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Purgatory--Note: A "purgatory" is by extension, any place of suffering, usually for past misdeeds.
Sean Force sat in the rented Porsche parked on the side of the two lane road. In front of her was a small green sign that read "Purgatory, population 253". Actually, it said "Johnsonville, population 253". But in her memory it was and always would be Purgatory. She had lived in the small northern Minnesota town until she finally made her escape to Southern California after her high school graduation. The rest, as they say, was history. College, pro beach volleyball, the Olympics, even Donovan and their kids. All of it happened after she left here. All of it happened only because she left.
She'd been sitting there for the better part of an hour trying to understand what she was doing. The last of the Forces had left Johnsonville a year after Sean. Though her parents and siblings had been back to the area once a few years ago, Sean herself refused to return. There was only one person Sean had remained in contact with, and that was Loren. Even then, she hadn't talked to her for several years. Four months ago, Sean visited her parents in Florida. When she hugged her mother good-bye, Jean Force shoved a manila envelope into her daughter's hand.
"You should go," she said.
"No," Sean answered when she saw the postmark.
"Yes," her mother repeated.
Despite the encouragement of her mother and Donovan, Sean had no intention of attending the ten year high school reunion. However, after a particularly intense night of love making, Sean was feeling especially mellow. Donovan had taken advantage of the situation and talked Sean into agreeing to go. Unable to break her word, Sean mailed in her RSVP, and made the plane reservations. Now, here she was,
a half mile out of Purgatory, and desperately wishing she was somewhere-- anywhere else.
She picked up the cell phone sitting on the seat next to her, flipped it open, and hit speed dial.
"Hey there," Donovan's voice greeted her.
"Hey you," Sean said.
"Where are you?"
Sean chuckled. "I am sitting on the side of the road in front of a sign that says 'Johnsonville, population 253.'"
Donovan laughed. "I thought you said the population was 500."
"It was. Must've shrunk. How are my kids?"
"Your kids, both born and unborn, are just fine. But, July can't come quickly enough for me. I'm ready for these twins to be born. Your daughter and son have taken to kicking me awake in the middle of the night, and you're not here to rub my belly and calm them."
"Tell them I'll be home soon," Sean said. Looking in the rear view mirror, she could see herself smiling. She spun the gold wedding band she wore on her left ring finger. "I miss you."
"I miss you too," Donovan answered. "But, I'm glad you're there. I'm proud of you. This is a good thing."
"I think I would I rather face a firing squad."
Donovan laughed into Sean's ear. "Why is it that I've never once seen you nervous, even in the Olympics, but you're worried about going back there?"
"Because at a game, I know the people there either love me or hate me," Sean replied. "Here, I have no idea what to expect."
"I'm sorry, baby," Donovan said, "but I really think this is important. That place had a huge effect on you, and it wasn't all bad. I just wish I could have come with."
"Nope, you need to stay on bed rest until the twins are born. Let Abby and Sam wait on you hand and foot. Doctor's orders."
"Being on bed rest isn't nearly as much fun when you're gone."
"I'll be home soon," she promised. "Cross my heart."
"I know. Now go face the lions, my big tough gladiator. "
Sean laughed. "I think the lions ended up killing the gladiator."
Donovan laughed. "Not always. I have faith in you. Call me tonight when you get back to the motel""
"I will. I love you, you know," Sean said.
"I know," Donovan said. "I love you too. Remember that."
"I will. Bye, baby." Sean made a kissing sound into the phone.
"Bye, sweetie," Donovan said.
Sean listened for a second more and then closed the phone. She spun the ring on her finger one more time.
A turn of the key and the powerful engine came to life. She revved the engine and a grin appeared on her face. "Nothing to it but to do it," she said to herself. One final look at the sign, and she pulled the car back onto the road towards the past.
Sean stood on the dock looking out over the water where she had been standing motionless for the last fifteen minutes. A brown beer bottle dangled at her side, held between two fingers. In front of her a group of ducks swam, occasionally dipping their heads into the lake and popping back up. A pontoon boat painted different shades of blue floated tethered at the dock. Out in the distance, she could barely make out two dark birds floating on the water. Sean had heard the familiar call of the loons. That sound was part of Sean's best memory. Sitting on the cabin deck with her mother, listening to the state birds calling out as she talked about her future plans and what would happen when Sean was finally able to leave here.
"You still a lezzy?" Sean heard a voice behind her ask.
"Uh huh," she answered without turning around. "You still a breeder?"
"Uh huh," the voice responded. "I hear you'll screw anyone with a vagina."
Sean finally turned around. Twenty feet from her stood a red head, wearing tight blue jeans and a green linen shirt. Sunglasses covered her eyes, but Sean knew they were a shade of green that perfectly matched the shirt she wore.
"Well, the way I hear it, you'll fuck anyone with a dick," Sean said, finally letting a grin appear on her face.
A matching smile broke out on the other woman's face. "Well, I hear you're a no good snake that lies, steals, and kicks puppies."
Sean laughed, "Well, I hear you're a lousy, lowdown home wrecker that wouldn't know the truth if it jumped up and bit her in the ass."
Loren Murphy laughed too. "So, how much money did you have to pay for the gold medals I saw hanging around your neck on TV?"
Sean walked towards the redhead, and stopped a foot in front of her. "More money than you'll ever see in this godforsaken place."
Loren pushed the sunglasses up on her hair. Her eyes danced as she reached out and pulled Sean into a long hug. It was a full body bear hug. The kind only two people who had known and kept one another's childhood secrets could share. "They said you'd be here, but I didn't believe it."
Sean tightened her arms around her best childhood friend, whom she hadn't seen since she left Johnsonville three days after graduation. "I'm definitely here," she said.
"God, it's good to see you." She patted her hand against Sean's chest in affection. "The Unstoppable Force, that's what they call you."
Sean blushed a bit as she nodded her head. "Yeah, it's all hype though. It gets people excited to come out and see the matches. The more fans in the stands, the more money the athletes make."
"The name fits though. I've seen you on TV. You own the sand."
"Thanks," Sean said, blushing even more.
"Have you seen anybody yet?"
"No, I've just been standing here. Waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
Sean shrugged a shoulder. She took a long pull off the beer bottle. "Who knows?"
Loren glanced at the front deck of The Pine Tree Inn, the supper club they were standing in front of. On the deck stood a small group of people, all of them looking curiously at Sean and Loren.
"Shall we get this over with?" Loren suggested.
Sean took a deep breath. "Why not? Remind me who these people are. You can start with the freaking idiot with the video camera." As they walked the few feet to her past, Sean listened as Loren began to name off the people she had lived among, but never really belonged to.
The jukebox sent out the beats of the '90s as Sean stood with her back to the wall, watching the scene in front of her. Sean had been surprised at the warmth of the reception she'd received from her former classmates. After an initial flurry of activity around her with everyone seeming to want to know where she'd been and what she'd done, Sean was grateful to be by herself, even if it was only for a few moments.
Loren joined her, leaning back against the wall. "You doing ok?"
Sean nodded. "It's not as bad as I've been anticipating." She pushed off from the wall. "I'll be right back. The beer's going right through me." She walked in the direction of the ladies' room.
She pushed open the door and came around a half wall. She stopped short, when she saw the only other occupant of the room. In high school Sofia Wilson was the "hot" girl. She was a cheerleader of course. The one every boy wanted to date, and every girl wanted to be like. Her long blond hair had shone, and in the summer it bleached almost white. Her eyes were a shade of blue that Sean had never seen before or since. But time had not treated Sofia well. Her hair hung lackluster from her head to her shoulders. The whites of her eyes were red and the pupils were dilated. Even from several feet away, Sean could smell the alcohol. The two women locked eyes.
"Why Sean Force. You actually came," Sofia said.
Sean felt her guard go up. "Yes, I did."
"Who would have thought you had the guts? I would have thought you'd never show your face around here again." Sofia's words were slurred.
Sean felt the blood pounding in her head and she blew out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Isn't that a little dramatic? Even for you?"
"Well, it is rather dramatic that you're here, wouldn't you say?"
Sean shrugged. "I'm just here to enjoy myself," she said, keeping her voice even.
"What makes you think you're wanted here?" Sofia asked.
"Nobody seems to have a problem with me being here," Sean pointed out. "In fact, they seem to be happy to see me."
"You're wrong," Sofia said angrily. Her voice got louder. "Nobody wants perverts here. Go back to wherever dykes like you go. Away from decent people."
"Decent people?" Sean asked. "You mean like you?"
Sofia threw her arm up and swept it across the small room. "Yes, decent people. Not only me, but everyone else in the world."
Sean's eyes flashed with anger but her voice remained calm. "Check your calendar," she said. "It's a decade or two too late. Since you've been wallowing in cocaine for the last ten years, perhaps you haven't heard. Being gay is in these days." She managed a bitter laugh.
Before Sofia could answer, the door opened. "Hey, you drown in there?" Loren said as she came into the room. Seeing Sofia, she stopped in her tracks. She looked from Sofia to Sean. "Are you ok?" she asked Sean.
Sean nodded. "I'm fine."
Sofia turned her attention to Loren. Her eyes narrowed in a glare. "You're a pervert too. Just like her." she said in a loud voice.
Loren stared back. "If you're saying I'm a lesbian, I'm not. Too bad we can't say the same about you."
"I'm normal," Sofia yelled. "I like men!"
Loren grinned slyly. "You keep telling yourself that. Too bad it's not true."
"You're just as much a loser as that bitch." Sofia snarled, swinging her arm in Sean's direction.
"What does that make you?" Loren interrupted her. "You liked her just fine in high school."
Sean turned to Loren. "Don't bother. It's not worth it."
"No," Loren said stepping between Sean and Sofia. She turned to face Sean. "I kept quiet because you asked me to, but I should have spoken up."
Loren turned towards Sofia. "You only turned against her when the two of you were caught kissing. You panicked and lied. But I remember being in the next room more than a few times when you two were going at it. I heard you. It would have been impossible not to. You're very loud when you come."
Sofia's eyes raged, and her jaw dropped. If a person could be said to bare her teeth, Sofia did it now. "That's a lie."
Sean walked over and grabbed Sofia's shoulders. She turned her to face the mirror. "Look at yourself Sofia. You've let this destroy you. Just let it go for Christ's sake."
Sofia whirled around, breaking Sean's hold. "Don't touch me. Don't you fucking touch me!" she shouted. The words echoed in the small room.
Suddenly exhausted, Sean walked towards the door. "Aren't you tired of holding onto this?" she asked Sofia. "God knows I am" She opened the door. "Do whatever you want, Sofia. Say whatever you're going to say. I don't care anymore. I'm done."
Furious, Sofia pointed her finger at Sean. "Nothing happened except you tried to kiss me. That's when Ms. Andrews walked in, and caught you trying to force me!"
"Oh for Christ's sake," Sean said, she let the door close. She rubbed her temples, trying to ease the headache that had begun to settle right behind her eyes. "Sofia, this is ridiculous. I'm not going to let you do this again. I let you take everything away from me once because I promised you I'd never tell anyone about us. I kept my word. But I'm not 17 any more."
"Why the hell did you come here?"
Sean rubbed her forehead again. "Because I'm tired of running."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"You know Sofia, until that day happened, I was all right here. I knew I needed to get somewhere else where I could have more freedom. But, I was ok. I had you; I had Loren, my family, volleyball, friends. I was even getting used to the fact that I liked girls. Especially after you and I started sleeping together."
"We never slept together," Sofia raged.
Sean shook her head. "Yes, we did. Nothing you can say will change that. I thought I understood you. I knew you cared too much about what other people thought, and I knew you liked to get high. Loren tried to tell me I shouldn't trust you, but I didn't care. I loved you. But then, we got caught, and you freaked and blamed it all on me. And I took it. I didn't fight back, because a small part of me thought in the end you'd realize what you had done, and you'd come back to me. And I would have taken you back. That's how much I loved you."
"Shut up!" Sofia screamed at her. Her face was red with fury as she spat out the words. "Shut the fuck up!"
"No, I won't," Sean said, her voice as soft and controlled as Sofia's was loud and desperate. "You brought this here tonight, not me."
Sofia shook her head. "All you had to do was stay away."
"That's it?" Sean said quietly. "All I had to do was to go and never come back? I did that. I left every person and every memory behind."
"Go back to California with the rest of the sickos. Nobody wants you here."
"I'll go back to my life in a few more days. But, I'm not going to just assume everything I thought about life here and the people that I knew was actually true. Maybe, people didn't think I was such a horrible person. Maybe, I never gave them a chance to tell me that."
Sean's calmness deflated Sofia's anger and she seemed sad. "What was I supposed to do Sean? You were always going to leave."
"Don't you know Sofia? You could have come with me. I wanted us to start a life together, somewhere where you could feel free to love me."
"In California? What would I do there? You'd go off to college and become a star. There wouldn't have been a place for me for very long. I knew that. You were the only one who didn't."
"So, instead, you threw me to the wolves?"
Sofia's bravado returned. Her face reddened and her words grew bitter. "I wasn't like you. I didn't like girls like you did. I liked boys."
Sean walked to the door one last time. "Whatever. Leave it behind. Live your life now. Haven't you lived in the past long enough? You've been drowning in it for the last ten years. God knows, I'm tired of it." She said over her shoulder, "Good-bye Sofia." She left the bathroom and Sofia in it, letting the door close quietly behind her. A second later, Loren joined her.
The two walked into the dining room where the rest of the class members were still enjoying themselves. She stopped at the bar to order a beer before she joined them.
"Yeah, go ahead and walk out," Sean heard Sofia's voice yell. She turned and saw Sofia weaving her way into the middle of the room. "Keep walking. Everybody knows what you are. No one wants you here."
A buzz formed around her. "That's not true Sean," said a woman in the center of the group. She stepped forward and Sean recognized her instantly. Avery Thomas had been senior class president. She had been among the loudest of those who had renounced Sean. She hadn't noticed Avery in the group before the confrontation with Sofia in the rest room.
"I want you here. So do a lot of other people," Avery said. She extended her right hand to Sean. "It's good to see you Sean."
Sean paused, and then reached out to shake it. "Hello, Avery."
"I mean it; it's good to see you." Avery repeated. "When I heard rumors you would be here, I hoped it was true."
"So you can repeat everything you used to say about me?" Sean asked.
Avery shook her head. "I deserve that, but no, that's not the reason."
"So I could apologize."
Sean snorted her disbelief. "Yeah, right."
"Look, I was horrible to you. A lot of people were. Finding out you were gay, well it wasn't something any of us had any experience with. We overreacted."
"Overreacted? That's what you call it?"
"I'm only speaking for myself, but I didn't know what to think then. All I had to go on was what Sofia said. You never even defended yourself."
"I shouldn't have had to. You were supposed to be my friend. Did you really think that I would try to force myself on another girl?"
Avery shook her head. "You're right. I'm sorry. I just wanted to say that. I hope you enjoy the reunion." She turned and started to walk away.
Sean hesitated before reaching out and touching Avery's shoulder. "Wait. We can't change the past. Might as well try to leave it where it belongs."
Sean looked to where Sofia had been standing. She was surprised to see her no longer there. "So where do we go from here?" Sean said.
Avery laughed, and the sound seemed to lift the heaviness that Sofia had brought with her. "You can start by returning to the party and telling us how it feels to actually win two gold medals."
It had been two days since the reunion at the restaurant. After the dinner on Friday night and the scene with Sofia, Loren insisted that Sean stay at her house instead of the motel. Sean took her up on the offer, and she and Loren had spent the last 48 hours catching up on one another's lives. Loren's husband Tyler had been very gracious. Obviously in love with Loren and their two girls, he had made Sean feel at home.
At Loren's house, she and Sean stood on the dock that extended into the blue water of Woman Lake. In the distance, the dark heads of the loons could be seen riding on the small waves made by passing boats. Their call could be heard easily by the two women.
"So, was it as bad as you were dreading?" Loren asked Sean.
Sean thought for a moment before shaking her head. "Well, the scene with Sofia was a mess, but the rest was fun. It's been great seeing you and meeting your family. They're great."
Loren smiled. "Yeah, they are. I'm so glad you came."
"I've hated this place for so long," Sean said. "But, maybe I shouldn't have. I just assumed that everyone would reject me again."
"We're more evolved than you might think," Loren said with a smile. "We've almost caught up the rest of the world in the 21st century."
Sean laughed out loud. "That's good to know." She pulled Loren to her and held her in a tight hug. "I've missed you, my old friend," she said quietly.
Loren held Sean close. "Me too you."
"Come out to California. Bring Tyler and the girls. You can meet Donovan and our kids. I think you'll like her."
"I'll talk to him." she said into Sean's neck. She pulled back and looked into Sean's face. "But we'll work it out. After all, I have to meet the woman who tamed The Unstoppable Force. She must be something else."
Sean grinned. "That she is."
"Sean Force married with two kids and two on the way. Who would have thought?" Loren teased.
"I love my life Loren," Sean said.
Loren looked into Sean's blue eyes. "You're happy. It shows. That makes me happy too."
"I didn't know life could be like this. Not until I met Donovan. " Sean said. "You seem ... at peace with your life."
Loren nodded. "I am. I fit here. I don't think I'd do well in an urban area. I hear too many things about what happens in big cities."
"Well, when you come to LA, I'll play bodyguard." Sean offered with a laugh
Loren chuckled. "Thanks."
"You'll come then?"
Loren nodded. "We'll come. Cross my heart."
Sean laughed. "Cross your heart?"
"Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye," Loren said with a grin.
Sean grinned back. "Donovan just looks at me like I'm crazy when I say that."
"So does Tyler," Loren said.
Loren and Sean walked slowly towards the driveway where the red sports car waited. Neither women in a hurry, both not wanting to see their companionship end. She slid an arm around Loren's back. "I shouldn't have taken so long to come," she finally said. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too. I should have done more to stay in touch with you," Loren said. "Time just got away from me, and by the time I started to hear about you in the press, I figured you would be too busy to catch up with this place."
"I probably would have been then," Sean agreed. "I like to think I've gotten a little more mature."
"Hopefully we both have," Loren said as they reached the car. She opened the driver's side door and Sean slid behind the wheel. Loren reached in and the two exchanged a last embrace. "Bye Sean," she said with a smile.
"Good bye," Sean said, as she closed the car door. She paused and then rolled down the window. "Thanks for everything,"
"Sure thing. Drive safely."
"I will," Sean said. She turned the key and within a minute, she had reversed out of the driveway and turned the car towards the road that would lead her back to Minneapolis and the plane that would take her home.
One last time, the red Porsche sat in front of the green sign on the edge of town. For the first time the sign read simply "Johnsonville, population 253." The weight of the last ten years had been lifted, and Sean felt a freedom she had dreamed about, but never thought she would actually realize. Whatever her sins, imaginary or real, she had done her time. Her reward was in Los Angeles, waiting for her to come home. She smiled at the realization. She picked up the cell phone, and held it to her ear. She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, waiting impatiently for Donovan to answer. After what seemed like an eternity, she did.
"Hi, baby," Sean said into the phone.
"Hey, you," Donovan said. "What's up?"
"I'm on my way home," Sean said.
"Are you glad you went?" Donovan said.
Sean paused. "Yes, I am. You were right. I needed to do this."
"That makes me happy sweetie. Tell me about it."
"Well, first of all, how do you feel about company visiting?"
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