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SEQUEL: To The Return.
"OK, so you took a bullet for me. My husband thanks you, my kids thank you. But you sure as hell can't leave me like this. Don't you know the grief I'll get from Mrs. G, Tootie, Blair? Oh god, Blair. It'll be a friggin nightmare. So you stay with me, Jo, just stay with me."
I shakily raised my hand to Nat's face. It was such a nice face, even with tears coming down. "I'll try," I whispered, before everything went dark.
It hadn't started out to be a bad day. In fact, waking up next to Blair Warner in the palatial master bedroom of the Windermere Farm manor house definitely had its charms.
"Good morning, sweetheart," Blair purred, trailing her fingers across my collar bone. "You were wonderful last night."
"Last night? It was like an hour and a half ago. And you weren't so bad yourself."
"Hmm. So, would you like me to bring you breakfast in bed?"
"Nah, I gotta get up. I wanna take my run."
"Are you sure? Hilde made some scones. You deserve a little treat, precious."
Precious? "OK, what's up?"
"What do you mean?"
"Precious, breakfast in bed. I know you, Blair. Something's up. Something I won't like."
"You are so suspicious, Jo," Blair huffed. "Can't I show a little affection to mon petite chou?"
"Oh boy, here comes the French. It must be really bad."
Blair sighed, pushed off of me and sat up against the headboard. "Oh all right. It's nothing really. I just have to go into Manhattan tonight. I'll miss the town meeting."
I shrugged. "No biggie. Trust me, it won't be that scintillating. Mrs. Harris and Mr. Lazzaroni will argue about the Founder's Day theme; Scott and Bruce will suggest some idiotic public art project; George will complain about the recycling rules, and, in the end, Nat will have them all eating out of her hand." I had seen Mayor Greene in action enough times to know what I was talking about. "So, what? Are you going to see your Dad?"
"No. I'm having dinner with an old friend."
"Oh yeah? Anyone I know?"
Blair bit her lip. "Sort of. It's my ex husband Cliff. "
My throat closed, like an allergic reaction. "Cliff?" I choked out.
"Yes, Cliff. Jo, don't look like that. You're getting hives. He's in town for a medical conference. We're just having dinner. You have absolutely nothing to worry about."
Nothing to worry about. Handsome, beloved by parents, golden boy surgeon on one hand-- scruffy, barely tolerated by parents, lesbian, small town cop on the other. No, nothing at all.
"So why do you want to see him?"
"As I've said, we're still friends. He says he wants to tell me something. Actually, I think he might want to get remarried. My friends from Dallas say he's been seeing someone pretty seriously."
"Remarried? No way!" I blurted out.
Blair looked at me quizzically. "You sound annoyed."
Oddly enough, I was. Don't get me wrong. The end of Blair's marriage was the best thing that ever happened to me. She had come back to Peekskill after nearly a decade and amazingly enough, we had gotten together. Still, Cliff shouldn't be getting over Blair Warner just like that. I know I never could.
"It's barely a year since your divorce. The grave is hardly cold."
"The grave? Not precisely the word I would have chosen. Well, be that as it may, Cliff has every right to get remarried," Blair pronounced.
I didn't buy her calm. "C'mon Blair, don't you find it a little bit insulting? I mean you were together for almost ten years."
"Jo, although slightly insane, it's sweet of you to be so protective of my marital reputation, but, believe me, I would be happy if Cliff moved on. I mean, I have."
"Have you?" I had to ask.
She shook her head. "You still don't believe it, do you?"
"That I chose you. That I want to be with you. That Cliff is in the past."
Looking at her, smiling that half smile, blonde hair tumbling around her bare shoulders, brown eyes sparkling, the snarky retort died on my lips.
"I want to believe it," I murmured.
"Mmm. Let's see what I can do to convince you," she said, moving away from the headboard, and straddling my hips.
The run could wait.
"So, will you spend the night at the loft?" I asked, trying to keep my voice casual, as we pulled up to the Peekskill train station. Blair had bought a New York City loft a few months ago. She announced that although Windermere Farm and Peekskill were home, we needed a quote "pied a terre." She also decided that since she was now living, how did she put it, a more bohemian life, namely shacking up with her old boarding school roommate, it had to be in trendy Soho above some feminist art gallery. Sometimes I really wonder where she gets this stuff. Anyway, it was a pretty nice place and we had a lot of fun there. I tried to get the picture of Cliff also having fun there out of my head.
"I doubt it," Blair replied. "I'll try to catch the train back tonight. Don't worry though; I'll call Manny's Car Service."
"No, I'll pick you up. Just give me a call. The town meeting will be over by nine. Nat doesn't like making anyone miss ER."
"It could be late."
"I don't mind."
She smiled and fluffed my bangs. "My own personal police escort. How flattering. Oh, here comes the train. Have a good meeting tonight, darling. Don't let Natalie impose martial law." She gave me a quick kiss and left the car.
"Bye," I called out after her. "Have a good time yourself and say hello ." I trailed off. Who was I kidding? The last thing I wanted was for anyone to have a good time or say hello. Get a grip, I told myself. It's just dinner. Still, it was going to be a long night.
My mood hadn't improved a few hours later as I listened to Mr. Lazzaroni drone on about noise ordinances. Now I love our town, I really do, but there's only so much kvetching I can take. Nat has a lot more patience, but even her eyes were starting to glaze over.
"You don't seem to have a problem with the Langley frat boys. They're allowed to carry on at all hours," the ninety year old, who ran the social life of the Peekskill senior center with an iron fist, declared. "You know what you are, you're ageist."
"Now you know that's not true, Mr. Lazzaroni," Mayor Greene retorted. "It's just that the Saturday morning Polka lessons are drawing complaints from the neighbors. The tuba sounds carry; what can I tell you. Just consider moving them to later in the day."
"We need our afternoon naps."
"Tell you what, have them between four and five thirty and I'll let you use the town gazebo free of charge for the end of the class recital."
"Hmm, maybe," Lazzaroni mused. "On one condition." He was a sharp negotiator.
"The Mayor honor me with the first dance."
Nat smiled. "You may not know this, Mr. Lazzaroni, but I do a mean oberek. It's a date. And with that, good citizens of Peekskill, I propose that the meeting be adjourned."
"I second," I jumped in quickly. "All in favor say aye."
A chorus of ayes, a slam of the Mayor's gavel, and everyone stood up to leave the hall. Nat stayed behind with me as I checked my voice mail.
"So, has Blair called yet?" she asked.
"Not yet," I replied tightly.
"Jo, you have nothing to worry about."
"People keep saying that," I muttered. "It's a jinx."
Natalie chucked as we headed for the parking lot. "Cheer up, Chief. The town survived Reunion Week. The state gave us the funding for the new computers. Snake doesn't have to do the Tulsa run and the twins are over their colds. Life is sweet."
"Excuse me, Mayor Greene?" A voice came from the shadows.
Now I hadn't survived growing up in the Bronx in the seventies without some serious antennae. The back of my neck started to tingle. "Get behind me, Nat," I ordered, pulling her back and confronting the speaker.
"OK, buddy, what do you need?"
He stepped closer and I saw a flash of metal.
Fuck. I lunged and knocked him to the pavement. As we grappled, I heard a stream of really impressive curses and then a pop.
Then things turned to slow motion, as I wondered why I couldn't stand up. There was a lot of yelling. A scream or two. Suddenly, my subordinate Sergeant Ziaukes was looming over me while, out of the corner of my eye, I saw about a third of the Peekskill population piled on top of the assailant.
"Jesus, Chief. You've been shot," the Sergeant exclaimed.
I looked down at the growing stain on my shirt. "No shit, Sherlock. Secure the scene. Protect the evidence. And don't forget to read the bastard his rights." Ziaukes's image started to fade as the sound of sirens grew louder.
"I'll try," I whispered, as everything went dark.
If Natalie's face was the last thing I saw on this earth, that wasn't so bad. OK, maybe there was one other visage I would have gone for, but you can't have everything.
So, I'm here to tell you that there were no white lights, no harp music, no dead relatives calling to you, just a blackness that gradually started to lift.
To reveal a large overhead light and two men in surgical masks and scrubs. I took a deep breath in order to speak and instantly regretted it. Shit. My chest felt like it was on fire.
The men turned to me. "She's coming to," one said, in a familiar lilting Southwest Asian accent.
"Welcome back, Chief Polniaczek. Just take it easy."
"Oh. Hi Dr. Kitna. Where am I?"
"Peekskill Community Hospital, where else?"
"Oh. That's good, I guess."
"Yes, it is. Very very good. You appear to have survived the surgery with your wits intact so the worst should be over."
The other man took off his surgical mask. "Hello, Jo."
I looked at him blankly for a moment and then realization dawned. Cliff? Blair's Cliff? Maybe I hadn't survived after all. Maybe this was some particularly cruel version of Hell.
"Cliff? How did you get here?"
"The fastest taxi ride in history," Cliff chuckled.
"You took a cab from Manhattan?" Here I was, fighting for my life after being plugged, and I was pissed off at the extravagance.
"Yes. We were at the restaurant when we got the call from Natalie. Blair ran out onto Madison Avenue and commandeered this yellow cab. The poor driver never knew what hit him. He was Haitian. She was screaming at him in this wild French. I think he thought she was some kind of witch. Anyway, he got us here in record time."
"So why did you come?" I blurted out.
"Don't be rude, Chief Polniaczek," Dr. Kitna interrupted smoothly. "Dr. Winfield is one of the most prominent surgeons in the country. I was honored to work with him."
"Hey, I'm sure you would have done just fine," I muttered. We could take care of ourselves in Peekskill. We didn't need any fancy, big city, ex-husband doctors coming in.
"I appreciate the vote of confidence, Chief, but his assistance was very valuable."
"In fact, Dr Kitna has a lot more experience with gunshot wounds than I do," Cliff opined. "He did great job."
"Military schools, drunken hunters. We get our share," Dr. Kitna shrugged. "Now if you will excuse me, I'll go inform the multitudes in the waiting room that things are looking good. You are a very popular individual, Chief Polniaczek. No visitors for a while, though." He left the room.
I looked at Blair's ex. Fit, blond, lantern jawed. I had to admit he had aged well. That pissed me off too. "So really, why are you here?"
"Blair insisted that I scrub in. And you know how it is. If Blair Warner insists, one tends to obey." He smiled reminiscently.
In fact I did know how it was but I wasn't going to admit that to Cliff.
"If Blair really wanted her ex-husband to operate on her lesbian lover, she's either even more of an airbrain than I thought, or she's trying to get rid of me," I declared.
Cliff's smile vanished. "Hey. I took an oath. You were going to get the best I could give. And anyway, I'm not your enemy."
"No. Jo, this really isn't the best time to discuss this, but suffice to say that, though being married to Blair was like some wonderful fairy tale, I don't for a minute regret our divorce."
"I find that hard to believe."
"As I said, it was like a fairy tale. And as amazing as it was for me, I always had the suspicion that deep down it wasn't real, that she wasn't truly happy. I also know that, based on the last eight hours-- listening to how she talks about you, seeing her reaction to the news you'd been shot-- what you two have is real and she is truly happy. Assuming you recover, of course, which is why I'll shut up now." He started to leave.
"Wait, what did she ?"
"No more talk. Get some rest. "
Damn, just when it was getting interesting.
I woke up in a different room. Feeling a lot better, I pressed the call button and Nurse Molly Malone, a brassy woman I had known for years, came in.
"Yo, Chief. Bout time you joined the living. How ya feeling?"
"I'm thirsty. What time is it?"
"What day?" I asked, puzzled.
"Saturday. They brought you in Thursday night and you've basically been asleep for 30 hours. Lazy bum." She brought me a cup of water with a plastic straw. "Small sips," she instructed.
The water burned a little as it went down but still felt great. "Thanks."
Nurse Malone smiled. "You are very welcome. Boy, am I going to be popular when I tell everyone you're awake. You had the town worried, Chief."
"Don't be. You did wonders for our blood bank. Donations were up 300%. I'll tell you, I never saw so many people hanging around. We finally had to kick out your girlfriend a couple of hours ago. She was here all yesterday and into last night."
"Here? In the room?"
"Yeah. She twisted Dr. Kitna around her little finger and got him to let her stay. She just sat here hour after hour. Watching you. Wouldn't even read her magazines."
It was a strange image. Blair normally wasn't one for sitting quietly. And she could never resist a Vogue.
"And what about her ex?" Nurse Malone continued.
"What about him?"
"Is he a hunk, or what? Man, that is one good looking couple. Could you imagine their children? They would be like Aryan gods. And to think she dumped him for some surly Polack cop. Go figure."
"Y'know, Molly, your bedside manner could use a little work," I complained.
She laughed. "Just joshing you, Chief. You don't need to worry about your luvah," she said theatrically. "Anyway, I'm under orders to call the Mayor the minute you wake up."
She went out to the nurse's station and about fifteen minutes later, a disheveled looking Natalie, accompanied by her trucker husband Snake, appeared at my bedside.
"Well, well, well," the Mayor intoned with a grin. "So there you are. How are you feeling?"
"As well as can be expected. And you? Any damage?"
"Other than to my pride, no. Fit as a fiddle."
"Thanks to you, stud," Snake said, as he leant down and kissed my forehead.
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. So what's the deal with the shooter? Sergeant Ziaukes didn't screw it up, did he?"
"No," Natalie replied. "They got him safely into custody. Except the Feds have taken over."
"The Feds? Really?"
"Yeah. Apparently any attack on a political figure is a matter for the FBI."
"That makes sense. So, do they have a motive? I'm guessing some right wing nut case. I mean you're a woman, pro- environment, gay-friendly, Jewish. A skinhead, right?"
"I should be so lucky," Nat shrugged.
"What do you mean?"
"That's where the blow to my pride comes in. It was like a John Hinckley/Jodie Foster thing. He did it to impress a girlfriend. My policies had nothing to do with it."
"You're kidding," I exclaimed. "I mean, c'mon, you're the mayor of Peekskill. How impressive can that really be?"
"Apparently presidents, governors or senators were too much trouble. And get this; I wasn't even his first choice. He really wanted to go after the mayor of Schenectady but he was low on gas."
"The mayor of Schenectady is a corrupt prick. A much better option," Snake opined.
"Snake, that's a terrible thing to say," Natalie objected. "Anyway, there was no great conspiracy, just some pathetic dweeb."
I shook my head. "Well, that kinda sucks."
"The bullet was just as real, though," Natalie noted, squeezing my hand. "You protected me, Jo. Like you always have. I appreciate it. Like I always will."
As was my incredibly annoying habit, I teared up. "OK, then," I got out. "So I'm glad it worked out."
"Well," Natalie said in a brighter tone. "Let's call Blair and get her back here."
Weirdly, I suddenly felt shy about seeing my girlfriend. "Let's wait. According to Molly, she hasn't had much sleep. I'll talk to her later."
Natalie looked at me oddly. "All right. I have to report to Mrs. Garrett and Tootie, though. They've been calling like every five minutes from the road." Mrs. G had taken Tootie and her six year old daughter Tisha on a summer road trip to the Upper Midwest to see where Mrs. G had grown up.
"You didn't make them cut their vacation short, did you?" I asked.
"Make them, no. They were on their way back anyway. But let's just say that the news accelerated things a bit. Snake has alerted his trucker buddies to be on the lookout for a RV moving towards Peekskill at the speed of light."
"Did they freak?"
"Freak? Hmm. Shall we concede that Mrs. Garrett and Tootie are both, how shall we put it, somewhat emotive? And they learn that their intimate life-long friend had been shot foiling an assassination attempt on their other intimate life-long friend? Oh yeah, they freaked."
"Oh geez. Maybe I'll get out of here before it becomes a big deal."
"Stud, you could have ." Snake trailed off. "Well, it is a big deal."
"Yes, it is," a voice from the doorway concurred. "But she'll never admit it. You're born, you die, you move on. That's her motto."
I turned to see Blair, without make-up, unwashed hair pulled back into a pony-tail, pale with bags under her eyes. She was as gorgeous as ever.
"Hey. You look tired," I offered.
"Do I?" She lapsed into silence.
Natalie coughed. "OK hubby, let's go home." She put her arm around Blair. "When you're done here, come by for breakfast. Snake will make blueberry pancakes. The twins would love to see you. Nothing like watching them try to out ninja each other to give you a sense of normalcy. And you can take a nap in our hammock if you want."
Blair smiled. "I'll do that. Thank you."
"Great. See ya later, Chief," Nat said. "I'll come back this afternoon to show you the papers. They misspelled your name, but what else is new." She grabbed Snake and they left hand in hand.
OK. What to say to her. "Did you feed the cat?" Smooth, Polniaczek, smooth.
She blinked. "Yes, I fed Zelda. She's fine."
"Oh good. Thanks."
"Jo ," she began.
"How was your dinner with Cliff?" I interrupted to forestall her.
She glared at me. "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? It had its moments."
"Why did you bring him here?" I had to ask.
"Because he's the finest doctor I know."
"It didn't occur to you that it might be a little awkward?"
"I couldn't care less. Jo, you threw yourself on a gunman to save Natalie. I'm not entitled to endure a little awkwardness with my ex-husband to save you?"
She had a point. I sighed. "Blair, I'm sorry you had to deal with this. I'm sorry that I worried you."
Blair sat down in the bedside chair. "Listen to me. You have always worried me. Worry, irritation, anger, frustration. That comes with the Polniaczek territory."
"That doesn't sound so great," I said ruefully.
"But it also comes with passion, laughter, desire, contentment, joy. Jo, we're together for the long haul, I hope. We're going to have some rotten days. Thursday was one of them."
"I guess." I smiled. "The long haul? Really?"
"Yes, sweetheart. Like oxen pulling a really, really heavy load. It will take years and years and years."
"It's not that heavy," I objected.
"No, it's not. Not heavy at all," she said as she bent down to press her lips to mine.
"My breath's a little funky" I warned. "I haven't had a chance to brush my teeth."
"I don't care," she murmured, deepening the kiss.
Oxen? I could go for that.
"Aunt Jo, can I see your bullet hole? Daddy says you can stick your finger in it all the way."
"Sorry, Max," I informed one of Natalie's five year old sons. "Your dad was exaggerating. Besides it's been six weeks and it's almost healed. There's hardly a scar."
"Oh." Max looked disappointed. He brightened. "Can I see the bullet?"
"Go away, you gruesome child," Natalie ordered. "Go and join your equally gruesome sire at the pony ride."
"Okay." We watched as he skipped away across the spacious lawn of Windermere Farm, where Blair was hosting what she termed a Harvest Sheaves Village Fete. I swear she gets her idea of small town life from the Canterbury Tales. It was a good party, though. Practically all of Peekskill was in attendance. There was food, drink, music, kids' rides, and, with an irony that seemed to be lost on the revelers, an arcade filled with shooting games. Oh well. It's America. We love our guns.
I turned to Nat. "So, do you want to hit the beer tent for a cold one?"
"No thanks. I'm sticking to water."
I looked at her suspiciously. "Natalie...?"
She grinned. "Oh all right. Nothing like a little brush with mortality to get the juices flowing in the bedroom. It's early yet, but it looks like I'm pregnant."
"That's great! Just great!"
"Yeah, Snake's pretty psyched. And I think the town will deal with it."
"Are you kidding? The voters will love it."
"Love what?" Blair, who had just walked up, asked.
I looked at Nat inquiringly. "Go ahead and tell her," she replied. "One Musketeer knows, they all know."
"How wonderful!" Blair declared, giving Nat a hug. "I couldn't be happier for you."
"Thank you. Well, I'd better track down Tootie and Mrs. Garrett to give them the news. Tootie has probably already sensed some sub-molecular disturbance that indicates the presence of gossip."
"They're by the Maypole," Blair informed her.
"Aren't Maypoles for May, not October?" I asked. "And where did you even find one in Peekskill, anyway?"
"Traditionally, the maidens of the village would perform the Maypole Dance for important community occasions," Blair pronounced. "It wasn't limited to spring."
"The maidens of the village? Thank you, Lady Guinevere," I snorted.
"Although I'm not exactly a maiden, I might take a turn," Natalie laughed. "See you girls later. Be sure to check on the prisoners in the stocks tonight, Chief."
Blair sat down in the chair Natalie had vacated. "Are you having fun?"
"Yes, Your Grace, I am." I noticed a little shadow in her expression. "Hey, I'm kidding. It's a great party and it was really nice of you to arrange it."
"I know I can be a little over-the-top, sometimes," Blair admitted. "But I'm just trying to fit in with the town, after being away so long."
"Blair, you're never going to just fit in. From your Harvest Queen days on, you were born to rule. But that's OK. Your subjects are lucky to have you." I took her hand and brought it to my lips.
Blair looked out at the festivities. "I do love it here."
"So, we got a postcard from Cliff and Lucia today," Blair said, pulling an object from her coat pocket.
"Really? How did the honeymoon go?"
"I'll read it."
Dear Blair and Jo:
I laughed. Y'know, for a way- too -handsome ex- husband, Cliff wasn't such a bad guy after all.
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