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Kearney turned toward the noise that had roused her. In the gray light of morning, in the doorway, she spied a blob that resolved gradually into the form of her cat. Lexie obligingly repeated the sound, enabling her to identify it as a plaintive meow.
Damn. What time is it anyway? She turned sleep-encrusted eyes toward her clock radio, just in time to see its numbers flip to 6:00.
“I got you, babe. I got you, babe…”
“Augh!” She lunged for the machine, which had its volume set to Seriously Annoying and was purposely placed out of easy reach. Sonny and Cher had finished their chorus and the announcer had launched into the news and weather for Friday, December 19, before she managed to slap the snooze button and return the room to near silence.
“Miaou!” Turning off the alarm had, unfortunately, not muzzled Lex.
She sat up groggily. “What is with you this morning? Cool your jets till I get mine revved, okay?” Lex, looking slightly abashed, muted her cries. “That’s better.”
She stood. The cat rubbed against her legs hard enough to threaten her balance.
“I’m living on borrowed time, eh?” Bowing to the inevitable, she shuffled into her slippers and down the cold hallway, behind Lex’s self-satisfied saunter. “Aaah!” The aroma of freshly brewed coffee welcomed her to the kitchen. Thank god she’d remembered to set the timer last night.
“Whoa!” Her eyes swiveled to the kitchen window and its view of the Jarretts’ driveway. The tracks of the previous night were gone, erased by what looked like more than a foot of fresh flakes. “Holy…”
She scooped Lex up, melting as usual when the cat wrapped her forepaws around her neck in a little hug and nuzzled her under the chin. “Look, babe. No sparrows or robins today, just snow, snow, snow.”
“Babe.” The word rang a tiny bell. Oh yeah, Sonny and Cher. Ick. And that snippet of weather report I heard. Ah. School closings! Children throughout the state are glued to the morning TV broadcasts, waiting for the magic words that will release them to the wild wonder of a day of sledding.
“No such luck for me, though.” Lex bumped her chin with her head. “The students have headed home for the holidays, but college offices will be open still, I suppose. I might get away with it if I lived farther away, but I really have no excuse for not being able to hike ten blocks. Unless …” She looked at the thermometer. Twenty-five above. Not life threatening. Especially on what was shaping up to be a clear, cloudless day. “It’s worth checking, though…”
She flipped on the tiny television set she used to keep her company while she cooked and studied the trailers scrolling under the CBS Morning Show. Hmm. Bloomington, Blue Earth … got a ways to go before they get to Northfield. Lexie stirred in her arms. Time enough to take care of this, I hope. Let see, what can I pontificate about today? She took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. Hmm … Okay, that'll do. She lowered the cat to the floor and returned to the back door.
“Today’s word to the wise, Lex, is simply this: Wake up and smell the coffee. Not that coffee means a whole heckuva lot to you, I realize. Wake up and smell the catnip? No. That implies something entertaining, instead of unavoidable and unpleasant. Wake up and smell the kitty litter? Ah, much better …
“In any case, buddy, it is time to read the paw prints on the wall.” She cracked the door open. “To see the light. Bite the bullet. Call a spade a spade and the heart of winter the heart of winter.” She watched the inrushing cold freeze Lexie in place. “In short …” A shudder rippled through the cat, breaking her free of her trance-like state. “In short, it’s time to face the music and – dash!” She laughed as the cat skedaddled back to the bedroom.
“Oops!” The scrolling announcements had reached Northfield. School’s cancelled … She imagined she could hear the cheers of the children down the block – and their parents’ groans as they tried to figure out day care options. “Looks like Christmas vacation will be starting a day early. Oooh! And four hours late for the colleges. All right! And speaking of java …”
She danced over to the coffeemaker and filled a mug, adding an inch of 2% milk and a packet of sweetener. She climbed onto the stool to contemplate her breakfast options. A day like today called for something more substantial than the usual Toaster Strudel. Something like …
She flipped open the cupboard door. Yes! Malt-o-Meal! Not only had the hot cereal been a staple of the snow days of her own childhood in Nebraska, but it was manufactured locally. She put some water on to boil, her mouth watering in anticipation of the sweet toasted grain taste.
Her morning wakeup call tickled her consciousness again. Weird… She took a sip of French roast, waiting for the wisp of memory to come within reach. She swallowed another rich mouthful of coffee, teasing forth the association …
“Oh my god! Groundhog Day!”
She’d seen the movie in college – and a time or two on television after that. The intriguing notion that there were definitive moments in a day, moments that determined who you were, where you would ultimately end up, had showed up in shows like “Quantum Leap,” “Early Edition,” even “Xena.” Still, the thought of doing the same day over and over again, until you got it “right,” was downright … scary.
Especially if every day begins with listening to Sonny and Cher. Ugh! Still. Bill Murray eventually found the incentive to go on living. Once he recognized the opportunity he'd been given to get to know himself better. Not to mention the opportunity to get to know the delectable Andi MacDowell.
“Wait a gosh darn minute.”
Unable to shake the sense that something was terribly wrong, something more serious even than Sonny Bono’s lack of talent, she trotted down the hall to the bedroom and checked the setting on the clock radio. 89.3. “The station’s set for public radio, all right. I shouldn’t have heard anything remotely resembling Sonny and Cher. One of the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, maybe, but not … Huh. Must have been dreaming.”
Kearney grinned at Lexie, curled up on the comforter, and slid into the bathroom. A dream? Ha. More like a nightmare! She stared at her reflection as she scrubbed at the fuzz on her teeth. Or maybe my subconscious trying to tell me something? She spit and rinsed. Nah. More likely a byproduct of eating that piece of cold pepperoni pizza while I was reading Orlando. Heh! Now there’s a combo guaranteed to generate apparitions.
* * * * *“It’s all about you, isn’t it, Lexie?”
Kearney refilled the cat’s dish with dry food and placed it on the floor, whipping her hand out of the way as Lexie dove in and began to chow down. She put her cereal bowl in the sink and started pondering how to use the time with which she’d been gifted. While it was tempting to just crawl back in bed and read, she was reminded of all the times she’d wished for an extra hour or two. What had she wanted them for?
Well, last summer she would have used them to tend to some yard work. She’d been chagrinned to learn during her dinner with the Jarretts last June that the tiny blue flowers that she’d admired in the lawn when she was buying the house were not approved ground cover, but Creeping Charlie, a noxious weed. At least as far as Frank was concerned.
“Just nuke it,” he advised, right after suggesting which dentists, doctors, vets, carpenters, plumbers and electricians she should patronize. “Creeping Charlie’s a real bitc.. er, a beast to eradicate once it gets a foothold, and yours is headed straight for my lawn. Go to Lansing’s Hardware and get the weed killer Jess uses. It’s dynamite. Keeps the yard looking like a veritable golf course.”
She’d reached for another lemon bar, careful not to catch Jesse’s eye, sure she’d find another indulgent twinkle there at Frank’s use of the word “my” in relation to the lawn. Kearney had seen him patrolling the yard on occasion, paying particular attention to the point at which the lots adjoined. Scouting for insurgents probably. She’d yet to see him do much more than that, however. Except for watering it now and then.
What is it with guys and hoses? she wondered. Dad spends hours in the yard, standing there like some kind of Bermuda-shorted garden gnome, hose in hand, pondering exactly how much water each patch needs.
Frank didn’t lave every blade in the loving way her father did. He saved that level of care for his Eddie Bauer edition Ford Expedition, washing it down every sunny Saturday without fail – despite the fact that the SUV rarely traveled outside of Northfield. When it was on hand, he also washed his sister’s car, a compact Honda Hybrid. Always to the accompaniment of Car Talk on one of the cars’ radios.
She grinned, remembering the first time she’d witnessed the weekly ablutions. He’d just been so darn cute, guffawing at the antics and advice of Tom and Ray Magliozzi while polishing the finish on the cars to a high luster. It was like watching a Greek god doing chores – while wearing orange flip flops, a sleeveless T shirt, and a pair of faded 501 jeans.
Jess was the one who actually worked on the yard, the one who spent her Saturdays pushing a reel mower, the old-fashioned, non-combustion kind, over the lawn, her bronzed arms and legs glistening with the effort it took to keep the surface groomed within a centimeter of pure perfection.
Kearney laughed out loud, remembering the day last June when Jesse had revealed to her the secret of cultivating the quintessential lawn.
Ladies and gentlemen – the real Jesse Jarrett! The woman giving the lawn a manicure looked nothing like the polished professional who had been her hostess the week before, Kearney thought. And nothing like her brother had earlier in the day. Frank’s car-washing garb had had … a studied casualness. That kind of thing seemed to be as natural to him as breathing, judging from the linen sports jacket and slacks he’d worn when they’d gone to a concert in the park the previous evening.
Jesse’s weekend attire was, in contrast, downright ratty: a cut-off tank over a sports bra, jeans hacked off a little unevenly about seven or eight inches above the knees, and running shoes. The shoes, which appeared actually to have been run in in a previous existence, were flecked with grass clippings, as were her calves and forearms, and her long, dark hair was pulled through the back of a blue baseball cap to keep it off her neck.
Her eyes were covered by a pair of Ray-bans, unfortunately. That made it harder to assess her mood. She was smiling as she mowed, however. Which made it as good a time as any to ask her questions, Kearney decided.
She grabbed a second glass from the cupboard and filled it with ice and lemonade to match the one beaded with moisture on the counter. She gathered them up – along with her courage – and went out and offered Jesse one, along with a shady stoop to sit on while she consumed it.
“Best offer I’ve had today. Thanks.” Jesse followed her to the back steps, pressed the cold glass briefly to the side of her sweating neck, then sucked down a mouthful of the tart sweetness. “Mmm. This is great. Did you make it from scratch or …?”
“God, no. The closest I come to home cooking is something my family calls Kearney’s Killer Grilled Cheese and Chili. The jury’s still out on whether that’s because it’s devastatingly delicious or merely devastating.”
Jesse grinned and took another gulp. Before the silence could get more awkward, Kearney blurted her request.
“So. Listen, I was wondering if you could tell me what you use on your lawn – for the Creeping Charlie, I mean? Frank mentioned it again at the concert last night, I think, but I forgot to write it down when I got home. I mean, the least I can do is keep my weeds from invading your yard. Not that my lawn will ever rival yours, you know, but …”
She paused for breath, aware suddenly that she was babbling. She opened her mouth again, but before she could apologize, a cool, clear voice said …
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
“Sorry.” Jesse smiled. “I forgot you aren’t familiar with my sense of humor.” She slid her sun glasses down her nose and trained her piercing blue eyes on Kearney. “The thing is this … What keeps the Charlie out of the yard and what Frank THINKS does so are two very different things. Since I took on doing the yard work, I’ve been using Earth-friendly techniques.”
Her gaze narrowed menacingly. “If I was to tell you I’ve been saving the local bumblebees by skipping the Weed-Be-Gon in favor of aerobically composted turkey poop and 20 Mule Team Borax, well, you might let that slip to Frank during one of your dates. In the event, you see, that you did inadvertently discover the secret – if you learned, that is, that the best way to eradicate ground ivy in your lawn is to apply organic fertilizer to keep the grass healthy and to discourage the ivy by sprinkling it with the mineral your granny used to do her laundry – that knowledge might fall into his hands and with it the opportunity to once again tease me unmercifully about my tree-hugging ways.”
She paused, to make sure Kearney understood how serious a matter that would be.
“I can’t take that chance. So if you persuaded me to tell you … much as it would pain my hippy dippy, peacenik soul … I’d have to kill you.”
She smiled genially at the astonished redhead and gulped more lemonade. “To preserve my relationship with my brother. I’m sure you understand.”
Encouraged by Kearney’s giggle, Jesse paused dramatically and looked up the street and down, as if checking for eavesdroppers. Leaning close, she whispered, “It’s not just me you have to worry about either. Truth be told if your lawn ever started to rival his, Frank would probably have to kill you himself. I mean … How would it look?”
“I fully understand,” said Kearney, when she could speak again. “My father and brothers are the same way about their lawns. They can’t help themselves, can they?”
“It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it? Grass envy, I mean?” Jesse shook her head ruefully. “Best not to risk it.”
“I have but one life to give,” Kearney responded, “and I am not prepared to give it for my yard.”
“You are wise, Grasshopper.” The dark head dipped approvingly.
“It’s probably just as well then that you never mentioned to me the name of this amazing turkey poo?”
“What’s your e-mail address at the college?” the lawyer answered. “I’ll send you the particulars, including application instructions. Anonymously, of course. Look for a message from WeekendWarriorPrincess.”
Kearney stifled another laugh. “Thanks,” she said, grabbing her pen and scribbling her addy on the back of a grocery receipt that she found in her pocket. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Louis.”
“Casablanca!” exclaimed Jesse, flashing a brilliant smile. “Another closet romantic! Give me five!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“So. It’s probably none of my business, but … doesn’t it bug the hell out of you that Frank calls it his lawn?”
Jesse smiled genially. “Nah, it used to be. His lawn, I mean. Before the accident. I think he was more proud the day Dad handed the lawn care over to him than he was when he passed the bar. It damn near killed him to have to ask me to handle it until he was up to it again. If we had a power mower that might be now, but Dad always cut it with the push mower, so …”
Her voice tightened during the recitation. She eased her throat with another swallow of lemonade.
“It’s scary, really. How quickly things can change on you, I mean. One minute your folks are giving you a lift to pick up your car at the service station so you can go do some last minute Christmas shopping and the next minute someone barrels through a red light at highway speeds, your parents are dead, and you’re wishing you were, too.” She snaked her index finger under the sun glasses and dabbed at the moisture there. “He almost got his wish, damn it. By the time I got here from Boulder, though, they’d saved his life and were trying to figure out how to save his leg.”
Kearney put a comforting hand on Jesse’s arm. “Sorry, I didn’t realize …”
“He’s pretty good at hiding the limp now, especially when lovely ladies are around,” Jesse said. “But they probably should have just amputated. It’s been a long, tough road back.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“Well, I didn’t want you to think … I mean, I know he can come off sometimes as being a little self absorbed …”
“Gee, ya think?” laughed Kearney. As she half expected, the gibe earned her a playful punch on the arm from his loyal sister.
“He’s had to be self-absorbed the last few years. You’re just lucky you didn’t meet him earlier.” She smiled. “He’s come a long way, baby. And I mean a loooong way. Physically and emotionally. I may never get him into another compact car, but hey, I talked him out of buying a Hummer at least.” Her expression grew solemn. “He’s got some issues still, but he’s dealing with them. And he’ll keep at it until he gets to where he knows he should be. That’s the up side of that damned pride of his.”
She stretched her legs out and massaged an aching calf muscle with long, strong fingers, then continued.
“Heck, we all have our foibles, right? I’ve been told, for example, that I tend to be too intense too soon when it comes to emotional entanglements.” She gave a comic shrug. “Other people, it turns out, don’t actually show up for a second date with a moving van filled with their furniture and books. Who knew?” Her self-deprecating laughter was infectious. “I’m working on that. Or I will if ever I go on a second date again. So. What about you?”
Kearney pointed at herself. “Me? You talkin’ to me?”
“Yeah, you, De Niro. What’s your fatal flaw?”
“Sorry. I’m pretty near perfect.” She got a raised eyebrow in response. Ah, what the hell. I started it, didn't I? With my impertinent question about the lawn?
“Um … the opposite. Kind of. Off in a world of my own – quite possibly another universe entirely – and utterly clueless. So involved in cerebral stuff that the rest – other people’s emotions, my own – don’t even register. Getting out of grad school has helped with that some. I feel kind of like I’m waking up. If that makes any sense. Like now that I no longer have to spend every blessed hour of the day puzzling out what made Jane Austen tick, maybe I can figure out me – and some of the interesting people around me.”
“People like Frank, maybe?”
“I’m biased, but I think that’s a great choice.” Jesse paused, as if considering how much more she should say. “Mind you, he’s a homely looking mutt.”
Kearney laughed. “Yeah, a real dog. I noticed that right off.”
“But a kind, caring, sensitive one,” Jesse added. “Well, he was and will be again, I think. Most days he still is. With occasional flurries of vanity, insecurity, and judgmentalness. Is that even a word? Anyway, he’s getting better, but he can be as stiff necked and critical of other people’s imperfections as he is of his own. And picky? My god! Mom said she was going to shoot off fireworks the day he went out with someone for the fourth time. He always said that he wasn’t going to settle for anyone who wasn’t as special as the woman Dad had found. At which point, Dad would smack him upside the head and say ‘I thought we agreed that you were NOT to tell your mother about her!’”
They shared a laugh.
“Anyway, one of these days I’m going to have to tell Frank I’ve been spreading boron on his lawn instead of Weed-B-Gon, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. That and the day he wears shorts in public again.”
“Aren’t you worried about all the women in the vicinity drooling uncontrollably?”
“If they’re orthopedic surgeons, maybe.” The expression on Jesse’s face informed Kearney that she was being given a heads up … and a warning: She’d regret it – deeply – if she didn’t respond appropriately if and when the occasion presented itself.
“Frank’s right leg is messed up pretty badly, Kearney. Lots of puckered scars and damaged muscle. Standing for any amount of time – the kind of thing would-be politicians have to do over and over again – can be close to agonizing. He’s figured out how to handle that. Letting somebody actually see ‘Frankenleg’– that’s what he calls it – that’s going to take a while, though.” She paused, waiting for Kearney’s response.
“So, I shouldn’t expect to look out any day soon and see him wearing an outfit like yours while washing the cars?” She looked pointedly at the length of leg protruding from Jesse’s cutoffs.
“No …” Jesse appeared perplexed.
“Whew! That’s a relief!” Kearney laughed at the confusion on her new friend’s face. “I’m not sure my heart could take having both of you strutting your stuff next door every weekend.”
Jesse snorted and rose. “Better get back to my mowing. Thanks for the refreshment – and the refreshing conversation.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Next door, an engine coughed to life and drew her eyes to a tall, fur-hatted figure in Carhartt brown coveralls bending over a snow blower.
“My hero! We’re saved, Lexie! The cavalry’s arrived!”
With a little gas-guzzling help from next door, it would take no time at all to clear the sidewalk for pedestrian traffic and free her VW from its snowy prison. Kearney hurried down the hall to throw on more warm layers.
After assuring herself that her human was fully occupied in those incomprehensible fur-changing activities of hers and wouldn’t be doubling back unexpectedly, Lexie leaped to the counter top and peered outside. She jumped back down before Kearney could catch her, landing with her usual grace and with a heart made much lighter by her survey of the scene next door.
Continued in Part Four
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