Special thanks to Sbrooks for editing, any remaining mistakes are completely my fault, probably added after his able assistance.
One: While the title of this is Soldier Girl, beware of using that phrase with female soldiers. It’s for either very intimate or close familial use. Or for someone with a good dental plan.
Second: A quick definition – POST is the Peace Officer Standards and Training certification for police officers.
The throbbing growl of the truck engine overrode the muffled sounds of soldiers shouting. Staff Sergeant Tina James – TJ to her friends- edged around the truck tire, looking for one of the fleeting targets. Over the harmony of AK fire, M-4 carbines were sounding off in their curiously popcorn-like voices, occasionally punctuated by a burst of heavier automatic fire from the vehicle mounted weapons. What a goat-fuck. The convoy was halfway around the corner when the IEDs hit both ends simultaneously.
A stopped convoy, bent around a corner where the crew served vehicle-mounted weapons couldn’t support each other was really bad news.
It was never good when they got clever like this.
TJ glanced over her shoulder at Corporal Deaner, who was looking around the other end of the truck.
No answer. Try again.
“Deaner! Got anything?”
Damn engine was too loud to hear anything over. TJ scoped the area in front of her one more time before turning and fast crawling over to Deaner and tugging on his leg.
“Deaner, nothing on my end...”
Her voice trailed off as the foot fell over limply.
Half Deaner’s head was missing. A rattling of air gasped out of his mouth. TJ thought she could hear words even though he was clearly dead.
She started to drag him back behind the tire just as an Iraqi stepped over him, AK-47 swinging to bear.
Everything was moving in slow motion, TJ’s M-4 was pointed out to her end of the truck.
The insurgent, grinning madly, pulled the trigger.
The AK had jammed. TJ saw the man’s panic as he dropped the AK and dove toward her. Her M-4 was pinned to her as he smashed into her. A moment’s struggle – his breath stank like a dying swamp. She could see the realization that she was female hit him. His smile got bigger.
Until he felt her blade pushing into his chest just above the stomach and below the ribs.
Fastest way to a man’s heart.
The insurgent began to spasm, convulsing off of her, yanking the bayonet handle out of her grasp. She pulled herself up and reached over to pull the bayonet out of the body as three of her squad huffed around the corner, scanning like the pros they were – like the pros she’d trained them to be. It looked like Pruitt and her two, off the aptly named “Miami Sound Machine.” TJ felt a little relieved at that – she knew the crowd control, loudspeaker-heavy vehicle had taken a hit of some kind in the initial exchange of fire.
They hadn’t seen Deaner yet, and they were grinning like fools.
She pulled herself upright, staggering to her feet. A sick chill went through her.
Christ. What the hell would she say to Deaner’s mom?
A soldier from another squad ran up alongside the halted vehicle and headed toward the door of the nearest building. Even as he grabbed the door handle, she screamed at him to stop. The door was limned in unreal yellow-orange light as it bulged outward from the explosion...
TJ sat upright, gasping for air, sweat soaking her clothes. Her nerves were screaming for her to do something, do anything, but she caught herself. Closed her eyes. Calmed her breathing.
Leaving the Army had been ... awkward. Six months of therapy. A handful of ribbons. High praise from a bunch of senior officers about how important her service had been. The feeling of loss as she realized that whatever she did, she was no longer one of them.
An airline ticket to Saint Louis and a bus ticket back to Saint Claire, Missouri.
A disability check.
She looked down at the stump of her thigh. Her request to remain on active duty had been denied – right leg was amputated just above her knee, two fingers on her left hand and her left eye, gone. The leg was the worst of it though, the fingers had been barely noticeable compared to that. But it was the eye that kept her out, she suspected. She had illusions of being able to see with her missing eye – just pale, out of focus things and flashes of light, but it had never, despite all the treatments, stopped.
But like a lot of things, she’d learned to stop telling the doctors about them. So that she’d eventually been released.
Then came the penance.
She’d missed the funerals, the memorial services. Everything. Nothing was left but long dried tears and crippled families. Keller’s wife and Deaner’s mom cane to see her in the hospital. But she’d had to seek out the wives, husbands and parents of the others. She’d met most of them. At promotion ceremonies, organization day Bar-B-Queues and, of course, Departure Day.
They were all polite, but she could see they were mostly trying hard not to blame her. Not for making a mistake – somebody had made sure everyone knew what happened. But for being alive while their loved ones were gone.
Nobody said anything. But TJ couldn’t help notice Pruitt’s younger brother staring at her. Twelve-year-olds don’t hide their feelings as well as adults.
They all tried so hard not to blame her. Except for Specialist Eric Jenkin’s wife.
She’d answered the door with her now-fatherless two-year-old baby girl on her left hip. She’d taken a second to recognize TJ, but when she did her greeting choked off. White-faced and drawn, she let the door swing open the rest of the way, then took one step forward and slapped TJ with all her strength. She turned, stepped back in and shut the door without saying a single word.
That slap made TJ feel better than all the Chaplain’s platitudes and therapists’ endless bullshit put together.
TJ agreed. Amy Jenkins was right to blame her.
After that, she’d stayed with her dad and his new wife for a few weeks, but she’d felt claustrophobic from the beginning. The house where she had grown up in was too full of uncomfortable silences; memories of her mom, and that horrible cancer that killed her. Her dad’s new wife was great, a nice person, and he deserved someone. But it didn’t matter, TJ just couldn’t handle it. She felt herself growing restless and irritable. And they didn’t deserve what she seemed to be turning into.
Eventually she had to ask her dad for the keys to the cabin, filled her old Ford Ranger with supplies and headed out. Her family had owned the cabin on Platte Lake as long as she could remember, and it had always been the quiet place. A place for rest. It had been used less and less over the years, especially after her father hurt his back and pretty much gave up hunting and fishing.
When she’d pulled up to the cabin in the middle of an oppressively hot Ozarks afternoon, it had been the first time that she actually felt like she’d come “home.”
She’d had to run spiders and mice out of the cabin, and weeks later she was still doing it, but everything felt right – the smells, the sounds.
Especially the solitude.
She loved just being alone, listening to the sound of the dark Ozark woods. Sometimes those sounds could even drown out the screams and blasts in her head. Sometimes.
It’d taken a while to get things set up but she had plenty of gas in the propane tank and the well was running fine; so was the deep freeze that she was rapidly filling with catfish. She could even watch TV – if she’d had one. All she had was an old radio that smelled funny when it first turned on, but that was fine, all she used it for was weather anyway.
Through most of the summer, she’d found a type of peace. Fixing up the cabin, fishing and just sitting on the porch swing. If not for the haunting memories and endless nightmares, it would have been almost idyllic.
As much as valued her retreat, after a few weeks, she eventually found herself headed to town.
She really hadn’t wanted any company or conversation but a broken hose coupling forced her on in.
As TJ slowed the old Ford pick-up, the broiling afternoon air made the dusty town seem washed out, like an old western town in a sepia tone postcard.
After the hardware store, she headed to the grocery store to pick up something other than fish as a main course. The checkout girl, “Cindy” by her name-tag, was a brown-haired girl in long sleeves, a high collar and a floor length skirt that marked her as a member of one of the stricter churches in the area. She’d somehow seemed vaguely familiar. The girl had started at the sight of TJ, but that was a reaction TJ had grown used to.
Still, she tried to place where she had seen “Cindy” before.
She’d try to figure that out later; right now the old diner on the side of the road beckoned, a sign in the window promising “the best” fried chicken and potatoes for five dollars in bold red marker letters.
What the hell. She pulled into one of the many empty spaces in front of the diner.
Tammi winced as she pushed a tray back to Donny through the tray window. Her ribs were killing her.
Probably fractured again.
She cinched her too-tight skirt a bit. It was Ellie’s and Ellie was a full size smaller than her, but Ellie’s uniform wasn’t covered in blood, so it was really the only choice. She was supposed to smile, but the bruises from Andy made that difficult; besides, it’d probably just split her lip open again.
The front door opened, and Tammi watched a lean figure walk slowly in. Nobody she’d ever seen before, unusual around here. It was a woman, tan, lean, very short brown hair, dressed in faded cut off jean shorts and a tank top.
The first thing Tammi really noticed, though, was the eyepatch. Tammi let her eyes drop, a bit embarrassed, wondering if the woman could hear her thinking ‘pirate.’ As she looked her over she saw that her right leg was some kind of mechanical construction, contrasting with a leanly muscled left leg. She watched the woman walk to one of the booths. Despite the leg, the woman moved with animal-like assurance and an odd sort of ‘fuck you’ wariness.
TJ caught a glance of the waitress staring at her.
Great, already tagged as a freak.
She glanced around at the almost-empty diner. The only other customer was a slightly heavy set teddy-bear of a man in a brown Sheriff’s uniform, a stained smoky-the-bear hat on the table beside him. He seemed totally absorbed in the mostly finished plate in front of him, white chicken bones almost all that remained. TJ pulled herself into the booth, letting her ‘peg’ stay straight – she could unlock the knee, but there was no point, really.
The waitress walked over, all blonde curls and deep cleavage in a white shirt and too-tight, too-short, too-damn-pink skirt.
“What can I getcha, hon?”
TJ looked her over – getting an initial impression of way too much makeup, way too bright lipstick. She read the chipped pink nametag.
“Uh, Ellie, I’ll take your special” gesturing to the signboard.
The waitress looked lost for a second, then looked down at the nametag perched precariously on her chest.
“Oh! No, I’m not Ellie, I had to borrow this shirt. She leaned forward to talk quietly. “My name’s Tammi, Tammi Ann.”
She said it like it was one word: tammiann.
TJ forced herself to look up – the view of Tammi’s cleavage was spectacular.
Looking her in the eyes was worse; they were an odd crystal blue that TJ had never seen outside of ads for trips to the Caribbean.
“I’m Tina, but everyone calls me TJ.” She momentarily reflected that ‘everyone’ at this point was herself.
Tammi smiled. “Alright then TJ, you want a special with... ?”
“Alright then. Comin’ up.”
TJ watched the waitress sashay over to the order window. Ouch. It’d been an awful long time...
Tammi was back with coffee almost instantly.
“Were you in the Army?”
TJ looked down at her truncated leg, trying to come up with an appropriate response. She knew she was over sensitive about it.
Tammi saw the loaded glance TJ gave her leg.
“Oh, no, the crossed pistol tattoo on your arm – my cousin has one almost like it. Different numbers though.”
TJ flushed. Stupid, oversensitive...
“Yeah, Military Police, 82nd Airborne Division.”
“My cousin was an MP in the 101st ... Does your leg bother you much?”
TJ didn’t even feel the slightest inclination to give the usual curt answers she’d grown used to giving the ‘loss counselors’; Tammi seemed genuinely interested, and, for some reason, her complete lack of caution was refreshing.
“Sometimes I get pain where my leg used to be – they call it phantom limb pain. Can’t fix it with painkillers. Only thing that helps is staring at it and telling myself it can’t hurt because it isn’t there.”
Tammi reached down and gently touched her thigh just above the stump.
TJ’s leg muscle spasmed and Tammi jerked her hand back.
“Sorry, just, well, wish I could help.” She flushed red.
“It’s okay, it didn’t hurt; I’m just not used to being touched.”
TJ winced internally – that was way more than she meant to say. And the implication.
Well, if Tammi drew that conclusion she wouldn’t be off the mark. TJ had grown up a tomboy and realized early on that she was different than the girls her mom wanted her to play with; by the time she reached High School she really understood what that meant. She’d tried dating boys, but her heart, among other things, just wasn’t in it. She couldn’t even remember the face of the boy she’d lost her virginity to – she’d been picturing Jennifer Tilly at the time.
The Army had been a little better, but with everybody reassigned every two to three years, nothing lasted. Her last ‘significant other’ - TJ hated that term, but ‘lover’ was too Jerry Springer and ‘girlfriend’ was too ribbons-and-curls – had ended about six months before her last tour in Iraq, with a conversation that started with ‘experimental phase’ and ended with an engagement announcement, to some guy Katie had met while TJ was at Senior Leader Course. TJ had kind of sensed it coming and it really only hurt because the guy was a civilian.
Deaner, Pruitt and Garcia dragged her through half the strip clubs in Vegas to get her over that. They’d poured enough tequila into her to numb any pain, and TJ ended up in bed with an honest-to-God Vegas showgirl. Named Candi. With an “I” with a heart over it.
She hated to think what they’d spent on lap dances for her. She found out later that even the married members of the squad had contributed to what would be forever after called “TJ’s Debauchery Tour”.
Of course, “forever” turned out to be less than a year. Because nobody else was left.
With no customers coming in, Tammi invited herself to sit down and soon extracted chunks of TJ’s life story; she learned all about the cabin and even had TJ talking about her mom – something TJ normally avoided. Talking to Tammi just seemed easy and natural.
“So what are you gonna do now?” The earnestness in the question made TJ feel a little less comfortable.
“I don’t know, I’m a soldier all the way, that’s what I’m good at, that’s all I always wanted to be, but now...”
Tammie leaned forward – TJ almost wished she’d stop doing that, it made it hard to think. Almost.
“Something will come up, something always does.” She reached over and squeezed TJ’s hand. And that seemed okay, even though that was the hand that was missing fingers.
Tammi didn’t let go for a long second, then jumped up at the sound of the order bell and slipped over to pick up TJ’s meal.
As she returned, a tall thin man in a blue mechanic’s shirt, and what probably used to be blue jeans slouched through the doorway. Tammi froze, hands full, as he walked up to her.
“Need some cash, baby. Gotta get cigarettes.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just dipped a hand into her apron pocket, pulled out the bills from tips and turned to walk out.
“Don’t forget, we’re headed to Bert’s tonight.” He threw a suspicious glare at the sheriff in the corner and moved on out.
Tammi hadn’t even said anything. She carefully walked over to TJ’s table and set the tray down silently.
TJ looked at her, really seeing for the first time.
The heavy makeup.
How else do you hide bruises so you don’t have to explain them? TJ’d spent a few years on garrison duty, she should have figured it out earlier. Had a lot of late night domestic violence calls. Without thinking about it, she reached out and squeezed Tammi’s hand, then let go.
Tammi tried to get back to her smooth chatting, but it was like a car with a piston out in the engine, and she soon excused herself, saying she needed to let TJ eat. TJ left an oversize tip and headed out, glancing back at Tammi and catching her looking at her.
TJ was back home before she knew it, getting groceries put up and getting the place picked up. She was feeling oddly energized by the trip into town. She’d actually enjoyed talking to Tammi.
She pushed herself on the physical therapy exercises, trying to burn off an odd, now-unfamiliar edge.
Later, in bed, TJ felt an itch she hadn’t had since the explosion that took her leg. She tried to ignore it, but that made her think about it, which made it progressively worse. She kept picturing Tammi without the heavy makeup. She finally gave up and rolled onto her stomach and pushed a hand down inside her waistband while envisioning a pair of crystal blue eyes...
It took everything she had not to go back into town the next day. Her thoughts kept drifting back to Tammi – not just because she was beautiful, but because she seemed so damn easy to talk to. TJ couldn’t remember anyone since the explosion that she had been able to just talk to.
The day after that, though, she found herself back in town for a late lunch. For the chicken special, she told herself. It turned out that the special was lasagna though, and she decided that sounded just as good. Although she couldn’t be sure, since she couldn’t remember eating it afterwards. Tammi had a slow day and sat with her all through lunch.
She almost ran to the truck the next day. She managed to find an excuse to run into town every day for the rest of the week.
Sheriff Chris Shannon watched Tammi talking to the tough-looking woman with the missing leg and the eyepatch.
It looked like Tammi was flirting – like a lot waitresses Tammi flirted with guys to increase tips, but this was new, at least as far as Shannon knew. Tammi sure as hell didn’t sit with customers; and he noticed Tammi almost seemed to make a point of touching the woman’s leg. The tanned woman had seemed uptight at first, but loosened up over the week as Tammi chatted with her.
Tammi sure seemed to brighten up around her.
Tammi’s boyfriend was a complete asshole as far as Shannon was concerned. He knew Andy had begun to beat on Tammi on a regular basis, but she always refused to press charges – figuring, probably rightly, that Andy would end up released all too quickly and be worse than ever. Her best bet was to leave, but like too many of the women Shannon saw, she kept on making excuses.
Probably would right up until he killed her.
The lean woman might be just what the Doctor ordered for Tammi. And the interest the woman showed as she watched Tammi walk to the order window was pretty damn clear.
Still, the Sheriff took his job seriously So maybe it was time to introduce himself.
TJ had just finished rearranging groceries in the back of her truck when the thickset sheriff she’d seen in the diner all week strolled up and leaned on her closed tail gate.
TJ tensed and waited for the rest – the “watch what you do around here” speech.
The sheriff settled into his arms a bit and stared down the dusty road into the horizon.
“You gonna be around here a while?”
“Maybe.” TJ pulled a cold coke out of one of the bags to drink on the way home. “Gotta see what there is to do.”
“We have a dispatcher position open, you can fill an application out with Deputy Sorenson.” He gestured down Main to a wooden sign that grandiosely proclaimed a small heavily built building to be the Sheriff’s Office. “Not much excitement, compared to what you’re used to, and the pay sucks, but it’s a job. Get ya out of the house. And it gets you a reserve police commission if you have a current POST– saw the tattoo.”
A job offer? TJ blinked, she’d expected to be “warned off the local girl.”
“Thanks, I’ll check on that.”
He stared thoughtfully back at the diner for a breath.
“Been a long time since I’ve seen Tammi laugh. Her man’s a real asshole. Reckon you probably figured that out.”
Pause. TJ stood wordlessly, then nodded slowly, silently.
“You know,” The sheriff continued as he pushed off the tailgate. “Andy blew out his right leg playing football in high school. Has to be careful, one good hit to that knee and he’s in the hospital. Serve him right if it did go out though. He’s like to kill Tammi one of these days. Girl can’t get the sense to leave him”
He nodded and moved on down the sidewalk.
TJ sat in her truck, pondering the conversation, thinking carefully about the layers of meaning.
The Sheriff’s Office was neater and a bit more modern than TJ expected. The only person in the office, a huge blonde deputy with the heavy muscles of a serious weightlifter loomed over one of the three desks. As he saw her enter he stood up, his head almost seemed to brush the ceiling. He grinned broadly.
“You must be TJ.”
He enjoyed her confusion for a moment, then held up a mobile radio.
“Sheriff got your name from Tammi after he talked to you, and radioed ahead, said he was thinking you might be interested in the dispatcher position. Don’t figure on too many women running around that fit your description.”
TJ relaxed and shook her head. “You threw me for a minute. Yeah, I’d like to apply.”
He handed over a sheaf of papers that he’d obviously put on the corner of his desk when the Sheriff called him.
“My names Danny Sorenson, but you can call me ‘Swede, ‘ everybody here does.”
The application only took about 5 minutes to fill out, including the time it took for ‘Swede’ to make copies of her IDs.
He grinned when he saw her POST certification date.
“Thank God for small favors. I may actually get to take some of my comp time.”
“When will I know if...”
“Hell, your first shift will be as soon as we can process the paperwork with county – maybe three to four weeks. The only reason it will take that long is we have to get it signed by the county board and they only meet once a month. Shannon will call your references, but unless you have a felony count hanging over you, you’re as good as hired. Or he wouldn’t have asked you.”
Swede showed her around the station, which certainly didn’t take long. Aside the from the main office and the Sheriff’s personal office – which was decorated with a large USMC flag – there was a comms room, three secure interrogation rooms and a jail large enough for 20 people. According to Swede, there were about 16 deputies total, with 4 on shift and 2 on short notice recall at any time. Dispatchers made about 2 dollars above minimum wage, but any time she worked in reserve deputy status, she’d make a couple dollars more per hour. TJ got the impression from Swede that she’d be spending a lot of time as a deputy – the extra dispatch position was a way for the Sheriff to get the county to employ an extra deputy without having to establish the position.
He handed her the Sheriff’s card as she was leaving, so she’d be able to get in touch “if they forgot about her.”
His grin made it clear that wasn’t likely to happen.
The dream came again, the same dream as always. But something changed – the dream was not quite the same this time. As TJ rolled the insurgent off her, everything froze. Deaner sat up and looked at her with his remaining blood filled eye. His deep South accent was slurred by the missing half of his jaw.
“You have to be there for each other.”
Even in the frozen moment, TJ still found words, “What are you talking about?”
“Sorry, Sarge. That would be cheating.” A deep chuckle.
He cocked his shattered head to one side, listening carefully.
“You’d better get going, she needs your help. She needs it now.”
TJ woke with a start. A shout, a scream, something ... All she heard was the chorus of frogs.
She tried to ignore it, but she knew, she was sure she had heard a woman – Tammi, she was sure - scream and beg for mercy, and the sound of shouting, angry thudding blows. She looked at the clock – it was midnight, and she was wide awake. She hesitated for a moment, but annoyed, grabbed her ‘peg’ and strapped it on.
It wouldn’t hurt to go for a drive.
The silver white moonlight illuminated the side road clearly, a single figure stumbling down the gravel toward a trailer at the end. As TJ turned in and slowed alongside her, Tammi kept lurching unsteadily ahead, feet crunching on the unnaturally white gravel in the moonlight, eyes fixed on the trailer.
It took three tries, but she finally looked, and twitched her head, surprised to see TJ.
“Need a lift?”
Tammi looked at her, face drawn, pale and with a new, livid bruise forming over the whole left side. Hope first, then hope drained. She looked over at the trailer.
“No, ‘most there.”
Her lip was split, bad. A drop fell and spattered to sit starkly black and dead on the white gravel.
“You don’t have to go there.” Softly.
“Andy ... Andy’ll kill me if I ain’t home ‘fore him.”
She kept walking, grim faced and pale.
TJ stopped the truck and watched Tammi pull herself up the steps.
She was still sitting there when a smashed up brown Ford coupe roared up to the trailer. She caught a look at Andy. Drunk as hell, tight lipped, white with fury and wrapping a chain around his fist. Snarling as he stalked toward the trailer door.
“Where are you, damn BITCH! I can’t believe you made me look like that in front of my friends! Try to be a nice guy...”
His voice cut off as he slammed the door behind him.
TJ breathed in slowly. No pretending she didn’t know.
No walking away.
Moments later she was trying the door. Locked. Cruel, cutting words and a begging, pleading, voice twined around each other from inside. The meaning was clear even though TJ couldn’t make out the words. She coiled herself and slammed against the cheap door – it popped open and she lurched inside.
Tammi was curled up on the floor, Andy standing over her with clenched fist – he was starting to uncoil the chain.
“You goddam little BITCH!”
TJ caught the hand with the chain and pulled him around. No light of recognition, she didn’t give him time to think. Every ounce of frustration and anger she had went into her punch. Andy’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed straight down. TJ looked at the prone form. Lined herself up and brought her weight down on the side of the right knee. She felt a chorus of sickening pops and cracks. Tammi was still curled up, body racked by the kind of hard sobs that only the most hopeless can muster. TJ pulled the hand with the chain out and stomped on each finger separately.
Just for added measure she kicked him in the groin as hard as she could.
Tammi’s sobs had slowed to a shaky whimper and TJ saw the mascara-streaked eyes looking up at her blankly. She gently helped Tammi up, sat her on the ratty couch and picked up the phone.
Shannon looked across the table at Tina James. This close, he could see that she had the wiry build of a distance runner. Her thin grey tank top and pajama shorts didn’t hide much of the scarring, or anything else for that matter, though she seemed entirely unconcerned about that. Combat tours change your definition of modesty and personal space pretty quickly, he reflected.
He’d called for her record right after she’d filled out her application. Three tours in Iraq. He called her old unit. Even accounting for exaggeration, she’d come off as a combination of everybody’s favorite cousin and the Terminator.
“So, I’m supposed to ask what you were doing there.”
“I couldn’t sleep, went for a drive, just sort of found her walking on the road...”
He cut her off.
“I am sure you picked her up and dropped her at her house, but she left her purse in your truck, right? Had to go back to return it, of course. Nobody answered, the door was open, and you really just wanted to leave the purse inside. Funny, him kicking in his own door like that, but you can never tell with drunks. And him trying to hit you with a chain, when you asked him to stop beating Tammi? Pretty clear case of self-defense.”
The Sheriff was already writing the statement down without her saying a word. Her eye socket itched for a second and she rubbed it with a knuckle while he continued.
“Be surprised if Andy ever tries anything like that on a woman again. Broken jaw, wired shut. Doc says the knee’ll never be right again. An’ you’d think he’d know better than to hit a wall with a chain wrapped around his hand, busted every bone in it.”
He scanned his witness statement.
“Tammi will be out in a few minutes, Once Doc is done with her medical eval. Right now it looks like more broken ribs and bruises, but you stopped it in time.”
He looked thoughtful. “She needs someplace to stay; its Andy’s trailer and she don’t have any close family left. I could stick her in the hotel, but I’d think she’d be safer with you.” He paused, looking at her - a steady, meaningful look.
TJ shifted uncomfortably, reflecting that there were different types of ‘safety’ for a woman. “I suppose I could ask if she wants to stay at my place.”
Shannon nodded. “Prob’ly best.”
He sighed. “I’ve known Tammi since she was five. Good girl. She deserves better than that asshole. Her last boyfriend killed himself when they broke up. I think maybe Andy was her way of punishing herself.”
Tammi barely said a word when she came out, just looked around uncertain, pale, drawn, and skittish.
TJ tried to think of something to say, but Shannon stood up.
“Tammi, I asked Miss James here to see if she could let you stay for a few days. When we brought Andy in, he had some stuff on him that I need to talk to him about when he gets out of surgery.”
Tammi kept looking down at her shoes “I really shouldn’t, um, inconvenience you...”
TJ finally found her voice “No inconvenience – I have a guest room at the cabin and you can stay as long as you want.”
Tammi looked at her tentatively. “If you’re sure...”
Shannon walked over to a locker and pulled out a package – toothbrush, toothpaste, some soap and shampoo. TJ couldn’t see what else.
“I don’t have much for you Tammi, but I can at least give you an ‘inmate’ package of necessities. Trailer’s taped off so you can’t go in. Call me tomorrow and we’ll see if we can get you in to get some of your things.”
The ride back to the cabin took about fifteen minutes, but Tammi had slumped over against her and fallen asleep in less than five. TJ managed to walk Tammi into the guest room, got her sat on the bed and pulled her shoes off. Tammi mumbled a few words, nothing coherent, and fumbled her clothes off. TJ felt herself flush, and tried not to stare as she helped Tammi the rest of the way into bed. Tammi was snoring softly before TJ even had the blanket pulled all the way up.
TJ’s sleep was restless and filled with crystal blue eyes and soft blonde hair.
Morning came far faster than TJ expected – she managed to strap on her leg and stagger to the kitchen, finding Tammi already there, brewing coffee and sorting food on the counter with almost startling efficiency. She had washed the make-up off her battered face, and was wearing one of TJ’s father’s old button up denim work shirts with the sleeves rolled up. From her demeanor, she was obviously a more of a morning person than TJ.
Tammi looked at her and caught her breath, then seemed to set herself.
“Morning TJ, I took some liberties. I had a quick shower, then came out here and made some coffee. I’m not sure what you have planned for food, but I can make a mean omelet. Or I can fix what appears to be enough catfish for the entire town.”
If anyone else had poked around the closets where Tammi had obviously retrieved the shirt, or sorted through her refrigerator and freezer, TJ would have been pissed. But Tammi did have to wear something, and her bloodstained clothes from last night weren’t a very good option. TJ tried desperately not to think about what Tammi might or might not be wearing under the work shirt, feeling herself flush a little.
“Thanks Tammi, omelets sound good, but you’re a guest...”
“Bullshit, Shannon imposed on you to take me in. Probably couldn’t get me a room at the hotel. He means well, but sometimes he can be pretty sure of himself about what people should do. I’ll be out of your hair as soon as I can. But until then, I can at least make myself useful.”
While TJ was pouring herself a cup of coffee, Tammi pushed past her to get into the refrigerator. The incidental contact was very distracting and very informative about at least one article that Tammi was definitely not wearing under the shirt. TJ focused on the coffee cup, desperately suppressing a libido that hadn’t bothered to show up in six months and now seemed to be stuck on permanent overdrive.
“Tammi, you really can stay as long as you want – I have plenty of room, and I’d welcome some company around here.” TJ hoped that didn’t sound as desperate and creepy from the outside as it sounded to her.
Tammi smiled at her – winced a little as her split lip pulled and toned it down just a bit.
“We’ll figure out some kind of rent...”
“No, I’d feel crappy about making money off someone’s misfortune. Especially someone I like.”
Tammi actually skipped the long step between them and grabbed TJ in a hug. TJ felt her temperature rise rapidly and she sought someplace – anyplace – appropriate where she could trust her hands. She finally managed to place them on Tammi’s shoulder blades.
“Thank you, TJ.”
By the time Tammi let go, TJ was seriously considering a 2 hour long cold shower.
Breakfast was the best TJ could remember having – Tammi seem to have dropped the hopelessness of last night and was relentlessly upbeat and positive. For TJ it was like being caught in a warm sunbeam after a long grey winter.
After they cleaned up the breakfast table, Tammi asked if they could call the Sheriff and see if she could pick up some of her clothes.
“I at least need to get some clean underwear.” Tammi flipped up the side of the work shirt, displaying a bare hip.
TJ managed to choke out, “Yeah ... I’d better call him.” Before fleeing to the safety of her room to change.
Complicating the situation, the only clothes TJ had that would fit Tammi’s curves were TJ’s baggy grey pajama shorts and a white T-shirt. The shorts, very loose on TJ, were a bit tight on Tammi.
Fortunately, Swede told them they could come by to pick up clothes, but he would have to inventory everything.
As Swede and TJ followed Tammi into the trailer he leaned over to TJ and whispered.
“Careful, you’ll catch Donwanna. It can kill ya.”
TJ looked at him perplexed. Swede grinned.
“Take a bite of that butt, don’ wanna let go and get dragged to death.”
TJ snorted, then realized she should have been more discrete.
Swede cut her off with a grin.
“Ain’t implying nothing, except that you have a pulse. That girl is a heart attack in motion. Hell, she’s my cousin and I don’t trust me around her.”
Tammi’s mood brightened even further as she packed her clothes into a duffel TJ had brought. She particularly delighted in making Swede write down descriptions of her underwear.
“Red lace panties, size 7”
“Black lace thong, no size indicated”
When Tammi gleefully produced a cupless black leather bustier and matching leather thong, Swede turned red, scooped everything into the duffel and wrote.
“Underwear, women’s, assorted”
They also picked up the raggedy brown coupe. Among his other faults, Andy had had his driver’s license revoked for repeated DWIs, and the car, a remnant of Tammi’s college days, was very much hers.
The next two months were a hell of sorts, and TJ wouldn’t have traded them for anything.
She still hadn’t started working – it’d been delayed while Andy sought a plea deal. The attack on Tammi plus the meth the EMTs had found in his pockets had collided with a serious suspended sentence for theft. He didn’t have much to plead with, but he knew he’d be better off without a jury looking at the pictures of Tammi’s battered face.
Tammi returned to work that Monday for the day shift at the diner, but she always zipped straight home, and after she showered up, they spent hours talking about just about everything.
Tammi had a degree in Ecology, of all things. But hadn’t found a job in the field and had kind of given up. She seemed to have given up on a lot when she hooked up with Andy.
TJ heard about her last boyfriend – They’d agreed not be serious through their whole relationship – just a college thing. She’d only found out from his suicide note that he’d changed his mind. TJ avoided talking about her own relationships, but talked endlessly about growing up and Army life.