"So, did you have a good conversation?" Laurel asked Sheryl after Nicole had gone inside.
"She really worries about you, you know," Sheryl wanted to clue the bassist into the worry she had inadvertently caused Nicole.
"Its a new feeling," Laurel admitted. "I am concerned about her as well, but I am not used to people worrying about me."
"So, since they dont," Sheryl paused as she watched Nicole slowly open the screen door. "Whats up Hotshot?" The photographer was still holding the portable phone loosely in her hand.
"You ok, hon?" Laurel grabbed Nicoles hand and pulled her to the swing. "You look like a zombie, whats up?"
"Margie died," Nicole stated in a flat voice. "Phil just called to let me know. They dont know all the details yet. Theyre waiting on an autopsy." The reality of the situation had yet to sink into the photographers mind.
"Oh my god," Sheryl covered her mouth with her hand. She had never gotten along with her friends sister, but she sympathized with the loss of life. It made her think of her own brothers and sister. She had the sudden urge to call them all.
"Are you ok?" Laurel asked softly as she pulled her lover closer.
"It is refusing to process," Nicole admitted. "First last night, and now this. I think my brain is on overload."
"Itll be ok, just let it out when you need to," Laurel spoke from experience. She was well aware the Nicole did not share the same bond with Margie that she had with Jon, but she knew that the photographer would still feel the pain of losing a sibling.
"Are you going down there?" Sheryl asked.
"I dont know if I should," Nicole was lost in thought over that very question. "Grandma disowned me, I dont know if it would be appropriate."
"Bullshit, Nicole," Laurel let her anger at the injustices of the situation show. "Margie was your sister, you have every right to be there."
"Short but deadly is right, Hotshot," Sheryl walked over and knelt before the two women. Laurel raised her eyebrow at the term the critic had used to describe her, but said nothing about it. "Let me call Danny, he should be off the air by now." She took the phone from Nicoles hand. The photographer did not resist.
"Come here," Laurel repositioned them on the swing so that Nicole was lying with her head on the bassists shoulder. "You can cry, you know."
"I cant," Nicole whispered. "It hasnt registered yet or something."
"Its ok," Laurel used her good foot to move the swing back and forth. The wooden armrest was digging into her back, but she ignored the inconvenience. She realized that her lover was in emotional shock. She could not blame her, a lot had happened in less than a week.
They remained like that until Sheryl returned. The critic had gone back into the house to make her call. She returned with three opened beers and the dog. Mozart went straight to his human and lay just under the swing. It was high enough that the big dog would not be bothered by it while he lay beneath it.
No one spoke as they sat outside. No one knew what to say to the photographer, and Nicole had yet to process the news enough to want to speak of it. When Danny pulled into the driveway, he found the three of them sitting on the porch. Sheryl and Laurel had at least drunk their beers and the bassist had smoked another cigarette, but the photographer had yet to move. She was content to rest in her lovers arms.
"How long has she been like that?" The deejay asked Sheryl as he joined her on the glider.
"Since right before I called you," Sheryl informed him. Laurel nodded softly to confirm the critics words.
"Nicole, honey, Dannys here," She gently nudged her lover into awareness.
"Hi," Nicole opened her eyes but did not move her head. She felt safe in Laurels arms and was not ready to deal with the real world outside of them.
"Hey yourself," The deejays voice was just loud enough for her to hear him. "How can I help?"
"Freeze time," Nicole suggested.
"I would if I could, but I havent the powers," Danny smiled gently. "When are you leaving to go down there?" Sheryl had told him Nicoles fear of returning to New Orleans, but the deejay knew that the photographer would want to be there. She wanted to be there whether or not she had admitted it to herself yet.
"I dont know if I should go," The others barely heard the words.
"Of course you should," Danny argued. "Nicole, she was your sister."
"Ill drive," Laurel volunteered. Her professors had excused her from classes for the rest of the week so her ankle could heal. Her bass students would understand or not, she really did not care at the moment.
"Dont be silly," Nicole protested. "You cant drive with that ankle."
"Then well take your car since its an automatic," Laurel thought it was logical. "Sides, the ankle doesnt hurt anymore."
"Or any less?" Sheryl jokingly asked.
"Ive always been a quick healer," She saw the doubt in her lovers eyes. "Look, well take the dog, the crutches and the pain meds with us," She offered as a compromise although she had no intention of taking anymore of the medication. She hated having medicine head.
"Are you sure?" Nicole asked. Everyone there heard the unspoken question. Are you sure its a good idea?
"Yep," Laurel answered quickly. "I have a bag here and already packed to go. When do you want to leave?" She knew Nicole would only worry about it anyway, so they might as well be where the action was.
"Here, Ill pack you a bag," Danny offered.
"Yeah, Ill help," Sheryl stood and walked inside before anyone could object. Danny was a step behind her.
"I guess were going back to the Warehouse," Nicole said. She might have found this amusing had the situation been less emotionally draining.
"Yep, we are," Laurel agreed. "Beignets, Jessie and Stan, me, you and that enormous bed, well all get through this together."
"Should you have been drinking while on those pain killers?" Nicole stifled a laugh.
"I didnt take the pain killers, I was just wore out from hobbling around on crutches," The bassist admitted. She flinched, expecting a verbal onslaught, but it never came.
"I love you," Nicole leaned up and kissed Laurel softly on the lips.
"And I love you too," Laurel whispered as Nicole returned to her previous position.
Sheryl and Danny had been true to their word. They had packed Nicole a small suitcase and loaded it in the car. They promised to attend the funeral, actually guaranteeing they assistance as soon as Laurel called them. They made her promise to call as soon as the bassist learned anything. She did so gladly.
Danny assisted Nicole to the car and then buckled her into her seat. She was still mostly unresponsive. Laurel hoped that she would revive soon. She did not like seeing her lover in a semi comatose state. Sheryl let Mozart into the back seat, as Laurel made sure her backpack was out of drool range. The two friends stayed and watched as Laurel moved the car out of the driveway.
Laurel had to shake Nicole awake when she parked the car in the garage. It had been an easy trip. Not much traffic had been on the road that late at night. The photographer had fallen asleep shortly after Laurel had pulled the car onto the interstate heading south. She had not even stirred when the bassist stopped for coffee and gas. Even Mozart had slept the entire way to New Orleans.
Laurel assisted Nicole into the large bed before escorting the dog downstairs to the patio. The long car ride had proven too much for his bladder. She smoked a cigarette while the large German Sheppard did his business and then followed him back up the stairs. Nicole was curled up on her side and Laurel quickly spooned up behind her. Sleep would be scant, but a few hours rest was better than none.
When the bassist woke, she contemplated going for breakfast, but did not desire hobbling down the stairs. Nicole had gotten the elevator to work last night, but Laurel did not want to take the chance. Getting stuck in an antique elevator at her girlfriends apartment building was on her list of humiliations to avoid. She opted for a shower instead.
After an awkward shower and much cursing at the cast on her ankle, Laurel dressed. She heard voices in the living area and went to investigate. She did not think it appropriate to do so nude. She was relieved to find Jessica and Stan present. They had even been considerate enough to provide breakfast. A bag of beignets was waiting on the table.
"Hey," Stan waved as she exited the bathroom.
"Morning," Laurel ignored the crutches and hobbled to the couch. "Whats up?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing," He replied as he looked at her cast.
"Its a long story," She groaned. She was debating cutting the plaster off herself, but knew that Nicole would not be pleased with the act. "Didnt Sheryl tell you?" Laurel turned the conversation to Jessica. The young woman looked extremely exhausted.
"Nope, I was on a plane last night after I got the call," She shrugged. "I did not have time to call anyone after receiving the summons. Phil at least arranged for tickets to be waiting for me when I got to the airport. I suppose she knows?"
"Yes, she was there when Phil called last night," Nicole stated quietly. Laurel noticed that the photographer was still withdrawn.
"Baby, why dont you go take a shower," Laurel suggested quietly in Nicoles ear. She wanted to talk to her lovers family alone for a few minutes. "And when you get back, well eat breakfast."
"Ok," Nicole was willing to be told what to do. She could not fathom the occurrences of the past few days. She felt as if her brain were slowly melting.
"So, whats going on?" Laurel asked as she heard the bathroom door close behind her lover.
"Damned if I know," Stan shrugged. "The only information Ive been given is that Margie robbed her bank account as soon as grandmother signed it over to her and then disappeared. She showed up at the hospital yesterday afternoon, and then died last night."
"Interesting," Laurel commented. "Any idea where she had gone?" She was suspicious. She had never been told who Jodys accomplice had been.
"Kenner," Jessica answered. "They got that much out of her before she showed up at the medical center here. Phil told me over the phone that they think she had gone to the airport, but then hired a cab to take her to the med center. I wonder if maybe she finally realized what she had done, but well never know," She ended sadly.
"Guess not," Stan added. Neither cousin seemed as if they did not know how to handle the situation. They were saddened by the loss, but they had not been close to Margie enough to feel the hole her passing left in their lives.
"So how do we handle Nicole and Adia?" Laurel asked their advice. It was fitting. They had grown up in this family; she had not.
"I think we should see if this helps them reconcile," Phil entered the room. None of them had heard his approach. "Nice to see Im not interrupting anything," He grinned. "Jay however has other ideas."
"I think we should let the two of them mourn before adding more emotional traumas on them," Jay told the group as he followed his partner into the room.
"I agree with you," Laurel told Jay. She wondered how much more her lover could take before she broke completely or went mad. "Nicole is almost comatose already. She does not need more stress," She said fiercely. She made sure they understood her meaning. She would rather run them through than allow more stress to be placed on her lover.
"We will help in any way possible," Phil promised. Jay nodded his agreement as Nicole was exiting the bathroom. They both crossed the open space between them and the photographer and pulled her in for a long hug. Nicoles eyes were still dry.
"I think we should have gotten more food," Stan broke the tender mood.
"Thats ok, weve already eaten," Jay told him as he released Nicole. She walked back to the couch.
"Well, that should leave plenty for us then," Laurel stood and walked over to the bag on the table. Stan and Jessica joined her.
She filled a plate for both her and Nicole before hobbling back to the couch. Jessica followed with a plate and three cartons of chocolate milk. Laurel took both and opened one for her lover. Nicole listlessly held the plate in her hands but did not touch the contents. Laurel waited until she had consumed a beignet before turning to her lover. All three of the doughy confections were still on Nicoles plate.
"Baby, if you dont eat, Im going to force feed you," Laurel threatened in an undertone.
She was pleased when Nicole chose a beignet and forced herself to eat one. The photographer put the plate down after that. She did drink all her milk though. Laurel debated making her lover eat the entire plateful, but thought better of it. Nicole needed support, not a show of force. As a result, the bassist finished her food and left the photographer alone.
"Well leave you two alone for a bit," Jessie looked at her brother and uncles expectantly. They nodded and rose from their seats. "Ill call Sheryl from Stans and let her know whats up."
"Thanks, Jessie," Laurel was sincere. She knew she would need their help to get Nicole through this. "Call or come get us if were needed."
"We will," Stan promised. He whistled for Mozart. "Well take care of the beast too," He grinned as the big dog joined the group. "See yall later."
"Hey," Laurel took Nicoles hand after they had been left alone. "I know youre in there."
"My brain is on vacation," Nicole protested weakly. She had found a nice, quiet corner of her mind and was contemplating staying there.
"I know it is, hon, but you cant disappear," Laurel gently placed her free hand under her lovers chin and made Nicole look at her. "We will get through this, I promise."
"Really?" Hope warred with despair in the photographers blue eyes.
"Really," Laurel reaffirmed her promise. "Now come here," She lay back on the couch and pulled Nicole on top of her. "Just rest for a few minutes."
Laurel ended up on her side with Nicole facing her. She pulled the photographer into her arms and was content to hold her. Nicole laid her head on the Laurels shoulder after pushing the bassist over onto her back.
"What makes someone do that?" Nicole asked after several minutes of silence.
"Makes someone do what?" Laurel roused herself. She had almost fallen asleep again.
"Kill themselves from drugs or alcohol?"
"Um," Laurel knew she was treading dangerous waters. She had not told Nicole the entire story of her arrest and prior history with addictions. "Sometimes people have a hole in their soul that they need to fill. They dont know what to fill it with and so they try anything and everything to make themselves feel better."
"What makes the hole?" Nicole thought it odd that Laurel had chosen those words.
"The lack of love, self respect, self esteem, despair," Laurel shrugged. "It is usually all of those things, but it can only be one at a time."
"How do you know?" Nicole did not doubt her lover. She was curious.
"Because that is why I used," Laurel answered honestly. "I had a hole in my soul that I filled with dope, beer and sex."
"Is it still there?" Nicole rubbed her hand on the bassists stomach. She was not sure she wanted to hear the answer, but she needed to hear it. It explained a lot about both her sister and her lover.
"No," Laurel answered softly. "It has been filled finally," She looked deeply into Nicoles eyes. "You filled it."
"Maybe Margie should have found someone like you," Nicole was relieved and touched by the answer, but her mind turned immediately back to her sister.
"No, baby, she should have found someone like you," Laurel kissed the photographers forehead. "I came awfully close to ending up like Margie, but I ran a car up a tree and got busted for it. Had I not met you, I might have gone deeper into it after my probation." Laurel admitted. Her friends had told her the shortcuts to passing urine tests, and she had tested them several times to great effect.
"Im glad you didnt. I dont want to lose you too."
"Im right here," Laurel tightened her hold on the photographer. "Im not going anywhere."
"I know," Nicole sighed. "At least I think I do. Prove it to me?"
"With pleasure," Laurel whispered as she leaned to catch Nicoles lips with her own.
It was a soft, pleasurable kiss meant to reaffirm their bond. It did not stay soft for long as the bassist let her libido awaken. She pulled Nicole on top of her and let her hands wander across the smooth planes of the photographers back. Nicole rested her forehead on Laurels collarbone and willed the bassist to continue.
"Its no fun if you dont participate," Laurel complained. She had once had sex with someone who was so drunk she dozed off during the act. Laurel felt that this was a similar occurrence.
"Im sorry," Nicole pulled herself off the couch and went to stand by the window.
"Oh shit," Laurel swore softly. She had the feeling that she had just blown the boat completely out of the water. "Nicole? Sweetheart, whats that matter?" She hobbled over to the window to stand beside her lover. That does it; I am cutting this damn plaster off tonight.
"I cant do anything right." The words were spoken so softly that Laurel had to stretch her ears to hear them.
"Oh, Nicole," Laurel wrapped her arms around her lover and pulled her in close. "You do almost everything right," She was not good at exhortation, but Mandy was and the bassist remembered hearing her roommate speak from her heart and into someone elses. She tried to emulate that. "You are a wonderful photographer, friend, lover, pet owner and cook," She chuckled softly. "I mean youve only ruined breakfast once." Laurels accent came out and ruined became rurned.
"Rurned?" Nicole could not help herself. She laughed at her lovers mispronunciation. It was rare that Laurel let her accent shine through her speech.
"It got you to laugh didnt it?" Laurel was proud of herself. "Seriously, I apologize for what I said. It was thoughtless."
"No, its ok, I just wanted to feel you make love to me," Nicole shrugged off her request and the apology.
"I know, I should have thought, but I didnt. Can I make it up to you?"
"All you need do is ask," Laurel grinned as she took Nicoles hand and led her to bed.
Nicole watched as Laurels breathing evened out into a deeper sleep. The short blonde hair was tucked behind the bassists ears and the bangs were sweat glued to her forehead. Long blonde lashes shielded the grey eyes from view, but Nicole had memorized their depths. She was fascinated with the way they changed colors as the mood of the bassist changed. Grey was the normal, everyday color, blue was when she was in the grips of a strong emotion, and then there was a pale, frightening green. Nicole had only seen the green once, and had no desire to do so again. Green meant danger and signaled the bassist was an inch or less from losing control over her temper. The photographer thought that Sheryl had chosen an adequate nickname. Laurel could very well be short but deadly. Regardless, Nicole knew that she had a life long protector and companion in her lover.
Sighing deeply, Nicole rose from bed and pulled her clothes back around her in an attempt to cover herself. Laurel had done all that she had been asked and more, but the photographer could not relax enough to sleep. Instead, she pulled a battered pack of cigarettes from her lovers pocket and opened the window enough to let the smoke through.
She had loved her sister, but had not been close to her. They had drifted apart long before Margies drug use had caused serious changes in her behavior. Nicole could not remember exactly when her sister had gone to bed as Jekyll and became Hyde the next morning. Vaguely, she remembered it being around the time Michael was sent to live with their aunt in California. It had certainly been before her grandfather had died. Nicole suspected that was when Margie had started doing drugs heavily. The mental timeline she was able to sketch seemed to fit her theory. Seven years and two weeks ago they had buried her grandfather. In two days they would bury her sister. Nicole was starting to wonder if she would outlive all of her family.
She never could recall what made her do it. It was without much thought that Nicole picked up the phone and dialed the seldom-used number. Her aunt picked up on the second ring.
"Is Michael there?" Her hands were shaking.
"Yes, hold for one moment please," Aunt Linda did not even recognize her voice. "May I ask who is calling?" The voice came back over the line after a brief period of silence.
"Nicole," She hoped that was enough.
"Michael, theres someone named Nicole on the phone for you," She heard the voice yell through the house. "Nicole Herbert?" The puzzled voice finally put two and two together.
"Oh my god, how are you? This is your aunt Linda dear," The older womans voice became cheerful. "I havent seen you in forever. Is everything alright?"
"No, maam its not. Thats why I need to speak with Michael."
"Are you in trouble, dear?"
"No maam," Nicole replied. She was beginning to regret making this call, but it was her duty. Margie had been his sister too. "Im fine."
"Well, ok. Here he is, and you take care," Twenty-five years in California had not erased the Arkansas accent from her voice.
"Hello?" The baritone in his voice almost brought tears to her eyes.
"Nicole? Is that you?" He seemed pleased to hear her voice. She had not spoken to him since Christmas.
"Yeah, Mickey," She took a deep breath. "I have some bad news."
"Margies dead isnt she?" He did not sound surprised.
"Yes, how did you know?" She was shocked that he had picked up on that.
"I had a nightmare last night. Ill be there this afternoon, regardless of what Linda and Martin have to say about it." To say the two families did not get along would be an understatement.
"Were at the Warehouse, you remember the way dont you?"
"Ill get a cab," He seemed eager to visit.
"Michael, the cab rate will cripple you, I can meet you at the airport," She protested.
"Dont worry, Nicky, Ill catch a cab. Theres no sense you having to cart my butt around. NOIA is not located in a safe place, so you just stay there. Ill be there as soon as possible, ok?"
"Ok," She smiled a real smile for the first time in hours.
"Love ya, sis, later," He hung up the phone before she could reply.
"So does this mean were not going to the airport?" Laurel asked as she sat up in bed.
"No, he opted to take a cab here from the airport. How long have you been awake?"
"Since you picked up the phone," The bassist admitted. "I thought maybe Id fall back asleep, but I didnt."
"How are you feeling?"
"Me? Youre the one with the broken ankle," Nicole pointed out the obvious. "Im a little tired I guess."
"Then come here," Laurel patted a space on the mattress. "Get some sleep. He wont be here until late unless he finds a direct flight, and those are rare. I think you have to go through Houston or Atlanta to get to hell from here."
"I think you may be right," She laughed. "Stay until Im asleep?"
"Of course," Laurel opened her arms and let Nicole fall into them. She hummed as she rubbed the photographers back. Soon she was singing softly.
"I wasnt aware you were into Broadway," Nicole murmured.
"Phantom is a classic. Want me to stop?"
"Not in the least."
"Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation. Darkness stirs and wakes imagination " She barely got to the chorus when she heard the light snores emanating from the photographer.
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