“You’re going where?” Jodie’s stare launched daggers of disbelief and worry while she continued to snarl, “Did you really just say Texas? That you want to go to the desert?”
“Not want, as usual, you weren’t listening. I said need. As in, it’s something I’m required to do,” she sighed, tried to relax and worked on sounding less like a nagging mother. “It’s my job, Jodes.” Her friend understood the concept of hard work she was just choosing to be obstinate and cantankerous.
Lord knew, Jodie Spitz aka Josephine MacArthur, award-winning and New York Times Bestselling author, worked her fingers to the bone day in and day out, but she also did it on her terms with her hair on top of her head and in her pj’s. She answered to no one. Never had and Elle was absolutely sure never would.
If only I’d chosen Literature as a major instead of Law….
“You’re tellin’ me that Shapiro, Rabinowitz, and Whoserfotitz doesn’t have another lawyer in one of their seven high rise buildings all over the world who can go to the assback of Nowhere to take care of a few traffic tickets for some entitled, overstuffed, spoiled Richie Rich?”
Up off the couch, spinning on her toes like the ballerina her mother had wanted her to be, Jodie threw her arms in the air as she spat, “I’m not buyin’ that bullshit, even if it is free every day that ends in a ‘y’ and wrapped up in a big, red bow.”
I will not lose my temper. I will not lose my temper. I will not…
“First of all, it’s Shapiro, Rabinowitz, and MacAfee, as you well know, and yes, there are lots of other lawyers who could handle a simple traffic case. Unfortunately, this is anything but. Joseph Mayhue was caught driving while intoxicated, doing a hundred and twenty miles an hour on the wrong side of the road, was in possession of a pound of cannabis, and enough clear, plastic baggies of cocaine to keep him and his buddies flying high for a year.” Sliding her feet into her favorite, most-comfortable sandals, the ones she always wore when traveling, Elle continued as her best friend and roommate made a show of stomping into the kitchen.
Cue the curtain call boys, Jodes is revving up for one helluva grand finale…
"The Mayhues are a very influential family. Mr. Mayhue is on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Mrs. Mayhue is running for Mayor of Dallas next year. They knew my mom and dad, and both sets of grandparents. They didn’t even wait until the office was cold. Right in front of the Old Man, Mr. MacAfee Sr., at his retirement party, Heavens help us, they asked me to be their attorney. I'm the only one they will let handle this delicate situation."
“Delicate,” Jodi made air quotes as she stood at the sink and looked through the pass-through that separated the kitchen from the family room, “is lawyer-speak for Richie Rich is in a pile of shit, so you have to put on your waders, grab a shovel, and dig him out…again.”
“That may be true,” Elle nodded. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but this is my job, and I’m damn good at it. My clients trust me.” She paused to make sure she had Jodie’s full attention before adding, “Which means more to me than the pain in the tail feathers that three or four days in the desert will be.”
“But you haven’t been back since…” Jodie’s words trailed off as her expression softened and her shoulders slumped forward.
Refusing to give into the grief that was never farther than a thought away, Elle nodded and tried to smile. “Since the memorial services.” She leaned the side of her leg against the high arm of her dad’s old recliner and laid her arm across the back just liked she’d done so very many times as they talked about everything from her job to how the Cowboys’ season was turning out.
Dad had been my rock, my confidant, my mentor, my…
Pressing on, she continued, “You can say the words. It’s been almost a year. I won’t fall to pieces or cry until I have no tears left. I’ve come to terms with what happened.”
At least in this very moment, I’m good. I’m resigned to hold my shit together...
“Yeah, I know, but…”
“But, you don’t want to upset me.”
Shrugging as she bit the inside of her cheek, Jodie sighed, “Yeah, and well…it just sucks. They were my family, too, dammit.”
“I know, and you’re right,” Elle agreed as the voice in her head screamed, “No shit, it sucks. It’s unfair. I wish it hadn’t happened and…well…dammit all to hell, I’ve got nothin’ better to add. It sucks and then sucks some more and then really sucks.” Losing her mom, dad, and older sister in a freak, one-car accident in the middle of the West Texas desert had been the hardest thing the young lawyer had ever been forced to handle. Loss – the kind of bone-deep sorrow, uncontrollable anger, blistering rage, dark, dank loneliness, unanswered questions, just the whole damn pile of shit that makes a person doubt their own sanity - was strewn about, popping up at every turn.
She remembered the sound of her office door opening and the look on the faces of Junior Thompson and Smitty Brown – two guys she’d gone to high school with who had become deputies with the Jeff Davis County Sherriff’s office right after graduation. She could never forget the tidal wave of grief and dread that whipped through her office damn near knocking her to the floor.
The warmth from the sun shining in the floor-to-ceiling plate glass behind her suddenly disappeared. It was as if the looks on her old friends’ faces had pulled a plug somewhere in the Universe that sucked the warmth and happiness right out of the air.
Holding his tan Stetson in his hand, fiddling with the brim, Junior stepped forward. His deep baritone resonated with sorrow as he looked Elle right in the eye and consoled, "Dammit all if this isn't the hardest thing I've ever had to do." Clearing his throat and rolling his shoulders, the tall, well-built Mexican-American lifted his chin. "But, I wanted it to be Smitty and me who told you." One more step forward, his voice still low but now with steel running through it. "Elle, I am so damn sorry to inform you that at one-fifteen this morning there was a single car accident off US90 in the Wild Horse Basin just outside Valentine."
Tears filled his dark brown eyes as his voice cracked and he swallowed like a boulder had just appeared in his throat. “The car burst into flames upon impact. There were no survivors.”
On autopilot, the words Junior said echoing over and over in her mind, Elle opened the bottom drawer of her desk, took out her purse, and got to her feet. Picking up the receiver of her office phone, she hit the intercom button, and before her assistant, Cherie could answer informed, "Can you reschedule the rest of my appointments for today and tomorrow, please? I won't be back until Monday."
“Yes, ma’am, is there anything else?”
“Yes, please tell the partners that I have a family emergency and will be unreachable. I’ll call Jonathan when I can. Any clients call, refer them to Aisley.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cherie replied then in a softer tone added, “If there is anything you need, anything at all, night or day, just give me a call, Elle.”
“Thanks, Cher.” Knowing what a kind heart Cherie had assured Elle that the younger woman meant what she said. They had become immediate friends with the ability to seamlessly separate professional and personal. Her assistant was a godsend and one that Elle repeatedly thanked the Heavens for.
Shoving her turbulent emotions into the same box she used to shut out everything but her client and the case when she was in court, Elle looked up at Junior then Smitty before walking out from behind her desk and nodding, “I want to see it.”
“What?” They exclaimed in unison.
“I want to see where it happened.”
“But…” Smitty, the shorter but much more muscular of the two stammered. “Elle…you…”
Stopping right in front of him, looking up from her five-foot-five height, she narrowed her eyes and deadpanned, “Take me, or I’ll go myself.”
Maneuvering around her at top speed, Junior tapped his partner on the shoulder then opened the door to her office and with a single nod motioned, “We’ll take you to the Morgue then the crash site. The Coroner has to have a positive ID from a family member.”
Walking into the hall without a backward glance, she called over her shoulder, “I’d like to see where it happened first.”
There was a second’s pause. She knew he was thinking of how to get around taking her at all, let alone going there first. Then he replied, “Whatever you say,” and Elle let out the breath she’d been holding.
Pushing the down arrow for the elevator, she ignored the stale stench of doubt and worry coming from her friends as they stood behind her and waited. Thinking through every possible scenario, sure there’d been some grievous mistake that only seeing the crash site would clear up, Elle spent the rest of the trip in silence.
Finally, one-hundred-and-fifty-eight miles later, Smitty pulled the cruiser onto the shoulder of the two-lane road and turned off the engine with a loud sigh. Not waiting for the guys, Elle immediately opened her door, placed the soles of her black Via Spiga stilettos on the hot sands of the Chihuahuan Desert, and exhaled as she got out of the car.
Shutting the door, she quickly turned and made her way around the trunk of the shiny silver Dodge Charger feeling the stirring of something greater than herself in the pit of her very soul. Crossing the narrow, pothole-laden stretch of highway, she headed straight for the scorched earth nearly five-hundred yards in front of her.
"Please don't follow. I have to do this by myself," she instructed, trying hard not to sound harsh but driven by an inner need that was entirely new and utterly uncompromising.
Taking off her shoes and wrapping her fingers around the thin, silver heels, she deliberately put one foot in front of the other, carefully walking the perimeter of the blackened, star-shaped sand. Closing her eyes, letting her other senses take over, she could see the smiling faces of her family as they laughed and sang along with the radio.
Excitement and love flowed freely, just as it always had when the Burntwings were together. Family always came first, and that time was no exception. Her father was being given the lifetime achievement award by the Cherokee Nation, specifically the Red-Tailed Hawk or Bird Clan as most called it since it encompassed all those of feathered descendants, for his work done in the area of Native American Civil Rights. Mac Burntwing, the Peace Chief of the Burntwing Tribe and Elle’s mom’s uncle, was to present the award and open the Celebration which would last for the traditional forty-eight hours.
“And I was supposed to be there tomorrow morning,” she whispered as she made another trip around the place where her family had been brutally taken from her. “What a fuck up. I should’ve been with them. I should’ve…”
Driven to her knees by searing pain and untold agony that attacked her spine like a match being dropping onto a gasoline-soaked field, Elle struggled to breathe. Blood boiled in her veins. Her heart ceased to beat. Her skin felt as if it was being flayed from her body.
Spidery tendrils of fire and ice emanated through her extremities. Falling forward onto her hands by the sheer force of the attack, lightning flashed behind her eyelids, visions of a powerful bird, its feathers as blue as the sky, as purple as the horizon of the setting sun, and more golden than angel’s wings filled her consciousness. Its melodious cry called not only to Elle’s heart but her soul, the depth of her one true self.
Stopping dead-center of her mind's eye, its bright white gaze demanding her attention, the Rain Bird sang, "Today is the day of your awakening Eleanor Burntwing. You are the last of your line, the Star of the Morning, the Bringer of Life, and the Winged Chieftess."
Hovering closer, the curved tip of her beak touching the end of Elle's nose, she whispered, "May your Mark bear truth to all. May you find the fire that is meant to be yours. May you always know danger before it finds you, and with the wisdom the Great Creator bestows may you always see the past in your decisions for the future."
Growing larger with every thump of their syncopated heartbeats, the Rain Bird gave a single flap of her mighty wings, blinked out of sight before instantly reappearing at Elle's back. Running the tips of her feathers across the skin between the young woman's shoulder blades, the Bringer of Life sang in the language of their people, "Today you become who you are meant to be. No longer only Eleanor Burntwing, but the one true Rain Bird the Great Spirit prophesied. Arise my Chieftess. Arise and become. Find the one who brings the Flame to not only your heart and soul but also to the magic that is your Rain Bird."
Pins and needles assaulted the tender flesh between her shoulder blades. Her muscles shook and her heart once again pounded. The sound of Junior and Smitty’s bellows broke through the fog at the precise second her outer sight returned and all discomfort was stripped from her body.
“I’m fine. Stay where you are,” she assured her friends while slowly getting to her feet.
“But nothing, Smit. I said…”
Pop! Pop! Pop! “Hello? Anyone in there?” The snapping of Jodie’s fingers and the heat of her annoyance pulled Elle from her memories.
“Yeah, I’m here, just thinking about the case.”
“Yeah, right,” Jodie sighed as she plopped onto the couch. “I know that look, but I’m not gonna push it today. You’re gonna have enough to deal with.”
Laughing out loud, needing to dispel as much of her nervous every as she could, Elle chuckled, “Wow, you really are softening in your old age.” Then ducking as Jodie threw a coaster at her head, she added, “And you still throw like a girl.”
And that’s why I keep her around – everyone needs a little comic relief…