Read Burn the Brightest Online

Authors: Erin Sheppard

Burn the Brightest

Storm Moon Press LLC
12814 University Club Drive, #102
Tampa, FL 33612

Publisher's Note

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher has no control over and does not assume responsibility for any third-party websites or their content. The uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.

Copyright © 2010-2011 by Emily Moreton
Originally published in “Cast the Cards Anthology”, October 2010
All rights reserved.

Cover Photos by Diego Alvarez de Toledo; W14a

ISBN-13: 978-1-937058-01-2
ISBN-10: 1-9370580-1-8

The Fool represents the beginning of the path, the childlike innocence with which we start our journey into the world. With no preconceptions, The Fool sees unlimited potential and endless opportunity to create his own fate with each moment. The Fool carries with him all the tools he will need to face the challenges ahead. Anything can happen, but the Fool is ready for any experience, come what may.

"You look like you'd rather be having your fingernails pulled out than be here," a voice said behind Edith, and she twisted, finding herself a little too close to a tall, red-haired woman, blue eyes bright with amusement as she crouched in the sand.

"Lovely," Edith said, feeling her face twist in dislike at the phrase.

The woman grinned. "Okay, maybe not your fingernails. Your hair."

Edith shook her brown hair back from her face, wishing she'd brought a hair tie. It was windier on the beach than she'd expected, given how warm and still the day had been, and she was getting sick of her hair in her face. One more thing to find annoying about this whole party, though at least the two hours she'd promised Tara she'd spend there were nearly up. "I'm fine," she said, trying to sound appropriately dismissive, but it was probably a lost cause. She'd always been too polite for her own good.

The woman laughed, shifting to sit next to Edith and handing over a green bottle. "Vodka and apple," she said when Edith twisted it to look at the label. "I've been to enough of these things to know they go better with alcohol."

Edith took a sip—like an apple martini, but fizzy—and looked around again for Tara, who'd gone to buy ice cream from a cart just up the beach ten minutes ago and disappeared. Probably off with Dan, even though she'd promised not to abandon Edith. "Thank you."

"Welcome," the woman said, swigging from her own bottle. "I'm Jo," she added, wiping her hand on her jeans and holding it out. Edith shook it mostly out of habit. "You a wife, girlfriend, or sister?"

"None of the above," Edith replied. Someone shouted down by the water, but when she looked over, all three of the men there were laughing, soaking wet. "A friend dragged me here."

"Oh," Jo said, scanning the crowd of young sailors again, the barbeque they'd set up on the sand, and the groups of spouses and kids. "Sorry, I didn't remember seeing you arrive with any of the unit."

"My friend's not in the Navy; she's Dan's girlfriend," Edith corrected, not sure why she was bothering to explain. She only ever mixed with the sailors and their families when Tara guilt-tripped her into going, like tonight.

"Tara, right? The birthday girl?" Jo waited for Edith's nod. "Great. I've gotten three people's names wrong already tonight. It's starting to get embarrassing."

"I guess," Edith agreed, taking another sip of her drink. There really was no sign of Dan on the beach. If Tara had gone home with him and stranded her, Tara was paying the damn cab fare, birthday or not.

"On which subject," Jo said. "You didn't tell me yours."

"Edith." She looked up, caught sight of Tara, her arm linked through Dan's, her jacket over her arm, heading their way, and stood up. "There's Tara. I think I'll catch up to her. Nice to meet you."

"Oh," Jo said, sounding surprised. She stood up with Edith. "You, too."

Tara had her car keys out by the time Edith got to her, though she was still barefoot.

"You're fed-up and ready to leave?" Edith asked hopefully, sparing a nod for Dan. He was nice enough, for a sailor, and he'd been with Tara for four months. Thirteen if you counted his tour at sea, which Edith didn't.

Tara grinned. "Not really, but you said two hours; I thought I'd see if you wanted to go."

"Yes," Edith said immediately, taking the offered keys. "Thank you."

Tara rolled her eyes, but she was looking back to where Edith had been sitting. "Sure you don't want to stay with your friend?"

"I'm sure," Edith said firmly. "Have a good night."

Tara, predictably, showed up at Edith's office door after her freshman research methods class on Monday, leaning there with her ankles crossed. "Thanks for dropping my car off. You could have left it on campus."

Edith shrugged, saving the latest draft of her journal article and gesturing for Tara to come in and close the door. It wasn't that she thought the students passing by would mind hearing the sexual exploits Tara was likely to share, but Edith preferred to at least fake a level of professionalism. "I kept it to get groceries on Saturday. I figured you wouldn't need it."

Tara gave her a smug, satisfied smile. "No, we had other plans for the day." Edith rolled her eyes out of habit, but Tara side-tracked suddenly. "Dan knows the girl you were talking to at the barbeque—Jo?"

"Okay," Edith said. She'd assumed Dan would. Everyone at those things knew
her
, and she almost never went.

"She's pretty," Tara said, too casually, then, "She's a lesbian, you know."

"Okay," Edith said again. "You remember that talk we had about you trying to set me up with every woman you think is gay?"

"It's totally not my fault she was married," Tara protested. "Partner's a gender neutral term."

"Sure," Edith said. She really didn't want to remember that disastrous attempt at a date. She'd thought people only threw their drinks at other people in the movies, and she hadn't exactly wanted to be proven wrong with a glass of red wine.

"Anyway, I know Jo's a lesbian; Dan told me."

"And how does Dan know? His gaydar's for shit."

Tara tipped her hand side-to-side, conceding the point. "She told him. They're good friends. They were at Annapolis together."

"Wait a minute," Edith said, light dawning. Someone attached to one of the sailors would have immediately announced who they were with. "She's Navy?" Tara at least had the grace to look a little ashamed for the few seconds Edith stared at her before standing up and pacing across her tiny office. "Tell me you weren't planning to set me up with her."

"Not exactly," Tara said, twisting in her seat to watch Edith. "I just thought I'd mention it in case you were interested. You don't usually talk to anyone at these things, and she's—"

"I don't want to know what she is," Edith snapped. It came out sharper than she'd meant it to, wavering with hurt she didn't want to show. "I told you—I told you why I don't... I only went because it was your birthday."

"I know." Tara stood up and caught Edith's elbow. "I know; I'm sorry." She ducked her head a little, and Edith let her catch her eye. Tara looked genuinely remorseful; Edith had never been able to stay mad at her for long. It was part of how she'd ended up best friends with the University of Maryland's newest military sociologist. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"I know," Edith said, caving. "But don't, okay?"

"All right." Tara tugged gently on Edith's elbow, drawing her in for a hug, and when she said "I'm sorry" again, Edith knew it was for more than just trying to set her up with a naval officer.

Edith had pretty much forgotten the whole thing by Friday as she stood at the side of the ice rink, waiting for the stewards to declare the lunchtime public skating session open. Tara always laughed at her for driving thirty minutes each way to skate for an hour, but the ice was usually quiet, and Edith's afternoon class didn't start until three.

"Hello, again," someone said behind her.

Edith turned, expecting to see one of the other skaters, someone she'd run into before. Instead, she found herself face-to-face again with Jo, this time in jeans, a dark blue hoodie, and white skates. She was smiling, but it started to fade when Edith didn't say anything.

"I'm Jo? We met last weekend, at Tara's party on the beach?"

"I remember, thank you," Edith said. She couldn't quite bring herself to turn away, which meant she got to watch Jo's face fall even further. She was pretty, actually—her hair curled oddly around her face, and she had nice eyes. Edith was always a sucker for a girl with nice eyes, even if it was a bit of a cliché.

"Okay," Jo said. "I just thought I'd say hello, but I can—"

"Tara told you I'd be here, right?" Edith asked, annoyed suddenly at Jo's attempt to make this look like an accident, and even more annoyed at Tara for doing this after Edith had asked her not to.

"What? No, I haven't talked to her since the party." Jo looked honestly surprised, but Edith wasn't ready to be fooled.

"Right. It's pure coincidence that you happened to be at my rink, the same time I'm always here, even though you've got your own perfectly good rink at Annapolis."

"Actually, it is," Jo said. "But, hey, don't let me get in the way of that superiority thing you've got going on. Excuse me." She stepped round Edith without touching her, and then onto the ice, where she pushed away in a long, smooth line across the corner of the rink.

Edith watched her do laps for a minute, irritation warring with contrition and losing, and then shrugged it off. There were enough people on the rink that they could ignore each other, and even if she was wrong, which she wasn't convinced of, what did it matter?

She stepped out onto the ice herself, took a chilled breath, and pushed away, losing herself in the easy slide of her skates over ice. At least until she looked up and saw Jo on the other side of the rink, skating backward, her hands behind her back as she laughed at something a man in suit pants and a sweatshirt was saying. She didn't even look like she was thinking about what her feet were doing, easy as walking and twice as smooth. Edith shook her head, concentrating on her own feet, gliding round the curve of the rink and adding a little hop at the end.

Next time she looked over, Jo had moved away from the man and was skating fast. Edith let herself drift to a stop, just in time to watch Jo execute an effortless jump, landing on one knee, sliding for a long moment, and then pushing up, turning, and speeding backward into a smooth curve.

"Navy," she told herself firmly, and pushed away again.

It didn't help. She seemed to have developed a sixth sense of Jo, and every time she looked across the rink, her eyes caught sight of Jo immediately. Even just skating laps, she was better than most of the people there—better than Edith, who liked to think she was pretty good, but not like that. Not someone people stopped to watch.

When the bell for the end of the session rang, Edith cut a line across the rink to stop where Jo was already pulling off her skates. She looked up when Edith let her skate slam into the board a little harder than usual. "That was nice skating," Edith offered.

Jo's expression wavered for a moment, like she was thinking about still being annoyed with Edith, and then settled into a smile. "Thanks. You're not bad yourself."

Edith shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry about before."

"Make it up to me—buy me a coffee," Jo suggested, her smile changing in some way that Edith couldn't put her finger on.

Edith felt all of her earlier ease drain out. "I have class in an hour."

"Oh," Jo said. "Well, another time. I'll give you my number, and we can—"

"I don't think so," Edith dismissed, pushing away to glide to the other exit before Jo could say anything else.

"Hi," a female voice said behind Edith.

She turned, expecting it to be another lecturer, or maybe an exceptionally forward undergrad. Instead, she found herself once more face-to-face with Jo. This time Jo was in black pants and a green top, similar to the mix of students and staff who'd stayed on to discuss the open lecture.

"Before you yell at me again," Jo started, "I knew you'd be here, but I'm not here because of that. I came to hear the lecture. That's all."

"Okay," Edith said, not totally sure if she believed her or not. "And you stuck around because you find university mixers endlessly fascinating?"

Jo laughed, and Edith couldn't quite help her answering smile. "Actually, I was hoping Tara might be here. She asked Dan to pass on a couple of books for one of my classes, and I wanted to say thank you."

"You're studying?" Edith asked, realizing that she'd just assumed Jo had come down to join Dan's unit on their training exercises.

"Oh," Jo said. "Oh, no, I thought—Tara didn't tell you what I'm doing here?"

"We don't actually talk about you," Edith said. Something like disappointment flashed over Jo's face—there, then gone—and she felt a stab of guilt.

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