I posted Chapter 31 yesterday, if you are interested. To catch up with the other chapters click HERE or the top of the page. Also, if the chapter shows up twice here somehow, I apologize. WordPress was giving me a fit last night when I scheduled it.
They’d been on the road for 90 minutes.
She was restless.
He could tell by how she kept shifting to try to find a more comfortable position and the way her face kept scrunching up like she was thinking deeply.
He knew what she was thinking about, worrying about.
Hopefully not him.
He pulled off the exit onto the highway. “What’s keeping you awake?”
He laughed. “Thanks a lot. I thought I was doing pretty good.”
A tractor trailer roared by them, followed closely by a red convertible with the top down. A man about 50 and a young girl were in the front seat, the wind whipping their hair back.
Molly shuddered and hugged her arms to her. “It is way too cold to have the top down.”
Alex leaned back and propped his wrists on the steering wheel. “So, are you going to keep changing the subject or are you going to tell me what’s really bothering you? Is it your dad? Have you heard anything?”
Molly wrapped her coat around the front of her like it was a blanket and slid down in the seat. “That’s part of it, yes. She called while you were getting dressed. He’s in surgery and the doctor said it could take a few hours. She’s going to call when she knows more.”
He changed lanes, passing a small sedan. He rubbed his unshaven jawline with his chin, trying to keep his thoughts from jumping to the worst when it came to Robert. He probably shouldn’t bring it up, but he was starting to wonder if their conversation in the barn before the accident was bothering her too.
“Listen, maybe this isn’t the time, but about Jessie —”
She waved at him dismissively. “Jason and I talked. He said you told him about Jessie.”
He glanced at her. “And?”
“And do you believe me?”
She looked at him, catching his eye as he glanced at her then back at the road.
“Yeah. I do.”
“I meant what I said, Molly. All of it. About how long I loved you, how you were the only person I could think of that night.”
He reached over and took her hand in his and she smiled but then nodded toward the steering wheel. “Two hands on the wheel, Stone. This family has enough going on without us driving into another car.”
She reached for her bag as he grinned and put his hand back on the wheel.
“Hey,” she said, sliding his phone out of her purse. “I almost forgot. Jason grabbed your phone when he went to get your clothes. He said you had a couple of missed calls and might want to check them.” She laid it on the seat, but he kept driving, ignoring the phone.
“You don’t want to check your messages?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Doubt it’s anyone I want to talk to.”
“What if it’s your mom or dad? Maybe you’d —”
“I’ll check it later. I’ve got enough on my mind right now. I just want to check on Robert.”
His tone, while not hard, indicated he didn’t want to discuss it further.
Molly shrugged. “Okay, but maybe you should tell your mom you were in the hospital at least?”
He shook his head. “Mom’s not maternal. You know that.” He smirked at her. “I’ve told you a few of those stories.”
She tipped her head forward to capture her hair into her hands and pull it into a ponytail. “Yeah, you have. If you don’t want to call her right now, I understand.” She sighed and sat back against the seat. “I guess all this means we won’t hit that deadline to pay that loan off. We’re not even going to hit the extended one that Bill was able to get for us.”
“We’ll figure something out,” he told her, shifting lanes again. “That farm has been in your family for how many years again?”
She tipped her head, her eyebrows furrowed as she thought about it. “Wow. Good question. I’m not sure really. I mean, the main farm was founded by my great-great grandfather. His brother ran it for a while with my great-grandfather. Then Grandpa’s dad passed it on to him. Grandpa expanded it in the ‘60s and again about 15 years ago.”
Alex whistled. “So, it’s been in your family like 200 years or something.”
Molly nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
“That’s amazing. Do you guys know how amazing that is? I mean, I don’t know anything about my family. We don’t have anything in our family that’s been passed down from generation to generation like that. I don’t even know much about my family beyond my maternal grandfather.”
“Honestly, it’s something I’ve taken for granted all these years,” Molly said softly. “Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever find a life beyond the farm. I keep wondering if this is all I’m meant to do — milking cows and shoveling their poop. It’s weird, before I learned we could lose it, I wanted to walk away from it all.”
Alex shifted gears as he passed a slower moving car. “Do you still want to?”
She slid her hand along the inside edge of the door. “Sometimes.” She looked out the window at farmland fading into more towns with large buildings and housing developments. “But I can’t leave my family, especially now when they need my help the most.”
She pushed her hand back through her hair and propped her arm against the window.
“What about you? I can’t imagine that you ever thought you’d still be working on a farm. Have you ever thought about leaving?”
Alex winced. “Ouch. That’s a loaded question.”
He looked over at her, at her questioning expression, and cleared his throat. “Honestly, yes, I have thought about it. I thought about it after I was here for two years. I thought about it again after I was here for three. Then one day I realized I was in love with the farm. I realized I loved waking up in the morning and smelling freshly cut hay and watching the sun rise while we milked the cows. I even loved milking the cows, despite the fact they totally freaked me out when I first started. I loved knowing we were growing food for the world to eat and for the first time in my life I loved hard work.”
She watched him with a smile as he pulled the truck off the highway, parking at a rest stop. He shifted the truck into park, laid his arm across the back of the seat, and looked at her for a few moments before he spoke again. He trailed the back of his index finger along her jawline.
“I also looked over one day and saw how beautiful you’d become. Soon, the love of farming wasn’t the only thing keeping me here.”
He tucked a strand of hair that fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the courage to tell you how I felt, but just being around you was enough.” He slid closer. “For a while anyhow.”
He kissed her mouth briefly, then jerked his head toward the driver’s side. “It’s your turn to drive and my turn to rest. I’m not sure but I think that painkiller messed me up.” He made a face. “I’m rambling way too much about my feelings.”
She tipped her head back and laughed.
“Not as much as last night,” she whispered after he’d climbed out on his way to the passenger side.
Alex scrolled through the missed calls on his phone. Three from Sam, two from his mom, a voicemail from his mom, and two voicemails from Sam.
He listened to Sam’s first. “Alex. Where are you? I need to talk to you. Call me when you get a chance.”
His Mom: “So, you’re ignoring your mother now, are you? Well, that’s not very nice Alex. I’ve been trying to reach you all week. It would be nice if you’d return a call.”
“Alex. Seriously. Pick up. Don’t ignore me. I need you to call me. It’s about Dad. Call me when you get this.”
Alex slid his finger over the delete button. How many times in the last five years had he received similar messages? And when he’d called his brother had told Alex his dad had moved another woman in, or was selling company stocks, or wanted Alex to come work for him. It was never an emergency but somehow Sam always seemed to think it was.
As for his Mom, she craved attention she’d never earned.
He tossed the phone on the seat of the truck and yawned. He and Molly had spent the day waiting for Robert to come out of surgery. They’d hoped for good news, but had receive a mix of bad and good news. The good news was that Robert’s pelvis had a handful of screws in it, but doctor’s expected him to be able to walk again, hopefully within the next six months. The bad news was that Robert had had a small stroke during surgery and hadn’t woken up yet.
Alex had left Molly, Jason and Annie to have some private time with Robert. He’d told them he planned to take a nap in the truck and he had, for about two hours. Now he was awake, watching the sun set between two tall buildings in the distance. There was a time when being in the city had invigorated him and sent a chill of anticipation shivering through him. There was always something happening in a city.
Now, though, after living five years in almost completely wide-open spaces, the buildings, parking lots, and loud noises made him feeling like the world was closing in on him. He stretched the full length of his body across the front seat and closed his eyes, wishing sleep would come again. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about Robert hooked up to all those wires and tubes in that hospital room. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about the possibility of losing the only man besides his grandfather who had shown him what a real man should be. He laid his arm across his eyes and let out a long breath.
He remembered that one morning he’d stumbled into the barn after a night of drinking. His eyes had been blood shot and his head felt like a bowling ball. Despite trying his best to hide it, he was – completing tasks slower than molasses. Robert had seen right through him. Unlike most employers who might have lectured him and told him to get his act together, Robert had asked him first if he was okay.
Alex had nodded but then clutched at his head when pain seared through it.
“Looks like you have a hangover,” Robert said, wrapping a rope around his hand to hang up in the barn.
“You’re not good to anyone in this shape. You were supposed to be on the tractor today and I can’t have you out there without a clear head.”
Robert had jerked his head back toward Alex’s truck, the rope wrapped up tight around his hand now. “Head back to the house and sleep it off. If you feel better this afternoon come back. If not, I’ll see you in the morning.”
More than anger, Alex heard disappointment in Robert’s voice. He’d left without argument, too embarrassed to even try to defend himself. After a few hours of sleep and some food he’d wandered back to the barn and found Robert underneath one of the farm’s trucks, changing the oil.
He stood next to the struck, shifting his feet, his hands in his front jean pockets.
“Feeling better?” Robert had asked.
Sliding out from under the truck and standing, Robert wiped his hands on a rag, looking at Alex, appearing to be thinking about what to say next.
“You’re a good, kid, Alex,” he’d finally said. “Polite. Hard worker. I think you’ve got a really bright future doing pretty much whatever you want to do. I know I’m not your dad and maybe I shouldn’t be saying anything, but I hate to see you throw it all away because of alcohol.”
Alex kicked at the dirt with his shoe, looking at the ground. “Yes, sir.”
“I hope you know that I don’t mean to be lecturing you, or telling you what to do,” Robert had continued. “It’s just that I’ve come to care about you and don’t want to see you get hurt.”
The softness in Robert’s voice had startled Alex. His own dad had never talked to him that way. Michael Stone’s idea of a pep talk was to tell Alex to “grow up” or “be a man.” Rather than being concerned about Alex, he was normally concerned about his own reputation or the reputation of his business.
Robert hadn’t only shown Alex what it meant to be good father by how he treated him but also in how he treated his own children. His example of how to be a good husband also fascinated Alex. How he treated Annie was worlds apart from how Alex’s father had treated his Alex’s mother, or any of the women in his life actually.
Alex had walked into the farmhouse one day to tell Robert he’d figured out an issue with the feeder and wished a few moments later he had knocked. He had interrupted a tender moment between Annie and Robert. Thankfully it wasn’t too racy, but it had been enough to make him try to back out slowly so he wouldn’t be seen.
Robert had been standing behind Annie while she cooked lunch, kissing her neck.
“Marrying you was the best thing I ever did, Annie Tanner,” Robert had said softly.
She had laughed and looked over her shoulder at Robert. “Are you saying this because I’m making you homemade chocolate pudding for dinner tonight?”
“No, ma’am. I think that even when you don’t feed me my favorite dessert.”
Alex had started to back away, trying to escape before they saw him, but he ran into the table by the couch and almost knocked over a lamp. The sound of the lamp rattling back into place as Alex caught it and placed it upright gave Alex away and he smiled sheepishly as the couple turned to look at him. Even though he hadn’t seen anything he shouldn’t have, he felt like he had been spying on an intimate moment.
The pair had laughed at him when he stuttered out an apology, assuring him they’d only been chatting. They might have only been chatting, but the fact they did so like a newly married couple, despite being married almost 30 years, made Alex realize not all marriages were like his parents had been — loveless and full of deceit and bitterness.
Rain splattered the windshield in the truck and Alex watched droplets slide down the glass and pool at the bottom.
In the hospital room, Molly, Jason, and Annie had prayed for Robert while he watched uneasily from the other side of the room. At one point Molly had reached for his hand and he’d let her pull him into the circle as they prayed. He closed his eyes, but he didn’t feel comfortable. He didn’t know how to pray or even if he believed there was someone out there or up there to pray to.
Letting out a long breath, he felt emotion catch in his throat. He hadn’t expected that.
“God,” he whispered. “If you’re there, please don’t let Robert die. Don’t take Molly and Jason’s dad from them. Don’t do this to Franny and Annie. They’ve all lost so much already.”
He dragged the back of his hands across his eyes and shook his head.
Well, he’d prayed. He didn’t feel much different, though. It certainly wasn’t like in the movies.
In fact, he felt a little stupid talking to himself.
He closed his eyes again and let sleep overtake him, hopeful that when he woke up there’d be good news about Robert.