Folks, I ain’t gonna lie. The reason I haven’t posted in a few weeks is because it’s been a helluva time in Nowheresville. I’m a week late with my raw first chapter of Going by the Book: A Michele Romantic Mystery (What Doesn’t Kill You #8). You’ll get it today, below (shhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone). But a few things first.
Instead of rewriting it, I’ll just regurgitate. That’s about all I’m up for.
I slept better last night. I haven’t cried about Omaha since this morning. And on a positive note, the new decals on the Bookmobile look great, and Wyoming is glorious.
Eric is already visiting clients from his temporary home base, and loving it. Our internet is lightning fast and unlimited, which is funny since Snowheresville is isolated and our Nowheresville sucky, expensive internet is only 1.5 hours from the fourth largest city in the country. Anyway, I’m gigging at the Wyoming Writers Annual Conference this weekend, teaching the Non-traditional Publishing track. Next week I’m trailing Eric into Canada, so you’ll get some great pics. I also hope to share some from our wonderful visit with my parents and kids soon.
Going by the Book hits the beta-for-story readers inboxes tomorrow. While they’re working on it, and before I send it in to developmental edit, I’m going to tackle the rewrite on the prequel novella I’ve written as a gift for you guys and outline my last Michele novel, which is going to be called Going for Broke.
With no further ado, I give you . . . Going by the Book.
Sneak Peek at Rough Chapter One: (copyright Pamela Fagan Hutchins, y’all)
An airborne string mop charged at us, muddy red streaks through white undulating like a curtain of deranged fringe. But of course it wasn’t a mop, it was a dog, and its squatty legs pumped hard, propelling its elongated body so low that I couldn’t believe its belly cleared the ground. I could smell it, too, a coppery, foul scent, and I tensed from years of experience with animals in my father’s Seguin veterinary practice. Yet, the dog looked familiar, and I was more respectful than scared.
“Get back.” I put my arms out to either side of me, as if that would protect my teenagers from whatever it was the terrified little dog brought our way. “A scared animal is a dangerous one.”
I heard the eye roll in my seventeen-year-old son’s voice. “We’re not babies anymore, Mom.”
I glanced at Sam. He had the Lopez coloring but his father’s height. Over six feet, muscular in a zero body fat kind of way. He had on khaki shorts and an Astros t-shirt, and his dark brown hair flopped across his forehead.
The dog panted and darted in front of me, and I caught a glimpse of one eye open wide, its white rounded. “Hey, I know you, don’t I?” I said, as if she would understand me.
I did remember her, from the neighbor’s. Gidget. That was the name of the neighbor. An oddly seventies-sounding name for an oddly endearing woman. The dog’s name also started with G. I ran through possibilities quickly. Gretel. No. Gretchen. No. Gertrude. Yes, that was it. Which was another oddity, like the names for the woman and the dog were reversed. I’d fallen in love with Gertrude last Spring, when Gidget invited me over to her little white farmhouse. She’d asked me to help her write her memoirs, since I’m an editor and a published author. I’d agreed—charmed by the woman and intrigued by her years as the force behind a hip Houston art gallery—then forgotten about it.
Until now. A flush rose toward my face. Ugh, memory problems, on top of hot flashes, fatigue and all over body pain. But, no, my, gynecologist insisted it couldn’t be early onset of menopause at forty-one. He’d offered me birth control pills and anti-depressants, but no empathy, and nothing that helped.
Annabelle spoke, the high pitch of a teenage girl, although at eighteen she was rapidly approaching womanhood. “Is it hurt?”
Okay, add trouble focusing, like on the crazed dog and my kids, to my list of symptoms.
Sam snorted. “It’s so ugly it hurts. What is it? Some kind of mash up between a wiener dog and a sheep dog?”
I raised a brow at Sam, but secretly added pug to his list. “She might be hurt, Belle.”
The dog stopped in front of me, yapping frantically, like it was talking directly to me. Something was wrong with its eye, really wrong, but it was whirling in circles by then. Between that and all her hair, I couldn’t get a good look at it. Was the reddish brown in her dreadlocks blood?
“What is it, Gertrude?” I crouched and held my hand toward her, palm up.
She reversed course with her back end turning separately from her front, like an articulated bus.
“Oh my God, did you see her turn?” Sam leaned over, laughing.
“She’s so cuuuuttttte,” Annabelle squeaked, clapping her hands.
Gertrude sprinted into the woods, away from the three of us and the dilapidated summer camp travel trailer dubbed the “Quacker” by Sam because of the brand name Mallard emblazoned on its side. Stopping once, Gertrude looked back at us—one eye wonky—as if to say, “Hurry up, already.”
She tugged at my heart. “I’d better go after her.”
“I’m coming, too,” Sam said.
“You dropped your phone, Michele,” Annabelle said from behind me. “Some guy named Rashidi is texting you. Who’s Rashidi?” she called.
I pretended not to hear her, because I sure wasn’t going to tell her that a gorgeous Virgin Islander I’d met at my friend Emily’s wedding wouldn’t quit texting me. I hadn’t answered him, so I’d hoped he’d stopped. I wasn’t ready. I might never be ready again.
“Aren’t you coming?” Sam yelled back to Annabelle.
I heard her feet start up after us. Breakfast and too much coffee sloshed in my belly. I had a head start on them both, but, even though I’d done an Ironman triathlon less than a year before, my conditioning was no match for their youthful athleticism. Sam played elite high school baseball, and Annabelle was headed to UT on a swim scholarship. And both were about to leave me alone for the summer, as of today. Sam working a summer baseball camp that moved around the country. Annabelle getting a headstart on the fall in Austin. I couldn’t think it about that without my eyes leaking, so I forced it away.
The little dog had wheels, and the distance between her and us grew. We thrashed through the bush and brush like a herd of stampeding cattle, my snake-proof pink camouflage cowboy boots adding to our thunder. I tried not to think about snakes. Snakes in the grass, snakes hanging from trees, snakes under bushes. Copperheads, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and coral snakes, all native to south central Texas, something I’d have to get past if I was going to make it through my summer in the country. Mongoose, mongoose.
Gertrude ducked under the bottom of three barbed wire strands at the three-way juncture of poles and fences that marked the edge of our property and the two parcels adjoining it. A new metal sign had been affixed to the outside of Gidget’s fence, but facing the next property over from ours. It read FUTURE SITE OF HOU-TO-AUS LONESTAR PIPELINE.
We skidded to a stop, and I put my knee-high boot on the bottom wire and pulled up on the middle one. “Here.”
Annabelle ducked through, using one hand to hold her mass of long curly blonde hair off her pink tank top and out of her face. Sam followed. They started running again.
“A little help, please?”
Annabelle understood me first. “Yeah, thanks a lot, Sam,” she teased. She mimicked my actions with the barbed wire.
I’d never been past our fence, and only up to it once or twice. When I’d visited Gidget, I’d driven on a dirt road that wound an extra two miles before cutting back to her place. I crouched, my butterfly pendant falling out the top of the shirt swinging forward to smack me in the teeth. I lunged under the higher strand into new territory, catching the back of my shirt. I heard a tiny rip, but I pulled through anyway. A piece of trash on the ground caught my eye, and reflexively I grabbed it and stuck it in my jeans pocket to throw away later.
“You’ve got a hole,” Annabelle informed me.
It was an old Hotter’n Hell Hundred t-shirt from a bicycle race I’d done with Adrian, Annabelle’s father. The ruined shirt was just another piece of him slipping away, a tiny sliver of my heart excised and gone.
Gertrude had stopped, and she was barking at us, her voice a cattle prod.
“Hold on, Lassie, we’re coming,” I said.
Neither kid laughed, my humor a few decades removed from theirs. We ran on through gray-trunked yaupon holly trees that scratched us up as much as the barbed wire, and I wished I had a coat of fur like Gertrude to protect me from it. The thick vegetation was pretty from a distance but up close it gave me the willies. Poison ivy, spiders, and the aforementioned snakes and yaupon. It was dark back there, too, the cedar, mesquite, and oak creating a canopy made denser by thorny vines and bee-attracting honeysuckle.
Sam turned around and ran backwards. “So, where are we—“ His words were interrupted when he hit the ground with an “oomph,” butt first, palms next.
“Are you okay?” I extended a hand to him.
He lifted one of his up, and it was covered in something brown and mushy. He waved it back and forth in front of his face, sniffing. “Gross.”
I withdrew my hand.
“What is it?” Annabelle leaned toward him, then backed away quickly. “Ew, poop.”
“Help me,” Sam said, shaking his hands to try to fling it off.
Gertrude started barking at us again.
“Sorry, son. I’ve got to see about the dog.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Annabelle giggled.
I zigged and Annabelle zagged around him.
“Wipe it off on the ground and the leaves.” I laughed, and Annabelle skipped. Literally, she skipped, and it warmed me inside.
Sam caught up with us. The scent of something rotten flooded my nose for a moment. At first I thought it was Sam, but it was dead animal stink, not manure stink. A few running paces later it started to recede. I didn’t want to know what it was. There were lots of critters out here, and all lives had an expiration date. We just didn’t have to face it personally in modern society very often. Or at all, most of us. Another thing I’d have to get over to survive my summer.
My breaths were coming in short pants now, and I couldn’t hear anything except the yips and barks of Gertrude. She broke from the tree line, and I saw Gidget’s clapboard house in the clearing. Gertrude scrambled toward it, running full out. I wanted to stop and put my hands on my knees, but I kept going. Sweat trickled down my temple and onto my cheek. Annabelle was in front of me and Sam a good ten yards in front of her. A gate was ajar in a picket fence that could use the attention of Tom Sawyer. Gertrude entered with Sam hot on her heels. The dog bounded onto the porch and disappeared.
It looked like we were going to get the chance to say hello to Gidget, and I could offer to help her with Gertrude’s eye, or take them to the vet.
Sam stomped up the wooden steps and came to an abrupt halt. He leaned forward, then stood. “You guys, there’s a broken window with blood on it, and the dog jumped back through it and ran inside.”
Annabelle joined Sam, and I caught up with them. The porch sagged under our weight.
“How weird.” I knocked but there was no sound from the house, and no one came to the door. “Gidget?” I called.
I took a step to the left and pressed my nose against the intact upper half of the window, my feet crunching the broken pieces on the porch. I shielded my eyes with my hand, trying to see past the glare of high morning sunlight against glass.
“What is it?” Annabelle asked.
I scanned the room. Gertrude suddenly appeared and rushed the window pell-mell, her bark piercing. I jumped back, falling into my stepdaughter. She stumbled a little, and I righted myself.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I braced myself, hands on the window frame, paint coming off in dry flecks on my palms. I brushed them off on my shorts and tried again. This time I was able to follow Gertrude with my eyes, and they led to the right, in front of a coffee table and faded tweed couch. A bundle of worn clothing lay piled on the wood floors, twitching. Hands and feet and a gray-haired head protruded from the bundle, and blood trickled from Gidget’s forehead into a pool beside her.
The sight of Gidget was like a jolt of electricity, short circuiting my brain. “Adrian.” I exhaled, frozen. My forehead slumped against the glass. “Mom.”
“What?” Annabelle asked, her face right beside mine. “Michele, are you all right?”
I sucked in a deep, careful breath. For a moment, my mind had filled with macabre pictures from my nightmares, a flash of my husband Adrian, crumpled lifeless by his bicycle on the side of the road, murdered a year ago by a crazy stalker in her car. Then one of my own mother, puddled, dead, alone. She’d had a massive stroke only six weeks ago, and Papa had found her.
I winced. “Sorry. Hit too close to home for a second.”
Annabelle nodded, her eyes huge.
I squeezed her shoulder. “Gertrude’s owner, Gidget. She’s in there, on the floor.”
“Oh my God.” Annabelle pressed her face to the glass.
Sam did the same above her head.
“We’ve got to help her.” I rattled the locked door knob and shouted, “Gidget, can you hear me?”
I pushed, but the door wouldn’t budge. I knew I should call 911 but first I had to check on Gidget. “Sam, we’ve got to bust through the door. On three?”
He crouched in front of the door, and I did the same beside him.
I said, “One, two, three.”
We threw our combined weight against the flimsy old door and the jamb gave with a splintering of wood. Sam and I half-fell through as the door swung open. Annabelle followed us in.
The house reeked of burnt coffee. I put the back of my hand to my nose and stumbled forward. I crouched at Gidget’s side, careful not to slip in her blood. I dropped my hand from my nose and reached for her wrist, pressing my fingers against the inside of it as it jerked spasmodically, and I searched for a pulse. It was very faint, but it was there. “She’s alive. Call 911.”
“Um, I don’t have my phone.”
Not a surprise. Sam never had his phone.
“I’ve got yours,” Annabelle said, and she was already pressing the numbers in the keypad.
I was afraid to move Gidget, but we needed to stop her bleeding. “Find me a rag, please, Sam. Wash your hands first.”
Some cruel puppeteer kept pulling Gidget’s strings, and I wished I could cut them. Instead, I smoothed steely curls away from her temple on the dry side of her forehead and they sprang back into place. Her pale skin seemed gray, the lopsided red lipstick garish against it. I put my mouth next to her ear and my hand on her sternum. She was breathing, just barely, with long lapses between each breath. I opened her mouth. Her tongue wasn’t obstructing her airway, which was good. I heard water running from down the hall.
“Gidget, are you there?”
Gertrude crawled on her belly, her gnarled locks pooling on the floor and soaking up blood and some kind of brownish liquid. She inched as close as she could get to Gidget’s head, knocking into a broken coffee cup that skittered out of her way. For the first time, I got a good look at the dog’s face. Beneath the dreadlocks crowning her forehead, one of her eyes had popped partway out of its socket, hanging just over the bottom lid. She looked like something from a B horror flick.
“Poor Gertrude,” I said, using my most soothing voice. “I’ll fix you up as soon as I can, I promise.” Summers and weekends with Papa had taught me most of what I needed to know to help animals—including genus home sapiens—in minor emergencies, thank goodness. I’d put many an eye back into its socket, especially with the dog breeds whose eyes were on the outside of their skulls. Like Gertrude’s were, bless her heart. She licked Gidget’s face, seeming not to notice her own injury. I brushed locks back from Gertrude’s face like I had Gidget’s, with the same result.
Sam returned with a yellow hand towel.
“Put it here, and press.” I pointed at Gidget’s cut.
He positioned it tentatively.
I put my hands over his, applying more pressure. “Like this.”
He complied. “Why is she jerking around like that?”
I stepped back, taking in the scene. Gidget was bird-like in a voluminous snap-front housedress. Her high cheekbones slashed across her face, over a pursed mouth now barely sucking in enough air to keep her alive. Concern had tightened Sam’s brow at the same time as compassion softened his eyes. He put his free hand on Gidgets shoulder, as if to stop her spastic movements.
I heard the 911 operator on speakerphone. The voice and static crashed through the living room like a wrecking ball. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
Annabelle’s eyebrows rose. She shrugged at me, a clueless gesture. Teenage girls. Teenagers in general.
I shouted so the phone would pick me up from across the room, and I motioned for Annabelle to move closer, which she did. “My name is Michele Lopez Hanson. We found my neighbor collapsed and in a seizure. She’s unconscious, bleeding from a head wound, and barely breathing. I don’t know what happened to her, but we need an ambulance.”
The connection crackled behind the loud voice. “Where are you calling from?”
“I’m not sure of her address. Out near Serbin, between Giddings and La Grange.” I gave her my address. “It’s near there.”
Before I could explain further, the operator boomed, “What county is that? Lee? Fayette? Washington? They all come together out there.”
“Lee County. Gidget—my neighbor—isn’t on the same road as me. She lives about two miles away from by car, but maybe a quarter mile as the crow flies.”
The voiced boomed. I still couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. “Gidget? Gidget Becker?”
Of course, with a name like Gidget in a small town, the dispatcher knew who she was. “That’s her. We’re at her place.”
“I’ll dispatch the ambulance and the sheriff’s department.” Then, more softly, “Poor thing. Another seizure.”
“Thank you.” I looked into the eyes of my kids. They looked scared. I tried to sound confident. “What should we do for her in the meantime?”
The voice softened, was solemn and more feminine. “Pray.”