For anyone who is new here, this is a continuing story. It is a semi-first draft that I edit more later through a few more drafts before it hits as a self-published ebook and paperback sometime in the future. Sometimes the chapters have been edited a couple or few times before they are published here, sometimes not, but they often have typos, continuity issues, and plot holes. Feel free to point them out in a kind manner in the comments.
If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the story, feel free to click HERE.
I posted Chapter 14 yesterday.
It would be Ellie’s first time seeing the Tanner family in one place in six months. When Molly had invited her family, she’d almost declined. She felt incredibly guilty at the idea of ignoring Franny’s 73rd birthday simply because of the situation with Jason, though.
Franny meant too much to her.
She had been surprised when Judi had agreed to come as well. She was less surprised when it was apparent Judi had agreed to come simply to flirt with Brad.
“Whoa. Have you been working out Bradley Tanner?” Judi slid her arm along Brad’s T-shirt clad bicep and Ellie inwardly cringed. As usual, Judi was making an idiot out of herself. The sisters had barely spoken since the incident at their parents. Judi’s friend Melanie had picked her up after breakfast that day and she’d come back to the apartment after Ellie was asleep. Every night since then had been similar, with Judi being gone all day and sneaking into the apartment after Ellie was asleep.
Ellie had curtly informed Judi of Franny’s party before leaving for work and after pounding on the door of Judi’s room. She should have known Judi had an alternative motive when a sly smile crossed her mouth and she asked who else would be there.
“Any single men?” she’d asked.
Ellie had closed the door without answering and left for work.
Now she was watching Judi laugh at Brad’s jokes and pretend to be deeply interested in every story he told. It made her sick to her stomach. Now she had three people to do her best to stay away from. Judi, Jason, and Brad. She accomplished her goal by volunteering in the kitchen, making the punch, and chatting with Annie, Molly, Hannah, Franny, and Jason’s younger cousins.
Talking to the Tanners should have been comforting, but somehow it made her heart ache in a way she couldn’t explain. There had been a time she couldn’t imagine ever feeling out of place around them. She’d always been like another member of the family, joining them for movie nights or outings, sitting with them at church. In many ways Molly had been like another sister to her, or actually a real sister. More of a sister than Judi had ever been. They’d shared secrets with each other, gave each other advice, and made each other laugh during their shifts at the Tanner’s store. There were a couple of secrets Ellie hadn’t shared with Molly, though. The ones involving Jason or her and Jason’s future.
And Molly hadn’t told Ellie when she became romantically involved with Alex, probably out of fear Ellie would tell Jason, even though he was going to find out eventually anyhow.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped back from the refreshment table where she’d been standing for ten minutes watching her parents, the Tanners and other members of the community laugh around tables set up under a white canopy. She took the opportunity while no one was close by to walk to the front of the house and lower herself into one of the chair’s Ned had made when he’d plan to spend his Golden years growing old with Franny.
It wasn’t cold out. In fact, it was rather warm, but Ellie still rubbed her hands along her bare arms, suddenly feeling a chill. Franny and Ned had only had a couple of years together, rocking on this porch, before Alzheimer’s had clouded his mind. She couldn’t imagine how heartbreaking it had been for Franny, who had looked forward to many years spending evenings together overlooking this view. Ellie’s gaze wandered across the cornfield, stalks pushing up out of the ground, higher than they were at this point last year. Beyond them was a lush open field, perfect for the Tanner’s cows to graze all summer. Beyond the field, several miles in the distance, were rows of hills stretching across the horizon that looked blue from a distance, but which Ellie knew were filled with a variety of native-Pennsylvanian trees, their leaves mainly a deep green.
She couldn’t see them from this distance, but mixed among the green were gray, bare limbs of the Ash trees, killed last year by the ash bore. Seeing hundreds of the Ash tree’s skeleton-like limbs rising up among the green, living trees, was deeply unsettling.
In some far-fetched metaphor the dead trees reminded her of her life, how all she had ever known was dead to her now. Unlike the trees, there was a chance her life could come back again, in a different form, yes, but hopefully full of hope again. The only question was how Jason would fit into her future life. Would they find themselves sitting in chairs like these one day, when they were old and gray, or would what they had once had only be a memory?
Her throat tightened with emotion as she remembered a cool late-September night next to that lone maple tree behind the cornfield; how Jason had kissed her for the first time under it.
“Amazing view, isn’t it?”
She glanced over at Brad, standing on the other side of the porch railing, holding a glass of punch toward her.
“Thought you might need a drink.”
She accepted the pink plastic cup as he stepped around the railing and up the two steps. “Thank you. It really is good punch.”
She smiled at the cup, knowing the color had been chosen because light pink was Franny’s favorite color. She called it “baby-girl” pink.
“Molly says you made it.”
Ellie smiled. “It was my grandmother’s recipe. I suggested it when I saw they already had all the ingredients. There’s nothing difficult about mixing ginger ale, orange sherbert and Hawaiian Punch and stirring.”
Brad laughed and sat in the other rocking chair, slumped down slightly and propped his foot on the railing. “Still it was a good idea.” He draped his arms over the arms of the chair, tipping his head toward her. “You okay?”
She moved her gaze back to the field, shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. Just tired.”
“Heard you’ve been helping your dad while he heals.”
“Working at the preschool afterward too.”
She nodded again, sipping the punch.
Brad leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees. Sunlight caught golden flecks in his green irises. “You have any downtime at all?”
She shrugged. “Not really. No.”
She tried to ignore the way Brad was smiling, watching her intently. She focused on a bird perched on the mailbox. Was it a sparrow? Maybe a starling. She always had been awful at identifying birds.
Brad followed her gaze. His voice deepened, his tone challenging. “Maybe you should make time.”
A small smile tugged at her mouth as she looked at him. The way he looked at her with a smile of his own made her uncomfortable. She hoped he wasn’t going to suggest she make time with him.
“I invited Judi to come with me and some friends up to a new club in Ithaca tonight. You should come with us.”
“I have church in the morning.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “I do too. It’s not like we’re going to party until dawn. Come on. You could use some down time and if you’re worried about this being a date, you don’t have to. There’s going to be six other people meeting us up there.”
Ellie reached up to twist a strand of long hair around her finger like she’d always done when she was thinking but the long hair was gone. Her fingers found a shorter strand instead and she rubbed her fingers along it, avoiding Brad’s gaze, wishing she had excused herself before the conversation had gotten this far.
“I’ll think about it,” she said finally.
Brad nodded. “Okay then. I’ll take that.”
The front door squeaked open, and Jason stepped onto the porch, glancing at her before he looked at Brad. “Hey, your dad wants to know if we’ll cut up that wood from the weeping willow.”
Brad sighed. “I help cut it down and now he wants me to cut it up too? Yeah, I guess.”
“Alex and I can help,” Jason said. “Shouldn’t take us long.”
Brad stood, looked at Ellie and touched his first two fingers to his forehead like he was tipping an imaginary hat. “Please excuse me, m’dear, my father has summoned me to take part in manual labor.”
Ellie bowed in her chair mockingly and gestured toward the backyard. “Carry on, sir.”
When she turned her head to watch Brad walk away, her gaze met Jason’s. She wasn’t sure how to interpret his tight jaw and narrowed eyes.
“Have a nice conversation?”
She shrugged a shoulder, sipped the punch. “It was fine.”
She wondered how much of her conversation with Brad he had heard before he decided to make his presence known.
Standing, she smoothed her skirt with a flattened hand and forced a tense smile. “I think I’ll head back and chat with the ladies a little before I have to leave.”
He slid his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and took a step back to clear her path to the front steps, tipping his face toward the porch floor.
She stepped past him, her heart pounding, this time not at the attraction she felt for him, but at the tension she felt in the air.