The past few weeks have been torture, Ruby still hasn’t made up her mind about letting me in and all my unsuccessful searching for Viktor is making me feel even more disconnected from her. The town itself has gone back to its usual rhythm and the slow steadiness of it all is not helping with my uneasiness. Ruby is twenty nine weeks pregnant now and she still refuses to learn the sex of the baby. As I sit here in my booth watching her work I’m in awe that pregnancy has made her even more graceful than usual.
I see the uncomfortable look on her face when she tries to stand still, and the dark circles underneath her eyes. She mustn’t be sleeping well, I’m not sure if it’s because of the baby of because of me. In any sense of me, either the yearning for the memory of me is taking its toll on her or the pressure of letting me in to her life now. She takes a seat at the counter for a moment as she takes a few deep breaths as she pushes her hand against the side of her belly and steadies her other hand on her back.
“Are you sure you still want to be working here on your feet all day?” Leon asks her concerned. She smiles affectionately at him.
“When I’m working is the only time the baby isn’t having a dance party in my uterus,” she laughs with a forced effort. “I’m just a little sore today, that’s all.”
“Well you just say the word, if you want to go home okay and I’ll do the graveyard shift.” He tells her as he rubs her shoulder gently.
“Thanks Leon, I’ll be fine.” She assures him as she brushes her hand over the top of his. Leon makes his way to the door with his jacket in hand, he bids goodnight to me and a couple of other customers before leaving. Ruby’s eyes lock with mine for the longest moment before a sad smile falls over her features and she turns away trying to appear busy. I know she’s scared, if only there was some way I could let her know for sure that I’m never going anywhere.
The diner customers seem to desert the place all at once until it’s just me and Ruby left in the place. “The last movie session is about to start,” She calls from the counter to answer my quizzical look. I smile at her.
“Does this mean you’ll actually have to talk to me now?” I ask her playfully. She smiles a half smile at me but it looks pained. Ruby walks over and squeezes her protruding belly into the seat opposite me in my booth.
“I know I’ve been unfair to you lately Mason,” she starts and I cut her off.
“I’ve been unfair to you, selfish even. With all the worry you have in your life the last thing I want to be to you is another burden.” I apologise.
“See that right there,” she accuses, “being so sweet to me is just making me feel like a bitch for not being able to give you a straight answer.”
“Well technically I never asked you a question,” I tell her and she raises and eyebrow at me. “So why don’t I just ask you a simple question and you can give me a single word answer without any fear or guilt attached.”
“It’s not that simple,” she smiles weakly buckling beneath the weight of the charm I’ve turned on.
“Actually it is,” I smile at her, “Would you allow for me to take you out one night and show you such a good time that you forget about all of your worries?” I ask.
“That’s not allowed,” I instruct her, “a simple one word answer will suffice. If yes, I will make all of your dreams come true. If no, then I will graciously bow out of this pursuit and let you make your own dreams come true.” Her eyes are glistening as I search her soul with my own. She opens her mouth then closes it again and I’m hypnotized by the movement of her lips as she breathes.
“Yes,” she croaks hoarsely. I jump up from the booth and hold out my hand to help her up from the seat. She slides out and stands in front of me for a moment as I lose myself in her eyes, the deep brown with flecks of amber. She laughs a little into my chest before she takes a step back from me. I pull her back to me with a gentle tug and I put her arms up around my neck and I place my hands on her lower back and apply a little pressure.
“Wow that feels so much better,” as she arches forward into me, “how did you know my back was hurting?” I smile knowingly at her and I lean down towards her face. All the energy in my body is surging towards this. Then we hear that damn cow bell above the door as a trucker barrels into the diner out of the cold.
“Well that’s one way to stay warm,” He bellows laughing as he makes his way to the counter. Ruby and I break away from each other and her face flushes a bright red as she hides her eyes from me. Her hand lifts to cover her smile and I let out an unfulfilled breath and shake my head dumbfounded by this guy’s timing. Ruby lets out a small laugh when she sees my face.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I tell her quietly then I kiss the back of her hand softly and turn to leave. As I drive along a set of headlights behind me catch my attention. I make a few turns through the town taking a long route home to check my suspicions. After the third turn the headlights peel off back in the direction they came from. Lost tourist I dismiss it to myself but my experience—and paranoia— tell me that was a tail.
Finally I arrive home and start a fire and settle in for the evening. I dial the doc’s phone number,
“Dr Connors speaking,” I hear his voice on the line.
“Hey doc, it’s Mason I just wanted to let you know what’s going on with Ruby.” I tell him.
“Oh really, because you think this small town hasn’t had a pool going for the past few weeks on when you were going to make a move and ask her out?” He asks sarcastically.
“Really?” I laugh, “I hope you didn’t enter that pool, because it would unethical given your inside information.”
“Well I’m just a man, besides the pot is nearly three hundred dollars.” He admits.
“That’s ridiculous, this town needs to find something better to do with their time.” I scold.
“Well it’s the way we amuse ourselves in between sled dog races and festivals.” Doc explains. “So are you taking her to the Winter Festival this weekend?”
“I don’t really have a plan yet,” I tell him abashed.
“Well you better get a plan. This is worse than one of those romantic saga’s on the television my wife makes me watch with her. You know the ones when you know how the lead characters feel about each other but you have to endure the full ninety minute ring-a-round-the-rosy until they figure it out.” He huffs at me. I burst into laughter at his frustration.
“Ring around a what?” I laugh, “If you’re frustrated, how do you think I feel? I have to see the woman I love every day knowing that she doesn’t have a clue who I am.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry. I just feel so helpless, I want to help her and you, but I keep running into dead ends.”
“I’m hoping that some time really alone with me, she may open up enough to allow some more of her memory to surface.” I tell him hopefully.
“It will be easier now that she has in fact opened herself up to the possibility of feeling for you, just be careful with her Mason. You saw the devastating effect the memory of being shot had on her, and although she’s seen the medical file, she doesn’t remember it.” He warns.
“I won’t push her doc,” I assure him.
“No I want you to push her, we are running out of time. She needs to be taken out of her comfort zone and forced to face the real world, not something violent but something real.” He tries to explain.
“I know the perfect thing,” I tell him spotting the flyer on the dining table as I talk.
“Well I wish you better luck than I’m having with her, she’s refusing to make another appointment with me at the moment, try to talk her into seeing me again would you.”
“I will doc, actually while I have you, have your noticed any strangers about town lately?”
“Not really, but this is a tourist town and there will be a mass of them around over the weekend for Winter Festival.” He says, “Why do you ask?”
“I’m sure I was being tailed tonight, it’s probably nothing but just be on the look-out okay.”
After we hang I look at my phone see I missed a call from the diner. I start dialling and Leon answers the phone,
“Leon, its Mason someone called me from the diner phone what’s going on? Why are you there?” I bombard him.
“Oh Mason, you need to get yourself to Memorial Hospital, the ambulance just took our girl there.” I’m half way out the drive before he has a chance to explain. “She called me but couldn’t talk so I came straight down and I found her unconscious on the floor with a cut on her arm. The police say it was a robbery. The ambulance left a few minutes ago, I’m just closing everything thing up and I’m heading over there as well.”
“I’ll see you there,” I tell him hurriedly as I hang up. I start dialling the doc’s number frantically.
“I know,” he answers, “I’m nearly at the hospital.” He says and I hang up to concentrate on driving on the icy roads. The truck tires squeal as they try to get traction around the corners and I clear the gutter completely and drive over the garden to get the hospital entrance. I make sure my gun is secure in the back of my pants as well as my ankle holster as I fly through the hospital doors.
The emergency room is deserted and I barrel down the hallways towards any sound trying to find her. I reach the emergency room and find the doc with two nurses working over Ruby. I burst into the room and one of the nurses tries to tell me I have to leave.
“Its fine nurse, he can stay.” Doc commands her. “We need to clean this wound so I can suture her,” he starts directing the nurses with full authority.
I run my hand down my face grabbing my jaw forcefully as I watch them and Ruby. Her face is so peaceful, I swore to protect her and here she is in a hospital again. The hospital was practically a second home to her in New Orleans, I can’t bear to see her hurt. The doc makes quick work of the long gash on the side of her forearm and I can see it’s a defensive wound. She may have seen who did this to her.
One of the nurses wheels in an ultrasound machine and I wait patiently as they expose Ruby’s stomach and apply the gel to the lower side. Ruby is still unconscious and I’m losing my mind waiting for the nurses to leave so I can find out what’s going on. The doc glides the ultrasound sensor over the gel on Ruby’s stomach and breathes out a sigh of relief as the image becomes clear on the screen. Then the near dead silence of the room is blasted with the strangest sound as the doc turns a dial on the machine. It sounds like a static riddled thumping from somewhere underwater.
“Nurses you can leave us please, tell whoever is in the waiting room that everything is fine.” The doc says as he gestures towards the doorway. I take a step closer to Ruby after they leave the room and I take her hand in mine.
“Is that what I think it is?” I choke.
“That would be the strong heartbeat of your baby.” He winks as he slides his chair closer to Ruby and place the stethoscope to her chest. “She’s going to be fine, she has a slight concussion and once the effects of the painkillers were off she’ll wake up on her own.”
“What the hell happened?” I demand.
“I’m afraid I know about as much as you at this point, Leon told me he got a call from the diner but there was no one on the line. Then he went down to the diner and found her on the floor by the counter, bleeding with the phone in her hand.”
“I think she tried to call me first,” I swallow the thick words back down my throat.
“This isn’t your fault Mason,” Doc says as he removes his stethoscope. “I don’t suppose there is any chance I could get you to wait in the waiting room until she wakes up?” He asks doubtfully. I don’t even lift my gaze from Ruby to answer him.
“None.” I pull up a chair closer to her bedside as the doc leaves the room.
“I’ll be back to check her vitals in a little while,” he says from the doorway. I can’t hear anything except my own voice scolding me for leaving her alone. A new sound invades my head and drives out the berating I’m giving myself, that fast paced thumping from before. My baby’s heartbeat, strong and safe. I let the rhythm of that sound completely fill my mind and drive out all thoughts and fears. I rest my on the side of the bed and just breathe in and out.
Ruby’s hand tightening in mine startles me from my light sleep and I look at her trying to focus my bleary eyes on her. She smiles at me then she glances at her bandaged arm,
“That’s weird.” Her announcement surprises me and look at her.
“What’s weird?” I ask her.
“I just got the strangest sense of déjà vu, waking up in the hospital with you beside my bed. It felt like a memory but that’s just crazy, I probably just woke up before and fell asleep again.” She rationalizes to herself more than me. How can I tell her that a setting like this was the first time I ever told her I love her? “Oh my God, the baby.” She shrieks.
“Shh, it’s okay darlin’ the baby is fine, you both are,” I soothe her, “relatively.” I add glancing at her bandaged arm. Ruby starts breathing deeply to keep herself calm and I continue to hold on tight to her hand. She smiles at me.
“I love how you have a slightly more southern accent when you’re trying to calm me down.” She whispers softly and I smile at her with relief flooding my face.
“What happened?” I plead gently. She looks at me with fear of her night fresh in her mind.
“I don’t really know. I watched your truck pull out of the car park then another car followed not long after you. I thought it was strange because I didn’t know the other car and the one guy in the diner was driving that big rig.” She tells me pinching the bridge of her nose.
“So it wasn’t that trucker?” I query.
“No, the car that followed your truck came back to the car park and a man came into the diner. I’ve never seen him before but something about him seemed off. When the trucker got up to leave I started dialling your number but he jumped up and hung up the phone.” Her voice trembles and I curse myself for again for not staying with her. “Then he pinned me against the back wall and asked me the strangest question, he asked me how far along I was. I told him and then told me to empty the register. But he sent a text message while I was taking out the money.” She starts to sob.
Ruby takes a few breaths and remains silent for a moment.
“I really didn’t think he was there for the money, he was really well dressed and his phone was a new model. There was only about two hundred dollars in the till. Then his phone beeped, he got a message and when he read it his expression changed and I tried to get away from him but he pulled out the knife and I wrapped my arm around my stomach just in time.” She starts crying and I stand pull her closer to me in a protective embrace. “He tried to cut to my stomach,” she whimpers. I just hold on to her and let her cry as I put all of this together.
“Knock, knock,” docs voice interrupts us, “Miss Andrews the Sheriff is here, he wants to talk to you about last night.” Doc looks at me defeated, I’m sure he tried to keep them at bay as long as possible.
“Right now?” She sniffs. I look at the Sheriff and his deputy incredulous that they are wanting to pursue this so quickly. Then again this is the worst crime I’ve heard about happening in this town that doesn’t involve a sled dog.
“We’ll try to make this quick Miss Andrews,” The sheriff says politely.
“Can Mason stay?” She asks looking pleadingly at the Sheriff.
“Of course, now just tell us what you remember.” He instructs her delicately. Ruby begins her story and the deputy takes notes and they ask more specific questions trying to decipher the make and model of the car, what the culprit looked like, then they asked about distinguishing marks or features.
“Actually his accent was strange, I think it might have been Russian.” She says uncertainly. My heart crawls up into my throat and all my blood rushes to my feet. I try to smother the urge to tear the building down around me with my bare hands, Ruby looks to her hand that I’ve involuntarily tightened my grip on. I take a deep breath and I release my hold of her hand and I take a seat balling my fists and placing them on my knees.
When they’ve finished with their questions they thank Ruby and leave. Dr Connors comes back in the room after they leave,
“I’m sorry Mason, but I need to move your truck.” He says apologetically. “I’ll be discharging Miss Andrews later today, I just need to run a couple of tests first. You can pick her up later if you wish.” Ruby looks furious at being talked about while she’s in the room.
“Would it be okay with you if I come back later to take you home?” I ask chivalrously. Her fury turns to shy embarrassment and she just nods at me. I shoot doc a don’t-let-anything-happen-to-her warning look. He just nods as he stands beside her bed as I leave the room. When I get to the waiting room I find Leon looking completely wretched, I suspect from being awake all night.
“Is she okay?” He asks me desperately.
“She’s fine, they both are.” I tell him. He looks so relieved I think he might actually pass out on the spot. “Didn’t the doc tell you?” I ask him.
“Yes, but you know doctors they never tell you everything.”
After reassuring Leon and telling him he should go home, I leave the hospital. Driving through the town my eyes searching for something or someone that doesn’t belong. I stop at all of the local inns and motels with the BOLO (be on the lookout) bulletin with Viktor’s face on it asking if anyone has seen him in the area or anyone else with a Russian accent. I have no luck with my search but I make all of them make a photocopy of the picture to keep on hand. I hand everyone my card and tell them at the first hint of a Russian accent to call me before the FBI contact on the BOLO bulletin.
As the day winds on I make my way back to the hospital to pick up Ruby. When I arrive she’s in the waiting room ready for me,
“I’m sorry I would’ve come sooner if I knew you were ready.”
“That’s okay, I just moved out here a little while ago. I can’t stand the hospital walls they make me feel sick and claustrophobic.” She says and rolls her shoulders back like she’s trying to shake off the feeling.
“I know how you feel.” I console her as I help her up from the chair. “Do we need to tell the doc you’re leaving?”
“No I already told him.”
“Alright then let’s get you home,” I put a hand lightly on her back and lead her outside. At the truck I help her up into the cab and she pauses and looks at me guiltily.
“I forgot to get the script filled for the pain killers,” she winces.
“I’ll go back in, you just stay in the truck and keep warm.” I tell her as I start the engine and turn the heating on for her. I dash back in through the doors and find the pharmacy, the nurse doesn’t want to hand over the pain killers with someone else’s name on them. “Call Dr Connors he’ll explain.” I tell her. The nurse picks up the phone and after a short conversation she hands over the pharmacy packet.
When I get back to the truck I jump into the driver’s seat grateful for the warmth, then a chill goes down my spine as I see what Ruby’s holding.
“What’s this?” She asks me. I gulp and try to think of an explanation to cover quickly as I see the thousands of tiny red crosses marked on the worn out map in her hands.
“A road map,” I tell her innocently.
“I can see that Mr smart guy, but why all the crosses?”
“I was on a road trip of sorts and I was crossing off each town as I visited them.” My explanation is weak and I’m angry as hell myself for leaving that map in the glove compartment.
“You covered most of the eastern seaboard, did you really go to all these places?”
“Why?” She asks and her tone is more curious than suspicious now. I let out a sigh and try to think how to phrase this.
“I was looking for my new home.” I tell her with a smile as I put the truck in gear and start to drive out of the car park. Her laugh is mocking and half force.
“And you settled on little old freezing Bayfield.” She says incredulously shaking her head as she re-folds the map and places it back into the glove compartment. I just smile at her and thank my lucky stars she didn’t find the glock taped under my seat. We arrive in her driveway and her face seems to fill with worry, “Oh poor Kida, she must’ve been so scared, not to mention hungry.” Ruby sighs.
We get in to the house and I tell Ruby to sit down while I feed Kida. Kida who has not stopped jumping since we got here seems very glad of some company. “You don’t have to take care of us, it’s just a scratch I’ll be fine,” Ruby says as I return to the living room.
“I like taking care of you, besides you might still be suffering from shock.” I explain calmly.
“That’s what they were all worried about at the hospital. I think that after being shot and waking up in a strange place, pregnant with no idea who I am it doesn’t leave much that can shock me anymore.” She fires at me. I quietly keep building a fire for them to keep warm and then I stand and dust myself off. I know how naturally independent she is and all this fussing must reinforce the memory of her clueless arrival to this town, but I don’t want to leave her.
“Look I’m sorry I snapped at you okay, it’s just the doctor is treating me like such a victim and after actually reading that medical file he has I can’t really blame him.” Her voice trails off.
“You’re not a victim, you’re the strongest and most courageous woman I’ve ever met.” I tell her certainly. She looks up at me from the couch and smiles, her cheeks fill with a shade of pink and then her head looks back down to the floor. “I don’t want to make you feel like you can’t get through this on your own, I mean look at what you’ve already been through. You don’t need anybody’s help, I just want you to know that you don’t have to do it all alone.” I tell her firmly, “You were there for me when Joshua died, a time I would never have made it through without you. So I just want you to know I’m here if you need me, so use me for whatever you need.” I smile at her hoping she remembers the joke.
“Whatever I need?” She smiles wickedly and we laugh out loud a little. Ruby stands up and comes to stand in front of me, she winds her good arm gently around my waist and leans her head into my chest and squeezes. “Thank you,” she whispers. Then she breaks her hold and I take it as my cue to leave.
“I’ll let you rest, but please call me day or night whatever reason.” I tell her from the door way. She nods at me as she settles back onto the couch and Kida jumps up to her side. I leave the house and then I double back to make sure she’s not being watched. I haven’t heard from Ruby for a few days, and Leon tells me he hasn’t either. I’ve been checking her house to make sure she is okay—stealthily—and she seems depressed. It’s the Winter Festival and Ruby doesn’t leave her house once, by my count now she hasn’t left her home in six days. If this keeps up I’m going to need to intervene.
I’m planning a night out for Ruby when I hear scratching and whimpering at my front door. I practically bound over to it to answer the door and I’m greeted by Kida as she jumps up on me and I try to calm her down. She doesn’t have her lead on her and there is no sign of Ruby. Kida is wound up as she keeps barking and jumping up and I start to get a terrible feeling and I grab my weapons and race for the truck. Kida jumps up into the cab ahead of me without instruction. I peel out of the drive and hurtle towards Ruby’s, I pull the truck over on the side of the road not wanting to startle her if this is my paranoia.
I hop out of the truck and Kida races off ahead of me, I follow her in a run. I hear growling and then a yelp from the shrubs besides Ruby’s cabin and I find Kida with her jaw firmly locked onto a guy’s arm as he rolls around on the ground trying to through her off. I sneak up behind him and I grab him by the back of the neck as I place my gun barrel against his temple. The feeling of the cold gun barrel freezes all movement from him.
“Kida, drop it.” I command for Kida to let go of this guy’s arm. She lets go and he takes this as an opportunity to try to fight me off.
“Hello?” I hear Ruby’s voice call from inside the house and I don’t want her to find this prowler—or me for that matter armed— in the bushes next to her house. I pistol whip the guy in the back of the head and knocking him out. I fling him up over my shoulder and dart away from the house through the trees back to the road. Kida is hot on my heels as I reach the tree line. I carefully check down the road both ways to make sure there is no traffic before I throw the body into the back of the truck. I grab some rope and bind him, then I find a gag —just in case— I cover him with the tarp then I open the door to let Kida into the truck. I pull into Ruby’s driveway right up to the house and she comes out to the porch.
Her skin looks sallow like she’s been away from the sun far too long.
“Kida,” she scolds as I let the dog out of the truck.
“Hi,” I greet her with a nervous smile.
“I’m sorry, I let her out of the house because she kept licking my bandages and driving me crazy. I didn’t think she’d run all the way to your place.”
“Actually this is something we worked out together,” I say pointing back and forth between me and Kida. Ruby raises and eyebrow at me. “You see I needed a reason to come and see you so Kida was just helping me out.” I tell her with a smile. The smile Ruby returns looks like it takes a lot of effort.
“So you two are conspiring against me?”
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” I shrug unapologetically.
“So why did you need to see me?” Ruby asks shyly. I can see she’s wearing the same clothes I saw her in yesterday and she’s keeping her distance from me by staying on the porch.
“Because we have a date tonight,” I tell her boldly, “So I wanted to give you time to shower and get ready.”
“I don’t remember agreeing to any date tonight,” she plays hesitantly.
“Well maybe that part was just in my dreams, but nevertheless I need you showered and ready to go by four.”
“What if I refuse?” She asks me seriously and I take a step closer to her.
“Well I can just throw you over my shoulder and kidnap you, but I think you’ll have a better time if you’re a willing participant.”
“I don’t know Mason, I’m not really feeling up to it tonight, maybe we can do it another night.” She says vaguely.
“Not a chance, now are you going to go have a shower yourself or do I need to make you?” I threaten playfully as I take another step towards her.
“Fine,” she surrenders, “but I’m not promising to enjoy myself.”
“I just have one thing to take care of then I’ll be back for you okay. As for the enjoying yourself, it isn’t mandatory but I don’t think you’ll be able to help yourself.” I wink as I get back into the truck. I start to back out of the drive, yeah I’ve just got to take care of the guy I knocked out while lurking by your house.