Chapter 2: Festival of Light

For Peter, who struggles mightily yet always gives
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
Don McLean

Chapter 2 Festival of Light

Her internal alarm clock demanded Karen wake up and get cracking, regardless of the actual time. She threw her forearm over her eyes and thought, five thirty and she’s up and running. Hey there toad, you know just how seriously she’s taking all this, so shut your yap and get your lazy ass out of bed. Last night had been much too warm for even a single blanket, so all she had to do was kick off the sheet and pull on her comfy old robe. She padded off to the bathroom, stretching long and hard, and plopped down on the toilet to piddle. It was obvious that Laci hadn’t done more than brush her teeth. Of course, she hadn’t! Karen knew exactly where to find Laci. Her new routine was as carved in stone as Michelangelo’s Pieta: Up at five, brush teeth and pee, down to her new studio until at least half past six, working on whatever projects she had going. Only then could she worry about such annoyances like showering, doing her hair, and eating breakfast.

Karen crept down the stairs in hopes of sneaking up behind her, but there was no avoiding the squeaks and squawks of the old steps. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The French doors were open wide, and the unmistakable smell of oil paints and turpentine filled the air, though not as heavily as usual. The windows were wide open to catch the morning breeze as Karen peaked in.

She broke into a smile of satisfaction at what she saw. Laci, wearing only a simple bralette and an ordinary pair of bikini panties, stood before her easel, so concentrated she hardly noticed Karen. She stood on the balls of her feet, rocking back and forth as she decided where she wanted the paint to go. Her hair was a bird’s nest, perfect for stashing assorted brushes to free her hands. Her green eyes glowed with concentration. Right now, she stood back, squinting at the canvas. At last, she growled her displeasure at something she had or had not done during her work. Her growl morphed into, “God dammit, why can’t I figure this out!”

Karen ignored the rhetorical question as she glided up behind Laci. “Good morning, Sweet Sunshine.” She buried her face in the mass of Laci’s hair and breathed deep. “Good God, I love that smell, even with the oil paint thrown in.” She gave Laci’s buns a squeeze, which led to a squeal and a delighted giggle.

Everything about the scene thrilled Karen. Who would have imagined, when the clock rolled over to announce the start of the new year back on that cold winter’s night, that before reaching the halfway point in the calendar year Laci would be rescued from the mucky cesspool that was her life, and find herself in charge of making a brand new downtown festival happen.

Purring, Karen slipped her arms around Laci’s waist and pulled the girl’s buns against her mound. Not that there wasn’t hunger in her embrace. Oh, how I wish we had time, Karen thought with longing. “So, tell me. Why are you so irked on this fine morning?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just these damned acrylics never want to play nice.”

“Is this something you need for the festival today?”

Laci turned so she could nuzzle her face between Karen’s breasts. “No, all that’s finished. This one’s an assignment Mrs. Alberghetti wants me to do, and I wanted to work on it some while I had the time, it helps keep me from getting all nervous, but these damned acrylics aren’t cooperating.”

Karen looked at what Laci was working on. There were two easels. Her “go-by” easel held a standard print of someone Karen assumed came from the mists of antiquity, and the other a mostly blank canvas except for a serviceable sketch of the print and the earliest background colors in the upper right. “What are you trying to do?”

Laci shook her head with frustration. “She wants me to copy this print as exactly as possible, and I have to do it in acrylics, which dry fast, which is, like, fine, but if you make a mistake it’s hard to go back and fix it, you only have so much time, with oil you have plenty of time to go back and fine tune things or fix a mistake.”

“Uh huh,” Karen said, a proud smile lighting her face. “I’ll just nod like the village idiot and say, ’Whatever, love, you lost me before your first pause to breathe.”

Smiling, Laci looked up from Karen’s cleavage. “Tch. You are so silly.”

Looking at Laci’s beautiful, radiant face made Karen’s insides surge and do a flip-flop. She playfully drew her index finger down Laci’s nose, finishing with a kiss planted on the tip. “Impress me some more. Who – or more specifically – what is that you’re working on, anyway?”

“Karen! I’m surprised at you,” Laci cried in mock surprise. “Anyone who knows about all those guys from the olden days oughta know who that is.” “Well, exxxxcuuuuse me. What’s Beethoven got to do with… with… whoever that is?”

“It’s Antigone, she was, like, this warrior princess in really ancient times, like Ancient Greece and Sparta and Athens, Mrs. Alberghetti says I’m gonna learn about her in my freshman classical lit class next year, some guy named Soffaclees or something wrote a play about her, and I think one on her father, Edipuss, who married his mother, and then gouged his own eyes out.”

“Ah yes,” Karen said. “Ol’ Sophocles sure was fascinated by that family. I’m sorry to bump you off your wagon, Willie, but I know who Antigone was, plus! I’ve read the plays and saw a performance on a field trip during high school.”

Laci ignored Karen’s playful needle, instead growing excited as she squirmed to better see her work, eager to explain everything to Karen. “Mrs. Alberghetti has lots of things she wants me to do, like it has to be that portrait specifically – it’s by some painter named Fredric Leighton, and she says I should try to be as exact as possible because it has a lot of interesting and challenging shading, and lighting, and transitions, and techniques, and all that stuff, and like I said, the stuff I need to do isn’t easy in the first place, so it’s only…”

Karen held Laci’s lithe form spooned as closely as possible to her own, and the girl’s taut butt pressed maddeningly against her mound, sending warm ripples over her. Laci’s soliloquy on Antigone and acrylics had faded to a comforting drone.

She let her fingers trace Laci’s silky skin just above the waistband of her panties before letting them slip down and skate over the swath of fabric covering the girl’s sensitive muffin. All she had to do was slide her hand under Laci’s panties, and she’d be caressing the smooth skin of her lover’s sex. From there, it was a step away from sliding her hand down and using her middle finger to open Laci’s labia…

“Karen,” Laci suddenly protested, leaving Antigone and Fredric Leighton by the wayside. She squirmed and wriggled until she nuzzled her face between Karen’s full breasts again. “What are you trying to do? Make me crazy, ‘cause if you are, it’s working.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Karen murmured into Laci’s mass of sleep-tangled hair.

“We hafta get ready, we hafta be at Mr. B’s by eight thirty, and if you don’t stop we’re gonna be late,” Laci protested weakly.

Karen sighed. “What can I say? You just have that effect on me. We’ll make up for it later tonight. I’ll really be juicy by then.”

Laci lifted her head to look at Karen. There was an impish gleam in her eyes. “Want me to nurse?”

Karen smiled and kissed the tip of Laci’s nose. In another time or place, that would be an offer she’d jump on. “No, it’s better you don’t, or you’ll send me into orbit. I’ll pump.” Beyond the sensual pleasure of nursing, her girls were uncomfortably full. It would be some heavy pumping.

Laci’s smile turned into a playful pout. “You’re no fun. Besides, you started it.”

“Listen to you. Not two minutes ago you were saying we’ll be late if we don’t hurry. But anyway, now it’s time for me to play grown-up. I’ll go first since you take ninety-eleven hours just on your hair.”

“Tch. Karen, you are such a wiseass. Besides, I’m not washing my hair today, it’ll never dry. I’m just brushing it.”

“Good thinking.” She gave Laci’s butt a squeeze and a pat. “Go ahead and get back to doing your thing. I’ll holler when I’m done in the bathroom.” She brought her hands up and lightly cupped Laci’s face. “How come you’re so beautiful?”

“Because I love you, silly.”

It didn’t take long for Karen to get ready. After a shower, she dried herself off, and stepping into the hallway, called out, “Laci love! I’m done, it’s all yours.”

“OK,” she called back. “Be right up.”

In little more than a minute, Karen heard Laci running up the stairs. How the hell does she find the energy to run up the stairs at six o’clock in the morning?

Laci came boiling into the room all in a tither. Now that she no longer had painting demanding her full attention, she could let her excitement take over. Paint splatters and smudges covered her. “Ohmygod, I hafta get ready,” she declared, and immediately started stripping off her bling and what little clothing she was wearing.

“Will that paint come off?” Karen asked.

Laci looked down at her hands, as if noticing them for the first time. “This? Oh yeah, it’ll come right off. Oh God, I don’t have any in my hair, do I?” “No, but I’d sure love to give it a closer inspection, especially since you’re standing there naked and making me think impure thoughts.” “Karen, cut it out. You know I need to get ready.”

“Be my guest,” Karen said with a florish. It’s probably a good thing you picked out your clothes last night.”

Laci snickered and said, “You think?” She took a couple of steps toward the bathroom before she gave a little twerk with her butt and said, “You’ll just have to wait for later.” She stuck her tongue out and scurried to the bathroom in a cloud of giggles.

Karen shook her head and smiled at the memory of last night. It took an hour of hemming and hawing, and a mother-daughter tiff that reminded Karen that Laci was still an adolescent girl with all the quirks and peculiarities inherent to the teenus girlus Americanus species. Stunning though she was, Laci was as worried about how she looked as any of her peers. In her eyes, every blemish was a flashing neon sign, and every tiny zit an erupting volcano. Last night, after a half an hour of stressing over not being able to find anything to wear, Laci settled on a pair of faux leather leggings and a pink tee bearing the message “The Earth Without Art Is ‘Eh’”. In Karen’s view, the tee was fine. It was the leggings that made her cringe. “Laci, honey,” she said. “Don’t you think those leggings are a bit over the top?”

“What do you mean, ‘over the top?’” Laci said with suspicion.

Thereupon ensued a time-honored fifteen-minute argument, animated at times, about what clothes an adolescent girl could wear in public. Laci argued there was nothing wrong about wearing the leggings, other girls wore much more risqué pants and skirts to school every day, while Karen pointed out that such an outfit would only draw attention to herself, and the focus should be on the festival. Laci in turn reminded Karen that it seemed everyone kept telling her things like people would come in droves if they knew she was involved in the festival, and it wasn’t because she was a famous artist. Why not wear something that really got everyone’s attention.

In the end, they reached a compromise of sorts. She would wear a pair of coral pink leggings with a flowered vine running up each side if she wore a pair of plain undies – no G-strings or thongs.

That condition puzzled Laci. “Why plain undies?” she asked.

“Because I don’t want you to show a camel toe,” Karen explained.

“Karen!” Laci cried with surprise. “Since when do you know about camel toes?”

“Of course, I know what a camel-toe is. I don’t live in a bubble. And it’s because I know what it is that I don’t want you showing yours.”

That was enough to make Laci laugh, and that in turn ended the tiff.

Karen finished getting herself ready. She massaged moisturizing cream on her face, then applied a thin cover of foundation, but otherwise avoided makeup. She settled on a pair of snug lime green Capris and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up to her elbows and worn untucked. It was a nice, neutral, soccer-momish outfit.

Just as she was finishing up, Laci came out of the bathroom, her hair brushed and parted on the left, so it cascaded over her right shoulder. “Are you done with the vanity? I need to put on my makeup.”

“It’s all yours,” Karen said. “I’m going to have a cup of coffee while you finish getting ready. How about I cut up some strawberries for a quick breakfast.” “Sure,” Laci shrugged. “That’d be good.”

“I thought maybe we could go pick some fresh ones tomorrow.”

“Don’t you remember we’re having a pool party for everyone in the club?”

“Damn, I forgot. Nobody’s coming until the afternoon? We need to do some grocery shopping, so I can feed everyone. We can do that in the morning.”

“Sounds good. By the way, I like your outfit. It’s so… you,” Laci said with a playful smirk.

“I hope that’s a compliment.”

“Well, since you’re the most beautiful woman I know, I’d say it’s a compliment.”

Unsurprisingly, they were the first ones to arrive at Jay Belden’s house. Karen pulled up behind what she assumed was Jay’s Toyota 4Runner parked up close the garage. Next to it, Karen noted with an impressed nod, was a sleek silver Lexus hybrid. There were, it seemed, perks to being a department head in a well-endowed liberal arts college.

Laci had done an admirable job of appearing outwardly calm, but it took effort. She struggled with two opposing emotions, wanting to let her childish glee run loose on one hand, but wanting to be mature, responsible, and trustworthy on the other. So far, Karen noted, mature and responsible was holding the fort. “Excited?” she said with a smile and a squeeze of her girl’s thigh.

Laci bounced in her seat clapping her wrists together. “Like you wouldn’t even believe!” She unbuckled her seatbelt. “I’ve been trying so hard not to go off like a little kid. I don’t want anyone to think I can’t be trusted to take care of stuff.”

“All well and good,” Karen said, opening the door. “But lighten up on yourself. first, this is supposed to be fun. If it isn’t fun, what’s the point?” “I just want it to go good, I don’t want to look like an idiot.”

Ahhh, the fears that haunt the adolescent soul! Karen thought with a droll smile. “I highly doubt that’ll be a problem.”

There was a pause in the scramble to get out when their eyes locked. Karen sighed. “I wish I could kiss you.”

Laci broke into an impish smile. “No one’s looking…”

Karen glanced around, and her heart sped up. She darted in to place a quick, but firm smack on her baby’s lips. “We need to be careful about being too free with our kisses outside of the house, but Jesus, try resisting that sweet mouth of yours.”

Laci chuckled playfully. “Problem is, once you start I don’t want you to stop.”

“Then I better not start,” Karen said, getting out of the car, and shouldering her bag.

“Should I leave my paintings and drawings in the car?”

“For now, until we know what Jay’s plans are.”

Karen led the way up stone steps passed the immaculately maintained lawn and flower beds, to Jay’s large white neo-colonial house. It was situated on a landscaped lot in the aptly named Faculty Row, the quiet neighborhood of elegant homes provided for the Upper Administration and Department Heads of Bentley College.

Even this early, the day was already unpleasantly warm and sticky. Karen’s stretchy Capri’s and simple untucked white blouse were a safe compromise between comfort and decorum. Laci’s approving comment had been a nice ego stroke.

Laci was bouncing on her tippy-toes with excitement when Karen rang the doorbell. “Do I really look OK?” Laci pleaded.

The door opened, and it framed a delighted Jay Belden. “Mr. B!” Laci, gleefully animated, skittered up to him and they embraced like old and dear friends.

“How’d I know you two were going to be the first ones here, and half an hour earlier than anyone else. I was just telling Evan how much this means to you, and how excited you are. And my god! You look simply stunning! Once word gets around, there’s going to be a mob showing up just to see you.”

“You’re full of poop, Mr. B,” Laci said, her eyes and face glowing.

“And Karen, how are you this fine morning?”

“Good morning Jay,” she said, leaning in for the obligatory cheek kiss. “And yes, she’s excited — to put it mildly. She was up at five o’clock this morning painting of all things. It’s a good thing she decided what to wear last night, or we’d still be home.”

“I love your shirt Mr. B. Where can I get something like that?”

Jay looked down at his shirt with a benign scowl. It was a simple pink tee with a print of Monet’s “Water Lily’s” across the chest and the logo “Art Teachers Do It for The Monet” encircling it. “This? I think I got it on Amazon. There are a gazillion art t-shirts out there, I’ll send you a couple of links. Anyway, come on in guys. You haven’t met Evan yet,” he said vibrantly.

Karen looked around with the skilled eye of a real estate agent with a background in general construction. It was likely one of the original buildings, which would make it over 150 years old. It clearly had been through several remodels over the years, the most recent one returning it to much of its original simple splendor. The exposed wooden beams rough-sawn from massive white pines and the floorboards cut from both oak and pine, had developed a beautiful patina that exuded welcoming warmth. Simply painted sheet rock had replaced the original lath-and-plaster walls in one of the remodels.

“I love the house,” Karen said as Jay led the way to the kitchen.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? The decorating is, well, eclectic.”

Karen chuckled. “I guess that’s one way of putting it.”

“Our tastes are different, and I guess what you see is a compromise of sorts. Evan is all about the Renaissance, the Raphaelites – it’s his doctorate field of study – while I’m strictly Art Deco and Cubism.”

“Unusual,” Karen agreed, “but it sure works. I love it.”

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, Mr. B,” Laci added. “It’s awesome. I’m still trying to figure out Cubism.”

They stepped into the bright, expansive kitchen – there was little to suggest antiquity here – the rich smell of an expensive coffee filling the air. A tall, lean man stepped in from the breakfast nook set off from the main kitchen. He was, Karen noted, extremely attractive, even more so than Jay, who Karen thought of as one of the more attractive men she knew. He had a shock of curly black hair, finely etched features, and bright, humorous eyes. “Evan honey, these are the ladies I have just been dying for you to meet! Karen, this is my gorgeous husband Evan, and Evan, this is one of the world’s true heroes, Karen Nelson.”

Evan, his eyes twinkling, held out his hand and gave Karen a strong-gripped handshake, which she returned with an equally strong grip. “I am so glad to finally meet you! Jay has told me all about your heroics as a rescuer of damsels in distress, and beautiful to boot.”

Karen laughed. “Ninety-nine percent hyperbole, I’m sure. Small events have a way of growing with the retelling. It’s good to meet you.” “And this,” Jay said with a proud flourish, “is my gorgeous little shining star, Laci.”

Laci blushed furiously and squirmed. She tentatively held out her hand, unsure if was the right thing to do. “Hi,” she said softly, as she offered her hand. “So, you’re the young artist Jay and Marie have been raving about. I’ve been dying to meet you, Marie thinks you’re the next Wyeth, and I’ll tell you, there was no hyperbole when Jay told me how gorgeous you are. I think he understated just how beautiful you are.”

Laci shifted uncomfortably. “You guys are gonna give me a complex or something.”

Evan laughed. “Spoken like a true teenage girl. Unaffected humility is never a bad thing, and there’s precious little of it in the world – especially the art world.”

“I’m not being a very good host,” Jay declared, as if sensing Laci’s discomfort. “Karen, how do you like your coffee?” It wasn’t an offer. “Black, one sugar.”

“I hope ordinary Starbucks Rainforest is OK.”

“Ha!” Karen barked. “Coffee snobbery I totally do not get, same with wine. Coffee is coffee. My grandfather made the stuff I started drinking, he called it Navy coffee and it would loosen your fillings if you weren’t careful.”

“Laci honey, you want anything?”

“No thanks Mr. B, I have my water.”

Jay handed Karen her coffee. “I don’t expect anyone else to show up for a while yet. Would you like to see the house?”

“I’d love to,” Karen said with genuine enthusiasm.

“Can I come, too?” Laci said with a small plea in her voice, as if they were leaving her out.

“Of course,” Evan said. “It would be sinful if you didn’t.”

Karen was keen to get a better look at the unique decorating style of professional artists. At first glance it seemed to be a form of neoclassic junk. Karen’s own decorating style little more than a conservative, middle-class Better-Homes-and-Gardens afterthought. Not here. There were elaborately framed Byzantine religious prints and statuary intermingled with Picasso Cubist prints and Art-Deco objets d’art. All the while she took in the underlying architecture and craftsmanship of the house itself.

She began to see a subtle but unmistakable unity to the chaotic initial appearance. She couldn’t put her finger on it – neither art nor interior decorating were among her strengths – but she picked up an understated cohesion to everything that became ever more pleasing to the eye.

Jay kept up an enthusiastic running commentary. Behind them, she could hear Laci and Evan having an earnest discussion. She couldn’t tell what they were talking about, but Laci was clearly asking questions and Evan was answering her. Laci wasn’t particularly shy when she felt comfortable around someone. In fact, she could be quite engaging. Evan must have piqued her interest in something. In fact, they turned and went to a different part of the house.

Karen smiled. “Evan seems quite taken by her,” she said.

“Laci? I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Laci has a way about her, especially the last few months. She lights up any room she walks into. I don’t know what you did Karen, but whatever it was, thank you. She has just exploded into something amazing. This festival needs her as its face, and she’s stepped up.” “I didn’t do anything special. I just gave her a safe home environment, a little support and caring, add a little love, and voila.”

“Love. I think that’s it, that was the missing ingredient.”

“And I do love her. She’s become my other daughter.”

“By the way, have you heard much from Amy? Is she happy?”

Karen sighed wistfully. It wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was an innocent question and courtesy demanded a response of some kind. “Oh yeah, we talk, chat, text, Skype, but she mainly stays closer to Laci,” she said in a tone that expressed her discomfort discussing the subject. “She’s doing very well, she’s fit right in at her new school, has a lot of new friends. I don’t think she’s fully over her anger, but it’s getting better with time.”

Jay, perhaps sensing Karen’s ambivalence, simply said, “That’s good to hear,” before getting back to his running commentary.

After making a circuit of the house, they ended back in the kitchen. In the span of 15 minutes, Karen learned more about Cezanne, Picasso, Georges Braque, and the Cubist movement than she’d learned in a lifetime. None of it meant much to her, not like it would if he’d been describing the role of Beethoven in bringing the Classical form to its limits, but he was engaging and able to make it seem meaningful.

It was a truly beautiful house, and from a realtor’s perspective quite desirable. She unconsciously did calculations. If the house were on the open market rather a part of Bentley, she would list it initially at four hundred thousand, and settle for nothing less than three hundred thousand. A typical modest home in one of Williamston’s good outskirt neighborhoods usually fetched around $150,000.

No matter how you looked at it, a house like this would bring a very nice commission. As it was, this was shaping up to be her best year ever. The downtown riverfront sale alone was worth a typical year’s income. Add to that several smaller downtown commercial sales, and a good residential turn over, and it was looking ever more likely she could take Laci on a trip somewhere – maybe the Caribbean, a cruise, or even New York City where they could visit the museums, Broadway, a concert. I’ll have to get my butt in gear and get her a passport, have Gail get me through the process.

Karen glided over to Laci, who was still engaged in an animated conversation with Evan. “I see you’re dazzling our host with your charm and beauty,” Karen teased playfully.

“Karen, cut it out,” Laci said with a smile that said she wasn’t at all bothered.

“Indeed she has,” Evan said. “She’s quite the remarkable young lady, every bit as impressive and articulate as Marie and Jay said. It’s hard to believe she’s only, what? Fourteen?”

“Yup, fourteen,” Karen said with a touch of pride.

“Amazing! Fourteen, no previous education or formal exposure to art, and we were talking about Monet’s role in the growth of the Impressionist movement.”

Laci twisted uncomfortably, embarrassed at being the center of such attention and praise. “You guys are being foolish,” she mumbled, and she whipped out her phone as if to put an end to her participation in such nonsense. “You can keep being silly, I’m gonna see where Emily is,” and she turned her attention to sending a flurry of text messages.

“That,” Karen said with a wry smile, “is the end of that.”

Evan laughed with gusto. He was, Karen mused, not only extremely handsome, but just as charming. Both he and Jay certainly broke the hearts of straight women wherever they went.

When Laci stepped aside to focus on her texts without interference, Jay sidled up to Karen while munching on a gooey cinnamon roll. “Oh my, Karen, you simply have to try one of these rolls. I won’t let you out of this house until you do. They are so decadent they ought to be illegal.” “You do realize that ’Decadent’ is really code for ‘extremely fattening.’”

“Do I look fat? Try one.”

Laci’s smile lingered when she turned away from the adults so intent on singing her praises. The adult praises hardly fazed her, but not for the reasons they likely thought. No, it pleased her for far more basic reasons. It showed they cared about her. Adults – smart, educated, mature, stable, adults – who actually, truly cared for and about her. Even Mr. B’s husband, who she’d only just met, gave her a feeling of genuinely caring about her, as if he were an old friend.

Having grown-ups who truly cared about her, even loved her, was still a novel feeling for Laci. She hoped she never took it for granted. No, that was never going to happen, not after a lifetime of constant, grinding willful neglect, and outright violence. Having at last tasted it, love was much too sweet to take for granted.

She sent Emily a flurry of texts, her fingers whirling as she tapped out the message almost as fast as speaking it would take. Texting was just another form of conversation. It came as readily and effortlessly as speech, and just as rich in emotion and subtlety in its own way.

When Laci looked up from her phone, she found she’d wandered into a part of the house Mr. B hadn’t showed off on his tour. It was the solarium. She broke into a smile at the sudden awareness of such a… a wonderful place! It was bright and sunny with a fieldstone floor, casual furniture scattered about in an equally casual pattern. There were plants in beautiful earthen pots, some with carvings that might be faux-hieroglyphs, or some other ancient form of sculpture; more sat ensconced in pots adorned with elaborate carvings that looked like something from an obscure Amazonian native tribe, and still others in receptacles that looked like they came from somewhere like ancient China or Japan or some other exotic place in Asia.

The truly wondrous part was the veritable jungle of exotic plants hanging from the antiqued metal framework holding the curved panes of glass spanning the entire room. And the plants! Oh my! She had absolutely no idea what any of them were, but that only made them all that much more striking and fantastic. There were deep green vines tortuously entwining along an obscured latticework, cascading ferns, thick, robust variegated succulents, and an array of what must have been a hundred different flowers of every shade and color of the rainbow, and bizarre shape imaginable. And the fragrance! It was a complex mix that blended into a rich, sweet, cinnamon-y scent that seemed to have both red and deep brown hues to it. Ever since the ethereal experience at the symphony, she noticed that everything she saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted began to have colors. Something that tasted salty conjured yellows; a soughing breeze through the trees a misty swirling green; Karen-music and orgasms were rich swelling of every color on the palette. It struck her as a bit odd, but it also seemed perfectly natural, something that just… was. And the floral fragrance in this deliciously surprising room seemed dominated by spicy reds and browns.

She turned in a full circle taking it all in. Caring for this mini jungle, watering all the plants, arranging, and pruning them, had to be a major undertaking. As one of her household responsibilities, Laci assumed the watering and tending job the couple dozen comparatively simple plants Karen kept about the house. The sheer scale of watering this exotic jungle dwarfed her simple chore.

She could see Mr. B’s hand in all this. He was so gifted at patterns, arrangements, and layouts! He could take one look at a room and know exactly how everything had to go to achieve its maximum appeal. It wasn’t one of her strengths.

Laci knew that her strongest skill – her gift, really – was color and shading. It was something that came to her naturally, even intuitively – at least it did now. That interplay of color, light, and shadow is what made Impressionist art so fascinating to her. Mrs. Alberghetti told her once that her ability to master colors and shading was uncanny, an honest-to-god gift. She didn’t even need a color wheel to help her mix colors.

It was technique that required thought and effort, the physical act of how to use brushes, knives, spatulas, charcoal, pastels to turn mental images into tangible forms on canvas or paper. Even technique came to her easily. After she’d done something once, perhaps twice, her brain stored it away for ready retrieval when needed.

Laci strolled around the room, taking in the various ways the plants played with and off their neighbors, how their shapes and growth patterns melded together, how their pottery homes enhanced and complemented their inherent beauty. The entire room was its own mini art gallery. The way everything came together to create a coherent whole might not be immediately apparent even to someone with an eye for art. In short order though, even someone who wasn’t very interested in art would, if only unconsciously, come to grasp that it all made perfect sense. It just felt right. How does he do that? She mused. I wish I could do it. I have such a hard time with composition and structure, and he does it without hardly thinking about it. Laci let herself come back from her mental exploration of this strange and vibrant room. She looked at her phone and tapped out a text to Emily. OMG! u should see this awesome room @ mr b’s! totally full of funky plants n flowers n pottery smells amazin & soooo beautiful! Gotta show u.” “be there 15 min just left n my moms a poky driver.”

Just as Laci turned to go find her adults, she heard Karen call for her. “Laci-honey? Where’d you wander off to? We have to get busy.”

Immersed in her conversation with Jay, Karen didn’t notice Laci had wandered off somewhere. When she looked around and didn’t see her, she called out, “Laci-honey, where are you called for her.

Laci came bouncing into the kitchen. Before Karen could ask where she’d gone to, Laci bubbled, “Ohmygod Mr. B, what is that room that’s all glass and has, like, a gazillion plants and gorgeous pottery and statues?”

Jay’s face brightened. “Oh jeez, I forgot all about that when I showed you around! It’s the solarium, it’s a sort year ‘round greenhouse where you can go to relax and meditate, even in the middle of a raging snowstorm.”

“It isn’t just a room, Karen,” Laci said, looking at her with wide, sparkling eyes. “The whole thing is… wow! At first it looks like a jungle where the plants live in these gorgeous pottery vases and stuff, from like ancient Egypt and some tribe of, like, Incas, and Japanese and Chinese stuff, at first it looks kinda thrown together, but after a minute or two, you can see there’s a structure to it, it’s a work of art.”

Laci’s excited sketch of the room piqued Karen’s curiosity. The girl’s voice was filled with amazed delight, much as it was when she discovered the bidet that first night in Boston. It made Karen’s heart surge. Laci’s bubbly excitement carried her natural beauty to a higher plane. She’s making my goddamned knees shake, how the hell does she do that? I hold her every night, I sleep next to her, I feed her off my breast and she still makes my knees weak, and for god’s sake it all seems like it must be some wild dream.

It took all of Karen’s considerable self-discipline to not let out a moan, and maintain an amused expression. All she could say was, “Imagine that. It must be pretty impressive to get you this excited.’

“That gets you an A plus,” Jay said with delighted pride. “You’re a born artist. The average person would go in there and think it’s just a massive, random tangle of plants. It’d take them a week to even begin to see there’s nothing random about it, and our little artistic starburst figured it out in, what? Less than five minutes?”

Laci blushed and played coy. “Anybody can see it, not just me. Anyway, how in heck do you water them and stuff? It must take hours and hours!

“Oh goodness sweetie, I don’t water them, I have neither the time nor the inclination. Two students take care of it, one from the botany department, and one from the art department’s design course. They do it as a financial aid work-study job.”

Evan looked up from his phone and announced. “OK folks, we have to get going, the solarium has to wait for another time, The truck’s here.” “The truck?” Laci said, puzzled.

“Yeah, Evan managed to get the school to loan us a truck and a couple of guys from the maintenance department to take the tables and other heavy, bulky stuff down to the plaza and help us with the set up. It’s their contribution to the birth of Williamston’s art scene – we hope.”

“Oh, well thank you Evan,” Laci said. “It’ll make things a lot easier, I was wondering how we were gonna get the tables and stuff down there.” “You’re welcome, sweetie,” Evan said, “But I can’t really take the credit. That goes to the head of the Facility Services department, Gene Pelletier. He graciously offered to do his part, and he’s even bringing a couple of students to help with the grunt work. A little manual labor isn’t a bad thing for the privileged class,” he finished with only a touch of irony.

“Laci dear,” Jay said as they all bustled out toward the dooryard. “Did you bring your portfolio?”

“Course I did, Mr. B,” Laci said with mild surprise.

“I think you’ll have plenty of time to set yourself up before it’s time to work the welcome table. Karen will help.”

When Laci got out of the car, she bounded like a spooked deer over to the group of kids clustered around Mr. B. “Hi guys,” she cried out, skidding to a stop. “Sorry I’m late. I had to wait for my ride.”

“Don’t worry,” Emily said, her dark eyes smiling behind her glasses. “We wouldn’t dream of starting without you. Besides, you’re not late by anyone’s standards but your own.”

“Wise ass,” Laci smiled back, as she gave Em the obligatory greeting hug.

“The Bentley maintenance guys set up the tables and stuff, so all that’s left is unpacking stuff,” Em said.

Laci hugged Mr. B, murmuring, “Thanks, Mr. B – for everything.”

“You deserve it, sweetie. You’ve earned it, and then some.” Jay looked up from Laci at the others and said, “OK people, it’s time to get ready for our grand opening!”

Laci turned to the loose cluster of her fellow clubbers and wordlessly gathered them into a sort of group hug. “OK everyone, we can do this. If we work together, we can pull it off and show the adults how it’s done.”

There was a general murmur of approval from the clubbers as the group dissolved and headed to their individual assignments. “Remember folks,” Mr. B said in parting. “You can set up your own work, but the paid exhibitors get first dibs on your services.”

Laci glanced at her watch. Ten after ten. Things weren’t slated to officially start for another forty-five minutes, but Karen had warned her, people were likely going to start nosing around at any time. She squatted down and pulled a large tote from under the table, and tried to pry the lid off. “Em,” she said, looking around for her friend.

“I’m right behind you.”

“Can you help me pry this fricken lid off?”

“Face it Laci, figuring out how to make things work is never gonna be your forte.”

“What can I say? You’re the engineer gadget person.” One of the things Laci liked about Em was her ability to use a word like ‘forte’ naturally and without coming across as showing off. Laci was proud of her own love of reading and learning about words; she had by now amassed a formidable working vocabulary for a teen just finishing middle school. However, she feared looking like a pompous snoot if she didn’t keep her normal conversations at the typical level of her peers. But with Em, she could let her guard down.

Em squatted down and together they got the lid off. “Hey,” Laci said in a hushed voice. “I don’t have plumber’s butt when I squat down, do I?” Emily laughed aloud. “No, no free shows, though I bet it’ll disappoint a lot of guys. Speaking of guys, did you hear that Joline wants to go hang out with Tim Norton?”

“No! Seriously? Is she nuts? I know he’s kinda cute, but he’s such an a-hole. I heard he pushed Kim when he was dating her, and called her a slut.” They started unpacking the totes while they talked about the intricacies of the middle school social scene, so central to the lives of young teen girls. In no time, the check-in table was set-up. Laci, hands on hips, paused a moment to give everything a final check.

Mr. B pushed her, with Emily as her assistant (“I need something to do so I’ll feel like I’m involved.”) to reach out to other student groups to join in the effort. She raided the vocational immersion program and got the graphics department to design and print the brochures and hand-outs; the IT students set up the wireless network they used to communicate; the building trades set up the wiring, the Law Enforcement and ROTC programs provided students to direct traffic and ensure everyone had what they needed.

At first, walking into a department head’s office, or going to see a teacher in one of the programs intimidated Laci. But then she got her first real lesson in how she could, without any conscious effort, make men squirm and bend to her wishes. She realized it was a feeling she liked very much. Caleb was in the building trades program, and in the art club for wood carving. When Laci (she knew Caleb was crushing hard on her) asked him to make an oak frame for her surprise painting for Judge Macdonald, he was more than happy to oblige.

“Oh my god,” she sighed. “I hope everything turns out OK,” Laci said, her hands clasped in a nod to praying.

“Your butt crack might not be showing,” Em chuckled, “but your nerves sure are. We have over twenty people registered, and, what? Four musicians who plan to play?”

“Yeah, but what if nobody even shows up to see it all?”

“Oh, for cripes sake, will you stop worrying?”

Before she could respond, Laci spied Karen sauntering over with Gail. “Hey,” she brightened. “Here comes Karen and Gail.”

Gail took a pull from her tall cup of iced coffee as she surveyed the rapidly transforming plaza from behind her stylish sunglasses. “By Jesus, they’re really making it happen. Huh.”

“What do you mean, ‘Huh’? You had doubts?”

“Y’know, someday I might learn to not underestimate that girl.”

“Let’s take a walk over and she how she’s holding up. Are you going to stick around and keep me company?”

“Keep you company? There looks to be a volunteer parent for every kid in the club, plus who-knows-how-many kids.”

Karen chuckled. Her crooked smile was more bemused than amused. “I’m finding out that even the artsy, LL Bean set is overflowing with helicopter parents, and they are not easy to warm up to. I need someone to keep me company, so I don’t have to deal with those insufferable assholes.”

“Ah yes, helicopter parents, the scourge of bourgeois America,” Gail said with her usual irony. “Everything’s a competition, can’t just let ‘em have fun. You bet your ass I’ll kick it if you start showing symptoms.”

“Anyway, I don’t relish the idea of having to deal with them by myself all day. Cattiness is not an admirable trait.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll save you. It’s either that or spend the rest of the day working on briefs and making phone calls, and the weather’s too damn nice for that. I need a break, I’ve been straight out since the hearing.”

“That’s why I haven’t heard more than a peep or two from you?”

“Yep, and it isn’t letting up. But!” she said, breaking into a grin and holding her index finger up. “Help may be on the way. I’ve got a plan to shake things up a bit both at the office and after hours.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Is it something to do with all the cryptic girlfriend talk?”

“I’ll tell you more later, but right now I want to see our little artiste and give her a hug.”

Karen shifted her bag on her shoulder and glanced around. “She’s over at the sign-in table setting up.” Just as she said that, Laci looked up from her conversation with Emily. As soon as her eyes found Karen’s, her entire being transformed from normal excitement into beaming, animated delight. Her glowing smile cried I am so happy to see you!

Karen’s breath caught when their eyes met. A visible shudder rippled over her, and the familiar delicious zing went sparkling through her body. Karen’s knees started to feel a bit quivery. My god, that smile is for me, I’m the only one who can make her smile like that, and holy moly I need to be careful before I stagger. It sucks, now I have to put on my public face and keep my hands to myself. I hope to hell my girls don’t start leaking too badly.

As Karen and Laci glided together with their eyes locked, for that brief slice of time all they saw was each other. Karen’s heart did a flip-flop, but she held her composure. Then the moment was gone, and without having to think about it, Karen slid into Mom mode and the sexual feelings eased for a later time. “How’re you doing?” she said with a bright smile.

Laci sighed as if girding her loins. “OK, so far, but nobody’s showed up yet.” She wrapped her arms around Karen and rested her face on her mother-lover’s chest, seeking comfort.

“Nervous?” Karen murmured, wrapping her own arms around Laci and rocking her side to side.

“A little. I want everything to go right, I don’t wanna do something stupid and look like a fool.”

Karen chuckled softly. “Don’t worry, you’re going to do fine. You’re a pretty tough cookie, and damned smart, too. And remember, you’re not in this by yourself. Gail and I will be wandering around if you get into the weeds.”

Laci looked up at Karen, and her exotic green eyes sparkled, making Karen’s breath catch again for an instant. “Promise?” Laci said. “Of course. Would I ever let you sink?”

“What am I Picasso? chopped liver?” Gail interjected. “Don’t I get a hug?”

Laci chuckled and turned as she disengaged from Karen. “You’ve been bad,” she said. “I haven’t seen you even once since my new birthday.”

“Work, sweetie,” Gail said, and they shared a full-on hug. “I’m not all fun and games. There are other Sandra’s out there who need slaying.”

“Hey, you haven’t met my bestie Emily yet,” Laci said, tugging Gail the few steps to where Emily stood. “She’s such a nerd! I know I’m an art nerd, but she’s just a genius nerd, she knows all about the Universe and space stuff, and Newton’s laws – he’s the guy that got bonked on the head by an apple — and she, like enjoys algebra, and she even likes doing Sudoku puzzles! Em, this is our friend Gail, she’s the lawyer who got me outta prison.”

Emily’s eyes sparkled at Laci’s praise. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Emily.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you” Gail said, smiling at Em. “You obviously impressed at least one person.”

“Yeah, well she’s the one who reads books like ‘Oliver Twist’ just for fun.”

“If it weren’t for Em, I never would of passed math this year.”

“Bull… crap,” Emily said, catching herself.

Before either girl could say any more, a female voice said, “Excuse me.”

Laci jumped as if touched by a cattle prod. She whipped around, her eyes wide, and found the owner of the voice.

She was an older woman, clearly of the affluent class, with bright eyes and a gentle smile. “Excuse me,” she repeated, “but is this where I check in?” “Ohmygod!” Laci cried. “I am so sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Yes, this is where you check in.” Her hands were fluttering, bangle bracelets clattering, and for a moment it seemed she might fall apart. But aside from the gushing display of apology for her imagined sin, Laci settled right into her role with grace and irresistible charm.

Karen watched Laci in action, beaming with pride.

“Jesus Christ,” Gail muttered. “That girl could charm a lobster out of its shell. I love her outfit, not necessarily in an innocent way, and those fricken leggings! Hot! You do realize, more people are going to be looking at that ass of hers than the artwork.”

Karen chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, I’m still a little iffy on her dressing like that, but she’s old enough to make her own wardrobe choices. Come on, let’s walk around. I’m sure having us watch over her will only make her more self-conscious.”

“Good idea. I need more coffee.”

Karen crept behind Laci, touched her neck, and said, “Honey, Gail and I are going to walk around and see what there is to see. Just send me a quick text if you get in the weeds.”

“OK,” Laci said, looking up. By now, exhibitors were arriving in force.

“Don’t you even try to handle this yourself. Get help. Remember, part of being a good leader is learning to delegate.”

“I know, I’m not gonna try to do it alone.” As if to prove her point, she turned her head and said, “Sarah, can you give me a hand signing people in?” “I’m going to leave my bag here next to yours,” Karen said, “and take just my purse. Keep an eye on it for me?” Karen retrieved her purse from the large shoulder bag before siding it under the table. While she was at it, she grabbed a spare “Volunteer” ID badge and handed it to Gail. “Here, you’ve volunteered to help,” Karen said as they left Laci to her work.

“What are you talking about?”

“You just volunteered to help.”

“Volunteer to do what? I don’t know what the hell is going on.”

“Smile and keep me company. People looking at her ass? What about your ass, you think that isn’t going to attract attention.”

“How do you do that to me? Why do I let you drag me into these things? I’d tell just about anyone else to fuck off, y’know.”

They reached the deli. “Yes, I do know that, but I’m special. How do you want your coffee, I’m buying.”

“There’s a French roasted Columbian, and an Italian roast Kenyan, and a Kona blend,” the vendor said with cheer. “Hot or cold brew iced.”

“I’ll have a large cold brew French roast with a squirt of simple syrup and a dash of real cream,” Karen said, taking out her wallet.

“I’ll get the next one. Black Columbian for me.”

Coffees in hand, they resumed their stroll. “Really, I’m serious. They don’t say it directly, but those helicopter parents leave no doubt that kids from Laci’s world are a threat to their own precious progeny. Passive-aggressive back-stabbing bitches. They better understand who they’re screwing with. I will not let them try to push Laci back.”

“So that’s what I’m missing because I’m a dyke who doesn’t want kids. Well Mama Cougar, it doesn’t strike me she needs much defending. She handles herself quite well when she’s challenged, thank-you-very-much.”

“Yeah, I know, but it annoys the shit out of me. I was naïve enough to think middle school and high school social cliques would be cured by adulthood, but my bubble’s been burst.”

“No, cliques don’t go away with high school, they just get transferred to careers and kids. Pity the ones who have to deal with them every day.” Karen simply grunted. She shifted gears and changed the subject. “You think Judge MacDonald will really show up?”

Gail chuckled. “Of course, he’ll show up, no question. She’s one of his special ones. Don’t underestimate how much it drags a person down to have to deal with all the misery he sees every week. She’s one who isn’t just getting by, she’s thriving. He wouldn’t miss this for a million bucks.”

“We ought to see if there’s anything we can do to help instead of just walking around with our thumbs in our bums and our minds in neutral,” Karen said, looking around the plaza.

“You keep bringing up this ‘we’ thing.”

“Shut your yap and get your Wellies on.”

With Laci’s attention focused elsewhere, Karen’s face took on an impish Snidely Whiplash expression, and she crept up behind the preoccupied girl. When she saw an opening, she carefully reached around and covered Laci’s eyes with her hands, crying out, “Boo!” She got the hoped-for reaction: Laci let out a sharp, startled squeal and jumped what seemed like half a foot.

“Gotcha!” Karen cackled. How lame that she had to resort to lame actions to startle her love. There were plenty of other ways she could have used her hands. She wanted to grab Laci’s butt, or even wrap her in a hug and say, “Guess who?” or, the ultimate in wishful thinking, kissing her neck. Just have to live with it until we get home she mentally sighed. Outwardly, Karen chuckled.

“Karen!” Laci cried with attempted indignation. “What are you trying to do? Gimme a heart attack or something?”

Gail couldn’t suppress a snort, and that led to full laughter. People standing around the tables sniggered, some with amusement, others with relief. “Priceless, sweetie,” she said through her giggles. “I wish I had my cellphone on.”

“Tch. Gail,” Laci said in her best I’m-hurt voice. “Stop picking on me.”

“I’m not picking on you. Laughing? You betcha sweet bippy,” an unrepentant Gail chuckled.

“I was trying to get your attention,” Karen explained through one of her many smiles, “and short of doing something we’d regret, it was the best way I could think of.”

“You have my attention, trust me.”

“How’re you managing? It seems like you have everything under control.”

“Yeah, pretty much so far. It’s been wicked busy.”

“As Grampy Cy used to say, busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest,” Karen chuckled.

“Did he really?” Laci said through a laugh. Her eyes sparkled like gemstones, giving away her fascination with a man she’d never met except through Karen’s words. “Where did he come up with these sayings and stuff?”

“Oh, here, there, and everywhere. Listen honey, you need a break. How about I take over here for a while so you, Ashley, and Emily can go set up your own stations.”

“Holy moly,” Laci said, glancing at her watch. “I guess we lost track of time.”

Karen opened her purse. “Do you girls need some money to get lunch?”

“I don’t think we have time,” Laci sighed.

“I do,” Emily said. “I don’t have an exhibit, remember? I can go get it.”

“Really? You don’t mind?”

“Course not. Where you want it from?”

“Karen, isn’t that the place that has poutine?” Laci said, pointing at the deli they’d eaten at the day of Judge Macdonald’s ruling.

“Sure is,” Karen said, as she extracted three crisp twenties from her wallet.

Ashley scowled. “What the heck is poo-teen? Sounds scary.”

Emily furrowed her brow. “Isn’t it, like, fries and gravy or something?”

“Kinda,” Laci explained. “It’s fries and gravy with cheese curds, which is, like, cheese just before it becomes cheese, or something. It’s awesome, you guys ought to try it, you won’t be sorry.”

Emily shrugged and said, “I’m game, I’ll try anything twice.”

Ashley gave a resigned sigh. “I guess I’ll give it a try, too. But can I get half an Italian sandwich, just in case?”

“Sure,” Laci said. She handed Emily the sixty dollars and said, “There you go.”

“Jeezum crow, I doubt I’m gonna need this much money.”

“Just in case. Are you gonna write the orders down, or will you remember them?”

“I’ll remember them as long as nobody overdoes it.”

Orders given, Emily took off on her missions. Laci turned and bounced over to Karen, and wrapped her in a hug. “I’m so excited! We’ve already had way more people coming to check us out than I ever expected.”

“Ya done good, girl,” Karen said, rocking Laci side to side. “You put a lot of time and effort into this, and now you’re seeing what hard work and dedication bring. Now, go,” she said, releasing her love. “Get yourself set up and eat something.”

“I wish I could kiss you,” Laci murmured.

“Later baby, then we can do all kinds of kissing,” Karen murmured back.

“You’re so naughty! Thank god.” Her bright smile was impishly provocative. Before Karen could answer, Laci said, “Bye, come over when you can,” and she was off, scampering toward her display area.

“There she goes,” Gail said. “The Girl from Ipanema.”

“Ha!” Karen cried. “I never thought of it like that, but you’re spot on. Jesus, you can almost see everyone going Ahhh.”

Indeed, it seemed she drew all eyes, male and female, as she leggily trotted by, and all those gazes lingered. “I wish she’d go to law school someday. It would take her, what? Twelve or so years from now? I’d quit and open my own practice – I’ll only be in my forties. We could make a very formidable three-woman legal team.”

“Three women? What, do you have a mouse in your pocket? Who’re you talking about?”

Gail shrugged, her expression puckish. “Denise Ashton.”

“Denise Ashton,” Karen said, shaking her head as if to clear it of cobwebs. “What the hell, isn’t she Sandra’s lawyer?”

“Yup, for now. The scuttlebutt says she’s going to file a petition for removal from the case. She’s a very good lawyer stuck in a dead-end career, so I don’t blame her if she really is disillusioned. I’m going to corner her and find out.”

“Ahhh, now I get it. This mysterious potential relationship of yours, she’s the one. Is she gay?”

Gail shrugged again. “I never thought so, but she has a crush on me so she’s probably bi and I’ve caused her to see the error of her ways.”

“Are you really going to ask her out?”

“Eventually. I have plans in mind. That’s all I’m gonna say for now.”

“There’s no doubt about it now, you are a frigging wench.”

“And what’s wrong with that? I’m big-time horny.”

“So, it’s not only men who think with their crotch.”

“Oh, for god’s sake, I’m not just looking to get laid. I want a relationship, I’m too fricken old to be hooking up with tatted-up college kids with crewcuts, and suburban soccer moms playing while soccer dad is away.”

Karen sighed. “At least your intentions are good.”

“Wench yes, slut no.”

It was hard to distinguish one head from another in the small throng of visitors. But then something – a small something – caught Laci’s eye. Even on her tippy-toes she still wasn’t quite tall enough to see over the crowd. She was growling with frustration when an idea popped into her head. She grabbed hold of one of the stackable metal and plastic chairs and dragged it out. “Hey Em,” she called. “Come over here and help me.” “Tig, what on earth are you doing?” Emily said with a puzzled smile.

Laci pushed the chair close to where the crowd of visitors began. “Never mind, just get over here.”

“You are so weird,” Em said, shaking her head, but she went to help Laci with whatever scheme she had in mind.

“I’m not tall enough to see over everyone, and I’m looking for someone, and I thought I saw him. All I want you to do is hold this chair, so it doesn’t wiggle,” Laci said. Without giving Emily a chance to refuse, Laci held out her hand and waggled it. “But first, take my hand.”

“Why?” Emily said frowned, but she didn’t argue the point.

“To steady me,” Laci said. When Em took her hand, Laci planted a foot flat on the seat and climbed up. “Just hold the chair.”

“Make sure you keep your ass out of my face. And be careful. This is a two-person operation here, and I want to leave in one piece. And ‘member, Tig, Tiggers don’t bounce on pavement.”

“T-I-double-grr-err. Just do your part and we’ll be fine,” Laci said as she focused her attention on where she caught the glimpse. The new vantage point helped, and in no time, it bore fruit. A burst of gleeful excitement surged through her. She did her excited bouncing dance while clapping her fists together.

Laci jumped off the chair and said, “Keep an eye on things, Em, I won’t be long.” She darted off before Emily could protest.

He was with his wife, and they were at an exhibitor’s table of hand-crafted jewelry. She made her way through the clusters of visitors until she reached him. He was looking away from her. She suddenly realized she didn’t know how to address him, so she used what came naturally. “Umm, Judge Macdonald?” she said in a small, almost apologetic voice.

He turned to her voice, smiling as he said, “Well there she is.”

Laci, her eyes wide and sparkling, her face radiant, wasn’t sure what to do. She wanted to give him a hug, not a handshake, but was it OK to do that? She didn’t worry about manners the first time, so why worry now? Squealing with delight, Laci wrapped him in a hug. “Thank you for coming,” she said with soft urgency. “I was afraid you’d forget.”

Macdonald chuckled and gave her shoulders a quick but firm squeeze. “Me forget? Remember, I said wild horses couldn’t keep me away, and I sure don’t hear any galloping hooves.”

His voice was as she remembered it, warm and affectionate, yet firm and authoritative like a patriarch. It took her a split second to realize he’d made a small joke, but when she got it she snickered. “I kept looking and looking, and I didn’t see you, so I started to get a little nervous.”

“My wife and I… oh my, it seems I’ve forgotten my manners, I haven’t introduced you yet. Laci, this my beautiful and infinitely patient wife, Alice. Alice, this is the lovely budding young artist I talked to you about, Laci.”

From across the plaza, Karen’s casually scanned the impressive crowd of visitors. When her gaze fell on Laci in an animated conversation with Macdonald, she stiffened. “Holy shit,” she hissed.

“What is it with you and these out-of-the-blue ‘holy shits’ lately,” Gail said before slurping the last of her coffee.

“It’s Laci, she’s talking to Judge Macdonald. It might be a good idea to get our asses over there, so he doesn’t think she’s been abandoned to her fate.”

“You and hyperbole are good friends, aren’t you? Might as well, though, it never hurts to get brownie points when the chance presents.”

A warm swell of pride rose up over Karen as she watched Laci in action. Her hands were fluttering about, her face glowing, captivating the judge and his wife.

As if reading her mind, Gail piped up, “Goddamn, that girl could charm the white off a polar bear.”

Karen laughed. “That’s an interesting way to put it.”

“Is this the reveal for the mysterious thing behind curtain number one?”

“I think so. She wouldn’t say more than it was for someone special, and I don’t know anyone else who might fit that category.”

“Then we’d better get our asses in gear.”

“Darn,” Macdonald sighed with genuine dismay. “It looks like you’re all sold out. I knew we shouldn’t have gone antiquing first.”

“No wait,” Laci cried. “There’s one left, and it isn’t for sale,” she said, stepping up to the easel. Her insides tingled, partly with nervousness that he’d hate it, and partly with excitement at finally showing what she’d done. So far, Mrs. Alberghetti was the only person who’d seen it – had, in fact, played a big role in its completion. She gave Laci private studio space to work, monitored her progress, gave her tips, and offered positive criticism. Mrs. Alberghetti said the final product was “impressive to say the least.”

Laci felt ready to explode as she grabbed the old beach towel covering the canvas. “Ready?” she said, her voice breathlessly excited. When he nodded sagely, and said, “I’m all eyes,” Laci ripped the towel off, finally revealing her surprise.

It was an acrylic on canvas, a portrait of her and Karen in a pose mimicking “Mrs. Fiske-Warren and her Daughter Rachel,” but with modifications. The setting was Gail’s office, and instead of a throne-like chair, both she and Karen sat on one of the Queen Anne settees with their backs to the big bookcase with its intimidating legal tomes. Karen sat in a similar but more relaxed pose than the eponymous Mrs. Fiske-Warren, and she wore one of her own enigmatic smiles. In Laci’s painted image of herself, she wasn’t staring into space, but looking more directly at the artist, contentedly nestled close to Karen. A custom frame made of oak crown molding surrounded the canvas.

Laci watched Macdonald closely, her hands clasped as if in prayer, waiting for his reaction. He took in the painting without comment, studying it, trying to avoid an insincere knee-jerk reaction. His wife Alice studied it with at least as much concentration as the Judge.

At last Macdonald, stroking his chin, looked at Laci. “You painted this,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. “And you didn’t start painting until last winter?” “Uh huh,” Laci mumbled. Surely, he hated it, it was too amateurish, or just plain ugly.

“Extraordinary,” he murmured. “Wouldn’t you say so, dear?” he said to Alice.

“Oh my goodness,” Mrs. Macdonald murmured. “I’ll say it’s extraordinary.” She looked at Laci, her eyes beaming. “You, my dear, are unquestionably a prodigy. Where did the frame come from? It’s beautiful!”

“Oh, that was made by my friend Caleb, he’s in the club, he likes to do wood carvings and stuff, and he’s wicked good. He’s also in the Vo Tech program, the carpentry thing. He said he’d love to make one for me, he likes doing fine detail work and stuff, and he doesn’t give me the creeps, but he is crushing on me, even though he’s not weird about it, I can tell.”

“And to think,” the Judge said softly, “It was all almost thrown away, gobbled up by the streets. Now I really regret not seeing the things you already sold today.”

“You don’t need to buy anything,” she said, and she could no longer suppress the urge to bounce on her tippy-toes. “It’s already yours. If you want it.”

“Mine? How much are you asking for it?”

“Nothing,” Laci said with a frown. “I don’t want money for it. Remember that day I said I’d have a surprise for you? This is it.”

“Laci, dear, I can’t just accept this…”

Laci sighed with a tiny hint of frustration. “If you have to, why don’t you donate some money to the art club. We always need supplies, and I think we’re gonna try to take a field trip to the Museum of Fine Art next winter, wouldn’t that be cool? Karen took me there already, and I hardly had time to see anything, but the stuff I did see, it was like, wow, this is what I need to do.”

Macdonald, his eyes twinkling, sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. “OK, young lady, you win, I know when I’m beat. I’ll donate to the art club.” He looked at the painting again and murmured, “Extraordinary. Laci, you are going to leave your mark on this world.”

Laci blushed furiously. “I just like painting, I have so much stuff running around in my head.”

“I can see that. Well, Ms. Laci, you’ve convinced me. I need to get off my duff and start doing my part to get this town’s cultural scene going; art, music, drama, literature. Towns need culture to thrive in the twenty-first century. Right now, we’re essentially a cultural wasteland. I told Alice we needed a project, and this is the one I want to put my energy into.”

Just then, Karen and Gail came sauntering over. “Well look at what the cat dragged in,” Gail said cheerily.

“Ah, there’s that inimitable force of nature otherwise known as Gail Wright, attorney at law.”

“Hello Gail,” Alice said, giving Gail a quick hug and cheek peck. “Kenneth said he thought you’d be here.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the contents of Fort Knox. She put me to work,” she said, indicating Karen with her thumb. “We were off volunteering, so we didn’t get here sooner. By the way, before you guys think I’m being rude, Alice, this is my buddy and Laci’s foster mom, Karen Nelson. Karen, this is Alice Macdonald, Hizzoner’s’ wife.”

Karen offered her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” Karen said. Alice, Karen noted, was a very attractive and supremely self-confidant woman of at least seventy, yet she looked a fit and healthy fifty. She seemed quiet and reserved, not the type to get worked up over much of anything, yet Karen doubted she had trouble being a bitch when needed. Karen could see the two of them working well together if ever needed, or even forming a deeper friendship over time.

“Karen!” Laci interjected. “Judge Macdonald says he wants me to help him start working to get, like the city and businesses and stuff to start understanding how important art is! I’m serious!”

“I was telling our young shining star that Alice and I have talked about giving back to the community, but how? Crossing paths with Laci was my epiphany. If a teenage girl from the more derelict part of town can create a downtown art festival out of whole cloth, then I owe at least that much to her. As art lovers, it’s the perfect cause – relevant, deeply beneficial for the community, but not an easy sell. Now it’s a matter of finding the ball to get rolling.”

“Really,” Karen said. It was an unexpected, yet unsurprising at the same time. If she was going to be involved in some project Laci inspired, then Macdonald was the kind of person she wanted to work with. “Well I can’t think of a more encouraging bit of news. I guess this whole thing is going to be a bit more than a young artist learning her passion.”

“Yeah Karen,” Laci said, trying to sound mature and in control. “Isn’t that so cool? It’s about time Baytown got a little competition, and I’m gonna help.” The pride and excitement in her voice was unmistakable.

Karen’s swelled with her own pride for her precious lover. “My amazing little artiste. You know, I haven’t seen that painting yet,” Karen said stepping up to the easel. “She’s been all secret about this. She did most of it at her tutor’s studio, so I wouldn’t sneak a peek – I guess she doesn’t trust me.” She scanned the painting.

It truly was amazing to Karen. She recognized at once that it was a portrait of Laci and her in essentially the same pose as the Fiske-Warren painting. Laci used the same basic technique as the original – soft strokes and layers giving it more detail the further back one stood. “Marie tells me she’s doing the work you’d expect of a senior in AP Art most likely going to an Ivy League school as an art major,” Karen said, not bothering to hide her pride.

“At least,” Macdonald said. “She’s given me a jolt, that’s for sure. I have no doubt we’ll be working together soon enough,” he said, looking at Karen with firm certainty, “once we can find a ball to get rolling. This is going to need leaders, and I have no doubt you fall into that category.”

Karen looked back at him with a resigned but sparkled eyed smile that told him she understood. Being in charge clearly came naturally to Macdonald. He was a doer rather than a hand-wringer, someone who made things happen, proactive rather than reactive. He had it, that unexplainable something that made people want to follow him. If she was going to take part in some vague civic revitalization scheme, she expected someone like Judge Macdonald to step up and take the lead. She’d do what she could, but she had no desire to run anything. She held her hand out. “I’m in, as much as possible. ‘One for all, and all for… Williamston?”

“Williamston! Hey, maybe we have a motto. Nice start, Madam Dumas.”

“Thank you,” Karen said a small, playful curtsey.

“Alice, dear,” Macdonald said, turning to his wife. “Do you have any of your business cards with you? One with a number Ms. Nelson can reach me – us – off the clock.”

“Of course I do, Kenneth. I swear, if your head wasn’t….” she trailed off with a smile. She pulled out a business card and handed it to Karen. It was simple and to the point: “Alice Macdonald, Certified Event Planner. 40 Years’ Experience. Bridal Showers to Three-Day Seminars. Let us do the worrying.” At the bottom was a cell-phone number.

“Thank you,” Karen said, mildly puzzled.

“The number is my cellphone. He doesn’t do cellphones except where absolutely necessary. If you need to reach him once the… project gets moving, call me and I’ll track him down.”

“From the looks of this, I’d guess he’s used your professional skills more than once.” “You don’t know the half of it.”

Things were clearly winding down when Justice Macdonald, carefully carrying his new work of art, left Karen, Laci, and Gail behind. “I have to go talk to him,” Gail said. “Wait here.”

“Where am I supposed to go?” Karen answered with playful sarcasm.

“Shut up and wait.” Gail trotted off, calling, “Judge Macdonald, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Macdonald stopped and turned to her voice. “Yes Gail, what can I do for you?”

Using her first name rather than “Ms. Wright” was a good sign. When she caught up, Gail said, “I wanted to catch you before you got away,” she said. “I have a question to ask you, and I’m not sure whether you can answer it.”

“There’s no way to find out without asking.”

Gail took a deep breath. “Are you familiar with Denise Ashton, the public defender attorney?”

Macdonald scowled slightly. “Yes, I know her. Not well, but she’s tried cases before me, made arguments for appeals, the usual stuff.”

“What’s your take on her ability? I know I’m stretching things a little asking you that, but my motives are pure as the new fallen snow,” she said with a coquettish pout that made Macdonald chuckle.

“It’s fine as long as it’s between you, me, and Alice. I think she’s a fine attorney, she’s always been well-prepared, and her arguments clear and pertinent. If I remember correctly, she’s a graduate of Georgetown Law, and she clerked for a justice of the Maryland Supreme Court. Isn’t she Laci’s biological mother’s attorney?”

“Yup, she is.”

“Why all the questions?”

“I’ve heard through the rumor mill that’s she’s not happy with her current practice – you no doubt know as well as I do that public defenders get paid bupkis —- and she wants to change her career path. I’ve also heard her interest is family law. This is all speculation, but my sources are good.” Gail looked up at Macdonald, her face earnest. No fooling around when talking to judges.

“I’ve been after the partners for almost a year to recruit a new attorney to be my assistant. My caseload is unbelievable. I just about have them convinced. I’m hoping to talk to Denise next week and get the scoop on her thoughts directly from the source. If I have confidence that she can do the work, and if she’s open to it, I’ll go to the partners and see if offering a good candidate pushes them to get me some help, and they’re open to meeting with her.”

Macdonald chuckled again. “I’m glad to help, although I can’t say I did much. I think she’d make a fine family law attorney. It does seem a bit of a shame that an attorney with so much potential is trapped on the public defender treadmill. Not unlike our little bundle of artistic energy.”

“I mean, last year this time, she was six or seven blocks over on the Tree Streets, and involved in seriously dangerous behaviors: smoking, drinking, pot, shoplifting, all the stuff a girl her age needs to do to survive in that world. Yet she managed to maintain an honor roll GPA again and again. Who knew there was so much locked away inside her. And she’s drop-dead gorgeous, so she has to learn that most guys will be more interested in her ass and they’ll treat her accordingly. It’ll take time to lose the – her words – slum-bitch loser reputation. Look, you have no idea how ruthless the middle school girls can be to an outsider or non-conformist. And it doesn’t end with high school. I’ve been dealing with it since law school.”

“It’s obvious Miss Laci can handle herself very well. I’m astonished at her skills right out of the box.” Macdonald scanned the painting and shook his in admiration. “This is simply amazing. It really touched me, and profoundly at that. It’s going to be the centerpiece of my, umm, collection, such as it is.”

“Did she sign it?”

“Oh dear, I must be slipping. I didn’t check,” Macdonald said, deftly whipping out his reading glasses in a perching them at the end of his nose. It only took a quick scan before he said, “Bingo. She did indeed, there, the lower right corner.”

It was an unobtrusive Laci in a whimsical script, all but invisible to the casual observer. Gail scanned the painting. “Oh yeah, I see it. Hey! You better take care of this, it’s signed. You know what that means, don’t you? You’re her first patron!”

“I guess I am.”

They both looked at Laci across the Plaza. She fluttered from one spot to the next like a pink butterfly in search of flowers. Her hands and body language spoke their own eloquent language. It wasn’t just Laci who was excited. She was simply the most visible and animated of a vibrantly excited conglomeration of kids.

Gail said, her delight clear, “Most girls that gorgeous would be snotty little entitled bitches – sorry, for some reason it ticks me off.”

“What about you?” Macdonald said, eyeing her with playful suspicion. “Were you a snotty, entitled little so and so in high school?”

“Me? No,” Gail said, shaking her head. “I was an academic nerd, no, seriously, I was. I wasn’t much into dating because, well… I didn’t like boys the same way most girls like boys, and no girl caught my attention. So, I studied.”

“It turned out well.”

Gail watched admiringly as Laci continued flitting from one cluster of friends to another, sharing her excitement with everyone. “She does have a way of restoring your faith in humanity. The thing is, that’s the way she normally is, it’s no act. She is such an absolute joy to be around.”

Macdonald chuckled. “She’s special,” he admitted. “You know as well as I do how the work can wear you down and turn you cynical. Then a Laci comes along who… You know, back when I was in law school, a professor I greatly admired told me that one ‘Aw shit,’ wipes out a thousand ‘Atta boys.’ Well, the converse is also true. One Laci wipes out a thousand ‘close enoughs.’ She’s going to be one of my treasured ones. I’m truly looking forward to working with her on something so important.”

He looked directly at Gail with a stern gaze. “Now remember young lady, none of this conversation is for outside consumption. I’m trusting you.” An unexpected surge of pride washed over Gail at Macdonald expressing trust in her. She wouldn’t violate it. “No one, cross my heart, hope to die,” she said, crossing her heart.

“Gail Wright, you are one of a kind.”

“I know,” Gail said with sweet innocence.

Before Karen could follow behind Gail, Marie Alberghetti stopped her. She hadn’t seen Laci’s teacher all day. “Karen,” Marie called. They shared a quick hug.

“Hi Marie,” Karen said. “Quite the day, huh?”

“Wow, I’ll say! It could be a game-changer as far as this town’s relationship with anything cultural. She has no clue how big an impact she’s made. She is amazing, Karen. I don’t think I’ve ever run across anyone with as much raw talent as she has.”

“She takes it all very seriously. She’s passionate, and she loves her sessions with you. She really enjoys being challenged to push herself, and you do that to her.”

Marie laughed. “It’s good to know I’m making a difference. This summer, I want her to do some sketch studies, come up with a theme that tells a story, and then turn it into an oil painting – I want her to start focusing on oils for a while. I’d also like to do some work on the academic side this summer – a little Western art history to start, maybe begin to get into the various movements.”

“Good, she needs a project for the summer. I’ve given her a flower garden to tend and make her own.”

“That’s a perfect project for her. It’s just another way of artistic expression. I meant to tell you, I spoke with Evan a little while ago about Laci informally taking one of my intro to classes for kids thinking about taking art as a minor, more advanced than a standard humanities elective, but not quite as advanced as what the art majors get. She won’t be graded, but she will be expected to keep up with the class.”

“Are you serious?” Karen said, eyes widening. “Do you think she can handle it?”

“Sure, as long as she puts in the effort. I think exposure to older kids who have more than a passing interest in art will do wonders for her. Evan is all for it. All I need is your OK. And her, I haven’t spoken to her about it yet, but that’s a formality.”

Watching Laci in action, and hearing Marie sing her praises, had a decidedly sexual effect on Karen. Her tummy swirled, and she grew tingly, and images of them making love to each other with their eyes, while they did a slow, sensuous dance to some smoky, sultry jazz rolled across her inner landscape. Karen sighed. Just a few more hours. “I’m all in. I know she will be. You know, Marie, I do worry a bit that we’re overloading her plate and asking so much of her. I don’t want to set her up to fail. Come fall, she’ll have AP art, the club, and she’s already worked up about bullies and doing something about them, then there’s you, her chores at home, social time, and come September as very challenging course load. It’s a big leap for someone who was on the verge of being swallowed up by the streets, if not killed by her mother first.”

“Most of Bentley kids come from very affluent lives,” Marie observed dryly. “To most of them, a tragedy is any grade from high school that wasn’t a B or better, hardship is their car breaking down. None came from the shit-hole Laci did. Karen, the girl is amazing.”

“There’s no doubt about that. Now the trick is keeping her engaged and focused without overwhelming her.”

“I doubt that’ll be a problem,” Marie chuckled. “I think she’s found her role in life.”

“Once the art Genie got out, it was game on, get outta my way World,” Karen said with a crooked smile.

“She gets attention through her looks, but it doesn’t take very long before to realize she’s no bubble-headed bleach blond, there’s a gold mine of substance there.”

“I guess things are wrapping up,” Karen said as she watched Gail and Judge Kennedy part ways. “I need to corral my two other halves and get things broken down. Are you coming to the party at TGI Fridays after we wrap everything up?”

“I’m planning on it.”

“Good, I was hoping you’d say that. What about the pool party at my place tomorrow?”

“Don’t push your luck,” Marie laughed.

Emily came up behind her. “Hey Tigger, we’re starting to pack up, you coming to help?”

“Just a sec. I want to say goodbye to Judge Macdonald.” Laci darted off, her hair streaming out behind her. She kept her eyes on Judge Macdonald and his wife as they strolled away, talking to each other, in no apparent rush. When she got close, she slowed to a trot and called out, “Judge Macdonald.”

He turned around, saying, “I hear a familiar voice. Ahhh yes, the lovely and talented Miss Laci Harper. What can I do for you?”

“Can I see you for a sec?” She came to a stop when she reached him.

“Of course you can. What’s up? By the way, you don’t need to call me ‘Judge’ when we’re outside the courtroom, ‘Mr.’ is perfectly fine.”

Laci blushed and chastised herself for not realizing that, but how was she supposed to know these things? “Oh, OK, I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to be rude or anything.”

Macdonald chuckled. “Not to worry, I doubt you have a rude bone in your body.”

“Ummm, I just wanted to say thank you again. You don’t know how much it means to me that you came today. I, uh, didn’t think someone important like a judge would even care about us.”

Macdonald chuckled again. “I care about art, and I care about you, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Laci hadn’t tracked Macdonald down just to say goodbye. She had an underlying reason, but it made her stomach buzz like a beehive. She wasn’t sure how she was going to talk about her semi-mission, but she unconsciously knew she’d figure it out. She blushed and fidgeted. “I, umm, wanted to say thank you again for coming, and, you know, to say good bye and stuff. But I wanted to ask you what you meant when you were talking about working together and finding a ball to get rolling?”

Macdonald carefully put painting on the now-empty trestle table next to him, folded his arms, and thoughtfully stroked his chin. “Alice and I have chewed this over almost since the day of your hearing when I first learned about your festival project. I’ve been living here for over forty years, I moved here after law school – those were the days when wives followed their husbands wherever his career took them – and opened a criminal law practice. This would be back in the early to mid-seventies, when the mills and shoe shops were still running, that’s where the jobs still were. It was a bustling little place,” he continued wistfully. “There was always something to do besides sit around watching TV hour after mind numbing hour. A dozen neighborhood movie theaters, amateur theater, music, eating out, sports.

“Now? Not nearly as much. An excellent public library, a solid theater culture, and we have that beautiful new performance center in the old St. Jude’s church, just waiting for business. But almost no nightlife for my younger colleagues – and I don’t mean the Black Bucket kind, either…” When she heard Macdonald refer to the Black Bucket, she burst out laughing, which she sensed was his point. The Black Bucket Tavern was notorious as raucous neighborhood beer joint giving drunks like her mother (ex-mother, she thought) a place to hang out. Legend had it that there was at least one fight a night behind it doors, but they were handled in-house unless knives or guns came into play. “How do you know about the Black Bucket? I mean, I lived there!”

“Before I retired, and I was still involved in criminal court, I learned all about such fine local nightlife. It’s not exactly the kind of culture a prospective business owner is looking for.”

“No doubt,” Laci said with a wide smile. “My M… ex-mother used to hang out there when her state check came in, it’s a fricken dump.” Oh crap, is ‘fricken’ a swear? Is he gonna think I’m still a punk? She watched his reaction to her slip, and it didn’t seem like he even noticed.

“This town has a reputation in other towns as a den of iniquity – do you know what that means?”

“Yeah,” Laci said with the same wide smile. “A dump.”

Macdonald chuckled. “That’s one way of looking at it. Anyway, it’s an unfair reputation, and the only hope of changing it is to give people from out of town a reason to come here in the first place. That’s the ball I’d like to get rolling. Which way will it roll? We need to get it moving first. And it’s not going to be a quick or an easy process. But, we have to start somewhere, and it’s always best to begin at the beginning.”

He has a wicked sense of humor, the grownup kind, she thought with delight. And he’s not treating me like a dumbass, like he just figures I’ll get it, and I do, that’s the cool part. Now I have to act mature and not talk like I’m stupid. “Where’s the beginning?”

“Next week I’m going to start making calls, see what kind of interest there is. I’m going to need some allies, someone besides Alice, and Karen, and even Gail, but especially you. I’m not sure how yet, but I think I’ll have a little project for you by the end of the week. If you’re interested, that is.”

Yet another burst of pride washed over Laci. “Interested! Tell me what to do, and it’ll get done.”

“I knew I had at least one person – besides Alice – I could count on. Speaking of you dear,” he said glancing at his amused wife. “Don’t you think she should have one of your cards with my email address on it?”

“We’re going to need to get you your own if you’re going to have a project,” Alice said, as she put one of her cards on the table and wrote down his email.

“I’ll leave that in your expert hands.”

“That, and a lot of other organizing details. Organization is not one of Kenneth’s strong suits,” she said with an affectionate smile as she handed Laci the card with his email address.

Her insides swelled with pride. She had an actual judge’s email address, and that because she – Laci Harper, one-time slum-bitch loser – was going to be intimately involved in something so important to her community. It was deeply meaningful but, she suspected, very complicated and political, very… adult. The card and the tacit invitation that came with bespoke a level of trust that made Laci tingle. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“You’re welcome dear,” he said. “We’re going to need to stay in touch. What I’d like to do is start reaching out to folks and gauge the level of interest out there. Then, perhaps Saturday we can get together somewhere, you Laci, Karen, me, Alice, even Gail – she needs to be more involved in the community anyway – and maybe a couple of folks from the business community, and I’ll lay out some preliminary ideas. You should put your energetic noggin to work thinking of ways the community can start developing an art scene. Do you think you could do that?”

“Me? Laci said, surprised. “Sure, of course I can, but me? I’m only a kid, who’s gonna listen to me?”

“More people than you realize. Besides dear, I truly believe we must involve people your age, high school students and younger in the process. That’s where the ideas are, that’s where you’ll find the idealists, people who take it to heart in a personal way. So yes, you and some of your classmates might find yourselves very busy. This summer, it’ll just be you.”

“Kenneth!” Alice scolded. “You’ve all but taken over this girl’s summer and put her to work without once asking her if she’s a willing participant in any of your schemes.”

Before the judge could say anything, Laci quickly cried out, “I don’t mind! Really, I want to help. It’s, like, important to me.”

“See?” Macdonald said with sly triumph – all in play. Funny, Laci observed, how older couples said so much to each without speaking a word. “So,” he said with finality. “I’ll email you on Friday. You might want to tell Karen and Gail I’ll be sending copies to them, too. What I need you to do before we gather is,” he said with a tiny pregnant pause, “nothing at all. Rest. Have fun. Hang out with your friends. Think! It’s summer break, celebrate. You’ve earned every bit of it.”

Laci smiled brightly. “Not quite yet, we still have school til Wednesday, but we don’t have anything to do, I think it’s stupid to make school last until the middle of June. There isn’t a law against that, is there?” she asked with sweet innocence.

“That, young lady, would be a ‘No,’ there are no laws ‘against that,’ even if I agree with the sentiment.”

“It didn’t hurt to ask. It seems kinda pointless. But from Thursday on, it summer vacation! Did you know we’re having a pool party for everyone in the club tomorrow, a kind of a celebration party. We have a pool at our house, and we’re gonna have burgers and stuff. Do you guys wanna come?” Her eyes widened at the prospect. “Karen and a bunch of the moms and dad will be there, too?”

“No, I’m sorry dear. We’d love to, but we already have other plans for tomorrow. Besides, you and your friends really do not want to see an old duffer with bony knees and varicose veins come to play in the pool.”

Laci laughed, delighted again at the Judge’s sly, adult sense of humor. There was something about Macdonald’s warm, firm demeanor that comforted Laci. “Well, if you change your mind… you can even bring your rubber ducky!”

Macdonald and Alice laughed delightedly, perhaps a bit taken aback by Laci’s little joke. “Well, on that note. I’ll be in touch by the end of the week.” Laci wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you. You really don’t know how much it meant to me to have you show up.”

“You’re welcome. And Laci, thank you for the painting. It’s the best gift I’ve received in a long time.”

Blushing and squirming inside, she managed, “I’d hoped you’d like it.” She released him and quickly turned to Alice, and gave her the same hug. “Thank you. And it’s so wonderful to meet you.”

“And I’m delighted to meet you,” she murmured. “You are an extraordinary young lady. I’m looking forward to working with you, dear.”

All the praises being sung about her still bemused Laci. It was a lot to live up to. This wasn’t raising money for an elementary school fundraiser. This was real, adult work, something that could totally change the fabric of the town, and she was one of the founders of whatever came of all this. “I’m anxious to work with both of you.’ She kissed Alice’s cheek, and motioned for the good jurist to lean over for his own cheek kiss.

“Go enjoy your party,” Macdonald said in firm voice. It might as well have been a command. “Bye.”

“I will. I’ll be ready to go when you reach me later this week, don’t worry about that.”

Once she buckled in and called out her last good-bye to another departing friend, Laci started rummaging around her shoulder tote. “Where’s she hiding? Ah, there she is.” She pulled out Berrianne. Laci was now in the habit of taking the bear with her everywhere, situated in her backpack or bag so that its head was always out, taking in the scenery. Laci straightened out Berrianne’s dress, then playfully rubbed her against Karen’s cheek. “Grrrr-grrrr,” she purred. “She might not eat you up, but I sure hope to.”

“Listen to you! Are we feeling frisky?”

“You’re the one who promised this morning, and you have to keep your promises. Plus, I can tell you’re juicy and yummy.”

A warmth fluttered over Karen at Laci’s oblique flattery. “Juicy and yummy, huh?” Karen chuckled.

Laci lovingly danced Berrianne back to her shoulder bag. “Yup, just like me.” She nestled the bear so only her head stuck out.

“Don’t you get grief from kids at school for carrying that thing wherever you go?” There were so many emotions tied up in the bear, and Karen knew Laci was the only one who understood that and took it to heart.

It had rocked Karen to her core when Amy rejected the bear as “a stupid kid’s thing.” Of course, Amy didn’t know the bear’s life story as Laci did, who intuitively understood the importance of it to Karen long before she knew the backstory.

“Karen,” Laci said patiently. “I’m a girl. Girls are allowed to do things like carry stuffed animals. Now if Owen or Josh or any other boy tried to do it, even with a GI Joe, they’d get serious grief.” Lacy stretched and twisted so she could move the bag to the rear seat. “Berrianne is, like, part of my image, so she’d get more attention if she wasn’t there.”

Watching Laci handle Berrianne with such love and tenderness sent a tingling wavelet shuddering over Karen. It was different, more satisfying somehow, than the lust, still simmering in her core. “You have a point. I suppose that’s how it was in my time, too, but only certain girls. Not me, I couldn’t have gotten away with it. A hardhat maybe, but not a Teddy bear.”

Her face bright and her eyes glimmering, Laci fluffed out her thick mane. “I still have a hard time imagining you working on, like, construction and stuff and wearing a hardhat. That seems kinda… butchy, and there’s nothing butch about you.”

“There was nothing butch about it. It was just the way things were. Once you were old enough, you went to work in the family business, boys and girls were expected to do the same work for the same pay. So, hardhat it was.”

Laci continued fussing with her hair, her smile becoming more provocative. “Can you see me in a hardhat working on construction?”

Karen shifted restlessly and tried to pay attention to maneuvering in traffic. However, when Laci was deliberately seductive, no matter how understated, it was impossible to concentrate on much else. “Uh, that would be a no, I can’t. You’re about as girlie as possible, and that, my dear, is how I like it.”

“I know, just teasing a little. I can hardly believe how super sexy I feel, considering how crazy and busy it was today.”

Karen chuckled and licked her lips. “We’ll be home soon.” They were on the outskirts of town, the retail cluster of big box stores rapidly replaced by rolling farmland and large patches of woods. The sun was near the horizon, and it promised to be a beautiful late spring night – warm but not hot, low humidity, and a sky full of stars.

Laci continued her preening. She knew exactly what she was doing and the effect it had on Karen. She was beginning to grasp what she had and how to use it to get what she wanted.

Laci opened the glove box and took out the cheap plastic bristle brush Karen kept in there, along with an unopened pair of nylons and a spray cologne “just in case.” She began working it through her mass of hair, slowly and with more show than she needed.

“It drives me absolutely frigging nuts when you preen like that!”

“I’m just brushing my hair,” Laci pouted – with a secret smile.

“Yeah, well, there’s no such thing as ‘just brushing my hair,’ with you.”

Laci had her hair pulled over her right shoulder as she brushed it, her eyes smiling and glittering. “I love it when I can make you feel so sexy you wanna burst.” Laci let her hair go and dug out a tube of lipstick and a compact from her bag. She used them to continue her show for her lover.

“You’re certainly making progress on your plan, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yup.” Laci capped the tube of glittering pink lipstick with a flair. Her impish expression said she wanted to play. She still faced Karen when she leaned over and touched her finger to Karen’s cheek. “Sssssss,” she hissed as though burning Karen with her touch.

“That sounds about right,” Karen chortled.

Karen slowed to turn on to their neighborhood road, an old country lane overhung by ancient maples, with houses both as new as Karen’s and as old as the trees spread every few hundred feet apart. It was the home stretch.

Karen really wasn’t interested in too much, too fast. She had in a mind a slow lovemaking spread over the rest of the evening, maybe even into the early hours of tomorrow. It was likely they were both too worn out for frenetic loving, anyway.

Karen tossed her keys on the kitchen island, and spun Laci around with a flourish. She drew her love into her arms. When their gazes met, and Laci captured Karen’s eyes, she understood resistance was futile. Laci had effortlessly shifted into Princess mode, and Princesses got what they wanted, especially this one. They would go where Laci wanted to go.

It was those eyes of hers. Karen was sure she could drown in those eyes. Laci’s eyes were hooded now, bright yet languid. They were more of a jade than her usual emerald green, always a sign of arousal. Karen basked in the glow, unable – unwilling – to look away.

“You were amazing today,” Karen said. “A lot of people saw what I already know, that you really are all that and a bag of chips.”

“Tch. Karen, cut it out,” Laci said, but her eyes sparkled with delight at Karen’s praise. Laci shrugged. “Anyway, it was only ‘cause you were there, I mean, I knew you wouldn’t let me fall on my butt, so I knew I didn’t need to worry.”

“You sure seemed to enjoy yourself.” Karen cupped Laci’s butt and pulled her close. They both unconsciously pushed their mounds together and subtly gyrated their hips, sending warm pulses spreading out over each other.

“Yeah, I did, I had a lot of fun. It was one of my best days ever, like the day of the storm when we made love for the first time. And of course, my new birthday, which was only the awesomest day of my whole life.”

Karen chuckled, her eyes still held prisoner by Laci’s. “I don’t know about that,” she purred while lovingly tweaking the tip of her baby’s nose, “but I do know you made me so proud today, I thought I’d explode.”

“I can make you explode in other ways, too,” Laci purred.

“Uh huh. Is that a fact?” She has me wrapped around her little finger, Karen thought with a smile. She knows it and she loves it. And guess what? So do I.

Laci held Karen’s face with her fingertips, her eyes dancing. “Uh huh, it’s a fact, and I’m gonna to prove it.”

Before she could respond, Laci lightly touched her parted lips to Karen’s. She sent her tongue to do a quick, teasing swoop, and it sent a shimmering thrill rippling through Karen. Laci continued her light, teasing kisses on Karen’s mouth and cheeks, making Karen’s body all a-tingle.

Laci draped her hands over Karen’s shoulders and pulled back. She had the same playful smile lighting her face. “Did you notice I don’t have to stand on my tippy-toes to kiss you anymore?”

“Have I noticed? Holy crap, I’ve noticed you’ve had a helluva growth spurt. You need new clothes almost every week, and you’re up to a B-cup bra.”

“Tch, I do not need new clothes every week. Just every month,” she snickered. “But it does mean it’s much easier to kiss you now.”

“Now that’s something we both need to practice on. C’mon, let’s go upstairs. Beds are for making love, sofas and kitchen islands are for sex, and I know what I want.”

To Be Continued… (sorry 😊 )