Author Katie Mettner

Chapter One ~ Someone in the Water ~ Katie Mettner






Chapter One


I entered the park with my head down, my earphones in, and my fingers flying across the small keypad. Who was I texting? No one, I wasn’t even listening to music, but I’d learned one thing about strolling around town as a single woman. Pretend you’re not paying attention to anyone, while you’re paying attention to everyone. The fake texting allowed me to keep track of who was behind me in the reflection of my screen. Always appear relaxed but be on your guard at all times. The earphones make them believe I’m an easy target, but I’ll hear someone approaching. Then the rules of always keeping your pepper spray close and carrying a defensive baton or small knife in a pocket, come into play. Come to think of it, maybe my upbringing in Milwaukee made me paranoid to walk alone as a single woman.

At least it was only a few more blocks to home, even less if I cut through the park. I counted the steps because I wanted nothing more than to stand under the spray of the stinging hot needles in my shower. It had been a long day at work and I was probably covered in more bodily fluids than I cared to think about. I’m telling you, being a nurse is a glamorous job. I’m kidding. Being a nurse is hard work, but there are more positives than negatives, in my opinion. One of the negatives? Overtime. I should have been home hours ago, but as usual, the floor was packed, and I couldn’t leave them high and dry.

At nearly eleven p.m. the blackness had blanketed the city of Hedgeford, Wisconsin for hours. Last month March roared in like a lion, dumping a foot of snow on the city in a little over eighteen hours. For a full twenty-four hours, everything was immobile. Everything, except emergency vehicles. The town was punctuated by sirens on Claremont Avenue, heading to one of the two hospitals in town, one on top of the hill, and one below the hill. When the sirens quieted, the cacophony of snow blowers and street plows could be heard running up and down the streets, continuously blowing plumes of white into the air. Honestly, the constant droning was enough to make me want to cover my ears and rock in the corner, especially after I worked two back-to-back shifts in the ICU. Snowstorms guarantee new patients to fill the beds, and tired staff to care for them.

Gratefully, March exited like a lamb, and April ferried in warmer days, longer days, and more rain than snow. Those things didn’t mean the April nights didn’t make my fingers want to freeze to my keyboard; I simply chose not to care. Once April rolls around in Wisconsin, you’re ecstatic to be done with snow and cold, so you’ll gladly take fifty degrees and raining without complaints.

I’ve lived in Hedgeford since I started college eight years ago, right after I graduated from Milwaukee Public Schools. Compared to Milwaukee, the crime here in Hedgeford is nonexistent. Occasionally you get some college boys who decide they’re going to go out on the prowl, but they mean no harm. Hedgeford is alive every second of every day, but in a different, safer way than Milwaukee. There you waited for the other shoe to drop. You lived every day knowing the shooting could start at any moment from any direction. Here you can saunter through parks after dark and ride city transportation without too much worry. Sure, it was wise to be aware of your surroundings, but I stayed here for a reason. I liked the way the community made me feel, which was safe.

Maybe the college atmosphere is part of the reason the city always feels alive. On any given night, you could find just about anything you wanted to eat, drink, or smoke. Even though I graduated from college years ago, I liked the downtown area, and enjoyed living in a small bungalow off State Street, only a few blocks from the campus. Since my house sat just off a city bus route, I could go anywhere I wanted in the winter by bus and rode my bike or walked the other three seasons of the year. There really was no need for a car, which saved me money, and I hoped did my part in saving the environment.

Hedgeford is about as millennial-friendly as a city can be. The buses have bike racks on the front, wi-fi at your seat, and run on natural gas to save the earth, all with friendly drivers to get you where you need to be. There are more coffee joints and acoustic cafes than you can shake a coffee stirrer at, and the shopping malls draw people from hours away to fill the stores every weekend. If you’re into shopping malls and acoustic cafes you’re in heaven, but I’m not into any of those things. I spend my work days cooped up in a building, so on my days off, I want to explore nature and the bounty we’ve been offered on this earth.

My interests run more in line with kayaking on the river and lakes in the summer, hitting the music and craft festivals, enjoying the poetry slams at the local bookstores, attending concerts at the college or local theaters, and generally soaking up the aura of the city I live in. Hedgeford has multiple theaters which host plays, special performances, and musicals year-round. If I had an ounce of musical talent I might try out for a part, but they weren’t searching for tone-deaf singers to round out the show.

A raindrop landed on my face and I groaned as my head tipped up toward the sky. “Really? Would you be kind enough to hold off until I get home?” I asked the ominous clouds.

“What fun would that be?” asked a booming voice from behind me.

I jumped and spun around at the same time, ready to fight whomever was attached to the voice. A man stood in front of me, his hands up as though I held a gun instead of a phone.

“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I need to think before I speak.”

I blew out a breath and it ruffled the hair sticking out of my hat. “No problem, I’m always a little jumpy at night in the park. I feel like I’m holding my breath all the way home.”

“Are you a college student?” he asked, not moving a step in any direction, his hands still in the air.

“Not anymore. I work at Sacred Heart Hospital, but I missed the last bus. It was up to my tired dogs to get me home.” I paused and waited, but he remained rooted in place, hands up at his shoulders, and his feet planted in an upside-down V. I motioned at him. “Please put your hands down; people might think I’ve got a gun.”

He lowered his hands while he laughed, and it made me smile. His voice had a deep richness to it, but the low tone of his laughter left me with the impression of vibrato at the end as it floated into the air.

“We don’t want anyone to make a citizen’s arrest. I suppose you better be on your way if you want to beat the rain.”

I shrugged nonchalantly, enjoying our banter. “In hindsight, a little rain never hurt anyone. Unless you’re a snowman, then rain will end you.”

He laughed again and stuck his hand out. “All too true, my dear. My name is Vince.”

I grasped his giant paw for only a moment. “As in Lombardi?” I asked.

The smile returned to his face, as though everyone asked him the same question. “Yes, my father insisted his first son would carry the name of his all-time favorite Green Bay Packer coach.”

“Do you play football?” I asked, sizing him up. He could be a defensive linebacker. He was easily six foot six, and over three bills.

He shook his head and stuck his hands in his pockets, starting to stroll again. “No, I might carry the name around with me, but I never cared for the game. I preferred being on the field with the marching band.”

“You don’t say?” I asked as we sauntered through the park, which was surrounded by concrete roads on all sides. Your brain understood your time in nature wouldn’t last long, but while you were in the park, your focus lay elsewhere, like on the wrought iron benches and lampposts made to appear as if they’ve been there for generations.

Both of his shoulders shrugged, and his hands rose out of his pockets a few inches. “I played the tuba.”

I started to giggle, and he eyed me, offended. “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing about the tuba. I always had great respect for the guy lugging the enormous tooter down the mile-long parade route. I was laughing because I played the flute. Talk about opposite ends of the instrument spectrum.”

The offended hunch of his shoulders eased, and he brushed a piece of curly black hair away from his face. “I play the flute too, but much prefer the tuba. A guy the size of me playing something the size of a flute, looks a little fruity.”

I leaned into him for a moment. “It depends on who you ask. I think a guy who isn’t afraid to put aside his masculinity for something he enjoys doing is rare these days.”

We strolled silently for ten or twelve steps and then he paused. “You’re right. I never looked at it from that perspective. At my age I shouldn’t be afraid of the old high school stigmas anymore. I might have to dig the flute out of the closet and give it a good cleaning and shine.”

“You know what they say about us flutists,” I said, waiting for him to finish the line.

“This one time, at band camp,” he deadpanned.

We both broke into a fit of laughter until we had to sit down on a bench to catch our breath. I stuck my hand out. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Spring.”

He shook my hand again, making sure not to squeeze too tight. I could tell by the way my hand slid around in his, as though it was no bigger than a child’s, he was used to being careful when shaking hands. It was clear I dwarfed him in every physical way possible, but his personality loomed larger than life. He wasn’t timid or afraid to strike up a conversation. That’s rare these days.

“Nice to meet you, Spring. I’ve always thought it was a beautiful name.”

I smiled at his compliment. “Thank you. I was born on March twentieth, so my parents thought it fitting to name me Spring. I suppose it’s the reason it’s my favorite season.”

He nodded along as if he was listening to every word I said. Something I’ve found increasingly absent in conversation since the days of texting and instant messaging. “They picked a wonderful name for you, and you carry it well.” He took a deep breath in and glanced around. “It sure does feel good to breathe clean, fresh spring air after such a long winter, though. Even if it is going to rain.”

I lifted my face to the sky. The rain had held off during our conversation, but I didn’t think it would for much longer. “I love winter skiing and snowshoeing, but I’m happy when spring has worked its way back to us for the year. The ICU is always busy in the winter with people doing incredibly dumb things on the ice, the road, or snowmobile trails.”

He frowned. “Well, thanks Debbie Downer, I hadn’t thought of winter as the grim reaper before.”

I laughed and folded my hands on my lap. “Sorry, hazard of the job. As a nurse, I’ve had to learn how to put things in perspective or I’ll lose my mind thinking about the fragility of life.”

“I bet you do. It must be hard to be a nurse and know you can’t save them all. I couldn’t do it,” he said, gazing off in the distance.

“What do you do? Are you finishing college?”

A bark of laughter escaped his lips at my question. “Thanks for inflating my ego. I would love to say I’m college age, but in fact, I teach college. I’m the professor of tuba at the university.”

My brows rose into the air. “There’s such a thing as a professor of tuba?”

He gave me the palms up. “Apparently, because here I am.”

I laughed sarcastically and rolled my eyes upward at myself. “Yeah, I’m dumb. I never said I’m not socially awkward. Doesn’t it take years and years to become a professor? You don’t seem old enough to be teaching already.”

“I’m thirty-seven. Surprising, I know,” he answered, watching my face go into shock at his admission. “I stayed in school after the first four years and got my masters and doctorate at the same time. I’ve been teaching for four years now. It took some time to get a faculty position once I graduated, so I worked for orchestras and symphonies around the Midwest in the meantime.”

My face still showed shock, but I couldn’t process what he was telling me. “You got your masters and doctorate at the same time? Are you a genius or something?”

He leaned forward on his thighs. “Or something.”

We both stood at the same time and I tucked my hands in my pockets as we hiked toward the streetlight at the end of the park. “It’s cool. I see dead people, so being a tuba genius isn’t weird to me.”

We paused underneath the light of the street lamp. The soft glow lit up the night and for the first time I noticed the natural earth tone of his skin, and curly, ebony hair. He let his gaze wander the length of my five-foot three frame, my short legs, not too big but not too small rack, and my heart-shaped face framed by a pile of flowing brown hair.

“You see dead people? Like the kid in the movie with Bruce Willis?”

I bit back a laugh before I answered. When I laughed at people, they tended to not respond well. “The Sixth Sense?” I asked, and he nodded. “Sort of, or something.”

“Native American,” he said out of the blue and I glanced up surprised.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

He motioned at himself. “I’m half Ojibwe and half Pacific Islander, in case you were wondering.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets to warm them. “You got me. I couldn’t figure out where the curls came from.”

“My mom. She had the best hair. It resembled yours, which is lovely, by the way.”

I smoothed the hair sticking out from under my hat. “Thank you.” I bounced up on my toes and took a quick glance around the empty lot at the end of the park. “I suppose I better get home. It’s late and I have another long shift tomorrow.”

He nodded and checked his watch. “I suppose I should, too. I have an ensemble group at eight in the morning.”

I stuck my hand out again. “Thanks for the chat, Vince. Maybe I’ll see you around,” I said as he shook my hand. He was gentle, but it felt friendlier and more relaxed this time.

“I hope so, Spring, and I hope you beat the rain, but if you don’t, dance like nobody’s watching.”

I dropped my hand and hiked my backpack up, giving him a nod. “The same for you, Vince.”

I waved and headed toward State Street while he waved and headed back into the park. He disappeared between the trees and the darkness enveloped him. I shook my head as I jogged across State Street and wondered if our little exchange was real. It seemed so out of place to meet a guy as interesting and mysterious as him in a park this late at night. He was articulate, humorous, and genuinely nice, at least in the five minutes we spoke. I liked him and enjoyed our conversation. If he really was a professor at the university then I didn’t feel bad about talking to some random guy in the middle of the night in a park.

As I unlocked my door and flipped the lamp on near the couch, I wondered if I would ever see him again. First things first. I flipped on the computer and stood bent over the chair, my hands on the keyboard while I waited for it to load. When the desktop finally glowed bright, a picture of a sunny beach on the screen, I opened the browser and searched the university’s website. A few clicks of the mouse and the staff directory popped up. A few more clicks of the keyboard and it only took a moment to spot his name. I read it aloud to my cat, Oliver. “Roundtree, Vince - Professor.”

Alright, he wasn’t a ghost, which meant one thing, I might see him again after all. Surprisingly, I didn’t freak out at the mere thought of it. I stripped my dirty scrubs off and dumped them in the hamper next to the tub. While I waited for the water to heat to a step below boiling, I wondered if he was even single. I didn’t notice a band, but then again rings, or lack thereof, meant nothing. Once inside the old-fashioned clawfoot tub, I sighed as I enjoyed the cocooned feeling, which allowed me to wash away the horrors of the day.

At twenty-seven, I’ve been nursing for four years, but I’m by no means a genius in my field. It appears Dr. Vince Roundtree is, though. I can admit I’m a bit intimidated to meet someone who has such a breadth of knowledge as a professor. Granted, he’s ten years older than I am, but a masters and doctorate at the same time? I’m working on my masters in nursing now and it’s brutal. I can’t imagine doing both together.

I blew out a breath as I rinsed my hair of the soap suds, loving the feel as the soap cascaded down my back. Life had become boring, until eleven p.m. tonight when I found intrigue in ordinary.




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