My Sunshine • Copyright 2005 by Catherine Anderson • 0-451-21380-7 • SignetPrologue
Lightning flashed in the leaden sky, each brilliant burst quickly followed by a deafening clap of thunder. Rain pelted the vehicle with such force it sounded like pea gravel striking metal. Peering through the windshield, Isaiah Coulter could barely make out the houses along the tree-lined street. He dreaded the thought of making the fifty-foot sprint to the covered front porch of his parents’ suburban residence. Not for the first time since this storm had started, he wished he’d thought to grab a jacket before leaving home that morning.
When he pushed open the door of the Hummer, his shirtsleeve grew instantly wet and icy, compliments of the high mountain chill that always descended on Crystal Falls, Oregon, when the autumn sunlight was obscured by clouds. Isaiah clenched his teeth, sprang from the vehicle, and broke into a run even as he slammed the door behind him.
Water streamed from his face by the time he reached the porch, and dripping shanks of dark brown hair were plastered to his forehead. Swearing under his breath, he raked back the strands with rain-slicked fingers and slapped uselessly at his soaked shirt.
“Mom?” he yelled as he opened the front door. “It’s me, Isaiah!”
As he wiped his feet on the entryway rug, Isaiah scanned the tidy living area, barely registering any details because the furniture and decorations were so familiar. On the longest wall, the faces of his brothers and sister as well as his own stared back at him from countless framed photographs, a pictorial record of their lives from infancy to adulthood. The delicious smells of warm apple pie and freshly brewed coffee greeted him as he moved farther into the room.
“In the kitchen, dear heart!” Mary Coulter called.
Following his nose and the sound of her voice, Isaiah stepped into the archway. Standing at the kitchen counter, his mother flashed him a welcoming smile. Her plump cheeks rosy, her dark hair lying in loose curls around her face, she was, in Isaiah’s eyes, just as beautiful at almost sixty as she had been twenty years ago.
“How’s my best girl?” he asked.
“Hmph,” she responded with a shake of her head. “And isn’t that a fine kettle of fish? The handsomest of all my sons, and you’re still single.”
Isaiah knew very well that he wasn’t the handsomest pup in her litter. In truth, he and his brothers were all carbon copies of their dad and looked pretty much the same. As for his being single, he liked it that way. Veterinary medicine was a demanding field, leaving him little time for personal relationships. Someday, when his life grew less hectic, he might consider settling down, but for now he needed to stay focused on his career.
“Ah, Mom,” he replied in a whiny baritone, his stock response when Mary needled him about getting married.
“Don’t you ‘ah, Mom’ me. Just look at you, Isaiah Joel, drenched to the skin and blue around the lips. You need someone with good sense to look after you.” She tossed him a hand towel. “Mop up as best you can before you make puddles on my floor.” She glanced at his boots. “If you’ve tracked in horse dung, I’ll snatch you bald-headed.”
Catching the towel in one fist, Isaiah blotted his face and dried the back of his neck. “My boots got pressure-washed coming across the lawn, and I wiped them dry on the rug. As for my lips being blue, that’s because it’s colder than a well digger’s ass out there.”
“Your lips are blue because it’s October and you aren’t wearing a coat. A man with your IQ should know better.”
“I know better. I just forgot.”
“You’d forget your head if it weren’t attached. Absentminded, I guess, always thinking deep thoughts and oblivious to everything else.”
“It was sunny when I left the house this morning.”
“Grab your father’s sweatshirt there on the back of the chair and put it on. You’ll catch your death, sitting around in that wet thing you’re wearing.”
Isaiah did feel cold. He quickly divested himself of the wet garment, plucked a plastic shopping sack from the cloth bag holder hanging on a hook by the kitchen door, and stuffed the shirt inside. A moment later, as he drew his dad’s sweatshirt over his head, his mother clucked her tongue, saying, “Your ribs are showing, Isaiah Joel. I swear, a high wind would blow you away.”
Isaiah knew very well he wasn’t that thin. “Ah, Mom.”
Accustomed to Mary’s scolding, Isaiah bent to kiss her cheek before taking a chair at the round oak table in one corner of the kitchen. “Man, that pie sure does smell good.”
“Made it especially for you.” Mary took two pie plates from the cupboard and set herself to the task of cutting the dessert. “It’s not often anymore that I know ahead of time when you’re coming over.”
“If apple pie is my reward, I’ll start calling in advance. It’s my favorite.”
Mary smiled. “Yes, I know. I’m your mother, remember.”
“Thanks for making me a pie, Mom. That was sweet of you.” Isaiah settled back on the chair. “Where’s Pop?”
Mary released a shrill little sigh, conveying with a lift of her shoulders that her trials were many as Harv Coulter’s wife. “He set out early this morning to meet Zeke at Natalie’s supper club. Something’s gone haywire with the refrigeration system, I think. After that, he was heading out to the Lazy J to help Hank and Jake mend fence line. His back has been giving him fits all week, but do you think he’ll take it easy?”
“He enjoys helping at the ranch, Mom. Just because he’s retired doesn’t mean he has to stop living.”
“I know.” Mary released another sigh. “And Jake and Hank really do need the help right now. With Molly expecting again, and Carly trying to care for a baby so soon after eye surgery, both your brothers are spread mighty thin.”
Isaiah had been so busy that he’d nearly forgotten his sister-in-law’s corneal surgery. “How’s Carly doing?”
“Good.” Mary beamed a glad smile as she licked a bit of pie filling from her fingertip. “She can see, at any rate. The major problem right now is retraining her thingamajig.”
“Her visual cortex,” Isaiah offered.
“There you go,” she agreed with a nod. “All those medical terms go in one of my ears and out the other. Hank called last night. He bought some red duct tape and lined the edges of all the steps so Carly can tell where one ends and another starts. She almost fell on the front porch yesterday when she was carrying Hank Junior.”
Isaiah winced. “No wonder Hank’s taping the steps.”
“He says it helped.” Mary opened another cupboard to get some coffee mugs. “With no depth perception, she can’t see the stair treads clearly.”
Enjoying the warmth that still radiated from the oven, Isaiah sighed and flexed his shoulders. It was strange, he thought, how quickly he could always relax in his mother’s kitchen. He guessed it was because the room was a reflection of the woman herself: small, colorful, busy, and full of love.
The fact that Mary Coulter loved her children was in evidence everywhere he looked. All available surfaces were crowded with plaster handprints, school portraits, art projects gone yellow with age, and silly stuff that he or his siblings had given her over the years, including a knickknack shelf filled with some old-fashioned power-pole insulators that Isaiah and his twin brother, Tucker, had carted home one long-ago day. Now it appeared that Mary had begun to collect grandchild keepsakes. Jake’s son’s baby booties were pinned to the ruffled white curtains at the window, and the front of the refrigerator was hidden by his crayon creations, all of which were nothing but scribbles.
Normally Isaiah disliked clutter, but somehow his mom made it work. The crowded walls and splashes of color were not only pleasing to the eye but also oddly soothing. The tension that had knotted his shoulders all day eased away as he rocked back in the chair. He observed his mother with a faint smile. Even her apron took him back through the years, a white frilly thing with embroidery on the pockets that she’d worn for as long as he could remember.
As always, she chattered nonstop as she worked, launching into a story about some neighbor’s granddaughter as she drew a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and rifled through a drawer, looking for the scoop. Isaiah listened with only half an ear, his mind on a cow he’d treated that morning.
“Anyway,” Mary said as she advanced on the table, “the reason I asked you to stop by is because I have an idea I want to run by you.”
Isaiah accepted the plate his mother slid toward him. “An idea about what?” he asked as he forked up a chunk of juicy fruit and flaky golden crust that dripped with melting ice cream.
“Not what, who,” Mary corrected. After filling two mugs with piping-hot coffee, she returned to the table and took a seat across from him. “It’s about Laura, the young woman I’ve been telling you about.”
Isaiah didn’t recall his mother’s saying anything about someone named Laura. He sent her a bewildered look.
Mary huffed in exasperation. “Haven’t you been listening?”
Isaiah swallowed and nodded. “Mostly.”
He lowered his fork back to the plate. “I’m sorry, Mom. I guess I’m a little distracted.”
“What is it this time?” Mary asked resignedly. “Not another rat fatality, I hope.”
Isaiah winced at the reminder. Two months ago, a new tech had prepped some lady’s pet rat for abdominal surgery. After shaving the rodent’s belly, she’d tried to vacuum up the fur and accidentally sucked up the rat as well. Isaiah had been left to explain the rat’s unexpected demise to its owner. It hadn’t been one his finest moments as a veterinarian.
“No, not a rat, thank God. A cow this time. Uterine infection. I’ve done three flushes and hit her with every antibiotic there is. If this next round doesn’t work, I’ll have to put her down. The farmer’s a young guy with a growing family. He can’t afford to lose her.”
Mary reached across the table to push a tendril of hair from Isaiah’s eyes. “Oh, sweetie, you worry me so.”
Isaiah caught her wrist to kiss her fingertips. “I’m fine, Mom. Just busy, that’s all.”
“You’re not fine,” she insisted. “Just look at you.”
Isaiah glanced down. “What’s wrong with me?”
“You’ve lost weight, for starters, and your hair is so long it’s almost to your collar. And where on earth did you find that shirt you were wearing? It looked like you slept in it.”
Isaiah shrugged. “It just looked bad because it was wet.”
“Wet, my footit was wrinkled.”
“I forgot to take it from the dryer, that’s all. I shook it out.”
Mary rolled her blue eyes toward the ceiling. “And your weight? You can’t be eating right. What did you have for breakfast?”
Isaiah tried to recall and couldn’t. “Yogurt, probably.”
“A dog got run over, Mom. I was in surgery at six forty-five.”
“So you ate no breakfast.” Mary nodded sagely. “And lunch? Please tell me you had something.”
He’d wolfed down a package of Twinkies and a bag of Cheese Nips between ranch calls. “I ate while I was driving.” He glanced guiltily at his hands, hoping his fingers weren’t stained yellow. “I’m doing fine. Really.”
“Ha. If ever a man needed a wife to look after him, it’s you.”
“Are we back to that again?” Isaiah chuckled. “Let up on me, Mom. Like getting married would solve everything? It’s a new generation. Young women today don’t stay at home and look after their husbands. They have demanding careers of their own, and that’s just as it should be.”
“There must be a few old-fashioned girls left out there.”
If so, Isaiah hadn’t encountered any. Not that he’d been looking. “Maybe so,” he settled for saying, then glanced at his watch. “About that idea you wanted to discuss. If we’re going to talk, we need to get cracking. I have to be back at the clinic by three.”
Mary took a sip of her coffee. “Do you remember my neighbor, Etta Parks?”
“The old lady two doors down?” A fleeting image of a pretty, silver-haired woman passed through Isaiah’s mind. “Yeah, I remember her.”
Mary smiled. “Laura is her granddaughter. She’s a lovely, sweet girl. Almost every day she comes by to see Etta while she’s out walking the dogs.”
“Dogs? How many does she have?”
“Oh, they’re not actually hers.” Mary’s blue eyes went misty. “That’s one of the ways Laura supplements her disability income, by walking people’s dogs or caring for them while the owners are on vacation. I think she does other things as well, housework and ironing and such. But it’s her knack with animals that made me think of you.”
Isaiah realized that his mother was working her way up to something. He glanced at his watch again. “I’m sorry. I’m not following. A disability income, did you say?”
Mary filled in the blanks, explaining how Etta’s granddaughter had gone swimming with friends five years before and hit her head on a rock when she dove into the river. “It left her with brain damage of some kind,” she explained.
Isaiah dimly recalled hearing about that. For a while the young woman had been comatose and not expected to live, if he remembered correctly.
“When Laura awakened after the accident,” his mother went on, “her whole life had been destroyed. I can’t remember now what she did for a livinga scientist of some kind, I think. Very good income, lots of travel. Then, in a twinkling, it was all taken from her. Now she lives in an apartment over someone’s garage and walks dogs to earn money.”
“That’s a shame,” Isaiah said. And he meant it with all his heart. “I’m just not sure what any of this has to do with me.”
The corners of Mary’s mouth tightened. “Laura is such a pretty girl, and sweet as can be. Her life would be so much fuller if she had a regular job and could meet people her own age.”
Isaiah shifted uneasily on the chair. “I suppose that’s true, Mom, but practically speaking, what kind of work can a woman with brain damage do?”
“Well, you see, that’s just the thing.” Mary leaned slightly forward, her expression suddenly earnest. “She’s absolutely wonderful with dogs, Isaiah. It occurred to me the other day that she might make an excellent kennel keeper.”
“Whoa.” Isaiah held up a hand. “You’re not suggesting what I think you are. A kennel keeper at our clinic?” He shook his head emphatically. “Tucker and I are running a veterinary hospital, Mother, not a charity organization. We can’t hire someone with brain damage.”
“But, dear heart, Laura’s brain damage isn’t that bad. I never even knew something was wrong until Etta mentioned it.”
“No, absolutely not. I’m sorry, Mom, I really am. I’d like to help her out, but there’s just no way. Remember the rat? A perfectly normal woman pulled that stunt. Tucker and I have worked hard to get where we are. Our reputations as vets are on the line. We’re responsible for the well-being of people’s pets and farm animals. We can’t have a mentally handicapped woman working at our clinic.”
Mary pursed her lips. Isaiah knew that look. She’d used it on him a fair thousand times when he was a kid. “If you’ll remember, your father and I loaned you boys the start-up capital you needed to open that clinic.”
Isaiah pinched the bridge of his nose. That was true. The debt had been repaid in full, but that was beside the point. “I know we owe you a lot, Mom.”
Mary nodded. “And it’s not often I ask a favor.”
Why, Isaiah wondered, was it so difficult for him to tell his mother no? He was thirty-three years old and hadn’t lived at home since he started college. He guessed it was because his parents had always come through for him without fail when he needed them, and he felt obligated to do the same for them. “That’s true. You seldom ask me for anything.”
“Well, I’m asking now,” she said softly. “I honestly believe Laura can do the work, Isaiah, and I know for a fact that you have trouble finding good kennel keepers.”
Isaiah couldn’t argue that point. Hosing dog poop down kennel drains wasn’t a glamorous job.
“It seems to me the least you can do,” Mary went on, “is interview her for the position.” She spread her hands in appeal. “If you decide she isn’t capable of doing the work, fine. I know you have a kind heart, and I’ll trust your judgment. But won’t you at least give her a chance?”
Isaiah knew when he was licked. “I’ll have to talk with Tucker first. We’re partners, remember. We don’t make decisions like that independently.”
Mary arched a sable eyebrow. “Have Tucker call me if he has any objections. I’ll handle him.”Isaiah had no doubt that his mother would do just that.