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THE NINTH STEP
By Barbara Taylor Sissel
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Livie Saunders is fluent in the language of flowers; she taught the meanings to her fiancé, Cotton O'Dell, but then Cotton vanishes without explanation on their wedding day forcing Livie to learn the language of desolation. Heartbroken, she buries her wedding gown beneath a garden pond and resolves to move on, but there are nights when she slips into a sequined red dress and a pair of stiletto heels, a stranger's bed, a little anonymous oblivion that is not without consequence. Still, she recovers a semblance of ordinary life and imagines she is content. But then, six years later, Cotton returns and her carefully constructed world shatters. The old questions bite like flies. Questions that Cotton O'Dell prays he can answer. He prays that Livie, whom he has never stopped loving, will be moved to forgive him. But there is more than Livie to be concerned about. There is Cotton's act of cowardice that caused him to become a fugitive in the first place . . . that crime he committed for which the legal clock is still ticking. That thing he did that will shock Livie to her core once she learns of it. Livie is desperate to trust Cotton, but then he goes missing again. Time telescopes, avenues of escape close, and as lives hang in the balance, choice dithers between mercy and revenge. And a decision that will take only a moment will carry the consequences of a lifetime.
It was late on a Thursday afternoon in April and Livie was at the top of Peachtree Lane when she saw the car, a Mini Cooper, at the bottom of the long shallow hill where the water tended to pond after a heavy rain. It was parked off the road, on the wrong side, and the driver’s side door was pushed open into the roadside scruff. She had only moments to wonder about the trouble before she caught sight of the injured dog and the woman on her knees beside it. The woman looked up as Livie approached and her eyes, when they locked with Livie’s, were so filled with frightened entreaty that Livie’s heart jammed and what flooded her mind was a panicked impulse to floor the accelerator and flee the scene. Of course she didn’t. She parked her SUV and got out, cutting herself off from the vaguely shameful notion that there was a part of her that could have left the woman and her dog in the road as if they were nothing.
“Someone hit him and didn’t stop.” The woman began explaining before Livie could ask.
“Poor doggie. He’s yours?” Livie knelt beside the woman careful to keep clear of the blood oozing from underneath the dog’s hindquarters. A trickle flowed from its nose, but it was still breathing, dipping air in small labored doses.
The woman nodded, hands fluttering above the wounded animal like helpless birds. “He’s so big, I don’t think I can lift him.”
He was big, some sort of German Shepherd mix, Livie thought. “What’s his name?”
“Razzleberry. Razz for short.” The woman picked up a cell phone lying in the tarred grit beside her. “I called my husband, but he’s not answering. He works in Houston anyway. It would take him an hour to get up here.”
Livie glanced up the road, wishing Charlie would appear over the rise in his truck. He would know exactly how to move this dog without hurting him more. “We have to get him into town to the vet.”
“I know, but he won’t fit in my car.” The woman looked at the Mini Cooper.
“We’ll put him in mine.”
“Oh, no, I can’t ask you to do that. He’s bleeding.”
Livie stood up. “I don’t mind.” She opened the hatch, took out the blanket she ordinarily used as a liner underneath the plants she ferried to her landscape jobs and brought it back to where Razz lay. The woman was bent over him now, murmuring near his ear, things like, “My poochie boy,” and, “My silly willy boy,” and she sounded ridiculous and so tender that Livie’s throat closed. Her heart fluttered. Please, please let us get him into the car and into town without killing him. . . .
“We’ll make a sling?” The woman looked from the blanket to Livie to be sure they were thinking alike.
“If he’ll let us,” Livie said. “Sometimes they snap when they’re hurt.”
“He’s such a big baby, I don’t think he will. I’m Nancy McKesson, by the way.” The woman stood up, offering her hand. “Olivia Saunders, Livie.” In Livie’s grasp, Nancy’s hand felt as unpampered as Livie’s own.
They knelt beside Razz again and gently shifted him onto the blanket. He offered no resistance other than to whimper.
“See, he’s just a c--cream puff.” Nancy’s voice broke. She set her teeth together and pushed her palms down her thighs. “What kind of person does this? Just hits an animal and drives away? How could you sleep nights?”
Livie shook her head; she didn’t want to think about it. “If anyone can fix him, Doc Forney can.”
“He’s the local vet? I’m--I’m not familiar. We only moved here two weeks ago from Colorado.”
“Ah. I thought you were new to the neighborhood. You bought the Bennett place.”
“We’re neighbors sort of. I have the ten acres on the other side of Charlie Wister.”
“Oh, his place is next door to mine, right?”
“Uh-huh. You ready?”
Together they lifted Razz’s weight between them, sidestepped to the car and managed to slide him inside. They waited to see his chest rise and fall and shared a look. It wasn’t exactly triumph that passed between them, but some paler shade of hope. Livie closed the hatch carefully. She found her keys and inserted them into the ignition. She was trembling; she couldn’t help it. But so was Nancy. From the effort and the anxiety, the sheer will to keep this dog alive.
Livie eased onto the road, wincing at every bump, fighting a renewed urge to floor the accelerator.
Nancy talked about the move from Colorado, describing it as difficult. The animals had all been spooked. “Charlie helped me corral one of the horses last week,” she said. She propped her elbow on the window ledge, rested her forehead in her hand. “I knew better than to leave the gate open. I knew Razz would run. It’s my fault he was hit.”
“Don’t blame yourself.” Livie offered the bit of advice automatically.
By the time Livie brought Nancy back to her car, the dip at the bottom of the hill was feathered in light-silvered shadows and the faint scent of new-mown grass floated in the air. Livie let down the windows. Nancy got out of the SUV and when she looked in at Livie, her eyes filled. “The only reason Razz has any chance is because you stopped,” she said in a voice that slipped and caught.
Livie looked away. I almost didn’t. The words hung in her mind. Some nettlesome prick of conscience goaded her to say them, to admit she didn’t deserve admiration or gratitude, that she wasn’t so pure and noble, that sometimes, she didn’t much like herself.
She met Nancy’s gaze. “It was nothing,” she said, instead. Because the truth was too hard and confusing.
Charlie was in the rocking chair on her front porch, drinking a Coors beer when she drove up. It was a ritual they shared on summer evenings. He’d rattle up her driveway in his old beat-up Chevy truck, slam the door that sounded like a tin can and holler, “Livie, gal. You got a cold beer for a tired old man?”
He wasn’t that old, sixty-five. Livie had watched him work rings around men half his age. He was an architect by trade. Retired, he’d say, if she mentioned it, but they’d worked several projects together in the three years since she’d met him and she knew better. She was more likely to sit down on a job than he was.
She walked up on the porch, sat down in the swing, nodded at the beer in his hand. “You helped yourself.”
“Door was open,” he said. “How many times do I have to remind you not to go off and leave your door unlocked.”
She smiled. “It’s the country, Charlie, not downtown Houston.”
He drank his beer. “That used to make a damn, but it doesn’t anymore. You’re too trusting. Where’ve you been anyway? You’re late.”
“I need one of those, I think.” Livie nodded at his beer.
He went inside letting the screen door snap shut behind him and she pulled her feet up under her, jostling the swing on purpose just to hear it creak. The sun teetered now behind the ancient wind-bent pecan tree that kept watch like an old druid over the field across the road. A frog peeped, a descending melody of notes. Out on the highway, a semi ground through a sequence of gears. She heard a horse whinny and thought of Nancy.
She thought of Charlie who could be crotchety and severe, and more protective than the oldest of her old broody hens. He was the dad she’d never had. She thought of last Friday, the explanation she owed him for her behavior that still made her squirm. He was too private himself to ask, but the worry was present in his eyes every time he looked at her. She had to clear the air; she just didn’t know how.
When he came back and handed her the Coors, Livie thanked him and told him about Razz.
“Doc Forney’ll fix him if anyone can,” Charlie said when she was finished.
“That’s what I told Nancy. Poor lady was devastated, blaming herself.”
“Ought to go around checking bumpers, see if we can find who did it.”
“Some jerk,” Livie said. “Is that the mail?”
Charlie bent over the arm of the rocker, scooped up the pile and handed it to her.
Livie riffled through it, the usual assortment: junk flyers, a catalogue from Logee’s Nursery, a utility bill. There was a note from one of her clients. “You remember Charlotte Gibbs?” Livie waved the sheet of scented stationery, cream-colored with spidery handwriting rendered in ink the same shade as strong tea. “She wants me to come and speak to her garden club.”
“And you thought she didn’t like the job you did in her yard.”
“She didn’t. She just wants me there so she can humiliate me in front of all those old biddy friends of hers. Acid-tongued witch.” Livie slid Charlotte’s note underneath the pile of mail in her lap and there it was, a white number 10 envelope addressed to her.
In his hand.
His. At least she thought it was. It was dusk now, the light was vague, plus she hadn't seen his handwriting in six years.
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