Since he had to stay in the city until he healed and for follow-up visits with Dr. Jaime, Sandor decided to use the opportunity to get to work on Dragon Games. He’d decided to stay the entire six months with Sansa, and make the most of the opportunities that would help him do his work.
First, Sandor and Sansa found a good contract lawyer to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. When the paperwork started arriving, Sandor made good use of the copy place down the street. Now that he had everything he needed, both Eloise and Sansa found themselves working the same day-shift. That meant Sandor had the apartment all to himself. He started by reading sample screenplays to get an idea of how they were written. He wanted all the ground work laid before he and Sansa headed back to Oregon. Once they were back home, Sandor would start doing his own writing in the peaceful and quiet solitude of his mountain.
Sandor looked up from his screenplays, caught in a daydream. He was currently reading the screenplays for The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, as had been suggested by Jack Kelley. Sandor was about to dive into the third one, called Willow, but he never got a chance at it. The phone rang. It was Sansa reminding him of his appointment in two hours from now.
As if he could forget. Today, the bandages were coming off.
“I think you look amazing,” Sansa told him. Sandor blushed a little and scruffed at the stubble on his chin. He’d had to keep shaving until his skin started to heal. Now, three weeks later, he was finally starting to see some progress in getting his beard back the way it was.
“What do you think everyone else will say?” Sandor asked.
Sansa and Sandor were on their way back to Leeston. They were headed south on Interstate 5 with the back of the pickup truck loaded. They’d packed all of Sansa’s stuff in the back. Because there was a lot she didn’t want or wouldn’t have any use for on the mountain, much of it got left behind or sold.
“The same thing I told you a dozen times already, Sandor. They’ll love you no matter how you look. All that matters is that you’re happy.”
Sansa smiled knowing that Doc Tormund and Nick would be pleasantly surprised with the results. The same would go for Sam and Gilly when they came for Christmas. Sansa couldn’t wait to see the look on everyone’s faces.
Doc and Nick jumped off the porch and strode toward the pickup truck as soon as Sandor pulled into the dooryard. Both came to an abrupt halt as Sandor climbed out of the cab. Sansa hung back and delighted in watching the scene unfold. She couldn’t suppress the smirk at seeing their surprised expressions.
Doc and Nick looked at each other, baffled, as though making sure they were seeing the same thing. Sandor stood and waited for their reaction.
“What the hell happened?” Nick finally exclaimed.
“You fucking hate it, don’t you?” Sandor growled. Doc and Nick looked at each other, wide smiles plastered to their faces.
“No,” Nick told him. “I love it.”
“What about you, you dumb Swede?”
Doc Tormund raised an eyebrow giving him his characteristically perturbed look. “I’m Norwegian!” Doc then proceeded to swear in his native tongue. “You made a good decision, my friend,” he finally said.
“At first, I thought maybe you chickened out.” Nick came closer and examined Sandor’s face. To Nick, he pretty much looked the same as the last time they’d seen each other. The right side of Sandor’s face was still covered in scar tissue, but there were some notable differences. They were good differences, though.
Sansa stood over Sandor and explained to Nick and Doc exactly what had been done in the procedure.
“Dr. Lannister discovered that Sandor had lost almost half of his hearing in his right ear. That was because he was missing most of the auricle (the cartilage part that sticks out of the side of your head), and there was also some damage to the ear canal.”
“Jaime fixed Sandor’s inner ear and reconstructed his ear on the outside to make it look normal, and also to make it easier to wear glasses.”
Sandor snorted. “I don’t need glasses!” he protested. Sansa ignored him. They’d already been through the argument a dozen times. Sansa had won, and so Sandor was getting reading glasses in the new year.
“Then, Jaime reconstructed the muscle tissue over his right eye. The lid was starting to drop and it would have started giving Sandor problems if it wasn’t corrected. He also got some new muscle tissue in his cheek.”
Sandor hated that everyone was looking at him like a bug under a microscope, but he stayed quiet and let Sansa do her thing.
“And lastly, Jaime shaved some of the worst of the scar tissue from around the corner of his mouth and his eye.” Sansa explained that the scar tissue in those spots had been rigid and inflexible and had started to harden a little. Because of that, Sandor’s facial expressions were being pulled. Sometimes it even caused him discomfort if he smiled, laughed, opened his mouth wide, or squinted.
“Dr. Jaime told me they could have done a total facial reconstruction,” Sandor piped up, “but it would have taken years and dozens of surgeries and there are no guarantees that my face would look completely the same on both sides.”
Sandor and Sansa looked at each other, then across the table at Nick and Doc. Sansa told them, “Apparently, there was too much damage to the fleshy part of Sandor’s face, and not enough blood flow. A lot of the blood vessels and nerve endings were damaged. Plus they’d have to do balloon implants to create enough viable tissue to cover the areas where scar tissue would be removed.”
Sandor squeezed Sansa’s hand. “After I met some of the other patients there, I guess I realized that I’ve lived with this for twenty-five years and I don’t see the point in going to all that trouble this late in my life. I met a 16-year-old girl named Sherry who has a lot less face than me and she doesn’t care what people see when they look at her. It might sound kind of corny, but if you take away a sixteenth of an inch of skin, we all look the same. It’s not how you look, but what you do, that ultimately matters in our short lives.”
Sansa put her arm around Sandor. He put his around her shoulders, hugged her close and smiled down at her. “Why should I waste all that time and money trying to get pretty, when I already have people around me who love me the way I am?”
Sansa sat at what would soon become her desk in her office in Leeston. It wasn’t hers just yet. Sansa wouldn’t be taking over for Doc Tormund until December 1st, still a week away. For now, she was perusing patient files and getting herself familiar with the medical histories of her 483 patients – the entire population of Leeston. There were only 214 active files right now, but it was still a lot to go through.
Sansa looked up when the back door opened. Sandor came in to pick her up from work and take her home. It was four in the afternoon. Sandor decided he was tired of sneaking around at night. He was too old and tired to care what people thought of his face anymore. His confidence seemed to have affected everyone’s outlook because Sansa had noticed a shift in the general attitude toward him. Maybe it had been because of Sam’s talk with Shawn, or maybe it was because of Sansa’s influence. They would never know. Sansa was just glad to see Sandor walking around town smiling and happy in broad daylight.
“So what exactly did you need all the way over in Klamath?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” he smiled giving her a kiss. “Did you talk to your family? Are they coming for Christmas?”
Sansa sighed. “No. No one’s coming. Robb had to go back to Afghanistan. Jon can’t get away from work – apparently there is a problem with a pipeline leak. Bran and Rick are going to stay with their girlfriend’s families for the holidays.” Sansa sighed. “And mom and Arya are going after each other’s jugulars again. They decided to stay home and not spread their Christmas misery.”
Sandor thought for a moment. “I think I might have an idea about that, but let me make a couple of phone calls and then we’ll talk about it.”
“I really miss my family,” Sansa admitted. “Oh, by the way, I was expecting medical supplies, but instead, the UPS guy dropped this off for you.” Sansa produced a large box and handed it to Sandor. He opened it to find two smaller boxes. They were hand-held military radios. Sansa was baffled.
“One stays in town and one comes with us. If ever there is an emergency, someone can get hold of you at the cabin.”
“Two questions.” Sansa held up two fingers. “Why not get a telephone installed up there and how are we going to get power to keep this thing charged?”
“It would cost a fortune to get a phone line brought up to the cabin, and anyway it would probably come down every time there’s a storm. Besides, we’re not always in the cabin. If we’re out in the barn or out hunting, the radio can come with us.”
“And second,” Sandor said with a big smile, that’s why I went to Klamath. I picked up some solar panels.” He shrugged. “It’s supposed to be a cold winter and I’ve been thinking about getting a heater for the barn – keep the animals warm.”
“What about me?” she said with mock derision.
He smiled suggestively. “Oh don’t you worry. I’ll keep you warm.”
Sansa bolted awake in the middle of the night. She wasn’t sure if it was the remnants of a bad dream that made her wake, or if she’d heard a noise outside. When she opened her eyes, Sandor was sitting up, quiet and listening.
“You heard it, too?” he whispered.
Sandor brought his finger to his lips, listening intently, but Sansa didn’t hear anything. After a long moment of dead silence except for the creaking of the cabin and the trees swaying in the wind, Sandor relaxed and lay back down beside her. Eventually, he rolled over, tucked Sansa’s small body into his and fell back to sleep.
Three nights in a row, they had the same experience. Each morning, Sandor went for a stroll around the perimeter of the property, and each morning there was nothing out of the ordinary to be seen.
On Saturday, Sandor decided to go into town and use the phone at the doctor’s office to make a few phone calls. Between the two of them, Sansa and Sandor had read the instructions and managed to install the solar panels, but they were having trouble with one of the connections. Sandor made some excuse about wanting to use the computer to do some Christmas shopping on Amazon so that Sansa wouldn’t want to come with him. Really, he needed some time alone to make a few other phone calls as well.
When Sandor finally got back to the cabin, Sansa was nowhere around. He supposed she might have gone for a walk in the woods, but he knew she wouldn’t go far. The landscape still wasn’t that familiar to her and she was nervous about getting lost.
Sandor went inside the cabin but he knew that he wouldn’t find her there. Sansa always greeted him from the porch when he returned. He looked anyway, but still no Sansa.
“She’s just gone for a walk,” he muttered to himself. Sandor moved to the kitchen table to resume examining the electronic coupling for the solar panel battery units that had sent him into Leeston on a quest for answers.
Before he sat down, Sandor saw two items sitting in the middle of the table that hadn’t been there when he’d left. Sansa’s cell phone was turned on and sitting next to her compass. He might not have thought anything of it, but Sansa had absolutely no use for her cell phone anymore. At least, not here at the cabin and not in Leeston. They’d only decided to keep it for when they were traveling.
Not only was the cell phone turned on, but it was sitting right next to her compass. Sandor recalled the first week he’d met Sansa. He’d made fun of her for getting lost because the electromagnetic field from her phone had re-polarized her compass.
Sandor took a step forward and heard something crunch under his foot. It was a shiny piece of paper, crunched up in a ball and discarded on the floor. Sandor picked it up and smoothed it out.
The page had been ripped out of a travel magazine they’d picked up for Hawaii. The advertisement showed the back of a woman in a bikini looking off across the blue ocean with a palm tree shading her. Across the woman’s back were slash marks that had been scratched across the paper.
Sandor went upstairs and got his gun.