For disclaimers, see Part
They'd been traveling on the lakeside road for some twenty minutes. For the first ten of those, Chloe had nervously babbled about where they were going, and what they needed to pick up. Sometime during that, after hearing not a word from Sara in return, Chloe mentally zipped her lip. Maybe all this yakking is making it worse for her. God knows she looks like I'm hauling her to a funeral as it is. Chloe leaned forward and fiddled with the buttons on the radio, which was playing so faintly that she couldn't tell if there was music or a call-in talk show on. She snuck a peek at Sara, who was in the same position as when they'd first left. She was just staring out her passenger window. A cold rain was falling, and it was such a dark and dismal day that Chloe turned the headlights on. The farmland fell away from view, and the outskirts of Erie appeared, quickly dotted with fast-food restaurants and shopping centers. The traffic increased, and stoplights impeded their progress. It was the waiting at stoplights that made the quiet even more disconcerting, because Chloe couldn't find anything to do during these extended stops except idly drum her fingers on the steering wheel, or pretend to be interested in reading gas station signage. Chloe let a driver with large muttly dog in the back seat pull into traffic in front of her. The dog, quite manic, was pacing back and forth, slobbering on the rear window.
"I think you could have your horse problem solved right there." Sara murmured and she nodded toward the giant canine in the car in front of them.
Chloe snapped her attention to Sara's quietly smiling face. "Well hello there, stranger.", Chloe grinned back.
Sara brushed her palm from Chloe's shoulder down to her elbow. "Thanks for letting me get my bearings. I think I can rejoin the land of the living now."
"And such a lovely land it is, too." Chloe leaned forward, and scanned the scene before her. "Looks like everyone is heading for one of the 'Marts today. K or Wal. When's the last time you were in the big 'burg of Erie?"
Sara thought about this. "Probably right before I left for college. I haven't had a reason to come here since. Still looks exactly the same, nothing but miles of car dealerships, stores, restaurants and bad roads. "
"Dreary Erie, the mistake on the lake."
Sara smiled at the familiar moniker. "We used to come out here on the weekends, to the Peninsula, and lay on the beach all day. When I was in high school, we had some pretty awesome parties there, too. You know, I lived in California for a time, pretty near the ocean. It was beautiful, but there's just something different about the ocean smell. It's good, but I prefer fresh water lakes to the ocean. Maybe it's because of growing up so close to Lake Erie. No matter where I've lived, I've always been more comfortable knowing there was a lake or ocean nearby."
"Rivers just don't cut it, huh?"
"A river can be nice, especially for fishing. Do you fish at all?"
"A few times, when I was little. I remember my dad getting his hook caught in my hair and me screaming bloody murder ..."
They had made it out of the more congested retail areas, and were heading into the residential part of town. Sara saw a familiar landmark and pointed it out to Chloe. "I dated a girl from that high school when I was a senior. I met her at a basketball tournament. I was guarding her. We beat them pretty badly, but she came and watched the rest of our games." Sara's face took on a melancholy expression. "I wonder what ever became of her?"
"You were dating girls in high school? Huh. I didn't officially start dating women until my third year at State." Chloe made a left turn, and they headed south from the lake. "I dated a bazillion boys up until then. I would date them for a month, they would get all ... antsy, and then I would just toss them away. I never wanted to sleep with them, I just wanted to ... I dunno ... hang around them, have fun with them. Then all that romantic BS would sneak in and ruin all my fun." Chloe laughed at the memory, and then asked, "Whatever happened to the girl from that school?"
"She went off to college, I went off to my college, we wrote, we called, and then it just petered out. Kind of hard being that young and that far away to keep anything going for long."
Chloe nodded in agreement. "The woman I met, Sandy, well, we went our separate ways after college. She was pretty heavily recruited by some companies out west. She was a whiz business major. I'll bet she has a pretty good life right now." Chloe's mind tried to picture her ex-love.
"You didn't want to go with her? Or didn't she ask?"
"Oh, she asked, alright. I think I hurt her pretty badly because I wanted to stay here, in this area. We talked for over a year about me coming out to live with her. She even came here a couple of times and tried to convince me to change my mind. Finally, she just called me one day and said she had decided to move on with her life. It was tough for me, because although we were apart, I still had it in my head that she was my girlfriend, my lover ... you know, and that we would find a way to be together ... someday. I just never really considered putting a end to it. I guess that wasn't fair to her." Chloe's voice trailed off, and they continued the ride in silence for a while.
The Subaru hit a large pothole and shuddered. "Whoa. I think you ran over a Girl Scout troop there." teased Sara.
They could see a large high school looming in front of them. Chloe shook her head. "I can't get over how large the high schools are here in the city. Their auditorium alone is the size of half of all of Fort Lafayette. By the way, we're going to be met by my friend, John Logan. He's the theatre arts director here. It's his full time job. I can't imagine. I'm just part time with Lafayette, 6 hours a week until Senior play season. Then, it's just non-stop pandemonium until school lets out."
They pulled up behind the auditorium's back doors. Chloe turned to Sara, and gave her a smile. "Wait here, I'm going to go pound on the door and see if he's here. "
Sara nodded, and watched Chloe make a mad dash through the rain over to the doors marked 'Auditorium'. She pounded a few times, and moments later the door swung open. Sara saw a tall woman with streaked blonde curly hair, dressed in jeans and a work shirt, hold open her arms, and Chloe jumped into them, giving her an enthusiastic hug. The blonde was returning the hug with equal gusto. That blonde certainly doesn't look like her name is 'John'. And it doesn't look like they just met, either. Chloe stepped into the doorway, and waved at Sara to come in. Okey dokey.
Sara arrived inside building to see the blonde woman hugging Chloe once again. Chloe was giggling, and poked the woman in the ribs. They both turned and saw Sara, and the woman slowly disengaged her arms from around Chloe. Chloe's face was flushed, and she was smiling like a puppy with a new chew toy. "Sara, this is my old friend Audra Simmons. She student taught at Lafayette the second year I was there as theatre director. She helped us out with the play that year. Audra, this is my friend ... Sara D' Amico."
Audra stuck out her hand, and leaned towards Sara, who gently clasped it and shook it. Audra's eyes fell to Sara's scar, and Sara just smiled and mumbled a 'hello'. It's just natural for her to look. Don't worry about it. Audra cocked her head, and said. "Whoa! Now I know where I know you from! Star Gazers! Nice to meetcha."
Sara just nodded her acknowledgment and then looked at Chloe. Chloe gave her a small grin, and turned to Audra. "Where's John? I was supposed to meet him here. Am I late or early, I can never remember ..."
"Two of John's kids came down with the chicken pox earlier this week, and his wife is all run ragged, so he stayed home with them to give her a break. When I heard John say you were coming today, I knew I had to be here, hell or high water, so I volunteered to help him out. Little does he know he's the one who was doing me the favor! " She looked directly into Chloe's eyes, and gave her the brightest smile she could muster. Chloe immediately blushed from her toes to her hair roots.
Sara just stood there, watching the little interaction between Audra and Chloe. Hmm. Hm. What's the story here?
Chloe, still glowing, turned to Sara. "The storage room is right up this hallway. We can root around and find the stuff we need, get a dolly and haul it out to the Subaru." She watched Sara nod. Is she uncomfortable around Audra? I need to keep an eye on her.
"Is there a ladies' room nearby? I need to answer the call," said Sara in a subdued voice.
Audra answered her. "Oh sure, it's two doors up from the storage room. Right this way."
The three women made their way up the short hallway, and then stopped at a door that was propped open. Audra said to Sara, "It's right up there, on your left." Sara continued her walk and saw the entrance and went in.
Once Sara had disappeared from view, Audra grabbed Chloe's hands and said, "Oooh, are you a movie star groupie now?" She gave Chloe the once over again.
Chloe squeezed Audra's hands and laughed. "Nope, not quite. She's the aunt of one of the leads in the play. I just met her a couple of weeks ago. Nobody in town even knew she was in town. I think she came home for a little quiet R and R."
Audra nodded. "Yeah. I saw the scar." She zinged Chloe with another grin. "And then you met her, and roped her into helping you with the play, huh? Quick thinking, but that's just you, isn't it? You never could get into trouble just by yourself, you had to drag the rest of us down with you, didn't you?"
"It's more fun that way, Audra. And you? How are you and Melanie doing?" Chloe caught the intense frown that passed over Audra's face.
"We are, as they say, no more. We broke up last year. It just wasn't working. You know, the 'we've grown apart' scenario. The whole break-up started out civil, and then quickly deteriorated into a huge fiasco." A smile captured Audra's face again. "But I'm pretty much over it now. I feel pretty good." Audra watched as Chloe took off her coat and threw it onto a table. "How's your love life going, Chloe?"
Chloe began moving back farther into the storage room, reading labels on boxes. She spoke louder, so Audra could hear her. "You know, same old, same old. Spinster librarian." She found a box marked 'hats' and tossed it onto the floor . "I'm sorry about you and Melanie." Chloe dragged the box out into the aisle where she could better peruse its contents. "But to be perfectly honest, Audra ... I never much ... cared for her." She looked at Audra's face to see her reaction to her little admission.
Audra responded with a delighted laugh. "Well, Chloe, she never much cared for you, either! She always suspected that I had a crush on you ..."
Sara really didn't mean to be eavesdropping. I have better manners than this. But she had approached the doorway just as Audra was querying Chloe about her 'love life'. Oh, I gotta hear this. Sara tucked herself just behind the door so neither Chloe or Audra could see her.
Chloe looked at Audra in surprise. Audra searched Chloe's eyes. "And she was right, although at the time I denied it. About the crush." Why do you think I came here to school on a rainy Saturday? Not to do a favor for that asswipe John.
Audra saw that her statement had taken Chloe off guard. But it wasn't like I was going to get this opportunity again any time soon. She continued, carefully, "I was glad to have the chance to see you today. I didn't know that you would ... have ...someone with you." The way Audra emphasized 'someone' implied that Sara was the 'someone' in Chloe's life.
Chloe stopped her nervous searching through the boxes. How do I say this? "Audra," she began slowly, "I'm not sure yet what Sara is in my life. Right now, right this very instant, we're just on our way to becoming ... friends." Although it seems I want so much more.
Audra nodded at Chloe and said hopefully, "Could I call you then? Maybe we could have dinner?" C'mon, please say 'yes'.
Sara stiffened in the hallway. Tell her no, no thanks. Just say no.
Chloe smiled shyly. "Sure, that would be nice." And who knows, maybe it will.
Sara sighed to herself, and made her way quietly down the hallway to a water fountain, took a long cool drink and tried to regroup. Why shouldn't Chloe see the woman? Audra is great looking, seems very nice, and very interested in Chloe. Too damned interested, I should just go down there and ...
"Hey Sara, leave some water for the fishes. You gonna come help or what?" Chloe called down to her from the storage room doorway. Sara made her way back to Chloe, who had a devilish look in her eye. She poked Sara. "Ya just can't get good help these days. Six feet of muscle, and all she wants to do is hang out in the hallways." Chloe glared menacingly up into sparkling blue eyes. "You got a hall pass there, Missy?"
Sara eyed her small friend right back. "I heard that a certain Ms. Donahue was monitoring detention, so naturally , I wanna get detention." She raised an eyebrow and wiggled it. "Got a cigarette I can smoke in the ladies' room? Come catch me." Her eyes narrowed and she lifted her lips into a one sided grin.
Audra watched the exchange between the two 'friends'. Oh yeah, if I'm going to call Chloe and ask her out, it's going to have to be very, very soon.
The Subaru was jammed to the limit with boxes and garment bags. They'd borrowed hats, dresses, boots, a wagon wheel, numerous plastic six shooters, chaps, and a lariat or two. Sara had argued against bringing the large stuffed bull's head that Chloe was so sure would be a perfect prop for the second act. It was huge. It had two beady glass eyes, the hide had a nasty feel and smell to it, and the whole thing gave Sara a big case of the willies. She didn't want it in the same car with her. So using all her mighty powers of persuasion, and then having to resort to putting her foot down about it, she outright, flat out refused to let that nasty thing go back to Stonecreek with them.
Chloe was humming, driving along, enjoying the brightening mid afternoon skies. She looked over at a sulking Sara.
"Good thing the horns unscrew, or we'd never gotten that thing on your lap." Baleful blue eyes were staring into large, glassy bovine brown.
Sara flipped her hair back over her shoulder, and drolly replied, "Remind me next time that when you get your mind set about something, that I can't win. No way, no how. I'm sure it'll save a lot of time and a lot of my energy." Sara then gave a small start, for she was sure that the bull's head cradled in her lap winked at her. Even the bull knows I'm a wuss around her.
They were passing some fast food joints. On cue, Chloe's stomach rumbled. She blushed and turned to Sara. "Wanna go through the drive-thru? I'm sorta hungry. My treat."
Sara said innocently, "Oh, that noise was you? I thought it was Bully here ... sure, I could eat." But just you wait ...
Chloe inched the car around the building, stopped, and they studied the menu board.
"How may I help you today?", crackled the menu board.
Chloe looked at Sara. "You know what you want?"
Chloe spoke into the menu board, loudly enunciating, "Double cheeseburger and I want ..."
"Tell 'em no onions...", whispered Sara.
"No onions on that double cheeseburger and ..."
"Extra pickles, I want extra pickles." Sara urgently tugged at Chloe's sleeve.
"And extra pickles. Hold on a sec." Chloe glared at Sara, who was sitting angelically, petting the bulls nose. "Anything else?"
"Large fries. And a large diet."
"That's a value meal."
"Well, that's what I want, then."
Chloe cleared her throat, and started talking at the menu board again. "Um, change that to a double cheeseburger value meal, with large fries, large diet, hold the onions, add extra pickles ... and I want..."
Another tug. "No ice. I don't want ice."
Chloe turned to glare at her passenger one more time.
Sara licked her tongue across her front teeth. "I have sensitive teeth."
"AND NO ICE IN THE LARGE DIET!" Chloe practically screamed at the menu board. "TELL YA WHAT, JUST MAKE THAT TWO!"
Sara gleefully chuckled and winked back at the bull. Paybacks are a bitch. That poor woman wearing the headset in there probably had her ears blown out on that one.
Chloe huffily pulled up to the window to retrieve their order. The teenager in a bright yellow cap was was about to hand Chloe their drinks, one by one, when her eyes fell on the large stuffed head sitting in Sara's lap. She promptly lost her bearings, and dropped the cup onto the ground between the window and the car.
"Oh god, I'm sorry. I'll get you another one." She made no movement, she just kept staring at the bull.
Sara slowly leaned tightly across Chloe, pulling the bull along with her. She gave the wide eyed girl her best toothy smile and said, " Remember , no ice. He gets cranky if it's too cold."
Sara took her time sliding back into her seat. Chloe just stared at her, chagrined. The drive -thru girl finally snapped out of it, and shut the window to get a replacement soda. Chloe eyed Sara, then the bull, then Sara again. "You're ... evil." And then broke into a large grin.
Sara gave the bull a tickle under the jaw, and a feral smile crept onto her face. "Yeah." She raised a single eyebrow at an amused Chloe and said, "And don't you forget it. "
They were about half through unloading the props at Lafayette High's stage door entrance when Chloe abruptly stopped and sat down on a box. She had a rather uncomfortable look on her face, and she rubbed her stomach a little and let out a small moan.
Sara set down the box she had in her arms and sat down next to Chloe, concerned. "You feeling alright?"
"Well, either I overestimated my abs of steel ... or I'm getting cramps." She rubbed her belly a little lower. "Actually, I think it's a little of both."
Sara gave her a sympathetic look and said. "I'll finish up here, you take a load off. I wouldn't want all those extra pickles coming back up to haunt you."
"Normally, I would protest, but I think I'll just concede this one time." Chloe truly looked miserable.
Sara hauled the rest of the boxes into the back stage area and again sat down next to her uncharacteristically quiet friend. She saw the bull's head, horns now screwed back in, perched on top of a nearby box. Hmmm.
"Hey Chloe," she said slowly, still peering at the bovine head. "You think that Mrs. Raeburn's office door is locked?"
Chloe, who had her eyes closed, opened one and squinted
at Sara, who had a definite scheming look about her. She sat up, feeling
just a bit better.
"Well, Sara, if it is," Chloe reached in her coat pocket, and then held up her set of school keys, "it's not a problem."
Sara's hand flashed out and grabbed the keys. "Be right back." Sara, accompanied by her stuffed and horny bullheaded buddy, quickly disappeared into the school.
Chloe rubbed her aching belly again and smirked. Oh yeah, very evil, indeed.
When Chloe pulled into her gravel driveway in front of her house, she frowned for the umpteenth time since she had dropped Sara off at her brother's house. She'd regretfully turned down Sara's invitation to come in for a while, and told her tall friend that she just simply didn't feel well. She could see the disappointment that Sara tried to hide, so she'd slid her hand on top of Sara's and gently said, "Another time, when I feel a little more human." Damn. I didn't want the night to end this way. Sara looked down on Chloe's hand on top of hers, and said, "I'm really glad I went with you today. I had a good time ..."
Awkward. Goodbyes were always awkward, no matter if you were a teenager on a first date or a grown up town librarian, who felt a bit like a teenager on her first date. Goodbyes given in cars are even worse, what with those inconvenient bucket seats that make it so hard to turn and look at your companion, much less lean across a gear shift to perhaps steal a goodnight kiss. Chloe shyly dropped her eyes to look at her hand covering Sara's. "I want to thank you for coming along with me, helping, maybe we can ..."
Chloe stopped because her friend's lips were now lightly grazing her cheek with a soft kiss. Sara leaned back, smiled that smile that was so uniquely hers, and murmured, "Yeah, we can, if you want. Goodnight, Chloe, I hope you feel better." And then she was out of the car, and up the steps before the tingle lingering on Chloe's cheek had time to fade.
When Chloe got home to her small house, she promptly downed some pills for her cramps. She changed into some comfy sweats, and laid down on her couch with a sigh. She noticed that her answering machine was flashing, and she hit the play button and leaned back. Two messages from Marcy, the first cheerful and light, the second a more demanding 'I'm your best friend, why don't I know where you are?' rant that made Chloe snicker. Then one from Paul about the play, and then a short, upbeat one from Audra Simmons. Well, it didn't take her long. Chloe felt a bit flattered. And the last call, from a voice she didn't recognize, saying something about having a horse for the play. She grabbed a pen and wrote down both Audra's and the unidentified horse person's phone numbers. I'll call 'em all back tomorrow. She pulled her afghan tight up around her neck, and in a short time, she fell asleep.
"Early evening, or long afternoon for you?", called Dave, his voice coming from the living room.
Sara crossed into the kitchen archway, and ruefully smiled at her brother, who was leaned back in his recliner, watching a college basketball game.
She took off her coat, and went in and settled into the corner of the couch. She reached down, and started unlacing her boots. "A little of both, I think."
Dave grabbed the remote from his lap and muted the TV. He gave a Sara a thoughtful look up and down. "You don't look any worse for the wear, hon."
"Nope, I actually had a good day. You know that I went into Erie with Chloe? Did Nels tell you?" When Dave nodded, she continued. "Yeah, well, I didn't embarrass myself, or Chloe at anytime. So I guess that's a good day."
Dave snorted. "That's how you gauge whether you had a good day? That's pretty sad, Sis. Most people would say that they either had a nice time, a blast, or had fun. Did you have any of those?"
"I had all of those, Dave, and more. I guess it is kind of lame when all I can do is be glad that I made it through the day without any trouble."
"Does Chloe know about your anxiety stuff?"
"Some of it, I just kind of clued her in to what to do if I had one, you know, the 'rules' I have."
"So, did you two end up having to put any of those rules into action?" Dave could see the almost defeated body language his sister was displaying.
"Nope, not today. Actually, I was kind of surprised that nothing happened, since, well, I was pretty worked up when we left here. It was pretty uneventful, I didn't make her pull over, there was nothing that made me feel like an ass ... " Sara scratched her elbow and out of nowhere, she felt her resentment build. "Not like Marcy did that day, when the poor woman had to wing it with me." Sara didn't try to hide the sarcasm in her voice.
"I had to tell Marse about your problem, Sara, I mean, well, she was concerned. She was there when it happened. It wasn't something I could just gloss over." Dave was getting defensive. Marcy was just being a friend.
"Well, she was so concerned that she warned Chloe about what happened, and Chloe got all her reference books out at the library, and then Chloe comes to me, to tell ME she thinks I have anxiety problems ... like I'm some little pet project of hers to help... " Sara's anger and frustration was showing in words and in her tone.
Dave picked up on his sister's resentment, and returned it in kind. "Has Chloe treated you like that, like her little psychology project, Sara?" He waited for an answer. When she pursed her lips, and shook her head 'no', he continued, now outright angry. "Marcy got the idea that Chloe likes you ... as in 'her heart's-going-pitty-pat-for-you '... and the only thing Marcy had to offer her BEST FRIEND, Chloe, was what happened the one time she actually met you. And what do you think Marcy took away from that meeting, Sara?" His glare invited no response. "She came away from that thinking you were someone, yes, maybe suffering from some kind of troubles, but all in all, she believes you were very graceful under pressure, and were a worthwhile person for her BEST FRIEND, Chloe, to get to know better."
"But ..." Sara tried to interrupt.
"I'm not done. Why do you always think that everyone wants to think the absolute worst of you? Since when are you all anyone thinks about? I'm tired of walking on pins and needles around you, Sara. I love you, but I think it's about time you started thinking about getting better, not just maintaining your safe little status quo." His voice rose. "Hell, I tell you what! Just print out your rules on some paper, I'll go have copies made, and we can post them around town. That way, you can actually LEAVE the premises once in a while, everyone will know not to bother you, and then you won't think it's such a big hairy deal!"
Dave's voice had risen to the point to where he realized he was yelling at her. He saw that Sara's head had bent low, and she looked like she might start crying. If she would let herself cry. "Damn, I didn't mean it like that, but this gets to be too much sometimes." Dave got out of his chair and sat next to Sara on the couch. Her mixture of sadness and anger kept him at arm's length from her.
"Listen, Sara," he began quietly. "I just hate to see you going through this. I remember how you used to be, before all of this happened. All spit and hellfire, take no prisoners, not scared of anything Sara. You used to mow down everything in your path with just a big dose of attitude and a bitchy look. But now it seems like you're afraid of everything, and I know, I know, you don't know where it went to, or how to get it back. But what you're doing, Sara, is that the way to get it back? Do you even want to get it back?"
He waited. She made a few false starts, trying to put her thoughts together. "Of course I do, Dave. I hate this crap that is my life now. I never had to explain myself to anyone before, they had to take what they got, and if they didn't like it, tough shit. Now I have to explain myself, how I might go all whacko on someone, before I can even feel comfortable around them. That's not me. You know that."
"I know." He sighed, and thought about his next question for a moment before he continued. "But Sara, having panic attacks, that's not harmful to anyone. That's not really ... even harmful to yourself? Blows your mind for a while? Am I right here? Can't the old you ... and the panic attacks ... peacefully co-exist? The good and the bad? So what if you have to excuse yourself and go to a quiet place for a bit? If they don't like it, well, the hell with them, Sara. The hell with THEM." He finally moved closer, and put an arm around her shoulder. She didn't reply, but put her head on his shoulder.
Dave tightened his arm around her. "Trust a few people, Sara. You've got me and Nelson. It looks like you've got Marcy on your side, and it sure looks like Chloe wants to get to know you. I know that these panic attacks aren't going to go away overnight, or maybe even at all, but well, from what you've told me, you've been having them for years now. But shutting yourself away from people, that hasn't helped them go away, right? You lived all by yourself, and you still got the attacks, right? So, try another way, now. I don't know." Dave shook his head. "All I know is that I've got a son, your nephew, who adores you and the ground you walk on, and for some asinine reason or another, he wants to get up on a stage and ... entertain folks. Can you beat that? But you know what I think would give him the biggest thrill? If he knew you were out there in the audience, throwing rotten tomatoes at him, right along with me."
Sara nodded into his shoulder. "I know, I wish I could. I want to try ..."
Dave squeezed her one more time, chuckled, and then
said in his best Captain Picard voice, "Make it so, Sara, make it so."
Continued in Part VII
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