Chapter 2

"Anna! Anna! I need Lauren Schuller's case file, quick! The front desk just received word that her house is on fire!"

"What!" A fat woman with long, shiny blonde curls looked up from a piece of paper she had absent mindedly been completing at her desk. She hadn't exactly been enjoying the tedium of her office until now – the buzzing of the outdated computer tower, the ticking of the hanging clock, her own measured breaths as she penciled away on the paper – but this was not welcome news. She motioned for the woman in her doorway, dark dreads hanging past her shoulders and face streaked with sweat, to come in.

"I'm serious," the woman said, waving her hands anxiously by her face. "We just found out. The fire station got called not too long ago, and then Lauren called us. They think a gas pipe leaked."

"What about the kids?" Anna asked urgently.

"They're okay," the other replied. "They were at school when the fire started. But they and their mom need a place to go for the night. We're trying to get them accommodations at the Triangle Motel. In the meantime, we need their file so we can contact their insurance company and make sure they don't try to screw them over. Afterward, I need you to get over to the house and stay with the family. The kids'll be home soon on the bus, and Lauren'll need help with them."

"Of course," Anna nodded. "Just let me find that file…"

Stacked over a foot high on Anna's desk was a pile of folders, leaning precariously over the pencil holder. Tucked in each folder was a case file, thousands of which Anna dealt every year. Grabbing half the stack, she began thumbing through, glancing over the tabs for the one she desired. Each of the names, written in ballpoint blue ink, brought back memories: Katrena Jones, twenty-two year old single mother of two, boyfriend refusing to pay child support, and her mother ill. Jim Petroyuvich, thirty-seven, recovering drug addict, struggling to earn his GED and to help his girlfriend raise their child. Miranda Sanchez, six-years-old, mute and behind in school.

She had met each of these people on many occasions, in exhausting attempts to reorder their lives and get them a bigger slice of the world's pie. She had shown Katrena how to fill out her application for food stamps when she didn't have enough money to buy milk for the kids. She helped Jim with his algebra when his dyslexia prevented him from distinguishing his variables. She played tea party with Miranda while her mother stirred soup in the kitchen and cartoons jabbered loudly on the television. Some days were better than others, like the day Mrs. Sanchez reported her daughter said gracias to her at supper. Some days were worse… like when Jim and his girlfriend got into a domestic dispute over the juiced out battery to their only car. If there was one thing for sure, social work was never easy.

"Here it is," Anna said, finding the folder with Lauren Schuller's name written at the top. After double checking to make sure the correct file was inside, she handed it to the woman.

"Thanks, Anna," she said, relaxing, if only slightly. "I gotta go, but I'll see you in a little bit."

"Right," Anna said. "See you later, Brandee."

The house burning was probably one of the more stressful events of that week and Anna did not look forward to the emotional drain it would toll on her once she got over to the scene. Children crying, possessions lost, the whole neighborhood out to watch a family's livelihood turn to smoke, flame, and ash—it was like someone in the galaxy had been playing darts and the fiery pinpoint just happened to land on this already struggling household…although it wasn't a complete surprise. Lauren had told Anna the rickety gas pipes were bad the last time she had visited. Anna herself had noticed many of the house's fixtures were old and outdated, but there wasn't enough money to fix them. In some ways, it was a wonder the house hadn't caught fire sooner. And, tragic as the case was, by no means was it the worst that Anna had seen in her career.

Sighing, she returned the files in her hand back onto the pile on her desk and reevaluated her thoughts. Could she even pick a worst case? Given the number of tragedies she saw on a regular basis, every one in its own way could be the worst case. It was really more a matter of how sleep deprived, emotionally drained, and overworked she was at the time of the case that determined its "tragic" value.

Anna didn't dislike social work, though. She knew what she was getting into when she was earning her Masters. After all, just about anyone in a position of authority in her graduate program was sure to tell current students what an exceptional job it was. First day syllabi might as well have had police tape lined around the edges; classrooms might as well have had emergency escape pods. Teachers regularly started their lectures with, "Social work can be an exciting and rewarding career with innumerable intangible incentives, but if you're having any second thoughts… GET OUT. Get out now. If you've already made your school deposit, FORGET ABOUT IT. Don't spend fifty grand like I did only to be sucked into the endless, spiraling hole of despair that is humanity. Try business, so you can eat something other than boxed pasta for a night. Or science! You can date around when you study science… just like my ex!" Students would get excellent hands-on experience in individual counseling after the teacher had collapsed on the floor shuddering in tears and hysterics.

Anna had done practicum work before becoming a professional. In fact, she had been doing it since she was an undergraduate. She knew how stressful and tiring it could be, listening to people's stories and problems for hours at a time, day after day. She had even grown accustomed to having clients die on her – for a little while, she had volunteered at an assisted living home. When your job was to make the day of somebody with six months to live a little happier, you had to saran wrap your heart, tie it up in chains and padlocks, seal it in a postage box, and then send it to Mars with no return address. It wasn't that you didn't care – it was that you cared too much, and you had to protect yourself if you were going to be of any help to anyone else.

And in all honesty, Anna couldn't see herself doing anything else. Anything in the medical field was out of the question since she became nauseated at the sight of blood—even the trickles of Jell-O-like syrup in the movies. She might have been a cake decorator or graphic designer if she weren't so anti-capitalistic, but her artistic skills were better suited to pastime than profession anyway. Any other job – factory administrator, elementary school secretary, McDonalds cashier, Hollywood director, U.S. Senator, NASA systems analyst, toothpaste inspector, truck driver for toothpicks– just didn't seem right.

The truth was Anna loved people, and she always had. When her friends had problems in high school, she was the girl they went to so they could talk them out. They would sit on the brick ledge in front of their school and speculate all the possibilities of failing romances, school rivalries, and looming college entrance exams. When the bus arrived, they would continue chattering over the screech of the ancient brakes and propose their ideal solutions as they walked through the haze of exhaust. While the tragic occurrences in the lives of white, middle-class, high school girls was relatively low, being the go-to gal for her friends was surprisingly good career preparation for Anna.

So now she was a social worker, and she was on her way to help someone whose house was on fire. As she took her jacket off the hanger by the door and buttoned it up, she gave a sigh. She was pretty sure she had made the right choice for her career, but it still felt like something was missing from her life.

With another client's livelihood on the line, there wasn't too much time to ponder the existential gap. After grabbing her keys and purse, locking the door, and turning off the lights, Anna left her office with a brisk step.

"Hey Reese! Get out from under there. I got somethin' I wanna ask you."

A truck, a greasy haired man, and two legs were located in a dingy garage, where a number of cars were being jacked, patted down, and tinkered. Like patients in a hospital ward, the cars moaned and grunted as the mechanics took their saws, sanders, and grinders to their painted bodies. Otherwise, they were hooked up to pumps, much like IV tubes, and were having fluids pumped into them. Unlike the spotless sanitation of a hospital, however, the garage was covered in a thick residue of oil, grease, and grime in just about every nook and cranny.

As the man's voice reached from below the truck, a whole body rolled out, covered in engine splatter. The body was thick and stocky, with large muscular arms and a powerful, boulder-like belly. Face thoroughly blackened, Reese gestured to the man.

"Hand me a cloth."

Not sure where to find one, the man looked around uncertainly for a moment before spotting a semi-clean rag on a nearby chair. He grabbed it and handed it to the mechanic. "Here ya go," he said.

"Thanks," was the muffled reply, as the person swabbed the cloth over their face. While the rag could only wipe off some of the black grease, it was enough to reveal the mechanic's strikingly Nordic features: a tough squared jaw, a coiffed-top haircut, a long tapering nose, and two piercing green eyes. As the mechanic sat up, her ample cleavage (despite the repression of her sports bra) gave away her sex. She was female, albeit a very butch one – as classic and handsome as they came. Visible beneath the engine grease, she was wearing a black T-shirt that flattered her muscled biceps and a form-fitting pair of jeans.

"What's up?" she asked, her voice deep and gravelly. "You know I still got more work to do on your truck, Bill."

"I know, I know. I just wanted to ask you something real quick," he replied. A sly grin was spreading on his face.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. See that chick over there?" Bill pointed to the lobby next to the garage, where large glass windows allowed customers to peek in at their vehicles while they were waiting. Inside the lobby was an old white man with his son, a middle-aged Latino man in a business suit and reading a magazine, and a beautiful redhead standing at the cash register. She was wearing a tight-fitting pair of jeans, some glittery bangles, and a blouse that enhanced all the right curves. Her hair, indisputably her best feature, was long, curly, and shiny. As she applied a layer of pink gloss to her big, pouty lips, she puckered and peered at herself in a travel-sized compact. Reese sucked in a cool breath of air, then turned back to a still-smiling Bill.

"What about her?" she asked.

"Hell, you blind Reese? Whaddaya think?"

Reese watched the redhead for a few moments, taking in her posture and movements—as she flipped open her pink cell phone, as she shifted from one heel to the next to get a better look at the clock, and as she leaned over the counter, trying to see if anyone was in the room behind the register. Reese grunted.

"Looks like she needs some service."

"Aww, c'mawn Reese!" Bill dropped his arms exaggeratedly, slumping away and then quickly returning. "You know what I mean! She's hot!"

"I'spose," Reese replied, not taking her eyes off the ginger beauty.

"Pfft… Don't act all cool. I know what you're thinking," Bill said. He began talking so quickly Reese couldn't respond with a wide grin on his face and eager hand motions. "You'd take her. I know you would. She's just your type. I know cuz I've seen the kinds of girls you get with. All done-up and painted, with the stockings and the lipstick and the heels. But I don't blame you. I'm the same way. I'd take her too if she'd have me. Do you think she'd have me? I can't say… I don't know if she'd have me. She wouldn't go for you, though—that's for sure!" Bill barked with laughter.

"Whaddaya mean?" Reese gave Bill a sharp look. Bill's chuckle faded and he looked slightly askance. Shifting on the balls of his feet with a smile playing on his lips, he inhaled slowly before meeting her eyes again.

"Girls like that aren't into… well, y'know."

"No, I don't know," Reese said coolly.

"I'm just sayin," Bill's voice got a little louder, "that you can tell when they're like… that. Like, you for instance. You know right away. But a gal like that… well, you can tell from lookin at her that she ain't like that at all."

"Ain't like what?" Reese had this conversation one too many times before and she knew what too expect for an answer, but she had to ask for it nonetheless.

Bill was looking uncomfortable. He moved a little closer to Reese and lowered his voice, glancing to his peripheral to see if there was anyone else near before speaking. "Look, you know I ain't one to judge or nothing, but you're a homo-sexual and she's a straight gal. There just ain't no question about it, and you can't satisfy a woman like that. She needs a good, long, hard--"

Bill's face paled as he watched for Reese's reaction. She was mustering all of her inner strength to keep a cool face. Lip tight and thin, her eye twitching slightly, and her heart pounding, she willed herself again to stay calm. She did her best to give a non-aggressive, yet honest response.

"I don't like being called no homo-sexual," she growled. "I ain't some goddamn specimen in zoo. It's not like gays got special mating habits and feeding troughs or something. You don't see me going around pointing out you're a hetero-sexual, do you? Don't try and classify me like you're Charles Frigging Darwin. And so what if I like women? Why you gotta put a name to it? How do you even know just by looking at somebody, like that lady in there, if they swing one way or the other?"

Bill was uninterested in an argument though, which was evidenced by his crossed arms, the few steps he had taken away from Reese, and his evasive side-glances. He was obviously looking for an escape and not responding to any of Reese's comments.

I'm not letting you get away, Reese thought to herself. I'ma trap you, trap you like the little weasel you are, Bill. I'm going to make you confess your homophobia straight to my fucking face.

Bill could tell when his foot was caught in the claw, though. A cursory look over the shop revealed an ideal escape route, and he slipped away from the confrontation as easily as if he'd been greased in Crisco and olive oil.

"Looks like Arnie just got into the shop—Hey, Arnie!"

A frizzy-haired mechanic twirling a tool wrench was Bill's saving grace. Bill nearly skipped to the other side of the garage. Reese growled.

"Bastard," she muttered under her breath. "Can't believe the douche got away with that." The mechanic could feel the rage coursing through her with the heat of liquid steel. Without any other outlet, she gave his truck a good, hard kick.

Fuck you, Bill, she thought as her toe stung. You really are a weasel, running away like that. You didn't even have the [balls] to admit you were wrong. You just don't want me calling you out. She mumbled a few curse words to herself before noticing the redhead in the lobby was staring at her.

Reese's face flushed a deep shade of magenta.

Everyone experiences times in life where s/he is caught doing something incredibly socially awkward. Despite the fact that everybody has picked hir nose, pulled at hir hair, or scratched hir ass at some point in hir limited life, nobody seems willing to acknowledge or perform these acts publicly. Social grace dictates that nose picking, hair pulling, and ass scratching occur behind closed doors (if at all). The list, naturally, goes onto include other shameful activities, and talking to oneself is certainly at the top of that list.

Of course, there are different degrees of humiliation associated with being caught doing something embarrassing. If someone's sibling caught her rubbing her armpit, the incident would pass like the wind. The sibling would have a good laugh, the someone would smack her sibling, and the whole thing would be over and forgotten (unless it could conveniently be brought up at a holiday meal). Having an embarrassing encounter in front of an alluring potential sex partner, however, is about as embarrassing as an embarrassing encounter can get.

It was not surprising then that the next word out of Reese's mouth was, "Shit." She wouldn't say much more than that since she didn't want to look any weirder than she already did. [add more]

While the situation was undoubtedly embarrassing, Reese was not the kind of person to flush, melt, and slink away. Cogs turning wildly in her head, Reese thought of the best way she could to rectify the awkwardness.

She gave a small wave and a bashful smile.

Surprisingly, the redhead returned the smile and with a friendly wave of her own. Reese wasn't sure whether to be skeptical or eager, but she opted for the latter and sauntered her way into the lobby.

"Sorry about that, ma'am," she said, puffing herself up and strutting confidently toward the cash register. "I figured you would have been helped by now. Looks like our service isn't being too chivalrous today—making a lady like you wait for so long."

"Aww, it's alright. How can I be mad when I get compliments like that?" she winked at Reese amiably. "Looks like you were keepin' busy in there anyhow. Got a lot of cars to fix today, huh?"

"Quite a few, yeah," Reese gulped. Keep it together, she thought. "So, how can I help you?" She put extra emphasis on the you and gave the redhead one of her most charming smiles to boot.

"Well, you see that Dodge Magnum out in the parking lot?" she pointed past the glass windows; Reese looked out.

"The 2008 red one?"

"You can tell that just by lookin' at it?"

Reese gave her a small smile. "When you've worked with cars as long as I have, you start to build up a mental catalogue of them." She tapped her head with her finger, as if she could feel the file cabinets inside her skull.

"Well, that is very impressive. I've always said that I like a woman who knows her automobiles." Despite her vigorous attempts to keep cool hitherto, Reese's face was visibly red at this point. Bill had been right to an extent; you couldn't always tell with feminine women if they were straight, gay, or otherwise. Reese had just figured it was better not to get her hopes up, in case Bill noticed and used it to justify his bigotry. Now, the wheel was steering her way.

"I'll tell you what, miss… that's not all I know." Reese arched her eyebrow at the customer, her voice leveling to a low, sexy purr.

Before the redhead could respond though, Reese felt a tap on her shoulder. It was the usual cashier, a pimply faced teenage boy who would have lost his job long ago if his grandfather weren't the owner of the garage. While he was usually missing half the time he was supposed to be working, it was only natural he should be available just when Reese would have preferred his absence.

"Uh… I can take it from here, Ms. Reese," he stuttered, not even looking at Reese as he spoke. His eyes were glued on the redhead.

"Careful you don't drool on yourself," Reese replied coolly. "And stop calling 'miss.' How many times I got to tell you?"

As Reese stepped from behind the cash register and moved back toward the garage, the redhead suddenly clasped her arm. Reese, taken by surprise, gazed into her eyes. They were a fierce green like her own, and they were sparkling with promise. The redhead's lips moved so slowly that Reese was near hypnotized by the gloss shining on them, but the words the redhead enunciated were so clear and crisp, crunching like celery, that Reese couldn't have misunderstood them even if she'd heard them through a food processor.

"My name is Tiffany. Here's my card if you'd still like to have that party catered." Tiffany winked.

Reese was baffled for a moment—party catering? What was she talking about? After a moment though, she caught on. Tiffany was speaking loud enough for the cashier to overhear. Slyly, Reese took the card and tipped it.

"Will do… Tiffany." Reese gave her the most inviting, sexy smile she could pull off, and then headed back into the garage. Arnie and Bill were now standing by the Ford truck, arguing obnoxiously about which model was the most desirable—but Reese paid them no mind. Sliding back onto her roller, she slipped into the sweet shadows beneath the truck, tucked the card into her jean pocket, and grinned to herself at her good fortune.