Christmas was coming, and I had killed a man.
Either of those facts was enough to make me want to stay in bed and pull the covers over my head for a long, long time.
Not to mention the fact that I was having feelings for two men, when I’d never expected or wanted to love even one man again, ever.
Not to also mention the fact that I’d agreed to take care of an unknown freewheeling iguana today.
It was all too much for any one person, especially this person. I figured I had every right to put the brakes on my life and refuse to go on. To just stand up and yell, “Okay, time out! No more life for me for a while. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready.”
Instead, I crawled out of bed at 4 a.m., just like I do every friggin’ morning, and gutted up to face whatever the day would bring. It’s a genetic curse, coming as I do from a long line of people who just keep on keeping on, even when anybody in their right mind would step aside for a while.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I’m a pet sitter on Siesta Key, which is a semitropical barrier island off Sarasota, Florida. Until almost four years ago, I was a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. My husband was a deputy too. His name was Todd. We had a beautiful little girl. Her name was Christy. We were happy in the way of all young families, aware that bad things happened to other people but blocking out how exquisitely tenuous life really is. That all changed in a heartbeat. Two heartbeats, actually—the last of Todd’s and Christy’s.
I’ve read somewhere that excavators in Siberia found an intact woolly mammoth that had been entombed in ice for millennia. A butterfly was on the mammoth’s tongue. I think about that woolly mammoth a lot, because life’s like that. One second you can be blissfully standing in golden sunshine with butterflies flitting around you, and the next second—whap!—the world goes dark and you’re totally alone and frozen.
I went a little bit crazy when that happened to me. To tell the truth, I went more than a little crazy. My rage was so great that the Sheriff’s Department wisely decided that sending me out in public with a gun on my belt was like dropping a piranha in a goldfish bowl. But grief held too long eventually becomes a memorial to yourself, and you have to let it go.
When I was able to function again, I became a pet sitter. I like pets and they like me, and I’m not often in situations where I might revert to the old fury that buzzed in my veins for so long. I can’t say I’m completely free of either the grief or the craziness that goes with it, but I’m a lot better.
At least I was until I killed that man.
Not that he didn’t need killing. He did, and the grand jury agreed that he did. Actually, they agreed that I had killed him in self-defense and that it was a damn good thing I had, given the awful things he had done and would have done again, but that didn’t change the fact that I have to live with knowing I’ve killed somebody.
Killing changes a person. Ask any combat veteran responsible for enemy deaths. Ask any cop who’s had to take out a criminal. You can justify it, you can know that it was your job, that it was necessary, and that you’d do it again in the same circumstance, but it still changes you, even if nobody else knows it.
That, plus the fact that Christmas would be here in exactly twelve days, was causing me to avoid almost all human contact.
In my line of work, avoiding human contact is actually pretty easy. If a pet client is new, I have one meeting with its humans when we sign a contract and make sure everybody understands exactly what I will and will not do. I’m pretty much a pushover when it comes to pets, so I’ll do whatever they need, but I try not to let the humans know that right up front. They give me a key to their house and a security code number if they have an alarm system, show me their pet’s toys and favorite hiding places, and tell me what they want done in the event they both die while they’re away. Living in a retirement mecca where the majority of the inhabitants are over the age of sixty-five makes that an issue that comes up more frequently than you’d think. Sometimes it’s the other way around; they tell me what they want done with the pet in the event it dies while they’re away. That also happens more frequently than you’d think. Once we’ve all made sure we’re in accord about what’s best for the pet, they leave and I don’t have any more contact with them until they return.
That’s my modus operandi and it’s practically set in stone. The fact that I’d deviated so much from it when I agreed to take care of an iguana that day was a mystery. His owner had called the night before and talked me into taking the job even though he wasn’t one of my regular clients, and even though it is absolutely against my professional standards to take on a pet without first meeting both pet and owner. We’d had a bad connection and I’d had to strain to hear him. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what he said that was so persuasive—the husky Irish accent, maybe, not full-blown faith-and-begorra Irish but with enough of a lilt to make my mouth want to smile. Or maybe it was just that I have a soft spot in my heart for iguanas because my grandfather had one.
I said, “The iguana is in a cage?”
“No, no, he runs free. I don’t fancy cages.”
I nodded at the phone. My grandfather had felt the same way.
He said, “Somebody will be there to let you in. All you have to do is put out fresh vegetables. He dotes on yellow squash, and there’s some romaine and red chard. I’m forever in your debt for doing this, miss. Leave me a bill and I’ll get a check off to you the instant I get home.”
“You want me to go just the one time?”
“Yes, that’s all. Oh, and this is very important—his name is Ziggy. Zig-ee.”
He gave me his address on Midnight Pass Road and rang off before I could get a phone number. When I looked at the notes I’d scrawled, they were pathetic. I’d written Ken Curtis (?) Vegs Yellow sqsh Ziggy.
Except for the address, that was it. I hadn’t even verified the caller’s name, and he had said it so fast I wasn’t sure I’d caught it right. I pride myself on handling my business in a professional manner, but any half-assed amateur could have handled that call better. I consoled myself that it would be an easy twenty bucks. Iguanas don’t have to be walked or groomed, so all I’d have to do was put out some veggies for him and I’d be out in no time.
The weather for the last few days had been what Southwest Floridians call cold and wintry, meaning night temperatures had dipped into the high fifties, and the days’ highs hovered just below seventy. For tourists and seasonal snowbirds, the cold weather was a major disappointment. For thin-blooded year-round locals like me, it was an aberrant misery.
My apartment is above a four-stall carport, with a long covered porch running its length. The porch faces the Gulf of Mexico, where time and capricious tides have carved a narrow hiccup of beachfront property that shifts and transforms itself every few months, making it an undesirable spot for developers and investors. When I opened the French doors that morning and stepped out on the porch, it was so chilly I could see my breath in the pale light of a coconut sky. Rain clouds were building purple mountains over the Gulf, but they looked several hours away. At least that’s what I told myself when I decided to take my bike instead of the Bronco. The truth is that at that pre-dawn hour, when the birds are still sleeping in the palms, oaks, pines, and sea grape, I feel invincible on my bike, gliding down empty streets and breathing in the salty air as if I were a bird myself.
Siesta Key is eight miles long, north to south, with one main thoroughfare named Midnight Pass Road. Sarasota Bay lies on our east side, and the Gulf of Mexico is on the west. Two drawbridges connect us to Sarasota, each with a bathroom-sized bridge house where a tender pushes buttons and flips switches to open the bridge when a boat needs to pass through. The entire operation only takes about ten minutes for one boat, but if several boats sail through, it takes a lot longer. One of our favorite bitch topics is how long we had to wait for a sailboat to pass, but the bridges also make for great excuses for being late to appointments. All we have to say is, “The bridge was up,” and people roll their eyes and groan in understanding.
About seven thousand permanent people call the key home, but during the season, from October to May, our population swells to around twenty-four thousand. Except for times when our streets are clogged with sun-bemused snowbirds, tourists, or carousing students on spring break, we’re a fairly laid-back bunch.
I live near the south end so I always begin the day working my way north, just taking care of dogs. Dogs can’t wait for you the way other pets can. Once all the dogs have been walked and fed and groomed, I retrace my route and call on the pets who don’t have to pee outside—cats and hamsters and rabbits and guinea pigs and birds. Not snakes. I don’t take care of snakes. I’m not exactly snake-phobic, but it makes me go swimmy-headed to hold a squirming little mouse above a gaping snake’s mouth, so I refer those jobs to other pet sitters.
No matter who else is on my daily list of calls, I always start with Billy Elliot. Billy’s a former racing greyhound who lives with Tom Hale in the Sea Breeze condos. Tom’s a CPA whose spine was crushed a few years ago when a wall of lumber at a home-improvement store fell on him. Then, to make his misery complete, his wife left him and took their children and most of their possessions. Eventually, Tom got his act together, moved into the Sea Breeze, and started doing whatever it is that CPAs do at his kitchen table. He and I trade services. I go by twice a day and run with Billy Elliot, and Tom handles anything having to do with me and money.
With all that had happened to him, Tom was about as closed off from the world as I was, but when I got to his condo that morning, there was a big Christmas wreath on his door. It wasn’t just a generic wreath, either, but a customized affair with a sassy red velvet bow and a toy greyhound perched above a nest of gilded pinecones. I stood a moment gaping at the thing before I unlocked the door and let myself into the dark foyer where Billy Elliot was nervously prancing on the tile floor. We kissed hello, I clipped the leash on his collar, and we slipped out of the apartment as quietly as thieves. On the ride down in the elevator, I considered asking him what had possessed Tom to have such a fancy wreath made for his door, but I thought it might hurt Billy Elliot’s feelings, seeing as his facsimile was the focal point of the wreath.
We ran tippy-toe across the downstairs lobby and went outside to the parking lot for our run. Billy Elliot knew the routine—run fairly slowly and pee on selected bushes until we come to the oval track encircled by parked cars, and then stretch out and run like hell, full out, galloping like crazy, just like when he was a young dog chasing a mechanical rabbit while crowds cheered and bet money on him. Except this time he had a wheezing blond human slowing him down because her thigh muscles weren’t nearly as strong as his. When he had finally run out all his nervous energy and I was about to fall over from breathing so hard, we ran at a slower pace back to the Sea Breeze’s front door.
A woman with a corgi on a short leash was just coming out, and we stood aside while they passed. The woman nodded, but the corgi was embarrassed on account of wearing a pair of miniature deer antlers and an ermine-trimmed red velvet jacket, so he kept his head averted. Billy Elliot and I exchanged a can-you-believe-that? look, but we didn’t let on how dorky we thought it was.
Upstairs, I could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen, and the lights were on in Tom’s living room. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there was a lavishly decorated Christmas tree in the corner. Now that I knew it was there, I could smell it, too, a pleasant balsam odor. My gosh, not only a wreath but a real Christmas tree! Tom and I don’t always talk when I pop in and out of his apartment, but you’d think something like plans to buy a Christmas tree would have come up at least once. I wondered how he’d managed to get the top ornaments on. To tell the truth, I felt a little put out that he hadn’t asked me to help him. I mean, I didn’t want a tree of my own, but if he wanted to have one I would have been happy to help him with it.
I yelled toward the kitchen, “Morning, Tom! Nice tree!”
He wheeled into the living room with a curious grin on his face and his mop of curly black hair looking slept on. Instead of his usual sloppy sweats, he wore a snazzy red velour bathrobe. He looked a little bit like the corgi.
I said, “Wow, you’ve really got the Christmas spirit, don’t you?” I could hear the little defensive whine in my voice, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
He grinned even wider and made some inarticulate sounds that sounded like he was trying to deny it and claim it at the same time. Clinking sounds came from the kitchen, the sounds of mugs being removed from a cupboard, and a silky woman’s voice called, “Darlin’, did you ask me something?”
Oh. Now I understood. Tom hadn’t been hit by the Christmas spirit, he’d been hit by romance. And he hadn’t told me. He hadn’t said, “Hey, Dixie, I’ve got a woman in my life now, so when you come to run with Billy Elliot, you may meet her.”
For some reason, that made me vaguely angry, which was stupid, because Tom’s personal life wasn’t any of my business, and I was actually glad that he had a girlfriend after being alone for so long. But I was still sulky at the change in him.
I said, “Oh, excuse me,” and beat a fast retreat, knowing all the time that Tom would feel bad at the way I acted, but not able to do anything about that, either. I didn’t even hang Billy Elliot’s leash in the hall closet before I left, just left it sloppily looped over the arm of a chair.
The nasty truth was that I was jealous. Not like a woman jealous that another woman is with a man she wants, but jealous that Tom had found the strength to let his old love go and be happy with somebody new. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to do that, and I was afraid I would self-destruct if I didn’t—and soon.
Copyright © 2008 by Blaize Clement. All rights reserved.