Viola avenue, p.4

Viola Avenue, page 4

 part  #9 of  Rose Hill Series


Viola Avenue

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  “Me want ice cream,” Sammy said as he woke up.

  “You should say ‘I want ice cream,’ ” Claire said.

  “Me get you some, too!”

  Chapter Three

  Hannah was knee deep in the mucky water of a bracken-filled ditch by the side of a narrow road known as Rabbit Run. She had been looking for a bloodhound Great Dane mix that had gone missing from a local farm and had found him here, at the edge of the deep woods, where he had treed something, was barking hysterically, and refused to budge.

  Her phone rang, and Hannah was immediately surprised by two things: that she had cell phone coverage up here; and that a huge bear was looking down at her from twenty feet up a tree not three feet away from where she stood.

  That damn Rufus had treed a black bear.

  She began to back slowly out of the ditch, saying, “Hey there, Mr. Bear,” in a soft voice, as Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” blared forth from her phone.

  The bear huffed in a gruff manner, so she kept backing up, her sodden boots making squelching noises in the mud as she did so. Then the bear started backing down the tree, while making a noise that made all the hair stand up on Hannah’s neck. She panicked, fell backwards into the water, and then the thick mud pulled her boots off as she scrambled up the bank. The dog stopped barking, looked worried for a moment, cleared the ditch in one leap, and tore off down the road toward home.

  Hannah ran all the way down the lane to where her truck was parked, quickly opened the door and flung herself inside. She then locked the doors and rolled up the windows, her heart pounding in her chest. She looked in her side and rear-view mirrors but did not see the bear.

  Her phone started playing Van Morrison again.

  “Hannah Campbell, Animal Control,” she said as she answered, out of breath.

  “Hi, Hannah! This is Linda; remember me?” a cheery, feminine voice chirped.

  Although she immediately knew who it was, and a shiver of dread passed through her body, Hannah said, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

  “Linda, silly,” the woman said. “I used to be Linda Vorhees. We went to high school together.”

  “Oh, okay,” Hannah said. “What can I do for you, Linda?”

  “I’m supposed to meet Sam for lunch, but I wrote his number on a paper napkin and like an idiot I threw it away. I remembered you were the dog catcher in Rose Hill, so I called the county office and Lydia, the secretary, was nice enough to give me your number. She and my mother are dear, dear friends.”

  Hannah processed all this information at the speed of lightning.

  “You’re helping Sam with a grant,” she said.

  “That’s right!” Linda said. “I work for Congressman Black, who earmarks funds for programs like Sam’s, and we’re supposed to discuss it over lunch, but I’m late and I didn’t want him to think I’m standing him up.”

  Hannah heard a noise and turned to find the bear, probably a three hundred pounder, looking in the truck window, fogging up the glass with his breath. Their noses were at most six inches apart.

  “Hello, Mr. Bear,” Hannah said.

  “Hannah?” Linda said. “Are you still there?”

  “Mm hm,” Hannah said, and gave Linda Sam’s phone number.

  “Thanks so much!” Linda said. “I can’t wait to get caught up with what he’s doing; it sounds like such a worthy endeavor. I have to tell you, I was so shocked to see him walking, I almost fainted! I thought he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair!”

  “Uh huh,” Hannah said.

  The bear whined a little and pushed against the side of the truck, which made it rock back and forth. He pawed at the door, making the kind of scratching noise that Hannah knew meant paint was coming off. She started the truck but then realized there was no way to get back on the road without possibly running over his big bear feet.

  Linda was yammering on about her very important job, how much the Congressman depended upon her, and how he valued her opinions about everything.

  Hannah set the phone down with Linda still talking, reached over, and grabbed the bag of cheese puffs that were open on the seat next to her. She pressed the button to roll down the passenger side window, and threw the bag out the window before rolling it back up.

  The bear looked interested in what she was doing, lifted its head to smell the air, and then ambled around to the other side of the truck.

  When she picked the phone back up, Linda was still jabbering.

  “Congressman Black is very interested in having a photo op with Sam at the rec center …” she was saying.

  “Gotta go,” Hannah told her, and ended the call.

  She started the truck, put it in first gear, jammed her foot on the gas pedal to get back up on the road, and then drove like a banshee down Rabbit Run, her eyes watering and her hands trembling as she gripped the steering wheel. Just before she went around the first curve she glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the bear sitting on the side of the road, crunching on orange cheese puffs.

  When she reached Pumpkin Ridge Organic Farm, located in a long, narrow valley at the junction of Rabbit Run and Pumpkin Ridge Road, she found Dee Goldman pinning wet laundry to a clothesline stretched between two iron T-shaped poles planted in the yard out behind her house.

  In the distance was a metal dairy building, a series of free-range chicken coop enclosures, a goat shed, and a sheep barn, all surrounded by acres of gardens, orchards, and hayfields. Big rolls of hay wrapped in white plastic, which looked like gigantic marshmallows, were lined up at the end of the field.

  To Dee’s left a lazy yellow cat sunned her recently pregnant belly while three multi-colored kittens tumbled over each other nearby.

  “Look at you,” Dee said. “You look like you’ve been sortin’ wildcats.”

  “I got stuck in the mud,” Hannah said. “I lost my boots.”

  “Didja find Rufus?” Dee asked, around a clothespin held between her teeth.

  “About two miles up the road,” Hannah said. “I think he’s headed home. He treed a bear.”

  Dee took the clothespin out of her mouth and used it to fasten the loose end of her husband’s under-drawers to the line.

  “Well, as many of my good apples as that bear ate, he oughta be fixed now for the winter.”

  “I wish you’d mentioned the bear earlier,” Hannah said.

  “Sorry,” Dee said. “He was a big ’un.”

  “He might be back,” Hannah said. “I can only do something official about it if he’s menacing you or your animals in some way.”

  “I shot over his head,” Dee said. “I just wanted to scare him, not kill him. He might have a wife and kids at home.”

  Hannah didn’t believe in killing bears; she was more of a Reformed Orthodox Relocator, but she couldn’t do that alone. If she called it in, that bear was as good as dead.

  “Someone will probably hunt him down when the season starts,” Hannah said. “Til then you should just keep an eye out. Where’s your other dog?”

  “Jasper passed a couple of weeks ago,” Dee said. “He was too old to be good for much, but we still liked him.”

  “What do you want?” Hannah said. “I can have another one out here before your supper’s cold.”

  “Levi’s partial to hound dogs,” Dee said. “I’ve always wanted one of those little fluffy dogs, like rich girls carry in their pocketbooks.”

  “Not really a farm dog,” Hannah said.

  “I know,” Dee said. “That doesn’t stop me wanting one.”

  “I’ll look around and find something for you,” Hannah said, and turned to go.

  “How’s that handsome husband of yours?” Dee asked.

  Hannah realized then that the missing dog wasn’t the only reason she’d been called out there today. Dee was lonely. Last month it had been a fox skulking around her hen yard, when what she had really needed was someone to talk to.

  “He’s in Morgantown today,” Hannah said. “Trying to get his
program funded.”

  “It’s a good thing he’s doing,” Dee said. “When we lost Jared, it liked to have killed us. If he’d lived, he would’ve been one of Sam’s boys down there, exercising what he had left.”

  “I’m so sorry for your loss,” Hannah said.

  Dee shrugged, but there were tears in her eyes.

  “Nothing to do but cry now,” she said. “You find me a hound dog and a fluffy little dog. Make sure they don’t kill cats or chickens.”

  “I’ll call before I come out.”

  Hannah drove away, riffling through her mental filing cabinet for a couple of dogs that would suit.

  When she got to town, she saw she had missed two additional calls, one of which was from her husband. She deleted his and went on to the next call.

  “Mrs. Campbell,” Reverend Ben said, “We have a sort of delicate situation here, and if you could stop by the school as soon as you’re able to that would be good. It’s actually very urgent, if you don’t mind. Hope to see you soon.”

  Hannah’s mind raced. Had something happened to someone in her family? Had Sammy somehow broken back into the preschool? She pictured him running through the halls with their pack of farm dogs on his heels, terrorizing the other children and teachers, maybe inciting some sort of toddler revolt.

  Hannah drove straight to the church, and it wasn’t until she was out of the truck that she remembered she was still covered in mud, from her socks all the way to her waist. She pulled off her socks and threw them back in the car through the window.

  At the side door she pressed the numeric code she’d been given into the keypad, and waited to hear the lock click before she pulled the door open. Inside, all seemed calm; she could hear the volunteers making lunch in the church kitchen (smelled like sloppy joes) and a few babies crying. She walked down the hall to Sammy’s classroom and peeked in.

  Ms. Gearhart was sitting on one of the low tables, crying, a tissue pressed to her nose. Reverend Ben was sitting on a tiny chair nearby, holding her other hand. There were no children in the room.

  Hannah opened the door and walked in.

  “What’s going on?” she asked.

  Ms. Gearhart stood up quickly, letting go of the minister’s hand as she reached under her glasses to wipe her eyes.

  “Hannah,” Reverend Ben said, as he struggled to get up from the tiny chair. “Thank you for coming.”

  He glanced down at her feet and the look on his face changed from serious concern to barely contained mirth. Hannah looked down at her clean, white feet and ankles leading up to her mud-encrusted calves and thighs, and shrugged.

  “I was working when you called; I came as soon as I could,” Hannah said. “Where are the kids?”

  Ms. Gearhart started crying again, and Reverend Ben patted her arm.

  “Evidently, the parents had a meeting yesterday evening,” Reverend Ben said. “I was not invited, nor were any of the education committee members, so all I know is no one showed up for the four-year-old class this morning, and the secretary says their parents have all either called or emailed to withdraw their children from school. You and Sam are the only ones we hadn’t heard from.”

  “I knew about the meeting but I didn’t go,” Hannah said. “I can barely stand those people individually, let alone in a rabid pack holding pitchforks and torches.”

  “I see,” Reverend Ben said.

  She looked at Ms. Gearhart, who was clearly embarrassed and miserable, but she also remembered how she and Sammy had been treated just the day before.

  “Listen,” Hannah said. “I know the other kids are better-behaved than Sammy, but they all come to preschool to learn how to play nice with other kids, not to fall in line and click their heels like the Von Trapps every time you blow a whistle.”

  “I do not blow a whistle,” Ms. Gearhart said.

  “Whatever,” Hannah said. “I can’t speak for the other parents, but I’m not bringing Sammy back because of how my aunt told me you behaved in the classroom. I want him to like to go to school, not to be afraid of the teacher.”

  Ms. Gearhart sniffed loudly and drew herself up as tall as she could stand.

  “Your son needs to be professionally assessed,” she said. “He’s too old to still be preverbal and he has a classic oppositional affect.”

  “You don’t know my son,” Hannah said. “He wasn’t in your classroom long enough for you to make an assumption like that. Sammy talks all the time, just not to mean people who yell at him. And, gee, haven’t all the other parents just hauled their kids out of your class because you were so verbally abusive? I think you’re the one who needs to be assessed. I also think you need to apologize for the remarks you just made about my son, and I’m waiting.”

  “I have taught early childhood education at a graduate level for over twenty years,” Ms. Gearhart said, her voice shaky with emotion. “I am certified to identify learning disorders and recommend the proper assessments. He’s your child, so of course you think nothing can be wrong with him.”

  “What I think is that you need to kiss my muddy …”

  “Okay!” Reverend Ben said.

  He held up his hands, one toward each woman.

  “This is not constructive,” he said. “We’re overwrought right now, and no good decisions can be made at this emotional pitch. I’m sure if we all–all the parents, the education committee, and Ms. Gearhart–sit down together in the spirit of working this out, we can find some common ground to stand on. The important thing is that the children get back into a supportive educational environment as soon as possible.”

  “What’s important to you is that you have to pay her whether she teaches or not,” Hannah said. “You just don’t want to refund all our school fees.”

  His hands dropped to his sides, and he blinked rapidly while he chewed the inside of his lip. He opened his mouth to say something, seemed to think better of it, and closed it.

  “I leased a house based on that contract,” Ms. Gearhart said. “If you try to break it, I will sue.”

  “You two have fun,” Hannah said. “I’m going back to work now.”

  “Hannah,” Ben said, but she waved and left.

  Out in the hallway, Hannah met a teacher she knew coming toward her. She looked Hannah up and down.

  “What happened to you?” she asked.

  “Just tangled with a dangerous beast,” Hannah said. “Oh, and I almost got eaten by a bear this morning, too.”

  Hannah got back in her truck and checked her phone.

  Two more calls from Sam.

  No voicemails.


  She called her Aunt Delia to see how Sammy was doing, and reassured that he was doing fine and that Claire was going to take the afternoon shift, Hannah went home.

  She greeted the dogs and shed her clothes as she went up the stairs. In the shower, the hot water pounding on her sore muscles felt good. Instead of thinking about anything, Hannah loudly sang all the songs she remembered from reruns of the seventies TV show, “Hee Haw,” which she used to watch with her father when she was little.

  That usually never failed to cheer her up, but today it didn’t work.

  After her shower, she got dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, and put on some sneakers in place of the now lost pair of boots. She slicked her wet hair back into a ponytail, grabbed her phone and truck keys, and headed back down Possum Holler toward Rose Hill, where evidently a vicious gang of squirrels was wreaking havoc in the community center.

  She slid an Allman Brothers CD into the player and skipped to “Jessica,” the next weapon in her anti-bad mood arsenal. She cranked up the volume, put it on repeat, and willed it to do its work.

  The phone rang; it was Sam.

  She pulled off the road and turned down the music to answer it.

  “Hannah Campbell, Animal Control,” she said.

  “What’s going on?” Sam said. “I’ve been calling.”

  “Oh, not much,” Hannah said. “I went looking for
the Goldman’s dog and lost my boots when I fell on my butt in the mud, got chased by a three hundred-pound black bear; had a screaming fight with Sammy’s preschool teacher, where I basically told her to kiss my heiny in front of the preacher. Now I’m headed to the community center to hunt down the squirrels that have been terrorizing the quilters’ guild.”

  “A bear.”

  “Yup,” Hannah said. “And oh, yeah, in the middle of me being attacked by the bear, your girlfriend called.”

  “Are you okay?”

  “I’m fine, your son’s fine, the bear’s fine, the dog’s fine, that teacher is screwed, but she did that to herself.”

  “She did seem kind of snooty.”

  “Your girlfriend seemed fine, too, no, make that better than fine. She was downright giddy about seeing you; couldn’t wait to tell me all about it.”

  “My ex-girlfriend,” Sam said. “From a hundred years ago.”

  “And ex-fiancée, don’t forget,” Hannah said. “The one who abandoned you as soon as you came back from Kuwait without your lower extremities.”

  “Funnily enough, I do remember that.”

  “And do you also remember who it was that was there for you after she dumped you, and made you laugh, and loved you, and married you, and had your son?”

  “Hannah Louise.”

  “Samuel Harold; what in the hell are you doing?”

  “She’s helping us get funded.”

  “In return for what?”

  “Maybe she feels guilty.”

  “Then she can send you a greeting card that says, ‘So sorry I was such a horrible person, please forgive me.’ She doesn’t need to stalk you at a grant conference unless she wants back on the Sam wagon.”

  “It doesn’t matter what she wants.”

  “Uh huh,” Hannah said. “You know what I want?”

  “Tell me,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

  “Come home,” Hannah said. “Right now. I need you.”

  “I’m on the other side of Bruceton Mills,” he said. “I’ll be there in forty-five minutes.”

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