A New Beginning, is out on Amazon and Barnes and Noble now. This excerpt of the first two chapters is exclusive to my blog readers.


Chapter 1

Five years later I could still vividly remember the moment I broke Hank Hakes’ nose with my foot after he broke mine with his fist. I could still hear the sick crunch of bones under my heel and still clearly see in my mind his glazed eyes before they closed, and his face fell into a pool of blood on the carpet.

I knew if I didn’t remember how Hank had beat me and I had fought back, I might let my walls down, leaving my son and me vulnerable again. I wasn’t about to let that happen.

Maybe that’s why I felt so uncomfortable when my best friend Emmy Lambert said she couldn’t wait for me to meet her cousin J.T. from North Carolina. I didn’t like the idea that she might try to set me up.

I had met J.T. Wainwright years before when we were both children, and the memory wasn’t one that overwhelmed me with an interest to meet him again. He’d been a scrawny kid with big ears, messy red-brown hair, and freckles all over his dirt-smudged nose. He had also been obnoxious and downright rude. Imagining that in a 27-year-old man wasn’t making the meeting any more appealing for me.

Emmy insisted she wasn’t trying to set me up. “J.T. is moving up to work with daddy in his construction business and I thought it would be good to introduce him to some people up here.”

She’d invited my sister and brother-in-law and my parents. Perfect proof she wasn’t trying to get me alone with him, she claimed.

I finally agreed to attend the dinner, hoping Emmy would change the subject.

She didn’t. Instead, Emmy tapped her finger against her chin, her eyes focused on the ceiling in a thoughtful expression. “But, if I was setting you up, J.T. would definitely be a good one to set you up with. He’s handsome, well built, a former football player, and Southern, which is always a plus.”

I knew Emmy had added the Southern reference because she still considered herself Southern, even though her family had moved from North Carolina a little over a decade ago.

“Emmy, you know I’m not interested in dating.”

“I’m just saying. You know. In case you change your mind.”

“I can assure you, Emmy, I won’t.”

Emmy sighed. “Blanche, you have to get back on the dating horse someday.”

I cocked at eyebrow at her. “Do I really? Because Jackson and I are happy the way things are now.”

“But what if a man simply adds to your happiness? Not every man is like Hank, you know.”

It was a blessing not every man was like my first husband, but that didn’t mean I was interested in starting a relationship with another one and take that risk.

After I’d left Emmy at her father’s office, I’d walked back to my sewing shop down the street to meet my older sister Edith.

“Oh, Blanche! I just love the dress!”

Edith twirled in front of me, the dress I’d made for her swirling around her in a blur of dark red.

She slid her hands down the front, resting them on her hips, and admired herself in the full-length mirror. “Do you think Jimmy will like it?”

I stuck the pin I had been holding between my lips into the pincushion next to the sewing table and stood, admiring the view of my older sister filling out the dress. I didn’t have to look at how it fit her to know her husband would love the dress she was wearing.

“He likes anything you wear, you know that. You could wear a garbage bag and he’d fall all over himself trying to get to you.”

Edith tipped her head back and laughed, dark curls spilling across her bare shoulders. “You think so? Even with all this extra weight I have on my hips?”

“I know so.”

Edith turned, admired herself in the mirror eyes traveling down below her waist.

“It doesn’t make my–“

“Your bottom is fine,” I said with a laugh. “But I can loosen the fabric a little in that area if you like.”

Edith wrinkled her nose and tipped her head to one side as she studied her reflection. “Nah, I think this is going to work fine for our anniversary dinner. More than fine. You’ve done such a beautiful job, Blanche. Thank you so much.”

Edith, who possessed curves in all the right places, had always been beautiful, but she never seemed to believe it. As a teen and young adult, she’d always needed some sort of reassurance of her beauty and worth. At one time in our lives that reassurance came from the attention of boys–lots of boys.

But six years ago, Edith saw herself through the eyes of someone more important than the next boy in line – God. When she realized God loved her for who she was–faults and all – her opinion of herself shifted and she understood that she was loved—not for what she did or how she looked, but for who she was inside. Even with that realization Edith still had days she worried about her appearance. What was different now was that she worried only about how one specific person saw her–her husband, and onetime high school sweetheart, Jimmy Sickler.

Jimmy ran a car repair business with his father and was someone I’d always wanted to see Edith marry but never thought I would. He was too sweet and polite for her during a phase of her life when only loud and adventurous would do. His looks, with soft brown hair and dark brown eyes, could have been described as more “choir boy” than “bad boy” and for a couple of years bad boys were on the top of Edith’s dating cue.

When Edith finally learned to see herself the way God saw her, she realized her worth wasn’t in how many boys loved her. She also realized Jimmy had been the one constant in her life, always there to comfort and support her even when she seemed to reject him.

I unfurled a roll of fabric, spreading it across the cutting table. “Allie Davenport wants a summer dress in this fabric, what do you think?”

Edith snorted, tipped her chin up slightly and looked at herself in the mirror, pulling the top of the dress slightly down to reveal her shoulders.

“I think Allie should worry more about the fact that everyone in town knows she’s running around behind Larry’s back with Jason Taylor than a summer dress.”

“Edith! That’s awful!”

Edith raised her eyebrows and propped a hand on her curvy hip.

“I know it’s awful. Larry proposed to her only a month ago – she’s going to break his heart.”

Edith had changed a lot since we were children, especially after she had attended church more and even more so when she married Jimmy, but she still possessed a tendency to gossip and judge.

“God’s still working on me,” she liked to remind me.

I knew what she meant. God had been working on me in the last five years, but he still had a lot of work to do. There were many days I looked at myself in the mirror, measuring tape hanging around my neck, a pencil tucked behind my ear, and laughed at the irony of someone who had once hated sewing now working as a dressmaker. As a teenager, I couldn’t thread a needle, let alone create an entire fashionable outfit for the women in town or hem pants for the men. While I had once silently cursed the idea of attending sewing classes with my mom and sister, sewing now supported me and my 6-year-old son Jackson.

“So, why do you think Emmy wants you to meet her cousin?” Edith asked, still admiring the dress in the mirror.

“She says she just wants him to know some people in town now that he’s moved up here to work with her dad, but she’s probably like everyone else who thinks Blanche needs a man to fix her.”

Edith frowned and pursed her lips together in a disapproving expression as she turned to face me. “Everyone? I’ve never said you need a man to fix you, so not ‘everyone’ says that.”

I sighed and folded the fabric for Allie’s dress, laying it on a shelf behind me. “Well, Mama and Daddy and Emmy then. Not you. Still, I don’t know why they all don’t understand that I like life the way it is right now. I’m content. Jackson is happy. We’re doing well.”

Edith folded her arms and leaned back against the sewing table, a smile tugging at her lips. “And you don’t have to let anyone in and risk being hurt again. Good plan.”

I playfully tossed a rolled-up piece of tissue paper at her. “Borrowing a saying from Emmy, ‘hush your mouth.’”

Edith laughed. “Well, it’s true and you know it is.”

We turned our heads at the sound of the front door opening and saw our father standing there, briefcase in hand, grinning as he saw Edith trying to reach to unzip the dress from behind.

“Well, you look nice, Edith,” he said. “Special occasion?”

Edith smirked and shook her head, tugging at the zipper. “Daddy… you know it’s Jimmy and my anniversary next week.”

“Oh? Is it? I must have forgotten.”

Edith playfully slapped her hand against Daddy’s shoulder as she walked past him toward the changing room. “Hilarious, Daddy.”

Edith had only mentioned her upcoming anniversary several times a day for the last two weeks. We knew Daddy hadn’t forgotten.

Gray speckled Daddy’s sandy brown hair and small wrinkles marked the skin along his eyes. He took his suit coat off and loosened his tie.

“You ready to head home, kid?” he asked me. “Mama’s making fried chicken for dinner, and I bet she’d love a break from that crazy kid of yours.”

I laughed, knowing my mama never called my son crazy and loved the days she spent with him; playing with him, cooking him lunch, and helping him prepare for Kindergarten, which he would start attending in a few months.

“I’m eager to see him,” I said, gathering my measuring tape, scissors, and extra thread spools and shoving them in the top drawer of the sewing table. “But I doubt Mama wants a break from him.”

Daddy smiled. “I have to agree. She loves that boy.”

Edith stepped out of the dressing room in a button-up pink shirt and a flared light blue skirt, hooking her long, curly hair into a ponytail. “Speaking of being anxious to see someone, I’ve got a husband to head home to and cook up some dinner for.”

She hugged me quickly and kissed Daddy’s cheek. “Thanks again, Blanche. I’ll swing by next week to pick it up. I don’t want Jimmy to see it until that night.”

***

I’d spent the first year after my divorce floundering, trying to get my footing as a single mom at 20. I stayed home with Mama, helping her cook and clean and care for Jackson, but rarely left home, even for church. Instead, I kept myself emotionally locked up in the solitude of shame. Eventually, I took a part-time job at the library, began attending church again, and visiting the sewing circle meetings with Mama on Wednesday nights. I also started writing a column for the local newspaper.

I’d left the library job when Doris Thompson asked me if I’d be interested in helping her in the sewing shop. I agreed and a year later Doris semi-retired, working three days a week at first and then one day. Six months ago, she’d signed the business over to me and remained on as landlord only, collecting monthly rent from me.

“I have to stop and drop my column off to Stanley before we head out,” I called over my shoulder to Daddy.

Walking down the sidewalk, I slid a folded stack of papers out of my handbag.

Daddy grunted with disgust as he opened the driver’s side door. “I’ll wait for you in the car. I can only feign politeness for so long with that man.”

A faint smile pulled at my mouth as I remembered Daddy’s dinner rant a few months ago about editor Stanley Jasper’s editorial.

“What’s that fool even talking about, saying we should get involved in the Vietnam conflict?” Daddy slapped the folded newspaper onto the table. “There is no way we should send our boys over there. Who does that man think he is? Moves in here from the city and then acts like he knows it all. I have half a mind to go into that office and tell that editor what an ignoramus he is.”

And Daddy did go into the newspaper office, but he came out even angrier than when he’d gone in. Stanley had refused to budge and told Daddy if he had a problem with the editorials that ran in the paper, he was welcome to stop buying it.

Stanley’s name was off-limits in our house from then on. Daddy wasn’t thrilled with me submitting a column to the newspaper but said maybe my lifestyle column would help to offset the drivel Stanley wrote on the opinion page each Sunday.

The newspaper office buzzed with the noise of reporters on the phone, typewriter keys clicking, the press in the back running, and sports reporters commenting on the latest home run by Mickey Mantle.

Reporter Jerry Simms looked up from his typewriter, sliding a pencil behind his ear. He jerked his head toward Stanley’s office door on the other side of the office. “You know the drill. Hand it to Stanley so he knows it’s here.”

I found Stanley where I usually did when I came in to drop off my column; behind his desk in the middle of a cloud of cigar smoke, pounding out a story on the typewriter.

Stanley wasn’t originally from Dalton. He’d grown up in Philadelphia, a transplant, referred to by many in the county as a “flatlander,” a term used affectionately when people agreed with him and with a sneer when they disagreed with him.

Leaning back in a large, black leather chair, his feet propped on top of the desk, a sheet of paper in one hand, a cigar in the other, his black hair, streaked with gray, was disheveled as usual. Circles darkened the skin under his eyes, his jawline was unshaven, his clothes wrinkled, his shirt untucked.

He moved the paper to one side as I stepped inside the door and stuffed the cigar in the corner of his mouth.

“Good column last week, Blanche,” he said around the cigar. “I never thought I’d get so caught up in the story of a pregnant cat.” He shrugged and pulled the cigar from his mouth, holding it between his index finger and thumb. “It’s like I’ve told you before, small-town people eat that stuff up.”

I was never sure if the comment about small-town people was a compliment, but I always accepted it as one since it was as close as Stanley was probably going to get about a column he saw as “soft news.” In journalism lingo, soft news was considered low priority and traditionally thought of as inferior to the harder news.

“Well, this week we have an update on the cat and her kittens,” I said. “I’m sure the small-town folk you speak of will love that too.”

The newspaper’s typesetter, Minnie Wilkes, sashayed her way into the office and snatched the column from the top of Stanley’s desk.

She turned and looked at me with bright green eyes and long, dark eyelashes, made even darker by heavy, black eyeliner and purple-blue eye shadow. “Hey, Blanche. I’m so glad to have your column to typeset. It’s way more interesting than the political stuff Stanley writes.”

Stanley rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Minnie. Your opinion is duly noted, though not asked for.”

Minnie winked at me on her way out of the office.

Stanley stuffed the cigar back in his mouth and moved the paper he was holding back in front of his face.

“Keep up the folksy stuff, Blanche. It sells papers. And that’s what we’re in the business of doing — selling papers.”

Outside the office, standing in the sunlight, I looked out at the town I’d gone to high school in and thought how strange it was to still be in the place I’d thought I’d left behind that day I’d left it as a teenager.

In front of me, the town square was postcard-worthy, a gazebo in the middle of it. Behind the square sat one of the oldest banks in the state, Community State Bank, and next to the bank the Dalton Theatre, built-in 1893 and only renovated twice since then. Down on the other end of the street, Bert’s Pharmacy was wedged between an antique shop and D’s Diner, and a few blocks over was Holden’s Supermarket. Across the street from the supermarket was the post office and two blocks away from the post office was the building where I’d spent many of my days after school, waiting for Daddy to finish at the office and drive us home–The Dalton Public Library.

I’d never felt like I’d fit in at school or in this town, and that feeling was even more prominent after I’d returned with a baby and no husband. There were days I was sure the eyes of judgement were upon me when I walked around town, but the feeling was probably something I’d conjured up in my mind. Since coming home, I had earned a General Education Diploma, started attending church again, began running my business, writing for the local paper, and inching my way back into the community.

I still struggled with feeling out of place. I still kept my eyes downcast most of the time, but more and more I lifted my eyes and met kind expressions and nods of greeting. Eventually, I felt less like the outcast I’d always thought I was.

“So, Blanche. —”

Anytime Daddy started a sentence with “So, Blanche” I knew he was about to suggest something I needed to do or should have done.

I shut the passenger side door behind me, tossed my coat into the backseat and looked at him, bracing myself for whatever conversation we were about to have.

“Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking — “

A ‘So, Blanche’ and a ‘I’ve been thinking….’ in less than thirty seconds meant this was going to be an uncomfortable conversation.

“Yes?”

“I think I should teach you how to drive so you can have a little more freedom.”

I let my breath out in a heavy sigh. I wasn’t interested in learning how to drive, perfectly content with Mama or Daddy driving me where I needed to go. I was completely intimidated at the idea of learning how to push in a clutch and shift gears and everything else that went along with driving.

“You’re almost 25, Blanche,” Daddy continued. “You’ve been home five years now. I don’t mind driving you where you need to go, but I think it’s time you start, you know, spreading your wings a bit, gaining some independence. I love having you and Jackson living with us, you know that, but someday, well, you will, or you could, I mean you might – meet someone and . . .”

“Daddy . . .”

“Well, you might. I mean there are plenty of eligible, good men in this county and it is possible you will, you know . . . Ah. You might want to drive out and meet him somewhere or —”

“Daddy. . .”

I knew he and Mama were old school and felt Jackson needed both a father and a mother, but I wasn’t willing to marry someone just to fulfill my parents’ wish that I be a married mother instead of a single one.

It was hard for me to believe it had been five years since I had left Hank and returned home with a one-year-old on my hip and a heart full of hurt.

Hank had come looking for me a month later, and Daddy was waiting for him with a shotgun.

Hank looked at the dirt a few feet in front of him in shock. “Y-you could have killed me, you crazy old man!”

“I could have, and I still can,” Daddy told him. “Now go before I have to.”

When the taillights faded into the darkness that night, I closed my eyes against the tears and wondered if Hank would try to come back again someday.

He never did.

His mama, Marion, told me one day when I took Jackson for our weekly visit that she’d received a letter from Hank a year after I’d left him, saying he planned to move out west. That was the last she’d heard from him. I knew it broke her heart that her oldest son never contacted her, but I could tell that seeing Jackson helped relieve the pain.

I’d seen Hank once before he left to go out West, but he hadn’t seen me, and I never told my family about it. I didn’t know if I ever would.

“I’ll think about the driving lessons,” I told Daddy.

Now, let’s change the subject, I prayed.

“Well, you know, that’s all I can ask,” Daddy said, clearing his throat, looking at the road in front of him. “I guess.”

I looked out at the road too, watching as the paved road faded to dirt, dust billowing around the car as Daddy turned down the road that would take us home. I closed my eyes, tired from the long day, but also fighting back thoughts and emotions I had tried to bury for five years.

I despised myself for letting Hank Hakes abuse me with his mouth and his hands for the three years I’d been married to him. For five years I had been consumed with an inability to forgive Hank or myself for all that had happened after I’d run away with him at 17. Abusing me seemed to finally give him the power his abusive father had stripped from him during his childhood.

The night I left him, he’d shoved me against a table, dragged me by my hair and tried to stop me from leaving our apartment with our son by grabbing my leg and yanking me to the floor. I could remember it all like it had happened yesterday; how I’d reached behind my head and saw the blood on my hand, how he’d hissed at me: “Why couldn’t you have just done what you were told?” and then swung around and staggered into our room, toward our screaming baby. I remembered how he’d danced around the room in a drunken rage after I’d pushed him away from Jackson, laughing in my face.

“Oh, looky here,” Hank had said, leering at me. “Little ole’ Blanche finally got her voice.”

He laughed again, leaned close to my face and sneered.

“Whatcha’ going to do with it now you got it?”

When I fought back, kicking him in the face, knocking him out, leaving him in a pool of blood, I ran to my friend Miss Mazie’s house and never looked back.

More than fighting to forgive myself for leaving with Hank at 17, I couldn’t seem to forgive myself for the danger I’d put Jackson in by staying with Hank; how I’d caused Jackson to have a life without a father.

In that first year after I left, life unfolded around me like a movie I was a part of but had no say in. I came home to my parents, a father who had barely spoken to me in three years, and a mother who welcomed me with open arms but somehow blamed herself for my smashed nose and bruised face. I pushed the emotion of those years with Hank deep inside me and the darkness of it all lingered in the furthest caverns of my heart for two years, eventually leaving me in a state of emotional numbness.

Slowly I began to feel again – laugh again, trust again, hope again, at least with my family and my future. I had no interest in a romantic relationship of any kind, though, and still didn’t. I wasn’t about to let anyone break down the walls I had built around my life and heart, walls to protect me, but more importantly, Jackson. I had exposed my son to darkness and pain once before. I refused to do it again.

Chapter 2

Standing on the front steps of the church, Daddy slid his fingers into the front pocket of his shirt while he looked out over the parking lot and pulled them out again. He looked lost and I knew why. He missed the pipe Mama had talked him into giving up three months earlier and was reaching for it out of habit. I’d seen him do it many times before.

 He still struggled with what to do with himself when the women in his life left him waiting. In the past, he’d pass the time loading the tobacco, lighting the pipe and puffing away, staring into space and thinking, or if he was at home, reading a book or the paper. I almost felt sorry for him. Mama had recently read in Life Magazine about smoking being dangerous and she told him she wasn’t about to watch him smoke his way into an early grave.

I watched from the church lobby as John Hatch walked through the front door and stood next to Daddy, sliding a cigar from his front shirt pocket and sticking it in the corner of his mouth as he dug in his jacket pocket for a lighter.

“Still no pipe, eh, Alan?”

“Nope.”

“You know you can stand up to your wife, right? You are the man of the house.”

“Yeah. I know. I just – well, I don’t want to. Plus, she’s probably right. Smoking probably isn’t healthy, like those doctors have been saying.”

John flicked the lighter and held the flame to the end of the cigar. He sucked in a long drag, blew a plume of smoke from his nose and mouth and let out a long, contented sigh.

“There are few pleasures left in life at our age, Alan, and no one is going to tell me what I can smoke or drink. Besides, all those studies are usually bunk anyhow. They’ll come out with a new one next year that will tell us all that smoking is actually healthy. Those scientists and doctors are always changing their minds.”

Daddy watched John with what looked to me like an envious expression.  He nodded as John spoke.

Someone bumped against my arm and I watched as John’s wife Barbara stepped briskly through the front door, snatched the cigar from her husband’s hand and tossed it over the stair railing.

“Are you out here smoking on church property?” she asked indignantly.

“Well, I—well, I—”

“John Hatch! Really!”

Barbara shook her head and shot John a scolding scowl on her way past him.  “That’s so disrespectful.”

“You know, John, you can—” Daddy started.

“Yeah, yeah. Well, sometimes it’s just not worth the battle. Have a good day, Alan.”

Daddy winked at me through the doorway as John walked down the stairs looking defeated. I smiled back at him, shaking my head as I tried not to laugh.

Jackson tugged at my hand.

“When are we going to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Sam’s?” he asked. “I’m hungry. That preacher just kept going on and on and —”

“That’s enough, Jackson,” I said, glancing up at Pastor Steele, who stood by the door, watching Jackson, stifling a laugh behind his hand.

Mama wore her purse looped over one arm, her Bible tucked against her chest under the other arm. “Are we ready to head on over to Emmy’s for some lunch?”

My stomach tightened. I truly hoped the lunch at Emmy’s was nothing more than her attempt to introduce her cousin to some people in town. I hoped she hadn’t changed her mind about trying to fix me up with him.

Emmy’s parents, James and Ellie Stanton, were already at Emmy’s house when we arrived.

Ellie, her greying hair cut short and curled in a tight perm, hugged me at the doorway. “Blanche, sweetie, so happy you could make it.”

She ruffled Jackson’s hair. “And look at you, you’re getting’ so big!”

“Hey, Mrs. Stanton! I’m six now!”

“I know you are! I can’t even believe it. Just three more months and you’ll be in my class in school! I can’t wait to see you every day.”

Jackson darted past Ellie to pet the Stanton’s aging terrier.

Ellie was the kindergarten teacher at Dalton Elementary. She’d taken the job shortly after her family had moved here from North Carolina when her husband took a job at the local DuPont plant. When James was laid off three years after they arrived, he started a construction business, relying on the skills he’d learned when he had worked for a local construction company in high school.

“Emmy’s in the kitchen and I’m sure Edith and Jimmy will be here soon,” James said as he closed the front door behind us.

In the kitchen Emmy stood at the counter, slicing carrots for the salad. When she saw me, she laid her knife down and walked over to hug me, then gestured to a tall, broad-shouldered man leaning against the counter.

“You remember J.T., don’t you, Blanche?”

The man standing before me looked nothing like the little boy I remembered from my childhood. This was no longer the face of a boy that begged to be slapped. This man was muscular with a square, masculine, clean shaven jawline. His blue eyes were in sharp contrast to dark brown, almost black hair, and his smile, inviting and warm, was far removed from the childish smirk I remembered.

 “Hey, Blanche.” I took the hand he held out toward me, surprised by how his grip was both firm and gentle. “I go by Judson now, actually. J.T. is what my family still calls me, though.”

“Ah, yes, family nicknames,” I said. “Always a challenge to shake.”

He grinned, still holding my hand. “Actually, I’ve seen you since we were kids, but you probably don’t remember.”

He was right. I didn’t remember meeting him since we were older. I was sure I would have remembered him if I had. That charming smile, coupled with a well filled out chest and arms, weren’t something that could easily be forgotten as far as I was concerned.

“Oh?”

“At your sister’s wedding. We had a deep conversation about the lack of diversity in the desserts of our respective regions of the country. I was up visiting for a couple of weeks with my parents and Emmy had invited me to tag along.”

Suddenly I remembered the exchange–an exchange held amid one of the most confusing times of my life, imprisoned in a loveless, abusive marriage and unsure what to do about it.

“Yes, we did!” I said. “Cottage cheese fruit salad for us up north and red velvet cake for the South.”

I chose not to add how I’d admired his sweet personality and his smooth Southern accent, wishing my husband had been as sweet.

Judson laughed. “That’s right. See? It was very memorable and deep.”

I laughed and then realized we were still holding hands. I pulled my hand away and out of the corner of my eye I thought I caught Emmy watching with a sly grin. I refused to look at her fully, promising myself that if she was watching me for the reason I thought she was, I’d bow out of this lunch early and give her a piece of my mind later.

“Do you need any help in here?” I asked Emmy.

She tossed the carrots into the salad bowl with the lettuce and turned to check the roast in the oven. “I’ve got everything under control for once. Why don’t you two head out to the living room to visit with Sam and everyone else?”

Emmy’s husband was already entertaining my parents and his in-laws with stories from his job as a deputy for the county sheriff’s department. His brown eyes glistened with the exhilaration of regaling friends with his occupational escapades.

“I’m not even kidding,” he said, shaking his head. “I pulled up to the accident, and the guy is just sitting there on the ground, empty beer cans all around him. He’s bleeding from the head and I said, ‘Sir, have you been drinking tonight?’ He looks up at me and in a slurred voice says, ‘No, sir, officer, sir. I don’t even drink. Not me. Noooo, sir.’ Meanwhile he reeks of alcohol, I’m crunching empty beer cans under my boots, and his motorcycle is wrapped around a tree.”

“He can’t even stand up for the sobriety tests, he was zig zagging everywhere. I said, ‘Sir, you’re sure you haven’t been drinking? It would be easier if you just told the truth.’ He says, ‘Sir, I am a staunch teetotaler. I would never, ever, ever…’ and that’s when he tripped and blacked out at my feet. We loaded him into the back of the squad car and threw him in the cell for the night to dry out.”

Edith and Jimmy arrived in the middle of Sam’s next story. After everyone was introduced, Emmy’s served roast with steamed potatoes and carrots.

As the meal finished, Emmy stood at her chair at the end of the table and our gazes all shifted to look at her. “So, everyone, I’m sure you’re wondering why I invited you all today and yes, partially, I invited you to meet J.T. and welcome him to our little town, but I – we —” She reached for Sam’s hand before continuing, squeezing her fingers tight around his. “also have some other news I want to share with you.” I held my breath. “Sam and I are . . . expecting!”

An audible celebration filled the room and hugs were given. I was elated at the idea of my best friend having a baby, but I also felt a twinge of sadness, knowing the news might be difficult for at least one person in the room. From across the table I saw Edith’s smile fade briefly as she swallowed hard and I knew she was trying to hold back the tears. The smile returned as quickly as it had faded, though, and she stood to hug Emmy.

“I’m so happy for you!” Any sign of tears were now gone. I knew she was happy for Emmy, but I also knew she must be fighting back a lot of emotion considering what had happened to her a couple of years before.

After dinner, Emmy served her mother’s famous double chocolate cake and then everyone stood and stretched, patting bellies, and settled in the living room to resume discussions they’d started around the table. Jackson settled in the middle of it all, on the floor with the toy trucks he’d brought with him. The soft hums of pretend engines acted as background noise for conversations about the Civil Rights movement, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s latest speech, and memories of when President Kennedy had been shot the year before.

I carried my glass of lemonade onto Emmy’s front porch for some fresh air, sitting on the swing to admire the afternoon sun glistening off the surface of the stream running alongside the side yard. Next to the stream was a small path that led to a gazebo where Emmy and Sam could sit and overlook their property, complete with a small chicken coop out back and a barn to house a horse and a few pigs.

They had moved to this rural homestead a year ago, opting to live outside of the small-town atmosphere where they had lived the first three years of their marriage, in a small apartment on Main Street. They were now living in the country, five miles away from my parents’ home, and six miles from her parent’s home. We were as close of friends as we’d been before I’d left with Hank. We spent our evenings either on the phone or taking a walk in the country to talk and laugh. During the days, Emmy visited me at my shop on her breaks from her job as the secretary for her dad’s construction company, or we had lunch at D’s Diner down the street.

She was the person I had relied on for support during the darkest days after I left Hank, other than Miss Mazie and my friend’s Hannah and Buffy, who I had called often since I’d left.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

I looked up to see the sun hitting Judson’s blue eyes as he stepped onto the porch with a glass of lemonade.

“Of course, not. There’s plenty of room.”

Judson smiled, and I felt an odd rush in my stomach. Shifting my gaze back to the stream, I willed the feeling away. I knew nothing about the man Judson was now, and I refused to be swept up by physical attraction like I had been with Hank all those years ago.

Judson leaned back against the railing of the porch and took a sip of the lemonade. “So, tell me Blanche, what have you been up to all these years?”

How did a divorced single mom who’d run away with an older man two weeks before her senior year of high school answer such a question? Lie or be honest? I chose to be what I hadn’t been for so long – honest and blunt.

“I dropped out of school, ran away with an older man, got married, had a son and got divorced. Now I live with my parents and my son and work as a dressmaker” I sipped from the glass of lemonade, winking at Judson over the edge of the glass. “That’s my Rebel Without a Cause story. So, how about you, J.T. Wainwright? What have you been doing all these years?”

I pronounced Judson’s name with an exaggerated Southern accent and a slight wag of my head.

Judson choked back a laugh, and I thought he was going to spit lemonade out his mouth and nose. “Well, okay then.” He grinned. “That’s one way to fill me in. I can tell that you’re no longer the shy little girl I remember from my childhood.”

I laughed. “Definitely not shy. Sometimes life forces us to change to survive.”

Judson studied me for a moment, then smiled as his eyes trailed from my face down the rest of me and back to my face again. “I remember Emmy telling me at the reception who you were, and I didn’t believe it. You had definitely changed –.” His grin widened. “For the better. You’re not the scrawny wisp of a girl with the big hair anymore.

I tensed at his comments. I hoped he wasn’t trying to flirt. I wasn’t interested in flirting. Leaning my head against my hand, my elbow propped on the arm of the swing, I thought about how tough my life had been at the time of the reception. “I wasn’t in the best place in my life back then.”

Judson nodded. “You didn’t look very happy that day.” His gaze focused on mine with an unwavering intensity. “But you still looked lovely in that lavender dress with the purple lilies tucked in your hair.”

Warmth rushed from my chest into my cheeks. I lifted my head and studied his face for a few moments before abruptly looking past him at the oak tree in the front yard. I hoped my face wasn’t showing the embarrassment I felt. How had he remembered what I was wearing or what flowers were in my hair?

“Thank you,” I mumbled, unsure how to handle the compliment.

Judson cleared his throat and sat up on the porch railing, leaning back against the support post.

“So, what about me? What have I been up to, you asked. Well, I played football in high school. It knocked that obnoxious attitude I’d had as a young kid out of me.” He tilted his head toward her, smirking. “I’m sure you remember that attitude from the summers I spent here with Emmy. I was quarterback of the year for the state of North Carolina my senior year. My dad was sure I was on my way to play college ball, complete with scholarships.”

“He already had my life mapped out for me. He was sure I’d have a stellar football career, earn my business degree and then follow him into the world of supermarkets – opening them, running them and making sure his chain grew. I got that scholarship, started playing ball at the University of North Carolina, and even started business school. I realized pretty quickly, though, it wasn’t what I wanted. None of it. I hated football, and I hated business school. I quit the football team and dropped out of college. I thought Dad was going to have a stroke.”

He laughed at the memory and took another drink of lemonade.

“I wanted to go to a trade school to learn how to build things, like Uncle James. It was a hobby of mine in high school that had become more of a passion. Dad didn’t like it, but I got a job at a local tobacco farm and moved into a run-down apartment over some guy’s garage. I paid my own way through trade school. When I wasn’t in class, I was in the fields and when I wasn’t in the fields, I was in class or studying. It was a two-year program and when I was done training, they offered me a job with a local construction company. I worked there about a year, but when I told Uncle James about my interest in running my own construction company some day, he offered to let me come up here and work with him for a spell and learn the ropes. Since my dad was barely talking to me, I took the offer and here I am.”

He spread his arms out, bowed slightly, and smiled. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

“Well, I hope it all works out the way you hope. And what does ‘for a spell’ mean?”

Judson laughed. “It’s Southern vernacular for, ‘for a bit’. It’s possible you may need a translator when you’re around me.”

“Well, I haven’t needed one with Emmy all these years, so I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I told him with a wink. “She just fills me in when I give her a bewildered expression.”

He sat next to me, leaned back, and draped his arm over the back of the swing.

 “So, what’s everyone do for fun around here?” he asked. “I’m not sure I’ll have much time for fun with all the jobs Uncle James has lined up in the next few months, but if I do, I’d like to know what I can look forward to.”

I snorted out a laugh. “This is Bentley County. There isn’t much to do for fun. You could tip some cows I guess.”

Judson grinned. “Tipping cows sure sounds like a good time to me, unless one gets tipped on me. But come on. There must be a theater, a dance hall or two, something like that.”

“Yes, there is a theater, and sometimes there are dances at the fire hall. And there is a drive-in about an hour north in New York state.”

Judson turned his body toward me and leaned forward slightly.

“So, tell me, Blanche Robbins, what do you do for fun?”

I barely had time to even ponder the question, let alone answer it before I was summoned from the house.

“Mama?” Jackson’s voice called to me from the living room. “Aunt Edith says to ask you if I can have some ice cream.”

I smiled and winked, nodding toward the front door. “Fun? What’s that? I’m a mama. There’s no time for fun.”

“Yes!” I called through the open screen door. “Tell Aunt Edith you can have some ice cream.”

Judson was still watching me, still smiling. “Well, Blanche, if you ever find that you do some time for fun, I’d be much obliged if you’d let me know, so maybe we can search this county high and low for something fun to do together.”

There was no question now: Judson T. Wainwright was flirting with me. I cleared my throat and stood.

“I think I’ll have some ice cream with Jackson.”

I left Judson sitting on the porch swing, hoping he took my departure exactly as I meant it—a signal to him I wasn’t interested in any romantic gestures he might be making.

***

As I rode in the back of Daddy’s new Oldsmobile with Jackson on the way home from Emmy’s, I thought about that awful night almost three years ago at the hospital.

I had held Edith against me as she sobbed, her body trembling. The delivery room smelled of antiseptic and blood, and nurses worked to clean Edith’s legs and change the blood-soaked sheets.

“It’s going to be okay,” I told her, though I really wasn’t sure how it was going to be okay.

Nothing was okay about Edith going into labor so early and her baby girl being delivered already dead. I was shaking, trying not to cry so I could be strong for her. Guilt consumed me. I’d done everything wrong, eloping with a man who turned out to be abusive, throwing my education and a chance at a career away, yet Edith was the one being punished.

Edith’s crying halted, and she slumped against me, limp. I looked down at her pale face. Her eyes were closed. Panic seized me and I could barely breathe.

“Edith?” I shook her gently. “Edith?”

Her head flopped back away from me, toward the pillows on the bed.

“Edith!” I screamed.

A nurse rushed toward us, reaching for Edith’s wrist and laying two fingers against Edith’s neck.

“She’s just unconscious,” the nurse told me. She left to get the doctor.

The doors to the delivery room burst open moments later, and the doctor rushed in with Jimmy behind him.

“Edith?” Jimmy stepped toward the bed, but the nurse stood in front of him.

“Let the doctor check her,” she said gently.

I was still sitting on the edge of the bed, holding Edith’s hand, trembling with shock. I looked at Jimmy, his eyes filling with tears.

The doctor laid his hand on my shoulder. “She’s lost a lot of blood. We are going to start a blood transfusion and we need you to step outside while we prep her. We’ll be out to talk to your family when we have a better idea what is going on.”

Jimmy helped me stand, his hand on my arm. I stumbled with him out into the dimly lit hallway to the waiting room. Mama stood from where she’d been sitting, holding Daddy’s hand, and I fell into her arms, crying against her chest.

“The baby didn’t make it,” Jimmy said, his voice breaking with emotion. “They’re giving Edith a blood transfusion now. She’s lost a lot of blood.

“Oh, dear Jesus.” Mama gasped the words through her tears.

Her arms tightened around me as Daddy prayed out loud.

“Father, we commend the spirit of Edith and Jimmy’s baby into your arms and we humbly ask you now to spare our Edith, keep her safe, bring her back to us while always understanding that it is your will that will be done. Amen.”

Daddy’s voice was loud and clear, full of love, yet tinged with sadness.

Mama, Jimmy and I echoed the amen, before collapsing into chairs to wait for the doctor. I drifted to sleep against Mama’s shoulder, jerking awake an hour later as the doctor entered the waiting room. His expression was relaxed. “She’s lost a lot of blood and she’s weak, but I think the worst is over.”

“Thank God,” Mama said, her eyes red from crying.

“I don’t want you to think this is going to be an easy recovery,” the doctor said, his tone somber. “She’ll be here several days and will need weeks to recover, but,” He smiled wearily. “We’re in better shape than we were a couple hours ago.”

Jimmy stepped forward and took the doctor’s hand.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you.”

The doctor’s eyes brimmed with tears as he clasped Jimmy’s hand. “Of course, young man. I’m sorry we couldn’t save the baby.”

“You did the best you could,” Jimmy said.

As the doctor turned to leave, Jimmy stopped him.

“Doctor?”

“Yes?”

“Will we – will she —”

The doctor smiled weakly, clearly exhausted. “You’ll be able to try again, if that’s what you’re asking. Not right away, but eventually, yes. This was just a fluke, you might say. I don’t expect it will ever happen again.”

Jimmy swiped at the tears on his cheek. “Thank you, sir.”

“When can we see her?” I asked.

“You can go in anytime but keep the visits short. She needs her rest.”

Mama hugged me, and Daddy hugged us, and then we pulled Jimmy in with us. We stood in the middle of the waiting room and cried together, mourning and rejoicing at the same time.

Daddy and I watched Edith sleep that night, him sitting in a chair next to her bed; me curled up in a chair near the window. We’d sent Jimmy and Mama home to rest, knowing they’d return tomorrow and send us home to rest. The fading daylight cast a pink hue across the room and left a chill in the air.

Edith looked so frail against the pillow. Her skin blended in with the sterile white of the hospital sheets. I stood and brushed her hair back off her forehead, watching her sleep, remembering all our nights together as children, before our teenage years, before she decided I was a boring stuck in the mud.

“Blanche, do you think there is really a God up there?” she asked one night as we laid in our beds in the dark.

“Yes,” I said confidently.

“Why?”

“Well, I can’t imagine all the beauty of the world came together by accident.”

“What about all the ugliness of the world?”

I laid there, silent, thinking.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“Why doesn’t God stop the evil of the world? Like why are there wars? Why did Uncle Jason have to die in Korea?”

I wiped at tears with the back of my hand.

“I don’t know,” I said again. “But one day we’ll know, and we’ll all understand why God didn’t stop it. I guess it’s like Pastor Frank said, God gave us free will and sin was chosen by Adam and Eve. Once sin entered our world, even innocent people suffered. I don’t know why Uncle Jason died, but I know we will see him again one day.”

Edith sighed in the darkness and I swore I could hear her eyes rolling.

“Oh, Blanche, sometimes you’re just so naïve and trusting.”

Now, in this hospital room filled with wires and IVs and beeping machines, Edith and I seemed to be reversed in our beliefs.

“God has a plan,” she had whispered to me when she woke up, after the first round of blood loss, before drifting off again into another round of deep sleep.

“A plan for what?” I wanted to ask. “A plan to take away your baby? A plan to let Hank become bitter and abusive?”

I was angry at God, but I didn’t know if that was a proper emotion to feel. I was angry that God had taken Edith’s baby. I was angry that it seemed like Edith was being punished when she’d made up for all her past mistakes and was doing all the things the Bible said was right to do in the sight of God. Why wasn’t I the one being punished for my mistakes?

I heard a soft sigh and looked over at the chair where Daddy was sitting, leaning forward, his head in his hands.

“Daddy? Are you okay?”

I heard him softly crying and tears dripped through his fingers.

“I’m sorry, Blanche,” he whispered.

“Sorry? For – ”

“I’m sorry I let my anger over what you did drive a wedge between us for so long. I’m sorry I made you feel like you couldn’t come to me when Hank started hurting you. I’m sorry I —” His voice caught with emotion. “didn’t protect you from Hank. All I keep thinking is how I could have lost both of you. My God. What would I have done without both of my girls?”

I walked over and knelt in front of Daddy, pulling his hands from his face. His eyes were swollen from crying. I kissed his forehead.

“It’s okay, Daddy. I took for granted how much you loved me and how you were trying to protect me when you told me to stay away from Hank. I’m sorry it took me so long to admit that what I did was wrong.”

Daddy leaned his forehead against mine and we sat on the floor of Edith’s hospital room, in the glow of a setting sun, crying together. It was a moment of forgiveness and redemption we both needed and maybe had never expected to find.

“So, Blanche…” Mama’s voice cut through my memories and I looked up at her, wiping tears from my face. “Oh. Why are you crying? Are you okay?”

Mama looked concerned and reached over the back seat, reaching for my hand.

“I was just thinking about Edith,” I said as her fingers encircled mine.

“I know, sweetie. We never know what God’s plans are, though. Things could change for Edith and Jimmy, and maybe they’ll be blessed with the baby they’ve always wanted, just as Emmy and Sam are. We can’t give up hope.”

She pulled her hand away to grab a tissue from her purse. “You’ve got to take tissues with you places if you’re going to be sniffing and weeping like your mama.”

I laughed as I wiped the tears and blew my nose.

“Your nose is snotty, Mama,” Jackson informed me.

“Thank you, honey. I would never have known if you hadn’t told me.”

The sarcasm was lost on my son.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Glad to help.”