Excerpt, From the Hat Down
Andi Marquette, © 2014
Meg sipped her coffee and stared at the three boxes stacked next to her front door, and guilt tugged her thoughts. They’d been there a couple of months now, reminders of her break-up with Kate. She’d called Kate last week, to set up a time to pick them up and Kate, ever the organized and conscientious type, had asked apologetically if she could collect the boxes later, as she was just starting a new job and trying to get settled in her own place in Fort Collins. Barely an hour south. But the distance between them was much more than that. Meg had agreed. The least she could do was give Kate the space to get her stuff when she could. Meg had offered to drive it down a few weeks ago, but Kate wouldn’t hear of it, though she said she appreciated that. Meg knew it was genuine. She’d been nice about it. She always was. It made Meg feel guilty for pushing her to pick the stuff up.
The boxes maintained their blank silence as she studied them. She had debated moving them into the bedroom she used as an office, but decided to just leave them by the door. Maybe they were penance, in some way. Reminders of a relationship gone sour, representatives of an ending.
She took another sip. Endings sucked. But in a weird way, they were pre-beginnings. You couldn’t have a beginning without an end, after all. She shifted her attention to the window, and the trees outside, past the covered front porch. Mid-May and many had finally leafed out, presaging summer. She looked at the boxes again and a wave of sadness washed through her chest. She swallowed it with a gulp of coffee just as her Blackberry rang with a particular tone. She smiled as she pulled it off her belt. “Hey, fellow vet person. What’s up?”
“Hi, Doctor Horse Chick,” came Sean’s goofy nickname for her. She had a way of stringing words together in unique combinations that somehow ended up making perfect sense. “Just checking to be sure you remember that I’ll be in your fabulous Laramie Tuesday doing a most awesome lecture on holistic approaches to large four-legged domestic animals.”
Meg almost snorted coffee through her nose. “Approaching, say, cows holistically? Like, with new-age lassos? Do you tie a crystal on the end?”
“No. Incense,” she retorted with a “duh” tone.
Meg laughed. “And what kind of incense might make a cow even more catatonic than some of them already are?”
“Sandalwood. Maybe jasmine. I haven’t tried that one yet. Patchouli makes them grow dreads and crave reggae.”
“Bob Moo-ley,” Meg said, trying not to giggle.
“Oh, hell no. I cannot believe you just said that.” Sean started laughing. “‘No woman, no cud’ is their fave tune.”
Meg grinned and set her nearly empty coffee cup on the topmost box. “Are you bringing one of these dreadlocked bovines to your lecture? I’m sure the students would appreciate it.”
“Whatever. They’re all serious cowboy-types up there. Maybe I could get a cow to wear a ten-gallon Stetson. Though you look better in Stetsons than any cow. Than any human-types, actually.”
“Well, it is the head covering of choice in this state.” She nudged a box with the toe of her boot. “So you still want to stop by when you’re done?”
“Is there wind in Wyoming? And that’s a rhetorical question, by the way,” Sean said with teasing warmth.
“Wind? Here?” Meg asked in a “what are you talking about?” tone.
“Exactly my point.”
“Cool. Just come by the house.” She picked up her cup.
“Will do. I’ll call you if anything changes. Oh, speaking of seeing you—your birthday’s coming up,” she said in a sing-song tone.
Meg grimaced. “Don’t remind me. I’m trying to be low-key about it.”
“Please. You’re always low-key. Why not have a party? Just to shake things up a bit?”
She glanced at the boxes, then back out the window. “You know I’m not really the party kind. Besides, I’m going to the ranch that weekend. You and Ted want to come up? I’d be okay with a birthday barbecue.” She walked into the kitchen and rinsed her cup out with one hand and set it in the drying rack.
“I’d love to, but Ted’s brother is supposed to be coming through then. Damn. We want to at least take you out for dinner, though.” Sean sighed plaintively. “Since you won’t let me throw a massive street party for you, with a DJ and Chinese acrobats, will a small, painfully intimate dinner with me and Ted suffice?”
“Always,” Meg said, smiling. “I’ll check my schedule and we’ll talk more when I see you tomorrow.”
“Sounds good. Catch you later.”
“Yep. Hi to Ted.” Meg hung up and slid the phone back into its holder on her belt. She gave the boxes another hard stare then turned and walked down the hallway toward the two bedrooms at the rear of the house. The one she used as her office was to the right, her bedroom to the left. She went into her office to her leather satchel, which rested on her desk chair, flap open. She rummaged through it to make sure she had everything she needed for the day.
Another damn birthday. At least she’d get to spend it with her dad at the ranch. Meg dug around in her satchel, looking for her appointment book. She preferred the old-fashioned approach to keeping track of her schedule, though she did enter her patient appointments into her Blackberry, as well.
Where had she put the book? It wasn’t in its usual place in the satchel. She stopped her search in the satchel and looked at her desk. Ah. There it was. She reached across her desk for her appointment book, partially hidden beneath a veterinary journal. She moved the journal and picked up the appointment book, and her gaze lingered on the small wooden carving of a horse that stood nearby, next to her computer monitor. It held its head high, and its right front leg was raised, as if it was preparing to tear off across a prairie. The unknown artist had captured the moment between stillness and motion, that second in which muscles bunch and adrenaline surges before the physical form follows the urge.
Meg set the datebook back down and picked up the horse. She ran her fingertips over the smooth chocolate brown wood. The carving fit perfectly in her palm and she remembered when it had arrived in the mail from Argentina six years ago, a gift for her graduation from vet school at Colorado State. She studied the detail on its face, and on its mane and tail. The horse’s surface felt warm, as if it was generating its own heat. She closed her hand around it, remembering the small box it had come in, and how she’d felt when she saw the handwriting on the address label. She smiled, because she felt a little bit of that now.
She returned the horse to its place on her desk, wondering how its sender was, and if she might be thinking about her. Maybe she was even writing a card, getting ready to mail it. She always sent Meg a birthday card. Every year since they first met ten years ago, a week before Meg turned twenty-five. She stared at the horse for a while, a strange combination of longing and regret coloring her thoughts before she picked her datebook up and tossed it into her satchel. She slung the bag over her shoulder and headed for the front door.
Chuck, a black-and-tan shepherd mix, lay on the steel table on his left side, breathing evenly as Meg completed the last cross-stitch and tied off the ends. She placed the needle driver on the nearby tray and checked her handiwork.
“All right. Your turn,” she said, flashing a quick smile at Kelly.
The tech’s brow furrowed, but she moved with purpose and applied the dressing and gauze to the wound then wrapped a light brown elastic bandage around the gauze. She reminded Meg of a librarian she’d known back in Saratoga, with her reddish hair pulled back into a braid and the spattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
She inspected her work. “Nice. You’ve been paying attention.”
Kelly flushed a bit and Meg remembered her own experience—nearly nine years ago—as a beginning veterinary student. She had been nervous, too, and it was always a rush when the doctor said that she’d done a good job. Meg administered atipamezole to help bring Chuck back to full consciousness. “He’ll be coming around pretty soon,” Meg said as she raised her eyebrows. “What do you plan to do about that?”
“I’m going to put an old clean sock over his wound and we’ll put him on the cushion in the pen because a dog coming out of anesthesia—even light—might thrash around and he could hurt himself if he was up on the table.” Kelly recited it like a mantra.
“Bingo.” Meg glanced at the watch on her left wrist. “I’ll be back in a few.” She pulled her gloves off and tossed them onto the tray next to the bloody gauze and used instruments then pushed through the nearby swinging door out into the reception area. From there she went around the counter and crossed the linoleum to a woman in her early twenties who sat in front of the picture windows that overlooked the parking lot. Her arms were crossed tightly over her chest and one of her jeans-clad legs bounced nervously. She looked up, expectant and guarded as Meg approached.
“Looks good, Ashley,” Meg said, smiling at her as she sat down in the seat to Ashley’s left, since the right-hand seat was occupied by Ashley’s cowboy hat. “Chuck’ll be coming out of the anesthesia in a few minutes. He’ll be ready to go in about a half-hour.”
She exhaled, relieved.
“The skin sutures can come out in about fourteen days. You’ve done that before, but if you don’t want to this time, or if something doesn’t look right, bring him back. In the meantime, you’ve got to keep the dressing changed and clean. Do it in the morning after he wakes up. We’ll give you enough gauze and bandaging to take care of that. If you run out before the two weeks, come by and I’ll give you more.” She put on a stern expression. “Chuck can’t be playing in the horse trough or taking long, leisurely baths for a while. I know how your grandma likes to powder him up.”
She giggled. “Sure thing, Doc. I’ll keep him with me and inside, mostly.”
“Good. Do that thing I showed you with the old sock. Cut the toe out and make Chuck wear it. We’ve got one on him now, but it’s good to have an extra. I’ll give you some painkillers—the ones he had last time. Give him the prescribed doses for the first couple days and after that, only if he’s acting like he needs it. You’ll know.”
Meg held out her left arm, palm up. She pushed the sleeve of her lab coat up and tracked a line about two inches long with her right index finger. “This is about how long the wound is on him. It’s about an eighth of an inch deep and missed the important stuff. It was a clean slice, no ragged edges. We irrigated it and packed it with antibiotic ointment. I’m going to give you a tube of it to re-apply. It’s Furacin.”
“Oh, yeah. My dad’s used that on horses.”
“I’ll bet he has. Then you know it’s thick and messy. Apply it with a Q-Tip or use your finger but wash your hands before and after you do that. I also gave him a penicillin shot, since he does all right on that, too.” She rolled her sleeve down. “Change his dressing once a day. If he gets into something, you might have to do it more than that. Put the Furacin right on the wound. If you have any questions or if you think something looks weird, bring him back as soon as you can.”
Ashley nodded. “Um—” she started.
“What do you mean by ‘weird’?”
“If you see the edges of the wound getting redder and inflamed or if you notice pus. Bring him right back.” She stood. “You want some coffee? I’ve got a fresh pot.”
She grinned and nodded. “That’d be great. Thanks, Doc.”
“Sure. You and Chuck stay out of trouble and if you want somebody here to take his stitches out, bring him by in a couple weeks before closing.” Meg squeezed her shoulder encouragingly and headed into the back. This close to closing, the coffee maker out front was clean and shut down but Meg kept a pot going in the back for the techs and receptionists and occasional emergencies that came in. She filled a clean cup and brought some packets of sugar and powdered creamer along with a stir stick to the front. Ashley was waiting on the other side of the counter so Meg placed the cup and supplies within her reach. As Ashley doctored her coffee, the phone rang. Ginny picked up the receiver before Anna, the other front desk clerk on duty, could.
“Laramie Animal Clinic. This is Ginny.” She waited a moment, listening. “Hold on, please. I’ll see if she’s busy.” She put the caller on hold and looked at Meg. “It’s Kate.”
Her throat tightened. “Thanks. I’ll take it in my office.”
Ginny nodded and Meg brushed past her through the swinging door to the back. She turned past the small animal holding kennels set into the wall on her right. A stainless steel table stood to her left. She passed the freezers, also on the left, and went down a short corridor to a small office dominated by a large wooden table that served as a desk. She stood staring at the phone that sat to the right of her computer monitor. As if on cue, it rang. She picked it up.
“Hey,” she said, somewhere between tentative and anxious. She waited for the familiar sound of Kate’s voice, wishing it wouldn’t come but wanting to hear it anyway.
“Hi, Meg. I tried to get you on your cell but I guess you didn’t have it on you.”
“Sorry. I didn’t.” She looked at her Blackberry, which sat on her desk. “What’s up?” she asked, trying to keep Kate talking so she wouldn’t have to say anything.
“I was wondering if you were going to be around later today. I can come by and pick up the rest of my stuff.”
“Yeah. I’m just finishing up here. I should be home in about an hour. When do you think you’ll stop by?” Like it was a nice evening visit, Meg thought, sad.
“I can be there around seven. Is that okay?”
She bit back a sigh and stared out the window opposite the door, toward the University of Wyoming’s football field. “That’s fine. Sure.” What else could she say? No? She swallowed a surge of guilt.
“Thanks,” Kate said, relief in her voice. “I’ll see you then. Bye.” And just like that, she hung up before Meg could say anything else. She replaced the receiver gingerly, as if it were an animal she didn’t want to wake.
“Doc?” Kelly asked.
She turned. “How’s Chuck?”
“He’s okay. Kind of groggy.”
“Can he stand yet?”
“Almost. He’s too looped to do anything about the sock.” Kelly regarded her from the doorway, shifting her weight nervously. She’d only been working at the clinic for two months and she was still a bit uncertain, but she was excellent with animals and seemed to have a good sense of things. Meg never had to tell her more than once what she wanted done and how. She’d make a good, solid vet tech some day if she stuck with it. And maybe she’d go on to vet school.
“All right,” Meg said. “I’ll go have a look at him. Could you get gauze, pads, and elastic bandages ready for Ashley?” Meg picked up her Blackberry from her desk and smiled wanly as she passed Kelly. “Oh, and a tube of the Furacin,” she called over her shoulder. She put the Blackberry in its holder on her belt as she walked.
“Okay,” Kelly said in acknowledgement.
“Thanks.” Meg focused on Chuck, who watched her approach from his pen. He had managed to stand up, though he listed slightly. He whined softly and weakly wagged his tail.
“Hey, big guy,” she said softly as she opened the gate and entered. She squatted next to him. “Sorry about this. But you’ve got to quit messing with fencing like that.”
He butted her shoulder with his head and she scratched him behind his ears then stood and watched him for a few moments. She checked his eyes and encouraged him to walk a bit, and he took a few shaky steps. He limped a bit on the injured front paw but he could put weight on it.
“Ten minutes, buddy. And then your mom will take you on home.” She closed the gate behind her. Another tech entered from the boarding kennels and Meg addressed him. “Hey, Gary, could you take Chuck out back? See if he’ll do anything and make sure he can. In ten minutes, take him out front to Ashley.”
“Will do.” He grinned lopsidedly and removed the black lightweight leash that he perpetually wore hanging around his neck. He reminded her of a guy she knew in vet school who was also in a rock band. Goofy but sweet demeanor, long hair, kind of chunky. Chuck stood watching through the bars of the pen, looking at Gary hopefully. Satisfied, she returned to the reception area to make sure Kelly had gotten all the necessary supplies for Ashley. She had, and Ginny had prepared an invoice that she’d send home with her. In a week, Ashley’s father would mail a check. He was a longtime patron of the clinic and a lifelong resident of Albany County. With many locals, the practice didn’t ask for payment up front, though most paid that way. Otherwise, they had arrangements with the vet. Meg appreciated that. It reminded her of Saratoga, where she’d spent her childhood and high school years, ninety minutes west.
She supervised as Kelly went through the products with Ashley and bagged them up for her along with the invoice. Gary brought Chuck in from the back and he practically fell over, he was so excited to see Ashley. She scratched behind his ears, took the bag from Kelly, and beamed at Meg.
“Thanks a lot, Doc. Guess we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
“Sure. Take care and call if you need to.” She waved as Ashley left with the limping, loopy Chuck then turned to Kelly. “Good work today. See you Wednesday.”
She relaxed, pleased. “Have a nice evening, Doc,” she said as she beat a retreat to the back. Meg took her lab coat off as Ginny locked the front door and put the closed sign up. Randy, the night vet, would come in through the back along with Jeff, another tech. Ginny turned back to Meg, looking at her with an expression that reminded Meg of an elementary school teacher waiting for a child to provide the correct answer to a question. Even in her animal-print scrubs, she could make grown men feel like they were in the third grade.
“Trent’s out of town tonight, if you want to come by,” she said.
Meg smiled. Ginny reminded her in some ways of Alice, the long-time chef at the family ranch. About the same age, and no-nonsense but with a soft spot for hard-luck cases. “That’d be fun. But I’ve got something else to do.”
She shrugged, a spare motion that took just one shoulder. Petite and wiry, every body motion she made tended to come across as exaggerated. “I know. That’s why I’m offering. I’ll be up late if you change your mind.”
“Thanks. But probably not.”
“Coffee and cake,” she coaxed.
“Tempting. How about we just go out for a beer another time? Not sure I’ll be in the best mood later tonight.” She managed a smile and returned to her office, leaving Ginny’s scrutiny, though she appreciated her offer of support.
She hung her lab coat on the metal hook outside her office door before she went in and sat in the old wooden chair that fronted her desk. She untied her shoes, a pair of well-worn blue and gray Vans sneakers, and reached for her lace-up ropers under the chair. She put them on, leaving the Vans in their stead.
When she started here two years ago, the staff wasn’t sure what to make of the new cowgirl vet who sometimes wore surfer sneakers and an occasional Hawaiian shirt at work. Within six months, though, she had come to fit in pretty well, to the point that she was able to be reasonably out with the staff, even in a traditionally conservative state like Wyoming. She had figured out that if she didn’t make a big deal out of being gay, most people she interacted with personally didn’t, either.
She stood and kicked her feet a bit so her jeans fell down over the tops of her boots. Today she wore a short-sleeved light blue western-cut shirt with pearl snaps. Coincidentally, it was a shirt that Kate had always liked on her. She said once that Meg’s stormy gray eyes softened in the blue of this shirt. Meg wished she’d worn a different one as she leaned in to log out of her computer. She retrieved her satchel from the file cabinet next to the door and glanced at her watch. She had a half-hour to get home because Kate, being Kate, would be there at exactly seven o’ clock. She tried but failed to ignore the small hard knot of tension in her abdomen as she left the office and pulled the door shut behind her. She tested the knob to make sure it was locked before she left the building by the back door, making sure the alarm was set. Ginny’s car was gone and Meg made a mental note to invite her for a beer after the weekend. It’d been a while since they’d had a staff night out.
She climbed behind the wheel of her Toyota pick-up and tossed her satchel onto the passenger seat. A few minutes passed as she sat behind the wheel, window down, letting the late May warmth offer what comfort it could. She inhaled then exhaled deeply and started the engine. Might as well get it over with, she thought, as she backed away from the building.
Kate pulled up in front of the house at 6:58 p.m. Meg knew this because she heard the door of Kate’s SUV slam shut. The sound carried through the open front door of her house. She glanced at her watch. Just once, Meg thought. Just once, would it kill you to be a little spontaneous? She took a deep breath and stood up from the couch, a comfortable upholstered affair that had seen way too many nights with her the past few weeks. Kate’s footsteps sounded on the porch.
“Meg?” She asked through the screen door.
“Yeah. It’s open.” She watched as Kate entered, looking about as uncomfortable as she felt. They stood in silence, appraising each other.
“You look good,” Meg finally said. It was an understatement. Kate always looked good. Tall, athletic, long-limbed. Even in jeans and an old cut-off plaid shirt, Kate could be a spokeswoman for any kind of sports equipment. A blond amazon with an edge of granola. A nice mix.
“Thanks.” She self-consciously touched the brim of her baseball cap. “So do you.”
She nodded brusquely in acknowledgement. “You want some iced tea?”
Kate relaxed a little. “No, thanks.”
“Okay.” She put her glass down on the nearby coffee table. “I think I got it all.” She motioned at the boxes by the front door. “But I might not have. So have a look around and make sure.” She moved toward the boxes, avoiding Kate’s eyes. “Is your car open?”
“Meg—” she stopped. “Yes. It’s open. Thanks.”
Meg didn’t respond, and picked up one of the boxes and used her hip to bump the screen door open. Down the step to the porch. Across the porch to the next step down to the short concrete walk that led to the curb where Kate’s SUV was parked. She braced the box on her left hip and pulled the tailgate open with her right hand. She placed the box inside and went back for another, passing Kate en route carrying the second.
Meg put the last box into the vehicle and shut the tailgate, making sure it clicked into place. “Did you check around?” she asked as she slid her hands into the front pockets of her jeans. A strange numbness settled in her torso.
“Yes.” Kate opened the driver’s side door. “Do you have my number?” She turned to look at her, and rested her right hand on the inside armrest of the door.
Meg nodded. Kate knew she had her phone number. She was just making small talk, trying to find a way to say goodbye without injecting it with the finality this meeting signaled. “Ends with nine-seven, right?”
“Yes. And you have my email.”
“Yeah. If I find anything, I’ll let you know and I can probably drive it down for you. Fort Collins is only an hour away. No sense mailing it.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t just show up.” She ran a hand through her hair and waited, though she wasn’t sure what for.
Kate smiled but Meg saw sadness in her eyes. Before she could say anything else, Kate pulled her into an embrace. She stiffened but Kate held on and Meg relaxed, finding a bit of comfort in the familiarity of Kate’s arms. She hugged her back, recognizing the faint smell of Kate’s shampoo and the hints of apricot that colored her cologne. But she felt only echoes, as if she was trying to hold a memory.
Kate pulled away and ran a hand along Meg’s jaw. She leaned down and placed a lingering, chaste kiss on her cheek. “I love you,” she said softly.
“I love you, too,” she responded, meaning it.
“I know. But not the way I need you to.” She stroked the side of Meg’s face, a melancholy, thoughtful expression on her face.
“I’m sorry.” She covered Kate’s hand with her own.
“I know.” She smiled, but it was a reflection of the distance between them now.
“If you need anything, call.” Meg meant that, too.
Kate nodded and slowly disengaged. She returned to her vehicle and got in. Meg watched her as she shut the door and started the engine. She rolled the window down and slid her sunglasses on. “Take care, Meg.” She offered a quick wave as she pulled away from the curb.
“You, too,” Meg said under her breath as the Explorer turned left. Another knot of sadness tightened in her chest and throat but it was soon overwhelmed with relief. She stood a few more minutes, staring down the street and the small, neat houses on either side toward the cross street before she turned and retraced her steps back to the house.