The Inside Out

by LA Tucker
©  2002


Part XV:  Strange and Stranger


(Author's note:  My deep and abiding thanks to my beta/ editor TK, who contributed enormously to the content and accuracy of the California flavor of this chapter.  I've never been to CA, and well, she, quite luckily for me, lives there, and quite ably and artfully covered my butt when my ignorance was showing.)

For disclaimers, see Part I

Chloe watched impatiently as people emerged onto the patio through the big double doors that opened from the air conditioned hotel out into the usual soft early morning fog of the beach cities.  She was once again sitting poolside, distractedly trying to enjoy her coffee.  She told a quietly attentive Marc that she was expecting a guest for breakfast, and that a carafe of coffee would be sufficient until her guest arrived.  She was dressed in her everyday casual summer wear, a pair of khaki shorts and a solid lemon colored V-necked shirt, with white crew socks and her scuffed sneakers. Although she was comfortably dressed, she was completely ill at ease and she couldn't keep her gaze fixed on the tranquil blue of the pool.  Every time she heard the doors swing open, and more people arrived out on the deck, her head pivoted around like a macaw watching a trainer with a peanut. It was only 7:30 in the morning, but Chloe had already been up for hours, her circadian rhythm still keeping Stonecreek time, steadfastly refusing to adjust to the whims of the movement of the sun here in the west, no matter how late in the day it chose to show itself at the beach  But she probably would have been sleepless anyway, for today was her meeting with Sandy, and she could hardly wait to talk to her. What she had to say  was going to be a surprise to Sandy, and Chloe was sure that her old girlfriend would be completely at a loss when Chloe unloaded everything she wanted and needed to get off her chest and out of her heart.

    Thankfully, Chloe was occupied fixing herself a fresh cup of coffee when Sandy finally did push her way through those doors.  It saved her the embarrassment of turning red before her guest arrived at the table. Sandy walked up and rested her hand on the back of a chair for a long moment, noticing how tanned and fit Chloe looked, and that the yellow of her shirt was very complimentary to the gold of the tan Chloe now sported.  So much different from just a mere week ago, when Sandy had seen her last.  Sandy smiled as she recognized the preoccupied look on the redblonde, who was gazing out over the pool as she stirred her coffee.

    Sandy took a deep breath and pulled out the chair and sat down, startling Chloe out of her reverie.  Chloe blinked and blushed, and then got a smile on her face that showed every single one of her deep dimples. "Hey, Strange."  Chloe said shyly, as Sandy pulled her chair up to the table.

    "Hi Stranger."  Sandy watched as Chloe grinned, pleased at the use of the old greetings they'd exchanged. Strange and Stranger, used often back in their college days, their lover days, when together they had discovered the joys of lesbian sex and torrid first love and both of them totally forgot about textbooks for nearly two semesters, until they got their heads screwed back on and concentrated once again on not flunking out of school.

    Chloe thought that Sandy looked a bit ill at ease too, which conversely helped Chloe to relax, but the small, tight lipped smile on the brunette's face was still quite friendly and captivating, even all these years later. "Want some coffee?  It's not Mr. Donut, but it's pretty good," Chloe offered.  Again, Chloe was referencing the past, something she hadn't had the time to do back in Stonecreek when there was no time for reminiscing.  She had decided to make that up to Sandy, right here, today, if Sandy gave her half the chance.

    Sandy slid her empty cup across the table to her, and watched as Chloe deftly filled it to a half an inch from the top. She held up a hand when Chloe next lifted the creamer container. "Just black."

    Chloe automatically replied, "Like God intended it."  She's here less than two minutes, and already we're strolling down memory lane. She handed Sandy her cup, and caught her eyes for a moment.  Oh, they're just like I remember them. Soft and so .. searching.

    Sandy carefully accepted her now very warm cup, and almost flinched in her effort to break eye contact with Chloe. Oh, this is soo hard. She took a tentative sip, waiting for Chloe to begin.  Of the two of them, Chloe had always been the flyaway talker, Sandy the confident doer.

    Chloe studied her breakfast companion and old lover for a moment, admiring the dark tank top that Sandy wore, appreciating the black jeans that looked tight, but not too tight. "You look great! I should have told you that last week, but you'll have to forgive me for that, I was a little ... uh, surprised by your visit. And on top of everything else that was going on, I just never had the time to ... reconnect, I guess."  Chloe stopped speaking, and took another sip of her coffee. She looked at Sandy again, who was now grinning at her like a wiseass stuck in the body of a darkhaired Anne Heche. "Get that smirk off your face." Chloe said crossly, not meaning a word of it. "You know I never had a normal day when we were ... back in college."  Chloe was hesitant to say 'when we were together'. Right now, she wanted the conversation light and then work her way to the intimate.

    Sandy wrinkled her nose at that and laughed. "No, you didn't. And once we got together, 'normal' was wiped right out of my dictionary too."  She laughed again as Chloe took a swipe at her arm with her linen napkin and she ducked away. "Missed me!"

    Chloe stopped her repeat swing, and pulled the napkin back into her lap.  She caught Sandy's eye again, and said softly. "Yeah. I did miss you."  She saw the sad frown of surprise the remark brought to Sandy's face, but was relieved to see that it disappeared just as quickly.

    Sandy cleared her throat, and replied with her own touch of sweetness. "Yeah, me too. I missed you too."

    Both women now found their surroundings of paramount interest as they looked away from each other and tried to gather their thoughts.

    Sandy spoke first, trying to lessen the awkwardness between them. "So, is it written in stone that we have to eat breakfast here?  I have that appointment at 9, and well, since you're coming with me, maybe we can catch something there to eat.  There's tons of places to eat, all types of food ..."  She looked hopefully at Chloe, and saw her stiffen a bit. Puzzled, she leaned across the table, tapping her finger on Chloe's coffee cup. "You are still coming? I thought we'd make a day of it, I know you wanted to see the Promenade, do some shopping. Well, the appointment shouldn't take more than two hours at the very most, and then we can do the Boardwalk..."

    Chloe pushed her cup away, and clutched it between her fingertips for strength, and to give them something to do. "Well, uh ..."

    Sandy sat back in her chair, and asked, "What is it?  Go on, tell me."

    Chloe lost all hope of keeping any eye contact.  She saw Marc approaching the table, and she shook her head at him, and he pulled up, smiled, and turned back to return to his station. She watched him depart, feeling Sandy's eyes zeroing in upon her. It's now or never. "Sandy. I'm not sure yet about me going with you.  You might not like what I have to say."  She was now inspecting the juice cart on her far left. "But I have to say it now, while it's early, and well, there's something I need to tell you, to say to you."  She frowned in indecision as she turned her attention to her half empty cup of rapidly cooling coffee.

    Sandy, not knowing what to expect from the redhead across from her because she never had before, murmured encouragingly to her. "Go ahead, Chloe. Just say it."

    Chloe finished off the last of her coffee in two hurried gulps, and then looked up at the woman who had so passionately shared the experience of first love with her. "Sandy, I wanted to tell you that ... I still love you."  She saw the ghost of a smile twitch across Sandy's face, and for a moment, the past was the present, and Chloe felt that emotion wholeheartedly as her heart picked up its pace. "I love you, and ... you can't come to Stonecreek."

    Sandy's smile faded and she gave a quick, perplexed shake of her head. "Excuse me? What?" She croaked a little in her surprise.

    "I should have told you this before, last week, actually, but it really didn't hit me until you'd already left, and by then I knew that it was something I couldn't just do over the phone, and since I ended up coming out here anyway, it seemed ..."  Chloe felt nearly breathless trying to get all the words out at once, so that the troubled look on Sandy's face would go away. "I tried to call you the other night, but your line was busy for hours, I was going to tell you then, but ... God, Sandy, you know what a coward I am. I'm nothing but a friggin' little coward.  I'm glad I couldn't get in touch with you the other night because telling you over the phone, well, it would have been like, like ..."

    Sandy's eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed at the memory Chloe had just evoked. "Like how you broke up with me over the phone six years ago... Yeah, I remember that very well."

    Chloe lifted her hands upward in a sign of capitulation. "I know, I was a coward then, and I decided that now, now I can't be a coward any more. I've got hearts to protect, not the least yours, but Sara's, and mine."  Chloe started feeling more desperate to get it all out, because she had been holding this conversation in her head for so long that it was a massive relief to say the words out loud to the person who had to hear them. "So, I needed to tell you that I care for you, I'll always love you, but .. you can't move to Stonecreek.  And if you still want to, well, I can't - I won't be able to be a part of your life. A friend, or whatever.  It wouldn't be fair to Sara, or to me, to have someone ... who meant so much to me ... in our everyday lives.  I've always thought it was the adult thing to do, to try and remain friends with your ex's, but, believe me, I've thought this through so many times, and it just wouldn't work, and I want this thing to work with Sara, and there's so many other damned distractions in our lives ..."

    She stopped to take in another breath, and waited for Sandy to say something. Sandy was still staring at her, with the oddest bemused smile on her face, so she just toiled forward. "So, here I am, telling you in person. Being brave for once, or maybe cruel, I don't know what you think. I'm sorry, Sandy, I don't know what you expected, but ... I will not, can not let anything jeopardize the relationship I have with Sara. Right now, it's so ... iffy ... what with me just hopping a plane out here ... she's so mad at me, she hasn't even tried to call. But I want you to know, this was NOT her idea. Not one bit. It was all mine. All me. And well ... I loved you once, Sandy, and I let you get away because I was so afraid. But I am NOT going to let that happen with Sara."

    Sandy had leaned back in her chair, and crossed her arms across her chest. "Chloe." she said, hoping to center Chloe on the here and now, and not what was troubling her back in Stonecreek. There was no response, so she tried again. "Chloe."

    Chloe felt as though she had just killed an ally by friendly fire. She looked up and saw the quiet expression of understanding in Sandy's eyes . It was something she hadn't expected to see there. "Yeah?"  It was barely 8 AM in the morning, and she already felt exhausted.

    Sandy leaned across the small table, and laid her hand softly on Chloe's. "Chloe. Listen to me. My turn to talk."

    Chloe was expecting the worst, and here it was, coming right at her. She braced herself. "OK, go ahead."

    Sandy got the merest hint of a smile, just to reassure Chloe that it wasn't going to be bad. "Chloe, I'm NOT coming to Stonecreek."

    Chloe blinked. "Huh?"

    Sandy's smile got a little bigger. "I'm NOT moving to Stonecreek. I'm staying right here  Well, for the time being, at least."

    Chloe blanched, and almost stuck her pinkie in her ear to clean it out. "Uh, OK. But ..."

    Sandy's smile bloomed all the way. "If I would have known you were torturing yourself like this,  I would have canceled my trip to Palm Springs with Rose and been back here in a flash. I'm sorry you couldn't tell me sooner, but on the other hand, I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."

    Chloe was reduced to reacting like a tongue-tied fool. "You changed your mind?" she finally squeaked out when she got her tongue pulled out of the knot it was in.

    Sandy whooped so loud, the patrons there on the patio all looked up at them from their breakfasts with sleepy curiosity. "God, I've missed you. You know what?  I'll never be able to figure you out, your crazy head, I never knew what you were going to come up with next ..."  She smiled affectionately at Chloe. "This is such a stupid mess." She snorted, and playfully rolled her eyes at her ex-love.

    Chloe was struck with a case of instantaneous lockjaw. She rubbed at her eyes and pushed out a sigh, and then sighed again in disbelief.  The moment of truth had come and gone, and no one was laying bleeding on the tiled floor. She slumped back into her seat, and in a combination of utter relief and frustrated consternation, she threw her wadded cloth napkin straight up, high into the air, and they both watched as it slowly descended in the morning breeze onto to the ground beside the table.

    They both laughed now, and began talking animatedly, letting the strength of their newfound understanding pave the way as their former bond as lovers gently receded into ancient history, until it was firmly but a fond and cherished remembrance.

    The rotund man with the graying, close cropped beard leaned over Sandy's shoulder, peering into the mirror in front of them. He lifted her hair here and there as he spoke to her reflection. "You, honeybun, just need a smidge of a trim. You've got a few uneven spots here and there, I'm starting to think the hair on this side of your head," and he lifted it there, "grows faster than this side."  They traded amused grins in the mirror.

He sighed, and swung the chair around so he could see her face to face. "You're no challenge anymore. It's snip, snip, done, and I have you down for the next two hours. What are we going to do for that long?"

    Sandy just shrugged at him, grinned again into his perpetually gleaming and mischievous dark eyes. "Gossip, like we usually do?"

    He put his hands on his hips. "I've been out of town for the last two weeks. Gossip, I have none. Unless you want to hear about my family reunion in Des Moines, and how I think everyone in my cousin's immediate family is going to start their own cult.  But in my family, that's not news, that's the norm!"

    They both laughed and Sandy glanced over at Chloe across the salon's small but opulent space.  Chloe was engrossed in reading a copy of Variety; she'd never read one before, and she was fascinated.

    He lifted his eyebrows suggestively.  "Who's your friend?  Or is she more?  Did you and Rose finally go your separate ways?  She discover you're a hopeless amateur in the sack?" Sandy kicked out at him, and he agilely hopped back to avoid her flying foot. "Whoa there! I was just kidding you, kiddo. No really, she doesn't look local." He moved in closer, and they both surreptitiously looked at Chloe as they began whispering about her.

    "Rose and I worked things out. Chloe's an ex, we're just spending the day together. No, she's not local, she's from Pennsylvania."

    He nodded, leaning in behind her and turning her chair so they could both look at Chloe together. "That explains it."

    "Explains what?"

    "The haircut ... looks like it was done by a Flowbee ... and the eyebrows!  Just like the hedges around my house."  He bit his lip as he looked more closely, and an idea formed in his mind. "She's just this close to ..."

    Sandy peered from her chair, and tried to see Chloe how he was seeing her, and didn't get it. Chloe, as always, looked just terrific to her. But Chuck was a wizard with hair, and with other things, too, so she acceded to his better judgment. "This close to what?"

    He got a conspiratorial smile on his face, pulled the protective gown unceremoniously from around Sandy's shoulders, and tucked it over his arm. She looked at him, startled, but he tilted his face in Chloe's unsuspecting direction and started moving towards her. "Magic.  This close to magic, Sandra, my darling."

    Chloe's eyes slowly rose up from the magazine she was reading, to see Chuck, also known as Reynaldo of Redondo, and Sandy both standing over her, wiggling their eyebrows at her and smiling.


    Two and a half hours - and one very ticked off real estate agent who was upset to be kept waiting for her own appointment -  later, Chuck and Sandy finally were ready to allow Chloe to see the results of their collaboration in a mirror.  But not until they had discussed it one more time, as though she was a show bull at the state fair.

    Chuck had slung a black cloth over the large mirror in front of the chair where Chloe was sitting, well, actually cringing and whining for at least the last hour or so.  Before that, she'd been caught up in the mystery of it all, but when he hadn't stopped after fussing with her hair, her curiosity was nagging at her like a blister in a pair of uncomfortable shoes.  She'd not seen the results of one thing that he'd done, and all the delighted exclamations from Sandy along the way didn't do anything to reassure her in the slightest.

    Chuck slowly twirled her around in the chair for the millionth time, and kept lifting and tucking, smoothing and soothing.  He finally stood back, and Sandy stood next to him.  They both struck the same pose, hands on hips, seriously studying the results.

    "Well?" fumed Chloe, not having fun anymore.

    Sandy's eyes widened. She cuffed Chuck in the shoulder. "You're a genius. An absolute frickin' genius."

    He smiled at her, then at Chloe.  "Yes I am." he most unhumbly agreed.

    Chloe humphed. "WELL?"

    Chuck pursed his lips. "What do you think, Sandy?  Is she ready to witness the perfection that I do?"

    Sandy bit her lip, and gave Chloe a quick apologetic smile. "The real question is, is the world ready for her?"

    "Well, I'm ready to see what atrocities have been performed on me, so, like, can we get this over with?" Chloe grumped, but in reality, she was kind of excited too.

    Chuck sighed. "I create perfection, and then it always leaves. Now I know how upset God must have been with Adam and Eve.  Are you sure you have to go back to Pennsylvania?  I was thinking of offering you a job as a live model for my front window ..."

    Chloe gave him her most menacing glare, the one she usually saved to intimidate the birds in the trees just after she'd washed the Subaru.

    "OK, I give!" he chuckled, as he moved towards her and turned her chair to face the covered mirror.  "Ready Freddy?"  He moved to where the gown was covering the mirror. He held the edge of it in his hand, waiting for her assent, as Sandy moved to the right of her, out of the way, so Chloe would get an unencumbered view.

    Chloe gulped, and blinked her eyes. "Ready as I'll ever be."

    Chuck did a mini countdown. "Three ... two ... ONE!"  Down came the gown from the mirror, and then Chloe audibly gasped as she recognized the stranger in the mirror. It was her ...and she looked ...


      It was now past noon, and after grabbing a quick lunch in the open patio of a corner cafe that was named after a big aquatic reptile, Sandy impatiently began dragging Chloe into the small, exotic and pricey boutiques scattered all over the Promenade. When she found Chloe admiring a soft and intricately hand tooled leather belt adorned with bits of silver, she laughed and then showed her the discrete price tag. $400.

    "Tell me again why we're in a store that charges more for a belt than I pay in mortgage payments in a month?" Chloe grimaced.

    Sandy was already going through a rack of blouses and low cut T's. "Because you need to complete the look. And not everything, " she pulled out a short, dark and glossy tank top from the rack and held it up in front of Chloe, pushing it against her shoulders to take in the overall affect, "is obscenely priced. There's designer stuff in here, extremely cheap, well, probably more than you're used to spending, but all in all, some great buys.  We can't have you going around looking like Suzy Co-ed any more."  When she saw the mildly insulted frown on Chloe's face, she snickered and pushed Chloe in front of a nearby mirror and held the garment up again, so Chloe could see. "There. You see the difference?"  She pulled the shirt away, and revealed Chloe as she was dressed, in sunshiny, kindergarten teacher simplicity,  "The old you. Or ..." and then held the top in front of her again.

    Chloe stared into the mirror, and studied her reflection, and then took the hanger from Sandy's hand, and held it against her chest and looked again. "Or the new me ..."  she allowed, and then, with credit card flashing in boutique after boutique, bought a new, and yet not too wildly expensive wardrobe to reflect the new that was her.

    The short walk from the parking lot across busy ocean Avenue, through the cliffside park and down to the long and colorful pier below settled their shopping high nicely.  They'd walked halfway down the pier out over the water, past the souvenir stores full of traditional cheap and tacky items that were beyond Chloe's tastes just now. Maybe some postcards, but later. At the moment they were leaning on their forearms, resting against the pier's metal railing and watching the melting pot worth of people fishing over the side from the platform several steps below them, with everything from expensive deep sea rods and tackle to empty soda cans wound with line. Chloe smiled in vicarious delight when a little boy of 11 or so pulled hard on his cola can, his face a portrait in victory as up came a small surf perch. The off shore breeze was steady and cool up on the pier but not cold; just enough to offset the heat from the sun's bright presence overhead. The intense light reflected off of the top edges of the steady ranks of swells out in the deeper, darker blue green of the Pacific continued making interesting after image patterns on Chloe's retinas.  She closed her eyes to take in another long breath of the brisk ocean air, savoring the clean smell of water, salt and sand.  And the occasional whiff of Pina Colada scented sunscreen.

    By the unspoken mutual assent common to old friends, after a few minutes of quiet lounging, observing the surfers below in the water, they turned to head back to the shore. Chloe looked over her shoulder at the most persistent of the bold, colorful gulls that had come up to hover on the wind mere feet from their faces, their brightly colored eyes searching the humans as if checking for signs of concealed bits of hot dogs or fries.  Chloe had seen them grab these morsels out of the air and even more boldly from the fingers of the string of tourists a few yards farther down the same railing as they were propped against. She waved goodbye at the bravest one that had settled searchingly next to them, and he rose up effortlessly on air caught expertly under his wings, his gaze following Chloe with a tiny flame of hope still burning.

    As they back tracked past the shops and moved from the concrete to the heavy wood of the original pier, Chloe slowed, hesitated and then came to a complete stop, intrigued by the same thing that had caught her eye before the first time past. Sandy soon enough realized she was talking to herself and turned to see the librarian transfixed and oblivious, and went back to retrieve her. She came up behind Chloe and leaned into her shoulder from behind, and she didn't budge.

    "Okay," Sandy acquiesced, familiar enough with her friend to recognize that the wheels were spinning, "Are you gonna go for it?" She waited patiently for an answer. The grunt of indecision prompted her to offer her own opinion.  "I think you should go with the dragon.  It's very Japanese, and it probably has some kind of deep meaning behind it, which I'm sure he would be happy to explain." The 'he' that Sandy was referring to was a man who was busy helping another customer right now, leaving Chloe and Sandy to contemplate things in peace.

    "Isn't he ... Jerry Garcia?"  mumbled Chloe, as she looked at the fascinating things on display.

    "Hey, watch your mouth, Pilgrim, Jerry died." Sandy elbowed her, and grinned. "No, listen, I really like the dragon, whattya think?"

    Chloe demurred. "There's just ... something about dragons that gives me the creeps. You know, like how you get grossed out by squid? I love 'em, and you think they're all slimy and ..."

    Sandy held up her hand. "Say no more. But this Japanese stuff, you have to agree, it's nice."

    Something about Japan itself didn't sit well with Chloe either. It gave her the oddest depressed and ... abandoned feeling. She cleared her throat. "Let's skip Japan. Don't ask me to explain why, I just know I don't want to go there, OK?"

    Something in Chloe's tone made Sandy back down. "Oh, alright, but how about this?"

    But Chloe had already moved away from her, and her eyes had found something that seemed just right. Perfectly right.

    Sandy moved down to see what she was looking at. "Hey, that's kinda nice, and it's deceptively simple, too."

    Chloe never took her eyes away from it. "It's perfect. This is the one. This one holds some ... significance for me."

    The Jerry Garcia clone finally made his way over to them. He smiled, his rough features brightening in a mellow kind of way. "So ladies, made a decision yet?"

    Chloe pointed at her choice and said with a certainty. "Yup. That one."

    "A very fine choice for a such a beautiful lady."

    Chloe blushed, and tilted her head towards Sandy. "It was her idea. So I'm blaming the whole thing on her."

    The man didn't have the slightest idea what she meant, but he knew he had a sale in hand.

    Chloe was now quite pleased that she'd let Sandy talk her into the one hour bike rental. The sporty purple, blue and yellow mountain bike was growing on her; she'd forgotten the pure joy that came from the cadence of her legs working the pedals, which on this modern steed with it's 21 gears was practically effortless. The two lane bike path wound down through the Santa Monica Beach to Venice Beach, which Chloe had heard about and decided she wanted to see after all when told it was only a few minutes down the concrete path. They rode shoulder to shoulder, past the new Muscle Beach gymnastics equipment, grassy park areas and palm trees and scattered parking lots to the left and vast, deep sand beach to the right. They were moving at an even clip, but easily enough that they continued their conversation without any diversion.

Well, except for the steady stream of gorgeous bodies on bikes of all kinds and long limbed tanned roller bladers that continually caught Chloe's gaze, especially the one who sailed out of a rest stop and across the bike path to stop right in the middle of a miffed Chloe's lane, cell phone held tight to one ear while gazing down at her skates, oblivious to traffic. They went deftly around and left her behind to other riders, and Chloe's raised eyebrows brought only a shoulder shrug from Sandy. A racing bike zoomed past on their left, the female rider's tight and perfect rear encased in sleek, black and very snug biking shorts tucked over a tiny saddle, her long brunette hair blowing back from under the slick looking helmet.  Chloe's eyes zeroed in appreciatively on the speeding brunette, but soon enough she had followed Sandy's lead in coping with the traffic, and slipped back into the zone of cadence, rhythm, and the pleasure of sweeping movement, the breeze at their backs giving them a gentle push and letting the sun's rays beat down a little warmer.

    The Venice Beach Boardwalk was a revelation. The trip down had taken them past the odd homeless person encampment, lots of people with tattoos seemingly over large expanses of their bodies, moms and dads riding bikes that pulled special little tent like trailers with the kids inside behind. Past a skateboard park that had guys doing things that Chloe could hardly bear to watch, she was so sure bones would be broken at any moment, and not a few people who looked really, really familiar. She was certain she'd seen George Clooney going the other way on roller blades in a ratty tee shirt and baggy shorts and a ballcap on backwards, and Sandy had just smiled at her. She knew for sure she'd seen Julia Roberts, but chose not to mention it. As they came to a long, tall row of old, skinny buildings, Sandy slowed and took a side trail that led them off of the path and down to the boardwalk, which was really asphalt. The stores were eclectic and the groups of people wandering both directions more so. They dismounted their bikes and walked them, the better to window shop without mowing down pedestrians. Music blared from some shops, incense drifted from others, and there was something mildly surreal about the whole avenue and throngs of people. It seemed foreign and yet somehow familiar. Chloe was picking up a pattern: jewelry shop, dubious eatery, boutique, tattoo parlor, sunglasses and tourist stuff, T shirts; and then it started all over again. The third shop for sunglasses caught her eye. It was a corner of the building store, and there was a big mural along that whole side of the building. It was the dolphins that caught her eye.

    "Can we stop in here real quick?" she asked her tour guide companion.

   Sandy looked up the steps and in through the store's open front door.  "Yeah, but we gotta keep an eye on the bikes."

   They leaned them tightly together up against the metal railing so they'd at least look locked, and climbed the stairs and strolled inside. Chloe immediately headed for the Ray Bans, then was caught by the awesome display of Oakleys. Naw, too wild. And she didn't ski or have a boat.

"When's your flight?"  Sandy asked, perusing a shelf display full of exotic and expensive shades.

"6 AM on Saturday.  I have a long layover in Chicago."

"Long enough to take in a Cubs game?"

"Oh, I wish!  I don't know if they're in town, but I know I don't have enough time for me to be getting lost in Chicago."

"Still a fan?"

"You know it, " Chloe replied dreamily, "but I sure miss Harry Carrey.  He made those games on TV for me." She'd moved back to the Ray Bans, and was fondling a pair with some interest.

"I know. I bet you cried when he died." By the stricken look on Chloe's face, Sandy knew that she had done just that. "So, have you decided to call Sara tonight?" She had moved sideways to check out another display.

"I've tried a few times, I think she's just not answering.  To tell you the truth, I don't know what kind of reception I'll be getting when I get back there.  I may get a parade, I may get the cold shoulder."  Her face twisted, not happy at the thought. "But somehow, I think whatever I expect, it will be all wrong. Now I'm nervous about going back."  She got a weak smile on her face. "You suppose I can just stay here until I find out?"  She absently stroked the earpiece of a pair of  delicate platinum frame wraparounds she'd pulled from the display one over from Sandy.

Sandy laughed. "And here I thought you were the new, improved and brave Chloe Donahue. No more coward, right?  No more hemming and hawing?  Poised, dangerously determined not to be so middle of the road anymore."  She gave Chloe a long look. "Hell, you don't LOOK middle of the road anymore, kiddo, you look ..."

"Don't say it, I don't wanna know. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to this hair."  She ran a hand through it, and frowned. "But I like it, it does sort of suit me, or rather the twin sister I never knew I had." She slipped the shades in her hand over her eyes and looked at the now polarized brunette.  She saw Sandy's returning grin. "Not exactly Foster Grants, are they?"  She paused, and then got back to the topic at hand. "And I suppose I'm just being insecure on whether Sara will like it.  But my looks are the least of my worries with her, she may not like me for other reasons. But I hope I can ... show her that this trip wasn't just about me spending money, although it sure seems that way."  She laughed, knowing that Sandy's car trunk was jammed full with her purchases just from today.  "I still can't believe you have the same exact red Miata that Marcy drives!  Who knew you two had the same tastes? Scary thought!," she teased as Sandy's face turned into a disgruntled scowl.

"Well, we both had the good taste to pick you to be around. Either that, or we're both equally insane." Sandy winked at her.

"And speaking of equally insane, who'da thunk you and I would both do the desperation 'run away's, too!

"Run away! Run away!" Sandy replied in her very best Monty Python voice. They both giggled. "By the way, I think those are perfect for you. They look cool with your hair, and they're just the right size for your face."

Chloe looked in the mirror over the display for a very long moment, thinking she looked a little like Batgirl, but deciding that wasn't such a bad thing. She then gently pulled them off, and carefully checked the price tag. Her eyes widened a bit, but her mouth firmed into a line, and, winking at Sandy, she slipped them back on and sauntered on over to the register, with a few smooth practice flips up on the way. She could almost imagine the Batsignal shining high in Stonecreek's black night sky. Yep, they'd do nicely indeed.

Chloe took a long look around her as they rode back the way they'd come, only this time slower because they were peddling against the wind, and now into the sun, so she was already appreciating the new sunglasses.  "So, you're only going to be here -- with all of this -- another six months, huh?  You're moving for someone, that's a new one. Now, get that look off your face, I'm just kidding. And so far away, too. I never would have thought ..."

"Maybe this sounds vaguely familiar to you, maybe not,"  Sandy challenged her with a soft smile, "but guess what? you're not the only one who gets confused. I know you think you have a corner on that market, but you don't. Oh, you may be the Queen, but I'm not far behind in some ways.  I know I used that idea of moving to Stonecreek as an excuse to leave Rose before she left me. Really adult, I know. But my history with women, ah, well, I just didn't want to be the one left behind this time. I wanted to haul ass and leave before I could watch her pack up and leave for Honolulu. Sit and lick my wounds with an old friend in Stonecreek."  She saw Chloe roll her eyes. "Well, I never said I was good at relationships!  Well, maybe I am better than you.  But when Rose didn't even ask me to go with her, my ego just couldn't handle it."

"You don't live together, right?"  Chloe swerved her bike around a rollerbladed couple smooching in their lane.

"No, but we probably should have. But we just never did make that step. So she gets the job offer in Hawaii, and since we didn't have anything, I don't know, written in stone, I just thought she was leaving me behind. She didn't ask me because she was positive I'd say no, and I didn't ask her because I thought she didn't want me to go. Great communication skills, huh?  So I hop a plane, and end up in Stonecreek, thinking it would be the perfect solution to my broken heart. Shows how smart I am!  Hey, at least all those job interviews I had, I can write off the whole trip on my taxes!"  Sandy clicked her bike's right shifter down a couple of notches to make the slight grade easier. Chloe noticed and did the same.

"Ever the business minded schnook you are, Sandra."  Chloe wryly noted. "You think you're going to like Hawaii?"

"Don't know. Don't care! I'll be with Rose, that's what counts."  A small blush worked it's way up Sandy's neck and into her cheeks. "And come to think of it, who would have thought the business weinerhead would turn into a sappy romantic?"  She felt the blush spread, but was enjoying it, because it came from a source of happiness. "What about you? Know what you're going to do yet when you get home?"

They picked up some speed and shifted up again, and Chloe started peddling a bit faster, pulling slightly ahead of Sandy, as if her subconscious felt it could somehow get her home sooner. "Well, for one, I'm going to start playing the daily number every day. Just so I can win some money and pay this trip off over the next 10 years. And two, I'm going to drag Sara down to that bank, force them at gunpoint to give us a mortgage, elope with her to a justice of the peace who can be bribed, and then get myself measured for a ball and chain that I never intend to try and take off!"  A very pleased smile erupted on her face. "And then I can take over the world!  First, as mayor of Stonecreek, then Governor of Pennsyltucky, then, who knows, maybe I'll start my own production company and swallow Hollywood whole! "  She definitely was having fun watching Sandy's eyes get bigger and bigger at all her wild declarations. She took a breath and started again. "Well, definitely the house. The mortgage. Sell my house. Then get my butt to teaching at Glenhurst. Then, well, we have to look at the money situation, you know that the library may go belly up, but I'm thinking if it does, it may be a godsend for me."

Sandy looked at her quizzically. "You want the library to close? Wait a minute, I thought there was all kinds of machinations going on in your behalf to save the library!"

"I do want to save the library, I do. But I'm not so sure I want to be a librarian anymore. I'll do everything I can to help save the library, because the town needs it, all towns do, but I'm not so concerned about my job there anymore. I think I may want to do something else."

Sandy coasted a little before she replied, with grinning sarcasm, "Taxidermy?  Lifeguard at the Y? No, wait!  Night clerk at the Ramada Inn?"

"No, smartass." Chloe admonished, giving Sandy a dirty look.  "I was thinking of getting my Masters. In the 'theh-tuh' arts. And then go onward and upward from there. Maybe teach at a local college, maybe try and work with the local theatre community.  Erie has a terrific playhouse, and a couple of small venues where I could direct some day.  Glenhurst has a huge performing arts program that's getting bigger all the time. Some alumni just donated two million dollars to their music program. There's dance, theatre, performing arts, you name it. I don't know why I didn't think of this before.  I mean, I love being a librarian, I do, but I spend every week during most of the school year looking forward to Thursdays when I teach drama at Fort Lafayette. And I really feel my best, my most powerful and ... potent, when Spring comes around and I get to kill myself with the senior class play.  I absolutely live for those times.  Sometimes it feels like the rest of the year I'm just treading water."  She moved her bike closer to Sandy to let a huge family of newbie rollerbladers going the opposite direction have more room.

"But if you aren't working as a librarian, then what? What about an income?"

Chloe bit her lower lip, and coasted on her bike. "That's the hard part. There's the kicker. I would probably still work part-time at Fort Lafayette while I'm getting my degree, probably work another part time job, but the load would be on ... Sara.  And there's student loans, of course. Those would help. Lots of them, ones that I would still be paying off after I'm in the ground for 10 years. But yeah, I'm afraid the bulk of the responsibility for finances would be on Sara. And I'm not sure..."

Sandy held up a hand. "Whoa, wait a minute. This is too weird!"  Her brows furrowed, and she gave Chloe a long sideways look. "Coupla things here, before your imagination runs off with you. First, let me just say, right here and now, that I think, wow, do you know what you're saying?  YOU, Chloe Donahue, want to let someone HELP you with your life?  You wouldn't be in complete control, calling all the shots?"  She saw Chloe shyly grin in agreement. "You trust someone that much? Wow, wow, wow. You must really be in love, Stranger. You're the one who didn't trust me to be able to pick out a good candy bar in a convenience store for you."  She saw Chloe's surprised expression to that statement, and then another smile of recognition and agreement. "And number two, would Sara even want to do that for you? I mean, after ... well, your 'run away'?"

"You ran away, too, Strange, and look how things turned out for you. You're moving to Paradise with Rose, you just told me you didn't care what you did there ..."  Chloe saw the pier in the near distance and picked up her speed a bit. They were getting close to the end of their ride.  And somehow closer to home.

"I was just babbling," Sandy explained, matching her pace. "I know I can get a job there, Chloe, I've got a high demand profession. I was just being a romantic for a second, knowing perfectly well that I have something to fall back on ..."

"I have something to fall back on, too, Sandy. Not just Sara, but ... Marcy, Dave and Nelson. Doris. The whole town." Chloe said decisively, and her small grin started turning into a full fledged smile. "And when Marcy finally pops and has the baby, then I'll have a little niece or nephew that I can sell off for child labor."  She chuckled. "But I'm going to have to talk to Sara. Sit down and have a long, long talk with her, and keep talking to her.  I know this trip has been good for me, but detrimental to our relationship. So I've got a lot of work to do. How much remains to be seen. But I know if I can get her to forgive me, to trust me again, and prove to her that I love her and want her without question, then, maybe this will all work out.  Maybe we can both do what we want to do, and help each other along the way."  She saw the shadow of doubt lingering on Sandy's face. "But on the other hand, Stonecreek and it's inhabitants are a pretty nutty bunch.  Who knows how this will all turn out?"  She laughed again, this time because Sandy was making a one fingered circular motion around her ear, displaying her understanding that she knew the people there were loony.

"So, you gonna call her?"

Chloe blew out a breath of regret. "I think this should all wait until I can tell her in person. Enough phone talk. I'm going to kiss her lips off her face, tackle her into a compromising position, have my way with her until she's begging for mercy, beg her forgiveness and then hit her with everything I've been thinking. I know she loves me,  I know it."  She said it as though she was trying to convince herself just as much, if not more, than her skeptical ex-lover.

Sandy hated to throw a wet blanket on Chloe's show of dogged and optimistic determination, but she had to say it. "I really hope she does, Chloe. I hope she loves you ... enough."

Chloe didn't reply, but the smile on her lips faded to a faint, thoughtful curve as she looked off into the bright blue of the California sky, and made a fervent wish that Sandy had a bit of the gift of prophecy.

Continued in Part XVI

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