“They’ve got her sedated now and on an IV drip.”
Rennie glanced up from the small stack of admission and insurance forms previously handed to him on a clipboard to fill out, to see his sister-in-law, Heidi, standing in the doorway.
“They said they should be moving her up to a room in a couple hours. I’ve got to go call the folks and pass along the update. Let me know when the doctor comes to talk to you, okay?”
He nodded in agreement but evidently the expression on his face was far from enthused.
Heidi offered her own sympathetic look. “Hang in there, Andy. Okay?”
A weary shrug was all he could muster.
With a sad little wave, she was gone. Rennie returned his waning attention to the mandatory paperwork.
“You married the wrong sister.”
The out of nowhere comment from Grant brought a smile to his lips, followed by a quiet snicker.
“Her husband Brian told me the same thing a few years back, but he was explicitly clear that he had no interest whatsoever in trading,” Rennie recalled with a low chuckle. “Smart guy.”
With a weary shake of the head, he resumed filling out the various forms before him. In short order, he had them completed and returned to the hospital admissions clerk. Coming back to his seat in the empty secondary waiting room, Rennie sat down with a frustrated sigh, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back against the wall.
A rustling sound, followed by a sedate clearing of the throat, brought the emotionally exhausted man’s eyes back open. Standing before him, with a hand extended toward him with a coffee cup, was Grant.
“While you were gone, I thought I’d rustle us up something to drink.”
“Grazie,” Rennie offered as he took the Styrofoam cup from his friend.
A smile crossed his lips at the correct response.
Grant simply nodded. “How are you holding up?” He asked as he returned to his own seat against the opposite wall.
“Frustrated ... irritated ... sad ... you name it,” the younger man replied, running his right hand through his hair. “And now that line from one of the Godfather movies keeps running through my head.”
“Just when I thought I was out...”
“ ... she keeps pulling you back in.” Grant took a long sip of his coffee and looked at Rennie with a concerned expression. “Do you think she did all this on purpose?”
The query was answered with a modest shrug. “Probably not, but then again ... who knows? Seriously, I wouldn’t put it past her.” With a loud sigh, he placed his cup down on the small table next to him. Rubbing his eyes, he suddenly smiled and let out a small laugh.
“Sorry, I must be getting a little punchy – more movie trivia. For some reason, the scene in Star Wars with the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star came to mind.”
“Okay,” Grant responded, though clearly not getting the reference.
“It’s like I’ve been caught in her tractor beam and there’s no breaking free.” He wearily let out another sigh and shrugged his shoulders in amused dismay. “Where’s Obi-wan when you need him?”
“I think she’s back at the O’Malley place waiting on you.”
Rennie laughed. “You may very well be right.” Taking another sip of his rather bitter brew, he opted to change the course of the conversation. “Have you gotten a chance to talk with Anisha yet?”
“No, not yet,” the tall, black man replied, shaking his head. “Perhaps tonight – though, to be honest, I’ve been putting it off.”
The arrival of a rather somber woman with what looked to be her two young children forced a pause in the conversation, but a nurse was there in short order to get them. Turned out her father was being admitted immediately and they could go right up to the room and await his arrival there.
“Don’t think it will go over well, the idea you taking the job here?” Rennie finally asked when they left.
“No, it won’t go well at all,” came the matter-of-fact reply.
“Well, I can understand that. What wife would be okay with her husband being gone as much as you’ll be for the next six months or so?”
Grant shook his head and muttered something, but it was too low for Rennie to make out.
“What was that?” He asked, leaning forward in his chair.
Looking as if he were about to say something, the lawyer stopped and waved his hand dismissively. “It’s not important.”
“Judging by the look on your face,” the songwriter responded, “I’m guessing that’s not exactly true. I know this isn’t the ideal spot for a conversation like this...” Rennie paused, looked around, and then flashed his friend a sneaky grin. “But I could really use a distraction if you feel like unburdening yourself.”
The waiting area was momentarily filled with a burst of low rumbling laughter. “Nicely played, Ren,” Grant offered with a chuckle. “Nicely played.” With a significant sigh, he visibly relaxed and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “Let’s just say it’s a hollow marriage at best, and with as little attention as she shows, it shouldn’t matter whether I’m there or not.”
“It is. I miss my wife. I’ve missed her for years now but I don’t think she misses me, not really. I finally caught on to what was happening some time back, but by then it was too late.”
Rennie’s brow furrowed at the revelation. “How did it come to that?”
“Looking back, I can see it was mostly my fault,” Grant openly admitted. “I got caught up in work, among other things, and by the time the kids were in high school, the damage was done. Out of necessity, she found a life of her own in her own work and is content in it, as far as I can tell. I tried reconnecting with her, showing more attention, doing more around the house, but by then it was too little, too late. We’d drifted too far apart.”
“Why are you still together?”
“Inertia, mostly, I suppose,” Grant responded with a shrug of his wide shoulders. “Truthfully, I don’t know what I am to her anymore – maybe a security blanket or a comfortable pair of worn out shoes? What I do know is that I haven’t been her husband and she hasn’t been my wife for quite some time now.”
“Yeah. We’re just two people sharing a big oversized house. She does her thing. I do mine. It’s all pretty sad, really.”
“You don’t think she’s... ?”
Grant quickly cut him off. “No, that’s not her style.” He paused. “The smart money would be on me, not her.”
The older man’s admission took him by surprise. With eyebrows raised, Rennie couldn’t help but ask the obvious. “So, have you?”
“That’s quite the question, Ren,” he noted, “but no, I haven’t.” Silence enveloped the two friends as Grant visibly struggled with what else to say. “Have I thought about it? You bet – countless times. And in my line of work, I come across my fair share of admittedly willing companions but it’s a line I just can’t bring myself to ever cross, no matter how lonely I am.”
Considering all he’d heard, there was still one thing that did not make sense to Rennie. “Alright, with all that said,” he asked, “why do you believe she’s going to have a fit when you tell her the news? If it’s as stark as you paint it, I would think it shouldn’t bother her a bit.”
“It shouldn’t but it will. I can’t explain why, but it will.”
“Well, if she does have a fit, that’s a hopeful sign, right?” Rennie asked, feeling a touch optimistic all of the sudden. “It might mean you’re not as far apart as you think.”
Grant responded with a wan smile. “To quote the Bard: ‘The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.’”
“I can relate,” Rennie replied with a knowing nod of his head.
At that moment, however, a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked up, only to see Sarah standing in the doorway with a concerned expression on her face. While curious about what she may have heard, any conversation with her was forestalled by the rapid arrival of Helen’s attending physician.
With Sarah indicating she’d wait in the hall and Grant motioning he’d go find Heidi, Rennie found himself once again being pulled in to where he didn’t want to be.
“Wow, Rance, you did all this yourself?”
The tall engineer-cum-math-teacher glanced down from his rather precarious perch on the ladder with a bit of a bashful smile. “Oh, hi Josie. Yeah, I built this for the folks a few years back when they got into catering events and going to fairs and stuff like that,” he explained. “It goes together and comes apart pretty easily, so even just the two of them can manage it on their own, if need be.”
Josie had been wandering around what everyone was calling the Food Court that Friday morning, killing time, when she came across Marge’s son, Rance, stringing up what looked to be Christmas lights in and out of the lattice of a really impressive pergola. Stepping back, she could see that – with the tables – it was starting to look something like a Bavarian beer garden, just without the beer. The huge soft pretzels were starting to smell really good, though.
“Here are some green and blue ones. Did you want them, too?”
Turning, Josie watched as an incredibly beautiful and unmistakably pregnant Hispanic woman made her way in their direction, carrying a produce container filled with what looked to be more strands of lights. Her lovely and very familiar face took on a clearly worried look, however, when she spied the ladder and him on it.
“What the hell are you doing up there? I told you I was coming right back.”
“What, and have you get back up here?” He replied, shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
“So help me, Terrance, if you fall off again, I’m going to kick your butt!”
He protested. “I’m not going to fall.”
“Famous last words!” was her quick retort, followed by a whole string of something in what sounded like Spanish.
Josie just shook her head and smiled at the exchange. They were cute. “Can I help?”
“Yes, you can get him off that ladder!”
It was pretty obvious to Josie that this was Rance’s previously absent wife now back from Florida, and that the fire in the feisty woman’s eyes was aimed at him and not her. Still, even she had to agree the guy didn’t look all that stable up there.
“Actually, I’m almost done,” Rance responded with a laugh. “Besides, all those lights in that box go around the poles,” he explained, pointing to some of the posts holding the whole structure up. The movement destabilized him momentarily, however, causing his wife to gasp in fear. Though he had jeans on, Josie could see metal where his left ankle should be.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, once he righted himself. “Here, let me just get these last two beams and then I’ll get down.”
“Please!” Turning toward Josie, she just shook her head, her eyes filled with concern. “He’s had such a problem with each of his prosthetics – they really struggle making them for guys as tall as him – and he’s only had this new one a few weeks,” she explained. “It’s supposed to work a lot better for stuff like this, but I worry.”
After placing the container on one of the nearby tables, she extended her hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Rachel, by the way.”
“Hi, Rachel, I’m Josie Fontenot.” As soon as she said the other woman’s name, however, the reason for her familiarity suddenly became clear. The recognition must have shown on her face, because Rance’s wife began to laugh.
“Yes, that Rachel – though it’ll be a bit before I get back in front of a camera,” she added with a chuckle as she ran her hand over her pleasantly distended belly.
The vague memory of a story all over the news a year ago about a supermodel being pushed out of the way of a runaway truck in Hawaii, flitted through the singer’s mind and merged a with few things Lila had told her. Glancing up at Rance and then back to his wife, she thought it was sweet they actually got together out of all that.
“Hey,” she semi-shouted back up at Rance, “I thought we were buds. How come you never told me you were married to Rachel Vargas?”
Looking a bit sheepish, Rance shrugged a bit as he continued to weave the lights through the lattice. “I don’t know ... I guess I’m just used to people knowing that already,” he finally replied.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Rachel tossed in with a smirk. “He likes the shock value.”
“That’s not true...” he started to protest, but his wife cut him off.
“Oh, shush, it is so true,” she chided affectionately. “Now finish up those lights, before I change my mind and make you get down.”
Finding herself talking with none other than supermodel Rachel Vargas, though, Josie finally connected the dots on something Sarah had said the night before. “So, you’re the local celebrity Sarah conned into hosting this big shindig.”
Rachel nodded. “As long as she comes through with a cushy chair off stage and a nearby porta-potty, I’m in,” she said with a laugh. Rubbing her sizeable belly again, she groaned. “This niñita takes great delight in punching my bladder – so no one better get between me and that bathroom door!”
“You already know it’s going to be a girl?”
Rachel nodded again, but before she could say anything, the air was pierced by a small child’s shriek of delight, followed by the sound of adrenaline-filled giggles and calls to stop. The chase was on! Turning quickly, Josie watched as the very familiar prime suspect managed to elude his would be captors, weaving through the tables and chairs. Lila and a young dark-haired girl were in hot pursuit, repeatedly calling out his name but to no avail.
Taking pity once again on her petite friend, Josie called out to the boy who immediately made a beeline for her. Bending down, she quickly caught the sprinting child under the arms then swung him up and onto her left hip. In moments, an out of breath mother and her erstwhile assistant were by her side, with little Tommy gleefully swinging his feet and clinging to Josie like a baby monkey.
“That child will be the death of me yet,” Lila wheezed with her hands on her knees. After a few more deep breaths she glanced over at the young girl and patted her on the back. “Thanks for trying, Hailey.”
“It’s good practice for her,” interjected Rance, who was now down from the ladder. “Especially if this one is anything like her older sister,” he teased, motioning from Rachel’s womb to Hailey. “I definitely recall one little girl leading her mother and me on a merry chase more than once.”
“Dad!” The girl – though tall for her age, Josie figured she was about nine or so – blushed a bit as she objected to any possible embarrassing stories told about her in public.
Her father, however, just grinned. “What, pumpkin?”
Young Hailey just rolled her eyes and shook her head. Josie couldn’t help it – she laughed. But then so did Rachel.
Lila sidled up to Josie and playfully nudged her with an elbow. “So where’s Rennie this morning?”
“Over at the hospital with Heidi,” the brunette replied, losing the smile she’d momentarily had. “The two of them are meeting with one of Helen’s doctors before they release her today.”
“I thought you guys had a sound check this morning.”
Josie shook her head. “No, it was switched to this afternoon because of the meeting. So, until then I’m footloose and fancy free,” she added with a bit of a frown.
“Hey, you just hang in there, okay?” the blonde quipped as she lightly rubbed Josie’s arm in sympathy. “It’ll all work out.”
Rachel gasped in surprise. “You’re Ren’s Josie – his songbird!” Her dark eyes dancing, she tried to explain. “Sorry, I don’t know how I missed that. You and he are about all the folks around here talk about since Hailey and I got back.”
The singer responded with a wan smile and a slight nod. “It’s just I’ve hardly gotten any time with him lately and I miss it.”
“Before you know it, the two of you will be in Nashville and you’ll pick up where you left off,” Rance offered with a dismissive wave of his hand.
A recurring chime from her back pocket alerted Josie to an incoming call on her cell phone. She attempted to turn and hand the three year old to his mother, but he would have none of it – choosing to squirm and cling tighter, the little stinker. With time ticking down, the harried brunette managed to fish it out with her free hand before it went to voicemail. It was Bella.
“I’m here at your trailer. Where are you?” Rennie’s sister asked, the urgency in her voice unmistakable.
Concerned, Josie replied quickly. “Over in the food court. Why? What’s wrong? Is Rennie okay?”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that. You haven’t seen Rance Steiger around by chance, have you?” Just as she asked, both Rance’s and Rachel’s cell phones began to ring.
“Funny you should mention that, both he and his wife are here and they’re getting calls too.”
“That’ll be Sarah and her crew. Look, I’ll be over there in a couple minutes, so don’t go anywhere, okay?”
“Okay,” she answered but Bella had already hung up. “Well, that was weird,” she muttered, peering down at the phone in her hand.
“What was that about?” Lila asked, looking about at both Rance and Rachel busy talking on their respective cell phones.
Josie shrugged. “Not a clue.”
It wasn’t but a minute or two later that Bella pulled up in a modified golf cart with two very young, very blonde, female passengers with her. She looked stressed.
“So, what’s going on?”
“Complications. Good ole Murphy has decided to pay a visit and Sarah’s about ready to pull her hair out.” With a quick glance over at Rance and his wife, she asked, “You two ready to go?’
They nodded and walked over to the cart.
“What do you need me to do?” Josie asked, still confused as to why Bella called her.
“I need you to watch these two until their dad and their Aunt Heidi get back, is that okay?”
The concern, not to mention panic, she momentarily felt must have shown in her eyes, because Bella spoke up almost immediately. “It’ll be fine, Josie. Besides, you might as well get used to doing this now, right?”
Seeing that Katie and Lena were watching her closely, Josie buried the uncertainty and offered them and their aunt a big smile. “That’d be fine. I’m not doing anything until two thirty anyway.”
In short order, the girls were out of the cart, and the Steigers were in it. Hailey was being left in her care, as well. So there she was standing with the three girls by her side, and little Tommy on her hip, when Lila chimed up. “Would you mind... ?”
“Not at all,” the newly appointed babysitter interrupted, knowing exactly what was going to be asked. Good thing she liked kids.
With a brief wave, Tommy’s mom was off to help Marge and Henry.
Josie then turned to her charges, feeling more than a little unprepared for the situation. “So... , “ she began somewhat hesitantly, “what do y’all want to do?”
In no time at all, they were back at her and Sarah’s RV, sitting around a table under its green and white striped awning playing cards.
“Do you ... have any threes?”
“Nope. Go Fish!”