By the Bluedragon (aka the blue bayoupup)
Authors note: This is an original piece of fiction currently defined as uber alternative. These characters started out as uber Mel and Janice; however they have sprang from my head, rebelled and formed their own identities. There is no subtext in this story, its all maintext. So, if you have a problem with Southern women in love with other Southern women, leave now and forever hold your piece.
The quiet melody echoed throughout the room. The players melancholy finding voice in the old tune. This evenings practice had begun as an effort to escape the thoughts and frustrations of the day, but sometimes even the sweetest music reforms itself around the attitude of the musician. This song was not one of happiness.
"Damn," The curse was nothing more than a whisper as she sat the battered mahogany instrument back on its stand. The sheet music that had been resting on the ottoman fell to the floor. She left it there. The clutter not bothering her as it usually would.
The day had not gone well. Work had been hectic, and her boss fully expected his subordinates to put his company above their lives, hobbies, and other assorted interest. Not that he did, but the rest were required to do his job and theirs.
Not that I have much of a life anymore. She thought. Refusing to dwell on the fight shed had first with her boss, and then the really nasty one with her grandmother, she tried to focus in on something more pleasant. Like being tortured in an enemy camp or winning the Pulitzer and finally being able to tell all the dissenters what she thought of them, which was not anything more tangible than contempt.
The high-pitched whine of the phone brought her out of her fantasies and back to reality. She opted for the machine to answer, rather than deal with whatever telemarketer may feel she would contribute to some cause or other. Half listening to the outgoing message, she ambled into the kitchen and rescued a beer from the refrigerator. She sighed at the lack of food, and made a mental note to go grocery shopping at some near point in the future.
Returning to the living room, she was amused to see that the caller had declined the opportunity to leave a message. Probably someone wanting me to change long distance carriers. Normally, it was a petty but irritating occurrence when some one hung up on the answering machine, a pet peeve in actuality, but tonight she let it slide. Not much in her life seemed like fighting for or against at the moment.
The amber liquid was refreshingly cold and smoothed out the ever-present lump in her throat. She reclaimed her seat from the dog, and continued to sit in the dark attempting to forget the trials and tribulations she had faced throughout the day.
It wasnt until she glanced at the clock on the VCR, that she remembered other plans for the evenings activities. With a sigh, Nicole Herbert gathered her keys from the hanger by the door, left the building, and locked the door behind her.
The parking area outside the entrance to the mall was filled with cars of various makes and models. A display of anything from land barges to motor vehicle violations was present all along the aisles. Nicole swiftly parked her vehicle in the outer limits, far enough away to be safe from door to door accidents, and close enough to be in the same state as the mall. She got out and began the hike to the entrance.
The closer she walked to the mall, the more noticeable the human traffic. In keeping with Friday night traditions everywhere, teenagers from all walks of life and grade levels clustered in groups in and around the archway. Nicole weaved her way through the throngs, alternately choking back laughter at the posing and posturing or attempting not to sneeze at a whiff of cologne applied a bit too zealously. It seemed to her that some things never changed, no matter how much distance grows between the generations.
Before she got too far inside the doors of the mall, she heard her name from a point just behind her. She turned and saw her friends sitting in the widow of the conveniently located restaurant. The hostess waved her though, and within seconds, she joined her friends at their usual table.
"Hey, Hotshot, what took so long?" David asked around a mouthful of appetizer, much to the annoyance of the redhead at his side. Sheryl rolled her eyes at his uncouth manner. Nicole grinned.
"What else? The tyrant decided to move us from indentured servants to full scale slaves." She glanced at the menu, more out of habit than need. "Anything interesting happen to anyone this week?"
The waitress brought out the plates of food and another round of beer with the help of a bus boy, and Nicole was astonished when she had both a plate and a glass placed before her.
"Thought you might be late, so Sheryl took the liberty of ordering for you." Danny speared a fry from her plate and inhaled it.
"Thanks. You guys spoil me." She batted his hand away and added mustard to her burger.
"Nah....spoiling you would be if we paid." The group laughed. "You, my friend, are still required to pay for your dinner. Unless of course, you decide to play for it." Sheryl was busy adding extra dressing to her salad.
"So," She asked around a mouthful of burger, much to Sheryls dismay. Nicole enjoyed displaying a lack of manners around her oldest friend. "What movie are we going to see tonight?" She pointedly ignored the invitation to play. She did not play in front of an audience.
"That new one that won all those awards at Sundance." Greg informed her. "Sheryl decided she wanted to review it." Sheryl was the movie/book/entertainment critic for the local paper, and unlike her colleagues, she preferred to watch a movie with an audience. She also preferred her friends to be among them.
"Yeah, I hear its pretty good. Sold out this afternoon, but I was able to pull some strings and get us all tickets." Danny informed them.
"Really, Cowboy? How did you manage that one?" Greg was curious about how to get anything free.
"Called the manager and promised to promote the cinema on the show tomorrow night." He laughed. "Works every time."
The group finished their meal and their gossip just in time for the movie. It was par for the course when they got together. Usually it was just for coffee or beer, but once a month they suffered through some movie or other that Sheryl wanted to review for the paper. Most of them were just glad that she did not make them read the books she reviewed as well. The last time she tried, David and Greg refused, disgusted with the lack of males in the novel.
It was late after the movie let out and Nicole judged that enough time had elapsed for the beer to have worn off so she could competently drive to the late night coffee shop. However, she was still feeling the effects of the movies unique cinematography and wanted nothing more than fresh air and a chance to let her equilibrium readjust. Fortunately the drive managed to do just that.
Mabels was nothing more than a truck stop, but the coffee was good and the waitresses were friendly. They should have been by now, Nicole and her friends had been regular customers since college. Some of them in fact had formed their friendships here while catching a quick cup of joe or waiting on others. It was a small, quaint place. The food was surprisingly edible and it was rarely crowded. Mabels was the perfect place for them to meet and discuss recent events.
"So, theres a band contest tomorrow night at the Eagles. Yall interested?" Greg had a Cheshire cat grin on his face. The group at the table immediately went on suspicion alert.
"I dont know," Sheryl was doubtful. "The last one you made us go to was pretty awful. Three of the bands played that morning song and all of them fell apart during it."
"Yeah, but the worst part was that chick who thought she was Joan Baez." Nicole rolled her eyes. "The real thing is bad enough." The others laughed and agreed.
"But this one is supposed to be better. Eli is holding them to a higher standard now for entry." Greg waved his spoon for emphasis. "Besides, I know one of the contestants." Instead of the awe he wished for, Greg was treated with a round of groans. "Really, its that cashier down at Sullys One Stop. She said her band was really good and has a chance of winning."
"Thats the girl you have been lusting over isnt it?" Danny asked him. Greg floated from one object of affection to another at least once a week or so. "No wonder you want to go. You can party with her if they win, and console her if they lose."
"Bite me, Cowboy."
"Maybe I can review the show," Sheryl said to forestall any further name-calling. "If not, at least itll be something to do." David nodded in agreement.
"Alright, thats three out of five. Hotshot? Cowboy?"
"Yeah, sure. Why the hell not." Danny answered.
"Ok, I guess I can sit through it. At least the Eagle has pretty decent beer on tap." Nicole shrugged. "I get off work at six. Are we meeting before hand?"
"Sure, we can go to the grill for dinner bout six thirty. The contest starts at eight, so wed be finished in time to find a table inside."
As usual, Nicole was running late. It had been another bad day at work. Her boss had arrived after lunch, and spent an hour telling each employee what they had done wrong that day. Nicole was glad that she did not have to close the business on Saturdays. It was one benefit of opening the store that she had her nights free. Well, except for instances like today when he made her stay for an hour after she had clocked out for the evening.
As a result, she arrived at the grill with just enough time to add her choice to her friends order. They ate quickly. The crowd gathering around the entrance made them nervous. It was the largest one they had seen here in years. Apparently, everyone in the surrounding area was present for the show.
Eli, the owner of the Eagle, believed in the time-honored adage of "first come, first serve". As a result, no one at the door was allowed in until those at the grill had been seated. It made his little restaurant very popular during special events. The group of friends settled their tabs, and carried their drinks to a table near the stage.
A large portion of the audience chose to ignore most of the bands, and several acts came and went with little attention. Finally, the band Greg had dragged them all to see, Coin-op as it was listed on the flyer, was up next. The one just taking the stage was blue gecko.
They had already sat through three mediocre performances. Fortunately for Cowboy, two of them did not play anything currently on the deejays play lists. One of the groups had covered 80s punk, and another played what the group at the table assumed was original music. At least it did not sound like anything they had heard before. The last band covered soft pop rock, and was voted the loser so far.
"Where do they get the names for these bands?" Sheryl pointed out several of the more unusual names on the flyer for the previous groups.
"I dont know, but I hope they are nicer to their kids." Cowboy replied just as the current band was finished with the set up.
The house lights dimmed again and the lead singer/guitarist introduced the band. The first chords of the song reached the audience and Nicole was surprised. It actually sounded good. Then she got a shock of something that she was unable to identify, though not for lack of trying.
The band was comprised of six members, a drummer, a bassist, two guitarists, a singer/guitarist and an auxiliary drummer/keyboardist. An odd number but seemed to work well for them. If nothing else, it made their sound distinct.
However, it was the bassist that captured and held Nicoles attention. The petite woman stood about 56". She was barefoot, dressed in ratty jeans and a tank top. A baseball cap hid her hair, but Nicole did not need to see it. She was captivated by the bassists face, hands skillfully picking out the beat, and the womans movements. She didnt just play the song, she performed in completely.
Nicoles attention was so focused on the sight before her that Sheryl had to slap her arm to bring her back to earth.
"Huh?" The houselights came back on and Nicole was stunned to realize the gig was over. She couldnt even remember what songs the band had played.
"They were pretty good dont ya think?" Absently, Nicole nodded her agreement to the local movie critic and searched with her eyes for blue geckos bassist. She missed the amused smirk pass between Sheryl and Danny.
"What do you say, Hotshot? Awesome bass lines, huh?" Danny asked.
"Oh, yeah" Her two oldest friends laughed.
"It wasnt that great," Greg sounded annoyed at the attention blue gecko was getting. He was hoping that Coin-op would win, and refused to believe any other group had a chance. "The next group will blow them away."
Again the lights went down and Coin-op took the stage. Try as she might, Nicole could not concentrate on the band. For that matter, excepting Greg, the rest of the audience could not concentrate on them either.
At last, the gig was over and all five bands took the stage as Eli made his way to through the crowd. Eli introduced himself and each of the bands again before calling on the audience to vote for the winner. Greg was as crushed as the members of Coin-op when blue gecko was declared the winner.
Nicole had been watching for the bassist again, and didnt see her. However, that didnt stop her from clapping wildly when the band accepted their plaudits, a small trophy and a check for five hundred dollars.
"Look at it this way, Greg, least now you can console her." Danny reminded him as the house lights came on for the final time.
"Bite me Cowboy," Five friends laughed as Greg shrugged off his foul mood and they collected their belongings and headed for the parking lot.
The parking area was well lit, and still crowded. The guys said their goodbyes and left quickly, leaving Nicole to drive Sheryl home.
"Cmon" She grabbed her friends arm. "I want a quote from the winners for my review." The photographer allowed herself to be pulled in the direction Sheryl had indicated, understanding why the guys had left so suddenly. She was hoping to see blue geckos bassist again, but could not find the petite woman.
"Hi, Im Sheryl. I reviewed tonights performance for the paper. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" Sheryl had gotten and held the lead singers attention. She had a gift for that sort of thing. Nicole let her mind filter out the conversation, confident that her friend did not need assistance.
She was staring off into the space above the bar when movement attracted her attention. The bassist was struggling to set an amplifier in the back of a beat up pickup truck. Curious, and wanting to lend a hand, she strolled over.
"Here, let me help," She grabbed an end, gave no chance for protest, and proceeded to lift it partway into the bed of the truck. The bassist shook off her startlement and the two easily got the amp the rest of the way into the truck.
"Thanks," The bassists took her cap off, revealing a mess of short blonde hair. It was made worse by the hand she ran through it.
"No problem. Im Nicole Herbert." She extended her hand. The blonde took it into a surprisingly strong grip. Nicole fought off the sensations the touch caused. "I heard you play. Yall deserved to win." Inside, the normally confident photographer was berating herself for sounding like a star struck groupie. Thats it, Herbert, real charming.
"Laurel and thanks,"
"Um, my friend Sheryl is reviewing the performance for the paper. Shed like to talk to you I think." The taller woman was desperate to keep the conversation going.
"Maybe some other time. I really have to get home." She unlocked the drivers door. "It was nice meeting you, Nicole." She wasnt sure why the dark haired woman made her nervous, but she followed the instinct that was telling her to leave.
"Yeah, see ya around?" Nicole was disappointed.
"Maybe, a very definite maybe," Laurel watched as Nicole walked back to where her friend was standing. She sighed, got in her truck and left.
By the time Nicole reached Sheryl, the critic had completed the interview and gotten a date with the drummer. She was obviously ready to go, as she was standing by the passenger door of Nicoles car.
"Yep. Get what you needed?"
"Yes. Have a good time?" Sheryl got in the car and watched as Nicole pulled into traffic.
"Yep." She ignored her friends grin.
"Can you say anything else?"
"Nope." Nicole bit back laughter. Sheryl shook her head in quiet disgust.
The rest of the ride was quiet as each woman contemplated the evenings events. Sheryl was working the story out in her head. Nicole was still captivated by the blonde bassist. She was pondering the instant attraction she felt to Laurel.
"Thanks for the ride, Hotshot. Maybe this time theyll actually fix the car."
"Not a problem." She answered absently. She pointed the car towards home and drove, mindless of the journey. Nicole knew that she had a lot to think about before sleep would claim her.
For several days, Laurel had been thinking of nothing else but the tall, dark headed woman she had met after the concert. It was discerning that she was held in a mental hold by someone she had talked to for only a few minutes.
Staring at the walls of her trailer, Laurel got the urge to scream. She had to study for an in depth History exam, and was not accomplishing anything on her own. Instead of giving vent to her frustration, she piled her books and papers into her book bag, and headed out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, and she was pulling into the parking lot of Mabels. She gathered her belongings and picked a table in the corner with ease. For an hour after the dinner rush the place was pretty well deserted. Finding the change of scenery peaceful, since she wasnt a regular, Laurel began to divide her attention between her coffee and her books.
Nicole had gotten off work late. She was not in the mood to go home. Knowing that Mozart was capable of using the doggie door if he had too, she pulled into Mabels with the thought of starting a book Sheryl had asked her to read.
The waitress waved her through, and Nicole took a seat near the corner. Her usual booth was taken, and the customer sitting there looked familiar. Shrugging off the slight feeling of anticipation, Nicole tried to read. It was not until her second cup of coffee that she gave up the pretense of reading, and tried to figure out who it was in the booth.
At that moment, the young blonde leaned back and lit a cigarette. Nicole felt her heart stop. Its the bassist. Not knowing what else to do, Nicole gathered her courage and her book up and walked over to where Laurel was sitting.
"Arent you blue geckos bassist?" Real smooth, Herbert, sound like a groupie why dont you.
Laurel looked up at her visitors voice. She almost lost her train of thought at the sight of those blue eyes looking down at her. As it was, she could only nod to confirm her identity. After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, she regained her wits.
"Please, would you like to sit down?" Racking her brain for the womans name, she was caught off guard by the smile she received as the woman sat down. "Youre Nicole right?" Please let that be it. "Im Laurel."
"Yeah. We met after the concert last weekend." Man, this is awkward. Even though she thought it, Nicole was not ready to walk away. She felt drawn to the slight musician in front of her.
"Right I remember." Really, Lakky, its not like youve thought of much else. "So, what can I do for you?"
"Well, I was wondering if I could ask you something," Nicole put her mind in high gear and searched for a graceful excuse for her presence. She waited for Laurel to nod before using her recently created excuse. "You see, I want to learn to play guitar and thought maybe you knew someone who gave lessons."
"Do you know anything about music?" Despite herself, Laurel was intrigued. Even though she had not picked up a guitar in ages.
"Yep. I can, though I dont, play the piano."
"Alright, well, it just so happens that I can play the guitar. I can teach you if you want me to." I cant believe you offered, girl. That was stupid Lakky, you have way too much to do.
"Um, yeah, that would be great." Inside, Nicole was cheering. Whooohooo. "Listen, heres my phone number. When you want to set up a time and price, give me a call." She produced a business card from her jacket pocket. "Im generally free every evening after 7:00."
"That sounds like a plan to me." Laurel pocketed the card without looking at it.
"So, I guess Ill leave you to your studying." She stood to leave. "I look forward to hearing from you."
"Ill be in touch sometime this week." The blonde watched her new student walk to the counter. Nicole paid the bill for her coffee, and waved as she left. Laurel returned the wave, continuing to watch the door for several minutes after the dark haired woman had left.
It was not until later, after she had gotten home that Laurel remembered the card in her pocket. Grabbing a drink from the refrigerator, she wandered into her bedroom and sat on the bed. She gazed at the card, a nice computer imaged advertisement for Nicole E. Herbert, photographer.
What did you do this time, Lakky? She asked herself. Without answering she opened the closet door and pulled a bulky guitar case from its resting place in the back corner. She carefully laid it on the bed, sat beside it and contemplated it for several minutes.
Her hands shook as she worked the latches and opened the case. The dust caused her to sneeze. She rubbed her eyes and pulled out her brothers guitar. As always, the sight of it forced memories of Jon into her mind, and tears out of her eyes. Oh, Jon, I am so sorry.
With a start, Laurel came back to herself. She was startled to find herself hugging the guitar close to her body. Looking up, she noticed the reason why her trance had been interrupted.
"Rough day?" Mandy stood at the doorway. Concern was written plain on her face.
"No, not really. I just, uh, well I met someone who wanted guitar lessons." She wiped the remnants of tears from her eyes. Mandy came in to the room and sat beside her on the bed.
"So, you offered or agreed to give them right?" The blonde nodded. "Oh, honey, whats this one like?"
"What do you mean by this one?"
"I mean that it must be someone pretty special to get you to agree to teach guitar after so long. Especially since I never could get you to even play." It was true; Mandy had insisted that playing the guitar would help her friend come to terms with her brothers death. Laurel resisted, and after his funeral, refused to touch any stringed instrument but her bass.
"Shes not, I mean she might be, but thats not why." She shook her head. How can I explain something that even I dont understand?
"Then why are you doing it?" Mandy was trying to understand. She cared for Laurel and felt it was her job to look after her since Jon died. "Why now, and why with Jons guitar?" She watched as Laurel got up and tacked a business card to her bulletin board.
"Because maybe you were right. Its been two years, maybe it is time to get over it." She shrugged. "And I hocked the others, remember?"
"Oh, right. Sorry." Mandy had forgotten, because she had wanted to, that frantic call from her friend not too long after her brothers death. She had forgotten because she did not want to remember that broken shell of a human that bore her friends face.
"Its ok, sides, its easier now. Im just not sure I can be a good teacher when I havent played in two years. Im a little out of practice." She sat back down, once again hugging the guitar to her.
"Youll do fine," Mandy gave her friend a hug, kissing her on the forehead, before standing. "Im going to go make dinner. Its BJs turn to clean up, so youll have a few minutes to reacquaint yourself with six strings."
"Thanks, Mandy." She watched her friend leave the room before settling back on the bed. She let her hands caress the strings, getting them into tune. Soon, she was playing from memory, not half as rusty as she believed she would have been.
It was painful at first. She remembered the day that Jon brought the guitar at home, having saved for a year for it. She could see the day he taught her the first of several chords on an old beat up student instrument. It was his first guitar, and still had a place of honor in her collection, though she did not play it. But the most painful memory was leaving her parents house with this guitar in tow, knowing that neither she nor Jon would ever return. That was two days after his funeral. She had not been home since then.
Without thinking, she found herself playing the melody to a song they had composed together. He played the guitar, and she the bass. Softly she sang along, floating from one melody to another.
Once again, Mandy found her friend in a trance. This time it was self-imposed. Laurel was playing a song, a small smile on her face, and her eyes closed. Tracks of tears could be seen on her cheeks, but the blonde seemed more relaxed then she had in years.
"Sorry to do this, Lakky, but the foods done."
"Already?" Carefully, she sat the guitar on the bed. "How long was I playing?"
"About an hour, now come on before it gets cold or BJ eats it all."
"Im right behind you." Thank you, Jon. She thought as she took one last look at the instrument that had been her brothers pride. Food was calling and she was willing to answer.
Nicole was ecstatic when she finally got home. Well, she was ecstatic until she listened to her answering machine. The first and second messages were from her grandmother gently berating her in a way indicative of the matriarch for not being home immediately after work. The third was a hang-up, but the fourth was from David. She decided to call him back first since he sounded desperate.
She hit his number on speed dial and listened to the rings as she searched the kitchen for something edible.
"Hello?" Davids deep voice answered the phone.
"Hi, Dave. You rang?"
"Yeah, thank God, Nicole. I hate to do this to you, but I need a big favor. The ex dropped off Ryan, and I have this banquet to attend tonight. Can you sit for me?" His voice took on a pleading tone.
"Its not one for your oh, look at the harmless animal lets shoot it clubs is it?"
"No, its for a guy at work who is retiring. I have to be there, networking you know," She knew. David was an attorney, and to get a partnership in this town, you had to be politically acceptable. Especially, as in his case, when you were an African American man divorced from a white woman and worked for a predominately white firm.
"Besides, who are you gonna call if you ever get another rat in your house?" He teased.
"Hey, I put down one of those environment friendly traps, its not my fault he escaped from it." She laughed. "And you know, I dont mind hunting as long as you eat the animal."
"I know. So, since its a good excuse, will you do it?"
"On three conditions. First, Ryan comes over here; I have some work I want to get done tonight. Second, you pay for the pizza. Third, do you still have that guitar you tried to play?"
"Done, done, go ahead and order it, and Ill bring it when I come over there. Well see you in a few." She laughed at his enthusiasm.
"I should have asked for more. Alright, ham and cheese?"
"Yep, as always."
"See ya in a bit."
Walking back through the house, she began to straighten up as she pressed the speed dial combination for pizza delivery. "God I love speed dial."
"Sorry," Chagrined, she placed her order. After receiving assurances that the food would arrive in half an hour or less, she dialed her grandmothers number.
"Hi, Nicole?" The slightly Cajun accented voice of her grandmother came through the other line, louder than Nicole would have liked. Guess they fixed the lines in the Quarter, finally.
"Honey, I was wonderin if you were coming home for Labor Day this year? Your cousins and all will be here, and so will your Uncle Phil." The older lady sounded almost pleading. "Theyd really like to see you."
"I think I have to work...." Nicole fought for time to object.
"Surely, you can get the time off, its still two weeks away. Will you be bringing that nice young fellow with you again?"
"No, Grandma, Danny has to work a blood drive." Lucky him.
"Well, thats nice, dear. Are you bringing anyone with you?" She took Nicoles lack of dissent as a yes.
"Maybe." She grinned. "Is Uncle Jay going to be there."? Now came the tricky part.
"Yes," It was sharp, with a hesitant note of resignation. "Where one goes, the other follows." A deep sigh was heard, and Nicole held the phone away from her ear. "I guess that means you will be here?"
"Yes, maam," She fought to keep the resignation out of her own tone. "Ill be there that Friday, if I can get the weekend off from work."
"Great, well, Ill have someone fix up the rooms for you. No sense on you and your friend to sleep on the floor in your aunts living room again. See you then." The line disconnected.
Nicole walked Mozart outside. She stared at the phone for several minutes, while deciding who should be allowed to accompany her to New Orleans. Without thinking too hard about it, she dialed her old friends number. Sheryl picked up on the second ring.
"Hi, how are you?"
"No, not gonna do it, so dont even ask."
"What makes you think I was going to ask you anything?"
"Because, I know that tone of voice, Nicole. I also know that you probably want me to help save your sanity over Labor Day."
"How did you know that?" Nicole was startled.
"Well, the same thing has happened for the last two years. Your grandmother calls exactly two weeks and one day before the weekend, leaving you with just enough time to ask off from work. Never fails. Shes better than an electronic organizer." Sheryl was laughing. Nicole failed to see the humor in it. "Anyway, aside from that, what else is up?"
"Well, I got conned into babysitting Ryan, wanna come over and help?"
"Sure, my modems down anyway. Might as well make you let me use your computer to check my email."
"Sounds good to me. Hey, you can watch that movie I was telling you about. After Ryan falls asleep that is. And I can tell you about the rest of my day." She knew the tease would work. Sheryl loved gossip, not to repeat it; she just enjoyed hearing about her friends lives.
Just then, headlights turned into her driveway, and Nicole recognized Davids car. Fortunately he beat the pizza delivery person.
"Hey, David just pulled up. Are you coming over?"
"Are you going to let me use your computer?"
"Sure," That was no big request, and one she was happy to fill.
"Then Ill be right there." She hung up, just as David was helping his son out of the car. Right behind him pulled the pizza delivery girl.
"Its all you, buddy," Nicole told him, as she lead Ryan into the house, leaving David to pay for the food.
Later that evening, after they had put Ryan to bed, Nicole and Sheryl sat in front of the computer. They were surfing the web looking for nothing in particular and drinking beer. Finally, after the computer froze for the second time that evening, they decided to watch a movie.
"Hey, what do you want to watch?" Nicole walked over to the video library. Sheryl joined her there, after making sure the computer was not completely dead.
"Whatever, you mentioned something about a movie you wanted me to see?" The critic opened the refrigerator and pulled out two more beers.
"Oh, right the one about the playwright. Its right here." She grabbed it and led the way back to the living room. She loaded the VCR and turned on the TV. "Do you want the overhead light off?"
"Sure, sounds fine to me." Sheryl took a seat on the couch, switching the lamp on after opening her beer. Nicole chose the other end of the sofa and began playing the movie.
"Wait a minute, Hotshot, I thought you were going to tell me about your day."
"Oh, yeah, that." She grinned and stopped the movie. "Well, I went to Mabels and saw Laurel there." She could not keep the goofy grin off of her face. At her friends look of nonrecognition, she clarified. "The bassist for blue gecko."
"Oh, really?" The tone was full of innuendo and curiosity.
"Yeah, we talked for a few minutes, and she agreed to teach me how to play the guitar."
"Did you tell her you played the violin? Or are you keeping that for the seduction?" Sheryl knew how Nicole guarded her talent. She refused to even acknowledge her skill; however, the critic also knew that the photographer practiced regularly.
"No I didnt, and no Im not," She was regretting saying anything now, although she wanted someone to talk to about it. "Its just for lessons. You know Ive always wanted to play the guitar."
Sheryl was saved from potential death when the doorbell rang and froze the comment she was about to make in her throat. Nicole got up to answer it. David stood at the doorway looking tired.
"Hey, Hotshot, the kid asleep?"
"Yeah, come on in." Nicole stepped aside to let him in the house. "Hes in my room."
David walked into the master bedroom and returned a few minutes later holding a very sleepy four year old. Ryan still had his blanket around him, and was rubbing his eyes. Nicole snatched her camera from the table and took a picture of father and son.
"I want a copy," The big man said, as he hefted his son a little higher on his hip. "Did he give you any trouble?"
"Nah, he ate pizza, watched part of his movie, and went straight to sleep. He really is a mellow little guy." The photographer told him.
"Yeah, he must get that from you," Sheryl added. None of Davids friends had ever been too fond of his ex-wife; however, they were careful to keep that from Ryan.
"I think so, too," His face was full of paternal pride. "Anyway, I must get him to bed. Ill see you all later. Thanks again, Nicole." They waved bye, and watched as he pulled out of the driveway.
"Well, my friend, I think thats it for me, too. Ill catch the movie some other time." Sheryl kissed her friend on the cheek and walked to her car. Nicole made sure that the critic got out safely then called the dog and went inside to bed.
For the last three days, Laurel had settled into a routine. She would come home after class, practice the guitar until dinner, do her chores and homework, and then stare at the photographers business card until she fell asleep. After the fourth night of this, she gathered up her courage and dialed the number listed on the card.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end was pleasant, and sounded familiar. Laurel needed to make sure though.
"Is Nicole Herbert there?" Her palms were sweating, and there were butterflies attacking her intestinal organs.
"Speaking," Nicole was surprised; she actually pronounced her name correctly. Most people said it like the first name instead of the Cajun way of A-bear.
"Um, hi. This is Laurel Kendrick from the coffee shop. You wanted guitar lessons?" She made the statements questions in her uncertainty.
"Yes, I did. Did you decide on a time and price?" Inside, the normally stoic photographer was doing back flips.
"Um, well, thats what I wanted to talk to you about. When would be convenient for you?" Thats it, Lakky, bow and scrape. What has come over you?
"I generally get off work at five on Tuesdays and Thursdays. How about 5:30 then on those days?"
"Ok, we can discuss a price later." The blonde broke another rule. She always set the price first with her bass students. "After I figure out how much instruction you need." She added more to rationalize it for herself than her new student.
"Alright" Instruction? Hehe, well....lets see. Mentally getting herself back in more of a business frame of mind and out of the gutter, she gave Laurel directions to her home. She figured that would be easier than meeting somewhere.
"Ok, well, Ill see you on Tuesday then." Laurel told her after making sure she had copied the directions down right.
"Sounds good. Bye," Thats four days Herbert. She grinned.
"Bye," Laurel was not as happy when she hung up her line.
"Damn Lakky what did you get yourself into?" She asked herself. Every instinct she had was screaming to either flee or stay and see what turned out. It had been a big step for the young woman to place that call. She was still feeling uneasy about her actions, and could only hope that everything would turn out fine in the end. Hope was foreign to her, but she was adventurous by nature and willing to give it a shot.
"No, youve almost got it, but this finger needs to stay out of the way." Laurel demonstrated the proper chord fingering again. She had to do so two more times before, exasperated, she reached over and moved the offending digit. Nicole felt a shudder course through her at the touch.
"Now try it." Laurel told her as the young woman eased back into her previous position on the ottoman.
The two were at Nicoles house for the first guitar lesson. The bassist had shown up promptly at 5:30 as agreed to find Nicole sitting outside with a large German Sheppard beside her. Surprised, the young woman had quickly made friends with the animal before being let inside. Apparently, his owner used Mozart as a judge of character. She was relieved to have passed the test. After a few awkward minutes of reintroduction, the bassist began the lesson. She ignored her surroundings and tried to think like a professor of music. It was tough, but she managed, even though the sitting arrangements made her uncomfortable.
Laurel had taken a spot on the ottoman facing directly across from her new student so each could concentrate on what the other was doing. There was just enough space between them to comfortably play the guitars without bumping into one another.
Nicole also found the close proximity of the young blonde distracting. Her mind kept wandering to idle, half-formed fantasies starring her new guitar teacher. Shaking her head to help clear it, Nicole tried the chord again. This time she got the required sound. Smiling in triumph, a smile echoed by her instructor, she played the chord several more times with the same result.
Laurel finally called a halt so that Nicole could rest her hands. Both women enjoyed the silence until it started to feel oppressive.
"So, whats your major if its not music?"
"Trouble or so Ive been told," The blonde grinned. "Officially its history with a poli-sci minor."
"What era is your specialty?" Nicole was usually a bit shy around new people, but she found herself wanting to know more about her new friend.
"Well, Ive got two favorites in American History and one in European history. Pre-American Revolution, pre-Civil War and the medieval period." Laurel took a drink from the cola at her feet and shrugged.
"Are you planning on teaching after graduating?" Nicole took a sip of her tea.
"God, no." Her companion laughed. "Dont get me wrong, its an honored profession, but I am not a teacher." She paused for another sip. Nicole got the feeling she was being judged.
"I, uh, want to go to law school. Help out the little guy and stuff like that." She brushed her bangs behind her ear. "Sounds a little naive, I know, but..." So does trusting you. Why am I? Regardless of her doubts, the young woman decided that she just might have made a friend worth keeping. She rarely made friends. Most made themselves for her.
"No, it sounds admirable," Nicole caught the hesitancy behind the words and wondered what might have put it there.
"The, um, poli-sci minor is so if I ever, you know, run for office, Ill know what not to do," Laurel said it like a joke, but kept her head down staring at the fret board of her guitar.
"Id vote for you." Without even thinking twice about it.
"Really?" It was a whisper. Shyly, Laurel looked up. Wonder filled grey eyes looked up and met the honest blue eyes staring at her. Sparks flew between them.
"Yes," One whisper was met with another. They held that gaze as if each were afraid the other would disappear. Nicole marveled at the power of it, and wondered if Laurel felt it, too. The pull she felt was so strong that she was afraid of losing herself to it, and equally afraid of losing it.
An insistent scratching at the door broke the spell. Mozart wanted out.
"Of course, if you did run for office," Nicole got up to let the dog out. Laurel followed. "Id have to be the campaign photographer."
"And why is that? Are you that good?" Laurel asked with a smile. She took me seriously! That floored the young woman. It sealed Nicoles elevation from student to friend in acetate. Suddenly, she wanted to show it off.
"Oh, believe me, I am that good." Nicole tried to keep a seductive quality to her voice, but she ended up laughing. "Seriously, though, I would do it."
"Cool. Maybe you can show me your portfolio someday." Laurel was not laughing. She had a serious look on her face. Nicole returned it with a questioning one. "I would honestly like to see it."
"Alright." The photographer was pleasantly surprised. Most people would not have even forced curiosity about a subject that might fail to interest them, but Laurels request sounded genuine. Sides, Herbert, you know you just wanna show off for her. "Got a cigarette?"
"Sure, but I didnt know you smoked," Laurel shook one out of the pack and handed it over. She took one for herself, and lit them both.
"I used to," The taller woman coughed a little. Boy its been awhile. "I quit a few years ago, after I graduated college."
"Oh, really? When was that?" That makes her what? 24? Not too old. She thought about that for a minute. Too old for what?
"Two years ago or so," She took another drag off the cigarette. Man, I have missed this.
"Then you would have graduated with my brother," Laurel felt the frown form on her face.
"You are Jon Kendricks little sister?" The photographer felt an immediate sense of sympathy for the blonde in front of her. Jons death had rocked to college to its foundations. He was a well-known athlete, and was well liked by all social cliques. "I had to interview him once for the school paper. Well, Sheryl did the interview, and I took the pictures."
"Hey, are you ready for the rest of the first lesson?" Laurel wanted to change the subject. She did not like to talk about her brother with friends, much less people she barely knew.
"Sure," Nicole sensed the reluctance, and willingly followed the younger womans diversion. She held the door open for her teacher, and then began the next in a series of chords.
"Hey, Lakky, guess what?" BJ burst into the trailer waving a copy of the paper, causing the dogs, which were using their favorite human as a couch, to jump.
"You scared the dogs, man." She complained. "Now, whats up?"
"The fair is in town. It started last night, and tonight is one of those midnight madness deals." The normally stoic drummer was ecstatic. So was Laurel.
"So? Are you going to take that art critic person?"
"Shes the entertainment critic, and no probably not. She seems too refined for the fair. Wanna go?" BJ was too excited to sit down. Laurel laughed at him.
"Sorry big man, but dont you have to work tonight?"
"Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. How bout this weekend? Mandy could go too, itll be a family thing."
"Sounds good, you gonna pick up the kid?" Laurel loved to play aunt to BJs daughter, and the prospect of the four of them together sounded good to her.
"Yeah, great plan."
"Whats a great plan?" Mandy walked in from her bedroom where she had been getting ready for work.
"Me, you, Lakky and the kid are going to conquer the fair this weekend." BJ was still grinning over the plans they had just made.
"Sounds good. What day?"
"I think I will leave all that up to the two of you," Laurel got up after forcing the dogs onto the floor and walked toward her room. "Just let me know what the plans are."
"Ill bet you anything she picks up the phone once shes in there," Mandy told BJ once the door to Laurels room had closed. She would have won.
Nicole was glad that the trailer park was easy to find. It was her first time to see where Laurel lived, although the young college student had been to her house at least three times in the two weeks since they had set up the lessons. The dark haired woman cursed at her hair as it obscured her vision. She brushed her bangs back and consulted the directions the blonde woman had given her that afternoon when she called to offer a dinner invitation.
The trailer was an older doublewide, but did not have that air of uncaring surrounding it that most Nicole had seen had. It appeared well cared for on the outside, and her curiosity was piqued as she wondered what it would appear like on the inside.
Parked outside the trailer, on what passed for a driveway, were two cars, one truck, four motorcycles and what seemed like twenty cats. She recognized the truck as Laurels and assumed that the cars belonged to the young womans roommates. She had no idea who could be the owner or owners of the motorcycles.
She parked the car and made it about five feet to the door when she became transportation. Looking down, Nicole saw a mountain of fur where her feet used to be. Cautiously, she continued toward her destination. The door opened as three dogs decided to join the parade.
"Hi, you must be Nicole," An energetic redhead bounded down the steps with a bag of cat food. "Lakky is running a bit late, she just got home from an errand. Need a hand."
"Yes, please." Nicole was relieved as the cats began to separate from her legs and migrate toward the food dish. "And yes, Im Nicole."
"Well, Im Mandy. Its nice to meet you. Go on inside while I get these monsters fed."
"Are they all yours?"
"Thank the goddess, no." Mandy laughed. "Most of them live around here, but seem to think that we run a free lunch service. Only the dogs and five of the cats are ours." She looked down at the bundle of breathing fur and grimaced. "Not that I could find those five at the moment."
"Well, thanks for the hand." Nicole made her way up the stairs, hesitated, and finally walked through the open door.
Laurel was sitting on the couch putting on her boots. She looked up when she noticed the tall shadow at the door and smiled. Nicole took that as an invitation and walked fully into the house, taking a seat in a chair facing the television.
"So, is this your first time?"
"Um, yeah. Its one thing Ive never done before, but have always been intrigued by."
"It can be a little intimidating at first, but I think youll enjoy it." The blondes smile got wider. "At least I hope you will. Its a lot of fun once you work through any misconceptions you may have about it."
"Well, I must admit that I am more than curious about it." Nicole grinned. "Ive never been to this county fair before."
"Its an experience not to be forgotten. I can promise you that," Laurel stood up. "Now, if youll excuse me, Ill be right back and then we can leave." She walked into the back of the house after Nicole waved her assent.
The photographer took the opportunity to look around. It was obvious that the three roommates took pains to keep the common areas clean. There were no dishes in the sink, they were all either drying in the rack on the counter, or they were out of sight in the cabinets. The entertainment center was against the wall and looked well cared for and used. She was puzzled at the lack of speakers until she saw one in each corner. Someone, she could not know who, had taken pains to set up a full home theater system.
"Ready?" Laurels voice preceded the blonde by a second before she appeared in the hallway. At the other womans nod, she gestured for them to exit the building.
The parking area was nothing more than dirt and gravel. Laurel followed the directions pointed out to them by a man waving a covered flashlight. They passed row after row of cars and trucks before finding another flashlight wielding man. Pulling into the space indicated, Laurel threw the truck into park and got out of it. Nicole followed suit after grabbing her camera.
They walked for almost half a mile before reaching the gate. Among them went families of all types and sizes. It seemed as if the fair was the place to be, as more people were entering than leaving. Few, if any, paid the two women any heed. The gatekeeper was not as oblivious.
"One or two?" The woman in the booth practically snarled.
"Two," Laurel reached into her pocket and pulled out the required amount.
"Here," The tickets were thrust at the blonde. She seemed scared to even touch the young womans hand. She quickly retreated back into her little shell of a booth.
"Tough night?" Nicole asked from behind her companions shoulder.
"It wasnt," The woman turned her attention away from the pair. "Next."
They walked on, hearing the same voice greet the couple behind them with much less animosity.
"You know, I never thought Id say this, but how rude," Nicole complained.
"Ah, shes just got entertainment envy." Laurel shrugged the encounter off. She was used to being stereotyped and had learned to let it go.
"Entertainment envy?" The photographer asked as another woman took their tickets and admitted them to the fair.
"Yeah, she doesnt enjoy her life, so shes jealous of those that do."
"Well, I guess thats one way of looking at it," That was one thing the photographer like about Laurel; the bassist was very philosophical about life. Nicole loved to hear the theories the blonde could come up with.
"Wow," Nicole stopped just inside the Midway.
"Yeah, its like a roving amusement park."
"Ill say. You did say you wanted to eat here right?"
"Theres nothing like fair food, but lets ride some rides first," Laurel led the way to the booth set up to sell nothing but tickets for the rides.
"Hey, let me get these since you paid the entrance fee." Nicole stepped up to the window, effectively blocking Laurel from ordering a book of tickets. She bought enough for several rides each, not in the least worried about the price. "Ok, what first?"
"Dont know. Lets browse some and see what looks fun." They walked around slowly; content to absorb the atmosphere of the fairgrounds.
By the time they had completed a single circuit of the area, they had seen several interesting attractions, rides, games and people from all walks of life. They settled on their first ride, deciding by mutual accord to begin with an easy one. This one looked as if it had hand gliders attached to it and the current riders were lying down. It looked like it would safely give the impression of flight. Nicole handed the camera bag to the young attendant when he motioned for it.
"Are you a photographer for the paper?" He asked, eager to be immortalized in print.
"Nah, its just a hobby." Nicole shrugged it off. Laurel made a mental note to have a conversation with her friend about that later.
"Really? Me too," An older girl, maybe in her late teens walked over to them. She was also dressed in the uniform of the fair attendant. "Would you like one of the two of you together?"
"Um..." Nicole wavered. She wanted one, and badly, but did not know how that would sound to Laurel.
"Sure," Laurel jumped at the chance. "You dont mind do you?" She turned to her friend.
"No, go right ahead," She easily fished her camera out of the case and attached the appropriate lens to it. "You know how to work this one?"
"Yeah, my dad has one kinda like it." The girl took the camera and experimented with it for a minute. Her friend was busy taking the ride tickets from the people in line behind the pair. "Here, get on the ride, and then Ill take it."
Nicole was a little nervous about leaving her prized possession in the hands of someone else, but the girl appeared sincere. She did as was asked, taking the inside position on the platform. Laurel eased in to the outside and grinned.
"This should be fun," The blonde said as their personal photographer readied the camera.
"Ok, on three. One. Two. Three. Smile." The girl took the picture and then headed back to the entrance of the ride. Nicole watched her go and then relaxed when all she did was place the camera behind the gate a little and go about her regular routine.
The ride started, and each woman was given the sensation of flight, without leaving the ground more than 12 feet. It lasted maybe three minutes, but Nicole exulted in the feeling. She was able to pretend that just her and the bassist enjoyed a hand-gliding trip through the Alps. Of course, it was a stretch of her imagination. South Mississippi is notoriously flat.
It eased to a stop. Both women were filled with adrenaline from the rush it gave them. The girl at the entrance had been waiting for just that and managed to snap another picture of them right after they had gotten down from the platform. Nicole saw the flash when she helped her friend off the ride. It stopped a bit higher that it started.
"Thanks," Nicole was short of words. She knew that even if the pictures turned out badly, they would still be a great memento.
"No problem," The camera and its bag were handed back to the owner with a smile. "You two look good on film together. Have a great night."
"Thanks, Im sure we will," Laurel gave a confident grin and a wink to the younger woman. She gestured for Nicole to precede her. Good move Lakky, just stake ownership right here.
"Where to now?" The photographer asked. She was fighting off an urge to stop and think about the previous few moments. The conversation with the attendant could have meant something else, but she refused to acknowledge it. Just someone wishing us a good time at the fair. Dont read anything into it, Herbert.
"Um...how bout that one?" Laurel pointed to an odd shaped ride. It was shaped like a flying saucer. The sign out front said it would make the rider defy gravity.
"Sure, sounds fun."
They waited in a short line. The ride had just started for the group in front of them. They passed the time in a companionable silence. Each was content just to stare at the crowd.
Finally the ride stopped and the crowd was permitted inside. The interior was dark and decorated with red plastic pads on the walls. The couple ahead of them selected two of the standing spots leaving Nicole to follow their lead. It took a few minutes for the ride to fill up, the attendant waiting for more eager participants. Soon, though, the lights went out and the warnings were given.
Nicole felt her stomach drop to her knees as the force of the ride slammed into her chest, sending her back into the plastic cushion behind her. She was barely able to keep her gaze straight ahead. Two fraternity types were across from her, and she attempted to focus in on them to keep her stomach from rising with a vengeance.
One of the young men decided to play super hero. He sat up on the mat and attempted to stand on it. Just the sheer logistics of that boggled the photographers mind. She could barely keep her head off the wall behind her.
Suddenly the attendant threw the ride into full throttle, sending the daredevil back into the headrest behind him. He appeared undamaged, but Nicole could not be certain. The ride slowly came to a stop and everyone slid back onto the walkway around the standing area.
It was not until they were filing out that Nicole noticed the blood on the headrest where the daredevil had been.
"Oh, wow. That must have hurt," The bassist said. Turning around, she noticed that Nicole had seen the spot as well. "We should find him."
"I think maybe you are right." They were out in the Midway before they noticed the young man. "Excuse me, but did you know that you are bleeding?"
"Naw, really?" He sounded just drunk enough not to feel any pain. His friends turned him around, and the back of his jacket was soaked in blood.
"Oh, man. You are majorly messed up." His friend from the ride said.
"Here, let me," Laurel took hold of the injured one and moved him into the lights of one of the booths. "Ouch, you got yourself pretty good there, pal. Its gonna need stitches."
"Are you a nurse or something?" The friend that apparently declined the offer of the fair ride asked.
"Nope, just can tell that when something is oozing blood and is at least 3 inches long, it needs stitches."
"Wow, thats a great talent." They missed the sarcasm in the younger womans voice. Nicole would have laughed if it had not been so serious.
"Are you students at the university?" The photographer asked them.
"We need to get him to a doctor, and students can only go to Forrest Gen. Its at least a 30 minute drive. Are any of you sober?" She asked. They all shook their heads. "Great. Well, I guess I can drive the car you all came in and Laurel can take one of you with her in the truck. Sound like a plan?" The blonde nodded, more concerned with stopping the flow of blood from the unfortunate young mans head.
"Hey, we dont even know who you are," The tallest of the three protested.
"Ok, Im Nicole, that is Laurel. And you are..."
"Im Howe, the one with the busted head is Adam, and the chicken that wouldnt ride is Aaron." He shook her hand then handed her the car keys.
"We need to get going, this isnt stopping," Laurel intoned. "Oh, guess I should show some manners. Pleased to meet you. Now lets get him out of here."
The five of them made their way out of the fair and into the parking area. Adam was just now feeling the pain of his injuries and complained the entire way to the car. Aaron unlocked it and handed the keys to Nicole.
"Laurel, why dont you and one of the guys follow us in the truck." Nicole thought that was a reasonable way to accomplish their goal.
"Nope." The bassist took the keys out of her friends hand and replaced them with her own. "You and Howe take my truck. Ill drive the car."
"Oh, I know a short cut or two that will get us there faster." She grinned. "Lets go. Well meet you there." She climbed in the divers seat and started the car. Adam ended up reclining in the backseat and Aaron up front. Nicole had to fight a surge of irrational jealousy at the look the young man kept giving the bassist. She was not aware that she was receiving the same look from Howe. Adam was too busy moaning about his headache to care what the women looked like.
Laurel was too concerned about the sanity of this idea to really do more than wait for her truck to pull in behind her at the exit. She had seen the looks Howe had been tossing to Nicole, and wondered if the older woman had any interest in him. Face it, Lakky, you just wanna know if she goes for the college set.
"Havent I seen you around campus before?" Aaron asked her.
"Probably." Laurel concentrating on the roads, and did not elaborate.
"What year are you?" Aaron was trying to make conversation. He shifted in his seat to study the young woman driving.
"Nope." She grinned a little.
"Not at the moment," The grin got wider.
"Ah. Had to ask. This day and age, one can never tell." He shrugged.
"I know," Believe me, I know. "So, I bet you are a senior, first year of course, and a journalism major."
"Yeah, scored 100 out of 100 on that one. Howd you know?"
"You ask a lot of questions. Had to be journalism, cause you didnt force me to elaborate like a broadcast major would have."
"Astute observation." He sounded impressed.
"Thanks," She pulled the car onto the interstate, flicked the hazard lights on and put the pedal to the floor. "Hold on." Aaron grabbed the dashboard, closed his eyes and prayed.
"So, what do you do? Aside from rescuing young men in distress?" Howe asked Nicole as the older woman was attempting to follow the little car in front of her.
"Im a photographer by hobby, but being a customer service rep pays the bills." She kept her attention more on the car Laurel was driving. Howe did not notice.
"So, you have a boyfriend or anything?" He leaned back in his seat and draped an arm across the back of it.
"No," She watched Laurel pull onto the Interstate and followed her lead. The old truck groaned at the sudden acceleration, but it complied with the demands place on it.
"Do you want to go out sometime?"
"Um...thanks Howe, but I dont date younger men." She kept her voice gentle, not wanting to hurt the young man. Note the keyword men, She told herself. Women on the other hand... She shook her head to stop the thought.
"Aww... you cant be that much older." He protested.
"Im 25, almost 26."
"Oh, well, I guess that would put me in the younger category."
The radio reigned for the rest of the trip. Howe retreated to his side of the truck, and Nicole let him. Before too long, and a lot quicker than she would have imagined, they were pulling into a parking space next to the other vehicle. Nicole cut the engine and watched as Laurel did the same. The five of them met in front of the cars and walked together to the emergency entrance.
It took only showing the back of Adams head to the nurses on duty for him to be rushed behind one of the curtains. Howe stood at the admittance desk and gave what personal information he knew about his friend. That left Aaron to thank the two women.
"Listen, I just wanted to thank you for helping us out. I dont know what we would have done if you two hadnt been there."
"Hey, it was an adventure," The blonde grinned. "And that is what makes life so interesting." She was trying to forget the last time she had been in this hospital. Looking at life as a game or adventure had always helped before.
"Well, um...I guess maybe Ill see you around?" Aaron asked. He looked at Laurel, completely ignoring her friend.
"Possibly, though campus is a big place."
"Yeah, um...maybe we could get coffee or something. If you have time, I kinda feel like we owe it to you."
"Yeah, maybe. But you dont owe us anything." Laurel made the vague promise to speed up the goodbyes.
The two women left the emergency room, confident that at least Aaron would be sober enough to drive his friends home.
"Coffee?" The blonde asked.
"Sure," Nicole was reasonable. The evening had been more interesting than planned, but she did not regret it. After all, the company had been excellent.
"Do you ever stop to think about life?" Laurel asked the question without really intending to do so. She took another sip of her coffee and waited for Nicoles answer.
"You mean why Im here or in general?" Nicole looked up at the waitress long enough to indicate she wanted another cup of coffee, before returning her attention to the bassist.
"In general I guess. Its still too early for deep conversations and Im just trying to keep the ball rolling." Laurel stirred sugar into her coffee and grimaced at her companions use of creamer. "Well, and to keep from thinking about Adam and his stitches"
"Yeah, I guess to a certain extent I do wonder about life. Doesnt everyone?" Nicole took a sip of her coffee. "What is that look for?"
"Only wimps put cream in their coffee." The blonde grinned.
"Really? Are you calling me a wimp? And just what about people who add enough sugar to kill a small elephant in theirs?" Nicole indicated the sugar dispenser with her spoon.
"Maybe not a wimp," She conceded. "It says that we are strong but sweet." Laurels grin got wider as she noticed the look on her companions face. They were both enjoying the easy, gentle banner and it showed in Nicoles smile. Neither of them would have called it flirting.
"It also says that we are prone to extreme sugar highs after two cups."
"It takes two?" Nicoles voice was full of doubt. She struggled to maintain a hold on the conversation and keep her mind from running off with improper thoughts.
"Sure, you can never replicate that first high, you know." Laurel realized she had made a mistake when she saw the look of disappointment in those blue eyes. Aww shit. Good going Lakky, time for a save, not time for the truth.
"Is that from more jaded experience?" Her heart was telling her not to go there, her brain, as usual, failed to catch the warning. The blonde sighed and gathered her things.
"Not with anything stronger than nicotine, beer, caffeine, whatever they might put in frozen dinners and sugar. I know I seem to fit several stereotypes, but that is not one of them." She regarded Nicole sadly. "Now, I have to get home and get started on homework. Ill see you around maybe." Laurel felt dejected, as if someone had punched her in the stomach several times.
Nicole grabbed the younger womans hand. She was kicking herself for saying anything. It was too early in the evening and in the friendship.
"Laurel, that was an insensitive question and I apologize," She released the hand she was holding and dropped her eyes to the table. "Please stay. I really am sorry." Not to mention that you drove, and Id have no way back to my car. Right, Herbert, concentrate on the material as you blow the personal to hell and back.
The blonde woman sighed again and then reclaimed her seat. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes. She took one out and threw the pack on the table. She watched as Nicole claimed one as well. Laurel lit hers and then offered the lighter to her companion, lighting it with every indication of lighting the cigarette as well. It was a chivalrous gesture that Nicole found endearing, and she inhaled deeply.
The waitress came and went with both women declining anything but more coffee.
"You know," Laurel knocked the ashes off her cigarette. "Its funny sometimes the way people form opinions and misconceptions of others."
"I know, I should have thought, should have known better." Laurel cut her off before the older woman could begin a longer apology.
"You had no way of knowing, and every reason to think so. I mean I do fit several stereotypes, and although currently untrue, that would be one of them. Sometimes it just gets old though." She looked at her watch. "This is another of those conversations that its just too early for."
Nicole glanced at the clock on the back wall, ignoring the one word in that denial that made her suspicious. Currently untrue? "When is the best time for deep conversations?" It was barely 8 pm, and Nicole knew from experience that sometimes sensitive chats and deep talks could not be scheduled. Sometimes they just happened, and usually she was on the receiving end of one.
"About 2 am or so."
"Why?" Nicole was already making plans that would keep them out until then. She had a feeling that a deep chat with Laurel would be one of the most interesting she had ever had, and that it would answer more questions about her new friend than she could never ask.
"Ever heard the phrase about darkness covering sin?" At Nicoles nod she continued. "People are honest with themselves and others in a way that can not be faked when their minds are telling them its time to sleep. Its like the intellect gets cut out of the flow of conversation." She shrugged and extinguished her cigarette. "I dont know why, I just know its true."
"Are you going to take Aaron up on his offer for coffee?" The photographer thought a change of subject was in order. This was one subject she really wanted an answer on.
"Probably not. Well, unless I have nothing else to do after class one day."
"Why not? He seems like a nice guy." Nicole persisted. "Howe isnt, but Aaron is. Kinda cute too, in a way."
"I guess he is. I dont date," She paused for thought. Guys. "Much," At all. "It gets too complicated," Cause theyre guys. She felt better, at least a little. She almost felt like saying the words aloud and seeing what would happen. She thought better of it.
"I know what you mean. I havent had a date in two years I think." Nicole was suddenly tired. "Well, I had a lot of fun this evening. Even if it did turn out that we only rode two rides."
"Yeah, me too. We should do this again sometime. Maybe play some games and do more rides next time," Laurel was hesitant to offer. So far, Nicole had greeted her suggestions with a mix of humor and relief. It was almost as if the older woman was looking for a way around boredom. Laurel could live with that. It was a start.
"Great. Now, Ill get the coffee and you get the tip. Fair?" Nicole threw two dollars on the table and watched Laurel drop a dollar and some change.
"Fifteen percent of two dollars isnt enough," The blonde explained. Nicole nodded in agreement.
Together they walked out of the coffee shop, and climbed into the old truck. Nicole felt a sense of rightness around them. Out of reverence, she kept silent on the way back to the bassists home.
Nicole pulled into the parking lot of Sullys One Stop with a slight feeling of guilt. She walked inside and looked around a bit. She felt like a teenager again. Smiling ruefully at that thought, she walked to the counter and asked for a pack of cigarettes. The clerk barely glanced at her before handing her the pack and telling her the total. In a daze, Nicole paid and went back out to her car.
Once home, she went straight to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. It was then that she saw for the first time three little grey strands in her hair. They looked harmless enough, and for a moment she was tempted to pull them out. She restrained herself mainly by remembering that grey hairs were vindictive. Every one killed equaled two more in its place.
Sighing, she let the dog out and then sat on the steps and opened her pack of cigarettes. It was the first time Nicole Herbert felt old. College life seemed so far away from where she sat that it almost seemed a different life.
College had been fun with moments of work thrown in to break the monotony. Her life now, she felt, was work with brief glimpses of fun. She still had her friends, her house, the dog and now Laurel. However, Nicole was suddenly dissatisfied.
She tried to pin down the reasons for her recent depression. It took the length of two cigarettes before she reigned in her thoughts and called off the attempt for being futile. Turning her focus outward, she watched Mozart, ever the territorial master, chase a squirrel out of the yard.
She called the dog back to her and both went inside. Nicole found a bottle of wine in the refrigerator and opened it. She pulled a wine glass out of the cabinet without looking; getting more depressed when she realized it had been her mothers crystal.
"Might as well wallow in this mire, huh Mo?" The black German Sheppard just looked at her before nosing the curtain separating the kitchen from the living room aside and sauntering through the break.
Sighing in resignation, Nicole followed.
She sat through two mind numbing movies before succumbing to exhaustion and stumbling to bed. Right before she closed her eyes, Nicole wondered where Laurel was.
It was two weeks after that fateful evening at the fair. The young blonde had been hoping to be able to pick up where they had left off, but they both were too busy. She had a major project due, a new bass student, and Nicole had to cover for her boss who was on vacation. She had planned on going by her new friends house tonight to celebrate her good news, but Jenna had called. They had scheduled a last minute rehearsal for this evening.
With a sigh, Laurel hefted her bass and walked into Beths garage. The rest of the band was already there, and standing around in various groups talking. All eyes in the room turned to her as she closed the door behind her. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, she placed her bass beside the amplifier she left there for rehearsal.
"Yo Lakky, how ya been?" Jenna asked from behind the drum set where she had been talking to BJ.
"Well, Im here," The blonde grinned. "Does that count for anything?" She had barely finished her statement before Charles picked her up and swung her around in a tight circle. The rest of the blue gecko quit what they were doing and gathered around them. The overhead light was cut, candles and lamps lit, and several ice chests appeared from places unknown.
"Whats going on?" Laurel had regained the use of her feet and looked around in wonder at her friends.
"A little bird told us that your probation was over," Beth handed the still stunned blonde a beer. "We thought a celebration was in order."
"What little bird?" Laurel looked around, trying to be inconspicuous about wiping the tears from her eyes. She had not expected anything from them.
"That would be me," Mandy walked up and gave her friend a hug. "Couldnt let the occasion pass without something to mark it could we?"
"No, I guess not. Thanks." She returned the hug and then tasted her first beer in over two years. "Man, I have been waiting for this." The crowd cheered.
"Well, how bout a speech, Lakky?" Jenna requested. The rest of the band, and those friends outside it that had showed for the party, were repeating the request.
"Alright," Laughing, Laurel took a spot in the center of the room, standing on the coffee table so she could see everyone. "I just want to say thank you to everyone that supported me throughout this. Its been a long two years, but as of today, I dont have to explain myself to another shrink, nor do I have to be held accountable to a probation officer. And no more piss tests" That was met by more cheers. "And, Id just like to ask one favor. Please, let someone else drive me home, cause I fully intend to get thrashed this evening." She raised her beer and made a great show of draining the bottle. The crowd cheered again.
After forced constraint when it came to alcohol, Laurels tolerance was not what it used to be. As a result, two and a half beers found her watching the stars outside on the hood of her truck and wishing that the earth would stop spinning.
"Hey, how you feeling?" Mandy raised herself onto the hood and looked at her friend.
"Floating. Thats what it feels like." She angled herself a bit better so she could look at her friend. "Why arent you inside?"
"The question is, why arent you inside?" Mandy lay back on the hood and stared at the stars. She ended up with her head on Laurels shoulder. The young woman rubbed her back gently.
"Had some compulsion to watch the stars. Though I do wish the earth would stop spinning,"
"If it did that, hon, wed fall off,"
"And that would be a bad thing why?" Laurel was getting depressed rapidly.
"Honey, you just got off probation, youve got two more years of school, and then you are as free as you want to be. Life should be looking up for you. Youve got a lot to live for." Mandy was good at exhortation, and though she did not do it often for Laurel, she felt that the bassist would listen to her now.
"Just dont bring up potential. I fucking hate that word," The bitterness in her tone could not be blamed completely on the beer. "But, yeah, life should be pretty good at the moment. Im not sure why I feel down. I should be happy," But a certain face never materialized at the party. The photographer had not been invited.
"Im sorry I didnt invite your new friend, but I didnt know if you had told her about the probation. Have you?" Mandy was cautious about Laurels feelings. She felt it was her duty to protect her. She had not invited Nicole because she was as uncertain as her friend where things stood between the two of them.
"No, I wanted her to like me for me, not be mislead by anything I did in my misspent youth." The blonde drained the beer in her hand.
"Well, Im sure she would understand. You should talk to her about it." Mandy sat up. "Im going back inside. Need a lift home, or are you crashing here tonight?"
"I need a lift, if I stay here, Ill only get molested by Jody." She laughed and slid off the hood. "Im not in the mood to fight her off tonight, and I really dont want that to equal consent to her." She shuddered. Jody had been after her for years, and Laurel would rather go without than take the woman up on the offer. She was afraid the rumors might be true, and the rumors were enough for nightmares.
"Well, lets go collect your personal belongings and get out of here. Sound good?" Mandy threw a sisterly arm around her friends shoulders. They walked back into the garage and began to gather Laurels equipment.
"Lakky, you plan on staying?" A voice purred from Laurels shoulder.
"No, Mandy has generously offered to give me a ride home." She turned to face Jody. The look on the brunette in front of her was nothing if not predatory. It gave the bassist the creeps.
"Oh, thats too bad. I was hoping you could show me some alternate chord fingerings." Jody pouted.
"Jody, you dont even play an instrument." Mandy came up beside the bassist and faced the temptress.
"Thats the point," She walked off in search of other prey.
"Cmon, Laurel. Lets get you out of here." The blonde was starting to wilt. The world was off center, throwing her equilibrium out of alignment. She leaned heavily on Mandys shoulder. "I'll see if BJ can get the rest of this later."
By the time they were inside Mandys car, Laurel was almost asleep. Mandy kept the air circulating well, afraid that her friend might get sick. She thought the blonde was fully asleep until she said something.
"What?" The redhead turned down the radio to hear Laurels muttering better.
"I said, why do you think I should tell Nicole?"
"Hon, let me get ya home, then tomorrow we can have this discussion," Mandy was trying to be reasonable. She knew that if Laurel started thinking, Jon would come into her thoughts. It was not something she felt she could handle this evening. She had loved him too.
"Mokay. Sall right. We can talk now." The bassist was fighting her bodys natural compulsion to sleep after larger than usual intakes of alcohol. She leaned back and looked out the window. "Mmmm, on second thought, maybe Im not."
Mandy looked at her friend concerned, but Laurel had simply passed out while staring at the stars.
A loud chirping sound wound itself through the dreamscape, confusing the dreamer for a moment before forcing consciousness upon the ungrateful receiver. The chirping did not stop once eyes were opened to the wall. It took a few seconds of fumbling, but finally a hand snaked out from the covers and snatched the phone from the table. The chirping stopped.
"Nicole, do you know what time it is?" Adia Herberts voice was worse than the chirping.
"No, what time is it?"
"Its almost nine in the morning. Half the day is gone, and you are still in bed arent you?"
"Yes, maam. I had to work late last night. Inventory and all that. Didnt make it home until 2," Nicole sat up in bed and wiped the sleep from her eyes.
"I heard that you would not be coming down for Labor Day?" Uh oh, here it comes, the photographer thought.
"I asked for the time off, but Attila didnt grant it. The other assistant manager is a week from her due date, and I have to stay in town in case she goes into labor."
"That man...How long have you been working there?"
"Four years," Nicole hid a sigh. She had been expecting this.
"You need to move back here and find a job. Im sure you can. One that would let you see your family when you wanted to."
"Grandma, I cant quit yet. And I like it here. I dont want to move back right now."
"Nicole Elizabeth Herbert, we will discuss this when you come home. And you will be here for Thanksgiving." Her grandmothers tone carried a sense of finality to it.
"No buts, Nicole, Thanksgiving." The line went dead. The portable phone hit the floor.
"Ugh," The photographer threw herself back onto the bed, much to Mozarts consternation. "Some days, it more than pays to use the answering machine."
She was almost asleep again when the chirping began anew. With a groan, she picked the portable off the floor.
"Yeah," She almost did not recognize the voice on the other end. "Laurel?"
A laugh. "Yeah, did I wake you?"
"No, are you ok? You sound kinda funny."
"Just feel hung over. Listen, were having a barbecue on Saturday for Labor Day. Do you want to come?"
"Who is having it?"
"The band. I want them to meet you. Were looking for someone to do some publicity shots for us, and I suggested you."
"Yeah, sure." She was touched that the bassist would recommend her.
"Ok, I have to get to class, but Ill give you the details later. BJ had to know today so he can order the food."
"Oh, and any special type of drink you want, youll have to bring. Theyre only supplying really bad, cheap beer."
"Ok," She chuckled, "I can do that."
"Cool, well, then later?"
"Yeah, tonight right?"
"Yep. Hope youve been practicing. Bye." She hung up before the photographer could make a reply.
"Well, Mo, that was a call to wake up to. Ready to face the day?" At the dogs enthusiastic bark, Nicole laughed and left the room in search of caffeine.
Laurel was, as always, on time when she pulled into Nicoles driveway. The photographer was sitting on the steps with Mozart beside her. It reminded Laurel of the first time she had arrived at her friends house for guitar lessons. The only thing different this time was that no butterflies were attacking her intestines.
As soon as she stopped the truck, Nicole waved and led Mozart inside. She grabbed a large black book and a paper bag before locking the door.
"Ready?" The photographer asked as she opened the passenger door.
"I think the question is are you ready to meet the band?"
"Really, they cant be that bad," Nicole grinned and thought of her friends at a party. No contest.
"Well, well see about that," Laurel carefully backed out of the driveway and pointed the truck back the way she came.
Nicole was relieved to see at least one person she knew at the barbecue. Mandy walked over to the truck as soon as the bassist had stopped it and hugged both women as they go out. Nicole returned the gesture, feeling comfortable with the invasion of her personal space. Laurel seemed used to getting hugs from the redhead, and Nicole wondered what their relationship was honestly. As far as she knew, Laurel was not a toucher.
She fought down an irrational surge of jealousy and pasted a smile on her face when the two looked in her direction.
"Coming?" Mandy asked, not waiting for an answer but turning away and heading towards the picnic table.
Nicole hefted her portfolio and followed the redhead with Laurel walking beside her. The walk gave Nicole ample time to study the crowd; the sunglasses she wore shielded them from her inquisitive gaze. She recognized several people there from either Mabels or the concert at Elis.
"Hey Lakky, whos your friend?" One of the guys gathered around the grill shouted.
"Gentlemen, Ladies, and the rest, this is Nicole Herbert, photographer extraordinaire. Nicole, the members and hangers on of blue gecko." The blonde grinned proudly and gestured for the photographer to have a seat at the table.
Nicole sat down and took in the scene before braving the waters and joining in the conversation. Laurel waited until the tension was completely broken before joining the discussion around the barbecue grill. Loud voices forced the photographers attentions away from the topic at hand and moved them fully in the bassists direction.
Laurel was having an argument with a very tall guy, Nicole could not remember his name, and it seemed to her that the bassist was winning. It ended when the defeated chef turned his tongs over to the blonde. Nicole smiled as Laurel looked up and their gazes met.
"Hey Nicole, whats in the bag?" Mandy appeared at her side and smiled down at her.
"I brought a bottle of wine, Laurel said that it was sort of a bring your own situation." Suddenly, the normally confident photographer felt a bit awkward.
"No, thats fine. Here, well go put it in the fridge to chill it, or if its a red wine, well hide it," Mandy grinned again.
"Ok," Nicole got up and followed the redhead into the trailer. It was only her second visit there, and this time she made more of an effort to look around. The furniture, though mismatched, was well taken care of, and the atmosphere was one of comfort. There were several pictures, posters and prints of paintings on the wall. She wanted to study each one further, but Mandy ushered her into the kitchen.
"Lakkys really glad you came today," Mandy told her as she placed the white wine in the refrigerator.
"Lakky?" The nickname threw Nicole for a moment. "Oh, you mean Laurel? Well, I am glad she invited me over. I think doing publicity shots for the band would be a great experience." Mandy had her back to the photographer, so Nicole missed the look of surprise at her words.
"Well, they are starting to get quite popular around here." Mandy said covering her shock easily.
"Yeah, I think theyre very talented. They really have a shot of making it big," Nicole was not as sure of that as she sounded. She could barely remember what they sounded like. Since all her attention had been on Laurel, she had not had any to spare on actually listening to the band.
"Whos got a shot of what?" Laurel asked from the doorway. Having both Mandy and Nicole disappear had made her nervous.
"We were talking about the band. Seems that Nicole has been bewitched by blue gecko," Mandy grinned.
"Well, I just call it like I hear it," Nicole muttered. Its not the band Im bewitched by.
"Why then thank ya, maam," Laurel made a show of bowing. "Wanna put your portfolio in my room for safe keeping?" Nicole had grabbed the big black book out of habit.
"Yeah that sounds like a good idea." She followed Laurel down the short hallway and turned into the small bedroom.
"Its a bit of a mess, the housekeeper is on vacation,"
"No, thats fine," Nicole set her portfolio on the bed, the only clear spot in the room.
"Hey, Ive got to get back out to the grill. Well show them that later, ok?"
"Sure," Nicole followed Laurel back out through the trailer and into the yard. Mandy had rejoined the group outside and was holding a conversation with someone who looked like a lineman for the football team.
"Wow, that was a good meal, Im still full," The photographer commented. Laurel felt herself blush at the compliment. She had to wrestle control of the grill from Charles, but a bribe had finally worked. Laurel was a horrible cook when she was in the kitchen, but she was a terrific one when she was in front of a grill.
"I am glad you enjoyed it. They really liked your portfolio. Thanks for bringing with you," And of course thanks for sharing it with me too.
"Hey it was no problem. Id really love shooting the band," Nicole grinned to herself. Of course there maybe more pictures of the bass player than the rest of them.
The blonde was quiet as she steered the truck back toward Nicoles house. The photographer was a little worried that something had upset her friend when the conversation began again.
"Im sure theyll chose you. Even if I have to bust some heads to do so," She laughed. "Seriously though they liked you. And that is a big plus." Course, since they just found out that were doing publicity photos, it should not be a problem.
"Yeah I guess it is," The house was coming into view and both were reluctant to stop the conversation. "Anyway, I cant do lessons on Tuesday, want to do them Thursday?"
"Yeah that will work," Laurel was disappointed but tried to hide it.
"And this time Ill cook. I cant make ribs like you do, but Im sure I can come up with something," Nicole grinned mischievously.
"Uh oh, why does that look make me nervous?" Laurel teased.
"Aww, youll like Cajun food. I promise." She opened her door. "Look you want to come in for a while?"
"I would love to, but we do have a rehearsal tonight. Sorry," Really I am. More than I should be.
"Ok, well Thursday then. See ya."
Laurel stayed in the driveway until Nicole was safely in the house. She took her time driving home, taking the longest way back she knew. She always thought best while in motion. Driving was just an extension of that. Of course while driving there was the added advantage that no one would hear her talk to herself.
"You know, Lakky, youre in something bad. But what something?" She paused to light a cigarette. "What is this doing to me? What is she doing to me?"
The answer did not elude her for long.
"Nothing, and that is the problem. Face it, Laurel Anne Kendrick, you are in lust one hundred percent."
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