"You know, if you keep spending all your weekends here, people are going to talk." Nicole teased her friend as they walked through the Farmers Market.
"Let them talk. I spend all my weekends with you and Danny anyway. Its more pleasant here though. I like Hattiesburg, but I also like not being in Hattiesburg." Sheryl commented lightly.
"I know the feeling. At least here, the different Districts keep you from getting too bored."
"Speaking of, how bored are you?"
"Let me put it to you this way, you can now walk through half of the attic." Nicole commented in a dry tone.
"I thought as much. Are you at least getting out and meeting people?"
"I go on the occasional assignment." She tried to keep her tone even. She failed.
"Uh huh. And I take it one of these assignments was more interesting than the others?" The critic stopped to examine a watermelon. They were running an errand for Melba, though Nicole thought it was an excuse to get them out of the house.
"There was one last week that was very interesting." Interesting was their catchword. With the right connotation and the right pronunciation, it could mean anything from bad to very, very good. The way Nicole stressed the word meant the latter. She knew Sheryl would easily pick up on it.
"How so?" The critic almost dropped the melon she was fondling. "Details, I want details."
"And if I refuse to say?" It was a game they had not played in years. Suddenly, and from somewhere she did recognize any longer, the mischievous side of her came out to play.
"Then I will be forced to do something drastic." Sheryl looked at her in surprise, but she played along.
"And what, pray tell, would that be?" Nicole feigned a disinterested tone as she began examining the display of vegetables.
"Ill have to fake a seizure by throwing myself onto the ground and twitching like a possum that just got hit by a tractor." Sheryl seemed to think it was the most absurd thing she could do.
"Good. Im glad I brought the camera." She reached for the camera bag and began putting the lens on the body. "Well?"
"You seriously expect me to do that? Please."
"But you said you would." She pretended to pout. "Now you got my hopes up."
"Ok, who are you and what have you done with my best friend? Are you a pod person or just possessed by aliens?" Sheryl backed up a pace.
"Cut it out. Im just trying to have a little fun."
"You used that word again. Interesting." The critic grinned. "That must have been one hell of an encounter."
"I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I dont want to." She returned her attention to the vegetables. She knew Sheryls innate curiosity must be driving the critic crazy, but Nicole was enjoying herself too much to end her friends misery that soon.
"Oh my god." Sheryl gasped. "You didnt? Please say you didnt."
"Say I didnt what?" Her friends reaction momentarily confused the photographer.
"For one brief, mad moment I thought you were going to say you located Laurel, but Nicole, please tell me you didnt fuck someone else." Though not a natural redhead, Sheryl was still pale. When Nicole did not answer, she went paler. "You did."
"And so what if I did?" Suddenly she felt defensive. Of all people, she did not expect this reaction from Sheryl. The critic was well known for enjoying sex with anyone she chose, male or female.
"I think I need to sit down. Lets get the gourd and get out of here. We can talk this over when Im not completely vertical."
"Ok." Nicole chose two decent looking squash and took them to the counter near the stand. "Do we need anything else?"
"No." Sheryls answer was faint.
"Ok." She paid for the vegetables and beckoned the critic to follow. They made it to a café set in the Decatur split. "Now, whats up?" She asked as they took seats at a wrought iron table.
"Just how interesting was that encounter?" Sheryl asked in a rush.
"I met another freelance photographer at the Greek ship thing last week. She traveled the world and we talked a bit over drinks."
"Is that all there was to it?" Sheryl looked afraid of the answer.
"No there was more."
"What do you think happened?" Nicole asked.
"You ended up in bed with her."
"Youre right, but there was a bit more to it than that."
"And?" Sheryl asked again.
"And why are you questioning this?" Nicole wanted to know. Sheryls reactions were not at all what she had been expecting.
"Because you of all people engaged in casual sex. Its blowing my mind." She waved over a waiter. "A very strong drink please. I dont care what it is. It just needs to be strong."
"Make that two." Nicole told him.
"Ok." The waiter looked at them oddly but went to fulfill his duty.
"Whats the problem with that? You do it, Danny did it, and Laurel is probably doing it." Nicole returned to the topic at hand.
"Is that why you did it? Because Laurel could be doing it?"
"No. Sheryl, I really dont know why youre getting so upset about this." Nicole paused as the waiter returned.
"Um, two very strong drinks." He sat down two tall glasses full of a translucent red liquid. Nicole easily recognized it as a hurricane. "Will that be it?"
"For now, thanks." She waved him away. "So why are you so upset about this?"
"I dont know." Sheryl drained half the glass in front of her. "It just seems so out of character for you that my mind cant process it."
"It might have been out of character, but cant I be human?" Nicole was becoming upset at her friends reaction. "I mean its alright if everyone else is human, but I fucking cant be?"
"Whoa, there Hotshot. I never said you cant be human. Youve just never been the type to arbitrarily jump into bed with someone. I was shocked, thats all. Now Ive adjusted to it, you can tell me the rest."
"Her name was Jenny. She was only in town for a few days." Nicole relaxed a little. "It was just this thing. You know, Ive only been with three people, well four now, and all for different reasons. There was just something about Jenny that was attractive. She was tall, beautiful, smart, funny, she seemed to enjoy my company. There was something about her that attracted me, thats all. For once I acted on it."
"Was it good?"
"It was. It wasnt great, but it was good." She admitted. "Its only been great once."
"Itll be great again." Sheryl reassured her. "Shell come back."
"No she wont." She looked at her friend. "I didnt tell you that part did I? I had this talk with Grandmother, and after that I tried to find Laurel. The guy backstage who answered the phone wouldnt let me through."
"Thats easy to get around. Have Danny do it for you." The critic grinned. "Hes not a deejay for nothing. By the way, when did she go from Adia back to Grandmother?"
"That is a long story."
"We have time for it." The critic checked her watch.
"Alright." Nicole settled back into her chair and told Sheryl everything that had happened since her last visit.
"Wow. So Adia cheated on your grandfather and that produced your father?"
"Apparently." She was adjusting to it better now. It helped to finally discuss it with someone.
"Do you even know what he looked like? I bet he was handsome."
"All I know is that he had dark hair and blue eyes." Nicole shrugged. "Other than that I have no clue."
"Your family gets more and more interesting." Sheryl laughed. "Its too bad we dont have a picture, but I dont think Adia would save one. It would be evidence."
"Yeah it would be. I did learn who the bowler belonged to."
"Oh yeah? Wasnt him was it?"
"No. It was my great Uncle Charlies. He died in the World War. I got that from a picture in a scrap book."
"Lets go back. I want to look through all this stuff youve dug up." Sheryl stood. "Wheres that waiter?"
"Probably hiding from us." Nicole laughed.
"Ill find him. Be right back." She watched as the critic left to settle the tab. So far, it was an interesting day.
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There is no cellular service at the Grand Canyon
"Wow." Laurel got out of the van and took in the view. The first thing she noticed aside from the vast panorama of the Grand Canyon was the heat. It late August, and it was at least 115 degrees with only a strong, hot wind to offer a mockery of relief.
The rest of the band clamored out of the vehicle and stood around staring in various stages of awe. Laurel took out her digital video camera and began filming the view. Harold had been persuaded by BJ and the bassist to sacrifice a day of publicity shots for a chance to see the Grand Canyon. The only way they persuaded the man was by agreeing to film their next video there. They both felt it was worth it, though the bassist wondered if the heat would kill them. She was used to heat, but not a dry heat. She seemed unable to breathe without moisture in the air.
"I dont believe this." Jenna held up her cellular phone. "Theres no service in this accursed place."
"Jenna, were at the Grand Canyon." BJ almost shouted. "Did you honestly expect cellular service out in the middle of nowhere?"
"Well, how are we supposed to keep up with whats going on?" The guitarist protested.
"What in the world do you have to keep up with?" Steve entered the argument.
Laurel left them to argue. She found a flat space to sit near the edge of the Canyon. The Colorado River was green here, and she laughed. She had always imagined the red rocks and the blue water the way it appeared in the cartoons. She shifted a little to get more of the Canyon walls into the frame. It was a pity there was no wildlife, but she knew the noise they were making would scare the wild creatures.
"Too bad Mandy cant be here." BJ sat down beside her.
"Yeah, this is awesome. Where are we going to set up the shoot?" She lit a cigarette. The tobacco she inhaled tasted thick in the heat.
"I dont know, but Jennas turning into a right little prima donna." BJ grumbled. "You know, I have this recurring nightmare of you sticking a spoon into her eye while were drinking coffee."
"So youve said. I still dont see how its a nightmare." Laurel laughed.
"Well it is when youre sent off to prison and Mandy and the others take it out on me." He laughed. "I was told to take very good care of you."
"Different people." He shrugged and evaded the question. "So wheres Muggster?"
"I left her in the trailer. Its cooler there and I didnt want her to overheat." The trailers had been following them, but the van made better time. They were expected within moments.
"Will you two please get away from the edge? What would happen if you fell over?" Harold approached them but remained a good distance from the edge of the Canyon.
"It would hurt." Laurel did not move. "When are we starting the shoot?"
"You dont listen to me at all do you?" He placed his hands on his hips and looked down at the pair over his sunglasses.
"Nope." They said in unison.
"Theyve already shot the preliminary background scenes. It should take a few hours to get the singing portion of the shot done. Now, Lakky, at least you arent required to sing in this heat. Were going to lip sync it and add in the vocals like always."
"Ill sing it. And were playing the song. I hate that miming shit you had us do for the last one." Laurel knocked the lit part of her cigarette off, snuffed it out with her boot and put the butt in her pocket.
"Whatever you wish." He turned around at the sound of a car horn. "Go get dressed and well get set up."
Laurel nodded and waited for the clothing and make up trailer to pull to a stop. It did not take long for them to do all sorts of arcane and uncomfortable things to her face and hair. At least she was allowed to approve the outfit. She chose a pair of her own worn jeans and a sleeveless white shirt. She was already garnering a reputation for being blue geckos butch bassist, and she enjoyed playing it to the hilt.
The first shots they filmed were of the full band playing at the edge of the Canyon. It took three hours to film three minutes of music. It was the next sequence the bassist was not looking forward to. This one required her to sit alone in the growing dark, silhouetted by the Canyon walls with the moon over her shoulder. The hardest part was that she had to sit on the ground and support the guitar with her thigh while playing the opening melody. It was harder than it looked, and she was sore by the time it was over, but fortunately it only took an hour to film the first minute and fifteen seconds of the video.
"Good job everyone. Back in the van and well head back to the hotel." Harold waved the tired group into the vehicle.
Laurel claimed Muggster before joining them. She had not changed clothes, preferring not to get her other attire drenched with sweat during the three-hour drive back. She and Jenna remained awake, the guitarist waiting for her phone to show the service icon.
Somewhere along the line, Laurel had begun to melt into her role of bandleader and musician. She reclaimed the songs the label made Steve sing, and she started playing the guitar again. There was one song they did during a concert where she was on stage alone with only the guitar. It was turning out to be very popular. Some bright, young fan had recorded it, and it was currently making the rounds on the Internet. To combat that, the label was re-releasing their CD with that song added to it. It was a live recording made a few nights ago at a concert in New Mexico. It was yet another song written for Nicole. Laurel wondered if the photographer ever listened to it.
Despite her resolve not to call Nicole, Laurel had mailed several packages to her ex-girlfriend. One contained the stuffed monkey she bought in New York, another was the single of Goddess of Desire, and more were just postcards or small items that made her think of Nicole. So far, there had been no word from anyone if Nicole had even received them. Jessica had been of no help. The young college student was preparing for her final semester, and had not been online much. Laurel did not have Sheryls email address, but she wanted it. She had to keep up with news somehow. Mandy had not seen Nicole since the now infamous party.
It was getting harder to keep her hope for a reunion alive. It was not easy being the only one attempting to regain contact. Though she had to admit she really was not trying that hard. She did know Nicoles email address, but she had yet to use it. She did not try calling anymore. All she did was send unsigned notes through the mail. It was no wonder she had not gotten an answer. She wanted to try harder, she really did, but Laurel was beginning to fear rejection for the first time in her life. What she wanted was to be face to face with the photographer. She knew it was the only way they could be honest with one another. Nicole never had been able to lie to her. However, that would have to wait until December when the plan went into motion. That is, if she decided to go through with it.
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"Is the bed situated and everything in easy reach?" The nurse asked.
"Of course. We got all those instructions and followed them to the letter." Melba sounded upset. Nicole smiled at her in a reassuring gesture. She knew the housekeeper did not like to be questioned about her efficiency.
"Let me make sure. We want everything to be just as it was in the hospital." The nurse disappeared down the hallway. It had taken Nicole, Kay, Stan and Melba three days to prepare Adias room for her return.
"That high falootin woman coming in here and telling me how to run my house. Who does she think she is?" Melba ranted.
"Call down, old girl, shes just the nurse. She has to make sure everything is fine." Stan attempted to calm the housekeeper.
"Theyll be here in an hour. Think you can stand it for that long?" Nicole asked.
"If I couldnt, I wouldnt have lasted in this house a day." Melba still seemed upset. The photographer knew part of the problem was Melba had finally learned the truth of Adias condition. Like most people in their stations, Adia and the housekeeper were better friends than people would assume. It seemed, after so many years, that one could not function without the other.
"Have I missed anything?" A smooth, cultured voice asked from the kitchen door. Someone had left it open.
"Father Jason?" Nicole waved him inside.
"Why, Nicole. Its so good to see you again. I heard you were back, but havent seen you at mass." The priest gently admonished as he pulled her into a hug.
"Ive been trying to help take care of Grandmother." She made her excuse. It was nice to see him. She considered him one of the last truly nice, great and gentle people. There were no scandals, skeletons or anything else along those lines in his history.
"I can understand that. Just remember, my dear, that we have mass more than just on Sundays." He stepped back and shook Stans hand. "How are you, Stanley?"
"Fine, sir. Hows the plan for the new kindergarten coming?" He asked. Their church was one of several in the area that had a school attached. While no longer principal, he had retired from that chore after Jessie graduated high school; he still kept a watchful eye over his school.
"Wonderfully well. Weve got the designs in, and should be voting on them before we bid farewell to my second favorite month." The priest clapped his hands together in joy.
"September is your second favorite month?" Nicole asked. She crossed over to the counter and pulled out several glasses. Melba caught the hint.
"Ice tea or anything, Father?" The housekeeper asked.
"Ice tea sounds wonderful. Yes, September it is. It used to be because school would be starting then, but now its because its cooler than August." He laughed. "So, Nicolette, your grandmother told me you won an award for photography? Come tell me all about it."
"Ok." Nicole laughed. She did not completely understand how her Grandmother found out about the award, but did not question it. Over the course of time, the wounds she and Adia had inflicted on one another were healing. She now knew her grandmother was proud of her. That knowledge alone made the whole thing seem worth it.
"This is a story Id like to hear myself." Stan eagerly sat down. He was disappointed when everyone but him had glasses of tea. Grumbling a little under his breath, he went to pour his own.
"Well, one of my first assignments at the paper was to cover a suicide." She paused as Father Jason genuflected. She knew later he would pray for Dougs soul. It was one more thing she liked about the priest. "It happened to be Doug, my former employer. Sheryl and I covered that story. We were talking about it later, and something didnt sit right about it. Anyway, we did a little digging and discovered that several more clients of this one attorney had also committed suicide. We had one of our friends do a little under cover work, who just happened to be an attorney himself, and discovered a major tax fraud case. We exposed him, he was sent to prison, Sheryl and I won awards from the State Press Agency and everyone involved in the subsequent civil suit was award a very large settlement." David had been of tremendous help during that case. It had won him a junior partnership in the firm he worked out of, and she was thankful for that. What she regretted was he no longer had the time to hang out with them. Out of the original group, only Nicole, Danny and Sheryl remained.
"I must say, I had doubts about the two of you being so far away, but it sounds as if you and Sheryl handled yourselves very well." The priest smiled. "That was a wonderful thing you did."
"Well, Sheryl and David helped a lot." Nicole felt that annoying blush creep up the back of her neck.
"So was it a paper award or was it one of those trophy things?" Stan asked.
"It looks like a paper weight." Nicole laughed. "Its still in Hattiesburg. I suppose one day I should go get the rest of my stuff."
"Ill help. We can borrow the work truck." Stan volunteered.
"It is so nice to see everyone back home." Father Jason smiled again. "We have missed you all, you know." He would never tell them openly, but he always hinted that their class produced his favorite people. He was even fond of Sheryl despite all the trouble the critic caused in high school.
They talked over another glass of tea. Father Jason amused them with the more innocent comments made by the new class of first graders. He was fond of children and it showed. Nicole could not think of one child who did not immediately trust the priest. The priest who preceded him had not been the same. Father Jason took over their church when Nicole, Stan and Sheryl had been in second grade. They all remembered the first priest, the one who christened them. Nicole was never told the details, but she knew there had been a scandal surrounding him. The whole congregation had welcomed Father Jason with open arms shortly after sending the previous priest running for shelter.
"I reckon thats them." Melba raced to the door when she heard commotion in the driveway.
"Its about that time." Nicole glanced at her watch.
"Its all right, its just us." Jay called to quell the ensuing panic. "Did Kay ride along with them?"
"Yes she did. Mom wanted to be there in case something happened, and Nicky wanted to be here to make sure Melba didnt strangle the nurse." Stan joked. Though she had to admit he was correct.
"Afternoon, Father." Jay shook the priests hand. "What brings you here?" Jay was not Catholic, but as part of the family through his relationship with Phil, he knew the priest well.
"I came to welcome Mrs. Adia home and to pay my respects. I visited her several times in the hospital, but I knew wed both enjoy more comfortable surroundings this time." Father Jason looked around. "Wheres Philippe?"
"Hes out struggling with something that SOMEONE did not bother to help with." Phil answered as he manhandled a huge bouquet of flowers through the door.
"I thought you were right behind me." Jay ran to help. "I didnt think you were going to bring them in until after we asked the nurse if its ok."
"Whatever." Phil, with Jays assistance, attempted to place the bouquet on the counter.
"Wait." Nicole called out. She could see disaster approaching. She hurriedly moved several items destined for the floor. "Ok, now you can set it up there."
"Thanks." Phil stepped back with relief.
"I must say you have lovely taste, Philippe." Father Jason examined the flowers. "If I recall, these are Mrs. Adias favorites."
"Yes sir, they are." Phil answered.
"Hold that thought, the ambulance just pulled up." Stan pushed open the screen door. "Should we make them bring her through the side door?"
"I dont know." Melba shrugged.
"Yeah, I think the side door has a straighter shot. Stan, yell at your mom to go through that way." Nicole took over. "Melba can you make sure the nurse has everything ready?"
"Yes Nicole." The housekeeper turned on her heels and headed back to Adias room.
"You go, general." Jay whispered in her ear.
"Thanks. Shall we go greet everyone?"
"I think that would be appropriate." The priest answered.
Fortunately for Adia, the EMT personnel loaded her emancipated frame into a wheelchair before opening the back of the ambulance. It was easier on them that way, and it helped ease their patients anxiety. Though Adia accepted the truth of her situation, Nicole made sure her grandmother would not lose all of her dignity. She knew Adia would not want the neighbors to see her brought home on a stretcher. It was vain and it was petty, but it was her wish, and Nicole honored it.
Each person present made sure Adia knew they were there. They then left the nurse and EMT personnel with the task of settling her in her room. Only Melba stayed to supervise. The rest acknowledge their lack of skill in that department. They knew they would be in more hindrance than help.
It was only after the ambulance returned to its regular duties that everyone entered the room. It was almost heartbreaking. Once, the room held a large canopied bed, antique chest-of-drawers and dresser, a make-up table and a quilt rack. Now it held only a hospital bed, an IV stand complete with IV, and a rolling bed tray. It had taken them days, but they had made it as sterile yet comfortable as possible.
"You all are positively depressing. You look like someones been brought home to die." Adias comment was out of character. Morphine had that effect on some people. That the doctors consented to prescribe it to her showed their lack of faith in her recovery. They had given up the battle to save her life and taken up the one to make her as comfortable as possible.
"Nonsense, Mrs. Adia. Were here to make sure you get a proper welcome home." Father Jason attempted to dispel the aura of unease.
"Phil and Jay brought you a lovely arraignment of flowers." Nicole favored her uncles with a look. They read it correctly and hurried off to collect the bouquet.
"And, we got you this." Stan produced a CD player and several packages. "These are a few books on CD." He explained at Adias quizzical look.
"We thought you might like to hear some of your favorites. This one is read by the poet." Nicole showed her grandmother a CD of poetry.
"I got you this." Melba produced an antique brass bell. "Now I can finally ask if you rang."
"This is all marvelous." Adia laughed.
"Has it all be sterilized?" The nurse looked at everything suspiciously.
"How on earth are we going to sterilize a CD?" Stan asked.
"Heres the flowers." Phil announced as he and Jay brought the large bouquet into the room. They were forced to set it on the floor, as there was not a place large enough to hold it left.
"Oh my!" The nurse turned three different shades of red.
"Can I talk to you a minute?" Nicole grabbed the unresisting woman by the arm and forced her out into the hall.
"You have got to be careful about what you bring in there. Germs you know."
"Look, Miss Sunshine, my grandmother is home to die. I know it and you know it. More to the point, she knows it too. Now, we are going to make her remaining time on this planet as nice, easy and normal as possible. We are not trying to speed anything up, were trying to make her feel better." Nicole explained. "What we need from you is to make sure shes comfortable, she eats, and shes given the proper care she deserves. What we dont need from you is objections to the way this family behaves, objections to our attempts at pleasing my grandmother, and nonsense rules about germs. For Gods sake, youre breathing on her. With your breath, thats more germs added than Phils flowers."
"Ive never "
"You will or well find another nurse. Is that understood?" Nicole looked the nurse in the eye. "You were hired because they informed us you were the best. Act like it."
"Yes maam." It was not a tone full of respect, but it was full of submission. It was acceptable for the moment.
"Good. Now, lets see to your charge, ok?" She asked in a more hospitable tone.
"Yes Ms. Herbert." The nurse turned and reentered the room.
"Dear gods, what have I become?" Nicole asked herself softly as she leaned back against the wall. Her answer, when it came was shocking. She was growing into herself.
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