Unable to sleep, Laurel rolled out of bed and found her clothes. She was fighting the sudden desire to run away. Things seemed to have gotten too intense between her and Nicole. Someone or something had suddenly kicked the intensity level up to a higher notch. The bassist did not know quite how to deal with it.
As quietly as she could, Laurel crossed the floor of the apartment and made her way to the stairwell. She thought she had made it undetected until she heard the click of nails on the stairs above her. Mozart had been aware of her departure and followed. She continued down the stairs to the bottom floor, he shadowed every move.
"Its ok, Im not going anywhere," Laurel scratched his ears. "Need to go outside? I do."
She did not bother turning on the lights to the courtyard. New Orleans was rarely completely dark, especially at night. She lit a cigarette and watched as the big dog settled himself by the door instead of running off to investigate something. Apparently he was there to watch or protect her.
The city gave off a haze of its own, part pollution part something else, that kept many stars from view. Still, the skyline itself was an impressive sight for a small town girl. She always loved looking at the steeple from the cathedral or the lights from the buildings in the City Business District. The tallest building in her hometown had been the retirement home. The next tallest point had been the golden arches. It never failed to impress her when she saw such magnificent buildings on the horizon.
Letting her mind be filled with images of architecture and assorted subjects kept her from thinking about the reasons behind her sudden insomnia. Distractions were sometimes blessings. Finally, though, she could not keep from contemplating what had her mind in agony.
"Damn," Nicole had played her part well and had gotten more information from her than the bassist normally told her therapist. Who knew the photographer had been so skilled in the art of seduction? Certainly Laurel had never even considered the possibility.
Maybe I should have asked her about Annie. She thought. So much for having her neatly categorized.
"Mo, tell me everything there is to know about your master?" Laurel asked the only entity she could. The big dog yawned and put his head down on his paws. "Youre no help."
Sighing in frustration, Laurel tossed the cigarette butt into the makeshift ashtray. She stood and walked back inside to the game room. The basketball game was right where she remembered it. She turned on one light switch. The room was bathed in a soft glow that bounced off the warm wooden floor but did not illuminate the corners of the room. That was perfect for Laurel. She was not in a mood to be drowned in light. Sometimes, darkness was preferable.
She pressed the start button, glad that someone had made sure the machine had plenty of credits. She had no idea how to perform such an act without quarters or tokens of some sort. The machine sprang to life, letting five basketballs down into the tray and slowly taking the goal farther away from the line. She was not worried about points; though the machine kept count every time she scored, but more in the repetition of the act. There was honesty present in making the ball go from the hand through the hoop that was lacking in life.
Before she had broken her leg playing soccer in her sophomore year in high school, Laurel had loved the game. Like her brother, she had loved most sports, and they would often play together with other kids in their neighborhood. After she had her cast removed, her parents had decided not to let her play soccer again. Conceding defeat, Laurel chose softball and basketball to replace it. Jon had excelled at basketball enough to win a scholarship for it; Laurel had not been tall enough to make her high school team with any certainty.
However, she had been a late bloomer and grew two inches the summer between her sophomore and junior year. She tried out again for the team and was again rejected. That time the coach had insisted she could not take band students. It was a conspiracy. The coach had carried a personal grudge against the bassists mother onto the court. Her parents never did offer to do anything about it. As a result, Laurel never did get to play the game on a team.
"Shit," She had bounced a little on her toes during the last shot. Her right knee protested. She could feel the tendons start to stretch and knew that her entire knee could be swollen in a short period of time if she did not stop and rest. That damage was legacy of her car accident. It was also why she no longer played sports, and why after a concert, she would limp home and cuddle up to a bag of ice. People thought her walk was a strut and she never told them the truth. It was good for her image.
As she had done since she could remember, Laurel ignored the consequences and continued to make the ball go through the hoop. Physical exertion had always helped clear her head. It ran in the family. Her mother had been a high school and college track star, and her brother of course had made a name for himself playing basketball. Both would have had the chance to go professional, but life stepped in and ended their chances. Her mother had married and had children; Jon had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Laurel had robbed herself of any chance to make it in the sports world with one wrong decision. No matter what she did, that night would always haunt her. For someone without many regrets, this one was a small thorn she had yet to remove.
"I hate regrets," She said aloud when the ball bounced off the goal and rebounded to her. Already she was regretting letting her lover pull answers from her. She sincerely hoped that those answers would not haunt her at a later date. Tomorrow could be a later date, but Laurel was under the impression that her sins would be listed whenever more ammunition was needed during an argument. She had been raised to view such admissions as fuel for a raging fire that would start when least expected.
"Fuck," This time it was a yell that reverberated through the room and caused Mozart to cover his ears with his paws. "Sorry, boy. Are you still making sure that I wont leave?"
"Hes well trained," The voice was soft and caused Laurel to whirl around looking for her lover in the darkness beyond the game machines. Nicole was standing in the doorway wrapped in her robe.
"How long have you been there?" Laurels tone was guarded. She had not paid attention to anything more than her thoughts and the ball in her hands.
"Long enough to see your game disintegrate. Whats wrong?" Nicole was worried. She feared that she had pushed her lover too hard in her quest for answers.
"Couldnt sleep," Laurel shrugged. "What brought you down here?"
"You werent in bed," She did not voice her fear that the bassist had left her.
"You know when Im gone?" Laurel was astounded.
"Yes, it seems so, anyway," She tried to make light of it. "So why couldnt you sleep?"
"I dont know," They both knew it was a lie.
"Come back to bed?" Nicole held her hand out to her lover. She feared the rejection she thought was imminent, but was relieved when Laurel crossed the space between them and took the offered hand.
They negotiated the stairs in silence. Each woman was aware that something had changed between them, but neither of them knew how to breech the topic. Emotional walls were useful at times, but they could be impediments to relationships. Nicole wondered if she would ever breech her lovers while Laurel on the other hand wondered if she had let hers down too much. Their fears had at last come between them. Fortunately, they knew it, but they had no way to understand how to stop it.
"Im sorry," Laurel did not know what she was apologizing for, but she felt it was warranted. She had no desire to force Nicole back into a zombie like state.
"Im the one that should be sorry," Nicole sat down on the bed. "I should not have questioned you, but I needed to know," She gripped what courage she had and resolved not to rest until the problems she sensed arising between them had been vanquished. "I have never loved anyone the way that I love you. I just lost my sister, I rarely see my brother, my grandmother disowned me, and I have handled it as well as I am able. What I cannot handle is the thought of losing you," She let the fear she had felt when she had awakened and found herself alone in bed again wash over her. It forced tears from her eyes and she cursed them. She did not want to arouse Laurels pity. Rather, she was after understanding.
"You have no reason to apologize," Laurel looked beyond herself and realized just how fragile her lover really was at times. She had not thought about what her answers would do to Nicole, rather she had only felt uneasy that they had impugned her reputation for the photographer. Laurel had lived so long in a selfish little microcosm that it was hard to step out from it. "Nicole," She sat down on the bed and put her arm around her lover. "I should have told you the truth sooner. I didnt want you to find out though. I was scared youd leave me if you knew."
"Just what is the truth?" The question could not be stopped.
"The truth is that even before Jon was killed I had a hole in me I guess. I wasnt the favorite in my family. Understandable, especially since there were only the two of us, but I always felt like Jons shadow. It only bothered me when our parents enhanced that feeling. He was the heir, the only son. It was a very medieval perspective, but it was how they viewed us. My father is very patriarchal. Most of the people he does business with are as well. For a long time I wanted attention, but never got it. So, I learned what got me into trouble and exploited that. They had to deal with me, and I was going to make sure they couldnt find a reason to deny it."
"Doesnt sound very Irish to me," Nicole commented.
"It wasnt. My grandfather was of Irish decent, but his family had moved to the Coast several generations ago. It had faded out enough that the views they had encountered in the New World replaced everything else. I never understood it," She shook her head. She never had really understood the society in which her parents lived and worked. All she knew was her many brushes with the law had been ignored and overlooked by everyone including the law officials. The only reason she had gotten in trouble after her accident had been because the first officer on the scene had been a rookie highway patrolman. "After Jon died, they had no reason to keep me around since I wasnt following their script. I left and I havent been home since, but some things chase you no matter how far and how fast you run. So I resorted to other activities to block out memories of things I couldnt change."
"So now what?"
"Well, I was honest when I said Ive lead a pretty clean life since I met you. I have no desire to lose you either," Laurel felt as if she had run an emotional race. Her anger at herself had rapidly dissipated when confronted by Nicoles fears and concerns. "You have given me something to reach for outside of myself. And if for no other reason than that, I would love you."
"I love you too," Nicole still felt as if she only had part of the story, but was determined to let it rest there. She knew that in time all walls between them would crumble. It gave her hope and confidence in their bond. "Now, lets go to bed."
"Ok," Laurel smiled gently. The conversation had gone better than she had thought, though she was still cautious. Only now did she begin to regret her misguided youth and the effect it might have on their relationship. Privately she thought that Nicole deserved someone better, but the bassist was unwilling to give her lover the space to find that someone. She was unaware that the photographer knew better. Nicole believed that they were destined to be together and would not let anything stand in their way.
"Rise and shine campers," The shout into their apartment was immediately followed by the sound of a trumpet playing revelry. It was not a recording and Laurel opened bleary eyes to see a man who looked vaguely familiar playing the silver instrument.
"Gods," She groaned. "Nicole, stop him before I stick that horn up his ass."
"Michael?" Nicole raised equally bleary eyes to see her brother standing in her living area.
"At your service," He stopped playing and bowed. "Any request?"
"Yeah, how bout " The hand covering her mouth muffled whatever the bassist was about to say.
"Turn around and let me get dressed," Nicole told her brother.
"Dont think I know that one," He grinned but did as requested. Nicole grabbed her robe and hastily pulled it back on before walking over to her brother.
"When did you get here? Its so good to see you," She pulled him into an embrace and rested her head on his shoulders. He towered above her by several inches.
"Stan let me in last night. I was able to get a few hours sleep in his apartment before coming up here to wake you," He looked proud of himself. "How do you do?" He turned his attention to the bassist as she made her way over to the living area. It was fortunate that she had fallen asleep in her clothing. "Michael Jefferson Herbert at your service," He moved Nicole over to his side and extended his free hand.
"Laurel Anne Kendrick at yours," Laurel shook the proffered hand. Wow, looks definitely run in this family. She thought, as she looked him over. He was well over six feet and well built. He looked like a football player with those wide shoulders and muscular arms. His dark hair was cut short in the back and sides with a little length on top, and his eyes were identical to his sisters in color. The shape differed, but not by much. To see the two of them together, she could easily see the family resemblance.
"Id like to say Ive heard a lot about you, but I havent," He grinned again. "But there is time enough for that. It is nice to see my sister with someone who cares about her."
"That I do," Laurel grinned. She liked this man instantly. "Im going to go down for a smoke and take the dog," She wanted to give them time to become reacquainted.
"Thanks," Nicole put all her love and gratitude into a smile that made the bassist weak in the knees. She knew what her lover was doing and appreciated it.
"My pleasure," Laurel barely managed to speak the words. She called the dog to her and soon disappeared down the stairs.
"You look good," Nicole stepped back and looked at her brother. "Find the woman of your dreams yet?"
"Not yet, but it looks as if you have," He grinned down at her. "You look good too, sis."
"Thanks," She smiled. "Here, have a seat," She waved him to the couch and sat down on the love seat opposite him. "What have you been up to?"
"Hitting the board more than the books if you believe Linda and Martin," He gave a rueful grin. "You need to come out to California and let me teach you to surf."
"No thanks," She laughed. "I have no desire to get smashed into a reef."
"So, does Adia know Im here yet?"
"I dont think so. I dont even think she knows Im here," The photographer quickly lost her humor. "She disowned me last time I was here."
"Why?" He was flabbergasted.
"Because of my relationship with Laurel," Nicole attempted to shrug it off but he saw through it.
"Still hasnt forgiven you for that bitch?" She had told him about the tangle Annie had gotten her into shortly after it happened. "Thats downright cruel."
"Thats Adia for you," She could not think of anything else to say. "So how are Linda and Martin treating you?"
"The same as always," He shrugged. "Least now they treat me like one of their children and not the alien stepchild, but enough of that. Phil told me in an email that you got a job at a paper?"
"Yeah, finally," She let the good news wash over her for a moment. "My new boss seems to be impressed, and I start on Monday."
"Good for you," He grinned happily. "I finally get to graduate soon. Ive already had a job offer at one of the local tech companies. Salary sounds pretty good."
"Michael, thats wonderful," She was genuinely happy for her baby brother.
"Yeah, well see. Maybe theyll let me come back here and work. They have an office in the CBD," He missed the opportunity to grow up in New Orleans but had fallen in love with the city during his infrequent visits.
"Now that would be cool," Nicole could already see the benefits of having her brother living close to her. She had always regretted their separation.
They brought one another current on the small and large events of their lives. It was a pleasure for each of them that they got to do so face to face. They had rarely been together since the custody battle, but each marked those few, brief times as happy memories. Every summer for two weeks Michael had been returned to New Orleans, but after their grandfather had died, those visits stopped. No one ever told them why, but they continued to exchange the occasional phone calls and the weekly letters.
"I think the rest of the family would like to see you too," Nicole finally looked at a clock. They had been talking for over an hour.
"Yeah, Id like to see them as well," Michael stood. "I think Ill go send your girlfriend up so you can both get properly dressed."
"Thanks, bro," She smiled as he walked out of the apartment and down the stairs. She no longer regretted the phone call she had made to bring him home.
"So?" Laurel asked from the entrance. Nicole had been so lost in thought that she did not even hear her lover enter the room.
"Im glad I called him," She said as her lover walked closer.
"Good," Laurel smiled. "Care to join me in the shower?"
"Is that such a good idea?" She could not stop the smile that overtook her face.
"I promise Ill behave," Laurel held her hand up as if she were taking an oath.
"Aww," Nicole pretended to pout. "Guess Ill wait until your done then."
"Well, only if you want me to behave," Laurel gave what she hoped was a seductive smile.
"In that case I will join you," Nicole accepted the hand offered to her and willing followed her lover into the bathroom.
"I thought you might."
"What took you guys so long?" Michael asked as his sister and her lover joined them outside. "Never mind, I dont wanna know," He commented when he saw the slight blush on Nicoles cheeks.
"Cleanliness is a virtue," Laurel intoned as she held a chair out for Nicole.
"Sure it is, SBD," Sheryl laughed. "Jessie is talking to your uncles and will be down in a moment."
"Ok," Nicole felt the squeezing in her chest start. Margies autopsy report was supposed to have been released that morning.
The realization that life had to continue forced them all into silent contemplation. The somber mood had returned and no one wished to break it. They were tensing up against whatever news Jay and Phil would bring with them. Jessie could feel the tension in the air when she finally joined them.
"Wow, arent yall and dark and moody bunch," Jessie tried to lighten the mood. She hated being around morose people.
"Theyre still adjusting," Sheryl pulled the college student into her lap to silence her.
"Michael?" She took a good look at her cousin. "That cant be you, when did you give the ugly stick back?" She rose to hug him.
"Ugly stick?" He pretended to be offended. "I was never ugly, a little ungainly maybe, but never ugly."
"Ungainly, hell, boy you were flat out klutzy," She continued to tease her cousin. "What happened?"
"I learned to surf," He grinned. "It does a body good."
"Sure does, bet the women chase you like hounds after a raccoon," Jessie attempted a severe southern accent.
"Coons," Laurel corrected. "The women must chase after him like hounds after a coon," She let her accent shine through again. They all laughed.
"Where did you learn to talk like that?" Michael asked. "That was a pretty good impression."
"Mississippi born and raised," Laurel answered simply.
"You dont sound Southern," He commented.
"Thank you," Laurel took that as a compliment. "See what public TV can do for you?"
"Oh, before I forget, Phil and Jay will be here in a few minutes. They called from the Garden District. Grandmother knows youre both here," She told them. She did not look happy with the revelation.
"And?" Nicole asked.
"I know nothing more than that," She shrugged. "Stan took over the conversation when I left."
"And theyll tell you the rest," Stan looked tired. He had still been awake when Laurel had ventured down into the game room, but had chosen to avoid her. He made it a policy to avoid people with deadly looks firmly planted on their faces.
Again they waited in silence. The grimness of the situation haunted them all, even the ones that were not born into the Herbert family. They thought of memories, though they did not share them. They thought of one another, the bonds that tied them together, and themselves. Every person at that table had been affected by the recent death, though none of them realized how much at that moment. Mourners must have time for grieving before understanding.
Phil and Jay did not announce their presence as customary. Instead they silently walked together into the courtyard and took seats around the table. Someone had foresight enough to located hard plastic lawn chairs and position them around the table next to the old wrought iron ones. They sat side by side holding one anothers hand.
"Well, the funeral is tomorrow afternoon," Phil broke the introspective silence. "Nicole, sweetie, I dont know how to tell you this," He paused as he looked at her sadly. His mournful brown eyes reminded Laurel of a basset hound.
"The priest wants you to do the eulogy," Jay finished for him. He preferred to break news all at once instead of dragging the suspense out like his partner preferred.
"The priest wants me to do one?" Nicole was confused. She had thought her grandmother would have made all of the arrangements.
"Adia left it up to him," Jay shrugged. "Kay gave him a list of people, and you and Phil were the chosen ones."
"Oh," She shaded the word perceptively. It translated various ways to each person present. To Laurel it meant that her lover was not looking forward to the funeral for yet another reason. To Nicole it meant simply: Oh shit.
They remained on the courtyard locked in endless conversation for several hours. Plans were made, stories were told and they all attempted to lighten the melancholy mood. Michael regaled them with tales of California and described what surfing felt like in detail to Stan and Jays great enjoyment. When the discussion turned to football and the chances of both the home team and the college teams, Sheryl and Nicole thought it was time for dinner.
"I can tell Im going to be a Monday night widow," Nicole whispered to her oldest friend.
"Ill be right there with you," Sheryl commented when Jessie threw her opinions in on the matter.
"Think we should interrupt the armchair coaches for dinner plans?"
"Yeah, we might as well," The critic shook her head. "If we want to eat or even get a chance to participate in the conversation we probably should."
"Something up?" Laurel had caught the faintest edges of the conversation between her lover and Sheryl.
"We hunger," Sheryl answered.
"Ah, ok," Laurel threaded her way back into the football conversation. "So, yall wanna go eat?"
"Sure," Stan was always hungry.
Not wishing to show the world a celebratory atmosphere, they headed back to the Napoleon House for dinner. Laurel was grateful. She had fallen in love with the restaurant on her previous visit. It was close to the Warehouse and the wait for a table was short. They were on the patio and looking at menus before they realized it.
"I just realized we missed lunch," Laurel muttered to her lover as she studied the menu in front of her.
"Yeah we did," It was a surprise to the photographer.
"Guess it makes up for that huge dinner we had last night," Laurel shrugged it off easily. The only time she ate regular meals was when Mandy had time to cook breakfast or dinner and made enough for the next meal.
"That it does," The photographer agreed. She was also not accustomed to eating the recommended three meals a day. "Have you decided?"
"Yeah, the gumbo sounds great. You?"
"Red beans and rice," Nicole smiled. She had fallen the love with this restaurant when she was in high school and had found nothing on the menu that she detested.
"Good." Nicole was dreading the funeral, but wanted to enjoy the dinner. Laurel seemed intent to make sure that she felt loved, protected and supported. It was working. They both appreciated the effect family, friends and comfort foods were working on their moods.