Authors: Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
“Yes, I will, definitely.”
He held up a warning finger. “It’s not going to be easy. You’ll have to be with him twenty-four-seven for the first few days at least. I’ll give him a couple of shots here plus some prescriptions along with care instructions. You must make sure he gets the meds. He’s extremely ill and could become much more so.”
The doctor’s pronouncement fed her fear, but she nodded. Caroline would do anything necessary for Neil. She always would have. “I understand, Doctor.”
“Let’s get the show on the road,” Neil said, apparently more aware than she would have guessed. “I want out of here.”
“As soon as we can, I’ll take you home,” Caroline promised. “What type of shots are you giving him?”
“The first is a high-powered antibiotic, Rocephin,” Dr. Tommy replied. “Because it can have serious side effects in rare cases, we’ll keep him here for at least twenty minutes afterward to monitor. I’m also going to administer one cortisone shot because recent studies have indicated steroid treatment may help treat pneumonia. And the offer is just a stronger acetaminophen for the fever. I’ll also write scripts for the steroid and for another antibiotic, Augmentin. He should show a marked improvement by this evening from the Rocephin but I still want him out of action for at least a week, resting and going nowhere. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“And the longer he waits to return to work in the blasted mines, the better. I’d say two weeks, minimum. If he chose not to return and find employment elsewhere, that would be much better for his health.”
Caroline agreed and nodded.
“He should have a follow-up visit, either here or over at the VA. My nurse will bring in the scripts and care instructions.”
“Thank you,” Caroline said.
The faintest hint of a smile flickered across the doctor’s lips. “Don’t thank me yet,” he said. “He’s got a long, hard road ahead and the next few days will be rough.”
She didn’t doubt it but right now, all she wanted was to take Neil home and nurse him back to health, whatever it took.
By evening, Caroline had redefined the meaning of the word ‘rough’. Getting Neil out of the urgent-care clinic, stopping at a pharmacy to get the prescriptions filled, a quick trip to a supermarket to pick up a few things she thought she’d need, and the drive home had seemed difficult at the time. By the time she’d wrestled Neil into her house, she had been drained of energy. She hadn’t eaten anything and neither had Neil, but a meal would have to wait.
Although his temperature was down a few degrees, from the 104 it had registered at the clinic, to 101, he remained very sick. But Neil had improved enough to argue and he refused to go upstairs to bed. “I can’t climb the damn stairs without coughing my lungs up,” he told her.
He wanted the recliner, but they compromised on the couch. Caroline brought down pillows and quilts. She tucked him into place and waited until he drifted into sleep. Then she all but collapsed into the recliner and dozed. Hunger woke her so she opened a can of soup. She ate a small bowl and left the remainder on the stove, keeping it warm for Neil.
As he slept, she reviewed the medications, devised a schedule to administer them, and read the care instructions. Weary and still worried, they seemed more difficult than at the clinic. She went over them again and realized she would be home for the duration. Until now, Caroline hadn’t given the store a second thought, but now she groaned inwardly. So far, the store did very well, plus business had been brisk and steady. Her hot foods were attracting new customers, but without her presence, she wondered how the new additions of chicken tenders, catfish strips, and hot dogs would do.
She gathered her thoughts and called the store. Alexander Akins, a former Marine and her most dependable employee, answered the phone. Caroline explained the situation and before she had to ask, he offered to run the store for a week or so. “Thank you,” she said. “That relieves my mind a lot. I know you’re capable. All I need you to do is keep things going, deal with deliveries, and make sure someone is scheduled to work.”
“Not a problem,” he said. “You just tell Neil to get better, you hear?”
Neil roused long enough to take his meds and for Caroline to force him to down a few spoonfuls of soup. His cough had eased, thanks to the Rocephin, but his haggard expression told her he still must feel terrible. A frown line bisected his forehead, but he managed a weak attempt at a smile. “Thanks, honey,” he mumbled. “You should’ve just sent me home. I know I’m a lot of trouble.”
“You’re worth it,” she told him. “Hush and rest.”
By late Sunday afternoon his temperature had dropped to ninety-nine point one, no more than a scant fever. Neil remained pale and since he hadn’t shaven, his dark stubble stood out against his pallor. He had been up to use the bathroom and to shift from the couch to the recliner. He’d wanted to sit at the kitchen table to eat some soup, but Caroline brought it to him in a mug instead. She offered to spoon feed him and he bristled.
“No damn way. I can feed myself or I’ll starve.”
Neil managed, but he couldn’t eat much. His crankiness delighted her because she knew if he felt well enough to gripe, he was on the way to recovery. He still slept for long stretches, but after the first couple days, he became less grouchy and more himself. They spent long hours talking about the past, about music and movies they enjoyed, and books each had read. Sometimes Caroline read to him, old classics she found on her grandparents’ shelves, books like
Where The Red Fern Grows
Neil would lie back in the recliner, eyes closed, listening but awake and aware of the story. Afterward, they would discuss what she’d read that day.
By late in the week, Neil graduated from soup to heartier fare. Caroline made chicken and dumplings for him. Thanksgiving came, then went, but she didn’t bake the turkey she had bought. They would celebrate later, alone.
Neil’s cousin, Will, also a miner came by several times. A few people stopped by after hearing Neil had been under the weather to bring homemade bread, a casserole, and some desserts. On Friday, Neil shaved and showered for the first time since he’d become so ill. Afterward, he came downstairs and sat at the kitchen table.
Caroline stood at the stove, browning beef chunks for stew, and realized from his sober expression she probably wasn’t going to like what he had to say. “What is it?” she asked as she lowered the flame on the burner and faced him.
“How do you know it’s anything?”
“I know you and you’ve got your serious face on.”
He laughed. “Aw, you can’t tell from my expression.”
“Yes, I can. So, just tell me.”
Neil shook his head. “I was thinking…”
“That can be dangerous.” She tossed the remark at him in an effort to keep things light.
“Probably, but here it is. I figured I probably should go home this weekend.”
Her stomach clenched tight. “That’s a terrible idea, Neil. You’re much better, but I hate to think about you up at your lonely trailer.”
“How do you know it’s lonely?” he countered. “You’ve never been there.”
“True.” Caroline had asked, but he’d refused to take her there. “If you need some things, we can run up there today if you’re up to it.”
He shrugged. “If you want, sure, we can. It’s not much, but it’s my home.”
“You can stay here, Neil, for as long as you like. You could even move in.”
Spoken aloud, her wish hung between them. He would accept or reject it and she steeled herself not to let the outcome sting.
“Carrie, there’s times I would like nothing better.”
His quiet voice made her heart sing. “So, do it.”
Neil met her eyes and shook his head. “It’s not time yet, if it ever will be. You got a store to run and I’ve been keeping you from it.”
“Alexander’s doing a good job.”
“I reckon so, but it’s your store. He’s keeping it going for you, but you need to be there, get your plans for more food made into reality and before people forget it’s yours.”
She saw the sense in what he said, but Caroline didn’t think they were finished, either.
“I can spend more time there this coming week. You’re feeling better and won’t need me here every second.”
He sighed. “Here comes the part you ain’t gonna like at all.”
“Don’t say it, then.”
“I gotta. I need to get back to work come Monday. I’ve laid out long enough.”
Fear that he would compromise his health sparked anger. “Neil, you can’t go back yet. You’re recovering, but you’re not over pneumonia yet. The doctor said two weeks, at least.”
“He did. I heard him. I might have been sick as a dog, but I wasn’t deaf,” Neil replied. “I heard everything he said, Carrie, all about my lungs and all the diseases I might have or get. I know he said it would be better if I didn’t go back to the mine at all but I’m going. I have to, honey.”
Anger burned in her gut like acid. “Why? You have money. I know you do because you offered it to me for the store. You could live on it for a while. You don’t have to go back underground to that damn mine.”
He frowned and shut his eyes for a long moment. She watched, noticing how white he remained and how tired he appeared. “Carrie, mining’s all I got left that says I’m a man. My old granny used to say somebody worthless wasn’t worth the bread he ate. I don’t want to be like that. I need to earn my way in this life, to prove to myself I’m not worthless. I left a chunk of myself in the desert and it’s taken a lot to hold onto what’s left. But if I don’t work, then I’d feel useless. I don’t want to dwell on everything wrong with me or throw a pity party. I can’t just lay up there on Hound Dog Mountain doing nothing.”
“I didn’t suggest that. No one did. And you’re a man, Neil McCullough, whether you’re a miner or a soldier or anything. I don’t think anyone who knows you would ever doubt it, least of all me. Working in the mines doesn’t make you a man, but it’s likely to kill you.”
Neil’s gray eyes blazed with sudden fire. “And tell me where in hell else I’m supposed to work? I like it here. I want to live right here, I don’t want to move to Texas or to the capital of Wal-Mart land or even to Charleston. There aren’t a lot of jobs, maybe you hadn’t noticed but there’s not. So I work at the mine and probably will until I do die. There’s nothing else, Carrie.”
For a moment, he almost convinced her. She knew well there weren’t many opportunities in their corner of West Virginia. Beautiful country and high poverty rates were what they had been born into. Then she saw the perfect answer.
“You could work in the store with me. We could run it, together.”
He glared at her. “I don’t need any charity and I don’t take it, not even from you.”
“Good,” she said. She’d raised her voice to almost a shout. “I’m not offering any, Neil. It’s a huge job, running that store. I couldn’t have made it this far without your help. You’re always there, from the day I started cleaning the place, when I need you, there you are.”
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to be hired help. You got Alexander Akins, that kid Jackson and the two ladies, Mattie and Bertha. You don’t need me.”
Caroline’s fingers tightened around the cooking fork she still clenched with one hand. If she thought it would knock sense into Neil, she’d wallop him upside the head with it. “Yes, I do, Neil. I’m not asking you to work a shift at the cash register for Lord’s sake. I’m offering you to come into the store as my partner.”
He stood up. “I told you, I have to prove I’m a man. I can’t be your, what the hell do they call it, your ‘boy toy’ and play store. I gotta earn my own way in this life.”
She took two steps and faced him, six inches away from his face. “I understand that. My God, I admire that streak of independent pride. I want to make my own living, too. And I wouldn’t love you if you were a boy toy. You’re more to me than that, always were.”
“What I’ve been is a pain in the ass and a burden.”
His voice had dropped low when he spoke and his face paled. Caroline realized he believed that, on some level, and the hot words she’d meant to speak disappeared from her lips.
“You’re neither one, Neil. You’ve been very sick. I took care of it, not because you’re a burden but because I love you. You’re no burden, but a blessing, darlin’. Don’t you know what you mean to me?”
Neil shook his head. Then he scrubbed his face with one hand, shoulders drooped. “I know what I’d like to think, but I’m probably a fool, Carrie. After the way you lived away from here, all you’ve had, I can’t imagine you’re content to live here, not in this old house and sure as hell not in my trailer. I love you, woman, but I’m scared to death you’ll high-tail it out of here and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. That’s why I gotta stay at the mine. If you do leave…”
“Neil, I’m not going anywhere. I’m home to stay.”
He waved a hand to dismiss her words. “If you go, then I’ll still be here, alone. For a long time, working was all I had. I didn’t dare hope for anything more. I gotta hang onto it now, just in case.”
Caroline realized how vulnerable his illness had made him and that he shared his fears. Truth was, she had come home to stay. If Neil McCullough still hadn’t inhabited the area, she might have fled back to Fairfax or to her mother’s Baltimore, but he was here and so was she.
“Neil, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to be here, with you. The only thing that would convince me to move somewhere else would be if you decided to go.”
A faint grin played around his lips. He gazed at her, eyes shining with hope or maybe tears.
“You’re like Ruth,” he said in a soft voice. He quoted from the Bible. “Whither thou goest, I would go, and where thou lodgest, I would lodge….”
She smiled. “Yes, Neil.”
He took a step toward her and his face shifted. What little color he’d gained vanished from his face. Neil reached toward her and grasped her hand.
“I think I’m either going blind or I’m gonna pass out.”
Caroline put her arm around him and steered him into a chair. Then she pushed his head down until it rested almost on his knees. “You’re not blind,” she said. “You’ve done too much, too fast and got worked up. Take slow deep breaths.”
She stood beside him, one hand on his back, ready to catch him if he toppled. He did as she suggested and he relaxed. After five minutes, he sat upright, face ashen. “I guess maybe I’m not as ready to go back to work as I thought.”
“I agree. What happened?”
“I got dizzy, kind of light-headed. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” He leaned back against her and Caroline noted although he was warm, it wasn’t fever heat.
“That’s because you almost fainted.”
Caroline bent and brushed the hair back from his face, front to back. She needed to touch him. If he wasn’t still so weak, she would have ached to make love. “You did. Why don’t you come relax in the living room while I finish putting together the stew?”
Neil sighed. “All right, I will. I wish I felt better than I do.”
“You will,” she said. “And you already are better than you were.”
His ghost grin appeared again, then faded. “I guess you’re right.”