Sunday, December 28, 2014

Valentine's Day by Casey Robb

Trainee physical therapist Chuck Hunt needs to get to the airport in time for a romantic holiday with his fiancée, but one of his patients interferes; by Casey Robb.

"Let's take a break." Chuck jumped up to his feet, leaving Mandy, his young patient, lying on the red vinyl exercise mat in the Physical Therapy gym of the Austin State School. He stepped around the parallel bars, threw open the double doors and stared out at the grassy grounds. Whew, he thought, I've got to get used to the perfume here - Eau de State Institution. A gust of crisp winter air smacked him in the face, loosening strands of flaxen hair along his gaunt cheeks.

"Ah, yes," he said. "A few more months and those Texas bluebonnets will be everywhere. Can't beat a hill country wedding among the oaks. This time it'll be perfect. She is perfect - Dena, the real McCoy." He knew it. Not like his last disaster.

"But first, a sneak preview of wedded wonder - a perfect Valentine's weekend in CancĂșn. By this time tomorrow, we'll be walking on the beach, her golden hair rippling in the breeze, her moist lips... Tomorrow night, a little beer... no, not beer, wine. Dena likes wine. Then a little... well, you know..."

A sudden mess of flies whizzed into the room. "Great." He swatted at the air. "Just what we need in here." He slammed the doors shut, pulled his hair back in a ragged ponytail, and returned to the red mat.

Mandy lay on her back, her brown hair a tangle. Chuck stretched her twisted left hand slowly, and straightened her food-stained dress that sheltered her flat girl-chest.

"I love you," Mandy squealed. She grinned up at Chuck, showing her broken teeth.

"Yeah, yeah. What do you know about love?" Mandy grabbed Chuck's ponytail. "Ow! No pulling. Hey, no fair! Just because I'm new." He wiped the spit off her chin with a diaper. "Come on, stretch." Chuck pulled on Mandy's twisted left arm, gently, then a bit harder.

"Ow! You hurt me." Mandy jerked back her arm and rolled onto her side.

"Hey. Sorry." He sopped up the drool on the mat. Mandy reached over and bit his arm. "Ouch! No biting!" Mandy grinned. "Okay, on hands and knees." He flipped back her snarled hair, and shifted her weight onto her twisted left arm. "That's it. You got it. Cool." The phone rang. "Hold it." He ran to catch the phone.

"Yeah, P. T. Department."

"Chuck, it's Dena. Listen, let's go early. I know the flight's not till eight, but we could run into traffic. You know I hate the way you always cut it close. Come get me at six. We can eat at the airport."

"Damn it, Dena. I've got two patients left. And I've still got to pack." And pick up flowers, he thought, and call Dan to feed the dog, and I really should get her a card too, and...

"Chuck... if we miss that flight... You promised me this trip. To make up for all the -"

"I know, I know."

"Chuck, I swear. If you screw up one more time... like last year -"

"Come on, Dena."

"...and Christmas, and Thanksgiving -"

"Hey, I'm not always late."

"Yeah, when you show up! Oh, let's stop this. I don't even want to start. Just be there."

"Okay, calm down. I promise, Babe. Six o'clock. I'll be there. It'll be great. Sun and sea. The perfect hideaway. We can start planning the ceremony. See you in a bit. Bye."

Chuck returned to the mat. Mandy grinned up at him. "I love you," she said, squealing again.

"No you don't. What's so funny? Come on, my next patient's here." He gestured to a young man in a wheelchair chewing on his finger. Mandy collapsed on the mat in giggles.

"I'm gonna marry you some day."

"Oh, Christ. No, you're not."

"Know why? 'Cause you go faaaast. In your car. Zoooom!"

Chuck pulled her up to standing and walked with her down the corridor as she limped on her spastic left leg. They arrived at the sitting room where two other residents sat watching TV. Mandy collapsed onto a sofa. A goofy cop sitcom was blaring - Car 54 where aaaare youuuu?

A half hour later, Chuck wheeled his last patient down the corridor, wrote a quick note in the chart, and slapped it down on Andrea's desk. "Just needs a P.T.'s signature." Andrea looked up.

"Say, I've been wanting to talk to you." Andrea took off her glasses. "You shouldn't have any trouble passing probation. You're doing great. With Mandy especially. Boy, she sure likes you!" Chuck rolled his eyes. "Don't worry," Andrea added, "she's harmless. As long as you can outrun her!"

"Yeah, thanks. Christ!" he moaned as he looked at his watch. "Got to run." He rummaged through his pants pockets for his keys. "Shit!" Andrea calmly handed him his keys left on her desk. He grabbed them and ran out to the parking lot, turned the ignition, and sped out to 35th Street.

A moment later, he headed north on Mopac Expressway, turned up Aerosmith on the radio, and gunned it home. Ten minutes... fifteen... twenty. "Come on, two more exits." He squirmed in his seat and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.

In the rear view mirror, something moved.

"Jesus, fucking, Christ!" he practically screamed as a tangle of brown hair emerged into full view. Mandy yawned, leaned toward him and pressed her chin against the upholstery.

"Where we goin'?" she asked.

"How the hell did you get in here? God... dammit!" Chuck slammed the brakes and swerved into the next lane. "We're going to take you back. And fast! That's where we're going." A car blared its horn. "Out of the way! I've got to get that exit." Another horn screeched. "Damn. Missed it. The next one's right up here." He sped up again. "I can't believe this."

Mandy leaned back and started kicking the front seat. "Wheee. You go faaast."

"Hey, just... just... be quiet. I've got to think." He glanced at his watch. "Shit. There's my exit. Will just have to take you home with me. Get packed. Then drop you off on the way to the airport. No one even has to know. God, this has to be quick. Or Dena is going to shit."

"Dena, Dena, Beana, Beana."

"Stop kicking!"

"Don't yell. I don't like it when you yell."

"Then stop kicking!"

"I'm getting out now." She fumbled with the door handle.

"NO! Don't touch that door!" He reached back and pushed her hand away. "Get in the middle." He swatted at her leg. "Scoot over there. To the middle." She slid over a few inches.

"Mr. Chuck?"

"What? I'm not mister. I'm just Chuck. What?"

"I love you."

"Oh, Christ. Be quiet!"



Chuck screeched the car to a halt in his driveway, jumped out, and opened the back door. "Come on, come on." He pulled her good right arm as she limped behind him up the walk. He turned the key in the lock and threw open the door. "Now sit here on the couch and don't move."

"What's all that junk on the floor?"

"What junk?"

"And the sofa?"

"Oh, who cares? Bottles... dishes... so, I don't live in House Beautiful. Push it over and sit down."

"Hey, how come -" He planted her onto the couch.

"Ow. You're mean."

"No, I'm not. I said don't move. I'll be right back."

He went into the bedroom. The answering machine was blinking. He flipped it on.

Hey Chuck, Dena. Could you pick up some sunscreen? And DON'T FORGET THE TICKETS. They're on your dresser. See you at six. Hey, you know... maybe this is going to work out. Can't wait. Love you. Bye.

Good, no messages from work, he thought. They don't even miss her. Or maybe they're looking everywhere. I'd better call. No... no... I can get her back in a jiffy. Drop her off in the parking lot. Or I'll never make the flight. They won't even know she was gone. Now - the dog. He picked up the phone and dialed.

This here's Dan. Leave a message, man.

"Hey, Dan. Chuck. I'm gone all weekend, man. To Mexico, remember? With Dena. I forgot to tell you, can you feed Jordan? You still got the key from last time. I'll be back Sunday night. Thanks, man." He hung up.

"Mandy," he yelled from the bedroom. "I've got to feed Jordan real quick and pack." No answer. He stepped into the living room. The couch was empty. "Mandy!"

He hurried to the den and found her pulling the back door open. "No! Don't let the dog..." A huge rottweiler bounded in, swept past Mandy, and lunged at Chuck, licking at him, wagging his stub of a tail. "Down, Jordie!" Chuck shouted. The dog ran around the room and circled back to Mandy. "No, leave her alone!" He leaped at her, knocking her down, licking at her face and arms. Mandy laughed and tried to hug Jordan's neck, but he squirmed out of her grasp and ran back to Chuck, who grabbed his collar and dragged him out the back door and slammed it.

"He's funny," Mandy said.

"Yeah, well, he could've hurt you. He's just a puppy and he doesn't know how to behave. Now you get back on the couch. I've got to get out of here." He led her back to the living room and sat her down.

"What's this?" She reached for a brown bottle and put her mouth on the top.

"Don't. Give me that. Old beer. You want to drink old beer?" He grabbed it from her.

"What's this?"

"Popcorn. Stale popcorn. Here, it won't hurt you. Have some." He tossed the bowl in her lap, gathered the beer bottles, and piled them in the kitchen sink. "Look." He turned on the TV and handed her the remote. "Here, play with these buttons. I'll be right back."

Mandy poked at the remote.

From the bedroom, he saw Jordan in the back yard tearing a stuffed animal to shreds. The TV volume increased to a roar, and the monologue changed abruptly.

...THE PERFECT GIFT FOR VALENTINE'S DAY...

"Darn, got to get flowers." He opened the suitcase and crammed in jeans, T-shirts, underwear, toothbrush, comb, and razor, and tried to close it. "Come on, close. Doesn't anything work around here?" He shuffled the contents around, then squeezed hard till it snapped shut. "Good. We're outta here."

He glanced out the window. Jordan had moved out of sight. Chuck grabbed the suitcase.

"The tickets! Whew, almost forgot!" He slid them into his shirt pocket and looked at his watch. "Shit!"

The phone in the bedroom rang.

"Mandy," he yelled. "Turn the TV down!" He picked up the phone. "Yallo."

"Hi. Did you get my message?"

"What? I can't hear you."

"I said did you get my message?"

"Yeah, yeah. Hey, I can't talk. I'm in a hurry."

"Okay, okay, just wanted to make sure. What's all that noise?"

"Noise?"

"Yeah. Voices. Laughter. Is someone over there?"

"NO! No. That's just, uh, just... the TV."

"The TV? You're supposed to be here in thirty minutes."

"Uh... yeah. I wasn't watching it. Just wanted to have some noise on, you know... some sounds... voices, felt a little lonely."

"Don't tell me. You're off to a romantic Valentine's weekend with your wife-to- be and you're feeling lonely?"

"Uh... yeah... just... wanted to hear a voice, especially yours, you know... just... missing you. Can't wait to see you. Be there in a..."

That's when he saw Jordan through the side window, whizzing down the driveway with Mandy limping along after him.

"Shit! Maaaandeeee!" he yelled. Then back to the phone. "I've got to go!"

"Chuck, what the hell is going on over -"

"Nothing. Nothing -"

"Chuck, if you -"

"Listen... uh... I'll call you." Click.

He went tearing out the front door to see Jordan running down the street. "Come back here!"

"He runs fast."

"I'll tell you who's going to run fast! You! Get in the car. No, first, get in the house. Where are my keys? Hurry! Get in here."

The phone rang again as he rushed through the house. "Come on, keys... keys." He reached in his pocket. The answering machine clicked on.

Chuck. Pick up the phone. I mean it. Chuck. Pick up now. I know you're there. Who is this Mandy? What is going on over there? Chuck...

"Ah, keys! Come on, let's get that damn dog. I've got all weekend to explain."

He pulled Mandy out to the car, belted her into the front seat, and ran around to the driver's seat, and the car screeched away down the street.



A few blocks away, Chuck spotted a small crowd gathered in a yard. A little boy stood screaming. Chuck pulled the car up to the curb.

"Who the hell's dog is this?" a man yelled as he grabbed Jordan's collar.

"Ah, the kid's okay. He's just scared," came another voice. "Look, it's just a puppy. Wants to play."

"Oh, yeah? Well, that's my kid. I'll play with him okay." Jordan leaped and pulled, trying to get loose. "I'll wring his neck." Jordan finally jerked free from the man's grasp and ran to Chuck's car. Chuck took off for home with Jordan chasing. A block away, he stopped the car and let Jordan into the back seat. Jordan jumped into the front seat, licking at Mandy.

"Back, Jordie." He heaved him into the back seat. "Hey, there's a Stop-N-Go. Stay here!"

"I want crackers." She pulled on the seat belt.

"No. Stay here. Pet the doggie. See? Nice doggie." He ran into the store and came back with three carnations, a card, sunscreen, and seven packets of crackers. Mandy had unlatched the seat belt and was sitting in the back seat hugging Jordan and kissing his dog lips.

"There you go. You two are a perfect match. You both like spit."

Jordan and Mandy wrestled and fell against the door. The door flew open. Jordan went bounding out, just as a black and white police car pulled in next to them.

The officer rolled down the window. "Is that your dog?"

"Yes sir."

"Better go get him. There's been a complaint about a vicious rottweiler." The officer eyed Mandy. She grinned at him through the window.

Chuck drove till he caught up with Jordan and shoved him into the car. As Chuck headed for home, he noticed the police car following. The officer was speaking into his radio.



Back home, Chuck pulled Jordan out the car and into the house. "You bad dog!" He shoved him into the back yard.

"You bad dog. You bad dog. You sad dog." Mandy clicked her teeth.

"You be a good dog too, and sit," Chuck said to Mandy as he turned down the TV. "Here. Eat these crackers." He tossed the packets onto the couch and glanced at his watch. "Six? It can't be! Christ! Here, watch TV. I've got to feed Jordan, and -"

"Mr. Chuck?"

"What?"

"You got shoes?"

"'Course I got shoes. What do you think I got on?"

"Shoes, booze, snooze. I want to put on your shoes."

"What the... No! Why in damnation would you want to wear my shoes?"

"'Cause you run fast."

"Oh, what the hell, put my damn shoes on. Here, I'll give you five pairs. Here." He rushed to the bedroom closet and brought out an armful of shoes and dropped them on the bedroom floor. "Come on in here. Help yourself. All the shoes you want." Mandy came into the bedroom, and her eyes opened wide.

The answering machine was blinking. He flipped it on.

Hey, Chuck. Dan. Hey, sorry about the dog, man. I'm just headin' out myself. Can't do it. Hope it doesn't mess you up. Talk to you later, man.

The machine beeped and clicked to the next message.

Chuck. You better be here at six. That's ten minutes from now. You better be gone for one reason: 'cause you're on your way here. Chuck, I mean it.

The machine beeped.

Chuck, this is Andrea. Sorry to call you at home, but it's urgent. Listen, Mandy's missing. I'm sure there's nothing you can do. You're probably already at the airport. They called me at home. I came in to help look for her. She is nowhere. If you're still in town, please call. You walked her back to the sitting room, right? We called the police - they're on their way. We're thinking... well... she could have been abducted or something. I don't want to think the worst, but... Sorry to drop this on you, but if you're there... just... please call if you can. Okay? Thanks. Bye.

"Great. Now I'm a child abductor. Got to think, think. First, call Andrea. No... no time to explain. They'd ask a million questions. I'll just drop her off, quiet-like. Then we're on our way. Dena'll understand. I'll make it up to her."

He noticed the dog through the window. "Jees, what am I going to do with Jordan?" He took a blanket to the back yard and stuffed it into the dog house, poured a pile of dry dog food into a bowl, filled the water bucket, and scattered chewy toys on the lawn.

"Now, get Mandy home," he muttered. He went to the living room and turned down the blaring TV.

"Mandy? Where are you?" Mandy came scooting into the living room, dragging a man's shirt from the closet. She wore only panties and a sizeable pair of men's dress shoes.

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? PUT YOUR CLOTHES ON!"

"These are my clothes. These are my shoes."

Through the front window, Chuck noticed a black and white car pull up to the curb. Jordan barked loudly. Two officers walked up to the door and knocked - RAP, RAP, RAP.

Chuck turned to Mandy. "Get back in there. Pleeease," he whispered through gritted teeth. He led her to the bedroom, guided her into the closet, and closed the door. "And stay put!"

Chuck returned to the living room and opened the front door a crack. "Can I help you?" he asked. The officers peered into the room through the crack. "Are you the owner of a rottweiler?"

"Uh... er... " Jordan continued barking. "Yes, sir."

"We have a report says he bit someone."

"Oh, no, he couldn't have. He's friendly."

"Well, it wasn't serious, barely broke the skin. We just need to see his rabies certificate."

"Yeah, sure. Uh... just a second." He closed the front door, ran to the bedroom, and squeezed into the closet to hunt for the box of vet papers.

"Mr. Chuck. I'm wearing your shirt." Mandy grinned from the closet floor, clad only in panties, a long, open shirt and big shoes.

"Hey, that's my shirt. Put that back." She pulled herself up and scooted down the hall to the living room, the big shoes scuffing the carpet. Chuck darted after her. "Get back in here!" She tripped and fell.

"AAAAAH! I hurt myself," she screeched. He picked her up and wiped the spit off her chin. She put her arms around his neck. "Mr. Chuck."

"Shhh. Quiet. You're going back in the closet," he whispered as he closed the bedroom door behind them.

"I love you."

"Just be quiet!"

"I'm goin' to marry you some day."

"Get in the closet. I'll marry you if you stay in the closet. Deal?"

He returned to the porch and handed the vet papers through the crack in the door. The officers looked them over. "Looks okay." They glanced at each other. "Say, you got a daughter?"

"No, why?"

"Thought we heard a girl screaming."

"Oh no, that... that's just... a friend... a kid's friend... I mean a friend's kid. You know... I mean, kids, how they get, you know, rowdy and all." The officers looked at each other.

"Yeah, okay. Well, we'll be going. If you need anything, just call."

"Yeah, thanks." He shut the door and wiped a dribble of sweat running down his neck.

Back in the bedroom, Chuck grabbed Mandy's shirt and pants and squatted down in the closet. "Come on, sweetie. Wipe your chin. Put your arm in this sleeve. No, bad arm first. That one. Where are your shoes?" He grabbed them off the floor. "Here. Hurry. Hold still. Now, tie the laces. Oh, I guess you can't." He tied one shoe.

"I love you." Mandy beamed at him.

"No, you don't."

"I'm goin' to marry you."

"Yeah, right. Hold your feet still. Stop kicking!" He tied the other shoe.

'"Cause I stayed in the closet. 'Member?"

"I don't remember nothin'. Okay: suitcase... tickets... girl... everything else is in the car. We're out of here!"

The police car had vanished. But after driving a block, Chuck glanced in the rear view mirror to see two black and white cars pulling up at his house. "Jees, are they at my place? For a freakin' dog bite? Another time, man. I got a date." He turned the corner, pulled out onto the freeway, and gunned it.



Chuck sped south on Mopac toward the State School as the sky grew dark. Yes, he thought, smiling, this nightmare's about to end.

"Where we going?" Mandy asked.

"For a romantic weekend, my dear."

"Dear, dear, beer, beer. What's ro-manic?"

"Just kidding. Taking you home."

"Aaaaw. I don't want to go home. I like ridin' with you, Mr. Chuck. You go fast. Chuck, Chuck, Buck, Luck. You got luck, Mr. Lucky Chuck."

"Ha! Not today, kiddo. Not today. No luck at all. But today's bad luck is about to be dropped off at the front gate." He careened around the exit ramp to W. 35th Street to the school. "On the other hand... hmmm... tonight might be my lucky night. A few hours from now, I'll be cuddling the woman of my dreams. Might be having me a little wine, maybe a little... er... you know. Well, I guess you don't know."

At the school entrance, he noticed three black and white police cars in the parking lot. A cop sat in one car. Chuck slammed on the brakes.

"Damn! So much for dropping you off quiet-like. Now what?" He swerved the car around and headed back to the main road, glancing at his watch. "Christ!" She must be fuming." He pulled into a gas station by a pay phone. "Don't you move a muscle!" he yelled at Mandy. He slipped into the booth and called Dena. Her answering machine clicked on.

This is Dena. Sorry I missed your call. Please leave a message... that is, if you're not Chuck. If you are Chuck, don't bother... Chuck, you'd better have a royal excuse. I'm driving myself to the airport now. Alone! If you're not there at boarding time... you'd better not ever call me again.

The machine clicked off and screeched a beeeeep in his ear. Chuck slammed the phone down, jumped in the car, and gripped the steering wheel. "What the hell am I going to do with you?" he yelled.

"Dena, Dena, Queena, Queena."

"Christ, I don't care anymore." He started the engine. "Just let me find Dena. Then I'll figure it out."



At the airport, Chuck pulled up to a loading zone, ran around and opened the ear door and helped Mandy out.

"Need a wheelchair sir?" An attendant pushed up a wheelchair and helped Mandy in.

"What airline?"

"Nevermind, I got it." Chuck pushed the wheelchair up to the automatic doors.

"Sir, you can't park here. Sir... Sir!" Chuck pushed Mandy into the terminal, scanned the departure screen, then rushed to an open elevator, and slammed button two. On the second floor, he raced to Gate 7, pushing the wheelchair as Mandy careened backwards, her twisted arm waving and jerking.

"Wheee. Chuck the Buck, Chuck the Buck." He stopped dead, catapulting Mandy forward in the chair. "Whoa, bronco," she squealed. At Gate 7, a line of passengers were boarding. Dena stood by the airline counter talking to two policemen.

Oh my God, he thought. This ain't for no friggin' dog bite. They're looking for the girl. I'm a wanted man!

One of the officers glanced down the corridor. Chuck spun the wheelchair around and ducked into a throng of ticket holders at Gate 2. He watched an officer hand Dena a card. Then both cops turned and marched down the corridor. Chuck scooted behind a stout lady, looked down at his shoes, and fumbled with his pockets as the officers passed.

He glanced back at Gate 7 to see Dena look at her watch, pick up her carry-on, and march down the corridor. As she passed Gate 2, Chuck yelled, "Dena!" He backed the wheelchair up, slowly extracting himself from the horde at Gate 2. "Excuse me, excuse me," he announced as he swerved the chair around and raced down the corridor, dodging people and luggage. "Dena," Chuck cried. Dena continued walking, way ahead, through the crowd. "Dena!" She reached the down escalator and disappeared.

"Dena, Dena, Beana, Beana," Mandy chanted.

"Shit!" Chuck veered the wheelchair to the elevator and began slamming buttons. When he reached the first floor, he pushed Mandy's chair through the crowd, yelling, "Excuse me, excuse me."

He passed the two cops sitting on swivel chairs in the Terminal Cafe sipping coffee. Chuck slunk past the cafe and rushed out to the street. But Dena had vanished.

The attendant stood patiently waiting by his car. "They tried to tow your car away, mister. I told 'em you was coming right back, that you had a handicapped lady -"

"Thank you, thank you. Here." Chuck pulled a twenty from his wallet and stuck it out to the attendant, pulled Mandy up from the chair, and guided her into the front seat, then drove off, swerving into the exit lane.

"That was fun, Mr. Buck. You go fast."

"Dena'll be home soon. I'll call her." Chuck pulled onto the freeway. "But now... Where to now? Some place not crawling with cops." He merged into the fast lane. "Somewhere I can think. Where? Where? Where to next?"

"Next," Mandy announced, "off to a romanic weekend."



The Mule Kick Motel sat on a remote road on the outskirts of town, its green paint peeling and half its windows broken out. Chuck pulled into the empty drive in the courtyard and parked at the office.

"Stay there and don't move," Chuck pleaded. Mandy was waving Dena's pink carnations around as Chuck ran in. "Got a room?" he asked.

The elderly clerk raised his eyebrows above thick bifocals, peered out to the car, and smiled at Chuck.

"Sure. We always got rooms."

"I need a quiet place. Off the street. With two beds."

"Hmmm." The clerk glanced out to the car. "Sorry, all the rooms are the same. Each room's got one bed. One double bed."

"Darn."

"Expectin' company? Hey, don't be 'shamed. Lots of folks... uh... you know, like company. But you got to pay extra."

"No... no... that's okay... no company."

"Just the two of ya, huh? That'll be fifteen, then. Twenty, with champagne. Got a special offer for the sweethearts, seeing as how it's Valentine's Day and all. A special for you and the little lady."

"Got any beer?"

"Nope, just champagne. Bought it myself, down at the Piggly Wiggly. If it don't sell, I'll drink it myself."

"Give me two." The clerk brought the bottles out on a brown cafeteria tray with plastic champagne glasses, and two little pink heart-shaped candies.

"Got the candies down at the Piggly Wiggly too."

Chuck let the office door slam behind him and drove around to Room 12. He and Mandy entered the room. He flipped on the light switch. "Great, no light." He tried the lamp. "Good. At least something works." Mandy crawled into bed and snuggled under the covers. "Yuck." Chuck wrinkled his nose. "This place smells. What is it? Sweat? Stale beer? No, worse. Kind of reminds me of..." He glanced at Mandy, then opened a champagne bottle and started pacing.

"Okay, now - a plan. I need a plan. Call her tomorrow. She's got to listen. Damn, damn, damn." He took a long swig. "She'll talk to the police, straighten all this out." He stepped into the bathroom and took a piss.

"Say," he announced from the doorway. Then he paused. "What am I thinking? Why would I want help from her? I'm a grown man, right? Right? I got myself into this mess and, by dammit, I can get myself out." Another pause. "Who is she to be helping me, anyway?"

"Who? Who?" Mandy blurted out.

"If she hadn't rushed me, I wouldn't even be here. Isn't that right? If she hadn't been in such a goddamn hurry. Yeah... so maybe it's her fault. Isn't it? Isn't it, Mandy?"

"Yeah," Mandy echoed, and grinned. Chuck started pacing again, bottle in hand.

"Always rushing me. Can't even be fuckin' on time, gotta be early." He took another swig, then another. "What's with her anyway. What's always with her. Like she's got a bee in her butt."

"Bee in her butt. Bee in her butt."

"Yeah," Chuck went on. "Always so goddamn demanding! I always wanted to be as good as her. As good as her? Ha! She's just a hotty-tot." He took a long chug. "Nothing's ever good enough for her. Wants this just so, and that just so. Well, I'm not just so. I'm me!"

"Yeah. I'm me!" Mandy grinned.

"Say, you know what?" Chuck sat down on the bed, guzzled more champagne, and wiped his chin with his sleeve. "Maybe I just won't call her at all." He kicked off his shoes, grabbed one and threw it against the wall. "Who needs her?"

"Yeah. Who needs her!" she echoed.

"To hell with her. That's what I say. To hell with her!" He swung his fist through the air, snagging the lamp. It crashed to the floor. "TO HELL WITH HER!" He dropped his head in his hands and sobbed.

"Mr. Chuck?"

"... Always her way never happy..." He snorted and coughed.

"Mr. Chuck?"

"...Friggin' snob... damn parents... never good enough... nothin' is... damnit... "

"Mr. Chuck?"

"...Her dad hates me... damn Valentine's Day..."

"MR. CHUCK?"

"WHAT?" Mandy nestled closer and offered the corner of the sheet.

"Spit, spit, shit, shit. Wipe your spit, Mr. Chuck. Wipe your spit." Chuck snorted with laughter, then cried some more, and fell on the bed shaking in hysterics.

Mandy sopped up his face and chin with the sheet. She pulled the blanket up over his chest and cuddled close.

"No, no, no," Chuck insisted. "Off the bed! I ain't sleepin' with no spit-face."

"NO. I gonna sleep right here. Next to you, Chuck the Buck."

Chuck sighed. He kicked the blanket off and lay down on the dirty stained carpet. Mandy sat by him on the floor and covered him with the blanket. She tucked the blanket under his chin.

Chuck yawned and turned on his side. "...Got to... sleep," he mumbled. Mandy cuddled closer.

"Mr. Chuck?"

"Hmmm?"

"Are we married?"

"Are we what?"

"Married. You know. 'Member? In the closet?"

"Yeah, yeah, right. We're married. Now go to sleep."

"Mr. Chuck?"

"What?"

"I love you."



It was almost dawn when Chuck woke to the pop and crunch of gravel under tires. His back hurt from the hard floor and his head ached. He heard Mandy get off the bed and saw her limp to the window and pull the curtain.

"Mandy," he mumbled. "Go back to sleep." He pulled the blanket over his head.

"Neat-o," she squealed. "Car 54 where aaaaare youuuuuu?"

"Mandy, my head hurts." He groaned. "It's too early. Quit playing. Get away from the window."

A floodlight burst into the room, casting Mandy's shadow against the wall.

"Wow!" Mandy covered her eyes.

A voice boomed out of a bull horn: "Charles Hunt! Give up the girl and come out!" Chuck sat up stiffly.

"Neat-o." Mandy squealed. She lifted the sliding window and yelled, "Car 54, we're not coming out! 'Cause know what? We're married!"

Then a different voice sounded through the bull horn, a voice that felt like a sharp nail in his already-pounding skull. "Chuck, this is Dena. Please come out. They have guns drawn. I mean it, Chuck. Please." Chuck jumped out of bed. "Chuck! CHUCK!"

He rushed to join Mandy in the floodlight at the window and shielded his eyes to see three squad cars, six cops, and Dena holding a bull horn.

Then the male voice blasted again. "Charles Hunt. It's no use. Give it up." Chuck stood frozen; his mouth was glue, his mind was Jello. He saw the cop with the megaphone motion to his buddies. Four of the cops pulled pistols from their holsters and crept slowly toward the room.

"CHUUUCK!" Dena threw down her bull horn and sprinted ahead of the cops.

"Hey, lady. Get back! You're going to get yourself killed."

"Don't hurt him!" Dena screamed. To Chuck, it seemed the world had turned to Silly Putty, in a slow-motion taffy pull. Like in a dream, Dena ran toward the room, leaping on one leg, then the other, and the next. She ran ahead of the guns.

And that's when he got it. As if for the first time, it was suddenly clear - Dena was always running to him, running and grabbing him, holding him, after him. And what had he been doing all along? He'd been dodging her. Showing up late, making excuses. Because he was never good enough. Well, by golly, he thought, she must know something I never knew. I am good enough!

"Chuck!" Dena yelled as she ran. "I LOVE YOU!"

Chuck yanked open the door and ran to her, slowly, like a dream. After what seemed an eon, and with six guns pointed at them, they met in a collision, a tangle of arms and hair.

"I love you too!" Chuck yelled, trying to find her lips in the tangle.

Mandy limped quietly through the door and across the gravel, like an afterthought. An officer led her to Andrea who stood waiting by the police car. Andrea wrapped her in hugs.

"Stay with her in the car," the officer instructed. Andrea put Mandy in the back seat of the police car and sat by her, holding her good right hand.

"Dang," Andrea cried. "I've got to talk to Chuck. Now!" She scooted out the car door and leaned in, pointing a finger at Mandy. "You stay right here and don't move!"

When Andrea closed the car door, she did not see Mandy's good right leg jut out. She did not see Mandy's right shoe wedged in the door like a doorjamb.

Suddenly, a police radio blared out: Code 3, Code 3. An emergency call! Four officers ran to their cars and jumped in. The two squad cars pulled out of the lot, tires screeching, gravel flying, their sirens screaming as they careened onto the main road.

The two remaining cops stood by Chuck. One unwound his hands from Dena. The other clicked on handcuffs. Andrea walked over to them.

"You have the right to remain silent," the officer recited to Chuck.

"I'll get you an attorney," Dena said.

"Chuck -" Andrea tried to break in.

"Please stand back," the cop said. "He is under arrest."

Andrea tried again. "I just need to know - why? How did it happen?"

Then, to Chuck, the officer continued, "You have been charged with felony child abduction."

"Dena loves me," Chuck announced to the cop, smiling.

"In the car, Mr. Hunt." The cop pushed him toward the squad car.

As he leaned down to crawl into the back seat, he turned and shouted, "Dena! Next year... Valentine's Day..."

"In the car, Mr. Hunt." The officer pushed his head down and guided him in.

"...A cabin... hill country... bluebonnets..."

"Are you sure? Do you mean it?" Dena asked.

"Hey," he yelled as the car pulled away. "I'll be there!"



Across the courtyard, another guest at the Mule Kick Motel was peeking through the blinds. Joe Connors had been sleeping soundly in Room 6. Joe wasn't his real name. Joe was the name on his latest fake I.D. He'd had the name for two weeks now, and had gotten used to it. 'Karl Watson' was wanted in Missouri for check forgery, 'John Schuman' for larceny in North Carolina, and 'Frank Dole' for skipping bail on a shoplifting charge in Oregon. Texas was new territory, safe. He was no wanted man here. And he had enough cash to last the year. He could relax for a while.

Joe had jolted awake at five a.m. when the bull horns blasted. Through the blinds, he watched a cluster of cop cars across the courtyard at Room 12.

"Oh... my... God...," he whispered.

Cops made Joe sweat. He watched the guns drawn, watched that crazy blonde run into the floodlight, and saw this guy run out. They collided and kissed. Two of the cop cars screeched away on an emergency call. Then they handcuffed the guy.

Joe's panic moved into full gear. He stuffed his toothbrush, slacks, and shirt into his small black travel bag, threw on his jacket, and slipped out the door, taking a quick left down the corridor between rooms. Behind the motel, where he'd hidden his car, he tossed his bag in the front seat and jumped in. He turned the key. The motor hummed quietly. He drove slowly around the back of the building with his headlights off, turned right onto the main road, and headed north till the motel was far behind.

"Whew." Joe let out a long breath. "That was too close." He lit his headlights, and gave himself an attaboy with a hint of a smirk. Then he headed west on a side street till he reached Interstate 35 - a straight shot to Dallas. On to Tulsa, he thought. Maybe Oklahoma is safer after all. Joe drove up the interstate on-ramp and merged into the pre-dawn traffic.

Suddenly, in the rear view mirror, a tangle of brown hair emerged into view. A girl with broken teeth leaned forward and pressed her wet chin against the upholstery.

"Where we goin'?" she asked.

"Oh, my God!" Joe yelled as he swerved out of his lane. A car blared its horn.

"Wheee. You go faaast." She squealed and grinned, and kicked the back of his seat. "Know what? I love you."

4 comments:

  1. this is a roller coaster ride, but it all seems credible with well drawn characters and a convincing but breathless story!
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Just like one of those dreams when you're urgently trying to get somewhere important and everything keeps stalling and getting in the way! The characters are believable, and the dilemmas engage the reader. Well done,
    Ceinwen

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  3. I'm exhausted after reading this tense thriller! The line "I've got to get used to the perfume here - Eau de State Institution" made me laugh and think, "This is going to be a good story." Great job naming the "Mule Kick Motel." No need to describe the place with a name like that. The author does an excellent job of "showing" instead of "telling" and the twist at the end is fantastic.

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  4. This takes you on a thrilling journey with a good ending. Well done!

    ReplyDelete