Thursday to Friday evening;
Henry was feeling completely out of place. It was nine o'clock on a Friday evening, he was at a birthday party and he was all alone in a flat with a bunch of people he didn't know. Worst of all, in one sense, he was the guest of honour. "What in blazes am I doing here?"
It had all started 19 years ago, the day he was born. The extended family had been in a dither for a month already for the birth of his Aunt Annie's first child. There had been a baby shower, his Uncle John had stocked up on cigars; everything was ready for the fateful day. Even his own mother, Janice, 8 months' pregnant, had been heavily involved with all the planning because, for her, all this preparation was a dry run for when she would give birth, herself.
As Aunt Annie's due date approached, the tension mounted, tempers flared and voices were raised. Finally, the BIG day! Aunt Annie started her labour for real and was driven to the hospital. Gran and Gramps stayed by the phone to await the news while all the others followed on to the hospital to wait, all, that is, except his mother and dad. Janice had tried to do too much these last days and was not feeling well so she had gone back to her home and to bed. His Dad, Frank, had followed her home to keep her company.
At the hospital, the mood was tense: the men were all pacing while the women were sitting in a circle, discussing amongst themselves whether it would be a girl or a boy and whom the child would take after. Those who had already given birth were quite a bit calmer and took the waiting in stride. At home, Gran and Gramps were also much more relaxed than the men. After all, they'd been trough this several times before, both for their own and for their children's children. When the phone rang, however, they jumped in spite of themselves. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that the call came not from the hospital but from Frank.
All the stress of dealing with the upcoming birth had been too much for Janice and she had given birth herself in their bedroom with only Frank to accompany her! There had not even been time to call for an ambulance. An hour later, when the call from the hospital came to announce the birth of a brand new granddaughter, only Gramps was there to take the call; Gran had gone on to help out Frank and to deal with the Emergency Health Service doctor. After the doctor had examined Janice and Henry and after Frank, Janice and Gran had finished discussing it with him, he finally decided that since the birth had been a textbook example, that there was no point in bringing Janice to the hospital "after the fact", which had pleased her quite a lot because, in her heart, she had always wanted to give birth at home away from all the "medical" interference.
As children, Rikki and Henry played together frequently. They had none of the conflicts one expects from siblings, as each had the full attention of a pair of loving parents. And while that telepathic bond that sometimes exists between twins wasn't there, the fact that they shared a birthday made them feel very close to one another. It became their habit to talk to each other about anything that would bother one of them. One recurring topic was that Henry felt awkward because he was left-handed. He was not very athletic in any case and he had always assumed that being a lefty had made it worse. It certainly made him the butt of his schoolmates' jokes. The only one who never made fun of him was Rikki. Being right-handed herself, she couldn't really understand the frustration Henry was feeling but she was quite willing to accept that it was difficult for him to accomplish some commonplace tasks.
When puberty set in, first for Rikki, then for Henry, they stopped spending as much time together, choosing rather to hang out with members of their own sex. Henry, still believing he was awkward because he was left-handed, was more inclined to spend his time alone at the library, reading. He tried rationalising it away by saying that not only was he born left-handed but also with two left feet, but it still hurt. They continued to get together regularly, however, to talk about the changes that each was going through, their doubts, school, their parents, etc. Throughout high school, each one continued to be the other's most important link in their support network, especially after they had started dating and a date had fallen through or had been particularly dreadful. Since both had always been open about what they were feeling, neither had ever idealised the opposite sex nor had any false ideas about the way girls and boys were "supposed" to behave, and the failures, when there had been one, had mostly been due to the date being unable to accept an open relationship without pretence.
By the time they had graduated from high school, they both had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do for a living. Henry was hoping to become a science teacher, so he chose the local college which had an excellent technology programme. He had saved up most of the money he had made as a clerk in the local hardware store. With that money, and with what his parents had put away for him in a college trust fund to continue his studies, he rented a small basement flat within walking distance of the college.
Rikki had wanted to get into sports medicine so she chose a college with a good Phys. Ed. Programme. Unfortunately, the college she had chosen was almost a day away by car. During high school, she had held a part-time job as an office clerk and all-round second pair of hands for the local veterinarian, so she, too, was able to afford a flat near her college.
That September, both, now eighteen years of age, were on the point of leaving for their new lives as independent adults: Henry, by bus across town, and Rikki, by train. Proudly, but still hesitant, they said good-bye to their parents; Henry promising to come by on week-ends to do his laundry and Rikki promising to write every week-end and to come back home whenever there was a long week-end ... What scared them most, however, was that this would be the first time they would be separated from each other. Their last meeting at the coffee shop where they usually met to talk had been tearful. They had encouraged each other to be brave and had reminded each other that the Christmas holidays were only 15 weeks away. Rikki had promised to call Henry's parents to give them her new number as soon as her telephone would be connected. Henry had suggested that they block out a period each week, so that there would always be some free time so that they could talk without having to keep an eye on the clock.
For both of them, college was an eye opener. They were now adults, responsible only for themselves. Any discipline they may have needed, to make sure their homework was up to date, to keep their flats clean and their clothes in order, or what have you, they had to apply for themselves. Henry, still shy and feeling awkward, would frequently stay by himself in his flat or at the college library. Oh! He did join the engineering students fairly regularly when they had a beer bash and, during winter, he occasionally joined with a group for a week-end cross-country ski trip, but for the most part, he stayed more or less by himself. Rikki, already much more outgoing than Henry, was moreover studying in a field that implied being physically fit and active. As a result, she would frequently go out on a competitive cycling trip or go downhill skiing. During her free time, she would regularly play tennis and volleyball with the other students, when she was not out hiking at the nearby wildlife reserve. Thursday evenings, however, were set aside for their weekly phone get-togethers. Without fail, one week one would make the call, the next the other so as to keep the long distance charges to a minimum, and talk about the current week, the new people they met, whether one was feeling homesick or how their studies were going. Sometimes, they talked for ten minutes only, other times it might be over an hour.
Christmas came and went, and each one grooved his life along the path he had chosen. That May, a little less than a week before their birthday, Henry mentioned during their weekly phone call that all the term papers he was required to write for that term were finished and that he was pretty well prepared for his finals which would be during the first week of June. He was feeling lonely because it would be the first birthday they would not be together and he was wondering what Rikki was planning for the summer with the idea of eventually proposing that they go on a trip somewhere together. But instead of wanting to talk about the summer to come, Rikki suggested that he take a few days off school and that he buy a return train ticket to join her for a 4 day week-end the week-end after their birthday. He could crash at her place from Thursday night to Sunday morning and take the train back on Sunday.
Henry missed his cousin terribly; their weekly telephone talks were but a poor second choice after all those years of speaking face to face. He therefore jumped at the invitation and, the following day, between 2 courses, he stopped off at the train station to buy the ticket.
The following Tuesday was his birthday. Instead of returning to his flat after his courses, he went to his parents' for supper. He pretended that, as an adult, he longer needed or wanted a big "birthday" party but it was still nice to be with people you loved on that special day. It was unfortunate that the person he cared for the most was not there to share it with him, but he consoled himself that he would be seeing her again two days later. Thinking that Rikki's parents might feel the same way that he did, he stopped by their place on his way to his parents' and asked them if they might have a special message for her that he could bring with him when he went to see her that week-end.
Thanking him for his thoughtfulness, they wished him happy birthday as well and brought down a birthday present they had left in her room for the next time she would have dropped by. In return, Henry promised that he would transmit their best wishes and their gift as soon as he saw her.
That Thursday, he had to get up early to get to the train on time. He had packed his overnight bag the day before but he wanted to be especially presentable for his cousin, so he dressed in slacks and put on the new shirt he had bought for the trip. The trip itself would be quite long; the train would leave his station at ten to eight and would not arrive before four o'clock, so Henry brought along some course notes to review during the trip, but, finally, he was too exited and was unable to concentrate on his studies. Around lunchtime, the train stopped for a 30 minute lay-over and Henry used that time to buy himself a sub and a drink at the station snack bar. The sandwiches they had available on the train had not appealed to him.
Finally, shortly before four, the train pulled into Rikki's station. Henry stepped off the train with his overnight bag but, when he saw her at the end of the quay, he dropped the bag, ran to her and grabbed her with both arms in a passionate bear hug. As he let her go so that she could breathe, he suddenly remembered his bag with the gift in it. In a sudden panic, thinking he might have broken the gift when he had dropped it, he ran back for it and, excusing himself profusely, gave Rikki her parents' gift.
All the while Rikki led him to the car she had borrowed and drove them back to her flat, Henry didn't stop talking. It was as if he had saved up a year's worth of news and was trying to tell her everything at the same time. Rikki just let him talk and, with a smile on her face, made the occasional comment to show she was listening. When he looked like he was running out of steam, Rikki suggested that they go out for supper at a restaurant nearby and that afterwards they go back to the flat where they could have an after-dinner drink while they brought each other up to date and that afterwards they go to bed because it had been a long day.
After supper then, while Rikki served them both an Irish coffee, she brought Henry up to date with what she had been doing. After both were comfortable, Rikki unwrapped her parents' gift which luckily wasn't fragile, as it was a fleece throw, a warm blanket type thing to wrap oneself in during a winter's evening. Then, shyly, Henry took out a long slender box and offered it to her. While Rikki opened the box and admired the bracelet within, Henry explained that he had bought it recently at an arts and crafts fair. The artisan who made it had recycled old silver utensils; forks and spoons and so forth, and turned them into things like bracelets and earrings. Rikki told him that she also had a gift for him but that it would only become available that week-end. In the meantime, she suggested that the following morning, they step out and do a walking tour of the town and of the college campus. In the evening, they would have supper at another restaurant where they treated a steak like a work of art and that; afterwards, they had been invited to some friends' place for a birthday party. Rikki explained that she had tried to bow out of the invitation because her cousin Henry was coming for the week-end, but when she had told them about the coincidence of them both having the same birth date, they had insisted that Rikki bring Henry along.
It wasn't long afterwards that the warmth of the Irish coffee combined with all the emotions of the day got to them and, first one, and then the other started yawning. Giving into the inevitable, Rikki showed Henry where the bathroom was and led him to the second bedroom where she had set up the spare bed for him. With that, they both said good night and crawled into their beds and were soon fast asleep.
The next morning, the smell of fresh coffee and the sounds of breakfast being prepared woke Henry from a deep sleep. It had been ages since he had slept so well. Rising quickly, he jumped into a pair of pants and joined Rikki in her kitchenette. She was dressed in a long, thick terry bathrobe, in the process of turning some rashers of bacon over in the frying pan.
"Good morning," she smiled at him. "I sliced some bagels. Would you put them in the toaster while I start the eggs? You still like them scrambled?"
"Yes, please. Is there anything else I can do... ? Serve the coffee or pour some juice?"
"I would love a jug of coffee and there is grapefruit juice in the door of the fridge. The glasses are in that cupboard, there. Afterwards, sit down because everything is ready."
During breakfast, they picked up the conversation where they had left it the night before, with Rikki explaining how she loved her Phys. Ed. programme and how it made her appreciate being physically fit. She told him as well how all her nature hikes and skiing made her appreciate being close to nature. She also told Henry that she had met another student who was following quite a few of the same courses. Rikki had really hit it off with that girl, discovering that both had very much the same interests. She mentioned that, while studying together, they occasionally talked about setting up a personal training agency together and that she was much exited about the project.
Henry, for his part, explained that he was particularly glad to see Rikki again because his own life at college had been much more reclusive. He had tried going out with others but that nothing had really appealed to him. He knew there was something missing in his life but he hadn't been able to identify what that could be. His studies were going well, however, and he explained that he was convinced that becoming a science teacher was still the right choice for him. He was especially enthusiastic about wanting to teach high school kids about the history of technology, from how Man started by learning how to make tools out of stones all the way to Man's present-day technological wonders.
After breakfast, Henry suggested that Rikki take first dibs at the bathroom while he did the dishes and that he'd grab a quick shower afterwards. Thus, while Henry took his turn at the bathroom, Rikki put away the now clean dishes and both were ready to step out at the same time. That morning, they walked all through town. Rikki showed Henry the sports complex where she played tennis, some local buildings that were particularly impressive and the town's open air market. At lunchtime, Rikki proposed a soup and sandwich shop that was a popular student hang-out. After lunch, they continued their walk, this time concentrating more on the college campus and the park near by. By 4 o'clock, their feet started telling them that enough was enough so they decided to go back to Rikki's flat and lounge about until it was time for supper.
Because of the party later, they decided to walk to the steak house for 5:30 and to go easy on the extras. Henry discovered that Harrison's lived up to its billing; the steak was tender and grilled to perfection, the vegetables tasted fresh picked and had been seasoned with a master's touch and the Merlot the waiter had suggested added just the right flavour of smokiness to round out the meal. It took quite a lot of will power not to pig out on desert. They did allow themselves a double espresso to finish.
By the time they stepped out of the restaurant, it was 7:30 and it was time to head over to the birthday party site. They took their time strolling over and it was just past eight when they arrived and were greeted by their hosts. Rikki made the rounds and introduced Henry to the guests. Most of the people there were students at the college; several were in the same programme as Rikki. Some of the guests had brought their boyfriends or girlfriends. By the time Henry had met everyone, he had had to explain three times how it came about that Rikki and he had the same birthday. Gradually, the guests regrouped into units of two and three people and the conversation shifted back to physical education, shin splints and sprained ankles. Rikki excused herself to run an errand somewhere and left Henry stranded by the punch bowl. He was bored out of his mind; how was he going to get out of this?
About then, Rikki joined him again with a young woman in tow. Rikki had always been a pretty girl. Since her stay at the college, however, she looked even more fit than ever and the outfit she had selected for that evening, a white blouse, a relatively tight knee length skirt, and heels, did absolutely nothing to hide her great body. But this woman was unbelievable! She was tall; one could even say very tall, well proportioned and had impossibly long legs. She was wearing a very simple black dress with very narrow shoulder straps over bare shoulders and arms. The dress moulded her form perfectly and left nothing to the imagination. She obviously did not have any inferiority complex about her height because to go with the dress, she wore a pair of plain black shoes with 4 inch heels. To top it off, she had a beautiful face with clear, even skin, a head of short, completely white hair shaped into a swimming cap and the most amazing turquoise coloured eyes.
"Henry, close your mouth so that I can introduce you. Laure, this is my cousin Henry, whom I told you so much about. Henry, this is my future business partner, Laura Freed." H ... Ho ... How do, do you do?"
"Hi. Actually, my name is Laure Frejasdottir. I'm originally from Iceland. I chose the name Laura Freed when I came here so that you English could get your tongues around it. I heard a lot about you already and I promise NOT to ask you about how come you and Rikki have the same birth date. Is that a deal?"
"F ... fine. That sure is a relief. I was beginning to feel like a zoo specimen."
"Believe me; I know what that's like. And before you start apologising for gaping at me, that's not what I meant. In fact, I appreciate the compliment."
Rikki spoke up then.
"Actually, Laure is a competitive swimmer. While she races in all four styles, her particular favourite is the butterfly. Most swimmers who specialise in that stroke are a lot shorter."
"That would explain why you have such a great shape, and I DO apologise for staring; it's rude."
"It's nothing, really. When a girl stops wanting to be admired, she might as well dress in a tent." "What's this I hear about being business partners?"
"Well ... Rik and I started talking about it around last Christmas. As she told you, I'm into swimming. Swimming requires a lot of strength but standard weight training bulks up the muscles while I need them to be strong over a wide range of movement. As a result, I've had to give a lot of attention to proper stretching. While I was researching that, I crossed paths with Rik, who was researching into the accidents that occur with inadequate exercise techniques. We decided to pool our resources. As we continued, we noticed that we complimented ourselves well and things sort of developed from there."
"Right now," continued Rikki, "we are still in the beginnings of the planning stage. We have an inkling of what we want to provide, and that is a consulting service so that the average person can get into shape with a minimum of financial demands, and without all the fancy and useless gimmicks that are constantly being advertised on television. But we haven't decided yet whether we stay small and mobile; hopping from fitness centre to fitness centre, or whether we want to open an office and have the clients come to us. If we choose the second alternative, the next question would be 'do we just provide personal trainers or do we go out full blast with medical evaluations, nutritionists for diet advice, possibly including psychological help so the client can determine why he is overweight in the first place and so forth'. We haven't even begun to think about where we would like to set up shop."
As they were talking, the party began gradually winding down. People were preparing to leave. Rikki explained that she had promised the hosts to stay behind to help clean up, so she suggested that Laure and Henry go down to the coffee shop on the next block and that she would join them there as soon as she was finished.
Over coffee, Henry told Laure again how greatly he had appreciated meeting her. He explained how bored he had been at the party before Rikki had brought her over and that he had been thinking about sneaking away. He asked her about life in Iceland, stating that he knew how important the Danes were in the development of North America. He explained that he wanted to become a teacher and that he was fascinated about how societies adapted to living conditions and that he had been surprised to learn that the Vikings were basically farmers who only went on raiding parties during the winter to keep busy.
Laure asked Henry about Rikki, saying that it would be helpful to know as much as possible about her business partner. So Henry, in spite of himself, explained how chance brought about the fact that they were born on the same day, that Rikki and he had always been closer than brother and sister, that they had each provided the other a shoulder to cry on when things were black and gloomy, how Rikki had never made fun of the fact that he was left-handed and constantly tripping over his own feet and how he had always felt shy and how he had never yet met a girl who had all of Rikki's qualities.
"Henry, I have a confession to make. I'm your birthday present! This whole party thing was a set-up. The idea was that you and I get together. Rik and I are great friends, we have been together almost from the time we first met. She cares a lot about you and she was worried about how you seemed to isolate yourself more and more. She felt you needed a girlfriend to get you out of your slump. She knew as well that one important reason I had come to this place was to get away from an abusive boyfriend and that I had no one in my life."
"We talked a lot about it this last month. I'm not ready yet to get into a serious relationship with a guy but the way she talked about you intrigued me and made me want to know you better. Now that I do, I'm willing to play the game if you are. If you accept and are willing to trust me completely, we can get together tomorrow after... , no! make that THIS afternoon, and I'll give you the birthday present that Rik thought up for you. If you are even the slightest bit hesitant, we can forget about it and remember this evening as a wonderful time. It in no way affects what I think of you and, if you let me, we can still be friends and possibly, later, even more."
Just then, Rikki stepped through the door of the coffee shop and slid into the booth, next to Laure.
"So, how are you two getting along?"
"Oh! Just wonderful! We were just discussing how you are a sneaky little weasel."
"Moi?! Now what would possibly have given you THAT idea?" she asked devilishly.
"Oh! Nothing! There might have been some words spoken about a blind date, but I must have heard wrong."
She laughed; proud of herself for the practical joke she had pulled. "No, seriously! I want to know; have you come to a decision about what Laure suggested?"
"Well, I have no idea what you have been planning for me but I've trusted you all my life. I'm certainly not going to start doubting you now. Whatever it is you two have planned, I'm game!"
"Great! I'll pick you up at one. We'll go for a drive in my car. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need my beauty sleep. Shall I drop you off or will you want to walk back to your flat?"
Rikki looked at Henry. "Nah, I think we'll walk. We've shaken him up enough. A little stroll will help bring him back down to earth. Thanks anyway and good night."
Henry paid for the coffee and joined Rikki by the door of the shop. As the walked back to the flat, Rikki asked; "Are you nervous?"
"No, I was serious back there. In all the nineteen years we've known each other, you've never steered me wrong. We've always been brutally honest with each other and we've talked about things that I'd never even heard about, not even in the boys' locker room at school, but I've never tried to hurt you and I know it's been the same for you."
"However, I want to get back to this blind date thing. What made you think I needed a girlfriend and, while we're on the subject, when are you going to start hunting for a boyfriend?"
"We ... ell ... I guess that to answer that question, I'm going to have to tackle the second part first. I've never talked about it, not even to you because I guess I found the idea too scary to think about. For a long time, however, I've been wondering whether I should be hunting for a boyfriend or for a girlfriend. I knew from the beginning that I'd never meet another guy as open and truthful as you. All the guys I'd meet, I'd compare them to you and since they were not like you, they struck out even before they came to bat. Remember how during high school, I used to come home after a date, crying? In most of my dates, the only thing the guy was interested in was how to get into my pants. There was one I had to fight off with a baseball bat, for heaven's sake."
"Yeah, but that wasn't always the case. That guy was one bad apple, I admit, but he wasn't your only date. You've been on others that went alright!"
"No, I agree. They weren't all bad. However, I never felt that warm fuzzy feeling I was looking for. What I want is someone with your qualities, your attitude and your personality that I feel horny for! But so far, it's been all one or all the other and the studs I've met I wouldn't introduce to my worst enemy.
When I met Laure, I thought I had found it. She is completely unlike you but the first time I met her, I saw you in her body. And that body! I would have loved to give her a tumble, just for the joy of sharing something physical. However, I soon found out that, even though she had managed to get away from a real nasty relationship, she was definitely into guys and not the least bit interested in a bit of casual sex.
"Anyway, to make a long story shorter, I got over wanting to tumble Laure as we became friends and started talking business opportunities. What has been making me lean towards that full service consulting firm I mentioned before is that I've recently started playing tennis with this young doctor who's barely out of university. He's into sports-related accidents and might be a good candidate for our consulting firm. And he's kind of sexy, in a nerdish sort of way. Don't tell anyone yet, not even Laure. Let me work on him a little, first. I'll keep you posted. And while I think of it, please don't mention to Laure I had the hots for her, I don't want to scare her off."
"Now! Back to the first part of your question. I know you are useless at sports. That's alright; you don't have to be an athlete. But all through high school, you tried. You used to go cycling with me and during winter, you tried cross-country skiing. During the summer, we used to toss a Frisbee. I used to love how you tried to analyse its flight characteristics so you could put a special spin into its flight. You were so serious about it. Last fall, when you started living by yourself, you used to go bar-hopping with the guys and at the beginning of winter, you went skiing a couple of times. However, since the beginning of February, the only times you went out, it was to the library and since April, you haven't even done that. You were turning into a hermit! Worst of all, you were becoming disinterested when I was talking to you about my things. Laure and I were doing a paper about the lack of motivation being a major factor for the physically unfit and the symptoms had your name plastered all over them. I talked it over with her and we came up with a plan to get you interested again. More than that, I will not say. I want the surprise to be complete."
By this time, they had arrived back at the flat and, since it was way past midnight and since Henry was expecting that tomorrow, or should that be "today?" his emotions would again be passed through a wringer, they decided to go to bed without further ado. Once he was in bed, however, Henry lay on his back with his eyes wide open.
"Rikki? A lesbian? She had never said a word to him about it, even though they told each other ab-so-lutely everything. But then, she had never said she was heterosexual, either. Come to think about it, he had never told Rikki that he preferred girls, or even boys, for that matter. He had just assumed that that was the way it was. Was she really lesbian? She did say she had her eye on that doctor character. Was it possible that one could be lesbian and heterosexual at the same time? And even if she was lesbian ... did it really matter? It didn't change the way he felt about her; the proof of that particular pudding was that he was willing to jump with both feet and with his eyes closed into a situation that, if he could judge by the events of the last couple of days, would literally shake the foundations of his life, all on Rikki's say-so that she had his wellbeing at heart." Finally, with these thoughts running circles in his mind, he fell asleep.
Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon
The next morning, still half asleep, he stumbled out of bed and walked into the living area while rubbing his eyes.
"Hi. Did you sleep well?"
"Huh!? ... Wha ... t??"
Rikki was sitting in her big easy chair with her bare feet on the coffee table, again dressed in her terry bathrobe, her hands wrapped around the big coffee mug that she needed to get herself kick-started in the morning and with her shoulders wrapped in the new throw her parents had given her.
Henry suddenly realised he was naked except for the boxer shorts he usually wore in bed. With his hands in front of his crotch and a mumbled "excuse me", he turned to go back to his room and to get dressed when he was stopped by Rikki.
"No! Don't bother. If you're comfortable like that, stay that way. Myself, I plan to stay like this all morning. Today is Saturday, after all."
She had a smile on her face, as if she was enjoying some private joke.
Still confused but feeling rebellious, he turned around again and sat down in the couch in front of her. After all, she had already just seen him in his underwear; getting dressed now wouldn't change that.
"You didn't answer my question. You look as if you need this coffee even more than I do. I made lots this morning. Help yourself; I'm feeling too lazy to get it for you."
Henry got up again and grabbed a mug, filled it from the urn, added sugar and returned to sit back down in front her as he stirred his coffee with a spoon.
"I don't know. When I got to bed last night, I kept thinking about what you told me. Are you really a lesbian?"
"I'm not sure. Would it bother you if I was? (Henry shook his head.) In my last year at high school, one of my classmates admitted to me that she was one. I guess she was sounding me out to see if I was one too. I talked a lot with her, asking her how it was for her, how she felt. She didn't shock me or anything but I can't really say that I felt the way she described. That said, I certainly did not feel any kinship with that bunch of giggling females that drooled every time they saw some sweaty jock with a football in his paws. So I really don't know. I guess I'll play it by ear. Some Chinese guy did say that everything comes with the fullness of time. Do you want breakfast?"
"I'm not really that hungry. Maybe some toast with a slice of cheese."
"The only bread I have is multi-grain but I also have some bagels left. As for cheese, there's sliced Mozzarella and Havarti. If you're feeling adventuresome, I think there is also a piece of Gorgonzola left, which goes great with biscotti. If you wouldn't mind making some for me as well, I'd go for a slice of buttered multi-grain with Havarti, myself."
"My pleasure, milady. In harf a mo, as they say in England. Shall I freshen up your coffee, as well?"
"Oh! Would you, please?"
As they ate, they continued talking about this and that. At one point, Henry brought the conversation around to Laure.
"You know, that Laure is quite an impressive looking girl. I've seen other girls as tall as she, but they always slouched, wore mousy looking clothes and flat heels. Laure walked around as if she owned the place."
"I agree completely. I first met her at the beginning of September. Her study programme and mine overlap and we share the same common trunk courses. You know how the professor makes everyone introduce himself and explain why we were there during the first session?" "Yeah, they do that back home, as well."
"Well, when she stood up to introduce herself, I was sitting next to her. I had to crane my neck back to look at her as she spoke. And that accent of hers; it's barely noticeable but, if you listen closely, she seems to sing instead of speak. She threw me for a loop. So, during the break, I made a point of introducing myself to her and asked if she had been here long. It turned out that she had just arrived and was living at the motel while she found a flat of her own. Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd offered her my spare bedroom. She's been living here ever since. It's because of her, you've been eating multi-grain bread with real cheese. She hates synthetic food; she calls our cheese 'Rubbermaid'."
"You mean to say that you threw her out so that I could spend the week-end here? You should have told me; I would have gladly spent the week-end at the motel."
"No, no, no. It was her idea. During most of the times we spoke on the phone, you and I, she was sitting there where you are now, listening to our conversation. When I told her how you seemed to be getting more and more isolated and alone, she thought it would be easier on you if you came here. After she explained herself, I had to agree with her."
Suddenly, the front door opened and Laure walked in with a flat box.
"Hi! Since I was coming here anyway, I decided to come early and bring lunch. I hope you like Pizza. There's this place on Centre Street that does it exactly like they do it in Florence, with sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and olive oil. Dig in, people, while it's still hot. Oh! Nice ... I love those boxers. Rik, you never told me! Shame on you! He's sooo cute when he's all red like that. It makes him look as if he's been out in the sun instead of hiding in some book."
"Hi, Laure. We were just talking about you and your love for 'Rubbermaid'. Pizza sounds good. Did you get it without extra olives this time?"
"Yep. Told them that you thought it made the Pizza too salty. They said that you weren't the only one who had complained and that they were looking for a new supplier."
Rikki explained: "After Laure moved in, we started going to the aquatic centre about once a month for a Saturday night swim. We got into the habit of dropping by the pizza parlour down the street afterwards for a late supper. It's a really friendly place and they take care of their customers."
As she said that, she glanced at Laure, again with that little smile that told of a private joke.
"What's going on here?" wondered Henry, curious.
While they were having lunch, Laure explained how the afternoon would start off.
"When you finish, I suggest that you get dressed, not that I mind the outfit you have on now, but you might get noticed while we drive about. Don't put on anything fancy, just jeans and sneakers, because we'll be walking out in the fields for a bit. As for the rest, you'll find out when we get there. Any questions?" And, again, there it was, that little Cheshire Cat smile.
"What IS going on?" he wondered, again.
After polishing off a last piece of pizza, Henry excused himself to get dressed. From the bedroom, he vaguely heard the mumble of a muted conversation but, by the time he stepped out, the girls had settled whatever the discussion had been about and were waiting for him, silently.
When Laure saw that Henry was ready, she rose as well and, as they made for the door, tossed a brief "See you back here around five." over her shoulder while Henry quietly hummed the "funeral march" to himself.
They drove silently for about a half hour. Once out of town, Laure made for the highway but shortly afterwards, they came to the exit marked "Wildlife Reserve" and she slowed down again to take the off ramp. They followed the winding road through the park until she came to a half hidden side road with the sign "Riverside hiking trail" where she turned. After following the overgrown lane for 5 minutes, they came to a gravel parking lot, where Laure parked the car. Theirs was the only car in the lot.