I pretend not to see her driveway as I overshoot the entrance,
“Oh back there?” I say as convincingly as possible. Ruby laughs as she points back over her shoulder.
“Yeah, it’s easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there.” She placates me. I turn the truck around and pull into her driveway and follow it up to the side of the cabin. We sit there for a moment in the cab and I let the engine run to keep the heat going.
“Would you like to come in for some hot cocoa?” She asks expectantly.
“The same cocoa you made at the diner, because that stuff is amazing.”
Ruby nods delighted with my appreciation as she opens the truck door and jumps out. I meet her at the front of the truck and she leads me to the porch and the doorway. I can hear the low growling on the other side of the door and I pray internally for the dog to like me. I know I already love this dog, the one who has been protecting her while I couldn’t. Ruby opens the door and the giant wolf dog jumps up on me. The move isn’t aggressive at all, more playful and I pat her gently as Ruby yells,
“Kida, get down,” she grabs the collar, “I’m sorry about this, Kida down!” Her voice more forceful is obeyed instantly.
The dog backs up into the cabin and Ruby beckons for me to come in out of the cold. I find myself in a living room surrounded by odd furniture and mismatched blankets thrown over things to cover up the fabric tears and general wear of the furniture. I smile at the explosions of colours throughout the small log cabin. It was obviously designed as a summer vacation place by the lake.
“Sorry about the mess, you’re actually the first person to come in here besides Leon, Kida or me.” Ruby says suddenly and I try to force myself from making observations.
“It’s cosy, and personal.” I tell her comfortingly so she isn’t embarrassed. Honestly she could reside in a tent and I would just be happy to be with her. “Would you like me to start a fire?” I ask pointing towards the fireplace.
“Oh I never have it going, the flue release is jammed and I can unstick it, so the smoke just fills the place up too fast. I have electric heaters throughout the house.” She says with a touch of disappointment in her voice.
“Would you mind if I take a look at it?”
“Knock yourself out, I’ll go make the cocoa. Come on Kida.” Ruby calls but the dog doesn’t follow her instead she follows me. I’m sure she doesn’t want to take her watchful gaze off the intruder in her home and I smile affectionately at her.
“Fine stay and make sure Mason doesn’t steal anything,” Ruby says with a laugh as she leaves the room.
Kida comes to sit by my side as I kneel down to investigate the fire place. My face is level with hers and I turn to face her less than a foot away. She ducks her head to sniff me and then she comes back up to continue watching me. I set about the task at hand and I find the flue release lever, it seems simple enough. Yep jammed. I put as much force into it as possible,
“One of two things will result here,” I whisper to Kida, “I either fix it and you get to be warmer by a fireside. Or I break it and have an excuse to come back to fix the damage I caused, either way is a win.” I wink at the dog.
“Are you two getting along in there or has Kida eaten you?” Ruby calls from the small kitchen.
“No, we’re just playing twenty questions and getting to know each other,” I call back as I pat Kida’s head with my free hand. I nearly fall back with the force of pulling the lever loose. I got it I congratulate myself internally. I duck my head into the fireplace to make sure it is open and the moonlight pouring into the wide brink chimney is a welcome sight. I try to carefully close the flue again and reopen it to make sure it’ll work for Ruby when I’m not here.
After a few successful attempts I build a fire with the wood and kindling that are stored next to the fireplace. I’m just fanning the flames to a fuller height when Ruby comes back into the living room.
“Oh wow you fixed it, Leon’s been trying for ages. He’ll be so happy he doesn’t have to call someone.” She says excitedly. I raise a curios eyebrow at her as I get to my feet and walk towards the couch.
“Leon is my boss at the diner,” she explains, “and also my landlord.” I take the mug gratefully from her and take a seat on the longer couch. Ruby sits in a single chair wrapping a blanket around her and bringing her knees up on to the chair. Kida jumps up on the couch next to me and lays down with her head across my lap as I sip the cocoa. Ruby’s eyes light up as she smiles over her mug at the sight of us.
“She doesn’t usually like men, she even barks at Leon.” She tells me like I should be proud of my achievement. I’ve always loved dogs, I think they’re intelligent beyond our understanding. I believe Kida can sense my love and protectiveness towards Ruby and can recognise it for what it is. I let my left arm pat gentle strokes along Kida’s back as I sip my cocoa. We sit there in relative silence watching the flames from the fire cast flamenco dancer patterns onto the walls of the living room. I’m enveloped in the warmth from the cocoa, the open fire and mostly from Ruby’s presence.
“So you fixed my fireplace so I won’t freeze to death during the winter.” She says as if she’s going somewhere then continues, “So that would be the fifth time you’ve saved me in two days.”
“Fifth, what?” I ask genuinely confused.
“Well, you interrupted that Tom’s persistent pursuits just by standing at the counter, he normally doesn’t give up that easily. Then you helped my with my back pain, then you rescued me from a crowd of witnesses to my emotional breakdown. Then of course the Jedi like reflexes to stop my fall, and now the fireplace.” Ruby concludes her argument like a lawyer pleading a case.
“So do I get the job of guardian angel or not?” I ask with a smile. Her laugh fills the small cabin with its own melody.
“Oh definitely,” she hesitates for a moment, “I like that you don’t constantly ask me if I remember things Mason.” I just smile in response hoping she’ll open up a bit more and she does. “This is such a small town and everybody knows everybody’s business. People are always asking if things are familiar or asking personal questions that I honestly don’t know the answers to. Some of these people I haven’t known long enough to trust with answers anyway, even if I had them.”
I just remain silent and understanding for a moment. “I gather it would be hard to know people enough to trust them if you can’t really remember or trust yourself.” I tell her calmly.
“Wow, you really are observant. For some reason I feel like I can trust you though, is that crazy?” She asks.
“Well I think I’m a pretty trustworthy guy but I would definitely encourage your gut instincts to guide you until your memory returns. Mine have always served me well, well almost.” I tell her gesturing to the right side of my face. She looks at me sadly and I can practically hear the question screaming in the front of her mind. She bites the right side of her bottom lip, the same way she always has when she doesn’t want to say something. I decide to put her out of her misery.
“I was too close to an explosion, when I was on an assignment in the middle-east.” I explain and she looks relieved at not having to ask the question but deeply saddened by the explanation. Then her look turns playful, “wait, did you just divulge some classified information to me and now a swat team is going to storm my cabin and make me disappear?” Her mock terror makes me laugh and I marvel at her ability to lighten the subject as I drain the last contents of my mug. I wish I could pretend for a little longer that I still had some cocoa so I could stay here.
We sit in silence for a few minutes as I try to plan a way to see her again outside the diner and that horrendous orange uniform. As I’m thinking our silence is broken by someone snoring and I look over to see Ruby covering her mouth to supress her laughter with both of her hands. Wait the sound is coming from my side of the room. Kida.
“The dog snores?” I ask as the laughter bubbles up from deep in my chest.
Ruby pulls her hands away from her mouth and I can see a tear escaping her eye, but she is laughing,
“I know,” she laughs, “I really wish I knew that before I adopted her.”
“No wonder you can’t sleep, this sound would really echo in here.”
“She sleeps at the end of my bed, but maybe now the fireplace works I can get her to sleep out here.” Ruby says hopefully. I carefully try to pry the snoring wolf’s head off my leg and try to stand up. Kida wakes up with a start and her eyes dart furiously around the room.
“Easy girl, I need to get going.” I say to Kida but knowing Ruby can hear me as well. Ruby stands up to walk me to the door and Kida follows us closely.
“Thank you for everything,” Ruby says as we reach the door, “especially for the fireplace.”
“So do you have enough firewood to keep that going for a while? If not I could always chop some up for you, at least enough to store.” I offer her.
“That would actually be great, but I don’t want to take advantage of you.”
“It’s not taking advantage of me if I offer to do it.” I explain and she seems pacified.
“Well whenever you’re free, maybe Monday? I have the day off work and I’ll be free after I see Doctor Connors in the morning.” She tells me and I agree to come by in the afternoon. I reach for the door handle and I feel the sting of the threatening cold outside,
“You might want to get further back,” I tell her inclining my head towards the door.
“Bet you regret leaving that Louisiana sunshine right about now, huh?” She teases.
“I could never regret following my heart,” I tell her as I quickly fling my body out into the freezing night air I sprint for my truck and bring the engine and heater to life with lightning speed. December in Wisconsin is going to be a cold one I think as I back out of the driveway.
At the diner the next day Ruby seems almost light hearted and happier than when I first arrived. I pay attention to her that way the doc said and he’s right, she doesn’t seem to want to connect with anyone. Her conversations are all friendly and polite but only as long as necessary until she gets to me.
“So are you having any luck finding a house so you don’t have to eat here every day?” She asks me playfully.
“Why are you trying to get rid of me?” I ask her with an expression of mock hurt on my face.
“No, of course not, but you can’t stay at the Bayfield Inn forever.”
“How do you know where I’m staying?”
“It’s a small town remember?” She huffs in frustration, “I know more about you than I know about myself. Everything except your star sign.”
“Leo.” I reply openly.
“Well there goes all the mystery about you, now what will people talk about?” She teases. As she walks away to the kitchen pass she picks up the basket and heads back towards me.
“Here, I forgot to get you these last night.” She smiles and places the basket of fries in front of me. The fries that were my excuse just to check on her. I laugh a little and thank her kindly for the speedy delivery of my order, a mere twenty-four hours late. She walks away with a smile, confident that I’m only teasing her.
As I sit there enjoying my fries I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, I pull in out to see the number of the Johnsons on the screen.
“Hello?” I ask.
“Oh Agent Harris, this is Maureen Johnson calling, I remembered something else about that girl you’re looking for.” Says an elderly female voice on the other end of the line.
I roll my eyes,
“That’s great Mrs Johnson what can you tell me?”
“Well the poor dear has lost her memory, she was such a lovely girl but she couldn’t remember our order. Then she told us about her amnesia, but I told her not to worry because sometimes my Carl can’t remember things for very long either. We’ve been to specialists who just keep telling us its age, I suggested she see a specialist but she’s so young…..”
“Mrs Johnson, thank you so much for all of your help but we have actually concluded that investigation.” I cut her off before I hear Carl Johnson’s entire medical history. I can barely contain my internal laughter at how much more helpful this information would have been to me last week. I bid her goodbye and I hang up the phone and I notice Ruby watching me as I shake my head smiling.
“Senile relatives,” I explain as she comes over to refill my coffee.
“How senile?” She asks.
“Senile enough to forget I’m not actually related to them.” I tell her and she almost drops the coffee put in a fit of laughter.
“That’s so mean,” she scolds slapping me lightly with her free hand. I let her think it’s a joke because I wouldn’t take that smile from her even if my life depends on it. I take a sip of coffee and nearly spit it out my nose as I feel the vibration in my pocket again. It’s not possible I think in disbelief as I pull out the phone. I see the screen and recognise the international code for Columbia and I bolt out of the diner.
“Hola?” I say sternly in case it’s not someone testing Joshua.
“Nice work,” I hear Joshua’s voice down the line and I physically jump in the air.
“Are you crazy, why would you risk breaking cover, are you in trouble?” I ask urgently.
“Calm down, I’ve only been here a week. How much trouble could I be in already that I would need to call you?” He asks and I’m thankful he can’t hear my thoughts.
“So why are you risking your mission to call, do you need play off scores?” I ask sarcastically.
“You know damn well why I’m calling, she can’t remember you Mason. How the hell have you not gone postal?” His joke is lost in his concerned tone of voice.
“It was certainly not the reunion I envisioned but at least it was a reunion.” I say regretfully.
“Are you with her now?”
“Yes, I’m outside the diner she works at. I can see her through the window.” I tell him.
“Tell me what she look like, paint the picture for me.” He pleads and I oblige.
I fill him in on a few quick details before he tells me he is on a payphone and doesn’t have much longer.
“One more question?” He pauses and I wait.
“How’s your baby?”
I choke on my words as I tell him the Doctors initial assessments are all positive. Then I describe the joy of seeing that perfect little round baby bump on her stomach. Beep, beep, beep.
“Crap I’ve got to go but I’m praying for you brother, if any two people in the world deserve a happily ever after, it’s you two.” He says quickly.
“Stay safe,” I say as the line goes dead. I know he won’t be able to call again for a long time, but somewhere in my mind I hope that I have good news for him the next time we speak. I walk back into the diner and I feel the warmth immediately as I realize my skin is almost numb from not grabbing my jacket as I frantically flew out the door to answer my phone.
“You must be cold,” Ruby says as she replaces my coffee with a new mug filled with steaming hot cocoa. I take it from her gratefully and smile as I let the liquid warmth flow into ever frozen appendage of my body.
“You seem really happy,” she tells me as she catches my smile.
“I was just talking to a really good friend, he’s been through a lot lately but he’s getting through it.” I tell her and she looks at me curiously.
“Bad break-up?” She probes.
“No, nothing like that. He had a friend that was as close to him as a sister, she went missing and it nearly destroyed him. But he found her last week and that’s the first time I’ve talked to him since.” I try to explain carefully weaving the truth with enough vagueness.
“That’s great, what happened to her? Was she kidnapped?” Ruby asks with polite concern.
“They’re still trying to figure everything out, but the important thing is that she is safe now.”
Her face falls slightly,
“I wonder if there are any friends or family worried about me.” She says barely louder than a whisper but she doesn’t wait for a response before she walks away. I want so desperately to tell her that she is intensely loved and sorely missed but I know it won’t help until she is more receptive to her memory.
I wake up on Monday morning to a knocking on my motel room door. I glance at the clock beside the bed astounded I slept for so long. I open the door to a fed ex employee holding a parcel and an electronic signature panel at me. I sleepily scribble my name and thank the guy as I take the thick envelope from him. I throw it down onto the bed as I remember what it is. I wash off the last traces of sleep in a hot shower before returning to investigate the envelope contents.
I rip it open and dump the files and photos onto the bed. My heart drops as I pick up the collection of photographs and I slide down to the floor as I’m overcome with grief. Right here in full colour detail, every bruise, every cut, every broken bone she has ever suffered at the hands of that monster. Right up until the last documented injuries. I wonder if the Dr was keeping these for personal insurance against the Nolikovs because God knows he never filed a police report.
I put the photos face down on the floor so I can read the file notes. I wipe the water blurring my vision with the back of my hand. I begin reading and the description of her injuries are no less affecting than the photos. Jesus Christ I think as I flick through seven years of the most violent medical history I’ve ever seen. She never told me just how bad it really was, I’m amazed she could trust another man after him let alone risk falling in love.
I cast my memory back to the night she returned to me after learning who I really was and what my objective in New Orleans was. Now I can fully understand the crushing betrayal she must have felt after enduring this for so long. Perhaps the doc is right, maybe she’s better off not remembering this I think as I keep reading then I see it. The notes about the miscarriage. The notes say; the patient was informed of the miscarriage resulting from her substantial injuries. Patient claims to be unaware of being pregnant as does the spouse, however I doubt it highly as the patient was nearly eight weeks into the pregnancy.
That evil son of a bitch beat her so badly she lost their baby. My God she must have been terrified when she figured out she was pregnant again while still in the thralls of the Nolikov family. She never told me, she carried this all on her own, I would’ve taken her away from that entire mess as soon as I found out she was pregnant. Which is probably why she never told me. I check the date of the miscarriage report, almost three years ago. She would’ve been careful about using contraception after that.
I pick up the photos again and I barely recognise the broken fallen angel in them. To me she always radiated life itself, with a blinding passion that takes grabs you by your very soul. I see the woman in these photos and all I want to do is take her in my arms and never let another thing touch her ever again. Yet as I look at these photos I’m also in awe of the angel I first met back in New Orleans, strong and fiercely beautiful.
The morning hours drift away fast as I get ready to go to Ruby’s. I stopped and picked up some large chunks of wood from a firewood supplier yesterday. I loaded and covered the wood in the back of the truck. Once at Ruby’s I can split the wood into smaller pieces for her fireplace. I pack up the file and photos back into the fed ex envelope and tape it underneath the nightstand base in case of curios small town maids. I feel for Doctor Connors having to deal with the brutality of those images as well today. I don’t think he’ll show Ruby those images, it would be to confronting and traumatic for her in her current state.
When I pull into the driveway at Ruby’s I find her sitting on her back porch looking out over the lake, wrapped snuggly in a brightly coloured woollen blanket. I smile and wave at her as I get out of the truck, but her return smile is less than enthusiastic. Well at least someone is happy to see me as Kida launches off the porch towards me and starts jumping up on me.
“Kida!” Ruby calls and it’s an angry tone I’ve rarely heard from her. Ruby gets to her feet and runs her hand through hair frustration evident on her face. “Kida!” She snaps again and the dog almost cowers in fear as she darts back into the house through the torn screen on the porch door.
Ruby’s face softens, “Kida, honey I’m sorry.” She calls into the house. “Come in,” She beckons to me as she goes into the house. I follow her in and find her on her hands and knees in front of the couch. “Kida, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to snap at you. You know how much I love you, I was just having a bad morning.” She says quietly to the space between the bottom of the couch and the floor. Ruby gets back up to her feet and cups her hand on the back of her neck as she turns to face me. “I’m a horrible person,” she says, “who yells at a dog because they really want to yell at someone else?”
I smile a half smile at her,
“You are not a horrible person, and I’m sure Kida understands.” I crouch down on the floor and try to coax her out from under the couch but she seems set to stay there. I try reverse psychology and I lay flat on the floor looking away from her and back up towards Ruby. “Fine don’t come out, we think it’s be better if you stay under there permanently anyway.” I say flatly.
“Are trying to use reverse psychology on my dog?” Ruby asks incredulously then shuts her mouth as Kida slowly crawls out from underneath the couch to begin licking the scarred side of my face.
“Right are you going to be useful and help me chop the firewood or are you going stay in here and mope all day?” I ask Kida and she barks. Ruby covers her mouth to hide her smile. I lead Kida outside and Ruby joins us. I start to unload the heavy chunks of wood from the back of the trailer and Ruby helps me while Kida runs around like a puppy in between us.
We make a pile of the large chucks of wood next to the tree stump that is the obvious wood splitting surface judging by the lack of life in the stump along with the axe indentations covering the surface. I grab my gloves and axe from the truck and begin splitting the wood while Ruby tries to keep Kida out of the way.
“Can I help?” She asks. I just shake my head at her. “Please give me something to do I feel terrible for the way I greeted you.” She pleads.
“Well I’m probably going to be pretty hungry when I’m finished here.” I hint.
“Well then I will start preparing a meal fit for a wood chopping, dog whispering, guardian angel.” She informs me as she marches into the house. The sun high in the air and my actions raise my body temperature fairly fast. I rip off my jacket and my over shirt as Ruby reappears on the back porch. I continue to chop as she takes her seat again wrapped in a blanket while she watches me. “Is it wrong that I wish the weather was warmer so you could do this without a shirt?” She giggles as she calls out her taunts and I match her wicked smile with one of my own.
Over the past few hours I’ve managed to chop the entire pile of wood I brought with me along with some random pieces from around the cabin. I stock the storage gaps next to either side of the fireplace inside and I make another pile in the corner of the living room as well. I store as much as I can in the small excuse for an outdoor shed and then I pile the rest into a large pile at the other end of the porch and cover it with the tarp that was covering the wood in my truck. The porch roof should protect it from the snow and hopefully the tarp is secure enough to stave off the other elements.
I brush my hands together and I look out towards Lake Superior to see the stunning sunset. Ruby joins me on the back porch and follows my gaze.
“That’s my favourite part about this place.” She tells me then she puts her hand appreciatively on my shoulder. “I can’t believe you did all that so fast? Dinner won’t be ready for another half hour.” She looks apologetic.
“That’s perfect, I need to take advantage of the last bit of daylight to gather some kindling anyway.” I tell her.
“I help you,” she offers grabbing her coat, “dinner will be fine on its own for a little while.”
Kida rushes to join us, the perfect chaperone for collecting sticks in the woods. I’m trying to gather kindling while Kida keeps trying to play fetch with the sticks. This disappointment on her face every time I pick up a stick and don’t throw it is heartbreaking.
“Oh all right,” I surrender hurling a stick as far as I can for her. Ruby smiles at me over her bundle of kindling. We’ve been walking in a comfortable silence in each other’s company. Then all of a sudden she says,
“I better go check on dinner.”
“I’ll be along in a minute, I’ll just throw a couple more for Kida.” I tell her as she strolls away with her bundle of twigs and sticks clasped tightly against her chest with both arms. When I make it make to the cabin the amazing smell of food invades my senses as soon as I open the door. Kida nearly bowls me over trying to get past me through the doorway. I add my kindling to the box by the fireplace, then I build a roaring fire. Then I collect my over shirt from the back of the couch where Ruby must’ve laid it out.
I gingerly make my way to the kitchen, “is there somewhere I can wash up?” I ask and she supresses a laugh and points to the small hall next to the kitchen that has two doors along the walls one on either side of the hall.
“One has a bed in it one has a shower in it, you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of picking the right door,” She announces dramatically in her best game show host voice and I laugh as I head into the small hall. I can see a bedroom inside the door to the right and I check over my shoulder to make sure she isn’t watching me. Then I step into the bathroom removing my long sleeved t-shirt.
I look in the mirror as I splash my face and neck with warm water and soap. I’m not even aware I didn’t shut the bathroom door until I hear the bedroom door across the hall squeak as it’s opened. I glance in the mirror to see Ruby’s reflection as she changes tops into a v neck sweater versus the turtle neck she was wearing. I yearn to run my fingers up her cherry blossom tree tattoo on her ribs, then she catches my gaze in the mirror as she pulls her sweater on further. I drop my eyes instantly and try to focus on scrubbing as much dirt as I can from my upper body. Ruby pauses in the bathroom doorway on her way back to the kitchen.
“Damn, I really do wish the weather was warmer today.” She says disappointedly as her eyes travel appreciatively over my upper torso. Despite my scars and my recent neglect of my body I understand her appreciation.
I smile at her as she turns to leave. I dry myself off and pull on just my over shirt. I regret not bringing any deodorant with me but I’m surprised and a little dejected to find a tin of men’s deodorant underneath the bathroom sink. I’ll take what I can get right now. I make my way back to the kitchen and offer to help.
“Here, open this.” Ruby instructs as she hands me a bottle of wine along with an opener. I oblige and set it on the small kitchen table that is just big enough for two.
I love that the chairs—while they don’t match—seem to belong together. All the crockery is mismatched and I smile at how mismatched I’ve always though Ruby and I are. An angel and a gargoyle. This entire place pays homage to our relationship.
“Pretty much everything I own was donated by someone else, I don’t have anything that was mine before I lost my memory. Except these,” she says pulling the pant leg of her jeans up to reveal a brown leather cowboy boot with turquoise stitching on the side. I swallow the memory of our trip to Nashville way back down into the pit of my stomach.
“I may not remember who bought for me or where, but I know I love them,” She tells me and I nod appreciatively at the boots unable to form words just yet.
We take our seats at the set table and Kida promptly lays herself across the top of my feet on the floor. Ruby dishes out the delicious smelling stew with roasted vegetables, a warm and hearty meal. “I think she’s in love with you,” she says as she inclines her head towards the floor where Kida lays.
“Just another woman to fall for my charms,” I say jokingly as I take the first bite of food.
“I’m sorry,” Ruby says pausing her eating, “I didn’t ask if you wanted to say grace.”
“No I’m fine, God and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms right now.” I assure her.
Ruby smiles a half smile at me then we both resume eating. The night is flowing smoothly with easy conversation and some periods of silence— that are in no way awkward—where I just enjoy the proximity to her. When it’s time to leave she hands me a piece of paper with real estate listings on it.
“I picked this up for you this morning, I wasn’t sure if I should give it to you. I don’t want you to think I’m being pushy or nosy.” She says shyly. I take the paper from her and my heart warms at the thought she is trying to make me a permanent fixture in her life.
“Thank you, that was very considerate of you,” I tell her.