Shelter Ch. 00-01byrandom_librarian©
Gentle readers, a friend and writing partner suggested I make it clear from the beginning that this isn't a stroke story. And truly, it is not. Sometimes, you just need an old-fashioned love story. All rights reserved, but you knew that.
"Money may buy you a fine dog, but only love makes him wag his tail."
- Kinky Friedman
raconteur, Texas Jewboy, and founder of Utopia Animal Rescue
"I'm never going to say goodbye to you."
As his front door closed, Archie wondered what that meant. Valerie had broken up with him, right? She'd said that the long-distance relationship thing wasn't working for her, that the sheer distance between her life and career in Milwaukee and his life and career in Denver made it impossible. She wanted someone who'd be there for her on short notice, if she needed a shoulder, an ear, a sounding board, or just a lust-filled late-night booty call.
But... then why had she been so insistent that they make love last night? And that's what it was, Archie thought. It wasn't screwing or "fucking" (that word she hated so much). It was tender and touching, slow, passionate. It promised that the love he felt for her was in her heart as well. And then the next morning, she'd packed her things, took off his grandmother's engagement ring, paused at the door just long enough to say "I'm never going to say goodbye to you" without even looking at him, and then she was gone.
He called her, of course. He told himself he was calling just to make sure she'd make it back home safely. If he were being entirely honest with himself, he was calling to see if she'd had a change of heart, if their love really couldn't be enough. But ring after mocking ring, message after unreturned message, all he got was silence. Days turned into nights, but he barely noticed.
Some eternity later, his phone rang. And it rang again. Again. Finally, he screwed up the courage to answer it.
"Archie, this is David Williams. Is my daughter still there? We haven't heard from her since she got to your place on Friday, and we thought she'd get on the road three days ago." Three days? Had he really been here, sitting in the dark for three days? Had it really only been three days since his world collapsed? It somehow felt like ancient history and this morning's news, wrapped around a sledge hammer.
"No, sir. She left Sunday morning, so ... I figured she'd get home in time to teach her classes Monday afternoon."
"This isn't like Valerie at all, Archie... Did something happen while she was there?"
Archie briefly wondered where all the oxygen had gone. "Yes... Yes sir. She ... uh ... she decided..." He fought back the sobs rattling around his chest, if for no other reason than that he still wanted the respect of his now-never-to-be father-in-law too much to lose control. "She broke things off with me."
"Oh... I see. I'm so sorry." He could hear Mr. Williams breathing, trying to balance between comforting him and worrying about her. "Do you know where she would have gone?"
"No sir. She ... she didn't answer when I've called."
"She's not answering mine or her mother's either. Okay. Let me make some calls. But ... keep your head up, okay? You're a good guy." Great. The guy who'd been so intimidating when Valerie introduced them two years ago was now telling him there were other fish in the sea. That can't be good.
The good news, if the word "good" applied here, was that Valerie's dad was retired from the Highway Patrol, so if he really did "make some calls", Valerie would be located really soon. She was safe. She was just somewhere alone, collecting her thoughts. She had realized that what she had with him was worth everything to them both, and she was probably driving back to him right now.
Archie looked at the afternoon horizon, watched the sun set behind the mountains, and tried not to see that as a metaphor. He had only closed his eyes for a fraction of a second when the phone roused him. Funny... it was light outside now. How did that happen? Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, he grabbed the phone.
"Archie... this is David. They found her... it's not good."
"What happened?" Somewhere in his mind, he knew from the tone in Mr. Williams's voice that "it's not good" was an understatement.
"I... I think you should come here to Omaha."
"Of course. I'll be there as quick as I can ... Wait... Omaha? You're in Omaha? Why are you in Omaha?"
"Archie, there's been an accident. She's holding on, but ... just get here."
In the 7 years since that phone call, Archie had replayed it in his mind over and over again, but he never remembered what he'd said next. Or, for that matter, how he got to Omaha. One minute, he was panicking; the next, he was standing in a funeral home, breaking down in front of Valerie's grieving parents. And no matter what anyone said, her parents, her friends, his family, a legion of psychological professionals... No one could divert him from one inevitable conclusion: there was something he could have, should have said, that would have kept her from getting in that car and driving away. And if he had, she'd still be alive today. Somehow, this was all his fault.
"Dr. O'Donnell? There's a call for you on line 3. The caller said 'I'm Ginger Conrad, and you tell Sammi to get her butt on the phone now!' Who's Ginger Conrad, who's Sammi, and do I need to call the authorities?"
Samantha chuckled to herself. Ginger Conrad had been her mother's best friend and sorority sister at Colorado College. They'd stayed close right up until the end, and since Samantha's parents passed away eight years ago, Ginger was the closest thing she had to family. When Ginger's husband Tommy passed a year later, she moved in with Ginger for a couple months to help her grieve. Ginger was the only person in the world who was allowed to call her "Sammi", because the sound of Ginger's voice saying it reminded her of the warmth and safety of her childhood home.
Samantha would walk through fire for Ginger (and Ginger knew it, too), so the "get her butt on the phone" line was just one of the more playful sides to her personality, like a signal phrase from some World War II code book. And that, of course, required responding in a similar fashion...
"This is the West Denver Veterinary Hospital. I'm sorry, Dr. O'Donnell is unavailable at the moment. Would you care to speak with her assistant, Dr. Shut the Hell Up?" The entire office heard the cackling through the phone.
"Sammi, girl, your mama raised you right, didn't she? How are ya?"
"Things are great, Aunt Ginger. How about with you?"
"Honest to goodness, they're not so great. Oh, I'm fine, things are good for me. Still making all the boys whip their heads around when I walk down Main Street. But I do have a problem here at the shelter, and I think you just might be the person I need."
The Golden Animal Shelter of Jefferson County. Some of Samantha's best memories were of the weekends she'd volunteered there as a teenager. Those experiences, seeing the way some people mistreated animals, but seeing the way that other people loved them and tried to make them whole again, were the first steps on her road to vet school.
"Sammi, I've got one here that's really gotten shit on by life. He could use an expert's once-over."
"I probably can't get away until the weekend. Is he in serious trouble?"
"No, dear; I've got him stable for the time being. He'll be fine for a few days. Would coming by the shelter Friday after work put too much of a crimp in your social life? Say, around 6:30 or so?" Samantha tried not to let that dig sting; Ginger knew full well that she hadn't dated, casually or seriously, in a while. And the last guy? She suppressed a shudder. The less said about The Jackass, the better. Since then, the only men she met were clients, and she categorically refused to date a client. "Besides, there's a new restaurant in town, and I've been dying for an excuse to check it out."
"That'd be great, and no, I don't have a date on Friday night, you old busybody. Can't wait to see you."
"No, Sammi, I can't wait to see you. You know, Friday would have been Tommy's and my anniversary. Now, don't you feel bad if you didn't remember; it kinda snuck up on me this year too. And ... if I can't share it with him, it'd be great to share it with someone else who I love and who loved him. Don't bring me a gift, just bring you. That's all I want for my anniversary."
They said their goodbyes, and only afterwards did Samantha realize that Ginger hadn't said what species of animal she was having a problem with. "Well," she thought, "it can't be anything too out of the ordinary; she would've mentioned it if it was. And I can always bring him back here to the hospital if I have to... assuming he'll fit in the back of the Explorer." She briefly thought about calling back to make sure it wasn't something like a horse, but Ginger had earned a lifetime supply of benefit of the doubt, So, if Ginger wanted to be playful and dramatic, she wouldn't ruin the surprise. "Watch it be a skunk. Hah... Just like her."
"But wow..." Samantha thought, "They would have been married ... what, 45 years now? Unbelievable. All that time, even after he passed away, and she loves him today like she did when she was a girl. Amazing, in this day and age ..." When you're 32, it's hard to imagine being married for that long.
"So much for step one," Ginger thought. "Now, step two."
The next morning, Archie walked into work and heard yapping. That wasn't anything new; the Animal Shelter had yapping going on 24 hours a day. But he'd taken care of every animal there, and this yapping sounded different. Younger, maybe. Sounded like ...
Sure enough, as he rounded the corner, Ginger was playing with a beagle puppy, couldn't have been more than a couple months old. Cute little guy too. "Oh Archie, thank goodness you're here! Does your landlord still allow small pets in your apartment?"
"Ginger... You know that I don't..." She cut him off, sternness in her eyes. "Archimedes Grantham, I know, and I don't care how much you 'need your space'. This little guy needs you more than you need to be alone."
Whenever Ginger pulled out the absurd formality of his full name, Archie knew that the argument was over. "What happened? When did he come in?"
"Last night." Ginger sighed. She was sighing a lot these days; he figured she was thinking about Tommy. Let's see, their 45th anniversary would have been ... day after tomorrow! No wonder she was grumpy this morning. "He got rescued last night from ... I don't want to say his name, but you're sure to recognize it. That jerk is behind bars this morning, and it's a damn good thing too, or I'd have given him the same kind of treatment he gave Gabe here."
"Do I want to know what happened to him?"
"I do know, and I sure as hell wish I didn't. Look, Archie... He needs a home. Not a shelter, not a kennel, not the best I can do here. He needs to be loved and petted and scratched behind the ears. He needs to have someone to wait for at the door. He needs someone to walk him and play with him in the park." She took two steps closer to Archie, handing him one end of a leash. "He needs you. Dogs respond to you, and you respond to them. He needs a home, and honestly, you need someone to come home to."
"Ginger, has anyone ever said 'no' to you before?"
"Nope, and you ain't gonna be the first one. Now come on, let's get Gabe checked out before he goes home with his new daddy tonight."
Archie bent down, allowing Gabe to look into his eyes. Those beautiful, puppy dog, I-need-to-be-loved, won't-you-please-love-me eyes. And he realized that today wasn't going to be the day when someone first said "no" to Ginger either.
They took their time examining Gabe, and what Archie saw got his blood boiling. There were scratches, tears in his skin where blood had dried. Clumps of fur looked like they'd been torn off his chest and belly, and Gabe flinched whenever anyone tried to touch his tail. Ginger was right; more than anything else, Gabe needed love.
"Okay, Ginger. I'll take Gabe home on two conditions. One, you give me the morning off so I can straighten up the place before he comes in."
"Eminently reasonable request, sir. Done. What's number two?"
"You let me take you out to dinner Friday night."
"Why, Archie, you old devil! Have you been looking down my shirt again?" she cackled. "Honey, I'm old enough to be your grandmother."
"No you're not, but you're closer to me than my grandmother was, and you shouldn't be alone on your ... I mean ... on a Friday night."
The smile that spread across her face made him feel warm inside, knowing he'd just done something kind for a friend who'd done so much for him. "Archie, I know what you meant. I've been able to read a calendar since I was in the 3rd grade. But it's sweet of you to remember. Only ... I have an old friend coming by for dinner on Friday night. Hey, you wanna join us? Assuming you can stomach the prospect of two women swapping 30-year-old stories and laughing our drunken heads off!"
"It's a date. And if you play your cards right, one of you old biddies just might get lucky!" They howled with laughter, while Ginger's eyes twinkled with impishness. "You be careful, whippersnapper. Shouldn't tease an old dog; you never know if she's got one more bite left in her!"
"Ginger, I don't doubt that for a second."
"Okay, boy. Get on out of here. Go home, get your place puppy-proofed, and come back this afternoon. I'll take care of the paperwork and all that stuff later."
Hopping on his bike, Archie took a moment to process the time. "Forty-five years. Wow. Amazing ..." When you're 31, it's hard to imagine being married for that long.
Ginger watched him walk to his bicycle, and thought to herself, "Step two." She had the ingredients for the stew. Now, she just had to get the fire lit and keep it simmering...