Verse 28: SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD
News travels fast in small towns, and when Gloria and Lex arrived at the house, Nate and Hannah were waiting outside for them. Both hugged their sister, who had stopped crying by that time but had also stopped talking in words of more than one syllable. They guided her inside, where she curled up in an easy chair and stopped talking altogether.
The phone kept ringing, but after Gloria's initial directive ("Leave it."), they turned the ringer off and let the machine pick up. Lex's attempts to engage her in conversation were rebuffed, so he put an arm around her and waited until she decided to come out of her shell.
Shortly after 7:00, Tully and Zoot arrived bearing pizza. Gloria demurred when invited to join the rest of the group ("No thanks."), but Lex told her she had to eat something and she reluctantly followed him to the table. Dinner was somber. No one besides Nate had much of an appetite, and every awkward stab at breaking the mood died stillborn. The repast was interrupted by the doorbell. Zoot appointed herself butler and let Officer Lough into the house. She apologized for her intrusion, expressed her sympathies, but insisted on speaking with Gloria who had left the scene of the crime without giving an official statement. Gloria stood from the table, led the policewoman outside, and slid the door behind them. The interview did not take long, and the officer soon left. Gloria remained outside, hands in pockets, looking out to sea.
Tully looked at Zoot. Nate looked at Hannah. Zoot and Hannah looked at Lex, who stood and went over to the door.
"Gloria?" he ventured. "Please come inside with those who love you. It is not good to be alone at such a time."
His words did not have the intended effect. Gloria shook her head and ran for the gate. She threw it open and ran down the stairs and out of sight. Lex looked back at the rest of the company.
"Go after her," Hannah advised. "She wants you to. Trust me." Zoot nodded in confirmation. Lex gazed at the blue expanse beyond, then back at Hannah. "Go on" she repeated, and made a little shooing gesture.
"What gives?" Zoot asked.
"He has issues with the ocean," Hannah explained.
"Yeah, it scares the crap out of him," Nate added, reaching for another slice.
Zoot and Tully exchanged looks, but Hannah was adamant. "It's something they both need to deal with, and now is as good a time as any. Right, Lex?"
By way of response, he opened the door, stepped outside, and slowly made his way across the lawn. He made it halfway down the stairs before his knees started shaking. Holding onto the guardrail for dear life, he looked at Gloria sitting on the beach, just above the tide line, arms around her knees. She did not react to his presence.
"Gloria?" he quavered. There was no response. He took two more halting steps downward, then stopped. "Gloria?" he repeated to no better result. "I have little experience in such matters, but it would seem this is the perfect situation to talk with someone you love."
He took one more step to the foot of the staircase, then stepped back up. "I await your reply.”
He sat down clumsily. Gloria stood and came towards him, wearing a trace of a smile. "Whatever am I to do with you?"
"Several options present themselves, and I would be glad to discuss them, but could you please place yourself somewhere with solid rock behind you so I can give you my undivided attention?"
That earned him a rueful shake of the head, but she sat with her back to the bluff. Lex sighed in relief and reached for her hand.
"Oh Lex," she said. "What’s the old expression? The course of true love ne'er did run smooth'? Boy, they weren't kidding, were they? No sooner do I tell you I love you than my world comes crashing down around my head."
"Would it make you feel better to blame me?"
"Never you. You saved my life with your quick thinking and fancy footwork. I'd have been a hood ornament without you." She rested her cheek upon his knee. "I blame myself."
"In Blessed Olomek's name, why?"
"That woman you almost turned into a frog or whatever you were about to do to her before I stopped you? She's what we call a reporter. It's her job to spread the news. We're very big on news here on Planet Earth. We have newspapers, magazines, radio, local, national, and worldwide television, twenty-four-seven. We drown in news."
He could not believe there could be that much news of general interest on such a lightly populated and isolated planet, but set the notion aside for the nonce. "What does that have to do with blaming yourself for the tavern's destruction?"
"When she asked if the fire had been caused by a former lover seeking revenge, she was wrong about the details, but right about the core idea. Buzz, the man you met outside the bar the other night?" Lex nodded. "He used to work for me. I had sex with him once when I was drunk and miserable and that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. I fired him a few hours before I meet you. There was an ugly scene and I lost my temper. Now my indiscretions and emotions have come back to haunt me."
"Gloria, look at me." She lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. "My love, I hear what you say, but I must insist that is the biggest load of dragon droppings I have ever chanced upon."
Her eyes flashed with anger. "Lex, this whole ‘comfort your grieving girlfriend’ thing? Needs work."
"Hear me out." Gloria grunted in assent. "Whatever you may or may not have done to that scoundrel, his actions reflect on no one but himself."
"But none of this would have happened if —"
"I know not what you believe in Mystic, but in my land every sentient adult is held responsible for his, her, or its own choices, assuming they are not under compulsion or duress. You may have wronged this man, but I suspect it was the other way around."
"I should have seen this coming!" she yelled.
"Are you precognitive then?"
"No, but I'm not stupid either. I knew what Buzz was. I knew that once I spread my legs for him he'd keep sniffing around for more like the dog he is. I knew it, and yet I let him screw me on a pool table like some drunken slut!"
"How could you love someone like that?" she screamed. "How could anyone love trash like that?" She tried to move away from him, but he held on tight. "Let go of me! You don't want me! You couldn't!!"
"I could." His voice was soft, sure, and gentle and she ceased her struggles. "I do." He pulled her closer. She resisted, but he was stronger. "I will not countenance any more insults directed at the woman who holds my heart willing captive. She is too fine, brave, caring, and honest to bear such calumnies."
"I'm not brave. And I'm not honest."
"Your willingness to share this painful episode proves you wrong on both counts. Would you care to hear about some of the dreadful choices I have made when lust overcame reason?"
"No, that's all right."
"There was this widow who owned a leather goods shop –"
"I said that's all right!" she repeated, then must have seen the look on his face. "You're teasing me, right?"
"You doubt me? She took me into the back room and showed me some special apparatus of her own design and –"
"Stop it! You'll make me laugh."
"That was the target for which I aimed."
"I don't want to laugh! I want to feel bad! I let three minutes of bad sex snowball into the destruction of my father's pride and joy!"
"Ahem!" A voice came from above them. Both looked up to see Zoot standing on the landing. "You may be right about some of that, G, but I know for damn certain that you, Hannah, and Nate were yo daddy's pride and joy. Yeah, he loved the bar and if he was alive today he'd be heartsick. But he'd suck it up, and first thing Monday morning he'd be on the phone to contractors and by close of business he'd have three estimates on the cost of rebuilding."
"How long have you been eavesdropping?'" Gloria demanded.
"Long enough," she admitted cheerfully, then descended to sit beside them. "I loved the place as much as you, and beneath this devil-may-care facade I'm wearing sackcloth and ashes. I fully intend to cry myself to sleep tonight and if I ever see Buzz Kochanski again I'm going to turn him into pierogies. But come the dawn, I'm gonna go on and so will you and Tully. Because that is What We Do. No one died. No one got maimed. Nothing happened that can't be fixed by time and work and insurance money, and we got all three."
"I still feel responsible," Gloria moaned.
"Well, in a 'for want of a nail' sense, you are," Zoot agreed.
"You know: 'for want of a nail, the shoe was lost' and so on until there goes the whole damn kingdom. Yes, you screwed up but so what? You needed basic human contact. If you'd come to me instead of Senor Penis we'd be back at Gilda's right now waiting to listen to the golden tones of Mr. Lucky here. You wanna blame someone? Blame Buzz. Blame his parents for letting him grow up to be such a complete waste. Blame Hitler for invading Poland. Hell, blame the fish who first decided 'Hmm, I wonder what it would be like to live on dry land? Maybe I should develop some lungs and crawl up there and find out!' Blaming yourself for what Buzz did makes just as much sense."
She smacked Gloria on top of her head.
"No you're supposed to use both hands and say 'Woo-ah!' Try again." Zoot faked another blow but Gloria caught her hand and held it. They froze that way for a second, and Gloria smiled.
"Thanks," Gloria let the hand go. "To both of you. I love you guys very much."
"Backatcha," Zoot grinned. "Does that mean you're up for a threesome right here on the beach? Nothing like a little sand-in-your-butt-crack to chase those blues away."
"Your loss." She sniffed and stood up. "You two kiss and make up and do whatever else moves you, then rejoin the pity party upstairs." She smacked Lex on top of his head. He rubbed where she had hit and looked at her inquiringly.
"And what's this stupid shit about being afraid of the water? What are you, a sissy? Jeez!" She threw her hands in the air, climbed the stairs, and was gone.
"You were staring at her butt," Gloria said once Zoot was out of earshot.
"Of course," Lex laughed. "Were you not doing the same?"
"No! Well, maybe a little."
"Tis a fine butt."
"Mine's just as good."
"No, yours is better. I adore your butt. It is round and firm with just the right amount of bounce and it fits perfectly in my hands. If I could, I would keep it with me always."
"Hmmm. Maybe you do have a handle on this whole boyfriend thing after all." She rubbed his knee. "Can I park this perfect butt on your lap?"
"Yes, you may, but I cannot be responsible for the consequences of such a rash action."
"I'll live dangerously." She arranged herself as promised with her arms around his neck. They kissed.
Hello!" Gloria said after a while. "Methinks I detect consequences." She squirmed around a bit and grinned. "Is that all because of me or are you thinking about Zoot's proposition?"
"It is very tempting," he teased. "Shall I call her back? Oh Zoot!"
She clapped her hand over his mouth. "Stop it!" She took her hand away and replaced it with her lips. "I don't want to share you tonight."
"Nor I you," he agreed. He sought to resume the kissing but she drew back.
"Can we get serious for one more minute?" she asked. "I should make one more shameful admission. What Zoot said about her loving the bar as much as I do? It's not 100% true. Something inside, deep down, is almost happy this happened."
"Oh?" That was definitely not what he'd expected to hear.
She shrugged. "Happy isn't the right word. Relieved is more accurate. Ever since Dad left me the business, I've felt a little trapped, like it owned me, instead of the other way around. When I saw all the damage earlier, I wanted to cry, but I also felt like someone had opened a door for me, a way to escape. Maybe I feel so bad because I don't feel worse."
Lex mulled that over, then reached a decision. "Come with me," he blurted.
"Where?" She looked 'round in confusion.
"To Novagrove! Now that I have found you, I cannot bear the idea of losing you."
"Oh!" She looked completely flummoxed by the suggestion, then shook her head. "That's so sweet but… I couldn't! When I said 'escape,' I didn't really mean it. Even if I didn't have to rebuild the tavern, I have other responsibilities. Nate and Hannah still need me, and someday I intend to become a doctor. As much as I love you, I'm part of a community here, a continuity. I can't play Wendy to your Peter Pan."
"I am sorry, but –"
"Very popular story for children of all ages," she explained, "about a girl who flew off to Never-Never Land with a handsome lad who never grew older. You see the parallel? It's a wonderful story, but I can't live in a story no matter how much I want to."
"Then I must remain here," he announced.
"I don't think that's wise either, Lex," she said gently.
"Why not?" He tried to keep the petulance out of his voice, but did not quite manage the feat.
"Remember what your spellengine said about the effects our environment would have on you? I do. You'd be throwing your life away in a very real sense. Plus you hate it here and you've barely scratched the surface. If you have a bad taste in your mouth now, the longer you stayed the worse it would get until it choked you. You love me now, and want to love me for a long time, but I will get old and die eventually, probably long before you show any signs of aging. Yes, it might be the other way around, but I wouldn't bet money on it. Then you'll be alone, stuck in a world without magic, with nothing left of me but memories of an old woman who used to be your first love. Return to Novagrove and I'll always stay young in your memory, and that will keep me alive forever. At least by our standards."
"I do not care!" Lex shouted, aware that his eyes had filled with tears.
"You should! Besides, you're terrible at keeping secrets. Zoot knew almost immediately that you were a stranger in a strange land, and this afternoon you almost cast a spell over a live television feed! Once the wrong people know about you, you're in danger and so am I for knowing you! And so are Hannah and Nate and Zoot and Tully, and as much as I love you I can't put all of us at risk like that."
Lex's heart sank. "Then I must go."
"Don't give me those puppy dog eyes!" She, too, was fighting a losing battle with her tears. "This is all so unfair! If I ever find the creep who said 'It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all' I'm going to break his goddamn neck! Tomorrow we’ll figure out how to send you back where you belong. Tonight, though, you belong to me."
Their tears had dried by the time they returned to find Nate trying, with limited success, to teach Tully and Zoot how to play something called, of all things, Magic. Lex rescued them by taking out his mandojo and playing until it was time for Nate and Hannah to go to bed.
The four adults decided, without any discussion that strong drinks were in order. Zoot acted as bartender. Gloria once more had assumed her rightful place in Lex's lap.
"So, you two–?" Tully began.
"Yes. We two," Gloria acknowledged, stroking Lex's hair in a proprietary fashion.
"Good. You have my blessing." He raised his glass. "In fact, that calls for a toast. To Lex and Gloria!"
"To Tully and Zoot!" Lex countered.
"God bless us everyone," Zoot added. They drank and Zoot offered refills. Everyone accepted.
"To Gilda's," Gloria said softly.
"To Gilda's," they chorused, and drank again.
"To Mystic!" Lex declared.
"To Novagrove!" Tully responded.
"What?" Gloria spluttered. "How did you know?"
"We all know," Zoot laughed. "The four of us compared notes while you two were making out on the beach. No secrets left, G."
"I'm not so sure about that." Gloria looked at Tully. "You made your foot move! What's up with that?"
"You can thank Lex for that," Tully reported. "Boy is right handy with the magic."
"That's great!" Gloria got up and gave him a hug. That merited another toast while Tully told the women an abbreviated and largely pain-free version of the story.
"Wow!" Zoot marveled. "That is just too amazing. How long before you can walk again?"
"Walk, hell!" Tully roared good-naturedly. "I'm gonna train for the Boston Marathon and take mambo lessons. You just watch."
"To mambo lessons!" Gloria smiled. Clink!
"Does everything else work, heh heh heh?" Zoot inquired lecherously. Her speech was definitely starting to slur.
"In theory, my dear," Tully hooted, "if not yet in practice."
"To practice!" Zoot raised her glass.Later on, after many more toasts, Tully announced he'd reached his limit and bid them all goodnight, then managed to collide with no less than three walls on the way to his room. Gloria offered to call Zoot a cab, but the other woman said she'd just sack out here, if no one minded and no one did. She and Gloria converted the couch to a bed and covered it with sheets and a light blanket. Zoot provided for, Gloria took Lex by the hand, leading him to a part of the house he had not seen before. They closed the bedroom door, and if they then made mad drunken monkey love… well it is no one's business but their own.