpack and put together her new studio strobe lights. It was hard to believe that on Christmas morning he had actually wanted to do something with his bossy, controlling big sister. But she wasn’t the same person she had been either, at least to him. She was still the older sister, but now that meant something different entirely. He now openly looked up to her as a role model, and she no longer tried to lord over him.


As inconceivable as it was, they had become friends, real friends. So much so, that as they were working on the lights, he asked her for advice on managing his relationships with both Sarah and Gabby. Even more astounding, Misty had simply put down her new lights and sat down with him for nearly an hour and they had talked… like peers. In addition to offering advice on managing two loving relationships, they had compared notes on how and why the past weekend had been so monumental for them both. Now Sissy was sitting on the other end of the sofa with Caitlin in her arms watching the movie. Again, it was three loving couples sharing time together, there were no little kids in the room.


After the movie, he picked up his bag and headed to the front door with His Love. For more than a week, for eight nights and most of nine days, they would be living on their own as a couple. When his mother stopped him to give a goodbye hug, she did not give him a list of do’s and don’ts, she just said, “I love you.” He could see in her eyes this was an important moment for her. Perhaps this change in his life meant her life was changing too.

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sugarlessroark
sugarlessroark
2023년 8월 23일

Testify, Sister Sarah, testify!

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Ananda
Ananda
2023년 8월 20일

The Campbell’s love lives are not typical of romantic stories: “A romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while they’re solving a problem which threatens to keep them apart, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime – leading to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.” (Michaels, Leigh. Writing the Romance Novel: Crafting a Love Story that Sells.) Or even of a Young Adult (YA) “Many young adult books aimed at female readers contain an element of romance, even when they fit into another genre. It’s hard to think of a young adult novel that has a main female character and a…


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Professor Polyamory
Professor Polyamory
2023년 8월 21일
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Yes.. and my definition of "old" has changed. But to 17 year old's 40 is old and 65 is ancient. Now I think of 40 year old's as young. 😀

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