ESMERELDA, THE TAHOE GYPSYBy: Deanne Wilsted
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.
“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 café 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: