This alt. romance is an original story. A couple of the characters may remind you of someone, but they were all created by me.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended and no profit is gained.
This story depicts a loving relationship and hints at sexual relationships between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
This story contains occasional profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
Originally written April 4th - May 20th, 2010. Revised December 2010 - January 2011. Updated to Version 1.2-spec in August 2012.
Jackie: thanks for being the Voice of Reason.
The 'TruAmerica Corporation' and the 'Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort' are just figments of my imagination and do not exist in real life - although I've obviously used existing, similar hotels as templates.
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: An introverted, lonely secretary and an extroverted actress… how is that ever going to work? That's the question Sarah Madeleine Michaels asks herself when she meets her dream girl while on holiday at a fitness resort. To some, the answer is blatantly obvious, but for Sarah, finding out takes her on a very bumpy journey where she learns more about herself than she really wants to know…
PROLOGUE - SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 13th
Sarah Madeleine Michaels took off her oven mitts and hung them on a nail on the wall. She turned around and looked at the large clock above the kitchen door - her guest was right on time, for once.
On her way to the door, she cast a quick glance around her apartment - the table was set, the mood music was on, the candles were lit, the door to the bathroom was closed, the dust bunnies had all been exterminated by the Hoover and last but not least - all embarrassing items had been removed and chucked into the closet in the bedroom.
She checked her reflection in the mirror as she walked past it. She straightened the collar on her cobalt blue shirt and ran a hand through her black hair that came to just above shoulder-length. She made sure her belt buckle was centered and then she checked that her zipper of her black jeans was closed.
'God… thirty-three years old already… soon my hair's gonna turn gray and I'll be an old maid…' she thought and felt her shoulders slump slightly.
The door bell sounded again and Sarah tore herself away from the negative thoughts. In two steps, she was at the door and opened it - only to find her senses assaulted by a horrendous rendition of Happy Birthday.
"Happy birthday to you… happy birthday to you… Happy birthday dear Saaaaarah, happy birthday to youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu…"
Despite the off-off-off-Broadway quality of the singing, Sarah had to give kudos to her best friend, the perpetually enthusiastic and bouncy Kimberly Lloyd-Warren, for trying and she leaned down and gave the shorter woman a crushing bear hug.
"Oh, thank you, Kimmie," Sarah said and put her hand on Kimberly's shoulder.
"And let's hope you'll get laid real soooo-oooooooon…" Kimberly continued with a beaming grin, singing loud enough for the entire hallway to hear.
"Jeez! Are you trying to get me evicted? Come in before you make my neighbors call the police!" Sarah said and ushered her guest inside.
Kimberly carefully placed a large, purple paper bag on the floor and hung her jacket on the hallstand.
"What's that?" Sarah said, pointing at the bag.
"That's for me to know and for you to find out… later," Kimberly purred.
"Okay. Make yourself at home."
"You betcha. Oh, check out that wonderful smell! What are we having?"
"BBQ Chicken with potatoes, carrots and onions in butter sauce."
"That sounds deee-licious, Sarah."
"Yeah and hopefully, it'll end up as a BBQ chicken this time, instead of a piece of BBQ'ed charcoal," Sarah deadpanned and went into the kitchen.
"Works for me. Just say the word if you need any help," Kimberly said and fidgeted like she was prone to. She went back to the purple paper bag and picked it up - then she put it down again… and then she picked it back up. Finally deciding on keeping the bag in her hand, she went over to the couch and sat down, facing the large windows.
"Will do. Everything's on schedule right now, so…" Sarah said, busy using a corkscrew on a bottle of white wine.
"Oh, wow. I'd forgotten how spectacular the sunsets are when you watch them from the 17th floor…" Kimberly said and looked at the impressive vista outside the windows.
"Yeah, it's great. I don't think I could ever live at ground level again," Sarah said and placed two wineglasses on the coffee table.
"Chilled white before dinner?" she said and held up the bottle.
Sarah poured the wine into the two glasses and then went back to the fridge with the bottle.
"Sarah, get your butt on the couch. I've got a hot one for you," Kimberly said. She opened the paper bag and looked into it. She couldn't hide a big, anticipatory grin from spreading out over her features and with a wink, she beckoned Sarah over to her by patting the seat next to her.
Sarah sat down and turned around so she faced Kimberly. She couldn't hold back a throaty chuckle when she looked at the two of them - how it was possible for two people who were so different to be so close friends she'd never know.
Kimberly Lloyd-Warren had a full head of bopping ash blonde curls, blue eyes, a delicate nose and two cute dimples that somehow matched her sunny disposition perfectly. Sarah had heard Kimberly being described as a 'bag of bobcats' and she thought it was a pretty good fit.
Sarah Michaels was tall and well-developed, with high cheekbones, thick, black hair and eyes like chips of blue ice. She loved to have her hair down to her shoulders, but at the same time, she flat out refused to wear dresses or make-up, so she didn't really know where she fit in.
They had known each other since the first day of kindergarten, where they had struck up an unprompted friendship. They had been best friends ever since and by being there for each other, their Coming Out had been a lot less stressful than for so many other people.
"Yoohoo? Sarah? Where'd ya go?" Kimberly said and waved her hand in front of Sarah's face.
"Sorry, I… just thought about you and me… 's all."
"Yeah, well, a new chapter is about to be written in that particular book," Kimberly said and placed the purple bag on Sarah's coffee table with a beaming smile.
"From me to you, with love," she said and pushed the bag across the table.
Sarah smiled broadly and picked it up.
"Do you know how difficult it is to get you a present?"
"Well, I…" Sarah said as she eagerly looked down into the bag. All she could see was a card with a large smiley face on it. She furrowed her brows and looked at Kimberly.
"You already have all the Xena DVD's 'n everything and you know… what's a swell gal to do? So I decided to splash out and buy something for the two of us," Kimberly continued.
Sarah pulled the card out of the bag and opened it. Her eyes grew wider and wider as it sank in that her gift consisted of two tickets to a week-long stay at one of the best fitness resorts in the country.
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" she croaked as she studied the printouts.
"Happy Birthday, Sarah!" Kimberly said and leaned across the couch to give Sarah a big thump on her shoulder.
"Oh, God, this is… this is too much!"
"Hell, no. We're best friends, right?"
"No buts. Happy Birthday, Sarah."
"Gawd," Sarah croaked and wrapped her long arms around Kimberly to give the shorter woman a slow, loving, crushing hug.
"Thank you so very much, Kimberly," Sarah said when they separated. She wiped off her misty eyes on her sleeve, but found that the delicate fabric didn't agree with the salty liquid.
"You're welcome," Kimberly said and handed Sarah a napkin.
"A fitness resort… is this your way of saying that I should get in shape?" Sarah said with a grin as she dabbed the napkin against her eyes.
"Heh, heh. Nah, your shape is excellent. I've checked it out on the Net. They've got all kinds of things there, like tennis, handball and basketball courts, a mountain bike range, even Powerboxing classes."
"Really? I can't wait. I love Powerboxing. Oh, is Ellen coming along?" Sarah said as she crumpled the napkin into a little ball.
"No. It's just you and me. Secretly, I think she's glad to finally get a week off. Seven days of peace and quiet is something she doesn't often experience… well, that's what she told me, anyway," Kimberly said with a wink.
"Yeah, there can't be much of that while you're around, huh?" Sarah joked and laughed when Kimberly stuck out her tongue in a very juvenile fashion.
A loud DING was heard from the kitchen and Sarah jumped up and ran out there so she could get the chicken out of the oven before it became charred.
"Dinner's ready!" she shouted and pulled out the large fowl.
"Man, Sarah, that was wonderful," Kimberly said and put her napkin on her empty plate.
"Thanks, Kimmie. That wasn't one of my worst dinners. I'm just going to pop the dishes into the machine, so why don't you go over and sit in the couch?"
"You don't want my help?" Kimberly said with a mock pout on her face.
"Nah, I can do it myself. Go make yourself comfortable."
"Well, you don't have to tell me twice. I'm a couch potato at heart."
"No, you're not," Sarah said and laughed.
Ten minutes later, Sarah wiped her hands on a towel and used her elbow to click off the lights in the kitchen.
"The coffee's brewing, but it'll be a few minutes," Sarah said and sat down next to Kimberly who had a cheeky grin on her face.
"Oh, no, what are you up to now?"
"It's time for girl talk," Kimberly said, beaming.
"Girl talk? Oh, Kimmie, you know I don't do girl talk…"
"I'll start. Sarah, what do you look for in a woman?"
"Didn't you say you'll start?"
"Yes, and I'm asking you," Kimberly said and pointed at Sarah.
"What do I look for…? Hmmm. Well, you know, it's quite simple, actually. I look for…"
"A leggy, bosomy, blonde bombshell," Kimberly deadpanned.
"Well, I guess I wouldn't turn down a leggy, bosomy, blonde bombshell," Sarah said with a crooked grin. "No, seriously… I'm not choosy at all when it comes to the physical part. When it comes to women, my heart is looking for a genuine smile, a genuine laugh and a pair of sparkling eyes. Yeah," Sarah continued and then fell silent.
She started thinking about the last time she had been on a date. It had been the disaster to top all disasters. She had spent ninety minutes at a Christmas party downtown listening to a stuck-up, high-strung and generally insufferable woman talking about herself - and then the annoying woman had the gall to quit the date prematurely because Sarah wasn't 'sophisticated' enough, didn't drive the 'right' car and wasn't wearing the 'right' clothes.
"So. Anyway. That's enough girl talk for one evening. I hope your wife is fit and healthy…?" Sarah said, after clearing her throat.
"Oh, no, you're not getting off the hook that easily. You know, that's part of your problem."
"My problem? Thanks a lot, buddy. It's my birthday party!" Sarah said and nudged Kimberly's shoulder.
"Yeah, but best friends are supposed to be honest with each other, especially on birthdays. I know you don't have the world's most exciting job… I mean, being a secretary in a company that manufactures pencils isn't exactly glitzy, but look at you… you're a knockout."
"Jeez, Kimberly, now you're makin' me blush…"
"Why don't you ever go to one of the bars? I know there are a few high-class ones in the area and I'll bet you could find someone in an instant."
"Oh, you know… I've tried that once or twice, but…" Sarah said and ran her hand over the top of the couch to smooth out a non-existent crease.
"But you always sorta sit by yourself in the corner and the other girls sorta get the wrong impression of you, or you sorta don't interpret their signals correctly. In any case, you always end up walking home alone, right?"
Sarah leaned back in the couch and stared at her best friend.
"Well… I suppose, but… have you been spying on me?"
"I've known you for nearly thirty years, Sarah. I *know* you," Kimberly said and patted Sarah's knee.
"Then you know that me and the bar crowd just don't mix. I'm an old-fashioned romantic. I like dinner, dancing and a midnight stroll in the park, but… it's just so hard to meet available women. I know I'm an introvert, but that's just who I am, Kimberly."
"A old-fashioned, romantic, introvert butch with a large wristwatch and a wallet on a chain," Kimberly said and laughed out loud. "Where is your wallet, anyway?" she continued and leaned towards Sarah to see the aforementioned item.
"It's in my motorcycle jacket," Sarah deadpanned.
"But anyway, all the other secretaries at the office are straight… In fact, I think I'm the only lesbian in the entire company," Sarah said and shrugged.
"You could try to broaden your horizon. Have you ever considered using one of those online dating services?"
"Oh, please. Deadbeatzfreakzandgeekz-dot-com? That's for the desperate people."
"And you're not?" Kimberly said with a wink.
"No. Nuh-uh. Just because I'm two years away from being an official Old Maid doesn't mean I'm desperate. I think the coffee's ready," Sarah said and quickly got up from the couch.
"This conversation ain't over, young lady!" Kimberly shouted after Sarah's retreating form.
A few minutes later, Sarah poured the steaming hot coffee into two cups and reached for the sugar bowl.
"Not for me, thanks," Kimberly said and held her hand above the cup.
"Yep. I need to lose some weight. Listen, Sarah… to get back to the other thing, I wish you'd at least look for someone to… well, to have fun with. I've been with Ellen for four years now and they've been the best years of my life. I wish you could experience that. A relationship is a magical thing," Kimberly said and took a sip from the cup.
"When it works."
"And if it doesn't, you'll just have to work hard to get it back on track. It's just like a car. If ya don't check under the hood from time to time, the machinery won't work."
"Yeah. I suppose," Sarah said and toyed with the ear of her cup.
"Who knows, you might meet someone at the resort," Kimberly said, looking over the rim of her cup.
"Now there's an idea. I could marry some filthy rich, blue-haired 85-year old widow and live off her fortune when she croaks."
"That wasn't exactly what I had in mind… but if it works for you, I'm cool with it. Stud," Sarah said and thumped Sarah's shoulder.
DAY 1 - SATURDAY, MAY 8th
As soon as Sarah and Kimberly cleared the arrival hall at the airport, they made a beeline for the nearest car rental company and rented a white BMW 328i Coupe.
After all the paperwork had been completed, they turned off the parking lot and ventured out into the busy AM traffic.
Despite the attendant's best efforts, Kimberly had felt completely lost when none of the knobs and dials were where she was used to, so when Sarah had offered to drive all the way, she had gladly accepted.
"102.2 miles to go, according to the GPS," Kimberly said, checking the readout on the electronic equipment. She made herself comfortable in the front seat and folded down the sunscreen.
"102 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank o' gas, half a pack o' cigs, it's dark and we're wearin' sunglasses," Sarah drawled.
"Uhhhh… I'm sorry…? You know we're not anywhere near Chicago, right?"
"It's from the Blues Brothers," Sarah said and adjusted her sunglasses.
"Oh… you know I don't do those ancient movies."
"But I could quote endlessly from Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts… if ya want?"
"Uhhh, no, thank you. Let's hear some music instead," Sarah said and turned on the radio.
Soon, they were cruising down the Interstate, with the air-conditioning going at full blast and the radio at 'eleven'.
100.7 miles later, they turned off the Interstate and drove up a smaller road, headed for a huge structure.
"I guess we don't need the GPS anymore, huh?" Kimberly said and pointed out of the window.
"No. Even Stevie Wonder could find that big thing."
"Holy flip! Will ya look at that huuuuuge building!" Kimberly said excitedly as they drove closer to the hotel.
Sarah turned off the road and pulled up to a bar blocking their entry to a parking lot. She rolled down the window and looked intently at a metal post connected with the bar that had three buttons and a slot for an access card.
"Now what?" Kimberly asked and lifted her sunglasses so she could see what was going on.
"I reckon I need to press this little ol' button right here…" Sarah said and put her index finger on a button marked 'visitors'. A deep, buzzing sound was heard and the bar rose.
"Yep, that was the one," Kimberly said and dropped her sunglasses back in place.
As soon as they entered the parking lot, the sheer size of the resort made both women shake their heads in amazement. The main building was a high-rise, stretching far up into the heavens and next to it was a two-storey, mall-like structure, with a very extravagant entrance made of glass, concrete and chrome.
"… Thirty-two… thirty-three… thirty-four… thirty-five floors!" Kimberly said and whistled.
"I feel like a country bumpkin visiting the big city for the first time," Sarah said and laughed at her own joke.
They drove slowly around the parking lot until they found a vacant spot that wasn't too far away from the entrance to the high-rise.
Sarah pulled the little lever to open the trunk and then got out of the car. The heat almost bowled her over and she rapidly unbuttoned the top two buttons of her shirt.
"Hot, huh?" Kimberly said and used a piece of cardboard to fan her face.
"Too hot for tennis, that's for sure."
Sarah reached into the trunk and picked out her own travel bag. She put it down on the ground and then took out Kimberly's two big suitcases.
"Kimmie, try to go into the lobby and see if you can find a baggage trolley or some such," Sarah said and wiped off her suddenly sweaty neck.
"Good thinking, hon. I'll be right back."
A few minutes later, Kimberly returned, pushing an unusually large baggage trolley.
"Hey, ya didn't need to steal the whole freight train. A single wagon would've sufficed," Sarah joked.
"Laugh it up. They're all this size. You're tallest, you're pushing," Kimberly said as she placed their luggage on the cart.
"You got it."
Kimberly and Sarah walked through the automated double-doors and into a very stylistic reception area. The floor was white marble, very smooth and shiny and the reception desk itself was made of white, frosted glass and chrome tubes with a few golden accents here and there. The wall behind the desk was covered by an abstract sculpture carved out of dark gray granite and sprinkled with little, reflective crystals.
"Hello and welcome to the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort," the desk clerk said and smiled at Kimberly and Sarah - a plastic smile, Sarah noted.
"The Prudence Hotel?" Kimberly said, chuckling.
"Yes, indeed. How may I help you?" the desk clerk said, still wearing her plastic smile that had already begun to grate on Sarah's nerves.
The desk clerk was a young woman in her early twenties, wearing dark gray shorts and a dark blue polo shirt with the hotel's logo emblazoned on her left breast. On her right breast, a small name tag stated her name was 'Cheryl'.
"This is Miss Michaels and I'm Mrs. Lloyd-Warren. I've made reservations for two apartments for the week," Kimberly said and put the printouts on the counter.
"Thank you," Cheryl said and took the documents. She read them and began clicking on her computer. After a few seconds, the printer spewed out two pieces of paper which Cheryl put back on the counter.
"Miss Michaels, you have apartment 811 and Mrs. Lloyd-Warren, you're in apartment 812. They're located on the eighth floor. You both need to sign here, please," she said and pointed at a dotted line on the first printout.
After Kimberly and Sarah had signed, Cheryl took back the papers and checked Kimberly's signature against the information from the credit card company. Satisfied that they were identical, Cheryl inserted two blank access cards into a machine and punched a few numbers into the computer. When a small LED light changed from red to green, she took the cards out of the machine and placed them on the counter.
"Here are your keycards. The door to your apartments can only be unlocked by inserting the red end of the keycard into the slot on the door. The yellow end of your keycard is used for gaining access to the adult swimming pool, the Genuine Finnish Sauna and the Turkish Bath & Massage."
"But does it work with the minibar, huh?" Kimberly joked - unfortunately, Cheryl didn't seem to be in the mood for joking because, apart from a raised eyebrow, she didn't change her facial expression the slightest.
"Never mind…" Kimberly said and put her keycard into one of her bags.
"To get to the eighth floor, you can either use our Scenic Elevator, over there," Cheryl said and pointed at a set of elevator doors next to the entrance. "… or our Turbolift, over there," Cheryl pointed down the other end of the hall. "… or you can use the stairs, over there," she continued and pointed at a flight of stairs going upwards.
"Oh, hell no, not the stairs!" Kimberly said and shook her head vehemently.
"The TruAmerica Corporation wishes you a pleasant stay at the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort," Cheryl said, still wearing her patented plastic smile.
"Thank you. C'mon, Kimmie. Let's check out the Scenic Elevator," Sarah said, anxious to get away from the smiling automaton at the desk.
"Yep. I'll just grab one of these," Kimberly said and took a brochure from a display stand.
They placed the baggage trolley in front of the Scenic Elevator and Sarah whistled slowly.
"Wow… no wonder they call it the Scenic Elevator," she said and craned her neck upwards, looking at the empty elevator shaft. The shaft was simply a tube of glass on the outside of the building, offering an unrestricted view of the surrounding area.
"Holy flip, can you imagine going up to the thirty-fifth floor in this thing? Oh, boy," Kimberly said, holding the brochure in her hand.
"Yeah, I can, actually…"
Suddenly, they were swamped by a group of elderly men and women, all wearing mismatched sports clothes and headbands. Some of them were using canes, one even had a walker, and they were all jostling for position to be first into the Scenic Elevator.
"There's no room for all of us when we have this damn freight train with us. Let's take the Turbolift instead, Kimmie. We can take the scenic route when we're going down to eat lunch," Sarah said and began to back away from the elevator doors.
"Hey, Sarah… you have one guess. What do you think 'adult swimming pool' means?" Kimberly said, closely studying the brochure she had taken from the reception desk.
"Hmmmm… no idea," Sarah said and pressed the UP button on the Turbolift.
"Co-ed. Nudist. Swimming. Pool."
"No shit," Kimberly said and showed Sarah a picture of a group of men and women who were standing around a pool.
"But they're all wearing clothes?"
"Not the people in the water. If ya squint, ya can see a bare butt… right there," Kimberly said and pointed at an unidentifiable skin-toned blob in the background of the picture.
"That could be anything, Kimmie."
The Turbolift arrived with a Ding and Sarah pushed the heavy baggage trolley into it. She pressed the 'Eight' and waited for the doors to close.
"It's a butt. I know what a butt looks like," Kimberly said and wiggled her eyebrows.
As soon as the doors closed, the Turbolift lived up to its name and sent Sarah and Kimberly skyward at breakneck speed.
On the eighth floor, the doors opened and the two women walked out on wobbly legs.
"My bwain… my bwain… my bwain is stuck in my thwoat!" Kimberly croaked and grabbed her head to make sure it was still attached to her shoulders.
"Next time, we'll take the Scenic Elevator!" Sarah said and shook her head.
"So, which way… oh, it's over there," Kimberly said and pointed at a sign on the wall which read
<- 801-810 * 811-820 ->
Once they had found apartment 811, Kimberly took Sarah's keycard and tried to get it into the electronic equipment on the lock.
"Was it the red or the yellow end into the slot? I think it was the yellow," Kimberly said, trying to mash the plastic card into the reader.
"Nope, it was the red."
Kimberly flipped over the keycard and inserted it into the slot. After a few seconds, a loud click was heard and the door was unlocked.
"It was the red end. I knew it all along."
Kimberly pushed the door open so Sarah could roll the trolley inside.
"Wow, it looks even better than on the website!" she said, standing in the doorway.
"I wouldn't know, you're blocking my view…"
Kimberly ran over to the balcony and pulled apart the net curtains, so she could peek out of the windows.
"Oh, what a vista, man!"
"I'll have to take your word for it. Will ya give me a hand with the luggage? The trolley won't fit through the door.
"Oh… oh, sure. I'll be right there," Kimberly said, unable to tear herself away from the view. Sarah chuckled and stepped over the trolley to see for herself what all the fuss was about.
The apartment was made up of three rooms: a large living room with a couch arrangement, a comfortable armchair and a sideboard with a large flatscreen TV on it; a bedroom with a Queen-sized bed and three closets; and a relatively large bathroom with a spa.
The bathroom had white tiles on the walls and the floor, but the two other rooms were both equipped with an expensive looking carpet that had an abstract symbol woven into the fabric in a dark gray/pale gray pattern.
Sarah walked up to stand next to Kimberly and wrapped her arm around the shorter woman's shoulders.
"Thanks for the birthday present, Kimmie. This is really something else. I can't begin to tell you how excited I am to be here," Sarah said and gave Kimberly a big squeeze.
"You're welcome. Oh, we're gonna have a superfantastic time here, I'm sure of it!"
"Me, too. Are ya going to help me with the luggage now?"
Ten minutes later, Sarah was busy putting clothes into the closet in the bedroom when Kimberly bounced into the apartment, waving a piece of paper she held in her hand.
"Didya see it? Didya see it? No, ya didn't see it!" she said and jumped up and down.
"Hold yer horses, pardner! See what?"
"The free ticket to the variety show!"
"They have a variety show?"
"Apparently. It's in a basket next to the teevee… come on," Kimberly said and tugged on Sarah's shirt, forcibly pulling the dark haired woman out of the bedroom.
"Right there," Kimberly said and pointed at a small reed basket standing on the sideboard.
"A gift basket? How cool," Sarah said and went through the various items on display - a plastic jar with a liter of Papaya juice, a sugarfree candy bar, five sticks of sugarfree chewing gun, a gift certificate for a free drink in one of the restaurants in the mall and in a small envelope, a free ticket for the variety show.
"Papaya juice?" Sarah said and wrinkled her nose. She studied the small print on the plastic jar, but quickly put it back down on the sideboard.
"If you don't want it, gimme! It tastes great. Ellen buys it occasionally," Kimberly said and reached for the jar.
"Be my guest. A sugarfree candy bar… oh, joy."
"Yeah, you can keep that. I don't do sugarfree," Kimberly said and tossed the candy bar back into the basket.
"The variety show is tonight at seven-thirty… you wanna go?"
"Of course we're going to go! This week, we're going to do all kinds of things we wouldn't usually do, Sarah-baby. And that includes going to a variety show," Kimberly said and hooked her arm inside Sarah's.
"And best of all, it's a free ticket, so if the show sucks, we can walk out without losing money," Sarah added.
"Deal," Sarah said, grinning.
"Yippee! Don't forget the gift certificates for the free drink. First I need a shower, but then I want to visit the mall downstairs. Let's go celebrate our arrival in a cozy little tourist trap."
"Good idea. Let's meet out in the hall in fifteen minutes," Sarah said and shooed Kimberly out of the apartment so she could finish organizing her clothes.
Sarah stepped out into the hall, patting her front pocket to check if she had remembered the keycard - she had. She shut the door and yanked the door handle a couple of times to make sure the door was really locked.
Down the hall, Kimberly opened her door and shouted, "Almost there!"
"I'll wait," Sarah replied and leaned against the wall.
A few minutes later, Kimberly bounced out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind her. "And here I am, all ready to party… oh-my-God, Sarah… you've shaved your legs!" Kimberly said loud enough for the entire hall to hear.
"Oh, Jeez, pipe down will ya. So I've shaved my legs. Big deal," Sarah said and self-consciously crossed the aforementioned limbs. She was wearing a peach colored oversized T-shirt, a pair of white Bermuda shorts that came to her knees and white Nikes.
"This gotta be the first time in your adult life that you've shaved your legs," Kimberly said, sticking out her tongue.
"Of course it isn't. Jeez!"
"Just makin' a comment. Anyway, you look great, Sarah. Peach, huh?"
"What's wrong with peach?"
"Nothing at all wrong with peach. It's just a color I've never seen you wear before. Hey, did you remember the gift certificate for the free drink?"
"Yep," Sarah said and held up the piece of paper.
"I didn't," Kimberly said and went back to her own apartment to get hers.
As they were waiting for the Scenic Elevator, Kimberly turned around to show off her new outfit. "How do you think I look?"
Kimberly was wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt with a low collar and the top three buttons undone, and she had a scarf made out of blue silk draped around her neck. Blue shorts and white trainers completed the ensemble.
"Great, but won't it be too hot with the scarf?"
"Perhaps, but who says I have to dress like a mouse just because I'm married, huh?"
"True. You're definitely gonna attract attention."
The Scenic Elevator arrived with a Ding and Sarah and Kimberly stepped into the glass tube.
A TruAmerica employee was manning the lift and he greeted them with a replica of the desk clerk's plastic smile. According to his tag, his name was 'Mike', but neither Kimberly nor Sarah felt a burning desire to strike up a conversation with him.
"The lobby, please," Sarah said and tried hard to concentrate on the beautiful view outside the lift instead of fixating on the employee's irritatingly fake smile.
"Oh, wow! This is so cool!" Kimberly said as soon as they had entered the Mall.
The entire mall was encased in a huge structure made of glass and chrome and it stretched out further than they could see. An eclectic mix of high-class and fast food restaurants lined both sides of a wide path that was paved with pale yellow flat cobblestones. A bar had been inserted between every third restaurant, creating a unique and very cozy atmosphere.
"Oh, man, I never wanna leave!" Kimberly said and jumped up and down, slightly ruining her suave image.
"What d'ya want to do first, Kimmie? Get the free drink, or sightseeing?"
"Sightse… no, the free… The free drink."
"The first one looks nice… Ye Olde Englishe Bar. Sounds fun. C'mon, let's follow the yellow brick road!" Kimberly said and made a beeline for the bar.
Sarah followed her a bit more sedately and sat down on a bar stool. " 'Englishe' ? Isn't there an E too much?" she said and laughed.
"Hello Ladies. Are you new here?" the bartender drawled in a slightly phony English accent as he was polishing the counter top.
"That's right. We've got these free drink certificates," Kimberly said and put hers on the counter. Sarah did the same and the bartender collected them.
"Two free drinks coming right up," he said, took two miniature tumblers and poured beer into them.
"Here ya go, Ladies. They're on the house," he said and walked away.
Sarah held up her three-ounce tumbler and made a face.
"Well… never look a gift horse in the mouth, I s'pose," she said and swallowed the free beer in one gulp.
A little later on, they reached a small piazza that had clearly been designed to invoke a sense of ancient times. A circular basin had been placed in the exact center of the piazza and it was crowned by a granite sculpture, proudly standing on a small pedestal. At irregular intervals, water sprayed out of a hidden nozzle and trickled down the sides of the sculpture before pooling in the basin below.
Several little figures of men and women engaged in all sorts of athletic events had been carved into the granite and in Sarah's eyes, it all looked terribly fake.
"Oh, there's the theater," Kimberly said and pointed at a building drawn back from the left side of the piazza. A contents bill announcing the acts in the variety show was displayed next to a pair of closed double-doors and Kimberly strode over to it to check it out.
"And Club Feelgood is opposite it. How convenient," Sarah said and followed Kimberly at a slower pace.
"They have three shows today, three-thirty, five-thirty and seven-thirty," Kimberly said, pointing at the contents bill.
"Who's performing? Some crooner who couldn't cut it in Vegas?"
"Uhhh, let me see… Professor Gemini LaQuizzle, Magician Extraordinaire, the Amazing Galbraith Twins, a Ballroom Dancing Exhibition starring June and Richard Eberhardt and the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort choir and orchestra, conducted by Wilfred F. Zane," Kimberly said, reading off the contents bill.
"Wilfred! That sounds… hmmm. What do you reckon the average age is for those people? Eighty-two?"
"We're gonna find out when we come back for the seven-thirty show," Kimberly said and hooked her arm inside Sarah's.
"C'mon, let's go find a place to eat," she continued and pulled the taller woman away from the theater.
"Well, at least we have one hell of a selection to choose from…" Kimberly said, chuckling. She had unfolded the brochure and was busy going through the list of restaurants available to them.
Leaning in, Sarah put her chin on Kimberly's shoulder and peeked at the brochure. "Italian… had that last night. Kosher… no. Middle Eastern… no. Seafood… no. Vegetarian… no. Scandinavian… no. Texas steak house… no."
"Boy, you're so damn picky!"
"Thai… no. Argentinean… no. Mexican… too much gas," Sarah said, prompting a very loud belly laugh from Kimberly.
"Turkish… no. Russian… no. Oh, look, The Sausage King, genuine German Brats served. How about it, Kimmie?"
"Bratwurst, you know… fried sausages. With potato salad and everything… oh, I used to get that all the time when I visited my grandparents up in Wisconsin."
"Yeah. Let me see where it is…" Sarah said and yanked the brochure out of Kimberly's hands. After getting the info, she looked around to find a point of reference.
"Mmmmmm, okay, got it. The theater is number forty-six and the King is number seven, so it's up near the entrance. Come on, you'll love it," Sarah said and pulled the reluctant Kimberly towards the restaurant.
It didn't take long for Sarah and Kimberly to find the Sausage King and they were soon walking through the Oktoberfest-styled entrance. Even though the restaurant was well attended and the line at the beer taps was quite long, they didn't have any problems finding a table.
"This better be good, Sarah. Fried sausages," Kimberly said and snorted as she sat down opposite Sarah.
"Hey, what's so wrong with that?"
"You can choose from the world's finest cuisine and you pick… fried sausages."
"So? I love sausages. We can sample the fine cuisine the other days," Sarah said and picked up the menu. It didn't take her long to decide on what she wanted and she looked impatiently for the absent waiter.
Finally, a man in his late fifties came out of the kitchen and greeted them with a slightly less than enthusiastic nod.
"Guten tag. What can I get ya?" he said and placed a pair of salt and pepper shakers and two napkins on the table.
"Two number ones, please," Sarah said and gave the man the menus.
"All right. American or German-style potato salad?"
"Uhhh… German style for both."
"No, wait a minute… what's the difference?" Kimberly said.
"German-style potato salad is served cold. American style is served hot, Miss," the waiter said.
"Oh… in that case, I'd like it German-style, please."
"How many Brats do you want each?"
"Well… that depends. How big are they?" Kimberly said.
"Eight inches long, one inch across, Miss."
Kimberly did a double-take and cleared her throat.
"Just one for me, thank you," she croaked.
"I'd like two, please," Sarah said and smirked when she looked at Kimberly's wide-eyed expression.
"All right. And beverages?" the man said and wrote the order down on a small notepad.
"A medium-sized pitcher of draught, please. And two glasses," Sarah said and took out her wallet.
"You pay when you're done, Miss, please. One pitcher, two potato salads and three Brats coming right up," the man said and closed the notebook.
"Thanks. Sounds great," Sarah said and leaned back in the chair.
The man nodded and left the table.
"Boy-o-boy-o-boy… is there no end to the wild and crazy things you expose me to, Sarah?" Kimberly said with a broad grin on her face.
"Trust me. You're gonna love your Brat," Sarah said and arranged her napkin.
Kimberly leaned forward in her chair and looked around sneakily. "That's what you said that about that horrible pink drink, remember?" she said in a stage whisper.
"Pink Demon… I used to have that all the time when I was a teenager. I wonder if…?" Sarah said and opened a small menu for wines and spirits that the man had forgotten to take with him when he left.
"Don't you even think about it, young lady!" Kimberly whispered.
A little while later, the waiter put down two plates, each loaded to the rim with a huge helping of potato salad and the greasiest fried sausages Kimberly had ever seen.
"Oh, man! Look at that," Sarah said and grabbed the silverware.
"Mmmmhh, yeah. I can feel my arteries clogging as we speak," Kimberly said and quickly stuck out her tongue.
The waiter returned with the pitcher of beer and put it in the center of the table. "Will that be all?"
"Yes, thank you. The Brats smell great," Sarah said and grinned.
Kimberly sighed in a overly dramatic fashion and picked up her fork to go to work on the mountain of potato salad.
At a quarter past seven PM, the doors to the Prudence Memorial Theater were opened and Kimberly and Sarah filed in with the rest of the crowd, which had actually turned out to be much larger than Sarah had anticipated.
They were met by a TruAmerica employee, wearing the same fake smile as all the others. "Hello and welcome to the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort Variety Show. Your tickets, please."
Sarah held out the two free tickets and the woman took them.
"We're together, so we wanna sit next to each other," Sarah said and reached around Kimberly's shoulder.
"Row eleven, seats thirty-nine and forty," the employee said and used a ball point pen to put a quick doodle on the tickets, before handing the two pieces of paper back to Sarah.
"Thank…" Sarah started to say, but the employee had already turned away from them.
"Hello and welcome to the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort Variety Show. Your tickets, please."
Sarah chuckled and put her hands on Kimberly's shoulders to push the shorter woman safely through the crowd.
"Row eleven… here it is…" Sarah said and pointed at the row of chairs. The chairs were in a deep burgundy color and appeared to be soft and comfortable - they even had armrests.
"I got dibs on seat forty," Kimberly said and quickly put her hand on the armrest. It was the first one from the aisle and she shuffled in and sat down faster than Sarah could register.
"Man, I don't think there's enough room for my legs in seat thirty-nine," Sarah said and looked at the relatively small space between the rows of chairs.
"Oh… you're right. No problem, let's swap. That way, you can stretch your timberlogs out into the aisle."
"Anytime. Hey, what do you think the show is like, anyway? I hope it's not too long. I have to go to the little girls' room," Kimberly said, prompting a groan from Sarah.
"The peanut gallery should remain quiet at all times," Kimberly said and stuck out her tongue.
"Told ya you shouldn't have had that third glass of beer at the dinner. Anyway, I doubt these variety shows can attract talented people, so, you know… it might be dull," Sarah said and sat down. As she had feared, her knees banged against the backrest of the chair in front, but by sitting crooked, she was able to stretch her legs past the chair and into the aisle.
Suddenly, the lights started to dim and the anticipation rose among the audience. Once the lights had dimmed to the point of almost not being there at all, the heavy curtains were pulled apart, revealing an empty stage.
A single spotlight was turned on, shining a cone of light onto the center of the stage. From the left side, a solitary figure walked onto the stage to a rapturous applause from the audience.
The figure, dressed in white tie and tails and wearing white gloves, a crimson cape and a black top hat, was carrying a table with a marquee that said "Professor LaQuizzle, Magician Extraordinaire."
The figure put down the table in the cone of light and adjusted his top hat so it was on crooked. He smoothed out his dark mustache, clicked his heels together and bowed curtly to the audience, who responded by clapping again.
"Hey, there's something queer about that man," Sarah whispered to Kimberly who nodded in return.
"It's a woman. I'm sure of it."
"She's doing a pretty good job of playing a man."
The magician reached into his sleeve and pulled out a magic wand. He took off his top hat, revealing a shaggy mop of white-blonde hair. He placed the hat upside down on the table and tapped twice on the rim.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the professor said in a surprisingly rich voice. "For my first trick, I shall conjure up a dove. A white dove, no less. But this trick requires absolute silence and therefore, I must ask you to…"
Unscripted, someone in the audience sneezed and people started laughing. The magician was quick to take the cue and ran to the edge of the stage, gesticulating wildly, and silently, to the unfortunate person. More people started laughing and the magician presented a look of utter outrage, throwing his arms in the air. As he was doing that, the unmistakable sounds of a mocking trombone was played over the speakers and pretty soon, the magician had the audience in stitches.
"Wow, she's one hell of a mime. It's like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie," Sarah said.
Once the audience had calmed down, the magician returned to the table and said,
"Abracadabra!" - unfortunately, no white dove flew out of the top hat. The audience laughed again and the magician looked down into the hat - only to jump back in a shocked fashion. He clutched his head and staggered across the stage.
At the same time, a rabbit climbed out of the top hat and the audience went wild.
"How in Sam Hill did that happen? She was just wearing that hat!" Kimberly said, rubbing her eyes.
"There's gotta be a hole in the table."
"Yeah, but there wasn't a hole in the hat!"
"Shhh, she's not done."
The magician slowly went up to the table and picked up the animal so the audience could see that it was a real, live rabbit. With a slow shake of the head, he walked towards stage-right and gave the rabbit to an unseen stagehand.
When the magician returned to the table, he reached into the top hat and found a small note which he proceeded to turn around in his hand several times.
"For my next trick… which I'm quite sure will be successful as I've practiced it ever since I could walk…"
A smattering of laughter ran through the audience and the magician pulled the outraged look again.
"Ahem! For my next trick, I shall require an assistant. Will the person in… row eleven, seat forty please come to the stage!"
People ooooh'ed and started clapping.
"Wait a minute, that's me!" Sarah croaked and grabbed hold of the armrests in a near-panic.
"Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah!" Kimberly chanted, wearing a huge grin on her face.
"No wait, Kimberly… this is your seat! You go up there!"
A bright spotlight was turned on right in Sarah's face and she had to shield her eyes.
"And get laughed at by four hundred people? Hell, no! This is your fifteen minutes of fame, Sarah. Go for it!" Kimberly said and lifted Sarah's arm high up in the air.
When the audience saw the motion, they cheered and clapped even louder.
Sarah groaned pitifully, but eventually rose from her seat. On her way up to the stage, she was thanking her lucky stars that the clothes she was wearing were at least halfway decent - well, save for the stain on her T-shirt where she had dropped a forkful of potato salad…
As Sarah stepped onto the stage, the magician greeted her with a firm handshake.
"Don't worry. This is just a bit of fun," she said for Sarah's ears only.
"Good heavens! Are you wearing stilts?" the magician said out loud and bend over to look at Sarah's long legs. "Amazing!" she said out loud and moved her hand in a sweeping motion to present Sarah's legs to the audience.
The audience laughed again and Sarah felt like her cheeks were close to spontaneous combustion. She had a nervous smile on her face and didn't know what to do with her hands, so she just let them fall limply down her sides.
"All right, my fair Lady. Oh, I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Hello, Sarah. I'm Professor Gemini LaQuizzle. I'm quite sure you've heard of me."
"Not really, no," Sarah said with a cheeky grin. The audience roared with laughter and the magician sent a mock Death Glare in Sarah's direction.
"Well, after tonight, I'll make sure you'll *never* forget me!" the magician said loudly and twirled his mustache again.
Up close, Sarah couldn't help but notice that the woman playing the magician was in fact quite good looking. She appeared to be in her late twenties, with very soft features, a cute button nose and jade-green eyes that sparkled in the bright lights. The only thing that spoiled the near-picture perfect image was the dark brown mustache.
The magician went over to the table and picked up a square object.
"Now! This is a brick. A common, garden-variety brick, made of the finest clay in the country. Now observe, as my lovely assistant here will shatter this brick against her forehead!"
The audience ooooh'ed again and Sarah blinked a few times. The smile froze on her face and she felt like she should bolt from the stage.
Suddenly, a young boy dressed like a ship's mate ran onto the stage with a note for the magician.
Professor LaQuizzle took it and read it carefully. Wearing his patented look of outrage, he crumpled the note in his fist and started doing the gesticulating shtick again, this time directed at someone off-stage. The mocking trombone started again and the audience laughed a great deal.
Sarah could see that another actress was waiting in the wings and she wondered what was going to happen.
The magician turned towards Sarah and looked down at the brick he was still holding in his hand - and then looked back up at Sarah. His shoulders slumped and he slinked back to the table. All of a sudden, the magician held up the brick and threw it off-stage, out towards the waiting actress.
Out of sight of the audience, the second actress deftly caught it and Sarah could see that it was simply a prop made of some kind of heavy foam. A sound effect of breaking glass was heard and the magician jumped and threw his hands in the air.
Out in the wings, the waiting actress picked up a rolling pin and started running towards the stage. This was apparently a cue for the music, because at once, a wild chase-like theme started playing over the speakers.
The magician quickly ran to stage-left, taking the spotlight with him, leaving Sarah to stand in relative darkness.
The second actress bounded onto the stage, wearing a very matronly costume. She appeared heavy-set and she had her hair tied up in a bun. She was wearing a white apron over a long, dark brown dress and she was swinging the rolling pin high in the air.
The audience roared with laughter and Sarah had to surrender to it as well. When the actress playing the matron raced across the stage, she winked at Sarah as she passed her.
Both the magician and the matron disappeared off to the left, waited for a few seconds and then reappeared, running back towards stage-right.
Once there and out of sight of the audience, the matron quickly put down the rolling pin and gave the woman playing the magician a small, rolled up note, which she inserted into her glove.
The magician came back onto the stage and pretended to wipe the sweat off his brow. He came out to the center of the stage and the spotlight returned to him and Sarah.
"Well! For my final trick, I shall produce a very valuable item from my lovely assistant's left ear!" he said and stretched out his arms in a very magician-like fashion.
The audience laughed again and the magician moved over next to Sarah. He tried to reach up a few times and even jumped on the spot, pretending not to be able to reach up to Sarah's lofty heights.
A ripple of applause trickled through the audience and a few people cheered.
"Ahem! Would you be so kind as to bend down for a moment?" the magician said.
Sarah decided to play along, even though she was a bit embarrassed for being made fun of in front of such a large group of people. She leaned down and put her hands on her knees.
"Thank you," the magician said and reached up behind Sarah's left ear.
"Ah… HA!" the magician cried loudly and pulled out a rolled up piece of paper, seemingly coming straight out of Sarah's ear.
Sarah gawked at the paper and couldn't help scratching her ear.
"No, no, I'm sure I got it all," the magician said cheekily, making the audience laugh again.
"Oh, take a look at this, Ladies and Gentlemen! A gift certificate worth one hundred dollars, valid in any of the restaurants, bars and fitness activities in the Mall! Congratulations, Sarah!" the magician said and held up the paper for people to see.
Just then, music started playing and the magician took Sarah's hand and raised it high in the air.
"Please give a big round of applause to my lovely assistant, Sarah!"
The audience responded by cheering loudly and Sarah blushed furiously and waved, very shyly, to the many people watching her.
Behind them, the heavy curtains started closing and two stage hands came out to remove the table with the props.
"Thanks, Sarah. That was fun, wasn't it?" the magician said for Sarah's ears only. She gave Sarah the gift certificate and pointed at the small set of stairs leading off the stage. Finally, she gave Sarah a blinding smile that nearly took the tall woman's breath away.
"And remember! Professor Gemini LaQuizzle, Magician Extraordinaire shall return!" the magician said and bowed to the audience. He turned around and fumbled directly into the curtains, nearly losing his balance.
The audience laughed again and started applauding to the sight of the magician trying to the find the gap in the curtains. He finally gave up and slinked off to stage-right.
Sarah sat down next to Kimberly and breathed a sigh of relief.
"My hero!" Kimberly said with a giggle. She batted her eyelids and pretended to fawn.
"Oh, knock it off. Man, it's hot in here," Sarah said and pulled out her T-shirt to get some much needed cool air to her body.
"A hundred bucks, that's so great. What are you going to use it on?"
"Uhhh, dunno. I'll find something," Sarah said and wiped some sweat off her brow.
Down at the stage, the curtains were pulled apart again and the next act came out to a new round of rapturous applause.
The Amazing Galbraith Twins turned out to be jugglers, leaving plenty of time for Sarah to mull over the magician's green, sparkling eyes.
DAY 2 - SUNDAY, MAY 9th
After getting dressed, Sarah walked back into the bathroom and clicked the light on. She looked at herself in the mirror and established pretty quickly that it was a very bad hair day indeed.
She sighed and tried to run a comb through her still damp hair, but no matter what she did, the hair still stuck out in weird directions. After trying for a minute, she threw down the comb and snorted loudly.
She went back into the living room and put on her wristwatch - it was just before nine, AM. Right on cue, her stomach growled and she picked up a copy of the hotel's brochure to see which of the restaurants served breakfast.
A few minutes later, someone knocked on Sarah's door and she went over to open it. "'Morning, Kimmie. Sleep well?"
"Nuh. Been having the burps all night. The damn vinegar in the damn potato salad doesn't agree with me at all."
"Well, you didn't have to eat it all, you know. You could have left some," Sarah said and chuckled.
"I didn't. How was your night?"
"I slept soundly," Sarah said with a grin.
"Uhhh… do you wanna borrow my gel?" Kimberly said and stifled a snicker when she saw Sarah's hair.
"It's the air-conditioning, okay? I don't have it this high back home. My hair hates it."
"Do you wanna stand there and insult me all day, or do you wanna go and eat breakfast?" Sarah said and picked up her keycard and her wallet.
"Oh, definitely breakfast. I got the jones for some pancakes."
"Well, let's do it, then," Sarah said and shooed Kimberly out of the apartment.
The mall was just as busy as it had been on Saturday and by the time Sarah and Kimberly reached the restaurant they wanted to try, the line to the breakfast buffet snaked its way nearly out to the central path.
"Oh, joy," Sarah grumbled and her stomach echoed her sentiments by growling.
"Mmmmh, this is gonna take us all morning," Kimberly said and started looking through the brochure to find an alternative.
"Hey, maybe the Sausage King serves a continental breakfast?" Sarah said and punched Kimberly's shoulder.
"Oh, hell, no. No more sausages. I want pancakes, dammit!"
"Yeah, well, I can understand that, but by the time we reach the counter, all the good stuff is going to be sold out."
Kimberly groaned and rubbed her forehead. "Whose bright idea was this, anyway?" she said and sighed.
"Uhhh, yours? Tell you what, let's go down to the Sausage King. There's a risk it might suck, but we can always come back here, right? Besides, this line ain't going nowhere," Sarah said and pointed at a large group of men and women who were standing at the head of the queue, all engaged in an animated discussion about the sorry state of modern breakfast buffets.
A few minutes later, Sarah and Kimberly walked through the entrance to the Sausage King and were surprised to see that only a few people were standing in line at the buffet.
"Oh, that's not a good sign," Kimberly said but picked up a tray anyway.
"Not so pessimistic this early in the morning, please. Let's see what they've got," Sarah said and put her hands on Kimberly's shoulders.
The buffet turned out to be well-stocked and Kimberly immediately started collecting various items.
"Cereal… milk for the cereal… white bread… buns… jam… and orange juice… but no flippin' pancakes!" Kimberly said and scowled fiercely at a empty plate placed underneath a small piece of paper that read 'Genuine US Pancakes'.
Sarah took a large mug and went over to the coffee vending machine. She pressed a button labeled 'Coffee - Black' and waited patiently for the dark brown liquid to fill up the mug.
"Kimmie, you want some coffee?"
"I want some pancakes!"
"I'll take that as a yes," Sarah said and took another mug.
The waiter from the night before came out of the kitchen area, tying an apron around his waist. He nodded to Sarah and Kimberly when he recognized them and then began to clear some of the tables.
Kimberly searched the buffet table thoroughly in the vain hope that a pancake had somehow been misplaced, but the search wasn't successful. She sighed and put down the tray.
"They don't have any pancakes…" she said and scrunched up her face.
"Milk and sugar?" Sarah said and held up the sugar bowl.
"No, thank you."
"If we come here earlier tomorrow morning, maybe they'll still have some left," Sarah said and moved her tray over to the buffet table. She took a plastic bowl and poured two spoonfuls of cereal into it. Then she took a small carton of milk and two slices of white bread.
"Yeah, I s'pose."
Behind Sarah and Kimberly, the waiter had been busy clearing the table and had accidentally listened in on the conversation. "Or, you could just ask the chef," he said with a grin.
"Oh! Do you have any left?"
"We're making a new batch as I speak. It'll be a few minutes, but then we'll have a plateful," he said and went back to clearing the tables.
"Super! I can wait a few minutes," Kimberly said and planted her feet firmly on the ground next to the buffet table so she wouldn't miss it.
"While you stand guard, I'll carry *both* our trays down to a table, okay?" Sarah said and winked.
"Okay. I'm not movin' an inch!"
A few minutes later, the waiter went into the kitchen area. He soon returned carrying a large plate with a stack of pancakes and put it down on the buffet table.
"Here ya go, Miss," he said and grinned again.
"Wheeee!" Kimberly squealed and quickly scooped up three pancakes on a small plate. She finished off by squirting golden syrup all over the pancakes, almost drowning the one on the bottom.
She carried the plate down to the table Sarah had chosen and sat down, wearing a huge grin.
"She scores!" she said and started digging into the top pancake.
"So, let me get this straight…" Sarah said, "you don't want sugar in your coffee, but you pour half a gallon of syrup on your pancakes?"
"Oh, that's hhmmhppf not the hhmmffhhg same thing at all," Kimberly said though a mouthful of pancake, relishing every bite.
"No?" Sarah said and crunched loudly on her cereal.
"Nope. Syrup is a hhmmhppf natural hhmmffhhg sweetener."
"Whatever you say, sugarbuns," Sarah said and chuckled.
Kimberly mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like 'smartass', but Sarah chose not to make a comment.
"Anyway. What do you want to do today, Kimmie?"
"I think we should check out the rest of the mall. Last night, we only made it as far as the theater. Unless I can't read a map…"
Sarah suddenly developed a nasty cough, where she sounded like she was hacking up a furball. "Oh, I'm sorry. You said something about a map?"
Kimberly narrowed her eyes, but at the same time, she was unable to hold back a chuckle.
"Ha, ha. Drop dead, gorgeous. I'm trying to tell you that we still have all the sports and fitness facilities to check out," Kimberly said and dug into the second pancake.
"Sorry," Sarah said with a cheeky grin.
"I forgive ya. According to the brochure, there'll be plenty to see and do down there."
"Is that where the Powerboxing classes are?" Sarah said and put some strawberry jam on a slice of white bread.
"Probably. Are you really serious about trying that? It looks so… so… badass."
"I think it looks sexy, actually," Sarah said and took a bite of the white bread.
"Heh. I guess you could meet some tough gals there."
"Never mind the girls, I wanna meet Master Lo Yee Ping, the creator. He's a legend."
Kimberly leaned her head back and laughed out loud. "You would, you weirdo!"
"He's so damn cool it hurts. I have several of his movies, you know."
"Oh yeah? Which ones? Fist-Fighter 14? Revenge Of The Buttkickers?"
"You can mock me all you want, but I've seen some of the DVDs you and Ellen have… and let me tell you, the Nora Roberts Collection Signature Edition won't buy you any street cred."
"Maybe not, but they'll buy me a ton of quality time on the couch with my wife. Can't beat that, can ya?" Kimberly said and took a long swig from her coffee.
"You're right, I can't. You win," Sarah said, chuckling.
On their way back from eating breakfast, Sarah and Kimberly had barely made it into the lobby of the high-rise when Cheryl, the desk clerk, waved them over to her.
"Miss Michaels!" Cheryl said and waved her arm again.
"I better go and check," Sarah said and strode over to the reception desk.
"Miss Michaels, there's been a note delivered to you by one of our runners. Apparently you forgot something in the theater last night," Cheryl said, handing Sarah a folded up piece of paper.
"Forgot something in the theater? I didn't forget anything… I wonder what the hell that's all about," Sarah said as she read the note.
I'm sorry I've had to contact you like this, but in the heat of the moment last night, we forgot a small detail.
I'm in room 1119 in the Prudence Hotel. Please come before noon, as I have a matinee at one PM and I need to be ready ahead of time.
J. Richards, "Professor LaQuizzle"
Sarah scrunched up her face and scratched her hair. She checked her wristwatch, which read a quarter past eleven.
"And that's it? Do you know anything about it?"
"No, I'm sorry, Miss, I haven't read the note. I only know what the runner told me. He didn't know your last name or your apartment number, but he described you and from there, it was easy enough to make the connection."
"Hmmm. All right. Thank you," Sarah said and walked back to the waiting Kimberly.
"Looks like the magician from last night wants a word with me," Sarah said, showing Kimberly the note.
"Yeah. Perhaps they're going to rescind the gift certificate."
"If they do, we're gonna sue the shirt off their backs!"
"One thing at a time, Tiger Lady. Let's take the Scenic Elevator."
A little while later, Sarah double-checked the apartment number on the slip of paper she'd been given - Room 1119. She looked up and saw the same number on the door.
Putting the piece of paper in her shorts pocket, Sarah knocked twice on the door.
'It's open!' a muffled voice said from the other side.
Sarah opened the door and peeked in. The living room had been transformed into a dressing room and it was filled past capacity with large suitcases and tons of clothes.
Sarah stepped inside and looked around. The apartment was identical to her own, except that a make-up table with three mirrors and a powerful lamp had been placed against the wall where the sideboard with the TV set usually was and the curtains covering the balcony were off-white instead of tan.
"Oh, hi," someone suddenly said behind Sarah's back, making the tall woman jump a foot in the air.
"Jeez!" Sarah croaked and put a hand on her wildly beating heart. She had to do a double-take when she saw that Professor LaQuizzle was standing before her in full costume.
"Sorry 'bout that, Sarah," the woman said and adjusted her mustache.
"Hello, I'm Joy Richards," the magician said and stretched out her hand.
"Sarah Madeleine Michaels," Sarah said with a smile as they shook hands.
"Oh, that's a pretty name… do you prefer to be called Maddie, then?" Joy said and made sure her cufflinks were on straight.
"No. Please call me Sarah. Nobody calls me Maddie. And I do mean nobody. Not even my mom."
"Oh… all right. Jaime will be here shortly, but first, I want to apologize for not getting this sorted last night," Joy said and donned her top hat. She made sure it was on crooked and tapped the rim with her index finger when it was just right.
"Who's Jaime? And getting what sorted?" Sarah said, her face one, large question mark.
"Weren't you told? Oh, great, serves me right to use the runners like that."
"I was given a note saying I should come to your apartment… and I have. But I still don't know what on Earth is going on," Sarah said and showed Joy the small note.
"Okay, let me explain… you were supposed to have your picture taken with me once the performance was over last night, but I don't know what the hell happened. Suddenly, the next number was starting and… well."
"Ohhh, so we're going to have the picture taken now?"
"Yep. Once Jaime's here, that is."
"I wish I had been told… I woulda dressed for the occasion," Sarah said and looked at her loud t-shirt advertising a rock'n'roll band and the bright red Bermuda shorts.
"Don't worry. You look great," Joy said and winked.
'Did she just flirt with me?' Sarah thought, but wisely kept it to herself.
Sarah looked around in the dressing room and noticed four small pictures taped onto one of the mirrors on the make-up table.
"Hey, is that you?" Sarah said and moved over to the table so she could study the pictures more closely.
"Yep. That's from last year when I did a one-woman show in my local GLBT community center. It was called 'Different, Yet Alike'. It was a pretty good show, if I do say so myself."
"Your local GLBT community center?"
"Yes. I hope you're not uncomfortable with that?"
"Nah. I'm just wondering why my Gaydar hasn't picked you up yet," Sarah said and returned to looking at the four pictures.
"Oh. It's the mustache," Joy said with a chuckle.
"It must be. Who were these characters?"
"They were very challenging to play because they were all loosely based on real people and I didn't want to make them too stereotypical. The first one, wearing a flannel shirt, a beltbuckle the size of Texas and black jeans is Butch Swaggher. She's a butch with a big heart and she attracts a helluva lot of attention from the 'phobes for being so masculine."
"Butch Swaggher! Jeez Louise!" Sarah said and laughed out loud - as she was laughing, she briefly considered mentioning that she had all three clothing items in her own closet, but she decided against it.
"Wait until you hear the other names."
"They can't be worse than Butch Swaggher…"
"The second woman, the one in the form-fitting blue jeans and the cut-off tank top, is a young Scandinavian exchange student who was brought up in a much more liberal political climate to ours. She sort of acts as the voice of the future. Her name is Connie Lindquist. Try to say it fast a couple of times and you'll get the joke."
"Oh… heh, heh, heh."
"The third one is Krystal K. Leer. Big hair, big earrings, big car, big ego. She's a member of the Upper Class Lipstick Brigade and she doesn't consider herself a true lesbian. She's actually the most oppressed of all of them, because everything she owns has been provided by others, typically men in powerful positions. There's a risk she could lose it all if she's too vocal, so she generally keeps quiet about political issues."
"Mmmmmm. I've met a few people like that," Sarah said thoughtfully, remembering her horror date at Christmas.
"And the fourth is sixty-year old Victoria Barricayde. She's an old-school activist and she only speaks in very, very frank terms. She represents the past, which is obviously the foundation for the present. Basically, she's telling us that while we've accomplished a lot, we still have a long way to go. She was actually the most difficult one to play, as she's the one furthest away from myself."
"Oh, wow, that's really interesting," Sarah said and looked from the four pictures over to the mustachioed, blonde woman standing next to her.
"I know, spot the difference, right?" Joy said and pretended to twirl her mustache.
Sarah smiled broadly and was about to speak out when someone knocked on the door.
'Joy, it's Jaime. Are you presentable?'
"Yep. Come on in."
The door swung open and a Hispanic man in his late twenties popped in, carrying an expensive looking digital camera, a tripod, a powerful lamp and something that resembled a rolled-up carpet.
"Hey, Professor," he said and grinned.
"Good afternoon, Jaime," Joy said in an affected voice and bowed.
"Joy, there's no flippin' room in here. We've got to do it in the hallway," Jaime said, as he looked around the apartment.
"Yeah, okay. No problem. Jaime, this is Sarah."
"Nice to meet ya," the photographer said, already working out the best angle to capture the two women.
"Hello. Look, Joy, this is way too much hassle just to get a picture of me. Why don't we just forget it, huh?" Sarah said and shrugged.
"No way. It's gonna be great, trust me. Jaime knows exactly what he's doing… right?" Joy said and nudged the photographer.
"Oh, you better believe it, Professor," Jaime said and grinned again.
Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but she was cut off by the energetic photographer.
"Okay. We better get it done before your make-up melts, Joy. Come on," Jaime said and went back out into the hallway. Quickly and efficiently, he set up the tripod and the powerful lamp and then erected a temporary wall made of scaffolding. With a twirl, he attached the rolled-up carpet to it and stepped back to assess the look.
"Backdrop," Joy said off Sarah's raised eyebrows.
"It'll have to do. Come, you stand here," Jaime said, took Sarah by the elbow and led her to the left side of the carpet.
"Professor, on the right, like that… okay."
Jaime stepped back and got behind the camera. He checked the light and the angle and took a test picture to check if everything showed up the way it was supposed to.
"Mmmm, it's a bit too static. Joy, try taking Sarah's hand… oh, I mean… if it's all right with you, Sarah?"
"Sure," Sarah said and laughed. She raised her left hand and Joy took it.
At once, the actress stared at Sarah's fingers and she looked up at the tall woman with an unreadable expression on her face.
For the first time in years, Sarah felt acutely aware over the fact that she was missing the little finger on her left hand, and, at the same time, she felt a stab of disappointment when she realized that the actress was apparently freaking out over it.
"Joy, we're working here," Jaime said off Joy's look of surprise.
"Yeah… I know. Go on."
Jaime snapped a handful of pictures to make sure he got a good one and by the end of the session, he gave the two women a thumbsup.
Sarah immediately pulled her hand away from Joy and thrust it in her pocket.
"Yep. They'll work great. Sarah, we'll print them on twelve-by-twenty inch supergloss paper and have them delivered to your apartment. Free of charge, of course."
"See ya later, Professor," Jaime said and collected all his equipment. He gave them a wave and then rushed down the hall.
"Yeah… See ya," Joy said, her cheeks tinged with a deep shade of pink.
"Joy, it's been-" -- "Sarah, I'm so sorr-" Sarah and Joy said simultaneously and then both stopped.
"You first," Sarah said, still with her hand thrust deep into her pocket.
"Look, Sarah, I'm really sorry about reacting like that. It was just… I don't know…"
"No sweat. I know some people are grossed out about it. No problem."
"Oh, no, it's not like that at all. I… Won't you come back into my apartment? I feel like such a jerk," Joy said, sounding very sincere.
Now it was Sarah's turn to look surprised - 'I feel like a jerk' definitely wasn't on the list of things she had imagined the actress would say.
"Come on. I'll make you a cup of coffee," Joy said and went back to the door to her apartment. She opened it and held out her arm in a welcoming gesture.
"Oh, you don't have to do that."
"I insist," Joy said and kept standing in the doorway.
"Don't you need to get ready for the matinee?" Sarah said, as Joy handed her a mug of coffee.
"Yeah, but I know my act by heart, so it won't matter if I'm a bit late to the rehearsals. Look, I'm really sorry about behaving that way before. It just caught me by surprise."
"It's okay," Sarah said and shrugged.
"How did it happen?" Joy said and shoved a large wad of clothes away from the side of the couch to make room for Sarah to sit down.
Sarah opened her mouth, but before she had time to reply, Joy clapped her hand over her mouth and groaned.
"Oh, God, I did it again! I'm sorry… I'm usually not this insensitive. I don't know what's come over me…"
"It's the mustache," Sarah said, echoing Joy's words from before. She stepped over to the couch and sat down to show that she wasn't upset.
"It must be."
"Come on, there's plenty of room here," Sarah said and patted the couch.
Joy flashed a relieved smile and sat down next to the taller woman.
"Well, it's been so long that I don't even notice it missing anymore. It doesn't hinder me at all, thank God," Sarah said and looked at her left hand.
"Was it an accident?"
"Yes. I guess I must've been six or seven. I had a candy apple red bicycle and I used to ride that thing like the whirlwind."
"Oh, wow, really? I did, too! Mine was neon green. I spent a lot of happy hours on that bike," Joy said and smiled broadly.
"I know exactly what you mean. Anyway, one day, I tried one daring maneuver too many and hit the curb. I went flying over the handlebars and when I landed, my little finger caught the brunt of it. It was forced sideways, snapping the bone like a twig and tearing all the blood vessels and the nerves."
"Oh God, how horrible," Joy said and unconsciously picked up Sarah's hand. She held it tight and gave it a little squeeze - suddenly, she noticed what she was doing and let go of the hand.
"I was rushed to the ER, of course, where they decided to amputate it. It was just too mangled," Sarah said and shrugged.
"And you've never had any lasting effects?"
"No. It didn't even stop me from using my bike."
"Oh… Sarah, do you still…"
Suddenly, Joy's cell phone rang and she excused herself and went over to the makeup table to pick it up. "It's Joy … yes, I do know what the time is. Will you calm down? I'll be there shortly … within the next half hour, Dave … Dave … Dave! There's no need to shout, I'm not hard of hearing unlike most of the other acts … Yes, Dave … Yes. Goodbye, Dave."
Joy hung up and rolled her eyes repeatedly. She put the phone down on the makeup table and turned back to face Sarah.
"I'm sorry, that was my stage manager. He's gonna have kittens if I don't come down to the theater, so I'm afraid we'll have to cut it short. It was really fun talking to you, Sarah. Maybe we'll meet again some time."
Joy put out her hand and Sarah shook it with a smile.
"Maybe we will. I'm here for the week. You know, I think I might go to another of your shows. It was pretty funny, actually… most of it, anyway. The Galbraith Twins were boring as hell," Sarah said and got up from the couch.
"They're actually quite lively backstage. Go figure. It's really strange to be the only one there who's younger than fifty-five, though…"
"Heh, I can imagine. Well, see ya."
"Bye, Sarah," Joy said and closed the door behind the dark haired woman.
After an uneventful lunch, Sarah decided that it was time to get down to business and she and Kimberly returned to their apartments to change into their recently bought sportswear.
Sarah tied two perfect knots on her brand new Nikes and jumped up and down on the spot to test their strength. Satisfied with the result, she moved into the bedroom to eye herself in the mirror.
She definitely liked what she saw, and if put under a spotlight, she'd even call herself a bit sexy: pale gray sweatpants with two narrow black stripes down the sides, a dark gray sportsbra underneath a loose, black muscleshirt - that just happened to bring out her toned arms very nicely - and to round off the ensemble, two rainbow colored sweatbands around her wrists.
She clenched her fists and imagined herself engaged in a one-on-one with the Champ.
"Yeah. Powerboxing, here I come!" she said and threw a few punches in front of the mirror.
Kimberly was dressed slightly more subdued in a baby blue outfit and a white headband, but she and Sarah still made a striking couple as they walked through the mall, heading for the sports facilities at the other end of the long path.
"Oh, crap, no! Damn, damn, *damn!*" Sarah growled and covered her eyes with her hand. She moved it again and tried to read the note one more time in the hope that the contents had been magically altered in the intervening ten seconds.
'CLOSED FOR REFURBISHMENT.
POWERBOXING WILL REOPEN ON JUNE 1st'
"C. R. A. P!" she growled and threw her arms in the air.
"I'm really sorry, Sarah. I know how much you wanted to try that nonsense," Kimberly said and put her arm around Sarah's shoulder.
"But you have several other things to try down here, look: We can play indoor tennis, squash, handball or basketball… or we can try the Turkish Bath & Massage?"
"No, no, no, no and no…"
"They have aerobics and dancerobics… hey, they even have martial arts. Wouldn't you like to try your hand at that?" Kimberly said and made a few mock chop-socky moves.
"No," Sarah said and shook her head repeatedly.
"Suit yourself. I'm gonna try the dancerobics. Are you sure you won't join me?"
"I can't dance," Sarah grumbled.
"Well, I can, and I love it. Come see me after you've lost the 'tude, okay?" Kimberly said and winked. She took her little bag with her spare clothes and walked into the dancerobics hall.
Sarah sighed and picked up her holdall. With a grunt, she sat down on a bench and crossed her arms over her chest.
After a few minutes, her mood had improved and she slung her holdall over her shoulder and walked into the halls on the far side of the central path, determined to find something useful to do.
The indoor tennis courts were all filled with people who, judging by the sheer number of botched plays, had never seen a tennis ball in action before. Sarah spent a few minutes in the spectator enclosure watching a grotesquely overweight man miss ball after ball after ball and she couldn't stop her toes from curling up in her Nikes. The man's incompetence soon got on her last nerve, so she left and moved on to the squash courts.
The skill levels on display there weren't any better, and when the handball courts offered a similar story, Sarah sighed deeply and shuffled on.
She stopped in front of the basketball courts and took in the activities of the female players. During Sarah's teenage years, it had been a running gag in her family that she was a dead cert to be a pro basketball player one day - 'after all, you're tall and they're all gay,' Sarah thought, clearly hearing her mother's voice - the unfortunate truth was that even if the ball was superglued to Sarah's hand, she'd still find a way to drop it.
Sarah chuckled quietly to herself and found a chair to sit on. Observing the players, she thought she could pick up a vibe from several of them, but she wasn't entirely sure. One or two of them cast a few glances at her and she wondered if they were thinking the same thing.
When the quarter came to a close, the players all gathered at the far end of the court, effectively ending the free show. Sarah shrugged and got up from the chair.
A few minutes later, Sarah shuffled out of the halls and went back into the central area of the mall. She debated with herself if she should take a look at the martial arts or go directly back to Kimberly - eventually, the martial arts won out.
The halls housing the activities on the other side of the central path were all identical - large windows towards the mall, wooden floors, bright strip lights in the ceiling and a large mirror at the back wall to make the room seem larger.
'And to give people an opportunity to fawn over themselves,' Sarah thought, chuckling.
The martial arts hall was relatively empty with only a handful of people exercising. They were all wearing the traditional, characteristic white outfits and they were all looking overly serious.
Two men were fighting each other - or rather, they were trying to stare each other into submission. They moved a bit forth and then a bit back, and finally, one of the men kicked out at the other. The other man sidestepped it easily and then they resumed the back-and-forth movements.
Sarah scrunched up her face and started chewing on the inside of her cheek. She loved a good martial arts flick, but she just couldn't get excited over the real thing. With a shrug, she moved on, intent on finding Kimberly.
It didn't even take Sarah one minute to develop an intense dislike to the instructor in the dancerobics hall. She was a young woman, early twenties at the most, with wild hair, fake lips, fake boobs that were completely disproportionate to the rest of her body, and a voice like a Moroccan mountain goat in heat. And if that wasn't enough, the microphone in the headset she was wearing had been set to maximum, making her awful voice blare through the hall like the Doomsday trumpets that had once brought down the great walls at Jericho.
The instructor had the guests going through what looked like an impossibly hard routine and most of the people weren't even able to keep up with her.
Sarah closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. She knew she'd get a throbbing headache in a matter of minutes if she didn't leave at once, so she quickly found Kimberly to let her know where she could find her.
Sarah walked in between the rows of people and found Kimberly who was sweating like a pig. Her sweatsuit had been transformed from baby blue to sweat-stained black and her hair was a soaked mess.
"Hey, Kimmie! I'm next door!" Sarah said, shouting to be heard over the thumping dance music and the instructor's horrendous voice.
"Next door! I'm next door!"
Sarah rolled her eyes and first pointed at herself and then at the wall separating the dancerobics and the aerobics halls.
Kimberly's face lit up as she caught what Sarah was trying to tell her and she nodded and gave Sarah a thumbsup.
Sarah returned the thumbsup and hurried out of the hall to escape the deafening wall of sound.
The aerobics hall was mercifully quiet, mostly because the majority of people there were senior citizens.
The instructor was a broad-shouldered man who looked exactly like a surfer dude - sandy hair, pale blue eyes and a deep tan. He was wearing a red sweat jacket, red shorts and red tennis shoes and Sarah couldn't help but wonder if he wore red underwear as well.
She shuffled down to the rear of the hall and found a nice, quiet spot next to an elderly lady and more importantly, far away from the instructor. She knew, after several painful experiences back in school, that her athletic looks made her appear far more skilled than she really was and she was in no mood to be made a fool of in front of the entire class.
She put her holdall down on the ground, opened it and took out a towel and a bottle of water.
"All right, are we ready?" the instructor said and most of the people said 'yes'.
"Good. You should all have a TruAmerica Corporation Stepping Stone in front of you. Please check. If you don't have one, please raise your hand and my assistant will provide one for you."
Sarah looked down - no stepping gizmo. She groaned and looked around at the other people. It appeared that she was the only one who didn't have one and she quickly raised her hand high in the air. The assistant brought her one, putting it down on the floor wearing the patented plastic smile.
"Are we all set?" the instructor said again, looking directly at Sarah. She nodded and creased her lips in something she hoped resembled a smile.
"Good! And here we go! Put your right foot up on the TruAmerica Corporation Stepping Stone… and down. And up. And down. All right, put your left foot up. And down. And…"
Sarah groaned inwardly over the idiotic exercise routine, but followed it anyway. The instructor seemed satisfied with the senior citizens, so he turned on some soft lounge music and moved on to the next item on the program.
Twenty-five minutes later, Sarah had hardly broken into a sweat, but most of the seniors had already bailed out and were standing along the wall, talking amongst each other.
The instructor checked his watch and turned off the music.
"That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. I'll be hosting a high-impact class in five minutes. Anyone interested?" he joked, earning himself a smattering of laughs from the senior citizens.
Sarah seriously considered it, but came to the conclusion that Kimberly was probably worn down to her knees and that she might need help to get home. She sighed and took a swig from her bottle of water. She picked up her holdall and threw the bottle and the unused towel back in.
"Fancy meeting you here, Sarah," someone said right next to her and Sarah turned around to see who it was.
"Oh… Hi, Joy. Aren't you at the matinee?"
"That's been over for a while now. I have a couple of hours before the first of the regular shows, so…"
"Are you here for the high-impact class?" Sarah said with a grin.
"Yep. Hey, you look really sharp," Joy said and put down a small plastic bag with a towel. She unzipped her sweat jacket and took it off, revealing a tight, pale green spaghetti strap tank top.
Sarah tried very, very hard to keep her eyes trained on the actress' face so it wouldn't look like she was leering at the well-toned shoulders and arms, or at the gray sweat pants that redefined the word 'formfitting' - but unfortunately, Sarah was fighting a losing game as Joy started going through a warmup routine. "Oh, thanks a lot. You do, too."
"Thanks. I don't understand… why were you in the senior citizen class?" Joy said, looking around at the elderly men and women who were still leaving the hall.
"Well, I guess I just happened to drop by at the wrong moment. Actually, I wanted to try the Powerboxing class, but that was closed."
"Yeah, has been for a while now. It'll reopen on June first, though."
"That won't help me much," Sarah said and laughed.
Suddenly, Joy bent over and grabbed her ankles. Holding her legs straight, she stretched several times, finishing off with putting her clenched fists on the floor. This movement accentuated the actress' rear end to the point of making Sarah lightheaded and she had to force herself to resume her breathing.
"Dear God almighty, you're limber…" Sarah croaked and stuck a finger inside the hem of her muscleshirt to get some cool air down her front.
"I need to be. It's actually quite hard work to play Professor LaQuizzle."
"I can imagine," Sarah said and fidgeted with her holdall. She wasn't really interested in taking part in the high-impact class, but she definitely wouldn't mind spending some time with the fascinating… and sexy… actress.
"You've got some great arms, Sarah. What do you do?"
"Oh, I'm just a secretary," Sarah said and shrugged.
"No, I meant what's your training regime?"
"Ohhhh. Well, I lift some light weights now and then. Nickel and dime stuff."
"Let me tell you, I think it looks pretty hot," Joy said, leaning in close to Sarah. The actress winked and flashed Sarah a beaming, genuine smile that nearly made Sarah's heart skip a beat.
"Uhhh… ummm… Thanks."
Sarah looked up and suddenly noticed Kimberly standing outside the aerobics hall, waving her arms like mad.
"Oh, I…" Sarah said, but she was cut off by the instructor announcing that the high-impact class would be commencing in two minutes' time.
"I'm sorry, Joy, I can't stay. That woman out there trying to outperform a windmill is a friend of mine and it definitely looks like she wants something from me," Sarah said and put the strap of her holdall over her shoulder.
"That's okay. Talk to you later," Joy said and gave Sarah another broad smile.
"This better be good, Kimmie," Sarah said, casting a glance back at Joy. She could easily see the actress' shaggy mop of white-blonde hair moving up and down and from side to side, following the instructor in whichever drill he had them going through. In a vision that only lasted a few heartbeats, Sarah saw Joy performing similar movements. In a bed. Naked.
'Well. Maybe some other lifetime,' Sarah thought and let out a long, slow sigh.
"I'm dead," Kimberly croaked and tried to run a hand through her impossibly sweat-soaked hair.
"Hmmm, you actually look quite alive to me. You certainly smell like you're alive…"
"I'm not. I'm dead."
"Murderous. God, my instructor was such a bitch. I swear she singled me out several times. I tried, I really did… but she was just so bitchy and mean."
"Mmmmyeah. I could've told you that just by the way she looked. And sounded."
"I need a warm shower. Hell, I need a steaming hot shower. Would you mind helping me get back to the apartment?"
Kimberly's face was so much like a soggy puppy dog that Sarah couldn't help but laugh.
"Of course I don't. Come on, let's go," Sarah said and wrapped her arm around the shorter woman. Effortlessly, she hoisted up in Kimberly and helped her keep her balance.
"God, my legs are made of lead. Do you have any water left? I drank all mine."
"I still got some. Wait a minute," Sarah said and tried to hold Kimberly and rummage through her holdall at the same time. She finally found the nearly unused bottle of water and handed it to the shorter woman.
"Here ya go."
"Ohhhh, thanks. You're a lifesaver," Kimberly said and drained the bottle in one, seemingly endless gulp.
"Watch it, it's fizzy water. You're gonna…"
Kimberly burped loudly and immediately looked around with a horrified expression on her face.
"… burp. Yeah. Bless you," Sarah said and patted Kimberly on her back.
DAY 3 - MONDAY, MAY 10th
"What in God's name is that horrible sound?" Sarah said out loud as a penetrating bell started ringing somewhere in the hallway. She put away the newspaper she was reading and went over to the window to look out. She pulled the curtains apart, but she couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.
Suddenly, the incessant ringing turned into a series of short burst and Sarah could hear a muffled voice from the PA system in the hallway. She quickly went over to the door and opened it.
'…ire Alarm. Fire Alarm. The elevators have been locked. Residents of floor six must use the stairs at the east end of the building. Residents of floors one through five and seven through thirty-five can use the stairs at either end of the building. All residents must evacuate to the lobby immediately.'
Sarah quickly ducked back into the apartment and scooped up her keycard and her wallet. She ran back out and pounded on the door to Kimberly's apartment.
"Kimmie! Wake up, we gotta go!"
"God, what's that awful sound?" Kimberly said as she opened the door. She was wearing baby blue bunny-slippers and an oversized T-shirt, and she was drying her hair with a huge towel.
"It's the fire alarm. We need to go. I don't wanna chance it being a false alarm."
"Yeah… okay," Kimberly said and threw the towel into the apartment.
"Don't forget your keycard," Sarah said and put her hand on the door so Kimberly wouldn't close it by accident.
"Good thinking. One sec."
Kimberly quickly came back to the door, waving her keycard so Sarah could see that she had it.
"Good. Let's go."
On their way down the stairs, they could smell smoke and it grew stronger and stronger as they came closer to the sixth floor.
They weren't able to look through the frosted glass door that connected the stairwell with the hallway, but they could clearly smell something burning.
"Do you think we should…" Sarah said and reached for the doorknob.
"No. No heroics, Sarah. Please," Kimberly said and put her hand on Sarah's arm.
"All right. Let's leave it to the pros."
A few minutes later, Sarah, Kimberly and around a hundred and fifty other people were standing in the parking lot, watching the high-rise intently. Down the other end of the lot, four fire trucks arrived with their sirens blaring.
The trucks drove through the gate and parked in front of the entrance, and soon, two groups of firefighters climbed out of the trucks and disappeared into the lobby of the hotel.
"At least it's not raining," Kimberly said, looking down at her bunny-slippers.
Several TruAmerica employees exited the lobby, carrying folding chairs and blankets and began distributing them among the elderly people.
Sarah got up on tiptoes and looked around for Joy, but she couldn't see the actress anywhere. A brief flash of something that felt just like panic raced through Sarah's body and she started biting her lip. She thrust her hands into her pockets and started clenching and unclenching her fists.
Suddenly she saw Jaime, the photographer, standing at the other end of the parking lot, furiously snapping pictures of the fire crews.
"Kimmie, please stay here. I'm just gonna go and talk to somebody," Sarah said,
"Huh? Okay," Kimberly said, but Sarah was already moving away.
"Jaime!" Sarah said as she tried to move through a few of the other guests who weren't at all interested in moving. She finally managed to barge her way between them, earning herself a few upset words in the process.
"What? I'm really busy here," the photographer said, holding the camera high in the air so he could shoot above the crowd.
"Where's Joy? The actress?"
"I don't know."
"She's not here," Sarah said and felt the surge of panic return.
"I told you, I don't know where she is. Were you in your apartment when the alarm went off?"
"Do we have a fire or not?"
"Well, there's a lot of smoke on the sixth floor."
"No it damn well isn't!" Sarah barked, making Jaime turn around and look at her.
"Whatever," he said and went back to taking pictures.
Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again, realizing that there wasn't any point in getting riled up over the photographer. She turned around and started walking back to Kimberly.
"Who was that?" Kimberly said, having watched the little intermezzo.
"A photographer. He knows Joy and I was thinking that he… never mind."
"The actress? She isn't here?"
"Not that I can see, no."
"I'm sure she's fine…"
"Of course she is. She's all the way up on eleventh. Why shouldn't she be fine?" Sarah said harshly and immediately regretted it. "Shit, I'm sorry, Kimmie," she said and wrapped her arm around the shorter woman's shoulder.
"No problem, buddy. I understand. It's a quarter to twelve, right? Maybe she's down at the theater."
Sarah looked at her bare arm - her watch was still on the coffee table up in her apartment.
"Well… maybe she is."
"Man, I can't even remember the last time I heard a fire alarm," Kimberly said thoughtfully.
"We had one at the factory last year. One of the machines had lost all its cooling fluids and it overheated," Sarah said, still looking around in the vain hope that she had just overlooked Joy before.
"Oh, yeah, that's right. I remember you telling me that. It's kinda rare these, days though. Back in the…"
Kimberly kept speaking, but the words just turned into background noises for Sarah.
'I can't believe I'm this worried for someone I've only known for less than two days. Hell, know her… I don't know her at all, I've only met her twice. She's a great-looking woman, no doubt about that, but that alone shouldn't make me feel this way. No… it's her smile. Her smile and her eyes. I haven't had anyone smile at me in such a way for years…' Sarah thought and sighed deeply.
"Hon, are you all right?" Kimberly said and gave Sarah a squeeze.
"I'm fine… I'm just shook up a bit."
"Once this mess is over, I'm buying you a drink in Ye Olde Englishe Pub."
"Oh, you don't have to…"
"Hey, I need one, too," Kimberly said and squeezed Sarah again.
A murmur rippled through the crowd and Sarah and Kimberly looked at the main entrance. Two firefighters walked out of the double doors, holding a metal garbage bin that still had smoke pouring out of it. A sigh of relief spread through the spectators and Sarah ran her hand across her forehead.
"Looks like some scumbag didn't respect the no-smoking signs," Sarah growled and started looking around to see if she could spot someone wearing a guilty expression.
A TruAmerica employee came out into the parking lot, carrying a bullhorn. He cleared his throat and stepped up onto one of the low stone fences that surrounded the many flowerbeds in the lot. "Ladies and gentlemen, the fire alarm has been canceled and you are free to return to your apartments. The TruAmerica Corporation sincerely apologizes for any discomfort this fire alarm has given you and as a small consolation, we will issue all afflicted apartments with a fifty dollars gift certificate. Thank you."
"Hey, that's another fifty bucks! If we stay here long enough, we'll have the whole trip covered!" Kimberly said, poking a finger into Sarah's side.
"Looks like most people are going back to their apartments. How about going to the mall instead, huh? We can get that drink I promised you."
"In your bunny-slippers?"
"Do you have any money on you?"
"Uhhh… no," Kimberly said and grinned apologetically.
Sarah tapped her pocket where her wallet was.
"I do. Let's go, 'cos I need a stiff one. You can pay me back later."
"Uggh… no, I'm not in the mood for that right now. Let's try the next one," Sarah said when she saw the massive number of people standing at Ye Olde Englishe Pub's bar.
"It's lunch time, Sarah. They're all gonna be full," Kimberly said, shuffling along in her baby blue bunny-slippers.
"Yeah, you're probably right."
They went back the central path and walked further into the mall, but every single bar or restaurant they passed was busy to the point of being overcrowded.
Groaning under her breath, Kimmie began to get cross-eyed and walk a little funny. "Once we reach the Sausage King, I'm just gonna pop in and…"
"You want some Schnapps?"
"No, I need to pee!"
"Actually… I'm not sure I can make it to the King!" Kimberly said and really squeezed her legs together. She sucked in her cheeks and began to get a very odd expression on her face. "No, I… I… I… can't hold it, I gotta go," she continued as they went past one of the Italian restaurants. She darted off to the left and was soon out of sight.
"I'll wait for ya!" Sarah said, but Kimberly was already too far away to hear it.
"Hi, Sarah," a familiar female voice suddenly said somewhere behind her and Sarah spun around in a flash.
"Wait for whom?" Joy continued, greeting Sarah with one of her customary genuine smiles.
Sarah took a very deep breath and felt a large weight lift off her shoulders. Once again, she scolded herself for being so overly sensitive to someone she hardly knew, but a look into Joy's smiling, jade-green eyes drowned out everything else. Sarah had often been told that her face was an open book and she knew that at that exact moment, her face was showing emotions she wasn't sure the actress expected, or even wanted, to see.
'Calm down, Sarah. The last thing you want is to scare her away. And if you act like a nutjob, that's exactly what you'll do,' Sarah's inner voice said - Sarah agreed and tried to assume a more neutral expression.
"Oh, just a friend. Man, I'm glad to see you," she said.
"We just had a fire alarm out in the high-rise."
"Oh, no kidding? …Of course you're not kidding. Sorry," Joy said and blushed slightly.
"Somebody had probably thrown a cigarette butt or something into a garbage bin and it really stank to high heaven. There was some smoke, too. We were shepherded out into the parking lot and I tried to look for you, but you weren't there and…"
'Sarah Madeleine Michaels, will you stop rambling! Remember what I told you about acting like a nutjob!' Sarah's inner voice said.
"And you were worried about me? God, that's so sweet, Sarah," Joy said and put her hand on Sarah's arm.
"Yeah, I guess I was… you know…"
"I heard the sirens while I was rehearsing, but I didn't know it was that bad. Where was it?"
"On the sixth floor."
"Oh. Listen, I have to go, but… Oh! Have you discovered the rooftop swimming pool yet?"
"Uhhh… that's not the adult swimming pool, is it?"
"Oh, no, that's down here in the mall somewhere. No, the rooftop swimming pool is just a regular pool. It's at the top of the high-rise and I always go there around one or two PM. It's a great way to relax before my shows," Joy said and flashed yet another of her broad smiles.
"I haven't been there."
"Perhaps we could meet there this afternoon? As I said, I'll be there at one PM or so…?"
"Well… sure. I'd like that," Sarah said, suddenly feeling slightly nervous and even a bit awkward. A swimming pool generally meant less clothing and she wasn't sure she'd be able to survive seeing Joy in a skimpy outfit.
"Good. See you there, then," Joy said and touched Sarah's arm. The touch sent a curious tingle racing through Sarah's body and she had to force herself to focus on something else.
"Yeah… Can't wait. See ya."
"Made it without wettin' my pants," Kimberly said when she returned.
"Oh, I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that," Sarah said in an only slightly sarcastic tone - Kimberly replied by sticking out her tongue.
"I've just met Joy. She was at the theater," Sarah said as they resumed walking down the path.
"Great! Told ya she was fine."
"She's invited us up to the rooftop swimming pool at one PM. Wanna go?"
"Is… is that the adult swimming pool? Because I'm not sure…"
"No," Sarah said with a chuckle. "I asked that, too. This is the swimming pool for clothed people."
"Thank Gawd. Sure, I'd love to go. I can't wait to meet her," Kimberly said and hooked her arm inside Sarah's.
"All we need to do now is to find somewhere we can have that damn drink," Sarah said and shook her head.
Ten minutes past one PM, Sarah stepped out into the hallway and waved at Kimberly who was already there waiting for her.
"Jeez, you'd think we were twins, or something," Sarah said when she saw what Kimberly was wearing. She chuckled and closed the door to her apartment. After locking it, she picked up a small plastic bag with a towel and her spare sunglasses.
"T-shirts and shorts… everyone's gonna be wearing T's and shorts, Sarah."
"Yeah, but not color-coded. Slightly less tan," Sarah said, pointing at her own T-shirt.
"… and slightly more tan," Sarah said and pointed at Kimberly as they started walking towards the Scenic Elevator.
"Big deal," Kimberly said and gave Sarah a gentle nudge on the shoulder.
Kimberly put on her RayBans and arranged her long, curly hair into a pony tail. She put on a white Panama hat and wrapped a scarf around her neck.
"Hey, Sarah, don't tell me you're not going to wear a hat?"
"I'm wearing sun block factor fifty-four and besides, you know I'm not a hat person," Sarah said and adjusted her own sunglasses.
"You're going to eat scrambled brains for dinner, buddy."
"Then I'll sit under the parasol. I'm not gonna swim, anyway. I'm only going so I can gawk at the pool bunnies."
Kimberly leaned her head back and let out a long, loud laugh. "That's smooth, Sarah. Real smooth."
Fifteen minutes later, they were both sitting under a very large parasol, suffering from the effects of the oppressive heat - at one point, Sarah had poured most of a jug of ice water down her neck, but she was already cooking again.
"Look, if it's all right with you, I think I'm gonna go back to the apartment and lie down for a few years…" Sarah said and got up from the deck chair.
"Remember what I told you about scrambled brains, huh?" Kimberly said and waggled her index finger in Sarah's direction.
Suddenly, the glass doors to the pool area opened and Joy stepped out onto the deck. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt, designer sunglasses and a huge, wide-brimmed hat, and she had flip-flops on her feet.
"Holy shit…" Kimberly suddenly said and moved her sunglasses away from her eyes.
Sarah's interest had been piqued and she turned around to look at whatever it was that had got her friend so riled up. "Oh, Joy!" Sarah mumbled and whistled quietly to herself.
The actress had pulled off the oversized T-shirt, revealing her body to the guests at the pool. She was wearing a forest green two-piece bikini that hardly left anything to the imagination. She was lithe and athletic, with an impressive set of abs and well-toned thighs, shoulders and arms. When she put her wide-brimmed hat back on, her biceps flexed, causing Sarah to lick her lips.
"Mmmmm-wow," Sarah said under her breath.
"Down, boy, down!" Kimberly said and pretended to tug on Sarah's leash.
Joy first looked at a group of young men who were standing next to the pool, desperately trying to appear cool and studly and then at Sarah and Kimberly. A small smile flickered across the blonde woman's face and she stuffed the oversized T-shirt into a small plastic bag she was carrying - then she started walking towards Sarah.
"Oh man, that's exactly what I was afraid of…" Sarah said and rubbed her forehead.
"Are you sure she's a lez, Sarah? No grrrl I know would wear a two-piece…" Kimberly whispered through clenched teeth - Sarah shot her an Evil Eye, prompting a throaty laugh from Kimberly.
On her way towards Sarah and Kimberly, Joy reached into her plastic bag and picked out a small bottle of suntan lotion.
"Hi," she said, as she reached the parasol the two women were sitting under.
"Hi," Sarah and Kimberly said as one.
"Ummm… do you think I could bribe one of you gals into giving me a rubdown?" Joy said and held up the bottle. She took off her sunglasses and zeroed in on Sarah's ice blue eyes that appeared not to be blinking.
Sarah just stared and stared and stared and stared - and inside her, a little alarm bell started ringing very loudly in her ear.
"Sarah, are you all right? You look a little dazed," Joy said.
"Dazed? No… everything's fine. I'm fine, you're fine… I mean, uhhh, uhhh, I'm cool. I'm hot but I'm cool. Anyway, this is my best friend, Kimberly," Sarah croaked and immediately cleared her throat.
"Jeez, wouldya listen to her rambling on. Don't pay her any attention, she's got sunstroke. I'm Kimberly Lloyd-Warren, hi," Kimberly said and laughed. She put out her hand and Joy shook it.
"Yeah, it is kinda hot up here. Pleased to meet you, Kimberly, I'm Joy Richards. So… best friend or girlfriend?"
"Ha! Just friend. I'm happily married," Kimberly said and showed Joy her wedding ring.
"Oh. That's interesting," Joy said and turned her head to look at Sarah. She held up the bottle of suntan lotion and let it dangle between her thumb and index finger. "The lotion?" she said, wearing a cheeky grin.
"Oh! Oh, sure. Uhhh, do you want to… lie down?"
"It'll work best, I think," Joy said and turned around so she could pull over a deck chair. When she did so, the muscles on her back rippled and Sarah had to take a deep breath.
Joy turned around again and got down on her stomach. Once she was lying safely on the deck chair, she reached behind her to unclip her top. She moved her arms up to make sure that no one got a free show and then turned her head to look at Sarah.
Sarah's eyebrows twitched and she could hardly hold the bottle of lotion steady. She looked at Kimberly, who had a broad, goofy grin on her face.
"Go for it, killer," Kimberly mouthed and winked.
Sarah squeezed a blob of lotion onto Joy's back and began to rub it in. It had been a while since she had been this close to another woman and she could feel a tell-tale tingle begin somewhere deep in her core - it didn't help that Joy's back was so toned that Sarah could feel the muscles ripple and flex under her fingers.
All too soon, Sarah finished applying the lotion and she closed the lid on the bottle. She sighed inwardly and let her eyes roam down the back of the actress' firm body, from the top of her shaggy mop of blonde hair to the pink soles of her feet.
"Your back's all done, Joy," Sarah said and took a step back.
"Great. Thanks. I better do my legs myself. Would you mind closing my top?"
"Huh? Closing your legs? Oh… the top… I… uhhhh… hang on," Sarah said and reached for the two straps. Suddenly, she couldn't get her fingers to work and she fumbled incessantly with the straps.
Kimberly put her arms behind her head and leaned back in her deck chair, grinning like a Cheshire cat over the unusual sight of her best friend being so rattled. She chuckled wickedly when she thought of the endless ribbing she'd give Sarah for years to come.
"Got it… finally," Sarah said and clicked the two ends together.
Joy sat up and swung her legs around. She adjusted her top and greeted Sarah with a genuine smile that once again sent a tingle racing through the tall woman's body.
"Man, it's hot up here, huh?" Sarah said and began to fan her face with her hand.
"Yeah. You really should be wearing a hat, Sarah… especially with that dark hair of yours. You really don't wanna get sunstroke, believe me," Joy said and poured a blob of suntan lotion out in her hand. When she started distributing it on her right leg, Sarah forced herself to look away so it wouldn't appear like she was staring - unfortunately, she happened to look at Kimberly, who was still grinning wickedly.
"I know. I'm just not a hat person," Sarah said and sat down with a bump on her own deck chair.
After applying the lotion to her legs, Joy moved on to her stomach - and after finishing there, she pulled down her top slightly to put lotion on the swell of her breasts. The motion made Sarah shoot up from her deck chair.
"Listen, I'm really sorry for being such a party pooper, but I have to go and lie down for a while. I have black spots in my vision and… things," Sarah said frantically.
"That's what not wearing a hat will get ya," Kimberly said and winked.
"I know. Well… are you staying here, Kimmie?"
"Okay. See ya in a while. It's been really nice talking to you, Joy, but I've gotta… uhhh… go."
"Hi, Sarah. Try putting a wet towel around your neck. That'll help," Joy said and sent yet another charming smile Sarah's way.
The nose crinkle that accompanied it nearly made Sarah's knees knock, so she spun around on her heel and hurried away from the rooftop swimming pool before she made an even bigger fool of herself.
Several hours later, Kimberly walked up to the door to Sarah's apartment and knocked twice.
"Sarah? It's me!"
Sarah unlocked the door and stuck out her head. Her hair was pointing in several different directions all at once and Kimberly couldn't hold back a snicker.
"Still having a bad hair day, huh?"
"It's even worse today…" Sarah said and pushed the door open so Kimberly could come in.
Sarah adjusted the white towel she had wrapped around herself after her shower and sat down on the comfy chair. She put her bare feet up on a small foot stool and crossed her legs at the ankles.
"Have you had a cold shower, hon?" Kimberly said as she sat down on the couch.
"Good, 'cos you really, really needed it. I thought you were gonna blow up when Joy started coating her boobs," Kimberly said and stuck out her tongue.
"I almost did. Ten more seconds and I would have," Sarah said with a deep sigh.
"But I definitely understand you. She's quite a babe."
"Mmmmm," Sarah said and started scratching the back of her hand.
"Mmmm…?" Kimberly echoed quizzically.
"Yeah, well, anyway… do you wanna go get something to eat? I'm starving."
"Okay, but not the Sausage King. Anything but the King," Kimberly said and dug into her shorts pocket to find the list of restaurants.
"I loved those Brats…" Sarah grumbled.
"I'm sure you did. You chose the place yesterday, I'll choose today, okay?"
"Cap'n Lucrecia de Peligro's Seafood Restaurant & Bar," Kimberly said and pointed at a colorful picture in the brochure. She threw it over to Sarah, who picked it up and gave the ad a once-over.
"Looks pretty good."
"You betcha. You better get dressed, my stomach is sending out distress calls."
"Oh look, there's Joy again. What a coincidence. D'ya think she's stalking us?" Kimberly said and bumped her elbow into Sarah's ribs on her way back from the seafood buffet. She sat down at their table and immediately started digging into her third helping of king prawns in Caribbean sauce.
"Ouch… where?" Sarah said and rubbed her side. She craned her neck but couldn't see the blonde woman anywhere.
"Right at the door… hey, she has a boy toy with her."
"She has a *what* with her?"
"Wearing a rather flamboyant outfit, no less."
"That can't be her… oh, yes it is, actually…" Sarah said once she spotted the familiar head of shaggy hair. As Sarah was watching them, Joy sat down at a table and a man wearing black pants and a white, frilly shirt got seated next to her.
"Hrmpf," Sarah growled and crossed her arms over her chest in a sulky fashion.
"Oh… I'm sorry, hon," Kimberly said and put her hand on Sarah's arm.
"We don't know if he's with her or not! All we know is that she's dining with some hunk in a frilly shirt…" Sarah hissed. She took her fork and started stabbing at a mushroom on her plate. Finally managing to capture it, she flung it into her mouth and chewed far more on the soft vegetable than necessary.
"Sarah, I've read enough romantic novels to know that the hunk is her brother," Kimberly said after casting a long, analytical look at Joy and the man.
"Kimmie… I hate to break it to you, but we're not characters in a romantic novel," Sarah said, shaking her head with a throaty chuckle.
"I know that, silly. If we were, you and Joy would already have made it to second base… at least."
"Okay, now you're freaking me out…"
"All you have to do to find out is to go over there and introduce yourself," Kimberly said and stole a large piece of red pepper from Sarah's plate. She chewed noisily on the succulent vegetable, prompting Sarah to put her fingers in her ears and send a glare in Kimberly's direction.
"Go over there…? Well, I'm a grown woman. I guess I could do that," Sarah said and put her napkin on the table.
"Of course you could. Go on, Sarah… make me proud," Kimberly said and gave Sarah a thumbsup for good luck.
Sarah slowly rose from her chair, but then froze. She sat down with a bump and sighed. "I don't have anything to say to her."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Sarah! You don't have to quote Shakespeare. Comment on her tan lines, or how much you have the hots for her bod… anything will do!"
"I can't do that!" Sarah whined nasally, making a terrified grimace.
"Take it from an expert: you need to be romantic. Romance always works."
"If you're such an expert, why don't you go over there and ask her out?"
"One, I can't get my wedding ring off and two… you're the one she was ogling earlier up at the pool," Kimberly said and punched Sarah's arm.
"I was ogling her, not the other way 'round."
"Well, if you say so," Kimberly said and whistled.
Sarah sighed deeply and put her hands on the table. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the chair back and started walking towards Joy's table.
"Hello again, Joy," Sarah said, feeling like a fourteen-year old debutante.
"Oh, hi, Sarah," Joy said and smiled broadly at the dark haired woman.
'Gawd, can she get any cuter?' Sarah thought.
"Sarah, this is my stage manager, Dave Metcalfe. Dave, this is Sarah Michaels."
'Stage manager? Ha!'
"Hello, Mr. Metcalfe," Sarah said and put out her hand with a broad smile. The man took Sarah's hand in a powerful grip and shook it repeatedly.
"Oh, just Dave, please. Joy, I'm gonna go get something to eat while the line is so short," the stage manager said and left the table.
"Save some for me, huh?" Joy joked.
Sarah watched Dave walk away and then turned her attention back on the blonde actress.
"All right. Uhhh… Right. Well…" Sarah said and felt her throat choke up. Suddenly, she couldn't look Joy in the eye and she started shuffling left and right on the carpet.
Joy cocked her head and tried to hide a knowing smirk.
"Ummmm, Joy… would you… are you… would you be… do you have someth…" Sarah stuttered and stammered, feeling the most insecure she'd been in years.
"Gee, I don't know. I'm not sure we're speaking the same language…?" Joy said and put her elbows on the table.
"I mean, ummm, would you…" Sarah took a deep breath and clenched her fists repeatedly.
"Well, while you're composing your thoughts, I'd like to ask if you'd be interested in joining me on the mountain bike event tomorrow?" Joy said with a genuine smile.
Sarah furrowed her brows and opened her mouth. Then she closed it - and then she opened it again. "Sure…" she croaked, not quite understanding what had just happened.
"Yeah, 'cause I remember you telling me you used to ride a bike all the time when you were a little girl. Oh, by the way, do you have a helmet and elbow- and knee pads? It's a cross country event, actually," Joy said.
"Uh, no…? I don't have any of those things. I'm here for the indoor stuff."
"Oh… okay, the mountain bike event is at 10 AM. Let's meet at, say, nine and go shopping. There's a well-stocked sportswear store out in the mall and I know they've got a great selection of helmets. I bought mine there yesterday."
"Shop… ping? For clothes?"
"Well, no, for the things I mentioned. It'll be fun. I'll pick you up at your apartment."
"And your apartment number is…?"
"Great. Looking forward to it already," Joy said and pushed her chair back.
"Where are you going?" Sarah said, completely confused by the turn of events.
"I'm going to get something to eat. Do you mind?" Joy said and laughed.
"Oh, no… Of course not. See you tomorrow morning, then?"
"Oh, absolutely. Perhaps we'll bump into each other before then," Joy said and smiled again before leaving the table and wiggling her way up to the buffet.
"Man, what happened over there, Sarah? You look shell-shocked!" Kimberly said as Sarah shuffled back to their table.
Sarah shook her head slowly and sat down with a bump.
"Did you ask her out?"
"She asked me out," Sarah whispered, still wearing a confused look her face.
"Oh-ho, did she? I knew it, she can't get enough of you. Who's the hunk, then?"
"Her stage manager."
"Oh. Well, can't be right every time," Kimberly said and shrugged.
"And tomorrow she's taking me shopping."
"What?! Sarah Michaels shopping? You've known her for less than two days and she's already got you wrapped around her belt loops!" Kimberly said and laughed out loud.
Sarah sighed deeply and shook her head. "… Shopping for kneepads… and stuff," she whispered.
Kimberly pretended to clutch her heart and she fell face-first onto the table, missing the bowl of king prawns by mere inches. "Stop the world, I want to get off!" she said in voice muffled by the tablecloth.
"Ha flippin' ha. Get up, people are staring at us."
Kimberly sat up straight, her face cracking open in an impossibly cheeky grin.
"Kimmie… did you and Joy just set me up?"
"What *do* you mean, dear Sarah," Kimberly said, feigning innocence. She grabbed one of the king prawns and dipped it into the Caribbean Sauce. Holding a hand under the prawn, she took it to her mouth and bit off its entire rear end in one go.
"Yes you did! I can't believe it!" Sarah said and slapped her hand on the tabletop.
"Temper, temper. Are you done with your plaice fillet? The buffet's all out of prawns," Kimberly said and reached for Sarah's plate.
"Help yourself, you cheeky, little…"
"Do you want a night cap before we go back to the apartments?" Kimberly said and pointed at the restaurant's integrated bar.
"I don't know… it's kinda late," Sarah said and checked her watch - without either of them realizing it, the time had flown by and it was now a quarter to nine, PM.
"Some of us have to get up early in the morning, you know."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Do you want me to fetch you a plaid and your slippers, dear?" Kimberly said and quickly stepped out of Sarah's reach.
"Weeeellll, I guess one little drink couldn't hurt…"
"Man, this is the definition of kitsch!" Sarah said the moment she saw the interior of the bar room.
All the booths were painted in dark brown with a few red and golden highlights here and there and Jolly Rogers and tattered battle flags adorned the walls. Each table had a lamp that was shaped like a candelabra and they were all equipped with special bulbs that simulated flickering light. On the bar counter itself, they had put several aviaries with stuffed birds - parrots and at least one budgie - and at irregular intervals, a recording of a parrot crowing was played.
"Oh Gawd, this is just too much," Sarah said and shielded her eyes.
The bartender, a woman in her late thirties, came out from behind a curtain and started to move a few used glasses from the counter.
Sarah froze mid-step when she got a closer look at the woman's outfit: brown pants, a tan shirt with the sleeves cut off just below the elbows, a black vest, a triangular hat and to cap it all off, a fake parrot on her shoulder - in other words, the bartender was wearing a full-blown pirate costume.
"Ahoy, maties!" the bartender said with a grin.
"Ahoy, Captain. Do you have a cocktail menu?" Kimberly said and pushed the staring Sarah towards one of the booths.
"Yes, we do. Here you go," the bartender said and handed Kimberly a glossy card.
"Thanks. Come on, Sarah, let's go sit down."
"This is just too damn much…" Sarah said and rolled her eyes repeatedly. She had insisted on choosing a booth down the far end of the bar so she wouldn't have to look at the bartender.
"Yeah, but look at all the great drinks they have. How about that one?"
"Oyster juice? Uggh!"
"That's just the name, silly. It's a Dry Martini. How about this one: Sweet Li'l Devil. Schweppes pink grape, vodka and a dash of sugar," Kimberly said and showed Sarah the colorful pictures in the menu.
"Pink grape and vodka? Hey, that's the Pink Demon! Oh, yeah…" Sarah said and grabbed the card right out of Kimberly's hand.
"Oh, yeah! Miss!"
A few minutes later, the bartender came down to their booth, carrying a tray with two tall glasses, napkins and two long spoons.
"The Cuba Libre?" the bartender said as she put the tray down on the table.
"That's for me," Kimberly said and took the glass and one of the napkins.
"And this one's for me," Sarah said and took the other glass.
"Do you wish to pay at once?"
"No. We're not done," Sarah said, grinning.
"All right," the bartender said and left the booth.
"Hey, wouldya look at that," Sarah said and held the glass of Pink Demon up against one of the candelabra, making the sugar-coated rim stand out.
"I can't understand how you can drink that sickly sweet stuff," Kimberly said as she stirred her drink.
"And I can't understand why you only want a rum and Coke when there are so many great drinks to choose from."
"I love Cuba Libres."
"And I love Pink Demons. Cheers," Sarah said and took a sip from the drink.
"Ohhhhhh yeah…" Sarah purred and leaned back in her seat.
Three pink demons later, Sarah knew she'd had at least one too many, but she didn't care - in fact, she didn't have a care in the world.
"That's funny… I can't remember them having such a kick…" she slurred and drained the last few drops out of the glass. She ran her tongue around the rim to lick off the last of the sugar and then put it down with a well-sated 'ahhhh'.
"It's because you're so much older now, hon."
"Hey, I may be a little tipsy, but I can still recognize an insult when I hear one."
"Weren't you supposed to get up early in the morning? You know, to meet Joy and go mountain biking?"
"Look at your watch."
Sarah held up her arm and tried to focus on the hands.
"Oh, God, it's five to one…!"
"No, it's five past eleven, but it's gonna take us half an hour to get back to the hotel."
"Trust me, Sarah, it will. You just sit here while I'll go and pay the nice lady with the stuffed parrot," Kimberly said and slid out of the booth.
"Okie-dokie," Sarah said, still trying to make sense of her wristwatch.
"Kimmie… you may have been right," Sarah said when she realized that she needed to lean on the wall of the bar just to keep her balance.
"Let's take it one step at a time. Come on, right foot first…
Sarah moved her right leg forward and put down her foot.
"… That's my girl. Now the left one."
"I'm not that drunk, honest. I'm just a bit… tipsy."
"Yeah, and I'm Angelina Jolie."
Twenty-five minutes later, Kimberly fumbled with the keycard to Sarah's apartment. It wasn't the world's easiest task to stick the thin piece of plastic into the slot considering she had a six-foot tall, one hundred and fifty-four lbs. heavy brunette hanging on her left shoulder, but she finally managed to get the door unlocked.
"Come on, old girl. Let's get you to bed," Kimberly said and dragged Sarah through the door and into the bedroom. She deposited the tipsy woman on the bed and went back to close the front door.
When she returned to the bedroom, Sarah sat up straight, clutching her head in her hands.
"You gonna spew?" Kimberly said hesitantly, but Sarah shook her head.
"No. I'm not really that drunk, just…"
"… Tipsy, I know," Kimberly said and reached down to take off Sarah's shoes. Sarah stopped her by putting a hand on Kimberly's arm.
"Kimmie… I need you to be honest with me. Do you think Joy is interested in me?"
"Oh, Jeez, Sarah… I don't know. Don't you think it's much too soon to even think about that?"
"You tell me."
"Well, she did ask a few questions about you up at the pool, but… I don't know. Okay, your shoes are off, you can lie down now," Kimberly said and put Sarah's sneakers in the corner of the bedroom. Sarah responded immediately by falling backwards, ending up lying on top of the covers diagonally across the bed.
"You're gonna have to take off your T-shirt and your shorts yourself."
"Sure. I'll do that in a little while," Sarah slurred, already drifting off to dreamland.
"Yeah, in like six hours," Kimberly said and chuckled to herself.
"I envy you, Kimmie…"
"Because you have Ellen. Me… I'm… I'm just myself," Sarah whispered. Her breath evened out, and soon, she began to snore lightly.
"Oh, Sarah… my big, bad, lonely butch," Kimberly said and sat down on the edge of the bed. She moved a stray lock of hair away from Sarah's eyes and then leaned down to place a tiny kiss on her forehead.
"I really hope the two of you can work something out, but… after Saturday, there's going to be eleven-hundred miles between you…" Kimberly whispered to herself.
With a sigh, she got off the bed and quietly left Sarah's apartment.
DAY 4 - TUESDAY, MAY 11th
*Knock, knock, knock*
"Sarah? Are you in there? Hello? Are you all right?" Joy said, standing in the hallway, wearing trainers, khaki chinos and a black T-shirt. She checked her watch which read just after nine, AM.
Joy scrunched up her face and pulled her hand back to knock again. Before her knuckles could make an impact with the door, Kimberly stuck her head out of her own door.
"Hey, Joy. I heard the knockin' and thought it might be you."
"Is Sarah all right? We had arranged to meet here at nine, but…"
"We got home a little late last night. She discovered that the Peligro Bar had one of her favorite cocktails," Kimberly said and wiped off her hands on a towel.
"Oh… I know that story all too well," Joy said with a chuckle.
"I have her keycard. I'll be with ya in a flash," Kimberly said and closed the door.
"Sarah…? Wakey-wakey. You have a visitor," Kimberly said in a sing-song voice. She opened the door to the bedroom, but quickly established that Sarah wasn't in there.
"Zzzzzzzzzz, mhhh… huh?" a muffled voice said from the living room. Kimberly peeked around the corner and couldn't hold back a big laugh when she saw Sarah sitting in the comfy chair in bare feet, PJ bottoms and a T-shirt that appeared to be on backwards.
"Mmmfmmfm… whut?" Sarah said and yawned widely. She rubbed her eyes and looked around - and spotted Joy's familiar mop of shaggy hair. Sarah rubbed her eyes again and shot up from the chair.
The remote control for the TV had been resting in her lap and when she got up, it took flight, bouncing off the armrest of the chair before landing on the carpet with a hollow clunk.
Joy covered her mouth with her hand, trying desperately not to laugh out loud over the unexpected sight. After a few seconds, she had reined in herself sufficiently to dare use her voice. "Good morning, Sarah. We agreed on going shopping before the event, but… hmmm…!"
"I'm ready! Uhhh… buhhh… Kimmie, entertain our guest while I get dressed," Sarah said and strode towards the door to the bedroom.
Five minutes later, Sarah emerged fully dressed - and not a little embarrassed. " 'Morning, Joy. Kimmie," she said and ran a hand through her hair.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Kimberly said and stuck out her tongue.
"Hi again," Joy said from the couch.
"That was a little awkward before, I… uhhh… I had actually got out of bed a quarter past eight and I was getting dressed, but then I just needed a two minute break and I guess I fell asleep again."
"It happens. No problem. Listen, are you sure you're ready for the mountain bike event? It's a ten-mile cross country trek," Joy said and leaned forward to put her arms on her knees.
"Uhhh… yeah. Yeah, sure I am. I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar," Sarah said and sat down at the other end of the couch to tie her shoelaces.
"And tonight you'll be saying, 'I Am Woman, Damn I'm Sore'," Kimberly deadpanned, earning herself a couple of throaty chuckles from both Sarah and Joy.
"Well, there's a remedy for that. After the event, perhaps we could go to the Turkish Bath & Massage?" Joy said.
Sarah froze mid-tie and looked first at Joy and then at Kimberly with an expression in her eyes that could be described as trepidation.
As a response, Kimberly raised an eyebrow, bared her teeth in a cheeky grin and nodded enthusiastically at Sarah.
"Uhhh… I guess," Sarah croaked and tried very hard to wipe anything that resembled an undressed Joy from her mind.
Fifteen minutes later, Sarah and Joy entered the sportswear store and went directly over to the shelves that had the bike gear.
"So, that's the knee- and elbow pads. Adjustable to fit all sizes," Sarah said and put the items into a small shopping basket.
"Do you want a plain helmet, or a multi-colored one?" Joy said and pointed at the display on the rear wall of the store.
"Gee, I don't know… what does your helmet look like?"
"It's plain white."
"Then I guess I'll choose one of those, too."
"We probably need some bicycle gloves as well. You know, the ones that have a Velcro strap on the inside and where the fingers are missing," Joy said. After a few seconds, she started blushing furiously when she realized what she had said.
"God, I'm sorry… I did it again," Joy said and shook her head apologetically.
Sarah chuckled and held up her left hand - the one with the missing little finger.
"Doesn't bother me at all, Joy, 'cos I know you're not doing it out of malice," Sarah said and waved the four fingers at the actress.
"Still… I've never been this insensitive before."
"Are you saying I bring out the worst in you?" Sarah quipped and meant it purely as a joke - but she was horrified to see a shocked expression on Joy's face.
'Shut your piehole before you destroy everything, you big, stupid idiot!' Sarah's inner voice roared in her ear.
"A joke… that was a joke," Sarah croaked, mentally bashing herself over the head numerous times.
"Well, I don't know about bringing out the worst in me, but I do know that I feel very relaxed when I'm near you, Sarah… and I guess that's why I stick my foot in my mouth so often," Joy said and flashed yet another of her bright, genuine smiles.
"Oh… thanks. Anyway, I better go find a helmet, or we'll never get to the main event," Sarah said and spun around on her heel.
"Man, look at that… there must be fifty people waiting in that line," Sarah said as they pulled their rented mountain bikes up to the registration booth.
Everywhere she looked, she was greeted by a sea of people wearing colorful clothing and even more colorful helmets. The noise level was deafening and she sighed deeply.
"At least you can see their heads. I can only see Lycra-clad backs," Joy said and tried to jump up to get a better view.
"I think it's going to take a while. Everyone's getting some kind of sticker," Sarah said and adjusted her sunglasses. She couldn't help but feel a bit overdressed, especially when she looked at what the other people were wearing - most of the other contestants had on what looked like professional outfits, but there were a few people among them wearing regular clothes.
Sarah looked down at herself and furrowed her brow - she was wearing her pale gray sweatpants, as recommended by Joy, and a white long-sleeved shirt. Joy was still wearing the chinos from before, but she had also changed into a shirt. They were both wearing bicycle gloves, helmets and sunglasses and in addition to those things, Sarah was carrying a small pack on her back with some bottles of water and a first aid kit.
"Uhhh, Joy, are we dressed for the occasion? I think we look a little… I don't know… out of place?"
"This is a two-class event, Sarah. The professionals and the rest of us. We're going to compete in the amateur class."
"Ohhh… okay. That makes sense."
"Here you go, you're amateur team thirteen," a TruAmerica employee said and handed Sarah an information leaflet and two small stickers to put on their bikes.
"Oh, do we have to be thirteen? Why thirteen of all numbers?" Sarah complained, but the employee had already moved on to the next team.
"Great… thirteen. That's just what we needed. Now we're both gonna fall and break our legs…" Sarah grumbled as she pulled her bike past the booth.
"What are you moaning about?" Joy said, trying to keep up with Sarah's longer strides.
"We're team thirteen. Here's your sticker."
"Thanks. Are you superstitious?"
"No. I just don't like thirteen," Sarah said and took her helmet from the handlebar. She put it on and closed the chinstrap, making the plastic locks snap together with an audible click.
"Don't worry 'bout it. It'll all work out in the end," Joy said and put her hand on Sarah's back.
Despite the high ambient temperature, Sarah could feel the warmth from Joy's hand seep through the cotton shirt she was wearing and she marveled at how much she enjoyed being touched by the actress.
"Hey, guys!" a familiar voice shouted and Sarah turned around to find Kimberly in the crowd. The curly-haired woman was standing on the other side of a low fence separating the contestants from the spectators.
"Hey. Have you come to pay us our last respects?" Sarah said as she walked over to the fence.
"Yep. Boy, you both look cool. Anyway, I've brought you some refreshments. Catch!" Kimberly said and threw Sarah a neatly wrapped bundle.
"Oh, you didn't have to do that. We have plenty of water and stuff already."
"I've bought you a couple of cucumber sandwiches."
"Yeah, they hold water, so they'll be great for the trek."
Sarah chuckled and put the bundle into her backpack.
"Thanks a lot, Kimberly. We really appreciate it," Joy said, flashing a beaming smile and a thumbsup.
A TruAmerica employee came out of the booth and turned on a bullhorn, producing a sound akin to nails running down a blackboard. Everybody jumped and several grumbled swearwords were heard.
"All amateur participants in the mountain bike event, please go to the starting area!"
"That's us. We better go," Sarah said and put on her backpack.
"Good luck, guys and… keep upright, okay?" Kimberly said and stuck out her tongue.
"Will do. See ya at the finish line!"
All twenty amateur teams amassed all at once at the starting line, creating a chaotic mess of people and bikes - to battle the ever-increasing din, Sarah lifted her sunglasses and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Oh, yeah, this is going to be so wonderful…" she grumbled and started thumbing through the leaflet they'd been given.
The objective of the amateur event is to find eight hidden checkpoints along a pre-defined ten-mile course and to get a stamp from an official at each of those checkpoints. The winner will be decided once all amateur teams has either returned to the starting area or forfeited their run.
"What do you think our chances are of finding even one checkpoint?" Sarah said, showing the leaflet to Joy.
"Well… that's hard to say. I think we should be able to find at least some of them. Right?"
"If you say so," Sarah said and laughed out loud.
The buzz among the contestants grew to impossible levels when a TruAmerica employee stepped up onto a small dais and raised a starting pistol high in the air. He looked across the sea of people to check if everyone was ready and once he was satisfied they were, he squeezed the trigger.
At once, all forty amateur bikers rushed out of the starting area and jumped onto their bikes. Predictably, several tangled with the biker next to them, causing havoc for the people behind. Some couldn't keep the balance and started falling down, creating a domino effect that suddenly left a huge pocket open for Sarah and Joy to drive through. Once they had cleared the melee, they pedaled furiously to get away from the chaotic mess behind them.
After a few minutes, they were established as the fifth team and Sarah slowed down slightly to look over her shoulder.
"Man, they're still messed up back there. Unbelievable."
"Gold Medals, here we come!" Joy shouted and let out a whoop.
"It's a long race, let's save our strength."
Sarah laughed and nodded.
"Yes, already. I'm not really that used to bicycling, so I don't want to wear out my… uhhh… backside too soon."
"Oh. I get that. I wouldn't want anything to happen to it, either," Joy said and pulled slightly ahead of Sarah.
Sarah blinked a few times and almost forgot to work the pedals. 'And there she goes again, flirting with me…' Sarah's inner voice said. "Man, that start was like the Oklahoma Land Rush…" she said out loud and increased the pace to keep up with Joy.
"Yeah, I'm not sure they'd planned it that way."
"You have the leaflet. Where's the first checkpoint supposed to be?"
Joy reached behind her and took the leaflet out of her back pocket. She spread it out across the handlebars and tried to find their current position.
"I don't think it's too far. We're still in the flat area, but my best guess is that the first checkpoint will be somewhere over there, in the rough," Joy said and pointed at a cluster of trees in the distance.
"Well, let's giddy-up, then," Sarah said and turned towards the trees.
Forty-five minutes later, they had three stamps on a control sheet they'd been given at the first checkpoint.
"We've missed one, Sarah," Joy said, shielding her eyes with her free hand as she scouted out the road ahead.
"Yeah, there's a checkpoint over there, but it's marked #5," Joy said and pointed at a small, manned post some distance away.
"Shit. Do you want to go back and search for #4, or…?" Sarah said and took off her sunglasses so she could spot the post Joy was referring to.
"Does it matter?" Joy said and slowed to a halt. She put her leg down on the ground and wiped some sweat off her neck.
"Nah. Not really," Sarah said and stopped next to the actress.
"Let's go over to that guy over there and get the stamp and then take a break. I'm getting a sore butt."
Joy got back in the saddle and pedaled heavily to get up to speed.
'Don't look… don't look… don't look!' Sarah's inner voice said, but to no avail - she couldn't stop herself from staring at Joy's perfectly rounded derriere as the athletic woman sped away from her.
"You coming?" Joy said over her shoulder.
A few minutes later, they crossed over a wooden bridge spanning a dry riverbed and pulled up next to the checkpoint.
A TruAmerica employee got up from the deck chair he'd been lounging in and went over to greet them. "Hi. I need to see your control sheet, please."
"Hello. Here ya go," Joy said and handed the event official the piece of paper.
"Team thirteen, checkpoint #5… oh, you've missed one," the man said as he spotted the missing stamp.
"We know," Joy replied politely.
"Well, anyway, here's your stamp."
The event official used a rubber stamp to create a symbol in the checkbox for #5 and then handed the control sheet back to Joy.
"Thanks," Joy said with a smile.
"How many other teams have you seen?" Sarah said.
"Oh, I'm sorry, that's all hush-hush."
"Come on, Sarah, let's take a break. The far side of this little hill should provide us with some shadow," Joy said and tugged on Sarah's sleeve.
They rode around the small hill where the checkpoint was and found a suitable spot between some very large boulders.
As soon as they had stepped off their bikes, Sarah took off her sunglasses and her helmet and started ruffling her hair. Dust and sand rained out of her black locks, creating not only a small sandstorm, but a small hill at her feet.
"No wonder it was so damn scratchy…" she said and stuck her index fingers in her ears to get them cleaned out, too.
Joy crouched down and studied her bike. She scrunched up her face and tugged at the chain.
"Anything wrong?" Sarah said. She took off her backpack and unpacked the bottles of water and the lunch Kimberly had bought for them.
"The chain's a little slack, but I think it'll hold," Joy said and dusted off her hands. She took off her helmet and repeated the sandstorm trick Sarah had just been through.
"Man, we're gonna need some long, hot showers when we get back, huh?" Sarah said, grinning.
"Yeah. Hey, wouldn't it be fun if we found some hot springs out here somewhere? We could go skinny-dipping," Joy said and sat down on the boulder. She reached for the top sandwich and started biting into it.
Sarah's only reply was a faint nod, accompanied by a thousand-mile stare.
After they had finished Kimberly's cucumber sandwiches, they cut up the two apples they had brought along and put the slices on one of the napkins.
"Joy, what's it like being an actress in a variety show?" Sarah said and popped one of the slices into her mouth.
"Oh, you know… it's a living. No, it's all right, actually. I have another two weeks on my contract and then I'll be looking for something else," Joy said as she wiped off her mouth on a napkin.
"Isn't it boring to always do the same act?"
"Oh, no, not at all. The Professor has been in my family for decades. My granddad invented the act just after he returned from World War II and my dad continued with it when Gramps got too old. And now it's my turn."
"Oh, I didn't know that. That's really fascinating."
"I love the Professor. He allows me to show my zany side. Eight out of ten regular gigs are damn serious, so I love it when I get the opportunity to let my hair down… so to speak," Joy said and leaned back on the rock. She took off her sunglasses and wiped her eyes.
"How did he get that silly name?"
"Well, Gemini is my Zodiac sign and LaQuizzle… well, I guess Grandpa just thought the name had a great ring to it. When my dad played the character, he was just called Professor LaQuizzle. I added the Gemini myself."
Sarah nodded and took a big bite out of the next slice. "Have you ever done any movies, or are you strictly a theater actress?"
"I've done a couple of movies, actually. I doubt you've heard of them, though."
"Ohhhh, don't be too sure. I have a bit of a B-movie fetish," Sarah said and chuckled.
"They were both horror movies. One was called Bloody Harvest and the other was… what was it… it was such an odd title…" Joy said and scrunched up her face. She used her index finger to tap on her nose, something that Sarah found terminally cute.
"Well, I'm safe for once. I don't know a horror movie called Bloody Harvest," Sarah said and finished off her apple.
"Oh, I remember now. The other movie was called Never Say Yes To A Stranger," Joy said and smiled.
"Never Say… oh, shoot. I have that on video…"
"No way!" Joy said and covered her eyes with her hand. She laughed out loud and shook her head from side to side.
"'Fraid so. Barry Lane played the killer, right?"
"Right. Oh, God, I'm so embarrassed! So now you know how I looked when I was nineteen."
"Well, in my defense, I haven't watched it for years. My VCR broke down ages ago," Sarah said, chuckling.
"I was only in it for a few minutes, anyway. I played victim number two. It was just an ordinary slasher movie. They're a dime a dozen."
"And that's what they usually sell for as well," Sarah added.
"Would you like to go back to making movies?" Sarah said as she took the cap off of her water bottle.
"Well… not if I had to play victim number two again, that's for sure," Joy said with a shrug.
"How about victim number one, then?"
"Oh, ha ha!" Joy said and threw a mock punch in Sarah's direction.
Behind them, a large group of mountain bikes zoomed past, kicking up a cloud of dust.
"Well, I guess we better get back to the race. How many checkpoints are left?"
"Too many," Joy said, studying the control sheet.
"Ah, who cares. It's been a pretty good day so far," Sarah said and got up from her boulder. She stretched her back and went down to the bike.
"Yeah. It's been great," Joy said and followed Sarah with her eyes.
"Damn… I know checkpoint eight is around here somewhere…" Sarah said as she scanned the surrounding area for any hidden clues.
"I can see the finish line from here, so you're right, we must be close to it," Joy said and wiped off her face and the side of her neck with her sleeve.
Sarah stopped and put her foot down on the ground. She shielded her eyes with her hands and slowly turned her head from left to right, scanning the horizon. She was feeling so worn out that she wasn't sure she could see far enough, but suddenly she picked up something that looked out of place - a flash of red in the middle of the green and brown desert.
"Hey… I think I got it… I definitely got it!" Sarah said and pointed at a cluster of trees a few hundred yards away from their position.
"Are you sure? I can't see anything…?"
"Oh yeah, it's there. There's a piece of plastic flapping in the breeze and it's in the TruAmerica red. Joy, if you don't feel like checking it out, hand me the control sheet and I'll do it."
"Hell, no. I trust ya," Joy said and started pedaling heavily to get up to speed.
"Congratulations, you've found the last checkpoint," the TruAmerica employee said as she put the last stamp on Sarah and Joy's control sheet.
"Great. Too bad we missed #4… we would've had 'em all," Sarah said and looked at the empty space where the stamp was supposed to be.
"Can you find your way to the finish line?" the woman said and sat down on a deck chair.
"Sure. Thanks," Joy said, wrapped her arm around Sarah's waist and pulled the taller woman away from the booth.
On their way back to their bikes, Joy suddenly reached up and planted a soft kiss on Sarah's dusty cheek. "Great work, Sarah. Don't you think that was fun?"
Sarah was too stunned to really understand what had just happened, so she just nodded and grunted in a non-committal fashion - her inner voice was sending her all sorts of messages, but she was so tired that she didn't have the energy to listen to any of them.
She moved her hand up to touch the spot where Joy had kissed her only seconds before and found her skin still tingling.
Twenty minutes later, Sarah and Joy crossed the finish line to the sounds of rapturous applause by a large group of enthusiastic spectators.
While a TruAmerica employee took their control sheet to check it against the other teams, Sarah and Joy sat down on a couple of chairs as soon as they could.
Dusty, sweaty and weary, Sarah kept staring at her wristwatch, not quite understanding that it had only been two hours and ten minutes since the race had gone under way.
"This is what the forty days in the wilderness must've felt like," she croaked, her throat as dry as parchment.
"Yeah…" Joy said wearily. She slapped her hands against her arms to get rid of some of the grime, creating a cloud of dust that drifted through the air.
"Hey, guys! How did it go?" a familiar voice said and Sarah turned around to wave at Kimberly.
"Filthy," Sarah said and got up from the chair. She walked over to the low fence and put her hands on her hips.
"And sweaty," Joy said, moving up to stand next to Sarah.
"And… Gawd… phew… definitely smelly," Kimberly said and pretended to fan her hand in front of her nose.
"Oh, get outta here! We're not that bad," Sarah said and smelled her armpit.
"No comment. How many did you get?"
"We got seven out of the eight checkpoints. All in all, not too shabby."
"Did anything happen?"
"Yeah, you know… any saucy anecdotes you can relate to your best friend over a mug o' ale?"
"Nah. Well… not really," Sarah said and stole a glance at Joy - a gesture that didn't go unnoticed by Kimberly who hummed and raised an eyebrow.
A TruAmerica employee came up to them, flashing a broad smile that, quite unusually, was genuine. He stretched out his arms and patted both Sarah and Joy on their shoulders at the same time.
"Great news, you're in third place so far!" he said and waved their control sheet in the air before handing it back to Sarah.
Sarah did a double-take and turned her head to face Joy - who had done exactly the same.
"Well, I guess that's something at least…" Sarah said.
"And now confirmed in third place, we have team thirteen, Miss Sarah Michaels and Miss Joy Richards. Give them a hand, everybody!" the emcee said and stepped aside so Sarah and Joy could move up onto the podium.
They waved at the crowd who responded by clapping wildly, especially Kimberly who was whistling, cheering and doing an impromptu victory dance.
"Congratulations. You have each won a seventy-five dollars gift certificate courtesy of the TruAmerica Prudence Hotel, Sports & Fitness Resort. The gift certificate is valid in any of the restaurants, bars and fitness activities in the Mall!" the emcee said in a voice that was just a bit too cheerful.
"All right!" Sarah said and gave Joy a high five.
"I'm going to use mine to get a VIP treatment at the Turkish Bath," Joy said and put a hand on the small of her back for effect.
"Oh yeah, that's right… we talked about doing that…" Sarah said and suddenly felt awkward all over again.
"Listen, Sarah, it's all right if you don't wanna come, but I've done it a couple of times and it's not what you think it is."
"Oh…? No, I'll be there. I just need a regular shower first."
A young girl stepped up onto the podium, carrying two bouquets of flowers. She handed one to Sarah and the other to Joy and then turned around to stand in front of them.
Suddenly Jaime appeared with his camera, snapping several pictures of Sarah and Joy. Sarah remembered the photographer's impudent attitude from the fire alarm the day before and showed her displeasure by sending him an arched eyebrow.
The emcee stepped back up onto the podium and shook Sarah's and Joy's hands. "Congratulations," he said with the same plastic smile all TruAmerica employees wore.
"Are we done here?" Sarah croaked, earning herself a few laughs from the spectators.
"Yes, you may step down now."
On tired, leaden legs, Sarah and Joy stepped off the podium and went over to the waiting Kimberly. Behind them, the emcee announced the second placed team, but neither Sarah nor Joy could muster up enough energy to stay and watch.
"Oh, man, you two look absolutely wrecked…" Kimberly said and put her arm around Sarah's shoulder.
"Wrecked is a good word, Kimberly," Joy said.
"I have dust where dust shouldn't be," Sarah said in a tired, whiny voice. She ran a hand through her hair, creating yet another duststorm.
"You need a drink, hon," Kimberly said and patted Sarah on her back.
"Make it a double and you've got company," Joy said and coughed.
"Eighth floor, Sarah. This is where we live," Kimberly said and tugged on Sarah's sleeve.
"Huh? Oh… yeah. See ya later, Joy," Sarah said, stifling a fierce yawn as she stepped out of the elevator.
"I'll swing by in about an hours' time, okay?" Joy said, putting her hand on the elevator doors so they wouldn't close.
"Uhhh… can we make it an hour and a half? I really need a nap-uhhh… I mean, I really need a bath…"
"Sure. See ya then," Joy said and removed her hand from the doors. A few seconds later, the doors closed and the elevator continued upwards.
Sarah walked like a zombie towards her apartment and had a great deal of trouble inserting her keycard into the slot.
"C'mon you big lug, let me do it," Kimberly said and took the card. Effortlessly, she inserted the card, unlocking the door.
"Thanks, Kimmie," Sarah said and yawned again.
"You know, Sarah, I think there's something you've been keeping from me."
"Huh? What's that?"
"I coulda sworn your last birthday was your thirty-third…?"
"Ugh. Don't remind me."
"How come you're looking and sounding like a ninety-three year-old, then?"
"I beg your pardon!" Sarah said and turned around to face Kimberly. Unfortunately, she turned around a little too quickly because not only was there a loud crunching sound coming from her back, the tip of her tennis shoe snagged on the corner of the door mat which nearly sent her flying head-first into the apartment.
"Ouch!" Sarah said and put a hand on her lower back. She stretched, resulting in a series of pops and cracks from her joints.
"Do you see my point?" Kimberly said, taking Sarah's arm to support the taller woman.
"Yeah, yeah. It was a rough event."
"I'm just teasin' ya 'cos I love ya, buddy," Kimberly said and gave Sarah a push with her shoulder.
"Ouch… I know."
"So… did anything happen between you and Joy?"
Sarah briefly looked at Kimberly, but chose not to answer her question. She closed the front door and went into the bathroom.
Sarah pulled her long-sleeved T-shirt free of her trousers and took it off. She held it up against the light, staring at the formerly white T - after being exposed to all the dust and grime, it had turned dark brown. She hung it on a hook and sat down on a plastic chair to take off her shoes.
"Sarah, on a more serious note… when was the last time you took your shirt off in front of another woman?" Kimberly said, studying Sarah's figure. Her long torso had exquisite proportions and she was neither sinewy nor bulky. She had a flat stomach and pleasantly toned arms and shoulders and, despite the fact that her breasts were currently held firmly in place by her sportsbra, it was clear to see that she was well-developed.
"Oh, well… it's been a while," Sarah said quietly and reached down to untie her shoelaces.
"Jeez, it's such a waste."
"Kimmie, I appreciate that you're trying to play matchmaker, but… you know," Sarah said with a chuckle.
"You didn't answer my question. Did anything happen between you and Joy?"
Kimberly moved over to Sarah and crouched down in front of her. She took Sarah's hands in her own and gave them a little squeeze. "Something did happen and I'm not gonna leave until you tell me!" she said in an overly melodramatic voice that deservedly garnered an eye-roll from Sarah.
"Well, we had a great talk. About her career and… stuff. She's so easy to talk to. Everything just comes naturally. I really wanna listen to the things she's telling me… and that's a brand new experience for me. Some of the other women I've talked to… Gawd help us."
"I know exactly what you mean… Hey, that's pretty cool!" Kimberly said and slapped Sarah's thigh.
"And she kissed me on the cheek," Sarah said so quietly that Kimberly could hardly hear it.
"She…" Sarah sat up straight and sighed deeply. She started toying with a loose thread on her sportsbra, apparently still coming to terms with what happened. "She kissed me on the cheek."
"Oh yeah, now you're talkin', buddy," Kimberly said and got up.
"I guess," Sarah said and kicked off her shoes. She got up from the chair and put her thumbs inside the elastic band of her sweatpants.
"But isn't that what you wanted?"
"Yeah, but… right now, I don't know what I want. It's just that… no. Never mind."
"Oh, come on, Sarah. Please tell me what's on your mind."
Sarah closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She put her hands on her hips and slowly let out the air she'd been holding back.
"I'm afraid I'm gonna do something… or say something that'll foul it up. Again," Sarah said with a shrug.
Kimberly opened her mouth to reply, but found that she didn't really have anything to say.
"Look, Kimmie, I'm gonna shower now, so…"
"All right. I'll be over at my place. Come see me when you've showered. We're not done talking," Kimberly said and left the bathroom.
"I'll be there!" Sarah shouted.
When the front door clicked shut behind Kimberly, Sarah pulled down her sweatpants, stepped out of them and hung them on a hook next to the shirt.
She went over to the mirror and looked at herself. She moved her hand up to touch her cheek where Joy had kissed her and then ran her index finger slowly across her lips, imagining what kind of sensations it would produce if it was Joy's fingers doing that.
A sore back muscle made its presence felt, reminding Sarah why she was getting ready for a shower in the first place. She chuckled and reached behind her to undo her sportsbra.
Twelve minutes of getting blasted with hot water had worked wonders on Sarah's stiff muscles and she felt like a brand new woman - albeit a tired one. She turned off the tap and let the last few drops run down her long body. She wrung the water out of her hair and stepped out of the shower.
As she reached for the towel, someone knocked on the door. Sarah started drying herself off and stepped into the living room dressed only in her birthday suit.
"Kimmie, man! I told you I'd be over when I was done showering!"
'It's Joy, Sarah. There's something I want to talk to you about,' Joy said, her voice muffled by the door.
Despite the closed door between them, Sarah went into a state of panic. She ran back into the bathroom, threw down the towel and picked up a TruAmerica terrycloth bathrobe. "Uhhh… just a moment, Joy… I'm not… I'll be right there!"
'Sure,' came the muffled answer.
Sarah quickly stuck her arm down the nearest available armhole - only to discover it was the wrong one. With a mumbled curse, she flipped the bathrobe around and put it on right. She wrapped the bathrobe tightly around herself, remembering to tie the waistband properly so it wouldn't slip open if she had to sit down. Finally, she bent over, grabbed the towel and resumed drying her hair.
In two steps, she was at the door. She flung it open, creating a shockwave of air that threatened to lift up her bathrobe. "Hi again, Joy. Sorry it took so long."
"Hi, Sarah. Ummm… you're all wet… I guess I caught you in the shower."
"In more ways than one, yes."
"I was about to take one, too and then I started feeling really guilty. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that you must've felt that I was trying to force you to go to the Turkish Bath with me… but that's not what I wanted at all…"
"Oh… well, can we talk about it inside? There's a breeze out here and it's kinda chilly," Sarah said and tried to close the bathrobe even more.
A few moments later, Joy sat down on the couch, still wearing the same, dusty clothes she had worn on the mountain bike event.
"Well… if you don't feel like going down to the Turkish Bath, you don't have to. As I said, I felt like I was forcing you to go there with me and…"
Sarah sat down at the other end of the couch and observed Joy as she spoke. Joy's jade-green eyes seemed to be very sincere, as were her words, but still Sarah wondered why she had come. Joy's hands were resting in her lap, almost like she was trying not to show her nervousness and on occasion, she was biting the corner of her lip.
'Could it be even remotely possible that she's fishing around for some information? That she's trying to gauge my interest in her? I've only known her for a few days, but I've never seen her so… so insecure. Could it be that she's… interested in me?' Sarah's inner voice said in her ear. At the thought, a couple of butterflies started flapping their wings in her stomach.
"So what do you say, Sarah?"
'Shit!' Sarah thought, caught completely off-balance.
"Uhhh… Look, having some guy knead my muscles just doesn't work for me. I really hope you don't mind, but… but it just wouldn't work. Okay?"
"Okay. Just for the record, they have masseuses there as well."
"No, it's all right. I understand," Joy said and got up from the couch.
'Wait a minute… was she asking me out on a date? Oh, no, she was asking me out on a date!' Sarah's inner voice said and she mentally gave herself a hard slap on the back of her head.
Joy started walking towards the door with an unreadable expression on her face and Sarah's heart started beating faster and faster.
'Sarah Madeleine Michaels, this is it. It's make-your-mind-up time. Do you want this or not?' Sarah's inner voice said, leaving a message that rang loud and clear through Sarah's mind.
"Hey, Joy, I… I have a much better idea. How about we, uhhh…" - 'Think, you stupid moron, think!' - "How about we went down to one of the restaurants and spent our newly won gift certificates? Just you and me? We could meet at…" Sarah said and looked at her bare arm. "Uhhh… at eight forty- five, or so? That's after your show, right?"
Joy's eyes lit up like little suns and the corners of her mouth twitched upward. She appeared to take a step closer to Sarah, but then a flash of something raced across her face and her eyes lost some of their luster.
"Oh, I can't tonight, Sarah. There's an important meeting I have to attend down at the theater. It's where we plan the sequence of the acts for the next two-week period and if I'm not there, the Professor will get a poor slot. But how about the same time tomorrow night?"
"Tomorrow night is good. In fact, tomorrow night is great. Where is that damn thing…" Sarah said, looking everywhere for the brochure containing the list of the restaurants. She finally spotted it in the small reed basket next to the TV set and she jumped up from the couch to retrieve it.
"Oh, here it is. Seventy-five dollars will go a long way, so we can take our picks. What do you like?"
"I've heard that the chef at Torre Pendente can perform miracles with veal, but I haven't tried it yet. Perhaps we could go there?"
Sarah found Torre Pendente's entry in the brochure and looked at the pictures. The restaurant had a black and white drawing of the leaning tower of Pisa as its logo and everything appeared to have been designed in a traditional Italian style. It looked very cozy and romantic and Sarah immediately fell for it.
"You bet. We have a da… deal," Sarah said, struggling against breathing a huge sigh of relief. When she saw a warm smile spread out over Joy's features, she matched it with one of her own.
"I better get back to my apartment. I'm beginning to get crusty," Joy said and scratched her cheek.
"Oh hell, Joy, why don't you just shower here? There's more than enough bathrobes in there… I think there's four or five, or something."
"Sure. Go on, get undre… uhhh, I mean… you know what I mean. I'll get dressed while you shower."
"Great. Thanks," Joy said and went over to stand in the bathroom door. Just before she closed it, she turned to look at Sarah - and smiled so broadly that Sarah's knees turned to Jell-O.
After the door had closed, Sarah buried her face in her hands and groaned quietly. 'You fool… what did you just let yourself into? You better be prepared to deal with the consequences,' she thought.
She shook her head and started walking towards the bedroom - unfortunately, she never made it that far.
"Yo, Sarah? It's me, Kimmie! Open up will ya!"
Sarah rolled her eyes and threw her hands in the air. She went back out of the bedroom, grumbling loudly to herself on her way to the door.
"Yeah, I wanted to show you something in the… hey, wait a minute… who's in the shower?" Kimberly said as she noticed the familiar sound of running water. She went over to the bathroom door and put her ear to it - from the inside, she could hear a woman humming.
"It's Joy," Sarah said.
Kimberly suddenly looked down at Sarah's bare legs under the bathrobe and her eyebrows shot up her forehead. "Way to go, killer! You hound dog, you," she said and leaned forward to give Sarah a big thump on the shoulder.
"Oh, will ya gimme a break… we've only been back for twenty minutes!"
"Yeah, but I was kinda under the impression that you'd only last twenty seconds…"
"Jeez! Thanks a lot, Kimmie," Sarah said and reached out for Kimberly who quickly stepped aside.
"I wanted to show you where I thought we should eat tonight, but it'll wait. Just enjoy her company, hon. I'll be back later," Kimberly said, backing out of the door with an impossibly cheeky grin on her face.
Concluded in Part 2.
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