“Clear,” a voice filled with urgent authority cried.
Before I could wonder what that meant, an earthquake went off in my chest. Aftershocks convulsed me. Repeatedly. Followed, finally, by the sound of relieved sighs.
Then, I awoke in such a dense fog, I couldn’t see a thing.
Awoke? Had I been sleeping?
I stumbled through the fog. From somewhere, a boy’s voice called, “Mama?”
He wasn’t calling me. Brady and I had wanted kids, and it crushed us that they never came. We had once rescued a puppy called Jules, whom we’d loved dearly. And if you think it’s wrong to love a dog like a child, you don’t know anything — unless what you know is that dogs leave too soon. After the disappointment of losing Jules, we buried ourselves in work — Brady in criminal law, and me, real estate. Now, our marriage was more like a habit that neither of us cared enough to break.
“Mama, I declare, you’re as jumpy as a long-tailed polecat under a big ol’ rocker.”
See? If I’d had a kid, he wouldn’t speak in that cornpone drawl. Funny that I didn’t sense his Appalachian mom’s presence in the fog. Equally strange, the voice seemed to echo inside my head, not outside. More confusion.
The fog parted, and I found myself on a bridge over a clear blue stream. The bridge’s planks were painted in a variety of brilliant hues.
Where was I? Not my home, Cottonwood, Arizona. The only body of water flowing through Cottonwood was the Verde River, and people called it the dirty Verde. The muddy Verde had never run this clear.
I looked to where the bridge connected to a field. A dog stood there, bristling with excitement. A golden retriever…just like Jules.
Finally, that drawling voice snapped, “Mama Lucy! I’m talking to you.”
Lucy? I’m Lucy. “Jules?”
I considered the bridge’s brilliant colors. The Rainbow Bridge? Where they say pets who’ve passed on wait for their owners? I ran to what looked like a dog I’d lost years ago.
How do you know you’re dreaming? If your dead dog talks, and you hear him telepathically between your ears — it’s a good bet you are.
“Mama, you look as tired as a hog wadin’ through mud.”
What language was that?
“Set a spell.”
I “set” on the bridge, with my legs dangling over the side. The way the planks dug into my thighs felt incredibly real. Some dream, huh?
“So, Jules, did you always talk like…?” What was I saying?
He chuckled. “I never talked like some stall-fed dandy, I’ll say that.”
“Where I come from dogs don’t talk at all.”
“Oh, we dogs can always make chin-chatter. Just on your plane, we kinda hush it up. We nudge you humans toward where you should go.”
The only place I remembered Jules nudging me toward was the kitchen.
He laughed. “Maybe I did sometimes.”
Unreal. Not only was I expected to believe my dead dog talked, he also read my thoughts. “So, my being here…means I’m…dead.”
“Nobody pulled your pin yet. You’re hovering between the here and the hereafter. But, Mama, if you’ve come to me, you’re kinda givin’ up.”
What could have brought me to this point? “How…?”
“Confused, huh?” Jules’s russet eyes beamed kindly at me. “You were shot.”
“Shot? Who shot me?” How was it possible that I didn’t feel wounded?
“The police don’t know, Mama.”
I still wasn’t buying this, but I went along when Jules insisted we had to leave the Rainbow Bridge. We floated through town about ten feet off the ground, over people who didn’t seem to notice us, all the way to the hospital. Outside, the sign read, “Verde Valley Medical Center.” That was Cottonwood’s hospital, where they’d take me if I had been shot. But if I were dreaming, I’d know that.
My skepticism ebbed when we drifted into the ICU. My spirit hovered near the ceiling, looking down to where my body lay as still as a stone. Jeez, now I was talking like my redneck canine. Suddenly, I understood. This wasn’t a dream, but a hallucination. No light at the end of the tunnel for me. My synapses fired out a full-blown scenario.
In the waiting room, Mom pressed a soppy tissue to her eyes. Loads of friends had also gathered there. But not Brady. He and I had argued that morning. We rarely fought, but today I couldn’t stand it anymore that we’d drifted so far apart. After a few angry remarks, Brady had slammed the door on his way out.
I started toward the people who were there for me.
“Mama, in your spirit state, you’re like looking through a wire fence.”
Did that mean invisible? I felt helpless. And that Brady hadn’t come devastated me. Even in my spirit state, my eyes stung.
Without prompting, Jules said, “Don’t give up on Daddy yet.”
Had he given up on me?
Jules took me to the Camp Verde jail, where Brady met with his client, Nick Connors, in an attorney conference room.
Nick was on trial for murdering his wife, Sherry, who had been a nurse at the same hospital where machines measured my waning vital signs. It was an unusual case — Sherry’s body had never been found. But with so much of her DNA-confirmed blood spilled in their home, the police decided she could not have survived such a significant blood loss. Since it was known to be a contentious marriage, they arrested Nick in record time.
“Daddy looks like his suit’s at half-mast.”
If that meant Brady looked a wreck, he did. His eyes were red-rimmed and his jacket appeared to have been rolled up and used as a pillow. He sat across from Nick, who was shackled to the table.
“The judge granted the continuance,” Brady said. “I know you want this trial over, but I need to be with Lucy.”
“Boy howdy, does Daddy care,” Jules whispered.
Maybe he did. Warmth spread through a spirit state that until now lacked temperature.
“How is Lucy?” Nick asked
Brady started to shrug, but it turned into more of a shudder.
“Listen, prisoners hear things. I’ll ask around. Where did this gunshot take place?”
I needed to know, too.
Brady offered Nick a grim smile. “Somewhere you know very well. 8048 Ironspring Lane.”
Nick’s lips twisted into a sour line. “Our house? Well, Sherry’s. Where we’d been happy maybe two months of the four years we lived there?”
Even now, Nick didn’t hide how unhappy the marriage had been.
“Why was Lucy there?”
“Your sister-in-law, Ginny, who inherited when Sherry was declared dead, is selling it,” Brady said. “Does Ginny ever come to see you?”
Nick’s shackled hands picked at the grain of the table. “Why would she? Ginny’s not crazy like Sherry, but I am the man accused of murdering her sister.”
“Then why did she give the house listing to the wife of your defense attorney?”
Though I couldn’t remember the shooting, or anything that happened in that house, the rest of my life was clear to me. I’d been as shocked as anyone when Sherry’s sister offered me the listing. Since she’d seemed so hobbled by emotions, I had volunteered to find a workman who could replace the hardwood flooring in the kitchen, which had been soaked with Sherry’s blood. Had I been there to check on the repairs when someone shot me? Maybe I simply interrupted a burglary.
Brady glared sternly at his client. “Nick, you’re holding something back, maybe even outright lying.”
Nick sputtered, “No, I swear.”
Beside me, Jules snorted. Well, I still heard him in my head, but I didn’t know dogs could make that sound.
The frustrated twist of Brady’s lips said he didn’t buy it either. “I warn you, Nick, if something blows up during the trial, it might guarantee that, guilty or not, you’ll spend the rest of your life in here.”
Nick’s face crumpled in despair, but he said nothing.
As soon as we drifted up to it, I recognized the house I’d sold to Sherry. High on a windy bluff, partially built into the hillside — I’d never liked the home. But there’s a buyer for every property. Sherry loved its isolation — it seemed she didn’t like neighbors. But she almost backed out of the deal when she realized it didn’t have a basement.
“Houses in Arizona almost never do,” I’d said. “But with a house built into the hillside, you could have a basement excavated.”
“You mean go through the bother of having it done myself.” She’d grunted at the absurdity of that idea, but she let the sale go through.
She’d been a strange client. Initially, too friendly, she acted as if we were lifelong BFFs. Before long, nasty jabs started sneaking into conversations. Then she became outright vicious. When I told her I was firing her as a client, she promised to control the outbursts, if I’d keep her on. To my surprise, she did control her behavior. After the closing, thankfully, I never saw her again. When I heard she was marrying a nice guy, I presumed Nick Connors hadn’t known her long.
Jules and I drifted into the stark and sterile living room, where the one homey touch was an oval handwoven cloth rug covering most of the floor. The rug contained two reddish stains. Was that where I was shot? Why two stains?
In the kitchen, where an older blood stain covered a huge part of the maple flooring, I saw what the police meant when they related the enormity of Sherry’s blood loss. No one who’d lost this much blood could have survived.
“Someone sure fired off a snootful of mad. That’s a pickle.”
“Uh-huh.” If being a pickle and bleeding out were the same thing.
On the counter I found my daybook, which I must have left there. I placed my hand on it. An unexpected feeling came over me. “I wasn’t alone here.”
“I reckon the flooring man came.”
“No. He assured me he would, yet nothing’s been done on the floor. Maybe he never showed up.” I placed my spirit hand back on the page. “I sense I was here with someone else.”
I stared at the calendar entries. The time when I was supposed to meet the floor repairman was there, but above that, it read, “Shelter — R.”
R? I gasped. “Riley! I picked up Riley at the animal shelter. She’s a young Jack Russell terrier.”
“You and Daddy were adopting another dog?” Jules sounded delighted.
“Oh, no. After losing you…we couldn’t do that again. Couldn’t risk… I just give different dogs an outing occasionally.” Who knew I could still read dog expressions? Jules glowered angrily. “We never wanted to take anything away from our love for you.”
“That’s as shy o’ the truth as a donkey is of feathers. Shame on both of you. In life you give as much as you want to receive.”
I longed for the time before Jules could talk. But I also thought that maybe Brady and I had become cowards. “Chew me out later, okay? We have to find her.”
We searched the entire house with no luck. Only after we drifted out to the cold, windy yard did we find Riley. She lay still, though not yet dead, on a concrete path, which displayed a blood trail from where she’d pulled herself. The second blood stain on the rug?
Jules went right into motion. He encircled her with his spirit body. “I don’t have much energy, but the little I have should help warm her up.” He began licking her with his spirit tongue. “Mama, you need to get help.”
“How?” I shrieked.
“You have a mite of energy. Think hard, and you should be able to move small things.”
Small things? What small things? I raced around helplessly. Until, out at the street, I spotted a mail carrier’s Jeep at the next house, some distance away.
“Mite of energy, don’t fail me now.”
The mail carrier was a paunchy guy, talking on his cell phone to someone named Lois, while absently inserting mail in a box at the curb. I slipped past him into the Jeep he drove. For a second, I thought he might have felt me, when he glanced briefly in my direction. But he went back to grousing to Lois.
I took a few envelopes from a bin on the seat, finding I could lift them easily. I carried them away, moving them so it looked like they were floating on the breeze.
“Oh, no,” the carrier cried. “No, no no.” He shoved his phone in his pocket and ran after the envelopes. At one point, he paused and looked at the Jeep, maybe thinking about going back for it. I made the envelopes move faster on that fictitious breeze, and he followed along.
I led him all the way to Riley. I dropped the mail there.
He didn’t notice the envelopes anymore. “Poor doggie. Are you okay, girl?” He spotted the blood then, and after determining that Riley was still alive, placed a call to Animal Control. Help arrived, and Riley was whisked away to a vet.
Part of me wanted to follow Riley, but I felt a sudden, stronger need to check in with my own body back at the hospital.
The waiting room was less crowded now. Mom was still there, seated at the edge of a sofa. Jules jumped up next to her. The sight of them together tugged at my heart. My widowed mother and my dog had always enjoyed a special bond. She used to whisper secrets in his ears. I would have sworn he didn’t whisper any back to her, but now, who could say?
I drifted alone to where machines performed my body’s functions. Brady had fallen asleep in a chair beside the bed.
Without knowing it was possible, I felt a need to connect my spirit to my body. Once my spirit slipped into my physical form, I sensed how lost I felt. Jules was right — I had given up.
Brady took my hand. “Don’t leave me, Luce,” he said with soft desperation. “I don’t know how we let it all go, but if you come back, I’ll spend the rest of my life making us work.”
I stayed there long enough to understand that my body had heard him. When a nurse came in to check on me, my spirit-self drifted out.
In the waiting room, Jules still leaned close to Mom. An oddly peaceful expression had come over her face.
I flicked a finger to tell him we were leaving.
“Where to, Mama?” He looked at my mom again, regretfully.
“Back to that house. I need to know what happened there.”
We stopped at the vet to determine that Riley was on the mend, then moved on to Sherry’s house.
Studying the living room more carefully now, I noticed a wide circular scratch on the floor. Riley was still a young dog, easily excited. I knew that from when I’d taken her to other houses — she became wild. I could see where the scratch that she might have made collided with that living room rug.
“Jules, can we move this rug?”
“Easy as a pup hoppin’ over a worm.” Apparently, his energies weren’t as insignificant as he’d indicated. Jules managed to flip it aside with his nose.
Beneath the rug was a trapdoor. It wasn’t there when I showed Sherry the house. She must have had that constructed.
But how to open it? I remembered the floors in that house were uneven. I returned to the kitchen and knocked a pen off my calendar. It rolled all the way to the trapdoor. Using the pen as a lever, together Jules and I lifted the door. The opening revealed a basement.
Jules and I drifted down. So Sherry really did have a basement excavated, despite implying she wouldn’t. On one side stood a messy workbench. I didn’t stop to search it after seeing a body propped against it. The flooring man who was supposed to meet me there. I sensed he had moved past me, all the way to death. He must have been killed when he showed up and removed from the living room before I arrived. Would a burglar have done that?
Would a burglar have stayed around long enough to shoot me? It was just my good fortune that, according to Jules, a distant neighbor heard the shots and called the police.
I promised to find justice for the flooring man. An iffy promise for someone not far from death herself. Could I keep it?
On the workbench I found some printed emails, scattered about, so I didn’t need to waste energy moving any to read them. They were from Ginny, Sherry’s sister, to Nick Connor. Nick had sworn that he and Ginny hadn’t had any contact. According to the emails, however, they had been having an affair. When Nick asked Sherry for a divorce, she vowed to make them pay for betraying her.
Nick must have decided that confirming their relationship would only make him seem more guilty and cast doubt on Ginny as well. I wasn’t as sure about their innocence anymore. But Nick had been in jail when I was shot. Ginny wasn’t, but what reason would she have had to shoot me, or to kill the flooring man?
Below the work bench was an under-counter refrigerator. When I opened it, I saw some bags of blood. Blood?
It began coming together…
Before I could follow the full chain of logic, a sudden fear overtook me. After having connected with my body at the hospital, now I sensed it was in jeopardy. I was.
I looked at Jules. Being in tune with me, his doggie face crinkled in worry.
“Jules, we have to get back to the hospital, now, or I’m going to die there.”
My Redneck Retriever had been holding out on me. We didn’t drift there this time, we were simply there, right before the nurses’ station, a few doors away from my room. The problem then was how to get the nurses to follow us. The bit with the flying envelopes had worked so well, I decided to repeat it with the paperwork on their desk.
With all my worry, I must have summoned more energy. I sent papers every which way on the floor. Then, when nurses came after them, I blew a breath and sent them flying down the hall, and finally, under the door to my room.
A cluster of nurses flew through the door. And, once through, they found another woman in scrubs at my IV, injecting something into it.
“Sherry?” one nurse asked. “What…? You’re supposed to be dead.”
Another nurse didn’t wait for any explanation. She yanked the contaminated IV connection from my arm.
Brady, who must have followed the chaos down the hall, burst through the door. One look at Sherry, and he immediately called the police. She tried to run away, but there were simply too many people there to stop her.
Jules and I returned to the Rainbow Bridge, me with my legs over the side, him leaning against me.
“Am I going to die from whatever Sherry injected into me?”
“Your choice, Mama. Makin’ that choice should be as easy as a gnat riding in a donkey’s ear.”
I smiled. “I’m starting to understand you.” Even in spirit form, I felt a tear trickle down my cheek. It wasn’t easy at all. “I don’t want to lose you again, Jules. Should I stay with you?”
“Do you want to lose Daddy?”
I remembered when Brady had begged me to come back to him. I shook my head no.
“Mama, there’s no sense of time here. Whether you slip off yore hoss now or later, it’s the same.”
The spirit tears kept coming. It didn’t feel the same.
I woke up two days later. Apparently, there wasn’t enough of whatever juice Sherry had shot into my IV to kill me. I remembered it all, but I understood it had just been a near-death experience. I grieved for the feeling of having lost Jules again.
I came to learn later that everything to do with Sherry really happened. She had been banking her blood in that fridge in the basement. Banking enough money to start a new life, too. But first, she vowed to destroy Nick’s life. She figured if she spilled enough blood, the police would conclude that Nick had killed her, despite the lack of a body. He would spend the rest of his life in prison, and her sister would be denied the man she loved.
I still didn’t remember seeing her at the house, but she probably shot me when I did. One of the bullets she’d fired at me must have grazed Riley.
Things didn’t work out exactly as Sherry had planned. Now she was behind bars, charged with the workman’s murder and my attempted murder. Nick was free, and he and Ginny were together.
I just wasn’t the one to bring it about, I knew. I had been unconscious at the hospital, after all.
Brady and I felt good about our chances of making our marriage work this time. But given how it hurt to leave my hallucination behind, I told him I didn’t want to hear about anything that really happened while I was unconscious.
They released me four days later. Brady came into my room, pushing a wheelchair. On the wheelchair sat a cardboard box.
“What’s in the box, Brady?”
He put his finger up to his lips and said, “Shush. A surprise for you, but it’s a secret. The hospital wouldn’t want it here.” His eyes twinkled happily.
He helped me into the chair, before placing the box on my lap. It was heavier than I expected. I looked into it. Riley, the little dog I imagined that Jules and I had saved in my hallucination, was there. Her sparkling gaze met mine.
“She’s on the mend, too, after getting grazed by a bullet and losing blood. I figured the two of you could recuperate together.”
But Riley was part of the hallucination. I never told him I’d taken her to that house.
“How did you even know about Riley?”
“Your mom told me.”
“My mom?” I hadn’t told her, either. “How did she know?”
“She said Jules told her.”
“Jules?” I cried. “Jules has been dead for years. You know that. Besides, dogs don’t —” I couldn’t bring myself to say that dogs don’t talk.
“Your mom said she thought of Jules and somehow knew that we were meant to adopt a dog named Riley.”
I remembered Jules’s spirit-form sitting beside her in the waiting room. But that was in the hallucination.
“Do you believe it?” I asked.
In the box, Riley barked.
Brady grinned. “Isn’t Riley the proof?”
My Sidekick, Jules, Kris Neri (copyright 2019, 2020; all rights reserved.) Previously published in So West: Ladykillers, DS Publishing