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Eggnog, Extortion, & Evergreen

Book 14 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

“Romance, a lovable bunch of eccentrics, and a collection of recipes with murder most foul.”
–Kirkus

“Scrumptious… Fans of culinary cozies will have fun.”
–Publishers Weekly

“A sweet Southern mystery with a delightful plot and quirky characters who quickly make you feel at home.”
–San Francisco Book Review

Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal. A Campers and Criminal Mystery Series is another brainchild of USA Today Bestselling Author Tonya Kappes. If you love her quirky southern characters and small town charm with a mystery to solve, you’re going to love her new cozy mystery series!

Mae West is busy this Christmas season. She’s running around Normal getting the town ready for the first Winter Festival, which she hopes will become an annual event for the tourist town.

The freshly fallen snow sure does make the Daniel Boone National Park beautiful and ready for Santa’s arrival, but it also makes the curvy roads through the forest very slick. Unfortunately, Mae finds out just how slick the roads are after her car slides off the road and hits a tree, putting Mae into a deep coma.

Mae is one of the lucky patients who does wake up and happy to celebrate Christmas with family and friends.

One of the patients in the emergency room with Mae didn’t die that night of natural causes, and Hank Sharp has himself a new homicide case on his hands.

Mae starts having memories about the fire that took her family and a memory of a murder plot that she thinks happened when she was in her coma. Only, she’s having a hard time distinguishing between the two memories and the clues seem to have blurred lines. There’s one thing she does know for sure, both incidents come with clues that neither were accidents.

Once again, Mae West with the help of the Laundry Club Ladies put on their ameatur sleuth cap to help solve the mystery of the murders before the killer sends her Christmas gift she can’t return.

Eggnog, Extortion, & Evergreen

Excerpt

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Chapter One

“Oh, Mae. Oh, Mae.” Hank’s voice quivered. “Please open your eyes.”

I’m here. I’m here, I could hear myself think.

“It’s just me and you. Squeeze my hand.” I felt his warm hand over mine. “Come on, baby. Squeeze it now, Mae.” The tone of his voice quickly faded from desperation to commanding with a hint of anger.

I am squeezing. I am trying. My thoughts drifted off. Why couldn’t I see or talk? Where was I?

I drowned out Hank’s pleas and listened to the darkness that surrounded me. There were the shuffling of feet, the creak of wheels like a cart zooming past, beeps upon beeps echoing near and far, but I wasn’t clear as to what was happening. The sound of a something being zipped caught my attention.

“Anything?” An unfamiliar woman’s voice brought me back to Hank.

“No. Just laying here.” There was a faint wisp of air across my cheek as his hand pulled away from mine. “I’ll move.”

“It’s okay.” The woman had a comforting voice. “Do they know how long she was in the car?”

“No. They don’t even think anyone saw her car until I went looking for her.” He gave me a clue.

Car? I was in a car?

“All of her vital signs are good. I’m sure she’s just unconscious from hitting her head on the steering wheel.” The woman’s cold hands touched my wrist. There was a moment of pause. “Her heart rate is good. She doesn’t have a fever.”

“When will the results of her CAT scan come in about her brain?” Hank’s question alarmed me.

My brain? CAT scan? Was I in a car wreck?

There was clicking that sounded like someone typing, which made me think I was in a hospital and the nurse was looking up something or recording my vitals she’d just taken.

“It looks like the results are in.” Even though I was only able to hear her, I could tell she was offering a smile by the tone of her voice. “I’m sure the doctor will be right in.”

“Can you just tell me if she’s got brain damage?”

Brain damage? I inwardly laughed. I’m here! I’m right in here! my own voice screamed inside of my head.

“I’m not a radiologist and certainly not a doctor. I can only see the results have been posted.” Her footsteps came a little closer. There was a brushing sound.

Was she rubbing Hank somewhere?

He sobbed. “Oh, Mae. Just open your eyes,” Hank started to beg all over again. “I can’t be without you. I only found you again for a couple of years.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She was comforting my boyfriend.

Get your hands off my boyfriend. If I am in a coma or whatever you want to call this crazy situation, I’m not dying, and I will hunt you down.

“Ahem.” Someone cleared their throat, causing some shuffling of feet. “Well? Any change?” The gruff sound of Dottie Swaggert’s voice popped into my ears.

Hank cleared his voice. He sniffled. “No. I was just talking to her.” His voice went back to the normal big-and-bad detective tone he used when he was trying to be strong and brave. “Raye was telling me the brain scan results are posted.”

“Raye?” Dottie’s voice held sarcasm. “First-name basis?”

Dottie Swaggert was a spitfire. Though I couldn’t see her with my eyes, I was visualizing her in my head, and I was sure she was wearing some sort of sweatshirt, a tight pair of jeans, and hiking boots, with her cigarette case in hand. I sure would love to see those pink curlers she snapped in her red hair, but as much as I tried to see, it was black.

What I would give for me and Dottie to be sitting in the Happy Trails Campground office right now having a big cup of coffee. Oh, and using the fresh beans from the Trails Coffee Shop.

My hearing began to fade as a memory of earlier flashed in my head like lightning.

 

Chapter Two

SIX HOURS EARLIER

“Good afternoon,” I greeted my friend when I walked into the Trails Coffee Shop located in downtown Normal, Kentucky. “There are so many cool vendors out there this year.”

“Mm-hmm. You can only have so many pot holders and wooden ornaments with your name on them, and them homemade candles stink to high heaven.” Mary Elizabeth Moberly, my foster mother, sat at one of the café tables inside of the coffee shop with a cup of the sweet-and-spicy-with-a-full-body blend that Gert Hobson had specially made for the fall season.

“You better take what I have left of the fall blend if you need some for the hospitality room, because I don’t have much left, and we’ve been selling the Snowman Spice Christmas Blend.” Gert shrugged when she went to refill my cup. “Which means you should grab some of that too.”

She set an empty basket on our table and brushed off her coat that was covered in freshly fallen snow. “So far, it’s the biggest seller at the Winter Festival.”

Gert—as well as other local shop owners in Normal—and I had agreements we would promote each other’s businesses. Since I owned Happy Trails Campground, I loved to feature her coffee in the hospitality room for my camping guests to sample so they would go into town and visit her coffee shop. In turn, she would recommend Happy Trails Campground to tourists who were looking for a place to park their camper, tent camp, or even rent one of the many bungalow cabins. Plus, she kept my business cards and flyers on her corkboard. It was a win-win for all the merchants in our little town to promote each other, and we all did it for one another.

“I’ll be sure to buy some before I leave.” I tapped my phone, bringing it out of sleep mode to check the time. “Which will be soon. I’m expecting the new campers to be checking in shortly.”

Happy Trails Campground didn’t have specific days tourists could come. Instead, we had specific times. For example, check-in was at three and checkout was at one in the afternoon.

Sundays were always a big day for people to check in because they liked to stay a week or two. With the Winter Festival in town and all the advertising the National Park Committee had been doing, the campground was full starting today.

“Wee doggie!” Dottie Swaggert had walked into the coffee shop with Betts Hager and Abby Fawn. All three of them headed over to our table. “It’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love out there.”

She tossed her oversized coat, and it flopped across the other chair at the table along with her big scarf and her cross-body purse. Her orange knit cap was still pulled down over her hair with red strands sticking out.

“It is gorgeous, though.” I couldn’t help but look out over downtown Normal.

There was a large median that divided Main Street. On each side was a one-way going in the opposite direction of the other. The median was large enough to have an amphitheater at the far end with seating for seasonal theatrical shows as well as several picnic tables, plenty of grass, and large trees.

Since Normal was located in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest, we did anything and everything we could to keep the economy going since we were considered a tourist town for all things that included camping adventures.

Winter was always the hardest for getting tourists.

As the newest member of the local chapter of the National Parks Committee, I’d come up with a solution for the lack of tourists during the winter months so we didn’t have to work so hard during the other seasons to stockpile our money.

I had suggested a Winter Festival where Kentucky artisans rented booths in the downtown area. We also opened some of the trails with the frozen cascades since the park would close them due to the slippery paths.

It took a lot of volunteers to stay on the trails and keep them clear of ice so tourists could make it to the cascades, which were gorgeous when they were frozen. Then the idea took on a life of its own. The citizens were completely into it—so much so that they’d named it Old-Fashion Camping Christmas.

Gert had come back with to-go cups and quickly filled them up with the coffee carafe.

“’Tis the season.” Betts picked up her cup of coffee and held it in the air for us to toast.

Gert, Abby, Betts, Dottie, Mary Elizabeth, and I held our cups in the air.

“Ho ho ho.” Bett’s eyes glowed beneath her bangs. She let out a laugh and tossed her wavy brown hair over her shoulder.

“Hold that pose and smile.” Abby Fawn raised her phone to take a selfie with all of us in it. She flung her head side to side and looked at herself to see which angle looked best on her.

“Pfft. Pfft.” Dottie spit and waved her hand in front of her face, knocking away Abby’s swinging ponytail that’d hit her in the mouth. “Watch where you swing that thing,” Dottie snarled.

“Say ‘snow’!” Abby smiled and clicked when we were all smiling at her phone. “Hashtag old-fashioned Christmas. Hashtag festival. Hashtag Normal, Kentucky.” Abby typed away on her social media accounts.

“Honestly, you should drop the whole librarian and Tupperware gig and be a marketing strategist,” Betts told Abby. Abby had established a social media following, and they had dubbed her the social media queen for all things hashtag Daniel Boone National Forest.

“Speaking of Tupperware, I have some great sales down at my booth, which”—she shoved her phone in her coat pocket—“I need to get back down to so that I can take orders.”

“I’ve got to get back out to my booth too.” Gert held up the carafe. “Anyone need a refill before I go?”

“Thank you. I’ll take mine back to Happy Trails.” I opened the lid and let her top me off.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?” Dottie asked. She was the campground manager and lived on the campground in her trailer, just a few lots down from my full-time camper.

“No.” I shook my head and stood up, shrugging my winter coat on. “Just make sure you let me know what vendors we might be able to contact and use in the baskets.”

I was always searching for new products to put in the different baskets we sold to our guests. Happy Trails Campground had several options for our guests. We had a full-site hookup with water and electricity for anyone who wanted to haul in their camper. We offered campers for them to rent, along with the bungalows, which were cabins of various sizes. We even offered tent lots for the die-hard earth campers but not during the winter.

Since I offered rentable campers, the campground had taken off. There’d been a lot of honeymoons, bridal parties, bachelor parties, and overall romantic getaways, to name a few. We also offered themed baskets as well.

Our two most popular were the spa breakfast baskets, which was why Gert was suggesting I grab what I needed.

“Good for us.” Betts nudged Dottie and winked. “Ladies, our shopping awaits.”

There was a slight groan that came from Mary Elizabeth. The last thing she wanted to do was buy anything homemade. She liked to go to fancy shops and purchase from a shelf, not from a card table like the rest of us.

“I’ll see you later.” She kissed me on the cheek. “We have to get the Christmas supper menu finalized.” Her head tilted, and her brows rose, making her shoulder-length hair sway to the side, exposing her large pearl stud earrings, ones she never took out.

“Let’s go, fancy pants.” Dottie tugged on Mary Elizabeth’s Lilly Pulitzer tapestry coat that cost more than my camper. “Is that a rug you’ve got wrapped around you?” Dottie, who caught life as it came and never took herself too seriously, joked, knowing that Mary Elizabeth wouldn’t find it a bit funny.

“Ho, ho, ho.” Dottie turned her attention to Hank Sharp when he walked into the door. “Mm-hmm, Mae.” She slowly shook her head. “He sure is a fine-looking young man.”

“Yes he is.” My heart swooned as I watched my detective boyfriend walk into the coffee shop, stopping at the various groups of citizens and wishing them a Merry Christmas on his way over to me.

He looked at me. His green eyes twinkled like the lights on a Christmas tree against his black hair. The tip of his black turtleneck beneath his black buttoned-up coat just made him appear even more dapper.

“Ladies.” He flashed them a smile when he greeted them. “Mae.” My toes tingled when he said my name, and my heart jumped when he kissed me.

“Your lips are cold,” I whispered and kissed him again.

“You can help warm them up over supper tonight at The Red Barn. Say around seven?” He was so good about taking me on dates still.

“You better believe it.” My nose crinkled above my smile. “It’s perfect timing, too, because I’m working in the office today.”

“Good. I’ll pick you up.” He kissed me again before he headed up to the counter to get his order. “Granny sent me to get some Snowman coffee before it’s all gone.”

Hank’s granny, Agnes, worked with him at the sheriff’s department as the dispatcher.

“Wait.” Gert stopped Hank when he turned around. “Take a couple of treats for Precious. And a few for Fifi and Chester.”

Tourists loved to bring their furry friends camping. We’d seen an increase in types of pets they brought to Happy Trails. Dogs were a norm, but sometimes we’d get campers with cats and even birds. Yes, I’d had a camper who had a birdcage in her RV.

Each shop in downtown Normal allowed pets to come in. There were even water bowls along the sidewalk for them.

“Thank you, Gert.” I took the bag of treats. “I’ll go give them one before I start working.”

“You be careful out there.” Hank stood in front of me. He buttoned the top button of my coat. “Can’t risk you getting a cold.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I teased and tried to stop the giddy smile from taking over my face.

“Seriously, the roads are getting slick.” He pushed back a strand of my long curly hair. “Don’t give me that look.” His eyes narrowed. “I worry about you. The roads are curvy, and though you know them, these crazy tourists out there don’t. We’ve had a lot of crash calls come in, and since there’s not anything going on with my department, Jerry has me out on calls.” By Jerry, he referred to Sheriff Jerry Truman. “The deputies are busy today. The snow is going to keep falling, and when the sun goes down, it’ll all turn to ice.”

“I get it. I’ll be careful. Two hands on the wheel.” I pushed up on the toes of my snow boots and gave him one more kiss. “Though I’d rather be right here with you, both of us have to go to work.”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car.” He gestured toward the door, where we were met with more tourists coming in to get a tasty treat.

“It’s gorgeous here.” I stopped on the sidewalk and took in the views.

There were white twinkling Christmas lights as far as the eye could see. The gaslights on the posts of the amphitheater glowed as the snow danced to the ground. There were large poinsettias scattered along the median. All the tree trunks were covered in lights, creating a true winter wonderland with tourists walking around the booths. Everyone had a big smile on their face as they talked to one another.

That was what made small campground towns so fun, especially southern ones where the hospitality far exceeded any other tourist town.

“The shops look so good.” Hank pointed out all the little mom-and-pop shops on each side of the median. They were freestanding cottage-style homes with little side yards.

There were small shops that ran along each side of Main Street. They ranged from the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, to Normal Diner, as well as the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop and Deter’s Feed-N-Seed, along with more boutique-type shops that I couldn’t wait to check out. The display windows of each shop even had visions of families camping and summers in Normal.

It was the side yards that sparkled for the festival. Even Alvin Deters, owner of Deter’s Feed-N-Seed, had put a live Christmas tree in his side yard next to the snowmobile he was showcasing, along with a snowblower, snowplow, skis, snowboards, and other various things he sold during these winter months.

Ethel Biddle had the best and most popular display. She owned Smelly Dog and she’d had a small shed built in her side yard that was lattice all around like a miniature gingerbread house. Inside of the shed was a cozy little room with a pellet stove to warm by when you waited to sit on Santa’s lap. Yep. Ethel had pulled the old Santa card. But she did it for a good cause. Since she really didn’t have anything to sell to the tourists, all the money raised for having your photo taken with the jolly ole fellow went to the local SPCA, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She’d even set up a small stage outside of the gingerbread house where Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys, her own bluegrass band, played a few Christmas carols for strollers to enjoy.

Sweet Smell Flower Shop had the prettiest display. Of course, they’d used all the seasonal garlands and flowers along with the cutest Christmas decorations to entice tourists into their shop, where they were making special Christmas swags for campers. It was a super cute idea.

When I passed by the Laundry Club, the local laundromat and where Betts, Abby, Dottie, Queenie French, and I liked to hang out, I noticed Queenie was in there and alone.

“What? No last-minute Christmas shopping to do?” I’d popped my head in to check on her. “Or are you in here for Betts?”

“Betts had a big order coming in from the Bible-thumpers. They’re having that big Christmas carol show with the snack at the undercroft after.” There was a hint of dislike that crossed her face. “So I told Betts I’d just wait here for them to drop the tablecloths off and get them started since they kicked me out.”

It wasn’t that they kicked her out. Queenie French was the local Jazzercise instructor, and the Normal Baptist Church let her use the undercroft for free for her classes. The downside was in times like this, when they needed their space for themselves.

“Look at these machines all going.” Queenie pushed the hunter-green headband up on her forehead, causing her short blond hair to stick straight up around her face. “She’s making a killing with all these wet clothes from hikers.”

It was here that I’d first met Queenie and Betts, along with Abby. I rolled into Normal in my broken-down RV to claim the luxurious Happy Trails Campground that was given to me by my then-criminal, now-dead ex-husband. Unfortunately, Happy Trails couldn’t even be called livable at that time and looked nothing like the brochure my lawyer had given when he took the keys to my house in the Hamptons and my skyrise penthouse in Manhattan. Far from it.

I’d practically left New York City in the dumpy RV with the clothes on my back and a few things I’d picked up along the way at gas stations. When Dottie had told me how the campground laundry machines were broken down, she sent me here. Long story short, the Laundry Club ladies, which was what we were lovingly named by the community because we gathered here, and I had become fast friends.

We still came here to visit. After all, it had the luxuries of home with the couches and television sitting area, a coffee bar that was always stocked, a game station where there was always a puzzle to be finished, and a book club section where we had a monthly book club meeting.

Betts ran a tight ship, and that was why it was so successful.

“Okay. I just wanted to pop in and say hello when I saw you through the glass.” I turned to leave.

“You aren’t staying for the Winter Festival?” she asked.

“No.” I lifted up the sleeve of my jacket and looked at my watch. “I’m working the office at the campground, and I’ve got to get going. I’m expecting new campers any minute now.”

“Be careful,” she called after me once I opened the door to leave. “It’s getting slick out there.”

I tugged the edges of my coat up around my neck to help shield me from the wind that’d suddenly picked up on my way to my car.

 

Chapter Three

“Shhhh.” The darkness was all around me as the sound of a whisper curled in my ears. I was cradled in someone’s arms. The faint smell of coal swept around me. “You’re going to be just fine. Stay here and don’t move.”

I yawned, wondering why my daddy was taking me outside and had placed me on the grass. I knew his smell from anywhere. He worked in the coal mine, and when he’d come home, Mama would make him hang his coat outside. Mama said it stunk, but I thought my daddy smelled good and looked so handsome.

A blast of flames brought me out of my sleep, and I jumped to my feet as the red, purple, and orange lights flickered from inside of my family home. The glass windows shattered and shot out like cannons. The fire lit up the sky, and I realized I was alone.

“Mama! Daddy!” I screamed into the dark. The hem of my long nightgown grazed my shins as the night breeze swept past me, chilling the tops of my feet.

Beep, beep, beep.

The sounds of the machine brought me back to the darkness and out of the nightmare of the house fire that I’d experienced as a child when all of my family died. All but me.

“Listen.” The voice was unfamiliar to me as he talked in a hushed whisper. “The time is right now. Either you kill him, or I will.”

Kill him? Kill who? Not that I could truly see what was going on, but I could hear. I dialed into my listening skills to make sure it wasn’t coming from the TV.

“Maybe he will die. He’s not even awake. Look around.” There was a woman whispering now. “Everyone in here is practically on their deathbed. Why don’t we see if he slips away peacefully?”

“He’s done this a million times. Just do it. I don’t care how you do. Smother him. Accidently trip over the machine to unplug the oxygen. Just do it.” The man’s voice was much harsher. “Or shoot him with this.”

Don’t do it. Do not kill anyone. I tried to open my mouth, but my lips wouldn’t listen to me.

“What is that?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know. Shoot it in that IV thing.” The man was a little louder this time.

There was some shuffling, followed by footsteps.

“Hi,” the familiar sound of the woman who had comforted Hank. But who was she?

“I thought you were doing a shift change.” The woman who’d been whispering had a full voice. “Did you tell them how he’s done this a few times before, and we aren’t giving up hope?”

“I did. But I came back in because I thought I left something in here.” Her footsteps were a little more frantic than before she’d greeted them. “Gosh. I guess I was wrong.”

“What are you looking for?” the woman of the whispering duo asked.

“Nothing. You two get some rest. The emergency room can take it out of you. I know. I’ve been a nurse here for fifteen years this week.” From the conversation, I was gathering that the woman who had been comforting Hank was a nurse, and I was in the emergency room. “He’s lucky to have you, you know. I’ll see you two tomorrow.”

My heart began to race. There was some worry bubbling up in my head before a tingling began to tickle the tips of my fingernails. It was like a charge of lightning coursing through my veins. The realization that I, too, was in a coma or some sort of state that made me unable to communicate caused the early stages of an anxiety attack.

Even in this state, I wasn’t able to control when these attacks happened. The back of my throat dried.

“You won’t see us tomorrow.” The man’s voice shook me out of my own head. “Now, get this done.”

“We better not get caught.” The woman’s voice cracked.

“Who’s going to know? Visiting hours are over, with us being the one exception. And that girl next door is as dead as he is, only they are dragging out her death.”

Wait. Was he referring to me?

“Hello.” There was a different voice. “How’s Mr. Lenz tonight?”

“No change. Do you think he’ll come out of this?” The woman and man were stopped from smothering the poor patient.

“Rest assured that we are trying everything in our power to make sure he does.” There was a little fiddling in the background that sounded like the nurse was clicking away on a keyboard and maybe checking his vitals. “His oxygen level is a little low, but with the ventilator, it’ll help keep those levels up. I see by his chart that his kidney function is still good. I’ll be back in to check on you.”

There was a long pause. I strained to hear anything more, but the couple had gone eerily quiet.

Then came the sound that everyone knew because it was on all the hospital shows when someone died: the short beeps followed by a long and drawn-out beep that led to a flurry of activity before the zing of the curtains cut through.

“Randy? Randy?” the woman cried out. “Oh no. I think he. . .” her voice faltered.

There was a lot of chatter going on from various people I didn’t recognize.

“Is he dead?” the man asked with a concerned tone.

“I’m sorry.” There was a male’s voice that apologized. “I’m afraid we couldn’t save him this time.”

The woman, who I recognized as one of the whisperers, cried out, “No. No. No!” followed by sobs.

“Now, now, honey. He’s in a much better place now.” The man was trying to comfort her.

“You’re acting!” my voice escaped from my lips as my eyes flew open. “You murderer!” I flung up to sitting and gasped for breath.

The curtain zipped open between me and a few people I didn’t recognize.

“Mae, you’re awake.” There was a man who was standing over what looked to be a dead man in a hospital bed. “Nurse, please go let Dr. Stricker know that Mae West has woken up.”

“Her name is Mae West, as in the actress?” a woman standing next to the dead man asked with a tissue held to her face.

My heart raced. My mind was blank. What on earth was I doing in a hospital?

“Oh,” I groaned when I lay back down. My entire body ached. “What happened?” I asked, resting my head against the pillow.

The nurse hurried over and closed the curtain between my bed and the dead guy’s bed. But the horrified faces on the man and woman standing next to the dead guy didn’t go unnoticed.

“You had a terrible car wreck, and you were brought in by ambulance.” The nurse rushed around and began to check all of my vitals. “Do you remember what you were dreaming about when you woke up?”

“No.” I tried not to talk too loudly. My head was having its own drum solo. “Was I dreaming?” I squinted.

“I bet you have a major concussion.” She gave me a sympathetic look. “The doctor will give you something for your headache. But you sat straight up in bed and yelled ‘murderer.’” She laughed and stuck the stethoscope on my chest. I shivered at the cold touch. “Maybe you were dreaming about your boyfriend. We practically had to shove him out the door when visiting hours were over. But I think he left his number with the last shift nurse, and she put it in your file. I’ll call him.”

“Good, because I have no idea what his phone number is without having my phone.” I wondered where my phone was. “Isn’t that terrible?”

“Honey, I have two children who have phones, and I couldn’t tell you their phone numbers. All I do is scroll down and look for their names so I can hit the little send button.” She peered down her nose at me and moved the stethoscope around. “I don’t know why I bother. They never answer me anyways. These kids today, they don’t do nothing but text.”

The front of the curtain slightly opened. A man with gray streaks in his black hair popped his head in. Our eyes met. He pushed through the thin piece of cloth.

“I heard you were awake.” He smiled. “I told everyone you were just having a nice concussion nap.”

Concussion nap? Is that a thing? I wondered.

“Can you tell me your name?” he asked. “Full name.”

“Maybelline Grant West,” I managed to say through my dry mouth.

The nurse must’ve noticed and hurried over to the tray to fill up a Styrofoam cup with water from the plastic yellow pitcher. On her way back over, she stuck a sipping straw in it. She held it up to my mouth.

“Little sips at first,” she instructed and let me take the cup. “Are you steady enough?”

I nodded, wanting to save what little energy I had to answer the doctor’s questions.

He gave me a litany of questions that let him know I was aware of exactly who I was, my age, my birthday, and who the president was.

“What is your address?”

“I live at lot number 78 in Happy Trails Campground.” I was so ready to go back to my little snuggly camper. My brows knotted. “I was supposed to go out to supper with Hank. I’d planned to have him stop by the nursery and pick me up a small tree for my camper.”

“So you do live in a campground?” the doctor asked and looked at the nurse as if she knew.

“I do. I own it.” I searched around but not without some pain. I grabbed my neck and winced.

“What are you looking for?” the nurse asked.

“My phone. I want to call my mom and boyfriend.” I rubbed my neck.

“I told you that I’d let them know you’re awake.” The nurse gave a strange look to the doctor.

“Mae, are you having some pain?” the doctor asked.

I nodded.

“Can you tell me where?” He walked over, and when I pointed, he did some investigating. “I don’t think you have anything broken. Just a banged-up head and some bruises, but we will do another scan just to make sure before I let you leave. You certainly have a concussion, which could last up to six or more weeks.” He patted my hand in a fatherly figure kind of way. “You’re going to have to take it easy. You’re probably going to be dizzy with a little upset stomach, not wanting to eat a lot.”

“Which is a shame because there’s such good seasonal food. I love anything having to do with gingerbread.” The nurse was a peppy little thing.

“I’m going to have you stay the rest of the night to keep an observation on you, but you can go home first thing in the morning.” The doctor held my file to his chest and looked down at me. “I’ll be sending you home with some pain meds, and I want you to take them. Hear me?”

“Yes, doctor.” A long sigh escaped me, leaving me with some soreness in my chest.

“Your scan will tell us if you have any broken ribs. We were really concerned about your head.” He pulled the file from his chest and opened it. He made a note or two then looked up at me. “Any questions before I go?”

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“About three hours.” He patted my hand.

Three hours? Gosh, it felt like forever.

The curtain popped open, and another hospital employee walked in. He walked over and rested his hands on the handrail of the bed.

“Hey.” He was jovial too. He even had on a pair of reindeer ears on a headband. “Can you tell me your name?” He picked up my hand and stared at my bracelet.

I told him.

“Date of birth?”

I told him that too.

“Looks like I’ve got the Mae West.” He winked and moved around the bed, flipping the breaks off the wheels. “Wait until I go home and tell my wife that I took Mae West up for a scan. She loves all of your movies.”

Yeah, yeah. There I went again, talking in my head. If I had a dime for every time someone made a movie joke about my name. . .Really, I was named after the cosmetic company, and I married a man with the last name West, but I just smiled.

“Don’t you worry about a thing. You’re in good hands with Preston. He’ll have you back here in no time.” The nurse tucked the bed covers up underneath me so they didn’t hang. “While you’re gone, I’ll call your mama and your boyfriend.”

Before I could tell her thank you, Preston had already rolled me out.

Preston was a talker. I wasn’t paying attention to what he said. Instead, I was focusing on the flickering fluorescent lights in the ceiling tiles.

“Poor guy. I mean, he was knocking on death’s door, but I sure didn’t think it was today.” He pushed a button on the wall, and the steel double doors opened. He pushed me in, and another male hospital employee walked over and took the file from the top of my legs.

“I’m the radiologist, and I’ll be doing your scans.” The young man smiled.  “Are you claustrophobic?”

“No.” I went to shake my head, but pain radiated down my back.

“Can I get your name?” He asked all the same questions and checked the ID bracelet around my wrist. “Mae West, huh?” He smiled. “You busy today?” he asked Preston and closed the file to give back to him.

“Yep. Can’t stay. I’ll be back. Had one die a little bit ago.” Preston took the file and placed it in the plastic hanging file next to the door. “Don’t worry. I’ll get him to the morgue and come right on up here to take you back.”

I shivered.

“All right, Mae, let’s get some pretty pictures of your insides.” The radiologist pushed the bed next to a table. “Do you think you can slide on here?”

“Yes.” I pushed with all my might, happy to see I had some strength left in me. Though it was a little painful, I worked through it.

I lay there while he entered a small room with a window and made sure I followed his instructions to a tee so I could get this right on the first try. I held my breath when he asked me to. I breathed when he asked me to. Soon enough, it was over.

Preston was back to get me, and when he rolled me back into the room, there were a couple of people inside who I didn’t know.

“We just wanted to say that we are sorry you had to hear us about Randy,” the man apologized.

“I’m sorry he didn’t make it.” I wasn’t sure why they were apologizing to me when I should be giving them my condolences.

“We just hate that you had to,” the woman spoke up before the man rudely interrupted her. She flipped her hair. The light caught her earring at just the right moment. It was sparkling so much that her face was blurred.

I had to look away when the shine made my head ache.

“We thought you were in a coma or something and are sorry you heard.” The man seemed to be really agitated.

“I don’t know if I was in a coma or just knocked out, but I didn’t hear him die.” I’d heard the death rattle could really throw people for a loop when their loved one was dying, and I was kind of glad I didn’t hear him die because by the way they were acting, they seemed like I was in the room when he took his last breath.

“You didn’t hear us telling him our final goodbyes?” the man asked.

I tried to blink away the spots from the lingering visual issues from those darn earrings. But there was no amount of blinking that made the black circle in the middle of his face go away.

“Oh no. I don’t remember what happened to me, much less your. . .” I searched for the right words but came up empty because my curtain zipped open.

“Oh my gosh, Mae.” Hank tore through that curtain and hurried to my side. “You came back to me.” He ran his finger down my face, and past his outstretched arm, I noticed the couple had slipped behind the curtain where their loved one had died.

“You can’t get rid of me that easy.” I snickered.

“That’s my baby girl. I see she’s got her spunk back.” Mary Elizabeth Moberly’s voice was full of joy. “Give me some sugar.” She practically pushed Hank out of the way and bent down to kiss me before she checked me out for herself.

“What did the doctor say?” she asked.

“He said I had a concussion and is sending me home in the morning.” I stopped talking when I heard the nurse arguing on the opposite side of the curtain.

“I don’t care if it’s five o’clock in the evening or two o’clock in the morning. I’m going in there to see Maybelline Grant, and you can’t stop me.” Bobby Ray, my foster brother, sounded a little gruff. “This woman is going in with me whether you like it or not.”

“There’s certainly no smoking in here.” The nurse was beside herself, but there was no way she was going to stop Bobby Ray and Dottie Swaggert from coming behind this curtain. “You have no respect for hospital rules,” the nurse scoffed.

“Do you want me to show you what rule I live by?” Dottie Swaggert had had just about enough.

“Dottie!” I called.

Just then, the curtain swung open, and there stood Bobby Ray. Dottie was right behind him, cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.

end of excerpt

Eggnog, Extortion, & Evergreen

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Nov 19, 2020

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