Nelson & Caleb

an excerpt

Chapter One

Bonnie, the little fawn-colored pug-mix, chased her ball across the hospital activity room floor. Her front legs scrabbled on the tile, the rear wheels of her hind-leg doggie cart spun to a blur. Snatching up the bouncing toy in her mouth, she whirled sharply enough to lift one wheel off the ground and scampered back to drop the ball into Nelson's hand. Her dark eyes lit with pleasure, her front paws danced, her whip-tail would no doubt have been wagging if she hadn't been half-paralyzed years ago.

Around the room, the gathered children laughed with delight.

Nelson Dunn thought there was no better reward in life than pleasing sick kids. Probably his face didn't show it, behind his close-trimmed beard and bushy eyebrows, but he loved that sound. He said, "Pretty quick, isn't she?" and tossed the ball again.

This time as she ran after it there was a gust of wind outside strong enough to rattle the windows. Bonnie paid no attention in her single-minded pursuit, but all the humans in the room glanced over at the looming grey clouds outside. A moment later, the hospital speakers crackled with the emergency announcement toneā€¦ "Attention, hospital visitors, patients, and staff. The National Weather Service is advising everyone in our county to take all precautions for severe weather at this time. Hurricane Lauris continues to be a category four hurricane and is now veering rapidly to the northwest. Our county has now changed from a hurricane watch to a warning area. Although we are still not in the direct path of the storm, we can expect very heavy rain and damaging winds, extending over the next twelve to sixteen hours. You are advised to take shelter in a hurricane-safe location as soon as possible. Stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary. Low-lying areas may be subject to flash floods.

"All Memorial Hospital nonemergency facilities, including outpatient clinics, will be closing in fifteen minutes. If you have a medical condition that absolutely cannot wait until the hurricane warning is lifted, please check in with the triage nurse at the Emergency reception desk.

"Visitors and off-duty staff who live nearby are advised to head home or to shelters immediately. Anyone who feels at risk leaving now should approach the information desk. We will be making very limited emergency accommodations available within the hour, while coordinating with local shelter locations. One family member per patient may be accommodated here. I assure everyone that this hospital is prepared for severe weather.

"Staff members, the Lauris Preparedness Plan will be implemented beginning now. All visitors and patients please cooperate with staff instructions. I repeat, all visitors and off-duty personnel should head for shelter at this time. Hopefully we'll ride this one out without too much trouble."

Nelson exchanged worried glances with the nurse. She said, "It sounds like you'd better head out right away, Mr. Dunn. I'd hate for you to be caught driving when the storm hits."

The children chorused their disappointment. Nelson could tell by their nervous looks that part of the reason they wanted him to stay was to hang on to the safe and familiar routine a bit longer. The impending storm was scary even for grown-ups, let alone kids stuck in the hospital. He kept his voice cheerful, as he said, "Sorry, kids, we can't stay. I'll bring Troy along next time. We'll have a nice, long, snuggly visit." The big old Lab was more of a cuddler than Bonnie, and they might need that in the aftermath, even if it turned out to be a false alarm.

He didn't want to frighten them even more by rushing out, so he stuck to their usual routine. "Now Bonnie will say her good-byes." He took the ball she brought him and put it away in his pocket. Her ears drooped momentarily, but when he gave the hand signal for "Say good-bye" she perked up.

Bonnie made the rounds, stopping by each of the children to give a little yip of farewell. The kids who could reach petted her soft chocolate ears and fawn head. A couple of parents, watching their children smile at the dog, gave Nelson appreciative nods. He could see the anxiety in their faces, and for once was almost glad he had no family except his pets. This part of the state had hoped to be well out of Lauris's path, but now it would be a waiting game as the storm raged past, and those who loved always had more to lose.

Nelson lifted Bonnie, cradling dog and cart in his arms, so the kids strapped into their own wheelchairs could have a turn. One boy rubbed Bonnie's chest, fingering the straps that held her securely in her K9 cart. "You'll bring Bonnie back too, though? Not just Troy?"

"Sure. They take turns."

He turned toward the door, holding Bonnie securely. She preferred to walk, but in the busy hospital corridors she might get underfoot, and he wanted to get down to the car quickly. The nurse came to the doorway with him, and gave Bonnie a pat of her own. "Thanks for coming by, Mr. Dunn. The children look forward to it so much, I'm glad you made it here today. I hope you get home all right."

"Thank you," he said. "I'll see you on Monday."

"God willing," she said in a very soft voice. "Drive carefully. Be safe."

"Always do." If he'd been in his old police uniform he'd have tipped his hat. As it was, he nodded and headed out.