It was a nightmare. It had to be. Soon I would wake up and find out it had been a bad dream. I wanted to tell Keith that, but for some reason he wasn't listening.
He scrambled out of bed after the phone call and ran through the apartment. I heard the crash of a kitchen chair and knew he had blundered through that room. There were no lights on anywhere. I continued to hear bumps and thuds. And dry, hoarse curses.
I would have preferred tears. But once the first few had fallen he had gone dry. Maybe it was his way of denying it. If he didn't cry it wasn't happening.
I ran after him, trailed by a pair of confused dogs. I gently ordered Shadow and Sleuth back to their dog crates and they went. Gratefully I thought. Dobermans don't take emotional stress well.
I followed the noises and found Keith back in our bedroom, throwing things into a battered suitcase. He didn't look up when I came in. I sat on the rumpled bed and watched for while.
He packed with a sloppy abandon that was so unlike the normally fastidious Keith. Things I knew he would never use even in a million years found their way into the suitcase, he completely forgot to pack even one pair of underwear. I reached past his groping hand and pulled out a bright fuschia and yellow Hawaiian print shirt that had been a gag on a gray California evening and right now didn't seem so damned funny.
"You aren't going to wear this. Here, let me help."
I gently eased him aside and surreptitiously began to empty the suitcase as I filled it up with appropriate clothes. And underwear.
He watched, still clutching a holey T-shirt with the name of a heavy metal rock band on it. This one had been used when we painted the kitchen in preparation for his parent's visit...
"I wish I could tell you it's all a dreadful mistake," I said softly, hoping my words would penetrate the fog he was in. "I am so sorry, Keith. Please, if there's anything I can do --
"No." He turned away abruptly. "I have to go to the airport. Buy a ticket..."
"Let me take care of that. You just get dressed. Can I make you a coffee? Would a glass of wine help?"
The tears came then, hard. He collapsed on my chest drenching my bare skin with a flood of anguish. I held him as tight as I dared and cried with him.
When the flood had been reduced to a hiccoughing dribble I leaned back. "Let me make those phone calls. Okay? You," I drew him up and guided him into the bathroom. "Take a shower. I'll be in the living room if you need me."
I made the first phone call, still numb. I was able to book us onto a flight to Albuquerque that left in four hours. Too much time to sit and brood but what could I do?
The next two phone calls were much harder.
"Hi, Mandy? Todd here."
"Todd, hi what's up -"
I told her what had happened. She'd been with Keith from the beginning of his practice. She knew how close he was to his parents. Her tears over the phone set me off again.
"He's really upset, Mandy. I have to get him on that plane. But I know Keith, he's going to start worrying about things. Can you take care of the clinic so I can tell him not to worry? Will you do that for us?"
"Oh God, of course I will. You tell him to go home and take care of himself. Oh Todd, he hasn't any other family has he? How will --"
"He has me," I said more fiercely than I meant. That stopped her cold. Stopped the tears too. Good, now we could get things done.
"You're right. I'll go into the clinic and start pulling files. Tomorrow I'll make some phone calls. I can get Ahmed, no problem. I know he's not working right now..."
I left her, blond head buzzing with things to do. She was a good girl, she'd take care of things just like she said. Right now I had to concentrate on taking care of Keith.
The third phone call was to Jim, my boss.
"Sorry to wake you, Jim, but I got a bit of a crisis here." And I told him what had happened.
He was instantly awake, the grogginess I had originally heard in his voice gone.
"I'm so sorry, Todd. You'll go back with him, right? That's okay," he said. "You take as much time as you need. And if anything else comes up don't hesitate to call."
"Jim, you're the best. I'll let you know once we get to Santa Fe." I shook my head, I felt slow, drugged and out of it. "God, this is such a mess. I can't believe it's happening."
"You just take care of Keith."
I hung up and made my way back to the bedroom. Keith was out of the shower, his hair damp and uncombed. I grabbed a brush off the dresser and brushed it, then leaned in to kiss him lightly on the mouth.
"All set, babe?"
When he didn't speak I guided him out of the house down to the van. We drove in silence to the airport.
New Mexico was a nightmare. We had to rent a car in Albuquerque, then drive through the night and try to find a place I'd never been to before. Keith was minimally helpful. I think shock was setting in and he kept dozing off, sliding into a shallow sleep in which he would moan and jerk then snap awake with a soft cry. I pulled over once when he started thrashing around, afraid he would hit me by mistake and make me drive off the dark road.
We passed through the darkened streets of Santa Fe and finally found the road the Anderson's had their ten acres on. It was little more than a flattened dirt road. The entrance to their place was hokey sign that read Rancho Bonito beside a mailbox atop a fake cactus. Beautiful Ranch. Martin's sense of humor shone through the kitschy stuff. Daylight suffused the eastern sky with saffron and pink by the time we pulled up in front of the one story adobe ranch house and killed the rental engine.
We both climbed out onto the hard packed driveway and stared up at the house. Keith was crying again, tears tracking silently down his unshaved cheeks.
I wanted to go and put my arms around him, but before I could move the front door to the house opened and a short balding man of indeterminate age stepped out onto the wide wrap around porch. Or did they call them verandas here? Or maybe some arcane Spanish term.
The balding man approached us, arm outstretched. He looked from Keith to me. Finally settled on Keith.
"Dr. Anderson? Keith Anderson? I'm Ferris Bartlett, the Anderson's - your parent's - attorney. I am so sorry for your loss. Please, come into the house and I can answer all your questions."
It had been a stupid accident. As long as anyone could remember every Saturday the Andersons drove to the farmer's market on the other side of Santa Fe. They liked to pick up lots of local produce and corn raised beef from one of the organic ranchers in the region. This Saturday had started out the same as any other.
Then an encounter with a big rig on the trip back and tragedy. It was small consolation that both of them had died instantly when their small SUV had ended up under the larger truck.
Keith still looked shell shocked when Bartlett was done his spiel. Then he stared at me.
"I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Todd," I said, half rising from beside Keith. "Todd Richards."
"Ah, Mr. Richards. Good, I'm glad you're here too. That makes the reading of the will so much easier."
I traded looks with Keith. Will? What the hell was he talking about? What did I have to do with Keith's parents will?
"Mr. and Mrs. Anderson asked me to rewrite their will just last week." Bartlett didn't seem surprised by that. Maybe his clients were always rewriting their wills. "Mr. Anderson mentioned an upcoming trip and Mrs. Anderson seemed... uneasy."
Keith's mouth trembled. "Mom was always a little afraid of flying. It was a really big deal for them to book the flight to California. When she gets..." He swallowed hard. "When she got nervous she let her imagination run away with her. Always thinking the worst..."
I took his hand in mine, squeezing the cool flesh. I ignored the look Bartlett gave us.
He cleared his throat. "Er, yes. At any rate they had me draw up another will. I can go over the details later today in my office but the crux of the document is simple. The entire estate is deeded to you, Keith as their soul heir, with the exception of this property." Bartlett's washed out blue eyes scanned the cozy living room with its infusion of southwest artifacts and decor. "This and the ten acres surrounding it are deeded to Mr. Todd Richards and you, sir. Your parents gave it too both of you."
"Why would they do that? Why give it to me, too? That's not right..."
We were sitting in the kitchen on a pair of high backed bar stools drinking coffee from a real Espresso machine. Keith still looked haggard and pale. My heart broke every time I looked at him.
He hugged his coffee mug in both hands and drank what must have been his fifth coffee that morning. He'd start buzzing soon, but I didn't know how to stop him. And a caffeine buzz was preferable to him drinking himself into a stupor.
"What?" He focused on me then let his gaze slide away again. He had been continually scanning the brightly lit room continuously since we had moved here after Bartlett left. Was he remembering his parents? Did he see them move like ghostly doppelgangers through the place that had been their home?
The place that now belonged to me as much as Keith.
What had they been thinking?
"They liked you," Keith murmured. His voice still sounded hoarse, like speaking was an effort. "They wanted to help take care of us... oh my God, what am I going to do, Todd? Everywhere I look I see them. They were so happy here --"
I caught him as he came off the bar stool. He was trembling but whether from fatigue, grief or caffeine jitters I didn't know. I smoothed my hands over his broad muscular back and wished I could take his pain away. He clutched at the material of my shirt but no tears came.
"Come on, babe. You need to rest. We can deal with all this later."
"We have to go see that lawyer, Bartlett. I need to make arrangements --"
"Later," I said firmly. "Bartlett will wait. So will everything else."
I pulled him down the back corridor wondering which room was his parents, knowing I didn't want to take him there. I found a room that had a double bed and a stale, unused feel to it. This had to be a guest room. Where Keith slept on his rare visits? I pulled him into it and sat him on the off white duvet.
Reaching down I swung his legs up, pulling off his shoes and socks then going to work on his pants. When I had stripped him down to his boxers I pushed him under the covers and shed my own clothes.
When I joined him he rolled over and clung to me.
"Thank you for being here, Todd. I don't know what I would have done without you."
I brushed his lips tenderly with my own. "Hey, I love you, remember. And whether it's ever official, I buy all that 'in sickness and in health' stuff. I'm not leaving unless you kick me out."
I was glad when he drifted off to sleep. Thank God the coffee hadn't interfered with that. I knew he'd feel a hundred percent better once he had some sleep. Sleep and some distance. Because in the end only time was going to heal this wound.
Time and hopefully my love.
I woke up once to find him sitting on the side of the bed, his head buried in his hands. I slid up beside him and put my hand on his arm.
"I'm all right," he said. "Really. Well, okay, not all right. But I'm getting there. It's still so hard to believe they're gone. It seems like a bad joke."
I rubbed the bare skin of his back.
"Come back to bed, baby."
He did and we made love. It was a sweet, life affirming act, there were no fireworks, but in the end we fell asleep holding each other and didn't wake up until the New Mexico sun was streaming in the curtainless windows.
"Remind me to switch rooms," Keith blinked at the too bright sunlight. "I always hated this room."
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. "Ready for some breakfast?"
He shook his tousled head. "Not right now. Just coffee is about all I can handle at this point." He must have seen my frown because he smiled. "I promise I'll eat later. Maybe we can grab something in town after we see Bartlett."
It was a rough day. We got the official reading of the will and it was just like Bartlett had said. It all went to Keith except the ranch house and land. I was surprised to find out that included a couple of quarter horses housed in a brand new stable in back of the property.
"The Andersons became quite active equestrians since moving here," Bartlett said. "The property backs onto federal land. I understand you can ride for hours without seeing another soul."
After the reading of the will came the soul wrenching task of making funeral arrangements. Fortunately - if you can call it that - I had helped my mother when Dad had died two years ago so I knew some of the ropes and was able to get Keith over the major hurdles. He was still pretty drained by the time we headed back to Rancho Bonito.
I managed to convince him to eat a roast beef sandwich and drink a glass of milk. At least I could get some nutrition into him. Then I put him back to bed and while he slept I decided to explore.
Someone, maybe Rebecca Anderson had been an avid gardener. But instead of trying to recreate New England in the south as so many transplants did, she had been content to use native plants and supplement it with lots of local stone and wood.
Santa Fe was high country. Unlike the rest of New Mexico it wasn't a hot desert, but was rather a temperate zone, with true seasons. Right now it was high summer with temperatures in the low eighties. A few scattered clouds marred the stunning blue sky. The trees that cast mottled shade around the ground cover were mostly deciduous.
I followed a stone lined pathway back towards a couple of outbuildings. One of them fronted a large paddock. The new stable? I slid open a side door and stepped into a dimness redolent of hay and dung and horses. I took a sinuous bay head appeared from the furthest stall. A pair of huge brown eyes watched my approach. In the next stall a gorgeous chestnut and white paint watched me warily, less friendly than his stable mate.
"Hey guy." I extended my hand and the bay nuzzled it hopefully. "Sorry, no treats this time. Maybe later."
The lawyer had said they were quarter horses. I could see that at a glance. Good stock, too. Rebecca and Martin might not have been into horses before they'd picked up this pair but they had known what they were doing or they'd had expert advice. Under other circumstances I would have looked forward to getting acquainted.
Right now I just felt numb. Too much had happened in too short a time. I didn't know what any of it meant and I couldn't begin to hazzard a guess where it was going to take us.
I fed and watered the horses, then opened the rear stall doors and let the two of them out into the paddock. They kicked up their heels and raced around the perimeter throwing up clods of dirt as they ran off some of the excess energy they stored up from being cooped inside their stall too long.
I was leaning on the fence watching them when Keith found me.
"Hi," he said softly.
"Hi yourself." I turned to face him. He looked rested. He'd changed into a pair of worn jeans and denim shirt that I had never seen before. On his feet a pair of well worn cowboy boots hugged his calves. In his hand he clutched a cowboy hat.
"I kept this stuff here," he said when he caught me looking. "For some reason it made them feel better that I left my things here. Like they knew I was coming back as long as I didn't take it all with me."
I gestured at the horses, now nosing the ground in search of grass. "You know this pair?"
He shook his head. "Dad always leased horses before. When he knew I was coming he'd contact a neighbor and get them to truck in three. Last time I was out he started talking about buying. Nice looking paint."
I agreed. "Good stock. He knew what he was doing."
"That's the way Dad was. If he was interested he got all the information available before he did anything." He stared down at the battered hat in his hands. "Probably why it took him so long to buy. He was waiting to find the perfect animals."
"Looks like he came damn close." I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him against me. "How do you feel?"
"Better. Empty." His gaze went out to the distant tree covered land beyond the ranch. "Still feel like I'm on some heavy duty tranqs."
"Shock." I ran my hands up his arms, feeling the tension in him. I leaned down and kissed him. He had shaved. "Do you want to walk a bit. You can show me around."
"Sure." He took one last look at the horses then turned away from the paddock. "Come on, I'll show you the back forty."
[More to come]
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