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Friday, August 23, 2013

The Zander Dilemma

            Zander wore a pirate hat. And nothing else.

I didn’t know whether to jerk him into my apartment or slam the door in his face. I’d been looking after him since he gave me half his PB&J the second day of kindergarten, so I opted for option number one.

Using both hands, I grabbed one of his biceps and tugged. His arm shook. Hell, his entire body shook.

“What’s wrong?” Why had I asked? Zander possessed the sweetest of natures, but the man skirted on the wrong side of too many things. How could any response from a trembling, naked man be anything I wanted to hear?

He stared, his big brown eyes filled with obvious adoration. If only I could conjure a single ounce of chemistry in return, life would be perfect. Well, I’d also have to pretend my best friend wasn’t bat-dung crazy.

“Bad news, Fin-Fin.” Zander pulled me into his arms, holding me tight against his bare chest. “He’s dead.”

Uh-oh. I tried to back away, wondering if anything Zander held against me could be held against me. “Who’s dead?”


Double uh-oh. Which technically translates to “uh-oh. uh-oh.” Which I’d never say. Stupid thoughts sprout in my head when I’m scared. Actually, my brain activity is pretty bizarre when I’m perfectly calm, but the weird seems to multiply when stress is added to the mix. “Artie? My Artie?”

Zander nodded, his eyes jerking like percolating coffee.  “Yeah. I mean no. Cause he wasn’t your Artie anymore. Dumb ass dumped you. ‘Member? ”

Alrighty then. Zander was clearly confused and I didn’t need that little reminder about my heartache.

I shoved against his chest. Zander stumbled backward, his irises glazed over. Maybe his expression didn’t equate to adoration.  The man who not-so-secretly lusted after me was stoned. Again.

Which meant Artie probably wasn’t dead. Good news or bad, depending on one’s perspective.

The big lug leaned against the doorjamb, pressing his head into his forearm. “Don’t feel so hot.”

“Z-Man, You can’t stay here.” Technically, he could, but I didn’t want him in my place. Our friendship slid down a bumpy slope, especially since Asshole Artie no longer served as the buffer that kept our relationship platonic. “Go home.”

“Can’t find the keys to my car.”

Bugger. Finding Big Foot would be easier than finding a cab at 4:00 a.m. in our part of town. I’d let him stay. Despite his obsession, Zander had always been there for me. Always.

I needed to cover up his sexy parts because all that smooth muscle interfered with my thought processes. I actually considered a Friends with Benefits scenario. And who could blame me? Zander’s body would tempt a lesbian nun.

My little fantasy lasted only a fraction of a second. I’d regret any lapse. Big time. Probably more than I regretted wasting five years of my life on the lying, cheating dung-heap, also known as Arthur Fonzarelli Patterson. Yep, his real name. I might be a pile of crap, too, if my mom shackled me with a name synonymous with “Heeeyyyy.”

 “Let’s get you something to wear.” Could I re-design a king-sized sheet to cover Zander’s king-sized frame? Yep, all his parts were king-sized–I peeked.

I turned toward the small hallway and my linen closet, but Zander stumbled forward. He needed to sober-up. And I needed him out of my living room before he did some projectile upchucking. “Let’s get some fresh air.”

I led him outside to my tiny fourth-floor balcony, hoping the cool morning air would do the trick. “Make yourself…”

Zander had already flopped into my only lounge chair.  He answered me with a loud snore.

Shaking my head, I went in search of my coffee pot, needing a jumper cable for my brain as much as I needed to dilute Zander’s high. I was having some strange thoughts. Sure, I’d never obsessed over Zander the way I had over Artie during the honeypot phase of our relationship, but Zander’s hotness was exceeded only by his goodness—a goodness Artie didn’t possess. Would hooking up with Zander really be so bad?

A pounding on my door knocked the ridiculous notion out of my brain. What the hell?

Probably Artie. Turd probably thought I’d been playing hard to get. Wrong.

Or maybe Zander had made another threat to Artie’s person. Hard to remember the guys had been good friends once. Zander actually introduced me to Artie at his college graduation. Artie had dropped out, but had gone to cheer on his pal—or given what I learned later—probably for the subsequent kegger. The bro-mance died when Artie decided to cheat on me—six different times with six different women.

I know, I know. What kind of dodo tolerates repetitive adultery? Well, sometimes a woman just can’t stay away from a train wreck—especially when the locomotive engine fires megawatts of pure sex and the caboose is a sight to behold.

In my defense, the sextuplet of strumpets happened one at a time during a period covering five years.  Each time, Artie swore he’d never stray again. After six degrees of separation our split became permanent.

Or so I’d thought. Artie’d cornered me last night, trying for lucky number seven.

I so couldn’t deal with him at the moment.  “Go away.”

The pounding resumed. Louder and more insistent.

Bugger times two. “All right, all right. I’m coming.”

I flung open the door, a slew of expletives ready to fire at my ex.

Only Artie didn’t stand there.

A very large, very angry cop narrowed his eyes. “Sarafina Schaeffer?”

I swallowed. My mouth opened but words ran for cover.  I nodded—or at least I think I did.

The officer reached for my arm. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Arthur Patterson.”


Eight hours later, I left the police station, taking the walk of shame in my pajamas. Damn cops hadn’t even let me change clothes.  Not that I pushed the issue with Zander passed out on my balcony with who knew what in his system. During my brief incarceration, I worried about him more than my own pending predicament. I really needed to show Zander the leftover chili in my fridge—I’m a really bad cook. I should show him that mess and have the “this is your brain on drugs” conversation. But fear had delayed the tough love too long. What if I made the ultimatum and Zander didn’t quit? I wasn’t quite ready to give up the only person I trusted.

Zander sat on the bench by the police station exit. I blinked, and then blinked again. Believing he’d still be zonked out from the aftereffects of whatever he’d snorted, puffed, or inhaled, I hadn’t made my one phone call. I’d been nothing short of stunned when the lead detective unlocked my cell and said bail had been posted.

Not that I would have called Zander anyway. During my interrogation, I’d gone mute, but the detective still pummeled me with questions. What I’d gleaned from the interview was Zander shouldn’t be within ten miles of the police station. When the cops realized I wouldn’t cooperate, they’d booked me on a second-degree murder charge. I’d thought maybe Zander should’ve been in the cell instead.

“Zander? Why are you here?”

“Nice to see you too, Fin-Fin. Why the hell didn’t you call me?”

“Last time I saw you, you were face down in your birthday suit.”

Zander looked divine in the noonday glare. He sure cleaned up well for someone who’d passed out in the nude a few hours earlier. He definitely didn’t look like someone who’d bludgeoned a former friend to death with a Little League batting trophy.

Did you cover my bail?”

“Fin-Fin, the bail bondsman covers the bail.”

I nodded, having been blissfully unaware of police procedural before my little stay in the county facilities. “Yeah, but you have to pay the bondsman a percentage.”

You didn’t have to be good at math to know any percentage of $250,000 was more than I could afford and still cover rent. I didn’t think Zander was any more liquid. Sure, he had a good job—some IT thingy—but he’d just bought a house and a new car and I suspected he spent quite a bit on recreational pharmaceuticals.

“Don’t worry about it.”

I frowned at him, worried. Where the hell did he get all that money? I hoped to God his involvement with recreational drugs was limited to consumption.

He shrugged, somehow managing to make the goofy gesture look sexy. “I got you a lawyer, too.  He got you released with a phone call. So why didn’t you call me?”

I jerked my head around, not wanting to have any conversation in the police parking lot. “Because you were stoned out of your mind, Dumb Shit.” There. I’d said it. “You’ve really got to stop doing that crap.” I made a beeline for the parking lot, wondering, of all stupid things, where he’d found his keys.

He jerked my arm, forcing me to face him. “I told you I’m clean. Before Artie… You used to ask questions before you accused me.”

Before Artie pushed you. His unfinished sentence erected a row of bars between us. I’d never once lied to Zander, but did he believe I’d simply fallen down the stairs? Not likely.

The police didn’t believe me either, but my ex had been nowhere near me when I blacked out and toppled down a flight of stairs. Catching Artie’s doing the downward facing dog with my yoga instructor, a.k.a. Bimbette Number Six, had surely affected my state of mind, but he didn’t even know I’d fallen. He didn’t check on me, either, which is why I lost so much blood and had to be hospitalized after I miscarried.

Everybody loved easy-going Artie but overnight, he became persona non grata. Everyone thought he’d freaked because of the baby, but he didn’t know. I hadn’t known.

Artie blamed me for his leper status, even suggesting I’d thrown myself down the stairs. A horrible thing for him to say, but his accusation freed me—permanently—from the lure of Arthur Fonzarelli Patterson

 “Geez, Z-Man. You passed out on the floor. A girl doesn’t need to ask a lot of questions.”

He let go of my arm so fast you’d think I contracted some form of rare cooties. “Damn, Sarafina. I didn’t take or smoke anything. I haven’t done drugs in six months—not that you’d notice with your head so far up Artie’s cheating arse.”

“Don’t make this about, Artie. He’s…” Something almost physical rammed into my midsection. Artie was dead. I’d moved on, but… Dead?

Zander pulled my head against his chest. “Ah, shit, Fin-Fin. I’m so sorry, Sweetums. I wanted to kill him for what he did to you, but I didn’t want him dead.”

I pulled away, trying to keep the floodgate on my tears. I’d lost Artie. I could live with that, but in that instant, I knew I couldn’t lose Zander. The cops believed I’d killed Artie because he killed my baby. With a good lawyer, I could plead self-defense, maybe temporary insanity. If the police knew I’d left my cell with Zander—the same phone they found next to Artie’s body—my BFF would look like a first-degree murderer. I’d do whatever it took to protect him. “Let’s get out of here.”

He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and we walked to the car. I looked at the ground, keeping my hand on my forehead in case anyone I knew happened to be out and about. Thank Providence, the cops released me before church let out.

I didn’t see the woman until her pointed shoes almost collided with my Grecian sandals.

“You bitch!”

Before I could respond, she shot me. With a spitball. Eww. Eww, eww, eww.

Worse, I recognized her voice. Artie’s mom.

The woman had given me a serious eww, but I couldn’t work up any anger. Artie might be last week’s fish on my grocery list, but the stink wad was the strawberry of his mommy’s eye. Rather, he had been.

Mrs. Patterson had never been a fan, but she’d always been polite to me. She’d even visited me in the hospital after the fall. As an RN, she was at the hospital anyway, but I still appreciated her gesture.

 “You! This is all your fault.”

Wiping the saliva off my face, I could only wince. She’d never said anything, but losing her grandchild must have devastated her. Losing Artie would finish her off.

Zander stepped between us. “That’s enough, Mrs. P.”

The barracuda woman morphed into a guppy. She turned and fishtailed away.

Zander guided me to his car. I wasn’t sure how long I sat in the passenger seat with my head between my legs. Breathing in. Breathing out.

“Sarafina, are you okay?”

 Seriously? “What do you think? I’ve been up for thirty hours, and, oh yeah, I’m facing a murder charge. By the way, where the hell did you go last night?”

He turned to face me, looking at my eyes the way I looked at his when I suspected he was doing more than inhaling a little weed. “You think I killed him?”

I crossed my arms across my chest, not keen on answering that question. “I believe you’d never intentionally hurt anyone.”

“What the hell does that mean?

“Zander, how did you know Artie was dead?”


“Before you passed out, you said Artie was dead. How’d you know?”

He rubbed his temple, scrunching his face into the same expression he wore when doing a crossword puzzle. “I don’t… My memory’s pretty hazy.”

And he hadn’t done any drugs? Yeah, right.

Still, a bubble of hope popped into my hopelessness. If he had no recollection, maybe we could get him off with the temporary insanity thingy. “Maybe you’d better tell me what happened. Start with how you ended up in my apartment wearing nothing but my pirate hat.”

“Ah, shit.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple straining against his throat. “Then it was real?”

I couldn’t answer that. We’d gone to Kelly Davidson’s party. I’d actually become friends with the first object of Artie’s transgression right after I’d discovered Bimbette Number Two. Kelly decided to host a costume party to usher in her big three-zero. I’d gone as a pirate, Zander a ghost—wearing a sheet and probably nothing else.


He narrowed his eyes. “Let’s see. When Ass-Wipe insisted on talking to you, outside, Gloria parked her skinny butt on your vacated stool.” Zander had been highly pissed when I agreed to talk to Artie. “You took him back, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t. I only went outside because Artie would have said whatever he was going to say in front of God and the entire bar.  You know that.” To preclude my ex from embarrassing both me and Gloria—his current—I’d followed him to the exit.


“And once I got outside, I kept walking.” That was a partial truth. As soon as the cool air hit my face, Artie took my pirate hat. When I whirled to get it back, he planted a sloppy kiss on my face. I gave him a shove and took off.

Artie followed, spouting his worn out song-and-dong. “I’ve changed, Baby. Let’s give it another go.”

 I didn’t listen. “I called you as soon as I got home, Zander.”

“You knew I didn’t have my phone.” He had no pockets in his ghostly sheet, so he’d left his cell at home.

“My phone was on the bar, Z-Man. I figured you’d be smart enough to answer it, but you didn’t.”

“Fin-Fin, we swore we’d never lie to each other.”

“Who’s lying?”

“I found your hat, Sarafina.” The color had vanished from his face. “In Artie’s apartment. On his dead body. I took your hat so… I just took it.”

Whoa. If he’d found my hat on Artie’s corpse, maybe Zander didn’t commit the crime. Which meant we sure as heck needed to figure out who did. “Why were you in Artie’s apartment.”

“I…I was pretty ticked at you. Gloria bought me a beer—or I think she did. Maybe it was Macie. I chugged the sucker, and… I don’t know what happened after that.”

“Macie?” A flare of jealousy shot though my psyche at the mention of Zander’s coworker. He’d gone out with her a couple of times and refused to give me details. I should have been happy for him. I wasn’t.

Zander nodded. “I think she was mad but… Shit, I just can’t remember. “

I touched his cheek. “Please tell me the truth. Did you snort anything?”

He glared. “I’ve already told you. No.”

We sat in silence for several seconds.

“Z-Man, I know this sounds crazy, but is it possible someone doctored your beer?”

He snorted. “Why the hell would anyone drug me?”

Maybe I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced Zander-jealousy. I kept that opinion to myself. “How’d you end up in Artie’s place?”

His Adam’s apple did another dance. “I woke up in the alley—behind the bar. Someone took my sheet. I can’t…eh, couldn’t stand the sight of Artie, but hell, Fin-Fin, I was butt-naked.”

And Artie’s place was across the street. “So you wanted to flash Artie? Show him you have a bigger dick?” I winced—I hadn’t meant to sound so crude.

Zander grinned. “Nah, but I do. I figured the Ass-Wipe owed me some clothes. He didn’t answer his door, but I know where he hides his key.”

So did I. Artie hid the key in the space beneath the fire extinguisher.

“He was dead, Fin-Fin. Staring into space like a frozen fish.”

“And you took my hat and left?”

He nodded. “You know what’s sick? I was just glad you hadn’t slept with him.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “You didn’t, did you?”

 I reached for his arm. “I didn’t have sex with Artie. I didn’t go to his place. And I sure as hell didn’t kill him.”

His head jerked up. “Really?” He looked way too happy for someone whose best friend had just been charged with murder. “Good. Then let’s figure this out so we can clear your name and get on with our lives.”

Our lives? I couldn’t deal with “us” and a pending trial at the same time. “I need a lawyer… Or maybe a private investigator.”

“Didn’t you hear me say I’d hired one for you—the best criminal attorney in Charlotte. Addison Aimes has an investigator on his staff.”

The next two days passed in a blur. When we met with the lawyer, Mr. Aimes did most of the talking.

When the attorney paused, I chimed in, “What about Macie Gray and Gloria Williamson? Do they have alibis?”

“’Fraid so.”

Bugger. I’d banked on Macie being the killer. Sounds mean, for sure, but better her than Zander. I’d been pissed when Zander disagreed. He believed Gloria committed the murder, insisting she’d been livid when Artie walked outside with me.

Mr. Aimes reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “Ms. Gray says you left these on the bar. She also admits she stole your sheet. Said it annoyed her when you brought Ms. Schaeffer to the party, but the woman denies putting anything in your beverage, Son. She’s lying, but we’ll have a hard time proving anything.”

“Forget it,” Zander replied. “Let’s keep our focus on getting Sarafina cleared.”

I could almost love Zander.

“The good news, Ms. Schaeffer, is the police didn’t find your fanger-prints on the murder weapon. Or on anything else in that boy’s apartment.”

The murder weapon? Bugger.

Mr. Aimes’ assistant stuck her head into the conference room before I could say anything. “The mayor is on line one. He insists it’s urgent.”

The Colonel Sanders look-alike grimaced. The taste in his mouth apparently didn’t taste like chicken.

As soon as he closed the door, I grabbed the sleeve of Zander’s shirt. “How did your little league trophy end up in Artie’s apartment?”

He frowned. “My trophy? That wasn’t my…” He stared at me for a couple seconds before he laughed.  “Hell, Fin-Fin. No wonder you thought I off’ed Artie.”

“Zander,” I hissed, not appreciating his chuckles at my expense—especially since the only people roaming around with motive, means, and opportunity currently sat in Mr. Aimes’ conference room.

“Chill, Sweetums. The trophy that… Well, my trophy is still on my mantle. Which you’d know if you had the decency to come see my new house.”


He laughed again, the dip-stick. “Fin-Fin, everyone on our team got the same trophy. Mine is not the murder weapon.”

I swallowed. Then swallowed again. “Everyone?”

He nodded.

“So Artie also has one ?”

Another nod.

“I’ve never seen Artie’s trophy. Only yours.”


I jumped up and raced toward the door.

“Fin-Fin, where are you going?”

“I have to find Mr. Aimes. I know who killed Artie. I just hope we can prove it.”


As things turned out, I didn’t have to prove anything. Once Addison and his minions descended on the real killer, she couldn’t seem to confess fast enough. I won’t lie, I felt immensely relieved, but my exoneration didn’t keep the sadness away.

I drove to Zander’s house to tell him the news, hoping he would do what he did best—cheer me up.

He answered the door without a shirt. “Sorry, was working out.”

Yeah, right. I’d called ahead so he should have been expecting me. I swear he wanted to tempt me.

His plan was succeeding. Exposure to all that delicious Zander skin took a chink out of my depression.

“The charges have been dropped.”

Before I could explain further, Zander grabbed me. He whirled me around as if we starred in some jewelry commercial.  “Really.”

When I managed to release my breath, I nodded. “Yes. Poor Mrs. Patterson.”

He hugged me against his chest. He didn’t smell like a man who’d been working out. “How’d you know?”

“Since Artie didn’t have his little league trophy, it only made sense his mother would have it.”

Zander nodded. “I still can’t believe it. Artie was the only apple in her orchard.”

“It’s so sad. She didn’t believe I fell down the stairs, but like you said, Artie’s her everything, so she pretended she did.”

“So what made her snap?”

I leaned back so I could look at Zander’s face. “Gloria.”


I nodded. “She had an abortion.”

“Ah, shit.”

Shit was a serious understatement. “The poor woman had cleared out Artie’s old room and dropped by with a box of his stuff. She also knew about the hidden key. Letting herself in, she overheard Artie tell Gloria he hadn’t wanted the baby because he didn’t want her. When Gloria stormed out, Mrs. P. stormed in.

“Double shit.” Which is technically “shit, shit.” Which Zander would—and did—say.

“You know what I’ve learned from all this, Fin-Fin?”

I didn’t want to know—maybe because I already knew. And didn’t want to hear it. I was scared tastes-like-chicken shitless.

“Life’s short. I’m not wasting any more time waiting for you.”

Double uh-oh. And I truly meant uh-oh, uh-oh. I was going to lose Zander.

Just when I’d figured out we might have a little chemistry after all. “Z-Man, I’m…”

“I love you, Fin-Fin.”

“Eh, what?”

He grinned. “I said I love you. The way I see it, you have two choices. Either tell me to go away or embrace me. Embrace us.”

I don’t know about chemistry, but we definitely had electricity. Everything tingled.

I didn’t speak. Instead, I embraced him.
And a whole lot more.

ROBIN WEAVER, Author of Blue Ridge Fear, Artifact of Death

Friday, August 9, 2013

Esmerelda, the Tahoe Gypsy


AUTHOR NOTE: I always thought the character, Slam, from my first book, BETTING JESSICA, was interesting enough to deserve his own story. It was when I was recently in Lake Tahoe and encountered a very nice girl named Esmerelda that it began to take shape in my brain. So, this story is dedicated to her.
Jessica stepped off the plane in Reno thinking only about how different this trip was from her last one to Lake Tahoe. Instinctively her hand went to her chest, where a small, heart shaped pendant hung. It had been a gift from Erik on their one year anniversary, and she had the habit of holding onto it whenever she was sad, frightened, excited, or just plain happy.
   Being with Erik wasn’t the only difference on this trip. For one thing, she pulled her luggage behind her this time, safely with her rather than lost in some airline netherworld. Thank goodness too, because on this trip her plans included learning to snowboard with Mandy and Sandy, the two friends she’d met last time. There was no way she’d last long in the freezing snow wearing only sweats.
   Plus, Slam would never let her live it down if she showed up without warm clothes. She grinned, excited to renew their friendship. She and her favorite coffee barista/snowboarder in Tahoe hadn’t been very good about staying in touch. But every now and then she would get a text from him telling her he’d ‘stomped a landing’; whatever the heck that meant. She was really looking forward to seeing him. She imagined he’d appreciate how much less prickly she was now compared to when he had first met her.
   As the taxi pulled into the Resort at Squaw Creek she thought about the other big difference in this trip and smiled. The catering company had taken off in a big way.  Rather than having to scrimp and scrounge, this time she could afford a real vacation, at a real hotel—with her real boyfriend.  Erik would be joining her in a couple of days, after his product launch was complete.
   The front desk area was crowded with people, so it took a few minutes to check in.
   “Welcome to Squaw. We have your room ready.” Once Jessica had handed over her credit card the very proper girl behind the front desk handed over her plastic room key along with a stack of messages. “You’ve received a few urgent phone calls,” the girl said.
   “Thanks.” Jessica stepped aside and scanned the first message.
   Jess – call us as soon as you get here. We’ve been trying to reach you. It’s urgent. – Sandy.
   All three messages said more or less the same thing. Confused at what could be so important, she pulled out her cell phone to check for voicemail. Her hand struck her forehead when she realized she’d forgotten to take it off airplane mode after landing.
   She waited for the phone to turn on while she walked to the elevators. By the time she got to her room on the third floor she had Sandy’s number on the screen and was calling it. She stuck her card key in the door and pushed it open while she waited for Sandy to answer. Instead, she got her voicemail.
   “Hey, this is Sandy. Leave a message. Oh, and if this is Jessica, call Mandy’s phone. It’s urgent.”
   Seriously! She couldn’t have left more details? She was really going to have to teach Sandy how to leave a voicemail, she thought as she pulled up Mandy’s phone number and dialed. She examined the room while she waited for Mandy to answer.
   A black onyx fireplace held center stage, and Jessica shivered at the thought of cuddling up in front of it with Erik. It was such a nice thought she wished he were with her now. The room also had a little kitchenette, something that might be handy for breakfast before the slopes. She couldn’t believe she was finally getting a real, adult vacation, with fun and friends, and romance. She spun in a circle, embracing all of it until Mandy finally answered.
   “Jess? We need you.” The worry in Mandy’s tone was obvious from the very first whispered word. Her spin came to a dead stop, almost throwing her off balance.
   “What’s wrong?"
   “It’s Slam. There was, there was…” Mandy’s crying kept her from finishing, but Sandy must have grabbed the phone.
   “He’s okay,” Sandy assured Jessica, although it sounded more like she was trying to reassure herself. “Or, at least, he will be, as soon as he wakes up.”
Jessica stood by Slam’s hospital bed staring down at the guy she’d flirted with over a year ago. Now, with his longish brown hair stuck to the pillow, his eyes closed and his face calm, he looked no older than twelve. She shook her head to dispel the image of him at that age; it only made her feel more worried and sad. She pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down, taking her turn as guard.
   Sandy and Mandy had been waiting when she had rushed into his room an hour earlier. Once she’d gotten all the details and finally convinced them she was fine to stay on her own, they had gone off to get some much needed food and rest. The beep of the monitor at the head of the bed was like the soundtrack for her imagination. They’d told her his jump had gone wrong almost immediately.
   “It was, like, a totally sick spill,” Mandy had said.
   As usual, Sandy had taken up where she left off. “Yeah, like he was hittin’ it hard, and,”
   “—went to grab off the top. But,—”
   “—his heel dragged and the edge caught.”
   “It was knarley.”
   Jessica had become lost about halfway through their dialogue. It didn’t matter. Even if she’d known who was talking she would only have understood about half the words. Still, it was enough. Even she could understand that in this case sick and knarley were a bad thing.
   They had explained that grabbing meant he had reached over and tried to hold onto the front of his snow board. Her imagination could handle the rest. A vision of him launching himself into the air and coming down on his head replayed over and over in her brain. The MRI they had done had shown brain trauma, but no neck or spinal damage; so that was a good thing. Still, shouldn’t he be awake by now?
   She glanced at her watch and was surprised to find she’d been sitting there for an hour and a half. Sandy would soon be back to relieve her. Although she hoped her friend had gotten enough time to relax, she couldn’t deny a shower sounded pretty good right now.
   She was reaching into her purse to pull out her iPhone and text Erik when an attractive female hospital person walked in. “Hi. I’m Leslie. Slam’s doctor.”
   “Hi. I’m a friend- Jessica.” They shook hands, taking each other’s measure.
   The doctor moved over to Slam’s bedside, took his pulse and then listened to his chest. “His breathing sounds good and his heartbeat is normal. Given his vitals are steady the best thing for him right now is rest.”
   “O-o-kay,” Jessica said. “But, I mean, shouldn’t he have awakened by now?”
   “It’s pretty normal in cases like this for the body to protect the brain by resting. I’d be more worried if I didn’t see some movement of his face and eyelids.”
   Jessica examined his face more closely and noticed that, indeed, his eyelids were twitching every now and then. How had she missed that?
   “So he’ll be okay?”
   The doctor glanced at her chart again. “I don’t see any reason for alarm right now. I’ll check back in about an hour to see if there’s any change. Let me know if he says anything or wakes up. Okay?”
   “Definitely!” Jessica nodded so vigorously she felt her short ponytail hit her neck.
   The doctor left and once again it was just her and Slam. Needing to reassure herself that his body was warm, Jessica reached out and took his hand. “Please wake up,” she whispered. She felt his hand twitch under her own and thought she saw his lips move.
   Had he said something? She thought she’d heard him mumble, but maybe not.
   “Slam? Can you hear me?” she asked softly.
   All was quiet and still. Jessica was about to attribute his movement to her imagination when his fingers curled around her own.
   “Esmerelda!” This time there was no mistaking it; Slam had spoken.
   “Are you sure?” Sandy asked for the hundredth time.
   They’d been sitting by Slam’s bed for the last forty-five minutes waiting for him to speak again, but he’d remained silent.
   “Of course I’m sure,” she snapped, then felt immediately contrite. “I’m sorry. It’s just- I’m starting to question it myself.”
   “You should go back to the hotel,” Mandy told Jessica. It was ten p.m. and they had decided to take three hour shifts with him, but Jessica refused to leave. She knew the idea that if she stayed he would wake up was irrational, but she couldn’t get herself to walk out the door.
   “I’m not really tired,” she said, eyes fixed on Slam’s lips. Come on… speak! “How about I stay for this shift and leave when you get back, Mandy?”
   She heard both girls sigh behind her, but she refused to glance away in case she missed something. Neither of them made a move to leave either. Apparently they were all going to play chicken to see who wore down first.
   “Maybe if we talked to him or something?” Sandy said. “He might wake up if he knew his friends were worried about him.”
   “Speaking of friends,” Jessica said, “who’s this Esmerelda girl anyway?”
   She heard the squeak of chair legs against the linoleum floor, and barely glancing up from Slam, caught Mandy’s face as she sat down across from her.
   “No idea,” Mandy said. “Last I heard he was dating a girl named Beatrice.”
   This finally dragged Jessica’s attention away from Slam’s serene face.
   “What? Are you kidding?” She held her hand over her mouth. “Her name was Beatrice?”
   “Seriously,” Sandy said with an answering grin. “In fact, we should probably call her or something.”
   “She moved away,” Mandy said. “Apparently she thought winter here would be less cold.”
   They all giggled at the idea of Slam dating a girl whose name was Beatrice and who didn’t like the cold.
   It was two in the morning when Jessica awakened, neck stiff from having fallen asleep slumped over on Slam’s bed. Across from her Mandy was fast asleep. And given the snoring coming from behind her, she guessed Sandy was also down for the count. She tried to rub the kinks out of her neck while scanning Slam’s face for signs of movement. As before, his face seemed as still as Lake Tahoe first thing on a summer’s morning, before the boats began to create waves.
   She debated waking up the others but instead let them sleep on and leaned her head on her hands.
   “Oh Slam,” she whispered. “How am I supposed to learn to snowboard without you?”
   His eyelids twitched and Jessica focused intently on his mouth. “That’s right,” she went on. “Come on, wake up so you can tell me all about rippin’ or hittin’ or whatever it is I’m supposed to do with my snowboard.”
   “Es?” The word was like a ghost of itself, whispered across the beeping monitor.
   Jessica reached over and shook Mandy. “Wake up,” she said. “He’s talking again.”
   “Wha…?” Mandy sat up blinking.
   “Esmerelda?” The call sounded more urgent this time.
   “Did he just speak?” Mandy demanded.
   “Yes! I told you.”
   Mandy jumped up and ran over to Sandy, shaking her awake. “He’s talking,” she told her.
   They hovered over the bed trying different way to get him to say something again. But he was silent. When the clock hit three a.m. Jessica finally gave up. Her head was pounding, her eyes stung, and her neck would probably be stuck cockeyed for weeks.
   “I give,” she said. “Let me get a few hours’ sleep and I’ll be back.”
   By their yawns and cloudy eyes it wouldn’t be long before Sandy and Mandy were both asleep as well- just not as comfortably.
Jessica groaned aloud when her wake-up call seemed to blast into the still hotel room at 5:40 am. How could she have been asleep for two hours already? She yawned and dragged herself out of bed, glad she had slept in her sweats so she could simply pull on her down jacket and boots and stumble to the elevator.
   In the lobby an older couple sat by the fire, sipping a cup of the complimentary coffee the hotel offered. Jessica was drawn toward the scent of the roast beans like a sticky fingered child toward a freshly cleaned window.
   Slim fingers reached out and stopped her before she could pump any coffee into her cup. “Use the other one.”
   “Huh?” She stared at the coffee pot the girl had pointed her toward, but it said decaf. There was no way she’d survive without some caffeine.
   At that moment a hotel clerk rushed up to them and, apologizing profusely, switched the signs on the coffee pots.
   “Thanks,” Jessica said to the pretty dark haired girl who had warned her. “You must be psychic. Decaf would not have worked for me this morning.”
   Despite the girl’s dark complexion, Jessica saw her cheeks turn pink.
   “I, um, well, actually, I am a little bit psychic.” She laughed, filling up her own Styrofoam coffee cup. “But in this case I’ll just claim to have good taste buds. This is my second cup of coffee.”
   Jessica smiled, studying the girl more closely. Oddly enough, her gypsy like appearance made her seem exactly as Jessica expected for a psychic. Dark, almost black hair hung in loose curls down to her shoulders. She had on huge gold dangly earrings and multiple gems glistened from the rings on her long, tapered fingers. Most striking of all, though, her bright green eyes stared into Jessica’s face, as if reading her soul. Immediately thoughts of Slam crossed Jessica’s mind and she knew she had to ask this girl if he would be okay.
   “So, um, you’re really a psychic?” she asked, walking with her over to the fireplace.
   “Well, sort of,” the girl answered. “My mom’s the real deal; mostly I use it to tell me when someone is ready to order their drink.” She laughed at Jessica’s confusion. “I’m actually a cocktail waitress at the beach in the summer- and here at the hotel in the winter.”
   “Ahhhhh,” Jessica said. So asking her anything would obviously be a waste of time. Still, she found the question spilling from her mouth before she could stop it. “Can you tell me if my friend is going to be alright?”
   The girl got a strange, faraway expression on her face, and then her eyes grew wide and the fingers holding her coffee cup shook, spilling coffee over the edge.
   “What friend? Who? Shit.” She grabbed her purse and with a panicked look in her eyes she turned toward the door. “Sorry. I have to go. I, uh… I’m sure your friend will be fine but I just saw something about someone I know and, shit! How did I miss it?” she mumbled, racing from the lobby at lightning speed.
   Weird. Lucky Jess hadn’t counted on the girl for any real information. Clearly she was nutso.
Back at the hospital Jessica stopped at the cafĂ© to grab two cups of coffee for her friends and then made her way to Slam’s room. Hopefully Sandy and Mandy would still be asleep and she could wake them gently before sending them home to get some real rest. At the nurse’s station she asked about Slam’s status. She was glad when they said he was fine, but worried that he was still out.
   She took a deep breath before pushing the door to his room open.  She almost choked on her own gasp. The dark haired girl knelt by Slam’s bedside in tears, holding Slam’s hand and whispering to him urgently. Sandy and Mandy stood at the end of the bed, eyebrows raised.
   The girl didn’t even look up as Jessica hurried over to her friends.
   “Jessica, meet Esmerelda,” Sandy said.
   “Yeah, she like totally ran in here a few minutes ago, claiming she’d had a vision that Slam was hurt.” Mandy rolled her eyes.
   Jessica’s laughter must have surprised Mandy, but she was too amazed to hold it in. She stepped over to the bed and lowered her face eye level with the beautiful gypsy girl.
   “Hi Esmerelda,” she said. “I’m Jessica- and Slam’s been asking for you.”
   Esmerelda peered up at her with worried eyes. “Will he be okay?” It was ironic that she was the one now asking the same question Jessica had not thirty minutes earlier.
   Jessica focused on Slam. His eyes were still closed but they were twitching so aggressively now that he looked like a dreaming dog. They four girls watched his mouth curl up into a smile.
   “Es?” he asked, briefly opening them before shutting them tightly again. “Ouch.”
   Sandy ran out of the room to get the nurse, and Esmerelda lay her head on Slam’s chest, the dangly earrings clinking onto his hospital gown.
   “Hi Slam,” Jessica said from his other side.
   “Hey Jess,” he whispered, eyes still closed. “Glad you made it.”
   “Couldn’t have missed it for the world!” Nothing had ever been so true. Meeting Esmerelda, the Tahoe gypsy, had been more than coincidence; it had been fate.
This story was based on characters from Deanne Wilsted's first book, BETTING JESSICA. Deanne's books, along with her bio, can be found at: