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This alt. romance is an original story that belongs in the 'Beyond Uber' category. All characters are created by me, however they may remind you of someone.
This story hints at a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
This story contains occasional profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: March 26th - April 2nd, 2012, for the Royal Academy of Bards' Bard Challenge #27.
WA - Thanks for your help :D
Description: Welcome to a day in the life of Leigh Harper and Christina Graham - a day that will turn out to be anything but average. As Leigh and Chrissy are about to discover, the very special holiday known as 'Be Nice To Your Neighbor'-Day can also - surprisingly enough - be the perfect starting point for a very special, sweet romance…
Draining the last drops of coffee from her mug, thirty-five year old Leigh Harper sighed deeply and got up from the kitchen chair she had been sitting on for the past ten minutes.
After putting the mug in the sink, she pulled her shoulder-length mousy brown hair back into something resembling a ponytail to keep it out of her husky blue eyes, donned her knee pads, her protective gloves and her safety goggles and went back into the living room - that was her objective, anyway. In reality, she never made it further than the arch that connected the kitchen and the living room.
Once there, she leaned against the wall and stared at the chaotic mess her living room floor had turned into after she'd had the oh-so-brilliant idea to get a new wall-to-wall carpet instead of the gloomy brown, cigarette burn-riddled one that had been there when she had moved into the two-story house on Gerry Hudson Lane six days previously.
'Only needs a little work… my skinny butt. At least the carpet people haven't delivered the new one yet… I have no idea where I should have put it in the meantime,' she thought, scratching her cheek.
After turning on the radio to take her mind off the tedious work, she got down on her padded knees and took the metal spatula she had become intimately acquainted with over the last few days - she had the blisters to prove it.
With a sigh that sounded like the weight of the world was on her shoulders, she used the spatula to scrape off one of the myriad of rubber stains left behind when she had stripped the old carpet off.
'And welcome back! You're listening to Fort Greenbourne Radio, your number one source for local news and fantastic music,' the overly cheery female DJ said from the portable radio that Leigh had placed on top of a chair that was standing on top of a table that in turn was standing on four stacks of old newspapers to protect the bare floor.
The DJ's voice echoed through the empty room, creating an effect that worked well when something psychedelic was playing, but less well when Leigh was trying to listen to the news.
Sighing again, Leigh used her gloved fingers to scrape a stubborn piece of rubber debris off her spatula. Sitting back on her thighs, she stared in wide-eyed despair at the floor and the myriad of stains she still needed to scrape off before she'd be able to put on her new carpet.
"Oh well, it's not like you have anything else to do," she said out loud as she went back to work.
'Before we get to the news,' the DJ continued on the radio, 'don't forget that on this date, April twenty-first back in 1983, our dearly departed mayor, the unforgettable Rebeccah Demitrios created a local holiday that has become quite a tradition in our little community. Yes folks, it's the official Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day. Know someone who needs help with their spring cleaning? Perhaps their house needs a coat of paint? Maybe you could play with your neighbor's kids for an hour or two while their parents take a breather? Anything is possible on Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day. Before we get to the news at the top of the hour, we have time for some music. Here's a hit from 1996 that I'm sure you all remember, Toni Braxton's You're Making Me High.'
Leigh didn't have time to enjoy the old hit because at that exact moment, someone rang her doorbell. Groaning - yet relieved to get away from the spatula - she climbed to her feet and shuffled through her hall to get to the front door.
Whooshing it open, she very nearly startled the woman waiting outside into falling down the small flight of stairs that led down to the paved driveway.
"Oh… pardon me," Leigh said when she realized that she had opened the door a bit too strongly.
"Uh, it's all right, ha ha," the other woman said.
Leigh remembered briefly seeing her at the mall, but couldn't recall her name. The potentially embarrassing moment was defused when the other woman - holding a tray heavily laden with chocolate chip cookies - stepped forward and held out her hand.
"Hi, Leigh, I'm Helen. I live across the road. We haven't met yet… well, now we have, ha ha. Happy Neighbor Day," Helen said. She was a pretty, blue-eyed blonde in her late thirties with a sunny disposition and a matching dress.
"Labor Day? It's not labor day?" Leigh said and checked her wristwatch to see the date.
Helen briefly narrowed her eyes, trying to gauge if the tall, square-built woman in the blue jeans, the red-and-green checkered flannel shirt and the weird accessories was pulling her leg. When Helen came to the conclusion that she wasn't, she waved her hand and let out a chuckling laugh. "No, Neighbor Day. You know!"
"Oh… I just heard something about that on the radio…" Leigh said, pointing her gloved hand behind her towards the living room.
"Yes, yes, it's a huge holiday here!"
Shuffling around, Helen held up the tray of cookies. "Can I come inside? I was hoping we could trade cookie recipes. Mine are still hot."
"Cookie… recipes…?" Leigh said, drawing out the words in a fairly baffled voice. "Uh, I don't… uh… no, it, uh… no, I'm sorry. I don't bake."
"You d-don't bake…?" Helen stuttered, moving backwards until she was precariously close the edge of the top step.
"No, I don't, I'm afraid."
"Oh. Okay. Oh! I could teach you! It's Be Nice To Your Neighbor day, after all!"
"Ah, my oven isn't hooked up yet I'm afraid, Helen."
That news seemed to befuddle the cheery woman even more and she stared wide-eyed at Leigh. "But… didn't you move in a week ago?"
"Wh-what have you been eating in the meantime?"
"Oh… Well, you can still have a cookie… oh! Of course! Unless you're diabetic…?" Helen said, smiling like she had just solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
"No, actually, I just don't bake," Leigh said, moving fast to scoop up two chocolate chip cookies before Helen could remove the tray.
Walking backwards down the steps, Helen stared at the empty spot on the tray where the two cookies had been. When she looked back up, she had a confused look on her face. "Oh… oh. Well, I'll still wish you a happy Neighbor Day, Leigh. Maybe we'll run into each other again somewhere in the neighborhood…?"
"Maybe we will, Helen. Happy Neighbor Day… and thank you for the cookies… they're delicious," Leigh said and held up a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie.
"You're welcome," Helen said, but she was already so far away that the faint breeze caught her words.
Chewing noisily on the cookie, Leigh shrugged and closed the door.
"Christina Graham, will you get your lazy butt down here? It's a quarter past eleven! You can't sleep the day away, you know! It's Neighbor Day!" Hannah Graham shouted, standing at the foot of the staircase that led up to her thirty-two year old daughter's temporary bedroom.
When the only answer was a muffled groan, Hannah waved her hand and shuffled back into the kitchen where her other daughter, thirty-six year old Lindsay Thompson, was sitting at a table, busy sorting a freshly baked - and still steaming hot - batch of raisin scones.
"Still nothing from Snookums?" Lindsay said, adding a little snicker at the end of the sentence.
"No," Hannah said and put on her oven mitts. "She won't come down until she can smell the coffee," she continued, opening the door to the oven to check on the next batch of scones.
"Well, I better put some on, then," Lindsay said and got up from the table.
"Where's the coffee?" a tired voice slurred at the entrance to the kitchen, prompting Hannah and Lindsay to turn around and look at the third family member.
Christina Graham - wearing slippers, an oversized Bugs Bunny T-shirt, blue boxers and an unruly mop of ash blonde morning hair - appeared to be more dead than alive, judging by the pasty hue of her skin and the dark circles under her Irish green eyes that she shared with her mother and sister. Yawning widely, she shuffled over to one of the chairs and sat down with a bump.
"Good morning, Snookums," Lindsay said, effortlessly slipping into the teasing game she and her sister had played when they were children. After turning on the coffee maker, she crossed the kitchen floor and pulled her sister into a big hug. "Oh, it's so good to have a family morning again, Chrissy. Why won't you come and visit me and Henry and the little ones?"
"Mmmmmh. 'Cos your rugrats always ask the silliest questions," Christina said and scratched her wild hair.
"Yeah, like 'when are you ever gonna find a cute girl to hook up with?'," Hannah said and took off her oven mitts.
Groaning loudly, Christina pretended to get up from the chair, but even faking it was too much for her and she sat down again. "Not you too, Mom. Please! I can handle my own love life, thankyouverymuch."
"Or the lack of it," Hannah continued, sitting down opposite her daughters.
"Oh, ha… ha… ha."
Lindsay smiled broadly at the comical sight of her sister being completely bombed out, something she remembered all too well from her childhood. "So… Chrissy. Are you ready for Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day?"
"Ugh. I can't believe it's still going… You'd think that they'd done away with that nonsense after all these years. That's Smalltown, USA in a nutshell, I guess."
"Ohhhh!" Lindsay said, reaching across the table to smack her sister's shoulder. "Some of us love living here! We can't all live in the Big, Scary City, can we?"
Chuckling, Christina licked her lips, casting expectant, even addicted, looks at the bubbling coffee machine. "Did you know that the entire population of Fort Greenbourne could fit into one of the larger apartment complexes where I live? It's true, Sis."
When the coffee machine sent out an electronic ding , Hannah rose from her chair to get the pot. "Cold, impersonal, foreboding, plenty of concrete, bad people everywhere, can't walk alone after dark… need I go on?" she said as she poured black coffee into a mug she had found for Christina. "Here, it's warm, friendly, welcoming… everyone has a garden with flowers and little bushes or fruit trees, we have a wonderful park at the end of Gerry Hudson Lane where children can play alone from dawn to dusk… need I go on?"
"I know, I know, Mom. There are plenty of good reasons to live out here. But I love the Big City. You meet all kinds of people there and… well, I moved there to meet someone of my own kind, you know?" Christina said and took a long swig from her coffee.
A snicker from Lindsay made Christina turn her head and look at her sister. "I'm sorry, did I miss something funny?"
"No, no… it's just that you could have done that here. Now."
Nodding, Hannah gave each of her daughters a scone from the first batch, watching in amazement as the two blondes wolfed down the warm pastry. "That's right, Christina. The Johnsons next door moved out a month ago."
"Oh wow, really? Heh, I remember playing with the Johnson kid… what was he called…? Scott? Frank? No… I can't remember," Christina said, chewing vigorously on the scone.
"Anyway, the house was empty for a few weeks, but then a very nice lady moved in. She's living by herself."
"Oh?" Christina said and reached for a new scone - until she noticed the look on her mother's face and thought better of it. "Well, uh… how can I put it… just because she lives alone doesn't mean she's a lesbian, you know."
"Of course not, but she definitely is," Lindsay said and snickered again. "Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Sternberg told me down at the mall. They said that she dressed like a man and walked like a m-"
Pointing a strong index finger at her sister, Christina sat up straight and leaned in towards the center of the table. "Okay, just hang on for a moment, Sis. You know how I feel about that kind of gossip. That's another reason why I went to live in the city… I got fed up with everyone talking about me behind my back."
After a brief pause, Lindsay reached across the table and gave her sister's hand a little squeeze. "I know, Chrissy. I'm sorry. But I actually do think Miss Harper is a lesbian."
"Mmmmh. And you know exactly what a lesbian looks like, right?"
When the oven sent out a signal that meant the next batch of scones was ready, Hannah got up and put on her oven mitts again. "You can see for yourself when you come with us on the traditional cookie run. We'll start at Miss Harper's house like we always do."
"Ohhh… do I have to come…?" Christina whined, sounding dangerously like her thirteen-year old self would have.
"Yes do you, young lady. Once you're done with your coffee, I suggest you shower and get dressed. We're late as it is," Hannah said, taking a baking grill filled with scones out of the oven and placing it on the kitchen table.
Snatching a scone from the first tray without her mother noticing, Christina emptied her mug, rose from her chair and shuffled over to the staircase. "Okay, Mom, I won't be long," she said, looking at her sister and holding her index finger across her lips in the universal sign for 'you shut up about the scone I took or else…'
"Ohhhh… that damn Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day," Leigh said as the door bell sounded for the fourth time in thirty minutes - all her guests had been visiting neighborhood ladies wanting to hawk their cookies.
Grumbling loudly, she put the spatula down and got on her feet. Wiping her dusty hands on her blue jeans, she seriously considered putting a sign on the door that said 'I don't have any cookies and I don't want any, neither!' . "Heh, that probably wouldn't even be enough," she mumbled under her breath as she whooshed the front door open.
This time, it was she who was startled by her guests when she spotted three very similar-looking blondes, one somewhat older than the two others, standing on her door step with a tray of scones. One was wearing a sensible dress, one was wearing a much louder dress, and the final one - the cute one, Leigh noted - was wearing khaki cargo pants and a long-sleeved, purple T-shirt.
The older one stepped forward, clearly expecting to be invited in. "Hi, we're the Grahams. I'm Hannah and these lovely ladies are my daughters Lindsay and Christina. We're your next door neighbors… I can't believe we haven't said hello to each other yet. Where can I put these?"
"Uh… okay, wait a minute," Leigh said, mopping her sweaty brow, but Hannah had already barged past her headed for the kitchen.
"Oh, happy Neighbor Day," Hannah added as she put down the tray on the kitchen table, sending the tall brunette her most winning smile.
"Uh, happy Neighbor Day to you, too," Leigh said and followed the eager woman into the kitchen.
Shutting the front door behind her, Christina sighed deeply and thrust her hands into the pockets of her cargo pants. "You have to excuse my Mom, Miss Harper. Once she sets her sights on something, she's like a tiger zeroing in on a gazelle."
"Uh-huh?" Leigh said, secretly taking a good look at the cutest of the three blondes. The two Graham sisters looked fairly similar, but the best genes had filtered down to the youngest who had a very pretty face with a sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks and her button nose, and a pair of expressive, sparkling Irish green eyes that were set just right.
What Leigh couldn't know was that Christina was checking her out, too. 'Hmmm… wow, I think Lindsay was right for once. Nice, broad shoulders… she's probably got really nice muscles underneath that flannel shirt. Nice legs… nice breasts… really nice eyes… all in all… nice.'
"Chrissy, I-" Lindsay started to say, but before she had time to complete the sentence, she was interrupted by Christina.
"Nice," the youngest Graham said without hesitation. A split second later, she realized that she had been thinking out loud and flushed fire engine red, thankful that she hadn't said something far worse.
Lindsay clamped her hand on her mouth so she wouldn't laugh out loud in someone else's house. Looking at her sister only made it worse, so she turned to look at Leigh instead.
Leigh sort of understood what was going on, but she was too fed up with the stubborn floor and from being interrupted all the time to really join in on the fun. "Look, Mrs. Graham… I'm really sorry, but-"
"Oh, call me Hannah."
"Hannah, I'm really sorry, but I don't have any cookies. My oven isn't even installed yet and I've been so busy with the living room floor that I just-"
"Oh, that's all right, dear," Hannah said and patted Leigh's gloved hand. "It doesn't matter. It's Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day."
Grabbing hold of Leigh's hand, the elder Graham leaned in towards the much taller woman and said: "Are you trying to tell me you don't want any of my scones?" she said in a mock-menacing voice.
Leigh had to admit that the delightful smell of the freshly baked scones did go straight to her empty stomach, so she just shrugged and grinned goofily.
"Didn't think so. Lindsay, take the picture. Our work here is done."
"Picture?" -- "What picture?" Christina and Leigh said as one, both looking at the other wearing identical grins when they realized they had said the same thing.
Holding her camera phone ready, Lindsay guided her mother up next to Leigh. "After an unfortunate incident last year for Mrs. Jones, the Fort Greenbourne Association of Housewives has decided that we need to take photographic evidence of all the houses we and the other groups go to… you know, to prove that we've actually been where we said we went. Hold steady… o… kay," she said, snapping a picture.
Lindsay quickly checked the quality and then gave the other woman a bright thumbs-up.
"And that wraps up things here," Hannah said and shook hands with a somewhat baffled Leigh. "Next up is Mrs. Rosenthal," she continued, walking towards the front door.
"Ohhhh! Not Mrs. Rosenthal! How can she still be alive? It's impossible! She must be a hundred and one by now… oh God, she always offered us crackers with some kind of… ugh… Swiss cheese, or something," Christina whined nasally, earning herself a grin and a groan from Leigh and Lindsay, respectively.
"She still does, young lady. And she's eighty-two, by the way," Hannah said.
"But that's where we're going… unless you want to stay here and help Miss Harper with her floor…?" Christina's mother continued, adding a few winks at the end of the sentence to guide her occasionally slow-witted daughter along.
Finally getting the message, Christina snickered and shoved her hands into her pockets. "Oh. Oh, sure, I could do that. Hey, that's what Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day is for, right?" she said, looking expectantly at the tall, pretty woman standing next to her.
Inside, Leigh didn't know whether or not to say yes, but the look in the eyes of the short, cute blonde convinced her to accept the deal. "Yup. All right by me. Hi, I'm Leigh," she said, putting out her hand.
"I'm Christina, but everyone apart from my mother calls me Chrissy," Christina said, smiling broadly at feeling the tall woman's strong, firm grip.
"Or Snookums… that's because she was the cutest kid imaginable when she was a little girl," Lindsay said in between a couple of snickers, but she was quickly shushed by her mother.
Putting her hands on her elder daughter's shoulders, Hannah turned the snickering blonde around and pointed at the door. "We're leaving," she said over her shoulder to her younger daughter and the tall, statuesque woman next to her. 'Oh yeah, this is going to work just fine,' she thought on her way out the door.
"Bye, Mrs. Graham," Leigh said, adding a little wave.
"So…" Christina said as the door closed and she was left alone with the tall, strong woman.
"So," Leigh echoed.
Shuffling over to the arch between the kitchen and the living room, Christina leaned against the wall in the exact same spot Leigh had been standing at earlier in the day. "You're fixing the living room floor?"
"Yeah. The people who lived here before left a horrible brown carpet…"
"I know. I used to play on it with the son of the house a couple of times a week for a few years," Christina said and stepped onto the bare floor.
"Oh, really? When you were a kid…? Well, duh."
Chuckling, Leigh slapped her forehead when she realized what she had said.
"When I was a kid, yeah," Christina said and matched Leigh's chuckle. Walking into the completely empty living room, she stopped at a particular spot and turned around. "We were… mmm… here. Yeah, in a little portable play pen overlooking the fireplace. This house is identical to Mom's, actually… no, that's not entirely true, it's mirrored."
"I see," Leigh said and tried to look at her living room and her house through the eyes of a stranger - she knew it wasn't much, but it was hers.
What the real estate agent had called a stately room had turned out to be a twelve by twenty foot den that had looked quite awful with the aforementioned brown carpet, dark curtains, gaping holes in the walls where picture frames had been hanging, a fireplace that was in dire need of some TLC, a window pane that had cracked all the way down in one of the two sections facing the garden, and worst of all, a penetrating stench of nicotine that not even six straight hours of ventilation through all four windows had been able to eradicate. And yet, she had bought it on the spot.
"At least the kitchen was fairly easy to get up to modern standards," Leigh said quietly.
"You know, it's not all that bad. Yeah, okay, you do have a little way to go…" Christina said and looked at the myriad of rubber stains on the floor, "but I could definitely see this place turn into something great."
Surprised by the compliment, Leigh sent the cute blonde a stunning smile and mumbled a thank you.
"You're welcome. Now… do you have another spatula? I feel like killin' some rubber stains," Christina said and rolled up her sleeves.
Finding her spare spatula in her tool box, Leigh held it tight, like she didn't know if she should really give it to the cute blonde or not. "Oh, you don't have to do that, Chrissy."
"Hey, I insist. C'mon, gimme," Christina said and held out her hand.
"Well, I have a spare spatula, but only one set of knee pads. You're going to be hurting in five minutes… I hope you're not going to sue me…?"
"Nah. We're fine… this time," Christina said and sat down on the floor not far from the place she had often played more than thirty years previously. When she noticed that Leigh had cocked her head and was looking at her with a strange look on her face, she realized that her words could be misinterpreted. "Oh, that was just a joke, Leigh. I wouldn't sue you."
Scratching her cheek, Leigh lowered her safety goggles and got down on her hands and knees. "Oh… okay," she said after a little while, thinking that a lawsuit was all she needed in the mess known as her personal life.
Twenty minutes and ten rubber stains later, Christina threw down the spatula and wiped a few beads of sweat off her forehead. "Phew, this is hard going, Leigh."
"Mind if I chit-chat while I catch my breath?"
"Chit-chat all you feel like, Chrissy. Mind if I scrape while you talk?" Leigh said, holding her spatula in front of her.
"Not in the least," Christina answered with a broad smile. "So… you're new here?"
"Yeah. Moved in six days ago."
When the tall woman didn't offer any further information or explanation, Christina just knew her curiosity wouldn't be satisfied unless she had poked a bit around in the unsaid.
"So…" Christina tried again. "Didya live in the Big City before that, or…?"
"Yeah. Nearly all my life… I've moved around a bit, but the last few years, I stayed in one place. The last apartment, I shared with…" - Looking up, Leigh tried to gauge how Christina would react to the coming news, but felt in her heart that she'd be all right - "with my girlfriend. We broke up."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Christina said, thinking that her feelings - and the village gossip - had been right, for once.
"Thanks, but… ah, we were done, you know?"
"Oh, trust me, I know," Christina said and chuckled darkly.
The voice Leigh had used to ask the question held so many facets that Christina couldn't stop a broad, knowing smile from spreading out over her lips. "Yeah," she said, answering the question in a very similar tone of voice.
"Hmmm. Imagine that. Are we the only lesbians in Fort Greenbourne, Chrissy?"
Leaning her head back, Christina let out such a loud belly laugh that Leigh's question was answered without the use of words. "I think we are, yeah," she said a short while later.
"Hmmm! You still live in the City, right?"
"Oh yeah, I'm just here for the holiday and for Mom's birthday on Tuesday," Christina said and went back to work trying to scrape off a particularly nasty stain. "I live in a huge apartment complex on Ninety-eighth Street, close to the subway station."
"Oh wow, no kidding?"
"I'll be going past that station every day when I start my new job next week. I'm, uh… kinda between jobs at the moment," Leigh said, looking away from the cute blonde when she realized that she had perhaps said a bit too much about herself.
The spatula long forgotten, Christina crossed her legs and put her elbows on her knees, feeling surprisingly eager to get to know the tall woman a bit better. "Yeah? I work in a small photo shop over on Ninety-fourth Street, close to Rockingham Park… where's your new job?"
"The Herald on Seventy-first Street. I'm gonna be working as a secretary to the editor of the sports section on Sundays."
"Heh, that's a mouthful," Christina said with a grin.
"I know, but it's going to be really interesting… well, I hope it will, anyway."
"So, the sports section… have you been-"
Christina's question was rudely interrupted by the door bell ding-dong- ing its head off. Leigh just groaned and thumped her fist down onto the floor, but Christina jumped to her feet and shot over to the door - after all, it was Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day.
"Oh… hello, Mrs. Harrington," Christina said, biting her cheek and groaning long and hard inwardly at the sight of one of Fort Greenbourne's most notorious busybodies. Looking at the other woman, Christina noted that despite a fancy dress and a fairly pretty face, the thirty-seven year old Ava Harrington was still a shark.
"Hello, Miss Graham, happy Neighbor Day," Ava Harrington said in a deceptively sweet voice. "Say, did I get the wrong house…?" she continued, turning around to look at the Graham residence next door.
"No, you didn't, Mrs. Harrington. This is Miss Harper's house. She just moved in last week… as I'm sure you already know… and in the spirit of Neighbor Day, I'm giving her a helping hand."
"Really? Oh, that's so nice," Ava said, clearly fishing for further news.
Not wanting to feed the shark, Christina just "hmmm"-ed and acted passively.
"Well, I'm sure the two of you have plenty of things to talk about… common reference points and all that. Oh, what I really came for are these," Ava Harrington said and held out a tray of blueberry muffins that Christina had to admit looked and smelled pretty good.
Smiling broadly, Ava Harrington nodded several times and thrust the tray ahead. "I was thinking that you might want to taste one… or maybe even two. I spoke to Helen Potts earlier today and she said that Miss Harper's oven wasn't connected yet, so I thought, Ava, what better way to say hello to a new resident of our fair town than to make her your famous blueberry muffins."
"Well… thank you, Mrs. Harrington," Christina said and reached for two muffins, but before she had time to take them, Leigh came up to stand next to her in the doorway.
In the meantime, the tall woman had taken off her flannel shirt, revealing a black tank top and a pair of well-toned arms and shoulders that confirmed all Ava Harrington's pre-conceived notions to such a degree that it left her speechless and very nearly cross-eyed with giddiness.
Christina, knowing exactly what had just happened, snatched a further two muffins from the tray just to spite the busybody. "Thank you, Mrs. Harrington. We're really busy and we'd like to go back to work now," she said, trying to close the door in Ava's face.
"Yes, yes, I hope you'll like the muffins. Goodbye, Miss Graham. Happy Neighbor Day, Miss Harper," Ava Harrington said, unable to hide the fact that she was practically bursting at the seams to tell all her acquaintances - or everyone, for that matter - that she and Rachael Sternberg had been right in their suspicions.
Once the door was closed, Christina turned around and gave the other woman a look of sympathy. "Shoot, I'm really sorry about that, Leigh. You would have run into her sooner or later, but… this was just bad luck. That's life in the small town right there… everybody wants to know everything about everybody else."
Shrugging, Leigh began to move back into the living room, pulling her hair back to fix a few loose strands that had escaped from her temporary ponytail. "Ah… no big deal. I am who I am."
"And so is Mrs. Harrington," Christina added darkly.
"Looks like it. Do you know her from when you lived here?"
"Yeah. She's always been like that. Jeez, I remember that earlier, she and her parents lived over on the next street, and sometimes at night, I could see her standing in her bedroom window with a pair of flippin' binoculars!"
"Some people are like that, unfortunately. Listen, instead of juggling those muffins, why don't you go into the kitchen and find a couple of plates?" Leigh said, adding a little sly grin at the end of the sentence.
"Wow, do you have your plates in the kitchen? We always keep our plates in the bathroom," Christina said and laughed out loud on her way out of the living room.
Chuckling, Leigh got down on her padded knees to resume her chores, but after removing the first couple of stains, she let out a deep sigh and put the spatula down again. "Screw this, I need a break… and some coffee."
"Sounds like a plan, Leigh," Christina said, standing under the arch, silently observing her new neighbor. "We've got scones and muffins… all we need for a picnic is some pancakes."
"Shhh, someone might hear you," Leigh said and took off her gloves and her safety goggles.
"Yeah… you might be right," Christina said, instinctively licking her lips as Leigh's movement made her well-toned biceps flex.
"Leigh, would you mind if I asked you a personal question?" Christina said, chewing on one of her mother's scones.
Looking over the rim of her mug, Leigh shot the cute blonde a puzzled look but finally shrugged and decided to roll with whatever she could ask her. "Depends on what it is… nah, go right ahead."
"Why here? Of all places, why Fort Greenbourne?"
"Quite honestly because it was a cheap town to buy a house in. That's all, really," Leigh said and took a big bite out of a blueberry muffin.
"But a house…? It's just so… I don't know… Old-fashioned?"
Chuckling, Leigh took a long swig of her instant coffee. "Oh, just for the record, I'm an old-fashioned kind of woman," she said once she put the mug back down on the kitchen table. "But, uh… I guess I just wanted to get away from the Big City. It got to me. I needed some time alone to get back on my feet."
"Hmmm… I know all about that, Leigh. Still, I wouldn't want to move back here, not permanently, anyway. I'd feel… feel boxed in. Even though I live so close to hundreds of thousands of people in the City, I never feel boxed in. Out here, I felt it the moment I arrived last night when Mrs. Sternberg was the first to greet me, even before my Mom and my sis."
"Yeah, it's going to be quite different, I'm aware of that. Right now, I've only seen a third of Fort Greenbourne, the mall… the Cineplex… the gas station… That's about it."
"Which reminds me… I noticed that your driveway is empty, don't you have a car?" Christina said, snatching a blueberry muffin.
"I have an old Dodge Ram truck, actually, but it's in the shop down at the gas station. A couple of days ago, it started running rough but when I tried to change the sparkplugs, the first one was so rusty the top broke off in the wrench. I didn't have any tools, so…"
"Oh, down at Mac's Garage?"
"I'll speak with Mac before I leave. We were classmates back in elementary school. I think he had a crush on me… I might be able to get you a discount," Christina said with a chuckle.
"Much obliged. Don't do anything I wouldn't do to get it, huh?" Leigh said and reached over to punch Christina's shoulder. After she had done it, she froze in place, realizing what she had done. "Oh… Hey, I'm sorry, Chrissy… it just happened…"
Pretending to have been hit by a right hook to the chin, Christina wobbled around on the chair and let her tongue rest sloppily in the corner of her mouth. "Oh, it's okay," she slurred, sounding somewhat like Daffy Duck in one of the classic cartoons. "Couldn't even feel it…!"
Leigh chuckled nervously, but still reached out and patted Christina's shoulder to make it better. "I'm sorry. I usually don't invade people's personal space like that. It's one of my pet peeves, actually."
"Naw, don't worry about it, Leigh. I'm cool."
"Oh… good. So… uh…" Leigh said, looking around her kitchen to find something to do or talk about that wouldn't involve her putting her foot in her mouth - or punching anyone.
Noting the change of mood, Christina emptied her coffee and wondered if Leigh wanted to be alone. When she couldn't fully read the signals the tall woman was sending her, she leaned forward and put both elbows on the kitchen table. "I've seen your living room and your kitchen… have you had time to do anything with the second floor?" she said, sending out what she thought of as a trial balloon.
"The second floor? Well, it's my bedroom and a small box room where I keep the things that'll go into the living room… eventually," Leigh said with a deep sigh as she turned around and looked at the hundreds of rubber stains she still needed to scrape off.
"Oh I know what's up there, the house is identical to my Mom's, remember? No, I meant, how did you fix up the bedroom? Historically, the bedroom is the first one to get pimped."
"Pimped?" Leigh said and let out a loud belly laugh. "Right now, it's so un-pimped it couldn't get any less if I tried. After doing the kitchen, I started on the living room…"
"But… your bed… and stuff?"
Pushing back her chair, Leigh got to her feet and put the two mugs into the sink. "It's easier if I show you. I can hear you don't believe me," she said with a wink.
"You're on," Christina said and shot up from her chair. In two heartbeats, she was at the foot of the stairs, but then she paused and pointed downwards. "This carpet looks like hell, too, Leigh. There are cigarette burns on nearly every step."
"I know," Leigh said with a very deep sigh. "It's next on my to-do list."
"Oh… okay. Sorry I mentioned it."
"No problem. Go on, you need to see that I'm not pulling your leg." - 'Not that it wouldn't be worth pulling,' Leigh thought as she ascended the stairs, walking behind Christina's form-fitting cargo pants.
Once they reached the landing at the top of the stairs, Christina quickly entered the bedroom to her left, located above the living room. Stopping with a jerk, she performed a slow three-hundred sixty degree turn to take in all the sights, scrunching up her face as she did so.
"Hmmm, you weren't pulling my leg. You don't have anything in here… nothing at all!" Christina said, staring at the near-empty bedroom.
A naked light bulb was hanging down from the ceiling on a plastic cord, the wallpaper had been stripped from the walls, the floor was bare - save for the inevitable cigarette burns and a few smears of paint in various colors - and all in all, the only signs of life were an open closet partially filled with clothes, a mattress, a pillow, a blanket, and an opened book lying in the middle of the floor.
"Oh my God, Leigh, tell me you're not sleeping on the floor!" Christina suddenly exclaimed, pointing at the mattress.
"Sure I do. I've bought a bed but it hasn't been delivered yet."
"But… have you been sleeping on the floor for a full week?!"
Spinning around, Christina poked the tall woman in the chest with her index finger. "Okay, who are you? Wonder Woman? Xena Warrior Princess? One of Charlie's Angels? We're in the twenty-first century… nobody sleeps on the floor anymore!"
"Ouch! … I hear you, I hear you…" Leigh said, rubbing her upper chest. "The people at the store said it would take them three work days to deliver the bed, but then they lost my order or some shit like that, and they had to go back and re-order it directly from the factory or whatever. I wasn't planning on sleeping on the floor for this long!"
"Oh, you should have asked my Mom, Leigh! She'd have let you use my old bedroom in an instant. She only uses it for various stuff she doesn't have the heart to throw out!"
"Well, I didn't know your Mom, Chrissy. Even if I had, I'd never have asked a complete stranger about something like that," Leigh said and stepped over her mattress to get to the double windows at the far end of the room.
"Out here, you *can* ask about things like that. Even when it's not Neighbor Day, we're actually quite friendly to one another here on Gerry Hudson Lane. Shoot, listen to me… I'm defending Fort Greenbourne but I left 'cos I didn't like it here!" Christina said with a chuckle, following Leigh over to the window.
"I'll remember that if my bed hasn't arrived in a couple of days," Leigh said and pulled aside the makeshift curtain - a towel wrapped around the existing rod - to give them an unrestricted view of the front lawn and the driveway.
When nothing much was happening outside, she turned around and moved her arm in a sweeping gesture. "In here, I'm planning to acid-wash the floor, paint the walls and the ceiling white, and maybe put up a framed picture or two. Or three."
"Oooh, I've got a great idea, Leigh! In a lunch break sometime, why don't you take the subway back to Ninety-fourth Street and visit the photo shop where I work? We've got tons and tons of posters in all sizes… and if you're not satisfied with what we've got, we can make posters out of your own photos. We just need 'em on a memory card or a disc and they'll be printed in any size you'd like. How about it?"
"Well… isn't that really expensive?"
"Not really, you can get a twenty-eight by forty inch poster on high gloss paper for twenty dollars. Thirty if you want us to frame it for you," Christina said with a broad smile.
Looking at the cute blonde's sparkling eyes and her wide, genuine smile, Leigh's heart sent a subliminal message to her brain - wrapped in purple crepe paper and sealed with a fluffy, golden bow tie - that she'd be very foolish indeed if she didn't act on the offer… or perhaps even offers.
Leigh nodded absentmindedly and looked back out the window. 'She's cute… but it's too soon, Leigh. Much too soon…' - "Yeah? That's not too bad," she said out loud, almost as an afterthought.
"Think about it. I'm guessing it'll be a while," Christina said, chuckling.
"Hopefully not too- oh, look at that," Leigh said and pointed out the window at a woman and a young girl walking up the driveway.
Moving closer to the window, Christina pressed her nose against the pane to see better. Looking down at the two people, it didn't take her long to recognize the mother. "Oh, that's Cheryl Hansen. Wow, she's got a kid… and she looks normal! Back in the day, she was a real Goth. Black coats, black eyeliner, black hair, black everything. I remember that she wore a lacy black bra to school one day… on *top* of a white T. That was the scandal of the year."
A shrill Ding-dong! soon echoed through the hall and up the stairs, prompting Leigh to roll her eyes and look towards the heavens. "First chance I get, I'm gonna change that damn ding-dong into something else," she said and stepped over her mattress to get to the staircase.
"You can buy it at the hardware store down at the mall, Leigh," Christina said, needing to move her legs much faster than usual to follow the long-legged woman's stride.
Leigh was at the door in no time flat, hoping to open it before the door bell had time to ring again, but just as she opened it, the ding-dong returned with a vengeance.
"Oh, hi! Happy Neighbor Day!" the woman outside gushed in a sugary voice. In her early thirties, she had blue eyes, sunflower-blonde hair and a friendly face. Next to her stood a mini-her, right down to the way their noses made a little dip halfway down the bridge. "I'm Cheryl Robertson and this is my daught- OHMIGOD! CHRISSY!" Cheryl howled as Christina appeared in the doorway next to Leigh.
"Hi, Cheryl," Christina said, waving.
"Ohhhhhh!" Cheryl howled and jumped forward with her arms stretched out ahead of her. Wrapping herself around Christina's far more petite frame, she gave the shorter woman a huge, crushing hug that left her quite badly winded. "I haven't seen you since… since… since… I don't even know when it was!"
"Since we graduated from high school," Christina said, taking a few deep breaths to get some air back into her lungs.
"Oh Goodness me, that must be it. But what are you doing back here? Didn't you move to the Big City? Is your Mom all right? Didn't you live next door back then?" Cheryl said, speaking so fast that the questions blended into one long word.
"Uh… I'm just back for Neighbor Day and Mom is fine. So is Lindsay and her family for that matter. And yes, Mom still lives next door… I'm just helping Mom's new neighbor Leigh with her living room floor," Christina said, putting her hand on Leigh's elbow.
Only after she'd done it did she remember that Leigh had told her that the concept of personal space was one of her pet peeves, and she hurriedly removed her hand, hoping that the tall woman wouldn't be too annoyed with her. A quick glance at Leigh confirmed that she had a strange look on her face, so Christina leaned in and whispered: "Sorry. It was just a reflex."
Leigh did feel strange after the insignificant little incident, but the feeling wasn't brought on by discomfort, but by the curious tingle that still seemed to cling to her arm even long after Christina had removed her hand. "Oh, that's… uh, quite all right," she said a few seconds later.
Smiling, Christina crouched down so she was at eye level with the young girl. When the girl returned the smile, Christina put out her hand and they were soon shaking hands like a pair of proper ladies. "Hi, I'm Chrissy. What's your name?"
"Anne," the young girl said shyly.
"That's such a pretty name. How old are you?"
"Four and some."
"And some?" Christina echoed, looking at Cheryl.
Leaning down, Cheryl mussed her daughter's hair and straightened the collar of her pint-sized windbreaker. "She means she's almost five. It's her birthday next week, isn't that right, sweetie?"
"So… would you like to try some French hazelnut-chip cookies? We've made them all by ourselves," Cheryl said and pulled a plastic carrier bag containing a metal cookie jar down from her shoulder.
"Sure," Christina said, standing up.
"What kind o' cookies do you have for us?" Anne said, wearing a hopeful smile.
"Well…" Leigh started to say, but when she saw the excited look in the kid's eyes, her voice trailed off into nothing. Instead, she scrunched up her face and put her hands on her hips, accentuating her well-toned upper arms - something that Christina noticed at once.
"I'm sorry, Anne, I don't have any cookies for you. My oven isn't hooked up yet," Leigh said after a short pause.
After that horrible newsflash, it only took Anne two seconds to break out in an eardrum-bursting, glass-shattering howl that could be heard over most of Fort Greenbourne and that caused Leigh to take a staggering step back.
"We were just at Mrs. Rosenthal's," Cheryl explained as she knelt down and began to wipe her daughter's eyes. "She didn't have any cookies either, only salt crackers with some kind of gross cheese on it… ugh."
"Shoot," Leigh said, scratching her hair. Looking at Christina, she conveyed a silent S.O.S. in the vain hope that the local resident would have a bright idea.
"The last of Mom's scones," Christina said, clapping her hands together. "Yup. Come on in, Cheryl. We have some raisin scones and a solitary blueberry muffin… should be enough to comfort your lovely daughter," she continued, putting her hand on the back of Anne's head to lead her into the hall.
Closing the door behind the group of strangers who were suddenly invading her home, Leigh shrugged in a very resigned fashion. "I'm never gonna get that floor done," she mumbled on her way into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, Anne sat on her mother's lap in the kitchen, alternating between giggling happily and munching noisily on one of Hannah's raisin scones.
"That did the trick… thanks, Chrissy," Cheryl said, mussing her daughter's hair.
"You're welcome. I'm sorry Leigh didn't have any chocolate milk in the fridge but it was kinda unexpected."
"Oh, that's all right," Cheryl said and held the drinking straw steady so Anne could get a little slurp of the Coke Leigh had provided - the only soft drink she'd had in her fridge, apart from a moldy ginger ale.
"So you said your name was Robertson now?" Christina said, putting her elbows on the table.
"That's right. I guess I kinda married Matt Robertson. Remember him?"
"Not Matt the Slacker!" Christina said with a chuckle.
Cheryl covered her daughter's ears with her hands and leaned in towards Christina. "Uh-huh. I found out that he had hidden talents. Or rather, one big one," she said in a stage whisper, wiggling her eyebrows in a very telling fashion.
"Oh, God, I didn't need to know that," Christina said and made a horrified face.
"Sorry," Cheryl said, but the cheeky look on her face told a different story. "Are you seeing anyone these days?"
"Nah, I'm just me, myself and I."
"Aw, that's too bad."
Walking into the kitchen, Leigh lifted her safety goggles and wiped her sweaty forehead. "Phew, that floor is tough going," she said, removing a piece of stray rubber that threatened to slip down her cleavage.
Cheryl looked at the tall, buff woman; then at Christina. Once she got a good look at them, it wasn't hard for her to make the connection, and she had to swallow the comment that had already formed at the tip of her tongue. "You moved in last weekend, didn't you, Miss Harper? I noticed a U-haul parked outside for half a day or so," she said, wiping Anne's mouth on a napkin.
"Uh, yeah…" Leigh said, looking at Christina who grinned and shrugged in return. "Yeah, that's right. I had rented a U-haul for my furniture and stuff. A couple of sideboards, a couple of book cases, a closet, my TV, all those things."
"I don't get it… where did you put all that stuff, Leigh?" Christina said once she realized she hadn't seen any of those things in her brief tour of the house.
"Up in the storage room next to the bedroom."
"Holy shit, Leigh! Tell me you didn't carry a TV, closets, sideboards and God knows what else up the narrow staircase… by yourself!"
"Well, sure I did. I didn't have anyone here to help me," Leigh said and scratched her hair, not sure what all the fuss was about.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, you could have asked my Mom! She would have called around. In ten minutes flat, you would've had so many people here helping you that all you needed to do was to tell 'em where they should put it! That's how we do things here in Fort Greenbourne," Christina said, holding her hand on her forehead.
"Uh, well, like I said before, Chrissy, I didn't know your Mom then…"
Giggling, Cheryl moved her daughter down on the floor and got up from the kitchen chair. After making sure that Anne's jacket was on properly, she knelt down and kissed the tip of the little girl's nose. "Anne and I have had a blast, Miss Harper. And Chrissy is right, out here in the countryside, we dance to a different beat. I know that some things aren't as golden as others… we have some… uh, nosy people here and there…"
"Oh, Mrs. Harrington has already been here," Christina added offhand.
"Mmmm, yeah… but all in all, we have a nice, warm, friendly community. I hope you'll come to love it as much as the rest of us do."
"Hmmm"-ing, Leigh started biting her cheek, wondering if the community would remain nice, warm and friendly once Mrs. Harrington had told everyone who would listen that their new neighbor was a tall, muscular lesbian. Pushing those negative thoughts aside, she crouched down to get closer to Anne.
The little girl's face lit up in a smile at the attention she was given, and she squealed and reached out ahead of her in an attempt to give Leigh a high five.
Carefully slapping Anne's hand, Leigh returned the smile. "Hey, Anne, you and your Mom can stop by anytime. I promise to have some cookies and maybe even some chocolate milk for you… okay?"
"Okay," Anne said, nodding so hard that her hair bobbed up and down.
Cheryl put out her hand and waited for Leigh to get up so they could shake hands. "Oh, that would be so nice, wouldn't it, Anne?" she said, marveling over Leigh's firm grip. "Thanks, Miss Harper."
"Oh, call me Leigh," Leigh said and waved her hand.
"Thanks, Leigh. We better get going… but not before I've given Chrissy another little hug," Cheryl said and pulled Christina into another smothering embrace.
"Uhhh! Thanks, Cheryl. See you at the jamboree," Christina said, smoothing down her hair.
Pulling a face, Cheryl opened the door and sent her daughter outside. "Oh, you just had to mention the jamboree… I've been in denial ever since last year, pretending that we'd never have to go again. Nah, just kidding. Sort of. See you there," she said and walked out the front door.
Once she had closed the door, Leigh turned around and shot Christina a very puzzled look. "What jamboree?"
"Oh, it's just a little thing. You don't *have* to go, but, uh… since it's your first one, I think it would be best if you, uh… showed up. At least for a little while. And we'd get another vote for Mom's scones!" Christina said, slowly backing away from Leigh, heading for the living room.
"There's something you're not telling me. And stop moving away from me like that. Makes me think I have B.O. or something."
"Uh, okay," Christina said and came to a shuffling halt just before she'd have stepped on the long-forgotten spatula. "Oh, and just for the record, you have a great deodorant."
"Thanks," Leigh said with a chuckle. "But the jamboree?"
Smirking and performing a little, embarrassed shimmy, Christina broke out into a loud laugh. "Oh, I'd hoped you had forgotten about that in the meanwhile. Neighbor Day marks the annual get-together of the Association of Housewives. We chit-chat, we trade cooking and, uh, knitting tips and recipes and stuff like that, and the grand finale is that there's a vote for the best pastry of the day. That's all, really."
"The Association of Housewives…?"
"Yeah, I know it sounds horrible, but it's actually good fun… mostly. C'mon, Leigh… you won't be all alone there, I'll be going, too, with Mom and sis. And you already know several people… it'll be fun."
Sighing deeply, Leigh put her hands on her hips and looked towards the heavens for guidance. When nothing came to her, she relented and offered Christina a half-shrug. "Yeah, okay. Whatever. If it's too much, I can always get loaded on root beer and chocolate chip cookies."
An hour later.
"I've been working on the raaaaaaailroad, hmmmm-hm-hm-hmmm-hmmmmm!" Christina sang loudly and slightly off-key, working hard on her hands and knees to get the stubborn stains off. Reaching the end of the floor panel near the fireplace, she turned around and began to double back on the next panel, working herself back towards Leigh's position at the other side of the room.
"Hey, we're really getting somewhere now… we should ha' done this from the get-go," she continued, looking at the bucketful of little rubber balls she had collected in the relatively short space of time.
Sitting back on her thighs, Leigh wiped some sweat off her brow and massaged her right wrist. "Yeah. We've only got, oh, six thousand rubber stains to go now."
"Noooo, silly… two more hours of this and the floor is ready for your new carpet. I guarantee it, Leigh," Christina said and went to work scraping off a particularly stubborn stain.
"Well, if you say so. Ummm, Chrissy… thanks for helping me. I just hope I didn't ruin your plans for the holiday…? I mean, scraping off rubber balls with someone you don't even know can't be categorized as a fun way to spend Neighbor Day."
"Oh, you know… when I woke up this morning," Christina said as she moved on to the next stain, "I was planning on faking PMS, but my Mom insisted that I came on the cookie run. And now… I'm kinda glad I did," she continued, sending the tall woman a wide, genuine smile.
Smiling back, Leigh gripped her spatula and prepared to return to the tedious chore. "Not as glad as me, Chrissy."
Before she resumed scraping, Leigh cast a long glance at the short, cute blonde who had already gone back to work - but when Christina looked up and locked eyes with her, she quickly averted her gaze and concentrated on the next stain.
Arriving at the table with the radio, Christina reached up and held her finger above the on/off button. "How about some music?"
"Sure. If it means you won't sing again, I'm all for it."
"Ohhhh! Har, har. Is it set on Fort Greenbourne Radio?"
"Yes. Isn't that the only station you can pick up out here?"
"Yes!" Christina said and laughed out loud. Pressing the button, the radio came alive in the middle of an old Bon Jovi song that Christina and Leigh were soon humming along to while they worked.
'… and that's the weather, folks,' the overly cheery female DJ said, 'In a little while, we'll be going down to Claudia Holt for a live update on the progress of the annual jamboree of the Association of Housewives. Claudia is down at Barney's Bingo and Bowling… that's such a cozy place… but first, here's a few words from our sponsors.'
As the block of commercials ran in the background, Leigh sat back on her thighs and massaged her wrist again. "Damn, I think I'm gettin' carpal tunnel syndrome from all this scraping."
"My Mom could give you a massage, actually," Christina said and wiped a few beads of sweat off her forehead.
"I might consider it. Hey, is that female DJ the only one working at that radio station? She's been on the air every single time I've listened to it," Leigh said and pointed at the radio.
"Pretty much, yeah. She's the owner. She inherited the radio station from her Dad when he retired, but she kept him on to do the night shift. I don't know if they still have that. I remember her from high school, actually. She was a couple of years ahead of me. She's a really nice lady… very supportive if you know what I mean."
"Anyway… would you mind if I took a break, Leigh?" Christina said and dumped her spatula into the bucket.
"No, of course not. I need one, too… I'm so sick of this shit," Leigh said and got up, rubbing her knees that sent out fairly loud distress calls despite the padding.
Once she was fully erect, she took off her gloves and wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans. Looking at the floor, she could see that working together had enabled them to cover a huge area that would've taken her days to get through on her own, and she suddenly wished she could persuade the sunny Christina to stay beyond her mother's birthday. 'Whoa… where did that come from, Leigh? Okay, she's cute as hell, but… it's too soon. It's just too damn soon… even if she is just what the Doctor ordered after two and a half years with the Dragon Lady from Hell…'
Sighing, she threw the gloves down on the floor and stepped into the kitchen.
After chugging down a glass of cool water, Christina opened the faucet again, dabbed her fingers in the stream and ran them around her neck. "Boy, fixing floors is sweaty stuff," she said and added a bit more water to her neck.
"Oh, trust me… I know, Chrissy," Leigh said and reached for her own glass.
On the radio, the commercial block ended and the regular broadcast returned with a woman who practically broke out into song when she got her cue. 'Hi, everybody, this is Claudia Holt reporting live from Barney's Bingo and Bowling and, wow, let me tell you, this place is going to be rockin' tonight! Even now, slightly less than an hour and a half before the jamboree starts, the parking lot is packed! Packed, I tell you! Oh, Charlene, this is going to be the event of the year, I'm sure of it. I'm going inside now to try to find someone to talk to, but in the meanwhile, it's back to the studio!'
In between a loud feedback howl and a thumping bump, the cheery female DJ got back behind the mic and continued to gush endlessly into the airwaves. 'Thanks for that status update, Claudia. Yes, it sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun at Barney's Bingo and Bowling… oh, I just love to go to Barney's, it's such a cozy place… anyway, here's some music while we wait for Claudia to find someone to interview,' she continued, cueing an old Carpenters song.
Chuckling out loud, Leigh downed a glass of water and put it in the sink. "If nothing else, they're certainly wildly enthusiastic at that radio station. It's kinda fun, though. In the city, nobody listens to radio anymore."
"Yeah, I know. I don't even have a radio in my apartment. Frankly, I think it's a cryin' shame," Christina said, leaning against the side of the stove. "I actually worked for Charlene's Dad at Fort Greenbourne Radio for a couple of weeks one summer in high school. It was a lot of fun, but he could only afford to pay me peanuts so I had to quit the job. I think I was saving for a bike or something. I ended up working in the video store across the street… you know what's funny? The video store is long gone now, but the radio station is still there."
Before Leigh had time to answer, her door bell went ding-dong , and she shot up from the chair she had only just sat down on to get to the front door before the infernal noise could ring out again - for a change, she made it there in time.
"Hi, Leigh. Mind if I come in?" Hannah Graham said on her way into the house, holding two plastic bags and an empty grill.
"I'd say you're already in," Leigh said and closed the door. "Did you lose the last third of the Graham family somewhere along the route?"
"No, Lindsay got a tummy ache from all the cookies she's wolfed down during the day. She'll join us at the jamboree. I hope Christina hasn't talked your ears off?" Hannah said and put the various items down on the kitchen table.
"Oh no, we've had a pretty good time," Leigh said and leaned against the arch between the kitchen and the living room. "We've come a really long way. I couldn't have done it without Christina."
"Huh, I would never have predicted such a response," Hannah said, but sent a series of winks to Christina to take the edge off her words. "Dear daughter of mine, since you have so much energy, perhaps you'd like to vacuum your old, old Mom's carpets before you go back to the Big, Bad City…?"
"Oh, I feel a touch of PMS coming on," Christina said around a couple of groans, holding her stomach and rolling her eyes dramatically to stress her point.
"You learned that trick from your father, bless his soul… only he tried to fake a migraine. It didn't work for him, either. Here," Hannah said and gave Christina and Leigh a plastic bag each.
After peeking into it, Leigh shot Christina a puzzled look, wondering why she had been given a plastic bag filled to the brim with party favorites and assorted other festive doo-dads.
"It's for the table," Hannah said, reading the look on the tall woman's face.
"Uh, what table?"
"Why, the table at the jamboree, of course. I hereby, officially, invite you to our table at the annual get-together of the Association of Housewives, Leigh. We'll be presenting my cookies and pastries for the contest. You can say no thanks if you want, but since this is your first one, I suggest that you show up… for a little while at least. Simply to show that you're living here."
"Your table at the annual get-together…?" Leigh echoed, looking directly at Christina who merely shrugged and grinned broadly in return.
"Christina, haven't you told Leigh about the jamboree?" Hannah said.
"Oh sure I have, but I guess I left out some details. Ah, we're gonna have a fun time there, Leigh. I think you should come."
Leigh put her hands on her hips and assumed a suitably upset pose, but somehow, the grumpy sulk she was trying to slip into never quite reached her eyes. "Uh-huh?" she drawled after a little while.
Chuckling, Hannah reached over and patted the tall woman's arm. "I hope that means yes, Leigh. Okay, I'm just going to check up on Lindsay and then I'll be back in a short half hour… Christina, Mrs. Rosenthal asked for you, and it would be really impolite to ignore her."
"Oh, Mom, do I have to…?" Christina whined, once again sounding like her thirteen-year old self.
"Yes you do, young lady. Leigh, would you mind keeping an eye on my daughter so she doesn't slip out the back door while I'm away? Thanks in advance. I'll find my own way out," Hannah said and spun around on her heel to the unusual chorus of a loud belly laugh and an even louder whine.
Fifty minutes later.
Pulling up into the driveway formerly belonging to the Johnson, now Harper residence, Hannah honked the horn of her Ford Taurus station wagon twice to let Leigh know that they were ready for her.
Leigh quickly exited her house and waved at the three Grahams. Turning around, she locked her front door and pushed against the door handle a couple of times to see if it held. Once she had done that, she checked all the windows on the ground floor to see if they were closed.
Inside the Taurus, Hannah put her arm on the window sill and let out a chuckle. "Christina, you could do a lot worse than Leigh Harper… a lot worse."
"Oh, I know," Christina said from the back seat she was sharing with Lindsay. Looking ahead, she noticed with a rising degree of excitement that Leigh had changed into black leather ankle boots, a very nice pair of black jeans, a dark red denim shirt over a black T-shirt, and finally a neutral, dark gray windbreaker. "I know," she said again, more quietly this time as she observed the powerful gait of the tall woman as she strode down the driveway towards the Taurus.
"Even I can see that she looks fantastic," Lindsay chimed in, poking her sister in the ribs. "Is it true she has arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger?"
"And there you go again listening to nasty gossip, Lindsay! No, she doesn't! She's a fit woman, yes, but there's nothing exaggerated about her at all!"
"Ooooh, sorry, sorry… wow, did I touch a nerve or what? You never told me you were into muscles and stuff…?"
"Lindsay…" Christina growled, shooting her sister an Evil Eye.
"Girls, behave," Hannah said, tapping her index finger against the rim of the steering wheel.
The ceasefire between the two younger Grahams only lasted until Leigh got into the car. The moment the pleasant whiff of her deodorant spread to the back seat, Lindsay leaned forward and said: "Oh, isn't that Only The Brave by Diesel? My husband uses that."
"Lindsay, will you shut the F-" Christina barked, but she was soon cut off by her mother who slammed her fist down upon the steering wheel and spun around in her seat.
"Girls!" Hannah barked even stronger, giving her daughters a look that couldn't possibly be misinterpreted. "How old are you again? Ten? Now keep quiet or you can go back to our house right now!"
"Yes, Mom," both younger Grahams said as one.
"Hmmm!" Hannah grumbled and turned back around. Selecting Reverse, she quickly pulled out of the driveway. As the Taurus came to a standstill on the street, she offered Leigh an embarrassed smirk. "Sorry you had to experience that, Leigh."
"Oh, that's quite all right, Mrs. Graham. And yes, Lindsay, it's Only The Brave," Leigh said with a chuckle.
Seven minutes later, they turned into the completely full parking lot at Barney's Bingo and Bowling. Driving slowly along the first lane looking for a place to park, Hannah whistled quietly at the sight of the many cars. "There's going to be some stiff competition this year… the Hernandez', the Jacksons, the Weinroths, even the McCauleys… they're all here."
After two complete tours around the lot, Hannah finally found a spot at the far end and quickly pulled the Taurus into it. "So, here we are… now the fun really starts. Lindsay, would you mind taking care of the registration?"
"Sure thing, Mom," Lindsay said and quickly left the car, carrying one of the many plastic bags with the decorations for their table.
"Christina," Hannah said once her eldest daughter had closed the door behind her, "please don't be so hard on your sister. She has a different mindset to you, you know that. There is nothing spiteful about it, she just doesn't know the dos and don'ts of the Big City."
"I know, Mom. I'm sorry," Christina said, fiddling with her plastic bag.
"Good. Now let's get crackin'. We've got a lot of work to do before the event kicks off. Leigh, I need your long arms," Hannah said and opened the driver's side door.
Chuckling, Leigh opened her own door and stepped out onto the parking lot. "Yes, ma'am."
Hannah quickly walked around the back of the station wagon and opened the rear gate. Reaching in, she began to pull two large crates of various items towards her, but they were too heavy for her to move on her own. "Oh, I… damn. I can't move them. Lindsay helped me put them in…"
"I got 'em," Leigh said and pulled the first crate out to the edge of the car.
"They're my pastries so we need to be really careful with them," Hannah said, checking that the items inside the cardboard box were still in good order.
Walking between her mother and Leigh, Christina reached in and took the other crate. "Oh, we will be, right, Leigh?"
"Yup, really careful," Leigh said, holding the first of the two crates so it wouldn't tip down from the rear of the car while Hannah checked the other one.
"Okay, this batch is still warm," Hannah said, pulling her hands out of the second box. "Christina, please take this one inside… use the delivery entrance on the right of the building, not the main entrance. I don't want the competition to see what we've got. Once you've done that, please help Lindsay decorate the table. No squabbling, you hear?"
"Yes, Mom. Can you handle the rest of it?"
"Sure, we got it," Hannah said and dusted off her hands.
As Christina moved away from the Taurus, Hannah put her hand on Leigh's elbow and invited her to sit down next to her on the rear of the car.
Doing as asked, Leigh cocked her head and shot the elder Graham a puzzled look.
Clearly considering her words carefully, Hannah opened her mouth a few times before she had fully composed her thoughts, but when she had, she turned around and put her hand on her new neighbor's thigh. "Leigh, because of Christina, I know the difference between the malicious, rude, scaremongering gossip some people like to spread, and the reality of what actually goes on in the heart and life of a woman who loves other women. The thing is, in there," - Hannah pointed at the bowling alley - "you'll meet some people who don't. People who haven't yet learned that lesson."
"I understand," Leigh said with a sigh.
"We're an old-fashioned community here, you could even call us conservative. A good number of people will accept you on sight, or after a brief conversation, no doubt about that… but I'm afraid that some won't. It might not even be the obvious ones, like Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Sternberg."
"Oh, I know all about that, Hannah."
"I'm sure you do. This is Be Nice To Your Neighbor Day so everyone acts like they're a jovial, open-minded human being, but tomorrow… tomorrow they'll fall back into their old routines. Leigh, what I'm trying to tell you is that my door is always open if you want to pop over for a chit-chat and a coffee… oh, and I'd love to see you on my birthday on Tuesday."
"Thank you. I really appreciate it," Leigh said and put out her hand.
After shaking her new neighbor's hand, Hannah got up from the rear of the car and took all four remaining plastic bags. "You're welcome. And now, we have a cookie competition to win. If you take the cardboard box, I'll lock up so we can get the show on the road."
"Yup," Leigh said and grabbed the box.
Three minutes later, Hannah and Leigh walked through the side entrance of Barney's Bingo and Bowling and found themselves in the hall where the annual get-together was almost ready to take place.
Once they had successfully navigated the maze of lavishly decorated tables - attracting shy, curious, or occasionally disapproving glances from the people at the tables - they put the various bags and boxes on the table Lindsay and Christina had put up while they'd had their little conversation.
With her two daughters working flat out on setting up the plates and the racks needed for the display, Hannah grabbed Leigh by the elbow and led her over to a concrete wall that separated the convention hall from the bowling alley.
Peeking around the wall, Leigh could hardly believe her eyes. The bowling alley itself was much larger than she had anticipated - several hundred yards long - and it consisted of forty lanes that were nearly all in use.
"Whoa…!" she said, staring at a large group of men and women who were dressed in garish, fluorescent green outfits.
"That's the Fort Greenbourne Pro Bowling Team. Bet you didn't expect us to have a Pro Bowling team, huh?" Hannah said, chuckling loudly at the gobsmacked expression on Leigh's face.
"There's a lot of things I didn't expect Fort Greenbourne to have… and yes, a Pro Bowling team was definitely one of them… wow…"
"Yep, bowling is a big deal here in Fort Greenbourne… yessir," Hannah said and laughed out loud.
"It must be… shoot!" Leigh said, shaking her head.
Half an hour later, the table had been fully set with three centerpieces; one with raisin scones, one with miniature cinnamon buns and the last one with chocolate-frosted cream éclairs.
The table itself was covered by a pale fuchsia tablecloth made of paper, and the entire outer edge was lined by a long festoon made up of red, white and blue rings.
"Oh boy, Mom, you've really outdone yourself this year," Lindsay said as she placed small paper cards - written in gold in a calligraphic hand - in front of the centerpieces explaining the nature of the pastries.
"Thank you, Lindsay. Let's hope we can get the cookie trophy back. It's been three years… far too long for the Grahams not to win any prizes."
"Well…" Lindsay said, shuffling back and forth.
"Ah, except the Bronze Cup you won for third place in the picnic basket weaving contest two years ago. Pardon me," Hannah said and gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek.
Butting in as usual, Christina leaned in and patted her sister's back. "Yep, Lindsay always made one hell of a great basket case," she said with a cheesy grin on her face.
"Snookums!" Lindsay retorted, sticking her tongue out at her sister's antics.
Rolling her eyes, Hannah turned away from the comically feuding siblings and towards Leigh who was sitting on a swivel-chair holding the empty cardboard boxes. "Daughters… can't live with 'em, can't donate their bodies to science. Leigh, just put the boxes under the table, there's no point in you holding onto them the entire afternoon."
"Sure," Leigh said and pushed the empty box under the lower edge of the tablecloth.
"Tell you what, since we're only at table twenty-three this year, it'll be a while before the judges will swing by. Why don't you and my daughters take a little tour of the jamboree… you know, to see what's going on…?"
"Oh… right. Sure," Leigh said and transferred her wallet from her windbreaker to her rear pocket, making sure to clip the long, slender, leather rein onto one of the belt loops.
Pointing at the leather belt, Hannah scrunched up her face. "What's that for, Leigh?"
"Well, uh… it's just a fashion accessory, I guess."
"Oh… okay. I can understand that," Hannah said, breaking out into a wide grin as she fiddled with her gold earrings, her gold necklace, the daisy-shaped brooch on the lapel of her blue-and-green flowery dress, her gold bracelet and finally her gold finger rings.
"Well, I think you look terrific, Mrs. Graham," Leigh said for Hannah's ears only as she went past the elder Graham.
"Why thank you, dear… first time in years that anyone has noticed," Hannah replied, nudging Leigh with her elbow.
Looking at each other, the two women broke out in identical, appreciative grins that didn't stop until Christina and Lindsay came up to them to ask if they could be let in on the joke.
Walking past a row of stands at the far side of the convention hall, Leigh stared wide-eyed at the near-endless collection of self-help books on all kinds of subjects - "101 Tips on baby care… Grandma Betty's Favorite Cookie Recipes… Grandma Betty's Favorite Cookie Recipes volume two… and three… How to get your toilet free of lime stone… shoot. And they're all twenty-five bucks!"
"Hey, being a housewife is really expensive. You'll know soon enough, Leigh," Lindsay said, leafing through the third volume of Grandma Betty's recipes.
"Mmmm… I can hardly wait," Leigh mumbled.
Monitoring her sister closely in the eventuality that she would say something that could be perceived as embarrassing, Christina hovered right behind Leigh and Lindsay, munching loudly on some honey-roasted almonds she had bought at a stand.
"See anything you'd like, Leigh? We can get a fifteen percent discount 'cos we have a table here," Christina said between munches.
"I wonder if they have a book on removing rubber stains…?" Leigh said, looking at the shelves. "Nope, doesn't look like it."
Chuckling, Christina offered her sister a few almonds, but Lindsay shook her head. Turning towards the tall woman, Christina held out the bag and tried again. "Leigh, you want some almonds? They're really great."
"No thanks, Chrissy. I always get so damn thirsty when I eat nuts."
"Hey, there's a remedy for that… look over there," Christina said and pointed at a spot in the convention hall that was lit up by bright red and blue spotlights.
"The Fort Greenbourne Brewery?"
"Yep. They make the best damn soda pop around. Much better than the name brands. Whenever I visit Mom, I always buy a couple of crates… trouble is, hauling crates of soda pop on the subway when I go back home is a real bitch."
Looking down at the happily munching blonde, Leigh furrowed her brow in a fairly puzzled fashion until she remembered that the Taurus station wagon had been the only car in the Graham driveway. "Oh, you don't have your own car?"
"Nah. We can lease a parking space in my apartment complex, but I can't afford the extortionate prices. When I come to Fort Greenbourne, I just take the subway to the terminal station where Mom picks me up. Actually, now you mention it, you'll have to drive to the terminal station, too. There's no way you can park a huge Dodge Ram pickup truck down on Seventy-first Street."
"Oh, I'm aware of that…"
Suddenly spotting a group of Very Important Housewives coming closer to them, Lindsay straightened her dress and leaned in towards her sister and Leigh. "Psst, gals, we've got company… very important company!" she whispered, tapping Christina's shoulder repeatedly.
"Oh…?" Christina said and turned around. "Oh, shit, it's the President of the Association of Housewives," she said and quickly crammed the bag of almonds into the front pocket of her pants.
"The President of the…?" Leigh said, but didn't have time to complete the sentence before the group of people had reached them.
The leader of the group stepped forward and put out her hand. "Happy Neighbor Day and welcome to Fort Greenbourne, Miss Harper. Delighted to meet you. I'm Irene Butterfield," the woman said in an authoritative voice.
In her early seventies, the white-haired Irene Butterfield had lost none of the presence and authority she'd had when she was the high school principal, and the smart, steel gray dress she was wearing was a strong reminder of her position as the president of the Association of Housewives.
Shaking hands with the woman, Leigh tried to her best to act natural, but she had to admit that the aura of authority - and the snickers from Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Sternberg who were both hanging on to Mrs. Butterfield's coat tails trying to inherit some of her importance - made it difficult. "Thank you very much, Mrs. Butterfield. I'm happy to be here. And Happy Neighbor Day to you, too."
"Hello Lindsay and Christina," the president continued, offering the two Grahams an aristocratic nod.
"Hello, Mrs. Butterfield," the sisters said meekly, remembering all too well what it felt like to be sent down for a 'talk' with the principal back in their high school days.
Turning back to Leigh, Irene held out her hand palm-up, which prompted her secretary to quickly reach up and put a white binder into it. "Miss Harper, I have a little present for you: the Fort Greenbourne A-Z Directory with every phone number, address and general contact information you'll ever need."
"Oh… thank you. Thank you very much, Mrs. Butterfield. Much obliged," Leigh said, taking the binder from the President.
"You're very welcome, Miss Harper. Perhaps next year, you'll have a table at the pastry contest?" Irene said as she began to move on.
"Uh, well… you never know, ha ha," Leigh said, trying to find an expression that wouldn't insult the lady.
As Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Sternberg walked past Leigh, she could hear them whisper something, but she just shrugged and put the binder under her arm for safe keeping.
Breaking out of their paralysis, Christina and Lindsay came up to Leigh and sent her identical thumbs-up and goofy grins. "Congratulations, Leigh, you passed the first real test of Fort Greenbourne," Christina said.
"And you did it so well, too!" Lindsay gushed. "I guarantee that your coolness under fire will be the number one topic when the knitting club meets on Wednesday!"
"Oh, Lindsay!" Christina growled, slapping her forehead.
"Never mind. C'mon, Leigh, the pastry sampling is about to start," Christina said and led the tall woman away from her confused sister.
"Hmmm," Christina said, taking a minuscule bite out of a cinnamon roll at table twelve. "Hmmm… not bad, Mrs. Weinroth. Not bad at all."
Smiling broadly, the elderly lady sitting at the table took a ball point pen and made a little note on a private scorecard she had made to keep up with the progress of the contest. "Thank you, Christina. I heard that you didn't arrive until after dark last night… I hope your mother didn't get too tired driving you here…?"
"Oh no, Mom was on top form. She's stronger than I am, Mrs. Weinroth. Talk to you later," Christina said politely as she moved away from table twelve.
"Shoot," Leigh said under her breath when they had moved out of earshot of Mrs. Weinroth. "Everybody knows absolutely everything about absolutely everybody…"
"Mmmm… and yet she didn't even ask your name," Christina grumbled, looking back at the elderly lady who was already busy chatting to others.
Shrugging, Leigh shifted the heavy binder from her left to her right arm. "Ah, doesn't bother me. Besides, she probably already knows my phone number, my star sign, my shoe size, my bra size and what I had for breakfast…"
Christina chuckled as she picked up a two fl.oz. sample bottle of home-distilled Plum Brandy from table eight and studied the label. "Uh, what is your star sign, anyhow?" she said offhand.
"Oh, wow, no kidding? I read in a horoscope once that the best match for me would be a Scorpio. Imagine that!"
"You don't strike me as the type who read horoscopes, Chrissy…?" Leigh said, looking at the bottle of Plum Brandy Christina was holding.
"Uh, well… I do on occasion. Once a week at the most. Ummm, Mom is really into that stuff and I guess it's rubbed off on me." Looking around, Christina leaned in towards Leigh and put her hand on the tall woman's elbow. "Does that make me sound like a bumpkin?"
"Nah, of course not. I always read the horoscopes, actually. I think it's a fun way to pass time," Leigh said with a shrug. "I wouldn't want to shell out several hundred bucks for one of the professional ones, though."
"Oh… Mom gave me one of those for my birthday two years ago."
"No kiddin'? Did it come true?"
"Weeeellll… it did say I'd meet a tall, dark stranger some day…" Christina said with a cheeky laugh.
Before Leigh had time to prepare a snappy comeback, Lindsay came bouncing back from a little trip to the restrooms, flailing her arms in the air. "Gals, you have got to come and see this! Cheryl Robertson has made *the* coolest model of her living room!"
"No way?! There's a contest for making models of your living room…?!" Leigh said, staring wide-eyed at the elder Graham sister.
"Sure there is. Come on! You have to see it," Lindsay said and dragged a puzzled Leigh with her.
Chuckling, Christina reached into her pocket to find a ten dollar bill for a full bottle of Plum Brandy - the perfect birthday present for her mother.
Arriving at table nineteen, Leigh had to admit that the scale model of Cheryl's living room looked fantastic. Measuring three by three feet and made of balsa wood and papier-maché, it was a fully painted, fully dressed miniature version of the real thing, even down to a little plant on top of the TV set and a tea pot on the table at a couch arrangement.
Nodding appreciatively, Leigh thrust her hands into her jeans pockets and moved in close to study the model.
"Hi again, Leigh. Happy Neighbor Day," Cheryl said, putting away a newspaper when she noticed that her model was being scrutinized.
"Happy Neighbor Day, Cheryl. Boy, this is… wow. Amazing."
Blushing, Cheryl giggled a little bit and then shimmied back and forth. "Oh Gosh, thank you. You're too kind."
"Is Anne here, too?"
"Oh no, she's at home sleeping. Matt tucked her in half an hour ago. Oh, hi, Lindsay! How are your kids?" Cheryl said and pulled Lindsay into a hug when the elder Graham sister showed up, having gone back to find out what was keeping Christina.
"Just fine, thank you. Oh, this is so smashing. I'm sure you'll win it this year, Cheryl," Lindsay said.
"Well, I have some stiff competition. Helen Potts has made a good one, too."
"Oh, really? Well, I'm sure it's not as…"
While her sister was talking with Cheryl in a rather animated fashion, Christina put her hand on Leigh's elbow and led her away from the table. "That's our cue, Leigh. They can talk about nothing for hours," she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Is there anything you'd like to see? We don't have much time 'cos I think the judges have already withdrawn to count the votes," Christina said as the two of them came to a stop at their own table.
"Not really, no. Oh, but there's one thing I've been wondering about, though…"
"Did I get abducted and brought to an inverted version of the Stepford Wives…? I haven't seen a guy all day," Leigh said, scanning the hall in the vain hope of finding at least one male of the species.
Chuckling, Christina moved a hand in a sweeping gesture across the convention hall landscape. "They're all at home, afraid to come out of their dens. I'll bet you'd find them drinking beer, playing cards or watching NASCAR… or God knows what else. We gals have Neighbor Day all to ourselves. It wasn't like that to begin with, but it's definitely turned into an all-super-feminine day now. Just take a look, Leigh… we have babies big and small, flounces, knitting tips, baking tips, knick-knack tips, garden tips… everything the all-super-feminine heart could ever want," Christina said with her tongue pressed more and more firmly into her cheek.
"Uh-huh? Well, it is the Association of Housewives' get-together, after all. I suppose the guys don't have a similar jamboree where they swap favorite beer brands and, uh, old NASCAR or wrestling tapes, and talk about the best places to get a lube job or…?"
"Ha! No, they don't."
"Oh. Ah, I wouldn't fit into that group either, anyhow," Leigh said and shifted the heavy binder to her other arm.
"Ladies, settle down, please… settle down, please…" Irene Butterfield said from a small dais erected at the end of the convention hall nearest the bowling alley. Once the buzzing wall of noise had been reduced to a manageable level, the President of the Association of Housewives began reading aloud from a long list of names that were all given proper credit for helping with organizing the jamboree.
"Boy, I really hope Mom will take home a prize this year," Christina said, leaning in towards Leigh so she didn't have to speak up. "Last year, she wasn't in the top three in the cookie contest and she got SO grumpy I've never seen anything like it."
"I think I know what you mean, Chrissy. Everyone here is treating it really, really seriously," Leigh said, looking at the stony, nervous faces of the people assembled in front of the dais, Lindsay and Hannah among them.
Up on the dais, Irene received a piece of paper from her secretary, and as she unfolded it, she cleared her throat and stepped back up to the microphone. "There were only two contestants in the Best Home-distilled Brandy category this year, unfortunately. Mrs. Donovan was supposed to be here as well, but as we all know, she had a nasty fall on her basement staircase after testing her Apple-Cherry mix. I'm sure we all wish her a speedy recovery. Right, in second place, we have Mrs. Jackson and her very special Apricot Brandy."
Down among the spectators, one group moaned in disappointment but another began to cheer wildly.
"Oh, I can hear people haven't forgotten their maths. Yes, it means that Mrs. Brentford has won the grand prize, the Gold Cup, for her Plum Brandy. Let's hear it for Mrs. Brentford, everybody," the President said, clapping into the microphone.
As Leigh and Christina clapped along with the others, Christina leaned in and said: "Excellent. I got Mom a bottle of that for her birthday. Hey… how about coming over on Tuesday? It's my Mom's sixtieth and we'll have layer cake and hot chocolate and everything."
"Your Mom has already invited me, actually," Leigh said with a broad grin.
"Oh, has she now? Well, well, she must like you. I don't think she's had the Johnsons over more than five times in the thirty years they lived in your house," Christina said, returning the grin.
Ten minutes later, Cheryl Robertson let out a loud squeal and jumped up and down on the dais as she was given the Gold Cup for the scale model of her living room.
As a response, Christina stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a whistle that was loud enough to wake the dead. "Way to go, Cheryl!" she shouted, waving her hands in the air to show her support for her old class mate.
Stepping back to the microphone, Irene cleared her voice again and held the last piece of paper ready. "Settle down, please… thank you. And now for the main event, the seventy-eighth annual Best Pastry Contest… Oh, I can tell you right away that we have a surprising result this year… yes, that's right."
Scooting over to stand next to their mother, Christina and Lindsay both sought out her hands and held them tight, something that Leigh thought was too cute for words.
"In third place we have… Mrs. Weinroth! Her cinnamon rolls outscored nearly everything else tonight in that category. Give her a warm welcome to the dais, everybody!" Irene said as Mrs. Weinroth climbed the short flight of stairs to get to the podium.
"And in second place, we have last year's winner, Mrs. Harrington! Her delicious scones with little pieces of orange peel were clear favorites among the judges."
That announcement made Hannah Graham grumble loudly, and it took several soothing words and calming squeezes by her daughters to get her to settle down again. "I can't believe they chose her scones over mine…!" she mumbled, clenching and unclenching her jaw.
"Aaaaaand as the winner of the Gold Cup, outscoring everyone else on the short list with her chocolate-frosted, cream-filled éclairs, we have…"
"Oh!" Hannah said, nearly choking on some saliva when she realized what Irene Butterfield had said.
"… Mrs. Hannah Graham!" the President exclaimed loudly, stepping away from the microphone so she could applaud the winner.
"Ohhhhhhh!" Hannah squealed, pulling Christina and Lindsay into a strong, near-smothering embrace that left the two younger Grahams quite badly winded. "I won! With the éclairs! And I only whipped them together at the last moment!" she continued.
"You rock, Mom!" Christina said from somewhere underneath her mother's arm, and Lindsay soon chimed in with a muffled, "You're the best, Mom!"
Letting go of her daughters, Hannah turned towards Leigh and put up her hand. Leigh quickly caught on and gave the elder Graham a resounding high-five that could be heard over the crowd's excited murmurs.
"Will Mrs. Hannah Graham come to the dais to receive her Gold Cup, please…?" the President said into the microphone, sounding just a tad impatient.
"Oh, I better get up there… if I don't, she might give it to Mrs. Harrington, God forbid," Hannah said and began to shuffle towards the dais.
As Hannah climbed the stairs, Christina, Lindsay and Leigh let out a collective concert of cheers and whistles that very nearly blew the roof off the convention hall.
"Ahem. Will the younger members of the audience please restrain themselves? …Thank you. Oh, congratulations, Mrs. Graham, here's your Gold Cup," Irene said, offering Hannah her prize and a pumping handshake.
"Thank you, Madam President."
'Speech!' someone shouted from the crowd.
"Speech? Oh goodness me, I haven't prepared anything. Well, first of all, I want to say happy Neighbor Day… and I'd like to thank the panel of judges voting for me… then I want to say a heartfelt thank you to my sweet daughters Lindsay and Christina… and to my new neighbor Leigh Harper who gave me the idea to make éclairs. That's all, really. Thank you!"
While Hannah came back down the short flight of stairs, the entire crowd zoomed in on Leigh who suddenly felt acutely uncomfortable - a few seconds later, a murmur of appreciative nods, smiles and cheers came her way, and she let out a long breath of relief.
Clapping along with the rest of the assembled crowd, Christina turned towards Leigh and shot her a confused look. "When did you give Mom the idea to make éclairs…? We've been together the entire day and I haven't heard anything…?"
"Oh, I think your mother was just trying to build a few bridges."
"Ohhh… of course. You're right. She's good at that."
By the time Hannah had been photographed for the Fort Greenbourne Gazette and interviewed by Claudia Holt, the roving reporter from Fort Greenbourne Radio, the jamboree was almost over. The spectators had already begun to drift away from the convention hall and out to their cars, and some of the contestants had started packing up their tables and the rest of their equipment.
Hannah - proudly flaunting her Gold Cup - came back over to her daughters and Leigh who greeted her with open arms. The four women had a nice, cozy group-hug that didn't end until Christina attempted to sing the first few bars of the chorus of 'We Are The Champions.'
"Oh, you'll never be a songbird, hon," Hannah said as they broke up, kissing her spunky daughter on both cheeks. "Lindsay, would you mind taking me home now…? I'm really tired and I think you'd want to get home to your children, anyway…?"
"No problem, Mom," Lindsay said and wiped away a few tears that had somehow escaped her eyes.
"Thank you. That way, Christina and Leigh can have a little time for themselves."
"Oh… uh, sure," Christina said, taking her mother's hand.
"Yes, I was thinking that you and Leigh would perhaps want to have a little refreshment in Barney's Bowling Bar before you go home…?"
Looking at Leigh who had been corralled by Cheryl and another woman and was busy chatting about the finer details of éclairs and scale models of living rooms, Christina nodded enthusiastically and broke out in a wide grin. "That's not bad thinking at all, Mom. I think Leigh would like to try something from the Fort Greenbourne Brewery."
"Well, there you have it. I'm sure you can get home on your own, right? It's only six streets."
"Sure, sure. Don't worry about us," Christina said and pulled her mother into a hug.
"You know what I mean, don't you?" Hannah whispered as she and Christina were standing close. When she felt her daughter nod, she let out a soft chuckle and kissed the side of her daughter's fair head to show her support.
Ten minutes later, Christina and Leigh sat down at one of the tables outside Barney's Bowling Bar, each holding a glass and a bottle of Fort Greenbourne Orange Squash.
"You'll love it, I guarantee it," Christina said and unscrewed the caps of both their bottles.
"Well, it smells really nice," Leigh said, taking a whiff of the bottle.
After filling their glasses with the soft drink, the two women raised them in the air and clinked the edges. "Here's to you, Leigh. Cheers and welcome to Fort Greenbourne. Oh, and Happy Neighbor Day."
"Happy Neighbor Day, Chrissy. And thanks." - Taking a sip, Leigh's eyes grew wide at the rich taste, and she had to double-check the bottle to see what she was drinking. "Whoa… this is good!"
"Told ya it was. Yeah, we got a lot of good stuff here in Fort Greenbourne. A *lot* of good stuff," Christina said over the rim of her glass.
"So, what kind of birthday present should I buy for your mother?"
"Ah, she'll be happy with anything. Uh, except any of the 'Grandma Betty's Favorite Cookie Recipe' books. Mom says they're for amateurs."
After taking another sip of the rich-tasting soda, Leigh let out a throaty chuckle and nodded quietly to herself. "All right. Noted."
A warm, easy silence fell between the two women - albeit punctuated by the soft lounge music playing at the bar and the sounds of the professional bowling lanes just next door to the table they were sitting at. As if on cue, Leigh and Christina both looked up at the same time, locking eyes and sending each other identical, slightly shy smiles.
Feeling bolder than she had been for years, Leigh cleared her throat and worked up the courage to ask the cute blonde sitting opposite her a question she hadn't asked anyone for so long that she couldn't even remember the last time.
'Leigh… don't blow this one, okay? There's something to work with here. Look at her cute, sparkling eyes, her spunky personality… she's exactly your type… and with Chrissy, there are no hidden agendas. You've spent the entire day with her already and she hasn't said one, negative thing about you. Go for it, dammit!' Leigh thought, mentally slapping her cheeks.
What Leigh couldn't know was that Christina was thinking the exact same thing. Looking at the tall brunette over the rim of her glass, Christina studied her surprisingly soft features closely; her blue eyes, her delicately tanned skin, her calmness and her posture - and her lips.
'Oh, I wonder if those lips are as soft as they appear to be. Finding out would be the first major highlight… but there would be plenty more to come after that. She's strong, calm, at ease with herself, on top of everything… I hope,' Christina thought and let out a giggle that she pretended was a little cough.
"So, uh…" -- "Would you…" Leigh and Christina said at the exact same time, chuckling when they realized that the other had spoken as well.
"Mind meld," Christina said, grinning broadly. "You first, you're the new one here."
"All right. Chrissy, do you… uh, have any plans for tomorrow evening?" Leigh said, drawing an abstract pattern on the tablecloth with her index finger.
Smiling broadly, Christina leaned forward. She wanted to take Leigh's hand in her own but knew it would only lead to stares or worse from the other patrons at Barney's Bowling Bar. Ultimately, she settled for briefly brushing her fingertips across the back of Leigh's hand. "Nope."
"How about, uh… oh, I'm not so good at this," Leigh said with a nervous chuckle.
"I think you're doing a great job, Leigh. Go on."
"Uh, how about going someplace to eat tomorrow night…? Maybe at six or seven or so?"
"Sounds really nice. Yes, please," Christina said and offered her Mom's new neighbor a blinding smile. "I know just the right place to go, Alberto's, a small Italian ristorante down at the mall. It's got a separate entrance so it's open after hours."
Returning the smile - and feeling mightily relieved - Leigh leaned back in her seat and let out the breath she'd been holding. Then it struck her that neither of them had access to a car. "Oh… but my truck's at the shop… and you don't have a car… does Fort Greenbourne have a cab service?"
"Yes, but it's run by Mr. Harrington."
"Oh… okay. Uh…"
"Ah, Leigh, come on. We can just borrow Mom's station wagon!" Christina said with a loud giggle. Glancing left and right, she leaned in very close and lowered her voice until it was a mere whisper. "And afterwards, perhaps we could drive out to Kissing Point for the dessert…?"
"Oh… uh… well… uh… I wouldn't want to push matters on the first d-"
Tickling the back of Leigh's hand, Christina let out a husky chuckle that left no room for misinterpretation. "I would. That's a deal, then."
"Great," Leigh said, feeling a warm sense of joy flow over her, quickly followed by a wave of bubbly, prickly anticipation the like of which she hadn't experienced in years.
"In the meantime, how about livin' large and ordering a second round of Fort Greenbourne Orange Soda? My treat," Christina said and pushed her chair back.
"Sounds like the perfect end to a perfect Neighbor Day, Chrissy."
"Oh yeah, I'd forgotten all about that… Happy Neighbor Day, Leigh. The first of many, I hope. Hey, I'll be back in a flash."
Settling down, Leigh crossed her legs and put an arm on the backrest of the chair next to her. "No need to rush. I'm not going anywhere," she said, offering Christina a warm, genuine smile.