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In The Herb Garden

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Nicole was used to heartache. Used to the hollow feeling of being utterly alone. But as she stood, hand running through her auburn red hair gazing out over the land behind her Grandmother’s house. That feeling was complete. The one person who accepted her wholey for who she was, her shining light in times of darkness...was gone. She’d barated herself for not visiting more often, the guilt coursing through her veins like ice. Sharp serrated edges numbing her very being. 

It had been nearly ten years since she had been here but the memories flashed before her eyes like a beautiful motion picture. Echos of every summer she had spent running through the open fields, dancing with daisies and chasing butterflies played through her mind. Her lightweight dress billowed as she spun in circles gazing up at the pristine blue sky blemished only by the fluffiest of clouds. Probably one of the few times she had worn a dress and not hated it, simply because of the smile on her Grandmother’s, on Joyce’s, face. 

“Nicole. The cars are here.” Her father’s voice held the firmness that she had grown accustomed to. The edge of disappointment was always going to be there, she had gotten used to that a long time ago. Straightening her thin black tie and buttoning up her suit jacket she sighed into the breeze, turned on her heel and walked back to the house. 

The mournful faces of her family as the hearse came into view was almost too much for Nicole to handle. She watched as her parents walked solemnly to greet the funeral director before she allowed her attention to fix itself on the coffin. Her Grandmother’s coffin. She felt a tear float down her cheek as she took in the maple wood fixture through the glass of the vehicle. Adorned with flowers it looked almost beautiful. Her fingertips were playing with the inside of the pockets of her black dress trousers, picking at a loose thread. 

Nicole looked up to see her father gesturing to the open car door and she watched as her mother and aunt got in. She didn’t think it was possible but her heart broke just a little bit more as he then stepped in himself, shut the door and gave the driver the go ahead. The discussion had been short, despite being the only grandchild she was going to have to drive herself to the church. Her Grandmother would have argued but in the interests of keeping the peace she had just agreed to being left out of the procession. Fumbling her keys only slightly, she unlocked her black ford mustang, started the engine and followed. 

The funeral had been short, she had asked to do a reading but apparently being gay means you’re not allowed to stand up in a church and say words. Her father’s reasoning had been a little more well spoken but the sentiment was the same. She had sat for the entire service, strong shoulders holding firm, back straight, eyes forward. Crying silently. It wasn’t until she was back sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, almost alone in the parking lot that she gave her sobs sound. Her head was in her hands, tears unrelenting down her cheeks when she heard a knock on her window. 

“Silly question but are you okay?” It was a silly question and if it weren’t for the fact that the woman asking it was quite possibly the most beautiful woman Nicole had ever seen, she would have said as such. Her eyes were like blown glass, crystal clear hazel with a tint of green around the edges holding concern and understanding. Eyes that held a conversancy that Nicole just couldn’t place. Long luscious brunette hair was draped effortlessly over the woman’s shoulders and down almost to the small of her back. It took a moment for Nicole to compose herself both from her absolute state of despair and the captivating stranger gazing at her.

“I will be.” Was all Nicole could manage. 

“You’re going back to the house I assume? I could drive you, unless you think you’re safe to.” The brunette offered a slight smile. Her voice was warm and familiar but it was clear that worry was hovering close to the surface.  

“Sorry, I...I don’t even know who you are.” Nicole said plainly even though she felt as though she should. 

“Oh gosh, where are my manners, I shouldn’t assume you would remember. I’m Waverly, Waverly Earp. My family owns the land south of your Grandmother’s.” The penny dropped. Nicole had seen those eyes before, she had held the hands currently balanced on the window of her car so she nodded.

“I remember, you’ve...grown is all.” Nicole’s sobbing had all but stopped, tears starting to dry on her cheeks. 

“In your own defence it’s very obvious from your hair colour that you’re a part of the family and seeing as you’ve only got to be a year or two older than me, it wasn’t too hard to figure out.” Waverly smiled again and Nicole found herself wondering how she could ever have forgotten that smile. A smile that had been a huge part of Nicole’s summers spent here. 

Nicole had been fourteen the last time she had said goodbye to Waverly Earp at the fence line bordering her Grandmother’s land. Just two kids trying to find their footing in the scary world around them, Nicole couldn’t help but think she still hadn’t found hers. 

“I always knew you were going to grow up smart.” Nicole quipped causing a blush to float over Waverly’s cheeks and her eyes to dip ever so gently. Nicole felt her heart flutter and as their eyes met again she felt just a little touch of the emotional weight of the day lift from her shoulders. 

“Why don’t you follow me back? That way you can make sure I’m safe and we can have a drink to her memory. She was a big part of your life too, she didn’t share her home baking with just anyone you know.” Both Nicole and Waverly shared a smile at the memory of being treated to iced tea and cakes on summer afternoons sitting on the porch swing. Waverly simply nodded and as Nicole glanced in her rear view to the sight of a cherry red jeep it felt as though she could breathe again. 

Parking up out front of the house Nicole took the deepest breath her lungs would allow. Trying with all her might to persuade herself that this was a celebration of her Grandmother’s life now. Grief still thick in her veins, pulsing through her with every heartbeat, she tried to remember the good times. Seemingly endless summers, slow dancing to sixties classics, listening to her Grandmother tell elaborate stories that she still wasn’t sure were true. 

It’s always easy to wish we had more time with someone when they are no longer with us. But Nicole knew that every moment she had spent here was etched into her memory so clearly because it had been carved with love. A love that she was told by the rest of her family that she didn’t deserve. Sitting on the hood of her car, the spring breeze whistling through her hair, Nicole allowed a slight feeling of peace to descend around her. 

Nicole was pulled from her thoughts by a squeeze to her hand, she knew it was Waverly, the scent of her perfume told her as much. Floral and sweet. Fresh like the first coating of morning dew after the winter had thawed. 

“You still wear the same perfume.” Nicole hadn’t meant to say that aloud, hadn’t realised she had done so until Waverly gave her a quizzical look and quirked an eyebrow. Nicole chuckled, effortlessly for the first time since receiving the news that she would be coming back here for the funeral. 

“It was one of the last summers I was here. We ran all the way from the boundary fence to your house, excited beyond all reason that Gran had given us a bucket of quarters to spend at the arcade. You complained that the run had made you all sweaty and gross so you grabbed your perfume and when you went to put it on the cap fell off. God, you got covered.” Nicole could feel her eyes glaze with the memory, they had spent the entire afternoon desperately trying to win Waverly the stuffed unicorn she just had to have. Luckily Nicole had been a good enough shot with the basketball to get the tickets they needed. 

“You remember that?” Waverly’s voice was soft, her words less of a question more an empathic statement. “You know, I still have Mr Flufflebutt.” Waverly’s smile was contagious and Nicole felt her lips quirk into a genuine grin. 

“I still can’t believe you named that damn unicorn Mr Flufflebutt, probably gave the poor thing a complex.” Laughter filled the air and honestly, Nicole couldn’t quite recall the last time she had giggled until her sides hurt. The moment didn’t last. 

“Have you no fucking respect?” Nicole’s father, Alistair Owen Haught, eyes burning with the animosity his words betrayed took two prominent steps out of the house. 

“Father. Waverly and I were just talking about our memories of Gran, please don’t make it a scene.” Nicole’s voice was steady and assured, she felt herself sit up a little taller and push her shoulders back. He used to intimidate her, used to use his presence to make her feel small and worthless. But she was stronger now, now it was just pathetic. There was that squeeze of her hand again and she risked a glance down to Waverly, concern etched in her features. 

“Of course, Waverly Earp, the little orphan girl who played on my mother’s kindness. I know she paid for your tuition, that cushty little teaching job you have now is all thanks to this family. Money that was supposed to be for her own family, spent on the education of a girl who had no right to it.” Alistair spat the words out with venom. Knocking back the amber liquid from the glass in his right hand, fury almost vibrating through him. 

Nicole knew the only reason her father ever kept in contact with his mother was because she was rich. When Nicole had been disowned by her parents at seventeen it was her Grandmother that had paid her way. She had even been given the option to come and live here but knew that her best chance at getting the GPA she needed for a good university was to not switch high schools. Gran had supported that, paid for an apartment and eventually her own tuition. Just another reason on the exponential list her father had for hating her. 

“You can’t just speak to people like that. All you ever cared about was her money, you hated her because she loved me. Because she didn’t let something as benign as who I love dictate her feelings towards me. Love is love dad and even though you couldn’t get over the fact that your daughter is gay, she did. She loved me for who I am and that just killed you didn’t it.” Nicole was trying to keep calm, really she was, but her father was a drunk and a coward. In fact she was pretty sure the only reason he was here was for the reading of the will tomorrow so he could start spending his mother’s fortune as soon as possible. 

“You should be begging for her forgiveness, she’s in hell for you. Turning her back on her beliefs, for what? A good for nothing artiste , a washed up basketball star, a...a...fucking homosexual.” Nicole noted Waverly’s hand was still warm on her own and went to break the contact, knowing that some girls were not all that comfortable being touchy feely with someone like her. But that bashful, gorgeous brunette just held on stronger. 

“With respect Mr Haught. Your mother used to speak with me a lot about your family. Nicole was never a disappointment to her, she loved your daughter with everything she had and if anyone should be asking her for forgiveness right now it is you.” Nicole studied Waverly’s face as she spoke. Each word perfectly formed and spoken with an air of grace but an edge of solemn purpose that she wasn’t to be messed with. 

“You have no right…” Alistair tried to regain the upper hand, but failed as Waverly cut him up.

“That’s where you’re wrong Sir, I earned the right by being there for your mother when her own family weren’t. Listening to her tell me how you were too busy dismantling Nicole’s life to call and ask her how she was. Driving her to the hospital for her appointments when she got too sick to do it herself. I’m sorry your own wretched existence means you never knew how amazing she was and that you’ll never know how amazing your daughter’s life will be. I pity you.” And with that Waverly stood, grasped Nicole’s hand tighter still and walked them both inside. Nicole was pretty sure she was suffering from shell shock and even though she knew it wasn’t meant, she felt guilt wash over her from Waverly’s words. 

She hadn’t much been there for her Grandmother either, travelling the world as a creative excursion to fuel her desire for art. Nicole only found out that she had been ill after receiving word of her passing. That stung. She would never blame Gran for not telling her she was sick, knowing it was only kept from her to ensure she didn’t rush home. But she had wanted to be there. It should have been her taking care of Gran, not Waverly. However thankful she was towards the young brunette for taking on that mantle, it shouldn’t have been hers to bear. 

“I didn’t know…I knew someone had been helping her but I didn’t know it was you. Or, or how bad she was.” Suddenly feeling the need for justification Nicole spoke as she poured them drinks. Trying to push the altercation with her father as far from her mind as possible. 

“She didn’t want to tell you, she knew you would hop on a plane back here if she did. Nicole, I know we’ve not seen each other or spoken for a decade...but I feel like I know you. Because of Joyce. Please believe that everything she ever did was because she loved you.” Waverly’s voice, now soft and thick with emotion caressed over Nicole’s body, offering assurance where she wasn’t sure it was deserved. 

“Thank you. It will never be enough Waverly. But, thank you.” Nicole looked into moss green eyes and tried to portray through her own gaze what her words could not. 

“To Joyce, she was an incredible woman.” Waverly raised her glass in a toast and Nicole felt her heart grow when the smile crinkled the younger woman’s face. 

“To you Gran. I’ll miss you, always.” Nicole took a sip of whiskey, allowing it to burn down her throat and warm her from the inside out. 

Nicole and Waverly shared stories, laughter and memories until the other guests had dispersed. Leaving just Nicole’s parents and them behind. Thankfully Alistair had drunk enough to pass out in his car earlier on in the evening and her mother just wanted to get him back to the hotel. Nicole had a room there too, she knew it would have been too hard to spend the nights in the house. 

When she had to say goodnight to Waverly she felt her heart tug at her, nudging her to envelop this angel in her arms and never let go. Of course she knew this was a stupid idea. But when the brunette wrapped herself up in Nicole’s embrace, holding their bodies so close together, she couldn’t bring herself to care. 

“I can feel you shaking. You sure you’re going to be okay?” Waverly asked as she pulled away. Nicole was suddenly once again struck with the sheer beauty that stood in front of her giving her pause. Allowing others to see her deepest emotions was not something Nicole often permitted. Easier to keep her heart and mind protected if no one knew how she was truly feeling. But there was just something about Waverly that made her feel safe, secure enough to speak openly. A feeling she hadn’t had in the longest time. 

“I just. I never got to say goodbye.” Nicole sobbed. She had held herself together for so long that finally putting voice to her greatest regret hurt. Really hurt. 

“Do you remember what I used to tell you every time you tried to say goodbye to me at the end of summer?” Waverly asked. Her expression was warm and calm, waiting patiently and giving Nicole the time to think. She sniffled, feeling a fresh cascade of tears filter down her face as she nodded. 

“Never say goodbye, because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” Waverly smiled up at Nicole through her lashes at the older girl’s perfect recall. 

“Exactly. You’ll never forget her because she will never leave you. And because she will never leave you, there was no need for you to say goodbye.” Nicole felt Waverly squeeze her biceps and run her hands down her arms, relaxing just a little with the action. She was usually so strong and reserved when it came to her own emotions, but being vulnerable with Waverly didn’t make her feel weak. 

“So smart.” The smile on Nicole’s face mirrored the one crinkling Waverly’s eyes into glorious half moons. Sharing one more hug and making Nicole promise to keep in touch this time, Waverly took her leave and drove home.

Waverly had left her number which was instantly punched into the redhead's phone. Nicole had to hold her heart in check though, knowing that once the last will and testament was read in the morning the house would be sold for her parent’s profit. But she couldn’t help that feeling fluttering around the very fibre of her being. She had come here thinking that once this was all sorted she wouldn’t have any reason to ever come back. Maybe, just maybe, she was wrong.