(Here's the first chapter of the new novel. As always, keep in mind this is first draft. I'll change things later and add more specific details, particularly about the setting. This novel came to me like many of my stories do: as a single image. I kept seeing a spigot out in the desert. From that evolved this novel, which I am writing while at the Sanctuary in Arizona. I won't finish it before I leave but it's over half done. Enjoy!)
Connie heard Jimmy barking in her dream. And a truck speeding away. She opened her eyes--her heart racing--and the dog still barked. She threw off the covers and ran to the window. In the near distance, she saw Jimmy chasing Chuck's pickup as it headed toward the open ranch gates. Dust billowed up behind the yellow vehicle, like an instant smoke screen, enveloping the truck so that it disappeared from view sooner than it would have normally.
Connie frowned. Did that mean something was abnormal?
She could still hear her heart in her ears.
Why hadn't Chuck taken Jimmy with him? Why was he heading out of the ranch, going west toward town? He was supposed to go out today with her brother Philip, to round up strays.
Jimmy was howling.
"Damn dog," Connie said. She sat on the bed, reached for her jeans, and pulled them on.
The clock read 6:10 a.m. Alarm was set for 5:30.
She pulled off her camisole, threw it into the closet, then grabbed another camisole from the clean clothes piled in the basket that was usually in the closet to collect dirty clothes.
She hadn't had time to fold clothes yesterday. She had spent most of the day over at the Ellis Ranch helping Alice with a sick foal. It had eaten something it shouldn't--probably some kind of trash the illegals or drug runners had left behind on the land. Alice's horses were more like scavenging dogs than horses, Connie thought. Alice believe they were adventurous gourmets: Ready to try to eat anything once.
Connie's neighbors believed she had a gift with horses. Connie knew it was just that she preferred horses to cattle and she would use almost any excuse to avoid a day out on the range if it meant she had to get down and dirty with cattle.
Connie left the bedroom and hurried down the stairs. She had always thought a second story was ridiculous out here in the Sonora Desert where it got 120 degrees on a good summer day, but Chuck believed a real home had to have a second story. So they had built an addition butted up to the end of the ranch house that had been in Connie's family for a hundred and fifty years, give or take. In the summer the addition was unbearably hot; in the winter it was too cold. Plus it prevented the rest of the house from taking advantage of any cross breeze.
Fortunately it was spring. So the temperature was just right.
"I feel like Goldilocks," she murmured.
She hurried down the hall to the front door. She flung it open and went out and stood on the porch. The air was cool. It smelled slightly of mesquite. Desert scrubland rolled away from the house in all directions, flat as a pancake, until it started dipping here and there, creating bigger than mole-hill hills until finally the land became mountainous in the far distance. Today an early morning fog or haze turned the mountains almost blue, so that if Connie hadn't lived in this place for most of her adult life, she wouldn't have known the mountains were there.
"You act like he's never coming back, you old sheep dog," Connie called to Jimmy. "I think you've gone crazy spending too much time with cattle. I can relate." The black and white Australian sheep dog ran into the house past her.
Connie followed Jimmy into the kitchen.
She saw a note on the table. The paper looked too white against the yellow tablecloth, almost like a flat bleached bone, with black markings on it where a coyote had gnawed on it.
Connie realized her heart was still beating in her ears, as though her heart knew something she did not.
Her left hand shook as she reached for the paper.
She heard Jimmy's nails on the stone floor. She needed to trim them soon: the sound was maddening.
She recognized her husband's elegant handwriting immediately. Her left-hand scrawl was barely legible, while Chuck's looked like calligraphy. Or something. Something beautiful.
She wanted to keep thinking about how it looked so she wouldn't have to see what it said.
What Chuck had written.
Chuck never wrote her notes. He never wrote anything, except maybe a list for the hardware or feed store.
She read the first sentence.
"I can't do this anymore."
She blinked and kept reading. "I want to find someplace with water. I took a little money to get started. The combination to the lock is Amy's birthday left, Terry's birthday right, your birthday left."
Connie pulled out a kitchen chair and sat in it.
"What lock?" She didn't remember any lock.
She wanted to fixate on the lock.
Her hands began to shake.
"He took money." What money? They didn't have any money.
She felt like she was going to throw up.
Chuck had left her?
He left her?
After thirty years.
After thirty years, he left her.
Without having the guts to face her.
What about the kids? Had he called them? Sent them letters?
Had he written, "I can't be your father anymore. I want to find someplace with water."
What didn't he want to do anymore? Her? The ranch? What?
She tried to remember what had happened yesterday. What had been the last straw? He had said that in the letter, right? Yesterday was the last straw.
She picked up the letter again.
No, nothing about a straw.
He could have been planning this for days, weeks, years.
She got up from the table and began to pace. Jimmy watched her and whimpered.
"Yesterday, yesterday." He had been out with Phil all day, buying cattle or looking for strays.
She and Chuck had gotten home about the same time.
The sun was going down and everything was golden. Golden tinged with red. They had stood on the porch together, looking around.
He had said, "It looks like Midas himself was here, touching each piece of our world with gold."
She had smiled and reached for his hand.
Connie laughed and shook her head as she walked back and forth in her living room. Chuck had said no such thing. Connie had thought it. She had thought about Midas as she stood out and watched the sun set. Because of the gold. She had thought about saying something out loud. She had thought about reaching for Chuck's hand. It had been a long time since she had felt his calloused fingers wrapped around her fingers.
But she hadn't said anything. She hadn't wanted to explain to him who Midas was--how Midas had wished that everything he touched turned to gold. He got his wish, only he forgot, and when he touched his daughter, she turned to gold. Connie had not wanted to explain to Chuck about the tale of Midas and have him look at her blankly.
She couldn't do that anymore.
Chuck had said, "It's gonna be a cold one tonight."
And then they had gone into the house together. Connie had heated up leftover spaghetti, and they had eaten in silence.
He hadn't talked about cows, and she hadn't talk about horses. Or the children--who were now both grown.
Connie had thought their silence was companionable.
They had been together so long that they didn't need to talk.
He went to bed before she did. Had to get up early, he said. Manuel had told him about some winter strays up in Beaver Canyon.
Had they kissed each other good night? Said "I love you?"
Maybe he had bussed her on the cheek.
She hadn't looked up from her crossword puzzle.
She must have said, "Love you." Or "good night, sweetie."
She wanted to call Phil now and see if something had happened yesterday between Chuck and Phil. Or Manuel.
Manuel would know what was going on. He would help.
Manuel would help.
Or maybe she should call her children, Amy or Terry.
No. She wanted to talk to Chuck. Find out what the hell he was thinking.
She went to the kitchen, picked up the phone, and called Chuck's cell.
She heard the phone ring in the house. She followed the sound to the coffee table in the living room. There on top of Sunday's newspaper were Chuck's keys, cell phone, and a closed combination lock, like the one she'd had in high school for her gym locker.
She hung up her phone and picked up the lock. On the back of it was a tiny red sticker of a heart.
"Aw, the key to your heart, eh?"
Only it wasn't locking or unlocking anything except itself.
Chuck had left her a lock that didn't lock anything?
She twirled the dial on the lock, then turned it to the left to ten. Amy's Birthday was September 10th. Then she turned it right to 24. Terry's birthday was May 24th. She turned it left to 21. Her birthday was June 21st.
She pulled on the metal bar, but it did not click and it did not come out of the lock.
She twirled the dial again and started all over. Left, right, left. Same numbers. Same result. She tried three or four times, but nothing happened. She looked over at Jimmy.
"I wonder if it's too late to chase him down," Connie said. "Before he gets too far away." She laughed grimly. Jimmy stared at her.
She wondered why Chuck had used her birthday anyway. He never remembered it.
When they first got together, he said, "As far as I'm concerned, you were born when I was born. We were just separated at birth."
"That's creepy," Connie told him. "That would make you my sister."
"I thought I was the literal one," he said. "I meant I can't imagine we were ever separate, so of course we'd have to be born on the same day. Like soul mates."
Not actually soul mates, but like soul mates.
She had laughed and laughed. It was probably the only sentimental thing he'd ever said to her, but it had done the trick: She fell in love with him in that moment.
Connie turned the lock to the left and stopped at 10. Then to the right to 24. Then to the left to 5. Chuck's birthday was November 5.
The lock clicked. Connie pulled on the bar and the lock opened.
"I was not born on the day you were born," Connie said. "And we obviously were not even like soul mates."
She closed the lock and wrapped her fingers around it. She was going to throw it long and hard. She aimed it at the kitchen window, the one over the sink. She was in the living room, but she could throw it that far. She had a straight shot.
She reached back--her idea of a windup.
Then she stopped.
Glass would go everywhere.
She'd be cleaning it up forever. Jimmy would probably get some in his paws. Or he'd eat a shard or two on mistake.
She walked into the kitchen, opened the junk drawer, and dropped the lock inside. Then she kicked the drawer shut.
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