Boondock Ramblings

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 6

As regular readers continue to read you might remember than when I started this story, I had it beginning in the winter. That was an error because Harvesting Hope ended when it was still summer and this book will be picking up right after Harvesting Hope ended. In other words, I will be fixing the timeline errors in the final edition of the book, but for now, just pretend I did not suggest Olivia was coming home from college for her winter break in the second chapter I posted here. I will fix that in future chapters and the final book.

Also, here was another horrible discovery this week — my laptop is saving my stories in two different places when I hit save. I have no idea why it is doing this but now I know why the corrections I thought I had made on final versions of the books that I uploaded to Kindle weren’t showing up when the book printed. So I had very nice people letting me know about typos and erros and I was baffled. I had gone over the book a number of times, my family and other readers and an editor went over it and then I went back and made all the changes. Where were the changes? Apparently the changes were being saved in one place on my one drive but that wasn’t the version I was using when I uploaded it to the Kindle create software. AAARGH!

Now that I have noticed this, I will be much more careful in the future and hopefully will not have to deal with these typos and huge errors in the final book copies again. For those who had to weed through the errors, I sincerely apologize, but hopefully you know the corrections were made, they just apparently weren’t saved. Again…. AAARGH!

Now, I’m done rambling. Here is Chapter 6 of The Next Chapter, which has not gone through an editor so I am sure there are errors. Want to catch up on the rest of the story? Click HERE.

Chapter 6

Holding Liz’s baby against her chest sent joy and peace surging through Ginny within seconds. She’d breathed in deep the smell of lavender baby wash and closed her eyes, a song she used to sing her children coming to mind as Isabella began to whimper. A tiny hand curled into her shirt, gripping tight and Ginny had kissed it and rubbed her cheek against the soft head.

She hadn’t expected the singing to work. Her singing voice wasn’t something she’d call award winning, but it was apparently enough to calm the untrained ears of a newborn. That newborn was now swaddled tightly, fast asleep in the basinet. A little belly rub trick Ginny had picked up from late nights with Olivia hadn’t hurt either.

That reminded her; she should call Olivia and see if she’d changed her mind about staying in California again. First, she was coming home, now two weeks later, she was staying in California until the semester starting, and planning to get a job at a local juice bar. Ginny didn’t even know what a juice bar was. Did they serve juice instead of alcohol and did people really spend money to have someone make them juice when they could just buy a juicer and make it themselves at home?

Who even knew anymore. The world seemed to have gone mad and sometimes Ginny felt like she was the Mat Hatter, trailing along behind.

She checked her messages and noticed there was one from Stan. She wasn’t sure how she’d missed his call.

“Hey, hon’ I’ve got another late meeting today. I’m just going to grab some dinner from the diner and eat it here. Don’t wait up for me. This is with that developer from Jersey. It could take a while.”

She rolled her eyes. At least he’d called this time. That was something she guessed.

Half the time she sat at the dinner table alone, trying to decide if she should start eating or wait for him to come. Lately she’d begun eating without him and setting his food in the fridge for him to heat up later.

A sigh huffed out of her as she remembered the early days, when she’d been a teacher and how she’d have dinner on the table for him when he came home, and they’d sit down as a family and talk about their days. Eventually the children became involved in activities and those days of sitting down as a family became further and further between. Then the kids began moving out, one by one, until it was just her, Stan and Olivia. Two years ago, Olivia had left, and Ginny had been excited at the idea of her and Stan having more time alone. That was around the same time the real estate business had taken off, though, and Stan had added a partner and two more agents to the office. Those dinners happened occasionally for about a year and then rarely for the next six months and practically never now.

There were days Ginny wondered what the purpose of her was. The kids didn’t need her and neither did Stan. She supposed the library needed her, but they could get anyone do to her job if she finally decided to leave. She liked to joke that a trained monkey could do her job, but really? It was probably true.

She should make the most of the time she had and start that grocery list she would need at the end of the week. She’d been trying to eat healthier so she should write down healthy food. She made a face, remembering the avocado she’d tried earlier. There had to be healthy food that tasted good, right?

There had been a whole list of suggested healthy food for “women of a certain age” in that Good Housekeeping magazine she’d picked up at the doctor’s office. She’d have to look for it when she got home. She stood and stretched, the idea of making a list abandoned until she found the magazine.

The apartment was on the second floor of a former home. It was bigger than most in town, with two bedrooms and a spare room, a large living room and a small hallway that led to a small kitchen. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway with a bathtub and plenty of floor space. This was Ginny’s first official visit to the apartment, but she’d seen the photos on Stan’s website when he’d sold the building, which included space for a business below. That space was now vacant but had previously housed a clothing boutique. And before the boutique it had housed several rooms, including two parlors, a magnificent dining room and a kitchen. Ginny had admired old photos of the home in a history book the county historical society had published several years ago.

The apartment was sparsely decorated, yet cozy. The faded yellow walls coupled with the restored hardwood floors made Ginny feel like she’d walked into a modern coffee shop. A light gray couch sat against the back wall, a recliner next to it at an angle, and a blue papasan chair across from the recliner next to a floor to ceiling window — all of them facing a small TV and DVD player.

Ginny imagined herself curled up in that papasan chair with a good book and without a care in the world other than what to make for dinner that night and which friend to go out to a movie with. How lovely would it be to be young with a special group of friends again. She didn’t have that anymore. In fact, she didn’t even have one close friend these days. Her friends had drifted away over the years, wrapped up in their own families and lives. She couldn’t remember the last time a friend had actually messaged or called to ask how she was.

She supposed that how life was when you hit your 50s. Rather lonely and confusing, like a person lost at sea in some ways.  

There was part of her that envied Molly and Liz’s friendship, how they were able to live here together and experience life together. She was sure it wasn’t easy for Liz raising her daughter on her own, but at least she had her family and Molly to help her.

Sliding in to the papasan chair she curled her legs up under her and slid the hair tye out of her hair, releasing her usually ponytail and raking a hand through her dirty blond hair, grateful for the change of scenery. Normally on a day like this, when she left work early, she’d sit at home, reading a book in the on the enclosed back porch she’d thought would be lovely for afternoon teas with friends or Stan. Then the friends had faded away and Stan’s job had taken priority, so most of the time she sat alone on the porch, listening to the birds chirp until it was time to start dinner.

Sitting here, out of her normal, rather stale, environment, made her remember simpler days, when she and Stan were young and actually spoke to each other.

Her gaze roamed the room, flicking across Native American pottery, Vanilla scented candles, two cat figurines and a picture frame with the words “into the field I go to lose my mind and find my soul” and the image of a field of corn engraved on it.

Next she found a wall of photos, a mix of images of Liz with her family and Molly with hers.

She smiled, looking at a photo of Alex and Molly together, embracing each other next to a haybale on the Tanner’s farm. There was also one of Ellie and Jason, who would be officially married in two more days. They’d planned to hold the wedding two weeks ago, but heavy rains had made the pasture they’d wanted to hold it in unusable. Ginny hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t know Ellie and Jason well. She only knew about their arrangements from chatting with Molly at the gym last week.

Yes, it was true. She and Stan were young once. Very young. He was a senior and she was a junior in high school when they’d started dating.

Ginny touched her fingers to her lips, thinking of secret kisses under the bleachers during football games. The kisses happened there to make sure her daddy didn’t catch them when Stan took her home at the end of the night. Her daddy had never liked Stan, at least not until Stan came back from college and proved what a hard worker he was. He was even more of a hard worker now than he had been then.

Her throat thickened with emotion, surprising her. She couldn’t even remember the last time Stan had kissed her other than a quick peck on the cheek.

The opening of the apartment door startled her out of her memories. The sight of Marge rushing in with a newspaper in her hand jerked her abruptly back to the present. Marge stopped short when she caught sight of Ginny.

“Oh. Ginny. Hello.” Marge’s cheeks flushed and her eyebrows shot up.  “I didn’t expect to see you here. What brings you by?”

Ginny stood and smoothed her hands down her slacks, feeling suddenly intimidated, a familiar feeling when she was around Marge, though she wasn’t sure why. Marge had never been rude to her. It was just that Marge was — what was the best way to say it? Bold. Marge was more bold, confident, and to-the-point than Ginny and for some reason that was intimidating.

“Liz was by the library today and looked exhausted, so I offered to watch the baby while she slept.” Her voice had sped up and she knew she was rambling, but the nerves had gripped her and wouldn’t let go. “She said you had a meeting with the business association and would probably be by later, but I really thought she needed some rest now so I popped by early. I didn’t mind at all.” Her smile felt tight and probably looked even tighter. “Hopefully you don’t mind.”

Why would she mind? Why did I even say that? Ginny thought, as her brain began firing thoughts wildly back and forth.

Marge frowned, looking puzzled, but luckily not angry. “Of course I don’t mind. I’m glad you were able to help out. It’s just — well, I did have the business association meeting, but it was postponed because Millie Baker has a cold.” She sighed. “I don’t know why she doesn’t think to ask her dad. I mean, he has a men’s meeting this evening, but he’s free this afternoon. ”

Ginny shrugged, trying to ignore the tension in Marge’s voice. “It was no problem, Marge. I know how busy you and Frank are. I really didn’t mind. I don’t get to hold my grandchildren very often, so I enjoyed holding yours.”

Marge smiled, her previously furrowed brow relaxing. “Well, thank you, that was really sweet of you. Of course, we will both get to hold our other grandchildren soon. Isn’t it exciting?”

 Ginny agreed and the women chatted a few minutes about when Clint and Tiffany might be arriving and how long they’d be staying with Marge and Frank.

“Well, anyhow —” Marge glanced at the closed bedroom door and bit her bottom lip. “I guess I’ll let Liz sleep. I can always come back later.”

Ginny wasn’t sure how to answer. Liz had been asleep for a couple of hours now, but Marge was her mother and seemed uneasy. Maybe something was wrong. She pulled her shirt down and smoothed it across her waistline nervously. “She’ll probably be awake soon.”

It wasn’t any of her business why Marge had barged into her daughter’s apartment looking panicked and she really didn’t want to be in the middle of their business. But, still, she heard herself ask, “Is something wrong?”

Marge let out a quick breath, looked at the paper in her hand for a brief second, and then held it out toward Ginny, who noticed it was folded to the birth announcements section.

Marge wrung her hands. “It’s just — well, Isabella’s birth announcement is wrong.”

Ginny’s brow furrowed as she looked at the paper, scanning the last names until she came to Liz’s.

Cranmer/McGee

Baby girl, Isabella Molly Cranmer, 7 pound 8 oz, 21 inches long, born August 26, to Liz Bailey Cranmer and Matthew Grant McGee.

Her eyebrows raised.

Oh. Well, this was certainly news to her. She’d never officially asked anyone who the father of Liz’s baby was, not even Tiffany. She didn’t feel it was her business, but as far as she’d gathered, Gabe Martin was the father.

“Do you see?” Marge pointed at the page. “It has Matt listed as the father of her baby.”

“Yes,” Ginny answered. “I see. But, I mean — are they even dating? Or were they?”

Marge shook her head. “Not that I know of. I’m sure you heard she gave birth in his truck and we never got the full story there, but  — I mean she told us Gabe is the father. Why would she —”

The door to the bedroom creaked open and both women watched a sleepy Liz shuffle her way out of the darkness wearing a faded blue T-shirt and pair of striped shorts.

She blinked in the bright sunlight, a hand sunk deep in the dark brown hair on the top of her head as she scratched her head and yawned. Her gaze drifted between the two women as the yawn widened. Ginny’s chest constricted. She kept her eyes on Liz, afraid to make eye contact with Marge. She knew she should excuse herself, let mom and daughter talk things out, yet she was afraid her departure might make the situation even more awkward.

Liz’s gaze darted to the basinet, scanned a sleeping Isabella then moved back to the women.

She found Ginny’s eyes first. “Is everything okay?”

Ginny nodded, glancing at Marge, wishing she could snap her fingers and disappear. “Isabella is fine. She’s been asleep almost the whole time you were napping.”

Liz smiled sleepily as she looked into the basinet. “You got her to sleep in the basinet? You must be some kind of baby whisperer.”

“Not at all.” Ginny laughed. “I haven’t a clue how I did that. Maybe she just finally gave out of energy.”

Liz stretched her arms over her head and spoke through a yawn. “I just wish I could figure out what is making her so uncomfortable.”

Ginny briefly forgot about Marge standing behind them, holding a newspaper with a scowl furrowing her eyebrows. “Are you exclusively breastfeeding?” Liz nodded and tugged at her hair tie, shaking loose her messy ponytail and letting her dark brown hair fall loose around her shoulders. Ginny rubbed the palm of her thumb along her bottom lip. “Maybe something you’re eating is giving her gas. Have you talked to her doctor?”

“More than once. He thinks it’s definitely gas and gave me some drops, but they don’t seem to be helping.”

Ginny nodded, looking thoughtfully at the sleeping baby. “Then maybe it is something you’re eating. You could try eliminating a few foods that are known to cause issues. Your sister had to cut dairy out when she nursed Wyatt. He was miserable until she did.”

Liz sat on the couch. “Yeah. That’s right and he’s lactose intolerant now so that could explain some things.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Who knows. Maybe it runs in the family.” Her eyes drifted away from Ginny toward her mother. “Well, if she’s fine then why do you two have such odd looks on your faces? Did someone die?”

Marge pursed her lips, tipped her head back, and looked down at her daughter, thrusting the newspaper toward her.

Ginny inwardly cringed. Oh boy. Here we go.

Liz’s gaze followed her mother’s pointing finger. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she read under the birth announcements column. “What?!”

Marge frowned. “I’m guessing this is some kind of mistake? A misunderstanding? Because I thought you told me that Gabe was Isabella’s father.”

Ginny took that as her cue to exit, awkwardness or not. She took a step back from where she’d been standing in between the two women. “Listen, I really —”

Isabella’s cry drowned out her words. The three women looked at the baby but Ginny was closer, so she reached down, unwrapped Isabella from her swaddle and lifted the tiny baby against her shoulder.

Turning to look at the women she realized she was stuck. Her road to escape blocked by a crying child. Maybe she should hand the baby off to Liz. It was probably time for a nursing session anyhow.

At that moment, though, Liz closed her eyes and her jaw tightened, signaling she wasn’t ready to hold her baby. If anything, she looked ready to have a full-blown breakdown.

***

Liz closed her eyes and clenched her jaw against the urge to scream. McGee, what have you done? I told you to stop that nurse.

When she opened her eyes, Marge’s expression had darkened even more.

“Liz.” She pointed at the paper again. “What is this about?”

Liz drew in a deep breath, tipped back her head and let it out slowly. “Listen, Matt’s a good guy and I —” She swallowed hard. She could tell her the mom the truth, about how Gabe had been abusive, about the night she’d gotten pregnant, about how stupid she’d been, or she could let her mom believe the town’s golden child was the actual father of her child.

No. She closed her eyes, her head still tipped back. She was way too tired for this conversation, for one, but she was also not about to throw McGee under the bus simply to get herself out of being interrogated by Marge.

Marge huffed a breath out of her nose. “You what?” She hugged her arms across her chest, pursed her lips, and narrowed her eyes, making Liz feel like she was in high school again. “You didn’t want people to know you were living with one guy and sleeping with another?”

The words hit Liz full force in the chest.

Was her mother serious?

Her ears roared from what she could only imagine was her rising blood pressure. She stood, hands clenched at her side.

“What are you even trying to say, Mom? Do you really think I am the kind of person who would be dating one guy and sleeping with another? Really, Mom? That is what you think of your daughter?”

Marge held up her hand, “Now, Liz, that is not —”

“No.” Liz’s face flushed warm as she flung the folded paper on top of the coffee table. “Not ‘now Liz.’ That’s seriously who you think I am. You just accused me of being a slut.” Liz’s face crumpled as she sat back down on the couch. “I can’t even believe this.” She dragged in a ragged breath, a sob working its way into her throat. Clutching the edge of the couch, she looked at the floor and tried to stop the room from spinning. She started to speak, but no sound came.

“Liz, I didn’t say you were a slut. I shouldn’t have said it that way. All I wanted to know was —”

“I want you to leave.”

Marge scoffed. “Excuse me?”

Liz looked up slowly, her head feeling like it was stuffed with lead. “I said leave. Get out of my apartment. I don’t want you here.”

Marge tossed her hands up and slapped them down again. “Liz, you are completely overreacting. I misspoke.”

“You did not. You spoke exactly what you were thinking.” Liz pointed at the door, her jaw tight. “What you’ve thought of me for a very long time. I want you to leave. Get out.”

Marge’s mouth formed a thin line as she stepped back. “Fine. I’ll leave. But I’ll call later so we can talk this out.” She looked over her shoulder, clipping out her next words. “You put words in my mouth, Liz, and I don’t appreciate that one little bit.”

The door slammed with a reverberating echo. Out of the corner of her eye, Liz see Ginny visibly flinch.

Liz’s chest constricted with guilt. She should have let Ginny leave before the explosion.

Ginny’s hand rubbed across Isabella’s back in a circular motion as she smiled weakly at Liz. “You okay?”

Liz cleared her throat. “Yeah — not really. Sorry you had to see that. You came here to be nice and then I stuck you in the middle of our family drama.”

Ginny sat on the couch. “You think my family has never had drama? I raised two young girls remember?” Ginny paused for effect and winked. “And one of them was Olivia, so you know what I mean.”

Liz knew she shouldn’t laugh. She’d certainly heard about Olivia’s reputation for having a flare for the dramatic, but she hadn’t expected Ginny to admit it. She wiped her finger under her eye and apologized again as she reached out for Isabella and then leaned back to let the fussy newborn nurse.

Ginny laid her hand against Liz’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Oh, Liz. I’m sure your mom didn’t mean —”

“You don’t know my mom.” Liz choked back a sob. “Not really. You only see the good side of her. She and dad have been angry at me since I moved in with Gabe. I know it was a mistake. I told them it was when I moved out, but now I know for sure what they think of me.”

Ginny shook her head. “I can’t imagine that, Liz. Your parents love —”

“Isabella.” Liz’s eyes filled with tears. “They love Isabella. And Tiffany. And Clint and my nieces and nephews. They see me as a disappointment.”

Ginny squeezed Liz’s hand in hers and drew in a breath. Liz braced herself for a gentle defense of her parents. Instead, Ginny simply shook her head and said, “I don’t think that’s true, but even if it is, you know in your heart that you did the right thing having Isabella, even if you feel how you got her was a mistake. God plans our days out Liz. None of what happened surprised Him and he meant for you to be this baby’s mother.”

The woman meant well, she did, and Liz understood what she was saying, but if God wasn’t surprised about Isabella’s conception, was he surprised about what happened with Gabe that night at his apartment. Why couldn’t God have intervened somehow? Stopped it all from happening the way it had? It was a question she wasn’t sure she’d ever have an answer to and one she didn’t want anyone in her life, including Ginny, to know she was even asking.

“Thank you, Ginny. Listen, you should really head home. I’ve taken up way too much of your time this afternoon. Won’t your husband be waiting for you?”

Ginny smiled but Liz sensed a sadness in her as she shook her head. “He has a late meeting tonight actually.” Her eyes drifted toward the window, the late afternoon sun casting shadows across the apartment floor. Her smile faded for a brief moment before it returned again when she looked at Liz, who recognized the attempt Ginny was making to create the illusion that all was well. “But that will give me time to read a book and maybe even watch a movie before bed.”

Liz tilted her head, narrowing her eyes. She couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling Ginny’s smile was all an act. Was there trouble in Jefferies paradise?

Maybe Liz wasn’t the only one who needed a break from family tonight.

“Eating alone doesn’t sound like fun to me.” She spoke the words before she changed her mind. “I was thinking of ordering a pizza to drown my sorrows. Want to stick around?” She winked. “I promise not to use you for your baby soothing skills. Or at least not only for your baby soothing skills.”

Ginny laughed and pushed a strand of hair that had fallen from her ponytail back from her face. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yeah. Sure. That would be nice. How about I call and order the pizza while you finish nursing?”

Liz was grateful for a moment along to try to gather her emotions as Ginny stepped into the kitchen to dial Vinnie’s Pizza, the closest pizza place to the apartment.

She’d been so angry at her mother, she’d almost forgotten she needed to call Matt, warn him about the birth announcement. The birth announcement he was supposed to keep out of the paper.

 Of course, maybe he already knew. Maybe his family, friends, co-workers and church groupies were already peppering him with questions, or even worse, giving him the side-eye, thinking about how little they really knew about the perfect Boy Scout of Spencer Valley. Maybe they were silently, or not-so-silently judging him. The thought made her sick to her stomach.

She picked up her phone to text him, then stopped herself, her finger hovering over the screen. She couldn’t tell him about the announcement in a text. A phone call would be better. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she adjusted Isabella on her lap. He’d been stopping by or calling almost every day since she’d come home. Today most likely wouldn’t be any different. She could talk to him then, ask him why in the world he hadn’t stopped that nurse from sending the birth announcement to the paper. Had he forgotten to speak to her or was there something more going on?



Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 5

After posting last week’s chapter, I noticed a bunch of errors and things I need to fill in, but I know that my readers know this is a book in progress and there will be changes before the final version comes out. Anyhow, this next chapter will be changed in the final version, I am sure, but it is a start. I do like the direction this story is going with Ginny and Liz so far. I have so many ideas of this book I am afraid it might get overwhelming, so I am sure I will have to cut many of those ideas back.

As usual, leave your ideas or thoughts about what you read or hope to read in the comments.

To catch up with the story go HERE. This book will be released in full sometime in the spring of 2022, if you prefer to wait. *wink*.

Chapter 5

Sitting at her desk at the library Ginny looked at the bright greenish, yellow substance in her bowl suspiciously. It looked like the slime she’d in the bottom of her kitchen sink a couple of months ago.

She dipped a baby carrot into the green goo and stared at it for a few moments before taking a bite. She gagged as it hit the back of her throat.

Good grief. The texture on her tongue was as slimy as it looked, and the taste was shockingly bland.

She looked at the green mush, scrunched up her face, and shook her head, bewildered with the idea that avocado was such a health food craze these days.

“It’s better when you make it into guacamole,” Sarah said, looking over Ginny’s shoulder. “You add onion, garlic, and other spices to it.”

“Oh, well, that makes sense. I just thought you mashed it up and ate it plain.”

“You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” Nancy Connelly said as she approached the desk with a stack of mysteries in her arms. “I’ve seen people eat it on their salads. but I don’t understand it. I mean, why can’t a salad just be normal? Lettuce, some tomatoes and a cucumber or two and some dressing. Everything is so complicated these days. Now it has to be a salad with avocado, green leaf lettuce, arugula, baby spinach, shredded cheese, cucumbers, red peppers, sunflower seeds, sprouts and humus and all of it has to be organic. It’s gotten completely out of hand.”

Ginny smiled and nodded, glad she hadn’t yet pulled out the salad she’d packed for lunch, a salad that included much of what Nancy had mentioned.

Nancy was apparently stocking up on books again, preparing for what forecasters were saying would be a rainy, gloomy week.

“Did you hear that Les and Alice Spencer’s cat got hit by a car?”

Ginny shook her head. Not only hadn’t she heard the news about the cat, but she didn’t even know who Les and Alice were.

“Well, I know everyone else will say it was an accident, but I’ve started to wonder if it was really an accident.”

After three years of signing out books mainly from the mystery section, Ginny had noticed Nancy was starting to see a mystery or foul play around every corner.

Nancy continued. “The Bradley’s across the street always hated that cat. Said he kept digging up her geraniums. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Bradley lured that poor kitty across the street with some salmon right when Jerry Kipp was driving down the street to work yesterday morning. Fluffypants just loved salmon. You should have seen poor Jerry’s face when he realized he’d hit that cat. What an awful thing for Mrs. Bradley to do, pulling him into her scheme to murder poor Fluffypants.”

Ginny paused scanning the books into the computer and raised an eyebrow. “Fluffypants?”

Nancy nodded affirmatively. “He had fluffy legs and paws, especially the back ones. It made him look like he was wearing fluffy pants.”

“Ah.”  Ginny tried not to giggle as she pictured the fluffy backend of a cat. It was important to respect the dead, after all.

“Ready for the rain?” she asked to chase away the giggle threatening to burst forth.

Nancy nodded. “I’m not planning on going anywhere until it’s all over. Do you know the weatherman said we could get up to an inch an hour tomorrow, then more heavy rain every day this week.” She took the bag Ginny handed her and smiled. “These should keep me occupied until the weather lets up. Keep dry!”

Nancy scooped her pile of books into her knitted bag and swung it onto her shoulder. Ginny watched her leave and wondered, like she always did, how sore Nancy’s shoulder would be that night from carrying all those books. Also, like she did each time she had that thought, she reminded herself it could be worse. Nancy could be carrying home a bag full of drugs or alcohol. There were worse addictions than reading mysteries.

Nancy was different than most of the patrons who stopped in. She mainly kept the conversation surface level. She rarely offered up personal details of her life, unlike the majority of other patrons who seemed to look at Ginny as someone to either share their entire life stories with or confess their darkest secrets to. They usually did so by sharing why they had chosen a particular book.

There were days Ginny felt like a cross between a social worker and a priest.

Connie Lawson limped to the counter with two books on knitting and another one entitled “Natural Remedies For Common (And Not-so Common) Ailments.”

“I figured I needed this one,” Connie said, even though Ginny hadn’t asked. “Ever since I had my knee replaced last year, I feel like I’m falling apart all over. I’ve got a constant ache in my right shoulder and a shooting pain in my lower back when I stand. Then this rash popped up on my – “

“Do you have the latest in the Jack Reacher series?” Harry Becker asked, abruptly appearing next to Marge.

Ginny had never been happier to have someone interrupt a conversation

“Yes, but it was checked out this morning,” Ginny said.

“Of course it was,” Harry said grumpily. “Just my luck. If I could figure out that blasted ebook device my kids gave me, I wouldn’t even have to use the library.”

Ginny forced a smile, no longer surprised by someone reminding her that her job was practically obsolete thanks to the increased popularity of digital books.

“Well, thanks anyhow,” Harry sighed. “I’ll check back later in the week and see if it’s here yet.”

Ginny finished checking out Connie’s book, told her to ‘have a nice day’ and turned back to her lunch, opening her salad, wishing it was a bucket of fried chicken instead.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a hooded figure enter the front door and slunk toward the first row of bookshelves. She turned and followed the figure as they stopped at a bookshelf and began to scan the titles.

On closer examination, Ginny noticed the figure was a young woman, hair tucked under the hood, hands shoved firmly in the pockets.

The way she was standing was familiar, reminded her of someone, but . . . who?

Ginny’s eyes narrowed as she took a bite of her salad and watched the young woman who tipped her head to look at titles.

She was beginning to feel like a spy.

And a creeper.

She should stop starring.

She started to turn away when the woman pushed back a strand of hair, bumping the hood back a few inches and revealing her face.

Oh.

It was Liz.

Her daughter-in-law’s sister.

Ginny narrowed her eyes. Liz looked exhausted and flustered. No surprise considering she’d given birth only two weeks ago.

She set her salad down and walked from behind the desk to the row of shelves.

“Liz?” The girl practically jumped out her hooded jacket. Ginny winced. “Oh gosh. I’m so sorry, hon’. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wanted to see if I could help you.”

Liz yawned and shook her head. “Sorry, Ginny. I just — I’m tired. I didn’t hear you walk up.”

Ginny smiled. “I can tell you’re tired and I don’t know how you wouldn’t be. How old is the baby now?”

The sigh that came from Liz sounded both wistful and draining. “Two weeks tomorrow.”

“Oh my. That means, of course, she is not sleeping through the night.”

Liz scoffed. “Of course not. I am just trying to snatch cat naps whenever I can. I should be sleeping now but Molly said she’d watch her on her lunch break so I could come down here.”

Being a single mom couldn’t be easy. Ginny couldn’t imagine raising a baby alone. Stan had been a wonderful support when she’d had the kids, each and every time, though maybe a little less with Olivia since the real estate business had started picking up then.

“Is there a particular book you’re looking for?” she asked Liz. “A fiction book to distract yourself from the exhaustion maybe?”

Liz laughed. “No, but that would be nice. I’m looking for some baby book my mom said Tiffany used for everything when Wyatt was born. Something written by a Dr. Stars or something. The Baby Book.”

“Ah, yes.” Ginny turned and gestured to the second floor. “Dr. Sears. Tiffany did love that book. I remember her gushing about it. We have a copy in our baby section.” Liz’s shoulders slumped and Ginny had a feeling the idea of climbing that flight of stairs to find the book was sending another wave of exhaustion washing over the new mother. “I’d be glad to go pull it out for you and anything else I find up there that might help. Anything specific you need help with?”

Liz’s eyes glistened as she looked at Ginny. “Everything really but right now how to stop her crying. She’s been crying almost constantly for about six hours each day for the last week. I’ve tried everything. Feeding, changing, burping, swaddling, not swaddled. She screams every time I lay her down in the crib and Molly has to get up early for work so I can’t leave her there screaming. And all those other books I read when I was pregnant said I can’t lay her down next to me because I’ll roll on her and kill her, but I’ve had to because it’s the only way she’ll sleep at all and therefore the only way I’ll get any sleep. I’m just out of options.” Liz’s lower lip quivered, but she managed to hold the tears back.

Ginny certainly remembered those days. She also remembered talking to Clint when Tiffany was at her wits end with her first baby and at a loss how to handle the inconsolable crying.

Ginny gestured to a plush green chair a few steps to her right. “Why don’t you sit here in this lovely plush chair the money from the local women’s business association helped us buy while I go get them?”

Liz looked relieved and flopped into the chair, shoving her hands deep in her jacket pockets again. Her head slumped forward, and Ginny wondered if she would even be awake when she came back with the books. She didn’t have to wonder long. Ten minutes later a soft snore was coming from the hood and Ginny opted not to wake her. It was clear she needed the sleep.

Sarah peered over the book she was reading.

“That woman is asleep.”

Ah, the youth of today. So perceptive.

“Yes, Sarah. She is.”

“Shouldn’t we wake her?”

Ginny shook her head as she placed the three books she’d found on the counter. “That’s my daughter-in-law’s sister. She just had a baby. Poor thing is exhausted. I’ll give her a little bit before I wake her.” She laughed softly as she sat back down to finish her salad. “Well, unless she starts snoring like a chainsaw.”

Sarah shrugged. “Okay. Well, I’m going to go start putting books back then. I’ll let you handle that. You have more experience in that area anyhow.”

The 20-something-year-old giggled and skipped toward the stairs for the bottom floor. Ginny sighed.

 Yes, she did have more experience than Sarah. In motherhood and just about everything else. Because Sarah was young and she was — she sighed again — old.

She was part way through categorizing a pile of new books when Liz woke with a start and looked around, obviously confused.

“Oh my gosh. Where — what time is it? I’ve got to get out of here. Molly has to get back to the store.”

She stood quickly then sat back down again, gripping the arms of the chair.

“Slow down,” Ginny said standing and holding her hand out. “Take your time getting up.”

Liz nodded slowly and let out a breath before slowly standing and walking toward the desk.

Ginny started to scan the books she’d picked out for her. “Liz, you are clearly exhausted. Do you want me to come over after work and take the baby for a bit so you can rest?”

Liz shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. Molly will be home later tonight, and Mom said her ladies meeting for the women’s business association should be over by 8. I’m sure she will swing by before she heads home.”

Ginny slid the books into a bag. “It’s noon, Liz. That’s a long time to wait to get a nap. Listen, I  really don’t mind. One of the volunteers is coming in at 1 and I was going to slip out around then anyhow. I can come by and watch Isabella so you can take a nap. It’s no big deal, really.”

It’s not like I’ll have anyone waiting for me when I go home anyhow, Ginny thought with a heavy ache in her chest.

Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth and focused on the surface of the desk. Ginny knew the battle going on in her mind. Say ‘yes’ and look like she couldn’t handle being a mom. Say ‘no’ and risk offending.

Ginny decided to put her out of her misery. “I’m sorry. I’m being pushy.” She reached over and laid her hand against Liz’s arm. “Just know I’m here if you need some extra help.”

Liz took the bag of books and hugged it to her chest. A small smile tugged at her mouth. “Thank you, Ginny. Actually, I think I will take you up on that offer. I really could use a nap.”

The tension slid out of Ginny’s muscles. “See you in about an hour?”

Liz’s shoulders visibly relaxed as well. “Sure. That would be great. Thank you.”

Watching Liz walk through the front door, Ginny propped her hands together in a triangle shape and pressed the tips of her index fingers against her bottom lip. Had she ever been that young? She closed her eyes, picturing a sunny day on her back porch, holding a sleeping baby while she swayed in place. Yes, she had been that young, that scared and overwhelmed.

Her own mom hadn’t been around then. It had only been her and Stan. She’d been 21, Stan 23.

She didn’t have friends who could help either back then. They were all taking care of children of their own.

She was very much alone at the time, until an elderly neighbor woman stepped over one afternoon, knocked on the door, and offered a helping hand. It was different back then. Everyone helped everyone else. Of course, why did it have to be different now? They were still living a small town and reaching out to help others was still a part of human nature.

Plus, Liz wasn’t a stranger. She was practically family. Liz’s sister became like another daughter to Ginny when she’d married Clint. The least she could do was lend a helping hand.

Halfway through her salad and a new book she was considering for next month’s book discussion she felt eyes on her and looked up to see no one at the front desk. She started to look back at her salad when she caught a pair of brown eyes watching her intently over the edge of her desk.

“Oh. Um. May I help you?”

“Do you have books about boogers?” a small voice asked.

“Boogers?”

“Yes. The things you pull out of your nose. Boogers.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ginny said with a perplexed look on her face. “Let me look. I don’t think anyone has ever asked for a book on boogers.”

She swiveled her chair toward she computer and typed “boogers” into the search bar. It was a weird request, yes, but she’d searched for weirder things over the years. She tried not to think about the other topics.

“Huh. There is a book on boogers. Go figure. I guess I forgot about that one.”

The book on boogers retrieved, Ginny sat back at her desk to finish her lunch. As she shoved a bite of lettuce in mouth, Mary Ellis shuffled forward with a child wrapped around her leg and a stack of books in her hands. Children’s books and romances rounded out her pile.

“First, I owe you money for ‘Cooking with Pooh,’” she said, thumping her purse down next to the pile of books and digging through it. “Mason spilled pudding on it and then painted it with the pudding.”

“Oh, well, maybe he’ll be a future artist,” Ginny said.

Mary made a face. “I hope not. Artists are poor, and I need him to get a job that pays so he can put me and his father in a nice home to make up for the hell he’s put us through these last five years.”

Oh my. Ginny looked at her with wide eyes.

Mary handed a crumpled pile of bills to Ginny. A small blond-haired child’s appeared above the counter and then disappeared again as 3-year old Brynn Ellis jumped up and down.

“Count that, I think it’s right,” Mary said. “Brynn! Stop jumping! Mason! Put down that book. We are not getting it. No. Don’t argue with me. You do not need to learn how to make a bomb.”

Ginny smiled wearily as she checked out the books. Watching Mary with her five children was one of the few times she found herself happy her children were now grown and living outside the home.

As she placed the books in a bag for Mary, Ginny looked up to see 7-year-old Justine looking at her with wide eyes.

“Those are a lot of wrinkles,” Justine informed her. “My mommy doesn’t have that many wrinkles.”

Ginny forced her smile to stay in place as she lifted the bag across to Mary.

“Well, that’s nice,” she told Justine.

“She says we are giving her gray hair, though” Justine said. “And she prays a lot. She asks God to give her strength.” Justine pressed her hand against her own forehead and dragged it slowly across the skin. “She holds her head just like this and clenches her teeth like this when she says it.” Justine hissed out the words, “Lord, give me strength-th-th.”

Ginny glanced at the haggard looking Mary who was trying to pry 2-year-old Ethan off her leg.

“And I hope he will continue to do so,” Ginny said, truly hoping Mary could find a break soon. “Enjoy your books.”

Mary lifted a crying Ethan on to her hip, clutched the bag to her chest and blew a strand of hair away from her face. “Thank you. Kids, come on. Let’s get home and make some lunch.”

Ginny watched as Mary shuffled toward the door and then paused and leaned over the counter, lowering her voice.

“Oh. I almost forgot. Little Tony puked in the heating grate in the children’s section. You might want to clean that up soon because he had hot dogs for lunch.”

***

Ginny had stopped by at 1 and now Liz was in her room, under her covers, starring at the ceiling instead of sleeping.

Why am I not sleeping?! Liz clenched her jaw and growled under her breath.

Isabella had cried for about fifteen minutes then mysteriously grew quiet shortly after Liz heard a soft voice singing. Somehow Ginny had been able to figure out how to soothe Isabella when Liz couldn’t. Maybe it was because she was likely tone deaf and Ginny wasn’t. Maybe it was because Isabella sensed Ginny knew what she was doing and Liz didn’t.

 She should be happy about Ginny had found the magic combination to calm her newborn, but instead jealousy pricked at her. Hadn’t she’d read enough books, researched enough articles, and taken enough notes in her Lamaze class — the class she barely needed in the end — to know how to handle the crying jags? Apparently not.

Obviously, she also hadn’t retained any of the information she’d read before giving birth, or at least not enough to be a good enough mother.

She’d hoped good ole’ Marge would have ideas would have ideas she might share with Liz, since she’d raised two children and taken care of Tiffany’s brood on and off over the years. Marge had had a couple ideas, but just when Liz would think they’d found a solution, Isabella would start wailing again and Marge would rush off to her ladies group, or to prepare the house for Tiffany and Clint’s homecoming. Liz wondered if Marge and Frank were going to rent out the social hall for a full-on welcome home event for the couple. Maybe Ginny and Dan would chip in too. Or was his name Stan? She never could remember Ginny’s husband’s name. They’d only met twice, once at Clint and Tiffany’s wedding and once at Tiffany’s first baby shower.

Honestly, she didn’t know much about Ginny at all, other than she used to be a teacher and she was now the director of the library. She’d attended a few art classes with Molly that Ginny had also been at and of course they’d also been at the gym the same time a few times.

 She seemed nice enough and had a great sense of humor. Liz remembered her telling Molly last year that Alex had a crush on her when Molly was clueless the man was flirting with her. They’d been working out at the gym and Alex had told Molly how good she looked even without working out, and Molly had brushed it off.

“He’s totally flirting with you, Molly,” Ginny had informed Molly as she walked away from the bike she’d been exercising on.

Liz remembered Molly trying to change the subject about her and Alex by asking Liz what she knew about Ginny.

“She looks sad,” Molly had said.

Liz hadn’t remembered her looking sad, necessarily, but she had noticed how determined and fierce she looked pumping away on that stationary bike. Like the faster she pedaled, the faster she could forget about something.

Or someone.

Liz rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut.

She was exhausted. Why couldn’t she just fall asleep?

She needed her mind to stop racing.

She reached for her phone and scrolled through her messages.

Marge: Hey, honey. I’ll be by later to see how you girls are doing. I’ve almost got all the rooms ready for Tiffany and Clint’s arrival next week. So excited! Aren’t you?!

Liz rolled her eyes and kept scrolling.

Yeah. So excited. As excited as getting a root canal.

 She winced. That wasn’t fair. She was excited, in a way. She wanted to see her sister and brother-in-law and her nieces and nephews. She simply wasn’t looking forward to watching her parents fawn all over Tiffany like she was special simply because she was super fertile. Well, that and she’d done everything the right order. Marriage, then children. Unlike Liz who was single with a baby.

She scrolled to the next message. It had been sent that morning. 8 a.m. After she’d had three hours of sleep, so she hadn’t yet responded.

Matt: Just thought I’d say good morning. Hope you and Isabella are doing well. Hope to stop by with a gift later today.

A small smile titled her mouth upward but then she frowned. She really hoped Matt didn’t stop by. She looked awful.

Wait. Why did she care if she looked awful when Matt stopped by? It wasn’t like they were dating.

They were just friends.

As far as she knew.

And as far as she knew, he only wanted to be friends.

Yes, they’d gone out on a couple of dates, three if she counted the one where her water had broken while he showed her how to fish, but she didn’t count that day as a date. She also didn’t count the day when he’d driven her an hour to pick out a crib so he could slide it in the back of his truck as a date. Or the four times he’d taken her to her doctor’s appointments as dates.

Or the time he had brought her food after work when she was eight months pregnant because he’d seen her at work and thought she’d be too tired to cook when she got home.

The dates had happened before she’d gotten pregnant.

When she’d been broken up with Gabe.

Before she’d made one of the worst mistakes of her life. You know, other than the whole dating and moving in with Gabe in the first place mistake.

She had been frustrated and tired the day Matt had taken her to his favorite fishing spot on Cullen Pond. He’d known that. It’s why he had taken her, he said. To try to cheer her up.

Neither of them had known that her water would break on his boots while he stood behind her and brought her arm back to throw the fishing line out. Her face flushed warm at the memory of how she’d had to scream for him to pull over, how she’d told him, “This baby is coming now!” and how he’d positioned himself where her midwife was supposed to be.

Ugh. The absolute humiliation of it all.

He’d gone into police officer mode, though, clearly trained for such an emergency. He’d never spoken a word about all that he’d seen that he shouldn’t have and neither had she. It was all too embarrassing to think about, let alone talk about.

She huffed out a breath and rolled to her other side, yanking the covers up over her shoulder. She needed to stop thinking and instead be trying to sleep. Ginny had offered to watch Isabella to give her time to nap, so she needed to nap already.

She closed her eyes and did what she always did when she couldn’t sleep. Counted sheep. When that didn’t work, she started using the alphabet to list old 80s bands, starting with the letter A and working her way down, drifting to sleep when she hit the letter M.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of The Next Chapter. If you want to catch up with other chapters, you can go HERE, or you can wait until all the chapters are together in one book in the Spring of 2022.

To read my other books, visit my Amazon Author Page.

Chapter 4

“I still think you should have come to stay with us a few days, Liz. Climbing up and down these stairs while you are recovering really isn’t a good idea.”

Marge Cranmer was a blur of activity, placing food on Molly and Liz’s small kitchen table, pouring drinks, pausing every few minutes to smile and coo at her sixth grandchild.

Liz shrugged. “It’s really not a big deal. I won’t have anywhere to go for a few days. My follow-up appointment isn’t until next week and Molly’s been nice enough to offer to get me supplies and groceries while she’s out.”

Marge scooped rice onto her daughter’s plate. “Well, that’s nice, but the offer still stands if you change your mind. Of course, I will be over here to help watch Isabella while you rest. Isabella. I love that you chose that name. Your grandmother would have been tickled pink. Really. It was sweet of you.” Marge reached over and pushed a strand of hair back from Liz’s face. “You look so tired. Did you rest at all in the hospital? I bet you didn’t. Hospitals are so hard to sleep in, plus I’m sure you were watching the baby. Did the nurses take the baby? They should have so you could sleep.”

Liz took a deep breath, waiting to see if her mother was done talking yet. She wasn’t.

“This is the rice recipe I got from Ginny at Tiffany’s last baby shower and the chicken you said you liked that time you came over for dinner a couple of months ago. Oh, and so sorry your dad couldn’t stay after he set the crib up. He had a meeting at the church with the building committee. I told you they’re building on right?” She sat abruptly and reached one hand toward Molly and the other toward Liz. “Let’s say a quick prayer of thanks.”

Liz glanced at Molly, trying to catch her attention, but her eyes were glued to Marge, her brow furrowed and her mouth slightly open. She was probably thinking what Liz was. How much sugar has Marge consumed today?

“Lord, bless us this food to our bodies and thank you for this wonderful day and for my little granddaughter. In your name, amen.”

“Amen,” Liz and Molly chorused.

Liz picked up her fork. “This looks great, Mom. Thank you for making lunch of us. You really didn’t have to.”

Marge set a glass of lemonade on the table. “Of course, I did. It isn’t every day your youngest brings home her first little bundle of joy.” She smiled down at the baby asleep in the car seat next to the table.

Looking at her mother, cheeks flushed from rushing, Liz couldn’t decide if she liked this new version of Marge — the one who seemed delighted Liz had given birth to a baby instead of the one whose eyes had filled with tears the night Liz told her she was pregnant, or the one who had barely spoke to her the entire two years she’d lived with Gabe.

“Is Gabe the father?” she’d asked the night Liz had told her. “Does he know he’s going to be a father even?”

And now she was back to Gabe as she sat down across from Liz. “So, did you let Gabe know that —”

“That what? That I gave birth to the baby he told me he wanted nothing to do with?”

Marge raised an eyebrow. “Well, I thought maybe his mind might change if he knew — or if he saw the baby.”

Liz swallowed the retort she wanted to give. Her mom had been trying so hard to be kind and understanding the last few months, something she’d once been fairly poor at. She didn’t want her mom to think the retort was aimed at her. She decided a softened tone was in order instead.

“I don’t think his mind would change, no. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like the idea of your granddaughter not having a father, but Gabe isn’t father material. He wasn’t even boyfriend material.”

Marge set her glass down on the table and nodded. “Okay, hon’ . We don’t have to talk about it right now.”

She reached her hand out and covered Liz’s briefly, a move that startled Liz since her mother hadn’t necessarily been affectionate in the last few years. Not that Liz could necessarily blame her. She hadn’t been the best daughter, or really a daughter at all.

She’d been selfish, self-centered and a first-class know-it-all, which is why she was now a single mother of a child fathered by a emotionally and physically abusive man. Her mom didn’t know about Gabe’s abuse though. She knew he hadn’t always been kind or attentive but there was only so much Liz could handle her parents knowing about how far she’d fallen. They already knew she’d moved in with a man she wasn’t married to, drank too much while with him and, obviously, gotten pregnant from him. How could she also tell them that she’d been stupid enough to stay with him even when he yelled at her, pushed her against a wall once, slapped her another time, and cheated on her at least once, if not more? She was humiliated enough.

A knock on the door broke the tension.

Liz stood quickly. “I’ll get it.”

When the room blurred into a mesh of colors, she clutched the edge of the table and gasped.

Molly was at her side immediately, her hand under her elbow. “Sit down. You just had a baby. You can’t rush around like your used to.”

Liz nodded, the dizziness fading as she slowly sat. “Thanks for the reminder.”

“I’ll get the door,” Molly said. “You going to be okay?”

Liz nodded slowly, trying to shake the left over weakness in her legs.

“Sip your lemonade,” her mother instructed. “It’s probably low blood pressure. Maybe you should go lay down.”

Liz shook her head. “No. I’m fine now. Really. I think I probably need food more than anything.”

“You’re eating for two for real now by breastfeeding.” Marge sighed. “Really I don’t think you should be breastfeeding at all. That’s a huge time commitment. You have a job you’ll be going back to and that won’t leave much time for nursing sessions.”

Ah, here was the old Marge Cranmer, creeping back in.

“Linda is completely supportive of my decision to breastfeed. She’s already told me I can pump in the back office anytime I need to.”

“It’s not the logistics that concerns me but the exhaustion it’s bound to bring,” Marge said, spearing a piece of chicken with her fork. “You’ve never been as hearty as Tiffany.”

Liz laid her fork down and groaned. “Really, Mom?”

“It’s not an insult, honey. It’s just the truth. You’ve always been a little more . . . sensitive I guess I’d say. That’s just how you are made.”

Liz folded her arms across her chest. Here we go again, she thought, a burning in her chest spreading up into her throat. “Yes. I get it. I am made of less sturdy stock than perfect Tiffany.”

Marge tipped her head and pursed her lips. “Liz, hon’, you have got to get over this whole competition thing with your sister. I’ve told you that before. And that is not what I said. Don’t place your insecurities in my words.”

Liz pushed her plate back and stood abruptly. “You know what? I’m not hungry anymore. I think you were right. I should lie down for a while.”

Marge stood as well. “I wasn’t trying to start an argument.” Her tone denoted the annoyance she felt but Liz could also see by the jumping muscle in her jaw that Marge was trying to keep her temper in check. “I was simply expressing concern for you.”

“Right.” Liz tossed the napkin she’d been clutching onto her plate of half-eaten food. “Because I can’t handle it. I got it, Mom.”

Turning on her heel, she winced as the room tilted again. She closed her eyes against her swirling surroundings, a static buzz filling her ears. She felt herself falling and reached out into the darkness, her hand colliding with something firm, yet soft before darkness overtook her.

When she came to, Matt was standing over her, brow furrowed, his face etched with concern.

She was on the couch and Molly was kneeling next to her, pressing a cold cloth to her forehead. A coldness touched her lips as Molly lifted her head. “Drink this. I haven’t seen you drink anything all day.”

Matt set his hands on his hips. “Maybe it’s low iron. Did they test her iron before they sent her home?”

Her mom was over her next, smoothing her hair back from her forehead. “Maybe we should take her back over. They could have missed something.”

Liz sipped the water and after pushing the glass away propped herself up on her elbows. “I think I’ve just pushed myself too much today, guys. How about I rest a little and if I’m still not feeling better, we can discuss me going back to the hospital.”

Molly stood and sat back on the chair across from the couch. “I think that sounds like a plan. I’m going to call the store and let them know I won’t be in for the afternoon shift.”

A small cry came from the kitchen and Marge turned and started walking toward the car seat. “No need, Molly. I’ll stay here with her.”

“Don’t you have your ladies group?” Molly asked.

Marge kneeled by the car seat and uncovered her squirming granddaughter. She lifted Isabella out gently and placed her against her shoulder. “Nope. I told them I needed to postpone it until Monday because Liz was coming home today.” She patted the baby’s back, the small whimper now becoming a full-on wail.

Liz laid her head back against the couch pillow. She hated the idea of her mother seeing her in such a weak state, having another excuse to call her weaker than her older sister.

At the same time, her entire body was actually weak not to mention aching and her head was still spinning. Maybe her mom was right. Maybe Tiffany really was made of sturdier stuff.

“I’m going to head out and let you rest.”

Matt’s voice startled her. She’d briefly forgotten he was there and now that she remembered, the familiar flush of humiliation spread from her chest to her cheeks. Yet again he was seeing her in a vulnerable position.

“Did you need something?” She flinched when her voice squeaked out the last word like a boy going through puberty.

Matt shook his head, his eyes still clouded with concern. “Just stopped by to see if you and Molly needed anything before I headed to work.” His gaze slid to Marge. “Luckily Mrs. Cranmer is here.”

Marge waved a hand. “Matthew McGee, there is no need to call me Mrs. Cranmer. It makes me feel so old. Please. Call me Marge.”

Matt nodded, grinning. “Old habits die hard.”

“You haven’t been in my Sunday School class in over 20-years.” Marge laughed and winked. “Kill the habit, young man.”

Liz’s eyes narrowed. Since when did her mom wink? Maybe she had an eyelash in her eye. Of course, this was Matt McGee, Encounter Church and Spencer Valley’s golden boy, she was talking to. The man who felled criminals all day as an officer with the Spencer Tri-Township Police Department and led Bible studies when he was done. He was also a Little League coach, a volunteer with the county boys and girls club, volunteered with the soup kitchen and the local pregnancy care center, and last year the town council had tried to convince him to run for mayor. At this point she couldn’t decide if she should be jealous of him or submit his name for sainthood.

If any of the women in town were turned off by the fact Matt wasn’t as built or muscular as one might expect of a police officer, they didn’t show it. His bright hazel eyes and charming smile and personality more than made up for what he might be lacking in physique.  Liz’s eyes drifted across broad shoulders and down the length of this arms. Then again . . . had he been working out?

“No problem, Marge.” Matt said the words, but Liz heard the strain when he said her mom’s first name. “Looks like Liz is in good hands so I’m going to head out. Reggie doesn’t like it if we’re late for  staff meetings.”

Liz knew she shouldn’t laugh but she couldn’t help it. “Reggie Stoddard holds actual staff meetings?”

Matt mocked gasped. “Now, Liz, don’t pick on Reggie.” He teasingly wagged his finger at her. “Yes, he is one of the laziest people I have ever worked for, but he’s also a good man and he loves the people in this community. We’re lucky to have him.”

Lazy was an understatement, but she supposed Matt was right. Reggie, the department’s chief, did care about the community, even if he did make his officers and everyone else do most of his work for him.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow, okay?” Matt smiled and she swallowed hard. It wasn’t fair he had such a nice smile when he was totally out of her league. “Get some rest.”

Molly was the next to leave, on her way to the farm store. After nursing Isabella, Liz pulled the covers up over her shoulder and decided she’d take a nap on the couch instead of finding her way to the bedroom.

Her mother began swaddling Isabella in the bassinet she’d brought over the week before. “That was nice of Matt to stop by. I didn’t realize you two were friends.”

Liz closed her eyes. If she laid here long enough maybe her mom would think she’d fallen asleep. In fact, she was almost there so  —

“Not that it is a bad thing you are friends. Matt is a wonderful man. He leads the singles Bible study at church, coaches the local Little League and everyone in town just adores him. I just didn’t realize you two knew each other that well. I mean, well enough for you to give birth in the front of his pickup truck that is.” Marge cleared her throat. “Which is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. How did that all come about anyhow?”

Liz attempted a realistic sounding snore.

Marge sighed. “I know that tactic, Liz. You’ve been doing that since you were three, but okay. If you don’t want to talk about it right now, that’s fine. I know you’re exhausted. Get some sleep while you can. Isabella will need to be fed again soon and you still have to establish that milk supply.”

Yes, mother. I know. Despite what you think, I do know something about taking care of a newborn.

Liz thought the retort, instead of saying it, glad she was too tired to open her mouth and speak the words out loud.

“You know, I should get you a copy of that book Tiffany got when she had Evan.”

Why was her mother still talking?

“The Baby Book by some doctor. It was like her own personal baby bible for the first 18 months of Evan’s life. I’ll ask Elaina at the bookstore if she has it or can order me a copy, but in the meantime, I bet you could find a copy at the library. Just ask Ginny to look it up for you. I’m sure she’d be happy to.”

Oh, yes. Of course. How wonderful.

Now not only would her entire family, her best friend, and Matt McGee know how inept she was at motherhood, but now her sister’s mother-in-law would know too.

She was grateful when sleep washed over her, so she didn’t have to think about how bad she was going to be at this whole motherhood.

***

Matt shook his head as he drove toward the police station.

What had he even been thinking stopping to see Liz like that?

They weren’t dating. They were barely friends.

For goodness’ sake she’d just given birth to another man’s baby in his truck three days ago. If that wasn’t a sign there wasn’t anything between them, he didn’t know what was.

Of course, that man wasn’t in the picture anymore and never should have been in it in the first place.

Liz had plenty of people to take care of her, though. What did he think he was going to do? The only good thing about him stopping was that he’d been there to catch her when she’d blacked out. His mind had been racing as he carried her to the couch.

He’d been ready to call an ambulance until her mom assured him she was probably just weak from needing to eat. Still, he’d kneeled next to her, taken her pulse, checked her breathing and even laid a hand against her forehead to see if she was feverish. He’d heard of women having infections after giving birth.

Ridiculous.

That’s what this was.

Thinking and worrying about a woman he wasn’t in a relationship with. It wasn’t that Liz was rude to him, but the walls she flung up whenever they were alone should be sign enough of a sign she didn’t want him around.

Inviting her to go fishing with him at his favorite spot on the lake had probably been one of the stupidest ideas he’d had, especially she was nine months pregnant at the time.

He’d been tired of her talking about how fat and unattractive she was when they were hanging out with Alex and Molly. No matter how many times he told her she was beautiful and glowing, how pregnancy made her even more beautiful, she wouldn’t listen. Plus, she was stressed that the baby hadn’t been born yet, so he thought a trip to the lake would take her mind off things.

They’d been standing on the edge of the pond when her water broke.

He’d just brought her arm back to show her how to cast when she screamed. He looked over at her saw her looking down in horror and followed her gaze to the puddle on and around his favorite pair of hiking boots. He missed those boots. They were in the trash out back, waiting for his next trip to the landfill.

Basing his experience on his sister and sister-in-law’s labors he’d thought they had plenty of time to get to the hospital. That assumption had turned out to be completely wrong halfway to the hospital, making him wish he had even more experience of women in labor.

“I’m not going to make it,” Liz had told him with wide eyes.

Thinking she’d meant she wasn’t going to make it through labor, he tried to encourage her. “You’ve got this, Liz. You can totally get through this. Millions of women do every —”

“I’m not going to make it to the hospital, McGee! This baby is coming NOW!”

McGee. What was with that anyhow? She’d been calling him McGee since high school, but he thought by now, a decade later, she could manage to say his first name.

She hadn’t made it to the hospital either. He’d pulled the truck over, silently rehearsing what he’d learned in his first aid classes about delivering a baby as he walked around to her side of the truck.

Thankfully his brain had switched to police offer mode during the delivery. He’d focused on the task at hand, acting as if Liz wasn’t the woman he’d wanted to kiss at the lake an hour earlier, and instead pretending she was a stranger he’d come upon during his shift.

He realized with a start he’d been sitting in his truck outside the police station for ten minutes while he remembered Isabella’s birth. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. That meant he was now 15 minutes late to work instead of five.

“McGee!” Reggie’s voice from the back of the building was sharp, but Matt knew there was little bite behind it. “Get in here!”

Matt tossed his jacket on to the back of his chair and headed toward Reggie’s office. The portly police chief was standing, pushing a drawer of a green metal filing cabinet closed

“Sorry, I’m late chief, I —”

Reggie scowled as he walked back to his desk, but Matt could already see the smile trying to tug at the corners of his mouth. “I have you for two more months McGee, don’t start checking out now. I’m not going to have you acting like a space cadet until you leave for the academy.”

 Reggie reminded Matt of a roly-poly toy he’d seen last year at an antique store while he was on a hunting trip with his uncle. The buttons of his uniform trained against a round belly, short, stumpy legs stuck out from the bottom and wild tufts of graying brown hair stuck out from the top of his head. He was rarely clean shaven and today was no exception.

“Sorry, chief. Really.” Time to be open. “I stopped by to check on Liz and she passed out. I stayed until I was sure she was okay.”

Reggie huffed into a ripped black desk chair and slapped a file onto his desk. “Passed out, huh? She low on iron?”

Matt shrugged a shoulder. “Thought the same thing. She’s not sure, but her mom was with her so I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Reggie leaned toward the desk and tipped his head down to look over a pair of cheater glasses he’d picked up last week at Bert’s Drugstore. “What’s the deal with you two anyhow? Somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me, McGee? You the father of that baby of hers or what?”

Anyone else might have taken offense to Reggie’s straight forward questions, but Matt never did. He knew Reggie meant well. He simply lacked tact.

“No sir. We’re just good friends. I’ve known her since high school.”

After a couple of seconds of watching Matt with narrowed eyes, Reggie seemed to accept that answer and leaned back in his chair, flipping the folder open. “Alright then. That topic is closed. Now. I’ve got a case here I’d like your help with since you’re the brains in this outfit.” He pushed the file across the desk. “Bernie Denton. Know him?”

Matt nodded as he looked at the mug shut attached to the file. “Yes, sir. He was in my class at school. We didn’t graduate together. He dropped out in tenth grade. Been in trouble ever since. I picked him up for drug possession my first year here. He moved to Clarkson a few years back, so he’s been someone else’s problem, but I’ve seen his name in the paper more than once for several different offenses.”

Reggie folded his fingers against his palms and tapped the top of the desk. “Yep. That’s him. Well, guess what? He’s our problem again. Not directly our problem, exactly. He’s living somewhere in the area. As far as I know, he’s not in our jurisdiction, but the state police are looking for him and they’ve asked for our help. He’s up on some bigger charges this time. Meth manufacturing and trafficking.”

Matt sat in the chair across from Reggie’s desk, flipping through the file. “And here we thought the heroine epidemic would push meth out the door. Guess not.” He laid the file down and leaned back in the chair. “What help are the state police looking for?”

The sigh that came out of Reggie triggered a brief coughing spell. He sipped his coffee and cleared his throat. “Dang allergies. Ragweed must be blooming out back the house again.” He took another sip of coffee. Matt knew it was mostly black with a drop of creamer. He’d poured it enough for him. “Anyhow, they want us to keep an eye out and let them know if we see Bernie. If we do, they want us to contact them, but they also might want one of our guys to make first contact, break the ice, so to speak, and help them get their foot in the door with him. They don’t think he knows they know about the meth factory he’s got up at his junkyard, if you know what I mean.”

Matt laughed. “Yeah. I get your drift, but if you think I’m the guy for this job, you’re wrong. Bernie and I never hit it off in school and he knows I’m a cop. He’s not going to open up to me.”

“Probably not, but you’re a familiar face. He might trust you more than a statie from out of the area. Maybe we can bring him in without too much fanfare.” Reggie dragged the folder back across the desk and slapped it closed. “Of course, all of this will be moot if we don’t happen upon him in the next couple of months. After that you’ll be lost to me. Down state being brainwashed by them gray gods.”

Matt snorted a laugh. “Now come on, Chief. Not all state police are like that.”

Reggie looked at Matt over his mug of coffee and rolled his eyes. “Just the majority of them.” He gulped the last of the coffee and set the mug down hard on the top of the desk. “Promise me you won’t let them change you, make you one of the elite who look down their noses at us small towners.”

“I promise,” Matt said, raising a hand and plastering a solemn expression on his face.

Reggie scowled at him, but a faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“Get out of here, McGee. I’m tired of looking at your handsome face. Go do some actual work for once. Start with training that rookie out there. He’s driving me nuts, following me around and reciting what he learned in the academy like he’s some big shot.”

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 3

I almost forgot to put this up today. I haven’t had a chance to go over this chapter well, so bear with me. It will definitely change before I finish the final version of the story.

To read the first two installments of this story go HERE.

Chapter 3

“Blanket, car seat, paperwork, duffle bag . . .” Molly Tanner twisted and scanned the hospital room with narrowed eyes, turned again at looked at the infant car seat on the floor at her feet. “Newborn in car seat. Check. Okay. Looks like we have everything.”

Liz smiled at the flush of red spreading along her friend’s naturally pale complexion, a sign that she was flustered, yet trying to act like she wasn’t. Molly had been a literal Godsend from the beginning, there for Liz every step of the way, from bringing her ginger tea and lemon water at work when the morning sickness kicked in, to helping her out of bed in the morning when Liz had become too round to roll out of it herself. 

Molly had even moved in with her six months ago, which hadn’t been a huge sacrifice considering she should have been out of her parent’s house and on her own long ago. It had at least been a small sacrifice, however. One, because Molly was still working on her family’s farm and in their farm store. Living in an apartment with Liz in town meant Molly had to drive twenty minutes around 5 a.m. each morning to help milk the cows. She also had to drive fifteen minutes from the farm store on the days she worked there. More of a sacrifice than any of that, though, was that Molly was now delayed an entire 20 minutes from seeing her boyfriend, Alex Stone, in the barn each morning.

“I can handle not seeing him as often as I used to,” Molly had said one day when Liz had teased her. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Luckily, she wouldn’t be delayed in seeing him today. Alex had come with Molly to help carry Liz’s gifts and belongings to the car. He’d carried one load of gifts, flowers, and balloons to the car already.

Liz stood and winced, every muscle in her body screaming in protest. Her labor hadn’t been as long as some, but she still felt as if she’d run a marathon two days before. “I hope you didn’t bring that truck of yours to drive us home.”

Molly looped the duffle bag over her shoulder. “Give me a little credit. I borrowed Ellie’s car. I can’t have you trying to climb in a truck in your condition.”

Liz sighed. “In my condition? Do I look that bad?”

“You don’t look bad. You look tired. Rightly so. You just pushed a human being out of you.”

Alex reached for the duffle bag as he appeared in the doorway. “I’ll take that.”

“Liz is the one that had the baby.” Molly leaned away from him. “Not me. I can handle it.”

“No, I’ll carry the duffle bag and that last vase of flowers and you’re going to carry the baby.”

Liz smirked. “Shouldn’t the man carry the baby? That seat is probably the heaviest thing here.”

She enjoyed the way Alex glanced at the sleeping newborn like she was a rabid dog. He swallowed hard. “Well, I think a woman should carry a baby. I mean, women are more gentle and . . .” He glanced at the baby seat again and shrugged a shoulder. “Maternal. 

You know.”

Liz laughed. “You’d be carrying her in a baby seat, not cradling her.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned toward Alex, lowering her voice. “You do realize that birth isn’t catching, right?”

Alex scowled, sliding the duffle bag off Molly’s shoulder and reaching for the vase. “Yes, Liz. I’m aware of that.”

He ducked out of the room before she could harass him even more.

Molly gently nudged her elbow into Liz’s side. “Leave him alone. I think he’s nervous he’ll hurt her somehow. He’s never been around a newborn before.”

Liz’s chest constricted. “Neither have I, for very long anyhow.”

Liz’s sister Tiffany had five children, but she lived several states away, so when Liz did see her nieces and nephews it was only for a few days or a few hours. Even then she barely held them. Tiffany or one of the children’s grandparents whisked them out of her arms within minutes, either wanting quality time with the children or, Liz wondered, were they afraid her recent black sheep behavior would rub off on them?

Today, looking at the tiny bundle in the baby seat, she battled second thoughts. Maybe she should have placed this baby for adoption like she’d considered when she’d first seen the two lines on the pregnancy test. Molly’s brother, Jason, and his fiance, Ellie, couldn’t have children — or at least that’s what it was looking like. They might have adopted Isabella. They’d most likely be better parents. Ellie was more organized and definitely more maternal. Her entire career was built on educating and supporting young children. She was a teacher at the local preschool. 

It seemed cruel to Liz that she might not be able to have children because of endometriosis. If anyone should be a mother, it was Ellie Tanner.

“Hey. You okay?”

She looked at Molly, wishing her best friend wasn’t as perceptive as Matt was. It was as if Molly could read her mind most days.

“Yeah, it’s just —”

“You’re going to be a great mom, Liz. God chose you to be Isabella’s mom. Okay?”

Liz nodded and took a deep breath.

Molly looped her arm under the handle of the car seat and the other under Liz’s arm. “Now come on. Your Mom and Dad are waiting at the apartment for us. They’re cooking you some lunch and your mom has ‘spruced up’ as she likes to call it.”

Liz’s chest constricted. Her parents. They hadn’t brought her up to live the way she had been living for the last couple of years. Moving in with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, starting to drink and take pills, and then, the coup de grâce — having a baby out of wedlock.

She grabbed Molly’s wrist. “Wait, Mol, I need to talk to you, before Alex comes back.” She looked at the doorway. “Matt was here yesterday when the nurse wanted to fill out Isabella’s birth certificate. He gave her his name as the father.”

Molly’s eyebrows shot up and she set the seat down gently. “Why would he do that?”

Liz pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and shook her head. “I don’t know. He said he wanted to protect us from Gabe.”

Molly sat on the edge of the bed. “But he’s leaving for the state police academy in two months. Does he think — I mean, does he want to be her father?”

Liz shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know what he was thinking. When I asked him, he said not to worry about it and that it was just to keep Gabe’s name from being connected to Isabella’s. Then I had to nurse Isabella, he had to get to work, and I haven’t seen him since to talk to him more about it.”

Molly chewed on the back of her thumb, a usual move for her when she was thinking, her eyebrow furrowed. “But are you and Matt —”

“We’re not dating.”

“You should be.”

Liz jerked her head up. “Excuse me?”

Molly smirked. “Matt has been there for you almost from day one since he found out you were pregnant. Most guys would have taken off when they found out the woman they’d gone on a few dates with was pregnant by another man. They wouldn’t have picked up your groceries for you, booked you a day at the spa, or been with you when you went into labor. Which reminds me. You need to fill me in on that story sooner rather than later.”

Alex leaned into the room. “Okay, ladies. We ready?”

A nurse stepped past him. “No. They are not. Not until we fill out these discharge papers and Liz sits in the wheelchair outside the room so she can be pushed to the car.”

Liz scoffed. “I’m not sitting in a wheelchair.”

The nurse smiled and winked. “You sure are. Hospital policy.”

Alex chuckled. “I’d be glad to push you, Liz.”

Liz narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure you would. I think I’ll ask the nurse to push me instead to keep you from pushing me into the street.”

Alex laughed. “What would give you that idea? Just because you interrupt me and Molly every time we have a minute alone doesn’t mean I want to get rid of you.” He looked at the car seat with a grin. “Besides, who would take care of the baby if you weren’t around?”

Liz’s smile faded and her gaze drifted to the sleeping baby. Right. Taking care of a baby.

How did she do that again?

***

Ginny flung open the freezer door and stood in front of it, lifting her shirt, glad she was alone in the house since Stan had a late afternoon showing. As if gaining weight wasn’t enough, she had to deal with hot flashes and a hundred other aggravating side effects of perimenopause. Whatever that was. She wouldn’t even have known about perimenopause if Rena Lambert hadn’t asked her if she thought she might be in the middle of it — six years ago. 

 Good grief, she didn’t understand why menstruation didn’t just end abruptly instead of dragging women through up to ten years of hormonal upheaval like a lion leisurely dragging a pray through the Serengetti to devour. Not all women suffered the way she was, she knew that, and she despised those women for it.

“Oh gosh, I never even had those,” Jan Ellory said with a small laugh and a wave of her hand one day at ladies’ group. “One day my period just stopped. Snap.” Jan snapped her fingers with finely manicured fingernails. “I never felt happier or lighter than I did that day. My 50s have been amazing! Weight has fallen off like butter falling of an ear of corn on a hot summer day and I have so much energy.” She emphasized the word energy with a little shake of her head and a smile. “And —” She smiled and winked. “Things have been amazing in the bedroom. It’s like David and I are newlyweds again.”

At that moment Ginny had considered how bad it would look if she throat punched Jan during ladies group. Bad. It would look very bad. Especially right after they had discussed how to look at each season of their lives “as an opportunity to reveal God as the anchor of their souls.” 

Yes, it would have been bad, but yet . . . it might have also felt good. 

Ginny wasn’t sure how this season of sweat, crankiness, anxiety-induced trembling, and out-of-control emotions was an opportunity for much of anything other than to hopefully have a valid excuse when she actually did deck someone.

She tipped her head back and let the rush of cold air spread across her chest and then sighed. She snatched a pint of chocolate ice cream from the freezer door, jerked open the silverware drawer, grabbed a spoon, and headed toward the living room to watch a Hallmark movie. Passing the mirror on the wall between the dining room and the living room she caught sight of her uncombed hair and paused. She’d fallen asleep after work, thankful the library closed early on Saturday afternoons. Her hair was sticking out in various directions, long and unkempt. Dark circles painted the skin under her eyes, and she was sure more wrinkles had etched their way into the skin along the edge of her eyes overnight.

Dragging her hand through her hair, she sat the ice cream carton on the table under the mirror, and lifted her hair off her shoulder, propping it on top of her head. 

She needed a haircut. Maybe she’d dye it too. She needed something — anything — different at this point. Pressing two fingers against each side of her face she lifted her cheeks and pulled them back. She tried to eliminate the pooch of skin under her chin with the movement. It wasn’t working. Maybe she should consider a facelift. She stuck her tongue out at the face in the mirror – a face she was starting not to recognize each time she looked at it — and spun herself around and toward the living room.

“We’ve got to get rid of this stupid mirror,” she grumbled, snatching the ice cream carton up again.

Her cellphone buzzed as she sat on the couch. She glared at it, uninterested in a conversation with anyone, but then noticed the caller ID.

Wisconsin. She’d better answer this one.

“Hey, Mom. How’s it going?”

She fanned her chest with the folded-up newspaper she’d snatched from the coffee table. “Oh, just fine, hon’. How are things there? Are we having another grandbaby yet?”

Her son Clint chuckled. “Ah, no. I think five is enough, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I have room in my heart for a few more.”

“Well, maybe you can have one of your daughters provide those down the road because Tiff and I are done at this point. No, what I called about was to let you and dad know some other news. Some news I hope you will all be excited about.”

Ginny set the ice cream carton on the coffee table and leaned forward slightly in anticipation.

“We’re moving back to Pennsylvania.”

Her mother senses alerted. This was either for a good or a bad reason. Why did her intuition tell her it was bad?

“Are you? Why? What’s going on?”

Clint hesitated. She heard it. He could deny it, but she heard the pause, the clearing of his throat, if ever so softly on the other end of the phone. 

“Everything’s fine, Mom, but I got laid off from work last week. I didn’t want to tell you until I had something else.”

“Laid off?”

“Well, not exactly laid off. My job was eliminated. The industry is changing, and the economy isn’t doing great, so they had to cut back. I was the low man on the totem pole, so . . .”

Ginny’s heart thudded with alarm. He had five children and a wife to support. “What are you going to do? Do you have a job out here?”

“Yes, actually. A colleague put me in touch with a finance company about an hour from you actually. They offered me the job on the spot. It’s a step-down, a cut in pay, but we’ll be closer to our family, and I really think that’s something we could use right now.”

Ginny tried not to read between the lines. Something they could use right now. Why? What did he mean? Was something else going on? She resisted the urge to pepper him with more questions.

“Do you have somewhere to live?”

“No. Not yet, but Tiffany’s parents have offered us a place to stay.”

Ginny felt a tinge of jealousy that they had talked to Frank and Marge Cranmer before her, but, then again, it wasn’t like her house would hold seven more people. Two or three maybe, but not two adults and five children between the ages of a year and 10-years of age. The Cramner’s had a large two-story, five-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home, despite having raised only two daughters.

She’d often wondered why they needed all that space, but it wasn’t her business.

“Oh. Well, okay. When does all this happen?”

“We’ve already started packing and hired a moving company,” Clint said, screaming and giggling in the background almost drowning his voice out. “Max, Twyla. Please. That’s enough. I’m on the phone. No. Because you’ve had enough ice cream today.”

Ginny eyed her own ice cream and hoped it wouldn’t melt before she could get back to it.

“Sorry about that, Mom. Anyhow, I’ll give you more of a timeline when I have more information.”

When they’d said their goodbyes and Ginny leaned back against the couch again, she tried to decide how she felt about her son’s news. She scooped a heavy helping of chocolate ice cream onto her spoon and swished it around on her tongue, staring at the turned off TV.

She was happy her family would be living closer. 

Yet, also nervous. She and Stan saw so little of each other already. Would more visits from the grandchildren mean even less time together?

She scoffed. “Not like we spend any time together now.”

Her frown tilted upward as her gaze drifted to the photographs of her grandchildren on the mantel over the fireplace. 

It would be nice to see the children grow up in person instead of through photographs. She’d envied her friends all these years. They’d been able to hold their grandchildren, take them to the park, spoil them with sweets and send them back home to mom and dad.

 She and Stan visited Clint and Tiffany a couple of times during the year but mostly communicated with them over the phone and through video chat.

It was time to perk up. This was good news. Having the grandchildren closer would mean she’d have something to think about other than the mundane — work and feeling like a third wheel to Stan and his job. 

She took another bite of the chocolate ice cream, savoring it. 

Yes, this was good news. Very good.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 2

Welcome to chapter 2 of The Next Chapter, book three of the Spencer Valley Chronicles. I honestly, am at a bid of a mental standstill with this book so I’m not sure when I’ll share the next chapter. We will see. Maybe I’ll get some more ideas this next week.

If you would like to read the first chapter, you can find it HERE.

Chapter 2

Spencer Valley Library Director Ginny Jefferies unlocked the back door of the library early Monday morning, quickly slipped inside, and slammed the door behind her.

She patted down the strands of her dirty blond, shoulder length hair that had blown out of place during her dash, breathing hard. Getting to her job was like an undercover assignment these days.  She was seriously getting too old for this.

There were hours posted on the front door of the library, but people rarely read them.

Why should they?

It was a public library after all.

Wasn’t it always open?

That’s what a few of the patrons seemed to think, but no, the library wasn’t always open. Ginny needed at least a few minutes each morning to get ready before she opened the doors, but lately she wasn’t getting those few minutes and it was taking a toll on her nerves.

At least she’d been smart enough not to use the front door this time. That still might not guarantee her safety, however. The back door wasn’t exactly hidden from the public eye since it was located directly next to the back parking lot of the local supermarket.

 Ginny just wanted time to open the library calmly, without everyone and their grandmother pushing inside to start her day before she was ready.

“Can I just slip inside and grab that new Jan Karon book?” Clarice Farley had asked one morning a month ago, clutching her bright pink rain hat down on her head with both hands.

Ginny had stared at her, mouth  agape. “I don’t even have the system up to check you out, but we’re open in —”

“Oh please?” Clarice clasped her hands under her chin. “I’ve been waiting months for this book. It’s the last in the series.”

“I know, but —”                                  

Clarice winked. “It will just take a minute.” And then she pushed her way past, through the door Ginny had just opened.

Ginny had shaken the umbrella off, peeling her wet sweater off as she stepped inside and watched Clarice rush to the new book section.

“You open?” Dan Bennett’s head had appeared inside the door Ginny had forgot to lock behind her. He hadn’t wait for her to answer. “Good because I need to print an important paper off for my insurance man. Wouldn’t you know it, the printer ran out of ink just last night.”

“I haven’t actually turned the computers on yet —”

“No problem at all.” Dan stepped inside with a wave of his hand. “I’ll get them for you. One less thing for you to do this morning.”

“Ah, okay, but I —”

The door opened again.                        

“Is it time for story time yet?” Mary Ellis was holding the hand of two toddlers with a third young child standing behind her, all three of them dripping water on the carpet inside the door.

“Storytime isn’t for another two hours,” Ginny said, hoping to usher them back outside.

“That’s okay.” Mary bumped her arm against Ginny’s on her way by. “We’ll just spend some time in the children’s room. You still have those blocks and toys here, right? The kids will love them and it’s better than trying to entertain them at home.”

“I – uh – but —”

Ginny decided then and there to make her entrance into the library as incognito as possible from then on.

She’d been arriving like a ninja for a month now and had even considered borrowing Brent Phillips’ camouflage hunting clothes, so she’d blend into the hedges out front. That was if she and Brent had been on talking terms, but they weren’t, or weren’t supposed to be, since her daughter had broken up with him the year before.

She leaned back against the door and sighed. So far so good. No one was pounding on the door. Not yet anyhow. She seemed to have made it in unseen.

Looking around the three-story library, lit only by the curved windows above the shelves on one side of the main room, she relaxed into the silence. Sunlight streamed in through a high window on the main floor, pouring light across the Women’s Literature section.

The building was the former Spencer Family mansion, built in 1901 and deeded to the town in 1967 to be used as a community library. Walls had been knocked down, floors removed, ceilings lifted, to create a larger open space that provided room for six-foot high bookshelves on two levels, ten rows on each floor. The Spencer family patriarch, J.P. Spencer, had left the building to the library association in his will, much to the fury of his remaining family members, a son who already lived in a mansion on the other end of town and a daughter from a previous marriage who had never even lived in the town. J.P.’s family had founded the Spencer Valley Railroad Company in the mid-1800s, making the company the second largest employer in the county at one time, next to farming. These days railroad and farming were dying out, fading away like an actual physical newspaper.

Ginny refrained from turning the main lights on, still hoping to remain in silence until her first cup of coffee was finished. She plopped down in the plush chair at the front desk and stared blankly at the row of computers, urging her brain to turn on before she turned the technology on. The computers were a fairly new edition, especially the ones in the gaming stations in the library basement.

The introduction of gaming computers was not something Ginny had been in favor of. The library board had overruled her, however, insisting they were needed to stay with the times and appeal to the younger generation. For Ginny, the library was a place to read, a place to fill a child’s head with knowledge, not somewhere for them to destroy brain cells playing ridiculous games on a computer.

“Well, who knows, maybe when they are done playing their games, they’ll wander up the stairs and find books!” Frank Rouse had said during the meeting, talking with his hands, as usual, long arms flapping around like a chimpanzee on speed as he talked. “We’ve got to move into the future, Ginny or become a relic of the past. It isn’t me driving the demand, it’s society. We need to meet that demand or simply watch libraries be boxed up with the rest of the artifacts.”

Artifacts and relics. It was all Frank seemed to be able to talk about since he’d hit the age of 65 and Ginny wondered if it was because he felt like he was becoming both. There were days she knew she felt like it and she was 12 years younger than him.

With a deep sigh, Ginny walked back to the office in the back of the building, flipped the light switch to on, and walked to the coffee pot she’d brought in herself to keep her and her assistant, Sarah, awake for the day. As the smell of Columbian Dark Roast hit her nostrils, she glanced at the photo of her husband Stanley on the shelf above her desk. She’d bucked the stereotypical trend of being a spinster librarian, but maybe that was because she’d been an English teacher at the local high school for 15 years first.

The picture of Stanley was from his third win as regional real estate agent, or was it his fourth? She couldn’t remember. He was up for the award again this year. Would he win number six? They’d know in a few more months. She wondered if he’d even ask her to attend. He hadn’t been asking her much of anything lately, or even talking to her for that matter.

 Sipping hot coffee 15 minutes later, Ginny flicked her fingers across the row of light switches in the main room. Fluorescent highlighted the bookcases and tables, the children’s room, and the doorway of the conference room. The rectangle over the mysteries and thrillers section was still flickering, making her feel slightly off balance. She’d have to ask the volunteer maintenance man, George Farley, who was also the town’s funeral home director, self-proclaimed town historian, and director of the local community theater, to help her change it this week.

She picked up a book from the return pile and did what she always did to start her day – opened the book and deeply inhaled the smell of ink and paper. She loved the smell and feel of books. She wasn’t a fan of those so-called e-books, which she felt was a misnomer. A book was something you held in your hand, not looked at on a screen. She didn’t want to hold some cold, hard, unfeeling device in her hand. She wanted to touch an actual physical copy of a book and lose herself inside another world with each turn of the page.

She turned on the computer on the front desk with a scowl.

The switch from paper filing to computers was another update she had fought against before admitting typing information into a computer was easier than pulling open drawers and flipping through rows of index cards. Using the computer system had been easier. Or it had been up until six months ago when the board voted to implement a new, supposedly more advanced and efficient, software. Sadly, the board hadn’t voted to upgrade the computers which meant the fancy-dancy software overloaded and crashed the system several times a week, sometimes several times a day.

The back door squeaked open and Ginny’s assistant Sarah Shultz slipped in quickly and slammed the door behind her, leaning against it as if to hold back some kind of nefarious onslaught.

“I think Ed Pickett just saw me from the diner’s front window,” she panted, looking over her shoulder like an escaped criminal. “He could be here any minute.”

“Oh, good grief. It’s way too early and way too Monday for Ed,” Ginny said sipping her coffee and closing her eyes. “I hope he finally reads the hours on the front door.”

Ed, the incessantly question asking Ed.

“Do you think I’d like the new John Grisham book or the new Tom Clancy?”

“Should I try out this new book by this woman author? I don’t usually read women authors. Too much estrogen for me.”

“I’ll just sit over here with these books, read the first chapter of each and decide which one I’ll check out. Okay?”

Then there was that time he had read the same book she was reading.

“Ah, that’s a good one,” he said, leaning one elbow against the front desk. “Too bad he killed the love interest off in the last chapter. I really liked her.”

Sarah lifted the strap of her messenger bag over her head and laid it behind the front desk.

“Rough weekend?”

Ginny shrugged. “Boring one.”

“We need to get you a new hobby.”

Ginny bit her tongue. Literally.

Sarah was well-meaning but 24, bubbly, and clueless about getting old. Ginny adored her but wanted to slide a book about menopause across the counter and introduce her to her future.

“I can’t imagine what I’d do,” Ginny smirked. “The library is my life.”

“Or so the library board thinks,” Sarah quipped.

Ginny snorted.

“God forbid I am not here at all times.” She rolled her eyes, walking toward the drop off box.

“Or be thinking about anything other than new programs,” Sarah called after her.

“And keep up the perfect appearance in the community,” Ginny called back, practicing her royal wave.

Ginny gathered the books in her arms and carried them back to the desk and stacked them on top of the returns from the previous day.

“You start entering them in,” Sarah said. “And I’ll start putting them back in their rightful places.”

“Get them done as quick as you can and make sure you get yourself some coffee. Ed will be here at the strike of 9, I’m sure.”

Ginny’s phone rang as she started to type. Her daughter Olivia’s photo popped up on the screen. Ginny took a deep breath before sliding her finger over the accept button.

“Hey, hon’.”

“Hey.” Olivia’s tone denoted the same air of melancholy that had been present in her voice for months now.

Ginny bit her lower lip, wondering what the heavy sigh mixed in with that one word meant. “Are your bags packed yet?”

“Not yet.”

“What time are you leaving for the airport?”

“Don’t know yet. Probably seven. My flight’s at nine.”

The click of the computer keys under Ginny’s finger filled the long silence that followed while Ginny waited for her daughter to offer a reason for her call.

After thirty long seconds, Ginny coughed softly. “So, will Victor be coming along?”

“His name’s Vernon, mom.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. I knew it started with a ‘V’ at least.”

“Yeah, anyhow, he won’t be coming. I broke it off with him last night.”

Ah. The reason for the heavy sighs.

Ginny was glad her daughter couldn’t see the smile tugging at her mouth. She forced the happiness from her voice. “I’m sorry, Liv. Do you need to talk about it?”

Olivia huffed out a breath. “No. Whatever. He’s just a jerk.”

Ginny typed Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis into the computer and clicked the box next to returned.

“He said we were too different.” Oliva scoffed. “Whatever. More like he was too different. And a weirdo. All that constant pontificating about Tennyson and Hardy.”

Ginny smirked, recalling the awkward family dinner at Thanksgiving when Oliva had brought Vic — er — Vernon home from California with her for the holiday break. The way his complexion had paled at the sight of Tiffany changing a diaper in the middle of the living room floor while she shared her birth story with Ginny’s second oldest, Maddie. Really, though, Tiffany could have excused herself to the bedroom. Of course, Olivia’s announcement over dinner that she was now a vegan and couldn’t imagine “something dead that had once been alive and free” touching her lips hadn’t helped the day either.

“Well, who knows what will happen over the winter break,” Ginny said propping the phone between her cheek and shoulder as she typed. “Maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder.”

“He’s transferring to Cornell for the spring semester. Says they have a better architecture program.”

“You know —”

“I know, Mom.” Ginny heard a door or drawer slam on the other end of the line. “I could have gone to Cornell, two hours from the tiny, boring town I grew up in.” Another slam. “And I could have married the brother of a senator like Maddie or popped out babies like Tiffany and joined the Spencer Valley PTA and become like all the other closed-minded, uptight smalltown women.”

Ginny pressed her lips into a thin line. “There’s no reason to be snotty, Olivia. I’m not making you come home. You’re welcome to spend spring break out there if Spencer Valley is so detestable to you.”

Her youngest daughter sighed. “I’m sorry, Mom. It’s not that I don’t want to come home. It’s just, I don’t know — Classes were tough this semester and now all this with Vernon.” Ginny listened to fingernails drumming on wood. “But a visit home is probably what I need to clear my mind and help me decide if this is where I want to finish my degree.”

Ginny had a hard time imagining her daughter finishing her social work degree anywhere other than California after she’d begged to attend Stanford University two years ago. She couldn’t count the number of times Olivia had declared her love for the state of California, especially its all-year-around warm weather. Still, having Olivia closer to home, where Ginny could figure out where her daughter’s joy had disappeared to, would be nice too.

“I’ll call you when I have my flight details.”

Ginny clicked return next to a Tom Clancy book. “I’m looking forward to seeing you, Liv. Your father is too.”

“Yeah.” Olivia sighed again. “I’m looking forward to seeing you guys too.”

Her tone didn’t convey excitement, but at least she’d made the effort to say the words. Ginny finished entering returns after she hung up. She slid her finger over her phone screen when she was done, tapping on her husband’s name as she walked to the front door to unlock it.

“Shouldn’t you be opening the library?”

Couldn’t anyone just say, ‘hello’ anymore? “A good morning would have been nice.”

“Good morning. Shouldn’t you be opening the library?”

“I’m doing that now. I was delayed by a call from our daughter.”

“Ah. I see.” She heard the click of the computer keys on his end. “She’s on her way home for spring break?”

“Yes. Not very happily, but yes.”

“What’s His Face coming with her?”

“Vernon and no. They broke up.”

Stan snorted. “Wonderful. Maybe she’ll start eating normally again.”

Ginny shrugged. “Not sure that had anything to do with Vernon.” She took a deep breath as she heard the rustle of papers. Her stomach tightened. She shouldn’t ask. He’d probably say no but, “Want to grab lunch at the diner later?”

“Hmmm?” The crinkle of rustling papers muffled his voice. “What’s that?

She clicked the lock open on the towering wooden front door and tilted her head to one side, sighing softly. “I asked if you want to grab lunch at the diner later.”

More papers rustling. “Oh. Yeah. No. Can’t. I have a showing at lunch time and another one at 2. Rain check?”

If she had a dollar for every rain check they’d agreed on in the last year she’d be a millionaire. Not one of those rainchecks had ever been called in.

“Yeah. Sure. No problem.”

She cleared her throat, rubbing her fingertip along the edge of a bookshelf and making a face on the dirt staining her skin. She’d better move dusting to the top spot on her to-do list.

A drawer slammed shut on his end. “Great. See you later.”

She drew a deep breath, rushed ahead before she could chicken out. “I could make us those steaks I picked up at Clark’s.”

“I’ve got a meeting in Danby at 5 so I won’t be home until late. I thought I told you this morning.”

He hadn’t. “Oh. Right. Well. See you later then and love —”

The trill of a ringer cut her out off. “Gotta go, hon’. Probably George about that commercial property in Laporte.”

“Of course, go take —”

Click.

Ginny stared at the black screen for a few moments before setting her phone face down on the desk. She could only hope the rest of her day went better that those two phone calls had gone.

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 27 and 28 (final chapters)

Just a reminder to blog readers who either didn’t follow along or missed some chapters, you can either go back and read them here for the next two weeks or you can preorder an ebook copy for $.99 HERE. The price will go up the week after the release date of August 12.

This is the final two chapters of the story. Both have been rewritten a couple of times but are still in the editing process.

Chapter 27

Ellie rolled on to her side and winced. She’d been in bed all day, had taken the painkillers for her ankle, and yet her muscles still ached. It was ridiculous to imagine they wouldn’t hurt, of course. What did she expect after a car accident, a two-mile hike in the dark woods, and a fall into a mineshaft? That she would feel like dancing?

She reached for her phone on the bedside table and scrolled through the text messages.

Lucy. Molly. A couple of ladies from church. Emily, the pastor’s wife. Even Brad. She’d ignored Brad’s, of course. She didn’t have the energy to deal with what had happened the night of the accident. He was apologetic, asking how she was, but she wasn’t sure she could let him off the hook so easily. It was clear he needed help and she wasn’t going to be that source of help. Maybe she should give him Pastor Joe’s number.

Another one from Molly. Sent an hour ago.

Liz was on her way to the hospital with Matt McGee. Huh. What was Liz doing with Matt McGee? She’d have to question Molly about that later.

At the top of her messages was one from Jason.

Thinking of you. Your mom updated me earlier. Hope to see you soon when you’ve rested. I love you.

She smiled as she read it again. I love you.

She hoped he’d feel the same when she told him she was even more of a hypocrite than he thought. She’d spent the last seven, almost eight months, angry at him for not telling her what had happened in college. All the while, she’d also had secrets, something about her he didn’t know.

Really, though, she didn’t even know if it was true.

She only knew what the doctor had said at her appointment almost two years ago. How it would be harder for her to have children and maybe even impossible. Her symptoms had been worse the last several months. To her that wasn’t a good sign. Not at all.

A soft knock on her old bedroom door drew her from her thoughts.

Judi looked around the door. “Can I come in?”

Ellie shifted to a sitting position, making room for her sister on the bed. Circles darkened the skin under Judi’s eyes. “Dinner was great. Where did you learn to cook like that?”

Judi laughed, shrugging a shoulder. “My roommate in the city is in culinary school. She gave me some tips. I overcooked the fish a little, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Ellie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I didn’t notice it was overcooked at all. It was seasoned perfectly too. If you stick around, I’ll have to have you make some dinners from now on.”

Judi visibly stiffened but still leaned back against the pillow beside Ellie. She’d pulled her hair into a pony tail and was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, far removed from the flashier and more revealing outfits she’d been wearing since she arrived.

“Remember when we used to do this during thunderstorms?” she asked. “I’d crawl into bed with you, and you’d tell me everything was going to be okay and sing me that song —”

I Will Cast All My Cares Upon Him. I remember.”

Judi leaned her head against Ellie’s shoulder. It had been a long time since she’d shown anything close to affection to her family, especially Ellie.

Her voice broke when she spoke again. “I thought you were dead, Ellie.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I never should have left the scene. It was so stupid.”

 “I shouldn’t have said all those horrible things to you. I know you don’t mean to be so perfect all the time.”

Ellie laughed softly. “Judi, I’m not perfect. You know that. I screw up all the time. I just don’t talk about it because — I guess because I don’t want anyone to know.”

Judi nodded against her shoulder, and they fell into a comfortable silence. The clinking of dishes downstairs from her parents washing and putting away dishes filled the break in their conversation. Soon her Dad would fall asleep in his recliner in front of whatever movie he’d picked out for them to watch.

A small sob came from Judi and Ellie looked down, not sure if she was still upset about the accident or something else.

“I can’t go back to the city.” Judi’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Ellie leaned back, slid an arm around Judi. “Why? Jude, what happened? Please tell me. What’s going on?”

She wanted to ask what was going on with Jeff, but she wasn’t sure how Judi would take it that she’d seen the message.

“I was so stupid, El.” Judi choked back another sob. “I knew eventually it would all get out of control but if I stopped then I’d remember I wasn’t special like you. I’d remember I don’t have any talents or brains, so I just kept being the life of the party.”

“That’s not tr —”

“It is. I’ve always been the dumb one. The dumb blond who just likes to have fun because she can’t do anything else. You’ve always been the smart, good girl who Mom and Dad can brag about.”

Tears stung Ellie’s eyes. “I never meant to make you feel that way.”

Judi sat up and twisted herself to face Ellie, brushing the edge of her hand against her cheek. “It wasn’t you. It was me. It was how I saw it. I was so jealous of you. I felt like I could never measure up. That’s why I moved to the city. Well, that and I really have always thought Spencer is a boring little town.”

Ellie laughed softly.

Judi rolled her eyes. “I wanted to find adventure and excitement and that’s what I did.” More tears came and Ellie reached out and took Judi’s hands in hers.

“Judi, tell me what’s going on. I’m listening this time, okay?”

Judi nodded, pulling one hand away to snatch a tissue from the bedside stand. She wiped the corner of her eyes as she spoke. “I went out with the hot guy from work. The one I told you about that one time we were on the phone.”

Ellie remembered. The phone call where Judi hadn’t pointed out Jason’s proposal hadn’t really been a proposal.

“He was drop dead gorgeous and interested in me.” She rolled her eyes again. “I should have known then something was up. He wanted me to go back to his place after dinner so,” she shrugged and shook her head, looking at the ceiling. “I did. His hands were on me after the first drink. I tried to enjoy it at first, thought maybe we’d just end up making out, but he was pretty rough and getting rougher. I tried to push him away, but he didn’t like that. So . . .”

She started to cry harder, hugging her arms around her middle, looking at the wall.

Ellie’s heart raced, her skin chilled. “Judi.” She placed her hands on her sister’s slim shoulder, afraid to ask the next question. “Did he – did this man assault you? Please. Tell me the truth.”

Judi shook her head. “No. Almost, but no. He pulled my shirt up and my pants down, but I kicked him pretty hard in the nads. He fell off me and hit his head on the coffee table. He was furious and told me to get out, so I ran to the door and left. My shirt was torn, I had a bloody lip. My roommate knew something had happened. She wanted me to call the police, but I just wanted to forget about it. Forget about how stupid I’d been to go back to his place. Forget that I was such a failure and that I deserved it because I flirted crazy with him and gave him all these signs and —

“Judi, did you tell him you wanted to sleep with him?”

Judi shook her head, sobbing against her hand.

“Then you didn’t do anything wrong other than maybe going back with him to his place. Even if he assumed you wanted to sleep with him once you said ‘no’ then he needed to stop. What he did was wrong. You get that, right?”

Judi shrugged a shoulder as she wiped a tissue across her cheek. “Yes and no. I mean, he was wrong, but I never should have gone there and —”

“That doesn’t mean you deserved it. Do you understand?”

Judi nodded slowly, pressing her hand to her mouth.

Ellie shifted closer to her and pulled her against her with one arm. “So, what are you going to do? What about your job?”

“They fired me last week for not showing up. My roommate wants me to come back, but she understands if I don’t. She said Jeff keeps showing up and asking where I am.”

Time to be honest and confess to Judi about the message. “He’s been texting you too, hasn’t he?”

Judi nodded and pulled back. “How do you know?”

“I saw a message. By accident. I wanted to talk to you about it, but you were drunk and then, well, you know. ”

“I blocked his number last night. He’s afraid I’m going to the police because Selina told him I was.”

“Selina’s the roommate?”

Judi nodded. “She hates Jeff and wants him to be charged, but I can’t report him for something he never got the chance to do.”

“But he would have if you hadn’t kicked him, right? What if there are other girls who didn’t get away?”

Judi looked at Ellie with red and swollen eyes. “I don’t know. What if no one believes me?”

“It’s up to you, but even if they don’t, at least you tried.” Ellie hugged her again. “You don’t have to decide now. You don’t have to decide anything now.”

Judi sniffed. “I do soon. The rent is due in two weeks, and I only have so much in my savings. It’s either stay here or go back to New York and try to get another job and chance running into Jeff again.”

Ellie stroked her sister’s hair. “Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

They stayed that way for a few minutes, Judi with her head against Ellie’s shoulder, Ellie stroking her hair, before Judi spoke again.

“Dad said he saw Jason sleeping in his truck in the hospital parking lot this morning.”

Ellie looked out the window at the sun pushing through the thin laced curtains, casting patterns on the floor. She thought about all the afternoons she’d sat in this room, watching those same patterns, daydreaming or reading instead of doing her homework. Part of that time she’d daydreamed about Jason, about living on a farm with him and growing old together.

Judi sighed. “He was probably afraid to leave you alone again.” She tilted her head up to look at Ellie. “You’re going to marry him, right?”

Ellie played with the fringe on the bedspread, a small smile tilting one corner of her mouth upward. “I put him through a lot. Maybe he doesn’t even want to marry me anymore.”

Judi snorted a small laugh. “Yeah, right. That man is completely enamored by you. He worships the ground you walk on. There is no way he doesn’t want to marry you. Plus, I’m guessing he put you through some stuff too. It takes a lot to send you over the edge. I’d say he’s not innocent by any means.”

Innocent, no. Apologetic and contrite, yes.

“We’re both pretty messed up to be honest.”

“Yeah, but you’re messed up together. It’s kind of romantic.”

“It’s romantic to be messed up?”

“No. It’s romantic to be messed up with someone else so you can help each other not be messed up.”

Ellie lifted an eyebrow and frowned at her sister. “Who told you that?

Judi smiled. “I’m really not sure. I might have heard it on a CW show.”

Ellie snorted out a laugh. “I guess it’s an interesting thought. In theory at least.”

She listened to Judi breathing and for a minute she thought she’d fallen asleep. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad what I told you, okay?” Judi whispered. “Not yet. If we tell them then I have to tell them how messed up I’ve been and I’m not ready for that.”

Ellie smoothed her sister’s hair back from her face. “Okay. For now, but I want you to talk to them at some point. They love you. They’re going to want to help you however they can. But be warned, Dad may want to enact some redneck justice on this Jeff guy.”

Judi tipped her head back and laughed. “Redneck justice? Oh man! I can just see him up there in the city with a shotgun. Getting tackled in the subway by the NYPD.”

Ellie laughed at the visual. “I can see the NY Post headline now. ‘Farmer Father Brings Justice To Big Apple.”

The sisters giggled until their sides hurt. Ellie gasped in air in between laughter. “Judi, do you realize you said ‘nads’ when you were telling me what you did do that guy?”

Judi snorted. “I know. I’ve been in the city too long. A couple of my friends are from Brooklyn, and they use that term all the time.”

They caught their breath, wiping their eyes, and Ellie was glad that this time the tears were from laughter. She and Judi hadn’t laughed like this in years.

Judi curled up against her again and yawned. “We should take a nap before Jason gets here.”

“Before Jason gets here?”

Judi pulled the cover up over her shoulder. “Yeah. You know he won’t be able to stay away for long. He’ll be here shortly. Definitely before dark.”

Ellie looked out the window at the dirt road in the distance that cut a parallel path to their cornfield. If Jason really did come, what would she say to him? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she needed to tell him the truth, even though she wasn’t exactly sure what the truth was.

Her phone dinged. Another text message. She smiled as she read it.

Molly: It’s a girl. I didn’t even make it to the hospital before she was born. I’ll let you know the name when I know.

Chapter 28

Hope to see you soon. When you’ve rested.

That’s what he’d texted to her.

It was true, but not the full truth.

He had wanted her to rest, recover from all she’d been through.

But he also wanted to see her immediately. It had taken everything he had not to turn into her parents’ drive on the way back from the hospital, pull in front of the house, scoop her up and hold him in his arms; to prove to himself that she was alive and safe.

By evening he couldn’t wait any longer.

Alex laughed as Jason walked from the barn to his truck. “I can’t believe you’ve waited this long.”

“Who says I’m going to see Ellie?”

Molly stood in the barn doorway, arms folded across her chest. “Your face is flushed, you’ve been distracted all day, and a half an hour ago we saw you looking like a lovesick puppy while you stared at your phone. You’re going to see Ellie and it’s about time.”

Jason grinned, sliding behind the steering wheel. “You two are the new Sherlock and Watson. Congrats.”

“Don’t forget to bend the knee when you ask her,” Alex called after him.

This was one time Jason wished Alex and Molly were distracted by each other instead of his love life. “Don’t forget to take photos of Liz’s baby and send them to me.”

He jumped into the truck, slammed the door shut, and shifted it into gear.

Looking in his rearview mirror he saw a car pulling in behind him. He slid the gear shift back into park. Climbing out, he watched Alan Weatherly slide out of the driver’s seat of the small gray Lexus.

The small woman who exited the car on the passenger side, reached out to Jason immediately. “Jason, I was hoping to catch you before the funeral tomorrow. I’ve been trying to get here to see you for a week now , but everyone wanted me to rest.”

He took Ann’s hands, guilt clutching at his chest. Tears glistened in her eyes as she spoke. “I wanted to see you in person to thank you for saving me from the fire. I’m sorry it took me so long. They made me stay in the hospital for a few days after the fire and then Alan and the girls have been helping me get settled in at Twin Oaks. I’m a few doors down from your grandparents.”

“Ann, I —”

“Now, Jason.” She tipped her head and raised her eyebrows to silence him. “I’ve talked to Cody, and I know what you’ve been thinking. John’s death wasn’t your fault. He was gone before you ever got there. I was saying my goodbyes when the smoke overtook me. I should have gotten out before the smoke got so bad, but the idea of leaving him there even though I knew he was gone — well, it was too hard for me to bear, I suppose.”

Jason nodded, his throat thick with emotion. “I wish I’d been able to bring him out for you.”

Ann smiled and clutched his hands tighter. “He was already home, Jason. All that was left was a shell.” She took a step toward him, leaned up on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. When she stepped back her eyes were bright. “Because of you, I’m going to be able to see my grandchildren grow up. My oldest graduates next year and my youngest starts Kindergarten in another month. I would have missed all that if it wasn’t for you.”

She let go of his hands and touched his shoulder gently. “Now, I don’t want to keep you. You were on your way somewhere.” She winked. “I hope you were on your way to see that lovely Ellie Lambert. Cody told me about her ordeal when I stopped at the fire hall to see if you might be there. I wanted to thank all of them too. Brought them a pie. Of course.”

Jason laughed. Of course she’d brought them pie. “Yeah. I actually am on my way over there.”

“Good. But before I go . . . Al, grab Jason’s pie.”

The small white box had Jason’s name on it.

 “Ann, you didn’t have to do this.”

Alan handed Jason the box and grinned. “She made ten of them and we’ve been dropping them off all over.”

Ann smiled and laid a hand against Jason’s arm. “Baking helps me to keep my mind off things. My daughter-in-law helped me make a few more for the dinner tomorrow as well. You’ll be sure to come say ‘hello’ to me when you visit your grandparents, won’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And I know Tanner’s Country Store delivers to Twin Oaks so I’m sure I’ll be putting in at least a few small orders.

“Anytime.”

“And!” She held up a finger, her eyes sparkling. “You be sure to come visit me with those beautiful babies you and Ellie have.”

His face flushed warm, and he tipped his head toward the ground, clearing his throat. “Yes, ma’am. We will be sure to do that.”

Ann craned her neck to look around his shoulder and waved toward Alex and Molly who had stepped up to the barn doorway. “Hello, kids. Alex, I hope you take Molly off the market officially soon. Neither of you are getting any younger.”

After the way Alex had harassed him earlier, Jason enjoyed the flush of pink that spread across his friends cheeks and ears.

“That’s right, Alex,” Jason called as he closed Ann’s door behind her. “You aren’t getting any younger. Better get a move on with all that proposal stuff.”

Alex waved at him dismissively. “You just worry about you, big boy.”

When Jason pulled into the Lambert drive ten minutes later, his chest was tight, and his palms were damp on the steering wheel. He pushed the truck into park and took a deep breath. Maybe he was having a heart attack. If he was, then he wouldn’t have to work up the nerve to talk to Ellie and find out how she really felt about him. Yes, she’d let him hold her and kiss her in that mine shaft, but that was a stressful situation. Maybe her mind had cleared, and she’d remembered how upset she’d been with him.

Tom met him on the front porch. “What took you so long?”

“You too?” Jason looked at him with an amused smile.  “That’s pretty much what Molly just said to me.”

Tom leaned against the porch railing, sipping from a mug. “I saw you in the hospital parking lot this morning. Sleep in your truck all night?”

Jason tipped his head toward the ground, hands at his waist. “Yeah.” He didn’t want to explain why he hadn’t come in, though he was sure Tom could figure it out. At least he was somewhat cleaner than he had been this morning, even if he had been working all day.

Tom tilted his head to the side, toward the front door. “You want to come in?”

Jason looked up, meeting the gaze of the man he hoped would be his future father-in-law. “Yes, sir.”

“She’s upstairs in her old room. Sore and tired still but doing okay.”

The creak of the front door brought Jason’s eyes up and he and Tom turned toward the front door.

“Actually, she’s down here. But still sore and tired.” She looked at Jason and he couldn’t look away. Her dark brown eyes captivated him, made him forget her dad was even there. She was wearing a pair of blue denim shorts and a white tank top covered by a patterned shirt tied at the waist. He rarely saw her so dressed down. It was breathtaking.

 “I needed some fresh air.” Her words reminded him he should take a breath of air before he passed out.

Tom held the door open for his daughter and walked inside after she stepped outside. He pushed the inside door closed firmly, which Jason took as a sign that he was giving them privacy.

She sat on the front porch swing. “I was going to sit on that top step, but I’m not sure I can get back up again with this ankle.”

He stepped up on the porch and leaned one side against the support beam, sliding his hands in his jean pockets. “How you feeling tonight?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Sore. And pretty stupid. Walking away from that accident scene wasn’t very bright. Have you heard how Brad is?”

He shook his head. He hadn’t and he didn’t care how Brad was. “Probably sleeping it off somewhere. He’ll bounce back. Always does. How’s Judi?”

“She’s doing okay actually. She’s asleep upstairs in my old room.”

“Where you should be.”

Ellie leaned back and stretched her arms out in front of her. “I slept a lot earlier this afternoon. Too restless to sleep. Brain won’t shut down.” She leaned back against the porch swing. “How are you doing?”

“Fine. Hurts a little where the stitches are, but I’m starting to get used to stitches.”

She tilted her head, and a small smile tipped a corner of her mouth up. Seeing the compassion in her eyes verses the anger he’d been used to seeing in the last several months was soothing. “I don’t just mean physically. How is your heart?”

She always did have a way of getting to the point. “Still hurting. Ann stopped by just before I came here. She hugged me. Told me it wasn’t my fault. Clint told me the same thing. Said John had a heart attack and was dead before the flames hit him. I still feel guilty, though. Still feel like if I had pulled him out, maybe something could have been done.”

“You don’t know that though.”

“Yeah. I think the not knowing is the hardest. He was a good man. He didn’t deserve to die that way.”

“No, he didn’t, but we know where he is now, who is holding him.”

Jason nodded looking down. “Yeah. We do. It does provide some comfort.”

A few seconds of silence stretched between them. Chirping birds and the meow of a cat filled the silence before she spoke again. “So, Liz’s baby is a girl, huh?”

He grinned. “Molly messaged you too, huh? I think she’s texted the whole county. Yeah. She hasn’t picked a name yet. Molly and Alex are headed over in a few to see them.”

“Molly said Matt took her to the hospital. What was that about?”

Jason laughed softly. “I’m not totally sure, honestly. Something I plan to ask Matt about as soon as I get a chance.”

He kicked at the porch floor with the tip of his boot, watched the dirt from the barn fall off and join dirt that was probably from Tom’s barn. He knew they were dancing around why he was really here, like they’d been dancing around other issues for far too long now.

“El, listen I —”

“I’m a hypocrite, Jason.”

He jerked his head up, eyebrows knitted together. “What are you —”

“I was mad at you for hiding your past from me, but I’ve been lying to you for two years,.”

Her hands gripped the edge of the seat of the swing, her legs pushed out, feet against the porch floor, keeping it from swinging. She kept her gaze lowered, focused on her feet.

“You haven’t been lying. You’ve been scared.”

She looked up quickly, met his gaze.

He sat next to her on the swing. “I heard you tell that doctor what medicine you were on and about your procedure. I shouldn’t have been listening, but I was outside the door. I didn’t want to leave you. Finding you felt like a dream, and I was afraid if I left, I’d wake up and you’d actually be dead. I should have realized all these years how bad things were. I should have known how much pain you were in each month. I looked it up online as soon as I left the hospital. Why didn’t you ever tell me how bad it had gotten?”

Ellie looked at the floor again and tears dripped off her cheek and down her chin. She shook her head and looked out over the corn field next to the house. “I was in denial. If I told you what was really happening, then I’d have to admit what that doctor told me might be true.”

At the touch of his hand against her cheek she turned to look at him. “If we can’t have children, it will be hard on both of us, but all I’ve really ever wanted was you, Ellie. Just you. Children or not. Farming or not. None of it matters if I don’t have you.”

He kept his gaze on hers. He wanted her to know he was all in. All in on the conversation and on her. “I know you think I might be holding more back from you, but I’m not. I promise you. I want to be completely open from now on. My life is an open book and on the first page you’ll find a declaration of my love for you.”

He slid a hand to the back of her neck, watching her expression transform from worried, to relaxed. He’d dreaded the possibility of still seeing anger or hurt in her eyes, but he didn’t see either of those emotions. He saw tenderness that flowed across her entire face, that opened her mouth slightly as if she was about to say something. Instead, she leaned forward and touched her mouth softly to his. She moved her arms around his neck and slid her body against his side. He turned so he could pull her into the curve of his body, deepen the kiss.

He smiled as he pulled his mouth away a few moments later. “Was that a kiss goodbye or a kiss hello?”

She laughed. “Definitely a kiss hello.”

He stood, slid his hand in his front jean pocket and felt a tremble rush through his fingers as he pulled out the box. “I still want to marry you, Ellie. I don’t know if you want to marry me, but I want you to know that you’re the only woman for me. That’s always been true. This ring is yours, if you want it and if you don’t, I can understand that too.”

A wry smile pulled her mouth upward. “You just carry rings around in your pockets?”

He laughed. “Only when I know I want to ask my best friend to be my wife.”

The tears didn’t hide her smile, but they came, renewed and flowing freely as she looked at him. She laughed through the tears, holding a trembling hand toward him. He held her hand but looked into her eyes before he slid the ring on.

“Wait. I’m doing it wrong again.” He lowered himself to one knee, still holding her hand. “I’m supposed to be down here, and I’m supposed to say Elizabeth Alexandra Lambert, will you spend the rest of your life with me?”

She shook her head, choked out a sob and pressed a hand under his elbow. “No. Get up. The way you were doing it was fine.”

Sitting next to her he slid the ring on her finger, but it stopped part way, just above her knuckle. They both began to laugh.

“This is Grandma’s ring. She wanted you to have it so I —”

Ellie wiped tears along the corner of her eyes with the edge of her hand. “It’s perfect.”

“I have another ring. One I bought in high school. One I wished I’d given you back then. It’s at the house. I can go get it.”

“No.” She shook her head, smiling.  “We’ll resize Franny’s. This is the ring I want. I can wear the other one too, but this is the ring that will remind me that we can get through anything, as long as we’re together.”

He nodded as she curved her fingers around the ring, clutching it hard.

He pulled her against his side with one arm, leaning back on the swing. In front of them, the sun had dipped below the horizon. A soft orange and golden glow spread along the edges of the silhouetted hills. A cow mooed in the barn and one of the barn cats slipped up on the porch and rubbed against Jason’s leg.

“We still have a lot to talk about,” he said.

“Yeah. We do.”

He looked out toward the corn field, ready to be harvested in the next week for silage. Sunlight glinted off the silk peering out from some of the husks.

“Being the wife of a farmer isn’t easy.”

 “Being the daughter of one isn’t easy either.” She intertwined her fingers with his. “Plus, a very wise woman, one who gave birth to the man I’m going to marry, once told me that the wife of a farmer is a farmer as much as her husband is.”

“You think Pastor Joe will marry us? Even after our craziness in his office?”

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound. “Yeah. I think he will. He’s called me twice to check on me and ask about you.”

He looked at her mouth as he spoke, thinking about how he should have kissed her that day at the church instead of arguing with her. “Think he’ll marry us this weekend? Behind our house?”

She tilted her head back, narrowing her eyes. “Our house? What are you going to do with Alex?”

“Kick him out, of course.”

Her laughter continued to be a balm to his soul. “Shouldn’t we tell him that first?”

He shrugged, a small tugging at one side of his mouth. “He’ll adapt. He can sleep in the hayloft at mom and dad’s.”

She sighed, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. “Five days isn’t very long.”

He curled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck as she looked up at him. “No. It’s not.”

“I won’t have enough time to buy a dress or prepare food and no time to send out invitations.”

“No. You won’t.”

She smiled, her gaze still locked on his.  “It sounds perfect.”

He kissed her mouth softly again, losing himself in the feel of her mouth under his, her body curved against his, the way she was exactly where he belonged — in his arms. When he pulled his mouth away a few minutes later, she curled her legs up next to her on the seat of the swing and pressed her cheek against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and looked out over the cornfield again.

Tomorrow he had fields of alfalfa to plant, an architect to meet with about the construction of the new milking parlor for the A2 cows, a tractor to fix and a goat barn to finish. Tonight, though, he had a front porch swing to sit on, a sunset to watch, and the woman he loved to get to know again.

Her voice faded to a whisper. “We’re watching an old movie tonight.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Want to stay?”

He leaned down, kissed the top of her head, and breathed in deep the smell of her shampoo. “Yeah. I want to stay.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter (I don’t know. I’ve lost count. Oh wait…I remember now) 26

I only have two chapters left to complete the story after this one so I will be posting the final two chapters tomorrow morning. Also, I just wanted to let my blog readers know that I will not be posting a lot of advertisements for purchasing my books anymore.

I have found I enjoy sharing on here and then giving you a link to the book on Amazon, if you so desire it, in full more than trying to become a “successful indie author”. I would actually offer it for free but some of my friends and family aren’t technically inclined (much like me at times!) so it’s easier for them to simply order it from a site and have it go to their Kindle and I can’t figure out how to offer it for free on there. I am sure there is a way and I’ll keep studying it.

I do want to remind blog readers again that you want a paperback, please let me know and I will order one for you at a better cost. I will eventually set up a way to do that on here.

Anyhow, enough of all the rambling (which probably isn’t making sense anyhow).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to final editing yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 26

Jason had called Alex and informed him he wouldn’t be back at the house that night. The last time he’d left Ellie, she’d been hurt in an accident and lost overnight and half of a day.

Rena had ordered him home for some rest.

He’d told her he would do that.

He hadn’t lied.

He curled a jacket he’d found in the back seat under his head and stretched out across the front seat of his truck, propping his legs against the driver side door.

He was going to get some rest.

Just not at home. He’d made certain not to say he was going home for the rest, so he didn’t lie.

He winced, the muscles in his back screaming in pain. Sitting back up, he fumbled with the glove compartment door, pulling out a bottle of ibuprofen. The doctor had offered him something harder, but he declined, in case Ellie need him.

A knock on the driver’s side window startled him and when he turned his head, he met the gaze of Clint O’Malley.

He opened the door, grimacing as he stepped out. Every movement seemed to send pain shooting through him, even in places he didn’t think should be hurting. “Clint. Hey.”

“You okay?” Clint asked, his brow dipped in concern.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t recommend falling down a mineshaft anytime soon.”

Clint chuckled. “I’ll take that recommendation to heart.” He thrust his hands into his front pants pocket. “So, listen, I don’t mean to bother you, but I got some news today I needed to pass on. John Weatherly didn’t die in that fire. He was dead before the flames ever hit him. Heart attack. We got the toxicology report today. The fire marshal’s interview with Ann corroborates what the report says. John dropped a pan of hot oil on the stove, probably when his heart seized up. The oil hit the gas flames and spread. Ann was in the living room watching Jeopardy and only noticed something was wrong when the fire alarm went off and the house started filling with smoke. By then the fire was spreading up the kitchen wall. She was trying to drag John out when you got there.”

Jason leaned back against the closed door of his truck and pushed his hand through his hair, holding it there for a few moments. “Wow. Okay. Thanks for letting me know, Clint.”

Clint patted his shoulder briefly. “You’re welcome. Now you can stop blaming yourself.”

Jason opened his mouth to answer, but Clint spoke over him. “You Tanners are good people. When Cody told me what happened, I knew it would weigh heavy on you.”

Jason let out a breath. “Yeah. Thank you again, Clint.”

Clint nodded. “I’m pleased I didn’t have to declare Ellie dead today. I worried about that all day, dreading the possibility of the phone ringing and Cody telling me they’d found her body.”

“I’m glad you didn’t either. It all seems like a dream at this point.”

Clint laughed, slapped his hand against Jason’s shoulder. “It is a dream, kid. A very wonderful, real dream.”

Stretching back in the truck a few minutes later, Jason closed his eyes, his muscles relaxing fully for the first time in months. Sleep was dragging at him, trying to pull him under, but he needed to make a call first.

Lucy answered on the second ring. “Jason, hey. How are you?”

“Sore, but okay.”

“Rena said you were pretty beat up. I still can’t believe all this craziness. I went from planning Ellie’s funeral to bawling from sheer shock and joy she was had found her alive. It’s like some crazy made-for-TV movie.”

Jason laughed in the midst of a yawn, not an easy feat. “It was surreal, that’s for sure. So, uh, listen, I need to ask you something. When they brought Ellie in, the doctor asked her if she was on any medications. They didn’t want anything she was taking to interact with whatever they gave her for the pain. She told them she was on something called Orilissa. She and I have barely talked in eight months, so I figured this must be something new. I looked it up online and it says it’s to treat endometriosis. Has her condition gotten worse? Because the only thing I thought she took for that was over-the-counter painkillers.”

Lucy didn’t answer for a few minutes. He heard a sharp intake of air and then it being let out farther, slowly. “I think this is something you should talk to her about.”

Jason rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I guess that means you’re not going to tell me about the procedure she said she’d had, either. She told the nurse about that too. Some kind of laparoscopic thing. My phone rang, and I wasn’t able to hear what else she said.”

“Yeah. That’s what that means. I’m still telling you to talk to Ellie. I hope you’re not mad at me, it’s just —” Lucy sighed. “Things have been weird with you two and I don’t want to get in the middle of anything. Make it worse, you know?”

Jason laughed. “I’m not mad. Don’t worry.”

And he wasn’t mad.

He was, however, worried.

Very worried that what Ellie had wanted to talk to him about in that mineshaft could mean his relief that she was healthy and whole would be short-lived.

***

“I can’t talk to him.”

Rena looked over the outfits she’d laid out for Ellie to choose from. “Honey, you have to. He deserves to be told the truth. Especially if you two are getting back together.” Rena looked up, holding a red shirt with frills around the collar. She raised an eyebrow, a small smile pulling her mouth upward. “You two are getting back together, right?”

Ellie touched her fingertips to her lips, remembering how Jason had kissed her after he’d found her and how she had kissed him back. “Yes.”

“Then you don’t have a choice. You need to be honest with him.” Rena handed her a skirt and a shirt. “Now go get dressed so we can get you home. I think it’s best if you stay with us a couple of days. You can’t be climbing stairs with the way your ankle is.”

Taking the shirt, Ellie slid off the bed slowly, wincing. “I’ll be fine. I can —”

“You’re coming home with us, El, don’t argue.” Her dad’s voice brought her gaze up.

He was smiling, but she could tell he meant business. He leaned his side against the door frame. “We thought we’d lost you, kid. Give us some time to remind ourselves we didn’t. I’ve already planned a movie night for us tonight at home. Your mom will make brownies and I’ll make the popcorn.”

Ellie laughed. “I think maybe I should make the popcorn. You burned it last time.”

Rena smirked. “Even though the bag clearly said only a minute and a half in the microwave.”

Tom shot a mocking hurt expression at his wife and daughter. “Me? Burn popcorn? No. I’m a popcorn master.”

Ellie walked toward the bathroom to change. “Where’s Judi?”

“At the house, waiting for you,” Tom said. “I know you girls have had a rough time of it lately, but she was really shook up yesterday. She’s cooking you some lunch.”

As she pulled a skirt up over her legs, careful to keep the weight off her ankle, Ellie thought about how upset Judi had been at the hospital the night before. She’d hugged Ellie repeatedly, tears streaming down her face, telling her she was sorry about how she’d acted. How long would that contrition last? Ellie wasn’t sure, but for now she’d accept it. If Judi slipped back into her old ways, at least Ellie knew her sister loved her, enough to be glad she wasn’t dead anyhow.

Slipping her shirt over her head, she winced at the stiffness in her muscles. She needed to talk to Judi about that message on her phone. Now wasn’t the time to bring it up, though. She hoped she could find the time before Judi went back to the city. If Judi went back to the city at this point. To Ellie, it seemed like her sister had no intention of going back to her life in New York and maybe this Jeff guy was the reason.

***

Jason groaned as he sat up in the front seat and squinted in the sunlight streaming through the windshield.

Sleeping in his truck had been a bad idea. A terrible idea. He gritted his teeth in pain, lifted his arm, and sniffed. He made a face and shook his head.

 Sure, he could easily walk into the hospital and check on Ellie, but he felt awful and smelled worse. At this point, it would have been better if he’d gone home last night and taken a shower and then come back to the hospital this morning. He hadn’t wanted to risk it, though. The idea of going home while Ellie was in a hospital bed, even if it was only for observation, hadn’t been remotely appealing to him.

He pushed his hands back through his hair, tried to smooth it down and squinted at himself in the rearview mirror. It wasn’t working. He looked like he’d been on an all-night binger. He looked like Brad. Until the night before last, he’d had no idea how far Brad had fallen. Watching him drunk in the bar, staggering around like an alcoholic, had been eye-opening, to say the least. His behavior had to have been breaking his parents’ hearts. They hadn’t raised him that way and the way he was acting was a slap in their face.

After a quick check in with Alex, he searched his truck for breath mints, still trying to decide if he should go see Ellie. Maybe he could wash up in the hospital bathroom.

Looking up, he realized the decision had been made for him. Ellie was being wheeled to Tom’s waiting car at the curb. She was on her way home. Her ankle was in a soft cast that stretched part way up her calf, but otherwise she looked fine.

More than fine.

It was a miracle.

From here, he couldn’t see the mark he knew was on her head from where she’d hit the windshield when the car had flipped over, but he was certain it was taking on a purplish hue.

He wanted to kiss that bruise and any other part of her she’d let him kiss. He wanted to dart from the truck, run to her and tell her again how sorry he was, how he’d wished he’d never met Lauren Phillips, but more importantly, how he wished he’d been honest with her right after he came back from college. He never should have withheld his past from her. He never would again.

Ellie looked up and smiled at her dad as he slid his hand under her arm and helped her to her feet. Rena moved to the other side of Ellie, and Ellie laughed. He knew she was probably telling her parents what she’d told him as they loaded her into the ambulance the day before. “I’m fine. Really. It could have been so much worse.”

He’d leave the Lambert family to their reunion for now.

There would be plenty of time for him to talk to her later.

About them, but also about any of her past she hadn’t shared with him.

Special Fiction Saturday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 24

I am late posting today because I was hosting an author party on a Facebook group I am moderating. Regular readers here know I despise Facebook but a couple of months ago I joined again so I could be part of a readers’ group on there. I stumbled on to this other group as well and they needed a new administrator. I volunteered to help, but at the last minute the other person said they didn’t want to help, so there I was with a group to help run on my own. On a platform I despise. So I go on FB to post there and the other group and briefly on my author page and leave.

Anyhow, here is chapter 24. Regular readers know the drill, where the links are for past chapters, etc., etc.. I won’t bore you with all those links again. Let me know what you think the comments, as always. Also, sorry for another cliffhanger.

Chapter 24

Jason fell into the water on his hands and knees, trying to see the rest of the back seat and under the car. Maybe her body was trapped there, under the hood or roof or trunk. The car seemed to be smashed firmly into the muck and mud of the creek, though, not enough room for a body. Unless. . . he choked down the panic burning his throat, looked around behind him, searching the water and bank frantically.

Could she have been thrown from the car? He looked at the windshield under the water and it was cracked but not shattered.

He stood again, his clothes clinging to him, and shielded his eyes, looking downstream.

“Could she have —” He swallowed hard. “Been swept downstream?”

Denny shook his head. “I don’t see how. This creek’s not deep enough and there’s no current.

Jason pivoted in the water, facing them. “Then where is she?”

Denny raked a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to get a wrecker down here, something to flip this car over and be sure —”

“I don’t think she’s there,” Cody said abruptly.

Denny clutched his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t want to think that way either, but she could be. We have to be realistic.”

Cody turned toward Denny, lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think we’d see some sign that she’s under there.”

Denny looked at the water, nodding. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“What about a bear? Could a bear have —”

“Kyle!” Cody’s voice was sharp as he jerked his head toward Jason who was still looking from one side of the bank to the other.

“Bears don’t usually eat cadavers.” The authoritative voice of the coroner silenced the group. Clint O’Malley tripped over a few stones on his way to the car but managed to stay upright. He stood calf deep in water next to Cody, frowning. “Are you boys telling me you called me out here without an actual person for me to declare dead?”

Cody placed his hands on his hips and cleared his throat, looking down at the water then glancing back up at Jason before he looked at Clint. “Ellie Lambert is missing.”

Clint looked at Jason standing a few feet away from him with a dazed expression on his face and blew out a quick breath, following it up with a curse word.

 He nodded at Cody. “Understand. What are our options here? Could she have survived and left the scene?”

Kyle, Denny, and Cody looked at each other and fell silent. Finally, Cody spoke. “Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility. We have to explore it at least.”

Clint looked at the car again. “You should also lift this car up and see what you find underneath it. Just to be sure.”

Jason’s chest constricted and his stomach burned. The idea of her pinned down by two tons of metal, her body mangled beyond recognition left him cold, even as the humidity was rising. Dark clouds hovered along the horizon, visible through the trees. If a storm wasn’t coming, there was at least going to be a shower. Rain would wash away any clues if Ellie had somehow walked away.

“Cody!” Tucker Everly’s voice echoed into the ravine. “We have a possible witness and survivor up here.”

Jason’s head jerked up, his brow furrowed as he looked up at Tucker, who’d been among the volunteers he’d trained with the most when he’d started with the department a few months ago.

“Luke found Brad Tanner along the road about a mile up. He has a gash on his head and his face is a mess. He can’t remember anything about last night but woke up along the bank by the creek this morning. He says he vaguely remembers being in the car with Ellie last night.”

All the men’s eyes were on Jason again.

“I drove him home last night,” Jason said, more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t understand. Why would he be in Ellie’s car?”

He stood and started climbing the bank toward the road, confusion and anger rising with each step. “Where is he?”

Tucker grabbed his hand and helped him the last few steps, then nodded toward a maroon pickup pulling in.

“Luke just pulled in with him.”

By the time Jason reached the passenger side of the truck at a full on jog, his mood had reached a dangerous level of rage. Brad opened the door, and he didn’t even wait for him to climb out. He grabbed the front of his cousin’s shirt and dragged him out, slamming him hard against the side of the truck. “Where is she?” the question hissed out of Jason between clenched teeth. “What happened?”

Brad held his hands up, palms out, shaking his head. “Jason, I don’t know. I can’t remem—”

Jason slammed his back hard against the truck again. “Tell me what happened or I swear I’ll  —”

“Jason!” Luke grabbed his arms, pulled him back. “He wreaks of booze and shows all the signs of a concussion. He’s not going to be any help in this shape. The EMTs need to look at him.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s shirt, breathing hard, jaw tight, eyes focused on Brad’s scrunched up face, his eyes squeezed tight as if waiting for Jason to punch him. Jason slammed Brad back against the truck again “They can look at him after I finish with him.”

“Jason!” Alex’s voice behind Jason distracted him long enough for one of the EMTs to grab one of his arms while Alex grabbed the other.  “This isn’t helping.”

Alex and the EMT pulled until Jason let go of Brad’s shirt. Alex pressed a hand against Jason’s chest. “You need to calm down.”

Jason shook them both off with a jerk of his arms and walked to the side of the road, sitting on a stump next to a tree. He propped his arms on his knees and clenched his fists in front of him as Alex walked over and stood above him.

“When did you get here?” he asked Alex.

“Maybe ten minutes ago. Cody filled me in. I was on my way down the bank when I saw you coming up.” He knelt next to Jason, propped on his own knee. “Walt called your dad. He heard the chatter on the scanner.”

Jason’s head jerked up. “Did they say Ellie’s name on the scanner?”

Alex shook his head. “No. Just that there was a car in the water. Walt thought it might be Brad. He didn’t come home last night, but no one thought much of it. He’s been doing that a lot since he got back.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder, his voice low. “They’re going to start a search, spread out and walk in a circle about a mile away to see if they can find any sign of her. They’ve also got a team coming in from Wyoming County to walk the creek with them and another water search and rescue crew.”

Jason looked at the ground, nodding. After a few seconds of silence, he stood abruptly. “Okay. I’m going to head out then. Can you call her parents, fill in Molly and Mom?”

Alex stood. “Yeah, but I’m going with you.”

Jason nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not waiting for the search teams, though. You’ve got five minutes to meet me on the other side of the creek.”

He pivoted and started down the embankment, not giving Alex any time to respond.

The way Clint squeezed his shoulder on his way back to his truck left a hard lump of dread in Jason’s gut.

“Call me if I’m needed,” he said softly.

God, please, don’t let us need him, Jason prayed as he collected gear from his truck and headed down the embankment toward the creek.

“Where are you going, Jase?”

He ignored Cody’s question, kept walking through the creek, past the wreckage of the car, and toward the embankment on the other side.

“Just keep your phone on you in case you need us, or we need you,” Cody called after him.

Alex fell in step with him when he reached the top of the bank on the other side of the wreckage and started toward a more wooded area.

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think she went looking for help? If so, why didn’t she just go on the road?”

“I don’t know.”

“She should have had a cell on her —”

“I don’t know.”

Alex fell silent and they continued to walk, sweat beading on their skin and soaking their backs.

“It just needs to rain already,” Alex mumbled.

“If it rains, I won’t be able to find her tracks.” He didn’t add, “If there are any,” because he didn’t want to think there wouldn’t be.

“Good point.”

The humidity sucked air from his lungs with each breath and a crack of thunder signaled they should seek shelter rather than keep walking, but he wasn’t about to stop. If Ellie was alive, he was going to find her. If she wasn’t alive, he still needed to find her. Her family needed closure. He’d hurt them so much already. He couldn’t hurt them again.

At the top of the hill the woods faded into a wide open field. Jason stopped walking and bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath, chest burning.

Alex did the same. “How can we both be in such good shape, yet that hill almost kill us?”

“The humidity isn’t helping.”

“How much further should we walk? If she was injured she —”

“I don’t know.”

There was a lot he didn’t know.

Fire still burned through his chest when he stood up and started walking again.

God, please. Help me find her.

In twenty minutes, they had walked the length of the field, down over a hill, and back up another one. Jason turned and looked behind him, estimating they had already walked a mile and a half from the accident scene. She couldn’t have walked this far, could she have? Maybe she hadn’t been able to walk. Dear God, maybe she was under that car. Maybe the wrecker had come, helped overturn the car and her body was lifeless in that creek bed. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing hard. Pressing his arms against his head, he intertwined his fingers, and choked back a sob.

“God,” he hit his knees, pressed his hands into the dirt in front of him, bowing his head toward the ground. “Please, please don’t take Ellie from me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my stubbornness. For all my mistakes. Please, give me a second chance with her.”

In a few minutes, after sobbing until his chest and back ached, he became aware of Alex kneeling beside him, his hand on his back. They stayed that way for several minutes and when Jason sat back, he noticed Alex’s face was damp as well.

Alex shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheeks, and stood. “We’re not giving up. Come on. Maybe she tried to take a shortcut over this hill to get to the Bradley farm and call for help.”

Jason dragged his hand across his face and stood slowly. “That sounds like something she’d do. Go to get help for even a moron like Brad.” He brushed the dirt off his jeans and spit at the ground. “He better have some answers for me when I get back.”

“We can think about that later.” Alex started down the hill. Jason started to follow him when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the caller ID, but answered it anyhow, hoping it was a member of the fire department, telling him they had found her. Alive.

“Jason?”

“Judi?”

“Jason, have you found her?”

“No. Not yet.”

Judi’s voice broke. “They flipped her car over and she’s not there. Where is she? Where is my sister?”

“I don’t know, Judi. I’ll keep looking. Are you with your parents?”

Judi’s sobs came through the phone. “Yes. I’m at their house. Jason, if you find her, however you find her, you have to tell her I’m sorry. We had a big fight the other night and I told her I hated her and that I hated being her sister —” Her voice faded to a tearful whisper. “Oh God. I don’t hate her. God, please don’t let her be dead.”

He wanted to offer her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure how, when his heart felt as hopeless as hers at the moment. “Judi.” His voice broke and he tried again. “Judi, I want you to pray. If you can’t pray, ask your parents to pray with you. As soon as I know anything I’ll call you. Keep your phone next to you, okay?”

He could almost see Judi in his mind nodding as he heard her crying. “Okay. I will.” She took a deep breath. “Jason?”

He looked out over the farmland in front of him, red barns, cows in fences, fields being planted with sileage to feed the cows in winter. “Yeah.”

“She loves you so much. I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn right now, but she’s always loved you and I know she still loves you.”

He swallowed hard, tears blurring his vision. The way she referred to Ellie in the present tense made his heart ache with a glimmer of hope that she still was in the present tense. “Thank you, Judi. Keep the phone next to you.”

“Jason!”

He’d lost sight of Alex, but now he could hear him shouting from somewhere on the other side of the hill.

He took off in the direction of the voice, almost catching his foot in a groundhog hole as he ran. Alex was running toward him, his face flushed. “I found her.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 23

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 23

Jason snatched up the scraper and walked toward the stalls, knowing without looking in a mirror his face was showcasing the happiness he felt inside. As soon as this job was finished, he was heading to town to see Ellie. His muscles tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing her, holding her, kissing her. The fact she’d almost let him kiss her, despite everything, gave him a sense of hope he hadn’t had in months, and certainly hadn’t had at all earlier this week.

“Walt’s got the part we need for the skid steer.” His dad’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “Can you head up and grab it when you’re done here?”

He smiled, not really thinking about the part at all. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Just be careful. Walt says the fire department is stopping cars at the bottom of the hill down from his place.”

“Okay.”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’re acting a little off. You seem a little — well, distracted.”

Jason propped the scraper against the wall and laughed. “Yeah. I’m okay. Really okay. I’m more than okay.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You drunk?”

Jason shook his head, catching the sparkle in his dad’s eye. “Only in love.”

“With Ellie still, I hope.”

“Absolutely.”

Robert smiled as he walked toward the back of the barn. “Then carry on.”

A half an hour later Jason stretched his arms over his head and listened to the bones along his spine crack. He climbed in the truck, thinking about the night before, wishing he hadn’t had to deal with Brad. After he picked up the part for the skid steer, he was flooring it to the preschool and waiting for Ellie in the parking lot. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight again.

He tapped her name on his phone before pulling out onto the road.

“Hey, this is Ellie. Leave me a message and I’ll be get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”

He smiled. Even her voicemail was sweet.

“Hey, El. It’s Jason. Thought maybe you’d like to grab lunch at Bonnie’s today? I’m heading to Walt’s for a part for the skid steer, have a couple more things to do at the farm, and then I can pick you up outside the school. I’ll try again in a bit and see what you think.”

He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. Everything looked brighter today. The sun on the grass, its light filtering through the trees, leaving misshapen patterns on the road in front of him, the wild summer flowers blooming. The sky wasn’t totally blue, a few dark clouds were threatening rain, but even the clouds didn’t bring him down. His heart still ached over the loss of John but today his grief was buffered by hope. Hope for reconciliation with the woman he’d wanted to marry since he was 18-years old.

Blue and red lights blinked in front of him, and he pressed the brake, stopping when junior firefighter Nate Baker waved a white flag at him. Fire trucks, the vehicles of volunteer fire fighters, and an ambulance were parked in a line along the road.

He leaned his head toward his open window as Nate stepped toward him. “Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

Nate, 16-years old, jerked his head toward broken trees at the edge of the embankment. “Car over the bank. They’re down there checking it out now.”

“Any injuries?”

Nate shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t know yet. They just told me to slow the traffic down.”

Jason studied the broken trees and rubbed his chin, rough from stubble. He’d been too distracted with thoughts of Ellie to shave this morning. “I’ll see if they need any help.” He reached out the window and pounded Nate on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, bud.”

Shifting the truck into park he watched Cody walk through the broken trees toward the road. The fire chief looked up as Jason exited his truck, the expression on his face when he caught sight of Jason indecipherable. Jason narrowed his eyes, trying to read the chief’s expression. Was the accident fatal?

Cody met him at the top of the embankment, immediately placing his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Jason, hey, what are you doing here?” He was breathless, sweat beading his brow.

“I was on my way to pick up something from my uncles and saw you guys here.” Jason craned his neck, looking over Cody’s shoulder. “Do you need help?”

Cody squeezed his shoulders, shaking his head and pushing gently until Jason was forced to take a couple steps back. “No. We’re good. We’ll call you if you we need you.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you? You’re acting weird. Did I do something to upset you? Did you find out something about the fire?

Cody swung an arm around his shoulder and started walking, pulling Jason with him. “I’d tell  you if I was upset with you. No worries there. And nothing about the fire. It’s just that we’ve just got this covered.”

Jason looked over Cody’s shoulder as they walked, looking through the leaves and tree limbs. He caught sight of the blue bumper of a car at the bottom of the embankment and stopped walking, pulling from Cody’s grip. “Whose car is that?”

“Jason, you need to go home, okay?”

Why had he even asked whose car it was? He knew whose car it was.

“Jason!”

He ran full force toward the wooded area and was met by Denny and Kyle Barton on their way up the hill.

Denny’s eyes met his, his mood somber. “Jason, you need to stay up there.”

Jason shook his head, kept walking. “That’s Ellie’s car.”

The two men put up their hands to block him. “Jason, stay here until we —”

Jason was practically shouting now. “Where’s Ellie?” The men had their hands on him now, trying to hold him back. “Where is she?”

He pushed back against them, panic clutching at his throat until he could barely breathe. He broke past the men, pushing them aside, barreling through the underbrush and trees, briars cutting into his skin as he ran. He stopped running when he hit the clearing, stopped, breathing hard, and looked down at the creek bed.

Ellie’s car was on its roof, upside down in the water. Other volunteer fire fighters were making their way to it, pushing brush aside to get there, but it didn’t look like any of them had reached it yet. Behind him branches and twigs broke under the weight of the men who’d tried to keep him back.

“We haven’t gotten down there yet, Jason.” Cody shouted from behind him. “We were on our way down when Jay radioed that you’d pulled in. Stay here until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Jason shook his head. “No. I have to —”

Denny clutched a hand around his forearm. “Listen, Jason. If she’s in there, you don’t want to remember her this way. Okay?”

Jason yanked his arm free, walking forward. “If she’s in there, I need to get her out. No matter what —” His voice broke and he drew in a ragged breath. He shook his head, leaning forward on his knees, the scene before him blurring. His chest ached, tightened like a vice against his lungs.

Dragging the back of his hand across his face he straightened and started making his way over the boulders along the creek bank. Another firefighter, Will Barton, Kyle’s father, was standing behind the car and put his hand up to stop him, but Cody’s voice echoed among the trees.

“Let him go, Will.”

Will shook his head. “Not alone, I won’t.”

He placed a hand on Jason’s back, following him deeper into the water.

Water Jason’s shoes and jeans, but he didn’t even notice. He was vaguely aware of Cody and Denny and the other men navigating their way down the bank and boulders to join him. Otherwise, he was entirely focused on the smashed driver’s side window submerged part way in the water.

“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, help me bring my Ellie home to her family.”

The only way to see what was inside was to lean over. From where he was now, the water now thigh deep, he could only make out what looked like a sweater moving in the water, hanging through the window. He lowered himself, water rushing up over his lower body, trying to brace himself for whatever awaited, but knowing nothing could prepare him if Ellie was in there dead.

A sob choked out as he looked inside the window, at water ripping over the steering wheel and Ellie’s purse floating in the water below the passenger seat. His gaze moved from the front to the back of the car, and he straightened, shaking his head and pressing the heel of his palms against his closed eyes.

“Jason, I’m coming.” Denny shouted to him as he made his way over the rocks and through the water. “Don’t try to get her out until I get there.”

Jason sobbed again, trying to shake himself awake from the nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.

“She’s not here.”

Denny balanced himself on the side of the car. “What? What do you mean?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at Denny, breathing hard. “She’s not here. The car’s empty.”