This is one of my favorite fiction short stories I’ve written. It features our grand dog as a hero. I hope you enjoy it.
The Finishing Touch
Finally, I’m going to finish my novel. The thought danced in my head as I packed the last few items in a suitcase. The tattered manuscript, with all its scribbled edges and sticky notes, was already stuffed in a padded pouch with my laptop. Food for a week, essential chocolate and wine stash included, were secured in the oversized cooler. The plan was simple. No television, no internet access, no interruptions. Just me and the computer. Oh, and one sixty-five pound grand dog, Hammie.
Convincing my husband that I could survive alone for a few days in our daughter’s summer home in Missouri at the Lake of the Ozarks required a plan of action. I memorized the exact procedure for turning on and off the water source and for operating the heating unit. Short of using flash cards, I demonstrated on paper that I could recognize and eliminate (or avoid) venomous snakes and spiders. Emergency phone numbers were entered into my speed dial and I promised to call him every evening reassuring him I hadn’t been murdered by a stranger lurking in the woods. At first I rejected his insistence that I take our daughter’s black lab with me. An unspoken sense of insecurity made me agree.
I appreciated his concerns and knew he would worry until I returned, but my desire to accomplish a task started years earlier pressed me forward. “Our forty-four years of marriage have been a blessing,” I reasoned with my spouse, “but a week of independence to complete my first novel is a necessity.” He didn’t share my passion for writing, but he respected it.
Splashes of crimson dappled the nearly bare hills, the result of nibbling cold fronts that visited the area the past few weeks. I made a brief pit stop in Kingdom City to stretch my legs and empty my bladder. Of course my four-legged friend needed to do the same. As he stopped and sniffed every few feet, I laughed, remembering my daughter’s warning that he’d want to check his “pee mail” too.
Back on the road, I sang along with Willie Nelson as he strummed his guitar to On The Road Again. Hammie stared out the window. I swear he shook his head as if to remind me I can’t carry a note. Too bad. My car, my rules. Soon, the billboards boasted the many venues near Bagnell Dam, my exit. The sparsely populated countryside reminded me of cherished excursions in my grandpa’s ‘57 Ford Fairlane. The blacktop road twisted and turned for the next twenty minutes. I slowed to a crawl at the last turn where the tree covered road narrowed to one lane. At the crest of a hill, I made a sharp left onto the graveled driveway where the red wood A-frame, greeted me.
I turned off the engine and set the parking brake. Leaves blanketed the ground all the way down the steep hill to the water’s edge. No cars or neighbors were visible at the other few cabins that shared the remote cove. “Looks like we got the place to ourselves, Hammie.” His tail wagged approval as I attached his leash and helped him leap from the car. He tugged hard, ready to romp. “You can’t run free until I set up the wireless fence. Sorry buddy. With the door key in one hand and the lead in the other, I unlocked the door and entered my sanctuary.
First order of business was kicking up the heat. I pulled up the shades on the dozen windows that enclosed the Florida room to allow sun to filter in. “You’ll have to wait inside while I unpack the car.” Hammie whined and showed me his best pitiful look. “Save the guilt. It doesn’t work on me, remember?” As if he understood my announcement, he sauntered into the sun room.
Three trips to the car finished the task and I decided it was time for a break for both of us. I filled Hammie’s bowl with water and tucked a dog treat in my pocket, a bribe in case it was needed later to get him back inside. After flipping the switch on the wireless contraption, I picked up the second collar and slipped it in place. Long ago I resolved that I’d never fully understand how the machine knew how far a ninety-foot circumference was and how it could relate it to an animal. “Time to breathe in a little of this country air, buddy.” Hammie’s tail wag and pitiful moan as he nudged his nose on the door handle summed it up perfectly. I grabbed a bottle of water before heading to the deck.
The lake’s water near the dock was low and still, stirring only when an acorn dropped from a nearby tree where a squirrel packed away its final stash for the winter. Hints of late afternoon sun filtered through the towering oaks that still clenched some of their vegetation, perhaps as a cloak in anticipation of the deep cold inching closer by the hour. Leaves rustled beneath the elevated cabin as Hammie explored within his allotted space. I leaned on the railing and listened to the distinctive rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker interrupted, or perhaps accompanied by, the chirp of a cardinal warning others that company had arrived.
The temperature dipped quickly as the sun slowly disappeared. “Think it’s time to go in Ham.” A flash of the biscuit brought him running. Two crunches and the treat disappeared. “How about dinner? You getting hungry? Me too.”
After we ate, I closed all the shades and headed to the bedroom to read for a while. Hammie joined me, circling around and plopping down, then pressing his back into my side. I smiled and stroked his shiny coat. With the added warmth and enhanced sense of security, I sent a silent “thank you” to my husband.
We settled into a routine over the next few days with the majority of time devoted to my novel. Whenever Hammie wasn’t exploring the enticing animal scents in his designated circle, he curled up at my side with his backend toward me to show his true feelings. His deep sighs made me laugh. I guessed even dogs get bored with my writing.
So far, my plan had come together with only minor interruptions. The final chapter neared completion, yet I was distracted by something. I put the laptop in sleep mode and stood up. Perhaps the tedious attention required to complete the edits or maybe the isolation from human contact was taking its toll, but the continuous hammering by a visiting woodpecker wore on my nerves. I took my cell phone and Hammie onto the deck and searched near the roof for the enemy. I located his head pounding on the side of the cabin. A Pileated Woodpecker, one not often seen back home. My irritation turned to awe.
The sharp red crest and white underwing color of the crow-sized bird deserved to be captured, at least on my phone so I could show hubby upon my return. I needed to get the best angle. “What do you think Ham?” I swear he shook his head no. Ignoring his warning, I contemplated my move. Common sense stepped aside for the risk-taker I had become and I pushed the wooden lawn chair close to the edge of the deck. With the phone in my pocket, I worked my way higher, placing one foot on the top of the chair and the other on the hand railing, steadying myself by gripping the side of the cabin with both hands.
Perfect, I thought, as I focused in on the knocker. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on how to balance myself with both hands working the phone’s camera. I tapped the screen, pleased with the result for a nanosecond, until my foot slipped off the railing. My head crashed against the redwood railing, sending stars and instant pain. I plummeted down the fifteen foot drop to the ground, landing on my already injured skull. I screamed as unbearable pain split my skull and sent me into a blackened state.
“Honey. Honey, please wake up.”
The whisper of the faded plea stirred in a distant corner of my mind. The pain. Oh, the pain. Why so much pain? I struggled to raise my hand to message my temple, but something weighed my arm down.
“Babe, I’m here.”
I struggled to open my eyes, feeling caught between stages as if coming out of a dream. Where am I? Who’s calling me? As the fog in my brain dissipated, the stabbing leg pain intensified, then my arm joined forces with the excruciating headache. I twisted and how could turned trying to escape the torture.
“Honey, I’ll get the nurse. Hold on.”
The voice traveled closer then faded as I sensed the release of warmth from my hand. Something heavy warmed my left leg. Think, I urged myself. Flashes of memory interrupted the agonizing battle inside my body. Footsteps, rushing around the room, unfamiliar voices shouting commands to each other.
“I thought we’d lost you.” The voice that called me honey choked.
Think harder. People tugging on an arm, tape ripping, alarms. I hear alarms. I’ve heard those before, many times, but where? “Nooo!” This time I heard my own shout as the voices faded away, my futile attempts to stop the drugs from sending me back to the dark place.
Six weeks later, with my discharge papers signed, hubby wheeled me to the car. A metal contraption kept my neck in place while my left leg and right arm had progressed to temporary casts. My eyes grew moist as I neared the car. My daughter smiled from behind the wheel. Hammie anxiously bounced up and down in the back seat. An unexpected and welcomed sight.
My husband helped me make the painful transition from chair to car, and then settled into a back seat driver position. The dog wiggled and squirmed until he managed to gently place his nose on my shoulder, the rest of him pressed in the gap between the seats.
“I thought you might like a visit from your buddy. He visited you a few times while you were in the medically induced coma.”
“I felt his heavy body snug against mine, but I thought it was my imagination.” I stroked his furry head in appreciation. My recollection of the accident was limited to memories before the fall. Some things continued to puzzle me, like how my husband got the call after I fell. I glanced at him and started to ask again, but not wanting to test his already frayed patience. He read my thoughts and shook his head.
“Look, I’ve told you everything I know. You’re phone flew out of your hand when you fell and somehow it dialed me. I heard the screams and the continuous bark and knew something bad had happened, so I called the emergency number you left with me.”
Hammie’s eyes met mine and I studied his face for the answer and nodded. “You were right. I shouldn’t have tried it. But how did the phone dial itself?”
The black lab’s lip curled upward.
“That’s his “Elvis” smirk.” My daughter’s laughter filled the air.
“Guess it will be his little secret.” But silently I knew.
My husband’s hand extended toward me, a grin on his face as he handed me the phone. “Great picture of the woodpecker.”