Part 1

Nothing brought them out in droves like Strokes’ monthly Karaoke night. The Southern Maryland gay nightclub was packed to capacity and the sign-up list was already two pages too long. Naturally, some performers were better than others, but each had style and that was enough to please the crowd tonight.

After years in her job, Julia was used to spending long nights in the darkened club. The music so loud she couldn’t hear herself think was a blessing most nights. The bright, colored lights flashed rapidly in the direction of the stage, letting her blend into the back wall. At five feet and ten inches, with raven black hair and piercing dark eyes, Julia wasn’t used to blending into the background. She stood there only because it was by the back door, where she waited patiently for work. Her arms were crossed over her chest and the tight, black, vinyl uniform she wore in her capacity as one of the club’s drivers.

“What d’you think?” The more eccentric of the club’s two owners, Nik, grabbed a spot of wall beside Julia’s. He bumped shoulders with her and nodded towards the stage. Drag queens, clad in dresses of white and silver sequins, were singing their hearts out to Aretha Franklin’s ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’. 

It was a song Julia had heard a million times before, and at least twice that night already, only now the lyrics were starting to get to her. The song was a fair plea for recognition, with a healthy dose of attitude. But it also spoke of a good, strong love and Julia knew firsthand that that sort of love always came with a bit of pushing and pulling from both sides. She snapped herself out of contemplation, blinking. “I think I’d prefer if they were lip synching.”

Nik laughed. “The dancing’s not half bad, though,” he said, his lisp strong on the sibilant consonants.

Whether the singing was sub-par or not, the queens received thunderous applause as they finished and left the stage. The next one up was a rather shy-looking guy, wearing blue jeans and an orange button-down shirt. He took hold of the microphone timidly, but his hesitation commanded a strange sort of attention and Julia found herself captivated as he began to sing ‘The Maker Makes’ by Rufus Wainwright. Where Rufus’ voice was comforting and haunting, this man’s voice was deep and strong. The club was transported, and Julia along with it, as images of heartache and undeniable love flooded over them all.

“Not going to cry, are you?” Nik asked gently.

Julia immediately shook her head and dragged a hand through her long, pitch black hair. Saying that she never cried was such a cliché, so she left it at the head shake and a few more blinks than usual.

“Jules? Is that you?” The hairs on her arms stood on end at the mere sound of the voice. She turned to see a rush of green eyes and auburn hair flying at her. Arms wrapped around her neck and unnaturally pink lips pressed against her cheek. The woman was wearing something that squeaked and crinkled against Julia’s uniform.

Instead of shaking her off, she waited for the grip to loosen and space to come between them again. “Hello, Emmey. Haven’t seen you in forever.” And then, thinking it over, “What are you doing here?”

The auburn hair was swept casually over a shoulder and her British accent came through as boldly as her embrace. “Had to come down here and show the boys up, didn’t we?” She gestured to a small group of women standing not far behind. “Brought the whole gang… gaggle… what is it you call a bunch of lesbian songbirds?”

Julia didn’t know. But she did know that she was supposed to be working. “Good luck,” she said. “Or is it break a leg?”

“Oh, love, let’s hope not!” Her hand curved against her hip, fingertips just short of the hem of her short beige skirt. “They’re the only things I’ve got going for me, don’t you know?” She laughed, sounding like she knew how perfectly absurd her statement was. “Still have my number?” Julia was sure she did, but wasn’t sure she would call. She nodded anyway. “Well then, give us a jingle some time.” Her exit was just as beautiful as her entrance, and Nik noticed Julia staring.

“You should have told her you were with someone now,” he said.

Julia shrugged. “I can’t think properly when I’m around her. I can wrap most guys around my little finger without trying but when I’m with her, I just melt.”

“Not hard to see why.”

“I’ve always been a sucker for a woman with an accent…” Her mouth twitched up into a smile. “And a killer body.” She sighed deeply and threw her head back against the wall, looking up at the ceiling briefly. “Besides, you mention you’re with a man to a former fling like Emmey and you’re not just a bisexual but her friends label you a slut.”

“You’re hardly that, Jules.”

“I know,” she agreed for the most part. But it wasn’t as thought she hadn’t looked at Emmey, either. “Don’t happen to have any clients for me to help me clear my head?”

Nik smiled. “As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m here…”

As the night went on, the demand for rides increased. By the time last call rolled around, Julia didn’t even need to leave the limousine. She kept a running list of passenger names and addresses, constantly working out the most efficient routes to each house, condo, and apartment.

Being a driver for the club was a pretty straightforward gig and, if she cranked up the radio, there was no need to worry about being alone with her thoughts. The most difficult part of the night had been dragging one half-drunk man out of the limo and holding him up until his roommate answered the door. At least they tipped pretty well.

She got no tip at all from her last carload, but that was to be expected. Club owners always rode free and, as they were also friends, Julia wouldn’t accept a tip from Sweetie, Jamie or Olly. Sweetie and Nik shared ownership of both the club and an unnecessarily large house. It sat on an eight acre lot on the edge of the city, set far back from the main road and surrounded by a rod iron fence for security. It was a sort of hostel for homos, except that most of the residents were there permanently. Tonight, Sweetie was heading home with two such men. Olly was a doctor at the free clinic down on the corner of 28th and Joyce, and had been living at the house for years. Jamie, apart from being a semiprofessional hockey player, was Sweetie’s boyfriend and had moved in just a few years ago. The route was second nature to Julia and the company couldn’t have been better; it was a nice way to end her night of driving.

She headed back into the club with the list of clients and a pocket full of tips. Strokes always looked a bit eerie when it was empty and flooded with florescent light. Her high-heeled shoes tapped against the dance floor, which was littered with confetti, and the sound echoed throughout the whole place. On the stairs leading up to the manager’s office stood many of the club’s employees. This could only mean that Nik was busy entertaining within. Lucky him. She really hoped it wouldn’t take too long.

Robert, the club’s other patron driver, grinned at her and pulled her up a few stairs to stand next to him. “He’s in with a—”

“I figured.” She pulled the wad of bills out of her pocket and pooled it with Robert’s tips. Awkwardly, due to the lack of a flat surface and the narrow stairs, they divided the money between them.

The office door opened and a bronze god emerged with a just-been-laid grin. “Wow,” Julia said under her breath as the man began down the stairs.

“You can say that again,” Robert whispered back. “Hey, some of us are heading out for a bite after work tonight. Are you in?”

Julia shifted her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I don’t know… I don’t think I can.”

“It’s been ages since you went out with us,” Robert said with a pout. “We’re beginning to think you don’t love us anymore.”

Laughing, “You just want me along because I’m the only one apart from Turbo who puts up with your bullshit.” She sighed and glanced at her watch. It was already pretty late. “But I think I really need to get home. Kevin…” She trailed off and was thankfully saved by her cell phone going off.

Her pants were too tight for a cell phone to fit into a pocket, so she kept it clipped on her waistband. Depending on the position, it made the vibrate feature much more fun anyway. “Speak of the…” she said, glancing at the caller’s name. She cleared her throat and answered in a high, cheery voice. “Hi baby.” A pause followed, during which time her cheeriness ebbed away. While these sorts of phone calls were not out of the ordinary, they were becoming more frequent than Julia would have liked.

She spoke simply, carefully choosing her words. “No, I’m not… actually, I’m at work still. Just turning my sheet in now. I’ll catch the last metro train and be home in twenty.” Another pause and she turned, slightly embarrassed to speak like this in front of her co-workers. But there was no escape from the staircase at the moment. “Yes, that’s what I said. Still at work. Do you want to talk to my boss?” She chewed on her lip, her dark red lipstick reminding her not to do that. “Okay. See you soon.” She flipped the phone closed with a sigh.

“Your boy?”

“Mmm.Not in the mood to talk about it, Julia just nodded. Frequently she and Robert discussed their respective love lives, but usually those conversations did not end particularly well and Julia wanted the night to end as well as it could. “Sorry, but I can’t make it tonight. I’ll go out with you and the gang tomorrow night, okay?” Then she followed Robert, who was following several of the security personnel, up the stairs and into the office.

Julia managed to get in, hand over her list, and get out again in record time. She hurried back down the stairs, catching her heel on the one second to the bottom. There was a brief, terrifying sensation of falling. Her stomach bounced down and up again in her chest, practically touching her throat. Her arms flailed until her hands closed around the banister. She swung into the railing, hitting it instead of the floor and then managing to regain her balance once she’d stepped down onto the floor. She froze there a moment, taking a quick survey of herself to determine she had made it through unscathed.

After composing herself, she headed out the back door. She took her keys out, not to use them but to clutch them in her fist, keys staggered between her knuckles to use them as a weapon if the need arose. The metro station was not even a block from the club, but a lot could happen in the dead of night and she wasn’t going to brave it unprepared.

Once she was out of the door, something red and flashy in the far end of the parking lot caught her eye. As it peeled out its parking space towards her, and she recognized it as Kevin’s jaguar. It stopped a safe foot from the curb right in front of her, and she bent over as she opened the passenger-side door. Halfway to a ‘what are you doing here?’ she spotted a dark red rose on the seat and smiled. “This explains the phone call.”

“I figured since you spent your whole night driving others around, it might be nice to have a lift home.” He paused, smiling back at her. “Of course, if you’d rather take the metro home—”

She laughed, “No, I much prefer the lovely not-exactly horse drawn carriage.” Avoiding the thorns, she carefully picked up the rose and sat in its place. She twirled it between her fingers, watching the petals spin beautifully. Then she fastened her seatbelt. “Thanks, Kev. This was very nice of you to do.”

“I like looking after my girl,” he replied, with a certain glow in his brown eyes. He leaned over and presented himself for a kiss, which Julia willingly met.

“Robert and the boys invited me out tonight,” Julia said offhandedly as they headed home. “Now I’m glad I turned them down.” She reached over and put a hand on his thigh. Then she sat back, smiling and admiring the rose as much as the sentiment behind it. She could always go out with the guys tomorrow night.


‘Tomorrow night’ turned into next week, but Julia eventually ended up at the IHOP after a night of work with a handful of other Strokes employees. There was Robert, who never missed an opportunity to be anywhere except his apartment, and next to him was Turbo, the stage manager. Then came Greg, the new bartender, and three security guards, Rich, Tyson, and Pete.

“So I finally get through all that and take him back to my place, right?” Turbo had been regaling them with this story since they’d been served their drinks and they were all pretty drawn into it by now. “I dim the lights, put on some music, and get out my toy box. And he says to me ‘Wait, I thought you were supposed to be the slave!’”

The whole table erupted in laughter, Julia included. In fact, her stomach was starting to hurt from so much of it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had this much fun.

“Speaking of sex…” And when weren’t they talking about sex? But Pete was addressing his question specifically to Robert and Julia. “Did either of you happen to drive home a cutie with short brown hair and a flashy gold shirt tonight?”

Smiling with sympathy, Julia replied, “Sorry, Babe. You know we’re not allowed to tell you. You’re just going to have to figure out a way to stalk him without our help.” Much more laughter, even from Pete who hadn’t been entirely serious about asking anyway.

Rich leaned forward, however, forearms lying flat out upon the table. A free finger drew an invisible squiggle on the cool metal tabletop. “I did happen to notice a guy fitting that description, though,” he said, smiling slyly. “And if I wasn’t already a happily as-good-as-married man I would be all over him, Nik and Sweetie’s advice about not dating patrons be damned!” Julia had to chuckle at that. At one time or another, they’d all dated patrons, their two bosses included. But it was still good advice.

“Right now, I’d just settle for our food. Didn’t we get our drinks, like, an hour ago?” Tyson complained.

Julia checked her watch, amazed at how late it was already and glad she had silenced her phone. From her seat, she searched the restaurant for their waiter. The place wasn’t exactly hopping at three in the morning, but it was hardly empty. The waiter, however, was not to be seen at any of the other five tables of patrons.

Pressing her back to the soft padding of the booth seat, she slid upwards to have a better look around. Through the window on the door leading back to the kitchens, she spotted him. Announcing to the others, “I see a cluster… hoard… whatever a group of slacking waiters is called. I’ll just be a minute, boys.” She slid out past Robert and headed in the direction of the bright blue polo shirts.

Deep in conversation and laughter, the staff did not notice her standing outside the door. Not used to going unnoticed, Julia tapped two knuckles against the door. When the waiter headed out, he looked more surprised than anything else, but he did not resist quickly checking her out.

“Hello, Dan.” She reached out and lightly fingered his plastic nametag, even though she had picked up his name earlier. “That’s short for Daniel, I expect?” He nodded. “And my name’s Julia. May I have a moment of your apparently very precious time?” He gave another nod, apparently missing the sarcasm she’d borrowed from Robert.

She spoke softly but swiftly, feeling in her element again. “Look, I know it’s late and you’ve probably been working for hours. My friends and I just got off work, ourselves. And out of all the places we could have gone for a bite to eat, we picked this place because of the atmosphere… and the fact that the waiters are just the cutest.” She flashed him a smile, well aware of her body and the space closing between them. “I’m not wrong am I?”

He was just about blushing now and a thrill ran through her at the ease with which she could manipulate him. “Now here’s the thing. We’ve been waiting quite a while to order, and after that I presume we’ll have to wait even longer for our food. We’re a fun bunch, like you and your guys in there.” She moved even closer, her excitement causing her warm skin to tingle beneath her tight uniform. “We’re also a large group, my friends and I. But if the group gratuity isn’t the only tip you want to be getting tonight, I suggest you keep at least one of those gorgeous blue eyes on us while you’re in the back with your buddies. All right, Daniel?”

Dumbly, he nodded.

Julia spun around in place, catching a glimpse of her reflection in a glass divider. She was a blur of black from her uniform to her hair and her smile stretched across her face. She went back to the table and, by the time she sat down, Daniel was tableside with a notebook and pen to take their orders.

*          *          *

Part 2

Manned with a laptop, a calculator, and a week’s supply of coffee, Sweetie was determined to get the taxes done today if it killed him. Of course it would make it infinitely easier if he could just use nicknames like they did around the club and put in estimations when it came to the figures. Even though he had a sneaking suspicion that the IRS had a wicked sense of humor, given the complexities of the forms, Sweetie was sure they would not appreciate either.

Sweetie had commandeered one of the tables in his club, which was deserted during the daytime apart from a few employees coming in and out to pick up their paychecks. If he had a choice between a busy, dark Strokes and an empty, lit Strokes, he would have chosen the former. He did not mind the unnaturally bright appearance, but he was prone to feeling lonely.

So when Sweetie heard the front door open and close, he raised his head immediately. He had been expecting to spot one of the security guards. Instead, he saw Julia. He slid the chair back and closed the laptop, relieved for the excuse to abandon the taxes for a short while. “Hi Jules,” he called across the dance floor.

She glanced in his direction briefly, with a wave and an acknowledging nod. But she continued on towards the employee break room, keeping one side of her face turned away from him. It was not until Sweetie got closer that he understood why.

“That’s some shiner you’ve got there,” he pointed out. The area surrounding Julia’s right eye was a dark purpleish-blue, standing out dramatically against her pale skin. “But I’ve seen worse come out of pick-up hockey games. So what happened?” When Julia hesitated to answer, Sweetie went on playfully, adding quotes in the air with his fingers. “Let me guess, you ‘fell down the stairs?’” He laughed and tried another euphemism. “Or you ‘walked into a doorknob?’” He could make jokes that weren’t politically correct to his few good friends who knew he wasn’t the least bit serious. And it was only amusing because of its absurdity.

Julia shook her head. “Of course not. Kevin and I bought a new bed over the weekend and set it up yesterday, or tried to, at least. I lost my grip and went face-first into the headboard. That should teach me to move furniture in high heels!”

As they laughed about it, Sweetie heard soft footsteps behind him. Thinking it was strange, since he hadn’t heard the back door open or close, Sweetie turned at once. Jamie was there, not seven feet away, trying to be quiet about his approach. He looked disappointed, as though Sweetie had ruined the surprise. Sweetie couldn’t have been happier, however. Putting on a big smile, Sweetie opened his arms and Jamie swept him up with a warm hug and a small kiss. “Practice ended early so I thought I’d stop by,” Jamie explained. A loud screech rent the air and he winced.

Sweetie tried to soften the blow. “It’s just Turbo playing around. We bought some new speakers for the sound system and he wants them working by tonight.”

Jamie nodded. “Can we talk up in the office then? I’ve already got a splitting headache.”

Julia moved towards the break room, noticeably looking at her wristwatch. “I should be going, as well. Just came by to pick up my paycheck. Need to eat before my shift tonight and the dinner isn’t going to cook itself, is it?” she joked. They all said quick goodbyes, then Sweetie and Jamie headed up the stairs to the privacy and quiet of Nik’s office.

Once inside, Jamie’s mood changed dramatically. He separated from Sweetie and took the offensive for a change. “I cannot believe you were joking about that just now.” Jamie’s freckles always seemed a little darker when he was angry.

Sweetie sighed and took a spot on the couch, sinking into the soft, plush cushions. “I’m sorry, Honey. I didn’t know you were right there.”

“That shouldn’t matter. It’s still not something to joke about. Especially with Julia. You should know better.”

“She was laughing, too!” Sweetie insisted. “Anyway, I don’t understand why you’d have a problem with me joking like that around her.”

Jamie looked at him incredulously. “I have a problem with the fact that her man hits her.”

Sweetie was silent a moment, then laughed through a sigh. “You can’t be serious,” he said, though Jamie looked dead serious, “No, Jamie, you’re being paranoid. She tripped while moving furniture, I know you know what having a bad day and tripping feel like,” he said pointedly, referring to Jamie’s awful performance in a hockey game a while back. “Besides, if anything were wrong, I’d know. She would tell me. Do you think I don’t know her?”

Jamie practically charged him now, his tone strong, confrontational. “And do you think I don’t know what it’s like to be abused? Believe me, I can tell. She’s being hurt. And instead of arguing about it, what we should be talking about is how to help her.”

Sweetie stood, staring him down. Their eyes met, and Jamie’s were insistent. After nearly a minute, Sweetie broke away. He glanced at the security monitors lining one of the office walls. Not seeing Julia in any of them, he went straight for his jacket. “All right, let’s talk about that in the car on the way to her place.”

As it turned out, not a lot of talking was done during the drive. Sweetie had his hands flat against the steering wheel and his mind on Julia. He could see why his boyfriend would jump to the conclusion of abuse, especially given Jamie’s past. And he could see how tense and concerned the man was now. Jamie’s freckles practically popped against the pale skin and red hair. Those handsome green eyes stared forward at the roads they made their way along. Sweetie looked up at the rear view mirror, almost surprised to see the same tension in his face and brown eyes.

“Julia’s a tough girl,” said Sweetie, in an attempt at convincing himself of the fact. “I’m sure she could handle anything.” Deep down, however, he was anything but sure. In the past, when Julia was in a relationship, she dropped off the radar. But that could be said of most anyone in a relationship. Just because she spent a lot of time with a girlfriend or a boyfriend didn’t mean she was being abused or even so much as smothered. Sweetie couldn’t help but remember how startlingly brief her appearance had been at Coyote’s party a few months back. And then there was the black eye…

“She can handle anything she wants to handle,” Jamie said simply. He reached over and his hand found Sweetie’s on the stick shift. It stayed there, careful to pull back when Sweetie needed to shift, until they arrived at the apartment complex where Julia lived. They both took a sufficient amount of deep breaths before climbing the four flights of stairs.

These apartments were considered to be on the threshold of the bad part of town, and Sweetie was glad to have Jamie with him for protection. The building wasn’t run-down exactly, but it was the sort of place where no one would notice a fight taking place. Sweetie and Jamie carefully navigated around bags of trash temporarily left by doors and items like houseplants and bicycles permanently left in the hallways. There were no cracks or gaping holes in the walls, and no druggies shooting up in the corners. But there was some paint chipping off the walls and they passed a few unsavory characters in the stairwell. There was a baby crying behind one door, television sets blaring loudly behind at least a half dozen others, and a loud screaming match from another.

Recognizing the voices conducting the latter, though unable to make out specific words, Sweetie and Jamie quickened their pace. Sweetie rang the doorbell and waited only a few seconds before knocking. The door was not answered, but it was no wonder with the shouting continuing from within. The sound of something fragile shattering made them both jump. Urgently, Sweetie rang a second and third time.

“I can break down the door,” Jamie offered, turning so he could shoulder his way in.

Hoping that it would not come to that, Sweetie banged on the door. “Jules!” he called out. “It’s me!”

There was still no answer, so Jamie backed up to give himself a running start. Luckily, the door swung open at that very moment.

Julia stood there, looking visibly shaken and the black eye did not help her appearance any. Her name was shouted and she quickly stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind her. “What are you doing here?” she snapped.

“We were concerned,” said Sweetie. “We wanted to check up on you and make sure—”

“Check up on me? Why would you… I’m not a kid, Sweetie.” Something else broke just as loudly inside, startling Julia this time. She glanced at the closed door, then took a few steps down the hallway to be sure her voice was out of range of the apartment. She dropped her voice down to a whisper anyway. “I know it sounds bad, but everything’s fine, really. I came home pretty late last night and I had my cell phone turned off while I was out. Kev just gets a little angry when he doesn’t know where I am. It’s because he loves me. He doesn’t want anything to happen to me.”

“What, like your face accidentally running into his fist?”

In her high heels, she was just as tall as Sweetie was, and she stared him down with her dark eyes aflame. “That’s not fair.”

Knowing Sweetie well enough to see that the man was getting riled up, Jamie jumped in. “You’re right. That wasn’t fair. But you can understand how it looks from where we are, can’t you, Julia?”

She softened slightly with a nod.

“You deserve to be with someone who’s good for you,” said Sweetie.

Her arms crossed over her chest for a moment, then one hand broke free and twirled a piece of black hair around a finger. “As opposed to all the people I’ve dated in the past?”

“You mean like Emmey who never had any time for you except when she needed to wear someone pretty on her arm? Or Chase who you kept dating even after you found out he was two-timing you?”

Her voice was accusatory. “You have never liked the people I go out with. And when I’m single, you’re always telling me I should find someone.”

Sweetie hated to admit she had something going there. It was easy to be critical when it wasn’t your own heart on the line. “Since when have you needed my approval?”

“Since when do you come barging in on me at home?”

“Since when do you show up at my club with a black eye?”

Before she could answer, her apartment door opened and Kevin stood there, fuming. His brown hair was in disarray and he wore only a pair of jean shorts. Sweetie could definitely see what Julia saw in him. Even angry and disheveled, he was gorgeous, not to mention muscular and ripped. A small shiver ran up Sweetie’s spine and stayed put as Kevin looked past him. “Julia?” he demanded.

“I’ll be just a second,” she said. “Sweetie just came by to tell me something about work. Then they’ll be leaving.”

His voice was surprisingly calm, pleasant, and light. “They just dropped by? Couldn’t even call first?” He held a hand up and chuckled. “Or, wait, let me guess. You had your phone off?”

Julia sighed. “Kevin—”

He cut her off. “It’s all right. We’ll talk inside. You’ve got two minutes, sugar.” Then he disappeared back into the apartment, closing the door behind him more loudly than was necessary.

Feeling Jamie and Sweetie’s stares, Julia quickly explained. “I’m sorry about that.” Their expressions of displeasure did not change. Moreover, Sweetie could suddenly remember more than a handful of similar apologies she’d made on her boyfriend’s behalf. “Kevin only yells when I give him a reason to.” The men stayed silent. Julia couldn’t take the silence.  “I want someone who can stand up to me, you know? He’s usually lovely. I wouldn’t be with him otherwise.” She took a deep breath. “Everything’s fine, guys. Really.” She kissed Sweetie’s cheek and hugged Jamie. Then she returned to her apartment. They heard the deadbolt slide into place only a moment after the door was closed.

Sweetie and Jamie stood in the hallway, staring at each other. It wasn’t a minute before the yelling resumed. “Believe me now?” Jamie asked.

Sweetie nodded at once. “Everything’s not fine. Not at all. I mean, she practically came right out and said he hit her.”

Understanding that Sweetie wasn’t quite over the shock of the realization, Jamie put his arm around the man as they headed down the hallway to the stairs.

“What do we do now?” Sweetie asked. “Police? Restraining order?”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Jamie said. “We could talk the neighbors into filing a report about the noise but something tells me we wouldn’t get too far with that. Anything else can’t be proven and if Julia won’t admit there’s something wrong, the cops can’t do anything. They need to see it firsthand or she needs to be willing to press charges.”

“So, what then? An intervention? There’s got to be something we can do,” he said, pausing at one of the landings between floors and looking up. “I wish we could just go back up there and grab her and take her away.”

“I know,” Jamie said. “But unless she understands why, that’s not going to solve anything. All it will do is create alienation and then she’ll really be lost to us.” He urged Sweetie to continue down.

“Maybe… but I’d rather have her hate me than have her get hit or killed by that…” He leaned into Jamie’s side, clinging, his hands shaking with fists full of Jamie’s shirt. “Why didn’t I see it?”

“Four million women are abused every year. The stats say one in four have been victims in their lifetime. Would you think it’s that many by just looking around?” Sweetie shrugged and shook his head no. “And the stats on guys are almost impossible to compile because it goes unreported so often. Most of the time it’s very difficult to spot. And don’t even get me started about domestic abuse in gay relationships.” His voice trembled only slightly during his last statement, and Sweetie knew better than to get him started. “But what we saw tonight was pretty damn clear.”

Sweetie nodded. “She needs help.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs and headed out of the door into the cool spring night air. “She does,” Jamie agreed. “But first she needs to realize she needs help.”

Heading to where they’d parked and wasted a whole quarter in the parking meter on what had been a ten minute visit, Sweetie declared, “I’ll talk to her tonight at work.”


But Julia wasn’t at work that night. Nor did she show up the next day. In fact, she called in sick for more than a week. She refused to take follow-up phone calls, letting them go straight to voice mail.

When she finally returned, she looked much better than the last time Sweetie had seen her, apart from the fact that she had on a little more makeup than usual and she favored her left arm. He wasn’t sure whether he noticed that because it was easy to see or because now he was looking for something wrong. Either way, he didn’t mention it when he walked over to her with the keys to her limo.

“I covered most of your shifts, and the car drove great,” Sweetie said, fingering the keys and the plastic keychain with the Strokes logo attached to it. When he held onto it by the ring, the plastic swung and clicked against the keys in a soft, comforting sort of way. The club was empty this afternoon, like most afternoons, and the sound echoed in the large, open room. “But I’m glad you’re back. We’re all glad you’re back and feeling better.”

Julia took the keys from him quickly and turned to avoid a conversation. To his knowledge, Julia had never lied to her bosses, but Sweetie was sure she hadn’t been home with a bad bout of flu.

After waiting so long, Sweetie was determined to say what needed to be said, whether she wanted to hear it or not. Before she reached the door, he called her back. “Hey, can I talk to you a moment?” he asked, trying to sound professional when really the matter was anything but and made him nervous as hell. Julia turned, tentatively, but gave him a nod. “Just listen for now, all right? You can talk when I’m finished.”

Another nod, albeit a reluctant one.

Sweetie took a deep breath he felt all the way down in his toes. He hoped what he had to say sounded genuine. “All right. First, I’m sorry about the last time I saw you. I should have called first or been invited. Barging in unannounced was rude and I promise that won’t ever happen again. Second, I realize I shouldn’t have underestimated you. You’re one of the strongest women I know and you can hold your own against any guy— that’s why you got this job in the first place. You’re smart and kind and I love you to pieces, Jules. So I respect any choice you make, and you’re free to make any choice you want. I’m behind you in everything you do.”

He paused, not sure he really wanted to say what was next in the speech he’d rehearsed in his head a dozen or more times a day. It had always seemed easier saying this in front of the mirror. But so far she’d seemed receptive so he decided just to go for it. “But I also want you to know that I’m here for you. We all are. And if you need anything, anytime, you can call me and I’ll be there for you. No judgments. No questions asked. Okay?”

Julia remained silent and still looked uncertain.

Sweetie tried his best to smile. “I’m done now. You can talk and let me have it.” He was definitely smiling now, forced as it was, and he gave a light chuckle. “Come on. I’m a tough guy. I can take insults.” He gestured to her to talk to him, waving his hands invitingly. “I’m an insensitive idiot… a meddling dimwit… whatever your standard overbearing boss is called.”

She cracked a smile, finally. “I don’t want to insult you, Sweetie. I… I love you, too.” She jumped forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, giving him a tight hug and kissing his cheek powerfully. “Thank you for the support,” she whispered before pulling back. Her eyes were wet, but wide. Sweetie knew her well enough to know she never cried.

He nodded back. “You’d better get going. I’ve kept you long enough. And Robert’s been so tired of working with me over the last few days that I’m sure he’ll kill me if I hold you up now and keep you from working tonight.”

She laughed and kissed his cheek again. “I’ll see you later.”

*          *          *

Part 3

The phone rang in Nik and Sweetie’s house just as dinner was being served. As the only one in the kitchen, Auntie Al answered the phone and cradled the receiver between his ear and shoulder as he made the trek to carry the casserole to the dining room. “Hello?” It was difficult to distinguish what exactly was being said on the other end of the line, but he caught a few choice words like ‘help’ and ‘Sweetie’. “Hold on. Let me get him,” Auntie Al said reassuringly.

The dining room was full of commotion and conversation as the house’s residents gathered for the meal and readied the table. Sweetie was dishing out the string beans, fresh from the garden though it was early in the season for them. He looked up when he heard his name. “It’s Julia for you, Sweetie.” Auntie Al set the casserole down and handed the phone off to Sweetie.

“Julia?” It had been several weeks since their conversation at Strokes but immediately Sweetie could guess what the call was about, especially as she rarely called him at home. There was a hint of panic in his voice even before the phone touched his ear.

One second of listening was all it took for Sweetie to spring up from his seat at the dining room table. He turned away from the table and put a finger in his free ear to drown out the noise his hungry housemates were making. He had trouble getting a word in. “Jules… stop—  no, I understand. I’ll be… what? In the bedroom… Jules!” At his shout, he noticed the rest of the room had gone silent, listening to him, and he unplugged his ear. Julia had stopped talking as well. He kept his voice calm but his words direct. “If you’re safe in the bedroom, stay put. I’m on my way over right now. I want you to hang up with me and call the police.” He paused a moment, listening to her reply. “You have to. You don’t want him doing this to you, right? Then call 9-1-1. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Call them, Jules.” He hung up the phone and looked around at the stricken faces.

Nik knew Julia’s address but, as awful as it was to think, the police would probably take a call more seriously coming from a calm, fifty-something year-old man than a young, vibrant man with a lisp as prominent as Nik’s. Sweetie thrust the phone back at Auntie Al. “Auntie, I want you to call the police and make sure they’re sending someone. And, Nik, will you stay here in case she calls back? I’ll phone if we need anything and I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I know.” The two men nodded and took their appointed tasks seriously. Then Sweetie turned to Olly, their resident doctor. “Could you come with, just in case?” he asked. Olly was already getting up to do just that, as was Jamie. “Jamie, you don’t—”

“Like hell I don’t. I’m going with you.” He was up and out of his chair so fast that he was the first to the door.

“Fine,” said Sweetie, feeling around in his pocket to be sure his car keys were there. “But I don’t want you to hit the guy.”

Jamie hesitated to reply.

“The last thing we need is a news story about a semi-professional hockey player being charged with assault and battery. If the police aren’t there and it comes to it, I’ll handle the situation. Please promise me.” A tight grip on Jamie’s arm, threatening to keep the man back, was not as convincing as the words. But together they made Jamie nod and promise.

Olly grabbed a first aid kit from the bathroom on the way to the garage and Sweetie’s car. Their seatbelts were barely on by the time Sweetie peeled out of the long driveway.

Sweetie sped. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but he had his eyes on the road not the dials and his mind on Julia not the road signs. When they came to a yellow light he treated it as green. When they came to a red light he crept into the intersection like someone about to steal a base. They heard a siren when they were just a block away, and exchanged worried looks.

There were two squad cars right in front of Julia’s apartment complex, and Sweetie pulled in right beside one of them. He jumped out of the car and headed straight for the door, though he instinctively felt the hood of one of the police cars on the way. “It’s warm,” he told the others. “They couldn’t have pulled in more than a few minutes ago.” They were all fit, but all three men were out of breath after bounding up four flights of stairs. Nevertheless, they practically sprinted down the hallway to Julia’s apartment.

The apartment door was wide open. The police were there, as predicted. And there was shouting. This time, however, it was one-sided. Sweetie, Jamie, and Olly only made it as far as the doorway before they were stopped by one of the three cops. “We’re Julia’s friends. She called us,” Sweetie said frantically, craning his neck to get a look at Julia.

All he heard was her disembodied voice. “I did call them. You can let them in.”

Sweetie stepped in and scanned the room. Julia sat on the couch, with two policemen standing in front of her as a sort of barrier. A third was surveying the broken dinnerware which seemed everywhere on the floor. And a fourth was busy putting handcuffs on Kevin, who was shouting and swearing and trying to pull free.

“I didn’t do anything!” he insisted. “Julia, sugar, tell them!” But when Kevin spotted the men in the doorway, he turned his appeal towards them. “Sweetie… Guys… tell them.” He nodded towards the cops. “You know me. Tell these idiots how much I love her. That I’d never do anything to hurt her—”

“Which is why she had to lock herself in the bedroom?” Jamie asked. Well aware of the tone in Jamie’s voice, Sweetie kept himself in-between his boyfriend and Kevin, even though they were a few yards apart at the moment.

Olly, however, slipped right through the doorway, evaded one of the cops, and sat down on the edge of the couch beside Julia. He took one look at her and reached for his bag.

She had a large bruise starting on the right side of her face, around her eye which was already beginning to swell up, as well as another on her chin. Her lilac button-down shirt was missing its top buttons and was torn at the collar. Most noticeable was a small gash on her temple. It was not deep, but blood had streamed down the side of her face and her neck. Olly pulled out a thick packet of gauze, ripped it open, and immediately pressed it to the head wound.

“Paramedics are on the way,” one of the officers said.

“I’m a doctor.” With his wallet and identification at the ready, he only spent a second handing it over, and went right back to applying pressure and mopping up blood.

“We need to take photos of her injuries,” said the officer who had stopped them at the door. He was checking Sweetie and Jamie’s driver’s licenses now.

Olly kept his eyes on Julia, and the aforementioned injuries. “I’m not going to stitch her up or anything. I just want to stop the bleeding so she doesn’t pass out, is that all right?” He sounded a little more than annoyed that they hadn’t done so already, but they were just following procedure. Enter the scene, assess the situation, arrest the assailant and protect the victim. But somewhere in there it would have been nice to have a step for not letting the victim bleed all over her couch. “Where else does it hurt, Julia?” Olly asked calmly, clinically.

“My left arm’s twisted and my side hurts where he shoved me against the television hutch.”

She spoke softly, but the apartment was tiny and Kevin heard her, nonetheless. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her! It was only a little shove.” He tried to struggle away from the cop holding him to get to Julia, but did not make it further than a step as a second officer stepped over to help hold him back.

“Are you officially pressing charges, Miss?”

Julia hesitated, looking briefly at her friends, at Kevin, and then closing her eyes. She took a deep breath and nodded. “I am.”

“Julia!” Kevin protested. Instead of pleading, his tone was threatening. “You know I didn’t mean it. You know I love you.”

Julia opened her eyes and looked straight at him. “You probably do love me, Kev, but you also hurt me. And I deserve better.” She smiled to herself. “I do deserve better.”

Kevin continued his stream of shouts as the police officers, flanking him, walked him out. They did not return.

Sweetie and joined Julia on the couch, and Jamie went to get some water. “I’m proud of you, Jules,” Sweetie said, tenderly pressing his lips to the good side of her face.

Julia seemed to move automatically through the next set of motions, as though in a daze. Pictures of her were first and foremost, and Olly insisted they be thorough and fast. Both Olly and Sweetie moved aside while pictures were taken. When prompted, she lifted up her shirt, showing the red patches and scrapes. She shivered when she pulled it back down.

Not a minute later, Jamie came over with a glass of water for her and a fresh shirt from her closet. Though she heard a murmur about going to the bathroom, she found herself peeling off her shirt right then and there. One swipe with the gauze turned the trail of blood into a weak streak. Several more swipes later, there were only faint traces left on her chest and neck. Olly nodded when she could put the clean shirt on. As Olly applied a bandage, Sweetie pulled her dark hair back behind her ears and her shoulders. At first, she flinched to be touched, but then she found herself snuggling into Sweetie’s side and drinking the water. The sat in companionable silence.

The two remaining policemen walked around, inspecting the apartment. They looked at the marks on the door where Kevin had tried to use the metal trashcan to break off the doorknob and get in to Julia. They took pictures of the dishes and the lamp where they lay in pieces on the floor.

The paramedics arrived and approved of Olly’s work. There wasn’t much more for them to do. They gave her an ice pack and told her to take pain medication every four-to-six hours as needed. After officially establishing that she did not need to be hospitalized, they left.

There was a blanket draped artfully over the back of the couch, which Sweetie put around Julia’s shoulders. Jamie asked if she needed anything else, and she shook her head. Then she rested her cheek against Sweetie’s shoulder. Jamie disappeared into the bedroom to call Nik at the house and let the others know Julia was all right.

One of the officers parked himself on the coffee table in front of the couch. He consulted his notepad carefully before addressing her. “Now we’ve taken pictures of everything and we have your statement. Joe and I will stop by your neighbors’ and ask them a few questions, but you’re done for the night. Someone will call you tomorrow about the next step and your options.” He held his hand up, counting off on his fingers with each statement. “You may need to seek legal representation. You may need to come in to give a taped statement or sign some paperwork. You might also want to consider getting a restraining order. And I would highly suggest getting some counseling.”

Julia nodded as the words flowed over her. The policeman continued, “Mr. Cahill has been taken into custody, so you won’t have to worry about him coming by tonight. Still, in cases like this which take place in the home, we find it helps to leave the scene for a little while. Do you have family nearby or girlfriends you could stay with?”

Smiling, Julia gestured towards the men. “These are my girlfriends.” Sweetie slid an arm around her and hugged gently.

The policeman nodded and checked his notepad again as though he had the whole discussion written on the tiny yellow page. “You should inform your work about him, as well. They should keep their eyes open in case they see him lurking around or in case he shows up and tries to approach you.”

“Consider her work informed,” Sweetie said for her. “I’m her boss.”

Though he looked a bit confused, the cop did not waste time trying to figure out the relationships among everyone. He left contact information and the other cop told her to take care.

Julia sat up properly to thank them, and a chorus of similar ‘thank you’s were issued as the policemen saw themselves out.

“I’ll go pack an overnight bag for you,” Jamie said. “Is there anything you especially want?”

She shook her head and lowered the cold pack for a moment, so she could look up at the man. “Actually, please be sure to get my contacts and solution. They’re in the bathroom medicine cabinet.”

“Do you have contacts in now?” Olly asked concernedly, leaning forward to inspect her eye.

Julia shook her head and pressed the ice pack back into place. “I need my glasses, too. They’re on my dresser. Oh, with my keys.” Jamie disappeared into the bedroom. Julia sighed and put her head back on Sweetie’s shoulder. “You’re sure you don’t mind my staying over for a few days?”

Olly stifled a laugh. Sweetie couldn’t help chuckling, as well. “Nik and I like a full house, you know that, and we certainly have the space. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. In fact, we might like having you around so much we won’t let you leave.”

She produced a much-needed smile.

Jamie returned with a duffle bag nearly bursting with fullness. Not knowing precisely what she might want, he’d filled it with just about everything she could possibly need for at least a week. Julia pulled herself together and tried to stand up, but winced and nearly doubled-over at the effort.

“Here, I’ll carry you down,” Sweetie offered before either Olly or Jamie could do likewise. He held out one arm and slid the other around her waist in preparation.

But Julia shook her head. “I want to walk out of here on my own.” She began to take slow, deliberate steps towards the doorway. The men slowed down their own steps to keep pace with her, but there was more stopping and waiting than walking. She reached the door and hugged the doorjamb as she took the keys from Jamie. After giving the apartment a good, hard look, she pulled the door closed and locked up. Then she looked up at her friends. “I’m not going to make it down four flights of stairs.”

Sweetie scooped her up and carried her down as carefully as he could. Both police cars were gone when they reached the bottom. Though she was offered the front seat, she insisted on sitting in the back and ended up curling up on the back seat with her head in Olly’s lap. Sweetie drove home at a much more cautious speed.

“Just out of curiosity, Jules,” Sweetie began, looking at her in the rear view mirror. “What made you finally stand up to him tonight? Was it just too bad this time?”

Julia shook her head and ran her hand through her hair, careful to avoid her injuries. “Just the opposite, actually. It probably sounds a little silly, but it was because I’ve been so happy.”

“You’re right. That sounds silly,” Olly said, gently stroking Julia’s arm.

“It’s easy to notice and get depressed when things aren’t going well. But you don’t always notice when life is nice and good, you know? This morning I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was happy. Wonderfully happy. Everything’s been going so well since… since the last time Kev and I fought. I have enough money and a job I love, working with great people. I have terrific friends—”

“Damn right you do!” Sweetie laughed.

She continued, “Sex has been exquisite. Kevin and I went out a few times, to the movies to dinner. We stayed in and snuggled on the couch while watching basketball. We’ve been cooking together nearly every night, which has been so much fun. Or was, until I forgot to pick up the noodles at the store and he really wanted lasagna.” She sniffed and rubbed the side of her hand at her nose. “It occurred to me that it I wanted to be happy, like I was this morning. And for that to happen, I couldn’t take it from him any more. But I probably should have realized that closer to the bedroom door and further from the table and entertainment hutch.” Julia took a deep, conscious breath, and let it out slowly. “And I know you’re probably thinking that I should have realized that a long time ago. But it’s not that easy to do when you care about someone.”

“No, it’s not,” said Jamie, knowingly. Jamie dug around in his pocket for a few minutes, finally producing a card from his wallet. He turned in his seat and reached back between the seats to the back. “My shrink’s wonderful, and specializes in LGBT counseling. But there are half a dozen therapists at the practice if you want to try them all out.”

Julia took the card with a nod. “Maybe I should just stick to dating women from now on,” she joked.

Jamie smirked. “Sorry to tell you, being gay isn’t going to miraculously solve everything. But, if you ever want to just talk… I’m here for you.”

“We’re all here for you,” Olly echoed.

Julia smiled. That was good to hear. “I’m glad you all came. I know I probably could have handled that alone but I’m glad I had my crew… gay gang… whatever the equivalent of fag hags are called for bisexuals.”

“We love you, too, Jules,” said Sweetie. The sentiment filled the car.

So did the car radio. Julia opened her eyes wide in recognition. She spoke with urgency. "Turn up the volume!" When Sweetie did, a laugh burst from Julia. "Incredible. What are the chances?" The familiar melody, lyrics, and attitude of Aretha Franklin's 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T' washed over her a little differently this time.