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Shay Sheridan - Reality

Chapter 7 - Past, Imperfect

"Where are we going?"

Mike regarded Virginia across the seat of the little sports car. "I thought we'd go out to the island, I mean, if that's okay."

Virginia smiled at him. "That would be great. It's a lovely day for a ride." She leaned back against the soft leather and let the golden sunshine play over her face. She'd been a little surprised when Mike showed up without either driver or limo. The little green car with the black convertible top was certainly a stereotypical "guy" car, but she had to admit it was awfully cute. They'd made plans to go somewhere for the day, and it seemed Mike didn't want the burden--or the presence--of a driver along. Virginia was glad. Though Robert was completely unobtrusive, she still felt silly being chauffeured around.

"Um...?" Mike was looking at her quizzically.

"Yes?"

"Your hair --it's different."

She instinctively put her hand up. "Yes. I got it cut yesterday. Like it?"

He reached over and ruffled her very short locks. "I love it. You look great."

Virginia smiled to herself. She couldn't really explain the urge she'd had to cut her hair short --time to let go of old habits, old styles? It felt like it had something to do with her dream of the nine kingdoms, but if pressed she couldn't have said in what way. But she had started thinking about cutting it the day after she met Mike. Wonder what a shrink would make of THAT, she mused.

The Saturday traffic for a warm autumn day wasn't too bad on the Long Island Expressway, though once out of Queens they did experience the mysterious LIE phenomenon of drivers slowing down for no reason, almost as if they were hoping to find an accident to gawk at. They stopped for lunch on the north shore at a seafood cafe, eating steamers outside in the sunshine, with the salty breeze off the sound plucking at their clothes.

When they got back in the car, Mike paused before shifting into gear. "I'd like to show you something." They took a winding road that offered occasional glimpses of the water, and of large homes that Virginia categorized immediately as mansions. Mike turned off onto a side road and suddenly they were face to face with an imposing gate, though which Virginia could see an enormous grey stone house. Built along the lines of a small English castle with crenellated roofs and massive arched doorways, it would have looked at home in Oxford or alongside the Tower of London. Scaffolding surrounded one of two square turrets that framed the front door.

No cars stood in the circular driveway, and the little gatehouse was unoccupied.

"What do you think?" Mike was looking at her with a mixture of amusement and nervousness.

"Wow, it's, it's huge. But sort of, kind of..."

"Ugly, stodgy, pretentious, go ahead, say it."

"No, it's great." He rolled his eyes. "Why, who lives here?"

"I did, for a while."

Virginia stared at him. "You did?"

Mike shifted a little in his seat. "This is my grandfather's house. Well, one of them. I lived with him from the time I was fifteen until I finished college and moved into my own place."

Virginia studied his profile as he stared at the house. There was something missing from the story. "Why did you come to live with him?"

"After my parents' accident." When Virginia said nothing, he met her gaze. "I was away at prep school when I got a call from my grandmother. There'd been an accident, my parents' car they didn't tell me until after the funeral."

Virginia was horrified. "That's terrible!"

Mike shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose they thought they were sparing me, or something. I moved here during the last three years of high school, and then I was off to Yale. I really didn't spend much time here, summers, mostly, and holidays. It's actually not all that great on the inside. Lots of pseudo-Brit decor and antiques. Even a suit of armor, if you can believe it. Cool, when you're a teenager, but also kind of intimidating."

"I can imagine. It's pretty intimidating from the outside."

"It's a great party house, though, no doubt about it! Well, at least it was when my grandparents were out of town." He gave her a mischievous smile, which Virginia returned.

"I bet you were quite the troublemaker."

"I did my fair share. I'd take you inside, but it's closed right now for some roof repairs. William's living in the city these days. It's closer to the office, and since my grandmother died I don't think he likes coming out here that much."

"Well...it's pretty amazing. Like living in a palace, I'd imagine." Are you Prince Charming, Mike? If so, what does that make me? She thrust the train of thought away. Cripes, Virginia! Must everything be a fairy tale to you? He's a guy from a wealthy background who lived in a big house. Get a grip.

Mike backed up the car and they retraced their path down the long driveway. He was quiet, Typical of me to be so self-involved when he's trying to share a little about himself. It's crappy losing even one parent; imagine what it must have been like for him! Mike's strong hands were on the wheel of the car, an unruly lock of hair falling over his forehead. Maybe he is Prince Charming. He certainly looks the part. He glanced her way and caught her looking at him. He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and bit his lip thoughtfully.

"I'm wondering..." he let the sentence trail away.

"Wondering what?"

"If you would like to meet my mother."

Virginia was stunned. "I-I thought you said I'm sorry, did I misunderstand?"

Mike shook his head. "No. It's...complicated. My parents were in a car accident. My father was killed. My mother is still alive."

"Oh. Well, that's wonderful, that you still have her around. She lives out here?"

"Yes. But...well, we might as well go. We're pretty close." He turned to catch Virginia's eyes. "I want you to meet her. I think it's important."

She didn't really know what he meant, but she nodded. "Of course."

About five miles further east, the car turned onto a curving driveway that led up to a large white building with a massive stone foundation. As they came abreast of the entrance, Virginia noticed a beautifully lettered sign saying "The Russett Nursing Home." That's what Mike meant by a complicated situation.

A friendly woman at the front desk welcomed them, shaking hands with Mike and saying how nice it was to see him again. She rang for an attendant, a tall woman in white who escorted them down a hall to a large solarium. The atmosphere and the decor were soothing and well-kept, but Virginia felt quite nervous --what would she find? How disabled was his mother? She began to wonder if coming had been a good idea. Mike reached over and took her hand, as if he were privy to her thoughts.

"Mrs. Wolf, you have visitors."

A tiny woman sat in a high-backed chair, looking out the window. At the nurse's voice she turned slightly, and Virginia saw a faded woman in her sixties, with perfect, lovely features, her hair, long and blondish-gray, gathered softly at the nape of her long neck. Curly wisps framed her face. She would have been beautiful, but for the expression on her face.

Or lack of expression, really, Her eyes seemed to lack focus, and it was hard to tell if she was gazing at the forest beyond the yard, or at some private place within herself.

"Hello, mom," Mike said, dropping to a crouch in front of the chair.

The woman's turned to face him and her eyes seemed to gather life. "Oh," she said, in a slightly accented voice as light and dry as a fallen leaf. "Tom, you came." Her face softened into a gentle smile and she reached out a hand to stroke his hair.

Mike captured her hand and kissed it. "No, Mom. It's me, Michael. Not Dad." His voice had dropped so that Virginia had to strain to hear him.

The woman in the chair sighed. "Yes. Yes. Michael. Oh, it's Michael! Mike, your father...did he come?"

Virginia felt a lump grow in her throat.

"No, Dear, he didn't come. You remember about Dad, don't you?"

The woman's eyes clouded and she looked at her hands. "Tom's dead. He is, isn't he? A long, long time."

"Yes." He kissed her hand again. " But I wanted to see you. See how you are. Have you been well?"

"Oh, yes. They take very good care of me. I'm feeling so much better. In the summer I'm going to go home."

Mike looked down and didn't answer, but his expression told Virginia clearly that his mother was never coming home. It was obvious he didn't want to say the words. He looked up, squeezed her hand, then stood, rubbing his knee absently. He reached for Virginia. "Mom, I brought someone for you to meet. A friend of mine. This is Virginia. Virginia Lewis, my mother, Lisette Wolf."

Virginia stepped closer and took the woman's hand. It was cool and soft, and no bigger than her own. "I'm glad to meet you, Mrs. Wolf."

Lisette regarded her with eyes that were startlingly dark in a pale face, warm brown eyes that suddenly did not seem vague at all. "You're very pretty. She's very pretty, Michael."

Virginia blushed and looked to Mike for help. "Yes, she is, isn't she?" he replied.

No help there. "Thank you," Virginia managed.

"And polite. So much nicer than the other one."

"Okay, Mom." It was Mike's turn to look embarrassed. "It's a beautiful day--would you like to go outside?"

They took Lisette into the garden, walking slowly and letting her lean on their arms. Seated on a wooden bench the three of them talked about flowers, trees, autumn. Lisette asked no questions about Mike's work, or his life, and he offered no information. The generality of their conversation would have been depressing to Virginia had not real affection been evident in the way Mike touched his mother's shoulder, held her hand and looked at her. And Lisette would gaze adoringly at him from time to time, but then her attention would wander away somewhere and her eyes would drift.

Virginia wondered if it was Alzheimer's or some other degenerative condition that affected her, or whether she suffered from a mental illness brought on by the accident that had killed her husband. She seemed very sweet, if remote, and not disoriented as much as forgetful.

She suddenly thought of her own mother, and that brought up a host of memories.

No, not memories, she reminded herself, Dreams, fantasies.

By now that's what she knew them to be. Her fantasy of finding and then losing her mother was vivid in her mind, at least as vivid as her grandmother's delusions that Christine was eternally skiing in Aspen. Grandmother needed to believe that. And so had she, she supposed--she'd needed closure, in one form or another. In truth, she really had no idea what had happened to her mother. Hell, maybe she WAS in Aspen. It was as good a fantasy as any other, and less Freudian than her own wish-fulfillment dream of having to kill her.

"When is Tom coming?"

Virginia's attention snapped back to Lisette and Mike. He'd taken his mother's hand in his own much larger one and he leaned into her. "Mom...Dad isn't going to come. You know that he's--he passed away. A long time ago. Do you remember?"

In an instant the woman's face clouded. "Don't say 'passed away.' I hate that!" Lisette's tone was harsh, but then she began to cry, bitterly, and Mike, alarmed, tried to comfort her. "He's dead. Killed." she moaned.

"Mom, I'm sorry--please don't cry, please -" He held her close as she shook.

The cry became a wail that trailed off into a whimper. She seemed to struggle with her thoughts. But a moment later she looked up with hope in her eyes. "I want to see Tom. When is he coming?"

Virginia felt like a peeping tom.

"No, mom, maman, he won't be coming" The expression on Mike's face was unreadable and Virginia could tell he was trying not to show any emotion. She knew what that felt like.

"Oh." Lisette was quiet for some time, and then shivered. "It's chilly."

"Let's go back inside."

By the time they settled her into her room, Lisette seemed very tired. Mike said his goodbyes to her, kissing her on the forehead tenderly. "I'll get the car." He rushed out, not looking at Virginia.

Virginia knew he needed a little space. She turned to say farewell, but the older woman grabbed her wrist, the delicate little hands stronger than they looked. Lisette's eyes pierced Virginia's. "Watch them."

Virginia started. "Who? I don't --"

Lisette pulled Virginia closer and hissed in a desperate whisper. "They'll eat you up."

The hair stood up on Virginia's neck. "Wh-what?"

Mike's mother laughed abruptly, a witch-like cackle, and then, just as suddenly, as if exhausted, let go of Virginia's arm. "Tommy," she sighed, looking up with soft eyes, "When is he coming?"

"I'm sorry." Virginia backed out of the room, uneasy and close to tears.

If Virginia was unnerved, Mike was positively brooding. They drove some miles in silence.

Finally Mike spoke, not turning to look at her. "Sorry. Bad idea."

"No it wasn't. She's lovely." But the thought of Lisette's words haunted her and she shivered.

He shook his head a little, looking very depressed. "She's sick. I shouldn't have done that to you. I don't know what I was thinking. It wasn't fair."

"Mike. Please. You're not being fair to HER, not me. I know she's ill, but she's also very sweet. MY mother tried to kill me, remember?" She hadn't meant to speak so bluntly.

"What??" Mike looked aghast and jammed on the brake.

"You know -- in the bathtub, before she left. I told you."

"No, you didn't. That's unbelievable! Horrible."

Virginia put a hand to her head. Hadn't she told him? That first lunch they'd had? Or had it just seemed like he knew? Because Wolf knew? Aaggh! Everything was getting jumbled up. "I thought I told you. I'm sorry. She was ill. My dad came in and stopped her. That's when she left. End of story."

"That's a terrible story, Virginia."

"I didn't mean to talk about me --"

"That's a lot easier for me than talking about my mother, so don't apologize." He looked at Virginia, smiled, and turned again to the road. "She wasn't always like this. She was a great mother, the best, really, before. It started when my father died. She was still alive, but --you know. Not completely." He looked over at her. "I want to tell you about her, about them. But first I want to show you one more thing. If you can stand it." He looked sideways at her. "I guess this you didn't expect the Mike Wolf history trail, did you?"

"I don't mind," Virginia said. "I want to know everything about you." "Everything?" He raised an eyebrow. "That sounds promising."

They had turned onto a small back road. The sun was beginning to set and the orange sky peeked through a corridor of trees. "The last stop."

The house they were parked in front of was small, almost a cottage, with stuccoed walls, a deeply sloping roof and a large front yard enclosed by a fence of natural wood. The yard looked a bit ragged, and weeds poked up alongside the house, but the effect was wild and charmingly unkempt. A Chinese maple, purple leaves rustling, shaded a flagstone path leading to the door. It was no rival to the massive mansion that he'd shown her earlier, but

"It's adorable, Mike." He opened the door to the car for her. "Another of your grandfather's houses?"

"Nope," he said, as he walked her to the flagstone path, "This one's mine."

"Really?" She didn't want to say so, but it seemed out of character for him to have a house that looked for all the world like, well, like elves could live in it.

"Well, actually it belonged to my parents. I guess my dad bought it as a reaction to the family home, you know? Quite the rebel, my dad."

"Sounds like you admire that."

He stopped for a beat. "Very much. I wish I were like that, sometimes. Want to come in?"

"Sure."

Inside the fading light from the sun did little to illuminate the rooms, and Mike snapped on a switch that lit several colored-glass lamps. Virginia admired the compact beauty of the house. The tiny hallway separated a cozy living room from a small dining area, each painted a soft yellow and framed by dark wood paneling. Straight ahead from the front door a matching wood staircase led to the second floor.

"I don't come out here much, but I can probably find wine, or coffee, as long as you like it black."

"Wine sounds good."

"You can make yourself at home, or follow me to the kitchen..."

"I'll come."

The kitchen faced west, and the sun tinted the walls an orangey pink. Mike started rummaging through cabinets. "I know there's some wine here--though it may be cooking sherry --"

"Um, about the ducks --" She gestured to the border print that ran around the wall, the salt and peppershakers, the watercolor of a mallard above the table.

"Oh, yeah. Not guilty. The ducks were my mom's. They sometimes come to the pond out back. At least they used to. I'm not what you could call a 'duck' person. Not that I hate them or anything, I mean I like them 'a l'orange' okay, here we go. Red."

They brought glasses and wine into the living room, settling onto the couch. "I know it's a little cold, but the boiler takes forever to get going, so, let me add just one thing to make the atmosphere complete." Mike walked over to the fireplace and flipped a switch. A line of red began to glow behind the fire screen. "Ta-da!"

Virginia snorted. "Oh, let me get this straight--an ELECTRIC fireplace?"

"Sure --what, you think I'd know how to start a real fire?" He flicked out the other lights and they were bathed in the reddish glow from the fireplace. "Please. I'm a city boy. Just be grateful you're not lost in the woods with me."

"Oh, I don't know. It might be fun."

"It might at that." They sipped the wine, and looked at the fake fire.

"So...you said this was your parent's house?"

"Uh-huh. My dad was never one for the privileged life-style. Not like my grandfather. Or me, either, I guess," he added wryly. "He taught at Stony Brook --romance languages. He and mom moved here right after they were married. This was where I grew up until --well, until the accident." He reached over to an end table and handed her a framed photograph. Virginia recognized a much younger Lisette, happy, smiling, her arm around the waist of a tall man with dark hair. The man's face was hidden in part by the beard, but his eyes were remarkably like his son's. "They were considered hippies by the rest of the clan."

Mike took the picture back, absently running his finger over their faces. " Funny thing--my grandfather was always okay towards me, though he barely spoke to my dad, and never to my mother. I told you they had a huge fight about her."

"But why--What did he, your grandfather, have against her?"

Mike shook his head, and Virginia saw his expressive mouth tighten for a moment into a thin line. "It's hard to say why the illustrious William Benson Wolf likes or dislikes anything, or anybody. Nobody's ever adequately explained it to me. I guess maybe because she was foreign. Dad was taking time off after college--and, boy, that didn't go over too well! He went to Europe, just bumming around, and met Mom, who was a student in Paris. She's from Belgium, actually. The old man was furious. I gathered from comments I heard my parents make that he had someone picked out for Dad, just like he had his career all picked out, too."

She tried to imagine her own father behaving like that, and couldn't. "That's a little controlling!"

Mike smiled, but Virginia noticed he still looked troubled. "Yeah, you might say that."

"So when he found out they were married "

"Well, actually, they weren't. He found out his only son had gotten this 'unsuitable' woman pregnant. The marriage came later, after Dad had refused to dump her." His grin was a bit rueful this time. "So let's just say that I caused a bit of mischief even before my official debut."

"Practice for mischief later on."

"I guess so." He reached over and stroked her cheek. "I'm feeling a bit mischievous right now, actually." He looked at her intently and raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

Ohhh...that look! An expectant mix of hope and lust. A very, very familiar look

Stop it! Why are you being so analytical about him? What are you waiting for? DO something!

No more thinking. She leaned over, took his face in her hands and kissed him soundly.

Mike was startled by her sudden movement, but his surprise lasted barely a second. He responded enthusiastically, his hands circling her waist and drawing her in. They'd kissed before, sure, but there was a fervency now that Virginia welcomed, and knew she'd desired for some time. She felt his hands on her face, in her hair, then slowly rubbing down her back, pressing her body to his, and she shivered with desire. She needed to make love to him NOW.

Mike seemed to be thinking the same thing; at least his movements were telling her so. One of those wonderful hands slid around to the front of her blouse, tracing his fingers gently, driving her crazy with his touch. With a gasp she pressed herself further towards that lovely, eloquent hand, as she continued to devour his mouth. He was unbuttoning her blouse to touch her--she was grabbing his sweater with both hands, pulling it off, their lips breaking away from each other unwillingly. Then his hands were fidgeting rather expertly with the hooks of her bra, and his mouth was on her sensitive skin, eliciting soft sounds of pleasure from both of them, and he was kissing her lightly all over, and somehow her underwear had vanished and he had no pants on and he was lowering her gently onto the soft green and brown of the forest floor, beneath the canopy of trees, behind the protecting bushes, and Wolf was kissing her, his hands roaming somewhat awkwardly but passionately over her, and they were about to do it, about to become mated, feverishly, urgently, no time to think or plan or

No, no! Not Wolf,

There is no Wolf.

Mike!

Think, Virginia, think, and "Wait! Wait." She pulled away from him suddenly.

"What?" Mike was panting, his hair unruly, his eyes saying OH, NO, DON'T STOP NOW! "Am I, are we going too fast, or --"

Too fast? "No, it's not too fast, it's good--" Oh, it's the same but it's different, confusing,

"--but, but -" Her mind raced. Think --There is something to remember, something to change yes, that's it: "Do you have a, uh - -"

"A what?" Dawning comprehension. "Oh. Yeah. Sure. Wait. Where, where --?" He jumped up, found the pants he'd hurled aside, fished through his pockets, scattered change everywhere, found his wallet, pulled out a condom, lost his grip on the wallet, dropped credit cards and money and another condom on the rug, and she started laughing, she couldn't help it, and after one freaked-out look he was laughing too, which began to change the mood drastically, and their romantic interlude would have ended right there except her hand, acting nearly without thought, reached down to touch him, eliciting a throaty growl she found oddly comforting. The laughter remained in his eyes, but he leaned over to kiss her again and she knew how much she'd waited for this moment. For him.

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