The Inside Out

by LA Tucker
©  2002


Part XXII:  Laborious Day

For disclaimers, see Part I

The completed, edited commercials were a great success, at least with Ruthie and Roger Stevens, who, after all, were the final judge of the product.  The ads themselves were kitschy, cheesy and very clever  With the talented help of Ellis,  and some quick transitional effects added after the fact, the content was compelling, hilarious and definitely attention drawing, even if in a cheap local car commercial, tacky kind of way.

Sara was seen in front of each vehicle, speaking of its attributes, in a perfectly deadpan, dry voice, completely still except for the addition of a deliberately arched eyebrow when mentioning the low, low sale price. The transitions Ellis inserted had her transporting in and out, as if being beamed up by Scotty himself, and then appearing in front of the next vehicle, and describing it in that deep voice of hers, her stoic, unenthused seriousness a perfect juxtaposition to the fact that she was looking as sexy as hell in her Seven of Nine body suit in front of numerous colorful Fords.

Ruthie and Roger were definitely satisfied with their choice of spokesperson, and also the new director who had taken up the creative challenge on such short notice.

Both director and actress were enjoying their new working relationship. Sara was proud of Chloe for making her look good and finding a way to showcase her acting talents in cheesy 30 and 60 second spots. Chloe was thrilled that Sara to respected her skills and ideas and seemed to be having a great time following Chloe's suggestions.

A successful commercial production team had been formed, and both women actually looked forward to continuing that relationship in the weeks and months to come.  Their next endeavor, with the Calamity Jane costume, would be taped on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.  But before that happened, a Labor Day picnic was going to take place on the grounds of the golf course, which to everyone's delight, was going to close early that Monday, at 4 PM. Dave was adamant that his labors were going to cease at a civil hour, and he was going to enjoy the rest of the holiday and evening to the hilt, and dammit, so would his family and invited friends.

It was the usual Stonecreek Rat Pack of cronies. Doris, Stan, Jay, Jason, Doris, Paul, Helen, Ralph Henderson, Mark Benson and his wife Dawn, Cathy of Quickie Mart, Justin (one of the seeming multitude), Heather, Mrs. Cellone, Julia Cardinger and Audra Simmons.

And to the surprise of them all,  a slightly taller, and not nearly as geeky looking Charlie Shemp showed up, with, of all things, a girl on his arm.

Sara was sitting at a picnic table down the hill from the barn, nursing an iced tea, enjoying the cooler temperature of the sunny but not oppressive day.  With rain falling almost every evening since the big storm over a week ago, the grass of the golf course was slowly coming back to life, and the daytime heat index had dropped to comfortable levels thanks to a a persistently cooler Canadian airflow pouring south over the Great Lakes.  She was  swiping her thumb over her glass, drawing smiley faces in the condensation there, idly thinking about upcoming events.  She thought again about the house, the talent show, the commercials, the conspicuously absent Nelson and she hoped that Doris had had a good time on her vacation to her son's in Dayton, Ohio

She took extra time to thank the weather gods not only for the returning green of the course, but for the decrease in humidity and the resultant return of her nocturnal sexual activities with her lover.  Their heated passions resumed in the evening hours with the same fervent intensity of ... well, even more intensely than their first few months together.  It was as though they couldn't get enough of each other, tasting, touching, stroking and literally trying to drive each other many miles past the point of distraction.  The results of all this fevered carnal activity were that Chloe was exhausted but glowing, and Sara was exhausted but wore a consistently dreamy, real life smiley face, without the yellow complexion. Neither one complained about the orgasm induced daytime stupor they both seemed to be in lately.  Certainly, there was no reluctance shown in that physical aspect of their relationship.  Yet there was a constant, niggling concern about their future together continuing to nag them, but they did not vocalize those concerns.  Things would take their natural course, or so they hoped.

One niggling nag of a concern took human form in the shape of Audra Simmons, who, when Sara looked up from her solitary spot at the picnic table, was standing, hands hitched in shorts' pockets, smirking down at her from the other side.

Sara sighed, and suddenly felt like Jerry Seinfeld addressing his worst enemy, Newman. "Audra," she drawled in greeting.  She looked past the smirking woman, and saw she was alone. "Where's Julia?  She ditch you already?"

"Sara," Audra returned, very much sounding like Newman. "She's in the barn with Marcy and Dave, she made food. They're arguing over whether to bring all of it outside or leave it in there. Looks like a few people are showing up. I think we were the first ones to arrive. But she's up there fussing with Marse."

"Oh," Sara said dryly. "Girl stuff."

Audra nodded, and sat down across from her. "Yeah, I guess."  She found herself nervous and growing irritated just looking at Sara's cool, composed and unruffled appearance.  She shifted her feet in the dry grass under the table, surprised at finding herself making an attempt at conversation. "Julia's a great cook.  She made some great Cajun stuff last night, and some kind of shrimp salady thing for today.  I got a bit of it this morning, but then she slapped my hand away."

Sara's eyebrow rose, not only because she was suddenly envious that Julia got a good smack in at Audra, but because Audra was being so ... chatty.  "You two getting along OK?" she replied, surprised at her own inclination to want to talk civilly with her avowed enemy.

"Pretty good. I guess. She seems to be mad at me a good part of the time, and I can't figure out why."

"Probably your animal magnetism."

Audra gave her a minor glare and ignored the jibe. "Where's Chloe? " she asked, not even bothering to hide her blatant curiosity.

"She went to pick up Jason."  Sara felt a pang of jealousy at Audra's overt interest in her lover's whereabouts, but decided to combat it by tugging at the collar of her polo shirt, thus bringing Audra an unencumbered view of the hickey Sara was sporting on the lower pulse point of her neck. She grinned when Audra took notice and scowled.

"Like I give a shit about your sex life, D'Amico."

"Like I give a shit about your lack of a sex life, Simmons."

Minutes later, Julia trotted down the hillside to the picnic table to find her roommate. Upon seeing the unanticipated scene in front of her, a frown quickly crossed her face and she shook her head.

"What are you two doing?" she asked sharply.

"We're arm wrestling, what's it look like?"

Julia stopped at the end of the table, and looked at them both like they were a little screwy. Which, she thought to herself, they were. She shook her head. "Looks like you're thumb wrestling."

Sara shrugged, and shifted her elbow and butt on the bench to get a firmer hold. "We're just setting up for the arm wrestle, getting the correct grip."  She was already staring into Audra's eyes, trying to get a jump on the big psych-out .

Audra moved her own elbow a half an inch, and returned Sara's menacing stare.  Their hands met, and now it was time to achieve the winning clinch. She ignored the obvious disapproval in Julia's voice, and grabbed at Sara's palm, noticing that it was disconcertingly dry, while hers was already sweating, and the match hadn't even begun.

They continued to fumble for the the optimal grasp while throwing visual daggers at each other. Julia was about to scold them, but then clamped her mouth shut.  Some irritating things in life, like death, taxes, hang nails and chin hairs, were unavoidable.  This bullish showdown between Audra and Sara was one of those things that Julia deemed inevitable.  She stood back, unconsciously giving the two about-to-be battling women plenty of room in case it escalated from an arm wrestling match to a full fledged dyke brawl. With the animosity between these two women, anything was possible.

"You ready, D'Amico?" sneered Audra, trying one last time to get a grip that would give her an advantage.

"Anytime," said Sara coolly, her eyes riveted on Audra's.

Without looking up, Audra murmured, "OK, Julia, give us a countdown, and we'll go when you say go."  She planted her feet more sturdily on the grass below her and tried to dig in.

Julia had no desire to prolong this showdown. She very quickly and with an unmistakable tone of exasperation announced, "OKaaaayś 3-2-1. Go."

Muscles were tightened, jaws clenched.  Audra had about a 1/4 inch lean advantage over Sara, but that was only because she got a better starting jump on the count.

Neither straining arm was moving much in either direction. Audra let out a grunt as she tried to throw her weight into it.  Sara merely clamped her jaw tighter and struggled to keep her arm upright.

A good solid minute of this battle of muscles and wills went by when Audra started and nearly lost her grip. There was a soft voice whispering in her ear from a presence behind her.  But the voice was not soft enough that Sara couldn't hear exactly what was being said, and she grinned briefly before returning her concentration to muscling Audra's arm over onto the table.

"Hello, Audra."  Chloe cooed into her ear. "Who's winning?"

The fuzz on the back of Audra's neck immediately stood up like bristles on a toothbrush. She knew that this was an unfair tactic. "Nobody yet," she grunted and pushed harder.

Sara tried to breathe flames at Audra.

Chloe leaned closer into her friend's back and then moved to Audra's other ear. She purred softly, "You can't win, you know.  She's just playing with you."

Audra growled, and turned a little on the bench, trying to gain leverage. She was beginning to sweat, and she didn't know if it was because of the effort she was expending in the contest, or because of Chloe's hot breath in her ear. She redoubled her efforts, and threw more weight into her next big heave.

Sara's arm bent just a little and then stopped, holding the angle.  Audra became truly angered when she saw Sara wink coyly at Chloe.  Chloe moved away from Audra's back and then around the table to stop just to the side of Sara, and laid an encouraging hand upon her lover's back.

Audra then made her fatal mistake. Her curiosity too great, she glanced at the woman she hadn't seen since her return from  California. Her concentration was immediately blown all to hell when she took a too long look at the sleek, dark redheaded woman, dressed in a short dark green tank top that, unfortunately for Audra, showed a great deal of bare abdomen before her shorts started their presence low on her hips.

Chloe, watching Audra's widening eyes, squeezed Sara's shoulder pointedly, and Sara took that as her cue, and she effortlessly gave Audra's hand a powerful squeeze before slamming her opponent's arm onto the table surface like it was a slender blade of grass in a stiff breeze.  She let go, and turned her attention to the woman who was sliding her arms around her neck in a congratulatory embrace.  The lovers' eyes met and Chloe chuckled at Sara's triumphant glee. At least Audra could save face and claim that Chloe's intriguing sudden appearance had clearly assisted in shading the odds in Sara's favor. Not that anyone would buy that for a second.

Audra, red-faced and really pissed off at herself for being such an easy mark, simply glowered at the both of them.

"You're such an ass, Audra." Julia said quietly, still standing at the end of the table.

Audra's head snapped around to see Julia shaking her head at her in disappointment.

Audra immediately offered up a lame explanation. "She ...Chloe ... she did that on purpose!  She screwed up my concentration!!"

"How long are you going to let her do that?"  Julia said her voice low.

Chloe, her arms still slung comfortably around Sara's neck, regarded Audra's and Julia's interaction with curiousity. Hmm.

"She just showed up, and I haven't seen her and ..."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it, Audra."  Julia's expression didn't waver as she waited for her answer.

Audra rubbed at her sore arm, trying to buy some time, and dropped her head, not making eye contact with any of them. She felt bad about losing, but for some odd reason, she found herself more upset about losing in such a foolish way in front of Julia.  She glanced again at her, and then she centered her gaze on Julia's big liquid brown eyes.  They stared at each other for a bit, then Julia looked away, and over to Chloe and Sara. The counselor smiled slightly at them. "Hey, Chloe.  You look great." she said sincerely, and somewhat wistfully, thinking she could never attain the gracious and beautiful sparkle that the redheaded librarian embodied.

Chloe noted the sadness in the counselor's eyes, and felt ashamed for playing on Audra's longtime fascination with her. She didn't know what to say, so she just gave Julia an apologetic smile, and said, "Thanks."  Sara's hands reached up and squeezed Chloe's arms.  She too saw the defeat in Julia's eyes, and she suddenly felt sorry for the both of them. Julia and Audra.

Julia sighed, and gave a shrug of her shoulders. "Guess I'll see if Marcy needs any more help," and she turned and started walking back up the hill to the barn.

Audra stared at the table top for a moment. Finally, she looked up at Sara and Chloe, then at Julia's retreating form. Sure, Chloe looked great, and she'd love to talk to her, and get caught up even if that idiot D' Amico was still sitting right there all smug and everything but Julia looked so dejected and she was walking away from her and...

She found herself hurriedly rising from the table, and then trotting up the hill after her roommate. "Hey, wait, Julia!!  Wait up a minute, willya?"

Later on, it was an all lesbian contingent sitting at that particular picnic table set low on the hill, almost as if a Reserved sign had been placed there.

There were animated, varied, lesbian flavored topics of conversation taking place, and the four of them were enjoying the camaraderie of it.

"Sssh.  Here comes Doris. Cheese the gay talk."

Sara gave Audra the 'spare me' look. "Audra, Doris knows about Chloe and me, she's friendly."

"That's not the point."

"What is the point, Audra?"  said Julia, mildly curious.  Doris had stopped to refill her plate before she came over to them, so they had more time to discuss this.

Audra shook her head. "I just don't like people knowing my business, that's all. Especially people who I'm going to be working for.  The school board isn't exactly gay friendly, you know. I should know, I'm a union representative, well, at least I was one in Erie and we had to be super careful about, you know, things."

"Things?" muttered Chloe.

Impatient, Audra gave Chloe an annoyed look as though the librarian should know exactly what Audra was talking about. "You know, warping little minds."

Julia coughed. "The only warped little mind I know is yours, Audra.  I should know I'm a professional."

"Hear, hear!"  Chloe laughed, and her tablemates all clapped.

Audra frowned. "Well, Chloe must know what I'm talking about.  We have to be careful.  I have to be careful. The Erie school board is full of Republicans, even when the city votes overwhelmingly Democrat in the other elections.  Parents want no nonsense right wingers on the school board, protecting their little progeny's delicate sensibilities.  I could tell you some real horror stories ...."

Sara raised a brow with flair. "Where in Erie? I've never heard of anything bad going down in Erie. And it's the fourth largest city in the state."

Audra shifted in her seat. "Well, no, not in Erie, but when I went to the national convention ...."

Sara didn't let up. "National convention? But I always thought school teachers were liberal, well educated, open-minded people. Well, I always thought so, at least."

Audra squirmed a little more, not appreciating being grilled by a woman whose photo she'd love to have on her dart board, if she owned one. "Well, in theory they are. But I've heard stories of schools in small towns where the teacher got run out  ...."

Chloe interrupted. "Around here?"

"Well, no."

It was Julia's turn to put Audra on the spot. "Well, where then?"

Audra gulped, and waved them off. "I don't remember where, exactly. But believe me, it's always some small town ...."

"So, in other words," Julia said, "All small town folk are backwater, red necked pea brains ready to lynch school teachers if they're gay?"

"Pretty much."

There was a unanimous disbelieving grunt from Audra's tablemates. She shook her head. "Go ahead, poo-poo me. It's a universal truth."

Chloe interjected, "Not this town. I've lived here most of my life, and although I've just recently been more open about my preferences, it wasn't because I felt like I had anything to hide. As a matter of fact, I just never had much of anything to celebrate before."  She reached out her hand, and intertwined her fingers with Sara's. "Now, I've got a girlfriend, and I'm proud to say I'm with her.  We haven't had one bit of backlash, not one evil word against us."

"Well, not to our faces, at least." Sara grinned, and squeezed Chloe's hand tighter within her own. "Besides, we have Big Brother looking out for us."  All four women knew exactly who Sara was talking about, and her plate was finally reloaded, and she was heading towards them. "Doris would castrate or neuter anyone who said anything even the slightest bit homophobic in her earshot."

Doris settled in at the table, right next to Audra, who moved over on the bench, hip to hip with Julia. "Did I hear my name being taken in vain again?"

Chloe laughed. "You have ears like an owl, Doris.  We were just telling Audra that'd you'd behead anyone who might, you know, verbally disapprove of Sara's and my relationship."

Doris remained mum, and took a bite out of her deviled egg.

Not used to Doris remaining quiet about any subject matter, at any time, Chloe eyed her. "Well, you would, wouldn't you?"

Doris chewed her egg thoughtfully, and just when they all thought she was going to respond, she popped the other half of the egg in her mouth and resumed chewing.

"Doris?!" Chloe said impatiently.

A slow smile crept over the school principal's face, and she swallowed her latest bite. "You're so easy to tease, Chloe."  She winked broadly at all of them. "You bet your lily white kiesters I'd take a gas powered weed whacker to anyone who said anything bad about you girls."'

Julia didn't know the protocol about letting Doris ramble at will, so she didn't feel bad about adding her comment clearly before Doris had even gotten started. Plus, she lived in Harmercreek, and didn't have to interact with her on a daily basis, so she went right ahead and said, "But do you feel that way about the general gay population, or just these two?"

Doris was going to take a bite out her second deviled egg, when she set it down again on her plate. "You're Julia, the karaoke singer, aren't you?"

"Actually, I don't make enough money at that to support myself, so I've decided to keep my day job as a family crisis counselor in Harmercreek."

Doris chuckled. "Oh, you wouldn't happen to work out of the Harmercreek Family Planning Clinic, would you?"

Julia nodded with a smile, "That's the place.  We're a full service facility. 'Issues' R Us. But back to my question, do you feel that ... friendly towards all gays, or is it just the Long and the Short of it here?"

"Hey, no tall jokes!" cracked Sara indignantly. She looked at Chloe with a pout on her face. "I am sooo sick of everyone making fun of how tall I am," she deadpanned.

Chloe stroked her hand. "Oh, you poor dear thing, you freak of nature, you. I feel for ya."

Sara hung her head in mock shame. "I probably should see Julia about it, I have ... issues."

Everyone laughed, even Audra.

But then their heads swiveled back around to Doris again, curious to hear her answer. Doris finished off her second egg with a pleased small smile, washed it down with some pop, and loaded her lungs with air. Everyone at the table, with the exception of Julia, settled in and got comfortable for the upcoming show.

"Well, Miss Julia. I suppose I too have 'issues' about Sara and Chloe. But not what you'd like to think. I couldn't give a rat's red ass that they're lesbians. Or, if I'd want to steal from that old Ann Landers' letter, if they were Lebanese.  I just wasn't sure they were smart enough to realize they were perfect for each other. In other words, I was afraid that they were too pigheaded and idiotic, a number of times now, to quit fussing and fighting about the little nitpicky things in life, and realize that if anyone here on God's green earth was made especially for the other, it's these two.  I've been around a long time, have a couple of grown boys of my own, and although I love their chosen mates, I've never seen them look at their wives the way these two look at each other when they know the other one isn't looking."

She looked at Sara and Chloe to find them both smiling bashfully at her, and then quickly at each other. "That's the thing with couples. Instead of finding the good things about each other to appreciate, they tend to find the silliest things to keep them apart.  And they stew over them, and stew some more, until they're floating in a cesspool of doubt and worries that they've manufactured right out of their own dim brains.  That's what really fries my cheesesticks, Julia, not if two women, or two men are in love with each other, but if they're bright enough human beings to recognize and cherish what they have right in front of them. Most times, sadly enough, they aren't.  That's the real tragedy in how the world turns, not the gender of the human being. Having a brain and a heart, and knowing how to use them is much more important than whether or not one of them wears a slip or the other one wears a tie.  I'm still not sure these two have their brains and hearts working on all cylinders yet, but I have hope. Which is more than I can say for these baked beans. Doesn't anyone around here know that a little brown sugar does wonders for them?"

The four lesbians at the table were all leaning forward, all staring at Doris. Each one was thinking over what she'd said, about brains and hope and hearts and nitpicking and pigheadedness, but not about the baked beans, which they all thought were just fine as is.

"Oh," said Julia, thinking that her 6 years in college were a huge waste of time, and wishing she had interned with Doris all those years. She snuck a peek at Audra to gauge her reaction to what Doris had said.

Audra was looking back and forth between Sara and Chloe, whose fingers were interlocked tightly even though they weren't looking at each other. They were both staring in opposite directions, mulling over Doris' words. But she couldn't help but notice that although they seemed to be in their own separate worlds, they were still connected, an almost visible aura between and around them.  Audra started in her seat, hit suddenly with the rightness of the bond of the women sitting across from her.  She frowned, and looked down at the table, and then back up again, and the frown faded, and she was surprised to find herself eyeing them with warm affection. Both of them. She shook her head, and then glanced over at Julia, who graced her with a small sad smile of understanding and then turned her head away.  All of a sudden it became of paramount importance for Audra to chase that sad smile off her friend's face, and replace it with a larger one that she knew with a certainty was buried somewhere just below the surface.  She tentatively reached her hand out, and touched the counselor's hand, gently rubbing her fingertips across her palm.  Julia turned and caught Audra's eyes, and found something there that invited her in, something that hadn't been there before.  Audra kept up the soft contact, and then, in a move that seemed natural and everyday, she took Julia's hand fully into her own, and held on just firmly enough to let her know that the emotions behind the gesture weren't those of a roommate, a boarder or old college friend.

Julia didn't quite know how to respond at first, but Audra's level gaze and insistent smile encouraged her heart to come out of hiding, and she gulped, returning the squeeze.

Audra's smile grew even wider as she watched Julia's face light up.  For a moment, she wasn't sure if her throat would allow her to produce words. She stood up from the picnic table, never letting go of Julia's hand, and raised a blonde eyebrow at the other blonde. "Wanna go for a walk?  I hear the 9th hole is nice."

Julia stood up too, and found that her jaw was having difficulties moving. She just nodded.  They didn't even say goodbye to their tablemates as they strolled off.

Chloe stared after them, then glanced at Sara. "Well, it's about damned time."

Sara chuckled. "I'll say."

Doris snorted as she lifted another forkful of potato salad to her mouth. "Idiots. Every last one of you. Idiots."

Chloe and Sara laughed, and then settled into their own thoughts again.  Thoughts about what Doris had said about them being perfect together, and individually they were starting to slowly admit to themselves that they were, indeed, perfect idiots.

Marcy slowly walked over to the picnic table, her lower back sore, her ankles swollen, feeling fat and hot and miserable even in the decreased heat of the late afternoon.  She sat down on the bench next to Doris, her back to the table, and pulled up a nearby lawn chair and propped her feet on them.  "Where is everyone?"

Doris smiled at her, and felt a little pity for the curly-haired woman, She remembered her own pregnancies, and how she felt awkward and cumbersome. How her husband would be walking casually along, and then notice she was slowly trailing behind, her added weight making her ungainly and unable to keep up with the concientiously slowed pace of her spouse. How adjusting car seats to a comfortable position took up a good ten minutes of every day. Knowing that the sight of her own feet was destined to be a fond memory.  Seemingly spending more time in the bathroom than any other room of the house. "Well, I think Chloe and Sara are in the house doing up the dishes, and with any luck and brains, Audra and that Julia Karaoke person are down by the pond at the 9th hole getting to, uh, know each other better."

Marcy absently rubbed her stomach, and gave Doris a confused look. "Know each other better? But they're old friends, they're roommates. They know each other pretty well already."

Doris sighed. Is everyone on this property a dufus?  Must be something in the well water. "Well, I expect that they're much more than that by now.  Judging by the way they left here holding hands and mooning at each other." Do I have to spell out everything for these people, 24 hours a day?  And dear Lord, if they keep treating me like I'm Yoda or something, I'm going to have to go after all of them with my umbrella.

Comprehension ever so slowly dawned on Marcy's face. "Oh," she said densely. A few more seconds traveled by, never to return again. "OH!"  She grinned sheepishly at Doris. "Well, it's about damned time."

Doris chuckled. "You taking all your baby vitamins, dear?  You seem a little slow on the uptake lately. This heat getting to you?  Wishing you were a lesbian like all your friends seem to be, so you wouldn't be in this position right now?"

Marcy wrinkled her nose at her older friend. "Well, seems like all the good lesbians are taken, so I guess I'm stuck with Dave.  I'll muddle through. He's not hard to handle, and he makes great scrambled eggs, and I'll bet I can talk him into rubbing my feet later tonight."

"And where is Mr. Marcy right now?"

"Stan and Jay and Mark brought over a bunch of 2 X 4's, built some kind of contraption, and they're playing bocce behind the barn.  Whatever happened to horseshoes?  Playing bocce is an old Italian guys' sport, if you can call it that."

"If you hadn't noticed, your Italian intended is over the forty year mark, Marcy.  Expect major slowdowns. And while I'm thinking of it, I just want to suggest you don't buy any new couches.  The forties can be a bad time if you aren't careful."

Marcy shook her head, perplexed. "No, no new couches in our immediate future." She smiled. "You ready for school to start?"

"I'm never ready for Armageddon, Marcy.  And speaking of feeling a little slow on the uptake, I'm thinking this may be my last year as principal. A retirement condo in Florida is calling my name."

Marcy couldn't disguise the shock in her voice and on her face. "You?  You're practically what holds that school up on its old foundations. You can't retire!"

"Oh yes I can, and the more I think about it, the better it sounds. I've got loads of money, I've got friends in Florida who say that they think I wouldn't miss the snow at all, and I'm thinking you might like a baby sitter around here during the summers who won't charge you anything.  Matter of fact, I'm thinking of kissing the place goodbye in January."

Marcy swallowed.  She had always been sure that Doris would still be at the high school even when Marcy got to retirement age. "But you can't ... I wouldn't know what to do ... I ...  it just wouldn't be the same without you there!"

"Ever think of being a principal, Marcy? I'd bet you'd make a fine one.  You have your masters, don't you?  You'd just have to take a few more credits, get your administrative degree. I know people ...."

"Me? No way!!! I mean, c'mon, I'm artsy fartsy to the bone."

"You've grown up a lot in the last year, Marcy.  You take more things seriously now.  Well, as seriously as you ever will with all these nitwits around you."

"Sometimes it feels like I'm in charge of a pre-school." She paused, and clarified that. "A pre-school full of chimps."

"Seems to me the high school chimps could use a crazy haired bohemian in charge," Doris said cagily. "And I suppose I'd be willing to stay until you got that degree.  You can get it at Glenhurst, go part time in the spring, and full time next summer, and be ready to roll.  I know which strings to pull to get you in line.  You could be my assistant -- I've been meaning to ask for one and those fools owe me, big time -- starting next fall, and then, bam, by the following January, you too can be making morning announcements to the teenage heathens. And I could be playing 18 holes in sunny Boca Raton."

Marcy gulped, and the baby in her belly had some sort of reaction, too, but Marcy couldn't tell exactly what that reaction was.  She forgot about her aching back for a few moments.  She searched Doris' eyes, and found nothing but encouragement and sincerity there. "Well," she said, not believing what she was about to say, "I guess it's a possibility. Dave was planning on being Mr. Mom anyway. But I'd only do it on one condition."

"What's that, dear?"

"If you leave me your umbrella.  I couldn't do it otherwise."

Doris reached out, and solemnly shook Marcy's hand. "Consider it a done deal."

When Chloe returned to the picnic table, she found Doris and Marcy whispering conspiratorially, and the two of them suspiciously clammed up when they saw Chloe approach.

"Secrets, huh?  Planning on robbing a bank?" Chloe teased.

"Oh damn, Doris, she guessed!! I suppose we'll have to put her in for a cut, but she'll have to be the getaway driver, so she only gets 20 percent. It's not like she has to pack any heat or take any chances."

Doris shook her head, as Chloe sat down next to Marcy. "No way.  You know how slow she drives, like an old lady. Wait a minute, I'm an old lady, and she drives slower than I do."

"Well," Chloe smirked, "You'd better ask Sara then. She drives like she needed to get there yesterday."  She gave each of them dirty looks. "Now what were you really conspiring about?"

Marcy reached up and pretended to zip her lip.

Doris pushed her paper plate away. "Nothing you need to concern yourself about."  But her face then looked troubled. "Although there is something I've heard that you do need to concern yourself with.  Maybe I shouldn't say anything."

Chloe stood up, and moved to the other side of the table so she could be across from both women. "Spill it, Doris.  Confidentiality has never been your strong suit."

Doris was almost inclined to be insulted by that, then she decided to ignore it. "I spoke with Naomi Fuller, whose granddaughter is in the same gymnastics class as Punk Yunkin's grandson. And you know Punk's son is on the county planning board. Looks like they've run into some more major money problems, what with the harsh winter we had, and now the bad summer affecting all the farmers and the tourist trade around here. Tax revenues on businesses will be way down, and county costs have gone way up.  I hate to tell you this, but it's been decided. And the news is worse than I thought.  Both the Stonecreek and Elgin libraries are going to be shut down come January. Maybe a lot sooner."

Chloe sat stunned. Marcy looked sadly at her dear friend; this was the first she'd heard of this news.  Chloe blinked several times, and seemed to bodily deflate a little.

"I'm so sorry, Chloe," murmured Marcy.

"No library at all?"  Chloe said, disbelief keeping her voice low.  She didn't notice that Sara had walked up silently behind her, her acute hearing picking up the bad news on her way over to the table.

"Bookmobile."  Doris said dismissively. "What a bunch of clods those county folks are. But with the way the economy is around here, you can't really blame them.  I thought I'd let you know early as possible, so you can get that house of yours on the market before they lay you off."

"Not selling my house." Chloe said softly. As much as she had been hoping to have an excuse to return to school full time, it suddenly struck her that the county was not only taking away a job that she had loved, but a second home that had provided her with much joy and comfort even from the earliest days of her childhood.  Tears sprang to her eyes, and then she felt a comforting hand on her shoulder.  She looked up to see Sara trying to smile at her, but her eyes were troubled and sad, too.

Chloe wiped at her eyes, and smiled up at Sara. "Guess you won't have to have that benefit talent show on my behalf any more," she sniffed. "And I was really looking forward to you and Marcy singing your duet of 'Just Walk Away Renee' for the grand finale."

Sara straddled the bench, and lifted up her lover's trembling chin to look at her. "I was looking forward to it, too, I love that song." she said softly and sincerely, with just a hint of teasing in her sparkling eyes.  "No, really. But look at it this way, you've already got a sort of replacement job, right?  And now you can go to school full time next spring, and I'll make flashcards or whatever you need to help you study every night. Act out scenes from 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'."

Chloe had to smile through her tears. "Flashcards?  For theater?  Well, unless you get your eyes checked and get yourself some glasses, you'll have to make them on poster board."  She dropped her head onto Sara's shoulder, and felt tender arms wrap around her and pull her closer. Chloe soaked up the comfort, and then peeked open her watery eyes to peer at Marcy and Doris, who were giving her sympathetic looks from across the table.

Doris snapped to attention. "What do you mean, you're not selling your house?  Aren't you getting the house with Sara?  I assumed you didn't apply for the loan with her because you already had a mortgage and couldn't get the approval to get Marcy's house until yours was sold."

Marcy quickly moved her hand across the bench to Doris' knee, to still her and to warn her to hold back any more comments or questions about Chloe and Sara and the State of the Mortgage. Not an old fool by any means, Doris stopped her inquiring line of chatter. Chloe had closed her eyes again, and Sara held her tighter. But when Sara looked Doris' way, she couldn't help but notice the glare the old woman was bestowing upon her.  Sara, embarrassed and going on the defensive, simply closed her eyes to avoid seeing the disappointment written clearly on Doris' face.

Since their blow-up the afternoon after Chloe had returned from California, she and Marcy had successfully avoided being alone together.  They had been together for the difficult emotional after burn of Nelson's jettison to California last week, and had spent family time together and worked side by side to help get ready for the picnic.  Marcy had been kept up to date with the goings on in Sara and Chloe's lives, and they about she and Dave's, but it had been a family affair, and the two best friends had not sat down to talk about the things that were hanging between them like a deflated balloon stuck up high in the branches of an ancient elm.  They were treating each other like neighbors now, without the intimacies of speaking about feelings, doubts or concerns for the future.  Neither woman knew if they wanted to even attempt to regain the former closeness they had held.  To both of them, it seemed as though delving into their own problems with their friendship might pull them back to a time when they were the be all and end all to each other.  What would their new relationship entail, and would it carry with it a suffocating coating of new resentments and frustrations?  Would it be better to treat each other as sisters-in-law, unhampered by the baggage of familial blood?  Each woman was equally uneasy moving through this uncharted territory in their relationship. What to say, what not to say?  What to leave in, what to leave out?

But as it always does, the time to talk snuck up on them unexpectedly, with no room to prepare, no easy exit to take to avoid the inevitable.

They were caught alone in the kitchen, two women standing, one in the doorway, one at the sink, and the air around them instantly swirled thickly with thoughts, anxieties, anger and hesitation as they looked at each other in surprise at the other's presence. Even the best laid plans of avoidance are sometimes usurped by the tricky and uncaring fickle finger of fate. Chloe had found a few beer mugs that needed washing out by the new bocce court and Marcy was, at that very moment in time, finishing up some leftover plates in the sink.

Their familiar conversational skills, stilted and rubbery from disuse, caused the ensuing words between them to carom and clang about the kitchen like two bumper cars trying to maneuver in an outhouse.

It was already too late for a hasty retreat, Marcy had already spied Chloe standing uncertainly in the kitchen's doorway.  Momentarily flustered, and her face flush with indecision, Chloe lifted the mugs in her hand, and walked as casually as she could to the sink, dropping them into the water as Marcy stepped back and made room for her.

"Here's a couple more," Chloe announced rather stupidly, the mugs already sinking under the soap bubbles.  She moved from the sink area to the kitchen archway, and more importantly, away from Marcy.  Proximity meant intimacy, and intimacy was not something she wanted to pursue with Marcy right now.

Chloe was still guiltily on the defensive, and Marcy was the angrier of the two women, so she forced the issue.  There was only so much tension her chunky body could hold, and most of the room lying within was being taken up by the baby she was carrying.  She needed to free it somehow, before she popped an unseen gasket from somewhere under her skin.

"Chloe," she said firmly to Chloe's retreating back. "Wait a minute."

Chloe stopped and turned, but not before she took a deep breath. "Yeah, Marse?" she said, her face a perfect false mask of friendliness and carefree attitude.

Marcy wiped her hands off on a dishcloth. She sat down at the kitchen table, and hadn't the first clue as to what she wanted to say. "Is that all?"

"All of what?"  Chloe was still ensconced in the relative safety of the archway, and she leaned up against the cool surface of the painted plaster.

"The dishes.  Or are the guys still chowing down out there?" Marcy said as flatly as her stare at her red-haired friend.

"They're in the barn, telling stories and drinking beer. Doris is telling some pretty dirty jokes," Chloe laughed lightly, although the rest of her felt like she was being filled with wet cement. "Stan brought his accordion, and he and Sara were singing a medley of Diana Ross and the Supremes songs when I went by.  Although they may have moved on to Gladys Knight by now."

"Buncha Pips." Marcy snickered.

"Yeah." Chloe eyed the screen door and was about to make her move.

But Marcy kept up the conversation. "I didn't know Stan could sing."

Chloe laughed ruefully, and stayed where she was. "He can't."  She saw and heard Marcy laugh in reply, and then Chloe's eyes traveled away from Marcy's gaze.

"So, you going to make that tattoo permanent?"

"Not sure yet. It is fading.  Sara seems to like it, I like it."

"I like it too, it suits you." Marcy said definitely. "Although I'll bet it would hurt."

Chloe's hand traveled back and felt for it, even though she knew it couldn't respond to her touch. "I suppose. I was hoping Sara would get a matching one. But something like this, and with her being an actress -- somewhat, well, it just wouldn't do to have something so ... permanent hanging out there in the public eye."

"She could always get one on her ass."  Marcy grinned at that.

"Well, with the way our body parts have been on display lately, there's no guarantee that wouldn't get seen either, Marse."

Marcy laughed again, but it was plain to the both of them that their banter was forced, and wasn't simply floating between them like a feather on the breeze any longer.

You're the one who told her that we had to move on,thought Marcy.  Maybe this is the way it needs to be from now on.  But something inside her fought against that thought. There's got to be more than this, after all this time. That thought stuck in Marcy's head, and nothing else seemed to prevail there to overshadow it, so she opened her mouth, and that sentence slipped out. "There's got to be more than this after all this time, Chloe."

Chloe's bare arms chilled, and the skin tightened and pulled her muscles closer to her bones.  She rubbed her arms, crossing them in front of her, and eyed Marcy. "I've got things on my mind, Marse.  So do you."


"Meaning that ..., " Chloe searched for words that wouldn't sound hurtful, and couldn't find them. "Meaning that I have lots of things going on, and when I think about it, you're not really high on the list right now."  Chloe bit her lip, she knew it sounded terrible, and it did. But it was true.

The truth hurts, and in this instance, it stung Marcy like a hornet. Her reaction was immediate. She stood up from her chair, and glared angrily at Chloe. "Go on then. Thanks for setting the record straight."

She went back over to the sink, and grabbed a dish cloth, her back to Chloe.

Chloe silently watched her from the archway, and thought about heading for the emotional safety of the barn. She wiped her hands across her face, and concentrated. She began softly and gently, as a visibly upset Marcy wiped the already clean counters off again. "But that's how it's supposed to be, isn't it Marse?  We were supposed to step back and quit having such a big involvement in each other's lives?  I think I've been trying to do exactly what you asked me to do, which is quit depending on you so much, and depend on myself, and my relationship with Sara."

Marcy stopped wiping, stood a moment gripping the dish cloth, thinking and trying to calm herself.  She sighed, still not turning around. "I suppose you're right. I just wish ..."

"You wish what, Marse?"  Chloe took a few steps towards her, then halted. She wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do, go to her, or stay exactly where she was.

Marcy turned, and leaned against the counter, meeting Chloe's questioning gaze. "I don't know, I just wish .... that I could have everything, I guess.  I guess I just can't."

"But you're going to be a mom and a wife soon.  And I'm going to be an Aunt."

"I know that, but I want my best friend back too.  I'm so mad at you right now, and I don't even know how to talk to you about it."

"I'm mad at you, too, Marse, but we'll recover.  I just have too much going on.  I just found out I lost my job.  Sara and I are in limbo. We're all heartbroken about Nelson.  I'm planning on teaching at two different places. I just got an unexpected job directing car commercials. And I have to apply to grad school.  I don't even know what direction to turn right now, which end is up.  On top of all of that, my best friend is about to get married and have a baby." She smiled.  "I'd like to get some of this nagging inconsequential job and school stuff straightened away so I can enjoy watching you waddle down the aisle.  I've got money riding on which will come first, the baby or the wedding." She smirked at Marcy. "I know the baby will be fine, but the wedding's still a 4 to 1 shot right now."

Marcy shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm thinking this baby might come first, and a wedding, oh, say, next year?"  She saw how bug-eyed Chloe had become at that idea, and she winked at her. "Just kidding.  My God, Doris would run me out of town on a rail."  She readjusted her stance on her sore feet. "Listen, I know we both have a lot coming up, I just want to make sure that we can ... work on reconnecting sometime. I just don't want to leave this laying out there between us."

Chloe heard the thin film of need in her friend's words, and wanted to reassure her. "We won't, Marse. We can, but ... just not this minute, OK?  Tonight I want to just enjoy the last day of the summer with my family and friends.  Sara's really missing Nelson right now, and so am I.  So is everyone, I suppose. There've just been so many changes ..."

"I hate changes.  Even if I'm the one who suggested them." Marcy frowned at Chloe. "It's just that I can't help but think that if I hadn't suggested we, you know, step back from each other, then you wouldn't have taken off to California, and I wouldn't be mad at you for doing it, and you and Sara would be getting the mortgage together and, well, I just hate changes.  As sore as my feet are, I'd rather stay 7 months pregnant for the rest of my life than to have to deal with any more."

"California was a good thing for me, Marse. And so was you telling me that things had to change.  You did a good thing, don't think of it any other way.  I appreciate you for it.  It woke me up to so many things."

"I hope so, Chloe, I really hope so. Even if I still think you were a selfish jerk for taking off like that. You really hurt Sara, and I don't think you realize the extent of how much it affected her.  That's going to be a sore point for me until we can talk about it. But now's not the time, I know.  And I'm sorry about Doris not knowing about Sara getting the mortgage without you ..."

Chloe raised a hand. "That's not your responsibility, Marcy.  You aren't supposed to be taking care of everyone in the world, you know."

"But we've taken care of each other for so long, Chloe, we always took turns.  Now it seems like it's neither one of our turns to take care of each other."

Chloe blew out a breath, and again tried to sound positive, to allay some of Marcy's concerns.  "We'll always do that, Marse, just like you said. But now we have others to worry about.  That's a good thing, Marse.  You said it was a good thing to move on, and I finally listened."

"For once, you listen to me and now I don't like what I said." Marcy grinned weakly, not liking her current state of indecision.

"I didn't either at the time, but it'll all work out, Marse. It has to. "

"It'll work out all right, but not the way anyone ever expects it to ... "

Chloe threw her hands up in the air, and chuckled. "It never does! That's half the fun of living in Stonecreek, nothing ever goes as planned!"

They shared a small laugh over that, and some of the tension wafted out of the room.

Marcy rolled her eyes. "And how.  Shit. Baby, wedding, Dave, you, Sara, Doris ..."

"You and Doris have gotten pretty close this summer, haven't you?"

Marcy had to think about this a moment. "I suppose we have.  We talk all the time, and when we aren't plotting something, she's been filling me in on all the dirt on every character in this town.  I really like her, she's like family, you know? She's kind of taken me under her wing. The mom I never had, except for your mom.  I had a dream the other day, you and I were begging money off your mom so we could do a 'Spin the Car' ... and she gave us a hard time, but gave us the money.  I miss those days." She laughed and then sighed. "Hell, I miss the carefree days of July of this summer."

Chloe flashed a crooked smile at her, and her heart clenched at the look of loss on Marcy's face. "We can't go back, Marse. I want to go forward.  I don't want to be the woman I was anymore. Well, most of it, but not the ..."

"Yeah, I know. But I miss that woman.  You don't even look like that woman anymore,"  Marcy said wistfully.

"She's still here." Chloe smiled. Then she laughed. "Look at me! Talking about myself in the third person!" She shook her head, continuing her smile. "I'm still here, Marse.  I'm not going far away." Her voice softened, and her smile faded into a look of determined seriousness.  "I'll always be there for you. I promise."

The pregnant woman with the wild curls internalized this promise, and decided it was good enough for her. It would be good enough for a lifetime. She was not good at words of devotion, but in this case, she did as best as she could. "Me too."

Marcy wiped at her eyes, and tossed the dishcloth into the sink, mad at herself for getting emotional and weepy. She grabbed a paper towel, and blew her nose, growling as she tossed it into the trash can. "You'd think one of us around here would be smart enough to buy a box of Kleenex for the kitchen, wouldn't you?" She smiled fragilely at Chloe, clearing her throat, getting a much needed grip as her redheaded friend stood rooted in place, waiting for more.

More didn't come, and Chloe had to satisfy herself with what she had already gotten. She rubbed at her chin, and grinned to herself. After all, this was Marcy.  I'll take what I can get, and that will be good enough. It always has been, and always will be. "I'm going back outside and see if anyone blew themselves up with those fireworks Doris bought in Ohio. You coming?"

Marcy shook her head, and smiled wearily. "No, go ahead. Tell Dave I'm hitting the hay.  Long day, and I'm pretty tired."

Chloe tilted her head, and asked, "Are you OK?" What she was really asking was, Are we OK?

Marcy knew exactly what Chloe meant, she'd had years of experience deciphering her enigmatic friend. "Yeah. I'm OK."

Chloe nodded and headed out the screen door, pausing one more time to look at Marcy.  She stood there for a moment, invisibly reaching her arms across the length of the kitchen to give her an encouraging hug, which she gratefully felt being returned, and then she left, a new warmth replacing the chilled feeling that had previously been so pervasive.  There had been much left unsolved and unsaid, but she knew with a complete confidence that no matter how long it took, things between the two of them would heal and their friendship would continue on.  Perfectly imperfect, as it always had been.

Concluded in Part 23

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