The Inside Out

by LA Tucker © 2002

Part XVII : Planes,  Refrains, and Automobiles

For disclaimers, see Part I

The businessman stretched his long, tired form back into the cramped economy seat, incredibly glad to be going home to Cleveland. It had been a long, tedious week of negotiations with his clients, and they didn't seem any more inclined to purchase his software now than he had before he had made the trip. It was a lousy deal being a salesman. So many negotiations now took place with conference calls and emails that he rarely got out of his office to actually make face to face contact with prospective buyers.  Most deals were struck with little glad-handing or wining and dining, and although he liked getting out and meeting folks, he was secretly pleased that he wasn't required to travel very often anymore, and this disappointing week spent in daily meetings and stuck nightly in the confines of a no frills hotel was grinding on him.  He hadn't slept well all week, and he was looking forward to getting home.

He glanced over to the woman on his left, and she smiled at him.  He would have spoken to her, at least the minimal amount of polite chatty conversation, if she had made any overtures to do so.  But once the aircraft was in flight, she had pulled out her laptop computer, and put a cord in it, and tucked ear buds into her ears.  He opened his paperback book, and pretty much prepared to forget about her for the rest of the flight, except for the minor interruptions of the beverage cart going by.

He'd found his bookmarked place, and began reading.  He was a chapter or so into the book when he felt the woman next to him stirring, so he looked across, and saw her putting a disc into the CD tray on her computer. He went back to his interrupted paragraph.  Moments later, it began.

First he had heard the tinny playback of music reverberating just barely audible above the sound of the plane's engines.  He listened, concentrating on the familiar sound of the tune.  He couldn't quite discern what it was, and it was playing much too low for him to make out more than a few notes. It was mildly irritating him, but he ignored it, and went back to his book. Not long afterward, he heard a softly keening voice begin singing,  or droning, or whatever is was, it was not pleasant. He looked at the woman, who was blithely singing along, her eyes closed and her pretty face brightening with pleasure as she sang.

"Good mornin', good morn-in', we've talked the whole night through, good mornin' good mornin' to you!  ...  Good mornin, good morn-in ...'"

It was going to be a very long flight indeed.

After a short pow-wow in the D'Amico's kitchen, Dave, Marcy and Nelson had come to the conclusion that maybe the karaoke machine wasn't such a great idea after all, especially with the news of  the inclement weather that was now heading east, right across the town of Stonecreek's path.  The Weather Channel was on in the living room and all three kept checking it as the day wore on. The clouds started arriving around 4 PM, and were so dark and ominous that many golfers scurried off the course without finishing their rounds.  An hour later, the course was deserted, and lightning began flashing, thunder rumbling, and Dave had a smile so wide on his face that it extended way past the exaggeration of 'ear to ear.' He was sitting out on the porch, watching the storm move in.

"Yes! Yes yes yes!" he kept booming, right along with every rumble of thunder, egging the storm on.  BA-BOOM!! "Yes!!  Yes! Yes!"

Sara, lounging in the living room, watching the local updates on the television, rolled her eyes at Marcy. "You're going to marry that idiot?" she asked drolly.

Marcy was slumped uncomfortably on the couch, and she let out a long sigh. "I suppose I have to. I mean, well, he is the father of this child."  She rubbed her belly. "Unless I could convince him that I had a tryst with the Exxon guy or something."

"Paul. Tell him it's Paul's." said Sara, snarkily.  A couch cushion came sailing her way, and she deftly caught it, and laughed. She saw the yellow and orange on the weather map on the screen, dotted with areas of red. "Wow, look at that.  More big storms, coming this way. Within the next few hours."

Marcy nodded, and scratched an itchy knee. "I wonder how many will show up for this thing tonight?  I've already gotten at least ten phone calls, canceling.  Seems they want to hunker down in their basements or something."  She snorted. "Sissies."

"That many, huh? How many does that leave us?"

Marcy did some calculations with her brain calculator, tapping her numbers onto her forehead. "Let's see, oh, around twenty or thirty. Depending on how many drag people along that weren't invited, or the people who don't bother to call because they think we're mind readers, and can figure it out on our own that they're not gonna show. Hey, look, there's Vivian!"  Marcy had turned her eyes back to the TV, and noticed her favorite weather person on the screen. "Vivian is so cool, don'tcha think?"

Sara looked too, and openly admired the dark woman on the screen. "Yeah. Is it just me, or do they always have her dressed in red?"

"Come to think of it, she does wear a lot of red, doesn't she?  Looks great on her. Me, I look like a huge tomato."

"Even more so, now that you're preggers, huh, Marse."  Sara had decided hours ago that the best way for her to get through this day, waiting for Chloe's arrival, would be to put on her happiest face, and pester the hell out of Marcy all day. So far, it was working well, and Marcy , although cranky, was taking it all in stride. Marcy knew Sara was anxious, so the last thing she wanted to do was upset her. Sara had been mercilessly teasing her, mostly light and good-natured ribbing, and Marcy could handle that just fine if it kept Sara's anxiety level down to a low roar.

"Shaddap, you."  Marcy stretched, as a bright flash of lightning lit up the living room through the opened drapes. She started her slow climb to a standing position, and finally became upright, as Sara watched, smirking, from the recliner. "Wait until it's your turn, smartass. Wait 'til you're with child. Let's see who's laughing,then!" Marcy taunted.


"Yes! Alright!" Dave's cheering voice answered from his lookout on the porch.

Ignoring Dave's exhortations, Sara responded adamantly to Marcy's insinuations.  "Whoa!  Not me, not ever! I eat children for breakfast," Sara snickered. "And that one you have, well, I won't even be around it until it's older and gets an allowance, so I can borrow change from him for the pop machines. Before that, what good are they?  They don't know how to use a microwave,  change an oil filter, or tell a good Spielberg movie from a bad one. Send me your kid when she hits, oh, 13 or so, and can hand me the right tools. Before then ... no way!"

"Uh huh." said Marcy, not believing a word of it, except for the borrowing change part.

"Uh huh what?"

"Just wait is all."

"For what?"  Sara knew exactly what Marcy was inferring, but she wouldn't give in.

"Your turn. Your biological clock has to go off some time, Sara.  You'll wake up one morning, and all you'll be able to think about is how badly you want a little bugger with diaper rash and a runny nose to push a half a bagel into your VCR slot.  It's inevitable. So don't try and fool me. You'll be sending money away to sperm banks, trying to get yourself knocked up by some giraffe of a guy so you can give birth to an NBA or WNBA center. It'll happen, I'm psychic, I see all, know all, tell all, and you, my dear sister in law, will be a mommy to something scary before you're forty, I double G guarantee it."

Sara's mouth dropped open, and she shook her head vehemently. "Nope, your crystal ball obviously needs a tune up, Marse. Not a maternal bone in this here body." She patted her flat stomach for extra emphasis.

Marcy made her way to the archway leading into the kitchen. "Really? Never thought about it?"  she asked skeptically as she turned to face Sara again.

"Really, Marse."

Marcy really wanted to win the little argument, but she didn't want to bring Chloe's name into it, so she decided to just, for now, let the debate die. "OK. If you say so."
She winked at her, and then headed into the kitchen to check on the dozen or so borrowed crockpots she had plugged into a very overworked surge protector.

"I say so!" Sara yelled confidently towards the kitchen.  She turned her attention back to Vivian, who was now talking about the weather headed their way. Sara's eyes widened when the lady in red pointed to a long line of storms across the upper midwest, from Chicago, across Indiana and into Ohio. Right where Sara figured Chloe's flight path would be passing. Oh God.

 FLASSSH!  One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi CRRR----AACCK!... KA-BOOM!!!

"Yes! Yesss! Yes!!!"  Sara heard from her seat as she flinched.  Oh no.

Chloe still had her eyes closed and was silently (she thought) singing along to her 'Now That's A MUSICAL!'  double CD when she felt the plane lurch and then seemingly drop, then right itself. She blinked, and looked over at her fellow passenger, who was hurriedly putting on his seatbelt.  She did the same, groping for and then fastening the belts. She saw the man nod at her, reassuringly, and she nodded back, and closed her eyes again. She hated turbulence, there wasn't a person alive that enjoyed it, and for once she felt like part of a large majority.  The plane dipped again, and her heartbeat drummed.  She gripped the arms of her seat again, and tried to concentrate on the music instead.  The plane mercifully stabilized, and soon, the man next to her was cringing again, and not from the weather he saw outside the window. This time, Chloe was creaking along with a young Judy Garland.

"Clang Clang Clang! went the trolley,  Ding! ding! ding! went the bell, Zing! zing! zing! went my heart strings, from the moment I saw you I fell ...."

The wind gusts were clocked at the National Weather Service weather station at the Peninsula in Erie at topping off at just over 45 MPH during the course of the storm.  There was a tornado watch in effect until at least midnight, and at 7 o'clock, when the party was supposed to begin, there were very few guests in the barn. The building was old, but very strongly fortified, so Nelson had brought out his weather radio so they could monitor the storm.  Marcy did a head count. Let's see, Doris, Dave, Jeanette, Stan, Heather, Justin One and Justin Two, Paul, Mrs. Hoderman.  Mrs. Hoderman?  Why in heaven's name would that old busybody want to come out in this storm?  Uh, Ralph Henderson. Mark Benson. Nelson.  Not even a fourth of the invited list. And Chloe, well, she's supposed to show up later.  I hope she has enough sense to stay in Cleveland over night if the weather there is as shitty as it is here.

Nelson had used an electric golf cart to haul over all the warmed crock pots at once.  The beer was cold in its barrel, even though they had enough of it to quench the thirst of a division of Marines. Nelson's boom box was plugged in, and muted, the rumbling storm outside the barn's doors adding extra emphasis to the bass line. There were lawn chairs, lounges and kitchen chairs strung out all over the barn, and most of the guests were pleasantly chatting, nibbling on a wide assortment of meatballs, and everyone took the time to compliment Marcy on her cooking prowess. Marcy gratefully accepted their thanks, and made sure that each and every one of them knew that they would not be going home empty handed because she was damned if she was going to pack all this stuff up again to stow away. No thank you.

Sara leaned near the slightly opened barn door, intently watching the storm raging outside. Leaves and some small limbs were skittering by, the rain was coming down nearly sideways from the gusting winds. Her thoughts turned to Chloe, and she wished she had taken the time to try and figure out which flight Chloe would be returning on to Cleveland.  As she stared outside, a small cup of beer in her hands, she felt a chill run through her, although the barn was sauna hot with humidity.  The rain was coming down, the wind was blowing, it hadn't cooled the air a bit, actually it made it more uncomfortable and oppressive.

She frowned, and then determined that she should stop worrying, and turn her attention to where it needed to be, on her nephew.  This was his party, and he still wasn't talking to her. She looked around, and saw him chatting with Jeanette and the rest of his male friends over by the John Deere. It was the perfect situation to approach him, because she figured that he was too well mannered to ignore her in front of his friends. She had a plan, a mission, and she needed to complete it. Perhaps it was part guilt that drove her to do this, but all in all, she was doing it out of love.  She walked across the barn floor, past Paul who was sitting in between Doris and his mother, and Sara winked at him as she passed, and he gave her a desperate 'Help me!' look, which she shrugged off with a sympathetic and amused grin.

Nelson's back was to her, and Jeanette was holding his hand on the other side, so she pulled up next to him, and stood quietly until he noticed her presence.

He looked over, surprised to see her standing there.

"Hi,"  she said.

He looked away..

She softly elbowed him. "Hey."

His face twisted, and he tried to concentrate on what Justin I was mouthing off about.

Another elbow. "Yo."

He sighed, and held his ground, staring straight ahead.

She leaned in closer, talking directly into his ear, so only he could hear. "Listen, I know you're still mad at me. It's OK. I understand. I was a bitch, you didn't deserve it. I'm sorry. I wish you'd talk to me again. I miss talking to you."

His stiff posture eased a little, but he still couldn't bring himself to look at her.

She leaned in again. "I've been thinking," she kept her voice low, "and I've decided that I need to give you a good-bye present. It's not a bribe, it's something I think you'll really like, and something I really want you to have." Her voice choked a little. "It's just a way for me to let you know that I'm thinking about you, and missing the hell out of you."

Nelson felt his aunt's hand slip something into his hand. He fingered them, and his eyebrows rose. He recognized the feel of the hard metal surfaces. He gazed down into his hand, and his guess had been right. The Comet's keys.

His eyes widened, he abruptly dropped Jeanette's hand, and turned to face his aunt, who was smiling cautiously at him.

He sputtered, holding out the keys to her. She shook her head. "Aunt Sara, you can't! I mean, NO, no way, that car is your baby. No way!"

She defiantly stuck her hands in her shorts pockets. "Not anymore. My baby is going to California with you."

He was still holding the keys out to her. "You can't.  You said you might have to sell it.  You need it. C'mon, take these back." He said, rather desperately. "You don't have to do this."

Sara cleared her throat, and gave him a very affectionate smile. "I know I don't have to, Nels, I want to.  I don't need the Comet.  I have the van now," and she rolled her eyes and laughed lightly, "and I can always borrow Dave's Explorer, or since you really won't need your pick-up truck at USC, maybe we can call it an even trade.  Besides, the Comet will be happier in California. No snow, no rust from salt."

Nelson's hand dropped, and he looked at her, tears beginning around the corner of his deep blue eyes. "But you were going to sell her, to get the house ..."

"Doesn't look like I can get that house on my own,  Comet or no Comet.  It wouldn't make that much of a difference.  I want you to have her.  I know you'll take good care of her."  She looked down, afraid that he was going to burst into tears, and she was already feeling uncharacteristically sentimental.  They both tried to get control of themselves by looking everywhere but at each other.

Nelson took one more look at her, intending to shove the keys into her pockets, and then he realized she was dead set serious, and recognized that she was simply giving him a little piece of her heart to take with him.

Sara felt  strong arms pick her up, and squeeze her, twirling her around. She gasped and grinned while Nelson was placing a very wet smooch on her cheek. He grinned, touching his forehead against hers, still holding her in the air.

"Put me down!" she said, her rather low voice bordering on squeaking.

He squeezed her again, and although his face was lit with love, a tear had managed to escape, and was rolling down his ruddy cheek. He set her lightly on the barn floor, hugged her again, and then pulled away, wiping at his cheek.  She grinned at him, and he grinned back, near mirror images of blue eyes, dark hair, angled cheekbones and white teeth. He sniffed, and that triggered an echoing sniffle from her.

"Hey Nels!  What's going on over there? " Dave shouted over the storm outside, the boombox's music, and the conversation in the barn.

Nelson was pathetically red eyed, and he knew it. "Later, Pop!"  He had to get a grip, but not before he leaned into his aunt again, whispering very softly and with as much sincerity he could muster. "Thank you."

Sara blushed. "No, thank you, Nelson, for being my best friend." She gripped his arm, and her eyes watered with tears that threatened to spill over.

Nelson nodded, and stuck the keys into his jeans pocket, and made a quick escape to go gather himself in the lavatory of the barn. As he was entering, he turned and caught sight of his aunt blowing her nose into a bandana, and scuffing her foot along the barn floor, trying hard to compose herself.  She looked up, after sniffing again, and caught his eye. One more look of love passed between them before he closed the door behind him.

"Hodel oh Hodel have I got a match for you!  He's handsome he's young -- alright he's 62!  but he's a nice man a good catch, true? True! I promise you'll be happy, and even if you're not, there's more to life than that -- don't ask me what!"

The businessman sighed, grateful to have a reason to interrupt the the trilling of the irritating songbird perched next to him. The captain was on the plane's intercom, about to make an announcement.  He tapped the warbling woman on the arm, and her eyes opened, and he motioned to her to remove the ear buds.  She did, and immediately paid attention to the voice traveling throughout the cabin.

"Sorry, folks.  I've talked to the terminal in Cleveland, and although we'll be able to land, it's going to be quite a wait.  There's a mighty storm front down there, and planes are stacking up.  Looks like we're going to have to circle until it's our turn.  But the good news is that there's a little break in this mess, so landing, when we do get our turn, should be uneventful.  For those of you hoping to get your connections elsewhere, well, we'll have representatives at the gates to help you out. Meanwhile, sit back and try and relax. Thank you for flying ...."

Chloe tuned him out. Damn. Damn. Damn. It was just 7 o'clock now, and there was no telling when they'd finally land. She'd heard stories of grumpy fliers saying that they'd been stuck circling a city for over an hour. "This sucks." she griped.

The man next to her nodded. "Sure does."

She grumbled a little more, then stuck the ear buds back into her ears again, and it wasn't very long at all until she had her eyes closed and began softly hitting every sour note in her limited vocal range. "Shall ... we ... dance? On a bright cloud of music shall we fly? Shall we dance? Shall we then say Goodnight and mean Goodbye? Or perchance, When the last little star has left the sky,  Shall we still be together ..."

The business man groaned. No, he thought, THIS sucks.

Sara was sitting behind the counter, listening to the rain falling on the barn's roof and still nursing her beer when she saw a man approach her. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't immediately place his face.  That face broke into a friendly smile.

"Sara D'Amico?"  She nodded, and he continued. " I'm Jerry Hellman, Jason's dad.  I just stopped to drop him off here at the party, we've been in Erie all day, trying to get Jase signed up for all his classes."  She smiled benignly at him, and put out her hand for him to shake. He did, and then smiled again. "I wanted to say hello to you for a couple of reasons, first, for finding a way for my gorilla of a son look almost graceful in 'Oklahoma' last spring."  He noted Sara's delighted smile, and stopped her before she could say anything modest in reply. "No, really.  Just take the compliment, and go with it. You and Ms. Donahue were a godsend for him.  He came out of his shell, he never even talked about going to college before, and now, well, he's so excited it's hard to keep his feet on the ground."

Sara finally got her wits about her. "Where's he going?"

Jerry smiled. "Well, not very far away. We can't get rid of him that easily. Glenhurst."  He noticed her smile fade, and her eyes dart away. He wasn't sure what he'd said wrong for her to lose that smile, so he switched gears. "And, well, I thought I'd tell you a bit of good news while I was here, dropping Jase off." Her attention returned to him, but her smile didn't  rematerialize. He took a deep breath. "I'm also the manager of Stonecreek Savings and Loan, and I had the opportunity to, uh, reevaluate your loan application the other day. I was going to get back to you sooner, but I had all of this college business to take care of with Jason.  Last minute stuff.  We're going on vacation over Labor Day, so we had to get it all done now ..."  He trailed off, because her intense blue eyes were boring into him. "Well, the good news is that your loan application, for the mortgage, has been approved.  Congratulations, Ms. D'Amico."  He smiled a pointed smile at her, expecting her to jump and down at his good news.

Instead, she stared. "What?"

He regrouped and repeated, "Your mortgage application has been approved. You can come in on Monday, and sign the papers, and then contact the realtor ... and, congratulations, looks like you're going to be a homeowner." He saw a glimpse of comprehension come into her eyes, and once again expected a happy outburst.  Didn't come.

"How?"  Sara squinted at him suspiciously.

He squirmed under her demanding gaze. "Uh, well, actually, I thought she'd have told you by now, but maybe she hasn't ..."

Sara heard the word, 'she', "She, as in Chriss Dean, that little pissant you have working for you?"  Sara was being bad mannered, but she hated surprises, even if it was good news.

A slow smile curled up Jerry's lips on one side. "Yeah, she's a pistol, isn't she?  Perfect tough loan officer material. But, no, not her, I meant," and he turned to point to a small group sitting near a golf cart. "Her. Doris Raeburn."

Sara shook her head, knowing that Doris knew just about everything that happened in this town, sometimes before it even happened. "Doris?" She blinked. "What about Doris?"

"Well, you'd find out about it anyway, it's on the papers we drew up, but she volunteered to cosign the loan for you, and well, with her kind of influence and clout, the loan sailed right through..." He turned to face Sara again, startled to find she was no longer behind the counter. He looked around, then noticed that Sara had made it over to Doris faster than a bolt of lightning.  He chuckled to himself, took a deep breath of humid, but meatball infused air, and happily made his way over to the food table.

Chloe was doing her best impression of OJ Simpson.  Not the OJ Simpson who rode in white Broncos and was a monumental embarrassment to the justice system, no, the other OJ Simpson, who appeared in bad movies, (except for the Naked Gun series) and made commercials. The OJ that Chloe was emulating was the one in the car rental commercial, where he was making a mad dash through an airport terminal, trying to get to where ever he was heading in a frenzied hurry.  She ducked around turnstiles, leapt over briefcases in her way, and spurted down to the baggage claim area a good ten minutes before her lone bag even made it there.  She had dumped a handful of coins into a rack that dispensed carts, and waited impatiently for her bag to come out of the chute.  It finally showed, and she elbowed a few people quite brusquely, apologizing but grabbing for her suitcase. She heaved it up, then thunked it down on the cart, placing her laptop case and carry-on satchel on it. She checked her watch. It was nearly 10 PM, and she began pulling the cart behind her, picking up speed as she went.  She was late.  Late for an important date.

"Doris?"  Sara towered over the seated woman. "I need to have a word with you."  Sara's voice sounded stern, but then she remembered her manners. "Please."

Doris Raeburn had noticed Jerry having a conversation with Sara over by the counter, and she had figured out what was happening. She sighed, and looked up at Sara. "I suppose you want me to get out of this comfortable chair and move to someplace more private?" She replied cagily, noting how unwavering Sara's stare at her was.

"If you wouldn't mind." Sara's tone was low and her words clipped.

The school principal handed Sara her beverage and used her umbrella to help push up out of her seat.  They moved, together, to an unoccupied part of the barn, away from the music and other ears, and they settled into chairs. Sara silently handed Doris her drink again. "Doris ..."

Doris smiled at her, and her words poured forth like a flash flood. "Well, I suppose Jerry told you the news.  The good news. Well, I heard you were in a bind,  trying to get the mortgage to Marcy's house. So I said to myself, where's the harm in helping Sara out?  I know I have nothing to worry about, I've got so much money stashed away from my investments and pension and the like, and all my kids are pretty well off on their own, and don't need to buy a third or fourth car when I finally kick the bucket, so why not help out a friend? I know you're good for it, you won't run off and join the circus or some silly thing.  This is no trouble, no trouble at all. Won't even make a dent in my portfolio. So quit giving me the evil eye, and just accept it, go get that house and be happy in it. All I ask is that you plant a fruit tree or something in my honor, or for all I care, you can name the toilet after me. Wouldn't be the first time for that, I'm sure. Now quit looking at me like that,  once you're set in your job, you can reapply for the mortgage without my name appearing anywhere on the papers. But right now, I couldn't see that house getting out of your reach just because of the silly fact that you haven't had a paying job in five years. I have confidence in you, so does Dave, so does Chloe, so ... where is Chloe, anyway? I haven't seen her all night."

Sara wasn't about to be sidetracked with questions leading her away from the topic at hand. She cleared her throat, intending on a monologue of her own. "Doris ..."

Sara's mistake was in allowing Doris to refill her lungs. "Sara, just calm yourself. You're not getting any younger. Next think you know, with that kind of attitude, you'll be clutching your left arm, and the single men in this barn will be wrestling over who gets to give you CPR. Mouth to mouth.  I don't suppose Chloe would like to walk in here and see you flat on your back getting liplocked by Paul Hoderman. On the other hand, I'm thinking that it might be the first time he got that close to a woman.  Helen doesn't say anything, but I get a feeling about that young man. Not that he's gay, but just totally hopeless.  Don't you and Chloe know anyone to hook him up with?  Oh, wait, what about Audra?  She's not involved with anyone, is she?  And they're old friends, you know, her student teaching at the school way back when ..."

Sara's mind forgot about the mortgage for a moment, because she had locked onto a possible revenge scenario. "Hmm, there's an idea, Doris.  Audra and Paul.  I'm not good at playing matchmaker ..."

Doris took  a sip from her cup, and raised her eyebrows, knowing she was the one that was quite adept at playing matchmaker. That gave Sara another opening. "But Doris-"

"Again with that look.! I know you probably think that look would scare the panties off Godzilla, but it doesn't work with me. You've got the house, now shut up and enjoy it. I'm glad to help, for however long.  Not worried in the slightest.  Just be glad you have people who care about you, have faith in you.  Why, if Nelson hadn't stopped by the other night and wanted to talk to me about how he could help you out, and him just heartsick, not knowing if he should go off  to college when Dave was having money problems about the course,  and then he mentioned that you were looking into buying Marcy's house and it didn't look like that was going to happen, I had to settle the poor boy down, and ...

"Nelson? When?"

"Why  ... let's see, it had to be ... uh, Monday evening?  This old head of mine doesn't remember what I had for dinner last night, but yes, come to think about it, it was Monday night.  I think I was talking to you on the phone at the time ..."

"Monday night?"  Sara's voice was barely audible. Nelson was at Doris', the night he came home late with the Comet. He was at Doris', wondering if he should stay home from college.  Sara closed her eyes, and felt the beginnings of tears behind them.  Before either one of them could get any more words out, she made a decision.  She got out of her chair, leaned over Doris, and gave her a crushing hug, and then even placed a soft kiss on the startled woman's face.  Her face broke into a shaky grin, and a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. "Thank you. I accept.  I won't let you down."  She placed another kiss on Doris' cheek, sealing the promise.

Doris was struck dumb. As Sara pulled away from her, still smiling, she cleared her throat, and thumped her umbrella a few times on the floor in consternation of all this blatant emotionality swirling around them. "Well."  She commented weakly. "Well."

Sara winked at her, patted her knee and the straightened up and looked around the barn.  She spied Nelson talking quietly with Jason and his dad, and she murmured softly to Doris in apology. "There's something I need to do, I'll be back."

Doris just nodded, and watched as Sara made a beeline for Nelson. Sara tapped the tall young man on the shoulder, and he turned around, and before he knew it, Sara had picked him up in strong arms, and twirled him around once, before lightly setting him down again, giving him a huge hug. He was just getting his bearings when she kissed him on the cheek, cuffed him on the arm, and sniffled her nose.

Dazed but grinning, he managed to squeak out an adolescent sounding "What?"

Sara's throat was so constricted by emotion, she could hardly speak. "Thanks. The house. Got it. Doris told me. She's helping. You .. you did it. Thank you."

Before Nelson could reply, his overwhelmed aunt squeezed his arm, and then choked out a "My turn."  She strode quickly across the barn's floor, and paused in front of the lavatory door, flashing a smile to him, then to a still watching but beaming Doris, and then entered, closing the door lightly behind her.

Chloe's nose was still trying to decipher the multitude of odors that greeted her as soon as she had opened up the Subaru wagon's hatch to haul the bulky broken suitcase into the back.  She found a rolled up Burger King bag under the passenger's side seat, and by the mushy, decomposing feel of it, and the acrid, foul smell arising from it, it may have been there for two weeks or more, and certainly had died and come to life again, many times over, each time in an altogether different biological state. The rain was roaring down around her, and she had only the time to pull Dave's bulky XXL USC Trojan sweatshirt over her head for defense against the pounding raindrops.  She had parked on the open rooftop of the parking garage, and the sweatshirt was completely soaked through by the time she made the quick trip from the trunk to the drivers door.  She sat there in the car, staring at the rain sheeting down her windshield, and held the BK bag away from her by two dainty fingertips, wondering what the hell to do with it.  She thought briefly about just tossing the bag outside her car door, but if there was anything she couldn't abide, it was a litterbug,  so she gently put the disdainful bag on the floor of the passenger side, and began to roll down her window in hopes of airing the car out a bit, while she surveyed the area with her car headlights for a garbage can. The car mercifully started on the first turn of the ignition, she coaxed the windshield wipers onto full speed, and the rain started pelting in the half inch gap in the window.  She eased the car out of the space, and began her exit, one eye carefully watching the status of stinkbomb on the floor, half expecting it to come alive in some way, and possibly sprout legs and move about of its own volition.

She followed the directional arrows down to the parking lot's exit, pulled up to the pay booth, and gave the attendant her ticket.  He smiled a bored greeting at her, mumbled the amount, and while retrieving the money out of her satchel, she came up with the perfect solution to her problem.

As she handed the man her money, she also handed him the rotting BK bag, and with a sweet smile beaming out from under the hood of the USC sweatshirt, she asked, oh so politely, "Um, hey, could you throw this out for me?"  Before the smarmy odor could hit the man's nose,  Chloe had her window rolled almost completely back up, and was inching the old Subaru towards the gate that was lifting for her to pass.  She peered out into the gloomy, rain torn night, and began to smile.  Two hours from home.  Surely the putrid stench should clear by then?  She put the car in neutral after she passed under the gate, dug around in her satchel, and pulled out a CD, and popped it into the player. With the wind and rain and thunder as extra percussion, she began to sing. "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings, these are a few of my favorite things ..."

The man in the booth got a whiff of the bag, grimaced, and since he had absolutely no compunctions about being a litter bug, he tossed the bag out through the slide window behind him and hurriedly slid it shut.

The power in the barn had gone out hours before, leaving the partyers' festivities illuminated only by lemony citronella candles and a few lanterns Dave had dug out from out of the camping gear he had stowed in the upper rafters of the two story barn.  The excess guests had made their apologies, and said their hurried good-byes just before they took a deep breath to make a mad dash out to their cars parked outside. Only the closest of family members and friends stayed to tough it out, and Stan had even made a winded trip out to his truck and back with a sly grin on his face, an accordion case gripped in his hand. After much teasing and wisecracks from the remaining assembled multitude, he lifted the straps over his shoulders, and began softly playing warm, slow tunes as everyone settled into a circle around the candlelight. It was a cozy and intimate setting, and soon everyone was talking in low voices, and enjoying the pleasant camaraderie.

Sara sat down next to Doris, hoping to let her incessant chatter help chase away the worries she was experiencing about Chloe. It was after midnight, and Chloe had still not arrived, and although the telephone was still working, no phone call had come.  Sara sighed, and tried to concentrate on what Doris was saying.

"If it's not one thing, it's another, Sara. What a week this has been. I tell you, the school administrators wait until the very last minute to let me know that the budget for this activity and that activity has been cut, and then, yesterday, just as I'm leaving the office, the personnel department calls me to tell me that the mathematics teacher I interviewed and hired called and said she wasn't going to be accepting the position after all!   I had to scramble for another two hours, just to set up interviews for next week, and whoever the poor schmuck is that I find to fill the job will have less than a week to get prepared. I mean, the nerve of that woman! I almost called her long distance to give her an earful. but what good would it do me?  Wasted air!  I tell you, those California people are flakes, pure and simple corn flakes.  They all smoke that whacky weed, and I swear it's that smog that makes them half loopy ..."

Sara sat up straighter in her chair, and interrupted the scowling principal. "Excuse me, Doris? What math teacher?"

Doris smacked her umbrella tip on the barn floor. "Oh, that .... I can't think of her name ...  whatsername? Let me think."  Doris frowned. "Baker. Sandra Baker. She's the one that put my girdle into such a twist. I should have known.  Flakes. Every last one of them."

Sara interrupted again. "Sandy Baker's not coming to Stonecreek?"  She leaned in closer, staring into Doris' eyes with deadly and determined accuracy.

Doris shook her head. "Nope. From what Judith in personnel said, and I quote, 'Her love life had a surprising turnaround, and she's decided to stay put and see how it all turns out."

"Love life?  Turned .... around?" Sara repeated back, her heart thundering just as loud as the storm outside. She's not coming home.

"You got it.  Probably met some beach bum and decided to take up professional body surfing or something.  Young people these days have no idea of responsibility any more, believe me ...  let me tell you-"

But Sara had already tuned her out, her ears no longer were hearing Doris' voice, the soft lilting sounds of the accordion, nor did she hear it when all of her friends and family began singing, louder, then louder still. She got up from her chair, and moved towards the far side of the barn, her head dropped in thought, her feet dragging a disconsolate trail across the dusty floor.

"My gal's a corker, she's a New Yorker, I buy her everything to keep her in style!... boom boom boom,  she's got a pair of hips just like two battleships ... she's the only girl for me!"

The light in the barn was so dim, the accordion and the singing so loud and boisterous - save the one woman who had her mind wrapped around the worst possible news she could ever fathom hearing - and everyone was so wrapped up in their celebrating that no one saw the entrance of the soaked, panting and bedraggled form that entered the barn and stopped there just inside door.

Chloe had come home to Stonecreek, and no one even noticed.

mail LA Tucker

Continued in Part 18

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