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Hank & Chloe
By Jo-Ann Mapson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Jo-Ann Mapson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnswer the door after midnight and you might as well set a place at the table for trouble--Chloe Morgan's first thoughts when the knock came. Hannah, her shepherd, let out an initial throaty growl from her nest of blankets, then thumped her tail in the dark for the all clear. Tugging the horse blanket from her bed, Chloe padded barefoot across the rough plywood floor.
Rule one: You were damn careful out here in the middle of nowhere. Hugh Nichols let a select few live in the slapped-together shacks on his two hundred acres; he'd be damned if he'd sell out to developers so they could fling stucco around his land. But when it came to just who got to stay and who didn't, he was mercurial. You did nothing to make him question his decision. Few of the shacks had electricity, but Nichols had tapped into the county water, so it wasn't all that bad. Rig up a hose and you could take a cold shower. If you wanted to read after dark, you could light a hurricane lamp--oil wasn't expensive. Living here was safer than the streets had been, when she'd lain awake in her truck till dawn, fearful of every noise. Each night since she'd moved here, she said a silent prayer of thanks for the roof. So far the county had left them alone, but she wasn't naive enough to think it would last. Who knew? You did what you could and then you moved on.
She walked quietly through the dark and rested her cheekagainst the plywood door. "What do you want?"
"You got a call."
The voice was Francisco Montoya's, who lived nearest to the pay phone and the main house, where Nichols slept off his legendary drunks and fought with a series of women he believed were after his considerable bankroll.
Bad news could always wait. "Tell whoever it is to call back in the morning."
He tapped louder now. "Chloe, you got to wake up. Mr. Green from the college. His mare is foaling. He asks for your help."
She cursed softly to herself. "Okay, Francisco, thanks. Go on back to sleep." Naked except for the blanket, twelve hours' work under her belt and only two hours' sleep, she wanted to go back to bed and the respite of unconsciousness. Earlier, the night air had smelled like rain and her truck tires were showing steel. Now Phil Green's mare was giving birth. So what? Did he want her to share in the joy of it? She despised foaling--the utter mess it could turn into, the way owners got stupid with pink or blue birth announcements, and all that crepe-paper nonsense. Too often she'd seen tiny hooves lacerate the vaginal wall, an ignored infection rack fine horseflesh until death came like an awkward blessing. The heartbreaking view of twins haunted her still--she'd sworn off all that--simply tried not to think about it and get on with her own work, teaching people to ride. But Phil was a good friend. He hadn't begged--he never would.
Out her only window, she watched the reflective stripes on Francisco's jacket dim as he trudged back up the hill to his own place. Home was an old tow-along silver Airstream, complete with electricity he'd jerry-rigged off a truck battery. Constantina was pregnant again, and their four-year-old daughter, Pilar, was just out of County Med with a winter bug that had turned into pneumonia. Out here a lot of things could level you, but Francisco and Constantina were illegals. They lived in fear of illness. The expense and the lack of proof of citizenship were more nightmarish than enduring the sickness. Once in the hospital, anything could happen. Social workers didn't help any, separating everyone. So they took care of each other out here, circled their wagons when there was trouble, recycled scrap aluminum, fed each other's animals when money was tight.
Hannah sat obediently by Chloe's side, snapping at some unseen insect. She had slim pickings in winter. Chloe shut the door, lay back down in bed for a minute, cursing motherhood, winter rains, the night in general. Then she got up, threw a pink sweatshirt over a denim miniskirt and found her tennis shoes, the only pair of footwear dry enough to be of service.
"Go get in the truck," she told the dog, and Hannah flew out the door, down the fire road, and into the bed of the old Chevy Apache, her bent tail folding beneath her like a flag at dusk. The truck started on the second try, a good omen. Chloe drove out of the compound without her headlights so as not to wake any more of the squatters than she had to.
Forget reason and plausibility, there were times Chloe swore she heard voices out here. Not babbling or devil tongues, human voices. Once she figured she wasn't crazy, she decided maybe they belonged to people who had died long before, whose very lives had been erased by time and progress, but who weren't quite done speaking their piece. On nights like these when she drove through the canyons in darkness, half asleep, on the watch for deer crossing, she heard them the clearest. Hermana, hija.. . .They called her back from swerving off the highway, kept her awake. Tonight they were saying, La yegua sufre . . . tocala.. . .She kept the windows rolled up and didn't stop for anyone. You didn't need a newspaper story to learn the wisdom of the road--everyone was suspect--everyone had an agenda. But that didn't stop her from stealing sidelong glances at two hitchhikers, noting their hopeful grins, the echo of others who seemed to single her out, speak to her. Date prisa, por aca! She would have liked the company of another warm body, even if they never touched or spoke. Just someone along for the ride. Like Fats had been, Fats Valentine. Stop it. Her life was singular now, since his death.
There, past the junction at Cook's Corner, as she waited for the traffic light to turn, she watched two bikers stumble out onto the tarmac. That character with his thumb out--his face held an echo of Fats's smile. Probably dangerously drunk, his liver halfway to cirrhosis. The other guy had the jutting brow of a Neanderthal and probably a survival knife to match every outfit. Forty years ago, he might have been an immigrant orange picker, his overalls thick with the labors of a night spent smudging, hope suffusing the weariness in his bones as he rounded another row of trees in the glistening frost. But the trees weren't there anymore, were they? A whole town surrounding the giant, nearly new university had sprung up like concrete circus tents. Still the words whispered in her ear, the breath faintly erotic as it tickled her neck flesh: Nunca seremos vencidos. Este ni¤o representa mi sufrimiento, y mi esperanza.
She shook her head drowsily and in the distance before her saw the freeway, a trickle of moving cars. Stay awake, she commanded herself. Phil Green needs your help. No good for anyone if you fall asleep and crash someplace like Irvine. You think the city fathers would name a street corner after you? No way, sister. Scrape you up like the rest of the trees and pour concrete for a new foundation.
But under the hard shell of highway she felt something else press against her tires. Preremembrances she could not possibly know, yet did. The faint outlines of roadhouses from sixty years ago shimmered before her eyes like heat mirages. She heard bits of tinny music from an old upright that had traveled the plains in a covered wagon, losing a few strings to the desert animals who thought they might make fine nesting material. Old music, simple, prim love songs asking permission to court and woo. People who weren't there. Visions. The result of some kind of brain irregularity you developed, deprived of sleep and adequate protein? All she knew was they had to do with the earth somehow, a past so charged with promise that it couldn't quite give up its grip on the present. Not that it was unpleasant; she never felt lonely. She saw them shimmer in those heat mirages; they were in serious desert now, land not in the least fertile, no longer preoccupied with rain but resigned to the stasis of hot waiting. All those faces--what did they want to tell her? Didn't the people coming west sense that they'd never leave? Why not go back to what they knew? A certainty of weather, seasons that descended like ritual? What promise drove them on? Was any struggle worth it? To stay alive. Bear children to increase the tribe. Some notion. Underneath that notion another surfaced, equal in weight: Someday they would each have to give up with grace.
Excerpted from Hank & Chloe by Jo-Ann Mapson Copyright © 2006 by Jo-Ann Mapson. Excerpted by permission.
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