As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: I’M FINE, HONEST
“Miss, are you okay?”
A bright light shone in my eyes and I threw up an arm and yelped. A silhouette lowered his flashlight and opened the door gently. “Are you okay, Miss?” He reached for me and touched my shoulder. I nodded groggily.
“There was no one with you when we pulled up. Just a moment ago, that is. Who’s Nelson? Your husband? Son?”
“Where’s Nelson? Nelson.” I yelled and sat up, shaking my head clear. “Nelson? Where’s Nelson? Fuck, we’ve got to find him.” I clambered out of the truck and into a foot of snow. The sky had cleared somewhat and the snow no longer blinded me. It was cold, freezing actually, and I shivered.
“Miss, who is Nelson? What’s your name? Are you hurt?”
I shrugged him off and stumbled out of reach, screaming Nelson’s name over and over again.
“Nelson. Nelson, come. Come back. It’s okay, boy. Let’s go, Nelson. NELSON.”
I fell once, slipped as I stood and turned around, searching for my boy, my scared and sensitive boy. “NELSON. COME.”
The landscape lay empty and unfriendly. The State Police Officer watched as more police and EMTs arrived, sirens blaring and lights flashing. More and more people arrived, radios boomed, and the whole scene overwhelmed me.
“Turn the fucking siren off. You’ll scare him.”
“Yes. My dog. My family, he’s all I’ve got right now, my DOG.” I turned around again, yelling and yelling as the officers and EMTs watched me cautiously. I screamed, yelled, called out his name, struggling to understand. I sobbed. “Nelson, please, come back to me, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
An EMT came up, a slender woman around my age, and she squatted down close by.
“Can I make sure you’re okay? Physically? We’d like to take you to Albuquerque to one of the hospitals there and check you out for concussion, okay, Miss?”
“Jenny, my name’s Jenny. And no, I’m not leaving him alone. Not my boy. I’m not leaving.” I sobbed and wiped my eyes and cried even harder, shaking with shock and fear and cold. “He’s a husky, he’s mostly white and coffee colored, with odd eyes, have you seen him, please, have you seen him?”
She shook her head and watched me closely. I looked away. A State Policeman brought over a thermos and poured out some coffee. “My wife always makes me bring something hot with me,” he explained sheepishly. “Here, have some. Are you sure you don’t want to come with us to hospital?”
I shook my head, stubborn as hell, whispering Nelson’s name to myself.
“I’ll need you sign a refusal form, okay, Jenny?” The EMT nodded to the others and she asked if she could check me out anyway, make sure nothing was wrong. I nodded silently and stood for her to take blood pressure and the such. I guess I passed if not with flying colors as she walked off to confer. The other officers talked quietly as they checked out my vehicle. The State Policeman came back over and sat near on a tree stump.
“The bad news is that I can’t see any tracks from your dog so I’ve no idea which way he went. The good news, well, two pieces of good news I guess, one is that there have been no reports of crashes with animals near here. The other is that your vehicle is fine, you slid on the ice and landed here, but you can drive out if you put it into low four-wheel drive. The tires will hold. I could call a tow truck for you though, if you like? Or anyone else?” He sipped his own cup of coffee and waited.
All I could think of was Nelson, out there in the snow, scared and vulnerable. My boy. My pup. I shook my head but then remembered. “Do you know Officer Jaime Ramirez? He said to call him if ever I needed him. Could you? Could you call him? Tell him what happened? Please?”
He nodded and walked back to his vehicle and climbed in, with lights still flashing and engine running. Heat, he had heat. I walked back to the 4Runner and looked. The door was dented and hung open. The windshield had a three-foot crack. Nothing more. Just a missing dog and a headache. I was lucky. Not really.
I climbed inside and cranked the engine. It caught first time. I sat back and wiped at my eyes. I closed my eyes briefly but a picture of Nelson alone in the empty valley knocked me sideways and I climbed out, leaving the engine running so he’d hear it.
“Miss, if you could sign this form, saying you refuse medical attention? Thanks. I’d suggest you stay with a friend, someone who will keep an eye on you in case concussion gets you later, okay?”
I nodded, promising anything so that they would leave me alone, so that the ambulance and police cars would just leave me in peace. Quiet. So Nelson could hear me call him.
The State officer climbed out of his car and came over.
“Officer Ramirez is pretty close, you were lucky. He said he’ll be in Albuquerque in an hour and can meet you there. He’s coming up north any way so he’ll be passing through here and will look for the dog.”
He shook my hands and offered to wait for me to drive off. The ambulance had turned off their lights and pulled out onto the interstate slowly, followed by the other cop car. I shook his hand, thanking him for helping.
“I’d like to make some calls first, but then I’ll head to the city, I promise. Thanks again,” I smiled, kind of, enough to persuade him I’d do as I said. He nodded and shook my hand, wishing me a safe journey home to Oliver.
“At least it’s not too far and the snow’s stopped for now. Take care, Jenny.”
I watched as he drove off and left me alone with my empty truck. I waved him off. Then I bundled up, found a flashlight, and headed out into the snow.
“NELSON. NELSON. COME.”
We climbed hundreds of stone steps, with the both of us being completely out of breath half way. The path curved back and forth. Placards stood at each switchback next to various styles of wooden benches. We read the tourist information slowly, not talking, just looking up and out at the view, catching our breath.
Finally we rested at a bench on the crest of the hill. With a huge stone cross memorial behind us, Santa Fe opened up below. It was incredibly beautiful even with all the trees naked and the streets seemingly empty. The cathedral, homes, narrow roads, hotels, and the plaza lay below in a crazy pattern. Mom sighed and pulled out her smart phone.
“Well, at least I get a decent connection up here. I’ve been wanting to post some photos all week. This is beautiful, Jen. Thanks for getting us up here; I can’t quite believe how breathless I am though. Yoga’s meant to help me, damn it.”
I laughed and sat down next to her. “Altitude, I guess. I thought I’d do better by now. Well, Mark should be in town by the time we get back down. He’s not one to be late unless he’s getting the New Mexico timing down.”
I leaned back against the memorial and relaxed. The sky was clear and as bright blue as usual. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains had a light dusting of snow. The world was quiet and I heard footsteps from the road below.
“So then, you and Danny, eh? Want to tell me anything, Mom?”
She burst out laughing and slapped my knees. “Not really. Let’s just say he’s a good man. I’m glad you have him as a neighbor. I feel safe knowing he’s there for you.”
I laughed and stretched out my legs with a groan. “Right. That’s very selfless of you, Mom. But the question is; are you going to see him again or not? Do we need to get you back by a certain time?”
“Jennifer. Behave. And no, I’m going to see him tomorrow night before I leave. He said he’d drive me to the airport, if that’s okay with you?” She fiddled with her phone then picked it up and pointed it at the both of us. Flushed, breathless, and slightly embarrassed by the conversation, she clicked a photo of the both of us. My phone beeped. A text came in from Mark saying that he’d just pulled in to get gas and would meet us in twenty minutes or so. I held out my hands to Mom.
“Time to go, Mom.”
I hauled her to her feet with a groan.
We found the entrance to the restaurant Anne had recommended. A narrow doorway lead to a staircase lined with posters of New and Old Mexico. I followed Mom up, slowly. Her knees ached. My whole body ached.
Mark sat at a table close to the fireplace. He stood at the sight of us and gave me a kiss on the lips. Mom took off her layers and the waiter hung her coat over an empty chair with a wink and a smile. He asked what he could do for her. She blushed and asked for the drinks menu for all of us. He nodded once and reappeared within seconds, carrying glasses of water for three. He focused on my mom. What was going on? I grinned and Mark caught my look and raised his eyebrows with a smirk. I tried not to laugh. Mom glanced over at us.
“Well, what would you two like? I’ll have a margarita, salt no ice please.”
The short rotund and clean-cut waiter nodded once and reluctantly turned to us. “Yes?”
I nodded at Mark and he ordered our usual beers and asked for a plate of queso and chips to start with, oh, and an order of chicken wings. Behind the waiter a large television screen held my attention. Football, and someone in a helmet had just scored a run from one end to the other, leaping over two people, skidding around others, and diving for the line as he got tackled from two sides. Too late. I clapped in delight, now that’s a game of football.
Mom turned to see the re-run but missed that too. She wore new black jeans and sensible winter boots, a green woolen sweater, and her hair was as tidy as usual. Hardly any gray, did she dye it? Will I look as good in my fifties?
Around us, conversation buzzed and hid the sounds of the television. The room was pretty damn large and open plan, with windows the length of the southern facing wall. Outside, the balcony stood empty, the colorful tables and chairs set up hopefully but with temperatures in the forties, we all stayed inside. The restaurant focused on the tourist trade by the looks of us, all pink and fresh and obviously from somewhere with gray skies. Only Mark had a local’s tan and beat-up cowboy hat. He waited for his pint and sipped some water. Mark told us he’d called a few bands and even had a couple of leads with a music store in town, and it was beginning to look pretty good. His frown had taken a hike for the first time in ages and I leaned over to kiss him happily. Mom told him about our day, the places I’d taken her to, the presents stored in the Subaru, and her plans to return to Oliver for Christmas.
“I already spoke to the owners of the B and B and they have room for me surprisingly. I booked one. Will that be okay? I’m not planning on making you feed me or anything, Jenny. In fact, I’ll cook. ”
“Oh, Mom. I’d love that. We haven’t spent Christmas together since Mark and I came to Idaho, what was it – two years ago? Remember Mark? It’s been ages, right?”
Mom beamed. Mark toasted her with his beer and she clinked glasses with both of us.
“To the holidays.”
“What about your parents, Mark? Are they planning to come out here anytime soon? I’d love to meet them again. Your mom was hilarious. Such a wicked sense of humor.”
Mark picked at the queso and chips, “we haven’t set anything up yet. I thought I’d wait a while before inviting them, wait until we have something solid.”
“Don’t you think they’d like the outhouse? The bus?” I grinned with a mouthful.
He shook his head. “Not exactly. They’re a little more conservative. Dad’s idea of camping is to rent a forty-foot RV with dish TV, a generator, and full bathroom. I can’t imagine them in out on the land, can you? Mom maybe, but Dad? He’d talk politics at the tavern and that’d be that. We’ll see, Jen, we’ll see where we are next year, right?”
“Right here, I’ll be right here.”
The wings arrived and we all tucked in to our messy BBQ covered sticky-finger-making munchies.
The dogs flung themselves at the door, barking madly. I opened the door cautiously. No one. No trucks. No animals. Nothing. The dogs flew down the steps and barked. At the sky: An arrowhead of Canadian Geese soared above. Flying south in formation, they clacked and flapped, changing places looking for the best spot among the crowds. Hundreds of geese fled the coming winter storms. Mark had gone to town to do laundry thankfully. I’d decided to work outside again.
I added compost and handfuls of straw to the garden beds, and dug everything in deeper than the first time round. I wanted to prepare the soil for next year so that I could actually grow more than just tomatoes and potatoes. The sun shone and the wind had a bite to it.
I dug in the dirt. I sweated. It seemed the best thing for me to do right then. The fence had even held up to the pups trying to get to the manure I’d brought back from Anne’s place. I rehung the gate and added some random sticks and cans and bottles to the chicken wire that protected the non-existent plants from rabbits. I wandered off and followed the arroyo back to where we’d been supposedly busted for growing pot. The footprints lead the way. The dogs followed and played behind me. First Nelson and then Frida jumped off the boulders and over the tree stumps. I gathered sticks for kindling.
A big Dodge pick up drove up and honked its horn. I ran back through the arroyo with dogs panting and flinging themselves ahead of me. The horn honked again and the engine started back up. I ran even faster.
Around the last corner, I almost tripped but caught myself on a branch. I yelled out and heard an answering call. Frida had won the race. She stood on her hind legs, trying to reach the truck window but failing completely. Nelson hung back and watched from the porch.
Debbie, the homesteading neighbor, and her kids waved at me and then all climbed out. Three young ‘uns with backpacks and thick coats and hats grinned at me and then sat down with my dogs. Debbie, in a long woolen pea coat and a red beanie, walked up fast. Her hands stayed deep in pockets and her eyes were raw and red. She’d not been sleeping by the looks of it.
“Hey, Jenny. I hate to do this, but I’ve got to ask…can you take the kids for the afternoon? I have to get to the dentist. It’s just got to the point that I want to rip all my teeth out. The painkillers aren’t working for the life of me and I’m taking it out on them.” The boys hung out on the porch, one had befriended Nelson and he leaned against him as Frida darted between them all with a ball in her mouth. Tails wagged. Kids laughed. It looked easy enough.
“Sure. Did you get an appointment or something?”
“The emergency room will take me. Everyone else is booked for the week and I just can’t deal with it any longer. Are you sure you don’t mind? Frank’s at work in Santa Fe until four but then can come straight here. I fed them. You shouldn’t need to do much. They’re pretty wild so just keep them outside.” Debbie rambled on and on. She rubbed her chin again and again. “Are you sure?”
At that point, I playfully pushed her away and back to the Dodge, saying, “Go on with you. Just tell Frank to come on over later. It’s fine. Mark will be home in a bit anyway. Go on. We’ll be okay, right boys?”
All three faces turned up and nodded seriously. “Have fun, Mom.” and they all laughed at her expression as she climbed in. We watched her drive off and then looked at each other. Kids. I didn’t want any myself but oh well, I could play with these guys and hand them back in a few hours, right? Right. I had no clue.
I wandered closer. “So, I don’t even know your names. I’m Jenny. That’s Frida and the leaner is Nelson. Both came from –“
“- Louisa’s.” came the chorus. “Us too. We’ve got a few from her. A mama and a puppy pittie. They’re old now though. Almost as old as Finnegan.”
One little hidden face peaked up at me from under his layers. “I’m six. That’s Clark and this is Franny-bo-banny.”
“I thought you were all boys?”
Franny piped up that she’s a tomboy and don’t ever call her a girl or make her wear pink or else. I nodded seriously back. “Understood. Okay, boys. I’m hungry. Your mom said you ate though. You can watch me eat if you want.”
All three stood up fast. “What have you got? I’m hungry.”
“Quesadillas and fresh salsa and some chips.”
“Yeah. I want some. I want some. I’m hungry.”
We trooped inside the bus. Clark helped me in the kitchen and the other two fiddled and explored the small space. Franny thoroughly checked out my home, opening and closing little cupboards, peaking under the bed and finally she gave her verdict.
“This is cool. We could do this at our place, couldn’t we? Mom and Dad have a bus but he uses it for his tools and the dogs. I want to paint it and make it a playhouse. Hey, can we make a fire? It’s kinda cold, you know.”
“I’ll do it in a minute. Flames and all of that.” I replied nervously.
“But we’ve been making fires since we were three. Even Finn can do a pretty good job by now. Not as good as me, but you know, not bad.”
Franny scrunched up some newspaper. Finnegan took the metal can and cleaned out the cold ashes carefully. Clark cooked. I pulled out the plates and a six-pack of ginger ale. The dogs curled up on their beds.
“Where to?” We strode through the trees.
“We want to show you a cave. I can’t believe you haven’t found it yet. That’s crazy.” Clark the ten year old, lead the way up the hill, following some path I couldn’t spot. The others followed me with the dogs at their heels.
“Whose land is this?”
“Dunno. Doesn’t matter really. We grew up here, so me and Franny, we always ran around and explored places. Mom and Dad used to send us off with backpacks of water and snacks and tell us to come back later. Much later. Then Finn was born and now Mom doesn’t tell us to go away like before. Dad works more too. But we used to come up this gulch and find pottery and stuff from Indians and tools from the miners. Dad made us a shelf and everything so we got a whole pile now. Finn’s really good at finding the arrowheads.”
Clark chatted up a storm and I listened and panted quietly. Franny and Finn ran rings around us, chasing the pups and hollering back and forth. Finally Clark pulled up short next to this huge beet red boulder that appeared out of nowhere. The dirt under foot was pitch black and like dust. In front of us the mesa spread its wings. The Jemez Mountains glowed pink in the setting sun. I grinned widely.
“This is amazing. What a view.”
“You can see our place, way out there, to the south. See?”
Clark brushed his long black hair off his face and reached out to aim me in the right direction. He was tall for his age, in that he was almost five foot two. His dark brown eyes twinkled happily as he looked around. The youngsters ran up and screeched to a halt. Franny opened her pack and gave us all some chocolate and shared her bottle of water.
“From our well.”
The water tasted crisp and clear. She packed everything back up and looked to her big brother. “Ready?”
The kids shook hands and yelped. I got nervous.
I followed them around the boulder, squeezing through a small gap, and suddenly looking down into a mineshaft.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“No, it’s not. Don’t tell Mom, okay, Jenny? She told us not to come here again, not after we lost Finn that one time.”
I backed off. “I don’t know, kids. I don’t think we should.”
They all stopped and stared at me silently. “But we like you. I trusted you.” Franny whined. “And I gave you my last piece of chocolate.”
I stood a moment and looked down in to the dark cave. Tracks lead down but I couldn’t see past five or ten feet. Too dark. “I don’t have a flashlight.” I countered.
“It’s okay, you can hold my hand if you get scared,” offered little Finnegan.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming. But don’t tell your mom.”
We stumbled down in a single file. I held onto Finnegan’s hand. The dogs followed closely at my heels. I couldn’t see a thing.
“Seriously? You didn’t? That’s hilarious.”
I laughed. “Yep, they got me fair and square, the little bastards. Can you believe I fell for it? They laughed so damn hard all the way home. By the time we got there Mark and Frank were inside drinking beers and chatting away like old friends. Frank cracked up when they told him.” I blushed at the thought of how scared I’d been. And how I’d squealed like a girl when Franny sounded like a coyote in attack mode. I’d found out that the trench was simply an entrance to a blocked off old failed mine some ten feet deep at the most. The steep sides and rotten wood posts told a story of hard labor and tired old men. The kids however thought of it as a test. I passed. Just. Now they loved me and begged to come over again the following day.
I blushed again and drank some more beer. Anne and Graham grinned at Mark who couldn’t stop himself from describing the kids’ delight. Graham took out his phone and flicked through his photos.
“Was it this one?” He passed it over to me. I looked, nodded, and handed it to Mark and then Anne. She shook her head.
“It’s lucky it is closed off. There’s been some bad shit there over the years. Just this year, some meth dealer hid out there for months once after he’d killed one of ours. A local teenager had got into it and overdosed with some stuff he’d bought from that guy. We never did see him again. I heard a rumor though that Dieselhead and friends found him and took care of it.”
Mark and I did a double take, thinking of the hitchhiker we’d found that rainy day in summer.
“A few months ago. Why?”
“We met him. The dealer. He stole my wallet.” I shook my head at the thought. I told them the story, short as it was. “What do you think happened to him?”
“Maybe he got picked up by the cops?” Mark leaned forward as the pizzas arrived.
Graham shook his head. “If that was the case, they’d have given him a ride to Albuquerque General Hospital and wished him well. He has connections, family, or something. He gets away with murder, so to speak.”
We drank in silence. The tavern was empty as usual now winter had hit hard. The fire roared and a handful of locals sat around and warmed up. Dogs lay at people’s feet and the television played unwatched in the far corner.
The food arrived and I tucked in as they all chatted. I was getting addicted to green chile enchiladas. Mark stuck with his usual cheeseburger and fries and the others had pizza. A storm warning flashed across the television screen. I ignored it. We had firewood, so who cared when it actually hit? I ate. Anne talked about Taos and how she’d dreamed of going there for Thanksgiving one year. Mark described our visit in October, talking about breakfast at the hot springs, afternoons at the pubs, and our drive home along side the Rio Grande.
“What are you two doing for the holidays?” Graham asked just as I put another mouthful to sleep. I swallowed, ready to say ‘nothing’ but Mark spoke up.
“Los Angeles. We’re going to see my brother, Keith, and his family for a week or more.”
I spluttered out my last bite and it hit Graham’s shirt. He didn’t notice. I stared at Mark, about to jump on him, verbally that is.
Mark continued, ignoring me and telling them about us driving back up the coast to see friends in Washington too if we had the time. I couldn’t say a word. Anne dived into the awkwardness.
“You are? That’s great. My sister lives out in LA too, I keep meaning to go see her, but I’m not a big traveler these days. I like being home with the animals, you know how it is.” Anne grinned at me. “I can’t imagine leaving them.”
“Me neither.” I took a gulp of water and waited. “When are we going, Mark?”
He glanced at me then focused back on Graham and Anne. “On Wednesday morning. I was going to ask if either of you could take care of the dogs, make sure their water’s not frozen, stuff like that. Come by once a day is all they need.”
“It is not. They’ll be lonely. And cold.” I blurted out in anger.
Graham poured me some more water and then noticed the chile on his white shirt. He wiped it off with a frown. Then he looked up at me and smiled again. “I can stay there if you like, or they can come to stay at mine in town? I don’t mind. Frida’s pretty good with me nowadays. Nelson’s just easy as pie.”
As I opened my mouth to speak, Mark decided it was time he stepped outside to smoke. Anne kept eating but asked, “he hadn’t told you, eh?”
I shook my head and finished Mark’s pint in one. “Nope. I don’t know how we’ll pay for it even if I wanted to leave here. Mom had sent me some money for a small solar system but we don’t have anything else saved. Not for some random road trip like that.”
“Did Diane set you up with electricity after all?”
“Nope, I worked it out myself. She didn’t want to work with what I needed, we needed.” All proud of myself, I told them how I’d planned on setting up the solar the first weekend in December, ready to hunker down for the winter. I’d made a box for the batteries, set up a platform with pallets to keep the panels off the ground, and even made a frame to hold them at the correct angle. “I just need to install the wiring, get it all put together but I’m close to being ready.”
“Not bad, not bad. You never knew you had it in you, did you now? I remember when you first got here you’d left everything to Mark.” Anne teased me as the man himself came striding back, shaking off a few snowflakes.
“Left what to me? It’s started snowing for real. Huge flakes. Damn, it’ll be cold at home.” He sat down and reached for his pint. “Hey. What happened to my beer?”
“You finished it, don’t you remember?” Graham stood. “Same again? Or something warmer like -”
“Hot toddies.” came the reply from us all in unison. We burst out laughing. Hot toddies it was then. Mark put another couple of logs on the fire like a pro and sat back. We all leaned on the table, nursing our drinks and chatting about the snowfall that had already whitened out the highway. Graham crowed that he only had to walk home from the tavern these days. Anne slapped him playfully.
“Remember all the times we had to walk up the mountain in the snow?”
“The drifts deeper than our boots?”
“With the moon shining on us as -”
“- we sang Pink Floyd and the Stones at the top of our voices?”
Anne snorted and Graham smiled, happily teasing his friend. She tipped her drink at him and they toasted each other. I watched and sipped my own. I ignored Mark and checked out the window. The snowflakes danced under the porch light. A big Dodge truck headed up hill, slowly but surely cutting its way through the drifts. A couple walked with hats pulled down and long coats closed tightly. The fire backed up without warning and filled the tavern with juniper and pinion smoke. I grinned and coughed.
All of a sudden, the door opened and a gang of locals poured inside, laughing loudly, and on the count of three, threw snowballs at us all. Mayhem broke out. Mark jumped to his feet, and returned the snowballs with a yelp. Graham hunkered down. I grabbed my drink and stood up just as someone tried to get Mark back. Straight in the face. My face. I spluttered. Graham took my glass. Anne and I scrambled around on the floor, grabbing the melting snow, and attacked back. Mark stood behind me, using me as a shield, and scored two big direct hits. But then a holler made him turn around, and –
Splat. Mark yelped and fell over.
Graham grinned from a table next to us. “Oops. Is he on your side?”