Identity, page 5
“I’m Arlie, Arlie Russell, and this is my wife, Mindy.”
Mindy, who had expertly caught the tray falling from Arlie’s lap, nudged Arlie aside.
“Hi there,” she said, extending her hand. “Nice to meet you, Shay. Can I get you a beer to start?”
“Mich would be good, if you have it,” Shay responded.
“Be right back.” Mindy hurried off.
“Rosemary King,” Rosemary said, rising to shake Shay’s hand.
Kim, studying Shay with keen eyes, stood and offered her hand. “And I’m Kim, Ro’s better half. This is Patty, our local vet. Here, sit, join us.” She indicated the chair Liza had purloined from a nearby table.
Returning Patty’s welcoming nod, Shay took a seat next to Liza.
“So, Shay, where are you from?” Rosemary asked. “What brought you to our quaint little burg?”
Shay grimaced as if reliving an unpleasant memory. “My parents passed away, so there was no reason to stay in Virginia. This seemed like a quiet, nice place to live.” She shrugged and her gaze wandered the crowded restaurant. “So here I am.”
“Do you have kids?” Kim queried. Her curiosity had been piqued by Shay’s easy acceptance of their introductions as partners.
“No, no kids. And no husband.” Her pale lips compressed into a thin line as if expecting a challenge.
Mindy approached with a bottle and a frosted mug. “Here’s your beer, hon.”
Liza cringed, remembering the time she had called Shay “hon.”
“Thanks, Mindy. Just the bottle’s okay.” Shay did not explode as Liza expected, merely plucked the bottle off the tray, leaving the mug behind.
Mindy hurried off, to check on her other tables.
“You’re living in the old Carson homestead up off Dooley, aren’t you?” said Liza.
Shay nodded. “Yes, by that weird pond.”
Liza smiled cautiously. “Right. Dooley’s Folly.”
Arlie spoke up around a mouthful of french fries. “So, how’d y’all meet anyway?”
Shay laughed and blushed, her fair skin glowing crimson in the TV lights. She politely gestured for Liza to tell the story. Liza related the entire incident, excluding the extent of Shay’s temper. In the tale, Liza made herself more of a villain angering the fair maiden until the maiden stormed off. Back to her castle.
“That’s hilarious,” Rosemary said, even though she’d heard part of the story before. “Stuck in Dooley’s Folly. Too funny.”
“It wasn’t funny at the time, that’s for sure,” Shay added, sipping her cold beer.
“Wow, fresh air,” Liza said, inhaling deeply as they stepped outside Wicked Wings. “I don’t know why CM lets people smoke in the main dining room. It’s bad enough in the bar.”
“It’s the whole bar-type atmosphere,” suggested Shay. “I think people actually enjoy the illicit thrill. He’d have less business otherwise.”
Though enjoying the company of Liza’s friends, Shay had been glad when Liza suggested a walking tour of downtown Maypearl. The sultry night air was oddly refreshing. Crickets and other night insects serenaded them from the surrounding forest as they walked along.
“You could be right,” Liza agreed.
They took a right and walked north along Esperanza toward a buff-colored strip mall. A large sign proclaimed it Sunset Mall, but it had never lived up to this grandiose name, consisting of merely a half-dozen ordinary glass-fronted businesses set into tan stucco and decorative brick.
“This belongs to Surep Dujan,” Liza said pausing at the large window of a small Subway restaurant. Dim night-lights lit the empty interior and signs filled with piles of moisture-kissed vegetables beckoned to them irresistibly. “I’m sure he’s home with his beautiful wife, Duri, and their two well-behaved sons. He’s very much a family man.”
Shay nodded. “A good thing,” she murmured.
“Have you met Doctor King yet? He’s our local sawbones.”
“No, I haven’t been sick, thank goodness. Why?” Shay responded.
“His wife, Paula, runs this place.” They paused before a huge plate glass window decorated with a red rose logo and the banner Paula’s Posies. “He’s Ro’s brother, too, in case no one told you.”
“Original,” Shay commented pointing toward the logo.
“You’d have to meet her,” Liza said, grinning.
Shay paused at the next storefront. Styrofoam heads peered blankly from shelves like blind ghosts trapped behind the eerie plate glass. Each head wore a differently styled wig, some with garish colors.
“Oh my,” Shay exclaimed. “Atomic Hair Designs?”
Liza laughed and shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her jeans. “That’s Lisa Adams. She was the one all the boys chased after in high school. Larry Adams won out. Shame, too, because, between you and me, she could have done a lot better.”
Shay nodded and they moved on toward the colonial façade of Mac Wayne’s Allstate Insurance office. An 8 x 10 glossy photo of Mac’s plump, freckled face crowned by a patch of red hair smiled out at them. Shay walked faster as Liza chuckled.
“Mmm, smell that?” Liza asked a moment later.
“What is it?” Shay lifted her nose and inhaled deeply.
“Coffee. I swear Nora puts roasted coffee beans in the Java Cup’s air vents to draw us suckers in.”
“Even at night?”
“Oh, yeah, she’s devious.”
They laughed companionably.
“So, this is it,” Liza sighed.
Shay looked around in disbelief. “What? You’re not serious?”
“Yeah, I am. I mean, this is the heart of Maypearl. There’s a couple businesses out your way and a couple back that way, toward where I live. Oh, and if you bear right off Esperanza, heading north, you’ll come to the dollar store and the car parts place.”
She paused and gestured toward the street. “The post office and library are over there and all the schools are east of town, off Esperanza, and that’s pretty much it. Surely you checked it out?”
Shay was embarrassed and felt a little defensive. “Well, I’ve been busy, settling in. I’ve only been here about a week.”
“You didn’t check out the town before you bought the Carson place?”
“No,” Shay said, exasperation showing. “I didn’t. I had someone else do it.”
Ah, that explained the man her grandmother had spoken with. Liza stayed silent for a long beat. “So, why did you move here, Shay? There has to be a reason. It wasn’t for Maypearl’s deep Southern charm, obviously.”
They turned and walked back the way they’d come. The question hung between them and Liza could see Shay struggling with how much she would say to Liza. Though tempted to reassure her, Liza knew this was Shay’s battle.
“I just wanted to get away,” she said finally. “I needed to.”
A mantle of intimacy had fallen over the two of them with the admission. Liza took a deep breath of anticipation, inhaling Shay’s unique coconut scent. The intimacy felt good.
“Do you want to talk about it? About what happened? Was it a bad breakup?”
“Yes, sort of. The details aren’t important. I simply needed to be safe. Alabama seemed a good long way from DC. I…I once had family here.” She shrugged. “It just seemed to fit somehow. I like the South.”
Liza looked at Shay and in the sudden light outside Wicked Wings, their eyes met. The gazes coupled and held for a handful of heartbeats.
“I’m glad,” Liza said simply. The words seemed automatic because she was held spellbound in the tractor beam of Shay’s cobalt eyes. Liza saw so much there—a curious nature, the fire of conviction, a fear as yet unnamed. A connection was forged, and suddenly afraid and confused, Liza pulled her gaze away.
“Here we are,” she added, as if emerging from a dream. “Back at Wings.”
“Your brother is nice. I like him,” Shay interjected. “How long has he worked here?”
“He must like it then.”
Liza smiled and shook her head. “CM spoils him, is all. Richie hasn’t worked a hard lick, ever.” She sobered. “He took Mama’s death hard. He was her baby boy.”
“I’m sorry your mama passed,” Shay said quietly. She studied her entwining fingers as if she’d never seen them before. For some strange reason, maybe loneliness, she seemed loath to leave Liza’s company.
“It was her heart,” Liza said with a shrug of helplessness. “Runs in her family.”
“Both my parents are gone now. They were older.” Shay turned to study Liza. “Can you imagine what a shock I was? They thought they couldn’t have children, then, in their fifties, here I come.”
Liza laughed aloud, as if imagining the disbelief Shay’s parents must have experienced.
“Not that they weren’t happy about it,” Shay continued, “just…well, it’s late to start a family. I felt a little like an afterthought, like a third wheel, because they had developed such a great relationship. Their love was so powerful that after Mother died from pneumonia Papa just pined away for her. He didn’t last three months, joining her in his sleep one night.”
“I like the idea that they might be back together,” Liza commented softly.
“Me too,” Shay responded, smiling sadly.
“You coming back in?” Liza indicated the restaurant.
Indecision battled within Shay.
“No. I don’t think so.” She looked around nervously, afraid of the sudden and powerful feelings she had for Liza. This certainly was not part of her master plan. She enjoyed Liza’s quiet gentleness, however, which was so very different from Pepper’s hyper angst. It felt good. Too good. It terrified her on so many levels, levels she didn’t want to address tonight. “I’ll go home.”
Liza examined Shay for several silent minutes. Shay chafed under the placid scrutiny. “Okay,” she agreed finally. “Let me walk you to your car?”
“It’s just over here. I’ll be fine.” Shay hated the distrustful thoughts that filled her. She was torn between seeking Liza’s protection and the worry that Liza wanted to walk her to the car so she could track her later, maybe follow her home. Pepper had done it so easily once when Shay had moved to escape her.
“I’ll watch until you get there, all right?”
“All right.” Turning away abruptly, Shay clasped one hand to her mouth, hating that she thought the way she did. Years of caution had fed her newly suspicious nature.
“Hey, Shay, do you like dogs?”
Liza’s low voice arrested her and her heart pounded with new fear. What did Liza know? She lowered the hand and turned slowly. “Yes. Why?”
“Do you know where the animal shelter is? Over on Professional Drive?”
“No. I don’t even know where Professional is.”
Liza laughed. “Guess not, since you know absolutely nothing about Maypearl. You know Esperanza, right?”
At Shay’s cautious nod, she continued, pointing north.
“You just take a right off Esperanza onto Preserve Trail. Go about a mile and take another right on Professional. I’ll be at the shelter tomorrow about ten to help out and walk the dogs. Come over if you can. We always have a good time.”
Shay studied Liza’s sweet face, with its corona of unruly blond hair. “I might do that, Liza.”
Liza nodded and smiled as she leaned one shoulder against the side of the wood-shingled building. She made it evident she would wait there until Shay made it safely to her car.
“He’s just so bad-tempered…I guess the tumors must hurt him,” Christine said sadly. She was securely holding a bedraggled hunk of Himalayan cat. The animal was clearly uncomfortable. He was eying Liza as if she could serve as his blood-filled breakfast.
“I can see that. So is Patty going to put him down?”
“I’m afraid so.” Christine sighed. “There’s no way we could place him. Any family that took him would be shredded in no time.”
“He’d probably run away too, be back on the streets. Shame, though.” Liza carefully reached out. The cat squalled an angry warning. She drew the hand away.
Christine loosened her paralyzing grip on the wriggling cat’s neck and returned him to his cage.
Animals didn’t seem to be close to Christine’s heart, but Liza could tell she was a hard worker and that counted for a lot. Paul had called Ro yesterday with a progress report on the first two days and he was happy with her energy, her initiative and her attendance. Liza felt a great sense of relief upon hearing this. The New Life gals had been burned before when recommending homeless people for local work.
“So how’s the job working out here?”
“I like it,” Christine replied, wiping her gloved hands on a paper towel. “Rosemary sure has this town in hand, doesn’t she?”
“She sure does,” Liza said, laughing. “She knows everyone and is great at networking. Better than me, that’s for sure. Must be from all that time in college.”
They walked toward the dog kennels, and Liza bent to scratch Maizie’s ears. Maizie, a beautiful Sheltie mix, had quickly become a shelter favorite. The dog leaned her head closer to the cage wall to ensure that Liza’s fingers could reach as much ear as possible. The surrounding dogs set up a chorus that was deafening.
“You’re no slouch either from what I hear. Is it true you provide food for all them dogs?”
Liza stood and Maizie’s tail wagged her body as she waited for Liza to resume the attention or open her cage. Liza smiled at her eagerness. “Later, Maizie girl. We’ll be back.”
“Not exactly,” she responded loudly to Chris’s comment as they moved along the noisy row of kennels. “Our company, Meadows Produce, provides vegetables to this mill near Greenville. They use the carrots and squash and whatnot to mix with the meat products. Part of the meal is then sent here for Carol and Paul to use for feed. We also barter produce for the trucking so there’s no cost there.”
They stepped through into a hall leading to the quieter office area.
“What does the mill charge for the feed?” Christine asked as they entered the office.
Paul Critchfield, the tall, thin shelter director, answered without lifting his balding head from the account books. “She won’t tell. It’s their donation and she won’t even let us know how much they give. Weird.”
“I think it’s kind of cool. Like a big charity mystery,” interjected Carol, his wife.
Liza paused just inside the open office door, listening as the frantic barking died down to indignant chuffs in the kennel area. She studied Paul and Carol. She’d known them since she was a kid. They never seemed to age. Carol was big into yoga and Liza surmised that in it she’d found a fountain of youth. Paul was simply one of those old hippies who only improve with age. They’d been running the animal shelter for as long as Liza could remember and did it very well. Active in soliciting local support, the Critchfields and the shelter were icons, a prime example of excellent management.
“Well, thanks for that, Carol. Truth is, our fields produce so well, if we didn’t donate, some of it would go to waste. It’s a win-win for both sides.”
“I knew the little animals did, but I didn’t know dogs and cats eat vegetables,” Christine said, shaking her head. Her dark salt-and-pepper hair had been pulled back into a ponytail. Liza noticed a curved scar that ran along her hairline, a scar usually hidden when her hair was down.
Liza realized at the same time that she had finally become accustomed to Christine’s missing teeth and no longer even noticed the lack.
“They do, dogs especially. It’s healthier when there’s a good ratio of veggies to meat. It gives them a lot of the nutrients they need,” Liza responded.
“If I had my way about it,” grunted Paul, turning away from his books and facing them. “I’d have a vegetarian shelter.”
“Some shelter owners do, I bet. The local SPCA group funds us, though, and their vet recommends a mix,” he added. “Dogs and cats are carnivorous, they say, but I have friends who feed vegetables only. Their pets are fine.”
“Well, at least using Green Pride’s feed we get some veggies into them,” Liza offered.
Carol rose from her desk and stretched gracefully. “Okay, Chris. It’s time to let the dogs out for their run so we can clean the kennels. Are you ready?”
Christine nodded and moved toward the door.
“Oh, Carol,” Liza said. “I invited someone to come by and help with the socialization. Her name is Shay, and she claims to like the little beasties. I know you’re always short on volunteers so maybe she’ll become a regular.”
“That would be great,” Carol said as she entered the main hallway releasing a torrent of expectant dog sound just outside. “Do we have any paid positions, Paul?”
Paul shook his head in the negative. “Nope. Chris got the last one. April’s moving in February so you can have her check back then.”
Liza laughed cheerfully. “You guys are something else. I hadn’t thought about a job for her. I don’t even know what she does, or if she’s currently working. I’ll let her know, though.”
Paul nodded. “Good. We don’t have that slot filled yet so tell her soon.”
“You mean Ro hasn’t sent someone over yet?” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“Not yet,” Paul said as he moved to follow his wife.
“Can you do cat care today, Liza?” Carol called back to her.
Liza nodded and waved her on.
Half an hour later, Liza was pleasantly surprised to see Shay drive up. Liza watched as she got out of the car and walked around, studying the shelter buildings. Seeing Shay made her feel warm in the heart region, but she didn’t take the time to ponder it now. She closed Caspurr’s cage with a whispered apology and headed through the office.
“Well, hello. You made it!” Liza welcomed Shay as she entered through the double-paned glass door. She wanted to hug her but refrained. “Welcome to the Maypearl Animal Shelter.”
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