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John Longbottom

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The following morning Charlie woke up with a start. He’d been having a bad dream, the details of which were rapidly fading in his memory. Ellie and Lynn were in it, screaming. There was a flood and Wilbur was being washed away by the rushing water. Charlie did not put much store by dreams even though Ellie had liked to “dabble a bit” as she used to put it, but this one stuck in his mind and it disturbed him.

He felt a twinge in his back as he rose up to get out of bed. 

“Dammit,” he said, sitting on the side of the bed rubbing his back. 

“Dammit to hell,” he said again as his left knee gave way when he tried to walk over to the window to check the weather. He managed to limp across the room.

“Dammit,” he said once more when he saw the black storm clouds building over the river in the distance.

While one side of his mind was trying to sort out the dream, the other side had been planning to spend some time with Wilbur, take him for a walk and then go into town to the diner and spend some time with his buddies over coffee and cake or maybe a jelly donut. His mood brightened a little as he was getting dressed and doing his bathroom stuff when, remembering the old adage, “rain before seven, fine before eleven,” he realized that it was six-thirty. The storm might have time to run its course and be gone by ten thirty. Poor Wilbur would have to wait but he’d have plenty of time to get to the diner. He didn’t like to drive in heavy rain because the wipers on his truck didn’t work too well.

There were no sounds coming from Lynn’s room, so he crept quietly down the stairs, started the coffee and fed Wilbur in the barn. He spent a few moments petting and talking to Wilbur and made it back to the house just as the rain started to fall. The wind came up and the rain beat against the house. Charlie watched it through the kitchen window for a while, hoping that Wilbur would be okay; the vestiges of the bad dream still lingering in his mind. Deciding to do some paperwork he took his coffee into the office. 

“Dammit,” he said as he looked at the pile of receipts. He was normally very conscientious about keeping his accounts up to date and his checkbook balanced. With a deep sigh, he dove into the pile of papers. By the time he was finished, the rain had stopped, and he could see the sun shining through the window. After putting everything away and leaving his desk neat and tidy he headed for the kitchen, where he also cleaned up. Then he grabbed his keys and was heading for the door.

“Dammit,” he said as he remembered he’d promised to leave a note which he was starting to write when Lynn wandered into the kitchen. 

“Boy, are my muscles sore this morning,” she said, stretching her arms above her head.

“I was just writing you a note,” said Charlie, showing her both the pen and the paper. “Will you be alright if I go into town and meet my friends at the diner?”

“Sure,” replied Lynn. “I was thinking of going into Wal-Mart to pick up some stuff in any case.” There was not a hint of fear or anger in her eyes that Charlie could detect. “Er, do you have a spare key?” She asked.

“We don’t need to lock our doors ‘round here,” Charlie replied.

“Well, it’s just my stuff I’m worried about and the gun,” said Lynn.

“Ah yes, the gun,” said Charlie. He handed her a key from a row of hooks by the back door. “Wilbur will be okay; I’ve fed him and you can leave the barn open for him.”

“Right you are,” said Lynn brightly. “Off you go then.”

“Phew,” said Charlie for no particular reason as he limped down the new, non-creaking steps, across the yard and got into his truck.

“Dammit,” he said. He’d left the window slightly open, and the seat was wet. He wiped it with his sleeve and got back into the truck, his bad knee protesting every movement. Another, “Dammit,” came out again as the truck wouldn’t start. It always struggled to catch after it had rained. Charlie finally got the truck started and away he happily went, a man and his truck. 

Lynn had come outside to check on the weather and was standing on the new steps. Wilbur, unsure of whether to follow the truck or stick with Lynn, finally reached a decision and chose Lynn. She had the treats after all. Not this morning, though but she made a fuss of him and, watching the truck bounce and disappear down the road she said, “Sometimes he’s like a little boy. He can’t hide his feelings. And other times he’s like a…” she searched for the right word. “…a statue.” 

She cast an admiring glance at the new steps then went inside to gather up her things and put on a light jacket against the after-storm-chill. She was coming out of the upstairs bathroom when she heard Wilbur barking and a car pull into the yard. There was a tense moment or two when she thought she was going to have another anxiety attack but with a deep breath, it was gone. For a second, she thought of grabbing her gun, then decided against it. That was the correct decision, she realized, when she peeked out of the back door and saw the sheriff getting out of his car.

“Morning, Ms. Ashcroft,” said the sheriff, touching his hat. “Charlie around?” For some reason Wilbur was at ease with letting the sheriff into the yard.

“No, he’s out running a few errands,” replied Lynn.

“Probably at the diner then,” said the sheriff smiling. “It’s you I came to see, ma’am,” he said. “I just came to warn you that Schultz, that FBI agent, has still got a grudge against you. The other one, Lawrence, she’s cleared you and gone but he’s still around. He can’t do much about the case, but he can give you a hard time in other areas. If you get my drift. I know you are an attorney and know your rights better than anyone, but just be careful ‘cos he’ll be watching for ya. Don’t speed, don’t run a light, just stick to the straight and narrow. He’s a small-minded man and those are the worst kind.”

Lynn was silent for a moment and then asked, “Why are you telling me this, Sheriff Watkins?” She wanted him to know that she remembered his name.

“I consider Charlie to be a friend of mine and you’re his family. You can tell him that I was here and what I’ve said but I wouldn’t tell anyone else. Have a good day, ma’am.” The sheriff touched his hat again and turned to get back in his car.

“Sheriff,” Lynn called after him, “thank you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, got in his car and drove away.

“What do you think of that?” Lynn asked Wilbur, then she went inside and got him a doggie biscuit.

While Lynn was dealing with the law in its various forms, Charlie was the center of attention in the diner. He’d been treated like the prodigal son returning, you would have thought he’d been gone for a year and not a few days. Trixie gave him a jelly donut, “on the house” and he wasn’t allowed to pay for his coffees. All his friends wanted to know everything about Lynn and the FBI, but Charlie said it was Lynn’s business to tell and she wasn’t here and he wouldn’t tell. 

This caused a little grumbling but no hard feelings as the guys had plenty of other news and gossip to share. Listening to them talk and squabble over who was going to tell what next, Charlie felt at home, or at least in a comfortable and safe place. Dammit, he had missed it. He learned from three different mouths, sometimes simultaneously, that the Sunset Inn had closed permanently. That the owner was one of the shooting victims. That the owner had been running a sex trafficking operation out of the hotel. That’s why there were so many foreign people working there. That Mrs. Appleby was seen cuddling and kissing “Baldy” Beasley in his Cadillac outside the Starlight Lounge on highway 51. Charlie stayed for a couple of hours and then, with his head reeling from all the gossip and his heart warmed by the reconnection, he got up to leave.

When he finally turned onto the dirt road, it made Charlie happy to see Wilbur waiting in his usual spot and Lynn’s car was there when he pulled into the yard. She was nowhere to be seen when he walked into the house and feeling the effects of the numerous coffees at the diner, Charlie went to the bathroom. When he came out, Lynn was waiting in the kitchen with a big smile on her face. There was a big box, wrapped in fancy paper with a big red ribbon around it, sitting on the table.

A little uncertain of how Charlie would react, Lynn said, “I bought you a present.” Then she tapped the big box and said, “This is for you.” Charlie just stood there staring at the box until Lynn said, “Dammit Charlie, open it for heaven’s sake.”

He ripped off the fancy paper and saw that it covered a box containing a brand-new circular saw. A good one, at that. Yesterday, he’d mentioned to Lynn that his saw had just about had it. Now she had bought him a new one. He didn’t know what to say and he felt his own eyes tearing up. “Thank you,” was all he managed to say.

“Ah, come here,” said Lynn, and gave him a big hug. By now Charlie was totally embarrassed. He literally didn’t know where to turn and sensing he was feeling uncomfortable, Lynn retreated into the bathroom to give him some privacy. Sitting on the commode, killing time, she wondered why the word ‘privy’ was no longer in popular use as it was far more appropriate than the cumbersome and largely inaccurate word ‘bathroom’. During this lengthy mental discourse on toilet nomenclature, Lynn heard two muffled “dammits” and a door slam shut, which she supposed signified Charlie’s exit from the house.

When she returned to the kitchen both Charlie and the box were missing, so she started making lunch which in turn spawned yet another foray into the capricious world of terms and word usage. 

When Charlie returned and they were sitting at the table eating, Lynn told him of the sheriff’s visit. Charlie said, “He’s a good man, that Tom Watkins. He’s a good sheriff; he’s fair and honest and he’s good for this town. He don’t put up with any BS and he don’t go over the line. That was good of him to come here. I’ll have to thank him.”

Then Lynn wanted his opinion on what to do about special agent Schultz. “And if you say, ‘I know nothing,’ I’ll smack you,” she added.

Charlie smiled and said, “Truth is I really do know nothing. Dealing with the law and these people is your expertise. I’m just a simple farmer.”

“Oh, puh-lease,” said Lynn rolling her eyes.

Charlie wanted to know how exactly Schultzie could harass her. She said that as far as the Sunset Inn case was concerned, she’d been signed off by his boss SAC Lawrence and she’d heard they were close to catching a suspect for the shootings. Schultz could, however, make her life miserable by pulling her over for spot checks. If a regular cop pulled her over for something, Schultz could insist on apprehending her. If she were apprehended, he could use delay tactics as her case went through the system causing her to be held longer than usual. She and her firm were not on great terms with the FBI, and they could very well drag their feet if a complaint for harassment were filed.

“The bottom line is,” concluded Lynn, “I’ve got to watch my ass. Come to think of it, I should never have gone into town by myself. I need to try and have a witness with me at all times. That means, Charlie, that you and I are stuck together until this thing blows over.”

“Is that what they call, ‘hazardous duty’?” Charlie wanted to know.

“On top of all this, it’s been a bit of a dammit day. My boss called, they have another big case just dropped in their laps and they want me to come back to work.” Lynn was talking more than eating but Charlie didn’t want to interrupt her. “I’ve got one more week of vacation left, and I was hoping to spend it here with you and Wilbur. I’m just beginning to relax and have a good time. Oh hell, I don’t know what to do. Why does life have to be so complicated?” She stopped talking, looked down at her food and pushed the plate away saying, “I’ve lost my appetite, sorry.”

Charlie got up and busied himself with clearing and washing the dishes. He didn’t speak, he merely focused on doing the dishes. When he was through, he turned to Lynn and said with a voice as gentle as a baby’s breath, “I think you and I both know the answer.” Then he quietly walked outside to the barn with Wilbur faithfully by his side. There was a great heaviness in his heart as he worked to finish the rocking chair. As he became absorbed in his work the world and its troubles slowly began to melt away, but like the storm clouds of this morning, he could sense the dark feeling of loneliness building in the distance. 

After a couple of hours of uninterrupted work, the rocking chair was finished. Charlie hit the back of it, making it rock and said, “Whaddaya think, Wilbur? Think she’ll like it?” Wilbur looked up without moving his head and gave his signature single “whump” of the  tail. “Yeah, me too,” said Charlie, pleased at how the chair had turned out. Charlie adopted a conspiratorial tone saying, “Now we’ve got to sneak it onto the porch without Lynn seeing.” This time, Wilbur raised his head up, preparing to stand up, sensing something interesting in the air.

Charlie cleaned up his workspace in the barn then went to the back door to peek in through the glass. He couldn’t see her anywhere inside and she wasn’t on the front porch either when he checked that. “Maybe she’s gone for a walk.” he said to Wilbur. “Nah, she would have taken you,” he added. He tiptoed, as best an old man could, across the porch and quietly opened the door into the house. Sticking his head inside, he could hear Lynn’s muffled voice from somewhere in the house and her footsteps as she paced back and forth. She’s probably in her bedroom on the phone. he thought.

He scurried back outside saying, “C’mon Wilbur, we gotta be quick about this.” The pair of them trotted ungracefully back to the barn where Charlie picked up the rocking chair and carried it back to the porch. Finding little of interest in this back and forth from the house, Wilbur gave up and lay back down in the barn. On the porch, Charlie carefully placed the rocking chair next to his side of the couch, wishing he could find the cushion that Ellie had made, but this would have to do.

He was carrying the dirty old plastic chair back to the barn when Lynn came out of the back door saying, “Couldn’t wait for me to leave, huh?”

“Dammit,” said Charlie, deciding not to answer her.

When he came back into the house, Lynn was bright and cheerful again. She had sorted out her feelings and placed them in their separate compartments. But, with one look, Charlie knew that she’d made her decision and she would be leaving soon.

“Wanna go out for dinner, my treat,” asked Lynn. “I saw a Chinese place when I was in town. Wanna go there for a change?” She wanted a neutral place for their last meal together. Charlie didn’t like talking about private stuff in public. Hell, she thought, Charlie don’t like talking about private stuff, period. She was dreading the inevitable goodbyes and didn’t want to get all sloppy and sentimental. She knew she would lose it and bawl her eyes out.

Charlie was the opposite. He wanted a quiet last supper with Lynn alone not wanting to share her or the evening with a bunch of strangers. Besides, he still had a few things he wanted to show to Lynn before she left.

“You don’t want to go to that place,” said Charlie.

Lynn had a wry grin as she retorted, “Don’t tell me it’s a bad place, like the Sunset Inn. Don’t tell me it’s the headquarters of the local Triads?”

Charlie didn’t know what a triad was. He simply said, “Nope. The food’s real bad.” After a pause, he continued, “I was going to do hamburgers on the grill, with corn and then I have a surprise for you.”

© John Longbottom 2021

Photo: M. Steele

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