A women returns to her hometown. An old boyfriend seeks to restart a romance.
The first blaring shriek of the bagpipe’s hymn made Gail Whitney jump. A hand patted her shoulder from behind. Turning slightly to see who it was, an elderly woman smiled kindly. Gail returned a smile to Mrs. Taylor. Both of them were once part of a gang of students and teachers who worked the concessions at various high school games. A decade had passed since then, she thought. Or was it closer to two?
Looking over the top of her father’s casket, she scanned the crowd around the graveside. Had everyone in her shrinking home town come? Gail’s heart burned with affection for them. This town had made her childhood a safe and wonderful one.
Continuing to survey the crowd of bowed heads, she locked eyes with a man. He stared at her with an intensity that unnerved her. Her eyes darted to the flowers on the casket. Wow, that glare was so hostile. Why? Mustering courage, she flicked her eyes up. He was smiling. Oh, for goodness' sake, she scolded herself. It’s Dave Lambert. Like her recent failed romance, she was once again completely misunderstanding the signals coming from her former high school sweetheart. She returned a warm smile.
The final bagpipe wail ended. People approached and said the usual things people say at funerals. Dave came up and captured both of her hands into a painful grip between his. Any tighter and he might ruin her career. To escape his clasp, she tugged one hand out and pointed at a baby squirrel in a nearby tree. “Oh, how cute,” she said. “I think it just jumped out of that nest.”
He glanced at it. “But not as cute as you.” Leaning down, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered in her ear.
She resisted shoving him away. How presumptuous. They hadn’t seen each other since high school. Instead, she stepped backward.
“Watch out now,” said an old man, briefly grabbing her arm to steady himself. Without missing a beat, he continued, “I’m sorry for your loss. Those dang tractors are so tipsy. One second you’re alive, and the next you’re crushed like a melon. I’m sure your Dad didn’t feel a thing.” He turned to Dave. “Say, you need to see my hound dog right away. He’s in terrible pain, what with that arthritic hip of his.”
Dave frowned. “Gus, you just need to shoot it.”
Gail gasped. The old man’s wrinkles deepened into a scowl.
Dave looked at her distressed demeanor. To the old man, he said, “Fine. Bring it to the clinic in 30 minutes.”
As Gus hobbled away, Dave apologized. “I’m sorry. Gus is always demanding I perform a miracle on his old dog. I can’t make it younger.”
“I take it you’re the local veterinarian?” Gail asked.
“Yes. You should know that. I talked about nothing else when we were in high school,” said Dave.
Gail remembered Dave considering lots of careers.
“Look, I’m just frustrated that now I can’t take you out for dinner tonight.”
Gail’s emotions tumbled. Dave’s behavior here and now made her uneasy. Yet, as teens, they had often bantered about marriage. Graduation ended that. They’d both entered college, and she had never looked back. Did Dave think he could just pick up where they’d left off? Well, she could handle him. Besides, she needed to eat, right?
“Don’t be silly, Dave. You can. When you finish with the dog, come on by Dad’s house. I’m staying there until after his estate sale.”
Strolling down Main Street towards the Up Town Tap, Gail remembered “cruising the loop” - all four blocks of it. “So many of the businesses are closed. It makes me sad.”
“It’s still a wonderful place to make a life,” Dave asserted. “You can be a big fish in this little pond.”
Gail laughed, “I don’t mind being a little fish.”
“But you’re not. You’re a very big fish in the Baltimore Symphony,” Dave countered. “First violin, right?”
Gail slowed her step. “How do you know that?”
“We have Google here too,” he grinned. Dave stepped suddenly between two diagonally parked pickup trucks in front of the bar. Gail couldn’t see what he was doing when he bent over next to one vehicle’s front tire.
Rejoining her, Gail asked, “What were you doing?”
“Nothing.” Holding the front door open for her, Dave said, “I just wanted to see what brand the tires were.”
Focusing on slicing his T-Bone steak, Dave said, “Are you living your dream?”
Gail had been watching the local band set up in the back of the bar. Her attention back on Dave, she replied, “I was.” Spearing her salad with more thrust than needed, she added, “and I will be again. Once I’m finished here.”
“Back to Baltimore, then?”
“No,” Gail said firmly. “I’m done there. I’m off to LA.”
“But surely your life is in Baltimore. Don’t you have close friends there?” Dave asked.
“Just betraying ones!” She picked up her glass of beer. “Look, I’m still upset over it. People I thought were on my side weren’t. Some are still trying to ‘make me see reason.’” Gail set her glass down without taking a drink. “I’m ignoring all their texts and voice messages for now.” She picked up her glass again. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Let’s change the subject.”
Looking at her tenderly, Dave tried unsuccessfully to take her hand.
Eventually, the band started playing a lively mix of bluegrass and country songs. Some while later, the lead guitarist spoke. “Folks we got us the best dang fiddler in the world right here tonight. I just spotted an old friend of mine amongst you. Gail Whitney, come on up here.”
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. That surprised her. As part of a major orchestra, she had played solos before queens and presidents with complete confidence in her skill. Tonight, however, she felt like a terrified teenager playing in a school recital. Would she disappoint her home town?
Using one of the band’s violins, Gale played ballads that had the audience singing along, and lively jigs that guaranteed the dancers' sore muscles in the morning. Eventually, the band had to stop and give both the audience and themselves a break. Gail and Dave left the bar amid patrons’ cheers and loud farewells.
Outside, Gail noticed that one of the pickup trucks in front of the bar was jacked up. An old man was struggling to heft a spare tire onto the axle. “Isn’t that Gus?”
“So it is,” Dave agreed.
“Maybe you should help him?” suggested Gail.
“He’s doing fine on his own,” Dave said, and took her arm to urge her on.
“Let go,” Gail said. Dave’s grip tightened. “I said, let go.” He let go.
“Gus,” Dave called out, “you capable of changing that tire on your own?”
Gus stood up. “What makes you think I can’t?”
“See, what did I tell you?” Dave said, putting his hand on her lower back. Taking a step, he moved her forward with him. “Now let’s go.”
Gail resisted his propulsion and prayed there was no anger in her voice. “Thank you for the wonderful evening. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to walk home by myself. I’m overcome by grief just now. I need to be alone.”
Dave stared at her with the same intensity he’d displayed at the funeral. It frightened her. After a long, tense hesitation, he dropped his arm and looked concerned. “Sure. May I call on you tomorrow?”
Gail felt terrible. How in the world could she keep misreading Dave’s behavior? He was just a friendly Golden Retriever on the hunt. A bit too focused occasionally, but genuinely concerned about her. Her heart warmed to him. “Yes, I would like that very much.”
“Ugh!” Gail exhaled, plopping into the recliner. Preparing for an estate sale was exhausting. At least Dad had sold his farm and worked at the grain elevator now. No, he didn’t. He was gone.
The doorbell rang. Gail groaned and got up. Peering out the side window, she was delighted to see it was Dave. He broke into a big smile when she opened the door.
“See what I have here?” He said and lifted a cage. Huddled into a corner was a baby squirrel.
She looked from it to Dave in confusion. “What’s this?”
“It’s the baby squirrel from the cemetery. You said it was cute. I risked a broken neck and rabies to get it for you. I’ll risk anything for you, my love.”
She was horrified by what he had done. “What am I supposed to do with a baby squirrel?”
“It’s a pet. Like a canary,” Dave explained. “Haven’t you ever had a pet?”
Gail retorted, “Haven’t you ever heard the saying, “if you love something, set it free.”
“That’s just stupid,” Dave sounded disgusted. “Let this squirrel go and it will run away and never come back. This way you can protect it. Show it affection.”
She took the cage from him. “I will put it back in the nest.”
“Fine,” Dave said. “Some predator will probably eat it.” Slamming his pickup door, he spun gravel exiting the driveway.
How could Dave think she would want a pet squirrel? She was moving to LA. She’d told him that. Didn’t he realize what that meant? Probably not. Whether it was livestock or pets, folks around here had lots of animals in their lives. She groaned with guilt as she realized something else too. By rejecting his gift, she had rejected him. She needed to apologize ASAP. Bringing the cage up to eye level, Gail said, “But first things first. Let’s get you home to Mama.”
Gail aimed the open cage door at the tree trunk, which led up to the baby’s nest. Gentle pokes and words didn’t convince it to leave. So, she tried yelling and banging on the cage. It rocketed out past the tree trunk and off across the cemetery lawn. Dave was probably right. That squirrel was somebody’s snack.
Dave’s veterinary clinic main door squeaked open. Inside, the reception area was empty. “Dave?” Gail called out. He appeared from the back of the clinic. His expression was neutral.
She quickly said, “I didn’t see you at the estate sale.”
Dave remained silent.
“I’m leaving today. I’m here to make amends about the squirrel misunderstanding before I go. I know you meant well.”
Dave just stood there. He wasn’t making this easy.
“I’d like to give you Dad’s pickup. It’s just outside.” Gail laid the title and keys on the reception desk. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
Dave walked over to look at the pickup title. “It’s quite a gift.”
“You’re welcome.” Gail said.
“It’s better than some stupid squirrel, right?” Dave said, advancing a step closer. “You know, I looked up that saying. You didn’t say it correctly. I quote, ‘If you love someone, set them free.’ There’s more to it too. ‘If your someone comes back, then they missed you, and want to be with you forever.’ Deep in your heart, Gail, you know that’s why you came back.”
“Are you crazy? I came back because my Dad died.”
Dave lunged and pulled her into a bear hug. He pressed her face tightly into his chest. “My love, don’t be selfish. You achieved your dream. It’s only fair, don’t you think, for me to have mine?”
Dave walked backwards, taking her deeper into his clinic. She couldn’t breathe. He was going to accidentally suffocate her.
“I’ll take such good care of you, my pet. I’ll pamper you, and pleasure you.”
Gail thrashed wildly and gasped some air.
I’ve built a wonderful kennel for you. Come and see.”
Word Count: 1968