"Sheryl, what are you doing?" Nicole looked over at her friend. "And why are you sitting so close?" Sheryl had moved from the floor to the chest. She kept staring at Nicole's back. It was starting to make the photographer a little nervous.
"Just stay still. I have to do something. Don't move."
"Have you completely lost your mind? What on earth do you have to do?" Suddenly, the photographer felt something skim along her back. The next thing she knew, she was staring up at the ceiling. "What are you doing?"
"Hang on." Sheryl literally climbed up Nicole's body. Suddenly there was a loud bang and then all was silent. "Ugh, that was disgusting." The critic rested her head on the photographer's shoulder.
"Can you tell me what now?"
"Sure. Have a look." Sheryl held up the book she used to squash the spider. "A brown recluse, if I'm right. It was crawling up your back."
"Ugh. Thank you." Nicole suddenly felt as if hundreds of the spiders were on her back. "There's no more is there?" She squirmed in an attempt to scratch.
"Not that I can see."
"Good. Now I'll have nightmares of creepy crawly things on top of everything else." She scratched her back against one of the support beams. She knew she would have nightmares, and the vanilla scent was rapidly fading from the stuffed monkey.
"On top of what else?" Sheryl returned to her position at the top of the stairs. "By the way, I'm glad you at least swept the stairs."
"That dust was giving me allergies." She answered as she returned to her seat on the chest.
"Why do you insist on spending so much time up here anyway?" Sheryl pointed to the portable CD player and headphones sitting on the floor by the chest. "I mean you're practically camping out up here if those are any indication."
"No one else comes up here." She answered. In the attic she was free to listen to blue gecko's CD as much as she wanted. No one bothered her. Digging through the stuff left behind by previous Herberts was also giving her a perspective on life. She no longer doubted her last name. She was as much an Herbert as Stan and Jessie were. Her grandfather had said so in his diary.
"So do you have nightmares about falling under all that stuff and being squashed by hat boxes?"
"No." She laughed until she remembered the reason behind her nightmares. "They're about Brian."
"Brian? Where the hell did that come from?"
"I ran into him a few days ago." The pain was still there, but it was mellowing. She refused to dwell on it until she was forced to face any consequences.
"And?" Sheryl prompted.
"He invited me to dinner. We went to the Napoleon House."
"That's not enough to give you nightmares. Did he hit on you?"
"He did more than that didn't he?" Sheryl always assumed the worse about Brian. Nicole knew her friend had cause to do so. "What did he do to you?" She moved over to the chest and sat down.
"Ah, he um we kinda." It was harder to say than it was to think.
"He didn't? He did, didn't he? What a fucking bastard. I'll kill the motherfucker. Who the hell does he think he is? Someone oughta send him to The Farm and let him see how he likes it." Sheryl continued to curse him with being buried face down in Angola Prison and other sorts of torture until she ran out of breath. "Have you been to the doctor yet?"
"No." Nicole was not amazed at her friend's reaction. Sheryl was highly protective of those she cared about. The problem was Nicole wanted compassion not anger.
"Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry that happened." Sheryl finally calmed down. She wrapped her arms around the photographer. "Are you ok? You're not going to go postal on us are you?"
"No. The answer is no to both questions. I'm not ok yet. I will be though. He wrote me a note. Stan found it. He said that he was clean." She could not yet say his name out loud. "But there are other considerations."
"I know. Do you want me to go with you?" The critic managed to keep her voice soft. Nicole could tell that she was ready to stalk Brian with a pointed stick or any other handy weapon.
"Would you?" It was too much to ask; too much to hope for.
"Of course. Just name the time and place."
"Ok. I'll call and make the appointment Monday. I'll try to see if I can make it for late Friday. You've missed too much work already. We don't need you getting in trouble for coming down here so much."
"Don't worry about my job. I won't get in trouble over this. Max thinks I hung the moon after the article I wrote about Laurel." Sheryl laughed softly. "This changes all that doesn't it?"
"Yeah. I gave up trying to find her until we find out if he was telling the truth. I don't want to call and say come back because of what happened. We don't need something like this holding us together." Nicole stated. It had been on her mind constantly since the most recent setback happened.
"That asshole has a lot to pay for, you know." Sheryl swore softly. "Nicole, if you keep putting it off, you'll never do it. I know you don't want this between you, but at least think about calling her and asking if she can be here for Thanksgiving or something."
"Sheryl, I think you're missing the point. I can't call her until this is settled. I can't have her rush home because I've been rap used by him. Don't you see? Two things have to happen now. I have to move past this and she has to come back willingly. I know, at least I think, if I were to get a hold of her right now, she would come running home, but it would be because she would think I needed her."
"I hate to point this out, but you do need her."
"I know." Nicole sighed. She pulled her knees up and rested her head on her arms. "I can't explain why, I just know that now it's not such a good idea. What if he were lying? What if I caught something, or I'm pregnant or something?"
"Nicole, as much as Laurel loves you, I don't think it would matter to her. If you want, we can wait and see what the doctor says, but please no matter what, call her. If something does come from the tests they'll run, then you can deal with it. You'll need her help getting over it. You can't just rely on me for this. I'll do all I can, but there are some things only Laurel can help you overcome." She pulled the photographer back into her arms.
"You really believe in us that much, don't you?" Nicole's voice was small. She let herself relax into Sheryl's embrace.
"Yes I do. She called me one night about the article. We didn't have time to talk for long, but sweetheart; she still loves you as much as you love her. Give her the choice you didn't the first time. Make her chose between you and the band. I know she'll chose you."
"How can you be so sure?" She had yet to conquer all her doubts.
"Because I can. I believe in both of you more than it seems you believe in yourselves. I wasn't kidding when I told you this fucks up everyone's worldview. I know it had to happen. I know you needed the time apart to get your heads together and your hearts healed, but it's been long enough."
"It was long enough." Nicole corrected. "I'll wait and see what the doctor says. You were wrong you know."
"You've been a great help during all of this. I don't think I could have gotten this far with out you. As soon as we see the doctor and get the results back, regardless of what they are, we'll go out and have a little fun. It'll be my treat. I've kinda already started putting this thing with Brian behind me. I blindly set myself up for it in a way, but that doesn't excuse his actions. I've accepted that. Stan's been a great help, too."
"Stan knows? What exactly did happen?" Sheryl asked.
"And that was it." Nicole told her after explaining the evening. Sheryl's arms were still around her. She felt safe enough to relive the moment. "I knew what happened the next morning. I could feel it. Stan came up while I was in the shower, he found the note, and then offered his shoulder after I read it. For the first two days after it happened, I didn't leave my bedroom here. Then I started kinda going through everything again in my head, I opened all my mail and found this." She held up the stuffed monkey. "I wish I would have gotten it after it was sent, but I did find it at the right time. It helped me believe in her again, in us again. Then I went to take some pictures and just think things through. That's when I realized I couldn't call her back yet. Let me get over this completely and then I'll find a way to let her know she can come home when she's ready. I don't want to force her to do anything. I want her to walk away because she wants to, not because I asked."
"I know there's a fault there, but I can't think of what it is." Sheryl pulled her close again. "All I can say is that we will get through this. I'm glad Stan was there for you. I wish I could have been."
"You're here now and that means an awful lot."
"Hey, it's what friends are for. I mean we've been through a lot together. I was there when you accidentally sat on Timmy's science fair project. After walking home with you covered in mud and red syrup from his volcano, there's nothing I wouldn't do for you."
"Did you have to bring that up?" Nicole laughed weakly. It was the first time she had laughed since her encounter with Brian. It felt good. "I remember being there for you when you got in trouble with Sister Mary Margaret for getting into a paint war with Joey. Let me tell you how embarrassing it is to walk home with someone covered in yellow paint pretending she's an alien and yelling at the top of her lungs that's blood all over her uniform."
"It couldn't have been that embarrassing." Sheryl protested. "What about the time when you couldn't wait to use the bathroom and accidentally wet your pants?"
"Hey, you promised never to bring that up again." She was feeling better about life. Talking with Sheryl always helped put things in perspective. The critic had a gift for entertaining and consoling her friends at the same time. "What about the time you forgot your flute case on our way to a football game and I had to help hide it so the band director wouldn't see it?"
"Oh, every kid's done that at least once. What about the time when ?"
"Sheryl, don't make me go get the pictures I have of grade school out." Nicole threatened.
"Promise you will?" The critic's ears almost perked at those words. "Let's go look through them. I could use a good trip down memory lane. It's worth the laugh."
"Alright." She agreed easily. It would be fun. "They're in my room."
"You go get them out and I'll beg Melba for some snacks and drinks."
"Ok. Meet ya there." Nicole watched Sheryl skip down the stairs. She made one last look for spiders before following her friend. It was strange, but she seemed able to breath easier now.
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The sound of grinding gears jerked Laurel from her half daze. The road was no longer smooth beneath the tires. She sat up and looked around. The noises coming from under the bus caused everyone to stir. She used her shirtsleeve to wipe the condensation from the window. The trees on the shoulder of the interstate looked too close for comfort.
"Now what?" She pulled on her jacket on and walked up front. "What's going on?"
"Damned if I know." Harold muttered. He wiped the sleep from his eyes. "I'm going to find out though."
"Me too." Laurel stepped out of the bus and into strong, cold wind. She hid behind the open door as the rest of the band joined her. The door was the only relief from the wind. Her lighter was not as windproof as the company claimed.
"What's going on?" BJ yawned around the words.
"Apparently we've broken down." Laurel commented dryly. "I have no idea why."
"Let's go see. Maybe we can help." Steve led the way to the front of the bus.
The bus driver was attempting to look inside the engine and juggle a flashlight. They watched as the man checked the oil, transmission fluid and windshield washer fluid. Apparently he could drive a bus, but that was the extent of his skills with one. Several cars passed, but none stopped. As much as it may have helped, Laurel could not blame anyone. For all anyone knew, they were cultists out to recruit new members.
"Here, let me take a look." Steve gently elbowed the driver out of the way. "Can someone hold the light? Do we have another?"
"Sure." The driver climbed back inside the bus after handing the flashlight to Laurel. He returned a moment later with another. BJ took that one.
"What do you think Steve?" BJ asked as he joined him in front of the bus.
"I think we're going to need a new bus soon." Steve commented. "This engine is filthy."
"Most are, aren't they?" Laurel asked. She knew the one in her truck was filthy. Steve kept telling her to use a pressure cleaner to clear the dirt away.
"Yeah, whatever." Steve muttered. He slid underneath the bus for a better view. "Lakky, hand me that flashlight."
"What's he doing?" Harold asked. "I don't think we're insured for that."
"He's a mechanic." BJ laughed. "Insurance or no, we want to get to the hotel tonight, don't we?"
"Yes. But shouldn't I call a truck or something?" The manager looked between the two remaining in front of the bus. "We should let someone else handle this."
"Nah let him have his fun. If he can't fix it, then we'll call someone else." Laurel told him. "Steve's actually a good mechanic. He's kept my truck running for a lot longer than it should."
"If you say so." The manager still seemed unsure.
"He can get us going quicker than a truck could get here to tow us." BJ told him. That seemed to decide Harold.
"Ok, then is there anything I can do?" He asked.
"Find me some duct tape." Steve called from under the bus.
"I have some in my kit." BJ leaned down to talk to the mechanic. "What's wrong?"
"I think we blew a hose. I can tape it up and we'll limp into town, but it should hold until someone can fix it tomorrow." Steve pulled himself from under the bus. "Can you get that for me?"
"Sure." BJ handed his flashlight to Harold. "Hold this for me."
"Ok." The manager aimed it in the general direction of the bus. "Now what's wrong?"
"We seem to either have a leak or we completely busted a hose." Steve told him.
"And how does duct tape play into this?" Harold sounded genuinely curious.
"It's a redneck thing. Duct tape holds the world together." Steve laughed. "It's man's best friend."
"Ok. I guess you know what you're doing. I sure don't. I don't even have a car. Public transportation." The manager explained.
"Ah, you big city types." Laurel joked. "If the subway can't get you there, you don't go."
"That's pretty true." Harold replied. "At least in my case. Everything is a block or two away, work's two subway stops, there's no sense in owning a car."
"I probably wouldn't either under those conditions, but I really would miss driving." She told him. "It's a great way to let off steam, although traffic can induce road rage. It's kinda neat to be in charge and in control of this huge moving piece of machinery, be almost one with it and let your mind unwind."
"Really?" He looked at her oddly. "I've driven, but it always seemed more of a hassle than anything else. You've seen how bad traffic is in New York."
"That I have." She laughed. "I wouldn't want to drive there. I'd end up way on the other side of the island before I knew what was going on."
"I hope you two are having fun up there." Steve called to them. "Where's BJ?"
"Probably looking through his kit." Laurel knelt down to speak to him. "He doesn't keep it all together. I don't know why he refers to it as a kit."
"I don't know either. Least it's a little warmer down here. October up North. Who'd of thought it got cold so fast?" He asked.
"This isn't that cold." Harold knelt down beside Laurel. "Wait until December. That's cold."
"For us, this is average winter temperature." Laurel explained. "To say it rarely freezes at home before January would be accurate."
"That's fall weather." Harold laughed. "No wonder you guys are such wimps. You're all thin skinned and thinner blooded."
"It's a fair trade off. It gets hotter at home than it does in New York." Laurel looked at him. "You'll find out if you're ever down there in the summer. I will admit the Grand Canyon almost killed us, but that was a dry heat. It's a wet heat and a wet cold that we're used to."
"One roll of duct tape." BJ reappeared. "Do you think this will solve it?"
"For the time being. Thanks." Steve slid back under the bus.
"Well this is fun." Laurel rubbed her hands together. They were getting cold. Her nose felt frozen. She knew it was only going to get worse. For the second time in her life she would see snow. She was looking forward to it, but knew it was at least a month away. She also knew she would soon get sick of it.
"Ok. This should do it." Steve pulled himself from under the bus. "We can get warm now."
"This isn't cold." Harold told them again. "Wait until next month. You'll think this was summer."
"You've got to be teasing." BJ looked at him.
"A little, but not that much." The manager admitted. "Let's go find the hotel. I think we lost the caravan. I don't know if they'll look for us until they reach the hotel. We're only about an hour away."
"Good thing too." Laurel bit back a yawn. "I sleep a lot better on a bed that isn't moving."
"You and me both." Harold agreed.
"Is it fixed?" The bus driver asked.
"We'll see in a minute." Steve took a seat up front. "Start her up and check it out."
The bus did crank. It still sounded odd, but it moved forward. Everyone relaxed back into his or her seats. Steve remained near the driver. Laurel knew none of them would be able to get back to sleep. She pulled a blanket around her to ward off the chill. The bus had cooled off considerably while it was parked on the side of the road. She watched the trees move slower past the old bus. This was another of those little things no one warned her about when she started this tour. However, she knew it was not the worst that could happen. She also knew she did not want to see the worst either.
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Nicole privately felt visiting the gynecologist was possibly the most humiliating part of being female. She still remembered her first visit. Like this one, it was because of Brian. She had prolonged the moment of embarrassment until her aunt had given her no choice. As soon as she confided in Kay, the older woman made the appointment and personally made sure that Nicole was on time for it. This time Sheryl waited in the lobby area. It was one thing for someone else to be in the doctor's office with her, it was a different thing entirely for that person to be in the examination room. It was a humiliation reserved for doctor and patient.
"According to your chart, I haven't seen you in almost two years, Nicole." Doctor Johnson commented as he flipped through her file. She always found his name amusing considering his profession. She doubted he did though.
"That's about right." She told him. It seemed to be correct.
"You really should come in more often. It's not healthy to prolong everything." He chided. "Now, are you having problems or is this a routine exam?" He asked as he rolled his stool over. She hated this part. She hated it more that he talked during the exam. She really hated it when she discovered his hands were cold.
"Just the routine exam." She answered. She rarely felt more vulnerable. At least the nurse allowed her to keep her shirt on instead of changing into a hospital gown.
"No birth control pills or anything then?"
"No." She felt the urge to laugh. It was nerves.
"Fine. Tests or anything else I may need to know about?" He prompted. "After two years, it would help if I had a little more information. One does not normally schedule an appointment for the same week after such a long absence without a reason."
"Well." She hated intuitive doctors. "I guess the tests should be ran. I mean it's been a while since I've had any, and I'm not all that celibate." She admitted.
"The full battery? I recommend it and not because of the costs." He laughed. "I would say that after two years if you've engaged in intercourse at least once, then we should run every thing we have."
"Ok." She wondered if her insurance would pay for it. She managed to keep it after leaving the paper. It cost a bit more this way, but she felt it was too important to let it expire.
"This may sting a little." He warned. It did. "There, I didn't see anything unusual, but we'll send the sample off. It'll take a few days to get the results back. You can get dressed. I'll send the nurse in to take the blood samples. I'll be back in a few minutes, ok?"
"Ok. Can you send my friend in?"
"Which one would that be?"
"The artificial redhead. Her name's Sheryl." Nicole told him. She reached for her pants and pulled them on. There was no sense in waiting for him to leave the room. He already knew more about her than most people.
"While you're here, we should schedule a mammogram. It's never too early to start." He made a note in her file. "You do the self examination right?"
"Yes." She did, when she remembered.
"You haven't noticed anything unusual then?" He made another note.
"Good. I'll tell the nurse to schedule one anyway. It's always a good thing to check these out. This is your health you know." He walked to the door. "I'll send your friend back and be back in a few minutes myself."
"Thank you, Dr. Johnson." Nicole sat back down on the examination table to put on her shoes. She was glad the exam was over. However, the hardest part was waiting for the test results.
"Now how come they let you keep your shirt on?" Sheryl asked as she entered the room. "I don't see one of those ghastly little hospital rags laying around."
"I don't know. Maybe they think the appointment is humiliation enough." Nicole answered. "Or having you pee in a container the size of a film canister is their new preferred torture."
"Well?" The critic took a seat on the rolling chair.
"How'd it go so far?" Sheryl began turning the stool in circles. "I love these things."
"You're gonna make yourself dizzy you know." Nicole cautioned. "It went ok, I guess. It was the same as any exam."
"That's cool. It means he didn't find anything growing where it shouldn't be." Sheryl rolled over to the cabinets against the wall. "Wonder what he's got in here."
"The nurse will be here any minute. I have to have blood taken."
"Of course you do. How else are they going to be able to tell that you don't have anything?" The critic picked up a metal instrument. "Now this would make life interesting."
"Sheryl! Put that down before the nurse comes in here." Sometimes Nicole thought her friend could be a little too curious for her own good.
"You're no fun anymore." The critic pouted but did as requested.
"I never claimed to be fun."
"That's true. How long do they plan on making you wait?"
"It's only been a few minutes." Nicole knew Sheryl's actions stemmed from nerves. The critic was attempting to keep the photographer distracted from the endless possibilities. Sheryl was also attempting to keep herself distracted from them as well.
"Yeah. That's true too."
"Ok. Nicole Herbert?" The nurse poked her head around the door. "Is that you?"
"Good. We've got a practical joker around here switching files in the door holders. I wanted to make sure this wasn't another one." The nurse entered the room fully. "I'm Verna and I'm here to take your blood." She smiled.
"That's an unusual introduction." Sheryl commented.
"Ah, but it's a true one. You'd be amazed how many nervous young girls come in here. They seem to relax easier when you plainly state your purpose in their lives." The nurse pulled out the needed equipment. "Right or left?"
"Whichever is easier." Nicole answered. It did not matter to her.
"Left." The nurse pushed up the photographer's shirtsleeve. "Alright. Don't watch if it makes you queasy. I need to take three vials of this. You don't pass out or anything do you?"
"I did once when I donated blood."
"Well, I'll keep a watch. If you start to feel faint, let me know."
"Ok." Nicole turned her head and watched as Sheryl began to turn circles on the stool again. She soon realized that was not a good idea and stared at a poster instead.
"Just one more." The nurse told her. Nicole was surprised. She had not even felt the needle. "Ok. All done. We'll have to wait on a few of the results for a couple of days. The results for the pregnancy test will be available in a few minutes. Do you want to wait?"
"Please." She answered. She saw Sheryl nod out of the corner of her eye.
"The doctor will be back with those. I'm sure everything will be ok." The nurse reassured her before leaving.
"That was quick."
"Well, she did her stated purpose." Sheryl laughed. "Nervous?"
"A little." She admitted.
"I always am too, honestly. I stay protected, but sometimes you wonder."
"I guess." She shrugged. She hated waiting.
"Do you want it to be positive or negative?" Sheryl finally asked.
"I don't know. I mean I've thought about both results. I would like children, but it just seems strange to see myself as a single mom." She admitted. "If it weren't Brian's I'd really want a child, but if it turns out positive, I'll never tell the child about its conception."
"That's wise. I can't see where that would do any good. You could ask Danny about it though. If it turns out positive I mean."
"Yeah. It's just kinda pointless to think about when we don't know for sure yet." She had thought about doing a home test, but decided to let the doctor perform it. It was more accurate that way.
"We'll know in a few." Sheryl answered.
"What do you think?"
"About what? If you're asking whether I think it'll be positive or negative, I don't know. Would you keep it?"
"Of course I would." There were some beliefs she still held to strongly.
"Good. I can't see you doing otherwise."
"Alright, Nicole. I have the results of one of the tests." Dr. Johnson announced as he reentered the room. "Ahem." He looked at Sheryl. The critic took the hint and moved to sit beside Nicole.
"And?" She could not keep the nervousness from her voice. She felt Sheryl take her hand and give it a reassuring squeeze.
"Were you planning on having children?" He asked.
"Yes. Eventually. Why?" His question made her more nervous.
"Good. I hate bearing bad news. If I were you, I'd plan on eight or so months." He smiled. "We should schedule a check up in six weeks."
"I'm pregnant?" It did not quite sink in to her brain. Sheryl squeezed harder.
"I thought you wanted children?" He seemed a baffled.
"I do, just not next year." She paused. "I mean, I wasn't expecting one this soon."
"You're what? Twenty-seven? That's a good age to start a family. It gets harder as you get older. You'll still have plenty of time to give this little one brothers or sisters, and be able to keep up with them." He reassured her. "Congratulations. See the receptionist to schedule a follow up. I'll see you again in about six weeks, unless something shows up in your tests. I doubt anything will. You seem to be in good health, but as you know appearances can be deceiving. I'll call you as soon as the tests come in, ok?"
"Ok." She seemed at a loss for words.
"Well, young lady, you're free to go." He told her as he opened the door. "Don't forget to schedule that appointment before you leave."
"Thank you. I won't."
"Are you ok?" Sheryl pulled her in for a hug.
"Yeah. I think I am. I think we need to get Danny down here." She wondered how her old friend would take the news.
"Ok." Sheryl looked at her expectantly.
"Can I be Aunty Sheryl?"
"Of course." Nicole laughed. She felt better about the situation. Regardless of what happened between her and Laurel, she would not be required to raise her child alone. Her friends would be its family.
"Good. Let's go pretend to celebrate." Sheryl hopped off the table. "I'll even buy."
"Now that is a cause for celebration. It's so rare."
"Ha, ha. Keep it up and it'll be fast food." The critic threatened.
"Have I ever told you how wonderful a friend you are?" Nicole pulled her friend into a hug. "Thank you."
"It is just lunch."
"I wasn't talking about lunch."
"I know you weren't. For the record, you're pretty incredible yourself, Hotshot. Now make your appointment and let's get out of here. I'm starving."
"Actually, so am I." For the first time in a week, she was hungry. It was a good sign.
To Be Continued