I felt my phone vibrating. It was daylight, and I was still in bed. Who would call me? Oh, my head. Hello. My name is Maggie Kincaid, and I am a once-a-year alcoholic. I blame my family. The rehearsal dinner was a grog-fest in the true Australian tradition. Before I returned to my cabin, my children all high-fived one another on a successful “piss-up.” Yep, it was the traditional alcoholic-fueled orgy that my Australian-born kids expected.
I reached for the phone and dropped it twice before I answered it. I didn’t have my reading glasses, and considering my condition, I wasn’t sure the glasses would help, anyway. “Hello? Not sure who you are, but it’d better be good.”
“It’s your soon-to-be husband. Where are the rings, darlin’?”
“In the safe, where you put them. Collie, what are you doing up so early?”
“Are you serious? You realize I’m cooking breakfast for about thirty people?”
A Man’s Worth
One more ring, and I knew my call would go to voice mail. My sister finally answered. “What?”
“Hey, it’s me, your favorite sister.” Crap, I didn’t think of the time zone. “Sorry, did I wake you up?”
“No. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Of course you did. Unless Mom or Dad lied, you’re my only sister. Call back in an hour.”
She’s pissed. Not a great way to ask for a favor. “Okay, but I need a ride from the airport tomorrow. I’ll text you the details later.”
“Is it over? Are you finally coming back?” I heard the disdain in her voice.
“Yeah, go back to bed. We can talk later.”
“I’ll call you when I’m awake.” Control was my sister’s weapon of choice. I accepted it and her need to one-up me on every occasion.
I packed my bags and prepared to leave his house. His children will arrive tomorrow for the funeral, and I will be gone before they come. The funeral will only be for his children. I wasn’t invited. It didn’t matter. We said our goodbyes days ago before he slipped into a coma.
I knew my sister was calling when the phone rang three hours later. No one else would call me at this hour. “What time?”
“Ten-thirty. I’ll call you when the plane lands.”
“Two years, Hayles. I hope he was worth it.”
Two years earlier: “Hayley? Is that you?” There was no mistaking the voice. It was my boss from over twenty years ago.
“Hey, Doc. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in how many years?”
“I called you last Christmas. Don’t you remember?” Doc’s voice was as strong as ever.
“Uh, no. Must have been one of your other girlfriends.”
He laughed. “I have a proposition for you. How would you like to come and work for me?”
“Gee, I’m honored, but I’ve retired. I thought you had as well.”
Doc hired me straight out of school to work in his equine vet clinic. I worked for him for ten years until I met my husband and moved to Georgia, where I lived and worked until I retired. Doc was fifteen years older than me and had retired only a few years ago.
“Are you still married to that idiot?” Typical and to the point, my former boss is laying it on the line.
“No, I divorced the idiot twenty years ago. How about you? How’s Myrna?”
“Off with the fairies. I’ve got her in a home. I tried to keep her here, but the damn kids took her away. It got to be a bit much. I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
“I’m sorry, I had no idea.” I felt profound sorrow for the man. I knew how much he loved her. Still, what was my role in his plan?
“Life goes on, Hayley. I’ve adjusted.”
I wasn’t convinced. “Doc, I can’t just come out at the drop of a hat. I have a life. I have kids and grandkids.”
“Hayley, don’t lie to me. Your kids are no more family than mine. I talked to Ted the other day. He says you’re sitting on your ass all day. I need help with a project. You’re the one who can help me. Do you need money for a plane ticket?”
“You talked to Ted? How is he? The last time I saw Ted was at his funeral. You do know he died a few years ago, don’t you?”
Doc snorted. “Bullshit. Are you sure about Ted Gregory? Damn, no one told me. Now, get your sorry ass and your typewriter out here. We can’t waste any time.”
“Doc, let me think about it. What kind of help?” Was this man losing his marbles? Ted worked with me when I began my career at Doc’s clinic. We had a brief fling, and then he left the practice and started a vet clinic in Arizona.
Doc didn’t wait for a reply. The phone went dead. What did he want? Maybe he’s writing something and needs help? Why was I even considering this? I loved my life. I wrote articles for veterinary journals and novels, fished, and… But what was the “and” these days? The kids had moved to Texas to join one of the many burgeoning tech companies. We talked once a week. My dog, Little Miss Bossy Boots, died three months ago. I hadn’t even contemplated replacing her. I wanted some time to travel without worrying about a dog.
I texted him. How long and how soon?
Now, and I don’t know but not long, he responded.
I called the vacation rental company I had used before and arranged to lease my house for a month. I’d done it many times. It was easy. My personal possessions could be put into one room which I could lock. I called the airline and made reservations.
I made my final text for the day. Arrival ten-forty-five, Thursday.
I sat down and made a list of what I needed to do before I left and went down to the creek to fish one more time. The water was getting hot, and fishing in my stream would end soon. It was too stressful on my trout when the oxygen levels dropped in the heat. At least I could fish in Doc’s lake.
I opened my phone as I landed. Doc had sent a text message.
Look for a red Ford F-250 and a very handsome driver. I’ll be behind it in the next red truck.
I laughed. He still had a great sense of humor. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, but he was good-looking in his youth. Weren’t we all?
I saw a red F-250 and waved. The driver signaled back and then proceeded to drive on past. It wasn’t him, and I felt foolish. This was like high school when I had a crush on Darren McMasters and waved to him when he smiled at me. Thankfully, Darren didn’t notice me as he smiled at Candy Petersen standing behind me.
Several minutes later, a second older red truck pulled up. Doc appeared pale and thin. I held out my thumb, hoisted my bag into the back seat of the dual cab, and climbed in. He reached over and kissed me. He smelled the same—Old Spice and cigars. There was a cigar butt in the ashtray.
I couldn’t help myself. “You know those things will kill you.”
“Too late. I’m on my way out but not from smoking.” He stared straight ahead, as many elderly drivers do.
Shocked, I glanced at him and then looked away. “I’m guessing you aren’t joking.”
“You guessed right—lymphoma. But that’s not public knowledge. Only my doctor knows. You hungry?”
I was starving. “No, I can wait. Do we need to stop at the store before heading out?”
“That depends. You still a gin drinker and meat-eater?” He gripped the steering wheel like an older driver. Doc had aged.
“I don’t eat as much meat as I used to, but I’m easy with whatever you want to eat.” I glanced at him again. He was eighty-two by my reckoning and still appeared vigorous, but his hair had thinned, and his tan had faded. “You want to tell me why I’m here?”
“Can you wait until we get to the house? We’re stopping at the home, so I can see the inmates. You’ll have to stay in the truck. I can leave the AC on if you like. I’ll only be a minute. I like to check up on her and make sure she’s getting what she needs. You can’t trust these people.”
An hour later and an elevation rise enough to give me a nosebleed, we were in my old stomping grounds. The town was twice the size of what I remembered. The aged care home, Greenbriar, needed paint but appeared to be in reasonable shape. People came and went through the glass doors, and they seemed happy. How could you tell, though?
I rolled down the window. “I’m good. Stay as long as you want.”
“It’s the ‘want’ that’s the killer. I never want to come here. They need to change the wedding vows. Till death or dementia do us part. I’ll be quick. There’s more. I’ll explain later.”
He stepped out of the truck, and I could see his unsure stride. We’d both aged, but we weren’t ready for the home. I wasn’t the young girl when we met over how many years ago? As he emerged from the facility, he shook his head. He climbed into the truck and, without a word, drove to a small diner.
“Last chance for a decent meal, kid.” He smiled and placed his hand on the small of my back as he guided me through the restaurant’s door.
“Hi, Doc.” The greeter knew him and pointed to a booth. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please, Sal. This is Hayley. She’s one of my former employees. She’s here to help me with a project.”
Sal acknowledged me. She cocked her head, waiting for me to give her my drink order.
Knowing I needed to maintain hydration at this elevation, I replied, “Just water, thanks.”
We sat at a booth, and Doc folded his hands and leaned forward. “I usually get the breakfast special, but it’s almost lunch, so have what you want. By the way, you look great.”
“Thanks, and one small detail—why the hell am I here?”
The waitress arrived with coffee and water and asked if we were ready to order. “I’ll have what Doc is having.”
She smiled. “Easy done. It’ll just be a sec.” She turned to the counter and held up two fingers.
“I liked the book you wrote.” He smiled and placed his hand on mine.
“Which one? I thought you were a classics kind of guy.”
“The one about fishing. We can fish when we get to the house. I want to explain what I have in mind, and I need to show you something first. Do you mind waiting until after dinner?”
I was dubious. I felt there must be something he wasn’t telling me. “All right. Have you fished lately?”
“No. That’s part of the reason you’re here. My kids don’t like me fishing alone, and I promised Myrna that I would outlive her. It’s a bit of a race to the end.” He sighed and searched for Sal.
“What’s taking them so long?”
Our food came, we ate, Doc paid the bill and tip, and we drove into the hills and went in through a private gated entrance to his house. The gate was open and appeared to have been disabled.
“Jesus, it’s magnificent. How long have you lived here?” The house was a single story with many-windowed rooms facing the lakeshore. The structure stood several feet above the waterline with a large veranda skirting the entire house. The modern and light theme carried from the living room into the kitchen. The clear, expansive view from the living room peered over the lake and the small floating dock anchored to the sandy shoreline. A separate three-bay garage sat behind the home.
He insisted on carrying my bag to my room. After placing it on the bed, he pointed to the dresser. “Yes, some have confused me with Jesus, but since I retired, I don’t confuse anyone anymore. I built it shortly after you left. Myrna announced that if she was going to be a vet’s widow, she wanted to live in a place where she was happy living alone. Get your fishing gear on, sweetheart. I have needs.”
A kayak sat tethered to a nearby tree stump. Doc told me to get in, then he pushed it out over the water and joined me. He appeared to be strong, and I could see his mood lift. He indicated we were going to a cove down the way. A few other homes were along the lake, and a woman waved from her deck as we passed their house. Why did his family ask him not to fish alone?
We entered the cove, and Doc used his paddle to nudge me in the back. He had already selected flies for us to use. “You first, Hayles.” I let out some line, and after two false casts, I let the fly land near the bank. The strike was immediate. That was how the afternoon went. After catching two fish, I watched Doc cast and land another good-sized trout.
“This lake is stocked. How about a trout dinner?”
“I won’t say no.” I glanced around. “Yep, the coast is clear. No purists around to admonish us for not releasing the little buggers.”
We returned to the house, and Doc cleaned and placed the fish in the fridge.
“Power nap, old man. The time zone change is killing me.”
Doc pointed to the recliner. “Knock yourself out.”
“Pun intended and accepted. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
But I wasn’t. An hour later, Doc gently shook my shoulder. “Rise and shine, sleeping beauty. Dinner is on the table. Red or white?”
“White, but don’t open a bottle for me. You still a whiskey man?”
“Sit down and let an old man spoil you. You can start working it off tomorrow.”
The dinner was delicious and actually appeared to be healthy. I knew the reason for my summons was coming. “Want to tell me why I’m here? I know you’ve always wanted to get me into the sack, but my guess is I’m here for another reason.” Oops, too much wine. He never indicated he was anything but faithful to Myrna.
“Funny, but I did want to.” He sighed. “You never showed me any indication. Well, that’s in the past. I’ve asked you here for far more than…” Another pause. “I want you to write a book about me.” We both knew he never had any interest in me or anyone other than Myrna. I sat up.
“The books I write are fiction. You want a biographer.” This was a mistake. He brought me all the way here for something I could not do. Damn! My house had been rented for a month. Where the heck was I going to go? I had been so lucky to get a quick renter, but now I regretted that decision.
“You can write it. I read all your books. You talk my talk, and you’ve walked my walk. You’re a vet, and you know what it’s really like. You feel like I feel, and you’ve agonized just like I have over your life choices and decisions. Just write the damn book and stop making excuses. I should have given you more wine before I started this conversation.”
“But you’re famous. I’ll bet several authors could write your story and would pay for the privilege. I think you need a man anyway.”
“Hayles, we’re a dying breed. We’re the last of the old-school vets. The young ones don’t understand. In ten years, we’ll be gone, and those that follow will not know why we did what we did, and someone will write about us as they write about native Americans with their personal slant on the whats and whys. Nope, I want you to write it. You’re the one person who I can trust. You talk like I talk, and you think Iike I think.”
He picked up a cigar and studied it for a minute. “I’m not long for this world, and I want to leave a legacy. How about if I promise not to smoke a cigar ever again?”
“Do you promise to wear the Old Spice, though?”
“Scouts honor, and I’ll pay you. Name your price.”
“I’ll let you know tomorrow. I want to walk down to the lake before I retire. Is it safe?”
He handed me a can of bear spray.
“Thanks.” I opened the front door leading to the veranda.
“Lock the door when you return, sweetheart. There are worse things than bears around these days.”
“Doc, how much time have we got?” He knew what I was asking.
“Piece of string, but my oncologist says a few months at best. I finished the last of the chemo two weeks ago.”
“Sweet dreams, Doc.”