Every ounce of reserve Ann possessed focused to refrain from vomiting in the truck on the drive home. She refused help getting in the truck, but it was clear that she was going to need help getting out of the truck and into the house.
Gayle eased the truck over the curb to the driveway carefully. Her hands gripped the steering wheel hard as she watched Ann’s face grimace trying not to scream. They arrived at Ann’s house silent and gray faced.
“Hullo Lasses! Yer friendly doorman is here ta serve ya!”
“Charlie! What the hell are you doing here?”
“I told ya girl, I hate hospitals, I figure I can do ya more good now that yer out. I’ve got lunch all made. I hope ye ladies are hungry!” Charlie beamed and he and Gayle waited for Ann’s reply.
“Charlie, can you make yourself helpful and get me out of this goddamn truck?”
Gayle exhaled relief and Charlie bounced over proffering a strong hand. “Easy lass, we’ll get you in and settled.” He wrapped her arm around his shoulders, he wrapped his around her waist and carried her fireman-style into her duplex. Inside, Ann was surprised to see her place freshly cleaned and festooned with get well cards signed by the Jockey’s colony, the trainers and by the starting gate crew. Balloons, flowers and stuffed animals filled the kitchen. “Jeez, this is kinda crazy.” Ann blushed.
A stew was bubbling on the stovetop and the smell of soda bread baking made her forget the nausea from the ride home. Luke burst out of the back room wagging his white tipped tail and smiling as only a hound can. His familiar smell and silky ears were the icing on the cake. Ann was home and among friends who cared.
They set Ann down on the couch and found a spot where Luke could curl up without moving Ann’s hips or leg. It took coaxing to get him to relax, but Charlie grabbed a pocketful of kibble to show Luke exactly where he was welcomed to lay down. Luke gave a satisfied grunt and contented himself that Ann was home and that part of his body was now touching hers. Before Gayle had fixed Ann a bowl of Charlie’s lamb stew and a slice of soda bread slathered with butter, Luke was snoring.
Charlie handed Ann the remote control for the television. “Hey we might be in time to watch the Dodgers lose again.”
Complaining about the Dodgers reminded Ann to ask about Pete.
“Who picked up Luke?” Both Charlie and Gayle busied themselves and didn’t answer.
“Hey guys, who picked up Luke? Is Pete going to be lonely? How’s he doing?”
Charlie approached the couch, squatted down to be eye to eye with Ann. “I hate to tell ya, but yer friend the old jockey died two days ago. Roxy went over to check on him and there he was on the couch. Looks like he went to sleep and just didn’t wake up. He’d been dead for a few hours when she found him. Luke was whinin’ at the door when Roxy got there.” Charlie took Ann’s hand and held it. Ann pulled her hand away, shocked, angry, guilty and sad all in the same breath. She instinctively tried to jump up and do something but her cast and the pain stopped her cold.
“I know what yer thinkin’. Yer thinkin’ that if you would have been there, you coulda gotten him some help. Yer thinkin’ that this is somehow yer fault. Yer thinkin’ that you need to make plans and arrangements and stuff. But ya don’t and it’s not. Yer worried that havin’ him take care of the dog cost him some life. Well it didn’t, it meant he wasn’t alone when his time had come and that’s a comfort we could all use. We’ve called the Jockey’s Guild and they’re takin’ care of everything. Roxy spent yesterday goin’ through his papers and seein’ if there is a will. Ya know, he was a valet for Roxy’s dad when Ben was a jockey? Betcha didn’t know that?”
Ann couldn’t meet Charlie’s earnest eyes. She knew what he said was true but she missed her friend and still felt somehow she failed him and there was somebody out there botching his memorial who didn’t know him.
Gayle approached the couch. I know you’re mad that we didn’t tell you right away. But pain drugs make you have such crazy dreams, we didn’t want that on your plate too.
“I know guys. Thank you honestly. But do you mind if I ask to be alone for just a bit?” she handed the untouched stew and bread back to Gayle.
“Tell you what, we’ll go for a walk and get this mangy mutt some exercise. We’ll be back in an hour is that okay?” Charlie began looking for a leash by the door.
“Can you leave Luke here with me? He’s my only connection to Pete right now.”
“Sure dear, we’ll pick up groceries then. C’mon Mr. Clean Jeans, let’s go see what’s at the store.” Charlie kissed Ann on her bowed head and headed toward the door.