The Story So Far:
In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we are introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident. Chapter Two, Terbium, introduced Zeke who has been in the child welfare system for six years and is having mental health issues. They both like science a lot.
A few years before Mary Swenson became a registered nurse working at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she spent time traveling with her boyfriend and his band, Prairie Wind. His name was Wyatt and he played acoustic guitar and sang. The other members were Sandy French on fiddle and Willie Keystone on mandolin. They played old-time bluegrass music along the lines of The Carter Family and Bob Willis, with a little Flying Burrito Brothers tossed in for good measure. They played roadhouse bars all over the Midwest and West with the Central Valley in California being one of their favorites
The town of Windblown was just like its name implied, a desolate place out in the middle of the Mojave Desert that was the home to the Rattlesnake Bar, a ‘seen better days’ roadhouse if there ever was one. During their gigs, Mary could usually get a job helping out the waitresses for some extra cash, and that night in July she did just that. It was also the night she met Len Jackson.
Len worked maintenance at the Alta Wind Farm thirty miles away in Tehachapi. He was a tall, lean man with long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail and an acne-scared face made more prominent by his deep tan.
“Spend a lot of time in the sun, little lady,” he told her when she brought his second long neck. He pushed his straw cowboy hat up so she could see his tan line. A move Mary found oddly provocative. “See,” he said, grinning, showing a row of white teeth. “Lots of time.”
Mary laughed, enjoying flirting with him a little. “What do you do?”
He grinned. “You’d never guess.” Then he edged a chair toward her with his battered cowboy boot. “Why don’t you sit a spell? I’ll tell you all about it.”
He appeared to be a few years older than her twenty-one. She liked the way he was with her, friendly and confident. She snuck a glance at Wyatt. He was singing Worried Man Blues by the Carters. His eyes were closed, not paying attention to her at all.
She remained standing. “Can’t sit, I’m working,” she said, glancing at Jed the bartender. He wasn’t too busy. “But I can talk for a minute.”
He grinned some more. “Well, in that case, I’ll let the cat out of the bag for free.” He paused for just a beat of Willie’s base drum and then said, “I replace magnets.”
“What? You’re kidding.”
Mary was five feet tall and had long black hair like Len. Unlike him, though, she kept hers in place with a turquoise beaded headband she’d bought in Santa Fe. She was solidly built. Her jeans were tight and her short sleeve, snap button canary yellow shirt was just as snug. She eyeballed this man who knew about magnets with a bemused expression. To be honest, she wasn’t sure if she was looking specifically at any one thing, but there was something about Len that was intriguing. Different.
He smiled, obviously enjoying talking with her. “I kid you not.”
“Magnets?” she asked, taking a step closer but still avoiding the chair.
“Yep. They’re made from dysprosium.”
“From what?” she frowned.
He grinned. “Go on. Sit. I won’t
bite,” he said and indicated the chair again. “Let’s talk. I’ll tell you all
She glanced at Wyatt. The song was over and he was talking to Sandy. Their heads were pressed close together. To hell with him, she thought to herself. And her.
“Tell you what,” she said, making her decision. “I’ll be back on my break and sit then. How’s that sound?”
He grinned and tipped his hat. “I’ll be waiting.”
For the next half hour, the band kicked it up a gear, picking up the tempo and enlivening the small but appreciative crowd with blistering bluegrass music and a little western swing tossed in for good measure. People started to dance. Mary and the other waitress, Shelly, hustled waiting tables, bringing bottles of beer and trays of food to the thirty or so customers. Jed manned the bar and made the drinks while Mary and Shelly worked the room. In the kitchen, Sid the cook kept the burgers and fries coming with the skill of a conductor leading an orchestra.
All the while she was working, Mary was thinking about Len; an interesting character, that was for sure. He cut an appealing figure in his faded but clean jeans and his long-sleeve, white cowboy shirt with pearl snap buttons. She glanced at him from time to time. Whenever she did, he gestured to her with a nod or a touch of his hat with a long forefinger. She felt a slight twinge inside, knowing full well what he was after, but surprising herself by not caring, finding his interest in her if not amusing, at least a change in what Wyatt had to offer, which these days was not much.
She’d been with Wyatt and the band for over three months, having met at an outdoor street dance on the Nicolet Mall in downtown Minneapolis earlier that spring. At the time, she’d been living with two friends in an apartment near the University of Minnesota and taking a year off from attending nursing school. She had a job she liked, waitressing at the popular music club First Avenue. She was twenty-one years old and life was good.
It got even better when she met Wyatt. The band was set up on the east end of the mall and was playing an hour-long set as the sun sank below the horizon, lighting up the sky in fiery orange. Mary was drawn to him. He had the dark, brooding demeanor of what she imagined a Renaissance poet might be like. She liked his deep, smokey voice and was attracted to his thin build and quick smile. Plus, he was awfully handsome. Hell, she thought to herself, she was free and single. Why not be a little wild and crazy for a change?
She stayed close to the stage so that he would be able to notice her. It took a few songs before he did, standing by herself and swaying in time to the music. When he did, he cracked a quick smile. Mary smiled back and they flirted with each other that way until the set was over. Then set down his guitar and came over to her. “Hi,” he said, by way of introduction. “I’m Wyatt.” Nice and polite. She liked that.
“Hi,” she responded, hooking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m Mary.”
Not the most remarkable of beginnings, but it was enough. Wyatt was about five years older than her, and they just seemed to click. At least that’s what Mary told her roommates that next day when she was packing to leave with him.
“I can’t believe you’re going on the road with some guy you just met,” Jennifer said. “It could be dangerous.”
Mary tried to reassure her friend. “Look, don’t worry, okay? I’m not concerned at all. He’s a nice guy. We get along really well.”
Jennifer raised her eyebrows. “I’m sure a lot of victims of serial killers thought the same way. What do you know about him? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“I know it sounds weird, but it’s okay. Trust me. Plus, he’s got the rest of the band with him. A woman and a guy. It’ll be fine.”
Jennifer was bothered by her friend’s sudden impetuousness, but it was obvious there was no talking her out of it. “Look, I know you’ve got your mind made up, okay? Just be careful.”
Mary gave her a hug. “I will. Thanks for caring.”
Leigh asked, “By the way, where are you going?”
Mary zipped up her duffle bag and shouldered her backpack. “They’re on tour now supporting their new CD.” She grinned. “Next stop, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”
we hold your room for you?” Jennifer asked.
Mary had thought about it. How could she truly have an adventure if she knew she could bail out at any time? “Naw. Don’t sweat it. If you can rent the room, do it.” She took out her checkbook and wrote a check. “Here’s three months’ rent. Cash it if you need it.”
Her two roommates stood with their mouths open. Leigh said, “Where’d you get the money?”
Mary smiled. “I saved it.”
Just then a horn beeped from the street. Mary looked through the front window of their duplex. An old RV was parked out in front, the engine running, smoke drifted from the tailpipe.
“That’s them.” She hugged her two friends. “See ya!”
Jennifer and Leigh watched their friend head out the door and down the sidewalk. Jennifer turned to Leigh. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
shrugged. “I don’t. Mary’s twenty-one. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.
She’ll be fine.”
“Well,” Jennifer said, looking out the window. “Time will tell.” She watched as Mary walked up to the RV. On the other hand, it could be fun. Truth be told, she was a little envious.
Mary waved a greeting to Wyatt. “Hi.”
“Hi, yourself,” he said, leaning across from the driver’s seat and opening the passenger door for her. “It’s a little tight up front. Toss your stuff in back.”
She slid open the side door. Sandy and Willie were sprawled out on a beat-up couch.
Still sitting in the driver’s seat, Wyatt turned and said to them, “This is Mary. I told you about her. She’ll be traveling with us for a while.”
The two other band members greeted her, Willie with a smile and a “Nice to meet you,” Sandy with a frown and a clipped “Hey.”
Willie got up, grabbed her duffle bag, and pointed to a luggage rack. “We’ll put your stuff up there.”
“Thanks.” It took all of ten seconds to stow her gear.
Wyatt said, “Come on and sit up here in front with me.”
When she was settled, he put the RV in Drive, and off they went.
And that was that. In the course of less than twenty-four hours, Mary had gone from being a waitress in a rock and roll nightclub who was taking a year off from working toward a nursing degree at the University of Minnesota to being on the road with Prairie Wind, a bluegrass band.
Mary had always considered herself a people person. It was one of the reasons she had decided to go into nursing. As she put it to her guidance counselor at the university, “I just want to help people.”
Which was all well and good, but now here she traveling around with Wyatt, who obviously was good-looking, not to mention talented, but also with Sandy, who for sure had a thing for Wyatt, and Willie who was gay and the nicest guy you could ever want to meet.
For the most part life on the road was fun. Seeing the country was fun. Hanging out in the bars and clubs listening to Prairie Wind had been fun. And if being with Wyatt had not been as great as she thought it was going to be, that was okay. She was making the best of it.
But then they rolled into the Rattlesnake Bar, and she met Len and was attracted to him. What was that all about? She decided to find out,
During the next break, Wyatt walked over to where Mary was standing at the bar picking up an order and said, “I’m going out for a smoke and talk to Sandy. I’ll see you later.”
“Fine.” She watched them leave.
There was something about the way they’d been acting toward each other in the last week or so. Willie had told Mary early on when she first started traveling with the band that the two of them had been an item once.
“Yeah,” Willie said that first week. They were at a way-side rest east of Dickenson, North Dakota. “They were together a long time. Way before I joined the band. I think they even have a kid who lives with her parents in Austin.”
Mary was shocked. “What?” Wyatt had mentioned nothing about any of that.
“Yeah,” Willie said, lighting up a cigarette. “Wyatt’s a daddy.”
Mary immediately confronted Wyatt who was perusing a vending machine full of snacks. “Why didn’t you tell me? This would have been good to know!”
Wyatt had grinned sheepishly. “Easy does it, babe.” He pushed a button for a bag of Fritos. “Settle down. I know. I guess should have.”
“You guess!” Mary blew up. “God…” she stomped away.
Wyatt caught up with her, took her by the arm, and turned her around. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am.”
Mary looked past him to the barren, rolling hills stretching to the far horizon. It was void of any human inhibition. Their next stop was in Billings, Montana. She was too far from home to consider going back.
Mary looked at him as he ripped open his bag of Fritos. Was he just giving her a tired old line? She peered into his eyes and looked closely while he looked back at her apologetically. She could see it in his eyes. He really was repentant.
Against her better judgment, she said, “Okay.’
“Whew,” he grinned and hugged her. “Glad that’s settled.”
She hugged him back. “Any more secrets?”
“No,” he said. Then he offered her the bag. “Frito?”
But, in a way, the damage had been done. As the weeks went by, it became apparent to Mary that she was a pawn being used in a weird, twisted game between Wyatt and Sandy and would always be the odd person out. Especially since a kid was involved. For a while, she figured if she just was patient, maybe things would change between Wyatt and Sandy. But who was she kidding? By the time the Rattlesnake Bar gig came along, it was obvious that Wyatt and Sandy were going to get back together. In her head, Mary was making plans to get on a bus and go home.
Meeting Len added a new wrinkle. She really was drawn to him.
Mary watched Wyatt and Sandy push through the beat-up door of the bar and go outside. Then she went to Jed. “Give me two beers.” She indicated where Len was sitting. “I’m going to take a ten-minute break.” He nodded okay, got her the beers, and went back to working the bar. She walked through the crowd to Len’s table and sat down. “Here’s to you,” she said, smiling, pushing a bottle toward him. “The beer is on me.”
“Well, that’s awfully kind, little la…”
“Mary,” she said and tipped her bottle toward him. “Mary’s my name.”
He grinned and tipped his bottle back at her. “Len,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
The next day, Mary woke up in the hospital in Tehachapi. Her doctor was an East Asian woman named Lei Zhang. After checking her vital signs doctor Zhang said, “Nice to meet you, Mary. Good to have you back with us.”
“Hi,” Mary managed to say. Her head felt like it was full of cotton. Plus, she had a dull, pounding headache. She gingerly raised her left hand and touched the gaze bandage on her forehead. “What happened to me?”
“The RV with you and your friends in it hit a deer and rolled.” Doctor Zhang consulted her chart and gave Mary a pointed look, “You all were very lucky. Especially since none of you were wearing your seat belts.”
Despite every bone in her body aching, Mary felt her ears turn red at the admonishment. “Sorry,” she whispered.
Early that morning, their RV had broadsided a mule deer that had wandered onto the highway. Upon impact, the vehicle had lurched to the right, busted through a guardrail, and rolled over and over down a steep embankment. Willie had been driving with Mary in the passenger’s seat. Wyatt and Sandy had been in the back, talking. Fortunately, they’d all survived, sustaining a variety of relatively minor injuries. All except for Mary.
The doctor ignored her apology and continued. “You’ve got multiple lacerations from being thrown around the RV. A mild concussion, and,” she indicated the cast on Mary’s right arm, “a broken arm. You’re going to be here at least a week.” She paused, and then said, “Is there anyone you should call?”
Her brain was fuzzy, but she was able to say, “Yes. My roommates, for sure. And my parents in Michigan, I guess.” She looked around wildly. “My stuff!”
By now a nurse had entered the room. His name tag read Frasier. He pointed to a door by the bathroom. “We put your duffle bag and backpack in the closet,” he said. Then he opened the drawer of the table by her bed and showed her a zip bag with her wallet and flip phone in it. So was her beaded headband. “Your wallet and headband are right here. So is your phone. All safe and sound.”
“Thank you,” she said. Her phone was scratched up but otherwise in good shape.
After completing her checkup on Mary doctor Zhang left, telling her to ‘just rest’ which she planned on doing. She was exhausted. Plus, her entire body ached.
Frasier straightened her pillow, smoothed out her sheets, and asked, “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Can you tell me about my friends? How are they doing?”
Frasier grimaced. “Pretty banged up, but not as bad as you. They’ll be discharged in the next day or two.”
“Can I see them?”
“Sure,” he smiled. “Anytime.” Then he paused and added, “But they should probably come here. You really should rest.”
Resting seemed like a good idea. She lay back and drifted off to sleep, thinking, I’m lucky to be alive.
When Mary next opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Len sitting in the chair next to her bed reading a paperback. What the heck? She quickly closed them again before he noticed.
She was somewhat startled that he was there until it dawned on her that she was glad to see him. The night before, they had talked during that first break and had gotten along well. He was easy to be with, and she enjoyed his calm and confident manner. He was a man who seemed happy with himself and his life. She made it a point of sitting with him during the two other breaks, and they chatted briefly as the band was packing to leave. She hadn’t been ready to say goodbye but Wyatt had pulled her toward the RV saying, “Let’s go.” So, she did.
Now, here was Len. She tried to sit up but couldn’t.
He saw her open her eyes. He smiled a greeting and set the book aside. “Hi there. How are you feeling?”
Good question. How did she feel? “Not the best,” she said. “My head hurts.” She indicated her cast. “My arm kind of throbs.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks.” There was no other way to say it, so she said, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to see you, but what are you doing here?”
He used the pitcher on her nightstand to pour a glass of water. Then he put a straw in it, held the glass for her, and helped her drink. “I heard about the accident.”
Gratefully, she sipped from the straw. “Thanks,” she said. Her throat was parched. “Thirsty.”
“I’ll bet,” Len said, “Still holding the glass for her.
She took another sip and then smiled at him. “Thanks for coming.”
After a moment she lay back and closed her eyes. “I’m kind of tired.”
“You just rest,” he said. “I’ll just sit here and keep you company. Is that okay?”
It was, but she fell asleep before she could say it.
When she awoke, she could see it was dark outside. Len was still there, reading. “You’re still here,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
He’d set his cowboy hat on the floor next to his chair, so he pretended to tip his hat. “My pleasure,” he said. Despite being so sore, she laughed. Len smiled and then turned serious. “It’s all over the news. You guys had quite the accident.” Then he was quiet before adding. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
She liked the sound of his voice. She liked having him with her. “I guess I’ll be here a week.”
“Really?” He slid his chair a little closer, picked up the water glass, and refilled it from the pitcher. Then he helped her take another drink. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he cracked a smile. “But I’m glad to hear that.”
She didn’t mind at all.
Later that day, he helped her call her parents, assuring them she was okay. Then they called Jennifer and Leigh. She’d been gone for three months but had kept in contact with them.
“We’ve still got space for you if you want to come back,” Jennifer said.
“You haven’t rented my room?”
“Oh, we did, but only for a few more months. Until the end of the year. If you come back you can sleep on the couch until your room opens up.”
Tears suddenly formed in Mary’s eyes. “I’d love that.”
She hung up, happy to have a plan.
For the next week, Len came by a least once a day, sometimes twice. They talked. Mary found out he was twenty-seven years old. He told her about his job at the wind farm and how much he enjoyed working on the turbines and keeping them operating smoothly. He told her about being adopted when he was three years old and growing up on the Hopi Reservation. He told her about being separated from his baby sister. He told her about serving in Afghanistan as a sergeant leading search and destroy missions.
“But I really don’t like talking about that,” he told her. “It wasn’t the best part of my life.” She let the subject lay.
The more they talked and got to know each other, the more she realized that he was a good guy. Mary liked him.
The day she was to be discharged, Len came to take her to the bus station. “What about the band?” he asked, pushing her wheelchair down the hall to the entrance where his pickup was parked. “What’s going to happen with them?”
Mary took a breath. “I’m pretty sure the band is finished.” She looked at him. “I know I am with them.”
A few days earlier she’d told him a little about Wyatt and Sandy and them being parents. Len had listened patiently. When she was done, he was quiet for a few moments before saying, “If you ask me, it sounds like those are two people with misplaced priorities. Especially considering they spend so much time away from their son.”
The more Mary thought about it, the more she had to agree.
Len helped her into the front seat of his truck, put her duffle bag and backpack in the back, and drove to the bus station.
Mary had only talked once to Wyatt over her week-long stay. He’d stopped by her room two days after the accident to tell her he and Sandy were getting back together, and that they were going back to Sandy’s parent’s house in Texas.
Mary wasn’t surprised, and she certainly wasn’t sad to see him go. She was already chalking up the time spent with Wyatt as a learning experience. Some of it was fun, most of it not. It was time to move on.
It’d been different with Willie; he’d been a lot nicer. “Great to have met you,” he told her when he’d stopped by on his way to San Francisco. “Good luck becoming a nurse.”
“Thanks,” Mary had said. “You stay safe.” Then she smiled and hugged him. As opposed to Wyatt, Willie she would miss.
That had been two days ago. Now she and Len were sitting in a café having coffee and pie waiting for Mary’s bus to Minneapolis. During a lull in the conversation, she cleared her throat and said, “Before I leave, I want to tell you how much I’ve appreciated spending time with you. Thank you for everything.” Then she laughed self-consciously. “Sorry, that sounded so formal.”
Len laughed with her. “Don’t worry. I get what you’re saying.” He sipped his coffee and said, “And going back to your statement, I just want you to know that it was no problem. I was happy to do it.”
“Thank you.” Mary took a bite of pie and chewed contemplatively. Then she said, “Len, I have to ask you something.”
He put his fork down and pushed his
coffee to the side. Then he folded his hands on the table and looked directly
at her, completely focused. “What? What’s up?”
“You know, that night back at the bar, when we were talking and getting to know each other?”
He grinned. “I remember it well. Why?”
most guys would have made a move on me. You know, tried to get me into bed or
Len laughed, softly. “And you’re wondering why I didn’t? Right?”
Mary blushed a little. “Yeah. Kind
Len smiled. “Okay, I’ll tell you.” He leaned forward closing the space between them. Mary felt her body respond to him. It was a good feeling. She forced herself to concentrate on what he was saying. “Remember that I was adopted?”
“I know. You told me.”
“Well, I told you I had a sister. One I’ve never been able to locate.”
“A younger sister with straight black hair.” He pointed. “Like yours.”
Mary’s eyes went wide. “Oh. My. God. So, you thought…”
Len turned serious. “Don’t get me wrong. I find you very attractive. But…”
“But…you never know. Right?”
“Right. I liked being with you but didn’t want to take a chance on things going too far and one or both of us getting hurt. Does that make sense?”
Mary reached out and took his hand. “Of course, it does, but Len, you need to know something. I have birth parents. My mom and dad live in Lansing, Michigan. I have a brother and two sisters. I have a birth certificate. I’m not adopted. I can prove it.”
“Yes. All you had to do was to ask.”
Len was silent for a minute. Finally, he said, “Well, I guess I blew that big time, didn’t I?”
Mary smiled. “In one sense, maybe. But in another one, not really.”
“What do mean?”
“I mean, I like being with you, too. We don’t have to say goodbye, you know. You could always come back with me.”
Len was quiet. He picked up his fork and set it down. Then he took a sip of coffee. He wasn’t so much nervous as he was thinking.
Mary watched him. Up until that very moment she’d had no idea she was going to say what she’d just said. Did she mean it? Did she really just invite this kind-hearted man to Minnesota; this man who for a week had taken care of her while she was in the hospital? She didn’t have to think long. Or hard. The answer was obvious: Yes, she did. Was a week long enough to get to know someone? To become fond of someone? To develop feelings for, and to care for that someone? She looked at Len. After the fiasco with Wyatt and Sandy, was she ready for this? Ready for a relationship with another guy. With Len? Again, the answer was simple. Yes, she was.
If he was.
Len smiled at her. “I need to give notice at work. Two weeks. I feel like I should.”
“Okay,” Mary said, feeling suddenly like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. “I’ll take the bus home now, and you can drive to Minnesota.” That way, she thought to herself, if he didn’t want to come, he didn’t have to. She was giving him an out. “And I’ll see you in two weeks. How’s that sound?”
He stood up, went to her side of the table, bent down, and kissed her. Their lips molded together as she kissed him back. Then she stood up. They fell into each other’s arms and embraced before kissing each other again. For a long, long time.
Then Len stepped back, grinned, and said, “Screw it.” Mary watched as he looked around. “I’m going to find a payphone. I’ll call my boss right now and tell him I’m quitting.”
Mary grinned at him. “Does this mean…?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It means I’m coming with you. Today.”
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him with all her might. “Great,” she said.
And they kissed some more.
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About the author
Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in nearly 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
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