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     Bryan was able to hurry through his start of shift opening chores without rushing. Even after taking time to speak with Amy it was just 9:47. He was finally to a place on his list of work obligations that he felt was appropriate for him to call Cassie and chat. He had finished the medicine distribution for each of the pets, a job that called for thoroughness and focused attention but now that it was time to clean empty cages he was in a position where talking on the phone while working couldn’t lead to a multitasking pet disaster. As much as he’d wanted to call Sandy as soon as Amy had left, the pets’ welfare came first. He didn’t know if he’d be able to live with himself if a lack of focus and inattention to detail on his part was in any way responsible for injuring one of the pets in Cedar Walk’s care.

     After last night’s epic telephone talk fest with Cassie, Bryan had included a combination ear bud and microphone cable in his bike bag which he now plugged into his phone. He tapped a button and said, “Phone Sandy, on cell,” which was followed by the sound of her phone ringing in his ear.

     On the fifth ring it switched over to voice mail, accompanied by the inevitable, “Hi! This is Cassandra Priam with First of Iowa Realty. Please leave your name, number and a brief message after the beep and I‘ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks for calling, and have a great day!”

     “Hey, it’s me!” he said into his phone. “Might be too late. Sorry I missed you. Text me when you wake up tomorrow, please.” He was putting his phone away when it rang and Sandy’s picture flashed on his screen. “Hey, cougar, how ya’ doing?” he asked.

     “Better be careful, Oedipus, or I’ll come up with an appropriate moniker for you. I’m fine. Nice to hear from you, I was about to give up and really go to bed. Fell asleep on my couch daydreaming of you,” she answered.

     “That’s sweet. Sorry I’m so late. My early chores are critical to our guest’s health so I took care of them first and now I can work and talk. Is this connection better than last night’s?”

     “Much. What are doing? Holding the phone in one hand? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.”

    “You really are a dirty old lady, aren’t you? I’m shocked. Pleased as punch, but shocked. And no, by the way. I’m working here. I brought in a microphone so we can hear each other better. Smart, aren’t I?”

     “Indeed. That’s what attracted me to you in the first place. How are your Succubi? They getting lonely?”

     “I thought we agreed she was singular, not plural? I haven’t seen her in at least, oh, six hours. How are your nipples?” he rejoined.

    “Perky, but tender. I know I’m not pregnant, not this time. I’d have to be an elephant, and then some. I just passed the two year anniversary of my legal separation with Jon. I gotta’ be up to like 760 days.”

    “Light weight! I’m up to, wow, hang on. I must be up to like a hundred and ten weeks. Call it 777 days, just to make it a round number. And I didn’t have a marathon before going cold turkey, either. Amateur.”

     “Marathon’s about right. Just slog, slog, slog without any joy. I ran a marathon once, didn’t like it. I’ll stick to halves, way more fun. And seven hundred seventy seven is definitely not an even number. Don’t they teach you anything in public schools?” she chided.

    “Iowa’s known for its educational system and Fitz was a top rated high school. Where’d you go?”

     “Mostly Cedar Ridge Academy of Christ. All but my sophomore year, when I went to Dandridge. I liked the continuity of a K 12. That’s the main reason we had George go to Trentham. They have a K eight and the high school’s right next door.”

     “He didn’t go to Rapida Cedro or Marlin?”

     “Nope. Sent him over to Trentham. That’s one of the nice things about Vilagon, we had three school districts to choose from and school buses ran to all three. Not that the busses mattered in the end.”

     “That wasn’t your fault,” Bryan answered quietly.

     “Maybe not, but it sure as hell wasn’t Jon’s. In New Jersey you can’t get a learner’s permit till you turn 16 and you have to be 17 to get a license! And even then it’s a limited one until you turn 18. Much more restrictive than here, and that’s what Jon thought was ‘normal.’”

     “It’s a lot more crowded on the East Coast, things are different here,” Bryan said plaintively.

     “Yep and yep and George is still dead. Sorry. I just can’t keep it in sometimes,” she said fervently.

     “I understand, I do, and I’m sorry. Why did you go to Dandridge for tenth grade but Cedar Ridge all the other years?”

     “Oh! Good question. It wasn’t me or my family, it was Cedar Ridge Academy. I started there in ‘79 and was enrolled until eighty nine, but they cut the high school for a few years so I wound up at Dandridge for my sophomore year. Then Cedar Ridge went back to a K twelve again in 1990 so I just went to public school that one year. Clear as mud?”

     “Not quite! Say that again. How’d that work?” Bryan asked, shutting out the lights in the clean and refreshed kennel suites.

    “When I started, Cedar Ridge was K through 12, but they cut tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades between ’82 and ’89. I went there through eighty nine and we figured I’d wind up at Dandridge starting my soph year and then go public until I graduated but then C.R. resurrected their high school program just in time for me to only have to mingle with you ‘heathen’ for tenth grade. After that it was back in the bosom of Abraham.”

      “You sound bitter,” Bryan said as he walked to the laundry and put in a load of dirty blankets.

      “Yes. But not at the school or my church. Things got ugly when I got pregnant.”

      “Ugly? He married you, didn’t he? Or didn’t he want to? Jerk-wad!”

     “No, the jerk wad wasn’t Jon, it was my dad. He was livid when he found out I was with child. I thought about trying to sell him the story of The Nativity but since I knew my conceiving had been anything but immaculate I fessed up. It took me a while but I finally said, ‘Daddy, I’ve met a man and we are getting married as soon as the school term ends and I graduate. I am a grown woman and we hope to have your blessing. I am sure that through Christ all things will proceed according to His plan,’ or something a lot like that. I could find out for you, I emailed him. I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him in person or call.”

     “So you knew you we’re pregnant right away?”

     “Oh, no! I didn’t contact my folks until just before Thanksgiving break. I figured out I was pregnant the end of September and by then I was seeing as much of Jon as possible. I was up in Storrs and he was supposedly living in Edison which is in northern New Jersey near Newark?”

     “I know where Newark is;” laundry started, he began to make another sweep of the animals, checking to be sure each was either sleeping or at least was comfortable and had adequate water. “My mom has people all along the North East. Her Aunt and Uncle somebody or other lived near Newark. Flew in, rented a car, visited them and then headed up to Hartford. Never been to Storrs but some of my cousins go there.”

     “I had a basketball scholarship. That’s how I got to go to a non-Christian College, Daddy didn’t have to pay, I paid. Well, me and Title Nine. Jon was a basketball player just outside of D.C. at U of Maryland. Ever been there?”

     “No. I’ve been to D.C. Monuments, malls and museums. We went to Arlington last time. It was eerie.”

     “It is eerie; and reverential. College Park is pretty. Jon took us to D.C. when George was seven and then we did a walking tour of the campus. Summer before George started second grade. Must have been 2005. Hot! But pretty. I think it’s more humid there than it is here.”

     “So he was down by Newark and you were out past Hartford? That’s quite a hike, isn’t it three plus hours?”

     “Closer to four. He was one of my unofficial roommates. I was doing my ninth semester, not a big deal but I had to pay for that myself, eligibility had run out and I wasn’t going to be there for spring anyway. He came up for a weekend or two, and then went home. But eventually he figured he could job search as easily from Connecticut as he could New Jersey so he kind of moved in. It was crowded in our little four bedroom but since he insisted on paying a fourth of the rent things got copacetic. That meant we girls went from paying a fourth each to less than nineteen percent, a nice savings for poor college students, even if two of them were B-Ball scholarship gals. Plus he changed the ratio of the house so Aniyah and Tiana felt a little more comfortable, Karen never said anything about feeling odd about suddenly being a minority but she’d role her eyes at those three sometimes, you know?”

     “How do you mean?” Bryan asked.

     “Well, because now there were three African Americans in the apartment and only us two white girls,” she said. “Not that it was big deal, I mean, we all played sports so it’s not quite as white bread on the courts and playing field as it is in the rest of Iowa, is it?”