Disclaimers- While the characters in this story may resemble some we know and love from a certain TV show, they are my own.

Violence - Not this time.

Subtext - You bet, but nothing graphic...

Sounds kind of boring so far, doesn't it?

About the story: You've probably never heard of it before, but Tupelo Oklahoma is a real place: http://www.pe.net/~rksnow/okcountytupelo.htm. Shamrock Texas is, too, and they boast a lively annual St. Patrick's Day celebration and Texas's tallest water tower. They also have a piece of the famous Blarney Stone located in Elmore Park. There is a truck stop located four miles east of Shamrock on I-40, but it's called the Longhorn, I'm afraid. Are you getting excited yet? Yeah, well, so much for the geography lesson. As far as I know, there is no East Bay Symphony. Thanks go out to Jill (not a doctor, but way cool anyway) and Ellen (the best editor I could have) for all their help as betas. I also appreciate the assistance from the wonderful members of the Bardic Circle and the Bard's Village.

This one is for Kate.

I welcome any and all feedback. My email address is: strix@gyrfalcon.net

Shamrock Snow, part 3

by Leslie Ann Miller

Dale woke to a dull headache and the sound of voices from the other end of the house. She looked at her watch: 6:30 am. She groaned. Didn't these people ever sleep? She fought down her initial irritation. What was it John had said last night? "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." I'm alive. Be grateful. She stared up at the ceiling, wishing she could go back to sleep for a year or two, but decided she needed to get up to be with the family.

With a sigh, she rolled out of bed and fumbled around in her backpack for clean jeans and a sweater. Dressed, she grabbed the bag with her toiletries and opened the door, freezing in surprise.

Gussie was coming down the hall to knock on the door. "Oh," the taller woman said, quickly running her hand through her hair. She smiled. "I was just coming to wake you up."

Dale grinned, "Well, you were thirty minutes late, I wanted to make sure you were all right."

Gussie smiled. "I thought you might appreciate the extra time. How are you?"

Dale watched Gussie's face as she looked at her and saw the barest tinge of sympathy color her eyes. "That bad, huh?"

Gussie raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"My face. I knew it wouldn't be good. When I broke my nose in middle school, I had black eyes for two weeks. The good news is that I am already immune to every raccoon joke ever invented. Oh, and most of the zombie jokes, as well."

"How did you break it before?"

"Stopping what probably would have been the winning RBI in a softball game. I was pitching, and Alisha Patterson hit a line drive that nailed me square in the face. God knows she hadn't hit a thing all season, so I think I was too stunned to duck. The amazing thing is, I caught it on the rebound even as I was knocked off my feet... and somehow managed not to drop it. Of course, everyone said we won by a nose..."

Gussie smiled.

"...And our coach's favorite saying, 'use your heads, girls!' took on a new and entertaining meaning from that point on..."

Gussie grinned.

"...And when he'd say, 'Heads up!' Someone always yelled back 'Dale's down!'"

Gussie laughed. "Kids can be so cruel."

"Yeah, but I knew it was a sign of affection. At least, that’s what I always told myself!"

"I’m sure it was," Gussie said so smoothly that Dale wasn’t quite sure how to take it. The woman nodded towards the kitchen. "Lance is making breakfast. I hope you like eggs and bacon. He used to fill in as a short order cook at the restaurant on weekends, so he’s pretty good… not that cooking breakfast requires a lot of skill…"

"Thanks, I’ll be there in a minute!"

--------------

Gussie and Charlene were sitting at the dining table eating breakfast when Dale finally wandered into the kitchen.

"Good morning!" Lance said cheerfully, waving a spatula at her. She smiled back at him, trying not to laugh at his tousled hair.

Charlene stood up, gesturing at the empty seat at the end of the table. "Have a seat, Dale. What would you like to drink with your breakfast? We have milk, orange juice, coffee, hot tea, water, or sodas."

"Uh, orange juice would be fine, thanks," Dale said, pulling out the chair and sitting awkwardly. She wasn’t used to being waited on, but Charlene was already in the kitchen opening the refrigerator.

"How do you like your eggs?" Lance asked. "I can even make you an omelet if you prefer."

"That’s awfully kind of you," she said, "but over-easy would be great."

"One egg or two?"

Dale tried to decide if she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast yesterday, having been far too upset, and under normal circumstances she would be starving. Her stomach felt unsettled, if not hungry, but she decided she might actually feel better if she ate. "Two," she finally decided.

"How are you feeling this morning?" Charlene asked, setting down a glass of orange juice in front of her.

"A bit better, thanks."

"Headache?"

"Yeah, it’s not too bad, though. I took some Tylenol already…hopefully that will take care of it."

"Would you like to go see a doctor today?"

Dale smiled at her persistence. "No, thank you."

Charlene shrugged. "Well, I had to try."

Dale nodded and took a sip of her juice, trying to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.

"So what’s the plan for the day?" Gussie asked, speaking for the first time.

Dale wasn’t sure if she was speaking to her, and she looked up, unsure how to answer. Fortunately, the tall woman was looking at her mother.

"Well, Lance and I need to get back to the Stop. Most of the staff is put up at the Inn, but we’re still going to be short-handed. I think we can leave the garage closed, and there shouldn’t be much, if any, business at the pumps today, so we can shift a person from there. I’d like to open the trading post, though. The folks stranded at the Inn might get bored and decide to do some shopping. We need to try to keep things cheerful, seeing as it’s Christmas Eve."

"If you need help at the restaurant, I’ve worked as a waitress for the past four years," Dale offered. "It’s the least I can do to repay you for letting me stay here."

Charlene smiled and patted her hand. "That’s very sweet of you dear, but we’ll manage just fine. Besides - and I don’t mean to sound cruel when I say this - but your nose…"

"Oh, well, yeah… I might scare your customers…" Dale said, shrugging. "I understand."

"People who can’t look past appearances are idiots," Lance said, handing her a plate with bacon, toast, and two eggs. "Unfortunately, the world is full of idiots." He smiled at her brilliantly. "Two eggs over easy, as requested."

Dale found herself returning his smile. He was so different from his dour sister. "Thanks! This looks great. But surely there must be some way I can help?"

"Not today," Charlene said, standing up. "You should take it easy. Gussie will keep you company, won’t you, dear?"

"Of course," the taller woman answered smoothly.

Too smoothly, Dale thought. The conductor couldn’t hide the fact that she looked less than thrilled at the prospect.

Dale looked at Charlene. "Why don’t I go back to the Stop with you," she said, trying not to sound like she was pleading. "I can spend the day in the restaurant. Or maybe get a room at the Inn. I hate being an imposition."

"You’re not an imposition," Charlene said quickly. "Besides, the Inn is full, and it doesn’t make sense for you to spend the day in a crowded restaurant when you can be resting comfortably here, instead."

Dale opened her mouth to reply but Charlene stopped her with a stern look. "No ‘buts,’" she said.

"Yes, m’am," Dale said meekly, poking at her eggs.

"That’s better," Charlene smiled.

*********

Gussie watched in silence as Dale finished her breakfast while Lance and her mother prepared to leave. She gave the girl credit for trying to get out of her hair, and she couldn’t really blame her for caving in to her mother’s command. After all, her mother had that effect on everyone. Still, she dreaded the idea of having to entertain a guest for the entire day. What the hell would they do? She had planned to spend the morning reading.

"Dale," Charlene said, wrapping a scarf around her neck. "Make yourself at home. We have books, cards, TV… help yourself to the movie library, if you like. Also the fridge. There are sandwich makings for lunch. Augusta, dear, don’t forget to put the ham in early. Lance and I will come home as soon as we can." She looked at Dale thoughtfully. "Is there anyone you need to call to let them know where you are?"

Dale shook her head, and Gussie thought she’d caught a fleeting look of pain cross the girl’s face before she returned her attention to her breakfast.

"Well," Charlene said, slowly, "if you decide you need to use the phone, please feel free to do so."

"I suppose I should call my insurance company…"

"Which company is it?"

"Farmers."

"Don’t bother. I know the local agent, Jim Cardil. He won’t be back until after Christmas."

"But surely I need to let them know…"

Charlene smiled at her concern. "Don’t you worry. Jim will take care of everything when he gets back."

"But that will be after Christmas!"

Gussie almost laughed at the stricken, almost panicked look on Dale’s face as the girl realized that she might be stuck here for another two days.

"Did you have someplace you needed to be before then?" Lance asked kindly.

Dale blushed, looking flustered. "No… it’s just… I wanted to be…" She swallowed, then shook her head. Her shoulders slumped. "No. I had no place to be."

A slow smile creeped up Lance’s face. "I guess you’re stuck with us, then."

*******

"I’m really pretty self sufficient," Dale said as she helped Gussie load the morning dishes into the dishwasher. "I don’t want you to feel like you have to entertain me or anything."

Gussie smiled inwardly. More points to you, kid.

"I’m pretty content just to curl up in a corner with a book, actually," Dale continued.

Gussie raised an eyebrow. "Well, that suits me just fine," she said agreeably. "Do you have something to read?"

"Um… no, I think I left my books in my truck."

"Well, Mom has a library in the den," Gussie said, motioning for the girl to follow her. Her mom had turned the den into an office after her two oldest children had moved out, but the walls were still lined with books. "Help yourself," she said, ushering Dale through the door.

"Oh wow," Dale said, looking at the books. "When does your Mom find time to read?"

"She doesn’t," Gussie smiled. "Actually, that’s not true. She does read when she gets the time. But mostly, she wanted us kids to read. My grandmother - her mom - was a schoolteacher, so she and mom always encouraged us to read. You’ll find a lot of the classics. I liked mysteries, so you’ll find several of them, and Anthony was into science fiction. But she always kept bestsellers at the Stop, so you’ll find a little bit of everything."

Dale nodded, looking pleased by the selection, and Gussie watched as the girl scanned the shelves carefully. Gussie was tempted to leave her to her own devices, but decided she probably shouldn’t leave her alone in the room with her mom’s computer. She didn’t really believe the girl would try to steal anything – business records or otherwise – but it was better to be safe than sorry.

It didn’t take Dale long to pull a paperback off one of the shelves, and Gussie was a bit surprised to see she’d picked a book by Nicola Griffith. Together they made their way back to the living room. Gussie claimed the recliner by placing her book on the seat, then went to the fireplace to try to stir the fire back to life. She added some kindling to the still hot coals, then tossed on a couple of dry logs while Dale settled herself on the sofa.

Dale had her nose buried in the book by the time Gussie finally got the fire going and kicked up her legs in the recliner. The living room was quiet and cozy, and Gussie sighed in satisfaction. She didn’t have much time to read given her busy schedule at home, so this was a rare and pleasant treat. She was glad the girl was content to spend the morning like this.

It wasn’t long before a strange sound interrupted her concentration. She looked up to see that Dale was fast asleep on the sofa, snoring slightly. The blonde’s face was relaxed in sleep, but there was a persistent sense of sadness surrounding her that stood in stark contrast to the cheerful Christmas decorations in the living room. Gussie sighed heavily. It wasn’t any of her business, she told herself firmly. She’ll talk about it if she wants to.

She turned away and added another log to the fire, then settled back in her chair. There was a bit of melody teasing through her consciousness. Something sad, almost mournful… like the aura surrounding Dale. There was something there, she decided, that might be used, and she leaned her head back, closing her eyes, to better hear the music blossoming in her mind.

---------------

Gussie was sitting at the kitchen table finishing transcribing the melody that had come to her that morning when Dale finally woke with start. "Good afternoon," she smiled as the girl looked around dazedly.

Dale’s eyes widened. "Afternoon?"

Gussie chuckled, glancing at her watch. "No, not really. It’s only about 11."

"Ugh! That’s bad enough. I…uh…I’m…"

"Hungry?" Gussie supplied, even though she knew the girl was trying to find some way to apologize for sleeping the morning away.

Dale shook her head. "Uh… no, not really…"

"Thirsty?"

"No… actually, my head is really hurting. I think I’ll go take some more Tylenol."

Gussie finished writing down the last few notes in her notebook while Dale made her way towards the bathroom with a stretch and a yawn. She poured herself a coke and picked up the TV remote, deciding that she wasn’t really in the mood to read after spending the morning immersed in her music.

She surfed the channels until she came to a football game. Having grown up in Texas with two brothers who had played, she was something of a football fan. It was one of the better games of the bowl season, and she settled back in her chair, sipping her coke contentedly.

"Do you like football?" she asked when Dale came back into the room.

"My dad and I used to watch football together all the time," Dale said sitting down, and the note of sadness in her voice struck Gussie.

"Where are you from?" she asked, hoping that she might be able to get Dale to open up a little bit.

"Tupelo, Oklahoma. But I’ve been living in Norman while going to school."

"College? What are you studying?"

"Was studying, actually… English. I just graduated." Dale grinned a little. "I wanted to be a writer."

Gussie was surprised. There was, perhaps, a little more depth to Dale than she’d expected. "Wanted? Why the past tense?"

"Well, it’s not easy to make your living as a writer. I didn’t really understand that when I picked English as my major…" she rolled her eyes. "I guess I was pretty naïve. But I love reading and writing, so I stuck with it. I’ll just have to figure out some other way of making a living for now."

"Any particular plans? Where are you heading?"

"I was going to California. I thought maybe I’d work as a waitress or something until I got state residency, and then I’d apply to graduate school somewhere."

"Where in California?" Gussie asked, hoping the answer wouldn’t be Oakland or the Bay Area. Dale seemed okay for the time being, but she didn’t want the girl to latch onto her in any sort of more permanent way. She definitely didn’t want to play hostess in California, having to show the girl around there. She just didn’t have the time or inclination.

"Anywhere," Dale said morosely.

"I hear LA is very nice," Gussie said. "Nice, sunny weather, lots of money… good tips at restaurants, and of course there’s Hollywood. Maybe you could write scripts…"

"Too glitzy," Dale said slowly. "I’m really not into glamour. I was thinking about Berkeley, maybe. Or San Francisco. Sacramento. I don’t know."

Gussie fought the urge to roll her eyes. "Berkeley is a crazy place, and there’s all that fog in San Francisco."

"Have you ever been there? To Berkeley, I mean?"

Gussie cursed herself. She should have left well enough alone. "Uh… yeah. It’s pretty wild. I think it would be a bit of a culture shock for someone from small town Oklahoma. No offense meant," she added quickly, when Dale looked hurt by the comment.

"It’s okay. You’re probably right. But I never fit in well in Oklahoma. I just thought I might do better there."

Dale sounded so deflated that Gussie actually felt sorry for her. "Hey, who knows, maybe you would. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for."

"Thanks, I do too. I just wish I knew what that was."

Gussie nodded, and a comfortable silence fell over them as they continued to watch the game.

"It’s funny," Dale said after a few moments, and Gussie sighed inwardly, perfectly comfortable to have let the conversation stop where it had. "I always thought that by the time I graduated, I’d have a life plan, you know? I figured I’d know what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I don’t really. Do you ever feel like that?"

Gussie snorted. "No, I’ve always known I wanted to be a conductor. Music has always been my life. I was writing songs by the age of five, and I started directing the church choir by the time I was ten… much to the horror of the real choir director, I must add." She grinned. "Actually, I shouldn’t say that; the woman knew I had talent and helped me cultivate it. But it’s who I am, and it has been for a long as I can remember."

Dale stared at her in awe. "That’s amazing. You’re so lucky. It’s like you knew your destiny right from the beginning, and you just… made it happen. I wish… I wish I knew what I was meant to be…"

Gussie thought about that for a moment. Was she lucky? She was doing what she loved, what she had always wanted to do, and she was very successful at it. And it wasn’t luck that had gotten her here. It was talent and determination. She was one of an elite few, a female orchestra conductor. But perhaps it was lucky that she’d always been aware of her goals and had the drive to achieve them. It was like her life had been scripted from start to finish; here she was, after all, where she knew she would be from such a young age. And wouldn’t it, as Dale suggested, be unlucky to not have that knowledge and drive? To have a blank page, rather than a script, to have silence rather than a song?

So why, then, did she have this persistent feeling of dissatisfaction with her life? The melody was written, but it was… discordant. She’d carefully composed her life, one note at a time, to get her where she was, but… There was still that "but." And it was more annoying than an out of key oboe.

--------------------------


To be continued in part 4