The House on Sandstone
By KG MacGregor
Nothing much to disclaim here. This is an original story, though the main characters bear a mild resemblance to familiar faces. The town of Leland, Kentucky, is fictitious. Any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Thanks to my Sweetcakes for her help and inspiration. I’m always interested in feedback, and you may direct that to KGMacGregor@aol.com.
"No, Mrs. Trout, I checked the drawer myself and I went through the closet and the bathroom too. Are you sure you brought them with you to the hospital?" Justine tucked the phone beneath her chin as she typed the complaint into the computer form. "Did you look in your car? Sometimes people get here and decide to leave things…Yes, I’ll wait."
In eight more minutes, all the incoming calls would get a recording advising them to call back during office hours. It had been a crazy weekend at Grace Hospital and the complaints department—which consisted only of Justine Hall—was catching most of the fallout on Monday. A full moon had kept the emergency room full of all kinds of foolishness, and there were five babies born on Saturday, a single-day record for Leland, Kentucky. But the biggest commotion happened Sunday morning when Reverend Russell had suffered a heart attack in the pulpit. Practically the whole Presbyterian congregation came in behind the ambulance, filling up the parking lots and the lobbies, blocking the halls, and badgering the nursing staff every ten minutes for updates. The good news was that it was only a mild attack. The bad news was that two of the deacons had gotten into fisticuffs over who was going to get to preach the next week, and that led to a bloody nose and a broken hand.
"You found ’em? That’s great! I was hoping…No, it’s okay, Mrs. Trout. People have their minds on other things when they’re coming to the hospital. These things just happen." In the right-hand column, Justine entered the resolution: Teeth found in car.
Four minutes to go. Justine wasn’t usually a clock watcher, but she had something big planned for later and she needed to get her workout out of the way first. Hopefully, she’d make it to five without…Rrrrrrnnnngggg! Dang it!
"Grace Hospital, Patient Services. This is Justine Hall. How can I help you?" She brought up a new form on the computer, then stopped. "No, Trey. If your father says no, then the answer is no…You can ask him to call me and we’ll talk about it, but I’m not giving you permission after he’s already said you can’t go." The redhead rolled her eyes as she listened to the teenager’s argument. "Trey, your father and I both went to college. We are not the two stupidest people in the world…I told you to have him call me. We’ll talk about it. That’s the best I can do, honey…I love you…I said I love you." Seventeen had somehow gotten to be too old to tell your mother you loved her. "Bye-bye."
Justine sighed in resignation as the red light blinked to announce a message. Technically, it had come before five o’clock; so technically, she should answer it before heading out.
"Hi…uh, I was calling about my mom’s bill that she got today. She was in the hospital last month for a…what was it?...a cardiac catheter thingy. But her bill says she had a…a heart transplant. She, uh…doesn’t remember that, and we can’t find any really big scars. But if it turns out that’s what they did, we can’t afford it so they’ll have to swap it back. Tell you what, I’ll just call back on Tuesday…I hope you enjoyed this little entertainment break."
In spite of herself, Justine laughed at that one. It never ceased to amaze her how often procedure codes got entered wrong into the system. Whoever was doing that probably had no idea of the confusion and trauma they caused. At least this woman who had called tonight seemed to have a sense of humor about it, and that always helped. Sometimes, people just flew off the handle and ranted until their veins were ready to pop.
With the flip of a switch, Justine turned the phone over to the answering machine. Ten minutes later, she was at the hospital’s Wellness Center, decked out in spandex tights and a tank top, and claiming a free treadmill. Her plan was to run four miles here then do two circuits on the weights, her usual Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine. Easing into a steady pace, her mind wandered back to that last phone call and she chuckled again.
"What’s so funny?" A thin man slipped onto the treadmill to her right. Like Justine, Dr. Brian Coulter was a fixture at the Wellness Center, serious about setting a good example for his patients.
"Oh, hi, Dr. Coulter. Nothing really. I was just thinking about a phone call I got today."
"How many times do I have to tell you? Call me Brian. We’re all friends here."
"I know. It’s just that I think it gives patients more confidence to hear everyone address the doctors with authority."
"But we all have to let our hair down sometimes, don’t you think?"
Justine hoped that wasn’t the case with Dr. Coulter—he sported a world class comb-over that flopped to the wrong side whenever he ran. Still, he was a nice man and a well respected obstetrician. Sometimes, though, he needed a little—
"Say, why don’t we go for a drink when we’re done here? You can tell me all about what’s got your funny bone tickled."
"Dr. Coulter, I’m afraid I already have plans for this evening." Plans that do not include going out with a married man.
"Sure…some other time then?"
"I’m afraid I have plans for those evenings also."
"All of them?"
Justine smiled gently and nodded. "And I think it would be best if we didn’t have this kind of conversation again. People might overhear and get the wrong idea. And you know how they like to gossip." If anyone in town knew that for a fact, it was Justine. "Besides, Dr. Henderson would probably frown on that kind of socializing among the staff."
Besides being their boss, Jim Henderson was a longtime friend of Justine’s late father, and their loyalty to one another was clear to everyone on the staff. Brian was bright enough to take a hint, as he didn’t need a dressing down from the hospital administrator.
"What did they say?" Nadine Griffin stretched across the kitchen sink to open the window a crack. With bread in the oven and stew on the stove, it was stuffy in the small house.
"I got an answering machine. If you want me to, I’ll take the paperwork up there in the morning and see if I can get it straightened out." Carly reached for a cookie from a bag on the counter, only to have her hand slapped away.
"You’ll spoil your supper. Look at you…you’re not eating right. I bet you eat cookies for dinner."
With cognac, the blonde woman thought. And sometimes I top it off with a cigar.
"Are you sure you don’t mind taking care of that bill? I can have your dad deal with it. I don’t want you to have to worry about that stuff while you’re home." Her daughter hadn’t been back to Leland in almost four years.
"It’s no big deal. Daddy has enough to do, what with Perry gone to Ohio all week. In fact, I was thinking I might ride with him tomorrow if he had some deliveries."
"Now that’s just what I mean. You shouldn’t feel like you have to work so hard when you’re here. Goodness knows, you work hard enough as it is. Just take it easy and relax for a change."
"I am relaxing. I like going along in the truck. Besides, Daddy has no business trying to haul furniture by himself. He’s sixty-eight years old, for gosh sakes. And so are you. If I want to come home and do a few things to help out, you should let me. It’ll make me feel better about having to be gone so much, and maybe we can all think of it as a vacation."
Nadine had to smile at that. It really was good to have Carly home, especially for so long this time—eight whole weeks. And she looked healthier than when they’d gone to visit her in Israel. She was tanned and her blonde hair was short and streaked with a few strands of gray. She’d lost a few pounds since the last time she’d been home, enough to make Nadine think she wasn’t getting enough to eat.
"Why don’t you call your father and tell him supper’s almost ready?"
Carly reached for the phone again, dialing by rote the number at Griffin Home Furnishings. She delivered her mom’s message in a commanding tone that brooked no argument and hurriedly set the table. The drive from the store would take her father less than three minutes.
"Listen, before Daddy gets home...Is your heart really okay? I mean, you aren’t keeping anything from us again, are you?"
"I’m fine, Carly. I swear, you’re just like your father. You’d think I’d been caught lying all my life."
"Well…you didn’t tell either of us about that biopsy until it came back negative." That was almost ten years ago, when Nadine’s doctor had found a suspicious lump in her breast.
"My heart is…okay, for the most part. I have a small place that’s…well, it’s not blocked, but it’s…kinda squeezed. Dr. Sanders thinks that’s what’s making me so dizzy when I hurry around too much. He’s put me on some medication, and I haven’t had any problems since then…if you don’t count the headaches. But they’re not as bad as they used to be, now that I’m used to the medicine. And I don’t have to go back for a checkup until March, so he must not be too worried."
Carly was still skeptical, but what choice did she have if her mom wanted to keep things from her? However, that glitch in the paperwork might be just the thing to get her doctor to talk if there really was something wrong.
Nadine was filling the soup bowls just as the pickup pulled into the drive. In a few minutes, they’d sit down to a Norman Rockwell moment…almost perfect. The only thing it needed was one more person at the table. Somebody for Carly.
"Hi, sweetie. It’s so good to come home and see your car in the driveway every day." Lloyd Griffin tossed his cap onto the counter and headed to the sink to wash up.
"Hey, won’t you get in trouble wearing a Barber cap?"
"No, I’ve got my Diggers on. You have to cover all your bases." The two competing boot factories were owned by brothers whose bitter feud was one of the best things to ever happen to Leland, Kentucky. Daryl Barber split from brother Wayne to form his own company, hiring away the workers with better wages, only to have Wayne lure them back with better benefits. Nearly every family in Leland had someone who made hiking boots, and virtually everyone in town wore Barber Bucks or DB Diggers.
"That’s so silly. I can’t believe you go to all that trouble."
"Easy for you to say. Everywhere you go around here, people look at your feet first." Like all the other merchants in town, Lloyd avoided a display of favoritism between the two factories. Some days he wore the flip set, Bucks with a DB cap. Either he wore the two logos together or not at all.
"I should get some new boots while I’m here. Mine got stolen from the hotel room." On her last job, Carly Griffin had lived in downtown Jerusalem, wary of moving into one of the neighborhoods for fear of where the next bomb would go off. She’d had one close call at an open-air market, and that was more than enough to convince her to stay close to the hotel when not on the job site.
The 42-year-old headed one of the Labor Orientation Teams for Worldwide Workforce, a consulting company that specialized in helping industries expand abroad by recruiting and training local employees. After twenty years with the company, she was growing weary of the rotation from one country to another, with only a couple of months stateside in between. Her applications to corporate in Louisville had been ignored for more than ten years; it didn’t really pay to be successful in the field abroad because all that got you was another rotation. It was the guys who couldn’t hack it overseas that kept getting kicked upstairs.
"I don’t want to get in your business, honey, but your mother and I are both glad to have you out of the Middle East, and if you want us to live to be old people, you won’t take another job in that part of the world."
"Amen to that!" Nadine echoed.
"I told you both not to worry about me. I was always safe while I was there." Except for that one time, and you’ll never hear about that. "Our hotel was a long way from the war zone."
When her parents had visited last spring, they could all hear the explosions in the distance, and the sounds of sirens and gunfire were constant through the night. "All I can say is that I’m glad they’re not bombing in Madrid."
"This stew is really good, Mama." Time to change the subject. Carly wasn’t about to mention the Basque terrorists, but she had to admit, she would sleep better on her next job in the Spanish capital than she did in Jerusalem. Still, she wasn’t looking forward to another year and a half abroad.
Justine stepped from the shower and pulled the plastic cap from her head, fluffing the reddish brown hair around her neck. There hadn’t been any point in washing it tonight—it was just going to get messed up later when Jon ran his hands through it. She smiled in anticipation of the special evening she had planned. The phone interrupted her dreamy thoughts as she slipped into the plush terry robe.
"Hello…oh, hi JT." Her ex, Jason Thomas Sharpe, Jr. "No, I did not tell him he could go. You know better than that. I told him to have you call me and we’d talk about it…But I have plans tonight, so make it quick." Taunting her ex-husband with these little hints was one of her favorite recreational activities.
Justine had been divorced for six years, and both of their teenage children lived primarily with JT. Over the last three years, she’d lost weight and gotten in shape, and JT’s interest in her had reignited—in the form of compliments on her figure or hairstyle; casual flirting; and even once, a blatant invitation to "ride Woody"…for old times’ sake, of course. Justine had answered with a promise to tell his wife if he didn’t knock it off. She hadn’t meant it—she would never insert herself in the middle of their marriage—but JT didn’t need to know that. As near as she could tell, she was JT’s only extra-marital interest these days, and she seriously doubted he would rise to the occasion if she ever called his bluff. It was possible, she thought, that the 49-year-old man was finally growing up.
"JT, stop talking at me and listen. I don’t think Trey is old enough to go away for a weekend without adults. Is that what you want to hear?" She waited while the man on the other end of the phone calmed down. "Then hallelujah! It took twenty years, but we finally agreed on something…Listen, I’ve got to go. I need to get ready for Jon." That would get his jockeys in a knot, she thought.
Checking the clock on the mantle, Justine finished her preparations. Hurrying from room to room, she turned out the lights and set the stereo on soft jazz, adjusting the volume so that it was barely heard. In the den, she pulled the coffee table from the center of the rug to create an open space directly in front of an already roaring fire. One by one, she lit strategically place candles so that they flickered from all around the room.
"That was delicious, Mama. If there’s one thing I miss more than anything else about Leland, it’s your cooking."
Nadine just glowed in her daughter’s praise. She’d been setting the table for forty-six years, and Lloyd no longer seemed to notice what was on it.
"Now if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to take a little walk through the neighborhood while my dinner settles."
"You’re not fooling me! You’re going out to smoke one of those fancy cigarettes."
Carly grinned at the face her mother made. "That’s right. But at least I don’t smoke them in the house." The younger woman pulled her coat from the hall closet and slipped it on, checking the pocket to make sure she had her Dunhill Lights and lighter. She would have a cognac by the fire before turning in. Over the years, that routine had helped her to take the edge off the day and fall asleep without too much tossing and turning.
"The path through the park goes over Stony Ridge to Sandstone now."
"Oh yeah? Maybe I’ll check it out." Carly delivered a kiss to her mother’s wrinkled cheek. "I won’t be long."
Stepping into the darkness on the porch, she filled her lungs with the crisp November air, a welcome change from the dusty haze of Jerusalem. Yessiree, this time, she was really glad to be home.
Stony Ridge was a steep hill that divided the homes on Carly’s street from the city limits. In the old days, it was symbolic of the chasm between the haves and have-nots. The Griffins were far from poor, but the low margins on furniture didn’t afford many luxuries. Nonetheless, they’d been happy in the two-bedroom house on Stony Ridge Road.
The old park held mixed memories for Carly. She’d started coming here almost twenty years ago on her first trip home after going to work for Worldwide on a job in Bolivia. Back then, she’d told her mom that she just needed some fresh air to clear her head; but in fact, she’d hid in the woods like a teenager to sneak a smoke.
That’s when she first discovered the houses on Sandstone. From the top of the wooded hill, she had seen the construction underway; obviously, these would be some of the nicest homes in Leland when they were finished, and they were just inside the city limits. When she’d returned a few years later, she’d been amazed at how settled the new neighborhood already seemed. Small children raced on scooters and tricycles on the sidewalk while young mothers congregated with their strollers at the ends of driveways. It was here that Carly first recognized the redhead.
Justine Hall—now Justine Sharpe, according to the newspaper announcement her mom had sent—was one of the women gathered below. Though more than fifty yards away, the tall figure was unmistakable to Carly. She was heavier now than she’d been in high school—quite a bit heavier—and she was obviously pregnant, and due pretty soon. From Carly’s position in the woods above, she watched unseen as Justine left the group, gripping her lower back in noticeable discomfort as she pushed a baby in a stroller up the street toward the large house on the corner.
The moment had been bittersweet for Carly. She’d hoped Justine was really happy and that she’d married a man who would love her and appreciate the wonderful person she was. And she’d been thrilled at the joy Justine must have felt at having children. But a part of Carly’s heart had broken that day…the part Justine Hall never knew she held.
Shaking those memories from her head, the blonde woman veered onto the new path that led to her old hiding place on the hill. As her mom had said, it wound down the other side now. A small wooden footbridge forded the creek at the bottom, directly across the street from Justine’s two-story home. Unable to resist the urge, she lit another cigarette and started down the hill, stopping when she reached the bridge, her eyes peeled for any sign of activity in the house.
Carly had no idea how long she stood on the bridge, leaning casually against the rail as she smoked one Dunhill after another. Her mind wandered back twenty-five years to their time at Leland High School, and emotions long-buried simmered to the surface. Justine wasn’t really responsible for this nostalgic longing; she was merely symbolic of all the times Carly’s heart had been awakened, only to be abandoned when she gave in to the pull. It had happened three times in her life. And she wasn’t going to let it happen again as long as she was still pulling up roots every two years to move with her job to a new country. That was just asking for trouble.
A pair of headlights startled her, and she realized that she probably looked pretty suspicious out here staring at the house in the dark. The smart thing to do was to head back up the hill and go home, but Carly’s feet wouldn’t move once she realized that the SUV was turning into Justine’s drive. Mesmerized, she watched as a young man hopped out and pulled something bulky from the back, carting it to the front door where he rang the bell and waited. Moments later, a slender woman appeared at the door, plainly visible in her bathrobe from the light from the porch.
It was Justine. And she was more beautiful now than Carly had ever seen her.
"Where do want me to set up this time?" The muscular young man indicated his padded folding table. When he’d been here last August, they’d set the massage table in a private area of the patio out back.
"I made a space in front of the fire, but if you think you’ll be too warm there, we can put it across the room."
"What’s important is that you’re comfortable, Justine. I’ll set up wherever you like."
"Okay, then follow me. Do you want a bottle of water or something?"
"Sure. Tell you what…I’ll get things ready first and you can wrap up in a towel and get situated on the table while I go into the kitchen and get something to drink."
The young man quickly went about his work, locking the table legs, folding the towels, and placing the oil bottles on the hearth to warm. When he disappeared into the kitchen, Justine slipped discreetly from her robe onto the table face down, awkwardly positioning the oversized towel so that it draped the length of her nude body.
Jon announced his return and began to warm the oil in his hands. Starting with her feet, he squeezed and pulled each digit until it relaxed fully. From there, he dug his thumbs into the long muscles of her calf, separating the tightened fibers as she moaned softly in near ecstasy. Bit by bit, he worked his way up the hardened hamstrings, tucking the towel so that one cheek of her buttocks was exposed. Runners like Justine were a challenge sometimes, but as he pressed the trigger points deep in her gluteus, the contractions released.
"Do you stretch these out when you finish running?"
"I didn’t today. I tried to squeeze in an extra circuit and lost track of time."
"Cooling down is a very important part of conditioning."
"I know." She felt guilty confessing the lapse to her massage therapist. But then, Justine felt guilty about almost everything. That was her nature.
Jon finished with that leg and moved to the other side, repeating the process one muscle at a time, culminating again in the release of the trigger points in her buttocks. Finished for now with her lower body, he pulled the towel down to her waist and gently began to spread the warm oil across her back.
Justine worked hard to quiet her busy mind. The hectic day, the flirtatious encounter with Dr. Coulter, the call from JT…all of these bombarded her thoughts, but she pushed them away, trying to concentrate on the feel of Jon’s hands on her body. This was a physical closeness that she craved…the simple touch of another human being…an affirmation that her senses would respond. With his strong hands, the therapist was moving her body and spirit in a manner that was sensual but not sexual.
"Okay, let’s have you turn over now," Jon whispered softly.
Justine had almost dozed off while he kneaded the muscles in her back. She got her bearings and turned, careful to keep herself covered as Jon held the towel in place. She’d been reluctant at first to trust a total stranger with such intimate contact, but Jon had always been the consummate professional. They didn’t talk much; instead, he had encouraged her to go to a peaceful place in her mind.
"You’re getting nice muscle tone through here," he remarked as he pushed his fingers from her sternum to her shoulder.
"I’ve been working on that. I’m glad it shows."
"It’s very nice…not too pronounced, but definitely firm. Are you working with a trainer?"
"No. I just go to the classes once a week at the Wellness Center. They help us do our workout charts and diets for the week."
"That’s a good thing you’re doing. This is the only body you’re going to get, and it’s nice that you take care of it. And when you look good and feel healthy, everything in your life is better."
Justine wanted to believe that, but the facts got in the way. True, she felt better about herself after dropping sixty pounds, and it was nice to be able to tell JT to shove it now that he’d deemed her desirable again. But the rest of her life hadn’t exactly followed suit. Her job was a dead end; she could count her real friends on…heck, it was just her therapist in Lexington. And her love life was completely rudderless—she had no idea what she wanted in that department, or even if she wanted anything at all.
But the worst part of her life—the piece that haunted her every day—was that she had screwed up the mother thing big time. Trey and Emmy were fine with JT; he was a good father in spite of being such a snake. And they still loved her, she knew. But losing them had sent her into therapy in Lexington, for which she drove forty minutes each way. That and the medication were all that had kept her from killing herself that first year. With Valerie’s help, she’d fought back to wrest more control of her life. Enrolling in the Wellness Center had been the first step.
"Relax, Justine." Jon flattened the creases on her forehead with his thumbs and pushed them outward. "Let it go." From there, his hands wound through her hair, massaging her scalp with decreasing pressure until he finally pulled his fingertips away.
At that instant, a small tear leaked from the corner of her eye and trickled into her ear.
"Hey." Carly found her mother in the living room hard at work on a crossword puzzle. The din of the TV could be heard from the family room they’d added on twelve years ago.
"Have a nice walk? Or a nice smoke, I should ask." The admonishing tone was the same she always used when referring to her daughter’s nicotine habit.
"I had both, thank you." The blonde woman took a seat on the couch.
"Your father’s watching TV in the back."
"If that was meant to be a hint, it wasn’t very subtle."
Nadine chuckled. She’d always gone off by herself after dinner to unwind from the day. Working at the store with her husband all day, she needed time alone in the evening, a habit that had served their marriage well. "Well, honey, you’re more than welcome to keep me company. But this isn’t your usual routine."
"I know. I just wanted to ask if you knew anything about…Justine."
The older woman peered over her glasses to gauge her daughter’s look. She knew that Justine Hall had been special to Carly back in high school, at least for a little while. That’s why she’d sent the wedding clippings; but when she got no response, she assumed that her daughter was no longer interested in keeping up with people from Leland.
"She’s divorced now."
A swarm of emotions washed over the younger woman as she digested the words. She was at once saddened that it likely had meant a difficult time for Justine. At the same time, she was oddly satisfied that the marriage hadn’t been right for the woman after all. But mostly, she was irrationally heartsick that she didn’t know Justine at all anymore, and she hadn’t been there to help her through what was surely a difficult time.
"Do you have any idea what happened? They’ve got a couple of kids, right?"
"There were rumors, but I don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing."
"What kind of rumors?"
Nadine had in fact heard several rumors, none of them very flattering for either Justine or JT. "I think there were…other people involved…for both of them."
Other people…. "So you’re saying that they were…having affairs?"
"That’s what folks were saying, but like I said, I didn’t pay much attention."
"So what happened when they got divorced? I mean, did they get married again?"
"JT got married pretty soon after, I think."
"But Justine didn’t?" Details, Mama. I want details. "Is she still seeing the other guy?"
Nadine pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "Honey, I really don’t put much stock in gossip, so I don’t know if there’s any truth to what I heard or not."
"What did you hear?"
"The rumors around town were that Justine had gotten involved with another woman…a doctor’s wife."
"Do…is there…?" What exactly is the question, Carly? "Did…?"
"I don’t know any more than that, honey. Why don’t you ask her how she’s doing when you see her tomorrow?"
"At the hospital. She’s the one who handles patient complaints at Grace."
"But Monday they’re going to tell which one’s the father of Courtney’s baby. I think it’s going to be Juan Carlos, because she went to that art gallery with him when William was out of town."
"Can’t you just tape it and watch it when you get home?" Some days, Justine got the most unusual requests.
"We don’t have a VCR…do you think the insurance would pay for one? I mean, since this is medical-related and all."
"I kind of doubt that, Mrs. Perkins."
"And you don’t think they could wait and take my gall bladder out in the afternoon? It’s over at two o’clock."
"The surgeons like to work in the morning, when they’re fresh and rested. It’s better that way, don’t you think?" From her seat behind the high counter, Justine caught sight of a blonde head taking a place in line behind Mrs. Perkins.
"I guess. I just hate to miss it after I’ve been waiting all this time to find out."
"I tell you what. I’ll tape it for you all next week, and when you get out of the hospital, I’ll send my son over to your house with my VCR and the tape. He’ll hook it all up for you and show you how it works, and he can come get it when you’re done."
"Oh, Justine! That would be perfect. It’s Secret Lives from one to two, and if you don’t mind, go ahead and tape Central Hospital after that. And then at nine o’clock on Monday night—"
"Mrs. Perkins…it would be much simpler if I just did the soaps, okay? I mean, I wouldn’t want things to get so complicated that I made a mistake and missed the very show you wanted to see most."
"I suppose you’re right. It’s very sweet of you to offer to do this."
"Well I wouldn’t want you worrying about Courtney and Don Jose—"
"Juan Carlos…when you ought to be trying to feel better. Surgery’s a big deal, and it’s very important to get the right amount of rest afterward."
"Thank you, Justine. I guess I’ll see you first thing Monday morning then."
"Okay, Happy Thanksgiving."
When Mrs. Perkins walked out, the embattled patient services director craned her neck to see who was next. "Can I help you?"
Justine studied the small smile on the blonde woman who suddenly stepped to the counter. It was a very familiar face, but out of context, it was like a dream or something. The hair was different; it was short now, and stylish. Strands of gray made it seem even lighter, but the woman didn’t seem old at all, despite the lines of her eyes. "Carly? Carly Griffin?"
The redhead jumped from her chair and swung open the small gate that separated her office from the waiting area. "I don’t believe it! Carly, you look fantastic. I mean it. I know it sounds stupid to say you haven’t changed a bit, but…never mind. You’ve changed a lot. Not that you didn’t look good before, but…the years have been really, really good to you. You just look…fantastic!" Shut up already, Justine.
Justine was glad for the big smile that now greeted her; subconsciously, she hadn’t expected it. Unable to resist, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Carly’s shoulders. She must not have made a complete fool of herself, she thought, or she wouldn’t have gotten the fierce hug around her waist in return.
"You look great, too. Better than great, I’d say. If the years have been good to me, I’d say they’ve worshipped you."
Justine waved off the compliment. "No, no…the years were wicked to me. I just started fighting back is all."
"Well, it looks like you’re winning."
"You’re sweet, Carly…just like always. So what in the heck are you doing back in Leland? Last time I ran into your mother, you were living somewhere in China."
"Shanghai. That was a few years ago. Then I moved to South America for a couple of years, and I just got back from a job in Israel."
"Israel! My goodness, you do get around." Justine just couldn’t get over how good her old friend looked. Back in high school, Carly had worn her hair long, usually in a ponytail. She’d been kind of pudgy back then…and she always wore jeans and work shirts. Now she was trim and…the word is shapely, Justine…and she was sort of feminine…but just barely. "You look fantastic!"
The blonde woman laughed and blushed, now unable to meet the redhead’s appraising eyes.
Justine finally noticed the Grace Hospital envelope in Carly’s hand and suddenly felt like an idiot. This was about hospital business, not about one old friend looking up another. Besides, it wasn’t very likely that Carly Griffin would be going out of her way to say hello or anything after all these years, especially after how they’d left things between them years ago.
"Do you have a…is that…can I help you?" Her professional demeanor crept back into place.
"Sure. I called yesterday but I guess it was after hours. My mom was in here last month for a cardiac catheterization, but she got billed for a heart transplant."
"That was you! God, Carly, I should have recognized your voice. And only you would have found all that funny. I swear, you still have that same old dry sense of humor you always had. ‘We can’t find a big scar.’ And what else did you say? We’d have to swap it back? You always did make me laugh." Shut up, motor mouth.
"Well, I’m glad I could do that." The big smile was back in place. "So can we get this sorted out? I mean it’s just a little paperwork glitch now, but next thing you know, the goons start calling and talking about breaking fingers and stuff."
"Oh, that kind of thing would never—. You were kidding again, weren’t you?"
"Hey, you never know who has a cousin who ‘knows people’. I just thought it best to get this taken care of before it comes to that."
Justine shook her head and laughed. "A cousin who knows people? This is Leland, you silly thing. Everybody knows everybody. Let me have a look at that. I bet I can fix it in two clicks." Indeed, she pulled up the record and re-entered the code, routing the correction back to invoicing for proper billing. "Okay, I can tell you with some confidence that you can safely ignore that bill."
"They won’t come get the house or the furniture store?"
"I don’t think so, but you should probably put them in someone else’s name just to be safe." Now it was Justine’s turn to tease.
"Good thinking." Carly buttoned her jacket, signaling her intent to leave. "I guess that’s it, then. Thanks a lot."
"It was an easy fix." Don’t let her just leave, dummy. "So what about your mom? Did everything turn out okay?"
"Yeah, it was alright. Just a little problem. Dr. Sanders gave her some medicine. I talked to him, and he said it was no big deal."
"Good. That’s good, Carly…Tell her I said hi, okay?"
"Sure." The blonde smiled again, this time almost sadly, and turned to leave.
Say something. "So…how long are you going to be in town?"
Carly stopped and spun around. "Till the middle of January."
"That’s almost two whole months! That works out perfect. You can come to the reunion."
"Our twenty-fifth, remember? Leland High School…1979…seventeen-year-old stupid people. It’s at the Kiwanis Lodge two days after Christmas, on Saturday night. We thought more people might be in Leland over the holidays, visiting family and all. I’m on the committee. Didn’t you get the invitation?"
"No, I guess my mail hasn’t caught up with me yet."
"But you can come, right?"
"I…don’t know. I, uh…might have to go to Louisville right after Christmas for a few days."
Justine noticed the hesitation, and felt suddenly ashamed. Why would Carly want to come to a reunion after the way she’d been treated in high school? Clearly, their juvenile behavior had not been forgotten. Some of the girls Justine had hung out with had gone out of their way to make fun of the blonde girl back then. Carly was smart, but she didn’t take part in the after school stuff, like the clubs or athletics. Instead, she’d gone to work, riding on the Griffin Home Furnishings delivery truck, hauling furniture all over town. One of the girls from Justine’s clique—Sara McCurry—would call her Carl, then everyone would laugh at the joke. Carly had always tried to laugh along, but by their senior year, she’d pulled away so much that she barely spoke to anyone at all.
But Justine’s shame was for more than that. She hadn’t actually participated in the taunting, but she’d never spoken a word in the blonde girl’s defense. No, what she’d done had been far worse, because Carly knew the truth. And all of a sudden, it was incredibly important for her to show her former friend that she’d grown up…and to give Carly the respect that she deserved.
"Well if you’re going to be in town for awhile, maybe we can…have dinner or something. I’d really like to hear all about how you’re doing, Carly. I think it’s just great that you’re getting to go to all those exciting places." Her voice wavered as she grew more serious. "You always were a better person than all of us put together."
Carly blushed deep red, locking her own eyes into Justine’s repentant gaze. Finally, she nodded. "Yeah…yeah, I’d really like that, Justine…having dinner or something…and catching up."
"So…I’ll call you, okay? At your parents’ house or at the store or something."
"That’s good. Either place." She started to leave again, turning one last time. "It’s really good to see you again."
"Yeah, you too."
Carly fumbled with the keys to her rental car, then jumped quickly inside to grab a cigarette from the console. She had smoked two in the car before getting up her nerve to go into the hospital, and would probably have two more before she could gather her wits to drive out of the lot. It was amazing the effect that woman still had on her even after all this time.
Justine Hall was gorgeous at forty-three, far prettier as a mature woman than she’d ever been as a schoolgirl. Not like a model or anything, but she had a very wholesome look that said she was fit and happy with herself. Her makeup was barely noticeable, and her straight reddish hair hung casually just past her collar.
But the nicest thing about Justine today had been her smile. It was genuine, and unless Carly was mistaken, apologetic. It was clear from her comments that her former friend remembered how they’d left things, and maybe—just maybe—they would be able to talk again after all these years and set things right.
Carly was all for mending the fence with Justine, but she had no interest in hooking up again with the rest of her classmates—that cliquish group of snobs—even if it was just to rub their noses in the fact that she’d outgrown their tiny minds. People like that always had a way of making their petty lives seem grandiose, and she was sure they’d never give her the satisfaction of admitting even to themselves that they had misjudged her.
But Justine was different. Justine had always known the truth…she just hadn’t been able to accept it.
Justine uncrossed her legs only to cross them again the other way. She’d been fidgeting like that for ten minutes already, and Valerie had had enough. Tossing her notebook on the coffee table, the counselor leaned back in the rocker and folded her arms.
"So what’s on your mind this week, Justine? It’s obvious that you didn’t come prepared to talk about your inner calm." Last week, Valerie had helped her put together a checklist of things that would bring more peace and serenity into her everyday life. Justine’s task for the week had been to explore a variety of means and select two or three that she might incorporate into her routine.
"I ran into an old friend today…someone I hadn’t seen since high school."
Valerie sat quietly, knowing from almost three years of sessions together that Justine would continue without prompting now that she had stated what was on her mind.
"Her name’s Carly and we used to be friends. She moved to Leland in the ninth grade when her parents bought the furniture store. She was really smart…and she was funny…and she was always really nice to me. Our lockers were next to each other for four years, and we always got seated together because her last name was Griffin and mine was Hall…still is, I guess…or is again. Anyway, Carly wasn’t like all the other girls I hung out with. She didn’t dress just so and worry about her makeup or hair…and she didn’t talk about boys all the time. After a while, the other girls started to make fun of her…you know, they talked about her clothes and the way she looked. They’d always try to get one of the farm boys to ask her out, just so they could all laugh at both of them. It was mean…and I didn’t do it, but I was a part of it just the same."
Valerie could hear the regret in her client’s voice, and imagined that seeing Carly today had brought it all back to bear on her. It wasn’t clear yet what Justine’s role had been, but it was obviously something she would have to work through…another thing she’d have to atone for…another thing she would have to forgive herself for.
"At some point, people started saying that Carly was…a lesbian. And since we were lab partners in chemistry, they started teasing me too…telling me stuff like to watch out and to make sure I always buttoned my blouse all the way up. It didn’t bother me at first, but then Carly and I started talking about it one day…."
"Carly…can I ask you something kind of…personal?" Justine watched as her lab partner lined up all of the equipment they would need for this particular experiment.
Every other Friday from four to four-thirty, the pair had the whole lab to themselves, except for an occasional visit from Mr. Prather, their chemistry teacher. The halls were usually quiet by this time, since most of their classmates were at home making preparations to come back in the evening for a football or basketball game. That was Justine’s routine as well, but not Carly’s. The studious blonde girl didn’t seem to have any interest in extra-curricular activities.
"Sure…I guess." Justine saw a hint of red that started on Carly’s face in anticipation of what kind of "personal" question she might ask.
"Does it bother you when people say…that you like girls?" The last words she uttered at barely a whisper.
Carly looked her in the eye, obviously wary that if she gave a serious answer, the redhead would laugh and run back to tell her snotty friends. But what Justine hoped to convey was sincerity…and real curiosity.
"It bothers me that they have so much fun doing it. It bothers me that they say it like it’s something noisome or deranged."
Noisome. Justine would look that word up later. "What do…if you…do you ever think about other girls…that way?"
Carly had stopped the experiment to give her undivided attention to what was probably the most compelling conversation she had ever had with another soul.
"Sometimes…I wonder if maybe they’re right. I’m not really all that comfortable around boys. Of course, I’m not all that comfortable around girls either…just some girls. I’m comfortable around you."
Justine had almost said the same words back, but Mr. Prather suddenly entered the lab to check on their progress. Thanks to Carly, both girls were going to ace chemistry.
"So this Carly…you had feelings for her back in high school?"
"I don’t know. Sort of…I guess. I mean, I thought she was sort of cute. She always laughed and cut up when it was just her and me. She’d put cartoons and funny quotes in my locker. And after chemistry lab, I’d always give her a ride home. It was the only time she didn’t have to go to work at the furniture store right after school."
"So what happened that you became a part of the teasing?"
Justine swung her foot casually, thinking the question might just go away or that Valerie would eventually go on and ask another one before she had to answer it.
"I kissed her."
Three years of therapy suddenly got convoluted as Valerie processed this new bit of information. Justine had had these feelings and doubts for a lot longer than she’d let on.
"It was a couple of months after we first talked. I brought it up again every lab and we’d talk about it. I finally told her that I found some girls a lot more interesting than boys. And then one day we went into the supply closet to put away all the stuff from our experiment…and it was kind of dark…and I looked at her and she looked at me…we both knew it was about to happen. And when it did, I thought it would be like…okay, so that was different from kissing boys. I figured I’d just try it that one time and see what it was like…you know, get it out of my system. But that’s not what happened. It was like all of a sudden, this volcano or something shot up through my whole body. The kiss just got deeper and deeper, and next thing I knew, I had my hand on Carly’s breast and everything."
Justine began to frown as she moved her memories from that sublime moment in the chemistry closet to the awful transformation that took place in the weeks that followed.
"By the time I got home that day, I’d already started to worry about people finding out…about people thinking I was like that. I guess I was like that…I just didn’t want people to know it, and I figured I could make up my own mind about it. Anyway, I stayed in my room all weekend and made myself sick thinking about it. I didn’t want that. I wanted what I’d been taught to expect all my life…to have a husband with a good job…to live in a big nice house…to have children to take care of and to love…the whole family-around-the-Christmas-tree thing. I didn’t want to feel that way about another girl, and I couldn’t risk my friends thinking I did. So I…pretty much quit talking to her after that. I told Mr. Prather that I had to go get allergy shots on Fridays so he would swap me with somebody else. Even then, Carly was still nice to me. She said one day at our lockers that we should just forget about it…that she didn’t want it to ruin our friendship. Instead, I said I’d already forgotten about it…and then I started just being mean…telling her to stop putting things in my locker. I never…made fun of her with my friends…but I never stopped them either."
Valerie looked at the slumped shoulders and sunken face. This was going to be a setback for Justine. "It’s interesting to me that you’ve never talked about Carly before."
"It made me ashamed to even think about it. It was probably the meanest thing I’ve ever done to another human being in my whole life."
Carly ground out the cigarette against the tree trunk and stuffed the butt into her pocket with the other three. Not many 42-year-old women climbed trees, but she was perfectly happy tonight to be the exception. The path through the woods over to Justine’s was convenient if she ever wanted to walk down there—if she was ever invited—but when they paved it, they cut the bushes back and now there weren’t any really good places where she could sit and watch without being seen. The pine tree was perfect, its thick branches shielding her from view as she peeked through.
I’ve turned into a stalker. Talking with Justine today had awakened so many old feelings…some sweet, some not so easy to deal with. Carly couldn’t deny the sense of betrayal she’d felt for twenty-five years, but she would forgive every moment of anger and hurt if it meant seeing Justine smile at her again like she had today.
"So just what the hell are you doing out here, Carly?" she mumbled to herself. "A pretty lady smiles at you and your brain goes on vacation."
Carly knew that Justine was capable of infinite charm and warmth. No secret there. But like their stuck-up classmates, she was also capable of extreme cruelty, which was magnified by the fact that it wasn’t Justine’s true nature. She’d gone out of her way to act like that back then, and Carly knew why.
In the hours that had passed since seeing her former friend at the hospital, the near euphoria had given way to an almost obsessive introspection. The fact was that Carly had spent the last twenty-five years dealing with the fallout from being treated with such spite back in high school. That single experience had had left an indelible scar because someone she’d trusted had betrayed her.
Now all of a sudden it’s all forgiven because she was nice to you today.
It occurred to Carly that Justine really didn’t remember the specifics of what had happened in high school…or that if she did, she remembered it differently. That, she reasoned, was why the pretty lady could smile like she had today and act like it hadn’t happened at all; like surely Carly didn’t still have her nose out of joint after all these years.
But there was something that Justine had said that made it seem like she did remember. You were better than all of us. Why did she say that? Carly had always known she was better than that bunch of snobs Justine ran around with, but she’d also known that her friend was different. Even after Justine had stopped talking to her, she never took part in the taunting, because she just didn’t have that mean spirit in her.
Carly had always wanted to believe that Justine had pulled away because she was afraid to give in to the idea of liking girls…so afraid that she had to distance herself from it, and that meant putting up a wall between Carly and herself. She’d never felt that Justine had really wanted to be with somebody like her—she’d been such a nerd in high school. People like Justine—their fathers were doctors and lawyers and city councilmen—didn’t go for people who lived on her side of Stony Ridge. She’d just been the safest way to test the waters.
"So what the hell are you doing sitting in a stupid tree watching her house like a peeping tom?" The answer to that was simple enough. Because you’ve never forgotten that moment, Carly…because you’ve never had another kiss like that one. And then there was that other item…. Because Justine may have had an affair recently with another woman, and maybe that means there’s a chance that the two of you can take care of some unfinished business.
From her hiding place in the tree, she watched as the dark sedan pulled into the empty drive. Justine got out and walked to the end of the drive to collect her mail, and disappeared into her house.
Stubbing out her last cigarette, Carly carefully navigated the willowy branches back to solid ground and headed down the path back to her house.
She isn’t going to call, you know. She was just being her usual charming self.
After Trey left three years ago to go live with his father, Justine had fallen into the habit of talking aloud through things that worried her as she went about her household tasks. It was a practice that had driven her daughter to distraction.
"I don’t want to be inside your head, Mom. It isn’t a very nice place."
"You invited her to dinner and she said yes. If she’s still upset about everything after all this time, she’ll say something and we’ll talk about it. I’m not afraid to talk about it now. And I’ll apologize and ask her to forgive me."
The redhead gathered the trash throughout the house to set out on the curb, not even cognizant of the fact that she kept going into the same rooms over and over to empty the cans. This could take all night.
"She looked so good today. God, she was nice! Heck, I’m the one that needs to bring it up, not Carly. She won’t, because she’s not like that." Finally, she hauled the plastic bag out the kitchen door to the large trash bin, completely forgetting to drag it down the driveway for collection. "And I should tell her everything. She deserves to know the truth. And if she decides never to speak to me again…well, I won’t blame her one bit."
Justine had stayed a little later with Valerie tonight to discuss this new development…or rather this old development that she’d conveniently left out of every conversation she’d had with the therapist about her attraction to women. All talk of her "inner calm" had been tabled, to say the least. Right now, she had no calm to speak of; her innards were in knots.
Justine’s struggle with sexual issues was not the primary reason for her weekly appointments in Lexington. Her biggest challenges were reconciling the enormous guilt that plagued her in virtually every aspect of her life—her relationship with her mother; the failure of her marriage; but most of all, the loss of her children. She was a cosmic mess, an emotional weathervane torn between doing what she needed to do for herself, and what was expected of her by everyone else. Working with Valerie for three years, she had begun to give herself permission to pursue some of the things she needed in life. But her children’s needs always took precedence, not just because they were kids and she was responsible for them; but because doing right by them was the only way she could be truly satisfied with herself.
And now, the therapist was clearly frustrated with her, having assumed that all of the issues were already on the table. But as they went over what Justine had related in her story of Carly Griffin, she acknowledged that her history with her old high school friend was not insignificant to the person she was today.
She needed to confront this part of her past, giving a lot of thought to how she wanted it resolved. Was it really fair to beat herself up over how she’d acted twenty-five years ago? Teenagers did a lot of stupid things; Carly would understand that, even though she had been more mature back then than their peers. Valerie had advised Justine to openly accept responsibility so that she could move on, but to think carefully about rekindling the friendship if it meant taking on the old guilt.
Justine drew a hot bath and pulled off her clothes. Easing into the tub, she tried as she did every night to empty her head of troubling thoughts, symbolically washing them from her body with a soapy cloth. There was always the bottle of capsules in the medicine cabinet if she couldn’t calm herself enough to sleep—Valerie had said she shouldn’t feel guilty about taking them when she needed them—but to Justine, the dependence on the sleep aid was just another surrender to her loss of self-control.
For the fifth time, Carly walked down the hall to the full-length mirror on the end wall. The black slacks definitely looked better than the tan with her black zippered half boots, and the ivory cashmere pullover was a nice contrast. At her mother’s suggestion, she’d taken off the t-shirt underneath because it was too prominent at the open collar of the polo-neck sweater. With her favorite jade pendant from Shanghai, she felt dressed up, but not overly so. This outfit was probably best for what Justine had suggested: driving into Lexington to eat at one of the nice steak restaurants.
Leland had steak restaurants too, the kind where you picked up a tray and walked through the line to get your drink and silverware and to place your order. There were all sorts of fast food restaurants, pizza parlors, a couple of barbecue places, and a fish camp. These places tended to focus more on expedience than atmosphere. Justine thought that if they were going to have a chance to talk—really talk—it would be nice to have a little more privacy and decorum.
Carly had been surprised on Friday when she’d returned from a run on the delivery truck with her dad to find a message from Justine. She returned the call and they made the plans for Sunday afternoon. Justine would drive, and she would swing by and pick her up at—
"Carly? Justine’s here."
From her bedroom window, she could see the sedan pulling into the drive. She was surprised when Justine got out of the car and started up the sidewalk; for some reason, she had expected her to just wait in the driveway. Carly grabbed her billfold and hurried to the living room where her mom had already opened the front door.
"Justine! How nice to see you again."
"Hi, Mrs. Griffin. It’s nice to see you too. I’ve been meaning to get by the store to see about ordering one of those new recliners for my mother. She saw one on TV that stands you up when you push a button."
"Oh yes, we have a few of those. They come in a lot of nice colors and fabrics. And they’re very nice for older people."
"That’s just what my mother needs—her very own electric chair."
"Hi, Justine." As their guest had been talking, Carly had been measuring her attire against that of the stylish redhead. Justine wore navy slacks and heels, with a white silk shirt that buttoned up the front, its collar ruffled and standing up around her neck. Her leather coat was chocolate brown, beautiful with the auburn highlights in her hair.
"Carly…hi to you too. That’s a beautiful sweater. I bet you didn’t find that in Leland."
The blonde woman chuckled. "St. Tropez. I vacationed there a couple of years ago."
Justine shook her head in awe. "It just amazes me that you’ve been to all those places. I can’t wait to hear about it. You ready?"
"You girls have fun."
"Thanks, Mrs. Griffin. Oh, and I want to apologize for that little mishap with your bill last week."
"No problem at all. You should have seen the hideous sofa I got one time when I flipped the numbers on an order form." Leaning in, she whispered, "Margie Helton loved it!"
"No accounting for tastes, I guess. I’ll see you again soon, okay? I mean it about coming in to order that chair."
Justine and Carly stepped onto the porch as the older woman closed the door behind them.
"Wait, I better get my coat." Carly went back inside to the hall closet, pulling out a black leather jacket similar to the brown one her companion wore.
"Have fun tonight, sweetheart. Listen, I know you and Justine have some…hurt feelings and the like to work out, but…"
"I think Justine’s had a hard time, especially these last few years. If you ask me, I’d say she really needs a friend."
Funny…Carly had sensed the same thing.
Carly slid into the front passenger seat of the dark blue Acura TL, at once impressed with the fresh smell of the tan leather. "Nice car. Is it new?"
"I’ve had it about a year and a half. When my son got his driver’s license, my ex and I agreed that he should drive a hand-me-down instead of a new one. I don’t see any sense in spoiling kids with new cars. ’Course, boys that age would rather walk than drive a ten-year-old Park Avenue, so I let him trade it for a used Volkswagen and I ended up with a new car…and a new car payment to go along with it."
"It’s hard to believe you have a son old enough to drive."
"Oh, yeah. Trey turns eighteen in January. Emmy was sixteen last July." Keeping one hand on the wheel, Justine fumbled in her purse for her wallet, opening it to show off her photos. With a click, a tiny spotlight lit the space on the passenger side.
"Wow, he’s handsome, and she’s a doll." To Carly, both teens had the best of their mother’s features, her thick reddish-brown hair and sterling blue eyes.
"Thank you. I think so too, but I’m biased."
"They really are. So what are they like?"
"Well…they’re very bright. In fact, they both know everything, or so I’m told."
"Oh, that sounds familiar."
Justine chuckled. "Trey’s a lot like his daddy. They both like sports…and teenage girls."
Carly found herself nodding absently until she realized the implication. Before she could respond, the proud mother continued.
"He gets pretty good grades, and he’s been accepted already at UK. He thinks he wants to study law like JT. That would suit him. I’ve always said he’d argue with a signpost."
"He sounds like a typical teenager to me."
"He is. He’s a good kid."
Justine sighed. "Emmy’s…special. Not that Trey’s not special, he is. But Emmy is one of those rare kids who sees things other kids don’t see. She’s compassionate and empathetic…kind of soulful, if you know what I mean. There were times that it was hard for me to know which one of us was the mother."
From the wistful tone, Carly felt like she was getting an intimate glimpse of Justine Hall, her remarks as revealing as any she might share. She was settling into a comfortable familiarity with her old friend when the subject was abruptly shifted.
"So did you have a nice Thanksgiving?"
"Yes. My mom cooked a big dinner and we stuffed ourselves ’til we were sick. Then we watched the Bengals get killed by the Titans and it depressed us all so much that we ate again."
Justine laughed. "Yeah, Trey was glued to that as well."
"So your Thanksgiving was nice?"
"We spent it with my mother," she groaned.
"Gosh, you make that sound like so much fun."
"Oh, it was. Did you ever meet my mother?"
"She came into the store once, I think. She had us order a love seat, but when we delivered it, she didn’t like it."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"It happens sometimes. We kept it in the showroom for awhile and somebody bought it." Carly remembered another detail—that Mrs. Hall had thrown a fit to have her non-refundable deposit on the special order item returned—but there was no point in bringing that up with Justine twenty-six years after the fact.
"Well, that sounds like typical Marian Hall to me. And I bet she embarrassed herself so bad that she’s never been back in."
"I wouldn’t know."
"Trust me. She won’t go to half the stores in town because she’s shown her tail too many times with that temper of hers. She makes either me or Mary Beth do most of her shopping so she won’t have to show her face. Of course, she says getting out’s too hard on her, but she can go to that country club every single day for lunch."
"Your mom sounds like a real piece of work."
"She is. And I think my kids are confused about whose mother she is, the way she goes on about how much she misses having JT at all the family things. She asked me this year how I’d feel about inviting him and J2 for Thanksgiving dinner, and I told her she could have him or me."
"Never mind…long story." Justine wheeled off the two-lane highway onto Interstate 75. They’d be in Lexington in another half hour. "Anyway, before she could answer, Trey told her that they were going to her mother’s house in Frankfort, so I never got to hear which one of us she’d have picked."
"So how’s Mary Beth?" Carly remembered that Justine’s sister was a freshman when they were seniors.
"Mary Beth is just fine." Perfection personified. "She’s married to Bucky Ball. You remember him, don’t you?"
That didn’t compute at all. "She married Bucky?"
"He got his teeth fixed."
"Why didn’t he get his name changed?"
"Well, his real name’s Herman."
"Bucky Ball…Herman Ball…It’s a toss-up."
"You think that’s bad, how would you like to be Mary Beth Hall Ball?"
"Anyway, they have three little boys that I like a whole lot. The boys come to visit me sometimes when Mary Beth’s at the end of her rope."
"Are you and Mary Beth close?"
"Not especially, but that’s not really her fault. I guess I was always Dad’s favorite and when he died, she didn’t want to share Mom."
"I heard about your dad. I’m really sorry." Dr. Gordon Hall had kept a family practice in Leland for over forty years. He’d been struck by a car when he stopped on the side of the road to help a stranded motorist. Practically everyone in town had known him, but Carly had met him only once, when she’d fallen off the back of the delivery truck, and her mother insisted that she be examined for injuries. She remembered him as a very nice man, even more so because he was Justine’s father.
"Thanks. It’s been nine years and I still miss him like it was yesterday." The driver’s mood had gone somber.
"I’m sure it was a very hard time for you."
"It was…but I had JT…and the kids…and they were all supportive through everything." Justine let out a half chuckle. "JT could be a real rat, but I’ve got to hand it to him. He always comes through when it really matters, even now."
"This is a nice place." Carly admired the ambient setting of the college-town restaurant, obviously a favorite watering hole of the sophisticated faculty and staff.
"It’s one of my favorites." Justine had been here with JT for their tenth anniversary and more recently, on a couple of dates with Mike Pritchard. The last time she’d been here was about four years ago, and she’d spent half the night eyeing the beautiful blonde at the table directly behind Mike. That was her last date with a man, the night she realized that for all his good qualities—he was handsome, interesting, and kind—she was never going to be sexually drawn to him or any other man like she was to that total stranger at the table behind him.
"Do you come to Lexington a lot?"
"Pretty often…once a week or so," assuming that her visits with Valerie should count. "I thought this would be a good place for us to talk."
Carly picked up on the nervousness in Justine’s voice, and remembered her mother’s words about Justine needing a friend. A real friend would lay to rest any worries about slights of the past.
"Listen, Justine…I was really glad that you wanted to get together again after all this time. Of all the people in Leland, you’ve always been…pretty special to me, even when we weren’t close. It means a lot to me to have a chance to be friends again." I forgive you.
"Oh, Carly." Justine tucked her hair behind her ear on one side, hoping to mask the swipe at the tear that had gathered in the corner of her eye. "You were special to me too. I was…so immature and…scared about stuff."
"It’s okay. It’s all forgotten. Let’s just go from here, okay?"
Justine shook her head. "No, I have to say this first. I’m…really sorry for how I acted back then. You didn’t deserve—"
"Justine, we were just teenagers. It was a confusing time for all of us. I was scared about things too." Carly reached across the table and touched her fingers lightly to the other woman’s wrist. "Fortunately, we outgrew all that, and now we really do know everything, instead of just thinking we do."
The redhead smiled at that. The blonde had always been quick to ease things with a joke. "Look at you, Carly. Look at all you’ve done with yourself. The rest of us leaned on each other so much we didn’t know how to act on our own. We went off to college and didn’t have all our little friends to copy anymore. And you went off on your own and took the world by the tail." Justine wasn’t going to contrast that with her personal failures. This was Carly’s moment. "I’m just so proud of you…so proud of all the stuff you’ve done."
"Thank you. But most of it was luck. I got recruited by Worldwide Workforce during my senior year at U of L. To be honest, the only reason I’ve been able to hang with them so long is because I don’t really have any ties that keep me from going from one project to the next, wherever they want to send me." Carly was sure that’s why some of the others she worked with were given stateside jobs. "So I suppose I’ve had a pretty successful career, but some people wouldn’t consider that a successful life."
Justine couldn’t help but reflect on the irony that she had been voted Most Likely to Succeed, and her life was an absolute mess. "Well it is if you’re happy. We all grew up thinking—I guess I should speak for myself—I grew up thinking that I had to have somebody else in my life to complete me, otherwise I’d be a colossal failure. Instead, I find out that I can live just fine without a husband…especially the one I had. It was like it was all a false promise, that you needed this and that to be happy. It just wasn’t true."
Carly had been waiting for a segue to ask how her friend was really doing, but the somber tone suggested that she needed to tread carefully. It was clear that Justine was uncomfortable talking about herself.
"But I don’t want to talk about that depressing stuff. I want to hear about all these exciting places you’ve been to and what you’ve seen. You know, I wanted to write to you the last time I talked to your mom, but I just didn’t know where to start."
Carly took a lot of pleasure in hearing this. Over the years, she’d written half a dozen postcards that never made it into the mailbox. "I wish you had. I would have been thrilled to hear from you."
For the next two hours, Carly brought Justine up to speed with what she had been doing since she left Leland.
"Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight: First, you went to…Bolivia, then to India, then Bangkok. In Bangkok, you got promoted to team leader because your boss had a heart attack."
"While with a prostitute. Don’t forget that part."
"Right. And then next you went to…Estonia. Where exactly is Estonia?"
"It’s in northeastern Europe, near Finland. It’s colder than a witch’s tit."
Justine laughed. "Okay, and after that, you went back to Bolivia, then to Peru, Johannesburg, Shanghai, and Israel."
"Nicely done, Miss Hall. You win the kewpie doll." Carly had shared the details of her job and how she’d lived among the locals in most of the places where she’d worked.
"So where do you go next?"
"Madrid. There’s a Japanese computer company that wants to open a technology plant to service Europe. Madrid’s labor costs are lower than most European capitals, and it has a large university enrollment. It should be a pretty smooth job…at least not as challenging as competing for textile workers in Bangkok, or high-tech types in Shanghai."
"I can’t believe how much you know about so many different things, Carly. I bet you’d have been a success at anything you wanted to do."
"It’s been a fun job for twenty years, but I have to tell you, I am getting a little tired of the transient life."
"It has to be hard to pick up and move every couple of years. But what would you do if you weren’t a team leader?"
"Well, there’s probably going to be an opening soon for a project coordinator. If I got that, I could live near our headquarters in Louisville most of the time, but I would have to travel to all of the sites about once or twice a year. That’s a grueling job too, but at least I'd get to have a home life."
"So is that what you’re looking for…a home life?"
"Not…anything in particular. I just need a change is all."
"I guess that means coming back to Leland to run the furniture store isn’t in your immediate future." It was said as a joke, but Justine liked thinking that Carly might one day come back to town.
"No, I don’t think so. My cousin Perry will probably take over the store in a couple of years when Mama and Daddy retire. He’s worked there ever since they bought it. He likes it. I think doing the same thing every day would make me insane."
"Well I can vouch for that." The redhead bobbed her head and rolled her eyes comically. "Because I’m certifiable!"
They both laughed as they stood up to leave. Carly realized with disappointment that Justine had effectively managed to deflect all conversation from herself, and she was none the wiser about how Justine’s well-planned life had gone so wrong. As they buckled their seatbelts for the ride home, she casually broached the subject.
"So we’ve spent the whole night talking about me, Justine. What have you been up to for the past twenty-five years?"
The redhead smiled softly, but Carly could tell even in the dim light of the dashboard that it was forced. Her mom had been right; this woman really needed a friend.
"I’m afraid my life has been pretty boring compared to yours. You know most of it already. I got married, had a couple of kids, got divorced. I’ve worked at the hospital off and on for about fifteen years." Her clipped response made it clear that she didn’t wish to elaborate.
Why won’t you talk to me? Carly admitted to herself that she hadn’t exactly been forthcoming either, dodging Justine’s question about "special people in her life" with an explanation of how her job kept her on the move. If they were going to be real friends, she needed to put her cards on the table too.
"You know, you asked me a question earlier, and I didn’t exactly give you the whole answer…kind of like you just did me." Carly smirked when her companion glanced her way. "You asked me if there had ever been anyone special in my life, and I said that my job made it hard to sustain any kind of…romantic relationship, and that’s true. But there have been a couple of special people in my life over the years. In Bolivia, there was a woman named Isabel; and then in South Africa, there was another named Alison."
Carly’s heart skipped a beat while she waited for an acknowledgment. Several seconds passed before Justine spoke.
"So…I always wondered."
"What do you mean you wondered? You ruined me for guys with that kiss in the chemistry closet!"
After almost twenty-six years, the kiss was finally mentioned out loud.
"I…I did not! Are you…? You’re pulling my leg." Justine swatted at Carly’s leg when she saw the evil grin.
"Well…it’s partly true. I mean I guess I was born this way, but I might never have known if you hadn’t attacked me that day."
"Carly Griffin, I did not attack you! It was mutual, as I recall." Justine squirmed a bit in the driver’s seat.
"That’s what I thought. I just wanted to make sure you remembered it that way too."
"Why, you little sneak!" The driver relaxed visibly. "You’re just doing all this to make me blush."
"But you do remember it."
"I remember…that it was…quite nice, actually."
"Yes, it was. But it obviously didn’t have the same effect on you that it had on me."
"Says who?" Justine squirmed again, but gave her companion a playful smirk of her own.
"Well, well, well…now there’s a story I’m going to have to hear."
"Oh, no! I haven’t had nearly enough wine to tell that story."
"Why don’t you pull into Pete’s when we get back to Leland, and we’ll remedy that?"
"Ha! You’re forgetting that it’s Sunday, Miss World Traveler. You can’t buy alcoholic beverages on Sunday in Leland."
Now that’s a real shame, Carly thought. But now that they’d laid it out there that they wanted to be friends again, she was pretty sure she’d hear the woman’s tale when she was finally ready to share it.
"So why don’t you tell me all about Isabel?"
"Isabel…Isabel Rosas Paz. She worked at the Labor Ministry, and we got to be friends when I first moved to Bolivia. The hotel all of us were staying in caught fire and we had to move out on account of the smoke damage. She offered to have me stay with her in her apartment."
Justine drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, growing impatient for more of the story.
"It was a small apartment." Carly grinned. "I started out on the couch in the living room. That lasted…two or three days. Being my usual irresistible self, I was soon invited to share the bedroom."
"Your usual irresistible self, huh?"
"Yeah, you know how it is. People can’t keep their hands off me."
"I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to make me blush again, and I’m not going to give you the satisfaction this time, Carly Griffin." Instead, she smiled playfully. "So tell me more about Isabel. How long did you live together? What happened to her?"
"It’s an interesting story, actually…kind of happy and sad at the same time. We were both kind of surprised that things took that turn. Neither of us had ever been with anybody before—I mean if you don’t count our brief groping encounter." That earned her another light smack on the thigh. "But it was just…natural, you know? She was really sweet, and funny, and cute. And Catholic, so she had the guilt thing going. We were both so deep in the closet we had to keep moth balls in our pockets."
Again, the driver squirmed uncomfortably. She could write the book on that guilt thing.
"We had a really good year together. And then it ended when my job wrapped up. I wanted her to come with me, at least back to the states for a while, but she couldn’t do that. That would have been like announcing to her family that we weren’t just roommates, and hell, her brothers might have killed me."
"That’s so sad! So you had to leave her."
"Yeah, we traded letters a few times, but after awhile, it just sort of trailed off. Then I got back to Bolivia about eight years later and looked her up. I didn’t tell her I was coming. I go the biggest kick out of walking into the Labor Ministry just out of the blue. She went crazy…jumping up and down and getting so excited. I knew from our letters that she was married and had three or four little kids, but seeing her again brought it all back…for me, anyway…not for her. I was happy for her—she got what she wanted out of life—but it was hard to accept that the door was really closed. There hadn’t been anybody else in all those years in between."
"You must have really loved her."
"I did. I still do in a way. We usually trade cards every couple of years now. I think there are some people that you come to love in life that are always going to matter to you. Isabel’s one of those people for me." And you’re one of those people for me, Justine Hall. "She and I even got to be friends again, so it a good ending. She’s got…let’s see, at last count it was seven kids. Life worked out for her, and I’m glad she’s happy."
"You were right. That is both a sweet and a sad story…but it’s mostly sad. I mean, because you loved her and you had to leave her, and…you couldn’t just come out and be yourself. You had to hide."
"Yeah, hiding everything was hard. It was easier with Alison, because she was out already. In fact, I met her at a gay bar in Johannesburg. We’d been seeing each other for about six months before she moved into my apartment. There was a time that I thought Alison and I might make it. When the job in South Africa ended, she got a visa to come with me to Shanghai. I even got her on with my company as a payroll clerk. That took some doing, believe me."
"You hired her to work for you?"
"Not exactly. She was part of the overall team, but not the management team. One of the other guys supervised her, so I hardly ever saw her at work. But when I say that it took some doing, what I mean is that I had to come out to my boss. I had to call in a favor, because he didn’t want to approve it without somebody higher up signing off on it, and I didn’t want the whole damn company to know my business."
"But you got him to do it."
"Yeah, and he pretty much read us the riot act about not letting people find out. I mean, China’s a communist country. They throw you in jail for stuff like that, and we could have gotten our whole contract yanked."
Carly shrugged. "It’s reality. But it turned out that it didn’t matter in the long run. Alison hated being there. She didn’t like the food, or the weather, or the crowds. She hadn’t traveled much before, and she just didn’t know what to expect. It was too hard for her to live there, so after just three months, she went home."
"Oh, Carly! That must have been awful."
"Well…it probably worked out better that way for everybody."
"So you didn’t get your heart broken that time?"
The blonde woman chuckled. "Hardly. It probably isn’t fair to Alison to say this, but she wasn’t…all that lovable once she got out of her element. And we were in pretty close quarters, even for Shanghai. Our apartment was one room, eight by twelve. Every breath she blew out, I drew in. I tell you, when things aren’t good anyway, living on top of each other makes them that much worse."
"Eight by twelve! I can’t believe two people could live in a place that small without killing each other."
"No kidding. Anyway, after she left, I was so happy to be able to double my living space that I hardly missed her."
"Aw, I bet it hurt just the same."
"A little. I guess what really hurt was that she didn’t try harder after all the hoops we had to jump through to be together…but, like I said, she got to a point where she wasn’t really very lovable." As an afterthought, she added, "I probably wasn’t very lovable by that time either."
"But you were still irresistible, right?"
"But of course." Carly was surprised to see that they were already on the outskirts of Leland. The drive home had taken no time at all. And Justine had shared very little about herself. "So when do we get to do this again? And I’ll drive so you can drink plenty of wine. That way, I don’t have to do all the talking."
Justine smiled as she turned onto Stony Ridge Road. "There really aren’t many nice places to eat in Leland, you know." And she couldn’t afford to be treating at a place like that on a regular basis, but she’d insisted on picking up the check tonight since it had been her invitation.
"Where we eat doesn’t matter to me, Justine. I just want to go somewhere we can talk some more. It’s been nice catching up."
Justine pulled into the driveway of the small frame house. "Same here, Carly. It’s been a long time since I just went out and had a good time…you know, with a friend."
That news wasn’t surprising. Justine hadn’t spoken at all of a social life. And if there was any truth to what her mother had heard about involvement with a doctor’s wife…well, most of the folks in Leland weren’t going to be friends with somebody like that.
"Then let’s do it again. If you can think of another nice place in Lexington, we’ll go. My treat next time, though."
"Or maybe we could just… you want to come to my house for dinner one night?"
"I’d like that, but only if you let me bring dinner. You treated tonight so it’s my turn."
"And wine…lots of wine." Now that she knew what it took, Carly wanted to loosen that tongue.
"You got yourself a deal. What about Wednesday, around eight?"
"I’ll be there." The blonde was almost giddy as she opened the door. "Red or white?"
"Red. And you better not let me drink too much. I have to be at work the next morning."
"That’s going to depend on whether I get the whole story, Miss Hall. That’s what you said."
Justine smirked. "Thanks again for going with me."
"My pleasure." Carly waited for the car to back out, waving one last time at the pretty redhead. While she wished she had learned more about Justine tonight, she was glad that their first meeting had been mostly lighthearted and fun. They were opening up with one another just fine, and it was just a matter of time before all the mysteries were revealed.
If you’re only looking for the sex scenes, you might try Part 2.
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